Read the first chapter of Burning for the Beast below. Available for purchase from the Kindle store or through Kindle Unlimited.
Ulric McCallan uncrumpled the perfumed note in his hand, scowling as he read it for the hundredth time that day.
Meet the angry lady at the hotel, 7 o’clock. Dress nice.
The messy cursive script was signed by someone unexpected.
“Maddy,” he grumbled. The elder witch had some nerve ordering him around. Her note, delivered to him by a crow the night before, failed to specify whether she meant morning or evening. So Ulric had spent the entirety of the day waiting in the only hotel the witch could have meant — the one he owned — until the sky began to darken over Glasgow.
He drummed his fingers on the wooden countertop of the hotel bar, glancing across the elegant lobby to the clock hanging above the concierge desk.
He loathed waiting.
He’d been doing entirely too much of it lately. He preferred charging through battlefields, wielding his broadsword and storming enemy lines, working to earn his place in Valhalla.
But there were no battlefields these days. All the wars had stopped. Even his enemies waited.
The world was ending.
And he didn’t know how to stop it.
Normally, he would have ignored such a cryptic note, but Maddy was a powerful fortune-teller. She could know something.
She was also, unfortunately, on the enemy’s side.
This whole thing could be a trap. Or a shoddy scam.
Either way, he was desperate for a solution, and he had nothing better to do.
The kitchen door flapped open and a young lass peeked out. “Still nothing to drink, sir?” She and an English lad by the name of Andrew working at the desk by the entrance were the only staff in the lobby today. He’d told the rest to stay at home.
Ulric shook his head and the girl left. He needed to stay alert. The hotel was made to be friendly to his kind, but not many of them traveled around anymore. Instead, he used the high-class establishment as a way to maintain his business contacts and gather information. The staff, however, were human, and he had to be especially careful not to attract threats to them. He would have the witch’s head, her curses be damned, if she meant to spring a trap here.
The bell at the front door dinged, and a young lady walked in.
His eyes fixed on her with predatory focus.
She looked like the opposite of a threat.
She was small, tiny even. Her fiery red hair framed a delicate face with cheeks reddened slightly by the cool wind outside. She turned her hazel gaze to Andrew upon entering, greeting him with a warm smile.
Not the angry lady he was looking for. Mayhaps just a lost tourist.
Still, she was beautiful. If the situation had been different, he might have approached her, offered her a drink or a tour. As she chatted with Andrew, her voice lyrical and pretty, clearly trying to find directions to something, he took in the sight of her.
Even from across the vast lobby, he could scent her. Cinnamon and myrrh. Feminine and alluring. Her presence alone offered a vibrant warmth to the cold elegance of the hotel lobby. She captured the complete attention of all of his senses, everything else melting into the background. There was something incredibly distinctive about her, his instinct telling him she was important somehow. But she wasn’t angry, and he couldn’t afford distractions.
She asked Andrew a question about his knowledge of the area, a look of disappointment crossing her face when the lad shook his head. He took in the pout of her mouth, following the curve of her full lips. His eyes drifted down to the pale, creamy skin of her neck, peeking out from under her beige peacoat. Below that, she wore a black skirt that clung to her shapely thighs, with sheer tights and sensibly heeled boots. She pulled out a paper from her pocket and handed it to Andrew.
Ulric’s eyes widened. He picked up the scent on that paper, recognized it immediately. It was faint, only remnants of it left from being handled by her, but it was the same one that clung so heavily to his note.
He stood and made his way to the desk.
Evaline pressed her lips firmly together, trying to keep her composure. The young man at the front desk didn’t know her situation. She needn’t be angry with him.
“Please, just check? Maybe there’s a guest by this name,” she suggested, pointing at the name of the shop in her flyer.
“I’m sorry, miss, but this looks like a fake ad, and there’s no one by that name here,” he replied and pushed the paper back to her.
