Nemesis

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Chapter 1

 

Brunswick, Georgia

Present Day

 

The past, Tasha Murdock figured, should have the decency to stay buried.

Unfortunately, her past was not cooperating. Particularly not the part bound up with the six two, chestnut-haired, smart-as-the-devil and handsome-as-homemade-sin bundle of bad memories known as Carter Lockwood.

Pacing her potential client’s elegant study, she frowned at the memories plaguing her. What sneaky jab of fate had landed Lockwood in this area?

Granted, going into mage law enforcement was a reasonable choice for a former naval officer. But with ten shires, as the mageborn called their secret governmental districts, in the US, why couldn’t he have gone to work in some other one?

Instead, he’d landed here in the southeast and turned up, on duty, heading the mage security detail for her friends’ archaeological excavation in November. Until then, she hadn’t seen the man for ten years. She’d managed to bury the memory, the old hurts, and hadn’t even thought of him in forever.

Now, after just that one encounter three months ago, the big jerk popped into her thoughts whenever her guard was down.

Even worse, the battles at that excavation site had shown how superbly Lockwood wielded both magic and a broadsword. The combination was sexy as...

And she was doing it again. Letting him distract her.

Crap. Head in the game, Tasha.

While the prospective client kept her waiting, she should be refining her pitch to show that her company, Murdock Custom Builders, was the best choice for this job. The economic downturn had cut heavily into both the construction and the interior design aspects of her business, and her seventeen employees sort of counted on being able to eat regularly.

Besides, the Carstairs, the possible clients, were well connected socially and could open important doors.

So. Time to focus.

She turned to survey the space. Bumping out the end of this long, narrow room would make the space look longer and narrower, but that was up to the client. The woman had said on the phone that they wanted more room for entertaining.

That might mean they planned to ditch the gorgeous floor-to-ceiling shelves. That would be a shame. Tasha strolled around the wide, mahogany desk with its scattering of papers to take a closer look. The shelves were burnished walnut and in great shape.

But some people tossed out very nice things on a whim. That still was always baffling, maybe because she’d grown up cherishing anything nice her family could scrape together the funds to buy. Considering that she made a lot of money supplying replacements, though, she wasn’t going to complain.

A healthy profit margin let her take on more projects like making repairs for people on fixed incomes or brightening up the homeless shelter down in Wayfarer.

Gently, she stroked a wooden upright. Her mageborn senses hummed with the powerful energy in the wood, muted now that the tree was cut but still present. If the client tossed these, she might be able to find a home for them.

“What are you doing in here?” a woman’s voice behind her demanded. A petite, fiftyish brunette glared at Tasha from the doorway. Magic crackled in the air, confirming what Tasha had heard from the client who referred her, that Geneva Carstairs was mageborn. Her husband supposedly also was.

Tasha raised her brows and kept her voice cool. “You must be Mrs. Carstairs. I’m Natasha Murdock. I was asked to wait for you in here.”

“Oh, of course!” The woman relaxed, smiling broadly. “I’m so sorry. Yes, I’m Geneva Carstairs. Rosita seemed clever enough when we hired her, but she can’t seem to learn the house. The room we want you to expand is this way.”

She stepped back and gestured to the side. As Tasha walked out of the room, Geneva darted a glance back into it.

“Something wrong?” Tasha asked.

“No, nothing.” The other woman smiled, but she looked distracted.

Following Geneva, Tasha mulled her pitch. Getting this job could lead to something even more important than building a financial cushion. Geneva Carstairs was a mover and shaker on the steering committee of the Savannah Christmas Cavalcade charity. Tasha had never been able to land a slot in any of the homes showcased during the holiday season. She wanted one badly.

Putting on an impressive display at one of those houses would bring business rolling in. She could take her firm to the next level, would be able to hire—and keep—some of the skilled craftsman who were begging for work because of the downturn.

But everyone knew a good presentation wasn’t enough to win a slot. Someone the selection committee trusted had to vouch for you.

Geneva ushered Tasha down a hallway and into a large room furnished in heavy, upholstered pieces, a mix of brown leather and green-and-gold-striped velvet. French doors opened onto a terrace. A fireplace and the bar for an open-design kitchen bookended the room.

With a sweep of her arm, Geneva said, “This is the room we plan to redo. We want to open it up completely, no posts or anything of that sort in the way.”

“I can see the potential.” Tasha eyed the low ceiling and the yard beyond the doors. This room was much wider than the other. “Because this is an external wall and so is loadbearing, an opening that size will require support posts.”

