Last week we announced that Zoe Winters’ Fantasy Romance Life Cycle (Preternaturals Book 4) is our Romance of the Week and the sponsor of thousands of great bargains in the Romance category: over 200 free titles, over 600 quality 99-centers, and thousands more that you can read for free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime!
Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded Life Cycle (Preternaturals Book 4), you’re in for a treat!
by Zoe Winters
PUBLISHER’S NOTE: Though Life Cycle is book 4 in the Preternaturals series, it can be read out of order with no problem.
Immortality can be a bitch…
Tamara has lived nearly two thousand years, trapped by a spell of her own creation. Hunted by her enemy and former lover, she knows there is only one man strong enough to release her from the curse. But will Cain honor her death wish, or keep her for himself, whatever the cost?
Two ancient souls. Two weary fighters, torn between love and hate, forced to decide if the other could be worth living for.
Heat Level 3 of 5.
Some sexually explicit content and innuendo.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Life Cycle Excerpt
Used with Permission.
Copyright © 2012 Zoe Winters.
123 A.D. A hidden cavern near the waters of the Blue Grotto in Italy.
Tamar shivered with her twelve companions. They were about to attempt their most daring incantation. An opening at the top of the cavern allowed the light from the full moon to shine down on them, illuminating their secret gathering and adding its own power to the unfolding ritual.
Salt water splashed on her from a waterfall in the nearby pool. They’d searched for the water of immortality, a legend that had spread since before her birth. Far and wide, people had spoken of water that could make a person eternal and young.
But it wasn’t the water that conferred immortality. It was the creatures that lived inside the water. They were transparent and hard to see, with spongy tops and long tendrils on the bottom that could sting if you got too close. They didn’t die. Instead, they could age backward, reaching the end of their life, and then, without dying, start over again.
“We’ll freeze to death if you don’t hurry.” Tamar glared at the man in the middle of the circle. The irony of freezing to death while seeking immortality caused her to stifle a dark laugh.
“The potion must be altered with other ingredients unless you want to come back as a newborn each time. You’ll find that frustrating,” Jacob said. He was their leader and the best with potions.
Tamar made a face, but huddled closer to her sister, Naomi, for warmth. A circle of salt had been poured around them. Candles were already lit. A large stone had become a makeshift table upon which the coven leader worked. The sea creatures had been pulverized and added to an iron pot. He poured the herbal infusions into the potion.
Jacob passed a sharp knife to the person on his left. “Each of us must contribute blood to the potion or it will fail. The magic is in this creature, but they have no blood. Our blood must bond with this animal if we hope to succeed.”
“Are you sure that’s necessary?” Naomi asked. Tamar nodded her agreement. Cutting themselves and mixing their blood seemed extreme. What would be the consequences of linking together eternally?
“I am sure,” Jacob said, losing patience with their squeamishness. Magic like this had a price, and they all knew it. But the consequences always showed themselves when it was too late.
One by one they sliced the center of their palms with the ritual knife and added their blood. Jacob stirred the concoction with a wooden spoon; it smelled like death. When he was finished, he dipped a silver goblet into the brew.
“We each drink and then we chant,” he said, passing the goblet.
Tamar couldn’t help feeling pride at the chant she’d written. When they’d all drunk, they clasped hands and turned their faces up to the moonlight. The cavern echoed their words back to them. “Da immortalitatem. Renatus sine oblitus. Numquam moriens. Da immortalitatem. Renatus sine oblitus. Numquam moriens…”
And then they all died.
Tamar jolted as oxygen flooded into her body. Something felt very strange. Had the spell worked? She glanced around at her companions, each of them coming back to life one by one.
“We’re all children.”
Golatha Falls, Georgia. The Present.
Tam perched on the bar stool in her kitchen, still as death. Her third cup of Earl Grey tea cooled on the counter, ignored. Normally the warm brew calmed her nerves, but nothing would comfort her today.
She’d read her tarot cards, tea leaves, and scried with a bowl of water and sea salt. Everything she tried gave her the same morbid story. The death card glared back at her, mocking, and though she’d told many others—sometimes truthfully, sometimes not so much—that the death card didn’t always mean death, she knew this card said her number was up.
