Crown of Fae Book 2
One lover is lying. The other will kill them all.
Tessa Harrison takes a cruise to Alaska and—just like her love life—the voyage seems doomed. The fact that her ex followed her aboard is bad enough, but this time he’s brought sea monsters.
Tessa’s former lover—who reveals himself as the Sea King of the fae—isn’t her only surprise visitor on the ship. Maxwell Stokes, captain of the ghost ship Solitude, is a guardian of the gateway between the fae and human worlds. Betrayed by the Sea King, Stokes is determined to get vengeance until Tessa disrupts his every plan. She’s fire to his ice, and the result is unexpected steam.
Tessa’s survival means unlocking a destiny she never suspected. Fiercely independent, she holds the key to both men’s future—or their eternal destruction. Both want her power. Both claim she is the only woman they desire. Which one is telling the truth?
Tessa must choose—and the wrong choice could destroy two worlds.
Dawn splintered the night as Captain Maxwell Stokes recalled exactly how bad a hangover could be.
He sat on the deck of the Solitude, his feet propped on a crate. He wasn’t sure where the chair he’d collapsed in had come from, but it didn’t belong on the ship. He ached as if he’d been in an epic battle, although he couldn’t recall any such thing. Worse, his mouth tasted as if he’d eaten a filthy blanket—perhaps one the ship’s cat slept on right along with the rats that were her meals.
On the positive side, he’d had a glorious time at his sister Lisette’s wedding—or what he could remember of it. The scatter of bottles, discarded pipes, and the sleeping crew who stretched across the deck would have to be cleared away first thing, but that would involve noise and bustle. For just a handful of seconds, he craved peace.READ MORE
The Solitude was at anchor in Margit Bay, the tiny western city-state of Pomandine stretched along the shore. The ancient buildings crowded around the harbor, with the grander houses rising along the steep mountainside behind it. High up was the castle, the white stone made rosy by the first streaks of sunlight. That was where Stokes had been born and where—someday, eventually—he’d return to claim his birthright.
In the meantime, Lisette and her new husband would govern in his stead. It was a love match, with good sense and compatible minds to support it. The groom was from a wealthy merchant family, ideally suited to help Lisette govern taxes and trade.
The shining happiness on his sister’s face made him long for a family of his own—but his desires didn’t matter. He commanded Pomandine’s small war fleet, and they had joined the high king’s navy in defense of the realm. Love would have to come for Stokes later—much later.
Last night’s revelry was all the rest and recreation he would get.
Stokes rose, stretching his limbs to warm them against the dawn’s chill. He moved across the deck, stepping carefully to avoid his sleeping men. The night sky was fading to a study in silver and pink, the scent of mountain pines on the breeze. The first of the fishing fleet was leaving the harbor, black silhouettes against the shining mirror of the sea. It was a scene that had played out every morning for a thousand years. The fleet bobbed like children’s toys beside his three-decker warship, and his chest tightened with the need to protect them.
Lisette had accused Stokes of loving adventure more than his duty to his people, but she was wrong. He fought so Pomandine and its fishers and silk merchants, its fine ladies and picturesque streets, remained untouched. Like a madman, he’d pushed his crew to reach home in time for the celebration, but he could not linger. The enemy—the creatures they called Shades—pushed farther west with every battle.
Stokes had no sooner finished the thought than a movement in the water caught his eye. Between two fishing vessels, a scrap of darkness rode the waves. He squinted, wishing the dawn was brighter. Cormac Manannan, the Sea King of Faery, ruled his kingdom beneath the western waters, and the dark shape might be one of his subjects catching his morning meal. While a sighting was rare, it was nothing of concern. The ocean fae were allied with the high king’s forces. And yet…
Stokes leaned against the ship’s side, wishing he knew where his spyglass had got to. He strained for a better look, concern clearing his brain of the last fumes of wine. Something was not right.
That was no mermaid sporting in the waves. It was a small, lean craft cutting through the water at a magically fueled speed. It headed toward the outermost edge of the scattered fishing boats. Stokes tensed, studying the scene. There was another such boat, a bit farther south. And a third. They were circling the fishermen, deadly as any sharks.
His sour stomach, still full from the wedding banquet, nearly rebelled. He’d seen these crafts before. Shades. Somehow, they’d slipped through the cordon of warships and sailed here, to his home.
