Burn for Me Page 12

Being scared took a lot of energy. Now I was tired and kind of flat.

People milled around the plaza. To the right of me two women chatted on a bench. The one on the left had long silver-blond hair that fell down to her chest without any hint of a curl. She wore a peach teardrop dress that stopped midthigh and probably cost about as much as my best professional suit. Her tan was golden, her makeup bright and flawless. Her dark-haired friend had chosen a pearl-colored asymmetric top with a soft feminine ruffle and a pale grey pencil skirt. Both wore high-heeled shoes so delicate that they looked like they would break if any actual weight rested on them.

They saw me. Both looked me over with identical expressions of attractive women evaluating another young woman in their orbit. Judging by the raised eyebrows and the brunette’s stifled sneer, my faded jeans, plain blouse, and beat-up Nikes failed to make an impression. They went on chatting. Probably critiquing my lack of taste and money. They dismissed me as a peasant, I dismissed them as shallow, and we were all happy like that.

Past the women a couple of men lingered midway down the plaza. Both wore light-colored loose pants, expensive shirts, and designer sunglasses. Both were groomed to within an inch of their lives, and the perfection of their faces signaled money and magic.

The men were discreetly checking out the women, while the women pretended not to notice. It was an old dance. Eventually the men would break the ice and the women would pretend to be surprised but receptive. They looked like they could reasonably belong together.

A dark-haired man walked out from one of the side trails into the plaza. He wore jeans and a plain black T-shirt and carried something that looked like a roll of fabric in his hand. His T-shirt stretched tight across his broad shoulders. Muscle corded his arms, the powerful, supple muscle of a fighter, built by practice to punch and rip through his opponents. He stepped lightly, his stride sure and unhurried, like a huge jungle cat, an apex predator out for a prowl in his domain. There was no hint of submission anywhere in his body. He walked like he didn’t know his spine could bend.

I leaned forward, trying to see his face.

The two illusion-smoothed men simultaneously moved out of his way.

I saw him. My heart skipped a beat.

He had a sturdy, chiseled jaw, a strong nose, and a square forehead. He looked rough around the edges, from the trace of stubble on his jaw to the short, tousled dark hair. Rough, masculine, and arrestingly sexual. His eyes, smart and clear under the thick, dark eyebrows, evaluated everything he saw with calm precision, but deep inside those blue irises, a cold fire glowed. The same kind of lethal fire you would see in the amber eyes of a tiger, predatory yet irresistible. It compelled you to stare, even though you knew that if you caught his gaze, that icy fire would swallow you whole. He pulled me like a magnet. Every female instinct I had went into overdrive.

Oh wow.

He didn’t simply walk into the plaza. Those eyes told me that the moment he stepped foot into it, he owned it. I knew I should’ve looked away, but I couldn’t. I just sat there, shocked, and stared.

The two women saw him and stopped talking. He cut right through the layers of civilization, politeness, and social snobbery to some preternatural female sense that said, “Dominant male. Danger. Power. Sex.”

Why couldn’t I find someone like that? Why couldn’t he be my guy? If he ever talked to me, I probably wouldn’t be able to string words together into a sentence.

The man was looking at me.

Wait. There were two other attractive women in his way, both brightly dressed, better styled, and telegraphing “available” with every cell in their bodies. They were roses, and in my current getup, I was a daisy. He should’ve looked right over me. I was pretty, but not that pretty.

He was looking at me like he knew who I was.

My brain took a quarter of a second to process that fact before spitting back a cold rush of alarm. Stay or go?

I wasted another precious second trying to listen to my instincts and my magic. My gut feelings were almost always right.

Stay or go?

I looked into his blue eyes. No, I was wrong. He wasn’t a tiger. He was a dragon, regal and deadly, and he was coming for me.

This was bad. Bad, bad, bad. I had to go. Now.

I jumped right off the bench and made a beeline for the trail leading out of the park. He made a slight adjustment to his course, heading for me.

I sprinted down the trail. The greenery flew by. People stared at me. The trail turned and I chanced a glance back.

He was running full speed toward me and gaining.

I dashed forward, squeezing every drop of effort out of my body. The air turned hot in my lungs. My side hurt. The path turned again and I shot out into the open plaza with the gift shop. The entrance was only a hundred yards away.

I felt the magic behind me. It swelled, furious and unstoppable, like a cataclysm.

I glanced back.

He was twenty-five yards behind me.

I wouldn’t make it to my car.

Too far for a Taser, and I didn’t want him any closer. I pulled my .22 Ruger Mark III out and flicked the safety off. I had practiced with this gun every other week. I would hit him.

“Stop. I will shoot you.” I didn’t want to shoot him. I had no idea who he was. I had no idea what he could do. I didn’t want to fire a gun in this crowded place. I didn’t want to kill him.

He kept walking. I felt him coming closer. I’ve never felt magic like that in my whole life. It was like trying to stand in the path of a tornado. Fear shot through me, turning the world crystal clear and sharp.

“Help me!” I yelled.

Nobody moved. There was a plaza full of people and nobody moved.

Damn it. I raised the gun, barrel up and to the left over the trees, and fired a warning shot.

He threw the roll of fabric at me. I saw a flash of blue silk and then my arms were pinned to my body by a crushing force, my gun flat against my leg. The fabric clamped me, like a straitjacket.

