A Fistful of Charms
The solid thud of David’s car door shutting echoed off the stone face of the eight-story building we had parked beside. Leaning against the gray sports car, I shaded my eyes and squinted up at its aged and architecturally beautiful columns and fluted sills. The uppermost floor was golden in the setting sun, but here at street level we were in a chill shadow. Cincinnati had a handful of such landmark buildings, most abandoned, as this one appeared to be.
“Are you sure this is the place?” I asked, then dragged the flat of my arms off the roof of his car. The river was close; I could smell the oil and gas mix of boats. The top floor probably had a view. Though the streets were clean, the area was clearly depressed. But with a little attention—and a lot of money—I could see it as one of the city’s newest residential hot spots.
David set his worn leather briefcase down and reached into the inner pocket of his suit coat. Pulling out a sheaf of papers, he flipped to the back, then glanced at the distant corner and the street sign. “Yes,” he said, his soft voice tense but not worried.
Tugging my little red leather jacket down, I hiked my bag higher on my shoulder and headed to his side of the car, heels clunking. I’d like to say I was wearing my butt-kicking boots in deference to this being a run, but in reality I just liked them. They went well with the blue jeans and black T-shirt I had on; and with the matching cap, I looked and felt sassy.
David frowned at the chunking—or my choice of attire, maybe—steeling his features to bland acceptance when he saw me quietly laughing at him. He was in his respectable work clothes, somehow pulling off the mix of the three-piece suit and his shoulder-length, wavy black hair held back in a subdued clip. I’d seen him a couple of times in running tights that showed off his excellently maintained, mid-thirties physique—yum—and a full-length duster and cowboy hat—Van Helsing, eat your heart out—but his somewhat small stature lost none of its presence when he dressed like the insurance claims adjuster he was. David was kind of complex for a Were.
I hesitated when I came even with him, and together we eyed the building. Three streets over I could hear the shush of traffic, but here, nothing moved. “It’s really quiet,” I said, holding my elbows against the chill of the mid-May evening.
Brown eyes pinched, David ran a hand over his clean-shaven cheeks. “It’s the right address, Rachel,” he said, peering at the top floor. “I can call to check if you want.”
“No, this is cool.” I smiled with my lips closed, hefting my shoulder bag and feeling the extra weight of my splat gun. This was David’s run, not mine, and about as benign as you could get—adjusting the claim of an earth witch whose wall had cracked. I wouldn’t need the sleepy-time charms I loaded my modified paint ball gun with, but I just grabbed my bag when David asked me to come with him. It was still packed from my last run—storming the back room of an illegal spammer. God, plugging him had been satisfying.
David pushed into motion, gallantly gesturing me to go first. He was older than I by about ten years, but it was hard to tell unless you looked at his eyes. “She’s probably living in one of those new flats they’re making above old ware-houses,” he said, heading for the ornate stoop.
I snickered, and David looked at me.
“What?” he said, dark eyebrows rising.
I entered the building before him, shoving the door so he could follow tight on my heels. “I was thinking if you lived in one, it would still be a warehouse. Were house? Get it?”
He sighed, and I frowned. Jenks, my old backup, would have laughed. Guilt hit me, and my pace faltered. Jenks was currently AWOL, hiding out in some Were’s basement after I’d majorly screwed up by not trusting him, but with spring here, I could step up my efforts to apologize and get him to return.
The front lobby was spacious, full of gray marble and little else. My heels sounded loud in the tall-ceilinged space. Creeped out, I stopped chunking and started walking to minimize the noise. A pair of black-edged elevators were across the lobby, and we headed for them. David pushed the up button and rocked back.
I eyed him, the corners of my lips quirking. Though he was trying to hide it, I could see he was getting excited about his run. Being a field insurance adjustor wasn’t the desk job one might think it was. Most of his company’s clients were Inderlanders—witches, Weres, and the occasional vampire—and as such, getting the truth as to why a client’s car was totaled was harder than it sounded. Was it from the teenage son backing it into the garage wall, or did the witch down the street finally get tired of hearing him beep every time he left the drive? One was covered, the other wasn’t, and sometimes it took, ah, creative interviewing techniques to get the truth.
David noticed I was smiling at him, and the rims of his ears went red under his dark complexion. “I appreciate you coming with me,” he said, shifting forward as the elevator dinged and the doors opened. “I owe you dinner, okay?”
“No problem.” I joined him in the murky, mirrored lift, and watched my reflection in the amber light as the doors closed. I’d had to move an interview for a possible client, but David had helped me in the past, and that was far more important.
The trim Were winced. “The last time I adjusted the claim of an earth witch, I later found she had scammed the company. My ignorance cost them hundreds of thousands. I appreciate you giving me your opinion as to whether she caused the damage with a misuse of magic.”
I tucked a loosely curling lock of red hair that had escaped my French braid behind an ear, then adjusted my leather cap. The lift was old and slow. “Like I said, no problem.”
David watched the numbers counting up. “I think my boss is trying to get me fired,” he said softly. “This is the third claim this week to hit my desk that I’m not familiar with.” His grip on his briefcase shifted. “He’s waiting for me to make a mistake. Pushing for it.”
I leaned against the back mirror and smiled weakly at him. “Sorry. I know how that feels.” I had quit my old job at Inderland Security, the I.S., almost a year ago to go independent. Though it had been rough—and still was, occasionally—it was the best decision I’d ever made.
“Still,” he persisted, the not unpleasant scent of musk growing as he turned to me in the confined space. “This isn’t your job. I owe you.”
“David, let it go,” I said, exasperated. “I’m happy to come out here and make sure some witch isn’t scamming you. It’s no big deal. I do this stuff every day. In the dark. Usually alone. And if I’m lucky, it involves running, and screaming, and my foot in somebody’s gut.”
The Were smiled to show his flat, blocky teeth. “You like your job, don’t you?”
I smiled right back. “You bet I do.”
The floor lurched, and the doors opened. David waited for me to exit first, and I looked out onto the huge, building-sized room on the top floor. The setting sun streamed in the ceiling-to-floor windows, shining on the scattered construction materials. Past the windows, the Ohio River made a gray sheen. When finished, this would be an excellent apartment. My nose tickled at the scent of two-by-fours and sanded plaster, and I sneezed.
David’s eyes went everywhere. “Hello? Mrs. Bryant?” he said, his deep voice echoing. “I’m David. David Hue from Were Insurance. I brought an assistant with me.” He gave my tight jeans, T-shirt, and red leather jacket a disparaging look. “Mrs. Bryant?”
I followed him farther in, my nose wrinkling. “I think the crack in her wall might be from removing some of those supporting members,” I said softly. “Like I said, no problem.”
“Mrs. Bryant?” David called again.
My thoughts went to the empty street and how far we were from the casual observer. Behind me, the elevator doors slid shut and the lift descended. A small scuff from the far end of the room sent a stab of adrenaline through me, and I spun.
David was on edge too, and together we laughed at ourselves when a slight figure rose from the couch set adjacent to a modern kitchen at the end of the long room, the cupboards still wrapped in plastic.
“Mrs. Bryant? I’m David Hue.”
“As prompt as your last yearly review claims,” a masculine voice said, the soft resonances sifting through the darkening air. “And very thoughtful to bring a witch with you to check your customer’s claim with. Tell me, do you take that off your end-of-the-year taxes, or do you claim it as a business expense?”
David’s eyes were wide. “It’s a business expense, sir.”
I looked from David to the man. “Ah, David? I take it that’s not Mrs. Bryant.”
His grip on his briefcase shifting, David shook his head. “I think it’s the president of the company.”
“Oh.” I thought about that. Then thought about that some more. I was getting a bad feeling about this. “David?”
He put a hand on my shoulder and leaned in. “I think you should leave,” he said, the worry in his brown eyes running right to my core.
Recalling what he’d said in the elevator about his boss gunning for him, my pulse quickened. “David, if you’re in trouble, I’m not leaving,” I said, boots thumping as he hustled me to the lift.
His face was grim. “I can handle this.”
I tried to twist from his grip. “Then I’ll stay and help you to the car when it’s over.”
He glanced at me. “I don’t think so, Rachel. But thanks.”
The elevator opened. Still protesting, I was ill prepared when David jerked me back. My head came up and my face went cold. Crap. The lift was full of Weres in various levels of elegance, ranging from Armani suits and sophisticated skirt and top combos to jeans and blouses. Even worse, they all had the collected, confident pride of alpha wolves. And they were smiling.
Shit. David had a big problem.
“Please tell me it’s your birthday,” I said, “and this is a surprise party.”
A young Were in a bright red dress was the last to step from the elevator. Tossing her thick length of black hair, she gave me a once-over. Though sure of herself, I could tell by her stance that at least, she wasn’t an alpha bitch. This was getting weird. Alphas never got together. They just didn’t. Especially without their respective packs behind them.
“It’s not his birthday,” the woman said cattily. “But I imagine he’s surprised.”
David’s grip on my arm twitched. “Hello, Karen,” he said caustically.
My skin crawled and my muscles tightened as the Weres ringed us. I thought of the splat gun in my bag, then felt for a ley line, but didn’t tap it. David couldn’t pay me to leave now. This looked like a lynching.
“Hi, David,” the woman in red said, satisfaction clear in both her voice and in her stance behind the alpha males. “You can’t imagine how overjoyed I was to find you had started a pack.”
David’s boss was now there too, and with quick and confident steps he moved between us and the elevator. The tension in the room ratcheted up a notch, and Karen slinked behind him.
I hadn’t known David long, but I’d never seen this mix of anger, pride, and annoyance on him before. There was no fear. David was a loner, and as such, the personal power of an alpha held little sway over him. But there were eight of them, and one was his boss.
“This doesn’t involve her, sir,” David said with a respectful anger. “Let her leave.”
David’s boss lifted an eyebrow. “Actually, this has nothing to do with you.”
My breath caught. Okay, maybe I was the one with the problem.
“Thank you for coming, David. Your presence is no longer needed,” the polished Were said. Turning to the others, he added, “Get him out of here.”
I took a heaving lungful of air. With my second sight, I reached for a ley line, latching onto the one that ran under the university. My concentration shattered when two men grabbed my arms. “Hey!” I shouted as one ripped my shoulder bag off and sent it spinning to land against a stack of lumber. “Let go of me!” I demanded, unable to twist easily from their twin grips.
David grunted in pain, and when I stomped on someone’s foot, they shoved me down. Plaster dust puffed up, choking me. My breath whooshed out as someone sat on me. My hands were pulled behind my back, and I went still. “Ow,” I complained. Blowing a red curl from my face, I gave another squirm. Crap, David was being dragged into the elevator.
He was still fighting them. Red-faced and wrathful, his fists lashed out, making ugly sounding thumps when he scored. He could have Wered to fight more viciously, but there was a five-minute downtime when he would be helpless.
“Get him out of here!” David’s boss shouted impatiently, and the doors shut. There was a clunk as something hit the inside of the elevator, and then the machinery started to lower the lift. I heard a shout and the sounds of a fight that slowly grew muffled.
Fear slid through me, and I gave another wiggle. David’s boss turned his gaze to me. “Strap her,” he said lightly.
My breath hissed in. Frantic, I reached for the ley line again, tapping it with a splinter of thought. Ever-after energy flowed through me, filling my chi and then the secondary spindle I could keep in my head. Pain struck through me when someone wrenched my right arm too far back. The cool plastic of a zip-strip was jammed over one wrist, snugged tight with a quick pull and a familiar ratcheting sound to leave the end dangling. My face went cold as every last erg of ever-after washed out of me. The bitter taste of dandelions was on my lips. Stupid, stupid witch!
“Son of a bitch!” I shouted, and the Weres sitting on me fell away.
I staggered to my feet and tried to wedge the flexible plastic-wrapped band off me, failing. Its core was charmed silver, like in my long-gone I.S. issue cuffs. I couldn’t tap a line. I couldn’t do anything. I seldom used my new ley line skills in defense, and I hadn’t been thinking of how easy they could be nullified.
Utterly bereft of my magic, I stood in the last of the amber light coming in the tall windows. I was alone with a pack of alphas. My thoughts zinged to Mr. Ray’s pack and the wishing fish I had accidentally stolen from him, and then me making the owners of the Howlers baseball team pay for my time doing it. Oh…crap. I had to get out of there.
David’s boss shifted his weight to his other foot. The sun spilled over him to glint on the dust on his dress shoes. “Ms. Morgan, isn’t it?” he asked companionably.
I nodded, wiping my palms off on my jeans. Plaster dust clung to me, and I only made things worse. I never took my eyes from him, knowing it was a blatant show of dominance. I had dealt a little with Weres, and none of them but David seemed to like me. I didn’t know why.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said, coming closer and pulling a pair of metal-rimmed glasses from an inner pocket of his suit coat. “I’m David’s boss. You can call me Mr. Finley.”
Perching the glasses on his narrow nose, he took the stapled papers that Karen smugly handed him. “Forgive me if I’m a little slow,” he said, peering at them. “My secretary usually does this.” He looked over the papers at me, pen clicking open. “Your pack number is what?”
“Huh?” I said intelligently, then stiffened as the ring of Weres seemed to close in. Karen snickered, and my face warmed.
Mr. Finley’s slight wrinkles bunched as he frowned. “You’re David’s alpha. Karen is challenging you for your place. There is paperwork. What is your pack number?”
My mouth dropped open. This wasn’t about the Rays or the Howlers. I was the sole member of David’s pack, yeah. But it was just a paper relationship, one designed so I could get my overly inflated insurance cheap, cheap, cheap, and David could keep his job and buck the system to continue working alone and without a partner. He didn’t want a real pack, being a confirmed loner and good at it, but it was nearly impossible to fire an alpha, which was why he had asked me to start a pack with him.
My gaze darted to Karen, smiling like the queen of the Nile, as dark and exotic as an Egyptian whore. She wanted to challenge me for my position?
“Oh, hell no!” I said, and Karen snorted, thinking I was afraid. “I’m not fighting her! David doesn’t want a real pack!”
“Obviously,” Karen scorned. “I claim ascension. Before eight packs, I claim it.”
There weren’t eight alphas there anymore, but I thought the five that were left were more than enough to force the issue.
Mr. Finley let the hand holding the sheet of papers fall. “Does anyone have a catalog? She doesn’t know her pack number.”
“I do,” sang out a woman, swinging her purse around and digging to bring out what looked like a small address book. “New edition,” she added, and thumbed it open.
“This is nothing personal,” Mr. Finley said. “Your alpha has become the topic of interest at the water cooler, and this is the simplest way to get David back on track and end the disturbing rumors that have been reaching me. I have invited the principal shareholders in the company as witnesses.” He smiled without warmth. “This will be legally binding.”
“This is crap!” I said nastily, and the surrounding Weres either chuckled or gasped at my temerity to swear at him. Lips pressed tight, I glanced at my bag and the splat gun halfway across the room. My hand touched the small of my back, looking for my nonexistent cuffs, long gone with my I.S. paycheck. God, I missed my cuffs.
“Here it is,” the woman said, her head lowered. “Rachel Morgan. O-C(H) 93AF.”
“You registered in Cincinnati?” David’s boss asked idly, writing it down. Folding the pages over, he fixed on my eyes. “David isn’t the first to start a pack with someone not of, ah, Were descent,” he finally said. “But he is the first in this company to do so with the sole intent to save his job. This is not a good trend.”
“Challenger’s choice,” Karen said, reaching for the tie to her dress. “I choose to Were first.”
David’s boss clicked the pen shut. “Then let’s get started.”
Someone grabbed my arms, and I froze for three heartbeats. Challenger’s choice, my grandmother’s ass. I had five minutes to subdue her while she Wered, or I was going to lose this.
I silently twisted, going down and rolling. There were several shouts when I knocked the feet out from whoever held me. Then my breath was crushed out of my lungs as someone else fell on me. Adrenaline surged painfully. Someone pinned my legs. Another pushed my head into the plaster-dust-covered plywood.
They won’t kill me, I told myself as I spit the hair out of my mouth and tried to get a decent breath. This is some asinine Were dominance thing, and they won’t kill me.
That’s what I was telling myself, but it was hard to convince my trembling muscles.
A low snarl far deeper than it ought to have been rumbled thorough the empty top floor, and the three men holding me let me up.
What in hell? I thought as I scrambled to my feet, then stared. Karen had Wered. She had Wered in thirty seconds flat!
“How…” I stammered, not believing it.
Karen made one hell of a wolf. As a person she was petite, maybe 110 pounds. But turn that same 110 pounds into snarling animal, and you get a wolf the size of a pony. Damn.
A steady growl of discontent came from her, lips curling from her muzzle in a warning older than dirt. Silky fur reminiscent of her black hair covered her except for her ears, which were rimmed in white. Beyond the circle were her clothes, discarded into a pile on the plywood floor. The faces ringing me were solemn. It wasn’t a street brawl but a serious affair that would be as binding as a legal document.
Around me, the Weres were backing up, enlarging the circle. Double damn.
Mr. Finley smiled knowingly at me, and my gaze darted from him to the surrounding alphas in their nice clothes and five-hundred-dollar shoes. My heart hammered, and I figured it out. I was in deep shit. They had bound themselves into a round.
Frightened, I eased into a fighting stance. When Weres bound themselves together outside their usual packs, weird stuff happened. I’d seen this once before at a Howlers’ game when several alphas had united to support an injured player, taking on the player’s pain so he could go on to win the game. Illegal, but wickedly hard to prove since picking out the alphas responsible in a huge stadium was next to impossible. The effect was temporary since Weres, especially alphas, couldn’t seem to work under anyone’s direction for long. But they would be able to hold it together long enough for Karen to hurt me really, really bad.
I settled my feet more firmly in their boots, feeling my fists begin to sweat. This wasn’t fair, damn it! They took my magic away, so the only thing I could do would be to try to beat her off, but she wasn’t going to feel a thing! I was toast. I was dog chow. I was going to be really sore in the morning. But I wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
Karen’s ears went back. It was the only warning I got.
Instinct overpowered training, and I backpedaled as she lunged. Teeth snapping where my face would have been, we went down, her paws on my chest. The floor slammed into me, and I grunted. Hot dog breath hit my face, and I kneed her, trying to knock her breath away. There was a startled yip, and dull claws raked my side as she scrambled up and back.
I stayed down, rolling to my knees so she couldn’t push me over again. Not waiting, she jumped.
I cried out, stiff-arming her. Panic struck me when my fist went right square into her mouth. Her paws, the size of my hands, pushed at me as she frantically backed off, and I fell backward. I was lucky she hadn’t twisted her head and taken a chunk out of my arm. As it was, I was bleeding from a nasty gash.
Karen’s echoing, racking coughs turned into an aggressive growl. “What’s the matter, grandma,” I panted, flipping my braid out of the way. “Can’t get Little Red Riding Hood down your throat?”
Ears pinned, hackles raised, and lips curled to show her teeth, she came at me.
Okay. Maybe that wasn’t the best thing to say. Karen slammed into me like a flung door, rocking me back and sending me down. Her teeth went around my neck, choking. I grabbed the foot that was pinching me, digging my nails into it. She bit down, and I gasped.
I made a fist and punched her in the ribs twice. My knee came up and I got her somewhere. There was silky hair in my mouth, and I reached up and pulled an ear. Her teeth gripped harder, cutting off my air. My sight started to go black. Panicking, I went for her eyes.
With no thought but survival, I dug my nails into her eyelids. That, she felt, and yelping, she jerked off me. I took a ragged breath, levering myself up on an elbow. My other hand went to my neck. It came away wet with blood.
“This isn’t fair!” I shouted, mad as hell as I scrambled up. My knuckles were bleeding, my side hurt, and I was shaking from adrenaline and fear. I could see Mr. Finley’s excitement—smell the rising musk. They were all getting off on the chance to see one of their own “legally” maul a person.
“Nobody said it was supposed to be fair,” the man said softly, then gestured to Karen.
But her impetus to attack hesitated at the ding of the elevator.
Despair crept over me. With three more alphas, she wasn’t going to feel anything. Not even if I cut something off.
The doors slid open to show David leaning against the back of the lift. His face had a bruise that was likely going to turn his eye black, and his sport coat was torn and filthy. Slowly, he lifted his head, a murderous look in his brown eyes.
“Leave!” his boss said sharply.
“I forgot my briefcase,” he said, limping forward. He took in the situation in a glance, still breathing heavily from escaping the three Weres who had dragged him off. “You challenge my alpha, I’m damn well going to be here to make sure it’s a fair fight.” Shambling to his briefcase, he picked it up, dusted it off, and turned to me. “Rachel, you doing okay?”
I felt a flush of gratitude. He wasn’t coming to my rescue, he wanted to make sure they were playing fair. “I’m doing okay,” I said, voice cracking. “But that bitch isn’t feeling any pain, and they took away my magic.” I was going to lose this. I was going to lose this so bad. Sorry, David.
The surrounding Weres glanced uneasily at each other now that they had a witness, and Mr. Finley’s complexion darkened. “Finish it,” he said roughly, and Karen came at me.
Her nails scraped on the plywood floor as they scrambled for purchase. Gasping, I fell to my back before she could push me down. Pulling my knees to my chest, I planted my feet against her as she landed on me and flung her over my head.
I heard a startled yip and thump and David shouting something. There were two fights going on.
I spun on my butt to face her. My eyes widened and I flung up an arm.
Karen smashed into me, pinning me to the floor. She covered me, and fear stabbed deep. I had to keep her from getting a grip on my throat again, and I cried out when she bit my arm.
I’d had enough.
Making a fist, I smashed it into her head. She jerked her muzzle up, raking my arm and sending a pulse of pain through me. Immediately she was back, snarling and more savage. But a ribbon of hope rose in me and I gritted my teeth. She had felt that.
I could hear thumps and cries in the background. David was interfering, breaking their concentration. The round was falling apart. I couldn’t best Karen, but sure as hell she was going to walk away remembering me.
The anger and excessive adrenaline wouldn’t be denied. “You stupid dog!” I shouted, slamming my fist into her ear again to make her yelp. “You’re a foul-breathed, dung flop of a city-bred poodle! How do you like this? Huh!” I hit her again, unable to see from the tears blurring my vision. “Want some more? How about this?”
She latched onto my shoulder and picked me up, intending to shake me. A silky ear landed in my mouth, and after failing to spit it out, I bit down, hard.
Karen barked and was gone. Taking a clean breath, I rolled over onto all fours to see her.
“Rachel!” David cried, and my splat ball gun slid to within my grasp.
I picked the cherry-red gun up, and on my knees, aimed it at Karen. She sat back, her forelegs scrambling to halt her forward motion. Arms shaking, I spit out a tuft of white fur. “Game over, bitch,” I said, then plugged her.
The puff of air from my gun was almost lost in someone’s cry of frustration.
It hit her square in the nose, covering her face with a sleepy-time potion, the most aggressive thing a white witch would use. Karen went down as if strings were cut, sliding to land three feet from me.
I rose, shaking and so full of adrenaline I could hardly stand. Arms stiff, I aimed my gun at Mr. Finley. The sun had gone behind the surrounding hills across the river, and his face was shadowed. His posture was easy enough to read. “I win,” I said, then smacked David when he put a hand on my shoulder.
“Easy, Rachel,” David soothed.
“I’m fine!” I shouted, pulling my aim back to his boss before the man could move. “If you want to challenge my title, okay! But I do it as a witch, not with my strength washed out of me! This wasn’t fair, and you know it!”
“Come on, Rachel. Let’s go.”
I was still aiming at his boss. I really, really wanted to plug him. But in what I thought was a huge show of class, I lowered the gun, snatching my bag from David as he handed it to me. Around me, I felt an easing of tension from the watching alphas.
Briefcase in hand, David escorted me to the elevator. I was still shaking, but I turned my back on them, knowing it would say more clearly than words that I wasn’t afraid.
I was scared, though. If Karen had been trying to kill me, not just cow me into submission, it would have been over in the first thirty seconds.
David hit the down button, and together we turned. “This was not a fair contest,” he said, then wiped his mouth to make his hand come away red with blood. “I had a right to be here.”
