If there’s something Ravenna Chastain knows, it’s when to end things. And after she almost winds up the victim of a cult that believes she’s a witch, it’s easy to walk away from her dead-end career, ready for a new start. But where to find a job that would allow her to use her very specialized skill set? The answer is clear: she becomes a matchmaker.
But even a successful matchmaker can’t find someone for everyone, and Ravenna considers Ethan Sweetwater her first professional failure. After nine failed dates, Ravenna knows it’s time to cut Ethan loose. But Ethan refuses to be fired as a client—he needs one final date to a business function. Since Ravenna needs a date herself to a family event, they agree to a deal: she will be his (business) date if he will be her (fake) date to her grandparents’ anniversary celebration.
What Ethan fails to mention is that attending the business function is a cover for some industrial espionage that he’s doing as a favor to the new Illusion Town Guild boss. Ravenna is happy to help, but their relationship gets even more complicated when things heat up—the chemistry between them is explosive, as explosive as the danger that’s stalking Ravenna. Lucky for her, Ethan isn’t just an engineer—he’s also a Sweetwater, and Sweetwaters are known for hunting down monsters…
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"The witch will burn."
Ravenna Chastain could hear the chanting in the adjacent chamber. It was growing louder and more intense. The members of the witch hunter cult were working themselves up into a frenzy.
"The witch will burn. The witch will burn. The witch will burn."
Until a few minutes ago she had kept panic at bay by telling herself that help was on the way. All she had to do was stall for time. She had done her best, but the trial that had condemned her had lasted less than twenty minutes and had consisted primarily of a lengthy reading of the charges against her. "You have been accused of practicing witchcraft. You have presented no evidence to the contrary. You must be cleansed." At the end the Master had pronounced the verdict, which had never been in doubt: guilty.
She and the dust bunny were on their own.
The cult's head enforcer appeared in the arched doorway. He gripped a flamer in one hand. Such weapons were among the few that functioned in the heavy paranormal energy that circulated in the ancient ruins of the Underworld.
"Time to meet the cold fire, Witch." He selected a key from the metal chatelaine at his waist. "The Master and the Acolyte are waiting. The Guardians have gathered to witness the destruction of your powers."
Ravenna watched him through the bars of the cage. He wore a black, hooded robe and a black mask. His eyes glittered with a sick excitement. He called himself the First Guardian, but she knew his real name was Charles Granger.
"Tell me, Chucky, are you having fun with this crazy witch-hunting cult?" she asked.
Granger flinched. Panic flashed in his eyes. "How do you know my name?"
"Magic. I'm a witch, remember? That's why you kidnapped me. Don't tell me you've forgotten already. What's the problem? Short attention span?"
"You're going to be a flatlined witch soon." Granger shoved the key into the lock and opened the cage door. "Come on out."
"Doesn't it bother you to know that you're being used by a manipulative, deranged psychopath who gets his thrills using his talent to put innocent people into a waking coma?"
"Shut your fucking mouth. Your powers will be destroyed tonight. Tomorrow morning they'll find you wandering the streets. You won't remember who you are, let alone that you used to practice magic. You will be cleansed. If you're lucky you'll end up in an asylum."
"Between you and me, I don't think the jury is going to buy your rationale for helping Fitch psi-burn innocent people."
"The Order of the Guardians must fulfill its mission," Granger snarled. "We will rid Harmony of all those who practice witchcraft."
"Yeah, right. Do you realize just how ridiculous you sound? You believe in magic? Really? Can you even spell the word science?"
Granger grabbed her arm and hauled her toward the arched doorway of the glowing green chamber. Ravenna caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye. The dust bunny was back.
"No, please," she said, willing her to remain in hiding.
She had no idea how much the creature understood, but dust bunnies were hunters by nature. That meant they probably shared a few basic takedown strategies with humans. For some reason, this one had apparently adopted her after she had been thrown into the cage. The dust bunny had been careful to remain out of sight when the cult members were around. She seemed to understand that they were outnumbered and outgunned.
If she revealed herself too soon in a valiant but futile attack on one of the enforcers, she would be killed. Dust bunnies were quick and fast, but they were as vulnerable to a flamer as any other living creature.
Ravenna was scared but she was also pissed. She was not supposed to be in this mess. Things had gone very wrong.
"Too late," Granger said, assuming she was pleading with him. He hauled viciously on her arm. "Nothing can save your magic."
"I wasn't talking to you," she said.
