Chapter 48 – A New Order

This is it. The last chapter of Agent of the Arcane: Double Cross. 

But fret not! I have a few goodies for you at the end of this post… 

Until then: enjoy!


 

Sadly, we couldn’t stay in bed forever. Norton called back, confirming the meeting from his and Mirovic’s side. Cole arranged the particulars with one of the fae, setting up the meeting for two evenings later. Those two days seemed long enough at first, but the hours raced by and in the end we were hard pressed to get ready and presentable in time.

We drove to the Den together, but Cole dropped me off a few blocks before we reached it. He parked the car on the curb and we made out like randy teenagers for a few glorious minutes. I finally pulled away, breathless. His hand was still fisted in my hair, keeping me close.

“See you in there,” he said, “Lauren.”

“Sure thing, boss,” I replied with a wink, though it would be difficult to pretend. Already my fingers itched to touch him. Maybe we would manage to sneak in a few make-out sessions behind the dumpsters.

But we didn’t want to take any chances until we figured this whole mating thing out, and also my future. Nobody knew what the NSA was planning to do with the PID or its agents, not even Norton. Not to mention the Big Unknown the fae had in store for us.

I got out of the car and Cole drove off. The further he got away from me, the more the intense connection to him faded. It hurt, almost as if my heart was being torn out of my chest. I walked faster than I usually did, just so I could be at the Den faster. The closer I got, the less the pain got and the clearer the connection once again became. Distance, apparently played a role, though I never lost him completely. He was still there, a fuzzy presence at the back of my mind, in my heart, and I could tell he liked this fuzzy connection between us as little as I did.

It was seven in the evening, so when I arrived at the Den, there were already some guests there, as well as most of the staff. I came in through the front door, since tonight I wouldn’t be posing as waitress, but as someone here to meet an acquaintance. We figured we wouldn’t arouse as much suspicion with the rest of the staff if I wasn’t even supposed to be working tonight, and just looked like I came back into the Den on the same day the boss was back by coincidence.

But Joanie and the others weren’t as clueless as we’d hoped.

“What a surprise!” Joanie exclaimed when she saw me come in through the front door. She was standing behind the bar, mixing a cocktail in a shaker. “The lost daughter returns, shortly after the prodigal son.”

I walked up to the bar and leaned against it, feigning ignorance. “Good to see you. What are you talking about?”

“Oh, come on,” she said, giving me her patented you’re-the-worst-liar-ever look. “You can’t fool me. Our fearless leader takes a week off at the same time that you do, and won’t tell us where he’s going or where he’s been. And you both come back on the same day. So spill. What’s going on? Is it serious?”

She had no idea.

But I shook my head. “You know his rule. I wasn’t with Cole. I was visiting family in Virginia. One of my uncles died, so I went to his funeral and stayed for a while longer.”

Her face fell. “Oh, Lauren, I’m so sorry.” She put down the shaker, came around the counter and gave me a big hug. Taken off guard, I laid my arms around her and tried to muster a few tears.

“Oh, you poor thing,” she said, seeing my watery eyes. “Were you close to your uncle?”

I nodded. “He raised me after my parents died.”

“I’m so so sorry,” she repeated, and burst into tears.

Wow. Hook, line and sinker. I wasn’t such a bad liar after all, considering the man who’d raised me after my parents’ deaths was hardly a well-meaning uncle. More like a jailer who enjoyed making orphaned inmates’ lives miserable.

I patted Joanie’s arm, only just stopping myself from saying ‘there, there’. I looked around the Den covertly; several patrons were staring at us, some openly, some with quick glances, wondering what was going on. Neither Norton and Mirovic, nor any fae or werewolf I recognized were here yet. Good.

I disengaged from Joanie. “It’s okay,” I told her. “I’m okay, really. He had a good life, but it was good to go and say goodbye. I’m actually meeting someone here in a few minutes, but I wanted to let Cole know I’m back for work if he’ll still have me. I kind of skipped out on you guys without letting anyone know. Sorry.”

“He’s in the office, ordering drinks,” Joanie said. “And don’t worry, he won’t fire you. I seen the way he’s been looking at you; that’s why I thought you guys…” she hooked her forefingers on each other. “You know.”

I gave her a small smile and a shrug. “I know. And I wish.”

That made her laugh. “Don’t we all, dear,” she said, “with that fine piece of ass, don’t we all.”

Mine, something vicious inside me wanted to snap at her. My fine piece of ass, bitch!

I swallowed it back. Holy crap. This jealousy thing was getting out of hand. Unlike the mating frenzy thing, I hoped that would fade sooner rather than later. This could become exhausting over time, especially if I did continue to work here, where I’d see him all night, and see other women openly flirt with him. And Joanie hadn’t even flirted. She’d just pointed out in her sassy way that it was difficult not to, and I knew exactly what she meant. Maybe Cole would have a few tips for me. He might not have had a mate before, but he’d been a werewolf for an as yet ascertained number of years.

“I’ll go look for our fine piece of ass,” I said, somehow without scowling at her. I should have been awarded a medal.

Joanie shooed me away with a flapping-hand gesture and returned to her station behind the bar. Tansy came towards me as I headed to the back, an armful of tray and empty glasses. She was blonde, with big expressive blue eyes and bright red lips; without a doubt, she was the Den’s prettiest waitress. She’d also been the one the PID had given food poisoning so that Cole would call me in unexpectedly after I’d been doused in vamp blood to get his attention. We got along well on the job, trading quips about certain patrons, helping each other out on busy days.

“Hey Tansy,” I greeted her. “Pretty busy already for seven on a Wednesday night, huh?”

“Oh, you know, just life at the old salt mines.” And she brushed past me. Ooh-kaay…? I guess I just got my pal-pass revoked. I had a pretty good idea why.

“Is there a single waitress on the staff who doesn’t have a crush on you?” I asked when I entered Cole’s cramped office. He was sitting in front of his computer, the order program open on the screen. “I thought Tansy was engaged.”

He pressed his lips together and I could feel that he was trying to suppress his amusement. That just made me more mad, and in a ridiculous way, more jealous.

He picked up on that, of course.

“Hey,” he said in an apologetic tone as he got to his feet. He came to me, half-closed the door behind me, pushed me up against the wall and kissed me. I roped my arms around his neck and took the kiss deep, wanting to brand him. The vicious twisting thing inside me eased.

Cole broke away, breathing hard. His eyes shone yellow. “Stop,” he murmured. “We can’t do this here, and now you know the reason. Why do you think I have this no-dating-employees rule?”

I sighed. I’d always known that answer. “Because every evening would turn into a bitch fight.”

He nodded. “You have nothing to worry about. Nothing. I swear. I also know me saying that won’t make a difference, because this mating bond brings a few extra quirks with it. Possessiveness and jealousy are two of the more complicated ones. I wasn’t sure you’d feel them since you’re human but…” He smiled.

“You like it that I do,” I realized.

“Yes,” he admitted. “It shows me that this isn’t a one-sided thing just because you’re human. I was afraid it might be.”

“How is it possible, though?” I asked. “I have no magic whatsoever.”

“I guess the werewolf magic is enough,” he said, “it doesn’t have to be inside you, but you feel it, since we’re bonded. Do you think you can handle it?”

“I’ll be fine,” I said. To prove it to us both I slipped out of his grasp. “Just don’t flirt back.”

He smiled. “I never do.”

“You did with me. Even Joanie picked up on it.”

He just looked at me, a deep, soulful look that made my knees go weak. “I guess I did,” he finally said.

Mine. He was so mine.

“I told her I was at my uncle’s funeral in Virginia, by the way,” I said. “And that I came back here to let you know I was available for shifts again. So I’d better go back before my lengthy absence is noticed.”

“Our eclectic group of guests should be here soon, anyway,” he said. “I’ll be right out to make the drinks for us.”

I left him to finish the orders and headed back out. Joanie glanced at me expectantly while shaking up a cocktail. “Everything good?”

“Peachy,” I said. “I start again tomorrow. Would you make me a Mojito, please? I’ll be in the Cozy Corner. Cole said I could have it; I’m meeting someone there.”

“Sure thing. But the Corner’s already occupied with Cole’s weirdo friends, I’m afraid. They just arrived. I’m making their order now.”

Snooty and Snotty, or maybe Miles. “Actually, they’re the ones I’m meeting,” I said, knowing it would raise eyebrows in every waitress’s face here. Why would I suddenly start hanging out with Cole’s ‘weirdo friends’? There was no reason unless we were together after all. But Cole and I already had a contingency plan.

“One of them wants to sell his laptop and I need a new one, so he hooked us up,” I explained.

Joanie lifted her head in half a nod. “Ah.”

Yeah, sold that one hook, line and sinker, too. Not. But if I tried explaining it in more detail, it would look even more suspicious, so I turned and headed around the bar to the booth in the hidden alcove.

I hadn’t seen Snooty or Snotty since The Night. Cole had told me that all the fae had survived and spoke of my courage with reverie. I’d put it off as a joke I didn’t quite catch, but maybe he hadn’t been pulling my leg. Why else would two of the most powerful fae in the city stand up and bow low to me like some old-fashioned knights?

Snooty held out his hand. I looked at it like it might turn into a snake, then slowly took hold of it. He pulled my hand towards his face and breathed a kiss onto the back of it. Thankfully, he then let go, but Snotty snatched it up and repeated the same process. Only then did the two of them straighten.

“We are happy to see you alive and well,” Snooty said.

“And glowing,” Snotty added, the corners of his lips dancing. I blinked. Had that been a glimmer of humor?

“I see being mated is treating you exceptionally well,” he continued, “despite the fact that you’re human.”

That was why I called him Snotty.

“We honor the sacrifices you made for us,” his cousin said, “your bravery and courage will be immortalized in our songs for all eternity.”

And that was why I called him Snooty.

“How long did it take you two to rehearse that speech?” I asked. When they looked at me like two goldfish on the other side of the glass, I winked. “I’m just joshing with you. Please don’t take it personally. I like to tease people who are so uptight.”

I slid into the booth. The two followed my lead, just as Norton and Mirovic entered the Den. I caught their attention with a wave and slid back out of the booth as they approached. Norton held out his hand. I shook it, raising a brow at the formality. He raised his eyebrows right back in an expression that could only mean ‘behave’. As if he thought I might be rude to the director of the NSA, whom I shook hands with next.

“Nice to see you again, Age… Miss Walker,” he said, covering his slip-up with a mega-watt smile that would have made many a girl forget what he said. He clasped my hand in both of his large ones, lingering just a second too long, his thumb stroking my wrist. Right. NSA Director Zane Mirovic fancied himself a ladies’ man.

Cole appeared at my side as if conjured out of thin air. His arm brushed mine, and with the skin on skin contact I felt his animal rage and protectiveness blast through me. He didn’t like Mirovic touching me at all.

I pulled my hand away. “You, too, Sir,” I said. “Cole, meet Zane Mirovic, the…” I peeked around to make sure that nobody was listening in, “… NSA big cheese, which makes him my boss before Goodall. Mister Mirovic, this is Cole Tanner.”

“The infamous omega who stopped the fight by striding through it naked.” Mirovic shook Cole’s hand with only one of his and let go in the appropriate amount of time.

Snooty and Snotty had been listening in on this conversation without comment. Cole introduced them to Norton and Mirovic.

“Meet Therillion Ridian, head of Ridian House, and his cousin Pherion Ellimeyr, head of Ellimeyr House.”

Mirovic guffawed. “Do you have normal names that allow you to blend in?” he asked.

“Of course,” Snooty said, haughtiness personified. “But we are not here to divulge them, since we would like to continue to live in peace, unmolested by your undercover agents.”

“Miles and Kenneth will be here any minute,” Cole said, in an obvious attempt to change the subject. “Lets sit.”

Even though I tried to avoid it, I ended up next to Mirovic. He was good at that, maneuvering people without them realizing it until it was too late. In this case, he maneuvered Cole by asking him to get our drinks for us, giving Mirovic the freedom to slip into the booth right behind me. But he wasn’t the only one who could maneuver.

I slid all the way to other end of the booth under the pretense of making space for everybody else. Mirovic followed, but I left enough space for Cole on the open side of the booth so he’d be able to sit down next to me, too.

“Have you found Goodall?” I asked, once everybody had settled in around the table. The PID director had somehow managed to vanish himself from the cell I’d locked him up in at the parlay grounds. Cole told me the wolves followed his trail to where the PID agents had parked their cars that night. He had gotten into the van and driven off. The wolves weren’t able to follow it further than the interstate.

Norton shook his head. “No sign of either the van or Goodall, dead or alive.”

“That might be the problem, gentlemen,” Snooty said. “Goodall might be neither dead nor alive. From what we’ve gathered, he was undergoing the procedure to becoming a vampire; drinking the Tsar’s blood, she drinking his. It takes years to complete the transition. From what Ilona discribed, he was close to the end.”

Mirovic frowned. “What happens when the procedure is interrupted with no chance of picking it up again?” In other words, what would Goodall turn into, now that his vampire mistress was dead?

“He becomes a daywalker,” Snotty explained. “Sort of a mix between human and vampire. The sun probably won’t hurt him yet, and he can eat real food. But the craving for blood is strong and will become stronger every day. And he can’t survive without it anymore.”

“What does that mean, exactly?” Mirovic asked.

