Bait N’ Witch (Brimstone Inc. #3) – Chapter 1 Excerpt
Rowan pulled her borrowed truck up the gravel drive and parked in front of a rustic mountain cabin.
She frowned. This couldn’t be right, could it?
It took a second to realize she’d lifted her foot off the brake, the truck rolling forward like it, too, wanted to escape from here.
She put it in park and again checked the directions she’d been provided. It’d been a long time since she’d had to follow directions to travel anywhere. Too bad she couldn’t use her teleporting skills like usual. But witches who had to get jobs as nannies weren’t supposed to possess that kind of power. If she was going to pull this off, she had to pretend she had minimal magical abilities and not show her true capabilities.
The paper in her hand matched the address on the quaint mailbox. Damn. She was at the right place.
“Fantastic,” she muttered.
The two-story cabin—a lovely and obviously old log structure built into the gentle bottom slope of a mountain—was tucked away in the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, among copses of aspens and pines. Not another dwelling for miles, which meant she was well and truly screwed if this plan went sideways.
The back of Rowan’s neck prickled like there was a spider crawling along her skin. She went to brush it away, then stopped herself mid-swipe and jerked her hand back with an irritated huff. That prickly feeling had been her constant companion for the last year. The one that said she was being watched, even when she knew she wasn’t. Ever since she’d been taken by that werewolf. Only she wasn’t with him anymore, nor with the people who’d helped him. He was dead, and his people were, too.
No. This had to be more about the man inside the house…
“Suck it up and get moving,” she instructed herself.
How had circumstance brought her to this point? The fates must really have it in for her.
Tally up the sum total of what brought her to this moment: Parents killed in a mysterious accident. Her adopted mother, Tanya, a demon masquerading as a witch, being murdered by Kaios, a pathologically insane werewolf. Kaios who had then taken Rowan prisoner for her unique powers and used her against her will for his own ends.
At least that asshat was dead now.
Still…too many dings against her. The Covens Syndicate—the body of witches and warlocks who monitored, policed, protected, and ruled the established covens throughout the world—were sure to issue a death sentence once they finally found her. Hell, the other warlock Kaios had forced to do his bidding had been executed summarily without trial, and he’d had only the “controlled by a werewolf” thing against him.
The Syndicate tended to execute first, ask questions later.
When it came to Rowan’s parents’ deaths, Tanya had always wondered who was to blame…
Stick to the plan.
The immensely dangerous, undeniably brilliant plan, courtesy of Delilah at Brimstone, Inc. The woman had rescued her, hidden her, and now sent Rowan off to save her own life. Assuming this worked.
No last name. Not a witch. In fact, Rowan wasn’t sure what Delilah was, though something about her felt…familiar. Regardless, she was obviously powerful. The woman practically crackled from within when she walked into a room. Tons of connections with all things paranormal.
Even with that, when Rowan added it all up, she had basically hopped from one bad situation to another.
And now, here I am, about to pose as a nanny for the witch-hunter the Syndicate set on me.
That was Delilah’s plan—hide Rowan in plain sight, right under the hunter’s nose, close enough to cause problems with the investigation, making it impossible for the Covens Syndicate to track her down.
Now that she was here, she was starting to have an eleventh round of second thoughts.
With a trepidation worthy of Daniel when he entered the lions’ den, she got out of her truck and approached the perfectly normal-looking front door. Of course, by entering this household, the lions’ den was exactly where she’d be. She literally faced the jaws of death, which could snap shut at any second.
Where’s my whip when I need it?
She raised a shaking hand to the door and glared at the offending appendage, annoyed at her inability to control the tremor. A shrill scream pierced the air, and Rowan froze mid-knock.
“What in the name of the mother?” Instinct had her reaching for the doorknob.
A quick incantation sprang to her lips, but, before she could utter it, the door unlocked on its own and swung smoothly open. Rowan didn’t question, but instead rushed inside. Following the sound of a struggle, including several more screams, she hurried down a long hallway off the foyer to what appeared to be the family room.
The scene she came upon had her hesitating in the doorway. Three identical girls, around the age of twelve or thirteen, flung spells at each other in rapid succession and with angry intent behind every blow. In their midst stood a tall man, so handsome his looks registered even as she was figuring out what to do. His lips pinched with frustration as he tried to put a stop to things.
