Primal Temptation

 

Condemned to darkness…tempted by passion.

Enslaved by a vengeful goddess, forced to live on blood, Lucan can barely remember life as a knight of the Round Table. Yet when one woman’s touch awakens millennium-old feelings that tame the savage darkness within him, he has no choice but to deny their all-consuming passion—for her own protection.

Cat-shifter Briana Callaghan has watched all three of her brothers find their mates, but love isn’t in her future. Especially when her mate turns out to be a lethal mercenary…and the only man ever to break her heart.

When she’s chosen to compete in the Gauntlet, an immortal death match, Briana realizes the prize—the sword Excalibur—is her only hope of severing the fierce bond that has the power to destroy her.

Stunned to find themselves pitted against each other, Briana and Lucan quickly find that the only thing they’re fighting harder than their enemies is their sizzling, heartbreaking chemistry. But even if they survive the Gauntlet, claiming the woman he loves will be as impossible as letting her go.

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EXCERPT

CHAPTER ONE

“You are a goddess.”

Grinning, Briana Callaghan wiggled out from under the desk after checking the local connection on the custom-built security system she had nearly finished upgrading. “Say it any louder and you might be struck down by the real deal.” Immortal beings could be notoriously vain, and the goddess who came to mind was known for striking out for far less.

Mac sprawled in the chair pushed away from the desk, arms crossed and legs stretched out in front of him. He wore a white shirt and dark suit that probably cost more than her commission for this job, the top buttons undone and his tie half stuffed in his pocket.

He looked like he’d just come from a cover shoot for sexiest man of the year—an image at complete odds with her earliest memories of him swinging a sword, covered in dirt and sweat as he sparred with her brothers on a muddy field, talking of one day joining King Arthur on the battlefield.

The six-foot-plus gargoyle shifter shrugged, his wolf half glittering in his eyes. “What’s Rhiannon going to do? Curse me to spend my daylight hours trapped in stone?” He straightened in the chair, changing positions for the tenth time in less than three minutes.

Briana stood, smiling and bumping him with her arm in passing. “I’d tell you to get over it already, but you’re too broody to forgo personal pity parties.”

Mac’s eyes narrowed, and she laughed.

Every predatory cat, wolf and dragon gargoyle who called Avalon home had felt the goddess’s wrath when King Arthur, her only son, died on the battlefield at Camlann centuries ago. The vicious and bloody war between Arthur and his half-sister over Camelot had raged for years before Arthur fell at the hands of his own nephew.

Blaming the gargoyle race for Arthur’s fatal wounds, Rhiannon had made sure that even those who crossed the veil to hide in the human realm couldn’t escape the curse of being trapped in their stone gargoyle from sunrise to sunset. Overnight, the mystical stone once viewed as a gargoyle’s ultimate protection against enemies was turned against them, a prison sentence with no expiry date.

Although plenty of gargoyles shared Mac’s lingering resentment for the unjust punishment following Arthur’s death, Briana had made her peace with it a long time ago.

It was the latest change she struggled to adapt to.

With a glance at her laptop, she crouched once more to check the installed hardware. “Shouldn’t you be used to it by now?” How many centuries did the rest of the gargoyle race need to get used to the way things were? She scanned the programming code on her screen.

“Easy to say coming from someone—” Mac leaned forward, his voice lowering, “—who can now control the shift to stone.”

Her head snapped up, her smile vanishing. “My brother has a big mouth.” Considering how much time her brother Cian spent with his new mate, it was a wonder he’d pried his mouth off Emma’s long enough to do more than devour a few Big Macs, let alone confide in Mac.

Feeling the wolf’s curious gaze burning holes in her back, Briana deliberately focused on her laptop.

Control was still too loose of a term to describe the fact that she didn’t automatically turn to stone with every sunrise, and she’d gladly give that up if it would undo the fact that—like her three older brothers—she’d found her mate.

She refused to discuss who her mate was with her brothers, so she sure as hell wasn’t talking about it with Mac. He might have a reputation for getting people to open up to him, but she knew better. For every second he spent looking like he didn’t have another place in the world to be, he was pinpointing a weakness that he could use to his advantage later.