Jack—as Jacob was called now—was back, and he was after her. She fought to keep the tremor out of her hand as she raised the tea to her lips. He wouldn’t offer her a quick death. It would involve a cold stone slab, bleeding to death, and having vital organs removed. Ritualistic, because ritual was how you got the most effect out of stealing a fellow magic user’s power.
Tam had considered herself a cycler since the night she was reborn in that cavern nearly two thousand years ago. True to Jack’s word, each time they died, they came right back in their own younger body, looking for all the world to be about twelve years old—an inconvenience to say the least. Tam had been shuffled from orphanage to orphanage each time she began a new life cycle.
This last time she’d gotten lucky and been adopted by a well-to-do family who had taken her in and put her through a good school. The thought was nice, though pointless, given how many times she’d already suffered through school.
Cyclers kept their memories, their sense of continuity. They were effectively immortal, just like the rare breed of jellyfish they’d discovered so long ago.
Jack had only been actively hunting the other cyclers for a few centuries. He’d gone power hungry, convinced he could stop the cycle altogether and achieve true immortality by draining the power of his coven. Magic users aged differently—the more magic, the longer they could live. But it wasn’t just that. She knew him. He had an angle—something more than a personal quest for immortality.
If murder was his new hobby, his purpose for gaining all that power couldn’t be good. If he was going to get her anyway, suicide seemed the smarter option. It would free her to be reborn the normal way and keep her safe from a more brutal death at Jack’s hands.
But it wasn’t so simple. There were two ways she could die for real—and two ways only: at the hands of another cycler, or through magical means by a very old preternatural being, such as a demon or vampire at least a few thousand years old. Those were hard to come by, and their killing methods were usually too creative for Tam’s taste. She wanted to break the cycle, not be tortured.
Either way, she’d managed, through this latest cycle, to stifle the suicidal urge. Until now.
The image of the demon she’d chosen formed in her mind. Cain. The very first incubus. If he couldn’t kill her, nobody could. And he hated her. It should be simple enough to get him to agree, assuming she could find him. She’d dropped him in front of his badass pals a couple of times already with energy balls. He was probably plotting her death at this very moment.
Anna might know where to find him, since she was mated to a demon, but Tam hadn’t seen her best friend in three months. It wasn’t as if Tam had directions to the demon portals or a way to get through to their dimension even if she did. If Anna surfaced in the human dimension, Tam could do a spell to locate her, but who could say when that would happen? And would it be before Jack reached her?
Deep in her gut, she knew she was going to die—either by Cain’s hand or by Jack’s. As arrogant as the bastard was, Cain’s methods would at least be pleasurable. Bleeding out and organ removal versus orgasms. Gee, how do I decide? They both sound so glamorous and exciting.
Cain snarled as he passed through the portal point into Cary Town, Washington. The filmy dimensional doorway shimmered and then fizzled out of existence as he moved through the forest away from it. He couldn’t believe he’d allowed himself to be summoned by the vampire king. Half-breeds.
He’d thought his business with Anthony was finished when Cain had delivered his don’t mess with us again or there will be a war speech the last time they’d met. But now there was a bigger evil brewing, something that risked the living standards of all the factions—and possibly their lives.
Even his newly turned succubus and her werewolf mate would be at the meeting, which was going to be awkward to say the least, given that they all hated Anthony. And the feeling was mutual. How this was going to go with everybody in one room, he couldn’t say. Officially, the werewolf pack was banished from Cary Town. If someone saw them slinking through the night to Anthony’s penthouse, things would get entertaining.
The demon nodded at the guardian in the lobby of the Cary Town Luxury Apartments. This meeting was being kept on the down-low. The Preternatural Council had been shut out. Even most of the vampire king’s coven didn’t know he was fraternizing with the enemy and holding a secret meeting in his former penthouse residence. Cain stepped onto the elevator and pulled out the key he’d been given to gain access to the sixth floor.
The door at the end of the hall was answered by a vampire who looked more like a butler. “They’re on the roof by the pool, sir.”
Cain took the stairs two at a time. His presence announced itself as the metal door clanged against the brick. All eyes went to him, and he smirked.
“Well, well, looks like the gang’s all here.” And what a motley crew they were.
Anthony stood at one end of the table beside an overhead projector and portable screen that had been plugged into an outlet embedded in the brick.