“Our architect said something similar. But surely that isn’t necessary.” Geneva frowned. “We don’t want our guests having to dodge around pillars.”

“Opening this up will certainly create a gorgeous space, but building codes require support in a situation like this. I’m sure you want to do everything by the book since cutting corners can lead to serious problems later.”

Judging by the woman’s crestfallen face, she was lying when she nodded, but that was too bad. No matter how much Tasha wanted this job, Murdock Custom Builders did nothing that wouldn’t hold up for a very long time.

“There are various things we can do,” she assured her hostess, “to dress up the support posts.”

Geneva pursed her lips. “You come highly recommended, but we have some doubt about hiring such a young woman for such a big job. Have you handled many like it?”

Not this again. Years of good, solid work had made such comments mostly history, but Tasha ran up against these attitudes every now and again.

She kept her smile in place. “Thanks to my work in the navy’s construction arm, the Seabees, and with the former owner of my company, I have more than a dozen years of construction experience that runs the gamut from concept to move-in. As well as decorating experience, of course.”

“Hmmm.” Geneva turned to the wall she’d indicated. “How soon can you give me an estimate?”

“If we settle the details today, I can have a construction estimate and rough sketches by the end of the week. You said you wanted redecorating, too, and the cost of that will depend on what you select.” And how often she changed her mind.

“We want only the best, of course. Now that my husband has become a vice president at his brokerage house, we’ll be entertaining a great deal. It’s important to present an elegant home. So what do you think that would run?”

“It depends on what you choose,” Tasha repeated, “from paint to furniture to flooring to wall or window treatments. I can’t make even a ballpark guess until I know more about what you want.”

“Oh.” Geneva shrugged. After a moment, she said, “I’ll need to call my husband and see if he wants me to ask you anything. He’d hoped to be here by now but was delayed. Sit down, and I’ll have Rosita bring you something. How about coffee?”

“Thanks, but I’m fine. I have to be over in Fargo later this afternoon, so I’ll go ahead and take some measurements.”

“Oh. All right, then.”

Geneva frowned as she bustled away.

Yeah. That went so well.

At least Tasha could use this waiting time. She pulled a tape measure out of her bag and got to work, jotting down the measurements for the wall that was going to go.

This bumpout needed to blend with the existing structure to avoid looking like an afterthought. Which way did the roofline run?

Instead of the image she wanted, Tasha flashed on a memory, Carter Lockwood nailing shingles on a roof in India. Their Seabee unit had been sent in for typhoon relief. They’d spent a lot of time doing heavy work in subtropical heat, so all the guys had shed their shirts as soon as possible.

But not all the guys were as ripped as their unit commander.

Even now the image of him shirtless, sweat darkening his chestnut hair almost to black and running down his superbly toned body, made her mouth go dry.

Damn it.

What was keeping Geneva? Discussing the job with her would help Tasha focus.

She glanced at her watch. Only a few minutes until she needed to leave. She didn’t want to offend or disappoint Geneva Carstairs, but being on time for appointments was a key part of her company’s appeal. Wasting the time of an existing client for the sake of a possible one was never smart.

Come on, Geneva.

Unfortunately, that long drive on the mostly deserted Georgia 94, better known as South End Road because it ran along the southern edge of the vast Okefenokee Swamp, offered too much opportunity for those aggravating memories to start their loop again.

Geneva bustled into the room. “My husband is on his way and very much wants to discuss concepts with you if you can wait.”

“I’m afraid I can’t. I’m due over in Fargo. But I can come back later in the week.”

Geneva hesitated. “We might want to redo the entire downstairs. You could give us a discount for a big purchase like that, couldn’t you?”

“We could work something out.”

Once Tasha had the job, she would steer the conversation around to the Christmas Cavalcade. Planning for that would kick off in June. This being late February, she had time to redecorate everything but the bumpout by then, and it should be elegant enough to impress Geneva and her friends.

“I’ll show you around. We can discuss alternative visions. My husband also wants you to look at the wine cellar. He’s considering updating it.”

A wine cellar. A small, enclosed space.

Tasha’s heart jolted, but she made herself smile. “My construction supervisor is an expert on wine cellars. It’s better if he handles that, but I’ll be glad to take a quick look around and get some ideas for the other rooms. I can’t be late for my meeting in Fargo, though.”

No matter how much she wanted this job. Every client’s time was valuable, and she couldn’t work with one who didn’t respect that.

At least when she was busy, her mind stayed on task instead of straying to Lockwood. She just had to keep it that way more often.

#

Tasha stared at the road unwinding in her headlights. Too bad there was nothing besides the shadowy stands of commercial timber to look at along here.

