Excerpt for The Billionaire's Witch Book One by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

All characters in this publication are fictitious, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


The Billionaire’s Witch

Book One

Copyright © 2017 Odette C Bell

Cover art stock photos licensed from Adobe Stock and Depositphotos.

www.odettecbell.com

 





The Billionaire’s Witch

Book One

Lydia Gold hopes she’s normal. She’s not. Soon, she will be inherited by one of the most powerful billionaires in the country – Richard Hargrave.

Richard has a secret – the same secret that flows through Lydia’s blood and that darkens the city streets of Fairchurch. Magic. He comes from a long line of practitioners, and he’s been charged since the day he was born with protecting the innocent. That duty comes at a cost – not to him. To Lydia.

From the day she is inherited and thrust into this dark world of magic and power, he will use her, for he has no choice. But Lydia will fight. It’s in her bones, pulsing in her heart, rattling in her soul – the need to battle. And though at first she directs that force at Richard, soon enough she will be drawn too far into this world, and importantly, far too close to him.

The Billionaire’s Witch is an urban fantasy series sure to please fans of Odette C. Bell’s The Frozen Witch.

Prologue

He used to watch me. I understand that now.

Birthdays, Christmas, significant holidays, I’d see that expensive car roll up to the curb, his window winding down just an inch.

I’d always ask my grandma who he was. I still remember the look in her eyes as she would tell me he was nothing more than a stranger.

And the way she said that word? Stranger.

It plays on my lips now as I lean in, lock a hand on the chipped, rustic paint of my dressing table, and pull right up close to my mirror.

I stare at my reflection, letting my lips tick all the way open as I say that out loud, “Stranger.”

Yeah, well he’s a stranger no longer. I can’t help but snort as I push back.

A second later, I hear that distinct ringing. The bell is tolling, apparently.

And who’s it tolling for?

Lydia Gold, me.

And who am I?

I won’t burden you with my personality. This isn’t a personal ad. I’m not gonna tell you that before I met him, I was a happy, crazy chatty, nutball of energy. The kind of sugar fiend to make an entire batch of cupcakes and get bored halfway through only to eat the icing right out of the bowl. The kind of romantic sap who used to sit in her bath reading Mills and Boons, wondering when that stuff would just hurry up and happen to her.

All that stuff is in the past.

Now?

This is the future.

The bell tolls louder.

I reach across to the box that sits on top of my dresser. My stomach kicks. Just a little fear. You’d think I would’ve abandoned it by now, but I haven’t. It’s the same fear – or nerves, at least – that always ignite in the pit of my stomach every time I see him.

And who is he?

Technically, he’s the guy who owns me.

A billionaire tech entrepreneur.

And me?

I’m his witch.

One more breath. I half close my eyes, I shift back from the dressing table, I turn, and I walk out.

Time to deal with Roger Hargrave’s demons.

Preferably by lunchtime.

Chapter 1

Two months earlier

I rub my eyes as I lean back from the library window and stare out at the view. My study books are piled up around me, a mess of paper and hastily scribbled notes. I have my midterm tomorrow, and I am in no way prepared.

Then again, when am I ever prepared for anything? I have a reputation among my friends for being as scatty as a kitten.

Everyone else in the library seems to be studying hard, but I can’t tear my gaze off the view. As I shove an elbow against the hard, chipped wood of the table, place my chin in my hand, and stare out at the city, I watch the clouds rolling in from the coast. They’re dark, laden with rain, as gray as the side of a gunmetal battleship.

If I could just put as much attention into studying as I am into watching them, maybe I’d have a chance of passing tomorrow.

Yeah, fat chance.

I’ve had a problem applying myself recently.

From paying my rent on time, to shopping for groceries, to studying – I leave everything until the last minute.

Except for one thing.

Calling my grandmother. Like clockwork, every single Tuesday and Friday night, I sit down at 5 PM, and I call her for a good hour.

My parents aren’t dead or anything, and I have a few siblings dotted around the country, but my grandmother has always been… I don’t really know how to describe it. I won’t call it a lifeline, because I’m not depressed or anything. But grandma Jones is… comforting.

My protector.

I have two other sisters and a brother, and they’re way more accomplished than me – and there’s a lot there for a grandmother to be proud of. But for some reason, she’s always looked after me fiercely, always told me she understands the unique pressures on my shoulders.

What pressures? I’m just ordinary – special in no way.

But to Grandma Jones, I’m something else entirely.

Someone suddenly sits at the table, shoving in close beside me.

I whip my head around, my short ponytail playing around my ears, and the cute plastic dice hairband I found on the street clanking hard.

It isn’t some forward guy about to ask me out in this packed library. Nope, it’s Lisa.

She leans right back in her chair, crossing her arms and fixing me with a disappointed expression. She clucks her tongue and shakes her head, her short brown bob bouncing around her neck. “Do you call that studying?” She points from the window then grinds a finger into the open textbook in front of me. “I call that wasting time.”

I wince, bring up a hand, scratch my temple, then shrug. “I’m just having a break. A much-needed rest. It’s important to allow everything to sink in,” I try.

She looks at me deadpanned before snorting. Then she leans over, grabs my textbook, and closes it with a thwack that echoes around the library.

“Would you mind keeping it down?” I hiss as I lean forward, pry the book out of her hands, and tuck it under my arm protectively. A few people along the long table have glanced up to shoot us deadly looks. “I really don’t want to get kicked out of here.”

“Really? Do you want to get kicked out of University? Because that’s what’s going to happen if you don’t study.”

