Nothing has gone to plan since Alex joined the PTF. Now a series of “natural” disasters perpetrated by the fae lead her to undertake an off-the-books mission in order to prevent the fragile peace between the Realms from crumbling.
The air burst from my lungs in a painful whoosh when my back hit the mats.
“Again.” Sarah Nazari was bouncing from foot to foot as though she had infinite energy to burn. Sweat slicked her golden skin and dampened her tank top. Her long, black hair was twisted into a thick braid that made a tempting target, but I knew from experience that trying to hold it was like grabbing the tail of a viper.
I groaned and rolled to my knees, wiped a few sweat-slicked strands of auburn hair off my forehead, then slowly drew up to standing. I’d given up sparring with human partners after a magically imbued tattoo—courtesy of my fae grandfather—shifted my nature enough to make me stronger and faster than a regular human, but I still wasn’t anywhere near as strong or fast as a werewolf.
“Take it easy,” I panted. “It’s just a workout.”
Sarah swept my legs before I could blink. I was back on the ground.
“You think the fae will ‘take it easy’ when they invade? Or the PTF when they turn on us? Or any of the other baddies you’re likely to come up against who want to mount your severed skull as a prize on their wall?”
I cringed. “Very graphic. Point taken.”
She offered me her hand. I took it gladly, letting her pull me up.
“Now”—she took up an offensive stance—“come at me again.”
A growl that wasn’t nearly human enough for my liking came from behind me, bringing up memories of jagged teeth rending muscle from bone on a moonlit mountainside the night I learned werewolves were real.
Sarah’s fist connected with my cheek. I went down to the mats again.
I blinked to clear the tears from my eyes and readied myself for Sarah’s comments about my wandering attention, or the fact that I hadn’t even tried to block that punch, but she was staring at something over my head. I twisted to see.
Across the room, near the free weights, two of our newest werewolf recruits were locked together, and their match didn’t look like a friendly round of sparring. The muscular calves of one of the combatants elongated and grew an extra joint as the underlying skeleton shifted to something other than human. I winced at the pop of bone. Black fur sprouted from the man’s dark-brown skin. The second man, shorter and wider than the first, sank too-sharp teeth into his opponent’s shoulder. His eyes were wild and bright, irises bleeding out to devour the white around their edges.
I tensed and muttered, “Stupid Weatherly being right.”
I’d spent the better part of the past two weeks trying to convince Deputy Director Weatherly and Governor Anderson’s liaison, Mrs. Daniels, that werewolves were safe to work with despite their volatile natures. As the newly appointed Deputy Director in charge of Paranatural Relations, it was my job to match our more magically inclined agents with human partners. So far I’d only created three successful teams—well, functional teams. The rest had resulted in one or both members requesting reassignment. An altercation like this was not going to improve my retention rates, and if we ran out of humans willing to work with our paranatural recruits, that would effectively put an end to our alliance.
Sarah was halfway across the room, fists balled, by the time I scrambled to my feet, but she wasn’t the first to reach the fight.
“Knock it off.” A lanky teenager in running shorts and a sweaty gray T-shirt shoved between the combatants. He braced his forearm against the chest of the man who was now furry from the waist down and pressed his other hand against the bare chest of the sharp-toothed man, who snarled like a rabid dog and immediately clamped his too-long jaws around the offending arm.
“Look at yourselves,” the newcomer commanded in a voice that seemed too deep for his wiry frame. “You’re behaving exactly like the brainless beasts we’re trying to convince the world we’re not.”
Blood trickled from the wound on his arm, and the half-wolf strained against him, but the man stood rooted to the spot as though no force in nature could displace him, let alone a couple of quarrelsome werewolves. The half-wolf was the first to calm down. He shrank back onto fully human legs. The second man, panting and wiping the blood from his mouth and chin, stepped back.
The young man in the middle lowered his arms. “Hit the showers and cool off.”
He looked first at one, then the other, leveling his cloudy blue gaze like a weapon. Neither of the older men seemed to have any fight left in them as they slunk toward the locker room. The remaining man exhaled, his shoulders sagging as he visibly relaxed. He looked at his injured arm.
Snapping to my senses I called, “Just a sec.” I jogged to the first aid box mounted to the north wall and came back with an antiseptic pad, some gauze, and tape.
“I’ll heal,” he said with a smile when I tore open the antiseptic pad.
“I know, but in the meantime you’re bleeding all over the gym.” The blood around the bite marks was already starting to thicken. Knowing werewolf healing, he’d be right as rain in an hour. Still, no harm in being careful. Once the wound was clean, I wrapped it in gauze and stepped back.
Sarah had watched the entire exchange from her position in the middle of the room. Once my ministrations were done, she came to stand beside me, hands on hips, dark eyes narrowed.
“You’re Faolan, right?”
