The Bradbury Institute Book Two
At the Bradbury Institute, a private organization dedicated to the study of magic and the occult, adventure and romance are the best benefits – and danger is inescapable.
The Gateway Forest is the home of the institute’s greatest secrets and most important mission. For the Yule festivities, two visitors will arrive through the most active of the Gates, one welcome, one bringing a secret message.
Eve Kane, Bradbury’s newest member, is thrilled to finally learn the truth about the mysterious forest surrounding the institute. Soon she finds herself on the other side of a Gate, a pawn caught in a family feud between two powerful spellcasters.
For the past three years, Bradbury has been a refuge for Pete Cadkin. Now his attraction to Eve offers him a glimpse of a possible future. When his horrific past catches up with him and puts Eve in the crosshairs, he’s forced to confront his worst nightmares and she will make a snap decision with far-reaching consequences.
Under the Never Never’s Long Night Moon, everything will change.
Blood dripped from the bone chandelier, fat drops that pooled and ran in the cracks of the stone floor in a mockery of veins and arteries. Shrieks echoed off the walls, rising to a keening fury. He covered his ears but could not shut his eyes. The carnage before him would not be denied.
“Leoben, what have you done?”
He fell, the stone bruising his knees. There were so many bruises on his body, a few more hardly mattered.
The screaming would not stop. It had to stop. He would make her stop if he had to. Another voice punched through the din.
Unbidden, magic ripped out of him and into the source of the shrieking. Blood splattered his face as the room abruptly fell into silence.
He shivered. “Help me, Agnar.”
Pete Cadkin woke from his nightmare to a persistent buzzing noise. He sat up on the couch and reached for his cell phone on the coffee table. A text message read Below gate flare. Sighing, he tossed the phone back to the table and rubbed his face. They could handle this without him unless something came through, which never happened. It was the Sideways gate they had to worry about in that regard. An energy spike from the Below gate was rare but not unheard of.
He glanced at the TV. The movie had ended while he slept, the screen now black. He shut it off and ambled into the bathroom. Two minutes later he came rushing out as his cell phone rang with a call instead of a text.
“Pete, it’s Maura. Franny told me to call you because they’re all doing their thing with the gate. Eve was out walking MacGuffin when it flared.”
Without a word he dropped the phone and ran, barely taking the time to shove his feet into the boots by the door.
In her few months at the Bradbury Institute, Eve Kane had devoted much of her time working with her psychometry ability, getting better at both reading and shielding. A by-product of all that work seemed to be an overall increased sensitivity to psychic energy. She wasn’t sure exactly what she was feeling as she stood in the snow clutching the Yorkie’s leash, but it was definitely powerful and scary. MacGuffin didn’t like it either. He stood poised at the edge of his leash, his tiny body quivering as he growled, one foot off the ground.
“Is it that way, Mac?” She peered into the dark night in the direction he was facing. Her small flashlight wasn’t enough to reveal anything. The woods seemed shrouded in an unnatural darkness. Voices reached her, oddly amplified in the forest. She recognized Chet’s voice but couldn’t make out the words.
MacGuffin barked, ran around in a circle then hid behind her. She picked him up, tucking him under her arm and inside her coat as much as possible. He wore a little doggie sweater but she suspected it was more than the cold that made him shiver.
Eve considered returning to the warmth and safety of the institute, but she really wanted to know what was going on out there. She half-turned, still mentally talking herself into going back inside, when a flash of light caught her eye. Something was on fire deeper in the forest.
Eve made sure she had a good grip on the little dog then took off in a quick walk toward the fire. The snow was several inches deep and made for rough going. The closer she got to the fire the stronger the uneasy feeling became, as if something nasty was trying to bubble up below the surface of the calm winter night.
She reached a clearing. At the center of it was a sight that made her hold back at the edge of the tree line. Chet, Franny, Judith, and Rami stood in a circle, hands linked, chanting. The sound rose and fell in an odd rhythm. Inside the circle floated a four foot cone of fire.
