The Curse of the Black Swan, from the anthology ENTHRALLED, by Alyssa Day
League of the Black Swan, book 1.5
They have the power to hold you spellbound, to captivate your senses,
and to keep you forever in their control. Forever enthralled…
#1 New York Times bestselling author Lora Leigh returns to her sensual world of the Breeds…as one stubborn Breed meets her match, and can no longer deny her mate—or the fierce desires of her own heart.
New York Times bestselling author Alyssa Day introduces the League of the Black Swan…and the dangerous game one woman plays when her family’s curse dooms her to kill the man she loves.
New York Times bestselling author Meljean Brook delivers a new story in her steampunk world of the Iron Seas…as a man who’s lost everything returns home to find that not only is his marriage in jeopardy, but he must now fight air pirates who intend to steal his one remaining treasure—his wife.
And Lucy Monroe, national bestselling author of the Children of the Moon novels…unleashes the feral passions of a werewolf on the body, mind, and soul of his prey, his lover, his lifemate.
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Bordertown, a place where the Fae, demon, and human worlds intersect, hidden in the heart of New York
Sean O’Malley ran into the burning building, dodging and weaving around the rest of his colleagues who were running and limping out of the inferno before it exploded or completely collapsed, either of which was due any minute.
“O’Malley, get your ass back here,” his boss, the new Bordertown fire chief, shouted.
Sean ignored him, just as he’d ignored the previous fire chief. He’d heard something in that building. Maybe it was only a cat, and no matter how much it tore him up inside when he found evidence that a helpless animal had lost its life in a fire, he knew the rules: Firefighters didn’t risk their lives for pets. Not that he usually gave a rat’s ass for rules, and he’d certainly bent a few to save pets in the past. They all had.
But it hadn’t sounded like a cat. It had sounded like a baby.
Zach, the closest thing to a friend Sean had on the crew, planted himself in front of Sean, blocking his path to the door.
“Not this time,” Zach shouted.
They had to be loud to be heard over the roar of the flames that were greedily consuming the old building. Too much rotten wood, too little upkeep—it would be easy to blame that, if this hadn’t been the fourth building in as many nights hit in exactly the same way. They had a serial arsonist on their hands.
“I heard a baby. Get out of my way, or I’ll go through you,” Sean said, deadly calm and deadly serious.
He didn’t have time to delay. There was no way he was taking a chance on giving up on a baby who needed him.
Not now and not ever—not ever, but especially not today, after his mom’s bombshell.
Zach was a couple of inches over six feet tall, but Sean was bigger by a few inches and probably by forty pounds of muscle, not to mention his extra abilities. Zach didn’t hesitate; he moved out of Sean’s way, fast, as soon as he heard the word baby. None of them understood how Sean could hear things that nobody else could, but they knew it was true. Enhanced hearing was one of his super powers, they liked to joke.
They also all knew that he could withstand temperatures that would have fried most of them alive. They didn’t joke about that one. He’d caught more than one of his colleagues watching him warily after they’d fought fires; their expressions similar to how he imagined he’d watch a feral wolf. They weren’t all that far off.
They knew he was different, but they didn’t know how different. Sean didn’t tell anybody he was half fire demon. Life was easier that way. Even in Bordertown, where demons were as common as low-caste Fae or shady humans, fire demons were considered to be the worst of the worst: crazed berserkers and the most terrifying of predators. His abilities already isolated him enough from the rest of the tightly knit crew. He didn’t need to add to it.
All of this ran through his mind in the few seconds it took for him to hit the building doorway running. He burst into the conflagration, head down and racing for the spot where the sound had originated. Second floor, to the left. He barely paused at the staircase, but the view was enough to make a sane man flinch. A roaring wall of orange-red flame screamed toward him, and the heat knocked him back a couple of steps. His skin felt the heat, even under his suit, and when the fabric started to melt off his body he discovered that his protective gear wasn’t rated anywhere near high enough.
Whatever accelerant the arsonist had used wasn’t purely chemical; no way would a normal fire be burning that hot. Magic was involved here. In fact, it would take black magic to push a fire to these levels. Sean could feel his eyes flaring as his pupils contracted, and he knew that anybody watching him would see the irises turn deep blood orange in color and start to glow.
