The woman lay in the cemetery on a bed of snow. Snowflakes clung to her blonde hair and sparkled like diamonds. Slivers of moonlight touched her serene face. Her skin was the blue-tinged skin of the Fey.
After turning up the heat in my coat, I reached out to touch her and immediately recoiled. She was so cold that I'd gotten a taste of frostbite, the cold stinging my fingers. Was she dead?
Pixie, a German Shepherd who was my companion and familiar, whined. She was right to lead me here, her thoughts urgent in my head.
She poked the woman with her nose. The woman did not move, did not even twitch. Pixie whined, poking the woman again. There was no rise and fall of her chest. There was nothing.
“What do you think, girl?” I asked.
Pixie gazed at me with eyes that reflected sympathy and intelligence. The thought – Pixie's – unfurled in my mind.
Not dead. Must save.
My heart thudded. I was Fey Touched, a Hunter of her kind. Technically, she was my enemy. I had the right to kill her on sight. Why didn't I?
I didn't like the Fey as a rule. There were Hunters who believed that all Fey were evil and must die. I was open to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, they were wrong. Maybe some of them weren't evil. That even without mana – a soul – they could be good.
Maybe this Fey woman in front of me, lit by moonlight caressing her face, was one of the good ones.
I sat back on my haunches, my eyes flicking to the headstones as if they could give me an answer. I couldn't just leave her out here. She needed help.
I gently shook her and her eyelids fluttered, but she did not wake. I pressed two fingertips to her carotid. Slow heartbeat, but there.
“Shit,” I muttered. I took off my coat and wrapped it around her, letting out a hiss as more cold wind hit me in the face.
Pixie danced around the woman, whining and yipping at me.
“Chill, girl. I got this.” I took a breath and unfurled my wings, wrapping them around myself like a coat.
I lifted her and chuckled at how light she was. She wore a poofy green dress that was so out of place for the weather here. Which made me wonder if she'd come from a long distance away.
My need to protect and my calling as a Hunter of Fey warred inside me. It didn't matter who she was. She was an innocent and she needed help.
I held her close to me as I took to the air. Wouldn't want her to fall. “Hang on just a little longer,” I whispered. “We're almost home.”
As I touched down in front of my apartment, Pixie caught up with me, barking and sending frantic thoughts. Warmth – safety – home – warmth –
“We are home, girl. Come on,” I said as I entered the dimly-lit hallway that led to my apartment. I fumbled with the keys and opened the door wide, stepping into the small but cozy living room. I set the Fey down on the couch, then retracted my wings.
Pixie jumped up onto the couch and lay beside the Fey woman.
“Are you hungry, girl?” I asked, watching the dog. I could swear she was smiling at me.
I glanced at the woman again. She didn't move. I could hardly hear her breathe, and that worried me.
I quickly got Pixie's dinner together, some kibble and wet food, and headed back into the living room. She let out a low whine as I set the bowl down in front of her and rubbed behind her ears.
As she dove into her meal, I crouched in front of the woman and checked her pulse again. Still slow, still there.
I had no way of reviving her. Should I wait? Should I take her to the hospital? No, that would raise too many questions. If I could help her here, that would be the best thing.
“What do you think, Pixie? Should I try rousing her again? Or are you too busy stuffing your face?”
She glanced up at me, crunching her food, and I could swear she'd arched her brow. She was practically human, this dog.
I shook my head, chuckling. After a crazy day, this was just what I needed.
After about ten minutes, I decided to try to wake the woman up again.
She was Fey. She was immortal – at least theoretically. Still...
This time her eyelids fluttered and I was suddenly looking into the most beautiful shimmering eyes I'd ever seen.
The first thing I realized upon waking was that I was no longer outside, or in the cemetery. I remembered running away from my royal wedding.
The second thing I realized was that I was in a stranger's home. A nice-looking stranger with longish brown hair and captivating blue eyes. A human?
The third thing? I wasn't dead. But I should have been.
I was cold. The blanket around me helped some.
So what had happened? He'd come to crash my pity party?
I opened my mouth, and then snapped it shut.
There was a dog sitting next to me. Eating something that smelled disgusting. Oh, boy. My people didn't like dogs.
I met the eyes that were watching me, trying desperately to place who he was. Nope, didn't ring a single bell in my fuzzy head.
Except maybe my libido bell, but we're not going there, are we?
“Hi there,” he said, smiling. “How're you feeling?”
“Um,” I said oh so articulately. “I'm cold. And a bit confused.”
He nodded. “I figured that.” He held his hand out to me, and it was a very human thing to do.
Once I extracted my hand from the blankets he'd swaddled me in, I touched my hand to his briefly.
“I'm Joe Vincent. And you are...?”
“I'm Saoirse. It means 'freedom' in Gaelic.”
This was a lie, of course. He couldn't know who I really was. No one could. The illusion I'd woven over myself guaranteed that.
“That's a pretty name,” Joe said. He smiled, and it seemed forced. “I – uh – found you in front of a grave.”
Can you explain that? was left unsaid.
“I fell. I have no idea whose grave that was.” I arched a brow.
Joe studied his hands, which were folded as if in prayer. I was almost positive he was human –
No, he wasn't.
He had mana, the life essence of a human, but there was something more to it. I could see it burning brightly, golden like sunlight.
The Fey Touched had some of our enhanced genes in them.
So, even though he'd technically saved my life, Joe was not my friend. His sole purpose in life was to track down and kill rogues.
Or punish them, as I've heard whispered around Court. And the Touched did not associate with Fey for any reason – except to plunge iron stakes into our hearts.
I needed to get out of here.
I tried to extract the rest of my body from the bundle of blankets and failed epically. Hells.
“Hang on,” Joe said. “Are you going to be okay? Should I take you – ”
“You will take me nowhere,” I said through clenched teeth. “I will be taking myself out of here.”
“Is this how you treat people who try to help you?” Joe's eyes flashed with anger. I could almost feel it rolling off of him in waves.
I didn't like his bluntness.
I really didn't like that he was Touched.
“Saoirse,” Joe said softly, reaching out to me. “Are you okay?”
I recoiled as if I'd been hit. I licked my dry lips. “Look, it's not personal, all right? I know what you are. So, thanks but no thanks.” I managed to get some of the blankets off my upper body. And then I remembered my dress, which wasn't going to help matters.
“I saved your life out there. And I'd like to make sure you stay alive. That's it. Nothing more.”
The dog finally decided to notice me. It jumped up and tried to lick me, and I moved away quickly before it could. Gross.
“Pixie likes you,” Joe said. “Not a dog person, huh?” He patted his thighs, and it shot to him, leaping and licking and generally being, well, gross.
“I'm not,” I said, and resisted the urge to apologize. I was Fey royalty. I didn't need to apologize for anything. When the dog had settled down, I spoke again, this time from my heart. “Why didn't you leave me out there?”
Joe's eyebrows shot up. “Seriously? I couldn't let you die out there.” He started pacing, which only made me dizzy.
“Joe, it was none of your concern.” My voice was flat, intentionally unemotional. I couldn't get emotional. I'd just managed to shut that part of me off. If I opened it again...things would get exponentially worse.
He spun around to pin me with his gaze. The dog whimpered. “None of my concern? Really? How does that work? I'm supposed to protect people. Not kill them.”