Her shoulders slumped. Tears pricked her eyes but she held them back. To go this far, and find nothing? That couldn’t be. Where else could she go? What else could she do? “How could the address be wrong? I traveled fourteen hours to get here,” she said, mostly to herself, since the clerk was unhelpful. She picked up the flyer off the desk, holding it up as she pointed out the map block illustration on it. “The address written here belongs to this hotel, I’ve verified that over and over. Just the name of the shop isn’t here — maybe the street number is off? You must know the area — have you seen it anywhere near here?”
The man shook his head again. His gaze darted up.
“Not even anything similar?” she tried.
He responded with a drawn-out “um” and kept looking above her head.
She turned to find an intimidatingly tall, broad-shouldered man dressed in a tailored suit towering just behind her.
She took a startled step back. Her immediate impression was that he was some kind of mobster. He was certainly built like one. He had intense golden eyes, not unlike a lion’s and equally as menacing, and a chiseled face with a dusting of stubble across his sharp jawline. He wore his ink-black hair brushed back at the top and shaved into a low fade at the sides of his head.
She stared up at him, pinned in place by the dark look in his eyes.
“May I assist you, Mr. McCallan?” the concierge began to say, but the man cut him off by holding up a big hand and kept his gaze fixed on her.
“What’s your name, lass?” he said. His voice was rough and gravelly, but his tone was surprisingly gentle for someone so large and terrifying. He spoke with a strong Scottish accent, which made her hope he was a local who could direct her better.
“Evaline. Sorry, I’m not trying to be a bother but—”
He took the flyer from her frozen hands. His eyes flicked over the text, his expression remaining stoic.
“Maddy’s Potions and Fortunes,” he said, reading aloud the title. Evaline blushed. Okay, so it sounded ridiculous even to her, but the flimsy, clip-art designed flyer was all she had to go by.
“I’m searching for a woman my grandmother knew. I believe that is her store, but the address listed is the same as this hotel. I was hoping this was simply where she conducts her business.”
The man’s gaze returned to her, and she couldn’t help the slight flinch under his scrutiny. “Why are you looking for such a place, Evaline?” he asked.
Evaline hesitated a moment, chewing her bottom lip as she thought about how much to reveal. Her name said with his rough brogue sounded oddly captivating. Then again, his whole presence was captivating. He was incredibly handsome, and along with that deep voice and expensive suit, it just made sense that he would command so much attention. But all that just made her want to run the other way from him, not tell him all her secrets. “It’s just important to me. Do you know anything about it?”
He raised a brow. “Do you believe in something like this?”
She frowned, not surprised by his question but not happy about it either. A gorgeous man with obvious authority and status made her seem all the more uncivilized in her quest. He was the stark contrast of the impression she created — a crazy woman looking for a witch. She wanted to say that she went to an Ivy League school, that she was intelligent, so no need to take that tone, thank you very much. But of course getting defensive would only help him think she needed a psych ward. She settled for being dismissive instead.
“I don’t see how it’s your business,” she said, stamping down the hurtful sting of feeling judged. She glared at him and waited for his poised demeanor to fall apart for being told “no.” Men like him, with beauty and arrogance, never did tolerate a refusal well. She wanted directions, not questions. She hadn’t even shared her plans with anyone back home, certain that her friends would laugh at her or give her the kind of pity that she just couldn’t bear right now. At least the hotel clerk hadn’t laughed, but she could just sense that this man was on the verge of saying something to humiliate her.
Her throat tightened. She’d come all this way, and she had the wrong address. What now?
Instead of ridicule, the man’s gaze softened a touch. The intensity of his eyes, so mesmerizing with their strange color, shifted to something gentler. “I meant no insult, lass. You seem like a proper young woman, but you should no’ be wandering around asking about a place like this.”
His words were meant to be kind, she figured. He was warning the tourist not to fall for seedy tricks. The clerk had used more tack when he’d suggested it might be fake.