Stokes nudged the closest sailor with his booted foot. “Wake up!”
The man groaned, flopping to his back and shielding his eyes from the blazing sunrise.
“Find Reynolds,” Stokes ordered. “Get him on his feet.”
Reynolds was the first mate, well-versed in managing half-drunk sailors.
“Aye-aye, sir,” the man moaned.
“There are Shades in the bay,” Stokes said.
His words were like ice water. Instantly, the man clambered to his feet and gave an awkward salute. “Sir!”
Stokes reached for his sword, then remembered he’d taken it off for the dancing. His mind raced, calculating their chances. He had one ship, but where there was one Shade vessel, there were always dozens more. “Sound the summoning horns. We need the sea king’s aid.”
The sailor’s eyes went wide as he took off at a run. Stokes followed, shouting orders as he went to arm himself for war. He’d barely reached his cabin when the great curving war horns sounded from high up the main mast. The growl of the huge instruments reflected from the mountainsides, echoing across the water. The waves seemed to shudder with the booming grumble, sending flocks of gulls wheeling in the air. Wisely, many of the fishing vessels turned, fleeing to the safe embrace of the harbor.
Those farther out were in trouble. As soon as he returned to the deck, Stokes saw the enemy crafts had multiplied, closing around the fishing fleet. The enemy was too close to friendly vessels to use the ship’s cannons, so Stokes ordered archers to employ their longbows from the round platforms positioned high up the masts. A poisoned arrow to the throat could kill a Shade when little else worked.
The archers were halfway to their positions when the first vessel went down. The Marli Jane was a modest size, but her white-and-green paint gleamed in the new sunlight. She was tacking hard to escape the Shade’s path, white sails bellied out with the morning wind. She was fast, but not as nimble as the enemy. A ball of darkness flew through the air to land on her deck, trailing wisps of something—smoke, mist, or pure pestilence—in its wake.
A shout of horror rose from the crew of the Solitude. They knew what the dark ball meant. Stokes had found his spyglass, and he now trained it on the Marli Jane. A stain spread from where the scrap of blackness had landed, crawling outward like a creeping mold. The deck crumbled where it touched, leaving nothing but rot and powder. The crew shrank away as the planks collapsed, and the proud sails blackened to tatters. A few jumped overboard, trusting their luck to the sea. The others clung to the vanishing boat, which eventually collapsed inward as if crushed by an invisible fist.
Stokes lowered the spyglass. He’d seen the Shades’ magic at work before, and it had left entire coastlines bare of life. Farther inland, they’d scoured the dragons’ lands, and the farms and villages near the desert. They seemed to kill for no reason beyond the wild joy of destruction. How could he stop them here and now, on his doorstep?
The ship’s archers fired, catching one of the dark-clad Shades through the shoulder. It was a good shot, especially since they were hard to see, hooded and hiding where the light was dim. The figure grabbed for the arrow, a gloved hand groping for the wound, but it collapsed to nothing, as if its cloak had been filled with air.
The Solitude’s crew cheered, but the victory was small. By the time they had killed a single enemy, a dozen ships had sunk. Stokes swore a vicious oath, wishing for a human enemy he could fight hand to hand—wishing for a magic spell of his own.
His curse was answered. Light bloomed from beneath the sea, spreading pools of violet, aquamarine, and sapphire through the water. The illumination came in wavering circles of brilliance, as if the ocean itself was waking.
Giant crystals broke the waves, rising on spears of gleaming gold. Then the King of the Sea himself followed, riding in a sea-green chariot. Seahorses crested the storm-tossed waves. His attendants were the merrows and merfolk, the sirens and selkies. Water streamed from them in glittering sheets, pooling in a white froth that chased the fleeing boats to the shore.
The Solitude’s sailors whistled and cheered. Some of the sea folk were beautiful, others wildly grotesque. Either way, Stokes had never seen such a welcome sight as Cormac Manannan rising in his chariot. The sea king was tall and heavily muscled, draped in sea-green robes. One hand held a jeweled trident, the symbol of his rule.
Stokes’s heart leaped with newfound courage.
“Your Majesty,” Stokes cried, waving from the deck. “We crave your aid to throw off these invaders.”
“You summon me, human, according to the ancient treaties between the high king and my people?” The sea king’s voice roared with the crash of waves and the cry of gulls.
