No matter how carefully I patted the chopped apples into place, the top crust of my apple pie always looked like I’d tried to bury a dismembered body under it. My pies turned out ugly, but they tasted good. This particular pie was rapidly losing the last of its heat.
I surveyed the spread in my kitchen. Venison steaks, marinated in beer, lightly seasoned, sitting in a pan ready to be popped into the oven. I’d saved them for last—they wouldn’t take but ten minutes under the broiler. Homemade rolls, now cold. Corn on the cob, also cold. Baked potatoes, yep, very cold. I’d added some sautéed mushrooms and a salad just in case what I had wasn’t enough. The butter on the mushrooms was doing its best to congeal into a solid state. At least the salad was supposed to be cold.
I plucked a creased note from the table. Eight weeks ago, Curran, the Beast Lord of Atlanta, the lord and master of fifteen hundred shapeshifters, and my own personal psycho, had sat in the kitchen of my apartment in Atlanta and written out a menu on this piece of paper. I’d lost a bet to him, and according to the terms of our wager, I owed him one naked dinner. He’d added a disclaimer explaining that he’d settle for my wearing a bra and panties, since he wasn’t a complete beast—an assertion very open to debate.
He’d set a date, November 15, which was today. I knew this because I had checked the calendar three times already. I had called him at the Keep three weeks ago and set the place, my house near Savannah, and the time, 5 p.m. It was eight thirty now.
He’d said he couldn’t wait.
Food—check. My most flattering set of bra and panties—check. Makeup—check. Curran—blank. I drew my finger along the pale blade of my saber, feeling the cold metal under my skin. Where exactly was His Majesty?
Did he get cold feet? Mr. “You’ll sleep with me and say please before and thank you after”?
He’d chased a flying palace through an enchanted jungle and carved his way through dozens of rakshasa demons to save me. Dinner was a huge deal to shapeshifters. They never took food for granted, but making a dinner for someone you were romantically interested in took a simple meal to a whole new level. When a shapeshifter made you dinner, he was either pledging to take care of you or he was trying to get into your pants. Most of the time, both. Curran had fed me soup once, when I was half-dead, and the fact that I had eaten it, even without knowing what that meant, amused him to no end. He wouldn’t miss this dinner.
Something must’ve held him up.
I picked up the phone. Then again, he enjoyed screwing with me. I wouldn’t put it past him to hide outside in the bushes, watching me squirm. Curran treated women like wonderful toys: he wined them, dined them, took care of their problems, and once they grew completely dependent on him, he became bored. Maybe whatever I perceived to be between us was only in my head. He’d realized he won and had lost interest. Calling him would just give him an opportunity to gloat.
I hung up the phone and looked at my pie some more.
If you opened a dictionary and looked up “control freak,” you’d find Curran’s picture. He ruled with steel claws, and when he said, “Jump,” there was hell to pay if you didn’t start hopping. He infuriated me and I drove him out of his skin. Even if he wasn’t truly interested, he wouldn’t miss a chance to see me present this dinner in my underwear. His ego was too big. Something must have happened.
Eight forty-four. Curran served as the Pack’s first and last line of defense. Any hint of a significant threat, and he’d be out there, roaring and ripping bodies in half. He could be hurt.
The thought stopped me cold. It would take a bloody army to bring down Curran. Of the fifteen hundred homicidal maniacs under his command, he was the toughest and most dangerous sonovabitch. If something did happen, it had to be bad. He would’ve called if he’d been delayed by something minor.
I took the phone, cleared my throat, and dialed the Keep, the Pack’s stronghold on the outskirts of Atlanta. Just keep it professional. Less pathetic that way.
“You’ve reached the Pack. What do you want?” a female voice said into the phone.
Friendly people, the shapeshifters. “This is Agent Daniels. Can I speak to Curran, please?”
“He isn’t taking calls right now. Do you want to leave a message?”
“Is he in the Keep?”
“Yes, he is.”
A heavy rock materialized in my chest and made it hard to breathe.
“Message?” the female shapeshifter prompted.
“Just tell him I called, please. As soon as possible.”
“Is this urgent?”
Fuck it. “Yes. Yes, it is.”
Silence reigned. Moments dripped by, slowly, stretching thinner and thinner . . .
