News of a mage going mad and lashing out with magic would typically raise alarms, but today, yet another such report in his hands was the least of Alasdair Blakesley’s worries.
A bigger problem had just walked into his office.
His long-time personal assistant, Agnes. She entered laden with a tray. Presumably his lunch.
“Thai today,” she sang out.
He had no idea what alerted him that something was seriously wrong. The tone of her voice probably. Serious, semi-snappy Agnes did not use a singsongy voice. Ever.
Nearing her late sixties—though she refused to retire, informing him that he’d be a pathetic mess without her, which was true—Agnes wore her steel-gray hair severely scraped back from her face, never a strand out of place. Like her hair, she was scarily efficient at her job, and as abrasive as a Brillo pad when she deemed it necessary.
A voice like a sweet little mouse was not in her repertoire.
In fact, having to order him lunch because, as often happened, he’d let his job distract him from the time, would irritate her. As the head of the Covens Syndicate—the body of witches and warlocks who monitored, policed, protected, and ruled the established covens of magi throughout the world—he found his focus on the needs of his people overruled eating. Brillo voice would be more likely right now.
He watched her closely as she set the tray down on the round table in the corner. Made of petrified wood, the table stood out like a sore thumb from the rest of his ultra-modern office, which was all glass, black leather, and chrome. With a cheerfulness also nothing like his Agnes, she arranged the plates to her liking, then glanced up.
And blinked. Because Alasdair had taken her distraction as an opportunity to move to the door, which he shut with a quiet snick.
“Can I get you anything else, sir?”
Sir? Alasdair reached for his power, allowing the magic to flow through like electric current over a wire, his fingertips buzzing with it.
“Yes,” he said in a quiet voice any friend, and most enemies, would recognize meant he was holding back rage. “You can tell me what you’ve done with Agnes.”
The imposter tipped her head to the side, doing a fantastic imitation of a confused frown. “I don’t understand, sir. Of course it’s me—”
With a single thought, a slithering line of electricity shot from his fingers, aimed at the fake in front of him.
She dropped all pretense of misunderstanding, and, with a snarl that raised the hairs on the back of his neck, jumped out of the way, only to land lightly on her feet, straightening from his assistant’s customary slightly hunched posture, eyes and mouth turned the color of gangrene, the color leaching into the surrounding skin, as though evidence of an infection of the soul.
At least Alasdair knew what he was dealing with.
Which meant he couldn’t kill it. He’d learned that the hard way a long time ago. Demons possessed human bodies, their corporeal forms too noticeable in the human realm to be used. If he killed the demon, he killed the vessel, and he couldn’t do that to Agnes. Which meant he’d need to bind it.
Please let this be a lower level demon.
Alasdair raised his hands in the air, calling on his magic. Immediately, a violent wind slashed through the office and tore at his immaculate suit jacket. The demon didn’t even sway with the impact. A glass statue in one corner wobbled and fell with a crash, shattering into a million shards, which Alasdair immediately summoned, using his magic to hurl at the demon.
With a swipe of its arm, the thing inside Agnes diverted the shards around its body. They embedded in the wall, sounding like a thousand tiny bullets hitting their mark with sharp, popping thuds.
“You’ll have to do better than that,” the demon sneered, its deep, scratchy voice at odds with Agnes’s body.
It lunged, streaking with inhuman speed across the room at him. The winds he’d summoned had reached hurricane force but might not as well have been blowing for all the detriment they posed. Alasdair held still, waiting for the right movement to strike. Waiting for its sickly sweet breath to hit his face before he struck.
The words of his spell punched through his mind, and, in an instant, a length of cord materialized in his hands, glowing bright white with energy. At his will, it shot forward to wrap around the demon charging him.
The thing was fast, and damn strong, and Alasdair didn’t time it exactly right, the cord missing one of the thing’s arms. Not that it mattered. The creature screamed with agony as the holy bondage that Alasdair had summoned from his childhood home where it had been hidden for ages set the demon’s skin sizzling everywhere the rope touched.
Still, the demon wasn’t going down without a fight. Agnes’s neatly manicured nails turned to onyx claws, and it slashed at him, even as it fell to the ground, held secure by his bonds.