I could have argued that point, but I decided to let it go.
I shed the rest of the blankets with quick, sharp movements. I stood, taking care not to enter his personal space. I met his eyes, and so much writhed inside. Ghosts, maybe. “I know what your little tribe of hunters stands for. I've seen it firsthand. But that doesn't give you the right to determine someone's destiny for them.”
My stomach clenched. Was I really fighting with this guy? Over him saving my life?
“Saoirse?” He was right in front of me now. Close enough to touch. I felt something deep inside, a longing, a stirring of something. I wanted to touch him. Run my fingers through his hair.
That was my hormones talking.
“I don't know what you want me to say,” I said. “I hadn't intended on being found, damn it!”
“Well, I found you. And I will help you get better.” He glared down at me, daring me to do something. Infuriating, this guy. Who knew that the Touched were this insane? “Now, do you want something to eat?”
My eyes widened and my stomach growled. Make that a vehement yes. Bastard. “I must admit I am hungry. But you're under no obligation to feed me.” I turned around, studying the space he lived in for the first time.
Dull white walls. Blood-red curtains. Plants in pots in several corners. Fake. Comfy couch with a charming array of colors that didn't match. A loveseat that didn't match, either. It was orange. Yuck.
At Court, everything matched and was handmade from the most exquisite fabrics. Seeing things like Joe's hurt my eyeballs.
My stomach growled again, and something occurred to me.
I'd fed right before I'd left. I needed to feed every few days.
I'd been gone a long time. And I'd been a wee bit preoccupied. That whole hiding and running for my life thing...
So why didn't I feel the need to feed, yet I was hungry for human food?
“Well, I'm offering,” Joe said from behind me, making me jump.
I turned back around and almost bumped into him. I recoiled again. “What kind of food do you eat?”
He made a gesture for me to follow him. He led me through an archway and into a kitchen that looked...so much nicer than the living room.
He had an impressive set of pots and pans hanging over an immaculate oven. A knife holder and coffee-maker sat on an island that served as the primary space. No dirty dishes in the sink; in fact, everything I saw was spotless.
Microwave cart, small television on a stand, and pretty blue curtains. The wall was white with some type of texture I'd never seen. Now this was more like it.
“This is...beautiful,” I said softly. I reached out to touch the delicate curtains, the fabric sliding through my fingers, which made me think of Court, of ball gowns and tapestries. “How did you – what do you – ”
“I'm a chef in my spare time,” Joe said with a grin. “I'm sure you've noticed that this kitchen is better decorated and maintained. That's because I spend most of my off time in here cooking.” With a flourish, he opened the stainless-steel refrigerator to reveal Tupperware containers filled with meats and potatoes, three types of milk, little wrapped packages of something that looked like pastries, a huge crystal bowl that held a colorful salad, and a pan of pasta that looked divine.
He wasn't kidding.
My mouth watered. I didn't want to eat here, accept his hospitality, but what choice did I have? Sure, I could go outside in the cold and try to kill myself again. That was still an option, but I wasn't so sure I wanted to die now. It had been a moment of weakness.
I looked up into his oh so mesmerizing eyes. Damn him for having such pretty eyes. Damn his food. Damn the fact that he was a chef. Who was also my enemy. And therein lay the biggest problem ever. I struggled to get words out of my dry mouth. “Why are you doing this? Why aren't you killing me?”
He chuckled. “Just because I'm a Hunter doesn't mean I'm going to kill you.”
“So what does it mean?” I asked.
He moved closer to me; I moved backward. The tango of hunter and prey. “It means,” he said, taking my hand in his, “that I'd like to help you. Feed you. Help you recover from your suicide attempt.”
He'd said it. He'd realized what I'd tried to do out there. I was such an idiot. I was so shocked and embarrassed that it took a few moments to realize he was holding my hand. “Let go of me,” I said, barely breathing.
He arched a brow. “Why? Does this make you uncomfortable?” He tightened his grip just a bit, and my heart raced. Hello, panic attack.
“Yes, it does,” I said. No one at Court had ever made such gestures. He let go. “Let's talk food, all right? I can handle food.”
His eyes darkened. He didn't look angry; to his credit, he looked thoughtful. Was that a good thing? Hells, I didn't know.
“Okay, we won't discuss your experience out there in the cold.” He smiled. “We can discuss my food. What would you like to sample?”
The beginnings of excitement came over me. Sharing food could be a sensual experience. Hells, I didn't need to be thinking about that. Especially since all I had to do was go back home and claim my forty mates. The thought made me break into a sweat.
I focused on the open refrigerator in front of me and the pasta. Over the years, I'd grown to love pasta paired with a good pasta sauce. Some spices, just for flavor, but not too strong. My poor servants hated it when I sent pasta back because it was too plain or too spicy. Very few could get it just right.
“The pasta,” I said. Are we surprised? Joe reached in and retrieved the big pan of pasta. “But wait – what kind of sauce is that?”
He bent over and smelled it. “I am a big fan of traditional pasta. This here is pasta sauce mixed with Italian sausage – ”
“I can't eat that.” Bile rose up in my throat.
“Allergic?” Joe asked.
I shook my head. I didn't want to tell him. It wasn't for just anyone to know. But I felt the oddest urge to be honest. Why? It wasn't like I trusted him...
“No. It's a Fey thing.”
He arched a brow as he opened a cabinet above him and removed a beautiful ivory plate lined in gold. “What kind of Fey thing? It's not spinal fluid so it's no good?” He didn't look angry, but he sounded like it.
I didn't want him angry at me. I didn't know why, just that it would be bad. I could take him in a fight, I knew that. But my heart clenched when I thought of angering him.
Hells, what was wrong with me? I never got wibbly over a human. Then again, this guy wasn't human.
“No, it's not that,” I said quickly. “It looks and smells divine. It's just that we don't eat meat.”
“Oh yeah, I've heard of that.” He laughed. “That's just obnoxious.”
I ground my teeth together. He just had to laugh, didn't he? “No. We believe the meat carries the animal's mana. And that could infect us with an animal spirit. So we avoid it.”
“Do you, now?” he asked, staring at the pasta in the pan. “Tell you what. I'll make you a meatless sauce you'll love. Sound good?”
It did sound good.
But no matter how much I tried to make myself believe it, I wasn't a normal person doing something as normal as eating pasta. I was the Queen of the Fey, and I'd run away.
My people would be looking for me. Could be on my trail right now.
I couldn't let them find me. No matter what.
“Come on, is that the best you can do?” I asked Declan as we circled each other outside the compound, ignoring the other Hunters around us. He was close to staking me. I loved riling him up.
He pulled me closer to him until we were close enough to kiss. “How about now?”
I arched a brow and ducked, feinting right, flaring my wings out for balance.
He growled and lunged at me. I blocked his attack with my forearm, knocking the stake out of his hand.
“Well, looks like I win. Again.” I picked up the iron stake and held it out to Declan.
“How do you move so fast?” Declan asked, his eyes dancing with mirth. He knew the answer to that question.
I grinned. “'Cause I'm special.”
“Everyone, take it from the top!” shouted Robbie. He had put us through our paces. Every muscle in my body hurt, including muscles I didn't know I had. And I was sweating. Good thing we were only practicing.
