available on its own or in the anthology Huntress
Supernatural bounty hunter Lilli Corbin made a pact with the Prince of Hell: She agreed to recover a book of prophecies. When she learns it could trigger the apocalypse, Lilli is forced to make the ultimate choice: save her soul, or the man she loves?
The anthology Huntress also features stories by Marjorie M. Liu, Caitlin Kittredge, and Jenna Maclaine.
+ “This hot quartet of authors delves deep into a variety of dark worlds, where survival is anything but assured. Two of the stories build on characters introduced in other books, while the other two are stand-alones. With this amazing line-up of talent, there is more than enough kick-butt action, dark torment and passion to go around.”
— Jill M. Smith, RT BOOKReviews awarding Huntress 4 Stars!
Read the whole review.
Excerpted from Devil's Bargain
Lilli cursed her luck, Samael, devils’ bargains, medieval manuscripts, and interfering homeowners all at once and all without opening her mouth. She should have known it couldn’t possibly be as easy as it had sounded. Even with the hourglass she wore cheerfully marking the time, it had taken her barely more than a day and a half to determine who had Samael’s missing book and where it was likely being kept, almost as if the thief hadn’t even bothered to cover his tracks. Another twelve hours and she’d been able to find out enough about the guy to decide that, even with the ridiculous timeline Samael had given her, she would be able to pull off this job in her sleep. Then, if that hadn’t tipped her off, her sources had told her the thief had died almost a month ago, just days after he must have taken the book to begin with. It played like some sort of cosmic coincidence.
She didn’t believe in coincidence.
She also didn’t believe in walking into any situation blind, which was why she’d lived to the ripe old age of twenty-eight still breathing and still in possession of all her limbs. Lilli had done her research on Alistair Carruthers. The man had been born into a very old magical family, but one whose family tree had stopped sprouting much new growth. He had only one sibling, a significantly younger sister, and his father and grandfather had both been only children. As far as Lilli had been able to tell, he had no aunts, uncles, cousins, or other relatives to speak of. He didn’t even have any children, having never married and apparently having been so devoted to his work and hobbies that she hadn’t even been able to find much in the way of a dating history. He’d lived alone and apparently died alone, and judging by the appearance of the house he’d died in, Lilli had assumed no one had very much cared.
She’d been expecting to find an empty house that no one would mind her breaking into, much less making off with one small book and none of the family silver (okay, a big book, but she wasn’t even going to look for any electronics). She hadn’t expected a tall, lean, rumpled looking man wearing faded jeans that were worn at the seams, a Ramones t-shirt, a battered flannel shirt, and black-rimmed eyeglasses that made him look like a nerd and a face from a GQ cover at the same time.
She also hadn’t expected him to all but sparkle with contained magic, or for him to try to sneak up on her from the main floor of the house. That was why she threw the knife at him, she guessed. It was reflex. Most of the time, the things sneaking up on her didn’t have her best interests at heart, so she could be forgiven for trying to stop theirs.
The man on the stairs, though, he didn’t look very forgiving. He looked intent, then startled, then angry as he raised his own hand just as her fingers released their grip on the knife. With the flat of his palm, he slapped at the air in front of him, and her knife screeched to a halt, quivering as if it had impacted on wood and buried itself to the hilt. Only it hadn’t hit anything. It hovered in mid-air for a second, then dropped to the floor with a clatter. Clearly, Alistair Carruthers hadn’t been the only sorcerer to live in this house. Instinctively, she reached for a second blade and the man on the stairs threw himself toward her with a growl completely at odds with his computer-geek appearance.
The impact didn’t feel very geeky, either. It felt solid and heavy and knocked her ass over elbows onto the very hard and dusty concrete floor. Who would have guessed that all that solid muscle lurked under such worn and rumpled cloth?
Lilli didn’t pause to ponder the incongruity. Instead, she let the momentum of the impact and fall send her into a roll that should have let her reverse their positions and put the sorcerer on the bottom with her knees planted on her elbows. Somehow, it didn’t happen that way.