"Is that right? Who, then? I don't see any other members of your coven around."
"I don't have a coven," she said. She was a member of an FBPI task force team, but she didn't think that qualified as a coven. "I'm not really a witch, you know."
"The Master identified you as a witch. That's good enough for me."
"Seriously? I'd like to blame your failure to think for yourself on the defects of the modern education system, but I've got a feeling it's a symptom of a personality disorder instead. You're pretty much doomed to be a pawn for others to manipulate, aren't you? When Fitch gets arrested, which he will eventually, he'll go back to that high-security para-psych hospital for the criminally insane. But you'll probably go to prison. Once you're inside, you'll drift into the spiderweb of some other narcissistic psychopath. I'm sure there are a lot of them in there."
Granger used his grip on her arm to give her a violent shake. "I told you to shut up."
He pulled her through the doorway and into another chamber. The room was larger than the one in which she had been held prisoner for the past day and a half. Like all the ruins left behind by the long-vanished Aliens who had tried to colonize Harmony eons earlier, the proportions looked vaguely off to the human eye. But if you dropped your preconceived notions of what constituted good architecture, it was possible to perceive a refined elegance and grace in the impressive structures.
Issues of architectural design were not top of mind for her today, however. The real problem was that Granger was not the only cult enforcer. She had counted three, and they were all clearly ex-Guild men. They carried flamers but that was not their only weapon. They had been in the Guild at some point in their lives because they possessed a talent for working some of the strong energy that flowed through the vast maze of tunnels in the Underworld. They could create and manipulate small storms of acid-green "ghost" fire. A brush with a hot ball of that kind of energy could knock you unconscious. A seriously close encounter could stop the heart.
"The witch will burn."
The annoying chanting stopped abruptly when the small group of robed and hooded twits saw Ravenna and Granger in the doorway. An expectant silence shivered in the room. The evening's entertainment was about to begin. This was why they had invented the word bloodthirsty, Ravenna thought-or, in this case, talent thirsty. This bunch wanted to strip her of her psychic senses.
Like Granger, the other cult members were dressed in masks and hooded robes. There were fewer than a dozen in all. They were gathered around the man and woman seated on the glowing green quartz thrones on a dais in the center of the chamber.
They called themselves the Master and the Acolyte, but Ravenna knew their names-Clarence Fitch and Louise Lace. Fitch wore an impressive black-and-gold robe. His mask was gold. Madness glinted in his eyes. Lace was dressed in white from head to toe, including her mask.
"Bring the witch forward," Fitch intoned.
Granger shoved Ravenna toward the thrones.
"Oh, hey, don't stop whatever you're doing on account of me," Ravenna said. "Sorry to interrupt. Don't worry, I won't be staying long."
"She won't stop talking," Granger muttered. "Want me to gag her?"
"No." Clarence gave Ravenna a considering look. "We want to question her first."
"If you answer the Master's questions, he will let you keep some of your powers," Louise Lace said. She spoke in a reassuring, encouraging tone.
A murmur of astonishment and acute disappointment rippled around the room.
"But she's a witch," one of the Guardians said.
Clarence glared at Louise, who visibly withered.
"I am sorry, Master," she whispered. "I was trying to help."
"Silence," Clarence snapped.
"Yes, Master," Louise said.
Clarence gripped the wide arms of the quartz chair and pushed himself to his feet. He fixed Ravenna with his mad eyes. "You will answer my questions or you will die."
"Choices, choices," Ravenna said. She glanced at the door in one last burst of hope, but there was no sign of a rescue party. "What's your question?"
"How much does the FBPI know?"
"The Federal Bureau of Psi Investigation knows everything I know, of course," Ravenna said. "I work for them. The task force should be here any minute now. Guess they got held up in traffic."
There was a collective gasp. Stricken looks were exchanged. Louise stiffened in the big chair, clearly alarmed. But Clarence was enraged.
"You're lying," he hissed.
Ravenna gave him a dazzling smile. She did not speak.
"She's bluffing, Master," Louise said. "You're not going to get anything useful out of her. It is time to strip her of her powers."
Clarence did not need much in the way of persuasion. "Prepare to be cleansed and purified in the fires of ice. When I have finished, you will no longer possess your dark powers of magic."
He advanced on Ravenna. A chilling energy shuddered in the chamber. Fitch was raising his psychic talent. He was, just as she had expected, a true flatliner, one of the monsters. And he was strong-very strong.
