We left the clouds behind during the drive south. Boston came into view around a bend in the highway. Its sky scrapers towered like glass behemoths, backlit by the cornflower blue of a brilliant summer day.
In all the confusion, I hadn’t asked where Michael’s family lived. For some reason I assumed they made their home right in the thick of it, but we bypassed the exit for I-93, which would have led us to the heart of Boston, and instead took I-95, which skirted the city to the west. We got off of it just past Newton, hitting our first patch of traffic in the highlands as we crowded onto a two-lane road with far too many traffic lights.
I hunched my shoulders and tried to focus on his vehicle in front of mine, but even with the windows up I was struggling. Too many engines roared and whined around me. Car stereos thumped a cacophony of mismatched beats. The man with the jackhammer at the construction site down the nearest side street might as well have been drilling into my skull.
The sights were worse than the sounds. Cars, humans, pigeons, rats, and even dumpster diving sea gulls raced at a frenetic pace around my truck. It felt like my brain was in danger of overheating as it tried to keep up, processing and threat-assessing each image it received.
And then there were the smells. Dear Goddess, the smells. There were other creatures living in this city with senses as heightened as my own, and I had no idea how they endured this nose-numbing mélange of melting pavement, car exhaust, rotting trash, hobo piss, and whatever the hell that was wafting up out of the nearest sewer drain.
Worst of all were the humans. So. Many. Humans. Each drenched in their own cocktail of chemical scents.
I breathed a sigh of relief when we turned off the busy road and onto a quieter street with wide lanes shaded by hundred-year-old oak trees. A pond appeared on my left. The houses that faced it grew in size and ornamentation the further we drove, until sprawling, haughty mansions draped in white-washed brick and Italian marble vied for dominance against each other.
We made another turn a scant mile later, and I found myself on a narrow lane hedged in by stone fences that looked better suited to an English village than a Boston suburb. A thick screen of smaller trees and shrubs crowded in on either side of us, made to look natural, but too well manicured to have been truly left to nature.
Michael slowed and put on his right blinker, pausing to wait for a megalithic wrought iron gate to swing open and allow us entry. I followed him into the driveway and immediately broke out into goosebumps. It felt like someone dumped a tank of ice water over my head. We’d just crossed over a ward. A very powerful ward that must have taken several mystics to erect. Magic wasn’t my forte, but it reminded me of the protection spell that surrounded my pack’s land, only to a greater degree. This one had a probing nature to it that made it feel like it had inspected me, assessing whether or not I was a threat. What would have happened if it determined I was one?
I shivered. Hopefully I’d never find out.
We drove for several hundred feet beneath massive specimen trees that had probably been planted by the original owners of this property. The canopy they formed rose high above us, shading our vehicles. A few of the trunks were as big around as the cab of my truck. We didn’t have many trees like this on our packland. The fight for space and nutrients was too fierce in deep forest to allow them to grow to their full height and width. These were so old I could almost feel them looking down on us. Like they were sentient.
The trees grew farther apart the further we drove, and then soon fell away altogether, revealing an immaculately manicured lawn that spread a quarter of an acre up a landscaped hill dotted with retaining walls and flower beds. The landscaping ended at the foot of one of the most impressive houses I’d ever seen. It was a huge antique colonial, three stories tall, made of pale stone. The shutters that framed its impressive number of windows were white, giving the place an open, inviting feel I hadn’t expected.
It had clearly been added to over the years, several wings just barely visible behind the main house. I caught the glimmer of sunlight glancing off aqua as we rounded the bend of the circular driveway and sat up a little higher in my seat to see an Olympic-sized swimming pool off to one side. The twelve-car garage we parked in stood separate, big enough to fit my parents’ entire home inside. The doors were so large that it must have been converted from a carriage house.
I knew the Kolbecks had money. Michael’s casual mention of multi-million-dollar mergers and the ease with which he wore suits that cost more than my entire wardrobe had given me a good idea of what I might be walking into. But this was something else.
I turned the truck off and tried my best not to be intimidated. Michael appeared at my window and opened the door for me, concern drawing his brows together. I took a deep breath and stepped out of the truck. With all of the chaos and confusion of the end of the drive, I’d barely noticed our bond. It came back now in full force. He felt even more concerned than he looked.
“Are you all right?” he asked, softly.