At the table were several familiar faces. Beside Anthony was his human mate, Charlee. Coming around the table was Cain’s brother, Luc, and his annoying mate, Anna. Then there was Jane, the new succubus who was mated to Cole, the Cary Town werewolf pack alpha. The rest, he didn’t know.
“You’re late,” Anthony said, bristling. “We’ve been waiting, and Charlotte needs her rest. The baby takes a lot out of her.”
Cain’s eyes cut to the vampire’s mate. She was so pregnant she’d pop any day now. If this meeting was about her and her spawn, heads were going to roll. If he didn’t care about a half-breed, he sure as hell didn’t care about a quarter-breed.
“I was detained. These things happen. Lovely little school teacher. I made some third graders very happy today. Or they’ll be happy tomorrow, anyway.”
Cole growled from his seat beside Jane. “You killed a woman, you mean.”
Cain chuckled. “My god, man, what is it with you and this obsession with killing? Which one of us is the demon? Perhaps amongst your kind third graders are happy when their teacher dies. She’s… just a little spent. She’ll have to take a sick day tomorrow.”
He dropped into a chair at the end of the table where he could most easily glare at and annoy Anthony. Since Cain wasn’t killing him right now, annoying him would be the second best thing. He didn’t like that Anthony was in charge of this meeting. The vampire king was practically a child next to Cain’s eight thousand years. It should be seniority rule.
The vampire cleared his throat. “Sitting next to you is Father Hadrian who is one of mine… And over here is our resident sorcerer, Dayne, and his lovely werecat, Greta.” Anthony leered at the brunette beside the sorcerer and Greta gripped Dayne’s hand tighter.
“Therian, not werecat! You know I hate that term,” Greta hissed.
“Whether you like it or not, it’s accurate.”
“Really, Anthony?” Charlee said, an irritated expression on her face at her mate’s goading.
The vampire chuckled. “What? Is it my fault your friend is so easy to mess with?”
He took a clear plastic sheet with writing on it and placed it on the overhead projector. “I apologize for being so vague as to the purpose of this meeting. Half of you are officially enemies, but if I go to the Preternatural Council with this, my vampires will all know, and I’m not prepared for it to go public yet. We can go back to hating each other after we’ve eliminated the threat.”
Anthony flipped on the light of the projector, and an electric buzz filled the silence. “I had this letter reproduced onto a transparency for our purposes. In case the context doesn’t spell it out to you, we’ve been contacted by Jack the Ripper. He’s still alive, and he’s one of us.”
“You couldn’t just use a computer program?” the werewolf asked. Cole was the most tech-savvy of the group.
“Don’t try, it won’t get you anywhere,” Charlee said.
I’m back. You didn’t take the threat seriously last time. Shame on you. Did you not understand my joke? It wasn’t for the common people. It was for the others. Was “from Hell” not a big enough clue? It’s where we all are, after all.
When I’ve killed the other cyclers, I’ll change the world. There are 13 of us, a perfect coven. The first kill was an accident, the second an experiment. Whitechapel was only three. You were wrong. It wasn’t five. Those and others were copycats all wanting Ripper’s glory.
Since then, there have been four more, but I’ve been quiet as a mouse, giggling at my funny little games. With you in power, I thought I’d make this interesting. Only three left to kill; catch me first or Hell is mine.
Don’t mind the new trade name. The old one was stale, and this one will give you something new to chew on. A new mystery to solve. Do better this time. The stakes are higher now.
P.S. Have fun when the human media gets this letter. I’ll give you a head start. Tick, tock.
Cain read the letter on the projector once, twice, and then a third time. “Why did he send this to you? And addressed the same as the original letters? And what the fuck is a cycler?”
Anthony seemed annoyed by Cain’s tone, but he answered anyway. “I believe I’ve met him before. At previous points in my history, I’ve chosen to blend with the humans, exploring various ways of living to satisfy my boredom. During the Whitechapel murders, I worked for the London police department under an assumed name. But a few decades before that, I owned a small fish shop. All my other employees called me by the name I was using at that time, except one. He just called me “Boss.”
“There was something off about him. I suspected he was a magic user, but it was more than that. The way he gutted a fish… it was so clean. Surgical, almost. Even being a vampire, this guy gave me the creeps. But I never realized he knew I’d joined the London police or that the letters might be for me. He must have discovered what I was. He was playing games then; now I think he’s ready to end this. Which brings me to your other question. Does anybody besides Hadrian know what a cycler is?”
