12 July 2019

Wicked Hour – Chapter One

While humans slept, monsters raved.

Maybe it wasn’t technically a rave. There weren’t any glow sticks or electronic music, or club kids with crazy hair and fluorescent clothes. There were a few dozen shapeshifters and a sprinkling of vampires—and one not-quite witch showing off the mural she’d painted in a literal wolves’ den.

I was one of the vampires, an unaffiliated Rogue in a city of Houses—including the House led by my parents. The artist was my best friend, a woman with sorcerer parents who’d said no to magic and yes to brushes and paints. And tonight, a lot of champagne.

Lulu Bell stood near her artwork—dozens of female bodies of all shapes, sizes, and shades—champagne flute in one hand as she gestured with the other toward the painting and spoke to a rapt audience. She was petite, with a shining bob of dark hair that framed her pale heart-shaped face and green eyes. She’d paired a multicolor tunic with gray leggings, red heels, and enormous dangling earrings, and looked very much the part of the artsy girl.

Music shook the air around her, heavy on guitars and drums. Her audience was in clothes that were heavy on the leather. The shifters, members of the North American Central Pack, were mostly wolves, and they were similarly handsome. Strong men and women whose energy seemed palpable, as if their vitality were sturdy enough to actually thicken the air.

“She looks happy.” The man who’d spoken stood behind me, his dark skin and short dark hair contrasting sharply against his brilliantly colored short-sleeved button-down shirt.

He was Theo Martin, one of Chicago’s supernatural Ombuds—liaisons between humans and Sups. In his particular case, a former cop with a good brain and a minor obsession with superheroes and, as I’d learned, the comics they lived in.

I was an OMB staffer, at least temporarily. Roger Yuen, the city’s new Ombudsman, had given me a gig when my plan to continue working for Paris’s Maison Dumas had fallen apart. I’d been helping Theo and Petra, another Ombud, address supernatural problems that cropped up in Chicago; I’d keep helping them until the grant money ran out—or the mountains of OMB paperwork finally disappeared. 

“She does look happy,” I agreed. “At least some of that is sheer relief. She’s been worried about finishing it in time. The Pack wouldn’t reschedule the party.”

Pack-brewed beer was being introduced in the Pack’s bar today. They’d wanted the mural completed by the time the party started, and they’d refused to negotiate with Lulu for a different deadline. Shifters weren’t usually picky . . . except when it came to business.

Theo sipped a glass of brown beer that looked more like chocolate than booze. Then coughed. “It’s . . . intense.”

“Good intense or bad intense?” 

He swirled the liquid in the glass, dark beer against pale foam. “I feel like I need a knife and fork. You should try it, Elisa. Your tastes are, you know, different from mine.”

“What with the blood and all,” I said dryly.

Theo grinned a crooked smile. “What with.”

Now or never, I told myself, and took the glass he offered, then a hearty sip . . . and was overwhelmed by flavors. It was sour and tangy and complex and smoky.

Theo was right. I wouldn’t say it tasted good, exactly, but its complexity was impressive. Someone had worked very hard to make so many flavors bloom and blossom.

“I don’t know that I ever need to drink it again,” I said, looking at Theo. “But it’s . . . an achievement.”

“I don’t want to drink an achievement,” he said. I couldn’t really argue with that.

He gestured toward Lulu. “Should we go say hello?”

Lulu was still holding court across the room, nodding at a thin man with bowl-cut white hair. I watched her, waited until she finally raised her gaze and looked around, then lifted my glass. She gave me a wink, returned to her conversation.

“Done,” I said. “Actual discussion can wait until she’s made it through her court of admirers.” Which gave us time to look around the room. You couldn’t beat the people watching at a Sup party. In addition to the shifters, there were a handful of the scantily clad nymphs who ruled the Chicago River—several of them being wooed by Pack members—and a few vamps from Chicago’s other Houses.

“Hey!”Turning the word into a melody, Lulu squeezed between me and Theo, linked her arms with ours. “Is everyone having fun?”

As if on cue, one shifter threw another across the room, the move echoed by tinkling glass. Onlookers cheered and applauded.

“Ain’t no party like a shifter party,” Lulu said. “’Cause a shifter party don’t stop after drinking a reasonable amount of booze.”

“I’m not sure anything else could top this,” Theo said. “This may be the last party I ever need to attend.”

“It’s a great party,” I said to Lulu, kissing her cheek. “And the mural looks amazing. Congratulations.”

“To Lulu!” Theo said, and we lifted our glasses.

“Thank you, thank you. I’m still shocked I got it done.” She lifted her gaze to the crease where the wall met the ceiling. “I’d avoid touching that corner,” she said with a pixie smile, “unless you want to wear paint.”

“I do not,” I said. “And I doubt even shifters would get drunk enough to climb the literal walls.”

“One never knows,” she said, and was beckoned by someone across the room. “I’ll catch you later.”

“Have fun,” I said, and she moved through the crowd again.

A hush fell over the room. I looked around, thinking she was about to make a speech, or I’d been wrong about the effect of booze on shifters and someone actually was inching up the mural. But that’s not why they’d gone silent.