I fought off a sudden urge to reach out and comfort him. Michael didn’t seem like the kind of man who would welcome a surprise hug, and I knew that it was the bond driving both his concern and my need to touch him. “I’m not used to cities. It’s better here, though.”
He nodded. “My grandfather purchased the surrounding lots and converted them into forest. The buffer of trees doesn’t entirely drown out the cacophony, but it helps.”
I didn’t even want to know what that had set his grandfather back. “Can I have a minute before we go in?”
“Of course,” he said, stepping away. “Take all the time you need.”
I leaned against my door and tried to get my bearings. I was in a strange place with strange wolves who weren’t used to the way my power leaked out of me when I was emotional. Past encounters had taught me that I needed to get a grip on myself before I met them. Michael’s assumption that I was an alpha was typical. I’d had several run-ins with other wolves who’d felt my power pushing against theirs and thought I was looking for a fight for dominance. That would be a hell of way to meet my in-laws.
An older man in what looked like livery emerged from a side door. He must have been seventy, and unlike the mystic from last night, his age showed. He had silver hair, combed neatly back from his lined face. His back stooped slightly as he moved toward us, and he favored his right leg, as though it were arthritic.
Warmth spread through the bond. I glanced over to see Michael giving him a small, barely-there smile. Who was this man to expose such a chink in my mate’s armor?
“Welcome back, Mr. Kolbeck,” he said when he neared.
“Thank you, Roger,” Michael answered. He extended an arm toward me. “This is Ms. Fitzpatrick. She’ll be staying with us for the foreseeable future.”
Roger bent his arched back even further, in what might have been a bow. He was a few inches shorter than me, with gray hair and bright blue eyes. He was also human, but I decided not to hold that against him. He had a nice smile. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Fitzpatrick.”
I extended my hand in his direction. “Please, call me Layla.”
We shook. He had a firm grip.
“Layla will be staying in the spare bedroom in my suite,” Michael told him. “If you could have someone deliver her things there, that would be lovely.”
“Of course, Mr. Kolbeck,” Roger said. If he was curious about any of this, it didn’t show in his expression. Not even his scent gave him away.
I was prompted to hand him my keys. Probably so that once my belongings were removed from the cabin, someone could park my eyesore of a truck far, far away from the six figure vehicles that occupied the other bays of the garage.
“Are you prepared, or do you need another moment?” Michael asked.
“I’m good.” Well, as good as I was going to get.
He led me out of the garage and toward the front door. The smell of lilacs hung heavy in the air. Bees buzzed all around us, a small army of them pollinating the flowers that ran riot through the gardens. Birdsong echoed from overhead. Michael was right. It didn’t quite drown out the distant sound of traffic, but it helped.
It also didn’t mask the sound of soft footfalls just inside the tree line, or the crackle of a handheld radio from further away. I snuck a surreptitious glance around us and counted one, two, ten people in black fatigues, moving with the inherent grace of shifters. How close were the Kolbecks to war that they needed this much security in broad daylight?
Michael came to a stop on the front step. It was carved from the same stone as the house, worn in the middle from hundreds of years of foot traffic. I wanted to lean down and rub my hand over the smooth surface, but somehow, I didn’t think that would be considered strictly proper, and I wanted to make a good first impression.
I tugged down the hem of my running shorts, conscious of the fact that the security detail would have eyes on me. “I should have changed before we left.”
Michael glanced at my legs. “I assure you, the sight of nylon and bare thighs will not cause my mother to suffer an apoplectic fit.” His tone was calm, but I could feel a slight hint of nerves through the bond.
I did my best to ignore it. After all, it could have been an echo of my anxiety reverberating through the bond. Mom and Dad told us that could happen, and I’d already seen it firsthand on the drive down.
Michael opened the front door to the sound of running feet. We stepped into a large foyer with parquet flooring. The ceiling rose thirty feet above our heads. Priceless artwork in gold gilt frames hung upon the walls. A staircase climbed up the right-hand side of the room, leading to a viewing balcony high above.
The sound of feet slapping on hardwood grew louder, echoing off the walls. A teenage girl with long blonde hair appeared above us, moving so fast she had to brace her hands on the railing to stop herself.
“Oh, it’s just you, Michael,” she said, frowning. “I felt something pass through the ward, something huge, like…” Her light brown eyes shifted to me. “You,” she said. “You’re what’s making my skin crawl. What are you?”
