Dancing in the Flame
By Ann Gimpel
Publisher: Liquid Silver Books
Release Date: 4/22/13
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Life in a Were bordello is all Keira has ever known. Because of her mixed blood, none of the magicians’ guilds wanted her, or protested when the Weres bound her as an indentured hooker. Mired in the hopelessness of her dreams, she longs for more.
Barrett, one of the Daoine Sidhe, runs a magician supply shop in what’s left of Seattle. No one is more surprised than he when the Sidhe leader commands him to extricate Keira from the Weres.
Magic and intrigue throw Keira and Barrett into one another’s arms. Convinced they have a job to do, they struggle against the heat of the passion between them. Until it gets way too hot to handle.
Barrett bent over, hands on his knees. His limbs were heavy, weighted with weariness. Even the mud-streaked asphalt looked tolerable as a place to lie down, assuming he found some cover. He strengthened the magic surrounding him and sucked air. The goddamned humans and their atomic weapons had poisoned the atmosphere. It would probably hasten the end of the war, but at what price? His gaze swept over an uninterrupted vista of gray. The sky, clouds, remaining buildings, and ground were the same depressing color. He didn’t have to try very hard to hear the Earth cry and curse her guardians, the Sidhe, for doing such a piss poor job of protecting her.
“The weres, druids, and witches are ready to talk. The fairies agreed to moderate.” A familiar voice sounded from behind him.
“Hmph. Nice of them to consent to parlay while there’s still something left to salvage.” Barrett straightened and turned to face Caelin. With the Daoine Sidhe queen long dead, he was their de facto leader. All the other Sidhe answered to the Daoine, so Caelin was responsible for thousands of them. Too bad he hadn’t thought of that before dragging them into the war…
Tall and wraith-thin Caelin looked about as trashed as Barrett felt. His shoulders sagged. Bright red hair had escaped his warrior braids and hung to his waist in tangles. His battle leathers drooped in tattered shreds. Bits of grit, leaves, and dirt mingled with everything. His sharp-boned face was streaked with grime. The only part of him which looked the same was his eyes: a deep, dark blue.
“Isn’t it, though?” Caelin’s customary sarcasm rang through. He spread his arms wide. “That last atomic blast decided things.”
“Maybe it’s for the best.” Barrett met Caelin’s gaze. “We’ve been fighting for close to ten years. If the humans hadn’t felt threatened and pulled out all the stops, this might have turned into a hundred year war—if any of us lived that long.”
Caelin snorted. “We coexisted with those bastards for thousands of years. The minute they got a whiff they weren’t the only ones on the planet, they overreacted.”
A corner of Barrett’s mouth twisted wryly. “You have to admit magic can be a bit off-putting for humans.”
“Well, they’ve fucked themselves. There won’t be very many left once the atomic dust settles.”
Barrett quirked a brow at his leader. “To borrow from your vernacular, they’ve managed to fuck us, too, by dying. We’re going to have to figure out how to keep things running without them.”
“Point taken. Be sure to toss it on the table when we draw up a Covenant with the other magic wielders.” Caelin shook his head. “Despite all our efforts, there are more weres left than any of the rest of us—”
“Only because they breed like rabbits.”
Caelin waved him to silence. “Be that as it may, we must secure their cooperation. Otherwise, our numbers are too small to maintain any semblance of civilization. There’s electricity, water, the Internet, the cellular system, and food.” He ticked them off on his fingers as he talked. “It’s fortunate enough structures are still standing to house most of those left.”
“Where and when is this meeting scheduled?” Barrett hoped he could catch a few hours of sleep. He’d been up for the better part of the last two days.
“It’s now. In the Opera House, since it’s mostly intact. Walk with me.” Caelin set off at a moderate pace.
Barrett caught up to him. His muscles ached. A headache pounded behind one eye. Normally, he would have used magic to ease both, but he was seriously depleted. What little remained of his power was focused on filtering the air before it entered his lungs. “I still wish—”
“Don’t say it. Even in my worn-out state I have enough magic left to read your thoughts.” Caelin’s jaw set in a hard line Barrett recognized only too well. The Daoine Sidhe leader had never liked being questioned, nor was he open to discussion about his decisions.