The man reacted faster than a light switch, leaning into the roll until it became a sort of crocodilian death spin that sent them all the way across the floor until the immovable object known as the cellar wall brought them to an abrupt stop. Lilli squirmed to keep herself from being pinned between the man and the concrete. She sent an elbow toward his face, swearing when he jerked back so that the blow that should have shattered his cheekbone bounced off the edge of his jaw instead.
He countered with hands that moved faster than they had any right to. They reached for her wrists, and she took advantage of the distance his recoil from her attack had put between their torsos, twisting her upper body and planting her hands flat on the floor.
Lilli braced herself and executed a straining push-up against the weight of his body pinning her legs. She couldn’t get her hips more than a couple of inches off the ground, but that was all she needed. Grunting with strain, she lowered her head and pushed her hips back into his chest, using the leverage to drag her legs free. As soon as she felt the cool air on her calves, she swung her lower body around and flipped herself to her feet, wincing when the pendant swung up and smacked her between the eyes. Her movement shoved the man off balance, and he lurched backward with a curse to land on his butt a few feet away.
Adrenaline propelled her forward. She had her misericorde drawn and the edged blade pressed to his throat before she stopped to think, but not before he spoke a hoarse, curt word. A second later her hand seemed to slip involuntarily, sending the long knife clattering to the floor.
Jerking back, Lilli balanced herself on her haunches and cast a wary glance from her adversary to the knife and back again. Her blade had been warded, so for him to disarm her would have taken some serious mojo. It also would have required that he cast his defensive spell not on her weapon, but on the hand that held it. She’d remember that trick in the future, and she’d sure as hell be buying herself a pair of gloves just as soon as she got out of here. In the meantime, she needed to keep from getting her ass kicked.
Quickness counted in this kind of encounter, and it looked that Lilli had that advantage over her opponent. She executed a quick pirouette on one heel, sweeping the other leg out in front of her and knocking the man’s legs out from under him just as he tried to scramble to his feet. He hit the concrete with a grunt. Shifting forward, Lilli planted her palms on the floor and vaulted herself back onto her feet. She intended to throw herself right back into the fray, but something stopped her.
Across the space that separated them, Lilli meet the man’s grim, hazel gaze, then watched it shift to his left. She followed his sightline and felt a surge of excitement when she saw what he was looking at. On top of the disordered desk across from the bottom of the stairs lay a huge, leather-bound manuscript of certain antiquity. Lilli recognized it instantly from the images Samael had shown her. She’d been right; the Praedicti codex was in this house and almost in her grasp. She could practically taste her freedom. Between her breasts, the pendant seemed to pulse with anticipation.
Renewed determination flowed into Lilli. Jerking her attention back to the last obstacle in her path, she launched herself into an attack. Two lunging steps built her momentum so that when the man in front of her finally gained his feet, one of hers instantly whipped around and plowed straight into his stomach.
That was the idea, anyway. To her surprise, he reacted with unexpected speed, sweeping his arm down to knock her ankle up and away from its target. A quick balance adjustment allowed her to keep her feet, but it cost her a couple of steps backward. Raising her hands into a defensive posture, she danced forward until she came within arm’s length of him and punched the heel of her hand up toward his nose.
Again, he moved quickly. He slid to the side and turned his head in time with her blow so that the impact softened and glanced off his cheekbone instead of sending shards of bone and cartilage up into his sinus cavities. Before Lilli could follow through with the other hand, the man in front of her stepped back and began to mutter something under his breath.
Again with the magic. Lilli did not intend to stand around and let someone cast spells on her, no matter what job she was here to do and no matter how much his glasses made her contemplate what it would be like to try to fog over the lenses. Quickly, she looked from the magician to the manuscript and calculated a few angles in her head.
Here goes nothing, she thought as she lowered her head and took a deep breath.
