Melanie S’velare is a survivor, the strongest witch in her coven, and a princess. With the key to her magic, the Ace of Hearts, presumably destroyed, her powers continue to grow. As her power increases, her control on them becomes weaker until it is clear she may be the most powerful witch on the planet and the most dangerous. The Alaman, another coven, concerned by her strength, send an ambassador to gauge her control, stability, and how dangerous she truly is. The Alaman are well known for killing witches who pose a threat to their own powerful hold over the globe and if they see fit to end her life, she will have no choice but to fight.
With her soulmate by her side and the remains of her Vanguard, Melanie strives to maneuver a maze of political scandals designed to make her falter. If she fails, she will not only lose her throne to the traitorous Lord Rossi, but also her life to the fiery Alaman.
Melanie can only pray her secret that the Ace of Hearts is alive and manipulating them all in a final deadly game is never revealed.
If there was one thing Melanie S’velare was sure of, it was that her soul was in jeopardy because she was a witch. Not because she’d made a demonic deal, but because she suspected her powers might be stronger than she was. She was afraid that one day, the lightning and thunder churning inside her would rip through her control, leaving her soul and body open to the Ace of Hearts, like an unlocked door to a burglar.
The Ace of Hearts, if it was still alive, would kill for that chance.
“Princess, are you listening?” Mrs. Elyse Clovis Bouchard asked. Melanie’s tutor in political arts, Mrs. Bouchard was of average height, average weight, and fish mouthed, which sent the whole picture of the woman off kilter. When she spoke, spit flew across the library in direct proportion to how much enthusiasm she had for the subject. She was currently attempting to teach Melanie the finer arts of political maneuvering that led to the rise of the Ottoman Empire, known not only for its wealth, but in the secret world that Melanie occupied, for its elemental power over huge swaths of civilization. Mrs. Bouchard’s spit had spattered on Melanie’s notebook paper in three fat drops.
“Yes,” Melanie said, looking up from the spittle wrinkling the paper. She was in a class of one, no longer able to attend public school because of the unusual things that tended to happen when she was in any sort of mood that wasn’t perfect relaxation. That, and she’d destroyed an entire classroom and traumatized several students three months previously when an azri had attacked her, tried to eat her soul and take the Ace of Hearts, her reliquary of power, from her. Also, Melanie was a huge insurance liability because she tended to start electrical fires every twenty-eight days or so when her emotions took a turn into the depressive and destructive, in a three-day hormonal sprint.
“Have you some other place to be?”
Melanie pushed herself straight in her chair and rapidly blinked her eyes, trying in vain to force herself awake. “No,” Melanie said. “I’m just having a hard time staying awake.”
“Do I bore you, Princess?” Mrs. Bouchard looked down her nose over those fish lips at her.
Melanie swallowed. She needed to know these things. She needed this strategy if she was ever to be a good leader for her people. There were other covens out there in the world, and the political interactions in the magical community made the mortal world’s politics seem like commercials for cupcakes. “No, I need to learn this. Please, keep going.”
“Perhaps we will take an extended lunch today. Let’s meet back here in an hour.”
Melanie sighed and nodded. She needed to get out of the dreary library. She gathered her bag and put her books inside, thinking that she would study over lunch. At the bottom of the bag, a bottle of unused pills rattled. The prescription anti-anxiety meds messed with her ability to keep control of her magic, so she’d stopped taking them weeks ago. She still couldn’t control the flood of panic every time she thought a shadow was the noir reaching out to corrupt her.
Melanie wouldn’t be attending a public school again, not until college. She was far too dangerous. One stray argument with pretty much anyone, and in seconds there could be an electrical storm of biblical proportions terrorizing all the teenagers at her high school, setting off fire alarms, with follow-up videos posted to the internet. The damnable internet.
A video of Melanie, in the grips of the Ace of Hearts’s consciousness, while she and her Vanguard tried to destroy it, had surfaced online. She couldn’t afford to be recognized by anyone as the girl in that video. There would be far too many questions, and it would endanger the coven. The last thing anyone wanted was a conflict with the mortal humans. Melanie had also learned that there were strict international laws about magic and its use in public. The kind of laws that, when broken, resulted in death, dismemberment, or worse.
According to several of her mother’s advisors, Lord Rossi’s mustache among them, she wasn’t fit for public interaction because the risk that she would break one of those international laws of magic. One fuzzy video of a girl with auburn hair spewing lightning from her hands at a man who looked like a teacher, and she was banned from public appearances beyond the rare outing to lunch. Not the glamorous, paparazzi-filled life of the crown princess.