Fine. Read my thoughts then. You can pretend they don’t exist, but we both know differently. The loss of their queen, Ivanne, had heated the rift between weres and the Sidhe to a boiling point and proven disastrous. She’d been a skilled mediator, navigating difficult political waters with grace and skill. Caelin was a warrior. He saw the world in black and white. Convinced the weres had murdered Ivanne, he’d convened the Council, dominated it with his anger, and led the Sidhe to war. At first it was just Sidhe against weres. Then witches and druids jumped into the fray, some on one side, some on the other. The only magical beings who’d remained neutral were the fae and the fairies.
“The weres poisoned Ivanne. Her death demanded retribution.” The harsh gravel of Caelin’s voice broke into Barrett’s thoughts.
“That may be true.” Barrett grabbed Caelin’s upper arm and forced the other man to a standstill. “War never solved anything. Not in human history, or in ours, either.” He swung an arm wide. “Look. Just look what a mess we’ve made. It will take decades for Earth to recover, if she ever does. Deep within my soul, she reprimands me over and over for our part in the destruction.”
A sheepish look flitted across Caelin’s face. He ran a hand down it, distorting his features. “Glad I’m not the only one she nags.”
A brittle anger filled Barrett, setting his guts on fire. “We deserve to be nagged. More than nagged, we deserve to be chastised—”
“It’s not like I did this singlehandedly.” Caelin sounded defensive. “The weres could have capitulated anytime.”
Barrett let go of Caelin’s arm. He pounded a fist into his open palm. “Damn it! You know better. Weres never apologize. They’re constitutionally incapable of admitting they were wrong about anything. It’s their dual natures. The animal side takes over and—”
“Spare me.” Caelin’s hands settled on Barrett’s shoulders. Fingers dug in hard enough to make him wince. “If I made a mistake avenging Ivanne, it is water long passed under the bridge. Think, man. That was ten years ago. We must play the ball where it is today. There’s little enough of our royalty left. Here in the Americas, it is you and me. I must have you standing solidly beside me. The weres will sniff it out soon enough if we are not aligned with one another.”
Barrett blew out a breath. Annoyance scoured his nerves. He hated to admit it, but Caelin was right. If the war was finally over, the next task would be crafting a Covenant with terms advantageous to all Sidhe, not just the Daoine. And making certain it enlisted everyone’s aid healing the damage done to Earth.
He ducked from beneath Caelin’s hands, squared his shoulders, and swept straggling copper-colored hair out of his face. “You need have no fears on that front. You have always had my allegiance and support.” Of a height with Caelin, Barrett locked gazes with him. “You are a brilliant tactician. And a fearless warrior. I only wish you had a bit more in the way of warmth and compassion to temper things.”
A wry grin split Caelin’s face. He didn’t smile often. The effect was electrifying, bringing all his latent beauty to the forefront. He punched Barrett lightly. “I wish for a lot of things, too. Problem is I rarely get any of them.” He inclined his head in a mock bow. “After you.”
Eleven Years Later
Keira opened a door in the were bordello where she lived and worked and peeked out into the long hallway spanning the first floor of the building. Empty. Good. It was the middle of the afternoon, always a slow time. Her last customer had just left. Maybe, if she snuck out the rear door, she could claim a few hours of freedom. She ducked back into the room she shared with one of the other indentured hookers, donned a cloak and boots, and walked down the hall, making as little noise as possible.
The air was crisper than she’d expected as she eased the door shut behind her. Keira wrapped her arms around herself, wishing she’d brought a warmer coat. Most of her working clothes were wispy and suggestive. At least she’d been smart enough to put on tattered jeans, a moth-eaten sweater, and her favorite black cloak. For once it wasn’t raining. A pallid sun hung midway to the western horizon, bathing what were once busy urban streets with sallow light.
Keira emptied her mind, trying not to feel she was playing hooky. It wasn’t as if the weres kept her prisoner… She glanced at her left arm. Under the sweater and cape, she could have sworn the indenture bracelet spanning her upper arm tightened. Who am I trying to kid? They can find me anytime they want.
She walked briskly through Seattle’s Queen Anne district. Keira had the streets to herself today, but then she usually did. Good thing, too. Those like her, mixed-blood magic wielders with minimal power, were at pretty much everyone else’s mercy. Bottom of the New World totem pole.
