A stunning and sexy addition to the world of the Guardians about one man’s revenge against the half-demon he once loved…
Nicholas St. Croix is familiar with the evil of demons. After his father’s death, a demon took over his mother’s body and raised him. Six years ago, his “mother” was responsible for the disappearance of the woman he loved, and Nicholas swore he’d find her—even if he had to go to Hell and back. Except she finds him first—and with one tormented kiss, he knows she too is a demon. Now he is determined to take his revenge…
Ash is a half-demon with no memory of her past or how she got to Hell. All she knows is that Nicholas St. Croix holds the key to her identity. And though he’s clearly drawn to her, Nicholas makes no secret of his distrust of her. Yet one kiss at a time, he breaks down her defenses as they battle an array of demons and Guardians. But is Ash’s greatest enemy the man at her side?
“The award-winning Brook adds another multifaceted and intense drama to her already impressive Guardian series.”
½” —RT Book Reviews
READ AN EXCERPT
Ash has recently escaped from a three-year stay at Nightingale House, a psychiatric hospital. All but devoid of emotion, with no memory of anything that happened before she began her stay at the hospital, now she’s searching for answers…
The temperature had dropped below freezing by the time she emerged from the subway station at Sloane Square. Ash tilted her face down to let her hood take the brunt of the wind and shoved her hands into her jacket pockets. The cold couldn’t hurt her—a month of walking outside during London’s wintry nights without so much as a shiver had taught her that—but she didn’t like the feel of icy air against her skin.
Though Ash couldn’t recall taking this route before, she didn’t need to verify the directions during the six-minute walk to the St. Croix townhouse. A left turn into a garden square was taken without hesitation. Although the buildings in this exclusive neighborhood looked similar to one another, all constructed of red brick and accented by wrought iron, she found the correct home without consulting the house numbers.
So she’d been here before. Ash didn’t recognize the place, but she knew that beyond the red front door lay a marble-tiled foyer and a staircase leading to the upper floors. To the right lay the entertaining salon, which opened into the dining room. Farther down the hall, a library overlooked the small garden. Upstairs, the second level had been divided between two bedroom suites, one of which had been renovated into a modern office.
An American woman with a face identical to Ash’s had allegedly been murdered in that office.
After leaving Nightingale House, finding information had been easy. Access to that information had been Ash’s primary obstacle—but as soon as Ash had learned to memorize the numbers on the credit cards that people flashed so casually when they made their purchases, she used those numbers at internet cafes. From there, it was a simple matter of searching for American women who’d disappeared in London. Her earliest parameters were too narrow—she’d set them to search for missing persons from three or four years ago—but when Ash had widened the search to ten years, she’d found Rachel Anne Boyle.
The blonde in Rachel’s photo didn’t have symbols tattooed down the side of her face, but their features had been the same. So Ash had looked deeper.
Six years ago, Rachel Boyle had worked as personal assistant to one of England’s most successful independent financiers, Madelyn St. Croix. Both Rachel and her employer had disappeared not long after Madelyn’s estranged son, Nicholas St. Croix, had returned from America and began a hostile takeover of Madelyn’s company.
According to reports, Rachel had quickly become Nicholas St. Croix’s lover. Probably for his wealth, Ash thought. Ash had few needs, but after a month on London’s streets, even she recognized the appeal of a ready source of money . . . and she could see little else in him that might be appealing. Though undeniably handsome, with short dark hair and magazine-perfect features, neither warmth nor humor was apparent in his pictures—and after the women had vanished, she couldn’t detect any emotion in those press photos, either.
Surely, when a man’s lover died in his arms, he’d feel something. Wouldn’t he?
Unless he’d lied.
The night they’d disappeared, Nicholas had told police that he and his mother had argued over business matters. During the fight, Madelyn had fired a gun at him—but Rachel Boyle had jumped into the bullet’s path, and the slug had ripped through her heart. Nicholas had claimed he’d been holding Rachel when she’d died, but the police hadn’t located her body or any blood at the site or on his clothing. Madelyn had vanished, too, and Nicholas became the primary suspect in their disappearances. But although the police were certain of foul play, they’d never been able to pin Rachel and Madelyn’s murders on him.
