Unchained: the Dark Forgotten

Unchained: The Dark Forgotten
Editions:Paperback
ISBN: 978-0451230737

2011 RITA® Winner,
Paranormal Romance

First Place Winner, Futuristic/Fantasy/Paranormal/TT category of Wisconsin’s 2011 Write Touch Readers’ Award Contest

Finalist: Desert Rose Golden Quill Contest, Paranormal/Time Travel

Been there, slain that . . .

Ashe Carver, monster-killer, has the scars to prove it. But faced with a custody battle, she’s hung up her stakes and taken a job at the public library, determined to show the courts and her ten-year-old daughter that she’s as good a mother as she is a hunter.

Easier said than done. There are lovelorn vampires haunting the library, a slime demon in the shopping mall, and her new-mom sister needs a hand with her ghostbusting biz. Then, after centuries guarding a supernatural prison, Captain Reynard strides into her world like a hero from the library’s Must Reads. Smokingly gorgeous, passionate and courageous to a fault, he has only weeks to live unless Ashe finds the thief who took his soul.

Ashe picks up her weapons to save the day—but not every problem can be solved with a stake. With so much tragedy in her past, Ashe fears the disaster she sees ahead—and prays she doesn’t fail everyone. Again.

Memories are the hardest monsters to kill.

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Publisher: Signet Eclipse
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Excerpt:

“Get down!” Ashe barked, dragging Reynard by the collar of his fancy coat.

The next shot missed his head by a whisker. She could smell his sweat, the dirt, and the tang of crushed plants. She’d landed in a herbaceous border, destroying the gardeners’ careful work. A mound of thyme was bleeding spice into the night air.

The clock tower of the main building chimed eleven. Time to be home watching the late news, not chasing monsters around a tourist trap. Wait, they’d bagged the monster. So why was someone still shooting at them?

Reynard gripped her arm. “Are you hurt?” he repeated.

“No.” She turned to look at him, careful not to raise her head too far. “How about you?”

“No.”

They lay still for a moment, breathing, listening to the dark spring night.

“Anyone trying to kill you these days?” she asked.

“Not outside the Castle.”

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His eyes glittered. It might have been humor. She couldn’t quite tell. He was too closed, too different, like a map with no street names or landmarks. Just a lot of really nice geography.

Ashe swallowed hard, willing her jackhammer pulse to slow down. “Then the shooter must be after me.”

“A common occurrence?”

“Not since I moved to Fairview.” This was all supposed to be in the past. She had relocated, given up life on the road, scaled down the hunting to almost nothing—just the odd case. She’d let the word go out that she was retired. Sure, there’d always be some unhappy campers—friends and relatives of the supernatural monsters she’d exterminated—but even they’d grown quiet.

Quiet enough that Ashe had taken the risk of sending for her daughter.

Ashe crawled backward, a slithering motion that brought her to the shadow of a thick bush. She rose into a crouch, molding her body to the shape of the greenery, hiding in the dense leaves. She guessed at the angle the bullets had traveled. That put the shooter high up the tall column of rock that formed the lookout in the center of the sunken garden. She knew there was a nearly vertical staircase that led up to the platform at the top, but it wasn’t lit at night. All she could see was the dark spire of stone blotting out the stars.

Reynard moved to her left side, noiseless as a phantom. Wisps of dark hair framed his face. His neck cloth had come untied. Ashe couldn’t help noticing messy looked good on him.

He rested on one knee, raising the long musket. “Stay down,” he said quietly. “I’ll take care of this.”

A sour burn of impatience caught in Ashe’s throat. “There’s no way to make the shot at this distance.”

“No?” There was that sarcasm again.

“It’s dark.”

“I live in a dungeon. I’ve adapted to the dark.” He sighted down the long barrel as confidently as if it had one of the super-duper, high-whatever nightscopes Ashe had seen in the latest mercenaries’ mag.

They were wasting time. Firing would give away their position. They’d be better off sneaking up on the sniper. “That thing has a range of two feet. A crooked two feet.”

He sighed lightly, and cranked back the hammer. It was at that moment she saw it had a real, honest-to-Goddess flint secured in the jaws of the mechanism. This thing relied on sparks and naked gunpowder. They’d be lucky if it didn’t blow up.

“They won’t be expecting us to return fire,” he said evenly.

“Because it’s not possible! I have a real gun, and I can’t make that shot.”

Thoroughly ignoring her, Reynard pulled the trigger, jerking as the musket recoiled. It banged like a giant cap gun and smelled like a chemistry set gone wrong. Ashe opened her mouth to protest and got a mouthful of foul-tasting smoke.

And there was a distant, sharp cry of pain. Reynard had hit his mark.

“That’s not possible!” She realized she sounded annoyed.

He made a noise that was almost a laugh. “Just a touch of a spell. I thought witches were open to magic.”

“I’m not a witch anymore.”

