Home > Harley Merlin and the Secret Coven (Harley Merlin #1)(13)

Harley Merlin and the Secret Coven (Harley Merlin #1)(13)
Author: Bella Forrest

The term “otherworldly” came back to mind, and I felt as though I’d left the material plane, sincerely fascinated by the courtyard’s peacefulness.

“Come on,” Wade said, snapping me back to reality.

The living quarters were incredible. I had the feeling of being inside a luxury hotel, with three levels of rooms lining the circular arena and dozens of staircases connecting each floor. Potted magnolia trees stood in the middle, surrounded by black, forged iron benches with wooden backs. Witches and warlocks buzzed around, while several men dressed in black uniforms guarded the ground floor.

“You guys have security here?” I asked, noticing the uniforms’ resemblance to what I’d seen on O’Halloran.

“Not always,” Wade replied. “There’s been a string of, uh, peculiar incidents, and the coven decided to add some extra detail to the more vulnerable areas, just in case.”

“Define ‘peculiar.’”

“Out of the ordinary.”

“Now you’re just pulling my leg,” I said. “Why is this area vulnerable, then?”

“We live here. These are our homes. We sleep here. If anyone were to ever try and attack the coven, this is where they would come first,” Wade replied. “We’re relaxed here. We put our feet up; we close our eyes.”

I nodded slowly. It made sense. If I were a bloodthirsty warlord, I’d definitely go for the tents first—at night, when the soldiers slept. The thought of that level of vulnerability made me uneasy. To be honest, if I were to follow my instincts to the letter, I would’ve ended up in a hole in the ground somewhere, sleeping with my eyes open and a string connecting my toe to a booby trap outside, in case of intruders. I did appreciate the risk in living, sometimes. But the coven was different. There was an antithesis between a feeling of home and a hint of danger, and I couldn’t really put my finger on the latter.

Across the circular hall were floor-to-ceiling windows, three giants made of thick glass and framed in gilded wood. I held my breath as I walked over and realized that I was looking out into the real world. Right before me was Balboa Park, sprawling with its short grass and anemic trees, crude green buds popping all over the branches. The sky above was bright and blue, and people were out there, walking their dogs, watching their kids play, and taking selfies by the fountain—all of them completely unaware that we existed. That we were watching them.

“It’s time for you to meet the director,” Wade said, startling me as he once again stood too close, his breath tickling my ear.

“The… who… what now?” I spun around with a stutter.

He made me nervous. I couldn’t tell why, exactly, but there was something about Wade, that electric feeling I’d felt before. It was rippling through me, and my brain wasn’t sure what it meant. I’d done my best to keep my distance from people, in general, with only a handful of exceptions. My social skills weren’t the greatest, and neither were my reactions to new people stepping into my personal space. Whenever Wade got too close, a shot of adrenaline coursed through me.

I walked back toward the corridor, with him by my side. My gaze wandered around the hall. A young woman, probably my age, with curly black hair and chocolate-brown eyes, stood at the top of the stairs in front of Room 234—only then did I notice the brass numbers on each door.

There was a twinkle of curiosity in her eyes, and her lips stretched into a smirk. She was a bit too far for me to feel her emotions with accuracy, but I could definitely get a whiff of amusement. I had a feeling I was some kind of shiny new toy in this place, because she wasn’t the only one looking at me like that.

Farther down from her was a warlock in his mid-twenties, with short platinum hair and sky-blue eyes, who offered the same facial expression. He leaned against the railing as he smiled at me—but it didn’t feel like a welcoming smile. Just like with O’Halloran, I couldn’t get a good read on his emotions. For the first time in my life, I didn’t like not being able to sense someone’s feelings. It was a first, and it was full of unknowns.

As weird as it had been for me growing up, I’d learned to use my Empath abilities to forge ahead. Knowing how people felt helped me keep my distance and steer clear of trouble. Most of the time, anyway. The platinum-haired guy was cold as ice. A blank wall I couldn’t breach.

“You do want to meet the director of the coven, don’t you?” Wade said, reminding me that he was still there, waiting for me to come along.

I realized that I’d stopped in the middle of the circular hall, staring at the platinum-haired guy. Wade followed my gaze, then raised an eyebrow at me.

“Making friends already?” he asked.

“Surely they’re more fun than you,” I shot back, regaining my composure.

Don’t let them see that you’re worried or scared. Keep your cool.

“Smartass,” Wade said, then walked back into the corridor.

