I can’t go back there.
Slavery. Pain. Degradation. Her body controlled by another’s mind, every action orchestrated by her master’s intent, her free will ripped away. Eliminated. Destroyed.
I will not go back to that.
With shaking hands, Tarrys dumped the leftover coffee into the kitchen sink as the two brothers, Charlie and Harrison Rand, argued behind her in the living room of the small apartment she shared with Aunt Myrtle in downtown Washington, D.C. Their every word scraped at her conscience.
“Dammit, Charlie, you’ll never get through Esria alive. It’s suicide.”
Charlie Rand made a sharp sound of disgust. “It’s not suicide. Give me a little more credit than that, Harrison. But even if it is, what choice do we have? If we don’t stop the Esri, we’re as good as dead anyway.”
It was almost three in the morning, but the meeting of the Sitheen Resistance—the mere handful of humans who knew of the Esri invasion and could actually fight it—had just ended. The others had left or retired to bed, the plan set.
When the gate into Esria opened at midnight tonight, Charlie Rand was going through.
And would almost certainly die.
I could help him.
Tarrys’s stomach clenched painfully. Shaking her head against the whispers of her conscience, she soaped the sponge and began cleaning the coffee carafe. She’d prayed it wouldn’t come to this. Prayed the humans would find a way to seal the gate between the worlds, shutting the Esri out once and for all, leaving her on this side.
Because, though they treated her as one of them—as a human—she wasn’t.
She looked human though, at five feet tall, a small one. Her body might be slender, but for the first time in her life she had food aplenty and had started to develop true curves. Even her hair had begun to grow and now covered her scalp in a sleek, dark cap of which she was immensely pleased.
Yes, she might pass for human easily enough, but she wasn’t mortal. She was Marceil, one of the slave race of Esria.
After knowing freedom and kindness, how would her heart ever survive slavery again?
“There has to be another way to seal those gates,” Harrison said. “We’ll find it.”
“And how many more people will die in the meantime?” Charlie’s angry frustration set the air to vibrating, quickening her pulse.
Tarrys grabbed the dish towel and turned to lean against the counter as she dried the carafe, her gaze drawn to Charlie. While Harrison maintained an air of deadly calm, Charlie was living motion and muscle, passion and anger. Like his brother, he towered over her in height, his hair close-cropped and sun streaked. But it was Charlie, with his mercurial temperament and his charmer’s smile, whose presence dominated the room, heating her flesh and stealing her air.
It was Charlie Rand who made her wish she were human, a beautiful human he might want in return.
“In the five months since the Esri found that gate, they’ve killed at least two dozen people and raped who knows how many more.” Charlie’s hand sliced upward. “And that’s with one gate open. Now they’ve got all twelve unlocked…and we don’t know where they are. We can’t guard them. They’ll have free rein of this world, enchanting and destroying at will. If we don’t get those gates sealed, the human race is doomed. We can’t wait, Harrison, and you know it.”
Until five months ago, the humans hadn’t known there was another world connected to theirs. In ancient times, the magical Esri had enchanted their human victims, raping virgins and stealing children to fill the slave halls and harems of Esria. Fifteen centuries ago, the Esrian princess, Ilaria, put a stop to the pillaging by sealing the known gates and leaving the keys, the seven stones of power, in the hands of the humans for safekeeping.. Over the centuries, the humans had forgotten about the keys and all but forgotten about the creatures of Esria, most especially the Esri themselves—the pale, cruel, man-size beings who had once struck terror into every human heart. The terrifying tales evolved from generation to generation until the names the humans had once given the invaders, faeries and elves, were no longer whispered in terror but in joy and laughter.
The humans had never know that Ilaria had left one gate unsealed, though hidden. And that the Esri had been searching for it ever since.
