Once upon a time, in the future…
I was a student fascinated with stories and learning.
I studied philosophy, poetry, history, the occult, and
the art and science of love and magic. I had a vast
library at my father’s home and collected thousands
of volumes of fantastic tales.
I learned all about ancient races and bygone
times. About myths and legends and dreams of all
people through the millennium. And the more I read
the stronger my imagination grew until I discovered
that I was able to travel into the stories... to actually
become part of them.
I wish I could say that I listened to my teacher
and respected my gift, as I ought to have. If I had, I
would not be telling you this tale now.
But I was foolhardy and confused, showing off
One afternoon, curious about the myth of the
Arabian Nights, I traveled back to ancient Persia to
see for myself if it was true that every day Shahryar
(Persian: شهريار, “king”) married a new virgin, and then
sent yesterday's wife to be beheaded. It was written
and I had read, that by the time he met Scheherazade,
the vizier's daughter, he’d killed one thousand
Something went wrong with my efforts. I arrived
in the midst of the story and somehow exchanged
places with Scheherazade – a phenomena that had
never occurred before and that still to this day, I
Now I am trapped in that ancient past. I have
taken on Scheherazade’s life and the only way I can
protect myself and stay alive is to do what she did to
protect herself and stay alive.
Every night the King calls for me and listens as I spin tales.
And when the evening ends and dawn breaks, I stop at a
point that leaves him breathless and yearning for more.
And so the King spares my life for one more day, so that
he might hear the rest of my dark tale.
As soon as I finish a story... I begin a new
one... like the one that you, dear reader, have before
Dante strode through the members’ area of Dark Pleasures, ignoring the coy looks from two women, both of whom he’d fucked within the last six months. He wasn’t interested in them. Hell, he wasn’t even interested in the exceptionally nubile young actress who’d spent the last two nights in his bed. Or in the curvy detective who’d warmed his sheets for three days before that.
His fling with that leggy gallery owner had lasted almost two weeks, but he’d known it was doomed from the beginning. There was never a real spark, and when he’d caught his mind wandering while she was sucking his cock, he knew that it was time to move on.
He was drowning in a sea of women, and he’d never been more lonely.
Damn, but he was fucked up.
With a sigh, he paused in front of the long mahogany bar. He turned, leaning back against it and letting the soft strains of music from the five-piece orchestra in the corner drift over him. After a moment, Gregory, the club’s newly hired bartender, approached from behind. “Anything for you, sir?”
Dante shook his head. “I’m not staying. Not tonight.” He turned to face the younger man. Twenty-six, an aspiring actor. He was a recent hire and had the bearing and respectful attitude that did the members-only club credit.
As one of the owners, Dante spent a great deal of time in this room, chatting up members at the bar, discussing literature in the corners while smoking a fine cigar and sipping scotch. Flirting with the women in the shadows, and then inviting a select few back to his brownstone next door.
It had become a routine, sometimes a pleasure. Always a distraction.
Tonight, he wanted none of it.
Although, actually, he did want a drink. Five or six, even. Just not here.
One of the women—Lisa? Liesl?—tried to catch his attention as he pushed away from the bar, but he passed her without comment as he moved with purpose to the far side of the room, then punched his code into the keypad to enter the private VIP area, exclusive only to Dark Pleasures’ owners and their special guests.
He stepped inside, relieved to be away from the crowd, to not have to be on his best behavior. And to not have to watch every tiny word he said, lest he give some inadvertent hint that Dark Pleasures—and the men who owned it—weren’t exactly as they seemed.
The decor in the VIP lounge was similar to that in the main area—stunning paintings, comfortable furniture, leather and wood, and the kind of dim lighting that gave the place a smoky feel appropriate for an establishment that focused on fine liquor and even finer cigars.
But unlike the members’ area, the lounge had an additional quality of casual camaraderie. Of coming home. Because to the men and women of the Phoenix Brotherhood, this place really was a second home. Certainly, it was where they gathered to be with family.
Here, no bartender was needed, and Dante headed straight to the bar, grabbed one of the whiskey glasses, and poured himself two fingers of Glenmorangie.