“It means that he has a choice: to die or to drink human blood and become the closest thing to a classic zombie there is.”

Cole came back, without drinks, mumbling that Tansy would bring them when they were ready. He sat down beside me, or rather, almost on top of me. I nudged him away a tiny bit as I posed the next question.

“So he can survive in this state?”

“By drinking human blood and eating human flesh, yes,” Pherion said. “He will be consumed by this desire sooner or later, though; nothing else will matter to him, unless he completes the ritual to becoming a vampire. But he needs Shirley’s blood for that.”

“And there is none of that left in her remains, I assure you,” Mirovic said boastfully.

“Hardly any remains left at all, she decomposed so fast.”

“The old ones do,” Therillion said. “Where are the remains?”

“We have them in lockup for study. Though at the current rate of deterioration, we probably won’t learn much from them.”

“Even if we did,” I said, “would this research ever be relevant?”

Mirovic smiled at me, showing big white teeth. “You’re asking whether the PID will continue, and wondering what your role will be from now on. Don’t worry, Miss Walker, I’ll always have a use for you.”

I felt Cole’s growl more than I heard it, because our thighs were pressed together. I squeezed his knee, remembering how I’d felt by just Joanie’s insinuation that my man was a hot piece of ass. If this mating bond was making me insanely jealous, what must it be doing to him, who was the one providing the magic to it, after all. But he had to get a grip. He was still growling, deep down inside. I nudged his knee. He stopped.

“Before you put Miss Walker to use, we would appreciate it if you heard us out,” Therillion said. “You might find that there is only one position you can offer her.”

Mirovic frowned, but whatever he was thinking was interrupted by Miles’ arrival. He took one look at Cole, glanced at Mirovic and me, and slid into the booth beside his omega, sidling up close to him. As soon as the two werewolves bumped hips, I felt Cole relax. Miles’ presence was soothing to him. Judging by the smile flashing over Cole’s face, he caught the irony of the alpha soothing the omega.

“My apologies for being late,” Miles said. “Kenneth is right behind me. He’s having a bit of trouble with… ah, you’ll see. Who are these fine gentlemen?”

I introduced him to Norton and Mirovic. When he shook hands with the latter, Miles didn’t let go of the NSA director’s hand immediately.

“Please allow me to warn you that your preferential attention to the lady in our midst might not be beneficial to your health,” he said, his speech as swollen and old-fashioned as the fae’s. “We lycans are a very possessive species and consider Miss Walker one of our own now. Some of us might take offense at your rather obvious romancing of her.”

I was glad he didn’t go into the details and reasons for me being part of the pack now. I wasn’t sure when to broach the subject of my being mated to a lycan.

Later, I decided, feeling the tension inhabiting the booth. Later was better.

Mirovic opened his mouth, but again was interrupted by newcomers.

“Good evening, ladies,” Kenneth’s voice boomed. “Got room for two more?”

He slid into the booth next to Norton, on the opposite side of the table from Miles. The two alphas nodded curtly at each other, then Kenneth swung out an arm to encompass the man who’d come in behind him.

“Everyone, meet Jordan Eames,” he said. “If that’s his real name. He swears it is, though he also told me it was Ethan Something when we met. You two would know,” he waved at Norton and Mirovic, “since I’m guessing you’re his bosses. My name is Kenneth Hayden. Pleasure to meet you. Though we seem to have walked in on something, if the stink in here is any indication. Phew. Come on, Ethan or Jordan or whatever your name is. Sit with us.”

Jordan looked down at the man who had tortured him to the brink of death. He was thin – Jordan, not his tormentor – almost gaunt, his skin pale, a sickly yellow in contrast with his black hair. The cuts and bite marks on his body had healed; they must have given him some of the fae healing elixir. His psyche, though, still needed healing and may indeed never recover fully. You could tell by his stance that he wanted to be anywhere but here.

He pulled his eyes away from his torturer and glanced at Norton, then Mirovic. They finally came to rest on me and the shock of the torment in them shook me to the core. Jordan was a man lost at sea, and no wonder. His enemies had tortured him, his friends and allies forsaken him, and now his enemies and his alleged friends sat around a table together, staring up at him as if they were confused at his reaction. As if what he’d endured was inconsequential to us all.

“I’m glad you made it, Jordan,” I said. “This is a truce of sorts.” I wanted him to know that neither side was taking this meeting lightly.

Jordan’s eyes flashed, reminding me of Cole’s when the wolf was close to the surface. Or any other lycan’s, for that matter.

Uh-oh.

Cole tensed up again beside me but didn’t say anything. I felt his apprehension though, as if it were my own.

Something wasn’t right with Jordan. Had Kenneth turned him into a lycan? Cole had told me lycanism was hereditary, but if vampire-blood could turn humans into zombies, what did lycan-bites do? And why had Kenneth brought him to this meeting, when Jordan was clearly in no condition for it?

Tansy approached with a tray full of drinks. None of us said a word while she distributed them amongst us. My Mojito landed in front of me with an audible ‘thunk’ that shook the table.

Great. I realized with a sinking heart that working at the Den would be difficult from now on, if not downright impossible. If waitressing should remain my cover story, I might have to find another bar to do it at. Although that would kind of defeat the purpose.

But all this what-iffing was pointless when Snooty and Snotty hadn’t revealed their reasons for this meeting yet, regarding these mysterious plans they had for me. As soon as Tansy stalked off with the empty tray, I faced the two fae.

“We’re all here,” I said. “Time to talk.”

Snooty and Snotty looked at each other. The former nodded at the latter.

“We have a proposal for you,” Snotty began. “Since you’re aware of our existence, we must figure out a way to coexist. From what I understand, you would prefer it if the world – that is the human world – remained unaware of our existence.”

Mirovic nodded. “The world has forgotten the existence of magic for a reason. Every scenario we ran through analysis ended in chaos, even the best-case ones. The country – the world – can’t afford that right now.”

“We agree,” Snooty said, “and would very much like to keep it that way, too. But things happen. We slip up in our secrecy, or humans stumble across clues. Making such things go away would be a lot easier for us if we had help from the human side. Your side.”

“You want our help?” Mirovic said, sounding as surprised as I felt.

But Snotty shook his head. “We want to offer our cooperation in such cases, so long as Miss Walker acts as our mediator.”

I blinked. Say what now?

Mirovic sat back and stroked his hand over his clean-shaven jaw, clearly mulling. “How, exactly, do you imagine this to work?”

“We, the fae and lycans of this city, agree to supply any needed or useful information in criminal cases involving the arcane,” Snotty explained in his most formal tone, “provided that, one: you disband the PID and its attempts to infiltrate our lives and gather intelligence on us. And two, that all our dealings are with Miss Walker, and her alone.”

“Why her?” Mirovic asked.

“Because she is the only human that we know of who is mated to a supernatural,” Snooty said. “And she picked our side when things got tough.”

Alrighty then. There went my plan to keep the mating thing a secret for a while.

Mirovic sat up straight and turned his whole body towards me. His gaze pierced mine.

“I’m sorry, you’re what?”

“Mated,” Cole said from my other side, baring his teeth at Mirovic in an eerie grin.

“You’re fucking him voluntarily?” Mirovic said. “He’s half animal.”

He did not just say that.

“Watch your mouth, Sir,” Miles snapped. “Miss Walker belongs to my pack now, and if you want our cooperation in the future, I must insist that you treat her with respect. If not for her, all your PID agents would be dead.”

“Killed by you and your pack,” Mirovic barked. “You’re all loose cannons. I can’t in good conscience disband the PID when I know the dangers lurking in the city.”

“In the whole world, Mr. Mirovic,” Snooty said. His expression was as dark as a storm cloud. “And if you want to have any influence on them at all, this is the way you’ll have it. We offer no other option.”

If they didn’t make any concessions, Director Bullhead would never agree. At least not without putting me under secret twenty-four-seven surveillance, a condition I wanted to avoid under all and any circumstances.

“I’m willing and happy to take up this role of mediator within the parameters you’ve presented,” I said, looking at the two fae, “if you agree to my minor conditions, too.”

The fae frowned at me. They hadn’t suspected me to interfere or make demands. I wondered if that was because they were stuck in some chauvinistic past, or because they’d spoken to Cole and he’d told them I’d do it without consulting me. Either way, they regarded me thoughtfully for a while, then looked at each other, conferring without words. Finally, Snooty turned to me.

“It depends on what they are,” he said.

Fair enough.

“I have to make a living,” I said, “but if either side pays me exclusively, the other will never trust me. We’ll fix an hourly rate for my services with such cases of the arcane, and you will split them fifty-fifty. Are you with me so far?” I looked at everyone at the table, even Jordan, who didn’t see because he was staring at a black spot on the dark brown table.

The fae nodded. “We were going to suggest the same thing.”

Mirovic looked more ready to negotiate than before, now that he knew he hadn’t lost me as an ally completely. “Lets hear the rest of your conditions,” he said.

“I want a team,” I said. “Nothing big, don’t worry. Just a couple of people who are aware and knowledgeable of both the supernatural and the human world, who can provide back-up and help me with the legwork.”

“Who do you have in mind?” Kenneth asked, proving once again his savvy people-reading skills. The people I wanted on my team were all sitting at this table, the most important right beside me.

“Cole,” I said. I could feel my mate’s anxiety buzzing through him and our bond. He didn’t like me becoming involved in this at all, and I knew he’d never be left on the sidelines. His relief was just as palpable as soon as I said his name, and he bumped my knee with his in silent gratitude.

The fae nodded, happy with this solution as well. They trusted Cole most of all wolves, even before their own bodyguards. Miles, on the other hand, didn’t look convinced. But he knew better than to object. Cole would never listen to him in this matter.

“Who else?” Mirovic asked.

“Norton, if he’s inclined,” I said, looking at my former handler. Norton had a large network at the NSA, and his skills in the research department were legendary. He knew everything any of the PID agents had ever uncovered about supernaturals.

I smiled at Norton when he nodded in consent. “I’m in.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I appreciate it.” I could use him, I was sure. And I trusted him to ninety percent, which was more than I could say for any other of my colleagues. Except maybe the next and last person on my list for a team.

“And Jordan.”

He lifted his head when he heard his name. Where before his eyes had blazed, they were now glazed windows into a barren, hopeless wasteland. It was worse than the torment I’d glimpsed only a few minutes before.

“That might be difficult,” Kenneth said, his voice uncharacteristically subdued. “At least for now.”

“What’s wrong with him?” Mirovic asked.

It was Miles who answered. “We’re not sure,” he said. “We suspect that Jordan might have some supernatural ancestor a long way down the line. A lot of humans have a tiny amount of magic inside them, more than you’d think. Mix that with werewolf saliva and fae healing elixir…” He shrugged.

“Not to mention the trauma of enduring emotional and physical distress of the highest order,” I added.

Miles inclined his head. “That, too.”

“Yes, but what does this mean?” Norton asked. “Will he go back to normal again?”

“We’ll have to wait and see,” Miles said with a shrug. “Until then, Kenneth will keep an eye on him. He’s the only one who can get through to him at all.”

Cole had been silent but now he lay a hand on my arm. “Are you sure you want him on the team?”

I thought about it; it was a valid question. I didn’t really trust Jordan, not after what had happened at the keep and especially not after seeing the state he was in now. But I felt responsible for him in a twisted way. Maybe it was just the fact that if things had been only a tiny bit different, it could have been me tied to Kenneth’s rack, my back whipped to bloody shreds, chunks of my flesh bitten out of my limbs.

“If he ever wants to join, there’s a spot open for him,” I finally said, hoping that this solution would satisfy everyone. I fixed Kenneth with my most intimidating glare. “Until then, you’d better watch out for him. You may look forward to random check-ups.”

He waggled his brows at me. “Bring them on, princess.”

“So we are in agreement?” Snooty said. “Miss Cole will act as mediator between human and arcane factions. Each side shall pay her and her team fifty-fifty for every consultation. The PID will be shut down. In recompense, Miss Cole may record the information we provide for her to solve any cases or settle any disputes, on an electronic server that we have half the administrative rights over.”

“Done,” Mirovic said. I kept the frown that wanted to show on my face inside me; that had been way too easy. He was already planning to launch another super secret division like the PID; I could almost read it on his face. Calling him on it wouldn’t do any good, though. He’d never let me know about it and would deny its existence every day of his life. I’d just have to keep my eyes and ears open and let the fae in on my suspicions if I ever came across something dubious.

“Very well,” Snotty said. “I will have our lawyer draw up the contract tomorrow. We will hand it over to Miss Walker as soon as it is done, so that she and you, and the others involved, may sign it.”

“May I suggest a first mission for our new team of the arcane?” Norton asked.

We looked at him expectantly.

“Find Goodall.”

Everyone agreed this was the perfect test run for the new team.

THE END

 

 


Well, not quite The End. There’s a bonus chapter in the free PDF-eBook-version, downloadable if you sign up here. (No worries if you’ve already signed up for my newsletter; your email-address won’t be added a second time.)

I hope you enjoyed reading the story as much as I did writing it. Thank you for sticking with it to The End! 🙂 

I also have another free goodie for you: the novella Once Upon A Nightmare, available as an ebook on Amazon and other ebook retailers.

