In February, Ellora's Cave (www.ellorascave.com) published my erotic paranormal romance LOVE UNLEASHED, in which a modern wizard gets changed into a St. Bernard by a vengeful witch. He finds his way to the heroine, a veterinarian's assistant he'd known slightly in his human life. She takes in the "stray dog," and the fun begins. Here's the opening scene of the novel:
A chill slithered down Stefan’s spine in spite of the sun that shone through the high, narrow windows. The minute Diana invited me here in the middle of the week, I should have run the other way. Candles in sconces on the walls shed their glow over the labyrinth painted onto the polished floor of the below-ground chamber. Noticing the rope of twisted crimson cords she held, he had a feeling he also should have insisted on finishing the conversation upstairs in the living room. Although dressed in cargo shorts and a casual blouse instead of her ceremonial robes, the tall blonde looked imposing enough to intimidate a novice. Which he wasn’t, of course.
Still, he knew he’d been wise to keep Diana at a coolly friendly distance, treating her as a colleague, not a potential lover. And not because she had a few years on him. With her firm, high breasts and ice-queen beauty, she looked so youthful for her mid-forties that he suspected her of enhancing her charms with magic.
He faced her with his arms folded, striking a deliberately arrogant posture. “What happened to ‘Do what thou wilt’?”
“What happened to the ethics of not violating the will of another? I trusted you, Stefan.” She untied one of the nine knots in the rope. A whisper of power ghosted across the bare skin of his forearms.
So that’s what this is all about. He stifled a sigh. “I didn’t do anything against Tanith’s true will.”
“My daughter is too young to know her true will, especially when she’s dealing with an adept like you.”
“Thanks for the compliment. She isn’t a kid, though. She’s over twenty-one. I think she can make her own choices.” He mentally kicked himself for getting involved with the daughter of his coven’s priestess, even briefly. Not that he made a habit of more than brief relationships with any woman. He hadn’t kept his past liaisons a secret from Tanith, so what did either she or her mother have to complain about?
“What you did to her—how do I know choice had anything to do with it?” Diana’s hands shook as she untied the second knot. The late afternoon sunlight momentarily dimmed as if obscured by a thundercloud.
Stefan brushed aside the uneasiness that stirred in him. Indignation replaced his mild annoyance. “I have never used magic to lure a woman into bed. Never.” He tamped down the anger and shrugged. “A little aura of attractiveness to get things going, at most. I didn’t need that with Tanith.”
If human eyes could flash, Diana’s would be shooting sparks. “You’re the priest of her coven. She looked up to you. Of course you had no trouble seducing her.” She moved on to the third knot. Shadows deepened in the corners of the room.
Illusion. She’s trying to spook me. “Seducing? You sound like a Victorian novel. She needed comfort and I happened to be around. It was mutual.” He sighed aloud this time, spreading his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “What are you so worked up about anyway? It’s not like she was a virgin.”
The girl had at least one prior relationship that Stefan knew of. In fact, she’d been going with another man in their circle, one closer to her own age. After she’d had a fight with him, she had accepted Stefan’s shoulder to cry on. When comfort had heated to passion, he hadn’t hesitated. He and Tanith had enjoyed two months together. At least, he’d enjoyed it, he reflected with a reminiscent smile. He hadn’t noticed any indication that she’d felt otherwise.
Diana’s face momentarily contorted with rage. Unclenching her teeth, she smoothed over her expression, though her fingers kept untwisting the cords. “Yes, and thanks to you, Rob won’t have anything to do with her. He was good for her and they would have gotten back together if you hadn’t interfered.”
“Damn it, I’m not responsible for Tanith’s love life. We had a casual thing. That’s perfectly legitimate in the philosophy this coven follows or have you switched the rules and I missed the memo?”
“It’s legitimate between equals. Tanith is twenty-four. You’re thirty-five and far more experienced. She thought you meant something by it. I could have told her different but of course she wouldn’t listen to her mother. Even when her mother is also her priestess.” By now Diana had worked her way up to the sixth knot.
“I never made any kind of commitment. I didn’t lead her astray with false vows like a helpless maiden in a melodrama. Crawling Chaos, next you’ll try to force me to marry her.” He glanced up at the patch of daylight visible through the nearest window. The longer this conversation went on, the more trapped he felt. He hoped Diana would finish her tirade soon so he could escape.
“That’s the last thing I’d want to foist on her. But I’m not about to let you get away with this.” She finished unbinding the seventh knot. Her magic blew past him like a gust of wind.
He ignored it and smirked at her. “Breach of promise lawsuits are out of style too.”
The darkening of Diana’s aura warned him that mocking her was a mistake. “My daughter’s been crying her eyes out over you for the past week. Granted, I think she’s acting like an idiot. You aren’t worth it. You don’t know how to care about anybody. I believe the only creature you’ve loved in the past twenty years was that scruffy cat of yours that died a few months ago.”
He winced inwardly but kept his face carefully neutral. Damned if he’d let Diana guess she’d succeeded in wounding him. One reason he’d stopped hanging out with Tanith was the well-meaning way she kept nagging him to find another cat. She insisted he needed a new pet in order to “get over” Caesar’s death. “Animals don’t lie to you. They don’t make unreasonable demands. They seldom let you down and they’re much more relaxing company than people.”
