One week. Seven days. Twisted Desire is almost here! To celebrate, I’m sharing the entire first chapter!
I’m going to kill Nikolai Sterling.
I locked myself in the fitness room of the Westbrook Hotel, and he’s been knocking on the door every five minutes for the past half hour. This has been my routine for months now. This simple, undecorated room with its cardio machines, weight rack, and heavy bag has become a reprieve for me. Getting up and starting my morning off with a good sweat session. It’s one way to work out my frustrations that doesn’t have others frowning at my “poor behavior.” I could think of several more enjoyable ways, one of which includes the man on the other side of the frosted-glass door. And trust me, I can attest to how good a sweat session with Nikolai makes a girl feel.
I can’t remember exactly how it started—Nikolai would probably know better than me. What I do recall is the months we spent taunting each other before we finally gave in. After the first time we had sex, I was hooked—almost as much as he was. It drove Tristan and Aurora insane. Sex with Nikolai quickly became a mutually beneficial pastime, and that sure as hell isn’t going to stop just because we’re diving into battle against the corrupt, fae-killing humans.
The deep tone of Nik’s voice stops my punch mid-swing. “Sky, we need to talk.”
I exhale a harsh breath, glaring at my reflection in the wall of mirrors in front of me. “Not now, Sterling.” Talking is not what I’m interested in doing if I let him in.
The ache across my knuckles flares as my fist connects with the punching bag hanging from the ceiling on a thick iron chain.
“Let me in, Skylar.” His words sound muffled through the door.
Oh, for fuck’s sake. He isn’t going to leave, but he also isn’t going to shift inside because he knows I’ll kick his ass.
I rip the fingerless gloves off, tossing them on the floor, and grab my water bottle. I chug half of it on my way to the door, flip the lock, and walk back to where I was working out. Nikolai enters the room, closing the door behind him.
I turn around to face him and his annoying, effortless appearance. He’s wearing black jeans and a white T-shirt that’s two sizes too fucking small by the looks of how tight it’s hugging his chest. My gaze collides with his, and I’m forced to remember how soft and comforting his emerald eyes became when I lost everything. “What do you want?”
His chipper grin makes me consider dumping the rest of my water on him. “And good morning to you, sunshine.”
“You want your ass kicked?” I shoot back.
He lifts a brow at the idea. “You want to play?” he challenges, amusement in his eyes.
A bead of sweat rolls down my temple, and I catch it with the back of my hand, wiping it on my black jogging pants. “With you?” I offer a laugh. “Not a chance.” Nikolai and I play so many games, it’s sometimes hard to keep up.
“I’d beg to differ.” He runs a finger up the side of the punching bag.
“Good for you,” I retort, dropping my water bottle beside the gloves. “What do you want, Nikolai? I was in the middle of something.”
His eyes travel the length of me, pausing at my bare midriff, and I snap my fingers in his face.
“I’ve got a bunch of the fae downstairs ready to train,” he says.
My lips come together. “Let me take a shower, and I’ll meet you down there.”
“Sure. Allison’s already there. Oliver wanted to come, but I told him that’d be pointless unless he wanted to volunteer as a guinea pig for fae mind manipulation.”
I stare at him without comment. While Allison has been running the bookstore in Aurora’s absence, the human boy has been sticking his nose into everything around here. We haven’t kicked him out—none of us have the heart to. Not even me. So, I guess he’s staying.
It’s been almost a year and a half since we set Tristan and Aurora up with their new lives, and I want them to come back. At least Aurora was practiced at keeping Nikolai in line. As much as any one person can be.
Nikolai is . . . a lot. He kept me together when my world was falling apart—when I lost both of my best friends in the span of a couple weeks, but he still drives me absolutely nuts on a daily basis.
Losing Max was something none of us were prepared for—something I haven’t completely been able to move past. Nikolai was there when I needed someone, and when I didn’t want anyone. Sometimes, he’d sit next to me for hours without saying a word. That Nikolai I can tolerate. It’s when he opens his mouth—when he looks at me with that glimmer in his eyes and that ridiculous smirk on his lips that I want to smack him. Or fuck him. Honestly, I’ve done both, and I have yet to decide which one I get more of a rush from. Though the former typically leads to the latter.
It’s been a long eighteen months. Shortly after we left Tristan and Aurora, I figured we would’ve at least made headway with The Experiment. It took almost that whole first year for Nikolai and I to adjust to our new roles. A lot of the fae weren’t happy with the idea of a merger. That’s essentially what it was—bringing the dark and light fae together to defeat The Experiment. It’s the fae who still refuse to get on board we’re worried about, and we’ve been wasting too much time trying to keep the peace. I’m tired of the bullshit. Nikolai is about ready to start outcasting fae, and I’m not far behind. We don’t have time to deal with these pathetic issues when there are humans still kidnapping and killing us.
That being said, and as damaging as this war with the humans has been, it’s reminded our people that we need to take care of our own.
We’re still losing numbers. As hard as we’ve tried to keep everyone safe, we’re still figuring out The Experiment. They have the upper hand—they’ve known about us far longer than we’ve known about them. It’s going to take time for us to get on the same level, and during that time, we’re losing numbers. A sacrifice—a tragedy.
