In the first of a dazzling new romantic trilogy, one woman’s courageous search plunges her into a millennia-old supernatural war—and an irresistible passion…
Nurse Kayla Friday has dedicated her life to science and reason. But for her, Seattle is a place of eerie loss and fragmented, frightening memories. And now the only clue to her sister’s murder reveals a secret battle between two ancient mythologies…and puts Kayla in the sights of lethally-sexy werewolf mercenary Hart. He’ll do whatever it takes to obtain the key to the Gate of the Land of the Dead and free what’s left of his soul. But seducing the determined Kayla is putting them at the mercy of powerful desires neither can control. And as the clock ticks down to hellish catastrophe, the untested bond between Kayla and Hart may lead to the ultimate sacrifice.
“These shores will swarm with the invisible Dead of my Tribe. The White Man will never be alone. Let him be kind and just to my People, for the Dead are not powerless. Dead, did I say? There is no death, only a Change of Worlds.”
—CHIEF SEATTLE, Washington Territories, 1854
Seattle, Present Day
The drowning world was gray through the riflescope. From the exposed rooftop across the street, Hart watched the Seattle morgue. Charms to guard against the dead were woven into the cyclone fence. They whistled in the harsh March wind— a low haunted noise, like the keening of spirits.
Hart hunched in his worn bomber jacket. Rain sliced his skin and pummeled the broken asphalt far below. Soggy leaves and cigarette butts raged through overflowing gutters toward distant Puget Sound. Wiping the water out of his eyes, he watched a woman come into view. She fit the profile of his target: midtwenties, short, curvy, with smooth latte skin, generous eyebrows, and a high forehead. She shivered in a thin jean jacket that did nothing to shield her from the rain. Did she have the necklace with her? Her body tensed when she caught sight of the morgue. She wrapped her arms around herself, hesitating momentarily as she took a shaky breath.
She pushed the thick brown hair out of her face, and he saw her eyes. Framed with wetclumped lashes, they were golden brown and red from crying. Nothing special, and yet for a moment he forgot himself. Forgot his stiff aches and his cold fingers. Forgot the job and the madness and the constant stench of blood on his hands. Forgot his one driving goal: freedom.
Then she turned her head and the moment was lost. He felt the rain again beating on his face and the familiar burning in his chest. He tamped it down before it consumed him, before the thing inside him clawed out of his skin.
She continued down the sidewalk. Her generous ass swayed in the soaked jeans plastered to her body. Hart swallowed.
Around her, the Aether roiled—a sure sign she was not alone. The shining water that surrounded all matter didn’t take kindly to ghosts on the wrong side of the Gate to the Land of the Dead. Spirits were supposed to pass peacefully through those Gates, leaving this world to the living, but the Gate in Seattle was busted. Dark spirits slipped free through the crack formed by Chief Seattle’s curse to wreak havoc among the living.
Hart pulled a small spyglass out of his pocket. Holding the Deadglass to his eye, he adjusted the cluster of gears to focus the glittering cutglass lens. The murky sight that emerged sent a jolt of fear to his gut. His lips peeled back, baring his teeth, and the beast inside him sat up and growled.
He knew the spirit world was alongside him, but it was another thing entirely to see it with his own eyes. The damned souls who refused to pass through the Gate swarmed around the woman on the street below. Her grief attracted them like moths to the flame. He could almost taste their hunger. The ethereal forms floated around her. Craving her touch.
Coveting her senses.
She unconsciously waved a hand in front of her face as if brushing away fog, but was unaware of the danger. Why did humans choose to ignore their instincts?
For some reason the sight of the woman trapped by the wraiths affected him more than it should have. His beast strained forward, trying to catch her scent across the waterlogged street. Energy tingled through his core. Fur rippled beneath his skin. He hung on to his human form, snuffing out the glow that preceded the Change. Sweat broke on his brow. His pulse raced. With three days until the full moon, he should have more control.
The crows chose that moment to show up and distract him, which for once was a good thing. Gossiping in their guttural tongue, they landed on the telephone wires and rooftops. Watching. Waiting. Spying on him for their Kivati masters.
Lady be damned.
Kivati sentinels couldn’t be far behind. An ancient race of shapechangers, the Kivati were legends in their own right: Raven, Cougar, Coyote, Thunderbird. Wolf. They once protected the land and humankind. Still did, officially. But they did little to prove it, too caught up in a bloody war with the Drekar to waste time on humans.
