The brakes on my old Jeep groaned as I slowed, then followed the green turn arrow through an intersection. Above the surrounding buildings, clouds glowed with ribbons of sunset like someone had spray-painted streaks of fuchsia and sapphire across the sky, and long shadows cloaked the street down which I drove. At the far end of the block, orange lights flashed by the side of the road. I eased off the gas and swore.
Maggie’s gaze swung from the gently swollen belly she’d been rubbing happily to the front windshield and locked on the mobile checkpoint on the approaching corner. Her thick black curls bounced with the sudden motion. She cut her eyes to me. “Can you—”
“I’ll be fine.”
“I didn’t think the ultrasound would take so long. I wouldn’t have—”
“It’s fine, Mags.” I set my hand on her wrist and smiled. “This isn’t my first test.”
Despite my words, my heart was racing. The new governor of Colorado had pretty much turned the local branch of the Paranatural Task Force into his own private army. PTF mobile checkpoints had gone up the day after Anderson’s State of the State Address in conjunction with his newly implemented curfew. Any paranatural caught out after dark, registered or no, was taken to one of the detention camps resurrected from the Faerie Wars. Luckily, the basic test they performed on street corners wasn’t enough to identify me as the fae halfer I was, thanks to my immunity to iron.
That didn’t make the process any less nerve-wracking.
The brakes groaned again as I pulled up beside the checkpoint, knuckles white on the wheel. A woman in a PTF uniform and an orange safety vest stepped around the Jeep’s front end and tapped my window with a flashlight. Swallowing, I lowered the glass.
The warmth pumping through my vents escaped into the bitter night, and cold air rushed in to take its place.
“License and registration.” The woman sounded bored. Her cheeks and nose were red compared to the rest of her pale skin.
Reaching past Maggie’s knees, I pulled the registration from my glove box and handed it over with my license.
The woman squinted at my ID, then swung her light up to study my face.
I blinked and cringed away from the light as spots flared in my vision.
Lowering her flashlight, the agent passed my credentials back through the window and stepped back. “Stick out your arm.”
I pushed my arm out the open window, my elbow resting on the frame. The cuff of my new winter coat rode up a bit, exposing a strip of silky, black fabric wrapped around my wrist like a bracelet. The black band wasn’t exactly my style, but I wasn’t wearing it for its aesthetic value. The ribbon was basically an emergency phone call to a fae who owed me a favor. I’d been foolish enough to take it off a few weeks back. Maybe if I hadn’t, my friend Oz would still be alive. I wouldn’t make that mistake again, no matter how much it itched or how badly it clashed with my wardrobe.
An older man stepped up beside the woman. He was also dressed in a PTF uniform and safety vest, but he wore a bright blue knit cap with a fluffy pompom and a pair of purple rubber gloves. He carried a small box, and from it he pulled a thin black cylinder that would be used to prick my finger.
I wrinkled my nose, but held my arm steady so they could do what they needed. There was a pinch of pain as the needle broke the surface on my index finger, and a shiny red dot swelled on my fingertip.
The man squeezed my finger and tipped my hand so three bright red drops fell into his little box, which was filled with iron shavings. A crude test, but iron was still the fastest, most effective indicator of fae heritage. In everyone except me anyway. Maggie, the female agent, and I all stared at the man, who stared into the box. Then he snapped the lid closed and jerked his head in a nod.
I exhaled and forced myself to smile at the agents. No faeries here. Thanks for keeping the streets safe from all those dangerous magic users. And while you’re at it, why don’t you go jump off a cliff.
They circled the car, the man stopping off at the back of their van to swap out my test box for a new one, and repeated the process with Maggie. Once she passed, they waved us on and the next car in line took our place.
We drove for two blocks before Maggie broke the silence. “Sorry again, Alex. I shouldn’t have called you.”
“I’m glad you did.” I pictured the image the nurse had put on the monitor of the squirmy little baby in Maggie’s tummy. I’d almost cost that little guy his life by hiding my true identity from Maggie. I was going to do all I could to make it up to them. “What are faerie godmothers for?”