When she heard him fidget again, she turned around. “Don’t you have a casino downstairs to oversee? I’m almost done anyway, and you know you don’t need to be here for this.”

He stared at her, waiting.

“You know that dominant wolf thing and staring everyone into submission doesn’t work on me.”

His eyes narrowed, and she knew he was probably trying to remember a time he’d been successful with it before. She rocked back on her heels, glad she wasn’t at the mercy of the whole “pack” mentality that wolves placed such an importance on.

A few moments later Mac stood, wisely giving up on probing for more information. Cian had undoubtedly put him up to it. “I’m going, but only because we both know that when you say you’re almost done, it really means you’re going to tweak things for another couple hours.”

“I like to be thorough.”

“For what you’re charging me, I’d damn well hope so.” He shuddered. “Cristo would have only cost me half as much.”

Briana snorted. “That hack? He’s also the reason you needed me to begin with.” Frowning at the screen, she pulled up the chair Mac abandoned and dropped into it. “You’re not going to have any more theft problems when I’m done with this upgrade.”

“And you’re sure it will scare the shit out of any human thieves stupid enough to break into the hotel guest rooms, but not give them a heart attack?”

“I can’t promise that the Fae glamour I’ve got wired into this system won’t make a mortal piss his pants, but the illusion is nothing that’s going to bring the media or a huntress to your doorstep.”

Mac shuddered at the mention of the latter. “Crazy bitches. Did you know they got their girdles in a bunch when I refused to rent out my penthouse a couple weeks back after they decided to turn the Wolf’s Den into their new favorite playground?”

Laughing, Briana swiveled away from the screen. “Well that explains the naked picture of you they were circulating on the net.”

Judge, jury and oftentimes executioner, huntresses were hand-picked by Rhiannon to hunt down rogue immortals that threatened to betray the existence of Avalon to the human race. Getting on their bad side left immortals in a world of pain or dead.

Since Briana had become close friends with some of them after her oldest brother had taken a huntress as a mate, she knew firsthand how much trouble they could be. And that was if they liked you.

Apparently they weren’t fans of Mac’s.

She might have regretted mentioning it until she glimpsed the scowl on Mac’s face. It wasn’t easy to get a rise out of the laid-back wolf. “Could have been worse,” she added. “They could have Photoshopped in a really small pe—”

“Try not to have too much fun up here.” Cursing under his breath Mac headed for the door. “I’ll be in the control room when you want to check out the feed from down there.”

“I shouldn’t need to this time.” Still smiling, she turned back to the screen.

“You say that now. We both know you won’t be able to help yourself. You like to poke around down there too much.” He added something she didn’t catch, but sounded a little like room service.

She lifted her head. “Hmmm?”

He laughed. “Never mind. You’re too distracted with work and will just forget to eat anything I send up for you anyway.”

Sometimes it felt like she had four older brothers.

He paused in the doorway. “What should I tell Cian?”

“That I threatened to kick your ass in your fancy ultimate fighting ring down the hall when you asked me about it.” If she’d been more careful, Cian wouldn’t have discovered she turned to stone more out of habit than because of Rhiannon’s curse.

Mac scoffed but thankfully left her to her work.

The wolf turned out to be more right than she would have guessed. After another hour and a half of fiddling, she reengaged the security system in Mac’s penthouse and walked down the hall. By the time she reached the main room, she’d deliberately tripped the silent alarm, triggering the counter measures she’d programmed to deal with an intruder—human or immortal.

The whisper of shadow that crossed her peripheral vision was real enough to stir the predatory cat half of her. She fought the instinctive urge to drop into a crouch and shift.

The bright glow of the Las Vegas strip lit up the night sky beyond the wall of windows, making it easy enough to track the shadowy figure. Moving closer, its claws emerged from the phantom shape that had the cat snarling in her head.

Everything about the glamour looked and felt real as she watched, motionless, tracking the eerie glide that carried it toward her.

Leaving her wide-open to be jumped from behind.