The end of a day packed with client meetings and long drives should’ve been a relief. Instead, the boring trip allowed too much room for that pestilential man to invade her thoughts.

Tasha sighed. It wasn’t as though there’d ever been anything between her and Lockwood. Aside from their both being mageborn.

And that sizzling little current that arced through the air whenever they were in the same room.

Not that either of them let that matter. He’d been her CO, and even if he hadn’t been—

Her cell phone rang. Yay, a diversion!

Pressing the button on the steering wheel, she engaged the wireless audio. “Hello.”

“Hey, Tasha, it’s Lorelei.”

“Hey there. How was your day?” Tasha kept her tone breezy. Lorelei’s boyfriend had died in an auto accident almost two months ago, and she had some days when she was fragile. She didn’t want to be hovered over, though, and Tasha could relate.

“It was long. The Problem Bride decided that no, she doesn’t want rose petals in the sachets she’s giving the wedding party after all. She now wants lilac.”

Tasha grimaced in sympathy. “Did you tell Bridezilla we don’t have lilacs blooming in late February, even in south Georgia?”

“I suggested this might cause a delay in having the sachets ready, but she’s adamant.” Lorelei sighed. “At least she didn’t balk at the rush fee.”

“What a pill, though. I’d ask you over for wine, but I won’t be home for a couple of hours. I’m on South End Road, about ten miles from the turn north. Had to go check a job site and meet with a client in Fargo.”

“That’s a long drive.”

“Tell me about it.” Tasha wrinkled her nose.

“You know,” Lorelei said, “I didn’t realize how cathartic it was when we used to go with the guys and take out ghoul nests. I could really use a chance to transfer all this built-up frustration.”

Tasha grinned at the dark countryside. “I know what you mean.”

She and Lorelei had been part of Griffin Dare’s rogue covert ops team during his renegade years. Taking out the settlements, or nests, of the dark magic users known as ghouls did a lot more to improve the world than either of their day jobs.

Ghouls were the light mages’ deadly enemies. Unable to reproduce among themselves, they kidnapped mages and Mundane, or normal, humans as breeders. Their retractable talons could suck life energy or magic or inject searing, deadly venom into their prey.

“It’s good Griff cleared his name and has his life back,” Lorelei said, “but sometimes I miss those days.”

“Me, too.” Tasha had enjoyed the camaraderie along with the knowledge that she was doing something that seriously mattered.

But stopping the raids had been part of the price for good relations between Griff and the mage governing Council. He got to return to the fold of mage society, and the Council got to be seen taking the lead in operations against the ghouls.

“We could spar at the gym tomorrow,” Tasha offered. “Better than nothing.”

“I guess. So—”

A fist-wide bolt of mage-green energy flashed out of the darkness and slammed into the underside of her truck. The radiator blew with a gush of steaming water, and the truck jolted to a stop, flinging Tasha forward against the shoulder belt.

She magically suppressed the air bag. If she was under attack, she didn’t have time to let it smack her or to wait for it to deflate.

Extending her senses, she caught the nauseating prickle of ghoul energy. A lot of it. Shadowy shapes moved in from both sides of the road.

Then seven muddy yellow shield auras flared to life.

Oh, shit. She formed her own shield, an aura of pale blue surrounding her.

“Tasha!” Lorelei’s voice came from the speakers. At least the connection had survived. “What’s going—”

“Ghoul attack.” Tasha snapped, reaching behind the seat for her saber. “Call the Wayfarer patrol. Seven ghouls and a traitor mage. I need backup.”

The nearest backup was the mage patrol in the town of Wayfarer, more than 30 miles away, but worrying about that wouldn’t do any good.

Tasha waited until the ghouls surrounded the truck, then reached for the space between life and death and visualized the road about a hundred yards behind her. She poured power into the shift, and reality jerked sideways in a wave of wrenching cold.

Shielding didn’t survive translocation. Emerging from transit, she dived and rolled as her protective aura reformed. She took a moment to wish she had longer transit range, but only a moment. The ghouls had sensed her and were turning.

She was going to need a lot of luck to survive until backup arrived.

#

Carter drummed his fingers on his steering wheel and watched the thin ribbon of asphalt unreel under his headlights. Sometimes hunches paid off, and sometimes they didn’t. If his family had possessed a true precog gift—but they didn’t, and that was that.

So here he was, miles south of the small town of Wayfarer, because of a vague feeling that he should drive down this way. After his daily shift as head of the mage patrol there, an organization that had to be kept secret from the Mundane—or normal human—residents, he normally went back to his home in Brunswick.

