"I have loved the characters and their history, their soul mates and how they love unconditionally, the fight between light and dark within, the Celtic magic and rites pertaining to the solstices, the battle of Nyammah and Drandar for their childrens’ lives and of course the romance and sexytime." ~ Book Passion for Life
"Claire Ashgrove has quickly become one of my favorite authors. All of her books are full of characters you fall in love with – especially the leading men." ~ Romancing the Book
Like sapphires hidden in earth’s inky depths, the subtle cobalt sheen of her hair called Taran McLaine by name. Within the cover of deep shadow, he tracked the glossy sway as the woman crossed the Rue de Rennes and strode past a small café that bustled with late night activity. She stopped before an ornate iron gate that enclosed a recessed door on the ground level of a fivestory, gray, stone building.
To anyone else, the building looked just like its neighbors. Astute, touched by time, and weathered with charm. To Taran, the building was Notre Sérénité, and the memories that came with the house haunted him.
Much like the woman who he had literally stumbled into months ago, when he was hurrying through a downpour to feed the mangy tomcat that watched him from a nearby trash container now. She’d been running for the gate, he for the corner of the antiquated block, when they’d collided into one another. He’d taken one look at her fair features, her vivid green eyes, and forgot how to function.
In 125 years, he had never encountered a woman who bore such a striking resemblance to Solène Larouche, the woman who had captured his heart and died at his hands.
Keys jangled as the woman unlocked the iron gate. Hinges squeaked. She slipped inside, shut the heavy iron behind her, and locked it once more. Taran shifted his stare to the window on the left. A light switched on within. A few moments later, another illuminated the second-story window atop the first.
She had even chosen the same bedroom Taran had spent too many nights in, for her own. She was the only person to do so in over a century. The other owners—tenants when one owner converted it into flats in the early 20th century—had somehow always chosen another room in the vast five stories as their personal sleeping quarters.
Taran fought a grimace as icy fingers gripped his heart. A memory flashed, the same long dark hair spilling across white linens, her flawless skin flushed with unspent passion. He squeezed his eyes shut against the unwanted recollection and shifted his weight.
When he had tamed the yearning, he opened his eyes to find the window dark once again. If he stole around the block, behind to the terraced patio, the pavestones would be aglow with soft yellow light. The rear entry would be unlocked, braced partially open to allow the October breeze in and the diverse aromas of incense out.
Whoever she was, she had opened the store once more. The same shop that Solène and he had opened together, to service the desires of a spiritualistic community that dared not show their faces in the light of day. He’d only had to make a few discreet inquiries to discover she sold the same wares. Who was she?
Dáire encountered her briefly, back before their mother’s scrolls had been discovered. After recognizing the same similarities Taran did, he duped the woman the niece. Taran couldn’t bring himself to ask. She was too much like Solène. Too much like the memory he couldn’t escape.
The woman held the power to drag him into the abyss of feeling, to provoke emotions he hadn’t experienced since the night he murdered the woman he loved.
For that alone, she must die.
Taran breathed in the river’s wet scent and straightened his shoulders. He didn’t hold a knife this time, as he had so long ago. No, he didn’t need manmade tools to suffocate life. His hands would work just fine. Quicker too, as he snapped her neck. She wouldn’t suffer, and he would solidify his own eternal demise. For by killing her, he would guarantee the ancestors would never return him to life.
He pushed away from the shadowed wall he leaned against and struck off down the street, winding beneath the streetlamps that painted Paris’ Left Bank with serenity. For months he had put this off, waiting until he had done all he could to insure he would never draw another breath. He’d even left Paris for a few months at a time to avoid the fierce urge that unwanted memories sparked.
In a few minutes, all he would need was his mother’s last scroll to secure the only peace he would ever know.
Taran crossed the street in swift, determined strides.
* * *
As the back door creaked open, Solène took a deep breath to steady the trembling in her hands. She faced the long row of shelves behind the well-worn counter, unwilling to reveal herself in entirety to Taran. The one encounter they’d had, had been close enough. But time was at a premium. Samhain occurred in two nights. She couldn’t ignore her obligations any longer.
And she couldn’t deny a small part of her relished the knowledge that Taran would suffer for taking her life so long ago.
A very small part.