Ice crunched under the Jeep’s tires as I pulled into the clearing in front of my house and cut the engine. Two mounds of snow sat to one side. One pile of white hid the car I’d driven back from the fae reservation after abandoning its owner, Kai, to a fifty-year prison sentence. The other covered a yellow VW bug that belonged to my ex-coworker/new roommate, Emma, who’d taken up residence in Kai’s old room. Since neither vehicle could reliably traverse the mile of steep, slick, mountain road that was my driveway, the two cars had become ice sculptures while Emma and I shared my Jeep.
Pulling my jacket tight around my neck, I stepped into the night.
The last light of the dying day had faded from the sky before I headed up the winding road of Boulder Canyon after dropping Maggie off at home. With the city lights far behind me, stars filled the spaces between the clouds, shining down like pinholes punched in the ceiling of the world. On my porch, a bright circle of yellow light illuminated a man in jeans and a t-shirt. He sat atop the narrow rail with his back against a supporting post, one leg bent while his other dangled over the side. His chin was tipped up as though he’d been enjoying the star show, but his eyes were closed. A long fall of silver hair draped his shoulder and trailed over his crossed arms.
“A little cold to be out with no coat, isn’t it Chase?” I dropped my gaze to his bare feet. “Or shoes?”
“It’s worth a little frostbite for some peace and quiet. Besides, shifters run hot.”
Shaking my head, I tromped through the snow to my front door. “What are the girls up to tonight that has you running for the hills?”
“Oh no.” He finally opened his eyes, pinning me with his bright green gaze. “I promised not to ‘spoil the surprise.’” He made quotation marks in the air and rolled his eyes. Then he hopped off the rail, his bare feet slapping the snow-dusted concrete. “Should be safe enough now they’ve got you to focus on.”
I snorted. “Happy to help.”
Bracing myself for whatever “surprise” was awaiting me, I pushed the door open to bright lights and excited voices. Chase’s little sister, Jynx, was bouncing like popcorn in a hot pan in the middle of my living room. With each rise and descent, her short, white hair flattened to her scalp then stood straight up. She did a spin at the top of each arc, causing the light fabric of her totally out of season sundress to flare indecently high. “. . . the flowers, of course.”
“And I’ll take care of the cake.” Emma was smiling so wide I could have counted all her teeth. Nine metal rings jingled in her right ear as she did her own popcorn impression, the piercings exposed by the most recent of Emma’s ever-changing hairstyles. One side of her head had been shaved down to her seldom seen, natural brown hair, while the other boasted medium-length waves dyed teal. Along with a blindingly bright pink t-shirt, she was wearing a pair of black suspenders covered with tiny white skulls that clipped onto a pair of baggy, black cargo pants.
I paused in the doorway, watching the scene. Not long ago my house had been empty save for me. I’d gone days at a time without hearing another person’s voice. Now it seemed like there was always activity, always chatter. Though Jynx’s and Emma’s current excitement level seemed high, even for them.
“What’s got you two so wired?” I asked as I dropped my purse on a hook and kicked off my boots.
Jynx let out a squee of delight and bounced over to grab my hand. Emma darted over to grab the other. They both continued to jump, pulling me jerkily along between them in the worst-ever game of ring-around-the-Alex.
I yanked my arms down to my sides, tearing free of their grasp. “What’s going on?”
Jynx threw her arms around me and squeezed until I couldn’t inhale. “I’m getting married!”
I sputtered, looking down at the snowy hair of the petite fourteen-year-old wrapped around my waist. No, not fourteen, I reminded myself. Forty-seven. It was still hard to reconcile the energetic girl who’d become like a baby sister to me with the fact that, despite appearances, she was actually older than I was.
I patted the top of her head. “That’s . . . uh . . .”
“Priceless.” Chase perched at the edge of the couch, grinning at my discomfort.
Jynx stepped back, an earnest look on her face. “Will you stand with me?”
“Stand with . . . . You mean like a bridesmaid?”
She cocked her head to one side. “Um . . .”
“Yes,” said Chase. “Something like that.”
Jynx’s smile sprang back into place. “So, will you?”
