“Thank you again for this, Emma,” I said.
“I’m happy to help,” she answered.
We stepped into the elevator and took it down to street level. The security meeting ended half an hour ago. Michael’s mother called while we were sequestered in the interrogation room. In her message, she made it clear in no uncertain terms that the only way I was getting my stuff back was if I came for it myself. With Michael.
Hard pass on that.
Emma volunteered to take me out to buy some essentials and a capsule wardrobe to tide me over until the alpha saw reason. I just hoped Mary didn’t set my things on fire in a fit of rage before then. College textbooks were expensive.
The elevator slowed to a stop. A soft chime announced the doors opening. Emma and I walked through them into an understated hallway. Three wolves waited for us in it. They were serving as my security team, with Kevin – Goddess help us – heading it up. He’d changed, now in a pair of cargo shorts and a long-sleeved, collared shirt that hid his scars and proudly displayed the emblem of a European soccer team on it. A hat covered his bald head, and with sunglasses on and a camera hanging around his neck, he looked like a tourist.
“This is Andrea and Sam,” he said, introducing the others.
We all said hello, shaking hands. Andrea was a Latina woman around my height, with the long, lean frame of a runner. She had her long dark hair pulled into a high ponytail and wore a sundress and gladiator sandals, the height of Instagram fashion. Sam looked like he’d just stepped out of the Irish stronghold in Southy. He was ginger-headed with pale skin and freckles and wore a Red Sox t-shirt with faded jeans.
“We don’t plan on clinging to you,” Kevin told me. “But we’ll be nearby at all times. It’s daylight, so the vamps are safely tucked away in their vaults beneath the city. The witches are what concern me now. They’ve taken to cloaking themselves if they come into our territory, so we don’t know they’re here until we’re right on top of them.”
“I still don’t understand how that works,” I said.
Kevin took off his shades and put them on his head, resting them on the visor of his hat. His dark eyes bored into mine, all earlier signs of teasing and comradery gone. Out here, he was in charge, he was responsible, and he seemed like a completely different wolf than the one I’d first met. To the point that I actually began to trust him not to get me killed.
“There’s a lot you don’t understand about living down here in the thick of it,” he said, but not unkindly. “Emma can fill you in as we walk. Ready? We need to grab everything and get back here in time for that dinner you and Michael have to go to.”
“I’m ready,” I said.
The three of them stalked down the hall on stealthy feet and slipped outside.
Emma and I followed after them.
“Tell me more about this dinner?” I said.
She pulled her tablet up. “It’s at Henry Montague’s house, just outside of the city.”
Which is why I needed to go with Michael. The bond wouldn’t allow him to get that far away from me without throwing us into panic mode. “Is Henry human?”
“He is, but the crowd will be mixed. Shifters aren’t the only preternatural species to ingratiate themselves with the humans and rub elbows at their parties. The witches will be there too, and I see at least two known vampires on the guest list.”
“Old or young ones?” I asked her.
“One is relatively young. The other is old enough that you may need to upgrade your weapon of choice to a larger class of SUV.”
I stopped with my hand on the doorknob and turned to look at her. “Emma St. Clare, is that a sly bit of humor I detect?”
She grinned at me, one side of her lips a little higher than the other. “Perhaps.”
I shook my head, opened the door, and then immediately slammed it shut. “Ow.”
“Are you okay?” she asked, worry replacing humor.
I held up a hand. “Just give me a minute. There’s a lot going on out there.”
I bowed my head, counted to three, and tugged the door open again. Sound flooded in. Car horns blared, engines revved, construction equipment rumbled in the distance, and a million lesser sounds crowded into the noise level beneath them. This was a quiet alley. How was I going to handle the cacophony a few blocks over where the streets were lined with shops and humans?
I shut the door again and stepped back, struggling to breathe.
Kevin cracked it open and stuck his head in. “What’s the problem?”
“She’s a little overstimulated,” Emma answered.
A smile tugged at Kevin’s lips. “First time in a big city?”
He came in and shut the door. “The trick is to bokeh your ears.”
I frowned at him. “What the hell does that even mean? Bokeh, like the camera trick?”