Here’s a blurb for Once Upon A Nightmare: 

Last night, Elysia Rey was a dream. Today she’s alive, flung into a world where phones are smart and magic is called electricity. 

A world in which her kind has no right to live and is hunted by monsters and humans alike. 

But Elysia Rey wasn’t created to roll up and die. She has one purpose: protect her dreamer. 

No bulletproof chimera or vengeful shade hunter will keep her from fulfilling that purpose. 

 

 

Once Upon A Nightmare is the prequel novella to the Nightmare City series. Get it here on Amazon or find out which other retailers have it for you here. 

 

Book 1 of the Nightmare City series will be available at the end of March 2018. You can download and read the first 5 chapters of Nightmare City here

 

Thank you for sticking with me through this writing journey of mine (that I sometimes go into detail about here on my blog).

It would only be half as much fun without you as my readers!

:-* 

Chapter 47 – Options

Ilona and Cole are still enjoying the mating frenzy, sooo…

More explicit sexual scenes ahead! 

Read at your own discretion.


 

“This is an addiction,” I admitted three days later, collapsing on the carpeted floor of Cole’s living room after another bout of body-quaking lovemaking. The man was a machine, and I must have caught some highly contagious version of Energizer Sex-Bunny. I hadn’t worn any sort of clothing for three days and we hadn’t made it out of the bed farther than the kitchen and the bathroom for the occasional break for sustenance and hygiene. Occasionally, we slept for a few hours. Other than that…

“That’s why we call it the mating frenzy,” Cole said with a grin. He rolled onto his back beside me and pulled me close in that way we’d established in between the action. I snuggled up to him, my hands roaming over his chest, his abs, his hips.

I couldn’t get enough of the feel of him. Not touching wasn’t an option.

“Sounds about right,” I said. “How long does it last?”

“The longest I’ve heard of a new mated pair shacking up together was three weeks. Not that it really stops after that.”

“Three weeks sounds like heaven,” I said, secretly thinking that it seemed rather short. On the other hand, if we kept this up, I wouldn’t be able to walk in two days. But I didn’t care. All I wanted was him, over and over again. Three weeks hardly seemed enough.

He grinned, catching my unvoiced disappointment. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve taken four weeks off from the Den.”

I grimaced, knowing it would never last that long. Sooner or later, the NSA would come looking for me. Until it did, I assumed the best course of action for me was to follow my current orders and keep up my cover of Lauren the waitress. A waitress in LA couldn’t afford to take even a week off, much less four. Unless…

“Do you plan on telling the others at the Den that we’re an item?” I asked. In that case, they would simply assume Cole had payed for my vacation, or maybe that we’d moved in together so I didn’t have to pay my rent anymore.

Since that was the plan, their assumptions wouldn’t be wrong, but I couldn’t imagine Cole being okay with it.

“That depends,” he said, proving me right. “Are you keeping your cover of waitressing at the Den?”

“For now,” I said. “Until I’ve decided what to do about the NSA.”

“You’re sure they won’t send someone to kill you?” he asked. I laughed. It wasn’t the first time he’d asked that question.

“You watch too much TV,” I said. “I’m an asset to the NSA, especially now that I’m mated to you. If they send anyone, it’ll be a bodyguard, not an assassin.”

His gaze pierced mine, searching for any sign of deception. He wouldn’t find any. He finally kissed my cheek.

“I know you believe that,” he said. “I can feel it. Doesn’t mean it’s what’s really happening behind the NSA-scenes.”

“I know that,” I said. “But I can take care of myself. And I have a big bad wolf by my side now. What could ever happen to me?”

“Nothing,” he growled, pulling me on top of him so that I straddled his waist. He was hard again, ready and waiting.

“As long as I’m around, I won’t let anything happen to you.”

I leaned forward and kissed him. “Right back at you.”

Afterwards, I staggered to my feet to get us something to drink out of the kitchen. He downed the glass of orange juice I brought him in one long draught. I settled down cross-legged in front of him and sipped on mine, savoring its sweetness.

“So you want us to pretend we’re not together in front of your staff,” I picked up the question we hadn’t fully answered earlier.

“Just for now,” he said when the glass was empty. He put it down on the coffee table beside him. Some orange juice had run down his chin and neck. He wiped it off with his bare hand. “Until you hear from the NSA and we decide on how this is going to work in general.”

Yes, everything was up in the air right now. I hated this state of vagueness, of endless possibilities, of a thousand open doors and not knowing what lay beyond them.

Cole licked the orange juice off his hand, contorting his arm to reach it all between his fingers. Just that simple act, innocent as it was, let heat flash through my body. This, I realized, this was the only door I needed, the strongest anchor I could ever find. Cole, our mate bond, this connection we had. He was the main course of my life and everything else had been reduced to side dishes.

I dipped my fingers into the orange juice I held. “Cole,” I whispered to catch his attention. When he looked, I stuck my fingers in my mouth. He froze, his eyes latching onto my lips with renewed hunger. God, we were insatiable.

He pounced, pinning my body to the mattress with his own and kissing me hungrily. I let my hands roam over his body as his lips did the same on mine.

Cole’s home phone rang. We ignored it, as we always had before, letting the machine answer it.

“Hello, you’ve reached Cole Tanner, currently MIA on a pleasure cruise.”

Said pleasure cruise was licking a sweet trail down my ribs.

“No telling when I’ll be back, but I’ll answer your call then.”

We had never left, so we’d never be back, but I was certainly about to come.

“If it’s urgent or important, you’re out of luck.”

Speak for yourself. I was having the best of luck right now. The kind of luck that was about to explode inside me. Cole felt it and snaked up my body, his skin sliding over mine. He entered me in one slick, easy thrust, and I came with a shuddering moan, his name spilling from my lips.

“Cheers.”

Cheers, indeed.

The machine beeped.

“Ilona, pick up,” Norton’s voice interrupted the shivers of pleasure running down my back. Cole lifted his head from where he was nibbling on my ear, taking his wicked lips with him.

We’d found Norton locked up in the holding cells at PID headquarters. Because he was my handler, Shirley hadn’t made him one of her puppets. When the action began, she’d made sure he couldn’t interfere, call the cops or warn me. Besides me, he was therefore the only surviving PID-agent currently not undergoing severe psychological testing in some other secret NSA facility.

“You can’t hide forever,” Norton said. “Come on, Ilona. I know you’re there.”

Not right now I wasn’t. I was in the land of system-rocking, orange-flavored earthquakes, where reality had no business encroaching.

“You need to come in for a debrief.”

If he could see me lying here naked on the floor, he would realize I had already been ‘debriefed’ for the last three days, thank you very much.

“You should take that,” Cole said, lifting himself off me. His bare chest glistened. I wanted to lick the juice off him like he’d done to me, but…

“If I take that call, this mating frenzy thing will be over,” I said.
Cole smiled a little sadly. He reached out and tucked a sticky strand of hair behind my ear. “Only temporarily,” he said.

“You really want me to take this, don’t you?”

“I’d feel better if the NSA didn’t have cause to assume you’ve gone AWOL, yes.” And yet he let me make the decision. I could feel how hard it was for him not to leap up, rush to the phone and rat me out to Norton. Who was still waiting on the line.

“Ilona, answer the phone. That is an order.”

I sat up and pecked a kiss on Cole’s cheek. “Fine, I’ll do it. For you.”

I got to my feet and answered the damn phone.

“Hello Daniel. You’re interrupting.”

“You’ll get over it,” he snapped back. “But if you don’t come in for your debriefing, you might not live to do so. What the hell were you thinking?”

“I was thinking that I won’t be turning myself in to the NSA without a plan first,” I said. He didn’t need to know why it was taking me so long to formulate one.

“Do you have any idea how much trouble you’re in? You defected openly to the enemy, Ilona. Mirovic gave me five days to track you down.”

The infamous NSA director himself. Interesting. I’d met him once, six months before the PID recruited me. With the stature of Hercules, the sharp intelligence of DaVinci, and the rank of a general, he was reportedly one of the best leaders the agency had ever had. The fact that he liked to get handsy with the ladies didn’t seem to affect that assessment one bit. Typical chauvinistic agency attitude. Didn’t mean I had to like it or share everyone else’s opinion about our dear director. Still, he was not a man to cross. Ever.

“What happens after five days?” I asked, even though I knew the answer.

Norton confirmed my suspicion. “You’re put on The List.” He meant the list of agents gone rogue, who were declared outlaws and could be taken out by other agents without retribution. I had no intention of being blacklisted.

“Not if Mirovic wants a chance to speak to the fae and alphas in person,” I countered. “They have a deal for him, for the NSA.”

Cole had told me about the fae’s proposition a couple of days ago, in between one of our romping rounds.

“If that’s the case, why didn’t you contact us?” Norton asked, sounding annoyed.

“I knew it would take a couple of days for you to debrief everyone else,” I said. “Plus, I was busy.”

“Busy fucking a werewolf?” Norton said. “I know you were ordered to seduce him, but this seems a little extreme, don’t you think?”

The werewolf in question, who could hear every word through the phone, growled a low warning. I held a hand up to silence him. The insults weren’t important right now.

“You knew I was here the whole time,” I said. I’d left all my electronic devices that the PID had issued me to support my cover story – cellphone, cheap mp3-player, out-of-date laptop – at my cover apartment, which no doubt by now had been raided. I’d thought I was clean, that I couldn’t be tracked.

“I’m your handler,” he said. “I always know where you are.”

Apparently, I was wrong. He was tracking me somehow. But he’d hidden that little tidbit from Mirovic, or the cavalry would already have arrived.

“We can talk about that later,” I said. “Will you relay my message? The fae and two surviving werewolf alphas are willing to meet with you and Mirovic at the Den.”

“Werewolf territory,” Norton said. He didn’t like it, and neither would Mirovic.

“That’s right. They promise safe passage as long as there’s no funny business on your end.”

“It used to be your end, too, you know.”

“It could be again,” I said. “Depends on Mirovic.”

“I’ll tell him that. Do you know what they want to discuss?”

“Not a clue,” I said, which was the truth. “But have a little faith. They wouldn’t allow you to even see them if this meeting weren’t important to them in some way, too.”

“You’ll be there, too?”

“Cole and I both.”

“Alright then. And Ilona?”

“Yes, dear?”

“Shut up. I’m glad you’re still in one piece.”

Holy cow! Feelings from Mr. Stoneface. “Thanks. I think.”

He chuckled. “Don’t thank me yet. From what I heard, Mirovic has plans for you.”

“Looking forward to it,” I hung up and looked at Cole, whose brows wore the storm clouds of his mood.

“It doesn’t even occur to them that we might be the ones with plans for them,” he said.

I snorted. “Mirovic? Never. He’s too full of himself to realize that others might actually hold a better hand.”

Cole came over, laid his arms around me and kissed my temple. “Lets just make sure we keep it that way, okay?”

“Sure,” I said, fisting my hands in my hair and pulling his mouth down to mine. “Now where were we?”

Chapter 46 – Mating Frenzy

Warning: Explicit sexual scenes ahead. 

Reader discrection advised!


 

The rest of the night was a blur during which I made it my mission to stay awake. I didn’t fully succeed; my body demanded rest and fighting it became harder and harder, the haze filling my senses thicker and thicker. I witnessed the berserkers shrink to men in the glow of Cole’s presence, saw the surviving PID agents lower their weapons and raise their faces towards the sky, thanking God for the end of the battle. I slipped in blood and stumbled over corpses, whose faces I recognized as if from far away. I might have cried, because at that point Cole picked me up and carried me away, and I buried my face in his shoulder.

I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I knew I was sinking into hot, fragrant water in the bathtub in Cole’s bathroom. He helped me wash my hair and body. Then he lifted me out, swaddled me in towels and helped me dry off. He even combed my hair for me with gentle fingers, apologizing whenever a knot caught in the comb. The next thing I remembered was him carrying me to his bed, tucking the comforter around my naked body and giving me a sweet, lingering kiss on my lips. Then blessed nothingness.

I remembered all this in the flash of awakeness and awareness before I opened my eyes some time later. The fuzz over my senses had lifted; eyes, ears and head felt clear. I was lying on my side in Cole’s bed, one arm under the pillow, facing Cole. He was facing me, too, still fast asleep if his slow, deep breathing was any indication.

His upper lip, nose and right cheek were still pink, as if he’d been out in the sun for too long. Other than that he looked whole and healthy and beautiful. Serene and innocent.

And all mine.

I’d never felt possessive of another person before, but the force of it now was heart-stopping. I closed my eyes and imagined our bond. There it was, glowing and whole, the knot in the middle no more than a tiny nub. I wanted to wrap it around myself, around him, chain us together so neither of us would ever even think of escaping. The strength of this greed was so foreign to me that it threatened to take my breath away.

Cole stirred, though not on the bed. Inside of me. Warmth, affection and amusement embraced me just before his eyes snapped open and locked with mine. He didn’t move, didn’t touch me, and yet I felt captured by him. My heart beat faster.

“I know it’s scary,” he murmured. “It scared me, too, the intensity of it. But I can promise you this: I feel the exact same way about you.”

He smiled, and a light went on inside me. I couldn’t help but smile back. All my past worries fell away. Nothing else mattered but he and I.

“Hi,” I said. “My name is Ilona and I’m in love with you.”

