Home > Harley Merlin and the Secret Coven (Harley Merlin #1)

Harley Merlin and the Secret Coven (Harley Merlin #1)
Author: Bella Forrest

Prologue

I froze, my back against the window, my whole body shivering as the beast in front of me shuddered with delight.

Another second and I would become its dinner.

Something inside me roared like thunder, unwilling to give in yet. The air around me thickened—I could feel it tickling my fingertips, beckoning me to wield it. I’d done it before, though not with the strength I would need to disable a fiend as savage as this.

But I had to try. There was no other choice.

I summoned all the energy I could muster, and, for the first time ever, I sensed the particles of Chaos flowing through me. My mind went into overdrive, and I thrust my hands out. The winds outside listened, rumbling and whistling as they crashed through the window.

I ducked as broken glass exploded everywhere. Shards cut through the beast’s face and eyes, and it hissed from the pain.

With no other route to safety, I embraced the winds and leapt onto the windowsill. My breath hitched as I looked down at the sheer drop, and then I closed my eyes, abandoning myself to the air.

Chapter One

My eyes wandered around the poker table.

The dealer, a young man in his early twenties, had been fitted into a crisp white shirt and black silk waistcoat, his brown hair slicked back with too much gel. His dexterity as he shuffled the deck made me stare, before I went on to check the players.

Two women and three men. Three of them had skipped on the Gamblers Anonymous meetings—I could tell from their frayed nerves and shoulder-crushing guilt. It was written all over their faces. The other two, a man in his late twenties and a cute brunette who didn’t look a day older than twenty-three, struck me as the coolest cucumbers I’d seen all evening.

This was a steady gig I’d gotten my hands on, so I had to do a good job. Three months in, and I’d already gotten fifteen people banned for cheating and counting cards. It wasn’t an easy profession, though—for most people, anyway. It required a lot of psychology and the study of body language, along with excellent knowledge of the game itself. You had higher chances of success if you were a former cheater, preferably with some Vegas experience. But I had very little experience at all.

Then again, I wasn’t “most people.”

After betting, it was time for the “flop.” The dealer displayed three cards in the middle of the dark red velvet table—seven of clubs, queen of diamonds, and a five of spades—while we checked our “hole” hands again. I had nothing to use, but I bet anyway. The casino supplied my betting cash, so it didn’t matter if I lost. My prize came in the form of a generous percentage of the cheaters’ relinquished winnings if I caught colluders at the table, along with my hourly rate.

Texas Hold’em was a favorite game choice for collusion, and with the amount of money involved in tonight’s game, I knew I’d get some bold players this evening.

My instincts were pointing me to the “cucumber” couple. The other three were already sweating. One was clearly a veteran gambler, at least compared to the rest. With graying hair, salt-and-pepper stubble, and sweat stains on his peach-colored shirt, the man was nervously clicking two blue chips between his fingers as he stared at the three cards in view. He was going to fold soon.

I could feel it in my bones. There was nothing he could do with what he had in his hand, and what was on the table. With five crappy cards combined, and just two more to go with the “turn” and the “river,” he wasn’t feeling this round, at all. Sure, he had the gambling bug, but he’d probably lost enough over the years to know when to pick his battles.

He scoffed, and folded.

Hah, called it! Who’s a smart girl? You’re a smart girl, I mentally congratulated myself while my gaze wandered around the table. I was a smart girl. It was the only thing I’d learned from my father.

I flipped open my black satin clutch—which I’d matched with my dress—pretending to look for a tissue. I kept a small note in my card wallet. I pulled it out and examined it for a moment.

Harley, I am so sorry for doing this to you, but there is no other way. Stay safe. Stay smart. I love you. Dad.

That note was the only thing my parents had left me with, before dropping me off at the orphanage when I was three. I was bounced around from one foster home to another after that. It was rarely a pretty picture, and my father’s advice somehow helped me retain my sanity. Even now, as I glided into adulthood, I kept looking at that note for guidance, whenever a part of me wavered. As a foster kid, I always had to “stay safe” and “stay smart,” though the two rarely went hand in hand.

When the turn was dealt, I glanced around the poker table again.

Each of these people had their stories to tell. They had first names and last names, parents and grandparents, uncles and distant cousins, social security numbers and student loans. In my twisted view of the world, they existed, while I was just a visitor of sorts. Always on the outside, looking in.

I had no identity. Just a name on paper. I rented an apartment in Park West and pinpointed cheaters in casinos for a living. Nobody knew anything about me or my… special skills, and I was okay with that.