Five months ago, Tarrys’s own master, Baleris, had stumbled upon the lost gate by accident—the first Esri to do so in fifteen centuries. She’d been with him, along with a second slave. Over the course of weeks, Baleris had found the strongest of the power stones, raped more than two dozen virgins, enchanted the entire D.C. police force, and hunted the humans he couldn’t enchant, humans with a touch of blood from a long-ago Esri ancestor. Mortals whom the Esri called Sitheen, Charlie and Harrison among them. Baleris had rounded up dozens more virgins and had been preparing to take them back through the gate with him when the Sitheen stopped him, destroying him with fire and the ancient Esrian death chant.
With her master dead, Tarrys had finally been free. The humans had offered her sanctuary and she’d gladly accepted, but the other slave had escaped back into Esria to report to the Esrian king. Soon after, more Esri had come through the gate, and they’d found the seven stones, the seven keys, unlocking all the gates between the worlds.
The situation had quickly turned dire. And now Charlie Rand was determined to infiltrate Esria to find the one person who might be able to help them. The person who’d sealed the gates the first time.
Harrison silently watched his brother pace, his jaw working, clenching and unclenching. “At least take a guide. Take Tarrys.”
Tarrys’s pulse leaped with dismay, her fingers closing around her opposite wrist, her nails digging into her own tender flesh.
Charlie just snorted. “No way.” He glanced at her, shooting her a quick, apologetic smile that nevertheless set hummingbirds to flight in her chest. “Nothing personal, eaglet, but you’re safer here. And I’ll make better time on my own.”
Tarrys nodded. He didn’t want her to go. She closed her eyes, waiting to savor the relief that should rush in at his words. But the relief wouldn’t come. The truth remained—Esria was a magical and dangerous world and, no matter what he thought, Charlie Rand was ill prepared to navigate it.
With help, with her, he might stand a chance.
Her heart thudded a hard, dull pounding. How could she turn her back on the only people who’d ever shown her kindness? The humans needed her help. They deserved whatever aid she could give them. They had so much to lose if they failed to stop the Esri—their world, their lives.
In truth, she had nothing to lose. The freedom and happiness she’d found here weren’t real. They weren’t hers. All her life she’d longed for the freedom to make her own decisions, to act as she chose instead of as another demanded. Now she finally had that freedom. The freedom to do what she knew was right.
How could she live with herself if, instead, she used her precious free will to hide?
Such a decision would not only be selfish, but foolish. If the humans failed, the Esri would overrun the earth. Everything she’d found here, and everyone she’d come to care about, would be lost. Including her freedom.
Sweet Esria, can I really do this?
The fact that it was Charlie going made the decision both easier and infinitely harder. From their first meeting on the battlefield at the Dupont Circle Fountain, she’d had eyes for no one else. He was both strong and beautiful, warrior hard, yet wonderfully gentle with those who weren’t his enemy. She’d tried to kill him, yet he’d understood she was under Baleris’s control, not her own, and had restrained her without hurting her. And her infatuation had bloomed.
He featured in all her dreams and was the focus of her desires, though she wished he wasn’t. She resented even such a small loss of the precious control she’d finally claimed.
Fortunately Charlie didn’t know his effect on her. He barely noticed her at all.
Her stomach clenched with dread at the thought of what she must do. She slid her hand beneath the soft Redskins sweatshirt and pressed her fist against her warm abdomen, desperate to quiet the turmoil inside her.
Charlie didn’t want her to come with him. Perhaps she could stay hidden, following him, watching over him, ready to intercede only if he needed her, only if he got into trouble. Until the Esri caught her and enslaved her again.
Charlie clasped his brother’s shoulder. “Let’s go. I’m sure Tarrys is ready for us to get out of here. And I need some sleep. I’ve got a mission to plan.”
“This discussion isn’t over,” Harrison growled.
Charlie’s expression turned to granite as he opened the door and ushered his brother through. “Yes. It is.” The door clicked shut behind them.
Tarrys collapsed against the counter, her heartbeat fast and uneven, her mind awash in dread as she contemplated a future just like her past.
