"Ms. Ashgrove has an amazing talent to make your heart break for the tortured souls in her books, be they an injured soldier or an imprecated half-demon." ~ Night Owl Romance, TOP PICK
"I think this was my favourite book so far in this series, I love an anti hero and Belen is that in spades." ~ Book Passion for Life
"The characters had a history that the story really built on and it adds a layer of reality to a paranormal that makes it work so well." ~ Bitten by Romance
“The three of us could be good together. Real good.”
Belen McLaine smirked as the distant voice drifted down the dimly lit alley, over the sound of a passing bus’s wheezing brakes. All in all, tonight hadn’t turned out half bad. He’d managed to poke around in enough compromised minds to convince a beggar boy to lift a crooked businessman’s wallet and to coerce the prostitute on Eighth into shooting the pimp who beat her nightly. He’d even managed to seduce the kid who ran the gas station down the corner into lifting from the midnight till so his mother and he would have groceries that week.
Judging from the sound of the husky suggestive voice in the alley, Belen’s efforts of suggestion had also worked well on the two down-on-their-luck college kids who had bemoaned their lack of sex over drinks a few hours earlier. They had confidence issues. One suffered early trauma from a neglectful mother. The other had his heart broken too many times and just needed a frivolous piece of tail to get back into the game.
Sounded like they had.
He chuckled as he lifted his face to the December air and breathed in a cloud of exhaust. It never took much to influence those already on the edge. They were easy game. And why shouldn’t he indulge when he had the power? He was a demon after all. Well…half. But the lighter part of his soul had gotten lost a long time ago. Centuries ago. Back when wars were fought with pikes, spiked maces, and slings.
Back when the world was a different place and his mother had cast him aside.
Belen’s breath clouded around him, creating a momentary haze over the strings of multicolored Christmas lights that dangled from dark storefronts. Faint rock music thumped from the bar he’d left behind. Snow crunched under his boots. In ten minutes he’d have to confront his younger sister—and unwanted temporary houseguest—Isolde. She’d give him a ration of shit for his work tonight. He wasn’t in the mood to hear another of her lectures. It felt too good to do what the dark half of his soul desired.
Not that he was in a mood to listen to her diatribes about light and goodness any other time of the year. But with Yule three days away, and the power of nature rising to greet the Sabot, Isolde’s speeches held even more distaste. How she could ignore the darker half of her calling he couldn’t imagine. It roiled inside him like a chained beast. Isolde should just count herself lucky that the practice of ritualistic killings was out of favor these days. Right about now, Belen could really go for one of their father’s sacrifices.
No. Not those. In over two thousand years of existence, he’d done everything but kill. Sure, he goaded others into doing the deed to appease his dark calling, but he, himself, had not taken a single life.
Even when he did convince someone into murder, like the prostitute on Eighth, he made sure the victim deserved the death.
It made waking up the next morning a bit easier if he could justify death. Besides, he enjoyed the other aspects of sin far more. Like nudging the young men at the bar to follow through on their base animalistic instincts.
Belen paused as trashcans toppled. Metal crashed into concrete, something skittered down the pavement.
“Hey, sweetheart, come back here!”
Hm. Maybe he couldn’t take satisfaction in corrupting the men. It didn’t sound like their target was any too receptive of their proposal.
Belen let out a heavy sigh and shook his head. Humans could be so disappointing. Kind of like Isolde, who possessed inordinate powers and chose to put them to use for goodness.
Shaking his head against the disappointment that was mankind, he braced himself for the coming lecture. Isolde would be gone in three days. Then, he could roam the streets without suffering this nagging voice of consciousness she somehow evoked in his head. When his sister left, all Belen would have to worry about was keeping the equally intolerably decent social worker, Faith Winters, out of his territory. He was almost out of young minds to corrupt.
* * *
Faith’s lungs burned like fire as she skirted around another pile of ripped open trash bags. One three-inch heel that she’d allowed her date to convince her into wearing caught on a ratty corner. She stumbled, and her life flashed through her mind.
So this is how it ends.
The random thought flitted through her brain a second before her palms shot out and braced against imminent impact. A sliver of pain needled its way through her panic as glass dug into the fleshy part of her thumb.
Behind her, a masculine laugh rang out.
Another husky chuckle echoed through the alley before a second voice quipped, “See, sweetheart, it’s fate. We’re meant to be together tonight.”
Faith struggled to rise to her feet before her attackers could catch up. She didn’t know exactly what they had in mind, but she was damn sure she didn’t want to be a part of it. The way her luck had been going lately, this wouldn’t be just rape. They’d find her carved-on body in the very same overflowing dumpster she’d just passed. Thanks to her date who’d run the opposite way the minute the heavierset guy behind her slammed a fist into his nose.
So much for chivalry.
With a grunt, Faith shoved to one knee. Her other foot remained firmly entangled in the plastic and God knew what else behind her. She shook her ankle, trying to kick off the shoe.
“Ah, such a perfect little ass. Don’t you think?”
“I think it’s right where I want it. Looking at me, all round like the moon. Bet it’s just as pretty too.”
Before Faith could work her foot free, two punishing hands grabbed her by the waist and shoved her flat into the stench of garbage. A belt buckle jangled. One rough boot wedged between her knees, the worn leather rough against her bare skin.
She never should have worn heels. Much less a damned skirt.
Faith grabbed at the pavement, digging her nails into the rough surface. She worked her way to her elbows, desperate to escape, to crawl to safety if she must. Her brain simply refused to give up.