Ash didn’t know if Nicholas St. Croix had killed Rachel or if he’d told the truth about that night . . . but she knew that his mother had still been alive. Ash had recognized the woman from the photos in the news reports, and terror had scraped like ice in her chest.
Only three years ago, Madelyn St. Croix had left Ash in Dr. Cawthorne’s care.
Ash wasn’t Rachel Boyle; of that she was certain, just as she knew “Rachel” wasn’t her name. But a connection between Ash and the American woman clearly existed, and Ash hoped to find answers in the house where Rachel Boyle had worked and—perhaps—died.
She watched the darkened windows for movement, listened for any sounds from within. All was quiet. Though six years had passed since Madelyn’s disappearance, the property was still listed under her name. Most likely, she had an arrangement with a housekeeping service and an estate that handled such necessities in her absence. A security system undoubtedly protected the house, but if an alarm sounded, Ash would run before the police arrived.
And if Ash couldn’t find answers here, she’d seek out Nicholas St. Croix . . . and hope that looking for him before trying to find Madelyn didn’t turn out to be a horrible mistake. Perhaps Madelyn had a reason for what she’d done; perhaps she was hiding from her son, and she’d stowed Ash away at Nightingale House for her protection.
But although the man in Nicholas St. Croix’s picture appeared capable of fewer emotions than Ash, his image didn’t terrify her. So Ash hoped she wasn’t wrong.
And she hoped that he knew her.
The security system activated when Ash broke the lock on the front door. No alarm sounded, but Ash knew where to look for the security panel, positioned discreetly behind a framed oval mirror that opened like a medicine cabinet. Inside, the status light blinked red. Ash couldn’t have recited the numbers that she tapped into the pad; her fingers simply moved in a pattern, as if she were typing an oft-repeated word into a keyboard.
The status light changed to solid green.
Should she have been astonished that her code was correct? Ash pondered her lack of surprise. Inputting the number hadn’t seemed any different than walking the route here. Obviously, she’d done it many times before—and her procedural memory was still intact.
So she didn’t feel surprised, but she did wonder why the code hadn’t been changed in six years. After Madelyn St. Croix’s disappearance, why hadn’t the security company updated the entry codes?
Perhaps they’d been instructed not to. Perhaps they expected Madelyn to return—or perhaps someone else did. A dedicated employee?
Ash couldn’t guess, but obviously someone had cared for the house in the past six years. No dust collected on the carved mirror frame or in the corners of the foyer. The wainscoting and staircase banisters gleamed. The faint scent of cleaning wax lingered, but the air itself smelled stale, as if the house had been shut up for a while. No live-in caretaker, then—or the housekeeper had taken off for the holidays and left it empty.
Good. Ash wouldn’t have to be quiet when she searched the rooms.
She started in the parlor. The décor could have filled a checklist for expensive and tasteful. The requisite antique vase reigned over an ebony-inlaid table. A thick Oriental rug anchored a seating arrangement upholstered in cream silk. Two large, modern paintings featuring slashes of bold oranges and gold bookended the open entrance to the dining room.
Had Ash eaten at that table? She didn’t know. Nothing familiar stood out to her—and she saw nothing unexpected, either. Ash wanted to spark a memory, or at least a sense of déjà vu, but she only had the vague feeling that fewer fresh flowers decorated the sideboard than should be.
Flowers didn’t offer any answers. Perhaps the library would.
As she stepped into the hallway, a faint noise sounded from upstairs. Footsteps?
Ash paused with her head cocked, but didn’t hear anything more—nothing that she could pinpoint, at least. When she listened closely, noises from every home in the square sounded as clear as from within this house. Usually, she ignored background noise, and perhaps this was just that: a sound from another home that had leaked through her mental filters.
