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Immortal_Illusions

IMMORTAL ILLUSIONS
The Eternity Covenant book 2
by Ursula Bauer
ISBN: 1-59998-832-1
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Release date: February, 2008 (ebook) September, 2009 (print)

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What would you risk to make your darkest dream a reality?

Outcast sorcerer Jack Madden has waited fifty years to take revenge against the Council of Wardens for wrongly convicting him of a crime, binding his powers beyond repair. When the Council turns to him to help retrieve four missing arcane artifacts, Jack decides it's his best shot at vengeance. And Raine Spencer—fearful of her power and clueless about how to use it—is his perfect mystical surrogate and mark.

Raine loyally serves the Council of Wardens as a top Occult Operations Analyst, but she longs to take the sacred oath and become a knight. With the taint of Elven blood in her veins, she has a snowball's chance in hell of making that dream a reality—until she is chosen by "Mad Jack" to act as a mystical surrogate.

Raine is ready to face down her fear of her wild Elven side, and team up with the most unprincipled scoundrel to ever haunt the halls of the Council of Wardens.

But is she ready to pay the price with her heart?

excerpt

Chapter One

It is far better to find trouble than for trouble to find you. So take the initiative. —Elven Proverb

Manhattan

"I'd sooner send in a demon to do this job than a half-breed spawn."

Raine's ears twitched. They no longer bore the tell-tale points, the scarlet letter marking the dubious part of her Elven heritage, but that didn't mean she didn't retain elements of the preternatural hearing. The caustic comments of Kerr, one of two Elder Wardens deciding her fate beyond the solid steel barrier of double doors, raked over her like nails on a chalkboard.

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She checked the urge to glance at the impenetrable doors blocking her entry to the Elders' conference room in the Manhattan quarters of the Council of Wardens lest she tip her hand and show the turmoil churning her guts. Wiggans, the secretary and lone sentry of the otherwise empty antechamber, glanced up at her with a benign smile on his gaunt face. The words so clear to her, cutting her like all the others over the years, were merely garbled sounds to his human ears, though the tones carried an unmistakable tinge of hostility. He was assessing her, she knew. Waiting to see if she would crack. Watching her on the sly, wondering if it was really true what they said about Eleven blood—that it ran hotter than the fires of hell and gave in to impulse the way most humans gave into the urge to breathe. If he judged her a threat, he'd press the alarm button concealed beneath the middle drawer of his ornate oak desk, and security would remove her along with any chance she had of landing this job.

Raine curled her fingers into her palms, driving the fingernails into her skin hard enough to send pain shooting through her arms, hard enough to clear her head and remind her that she was here by choice. She smiled briefly at Wiggans, and he relaxed his bony shoulders, then went back to tapping the computer keyboard, the serene look of the career bureaucrat settling upon him.

"Preposterous!" Kerr's voice again. "Salazar, you go too far! These creatures, regardless of the human element, lack control and the ability to reason. They are driven by appetite alone. Raine Spencer is no exception. Trust me. She does well enough in her role, but give her the opportunity, and the tainted blood will tell."

Raine shot to her feet and crossed the room to one of the arched windows overlooking Eighty-Second Street. It was that, or burst through the barrier of the doors and engage Kerr. Nothing could be more disastrous, of course. Or satisfying. She wouldn't give Kerr the proof that he was right. She'd never given anyone that proof, not in all her thirty-one years. She was not about to cave now.

Still, a part of her ached. She knew her uncle Hugh stood in that very same room with his liege, Kerr. Stood silent. She'd not heard his gruff voice raised once, in any kind of defense for her as Kerr assailed her heritage and character. Reason told her Hugh would only make matters worse by arguing with Kerr. As Kerr's paladin, Hugh had no choice but to follow orders and adhere to protocol. She sighed inwardly, because as much as reason told her that her uncle must hold his tongue and bide his time, her heart wished he would come to her defense as readily as he would the doctrines he upheld so valiantly in service to the Council of Wardens and the Eternity Covenant.

Wiggans sensed her tension and glanced at her, but this time she couldn't muster a smile. She wanted to scream. She turned away from him, clenched her fists again and stared unseeing at the brownstones outside. "I'm not used to sitting still so long," she finally managed to grind out as explanation. "I need to move. Get the blood going."

"Ah, yes, well, it has been a few hours." Wiggans's reedy voice covered the conversation on the other side of the doors. "I can imagine the wait gets tedious."