As far as Rowan could tell, the girls were using their magic to disfigure each other. Even as she watched from the shadow of the doorway, one wailed as her hair sprouted, lengthening until it touched the ground in a waterfall of follicles.
“Hey,” the girl squealed.
“Now Chloe—” the man tried in a placating voice.
But Chloe wasn’t listening. “I’ll show you,” she shouted. With a whisper of words and a fling of her hands, one of the other girls suddenly turned bald.
Another piercing scream of fury rent the air.
“Lachlyn, don’t you dare—”
Again, the man’s words went unheeded and next thing, Chloe’s long hair turned mint green.
The third girl laughed, and both her sisters turned on her together, faces red with anger.
“Enough!” Rowan snapped the word, voice full of authority as she stepped into the room. With a wave of her hand, all three girls abruptly sat on the pale leather couch, mouths snapped shut and hands in their laps, held mute and immobile by Rowan’s spell. She would not release them until they understood the consequences of their actions.
The man whirled on her, hands raised, glowing blue orbs of energy already formed and sparking in his palms, ready to blast her. However, Rowan had expected his action and stayed still, doing nothing to provoke him further. After all, if a total stranger showed up in her home casting spells, she’d fry them and ask questions later.
If anything, she found his restraint impressive.
“Who are you?” he demanded in a low voice.
The smooth rumble of it reminded her of the first time she’d heard a timpani drum in an orchestra as a child, the sound rolling through her chest and lodging in her mind. Shock stirred along with a rush of…need. She hadn’t felt need for a man in she couldn’t remember how long.
What the hell and fairy bells?
The fates truly did have it in for her. What jokester thought attraction for this particular man would be remotely funny? Because Rowan damn sure wasn’t laughing.
Now that the chaos had ceased, she studied him more closely, trying to reduce the need strumming her nerves by logically categorizing the sum of his parts.
A widowed father to almost-thirteen-year-old triplets, he was also the lead witch-hunter for the Covens Syndicate. She’d expected someone in his mid-forties at the youngest, picturing distinguished gray at his temples and the onset of wrinkles. Maybe even a gut. Not that every middle-aged man looked that way, but every middle-aged warlock she’d ever happened across did.
Her mental image was a far cry from the warlock standing before her. She tallied up the essentials: mid-thirties, lean, intense, jet-black hair without a trace of gray in sight, and dark eyes currently sparking with anger and magic. Like a panther lying in wait for unsuspecting prey to wander under the tree where he lurked.
A warning she took seriously, answering in a quiet, calm voice. “Mr. Masters—”
“How do you know my name?”
“I’m your new nanny.”
“Like hell you are.”
Screw patience. She rolled her eyes. “Call Delilah if you don’t believe me.”
She had no idea how Delilah had managed to make Greyson Masters think it was his idea to have Brimstone hire his latest in a long line of nannies. She didn’t ask the woman questions like that.
Still holding the crackling energy weapons in his hands, Greyson ran an assessing gaze from the tip of her untamed hair to her sneaker-clad toes and a jacket too thin for the late fall chill. Rowan did her best not to shift under his scrutiny, an unaccustomed feeling of vulnerability crawling up her spine like spiders. She wondered what he saw. Would her long red curls be the dead giveaway she feared? Would he recognize her as the witch he currently hunted? She’d considered changing the color, but that would require constant concentration to hold, or permanent hair dye that would quickly show her roots as fast as her hair grew. Besides, witches tended toward red hair more than any other color.
His face remained a mask, a total blank, giving none of his opinions away. Finally, he stood from his crouch, lowering his hands. A whispered word sent the energy balls spiraling into the air, where they expended their power in a series of tornado-like moves until they dissipated.
“Remove your spell from my children.” An order, not a request.
“Certainly.” As soon as she checked something first, Rowan turned to the girls. “Are you all finished?”
Three sets of wide, Caribbean-blue eyes stared at her. Correction…two sets, and a shaggy head of mint-green hair.
“I asked you to remove your spell,” Greyson Masters snapped.
She flicked him a glance. “I will. As soon as I get a guarantee of good behavior.”