“Just the kind of thing I’d expect you to say.” The chill in her voice seared him like dry ice. “I’ve watched you jump from one woman to the next like a dog chasing bitches in heat. For a powerful magus, you have a worse case of arrested development than any other man I’ve ever met. But it wasn’t any of my business until now.” The eighth knot came loose.
“I don’t see how it’s your business now, either. It’s between me and your daughter. Why don’t you bring her down here and let her speak for herself?”
“I wouldn’t force her to set foot in the same room with you. You’ve done enough to her already.” Power shimmered around her and an aroma like wood smoke scorched the air. “Did you know she’s pregnant?”
“What? Wait a minute! Surely you don’t think it’s mine?” Impossible, he’d been much too careful.
Diana snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous. I know it’s Rob’s. But it’s his belief that matters. His doubts make things that much worse between him and Tanith.”
Stefan fingered the silver amulet, engraved with a pentacle, that he’d worn since his old mentor had presented it to him upon his initiation. It served as a reservoir for his magic and he felt the need for its occult energy now. “Look, Diana, I’m sorry she misunderstood my intentions. She’ll get over it. Just one of those things everybody goes through sooner or later.” He meant that statement sincerely enough. He’d never wanted to make Tanith miserable. He liked her. He just couldn’t fathom why Diana had to turn the situation into such a big deal. Women!
“So you don’t intend to apologize?”
“For what? Like I said—she’s a big girl. What are you planning to do about it? Put a curse on me?” His smile faded as the mist of power around her coalesced into a thundercloud. Loki and Hermes help me! That’s exactly what she’s going to do!
“You’re going to pay. You will become what you are. You will stay in that form until you learn to care, until you become truly human. So mote it be.” She released the ninth knot then tied the ends of the rope together into a circle. Arcane syllables poured from her mouth.
Powers of Chaos, she had a spell stored in it! Cramps seized his arms and legs. His stomach clenched in agony. His whole body doubled over in painful contortions, while an itch like a thousand fire ants swarmed over his skin. He collapsed onto hands and knees in the middle of the circle. Blinded by a dark cloud that churned before his eyes, he struggled for breath against a weight that crushed his chest. In the midst of the torment, he was dimly aware of his clothes ripping and falling off. Gods, I had no idea she was this powerful! Naked, he clutched the silver disk hanging around his neck. Focusing on it, he groped for the dissipating threads of his own power. Through the confusion howling inside his skull, he realized his only hope was to shape the spell Diana was casting on him.
As the magic ensnared him, he grasped and twisted it. He sensed he had little time left before she completed the curse. What is she trying to do? The next moment, he knew. He felt his nails turn to claws, his teeth and ears lengthen, fur sprout on his skin and something rip from the base of his spine in a final burst of pain. He was becoming a beast, a literal one. Become what you are, she’d commanded. He diverted as much of her power as he could through the channels of his own will. Let me keep my humanity—some of it at least. Don’t let me lose myself. And don’t let her hold me captive. Shield me from her magic. Guide me to a place of refuge. Darkness thickened around him.
When his vision cleared a second later, colors had faded to grays and pastels. Odors, on the other hand, had sharpened to stinging intensity. With no effort he recognized the bayberry fragrance of the candles, the dust under the altar, Diana’s Chanel perfume, the musky aroma of her flesh and the charred scent of her anger. He glanced down and saw his arms transmuted to legs covered with white hair. He opened his jaws to scream and the sound came out as a howl.
Panic flooded him. Diana’s invisible web entangled his limbs. With a surge of terror, he shredded the strands of power and dashed out through the adjoining room to the stairs. Her shriek of rage pursued him. He felt a bolt of magic strike him and dissolve on contact. Good, the shielding worked, he thought in the small corner of his brain that remained rational.
Mindlessly barking, he charged up the steps to the kitchen, redolent of a spicy bean soup simmering on the stove. The tiny human compartment of his mind noted an open window with an exposed screen. Diana’s footsteps clattered up the basement stairs after him, while Tanith’s scurried down from the second floor. As she ran into the kitchen, Stefan heard her yell, “Mother, what have you done now?” He ignored her, pouring all his strength into a leap onto the edge of the sink. His momentum propelled him into the window and knocked the screen out.
He hit the ground with his front legs, rolled onto his side and sprang to his feet. The noise of his own barking made his ears hurt but he couldn’t stop. Fear and the urgency of escape consumed him. Although no longer able to form coherent thoughts, he sensed how important it was to evade the woman who chased him, bristling with magic. He rushed toward the back fence—solid redwood, four feet high. He jumped, snagged his front paws on the top and braced his rear paws on the crossbar halfway up. He scrambled over, dropped onto the ground on the other side and stretched his legs to their top speed.
The shore cut off his escape behind the fence. He circled around the side yard of Diana’s waterfront lot and ran parallel to the street. He needed a refuge, somewhere to hide or someone to shelter him. That place or person called to him, though he had no idea what or who it might be. It drew him like an irresistible scent. The afternoon heat smothered him like the inside of an oven but he didn’t dare slow down. Panting, his lungs aching and his heart pounding, he raced toward that call.