The Aether Sampler
The sun was setting on his life, yet the brightness of the morning light was hard to stomach. Over five hundred years he’d lived. Roughly a hundred and fifty more than he’d cared to.
He halted before the tombstone where his beloved’s name and death date were etched.
Because of his gifts, she’d lived a century longer than any average human. But it still wasn’t enough, and he missed her like hell. All these lonely years, he’d been forced to continue without her. And it had been a miserable existence. With a glance at the stones for his remaining family, he sighed. But not as fucking miserable as outliving his children and his children’s children.
All but one.
He’d never hear her voice without imagining her as a youngster. As his wild Beastie, never doing as she was told, always running into the thick of things with no regard for danger.
“Almost ready, Sabrina,” he replied. His voice was gravelly, giving hint to his deeper emotions. Yet she could feel them because of what she was, the power she wielded. In a short time, she’d be more powerful still. All that was his would transfer to her so he could be reborn—with Vivian.
A crack rent the air, and a retina-searing golden light slashed across the fabric of the veil, opening a portal from the Otherworld to theirs.
The Goddess had arrived.
With one last glance at the headstone, he turned away, belatedly catching movement out of the corner of his eye. He didn’t need to look to know the letters of his name were forming next to Vivian’s, along with today’s written date. His death was foretold long ago when he once worked for the Authority and had the balls to confront the Fates. When his misfit band of Sentinels, who defied him at every turn, finally stood as a single unit behind him, ready to burn the entire magical community to the ground if that was what it took to rescue him from his crimes.
Damian smiled at the memory.
Goddess, he loved those fuckers, the men and women who’d become his best friends. He’d see some of them today. Not as who they were, but as who they’d been reborn to be.
Perhaps it was a good day to die after all.
But it was an even better day to be reborn.
“Are you planning to attend the gala tonight?”
Damian Dethridge glanced up from his cards to study his distant cousin and longtime friend, Alastair Thorne. “Why? Do you need a date?”
An amused smile curled Alastair’s mouth, but he never looked up from his hand. Damian knew from experience for anyone to beat him at poker, they needed every bit of concentration to block him from reading their thoughts. He always tried to play fair, but when an opponent was particularly excited by what they’d been dealt, their strong emotion transferred. This was also true in life.
As he watched Alastair, Damian felt a sense of kinship mixed with melancholy. Golden-blond hair, perfectly sculpted features, and a strong jaw made Alastair classically handsome. With his pristine suits and unrelenting etiquette, he presented like old Hollywood royalty. The warlock version of Cary Grant and the exact image of the man Damian called his father—Alastair’s great-grandfather, Nathanial Thorne.
Nate and his wife, Evie, had provided Damian a home when he was only eight years old and gave him, a young orphaned boy, the love and life lessons he desperately needed. He owed the Thornes a debt he could never repay.
Perhaps that’s what fueled their friendship. Alastair’s humor was similar enough to Nate’s to keep Damian entertained.
“To answer your question, Al, no.”
At one hundred and ninety-one years of age, balls, galas, and the like had ceased to entertain him. Most days, Damian preferred to remain at his ancestral home, Ravenswood, where he could avoid the dregs of society and read to improve his mind. Although, it did seem that over the last few decades, novels had become no more than deadly dull drivel. There wasn’t anything unique. No story idea that hadn’t been rewritten and expounded on ad nauseam. No talent was able to touch the greats—Wilde, Fitzgerald, Dickens, Austen, and the like.
Perhaps he should author a book. He certainly couldn’t do worse than what passed for literary works these days, and it might help to pass the time.
Alastair brought him back from his side trip when he topped off their drinks.
“Why not go, Dethridge? It might be fun.”
Damian snorted. “If you believe that, your idea of fun vastly differs from mine.”
He peered into Alastair’s mind, only to be mentally smacked away. Laughing, he nodded his head.
“Well done, Al. Not many can keep me out.”
“You were the one who showed me the surefire way to repel you.” The considering expression in Alastair’s narrowed sapphire eyes wasn’t surprising. The man didn’t miss a trick. “Clearly, you did it for a reason.”
“I needed a challenge.”