Rowan ignored the tightening of his mouth. Apparently, Mr. Masters was a man who expected instant obedience. And got it, too, she suspected, except from his daughters, a notion which had her lips twitching. Poor powerful warlock couldn’t handle three pint-sized witches.
She turned to the girls with raised eyebrows and waited. After questioning glances at their dad, who said nothing, slowly, all three heads bobbed in agreement.
“Excellent.” Rowan flapped a hand, and the girls worked their jaws and rubbed at their wrists, as though the restraints had been physical.
Command obeyed, she turned back to the father, who eyed her narrowly. Perhaps this was not the most auspicious beginning to their relationship as boss and employee. She was supposed to be lying low, avoiding scrutiny—she might have to revisit that plan.
Rowan gave a mental shrug. In for a penny, in for a pound. With a cheerful smile, she held out her hand to shake. “My name is Rowan McAuliffe.” Her light brogue thickened as she spoke her name, which happened only when she was nervous.
To give him credit, Greyson at least shook her hand. “Greyson Masters.”
Rowan had to keep from yanking her hand back as an almost painful electric zing shot from Greyson’s hand through her body, the current sizzling down her veins, leaving in its wake heat that spread everywhere. The warmth left her unbalanced and unbelievably turned on. Until, just as quickly, the sensation drew back as though sucked in, condensing to a single smoldering spot in her left wrist.
What was that?
Carefully, she released his hand and dropped hers to her side, resisting the urge to glance at the spot, which still burned.
Those fates had some serious explaining to do. Had her traitorous body seriously lit up like the sparks that her adopted mother would give off when she was angry? All in response to that one brief touch? Pathetic. Worse, he was now her employer, and given his job to hunt her down, that reaction landed under the title of highly inappropriate. Not to mention inopportune, inexplicable, and all sorts of other words beginning with “in.”
Releasing her, Greyson crossed his arms, feet planted wide. In his blue button-down and tie, the man looked more like an intimidating lawyer than a powerful mage. “How’d you get in the house?”
She blinked at the unexpected question before she remembered how the door had unlocked itself. “I was about to knock when I heard screaming.” She darted a glance at the girls, who watched in rapt silence. “The door was locked, and I was about to…uh…deal with that, when it unlocked and swung open on its own.”
Thick eyebrows drew down over distrustful eyes. “That’s not possible. The wards on this house prevent anyone but family from coming inside without an express invitation from me or my blood relations.”
“Perhaps the house sensed I was trying to help?” She wasn’t quite sure what he expected her to say. She had no idea why the darn door had opened for her.
“Perhaps.” Doubt dripped from two syllables. In other words, he suspected her of foul play.
Another long, uncomfortable staring session commenced, one from which she refused to back down. After being raised by a demon, intimidating stares did little to sway her. When he uncrossed his arms, she silently crowned herself the winner of this round.
“We were expecting you two days ago,” he said.
“Teleporting is not one of my gifts.” Total lie. Gods, she hated lying, even if she’d gotten good at it. “I got here as quickly as the speed limit allowed.” Or maybe she’d taken her time. Could anyone who knew her full situation blame her?
Rowan flashed another cheery smile and gave him her best impression of an oblivious dingbat with wide, guileless eyes. At least, she hoped that was the impression she’d leave him with.
He did not smile back. “Now that you are here, I’ll go over the ground rules. We can figure things out from there.”
Damn. That friendly act usually did the trick. Greyson Masters had the makings of a total scrooge. Scrooge McMasters. “Okay.”
He turned to his daughters. “Let’s clean you up first.” Greyson raised his hands, but before he could perform the spell, Rowan cleared her throat.
He turned to glance over his shoulder at her, aggravation at the interruption clear in his gaze and pinched mouth.
“Excuse me, Mr. Masters, but shouldn’t the girls clean up their own mess?”
Greyson dropped his hands, suspicion once more narrowing his eyes. “Children under the age of sixteen aren’t allowed to practice magic beyond the most basic of spells outside of school unless it’s with a licensed instructor. As a professional nanny for witches, I would expect you already to know that rule.”
Ding. Dang. Dong. This witch was going to be dead if she kept screwing up.
The problem was, Rowan hadn’t been raised by witches, and, therefore, didn’t know the guidelines under which they operated. Delilah had given her a book outlining the Syndicate’s laws, which governed all the covens. Probably 90 percent or more of the covens of the world knew the rules by heart. Lived them every day.