But, for now, all that mattered was remaining free long enough to keep Charlie Rand alive.
Charlie Rand loved a challenge.
There was nothing he enjoyed more than the rush of adrenaline before a dangerous op. But this particular op—infiltrating the unknown and dangerous world of Esria—unnerved even his steel-coated stomach. As he pushed through the door to the roof of Myrtle and Tarrys’s apartment building that afternoon, Charlie realized that in less than ten hours, he would enter that strange world with no way to escape for a month. The gates between the worlds only opened during the midnight hour of a full moon.
Lying awake last night, he’d come to the conclusion he needed to polish his archery skills before he went through the gate. Not only were guns useless against the immortal Esri, but the sound was sure to draw unwanted attention. So he’d arranged a lesson from the finest archer he’d ever seen. The little Marceil, Tarrys.
He shook his head at the irony. Eight years as a Navy SEAL, training with the most advanced weapons the world has ever known and what did he need? Bows and arrows.
Charlie buttoned his canvas jacket against the chill November breeze and headed around the brick structure that housed the stairs, following the sound of arrows zinging through the air. The first time he’d seen Tarrys, she’d been bald as a cue ball, dressed in some god-awful gray sack of a slave gown, and controlled by Baleris as that bastard prepared to herd several dozen young women through the gate. Baleris had ordered both Tarrys and his other slave to shoot the Sitheen, but even controlled, she’d managed to thwart the Esri and help the humans. She’d aimed and timed her arrow so perfectly, she’d knocked the other slave’s arrow out of the air, leaving his intended victim untouched by either. An amazing shot.
Charlie didn’t expect her to turn him into an Olympic-grade archer in a few hours. He just hoped she could fine-tune his own rudimentary technique and give him some tips on making his own equipment in that foreign world. Then he’d have weeks to practice shooting game so he could feed himself while he was in Esria.
“Tarrys?” Charlie called out, not wanting to startle her in the midst of firing a deadly weapon.
“Here.” Her voice was clear and sure, surprising him a little. He’d always thought of her as meek, but maybe that wasn’t fair considering he barely knew her. He’d been away from D.C. far more than he’d been here since Baleris found the gate. Though he tried to be in town for the full moon, other responsibilities demanded his time and attention. After his stint in the navy, he’d joined a civilian agency that did much the same kind of covert ops work without the political red tape. A couple weeks ago, he’d taken a leave of absence, finally devoting himself full-time to the Esri problem. If they didn’t get these gates sealed, the rest of the world’s troubles weren’t going to matter.
Charlie turned the corner and for a second thought he’d come upon a stranger until he registered the slight stature and supershort hair of the shapely woman pulling arrows out of a target hung from the brick. He pulled up, watching her with interest and no small amount of surprise.
The snug jeans fit her perfectly, hugging her slender hips and falling just to the tops of her bare feet. Feet sporting pretty pink toenails. His admiring gaze rose to take in the clingy purple turtleneck that clung to a surprisingly ripe pair of breasts.
An appreciative smile tugged at his mouth. He’d always thought of her as cute in an alien, otherworldly kind of way. Like a buddy’s violin-playing little sister or something. But there was nothing otherworldly about her today. No one would ever guess this woman wasn’t human.
Until she glanced at him, revealing the most vibrant pair of violet eyes he’d ever seen.
“You look good, eaglet. I like the clothes.”
Her gaze returned to the target as she pulled the last of the arrows. “Aunt Myrtle said I needed clothes that fit. I was fine with the others.” Aunt Myrtle, the elderly aunt of one of the Sitheen, was a Sitheen herself and a gifted healer. She’d taken Tarrys under her wing while Tarrys looked after her in return.
Apparently, Myrtle had decided it was time to update Tarrys’s wardrobe and replace the baggy T-shirts and sweatshirts she’d been wearing. He had to admit, the results were impressive.
“You liked those Redskins sweatshirts, huh?”