Tommy rolled his eyes. “Not again!”
“Yes again!” Robbie said. “Don't worry, we're nearly done for tonight. I'm not that cruel.”
We spun and lunged, attacked and parried. Over and over and over again. Arms and legs performing instinctive movements, minds racing, trying to stay one step ahead of each other.
My mind drifted. I thought about the dreams I'd been having about a woman who seemed so familiar to me, but that was impossible, as I'd never met her. Who was she? Could she be related to me somehow? But that couldn't be. I had no family –
“Fallon?” Declan's voice brought me back to reality. “Earth to Fallon...”
“I'm here,” I said. “I was just thinking.”
“Don't think too hard. You might sprain your brain,” Anthony called out. I flipped him the bird.
Just as we were about to drop, Robbie said, “Okay, that's enough.” Thank Artemis.
Robbie moved to the middle row of Hunters. “Meditation and movement.” Two Hunters parted quickly for him to join them. Everyone gave him the respect he deserved. He was one of our oldest and strongest Hunters.
A chilly wind gusted through, and I shivered. Night was coming, and so was the hunt.
Meditation and movement was just what it sounded like: the combination of a deeper state of consciousness and light, graceful movements to get into sync with the body. It had been developed by Robbie himself, and we ended our sparring sessions with it every time.
I closed my eyes and concentrated on breathing deep.
I moved through a series of lunges and spins, light as air, the world falling away, leaving nothing but my slow inhales and exhales and the movements of my body and wings.
“It's a wrap,” Robbie said, coming out of his meditative trance. “See ya at the meeting.”
“Fallon,” Declan said as he caught up with me. I was on the move, my stomach a bag of anxiety. “Where are you going? We're hunting.”
I smiled weakly. “Yeah, we are. Except I need to cut out a bit early.”
Declan's eyes narrowed. “Really? How come?” He fell into step next to me.
I tried to sound put out. “It's an appointment. Routine. Nothing worth getting excited about.”
“Everything okay?” Declan asked, stopping ahead of me and blocking my forward motion.
I did not want him to know about this yet.
My brain played tug-of-war with itself: should I tell Declan about the dreams, or should I keep quiet about them? They were making me crazy, and I suspected something was up, but I'd just worry him. Then again, I'd opened that damn door, hadn't I?
“Just some weird dreams I'm having. No biggie,” I said quickly. “Probably due to stress. You've had vivid dreams before? The kind that seem real?”
Declan nodded. “Sure. Don't we all?”
“But these seem different somehow, and it's making me crazy trying to figure it out – ”
Declan grinned. “Nothing like a good hunt to make you forget.”
I tried to relax. Honestly, I did. But I couldn't forget her face, so pale and cold, or her lips moving in silent pleas. If I didn't find out who she was, she would haunt me forever.
Declan and I stood in a small forest, hidden by a group of large trees. We were tracking a few rogue Fey that had come through here. Rogue Fey were Fey who “turned,” becoming nothing but killing machines in their pursuit of mana. They especially liked mana taken at the point of death, when it was most potent. Fuckers.
“Anything?” Declan asked softly.
We hoped that they'd been stupid enough to stay out in the moonlight too long and died, but we couldn't possibly be that lucky. Although moonlight was lethal to them, they insisted on hiding in the shadows and cloaking themselves in darkness.
“I don't know.” I cast out my senses like a net, hoping to catch something I had missed. Fey called to Fey.
Nothing stirred. Nothing moved.
“Fuck,” I muttered. “They were here, I know it. Come on, you bastards. Show yourselves!” I spun around, my eyes and ears picking out things – the thick shadows that surrounded us, branches swaying in the breeze, the howl of a wolf.
Come on, Fallon. You're better than this.
Yeah, but shit, I was distracted in a major way. The woman's face was seared into my mind.
“Wait, I think I found something,” Declan whispered. “That way.” He pointed north, and I cast my senses in that direction.
What came back was a miracle. Three Fey. I tightened my grip on my stake. “Get ready to die, bitches.”
We walked, not ran, toward the Fey. We knew they'd sense our approach, but I hoped they were distracted and didn't sense or hear us. Yeah, totally not gonna happen, but I could hope, right?
There was nothing wrong with hope, my friends.
By unspoken agreement, we ducked behind another large tree to assess things.
Minutes seemed to go by like eternities. I barely breathed. Declan had his Look of Concentration, a look that he got when he was in the zone.
“They're up ahead. And I believe they have a human with them,” Declan said, his voice a soothing caress.
“Damn it,” I said. “We gotta save that human.”
Our eyes met and we shot out of our hiding place, adrenaline pumping.
I noted things as I got closer: lit by diffused moonlight, there were three of the bastards overpowering the aforementioned human. A dark stain of blood on her neck stood out in stark contrast to her pale skin. Her mana was low but not depleted. The soul suckers seemed to be arguing about who was next. How juvenile.
I moved into position. I wanted to see everything. Declan went to the opposite side in case they ran.
But damn, that was why we had wings.
Wings that I snapped out and released to their full span.
One Fey heard me and swiveled around. He was pretty – the Fey usually were – with long, glossy hair and piercing, almost hypnotic eyes. Oh, boy. I had to be careful around this one.
“Look who's joined the party,” he said, his voice like a physical caress. I shivered. Okay, I really needed to focus. He moved toward me, a smile on his perfect face. “You're welcome to join us, Hunter. But I'm not sure you'll agree with our idea of fun.”
“I don't really care whether we agree or not,” I said, getting into fighting stance, stake ready to do serious damage. “My idea of fun? Watching you die. Right here, right now.” I crooked my fingers in a come to me gesture.
“Really?” Another Fey, a woman, sized me up. “I don't think so.”
She shot out from her place in the back and flew at me, fists raised. Her green eyes screamed with lethal fury. Yeah, they got a bit irritated when we tried to take them out.
But alas, I wasn't afraid.
One thrust of my stake into her and she would be done.
Still, I liked a challenge.
Before she touched me, I shoved her as hard as I could. She swayed, fell to her knees, and somersaulted up.
My lower lip curled in derision. So she fancied herself a gymnast, huh?
I went airborne, beating my wings, catching the slight breeze. She watched me with wide eyes.
“Don't antagonize her,” the male Fey said. “She likes to toy with her prey.”
“Who's first?” Declan said as he strode forward.
The other male Fey, who had been silent until now, threw a punch that Declan dodged effortlessly. Ooh, I loved watching him fight.
Declan spun around in a roundhouse kick that sent the silent Fey flying. He arched a brow. “Who's next?”
The female Fey shouted at me. “Come on down and get me, bitch!”
“My pleasure.” Grinning, I swooped down until I was almost touching the ground in front of her. I pulled my arm back and got ready to stake her –
I saw the woman from my dreams. Standing in front of me, her eyes filled with pain. Wordlessly pleading –
Something sliced through my wings, and white-hot pain flared. I dropped to the ground. Damn it. I'd been hit.
As I tried to catch my breath, the Fey female advanced on me. “Not so invincible now, huh?” she purred.
I crouched, trying to get my bearings. The world swam in a liquid haze as my body fought to repair the damage.
“Fallon, don't move,” Declan said from somewhere to my right. “I got this.”