She nodded and strained to pick out the words in the council chamber, even when she knew she'd be wiser to shut them out. Ignore them the way she had so many other times over the years. Ramon Salazar, the other Elder Warden, was trying to reason with Kerr, but his low baritone was soft, subtle, and sly, like the man himself, and Raine couldn't make out more than a passing word or two.

Raine took a grounding breath, then another, again and again until her pulse returned to normal. Her eyes refocused as the haze of anger cleared and she caught sight of motion on the otherwise quiet street below. A dusky purple SUV sat in front of the building. The chauffeur leaned casually against the front passenger side quarter panel, twirling a baseball cap on her finger. Her bright green hair was styled in a sleek bob, and she wore thigh high boots and a strapless sheath dress colored the same wild hue. A blinding assault of colorful tattoos rode over her bare shoulders and arms.

Raine shifted her attention from the comments in the chamber and moved the vertical blinds aside to get a better look. The bizarre woman was the equivalent of a frantic scream bellowed out upon the quiet street and desolate early morning air. She let the blinds fall and stepped clear of the window. Such a display in the face of the staid tradition of the Warden's territory could mean only one thing: Mad Jack had arrived.

As if on cue, the hand-carved Spanish mission doors separating the antechamber from the hall burst open, shattering the taut peace. The sheer force created a wind that sent the carefully stacked papers on Wiggans's desk scattering like frightened doves. Wiggans jumped out of his seat and took several steps back as Jack sailed through the doorway.

"Hello, Lucy! I'm home!"

Here was the prodigal son, triumphant in his return, dubious circumstance be damned. A blonde bimbo dripped off each of his lean, muscled arms, and a cocky smile curled the edge of his poet's mouth. He smelled of expensive brandy, old magic and sin. Her nose twitched as the onslaught of his presence worked over her heightened senses.

Yes, he most defiantly smelled of sin, she thought, breathing in against her will. Most men would be satisfied to smell of sex, but not him. Sex was far too pedestrian and linear. He smelled of unadulterated sin and all of its glorious complexities and seductive promises. And he looked better than a man had a right to look. Even a man who was half-God.

Raine drew in another breath, savoring it as she appraised the mythic Jack in the flesh. He wore what could only be described as Regency Goth: tight black leather pants, a loose white silk shirt, and a crimson velvet frock coat that fit close over his wide shoulders and fell somewhere to mid-calf. His shoulder-length silver hair was loose, and the points of his ears peeked through, another affront to the Wardens and standard convention of the game. No petty enchantments for Jack, no hiding for the sake of propriety. He was only too happy to parade his Elven ancestry, knowing how noxious it was to the uptight members of the Wardens. For a moment she wondered what such freedom was like, then dismissed the wild idea.

Raine was glad to feel the coolness of the windows at her back. They were the last remaining escape route, she realized. Seeing him this way, alive and not some abstract legend or dire warning, made her feel distinctly uneasy. His searing cobalt gaze locked onto her with unerring precision and dangerous intent. He took his time taking her in, and as he did, his smile grew, showing the lean, wolfish lines of his elegant face. A slow burn started in her blood, something new and unwelcome.

They'd warned her about him. About Mad Jack and his wicked ways. They'd warned her and she hadn't believed them. He nodded in her direction, the look in his eyes changing from one of raw fire to one of cool understanding. The smile reached its end, a knowing, measured affair that stole her breath away, touched her very soul, and caused it to shiver—in both fear and anticipation. Why hadn't she listened to those warnings? She heard them all now so very clear, ringing like ten thousand alarms in her head, and she knew a moment of panic like nothing else she'd experienced in her life.

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His smile faded, his eyes narrowed, and as sudden as it started, the spell was broken. "Raine Spencer. So pleased to make your acquaintance." He detached himself from the women and bowed deeply, then stood and winked. His rich, hypnotic voice tickled her ears, teasing her in ways her mind couldn't quite grasp. "I'm looking forward to our little game. I hope you are, as well."

Before she could speak, Wiggans stirred. "You can't have unsanctioned persons here, Mr. Madden. Please, you of all people know the rules."

"Rules are for members of the Covenant," said Jack easily. "As I recall, I no longer hold such vaunted status."

The women giggled. They were twins. Two blowsy blondes, hard-eyed, with sun-baked, taut skin and dark carmine lipstick. The one on the left sauntered towards Wiggans and fingered his tie. "Is he an immortal, sweetie?" she said to Jack over her shoulder. "You promised we'd meet some immortals."