Perhaps. She’d listen more carefully, in any case.
She stepped into the library—and forgot about listening. Terror coated her stomach like ice, threatening to crack.
Madelyn’s portrait hung above the mantel. The artist had captured her beautiful, warm smile and the keen intelligence in her blue eyes. But those eyes had once been mad, and the smile a twisted grimace. She remembered Madelyn’s hands—not folded demurely, as in the painting, but holding Ash’s shoulders in an unbreakable, painful grip, shaking her, and Madelyn telling her—
Do everything they ask you to do. I’m not ready yet. I have to prepare. So listen to them. But above all else, follow the Rules. Don’t kill them, don’t hurt them. Don’t prevent them from exercising their free will. If you do, you’re dead—and I’ll be in that frozen waste. So don’t break the Rules. Don’t!
—telling her how to stay safe.
Ash’s heart pounded. She closed her eyes, shutting out the image of the woman’s face.
This was a memory. Not from Before, which she couldn’t remember at all, but from almost three years ago, before Ash and Madelyn had arrived at Nightingale House . . . and after they’d left the dark figure behind. A memory ravaged by terror and buoyed by relief—and Ash recalled that she’d been so sorry.
Regretting the bargain already.
Ash shook her head. What bargain? What had she agreed to do? Though she tried to recall, that hole in her memory remained.
But she had felt regret. Ash remembered that clearly now. Regret and relief, which meant that terror wasn’t the only strong emotion to hold her in its grip after . . . whatever had happened to her. Why hadn’t she felt regret or relief since then?
A shiver raced over Ash’s skin when she looked at the painting again. Madelyn didn’t appear dangerous, yet Ash’s instincts screamed at her to run. Perhaps she hadn’t felt regret or relief after being admitted to Nightingale House because she’d had no reason to feel them—but Ash apparently had reason to fear this woman.
If only she could remember why.
A quick search of the library didn’t tell her. Ash returned to the foyer and took the stairs. Her boots echoed on each wooden step. That seemed odd. Shouldn’t a stair runner muffle the sound? Perhaps one had, once. When she reached the second floor landing, the door to Madelyn’s office already stood ajar, as if inviting her in.
Unlike the timeless elegance of the first floor décor, the office told the story of its owner’s long absence. A heavy, outdated computer screen took up a fourth of the desktop. A fax transmission from the day of Madelyn’s disappearance still sat beside the keyboard, listing the current values of several oil stocks.
Six years ago, Nicholas St. Croix had succeeded in taking over his mother’s company and tearing it down. But if Madelyn still owned those shares, she didn’t need to worry about cash when—if—she returned.
A second, smaller room lay beyond a connecting door—Rachel Boyle’s office. Unlike Madelyn’s office, all of the tables and cabinet surfaces had been cleared of papers. Ash opened the drawers and looked through the shelves, hoping to find a personal item of Rachel’s. Anything. A single object to touch, to hold—and to see if it felt familiar.
She finished the search and came up empty. Nothing of Rachel remained here, and Rachel’s own apartment had been let to someone else shortly after her disappearance. She’d been survived by her parents in America; her belongings had probably been shipped to their home. Which meant Ash had nowhere left to look for answers—at least not in London.
So her next step would be finding Nicholas St. Croix.
Was it odd that no evidence of Madelyn’s son existed in this house? Ash thought it must be. No pictures of Nicholas as a boy graced the tables, no family photos depicted happier times. Did Madelyn order them removed from her sight—out of spite or pain—or had they simply never been a part of the décor?
Curious, Ash followed the hallway to the master bedroom. Maybe Madelyn hadn’t expunged Nicholas’s presence from her house; perhaps she’d simply kept the evidence somewhere more private.
Or perhaps not. Ash opened the door to another expensively appointed room devoid of any personality other than ‘tasteful.’ Aside from Madelyn’s painting in the library, the entire house could have been anyone’s home—except that anyone else would have left more of an impression on their surroundings.