Ravenna retreated a few steps. She had studied the para-psych profile that had been assembled on Fitch during the years he had spent in an asylum. The medication that had dampened his dangerous ability had worn off quickly after his escape a few months ago, and now she was dealing with the full force of his frightening talent.
Fitch took another step toward her. Waves of ice pressed at her, seeking to overwhelm her aura. She retreated again but found herself up against a wall. She spotted the dust bunny crouched, unnoticed, on the far side of the chamber.
She had seen videos of dust bunnies in full attack mode, but this was the first time she had watched one prepare for battle. The little creature was sleeked out, all four eyes open. There was a saying about dust bunnies: by the time you see the teeth, it's too late. Her new pal definitely had a lot of teeth on display.
Once again Ravenna tried to send a silent message that the time was not yet ripe to stage a desperate attempt at escape. There were too many flamers in the room. The odds were not good. A distraction was called for.
Fitch stopped a short distance away. His eyes burned with excitement as he pushed the cold waves of his talent toward her. She felt her heart rate begin to slow. A great chill settled on her, icing her blood. She glanced at the door one last time and abandoned the last vestige of hope.
"It looks I've been stood up," she said to the room at large. Then she focused hard on the dust bunny. "Now."
Somehow the creature got the message. She zipped across the floor, her six paws a blur. She was heading straight for the Acolyte, who was looking the other way and did not see her coming.
Ravenna rezzed her talent to the max. A wall of paranormal flames roared to life and enveloped Fitch. She saw his mouth twist and his eyes widen in mortal fear as the fire swirled around him. She was vaguely aware of screams and shrieks from the onlookers. One particularly piercing cry reverberated through the chamber.
"Get it off me," Louise yelled. "Get it off."
The dust bunny had found her target.
Fitch stiffened, convulsed, and dropped to the floor, unconscious. Ravenna lowered her talent. The flames vanished. The room was in chaos.
"Fire witch," someone screamed.
"Time to go," Ravenna called.
Louise flailed wildly and managed to dislodge the dust bunny. The creature made an adroit landing and promptly dashed across the chamber to join Ravenna.
Ravenna was already running for the door. The dust bunny caught up with her just as she raced out into the hall.
They both nearly got trampled by the phalanx of Guild men and FBPI agents heading toward the chamber. Ravenna scooped up the dust bunny before she was accidentally struck by a large boot and flattened her back to the wall to avoid the task force team.
"You're late," she yelled as they thundered past. "Where in hell have you guys been?"
The thundering herd of agents and hunters ignored her and charged into the chamber. Ravenna heard a lot of shouted commands along the lines of "Everybody down on the floor. Hands behind your heads."
She went to the doorway, the dust bunny tucked under one arm. Together they watched the team put the cult members in handcuffs. On the floor, Clarence Fitch stirred and opened his eyes. Max Collins, the team leader, yanked him to his feet.
"What happened to you?" Collins demanded.
"The witch burned me," Fitch said. The words were slurred. "Tried to murder me."
"Right," Collins said, unimpressed. He shoved Fitch toward the nearest agent. "Cuff him."
"He's telling the truth," Granger said. "I saw it with my own eyes. Flames from across the spectrum. The woman is a real witch. You gotta believe us."
Collins shook his head. "Bunch of deluded idiots. Get 'em out of here."
He turned and headed toward the doorway, moving with the not-so-subtle swagger of a heroic agent of law enforcement who has just completed a successful takedown and knows there will be a commendation for same in his file.
Ravenna stepped back and to one side. The dust bunny chortled. She was once again fluffed. With only her innocent blue eyes showing, she looked like a large wad of dryer lint. Ravenna waited for her to leap free and disappear as mysteriously as she had appeared. But she made no move to leave.
Collins stopped in front of Ravenna. "What's with the dust bunny?"
"I have no idea," Ravenna said. "She just showed up after I was kidnapped and locked in a cage."
Collins paid no attention to her accusatory tone. "Cute little critter."
"You should have seen her a moment ago when she was coming to my rescue-unlike, say, your FBPI team."
Collins frowned in concern. "Are you okay? You sound a little wired."
"Wired? Gee, I guess I am a little tense. Clarence Fitch just tried to ice out my talent. He was going to do to me what he did to those other three women-flatline my senses and leave me in a waking coma."
"Take it easy," Collins said. "Calm down."
She couldn't believe it when he reached out a hand and patted her on the head. This was the problem with being on the short side, she fumed. She stepped back out of reach. The dust bunny growled at Collins.