Raine watched transfixed as the woman licked her lips. As she looked closer, employing all her senses, she realized the women Jack had brought with him weren't entirely human. Some kind of shapeshifter, she surmised, though she couldn't identify the particular strain of Were. The sheer audacity stunned her. Mad Jack was certainly doing his best to live up to his reputation, already playing the game, before anyone even fired the starting gun. So far, he'd violated ten, no twelve different rules and he'd not been in the building in as many minutes. Gods, what was she doing?

Wiggans pulled away, a look of terror mingled with anger coming over his face. "Really, I must ask you to leave."

Jack leaned against the metal council room doors and folded his arms. The tight fit of the coat rode nicely over the lean, flexed muscles. "Better escort them, Wiggsy old boy. Wouldn't want them to get lost in the stronghold, would we? What might your boss say?"

"This is simply too much!" A frustrated Wiggans rallied himself, grabbed up one blonde, then the other, and ushered them out into the hallway.

As soon as he did, Jack sprang like a trap. He had the mission doors shut and locked before Raine could blink.

"Alone at last." He faced her, his eyes lit with mischief just barely concealing a lurking menace. "I'm glad you agreed to join me in this round, Ms. Spencer. I hope you know what you're in for. They did warn you about me, didn't they?"

"I heard you're an arrogant bastard and can't be trusted." Raine forced herself to cross the room until they were toe-to-toe. She was a player in the game, she reminded herself, one of the top occult analysts, and certainly no amateur. If he thought the flash of his sheer brilliance could blind her, he was dead wrong.

"Oh yes, and you have a weakness for the ladies." She traced her finger up the bare skin of his chest, exposed from the open shirt. His smooth skin heated beneath her touch and she had the satisfaction of watching his eyes close for a moment and his breath still. "In fact, that's what contributed to your downfall and exile, am I correct?"

"Very." He opened his eyes again and they were glacial. "You don't take the warnings seriously, do you, Raine?"

He seized her hand in his own and held it close against him. His heart beat slow and measured, so at odds with her own racing pulse. He was hot silk against her, and she wondered how it would feel to have that soft heat pressed along the length of her body. She swallowed hard and pulled away. "I form my own conclusions from facts. I don't buy into legends and bedtime stories."

He threw back his head and laughed with earnest emotion, a surprisingly genuine sound. "Is that what I've become? A bedtime story?"

She shrugged, trying to gain her footing. His rapid changes of mood and body language threw her off her game. Reading Jack was like trying to tango with a tornado on a killer course.

"Okay, for your sake, let's stick to facts." His lean body suddenly coiled with tension. "I know your kind, Raine Spencer. You're a crusader, a true believer in the Eternity Covenant and the Wardens. You're all about rules, regulation and protocol. And you're new to the game."

His voice was now sharp like the edge of a hot knife. He stepped around her and turned to gaze at the doors to the chamber where the argument raged on between Kerr and Ramon Salazar. Behind his back he linked his hands, and then squared his shoulders as if facing off against some great enemy. "The game is nothing to me. I don't believe, I don't care. I was exiled for any number of reasons, and all but one of them was valid. If you're going to play on Team Jack, you need to know the truth. I play the game the way I choose, I play to win, and I'm willing to pay whatever cost I need to pay to get what I want. You sure you still want to sign on for a tour of duty with me?"

"You used to be a hero." The words were out of her mouth before her brain could engage and stop them.

Jack spun round and gave a short, deriding laugh.

"Hero? That's not a bedtime story, Raine, that's a joke." He released his hands and touched her chin with a feather-light caress that made her knees weak. "I'm nobody's hero. I'm in the game for me and me alone. You want to play with me, you'd better not forget those facts."

Raine found herself unable to speak. She shrugged free of his maddening touch and struggled to get her bearings. The most powerful of his magic had been bound when he was exiled, but he still had something left. Whatever it was, he was using it on her, she was certain. There was no other explanation for her current state. This was not her. She was collected, calm, grace under pressure.

Then again, she should have expected this kind of upset. Jack was the consummate player. No one in the history of the Eternity Covenant ran the razor's edge like him, pushing buttons, pushing boundaries, breaking rules, breaking hearts, if only for the sheer thrill. It was his claim to fame, and it had been his undoing. She rallied herself.

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"I'm getting something out of this deal, too." Her skin burned where his fingers had been. It matched the fire of her conviction to pursue this path, to offer herself up as a mystical surrogate to help him help the Covenant. All those years spent proving herself as worthy, to the Covenant, to those around her, to her uncle, and herself had brought her to this point. Knighthood, the highest form of service in her mind, would grant her the legitimacy that had always eluded her. "You're not the only one with an agenda."