The man nodded, meeting her gaze.
“From which pack?”
“Florida,” he said. “You?”
“Sarah Nazari, from here. You handle yourself well. Had much experience breaking up fights back in Florida?”
He shrugged. “I was an enforcer.”
Sarah’s stance shifted slightly. “Same.”
The two continued to stare at each other until the silence became awkward.
I cleared my throat. “Thanks for diffusing that situation. The last thing we need is a full-blown fight in the PTF gym.”
He smiled and moved his gaze to me. “Happy to help. Now if you don’t mind, I think I’ll hit the showers, too.” He backed up three steps before turning away from Sarah.
When he disappeared into the locker room, I nudged Sarah. “I need to talk to you about the escalating violence among the werewolves.”
She pulled her gaze away from the locker room entrance. “Isn’t that something you should discuss with Marc? He is the werewolf liaison after all.”
For now. I’d had more than a few discussions with Marc about how to handle the increasing tension between our werewolf recruits, but I wasn’t very happy with his recommendation. Mostly, because it included him stepping down as liaison.
“I’m looking for a second opinion.”
She shrugged. “Shoot.”
The doors at the west end of the gym opened, and four men took up positions on the basketball court.
I waved Sarah toward the women’s locker room. “What do you think about forming a separate pack within the PTF?”
She pulled up short, then hurried to catch up as I continued talking.
“Rather than identifying by territory like a traditional pack, the members would be defined by their enrollment with the PTF.”
“Who would lead it?”
I pulled open my locker and grabbed a towel. “That’s one of the things I’m a little worried about. Marc says we should select a new alpha for the pack, and we should do it in ‘traditional werewolf style.’”
“So it’s a fight for dominance.”
“But the new alpha will also take Marc’s place as the werewolf liaison. I’ll have to work with them every day, not just for the benefit of the pack but of the whole PTF. I feel like I should have some say in selecting a good fit.”
I tugged my sweaty shirt over my head. “Sort of. He says the best alpha will make the best liaison. He seems to think the jobs are one and the same.”
“And it’s not just the alpha you’ll need to consider. Creating a PTF pack would probably solve your infighting issues, but an internal pack could also act as a deterrent for joining.”
I frowned. “How so?”
“Well, take me for example. If the PTF becomes its own pack, I’ll no longer be a member of Marc’s, but my husband has no interest in joining the PTF. He’s not a soldier and has no desire to become one.”
“So you’d be mates in different packs. Is that even possible?”
She shrugged. “Anything’s possible, but it’s certainly something to consider.”
“Would you withdraw from the PTF if we insisted on an internal pack?”
She pursed her lips and was silent for a moment. “I doubt it. I love my husband, but my primary drive is to serve and protect. That’s why I became a cop. Since paranaturals aren’t allowed to be police officers, and I can’t exactly go back in the closet, this is the only place where I have the opportunity to serve a larger community. Gil will understand that.” She tossed her sweat-soaked shirt in her locker. “How we’ll work out the logistics though . . . that’s another matter entirely.”
“Right.” I grabbed my shampoo and headed for the showers, still unsure what the best course of action would be.
Protesters flapped their signs in my face when I pushed through the front doors at the end of my nine-to-five—mostly slogans about sharing a bed with freaks and monsters, complete with some pretty graphic imagery. I briefly toyed with the idea of telling them that I shared my literal sheets with a blood-sucking vampire, but why add fuel to their fire? Three weeks ago, if I’d approached this building, I would have been arrested on sight. Now I was supposed to be running the place. Well . . . co-running it. The term Paranatural Task Force had taken on a whole new meaning since my appointment as co-director of the Colorado facility. It hadn’t come as any surprise that not everyone was thrilled with the change.
Clutching my purse tight to my side, I bulldozed through the mob and made a beeline for the rusted blue Jeep at the far edge of the parking lot. Fingers of orange twilight lit the undersides of swollen storm clouds against a navy sky. There would be rain in Denver tonight and probably snow in the higher country where I lived.
Denver to Nederland was a long commute, especially when I was expected to do it every day in rush-hour traffic. I sang my lungs out to the radio as I inched along Highway 36 toward Boulder and wondered how I’d gotten roped into this lifestyle. I wasn’t an office worker. I wasn’t a suit-wearing, report-filing, decision-making boss. Hell, I’d been fired from my last job for flakiness.
Half an hour later, I rolled past the remains of that lost job—a visual reminder of how much my world had changed. The bookstore founded by my friend Maggie was now unrecognizable as the cozy space we’d created where patrons sipped lattes and browsed books amid displays by local artists. Plywood filled the windows, scrawled with messages of hate and ignorance. At least Maggie wasn’t there to see it. She and Hortense, my ex-tutor for all things fae, had their hands full at a secret camp out east—curing a group of drug-addled kids from a goblin fruit addiction. Maybe by the time they got back, the world would be a better place.