Mr. Finley shook his head. “Either the female’s alpha shall be present, or in the case of his absence, six alphas may serve as witness to prevent any…” He smiled. “…foul play.”
“There weren’t six alphas here at the time of the contest,” David said. “I expect to see this recorded as a win for Rachel. That woman is not my alpha.”
I followed his gaze to Karen lying forgotten on the floor, and I wondered if someone was going to douse her in saltwater to break the charm or just dump her on her pack’s doorstep unconscious. I didn’t care, and I wasn’t going to ask.
“Wrong or not, it’s the law,” Mr. Finley said, the alphas moving to back him. “And it’s there to allow a gentle correction when an alpha goes astray.” He took a deep breath, clearly thinking. “This will be recorded as a win for your alpha,” he said as if he didn’t care, “provided you don’t file a complaint. But David, she isn’t a Were. If she can’t best another with her physical skills, she doesn’t deserve an alpha title and will be taken down.”
I felt a stab of fear at the memory of Karen on top of me.
“A person can’t stand against a wolf,” Mr. Finley said. “She would have to Were to have even a chance, and witches can’t Were.”
The man’s eyes went to mine, and though I didn’t look away, the fear slid to my belly. The elevator dinged, and I backed up into it, not caring if they knew I was afraid. David joined me, and I gripped my bag and my gun as if I’d fall apart without them.
David’s boss stepped forward, his presence threatening and his face utterly shadowed in the new night. “You are an alpha,” he said as if correcting a child. “Stop playing with witches and start paying your dues.”
The doors slid shut, and I slumped against the mirror. Paying his dues? What was that supposed to mean?
Slowly, the lift descended, my tension easing with every floor between us. It smelled like angry Were in there, and I glanced at David. One of the mirrors was cracked, and my reflection looked awful: braid falling apart and caked with plaster dust, a bite mark on my neck where Karen’s teeth had bruised and broken my skin, my knuckles scraped from being in her mouth. My back hurt, my foot was sore, and damn it, I was missing an earring. My favorite hoops, too.
I remembered the soft feel of Karen’s ear in my mouth and the sudden give as I bit down. It had been awful, hurting someone that intimately. But I was okay. I wasn’t dead. Nothing had changed. I’d never tried to use my ley line skills in a pitched fight like that, and now I knew to watch out for wristbands. Caught like a teenager shoplifting, God help me.
I licked my thumb and wiped a smear of plaster dust off my forehead. The wristband was ugly, but I’d need Ivy’s bolt cutters to get it off. Removing my remaining earring, I dropped it in my bag. David was leaning into the corner and holding his ribs, but he didn’t look like he was worried about running into the three Weres he had downed, so I put my gun away. Lone wolves were like alphas that didn’t need the support of a pack to feel confident. Rather dangerous when one stopped to think about it.
David chuckled. Looking at him, I made a face, and he started to laugh, cutting it short as he winced in pain. His lightly wrinkled face still showing his amusement, he glanced at the numbers counting down, then pulled himself upright, trying to arrange his torn coat. “How about that dinner?” he asked, and I snorted.
“I’m getting the lobster,” I said, then added, “Weres never work together outside their packs. I must have really pissed them off. God! What is their problem?”
“It’s not you, it’s me,” he said, discomfited. “They don’t like that I started a pack with you. No, that’s not true. They don’t like that I’m not contributing to the Were population.”
The adrenaline was fading, making me hurt all over. I had a pain amulet in my bag, but I wasn’t going to use it when David had nothing. And when in hell had Karen scored on my face? Tilting my head, I examined the red claw mark running close to my ear in the dim light, then turned to David when his last words penetrated. “Excuse me?” I asked, confused. “What do you mean, not contributing to the Were population?”
David dropped his gaze. “I started a pack with you.”
I tried to straighten, but it hurt. “Yeah, I got the no-kids part there. Why do they care?”
“Because I don’t have any, ah, informal relations with any other Were woman, either.”
Because if he did, they would expect to be in his pack, eventually. “And…” I prompted.
He shifted from foot to foot. “The only way to get more Weres is by birth. Not like vampires who can turn humans if they work at it. With numbers come strength and power…” His voice trailed off, and I got it.
“Oh, for crying out loud,” I complained, holding my shoulder. “This was political?”
The elevator chimed and the doors opened. “ ‘Fraid so,” he said. “They let subordinate Weres do what they will, but as a loner, what I do matters.”
I trooped out before him, looking for trouble, but it was quiet in the abandoned lobby, apart from the three Weres slumped in the corner. David had sounded bitter, and when he opened the main door for me, I touched his arm in a show of support. Clearly surprised, he glanced at me. “Uh, about dinner,” he said, looking at his clothes. “You want to reschedule?”
My feet hit the pavement, the cadence of my boots telling me I was limping. It was quiet, but the stillness seemed to hold a new threat. Mr. Finley was right about one thing. This was going to happen again unless I asserted my claim in a way they would respect.
Breathing deeply of the chill air, I headed for David’s car. “No way, man. You owe me dinner. How about some Skyline chili?” I said, and he hesitated in confusion. “Go through the drive-through. I have to do some research tonight.”
“Rachel,” he protested as his car gave a cheerful chirp and unlocked. “I think you deserve at least one night off.” His eyes narrowed and he looked at me over the roof of his car. “I am really sorry about this. Maybe…we should get the pack contract annulled.”
I looked up from opening my door. “Don’t you dare!” I said loudly in case someone was listening from a top floor. Then my expression went sheepish. “I can’t afford the rider everyone else makes me take out on my health insurance.”
David chuckled, but I could tell he wasn’t satisfied. We slipped into his car, both of us moving slowly when we found new pains and tried to find a comfortable way to sit. Oh God, I hurt all over.
“I mean it, Rachel,” he said, his low voice filling the small car after our doors shut. “It’s not fair to ask you to put up with this crap.”
Smiling, I looked across the car at him. “Don’t worry about it, David. I like being your alpha. All I have to do is find the right charm to Were with.”
He sighed, his small frame moving in his exhalation, then he snorted.
“What?” I asked, buckling myself in as he started the car.
“The right charm to Were?” he said, putting the car into gear and pulling from the curb. “Get it? You want to be my alpha, but have nothing to Were?”
Putting a hand to my head, I leaned my elbow into the door for support. “That’s not funny,” I said, but he just laughed, even though it hurt him.
Dappled patterns of afternoon light sifted over my gloved hands as I knelt on a green foam pad and strained to reach the back of the flower bed where grass had taken root despite the shade of the mature oak above it. From the street came the soft sound of cars. A blue jay called and was answered. Saturday in the Hollows was the pinnacle of casual.
Straightening, I stretched to crack my back, then slumped, wincing when my amulet lost contact with my skin and I felt a jolt of pain. I knew I shouldn’t be working out there under the influence of a pain amulet, lest I hurt myself without realizing it, but after yesterday I needed some “dirt time” to reassure my subconscious that I was alive. And the garden needed attention. It was a mess without Jenks and his family keeping it up.
The smell of brewing coffee slipped out the kitchen window and into the peace of the cool spring afternoon, and I knew that Ivy was up. Standing, I gazed from the yellow clapboard add-on behind the rented church to the walled graveyard past the witch’s garden. The entire grounds took up four city lots and stretched from one street to the other behind it. Though no one had been buried here for almost thirty years, the grass was mown by yours truly. I felt a tidy graveyard made a happy graveyard.
Wondering if Ivy would bring me coffee if I shouted, I nudged my knee pad into the sun near a patch of soft-stemmed black violets. Jenks had seeded the plot last fall, and I wanted to thin them before they got spindly from competition. I knelt before the small plants, moving my way around the bed, circling the rosebush and pulling a third of them.
I had been out there long enough to get warm from exertion, worry waking me before noon. Sleep hadn’t come easily either. I’d sat up past sunrise in the kitchen with my spell books in search of a charm to Were into a wolf. It was a task whose success was slim at best; there were no spells to change into sentient beings—at least no legal ones. And it would have to be an earth charm since ley line magic was mostly illusion or physical bursts of energy. I had a small but unique library, yet for all my spells and charms, I had nothing that told me how to Were.
Inching my pad down the flower bed, I felt a band of worry tighten in me. As David had said, the only way you could be a Were was to be born that way. The bandage-covered tooth gashes on my knuckles and neck from Karen would soon be gone with no lingering effects but for what remained in my memory. There might be a charm in the black arts section of the library, but black earth magic used nasty ingredients—like indispensable people parts—and I wasn’t going to go there.
The one time I had considered using black earth magic, I came away with a demon mark, then got another, then managed to find myself said demon’s familiar. Lucky for me, I had kept my soul and the bargain was declared unenforceable. I was free and clear but for Big Al’s original demon mark, which I’d wear along with Newt’s mark until I found a way to pay both of them back. But at least with the familiar bond broken, Al wasn’t showing up every time I tapped a ley line.
Eyes pinched from the sun, I smeared dirt over my wrist and Al’s demon mark. The earth was cool, and it hid the upraised circle-and-line scar more reliably than any charm. It covered the red welt from the band the Weres had put on me, too. God, I had been stupid.
The breeze shifted a red curl to tickle my face, and I tucked it away, glancing past the rosebush to the back of the flower bed. My lips parted in dismay. It had been trampled.
An entire section of plants had been snapped at their bases and were now sprawled and wilting. Tiny footprints gave evidence of who had done it. Outraged, I gathered a handful of broken stems, feeling in the soft pliancy their unstoppable death. Damn garden fairies.
“Hey!” I shouted, lurching up to stare into the canopy of the nearby ash tree. Face warm, I stomped over and stood under it, the plants in my hand like an accusation. I’d been fighting them since they’d migrated up from Mexico last week, but it was a losing battle. Fairies ate insects, not nectar, like pixies did, and they didn’t care if they killed a garden in their search for food. They were like humans that way, destroying what kept them alive in the long term in their search for short-term resources. There were only six of them, but they had no respect for anything.
“I said hey!” I called louder, craning my neck to the wad of leaves that looked like a squirrel’s nest midway up the tree. “I told you to stay out of my garden if you couldn’t keep from wrecking it! What are you going to do about this!”
As I fumed on the ground, there was a rustling, and a dead leaf fluttered down. A pale fairy poked his head out, the leader of the small bachelor clan orienting on me immediately. “It’s not your garden,” he said loudly. “It’s my garden, and you can take a long walk in a short ley line for all I care.”
My mouth dropped open. From behind me came the thump of a window closing; Ivy didn’t want anything to do with what was to follow. I didn’t blame her, but it was Jenks’s garden, and if I didn’t drive them out, it would be trashed by the time I convinced him to come back. I was a runner, damn it. If I couldn’t keep Jenks’s garden intact, I didn’t deserve the title. But it was getting harder each time, and they only returned the moment I went inside.
“Don’t ignore me!” I shouted as the fairy disappeared inside the communal nest. “You nasty little twit!” A cry of outrage slipped from me when a tiny bare ass took the place of the pale face and shook at me from the wad of leaves. They thought they were safe up there, out of my reach.
Disgusted, I dropped the broken stems and stalked to the shed. They wouldn’t come to me, so I would go to them. I had a ladder.
The blue jays in the graveyard called, enjoying something new to gossip about while I struggled with the twelve-foot length of metal. It smacked into the lower branches as I maneuvered it against the trunk, and with a shrill protest, the nest emptied in an explosion of blue and orange butterfly wings. I put a foot on the first rail, puffing a red curl out of my eyes. I hated to do this, but if they ruined the garden, Jenks’s kids would starve.
“Now!” came a loud demand, and I cried out when sharp pings pinched my back.
Cowering, I ducked my head and spun. The ladder slipped, crashing down into the very flower bed they had destroyed. Ticked, I looked up. They were lobbing last year’s acorns at me, the sharp ends hard enough to hurt. “You little boogers!” I cried, glad I had on a pain amulet.
“Again!” the leader shouted.
My eyes widened at the handful of acorns coming at me. “Rhombus,” I said, the trigger word instigating a hard-learned series of mental exercises into an almost instinctive action. Quicker than thought, my awareness touched the small ley line in the graveyard. Energy filled me, the balance equalizing in the time between memory and action. I spun around, toe pointing, sketching a rough circle, and ley line force filled it, closing it. I could have done this last night and avoided a trouncing, but for the charmed silver they had put on me.
A shimmering band of ever-after flashed into existence, the molecule-thin sheet of alternate reality arching to a close over my head and six feet under my feet, making an oblong bubble that prevented anything more obnoxious than air to pass through. It was sloppy and wouldn’t hold a demon, but the acorns pinged off it. It worked against bullets too.
“Knock it off!” I exclaimed, flustered. The usual red sheen of energy shifted to gold as it took on the main color of my aura.
Seeing me safe but trapped in my bubble, the largest fairy fluttered down on his mothlike wings, his hands on his narrow hips and his gossamer, spiderweb-draped hair making him look like a six-inch negative of the grim reaper. His lips were a stark red against his pale face, and his thin features were tight in determination. His harsh beauty made him look incredibly fragile, but he was tougher than sinew. He was a garden fairy, not one of the assassins that had almost killed me last spring, but he was still accustomed to fighting for his right to live. “Go inside and we won’t hurt you,” he said, leering.
I snickered. What were they going to do? Butterfly kiss me to death?
An excited whisper pulled my attention to the row of neighborhood kids watching from over the tall wall surrounding the graveyard. Their eyes were wide while I tried to best tiny little flying things, something every Inderlander knew was impossible. Crap, I was acting like an ignorant human. But it was Jenks’s garden, and I’d hold them off as long as I could.
Resolute, I pushed out of my circle. I jerked as the energy of the circle raced back into me, overflowed my chi and returned to the ley line. A shrill cry came to ready the darts.
Darts? Oh swell. Pulse quickening, I ran to the far side of the kitchen for the hose.
“I tried to be nice. I tried to be reasonable,” I muttered while I opened the valve and water started dripping from the spray nozzle. The blue jays in the graveyard called, and I struggled with the hose, jerking to a halt when it caught on the corner of the kitchen. Taking off my gloves, I snapped the hose into a sine wave. It came free, and I stumbled backward. From the ash tree came the high-pitched sounds of organization. I’d never hosed them off before. Maybe this would do it. Fairy wings didn’t do well when wet.
“Get her!” came a shout, and I jerked my head up. The thorns they held looked as large as swords as they headed right for me.
Gasping, I aimed the hose and squeezed. They darted up and I followed them, my lips parting when the water turned into a pathetic trickle to arch to the ground and die. What in hell? I spun at the sound of gushing water. They had cut the hose!
“I spent twenty bucks on that hose!” I cried, then felt myself pale as the entire clan fronted me, tiny spears probably tipped with poison ivy. “Er, can we talk about this?” I stammered.
I dropped the hose, and the orange-winged fairy grinned like a vampire stripper at a bachelorette party. My heart pounded and I wondered if I should flee inside the church, and subject myself to Ivy’s laughter, or tough it out and get a bad case of poison ivy.
The sound of pixy wings brought my heart into my throat. “Jenks!” I exclaimed, turning to follow the head fairy’s worried gaze, fixed beyond my shoulder. But it wasn’t Jenks, it was his wife, Matalina, and eldest daughter, Jih.
“Back off,” Matalina threatened, hovering beside me at head height. The harsh clatter of her more maneuverable dragonfly-like wings set the stray strands of my damp hair to tickle my face. She looked thinner than last winter, her childlike features severe. Determination showed in her eyes, and she held a drawn bow with an arrow at the string. Her daughter looked even more ominous, with a wood-handled sword of silver in her grip. She had possession of a small garden across the street and needed silver to protect it and herself since she had yet to take a husband.
“It’s mine!” the fairy screamed in frustration. “Two women can’t hold a garden!”
“I need only hold the ground I fly over,” Matalina said resolutely. “Get out. Now.”
He hesitated, and Matalina pulled the bow back farther, making a tiny creak.
“We’ll only take it when you leave!” he cried, motioning for his clan to retreat.
“Then take it,” she said. “But while I am here, you won’t be.”
I watched, awed, while a four-inch pixy stood down an entire clan of fairies. Such was Jenks’s reputation, and such was the capabilities of pixies. They could rule the world by assassinations and blackmail if they wanted. But all they desired was a small plot of ground and the peace to tend it. “Thanks, Matalina,” I whispered.
She didn’t take her steely gaze off them as they retreated to the knee-high wall that divided the garden from the graveyard. “Thank me when I’ve watered seedlings with their blood,” she muttered, shocking me. The pretty, silk-clad pixy looked all of eighteen, her usual tan pale from living with Jenks and her children in that Were’s basement all winter. Her billowy green, lightweight dress swirled in the draft from her wings. They were a harsh red with anger, as were her daughter’s.
The faire of garden fairies fled to a corner of the graveyard, hovering and dancing in a belligerent display over the dandelions almost a street away. Matalina pulled her bow, loosing an arrow on an exhale. A bright spot of orange jerked up and then down.
“Did you get him?” her daughter asked, her ethereal voice frightening in its vehemence.
Matalina lowered her bow. “I pinned his wing to a stone. He tore it when he jerked away. Something to remember me by.”
I swallowed and nervously wiped my hands on my jeans. The shot was clear across the property. Steadying myself, I went to the faucet and turned off the spraying water. “Matalina,” I said as I straightened, bobbing my head at her daughter in greeting. “Thanks. They almost filled me with poison ivy. How are you? How’s Jenks? Will he talk to me?” I blurted, but my brow furrowed and my hope fell when she dropped her eyes.
“I’m sorry, Rachel.” She settled upon my offered hand, her wings shifting into motion, then stilling as they turned a dismal blue. “He…I…That’s why I’m here.”
“Oh God, is he all right?” I said, suddenly afraid when the pretty woman looked ready to burst into tears. Her ferocity had been washed away in misery, and I glanced at the distant fairies while Matalina struggled for her composure. He was dead. Jenks was dead.
“Rachel…” she warbled, looking all the more like an angel when she wiped a hand under her eye. “He needs me, and he forbade the children to return. Especially now.”
My first wash of relief that he was alive spilled right back to worry, and I glanced at the butterfly wings. They were getting closer. “Let’s go inside,” I said. “I’ll make you up some sugar water.”
Matalina shook her head, bow hanging from her grip. Beside her, her daughter watched the graveyard. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ll make sure Jih’s garden is safe, then I’ll be back.”
I looked to the front of the church as if I could see her garden on the opposite side of the street. Jih looked eight, but in pixy years she was old enough to be on her own and was actively searching for a husband, finding herself in the unique situation of being able to take her time as she developed her own garden, holding it with silver given to her by her father. And seeing that they had just evicted a clan of fairies, making sure there was no one waiting to jump Jih when she returned home sounded like a good idea.
“Okay,” I said, and Matalina and Jih rose a few inches, sending the scent of green things to me. “I’ll wait inside. Just come on in. I’ll be in the kitchen.”
In a soft clatter, they flitted up and over the tall steeple, and I watched, concerned. Things were probably tough for them while Jenks’s pride kept them out of their garden and they struggled to make ends meet. What was it with small men and oversized pride?
Checking to see that my bandages hadn’t come off my knuckles, I stomped up the wooden steps and wedged my gardening sneakers off. Leaving them there, I went in the back door and into the living room. The smell of coffee was almost a slap. A set of masculine boots clattered on the linoleum in the kitchen across the hall, and I hesitated. That wasn’t Ivy. Kisten?
Curious, I padded to the kitchen. Hesitating in the open archway, I scanned the apparently empty room.
I liked my kitchen. No, let me rephrase. I loved my kitchen with the loyalty of a bulldog to his favorite bone. It took up more space than the living room and had two stoves—so I never had to stir spells and cook on the same flame. There were bright fluorescent lights, expansive counter and cupboard space, and sundry ceramic spelling utensils hanging over the center island counter. An oversized brandy snifter with my beta, Mr. Fish, rested on the sill of the single blue-curtained window over the sink. A shallow circle was etched in the linoleum for when I needed the extra protection for a sensitive spell, and herbs hung from a sweater rack in the corner.
A heavy, antique farm table took up the interior wall, my end holding a stack of books that hadn’t been there earlier. The rest held Ivy’s precisely arranged computer, printer, maps, colored markers, and whatever else she needed to plan her runs into boredom. My eyebrows rose at the pile of books, but I smiled because of the jeans-clad backside poking out from the open stainless-steel fridge door.
“Kist,” I said, the pleased sound of my voice bringing the living vamp’s head up. “I thought you were Ivy.”
“Hi, love,” he said, the British accent he usually faked almost nonexistent as he casually shut the door with a foot. “Hope you don’t mind I let myself in. I didn’t want to ring the bell and wake the dead.”
I smiled, and he set the cream cheese on the counter and moved to me. Ivy wasn’t dead yet, but she was as nasty as a homeless bridge troll if you woke her before she thought she should be up. “Mmmm, you can let yourself in anytime so long as you make me coffee,” I said, curving my arms around his tapering waist as he gave me a hug hello.
His close-cut fingernails traced an inch above the new bruises and tooth marks on my neck. “Are you okay?” he breathed.
My eyes slid shut at the concern in his voice. He had wanted to come over last night, and I appreciated that he hadn’t when I asked him not to. “I’m fine,” I said, toying with the idea of telling him that they hadn’t played fair, five alphas binding into a round to give their bitch the advantage in an already unfair fight. But it was so unusual an occurrence that I was afraid he would say I was making it up—and it sounded too much like whining to me.
Instead, I leaned my head against him and took in his scent: a mix of dark leather and silk. He was wearing a black cotton tee that pulled tight across his shoulders, but the aroma of silk and leather remained. With it was the dusky hint of incense that lingered around vampires. I hadn’t identified that particular scent with vamps until I started living with Ivy, but now I could probably tell with my eyes closed whether it was Ivy or Kisten in the room.
Either scent was delicious, and I breathed deeply, willingly taking in the vampire pheromones he was unconsciously giving off to soothe and relax me. It was an adaptation to make finding a willing source of blood easier. Not that Kisten and I were sharing blood. Not me. Not this little witch. No how or ever. The risk of becoming a plaything—my will given to a vampire—was too real. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy the mild buzz.
I could hear his heartbeat, and I lingered while his fingers traced a yummy path to the small of my back. My forehead came to his shoulder, lower than usual, since he was in boots and I was in socks. His exhaled breath stirred my hair. The sensation brought my head up, and I met his blue eyes squarely from under his long bangs, reading in the normalsized pupils that he had slaked his blood lust before coming over. He usually did.
“I like it when you smell like dirt,” he said, his eyes half-lidded and sly.
Smiling, I ran a fingernail down his rough cheek. He had a small nose and chin, and he usually kept a day’s worth of stubble to give himself a more rugged cast. His hair was dyed blond to match his almost-beard, though I had yet to catch him with darker roots or a charm to color it. “What’s the real color of your hair?” I asked impulsively as I played with the wispy strands at the nape of his neck.
He pulled away, blinking in surprise. Two slices of toast popped up, and he shifted to the counter, bringing out a plate and setting the bread on it. “Ah, it’s blond.”
My eyes roved over his very nice backside, and I slumped against the counter, enjoying the view. The rims of his ears were a faint red, and I pushed into motion, leaning to run a finger along his torn ear where someone had ripped out one of the twin diamond studs. His right ear still held both studs, and I wondered who had the missing earring. I would have asked, but was afraid he’d tell me Ivy had it. “You dye your hair,” I insisted. “What color is it, really?”
He wouldn’t look at me while he opened the cream cheese and spread a thick layer on the toast. “It’s sort of brown. Why? Is that a problem?”
Dropping my hands to his waist, I turned him around. Pinning him to the counter, I leaned until our hips touched. “God, no. I just wondered.”
“Oh.” His hands went about my waist, and clearly relieved, he inhaled slowly, seeming to take my very soul in with him. A spark of desire jumped from him to me, going right to my core to catch my breath. I knew he was scenting me, reading in the slight tension of my body pressing into him my willingness to turn our embrace into something more. I knew our natural scents mixing was a potent blood aphrodisiac. I also knew Ivy would kill him if he broke my skin even by accident. But this was all old news, and I’d be a fool if I didn’t admit that part of Kisten’s allure was the mix of deep intimacy he offered along with the potential danger of him losing control and biting me. Yeah, I was a stupid, trusting girl, but it made for great sex.
