I perched on the roof of Carnal Play, wrapped in the magick of the Source, and hidden from prying eyes. The rising sun painted the sky with streaks of pink and pushed back the darkness. The wind brought the ever-present scent of the Mississippi River and the distant sounds of the city stretching awake. Not that New Orleans ever really, truly slept. She was a lady of the night and hosted many beings that preferred the dark.
I pushed a honey blonde curl from my face, watching the streets below and searching the skies as I waited for my early morning appointment to show. I could feel the sparks of magick contained within those beings connected to the Source who were flooding into the city. I had known when New Orleans sent out the first powerful beacon, its call nearly deafening me. Since then, the magickal population had increased daily, while those that were native to the area were edgy and irritable. New Orleans was calling her people home.
I was not sure of the calling’s purpose. The Source’s motivations were a mystery to me. Not even Guardians had all the answers, but I could tell that the changes were coming. I didn’t know what they were or how to define them, but I knew we would all be affected. I was beginning to suspect it had already started.
I let out a long sigh and searched the predawn sky. I hated waiting. I took a sip of my cooling coffee and my mind drifted to the conversation with my brother, that had led to me being up before the sun.
“Jaxx, I don’t know if you have a choice here,” Wyatt said, his hands on his hips. “We deploy again next week. You are running out of time.”
I turned away from him, blowing a curl out of my face with a puff of air as I began to load the breakfast dishes into the dishwasher. “Wyatt, there has to be another answer.”
“They are great protectors, and I know this group. They are a special forces unit coming home. They are looking to relocate.”
I gave him a wry look over my shoulder and rolled my eyes. “Just how is that going to work? You know Adélaïde will not allow them to roost here.”
“You don’t know that. You haven’t even tried. Both you and Carnal Play need protection. Not having it isn’t an option. Every time you leave the grounds, someone is coming after you. Do you want to be a prisoner?”
I sighed again. “Wyatt, they are gargoyles! They will infest the building, and they will never leave. You know how possessive they can be of what they consider their home. No amount of pest spray would get rid of them!”
Wyatt brought a few more dishes from the table. “That is what makes this so brilliant, Jaxx. That is why this might just work! If they claim Carnal Play as their home, they will die to protect it. Their very survival would depend on it.”
I shook my head and sighed.
“Jaxx, listen, I can’t leave without you and Carnal Play having new security. I know the last time was a nightmare, but you don’t have a choice.” I narrowed my eyes at him, and he went on quickly, “Why not just give them a chance? Meet with them and let Adélaïde get a feel for them. Then decide. If it doesn’t work, we will look for another solution, but I have a good feeling about this.”
Older, overly protective brothers were the absolute worst. He nagged and worried like an old woman. So there I was, waiting on a gargoyle at the crack of dawn, and he was late.
I sipped my coffee and stretched, balancing precariously on the edge of the building. As the sun broke the horizon and its rays spilled over the plants, the garden behind me sent the smell of green growing things into the air. I threw my head back, closed my eyes, and basked in the early morning warmth.
A shadow fell over me. A moment later, I felt his feet touch down on the rooftop. There was no sound, just a slight movement of the air, easily mistaken for a breeze.
“Careful.” The word was soft, the tone amused. “Although, you don’t seem to suffer from vertigo.”
I didn’t startle as he spoke, his voice sliding over me like a caress. Ignoring the sensation, I admitted, “Never have.” Opening my eyes, I turned to look at him. The impact hit me like a physical blow. He was…beautiful.
His eyes were the pure, undiluted green of cut emeralds. They glittered in the early morning light. His hair was a rich dark brown, nearly black, and cropped close to his head in a military cut. It bared the sharp angles of his face, making me want to trace the scar snaking its way from his right temple to the corner of his sensually shaped mouth. He was beautiful, but it was the beauty of a warrior. This man had power embedded in every inch of his skin, every piece of his flesh.
“Are you okay, ma’am?” he asked, his smile bearing a hint of mockery, male satisfaction, and pure, lethal focus.
I blinked and felt my face heat, having no idea how much time had just passed. Had he called me ma’am?
“Yes,” I said, clearing my throat, furious at having allowed myself to be blindsided by his physical beauty. I bit the inside of my cheek in reprimand. I would not fall into the same trap again. This man clearly knew how striking he was and the effect he had on women. Which made him an arrogant ass I should have no trouble resisting.
I hopped off the ledge, my bare feet silent as I landed. I stepped closer but stopped a few feet away, very conscious of his height and strength. He towered over me, at least 6’6” to my 5’3”. His body was heavy with muscle, and I could feel the heat radiating off of him.
