In a magical race around the world, there can only be one winner.
My powers weren’t enough to save my mother from an excruciating death. But I won’t stand by and watch anybody else I love suffer.
The spells I need to protect us all are locked away, sealed by a magic I can’t break. The only key is conning my way into the magical elite and winning their deadly competition.
I can’t do it alone.
Levi has my back. He’s a strong witch, my best friend, and fiercest protector.
Raphael might be my ex, but his vampire powers give us an edge.
And then there’s Isak. Dragon shifter, with his own secrets and reasons to win.
But in a competition full of witches whose powers outweigh my own, dangers arise from every corner of the globe.
Until one thing becomes clear.
We aren’t just playing to win.
We’re playing to live.
Cursed in Love is the first book in a “why choose” paranormal romance trilogy. Order your copy today!
Release date: June 23, 2021
Publisher: Zoe Ashwood
Print pages: 330
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Cursed in Love
The little rented Vauxhall Astra careens around a bend in the road, narrowly missing a car with yellow headlights that passes us on the right.
“I’ll never get used to this,” I growl through clenched teeth. “It’s unnatural.”
Levi, my best friend and partner in crime, throws me an exasperated look. “It’s not even that different. You just flip everything,” he says, perfectly comfortable behind the wheel, which is on the wrong side of the car.
We speed down a Scottish country road, flanked on both sides by moss-covered gray drystone walls. Dusk is falling, toning down the vibrant green of the early summer pastures. Since leaving Edinburgh in the early afternoon, we’ve passed through small towns and even smaller villages, we’ve seen flocks of sheep grazing on gorgeous hillsides, and we’re still not at our destination.
I glower at the phone where the navigation app is counting down the minutes to our arrival. “We’re going to be late.”
Levi takes another wild turn, and I brace my hand against the dashboard. My fake wedding ring glints gold, and I resist the urge to poke at it—if I was truly married to Levi, I wouldn’t constantly twist it around my finger. It would have become a part of me, and I’d forget all about it. We’ve played the part of a couple before, whenever it was required during our travels, but we’ve never gotten ‘married.’
I steal a glance at my companion. He seems at ease with his role of my fake husband. I have to admit, that gold band looks good on his strong, long-fingered hand, and I can’t help but wonder how our relationship will change once he finds his soulmate, once he gets married for real. Already, I’m resentful of this imaginary woman who will surely want him to stop traipsing all around the world with me, chasing curse-breaking jobs too dangerous for any sane person to handle.
Grimacing at the mental image, I force my thoughts back to the present. Levi’s future wife is a problem for another day, and right now, I must figure out how to play that role to perfection. If anyone suspects we’re not who we’re pretending to be, we’ll lose our chance to enter the competition. Or maybe even risk our lives.
“So, should we, um, get our stories straight?” I ask. “I mean, as a couple.”
A corner of Levi’s mouth pulls up. “You think anyone will ask you how we met?”
I shrug. “You never know. Witches are nosy people.”
It’s true. We’re all trying to learn as many secrets as possible about others while desperately protecting our own. Knowledge is power, and power among witches is worth everything. Which is exactly why we’re driving to this godsforsaken place.
“You can tell them the truth, then,” Levi says.
I lift my eyebrows at him. “What? That we’re roommates and that I’ve finally decided to make an honest man out of you?”
Despite the evening’s shadows, I can still make out the fact that he rolls his eyes at me.
“No,” he drawls. “That we’ve known each other since we were kids. You know me better than anyone, that sort of thing.”
A warm flush spreads through me at his words. It’s true: one of the first memories I have is of playing with Levi’s Legos while our parents’ coven met in his family’s circle room. I cried because I wanted to join my mom but wasn’t allowed to, and Levi, older than me by two years, built me a princess castle to cheer me up.
It’s just that our friendship never progressed past that platonic stage—outside my imagination, anyway. I had a huge crush on him all through my teenage years, and I’m extremely proud of myself that he never found out that I used to practice writing my name with his surname, Quinn, over and over in my Book of Shadows. When I was nine, Mom found me trying to cast a love spell on him, which resulted in me being grounded for three months. I still remember her taking me sternly by the shoulders and telling me: ‘We never tamper with other people’s free will, Nora. Never.’
With my particular magical skill set, her warning had been on point. But as I proved a couple of years ago, her lessons hadn’t sunk in quite as well as she’d wished.
Levi gently nudges my elbow. “Hey, are you okay? We can turn back. Find another way into the library. Or, you know, find another library?”
I take a deep breath and shake my head. “No, only this one will do. And I’m fine.” I am. Or I will be, once we get close enough that the pull of the adventure sucks me in and I forget all about caution.
It’s a rush, doing a new job, and Levi and I have been living for it these past two years.
Only this isn’t a normal job.
Gritting my teeth, I push down the annoyingly responsible voice in my head and half-turn to study Levi instead.
“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in a tux,” I say. “It suits you.”
That’s the kind of thing a friend would say. I keep my voice level and hide any trace of real admiration from him. The truth is that Levi looks as good in a tux as in board shorts, but that’s not something I am comfortable voicing at this moment. He adjusts his wrist cuff as though my words embarrassed him.