And Kisten is very careful, I thought, pulling coyly away at the low growl rumbling up through him. He wouldn’t have come over if he wasn’t sure of his control, and I knew he teased himself with my off-limits blood as much as I tested my will against the supposedly better-than-sex carnal ecstasy that a vampire bite could bring.
“I see you’re making friends with your neighbors,” he said, and I eased from him to reopen the window and wash my hands. If I didn’t stop, Ivy would sense it and be out here glowering like a shunned lover. We were roommates and business partners—that was all—but she made no attempt to hide that she wanted more. She had asked me once to be her scion, which was sort of a number-one helper and wielder of vampire power when the vamp in question was limited by sunlight. She wasn’t dead yet and didn’t need a scion, but Ivy was a planner.
The position was an honor, but I didn’t want it, even though, as a witch, I couldn’t be turned vampire. It involved an exchange of blood to cement ties, which was why I had flatly refused her the first time she’d asked, but after meeting her old high school roommate, I thought she was after more than that. Kisten could separate the drive for blood from the desire for sex, but Ivy couldn’t, and the sensations a blood-lusting vamp pulled from me were too much like sexual hunger for me to think otherwise. Ivy’s offer that I become her scion was also an offer to be her lover, and as much as I cared for her, I wasn’t wired that way.
I turned off the tap and dried my hands on the dish towel, frowning at the butterfly wings drifting closer to the garden. “You could have helped me out there,” I said sourly.
“Me?” Blue eyes glinting in amusement, he set the orange juice on the counter and shut the fridge. “Rachel, honey, I love you and all, but what do you think I could have done?”
Tossing the dish towel to the counter, I turned my back on him, crossing my arms while I gazed out at the cautiously approaching wings. He was right, but that didn’t mean I had to like it. I was lucky Matalina had shown up, and I wondered again what she wanted.
A warm breath touched my shoulder and I jerked, realizing Kisten had snuck up on me, unheard with his vamp-soft steps. “I would have come out if you needed it,” he said, his rumbly voice going right into me. “But they were only garden fairies.”
“Yeah,” I said with a sigh. “I suppose.” Turning, my eyes went over his shoulder to the three books on the table. “Are those for me?” I asked, wanting to change the subject.
Kisten reached past me to pluck an early daisy from the vase beside Mr. Fish. “Piscary had them behind glass. They look like spell books to me. I thought you might find something to Were in them. They’re yours if you want them. I’m not going to tell him where they went.”
His eyes were eager for the chance to help me, but I didn’t move, standing beside the sink with my arms crossed, eyeing them. If the master vampire had them under glass, then they were probably older than the sun. Even worse, they had the look of demon magic, making them useless since only demons could work it. Generally.
Uncrossing my arms, I considered them again. Maybe there was something I could use. “Thanks,” I said, moving to touch the top book and stifling a shudder when I felt a slight sponginess, as if my aura had gone from liquid to syrup. My torn skin tingled, and I wiped my hand on my jeans. “You won’t get in trouble?”
The faint tightening of his jaw was the only sign of his nervousness. “You mean in more trouble than trying to kill him?” he said, flicking his long bangs from his eyes.
I gave him a sick smile. “I see your point.” I went to get myself a cup of coffee while Kisten poured a small glass of orange juice and set it on a tray he pulled from behind the microwave. The plate of toast went on it, shortly followed by the daisy he’d taken from the windowsill. I watched, my curiosity growing when he gave me a sideways smile to show his sharp canines and hustled into the hallway with it all. Okay, so it wasn’t for me.
Leaning against the counter, I sipped my coffee and listened to a door creak open. Kisten’s voice called out cheerfully, “Good afternoon, Ivy. Wakey, wakey, eggs and bakey!”
“Shove it, Kist,” came Ivy’s slurred mumble. “Hey!” she cried louder. “Don’t open those! What the hell are you doing?”
A smile curved over my face and I snickered, taking my coffee and sitting at the table.
“There’s my girl,” Kisten coaxed. “Sit up. Take the damn tray before I spill the coffee.”
“It’s Saturday,” she snarled. “What are you doing here so early?”
As I listened to Kisten’s soothing voice rise and fall in an unrecognizable patter, I wondered what was going on. From families of wealth, Kisten and Ivy had grown up together, tried the cohabitation thing, and parted as friends. Rumor had it Piscary planned for them to get together and have a passel of children to carry on his living-vamp line before one of them died. I was no expert in relationships, but even I could tell that wasn’t going to happen. Kisten cared deeply for Ivy, and she for him, but seeing them together always gave me the feeling of a close brother/sister relationship. Even so, this breakfast in bed thing was unusual.
“Watch the coffee!” Kisten exclaimed, shortly followed by Ivy’s yelp.
“You aren’t helping. Get out of my room!” she snarled, her gray-silk voice harsh.
“Shall I lay out your clothes, love?” Kisten said, his fake British accent on full and laughter in his voice. “I adore that pink skirt you wore all last fall. Why don’t you wear that anymore?”
“Get out!” she exclaimed, and I heard something hit the wall.
“Get the hell out of my room!”
The door clicked shut, and I met Kisten’s grin with my own when he came in and went to the coffeemaker. “Lose a bet?” I guessed, and he nodded, his thin eyebrows high. I pushed out a chair kitty-corner from me with my foot and he settled in with his mug, his long legs going out to encircle mine under the corner of the table.
“I said you could go on a run with David and come home without turning it into a slugfest. She said you couldn’t.” He reached for the sugar bowl and dumped two spoonfuls in.
“Thanks,” I said, glad he had bet against her.
“I lost on purpose,” he said, crushing my vindication before it had taken its first breath.
“Thanks a lot,” I amended, pulling my feet from between his.
Setting his mug down, he leaned forward and took my hands in his. “Stop it, Rachel. How else could I find an excuse to come over here every morning for a week?”
I couldn’t be mad at him now, so I smiled, dropping my gaze to our twined hands, mine thin and pale beside his tan, masculine fingers. It was nice seeing them there together like that. The past four months he had not lavished attention on me, but rather was there and available whenever the mood struck either of us.
He was incredibly busy running Piscary’s affairs now that the undead master vampire was in jail—thanks to me—and I was occupied with my end of Ivy’s and my runner firm, Vampiric Charms. As a result, Kisten and I spent spontaneous snips of intense time together that I found both extremely satisfying and curiously freeing. Our brief, nearly daily conversations over coffee or dinner were more enjoyable and reassuring than a three-day weekend backpacking in the Adirondacks dodging weekend-warrior Weres and slapping mosquitoes.
He felt no jealousy about the time I spent pursuing my career, and I felt only relief that he slaked his blood lust elsewhere—it was a part of him I was ignoring until I found a way to deal with it. There were problems brewing in our future, as blood-chaste witches and living vampires were not known for making long-term commitments. But I was tired of being alone, and Kisten met every emotional need I had raised and I met all of his but one, allowing someone else to do that with no distrust on my part. Our relationship was too good to be true, and I wondered again how I could find comfort with a vampire when I’d never been able to hold onto it with a witch.
Or with Nick, I thought, feeling the expression leave my face.
“What?” Kisten said, more aware of my mood shift than if I had painted my face blue.
I took a breath, hating myself for where my thoughts had gone. “Nothing.” I smiled thinly. “Just thinking how much I like being with you.”
“Oh.” His bristly face creased into a worried smile. “What are you doing today?”
I sat back, pulling my hand from his and putting my sock feet to either side of his lap so he wouldn’t think I was drawing away. My eyes drifted to my shoulder bag and my checkbook. I wasn’t desperate for money—wonder of wonders, since the calls for my services had dropped dramatically after the six o’clock news last winter had featured me being dragged down the street on my ass by a demon. And because I was heeding David’s advice to take a few days off to mend, I knew I ought to spend the time in research, or balancing my bank account, or cleaning my bathroom, or doing something constructive.
But then I met Kisten’s eyes, and the only idea that came to me was…ah, not the least bit constructive at all. His eyes were not calm. There was the faintest rising of black in them, the faintest thinning of blue. Gaze riveted to mine, he reached for one of my feet, bringing it onto his lap and starting to rub it. The intent behind his action strengthened when he sensed my pulse quickening, and his massage took on a rhythm that spoke of…possibilities.
My breath came and went. There was no blood lust in his eyes, only a desire that made my gut tighten and a tingle start at my demon scar.
“I need to…do my laundry?” I said, arching my eyebrows.
“Laundry.” He never looked from me as his hands left my foot and started creeping upward. Moving, pressing, hinting. “That sounds like it involves water and soap. Mmmm. Could be slippery. And messy. I think I have a bar of soap somewhere. Want some help?”
Uh-huh, I thought, my mind pinging over the possible ways he could “help” me, and how I could get Ivy out of the church for a few hours.
Seeing my—well…willingness might be too weak a word—enthusiasm in my inviting smile, Kisten reached out and pulled my chair bumping and scraping around the corner of the table, snuggling it up to his with a living vampire’s strength. My legs opened to put my knees to either side of him, and he leaned forward, the blue of his eyes vanishing to a thin ribbon.
Tension rising, I put my lips beside his torn ear. The scent of leather and silk crashed over me, and I closed my eyes in anticipation. “You have your caps?” I whispered.
I felt him nod, but I was more interested in where his lips were going. He cupped a hand along my jaw and tilted my face to his. “Always,” he said. “Always and forever with you.”
Oh God, I thought, just about melting. Kisten wore caps on his sharp canines to keep from breaking my skin in a moment of passion. They were generally worn by adolescent living vampires still lacking control, and Kisten risked a severe ribbing should anyone find out he wore them when we slept together. His decision was born from his respect for my desire to withhold my blood from him, and Ivy’s threat to stake him twice if he took my blood. Kisten claimed it was possible to be bound and not become a vampire’s shadow, but everything I had seen said otherwise. My fear remained. And so did his caps.
I inhaled, bringing the vamp pheromones deep into me, willing them to relax me, wanting the tingling promise that was humming in my demon scar to race through my body. But then Kisten stiffened and drew away.
“Ivy?” I whispered, feeling my eyes go worried as his gaze went distant.
“Pixy wings,” he said, pushing my chair out.
“Matalina,” I answered, sending my gaze to the open archway to the hall.
There was a distant thump. “Jenks?” came Ivy’s muffled call from her room.
My lips parted in surprise. She had heard Matalina’s wings through a closed door? Great. Just freaking great. Then she’d heard our conversation, too.
“It’s Matalina!” I shouted, not wanting her to burst out thinking it was Jenks.
But it was too late, and I stood awkwardly when her door thumped open. Matalina zipped into the kitchen a heartbeat before Ivy staggered in, halting in an undignified slump with one hand supporting herself against the open archway.
She was still in her skimpy nightgown, her black silk robe doing next to nothing to hide her tall lanky build, trim and smooth-limbed from her martial arts practice. Her straight black hair, mussed from sleeping, framed her oval face in an untidy fashion. She’d had it cut not too long ago, and it still surprised me to see it bumping about just under her ears. It made her long neck look longer, the single scar on it a smooth line, now faint from cosmetic surgery. Wide-eyed from being jerked from her bed, her brown, somewhat almond-shaped eyes looked larger than usual, and her thin lips were open to show small teeth.
Head cocked, Kisten spun in his chair. Taking in her lack of clothes, his grin widened.
Grimacing at her less than suave entrance, Ivy pulled herself straight, trying to find her usual iron hold on her emotions. Her pale cheeks were flushed, and she wouldn’t meet my eyes as she closed her robe with an abrupt motion. “Matalina,” she said, her voice still rough from sleep. “Is Jenks okay? Will he talk to us?”
“God, I hope so,” Kisten said dryly, turning his chair so he didn’t have his back to Ivy.
The agitated pixy flitted to perch on the center island counter. A glittering trail of silver sparkles sifted from her, slowly falling to make a temporary sunbeam, clear evidence of her flustered state. I already knew her answer, but I couldn’t help but slump when she shook her head, her wings stilling. Her pretty eyes went wide and she twisted the fabric of her silk dress. “Please,” she said, her voice carrying a frightening amount of worry. “Jenks won’t come to you. I’m so scared, Rachel. He can’t go alone. He won’t come back if he goes alone!”
Suddenly I was a whole lot more concerned. “Go where?” I said, crowding closer. Ivy moved in too, and we clustered before her, almost helpless as the tiny woman who could stand down six fairies started to cry. Forever the gentleman, Kisten carefully tore a tissue and handed her a piece the size of his thumbnail. She could have used it for a washcloth.
“It’s Jax,” Matalina said, holding her breath between sobs. Jax was her oldest son.
My fear quickened. “He’s at Nick’s apartment,” I said. “I’ll drive you over.”
Matalina shook her head. “He’s not there. He left with Nick on the winter solstice.”
I jerked upright, feeling as if I’d been kicked in the stomach. “Nick was here?” I stammered. “At the solstice? He never even called!” I looked at Ivy, shocked. The freaking human bastard! He had come, cleared out his apartment, and left; just like Jenks said he would. And I thought he cared for me. I had been hurt and half dead from hypothermia, and he just left? As I fumed, the betrayal and confusion I thought long gone swelled to make my head hurt.
“We got a call this morning,” Matalina was saying, oblivious to my state, though Kisten and Ivy exchanged knowing glances. “We think he’s in Michigan.”
“Michigan!” I blurted. “What the Turn is he doing in Michigan?”
Ivy nudged closer, almost coming between Matalina and me. “You said you think. You don’t know for certain?”
The pixy turned her tear-streaked face to Ivy, looking as tragic and strong as a mourning angel. “Nick told Jax they were in Michigan, but they moved him. Jax doesn’t know for sure.”
They moved him?
“Who moved him?” I said, bending close. “Are they in trouble?”
The tiny woman’s eyes were frightened. “I’ve never seen Jenks so angry. Nick took Jax to help him with his work, but something went wrong. Now Nick is hurt and Jax can’t get home. It’s cold up there, and I’m so worried.”
I glanced at Ivy, her eyes dark with widening pupils, her lips pressed into a thin angry line. Work? Nick cleaned museum artifacts and restored old books. What kind of work would he need a pixy for? In Michigan? In the springtime when most pixies were still shaking off hibernation at that latitude?
My thoughts went to Nick’s confidant casualness, his aversion to anything with a badge, his wickedly quick mind, and his uncanny tendency to be able to get ahold of just about anything, given time. I’d met him in Cincy’s rat fights, where he had been turned into a rat after “borrowing” a tome from a vampire.
He had come back to Cincinnati and left with Jax, without telling me he was here. Why would he take Jax with him?
My face went hot and I felt my knees go quivery. Pixies had other skills than gardening. Shit. Nick was a thief.
Leaning hard against the counter, I looked from Kisten to Ivy, her expression telling me that she had known, but realized I’d only get mad at her until I figured it out for myself. God, I was so stupid! It had been there all the time, and I hadn’t let myself see it.
I opened my mouth, jumping when Kisten jabbed me in the ribs. His eyes went to Matalina. The poor woman didn’t know. I shut my mouth, feeling cold.
“Matalina,” I said softly. “Is there any way to find out where they are? Maybe Jax could find a newspaper or something.”
“Jax can’t read,” she whispered, dropping her head into her hands, her wings drooping. “None of us can,” she said, crying, “except Jenks. He learned so he could work for the I.S.”
I felt so helpless, unable to do anything. How do you give someone four inches high a hug? How do you tell her that her eldest son had been misled by a thief? A thief I had trusted?
“I’m so scared,” the tiny pixy said, her voice muffled. “Jenks is going after him. He’s going all the way up north. He won’t come back. It’s too far. He won’t be able to find enough to eat, and it’s too cold unless he has somewhere safe to stay at night.” Her hands fell away, the misery and heartache on her tiny features striking fear in me.
“Where is he?” I asked, my growing anger pushing out the fear.
“I don’t know.” Matalina sniffed as she looked at the torn tissue in her grip. “Jax said it was cold and everyone was making candy. There’s a big green bridge and lots of water.”
I shook my head impatiently. “Not Jax. Jenks.”
Matalina’s hopeful expression made her look more beautiful than all of God’s angels. “You’ll talk to him?” she quavered.
Taking a slow breath, I glanced at Ivy. “He’s sulked enough,” I said. “I’m going to talk to the little twit, and he’s going to listen. And then we’ll both go.”
Ivy straightened, her arms held tight at her sides as she took two steps back. Her eyes were wide and her face carefully blank.
“Rachel—” Kisten said, the warning in his voice jerking my attention to him.
Matalina rose three inches into the air, her face alight even as the tears continued. “He’ll be angry if he finds out I came to you for help. D-Don’t tell him I asked you.”
Ignoring Kisten, I took a resolute breath. “Tell me where he’s going to be and I’ll find him. He isn’t going to do this alone. I don’t care if he talks to me or not, but I’m going with him.”
The coffee in my cup was cold, which I didn’t remember until I had it to my lips. Sharp and bitter, the taste of it puckered my face an instant before I let it slip down my throat. Shuddering, I held another dollop on my tongue. A soft thrill lifted through me as I tapped the line in the graveyard and set my pencil down on the kitchen table.
“From candle’s burn and planet’s spin,” I whispered awkwardly around the coffee, my fingers sketching out a complex figure. “Friction is how it ends and begins.” Rolling my eyes, I brought my hands together to make a loud pop, simultaneously saying, “Consimilis.” God help me, it was so hokey, but the rhyme did help me remember the finger motions and the two words that actually did the charm.
“Cold to hot, harness within,” I finished, making the ley line gesture that would use the coffee in my mouth as a focal object so I wouldn’t warm up…say…Mr. Fish’s bowl. “Calefacio,” I said, smiling at the familiar drop of line energy through me. I tightened my awareness to let what I thought was the right amount of power run through me to excite the water molecules and warm the coffee. “Excellent,” I breathed when the mug began to steam.
My fingers curled about the warm porcelain, and I dropped the line entirely. Much better, I thought when I went to take a sip, jerking back and touching my lip when I found it too hot. Ceri had said control would come with practice, but I was still waiting.
I set the mug down, pushing Ivy’s maps farther out of my space and into hers. The robins were singing loudly, and I squinted, trying to read in the early dusk of the developing rain clouds as I leafed through Kisten’s borrowed books. I’d have to leave in half an hour to accidentally run into Jenks on his run, and I was getting antsy.
Ivy was in one of her moods, and Kisten had hustled her out shortly after Matalina left so she wouldn’t drive me crazy all afternoon. I’d find out soon enough what was bothering her, and maybe Kisten could take care of it for me instead.
My spine cracked when I straightened, arching my back and taking a deep breath. I pulled my fingers off the dusk-darkened print, feeling the tingle of disconnection strike through me like a reverse static shock. Kist’s books were indeed demon texts. I’d quickly gotten used to the numb feeling of the pages, lured into exploring them when I realized every curse mixed earth and ley line magic, utilizing both to make more than the sum of the parts. It made for fascinating reading, even if my Latin sucked dishwater, and I was only now starting to remember I was supposed to be afraid of this stuff. It wasn’t what I had expected.
Sure, there were the nasty spells that would turn your neighbor’s barking dog inside out, strike your fourth-grade teacher with agony, or call down a flaming ball of hell to smack the guy tailgating you, but there were softer spells too. Ones I couldn’t see harm in, spells that did the same things many of my eminently legal earth charms did. And that’s what scared me the most.
Mood going introspective, I flipped the page and found a curse that would encase someone in a thick layer of air to slow their movements as if they were in molasses. I suppose one could use it to gain the advantage in a fight and kill them with a blow to the head or knife thrust, but would it tarnish one’s soul if all you did was slow them down so you could slap a pair of cuffs on them? The more I looked, the harder it was to tell. I had assumed demon curses were black as a matter of course, but I truly couldn’t see the harm here.
Even more worrisome was the potential power they all had. The curse detailed before me wasn’t the illusion of molasses that black ley line witches used to give people bad dreams in which they were unable to escape something or to help a loved one. And it wasn’t the earth charm that had to be laboriously cooked and targeted to a specific person, which resulted in slower reactions, not this almost complete immobility. The demon curse took the quick implementation and wide range of application of a ley line charm and harnessed it in a pair of “polarized” amulets, thereby giving it the reality and permanence of earth magic. It was a mix of both. It was the real thing. It was demon magic, and I was one of two people who could both walk under the sun and kindle it.
“Thanks, Trent,” I muttered as I turned the page, my fingertips prickling. “Your dad was a peach.”
But I wasn’t complaining. I shouldn’t have lived to puberty. The genetic aberration that I was afflicted with killed every witch born with it before they were two. I truly believed that Trent Kalamack’s father hadn’t known that the same thing that was killing me had made it possible for me to kindle demon magic, accidentally circumventing a genetic checks-and-balances. All he knew was his friend’s daughter was dying of an ancient malady and he had the wisdom and technology—even if it was illegal—to save my life.
So he had. And it kinda worried me that the only other witch Trent’s father had fixed was now suffering a living hell as the demon Algaliarept’s familiar in the ever-after.
Guilt assailed me, quickly quashed. I had told Lee not to give me to Al. I’d warned him to get us the hell out of the ever-after when we had the chance. But no-o-o-o-o. The wicked witch from the West thought he knew everything, and now he was paying for his mistake with his life. It had been either him or me, and I liked where I lived.
A freshening gust of wind blew in, carrying the hint of rain and shifting the curtains. I glanced at the book before me and turned the page to find a curse to pull out someone’s intelligence until they had the brain of a worm. Blinking, I closed the book. Okay, so it was easy to figure out that some of them were black, but was there such a thing as a white curse?
The thing was, I knew earth magic was powerful, but giving it the speed and versatility of ley line magic was frightening. And the mixing of the two branches of magic was in every curse. In the few hours I had been sitting here, I found curses that shifted mass to line energy or vice versa, so you could actually make big things little and little things big, not just project the illusion of a size change, as with ley line magic; and since it also involved an earth magic potion, the change was real—as in “having viable offspring” real.
Nervous, I pushed myself away from the table. My fingers tapped the old wood in a quick rhythm, and I glanced at the clock. Almost six. I couldn’t sit here any longer. The weather was shifting, and I wanted to be in it.
Surging to my feet, I snatched the book up and knelt at the low shelf under the center island counter. I didn’t want to shelve it with my usual library, but I certainly didn’t want the three of them under my pillow, either. Brow creasing, I moved a mundane cookbook to serve as a buffer between my spell books and the demon tomes. So I was superstitious. So sue me.
The last two books slid into place, and I straightened, wiping my hands on my jeans while I looked at them sitting oh so nicely between the Country Farm’s Cookie Cookbook I’d swiped from my mom and the copy of Real Witches Eat Quiche I had gotten from the I.S.’s secret Santa three years ago. You can guess which one I used the most.
Grabbing my bag, I headed out, boot heels clunking as I went down the hallway past Ivy’s and my bedrooms and bathrooms and into the sanctuary. The pews were long gone, leaving only the faded reminder of a huge cross above where the altar once stood. Stained-glass windows stretched from knee height to the top of the twelve-foot walls. The open raftered ceiling was dusky with the early twilight from the clouds, and I would use my panties as a sun hat if I could hear the whispered giggles of pixies plotting mischief up there again.
The large room took up half the heated space in the church, and it was empty but for my plant-strewn desk on the ankle-high stage where the altar had stood and Ivy’s baby grand piano just past the foyer. I’d only heard her play it once, her long fingers pulling a depth of emotion from the keys that I only rarely saw in her face.
I snatched my keys from my desk in passing, and they jingled happily as I continued into the dark foyer. Squinting, I plucked my red leather jacket and cap from the peg beside the four-inch-thick, twin oak doors. At the last moment, I grabbed Ivy’s umbrella with the ebony handle before wedging the door open. There was no lock—only a bar to lower from the inside—but no one on this side of the ley lines would dare steal from a Tamwood vampire.
The door thumped shut behind me, and I flounced down the steps to the cracked sidewalk. The spring evening was balmy, the humidity of an approaching storm shifting the air pressure to make the robins sing and my blood quicken. I could smell rain and imagine the distant rumble of thunder. I loved spring storms, and I smiled at the fresh green leaves shifting in the rising breeze.