“Well, well,” Theo said, gaze on the corridor at the other end of the space. “Look who’s back in town.”

I scanned the crowd, and my gaze came to a halt just as Theo’s had done.

Connor Keene, the prince of wolves, had come home.

If “swagger” was a mood, he’d perfected it.

Connor was tall and broad shouldered, hard muscle under taut skin. His hair was dark and wavy, his eyes pale blue under thick brows. His jawline was chiseled and marked by a sexy dimple in his chin.

He was the son of the North American Central Pack’s Apex, and he moved into the room like a prince among royals. I’d have called it arrogance if he wasn’t able to back up his words with action. Even if I didn’t know there was competence beneath that wicked facade, care for those within his circle, and an unquestionable loyalty to the Pack, I’d have put money on his being Apex one day. His power was strong enough to send eddies of magic swirling in the room.

It had been weeks since I’d seen him, since we’d fought back a group of fairies intent on destroying Chicago by replacing our world with theirs . . . and he and I had shared a shockingly good kiss.

It was strange to have kissed someone—to have wantedto kiss someone—who’d driven me crazy as a kid. But he’d grown up, become a different kind of man.

He’d stayed in Chicago to help us fight despite Pack obligations that would have sent him across the country. But when our battle was done, duty called again. Not in Alaska, but in the Pack’s Midwestern territory, where he’d been sent to solve problems that arose as the Pack traveled cross-country. 

We’d texted while he was gone. He told me about the drama he was dealing with, the internal and external politics of the Pack. I told him about my daily interactions with paperwork and Supernaturals. Having been raised a vampire—the most political of Supernaturals—I was smart enough to understand the subtext: the prince of wolves was making time for me.

It took only a moment for his predatory gaze to track through the partygoers and land on me. When surprise and pleasure flashed in his eyes, I was very, very glad that I’d skipped denim and leather for a body-skimming midcalf dress of deep vampire black. I’d left my sword and scabbard at the loft, but I’d tucked a dagger into a thigh garter, and my red heels were thin and high enough to serve as literal stilettos in an emergency. My hair, long and blond and wavy, was loosely tied at my shoulder with a thin ribbon of deep crimson velvet.

Connor began to cross the room, making his way toward me like a missile locked on its target. Anticipation was like an electric charge across my skin.

When Connor and I had been kids—and hadn’t liked each other very much—I’d seen him with plenty of girlfriends. All shades, all shapes, all sizes. Always gorgeous. I hadn’t been jealous of them, but I’d definitely been curious, wondering what it was like to be the object of his attention, to be the one he was walking toward. 

It was a thrill. A song, low and sexy and seductive. 

“Brat,” he said to me when he reached us. The nickname was a holdover from our icy childhood, but his tone was plenty warm. “Theo.”

“You never call,” Theo said. “You never write.”

Connor kept his gaze on me, and I could all but feel my blood heating from the power of it. “I wrote the ones that needed writing.”

The words were a thrill, the emotion still a shock. As was the fact that we’d grown from irritating enemies to . . . something very different.

“How was Colorado?” I asked.

“You do some skiing?” Theo wondered.

Connor shook his head. “Shifters in Colorado who don’t acknowledge the Pack’s existence had some objections to our riding through what they call their territory.”

Theo nodded. “I’m assuming the Pack disagrees?”

“The Pack does, but it’s handled. For now.” 

I took a guess. “Because the Pack made it through Colorado, but you still have some thoughts?”

“Feelings linger,” he agreed, gaze on me. “I’m leaving again tomorrow.”

Disappointment covered desire like a heavy cloud. But before I could ask for details, another shifter slipped to Connor’s side, whispered something in his ear.

He was male, with dark blond hair, a trimmed beard, and angular brows. His eyes were hazel, his mouth a firm line. There was something familiar about his face, his magic. But I couldn’t place him.

The shifter whispered something to Connor, face turned away so we couldn’t read his lips.

After a moment, Connor nodded. “Ten minutes,” he said, and the man walked away without so much as a word to us.

“He’s friendly,” Theo said.

“Who was that?” I asked. “He looks familiar.”

“Alexei Breckenridge,” Connor said.

My grandparents were friends with patriarch of the Breckenridge family, Michael Sr. But the family was less friendly with my parents. Alexei was our age, but I hadn’t seen him in years, and probably only a handful of times before that.

“I didn’t know Brecks mingled with the rest of the Pack these days,” I said.

“He’s one of the few,” Connor said dryly. “The Brecks prefer to live within the human world these days. But Alexei’s good Pack. If not entirely sociable.”

“Everything okay?” I asked.

“It will be. Business as usual. And I’d like to talk to you about that.” He looked at Theo. “Mind giving us a minute?”

“No problem,” he said. “I’m going to see a shifter about some meats.” He cut through the crowd, disappeared, leaving Connor and me alone.

Connor looked down at me, a corner of his mouth lifted in a smile that was partly cocky, partly unsure. He knew exactly who he was. But we were both still figuring out who wewere. Our beginning had been sandwiched between years of teenage sniping and weeks of separation. Uncomfortable, given I generally preferred clear steps. Rule books. Plans and procedures.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey back. It’s good to see you,” I ventured, and his face lit, his smile widened.