But not tonight.

All this empty countryside gave him too much time to think about the woman he’d never gotten out from under his skin.

He scowled at the road. He’d managed to forget about Natasha Murdock, mostly, until they’d met again last November. Who knew she’d be a friend of the mage archaeologist whose project he was assigned to guard from ghouls?

Or that she would pop into his head with annoying frequency even though they hadn’t met in almost three months?

That day in November, he’d been idiotically glad to see her. Probably grinned like a fool. Hey, Red, he’d said, using her nickname in their unit. Good to see you.

Jackass. He should’ve realized the pleasure would be his alone. If he’d had any warning, he might’ve thought of that before he opened his idiot mouth.

But no, he’d let that instant flash of happy surprise, of hope that they could start fresh, get the better of him. She’d slapped him down fast, with a tremor in her voice that had her friends closing ranks around her instantly.

That feeling of being on the outside had punched him in the gut, especially because doing his job required working with those same friends. He’d thought they were becoming his friends, too.

In the interest of protecting the archaeology project, the two of them had struck a civil but distant accord. And that should be that.

But it wasn’t.

So he was a dunce. There were worse fates.

His cell phone beeped, signaling a text. The dispatcher for the Wayfarer patrol would’ve used the radio. This could be a friend wanting to chat and seeing if he was clear first. Or one of the kids he unofficially mentored could need help.

No good place to pull off along here, with the road’s narrow shoulders sloping down to boggy ground and standing water. There was a bait and tackle shop about a mile ahead, though. Nudging his red MantaRay two-seater to a faster speed, he reached the closed store in under a minute.

When he picked up the phone, the text showed the number for Jeremy Hayes, one of the kids he unofficially looked out for, on the screen along with the text, Got 87 on Science test. Thx.

Carter relaxed. He’d been half afraid the seventh-grader’s dad had gone on a bender again.

Carter had met the kid while investigating reports of dark magic use and found him dabbling with blood spells in an effort to make his father stay sober and calm. Reporting the boy was standard procedure, but Carter, product of two responsible and loving parents, hadn’t been able to do it.

Not then and not when other troubled kids, mageborn or Mundane, had come across his radar.

The mage system that would haul those magically gifted kids in for examination and counseling wouldn’t do anything to fix their home situations. It wasn’t set up for that. Nor would the Mundane system help the other kids, ones it had already failed.

If anyone at the Collegium, the mages’ secret headquarters, found out what he was doing, his ass was in a sling. There would be much talk of undue interference and even legal liability. But that was a problem for later.

He texted Jeremy back. WTG, my man. Burgers on me next chance we get.

All those off-duty hours Carter had spent hunched over a science textbook with Jeremy had paid off.

You rock came back to him, and he smiled.

Pulling out of the lot, he almost turned left, toward Wayfarer and his home beyond it in Brunswick, but that itchy urge pulled him right.

Maybe there was something going on that would turn this wild goose chase into a wise choice. “Call dispatch,” he told his phone.

Even as the phone rang, the voice of Jenny Wilson, the Wayfarer Patrol dispatcher, crackled over his radio. “All units, all units. A mage is under attack on South End road, about ten miles west of Okefenokee Parkway. Seven ghouls, one traitor mage reported on-scene.”

Fuck. Those were deadly odds, especially for a civilian. His hunch had been valid after all.

Carter keyed his mic. “Lockwood here. I’m on the parkway now, about ten miles north of St. George. I’m rolling. Jenny, send me backup.”

He stomped on the gas, and his sportscar leaped forward. Drawing on mage reflexes and driver training, he pushed his speed up near a hundred miles an hour—not as much of a risk on this little-traveled road at night as it would be elsewhere.

Yet the speed did nothing to ease the sick feeling in his gut. The beleaguered mage was in the pocket of Georgia that stuck down into Florida. That was better than being on the other side of the Okefenokee, but he was ten miles from the turn onto South End Road in St. George. Then another ten miles to reach the victim.

Unless whoever it was had hellacious combat training, help would arrive too late.

#

Tasha’s back burned from venom-infused talon slashes, and her sword arm ached. A venomous puncture on her left arm had it cold and throbbing. Triple slashes across her chest, now bleeding, made her shirt stick to her, and venom poisoning had her fighting chills and nausea.

Three down, four to go, but she couldn’t last much longer.

Maybe she should try to translocate and run. But that took power. And the mage—who’d hung back, at least, and thank God for small favors—could translocate, too, and he was fresh.