Alasdair wasn’t quite fast enough to get out of its way. Jagged pain burned through his skin as dark red patches bloomed slick and wet against the pristine white of his button-down shirt.
He disregarded the wounds, following the demon to the ground. The rope was ancient and would hold it for only so long.
Bringing all his weight to bear, he knelt on the demon’s free arm and placed a hand to its forehead, positioned to avoid now-razor-sharp, snapping teeth. Closing his eyes, Alasdair whispered the words that would bind the demon physically as well as making sure it didn’t escape to another body.
Agnes would hate being trapped inside her own hell, her magic trapped with her, and he didn’t blame her for that. But until Alasdair could summon one of the mages who specialized in demon extraction, he had no choice.
With the last uttered incantation, the possessed creature went still and quiet, arms and legs straight out, face frozen in a grotesque grimace, as though petrified. Slowly, Alasdair rose to his feet. Keeping careful watch on the thing, he moved behind his desk and picked up the phone.
Every muscle in his body tensed to the point of cramping at the sound of Agnes’s true voice. The black void of her eyes turned brown and human again. “Help me,” she croaked.
Anyone with a heart would be tempted to go to her, but what he knew of demons held him still.
“He’s going to kill me.” She sounded so desperate, helpless.
The tension in him eased a fraction. Nope. Not Agnes. She would know better, and she would never beg. The real her would be swearing a blue streak about now, and probably even shock the doomed soul inhabiting her body.
Ignoring the creature, he dialed the number that would get him what he needed. Within moments, a team of witches and warlocks trained for battle, trained to protect, invaded his office. As soon as he knew they had Agnes and her current parasitic invader in hand, Alasdair snatched his phone from a drawer and strode from the room.
Suddenly all the reports of inexplicable crazed bouts among his people made sense. They weren’t crazed…they were fucking possessed.
If anyone had a reason to fear demon possession, he did. But the world, most of whom didn’t know magic truly did exist, would come to live in terror of them if they took over enough mages.
“Don’t leave me with him inside me!” Agnes screamed, her pleading voice following him out of the room.
Leashing a flinch, he stopped at the elevator where the leader of the team, Micah Aluron, joined him, sharp eye taking in the scene with unsmiling purpose. “Orders, sir?”
“Hold that thing until I get back. Gag her if you have to.”
“Get back?” Micah asked. “Aren’t you supposed to be having dinner with your sister tonight?”
Dammit, he’d forgotten all about Hestia and Christmas Eve. “I can’t. This needs to be addressed immediately.”
Micah gave a quick nod. “Where are you going?”
Had this been anyone other than his old friend, Alasdair wouldn’t have bothered to answer. Only, this was Micah, a man who’d saved his ass on at least three different occasions. The time in Barcelona didn’t count, of course. Alasdair had returned the favor even more times than that. A situation that meant they trusted each other. Implicitly.
“We have a demon problem,” he said, and couldn’t control the fury that turned his voice dark. “This isn’t a singular incident. It’s one of many.”
“Shit.” Even Micah turned ashy at that. “You think all the other reports are possessions?”
Micah seemed to be of the same mind. “It takes a hell of a lot of magic to exorcise a single demon.”
And they were looking at more than one. A horde maybe, hopefully not a legion. Alasdair’s own power didn’t stretch that far, and even the entire Syndicate working together might not be enough. He refused to kill those afflicted unless he had to.
“Magic may not be able to fix this, but I know a…person who might be able to help.”
The enigmatic woman who’d been a burr under his metaphorical saddle since he met her. He would much rather have gone begging for a place in her bed to exorcise the spell she’d cast that seemed to grip him harder with every encounter they had.
Having to grovel for help, on the other hand, was the last thing he’d pictured himself ever having to do.
He should have known better.
“I need to see Delilah.”
In her private office, windows overlooking the Denver downtown with the snow-covered Rocky Mountains hazy in the late morning light, Delilah raised her head.
No mistaking those deep tones, even over the Christmas music piping softly through the office. Hell, she’d fantasized about that smooth-as-sin voice as she’d pleasured herself at night. Every night for over a year. An anomaly for her.
The control-obsessed leader of the Covens Syndicate who had a chip on his shoulder the size of a large building when it came to his magic-only policies, which meant he didn’t appreciate her taking on clients that impacted his kind in any way.