“It’s good to see you, too, Lis.”

“The Pack’s good?” I asked quietly, not wanting to force him to spread internal struggles through the room, and betting he’d tell me more than he’d said in front of Theo.

“Drama,” he said. “Almost as bad as dealing with vampires.”

“Oh, that’s funny.”

“I thought so.”

We stood there for a moment, just looking at each other. Want and trepidation dancing in the air around us. 

“I’m going to Minnesota,” he said. “I’d like you to go with me.”

I stared at him. “You want me to go to Minnesota with you.”

“Yes. Grand Bay, on north shore of Lake Superior. Beautiful place. My cousin—a second cousin, actually—is being initiated into the Pack, and I’m going. Night to drive, night to attend the initiation, night to drive back.”

“Why would you want a vampire at a Pack initiation?” They were notoriously secretive events, just for family and close friends.

“Maybe I’m interested in your company. Does there always have to be an ulterior motive?”

“I’m a vampire. So yes.”

A corner of his mouth lifted. “Colorado wasn’t the last of the Pack’s troubles. The initiation is happening within a clan—a small community—that’s got issues.”

“What kind of issues?”

“That’s the question. The clan is being mum on the details, and I want a firsthand look at it. I needa firsthand look, but I know I’m biased; you won’t be. And in case there’s trouble, I know you can handle yourself.”

“You’re using me for my sword?” I asked.

“Isn’t that the vampire specialty?” His eyes gleamed.

“One of several,” I said.

“So that’s a yes?”

I wanted to say yes. To drive away with him into darkness and woods, to give ourselves a chance to be together without the pressures of Chicago or our families or their expectations. But this wouldn’t be a vacation, and it wouldn’t be without its own pressures.

I looked around at the crowd. The Pack had noticed Connor and I were talking, and several shifters were watching circumspectly. Others were being perfectly obvious about it, and their gazes were cold. To their minds, vampires were arrogant, calculating, high-maintenance, manipulative. They weren’t going to bother hiding their disgust that a contender for the throne was giving attention to a vampire.

I didn’t see Miranda—one of the Pack’s shifters who tended to hang out here at the HQ. She had feelings for Connor—and negative ones for me, and not just because I was a vampire. Considering her attitude when Connor had announced he was staying in Chicago—and the fact she thought he’d breached his duty to the Pack—I also suspected she had designs on the Pack, the desire to be Apex and take the throne from the Keene family. She probably wasn’t the only one.

Their derision was more dangerous than they imagined. Not just because I was fully capable of taking care of myself—vampires were arrogant for a reason—but because their interest in turn madeit interested.

I was vampire. But I wasn’t just vampire.

There was more to me than fangs and immortality: There was the monster that lived inside, created—as far as I’d guessed—of the same fragmented magic that had allowed me to be born, as the first vampire ever created by birth, not by bite. I had no name for it—hadn’t wanted to give it one—so I referred to it only as the monster, and I worked to keep it hidden. A difficult mission, given it tended to overwhelm me when I was vulnerable—when blood had been spilled, when danger was high, when other monsters threatened. And pushing it down again was a test of my control. 

Connor knew the monster existed; he was the only one I’d trusted with that information, and even he didn’t know the full origin story. Lulu and Theo suspected there was something unusual; they’d both seen me in berserker mode. But I hadn’t told them anything. My parents were completely in the dark—about the monster, the effect, my theories about why. 

Connor suggested I use the monster and the power it provided instead of pushing it down, which might keep it from overwhelming me. In the last two weeks, I’d been trying to let it stretch, to give it space. Not a partnership, but an acknowledgment. 

This, I decided, was one of those times. I let it rise and stretch, shift and undulate beneath my skin, see the world from my eyes—but not quite enough to color my green eyes the monster’s particular shade of crimson. I met the shifters’ gazes, let them see I wasn’t intimidated and was more than willing to fight. That I looked forward to it.

Most of the shifters turned away—whether bored or satisfied or intimidated, I didn’t know. But I suspected this wouldn’t be the only time they looked at me like that, or doubted Connor’s judgment. I wanted to learn more about him, about us. But given those looks, I wasn’t sure an initiation—a private shifter event—was the right vehicle for that.

“I don’t know,” I said, looking back at him.

There was a flash of surprise in his eyes; Connor wasn’t used to being turned down. And the teenager in me was a little too excited that I’d been the one to deliver that. “What does that mean?”

“It means I appreciate the invitation, and I’d like to see the initiation. But we both know there would be . . . consequences.”

“Consequences.” His voice was flat.

“The Pack doesn’t much care for me and you being in the same room together. And if that room’s a secret Pack ceremony? That’s going to be controversial. You’re going to take heat for it. And your father might, too.”

His flat expression became a cocky smile. He took a step toward me, close enough that I feel the heat of his body. “There’s something you should know about me, Elisa.”

His voice was barely a whisper. His words a challenge.

“What’s that?”

“I can handle my own heat. And I don’t care much about controversy. Let me know,” he said, mouth hovering near mine. Then he stepped away and smiled, his expression satisfied and cocky, before disappearing into the crowd.

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