The rest of her was too busy wanting to throw herself into his arms and tumble back into the bed they had shared. The life they had created. The love they had known, despite the curse he suffered that damned her to an early grave.
Still, the reality of death had a way of tarnishing emotion.
Footsteps crossed the uneven marbled floor, bringing him closer. She ordered her fingers not to shake as she reached for a green glass jar on the shelf above her head. Pretending she couldn’t feel the threatening presence that clung to him, and ignoring the intoxicating scent of old world spice that drifted off his clothes, Solène removed the glass stopper and picked up a bowl of fresh ground sage. She poured as Taran moved toward the counter.
At the fringes of her awareness another presence stirred. Her spirit wards closed in, hovering just beyond the barrier of recognition, ready to thwart Taran’s murderous hand.
Oh, she knew why he had come. Had expected it from the moment the demon Drandar reunited her with the mortal plane. It had only been a matter of time.
“I’ll be with you in a moment,” she called.
Without a word, he moved to the north wall, where silver talismans nestled between thin tomes designed for Paris’s true masters of witchcraft. Solène turned her head a fraction, watching the way he ran a reverent hand over the cover of one old spell. Her breath hitched at the sight of his sharp profile, his long dark hair, the mouth that could curve so sensually, and so wickedly as well. Over one hundred years, and he was still every bit as mesmerizing as the night they’d met at the opening of the Moulin Rouge.
His posture belied discomfort. The lines on his forehead spoke of pain. Her heart shuddered in sympathy. Taran hadn’t come near this place they had once called home since he laid a single red rose on her freshly dug grave. He passed down the street, lingered at a distance, but not once had he entered, not even when it had been opened for display the three times it had been on the market.
If his reaction was anything like hers when she’d set foot inside the dusty shop they had established together, he bled inside. Looking on the things they had crafted together, the magic they had drawn and channeled during the quiet hours of night, had nearly broken her.
Taran jerked his hand away from a silver-handled dagger, and his mouth formed a harsh line. He turned toward the counter, his onyx eyes glittering.
Solène restored the jar to the shelf above her head, smoothed her hands down the front of her black shirt, and summoned courage. She pulled a smile from deep within before turning to face him. In the calmest voice she could craft, she asked, “How may I help you?”
Shock washed across Taran’s features. He opened his mouth, snapped it shut, then gave a slight shake of his head. “I was told…” His voice vibrated with a lack of confidence that didn’t fit his character.
She moved to the edge of the counter, keeping her gaze locked with his. “You were told I knew the arts, yes?”
A short nod of his head confirmed.
He was lying, but then she hadn’t expected anything less. He’d need some sort of excuse to come into the store. She didn’t cater to the general public, only to those who passed quiet referrals.
“Was there something in specific you needed?” Solène took care to keep her voice light. It wasn’t yet time to reveal her hand. Spirits above, he looked delicious. She could still feel the weight of his strong arms folding around her. The warmth of his breath as he feathered a kiss across her lips.
Old longing stirred in the depths of her soul, and Solène had to grip the edge of the counter to ward off a dizzy spell.
Taran approached the counter warily. His eyes raked down the length of her body, slowly flicked up to rest on her face. Curiosity flashed in his dark stare, then morphed into pained disbelief.
Yes, it’s me, Taran. Her smile faltered.
He looked so wounded. So anguished. How could she have ever believed she could damn him to an eternity of suffering? She could no more carry out Drandar’s dark wishes, than she could hand Taran the knife he needed to kill her.
And yet…she’d give a thousand lifetimes to ease his pain.
Focus. She swallowed down the cobwebs that gathered in her throat. “If you’re looking for a rite for Samhain, I have a few hand-crafted rituals on the counter where you were just looking.”
“No,” he answered brusquely. “I’ve forgotten now.”
Fine excuse. Did that mean he’d changed his mind? No, knowing him, he’d simply become so off-center that he needed time to reorganize his thoughts.
Taran tapped a fist on the scarred countertop. His long black hair whipped over his shoulder as he pivoted on his heel. He pushed it aside with a muffled oath and stalked to the door.
Solène stepped behind the false safety of the countertop. When he set his palm on the door and pushed it open, she dug her nails into the wood. He was halfway outside before she managed to force out words. “Come back when you know what you’re looking for, Taran McLaine.”
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