[Excerpt 2—intro to Isabelle Montplaisir]
Isabelle Montplaisir had spent the last two hours preparing for the moment her doorbell would ring. She’d bathed in rose-scented water, massaged lotion into her skin until it was silky and supple, used a flat iron to smooth out the coarse curls of her waist-length hair, and changed clothes three times. Almost as if she were going on a first date instead of meeting her longtime lover after an absence of three weeks. But tonight was not going to be like so many others past. Tonight, for the first time, Isabelle was going to be bold and brave and ask for what she wanted.
The doorbell rang at precisely nine o’clock. Matthew Landry was nothing if not punctual, and he was always especially eager to fall into Isabelle’s arms after he’d returned from one of his visits to the States to spend time with his wife. Isabelle couldn’t fathom why he bothered going “home” every time the Council was in recess. Once upon a time, Elders had been required to live near the Abbey, but in these modern times of video-conferencing, it was no longer strictly necessary. And yet Matt had chosen to move here anyway, which should mean he considered Saint-Malo home. It wasn’t like he and Juliana had ever loved each other, and their children were adults, hardly in need of parental supervision.
Isabelle checked her appearance in the mirror one last time before going to the door, dabbing at a little excess cherry-flavored lip gloss and straightening out imaginary wrinkles in her gossamer peignoir. Swallowing the last of her nerves, she raised her chin and opened the door, confident that she would easily out-dazzle Matt’s horse-faced, middle-aged wife.
Matt had arrived in Saint-Malo only this morning, but he had obviously not spent his day resting after his long trip. Instead of the blue jeans and button-downs he liked to wear when he was off duty, he was dressed in his robes of office, the floor-length drapes of black emblazoned with the Ouroboros giving him an unmistakable aura of power—and making him infinitely less approachable.
Isabelle must have looked as stunned as she felt, because Matt’s handsome face lit with amusement and he brushed at the robes as if he could make them go away with a touch of his hand.
“Sorry to show up like this,” he said in Latin. He had learned French for her, and she had learned English for him, and yet somehow they always fell back on Latin, the universal language of the Gifted—and what they’d spoken when they’d first met two years ago. “I didn’t have time to change.”
Isabelle gestured him inside, and with the door no longer blocking his view, he got his first look at her peignoir—and the body it barely veiled. She hadn’t bothered wearing a nightgown or underwear beneath. His breath instantly quickened, and he shut the door blindly behind him, his eyes taking slow and delicious inventory. His heavy robes hid the evidence, but she knew if she pressed into his arms, she would feel the distinctive bulge of his arousal. She turned a slow circle so he could take in the rear view. He had always been an ass man, and she knew hers was one of her best features.
Matt made a low growling sound of appreciation. There was no doubt that he found her alluring, but there had to be more to it than that or he wouldn’t have stayed with her for so long.
“I thought the plan was for us to have a quiet and unremarkable dinner in deference to my jet lag,” he said, and she heard the rustle of his robes as he approached from behind.
“There is never anything quiet or unremarkable about you,” she purred, smiling with a sense of power as she heard the slither and thump of his outer robe sliding off his shoulders and hitting the floor. She tried to turn around and face him, but his hands landed on her shoulders, his body pressing up against her back as he nuzzled her neck.
Isabelle reached up to twine her fingers in his hair without turning around, arching her neck to make more room for his kisses. His hands slid down from her shoulders to cup her breasts, and the fabric of her peignoir was so thin and sheer that it felt almost like skin on skin. His lips feathered her chin, and she turned her head so he could rid her of the cherry gloss she’d put on just for him.
He groaned as his lips met hers, his erection grinding into the small of her back as his hands squeezed almost painfully tight. Isabelle would not have to invoke her Gift for sex tonight; her body was plainly all the inspiration he needed.
“Would it be terribly rude of me to fuck you senseless before dinner?” he murmured in her ear, but he was already pulling up the hem of her peignoir, proving he knew the answer.
Isabelle uttered a throaty laugh. “On the contrary, Your Excellency. It would be terribly rude of you not to.”
He snorted at her use of his exalted title in this context, but he was too desperate to waste much time with amusement. Within scant seconds, she was bent over the living room sofa with her filmy peignoir bunched up around her waist. She spread her legs encouragingly and watched over her shoulder as Matt shed his inner robe and briefs in record time. She didn’t know how she had survived three weeks without having him inside her.
Isabelle groaned in relief as he drove into her. So good. So right. Almost good enough to keep her from wondering if Juliana had received her husband’s affections while he was in the States.
Isabelle shut that thought off with alacrity as she braced her hands on the seat of the sofa and Matt began to thrust. Here and now, he was with her, not Juliana. It was Isabelle he fucked, Isabelle he shared his nights with, Isabelle he loved. He was hers, and it was past time she claimed him.
Isabelle waited until they were snuggled up in bed together before she even attempted to launch the conversation she’d been both dreading and anticipating all day. Her body glowed with contentment, and the blended scents of sweat and sex were sweeter than any perfume.
