Bestseller Melanie Rawn plunges down the back stairs of the old South into a dark world of family secrets and the international flesh trade that lies underneath the surface of small town politics and romance.
Holly McClure and Evan Lachlan have survived the fiery beginning of their romance and left Manhattan for Holly's ancestral home to raise their children. Evan's the county Sheriff; Holly is still a trouble-making Spellbinder trying to manipulate her family as if they were characters in one of her novels.
But something's not right in Pocahontas County. Churches are being burned down in mysterious arsons with a taint of magic on them. Sheriff Lachlan suspects that they have something to do with the new owners of the old Westmoreland plantation, now a very upscale Inn, but even if he could find proof, it's going to be hard to bring a case of Black Magic before a Judge -- even in Pocahontas County, where witchcraft is the family business of all the oldest clans.
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About the Author
Melanie Rawn is the author of Spellbinder, The Ruins of Ambrai, and The Mageborn Traitor. Rawn lives in Flagstaff, Arizona.
MELANIE RAWN is the three-time Locus Award–nominated author of the bestselling Dragon Prince trilogy, the Dragon Star trilogy, and the Glass Thorns trilogy, including Touchstone, Elsewhens, and Thornlost. She graduated from Scripps College with a BA in history and has worked as a teacher and editor. Rawn lives in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Read an Excerpt
September 3 , 2006
The water in the bucket was meant for the tomatoes. As it cascaded instead over the tousled head and shirtless torso of her husband, Holly felt her knees wobble. She’d been watching him from the parlor window for a few minutes now, still amused after two and a half years that her city boy had taken so enthusiastically to life in the Virginia sticks. The vegetable garden had been all his idea. Tomatoes, squash, onions, corn, peas, and four varieties of chili peppers received his intense devotion every evening when he got home; on Sundays like this one he spent hours out back, babying anything that needed extra attention.
Yep—scratch an Irishman, find a peasant. She grinned to herself. He made quite the bucolic picture in the noonday heat: six feet four inches of summer-tanned Pocahontas County sheriff, wearing frayed old cutoffs and a pair of sneakers, with a battered Yankees cap pulled low over his forehead to keep the sun from scorching his nose. All he lacked was a thin stalk of hay sticking out from between his teeth.
When he took off the cap and stretched wide, her laughter faded; when he reached for the water bucket, the shift of muscle in strong arms and long back brought a little whimper to her throat. Now, with water gliding down his chest and belly, heat curled low in her abdomen and she leaned a little more heavily on the windowsill in deference to her shaky knees.
After a moment she unlatched the screen, pushed it open, and called out, "Hey, farmboy!"
Evan squinted, using both hands to rake back the wet hair dripping into his eyes. The gesture flexed chest, arms, and shoulders to noteworthy effect; he knew it, too, damn him. The grin he gave her made him look half his forty-two years. Holly gulped.
"Don’t you think it’s time you took a breather?" Breathing was exactly what she wasn’t doing very well just now.
"Sounds mighty nice, ma’am," he drawled in his atrocious version of her native accent. "Pardon for askin’, but y’all wouldn’t happen to be one of them desperate house wives I hear tell about, would you?"
Yeah, he knew what he was doing, all right: knuckles propped just above the low-riding waistband, hips and head in a speculative tilt. Holly’s thoughts turned to pillage and plunder—and she’d do it right in the middle of the crookneck squash if she had to. As he showed off a few more moves with an artfully artless scratch to the small of his back, she pretended to consider his question. "Now that y’all mention it . . ." His answering grin was entirely too smug. So, resting one shoulder against the window frame, she folded her arms beneath her breasts. Instant cleavage. Fairly impressive cleavage, too; becoming the primary milk wagon for twins could do that.
His turn to gulp. But he recovered in a hurry—the rat bastard—and said, "Shucks, ma’am, kinda depends on how desperate we’re talkin’ here."
Holly repressed a sardonic snort. Evan Lachlan and hard to get were mutually exclusive terms. She hiked the skirt of her cotton sundress up her thighs, hitched herself sideways to sit in the window, and slung one bare leg over the ledge. Dangling her foot, scraping the soft dirt of a flower bed with her toes, she told herself that if the cleavage and the naked leg didn’t get him over here within the next thirty seconds, she would go with her original pillage-and-plunder plan, and the squash could damned well fend for itself. Evan cleared his throat and took a couple of involuntary steps toward her. She hid a smirk. Gotcha! "Y’all got any ideas, farmboy?"
