by Rose de Fer
The young woman blinked in confusion, feeling as though she had just woken from a strange dream. She had only a vague memory of the journey and it took her a moment to register where she was. She struggled at first, but the men were strong and she knew she had no hope of resisting their firm grip.
“Come along, miss,” one of them said, not unkindly. “You’ll be quite safe inside.”
Madeleine Chancery allowed herself to be lifted from the carriage and she puzzled at the strange sensation as her bare feet touched the snowy ground. Where were her shoes? A glance down at herself showed that her dress was in tatters. She caught her reflection in the gleaming shell of the carriage and gave a startled little cry. She looked a fright. Her hair fell in wild blonde tangles about her face, which was smeared with mud.
The tall man descended the steps and Madeleine peered up at him. She knew him, of course. Dr. Charles Thorncroft. James’s brother. Panic leapt in her chest. Had he seen them together? Did he know of their trysts? Worse: had he told her husband?
But instead of accusing her, he extended his hand as though she were alighting at the home of someone hosting a midnight ball. “Welcome, my dear,” he said. “You will be very comfortable here. Of that I can assure you.”
Dazed, she offered her own hand without thinking and he took it, frowning slightly at the sight. It wasn’t just dirty; it was streaked with what looked like dried blood.
She gasped and yanked it back, wrapping her arms around herself. “Why am I here?” she asked at last.
“We’ll talk inside,” said Dr. Thorncroft pleasantly, his deep voice booming in the stillness. “A warm fire. Perhaps a little brandy to take away the chill and calm your nerves?”
Madeleine glanced warily at the men on either side of her. Running away would be utterly pointless and only serve to humiliate her further. She could never hope to escape and even if she did, she would surely freeze to death.
“Very well,” she said, lifting her head proudly and trying to retain some dignity. “You can explain to me why Henry had me abducted in the night and brought to this—this place.”
She followed Dr. Thorncroft inside, taking in her surroundings with wide eyes. Her feet tingled against the mosaic tiles of the elegant entryway as he led her down a long corridor. Gaslight flickered along the oak-paneled walls and from somewhere deep within the building came a scream. She froze, gazing with horror up into the darkness of the curved staircase.
She had a very bad feeling about this place. And most especially this man.
“Nothing for you to concern yourself with,” Dr. Thorncroft said darkly. “Not everyone here is as compliant as I know you will be.”
He met her eyes for a long, uncomfortable moment before taking her arm and guiding her firmly away.
Madeleine was startled at her body’s strange response to him as she allowed herself to be led to the room at the end of the corridor. He was as strikingly handsome as his brother and there was something in his authoritative tone that made her body tingle in spite of her apprehension.
Lightning in a Bottle
by Kim Knox
My guardian had always thought me ignorant of the goings-on in his house.
A vapid girl, alone in the world, who never noticed the dark-robed men arriving in the dead of night. Or one who never wondered at the hints of sage and frankincense that drifted through the passages of his London town house in the early mornings. I knew, had known for quite some years that Henry Bellasis, Viscount Fauconberg was a warlock. And that he now planned to draw me into his world by offering my virginity to a stranger.
I wrapped my fingers around the great brass key, the pitted metal warming against my skin as I stood in the shadowed passage that led to the cellar door. The place where my guardian had bound his great secret.
Rumors from the footmen over the past week had run that Henry kept a dragon in the arched rooms that also housed his collection of metal automata. A great beast that steamed and groaned and licked fire into cook’s little parlor when the wind blew north.
The maids shared darker stories as they made the beds or took a pan and brush to the ashes in the hearths. The dragon bound in the cellar did more than steam and groan. One maid had blushed scarlet and admitted in a rushed whisper that her dreams were full of a great, dark beast. A wicked beast…with a wicked mouth.
Not that I believed their tales. My guardian set himself as a collector, an inventor, or that was the face he liked to present to the Fellows of the Royal Society. Those in his inner circle knew better. I knew better. There was no dragon in the cellar. There was something…darker.
I rubbed the key’s bit, the sharp edge pressing into my thumb and digging a swift pain. I’d witnessed the rite that brought the creature into our world and now I stood with my heart almost in my throat, working to find the courage to push the key into the lock and turn it.
The Wildest Spirit
by Sacchi Green
Coyotes howled at the cold white eye of the moon, igniting a deeper howl low in the man’s throat. He fought it down, resisted the damp autumn earth tugging at his feet, the maze of scents coiling from the shadows.
“I promised you they’d sing.” She stood silhouetted in the doorway, her blanket spread wide so that its shadow reached out across him like great wings while her warm, demanding scent enfolded him.
Impossible to guess how much she understood. If she knew…. He had killed for that. But not this time.
The thought of flesh on flesh, of smooth arms and slim, strong legs, drew him toward her. Even now, with the moon and the cool, dark forest calling to him like a home he’d never known, her human body kept him still in man-form.
He had sensed the danger since their first chance meeting. In one of his biology courses at the university there was talk of coyotes moving into resurgent wilderness at the eastern edge of the valley, so one day, on impulse, he drove into the hills to look for sign.