“Thanks,” he says.
Then his gaze drops to my gown, and he takes in the plunging cleavage and the skin-tight fabric that wraps my body. A muscle twitches in his jaw, and he focuses back on the road.
“Hard to hide a weapon in there,” he grumbles.
I glance down at myself. He has a point. I can’t even strap a knife to my thigh without it sticking out. Running would also be difficult tonight, since the high heels I picked are ridiculous.
“Shit, do you think this dress is a bit much?” I ask. “I should have picked that black dress but I didn’t think it was elegant enough…”
“It’s perfect,” he says quickly.
His gaze cuts to me again, and my heart skips a beat at his expression. He’s never looked at me like that before, and I’m not sure what to do with it.
“Okay.” My voice comes out strangely breathy.
Pressing my lips together, I peer out onto the wet road. The car’s headlights illuminate our path while darkness veils the stark landscape.
To take my mind off the weirdness between us, I check the phone again. “Ooh, we’re coming up on the spot.”
Sure enough, within a minute, we arrive at what looks like a dead end in the road. Then the beam of light from our car illuminates a row of neatly arranged vehicles on a gravel parking lot. Levi maneuvers the Vauxhall into a spot between a Jaguar and a Tesla and turns off the engine.
“You ready?” he asks.
I pick up my tiny jeweled clutch and peer inside. Lipstick, check. Stolen invitation, check. Pre-charged amethyst crystal for protection against sinister magic, also check.
“I’m ready,” I tell him, even though my heartbeat’s hammering loudly in my ears.
We’ve come this far. I need access to the Ballendial Library, and this damn contest is the only way to win it.
We exit the car and pass the others in the parking lot—it seems like a lot of the guests have arrived already. Our vehicle is the cheapest by far, and I’m hoping it doesn’t betray the fact that we’re impostors. Would Mr. and Mrs. O’Sullivan, the couple we stole the invitation from, ever drive a rented Vauxhall? Or wear a non-designer gown and paste diamonds?
Probably not, but I’m hoping the lighting inside will be dim enough that no one will notice the distinct lack of sparkle on my necklace. And we’ll leave as soon as we get directions for the competition we’re entering, so maybe no one will notice our car and get suspicious.
Even though Levi’s family is very well off, and he grew up used to the finer things in life, he doesn’t usually dip into his trust fund. I respect that about him. But for the sake of our disguise, I wish we’d picked a little more class and oomph than our basic rental car. I knew better than to ask that of him, though. He hates talking about his family.
I give the Bentley at the end of the row a good glare, then face Levi. “Let’s do this.”
He offers me his arm and leads me down the cobblestone path leading to the castle, which is a dark shape in the dusk, illuminated from below with red floodlights for maximum creepy effect. Witches are nothing if not dramatic. The path is even lit by torches. A wet breeze blows from the sea, so their orange glow dances on the ground, making the already treacherous path even more dangerous for my ankles.
I really should have worn different shoes.
“This might be a spectacularly bad idea, you know,” Levi says quietly.
The wind whips my hair around my head as I turn to glare at him. “You said my plan was solid.”
“I’m just saying,” he continues, ignoring my fuming, “that walking into their stronghold on false pretenses might get us captured or killed. You also haven’t told me all the details yet.” He raises one eyebrow to make a point.
Holding the hem of my evening gown up to avoid the puddles, I swallow another frustrated retort and go with the truth instead. “I won’t blame you if you want to sit this one out. I can register for the competition on my own and be a team of one.”
He stops me with a hand to my arm. I look up at him to find his jaw clenched, his eyebrows knit together in a frown.
“When have I ever let you go into danger alone?” he asks, his voice low.
I make it a question, but we both know it’s undisputed fact. We’ve been a two-member crew for almost two years now, and he’s had my back more times than I can count in situations that would have otherwise been too dangerous for me. And I’ve been there for him, in every crazy curse-breaking gig he’s taken on to fuel his adrenaline addiction.
We’ve had a lot of fun, I can’t deny that.
“There’s a first time for everything,” I insist. “Maybe conning our way into the most secure magical library in the world is your hard limit.”
He gives me a wicked grin. “I don’t have any hard limits.”
For some reason, the words make me blush, and I’m glad the post-storm twilight hides at least some of my reaction. I never blush where Levi is concerned. I’ve trained myself to be completely immune to him, and it’s a testament to how much this job has riled me up that he’s able to get under my skin.
I smack the back of my hand against his hard chest. “Then why are you still going on about this? We can’t stop now. The sentries have seen us, so it’ll look weird if we backtrack.”
The sentries in question are a pair of enchanted stone gargoyles sitting atop granite pillars that flank the road. Their fanged maws gape open, and their black eyes track our movements with disconcerting focus. Very medieval—just like the organization hosting the event we’re trying to infiltrate.
Levi glances at the beasts and grimaces. “Let’s go, then. I just want to put it on record that I warned you against this, so I can tell you ‘I told you so’ if this ends badly.”