My steps quickened when I saw my car tucked in the tiny carport: a bright red convertible with two seats up front and two unusable seats in back. Across the street and a few houses down, our neighbor Keasley was standing at the edge of his front porch, his spine bent from arthritis and his head up as he tasted the changing wind. He raised a gnarly hand when I waved, telling me everything was fine with him. Unseen preschool-age kids were shouting, responding to the air pressure shift with less restraint than I was managing.
Up and down the street, people were coming out of their Americana middle-class homes, heads up and eyes on the sky. It was the season’s first warm rain, and only three days out of a new moon. The I.S. would have a busy night trying to rein everyone in.
Not my problem anymore, I cheerfully thought as I settled in behind the wheel of my car and took the time to put the top down so I could feel the wind in my hair. Yeah, it was going to rain, but not for a few hours yet.
Saucy little red cap on my head, and wearing a snappy leather jacket to block the wind, I drove through the Hollows at a modest pace, waiting until I crossed the bridge and got on the interstate before I opened her up. The damp wind beating on my face brought every smell to me, sharper and more vivid than it had been for months, and the rumble of tires, engine, and wind muffling everything else was like freedom itself. I found myself inching past eighty when I saw the cruiser parked on an entrance ramp. It had the Federal Inderland Bureau emblem on it, and waving merrily, I tunked it down and got a headlight blink in return. Everyone in the human-run FIB knew my car—heck, they had given it to me. The FIB wouldn’t stop me, but the Inderland run I.S. would, just out of spite for having quit their lame-ass, nationwide police force.
I tucked a strand of blowing hair behind my ear and warily checked behind me. I’d only had my car a couple of months, and already the entire fleet of I.S. flunkies doing street duty knew me by sight, taking every opportunity to help me rack up points on my license. And it wasn’t fair! The red light I ran a month ago was for a darn good reason—and at five in the morning, no one had even been at the intersection but the cop. I still don’t know where he had come from—my trunk maybe? And I’d been late for an appointment the time I got pulled over for speeding on 75. I hadn’t been going that much faster than everyone else.
“Stupid car,” I muttered fondly, though I wouldn’t trade my little red ticket magnet for anything. It wasn’t its fault the I.S. took every chance they could to make my life miserable.
But “Walkie Talkie Man” was cranked, Steriogram singing so fast only a vamp could keep up, and it wasn’t long before the little white hand crept up to eighty again, pulling my mood along with it. I even found a cute-looking guy on a cycle to flirt with while I made my way to Edgemont where Jenks had his run.
The cessation of wind as I came off the interstate was almost an assault, and when a rumble of real thunder rolled over me, I pulled to the side of the road to put the top up. My head jerked up when the guy on the cycle whizzed past, his hand raised in salute. My faint smile lingered for a moment, then vanished.
If I couldn’t get Jenks to talk to me, I was going to kill the little twit.
Taking a deep breath, I turned my phone to vibrate, snapped off the music, and pulled into traffic. I jostled over a railroad track, peering into the coming dusk and noting that the pace of the pedestrian and bike traffic had changed from casual to intense as the threat of rain increased. It was a business district, one of the old industrial areas that the city had thrown a lot of money at to turn it into a themed mall and parks to attract the usual outlying shops and apartments. It reminded me of “Mrs. Bryant’s flat,” and I frowned.
I drove past the address to evaluate the multistoried sprawling building. By the art deco and the mailbox drive-through, it looked like a manufacturing complex turned into a mix of light commercial and upscale apartments. I hadn’t seen Jenks, but that wouldn’t be unusual if he was tailing someone. Matalina said he was on a smut run to build up money to buy an airline ticket.
My brow was furrowed in worry when I turned the corner and got a lucky spot at the curb in front of a coffeehouse, jerking the parking break up and shifting the stick to neutral. Pixies couldn’t fly commercially—the shifting air pressures wreaked havoc with them. Jenks wasn’t thinking straight anymore. No wonder Matalina had come to me.
Snatching up my bag, I timed my move with traffic and got out. A quick look at the lowering clouds, and I reached for Ivy’s umbrella. The smell of coffee almost pulled me inside, but I dutifully went the other way. A quick glance, and I slipped into the alley of the building in question, walking so my feet were silent in my vamp-made boots.
The scent of garbage and dog urine was strong, and I wrinkled my nose and pulled my jacket closer, looking for a spot where I could stay out of sight and watch the front door of the complex. I was early. If I could catch him before he went in, it would be all the better. But then I froze at the sound of a familiar wing clatter.
Face going still, I looked up the narrow passage to find a pixy dressed in a black body stocking rubbing a clean spot to see through on a dirt-grimed, bird-spotted, upper-story window.
Shame stilled my voice. God, I had been so stupid. I didn’t blame him for leaving, for thinking I hadn’t trusted him. The ugly truth was, I hadn’t. Last solstice I had figured out that Trent Kalamack was an elf, and getting the wealthy son of a bitch to not kill me for knowing that the elves weren’t extinct but had gone into hiding had taken a pretty piece of blackmail. Finding out what kind of Inderlander Trent was had become the holy grail of the pixy world, and I knew the temptation for Jenks to blab it would be too much. Even so, he deserved better than my lies of omission, and I was afraid he might not listen to me even now.
Jenks hovered, intent on whatever was inside. His dragonfly wings were invisible in his calm state, and not a hint of pixy dust sifted from him. He looked confident, and a red bandanna was tied about his forehead. It was protection against accidentally invading a rival pixy’s or fairy’s territory, a promise of a quick departure with no attempt at poaching.
I nervously gathered my resolve, glancing at the wall of the alley before I leaned against it and tried to look casual. “So, is she cheating on her husband?” I asked.
“Nah,” Jenks said, his eyes focused through the glass. “She’s taking an exercise class to surprise him on their twenty-fifth anniversary. He doesn’t deserve her, the mistrusting bastard.”
Then he jerked, slamming back six feet to nearly hit the adjacent building.
“You!” he cried, pixy dust sifting like sunbeams. “What the hell are you doing here?”
I pushed myself off the wall and stepped forward. “Jenks—”
He dropped like a stone to hover before me, finger pointing as the pixy dust he had let slip slowly fell over us. Anger creased his tiny features to make him grim and threatening. “She told you!” he shrilled, his jaw clenched and his face red under his short blond hair.
I took a step back, alarmed. “Jenks, she’s only worried—”
“The hell with you both,” he snarled. “I’m outta here.”
He turned, wings a blur of red. Ticked, I tapped a line. Energy flowed, equalizing in the time it takes for a burst bubble to vanish. “Rhombus,” I snapped, imagining a circle. A sheet of gold hummed into existence, so thick it blurred the walls of the surrounding alley. I staggered, my balance questionable since I hadn’t taken even the time to pretend to draw a circle in the air.
Jenks jerked to a stop a mere inch in front of the circle. “You sorry stupid witch!” he shrilled, seeming at a loss for something worse. “Let me out. I ought to kill your car. I ought to leave slug eggs in your slippers! I ought to, I ought to…”
Hands on my hips, I got in his face. “Yeah, you ought to, but first you’re going to listen to me!” His eyes widened, and I leaned forward until he shifted back. “What is wrong with you, Jenks? This can’t just be about me not telling you what Trent is!”
Jenks’s face lost its surprise. His eyes touched upon the bandages and bruises on my neck, then dropped to my pain amulet. Seemingly by force of will, his eyes narrowed with an old anger. “That’s right,” he said, hovering an inch before my nose. “It’s about you lying to me! It’s about you not trusting me with information. It’s about you pissing all over our partnership!”
Finally, I thought. Finally. I gritted my jaw, almost cross-eyed with him so close. “Good God! If I tell you what he is, will that make you happy?”
“Shut your mouth!” he shouted. “I don’t care anymore, and I don’t need your help. Break your circle so I can get the hell away from you, or I’ll jam something where it shouldn’t go, witch.”
“You stupid ass,” I exclaimed, warming. “Fine!” Furious, I shoved a foot into the circle. My breath hissed in when the circle’s energy flowed into me. At the end of the alley the passing people gave us a few curious looks. “Run away!” I said, gesturing wildly, not caring what they thought. “Leave, you cowardly ball of spider snot. I’ve been trying to apologize for the last five months, but you’re so preoccupied with your stinking little hurt feelings that you won’t listen. I think you like being slighted. I think you feel secure in your downtrodden pixy mentality. I think you get off on the ‘poor little pixy that no one takes seriously crap’ that you wrap yourself in. And when I believed in you, you got scared and ran away at the first sign that you might have to live up to your ideas!”
Jenks’s mouth was hanging open and he was slowly loosing altitude. Seeing him floundering, I surged ahead, thinking I might have finally shaken him loose.
“Go on and leave,” I continued, my legs starting to shake. “Stay in your stinking little basement and hide. But Matalina and your kids are coming back to the garden. You can shove a cherry up your ass and make jam for all I care, but I need them. I can’t keep those damn fairies out to save my dandelions, and I need my garden as much as I need backup on a night with a full moon. And your bitching and moaning don’t mean crap anymore because I’ve been trying to apologize and all you’ve done is shit on me. Well, I’m not apologizing anymore!”
Still he hung in the air, his wings shifting to a lighter shade of red. He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands, and they tugged his bandanna and fell to his sword.
“I’m going to find Jax and Nick,” I said, my anger lessening. I had said what I wanted, and all that was left was hearing what he thought. “Are you coming with me or not?”
Jenks rose. “My going north has nothing to do with you,” he said tightly.
“Like hell it doesn’t,” I said, hearing the first heavy drop of rain hit the nearby Dumpster. “He may be your son, but it was my old boyfriend who got him in trouble. He lied to you. He lied to me. And I’m going up there so I can kick Nick’s ass from here to the ever-after.” Even I could hear my sullen tone, and Jenks gave me a nasty smile.
“Be careful,” he goaded. “Someone might think you still like him.”
“I do not,” I said, feeling a headache start. “But he’s in trouble and I can’t just let whoever it is kill him.”
A bitter, saucy look returned to Jenks’s face, and he flitted to the end of a two-by-four sticking out of a can. “Yuh-huh,” he said snidely, hands on his hips. “Why are you really going?”
“I just told you why,” I snapped, hiding my bitten hand when he looked at it.
His head bobbed up and down. “Yada yada yada,” he said, making a get-on-with-it gesture with one hand. “I know why you’re going, but I want to hear you say it.”
I fumbled, not believing this. “Because I’m as mad as all hell!” I said, the rain falling steadily now. If we had to continue this conversation much longer, we were going to get soaked. “He said he was going to come back, and he did, just long enough to clear out his apartment and take off. No good-bye, not even an ‘it was great, babe, but I gotta go now.’ I need to tell him to his face that he crapped all over me and I don’t love him anymore.”
Jenks’s tiny eyebrows rose, and I wished he was bigger so I could wipe the smirk off his face. “This is some female closure thing, isn’t it?” he said, and I sneered.
“Look,” I said. “I’m going to get Jax and pull Nick’s sorry ass out from whatever mess he’s in. Are you coming with me, or are you going to waste your time taking smut runs for a paycheck you will only waste on a plane ticket that will leave you hospitalized for three days?” I slowed, thinking I could chance appealing to his love for Matalina without him flying away. “Matalina is scared, Jenks. She’s afraid you won’t come back if you go alone.”
His face emptied of emotion, and for a moment I thought I’d gone too far. “I can do this on my own,” he said angrily. “I don’t need your help.”
My thoughts went to his iffy food supply and the cold northern nights. It could snow in May in Michigan. Jenks knew it. “Sure you don’t,” I said. I crossed my arms and eyed him. “Just like I could have survived those fairy assassins last year without your help.”
His lips pursed. He took a breath to tell me something. His hand went up, finger pointing. I made my eyes wide and mocking. Slowly his hand fell. Still standing on the two-by-four, Jenks’s wings drooped. “You’re going?”
I fought to keep my surge of hope from showing. “Yes,” I said. “But to even have a chance, I need a security bypass expert, reconnaissance, and someone I trust to watch my back. Ivy can’t do it. She can’t leave Cincinnati.”
Jenks’s wings hummed into motion, then stilled. “You hurt me bad, Rachel.”
My chest clenched in guilt. “I know,” I whispered. “And I’m sorry. I don’t deserve your help, but I’m asking for it.” I pulled my head up, pleading with him with my eyes. For the first time, his face showed the hurt I’d given him, and my heart broke again.
“I’ll think about it,” he muttered, taking to the air.
I took a faltering step after him. “I’m leaving tomorrow. Early noon.”
Wings clattering, Jenks flew a swooping path back to me. I nearly raised my hand for him to land on, but it would hurt too much if he shunned it. “I suppose that’s early for a witch,” he said. The pitch of his wings rose until my eyeballs hurt. “Okay. I’ll come with you, but I’m not coming back to the firm. This is a one-shot deal.”
My throat closed and I swallowed down a lump. He’d come back. He knew it as much as I did. I wanted to shout an exuberant, “Yes!” I wanted to whoop to make the passing people stare, but what I did instead was smile shakily at him. “Okay,” I said, so relieved I was almost crying.
Blinking profusely, I followed him to the head of the alley. Though Jenks would have snugged under my hat before, to get out of the rain, it was too much to ask just yet. “Can you meet me tonight at the church after midnight?” I asked. “I have a few charms to prep before we head out.”
We left the alley together, the lighter gloom making me feel as if we had come out of a black hole. We were both walking on eggshells; the patterns were familiar, but the sensitivities were so very fragile.
“I can do that,” Jenks said apprehensively, glancing up at the rain.
“Good. Good.” I listened to my feet hit the sidewalk, the thumps jarring up my spine. “Do you still have your half of the phone set you gave me?” I could hear the hesitancy in my voice, and I wondered if Jenks could too. I had kept the phone he’d given me for the solstice. Hell, I had almost made it into a shrine.
I popped open Ivy’s black umbrella, and Jenks flew under it. Five months ago he would have sat on my shoulder, but even this small show of trust caught at me.
“David brought it over,” he said stiffly, keeping to the distant corner.
“Good,” I said again, feeling stupid. “Can you bring it with you?”
“It’s a little big for me to slip into my pocket, but I’ll manage.” It was sarcastic and biting, but he was sounding more like the Jenks I knew.
I glanced at him, seeing he was trailing the faintest wisp of silver sparkles. My car was just ahead, and I wondered whether he’d take offense if I offered him a ride home.
“Cowardly ball of spider snot?” Jenks said when I opened the door and he darted inside.
Swallowing hard, I stared across to the sidewalk and the people running for cover as the clouds opened and it began to pour. He was back. I had gotten him back. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start. Breath shaking, I folded the umbrella and ducked inside. “Give me a break,” I said as I started the car and turned the heat on full to warm him up. “I was pressed for time.”
I held up the black lace top in consideration. Sighing, I decided against it, folding it up and jamming it back into the third drawer down. Sure, I looked good in it, but this was a rescue run, not spring break. Taking the short-sleeve peach-colored cotton shirt instead, I set it atop the jeans already packed in the suitcase my mom had given me for graduation. She insisted it hadn’t been a hint, but I reserved my doubts to this day.
Moving to my top drawer, I grabbed enough socks and undies for a week. The church was empty since Ivy was out getting Jenks and his brood. The rain pattered pleasantly on my small stained-glass window propped open with a pencil, getting the sill wet but little else. From the dark garden came the trill of a toad. It mixed well with the soft jazz from the living room.
In the back of my closet I found the red turtleneck sweater I’d stored last week. I shook the hanger from it, carefully folded it, and set it with the rest. I added a pair of running shorts and my favorite black tee with staff on it that I’d gotten while working Takata’s concert last winter. The temp could hit eighty as easily as thirty-five. I sighed, content. Midnight rain, toad song, jazz, and Jenks coming home. It didn’t get much better.
My head rose at the creak of the front door. “Hey, it’s me,” came Kisten’s voice.
And now it was better still. “Back here,” I called, taking two steps to the hall, one hand on the doorframe as I leaned out. The lights were dim in the sanctuary, his tall silhouette mysterious and attractive as he shook the rain from his full-length slicker.
I ducked back inside and shut my underwear drawer just before Kisten came in, the soft and certain steps of his dress shoes distinct on the hardwood floor. The scent of pizza and someone else’s perfume hung about him, and by his carefully styled hair, clean-shaven cheeks, expensive dress slacks and silk shirt, I knew he had come from work. I liked the respectable, financially successful club manager aspect of Kisten as much as his rougher, bad boy image. He could do both equally well.
“Hi, love,” he said, hitting his fake British accent hard to make me smile. A rain-spotted paper grocery bag was in his hands, the top rolled down. I padded forward in my sneakers, having to reach to give him a hug. My fingers played with the damp tips of his hair as I drew away, and he smiled, enjoying the tease.
“Hi,” I said, reaching for the bag. “Is that them?”
Nodding, he gave it to me, and I set it on the bed, opening it and peering inside. As I had asked, there was a pair of sweatpants and a soft flannel sweatshirt.
Kisten looked at the bag, clearly wanting to know why, but all he said was, “Ivy’s out?”
“She went to get Jenks because of the rain.” Pensive, I opened a lower drawer and packed another T-shirt. “She missed him as much as me,” I finished softly.
Looking tired, Kisten sat at the head of my bed, his long fingers rolling the top of the bag down. I closed my suitcase but didn’t zip it. It was unusual for him to leave Piscary’s club mid-hours. Clearly something was bothering him. I straightened, arms crossed, and waited for it.
“I don’t think you should go,” he said, his voice serious.
My mouth fell open, surprise shifting to anger when I pieced it together. “Is this about Nick?” I said, turning to my dresser to pack the ungodly expensive bottle of perfume that kept my natural scent from mixing with a vampire’s. “Kisten, I’m over him. Give me some credit.”
“That’s not why. Ivy—”
“Ivy!” I stiffened, glancing into the empty hall. “What about her? Is Piscary…”
His slowly moving head said no, and I relaxed a notch. “He’s leaving her alone. But she relies on you more than you know. If you go, things might shift.”
Flustered, I jammed the perfume into a zippy bag and dropped it into a pocket in my vanity case. “I’m only going to be gone for a week, maybe two. It’s not as if I’m her scion.”
“No. You’re her friend. And that’s more important than anything else to her right now.”
Arms crossed, I leaned back against my dresser. “This isn’t my responsibility—I have my own life,” I protested. “Gods, we share rent. We aren’t married!”
Kisten’s eyes were dark in the dim light from my table lamp, his brow pinched with worry. “You have coffee with her every day when she wakes up. You’re across the hall when she shuts the curtains before going to sleep. That might not mean much to you, but it’s everything to her. You’re her first real friend in…Damn, I think it’s been over ten years.”
“You’re her friend,” I said. “And what about Skimmer?”
“You’re her only friend not after her blood,” he amended, his eyes sad. “It’s different.”
“Well, just crap on that,” I said, picking up my last favorite earring but not knowing what to do with it. Disgusted, I threw it away. “Ivy hasn’t said anything to me about not leaving.”
“Rachel…” He stood, coming to take my elbows in his grip. His fingers were warm, and I felt them tighten and relax. From the living room, jazz rose and fell. “She won’t.”
I dropped my head, frustrated. “Never once did I tell her I’d be anything but what we are now,” I said. “We aren’t sharing a bed or blood or anything! I don’t belong to her, and keeping her together isn’t my job. Why is this all on me, anyway? You’ve known her longer than I.”
“I know her past. You don’t. She leans on you more because of your ignorance of what she was.” He took a hesitant breath before he continued. “It was ugly, Rachel. Piscary warped her into a viciously savage lover who couldn’t separate blood from lust or love. She survived by becoming something she hated, accepting the pattern of self-abuse of trying to please everyone she thought she loved.”
I didn’t want to hear this, but when I tried to move, his grip tightened.
“She’s better now,” he said, his blue eyes pleading for me to listen. “It took her a long time to break the pattern, and even longer to start to feel good about herself. I’ve never seen her happier, and like it or not, it’s because of you. She loves Skimmer, but that woman is a big part of what Ivy was and how she got there, and if you leave…”
My jaw tightened and I stiffened, not liking this at all. “I am not Ivy’s keeper,” I said, gut twisting. “I did not sign up for this, Kisten!”
But he only smiled, soft and full of understanding and regret. I liked Ivy—I liked her, respected her, and wished I had half her willpower—but I didn’t want anyone relying on me that heavily. Hell, I could hardly take care of myself, much less a powerful, mentally abused vampire.
“She won’t ask more than you can give,” he said. “Especially if she needs it. But you did move in with her, and more telling, you stayed when your relationship began to evolve.”
“Excuse me?” I said, trying to pull away. He wouldn’t let go, and I jerked from him, falling two steps back.
Kisten’s expression had a hint of accusation. “She asked you to be her scion,” he said.
“And I said no!”
“But you forgave her for trying to force you, and you did it without a second thought.”
This was crap. He had heard all of this. Why was he making such a big deal about it? “Only because I jumped on her back and breathed in her ear when we were sparring!” I said. “I pushed her too far, and it wasn’t her fault. Besides, she was scared that if she didn’t make me her scion, Piscary was going to kill me.”
Kisten nodded, his calm state helping to dissipate my anger. “It was a no-win situation,” he said softly. “And you both handled it the best you could, but the point is, you did jump on her knowing what it might trigger.”
I took a breath to protest, then turned away, flustered. “It was a mistake, and I didn’t think it was right to walk out because I made a mistake.”
“Why not?” he insisted. “People leave all the time when someone makes a mistake.”
Frightened, I went to push past him. I had to get out of there.
“Rachel,” he said loudly, jerking me into him. “Why didn’t you leave right then? No one would have thought any less of you.”
I took a breath, then let it out. “Because she is my friend,” I said, eyes down, and keeping my voice low so it wouldn’t shake. “That’s why. And it wouldn’t be fair for me to leave because of my mistake, because she…relies on me.”
My shoulders slumped, and Kisten’s grip on me eased, pulling me closer.
“Damn it, Kist,” I said, putting my cheek to his shirt and breathing in his scent. “I can hardly take care of myself. I can’t save her too.”
“No one said you had to,” he said, his voice rumbling into me. “And no one says it’s going to stay this way. Helping to keep you alive and unbound with that scar of yours makes Ivy feel worthwhile—that she’s making the world a better place. Do you know how hard that is for a vampire to find? She leans on you harder than me because she feels responsible for you and you owe her.”
There is that, I thought, remembering how vulnerable my unclaimed vampire scar made me. But my debt to Ivy wasn’t why I hadn’t left. Nick had said I was making excuses to stay in an unsafe situation, that I had wanted her to bite me. I couldn’t believe that. It was just friendship. Wasn’t it?
Kisten’s hand across my hair was soothing, and I put my arms around his waist, finding comfort in his touch. “If you leave,” he said, “you take her strength.”
“I never wanted this,” I said. How had I become her lodestone? Her savior. All I wanted was to be her friend.
“I know.” His breath moved my hair. “Will you stay?”
I swallowed, not wanting to move. “I can’t,” I said, and he gently pushed me back until he could see my face. “Jenks needs me. It’s just a quick run. Five hundred miles. How much trouble could Nick and Jax be in? They probably just need bail money. I’ll be back.”
Kisten’s face was creased, his elegant grace marred by sorrow. The caring he felt for me and for Ivy were mixed together and somehow beautiful. “I know you will. I just hope Ivy is here when you do.”
Uncomfortable, I went to my closet and pretended to shuffle for something. “She’s a big girl. She’ll be fine. It’s only a day’s drive.”
He took a breath to say something, then stopped, shifting from foot to foot as he changed his mind. Going back to the bed, he opened the crinkling bag of sweats and looked inside. “What do you want these for anyway? A disguise? Or is it to remember me by?”
Glad at the shift in topics, I turned with my butt-kicking boots in hand and set them by the bed. “Remember you by?”
A faint flush rimmed his ears. “Yeah. I thought you wanted them to put under your pillow or something. So it was like I was there with you?”
Taking the bag from him, I peered into it in speculation. “You wore them already?”