Well, too damn bad.
Stubborn, conceited, and unbearably sarcastic, Alasdair was a man who preferred to have the upper hand in every situation. It had taken her about two and three-quarter seconds to figure that much out. By some miracle, she’d managed to avoid crossing his path until last year when, unbeknownst to him, she’d helped his lead witch-hunter find love in an unconventional way.
Most of her ways were unconventional.
Since then, Alasdair had popped up in her life, her office, and even tried to summon her to his location, almost once a month, if not more. All on the pretext of “checking in” to see if she’d picked up any more cases related to magic wielders.
Unfortunately, to her everlasting resentment, her body turned to molten fire every damn time he came near. In fact, the sensation was already thrumming through her blood at the sound of him in her outer office, settting her teeth on edge. Her grudging respect for him—which she would never disclose, his ego didn’t need the boost—only made it worse.
What in the world was he doing in her office? On Christmas Eve, no less. She might avoid the holiday like the plague, but she knew mages celebrated.
Curiosity had her out of her seat and halfway to the open doorway when the voices grew louder.
“You can’t go in there, sir.” Her personal assistant and bodyguard, Naiobe, was as near to shouting as the freed djinn got.
Delilah sped up before Naiobe could get into a magical power struggle with one of the most formidable mages on the planet. Mentally burying what she refused to label as tumbling excitement at seeing him, she paused in the doorway. The man towering over her assistant, who glared back, nose twitching but undaunted, didn’t seem to notice.
Delilah crossed her arms, leaning against the doorjamb, and pasted a deliberately provocative smile to her lips. “If the next words out of your mouth are, ‘Don’t you know who I am?’, I’m going to be very disappointed in you, Alasdair.”
He rearranged his posture in a hurry, straightening sharply, shoulders back. He even plucked at the cuffs of his immaculate three-piece suit as though he hadn’t just been losing his shit. “Delilah,” he greeted coolly.
What? No smart comeback?
He really wears that suit.
She swept the thought into a corner of her mind littered with similar thoughts about this man.
She tipped her chin up. “To what do I owe the dubious honor? You realize tomorrow is Christmas, right?”
He didn’t respond as he swung away from Naiobe with a countenance gone hard as marble. Unless she missed her guess, the warlock was in a thundering rage that had nothing to do with being barred admission to her. Which meant this wasn’t his usual “spy on Delilah” drop-by. Interesting.
“May we speak in private?” he demanded more than asked.
Naiobe sent his back a baleful glare.
“Of course.” Delilah waved him inside, projecting more calm than the riot of conflicting emotions and anticipation currently churning in her belly. She paused long enough to send Naiobe an inquiring look.
“He’s in a mood,” she was informed through gritted teeth.
Wow. Alasdair had really managed to get under her usually unflappable assistant’s skin. “I noticed. Maybe you should bring some popcorn. This could be quite a showdown.”
That got Naiobe to ease up with a chuckle. Delilah winked and followed the man into her office, closing the door behind her with a click. She could handle Alasdair Blakesley.
He stood with his back to her, staring out the wall of windows that faced the mountains to the west of Denver. “Popcorn? Really?”
Wow. He must be off his game if that’s all he had.
She walked on bare feet across the plush carpet to her desk. She’d gotten up with such haste, she’d forgotten her damn shoes.
He turned, clearly about to speak, then, in slow motion his gaze dropped to her unshod feet and remained there. Was that a twitch at the corner of his mouth?
Double damn. She hated being wrong-footed. Literally. Delilah ignored him as she went to her desk and snatched the black Louis Vuiton stilettos from underneath.
“Can I get you water?” she asked as she came back around, waving at a more comfortable space nearer the floor-to-ceiling windows that included a rustic-looking leather couch she’d spent more than one night sleeping on and matching leather chairs.
“No, thank you.” He hesitated, seeming to have to prepare himself. “I need your help.”
Delilah paused with her ass halfway to the couch. He did not just say that. The Alasdair Blakesley, who despised her involvement in anything magic related, had not just said those words.
She straightened. “You need my help?” she repeated, deadpan.
“You need my help,” she said again, just to be certain.
“Let’s not make a big deal of it.”