Unless, of course, this house did reflect Madelyn’s personality: sophisticated, disinterested . . . perfect.
But not everything was perfect. Something seemed wrong. Ash studied the room, trying to determine what didn’t fit—and for the first time, not searching for something familiar, but just looking. Her gaze landed on the bed. The blankets stretched unevenly over the mattress. A pillow lay askew and dented at its center.
Someone had been sleeping in that bed. How long ago? A housekeeper wouldn’t have left it like that. Breathing in through her nose, Ash detected a recent scent that she’d begun to associate with male—and a connection suddenly lurked at the back of her mind, that half-seen lightning, that forgotten word.
Like Cinderella, a memory—another story. Who’s been sleeping in my bed?
Ash knew the answer to this one: Goldilocks, who’d broken into the bears’ house. Although Ash had broken into this home, that wasn’t the connection that teased her. She didn’t sleep in anyone’s bed, not even her own.
Every night, she’d lain motionless beneath her blankets when the nurses had ordered her to, but she hadn’t actually slept in almost three years.
So what was her mind trying to tease out of this memory? Ash moved closer to the bed, attempting to follow the tenuous association formed between now and Before. She didn’t care about the man who’d been sleeping here. He wasn’t in this room now, but a connection to her past was . . . somewhere.
What was the rest of that story? Who’s been eating my porridge? That wasn’t her, either. Though she’d eaten whenever they placed a meal in front of her, Ash hadn’t been hungry. Since her escape from Nightingale House, four weeks had gone by without food passing her lips.
Perhaps her mind wasn’t trying to remember an association with the story itself; perhaps the connection lay in the circumstances in which she’d heard it. But she couldn’t remember that. She couldn’t remember who’d told the story to her—or whether she’d read it, instead. She couldn’t remember where she’d been, or when. She tried to, but came head up on the memory she didn’t want, a memory of a memory, her first memory and it was of regret and terror—
burning cold, her body gone, she’d heard screaming and she’d been screaming but she didn’t have to return to the cold, that endless frozen agony, because she’d made a bargain and the dark figure said her name, Ash— and the rest of her ripped apart, was gone, gone
Her stomach heaved. Doubling over, Ash braced her hands against the edge of the bed. She sucked in air that her lungs didn’t need, but the motion of her chest felt familiar. It felt right.
But why didn’t she need air?
Someone had to know. Someone had to know who she was. What she was.
The man’s voice came from behind her, full of shock and disbelief. Ash whipped around. Nicholas St. Croix stood at the doorway, holding a crossbow aimed at her heart.
Instinctively, Ash raised her hands to show him that she was unarmed. She didn’t know if Nicholas had killed Rachel, but she wouldn’t give him a reason to fire now. She doubted he would, anyway. Instead of aggression, she sensed faint hope in him, combined with ragged uncertainty.
He couldn’t see her clearly in the dark, Ash realized, whereas she could see him perfectly. Shirtless, he wore only a pair of black trousers that hung low on his hips—zipped, but not buttoned. He must have yanked them on when she’d broken in. Had she woken him, or had he been simply lying in the bed?
Lying in wait.
As soon as Ash thought it, she couldn’t shake that impression. His photos had suggested Nicholas St. Croix was a dangerous man, hard and emotionless—but the most recent picture had been taken more than two years ago. Instead of cold elegance, he appeared pared down and roughened. His dark hair had been cut brutally short. A few days’ worth of scruff shadowed his jaw, and his body . . .
Ash’s gaze fell to his chest. In the photos, he’d obviously been well acquainted with a gym. But the taut, wiry muscles on display hadn’t come from a single hour’s workout followed by a rich man’s meal. His body reflected an obsession of some kind, one that ate away at him no matter how much he fed it—and Ash didn’t think that obsession had anything to do with his looks.
Perhaps that obsession explained why he’d lain in wait at his mother’s house with a crossbow.