I followed, scowling at the back of his neck and wishing I had laser eyes, so I could burn right through and make him suffer a little.

The director of the coven.

My pulse spiked. I was going to meet the big boss. The big kahuna. The chief wizard in this place.

Would they agree to leave me alone, if that’s what I wanted? I needed my freedom. The coven seemed nice, for the most part, but I didn’t want to be forced into it. I deserved the right to choose.

Chapter Seven

At the end of another hallway was a set of black double doors with heavy brass lion heads for knockers. I felt eyes on me and, as I looked over my shoulder, noticed more witches and warlocks staring. They were all curious about the stranger with bright red hair, even brighter blue eyes, and a leather jacket. Some were wary of my presence, and, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why. I wasn’t there to hurt anyone.

Wade gave me a sideways glance, observing my uncharacteristic silence.

“Don’t take it personally,” he said, looking back at those watching us. “You’re new here. They’ll get used to you. Eventually.”

He gripped one of the large brass rings mounted in the lions’ mouths and knocked it against the black wood. The doors opened with a loud creak, revealing a spacious office. The bottom half of the walls was covered in lacquered dark walnut paneling, while the top half was dressed in an elegant black-and-beige wallpaper, its intricate design catching my eye. Red roses blossomed in crystal vases mounted on decorative wall shelves.

The furniture matched the wall paneling, the shelves loaded with hundreds of voluminous leather-bound books, and the lights were partially dimmed—enough to cast a warm, amber glow over the room. There was a seating area in the middle, consisting of a sofa and two armchairs, and a massive desk at the far end, where a man stood up.

I followed Wade as we walked through the study, my gaze wandering and catching snippets of book titles along the way: The Aberdeen Bestiary, Slavic Folklore and Sorcery, The Chronicles of Salem.

“Harley Smith,” the man standing behind the massive desk said, and smiled.

He was tall and classically handsome. Maybe in his late thirties, at most, he’d stopped trying to control the waves of his short, chocolate-brown hair. His eyes were sharp and emerald green, framed by curved eyebrows against the slim blade of his nose. His masculine features were brought out by the navy-blue suit he’d opted for, matched with a white shirt and dark red tie. The dragon-head cufflinks were impossible to ignore, as was the way he seemed to stare straight into my soul.

In many ways, he reminded me of Wade, though I knew they weren’t related, since Wade would have gladly bragged about it otherwise.

“I take it you’re the big boss?” I raised an eyebrow, preparing for more snark and arrogance. Two Wades were worse than one. And yet, the vibe I got off the guy was noticeably different. He was curious, like most of the witches and warlocks I’d seen earlier, but he was also genuinely excited and downright fascinated by my presence. It was a nice change from the wariness I’d sensed up to that point, not to mention Wade’s heartfelt frustration, which was still echoing through me.

The man smiled and held out his hand. I stepped forward, and, after half a minute of debating whether I should or shouldn’t, I shook his hand—instantly reading his emotions. Direct physical contact had an impressive impact on my Empathic abilities, as I felt what the other person felt at high intensity.

“I’m Alton Waterhouse,” he said, a gentle Southern twang sweetening his speech.

“Well, you know my name already,” I replied bluntly.

He chuckled, then motioned for me to sit in one of the leather chairs facing his desk. I took my seat, then looked up at Wade, who preferred to stand. All the better to look down at me, I guess…

“Thank you for coming, Harley,” Alton said, then sat behind his desk. “I’m sure you have a lot of questions, so I’ll try to cover as much ground in this introduction as possible.”

“I’m all ears,” I muttered, crossing my arms.

He gave me another smile, as if my thorny attitude was somehow adorable. I didn’t like it, but I did have a lot of questions that needed answers.

“I’m the director of the coven, and I’m also in charge of the Fleet Science Center,” Alton explained. “Given our complicated nature, witches and warlocks have reached a certain balance while having to share this world with non-magicals. We live and work like everyone else, but we also carry out our duties as members of this coven. In my case, taking over the board of directors at Fleet Science Center seemed like the perfect way to seamlessly integrate both aspects of my life. A significant number of witches and warlocks work at the Center with me, for that matter.”

“So, what, you herd kids through the museum during the day, and fight evil at night?”

“Not really, no.” Alton chuckled. “We’re not heroes, Harley. We are simply gifted people, and we play our part in this world. I’m sure Wade has already explained the number issue, with regards to why we keep our magical existence a secret from the human world.”

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