It was like a scene from a divorce: belongings divided into piles; books labeled with one owner’s name or the other; and everyone emotionally exhausted.
But in this case, there was no breakup. Not of the human variety, anyway. This was more of a secession. A declaration of independence.
It was a rebellion, and the golden-haired vampire next to me was leading the charge. Ethan Sullivan, the unofficial co-Master of Chicago’s Cadogan House, and my boyfriend.
That was still a strange thing to say.
Ethan, looking exceptionally handsome in black pants, a button-down, and a black tie, examined a slim, leather-bound book.
“This one belongs to the GP,” he said, glancing at the spine. “The Metamorphosis of Man,” he read. “From Opposable Thumbs to Descending Fangs.”
“That’s an awful title,” I said.
“It’s their awful title now.” Ethan’s words were humorous, but the tone in his voice wasn’t. The entire House was nervous, the building fogged with magical tension as we waited for the final countdown: Seventy-two hours remained until our official split from the Greenwich Presidium, the European council that ruled American vampire Houses, and the pendulum swung over our heads like Damocles’ sword. The GP’s members were traveling to Chicago for the sole purpose of formally expelling the House—of breaking up with us in public.
Our preparations had been largely uneventful. We’d been separating and packing up the GP’s goods and readying our finances, which seemed to be in order. The GP had been unusually quiet since we’d announced our intention to leave, communicating with the House only about the details of the ceremony and their travel arrangements to Chicago.
Ethan found that silence very suspicious. He’d gone so far as to appoint a “transition team” comprised of vampires and other supernaturals from whom he’d sought advice about the split.
Ethan leaned back and glanced at the bookshelves that lined a long wall in his large office. “This is going to take a while.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “but our other option is letting Darius do it himself. And I don’t think we want that.”
Darius West was head of the GP. He was very proper, very British, and very much not a fan of our House.
“We don’t want that,” Ethan agreed. He handed his book to me, our fingers grazing as he passed it over.
My blood warmed instantly, my cheeks flushing at the intensity of his emerald gaze. Ethan and I had been officially a couple for only a few weeks, and the honeymoon period wasn’t over. I may have been fierce with a katana—the samurai sword that vampires, including myself, carried for protection—but my heart still fluttered when he looked at me.
But we had many books to get through, so I pulled away and placed this one into the old-fashioned, brass-hinged steamer trunk on the floor.
“Work now, play later,” I reminded him.
“I find mixing business with pleasure makes both more interesting.”
“I find I’d rather spend my off-hours not packing away dusty books.”
“Being a vampire isn’t always about getting what you want, Sentinel. Although I’ll concede I can imagine more enjoyable ways of spending our time.” Sentinel was my title, a kind of House protector. Ethan used it when he was aggravated with me, or when he was trying to make a point.
“Then you probably shouldn’t have irritated the GP so much they kicked you out.”
He gave me a flat look. “They didn’t kick us out.”
“I know. We voted to break up with them before they could break up with us.”
This time his flat look was accompanied by an arched eyebrow, Ethan’s signature move. Much like everything else, he wore the expression very well.
“Are you purposely riling me up?” he asked.
“I am. Is it working?”
He growled, but there was a smile on his face as he did it.
I turned back to the books. “Can’t we just randomly grab half the books and throw them into the trunk? Will Darius really know the difference?”
“He might not, but I would. And so would the librarian.” He looked at me askance. “I’m surprised at you, Sentinel. You’re usually the bookish type.”
I had a master’s degree and then some, so I agreed I was the bookish type, and I was proud of it. But his statement wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. I narrowed my eyes. “I’m not sure you mean that as a compliment.”
“I’m not sure either,” he said with a wink, and handed me another book. “But your point is well-taken.” As I added the book to the trunk, Ethan stepped back and scanned the shelves.
I did, too, looking for anything obviously out of place. The Presidium Guide to Alienating the American Houses or the like. But before I found anything remotely appropriate, Ethan sidled next to me, a hand propped on the shelf.
“Come here often?” he said.
“I see you’re here in this”—he gestured at the shelves—“library all alone. You must be a student here?” He traced a fingertip down the hollow of my throat, lifting goose bumps on my arms.
Since my mind hardly worked when he did things like that, it took a moment for his words to register. Was he initiating a bout of role-playing . . . about a library?
“Ethan Sullivan,” I marveled. “You have a library fantasy.”
He smiled slyly. “I have a doctoral-student-turned-vampire fantasy.”
Before I could respond, he whipped a hand around my waist and yanked my body toward him like a pirate on a romance novel cover. I nearly laughed at the move, until I met his gaze. His eyes smoldered, deep green warring with silver.
Ethan leaned down, his lips at my ear. “You aren’t laughing now.”
“No,” I hoarsely said. “I definitely am not.”