“They were soft.”
Her simple words reminded him that she wasn’t used to luxury. Hell, she’d been slave to one of the vilest creatures Charlie had ever encountered. Baleris. He couldn’t begin to imagine what her life had been like. She deserved a little luxury.
“It looks like Myrtle’s getting a start on your wardrobe. If there’s anything else you need, you let me know, okay?”
He flashed her a smile as she glanced at him, but while her lips lifted gently, no answering smile reached her eyes. He sensed a sadness in those eyes he didn’t remember seeing before, but he couldn’t honestly say he’d ever noticed her eyes before, other than their arresting color. Maybe she was always sad.
Or maybe her melancholy had to do with his impending trip into Esria. If anyone knew the dangers he’d face there, it was Tarrys.
“You’re not worrying about me, are you, eaglet? I’ll be fine.”
Her mouth compressed. “I’m concerned, yes. But I believe you’ll succeed anyway.”
He lifted a brow. “Is that a premonition talking? Any good news you want to share with me?”
A glimmer of a smile lit her eyes, and something else. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. “I don’t get premonitions.” She slipped the bow on her shoulder with a shrug. “I have no magic. But I’ve watched you and heard the others talk about you. They believe that if anyone can succeed in freeing Princess Ilaria, you will. I agree.”
He nodded slowly, watching her. “Thanks.” But he’d heard her qualifier loud and clear. If anyone could.
There was something else, though he couldn’t put his finger on it. He was getting a vibe from her that was slightly off, making his instincts itchy all of a sudden. Making him restless.
His gaze dropped, skimming the small, perfect proportion of her feminine body, and he had to admit that maybe it wasn’t his instincts so much as his hormones kicking up that had him slightly on edge.
“Do you want to shoot first, or watch me?” Tarrys asked, dropping the handful of arrows into the quiver strapped to her back without looking, as if she’d been doing it all her life. She probably had. The flicker of challenge in her eyes definitely prodded his interest. He relaxed and grinned, not bothering to hide the subtle, surprising attraction he was feeling. “I want to watch you. Definitely want to watch you.”
She met his gaze for the briefest instant before turning away, a hint of color in her cheeks, a small, charming smile on her lips.
Charlie smiled to himself as he followed her across the roof. She was as light-footed and graceful as a dancer and as proud and confident as any trained soldier. He’d never thought about it before—he’d never really spared any thought on the little Marceil at all—but she didn’t cower or grovel as someone who’d been a slave. Probably because her masters had never had to break her spirit in order to control her. When the Esri enchanted a human, they controlled them body and mind. The human never knew what was happening. They never remembered. While the Esri couldn’t take over a Marceil’s mind, they could…and did…enslave their bodies, controlling her every action with a thought or a touch.
Reaching the far end of the roof, Tarrys turned and met his gaze. “Do you want me to shoot slowly so you can see what I do, or normal speed?”
Charlie stepped out of her line of fire. “Normal speed. Show me what you’ve got.” He studied her delicate profile as she faced the target, wondering why he’d never noticed how pretty she was. Her features were small—everything about her was small—but perfectly proportioned. Except, perhaps, her eyes, which were just about big enough to drown in. And that lower lip of hers, which was definitely full enough to catch his attention.
He shook his head and pried his gaze from her mouth. Her violet eyes flicked his way, unreadable, whispering of miles of untold depths. What was going on in that head of hers? He’d never before wondered, he realized. Never before noticed the gleam of sharp intelligence.
Too bad he was about to leave for Esria.
Without warning, Tarrys reached over her shoulder for an arrow, nocked and shot it, then reached for a second. He watched in stunned admiration as she fired six arrows in less than six seconds, hitting the target in a perfect line, top to bottom, alternating each arrow high and low.
A whoop of appreciation erupted from his throat. “Hot damn, eaglet. That was brilliant.”
He caught a glimpse of a smile on her mobile mouth before she handed him the bow. “Your turn.”
