CONALL BARAN STOOD on the balcony, looking out into the dark forest as white snow fell from the sky. He gripped the slick ice-covered railing with his bare hands, his jaw clenched as Hannah stormed into his private chambers, her high heels clicking against the marble floors so loudly that he almost cringed at how much there were intensified by his ultra-sensitive ears.
“I fucking hate you,” she said from behind him. The voice he’d once thought was husky and seductive now grated on his nerves. “Look at me, Conall! I didn’t waste nearly a year of my life to be thrown out on the streets. After all that I’ve put up with you and your mood swings!”
Conall didn’t bother to look back. If he looked at her face he might actually pity her.
Hannah Morse didn’t deserve his pity. If the streets were her only option after betraying him, then that’s where she belonged.
“You break up with me and then throw a party at the Digital Underground. What is wrong with you? Hey,” she yelled. “I am talking to you.”
When Conall turned to her, she took two steps back, her face paling. She’d been spared his glare until now, though she deserved it from the beginning.
“Get your things, and leave. I don’t want to have to get the guards to escort you out.”
She swallowed and made a feeble attempt to hide just how afraid she was at that moment by tossing her voluminous blond hair, and folding her arms across her small chest.
“I don’t believe you.”
He folded his hands before his black suit and stepped forward, and through the glass doors of his balcony. “You don’t have to believe. The curse is real, and if you don’t get out of my home, I will show you just how real it is.”
Her bottom lip trembled and her eyes darted from one end of his large, lavish bedroom to the paintings and tapestries. “Conall, darling. You know that I didn’t mean those things that they put in the paper. I love you.”
He paused and squeezed his eyes shut.
Love? Is she delusional?
Hannah didn’t know what that word meant. During their time together she’d been feeding stories to the tabloids and imperial papers. He should have looked deeper into her past, but even that wouldn’t have revealed her true intentions.
A buzzing sound came from his watch and he glanced down at it. It was Kyle, his oldest cousin. His shoulders slumped and he answered the call by clicking the button on the side. He walked away from Hannah, the device implanted within his ear clicking on with the call.
“Are you alone? Is Lennox around?”
Conall glanced at Hannah who still stood there, watching him like a hawk, her almond-shaped blue eyes following him from the center of his bedroom to the study that waited just through the white stone archway.
“What do you need, Kyle? You can speak freely,” he said. “Lennox isn’t here.”
“We found her.”
Conall froze. “What?”
“You heard me right.”
It can’t be. Lennox never lost a prey, and the one time he did, he made sure to tell their father.
When Conall heard the story, he’d been amazed. A young woman had cast an impenetrable barrier, and gotten away. He ran his hand through his black hair, and grasped a handful as he imagined seeing the web she’d cast.
Conall just wished he could have seen such a thing.
“Have I ever been the kind of person to tell jokes?”
“You found the witch?”
“Not just any witch. We found the one that Lennox told your father about. She sounds incredible. None of the others were able to do the things she did that night in the woods. And no one escapes Lennox.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“What do think we should do?”
“I think we should exploit her skills. With the other kingdoms at our throats, it won’t hurt to have someone as powerful as her on our side. Just a thought.”
Conall wasn’t sure that he liked the execution of witches, but it was the way things were, and always would be until they were all extinct.
“I agree with you. Whatever you do, don’t let Lennox find out.”
“I will try my best,” Conall said, and the call was ended.
He sighed and returned to Hannah, who now sat on the edge of his bed, her dress on the floor. For a moment, his eyes widened as he looked at her sitting there, naked, her perky breasts pointed toward him.
“Won’t you come to bed, baby?”
“Hannah,” he said, crossing the room to pick her dress off the floor. He shoved it into her arms, his fury boiling forth. “Get out.”
She didn’t ask any questions. The intensity in his eyes said it all, and she hopped from the bed and ran from his room. Before she turned the corner, she shot a look over her shoulder than made his blood run cold. “You’re mad, Conall. And I feel sorry for you.”
Once alone, Conall rubbed his face. Her words would haunt him. He almost started to love her. Almost. But, not even her attempt to seduce him would erase the distrust for her. You betray Conall once, you never get another chance.
He stared at open doorway where she’d left, an ache in his heart frightening him. The truth was, he’d only kept her around so that he wouldn’t have to be alone.
“She was never the right one for you,” a soft female voice called from the darkness. Like the wind, it seemed to surround him. “She would have never broken the curse.”
Conall shrugged. “I’m beginning to think that the right woman for me doesn’t exist,” he said as he left his quarters and headed toward the staircase that led to the main floor. Perhaps tonight he would free his mind from the pain of having his heart broken. At the very least, he’d find another beautiful young woman for his bed.
SNOW FELL LIKE little crystals from the sky, making the streets glitter as a party bus picked them up. It was odd seeing the streets and sidewalks free of crowds of people and the usual vendors that would stay out all day selling street food to passersby. The shops were closed for the season, and all transport was shut down.