“By the fae and by the dragon, I summon you,” Stokes replied, using the formal language of the old oaths. “By human’s sword and goblin’s hammer, I conjure you to defend the surface world. Faery is in danger, and the old alliances must rise. Help me save my people in Pomandine.”
Silence fell over the merfolk. Then, a loud keening rose from the sea king’s attendants, as if they mourned a death. Stokes covered his ears to block the high-pitched noise. The creatures lifted bare arms to the skies, wailing until the king silenced them with a wave of one hand.
The sound cut off abruptly. Relieved, Stokes took his hands from his ears. A bosun swore loudly, the words resonating over the water.
“Human,” Cormac said, his voice grave. “The old oaths served an old world. One before this enemy plague.”
Stokes gripped his brass spyglass, hands suddenly numb with dread. “What do you mean, Sea King?”
“If I give the Shades the land, they will leave the deep waters alone.”
Understanding slammed into Stokes. The sea king had struck a bargain with the Shades to save his own people. The Solitude was doomed. So was every fishing boat on the water—along with the men, women, and children who depended on their catch.
Volcanic fury flared in Stokes’s veins. “You traitor.”
Cormac Manannan ignored him, instead pointing his trident to the north. The waves lashed higher in that direction, responding to his command.
“What’s he doing?” the bosun cried.
Stokes wished he knew. The Shades had turned their boats in the same direction, abandoning the wreckage of the fishing fleet. “Fire on the bastards,” he ordered.
The crew hastened to obey. Soon, the brass cannons boomed and belched, picking off the enemy’s vessels as if this were merely target practice. The Shades barely seemed interested in evasive maneuvers. The crew’s cheers started out hearty, only to fade as realization set in.
The Shades were waiting as the sea king’s wall of water grew higher. When it towered like a great porthole above the ocean and far, far taller than the Solitude’s highest mast, Manannan lowered his trident. The sun was fully up now, and the shining, churning disk of water glistened in the sun like a silver platter. Like a mirror.
Stokes almost fell to his knees in horror. He knew little of Shade magic, but he knew of the spell called the Shimmer. It worked on the principle that two reflective surfaces could form a doorway between locations or even worlds. The sea king had just made the biggest mirror ever, and Stokes would wager his best sword one of those Shade crafts held a sorcerer.
He was correct. The giant disk of water turned ink black, and a flotilla of Shade warships sailed through the Shimmer. These weren’t the small, sleek runabouts that had attacked the fishermen, but massive ships with two and three decks, bristling with cannon.
“Fire on them,” Stokes cried, wasting no time rallying his crew.
Even as he gave the order, his thoughts spun. With the sea king’s help, the Shades had found a shortcut to the west of Faery. The innocent lives that had been safe yesterday were all but lost. Stokes gulped for breath, suddenly finding it hard to get air. Had he somehow invited this disaster by leaving his post for the wedding? Had he failed in his duty? The idea was emotionally true, but logically ridiculous. He hadn’t caused this, but the fact he’d taken a moment for pleasure savaged him with razor claws.
There was no more time for guilt. The Solitude’s guns fired, punching holes high in the deck of the nearest Shade vessel. It was all but futile—the odds were wildly against them—but defiance was all they had left.
Until they lost even more. The King of the Sea struck the waves with his trident, and the earth began to shake. Stokes spun to face the shore—to face Pomandine, where his sister and her new husband slept in their castle bedroom high on the mountainside. The city was his childhood, his anchor, his once and future home.
The three Shade warships had fanned out, training their cannons on the city. For a panicked moment, Stokes wondered if the Solitude was in the line of fire, but then realized they would miss the ship on either side. Then, as the three ships fired their cannons, Stokes wished he’d already been blown to smithereens.
There were no lead balls, no volleys of shot, but the guns fired something he couldn’t see. It hit with a clap that sent the crew staggering as the ship pitched in response. Then, with an indescribable thunder of falling stone, the whole of the mountainside that held Stokes’s world slid into the sea, taking the piers and harbor with it. Boats crumpled beneath the avalanche. Pillars of dust rose to the clouds. Even through the crash of destruction, Stokes could hear his people screaming.
Within seconds, there was nothing but bare mountainside and rubble. It looked as if a god had wiped the rock face clean. The crew of the Solitude fell deathly silent. Even the sea king and his people remained still as statues—at least for the moment it took to understand what had happened.
