She should have stayed home last night.
The thought poked at Nicole Starling’s conscience as she tried, and failed, to muster enough energy to lift one of her bent elbows off the solid oak counter in front of her. It wasn’t exactly a light bulb moment. The realization had first pierced her brain early this morning, right after her alarm clock had let out its first shrieking beep.
Fortunately, there wasn’t anyone around to witness her sad state. So, she tried the move again…this time with a bigger groan.
She managed to reach all the way out to her side, and grab her coffee cup this time. It helped that she didn’t have to turn her head or even shift her gaze from the backward gilt lettering on the pane of glass she’d been staring through.
There was no need.
After twenty-seven years working in the family bookshop, Nicole knew this store better than anyone on Earth…except her parents, of course. Her father had an extra thirty years on her, growing up in these stacks with his mom and dad before her. And her grandfather before him. And her great-grandfather before him.
Starling Books was a San Francisco institution. Her family’s legacy.
A legacy she certainly was not doing proud today.
Nicole squinted as a ray of brilliant light glinted off the windshield of a car driving by on the narrow one-way street outside. Needles of hot pain and regret shot through her eyeballs and into the back of her skull.
She really should have stayed home last night.
She’d always joked that she could do this job in her sleep. If there were any day that she wanted to put that to the test it would be today. Her head was pounding, her stomach churned, and her mouth felt like it was filled with used cotton balls.
And she didn’t have anyone to blame but herself.
She’d spent last night like every other Friday night—with her Dragons and Scrolls league, a role-playing game group that she’d been a member of for years. Usually, Nicole kept herself to a couple of beers, but last night had been their Dungeon Keeper’s birthday, and she’d thought it would be nice to bring her a bottle of tequila as a present.
And it had been…a really nice present that the five of them went through in one night.
Of course, the rest of the group were able to spend their Saturday morning nursing away their hangovers in bed. But not Nicole.
She had to go to work. With her parents enjoying a rare vacation on the shores of Maui, she was the only one who could open the shop. So, she’d forced herself out of bed, tied her short natural curls back with a scarf, and somehow managed to unlock the store’s door right at nine.
Not that it mattered. No one had come in. A lack of customers wasn’t too surprising. Rare and antique books didn’t really pull window-shoppers in off the street. Especially when that street was a forgotten, narrow one-way that cut between the major arteries of California and Sacramento Streets.
Usually the only lookie-loos they did get were tourists following the historic San Francisco walking tour. Starling Books wasn’t just the oldest black-owned business in the city. It was the oldest in all of California.
Most of their real customers came to them with a purpose. They were serious book collectors who wanted something specific, something unusual, something they couldn’t get in corner big box stores or off the internet.
That was Starling Books’ specialty. They sought out the ancient, the uncommon, the impossible to find…and they found it.
Of course, a business model like that meant that the bell above their door wasn’t chiming every minute.
Nicole took another swig of coffee and resumed her stance—elbows propped on the counter, hips jutted out behind her. She let out a long sigh and slung her head back.
It was going to be a really long day.
She was just about to reach for her mug again when a familiar silhouette passed the front window. Nicole tried to bring her head up and focus her eyes at the same time, but the simple move proved too much. Her head swirled, and her eyelids felt like they’d been coated in sandpaper.
Fortunately, she didn’t need her eyes to cooperate to recognize the silhouette of the white girl marching purposefully toward her door. A smile lifted Nicole’s lips. She’d know those wide hips and short legs anywhere.
“Emily,” Nicole called out as soon as the door swung open. She’d meant the greeting to be bright and cheery, but her voice snagged in her dry throat.
Emily Kaplan’s step relaxed the moment she was inside the bookstore. She took one look at Nicole, and a knowing smile pulled at her mouth.
“Late night?” she asked.
“That obvious?” Nicole cupped her hand around the small of her back to help her straighten up.
“Nah.” Emily shook her head slowly. “You’re pulling it off great.”
“Thanks,” Nicole said sarcastically.
“So, what happened?” Emily strode up to the counter. “Did the guy from upstairs that you’re always telling me about finally take you out?”
“I wish.” Even through the wicked pain pounding in her head, the mention of their new, sexy upstairs tenant was enough to bring a smile to Nicole’s face. “I still don’t think he knows I exist.”