At least the Drekar’s intentions were honest. Cursed with no souls of their own, the dragonshifters fed on human souls. They weren’t always careful to leave their food alive. Who cared how many humans died, as long as there were enough to feed on? Better the weak were culled from the flock, leaving the strongest souls to provide sustenance. The Kivati felt honorbound to defend humans, and the Drekar gave as good as they got.
It was a secret war, carried out in the shadowed alleys and boardrooms, behind the backs of the humans. The battles might be hidden, but the damage was everywhere. Outright neglect as resources were diverted into the war. A failing power grid as ghosts fried electrical circuits. Midnight explosions made to look like accidents. The shining skyscrapers deteriorating as soon as the last nail was hammered in. People disappeared and murder splashed across the nightly news, but humans chalked it up to gang violence. Other major metropolises had similar problems of urban decay and crime. It was the high price of city living. Those who didn’t like it were welcome to leave, and they did.
The damage accelerated every time some damn fool tried to open the Gate, cracking it farther, letting more ghosts and demons slip into the living world. The last time, it caused Mount St. Helens to erupt. Next time, who knew? From his vantage point on the roof, Hart could count three more volcanoes just waiting to blow their tops.
He could take care of himself. Always had. He aimed his rifle at the north end of the street where Kivati sentinels were sure to appear. Their crow scouts gave them away. Odds were good they were here for the same necklace he was. He had to get it first. Norgard wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Once Hart completed this job there was a single task left to pay off the blood debt that bound him. He could taste his freedom on the bitter north wind. After fifteen years in Norgard’s service, Hart’s soul was a dark, twisted thing, but it was his.
Down on the street, the woman glanced briefly up at the cackling crows, before stepping through the fence gate. The whistling charms that hung from the wroughtiron bars kept the dead from following her. Too bad the Kivati weren’t so easily put off. She climbed the steps, heaved open the morgue’s heavy iron door, and slipped inside.
Hart didn’t have time to follow and interrogate her about the necklace. All he could do was train his rifle on the two black jeeps that screeched to a halt on the street below. Black titanium scales plated the sides and tops of the vehicles. Two long tailpipes trailed from the undercarriage, one puffing black smoke from the firebox, the other a cloud of white water droplets. The Kivati had kept their old technology and adapted it to the new era. Though the large armored vehicles resembled modern cars, they ran on steam.
The Kivati sentinels moved with the grace and speed of their animal counterparts. Six tall, muscled men untucked themselves from the cramped vehicles and spilled onto the sidewalk, long black dusters swinging in the wind. Even though the sun hadn’t been seen in a good week or more, they wore dark sunglasses—the better to hide eerie violetringed pupils. The Kivati believed in secrecy at any cost. Humans could never learn of the monsters that battled for control of their city.
Hart recognized the Fox and his usual crew of hotheaded young Thunderbirds and Crows. Rudrick was shorter than the others, with the lean build of a runner, redstreaked hair and a tuft of fur at his chin. Cocky too, as he wore no glasses. The look in his beady black eyes was crafty and calculated, his inner Fox brought to the fore by the pleasure of the hunt.
Hart had a clear shot of the sidewalk and anyone trying to walk past the fence to the morgue front door. He raised his rifle, aimed at the ground in front of Rudrick, and fired. The bullet nicked the concrete. The sentinels scattered, dodging his bullets as they ran behind their jeeps for safety.
The bastards might not have time to pull their own guns, but they weren’t without weapons. From the sky, a crow swooped, talons extended, straight at Hart’s face. He shot it. On the ground, a sentinel cried out as his mental connection to the bird was severed.
The other birds attacked, slashing and clawing. Razorsharp beaks aimed at Hart’s eyes.
He was too quick. He rolled onto his back and came up blasting. The guns he kept strapped beneath his jacket settled into his grip as if he’d been born with them instead of hands. Black feathers rained down. Screams like rusty violins filled the air. A few crows slipped past his bullets, and he felt his scalp tear and blood splatter his cheek.
He relished it, though it wasn’t a real battle, just a game. A bit of professional courtesy between one killer and another:
This target’s mine. Message received, thank you.
Crow blood sprayed his tongue, bitter and warm and disgustingly familiar. More and more came until the sky was black and beating wings obscured his vision. His ears rang with the blast from his guns.
The attack stopped all at once, after a single mental command from their Kivati masters. The birds—the survivors— limped off to sit on the telephone wires and clean their wounds. Hart’s jacket had held up well against the assault, shielding him like a tough leather skin, but his face and hands stung with talon marks. He rolled onto his stomach and pulled himself to the edge of the building so that he could look down on the street and assess the damage.