Then the wave came. A city had fallen into the ocean. All the displaced water had to go somewhere. The sea king plunged beneath the waves, fleeing to safety with his people. The Shade ships vanished into a tower of water, but the Solitude seemed to catch the crest, rising higher and higher as the ship was hurtled back toward the Shimmer.
Perhaps it was the sea king’s magic that kept them from capsizing. Stokes didn’t know, but he would seize this chance to retaliate. He grabbed the tiller, steering straight into the portal the Shades had used.
“Captain.” The helmsman clutched his arm. “What are you thinking?”
The man had no right to question his superior, but Stokes answered anyway. “Tell the gunners to fire every barrel of powder in the hold once we hit the Shimmer. Sacrifice is the only duty we have left.”
It was a fancy way of saying they were about to die.
“Wagering on the devil’s number? Risky, even for you.”
His soft, deep voice caught Tessa Harrison’s attention, though her eyes never left the roulette table. She stiffened inside but worked hard not to show her fear. He shouldn’t be there.
She’d run and thought she would be safe. A mistaken calculation.
“If you add the numbers on the wheel,” Cormac McMann said, breath warm against her neck, “they sum to six-six-six.”
“Is that your number?” She edged her tone with ice, refusing to give ground even though he was very much inside her personal space.
“Is that meant to be amusing?”
“Take it any way you like.”
“You forget I know how deep inside you that demon lives. You already owe some dangerous men for this little habit of yours. Do you really want to add to your debt?”
The cold crawling through Tessa’s belly seeped into her limbs and then her thoughts, numbing her when she most needed to be swift and smart. Cormac was right, but she had no idea how he knew the truth. She’d been so careful in hiding it. Then again, he’d turned out to be nothing like she’d expected.
What else did he know about her? There were things she barely admitted to herself.
“Leave me alone, Cormac.”
“What, no banter?”
A babble of voices rose around the table as a high roller put his chips on a single number. The room was crowded, the scent of alcohol and perfume heavy in the air. Light sparkled from the chandeliers, the diffuse radiance giving an aura of class. The décor promised wealth and discretion, as if money were no object to the patrons gathered there.
Tessa knew firsthand it was a lie. She put her small stack of chips down, refusing to bolt from Cormac’s presence. Prey ran and lost, and he was definitely a hunter. As he shifted closer still, she heard the rustle of his hand-tailored suit and smelled the warm musk of his skin. The man knew how to loom. At first, she’d thought it was sexy—who didn’t like a good alpha male? But now, it sent a flare of warning to the most primitive parts of her brain.
There were so many ways to gamble, and she’d tried most of them. This time, she was caught between a roulette table and a stone-cold killer. Tessa couldn’t seem to escape her bad choices.
The wheel spun one way, the white ball the other, flashing past black and red numbers in a dizzying, rattling blur. For an instant, she forgot Cormac, her chest aching with exhilaration and dread. Winning was glorious, but what Tessa craved was the dance between doom and wild hope. Nothing else made her blood pound the same way.
The ball dropped, bouncing and rolling until it landed on the red nine. Gasps and cheers rose from the crowd clustered around the table. Tessa’s stomach plunged like a falcon shot from the sky. She’d lost again, far more than she should have. Cormac must have seen her flinch, because his hand wrapped around her bare arm.
“Come away, Tessa.”
Cursing, she spun to face him. The movement forced Cormac to release her arm.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded.
“You left me behind.”
“A girl can take a vacation, can’t she?”
“You ran.” His brows dipped into a scowl. “You had no right to vanish without a word.”
“I can go anywhere I like, whenever I want.” Her voice went from chill to Arctic, her fingers gripping her clutch to hide their tremor. You don’t know I saw you kill a man, but I did.
The look in his eyes said he understood her thoughts—though it was plainly impossible. Almost as unlikely as a murder that left absolutely no trace for the cops to find. They’d thought Tessa was—how had they phrased it?—confused. The only one who’d believed her was a private eye, and she still wasn’t sure where he fit in.
“Besides,” she said. “You left on a business trip.” You got on a plane, then made yourself scarce while the police bungled the investigation and called me a liar.
After that, all she’d wanted was to get away, so she’d taken what little money she had left and booked a last-minute cruise to Alaska on the Pacific Swan. It seemed her plan had backfired. Now she was broke and trapped on a ship with him.