Knocked sideways, the incredible force behind the unexpected attack threw her to her knees. Her claws burst through her fingertips, scraping the floor in an effort to maintain her balance.

What the hell?

Another blur of shadows materialized next to her. Only the silky kiss of awareness that teased across the back of her neck kept her animal half from pushing all the way to the surface.

Lucan.

She raised her head, watching the former knight face the menacing glamour bearing down on them. Only the top half of him seemed solid, the lower part of his muscular frame lost to the same shadowy webs of blackness that licked along the floor toward them like something out of a nightmare.

“It’s okay.” She pushed herself to her feet just as Lucan positioned himself between her and the wraith-like glamour now close enough to strike.

The system was programmed not to attack a human who could be injured simply by believing that what it was seeing was actually real. With immortals, however, the system was meant to be more aggressive. It wouldn’t take long for Lucan to realize his opponent wasn’t any more real than the Easter Bunny, but he could still be injured in the meantime.

“Lucan,” she tried again.

The rest of him seemed to evaporate on the air, and the temperature in the room plummeted.

“Disengage.”

The room brightened at the termination of the security program just as Lucan lunged forward. The phantom glamour vanished between one breath and the next, and thrown by the unexpected change, Lucan hit the floor, solid once more. The wisps of shadows surrounding him retreated, and Briana found herself staring down at the blond knight dressed in an Aerosmith T-shirt and faded jeans.

“What the hell was that?” Penetrating, green eyes locked on hers.

“Work.”

Back on his feet, he stood opposite her, searching her face. All at once she felt herself surrounded by his scent. A faint hint of iron lingered beneath the raw, dark pull of him that reminded her of the forest at night.

She allowed her gaze a moment to track down his chest and the hard wall of muscle that she spent way too much time thinking about touching, and then her control slipped back into place.

She took a step back to gain more space between them only to lose it when he countered with a step forward. She frowned at the inscrutable look on his face. “I was just testing out the modifications I made to Mac’s security system. If you hadn’t jumped me without a word, I could have told you that.”

His frown deepened and he glanced over his shoulder like he wasn’t quite sure the imitation wraith was gone. “A glamour?”

Nodding, she tried again to get a little distance between them, knowing it wouldn’t do a damn thing to soften the scent that tugged at her. It haunted her even in her dreams.

Lucan ran a hand through his hair and blew out a breath. “I thought you stuck with human stuff. Like Dobermans.”

She shrugged. “I like to experiment now and then.” Innovating kept her immortal cliental coming back for more. A security system might not prevent an immortal from losing their head—which, along with fire and the rare mystical weapon, was the only way to kill someone like her or Lucan—but worked well as an early warning system for most.

“Experimenting? With a wraith? How dangerous was that thing?”

“Not as dangerous as you.” The real thing, she silently added, preferring not to voice where the inspiration for the glamour came from. “Might have given you a scratch or two. That’s all.”

Lucan scoffed. “It’s not me it would have scratched.”

She arched a brow at the same overly protective tone she frequently got from her brothers. Turning on her heel, she retraced her steps to Mac’s office. “I’m not the one who ended up eating the floor, unless you count when you shoved me.”

“You were just standing there.” There wasn’t a trace of apology on his face.

“I was doing my job.”

“Then maybe Mac isn’t paying you enough.”

“I’ll tell him you said that.” Her smile trembled a little from forcing it. She looked away. “What are you so worked up for anyway?” In her experience the knight wasn’t easily rattled.

As if remembering that himself, his expression became unreadable and he fell into step with her. “I didn’t know Mac was increasing the security around here. No one has targeted him, have they?”

“Do you honestly think Mac would share something like that with me?” The wolf was even more stubborn than her brothers when it came to handling his own affairs.

Lucan shrugged, watching her from the corner of his eye. “Impressive, though.”

Surprised by the praise, she glanced at him.

“Why a wraith?”

Wondering if she was hearing something else besides just curiosity, she walked into the office ahead of him. “Because there isn’t a human or immortal who wouldn’t be scared to cross paths with one. No offense.”