“Je t’aime,” she murmured against Matt’s chest, pressing herself more tightly to him and running her leg up and down his.
Matt’s fingers played with her hair, which had thrown off the effects of the flat iron and lay like a tangled, frizzy blanket around her. Usually, she braided it before getting into bed, but haircare had been the last thing on her mind when he’d carried her into the bedroom.
“I love you, too,” he said, kissing the top of her head.
She smiled, drinking in his words. He didn’t have to say them, of course—Isabelle had always known their connection went way beyond the physical—but still, they were gratifying to hear.
“Do you really?” she asked, fingers trailing over his chest.
“Of course I do!” he said, sounding affronted. “What kind of question is that?”
Isabelle dug deep inside herself in search of courage, then looked up to meet Matt’s warm brown eyes. Eyes that were currently narrowed with annoyance at her question. Maybe now wasn’t a good time to talk after all, she thought. The jet lag and the long flight over the Atlantic had taken their toll, as had their lovemaking; he was clearly exhausted. But she was afraid if she chickened out now, she might never find the nerve.
She sat up in bed, letting the sheet slide off her breasts. Matt reached up to soothe the evidence of one of the little love bites he’d left in his passion. She smiled and took that hand in both of hers. He always worried that he was being too rough with her, but she loved the small telltale marks she often bore after a night with him. Loved feeling well and truly claimed, even if Matt wouldn’t take her out in public or acknowledge her as his mistress.
“I think we should get married,” Isabelle blurted. She cursed herself when she saw how his face froze and his eyes widened. She’d spent much of the afternoon rehearsing an elegant, subtle proposal, but those elegant words had abandoned her.
Matt made a sound between a sigh and a groan as he sat up. There were shadows around his eyes, and Isabelle was now certain she’d chosen the wrong time to broach the subject. She’d thought maybe that when the reality of his loveless marriage was fresh in his mind, he might be more likely to see that staying with Juliana was pointless.
“I hate to tell you this,” he said with a forced grin, “but I’m already married.” He held up his left hand to show off his wedding ring.
He was going to try to turn this into a joke, and maybe she should just let him, but the words were already out, and she refused to take them back.
“You don’t love her,” Isabelle said simply. “You never have. You do love me. Which one of us do you really think you should be with?”
Matt extracted his hand from her grip and ran it through his gently graying hair before letting it flop back down onto the bed. “This isn’t about love, and you know it.”
“Yes, yes, I know. She’s one of the great Almeidas, and I’m just a little nobody.” Without an alliance by marriage with the Almeidas, Matt would likely never have risen to the rank of Elder. The Order had an unabashedly European bias, and Matt’s American heritage would forever be a handicap in his political career.
“Don’t be like that,” Matt said, the annoyance in his eyes more pronounced. “You knew what you were getting into the moment we first slept together.”
“I didn’t know I was going to fall in love with you,” she protested. Theirs was supposed to be something closer to a business arrangement, wherein he provided her with lovely gifts and a place to live, and she provided him with sex and companionship.
“Nor I with you,” he admitted. “But you have to know I am never going to divorce Juliana.”
Isabelle was surprised by the sting of tears in her eyes. She’d told herself over and over again that tonight’s opening salvo was meant only to plant the suggestion in Matt’s head, not win the war outright. But apparently she’d gotten her hopes up despite her logic.
“Why not?” she asked. “You’ve made it to the Council of Elders, and it’s a lifetime appointment. They can’t take it away if you get a divorce.”
“No, but you can be damn sure I’d have no chance of being elected Patriarch if I anger the Almeidas.”
Isabelle gaped at him. “Patriarch? Are you serious?” Somehow, it had never occurred to her that his ambitions soared that high. It was hard enough for an American to get on the Council of Elders, but to hope to become Patriarch … ? That was asking a bit much of his alliance by marriage—especially when he and Juliana weren’t even living on the same continent, much less sharing a home.
“Of course I’m serious.” He waved his hand dismissively. “I know I’d be the longest of long-shots, but if I lose the Almeidas’ support, I’ll have no shot at all. And everything I try to do on the Council for the rest of my life will end up blocked by the Almeidas and their supporters. I became an Elder so I could make a difference, not because I wanted to wear fancy robes and have people call me Your Excellency.”
Isabelle was sure that was true, but still … The current Patriarch was only sixty-four years old, and thanks to the connection with the Anima that was the birthright of all the Gifted, he was likely to live into his early hundreds with perfect mental acuity. Not only that, he had a son who was well-liked and was the right age to make a natural successor. “You mean to tell me that you’re planning to stay married to a woman you don’t love for forty more years in hopes that you might be considered a candidate for Patriarch when Adrian Farraday dies?” Her voice had risen with her outrage at the thought that he would deny her over such a distant and unlikely possibility. He started to speak, but she cut him off, heat rising in her cheeks and anger thrumming in her heart. “Need I remind you that you’ll be in your eighties by then?” Long life and mental acuity notwithstanding, the Council of Elders had never elected a Patriarch older than seventy-five, and most Patriarchs were in their fifties or sixties when elected.