Not far along a gated logging road an approaching horse and rider made him turn abruptly back. Even in man-form his effect on horses could be, at best, unpredictable.
The hoof beats quickened. Before he reached his car the mare had cut him off, and his growl, too low for human ears, did no more than send a shiver across her chestnut hide.
The University Police insignia on the saddle blanket explained it. This horse was trained for steadiness even among drunken, rioting students. Well trained, and well handled. He looked up at the rider.
She had no special claim on grace or beauty. Her tawny hair, tied back for comfort, was pleasing without intent or artifice. So why this sudden sense of danger?
Even through the mellow, meaty warmth of horseflesh the woman’s scent called to him, enticing, demanding. He had known many women, some beautiful, some brave, some seeking to destroy him; and he had known that the pleasure they offered would never be more than fleeting. This one could be no different.
The Wicked Wife
by T.C. Mill
She looked forward to her wedding night with Andrew Cobalt as she never had with her first husband.
Aria sat at her dressing table, brushing her hair. Uncut since before her first marriage, it fell to the floor in a rich, satiny river the color of oak wood. Andrew came in silently, without the train of revelers customarily accompanying a bridegroom, but she saw him in the mirror.
She thought of him as young, though he was only so by comparison. Gray frosted his thick black hair. His whippet-thin body was a scholar’s, but kept fit by frequent exercise. His open collar revealed a tanned chest, rippled with patterns of muscle.
She turned to greet him. “Good night, Andrew.”
“Good night, Berengaria.”
“Please, call me Aria. Berengaria is a long-dead queen.”
A tight smile crossed his face as he went to the bed. He lay down, opening his collar further—idly, for his own comfort. He waited, neither summoning nor inviting her. He knew she would come.
Aria put down her brush and said, idly, “This is a lovely house.”
“Purchased from a recluse, or perhaps his executors. It has been well-kept, and the solitude may be welcome.” Wiry fingers traced the embroidery on her pillows. “Does it please you, Aria?” A slight hesitation before he said the name, but his fingers never stopped stroking, petting insensate silk.
She rose and came to him. “It does,” she said.
Andrew undressed, pulling the shirt over his head before she could reach for it. This bared more of the compactly powerful build she’d glimpsed—along with, in a jagged line across his lower ribs, a silver scar.
Aria traced it, raising shivers, until he captured her hand. “That was a long time ago,” he said.
She looked into his eyes—dark, and with a gleam like new ice over deep water. “And now…?”
He bent forward to kiss her and reached for the hem of her nightgown.
by Zander Vyne
His feet made scuffing sounds on the linoleum as he shuffled from the small galley kitchen back into what served as his living room. The church provided meager lodgings, but free was better rent than many paid, and he did not require much room. He had managed to save most of his salary over the years and looked forward to retiring to a warmer clime, perhaps near an ocean where he could afford a large house and a maid to clean it.
The television cast shadows along the walls and ceiling. No other light shined, not even a candle. John liked it dark at night, after being under the bright fluorescents of the church office all day. Even the stained-glass windows tourists gasped over grew tiresome after long enough, the sun making the red glass stab his eyes like knives, causing terrible headaches.
At first, he thought the dark shape in his reclining chair was a shadow. It had to be a shadow. Then, it spoke. “Thank you for inviting me into your home.”
“Who are you? How dare you? What do you want? Get out!” John shouted, blurting every thought in his head in his panic.
The man did not move. “Please, sit,” he said, pointing toward the small chintz-covered chair John reserved for his rare guests.
It was the Englishman, the one who had disappeared from the confessional. The one John had thought of several times since the incident. The one he’d dreamed of, much to his dismay.
“You must leave at once or I shall call the police,” John said. It never served to let anyone see your fears, or know your weaknesses. But, he had grown old, and it was harder than it once was to hide behind the mask of priesthood, especially here in his ratty old robe and dirty slippers. He shifted from one foot to the other, alarmed to find his hand shaking as he tried to point commandingly to the door.
“You will do no such thing,” the man told him in a voice so deep, and so genuinely commanding, it caused John to stand up straighter, a frisson of energy crackling down his spine. “Sit. We have much to discuss, you and I.”
John did as asked, his voice fainter as he offered one last protest. “You’ve no right to be in my private chambers.” Clamping his mouth closed, he swallowed thoughts about making an appointment, about the lateness of the hour, about custom and ritual, about the church. The strange man’s posture, tone, and very presence told him he’d have none of it.
Wearing a dark suit, white collar and black tie, his shoes shined so that John saw reflections from the television, the man looked like an attorney, or an undertaker. His features, even masked in half shadow, were arresting. Strong, angular jawbones met to form a firm, wide chin; long blade-like nose and lips managed to be sensual though they were thin.
“You’ve dreamed of me,” the man said. His expression held no animosity, yet his brown eyes glittered with fierce intensity.
A ripple of fear coursed through John’s middle. It would do no good to lie.