“Then he’s an idiot, and not worth your attention.”
Nicole let out a laugh. “You only say that because you haven’t seen him.”
Or heard his gorgeously accented voice. Or stood in his presence for more than two seconds. The moment Emily did, she’d understand. Nicole was certain of that.
“Wow, you’ve really got it bad, don’t you?” Emily asked with a teasing twinkle in her eye.
“It’s just a crush,” Nicole said. A fantasy. A hot, sticky, dirty kind of fantasy that was never going to happen. So, she might as well stop talking about it. “But I’m guessing you didn’t come here to talk about my daydreams, did you?”
“I got a call that my order was in,” she said.
“It sure is.”
Nicole cupped her back again as she bent down to poke the code into the keypad of the modern electric safe where they kept the high-ticket customer orders. There was another, much older, safe by its side, recessed farther underneath the counter, but no one ever touched that one. At least not while there were customers in the shop.
A moment later, Nicole straightened up and delicately placed a cloth-wrapped book on the counter.
“One Wittenberg Grimoire. It took Pops a while to find it.” Nicole unfolded the white cotton covering and revealed a binding of dark, weather-worn leather. “And it wasn’t cheap.”
Emily nodded absently. Her attention was fixed on the book.
“As in, actually expensive,” Nicole added for emphasis.
Even that was putting it mildly. The book was old. Three hundred years old. Handwritten. Illustrated. It was the kind of treasure that would usually sell at an auction house, but her father had a knack for finding sellers that wanted to avoid public spectacles.
Most of their usual clientele, the more eccentric collectors especially, appreciated the service, but this was the first time Emily had ever taken advantage of it. She had no reason to before. She was an academic, a folklore professor at the University. She rarely ordered books, and certainly never anything in this price range.
“Don’t worry,” Emily said. A smile cracked her lips as she tore her gaze away from the cover. “I’m not the one signing the check.”
“The University is acquiring it?” Nicole asked. It wasn’t unheard of. Every now and again she would get a call to see if they could track down some rare volume for a public collection, but those requests involved a lot of extra verification and paperwork. Administrative headaches that put her simple hangover to shame.
Emily shook her head. “Private collector.”
Nicole’s brows rose. “You’re moonlighting as a middleman now?”
Emily shrugged and pulled a pair of white gloves out of her pocket. She didn’t take her gaze off the book as she carefully pulled the gloves over each of her fingers.
“When did that happen?” Nicole asked.
“A couple of months ago,” she answered. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to make it in this city on an assistant professor’s salary?”
Nicole wanted to laugh, but she feared the vibrations would only make the pounding in her head worse. “She asks a grown woman who still lives with her parents.”
“Fair enough.” Emily gently pulled back the cover and took her first look inside the book.
“Does it pay well?” Nicole asked after a couple of silent seconds had ticked by.
A wry smile curled the corner of Emily’s lips. “Too well.”
“I didn’t know that was thing.” Not in San Francisco. Like Emily said, it took a damned fortune just to scrape by.
“Oh, it is.” Emily nodded her head as she carefully turned page after page of ancient invocations and meticulously drawn sigils. “It’s when you really don’t want the damned job, but you can’t walk away.”
“Well, you know,” Nicole said, her voice light and teasing as she leaned forward, and lazily dragged her fingertip in circles across the smooth countertop. “If the job is really that much of a pain, I could probably be persuaded to take some of the work off your hands.”
That got Emily’s attention. Her head snapped up. A hard look Nicole had never seen before shone in her friend’s eyes.
“No way,” she said.
“Wow. I was just joking.” Nicole chuckled as she straightened up. “Damn, this job must pay well if it’s turning you greedy.”
“That’s not it.” Emily let out a sigh. “God knows, I wish it was as simple as not wanting to share the cash.”
“Then what is it?” Nicole asked.
“It’s the people I’m working for.” All the traces of humor Emily had worn on her face when she’d walked into the store drained away as she spoke. “I don’t want anyone else getting caught up with them.”
“Wait. Exactly how bad is this person you’re working for?” Nicole cocked a brow.
“Don’t ask,” Emily said, turning her attention back to the book.