He rubbed a hand across his smooth chin, discomforted. “Ah, just once. I didn’t sweat in them or anything. I dated a girl who liked wearing one of my shirts to bed. She said it was like I was holding her all night. I thought it was a, uh, girl thing.”
My smile blossomed. “You mean, like this?” Feeling wicked, I pulled out the sweatshirt and slipped it on over my top. Holding my arms about myself, I shifted back and forth, my eyes closed and breathing deeply. I didn’t care that the reason he smelled good was from a thousand years of evolution to make it easier for him to find prey.
“You wicked, wicked witch,” Kisten whispered. The sudden heat in his voice pulled my eyes open. He took a slow breath, his entire body moving. “Oh God, you smell good.”
“Yeah? What about now?” Grinning, I did jumping jacks, knowing the mixing of our scents would drive him slightly nuts.
As expected, his eyes dilated with a sudden blood lust, flashing to black. “Rachel,” he said, his voice strained. “Don’t.”
Giggling, I evaded his reaching hand. “Wait! Wait!” I gasped. “I can make it worse.”
“Stop,” Kisten said, his voice low and controlled. There was a hint of threat in it, and when he reached for me again, I shrieked, darting around the end of the bed. With vampire quickness he followed, my back hitting the wall with a breath-stealing thump as he pinned me.
Eyes crinkled and smiling, I wiggled and twisted, enjoying pushing his buttons. After only a token show of resistance, I stopped, letting him find my mouth.
My breath left me in a slow sound as I eased against him, my arms crunched between us. His grip on my shoulders was firm and dominating. Possessive. But I knew he’d let go if I made one real motion to break free. Soft jazz completed my mood.
His fingers clenched and released, his lips moving lower until his mouth brushed my chin, following the line of my jaw to the hollow under my ear. My heart pounded and I tilted my head. In a surprised sound, my breath escaped when the tingling at my scar surged. With the quickness and sudden shock of a flag snapping in the wind, heat scoured me, following my veins and settling into an insistent pounding—demanding I follow it through to its natural end.
Kisten felt it, and as his breath quickened, I pulled my hands from between us, sending my fingers to the nape of his neck. My eyes closed as I felt his need, his desire, beat on mine to make it stronger. A sound escaped me as his lips gently worked my old scar. My body rebelled at the surge of passion, and my knees gave way. He was ready for it, holding me firm to him. I wanted this. God, how I wanted it. I should have tried wearing something of his ages ago.
“Rachel,” he whispered, his breathing harsh and heavy with desire.
“What?” I panted, my blood still humming though his lips weren’t on my scar anymore.
“Don’t ever—wear anything of mine—again. I can’t…”
I froze, not understanding. I made a motion to break free, but he held me firm. Fear scoured painfully where passion once ran. My eyes flicked to his, seeing them lost and black, then to his mouth. He wasn’t wearing his caps. Shit, I had pushed him too far.
“I can’t let go of you,” he said, his lips not moving.
Adrenaline surged, and a drop of sweat formed at his hairline. Shit, shit, shit. I was in trouble. My gaze flicked to the glint of fang at the corner of his mouth. From one breath to the next, the coin of desire had flipped from sex to blood. Damn, the next ten seconds were going to be really dicey.
“I think I can let go if you aren’t afraid,” he said, fear and blood lust mixed in his voice.
I couldn’t look away from his black eyes. I could not look from his eyes. While Kisten unconsciously dumped pheromones into the air to make my vampire scar send wave after wave of passion through me in time with my hammering pulse, my gut twisted.
Mind racing, I forced my breathing to be slow and even. Fear would trip him over the edge. I’d pulled Ivy down once, and I knew if he was still talking, then the odds were highly in my favor. “Listen,” I said, the ecstasy from my vampire scar mixing with my fear in an unreal slurry. It felt good. It was a rush, the thrill of skydiving and sex all at the same time, and I knew that letting him bite me would triple the sensation. And I was going to let go of him and push him away. “I’m going to close my eyes because I trust you,” I said.
It was soft and pleading. He truly wanted to let go. Damn it, this was my fault. Tension made my head hurt, and I closed my eyes on the black orbs his gaze had become. It made the fear ten times harder to surmount, but still, I trusted him. I could tap a line and send him flying into the wall—and if push came to shove, I would—but it would change our relationship utterly, and I loved him. It was a quiet, tentative love with the frightening promise that it would grow if I didn’t screw it up. And I wanted a love based on trust, not who was stronger.
“Kisten,” I said, forcing my jaw to unclench. “I’m going to let go of you, and you are going to let go of my shoulders and step back. Ready?” I could hear him breathe, harsh and insistent. It struck a chord inside me, and we both shuddered.
It would feel so damn good to let him bite me, his teeth sinking deep, pulling me to him, the pain twisted to pleasure, scouring through me like fire and stealing my breath, taking me to imagined heights of ecstasy. It would be incredible, the best thing I’d ever felt. It would change my life forever. And it was not going to happen. For all the promised pleasure, I knew it hid an equally ugly reality. And I was afraid.
“Now, Kisten,” I said, eyes still closed, forcing my fingers to move.
My hands fell from him and he stepped away. My eyes flashed open. He had his back to me, a hand on the waist-high post at the foot of my bed. His free hand shook. I reached out, then hesitated. “Kisten, I’m sorry,” I said, voice trembling, and he bobbed his head.
“Me too.” His husky voice ran through me like water through sand, leaving me warm and tingly. “Do me a favor and don’t do that again.”
“You bet.” Crossing my arms in front of me, I took off his sweatshirt and let it fall to the bed. The tingle at my neck faded, leaving me shaking and sick at heart. I had known mixing our scents was a blood aphrodisiac, but not how potent it was or that it could come on that fast. I was still making mistakes. Almost a year at this and I was still making mistakes.
Kisten’s head came up, and I wasn’t surprised to hear the front door open. In three seconds flat six streaks of silver and gold whizzed by my door at head height. Two more seconds and they raced back.
“Hi, Ms. Morgan!” came a high-pitched voice, and a pixy girl came to a short stop at the door, peering in with her dress fluttering about her ankles. Her face was flushed and her fair hair was swirling in the draft from her wings. There was a crash from the living room, and she darted off, shouting so high that my head hurt. The music blared, then cut out.
I took a step to the door, jerking to a stop when Matalina halted before me.
“I’m sorry, Rachel,” the pretty pixy woman said, looking frazzled. “I’ll take care of it. I’ll get them out to the stump as soon as it stops raining.”
Smoothing the rough edges of my bandaged knuckles, I tried to wash away the last of my runaway passions and the fear from Kisten. He hadn’t moved, clearly still trying to regain control. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I didn’t have time to pixy-proof the church.” There was another crash, this time from the kitchen. A handful of pixies flowed by, all talking at once, and Matalina followed, admonishing them to stay out of my cupboards.
My worry deepened when Ivy strode past. Jenks was on her shoulder, and he gave me an unsure look and a nod of recognition. Ivy caught sight of Kisten and she backpedaled, her shorter hair swinging. Her gaze went to his shirt on the bed, then took in my soft guilt and the tremor in my hands. Nostrils flaring, she scented the vamp pheromones and my fear, realizing in seconds what had transpired. I shrugged helplessly.
“We’re back,” she said dryly, then continued to the kitchen, the new loudness of her steps and the slight tension in her body the only sign that she knew I had pushed Kisten too far.
Kisten didn’t meet my gaze, but my shoulders eased at the returning ring of blue in his eyes. “You okay?” I asked, and he gave me a closed-lipped smile.
“I shouldn’t have given you a pair I already wore,” he said, taking the shirt and stuffing it in the bag. “Maybe you should wash them.”
I took the bag when he extended it, embarrassed. He followed me into the hallway, turning to the kitchen while I went the other way to get the washer going. The sharp scent of the soap ticked my nose, and I dumped in a full measure, then added a little more. I closed the lid and stood with my hands on the washer as it filled, my head bowed. My gaze fell on my bitten hand. Sometimes I thought I was the stupidest witch ever born. Straightening, I forced a pleasant expression onto my face and headed to the kitchen, anticipating Ivy’s mocking look.
Unable to met anyone’s eyes, I went straight to the coffeemaker to get a mug to hide behind. All the pixy kids were in the living room, and the sound of their play mixed with the soft hush of the rain past the open kitchen window. Ivy gave me one wry look before returning to her e-mails, having parked herself at her computer, out of the way in the corner. Jenks was on the sill, his back to me as he looked into the wet garden, and Kisten was sitting in my chair, his legs stretched to poke out past the corner of the table. No one was saying anything.
“Hey, uh, Kist,” I stammered, and he pulled his head up. “I found a spell to Were with in one of the books you gave me.”
He seemed to have found his calm, and though I was wire-tight, his eyes were weary. “No kidding,” he said.
Encouraged, I brought out the book and thumped it open before him.
Jenks flitted over, nearly landing on my shoulder but choosing Kisten’s at the last moment. He glanced down, his wings stilling before his head jerked up to mine. “Isn’t that—”
“Yeah,” I interrupted. “It’s demon magic. But see? I don’t have to kill anything.”
Kisten blew out his breath, meeting Ivy’s blank expression before easing away from the book. “You can do demon magic?” he asked.
I nodded and tucked a curl behind my ear. I didn’t want to tell him why, and though Kisten was too much of a gentleman to ask when others could hear, Jenks was another story. Wings clattering, he put his hands on his hips and frowned at me in his best Peter Pan pose. “How come you can do demon magic and no one else can?” he asked.
“I’m not the only one,” I said tightly, and then the metallic bong of the pull bell Ivy and I used for a doorbell vibrated through the damp air.
Ivy and Kisten both straightened, and I said, “It’s probably Ceri. I asked her to come over to help me with my spells tonight.”
“Your demon spells?” Jenks said bitingly, and I frowned, not wanting to argue.
“I’ll let her in,” Kisten said as he stood. “I’ve got to go. I—have an appointment.”
His voice was strained, and I backed up, feeling like dirt when I saw his rising hunger. Crap, he was having a hard time staying balanced tonight. I was never going to do that again.
Kisten smoothly reached out, and I didn’t move when he put his hands lightly on my shoulder and gave me a quick kiss. “I’ll call you after we close. You going to be up?”
I nodded. “Kisten, I’m sorry,” I whispered, and he gave me a smile before walking out with slow, measured steps. Riling him up without being able to satisfy his hunger wasn’t fair.
Jenks landed on the table beside me, his wings clattering for my attention. “Rachel, that’s demon magic,” he said, his belligerent attitude not hiding his worry.
“That’s why I asked Ceri to look at it,” I said. “I’ve got this under control.”
“But it’s demon magic! Ivy, tell her she’s being stupid.”
“She knows she’s being stupid.” Ivy closed her computer down with a few clicks. “See what she did to Kist?”
I crossed my arms. “All right, it’s demon magic. But that doesn’t necessarily make it black. Can we hear what Ceri says before we decide anything?” We. Yeah, we. It was we again, and it was going to stay that way, damn it.
In a surge of motion, Ivy rose, stretching for the ceiling in her black jeans and a tight knit shirt. She grabbed her purse and shouted, “Wait up, Kist!”
Jenks and I stared at her. “You’re going with him?” I asked for both of us.
Ivy’s look, rife with disapproval, was aimed at me. “I want to make sure no one takes advantage of him and he ends up hating himself when the sun comes up.” She shrugged into her jacket and put on her shades though it was dark out. “If you pulled that on me, I’d pin you to the wall and have at it. Kist is a gentleman. You don’t deserve him.”
My breath caught at the memory of my back to the wall and Kisten’s lips on my neck. A spike of remembered need raced from my neck to my groin. Ivy sucked in her breath as if I’d slapped her, her heightened senses taking in my state as easily as I could see the sparkles sifting from Jenks. “I’m sorry,” I said, though my skin was tingling. “I wasn’t thinking.”
“That’s why I gave you the damn book,” she said tightly. “So you wouldn’t have to.”
“What did she do?” Jenks asked, but Ivy had walked out, boot heels clunking. “What book? The one about dating vampires? Tink’s panties, you still have that?” he added.
“I’ll bring back a pizza,” Ivy called, unseen from the hallway.
“What did you do, Rache?” Jenks said, the wind from his wings cooling my cheeks.
“I put on Kisten’s shirt and did jumping jacks,” I said, embarrassed.
The small pixy snorted, going to the windowsill to check on the rain. “You keep pulling stunts like that and people will think you want to be bitten.”
“Yeah,” I muttered, taking a sip of my cooling coffee and leaning against the center island counter. I was still making mistakes. Then I remembered what Quen had once told me. If you do it once, it’s a mistake. If you do it twice, it’s not a mistake anymore.
I looked up when the soft conversation in the sanctuary gave way to clipped steps and Ceri peered hesitantly around the corner of the archway. Pulling the rain hood from her, she smiled, clearly pleased to see Jenks and me back on speaking terms. “Jenks, about Trent…” I said, seeing his wings turn an excited red. He knew that whatever Trent was, Ceri was the same.
“I can figure this out myself,” he said, focusing on Ceri. “Shut your mouth.”
I shut my mouth.
I stood and extended my hands to give Ceri a hug. I wasn’t a touchy-feely person, but Ceri was. She had been Al’s familiar until I stole her in the breath of time between her retirement and my attempted installment. Glancing briefly at my neck and bandaged knuckles, she pressed her lips disapprovingly, but thankfully said nothing. Her small, almost ethereal stature met mine, and the hand-tooled silver crucifix Ivy had given her made a cold spot through my shirt. The hug was brief but sincere, and she was smiling when she put me at arm’s length. She had thin, fair hair that she wore free and flowing, a small chin, delicate nose, large pride, short temper, and a mild demeanor unless challenged.
She took off her rain cape and draped it over Ivy’s chair, the self-proclaimed “throne” of the room. Al had dressed her commensurate to her earthly status while in his service—treating her as a favored slave/servant/bed warmer as well as an adornment—and though she now wore jeans and a sweater in her usual purple, gold, and black, instead of a skin-tight gown of shimmering silk and gold, the bearing was still there.
“Thanks for coming over,” I said, genuinely glad to see her. “Do you want some tea?”
“No, thank you.” She elegantly extended a narrow hand for Jenks to land on. “It’s good to see you back where you can help the people who need you the most, master pixy,” she said to him, and I would swear he turned three shades of red.
“Hi, Ceri,” he said. “You look well-rested. Did you sleep well tonight?”
Her heart-shaped face went crafty, knowing he was trying to decipher what kind of Inderlander she was by her sleep patterns. “I have yet to take my evening rest,” she said, shifting her fingers until he took to the air. Her gaze went to the open book on the table. “Is that it?”
A thrill of adrenaline went through me. “One of them. Is it demon?”
Tucking her long fair hair behind an ear, she leaned to take a closer look. “Oh yes.”
Suddenly I was a whole lot more nervous, and I set my mug on the counter while my stomach churned. “There are a couple of charms I might want to try. Would you look at them for me and tell me what you think?”
Ceri’s delicate features glowed with pleasure. “I’d love to.”
I exhaled in a puff of relief. “Thanks.” Wiping my hands on my jeans, I pointed to the curse to Were. “This one here. What about it? Do you think I can do it all right?”
The tips of her severely straight hair touched the stain-spotted, yellow text as she bent over the book. Frowning, she gathered the strands up and out of the way. Jenks flitted to the table as she squinted, alighting on the saltshaker. There was a crash from the living room followed by a chorus of pixy shrieks, and he sighed. “I’ll be right back,” he said, buzzing out.
“I’ve stirred this one before,” she said, fingers hovering over the print.
“What does it do?” I asked, nervous all over again. “I mean, would it make me into a real wolf, or would I just look like one?”
Ceri straightened, her gaze darting to the hallway as Jenks’s high-pitched harangue filtered in, making my eyeballs hurt. “It’s a standard morphing curse, the same class that Al uses. You keep your intelligence and personality, same as when you shift with an earth charm. The difference is the blending of you and wolf goes to the cellular level. If there were two of you, you could have pups with a witch’s IQ if you stayed a wolf through gestation.”
My mouth dropped open. I reached out to touch the page, then drew back. “Oh.”
With casual interest, she ran her finger down the list of ingredients, all in Latin. “This won’t turn you into a Were, but this is how werewolves got started,” she said conversationally. “There was a fad about six millennia ago where demons would torment a human woman in payment for a vanity wish by forcing a demon wolf/human pairing. It always resulted in a human child that could Were.”
My eyes darted to her, but she didn’t notice my fear. God, how…disgusting. And tragic for both the woman and child. The shame of dealing with a demon would never fade, always tied as it was to the love of a child. I’d often wondered how the Weres had gotten started, since they weren’t from the ever-after like witches and elves.
“Would you like me to make it for you?” Ceri asked, her green eyes placid.
I jerked, my focus sharpening. “It’s okay to use?”
Nodding, she reached under the counter for my smallest copper spell pot. “I don’t mind. I could do this one in my sleep. Making curses is what demon familiars do. It will take all of thirty minutes.” Seemingly unaware of my bewilderment, she casually moved the curse book to the island counter. “Demons aren’t any more powerful than witches,” she said. “But they’re prepared for anything, so it looks like they’re stronger.”
“But Al morphs so fast, and into so many things,” I protested, leaning against the counter.
Tiny boots clicking, Ceri turned from one of my cupboards, a wad of wolf’s bane in her hand. The stuff was toxic in large doses, and I felt a twinge of worry. “Al is a higher demon,” she said. “You could probably best a lesser, surface demon with the earth magic you have in your charm cupboard, though with enough prep work a surface demon is as powerful as Al.”
Was she saying I could best Al with my magic? I didn’t believe that for a second.
With a preoccupied grace, Ceri lit the Sterno flame canister from a taper she started from the gas burner. The stove served as my “hearth fire,” since the pilot light was always burning, and it made for a stable beginning to any spell. “Ceri,” I protested. “I can do this.”
“Sit,” she said. “Or watch. I want to be useful.” She smiled without showing her teeth, sadness clouding her clear eyes. “Where do you keep your blessed candles?”
“Um, in with the big silver serving spoons,” I said, pointing. Doesn’t everyone?
Jenks swooped in, gold sparkles sifting from him in agitation. “Sorry about the lamp,” he muttered. “They will be washing the windows inside and out tomorrow.”
“That’s okay. It was Ivy’s,” I said, thinking they could break every light in the place if they wanted. It was more than nice having them back—it was right.
“Al is a walking pharmaceutical,” Ceri said, flipping to an index to check something, and Jenks made a hiccup of surprised sound. “That’s why demons want familiars experienced in the craft. Familiars make the curses they use, the demons kindling them to life, taking them internally, and holding them until invoking them with ley line magic.”
With the first inklings of understanding, I pulled another demon book out and rifled through it, seeing the patterns in Al’s magic. “So every time he morphs or does a charm…”
“Or travels the lines, he uses a curse or spell. Probably one that I made him,” Ceri finished for me, squinting as she snatched one of Ivy’s pens and changed something in the text, muttering a word of Latin to make it stick. “Traveling the lines puts a lot of blackness on your soul, which is why they’re so angry when you call them. Al agreed to pay the price for pulling you through the first time, and he wants information to compensate for the smut.”
I glanced at the circular scar on my wrist. There was a second one on the underside of my foot from Newt, the demon from whom I’d bought a trip home the last time I found myself stranded in the ever-after. Nervous, I hid that foot behind the other. I hadn’t told Ceri because she was afraid of Newt. That she was terrified of the clearly insane demon and not Al made me feel all warm and cozy. I was never going to travel the lines again.
“May I have a lock of your hair?” Ceri asked, surprising me.
Taking the 99.8 percent silver snippers I’d spent a small fortune on that she was extending to me now, I cut a spaghettisized wad of hair from the nape of my neck.
“I’m simplifying things,” she said when I handed it to her. “And you probably noticed he has a few shapes and spells that he enjoys more than others.”
“The British nobleman in a green coat,” I said, and a delicate rose color came over Ceri. I wondered what the story behind that was, but I wouldn’t ask.
“I spent three years doing nothing but twisting that curse,” she said, fingers going slow.
From the ladle came Jenks’s attention-getting wing clatter. “Three years?”
“She’s a thousand years old,” I said, and his eyes widened.
Ceri laughed at his disconcertion. “That isn’t my normal span,” she said. “I’m aging now, as are you.”
Jenks’s wings blurred into motion, then stilled. “I can live twenty years,” he said, and I heard the frustration in his voice. “How about you?”
Ceri turned her solemn green eyes to me for guidance. That elves were not entirely extinct was a secret I had told her to keep, and while knowing her expected life span wouldn’t give it away, it could be used to piece the truth together. I nodded, and she closed her eyes in a slow blink of understanding. “About a hundred sixty years,” she said softly. “Same as a witch.”
I glanced uneasily between them while Jenks fought to hide an unknown emotion. I hadn’t known how long elves lived, and while I watched Ceri weave my hair into an elaborate chain that looped back into itself, I wondered how old Trent’s parents had been when they had him. A witch was fertile for about a hundred years, with a twenty-year lag on one end and forty at the tail end. I hadn’t had a period in two years, since things pretty much shut down unless there was a suitable candidate to stir things up. And as much as I liked Kisten, he wasn’t a witch to click the right hormones on. Seeing that elves had their origins in the ever-after, like witches, I was willing to bet their physiologies were closer to witch than human.
As if feeling Jenks’s distress, Matalina flitted in trailing three of their daughters and an unsteady toddler. “Jenks, dear,” she said, giving me an apologetic look. “The rain has slacked. I’m going to move everyone out so Rachel and Ivy can have some peace.”
Jenks’s hand dropped to his sword hilt. “I want to do a room-by-room check first.”
“No.” She flitted close and gave him a hovering kiss on the cheek. She looked happy and content, and I loved seeing her like that. “You stay here. The seals weren’t tampered with.”
My lower lip curled in to catch between my teeth. Jenks wasn’t going to like my next move. “Actually, Matalina, I’d like you to stay, if you could.”
Jenks jerked upward, a sudden wariness in him as he joined her, their wings somehow not tangling though they hovered side by side. “Why,” he said flatly.
“Ah…” I glanced at Ceri, who was muttering Latin and making gestures over my ring of hair at the center of a plate-sized pentacle she had sifted onto the counter with salt. I stifled a feeling of worry; knotting your hair made an unbreakable link to the donor. The ring of twisted hair vanished with a pop, replaced with a pile of ash. Apparently this was okay, since she smiled and carefully brushed it and the salt into the shot-glass-sized spell pot.
“Rachel…” Jenks prompted, and I tore my gaze from Ceri; she had tapped a line, and her hair was drifting in an unfelt breeze.
“She might want a say in this next spell,” I said. Nervous, I pulled the demon book closer and opened it to a page marked with the silk bookmark Ivy had gotten on sale last week.
Jenks hovered a good inch above the text, and Matalina gave a set of intent instructions to her daughters. With a whining toddler in tow, they darted out of the kitchen.
“Ceri,” I prompted cautiously, not wanting to interrupt her. “Is this one okay to do?”
The elf blinked as if coming out of a trance. Nodding, she pushed her sleeves to her elbows and crossed the room to the ten-gallon vat of saltwater I used to dissolution used amulets. As I watched in surprise, she dunked her hands into it, arms coming up dripping wet. I tossed her a dish towel, wondering if I should start a similar practice. Fingers moving gracefully, she dried her hands while she came to peer at the spell book on the table. Her eyes widened at the charm I’d found to make little things big. “For…” she started, her gaze darting to Jenks.
I nodded. “Is it safe?”
She bit her lips, a pretty frown crossing her angular, delicate face. “You’d have to modify it with something to supplement bone mass. Maybe tweak the metabolism so it’s not burning so fast. And then you’d have to take the wings into account.”
“Whoa!” Jenks exclaimed, darting to the ceiling. “No freaking way. You aren’t doing anything to this little pixy. No way. No how!”
Ignoring him, I watched Matalina take a slow, steady breath, her hands clasped before her. I turned to Ceri. “Can it be done?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Much of it is ley line magic. And you have the earth charm ingredients in your stock. The hard part will be developing the supplemental curses to fine-tune it to limit his discomfort. But I can do it.”