Several things happened simultaneously in the next moment: the sorcerer in front of her raised his right hand and aimed his open palm at Lilli’s chest; Lilli bent her knees, gathered her strength, and threw herself into a flying somersault in the direction of the desk; and the open manuscript of the Praedicti Arcanum seemed to rustle its pages with a restless air of discontent.
“What the hell?” she heard the man—now behind her—roar as she landed hard where a wheeled task chair had been sitting, sending the seat spinning and the entire chair rolling crazily into the far wall.
Not bothering to look around, Lilli made a grab for the book and gave a breathless cry of frustration when a body slammed into her back and pinned her to the surface of the short filing cabinet beside the desk. She tried to scramble forward, her fingers stretching toward the book, but a large, masculine hand attached to an arm with much greater reach shot past hers and shoved the manuscript off the other side of the desk. She cursed as she heard it thud to the ground.
Ironically, so did the man on top of her.
“I. Need. That. Book!” she grunted and shot her elbow back into her attacker’s ribcage.
She heard the dull thunk of the impact and heard his hoarse shout of pain, but the bastard didn’t move off her. That pissed her off. Gritting her teeth, Lilli pushed her hands into the top of the cabinet and tried to gauge her amount of wiggle room. With his hips pinning hers and his abdomen pressing down on her lower back, she didn’t have much room to move.
Still, a girl always had options. Letting him take her weight, Lilli lifted her feet of the floor, spread her legs, and hooked her feet around the backs of her opponent’s knees. At the same time, she arched backward, raised her hands off the cabinet, reached back and boxed his ears firmly.
The man behind her roared in pain, surprise jerking him backward. Unfortunately, with Lilli’s feet hooked around his knees, he couldn’t step back. He lost his balance and toppled onto his ass, curses ripe enough to peel paint coloring the air around him. Lilli tried to untangle her legs from his before he hit the ground, but gravity moved faster than she did. She landed on top of him and rolled off immediately.
Tucking her knees under her body, she attempted to hurry to her feet, her hands reaching automatically for her second misericorde when the magician’s fingers shot out and shackled her left wrist, pinning it to the floor. His other hand pressed against the center of her chest while the tip of her sharp, narrow blade pressed hard against his, directly above his heart.
“You might be able to stick that knife in my heart before I can stop you,” he panted, his breathing as hard and rough as hers, “but I’m not sure you want to bet on it.”
Lilli hesitated. Was speed really the question here? She had no desire to kill this man for the sake of a damned book, even less when she thought about who had sent her after the book in the first place. She had taken this job as a way to free herself from Samael once and for all; if she killed for him, he’d own a piece of her for eternity.
Still, that didn’t mean she couldn’t bluff.
“I like to gamble,” she said, deliberately stripping her voice of all emotion, making it hard and cold and deadly. “People tell me I have the devil’s own luck.”
“Go for it then. If you think you can beat me to the punch, why don’t you demonstrate?”
Lilli frowned. “You want me to kill you?”
“I already said I’m not sure you can.”
His voice sounded taunting, but his eyes were deep and serious. There was something in them that tugged at her. Lilli had been a hunter for years; she’d been in situations once or twice where she’d had to kill something, so she’d seen what eyes looked like when the light went out of them. She didn’t want to see his eyes that way.
“What are you waiting for?” he demanded. “If you think you’re that fast, prove it. Try to kill me.”
Cursing, she turned aside her blade so that the flat of it pressed against the man’s faded black t-shirt. From behind the desk nearby, she almost thought she heard a rumble of discontent.
“You first,” she snapped, jerking her wrist free of his surprised grip.
Slowly, cautiously, the man took his hand away from his threatening position over her heart and pushed himself into a sitting position. “How about you answer a few questions for me before I make up my mind?”
“Name, rank, and serial number?”
He shook his head. “Maybe later. But first, why don’t you tell me what you want with the Praedicti Arcanum?”