The bedroom I woke up in was almost pitch dark. It took me a moment to remember where I was, and with this knowledge came the flood of events that had led me here.
What time was it? Had I slept through an entire day? I felt Michael moving around somewhere nearby, so I dragged my carcass out of bed to check. The smell of coffee hit my nose when I pulled open the door. I zeroed in on it like a scent hound. From the sound of the accompanying bubbling and dripping, it was still brewing.
I’d been so wiped out last night that I hadn’t looked my fill of Michael’s apartment. My gaze darted over it as I moved through. The main living area was an open concept with high ceilings and exposed ductwork. The exterior walls were brick, while the interior ones were painted a charcoal gray. Shafts of light peeked out from behind the heavy curtains, hinting at midday. The kitchen took up one side of the living area in a swath of dark cabinets and granite. A clock on the stove told me it was just after one in the afternoon. I’d managed to sleep for nine hours. So why was I still so wiped out? Was combined exhaustion via the bond a thing? I’d have to ask my parents.
The sight of Michael standing by the coffee maker stopped me in my tracks. He faced away from me, wearing running shorts that sat low on his hips. I knew they sat low on his hips because he had nothing else on. Not even socks. Why the hell did I find that erotic? I’d been around half naked people my whole life. Wolves stripped clothing off to change forms without a care in the world. I’d seen more private parts than a seasoned porn director. It never mattered before. Now I felt like one of those dudes from historical romance novels that sported wood every time they caught sight of a creamy ankle.
That must be it. He was so buttoned up all the time that this first glimpse of flesh sent me over the edge.
I blinked and had my second shock of the morning. Then I rubbed my eyes to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. Nope, still there. The dark ink of stylized runes tripped up Michael’s spine and then spread across his broad upper back. Mr. Prim and Proper was covered in tattoos. My brain struggled to fit this fact into the image I had of him in my mind.
He turned around then, treating me to the sight of dense pectorals and thick abs stacked like blocks. Heavy slabs of muscle made up his shoulders and biceps.
My jaw nearly dropped. Michael was built like a fucking brick house.
His gaze latched onto mine. Then, ever so slowly, it ran down over me. I wore nothing but a thin white tank top and underwear. All of my clothes were at his parents’ house and I hadn’t thought to pull my jeans back on first thing in the morning. Because, again, nudity wasn’t a big deal around our kind. Usually.
A beep sounded from behind him. He pulled his gaze off of me and turned away. “Coffee’s ready,” he said with forced nonchalance. I could tell it was forced, because he was working hard to suppress feelings that were far too similar to my own.
I walked to the fridge. “You have any milk?”
“On the third shelf,” he said.
I grabbed it and brought it over to the coffee maker, stopping just beside him, so close that I could feel the heat radiating off of that big body. At this distance, it was impossible to ignore the fact that our hearts beat in tandem. It made me want to reach out and press my hand against his sternum so that I could feel the rhythm beneath my palm.
I took a deep breath in of his scent and then let it out. Time to pull my big girl panties on. “Look, we’re both attractive. It’s totally normal to notice that about each other. We should just acknowledge it and move on so it’s not awkward between us.”
“You’re not worried acknowledgment could make the situation more…trying?”
Ha. Unlikely. I didn’t think that was possible.
“It’ll be fine,” I said, forcing confidence into the words. “We’re both logical adults. We know that acting on any attraction would be a mistake at this point.”
He glanced over, meeting my eyes. The fact that we were the same height and neither of us had to crane our necks up or down made it feel far too intimate. I looked away first, unsure of what I saw in his dark gaze.
“Ronald and the rest of my enforcers have called a meeting for three,” he told me.
I took one of the two cups he’d set out next to the coffee maker, added a splash of milk, then poured coffee to the brim. “I can be ready by then.”
I retreated back to my room. Okay, more like fled.
I reemerged half an hour later, when I heard him turn on the shower and knew the kitchen was clear. I made myself a quick breakfast with as many calories as I could find, then sat at the island and hoovered it before he was done in the bathroom.
Once he was out of there and back in his bedroom, I reemerged a second time to take my own shower and pull my clothes on. I’d been going for stealthy yet functional last night, with combat boots, stretchy black skinny jeans and a black t-shirt that clung to my upper body. Now, in broad daylight, I looked like I was trying to be a badass. Not something I usually went for, what with the fact that people already tried to fight me just because of my power.