Strong arms grabbed me. Something pricked my neck. My legs went soft and I fell over. He caught me and picked me up as if I weighed nothing.

The world was turning fuzzy. I wanted to yell at the top of my lungs, but instead a weak whisper came out. “Help . . .”

“Hey!” A man in a cowboy hat moved toward us.

“I wouldn’t advise it,” the man told him, his voice like ice.

The cowboy froze.

The man shifted me in his arms and I saw his eyes up close, blue eyes, on fire with magic and tinted with self-awareness.

Oh my God. My lips were too puffy to speak. “Meh . . . ma . . . mad . . .”

“Mad Rogan,” he said.

Someone shut off the sun, and I fell asleep.

Chapter 5

I opened my eyes. A pale ceiling stretched above me. I sat up. Folds of blue silk slid off my body, slippery over my skin.

I was in the middle of the floor in a large rectangular room. No windows interrupted the dark walls. Two floor lamps placed in the corners spilled soft yellow light into the room, not so much banishing the darkness but gently diluting it. The floor was smooth polished concrete. Lines crossed it, circles, triangles, and arcane symbols drawn in chalk, charcoal, and pure intense blue, which could only come from grinding lapis lazuli into powder. The lines glowed with gentle radiance, some parts of the pattern flat on the surface of concrete, some floating a few inches above it. I followed its flow with my gaze to a circle ringed in symbols. Someone sat inside the circle. I looked up.

Mad Rogan stared at me with his blue eyes. They opened wide, like two windows into the depth of him, and magic glared back at me. Monstrous, shocking magic, a living darkness filled with flashes of intense light and power. I might as well have looked into the heart of a supernova. I forgot to breathe. My heart tried to run away without the rest of me. My hands shook.

I jerked back and fell. Something was holding me to the floor. I pulled the silk away. Two steel cuffs enclosed my ankles. Metal rods secured the cuffs, disappearing into the concrete. I strained. My feet didn’t move at all.

“You chained me to the floor.” My voice trembled, and I hated it.

The demonic, inhuman thing that was Mad Rogan tilted his head, watching me. He sat cross-legged. He wore only dark loose pants that flared at the bottom. His feet were bare. His torso was bare too. Supple, hard muscle corded his frame. Carved biceps stood out on his arms, like living steel. His powerful chest slimmed down into flat planes of hard, ridged stomach. Pale stripes of scars crossed his bronze skin. He wasn’t just toned. He had the kind of body that was meant for combat: strong, flexible, hard, and fueled with explosive power. If Adam Pierce were present, he would perish in a fit of jealousy.

I forced my brain to work. Thin blue lines marked his skin, blending into glyphs. He had written arcane symbols on his chest and stomach. He was amplifying his power, which was dangerous to his health. Why? Why could he possibly need more power if he already forced all the air out of this big room with his presence?

“What gives you the right to grab me off the street and chain me in your dirty basement?”

“Do you know what this is?” His voice matched him, deep and slightly raspy. If dragons existed and could talk, they would sound just like him.

I strained my neck, trying to get a sense of the pattern in the scattering of symbols and lines. I was locked in a circle ringed with several larger concentric circles. Straight lines fanned through the circles, connecting to a triangle. The “top” point of the triangle contained a smaller circle, where Mad Rogan sat. Lines of runic script and arcane characters wound through the pattern, glowing with magic. My insides went cold. Acubens Exemplar, named after the “Claw” star in the Cancer constellation.

When my parents discovered the nature of my magic, we had a long talk, and my father explained to me that there was only one profession for someone with my talents. I could be an interrogator. No matter what other things I wanted to do, once my talent became known, either the military or the civilian authorities would pressure me into becoming a human lie detector. They would keep the pressure on until I gave in. I would witness torture and see horrible things done in the name of the greater good, and it would destroy my chances at a happy life. He told me that when I was old enough, I could always make the choice to become an interrogator, but until then, my ability needed to stay secret. To make his point, he made me watch a documentary on the Spanish Inquisition. I was only seven years old, but I understood. That horrible life could be my future.

When I was twelve, I began rebelling against everything my parents stood for, and I studied interrogation techniques and spells. Acubens Exemplar was one of the most potent. It took days of careful preparation to set up, and there was a very narrow window in which it could be used before the magic it accumulated dissipated, but it was almost completely foolproof. Like the claw of the crab for which it was named, the spell would allow a telepath to put crushing pressure on the person trapped in its center. The spell would amplify the pressure until the victim’s will broke and they revealed whatever secret they had been trying to hide.

“Acubens Exemplar requires a telepath.” I was grasping at straws. “You’re a telekinetic.”

The lines around Mad Rogan pulsed brighter. Okay. So he was also a telepath. Or he had some sort of will-related magic.

“I want to know everything you have on Adam Pierce,” he said. “His location, his plans, his family’s plans for him. Everything.”

I crossed my arms. “No. First, I was hired to find Adam Pierce, and my client has an expectation of confidentiality. Second, you attacked me and then chained me to the floor.” I tried to rattle my cuffs to underscore the point, but they remained completely immovable.

Mad Rogan fixed me with his blue eyes. There it was again, the predatory, merciless power. Alarm squirmed through me. He was a dragon in human skin, powerful, ruthless, and dangerous. My mind locked, struggling to come to terms with it. The muscles in my legs and arms tensed; my chest tightened. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs to just vent the fear out of my body.

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