I press my lips together and push a hard breath through my nose. “Very funny. Like I said, I was just taking a break. I can’t study all the time.”

“No, you can’t. And I agree – you do need a break. As long as you earn one. Which is why I’m here.” Lisa leans back in her chair, showing her perfect athletic balance as she pushes the seat onto two legs and yet doesn’t tumble all the way backward and clock her noggin on the hard floor.

I arch an eyebrow in confusion. “What are you talking about?”

“Party,” she says excitedly, bouncing forward, the chair rocking back onto all four legs with another way too loud thump.

I wince. But half of my mouth ticks up into a smile. “Where, when, and why?”

The new club Sonos,” she says, shoving out her hand and counting on her manicured fingers, “tonight, and as for why, as a reward for studying. So study.” She leans in, goes to pat my left shoulder, but then grabs the book from under my right arm and thwacks it back down on the table with an even louder sound than before. One that draws a lot of suitably pissed off mutters.

“Jesus, can you please keep it down?”

“As long as you study,” she says as she leans forward and taps the book lightly. “I’m going to test you this afternoon, and if you pass, you can come. And don’t worry, I’ll pay the fee.”

I smile, but it’s a glum move. “Just how expensive is this new club?”

She shrugs, opening her lips and running her tongue back and forth along one of her canines. It’s the usual move Lisa makes whenever the question of money comes up.

You see, I’m poor, and Lisa is rich. I only made it into this University on a bursary scholarship. One I will very probably lose if I can’t get myself together.

Lisa? Well, like most of the other kids in our classes, she’s full fee-paying. Her dad is a businessman – runs some kind of financial consultancy firm.

She’s rolling in it and always has been. From her designer clothes, to her perfectly manicured nails, to her almost weekly facials, Lisa Carlisle screams money.

Me? Ah, let’s see. I’ve never had a manicure. Heck, I don’t even own nail clippers – I just bite the damn things to the stumps. My clothes? They’re from thrift shops. As for my face? People have remarked that it’s pretty on occasion, but in that kind of rugged way you get with people who just don’t care. Kind of like a boulder opal – a spark of something special fully surrounded by plain old rock.

Lisa leans forward and taps my book again. “You don’t need to know the cost – like I said, my treat.” She winks at me.

I press my lips together and grumble. “You can’t keep spending all your money on me. It’s not fair.”

“To who exactly? You’re my best friend, and unlike some of my other friends,” her voice drops, “I know you’ve got my back. I like to bring you along to these things, because I know you’re not going to use me to try to get ahead on the social ladder – like everybody else who’s going to be there. I trust you. I want you there. So I’m going to pay for you. So I’m gonna repeat again – it’s totally fair, and it’s up to me how I spend my money. Now, you’re coming,” she says flatly, her tone a ringing, strong one, making it clear that this is a categorical order and that she will not accept further discussion.

I lock my elbow on my textbook, claiming it as territory as I drum my fingers on my face. “Do I get a say in this?”

She drops a little of the act, sitting properly for the first time as she shrugs. “Up to you. I kind of thought you would want to come. It’s been a while since you’ve been out. Plus, this is going to be a hell of a party. This new club – Sonos – is apparently being funded by Richard Hargrave,” she says. Her eyes sparkle. Not too many people can actually make their eyes sparkle, but ever since I met Lisa in my first class, I got the distinct impression that she’s been practicing that very move most of her life.

My eyebrows crumple. My fingers pause on my cheek, too. “Richard Hargrave, Richard Hargrave,” I mutter to myself under my breath, trying to figure out why that name seems to ring a bell.

Lisa waits several seconds then rolls her eyes. “Richest man in the city. Socialites Today ranked him as the number one bachelor in the country. Self-made billionaire. Okay, not exactly self-made – his daddy was a millionaire, but still, that’s a considerable rank climb.”

I arch my eyebrow on the term rank climb. Why is it that Lisa and most of the other rich kids in school seem to refer to gaining more wealth like it’s some kind of game?

Then I let my eyebrow drop as I realize I do know who she’s talking about.

“He recently donated a couple of million dollars for a new science school on campus,” Lisa continues, bringing up a hand, making star fingers with it, then promptly counting off the guy’s fantastic exploits. “He has his own freaking orphanage like he’s out of some kind of Dickens novel,” she adds.

I don’t bother to point out that the owners of orphanages in Dickens novels weren’t usually the good guys.

And what else? God, I don’t know – all round good rich dude. Point is, he’s going to be there tonight. Point is, this is his club. And the point is,” she leans forward, now cupping her chin in her hand as she rests her elbow on the other end of my textbook and leans in, her eyes sparkling even brighter, “this is going to be one hell of a party. It’s my reward to you. If,” she leans forward and flicks the book with her free hand, making it jolt, “you study. You’re a smart kid, and I don’t want to see you getting kicked out of Uni just because you’ve been distracted this year. Got it?”

I smile. “Thanks, Lisa,” I say genuinely.

“It’s settled, then. Study hard, and I’ll see you tonight.”

“I thought you were going to test me first?”

“I will. Or maybe I won’t. I know you’re a girl who never goes back on her word,” she waggles a finger in front of my face, “and that’s why you’re my best friend. Now, wear something pretty.” She shoves up, twirls, and walks away.

I watch her go. Then I turn back to my books. For several seconds, I want to watch the clouds racing in over the city, I want to watch them as they block out the bright sunshine and cast the tall towers of downtown into shadow.

Then I realize Lisa’s right – I’ve never been a girl who goes back on my word. So I tuck my head down, open my textbook, get my pen, and study.