“Now, you know that’s not going to happen.” Nicole shook her head as gingerly as possible. It didn’t help. It still felt like her brain was crashing against the side of her skull, even at the slight movement. Still, her curiosity was stronger than any silly headache.
Emily didn’t lift her head, but she did dart her gaze Nicole’s way and shot her a sharp look. “You don’t want to know. Trust me.”
“You can’t even imagine.”
Nicole bit into her lip, trying to hold back another chuckle.
Her friend had no idea all the things she could imagine. Emily didn’t know her family’s secrets. All the ones they locked up in the special safe beneath the counter.
Never say a word about the safe or what’s inside. To anyone. Ever.
The memory of her grandfather’s voice rang out loud and clear, just like when she had been standing in this spot twenty years ago, and he had been standing beside her.
What is inside, Grandpa?
A book. A very special book. One that no one can know about.
But why do we have it if we aren’t going to sell it?
Because the book was entrusted to our family a long time ago. It’s our job to keep it safe from those who want to misuse it.
Her seven-year-old eyes had gone wide with fear at the thought of criminals breaking their windows and trashing the bookcases, ruining her family’s beautiful store.
What should I do if someone does come for it?
Don’t worry about that. If that day ever comes, you’ll know what to do.
But how will I know, Grandpa?
The book will tell you.
Funny. Nicole hadn’t thought about that conversation in ages. Stranger still, that it was this conversation about Emily’s side hustle that had brought it back.
“So, what does this new mysterious benefactor of yours want with a book of three hundred year old black magic spells?” Nicole asked.
Emily’s gaze dipped back down to the page. “You know, typical rich guy stuff. Put it behind some glass. Brag about it to his neighbors.”
Nicole pressed her lips together. She didn’t have to be a mind reader to know that her friend was lying. Guilt and worry was written all over her face. Something else was going on here. Something that had the hair on the back of Nicole’s neck standing on end.
She crossed her arms, ready to call her friend out for bullshitting her, when the sight of two men standing outside the store froze the words on her tongue.
Both men were tall, though the guy on the right might be better described as a giant. He loomed over the man at his side by a full head, but he was also ridiculously broad at the shoulders. And apparently, he had no trouble showing off since the fitted, black tank he was wearing showed every well-sculpted muscle in his arms and chest.
Most guys would fade into the background standing next to a demigod like that, but not the blond man on the right. He didn’t have any trouble holding his own. Sure, he might have been a little shorter—coming in around six-foot-one, if Nicole had to guess—but there was an intensity in his shadowed gaze and chiseled features that commanded attention.
They were standing side by side, staring in to the store. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. Sure, they might be looking in through the window, but they weren’t paying attention to her or anything on the shelves. The big guy’s eyes were glued to Emily, while the intense blond’s gaze was fixed on the book in her hands.
“I don’t know, Em,” Nicole said, tilting her head toward the window. “They sure don’t look like typical rich guys to me.”
Emily turned around, and let out a groan. “Damn it. I thought I’d shaken them. I should have known better.”
“Is that the guy you’re working for?” Nicole asked. “The blond in the suit?”
“More or less.”
“And the big guy?”
“He’s just a pain in the ass.” Emily raked both hands through her hair.
Nicole didn’t doubt that for a second. Even standing outside both men gave off an aura of danger that sent a shiver of warning through Nicole’s whole body.
“Tell me again why they want the grimoire,” she said.
The moment the words were out of her mouth, the blond snapped his gaze up at Nicole’s face, almost as if he’d heard her. More warning bells sounded.
Nicole tried to swallow down past a quickly growing lump in her throat as the man and his giant strode toward the shop’s door, but her mouth was still too dry.
“Is everything all right, Emily?” the blond asked.
Goosebumps sprung up along Nicole’s arms at the man’s voice. She’d heard that accent before. That exotic, unplaceable accent that sometimes found its way into her dreams. There was only one other person who sounded like that when he spoke.
“Everything’s fine,” Emily said, her annoyance coming through loud and clear. No matter how dangerous she thought these men were it was obvious that she wasn’t scared of them. “I thought we’d agreed that you’d stay outside.”
“And I thought you’d agreed not to lose us in a crowd,” the man said.
Emily tossed her head as she turned back toward Nicole. “I don’t remember promising that.”