He held his pointer finger up and slowly moved it toward my eyes. “Yup. Kind of like how when you focus on my finger, everything else blurs in the background. Pick a sound out there to hyper-focus on. Your footsteps. Emma’s breathing. Anything close that will stay close. Then let the rest sort of fuzz out.”
“You mean ignore all my predatory instincts?”
The smile that spread over his face was antagonistic. “Should be super easy for someone of your lineage.”
I stared at him. “Har. Har.”
Emma put a hand on my shoulder. “You don’t have to go. I have your size. I can grab everything you need.”
I shook my head. “Thanks. But I need to do this. I can’t hide inside forever.”
“That’s the spirit,” Kevin said. He clapped me on the shoulder and then disappeared out the door.
With a deep breath, I shrunk the cage around my power as much as I could. There. That should be marginally better. I gathered my courage and stepped out into the chaos outside. It was like I’d been watching TV at the lowest volume and then some asshole suddenly cranked it all the way up. If my eardrums had vocal cords, they’d be mewling in pain.
Tune it out, I coached myself, focusing on the sound of my own footfalls as I took the stairs down.
“Are you okay?” Emma asked.
“Nope. But hopefully I will be. What I really need is a distraction. Want to tell me how you became part of Michael’s inner circle?”
“My husband is a shifter and the head of Kolbeck Industries’ accounting department.”
Damn. That would work. “How’d you meet?”
“In college. We started dating our sophomore year, fell in love, and the rest is history.”
“Are there a lot of interspecies marriages in the city?”
“It’s not unheard of,” she answered, glancing over at me. “I’m guessing it’s less common where you come from?”
“You could say that.” This was literally the first time I’d heard of one.
“Of course, it’s much more common among vampires, because they usually end up turning their partners, and with witches, since they can have viable offspring with humans. Most of the other preternaturals in the city keep their distance though. Well, with the exception of the succubae stronghold down in Quincy.”
“There are succubae in the city?”
She nodded. “Give me your email. I’ll send you a spreadsheet and a map so you know how many other preternaturals we have and where you’re most likely to bump into them.”
I rattled off my address to her. She tapped the screen a few more times, and my phone chimed from my back pocket, indicating a new email.
“Just to give me an idea, how many species are we talking about?” I asked.
“Several dozen, though none have the numbers to threaten the big three. Wolves, vamps and witches rule here. Head over to Eastern Europe or into Asia and it’s a totally different story. You’d be the underdog there.” She grimaced. “Sorry, pun not intended.”
Ha. “It’s fine. Are there any I should be wary of in particular?”
She glanced over at me and then away, checking to make sure no one was close enough to hear us. “There’s a dragon in the downtown area.”
The blood drained from my face.
She leaned in closer. “Every now and then, he likes to gobble up a couple of vampires, just because no one can do anything about it.”
I stared at her in disbelief. Her heartbeat picked up, and her scent changed slightly, becoming tangier. I narrowed my eyes. “You’re totally pulling my leg right now, aren’t you?”
She laughed. “Sorry, I couldn’t help it. All the rest was true, though.”
I decided then and there that she and I would one day be great friends. A human that could successfully pull one over on me was a human I needed in my life.
“How do you know so much about all of us?” I asked.
Her pulse picked up again, this time in excitement. “Imagine going about your boring day-to-day life and then suddenly meeting a beautiful wolf-boy, finding out that magic is real, vampires stalk the city streets, and djinn aren’t creatures that grant wishes but beings of angelic origin. I became obsessed with learning as much as I could, because how could I not?”
“You find Hogwarts?” I asked, grinning.
She cleared her throat. “I may have tried to.”
I laughed. “My mom told me that there really are schools for witchcraft.”
“She’s right,” Emma said. “There are several in the states alone. But they don’t compete in house cups every year. They’re more like stuffy colleges dedicated to studying the magical theory of arcane spellcrafting. Don’t get me wrong, they produce some first-rate witches, but even with my insatiable thirst for knowledge, I think I’d get bored in most of their classes.”
We fell silent for a moment, and in the absence of our conversation, the noises of the city swam up to fill the void.
“So, back to tonight,” I said, hoping to keep overstimulation at bay. “What’s the dress code?”