“I’m not wandering. The address is written right here,” she said, grabbing the flyer back from him. Her ears had gone red. She could feel the heat in them.
“Lass,” the man spoke. “I strongly suggest you no’ search any further. You could find trouble instead.” He put a hand on her shoulder. She stepped away from his touch, her glare returning.
“Sir, I’ll thank you not to touch me or tell me what to do,” she said, fuming. There were the tears again, irritating the corner of her eyes. So, even the local man was determined to be unhelpful.
But this couldn’t be it. She would run up and down the length of the street if she had to, look in every building. The street number was simply written incorrectly. That had to be it.
And then there it was, right on his face — that expression she detested so much, and one she’d gotten too familiar with over the past few months. Maybe he picked up on the panic in her tone or maybe her own gaze betrayed her fear, but instead of being insulted, he looked at her with the same expression that her myriad of doctors had given her when they told her there was simply nothing more they could do. Sure, he made it look more attractive, but it was still pity. And she didn’t want pity.
She turned sharply around and stormed to the hotel door, the heels of her dress boots clicking against the polished floor. The automatic door swung open for her, and she walked out into the chilly Glasgow evening.
“What was that about?” Andrew said, a bewildered expression on his face.
Ulric watched her step out into the street through the glass of the doors.
“I think that was the ‘angry lady’ I was waiting for. Can you watch the place for me? Keep it open just in case and call me if anyone else comes by,” he instructed. He didn’t wait for Andrew’s reply, quickly following the lass outside.
She was standing at the street edge, clutching her flyer in her wee hands, looking all defenseless and small. He chided himself for not being kinder. She was obviously struggling with something, but he’d been too focused on his own concerns about her.
She held out her hand, trying to hail a taxi that drove straight past her.
He walked up to her, being more careful to make some noise this time, so he wouldn’t startle her again. Even out here, in the busy city, he could scent her as clear as anything. Her scent pulled at his instincts, tugging at something familiar and yet elusive within him. He stood at her side, and though she knew he was there, she stubbornly ignored him and tried to catch the attention of another cab driver who’d just turned the corner. His big body blocked her from view, however, and the cab drove on.
“Can I drive you somewhere, lass?” Ulric offered. She shot him a glare, though her pretty brown eyes sparkled with unshed tears. He flashed her his nicest smile, trying to charm her into speaking with him again.
“I know the city well, I could give you a ride — anywhere you like,” he said.
“Thank you sir, but I would prefer a taxi,” she answered with crisp politeness. She acted all puffed-up and haughty, but she was so wee and dainty that she gave the impression of a hissing kitten.
“Call me Ulric. Are you really trying to find that shop?” he pressed.
“I have already told you it is none of your business,” she huffed. Despite her anger, her voice had a lovely melody to it. He liked listening to it. But how could he convince her to confide in him without revealing too much about what he was?
“What if I want it to be my business?” He moved a little closer and was pleased when she did not take a step back.
She regarded him with a cold stare, biting her lip as if considering his words. The little movement entranced him.
“I don’t see how you could be helpful.”
She folded her arms. “I thought I’d ask a taxi driver to take me up and down the street to look for it,” she said, crossing her arms. “I’m getting really tired of being treated like an idiot. I know it’s an odd shop, I’m just trying to find one of my late grandmother’s friends. Is that so hard to understand?” She looked up at him with those lovely brown eyes, so innocent and sweet. She could very well persuade him to do anything she asked with that look alone.
Ulric sighed and rubbed his jaw. It never ended well when humans got involved in their world. But she seemed so determined. She was going to eventually run into trouble if he couldn’t figure out how to get her to give up on Maddy. “Aye, I can understand. I’m sorry, lass. Cab drivers will no’ want to drive aimlessly around. Why no’ accept my offer? My car is nearby and I can help you look.” He could at least buy some time to figure out what she was after. Ulric was especially curious about her grandmother. Maddy didn’t have any friends. Either granny wasn’t telling the truth, or Evaline was hiding something.