She had felt me pass through it? Interesting. She must have been one of the mystics that erected the ward. Apparently I hadn’t done a good enough job caging in my metaphysical mojo. I redoubled my efforts now.
“Manners, Elizabeth,” a woman called from our level. The voice was familiar. Michael’s mother?
Up above, the girl blushed. “Sorry.”
I winked at her, hoping to put her at ease. “It’s okay.”
She smiled shyly back at me.
“Lizzy, this is Layla,” Michael said. “Layla, the youngest of my siblings.”
“Nice to meet you!” she said, taking the stairs down.
I grinned at her when she reached the bottom. She seemed sweet. Open in a way that Michael wasn’t. Ah, the innocence of youth. “Nice to meet you, too.”
Softer footfalls pricked my ears, the sound of someone moving toward us on stealthy feet. I turned to see a middle-aged woman appear around the bend of the hallway that led deeper into the mansion. She wore a pink Chanel skirt-suit with black piping and comfortable flats. Of average height, she was waifishly thin, with blonde hair that fell to her shoulders in a straight sheet. Her features were waspish and delicate, her face heart shaped, her eyes a pale, cold blue that met mine in unblinking challenge.
With her came a wave of spiky scent and a pulse of energy I hadn’t expected. I looked away first, down at the floor in a sign of obvious submission. Michael could have told me his mother was their alpha.
“Welcome home, Michael,” she said, air kissing each of his cheeks when she reached us. She stepped back and studied me, head cocked slightly to the side, her hair falling away from her face to reveal a glimpse of multicarat diamond earrings. “And who are you?”
“This is Layla. My mate,” Michael said.
Oh, sweet Goddess. Couldn’t he have at least worked up to telling them?
Lizzy looked back and forth between us, wide-eyed, as though trying to commit this fiasco to memory. “Oh my god,” she kept saying, over and over again.
Her mother’s nostrils flared, an alarming amount of anger filling my nose. I took a step back, trying to make myself a less obvious target. A heartbeat later, the scent was snuffed out. Just…gone, like she wasn’t even angry anymore. The sudden shift made my head spin.
She looked up at her son. The smile on her face was terrifying. “You always have to push me, don’t you?”
Michael looked unaffected by it, bored even, but a mounting anger rose through the bond, mixed with a slight hint of alarm. “We’ve had a long and trying couple of days, Mother. You’ll have to excuse us while I settle Layla in.”
“Not without an explanation,” she said, her voice dangerously low. If she’d been in wolf form, the hair on the back of her neck would have bristled.
Tread carefully, I tried to tell Michael through the bond. Pissing off an alpha, regardless of the fact that she was your mom, never ended well.
Michael adjusted his cuffs with forced nonchalance. “Later, after dinner and several glasses of wine, when we’re all together,” he said. “I don’t want to be forced to repeat the tale for every member of our family.”
Without a word, his mom turned on her heel and left us.
“I’ll be in my room,” Lizzy said, before racing upstairs. Smart girl.
“Can we please put several walls between us and your mother?” I whispered when the threat of her overhearing me had passed.
“This way,” Michael said.
He led me into the interior of the house, where the hallway opened up in an oval shape, with several corridors branching off of it at right angles. We took the one on the left.
I tried not to gape at my surroundings like some sort of country bumpkin, but it was hard not to stare. My bachelor’s degree was in art history. I was acutely aware of the wealth on display around us. At one point we passed beneath a painting I had written a paper on, and I could tell from its frame and the protective glass that covered it that it wasn’t a print or a well-made copy. It was the original. Even their damask wallpaper looked designer, and I had a sinking suspicion that the metallic yellow accents in it was real gold leaf.
I felt like a bull in a china shop. This place was a museum, only without the guard ropes to keep the public at bay. What if I accidentally knocked over a vase from the Ming dynasty? The blood drained from my face at the thought. I tucked my elbows in tight to my sides and kept close to Michael from that point on.
I was awed, yes, but given the choice I would never live in a place like this. It was too sterile. Too detached from the world around us. The windows were shut. Somewhere nearby an industrial-sized air conditioning unit whirred to life. The air smelled stale and recycled. Not even a hint of the surrounding forest reached my nose. It made me feel claustrophobic. How did the Kolbecks live like this?