Inside, I prepare myself for tonight.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been out, and I know whatever happens tonight, I will have earned it.

Chapter 2

I can’t believe we have to park so far away,” Lisa grumbles for about the 50th time as she shoves the gear stick into park, presses on the button for the parking brake, yanks open her door, and storms out of her car.

She is in a sheer pink satin dress, white heels, and has a good 2.5 karats of diamond draped around her neck.

She literally looks like a million bucks.

Me? I’m in a little black dress I picked up from the thrift store for all of five bucks. As for my heels, I got them on sale for $25. And as for my necklace? As I get out of the car, I place a hand tenderly on it, wrapping my fingers around the chain and letting my thumb brush over my pendant.

It’s a simple silver necklace. It’s not worth much – or wouldn’t be to anyone other than me.

My grandmother gave it to me when I was born. It’s a silver circle with a complicated knot wrapped around it. Three strands of delicate filigree silver wire encase the circle, almost as if they’re trapping it in place.

This charm is my go-to whenever I’m stressed, in a difficult situation, or just need some calm. During tests or accidents or any kind of stressful situation, you’ll always find my hand snatching my pendant out from under my top and clasping it for dear life.

Now is no different as I pat it fondly, close Lisa’s car door carefully, then jump up onto the pavement.

We’re in some kind of side alley, a good block away from the Sonos.

It’s not gonna take that long to walk there – maybe two minutes, tops, but from the way Lisa is caterwauling and complaining, you’d think we were a city-length away.

It’s not that bad. Plus, the night is pretty clement,” I try to pacify her as I wave her onto the pavement.

She’s stomping around on the road in her tiny high heels, and cars are trying to shift past her. They’re all expensive, all worth way more than I’ll probably ever earn in my life. And they’re all vying for a park.

“I didn’t think this party would be so packed,” she complains as she finally mounts the pavement, fixes her necklace, coifs her hair with a quick, practiced pat, and nods forward. “When I heard about it on The Vine, I thought it was exclusive.”

The Vine is the exclusive social network for the – fittingly – exclusive socialites of the University. Suffice to say, I’m not on it. But because I’m best friends with Lisa, I know all about it.

I offer her a glum smile. “This is a pretty rich city. And the University is packed with the kids of the rich and famous. They’re all on Vine, and they would’ve all heard about it. Plus, if this Richard Hargrave is half the businessman he’s meant to be, he’s going to want to create as much hype around his club as he can.”

She snarls at me, but it’s a friendly move. “I really don’t want you to be rational now. I want you to complain with me about the fact we have to walk miles in these heels.”

I smile. While she’s wearing pinprick stilettos, I’m in some pretty old – but seriously stable – pumps. “We’ll be all right. If you need to hold onto anyone – you can hold onto me,” I say as I offer her an arm like a gentleman.

“I fully expect you to use some of your ninja skills if I teeter too close to the road. The last thing I want to do is be run over by one of these rich bastards or lose a heel in some grating, got it?”

I laugh softly. “I understand, but I’m not a ninja. Sorry to burst your bubble on that one.”

It’s her turn to snort. It’s punctuated by the loud clip clops of my heels on the pavement. “You did gymnastics for 10 years, and you have a black belt in karate. That’s about as ninja as anyone can get.”

I laugh again as I bring up a hand and check my ponytail. “I’m not nearly as impressive as you’re making me out to be. And if you nosedive in front of a car because of those ridiculous high heels, there isn’t going to be much I can do.”

She looks at me with mock indignation. “You’re here as my bodyguard. You’re meant to save me.”

I cross my arms and fake a haughty expression. “I thought I was here as your friend? I didn’t realize this was going to be a transactional relationship.”

“Good point. Just watch my back, that’s all I ask. Oh, and the drinks are on me.”

We reach the end of the laneway, turn, and head out across the main street.

There are plenty of people out, and from one look at what they’re wearing, they must all be heading to the Sonos.

I’ve never been particularly body conscious, as my grandmother always emphasized that what was on the inside mattered way more than what was on the outside. If you live your life perfecting your appearance, when your appearance starts to go, you’ll have nothing. You’ll also achieve way less than if you channel all that energy and attention into doing good.

Still, it’s kind of hard not to shrink back and try to hide behind Lisa. Some of the women that walk past are statuesque model types. As for the men, they’re all perfectly handsome. It looks like somebody has grabbed a couple of copies of Vogue, shaken out all of the models, and shoved them onto the street.

Still, even though I feel a little like a sore thumb as I stick out in my cheap dress and old heels with my drab ponytail and simple necklace, I don’t let that affect me too much. Because Lisa’s right – I am here for her. I don’t usually get too much out of these parties. I don’t like dating – especially the privileged guys that hang out at our university. And I’m not much of a drinker. But I enjoy Lisa’s company, and it’s kind of nice to see how the other half lives every now and then.

Despite the fact Lisa thinks we’re on an endless trek, it actually doesn’t take that much longer to reach the Sonos.

We line up for a while until we’re allowed entry. Not only does the place look extremely expensive from the outside, the tickets Lisa pulls out of her purse look as if they’ve been printed on sheets of pure gold.

That isn’t even to mention the glimpses I catch of the other guests.

I feel like I’ve been thrown into the pages of a celebrity gossip magazine.

The inside of the Sonos is far more impressive than the outside. It screams money. It’s huge, too. The main dance area lacks the sardines-in-a-can feel you get in most of the clubs around town.

I stick next to Lisa’s side like a dog to its master. Not that I think she’s my master or anything – just that I know I am so far out of my depth.