Delilah had advised her to memorize the book or her cover would be blown. Rowan had read the thing, trying to take it all in. Only what she’d discovered was that witches raised in the covens had a shit-ton of policies to follow. How they ever got anything done was a total mystery.
Bluff, her mind screamed as she scrambled for a suitable answer.
“Of course,” she said, stalling for time. “However, I am a firm believer that children should be taught to fix their own messes or live with the consequences.”
“But I can’t fix this,” Chloe whined under her avalanche of hair.
Rowan spread her hands in an “oh well” gesture. “Maybe walking around looking like the green version of Big Foot for a while will teach you not to use magic against your sisters next time.”
“We don’t use magic against other people, ever, in this house. Adults included.” Greyson’s gaze slashed toward her, and she knew his admonishment was aimed at her as much as the girls. No wonder he needed help with the triplets if that was a rule.
“How’s that working out for you?” Oh hell, hexes, and damnation. If she could’ve reversed time and held back that comment, she would’ve.
“Ms. McAullife, are you this much trouble in all your households?”
She’d never nannied before, but she couldn’t tell him that. All part of her cover. “I wouldn’t classify it as trouble, exactly.”
“Of course you wouldn’t,” he muttered under his breath. More loudly, he said, “What would you classify it as?”
“Hmmmm….” His tone said otherwise. Conversation ended, he turned to the girls again. “This is Chloe, Lachlyn, and Atleigh.” He indicated each girl with a wave.
Rowan gave them a smile, though she wasn’t sure if Chloe could see her.
“The girls have school during the day. Teleportation is one of my gifts and how we travel most often. However, I will arrange for a transport key for your use on those occasions when I’m not available to take them and for weekends.”
So far so good.
“It is your job to get them up and ready in the mornings. After school you will take them to an hour of magic practice with their Aunt Persephone next door to the east through the woods. She’s licensed to teach them. Afterward, you’ll return here, where the girls will complete any homework. They may read in the evenings.”
Was he serious? No hint of teasing penetrated a rather grim expression. Yup. Serious.
Oblivious to her thoughts, he continued. “You will be in charge of all meals. Breakfast will be just you and the girls. You’ll send lunch with them. And I’ll join you for dinners. After dinner you’ll clean up while the girls prepare for bed. They have an hour in the evenings to themselves before bed. Any questions?”
Tons. None he’d appreciate, she suspected. “Um…do the girls have any time to play or relax? What about TV? Or do they have friends they visit or who come here?”
He lifted an imperious eyebrow. “I’m not a monster. Once homework is complete, they can do what they like as long as they stay within a mile of the house. I’ll let you know if friends schedule visits. Saturdays you will arrange to take them to various educational activities. Sundays, they visit their grandparents. That is your day off.”
He glanced at her jeans, long-sleeved white T-shirt, and sneakers. “I expect you to dress appropriately at all times.”
Glancing at his own immaculate gray pants and ironed button-down all tucked in, she surmised he meant more formal than jeans. She pictured her limited wardrobe—she’d been a prisoner for some time, and, since her release, hiding out for months, after all. She gave a mental groan. This job just got better and better.
“I’ll go shopping this weekend,” she murmured.
“Excellent.” He flicked a glance at his watch. “I will be in my office the rest of the day. I suggest you get settled and get to know the girls.”
What kind of father spent Saturday working when it sounded as though he barely saw his children during the week? “Fine.”
“Which room is mine?”
Despite the extra sugar she’d imbued in the words, he still narrowed his eyes. Was her sarcasm leaking through?
“Yours is the only bedroom in the basement.”
Relegated to the basement, which told her exactly where she stood in this family. Good thing ghosts didn’t tend to haunt her.
He paused in turning away to cast her a final assessing look. “Dinner is at seven.”
“And not a second later,” she muttered under her breath. Jeez, this guy was wound tighter than a pocket watch.
He gave her a hard stare, which she returned with a guileless expression that apparently had no effect on him.
“You may call me Mr. Masters.” With that, the infuriating man turned and calmly left the room.
His imperious tone decided it for her. She was going to enjoy thwarting this arrogant warlock at his own game.