Charlie laughed. “Yeah, right.”
Her smile bloomed, amused and enchanting, then disappeared almost as quickly as it appeared, as if she were charmed by him and rather wished she weren’t. And wasn’t that an interesting thought? Yes, indeed, he loved a challenge.
“I’ll get the arrows,” she said.
His gaze followed her, watching her slender hips as she ran lightly across the roof. Reluctantly he tore his gaze away from her and focused on the target. A competitor by nature, and feeling a strange desire to impress, he was determined to make a good showing. As good as humanly possible.
Humanly possible, indeed.
Tarrys met him with the arrows and handed him one, not quite meeting his gaze. Charlie took a deep breath, nocked the arrow and drew the bow, then aimed and released. And watched the arrow land at the edge of the middle circle. Not bad, but…
“You’re not holding it right,” Tarrys said softly beside him.
He forced his pride down and met her gaze, seeing no smugness in her expression. “Show me.”
She hesitated a moment, then closed the distance between them. The top of her head barely reached his shoulder as she pushed up the sleeves of her sweater, revealing delicate wrists and a thin, rustic wood bracelet.
“You’re wearing holly,” he said, surprised. Holly was the only thing known to protect humans from Esri enchantment. “I didn’t know it worked on Marceils.”
“I’m not sure it does,” she admitted. “Larsen asked me to wear it anyway, just in case.”
Her scent teased his nostrils, sweet and crisp like some kind of exotic, forbidden fruit. But it was the touch of her slender fingers as she adjusted his grip that sent desire flaring sun-bright inside him and blood surging between his legs.
Whoa. This was the little eaglet. The Sitheen’s not-quite-human mascot. But his hormones couldn’t have cared less.
Maybe Harrison was right. Maybe he should take her with him. She was a far better archer than he could ever hope to be. And he was surprisingly attracted to her, which might be kind of fun, if the feeling was mutual. But, no, he needed to move fast and quick and didn’t need to be responsible for anyone, especially a tiny slip of a woman. Besides, it wouldn’t be fair to ask her to go back there. She was safe here, and Myrtle relied on her.
Tarrys shifted her hands, bringing the inside of her wrist to rest on the back of his hand. He could feel her pulse racing like a raw recruit’s before his first dive.
But as his gaze dipped to her mouth, he noted the tenseness of her lips and suddenly wondered if her pulse raced from fear rather than attraction. The thought slammed into him hard. Of course it was fear. She’d been Baleris’s slave, the slave of a rapist and murderer. Being this close to him…to any man…probably terrified her.
“Now sight your target, imagine the flight of the arrow, and aim into it as you release.” Her soft words flowed over him, echoing the thread of tension he’d felt in her, confirming his fears.
A pro at compartmentalizing, he forced himself to concentrate on the weapon and target. He pulled back the string and released the arrow. Just shy of a bull’s-eye. Excellent.
“Good,” Tarrys said, a smile in her voice. He could feel her gaze on him and, while he still felt her tension, she hadn’t moved away.
With a grin, he turned to her and found her watching him with a smile, and more, in her eyes. Attraction. So he wasn’t wrong about that. But he wasn’t entirely sure he was wrong about the fear either.
He resisted the temptation to probe deeper and explore this attraction a bit. Rule number one in the Charlie Rand Book of Dating clearly read, Never date a woman you can’t escape. Tarrys lived with a Sitheen. When the relationship was over, there would be no getting away from her. And he owed her too much for her help with Baleris to do that.
There was something about Tarrys that was too innocent, too vulnerable for a casual affair and he didn’t do anything deeper. No. Mutual attraction or not, this woman was a complication with a capital C. Good for a bit of flirtation and nothing more. The kind of woman no sane man went near unless he couldn’t help himself. Unless he’d foolishly fallen head over heels in love.
And if there was one solid, immutable fact in life, it was this: Charlie Rand didn’t do love.
End of Excerpt
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