His smile deepened. “Hello Ilona. Nice to meet you. I’m Cole and you are mine.”

“Thank God,” I whispered.

He shifted closer and brushed a few rebel strands of hair out of my face, tucking them behind my ear. I reached out underneath the covers and laid a hand on his chest. His skin was warm and smooth, like silk stretched over steel. I felt his heart stutter beneath my fingers, and his soul bask in my touch.

He leaned closer until our breaths mingled, our faces only inches apart. His arms came around me, pulling me to him. Our lips met as our bodies melded, skin to skin. I hooked my top leg over his hips, so that his hardness came to rest against my sensitive nub. He moaned, or maybe I did. The kiss deepened, tongues sliding, tasting, teasing in a slow, heating dance.

He moved his hips in gentle circles, rubbing himself against my core. Pleasure lapped through me, building, electrifying, until I was slick and hot and ready. I almost came, but it would have been empty and I wanted to be filled by him. He must have felt my desire through my bond, because he stopped moving, except for his mouth on mine. I felt his desire to be inside me, to push in deep and come. But his whole being was still basking in our kiss, and he wasn’t quite ready to end it just yet. Neither was I.

I touched him all over, stroked my hands over thighs and the curve of his backside, then back up to those wide shoulders, exploring. I found out just by listening to his presence in my soul that he was ticklish on his side, that he liked my fingers digging into his ass, that I could make him groan with pleasure when I closed my hand around the base of his cock. In turn, he found my ticklish spots, my erogenous zones, those hidden corners that made me moan, until I was finally ready to beg.

“Please, Cole,” I moaned into his mouth. “Come inside me. Come home.”

He rolled us over so I was on my back and he on top of me, his weight pinning me, grounding me.

“I won’t last long,” he warned.

“I know,” I said. “Neither will I.”

He smiled. “I know.”

He shifted and I angled my hips until his tip slid into the slick folds of my flesh. I wound my legs around his thighs and drew him closer. He slid into me, the width of him stretching me, filling me. He pulled out before he’d entered all the way, then thrust back inside, deeper this time, slow and teasing, making me tremble. Once more he retreated and returned, and I felt the pleasure grow inside him, tingling from his toes and the tips of his fingers up his arms and legs, aiming for his heart, his groin.

I felt his build-up as if it were my own, and it was, in the same way that mine became his.

The release struck us like lightning, sudden and intense, pleasure bordering on pain. I moaned his name as he spilled his seed into me, and it seemed to spur him on. We chased the wave together, drawing it out by feeding off each other, by going fast now where we’d gone slow before. Hips thrusting, we rode the pleasure until it crested a second time. I screamed as my whole body fisted around him and he jerked in response, spending himself again. He made a sound deep in his throat, primal, male and triumphant, that pierced my heart and sent aftershocks shuddering through me.

Breathing hard, he lifted himself off me and collapsed onto his back by my side. He turned his head to look at me, a smile so pure and happy on his face, in his heart, that it brought tears to my eyes. I’d put that smile there. I’d never been responsible for such joy before.

“Neither have I,” he said. “Come here.” He opened his arms. I slid closer and he pulled me half on top of him, meeting my lips with his. Our legs tangled.

We stopped kissing after a while. I rested my head on his chest and his arms tightened around me. I’d never felt so safe and warm and wanted in my life.

“Will it always be this strong?” I asked, my fingertips drawing patterns on his chest.

“Our mating bond?” he asked, his lips brushing my forehead. “It’s not likely. From what I’ve heard, it’s not this intense the whole time. That would be too distracting.”

I was both disappointed and relieved. He chuckled.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “Apparently you not only get used to it, but you can control it after a while. When the first mating frenzy has passed.”

“Have you never been mated?” I asked. He spoke as if he’d never experienced it himself.

“I came close, once,” he said.

“What happened?”

“She died.” A quiet sadness mingled with his joy.

Jealousy flared, a white hot flame. The fierceness of it scared me; that was also new. He must have felt it but he didn’t react. I felt small and selfish. She was dead and he was mine. “I’m sorry.”

He squeezed me to him. “Don’t be. It wasn’t your fault and happened a long time ago.”
If she were still alive would he ever have looked at me twice? But I didn’t ask that, not wanting to ruin the moment with something so inconsequential. Instead, I asked a question I’d been wondering for some time.

“How long exactly?”

He smiled against my forehead. “What you really want to ask is how old I am, isn’t it?”

I dug my fingers into his ribs, making him laugh. “Just so I know when to break out the canes and wheel chairs.”

He grabbed my wrist and pulled it away from his side, pressing it into the pillow above my head, which caused my breasts to thrust towards him. His eyes zoned in on them and he licked his lips. That single suggestive gesture had my pulse picking up and my nipples tightening. My head went light when he bent forward and sucked the left nub into his mouth. Our conversation and my question burned up in our reheating passion.

Much later, when we finally dozed off, lying spent and tangled in the sheets and each other, I remembered that he’d never answered my question about his age. But I didn’t ask. He’d tell me when he felt like it, and it didn’t matter, anyway. The only thing that was important was that he was here with me, wholly mine. And the truth of that radiated into me with every beat of his heart against my chest.

He was mine and I wasn’t letting him go.

Chapter 45 – Hallelujah

Hands caught me as I fell. Voices murmured around me, forceful, arguing.

“Lay her down here.”

“Get me the fucking elixir.”

“Here, open her mouth.”

My mouth was pulled open by gentle fingers. Liquid dripped onto my tongue, one, two, three, four, five drops.

“Leave enough for the wound.”

My mouth was closed. I swallowed. Someone pulled the collar of my shirt down and dropped more liquid onto the open wound in my neck. Agony screamed through me. My body bowed with pain.

I hardly felt it. All I felt was relief. It flowed through me, consumed me, licked over my being like a salve.

Cole was alive. Even if he’d turned berserker, everything would be okay. He’d come out of it and be alive, and we could patch things up and be together. I could sleep now. Everything would be okay. If only these imbeciles would let me sleep now.

But they kept doing something to my body that really hurt and kept me from dozing off. And it woke me up more and more every time. Finally, I’d had enough.

“Leave me the fuck alone already,” I snapped, shoving at the hands holding on to my body in different places. My mostly naked body, I realized. I was wearing only a bra and panties by now.

“You did it,” one of them said, triumphant. “She’s gaining strength.”

The hands let go and I sat up, blinking furiously as my eyes tried to focus. Cole still howled and snarled in his cage. Three fae knelt around me, five more stood off to the side, hands clasped, keeping the shield around us going.

I touched my neck. Shirley’s bite mark still stung, but the wound was mostly healed. I felt only tender skin where her fangs had torn through my flesh.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “How is Cole still alive?”

“We healed him,” Snotty said.

“Why did he go into rending?” I asked.

“He woke up and just… exploded,” Snooty said grimly. “We barely managed to lock him into the cage.”

“But he’ll be okay?” I asked. I needed to be sure. “Once he has spent his berserker rage, he’ll be okay?”

They looked at each other. Uh-oh.

“We healed his body,” Snooty said. “But his mind is very far gone, and we cannot help there. We gave him bane, but it didn’t stop him from going berserk. He has nothing left to live for. He will stay that way, unless you reverse it. Only you can.”

“How? I have no magic.”

“You are his mate. There is a bond between you through which you can find his mind, his soul.”

“But I don’t feel this bond. I’m human. And I’m not sure he feels it anymore. ”

“It is there, or he would not have fought his brother for your sake. You have to find it.”

“How? I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

They looked at each other. Snotty shook his head. “Told you it would never work. We should just get out of here.”

“Shut up,” Snooty spat. He crouched down close to me, laid a hand on my shoulder.

“Listen to me. He needs to snap out of it, or the other wolves will slaughter each other until they’re all dead. Some of your agent buddies are still out there, too. If you help Cole reverse his rending, you can save them. You can save all of them, and us as well. Not to mention him. If he doesn’t regain his mind, we will have to kill him.”

He was right. We couldn’t have a permanent berserker running around town, but we couldn’t leave him locked up forever, either. And if his omega presence could stop a slaughter, I had to try.

I shifted to my knees, then brought my feet under me. Hands supported me as I stood up slowly. I looked at Cole in the cage, then at Snooty.

“Any suggestions?” I asked. They looked at me, faces blank. “Anything at all?”

“Don’t be afraid,” Snooty said. “Fear is like adrenaline to them. It only makes the rending worse.”

Not be afraid of a five-hundred pound monster whose fangs lusted for blood and whose talons for something to shred? No biggie. I’d just imagine him as a puppy. Big brown eyes and soft plush fur. Yes, good image. Soft, small puppy.

I took a deep breath and stepped up to the cage. The monster inside saw me approach and flew at me with a howl, maw open wide, ready to bite my head right off. He smashed into the bars. The iron cages shuddered all the way down the line. Dust floated from the ceiling. Fangs flashed, chomping down on the bars in a screech of metal. He threw himself against them, again and again, and they groaned and whined as if they were in pain.

Soft, small puppy, my ass. He wanted to kill me. I stopped just shy of where his claws could reach through the bars and grab me.

“Cole,” I said, trying hard to keep my voice light and happy, so that none of the terror I felt inside would shine through. He stilled for a fraction of a heartbeat and looked into my eyes. Had he heard me?

He opened his maw and roared, a sound full of rage and loathing. The blast of his breath ruffled my hair.

Alrighty then.

He backed away from the bars, streaks of burned fur and skin covering him where he’d touched the silver-inlaid bars. He threw himself at the side of the cage facing the forest, apparently forgetting all about me.

He didn’t want to kill me, specifically. He only wanted out of the cage, like any trapped creature would. Okay. I had something to work with.

“You want out, big boy?” I asked, daring another step closer. He spun and raced back to me, crashing into the bars once more, eyes deranged. I leapt back and his claws raked the air where I’d stood. That had been close, but at least I had his attention again.

“You want out?” I repeated, glaring at him, putting a challenge into my eyes that he wouldn’t be able to look away from. “You want to tear me apart?”

Another roar was the answer, eager and challenging. He seemed to understand me. Or maybe he was simply reacting in the affirmative to the idea of killing something, anything. If he didn’t recognize me, all was lost.

I took a deep breath and blew it in his direction so that he would catch my scent. His nose twitched. I blew some more. He stilled, then shook his head as if confused.

“I’ll let you out,” I murmured. “If you ask me to.”

He’d have to shift to his human form to talk to me; his berserker muzzle didn’t allow for human speech. If Cole was in there, maybe he could—

The maw gaped. A roar blasted out like a shock wave. He hit the bars again with his whole body, and this time they dented.

So much for that theory.

More roars answered from somewhere in the forest, followed by screams of terror. Shots spat. Something shrieked. Cole’s roar had spurred on the other berserkers. If I didn’t do something now, the massacre would be over and all the blood would be on my hands.

“You have to get closer to feel the bond,” Snooty said behind me. “Much closer.”
Thank you, Captain Obvious.

I needed something to connect with the beast. Something that might calm him. Something from the good times, something that would remind him of me…

“Hallelujah,” I whispered.

“You have an idea?” Snooty asked.

I turned to him, to the others. “Leave.”

“What? But we can’t—“

“You have to. He’ll never pay any attention to me if you’re here to distract him. Leave. Now. Get to safety.”

“You’ll be without protection,” Snooty warned, with a look toward the sounds of battle in the forest.

“They’re pretty much occupied with each other,” I said.

“There’ll be nobody to pull you away.”

“I think if I need pulling away, it’ll already be too late,” I pointed out. “Look. If I’m really his mate, he won’t hurt me. It’ll work.” It had to work. “And if it doesn’t… if it doesn’t, you’re all better off not being here when there are only berserkers left.”

He nodded and took my hand in both of his. “Thank you,” he said. “But just so you know; we’re not splitting. We may have lost a lot of our magic, but not all of it. And we are not cowards.”

“Well, thank God for that,” I said. “Go!”

They went, disappearing between black trees. I was alone with a monster. My monster. I turned to him.

“Cole,” I whispered, looking into his eyes. A deranged beast stared back. Nothing human there. I took a deep breath and began to sing.

I’ve heard there was a secret chord…

Chills ran down my arms as I remembered how I’d pulled him back from the edge once before with this song. I hoped he’d recognize and remember it, too, somewhere deep within him.

Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you…

I remembered our dance the night we’d made love. Gentle touches. His heartbeat against my chest. Mine against his. Interlacing fingers. Thighs brushing with every slow step. His hand tightening on my naked back, drawing me even closer. His breath on my ear. His nose in my hair. His cheek against my temple. His hand drawing mine to his chest to rest between us. I remembered it all, especially the thrill it brought, chasing shivers over my skin, right into my heart. I remembered how the song had spoken to me then, had seemed so fitting for how I felt about him. It spoke to me now, too, and it still spoke the truth.

She broke your throne and she cut your hair…

I thought of his protectiveness, of how it killed him to keep things from me, but how his loyalty to his family and his will to keep me safe won out. His love was of the purest kind, completely unselfish. In hindsight, it was hard to understand how I’d ever chosen the PID over him.

I used to live alone before I knew you…

I kept staring into his eyes, hoping for a flicker of recognition. I found none, but he was no longer pacing, no longer throwing himself against the bars, and it brought me hope.