“No!” Jenks cried. “Augmen. I know that one. That means big. I’m not going to get big. You can forget it! I like who I am, and I can’t do my job if I’m big.”
He had retreated to where Matalina was standing on the counter, her wings unusually still, and I gestured helplessly. “Jenks,” I coaxed. “Just listen.”
“No.” His voice was shrill as he pointed at me. “You are a freaky, misguided, crazy-ass witch! I’m not doing this!”
I straightened at the sound of the back door opening. The curtains fluttered, and I recognized Ivy’s footsteps. The smell of pizza mixed with the rich scent of wet garden, and Ivy came in looking like a frat boy’s fantasy in her rain-damp, sex-in-leather coat and a square box of pizza balanced on one hand. Short hair swinging, she noisily dropped the box on the table, taking in the room with a solemn, quiet face. She moved Ceri’s rain cape to a different chair, and the tension ratcheted up a notch.
“If you’re big,” I said while Ivy got herself a plate, “you won’t have to worry about the temperature fluctuations. It could snow up there, Jenks.”
Ivy flipped the top open and took a slice, carefully putting it on a plate and retreating to her corner of the kitchen. “You want to make Jenks big?” she said. “Witches can do that?”
“Uh…” I stammered, not wanting to get into why my blood could kindle demon magic.
“She can,” Ceri said, skirting the issue.
“And food won’t be a problem,” I blurted, to keep the subject to Jenks and off of me.
Jenks bristled despite the gentle hand Matalina put on his arm. “I’ve never had a problem keeping my family fed,” he said.
“I never said you did.” The smell of the pizza was making me feel ill as my stomach knotted, and I sat down. “But we’re talking almost five hundred miles, if they are where I think they are, and I don’t want to have to stop every hour for you to fight off roadside park fairies so you can eat. Sugar water and peanut butter won’t do it, and you know that.”
Jenks took a breath to protest. Ivy ate her pizza, scooting down in the chair and putting her heels on the table next to her keyboard, her gaze shifting between Jenks and me.
I tucked a red curl behind an ear, hoping I wasn’t pushing our delicate working relationship too far. “And you can see how the other side lives,” I said. “You won’t have to wait for someone to open the door for you, or use the phone. Hell, you could drive…”
His wings blurred into motion, and Matalina looked frightened.
“Look,” I said, feeling uncomfortable. “Why don’t you and Matalina talk it over.”
“I don’t need to talk it over,” Jenks said tightly. “I’m not going to do it.”
My shoulders slumped, but I was too afraid to push him further. “Fine,” I said sourly. “Excuse me. I have to move my laundry.”
Covering my worry with a false anger, I stomped out of the kitchen, sneakers squeaking on the linoleum and then the hardwood floors as I went to my bathroom. Slamming the white enameled doors harder than I needed to, I shifted Kisten’s sweats to the dryer. Jenks didn’t need them anymore, but I wasn’t going to give them back wet.
I wrenched the dial to dry, punched the on button, and heard the drier start to turn. Arms shoulder width apart, I leaned over the dryer. Low temperatures would severely limit Jenks after sunset. Another month and it wouldn’t matter, but May could be cold in Michigan.
I pushed myself up, resigned to dealing with it. It was his choice. Resolute, I padded toward the kitchen, forcing the frown from me.
“Please, Jenks,” I heard Ivy plead just before I turned the corner, the unusual emotion in her voice jerking me to a stop. She never let her emotions show like that. “Rachel needs someone as a buffer between her and any vamp she runs into outside of Cincinnati,” she whispered, unaware that I could hear. “Every vamp here knows I’ll kill them twice if they touch her, but once she’s out of my influence, her unclaimed scar is going to make her fair game. I can’t go with her. Piscary—” She took a shaky breath. “He’d be really pissed if I left his influence. God, Jenks, this is just about killing me. I can’t go with her. You have to. And you have to be big, otherwise no one will take you seriously.”
My face went cold and I put a hand to my scar. Crap. I forgot about that.
“I don’t need to be big to protect her,” he said, and I nodded.
“I know that,” Ivy said, “and she knows that, but a blood-hungry vamp won’t care. And there might be more than one.”
Insides shaking, I slowly backed up. My fingers felt for the knob of my bathroom door and I yanked it closed, slamming it, as if I’d just gotten out. Then I briskly entered the kitchen, not looking at anyone. Ceri was standing by my smallest spell pot with a finger stick in her hand; what she wanted was obvious. Ivy was pretending to read her e-mail, and Jenks was standing with a horrified look on his face, Matalina beside him. “So, I guess we’re stopping every hour?” I said.
Jenks swallowed hard. “I’ll do it.”
“Really, Jenks,” I said, trying to hide my guilt. “It’s okay. You don’t have to do this.”
He flitted up, hands on hips while he got in my face. “I’m doing this, so shut the hell up and say thank-you!”
Feeling miserable and vulnerable, I whispered, “Thank you.”
His wings clattered as he flitted shakily to Matalina with a little huff. She clutched at him, her beautiful angel face looking scared when she turned him so his back was to me and they started to talk, their words so high-pitched and fast I couldn’t follow.
With the practiced silence of a slave, Ceri eased close to set the spell pot with the Were potion beside me. She placed the finger stick next to it with a small click and backed away. Still upset, I fumbled the sterile blade open and glanced at the brew. It looked like cherry Kool-Aid in the miniature copper pot.
“Thanks,” I muttered. White or not, using demon magic wasn’t what I wanted to be known for. The prick of the blade was a jolt, and I massaged my finger. Three drops of my blood went plopping into the vat, and the throat-catching scent of burnt amber rose as my blood kindled demon magic. How nice is that?
My stomach quivered, and I looked at it. “It won’t invoke early?” I asked, and Ceri shook her head. Lifting the heavy tome, she moved it in front of me.
“Here,” she said, pointing. “This is the word of invocation. It won’t work unless you’re connected to a line or you have enough ever-after spindled to effect a change. I’ve seen what you can hold, and it’s enough. This one here”—she pointed farther down the page—“is the word to shift back. I suggest not using it unless you’re connected to a line. You’re adding to your mass on this second one, not removing it, and it’s hard to know how much energy to withhold from your spindle to make up for the imbalance. It’s easier to connect to a line and let it balance itself. Saltwater won’t break demon magic, so don’t forget the countercurse.”
Nervous, I shifted my grip on the little copper pot. It would be enough potion for seven earth charms, but ley line magic was usually one spell per go. I looked again at the word of invocation. Lupus. Pretty straightforward.
“It won’t work unless it’s inside of you,” Ceri said, sounding annoyed.
Jenks flitted close, hovering over the pages. His gaze moved from the print to me. “How is she going to say the word to shift back if she’s a wolf?” he asked, and a flash of angst burned through me until I guessed it must be like any ley line charm that only required you to think it hard enough. Though shouting a word of invocation definitely added a measure of strength.
Ceri’s green eyes narrowed. “Saying it in her mind will be enough,” she said. “Do you want me to put it in a pentagram to keep it fresh, or are you going to take it now?”
I raised the spell pot, trying to smooth out my brow so I at least didn’t look nervous. It was just an elaborate disguise potion, one that would make me furry and with big teeth. If I was lucky, I’d never have to invoke it. I felt Ivy’s attention on me, and while everyone watched, I downed it.
I tried not to taste it, but the biting grit of ash and the bitter taste of tinfoil, chlorophyll, and salt puckered my lips. “Oh God,” I said while Ivy grabbed a second slice of pizza. “That tastes like crap.” I went to the dissolution vat and gave the empty spell pot a quick dunk before I set it in the sink. The potion burned through me, and I tried to stifle a shudder, failing.
“You okay?” Ivy asked as I shivered and the pot rattled against the sink before I let it go.
“Fine,” I said, my voice rough. I’d just taken a demon spell. Voluntarily. Tonight I was peachy keen, and tomorrow I would be taking the bus tour of the nicest parts of hell.
Ceri hid a smile, and I frowned at her. “What!” I snapped, but she only smiled wider.
“That’s what Al said whenever he took his potions.”
“Swell,” I snarled, going to sit at the table and pull the pizza closer. I knew it was anxiety that was making me irritable, and I tried to smooth my face out, pretending it didn’t bother me.
“See, Matalina?” Jenks coaxed, and he flew to land beside her on the sill next to my beta. “It’s fine. Rachel took a demon spell and she’s okay. It will be easier this way, and I won’t die of the cold. I’ll be just as big as she is. It will be okay, Mattie. I promise.”
Matalina rose in a column of silver sparkles. She wrung her hands and stared at everyone for a moment, her distress obvious and heartbreaking. In an instant she was gone, out into the rain through the pixy hole in the screen.
Standing on the sill, Jenks let his wings droop. I felt a flash of guilt, then stifled it. Jenks was going whether I was with him or not, and if he was big, he would have a better chance of coming back in one piece. But she was so upset, it was hard not to feel like it was my fault.
“Okay,” I said, the bite of pizza tasteless. “What do we do first for Jenks?”
Ceri’s slight shoulders eased and she gripped her crucifix with what was clearly an unknowing gesture of contentment. “His curse will have to be specially tailored. We should probably set a circle too. This is going to be difficult.”
The harsh smell of low-grade yarn dye didn’t mix well with the luscious scent of leather and silk. Through it ran a dusky incense that soaked into me with each slow breath, keeping my muscles loose and slack. Kisten. My nose tickled, and I pushed the afghan from my face, snuggling deeper into the sound of his heartbeat. I felt him shift, and a sleepy part of me remembered we were in the living room on the couch, lying like spoons. My head was tucked under his chin, and his arm was over my middle, warm and secure.
“Rachel?” he whispered so softly that it barely stirred my hair.
“Mmmm?” I mumbled, not wanting to move. In the past eleven months I’d found that a vampire’s blood lust varied like tempers, dependent upon stress, temperament, upbringing, and when they had slaked it last. I had gone into living with Ivy as a roommate as a complete idiot. Turns out she had been on the extreme end of the hairy-scary scale at the time, being stressed about Piscary wanting her to make me a toy or kill me, acerbated by her guilt at her desire for blood and trying to abstain from it. Three years of abstinence made for a very anxious vamp. I didn’t want to know what Ivy had been before going cold turkey to try to remake herself. All I knew was she was much easier to live with now that she was “taking care of business,” though it left her hating herself and feeling she was a failure every time she succumbed.
I’d found Kisten to be on the other end, with a laid-back temperament to begin with and no issues about satisfying his blood lust. And though I wouldn’t feel comfortable napping in the same room with Ivy, I could snuggle up to Kisten, provided he took care of things beforehand. And I didn’t do jumping jacks in his sweatshirt, I thought sourly.
“Rachel, love,” he said again, louder, with a hint of pleading. I could feel his muscles tense and his breathing quicken. “I think Ceri is ready for you to kindle Jenks’s spell, and as much as I’d love to pull blood from you, it might be better if you did it yourself.”
My eyes flew open and I stared at the bank of Ivy’s electronic equipment. “She finished it?” I said, and Kisten grunted when my elbow pushed off his gut when I sat up. My sock feet hit the rug, and my eyes shot to the clock on the TV. It was past noon?
“I fell asleep!” I said, seeing our pizza-crust-strewn plates on the coffee table. “Kist,” I complained, “you weren’t supposed to let me fall asleep!”
He remained reclining on Ivy’s gray suede couch, his hair tousled and a content, sleepy look to his eyes. “Sorry,” he said around a yawn, not looking sorry at all.
“Darn it. I was supposed to be helping Ceri.” It was bad enough she was doing my spelling for me. To be sleeping when she did it was just rude.
He lifted one shoulder and let it fall. “She said to let you sleep.”
Giving him an exasperated sigh, I tugged my jeans straight. I hated it when I fell asleep in my clothes. At least I had showered before dinner, thinking it only fair I get rid of the lingering scent of wearing his sweatshirt. “Ceri?” I said, shuffling into the kitchen. For crying out loud, I’d wanted to have Kisten’s borrowed van packed and be on the road by now.
Ceri was sitting with her elbows on Ivy’s antique table. Beside her was a pizza box, empty but for a single slice and an untouched container of garlic dipping sauce. Her long, wispy hair was the only movement, floating in the chill breeze from the window. The kitchen was cleaner than I ever managed when I did my spelling: copper bowls stacked neatly in the sink, the grit of salt under my feet from where she had made a circle, and a scattering of ley line magic paraphernalia and earth magic herbs. A demon book was open on the center counter, and the purple candle I burned last Halloween guttered even as I watched.
The early afternoon sun was a bright swath of light coming in the window. Past the drifting curtains, pixies shrieked and played, shredding the fairy nest in the ash tree with a savage enthusiasm. Jenks was sitting on the table, slumped against Ceri’s half-empty cup of tea. “Ceri,” I said, reaching to touch her shoulder.
Her head jerked up. “O di immortals, Gally,” she said, clearly not awake. “My apologies! Your curse is ready. I’ll have your tea directly.”
Jenks took to the air in a clattering of wings, and my attention shot from him to her. “Ceri?” I repeated, frightened. She called Algaliarept Gally?
The young woman stiffened, then dropped her head into her hands again. “God help me, Rachel,” she said, her words muffled. “For a moment…”
My hand slipped from her shoulder. She had thought she was back with Al. “I’m sorry,” I said, feeling even more guilty. “I fell asleep and Kisten didn’t wake me. Are you okay?”
She turned, a thin smile on her heart-shaped face. Her green eyes were tired and weary. I was sure she hadn’t slept since yesterday afternoon, and she looked ready to drop. “I’m fine,” she lisped faintly, clearly not.
Embarrassed, I sat before her. “Jeez, Ceri, I could have done something.”
“I’m fine,” she repeated, her eyes on the ribbon of smoke spiraling up from the candle. “Jenks helped me with the plants. He’s very knowledgeable.”
Eyebrows rising, I watched Jenks tug his green silk gardening jacket down. “You think I’m going to take a spell without knowing what’s in it?” he said.
“Jenks helped you make it?” I asked.
She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter who makes it, as long as you kindle it.” Pale face smiling tiredly, she nodded to the potion and finger stick.
Moving slowly, I rose and went to Jenks’s spell. The crack of the safety seal on the finger stick breaking was loud.
“Use your Jupiter finger,” Ceri advised. “It will add the strength of your will to it.”
It made a difference? I wondered, feeling ill from more than lack of sleep as I pricked my finger for three drops of blood. Kisten stirred in the living room when they went plopping into the spell pot and the scent of burnt amber rose. Jenks’s wings blurred to motion, and I held my breath, waiting for something to happen. Nothing. But I had to say the “magic words” first.
“Done,” Ceri said, slumping where she sat.
My eyes went to Kisten’s lanky form when he strode into the kitchen, barefoot and rumpled. “Afternoon, ladies,” he said, pulling the pizza box closer and dropping the last stiff slice on a plate. He wasn’t the first guy to have a toothbrush at my sink, but he was the only one to have kept it there this long, and I felt good seeing him here in his disheveled, untucked-shirt state, content and comfortable.
“Coffee?” I asked, and he nodded, clearly not functioning on all levels yet as he dragged the plate from the table and headed into the hall, scratching the bristles on his jawline.
I jumped when Kisten pounded on Ivy’s door and shouted, “Ivy! Get up! Here’s your breakfast. Rachel is leaving, and you’d better hurry if you want to see Jenks change.”
So much for coffee, toast, juice, and a flower, I thought, hearing Ivy’s voice rise in disgust before Kisten shut her door and cut off her complaints. Ceri looked mystified, and I shook my head to tell her it wasn’t worth explaining. I went to clean the coffeemaker, turning the water to a trickle when Kisten thunked my bathroom door shut and my shower started.
“So, we going to do this, Jenks?” I prompted while I swirled the water around.
His wings shading to blue, Jenks landed by the shot-glass-sized cup of brew. “I drink it?”
Ceri nodded. “Once it’s in you, Rachel will invoke it. Nothing will happen until then.”
“All of it?” I asked, eyes widening. “It’s like, what, a gallon in pixy terms?”
Jenks shrugged. “I drink that much sugar water for breakfast,” he said, and my brow furrowed. If he drank like that, we might be stopping every hour anyway.
My fingers fumbled to unroll the coffee bag, and the dark scent of grounds hit me, thick and comforting. I measured out what I needed into the new filter, then added a smidgen more while I surreptitiously watched Jenks procrastinate. Finally he scuffed his boots on the counter and spooned out a pixy-sized portion with a tiny glass. He downed the dripping cup in one go, making a face when he lowered the cup.
I flipped the coffeemaker on and leaned against the counter, arms crossed. “What does it taste like?” I asked, remembering the demon spell already in me. I was hoping he didn’t say it tasted like my blood.
“Uh…” Jenks scooped out another cupful. “It tastes like the garden in the fall when people have been burning their leaves.”
Dead ashes? I thought. Gre-e-e-e-eat.
Chin high, he swallowed it, then turned to me. “For the love of Tink, you aren’t going to stand there and watch me, are you?”
Grimacing, I pushed myself from the counter. “Can I make you some tea?” I asked Ceri, not wanting to look like I was watching but not wanting to leave either. What if he had a reaction or something?
With a barely perceivable motion, Ceri regained her upright posture, my offer seeming to turn on an entirely new set of behaviors. “Yes, thank you,” she said carefully.
I returned to the sink and filled the kettle, wincing at Jenks’s tiny belch and groan. The sound of running water seemed to revive Ceri, and she rose, moving about the kitchen to put things away. “I can do that,” I protested, and she watched my eyes go to the clock above the sink. Crap, it was getting late.
“So can I,” she said. “You have a long way to drive, and all I have to do is—” She looked sourly about the kitchen. “I don’t have anything to do but sleep. I should be thanking you. It was exhilarating to craft such a complex curse. It’s one of my best efforts.”
Her pride was obvious, and after the burner ignited under the kettle, I stood against the counter and watched Jenks belch and recite his ABCs at the same time. Would the man’s talents never end? Curiosity finally prompted me to ask, “What was it like, being his familiar?”
Ceri seemed to grow drowsy as she stood in the sun at the sink and washed her teacup. “He is domineering and cruel,” she said softly, head down as she watched her thin hands, “but my origins made me unique. He enjoyed showing me off and so kept me well. Once I became pliant, he often gave me favors and courtesies that most remained ignorant of.”
My thoughts returned to her embarrassment when speaking of Al’s favorite appearance of a British nobleman. They had been together for a thousand years, and there were countless cases of captives becoming enamored of their captors. And that nickname…I tried to meet her eyes, but she avoided it.
“I’ll be back,” Jenks said, patting his stomach. “This stuff makes you pee like a toad.”
I cringed as he took to the air and flew heavily past Ceri and out the pixy hole in the screen. A glance at the spell pot brought my eyebrows up. It was half gone. Damn, the man could slam it faster than a frat boy.
“I made anywhere from thirty to fifty curses a day,” Ceri said, taking a rag from the sink and wiping the island counter free of salt, “apart from warming his bed and putting food on his table. Every seventh day he would work in the lab with me, expanding my knowledge. This charm…” Eyes distant, she touched the counter beside the remaining brew. “This one we would have spent all day with, going slow so he could explain the complexities of mixing curses. Those days…I almost felt good about myself.”
Clasping my hands about my middle, I felt cold at the hint of wistfulness to her voice. She nearly seemed to regret she wasn’t working in a demon sweatshop anymore. Eyes distant, she took the boiling water from the stove and poured it into a small teapot.
Jenks returned without comment, settling before the brew with his little cup. The hair on the back of my neck pricked, and Ivy came in with a soft scuffing, hands busy tucking her shirt behind her jeans. Not meeting anyone’s eyes, she shuffled to the coffeemaker and poured two mugs even as the last drips spilled onto the hot plate to sizzle. I looked up in surprise when she hesitantly set one beside me.
Kisten’s words echoed through my thoughts as I watched her sit at her computer, reading the tension in her shoulders when she jabbed the on button and hit the shortcut to her mail. What he’d said about her leaning on me more than him because I didn’t know her past tightened my gut. I looked at her as she sat at the far end of the kitchen, distant but a part of the group. Her perfect face was quiet and still, not a glimmer of her savage past showing. A chill went through me at what might lie beneath it, what might come out if I left her. Just how bad had it been?
Ivy looked from her monitor, her eyes fastening on me from under her short bangs. My gaze dropped. Good Lord. It was only for a few days.
“Thanks for the coffee,” I said, uncurling my fingers and lacing them about the warm ceramic while I steeled my emotions. I had to go. Nick and Jax needed help. I’d be back.
She said nothing, her face showing no emotion. A screen of new e-mails came in one after the other, and she began winnowing through them.
Nervous, I turned to Ceri. “I really appreciate this,” I said, thinking of the long drive ahead. “If it wasn’t for your help, I wouldn’t even try it. I’m just glad it’s not a black charm,” I added. White or not, using demon magic was not what I wanted to be known for.
In her spot in the sun, Ceri stiffened. “Um, Rachel?” she said, and my heart seemed to skip a beat. My head slowly lifted and my mouth went dry. Jenks stopped with his cup halfway to his mouth. He met my eyes, his wings going absolutely still.
“It’s a black charm?” I said, my voice squeaky at the end.
“Well, it’s demon magic…” she said, sounding apologetic. “They’re all black.” She looked between Jenks and me, mystified. “I thought you knew that.”
I took a shaky breath and reached for the counter. It was black? I had taken a black charm? This just keeps getting better and better. Why in hell hadn’t she told me?
“Hell no!” Jenks rose in a flurry of copper-colored sparkles. “Just forget it. Ivy, forget it! I’m not doing this!”
While Ivy snarled at Jenks that he would or she’d jam him through a keyhole backward, I wobbled to the table and slumped into my chair. Ceri was so odd, seemingly as innocent as Joan of Arc but as accepting of black magic as if she sat at Lucifer’s feet and did his nails every other Wednesday. They were all black, and she didn’t see anything wrong with them? Come to think of it, Joan of Arc had heard voices in her head telling her to kill people.
Ceri’s hand on my shoulder pulled my head up and I stared. “I, uh,” I muttered. “I kinda expected they were black, but you didn’t seem to be having any problem making them, so…” I looked at the remainder of Jenks’s potion, wondering if he quit now whether he’d be okay.
“He needs this curse.” Ceri gracefully sat so I couldn’t see Jenks and Ivy arguing at the far end of the table. “And the smut from one or two is trifling.”
Matalina zipped in through the pixy hole in the screen at one of Jenks’s sharp squeaks, bringing the smell of the spring noon with her. Her yellow dress swirled prettily about her ankles when she came to a short stop, her expression inquisitive as she tried to figure out what was going on. I couldn’t seem to get enough air. Trifling? Didn’t she get it?
“What if I only use them for good?” I tried. “Will they still stain my soul if I only do good with them?”
Matalina’s wings stopped and she dropped three inches to the table, losing her balance and falling, to bend a wing backward. Ceri exhaled in obvious exasperation. “You’re severely breaking the laws of nature with these curses,” she lectured, her green eyes narrow, “far more than with earth or line magic on their own. It doesn’t matter if they’re used for good or bad, the smut on your soul is the same. If you mess with nature’s books, you pay a price.”
My eyes flicked past her to Matalina and Jenks. The small pixy woman had found her feet, and she had a hand on Jenks’s shoulder as he hunched over his knees. He was hyperventilating by the look of it, pixy dust shading to red sifting from him to pool and spill onto the floor. It swirled in the draft from the window, and it would have been pretty if I hadn’t known that it meant he was severely stressed.
Ivy’s lips were a thin line. I didn’t understand why she was arguing with him. I didn’t expect him to go through with it if it was a black curse. Damn it, Ceri had been calling them curses all along, and I hadn’t been listening.
“But I don’t want my soul to go black,” I almost whined. “I just got rid of Al’s aura.”
Ceri’s delicate features went annoyed, and she stood. “Then get rid of it.”
Jenks’s head came up, his eyes looking frightened. “Rachel is not a black witch!” he shouted, and I wondered at his hot loyalty. “She’s not going to foster it off on an innocent!”
“I never said she should,” Ceri said, bristling.
“Ceri,” I said hesitantly, listening to Matalina try to soothe her husband. “Isn’t there another way to get rid of the reality imbalance than to pass it to someone else?”