“Do you want me to beg for another chance?” he murmured, tilting her face up with a finger beneath her chin.
Cormac was well over six feet tall and built like a bull, his chest and thick arms all muscle. Now his impressive physique was wrapped in a Savile Row evening suit, and the contrast of brute force and elegance was intoxicating. Tessa’s cocktail dress seemed little more than a wisp of aqua silk, barely covering her overheated flesh. The ship’s casino was packed with passengers, all wound to a fever pitch. It was more than the air conditioner could cope with.
Tessa couldn’t break Cormac’s gaze. His eyes were a shifting blue green that contrasted sharply with his deeply tanned skin. Dark brows swept across a broad forehead. It was a brutal face, softened only by a wide, sensual mouth. He’d tamed his dark hair into a tight braid that hung a few inches past his collar. Everyone else would think him an exotic prince on the prowl for entertainment. All she could think of was the flash of a knife in the dark.
“We’re done,” she said. “And begging doesn’t suit you.”
“Begging?” He sneered. “Is that what you think I’m doing?”
She couldn’t stay there another moment. Unfortunately, she couldn’t avoid brushing against the hard curve of his chest and thigh as she pushed through the throng, her high-heeled sandals doing nothing for her balance. Cormac’s hand fastened in the fall of her hip-length hair, stopping her short. Tessa’s heart skipped, terror rising into her throat. He bent until his lips brushed her ear, his breath tangy with lime and salt. “Don’t think you can escape from me.”
Her gaze flicked across the crowd, wondering if she should call for help. She instantly discarded the notion. No one had believed her before. Why would this time be different?
Tessa stepped on Cormac’s foot, leaning in to drive her narrow heel through the butter-soft leather of his dress shoe. She felt the fine bones of his foot shift beneath the pressure. Cormac’s breath caught. Suddenly, she was free to turn her head.
“Back off,” she snapped, curling her lip.
They locked eyes, his darkening with fury. Cormac didn’t like to lose, but neither did she. It was the one trait they shared.
Tessa wasted no time slipping through the crowd. Her fingers tightened around her glittering evening bag, as if she needed something solid to hold on to. Not that there was anything of value in it besides her driver’s license and phone—the last of her emergency money was back at the roulette table. In a wild bout of magical thinking, she’d hoped to win enough to pay off her debts, or at least for her trip. Tessa cursed again, the words capturing the loss, herself, and all her failures.
Cormac. Her skin pebbled as she strode down the hall, each step putting distance between them. Although she was unlucky in love, this was a new low. To make things worse, the stress had sent her backsliding into old vices. She’d known better than to visit the casino—she’d even gone to therapy about her habit—but she’d slipped, convincing herself she’d only watch the other players. When she’d broken down and played a few games, she should have known enough to stop, yet she’d kept going anyway. Ironically, Cormac had done her a favor by interrupting her night.
Now what should she do? If he was aboard, chances were he’d already found out her cabin number. Running there first thing would be a mistake. Tessa slowed her steps, considering her options. She was on the entertainment level—deck four according to the sign on the wall. She swerved toward the elevator, hitting the button to go up even as she glanced back for any sign of her ex. There was no doubt he’d follow. Sure enough, she spotted his tall form emerging to tower over the crowd.
Luckily, the door opened at once. She stepped inside with a dozen other people. But rather than choose her destination, she let chance take her. The more she broke with her usual habits, the harder she’d be to find. When the doors opened on deck ten, she went to the Starview Room, one of several cocktail lounges on the ship.
It was busy, though not so much she couldn’t find a table deep in the mood-lit shadows. When the waiter came by, she ordered white wine. The single candle on the glass table reflected in the window at her left. The night was cloudy, so she could see little beyond the reflection of the lights on the ship’s wake. It looked as if they sailed through space, the rest of the world simply a myth. If only that were true.
She took a deep breath, shaking a little as tension finally left her body. The break with Cormac had been an act of self-preservation, but she wasn’t romantically crushed. In some ways, that was a blessing—she’d seen friends fall to pieces when their relationship had crashed and burned—but she’d always been safe from that kind of drama. A person had to fall in love before their heart could be broken. Tessa had tried, of course. She’d had her share of brief affairs.
Therapists loved her file—gambling and attachment issues, abandonment as a baby. Her adopted family had raised her well, but she’d never fit in. That was why Cormac had been special. He’d seemed familiar, making her a part of his world in a way she’d never experienced before. She already missed that sensation of belonging.