* * *
Standing under the hot spray of water, I close my eyes and let my muscles relax. They’ve been tense for days, and I’m not sure it’s something even a deep-tissue massage could work out. Training the fae for a war against humans is tougher than I had anticipated. Sure, humans don’t have the same speed, strength, and abilities we do, but they have weapons with the ability to take us down faster than I care to admit. Case in point: Max.
My gaze freezes on the white shower tile in front of me. Not a day goes by where I don’t think of him. He was my best friend, aside from Tristan, but it feels as if I lost them both. So that leaves Nikolai—the man I can’t stand to be around unless we’re doing things other than talking.
I dry off and change into a semiformal black dress. It falls off one shoulder and reaches just above my knee. I need to head into the office after this meeting, so I also slip on heels on my way through my bedroom. I stop in front of my vanity and comb through my hair, braiding it down my back to keep it out of my face. Then, I sit in front of the mirror and open my makeup drawer. After mixing a couple different shades of foundation together to match my warm skin tone, I use a brush to apply it to my face. I fill in my eyebrows, precisely arching them, then pick up the black liquid eyeliner pen and lift it to my eye. It’s taken a shit ton of practice, but I’m finally satisfied with my ability to flick the pen just right to get a decent wing. It was no simple feat, either. Sometimes it’s nice to spend time on something other than saving my race. I swipe a red stain across my lips, stick the tube in my laptop bag, and grab a jacket on my way out the door to combat the unseasonably chilly mid-September weather Rockdale has been experiencing this week.
My heels echo on the hardwood floor as I walk through the suite I’ve been living in at the Westbrook Hotel since Tristan left. He offered me the penthouse, but I would never take it. For two reasons. One, that was—is—his space, and two, his decorating skills are fucking awful. It’d take too much work to renovate the place to my tastes, and if all goes as planned, he’ll be back soon anyway.
If all goes as planned.
The words bounce around my head, taunting me.
It will go as planned, I want to shout back, but yelling at an empty room won’t make me seem very capable as a leader in a war, so I bite my tongue and drag my ass downstairs.
* * *
“We’re going to try something a little . . . unethical,” Nikolai says, sliding off the stage at the front of the room. The tables have been pushed to the walls, and the chairs are stacked on the stage behind him, leaving the floor open for the twenty or so fae occupying it.
“What do you mean?” a female fae asks, her eyes wide. A lot of the group is emitting nervous energy; there are so many who feel the same that no one is bothering to hide their emotions. I steal a glance at Nikolai; his are bottled up tight.
“We’re going to practice mind manipulation,” he explains, “on each other.”
“Is that even possible?” someone calls out, and I fight the urge to roll my eyes.
“The fae being influenced has to let it happen,” Nikolai clarifies.
“Wait, what?” Allison cuts in. “I’m confused.”
After gauging the room, it’s clear she’s not the only one. Faces full of furrowed brows and creased foreheads stare back at me. Well, isn’t this fucking lovely? We’re going to be here all day.
“It’s not exactly well known that fae can compel other fae,” I explain. “Probably because it’s not an easy thing to do unless the fae you’re trying to manipulate lets their guard down, allowing you into their head. That or one fae needs to be significantly more powerful and practiced at compulsion.”
Nikolai continues, “The point of the exercise isn’t to hold power over your friends and allies, it’s to practice your methods so, when you use your abilities in battle, you’ll be able to do so without much thought.”
Allison nods in understanding.
“Okay,” Nikolai calls out. “Partner up with someone you trust.” He waits while everyone gets into pairs. “Now, choose who is going to influence whom. Get comfortable with the idea of letting them into your head. Don’t worry. You’ll get the chance to get inside the other person’s head after.”
“Does that mean you’re going to let Skylar screw with yours?” someone teases.
Nikolai doesn’t miss a beat. “Skylar screws with my head every day. Today is no different, and tomorrow will be the same.” He shoots me a wink, and I glare at him.
“Begin when you’re ready. I’ll be walking around the room checking on everyone, but stay focused. I’ll only interrupt if I have a suggestion.”
I break away from the crowd, standing against the wall near the back of the room to observe. I don’t need to practice mind manipulation. I’ve been doing it forever. By now, it’s nothing more than a parlor trick.
Watching the fae attempt compulsion on each other would be more amusing if we weren’t counting on it as a defense against The Experiment. At first, most of the fae struggle. The room is filled with frustrated expressions and muddied energy. It’s understandable—not wanting to let someone into your head to mess with it, but they have to if they’re going to learn. I hope Nik is prepared to spend the entire day here. At this rate, it’s going to take a while.
It doesn’t take long for Nikolai to call me out as he makes his way around the room. He scratches the dark stubble on his cheek. “Did you misunderstand the whole idea of ‘partner up’?”
I laugh. “Nope. I decided to pass.”
“Now, kitten, you have to play nice with the others.”
“I’m not in the mood, Sterling.”
“Get in the mood, Skylar. We need to make sure these people aren’t walking to their deaths by helping us take down The Experiment.”