Behind the cover of the jeeps, the sentinels waited with firepower ticking in their hungry fingers. One man clutched his right shoulder; blood welled slowly from a hole shot through the black wool coat. Another lay moaning on the cold, wet ground, hands pressed to his temple, his consciousness ripped apart by the loss of too many crows. Mental wounds were hard to stitch up.
Sucked to be him, but what did the man expect, connecting himself to another being like that? Kivati felt the death of their familiars like the loss of a limb, keen as a knife to the heart. Dumb bastards. Attachments were weakness. Hart would give his left nut—hell, both nuts—to be rid of the crazed beast inside him.
The rain washed the blood from his skin and swept broken feathers into the clogged gutters in the street below. In the distance, beyond the stormy Sound, sunlight broke over the Olympic Mountains.
To Hart’s surprise, the Kivati gave up. With an order from Rudrick, they loaded into the jeeps and drove off in a cloud of smoke, the chug of the steam engines echoing in the empty, waterlogged street.
Strange. Either they weren’t here for the necklace after all, or they didn’t want it as badly as he’d thought. Maybe it was only sentimental junk, but he doubted it. His instincts said Norgard was holding out on him, as usual. Norgard wouldn’t lift a claw to save his own mother.
Dead crows lay where they had fallen along the rooftop and the asphalt below. Hart pulled the Deadglass out of his pocket and held it to his eye. Through the glass he watched shadows pull away from the small broken bodies. They condensed and solidified, feather by translucent feather. A pathway through the Aether began to shine, guiding the way home. One by one, the spirit birds flew into the sky and disappeared beyond the shimmering veil.
Rising, Hart shouldered his rifle. He slipped the Deadglass into his pocket, slid down the fire escape, and headed to the morgue. Nothing could keep him from finding that necklace. No Kivati. No wraith. He’d earn his freedom if he had to fight hell itself.
Kayla entered the dimly lit morgue and bit her lip to keep from crying. She had to hold it together. If she allowed the swelling sorrow to shatter her into a million bits, there would be no one left to pick up the pieces. Seattle, this godforsaken, desolate city, had stolen everyone from her. Her mother in a violent “accident” that Kayla only vaguely remembered. Her father from the heartbreak of it years later. Now her sister, who was shockingly, mysteriously dead. A yawning chasm opened in her chest, threatening to suck her down into the black abyss. She couldn’t let it.
Instead of harsh fluorescents, the Seattle morgue was lit with soft gaslights. A fire hazard, but the warm glow was strangely comforting. It made everything seem less real, like she’d stepped back in time.
A skinny, middleaged woman with sallow skin manned the welcome desk. Her shirt had a vaguely Edwardian air with a short collar and lightly puffed sleeves. She was filling out forms by hand, holding the pencil awkwardly with her long pink nails. She didn’t look up when she asked for Kayla’s name. Too tired to care, perhaps.
“Friday,” Kayla said, proud that her voice didn’t shake, “Kayla Friday. I’m here to identify my . . . sister.”
The woman set the pencil down and raised her head. She was younger than she had first appeared. Her saltandpepper hair and the weary sag of her shoulders were deceptive. “I.D.?”
Kayla fumbled with her purse to pull out her driver’s license and handed it over.
The woman eyed the Philadelphia address. “Long way from home.”
No kidding. Seattle might be a sixhour plane ride from Philly, but Kayla felt like she’d traveled halfway around the world to some wartorn, third world country where electricity was rationed. She’d never seen so many old diesel cars or broken traffic lights. Halfempty skyscrapers lorded over roads strewn with uncollected trash and abandoned vehicles. The few brave souls out on the streets of the oncegreat city scuttled about with creased foreheads and downcast eyes.
Desi should have taken one look at this dump and come back home, but she hadn’t. The contrary kid had liked it. She had started taking mythology classes at the university. Useless degree, Kayla thought. But for the first time Desi was excited about school, so Kayla let it slide.
Until recently. In the past few weeks, Desi had grown distant.
Preoccupied. She hadn’t returned Kayla’s last two phone calls.
The receptionist tapped her pencil against the desk and thinned her lips. “You took longer than you should have to show up.”
“I got the call yesterday,” Kayla protested. “Took the first flight I could.” She was going on thirty hours without sleep. The policeman’s voice haunted her, repeating those terrible words in her head: Your sister is dead.