He was listening, at least. Something inside him was listening. I kept singing and took a step toward him, ready to jump back again. His body twitched, like a spooked horse, but he stood his ground. I stood mine.

Love is not a victory march…

I took another step. Another. He cocked his head, watching me, shifting his weight to the left foot. Maybe he was simply waiting for me to come closer, to walk right into his trap.

I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you…

One more step. I put all the promise, all the truth, into my voice that I could muster. I had no intention of fooling him ever again.

My hands closed around the bars of the cage. He could grab me now, pull me towards the bars and tear into me through them, if he wanted to.

He didn’t move a muscle. Something flickered in his eyes. It was only there for a second, but I saw it: recognition, followed closely by panic. He was fighting the rage, but he was afraid of it, too. He might not be strong enough.

I had to get closer. To touch him. Help him through our bond, however that might work. I’d figure it out when I was in there with him.

I never stopped singing, although the song was at the end and I’d reached an endless loop of Hallelujahs. I gently unlocked the safety of the hatch that couldn’t be undone from the inside. The metal clicked and the beast’s eyes flashed down to the lock. A ripple ran through his body and then the berserker was staring at me again, rampant with rage.

Fangs flashed in front of my face, slammed into the bars. Claws snatched out, grabbed my arms through the bars, slicing my skin and pulling me into the bars. I managed to jack-knife my arms across them, so they wouldn’t be pulled through. The force of the tug banged my head against the bars and I almost blacked out. My song died, wanted to turn into a scream of pain, but I cut it off. That would only make him rage more.

How the hell was I supposed to connect with him, feel this bond I’d never felt, when he threatened to bite my head off if I got too close? And it seemed I had to get closer. Much closer, Snooty had said. Within touching distance, because I sure wasn’t feeling any connection right now.

“Cole,” I said sharply. He stilled, quivering, claws digging deeper into my arms. It hurt. I felt the bones in my wrists shifting against each other. But the beast stopped snarling for a moment. I scrounged up the last of my courage and leaned forward between two bars.

I laid my forehead against the side of his head that was smashed against the bars and whispered into his twitching ear.

“I love you, Cole,” I said. “I want to be your mate, but you have to show me how. You have to let me in.”

One thing I’d learned in meditation and training besides compartmentalizing was visualization. I had to find the bond, so I pictured a band of silk hanging between us, tied around both our hearts. Cheesy, but that’s what I pictured every time one of the wolves talked about a mating bond.

“Please don’t leave me.”

The image in my head changed, like a movie playing on a screen, as if somebody had switched it on. In this new image, one end of the silk band was tied tightly around Cole’s heart, while the other end lay on the ground at my feet. The band was frayed in the middle, held together only by a few threads. Pull too harshly and it would break. But I had to pick up my end and tie it around my heart, before it could be mended.

In my mind I bent over. Maybe I really did. I picked up the silk band, taking care not to tug on it.

As soon as I touched the band, a red rage rolled over me like a tsunami, slow, forceful, unstoppable. My mouth watered, craving the metallic taste of blood. My skin itched, wanting to be coated in it, to soak it up and breathe in the elixir of life of another being.

There was nothing else, only the endless void of this rage and the promise of fulfillment in death and blood, holding another creature’s beating heart in my hands.

My body convulsed in aversion; werewolves were made for this bloodlust that accompanied the rending. I was human, and my revulsion for such vile darkness saved me from succumbing to it.

As if in answer to my withdrawal, a ray of light speared the darkness like a beacon, illuminating that which could end the red rage: the bond.

I still held the loose end, but the tear in the middle had gotten worse. Only a single thread held the two sides together now. My little sojourn into his rage had frayed it even more. We’d have to mend it fast, but how?

This was a metaphorical silk band, I reminded myself, no matter how real it felt. I stepped forward, still holding my end. I took hold of his, too. A low growl stopped me.

When I looked in the direction of the growl, of his heart, there was nothing there but inky redness. Even the heart was shrouded by it, drawing farther and farther away from me.

I tried to follow, but an angry roar blasted at me out of the roiling mass of rage before me. He didn’t want me to tie the loose ends back together.

The realization hurt. He didn’t want us to be mated anymore.

I gritted my teeth. No. He wasn’t getting off the hook that easily. I concentrated on the band in my hand, the one that lead to his heart.

“I love you, Cole,” I said.

The boil in the red cloud before me calmed. It turned almost playful, whorls dancing and flashing like silken banners through the pulsing puss.

“I’m Ilona and I love you.”

With soft fingers, I tied the two ends back together, making sure the single thread didn’t tear. The rage threatened to roll over me again. I speared it with more light and it retreated, far enough for me to see his beating heart, with the silk band still tied around it.

I gently tested the knot I’d tied; it was strong, probably stronger than that section had been before. It would hold, even if he pulled away from what I was going to do next. I wouldn’t let him pull hard enough to break it again.

I brought my end up to my chest, slowly.

“Come back to me, Cole,” I whispered. “I don’t want to be without you.”

I tied the band around my heart. It felt foreign there, a little constricting, but it was warm and soft. Heat poured from it the moment I’d finished the knot, enveloped my heart, my mind, my soul. Cole was inside that heat, surrounding me. Not the rage of his berserker, but Cole’s calm, warm, loving presence, peppered with panic, confusion and pain.

His claws let go of my arms. Gravity caught me, pulled me down. My legs sagged beneath me and I crumbled to the ground, adrift without him. My head pounded with every heartbeat.

Grunts and moans of pain penetrated the haze. I looked to the side, to Cole’s cage where they were coming from and caught the last of his shift from beast to human. When it was done, he knelt on the ground for a few deep breaths. Sweat shone on his naked body and he was trembling, fighting to remain upright. He was feeling dizzy and headachy himself. I knew because I felt it. He was right there, inside my mind or maybe my heart, even though we weren’t touching anymore.

He stood abruptly and came over to the door of his cage. He reached a hand through the bars but couldn’t reach the lock; it had been built that way. His arm touched one of the bars and he jerked it back, grunting in frustration.

“Ilona,” he said, his voice soft, eyes bright and focused on me. “You need to open the door for me.”

Right. Of course. Open a door. How hard could it be?

I rolled to my stomach, rose to my hands and knees, then put one foot after the other on the ground. There. Now all I had to do was stand up without my head exploding.

“It’s the healing elixir,” Cole murmured. “I get headaches from large doses of it, too.”

I raised my head and looked at him, mouth open. How did he know?

A smile tugged at the corners of his lips. Amusement brightened my heart. His amusement. “You think you’re the only one catching my emotions?”

He could feel me, the way I felt him. For a tiny moment, I felt exposed; I’d lived so long hiding every aspect of my thoughts and emotions from everyone, that this connection made me vulnerable.

“Not any more vulnerable than I am to you,” he pointed out. “And you will know me just as well, inside and out. But you’ve got to let me out, babe, before they all kill each other down there.”

I’d been suppressing the roars, screams and gunfire that still raged through the forest behind us, but now they came back full force. Right. This wasn’t just about Cole and me. We could work out the kinks in this bond in time. I could deal with my insecurities later.

I pushed to my feet, trying not to wobble my head on my shoulders too much. I took a step, holding onto the bars for balance. I found the gate and unhooked the latch. It swung open when I stepped to the side and Cole emerged. He came to me, laid his arms around me and pulled me close, burying his face in my hair. His heat surrounded me, comforting, giving me strength. His happiness spilled over me and then I was crying. I clung to him, and he to me, and his lips brushed away the tears from my cheeks, my jaw, my lips. I kissed him back, desperate to taste him. I wanted to wrap myself around him and never let go.

His mouth smiled against mine before he pulled away. “Later,” he promised. “Right now we have somewhere to be.”

He pulled my arm around his shoulder and laid his around me. Together, we walked into the forest, towards the roars, the screams, the shots. We walked into the thick of the massacre and it died.

Chapter 44 – Aftermath

Blood spatters my face – my face. I feel the fangs slide out of my neck even as I feel Shirley’s mind sliding out of my head, where she’d occupied space like a gigantic squatting spider. I’d given her space; I’d given her all the space she’d wanted while I hid in my secret boxes and hatched a plan she wouldn’t know about until it was too late.

I wish I’d been able to wriggle my hand and the gun from between our bodies faster.

Tears streamed down my face as my mind replayed my father’s death over and over, fresh and raw. This one would be difficult to stuff into a box.

But I had to. This wasn’t over. The PID and the lycans were still doing battle. The sounds penetrated my foggy mind as if from afar. They hadn’t stopped with the death of the Tsar.

Unless…

I opened my eyes and heaved myself to my knees next to Shirley’s prone body. With half her face blown off she looked dead, but I wouldn’t feel sure about it until her head was separated from her body. Except I had nothing to cut through her neck with. All I had was my gun, and that would only make more of a mess.

My vision blurred as a wave of pain rolled over me, emanating from the bite in my neck. I gasped and rode it until it subsided, turning into a dull throb that beckoned me to lay down. I was so tired. So, so tired. But I had to make sure, or all this would have been for nothing. Cole’s death would have been for nothing.

A twig creaked behind me. I spun, bringing my gun around.

“Don’t shoot!” Snooty’s voice cut through my defense mode, and I barely stopped myself from pulling the trigger. But I didn’t lower the gun. We stared at each other for a moment, until his gaze dropped to Shirley. His silver-red eyes flashed with hatred. He pulled a long, serrated dagger from his boot.

“Allow me,” he said, stepping up to Shirley. I saw in his eyes that he would allow no argument, and I didn’t have it in me anyway. This was his fight, his triumph as much as mine.

I crawled a few feet away and watched him get to work. On any other occasion, I probably would have looked away, but this I wanted to savor. For my father. My family.

For Cole.

I savored the teeth of the blade jagging through her skin. Black blood bubbling up as it sliced deeper, into flesh. Air escaping in a gasp when he cut the wind pipe. The grating sound as the blade dragged over bone, through marrow, back and forth, over and over.

The last crack and a grunt of triumph as the dagger sliced through that last bridge of flesh.

Snooty took the severed head by the hair and lifted it. That was when I finally turned away. I heard his whispered words. “The Tsar is dead.”

The sounds of battle changed. Snarls and howls continued, but the spitting of gunfire stopped abruptly, as did the shouts between agents. Instead, screams of terror rose over the clearing. The agents had woken out of their vampire induced stupor, to a nightmare of monsters shredding them to pieces. And those monsters were too far gone to realize that their enemy wasn’t fighting back anymore. That their enemy was no longer their enemy.

The gunfire started up again soon enough. The Tsar was dead, yet they would continue to slaughter each other. The berserkers would continue until only one was left standing.

And Cole was dead. There was no way to stop them.

A hand landed on my shoulder, making me jump, but I was too weak to react more than to grab the arm.

“It’s me,” Snooty’s voice reminded me. “You need to come with me. Now.”

I didn’t understand why, but he sounded like he had a plan and that was more than I had to offer right now. So I staggered to my feet. He took my hand and laid my arm around his shoulder to steady me. I leaned on him more than I cared to admit as he lead the way into the trees only a few yards away. I felt blood running down my neck and soaking into my shirt, lots of it. It had been running ever since Shirley’s mouth detached from my neck. If the bleeding wasn’t stopped, I’d bleed out soon.

Somehow, I couldn’t muster the strength to care. It didn’t matter, anyway. Nothing mattered anymore, not since Shirley had pulled the trigger and shot Cole in the head.

I closed my eyes, let Snooty lead me. It was dark between the trees and my blurry vision not of much use. At one point, we stopped.

“It’s me,” he said, “I have her. Let me in.”

Chanting in front of us. When it stopped, Snooty dragged me forward. The chanting started up again and suddenly it seemed warmer, as if somebody had closed a door behind us. Scents and sounds told me we were still outside. I forced my eyes open and found four fae staring at me, shock etched plainly on their pale faces.

“She’s been bitten,” one of them said.

“She’s half dead,” another exclaimed. “She’ll never get through to him in this state.”

“We can patch her up while she tries,” Snooty said.

“I still say we just hightail it out of here while the curs and the bitch’s lemmings are focusing on each other.” I recognized that voice even through my haze. Snotty. Ass.

“If we do that,” Snooty said, with a strain of impatience in his voice like a parent might talk to a child, “and leave the wolves to slaughter each other, we will be without guards.”

“We can employ other packs,” Snotty said. “Wolves always need bane.”

“Other vampires will also return to the city,” Snooty said. “Most likely before we are able to secure another pack’s loyalty. Especially now that the Tsar is dead.”

That caught their attention. “The Tsar’s dead?”

Snooty reached behind him and unhooked something from his belt. It was Shirley’s head.

“As a doornail,” he said, holding it up for all to see. Their faces lit up and a unanimous cheer broke from them. Snooty looked at me.

“Ilona killed her.”

A hush fell over them, almost like reverie. It made room for a noise in the background that had been there this whole time but not properly registered with my dying senses. Snarling, growling, the rattling of cage bars. We hadn’t come as far into the forest as I’d thought. We were close to the cells. And more than one was filled by now.

Something inhabited the last one at the very end of the row, obscured by bushes.

Something large with glowing eyes, a muzzle full of slavering fangs, and scythe-like talons. A berserker.

