by Alyssa Day
Damn crumbly centuries-old stone.
Christophe had known as soon as the coalesced mist of his magic-held shape displaced the tiny shards of stone that the shifters patrolling beneath the window would hear it. What he hadn’t expected was how fast they could make it up to the third floor. He found himself hovering in the center of the room, wondering how in the nine hells the guards were going to miss a miniature rain cloud floating in the middle of a storage room that was basically an overgrown broom closet.
England was famous for its rain, but this was ridiculous. Time to bail and try again another night, maybe. It’s what a reasonable man would do. The thought was enough to jolt him into motion.
“Reasonable, my ass,” he said under his breath as he transformed back into his body, a fierce grin spreading across his face. “May as well be dead as reasonable.”
Booted feet pounded down the hallway and he could hear the sound of doors opening one by one, sequentially. They’d reach him soon. He scanned the room for something—anything—and found it in the least likely, humblest of objects.
Seconds later, the door swung open and one of the shifters stepped into the room, not even breathing hard. “Storage room looks clear.”
This one smelled like wolf. Angry wolf. Hopefully he wouldn’t start pissing on the walls to mark his territory. Christophe wished he could see what the guard was doing, but curiosity wasn’t worth risking his disguise.
Footsteps rang out, crossing the floor toward him, and Christophe tensed, holding his magical form and crushing his every maddening instinct that screamed at him to call to power and attack. The footsteps paused, no more than a handful of inches from him, and then passed by. The muffled sound of the wolf shifting boxes and shoving the heavy wooden table by the window to one side preceded a loud crash. The guard let loose with a blistering string of profanity so creative and descriptive that even Christophe had to admire the man’s resourcefulness.
More footsteps. A different voice, as a second guard arrived at the doorway.
“No. I knocked the damn box of copy paper on my foot.”
The new guard laughed. Not much sympathy there. “Did he hurt his wee footsie?”
“Shut up, you moron. It’s the same foot I broke last week and it’s still a trifle tender, even after shifting five different times.” The first guard walked past Christophe again, this time with the definite suggestion of a limp. “There’s nothing in here anyway. Must have been a bird after all. We need to get the cleaning crew to do a better job, by the way. Why is this bucket sitting here full of water? Should we dump it out?”
“I’m not dumping it out. Not my job. And maybe it was a bird, or maybe it was a vamp,” the other said darkly. “Or who knows what else? I’ll feel a lot better when we get those magic detectors up and running.”
“Right. You count on that. Sure, and the witches are going to figure out a way to detect all of the hundreds of different kinds of magic. In your dreams.”
Christophe heard the faint squeak of hinges that were just on the cusp of needing to be oiled, and as the door shut, the second guard put in the final word.
“I heard the prime minister herself say that there’s not a form of magic on this earth that the new detectors won’t catch.”
Christophe rose up in one silvery ribbon of water from the bucket in which he’d hidden and promptly changed back into the shape of a very amused Atlantean warrior.
Exactly. Not on this earth. Bet your witches aren’t ready for magic that comes from under its oceans.
Now, let’s have a look at that sword.
He took a deep breath and cleansed himself of the last traces of plastic and the faint bitter tang of cleaning fluid, shaking his hands to fling the droplets of water from his skin. He’d held mist shape too long this night, and it was tiring—a drain of magical resources—on the best of nights. Nights that did not involve hiding in buckets. But it would make for a good story, and surely Ven or one of the other warriors would stand him a mug of ale for the laugh.
He pushed his focus deep within, calling to the power that waited, tantalizing, always ready to seduce him. Formed the link in his mind that gave up the very atoms of his body to the universe; traded for the water magic that belonged uniquely to Poseidon and his people.
Soaring through the room, he performed a celebratory twirl of silvery liquid power before dispersing enough to slide smoothly under the door. The hallway was empty, the guards gone searching birds or ghosts or shadows. He followed the hall to the stairs and, careful to stay in the dark shadows masking the ceiling, he descended to the ground floor right over the heads of the guards pounding up, presumably to join their colleagues in a futile search.