Lucan couldn’t help what he’d become any more than she could help turning to stone during the day. Technically, she supposed she could help it now, but had been hiding it from her brothers for months. Until recently, they’d been too occupied with their mates to notice and ask questions she wasn’t prepared to answer.

“Your brother wasn’t scared of me.” Lucan stared straight ahead.

“Tristan was protecting his mate. And that wasn’t your fault, Luc.” She paused in front of the desk, not even realizing she’d reached her hand out until he carefully avoided touching her and stepped toward the window.

“I could have fought it harder.”

“And driven yourself insane in the process?”

As bad as the gargoyles had it, Rhiannon had reserved a worse punishment for those closest to Arthur. It didn’t matter that every one of Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table would have sacrificed their life for his—and many had on the bloody battlefield at Camlann—the goddess had made sure their fate was worse than death.

By enslaving every knight, forcing them to become her personal mercenaries—wraiths—they were blood-bound to complete any task they were assigned. Failure to complete an assignment triggered what some called a madness fueled by excruciating pain and offset by a mindless bloodlust.

According to her brothers, it was like watching a monster take over, swallowing the man and friend they knew and leaving behind a merciless, unfeeling beast. Finishing an assignment, one way or another, was the only way for Lucan to regain control.

“It all worked out,” she reminded him. Tristan’s mate had survived Lucan’s attempted assassination and was still keeping both humans and immortals in line at Pendragon’s, the bar Briana’s family ran.

“She isn’t alive because of anything I did.” He stared out at the Strip. “And the damage it caused…”

“My brothers don’t hold you responsible any more than I do.” Not entirely anyway. Lucan may have been compelled to kill her brother’s mate, but he hadn’t been the one who’d targeted her in the first place.

Wishing she could take away the regret in Lucan’s eyes, she contented herself with sharing the view. He glanced at her, but she kept her eyes trained on the neon lights and traffic moving below.

She wasn’t sure when she’d noticed his presence seemed to soothe the wildness inside her, but as much pleasure as she took in his proximity, she’d give anything to go back to how things used to be between them.

To a time when he didn’t go out of his way to avoid meeting her eyes and move so carefully, as though the thought of even accidentally brushing up against her was too much for him to stand. To a time when he’d been no more than her brothers’ friend—long before she’d ever wished things could be different between them.

Cian’s numerous stories of Lucan, before the knight had become another of Rhiannon’s victims, had laid the groundwork for a crush that had taken Briana by surprise. She hadn’t yet come into her immortality when they’d met centuries ago.

Their paths hadn’t crossed again until a few months ago, and not once in all that time had she stumbled across eyes such a haunting green or a smile that so tempted both woman and cat.

Lucan had nearly killed Tristan’s mate—making him persona non grata with her family—and that may have affected how he behaved when he was around Briana, but it was far more complicated than that for her.

He shoved his hands in his pockets. “Are you planning on running any more tests?”

“Probably.”

“Alone?”

She arched a brow. “I think I can handle a few glamours. I’ve been a big girl for a few centuries now.” She crossed to her laptop but something made her look over her shoulder at him. Was he staring at her ass?

His eyes snapped to hers, that familiar granite expression sliding effortlessly back into place right—but not before she imagined a flash of unchecked desire that she felt all the way to her toes.

“Lucan.” His name was out before she figured out what she wanted to say—what she’d let herself say.

“Say hi to Cian for me, Briana.” He didn’t waste time with goodbye before walking away, his footsteps fading into nothing.

She stared at the empty doorway long after he’d gone, then forced herself to push all thoughts of him from her mind and finish her work—a task made increasingly difficult with every chance encounter.

By the time she was satisfied with the system—which took her twice as long as it should have—she’d lost interest in fiddling with anything in the control room. She needed to get out of here, someplace she could run. She’d been ignoring the needs of her animal half nearly as long as she’d been burying herself in work, and the cat felt more on edge than ever.

It didn’t help that the ride down to the hotel’s underground parking lot took forever with guests hopping on and off at every other floor. Next time she’d remember to use Mac’s private elevator. A few floors up from the parking level, a guy in an Elvis costume got on and purposely brushed up against her. Already feeling caged in, she grit her teeth at the contact, barely curbing the urge to slash out with her claws.