Michael guided me up a flight of stairs, down a hallway that led to another wing of the house, and then in through a pair of double doors that he swiftly shut behind us.
“This is my suite,” he said. “We have this entire upper section to ourselves.”
We stood in what appeared to be another entryway, like this was an apartment within a house. The ceilings here, though not as grandiose as those on the first floor, still towered fifteen feet over head. Crown molding framed them. The walls were painted a neutral off white.
I followed him down the short hallway, and a living room opened up ahead of us. The furniture looked expensive yet comfortable, the fabrics neutral colors with pops of deeper shades scattered throughout in the form of pillows and throw blankets. It was like something out of a magazine.
“The kitchen is here,” he said, raising his hand to the right.
I glanced around him. It was an open concept with white cabinets, a subway tile backsplash, and pale marble countertops. The appliances were professional grade, large enough to cook for a small army. I wondered if they’d ever been used.
“Our rooms are just off the living room, mine to the left, and yours to the right. There’s a balcony through those doors,” he said, pointing to the diaphanous curtains straight ahead.
I beelined for them. They were locked. Of course. I flipped the latch and stepped from the air-controlled interior out into the warmth of the summer day. Several deck chairs sat scattered over the wide veranda, with comfortable looking cushions. I bypassed them all, breathing deeply, and stopped when I reached the marble railing.
Insects clicked and chirped in the lawn, birds twittered and cooed at each other from the tree branches. It hit me then, why I’d felt so off balance in the house: I hadn’t been able to hear any of this.
Michael joined me at the railing.
I turned to him. “Is the house soundproof?”
“Is it okay to open the windows in my room?” I asked.
“When you’re in the suite, by all means. But I do ask that you close and lock them when you leave. Too many people know that we make our home here, not all of them friendly.”
“Have you had anyone act on that information before?”
“Hence the security?”
He frowned. “You noticed the security?”
Uh…of course I did? I have superhuman senses?
Not knowing how to respond to that without coming across as insulting, I simply nodded and then changed the subject. “So, your mother is your alpha.”
“She is. It’s common knowledge. Still, my apologies. I felt your surprise upon meeting her and realize now that you didn’t know. I should have ensured you did before introducing you.”
“It’s okay. We all lived through the introductions.” Barely. “Do you two always argue like that?”
He sighed and looked away, one hand on the railing, the other in the pocket of his slacks. “Lately, yes.”
“Bad for your health, arguing with alphas.”
“I’ll bear that in mind.”
He turned then, and I followed him back in. My bedroom came as something of a surprise. I had expected another room done in neutrals. The walls were instead painted a deep Kelly green, while the ceiling, the baseboards, and crown molding were a crisp white. The wide plank wood floors were stained a deep brown, making the colors pop even more. In the center of the room was a large rectangular beige accent rug. The bed sat above it, draped in white linens. An ottoman stood at its foot, with a tray on top that held a vase of white lilies in full bloom. Their sweet scent permeated the room.
The drapes that formed the canopy of the bed were anchored into the ceiling high above. When closed, it would be like I was in my own little world, floating on a fluffy white cloud. There were several white bureaus along the walls, more than enough space for all of my clothes. Opposite the door was a large bay window, with a seating area in front of it consisting of a couch and two chairs. A small white-washed brick fireplace took up space just to the side, with split wood stacked artfully on the hearth.
My duffel bag and boxes sat by the foot of the bed. Someone must have brought them up while we had our uncomfortable exchange with Michael’s mother.
I opened all the windows in the room and then set about putting my clothes away. I left the door open in case Michael needed anything. While I worked, I thought about what my life here would be like. The first thing I needed to do was find some way to make peace with his mom. Having an alpha for an enemy was a great way to end up dead. Especially when my death would free her son. I’d just have to find a reason for her to want to keep me around.
I felt Michael approach while I was stacking my books in the large bookshelf near the fireplace and turned to greet him.
“Settling in?” he asked. He’d removed his jacket and rolled his cuffs up, but his tie was still firmly tied around his neck.
“Yeah. I like this room.”
He glanced around it. “Marlena is to thank for the décor.”
Right. His fiancé. “Well, she has good taste.”
“Do feel free to change anything you want.”
“I will, thanks.”
“I made a phone call during the drive,” he said.
“I could tell. It gave me a minor case of road rage.”