I braided my hair to get it out of my face and ended up looking like a Lara Croft wannabe. I let out a frustrated growl, pulled it free, and then piled it on top of my head in a messy bun. Good enough.
Michael waited for me in the living room. I breathed a sigh of relief to see him back in a suit, tie firmly knotted beneath his chin, face turned down as he examined his cufflinks. It was like he’d put a wall up between us again. Even the bond felt muted. I welcomed it. Despite my earlier words, the look that he’d given me as we stood shoulder to shoulder left me feeling less like a logical adult and more like a hormonal teenager.
“Ready?” he asked.
We took the elevator to the top floor, standing as far apart as it would allow. The doors opened to reveal a room out of a movie scene. The rear wall held a small armory of weapons: katanas, subatomic machine guns, throwing knives, a recurve bow, and even a wicked looking broadsword – just in case someone was feeling medieval. Maps were spread out on architect tables. Several desks with computers and large monitors extended in a long row against the wall nearest us, the men and women that sat at them wearing headphones with microphones, tapping away at keyboards, calling out locations, or relaying messages.
Near the windows, a small group of people huddled in quiet conversation. I knew from sight alone which of them were Michael’s enforcers. Three of the individuals projected authority and violence like an aura.
Ronald was at their head, towering over them all. A waiflike blonde woman stood beside him. Everyone else in the room wore what amounted to tactical clothing. She wore sky-high nude heels, a clinging beige skirt that extended from just above her navel to just past her knees, and a white sleeveless blouse tucked into the skirt. Her hair was pulled back into an immaculate low ponytail, not a strand out of place. Her makeup was flawless. I wanted to take her by the shoulders and shake her while screaming “Tell me all of your beauty secrets!”
She detached herself from the group and came over to us, carrying a tablet. “Good afternoon, Mr. Kolbeck, Ms. Fitzpatrick.”
Clearly, someone had caught her up to speed while I’d been sleeping.
I extended my hand toward her. “Layla.”
She reached out and gripped mine in a businesslike fashion. “Emma St. Claire, Mr. Kolbeck’s executive assistant.”
We let each other go. She smelled like expensive perfume and humanity. She wasn’t a wolf. How the hell had she become part of Michael’s inner circle? Did she know what everyone else in the room was? I knew a few humans in on the secret, and none had ever appeared as at ease around our kind as she was.
As soon as her fingers were free, they went back to her tablet and flew over the screen. “The rest of the team is already here,” she told Michael. “I suggest we convene in the interrogation room. I know it’s a bit grim, but the walls are soundproof, and it’s warded, so anything that Ms. Fitzpatrick says or…” her eyes cut to me “…does, will remain between us.”
She knew. I’ll be damned.
A few minutes later, we crammed seven chairs around a narrow table in a small rectangular room that was so heavily warded it made my skin crawl. All outside sound cut off once the door was shut. It felt like being in a tomb.
“You’ll get used to it,” a masculine voice said from far too close.
I nearly jumped. I hadn’t heard him approach. I’d been too distracted watching Michael, who stood in the corner speaking to Ronald and Emma as he tried to rearrange his work schedule.
I turned from them to see this newcomer grab the chair beside mine and turn it so that he sat in it backwards, his arms on the top of it as he faced me. It put his rippling biceps on display, which was probably why he’d sat like that. He looked to be about my age and was nothing short of one of the most beautiful people I had ever seen. He had thick dark hair with a slight curl to it, striking green eyes, an expressive mouth that seemed on the verge of a smile, and cheekbones most models would kill for.
He winked at me. “James.”
“Layla,” I answered. “What will I get used to exactly?”
“The way that bombproof rooms make you feel like you’ve been buried alive.”
“Alternatively, I could just take to avoiding them like the plague.”
He chuckled. It was a glorious sound. “Good luck with that. You’re a Kolbeck now. Maybe not in name, but your association with the family put a target on your back the second you set foot in the city. That power and that pretty face will only make it worse for you.”
Was that supposed to be a compliment?
A trim, dark-skinned black woman in her late thirties with perfectly sculpted brows and enviable bone structure took the chair on the other side of him. The beads on the ends of her braided hair clicked together as she shook her head and rolled her eyes at his back. “Don’t let him flirt with you too much. The bond is a bitch early on and Michael might have to finally do something about his annoying ass.”
I ignored James in favor of her. “You’re bonded too?”
“Fifteen years now,” she said. “I’m Monica, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said. Now, can you please answer the five hundred questions about the bond that I can no way in hell ask my mother without her turning it into the most uncomfortable conversation of my life? I wanted to add.