“Life must be awfully boring for you if reading my tedious thoughts is challenging.”
“Yours are more interesting than most.”
Alastair nodded and raised the bet. “Still, a certain young lady will be in attendance,” he stated casually as Damian called and raised the stakes higher.
“I’m too old for her, and we both know it.”
“You’re too old for anyone.” Alastair barked a laugh. “But look at you. You’re a woman’s wet dream, my friend.”
“That doesn’t matter in the least.”
Irritation prickled, and Damian quickly shut down the emotion, knowing if it got out of hand, others—namely Alastair—would feel the sting. He’d won the genetics lottery and abhorred the fact that he was, for lack of a better description, drop-dead gorgeous. Seduction had been his mother’s game after the Darkness consumed her. As an Enchantress, she’d leveraged her looks and sexuality to steal magic from the unsuspecting. Long ago, Damian had sworn he’d never resort to luring others with his natural-born gifts.
“What really has you out of sorts, Damian?”
He looked up to see Alastair’s concerned gaze focused on him. With a toss of his cards, he folded the game and shrugged. “I don’t know, Al. Maybe it’s because no one should exist as long as I have. See what I’ve seen. Have the power to restore or remove magic from another at will. The power to annihilate a soul for all eternity.”
“It sounds pretty good to me.”
Tugging up his slacks, Alastair crossed his legs and leaned back in his seat, scotch in hand.
Damian half expected to see a naughty saying on his crew socks like Nathanial was so fond of wearing. Alastair, however, would never dilute his impeccable fashion sense with novelty items.
“That’s because you are a fraction of my age,” Damian replied dryly. “Give it another hundred and twenty-plus years, then we’ll circle back to this discussion.”
“I feel as if my life is one long sentence as it is,” Alastair said in a suddenly somber voice.
“No change in Rorie’s condition, then?”
Aurora Fennell-Thorne, the love of Alastair’s life, had been in stasis for several years with no hope of waking.
“I can attempt to bring her back, Al. Say the word.”
“And turn you into an enemy of the Authority for breaking their protocol?” Alastair’s mouth tightened as he shook his head. “No, Damian. I’ll find another way. She still has time.”
“It’ll be a death sentence for you. They’ll send the Death Dealers.”
“So what? Let them. Even if they did manage to defeat me, which we know is doubtful, I have nothing to live for but this pile of rocks and that blasted garden containing my mother’s tomb.”
A wicked grin transformed his friend from morose to mischievous. “And perhaps Vivian Stephens?”
Pausing in the middle of lifting his tumbler, Damian narrowed his eyes and pointed a finger in his direction. “Get that thought out of your head, or I’ll pluck it out for good.”
“Besides, she’s engaged to Sebastian Drake.”
“An arranged marriage in this day and age is barbaric.”
“Just because their parents encouraged the match doesn’t mean it’s arranged, Al,” Damian said with a light laugh. But amusement was the last thing he was feeling.
Two months ago, he’d strolled onto the Drakes’ estate in search of their butler, Leopold. On the far side of the back lawn, Damian had encountered Vivian, who’d been admiring the giant oak just outside the forbidden garden that held the Enchantress entombed.
She was ethereal with her long platinum hair, peaches-and-cream complexion, and large silver-blue eyes. The white sundress added an air of innocence, as did her bare feet, and she looked like a virginal sacrifice for the gods.
One glimpse, and Damian had been a goner. His lungs had ceased to draw another breath, and his heart had left his chest to settle in the palms of her delicate hands to do with what she will.
Only she didn’t know it.
Their first meeting was nothing short of disastrous, however, and her impression of him had been blackened by his sudden irrational fear that his mother, Isolde, might escape by using Vivian. Unfortunately, that fear had been disguised as temper.
“What the hell are you doing?” Damian snapped.
She gasped and drew her fingers back right before touching a plate-sized matte-black rose, whose vine—unnoticed by her—had inched down the side of the stone wall. When she didn’t answer, he ordered her away from the garden. Of course, she didn’t run away fast enough for his liking, and he used his magic to give her slow-moving ass a boost.