At least the truck at her back blocked more than two of the surviving ghouls from attacking at once. Tasha sidekicked the big, burly male ghoul on her right in the gut, driving it backwards as her strike punched through its shields.

Its companion lunged.

Slashing right, she shouted, “Morere,” the Latin command to die, to amplify her power. Her blade sliced through the charging ghoul’s shielding and opened a gash its torso.

But another ghoul was moving in. Yet another, a big female, vaulted into the truck bed. It could blast her from there.

Fuck.

Tasha translocated to the truck’s far side, diving and rolling as she emerged and re-formed her shields. She gained her feet and blasted as much power as she could through her saber, amplifying it, at the big female ghoul in the truck bed.

The bolt slammed into the ghoul, disintegrating its shields and shoving it out of the truck. With luck, that blast and the fall had at least knocked it out.

But Tasha’s shields flickered. The translocation and then the blast had nearly drained her. And the ghouls were still coming. Fear prickled along the back of her neck. She tightened her grip on her saber.

Drawing power from the life energy in the surrounding woods, she reinforced her shielding as the ghouls scrambled around the truck. She blasted another ghoul, knocking it ten feet but not killing it.

Recharging again, she backpedaled to the road’s edge. The steep dropoff to the drainage ditch should protect her rear.

A fist-wide blast of green energy from her left hand knocked back two. She ran at the third, shouted, “Morere,” and aimed a slashing stroke at its head. Her sword pierced its shielding but only opened a shallow gash.

Still, the ghoul reeled away, out of the fight for now.

The other two split up, one to her left and one to her right. She blasted them both.

Wheeling toward the one who’d gotten the milder bolt, the one from her bare hand, she sensed the crackle of magic energy. Spaced out each side of the road and a few dozen yards to the east, three more ghoul shields flared into view.

Shit. Tasha swallowed against gut-wrenching panic. She couldn’t take this many. Especially not with the injuries she already bore.

The mage materialized in front of her, a drawn claymore held upright before him. Silver mage power reflected off his rugged face and dark hair.

Disgust drove out fear. Tasha pulled power from the woods.

If she died here, she was taking this traitor with her.

Grim-faced, he thrust his blade at her. Tasha side-stepped, batting it away and slicing under it.

Miraculously, he recovered in time to block. Pivoting, he kicked her, and she stumbled backward, to the brink of the ditch

Ghouls flanked her, but they weren’t attacking. Leaving her to him.

Bastard.

He knocked her blade aside and stepped in to grab her shoulder. His energy melded with her shields, and they...winked out?

The other ghouls closed in. Talons raked her back and dug into her arms. Venom.

Tasha screamed. Her knees crumpled, only the taloned grips of her attackers holding her up. The saber fell from her shaking fingers.

The mage caught her jaw in his hand. His brown eyes raked over her with disdain. “You’re beaten. Surrender.”

So they could make her a breeder? Or a snack? “Fuck you.”

“That can be arr—”

An engine roared to her right. Headlights cut through the night. The ghouls shot bolts of muddy yellow energy at the lowslung, red car, but its silver-blue aura deflected them.

Exultation roared in Tasha’s veins. She wrenched free of the ghouls. Agony blazed along her arms as the talons tore loose, but she shielded again as she dived for her saber.

Mage power shot over her head, fist-wide bolts of blue slamming into the ghouls who’d flanked her. They stumbled.

The traitor mage wheeled to face the threat. Gaining her knees, Tasha pulled power from the woods and poured it through her blade at his scuzzball back.

He staggered.

Oh, yeah. Combined power drain and pain had blackness licking at the edges of her vision, but she blasted him again.

A flare of blue lit the night on the other side of the truck. A rough ghoul cry mingled with a man’s shout of “Morere,” and Tasha grinned.

The ghouls were recovering. She blasted one, and black spots danced in front of her eyes.

Recharging, she bore down and blasted the other.

A man’s silhouette, visible in the blue glow of his broadsword, came around the truck. The ghouls charged him.

Except for the one that reached for her. Hell, no, she wasn’t turning hostage. Tasha put everything she could muster behind a groin thrust and a shout of “Morere.”

The strike connected. The ghoul fell.

But the world spun.

Somewhere, a voice shouted, “Go, go, go!”

Mage energy washed over her open senses. Blinking, trying to focus, Tasha forced her blade up.

“Hey. Easy,” a man’s voice said.

Familiar, but who?

“I’m on your side, so—Tasha?”

Her rescuer knelt a few feet away and held his blue-glowing blade near his face. Tasha’s heart kicked in the instant before mortification took over.

She’d been saved by Carter Lockwood.