A fin flicked in the water below. As a professional diver, she saw a lot of sea creatures, but this was far larger than it should have been, even this far into the open ocean. It made her think of Jules Verne, of Leviathans and Victorian etchings of sea monsters. She leaned toward the window, frowning at the shifting water, but the creature didn’t show itself again.
Despair rolled through her. She’d lost her man, and she’d more than lost her money. Was she losing her mind as well? Seeing imaginary monsters? Bodies that weren’t there? Murders that never occurred? The sting of tears made her blink.
A figure joined her at the table. Tessa jerked her gaze away from the window, but she exhaled with relief when she saw it was a stranger and not her ex. He was dark haired and impeccably dressed, down to his gold cufflinks. Somewhere in his thirties, he was handsome in a rugged way, as if he’d spent a lot of time outdoors. A sailor, maybe, or an avid ski enthusiast. Or possibly another psycho, given her luck with men.
“May I join you?” he asked, setting down his martini glass. He had an accent—English, but not London. The West Country, perhaps.
Tessa just wanted him gone. “I’m not looking for a date.”
“Neither am I.”
“I am in deadly earnest, I assure you.”
“Deadly, huh?” Tessa studied the high cheekbones and lean jaw. This wasn’t the face of a playboy, however suave the outfit. He looked dangerous in a quiet, efficient way.
He gave her a wry smile. “Clearly, we both have enough problems without adding the tedium of romantic entanglements.”
Tessa’s wine arrived, and she automatically took a sip. “I’ve been called a lot of things, but never tedious.”
“My apologies,” he said, lips curving with self-mockery. “My manners have rusted away.”
“Don’t worry. I never had any. Why are you at my table?”
He sat back, brows drawing together. “So I can do you a favor.”
She’d irritated the man. At this point in her rotten evening, she didn’t care. “What’s your name?”
“Stokes,” he replied, lifting his glass.
He didn’t offer a first name, so Tessa didn’t ask. She straightened, folding her arms. “What kind of a favor are you offering? Do you have investments to sell? Maybe holiday condos in a swamp?”
“Not quite.” He gave a slight nod, indicating a table several yards away. “Those men followed you in. I noticed them watching you. I grew concerned.”
She knew better than to turn and stare, but a sideways glance showed her several people she recognized from the casino. One was wide and bald, the other tall with bleached hair and a scar down one cheek. They’d come straight from a box labeled, “well-dressed thugs.” She hadn’t noticed them come in, even though she’d kept half an eye on the door. Then she remembered staring out the window, contemplating sea monsters.
She reached for her glass, desperate to steady her nerves, then pushed it away instead. This was no time to dull her wits. It was time to stop reacting and take control.
“Do you know them?” Stokes asked.
It was a good question. There was her connection to the gambling world, but it was just as likely they’d come with Cormac. “They might work for someone I know.”
“And this someone is the type to send hirelings to follow you?” He said it evenly, though there was a thread of anger beneath the words.
“Maybe.” Definitely. Still, she wasn’t sure how much she could say. Stokes might seem chivalrous, but Cormac had taught her to be wary. “I’m leaving.”
Stokes rose when she did. “I’ll accompany you wherever you want to go.”
She was about to protest when she felt Bald Guy’s gaze. She couldn’t afford to refuse assistance. Once she got to her cabin, she could lock the door and be as antisocial as she liked.
Reluctantly, she gave in. “Thank you.”
Stokes offered her his arm. Her hand tingled the moment it touched his sleeve, as if he carried an electric current. She gasped slightly, then the sensation faded as they began walking. Perhaps it was just more evidence of her growing insanity.
Talking would steady her nerves. “Do you make a habit of rescuing strangers?”
“No, though I fought at sea for a worthy cause,” Stokes said. “I’ve done my share of knight errantry.”
“In the Navy?”
“A navy of a sort, yes.”
As they got on the elevator, she noticed Bald Guy typing on his phone—no doubt alerting the world Tessa was on the move. Anger stirred, finally burning away some of her fear. Good—she could work with anger.
Stokes was watching her, so she searched for something more to say. “Do you still have your own boat?”
He smiled, showing crinkles around his eyes. “Ship, not boat. She’s called the Solitude.”
“Solitude sounds peaceful.”