He held out his hand, and my breath left my lungs when his gaze locked with mine. “Damas Harlow, ma’am. Wyatt said you were looking for a new security team and that the job came with…accommodations.”
I reached out, and his large hand engulfed mine. A frisson of awareness whispered through me, my body going liquid at his touch. Within his firm but careful grip, I could feel the callouses along his palm. I watched emerald fire flare in the facets of his eyes as he swept one finger over my inner wrist before breaking contact.
Damas turned away, sweeping his gaze over the sprawling rooftop. Small private garden areas dotted the landscape, tucked in between the black raised peaks of the roof. The red brick building was 400,000 square feet and took up a large parcel of land adjacent to the river. It was a hodgepodge of sections and additions that somehow all fit together seamlessly. The Crescent City Connection spanned the churning Mississippi, connecting the east and west banks. The rising sun glittered off the surface of the water, and the sounds of New Orleans awakening drifted to us on the breeze.
A strong pulse of energy reverberated through the foundations of the building. That wasn’t that unusual. It usually meant Adélaïde was trying to get my attention. What was unusual was that Damas felt it too. He cocked his head, his gaze dropping to the rooftop, and he took a step to the side. Hmm, well, that was interesting. I let out a small sigh. I had a feeling Adélaïde had just decided she liked the idea of a gargoyle security team. Great, there went the neighborhood.
“Well, it seems we have been summoned. Let’s head inside. I will show you around, and we can talk. Would you like a cup of coffee?” I asked, the resignation filling my tone was loud even to my ears.
“Yes, ma’am, coffee would be great. Thank you.” Damas smirked and waved me towards the door that led to the stairs with a small mocking bow.
I growled softly. “Stop calling me ma’am. My name is Jaxxon.” I swept past him, feeling his hulking presence at my back as he followed me.
“Yes, ma’am. Of course, ma’am,” he said with utmost politeness. I glared at him over my shoulder to see his eyes dancing with amusement, but his face otherwise expressionless. I sighed again and shook my head. This was going to be an experience, no doubt about it.
I opened the door and stepped into the dark space beyond, padding down the circular staircase. I knew he was behind me, but I could hear no sign of his presence, which was frightening considering how big he was. To break the silence, I asked, “What did Wyatt tell you about Carnal Play and the job?”
His deep baritone filled the shadows, sending a shiver down my spine. “He filled me in some, but truthfully I would rather hear it from you. I don’t want to miss something because I assumed I knew.”
I nodded as we reached the bottom of the stairs, and I led him deeper into Carnal Play. “There would be different duties I would need you to attend to. I need a Head of Security for Carnal Play and bouncers and security when the club is open. I need guards on duty twenty-four-seven protecting a sensitive area. And I need a personal team for myself when I go out. Would your people be able to handle all of that?”
“Yes. I have fifteen gargoyles looking to relocate with me, and all of them have training. If I need more, would you be open to me hiring others?” he asked.
“As bouncers for the club, yes. For the guard and bodyguard duty, I would prefer just those you trust implicitly. There are secrets here that need to remain undiscovered. The fewer outsiders know of their existence, the better.” I led him across the club to what appeared to be a blank exposed brick wall. I placed my hand against it, and a doorway formed, leading to another set of steps. These were older and made of wood so polished and dark you could feel the age coming off of them. I looked back and saw Damas eye the doorway, his brow furrowed as he realized we were heading deeper into the earth.
“I didn’t think New Orleans had basements? You can’t even bury things below ground here. How is this possible?” he asked.
I looked over my shoulder at him and smiled a witchy little smile. “It is magick.”
He arched a dark brow at me but didn’t say anything else.
The scent of petrichor hit us about halfway down the steps. The fresh smell combined with that of the spiciness of the cypress trees and a multitude of flowers. We stepped onto a brick pathway, flanked by lush grass and towering live oaks draped in Spanish moss. Lights illuminated the walkway in the perpetual darkness, and the sky overhead twinkled with stars, making it difficult to tell if we were truly indoors. The sound of water rushing over stone could be heard the closer we got to the bridge and the mansion just beyond. It was impossible, all of it was, but then the Source never really cared about physics.
Damas stopped at the middle of the bridge, his gaze moving over this impossibility. Green ferns poked through the slats of the bridge, the canopy of the trees hovering overhead. The two-story antebellum mansion stood in all her elegant glory, nearly glowing as it preened beneath his gaze. Towering white columns flanked the wide wrap-around porch and supported the roof. Warm light spilled from the windows, welcoming us.