“Semi-formal. A cocktail dress will be fine. Or a nice pantsuit or jumpsuit. Whatever you’re into.” She lifted her tablet and began tapping away as she walked, careful to check her path every now and then. “The menu looks like your standard three-course meal. There’s music afterward, and dancing. Michael usually leaves these events early. He’s only making an appearance because the Montagues are old family friends. Speaking of…” She frowned. Her tapping turned furious.
“What is it?”
She locked her tablet and slid it into her designer handbag. “Michael’s parents will be there.”
She glanced over at me, a wily look on her beautiful face. “How bad was it last night?”
“Mary threatened to have me offed just after the first course was served.”
Emma let out a shaky breath. “That is one mean woman.”
“Please tell me we’re not seated at the same table.”
She looked over at me again, pity in her eyes.
“Can you walk in those shoes?” Michael asked me much later.
“What does it look like?” I said, striding over to him. I wore sky-high wedges that were comfy as hell. Emma told me that was due to the arch support. She’d called them gateway heels.
“Apologies. I meant will they be comfortable after a few blocks?” he said.
I stopped an armlength away from him and frowned. “I thought this party was in Newton.”
“Last minute change of plans. The Range Rover just departed, with Ronald at the helm, so any of my mother’s people watching the street will think that he’s acting as our chauffeur for the evening.”
“We’re not going?”
Michael shook his head.
“Thank the Goddess.”
He tugged at the cuffs of his black dinner jacket. “I found the thought of being subjected to my parents’ company so soon after our last encounter…less than savory.”
“Oh, I totally get it. I’ve been stressed out about it all afternoon.”
“I felt it.”
Our gazes met and I glanced away. His suit tonight fit him like a glove. His black jacket was unbuttoned, revealing a matching vest that hugged his wide torso. The shirt he wore beneath it was dark gray, with a tie in the same shade, only made of silk so that difference in fabric made it stand out. He’d buttoned the vest over the tie, and for some reason, I wanted to reach out and tug it free. Maybe admitting that I was attracted to him had been a bad idea after all.
“Would you like something to drink?” he asked, striding toward the kitchen.
“Please,” I said.
He paused at a cabinet and turned to me. “Wine?”
“Red or white?”
“White.” Didn’t want to stain my teeth.
He pulled out two wine glasses. “We should allow some time to pass for my mother’s sentries to clear out. After they do, I thought we might walk a few blocks over to one of my favorite restaurants.”
I could easily manage a few streets in these wedges, but flats would be more comfortable. “In that case, I think I will change my shoes. Be right back.”
I reemerged a few minutes later. Michael had poured us each a healthy glass of white. I leaned against the kitchen island instead of sitting. The black cocktail dress I wore was sleeveless, tight fitting, and fell to midthigh. It was expensive and it felt like it, with thicker fabric covered in delicate black beading. I knew it was well made, that the beads wouldn’t pop off if I sat down in it, but I was babying it anyway. It was the nicest dress I’d ever owned. Thanks to Michael.
He handed me my wine. “Cheers.”
I clinked my glass against his. “To not playing the game.”
He remained on the other side of the island as we sipped our drinks. “How was your shopping adventure?”
“Average. I didn’t quite master that trick of tuning everything out, so I ended up with a headache and had several sneezing fits along the way. I did get along with Emma, though, and no one tried to attack me, so there is that. How was work?”
He’d gone in to the office for a few hours while I shopped. It turned out the building that Kolbeck Industries was headquartered in sat just a few blocks away, close enough that the bond didn’t send us into histrionics.
He stared down into his wine, swilling it. “Frustrating,”
“I felt it,” I said.
He looked up. “Kolbeck Construction was recently awarded the contract to build a large production plant just outside of Boston. It could bring several thousand jobs to the area, but as much as this country preaches about wanting to bring industry back into it, they don’t make it easy for those willing to try. Between the expenses and the red tape, it would be much cheaper for the company who hired us to outsource everything to India.”
“But they’re not going to?”
He shook his head. “They’ve applied for several grants and easements that will eventually bring their total costs down, but the fact that they have to do that is indicative of how much of an overhaul is needed in our laws and taxes. And this is no small corporation, mind.”
He told me the name, and my eyebrows tried to climb up into my hairline.
“I’ll stick to digging through musty old books,” I said.