Her second gasp was more indignant and distracted him momentarily.
It almost cost Damian his life.
The deadly vine barreled toward him at a blinding speed, and had he not caught the movement in his peripheral, he’d have been a human shish kabob. With a fisted hand, he halted time and stopped its forward motion. Drawing on ancient family power, he decimated the vine with a fiery blast, channeled the wind to gather the ashes, and dumped them on the cursed side of the wall.
Time snapped back with a resounding pop.
Keeping his gaze locked on the stone ledge, he addressed Vivian over his shoulder. “Go! And send the senior Drake to me immediately.” When she again didn’t react fast enough, he bellowed, “Move, woman! This is life and death.”
She hissed a breath and disappeared with the faintest glimmer of light in her wake.
Belatedly, he realized he hadn’t been able to hear her thoughts, which was highly unusual. As the Aether, he was subject to everyone’s inner dialogue, magical and non-magical alike. The idea that hers might remain a mystery to him was intriguing.
Resentment flared in her eyes when she returned with Sebastian and his father.
“I only required one,” Damian told her with raised brows and a slight smirk.
Sebastian’s immediate unease tickled his mind, and Damian stalked forward, invading the man’s space.
“Why didn’t you warn her, Drake? That garden is off-limits to everyone. No exceptions.”
“I wasn’t in that garden. I was on this side of the wall,” Vivian retorted, an underlying challenge in her cold tone.
One Damian was happy to accept.
He spun to face her, pinning her with a stare.
But she didn’t react with fear or caution, as expected, and her pointy chin shot up in defiance.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked silkily.
Her sense of self-preservation finally kicked in, and she shot a questioning glance at Sebastian.
“I asked you a question, woman.” Crossing to her, Damian used his fingertip to draw her face around to his. Mentally, he shrugged off the little voice taunting him, telling him he wanted all her attention for his own. “Do you know who I am and what I’m capable of?”
His voice had been whisper soft. Seductive in a way he’s sworn it would never be. But she appeared immune to his spellbinding charm, and the impact of her frosty gaze punched him right between the fucking eyes.
“Who are you?” he asked. “And what have you done to me?” he wanted to add.
“Vivian Stephens.” Her tone had lost its former chill and now had a breathy quality able to blank his mind.
Damian let the sound wash over him and found the effect pleasurable. Enough that he wanted to talk to her forever. “Viv—”
“Get away from her!” Sebastian barked the order, his unease growing and wrapping around Damian like a python. Belatedly, he recognized the emotion as jealousy edged with fear.
“Watch your tone, Drake,” he replied casually. They both knew he could kill the man in an instant. “I’m simply gathering facts.”
“And yet you still haven’t removed your bloody hand.”
Rarely was Damian surprised, but Sebastian’s comment disconcerted him. Heat crept up his neck as he dropped his arm, and for the first time in his life, he felt true embarrassment.
Bowing his head in apology, he said, “I beg your pardon, Miss Stephens. I meant no offense.”
What she would’ve replied, he’d never know. From the terrace, Leopold’s warning shout rang out.
Acting instinctually, Damian threw his balled fists in the air and encased them all in a protective bubble a mere instant before the vine struck. Like a fingernail tapping glass, its inches-thick thorns clinked against the barrier, then drew back to try again. Harder and more frenzied with every attempt.
“Mr. Drake, I need you and your son to hold my protection spell in place while I deal with that damned vine once and for all.”
“Where did you go?” Alastair asked with raised brows. “You certainly weren’t here with me, old man.” Squinting, he watched Damian. “You were recalling your meeting with her, weren’t you?”
In a highly irregular action for him, Alastair made smooching noises and laughed at Damian’s promise of retribution.
“Whether you go to the ball or not, this dance of yours is going to be fun, my friend.”
“There will be no dance.”
“I hate to be the one to rain on your self-isolation parade, but I believe you won’t have a choice.” Alastair nodded toward the terrace.
On the other side of the French doors, Vivian stood in a shimmering pale-blue, off-the-shoulder ballgown, her hand poised to knock. Her distraught, tear-stained face propelled Damian out of the chair and had him yanking open the door to get to her.