He gave her a look, grabbed the musket, and slipped into the darkness. Swearing, Ashe ran to catch up. The entrance to the staircase was on the other side of the tall spire of rock, forcing them to circle its base. The colored lights that illuminated the flower beds dwindled, then stopped as soon as they left the footpath. Ashe tripped, nearly going down on one knee before she bumped into Reynard.

He steadied her, and she could feel the remnants of magic clinging to Reynard’s long, strong fingers. But there was more than that; she felt power spilling over her like sand in a windstorm, stinging in a thousand tiny bites. Whoever—whatever—had been shooting at them was hurt, and not human.

She thought again about her daughter, and knew fear.

Reynard took a step forward. Ashe grabbed his arm. “You had only one shot in your musket. I should go first.”

He pulled what looked like a very modern Smith & Wesson—it was hard to tell in the dark—from a holster hidden at the small of his back. “I could reload. I also carry a backup. As Mac is so fond of saying, shit happens.”

The obscenity sounded wrong coming from him. Of course, every assumption she’d made about him so far that night had been off base. Not a good thing when they were supposed to be covering each other’s backs.

Reynard started up the stairs, showing just how good his night vision was. Ashe brought up the rear. There was an iron railing to her right, but that was her gun hand, so she left it alone. Her skin crawled, not just with power but with vertigo. Normally she didn’t mind heights, but all that changed when she couldn’t see where she was putting her feet. She felt for the steps and counted each one. Good to know how many steps she’d climbed in case she had to reverse course in a hurry. Thinking you were at the bottom of the pitch-dark stairs when you weren’t could be a problem.

More plants and bushes grew on the rock spire. Leaves brushed her face like slick, green fingers. They reached the landing, where the stairs took a sharp turn. Overhead was a wash of stars, thick and bright because the gardens were outside the city. Above the canopy of trees, the waxing moon gave a thin wash of light. Ashe saw Reynard hold up his left hand, then point. His right hand was curled around his weapon. Ashe grasped her own gun in both hands, reassured by its cold, heavy weight.

They went up the last dozen stairs. At the top was a kidney-shaped platform surrounded by an iron railing. It was like another small garden. The flower bed, maple tree, and bench would have been lovely in daylight. At night, the scene was eerie.

Reynard turned right and swept his gun downward to point at the fallen shooter. Ashe aimed at the figure sprawled facedown on the ground. He was twisted as if an effort to duck had spun him around.

Vampire. Now that she was close, Ashe could almost taste his essence. His energy was pouring needles of power over her like the skitter of insect feet on her skin. She glided to the left of the figure, Reynard to the right, until they stood on opposite sides of their quarry.

What happened next depended entirely on the vamp. Why had he shot at her? She wanted an explanation. She’d be happy to keep him alive—vibrantly undead?—at least long enough to question him. Longer if he played nice. Then again, he’d tried to kill her already. If he attacked, there’d be no messing around.

The vamp was male, medium height, dressed in jeans. A scatter of weapons and a tripod were strewn around him. She smelled blood, but saw only a shining stain on the back of his jacket. It was too dark to see color. He was motionless, but still she kicked his rifle out of reach. It was a sniper’s piece—nightscope and all the fancy fixings.

“Weapon says he meant business,” she said softly.

“It seems your enemies put forward their best efforts,” Reynard replied.

“I’m so flattered.” Ashe took another quick inventory of the vamp. Short leather boots. The glint of a fancy watch. Dark hair, collar length. “Y’know, at first I wondered why someone would shoot from a place with only one escape route.”

As she spoke, she shifted the Colt to her left hand and reached into the pocket that ran up the outside of her right thigh. Familiarity washed through her. Slaying wasn’t her happy place, but it was one she knew inside and out. And it was the place where a bad guy ceased to be a “he” and became an “it.” It was easier to take them out if they weren’t a person.

Ashe pulled out a long, straight, sharp stake. “Then it came to me. Vamps can fly. And then I thought of another thing. I was called out here on an emergency. How did an assassin know where I’d be? Somebody’s been doing some planning, and I’m going to want names.”

The vampire struck. The speed was breathtaking, lifting it from a facedown sprawl to a frontal attack in less than a second—but she’d been expecting that. Ashe felt the thing’s body pound into the stake, and she used its own momentum to drive the weapon home. All she had to do was brace her feet against all that brute force and lean into it.

The vamp flailed its arms, trying to change direction and pull away, trying to slash and bite and escape all at once. She’d judged the vamp’s height fairly well, but the stake had entered just below its heart. Ashe felt her feet skid on the stone beneath her, sliding far too close to the iron railing and the sheer drop beyond.

Reynard yelled, grabbing the vamp from behind. In a flash of moonlight, she could see the vampire’s face—features twisted in pain and rage. Reynard was managing to pin its arms, something no human should have been able to do. That seemed to scare the monster even more than the stake.

Ashe twisted her weapon, driving upward. The vampire gasped. She stopped a hair’s breadth from skewering it, praying Reynard’s strength would hold. She was taking a risk, pausing like this, but a chance at information was worth it.

She could feel his—its—breath on her skin, catch the faint, sweet smell of its venom. A vampire’s poison was so addictive, its erotic high made its victims slaves after just one bite.