Her gaze swept over urban rot. Keira grimaced. Buildings still stood, some of them, anyway. But most of the glass had been rocked out. Piles of trash blocked the roadways. Cars were a thing of the past. Out-of-control garbage had obliterated the sidewalks long ago. Paths wound through it, carved by varieties of magic wielders and prowling beasts. She made a point of ignoring what was underfoot. Most of it was too gross to even consider. It was a damned shame so many humans had been wiped out during the war. They’d taken care of things like that.
She pretended to consider what to do with her freedom, knowing her deliberations were a sham. She’d do the same thing she always did: head for Barrett’s magician’s shop. Housed in a cavernous Victorian on lower Capitol Hill, it was only about an hour’s walk from the were bordello. With its dark wood furniture, Oriental carpets, and overflowing shelves, the shop exuded a homey atmosphere which was irresistible.
Face it. The thing which makes it so enticing is Barrett. Keira smiled to herself as she pictured the tall, broad-shouldered Daoine Sidhe with his thick, coppery hair and pale blue eyes. Beyond his obvious beauty, though, he seemed kind. Not that she’d ever exchanged more than a few words with him, but he had laugh lines in the corners of his eyes and she’d watched him interact with other customers. He was always helpful, doing that little bit extra to assist someone find something. There was still bad blood among magic wielders, but not in Barrett’s shop. Everyone was granted equal status there. Never mind Daoine Sidhe magic was far more powerful than were, fae, or witch. Druid magic barely counted; it was nearly as feeble as hers.
The first time she’d stumbled into Barrett’s shop, it was by accident. She’d gotten into a big blow up with Simon, one of the staff at Were Calls, for refusing to service a customer in his animal form. Simon slapped her, which was a big no-no; punishment was supposed to be delivered through her bracelet per the terms of her indenture.
Keira had never seen Simon quite so angry. She didn’t wait around to see what he would do next. Despite being in her hooker garb, including high heels, she’d raced out the door and ran until her arches ached. It hadn’t helped when the skies opened and it began to pour. Not knowing what else to do—because she was not going back to Were Calls until things cooled down or they zapped her through the bracelet—she’d opened her magic senses. They’d led her straight to Barrett’s shop. It was only a couple of blocks from where she’d stopped.
Keira had pushed the heavy, carved wooden door open, ready to bolt if anyone so much as looked cross-eyed at her. No one did. The shop smelled heavenly. Herbs. Lots of them. They hung in bundles from a raised walkway, ten feet off the ground, which accessed a partial second story. Feeling a bit braver, she let her gaze roam the large room, crowded with shelves. No one paid her the slightest attention, which was amazing since all the other patrons were garbed in cloaks and coats. She glanced at her low-cut top, barely-there micro mini, and high heeled boots and winced. Her top didn’t leave much to the imagination since it was half-soaked through. Because she was cold, her nipples had pebbled into suggestive peaks.
Embarrassed, she’d skittered behind a bank of shelves and worked her way around the outside wall of the shop, appreciating being out of the weather. Her eyes widened at the variety of wares for sale. She lingered over things she couldn’t identify and hustled past things she wanted but could never afford. Along the way, she pulled a tiny bit of magic to help dry her clothes.
Keira recalled hearing the weres talk about Barrett’s shop. It was the only place left which still sold magician’s accoutrements and supplies. Three-quarters of the way through her transit of the shop, a musical baritone voice caught her attention. She stopped and looked for its owner. He stood behind the counter, wrapping a package and counting out change. Because he was occupied, it seemed safe to let her gaze linger on him. What a beautiful man. When he patted a witch’s hand before handing her the packet he’d wrapped, Keira wondered what those hands would feel like on her. The shop suddenly felt much warmer. She bit back a laugh. Sex was plentiful in her life, no reason to moon over a man. Several would be waiting for her back at Were Calls.
She’d just decided to edge a bit closer to the counter, drawn by the Daoine Sidhe’s magnetism, when the bracelet on her arm tightened. Keira ignored it, but it only tightened more. She knew how the game worked. The weres tracked her with electronics. Once she headed for Were Calls, the bracelet would leave her alone—as long as she kept moving. If she stopped for too long once they’d warned her, the next event would be a shock.