There was a consensus of head shaking.
“Father Hadrian, perhaps you could tell us about your experience.”
The priest poured a glass of wine from a bottle on the table and took a leisurely sip. “When I was turned in 1955, my first meal was a blonde witch—maybe in her twenties. Her name was Tamara. I left her corpse and went to hunt for more. When I returned to the church, there was a young girl, maybe eleven or twelve or so with the same blonde hair and the same eyes, wearing the same dress as the woman I killed. She told me she was a cycler. She was powerfully magical, much more so than I thought even a woman in her twenties should be.”
The hair on the back of Cain’s neck stood up. There were millions of women with that name, and probably plenty of blonde witches with it as well, but his experience with Tam had always been one of confusion over how she could take him down so easily with a flick of her wrist.
The demon glanced at Anna, wondering if she’d made the connection, but the idea that Father Hadrian was speaking about the Tam they both knew hadn’t penetrated for Luc’s mate.
“Anna, do you understand yet why this involves you?” Anthony asked.
Her eyes widened but she maintained her denial. “No… I… Why would it involve me?”
The vampire laughed and shook his head. “I forget how recently you were introduced to our world. Your friend has been keeping a monumental secret from you. Tam is the woman Father Hadrian met in the fifties.”
“That’s not possible. I mean… we grew up together. Since we were kids…”
“Since you were about twelve?”
Anna shut her mouth and looked down at her hands.
“That’s what I thought. She must have died and started a new life cycle right around that time. We’re still not sure exactly what that means.”
The vampire king turned to the sorcerer and werecat. “Dayne, Greta, did you do the research I requested?”
Dayne nodded. “I might have a theory. Since magic users are human, we’ve always been a wild card. Up until now, we’ve kept ourselves mostly secret from normal humans and considered ourselves part of the preternatural world, but if Jack gets enough power, he could sway magic users to his side. I think he wants to expose the preternaturals and fight. He’s absorbing power from his kills to make it easier.”
Greta interrupted. “I don’t think anyone considered there could be magical and ritual significance to the way Jack the Ripper was killing. The killings got more complex, but if he was experimenting with the most potent methods for power absorption, that would happen. He could become unstoppable if he kills the other cyclers.”
“He’ll also be a true immortal,” Dayne said. “The more power a magic user has, the more slowly they age. Considering the nature of what he is already, my suspicion is that he’d become unkillable. He wouldn’t have to start over in a younger human body like what Hadrian observed with Tamara.”
Cain squeezed his eyes shut as images flashed in his mind of Tam being ritualistically and gruesomely murdered. He didn’t know why it pissed him off so much.
“Cain?” Anthony said.
The demon looked up, startled at being included in the discussion. He tried to maintain a bored mask, but he couldn’t keep the hot glow from his eyes, nor stop his hands from balling into fists. “Yes?”
“We need you to protect the witch in your dimension. It’s the only place we’re guaranteed she’ll be safe. If he kills all the cyclers, and magic users come out of the closet, they’ll band together, which risks your demons as well.”
Magic users were a demon’s one weakness. Demons were exempt from death and could heal any injury—true immortals, but they could still be trapped by a curse. They could still feel the suffering of starvation. They could still be hurt.
All eyes were on him, waiting for his response. He didn’t know how he felt about the little blonde witch, but if anybody was killing her, it was going to be him, not some cheesy magical serial killer with a world domination plot, and not one of Anthony’s thugs, either.
“I’ll protect her,” Cain said, avoiding eye contact with the others. This was killing the shit out of his reputation. There were dramatic gasps and whispering, but he ignored it.
“Of course, killing her would be more expedient… if you could find a way to make her stay dead.” The vampire king’s tone was bland.
“No!” Anna said.
“Anthony!” Charlee said.
“I said I’d protect her,” the demon snarled, finally meeting the eyes of everyone at the table. He dared them to start something with him.
“We’ll also need you to get her to tell you everything about being a cycler. We still don’t understand how or why they exist or the extent of their powers,” Anthony said.
Cain growled. “Watch yourself, half-breed. I could take you out without blinking. I’m sure you want to survive to be a daddy.”
Charlee’s hand went protectively over her pregnant belly, as if the child were in danger instead of the cocky vampire standing beside the projector screen.