I gripped my stake hard enough to leave marks.
I let the pain guide me, spur me on.
I could do this.
A shadow hovered over me. A stinking Fey shadow.
Before Declan could reach her, I lunged upwards and drove my stake into her heart. And then twisted it for good measure.
Her body smoked, raising thick and pungent in the air. Smokin' Fey never smelled so good.
After a few seconds, she caught fire, flames shooting high and amber into the sky.
I reached out toward the non-burning part of her and yanked my stake out. It dripped with Fey blood.
“Who's gonna be next?” Declan asked, flanking me on the right.
“Or do you wanna turn tail and run? Either way, we'll get you. Now or later, it doesn't make a difference.” I tapped my opposite hand with my stake. “You're gonna die anyways, ladies.”
“We'll get ya,” Declan said, low and threatening. “We'll get ya before you even know what's coming.”
As by some unspoken agreement, we launched ourselves into the air.
Two things happened: the morons fled. We gave chase.
They were too stupid to live.
We chased 'em. We staked 'em. End of story.
As I watched the fire obliterate their bodies, I gave thanks for the gift I was given. I might have some of those fuckers inside me, but I would never be one of them. Never. I would die a horrific, gruesome death first.
The human had passed out during our little party. When she came to, we assured her that yes, the Fey were dead, and yes, we would take care of her.
I hovered my hand over her chest, now coated in her own blood. Her mana pulsed dimly but it was enough.
She wouldn't be going insane or rotting today.
“Thank you,” she murmured. “They made me beg for it. Their hands...their teeth...I'm going to have nightmares.”
“Shh,” I said, gathering her into my arms, heedless of the blood. “No one's ever gonna hurt you again, okay? We'll make sure of that.”
“They're dead,” Declan said, patting her on the shoulder. “We'll get you looked at and into a safe house.” His eyes met mine. “They'll never hurt you again.”
I palmed my stake. “Never again.”
Once we'd called for backup, Declan took me aside. “What's going on with you? You wouldn't let a fucking rogue get close enough to hurt you.”
I sighed. It seemed so silly now, letting myself get distracted by a ...what? A vision? A hallucination?
“Fallon,” Declan said in a warning tone. “Come on. We're best friends. Best friends share things, the good and the bad.”
Could he read me that well? Damn him.
I fiddled with my hair so I'd have something to do with my hands. “I'm not feeling so hot. It was a stupid mistake. An avoidable one.”
His hand on my arm felt right, soothing. “We all make mistakes, you know.”
I met his gaze. “But I haven't been as sharp as I usually am. I'm distracted and tired and I'm seeing things – ”
Oops. I hadn't meant to say that, but shit, my mouth had a mind of its own today.
Declan's eyes widened. He studied me for a few moments. “You're seeing things?”
You opened the damn door, moron.
I didn't want to tell him. He'd think I was crazy, or sick, or screwed up. But he was my best friend, and that trumped everything. “Okay, fine. I thought I saw the woman in my dreams out there. Right before I was hit. It messed with my perception.” I shifted from one foot to the other, acutely aware that Declan could report me. Would he do that? I didn't think so, but it was for the good of the tribe, so who really knew?
“So it was a hallucination? Maybe you should see Michelle. Get it looked at. Just in case.”
“I'm just really tired. I'm sure it's nothing,” I said. No, I didn't think Michelle could help me with this. Even though she was my best friend, and the closest thing I had to a sister.
But I knew who could. And I had the means to make it happen.
It was very simple. Bloodline tracking was the latest and greatest technology. Using an extensive database of Fey and Fey Touched, they could pinpoint my bloodline.
A drop of blood held the answers I sought. And my destiny.
The people inside the small reception area stared at me as I signed in. I supposed it was my leather, or maybe my perpetual scowl.
The too-perky, too-blonde receptionist smiled. “Dr. Howard will be with you shortly.”
I returned the smile, nodded, and took a seat in the far corner of the spacious, brightly-lit room. It was decorated in warm tones, from the sage green sofas to the deep red throw pillows. The coffee table was glass that shone so bright, I wasn't sure if it was real.
This was Howard and Sons, the best of the best when it came to bloodline tracking. They were the pioneers of the method and they were discreet.
The door on the side opened, revealing a short woman dressed in neon pink scrubs. Way to hurt the eyeballs. “Heather Abraham?”
That was me. No way was I giving my real name out here. There were all sorts of people I didn't want to know what I was doing.
I stood, took a breath, and followed the retina-straining trail of pink through a hallway filled with paintings and pictures.
We turned a corner, and then another, and we stopped in a sterile room that reminded me of the dentist, chair and all.
Neon Lady held out her hand. Her nails were painted, you guessed it, neon pink. “I'm Amy. I'll be assisting Dr. Howard during the procedure.”
I just loved the way they talked 'round here. Procedure. Assisting. As if this were more than a prick of a needle and a computer readout. Crazy. But that was why I was about to pay them big bucks.
The door opened and a man entered the room. He was tall and thin and looked to be about twenty. He was clean-shaven and wore his long black hair in a ponytail that hung halfway down his back. That didn't exactly scream scientist and genius to me, but what did I know? Maybe he had a rebellious streak.
He held out his hand, grinning. “Hi, I'm Gregory Howard. And you are..?”
“Heather,” Amy supplied.
I put my hand up to stop her from saying anything else. “Actually, my name is Fallon, but I was being – ”
“Dishonest?” Dr. Howard asked. But there was no judgment in his voice, just curiosity.
I couldn't look him in the eye. “Uh, discreet. I'm a Hunter, and I didn't want anyone to know about this.”
Dr. Howard nodded as if it made perfect sense. “Ah, I understand. We get that a lot around here.”
He then launched into a long, overly complicated explanation as to what they would do for the procedure, most of which went flying over my head. But I tried to understand, I really did. The only thing I got was that they'd take my blood, run it through the database, and then Dr. Howard would interpret the results. Easy peasy, huh?
So I settled in to wait for Amy to get the vampire gear. In the dentist chair. Staring out the window at the ominous night sky.
“We don't get a lot of Hunters here,” Dr. Howard said. “Don't you guys have a thing about keeping the bloodlines pure?”
I nodded, glancing at him. “Yeah, we do. But I think I have a missing relative somewhere.” I smiled. “So I'm investigating. It's what I do best.”
“I bet,” Dr. Howard said with a grin. “I bet it's an interesting life, chasing down the bad guys.”
I let my eyes widen just a little bit. “Very exciting. Except the part where they get punished. That I could happily never see again.”
Dr. Howard arched a brow as Amy reappeared. “Punishment?”
I leaned in. “It's top secret,” I whispered. “If I told you, I'd have to kill you and Amy. And that would be way too messy.”
Amy blanched. “Um, I've got the stuff. Let me see your arm.”
She did the pokey thing while Dr. Howard fiddled with a small laptop computer. She took the blood and handed the vial to him.
“Come over here and have a seat,” Dr. Howard said, gesturing to the seat that sat next to him.
My stomach clenched with nausea as minutes ticked by so slowly I'd thought time had stopped. That I was forever perched on this moment, waiting, dying. Not knowing.
“Here's what I'm doing. See this slide? I'm going to place a drop of your blood on it.”