"Seems like we're on the same sheet of music, Raine Spencer. This should be fun."

An infernal pounding rattled the wooden doors that barred entry from the hall. "Open up, Mr. Madden," came Wiggans's cry, "or I'll be forced to call security."

Jack frowned. "Well, that was a bit faster than expected. Guess I'll need to take a shortcut."

Raine licked her lips. "What are you up to, Jack?"

He seized her hand and yanked her close, then turned with her to face the other doors, the silver barricade protecting the inner sanctum of the Wardens. "Have you been awakened yet, Raine? Fully awakened?"

Her blood ran cold at his words. "Not completely."

He chuckled, a low sound decidedly menacing. "Excellent. Nothing like trial by fire."

Her hand began to tingle where he touched, and the strange sensation moved rapidly up her arm and spread into the rest of her body. "What are you doing?"

"A little parlor trick. Some of the most powerful results come from the most simple of actions." He eyed the doors as if taking their measure. With his free hand he reached out, palm flat, feeling nothing but the few inches of air between him and his obstacle. "Listen to them in there. I know you can hear them, despite what you've done to your ears. I know, and they know. Especially Kerr. He detests half-breeds as much as he does any of the other Alt races. Our Ramon, now he's a different story altogether, but Kerr, he's a right and proper bastard. And your uncle's liege, if I recall correctly."

"You have a good memory."

"For some things." His spread his long fingers wide and extended his free hand until the tips grazed the metal doors. "You know, Kerr's the one behind my exile. I'm sure he'd be just as happy to drive you out. If we fail, he'll do just that."

Damn him. Trying to break her confidence. She stiffened her spine and shifted her hand, intertwining her fingers with his. She wouldn't go down easy. "Then we won't fail."

"Agreed." He gave her a sidelong glance, and the fire was back in the dark blue eyes. "Kerr's going to attack, so we attack first. Surprise him. Force the fight out of him early. Then we can get down to negotiations. Ramon has briefed him, but I need a public admission from the Druid before I'm ready to proceed. You see, he has no choice but to accept my terms."

"Our terms."

"Right. Our terms. He can't risk his precious Eternity Covenant. His house is foul with conspiracy. He has to bring in the outcast to set things to right." The air rippled around them. "So he's trying to make us pay. You with the insults. Me, well, not sure with what since I don't care what he says, but he'll try something. He plans to ambush us, so we're going to blow his line before he gets the chance to do some real damage. Ready?"

She nodded as a wave of vertigo assaulted her. Angering Kerr wasn't a good plan as far as she was concerned, but things were spiraling out of control. Something that was the norm with Jack. She was just as mad for joining up with him. But he was her only choice. She told herself that one more time, and still it sounded crazy. "Ready."

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"Hold on, and whatever you do, don't let go." He faced the door and spoke more of his gibberish language. There was a long, heavy moment where Raine forgot to breathe, where time seemed to stop, and the world around her went absolutely silent and still. Then an ear-shattering roar rent the air, and fire raced through her veins. The silver doors blew into the chamber, wrenched from their hinges and went sailing through the air. The surrounding wood disintegrated into millions of splinters, sending up a blinding cloud of dust that acted as a barrier protecting them from the room's three stunned occupants.

The world swam before her eyes, her vision blurred, and she leaned against Jack for support. Her fingers went slack and she released his hand. His arm snaked around her waist and held her fast while the air raced around them in a furious torrent. Heat and strength suffused her body, and when the dust and debris settled, she was able to manage standing on her own two feet. Breathing steady was another matter entirely.

"What the hell was that?"

"Magic."

Magic. Her brain turned the word over, while the aftershock turned her innards around. "I'm supposed to be a mystical surrogate, that's all. Not like you. They promised me. No magic."

"Their promise. Not mine." He laughed softly and took her hand in his once more. "Look lively, here comes trouble."



"...just plain fun. Full of energy, colorful characters, and all the gods you can poke a stick at, this addition to the Eternity Covenant is very exciting...IMMORTAL ILLUSIONS just screams good time. Don't be the one who misses out on it!" - Courtney Michelle for Romance Reviews Today

"An intriguing and intricate plot surrounds a very sensual romance...Jack is seductive and charming...Raine is smart and strong and when her magic kicks in, she can really kick demon butt!" -Nanette for Joyfullyreviewed.com

Rated: 5 Cups "Immortal Illusions is an amazing book, full of passion, mystery and good old fashion warfare. You cannot help but fall in love with Jack...a must read for anyone who loves paranormal Romance." -LeeAnn for www.CoffeeTimeRomance.com

 

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