Radios crackled with “all clear” and “headed for the roof access” messages, and as Christophe passed overhead, the headset of the guard directly beneath him sizzled with a loud crackling sound.
The man snapped out a guttural curse. “Damn radios. This one just shorted out in my ear.”
Christophe increased his pace. If he was already shorting out the electronics, stealing the actual sword might be a problem. He snapped an even tighter leash on his control. Atlantean magic and electricity didn’t get along, and he didn’t want to send the place into lockdown because the security system suddenly crashed.
One of the shifter guards paused and cast a sharp glance up at the ceiling, his keen gaze examining the area directly where Christophe passed overhead in the shadows. There was absolutely nothing to be seen, even to shifter eyes, since his form was so dispersed among the shadows, but the man’s instincts were good. Shifter instincts generally were. It was a good enough reason to have at least a few of them on Atlantis’s side.
* * *
Gaining the ground floor, he turned the corner and headed for the Treasury. Tonight was just for scouting. He wanted a look at the sword when there were no crowds, no moving walkways. He’d come back another night to take it.
No rush, after all. The quicker he achieved this goal, the quicker he’d be forced to return to Atlantis. More missions to the surface for vampire slaying. Cut off their heads, stake them in the hearts, jump back to avoid goop on the boots as they turned to nasty acidic slime. Same old same old.
He wanted something different. A challenge. Excitement.
Rounding the final corner, he stopped moving, dispersing his mist form even more, and hovered as close to the ceiling’s shadows as possible. The five guards clustered in front of the open security door to the Treasury spoke in low tones, but their body language didn’t display any particular tension.
One of the guards, a shifter whose enormous arm muscles strained the seams of his uniform shirt, made a dismissive motion with his hand. “Probably a bird taking off and displacing a few pebbles. Certainly there’s nothing in here.”
Another one, a human, tapped his fingers restlessly against the wall. “As soon as Lefty gets out here, we’ll lock up tight and resume regular rounds.”
The others nodded and made varying noises of assent.
Christophe, still hidden in mist form, automatically cataloged the guards in his memory, but a whisper of unease shivered through him that had nothing to do with the handful of Tower Guards. Something—someone—was playing with magic, and he or she was doing so in this very room. Very near the door. In fact, not six paces away from where the guards clustered around the door to the Treasury.
The biting chill of magic broadcasting from the corner tasted nothing like the sea and salt of Atlantean power. No, this was of the earth. The tang of freshly turned garden soil and the faint scent of ripe apples in the fall. An earth witch? Seelie Fae?
How strong, he couldn’t tell. The faint ripples were as subtle as his own, which meant either a practitioner with very little power to project or one with enough power to be able to hide it from both Christophe and the shifters, who normally had some sensitivity to magic. It definitely wasn’t one of the guards.
The light and shadows around that crowd broke normally, following accepted laws of physics.
But in the corner the shadows were . . . different. Just a whisper of a touch of difference, nothing that would alarm even the keenest non-magical observer, but to Christophe it was a beacon. A flare at sea from a drowning ship.
A sixth guard appeared in the doorway from the Treasury and nodded once, sharply. “All clear.”
“Thanks, Lefty. Better safe than sorry,” one of the older guards said, probably a familiar refrain from him, considering the carefully averted rolled eyes of a couple of the others.
As the guards began to disperse, heading in different directions, Lefty carefully slid an innocuous-looking information plaque on the wall to the left, revealing a digital keypad. He rapidly pressed buttons in a long sequence of numbers, pausing twice, either as part of the sequence or to think of what came next, and the security door began slowly to close. Christophe, soaring silently and quickly, traveled across the ceiling and into the room with seconds to spare before the door closed behind him with a muffled clanging sound. Several clicking noises sounded directly beneath and in front of where he hung, suspended, startling him, and he turned his attention downward.