Like she’d pass up this opportunity. “Naiobe,” she raised her voice and called out. “Definitely bring the popcorn. You’re never going to believe this…”
He crossed his arms with a baleful glare. “Hilarious. I’ve never laughed so hard.”
“Really?” She blinked, all wide-eyed innocence. “That’s a surprise. I didn’t think you knew how to laugh.”
He clamped his lips shut.
Score one for her. Because there was no way she believed this request was real. This had to be a test, or his version of some gods-awful joke. But she’d play along for a minute. This night was her most despised of the year, so even a round or two with Alasdair was a welcome distraction.
Seating herself without waiting for him, when he didn’t bother to join her, she slipped her shoes onto her feet, smoothed her cream-colored skirt over her thighs, then crossed her ankles and settled her hands primly in her lap, fingers laced in a subtle steepling.
Based on the way his gaze flicked to the movement followed by a tightening of his lips, he got the message. She was in charge here.
“So…you need my help?” She couldn’t help saying it one more time.
“I knew this was a bad idea,” he muttered.
“It wasn’t mine.”
“Gods above, will you please listen?” Alasdair snapped.
Whoa. Delilah stilled, taking a closer look.
On the outside he appeared his usual impeccable self. Conservative black custom suit tailored to perfection to his broad shoulders, trim hips, and powerful legs. Jet black hair cropped short, though slightly longer on top, swept to the side, not a follicle out of place. Cleanly shaven jaw which, already sharply angled, appeared closer to the set of granite today.
A tell. She doubted many ever got to see the man this riled.
When she sat quietly and waited, Alasdair’s eyes narrowed as though he didn’t quite trust her. In a casual move at odds with the tension riding his body, he slipped his hands into his pockets and stared at her with bright blue eyes.
Delilah mentally sorted through a list of her recent clients in her head, along with a quick rehash of her last few encounters with this man. What in heaven’s name had brought him to her in such a state?
Granted, kicking him out of the dance club in Miami where she’d been helping a particularly troubled mermaid, she might’ve gone a teensy bit overboard making her point. No doubt he hadn’t appreciated finding himself teleported to Siberia.
That had been over a week ago.
Thank the powers that Alasdair didn’t know why she’d done that. He’d touched her arm. A casual move, only her body had lit up like fireworks at the New Year. From that one tiny, ridiculous contact. Sending him away had been an act of sheer desperation.
The most frustrating part was, she couldn’t See him. See his future or how it impacted hers. See where this troubling wanting when it came to him was going to end. Her most secret and precious gift, her ability as a Seer, allowed her to help her clients in ways no one else ever could.
But Alasdair Blakely was a blank. A black hole of nothing. That never happened except around vampires and ghosts, because, technically, they were dead. He wasn’t one of those.
Meanwhile, he stood statue-still, continuing to stare at her.
Delilah sighed. “Alasdair. I can’t do anything if you don’t tell me why you’ve come—”
“I have a demon problem.” He practically bit off each word.
Every ounce of levity left her body in a whoosh. She tried not to show by even a whisper of a twitch how that statement hit her. No, no, no. Not demons.
“What kind of demon problem?” she asked slowly, proud that her voice didn’t give away the sudden tightening in her chest, as though a yeti’s pet elephant sat on top of her, cutting off her air.
“Multiple reports, twenty in the last week, of rage and unleashed magic resulting in injuries,” he said. “No deaths so far, but it’s only a matter of time.”
Interesting. “How do you know for sure what you’re dealing with?” Please don’t be demons. Anything but those. “It could be any number of—”
“My assistant, Agnes, has been possessed. Definitely demon. I’ve…had a run-in with a demon before.”
Alasdair slid into the chair opposite her. Even projecting his usual imperturbable disposition, tension was coming off him in tangible waves. She was surprised the man wasn’t vibrating with it or manifesting magic to bleed it off. Not that she’d blame him.
Demons. It would have to be those, wouldn’t it?
Delilah resisted the urge to uncross and recross her legs under the intentness of his gaze. “I’m sorry, but I don’t deal with demons. Hard rule.”
His thick brows snapped down over his eyes in an impressive scowl. “You don’t deal—” He bit off the words. “What you mean is you don’t help witches.”