He was bent over, prowling the cage right to left, left to right. Every so often he would run at the gate, smash his whole body against it, grab the bars and shake, until he couldn’t take the burning pain of the silver in the bars anymore and let go with a scream of rage. His face was a mess, half the fur missing, exposing skin that was inflamed, as if it had been badly burned. The upper lip. The nose. The right cheek…

Oh God.

I looked into the beast’s eyes. They burned red, like the lava in a volcano. I could almost feel the rage and lust to rend, to tear flesh between teeth and claws, spear into my mind when I looked into them. And yet, beneath it all, lay something familiar. Someone familiar.

Cole.

Chapter 43 – The Truth

Blood sprayed. The force of the bullet snapped Cole’s canine head back and sent him, already in midleap, flying backwards through the air. He thudded to the ground, limbs limp like a ragdoll’s, grey fur sprayed with blood. A hole of flesh and bone gaped where his upper jaw had once been.

A ripple went through the wolves protecting the fae. A howl broke from them, rising over the scene like a banshee spirit, joined by others from beyond the trees. A sound of mourning that turned my heart to ice. They’d felt their omega’s death.

This couldn’t be happening.

Shirley adjusted the gun to point at where Cole’s body had landed. I didn’t think but pulled the trigger of my gun still pointed at her. I aimed well. It would have hit her between the eyes if Goodall hadn’t pushed her out of the way and taken the bullet in the neck for her. He went down. Rational thought faded from my mind and I became a creature of the here and now, reacting on instinct and the cold rage that settled over me like a heavy fog.

I turned to Shirley and looked right into the black hole of the barrel of her gun. A smile played with the corners of her lips. “Let the rending begin.”

She’d killed Cole so the other wolves would go berserk and slaughter each other.

I leaned forward the last couple of inches and laid my forehead against the rifle’s black hole. “When that happens, your precious fae will be the first to die.”

Her eyes widened and flickered over to the fae for a fraction of a second before she realized her mistake. I shoved the barrel of her rifle aside and slammed the butt of my gun into her face. I had the satisfaction of feeling bone crunch beneath metal. Shirley staggered back from the blow. I grabbed the barrel of her rifle while she was off balance and pulled. On instinct, she held on to it and kissed my gun butt again.

Her head snapped back. Dark, viscous globs of blood flew through the air, looking half-congealed. She bent down into an attack crouch. Her eyes ignited red and she hissed like a mad cat.

“Kill her!” she snarled in an amazing imitation of a wolf. I wondered who she was talking to because there was nobody to aid her, at least nobody capable. Or so I thought.

With a groan, Goodall lurched to his feet. Blood gushed out of the bullet hole in his neck, but he didn’t seem to feel it. His eyes were wide, deranged, glowing orange. Not vampire-blood-lust red, but similar. What the hell?

He lunged at me. His movements were those of a drunk, uncontrolled and cumbersome, easily evaded. But I still had to counter him and watch Shirley at the same time. Making sure I never turned my back to her, I side-stepped Goodall’s awkward grab, spun around and delivered a solid roundhouse kick to his temple. With a different opponent, one as awake and alert as I, the move would have killed me because it was slow. But in this case, it did the trick and generated the force I needed to smack Goodall back to the ground.

He staggered right back up, just as another wave of agents spilled into the parley ground. Like Goodall’s, their eyes glowed orange in varying stages. What the hell had she done to them?

They turned as soon as they hit open ground and fired into the trees at the wolves chasing them. A hidden wolf yelped sharply, hit.

Shirley, maybe feeling safe now that her entourage had ridden to the rescue, sauntered over to the fae and their shield as Goodall lumbered back up to me. His skin looked ashen from blood loss. There was no intelligence in his eyes, only her command. I tried anyway.

“John, please,” I said. “Don’t do this. I’m not your enemy. She is.”

Shirley turned back to us and laughed. “You think you can turn him against me with mere words? He has drunk my blood for five years. My commands run through his mind, thanks to the fae blood you gave me. He is my creature, almost vampire himself.”

“More like a zombie,” I said, blocking Goodall’s far too wide right hook. I still had my gun. I could have just shot him, but he was not himself right now. He never had been, if Shirley was telling the truth. I needed to find a way to take Goodall out of the fight without killing him.

I ducked another of his swings and backed up a step. Out of the corner of my eyes, I watched Shirley turn back to the fae. She spoke to them, though I couldn’t understand her words over the spattering of guns and animal howls.

She lifted a hand, poked a finger at the invisible shield until something sparked. She snatched her hand back.

The lycans inside the shield with the fae were congregating on the other side of the shield from her, trembling with suppressed rage. The fae had backed away from their guardians, knowing that if the lycans went into rending within the shield, they’d make mince-meat out of them. With Cole out of the picture that scenario had just gotten ninety-nine percent more likely. And Shirley was egging them on, taunting them with her very presence, though I couldn’t fathom what she hoped to gain from it. She wanted the fae alive and well, every single drop of their blood preserved.

Goodall swung again. I ducked and backed away. His momentum alone knocked him off his feet this time. Had he been all human, he’d be dead by now. Either Shirley’s blood or the fact that he was almost a vampire were keeping him alive. Almost there.

He charged me, slow and tired like a bled-out bull at a bull-fight. I reached out, twisted the handle on one of the cell doors and pulled it open. He sailed clean through and I locked it on him. He smacked against the back wall and hit the ground. He tried to rise once, but fell back and then lay still. I wiped my hands on my jeans. Problem solved. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted him to live, but at least it was no longer in my hands. And I had other issues to deal with.

Shirley called to the agents fighting off the lycans from entering the parlay grounds. A couple of them jerked upright and jogged over to her.

“Do you have the nets?” she asked; I half heard, half lip read her words through the noise. One of them nodded and shrugged a net gun off his back.

“Cold iron?” Shirley asked.

He nodded again.

“Good. You know the plan.”

Another nod. The net-men lifted their guns and fired. The fae shield may hold back magic and its users, but not dead objects. The nets flew right through it and spread out, cold metal strands reaching out to hug the fae. But Snooty, Snotty and their people weren’t out of tricks just yet.

They scattered, splitting into two groups. They must have dropped their magic shield because team four attacked Shirley’s men, who now had to divide their attention between them and what was left of team three, hiding out in the woods. Team three, saw their opportunity and grabbed it. Paws pounded on soft forest ground. Undergrowth rustled. A unanimous howl rose into the air from at least twenty throats and as many different directions.

The agents realized the lycans had spread out and were attacking from all sides. They abandoned their position and tried to get in a circle formation to counter the attack. Too late.

Lycans burst out of the trees all along the forest line. They’d finally managed to get organized.

They came within leaping distance of the PID strike team before even one of them managed to squeeze off a shot – too many targets to choose from.

Several shots rang out almost simultaneously and a couple of lycans went down in a jumble of fur and limbs. One of them must have been team four’s alpha, because his body wasn’t yet lying still before those howls of anguish and mourning broke from team fours’ throats unanimously.

My blood chilled. Without Cole and their alpha, they would go into rending for sure. None of them had taken the bane beforehand because it hindered them in their shift to wolf form. They’d figured with Cole there, the chance of them going into rending was low enough to take the risk. But Cole was gone, and now one of the alphas, too.

Our only hope was to end this fight before any one of the lycans went into rending. If one did, the rest would follow; Cole had once told me as much.

A monster stormed out of the forest. It stood at least twelve feet tall and ran on its hind legs, half man, half wolf, or maybe furry crocodile. The lips didn’t cover the finger-long fangs in its maw, and its hands had shifted to hawk-like talons. A werewolf unhinged. A berserker.

He charged the agents. They met him with a barrage of shots, but the hail of silver bullets hardly slowed him down. He plowed into them, talons flashing, teeth snapping. His fury and bloodlust was a palpable force that hit me like a blast of hot air. And if I, a human, was affected by it…

The invisible berserker wave swept over the clearing. It hit teams four and three like a battering ram, so hard they were almost thrown to the ground with their reaction to it. When they rose, they were already shifting, growing taller, limbs longer, muzzles bigger, fangs larger. None of them waited until he’d fully ended his shift before turning to the closest living beings and tearing into them.

I spun, looking for Shirley. She was busy directing two more of her men in chasing down one of the fae groups with more net guns. The second group had disappeared, but they couldn’t have gotten far

I sprinted towards Shirley, the Tsar, the root of all evil. She saw me coming, saw the cold purpose and calculation in my eyes. I had no magic powers and she’d kicked my ass once before. She might look like a grown-up version of Shirley Temple, but she was the Tsar, the most powerful vampire in California, who had somehow enslaved a whole division of specially trained field agents and inspired fear in the hearts of her own kind.

She had planned this coup for at least five years, laying low, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. She would fight tooth and nail to follow her plan through to the end, but she was also a survivor. Fae blood wasn’t worth her dying over. She would back down if luck turned against her. That’s where I had the edge. Because I didn’t care if I lived or died; my life was for shit, anyway.

She had killed the man I loved. She’d used me as a pawn, as bait, as executor. She’d played me like a Stradivarius, and I’d sung my sweetest notes for her. She’d turned my whole life, my whole existence, into a lie and taken the only thing that had been true.

I would not suffer the bitch to live.

The world fell away except for the face of my enemy. The battle raged on around us, yet all I saw was her.

She was smirking as I charged her. She had no idea I would cut that smirk right out of her face.

Just before I came in striking distance, I drew my gun and squeezed off two shots in her direction. She avoided the bullets with ridiculous ease by spinning sideways – and right into my left hook.

She smacked to the ground in a heap of limbs, her head bouncing off the rock. I drew the wooden stake from my other boot and drove it into her chest.

Her mouth opened in a scream, but only a gasp of choked air escaped. Her eyes boiled red, her fingers twitched, but otherwise she couldn’t move.

I bent over her to get a good look and put the muzzle of the gun to her head. “The way I understand it,” I said, my finger itching on the trigger, “decapitating you would be the surest and cleanest way to end you. You don’t deserve clean, though, do you, Tsarina?

What will a bullet to the head do to a vampire, I wonder? Or two or three… hm? Care to share with the class? Or shall we go straight to the show-and-tell?”

Her throat clicked as she tried to speak. I tapped the stake in her heart. She shuddered. Interesting.

“I wonder if I can make you dance?” I twisted the stake. She convulsed, her back arching, her heels drumming the ground, her mouth open in a silent scream. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a small part of me was horrified at the large part of me that was enjoying the hell out of this. But even that small part approved of ending her existence.

I let go of the stake. The convulsions stopped. “You were going to say something?”

Her mouth moved on a whisper of air. I leaned in closer, my hand hovering over the stake. If she so much as twitched, I would throw her back into a sea of hurt. It took me a moment to understand her breathy whisperings.

“Pre,” she said, over and over. “Pre.” Her lips moved, forming more unintelligible syllables.

I grasped the stake before leaning in closer. Her lips almost touched my ear.

“Pre…,” she repeated, “…dictable!”

Her arms clamped around me in a constrictor’s death grip and pulled me against her, crushing my arm and the stake between us. Before I could so much as squeak in surprise, her fangs sank into my neck and she sucked.

Boiling agony raced through my limbs. It was my turn to convulse. My turn to utter a silent scream.

It hurt so much worse than the first time.

“That’s because I want it to,” Shirley’s voice drifted through my head. “Like this.” Her lips fastened more tightly on my neck and she sucked again. I felt all the blood in my body being drawn to that point in my neck where her fangs spread their venom through my flesh.

“Hmmm, you taste so good,” she said, her voice growing louder in my mind with every pull of her mouth. “So sweet and pure and… familiar.”

I couldn’t move. Couldn’t think. Couldn’t fight.

I could only listen. And suddenly see.

I saw my parents’ house from the opposite side of the street. It was dark outside, but there were lights on upstairs.

Through my own eyes, I saw myself walking towards the house, entering the front yard.

I saw myself veering off the path that lead to the front door.

I saw myself gliding past the house to the back yard. I heard a child laughing and felt hunger stir in my blood.

“So sweet. So pure.” Shirley’s laugh sounded like bells in my head.

The sweet scent of human flesh washed over me as I opened the back door with fingers tipped with sharp blue nails. Mine and yet not mine.

The child laughs again and the hunger roars inside me. I want that fresh hot blood on my tongue, pouring down my throat, my fangs buried deep in that throbbing flesh.

A human male, musky and brimming with blood, blocks my way.

Father.

“I wasn’t there for him,” Shirley tells me. It’s like listening to an audiobook in my head. Only so much more real. “But doesn’t he smell delicious?”

He does. I walk up to him. I can see the arteries pulsing in his neck. Beckoning.

“Who the hell are you?” he asks, his stance changing to the defensive.

In the next moment, I clamp his arms by his side and slice my fangs into his neck. Blood pours into my tongue, over my mouth, down my throat, hot and glorious. His pulse races against my lips so hard, I barely need to suck at first. We sink to the ground. He’s in my arms and we are close, closer than he ever was with his wife, the mother of his children.

I see thoughts of them flitting through his head as I drain the life out of him. Don’t worry, handsome. I will take care of them, too. Just for you.

His pulse grows sluggish against my lips. I have to suck hard to taste more blood. I feel the moment his heart stops. His last breath escapes on a sigh and his body grows limp in my arms.

You, a voice whispers through me – the prey I’m feeding on right now. Her blood tastes like the man’s did. It wasn’t the lycans. You killed my family.