She mingles for a while, socializes a bit, and soon enough heads for one of the bathrooms.

Considering I’m her wing woman tonight, I follow dutifully.

I wait outside of the bathroom until she’s finished, leaning against the wall.

Guests come and go, and I catch the occasional glimpse of staff.

The hallway I’m in opens right out onto the main area of the club. The music is so loud that I can hear it thumping through the wall and chasing up my vertebrae like they’re ball bearings.

Other people come and go from the bathroom, but Lisa takes her time. She always does. She’ll be clinically going over her makeup with a slide rule.

I settle down against the wall, crossing my arms in front of myself, stifling the urge to crawl into my shell as I see the city’s best, brightest, and most beautiful walk on by.

I position myself so I can see the doorway to the lady’s bathrooms, but I can also see other people coming and going. Just to my left, there’s a door that seems to lead out into a service area.

It suddenly opens, and a man in an expensive but still pretty understated suit walks out.

He’s fixing his cufflinks, and he doesn’t even glance my way once.

For some weird reason, my stomach clenches as I see him. He’s not conventionally handsome but… there’s something about him.

He strides confidently toward the dance floor, but just before he gets out of sight, he stops.

He takes a step back and swivels his gaze toward me.

Instantly, I straighten, as if he’s the manager of this place and he doesn’t want louts like me leaning about on his walls.

But that doesn’t account for the way he’s looking at me.

The next thing I know, the door to the lady’s bathroom opens, and out walks Lisa.

She marches up to me and then stops. Her mouth opens, her jaw practically jerking open as she sees the guy.

“Oh my God,” Lisa mutters under her breath, almost squeaking.

Though the guy still has his body angled toward the dance floor, his hands casually in his pockets, his head is firmly directed toward me.

“This is so exciting,” Lisa squeaks to herself again. She clears her throat and takes a confident step forward. “This is an amazing party,” she declares.

The man finally turns all the way to us.

As he does, he doesn’t look away from me – not once.

My skin’s so clammy for some reason, and my heart is beating way too hard. As I’ve already pointed out, this guy isn’t technically conventionally handsome, but he’s still way out of my league. So why is he paying me so much attention?

“I haven’t been here long, but this place has such a great vibe,” Lisa continues.

It’s obvious she’s talking to the man, but it’s just as obvious that he doesn’t care. He’s still looking right at me. His gaze is… disarming. For many reasons. It’s steady, he doesn’t blink, he never looks away, and… it lasts too long. Ordinary people blink or glance away every few seconds.

This guy? He’s as steady as a spirit rule.

Lisa is still practically going gaga beside me. She’s pretty much wriggling on the spot as if she’s an excited three-year-old who is about to meet Santa Claus.

I should really be taking cues from that, but I’m too confused by the way this guy is looking at me.

And confused… by how familiar he seems.

“Oh my God, it is such an honor to meet you,” Lisa says as she shoves out a hand. “My father owns Kilpatrick Financial Consultants. They work with you,” Lisa adds, gushing like a broken pipe.

The guy?

Yeah, he’s still looking at me. And a couple of times, his gaze darts down to the necklace around my neck, then back to my eyes.

Like I’ve already told you, I’m technically a little bit pretty. Not that much, mind you. And I’m usually too haggard and tired to care much about my appearance.

But my smidgen of attractiveness must look like nothing more than a pebble in a glass full of diamonds. The women walking around us are literally models. So why can’t this guy tear his eyes off me?

My father says you’re categorically the smartest businessman in all of Fairchurch,” Lisa continues, obviously unconcerned by the fact this guy hasn’t looked at her once.

I know that the one rule when I come along to these socialite functions is that I should take cues from Lisa. I’m not a complete bumbling idiot, or anything, but there simply are rules that I don’t know, and it’s safer for her to take the lead.

But there’s… something about this guy.

Something so familiar.

Just staring at him seems to kindle far-off memories. Memories that are locked away by some heavy door, and yet memories I can catch just a glimpse of. It’s enough to pique my curiosity, enough until I let my lips part with a wobble. “Do I know you? You’re so familiar. Have we met?”

Lisa stiffens. She jerks her gaze over to me, her lips stiff. “This is our host, Richard Hargrave,” she points out, her lips barely moving and her teeth clenched.

My stomach sinks.

Great.

Way to go to seem like a real idiot.

“Sorry about that,” Lisa says in her sweetest, saccharine voice. “My friend’s new in town. She also doesn’t have her glasses on.”

Neither of those things is true, but whatever.

I wince and smile, scratching at my neck.

Richard Hargrave?

He takes one last look at my necklace, then clears his throat. “Are you two ladies enjoying the party?”

Lisa goes right back to gushing. And you can guess it – her eyes are sparkling, way more than usual. It’s like she’s shoved tiny firecrackers down her pupils. She claps her hands together, her manicured nails tapping against her chunk of a diamond ring. “Oh my gosh, yes. This club is amazing. The vibe is fantastic.”

Richard nods. He’s only technically looking at Lisa. Okay, that sounds crazy. You’re either looking at somebody or you’re not. But I can swear from the tension around his eyes and the tilt to his neck that he’s still looking at me out of his peripheral vision.

I shift uncomfortably on the spot. Have I really pissed this guy off? Is he the kind of rich lout to hate it when people don’t know who he is on sight?

Or… God, I don’t know. I just can’t shake the feeling I’ve met him. Okay, of course I’ve seen him – Richard Hargrave’s face is always splashed across the newspapers and magazines and online. But… crap, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just tired.