He kept his back to the room, letting the voices of his friends in the brotherhood drift over him. Liam, Mal, Raine. And the women, Jessica and Callie and Christina. He hadn’t seen Dagny when he entered, and he didn’t hear her now.
He wasn’t surprised. She’d been spending time with a mortal—Christina’s old roommate and best friend. And while Dagny swore it wasn’t serious, Dante could see that hungry look in her eyes—and oh, dear Christ, he pitied her. He’d fallen for a mortal, after all. And after thirteen years, the memory of Brenna Hart still had the power to wreck him.
Hell, it was wrecking him right now.
He pushed through the melancholy, forcing it out of his mind by checking out and just letting the sounds and scents flow through him some more. The drift of conversation. The clink of ice in glasses. That uniquely sweet scent of scotch mixed with the pungent tang of fine cigars. Even in his current mood, it was soothing.
Hell, it was home.
Of course, not everyone was around. Asher and Trace were both out of the country this week, and Pieter, who had spent the last twenty years heading up the Bangkok office, was busy moving into the guest apartment until he decided where he wanted to settle in Manhattan.
Slowly, Dante rolled his neck, working out the kinks. Then he tossed back the scotch and poured himself another.
A moment later, Raine edged up beside him, grabbed the bottle, and poured a glass of his own. Dante glanced at his friend from the corner of his eye.
Raine ran a hand over his close-shaved head, sighed, and then took a long swallow before shifting his stance to prop his elbow on the bar and focus that razor-sharp attention on Dante.
For centuries, Raine had walked with a shadow. Hell, he’d seemed dead, which was damned ironic considering he was immortal. But that shadow had dissipated months ago. Now, Raine practically burst with life. And Dante knew the reason—Callie. Raine had been reunited with his mate, and while Dante was happy as shit for his friend, he was also so goddamn fucking jealous he was making himself crazy.
He poured again. He drank again.
And then he refilled his glass one more time.
Beside him, Raine eyed him impassively. “Bad day?”
“Bad century,” Dante said, then corrected himself. “No, bad thirteen years. Fuck.” He tossed back the last of his drink, then grabbed the bottle.
Raine’s voice held an edge of understanding, and Dante cringed. Truth was, if anyone understood it would be Raine. For thousands of years Raine had been alone, believing his love was lost forever. So, yeah, maybe he got it.
But right now, Dante didn’t care about understanding. He didn’t care about pity. He wanted only one thing, and that was something he couldn’t have.
He’d tossed Brenna away with both hands thirteen years ago because it was impossible, and though he knew he’d done the right thing, every few years the weight of the loss seemed to add up until it finally pushed him down and he had to just give in and wallow.
Tomorrow, he’d find another woman to take the edge off. Tonight, he’d lie in bed, drink, and remember.
“Come on, man,” Raine said. “Mal’s got a call with London so he’s not up for a game of chess, but I could use one.
“I’m not good company tonight.”
“Planning a bender?”
“Gonna do my best.” Considering his—and all the brotherhood’s—remarkable ability to heal, getting drunk really wasn’t in the cards. But if he tossed back shot after shot, maybe he could at least get a little buzz on. Right now, the prospect was pretty damned appealing.
“You wanna talk about it?”
Dante actually chuckled. Raine was a damn good friend, but touchy-feely he wasn’t. If he was offering Dante the chance to spill his emotional debris all over the polished wooden floor, then Dante must look more wrecked than he’d thought.
He glanced across the room and saw Callie, Raine’s mate. His wife. The woman he’d been bound to thousands of years ago—and at the same time the woman he’d known for only a few months. And there was Mal, sitting on the leather sofa talking into his phone while Christina curled up beside him, her feet on his lap as she read a book. They’d been reunited after thousands of years apart. Mated. Bound.
And as for Liam and Jessica, they’d been side-by-side for three thousand years, and now she was whispering something in his ear and he had his arm around her waist, and it was all just so goddamn fucking perfect that Dante—
“No,” he said firmly. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
No way was he shitting all over his friends’ happiness.