He did a double take as he stepped off at the lobby—probably wondering what the hell was wrong with her eyes—and then the doors closed, leaving her alone and all too aware of how close the cat was to the surface.

Closing her eyes before she made anyone else look at her a little too long, she took a deep breath, then another. The doors finally opened and she pushed away from the back wall, walking as quickly as she dared without drawing notice.

She rounded the last row of cars, and the same slow tease of awareness caressed her senses. A heartbeat later she spotted Lucan leaning against one of the cement support pillars. He wasn’t alone.

She couldn’t have continued past them if she wanted to. Not when she realized he wasn’t just talking to the curvy redhead all but plastered to his chest—he was drinking from her.

 

Briana Callaghan was trouble.

It was the only thought that kept Lucan from releasing his hold on the slinky redhead curled around him. He’d been reminding himself of it long before he left the penthouse and the whole elevator ride down.

Getting as far from Vegas—as far from her—as he could was his top priority until the redhead had asked him to help find her car. Forgetting where she’d parked turned out to be the least of her problems once it crossed his mind to use the mortal to satisfy the only craving he could do anything about.

With his fangs buried in the luscious spot above her collarbone, he didn’t have to think about Briana’s silky brown hair and stunning blue eyes or imagine how soft her fingers would have felt laced with his.

From the first hard draw of the woman’s blood, his senses exploded with power. He’d long ago given up fighting the nature of the beast Rhiannon had knowingly unleashed inside every wraith when she made them require blood to survive. Without it, they risked losing control of that beast that would overtake them if they failed her the way she believed they all failed her Arthur.

Rhiannon had nearly broken him in the beginning by forcing him and every other wraith to prey and feed on others to survive. It was her he imagined was weak and helpless against him in the beginning, her blood that was spilled each time he was forced to drink from another, his hatred for himself overshadowed only by his hatred for Rhiannon.

The redhead made a sound of pleasure deep in her throat and snaked her hands up his chest, clinging to him. Her blood, rich and potent, only intensified his need, his hunger. But not for blood.

He squeezed his eyes tighter, willing away the images of Briana that crowded into his mind. He didn’t want to think about her, didn’t want to imagine it was her skin beneath his lips, her fingers sliding through his hair, her soft whimpers of pleasure.

Fuck.

If not for Briana’s glamorized wraith, he wouldn’t have lingered so long. The perceived threat to her had only sharpened the razor edge he’d been riding for weeks.

He knew better than to get that close to her. Maybe once he could have risked it—nearly had—but that was a long time ago, when he’d been convinced Arthur was untouchable.

But he wasn’t that naïve any more. Whatever hope he once carried he might someday be free of Rhiannon had died long ago, right around the same time he stopped believing in the foolish prophecy that Arthur would be resurrected when reunited with his lost sword, Excalibur.

Lucan knew it was Briana coming before she rounded the row of parked cars in the underground lot. He could have easily sent the redhead on her way and been gone himself. Instead he’d stayed exactly where he was.

There was no point in denying who and what he was. He’d stayed far away from Briana after the battle of Camlann, preferring her to remember the times they’d shared before a vengeful goddess had enslaved him, turning him into the darkest version of himself.

Had he known the feelings she’d so innocently awakened a lifetime ago would resurface a hundred times more intense, he would have done more to guarantee she never wanted to see him again.

Nothing good could come from a centuries-old longing that a goddess would ruthlessly exploit. Rhiannon would find a way to use it against him and wouldn’t care if Briana was hurt in the process.

It didn’t matter that her family had proven themselves by handing over two of the six mystical daggers that would supposedly lead to Excalibur. The goddess would never see reason where Arthur’s knights were concerned. Anything they valued was stripped from them, and he refused to see Briana suffer in any way because of him.

So Lucan stayed exactly where he was, his hands wrapped around the redhead, his mouth on her skin—and his gaze locked on Briana.