Toward the . . . ninja.
Which startled him enough that he released his mist form, plummeted down from the ceiling, and landed on his ass. “What in the nine hells—”
The figure in scarlet whirled around and Christophe was treated to two more surprises: the shiny, deadly looking gun and the lovely curve of scarlet-covered breasts and hips.
The Scarlet Ninja was a woman—and she was armed.
* * *
“Who the bloody hell are you and where did you come from?” Fiona glared at the intruder, her gaze traveling up and up as he slowly stood, holding his hands out in front of him. He was a few inches over six feet of tall, dark, and sinfully gorgeous, and he had no right to be here in the middle of her scouting trip, never mind those astonishingly muscled shoulders and the dark waves of hair framing the most beautiful green eyes, sculpted cheekbones, and deliciously masculine face she had ever seen on a living, breathing man. Her breathing sped up, and her heart, which had already been racing faster than the lead car in the Birmingham Super Prix, thundered so hard it surely would pound its way out of her chest any moment.
She was a thief, standing in the middle of one of the most priceless collections of gems in the entire world, and yet she wasn’t tempted to look anywhere but at him.
Oh, yes. He was trouble.
Trouble blinked; long, dark lashes closing over emerald-green eyes so gorgeous they had to be illegal in most of Europe. Then he threw back his head and laughed, and shivers traced a delicate pattern down her spine. His deep, rich laugh was dark chocolate and champagne and silk sheets all presented in one wickedly mouthwatering package.
Oh, damn, it had been far too long since she’d had sex.
Her watch beeped. Glancing down, she saw that she had twelve minutes. Declan had hacked into the security cameras and put them on a circular repeating pattern or something equally complex and brilliant, but he’d warned her a dozen times that she had exactly fifteen minutes and not a second more.
She raised the tranq gun and used her best frosty, lady-of-the-manor voice. “I repeat, who the bloody hell are you?”
“You’re Scottish,” he said, quite unnecessarily.
“Give the man a gold ring. You have ten seconds to tell me who you are and why you’re here before I shoot you.” She raised the gun, hoping the first time she had to shoot a man while looking him in the eyes wouldn’t haunt her dreams for months to come. But needs must and, well, the Siren was waiting, no matter how mouthwateringly delicious this man might be.
“The Scarlet Ninja is a woman. A Scottish woman,” he said, his gaze sweeping over her from head to toe, blistering every inch of skin under her garments, as if the heat in his eyes were a palpable touch.
Of course, the negative here was that he appeared to be a blithering idiot.
“Yes. Ninja. Woman. Scottish. Do you have something against Scotland?”
Her watch beeped. Eleven minutes.
“Ninja,” he repeated, taking a step toward her. “Nin. Ja. Have you ever cracked a history book? Scotland. Ninjas. No.”
Fiona’s watch crackled. Declan checking in, and he was going to go mad if she didn’t respond soon. She raised her wrist and spoke softly. “Bit of a problem. Don’t worry. I’ll handle it.”
The luscious bit of man candy had the nerve to flash a devilish grin at her. “You can handle me anytime. I like to play dress-up games, too. You can be the ninja, and I’ll be the pirate.”
“Lovely. A thief and a boorish lout,” she snapped. Declan squawked from her wrist, but she lowered her hand and ignored her overprotective brother for the moment.
“Thief, huh. Pot, kettle? I guess we all know why you’re here, but a better question is what kind of magic were you throwing around out there?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she lied, careful not to let her shock show in her eyes.
“Fine. Another question, then.” He took another step toward her, all leashed power and hard-bodied male. She felt like a particularly scrumptious piece of catnip caught in the path of a tiger. “Scarlet Ninja. Today’s answer to Robin Hood. What are you here for? Not that it matters.” He waved an arm at the glass boxes filled with crowns, scepters, swords, and sundry. “Luckily, there’s plenty for both of us.”