Keira scuttled out of Barrett’s store that day, but she hadn’t stayed gone long. Every time she left the bordello, it was where she ended up. She spun fantasies about what it would be like if she were free and could offer to work for Barrett. Just the thought of being close to him for long hours each day made her heart speed up…
Don’t be foolish, she chided herself as she reached the now-familiar door and pushed her way into the magic shop. He’s Daoine Sidhe. He’d never be interested in a mixed blood like me. She walked to a locked case with crystals and gazed at them. A beautiful rose quartz one she’d lusted over was gone. Damn! She’d been working up her courage to ask if she could hold it in her hand to feel its energy.
Keira never bought anything; she didn’t have the money. She’d felt apologetic her first few visits, but now she’d been there so many times, she felt confident Barrett wasn’t going to throw her out.
“Can I help you find something?”
Keira froze. It was him. She’d know Barrett’s voice anywhere. She heard it in her dreams and sometimes she imagined one of her johns was him. In her imagination, he crooned to her in that wonderful voice and…
He tapped her shoulder. “Miss. May I help you?”
Keira spun to face him. Her face heated and she knew she had spots of color high on both cheeks. “Uh, no. I’m just looking.” Responding to something, maybe a small spell, maybe just an invitation in those wonderful ice-blue eyes, she stammered on, “The rose quartz crystal—”
“I sold it. Just yesterday. It was one of my favorites as well. If you’re interested, I should be getting a new shipment soon, but the crystals are all unique. If there’s one you like, just let me know and I can see if it pairs well with your energy.”
“I, um, you see, I can’t really afford anything like that. I just like to look.”
“It’s okay. I get lots of lookers here.” Barrett smiled at her. Gazed into her eyes and smiled right at her. Keira’s heart stuttered. She opened her mouth and closed it again when words wouldn’t come. Unable to help herself, she took a step toward him and stumbled.
He reached a hand and placed it under her elbow to steady her. “Got you.”
An electric shock ran up her arm. Her breathing quickened. You don’t know the half of it. You’ve more than got me. Heart thudding, throat dry, she smiled, managed to murmur, “thank you,” and scuttled toward the door before she did something stupid like throw herself at his feet and beg him to take her. Here. Now. On the floor in front of everyone.
Barrett gazed after the fleeing girl. His cock pressed against the front of his worn breeches, as hard as it ever got. It throbbed hotly, urging him to go after her, run her down, drag her back to his bed, and… He shook his head. What had gotten into him? He was well beyond the age where he let his cock lead him around.
The girl was unbelievably beautiful. Her blonde hair was so long it reached her ass. She had an arresting face with high cheekbones, lush lips, and silver eyes. He’d thought only his own race had eyes that color. They were rare even amongst the Daoine Sidhe. But the ache in his groin went beyond her beauty. There was something about her, a purity of spirit which called to him. When he tried to sense her magic to see just what she was, he’d run up against a wall. Almost as if she were warded. It wasn’t something she was doing on purpose, though. If it were, he’d have seen it in her mind. No, it was more like a magical barrier surrounded her.
He usually didn’t pay any attention to the hordes of customers frequenting his shop. After all, it was the only one of its kind left. He expected it to be full to overflowing with patrons. He’d noticed the girl, though, the very first time she’d snuck in. Wet to the bone, her full breasts, tipped with wonderfully erect nipples, had been fully visible through the thin fabric of her top. She’d taken to the outer wall and worked her way around the shop that day. Curious about her, he’d spun a mild compulsion spell to reel her in closer. He still didn’t know what happened. She’d been moving toward him when something shifted and she’d scampered out of his shop like the dogs of hell were nipping at her heels.
Sort of like she did today. He chuckled, not caring that a pair of witches eyed him oddly. He’d spoken with the girl a few times, but today’s conversation was by far and away the longest. Though he liked to see himself as immune to women, this one frequented his dreams. He often woke with his hand pumping his shaft as he fantasized about the girl with no name. In his favorite vision, she was astride him, firm breasts pressed against his chest and long, blonde hair tickling his naked flesh.
Determined to at least find out where she lived before her trail grew cold, he glanced about the store. Too many customers to get rid of. He strode to Baen, a witch who’d fought on their side during the war. “Could you watch the register for me? Sorry, but it’s a bit of an emergency. I won’t be gone more than an hour or two.”