Anthony glared. “Don’t forget, I have magic users in my employ. I have a coven of vampires that stretches across North America and contacts with vampire leaders all over the world. Our numbers are far greater than yours. Let’s not make this personal. We’ve got a bigger enemy to fight.”
Cain was bored now. “Are we done here? I’ve got a witch to collect.” He stood, already turning toward the door.
“Cain…” It was the first word Luc had spoken since the demon had arrived. “Take Anna with you. She knows where the witch lives.”
That would make things easier.
Luc’s mate recoiled, gripping tight to his arm. “What? No! Come with me,” she said.
“I should stay for the rest of the meeting. My brother can’t harm you, remember? You can’t hold a solid form without me,” Luc said.
When she’d given her soul and became a demon’s mate, she’d had to die first. It made her existence somewhat ghostly. Only her mate could give her a full, solid form. Gradually, she would gain the same powers as Luc, but it was a lengthy process—centuries. Anna looked from Cain to Luc a couple of times. She finally sighed and let go of her mate.
Cain headed for the door. He didn’t bother waiting for her, assuming she’d follow. And if she didn’t, he’d just have to find the infuriating witch on his own.
Tam had everything she was taking packed in several bags: clothes, magical tools, books. All the things that meant something to her. She stood in front of a large bird cage, a tear tracking down her face.
Henry had died three years ago. He’d been her best friend and sometimes lover for almost two centuries. A raven therian, he’d always had her back. She’d come to think of him as her familiar, and his blood was powerfully magical, second only to cat blood. He’d taught her more about her gift for reading the future than anybody else she’d encountered. She’d known he was going to die at some point. She lost everybody. Always.
It’s time to let the cage go. Though it was her own mental self-talk, she heard it in Henry’s voice instead of her own. But whoever the message ultimately came from, it was right. Even with magic, it would be too much to travel with, and all it could be now was a painful reminder of her loss.
She wiped her face and put the cover over the cage, taking one last look at the door they’d made for him to easily open so he could come and go as he wished. He’d preferred being in his bird form when he needed to think, and it was always handy to shift to it when people came over.
Tam turned back to the piles of bags and boxes in the middle of her room and created a circle of salt. She lit candles at the four directional points and sat in the middle with her spell book open. Even with her power, she wasn’t sure she had the energy to perform this spell alone, but she had to try. For all the flashy magic she could do by herself at her age, changing the molecular structure of several bags of her stuff was still a tall order.
She closed her eyes and focused, then raised her arms and intoned the chant over and over until she crumpled to the floor and everything went dark.
The raven flew a couple of times around her. His shrill call was like laughter. Henry? He landed on the ground at her feet, then shifted into his human form, the call turning into a human laugh.
“Tam, I swear, what is wrong with you? You should have called the coven to do that spell. At least this gives me a chance to talk to you.”
“I can’t involve them. It’s too dangerous. Is this really you? Or is it a dream?”
“Yes,” he said enigmatically, a twinkle in his eye.
“I miss you.”
He reached out, the back of his hand brushing her cheek. “I’m always watching out for you. You know that.”
“Are you coming back?” She was asking if he planned to reincarnate.
“At some point.” He hesitated. “I’m with my soul mate right now. We have limits here, but we still don’t want to be separated.”
“That’s understandable. And I’m glad you’re with her.” And she was. Though they’d had their occasional fling, it had been friends with benefits with Henry. Besides Anna, he was her best friend. But they’d both known their love wasn’t that kind of love. “I love you…” she said.
He smirked and finished her sentence “… but not that way. Right back at ya.”
He pulled her into a hug and whispered in her ear. “We’ll meet again, but you may have to find me and remind me, I don’t know how many memories I can pull through.” He turned serious. “Tam, listen to me. Don’t leave the house. Wait. He’s coming.”
She pulled away, panic gripping her. “Jack? If Jack’s coming, why would I wait?”
“No. Someone else. Follow your heart.”
“What does that mean? Stop speaking in riddles.”
He shook his head. “You know there is only so much I’m allowed to interfere. Read your cards again, and really see them this time. The whole spread.”
Tam opened her eyes and sat up inside the circle. The candles still burned, and she quickly blew them out. Then she laughed. The energy required for the magic may have knocked her out, but her spell had worked. She was two thousand after all. Her bags were tiny now, each hardly bigger than a thimble. She gathered them up and put them into a freezer bag, then put them, along with the magic book, candles, and salt into a shoulder bag. Nothing beat traveling like a witch.