"One or two," he allowed. The self-confident saunter was back, signaling a tweak in the balance of power. "I’m all sweaty and dirty, though." He rubbed one hand across his chest as if embarrassed by his scruffiness. "And there you are, all pretty and sweet. . . ."
She heard herself growl. She heard him chuckle. She came out of the window like a tackle going for a quarterback sack.
The crookneck squash never had a chance.
MUCH LATER, after a change of venue upstairs to their bedroom, Evan hummed low in his throat as Holly’s fingertips stroked his shoulder. His wife knew every one of his buttons and exactly how to push them; the thing was that she never pushed them in the same order. Systematic sequential insanity on a regular basis he could have handled, no sweat. But Holly was way too creative for that. He felt a corner of his mouth twitch, knowing how many husbands would give their left nut to have this problem, and tightened his arms around her.
"You have the most amazing skin," she mused drowsily, hand drifting down his chest. "Not a mark on you—"
He tried to catch her fingers before they reached the center of his breastbone. He wasn’t quick enough.
"—except for the scar that’s my fault."
Lachlan was quiet for a long moment, spreading his hand over Holly’s on his chest. He didn’t try to see her face; he knew she wouldn’t look at him. Not that he blamed her; his own mind seemed all bruises whenever he tried to think about that night. Finally, he murmured, "We don’t talk much about it, do we?"
"Three years this Hallowe’en."
"It wasn’t your fault. I know damned well I’ve said that before. I’ve got a scar. You didn’t put it there." He waited, but she wasn’t talking. "Holly, I’m alive because of—" Something occurred to him, and he drew away from her, turning onto his side. "Why am I still alive, anyhow?"
"Evan?" She met his gaze, frowning.
"I never did ask you why I’m still breathing. What you said about how if I ever raised a hand to you again, you’d kill me—"
"We avoid talking about that night, too," she muttered.
"At the Hyacinths," he persisted, "I didn’t just raise my hand to you. I put a gun to your chest."
He didn’t know whether he was more grateful or exasperated when she tried on a mile—not a very good fit—and said, "I thought you were supposed to have amnesia about all that. Or did you forget? To have amnesia, I mean—"
"Knock it off. You know what I’m talking about."
Relenting, she bit her lower lip, then said, "It wasn’t you."
"Part of it was."
"No. Whatever Noel called up, it took you—Evan, I watched it, I saw it come toward you and—and merge with you. But it wasn’t you that night—either of those nights."
"Is that what you’ve been telling yourself this whole time?"
"What have you been telling yourself?"
He lay back flat again and stared at the ceiling. "That I have to be careful. I always knew that. We’ve talked about my parents before. We both know I have a temper. If—"
"I have a temper, too."
"Ya think?" He smiled briefly, but didn’t look at her. "You don’t have a family history like mine. If I ever hit you—or one of the kids—"
"I know you’re sure, Holly. I can’t be. I can never be sure."
"What does that mean? That you’ll only stop tormenting yourself about it when you’re dead? Listen to me, a chuisle. The one time, you’d been drunk for a week and you were in martyr mode—"
"You really want to go there?" he asked softly.
"No." Holly took a deep breath. "The other time, you were loaded half out of your skull on that incense stuff to begin with, and then Noel’s little playmate came along. I saw it happen, and I was cold sober. You weren’t. Not either of those times. Do you remember anything about what happened?"
"Some. Not much." He considered for a moment. "I never knew the flowers on my mother’s dress were hyacinths, that day I saw her with the priest. That’s what I saw, all those goddamned purple flowers—only it was you wearing the dress. How did Noel do that? What did he tap into?"
"I don’t know. That’s all the answer I’ve got, Éimhín." Shifting against him, she went on, "We’ve both had nightmares about it."
"Yeah. I can always tell, because those are the ones you won’t talk about."
"And who does this remind us of? My point is that I actually remember both those nights, and you don’t, so you’re just gonna have to trust me on this, husband mine."
"I am, huh?" He turned his head and eyed her grimly determined face. "Does that mean you’re gonna have to trust me about the scar? That it wasn’t your fault?"