Better to try and drown his troubles. Or at least take a long nap. He lifted the bottle as if in salute. “I’ll be back to myself tomorrow. Tonight, I’m just a little fucked up. You’ll excuse me. I need to go valiantly try to drink myself into oblivion. I’ll fail, but I’m up for the challenge.”
* * * *
“Dante, hold up a second!”
Mal’s voice rang out from across the room, and Dante swallowed a curse before he turned around to face his friend, who also happened to be the co-leader of the brotherhood along with Liam. But leader or not, Dante was going to tell Mal that whatever it was could wait until morning.
Or he was going to say that until he saw the look on Mal’s face. Shock and grief and the gray sheen of past pain. And underneath that, Dante saw just the slightest hint of hope.
Just like that, he tossed away his plan to spend a long evening with a bottle and his memories. And he headed across the room toward his friend.
Malcolm Greer was a man good at hiding his emotions—god knows he’d had enough years of practice.
Tonight, he wasn’t even trying. Christina had sat up and was leaning against him, and Mal was holding her close as if she was a lifeline, his gray eyes full of storm clouds.
“Talk to me,” Dante said even as Raine and Liam joined them.
But Raine’s question was cut off by Liam’s gruff, “So it’s true.”
Mal nodded, just one quick affirmative motion.
“Dammit, Mal,” Dante said. “What’s true?”
“Merrick,” Mal said. “He’s alive.”
It was the last thing that Dante had expected to hear, and he reached blindly for the armrest of the chair behind him. He sank into it, barely even noticing the motion, as he glanced over at Raine, who appeared about as shell-shocked as Dante felt.
“Merrick?” Dante repeated, just in case he was having a sudden attack of insanity. “You’re talking about our Merrick?”
Merrick had been one of their team when the brotherhood had crash-landed in this dimension and on this planet so many millennia ago. He’d been one of their strongest warriors, but the battle with the fuerie—the enemy they’d been chasing across dimensions—had been brutal, and he’d been thrust back into the void, his essence dispersed. Dead. Or at least as dead as a creature made of pure energy could be.
“Apparently he didn’t go into the void.” Mal’s voice was flat. Harsh. “He was captured. And all this time we didn’t have a fucking clue.”
“Captured?” Raine repeated. “But—how? Where? It’s been three thousand years, how could they—?”
“A gemstone,” Liam said softly, and Dante nodded in understanding. Gemstones held and channeled energy—that was one reason they were often used by mortals to heal—and because of that energy, they could also be used to bind creatures like the fuerie and those in the brotherhood.
“A few weeks ago, Christina noticed something odd during her morning scan,” Mal said, picking up the thread of conversation. “A blip—something off in the energy pattern that she was seeing in the London area.” He glanced at Christina for confirmation.
“I wasn’t sure what I was seeing,” she said. “And then it was gone. And I didn’t see it again for a few more days.”
Everyone in the brotherhood had unique skills, but Christina’s were especially honed, the remnant of having suffered her own torment at the hand of the fuerie. Now, she had the ability to see a map of the world in her mind. And that map showed her not only the fuerie’s energy, but the energy from certain gemstones, and also the energy of the brothers’ themselves. She’d discovered the latter after a few months of practicing her skill, and it had proved handy for keeping tabs on members of the brotherhood who were out on missions.
“You saw Merrick’s energy,” Raine said.
“Yes and no. It was strange. Like the energy of a gemstone, but with a hint of the brotherhood, too. I didn’t understand it, and at first neither did Mal.”
“It took us a while to figure out what she was seeing, but we have confirmation now—Merrick didn’t go into the void. He’s trapped in a gemstone and has been for millennia. And now it’s our job to get him out.”
“Holy fuck,” Dante said. “You’re certain?”
Liam nodded. “We are. Merrick and Livia were the only two who went unwitnessed into the void. We assumed. We were wrong.” He looked at Raine as he spoke. Livia had been his mate and for millennia, he’d believed he had lost her, only to learn that she had escaped the void by merging her essence with a human’s. And that human turned out to be one of Callie’s ancestors.