It was a good thing she wasn’t in public very often. Her control on her magic was still weak. She could snap at any second and voila! Twenty thousand volts of raw witch anger, depression, or just downright irritation could electrocute the nearest bystander. She could probably solve the world’s energy crisis if someone hooked her to a set of jumper cables and a battery array. Until she got control of her powers, she was on a strict “no use” ruling from her mother.
“Rough lesson?” Jack, her friend and a member of her Vanguard, asked as he caught up to her. He’d been reading in an overlarge chair near the door. He was her guard today. He and his twin sister, Luciana, attended public school, with him taking classes Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and Luciana attending Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
Melanie sighed dramatically and hiked her bag higher on her shoulder. “Do the words ‘ce n’est pas terrible’ cover it?”
Jack didn’t laugh. It wasn’t that funny. With his six-foot-two frame, his shoulders broad enough to make any body builder salivate, Jack walked with both a natural swagger and like a man about to crack skulls. He kept pace at her side and considered. When Jack considered, he took his time about it.
“Want to get out of here for lunch?” he finally asked, his impossibly deep voice rumbling in his chest.
“I need to study,” Melanie said. “I need to know this stuff if—”
“Hey,” he said. “You’re going to break something if you keep that up. Relax. Let’s just find a place to eat. Someplace you like, that you won’t accidentally burn down.” From their mind-to-mind connection, Melanie felt a flicker of emotion from Jack: a dash of comfort, some humor, a hefty helping of happiness, and the relaxed satisfaction of belonging. There was only one place that filled that order: the Tattered Ear, where the local pack of Scottish-bred shape shifters met. It was also where Ignatius Bruce, the pack’s alpha, and Melanie’s soul mate, worked during the day.
It didn’t take much prodding to get her to agree. “We’ll have to sneak out,” she said.
“Let’s go then,” Jack said. His huskiness intimidated the shape shifters enough that Melanie soon learned if any of her Vanguard would be accepted into the pack’s circle, it would be Jack. Also Ignatius co-owned the local pub with his uncle, Fergusson. “Sneak out the back?”
“My thoughts, exactly,” she said. Besides, it was finally warm enough to go outside without a parka, so walking wouldn’t be miserable.
“Keep a lid on the weather,” he said. “It’s a dead giveaway whenever you are up to something.”
Melanie felt her smile slip. “Right,” she said.
“Mel,” Jack said, stopping, “I’m sorry.” He ran a hand through his short brown hair. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
The problem with having a Vanguard who was blood bound to her is that they could sense her emotions and her thoughts through touch. Any one of them could pinpoint her exact location as long as they were within a ten-mile radius of each other. So when her depression hit her like a two-ton brick, he felt the shockwave. Likewise, his remorse filtered through the bond, and the combination was a power-punch of teenage angst, regret, and mutual suffering, that neither of them wanted or needed more of.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said, forcing her thoughts away from the one thing she couldn’t think of, the one thing she kept a secret from everyone. The one thing that terrified her as much as her out of control abilities did. “Let’s just go.”
Jack nodded and waited for her to go first, still feeling as sorry as a kicked puppy. Which made it worse, because Jack was like a puppy. He just loved everyone. When he was sad, it was like a double shot of negativity in her brew of already-hard-to-swallow latte called life.
The Manor was huge. Castle huge. It was also decorated with expensive furnishings that were the remains of Melanie’s family history. Her ancestors were mostly Italian, and the frescoes and tapestries were of spreading fields of olives and grapes and European landscapes. It was all very idyllic, very much a lie compared to the truth about the S’velare’s.
Under normal circumstances they would shift out, using their magical abilities to travel through the space. Lately, Melanie’s magic had become a liability rather than a boon when jumping from place to place. It was safer to walk. The last time she’d made the attempt with another person, it had been in the depths of February, soon after Valentine’s Day, and she and Luciana had ended up waist-deep in a frozen pond, halfway to their destination. An emergency trip to the witch doctor had saved them both from hypothermia. Still, Melanie hadn’t tried to shift since. She didn’t trust her control not to accidentally drop her and Jack over a cliff, or worse, inside it.
“Let’s go out the back this time. I’ll throw you over the wall or something.”
Melanie had to smile at the joke. She sensed his humor in her mind, and it helped.
Her smile vanished when they rounded the corner and her black-eyed brother, Owen, stood in the exact middle of the corridor, waiting for them.
Jack placed a protective hand on her shoulder, ready to draw her behind him. She could feel his pulse through the contact, his shock and the sudden instinctive fear that matched her own.
Owen’s eyes were black as pitch, like an azri’s, but he wasn’t one. He was still a mage, but he no longer had a soul. He’d been totally exposed to the raw darkness of the noir, black magic. What looked out through his eyes was neither human nor azri, but something in-between. Melanie felt stripped down to her soul when he turned that black gaze on her, as if he could see every secret she was keeping from the coven, her Vanguard, and her boyfriend. Worse still, Owen’s soullessness was her fault.