Once Lisa has finished gushing, Richard smiles. Then he nods his head toward the opposite wall. “Perhaps you like to join us upstairs in the private lounge?”

Again, I swear I feel his eyes on me.

Lisa looks like she’s about to explode. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her more excited – from the way she’s wriggling around and bouncing up and down on her heels, to the exact shade of pink her cheeks have turned, despite how much bronzer she’s wearing. “Oh wow. Absolutely. But… can my friend come along?”

It’s a testament to how much Lisa likes me that she would potentially jeopardize an invitation from Richard Hargrave just to ensure that I can come along.

I don’t have long to appreciate that fact.

Again Richard swivels his gaze toward me. “Of course. I’m inviting you both.”

… Is there something slightly off about his tone?

Is there… God, I don’t know, something weird about this entire interaction?

If there is, Lisa isn’t picking up on it. She actually claps her hands together. “Oh wow, thank you so much. How do we get past security?” she asks as she jabs a thumb toward the set of stairs that leads up to the private lounge.

There are three extremely heavy-set, burly blokes protecting the stairs. I imagine that even if a Yeti rocked up and tried to crash the private lounge, the security would have it covered. They look as if they could each wrestle a mountain.

Follow me,” he says. He pushes forward. There’s one hand still locked in his pocket, and as my eyes trace down his shoulder, along his elbow, and down to his wrist, I swear I see tension. It’s completely at odds with his easy expression and the rest of his stance.

I have a weird feeling in my stomach. Just a pang of something. I’m not really sure what it is. Do I genuinely think it’s going to be dangerous up in that private lounge? No. This is Richard Hargrave, for God’s sake. And this is also a packed event. The press is here, too. The very last thing a man like Richard would want would be for some incident to go down.

But… I don’t know. I try to swallow the feeling as I follow a few steps behind Lisa and Richard.

That’s when he slows down. He doesn’t have to – I think every single other person at the party knows who he is, and as he forges a path through the main room to get to the stairs, they all part before him like waves before Moses.

But he still slows down. He also arches his head over his shoulder. “Don’t fall behind,” he warns.

I just look at him.

… This guy is weird.

And I swear I’ve met him before.

But where?

We make it to the stairs, and as Richard approaches, the three burly security guards step out of the way. They also bow. There’s something kind of semi-regal about it, as if Richard isn’t just a rich dude, but is a king with loyal servants.

I don’t like that. I’ve grown up in a family that prides themselves on recognizing that every single person is equal. It doesn’t matter what your financial situation is. It doesn’t even matter what you’ve done in life. Fundamentally, nobody is better than anyone else, especially if the only thing that sets them apart is a few dollars.

We reach the stairs and start climbing them, and with every step, I want to be here less and less. I start inventing excuses in my mind to get the heck out of here. Maybe I have a stomach ache; maybe I realize I need to get the heck back to my room to study for my midterm.

Or maybe I’m just coming down with something.

Though in ordinary circumstances Lisa would be pissed if I were to back out on her at a party – this is no ordinary party. And now she’s got a ticket up to Hargrave’s private lounge, I’m pretty sure she won’t give a hoot if I head home early.

At the top of the stairs there’s a landing, and on that landing are three more security guards.

It’s overkill. Like I already said – the guys at the base of the stairs are so burly, you would need an actual army to take them on. But there are three more. Which tells me that Richard either wants to be seen as taking security seriously, or he’s just plain paranoid.

One of the security guards peels off and opens the door. To do it, he has to use the security tag tied around his wrist.

I hear a heavy click – even over the pumping sound of the music and the chatter filtering up from the floor below.

Some kind of solid lock disengages from the wall, and the security guard opens the door, waving a hand forward and pretty much bowing as he does. He looks like a footman at a castle.

I don’t need to make up excuses to get out of here anymore – my stomach really is kicking up a fuss. At the sight of all this money and deference, actual nausea is spiking up my throat.

We walk into the private lounge.

It’s stunning.

Though you can’t really tell it from the outside, this club is long and tall, so there’s more than enough space for a huge private lounge.

It sophisticated, the furniture expensive, the lighting perfect, and the feel exactly what you’d expect from a billionaire’s private lounge. There’s a discreet bar at one end, with expensive bottles of alcohol lined up on glass shelves behind it.

I expect to see the place packed – not with as many people as downstairs, but still crammed full of the rich and famous.

It’s not. There are about 10 people in it, tops.

Which makes us stick out like sore thumbs as Hargrave walks in.

I teeter on the threshold of the door, figuring out that if I want to back out, I have to do it now.

Despite the fact Lisa’s eyes practically pop out of her skull at the sight of the private lounge, she notices my hesitancy, and turns to face me, a frown etched across her ruby red lips. “What is it?”

I flop a hand at her. “Nothing much. I’m just… not feeling too great. Stomachache,” I mutter.

She looks disappointed, then she just shrugs. “Okay, I’ll take you home—”

I wave a hand at her quickly. “Of course not. I’ll just call a taxi. You stay. I can make my own way out.”

“There’s no way I’m going to leave you alone.”

I keep waving my hands at her. “No way. You stay. I’ll be fine. I’ll be—”

As loud as a gunshot, a high-pitched scream suddenly blasts up the stairs from the main dance floor.

I jerk my head around just as the three security guards on the landing beside me start thundering down the stairs.

“My God, what was that?” Lisa spits.

There’s another scream.

Though it would probably be sane to shove into the secure private lounge and let the burly, beefcake security guards figure out what’s going on, that is not how I roll. I was always brought up to help.