“Ahem,” said a loud voice in the doorway.
We looked over. Luc, former captain of Cadogan’s guards, now tied for the position of House Second, stood in the doorway. As House Sentinel, I was an unofficial member of the guards, which made Luc my pseudo-boss.
“Sentinel,” he said, “the guests are going to be here in an hour, and we’re nearly done setting up outside. Since this is your party, perhaps you’d like to join us at some point?”
He was right about the party; I was the House’s social chair, an appointment Ethan had given me as both a punishment and incentive to get to know my fellow Cadogan vampires. But he was wrong that I’d been avoiding my party prep duties. I’d cleared my being here with the boss, or at least the one currently wearing a suit.
I slid Ethan a suspicious glance, but kept our conversation private, activating the telepathic link between us. I thought you told Luc you needed my help getting this done before the party?
He shrugged lightly. I thought we’d finish this particular job with plenty of time to spare.
We might have, if his flirtations hadn’t kept slowing us down. But what was done was done. I had arrangements to make, and he had guests to greet.
“Apologies, Luc,” I said. “Miscommunication on my end.” I’d let myself be distracted, after all. I could take responsibility.
Suddenly nervous, I straightened the hem of the fitted leather jacket I’d paired with slim jeans and a flowy tank, a look I managed because the weather had been unseasonably warm the last few weeks. “I truly hope this was a good idea.”
Ethan grabbed his tailored suit jacket from his desk chair while I walked to the doorway.
“Inviting every Rogue vampire in Chicago into our backyard?” Ethan asked. “However could that go wrong?”
Most of the country’s vampires lived in twelve Houses scattered from coast to coast: Navarre, McDonald, Cabot, Cadogan, Taylor, Lincoln, Washington, Heart, Lassiter, Grey, Murphy, and Sheridan. Three of those—Navarre, Cadogan, and Grey—were located in Chicago.
All twelve Houses fell under the authority of the Greenwich Presidium—at least until seventy-two hours from now, when that number would drop to eleven. Now that we were defecting, we were joining the Rogue vampires who didn’t live in Houses. They managed on their own or banded together into unofficial tribes. Either way, they didn’t believe the GP had the right to rule them from across the pond.
Rogues were, in their way, America’s vampiric colonies.
Pretty soon we’d be Rogues as well, which made it perfectly reasonable that I’d arranged a meet-and-greet for Rogues and Cadogan vamps on the expansive grounds that surrounded Cadogan House.
Yes, we were finally having a mixer.
The party would provide an opportunity to ease Cadogan vampires’ concerns about the Rogues—who they were and what we were about to become—and let the Rogues get to know us, too.
Luc offered a sarcastic laugh. “It’s Cadogan House, and Merit is our social chair. I’m thinking this is a recipe for disaster.” Luc, much like Ethan, enjoyed riling me up.
“Har har,” I flatly said, waiting while Ethan slipped into his suit jacket. “If it is, serves Ethan right for making me social chair.”
“You did attack him for changing you into a vampire,” Luc pointed out.
“Only because he didn’t do it very well.”
“I reject the notion I am capable of doing anything ‘not well,’” Ethan offered.
“So modest, our Liege,” Luc said.
Luc called Ethan “Liege” even though Ethan wasn’t technically Master of the House anymore. That honor fell to Malik, the vampire who’d taken over during Ethan’s brief demise. Now that Ethan was back, even though we hadn’t made any official changes, everybody acted like the old guard was in charge again—Ethan as Master, Malik as Second, Luc as Guard Captain. It was simply easier than treating twice as many vampires as senior staff members, or figuring out what to call them. Ethan certainly didn’t object to playing Master, and the others didn’t seem to mind giving up their promotions.
“In any event,” Luc said, “sorry to interrupt.”
“No, you weren’t,” I challenged.
“No, I wasn’t.” He patted my back collegially. “It’s entertaining to see you flustered. So very human. Reminders like that keep a girl grounded.”
“She’s plenty grounded,” Ethan said, joining us in the doorway. “And not just because I knock her off her feet every time we train.”
“Only in your dreams, Sullivan.” Ethan had undertaken to help me with my training as House Sentinel. With four hundred years of experience under his belt, he usually bested me. But not always, I thought with a grin. I’d surprised him a time or two, and those victories were particularly sweet.
“My dreams are much more interesting than that, Sentinel.”
Luc swept an arm toward the hallway. “Your guests are arriving soon, and I am plenty disturbed and have no desire to learn more about those dreams, so let’s be on our way, shall we?”
Ethan made a sarcastic noise. “Lucas, I rue the day I promoted you.”
“Probably so, boss. Probably so. You do wonders for his sense of humor,” Luc said to me.
“Funny, I wasn’t aware he had one.”
“And now it’s two against one,” Ethan said. “God willing our guests are more generous.”