"Oh, clever man!" she snarled—but her heart wasn’t really in it. "Got me that time, didn’t you?" "Yep," he agreed, unrepentant. Holly sulked for a moment, then settled into his arms once more. "It still doesn’t negate the fact that we’ve never discussed either of those nights in any detail." "I don’t think we want to go there, either." "Just be glad we survived it, and move on?" she suggested. "It’s worked so far." She kissed his throat by way of apology. "I can’t help it. I analyze." "And you’re only turning analytical about us because you’re not writing a book right now." She groaned elaborately. "Don’t remind me." "You’ll find something. You gotta admit you’ve been a little busy."
Time for a change of subject, he told himself. "Speaking of the offspring, are you sure Lulah’s okay with us stashing them with her all afternoon?"
"That gawdawful politicking party. I’d forgotten."
His grimace gained him no sympathy. "Democracy in action, Sheriff honey."
"I’m still not clear on why I actually have to run for office. Your family—in all its permutations—pretty much runs Pocahontas County, doesn’t it?"
"For the last three and a half centuries," she confirmed.
"So—?" he prompted.
"Cousin Jesse was duly elected every four years. You’re an interim
appointment so he could retire—and, not incidentally, give folks a chance to get to know you and what a staggeringly brilliant law enforcement officer you are. But you still have to be elected."
"And again I ask: why?" "And again I reply: democracy in action. Labor Day is the traditional start of the campaigning season—something I wish anybody running for
president would remember," she added crossly. "They seem to think everybody in this country really, truly wants to spend two solid years listening to them yammer."
"I’m no politician," he groused. "I don’t do the grip-and-grin thing."
"It’s free food and free booze. You’ll live."
"Can’t we just skip it? That place makes me twitchy. Don’t tell me I’m being weird—Lulah doesn’t like it, either, and for reasons other than you’d think."
Many and many a year ago, Lulah McClure and Jesse McNichol had cleaned out a houseful of neo-Nazis who had taken over the old Neville mansion. The magical decontamination had taken many days and enough spells to fill a fair- sized grimoire. They hadn’t known about Holly back then; unaware that she was a Spellbinder, and that her blood would seal any Work they did, they’d had to return again and again to take care of lingering nasties. One would think that the place had been scoured clean. But Evan got the creeps whenever he even drove past the new wrought iron gates marking the entrance to the access road—and he didn’t have a speck of magic in him.
Westmoreland, named (though misspelled, as generations of the truly pedantic had pointed out) for the English title which old Archibald Neville had claimed was in his ancestry before emigration to Virginia, had once spread across a thousand acres. Now it was reduced to about twenty, the rest having been sold off as the Neville fortunes waned. Since they had abandoned the place, back in the ’40s, it had changed hands many times—and languished vacant and deteriorating for many years. There had been some talk in the ’90s of using it as a field project for the archaeology department of the University of Virginia, digs at old plantations—especially the slave quarters—having yielded fascinating finds elsewhere. A preliminary survey was done, and the engineering students had just ascertained that the central staircase, the walls on either side, the vast cellar, and the back of the house were as sound as the day they’d been finished—when a chimney suddenly collapsed, almost on top of their professor. So much for that plan. In March of 2004 it had been purchased by a German businessman who had turned it into the Westmoreland Inn.
The locals had shuddered, certain that an architectural horror would result. Contractors and craftsmen were imported from outside Pocahontas County—partly because almost everybody in the construction business who lived in the vicinity had been hired to refurbish and expand the old overseer’s house at Woodhush. It wasn’t until Westmoreland was completed that county residents got a look at it: an extravagant grand opening party that November had introduced the new Westmoreland Inn and its owner, Bernhardt Weiss.
Not as readily seduced by his kitchen or his wine list as he might have wished, PoCo residents nevertheless admitted, more or less grudgingly, that the Inn was an acceptable successor to the antebellum mansion. Greek columns, gracious portico, grand staircase, great wraparound verandah—everything about the house, with its eighteen guest suites and huge ballroom and muraled dining room, was just an eyelash shy of excessive, just a whisker away from overkill.
Herr Weiss had saved that sort of thing for the Spa.
If the house was Greek Revival, the spa facilities were Roman Resuscitation. It was rumored that at Westmoreland one could even get as classically oiled-and-strigiled as if one were at the Baths of Caracalla, although this turned out to be only a rumor.