Her cards were packed already or she’d do another reading. She turned away from the cage and took her single bag to the kitchen to make another cup of Earl Grey and wait for whoever he was.
She didn’t have to wait long. Half an hour later there was a knock on the door. She slung her bag over her shoulder and went to answer. Standing on the other side were an unlikely pair: Anna and Cain. Death and her best friend, delivered right to her door. Anna was looking mildly transparent and ghostly without her demon mate there to keep her solid. She was also looking mildly angry.
“Does our friendship mean nothing to you? How could you keep a secret like this from me?” She attempted to smack Tam on the arm, but her hand went right through. Sometimes that ghost thing was a good thing.
Tam decided to play dumb, even though there was only one giant secret she’d been keeping from her friend. “What secret?”
Anna rolled her eyes. “Seriously? We’re really doing this? I know what you are.”
The witch couldn’t help a quick glance at Cain. Why did the foul, evil demon have to be so hot? He had that dark, savage look going. Long, dark hair, dark eyes, dark skin. Her rational mind told her he was hot to catch prey and she was falling right into his web, but damn, she was human and he was… Wait, did he just arch an eyebrow at me? She was probably telegraphing her emotions right at him.
She turned back to Anna. “Okay, great, you know what I am. You couldn’t even handle basic witch stuff. You said you didn’t want to know about it. How would this truth-telling experiment have gone down?” Tam put on an affected mock-voice, “So, Anna, I know you hate hearing about magic stuff because you’re a pansy, but I’m really almost two thousand years old. Ask me anything about anything.”
“I don’t know. I just felt like I should have known. What about when you told me the other magic stuff? You couldn’t have told me then? Or when we were together in Cary Town around Halloween? What about then? You couldn’t have found an opening to tell me the truth?”
Tam looked down. “My coven doesn’t even know. Anna, I have to hide and lie to live. Okay? Not everything is about you.” Though she was debating the point of living again, lately. Was Jack even after her? Maybe it was just a danger with Cain in her cards. He was evil. And a killer.
“Girls. Please. We have to move now. The Cycler could be hunting her as we speak.”
“The Cycler?” Tam asked.
Another eye roll from Anna. “Are you going to playact like you don’t know you’re being hunted?”
“No, but, how do you guys know about him?”
Cain pulled her out of the house, ignoring her question. “There’s no time to pack. You’ll have to make do. You’re coming to the demon dimension, and don’t try your little energy ball trick. I’m not in the mood.”
Wait, he wanted to protect her? Since when?
When he touched her, she thought she’d swoon right there like some damsel in distress. Nobody should have that kind of sexual magnetism. At least it would make dying in his arms less repulsive. But she couldn’t bring that up now, not with Anna here. She wouldn’t understand.
For now, Tam had to just go along. They might think they could protect her, but staying in one place was unsafe, and if Jack succeeded… No. Tam wouldn’t let him. It was best to end the cycle. What they’d done was unnatural. It went against the order of things. One of them going mad and the others becoming his victims was nature’s way of righting that wrong. Who was she to call foul?
Tam pulled away, and to her surprise, he let her go, a wary look on his face. She gestured to her shoulder bag. “Already packed. I’m like twelve steps ahead of you.” She didn’t mention that she could have already left and been out of Cain’s reach. Her curiosity over Henry’s words had won out over personal safety. The raven had never led her wrong before.
Was Henry confirming her suspicion that now was the time to go, and she’d chosen her executioner wisely? Any other interpretation was unthinkable.
She took one last look at her house and locked the door behind her, even though everything of value—real and imagined—was in her shoulder bag.
They walked a few blocks until they reached the Golatha Falls forest. Once inside the woods, Anna spilled everything about the meeting. Cain remained uncharacteristically silent. Tam couldn’t help looking over her shoulder as they went, as if Jack could somehow track them if he was being talked about. His power must be that dark and strong by now.
When the portal shimmered in front of them, Cain took her hand and pulled her through. The portal only recognized demons and apparently demon mates, since Anna had no trouble herself, but then she was linked to Luc through strong blood magic, her soul tied irrevocably to him.