I watched, transfixed, as Dr. Howard took an eyedropper and sucked some blood into it. A drop of blood...
Then he dropped the blood onto a clear slide that was attached to a huge, scary-looking machine.
Amy took the eyedropper from the doctor.
He turned to me, smiling warmly. “Now the machine will analyze the blood, query the database, and come up with something.”
On Dr. Howard's laptop screen, a bunch of words scrolled down. I squinted, but couldn't read them.
“It's thinking,” Dr. Howard said. He typed. Changed screens. Consulted a tiny datapad I just noticed beside the computer. At one point, he glanced at Amy, who frowned at him.
“This is very interesting,” Dr. Howard said. “The database pulled up something very...odd. I'm in the process of double checking and running the query again.”
I felt as if all the oxygen had left the room. “Are you sure you're using my blood?”
Amy chuckled. “Straight from your vein to Dr. Howard's hand.”
“Wow, I've never seen this,” Dr. Howard said a few moments later, facing me. “Are you sure you want to know what I've discovered?”
My gut twisted. Was it bad news? “What's wrong? I'm not like, an alien or something?”
Dr. Howard smiled. “No, but it's just about as puzzling. Look.” I moved closer, my stomach churning.
He pointed to some numbers and a picture of a DNA strand. “The machine pulls up a bloodline name based on the DNA. You see this name here? This should be your family name.”
I blinked. “That's not my family name.”
“I think I can explain why,” Dr. Howard said.
I wasn't getting it. “Huh?”
Dr. Howard glanced at Amy, who shrugged. He looked at me dead in the eyes, and I tried not to flinch. “You know – and I know – you're Fey Touched. But this here shows that you come from a Royal Fey bloodline. But what's most interesting is that it's not a full match.”
Clearly I wasn't hearing right. My legs collapsed under me. Dr. Howard and Amy jumped to catch me, guiding me back to the dentist chair. The room spun. “Okay, what are you saying? I don't understand.”
Dr. Howard pointed to a list of numbers on the screen. “This shows us that your DNA has been altered.”
“Well, no kidding. I'm Touched.”
Dr. Howard shook his head. “No. These weren't the modifications for the Fey Touched, at least according to the official records.”
I glanced at Amy, who shrugged helplessly.
Dr. Howard went back to the computer and pulled up something else. “Your family tree, based on your DNA.”
I stood even though the room pirouetted around me. “My family tree?” I looked at the screen and this time, I almost fainted for real.
The family tree I was looking at was not the family I belonged to. And the bloodline name he'd shown me wasn't the one I'd grown up with...
Which meant...holy crap, was I adopted? Whose family did I belong to?
My stomach dropped to the floor and suddenly I couldn't breathe.
My mother and father weren't my mother and father. In fact, according to this, I was part of the Royal Fey bloodline.
No fucking way.
I scanned the family tree again, looking for a mistake, anything that I could grab a hold of, anything that would give me reason to not believe this.
Off to the side, there was an unnamed, deceased female. But that barely registered.
“This is a mistake,” I said, and my tongue felt like sandpaper. My fingers twitched.
“Bloodline tracking is ninety-nine point nine nine percent accurate,” Dr. Howard said gently. “I take it this wasn't what you expected?”
Hell no. Understatement of the year.
It was wrong. It had to be.
“What the hell happened to you?” Anthony asked. “I heard a rumor that you got hurt.”
“Yep,” I said, deadpan. “They got me.”
“No shit,” Anthony said, shaking his head. “Happens to the best of us.”
Robbie strode up to where Declan and I stood like idiots. We seemed to have captured everyone's attention. Lovely.
“Sounds pretty severe.” Robbie frowned. “I'll excuse you from this meeting so you can – “
“No,” I interrupted him, anger heating my blood. He was not going to sideline me. “Thanks but no thanks.” I went to the closest seat and sat down. Damn the rumor mill.
Declan took the seat next to me. “You look pissed.”
I couldn't tell Declan the real reason why I was angry. “I am. I let that bitch get close enough to hurt me.” My hands clenched into fists. “That'll be the last time.”
Robbie cleared his throat. “If everyone's ready?”
Nods and affirmatives all around.
“Some disturbing intel has come to my attention. There has been an increase in the rogue Fey population,” Robbie said, turning to the large map tacked on the wall. He circled our city with a black marker. “For reasons we don't know yet, there seems to be more than usual here.”
“What the hell?” Anthony asked, his brow furrowing. He stifled a yawn.
“That's what I'd like to know,” Robbie said, his expression troubled.
Our job was to protect the innocents of the world from the rogues. But the fact remained – more were turning and there were only so many of us.
“What is this, the new hotspot for rogues? We should be so lucky,” Matthew, one of the younger Hunters, said from the back.
That got a few chuckles.
“This is puzzling,” Valia, who'd transferred here from a different city, put in.
Robbie glanced at everyone in turn. “I'd like for you all to investigate this further. Ask around, put feelers out. See if you can find out anything that could help us figure out why.”
“I'd rather be fighting,” I said. “But okay. This sounds messed up enough to keep me interested.”
“That a girl,” Robbie said with a smile. “I know you'll kick ass and take names.”
Declan grinned. “Looks like we have a mystery to solve.”
Robbie went over the rotation schedule and then ended the meeting.
We ended it with our closing ritual, as always.
Joining hands, we stood in a circle.
I closed my eyes.
“May we be as strong as the moonlight, brighter than the sun, and better than our predecessors. May we fight so humanity can live another day,” Declan said.
“May we be guided by our senses,” Valia said softly. “And may Artemis protect us.”
“May we continue to kick ass,” I offered with a chuckle.
“May we continue to exterminate the rogue Fey,” Nick said.
“May we be the candle flame that shines in the darkness,” Emily, our only other female Hunter, said softly.
“So mote it be!”
We lifted our linked hands and cheered.
Declan and I walked to the living quarters together. Yep, we all lived together in the same huge compound. It made things nice and convenient, especially in an emergency. We were hidden by a forest and state-of-the-art shield technology.
We never took chances.
“What's wrong?” Declan asked. Damn, the man knew me too well. “You're so quiet.”
I arched a brow. “Shouldn't I be? I'm mad at myself right now.”
Declan stopped walking and checked to make sure we were alone. “About the hit? Come on, mistakes happen.”
“It's not just that,” I said softly. “It's – I got some really bad news – ”
“Whatever it is, you can handle it. You're the toughest Hunter I know.”
“I try to be.” Damn, my eyes filled with tears. I was not going to cry about this. I'd deal.
He sighed and took hold of my wrist. “Fallon, I'm here for you.”
I glanced at him sidelong. “I know...I'm still letting it all sink in.”
“If you need anything let me know,” Declan said softly. “I'm just damned sorry I can't take your pain away.”
Was I that damn obvious? I sighed, my shoulders slumping.
“Come on,” Declan said, pulling me closer. “We got some rogues to psychoanalyze.”
Hearing voices of our fellow Hunters, I broke away from him as we went into the computer room.
The computer room was huge, filled to brimming with computers, printers, and scanners. There were at least twenty rows of equipment, and it was a bit claustrophobic, but hey, it worked for us.
I sat on the end of one of the tables closest to the door. While I waited for my computer to boot up, I contemplated my situation. What I'd decided to do next was risky as hell, but it would help me find what I was looking for much faster than the normal, legal channels.