“Dangerous to let a body sit empty and whole overnight.” The woman stood and unlocked the cabinet behind her.
Why? In her two years of nursing, Kayla had never heard of such a thing. Perhaps if Desi had died of something contagious—bubonic plague or smallpox came to mind— but then she would be quarantined.
The receptionist pulled a paper bag out of the cabinet and handed it to Kayla. “The deceased’s effects.”
Kayla licked her lips, trying and failing to say thank you like her mama had taught her. Her mouth was dry as bone. She clutched the bag to her chest, the last articles found on her sister, the only clues to solving the mystery of her death.
The woman stabbed one long nail down the dim hallway. “Body is waiting. First door on your left.” Washing her hands of the matter, she returned to her paperwork.
The deceased. The body. The words were so impersonal, detached from the loving, bubbly girl who was her sister. Had been her sister.
Strength of will held Kayla together and carried her down the long empty hallway to the exam room. A wave of formaldehyde and a blast of freezing air greeted her when she opened the door. Unforgiving metal covered every surface, and— despite the soft glow of the gas lamps—the air felt stagnant and dead. Dead as the body beneath the sheet.
How could her heart hurt so much yet still beat so quickly? She could do this. She was a nurse, for goodness sake. Dead bodies were nothing new. Approaching the exam table in the center of the room, she reached out to touch the cold cotton sheet. Her hand trembled. With a deep breath, she yanked the cloth back.
It took a few minutes for her brain to recognize the bluetinged figure on the slab in front of her. At first she thought there’d been some mistake. This wasn’t her sister. This was some alien body: lips purple and cracked, belly swollen and distended, dark veins clearly outlined as if they’d been drawn on the skin in magic marker.
Pregnant? Her sister wasn’t pregnant.
But that small hope that this wasn’t her sister shattered as she took in the familiar cheekbones; wideset eyes; the rich, wavy, mahogany hair; proud nose; and delicately pointed chin. Desi.
A sob burst from deep in her chest. How could Desi be so still? Desi was always full of life, overflowing with passion. A little touch of the devil in her twinkling brown eyes. How could a life so vibrant be snuffed out?
It couldn’t. No, it was impossible. There must be some mistake.
Her brain quit and all her rational, logical thoughts flew out the window. She watched herself as if from a distance, detached yet frantic. She ran her hands over the frozen blue skin, searching automatically for a pulse. She needed a defibrillator. A shot of adrenaline to inject in the heart. Something, anything to make her sister move again.
The chest muscles were hard beneath her fingers when she placed them over Desi’s heart.
“Please,” she whispered. Hot tears streamed down her cheek, but she ignored them. All she wanted was to have her sister back. She didn’t want to be left behind. Not again. Not when there was no one left.
Grief opened a door deep inside her, and a pulsing, shimmering light poured out. She’d never seen or felt anything like it. In her panic, one thought became clear: if she could warm Desi with that light, everything would be okay. Instinctively, she grabbed hold of it and pushed. The viscous light slid up her nerve endings and tingled along her arms. A liquid flow of her own essence, pouring out through her fingertips and into her dying patient.
Except this patient was already dead.
She pulled and pushed at the unreal, impossible light. Yanked until the room spun and her eyes could no longer focus. Poured everything into the empty shell beneath her palms.
Only to watch the light die when it left her skin. Desi’s life force was long gone. There was nothing left. Not a flicker. Not an ember. Not a whisper of the laughter and love and heart that had once been a giving, brightly burning soul.
Instead there was an emptiness in Desi, and it sucked at Kayla until she thought she might leave her body and jump headfirst into the cold corpse beneath her hands.
Out of nowhere, strong hands yanked her away from the table. A deep, gruff voice penetrated the haze in her brain. “Stop it.”
Kayla found her sobs muffled against a broad warm chest. She didn’t want it. Her hands flailed against the stranger, but it was like hitting a boulder.
“Stop,” he growled. “Lady be damned. You got a death wish?” His fingers gripped her biceps like iron bands. She wasn’t strong enough to push him away. She hadn’t been strong enough to help Desi or her parents. What was the point of being a nurse if she couldn’t save the ones closest to her?
“Let go of me!” she demanded.
He complied, and she stumbled back. It was foreign, this helplessness. She was supposed to be the strong one—the rock. At the moment, she was weak as a kitten. Desi wouldn’t recognize her. Embarrassment burned across her cheeks. How long had this guy been watching her? She hadn’t heard him enter. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”