Since the grand opening event, Evan hadn’t set foot on the property. Holly and Lulah, taking advantage of the certificates handed out at the party, had spent a whole day getting massaged, facialed, manicured, pedicured, moisturized, exfoliated, and waxed. Holly reported a lovely experience—while teasing Evan that without at least one spa afternoon at Westmoreland, his New York Metrosexual credentials would expire. But Lulah agreed with Evan: the place was creepy. Further, she told him privately, the whole time there she’d felt blind.
Other men in the county admitted to the occasional massage, and more readily to using the state-of-the-art gymnasium. This was the one reason Evan might have considered driving the long spur road to Westmoreland again; relaxational farming, the occasional horseback venture, and intermittent jogging kept him not quite in shape. Although if he and Holly kept at it as energetically as they’d been doing this weekend, he’d be able to toss the t-shirt his snide little sister had sent him last Christmas: This is NOT a beer belly. This is protective camouflage for my rock-hard abs.
As often happened, especially when they were physically close like this, Holly picked up on his thoughts. She rubbed a hand across his stomach and grinned at him. "I keep telling you: I’ll ogle Brad Pitt’s perfect pecs any day of the week, but who wants to cuddle up to a marble statue?"
Lachlan snorted. "So I shouldn’t get all crazy jealous of your old boyfriend?" Who wasn’t quite as sculpted as Brad Pitt, but certainly came close.
"Only if it amuses you. And I’ve told you before, he was never a boyfriend."
He stared at her. "You never did it?"
Evan began to laugh. "Oh, that poor bastard! No wonder he looks at you the way he looks at you!"
"How does he look at me?"
"You wouldn’t understand. It’s a Guy Thing."
"Whatever." She dismissed the incomprehensibility with a wave of her hand. "What I want to know is why we’re discussing some other man when I’ve got you naked as a jaybird and ready for more?"
"Who said I’m—" When she gave him a slow, lascivious grin, every nerve below his waist started chanting her name. "Christ, woman, are you trying to kill me?"
"Time I ’fessed up, huh? I’m after the insurance money."
"Why don’t you take that smart mouth of yours and do something useful with it?" When she did, he exclaimed, "You are gonna kill me!"
"Trust me, lover man—you won’t mind."
"FOUR- THIRTY. We gotta get dressed."
Holly hid her face in the curve of Evan’s neck. "No."
"C’mon. If we’re going to this stupid thing—"
"No." His skin was warm and smooth, smelling of sweat and sex and the jasmine and marjoram their sheets were folded in, and she didn’t want to leave here, ever.
"Whatever happened to ‘democracy in action’?" He poked her ungently in the ribs. "I’ve already thought of all the smart remarks you could make about the action in here, so don’t bother."
Groaning, she rolled out of bed and grabbed a shirt Evan had dropped on a chair yesterday—or maybe the day before. A housekeeper she wasn’t. "Have I mentioned lately that you’re an asshole?"
"Ah!" He wagged an admonishing finger. "Five bucks—pay up."
"We’re allowed to swear in our bedroom," she protested. "Just not around the kids." They’d made the rule because otherwise, as Lulah had acidly observed, the twins’ first words would undoubtedly have been unprintable. The hefty fine had been Lulah’s idea as well: financial motivation. For about six months the gallon pickle jar in the kitchen had rapidly filled with portraits of Abraham Lincoln, and the twins’ college fund thrived. But it was rare these days that Holly or Evan slipped around the children.
"Door’s open," he reminded her sweetly. "Five bucks."
"They’re not even in the house!" Padding over to the closet, she started rummaging for clothes. She was Sheriff’s Wife tonight, not Bestselling Author, so nothing backless, strapless, or cut halfway down to Argentina. Besides, there was a tropical storm plowing its way to the Virginia coastline, which meant rain here in the Blue Ridge by midnight or so, which meant a jacket for later.
"Okay, then," Evan was saying. "If you get to swear, so do I. Wear the Fuck Me shoes."
Distracted from sartorial musings, she turned an incredulous stare on him. "The what?"
"You know—the choo-choos or the blah-blahs or whatever the hell they are. The stiletto things, with the straps. The Fuck Me shoes."
"It’s Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik, you ignorant lout. And I’m assuming you mean these." She held up six hundred bucks’ worth of snakeskin sandals with four-inch heels. They were three years out of fashion; had this been New York she would have culled them from her closet long ago. Or maybe not; her husband liked them, and she was ludicrously indulgent of his whims.