When a knee rammed between her shoulder blades, adrenaline rocketed through her system. With more strength than she’d ever believed she possessed, she threw her weight backward and twisted to her side.
The shoe came off.
In the shadows, she barely recognized the widening of her attackers’ eyes. She didn’t dwell on it. Free from her prison, she scrambled to her feet and ran.
Three steps later, cruel fingers in her long black hair dragged her to a stop. Another hand latched onto her wrist, spinning her about. All trace of humor and warmth fled her attacker’s voice. “Bitch. Stay put.”
Faith did the only thing she hadn’t tried, the one thing she should have done the moment her date ran for his life. She opened her mouth and screamed.
* * *
Belen froze halfway around the corner of the block, five minutes away from the even more abandoned section of town and his converted warehouse home.
“Oh, God, someone hel—” The panicked feminine voice choked on the last consonant.
Far worse than the sudden understanding his interventions had taken a drastic and wholly unacceptable turn, was another realization. He knew that voice.
He had been avoiding it ever since he’d heard the first melodic, poisonously virtuous notes two years ago when he ran face to face with its owner and discovered why his thirteen-year-old runaway had suddenly decided to go home.
Something strange and wildly formidable rose up inside Belen. He spun in the opposite direction, bolting for the alley. Long, ground-covering strides took him down the slippery sidewalk. Though her very existence pained him, the idea of her suffering cut him in half. She didn’t deserve this sort of fate.
Not that anyone did, but Faith…
A low growl rumbled in his throat as he rounded the corner into the dark shadows. He’d rip the bastards that thought to harm her into pieces. Tear them limb from limb. Offer their broken, bloody bits to the Ancestors in his father’s name.
It took less than a second for Belen’s eyesight to adjust to the deeper shadows and find Faith. She lay flat on her back in a puddle of slush and grime. Her head twisted back and forth in feeble protest, and her voice had become little more than a plaintive whisper as she pushed at the man kneeling between her legs. Behind her head, a stockier man looked on, one hand shoved into his open fly and a twisted smirk on his face.
The foul blood in Belen’s veins surged to hungry life. For the first time in his existence, he gave it complete freedom. Hatred boiled through him, the instinctual need to kill all-consuming.
He reached the skinny kid shoving at Faith’s skirt before the other ever noticed he’d arrived. Belen took the man’s head between his hands and gave it a savage twist. With a glorious crack his neck snapped like a matchstick.
Faith barely moved as Belen threw the lifeless body off her and lifted his murderous glare to the remaining bastard.
“Shit, dude! We were—”
An unholy sound tore from Belen’s throat. Before he could snatch the pathetic fool into his deadly grasp, the man’s face washed white. He bolted like the wind, belt buckle jangling.
Belen would have chased him for miles if Faith hadn’t moaned the precise moment he lunged sideways. The sound stilled him. His chest heaved as he struggled to beat his demonic half into submission. Slowly, he pulled himself out of the pit of evil and turned his gaze on her.
Deep turquoise eyes peeked through long thick lashes, wide in momentary disbelief. Then, as recognition settled over her, she lifted one hand and rested her fingertips on the sleeve of his leather jacket. With a faint grimace, she ran the tip of her tongue over her cracked and bleeding lower lip. The faintest hint of a pained smile touched one corner of her mouth. “Belen,” she whispered.
As her voice died into the wind, her hand fell limply to her side. An invisible fist slammed into Belen’s gut as he allowed his gaze to roam down the length of her body. Bruises along her shins and around her wrists already turned her china-fair skin purple. Scratches marred her chest where they had torn open the buttons on her green cardigan sweater. The frigid air turned her exposed upper thighs angry red, and scrapes covered the left side of one hip, where she’d evidently rolled. Or been dragged.
He wanted to kill the men all over again.
Curling one fist, he bit down a stream of oaths and narrowed his gaze at the lifeless body lying a handful of feet away. Death hadn’t been good enough for that asshole. It came too swift, lacked the fear Faith had suffered.
But the man was dead, and the other would be soon enough. Right now, Faith needed Belen’s full attention. He couldn’t tell if anything had been broken, or if the darkening splotch of purple on her temple came from something worse than a fist. Her swollen eye also had him questioning her vision.
He closed his eyes to her injuries, sucked in a deep calming breath, and scooped her into his arms. Leaving the body for the police and an inevitable cold case, he cradled Faith protectively against his chest. Ancestors above, just touching her hurt. She was so gentle, so free to give her heart, so inherently decent…
Swallowing hard, Belen steeled himself against the pinpricks of longing that stabbed down his spine and struck off at a brisk pace toward his home. He knew a lot of things about Faith Winters—the lengths she’d go to for troubled teens, how children’s suffering made her weep silent tears when she thought no one was looking, even the sweet venom of her kiss.
But where she lived wasn’t anywhere on that closely guarded list. He couldn’t take her to the hospital without raising questions about the body or how he’d managed to obliterate her attacker’s neck.
Which left one choice—Isolde.
Isolde, who would take one look at Faith and somehow realize Belen was responsible for what had happened tonight.
He tucked Faith closer against his body, ignored the compelling whiff of almonds that drifted off her skin, and set his jaw against the inevitable. Isolde might have every reason to curse his name, but damn it, somehow, he’d make this up to Faith.
He’d start by healing her injuries. Then, he intended to convince his younger brother, Dáire, to erase the attack from her mind. Come morning, she could go back to her life, never knowing the horror of tonight. She would remain as unscarred and untouched as she had always been…and she would never ever know it had been Belen who answered her calls for help.
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