Ash didn’t lower her hands. “I’m not her. But if you look at me, can you tell me who I am?”
His aim didn’t waver as he flipped a switch on the wall. Light flooded the room. Ash blinked rapidly, adjusting to the glare. His eyes narrowed. Their icy blue focus shifted to the symbols tattooed over the left side of her face.
The warm hope she’d sensed in him burst into a hot, swelling pressure. But even as she recognized the change, he began hiding it from her, somehow. The pressure didn’t vanish, yet he closed his emotions away, as if shutting them behind a door.
Strange. No one had done that before. Everyone she’d met in London kept their emotions wide open, and had no clue Ash could sense them.
“You’re Rachel Boyle,” he said flatly.
“No.” Disappointment touched her, swift and light, but it couldn’t gain any traction and slid away. “I look like her, but that’s not my name.”
Now his voice softened, and though he lowered his crossbow, Ash’s wariness sharpened. He approached her on silent feet, and his movements reminded her of the predators she’d seen—not the agile cheetah or the majestic, powerful lion. Not any animal driven by hunger or a need to protect its territory, but the human variety driven by deadly intent. She’d seen many of them prowling the dark London streets, had sensed the malevolence they’d felt toward others. Often, they hid it behind bland pleasantries and smiles, but she’d recognized what they were.
Ash couldn’t sense anything from Nicholas, but she recognized the same malevolence. A quick step back—not fear, but survival instinct—brought her up against the bed. Trapped. Escape would be easy, but now that she’d touched the bed her mind began its desperate search again, reaching for the connection—
Someone’s been sleeping in my bed.
Had her memory been searching for him? Obviously, he’d been lying there—but on some level, had she known exactly who had been in that bed before he’d appeared with his crossbow? Had she been reminded of something from Before—something about Nicholas St. Croix?
If she had a connection to him, then he must know her. Not Rachel, but Ash. That realization kept her in place, despite the urge to flee.
Nicholas stalked close, halting less than an arms-length away. He stood several inches taller than Ash; she had to tilt her face up to watch his eyes. Slowly, he examined her every feature. Did she look any different from Rachel? Ash waited, listening to the steady beat of his heart. Her own heart hammered, constructing unfamiliar emotions in her chest. Hope, trepidation? She couldn’t distinguish them amid the racket of her pulse. Ash wished she knew what he felt, but his expression gave nothing away.
She had to try again. “Who am I?”
“Who else could you be but Rachel?” With a sudden, thin smile, he tugged a pale lock of hair forward over her shoulder, rubbing the long strands between his fingers as if considering their texture. “Who else but the woman I love?”
Love? No, that wasn’t what she’d tasted in that swelling burst of emotion before he’d closed himself away from her. Disappointment, grief, and rage—she’d sensed all of those. But not love.
His head lowered, his gaze holding hers on the way down. Would he kiss her? Curious, Ash let him. Firm and cool, his lips settled against hers.
Emotion burst from him, blasting through the door he’d shut—a feeling that wasn’t hot but bitter withering cold, and Ash recognized the hate behind it before he hid that from her, too. She should have moved then. The hate felt like a warning, and she disliked the cold, but when he opened his lips over hers his taste was fascinating—mint, because he’d readied for bed, and there was something else that was familiar, so familiar here. She knew the touch of his mouth, the heat that slipped through her like a warm drink when his tongue sought hers. So she remained still, searching for the connection sparked by the kiss and lurking in her ruined memory.
She didn’t find it before Nicholas lifted his head. Ash wanted to follow him up to prolong the contact, but she remembered—respect their free will—and waited, panting, not needing the oxygen but relishing the sweep of air over her lips, wet from his kiss.
She’d felt all of this before. She’d felt—
A cold prod against her throat. Ash’s eyes widened—this was surprise!—and she heard a click. Pain stabbed her neck. White-hot, it yanked her muscles taut and raced up behind her eyes.
Then, for the first time in three years, darkness fell over her mind, and she felt absolutely nothing at all.