I was acutely aware of Declan pounding the keys next to me.
Pulling up my email, I thought about what was most likely going to be in there. I'd requested an emergency appointment with Duke, the owner of the best – and only – timeslipping joint in town. He had a waiting list so long he was booked into the next two years. But as long as I was willing to pay the exorbitant fee, he'd move me up in the queue.
Timeslipping was on the cutting edge of technology. Using a drug known as faerie dust, made from the myelin sheaths of human cadavers, and a virtual reality computer environment, a person could effectively travel through time. Or timeslip, as it was called. Apparently, faerie dust allows us to access the other ninety percent of our brains that isn't used. We're connected to the environment, which more or less “reads” the imprints of time and puts them into pictures and words we can understand, and voila! All you've ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask.
I hoped Duke had come through, but in some ways, I was scared. I was taking my investigation to the extreme. Doing this was breaking the law, big time. But I needed to know the truth – if I was truly adopted, and if I really was part of the Royal Fey bloodline. The thought made my gut clench. I couldn't be one of them, I just couldn't!
I glanced at Declan, and his eyes met mine. I tried to smile, but I was too nervous. Too wound up. Too scared.
My stomach fluttered with anxiety and I couldn't stop tapping my foot on the floor.
Finally, I got to my inbox.
Hi Lady F,
What you're asking for can be arranged. Go to the bar Tempus Fugit on First tonight. Tell the bartender that you want the House Special. He will know what you're referring to and will get me. And then we will conduct business.
There it was – in black and white. I knew Tempus Fugit. It was quite the happening place. But evidently, more was happening than met the eye. And how ironic about the name. “Time flies” for a timeslipping operation? Brilliant.
I could get what I needed. It was possible. I glanced at the computer clock. Not much time to spare.
“Wow, you look absorbed in something,” Declan said from behind me. I jumped, my heart skittering.
I quickly minimized the window. I looked up at him, hoping I didn't look too guilty. “Something, yeah.” I shrugged.
“Does it have anything to do with your bad news?”
I hadn't told him anything, and I wanted to keep it that way for now. But he'd keep hounding me until I told him, so I decided to tell him very little. Just enough to satisfy his rabid curiosity.
“It went okay. I have to have a few tests to rule out some unlikely things.”
Declan arched a brow. “Tests? Really?”
I nodded. “Yes. And I need to see a doctor...in an hour and a half.”
“Wow, this late? That's a bit weird,” Declan said.
I shrugged. “He's fitting me in.”
Declan looked thoughtful. “We could go there together, and hunt afterward – ”
Declan's eyes widened. “Of course. You didn't think I'd let you go there – wherever there is – by yourself?”
Shit. “I can handle this. You could maybe start looking into the rogues?”
Declan frowned. “We should really do this together. I don't want you to be alone right now.”
Huh? “Since when could I not handle myself?” Anger rose up in me, hot and dangerous. I was beyond capable.
He took my wrist in his hand, his thumb rubbing a vein there. “It's not that. I just feel that I could help you. We're a team, remember?”
Cue the guilt. I let out a sigh. “Of course we are. I just need...some time...by myself.” I tried to look him in the eyes, show him that I cared about him. His brow drew down. “This damn bad news has shaken me up a bit.”
“I'm sorry, Fal. I keep forgetting that you're not always this confident, kick-ass woman twenty-four seven. That sometimes you need time to regroup and reflect.”
Put it like that... “You're the best. Don't ever forget it.” He tugged me closer and we hugged, fire licking through my veins. There was definitely something simmering below the surface, something I'd have to ponder.
Before I could begin that pondering, I shut my computer down.
“Fal, what're you doing?” Declan's voice was tense. “What aren't you telling me?”
Damn him. He read me so well, it was as if he was in my head.
“I'm fine,” I said without looking at him or moving a single muscle. “Just gotta shut everything down. You know how irritated Matt gets with us when we don't follow proper procedure.” Matt was our resident computer geek.
I could feel his eye roll. “Forget about Matt. He'll live.” Ooh, was he annoyed?
I spun around to face him again. “Look, I'm sorry, okay? I just need to be alone.” I needed to get to that appointment, and I needed to find out what was going on. By myself.
I didn't look at Declan as I brushed past him, didn't even breathe until I was out of the room, out of reach.
“So I'm supposed to love this?” I asked. The aroma coming from the pot on the stove might very well be something I could love.
Joe scooped up a bit with a spoon that gleamed in the bright light and tasted it again. “Smells like heaven,” I said.
Joe offered me a little spoonful. “Don't worry, I don't have cooties.” When I hesitated, he let out a sigh that was too damn dramatic. “Come on, try it. It won't bite.”
It was thick and bright red with those leaves floating in it. Joe hadn't added any meat as promised. I stuck out my tongue and took a tiny lick off the spoon.
And ...it was amazing. The flavor was pure tomato and spice, light on my tongue. It kicked a bit. And, damn him good and gone, I loved this shit.
“Well?” Joe looked worried. “You still alive, Saoirse?”
For a second I thought I'd choke. Right, I remembered now. The person I really wasn't but was pretending to be.
“It's wonderful,” I said, my voice hoarse. But it came out all husky like I was on the prowl, and I didn't like it.
Joe closed the fraction of a distance between us, his lips upturned in a kind of smirk-smile hybrid. It was...cute.
His arms came around me (somehow the spoon had disappeared) and he pulled me in close. I could feel his heart skittering, the soft fabric he wore, the tight waistband of his jeans and maybe something else.
Tears filled my eyes and I spun around so Joe wouldn't see them.
“Saoirse? What just happened?” His hand touched my shoulder. I pulled away from him, going to the window and its blood-red curtains. I'd gone against my people, against the Ancient Laws.
I had no right to be happy. To be with the enemy. I was a damn fool if I thought I did.
“I should leave,” I said as the first tears fell from my eyes. “I am feeling better and – ”
“What just happened?” he asked again.
I shook my head. “No. I can't do this.”
“You're crying. Saoirse, what's wrong?” He gently thumbed my tears away. “Talk to me. Maybe I can make it better.”
I would have liked that, would have let him. But I couldn't. And I couldn't tell him about who I really was.
Such a life of sharp-edged lies and dangerous secrets. I wished, just for one second, that I was a normal Fey, not royalty. And definitely not the First Breeding Queen.
What a wretched mess this was.
I held up my hand as if to touch Joe's cheek, my gaze catching his. He smiled and arched a brow as if to say, what are you waiting for?
I flushed. My heart kept skittering. In his eyes, I saw myself, and I saw beauty. I saw a possible future...one I'd never dreamed I could have.
“I wish I could do this,” I said softly, my voice catching. Damn it all. “I wish I could ...lose myself...in you. But I can't. It would be a mistake.”
He tilted his head to one side, considering. “Because we're enemies? Because I could care less about what you are, Saoirse. It's who you are that intrigues me.”
When he looked at me, I saw lust in his eyes. And that triggered my own lust, and with it came a burning, searing hunger.
I craved him. Craved his fingers running through my hair. Craved the glide of flesh upon flesh, slick with sweat. I craved his tongue in my mouth and his cock buried deep inside me.
I wanted it so badly that I shook.