The blond glowered at her back as the giant stepped forward.
“How can I protect you if you if you leave my side?” the giant asked.
Nicole’s breath caught again. His accent was the same as the blond’s. The same as…
“Why does she need protection?” The question rushed out of Nicole’s mouth before she could stop it.
Both men stared at her. Unlike Emily, their intimidating stares worked just fine on her. She grabbed on to the edge of the counter as her knees started to shake…but she didn’t back down.
“Well?” she said, looking to Emily for answers since it seemed she wasn’t going to get them from the strange men in her shop.
Nicole shrugged. “I literally have all day.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Nicole dropped her voice down to whisper. “And I don’t want to worry about you walking around with these two.”
“You have nothing to worry about,” the big guy said. “As long as Emily stays by my side, I swear I won’t allow anything to happen to her.”
Okay… That wasn’t exactly the reassurance Nicole was looking for. Going by the tight look on Emily’s face, it wasn’t exactly what she wanted to hear either.
“Maybe we should just pay for the book and get out of your hair,” she said.
“Not yet,” the blond said, stepping forward. “I want to take a look at the grimoire first to make sure that it’s legitimate.”
“Excuse me?” Nicole mashed her lips together, not caring if her resentment showed.
Emily shot her an apologetic look. “See, Geoffrey, this is why I tried to ditch you. I knew the second you saw the grimoire, you’d start acting like this.”
“Like a power-hungry ass,” she said. “I already told you the Starlings don’t sell fakes.”
He ignored her and pulled the book toward him. “I want to see for myself.”
“See what?” A familiar voice rang out from the side door.
Nicole’s heart started hammering in her chest before she turned toward the store’s side entrance. Even if she hadn’t recognized the voice, she still would have known who was standing there—the only person it could be.
The side entry led out to a narrow hallway with a door and a staircase. That was it. The door led out to the street and the staircase led up to the apartment above the shop.
Which meant it was…
“Shay Madrid,” Emily said his name, her voice filled to the brim with annoyance. “Did you follow me to check on the authenticity of the grimoire too?”
Wait. She knew Shay?
Emily knew Shay? Their new tenant? The gorgeous, mysterious man with the tousled black hair, the heavy brows, and the lips more full and soft-looking than any man’s had a right to be? She knew him?
Of course she did.
It all made sense.
Shay spoke with the same strangely alluring accent as Emily’s employers. That meant they came from the same place. They all knew each other, like some kind of obscure, exotic mafia.
Damn. She really knew how to pick ‘em.
“No,” he said, his deep, melodic voice drifted over and practically wrapped around her. “I already know what you said is true. The Starling family doesn’t deal in lies.”
Even if Shay turned out to be a thug, at least he wasn’t a liar. Nicole shot the blond her best I told you so look.
He didn’t pay her the slightest bit of attention.
“Then why are you here?” Emily asked.
“I live here,” he said. “In the apartment above the bookstore. I could hear you talking through the floorboards”
Given what she and Emily had been talking about earlier, she wondered just exactly how much he could hear.
Emily groaned again. “Why didn’t anyone tell me that? It would have been nice to kn—” Suddenly, she stopped cold. “Wait. You live here? You’re the new mysterious tenant who moved into the apartment upstairs?”
“I guess so.”
Emily shot Nicole a look. A sharp, pointed look that made all the blood in her body rush to her face. Nicole got the feeling Emily didn’t find Shay half as irresistible as she did.
“Well, guess what? You’re moving,” Emily said. “I don’t care if you have to move in with Geoffrey or even Fenrir, but you’re not staying here.”
Shay looked amused. “Why’s that?”
“Because the Starlings are my friends.”
Shay narrowed his eyes. His voice dropped down even lower. “And you think that I’d hurt them?”
“You might not mean to,” Emily said, her gaze darting back to Nicole. “But yes.”
Shay’s demeanor changed in an instant. He lifted his chin and straightened his back.
“That’s not going to happen.” His voice was hard. The look he gave Emily was even harder.
Emily didn’t appear cowed. “We’ll talk about this later. You know, while we’re moving you into your new place.”
Shay didn’t say anything. He just let the back of his head fall against the door frame behind him and stared straight ahead, his focus far away from Nicole.