I bite my tongue, battling the urge to tear his eyes out—though my aggression would probably turn him on.
“I’ll take your silence as acceptance of what I’ve said. You know I’m right though you’ll never admit it.” He nods when I grant him an icy smile. “Come on.” He inclines his head toward the group.
“They’re not really getting it. It’s time to show them how compulsion really works.”
“You’re asking me—?”
“To trust me.” He gasps far too loud. “Yes.”
Nikolai drags me back to the other fae. Standing in front of them about to let him compel me makes me feel as if I’m about to throw up.
“A lot of you are overthinking the process,” he starts as I stand there. So long as I don’t move an inch, no one will be able to see my desire to get the hell out of here. “You’re trying too hard to force your partner to do what you want. You have to pose your statements so the other person believes what you want is what they want. The more they believe it, the easier it’ll be to persuade them to act against their will. Make sense?”
Most of the heads nod in understanding.
My throat goes dry when his eyes land on me, and the room suddenly feels much smaller than it is.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
“Hey.” His voice is only for me. “You’re okay.”
My eyes shift back and forth across his face. I notice the darkness under his eyes, the slight wrinkles on his forehead from furrowing his brows so often. He looks . . . shit, he always looks good, but right now, he looks as if he could use a week of sleep. Or a truckload of coffee. Probably both.
“Sky,” he whispers, and the rest of the room falls away. “Okay?”
All I can manage is a nod. Holding his gaze like this is making it difficult to do much else. I blink and then focus on dropping the wall in my mind. I imagine it would be a lot harder to do with someone other than Nikolai, but I can’t deny it—I trust him. That makes it annoyingly easy to let him into my head.
“I want you to take a step away from me,” he says loud enough for everyone to hear. The lull of his voice radiates through me, draping over my muscles until they move on their own, shifting away from him as he directed.
Our eyes remain locked. I find myself not absolutely hating this, watching the bright green flecks in his eyes reflect the sparkling lights of the chandeliers.
“Good,” he praises and moves closer. “Go ahead and start to attack me,” he instructs, this time without any compulsion.
The tension in my muscles eases some as I grin. “Really?”
He laughs. “Yes, really. I know you’ve been dying for the chance.”
“Only every day since we met,” I return in a sweet tone.
More snickers sound throughout the room.
Within seconds, I snap together a plan of attack, and then I lunge. I land a punch on his upper chest, and he grunts. I’m about to wind back for another when he ensnares my gaze. “Stop. You don’t want to hit me.”
My movements halt. I still feel the urge to connect my fist with his body, but there’s a nagging voice overpowering my want with his. No, you don’t want to hit him, it says. Stop fighting him.
My fist stays in the air until Nikolai blinks, breaking his hold on me, and my arm falls back to my side. My skin tingles all over, and I blink to clear my head before looking at everyone watching us with keen eyes.
He turns to our audience. “You want to be able to disarm these people. Deter them from hurting you, so you don’t have to hurt them.”
Someone scoffs. “They have no problem hurting us. Why should we spare them?”
“We’re trying to make things better and safer for all parties involved,” Allison chimes in. “You’d be wise to remember that.”
I nod in agreement but don’t add anything. I need this weird-ass training session to be over. I need to shut myself in my office and be away from people.
“All right,” Nikolai says, defusing the tension between Allison and the other fae. “Let’s try a few more times and see how much progress we can make today.” He sends them off into their pairs again before turning his attention to me.
“I think it should be my turn,” I mutter only half joking. I’m still uneasy after letting Nik use his fae voodoo shit on me. I suppose I wasn’t aware of how much I trust him. It was so easy to let him into my head—too easy.
The curve of his lips makes me wish I didn’t say anything. “You don’t need to compel me.” He tips his face closer and lowers his voice. “I’ll worship you of my own free will.”
I suck in a breath. “Killer line, Sterling.”
He tweaks my chin. “You doing okay? I didn’t upset you, did I?”
I wave him off. “I’m fine.”
“It wasn’t so bad having me in your head, was it?”
My glare is answer enough for him to change the subject.
After another couple of hours, most of the fae have gotten significantly better with their manipulation abilities. I’m more confident these fae will be able to protect themselves if it comes down to it. We’ve all seen enough death to last us an eternity.
Afterward, the fae clear out, leaving Nikolai, Allison, and me alone.
“I’d call that a success,” Allison comments, zipping up her jacket as she gets ready to leave.
“Sure,” I say.
“Don’t mind her,” Nikolai cuts in and drops his arm around my shoulders. “She’s upset she didn’t get to have her way with me.”
Allison snorts. “Right. She could tell you to do pretty much anything, and you’d do it in a heartbeat. No fae manipulation required.” She shoulders her bag. “I’ll see you guys later.”
I knock his arm off as soon as Allison is gone.
“Easy, Sky,” he says with a slight grin. “You need to relax. We’re doing good.”
Keeping my eyes trained on a painting attached to the wall on the other side of the room, I say, “I know that.” For once, the fae-human war isn’t what I’m concerned about.
I can’t wait for y’all to read this book!