MacGuffin tried to wedge himself deeper into the safety of her arm and coat. Really, she couldn’t blame him. This was by far the freakiest thing she’d seen at Bradbury yet.
Another energy signature announced itself on her radar, cool as the winter night with a hint of wildness at the edges. She turned to see Pete approaching, his mouth in a tight line, eyes narrowed. She took a deep breath, steeling herself for his attitude.
He bit out in a harsh whisper, “What the hell are you doing out here?”
“Walking MacGuffin.” She hoisted the little dog, then pointed at the strange tableau in the clearing. “What’s going on there?”
Of course he didn’t answer. Grabbing her hand that held the flashlight he said, “Back inside. Now.”
Eve yanked free of his grasp. “You’re not my boss, you don’t tell me what to do.”
He stepped closer, too close, invading her personal space. Flickering light and black shadows played across his face, giving him an otherworldly look that sent shivers down her spine. “I am the head of security for this institute,” he said. “Which means I’m in charge of your safety.” He moved closer still and lowered his voice to a menacing growl. “If you want to stay safe, you will do as I say.”
If she hadn’t been carrying Mac she would have considered making an issue of his tone. There was no need for him to act like this, but he didn’t seem to know how to behave otherwise with her. The dog was shaking and needed to be taken inside so she acquiesced, walking back the way she came. She paused at the spot where she’d first felt the change in the air, shining the light across the ground.
“What are you doing? Move it.”
“Looking for this.” She knelt to pick up a small blue bag with the end tied. “Here, you carry it.” She flung it at him.
“The dog’s poop bag?” He held it by the tied end, lip curling in disgust. “Nice.”
Eve marched toward the institute. “I would say fitting.”
If he wanted to treat her like crap, she would return the favor.
Once they returned to the Oracle, the institute’s cozy dining room, Eve got MacGuffin settled in front of the fireplace on a pillow with a rawhide chew and his favorite toy. Maura brought steaming cups of butternut squash soup and a plate of crackers, leaving everything on a table halfway between Eve and Pete. Pete stayed in his chair. Just looking at him made Eve shiver. He wore only a t-shirt and jeans, no coat to protect against the winter night, and the laces of his boots weren’t tied. He must have been in quite a rush to keep her from learning anything about the forest.
That was her own frustration talking, though. Eve still knew nothing about the deep woods that surrounded Bradbury or why it was off limits. Off limits to her, the others didn’t seem to have the same restriction. It was the only thing about working at the institute that she had a problem with. Well, that and Mr. Bad Attitude.
Pete leaned over to tie his boots, muscles flexing under the tight t-shirt. Eve lost track of her thoughts for a moment as she watched his flesh strain against the thin material. The sleeves barely contained his biceps. He sat up too fast and caught her looking. Scowling, he broke eye contact as fast as he made it. Eve moved her gaze to the fireplace, determined not to give away how embarrassed she was at being caught looking at him.
He’d never been exactly warm to her, but after a drunken make-out session in the forest one night, he’d been downright cold. He avoided her as much as possible, did his best to never be alone with her. If she really believed he wasn’t attracted to her, she would have had no problem discounting him as a jerk and forgetting him. Or at least relegating him to “colleague-only” status. After all, they both worked at the institute and it was a small place.
But it was hard to ignore the times she caught him looking at her, his face unreadable but his eyes a storm. And it was impossible to forget the way he’d kissed her, no matter how much she wanted to. There was definitely something between them. She just wasn’t sure if it was worth the effort of chipping away at the walls he’d built around himself.
Determined to break through his rudeness or at least annoy him, Eve rose and walked to the table with the food. She managed to balance everything so she could carry it all to his table in one trip. Setting one bowl in front of him and the plate in the center, she sat and tasted the soup. Finding it as delicious as everything else Maura cooked, she tucked in with gusto.
Pete said nothing, didn’t make a move. Just watched her with his usual squint.
“You should eat before it gets cold,” she said.
He picked up a spoon and began to eat. They finished in silence, avoiding each other’s gaze. When he finally spoke it was the last thing she expected him to say. “Do you celebrate Christmas?”