Amusement, barely detectable, ghosted through the bond. It didn’t show on his face. “No doubt that was the one I made to our CFO,” he said. “The one I speak of now came toward the end of the drive.”
“You want to come in and tell me about it?”
He was standing on the threshold like he didn’t want to intrude. After another long moment, he stepped inside, but didn’t get far, pausing to lean a hip against a large dresser and cross his arms over his chest. I looked away from the sight of his shoulders straining against the fabric of his shirt.
“How many bonding ceremonies have you attended?” he asked.
“Just one other.”
“And was it anything like last night’s?”
“Nope. It was about three times longer and didn’t end with the apocalypse.”
Another hint of amusement, larger this time, flared from him. I looked up to see the corner of his lips twitch, so subtle I almost missed it.
SMILE, DAMN IT! I wanted to yell at him.
He didn’t. “The acquaintance I called was unable to uncover any record of a ceremony becoming similarly corrupted.”
“Well, that stinks.” It would have been nice to talk to someone else who’d been through this.
“He was inclined to blame the priestess conducting it.”
“Mystic,” I told him. “And I don’t think it was her fault.”
“Why not? The woman must have been in her 80s. Perhaps she didn’t have the stamina and the spell collapsed in on itself.”
“Look, I don’t know Antoinette. Before last night, I’d never even seen her. But one of my mom’s closest friends is a mystic, and she was in the crowd near me. She said something else interfered with it, and I trust her. Especially since, despite her age, Antoinette is supposed to be one of the strongest mystics alive.”
“Your goddess interfered?” he said.
“That was what Antoinette seemed to imply, wasn’t it?”
He remained quiet.
“What’s your theory?” I asked.
I shook my head. “I would have smelled a witch there.”
“Not if they cast a spell to mask their presence.”
Huh. I didn’t know they could do that. “No,” I said, still adamant. “Their magic is different than ours. Our mystics would have sensed it.”
He cocked his head sideways, reminding me of his mother. “Is it different?”
“From everything I’ve been told, yeah.”
I watched him for a full minute before my impatience got the better of me. “Out with it.”
“Our creation myth comes to mind.”
“Which one? I could give you a couple dozen options from around the world.”
“The one that most of us here in the states believe.”
“About the witches and the vampires?”
He nodded. “It has enough truth to it that it renders the rest…plausible.”
There was a lot of truth to it. Witch blood did give vampires a temporary boost in power. But I just couldn’t bring myself to believe the rest. That it was witches who created us to act as guard dogs against their enemies. That eventually the magic that created us…changed, turning us into a species with agency and magic of our own. A magic that Michael now hinted wasn’t much different than that of our alleged creators.
I looked at him, a self-confessed non-believer. “You don’t buy it though, do you?”
He straightened with a shrug and then slid his hands into his pockets. “Like I told you last night, I believe in magic. That we are creatures of magic. The witches are creators of magic. I see no reason to therefore discount the possibility that they created us.”
“Why don’t you use your influence to sniff out an ancient vampire and ask them if that’s how it went down?”
Michael gave me A Look. “Vampires don’t speak to Kolbecks. Just as Kolbecks don’t speak to witches. Here in the city, you’ll find that regardless of what you believe, old hatreds run deep between our species.”
“So that’s why you think it was witches? That they’re pissed at you for some reason and they sabotaged our ceremony?”
My head was starting to hurt. “Hold up, if we weren’t bonded by the Goddess, then what do you think this is between us?”
“Oh, I’m not arguing the fact of you being my mate. We are creatures born of magic. Perhaps, when we gather en masse, so does the magic that suffuses our racial DNA. When we spill our blood, when we chant our ritual words, we’re not summoning a goddess, but casting a spell of our own.”
I had to give it to him. “Okay, that’s a pretty logical assumption. I can respect that.”
“Just as I respect your faith. Regardless of what we each believe, it would behoove us to keep our guard up.”
I opened my mouth to tell him my parents had given a similar warning, albeit for different reasons, when his phone rang from the living room.
“Apologies,” he said, excusing himself.
I returned to putting my books away, my mind running over what he had just told me. If there was any truth to the similarities in magic between witches and wolves, it was possible that they’d been the ones to interfere and our mystics just couldn’t trace it.
I almost hoped that was it. That is was as simple as someone lashing out over a grudge. Because if it was our Goddess interfering instead, I worried what might come next.
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.