“Are we really all going to just sit here and pretend we don’t want to fight her?” a compact man in his late twenties asked as he took the seat across from Monica. His skin was a darker olive than mine and his head was shaved bald, which made his thick black eyebrows all the more apparent. The shirt he wore could have been a twin of my own, both in color and in size. How he’d managed to get it on over all his muscles without ripping it was beyond me. Scars peppered his exposed skin. Claw marks. Gunshot wounds. Peeking out from his collar, a still healing vampire bite looked pink and angry. He wrecked shit for a living and wanted people to know it.
Monica spared him a glance. “Yes, Kevin. We are. Because what your null ass can’t tell is that she’s shielding herself. Which means the power you’re feeling is but a flicker of the heat she’s packing.” She turned to look at me. “You’re MacKenzie Valley, aren’t you?”
I stared at her. Maybe other wolves had wondered about it, but Monica was the first one to ever ask me flat out. It made me instantly respect her. She seemed like a woman who didn’t bullshit.
“I am,” I said.
I had to give it to the others, they handled it better than most. Monica simply nodded. James sucked in a breath and straightened in his chair, all hint of flirtation gone. Kevin, weirdly, leaned forward, a gleam of excitement in his eyes.
“Don’t do it, Kev,” Monica warned. “I met one once. He was in my husband’s former pack. If she’s anything like he was, she can throw you through this wall.”
Ronald turned and pinned her with a look. “The wall is twenty-inch-thick steel rebar enforced concrete.”
“Your point?” Monica asked.
Ronald slowly pivoted his head toward me, brow arching in question.
I shrugged at him. Past my favorite parlor trick in high school – getting tipsy and lifting cars to entertain my friends – I hadn’t really tested the full range of my strength. Nor did I plan to. I knew through the grapevine that most of my fellow MacKenzie survivors served as enforcers or alphas in other packs. Their lives were brutal and short lived. No thank you. I’d much rather die in bed at the ripe old age of 90 than be cut down because I felt the need to show off.
“Are you really shielding?” Kevin asked me.
“Like a sonofabitch.”
“Stop,” Ronald said, taking a seat next to Kevin. I didn’t miss the way it placed him between us.
“Stop what?” I asked.
“Shielding,” he answered. “This room is warded. We need to know how much your power could surge if you’re pissed off enough or knocked out.”
Michael and Emma took the only open seats remaining, him on my left, with Emma between him and Ronald. Good. If Kevin lost his mind and tried to lunge at me, they could protect her.
Michael shook his head. “It won’t surge if she’s knocked out. She shields even in her sleep.”
Monica leaned forward, expression curious. “Really?”
Ronald was like a dog with a bone. “We still need to know.”
I looked around the room. All eyes were on me. “As long as everyone understands that I am not an alpha. I am not challenging you in any way. Please don’t try to attack me.”
“We have more control than most,” James said. “Right, Kevin?”
Kevin put his hands up and grinned. “Can’t really blame me for being interested, can you? I don’t remember the last time I lost a fight.”
Michael leaned in, his shoulder brushing mine. “You are under no obligation to do this.”
I glanced over and met his dark eyes for a brief moment. “I know. It’s fine. They’re your people. If you trust them, I trust them.”
“Awww,” Kevin said.
Monica threw a pen at him. “Shut up, turd breath.”
Michael spared them a glance. His face was stern, but the amusement I felt coming off of him belied the expression. “I do trust them, despite the fact that they have a propensity to act like a pack of feral malefactors when they’re together.”
James laid his head down on his forearms and gave Michael a dreamy look. “I love it when you use SAT words.” His expression was probably meant to look cute, but with a face like his, it was closer to panty-melting.
I looked away before I could be caught in its spell.
Ronald had had about enough. “Knock it off,” he said, his bass voice dropping into a warning growl.
The room settled down.
I figured now was as good a time as any and started easing the restraints I’d placed upon my power. When my parents, with the aid of Audrey, had taught me to control it, they used metaphors. Audrey said that when learning spells, routines and visualizations could be helpful for young practitioners just beginning to harness their magic. She saw no reason it would be different for me. And so I’d spent years perfecting my very own ritual.