So without thinking, I turn hard on my foot, my heel grating on the landing as I throw myself down the stairs.

There’s another scream.

I cast my gaze over the packed dance floor.

People are congregating in one area, and I can see a guy running toward the door.

Without exception, the six security guards are going after him.

Me?

Inexorably, my gaze is drawn toward a woman on the opposite side of the room.

I have no idea who screamed, but she’s making her way deliberately toward the back rooms of the club, her movements so quick, I can see her loose hair bouncing around her shoulders from here.

I make a split-second decision.

I throw myself down the rest of the stairs, push through the crowd, and head after her.

Lisa was 100% wrong when she said I was a ninja. Yeah, I’ve done gymnastics and I’ve done karate, but both of those will teach you one thing – you’re only human, and you’re fallible. The best way to prevent injury is not the court it.

But you can’t tell that to the part of me that always wants to intervene in trouble.

I reach a door that obviously heads into the back rooms of the club.

I jerk a hand forward and find it unlocked as I pull it open with a hard tug.

It leads to a long corridor, and at the end, I see the woman.

There’s every chance she just works here and she has nothing to do with what’s going on.

My gut tells me otherwise, and I’ve always been someone who’s followed my instincts.

My heels sound like shots from a gun as I blast down the corridor, my arms pumping.

Though this building is long, it doesn’t take the woman much longer to find a door that exits out onto a laneway beyond. She yanks it open and lurches out.

Despite the continuing kerfuffle going on in the rest of the building, I swear I can hear her ragged breath from here.

She’s desperate and scared.

Or maybe she’s angry.

It’s hard to say until I can properly clap eyes on her.

I reach the same door and throw myself out.

If I were paying attention to anything other than the woman and the chase, I would realize someone else has just entered the corridor behind me and they’re following.

And that someone is Richard Hargrave.

Chapter 3

As I throw myself out of that door, I expect the woman will have already put some distance between us.

That isn’t the case.

As soon as I throw myself out, a well-placed kick slices toward my face.

Something in me expects it before I see it, and I’ve already ducked just in time as it sails past my face.

I instantly bring a hand up, following the movement with my elbow. I jerk out of the door and use my momentum to plow into her with my arm. I catch her right as she brings her leg down – just when she is her least stable.

My move pays off, and as I slam into her, I easily knock her off balance.

Rather than try to land on her and pin her, I roll right over her, push up, and jump several meters away as I reassess the situation.

Fortunately my dress is a stretchy one. It may not be that spectacular compared to the other pieces I’ve seen on display tonight, but it’s functional.

My heels are too as I easily balance and take another step back.

The woman warily gets to her feet. Her move isn’t one of someone who’s scared, though. It’s one of someone who knows exactly how to use their body in situations just like this. She’s poised, she’s balanced, and despite the fact she has a svelte form, I can see she has muscles.

She also knows exactly how to use them as she suddenly launches toward me.

I’ve never been in a real fight. Two hapless dudes once tried to mug me, but even then, that wasn’t like this. That incident was over quickly.

This… shit, this is an actual battle.

I don’t give myself that much time to appreciate that fact.

I shift away from the woman, jerking to the side as she tries to catch me with a left hook.

I haven’t just done karate – I’ve done judo, too. And judging by this woman’s size and speed, it’s that that’s going to come in the handiest.

Sure enough, she launches at me again, and I don’t have the speed to get out of the way. Instead, I round my body, readying for the blow. She strikes me hard, and it’s a brutal, strong, practiced blow from someone who knows exactly how to fight.

But I round my shoulder, shift my weight, use her momentum, and flip her.

And that’s when I hear footsteps.

Somebody races out of the open door from the club. And that somebody calls my name in a gravelly, desperate male voice, “Lydia.”

It’s enough of a surprise that I jerk my head up. Enough of a surprise that it gives the woman time to get out of my grip.

I look up to see none other than Richard Hargrave standing in the doorway, staring desperately from me to the woman.

And the woman reacts.

In the weirdest way possible.

She hisses like a snake.

And then she jerks to her feet. She is far, far quicker than she was before. Quick enough that I can’t keep up. Quick enough that some part of my mind tells me her speed isn’t physically possible.

She yanks something from her pocket.

I don’t see it.

But then she fires it, and I realize it’s a gun.

Something slams out of it, right toward Hargrave.

He ducks to the side just in time, flooring himself as the bullet impacts the door beside him.

The doorway is made out of wood, and it splinters. It explodes as if it’s just been hit by a grenade. Fissure lines even dance down the wall, over the lip of the doorway, and across the pavement.

Some kind of energy discharges from the shot, too. Blue, quick, and crackling like fire.

I have no time to assess it.

That action part of my brain kicks into top gear.

The woman’s got her back to me, and just before she can fire again, I launch forward. I bring an arm around and latch it across her throat, jerking to the side as I snap my knee up and shove it as hard as I can into the small of her back. The move is brutal and hard enough that it jerks her hand off course, and the next bullet – meant for Hargrave as he’s lying in the now totally obliterated doorway – is pulled off course.

The bullet slams into the side of the Sonos wall, instead, obliterating a massive chunk.

The woman shrieks and tries to throw me off.

I’m ready for her move. I deliberately let go of her neck, drop down low, then shove forward with a grunt.

I wrap an arm around her middle, using my other hand as I press my knuckles into a line and shove them as hard as I can into the soft flesh under her arm.

It’s a direct, strong, calculated move, and she loses her grip on her gun.

It clatters onto the pavement and skids toward Hargrave.