Just like it always was.
She told herself that was just fine. The last thing she needed to do right now was look deep into his eyes. She’d only done that once before, on the day he moved in, and she still hadn’t gotten over it.
How could she? The man’s eyes glistened—actually glistened—dark and deep, like the surface of a fathomless lake on a star-filled night, and…
See, when it came to Shay Madrid it was way too easy to get carried away.
That was because it didn’t matter what color his eyes were, or how perfect his hair or body was. What really attracted her to him was the energy that poured off him. He practically radiated confidence and control…and something else.
Something dark and mysterious.
Something that made all Nicole’s bells ring and whistles blow and imagination light up like a firecracker.
Deep down, she’d always known he was no good for her. She always figured it was because he was so far out of her league. Sure, Nicole knew she was cute, in a bookish, nerdy kind of way. But Shay…he was something else entirely.
Of course, now that she knew that something else was dangerous—if not downright criminal—she should probably be happy that he never paid her much attention.
The only problem was knowing you should probably feel something and feeling it were two very different things.
“Let’s just finish buying the grimoire, and leave,” Emily said.
“I’m not done examining it,” Geoffrey said. “There are languages and symbols here that I’ve never seen before.”
“That’s to be expected,” Nicole said, trying to gain back even a shred of professional dignity. “These books were transcribed by hand in Germany three hundred years ago. There’s bound to be some variation in the texts.”
“I’m well acquainted with how grimoires are created, Miss Starling,” he said, condescension practically dripping off his tongue.
Maybe it was her hangover, or the tension in the room, or the worry she had over the people Emily had fallen in with, but the last of her patience snapped.
“Maybe you know how they were made, Geoffrey,” she said, “but you obviously don’t know a damned thing about what’s inside them.” She swiveled the book around on the counter so it faced her, and jabbed her finger down on the page in front of her.
“That is the Sigil of Opheil.” She slid her finger down the page. “That is the Stele of Asmodeus.” Then she swung it over to the other side. “And that is the Seal of Soteria written in ancient Greek which reads, Let the evils of the Light Ones be drowned in Darkness.”
Nicole looked up to find Geoffrey staring at her. This time there wasn’t even a hint of superiority on his face. Just wonder…not to mention a good amount of concern.
Actually, everyone in the room was looking at her the same way.
Even Shay Madrid.
Maybe she’d gone a little overboard.
“Nicole,” Emily said, her voice thin and more than a little frightened. “Your hand.”
Nicole looked down and saw a tiny arc of electricity emanating from the tip of her finger down to the ink of the seal on the page.
She balled her hand into a fist and snatched it away. The spark dissipated immediately.
A tense silence filled the store. The air practically crackled with energy. An energy that Nicole had never felt before, but that she instantly knew.
She was just about to open her mouth to try some explanation—static electricity maybe, or the dangers of old, unshielded wires—when a strange swirling wind started up in a far corner of the store. A moment later a faint blue light started to glow a few feet above the floor. With every gust it grew larger.
Nicole gasped. What the hell?
Before she could ask the question out loud, a strong hand spread across her back and pushed her all the way down to the floorboards.
“Stay down, Nicole,” a voice commanded her. Shay’s voice. “Stay quiet, and stay still. No matter what you hear or see. Do as I say, and you’ll live.”
She turned her head and saw him towering above her. His expression and his posture were both hard as stone. He glanced down at her, and Nicole’s mouth fell open. Her tongue felt dry as the air filling her lungs rushed past it. But it wasn’t his words or even the force behind them that froze her in awe.
It was his eyes.
The color of Shay’s irises had changed. They were no longer dark pools. Now swirls of floating embers rose up from the depths of his eyes. They glowed and danced as if emanating from some unseen fire. Even though Nicole only caught a glance, it was enough to make her gasp out loud.
What the hell was going on?
Whatever it was it wasn’t a joke. That much was clear. And if it wasn’t a prank and it wasn’t a dream, then she had a terrible feeling she knew what it was.
Black sparks that poured from her fingers when she said ancient words. Intimidating men who spoke in strange voices. A gorgeous creature with actual fire in his eyes.
These people weren’t here for some antique book. They were looking for magic.