Sean analyzed the situation for options, but the stairs were the only way up; no matter that the stairwell was a tunnel of flame and probably going to explode any minute. He took them four at a time, barely clearing the last one before the explosion hit and the stairs collapsed into a burning mass of tinder. He glanced back at the fiery pit at the bottom of the stairwell and grimaced, and a falling chunk of ceiling smashed down on his helmet, nearly knocking him on his ass.
He stood there, head ringing and skull vibrating, and realized that one of these days he was going to kill himself trying to act like a big damn hero.
But not today.
The sound came again, and he still wasn’t sure. Wounded animals sometimes sounded a lot like babies. It could go either way. But he’d come this far, and he’d be damned if he’d leave anybody behind. He took the first door across the hall to the left, unerringly finding the source of the sound. The front room of the apartment, cheaply furnished but neat and tidy, was only beginning to burn, and he had a moment to hope that the bedrooms were in good shape before he hit the closed inner door running. Two seconds later, about a hundred pounds of shaggy black fur smashed into his chest.
Sean barely stayed on his feet. There had been a lot of power behind that furry projectile. The beast hit the floor and immediately clamped its powerful jaws around Sean’s ankle and pulled, hard. The pink collar on her neck proclaimed that the creature was named Petunia.
“Okay, Petunia, hang on,” Sean said, using his most soothing voice, but the dog’s whining increased in both pitch and volume, and she pulled even harder, trying to move Sean over to the corner of the room.
There was a crib, or bassinette, or whatever the hell people called the small, lace-draped wooden cradle tucked against the corner of the room. He heard the crying again, and it was definitely coming from the crib.
“I got him, girl” Sean told Petunia.
She seemed to understand, since she let go of Sean’s ankle immediately and stood there, panting and making deep coughing noises. Smoke inhalation could damage dogs’ lungs, too, and Sean made a mental note to have the dog looked at when they got out of there. A crash sounded in the apartment’s front room, and he amended the thought.
If they got out of there.
The baby turned her startled, reddened eyes up to Sean in the instant before he swept her into his arms, and then she waved one pink-pajama’d arm at him and gurgled.
“We’re out of here, princess,” he told her, and then he picked up the room’s only chair, a wooden rocking chair, and hurled it at the window while shielding the infant.
The glass shattered outward, as planned, and Sean crossed the room and looked out. A jump from the second story was an easy one for him to make with fire-demon strength, especially only carrying a tiny baby instead of a large, screaming adult—which he’d had to do before—so he had this one in the bag.
And then the dog barked, reminding Sean that Petunia was not going to make it out alive on her own. He shook his head, impatient with his stupidity. His mother’s news had been blanking out everything else on his mind, and he knew better than most that distraction could be fatal at a time like this.
Sean looked down at the dog’s hopeful face, hesitantly wagging tail, and big, brown eyes. Petunia had stayed in that room to protect her precious charge, and she’d even pulled a Lassie on Sean’s leg to get him to find the baby.
Screw the rules. There was no way in hell he was going to leave that dog to burn to death.
“You’re going to have to trust me, girl,” he said, crouching down in front of the dog, but keeping an ear out for the shift in sound that would tell him that the entire apartment was about to collapse. He could somehow feel in his bones that the fire was about to take the whole thing down.
The dog’s big eyes looked worried, but she lifted one paw as if to shake, and Sean took that for a yes. He lifted her into the arm that wasn’t full of baby, took a running leap for the window, and leapt out into the comparatively cool darkness of the autumn night.
Within the next five minutes, he’d reunited the baby with her mother, who’d been missing because she’d run down to the building’s laundry room while her child was napping. The exploding water heater had shaken debris loose from the basement’s walls and ceiling, and a big chunk of something had hit the woman and knocked her out. Zach had knocked the debris off her and scooped her up, and by the time they roused her to consciousness, the EMTs were administering oxygen to her baby right next to her, so she’d never had to suffer even a moment’s fear that her child was dead. Petunia, also wearing an oxygen mask and getting checked out, was frantically trying to wrap her furry body around her entire small family all at once.
“Good job, girl,” Sean murmured, tipping a salute to the canine heroine before he moved on.
As always, he wanted to be sure to disappear before the thank-yous started and the media showed up. Bordertown’s lead crime reporter, Jax Archer, was a disgraced Fae lordling who just happened to be a living, breathing lie detector, so Sean preferred to stay out of his way. Sean’s old fire chief had gone along with his disappearing acts, mostly because Sean worked more hours than anybody else in the department.