“Someone is looking for you,” he said, tonelessly. “To give you a message. Listen carefully to what he has to say. It will be very important.”
“Who is looking for me?” Melanie asked.
Owen frowned. “I don’t know. I just know that someone is looking for you. I will cover your escape.” Then a slight tug of power filled the air and her brother vanished, shifting as if it were child’s play. He was only thirteen and such abilities should have been beyond him, or at least more difficult. But without a soul, Owen was thirteen going on infinity.
A cold sweat broke out over Melanie’s body.
Let’s agree to not think about it, Melanie thought to Jack.
He nodded, his brown eyes still wide. I’m going to have nightmares tonight. I wish he wouldn’t do that.
Melanie didn’t respond. She always had nightmares. Ever since the Ace of Hearts had come into her life, night was rife with terror of the thing she couldn’t let her waking self think about. No one could know.
The guards posted in the early spring garden were absent. Jack gave Melanie a leg up near the back wall closest to the dark forest of silver aspens and spruce spires before he pulled himself over and joined her on the other side.
Melanie took a deep breath of the free air. When she first arrived in Park City, Utah, she had hated it. At the time it had been under several feet of snow. Now, a cool wind caused the trees to sway gently, and the spring shoots poking through the waves of gray dead grass from last season, rustled under foot. Park City was beautiful, and possessed a wildness all to itself that conjured images of plaid button-downs and leather boots. Everything smelled perfect, no hint of city pollution for miles in any direction. The trees and mountains parting its streets dispelled any urban feel and replaced it with artsy communities of athletic outdoorsmen. Park City itself was an elementally charged place. Even without the magical inhabitants, it was a magical place tucked away from the rest of the world.
The walk into downtown wasn’t long. Soon the sounds of main street were close, the rumble of cars and conversation of people interweaved with nature’s rhythms.
Jack, his hands in his pockets, sighed. “I love this town, but you know, sometimes I just wish we could leave.”
Melanie smiled at him. She didn’t have to say that she did too.
How many times had she wondered that? The shape shifters could do it. In fact, Ignatius, Nate for short, had done it several times when he needed a break. She’d never seen him leave before; he was always where she could find him, or finding her when she wasn’t looking for him. But she knew he had escaped into the wilderness more than once. At night, when he wasn’t allowed in the ManorManor, he would sit at the edge of the trees and watch over her until the moon rose high and heavy among the stars. Those were the nights when she slept until morning. For him, it wasn’t anything to melt into the trees and disappear from a world that was happy to forget about him.
Perhaps that was the problem. The world was not ready to forget about Melanie S’velare, Keeper of the Ace of Hearts, heir to the S’velare throne, the strongest witch ever to live.
“I think you’d end up living in a rockslide or something,” Melanie said as they stepped from the forest onto concrete sidewalk.
“Probably,” he said. “But that would be pretty cool. I bet I could.” Jack’s reliquary was the King of Spades, meaning he was a mage gifted with power over earth. Luciana’s reliquary was the Queen of Spades and she also had power over earth, but over plants instead. Together they were a badass team of nearly unstoppable power.
Melanie smiled and adjusted the bag on her shoulder. It was a warm day, the Utah sun already beating down, promising a dry and brutal summer ahead. She shielded her eyes and looked up toward the tallest buildings, the two and three story historic constructs comprising main street, a mass of artistry, talent, good food, and outrageous resort pricing. The ski lifts were still active in April due to the unusual snowfall this year. Snowboarders and skiers carried their equipment in bikini’s and swim trunks. Here, the beach wasn’t a sandy stretch, it was where the snow met the street. Lawn chairs were set out and people were sunbathing.
This year the resorts were doing well. Melanie’s nightmares messed with her emotions enough that, for several weeks, nightly blizzards had coated the resort town in some of the best powder Utah had experienced in years. The result was a longer season and a boosted economy. So while she was damn good at destroying buildings with accidental tornadoes, many members of the coven had complimented her on the increased income her instability had brought them. Lord Rossi and her mother were decidedly not pleased by this.
“What are you looking at?” Jack asked, leaning down next to her and squinting in the direction she was looking.
“I think there’s someone standing on top of the theater.” With the sun behind the person, it was hard to tell. It could be a movie gimmick, or something from one of the new indie films coming to town. The wind picked up and the man’s clothes shifted. His coat, too warm for the unseasonably warm weather, swept out behind him like a cape and Melanie recognized him.
She swallowed and lowered her hand and he disappeared in a sliver of black vapor. Gavin was an azri, a soul eater. He was also her birth father.