Clearly aware of Jenks ready to fly at her, Ceri calmly went to her brewed tea. “No. Once you make it, the only way to get rid of it is to pass it to someone else. But I’m not suggesting you give it to an innocent. People will accept it voluntarily if you sweeten the deal.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. “Why would someone voluntarily take my blackness onto their soul?” I said, and the elf sighed, visibly biting back her annoyance. Tact wasn’t in her repertoire, despite her kindness and overflowing goodwill.
“You attach it to something they want, Rachel,” she said. “A spell or task. Information.”
My eyes widened as I figured it out. “Like a demon,” I said, and she nodded.
Oh God. My stomach hurt. The only way to get rid of it would be to trick people into taking it. Like a demon.
Ceri stood at my sink, the morning sun streaming about her making her look like a princess in jeans and a black and gold sweater. “It’s a good option,” she said, blowing at her tea to hasten its cooling. “I have too much imbalance to rid myself of it that way, but perhaps if I forayed into the ever-after and rescued people stolen and still in possession of their souls, they might take a hundred years of my imbalance in return for the chance to be free of the ever-after.”
“Ceri,” I protested, frightened, and she raised a soothing hand.
“I’m not going into the ever-after,” she said. “But if the opportunity ever arose that I could help free someone, will you tell me?”
Ivy stirred, and Jenks interrupted her with a hot, “Rache is not going into the ever-after.”
“He’s right,” I said, and I rose, my knees feeling weak. “I can’t ask anyone to take the black I put on my soul. Just forget it.” My fingers encircled the remainder of Jenks’s potion and I headed for my dissolution vat. “I’m not a black witch.”
Matalina heaved a sigh of relief, and even Jenks relaxed, his feet settling into a puddle of silver sparkles on the table, only to jerk upward when Ceri slammed her hand onto the counter. “You listen to me, and listen good!” she shouted, shocking me and making Ivy jerk. “I am not evil because I have a thousand years of demon smut on my soul!” she exclaimed, the tips of her hair trembling and her face flushed. “Every time you disturb reality, nature has to balance it out. The black on your soul isn’t evil, it’s a promise to make up for what you have done. It’s a mark, not a death sentence. And you can get rid of it given time.”
“Ceri, I’m sorry,” I fumbled, but she wasn’t listening.
“You’re an ignorant, foolish, stupid witch,” she berated, and I cringed, my grip tightening on the copper spell pot and feeling the anger from her like a whip. “Are you saying that because I carry the stink of demon magic, that I’m a bad person?”
“No…” I wedged in.
“That God will show no pity?” she said, green eyes flashing. “That because I made one mistake in fear that led to a thousand more, that I will burn in hell?”
“No. Ceri—” I took a step forward.
“My soul is black,” she said, her fear showing in her suddenly pale cheeks. “I’ll never be rid of it all before I die. I’ll suffer for it, but it won’t be because I’m a bad person but because I was a frightened one.”
“That’s why I don’t want to do this,” I pleaded.
She took a breath as if only now realizing she had been shouting. Closing her eyes, she seemed to steady herself. The anger had been reduced to a slow shimmer in the back of her green eyes when she opened them. Her usual mild countenance made it difficult to remember that she had once been royalty and accustomed to command.
Ivy took a wary sip of her coffee, her eyes never moving from Ceri. Kisten’s shower went off, and the ensuing silence seemed loud.
“I’m sorry,” Ceri said, head down, the sheet of her fair hair hiding her face. “I shouldn’t have raised my voice.”
I set the copper pot on the counter. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Like you said, I’m an ignorant witch.”
Her smile was sour and showed a mild embarrassment. “No, you aren’t. You can’t know what you haven’t been told.” She ran her hands down her jeans, soothing herself. “Perhaps I’m more concerned than I want to admit about the payment I carry,” she admitted. “Seeing you worry about one or two curses when I have several million on my soul made me—” She flushed delicately, and I wondered if her ears were a tiny bit pointed. “I was most unfair to you.”
Her voice had acquired a noble cadence. Behind me, I heard Ivy cross her legs at her knees. “Forget it,” I said, feeling cold.
“Rachel.” Ceri hid her hands’ trembling by clasping them. “The blackness these two curses carry is so small compared to the benefits that will come from it: Jenks safely journeying to help his son, you using a demon curse to Were so as to retain the title of David’s alpha that you deserve. It would be more of a crime to let these things remain undone or slip away than to willingly accept the price to have them.”
She touched the pot of remaining brew, and I eyed it with a sick feeling. I was not going to ask Jenks to finish it.
“Everything of value or strength has a price,” she continued. “To let Jax and Nick continue to suffer because you were afraid makes you look…unconscionably timid.”
Cowardly might be a better word, I thought, looking at Jenks and feeling ill, knowing that I had a curse inside me just waiting to be put into play—and I had done it to myself.
“I’ll take the black for my curse,” Jenks said abruptly, his face hard with determination.
From the table came Matalina’s tiny hiccup, and I saw fear in her childlike features. She loved Jenks more than life itself. “No,” I said. “You’ve only got a few years left to get rid of it. And it’s my idea, my spell. My curse. I’ll take it.”
Jenks flew up in my face, his wings red and his face severe. “Shut up!” he shouted, and I jerked back so I could focus on him. “He’s my son! I take the curse. I pay the price.”
There was the sound of my bathroom door opening, and Kisten ambled into the kitchen, his shirt rumpled and with a sly smile. His hair was slicked back and his damp stubbled face caught the sun. He looked great, and he knew it. But his confidence faltered when he saw Ivy unhappy at her computer, Jenks and Matalina clearly distressed, me undoubtedly looking scared with my hands wrapped around my middle, and of course Ceri’s exasperated expression as she once again found herself trying to convince the plebeians that she knew what was best for them.
“What did I miss?” he asked, going to the coffeemaker and pouring what was left into one of my oversized mugs.
Ivy pushed her chair out and looked sullen. “They’re demon curses. It’s going to leave a mark on Rachel’s soul. Jenks is having second thoughts.”
“I am not!” the small pixy shouted. “But I’ll kiss a fairy’s ass before I let Rachel pay the price for my curse.”
Kisten slowly tucked his shirttails in and sipped his coffee. His eyes went everywhere, and he breathed deeply, absorbing the scents of the room and using them to read the situation.
“Jenks,” I protested, then made a sound of defeat when he flew to the last of the potion and drank it, his throat moving as he gulped it down. Matalina dropped to the table, her wings unmoving. She was a small spot of brightness, looking more alone than I’d ever seen her while she watched her husband put his life in jeopardy for my safety and that of their son.
The kitchen was silent but for the sound of his kids in the garden when he belligerently dropped his pixy-sized cup into the spell pot with a dull clang.
“I guess that’s it, then,” I said, gathering myself and leaning so I could glimpse the clock above the sink. I didn’t like this. Not at all.
Looking as if she was desperately trying not to cry, Matalina rubbed her wings together to make a piercing whistle, which gave us all of three seconds before what looked like Jenks’s entire family flowed into the kitchen from the hallway. The sharp scent of ashes came in with them, and I realized they had come in down the chimney. “Out!” Jenks shouted. “I said you could watch from the door!”
In a swirl of Disney nightmare, his brood settled on the top of the door frame. Shrieks scraped the inside of my skull as they shoved each other, vying for the best vantage point. Ivy and Kisten cringed visibly, and Jenks made another whistle of admonishment. They obediently settled, whispering at my threshold of hearing. Ivy swore under her breath, her face taking on a dark cast. His tall stature graceful, Kisten crossed the kitchen to stand beside her, pouring half his coffee into her mug to try to pacify her. She wasn’t at her best until at least sundown.
“Okay, Jenks,” I said, thinking that willfully twisting a demon curse was spectacularly stupid and that I’d never hear the end of it if it killed me. What would my mother say? “Ready?”
The pixies lining the door frame squealed, and Matalina flitted to him, her pretty face pale. “Be careful, love,” she whispered, and I looked away when they exchanged a last embrace, the two of them rising slowly in a cloud of gold sparkles before they parted. She went to the sill, wings moving fitfully to make glittering flashes of light. This was all but killing her, and I felt guilty even though it was probably the best way to ensure his safety.
Standing beside Matalina in the sun, Ceri nodded confidently. Kisten put a supportive hand atop Ivy’s shoulder. Taking a breath, I went to the table, nervously settling myself at my usual spot and pulling the demon book of spells onto my lap. It was heavy, and my blood hummed in my legs, almost as if it was trying to reach the pages. Oh, there’s a nice thought.
“What’s going to happen?” Jenks asked, fidgeting as he landed on the center counter, and I turned sideways in the chair so I could see him.
I licked my lips and looked at the print. It was in Latin, but Ceri and I had gone over it while eating pizza before I fell asleep.
“The Demon Magic for Idiots version, please,” he added, and a thin smile crossed me.
“I tap a line and say the words of invocation,” I said. “To shift you back, I say it again. Same as with the Wereing charm.”
His eyes were wide, and Ceri sniffed. “You did want the short version,” she said, moving everything off the island counter and to the sink. “I did a horrendous amount of prep work to make it that easy, Master Pixy.”
His wings drooped. “Sorry.”
Ivy held her arms close to her and frowned, her aggression clearly misplaced worry. “Can we get on with this?” she asked, and I dropped my head to the print again.
Exhaling, I stretched my awareness past the clapboard walls of the kitchen, past the flower beds already feeling the light presence of pixies, to the small underused ley line running through the graveyard. Touching it with a finger of thought, I stifled a tremor at the jolt of connection. It used to be that the flow of force into me had been slow and sedate. Not anymore.
The surge of energy coursed through me, backwashing through me in an uncomfortable sensation. It settled into my chi with the warmth and satisfaction of hot chocolate. I could pull out more and spindle it in my head to use later, but I didn’t need it, so I let the heavy, resonating wash of energy find its way out of me and back into the line. I was a net through which the ley line ran, flowing free but for what I pulled out.
It all happened in the time between one heartbeat and the next, and I lifted my head, my eyes closed. My hair was moving in the wind that always seemed to be blowing in the ever-after, and I ran a hand over my loose curls to tame them. I thanked God that it was daylight and I couldn’t see even a shadow of the ever-after unless I stood right in a line. Which I wasn’t.
“I hate it when she taps a line,” Ivy whispered to Kisten in the corner. “You ever see anything freakier than that?”
“You should see the face she makes when she—”
“Shut up, Kist!” I exclaimed, my eyes flashing open to find him grinning at me.
Standing with her teacup perched in her fingers and the sun streaming in around her, Ceri was trying to keep a scholarly air about her, but the snicker on her face ruined it.
“Is it going to hurt?” Jenks asked, gold pixy dust sifting from him in a steady stream.
I thought back to the gut-wrenching pain when I had turned into a mink and cringed. “Close your eyes and count down from ten,” I said. “I’ll hit you with it when you get to zero.”
He took a breath, dark lashes fluttering against his cheeks. His wings slowly stilled until he came to a rest on top of the cleared island counter. “Ten…nine…” he said, his voice steady.
Setting the book on the table, I stood. Light and unreal from the line running through me, I reached out and put a hand over him. My knees were shaking, and I hoped that no one saw it. Demon magic. God save me. I took another breath. “Non sum qualis eram,” I said.
Ivy gasped, and I staggered when Jenks was encased in the swirl of gold ever-after that had dropped from my hand to encompass him.
“Jenks!” Matalina cried, flying up into the utensils.
My breath was crushed out of me. Stumbling, I put a hand behind me, searching for support. I gasped when a torrent of line energy slammed into me, and I shoved the helping hands away. My head seemed to expand, and I cried out when the line exploded out of me and hit Jenks with a crack that had to be audible.
I fell, finding myself on the kitchen floor with Ivy’s arms under my shoulders as she eased me down. I couldn’t breathe. As I struggled to remember how to make my lungs work, I heard a crash in the hanging utensils, followed by a groan and a thump.
“Sweet mother of Tink,” a new, lightly masculine voice said. “I’m dying. I’m dying. Matalina! My heart isn’t beating!”
I took a clean breath, then another, propped up in Ivy’s grip. I was hot, then cold. And I couldn’t see clearly. Looking up past the edge of the counter, I found Kisten beside Ceri, frozen as if unable to decide what to do. I pushed Ivy’s hand off me and sat up when I realized what had laid me out. It wasn’t the force of the line I had channeled but the shitload of intent-to-pay-back that I had just laid on my soul. I had it, not Jenks, and it was going to stay that way.
Heart pounding, I got to my feet, my mouth dropping open when I saw Jenks on the counter. “Oh—my—God…” I whispered.
Jenks turned to me, his eyes wide and frightened. Angular face pinched, he looked at the ceiling, chest heaving as he hyperventilated. Ceri was at the sink, beaming. Beside me, Ivy stared, shocked. Kisten wasn’t much better. Matalina was in tears, and pixy children were flying around. Someone got tangled in my hair, pulling me back to reality.
“Anyone younger than fifteen—out of the kitchen!” I shouted. “Someone get me a paper bag. Ivy, go get a towel for Jenks. You think you’d never seen a naked man before.”
Ivy jerked into motion. “Not one sitting on my counter,” she muttered, walking out.
Jenks’s eyes were wide in panic as I snatched the bag Kisten handed me. Shaking it open, I puffed into it. “Here,” I said. “Breath into this.”
“Rache?” he gasped, his face pale and his shoulder cold when I touched him. He flinched, then let me hold the bag to his face. “My heart,” he said, his words muffled around the bag. “Something’s wrong! Rache, turn me back! I’m dying!”
Smiling, I held the bag to him as he sat on my counter, stark naked and hyperventilating. “That’s how slow it beats,” I said. “And you don’t have to breathe so fast. Slow down,” I soothed. “Close your eyes. Take a breath. Count to three. Let it out. Count to four.”
“Shove it up your ass,” he said, hunching into himself and starting to shake. “The last time you told me to close my eyes and count from ten, look what happened to me.”
Ivy returned, draping the first towel over his lap and the second over his shoulders. He was calming down, his eyes roving over the kitchen, darting from the ceiling to the open archway. His breath caught when he saw the garden through the window. “Holy crap,” he whispered, and I pulled the bag away. He might not look like Jenks, but he sounded like him.
“Better?” I said, taking a step back.
His head bobbed, and as he sat on the counter and concentrated on breathing, we stood with our mouths hanging open, taking in a six-foot pixy. In a word, he was…damn!
Jenks had said he was eighteen, and he looked it. A very athletic eighteen, with wide innocent eyes, a smooth young face, and a blond shock of curly hair all tousled and needing to be arranged. His wings were gone, leaving only wide shoulders and the lean muscles that had once supported them. He had a trim waist, and his feet dangling to the floor were long and narrow. They were perfectly shaped, and my eyebrows rose; I’d seen his feet before, and one had been terribly misshapen.
I silently cataloged the rest of him, realizing all his scars were gone, even the one he’d gotten from fairy steel. His incredibly defined abs were smooth and perfect, making him utterly lanky with the clean smoothness of late adolescence. Every part of him was lean with a long strength. There wasn’t a fleck of hair on him anywhere but for his eyebrows and atop his head. I knew. I had looked.
His gaze met mine from under his mussed bangs, and I blinked, taken by them. Ceri had green eyes, but Jenks’s were shockingly green, like new leaves. They were narrowed with anxiety, but even the fading fear couldn’t hide his youth. Sure, he had a wife and fifty-four kids, but he looked like a college freshman. A yummy college freshman majoring in oh-my-God-I-gotta-get-me-some-of-that.
Jenks rubbed his head where he had hit the overhanging rack. “Matalina?” he said, the cadence of his voice familiar but the sound of it odd. “Oh, Matalina,” he breathed when she dropped to land on his shaking hand, “you’re beautiful…”
“Jenks,” she said, hiccuping. “I’m so proud of you. I—”
“Shhhh,” he said, his face twisting in heartache when he found himself unable to touch her. “Please don’t cry, Mattie. It’s going to be okay. I promise.”
My eyes warmed with unshed tears as she played with the folds of her dress. “I’m sorry. I promised myself I wasn’t going to cry. I don’t want you to see me cry!”
She darted up, zipping out into the hall. Jenks made a move to follow, probably forgetting he didn’t have wings anymore. He leaned forward and fell to the floor, face first.
“Jenks!” I shouted when he hit with a dull smack and started swearing.
“Le’go! Let go of me!” he exclaimed, slapping at me as he wedged his legs under him, only to fall back down. His towel fell away, and he struggled to hold it in place and stand up all at the same time. “Damn it all to hell! Why can’t I balance right?” His face went ashen and he quit struggling. “Crap, I gotta pee again.”
I looked pleadingly at Kisten. The living vamp swung into motion, easily dodging Jenks’s flailing arms and hoisting him up off the floor by his shoulders. Jenks was taller by four inches, but Kisten had done bouncer work at his club. “Come on, Jenks,” he said, moving him into the hallway. “I’ve got some clothes you can put on. Falling down is a lot more comfortable when you have something between your ass and the carpet.”
“Matalina?” Jenks called in panic from the hall, protesting as Kisten manhandled him to my bathroom. “Hey, I can walk. I just forgot I didn’t have wings. Le’me go. I can do this.”
I jumped at the sound of Kisten shutting the bathroom door.
“Nice ass, Jenks,” Ivy said into the new silence. Shaking her head, she picked up the second towel Jenks had left behind, folding it as if needing to give herself something to do.
My breath came from me in a long exhalation. “That,” I said to Ceri, “has got to be the most fantastic charm I’ve ever seen.”
Ceri beamed, and I realized she’d been worried, waiting for my approval. “Curse,” she said, her eyes on her teacup as she blushed. “Thank you,” she added modestly. “I wrote it down in the back with all the supplemental curses worked in on the chance you’d want to use it again. The countercurse is included, just as it’s supposed to be. All you have to do is tap a line and say the words.”
Countercurse, I thought morosely, wondering if that meant more black on my soul or if I had taken it all already. “Um, thanks, Ceri. You’re incredible. I’ll never be able to do a charm that complex. Thank you.”
She stood in front of the window and sipped her tea, looking pleased. “You returned me my soul, Rachel Mariana Morgan. Making your life easier is a small thing.”
Ivy made a rude sound and dropped the folded towel on the table. She didn’t seem to know what to do next. My soul. My poor, tarnished, blackening soul.
My mouth went dry as the enormity of what I had done fell on me. Shit. I was playing with the black arts. No, not the black arts—which you could go to jail for—but demonic arts. They didn’t even have laws for people practicing demonic arts. I felt cold, then hot. Not only had I just put a bunch of black on my soul, but I had called it a good thing, not bad.
Oh God, I was going to be sick.
I sank down into my chair feeling shaky. Ceri had her hand on my shoulder, but I hardly felt it. Ivy was shouting something, and Ceri was telling her to sit down and be still, that it was just the delayed shock of taking on so much reality imbalance and that I was going to be okay.
Okay? I thought, putting my head on the table before I fell over. Maybe. “Rhombus,” I whispered, feeling the eye-blink-fast connection to the line and the protective circle rise around me. Ceri leapt forward, joining me before it finished forming. I had practiced this ley line charm for three months, and it was white magic, damn it, not black.
“Rachel!” Ivy cried as the shimmering band of ever-after wavered into existence between us. I pulled my head up, determined not to spew. I wanted to see what I had done to my soul, and though I couldn’t see my aura, I could see a reflection of the damage in the shimmering band of ever-after.
“God help me,” I whispered, feeling my face go cold.
“Rachel, it’s all right.” Ceri was crouched before me, her hand gripping mine, trying to get me to look at her. “You’re seeing an artificially inflated shade. It hasn’t had a chance to soak in yet. It really isn’t that bad.”
“Soak in?” I said, my voice cracking. “I don’t want it to soak in!” My aura had turned the usually red sheen of ever-after to black. Hidden in it was a shimmer of gold from my aura, looking like an aged patina. I swallowed hard. I would not spew. I would not spew.
“It will get better. I promise.”
I met her eyes, the panic subsiding. It would get better. Ceri said so; I had to believe her.
“Rachel!” Ivy cried, standing helplessly outside the circle. “Take this down!”
My head hurt and I couldn’t get enough air. “Sorry,” I breathed, breaking my link with the line. The sheet of ever-after flickered and vanished, and I felt a surge through me when I emptied my chi. I didn’t want anything extra in me right now. I was too full of blackness.
Looking embarrassed, Ivy forced the tension from her shoulders. She blinked several times, trying to recapture her usual placid calmness, when I knew what she wanted to do was give me a slap and tell me I was being stupid or give me a hug and tell me it was going to be okay. But she couldn’t do either, so she just stood there, looking miserable.
“I gotta go,” I said abruptly, surging to my feet.
Ceri gracefully stood and got out of my way, but Ivy reached for me. “Rachel, wait,” she protested, and I hesitated, vision swimming as she gripped my elbow.
I couldn’t stay there. I felt like a leper in a house of innocents, a pariah among nobles. I was covered in blackness, and this time it was all mine. “Jenks!” I shouted, yanking out of Ivy’s grip and heading for my room. “Let’s go!”
“Rachel, what are you doing?”
I went to my room, scuffed my shoes on, grabbed my bag, and pushed past her and into the hall. “Exactly what I had planned,” I said, ignoring her, pacing far too close behind me.
“You haven’t had anything to eat,” she said. “You’re still reeling from invoking that…spell. It won’t kill you to sit down and have a cup of coffee.”
There was a thump from my bathroom followed by Kisten’s muffled exclamation. The door crashed open, and I stopped. Kisten was leaning against the washer, face contorted in pain as he tried to catch his breath. Jenks was holding the door frame, looking casual in Kisten’s gray and black sweats, but his green eyes were stressed. “Sorry,” he said, sounding as if he meant it. “I, uh, slipped.” He ran his eyes up and down my haggard appearance. “Ready to go?”
I could feel Ivy behind me. “Here,” I said, extending my suitcase. “Make yourself useful and get this in the van.”
He blinked, then grinned to show even, very white teeth. “Yeah. I can carry that.”
I handed it over, and Jenks stumbled at the weight. His head thunked into the wall of the narrow hallway. “Bloody hell!” he exclaimed, crashing into the opposite wall when he overcompensated. “I’m all right!” he said quickly, waving off any help. “I’m all right. Sweet mother of Tink, the damn walls are so close! It’s like walking in a freaking anthill.”
I watched to make sure he was going to be okay, reaching out when he started weaving once he lost the guidance of the walls and was in the open space of the sanctuary. His kids were with him, adding to the noise as they shouted encouragement and advice. Hoping he took the time to walk down the steps instead of trying to jump them, I headed for the kitchen. Ivy was hot on my heels, Kisten close behind, quiet and pensive.
“Rachel,” Ivy said, and I stood in my kitchen and stared at Ceri, trying to remember why I had come in there. “I’m going with you.”
“No, you aren’t.” Oh yeah. My stuff. I grabbed my shoulder bag, with its usual charms, then opened the pantry for one of the canvas carry bags Ivy used when she went shopping. “If you leave, Piscary will slip into your head.”
“Kisten, then,” she said, desperation creeping into her gray-silk voice. “You can’t go alone.”
“I’m not going alone. Jenks is with me.”
I jammed the three demon books into the bag, then bent to get my splat gun from under the counter where I kept it at crawling height. I didn’t know what I would need, but if I was going to use demon magic, I was going to use demon magic. My chest clenched and I held my breath to keep the tears from starting. What in hell was wrong with me?
“Jenks can hardly stand up!” Ivy said as I ran a hand through my charm cupboard and scooped them all into my shoulder bag.
Pain amulets, generic disguise charms…Yeah, those would be good. I pulled myself to a stop, heart pounding as I looked at her distress.
“You’re not feeling right,” Ivy said. “I’m not letting you walk out of here alone.”
“I’m fine!” I said, trembling. “And I’m not alone. Jenks is with me!” My voice rose, and Kisten’s eyes went round. “Jenks is all the backup I need. He is all the backup I ever needed. The only time I screw up royally is when he’s not with me. And you have no right to question his competency!”