He gave a low laugh, as if it were anything but. Despite the circumstances, her blood heated, warning her she wasn’t immune to his very male presence.
“How about you?” he asked. “What do you do at home?”
“I’m a commercial diver,” she said, leaving out she was one of the best in the business and able to command an exorbitant fee. If her bosses had their way, she’d never take holidays. “I work with ecologists, science teams, and a few fisheries. I’m good with tools, so I do a lot of underwater repairs.”
“That can be dangerous work,” he said.
“Sometimes,” she agreed. “But then again, taking a vacation cruise turned out to be more than I bargained for.”
The elevator chimed, and the door slid open. They stepped out into the corridor, where doors to the passenger cabins lined either side. Tessa’s was halfway down on the left. Cormac leaned beside it, one knee bent to prop his foot against the wall. Tessa inhaled as Stokes grabbed her hand. His grasp was ice cold.
“Be careful,” Stokes said softly. “I know this cankerous whoreson and what he can do.”
“You know him?” Tessa asked in surprise.
“He destroyed everything I loved. I’ve been looking for him.”
Tessa’s stomach did a flip. “You didn’t meet me by chance, did you?”
Stokes didn’t answer, but took a step forward, his arms loose at his sides. A fighter’s stance, Tessa realized. Without taking her eyes off the two men, she slid off her high-heels and instantly felt better with firm ground beneath her. Then she gathered her shoes in one hand. The spikes might make a weapon in a pinch.
“Captain Stokes,” Cormac said with a toothy smile. “How nice to see you again.”
“Isn’t destroying one kingdom enough, Cormac?” Stokes demanded. “What did the Shades promise if you gave them this one, too?”
“What are you talking about?” Tessa demanded. “What Shades?” It sounded like a mob—gun runners or drug dealers. The idea fit what she’d witnessed—and what had made her run to the sea.
Both men ignored her. Cormac straightened to his full height, his glare fixed on Stokes. They were barely a dozen feet apart now. “You’re out of your depth, ghost.”
In a single swift gesture, Cormac reached into his pocket, then flung a handful of something into the air. Tessa ducked, covering her face, but felt only a tickle as the stuff struck her bare arm. White grains caught in her dark hair, scattering across the carpet. Her mind blanked with confusion, which was followed swiftly by dread. What had Cormac thrown? Drugs? Poison? Some kind of acid?
She looked up to where Stokes had stood a moment before. He was gone. Instead, a puddle of water soaked the floor. She spun around, but the man had utterly vanished.
At the sight of her bewilderment, Cormac gave a deep, booming laugh as he advanced her way. “That was nothing but salt, my love. The dead can’t abide it.”
“What?” She held out her free hand, palm forward, as if that would stop him in his tracks. “You’re making no sense.”
Cormac shrugged. “Like I said, he went poof. Ghosts mean well, but…”
The impossibility of those words stalled her every thought. She began inching backward, keeping distance between them. Tessa glanced around one more time, desperate for aid. This was an enormous ship stuffed with passengers, but they were alone.
“Where is everyone?” Her voice cracked with panic.
Cormac’s smile only widened. “It’s easy to convince ordinary mortals to remain at their games and restaurants. Stay with me, and I’ll show you far more of my magic.”
“Magic? Is that, like, code for your manhood?”
His smile dropped. “Watch your tongue.”
“Or what?” Tessa’s back bumped against the wall. She began edging sideways in a futile attempt to escape. Memories clashed, present fear overlaid with past intimacy. She knew every inch of his bronzed flesh, had wanted it with unabashed hunger. Now all she could do was shrink away. However well she’d known his body, she hadn’t known the man.
Cormac stopped a few feet away, then planted a thick arm against the wall, blocking her path to freedom. “How strange you’re suddenly so eager to avoid my company.”
There was a wealth of threat and insinuation in those few words. Tessa’s skin chilled, realizing he knew everything—she was a witness, and she’d betrayed him to the cops. His mouth curled with triumph. But Tessa barely saw Cormac’s expression—she was staring behind him.
Stokes stood there, holding an enormous sword in a battered black scabbard. He grabbed the hilt, eyes fixed on Cormac.
“What?” Cormac demanded, clearly annoyed at her distraction.
Steel swished as Stokes drew the shining weapon. “I think it’s time for a pointed conversation.”COLLAPSE