“You’re such a Grinch,” I mutter as we pass between the ten-foot-high pillars. “If we win, you’re buying me a whole chocolate cake.”
“And if we get discovered and branded with a hot iron as thieves,” he murmurs, leaning in so close that his lips brush my hair, “you’re buying me a whole bottle of single malt Glenmorangie whisky. Deal?”
I stick out my pinky finger. “Deal.”
Levi snorts but finally hooks his little finger with mine and shakes on it. It’s not a binding oath—we could have spelled the exchange to make it impossible for us to break it—but between us, it might as well be. He’s never broken a promise to me, and I’ve dealt with enough liars in my life to appreciate that. There’s no way I’d do anything to compromise our friendship and working relationship.
My foot slips on a mossy cobblestone, and I grip Levi’s muscular arm tighter. “Crap,” I curse. “I really shouldn’t have worn stilettos.”
If I’d known the venue of the inaugural event for the most exclusive magical competition in this century would be a freaking ruin on a remote Scottish coast, I would have prepared a different outfit. But by the time we’d stolen the invitation from that Canadian couple in London, we barely had time to go shopping. It was all we could do to run to the first boutique we found, hop on the plane to Edinburgh, and rush here for the ceremony.
I glance behind us to check the path. It’s our only way off the promontory, unless we want to brave the Scottish sea—and I really, really don’t want that. Not in my beautiful gown, which I definitely want to wear again. And definitely not after a storm, when the waves crashing against the castle foundations are eight feet high and terrifying.
There’s no one on the path, so I pick up my pace, dragging Levi alongside me to the massive castle door. I don’t want to cause a scene by arriving late. The fewer eyes we have on us, the better. Especially as we weren’t exactly invited to the party.
Levi whistles quietly at the sight of the wards that glow crimson on the door. “These Scots sure know how to make an impression. If we tried to break in, it would take me several days to work through them. And that’s assuming I could work uninterrupted.”
“Shut up,” I hiss. “No ward breaking required tonight.”
He runs his fingers over the shining runes and jerks them away, sucking in a breath. “Ouch.”
Resisting the urge to roll my eyes at him, I pull the folded invitation from my clutch and read the instructions.
“It says to stand on the middle flagstone…” I nudge Levi with my hip until we’re both in place. “…and then… We have to say this together, see.”
Levi peers down at the heavy cardstock. “I don’t like this.”
“I know,” I say. “But this is our only way in.”
We share a determined look and together, we recite: “‘I bind myself willingly with an oath to uphold the rules of courtesy in Ballendial Castle. I will not act with violence or ill intent, I will not try to steal anything from the library, and I understand that going against those rules will have severe repercussions.’”
The moment the last word leaves my lips, a heavy spell slams down on me, locking me in place. I can’t move a muscle, can’t speak or cry out or even breathe, only my eyeballs are still functional. With effort, I glance at Levi and realize he’s in a similar state, his face frozen with his lips parted. He meets my gaze, and I try not to let my panic show.
What if this is it? I thought the invitation was vague enough that it couldn’t have been keyed to a specific person or couple, and neither of us had detected any curses on it. But what if I’d already taken my last breath, what if we’ll die here on the doorstep of a Scottish castle? My family doesn’t even know where I am, so no one would know where to search for us if we never returned. After we lost Mom, Dad and my twin siblings had barely pulled themselves together, and now they’ll lose me without even knowing why I never returned.
At least I’m with Levi.
The thought shoots through my mind, but what follows is a wave of profound horror and shame: I dragged him here, and he’ll die because of me.
The thick door in front of us opens without a creak. A man in an impeccable gray suit measures us with an appraising look, then plucks the invitation from my rigid fingers. With no apparent hurry, he scans the card, then murmurs a word over it. A sigil burns on the left-hand corner, limned in green, and the paper bursts into flame.
At the same time, the curse binding us releases, and I haul in a big, gulping breath of air that tastes of seaweed and stone.
“What the fuck?”
Levi steps forward as though to grab the man by his collar and shake him, but I snatch his sleeve just in time to yank him back. He stares down at me, then tucks his chin to his chest, closes his eyes, and releases a breath through his nose.
“Welcome to the Ballendial Castle,” the man intones with no visible change in expression. “Please come in.”
We pass into the gloomy vestibule, and the door slams shut behind us, even though the man hadn’t moved at all. If the wardens of the library are trying to freak me out, they definitely succeeded.
We’ve dealt with old European covens before on our jobs, and it’s always a dubious pleasure: they have magical knowledge going back centuries, and sometimes millennia, but they’re so secretive about it that it’s nearly impossible to work with them.
And magical knowledge is exactly what we’re after. The winner of this challenge will gain access to the Ballendial Library for a day. If we win, we’ll be able to search the thousands of magical texts for the rarest, most powerful spells known to witchkind, and we’ll have a full twenty-four hours to get whatever we want from here.
I want it. More than anything in the world. Because of Mom—and the rest of my family.
We only have to stay alive for long enough and figure out what this mysterious challenge is all about.
No big deal.
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