I snorted at my own optimism and turned the corner. People didn’t change that quickly.
Mounds of grayish-brown slush appeared at the sides of the road as I wound along the curves of Boulder Canyon. Ice clung in patches along the banks of the river that traced the rock walls. The bare branches of the town’s cultivated trees gave way to the wild spruce and pines of the evergreen forest. The last stretch of road to my mountain property was a layer of packed ice that wouldn’t thaw till mid-April. The Jeep’s engine rumbled with the effort of the climb.
I pulled to a stop next to a yellow Volkswagen Bug buried under a mound of snow and cut the engine. I stared at the unused car for a moment, guilt and grief twisting my heart. Then I shook myself, grabbed my bag, and headed inside.
The smells of cooking enveloped me as soon as I opened the front door—such a difference from when I lived alone and dinner was a frozen meal in the microwave. It was Kai’s night to cook, and he stood on the far side of the long counter that separated the living room from the kitchen. The sleeves of his gray shirt were pushed up to his elbows, and a blue apron embroidered with the slogan ROMAINE CALM AND CARROT ON was slung around his neck. Since he rarely wore his glamour at home these days, Kai’s eyes were their natural galaxy-spiral kaleidoscope, and his ears tapered to blunt points that marked him as fae.
My second roommate, the owner of the abandoned Volkswagen, had her back to the living room when I walked in. Emma was wearing a rust-orange sweatshirt, and her hair was a layer of dark, close-cropped fuzz coating her skull. My chest tightened at the sight. Before her coma, Emma’s hair had been an ever-changing fashion statement that matched the bright flamboyance of her temperament. Now both had been stripped back to bare practicality.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and closed the door against the cold. “Hey guys.”
Emma turned. Her elbow knocked a glass of water off the counter. She gasped and reached for the falling glass. Her fingers brushed the rim but closed on empty air.
Kai ducked out of sight. He reemerged holding the unbroken glass. “Just a few drips. No harm done.”
Emma stiffened her jaw with a forced smile. Her face turned toward me, but her clouded eyes didn’t focus. “Welcome home, Alex.”
Her voice trembled slightly, but if she wanted to downplay the loss of her sight, so would I. It was the least I could do . . . seeing as how the magical backlash that cost both her sight and her magic was my fault. She’d merged her magic with mine, acting as my paladin—both battery and bodyguard—so I had the juice to stand against my demon-corrupted father and his sorcerer rebellion. We’d taken him down together, but she alone had paid the price.
I hung my bag and coat on the hooks by the door and said with my own forced smile, “Dinner smells great. What are we having?”
Kai grinned. “Ambrosia salad, candied carrots, honey-glazed ham, and sweet potatoes.”
“Plus chocolate cream pie for dessert.” Emma indicated the contents of the glass mixing bowl she’d been stirring when I entered. “It’s my mother’s secret recipe.”
My teeth ached at the thought of so much sweet food. Still, it was an improvement. I’d implemented the “well-rounded” rule after the second time Kai served ice cream for dinner. “Need any help?”
Emma’s smile faltered. She shifted her weight.
Kai glanced at her then at me. “Emma and I have it covered.”
The corners of Emma’s lips turned up. She lifted her chin. We were all trying to get used to Emma’s new normal, she most of all. While I worried about her trying to pretend nothing had changed, I also understood her need not to feel like an invalid, so I was doing my best not to treat her like one.
“Then I think I’ll pop over to the studio for a bit.”
Kai glanced at the clock on the stove. “We’ll be ready to eat in two hours.”
The oversized shed that served as my studio was a short walk from the main house. I took a deep breath of the cold evening air, shivered, and unlocked the door. The overhead lights took a moment to warm up, so the room was a bit dim when I first stepped in, but a quick scan told me everything was as it should be. The knot in my chest eased.
It had taken me weeks to get my creative sanctuary back in order after the PTF raided it in their search for me. Every tool was now in its place—every hammer, drill bit, burnishing compound—but I couldn’t help seeing the space as it had been when I returned after clearing my fugitive status. That sense of violation still clung to me.
I walked past tools, cabinets, benches, and the cold forge, and stopped in front of a collection of metal sheets leaning against the back wall—dozens of sheets in a variety of materials, each as tall as my chest and wider than I could spread my arms. This was the material from which I would make my newest, and most ambitious, sculpture. A space had been marked and prepped for the installation just to the right of the PTF main entrance, where it would be impossible for protesters, agents, or any other visitors to miss. There was little there at the moment besides leveled dirt and a few anchored strips of rebar, but these sheets were about to become the six walls spiraling toward the center of my design. My fingers itched for the handle of my hammer. I smiled and exhaled the tension I’d been carrying around all day. This is where I’m meant to be.