“I won’t go into everything we’ve done since Christina first saw the hint of his essence,” Mal put in. “The bottom line is that he was trapped inside a gemstone—presumably by the fuerie. That stone ended up in a gem-encrusted brooch owned by various royal families.”
“The brooch is in the shape of a phoenix.” Liam’s mouth curved into an ironic smile. The brotherhood had come to call themselves the Phoenix Brotherhood specifically because of the unique manifestation of their mortality. They could be killed, yes, but they were born again in fire.
“Coincidence?” Raine asked.
Christina shook her head. “I don’t think so. As far as we know, the fuerie don’t know how to shield a gemstone’s energy. But this stone seems to be shielded. When we were tracing the provenance, we saw that the brooch came into existence in the fourteenth century. Before that, the stone was in an ancient Egyptian ornament. But during the Renaissance, an artisan worked it into the brooch. And that artisan had a reputation as a sorcerer.”
“Of the fuerie?” Dante asked
“More likely one of the rare humans who understands energy the way we do,” Mal said. “Perhaps he discovered a way. Perhaps the fuerie hired him to make the brooch—and to shield it.”
“We may never know for certain,” Christina said. “But the bottom line is that it disappears from the map periodically, but then pops up again. The shield is wearing off. And that means we can find it. We can acquire it.”
“Where is it?” Dante asked.
“It went recently into the private market and Michael Folsom hired an intermediary to acquire it on his behalf,” Liam said, referring to a local Manhattan billionaire who had a penchant for collecting unusual things.
“Are the fuerie after it?”
“I don’t know,” Christina said. “They may have lost interest centuries ago. It’s floated around museums and private collections. It’s in the city now, but I haven’t detected the fuerie in this area in weeks.” She looked at Dante. “Have you?”
He shook his head. His power was nowhere near as strong as Christina’s, but he was constantly reaching out, searching his surroundings for the slightest hint that the fuerie were nearby.
“And we’re certain that it’s Merrick in this gemstone?”
Liam and Mal exchanged glances. “As confident as we can be until we free him,” Mal said. “But we’re also confident that time is short. His essence is escaping—and we’ve confirmed that the stone has acquired a flaw, and I think his essence is being pulled out. He’s fighting to remain, but if he’s drawn fully out into the ether...”
“Then his essence will be dissipated throughout the universe, and we’ll lose the consciousness that we know as Merrick forever.” Dante sighed. “Well, fuck.”
“How much time?” Raine asked.
Christina lifted a shoulder. “We’re not sure. Days. I doubt we even have a week.”
“So we get him back. Hell, we go in today. We’ll extract him from the damaged stone and tuck him safely away in another until we can find a host for him.”
“Who will be the host?” Christina asked.
Liam shook his head. “I don’t know. It would take an extraordinary human to be willing to merge with him. We were fortunate when we arrived in this dimension that the priest’s visions had told him of our coming and he had found men and women willing to take on the burden.”
“We’ll find someone in this century,” Dante said. “It may take a while, but he’s been trapped for thousands of years. A few more will be only a blip.”
Mal nodded agreement. “We will. If we have to scour the earth to do it. So that’s essentially the plan. We’ll touch base with the intermediary to negotiate acquisition of the brooch at any price before it’s delivered to Folsom. If that doesn’t pan out, we’ll fall back on surveillance, pinpoint the location, and acquire it by less legitimate means.”
Dante grinned. “You mean steal it.”
Liam shifted so that he faced Dante more directly. “You’re on point. We’ve learned that the intermediary is staying at the Algonquin Hotel.”
“Fine,” Dante said. What the hell. A new mission would keep his mind occupied. God knew he needed an escape from his memories and regrets. “What’s his name? Have we got a dossier?”
“Her,” Mal corrected with a quick glance toward Liam. “And we do.”
Liam handed Dante a thin folder. He opened it—and found himself staring into the eyes of Brenna Hart.
The only women he’d ever loved.
The woman he could not have.
The woman who, he was certain, absolutely hated his guts.
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