Why do you do it? I wanted to ask. Why did he care about human tax laws? Why was he trying to build another monster building? Why did he live here, surrounded by all this sensory overload? I didn’t understand why the Kolbecks spent all their time and energy trying to raise an empire. Or lived in fancy apartments and houses with overly-manicured woodlands that barely masked the sound of the surrounding city. Why they fought with the vampires and the witches for more human-infested territory when they could have been free instead.
I had to look away from him. I wanted to throw my arms out and scream “What is the fucking point to all this, Michael?!”
I’d been in the city a day and I already knew that I didn’t want to live here full time. Nothing could make me want to live here full time. Not even my belief in the Goddess was enough. This didn’t feel like Her testing me. This felt like torture.
Michael and I needed to start working on muting our bond. We needed to start testing the limits of how far apart we could get. And we needed to do it soon. Because I didn’t want this. I didn’t want to be part of his uncomfortable, borderline abusive family dynamic. I didn’t want to be shadowed by guard wolves every time I walked out a door. I missed the wilderness. I missed the smell of fresh air. The feel of sunshine on my skin. The familiarity of my own pack. The sounds of their paws pounding the forest floor around me as we raced beneath towering oaks and pines.
I couldn’t even howl here.
And who was to say the Goddess wanted me to stay in the city? That this was even Her plan? It could have been witches meddling with the bonding ceremony, like Michael said. But even if it was the Goddess, Her intention might be for me and Michael to fall into some sort of long-distance partnership that would somehow benefit both of our packs.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
I opted for honesty. “I don’t like it here.”
“You’re more than welcome to redecorate.”
“I meant here in the city. I don’t understand how you live here and I don’t think that I would ever make this my permanent home. I know I said I should make a clean break and move here, but I didn’t realize it’d be this bad. And I know it’s been all of a day, but I don’t see myself changing my mind on this.”
His expression blanked. He smothered his emotions. “I understand.”
Did he? Did he really? Why hide his true feelings then? Was he angry? Upset that I’d so quickly gone back on my word? I took a deep breath through my nose, but his scent was as evasive as his expression.
A buzz came from his jacket pocket. He reached in and pulled out his phone. “The scouts have withdrawn. Would you still like to go to dinner?”
I drained the rest of my wine and pushed away from the kitchen island. “Sure. I’ll try to be better company.”
He took my glass and set them both in the sink. “Please don’t feel the need to pretend on my behalf. I understand the difficulty of the situation. It would be incredibly unfair of me to ask you to permanently relocate here. We knew this was a short-term solution.” He came over and offered me his arm.
I looked at him. “You know I can walk unassisted, right?”
“I know,” he said. A smile threatened to tilt the corners of his lips. “This is an entirely selfish maneuver. I like the weight of your hand on my arm.”
An accompanying…warmth came over the bond, reinforcing his words. His honesty caught me off guard. Especially so soon after he’d just masked his feelings from me. I was forced, for the second time today, to adjust my expectations of him.
I looped my arm through his. Because I liked the contact just as much as he did. “Why is it that touching like this is soothing, but when we touch skin to skin it has the exact opposite effect?”
“We haven’t touched in some time. Perhaps it’s changed?” He looked down at where my hand rested on the sleeve of his jacket, took a deep breath, and placed his fingers over mine.
A crackling heat suffused my hand and spread upward from our contact, racing toward my heart. It hit with the force of a charging bull, sending a burst of tingles shooting through my body. I shivered, my skin breaking out in goosebumps. It was similar to an adrenaline rush in that I became hyperaware of myself, every nerve ending on edge as I waited for a chance to expend this sudden influx of energy.
“Is this better than the last time?” I asked. I couldn’t tell.
“Marginally,” he said, voice clipped.
We kept the contact all the way to the elevator, until he was forced to release me so that he could punch in the security code, scan his print, and then hit the button for the street level. Before I’d left the meeting, I’d likewise been given a code and had my own fingerprint scanned. His IT person told me that I’d be able to use them by midnight.
“No guards?” I asked as we strode out into the downstairs hallway.
“We should have no need for a close detail. At night we keep sentries posted on every street corner. That number doubles when one of my family members is staying in town. They’ll have eyes on us at all times.” He glanced over at me, the dim hallway light making his cheekbones look like they were carved from marble. “You’re not the only one that makes for a good target.”