She raised perfectly formed red brows in her ageless, porcelain-skinned face. “For you. Of course,” she purred.
“Thanks.” Barrett kicked himself. He’d forgotten Baen had been trying to worm her way into his bed for a couple of years. Then he stopped thinking and sprinted out the door. Barrett threw his magic senses wide open, searching. He blew out a relieved sigh. There she was. Her track would be easy to follow. He’d been afraid the same magic which cloaked what she was would hide her trail as well.
He warded himself so his power wouldn’t tip her off and followed her back to Were Calls. She’s a hooker. From his vantage point behind some stacks of trash, Barrett was incredulous. How did the weres ever get someone that gorgeous to trick for them? And then things fell into place. She had to be indentured. It was why he couldn’t get close enough with magic to sense what she was. The weres must have some sort of microelectronic harness on her. He’d heard about them from the fairies who generated most electronic devices these days.
An indefinable sadness tugged at him. He felt the heaviness in the pit of his stomach. Barrett waited until the door shut. He’d heard a man shouting at the girl from where he was, all the way across the street. It was a struggle not to go pound on the door, tell them he’d buy her bond, and be done with it. Even if she didn’t want him, at least she’d be free…
Barrett took a deep breath and then one more. Get back to the shop, he instructed himself sharply. The last thing I need is emotional entanglements. So he wouldn’t be tempted to change his mind, he pulled magic, visualized his shop, and left in a hurry.
At least the girl wasn’t a mystery anymore. It explained why she’d been so tentative in his shop. He was surprised the weres let their property roam about freely, but then he remembered the Covenant. Even the indentured had some rights. Weres had been the only ones who wanted indentured servants. The others had argued vehemently against them. Especially the fairies. In the end, other magic wielders had capitulated because the weres were ready to walk; they weren’t signing anything which didn’t let them keep their servant pets.
Barrett stood in front of his shop for a few moments composing himself. Now that he knew more, he’d have a better chance of approaching the girl next time she came to his shop. I thought I didn’t need any emotional tangles, an inner voice mocked him. Barrett ignored it. He nodded to himself. He was certain she’d show up again. Something about his shop drew her. Maybe it was an antidote to the life she led. He pushed open the door and went inside.
“There you are,” Baen cooed and placed a hand familiarly on his arm.
“Yes.” He forced himself to smile brightly. “Thank you so much. Here.” He broke away from her grip. “Let me pay you.”
“Not necessary. Maybe I could stay for a bit after you close—” She leered suggestively and licked full, red lips.
Barrett blew out a breath. “I’m flattered, but no. I do not want you in my bed.”
Her eyes widened. “I-I’m not sure where you got that idea,” she sputtered, color staining her face.
“Because I’m very good at reading body language. And minds. Thanks for watching the shop. Now, if it’s all the same to you, I’d just as soon end this conversation.”
Her lips drew back into a snarl. Magic spooled so hot it turned the air incandescent. Barrett steeled himself, sure she was going to launch herself at him and go for his eyes. Instead, she spun on her heel and strode toward the door, hips swinging as if to say, see what you missed, buddy.
Barrett blew out a tired breath and settled himself in his customary seat behind the counter. He hoped there wouldn’t be any repercussions from the witches because Baen was angry. From long habit, his gaze scanned the shop, alert for any sign of trouble. Today everyone seemed to be getting along. He shut his eyes. The girl materialized in the darkness, silver eyes aglow.
Tomorrow, he promised himself. Tomorrow, I’ll at least find out her name.
About the Author
Ann Gimpel is a clinical psychologist, with a Jungian bent. Avocations include mountaineering, skiing, wilderness photography and, of course, writing. A lifelong aficionado of the unusual, she began writing speculative fiction a few years ago. Since then her short fiction has appeared in a number of webzines and anthologies. Several paranormal romance novellas are available in e-format. Three novels, Psyche’s Prophecy, Psyche’s Search, and Psyche's Promise are small press publications available in e-format and paperback. Look for two more urban fantasy novels coming this summer and fall: Fortune’s Scion and Earth’s Requiem.
A husband, grown children, grandchildren and three wolf hybrids round out her family.
@AnnGimpel (for Twitter)