In my mind, there was a cage. It formed a perfect circle around my metaphysical abilities. The number of bars never changed. That was important, Audrey taught me. If they were always there, it would be much easier for me to remember their presence when I was upset or afraid. Instead, she taught me to give them flexibility. When I drew my power in, I visualized the cage shrinking in my mind. When I let it out, the cage expanded. Expansion was easy. Shrinking all those bars down until I could barely detect them? That was hard. Even now, after years of practice. And that was what I’d been doing since I arrived in the city. It would be nice to let them out some.
With a thought, they began to loosen. The tightness in my shoulders eased as I returned the cage to the size I normally kept it at around my own pack.
“You feel like an alpha,” James said. The green of his eyes had an iridescent sheen to them now, his wolf form closer to the surface.
Michael shifted in his seat. “This is just above the level she had it at when I met her.”
“At the bonding ceremony?” Ronald asked.
“Yes,” Michael answered.
Kevin leaned his elbows on the table. “And no one tried to fight you there?”
“The peace of the ritual is sacred,” I said.
He frowned. “Oh, right. I forgot about the sanctity some packs place on that night.”
“Keep going,” Ronald told me.
I closed my eyes, took another deep breath, and as I let it out, the bars of the cage expanded even further.
“Keep going,” Ronald repeated.
I did what he asked, letting the bars loosen so much that power flowed out through the wide gaps between them. My very existence expanded with the cage. Smells became stronger, sharper. I picked up the hint of fur just beneath James’ skin, the lingering scent of the shaving cream Ronald had used this morning. Monica must have had something sweet around lunch, because there was a small drop of honey on her pant leg, hidden by the dark fabric.
Sounds likewise became amplified. Not only could I hear every heartbeat in the room, I could also hear the valves that pumped the blood in and out of them. Emma’s stomach rumbled. The fabric of Michael’s suit sliding across itself as he shifted was almost deafening.
Even without the threat of fighting, I would keep my powers caged in, because everything was so overwhelming at this level that I could barely concentrate. No wonder my birth pack had eventually lost control and destroyed itself.
“Stop,” Ronald bit out.
I opened my eyes to see everyone sitting very still in their seats. Even Emma, a human, appeared supremely uncomfortable, as though the air itself pressed down on her. To my enhanced eyes, they looked like new people. All the tiny minute flaws that marked their skin were apparent. I could have stared at the multifaceted shades of light brown, dark blonde and light blonde in Emma’s hair for days, learning all the new variances of color I found there.
I turned from her to Michael. He looked incredible. Like Michael, only more. He’d missed a few hairs in his beard with the clippers this morning. The dark eyes that met mine were slowly bleeding into the lighter color of a wolf’s, and I watched as brown was supplanted with the jeweled tones of topaz, citrine, and amber, ringed by a darker band of onyx.
He somehow felt even better than he looked. If pressed, I couldn’t find the words to describe it. It was like I was meeting him all over again for the first time through my power. I shifted the focus of it, concentrating it around him. He looked at me with his wolf eyes, and I could feel some dark, primordial part of himself rising up to meet my own. His chest heaved beneath his suit jacket. His pulse picked up, and my own heart raced to match it.
I grinned at him, feeling the sharp prick of canines against my lips. Home. He felt like home to me. Now I knew that I felt like home to him too. And that I wasn’t the only one struggling to figure out what that meant or how I felt about it. There was something incredibly comforting about that. It reminded me that I wasn’t as alone here in the city as I thought.
Before either of us revealed anything we weren’t ready to, I closed my eyes and shrank the cage back down to its usual level, the one I’d kept it at for so long that I didn’t have to focus to maintain it.
When next I opened my eyes, it was to see Michael leaned as far back in his seat as he could get, gripping the arms of his chair. He stared at the wall, slowly but steadily pulling himself back from whatever brink I’d driven him to.
“That was intense,” Monica said from across the room.
“That was only half power,” I told her.
Disbelief echoed over the bond.
“Fucksake,” Kevin spat. He stood and started pacing in the narrow space between the chairs and the wall.
“We were bred to kill vampires,” I reminded him. “We needed to be able to see and hear and smell each and every tiny weakness.”
“You could have warned us about how bad it would be. I almost fucking shifted,” he said. “I haven’t come that close to losing control since my balls dropped.”
James’ chair creaked as he leaned forward in it. “Did anyone else feel like their own senses were heightened?”
“Yes,” Michael said in a clipped tone.
Ronald’s brows drew down in thought. “But was it because of her power, or because we were closer to the shift and our wolf senses supplanted our human ones?” Surprisingly, he turned to look at Emma.