“Have you been attacked here before?”
Rage coursed through me.
Michael drew in a deep breath full of my now prickly scent and slowed his steps. His voice was placating when he spoke. “No one is currently trying to attack me.”
“I know. Just give me a second. Turns out logic can’t hold a candle to bonding instincts.”
He chuckled, low and dark. “Yes, I’m learning that myself.”
I lost a few moments trying to get my anger under control, coming back to myself when Michael stopped us by the door and checked his watch.
“The sun just set,” he said. “With the vampires rising, the witches will be pulling back. The risk to their health is too great to linger outside their territory at night. Unlike witches, vampires can’t cloak their whereabouts, so their power draws our soldiers like a beacon when they enter our territory. We shouldn’t encounter any trouble.”
“Our first stress free evening together,” I said.
He nodded and reached for the door handle. “Are you ready?”
I shrunk the cage on my power. “Ready.”
He pulled the door open and led us into the night beyond.
I expected there to be fewer people out and about. With the nearby shops closed and rush hour over, it wasn’t a bad assumption, but I’d forgotten that it was a Friday, and that Boston’s nightlife was so active.
The soundwave punched into me. “Oof.”
Michael closed the door behind us, then surprised me by slipping his hand into mine. It did wonders to distract me from the cacophony roaring out from the surrounding streets. Hard to zero in on the distant wail of an ambulance when the sound of my own pulse was suddenly deafening.
I looked over at him.
“We need to acclimate to physical touch,” he said. “The current level of distraction it causes is a weakness. One that someone might find a way to use against us.”
How? By stripping us naked and tying us together?
Ugh. Thanks for the mental image, brain.
I tried to banish it from my mind as we made our way down the stairs and headed toward the promise of auditory carnage.
Michael ran his thumb over the back of my hand, sending shivers in its wake. “About what you said a moment ago. I want to reiterate my previous offer to you. I can shift my work schedule around until we gain greater mastery over the bond, and we can spend weekends in New Hampshire.”
I glanced at him. “You’d really do that for me?”
My gaze dropped to his full lips. I wanted to lean over and kiss him in thanks. Clamping down on that sudden urge, I turned back to the street. “Thank you. I think that would really help me.”
“No doubt it will help us both. The city can be a taxing place for our kind. I grew up here, and even I am not immune to its stressors. With all the upheaval of the past few days, you’re not the only one in need of a break.”
I let out a shaky laugh. “Has it really only been a few days?”
We emerged from the narrow lane onto a wider boulevard a few minutes later. People turned to look at us as we passed. I caught our reflection in a shop window. We looked good together. Like a matched set. Our strides were the same. We had similar coloring. The bond brought us together in small, subtle ways that made us move down the sidewalk like we shared a hive mind.
Because we did, I realized. In all the chaos I hadn’t had a chance to freak out about how weird it was that I now shared all of my emotions with a near stranger. I’d skipped over it and gone straight to damage control. I dug deep and tried to drum up some angst about it now. Nothing happened. I must already be over it. Either that or I’d suffered so many back-to-back shocks that weirdness didn’t register anymore. Or, and I was a little worried that this was the true reason, I liked the feel of Michael in the back of my mind.
“So, where are we going?” I asked.
“To a hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant that serves the best Kashmiri food in the city,” he answered.
“Good. I’m starving. Can we get a corner table or a secluded booth so I don’t freak out the humans with how much I eat?”
The amusement I felt through the bond didn’t register on his face. Not out here where there were other people to see it. He squeezed my hand instead. “Of course.”
Metaphysical electricity surged between us. I sucked in a breath. “My skin still feels like it’s on fire.”
“Mine too. But I’m not going to let a little discomfort best me.” He looked over at me, brow arched in challenge. “Are you?”
“Of course no- ”
I came to a dead stop. I’d been so distracted by our touch that at first I didn’t hear it.
I shushed him and craned my head. From several alleys away came the unmistakable sounds of a struggle. I loosened the bars that caged my power. A whimper reached my ears. The whisper-soft noise of sharp teeth puncturing flesh. A muffled cry of pain. The dry, brittle scent of buried things. A coppery tang, suffused with aether.
A vampire had just spilled a witch’s blood. I dropped Michael’s hand and rushed toward them.
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.