Ivy’s mouth snapped shut. “That not what I meant,” she said, and I pushed past her and into the hall. I almost ran Jenks down, and realized that he’d heard the whole thing.
“I can carry that,” he said softly, and I handed the bag of demon texts to him. His balance bobbled, but his head didn’t hit the wall like last time. He headed down the dark hall, limping.
Breath fast, I walked into Ivy’s room, kneeling on the floor by her bed and pulling her sword out from where I’d seen her tuck it once. “Rachel,” she protested from the hallway as I straightened up, gripping the wickedly sharp katana safe in its sheath.
“Can I take this?” I asked shortly, and she nodded. “Thanks.” Jenks needed a sword. So he couldn’t walk without running into things. He’d get better, and then he’d need a sword.
Kisten and Ivy trailed behind me as I slung the sword over my shoulder to hang with my bag and stomped down the hall. I had to be angry. If I wasn’t angry, I was going to fall apart. My soul was black. I was doing demon magic. I was turning into everything I feared and hated, and I was doing it to save someone who had lied and left me to make my partner’s son a thief.
Leaning into my bathroom in passing, I snapped my vanity case shut. Jenks was going to need a toothbrush. Hell, he was going to need a wardrobe, but I had to get out of there. If I didn’t keep moving, I was going to realize just how deep into the shit I had fallen.
“Rachel, wait,” Ivy said after I reached the foyer, snatched my leather jacket from its hook, and opened the door. “Rachel, stop!”
I halted on the stoop, the spring breeze lifting my hair and the birds chirping, my bag and Ivy’s sword hanging from my shoulder, my vanity case in one hand and my coat over an arm. At the curb, Jenks was fiddling with the van’s sliding door, opening and closing it like a new toy. The sun glistened in his hair, and his kids flitted about his head. Heart pounding, I turned.
Framed in the open door, Ivy looked haunted, her usually placid face severe, with panic in her dilated eyes. “I bought a laptop for you,” she said, her eyes dropping as she extended it.
Oh God, she had given me a piece of her security. “Thank you,” I whispered, unable to breathe as I accepted it. It was in a leather case, and probably weighed all of three pounds.
“It’s registered to you,” she said, looking at it as I slung it over my free shoulder. “And I already added you onto my system, so all you have to do is plug in and click. I wrote down a list of local numbers for the cities you’re going to be passing through to dial up with.”
“Thank you,” I whispered. She had given me a piece of what made her life sane. “Ivy, I’ll be back.” It was what Nick had said to me. But I’d come back. It wasn’t a lie for me.
Impulsively I set my case on the stoop and leaned forward to give her a hug. She froze, and then hugged me back. The dusky scent of her filled my senses, and I stepped away.
Kisten waited quietly behind her. Only now, seeing Ivy standing there with one arm hanging down and the other clasped around her middle, did I understand what he’d been trying to tell me. She wasn’t afraid for me, she was afraid for herself, that she might slip into old patterns without me there to remind her who she wanted to be. Just how bad had it been?
Ire flashed through me. Damn it, this wasn’t fair. Yeah, I was her friend, but she could take care of herself! “Ivy,” I said, “I don’t want to go, but I have to.”
“Then go!” she exploded, her perfect face creasing in anger and her eyes flashing to black. “I never asked you to stay!”
Motions stiff, she spun with a vamp quickness and yanked open the door to the church. It boomed shut behind her, and left me blinking. I looked at it, thinking that this wasn’t good. No, she hadn’t asked me, but Kisten had.
Kisten picked up my case, and together we went down the stairs, my laces flapping. Nearing the van, I awkwardly dug in my shoulder bag for the keys, then hesitated by the driver’s side door when I remembered Kisten hadn’t yet given them to me. They jingled as he held them out. From inside the van came the excited shrieks of pixies. “You’ll keep an eye on her?” I asked him.
“Scout’s honor.” His blue eyes were pinched from more than the sun. “I’m taking some time off.”
Jenks came from around the front of the van, silently taking my coat, vanity bag, and the sword—the last bringing a growl of anticipation from him. I waited until I heard the sliding door shut, then slumped at the sound of Jenks’s passenger-side door closing.
“Kisten,” I said, feeling a twinge of guilt. “She’s a grown woman. Why are we treating her like an invalid?”
He reached out and took my shoulders. “Because she is. Because Piscary can drop into her mind and force her to do just about anything, and it kills a piece of her every time he does. Because he has filled her with his own blood lust, making her do things she doesn’t want to do. Because she is trying to run his illegal businesses out of a sense of duty and maintain her share of your runner firm out of a sense of love.”
“Yeah. That’s what I thought.” My lips pressed together and I straightened. “I never said I would stay in the church, much less Cincinnati. Keeping her together is not my job!”
“You’re right,” he said calmly, “but it happened.”
“But it shouldn’t have. Damn it, Kisten, all I wanted to do was help her!”
“You have,” he said, kissing my forehead. “She’ll be fine. But Ivy making you her lodestone wouldn’t have evolved if you hadn’t let it, and you know it.”
My shoulders slumped. Swell, just what I needed: guilt. The breeze shifted his bangs, and I hesitated, looking at the oak door between Ivy and me. “How bad was it?” I whispered.
Kisten’s face lost all emotion. “Piscary…” He exhaled. “Piscary worked her over so well those first few years that her parents sent her away for her last two years of high school, hoping he would lose interest. She came back even more confused, thanks to Skimmer.” His eyes narrowed in an old anger, still potent. “That woman could have saved Ivy with her love, but she was so driven by the urge for better blood, hotter sex, that she sent Ivy deeper.”
I felt cold, the breeze shifting my curls. I’d known this, but there was obviously more.
Seeing my unease, Kisten frowned. “When she returned, Piscary played on her new vulnerabilities, lapping up her misery when he rewarded her for behavior that went contrary to what she wanted to believe. Eventually she abandoned everything to keep from going insane, turning herself off and letting Piscary make her into whatever he wanted. She started hurting people she loved when they were at their most vulnerable, and when they abandoned her, she started enticing innocents.”
Dropping his eyes, Kisten looked to his bare feet. I knew he was one of the people she had hurt, and I could tell he felt guilty for leaving her. “You couldn’t do anything,” I said, and his head jerked up, anger in his eyes.
“It was bad, Rachel,” he said. “I should have done something. Instead, I turned my back on her and walked away. She won’t tell me, but I think she killed people to satisfy her blood lust. God, I hope it was by accident.”
I swallowed hard, but he wasn’t done yet. “For years she ran rampant,” he said, staring at the van but his eyes unfocused, as if looking into the past. “She was a living vampire functioning as an undead, walking under the sun as beautiful and seductive as death. Piscary made her that way, and her crimes were given amnesty. The favored child.”
He said the last with bitterness, and his gaze dropped to me. “I don’t know what happened, but one day I found her on my kitchen floor, covered in blood and crying. I hadn’t seen her in years, but I took her in. Piscary gave her some peace, and after a while she got better. I think it was so she wouldn’t kill herself too soon for his liking. All I know is she found a way to deal with the blood lust, chaining it somehow by mixing it with love. And then she met you and found the strength to say no to it all.”
Kisten looked at me, his hand touching my hair. “She likes herself now. You’re right that she isn’t going to throw it all away just because you aren’t here. It’s just…” He squinted, his gaze going distant again. “It was bad, Rachel. It got better. And when she met you, she found a core of strength that Piscary hadn’t been able to warp. I just don’t want to see it break.”
I was shaking inside, and somehow my hands found his. “I’ll be back.”
He nodded, looking at my fingers within his. “I know.”
I felt the need to move. I didn’t care that it now came from the need to run from what I had just learned. My eyes dropped to the keys. “Thanks for letting me use your van.”
“No biggie,” he said, forcing a smile, but his eyes were worried, so terribly worried. “Just return it with a full tank of gas.” He reached forward, and I leaned against him, breathing in his scent one last time. My head tilted and our lips met, but it was an empty kiss, my worry having pushed any passion out. This was for Jenks, not Nick. I didn’t owe Nick anything.
“I slipped something in your suitcase for you,” Kisten said, and I pulled away.
“What is it?” I asked, but he didn’t answer, giving me a smile before he reluctantly stepped back. His hand trailed down my arm and slipped away.
“Good-bye, Kist,” I whispered. “It’s only for a few days.”
He nodded. “ ‘Bye, love. Take care of yourself.”
Bare feet soundless, he turned and went back into the church. The door creaked shut, and he was gone.
Feeling numb, I turned and yanked open my door. Jenks’s kids flowed out of his open window, and I got in, slamming the door behind me. The laptop slipped under the seat with my bag, and I jammed the keys into the ignition. The big engine turned over and settled into a slow, even rumble. Only now did I look across to Jenks, surprised again at seeing him there, sitting beside me in Kisten’s sweats and his shockingly yellow hair. This was really weird.
His seat belt was on, and his hands dropped from where he’d been fiddling with the visor. “You look small,” he finally said, looking both innocent and wise.
A smile quirked the corner of my lips. Shifting into gear, I accelerated down the street.
“For the love of Tink,” Jenks muttered, angling another one of the Cheetos into his mouth. He meticulously chewed and swallowed, adding, “Her hair looks like a dandelion. You think someone would have told her. There’s enough there to make a quilt out of.”
My gaze was fixed on the car ahead of us, going an aggravating fifty-six miles an hour on the two-lane, double-yellow-lined road. The woman in question had white hair frizzed out worse than mine. He was right. “Jenks,” I said, “you’re getting crumbs all over Kisten’s van.”
The crackle of cellophane was faint over the music—happy, happy music that didn’t fit my mood at all. “Sorry,” he said, rolling the bag down and shoving it in the back. Licking the orange from his fingers, he started messing with Kist’s CDs. Again. Then he’d fiddle with the glove box, or spend five minutes getting his window at ju-u-u-u-ust the right height, or fuss with his seat belt, or any of the half a dozen things he’d been doing since getting in the van, all the while making a soft commentary that I think he didn’t know I could hear. It had been a long day.
I sighed, adjusting my grip on the wheel. We had been off the interstate for the last 150 miles or so, taking a two-lane road instead of the interstate up to Mackinaw. The pine forest pressed close on either side, making the sun an occasional flash. It was nearing the horizon, and the wind coming in my window was chill, carrying the scent of earth and growing things. It soothed me where the music couldn’t.
The National Forestry sign caught my eye, and I smoothly braked. I had to get out from behind this woman. And if I heard that song one more time, I was going to jam Daddy’s T-Bird down Jenks’s throat. Not to mention “Mr. Bladder the size of a walnut” might need to use the can again, which was why we were on the back roads instead of the faster interstate. Jenks got frantic if he couldn’t pee when he wanted to.
He looked up from rifling through the glove box as I slowed to bump over the wooden bridge spanning a drainage ditch. He’d been through it three times, but who knows? Maybe something had changed since the last time he had arranged the old napkins, registration, insurance, and the broken pencil. I had to remind myself that he was a pixy, not a human, despite what he looked like, and therefore had a pixy’s curiosity.
“A rest stop?” he questioned, his green eyes innocently wide. “What for?”
I didn’t look at him, pulling in between two faded white lines and shifting into park. Lake Huron lay before us, but I was too tired to enjoy it. “To rest.” The music cut off with the engine. Reaching under the seat, my healing knuckles grazed my new laptop when I shifted the seat rearward. Closing my eyes, I took a slow breath and leaned back, my hands still on the wheel. Please get out and take a walk, Jenks.
Jenks was silent. There was the crackle of cellophane as he gathered up the trash. The man never stopped eating. I was going to introduce him to a mighty burger tonight. Maybe three-quarters of a pound of meat would slow him down.
“You want me to drive?” he asked, and I cracked an eyelid, looking askance at him.
Oh, there’s a good idea. If we were stopped, it’d be me getting the points, not him. “Nah,” I said, my hands falling from the wheel and into my lap. “We’re almost there, I just need to move around a little.”
With a wisdom far beyond his apparent age, Jenks ran his eyes over me. His shoulders slumped, and I wondered if he knew he was getting on my nerves. Maybe there was a reason pixies were only four inches tall. “Me too,” he said meekly, opening his door to let in a gust of sunset-cooled wind smelling of pine and water. “Do you have any change for the machine?”
Relieved, I tugged my bag onto my lap and handed him a fiver. I’d have given him more, but he had nowhere to put it. He needed a wallet. And a pair of pants to put it in. I had hustled him out of the church so fast that all he had was his phone, clipped proudly to his elastic waistband, which had since been depressingly silent. We’d been hoping Jax would call again, but no such luck.
“Thanks,” he said, getting out and tripping on the flip-flops I’d bought him at the first gas station we stopped at. The van shifted when he shut the door, and he made his way to a rusted trash can set about fifty feet from the parking lot, chained to a tree. His balance was markedly better, with only the usual trouble most people had walking with slabs of orange plastic attached to their feet.
He dumped the trash and headed for a tree, an alarming intentness to his pace. I took a breath to call out, and he jerked to a stop. Slumped, he scanned the park, making his way to a clapboard restroom instead. Such were the trials in a day of the life of a six-foot-four pixy.
I sighed, watching him slow at the bed of straggly daylilies to talk to the pixies. They buzzed about him in a swirl of gold and silver sparkles, coming from all over the park like fireflies on a mission. Within moments a cloud of glowing dust hovered over him in the darkening air.
I turned at the hush of a car pulling in a few slots down. Three boys like stair steps exploded out, arguing about who switched whose dead batteries in their handheld games. Mom said nothing, wearily popping the trunk and settling it all with a twelve-pack of double A’s. Money was offered by Dad, and the three ran to the vending machines under a rustic shelter, shoving each other to get there first. Jenks caught the smallest before he fell into the flowers. I had a feeling Jenks was more worried about the plants than the boy. I smiled when the couple leaned against the car and watched them, exhaling loudly. I knew the feeling.
My smile slowly faded into melancholy. I had always planned on children, but with a hundred years of fertility facing me, I was in no hurry. My thoughts drifted to Kisten, and I pulled my eyes from the boys at the vending machines.
Witches married outside their species all the time, especially before the Turn. There were perfectly acceptable options: adoption, artificial insemination, borrowing your best friend’s boyfriend for a night. Issues of what was morally right and wrong tended not to matter when you found yourself in love with a man you couldn’t tell you weren’t human. It sort of went with the whole hiding-among-humans-for-the-last-five-thousand-years thing. We weren’t hiding now, but why limit oneself simply because there wasn’t a safety issue anymore? It was way too soon for me to think about kids, but with Kisten, any children would have to be engendered by someone else.
Frustrated, I got out of the van, my body aching from my first day without a pain amulet since my beating. The couple drifted away, talking between themselves. There wouldn’t be any children with Nick either, I reminded myself, so it isn’t like this is anything new.
Painfully stretching to touch my toes, I froze, realizing I had put him in present tense. Damn. This was not a choice between them. Oh God, I thought. Tell me I’m only doing this to help Jenks. That nothing is left in me to rekindle. But the wedge of doubt wiggled itself between me and my logic, settling in to make me feel stupid.
Angry with myself, I did a few more stretches, and then, wondering if the black on my aura had soaked in, I tapped a line and set a circle. My lips curled in revulsion. The shimmering sheet of energy rose black and ugly, the reddish light of sunset coming in from around the trees adding an ominous cast to the black sheen. The gold tint of my aura was entirely lost. Disgusted, I dropped the line, and the circle vanished, leaving me depressed. Even better, Mom and Dad Cleaver called to their kids and, with an unusual hushed haste at their loud questions, jammed everyone into the car to drive away with a little squeak of tire on pavement.
“Yeah,” I muttered, watching their brake lights flash red as they settled into traffic. “Run from the black witch.” I felt like a leper, and leaned against the warm van and crossed my arms over my chest, remembering why my folks always took us to big cities or places like Disney World on vacation. Small towns generally didn’t have much of an Inderland population, and those who did live in them usually played their differences down. Way down.
The snick-slap-snick of Jenks’s flip-flops grew louder as he returned down the cracked sidewalk, the swirl of pixies dropping back one by one until he was alone. Behind him were the outlines of two islands, both so big they looked like the opposite shore. Far off to the left was the bridge that had clued me in that this was where Jax was. It was starting to glitter in the dimming light as night fell. The bridge was huge, even from this distance.
“They haven’t seen Jax,” Jenks said, handing me a candy bar. “But they promise to take him in if they do.”
My eyes widened. “Really?” Pixies were very territorial, even among themselves, so the offer was somewhat of a shock.
He nodded, the half smile glimmering under his mop of hair turning him guileless. “I think I impressed them.”
“Jenks, king of the pixies,” I said, and he laughed. The wonderful sound struck through me, lifting my spirits. It slowly died to leave an unhappy silence. “We’ll find him, Jenks,” I said, touching his shoulder. He jumped, then flashed me a nervous smile. My hand fell away, and I remembered his anger at me for having lied to him. No wonder he didn’t want me to touch him. “I’m sure they’re in Mackinaw,” I added, miserable.
His back to the water and his face empty of emotion, Jenks watched the sporadic traffic.
“Where else could they be?” I tore open my candy bar and took a bite of caramel and chocolate, more for something to do than hunger. The van was radiating heat, and it felt good to lean against the side of the engine. “Jax said they were in Michigan,” I said, chewing. “Big green bridge held up by cables. Lots of fresh water. Fudge. Putt-putt golf. We’ll find him.”
Pain, hard and deep, crossed Jenks’s face. “Jax was the first child Mattie and I were able to keep alive through the winter,” he whispered, and the sweetness left the wad of sugar and nuts in my mouth. “He was so small, I held him in my hands to keep him warm for four months while I slept. I’ve got to find him, Rache.”
Oh God, I thought as I swallowed, wondering if I had ever loved anyone that deeply. “We’ll find him,” I said. Feeling totally inadequate, I reached to touch him, pulling away at the last moment. He realized it, and the silence grew uncomfortable.
“Ready to go?” I said, folding the wrapper over the rest of the candy and reaching for the door handle. “We’re almost there. We’ll get a room, grab something to eat, and then I’m taking you shopping.”
“Shopping?” His thin eyebrows rose, and he walked to the front of the van.
Our doors shut simultaneously, and I buckled myself in, refreshed, and my resolve strengthened. “You don’t think I’m going to be seen with a six-foot piece of dessert dressed in a nasty pair of sweats, do you?”
Jenks brushed the hair from his eyes, his angular face showing a surprising amount of sly amusement. “Some underwear would be nice.”
Snorting, I started the van and put it into reverse, snapping off the CD player before it started up again. “Sorry about that. I had to get out of there.”
“Me too,” he said, surprising me. “And I wasn’t about to wear any of Kisten’s. The guy is nice and all, but he stinks.” He hesitated, plucking at his collar. “Hey, uh, thanks for what you said back there.”
My brow furrowed. Checking both ways, I pulled onto the road. “At the rest stop?”
Sheepish, he shifted his shoulders in embarrassment. “No, in the kitchen about me being the only backup you ever needed.”
“Oh.” I warmed, keeping my eyes on the car ahead of us, a black, salt-rusted Corvette that reminded me of Kisten’s other vehicle. “I meant it, Jenks. I missed you the past five months. And if you don’t come back to the firm, I swear I’m going to leave you like this.”
His panicked expression eased when he saw I was joking. “For the love of Tink, don’t you dare,” he muttered. “I can’t even pix anyone. I sweat now instead of dusting, did you know that? I’ve got water coming off me instead of dust. What the hell can I do with sweat? Rub up against someone and make them puke in disgust? I’ve seen you sweat, and it’s not pretty. I don’t even want to think about sex, two sweaty bodies pressed against each other like that? Disgusting. Talk about birth control—it’s no wonder you only have a handful of kids.”
He shuddered and I smiled. Same old Jenks.
I couldn’t keep myself from stiffening when he began rummaging in the music, and apparently sensing it, he stopped, putting his hands in his lap to stare out the front window at the darkening sky. We had come out of the woods and were starting to see homes and businesses strung out along the road in a thin strip. Behind them was the flat blue of the lake, gray in the fading light.
“Rachel,” he said, his voice soft with regret. “I don’t know if I can come back.”
Alarmed, I looked at him, then the road, then at him again. “What do you mean you don’t know. If it’s about Trent—”
He held up a hand, his brow pinched. “It’s not Trent. I figured out he’s an elf after helping Ceri last night.”
I jerked and the van crossed the yellow line. A horn blew, and I yanked the wheel back. “You figured it out?” I stammered, feeling my heart pound. “Jenks, I wanted to tell you. Really. But I was afraid you would blab, and—”
“I’m not going to tell anyone,” he said, and I could see it was killing him. It would have brought him a huge amount of prestige in the pixy world. “If I do, then it means you were right in not telling me, and you weren’t.”
His voice was hard, and I felt a stab of guilt. “Then why?” I asked, wishing he had brought this up when we were parked, not when I was trying to navigate the outskirts of an unfamiliar town, bright with neon lights.
For a moment he was silent, his young face pensive as he put his thoughts in order. “I’m eighteen,” he finally said. “Do you know how old that is for a pixy? I’m slowing down. You nicked me last fall. Ivy can snag me whenever she wants.”
“Ivy’s got Piscary’s undead reactions,” I said, scared. “And I was lucky. Jenks, you look great. You aren’t old.”
“Rachel…” he said around a sigh. “My kids are moving out to make their own lives. The garden is starting to go empty. I’m not complaining,” he rushed on. “The wish for sterility I got from you is a blessing, since the last three years of children in a pixy’s life have a very low life expectancy and it would kill Matalina knowing she was having children that wouldn’t live a week past her. Little Josephina…she’s flying now. She’s going to make it.”
His voice cut off, cracking, and my throat tightened.
“Between that wish and the garden,” he continued, staring out the front window, “I’m not worried about any of my children surviving past Matalina and me, and I thank you for that.”
“Jenks—” I started, wanting him to stop.
“Shut up,” he said hotly, his smooth cheeks reddening. “I don’t want your pity.” Clearly angry, he put a hand on the open windowsill. “It’s my own fault. It never bothered me until I got to know you and Ivy. I’m old. I don’t care what I look like, and I’m mad as all hell that you two are going to have your damn runner business from now until forever and I’m not going to be a part of it. That’s why I didn’t come back. Not because you didn’t tell me what Trent was.”
I didn’t say anything, gritting my jaw and miserable. I hadn’t known he was that old. Signaling, I made a right turn to follow the strip along the water’s edge. Ahead of us was the huge bridge connecting the upper peninsula of Michigan with the lower, all lit up and sparkling.
“You can’t let that stop you from coming back,” I said hesitantly. “I do demon magic and Ivy is Piscary’s scion.” Turning the wheel, I pulled into a two-story motel, an outside pool snuggled up in the el the rooms made. I stopped under the faded red and white striped canopy, watching the kids in swimsuits and plastic arm-cuffs run in front of the van, confident I wouldn’t hit them. The mother trailing behind them gave me a grateful wave. I thought they must be either insane or Weres since it was only sixty out. “Any of us could die tomorrow,” I finished.
He looked at me, the lines of anger smoothing out. “You won’t die tomorrow,” he said.
Putting the van into park, I turned to him. “How do you figure that?”
Jenks undid his belt and gave me a sideways smile that rivaled Kisten’s for mischief. “Because I’m with you.”
A groan slipped from me. I had walked right into that one.
Smiling, he got out, glancing up at the first stars, almost unseen behind the town’s lights. Stiff from the long ride, I followed him into the tiny office. It was empty but for an astounding display of knickknacks and pamphlets. Hands out, Jenks headed for the shelves of miniatures like a starving man, his pixy curiosity and need to touch making the display irresistible. The door shut behind us, and seeing him lost in the throes of pixy bliss, I punched him in the arm.
“Ow!” he exclaimed, holding it and giving me an injured look. “What was that for?”
“You know why,” I said dryly, finding a smile as I turned to the casually dressed woman who came in from a back room through an open archway. I could hear a TV in the background, and smell someone’s lunch. Or dinner, rather, seeing as she was human.
She blinked as she took us in. “Can I help you?” she asked, becoming hesitant when she realized we were Inderlanders. Mackinaw was a tourist town, and probably not big enough to draw a huge resident Inderland crowd.