Like a goddamned addict.
Why was I having such a strong reaction to him? He was the enemy.
“Well.” My voice was soft. “I like you, Joe. But we don't have a future together. This cannot happen.”
Joe sighed. “Much as I hate to admit it, you're right. My people would have a serious problem with what I'm doing here.”
“So why are you taking such a huge risk? You don't know me. I could kill you in your sleep just for fun.” There was no way I'd ever do such a thing to him, but I wasn't about to admit it.
He nodded. “I know. But there's something about you that intrigues me. It defies logic and rules.”
My heart kicked in my chest. “Don't do this. There's no point. I have to leave once the sun rises.”
Joe frowned. He looked like he was about to protest, but then he surprised me. “Okay. I won't stop you.” He tugged me toward the dining table and gently sat me down. “But we should get some food in you. You can't talk serious things on an empty stomach.” He disappeared into the kitchen and reappeared carrying a huge, steaming plate of spaghetti. The aroma made my mouth water, my senses snap to attention.
Food would help. For now.
He sat the plate in front of me with a flourish. “I have garlic bread in the oven. And salad if you'd like some.”
I looked up at him and smiled. So kind. So...vulnerable. And I'd bet my life that this spaghetti was out of this world. “Thank you. It smells incredible.”
“Wine?” he asked, heading for the kitchen again.
“Sure,” I called out. “That would be lovely.”
It felt wrong to start eating without him, so I waited. Back home, everyone would have waited for me to start eating. But here? I was no one. I was not a Queen. Just a random Fey woman who tried to kill herself in the cold, dead night.
“Red wine and bread,” Joe said as he emerged from the kitchen. The bread smelled wonderful, too, and I snatched a slice. Joe set two goblets down and filled them with the wine. He disappeared once again and returned carrying his own plate.
Finally, he sat down.
He spread a napkin over his lap, glancing at me. “Please, eat. I want you to enjoy it.”
“With pleasure,” I said, picking up my fork. I stabbed the thick spaghetti with it, twirling it. Then, I ate it slowly, savoring the rich flavors and firm pasta. Heaven indeed.
“Well?” Joe asked, bemused. He was eating his slowly as well.
I swallowed it, my eyes fluttering shut. “It's perfect. You are quite the chef.”
“All for you, Saoirse,” Joe said. His fingers brushed mine, and my eyes flew open, my heart trapped in my throat.
I pulled my hand away before I could enjoy it. I took a sip of wine and set my goblet down. Ran my fingers along the bottom. “This is strange. Are you sure this isn't your insidious plot to kill me?” I smiled, but part of me – the conspiracy-freak, paranoid part that had kept me alive for this long – wasn't so sure. Some creatures toyed with their prey before making the killing blow. Maybe that was all this was, an elaborate death game.
Joe's eyes darkened. He very deliberately set his fork down and met my eyes. “If I were going to kill you,” he said, his voice all hard edges, “you'd already be dead.”
I arched a brow. “Oh? You think you could take me that easily?”
He tossed his napkin onto the table and closed the pitiful distance between us, his eyes aflame with fury.
He snapped his impressive, enormous wings out and curled them around us, essentially trapping me in his feathery embrace.
I'd never seen a Touched's wings up close. They were inky black from root to tip, the feathers large and fluffy.
I wanted to touch them, run my fingers across their softness.
And I was seriously becoming a damn softie.
They were wings. No biggie, right?
Legend says that the brilliant minds of yesteryear who created the Touched wanted to give them an advantage that we Fey didn't have. Well, most of us didn't have wings. There were a few who'd mutated them, but they were rare. So the scientists combined avian DNA with our genes to give them the ability to fly. To get away faster. Or, hell, to swoop in and kick our asses.
They'd been purely for function, but Joe's wings? They were a thing of beauty and awe. I couldn't take my eyes off of them if my life depended on it.
“You were saying?” Joe smirked. The bastard knew. He knew he had me.
I stood and brushed those lovely wings aside, heading for the door. Nope, couldn't stay here and be mesmerized or whatever he did to me. You didn't need to kill someone to take their life away. People could die in other ways.
“Saoirse,” Joe said, his voice tense. “Why are you leaving?”
It's your wings, goddamn it. I can't take your wings.
Hells. Life sure knew when to kick you in the ass, didn't it? It was bad enough that he – the enemy – had saved me from my suicide attempt. But this? This was utter madness.
He glared at me, daring me to do it. Knowing full well that I wouldn't. Damn it, he had me.
“You go out there and you'll die this time.” His voice was low, worried. “I suggest not doing that again.”
I met his gaze without flinching. “I didn't die out there, Joe. Maybe I won't die this time.”
“You don't know that for sure,” Joe said quietly. “Please, just stay here till morning.”
Men. Especially Touched men. Crazy.
I went back to the table and sat down. “Fine. If you insist.”
Joe took a sip of his wine. Twirled some spaghetti onto his fork, even though it was probably cold. That made me sad. Cold pasta.
“Mind telling me why you're so eager to die?” He didn't look at me, but those words held a command. He just kept eating, like this shit happened all the time.
I glanced down at my pasta, my stomach doing a cha-cha-cha. “It's none of your concern.”
“How many times are you going to say it? Maybe it's not, but I saved your life. You owe me an answer, Saoirse. Something.”
Damn him. He made me want to curl up in a ball and die. Or screw him senseless. I wasn't sure which I preferred at the moment. Both had appeal.
I set my fork down, and it clattered against the plate. “Okay, fine.” This felt like slowly pulling my intestines out one by one. Painfully. But he did deserve some answers. I took a breath. “Here's the thing. I'm lost...and alone. And I...hurt. Every part of me, every cell in my body aches. And wishes. And dreams. And...I just couldn't take it anymore.” Tears filled my eyes. Damn. I was going to cry again. I didn't want to, didn't want to open more of myself up.
“Saoirse, it's going to be okay. You aren't alone anymore. You have me.” He rubbed his thumb along my hand, making me shiver. And not from being cold.
“We just met,” I protested. “I think it's too early to be making promises.”
The dog decided to poke me with its – her? – nose. I scowled down at her.
“Pixie can sense how you're feeling. She wants you to know she cares. Doncha, baby girl?” Joe stood and went to Pixie, very close to me, and rubbed her behind her ears. “That a girl. Yes, our friend Saoirse is very sad. But we need to make her smile again.”
She leaped up into my lap, almost too big to fit, licking everywhere on my face and neck. It was really gross but I could feel the love coming out in waves. She was not the typical dog, that was for sure. Hell, in Court we avoided them like the plague.
I put one tentative hand on her head and rubbed. “Hi there, girl.”
She yipped at me, her tail wagging. She poked her nose into my palm, urging me to keep going.
“This dog,” I said, smiling, “is such an attention whore.”
Joe laughed. “She is. But even better – she made you smile.”
I just chuckled.
And then I sensed trouble closing in on me.
Tempus Fugit was hopping when I got there. In the crisp, cold air, it stood out like a beacon in the gathering, oppressive darkness. Twinkling lights surrounded the roof, giving off warm, golden light, a counterpoint to the moon. It hung bright and shining like a pearl thrown into the sky.
People were everywhere – standing on the stairs, lounging against the side of the building, smoking joints. One guy was actually asleep, his head propped up on the railing.