“Of course. I must admit, I was a bit disappointed in your willingness to believe that story.”

Why?

These humans and their stupid questions. “Because I was hungry. Starving. And your sister smelled so sweet.”

I meant: Why did you let me live?

“Because you didn’t stand in the way of your sister. Like your father and mother did.” Silly humans. They always expect more meaning behind their deaths than there is.

My prey has ceased struggling in my arms. Her sister’s blood had been sweeter, but she was still delectable. I planned to drink it all and then cut through those mangy curs and find the blood that truly mattered to me. The fae. Oh, that fae blood. Incomparable. Human blood tasted like horse piss next to it.

Pre… My prey has grown weak. She’s trying to say something. Pre…

I’m inclined to indulge her in her last moments. I’m feeling sated, after all. “What, dear?”

…dictable!

Something cold and hard rests against my temple and a sharp bang fills my ears—

Chapter 42 – The Tsar

We had thirty seconds after the bomb went off. Standard strike procedure: rain destruction down on the enemy and jump in on the aftermath for clean-up, guns blazing. No allowing the enemy time to rally and form a counter-strategy.

I felt Cole’s body lift off mine. He took his warmth and comforting scent with him. All of a sudden I was alone, an illusion exacerbated by the fact that the blast had blown my hearing. There was only a ringing in my head and no other sound. Sight, on the other hand, was threatening to overload my eyes.

Burning trees. Flying branches. A rain of ash and embers. A red glow and a gaping crater where the log cabin had stood. People staggering about, as dazed as I, some of them covered in burns. Several prone figures on the ground.

The seconds kept ticking down in my head. Fifteen.

A hand landed on my arm. I spun. Cole. His shirt was torn, smeared with blood from the gashes on his flanks, and riddled with black burn holes from sparks and embers. The tips of his hair looked singed. Other than that he was whole.

I had to keep him that way, for my sake as everyone elses. All these wounded lycans would need their omega fix.

“We have ten seconds,” I told him, though I couldn’t hear myself. I hoped he could. But he shook his head and pointed at his ears. If I’d gone deaf, I could only imagine what the blast had done to a werewolf’s sensitive ear drums.

I looked around again, realizing that if Cole’s hearing was shot, so would all the others’ be, which made rallying everybody impossible. We were screwed.

And too late.

They came charging over the smoldering remains of the log cabin, guns blazing. I counted fifteen men in combat gear with assault rifles in the second it took me to reach for Cole and pull him down with me. More came behind them.

We crawled into the cover of the trees. The most disturbing thing was, that I – we – still couldn’t hear anything. We only saw the agents storming the battle ground, saw their guns spitting, saw the lycans on the ground and staggering around get hit by what had to be silver bullets. It was like in a silent movie of the old days, where you had to imagine the sounds to the motion picture. In my head, the screams of the wounded and dying were as deafening as the bomb blast had been.

But even silver bullets had to be shot in the heart or the head to have immediate effect. There was still a high number of lycans who’d managed to save themselves from the blast by hiding between the trees like us. They saw and maybe felt their pack mates dying around them and exploded into their beast forms, some of them with impressive swiftness.

The lycans didn’t need to communicate, or maybe the shift helped them heal their hearing. However they did it, those who were still capable attacked as one. They had no long range weapons, only teeth and claws, but the yard was small and only the front line of agents could actually do any shooting for danger of hitting their comrades. When the lycans plowed into them, it turned to hand to hand combat: knifes and guns against claws and teeth.

Cole had also shifted and was shaking himself out of his clothes. I grabbed hold of his scruff, on level with my elbows.

“No, you can’t go,” I said. At least I hope that’s what I said, since I still couldn’t hear myself. He turned to me and snarled silently, his sharp teeth inches from my nose. Apparently, his hearing was just fine again.

“No,” I repeated. “If you get killed, they’ll all shift and turn this into a slaughter.”
His teeth snapped soundlessly in my face. I felt his breath blast my hair. But it was his eyes that told me what he was thinking. That he was still mad at me. That he still thought

I’d betrayed him. That he thought I didn’t want him joining the fight to strengthen the lycan forces.

I pulled my braid over my shoulder and dropped my head to one side, bearing my neck to him. I looked him in the eyes and let go of his scruff. “If you really think I double-crossed you, then end me now. You know it’s not true. You know because you know me, Cole. Maybe you didn’t know my real name, but you know the real me better than anybody else in the last fifteen years. Including myself.”

All around us people and lycans were killing each other in a molten pit, and here I was, staring into the golden eyes of a giant wolf whose teeth were inches from my jugular.

When he leaned in closer, I closed my eyes and relaxed the hands that wanted to grab his head and stop him. But this was a test of faith and trust that I would fail if I pushed him away.

Something warm and soft licked over my neck; his tongue. Relief and joy flooded me. That he didn’t kill me meant that he believed me. I reached up to put my hands around his furry neck, but he backed away until I could no longer touch him. His eyes still burned as they stared into mine. Apparently, believing didn’t mean forgiving.

Something dark flashed past us on the trail two layers of trees to our right. One, two, three, four, five humans in combat gear. Agents, heading for the fae concealed beneath their magic bubble. Apparently, the Tsar knew exactly where the fae sat, too.

Cole’s lips pulled up in another unheard snarl and he took off after them.

No, I agree, plans are for shit, I muttered in my head as I stumbled to my feet, drew my gun and chased him down the path. The battle raged on behind us, visible to me by the dancing play of shadow and light on the darkening trees.

Dirt and a tree trunk exploded up ahead and Cole dove for the cover of the trees. At least he had that much sense left. I shot back once without taking aim, then slipped off the path, too, knowing it wouldn’t help much because the goggles the PID-agents wore had night-vision in them.

I burst onto the parlay grounds to an unexpected sight. The fae still stood around the fire, hands clasped. In another ring around them stood seven giant wolves – what was left of team four.

The wolf facing the agents directly yipped a command and his brothers joined him by his side, keeping close to the fae. It made sense. The agents might hesitate to fire in the direction of the fae, because the Tsar would no doubt rip their heads off if one of the fae got so much as a nick.

Still, they charged. And the first of them crashed into an invisible barrier that fried him like lightning. The others stopped in their tracks and backed away, uncertain how to proceed.

The tightness around my chest eased a little. The fae were covered, for now, both by their shield and the somewhat decimated team four.

Shirley, though, was still locked up in the cage, defenseless. She may be our prisoner, but I doubted the Tsar would let her betrayal slide if he got his hands on her.

I turned towards the cells, intent on freeing her, when I saw that was already being taken care of. An agent was just pointing his gun at the lock of her cell and fired. The lock exploded. The door swung open. Shirley stepped out, her eyes glowing with blood lust.

The agent who’d freed her dropped to his knees. He tore his helmet and goggles off his head and she laid a hand on his hair, like petting a dog who’d obeyed her command. I recognized the agent by his blonde shock of hair.

Goodall. Bowing to Shirley.

No fucking way.

A wolf flashed past me and hurtled towards them. Cole. He’d understood and come to grips with the situation a few moments before I did.

“No!” I screamed and sprinted after him, but no human could catch up with a lycan in full attack charge. He ran towards Shirley and Goodall.

Shirley saw him coming. A smile played over her lips. She bent down and pulled Goodall’s rifle out of his hand where it lay across his thigh. She lifted it to her shoulder and took aim. At Cole.

I lifted my gun and squeezed off a shot. It went wide, cracking sparks off the steel-silver cage behind her. Shirley didn’t even flinch. She sighted calmly just as Cole launched himself into a leap straight at her. What the hell was he thinking?

Shirley pulled the trigger and shot Cole in the head with a silver bullet at point blank range.

Chapter 41 – BOOM

Waiting for the action to begin was the worst. The Tsar would make his move, we were sure of it, except we didn’t know exactly how. We’d prepared for all contingenies. The lycans were confident that even if the Tsar attacked us with every PID-agent at his disposal, the fae would be safe.

I hated the thought of my colleagues being used that way, especially because many of them would die. The lycans had promised they would kill only when necessary, but that didn’t make me feel better. All they saw were the enemy, and their beasts didn’t think in shades of grey. They would rip into those who threatened them and not lose any sleep at night. I, on the other hand, would have been the instrument that lead my colleagues, my friends, to their doom.

My best bet at helping them was to kill the Tsar as quickly as possible. Shirley had said he might not come in immediately with the primary attack force, but he wouldn’t miss an opportunity to personally lay hands on the fae himself. He would be there, she’d been sure. I’d just have to make sure he lost his head as soon as he arrived. Literally.

The walkie-talkie in my hand beeped to life. It was midnight, time for the strike teams to call in one last time before the raid was supposed to begin.

“This is team one, reporting no activity,” Edmund’s voice came over the line. He was the beta of the Whiting-pack. He and his team of ten wolves were stationed in the woods to the North-East of the parlay grounds, keeping a watchful eye on the first stretch of the road that lead up to them. They would let us know when the attack force arrived. They’d let them pass and sneak in after them to block their escape route.

“Team two, reporting no activity,” Kalen, the Edendale beta, informed us. He waited with twelve wolves – Cole’s brother Donny among them – half a mile North for Edmund’s signal; as soon as it came, they would approach the parley grounds from downwind, so the Tsar, if he was with his force, couldn’t smell them.

“Team three, nothing going on.” That was the beta of the Bernardino-pack, Dustin, who was hiding with fifteen of his pack mates in the basement of the log cabin.

Last came Mohawk, Kenneth’s beta. “Team three, reporting clear skies at temperatures in the low seventies with a zero percent chance of precipitation.” In other words, nothing to report from the top of the rock face overlooking the parlay grounds, either.

“Okay everyone,” Miles admonished over his walkie-talkie. “Everything’s right on track so far. Keep your eyes peeled.”

He and the alphas were stationed in the back yard behind the log cabin, pretending to be guarding the entrance to the parley grounds while the fae held their lycan-free council. The fae themselves sat in a circle around the fireplace in the grounds, the way they usually did during a parlay. I was on the outskirts of the grounds, hiding in the bushes.

We’d chosen to set up the trap as realistically as possible, in case Goodall sent a drone to scout the area before they made their move. That was also the reason our strike teams were stationed so far away. We didn’t want such a drone to pick up their heat signatures, nor for the Tsar to smell them and retreat before they entered our trap. It would take the teams at least five minutes to head in and close the trap, but team three in the basement would keep them occupied until then.

That, at least, was the plan. It would have made me feel better if the fae council hadn’t actually been present. Just in case the plan failed. But the lycans were confident that we’d covered all our bases, and that if worse came to worst, they’d still be able to protect the fae.

The fae, in turn, seemed confident in their bodyguards’ abilites. I doubted they relied completely on the lycans, though. Surely, the fae had their own secret backup plan in place. I’d asked Snooty about that, but he’d only smiled mysteriously at me. It was the first time I’d ever seen him smile and I wished I could unsee it. It was an unsettling experience.

A movement from the cells beneath the rock outcrop made me look over. Shirley had sat up inside the very one that Cole had locked me up in two nights before. Apparently, she’d roused out of her fae-blood induced stupor. She’d barely noticed when we’d transported her here and locked her into the cell.

Her nose twitched, like a deer smelling a wolf. She wrapped her hands around the bars but quickly let go again with a hiss of surprise. She looked down at her hands. The silver in the bars must have burned her.

“He’s here,” she said, loud and clear, then fell back and lay still. Okay, maybe not over the stupor yet. But she’d told us that with the enhancement of the fae blood, she would be able to sense the Tsar’s approach even before the lycans did. She’d agreed to come along and be our Tsardar in exchange for another extra vile of fae blood when this was all over.

Vampires would really do anything for their drug of choice.

I thumbed the button on my walkie-talkie and relayed her message. “He’s here.”

“Roger that,” Miles’ voice came back.

I wanted to be there with him and his team by the log cabin, instead of hiding behind this bush, cold and alone. Not that I hadn’t spent many hours in similar positions, waiting for a strike or raid of my team. But Cole was with Miles and the other alphas, and

I wanted to be with him. I wanted to be close, to protect him when the shit hit the fan, even if his orders were not to join the fight. Miles and the other alphas had insisted he stay out of the battle. He was the only link to their sanity when they shifted to their beast forms for the fight. If Cole got killed during the fight, many of them might go into rending and start killing each other instead of the enemy. Yet he had to be present for his omega effect to work on them, so they couldn’t leave him at home, either.

But Goodall would know to eliminate Cole first of all, based on my reports. I couldn’t let that happen.

A hush fell over the forest, as if a divine hand had reached out and laid a blanket of silence over us. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I shifted into a crouch, ready to spring into action.

A scream broke the silence, turned into a howl that froze the blood in my veins. I’d seen torture before, but none of the victims had ever emitted a sound of such primal agony as this. It was coming from the log cabin.

I raised the walkie-talkie to my mouth to find out what was going on, when another scream split the air. Similar in pitch, ending in a howl, it was nevertheless a bit deeper, indicating that it wasn’t the same person who had screamed before. Shouting drifted over to me and I thumbed the button.

“Alpha team, what’s your status?”

The fae had heard my question and turned their heads, waiting as I did. The only answer was static.