But, for once, Allyn was free to be out in the city. They got into the sleek, black bus and she was surprised to see seats that faced each other on either side. The seats were filled with other party goers. Girls—more like models—were dressed in tight, short dresses with way too much skin than Allyn was comfortable showing.
As she followed Aude and Khia to the back where there were exactly four seats left, she averted her eyes, already self-conscious for being in the sparkling gold dress Aude had let her wear. It was a little shorter than she would have liked, with a plunging neckline that Khia said made her breasts look great. At least it covered the scars on her back. She’d been careful to get dressed in the bathroom, not ready to explain the gruesome scars that tainted her white flesh.
That comment alone made her blush and wish she’d have worn a jacket. Thankfully the bus was warm and they would be dropped off underground where the cold wouldn’t give all of the young partygoers a chill.
No one wanted to spend the entire season battling the flu.
Once they sat down, a tall blond woman stood and smiled at everyone. “Next stop, The Digital Underground!”
Everyone cheered. There was a cooled barrel in the center of the bus, in between poles that Allyn figured was there in case someone had the urge to strip in the middle of the bus.
This was not her typical scene, but Aude was right. Maybe she should experience new things.
Inside the barrel were cans of cold beer. Once the bus started moving again, they were passed cans of amber ale.
Khia and Aude popped their cans open and Allyn followed their lead. “All right girls. Let’s get drunk, dance our asses off, and party like it’s the end of the season.”
“It is,” Aude said with a laugh.
“That’s right, and no one has to drive home. So, yeah. Let’s do this!”
Allyn couldn’t help laughing with them and they all drank from their cans, the cold liquid adding to buzz Allyn already had from the double shot of Chronos.
As the music pumped in the bus and people started dancing, she found herself actually getting excited for what she would see at the Digital Underground. She’d heard of the super exclusive club but had never imagined actually going there. Only the wealthy and famous were allowed, with exceptions for the most attractive girls that got in for their looks alone.
Instead of dancing with her friends, she pressed her body to the far window and looked out at the city that now looked abandoned. It had an eerie beauty about it, with the dark empty streets covered with white snow that was being scraped away by a shovel attached to the front of the bus. But the buildings, with their lights and glass siding, made Central Elastria look like a fairytale land of the future. As she tuned out the music, she realized that’s exactly what it was.
They arrived at the Digital Underground much faster than she’d expected, but it made sense since there was virtually no traffic the entire drive.
The bus drove into a tunnel lit bright with yellow lights. When it parked in the parking garage, everyone lined up, ready to get out and head to the entrance of the club. Allyn was at the end of the line as they filled out and into the parking garage. A purple carpet let to the front door guarded by four giant men with black shirts that clung to their large muscles.
Khia showed her invitation and they were all allowed inside. Once they stepped through the heavy gold encrusted doors that made it look like they were entering a temple instead of a club, the entire atmosphere changed.
Allyn audibly gasped as they entered the magical world of the Digital Underground. She held onto Khia’s hand, not wanting to get left behind as darkness smothered them, only highlighted by iridescent red and purple lights that streamed along the walls, highlighting ancient symbols of the old age when the fae were as much a part of Elastria as humans.
She felt her skin tingle. This felt more like home than anywhere she’d ever been.
It delighted and scared her, for her palms began to itch with the urge to cast.
As they walked through the long tunnel of glowing symbols, the music grew louder and louder until it was at full volume at the end that opened up to a circular balcony that looked down at the glass dancefloor packed with people.
Allyn’s mouth parted as she looked in awe at everything, her eyes following four girls dressed in nothing, but covered in neon paint that made it look like they were of the ancient fae tribes. They grabbed onto colored sashes that carried them up into the sky. She stood there, her hands clasped around the golden railing of the balcony as they reached the top of the ceiling, wrapped the bodies into the sashes and began to dance.
“Wow,” she said.
Aude and Khia stood on either side of her. “I know. The aerial dancers here are some of the best I’ve seen.”
“I know. The dancers at Mez have nothing on these girls,” Khia added.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually had fae blood.”
“I doubt it. There’s no way the king would allow it.”
“How would he know?” Aude asked, challenging her playfully.
Khia shrugged with a laugh. “Good question.” She looked down at the bottom floor. “Shots! Let’s go to the bar.”
Allyn groaned, already feeling like she had too much as Khia took her by the hand and pulled her along. They walked along the balcony until they reached a set of metal stairs that led them down to the dance floor and bar areas. All of the flashing lights were a bit disorienting but in addition to the music it made her adrenaline pump.
Before she knew it, she found herself nodding her head to the music. They stood at the glass bar, where the attractive male and female bartender showed off their bar skills, doing tricks with the alcohol and glasses.