The darkness inside him stirred without warning, and he mentally tightened his control. It did nothing to temper the beast within that Lucan was starting to suspect had taken far too much interest in Briana.

Briana’s steps faltered, her eyes narrowing at the corners. The unveiled disgust on her face was exactly the response he had hoped for. He just hadn’t counted on it hitting him with the force of a battering ram.

The redhead sighed softly, and he slowly lifted his head from her neck, but didn’t let go of her, and he didn’t take his eyes off Briana.

With short, clipped strides, she stormed past him. She stopped a few cars down and unlocked her car with a stab of a button.

“When can I see you again?” Glassy-eyed, the redhead stared up at him, then frowned. She touched her neck. “Am I bleeding?”

Briana opened her car door, but instead of sliding behind the wheel, she shoved her stuff inside and slammed the door before backtracking. “Are you out of your mind?”

“What’s her problem?” The redhead slurred her speech a little, drunk on the venom in Lucan’s fangs that left his prey compliant. It would also soon make it impossible for her to remember their encounter.

The same venom was problematic to immortals, and in a gargoyle’s case would trigger the shift to animal and then stone. Only mated gargoyles could resist the automatic shift. At least Rhiannon hadn’t been so heartless as to leave the race’s young ones completely unprotected during the day.

Although indestructible in their gargoyle form, the shifters were also extremely vulnerable in those first moments at sundown when they broke free of the stone.

Briana surprised him by taking a menacing step toward the redhead, stopping only when the mortal scrambled backward. Her attention slid to Lucan. “Taking an awfully big risk here. Do you always feed where anyone could come along? Or would you just feed from them too?”

The redhead laughed, the loud sound echoing in the underground lot. “Feed from them?” She cocked her head. “How much has she been drinking tonight?”

Briana shoved her hands in her pockets, the casual gesture at odds with the feral expression. “Not too bright, is she?”

“Hey!”

Lucan roped an arm around the redhead’s waist before she got in Briana’s face. The sharp feline edge in Briana’s voice meant her cat was entirely too close to the surface, and letting a clueless mortal provoke her wouldn’t be smart.

“Let go.” She glanced down. “There’s blood on my dress. Why is there blood on my dress?” The panicked look on her face matched her frantic tone.

“Get him to pay for your dry cleaning,” Briana suggested and walked away. “And you should probably get a room next time. A few huntresses have taken an interest in hanging out here lately, and last time I checked even you had to abide by the same rules as the rest of us.”

He doled out punishments far more vicious than death, and she was lecturing him on staying on a huntress’s good side?

Leaving the redhead—who was already looking a little confused about what was happening—leaning against the pillar, he caught up with Briana.

“It can’t really come as that much of a surprise.”

“That you need blood, hardly. If I’m surprised by anything it’s that…” She blew out a frustrated breath. “Forget it.” She reached for her car door without looking at him.

He snagged her arm, turning her back around.

She growled low in her throat, her eyes gone completely cat. The startling blue depths blazed with a feral night glow. “I said, forget it.”

“You’re angry with me,” he ventured.

“Furious actually.”

“Why?” Revulsion he’d expected—counted on—but mad at him?

“Let go or lose an arm.”

Seeing as the tips of her claws were already visible, he believed she meant it. He still didn’t release her.

“You should go catch your snack before she faints.”

Lucan glanced over at the redhead, who was sliding down the pillar. Briana used the momentary distraction to jerk free of his hold. She wrenched her car door open and slid behind the wheel.

One step to the left prevented her from slamming the door. He searched her face, driven to figure out why she was so angry with him. He knew he shouldn’t care. Hell, he’d wanted her to go, and now there he stood blocking the way.

Fingers wrapped around the steering wheel, Briana cursed. “What do you want from me, Lucan?”

Everything. The word never made it past his lips, held there by the certainty that she would never be within his reach.

Without pressing her further, he moved back and shut the door. She stared at him through the window, a flicker of—disappointment? hurt?—blinking across her face. He stood motionless as she started the car, then turned away.

He was a few feet away when he froze, something on the air shifting.

Someone was watching them.