“I thought . . .” I glanced between the siblings, settling on Jynx. “I thought your parents didn’t approve of Ava because she’s not purely fae.”
Jynx stopped bouncing.
I’d been surprised to learn Ava was a halfer, like me, thanks to a smidge of human blood on her mother’s side. She was more fae than mortal, but even a single human ancestor meant she was only as old as she looked, which placed her at about twenty. It also meant she’d die one day, which I gathered was the reason Jynx’s parents disapproved of their union.
“They don’t approve.” Chase slid off the armrest and moved to stand beside his sister, one hand resting on her shoulder. “But I do.”
Jynx smiled up at her brother.
Chase looked down at her, but the smile he returned was strained. “When you find someone who makes you happy, you should hold them tight and never let go.”
Jynx shifted her focus back to me. “Ava’s coming over in the morning so we can start planning.” She scuffed her toe in the rug. “Will you help us?”
Pushing aside my doubts about the speed with which Jynx and Ava had gotten engaged and the wedge it was sure to drive between her and her parents, I gave the bride-to-be a hug. “Of course I’ll help.”
Jynx and Emma started bouncing again, jabbering back and forth about possibilities for catering, and flowers, and dresses, and a million other variables on which I was unqualified to give opinions. Chase gave me a sympathetic smile, then pulled off his t-shirt and shifted, shimmering and melting into a medium-sized gray tabby with bright green eyes. Stepping out of his jeans, he hopped up on the couch, curled into a little ball with his back to the room, and pretended to fall asleep. At least, I assumed he was pretending. I couldn’t imagine anyone actually sleeping through the racket of the girls’ chatter.
Sighing, I gathered up the shirt and jeans Chase had abandoned—a habit that was becoming increasingly regular—and tossed them in the room at the end of the hall.
Jynx’s enthusiasm, and three pots of coffee, carried us well into the night.
Emma was first to call it quits, citing her opening shift at the bookstore café.
“How’s business? I asked. “I heard the shop got tagged again.”
She nodded. “It’s getting crazy. And mom says she’s gonna have to stop supplying the café. She’d rather break her contract with the bookstore than risk becoming a target. Besides . . .” She looked away. “I think she might be a Purist after all.”
I grimaced and gave Emma’s arm a commiserating squeeze. Her mom, Loni Yamada, ran the bakery where the bookstore’s café got its fresh-baked pastries each morning. She’d lost her husband during the Faerie Wars, which left her to raise two daughters alone, so her hatred of magic wasn’t entirely baseless. She’d flipped her lid when Emma took and passed the practitioner test—practically disowned her. And that had been before the anti-magic movement shifted into high gear. Witches might not be fae, but they were looked on with similar suspicion, watched and regulated by the PTF.
“She’ll come around.”
Emma smiled. We both knew my words were empty. There was no way to know if the rift between Emma and her mother could be repaired, but we could hope.
As Emma shuffled off to get ready for bed, Jynx stretched and yawned. “I’m turning in, too. Thanks for helping narrow down my options. It should make tomorrow’s discussion with Ava much easier.”
I chuckled. We’d managed to “narrow” Jynx’s options from infinite to merely mind-boggling. She still had hundreds of dresses she liked, and thousands of meal options. If we whittled her choices in half every night, it would still take a year to plan this wedding.
Chase stretched, yawning wide enough to expose his fangs, and followed his sister to the room at the end of the hall that I used to use for storage. I’d moved out most of the shelves and built a wood-framed bed so the cats could have somewhere to sleep besides the floor. Especially now that my bed was no longer an option.
In all honesty, I sometimes missed snuggling up to a purring ball of fur as I fell asleep, but waking up next to the man I loved was worth the sacrifice.
A small twinge tugged at my heart, as it did every time the word “love” popped into my mind. I still hadn’t been able to say it out loud. Every time I opened my mouth a nagging voice inside my head reminded me that there were still too many variables in our relationship, too many dead ends to avoid, too many reasons for one or both of us to run.
I shook my head and poured another cup of coffee. I had time. I needed to enjoy the now and not worry so much about the future. At least not until that uncertain future arrived.