She pressed her lips together over defensive words that wanted to tumble out, limiting herself to a narrowing of her eyes. Ever off-balance around him in the most frustrating ways. Anyone else, and she wouldn’t give two figs for ruffling feathers. She’d never experienced any desire to explain her actions or defend herself before. Why now? And why to him? “You know that’s not true, or I wouldn’t have helped Rowan Masters.”
The red-haired witch, now married to Greyson Masters, Alasdair’s lead witch-hunter enforcing the Syndicate’s laws. Rowan was as powerful as they came. Excepting, perhaps, the man sitting in front of her right now. However, that previous situation had had nothing to do with demons. Or…not directly at least.
Alasdair’s lip curled. Hell, even the man’s sneer was controlled. But then he gave his head a shake, and a glimpse of vulnerability took her righteous anger away in an instant. “You’re right…”
Not exactly an apology, but more than he’d given her in the past.
He shot to his feet. “So why won’t you take me…us…on as a client?”
Interesting slip, and the gods knew she wished she could help them. Maybe a little spell wouldn’t hurt. One to locate—
The second even a whisper of a thought of getting involved surfaced, a tightening sensation, as though metal cuffs around her wrists were clamping down hard, told her she was treading on dangerous ground. If she took it further, her skin would start to visibly chafe and then blister. Good thing her long-sleeved blouse of green chiffon covered the spots.
The same magic that shackled her wouldn’t allow her to speak of it, either, so she couldn’t even explain.
“I just…” She allowed herself the small act of blowing out a long breath. “I can’t.”
“Fuck.” The quietly spat word, even as he held perfectly still saying it, sent a flinch through her.
His desperation was tangible, thick in the air. She regretted teasing him earlier now, because demons were as serious as it got.
“I may know someone else who can help.” Though…because that person could help, didn’t mean she would. The tightness cinched harder around Delilah’s wrists, and she had to school her features not to show the pain, nearly glancing down to see if the skin around her wrists was turning red yet.
“Someone who can help?” He repeated her words in a tone that said he still couldn’t believe she was turning him down.
Sorry, she mentally apologized. Anything else, and I would have stepped in.
Delilah offered him a shrug, for once not meaning to antagonize him, though the way his brows snapped together, she had. She rose to her feet to cross the room. Bringing up her computer, she pretended to hunt for information she already had memorized. Then wrote down an address on a slip of paper.
She straightened to find he’d moved on silent feet to stand across the desk from her. Resisting the need to take a step back, away from all that enticing, leashed energy, she held it out to him. “You’ll find this…woman…is an expert on what you’re dealing with. She may be of assistance.”
He didn’t take it. Just stared at her hard, accusation in the darkening blue of his eyes, turning them almost navy. If she didn’t know him better, she’d say he was taking this personally. As though she’d wronged him somehow.
“I’m sorry I can’t do more.” Delilah bit the inside of her cheek. Dammit. Rule #1 in her business was no demons. Rule #2 was never apologize. Besides, she was trying here, dammit.
He shook his head, expression confounded. “I expected more from you,” he said softly.
“My people are in danger. You, the woman who helps everyone with a seemingly unending list of issues, won’t help?” A bitter sort of disappointment filled his eyes, a direct hit to her heart, which usually she did a better job protecting.
Delilah locked her lips against another apology and shook the paper. “A smart man would take this.”
A cauldron of emotion swirled and bubbled in his eyes. The disappointment definitely hit hardest. With another shake of his head, he snatched the paper from her hand and stalked to the door.
“I’ll be sure to pass on this experience to anyone interested in your future services,” he tossed over his shoulder. Then he was gone, leaving the door open between her office and Naiobe’s.
As soon as the telltale thunk of the outer door closing reached her, Delilah waved a hand and her own door slammed shut so hard papers on her desk fluttered to the ground. She sank into her chair and held up her wrists. Sure enough, angry red welts appeared where the magical shackles bound her.
“Fuck,” she breathed.
Because she would have done a hell of a lot more than hand him an address. If she could.
With a shaking hand, she picked up her cell phone and dialed. A sultry voice on the other end answered. “Hello?” “Mom? A man will be coming to visit you any second. Please do what you can for him.”