“That depends. You planning on getting me a present?”
Pete paused with his mouth slightly open, his twilight blue eyes silvering briefly. “If you’re going home for Christmas or whatever holiday you celebrate, we’ll have to figure out some security arrangements for you.”
Eve frowned. A few months ago she’d been kidnapped and threatened while trying to retrieve The Key of Darkness, a dangerous grimoire, for the institute. She’d inadvertently used her psychometry to read an enchanted ring that belonged to a henchman named Crantz, allowing her to partially see the face of the man they believed to be the leader of another occult organization. The trouble was, he’d seen her face too and had a much better description thanks to his henchman. “I don’t see how there’s anything to be worried about. It’s not like I saw that man well enough for someone to draw him.”
“They don’t know that.”
“I mean, blue eyes. That’s about all I can really be sure of.” She gestured at him. “You have blue eyes. Does that mean it’s you? Of course not. Lots of people have blue eyes.”
“Are you planning on going home for the holidays?” His voice was tight with impatience.
“Your eyes are different from his. Darker. Not so cold. Not that you’re exactly Mr. Warmth.” She snickered.
“No, I’m Mr. Bad Attitude.” There was a huskiness to his tone that brought her up short, stilling the laughter on her lips.
“Um, ah.” Real eloquent, Evie. Good job.
“So are you going or staying?” He scratched at the stubble on his chin.
Eve wondered if he was growing a beard, just being lazy about shaving, or if he’d secretly read her mind and knew how freaking sexy she thought he looked with scruff and was trying to torture her.
She pulled her cardigan tighter and crossed her arms over her torso. “I think I’ll stay if that’s okay.”
Pete leaned back in the chair. “It’d be better if you didn’t.”
“A second ago it sounded like it would be more work if I went home.” Not that she had any desire to do that. “What’s the deal?”
For the briefest of seconds he looked ashen. “If you’re here for Midwinter you’ll have to be told about the forest. So it would be better if you went home.”
“Well, I don’t want to go home. I’m not close with my family.” She hated to admit that so she did her best to downplay it. “And it’s about time I was told about the forest.”
“There are people here who don’t know the whole truth of it. All you really need to know is to stay out.”
Eve didn’t feel like arguing, especially with Pete. It seemed like he could argue for hours, like he got some perverse pleasure from being contrary. Maybe teasing him would yield better results. “You’re just trying to cheap out and not get me a present.”
“You wanna play Secret Santa with me you’ll have to promise I’m gonna get better than a bag of dog shit.” His face lit with a grin, quickly chased away by his usual closed expression.
“I bet I could give you something that would make you very happy.” She didn’t even consider there might be more than one way to interpret that until he spoke.
“Yeah, I bet you could.” A faint blush stained his cheeks, the corners of his mouth tipped up.
Her stomach dropped to the floor, threatening to take her sense of propriety with it. She was saved from having to respond, or possibly embarrassing herself, when Chet entered the Oracle.
Pete said, “Everything okay?”
Chet looked from Pete to Eve and back. “Yeah. Everything okay here?”
“No,” Pete said as he rose. “She’s planning to stay here during the holidays.”
Eve rolled her eyes and shook her head, feeling juvenile but not stopping herself. “One of these days you’re going to slip up and be nice to me, Cadkin.”
“Won’t that be a red letter day, Kane.” Pete said good night to Chet and left.
Chet dropped into the chair Pete had just vacated. His black hair stood on end even more so than usual, making him look like an anime character. He pulled the plate of crackers close and ate one before speaking. “We’re going to have to talk about the forest.”
Eve leaned forward, drumming her hands on the table. “Yes!”
He crunched another cracker. “Tomorrow morning, my office. Consider your security clearance upgraded.”
“I have a security clearance?” She grinned.
“Don’t get too excited. It just means you get access to more of the books.” He stood, taking a handful of crackers. “Franny went home. I’ll walk you and MacGuffin back.”
The secrets of the forest finally revealed – Eve couldn’t wait.