Tam’s eyes widened when she entered the demon dimension. She’d heard about it, but she’d never seen it. Her mouth dropped open. “This place is so beautiful.” Certainly not what she expected, even if she’d always known it wasn’t full of fire and brimstone.
Cain smiled with something like pride as Tam continued to take in the scene before her. The weather was perfect, the sky dark and clear with brilliant stars shining overhead, glowing with brightness equivalent to the moon. There was no moon, but then, this wasn’t Earth. For all she knew—and she highly suspected this was true—the stars were some kind of illusion made entirely from magic. Though maybe technically everything in existence was an illusion made from magic.
Stretching endlessly before her was sand and cobblestone streets lit by torchlight. Colorful tents made of rich, expensive fabrics lined the streets as far as the eye could see. There was a marketplace and music and laughter. Seductive laughter.
A scantily clad woman danced to the music while a couple of males encouraged her. The woman felt human; the males, demon.
Tam turned sharp eyes on the demon leader, suspicion growing over what she was witnessing.
“Jackson likes to play with his food,” Cain said with a shrug. “He likes to make them dance.”
His expression hardened. “Don’t come to my dimension and judge us. I should kill you rather than protect you. Do you know how much trouble your kind causes for mine? You represent our one true enemy, and I’ve chosen to keep you safe from the temporary, bigger threat. I might not continue to feel so generous if you don’t watch that mouth.”
Anna was still with them, so she couldn’t tell Cain what she really felt. She closed her eyes and dropped the shields she used to protect herself from demon thrall and sent a strong wave of feelings to him. He couldn’t read her exact thoughts, but he’d get the gist of her death wish.
The demon’s eyes widened, but he gave nothing of the exchange away. “You will have your own tent,” he said, stopping in front of a exquisite purple tent that must be hers. His gaze shifted to Anna and then back to Tam. “I’ll have a couple of my demons guarding you around the clock. They’ll go in shifts. Anna, you can go back to your mate now.”
“What? No. I can’t leave her here with you.”
“She’s a big girl. She doesn’t need a babysitter.”
“He’s right,” Tam said. “And I have to speak to him privately, anyway.”
“Yes, I need to learn more about The Cycler,” Cain said.
“But why can’t I stay for that?”
The demon leader took a threatening step toward the brunette. “You are one of us now. That doesn’t just mean the perks of this world, but the responsibilities as well. When I say jump, you ask how high?”
“Luc wouldn’t let you hurt me. And… y-you can’t touch me.”
“Do you really want to be on my shit list? I’m eight thousand. Waiting for you to come into your powers is nothing to me. When that happens, your mate won’t be able to stop me. Or I could just take it out on him. Now run along to my brother and cry about what a Big Bad Wolf I am.”
Anna looked over at Tam, her eyes revealing her internal struggle.
“Go,” Tam said.
When Anna was a safe distance away, the witch turned to Cain and looked him right in the eyes. “I need you to kill me now.”
“I assumed as much. Care to tell me why—not that I’d ever turn down such a powerful meal. You weren’t suicidal the last time I met you. You were prepared to back us up in a war against Anthony.”
Tam flopped down on one of the thick, cushioned pillows on the ground, preparing to be much more honest than she was comfortable with. If she wanted him to agree to this, she had to lay all her cards out on the table.
“It’s different now. Jack will find me. It’s not a question. What you said about the meeting only confirms it. You may think I’m safe here, but anything could happen to end that safety. You’re old enough and strong enough to kill me. I may be strong, but he’s stronger. He’s killed so many of us now that I can’t fight him by myself. And I’m so tired of running and cycling. I didn’t know what I was asking for when I asked for eternal life.”
Cain crossed to a side bar and poured himself a drink. He raised the decanter and arched a brow in question, but Tam shook her head. The demon shrugged and put it down. He extended a hand and she took it, allowing him to guide her to the couch where they could sit together.
As his hand trailed along her collarbone, she tried not to pull away and equally not to want him so much. His gaze was assessing, evidence he’d done this millions of times.
“Exactly how old are you?” he asked.
“Closing in on two thousand.”
“Shit.” He took a drink.
She fought to keep the tears at bay. She wouldn’t display such weakness in front of him. “I don’t know how you do this. This is hell. I can’t imagine as long as you’ve been—”
“The difference in you and I is that I didn’t choose this.”