Matt was glaring at her, no longer even slightly distracted by her bared breasts. “No, you don’t need to remind me. Need I remind you that I have dedicated my life to the Order? This isn’t just a career to me, it’s a calling. I believe that the Order needs to change, that we need to modernize with the times, and if there’s a chance I could become Patriarch, then I’m going to take it. Even if it would make me personally happier to be married to you than to Juliana.”
His voice softened at the end, as if that could somehow take the sting out of his words. But that was impossible when he’d just told her flat out that his career was more important to him than she was.
“And what about Juliana?” Isabelle tried desperately. “Is it fair to her that you will hold her hostage to your career for the rest of her life?”
Matt shook his head in disgust and slid out of bed. “I never took you for a hypocrite, Belle.”
“You don’t care about Juliana. You’ve never even met her.”
“All I’m saying is that upholding your charade of a marriage is no more fair to her than it is to me—or to you.”
Matt paused in the doorway, naked and unashamed. “Our marriage isn’t a charade. We have two beautiful children and a grandson who is the light of my life. We don’t love each other, but we are friends. I would never throw that friendship away by divorcing her for another woman. And let’s not even talk about the troubles a divorce would cause our children!”
Isabelle swallowed back a protest. Though both of Matt’s children were grown, and the eldest, Melanie, was already married with a young child, Isabelle knew he wasn’t being melodramatic. The Almeidas would consider the divorce an insult to their family, and adults or not, the children would be very much in the middle. A tear slid down her cheek, and she brushed it away, hoping that small act of feminine magic would bring Matt back to her bed. Her clumsy proposal had gone as wrong as it was possible to go, and she wanted him to hold her and comfort her and tell her he loved her again.
“I’m sorry I’ve hurt you,” Matt said softly. “I thought you understood the limitations of our relationship. I love you. And I’ll give you as much of myself as I can if you’ll let me. But I can’t marry you.”
The ache in her chest and throat sent another tear sliding down her cheek, and Isabelle tried to take a deep breath to soothe it. She had made a mess of everything, and she could almost see the emotional barriers Matt was building around himself. If she didn’t remind him of just how much he wanted her, she might well lose him altogether.
Calling upon her Gift, Isabelle threw the sheet aside, baring her entire body. His eyes latched onto her naked form as her Gift enhanced her natural aura of sexuality—and helped her gauge exactly which sexual lure would be most effective in his current state of mind. She blinked away the last of her tears, though she knew she would shed many more later, when she was alone.
“I’m the one who should be sorry,” she said, hoping she sounded more sincere than she felt. She licked her lips, then pouted at him as she rose to her hands and knees. “I’ve been a bad girl. Someone needs to put me in my place.”
Matt’s eyes kindled with forbidden pleasure and his cock rose steadily from its nest of curls. He was a gentle, kind man at heart, and before he’d met Isabelle, he’d never admitted to himself, much less anyone else, that the idea of administering a little discipline might excite him. It was part of Isabelle’s Gift that she could look at a man—or a woman, for that matter—and know which sexual hot buttons to push. Some people got Gifts of invisibility, or mind reading, or imperviousness to fire … Isabelle got fucking. But at least she made good use of it.
“Perhaps we shouldn’t,” Matt said hoarsely, his quickened breaths betraying him. “Not when we’re angry with one another.”
He was right. This was a dangerous game to play when there was anger in the mix. Isabelle hesitated for only a moment before she purred and wiggled her bottom enticingly. This was going to hurt a little more than she liked, but she knew Matt would stop the moment she asked him to. If she was sore and tender afterward and Matt should happen to feel a little guilty about being so rough … Well, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
Politics and magic make dangerous bedfellows.
Deep within the Order, the seeds of corruption have taken root. While younger generations of the Gifted have embraced modern democratic values, a secret society of old-guard zealots seek a return to the past, when only European men of distinguished bloodlines held power.
Now, three venerable European families and a maverick American each plot to seize control of the Order and shape it to their will. A cutthroat game of political intrigue will decide the winner; and the stakes couldn't be higher, for ruling the Order carries with it the power to grant—or deny—an afterlife.
What begins as a battle of wills could turn into an all-out war. And magic could prove deadlier than any missile.
About Jenna Black:
Jenna Black is your typical writer. Which means she's an "experience junkie." She got her BA in physical anthropology and French from Duke University.
Once upon a time, she dreamed she would be the next Jane Goodall, camping in the bush making fabulous discoveries about primate behavior. Then, during her senior year at Duke, she did some actual research in the field and made this shocking discovery: primates spend something like eighty percent of their time doing such exciting things as sleeping and eating.
Concluding that this discovery was her life's work in the field of primatology, she then moved on to such varied pastimes as grooming dogs and writing technical documentation. She is now a full-time author of fantasy, young adult, and romance novels.
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