The woman hisses again.

And again it sounds exactly like a snake.

I’m not thinking. There’s no time to think.

Because if there was time to think, I’d get stuck on the fact that that was no ordinary gun. I’ve never seen power like that. And this woman has speed that simply isn’t natural.

She suddenly jerks into me with all her force, and though I want to compensate for the move, I can’t. I release her just before she can use my momentum to flip me.

I stagger back, and in the time it takes to do that, she pivots on her foot and runs away.

Before I know what I’m doing, even though it’s suicide, I go to follow.

I’m not a policewoman. I’ve never been in the army. I haven’t been trained for real combat. Nor have I ever taken an oath to say that I will put my life on the line to protect others. But do you think that matters? It doesn’t. The only thing that matters is that pulsing instinct within me that tells me I can’t let this woman go.

But before I can throw myself after her, someone snaps in. Close – right up against me.

It’s Hargrave. He grabs me around the middle and stops me in place. “You can’t go after her – it’s too dangerous,” he snaps.

In the time it takes him to do that, the woman is already out of sight.

For several seconds, Hargrave breathes hard against me, then he releases me, takes several steps back, and half closes his eyes.

I turn over my shoulder to see him, to watch as his gaze locks on me.

He doesn’t say anything.

I hear more footfall, and soon enough, several of his security guards come leaping out of the destroyed doorway.

Hargrave turns to them without taking his gaze off me. “It was a runner. She’s already left. That way.” He jabs his thumb in the direction she disappeared in. Then he turns from them, walks over to the gun – which I still haven’t had a proper look at – leans down, pulls a hanky out of his pocket, then picks the gun up.

He wraps the gun up carefully in that hanky, then hands it to one of his security guards. The guy turns around and heads straight back into the club.

As the seconds pass, reality sinks in with it. And soon I realize what I’ve just done.

I just had an altercation with someone who was trying to kill the richest man in the city.

Hargrave talks to his men for a little bit, and once he’s done, they walk further down the laneway and appear to take up position.

And that just leaves Hargrave to me.

I haven’t moved from where I’m standing. It would take an entire team of removalists to get me to budge a centimeter, let alone walk out of this laneway.

I was just in a fight for my life, for God’s sake.

Hargrave wipes the back of his hand over his mouth, then he approaches me. And as he does, for some stupid, unexplainable reason, it feels like I’m still in a fight for my life.

He walks right up to me. I mean right up close. His head is tilted down, as he’s taller than me, and I can catch the pulsing lights along the street lighting up the hard line of his neck.

He doesn’t say a word for a few seconds.

“…What?” I say, voice shaky from the fight.

His eyes are ticking this way and that, really drinking me in as if I’m some famous painting in a museum.

“What?” I demand again, voice louder and more forceful.

“I was going to leave you until your birthday, but maybe I can’t wait. You’ve really proven yourself today.” He arches a shoulder back toward the doorway, indicating the fight.

His words are like a punch to the gut. I actually l jerk back. “What the hell are you talking about? You were going to wait for what until my birthday?”

The way he’s looking at me is like a farmer sizing up a prize cow at the market. The way his gaze ticks along my face has all the methodical practice of a man who’s used to sizing up something’s worth – whether that thing be a stock tip or a whole goddamn person. “Lydia, you’ve met me before,” he suddenly points out with no introduction and no segue.

The way he says it so out-of-the-blue is disarming, and I take another jagged step back, thankful that my sturdy heels don’t trip me up on the broken pavement. “What?”

Of all the things he could have said, for some reason, this upsets me more than anything. Because it speaks to the niggling suspicion I’ve had since I clapped eyes on him. I have met Richard Hargrave before. I just can’t remember when, and I can’t remember why.

He does it again – flicks his gaze over me as if he’s appraising some new exhibit in a shop – one he’d mighty like to acquire and hang over the fireplace. “I’ve been following you your whole life. Even when I was young, I would be driven to your house. I would show up on birthdays and holidays – at significant events. Just to check on you. Just to confirm that you were fine. But I didn’t expect to see you tonight. And I didn’t expect that you’d already start to show your abilities before your birthday.”

I’m backing away, face as pale as snow. “What… the hell are you on? Is this meant to be some kind of joke? Do you…. Look, this is no time to play games. And you’re an asshole for trying. There could have been a serious violent incident tonight – you think you can lighten the mood by spouting this crap?” My words are harsh, sharp, and fast. They’re also garbled. Because I can feel this dense pressure picking up inside my throat and clamping around my mouth. It’s a pressure that comes from one fact and one fact alone.

The stranger.

The stranger was the name my grandmother would give to the fancy cars that would show up at my childhood home every holiday. I’d pretty much forgotten about the memory until Hargrave stirred it back up. And now I can’t push it away.

It used to freak me out so much as a kid when those expensive cars would creep up to the side of our house, the passenger window would roll down, then the car would drive off.

“You remember, don’t you? I told you we’ve met. Lydia, I’ve known you my whole life – or at least,” he reaches a hand up, clamps it on his mouth, and lets it drop with a satisfied sigh, “I’ve known of you. And now you’re here. Early,” he emphasizes with a breath as again he lets his eyes dart over me like he’s taking my measurements.

This is the part where a sane person would walk away or slap him.

But I mustn’t be sane, because I just stand there and stare, eyes unblinking.

There’s a horrible suspicion forming in my stomach. It has the power of a bear as it grips me and squeezes.