As they drank their second shot of the night, Allyn’s eyes wandered around the club and its many sights. She set her shot glass down and froze when her eyes went to the VIP section. Something odd happened. Her ears seemed to grow hot and quiet as she peered past the open curtain and into the darkness. Someone watched her, a man, in the darkness. She held her breath, realizing that there was a silver glow to his eyes.
Despite the entire room going silent, she could hear her own heartbeat and the world seemed to slow.
She swallowed, clutching the bar. No, she thought. Not now. If she didn’t gain control of her mind, she feared what would happen—what would be revealed. The Digital Underground was the last place she wanted her secret to be seen.
When the mysterious man stood and spoke to one of the VIP guards, she feared that he had seen something. Did her eyes glow as well, flicker with light? Did she miss a shard of red power escaping her fingertips?
Worried, she stepped away from the bar and began to run when someone stepped in front of her. A man with light brown skin and closely cut hair smiled at her. He wore a black suit and she could tell that he wasn’t one of the clubbers.
“Hello,” he said, in a posh northern accent. “I’m Edan. And you are?”
Allyn swallowed, confused by the sudden question. Was he hitting on her? She could never be entirely sure when it came to men.
“Lovely name,” Edan said, smiling, his white teeth glowing in the neon lights. “I’d like to invite you and your friends to the VIP lounge.”
“Sure,” Aude said pulling Khia away from the crowded bar. “We’d be happy to go to VIP. Do you have food back there?”
“Of course. You can have whatever you’d like,” he said, his eyes scanning over the both of them and how Aude’s arm was around Khia’s waist. “This way.”
Allyn shook her head as he turned his back. “No,” she whispered to Aude. “I don’t want to go. I don’t feel right about it.”
“Hey,” Khia said. “You promised us that you would try to have fun. Come on. Everyone knows that VIP is where the real fun is.”
“Who wants to party out here with all of the peasants?” Aude asked, motioning to the hundreds of people on the dance floor and filling the club.
Cautious, Allyn followed behind them, her eyes on the darkness inside the VIP section. Something warned her—screamed at her to turn around and escape while she could. When she glanced behind her, there was a guard with a device on his ear. He followed, as if to keep her in line.
Her heart really started to race then. She rubbed her sweaty palms onto the bottom of her dress and tried to keep the terrified look off of her face.
Once she took the steps up to the VIP section, something else replaced her fear.
Inside the curtains was more ancient writing etched into the dark walls. Glowing lights cast a dim glow on the different sections of the long hallway. There were several square-shaped sofas around tables with well-dressed upperclassmen and women seated around them.
The people inside were different—calmer and more refined than the hyper partyers outside in the general population. Even though they sat in seats that encircled glass tables piled high with champagne and liquor, they seemed to be in a different state of mind.
She averted her eyes from staring at the men and women that made out right there in public. An older gentleman in a suit had his hands up a skinny blonde’s blouse as she straddled him.
Allyn swallowed, definitely not liking what she saw, and what she guessed was expected of her and her friends.
She tried to relax as her heels tapped along the black floor, but when they stopped at the back of the section her eyes locked with the man in the far corner.
He looked vaguely familiar, but there was something about him that made her face flush, her heart stop, and her eyes widen. Never had she seen eyes so icy blue. Even in the dark, they stood out to her. His hair was dark, and short, unlike the long styles the men were wearing in town.
“Have a seat, ladies,” Edan said. “I’ll have the private waitress tend to you.”
Still frozen in place, Allyn had to force her feet to move forward. When he looked away, she was broken from her trance and was free to sit…as far away from him as she could.
Something isn’t right. Leave, Allyn. She fought with herself until she found her hesitance replaced with intrigue. The man in the fancy black suit with the red tie was mysterious. There was something about him that pulled her closer.
When he stood, Allyn held her breath. He was tall—at least six-foot-five, with a square jaw and a clean-shaven face.
The shots from earlier warmed her from the inside out at that point, and as she looked up at him, she began to relax. Looking into his eyes did that to her. In his gaze, she was safe.
“Good evening.” He held a hand out to her. “Join me for a walk,” he said, the same accent Edan spoke with lacing his words with an intoxicating flair.
It wasn’t a question, and she could listen to him talk all day.
Confused by her sudden desire to do what he said, she accepted his hand.
“Where are you going?” Aude asked, sitting up as she watched Allyn come to her feet and follow the stranger.
Allyn glanced back and shook her head. “I don’t know.”
With a charming smile, the stranger turned to them. “You don’t mind if I steal her for a moment, do you?”
Allyn noticed how the color in their faces drained as they got their first real look at his face. Did they see what she did? A man that was too handsome to be real?
“Of course, your highness,” Aude said, lowering her head.
“Forgive us,” Khia said, her head lowered as well.
Realization hit Allyn like a cold bucket of water was splashed onto her face.
That’s why he looked familiar.
Holding her hand was Conall Baran, the youngest prince of the Baran clan.