Evaline studied his eyes a moment, seeming to consider it. He saw the moment of acceptance in the way her shoulders relaxed. “Alright, that would be very kind of you. Are you certain it would not be too much trouble?”
Ulric smiled reassuringly. “None at all, especially if it means more time spent with a bonny lass.”
That got a laugh out of her. His smile widened, and he extended his arm. To his delight, she took it, resting her small hand on his forearm. He could feel the warmth of her through the fabric of his suit and had the sudden realization that in all the time he’d spent working to prevent a catastrophe, he hadn’t felt any form of physical affection. His skin seemed to absorb her warmth as if starved for touch, even through the clothes that separated them. He supposed he could use a break from his fruitless search and just spend an evening helping this sweet little human find her way. Not to Maddy’s, certainly, but maybe he could give her a safer solution if he could just pry the problem out of her.
“So, lass, you flew all the way to Scotland just to meet your granny’s friend? She must be very important to you,” Ulric said as he led her down the street.
“My grandma is the one who raised me, so yes she’s very important to me. She’s not actually my blood relative, but she took me in when I was a baby. She passed away only recently.”
Ulric put his hand over hers. It dwarfed hers completely, but he felt the pleasure of her warmth much more strongly in that brief skin-to-skin contact. “I’m very sorry for your loss.” That must mean she had no relatives to call her own, her parents clearly not in her life for whatever reason, and she had also likely lost the only person she could call family. No wonder she was trying so desperately to reclaim something from her grandmother’s past. Ulric didn’t have to try too hard to imagine the loneliness of such a life. He was cut off from a lot of his own clan, in a sense. But he was lucky in that some still remained where he could reach them. He just hadn’t been making much of an effort recently, unable to face them until he knew he could fulfill his duty to protect them.
Evaline sighed, looking down at the sidewalk in contemplation. “It’s okay. She struggled with cancer for a while. I’m just glad she’s not suffering anymore.”
“That doesn’t mean you’re no’ suffering right now,” Ulric said, gently. They arrived at his car, a large, black SUV he’d parked at a nearby side-street for easy access. “Is that why you’re trying to find her old friend?” He opened the passenger door to let Evaline in. She paused, looking up at him with a thoughtful look, as if trying to make a decision.
“I’m a very safe driver, promise,” he said with a smile.
Evaline giggled, her laugh a soft feminine sound that he immediately adored. “That wasn’t what I was worried about.”
She chewed at her lip. “I feel bad not telling you the whole truth when you’re trying to help me. I really am looking for Maddy’s store hoping for a miracle I guess, but only because my grandma thought she was very talented. My grandma was a medicine woman who used to buy herbs from Maddy and she always had great things to say about her skills.” She said all this hurriedly, with a look in her eyes that pleaded for his understanding.
His grip tightened on the top of the passenger door.
“Lass, I don’t know what it is you’re hoping to get from Maddy, but it will no’ be a miracle.”
Evaline’s eyes widened. “What do you mean?”
“I meant what I said in the hotel. You will find danger if you keep searching for her. She’s nothing to be treated lightly.”
“You know where she is?”
“Aye, and I’m going to suggest again that you stop looking. You’re asking for trouble.”
Evaline straightened her back, her small frame becoming stiff as she stood in front of him. “Tell me why, then maybe I’ll drop it.”
Ulric tapped the metal of the door frame in frustration. “She’s… in a bad neighborhood,” he said. It wasn’t untrue, though she was most of the reason the neighborhood was bad. No city was ever firmly in the territory of any particular faction, but Maddy’s area was likely to be populated by the worst of them. Her loyalty belonged to a very dangerous group. Sure, some witches could be harmless, or even helpful, knowing how to craft magic for useful purposes. But Maddy dealt with the fates themselves, something that required a rare sort of magical talent to access. It gave her knowledge that made her both powerful and tricky. She could not be trusted. But he couldn’t tell Evaline any of that.