She shook her head, fingers once again flying over her tablet. “There isn’t much information available about what the MacKenzie Valley pack could do aside from their increased size and strength. Those were the most obvious differences. Any mention of magical abilities is almost done offhand. What records there are seem written to serve as a cautionary tale for the rest of you.”
Was she tapped into some sort of preternatural Google?
“That’s because they killed other wolves,” I said. “So rumor wouldn’t make it out. If the other packs got wind of what they were, they’d be chomping at the bit to get in on it. To breed with us and create their very own baby superwolves. Which the MacKenzie pack would see as competition. The few adult wolves who weren’t killed were ordered to silence by the vampire who slaughtered us. Trust me, they’ll never talk.”
She set the tablet down and met my gaze. “That explains why my queries to the other packs with surviving members have been ignored or declined.”
Monica’s braids clicked as she turned to look at me. “Do you know the answer then?”
“I don’t,” I said. “Not definitively. I was too young when the attack happened. Either I wasn’t told, or I just don’t remember. My parents are divided over the issue. Dad thinks it’s the power that increases your senses, and Mom says it’s the shift. They’ve been around me more than anyone else so…” I shrugged unhelpfully.
She frowned. “What’s your gut say?”
I took a deep breath and thought about it for a moment. “That it’s the power.”
“And you never sought to learn greater control of it?” she asked.
I shook my head. How the hell did I even explain this? “It doesn’t work like a mystic’s magic does. There’s no greater control to learn. If I concentrate really hard, I can shift the brunt of it in a direction, bringing whatever falls within it under greater scrutiny. Aside from that, it’s just a passive ability. This power was bred into us so we could find weaknesses in our enemies and intimidate vampires at range. Imagine twenty wolves like me, fully unshielded, stalking you through the wilderness.”
I watched that thought sink in. This was a room full of predators, with the exception of Emma. The idea of becoming prey was alien to them, unwelcome, but I could see them all imagining it: being lost in a dense, old growth forest and sensing an unstoppable tide of death crashing through the undergrowth toward them at impossible speed.
“The feel of it kicks everyone else like a mule,” I said. “So far, it’s only proven effective at giving me an eventual headache or getting me into fights.”
Ronald rubbed a hand over his face. When he pulled it away, he looked tired, closer to fifty than forty. Like I’d just aged him. “To sum it up, you don’t know how strong you actually are and you’re saddled with passive power that’s not good for anything aside from painting a giant target on your back. Great. Just swell. I have such an easy, relaxing job.” He sighed. “The only good thing I see is that thanks to the lack of data, no one else knows what your power does either.”
“Bad thing,” James supplied. “Not knowing means everyone else will want to test her so they can try to figure it out for themselves.”
Ronald looked to Michael. “We keep a detail on her at all times. That’s the only way this will work.”
“Agreed,” Michael said. He turned to me. “Layla?”
“Whatever makes everyone happy. I’d rather have wolves on my tail than witches. And since I don’t know much about city politics, they can keep me from accidentally stepping on anyone’s toes if you’re not around.”
Ronald reached to the center of the table and grabbed a notepad and a pen, writing as he talked. “It’ll have to be people who are more loyal to Michael than Mary.”
“Who’s Mary?” I asked.
Michael gave me a weird look. “My mother.”
“No one bothered to tell me her actual name.”
“Apologies,” he said.
His gaze went to his suit and he began the now familiar routine of setting himself to rights. I could feel him getting calmer with every tug of fabric. This must be his own ritual. How he soothed his emotions and stilled his thoughts, settling his inner self as he did his outward appearance.
Around us, the conversation continued.
“And people who have good control, just in case the shield on her power slips for some reason,” Monica said.
“And people who are secure enough in their roles that they won’t try to challenge her,” James added.
“I can lead one of the teams myself,” Kevin said.
Ronald looked at him.
Kevin’s answering smile was bloodthirsty. “Imagine the possibilities for carnage. And if she does let loose and wails on someone, I want to be there to see it.”
Ronald harrumphed. “It’s the possibility for carnage that worries me.”
Michael tightened his tie, once more the polite businessman I had first met. He turned to me. “What was that memorable phrase you used at dinner last night?”
I kept my mouth shut and sank down in my seat, hoping he’d forgotten it.
A gleam appeared in his eye. “Ah yes, that you have enough strength to beat a young vampire to death with an affordable mid-sized sedan.”
Across from us, Kevin guffawed. “Please boss, let me lead a team.”
This was all going to end so badly, wasn’t it?
Copyright © 2019 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.