I could feel the shock radiating from him, but his face remained impassive, and his body relaxed. I bit my lower lip to keep from laughing. I turned back to look at the house. “Come on. You said you wanted coffee.”
He shot me a quick look and followed as I started toward the steps of the house. Anticipation seemed to thrum in the air. Damas’s step faltered, just the slightest bit, when the door opened at our approach. Well, Adélaïde was certainly eager for this meeting. I led him up the three stone steps, stopping just before we entered. “Adélaïde welcomes you, Damas.”
We sat in the surprisingly modern kitchen, sipping coffee at the large farmhouse table. I grew up in this house. It had always been my home. I had been shocked when, as a child, I first realized not everyone’s house could do what mine did. Damas patiently waited as I gathered my thoughts, trying to figure out where to begin.
“What do you know of the Source?” I asked, figuring I would start at the beginning.
He gave a small shrug and shifted in his seat. “Not much more than what your brother told me. Of course, we knew of magic, but I originated far from here and a very long time ago. At that time, we just considered ourselves another race or a mutation. But we didn’t give much thought to it, to be honest.”
I blew out a breath, trying to figure out how to explain this without us being here all day. I tucked a curl behind my ear and said, “The Source is an ancient construct. To the best of our knowledge, it was formed at the birth of the universe. We do not fully understand it, and it is not prone to giving up its secrets. What we do know is that it is the wellspring of all magick. Powered by the river, the magick flows out over the earth in a network of ley lines. It pools in spots that become beacons to those of the Source.”
He tipped his head, processing. “So all the magick in the world comes from the Source? What does it mean for them to become beacons?”
I nodded and took a sip of my coffee. “All magick, no matter how small the spark. All shapeshifters, all oracles, all vampires, all of it stems from the Source, and its power is wrapped around the earth. There are places where the power pools and magick seems to live there. Have you ever been somewhere that seems to call to you, whisper to you? Tempting you to stay and immerse yourself. Places where your powers come easier, and you heal faster?”
He nods slowly, his big hand was still wrapped around the cup, but he seemed to have forgotten his coffee. “Please continue.”
I couldn’t tell if he thought I was nuts, but then again, he grew wings, and his skin went as hard as stone. So I supposed he might be inclined to believe the unbelievable. I held his gaze, watching for his reaction to this next part. “We are sitting atop the Source. Carnal Play rests over where all that magick bubbles to the surface from wherever it comes from. More specifically, Adélaïde and the land around her do.”
He had gone stone still. His eyes blazed, and his lips barely moved as he said, “I am not sure I follow.”
I smiled sympathetically. He was a smart man. He knew what I had just told him was the equivalent of saying we were sitting over an atomic bomb factory. “Long before people walked this land, the Fae were born of the Source. When the native people arrived, the Fae disappeared into the mists, recognizing that they would not fit into the coming world. New Orleans grew up around the Source. The Source created her. It is why people, even those not of magick, consider her nearly sentient. During the Civil War, the Source saw the danger and tried to pull NOLA back into the mists to protect her. While it succeeded in part, it ended up fracturing the magick all around the planet. The effort it took tapped the Source, the magick that once blanketed the planet, dwindled to trickle. Only the ley lines and the river kept it flowing.”
He listened attentively, and I could see him trying to absorb all the information I’d thrown at him. He took a large gulp of his coffee, and I could nearly hear the thought that he wished it was something stronger.
“Adélaïde was the first structure built to protect the Source. When the magick fractured, she and the land that she sits on were pulled into an in-between place. Not fully of this world and not fully of the mists, but resting on the border. As far back as we can trace our lineage, my ancestors have been the Guardians of the Source, Adélaïde, and now Carnal Play. We are human, and within the bounds of Carnal Play, I am very powerful. Outside of it, I have very little power and few defenses. But as you can imagine, many would like to see me dead.”
His eyes flared with emerald fire and I paused, intrigued by his reaction and what it meant. I studied him for a moment before he said, “Is there more?”
I grinned. “There is a ton more, but what do you think? Is this something you and your team would want to take on? My last security team did not fare well, and I know what I am asking, especially for gargoyles. Adélaïde has already given her approval. She couldn’t wait to open the door for you, and Wyatt swears you are up to the job. As much as my brother annoys me, he would cut off his arms before he would endanger me or Adélaïde. I have plenty of space for your people and all the gardens up top. You will be paid a handsome salary, and Carnal Play will become your home for as long as it stands.”
He looked at me searchingly, doing his impersonation of a statue again. The only thing on him that moved were his eyes. He blew out a long breath, gave a short nod, and said, “You have your new security team, ma’am.” He grinned when I scowled at him.