“Why were you shooting at me?” she demanded.

It bared fangs, giving a rattling hiss.

“Scary, but I’ve seen better,” she said.

Reynard did something that made the vampire wince. “Answer.”

“Abomination!” it snarled, and gave one last lunge at her.

“Last” being the operative term. Ashe slammed the stake upward just before its fangs could reach her flesh. She heard the snap of its teeth as they closed on air.

The vampire was suddenly deadweight. Reynard let the body drop, wood still protruding from its chest.

Ashe looked down at the vampire. She knew she would feel plenty later—anger, triumph, regret, pity, self-justification—but at the moment she was blank. She’d done what she had to do. Once the adrenaline wore off, the rest could engulf her.

The vampire had called her an abomination. She opened her mouth to comment on how strange that was, coming from a bloodsucking monster, but closed it again. It was weird enough that she didn’t want to even think about it. Besides, there were other, more pressing questions—like why had the vamp chosen to die rather than talk?

It could be vengeance. It could be something else. Whatever it was, it was personal. That thought made her queasy.

“Are you all right?” Reynard asked.

“Yeah,” Ashe said, keeping her voice light. “It went down easily enough.”

Reynard sat down on the bench, head bowed. Ashe looked away. He looked glum, but skewering the enemy wasn’t a cheery kind of thing. And then again, you didn’t get into this kind of work to talk about your feelings.

Ashe turned to lean on the railing. Below was the garden, bathed in starlight. A much better view than the vampire. The body had already started to shrivel. In about twenty minutes, it would be a pile of dust. It was like time caught up with the vamps, grinding them to nothing. Once it was gone, they would search the vamp’s possessions for clues.

Above, the stars glittered like sequins on a torch singer’s evening gown. Below, the gardens glowed like a fairy kingdom. It seemed distant and surreal, a pretty mirage she could look at but not touch. She was made from a different element—something far less appealing.

At some point along the way, when her parents died, or when her husband died, or maybe when she’d bagged her first monster, Ashe had let herself slide into the darkness. Now that her daughter was home, she had to snap out of it. Kids needed a bright, shiny world. Eden needed something besides a monster-slaying action figure for a mom. Too bad Ashe didn’t know how to be anything else.

She would try. Goddess knew she would try. She would strive to see the beauty in the world and look away from the shadows. It was her duty as a parent.

She heard Reynard shift on the bench behind her.

“You should come see the view,” she said.

“No, thank you.” His voice was quiet. The dark made it oddly intimate.

“Why not?”

He was silent for a few heartbeats. “I have to go back to the Castle.”

“So?” She turned, leaning against the rail to face him.

He raised his head, but didn’t meet her eyes. “Whatever I see out here will make me restless, and I don’t have a choice about going back. It’s best I see as little as possible.”

There was so much regret in the words, it bruised her. Regret—that she knew. She could almost taste it like coppery blood on her tongue, sharp and familiar.

Now, finally, there was something about him that she understood.

And, Goddess help her, she suddenly wanted to fix it.

COLLAPSE
Reviews:on Bitten by Books:

Sharon Ashwood is all that is good and right in the paranormal romance genre.

on Publishers Weekly:

Fast paced and captivating… chemistry is immediate and undeniable, and the love scenes are scorching hot.

on Romance Junkies:

Ms. Ashwood’s characters leap from the pages, the romance is hot and passionate, and the monsters make me want to check under my bed. Superb and highly recommended!

on Romantic Times Book Reviews, 4 1/2 stars:

Ashwood has a real gift for developing flawed and intriguing characters—and plenty of action. The tragic nature of these star-crossed lovers’ pasts adds depth and urgency to their developing relationship.

on Night Owl Reviews Top Pick:

I highly recommend The Dark Forgotten books. This highly original series has earned a permanent place on my keeper shelf!

on The Merry Genre Go Round Reviews:

A terrific action-adventure thriller.

on Single Titles:

Multiply the Wow Factor, the Dark Forgotten saga must continue!

on Fresh Fiction:

UNCHAINED is an action-packed roller coaster ride with thrills on every page.

Debbie on CK2s Kwips and Kritiques wrote:

Without a doubt, Sharon Ashwood has solidified herself as one of the authors I MUST buy. Highly recommended!

on The Best Reviews:

A terrific action-adventure thriller . . . This is an enthralling, magical great work by Sharon Ashwood.

on Book Faery:

I loved it. I loved this. What more is there to say?

on Coffee Time Romance & More:

Ms. Ashwood knows how to write paranormal novels, leaving the reader with one heck of an impression of her talent.

on Smexy Books Romance Reviews:

I recommend Unchained and the first two books of the series . . . if you’re looking for an action-packed, exciting paranormal romance with an incredible arc that will keep you enthralled and captivated till the final pages.

on Bitten by Books:

Unchained by Sharon Ashwood is everything I’d expect from a kickass paranormal romance and more . . . Ashe is such an amazing heroine, I couldn’t help but love her.