He looks at me, obviously waiting for me to make the next move. But when I don’t, he shrugs expressively. “This was going to happen sooner or later. In many ways, I’m glad it was sooner. Because my problems are mounting. I need your power now more than ever, even if it still hasn’t formed in full.”

Power?

Formed in full?

I do what I should have done when Hargrave first started spouting crap.

I shift hard on my foot, intending to march away. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll run. And if that doesn’t work? I’ll scream at the top of my lungs and call the frigging police.

I don’t get far.

Hargrave darts in and grabs my wrist.

My instincts kick into gear as I twist my thumb toward his, pivoting on my hip and shifting my weight as I shove it into him.

He seems to be ready for my move, and even though I put a lot of strength and practice into the move, it’s like he can read my mind, because he compensates.

He twists around me, and with his hand still locked around my wrist, he brings his other hand up.

I expect the bastard to clamp it over my mouth or try to grab my throat.

He doesn’t. Still keeping me pinned, he just brings his left hand wide in front of my face.

And that’s when I see it. Because I can hardly look away.

Right there emblazoned on the center of his palm is a circle of light. I watch it appear in front of my very eyes. It’s not pen or highlighter that someone’s drawn on his skin.

It’s… flame.

It’s the color of bright blue azure waters – like I’m about to take a dip off a beach on the coast of Tahiti or something.

And it grows, the illumination becoming brighter until it lights up his entire palm.

There’s no one but us and his security guards in this laneway, and the main road is a good hundred meters away.

As for Hargrave’s security guards, they’re politely keeping their distance.

And as for me?

I stop.

I don’t shriek. I don’t ask what the hell is going on and how that magical blue flame is possible.

I just stare at it. Almost as if a part of me expected it would be there.

Don’t get me wrong, fear is still pulsating through me, shaking in my heart like an earthquake down my spine. But at the same time, that terror doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t reduce me to a puddle of tears.

Hargrave doesn’t have a particularly strong grip on my wrist anymore. I’m not fighting him, either. I’m just staring at that blue flame.

“This is your destiny, Lydia. Always has been. It’s mine, too,” he explains. “You’ve been promised to my family since before you were born. Now get in the car, come back with me to my apartment, and I’ll explain everything.”

His chatter is like the inane sound of a mosquito by my ear. I can hear it, but I don’t pay it any heed.

Because I can’t tear a single scrap of my attention off that blue flame.

It… draws me in. Second after second, I go deeper and deeper.

I… it’s like that flame was always meant for me alone. Like it holds all my secrets.

I’ve never fit in, and wherever I’ve gone in life and whatever I’ve done, I’ve always felt like I was floundering.

Or waiting, maybe. Yeah, that’s a better way to describe it. I’ve always had this niggling sense in the back of my head that I’m waiting for something.

And this – the blue light and Hargrave behind me promising that he’s about to explain everything – this is it.

“Come on. The sooner we get off the city streets, the safer it will be. You got that runner, but I know they’ll be more.” Hargrave closes his fingers. And just like that – as if he’s blown on a candle – the flame extinguishes.

In a snap, the blue light is lost as if he’s crushed a firefly to death.

He takes a quick step back from me, and I jolt as if I’ve just been slapped.

I’m all cold and am suddenly aware that I’m covered in sweat, from my brow to my shoulders to my palms. I’m shaking, too.

This….

“Get the car,” I hear Hargrave snap at one of his men. “Hurry,” he adds with a terse order.

He turns back to me.

I’m not watching him – even though I can technically see him out of the corner of my eye.

I listen to the sound of his expensive shoes squeaking on the rough pavement. He takes a wary step toward me. “Lydia?” There’s a careful note to his voice – the kind of note you would use on someone you suspected wasn’t coping with the situation. “Like I said, come back to my apartment – I will explain everything.”

Somewhere way back at the edges of my mind I realize I can’t go anywhere with this man. I… have no idea what’s going on, but I… I have to go home. Find safety, find someone to talk to, someone to confide in. But more than anything, I have to close my eyes somewhere safe and figure out what the hell is happening.

When I don’t react, I hear Hargrave let out a powerful sigh. He takes another snapped step toward me and goes to grab my arm.

This time I’m ready for him – even if I am distracted – and I dart to the side.

He goes to grab me again, a terse expression on his face, but I’m too quick, and I easily shift out of the way.

I put a good meter and a half between us as I stare at him coldly. “I don’t know what the hell… just happened,” I gasp through a hard swallow that feels like it wants to tear my throat in two, “but there is no way in hell I’m going anywhere with you. I… need to call the police,” I stutter.

I’m not in my right mind. I just saw impossible blue light pick up over a man’s hand, and all I want to do is run to the cops.

Hargrave shakes his head in disappointment. “It would’ve been easier after your birthday. You wouldn’t have been able to deny it then. But we don’t really have the luxury of hanging out here. And I can’t explain your situation until we’re somewhere safe. So you’re getting in that car one way or another,” his voice drops with obvious warning.

I hear the rumble of a car on the opposite side of the laneway, and it turns in, coming to a stop close by.

Its lights are on, and they catch my legs and the sides of my arms, shining right in my eyes.

I don’t jerk my head away. I clench my teeth. “If you think I’m going to go anywhere with you—” I begin.

Hargrave sighs, his shoulders dropping. Then his chin juts up as he obviously comes to a decision. “Fine. I hadn’t wanted to begin our relationship like this, but I see I have no other option.” He shoves a hand into his pocket. He draws something out.

It’s a glass bead. Or at least, I think it’s a glass bead. It’s the size of a small marble, but it’s glowing as brightly as a torch.

“What the—” I have time to say.


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