It was her turn to blink, but she was out of time for small talk. “You’ll never succeed. But I’m only here for one thing, so feel free to look around.”
He smiled, and she wondered dizzily if the devil himself had a smile as seductive. “I think I’ll stick with you. I’d like to see under that mask. That lovely skin and those blue eyes are making me wonder what the rest of you looks like, not that those scarlet silks are hiding much. A man would give much to get his hands on those curves.”
The blunt words packed a sensual punch, maybe due to the sheer honesty of the admiration on his face and in his tone. She had to clench her thighs together against the heat.
“No time for this,” she said, inexplicably both glad she wore the mask and regretting it. “Step closer and I’ll shoot you.”
He bowed, a study in grace and elegance, and she had the oddest feeling that the courtly gesture came naturally to him, as if he’d done it many times before.
Her watch ticked over again. Nine minutes.
Still keeping one wary eye on him, she turned toward the shatterproof glass case on the far wall, crossing the electronic walkway to view the sword in its solitary state.
“Vanquish stands apart, doesn’t it?” he murmured next to her ear. He was too close; he was suddenly right next to her. She couldn’t contain the startled gasp. Nobody but vampires could move that fast. He clearly wasn’t that, though; her senses could recognize a vampire at twenty paces. But what? She backed away, aiming the tranq gun carefully, although he didn’t seem the least bit afraid of it. He also didn’t seem to be trying to scare her.
Not that he could. She was tough and brave, right?
“Isolated from the rest of the room, and even from the remainder of the sword collection,” he continued, as if unaware of her reaction. “Proud and unbending, like its owner.”
She dismissed his flight of fancy. “A conqueror. A predator.”
He turned to face her, the heat from his body radiating through the inches separating them until she felt herself beginning to lean forward into him. She stumbled back a step and raised the gun, aiming it at his heart.
He didn’t pay the slightest attention to it. Those green eyes lasered into her as he tilted his head. “And you don’t care for predators? You, who yourself live your life in search of prey? Dressed like a ninja?”
“My prey doesn’t breathe.”
“Doesn’t it? The treasures of a society are not the living, br
eathing representations of its history?”
Not an idiot, then. In spite of those cheekbones and sculpted lips. The pretty boy had a mind.
Click. Eight minutes.
“Bit fancy for a predator, isn’t it? I’d imagine predators use more practical blades.”
His attention snapped back to her, that piercing focus almost palpable. “Funny. I was thinking something similar earlier tonight.”
“Why were you thinking about Vanquish?”
“I plan to steal it.”
A jolt of sheer adrenaline raced through her, chasing chills down her spine, and she whirled around to face him straight on. “No. You can’t. It’s mine.”
Christophe’s mental warning system for critical danger had stood him in good stead for many long years and saved his ass, not to mention his life, on too many occasions to count. Right now warnings were flashing through his brain on high alert. This woman was clearly dangerous. She was definitely trouble. He should be wary and on his guard.
Instead, he was elated.
She was a little bit of a thing, maybe five and a half feet tall, but she seemed bigger because pure attitude added a few inches. And those ice blue eyes—well, even without the husky, sexy purr of her voice, he would ignore more than a little warning flare for the chance to see her face. The silk of her loose garments couldn’t hide her ripe, curvy body, and a wicked corner of his mind kept picturing what she might look like in his bed, wearing nothing but that scarlet mask.
His cock hardened at the thought of it, and it was almost enough to distract him from what she’d said. Almost. Vanquish was hers? He thought not, lovely ass or no.
“What’s yours?” He schooled his voice to calm, silken menace and allowed power to glow in his eyes and resonate through his words. Grown men—humans, shifters, and vamps alike—had all trembled at the sound of that voice.
“Ooh, scary glowy eyes. Do you try that trick on everyone, or just the odd ninja you meet when you’re planning a heist?” She glanced at her watch and, in spite of the casual amusement in her voice, he could tell her anxiety level was ratcheting up. Whatever she was up to, it looked like she was running out of time.