The new chief wasn’t clued in yet.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” the chief shouted at him, crossing behind the hoses toward Sean while everyone else, exhausted but on the alert, watched the powerful streams of water battle the raging, magically created fire.
Sean noted that the department’s witch had arrived at some point, and he was now adding his efforts to the mix. Good thing, too, because water alone wasn’t going to stop that beast.
“Avoiding reporters,” Sean said bluntly, too tired and worried to care about playing nice with the new boss, who was turning out to be quite an asshole.
One of the reporters Sean could actually tolerate picked that moment to round the corner behind the truck and, spotting Sean, she headed straight for him, her cameraman racing to keep up with her.
“Pierce Holland, Bordertown Gazette,” she said unnecessarily, thrusting her microphone in Sean’s face.
“I know who you are, Pierce,” Sean said, but the reporter kept her game face on.
“You know the drill, O’Malley. Intro for the viewers, all hail the courageous firefighter, et cetera, et cetera,” she said, lowering her microphone and grinning while the cameraman checked something on his lens.
“I’m good,” the man said.
Instantly, the reporter’s smile vanished and she assumed the somber air of Reporter with Serious News, as Sean thought of it. The still-burning flames cast dancing shadows across their little tableau that patterned Holland’s face in a harlequin’s motley of black and orange, and for a moment Sean’s grandmother’s voice rang in his head, talking about a goose walking over his grave.
“Do we know what caused tonight’s fire? Also, I heard you brought out a baby and a dog after everybody else evacuated, O’Malley. Care to comment?”
The chief, winded and red-faced, rushed up then. A less charitable man might have thought he timed his arrival with the moment the camera turned on. Sean decided he wasn’t all that charitable.
“I don’t think you’ve met the new chief, have you, Pierce? He was the one who convinced me to go back in for that baby,” Sean said, lying through his teeth. He pounded his boss on the back, only a little too hard. “Excellent instincts, this guy. Going to make a great chief.”
The chief’s eyes widened, but before either he or Pierce could say another word, Sean smiled at them and ducked behind the truck. By the time his overactive hearing picked up the beginning of the chief’s response to the reporter, Sean was a block away and moving fast, stripping off his gear as he walked.
Another couple of blocks, and he made it to Black Swan Fountain Square, his favorite place for relaxation and quiet contemplation in the middle of the night. There wasn’t much room in the rest of his life for peace or quiet. The family business, O’Malley’s Pub, was always full of loud talk, laughter, music, and merriment.
It was enough to piss a man off.
Especially when he was sick with worry about his mother’s unexplained “little tests,” which had left her drained, weak, and nauseous for more than three weeks now. They knew about her cancer, but when he’d dropped by that afternoon, she’d refused to give him any specifics about the latest issue. So Sean had been having a bad damn day even before his fire station had gotten the call that the arsonist had struck again.
He stared blindly at the black marble sculpture of the beautiful young woman and the swan in the center of the fountain, so tired that he didn’t pay much attention to the actual live swan floating serenely in the water until the second time it came around. When he did notice it, he blinked, and then a flurry of movement in the water boiled up into a cloud of sparkling mist that he hadn’t been expecting, Bordertown or no. So he figured he could be excused for rubbing his smoke-wearied eyes when the iridescent shimmer dissipated, and the bird flapping its wings in the swan fountain turned into a beautiful woman.
A beautiful naked woman.
Maybe that hit he’d taken to the head had been harder than he’d thought, and now he was hallucinating. Except he didn’t have the luxury of that belief for more than a few seconds, because the hallucination started talking to him.
“Really? Are you just going to sit there and stare at me?”
“Well, I was here first, before you turned naked, ah, turned human. I mean, you didn’t—”
“Right. Chivalry. Dead. Insert appropriate cliché.” She pushed her long masses of dark curls out of her face and stalked over to him, not the least bit embarrassed that she was incredibly and gloriously naked. When she crouched down next to him, his breath got stuck in his lungs in a way that had nothing to do with fire but everything to do with heat.
She glanced up at him while reaching under the bench with one hand, and some of what he was feeling must have shown on his face, because she grinned.
“Relax, hot stuff. I’m just getting my clothes.”