A crowd of women huddled together, laughing loudly and talking too fast to comprehend.
A couple stood below a tree in the front, making out as if they were going to be graded on their proficiency and enthusiasm.
I breathed deep as I walked up to the simple wooden and brass door. Knowing any Fey coming out would be really stupid - or suicidal - some of the tension in me eased away.
A big-breasted woman in a black satin bustier and the tightest jeans I'd ever seen stood at the door. She flirted with the men in front of me and laughed so loud my eardrums ached. Fun.
I moved to the front of the line.
“How may I help you, sugarplum?” She looked me up and down as if inspecting merchandise.
Damn it. I was not merchandise. “I'm not your sugarplum,” I hissed. “I'm here for a good time, not to dance ballet.”
Big-breasted and Inappropriate held up her hands. “No need to get your panties in a twist. What can I do for you?” Her voice was now syrupy sweet. My teeth throbbed in sympathy.
“I'd like to enter. Before I grow old and die.” I bared my teeth at her.
“Ten-dollar cover,” Big-breasted and Inappropriate said, her hand whipping out.
I reached into my arm sheath for my stake. I discreetly flashed it, keeping my eyes on hers and my senses peeled for anything weird. You just never knew around here. “I am special, so therefore I do not pay cover.”
I pushed past her and entered, feeling smug. Sometimes that little trick didn't go over well. But it was true: Hunters never had to pay cover at bars like this. Some even got free drinks.
Cigarette smoke and the sweet smell of pot swirled around me, making me cough. Damn, was I getting too old for this shit?
The bar itself was to my left. Stuffing down a growing sense of unease, I pointed myself in that direction.
I didn't sense any Fey. Or any Hunters. This was good. I didn't want this little visit getting around the office rumor mill. Ha, office.
There were booths and tables and a stage where a heavyset, balding man tried to make the audience laugh. Or even snicker. He wasn't succeeding.
I kept moving. I saw a few pale legs and a few groping couples, but nothing too weird. I tried not to look, tried not to think about what I was doing here.
After dodging a few tipsy people – and one who tried to grope me, yuck – I made my way to the bar, which was made of polished, shiny wood. It featured a large mirror behind the bartender, which reflected the lights like little stars.
The barmaid smiled as I approached. I stuck my hands in my pockets, trying to look like I did this all the time. Which I didn't. “Hello.”
“What can I get ya?” the woman asked. She had a slight Irish accent, which soothed my frayed nerves. She was good.
I looked around me. Didn't notice anyone paying me any attention. Sweet Artemis, was I really doing this?
My throat constricted. “Um, what do you have?”
She rattled off a ton of names I'd never remember and then gave me an expectant look.
Here goes. “I'd like the House Special.” Did my voice quiver a bit? Did I look like I didn't know what I was doing? Well, I didn't, not much, but didn't want to appear that way. Less possibility of being screwed, and not the fun kind of screwing.
The barmaid's eyes widened. “Oh yes, of course. Wait here.” She turned and disappeared behind a black curtain off to the right side. I hadn't noticed it.
She came back out with a young, bearded man in tow. He was smoking a joint. Was this Duke?
I wanted my stakes right now. This guy gave me the creeps.
“This is the House Special,” the barmaid said softly.
I nodded. “Okay, thank you.” I glanced at the man, who was watching me, studying me.
“Young lady,” he said slowly, making the words almost vibrate in the air. “What can a humble soul such as I help you with?” He gestured for me to follow him. I tried not to think about who could be watching, who could be whispering about me right this minute. Outta sight, outta mind.
“I am Duke,” he said over his shoulder. “And you are Lady F, right?” He pulled back the shimmering black curtain and led me down a spiral staircase (seriously?) that made me dizzy. We ended up in a huge basement room filled with curtained-off booths.
Murmurs. A high-pitched laugh. A computer voice giving instructions.
“Yes, that's me.”
He crooked a finger at me and we were on the move, weaving around people and equipment. His booth was in the far corner, right next to a huge mirror that gave me jitters.
Duke gestured to the lounge chair sitting in the center of the booth. He sat down in front of a huge computer and typed something very quickly.
I sat down, my heart fluttering. I'd done this on a dare once, a long time ago, and I'd been petrified.
This time was so much different, so much more monumental.
Duke spun around and met my eyes. “Are you familiar with the rules here? Discretion, addictive properties of dust, the mortality effect?”
I nodded. “I think so. We're not to tell anyone this place – or experience – exists. Faerie dust is addictive. And...remind me again about the third thing?” I'd drawn a blank on that one.
Duke frowned. “We call it the mortality effect. When you use the program and access the stream of time, the stream of time takes a payment – ”
“I remember now,” I said. “For every minute spent there, you lose a minute of your life. Unless you're immortal.”
“In which case, you become more mortal the longer you spend in the stream. So I don't need to explain anything, remind you about anything? You've done this?”
I clasped my hands together to keep them from shaking. “Long time ago. Your equipment looks a bit different, but if it's the same type of thing, I think I'm okay.”
Duke arched a brow. “We have an in-program panic button, should you decide you need it.” He went to the back of the booth and opened a chest. Rummaged around inside and finally held up a virtual reality suit and helmet. “You can suit up while I grab a coffee. Then we'll get you started.”
I nodded, watching him as he left. He talked to someone just outside one of the booths nearby. Then, he disappeared around a corner.
I remembered the difficulty I had with the VR suit and winced. Oh, well. I'd make it work. I took a deep breath as I started the process. I say process because it took forever to get it all on and right. It felt horribly bulky, but if I remembered correctly, it didn't feel bad at all once you were in-program.
I let out a breath. Inhaled deep. Exhaled. Closed my eyes and said a prayer to Artemis that I'd find what I sought.
Duke breezed in, holding a mug of steaming coffee. “I'd offer you one, but it would be impractical.” He lifted his mug in a cheers motion, then took a sip. Set it down on the table. “Okay, before I inject you, I need to verify payment. You paid in advance, right?” He looked a bit chagrined, but hey, rules were rules, right?
“I did. By credit card.”
He marked something off on a clipboard and then handed it to me. “I'll need you to sign this consent and liability form. So you can't sue us.”
I scanned the document. Standard stuff, blah blah blah. I scrawled my signature as quickly as I could.
“You're shaking,” Duke said. How observant. “Are you nervous?”
I blushed. “A bit. I'm looking for some...sensitive information. And I'm kind of scared of what I'll find.” Why was I baring my soul to a stranger?
He patted my hand. “Anything worth knowing is scary, I think. But knowledge is power, right? So this'll help you.”
I nodded. “Yeah. It will.”
“Okay, let's get you going. I've got the dust, just need to make up the syringe...” I watched as he quickly prepared the injection, drawing up the shimmering faerie dust into the chamber.
“Ready?” Duke asked, holding up a cotton ball.
My heart wouldn't stop racing. My throat was dry. “Go ahead.”
He hesitated. “Once I inject you, there's no going back.”
“I understand. Do it,” I said. Please.
“As you wish.” He rolled up the arm piece of the suit and injected the dust into me. It burned like fire in my veins. He unrolled the arm piece and grinned at me. “Put on your helmet. Let's go for a swim.”
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