One by one, the fae got to their feet, clasped hands and began to chant. I had no idea what they were doing, but it wasn’t part of the plan. For them to sway from it without consulting anyone first could only mean one thing: something had gone horribly, terribly wrong. The Tsar had attacked in some way we hadn’t anticipated.

I leapt to my feet and sprinted down the path to the cabin, ducking into the trees just before I reached the back yard. I hid behind a tree and peeked past it.

Miles and Kenneth were pinning Rob, the Whiting-pack alpha, against the log wall of the cabin. Rob screamed and fought them, human teeth snapping inches from their faces. His skin boiled and his eyes glowed gold. He was going into rending.

“They’re dead!” he half growled, half screamed. “They’re all dead.” Again that blood-curdling howl, an animal sound coming from a human throat. Claws broke from the tips of his fingers and raked down Miles’ side. Where the hell was Cole?

A thud and grunt of pain to the right caught my attention. There he was, in the shadows of the trees, with Howard, the Bernardino-pack alpha. Cole had Howard in a bear hug, pinning the alpha’s arms at his sides. Howard’s fingers had turned into claws, and Cole’s sides were bloody from where they’d shredded his clothes and skin, but he didn’t let go. Both lycans’ eyes shone yellow.

Howard fought in silence, but Cole was emitting a sound, a low murmur that seemed to come from deep inside him. That murmur seemed to reach inside me and spread peace. I wanted to sigh and fall asleep, basking in the serenity that came over me.

This had to be Cole’s omega-effect. If it worked on me, a human, how could it not be working on Howard?

“It’s too late, Howard,” Cole murmured. “They’re gone. You will not helping by killing others in a rage.”

The words seemed to penetrate Howard’s rending. The alpha’s eyes dimmed back to their human color. His talons reverted to hands. He sagged in Cole’s arms, a desolate look on his face.

A hand snatched out from behind my tree and grabbed me. I was dragged into the yard and forced to my knees. Arms like steel bands wrapped around me in a similar style to Cole’s around Howard just moments ago. Hot breath puffed against the right side of my face.

“Here’s the traitor!” Kenneth’s voice growled into my ear.

Cole appeared in front of me as if conjured out of thin air. His fist flew past my ear and slammed into Kenneth’s face. I heard bone crunch, a howl of pain and fury deafening my ears, and then Kenneth went down, his arms pulling me with him. We scattered to the ground like bowling pins. Kenneth lost his grip on me and I rolled away, onto my feet.

“What the fuck, Cole?” Kenneth wiped blood off his jaw as he staggered to his feet.

Cole stood in front of him, breathing hard, fists clenched at his sides. His eyes burned yellow. “Don’t touch her.”

Miles stepped between them. “Now is not the time, boys. We’re under attack. Don’t let their sacrifices be in vain.”

“What happened? What sacrifices?” I asked, hating that I was the only one who didn’t understand what was going on. All I knew was that it was Bad. With a capital B.

Kenneth spun towards me. “You fucking happened, bitch!”

Miles grabbed his arm to hold him back. He looked at me. His eyes weren’t wolf, but they burned with accusation. “Team one and two are dead. But you knew that would happen, didn’t you?”

Dead? I shook my head, mute with horror but finally understanding. The Tsar had killed teams one and two. Their alphas had felt it through the pack bonds. Now they thought I’d betrayed them because I was the only one who could have told the PID, and in extension the Tsar, about our plan.

“I’m sorry. It wasn’t me,” I whispered, knowing it was futile unless I could come up with a plausible explanation, fast. I didn’t have one. Shirley knew the plan but had been imprisoned since she’d helped us; she couldn’t have told anyone. I couldn’t go pointing a finger at any of the wolves, either, not when so many of them had already died and the next teams were probably being targeted right now. If I were the Tsar and knew the plan, I’d try to take out all strike teams at once. Teams three and four were still alive, or Miles and Kenneth would have lost it like Howard and Rob.

Team three was underground, difficult to get at. Team four was high on top of the rock, also difficult to get at from the ground.

Kenneth looked up at the sky. “What’s that sound?”

I couldn’t hear anything but Cole and Miles looked up, too.

Cole’s gaze sharpened. “A drone?”

My blood ran cold. The Tsar had known exactly where teams one and two would be hiding. And he had the PID’s resources at his fingertips. Not just the agents, but the firepower in the shape and form of every weapon imaginable. He wasn’t limited to attacking from the ground if he knew where the other teams were waiting, even if no bare eyes or technical instruments could pick them up beneath the fae’s bubble of cloaking magic.

I sprinted for the log cabin and burst through the door. “Team three, out of here, now!” I yelled into the empty room. I knew the lycans down in the basement below would hear me. I could only hope they’d follow my orders, but there was no time to discuss this with Miles and make him give the order. “Go go go!”

I spun and sprinted back outside, colliding with Kenneth’s hard bulk. Once again I was grabbed, but I brought my knee up. It was a shot in the dark, but I hit his groin spot on.

He grunted and let me go. I cupped my hands around my mouth and shouted at the night sky towards the rock face behind the trees. “Team four, take cover!”

Cole suddenly stood in front of me. “Lauren, what’s happening?”

Thudding feet sounded inside the cabin. A glint of light on metal high up in the sky caught my eye. I saw the dark shape of the drone against the star-studded void as it silently flew on. It had dropped its load and there was no telling where exactly it would come down.

Three seconds, max.

“Take cover!” I yelled, loud enough for all of them to hear me. “Bomb!”

I grabbed Kenneth’s shirt and dragged him to his feet, pulling him along as I shoved Cole towards the trees. “Move!”

Two.

We ran. Pounding feet chased us.

The forest embraced me, cool and comforting. Blood roared in my ears.

One.

Someone tackled me. My face, elbows and knees scraped over pine needles. A heavy body pressed me into the forest floor. The sweet scent of rotting leaves and Cole’s male musk enveloped me. Somehow, I managed to cover my ears with my hands.

Boom.

The world exploded in a kaleidoscope of light and sound.

Chapter 40 – Officially A Double Agent

Norton was chewing on a salad when I came in and sat down at the counter beside him.

“Did the good doctor finally bust your fat ass?” I asked.

“It’s all that ice cream I’ve been buying at the grocery store, lately,” he shot back.

“So you’re saying it’s my fault?”

“If you’d get your ass in gear and the information we need–”

“Need for what?” Did Norton know?

He looked at me like I’d grown horns on my head. “What do you mean?”

“Why is Goodall so eager for me to end this mission?” I asked flat out. Sometimes, asking direct questions gave you the best answers. “He’s been pushing and pushing, when my objective is only to gather intel. There’s no deadline on gathering intel. On my mission.”

Norton sat back and stared at me. I could practically read in his eyes that he’d been having the same thoughts, the same doubts. Of course, as my handler, he couldn’t voice them in front of me. “We don’t always see the big picture,” he said. “Just do your job.”

The waitress came and I ordered by pointing blindly at the menu. It must have been something weird, if her raised brows were any indication. “Anything else?” she asked. I shook my head. She left without another word and I turned back to Norton.

“I am doing my job. Which is why I’m here to tell you about a parlay the lycans are holding tonight, at Kenneth’s keep. Apparently this happens a couple of times a year. All the alphas of the LA packs and their betas will be there. Tanner will be there. He was cryptic, but he hinted that there might be other magic users there, too. People the wolves work for.”

There, I’d done it: I’d dangled the carrot in front of the Tsar’s nose. He’d know the fae would be present. In one fell swoop he could eliminate the lycans and capture the fae.
But I needed a reason to call Norton and tell him of this beforehand, out of schedule.

“Should I try to free Jordan while they’re occupied, if I can?”

Norton shook his head. “They’d immediately suspect you.”

“We can’t just leave him there,” I said, incensed. Or rather, pretending to be incensed.

Kenneth had promised to take Jordan out of his dungeon and lock him away somewhere safe but comfortable. A promise to feed and clothe him had taken a little arm-twisting, but he’d eventually given in. I planned to check up on his word this evening, as soon as I got to the fort. Jordan wasn’t going to die if I could help it.

“We have to leave him there, for now,” Norton said. From the set of his jaw I could tell he was as unhappy about that as I. “But the more intel you gather on the place, the easier it’ll be for us to get him out some day. Soon.” Either Norton was a damn good actor, or he really had no clue about Goodall and the Tsar.

“And try to be present at the parlay yourself,” Norton added. “This could be our chance to find out more about other magic users besides vampires and lycans.”

“Since I’m officially together with Tanner now, I can probably finagle an invite.”

“Do it. Just be careful. Keep your head down and don’t cause any trouble. This could be the break we need.”

Needed for what? But I didn’t ask. Ilona, the agent, wouldn’t ask.

The waitress came and put a bowl down in front of me. I stared into it. Had I really ordered this?

Norton grinned. “Enjoy your meal,” he said with a wink, and left me with my side dish of baked beans.

Chapter 39 – Wooing the Werewolf

“Cole! Open up! I know you’re in there.” His truck stood in the driveway, which meant he was home. He hadn’t answered the door, even after I’d kept my finger on the button for over two minutes. The shrill sound had to have hurt his ears. No answer.

Fine. I’d come prepared.

I returned to my car parked on the side of the road in front of his house. I grabbed the sleeping bag, blow-up pillow and camping mat out of the trunk and tossed them over the fence into his back yard. I took a few steps back to gain momentum, ran up to the fence and jumped. My hands grabbed the top and I pulled myself over, landing on the sleeping bag. I grabbed my things off the ground and went around to the back porch. I rolled out the camping mat and laid it down on the wooden floor of the porch, right in front of his back door. I fluffed out the sleeping bag and dropped it on top of the mat, then unfolded the floppy pillow and began to blow it up.

The back door flew open. “What the hell are you doing?”

He stood framed by the door, hair mussed, dark circles beneath his eyes, mad as a badger. It felt so good just to see him, a smile wanted to rise to my lips. Somehow, I managed to keep a straight face. “Making my move.”

“What move?”

“My dance move.”

“By camping out on my porch?”

Aha. He understood what I was talking about. “I’d much rather do so inside, but you’re not letting me in.”

“You bet your ass I’m not letting you in. Get off my porch or I’ll call the cops.”

“I think your neighbor across the street already did.”

He stepped back inside and slammed the door shut. Miraculously, the glass stayed intact.
I finished blowing up the pillow, took off my shoes and laid down. Exhausted as I was, I fell asleep within moments, despite the bright afternoon sun.

***********

The glorious scent of fresh-brewed coffee woke me. I sat up. It had to be late evening because night had fallen. The back door stood open, inviting me to enter. I unwrapped myself from my sleeping bag and went inside. Cole was in the kitchen, his hair damp, wearing sweatpants and nothing else. Mmmmh!

He handed me a cup of coffee when I entered.

“The alphas wanted me to tell you that they’ve captured Shirley,” he said without preamble.

I almost dropped the coffee. “They what?”

“You didn’t really think we’d trust her assurances to not rat us out to the Tsar in exchange for some fae blood?”

“I…” Actually, I had. Kenneth had seemed so certain about the value of fae blood to a vampire.

“The fae had a human agent follow her to her home after she picked up the three vials of blood. A team of lycans went in and grabbed her out of her lair during the day, when she’s more vulnerable. They’ve put her up in a comfortable place, and she’ll receive six vials of fae blood when this is all over.”

More than agreed upon. She still wouldn’t be happy. Especially with me. “Why did the alphas want me to know?”

“So you wouldn’t do something stupid like try to break her out.”

“Why tell me at all?”

“Because she might still be spitting mad once we let her go. She might come after you.”
And he wouldn’t be there to protect me. I could read between the lines. Except he’d made me coffee.

Maybe Miles was right about Cole wanting me to woo him.

“Thanks for telling me. I’ll take precaustions, just in case. But why the change of heart?” I asked, indicating the coffee before taking a sip.

He looked at me for a long moment, as if he’d expected me to argue more about Shirley’s imprisonment. The truth was, I was glad she’d be out of the way and unalbe to betray us. That worry had nagged at me. I’d rather have to watch my back after this was all over than fear that she’d betray us now.

“Maybe if I talk to you, you’ll leave,” Cole finally said.

“Nope. No chance. You threw down the gauntlet. I picked it up.”

“This isn’t about a challenge or playing a game.”

“Your bare chest suggests otherwise.”

He looked down at himself, as if only now realizing he was half naked. The tips of his ears turned red, but he frowned and shook his head. “You fooled me for months.”

“So it’s about pride?”

“It’s about the fact that I don’t know how to trust you anymore. You’re human; even if I’m mated to you, you won’t feel mated to me. You won’t feel that connection that won’t even let you consider…”

“Consider what? Cheating? You think I might cheat on you. Betray you again.”

“I’m saying it would be easy for you to do so and lie to me about it. I always knew that might bother me sometimes, but I thought I’d know if you were lying. Maybe I was fooling myself in that respect, thinking it could ever work with a human.”

“It can work.”

“Maybe,” he said. “With other people. Not with us.”

“So that’s it? You’re breaking up with me? Just like that?”

“Except we were never together,” he said, “Right, Ilon?. You’re not the one I want.”

“Lauren is a part of me.”

His eyes shuttered. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”

The way he said it made me glance at the clock on the kitchen wall. Almost eleven. Crap.

I was supposed to meet up with Norton in an hour.

When I turned back to Cole he had already slipped out of the room.