“How bad?” Evaline asked, crossing her arms. “Do you just mean ‘poor’? Big fancy man like yourself probably thinks just because it’s not as ritzy as this street, then it’s bad.”
Ulric held up his hands defensively. “No! That is no’ what I meant. It’s unsafe, especially for a sweet lass like yourself. There’s…” he struggled again for a description, “illegal activity.” Ulric wasn’t explaining himself well, he knew this. But dark things from the underworld were vastly different from something like an underfunded city block. It certainly looked run down, but that’s because the occupants wanted it to look that way. To keep out anything that wasn’t their kind.
“Oh yeah? Like what? Let me guess, there’s a homeless shelter on the same street,” Evaline retorted.
Ulric growled, growing frustrated. “More like a nightclub run by underworld gangsters right across the street, from what I will remind you is a dodgy potion shop.”
Evaline scoffed. “A nightclub? That’s what you’re worried about? Do you think I haven’t been to a nightclub before?”
“Mayhaps you have, though I imagine you went there to dance, no’ to die. This one is called Devil’s Coffin, and it means what it says, it’s no’ for the living,” his voice dropped a decibel, becoming rougher. He was frustrated she didn’t seem to grasp the sense of danger of the place. She was a tiny little human woman. He expected her to have a better sense of self-preservation than that.
Evaline pulled her phone from her pocket, tapping the screen as she spoke to him. “Uh-huh, sure. Well, lucky for me, I’m not going to be part of the living for much longer if I don’t find Maddy, so you’ll excuse me if I don’t take your warnings to heart.” She looked up at him with a sardonic smile. “Would you look at that, Devil’s Coffin is on the map! Guess it’s popular too by the ratings. Can’t be all that dangerous.”
Ulric’s face fell. “What? What map?” Had he given something away? Damn him.
“Google maps,” she answered, still tapping at her screen. “Couldn’t find Maddy anywhere online, but this place seems to understand social media. And it’s not too far away, I can still go tonight.” Her gaze snapped back up to him. If he thought she was angry before, it was nothing compared to the wrath in her expression now. “I don’t appreciate being lied to. I don’t know where you intended to drive me if I got in the car with you, but since you misled me this entire time, I think I have more to worry about from you than from a ‘bad neighborhood.’ And by the way, my grandma dedicated her life to helping people from bad neighborhoods who couldn’t otherwise afford doctors. Something about your whole stupid speech tells me Maddy isn’t going to be too different. Goodbye, Mr. Ulric.” She hiked her purse further up her shoulder and turned away.
Ulric hastily grabbed her wrist. He was still trying to process how she was able to find it so quickly — it seemed ridiculous to him that the undead bar actually put up their location online. And what was that she said about not being part of the living for much longer? He had to find a way to stop her.
Her gaze moved from his face to the hand he had wrapped around her wrist — the look somehow singed like fire. “Let me go or I will scream and draw the whole street here,” she said, her tone flat and unwavering.
Ulric let go. “Lass, I really am trying to help you. At least tell me why you need her. I will find you someone else, someone less dangerous.” But she was already walking away, ignoring him, and he didn’t know what else he could say to convince her. “Evaline!” he called after her.
She continued to ignore him even as he followed after her, navigating through the throng of people walking along the pavement. “Wait, Evaline, at least let me drive you to her. I can keep you protected.”
She went up to a stopped taxi waiting on the side of the street, leaning in the window to ask if he was available.
He stood at her side. “Evaline, listen to me. You don’t know what you’re dealing with.”
She turned to face him, hazel eyes cold. “Do not follow me. You’re a stranger and I have no interest in you.” She opened the back door and sat inside, closing it quickly after her and instructing the driver to leave.
Ulric watched the cab go, cursing with frustration. “Damn me,” he muttered. He could still scent her sweet smell, was still drawn to it as it lingered in the air around him. He rushed back to his car. He could still follow. He knew where she was headed, after all.