Luc chuckled. “As much barbecue as we’re piling up outside, they should be.”
It didn’t surprise either of them that I hoofed it down the hallway at the mention of barbecue. But this time, I wasn’t just hurrying because of the smoked meats.
It was the supplier I was looking for.
# # #
The House’s main hallway led through the first floor to the cafeteria and the door to the backyard.
We stepped outside. The lawn—an expanse of grass that had long since yellowed—swarmed with Cadogan vampires adjusting decor and arranging chairs and tables, all of them sending excited magic into the air. The Black Keys’ “Howlin’ for You” echoed through outdoor speakers, the result of a special permit we’d managed to acquire from the city and the playlist Lindsey, my closest friend in the House, and I had put together for the party. Social chair duties, I figured.
Luc trotted into the yard, waving his arms at a reporter attempting to climb the fence around the House for a shot of the party. Paparazzi loved vampires and parties. The two together, I imagined, were irresistible.
But before Luc reached him, the reporter squeaked and disappeared back behind the hedge.
He’d undoubtedly been found by our hired security, Chicago’s mercenary fairies. They detested humans, and wouldn’t take kindly to the reporter’s attempt to breach the shield around the House.
That mild drama addressed, preparations for the invited guests were well under way. I felt a jolt of guilt about having been distracted by Ethan. On the other hand, we’d been through plenty as a couple, and we took our moments together when we could find them.
Normally, stepping outside in Chicago in winter was a chilling venture, which made the lawn a questionable location for a social event. But we were taking full advantage of the unusually warm weather, and stand-up heaters handled any residual chill in the air. Giant white balloons floated lazily in the mild breeze, and a white, open-sided tent offered tables and a small parquet dance floor, its roof a dome of stretched fabric and arched iron, like something you might have seen in Beaux Arts Paris. There were hundreds of unaffiliated vampires in this city, and we aimed to impress them, at least with our stylishness and good taste.
And, of course, there was the food. You couldn’t have much of a party without it, and it certainly wouldn’t have been gracious to invite the Rogues into our domain and refuse to feed them. Vampires craved blood and needed it for nutritional purposes, but that didn’t diminish our desire for human food. If anything, our faster metabolisms made the hunger worse.
I had planned appropriately, ensuring our tables were filled with roasted meats of the most popular barnyard persuasions—pork, beef, and chicken—and all the appropriate sides. Chicago had once thrived as a cattle town, and that legacy lived on today. It wasn’t difficult to find the choicest or homeliest cuts of meat, depending on your preference.
It especially wasn’t difficult when you knew where to look. In this case, I looked to a slender woman in jeans and an apron, an aluminum tray of steaming food in her hands, who was walking toward the tables.
She was Mallory Carmichael, a recently confirmed sorceress and my (maybe) best friend. Our relationship had been strained by her recent efforts to unleash an ancient evil, which nearly destroyed Chicago in the process. Go figure.
Her hair was a newly vibrant shade of blue—or shades of it, actually. She’d dyed her hair in an ombre style; it darkened from pale blue at the roots to indigo at the ends. Tonight it was pulled into a messy bun because she was working as an official employee of the Little Red Catering Company.
Since loosing a fallen angel on the world, she’d been hired by the North American Central Pack of shape-shifters as a girl Friday in their Ukrainian Village bar and diner, Little Red. They were usually a self-contained bunch, but they were concerned enough by Mallory’s behavior that they made an exception. She was now getting the Karate Kid treatment—doing manual labor while she learned to control herself and tolerate the magic that bubbled beneath her skin.
The Pack also realized that with a sorceress attempting to redeem herself, they had enough staff to increase their income. Little Red already produced top-notch Eastern European food, so they’d ventured into the catering business, prepping full-on meals for Chicago’s supernatural denizens. Only supernaturals for now, because humans weren’t yet sure that victuals prepared by shape-shifters were safe to eat.
Mallory put her trays on the table, where they were immediately arranged by the Cadogan House chef, Margot, a vampire with a signature bob of sable hair.
“Mallory looks good,” Ethan said, still beside me.
I nodded, feeling as relieved as he sounded. Fortunately, Mallory was recovering from the addiction to black magic that had led her astray. But the wounds were still fresh, and vampires had long memories. We were in the process of rebuilding our relationship, and this wasn’t the kind of betrayal that was solved by a pint of ice cream or a cathartic cry. I would need time before I could trust her again, and I had the sense she needed time to trust herself, as well.
I didn’t see her nearly as much as I used to, so it was reassuring to see her here, now, helping others instead of creating magical mayhem. That’s precisely why I’d asked Margot to hire Little Red for the catering. Supporting the bar meant supporting the shifters’ new business venture and Mallory’s recovery efforts. It seemed like a good idea all around.