He stretched wide, eyeing her and the shoes. "Too bad you can’t wear just those and that shirt. There’s nothing sexier in the world than a woman wearing stilettos, a man’s shirt—and nothing else."
"Sorry, darlin’. The county sheriff would have to arrest me."
"For what? Not indecent exposure. Everything’s covered."
"I know the guy, and I’m sure he’d think of something."
"You could probably bribe him." His arching eyebrows and innocent grin told her exactly what the county sheriff had in mind by way of a payoff.
While he showered, she searched her closet in earnest. There was still a whole section of her pre-pregnancy wardrobe she couldn’t have squeezed into with a can of axle grease and a crowbar. Evan didn’t seem to mind this more voluptuous version of his wife, so she shrugged it off, reasoning that any woman of forty-something who expected to have the body she’d had at twenty- something was out of her mind anyhow. Besides, as Lulah had remarked, "Anytime past thirty-five, you might as well enjoy what you look like now, because in five years you’re gonna look worse."
The annoying exception was her husband, Holly mused. He was even more good-looking now than when she’d met him five years ago. It was nothing she could put her finger on—or, rather, it was everything she put her fingers on whenever she got the chance.
"What’re you grinning about?"
Startled, she dropped the skirt she’d chosen and turned quickly. He stood in the bathroom doorway with a beard made of soap, a straight razor in his hand, a towel around his hips, and a quizzical look in his eyes.
She considered leering, considered what leering usually led to, and shook her head. "Never mind. Let’s stop off and kiss the kids before we head over, okay?"
"Sure. Hey, you wanna grab that long- sleeved t-shirt out of the drawer for me?"
"No." Holly slid past him into the bathroom.
"What, you got two broken arms?"
"No black tonight. You can’t wear the cashmere jacket, either."
"The Goddess has spoken?"
"But you always tell me I look hot in the cashmere jacket."
"You do. Just not tonight."
He pondered. "Oh. Too in-your-face New York, huh?"
"Not even in the same league as the Yankees jersey," she teased, and he gave the predictable groan. "It’s just that we want people to come up and talk to you, not ask if you want a Zoloft."
"If we don’t get out of this party by ten, I’m gonna need a Zoloft."
Fifteen minutes later, he was dressed in dark-wash Levi’s, white shirt, and leather jacket. And, of course, those miserable old ostrich-hide cowboy boots. Despite the casual outfit, despite two years as sheriff of the smallest county in Virginia—even despite the cowboy boots—New York was scrawled all over him. It always would be. He needed a haircut, and he was as tan as any self-respecting country boy ought to be in summer, and the boots should have completed the picture of Sunday-go-to-meetin’ rural chic. But he was instantly identifiable as a New Yorker, as unmistakably as Americans were tagged as such in a single glance by Europeans. It wasn’t just the clothes—his shirt a shadow- striped silk that fit him to perfection, his jacket tailored to within an inch of its life notwithstanding the fact that it was battered brown leather. It was the way he wore the clothes, the way complete contentment fused with complete confidence—plus an intriguing insinuation of power. Nothing could intimidate him, nothing could scare him. He’d spent most of his life in the greatest city in the world, and more than fifteen years as a law enforcement officer in that city. Deposit him stark naked smack in the middle of Buenos Aires, Bialystok, or Borneo, and New York would still gaze arrogantly from his eyes.
"You’re staring again," he remarked as he strapped on his wristwatch and snagged up the leather wallet containing his badge.
"As if this is unexpected," she mocked.
"Back at you, lady love," he chuckled. "Except the skirt’s too long."
"No miniskirts after age forty."
"And there are how many precincts of fashion police in this county? Turn around."
She obediently twirled on her toes so that the tulip hem of her skirt flared around her knees. "Okay?" she prompted, knowing very well that the apple green silk dress was a winner—even if it had come from a catalog instead of Barneys, and even if it wasn’t hemmed halfway to her ass.
"Oh, very okay." He tucked his Glock into the shoulder holster beneath his left arm. "Married or not, girl, you’re going home with me tonight."
"Pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you?"
"Nah," he replied breezily, catching her by the waist and pulling her in for a kiss. "You just look easy."
Excerpted from Fire Raiser by Melanie Rawn.
Copyright © 2009 by Melanie Rawn.
Published in April 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.