“I’ll raise you twenty,” the male cool cucumber said, looking at the equally chilled female across the table.

In the eyes of everyone else, they didn’t know each other. They were complete strangers exchanging pleasantries during a game of Texas Hold’em, where tens of thousands of dollars were at stake. But I could feel the physical attraction between them. The guy was head over heels in love with her. She was just as crazy about him. There was a familiarity between them, an intense emotion that they couldn’t hide from me. That was the downside of being an empath; I felt every emotion as if it were my own.

I basically had the hots for both of them, as if we’d been together for years. Ugh…

When the river was dealt, I could almost hear the guy’s heart thumping out of his chest. His excitement filled me to the brim, and, judging by the looks the couple exchanged briefly, unbeknownst to anyone else, they were ready to do some good old-fashioned whipsawing—raising and re-raising each other until they trapped another player in between.

And I knew exactly who their target was for this round. The other female, one of the compulsive gamblers. She was nervous, her eyes darting across the five cards now shown on the table: a seven of clubs, a queen of diamonds, a five of clubs, a jack of clubs and another queen, of hearts.

My hand was weak. All I could offer was a pair of fives. I folded, clicking my teeth.

“Maybe next time.” I smirked, then leaned back in my seat.

As expected, the cucumbers started teasing each other.

“I’m thinking it’s a good night,” the guy said, then tossed a few red chips on the pile gathering in the middle of the table. “Thirty.”

“Your overconfidence could be your weakness,” the girl said, grinning, and raised him another thirty, her tongue passing over her pearly white teeth. The tight, jade-colored dress she wore was meant to arouse, and based on what I was reading from the guy, she was getting the desired results.

I shifted in my chair, slightly uncomfortable with feeling someone else’s arousal, but stayed focused nonetheless. The girl’s outfit looked expensive. They weren’t here to play for pennies.

“I’m in,” the female gambler replied, tossing her own share of chips, worth thirty thousand dollars, while the fourth player folded, shaking his head.

The cucumbers seemed to ignore the woman, and continued taunting each other, while the dealer watched, amusement twinkling in his eyes.

“Raise you another thirty,” cucumber girl said, grinning, as the guy bit the inside of his cheek and added more chips to the pile.

“You’re bluffing,” he replied. “Thirty.”

The female compulsive gambler frowned, but the energy coming from her echoed confidence. She felt like she had a good hand. A really good hand. My guess was that it had something to do with the queens. She raised them another thirty, then narrowed her eyes at her own cards.

“I’m not bluffing,” the girl said. She raised an eyebrow and pushed forty thousand dollars’ worth of chips forward. “Raise.”

The guy scoffed, scratching the back of his neck as he contemplated his choices for a couple of seconds. The female gambler, on the other hand, had quickly sunk into despair. I realized then that maybe her hand wasn’t all that good. If I wanted to confirm collusion between the cucumbers, I needed the lady to fold so I could then watch the guy fold as well, and let the girl win. It seemed like the natural way for it to play out at that point.

“Okay, now I’m pissed,” the guy said, and raised her another twenty.

The female gambler cursed under her breath and folded, nervously counting the chips she had left, while the cucumbers pretended to glower at each other. It was getting a little too dramatic for my taste. Even a non-empath could tell they were slightly over the top.

“All in,” the girl challenged the guy, and pushed the rest of her chips into the middle, prompting the others to stare at her in disbelief.

The pot was somewhere over $350,000, and it was time for the guy to shake his head in disappointment, then fold. My fingers gripped the edge of the table, my nerves anticipating the moment I’d get my proof of collusion. I knew they were hot for each other in ways no two people meeting for the first time would ever be.

He tossed the cards, facedown, feigning irritation as he gulped down his drink, then motioned for a waiter to bring him another one.

Bingo!

Once they got away with this, they were going to get more brazen. I wanted them to dig themselves into a hole as deep as possible. The bigger their winnings at the end of the night, the bigger my prize.

I straightened my back as the dealer collected the cards and shuffled them, while the girl raked the mountain of chips over to her side of the table. She stacked them quickly into groups of $20,000, between sips of her fruity drink.

Personally, I looked forward to watching that smirk get wiped off at the end of the night.

It was time to get security to pay attention. I fiddled with my onyx earring, giving the head of security a brief sideways glance. Malcolm the bouncer stood at the end of the bar, ten yards away, pretending to chat with the bartender. He noticed my signal and discreetly brought a hand over his mouth, communicating a message through the tiny mic mounted into one of his cufflinks.

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