“She does look good,” I agreed. “I’m going to go say hello.”
“Do that,” he said, a hand at my back. “I’m going around to the front to greet the guests as they arrive.”
“And formally invite them to the House so they don’t break any points of vampiric etiquette?” Vampires did love their rules.
“Just so,” he said with a smile. “And perhaps we’ll finish our library discussion later?”
I barely contained the blush that brightened my cheeks. “We’ll see,” I coquettishly said, but the knowing look in Ethan’s eyes said he didn’t buy the bashfulness.
My evening plans addressed, I caught up with Mallory as she began to walk away from the table, probably to grab another tray of meats.
“Hi,” I said, suddenly self-conscious, our interactions still a little awkward.
“Hey,” she said.
“I like your hair.” That was the absolute truth, but it was less the hair than what the hair symbolized that thrilled me. Mallory’s hair had been blue as long as I’d known her . . . except for her period as the wicked witch of the Midwest. It seemed to me to be a good sign.
She smiled and touched the top of her bun. “Thanks. It took forever, and I lost four towels in the process, but I think it turned out.”
“It definitely turned out. The ombre works for you.”
“I need to get some more stuff from the truck,” she said, gesturing toward the front of the House. I nodded and walked beside her.
“You ready for this shindig?” she asked.
“As ready as we can be. We’re trying to mix two groups of people who’ve basically sworn to have nothing to do with each other. You do the math.”
“That good, eh?”
“I’m expecting some tension,” I said honestly. Many of the Rogues had purposely avoided the House system, and now we were inviting them here to socialize.
A shifter carrying four stacked aluminum trays that smelled of porky goodness walked past us, and I couldn’t help but stare as all that meat disappeared from sight. “I need to find him later,” I absently said. “How’s work?”
“Shiftery,” she said, pointing to a white delivery truck that was parked at the open gate in the Cadogan fence. “I feel a lot better, but I’ve developed a new problem.”
“What’s that?” I asked, fearing a new magical addiction or another demigod with an attitude problem.
The answer came quickly, and it was decidedly shorter than a demigod.
Mallory frowned as a barrel-chested woman with bleached hair stepped out of the truck and headed our way. She was a shifter named Berna, and she tended bar and worked the kitchens at Little Red. She also supervised Mallory, apparently to Mallory’s chagrin.
“She calls you Mishka?” I wondered.
“Among other things. And she’s driving me crazy.” Mallory picked up more aluminum trays, then turned to Berna with an obviously forced smile. “Yes, Berna?”
As soon as Berna reached us, she poked me in the arm. She was always concerned I wasn’t eating enough—which was never the case; it was just my vampire metabolism—so the poke was actually an affectionate hello.
“Hi, Berna. The food looks good.”
“You eat enough?” she asked in her heavy Eastern European accent.
“Always,” I assured her.
“You eat more,” she said, then poked Mallory. “You back to work.”
“I was just saying hello to Merit.”
Berna made a sarcastic noise and pinched my arm. Hard. “Still too thin,” she pronounced, then walked away, yelling at another shifter who was heading toward the back of the house carrying plastic bags of yeast rolls.
“I should get back to work,” Mallory said. “She has a very specific plan about how this gig should operate.”
“I take it you two aren’t getting along?”
“She’s driving me up the freaking wall.”
“Berna’s intense,” I said, rubbing the sore spot on my arm. “Motherly, in her way, but intense.”
“That’s precisely the problem. It’s been a long time since I’ve been mothered, and twenty-eight is too late to start.”
Mallory’s parents had been killed in a car accident years ago, and she didn’t have any living relatives.
“I can see how that would be awkward.”
“It is. But she means well, so I’m going to shake it off later with a hot bath and stack of gossip magazines.”
I wondered whether she’d also shake it off by talking to Catcher Bell, her boyfriend—or at least, he’d been her boyfriend before her unfortunate magical incidents. I wasn’t entirely sure where they stood, but since she didn’t bring it up, I didn’t either. Not that the curiosity wasn’t killing me.
“Do the bath and magazines help?” I asked.
“Less than they should. But when you aren’t supposed to use your magic, you do what you can. It’s like the world’s worst diet.”
“I’m coming!” Mallory yelled, then smiled apologetically. “It’s good seeing you, Merit.”
She looked up at me a little shyly. “Hey, maybe we could do something sometime? If you’re up to it?”
It killed me a little that I hesitated before responding. But I still needed time. “Um, yeah. Okay.” I nodded. “Give me a call.”
She smiled a little brighter, then jogged back to the truck to arrange food at Berna’s command.
Say what you would about Mallory, but the girl was trying to claw her way back into her life. I had to respect that, and I truly hoped she could make it stick.
[Note – This text has not been fully edited, so it may contain errors. You do not need to alert me to them. Thanks!]