“He says he’s too busy to talk to you right now. In the future, please go through proper channels and direct all your concerns to Jim, our security chief. His number is—”
I heard my voice, oddly flat. “I have the number. Thanks.”
I lowered the phone into the cradle very carefully. A tiny sound popped in my ears, and I had the absurd idea that it was my heart forming hairline cracks.
He stood me up.
He stood me up. I cooked a huge meal. I sat by the phone for the last four hours. I put on makeup, my second time in the past year. I bought a box of condoms. Just in case.
I love you, Kate. I’ll always come for you, Kate.
You sonovabitch. Didn’t even have the balls to speak to me.
I surged off the chair. If he was going to dump me after all that shit, I’d force him to do it in person.
It took me less than a minute to get dressed and load my wrist guards with silver needles. My saber, Slayer, had enough silver in it to hurt even Curran, and right now I very much wanted to hurt him. I stalked through the house looking for my boots in a fury-steeped daze, found them in the bathroom of all places, and sat down on the floor to put them on. I pulled the left boot on, tapped my heel into place, and stopped.
Suppose I did get to the Keep. And then what? If he decided he didn’t want to see me, I’d have to cut my way through his people to get to him. No matter how much it hurt, I couldn’t do that. Curran knew me well enough to recognize that and use it against me. A vision of me sitting in the lobby of the Keep for hours popped into my head. Hell no.
If the asshole did condescend to make an appearance, what would I say? How dare you dump me before the relationship even started? I’ve traveled six hours to tell you how much I hate you because you meant that much to me? He’d laugh in my face, then I’d slice him to ribbons and then he’d break my neck.
I forced myself to grope for reason in the fog of my rage. I worked for the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid, which together with the Paranormal Activity Division, or PAD, and the Military Supernatural Defense Unit, or MSDU, formed the law enforcement defense against magical hazmat of all kinds. I wasn’t a knight, but I was a representative of the Order. Worse, I was the only representative of the Order with Friend of the Pack status, meaning that when I attempted to muscle my way into Pack-related problems, the shapeshifters didn’t tear me apart right away. Any issues the Pack had with the law usually found their way to me.
The shapeshifters came in two flavors: Free People of the Code, who maintained strict control over Lyc-V, the virus raging in their bodies; and loups, who surrendered to it. Loups murdered indiscriminately, bouncing from atrocity to atrocity until someone did the world a favor and murdered their cannibalistic asses. The Atlanta PAD viewed each shapeshifter as a loup-in-waiting, and the Pack responded by ratcheting up their paranoia and mistrust of outsiders to new and dizzying heights. Their position with the authorities was precarious at best, saved from open hostility by their record of cooperation with the Order. If Curran and I got into it, our fight wouldn’t be seen as a conflict between two individuals, but as the Beast Lord’s assault on an Order representative. Nobody would believe that I was dumb enough to start it.
The shapeshifters’ standing would plummet. I had only a few friends, but most of them grew fur and claws. I’d make their lives hell to soothe my hurt.
For once in my life, I had to do the responsible thing.
I pulled the boot off and threw it across the room. It thudded into the wood panel in the hallway.
For years, first my father and then my guardian, Greg, had warned me to stay away from human relationships. Friends and lovers only brought you trouble. My existence had a purpose, and that purpose—and my blood—left no room for anything else. I had ignored the warnings of the two dead men and dropped my shields. It was time to suck it up and pay for it.
I’d believed him. He was supposed to be different, to be more. He’d made me hope for things I didn’t think I’d ever get. When hope broke, it hurt. Mine was a very big, very desperate hope, and it hurt like a sonovabitch.
Magic flooded the world in a silent wave. The electric lamps blinked and died a quiet death, giving way to the blue radiance of the feylanterns on my walls. The enchanted air in the twisted glass tubes luminesced brighter and brighter until an eerie blue light filled the entire house. It was called post-Shift resonance: magic came in waves, negating technology, and then vanished as abruptly and unpredictably as it had appeared. Somewhere, gasoline engines failed and guns choked midbullet. The defensive spells around my house surged up, forming a dome over my roof and hammering home the point: I’d needed protection. I’d dropped my shields and let the lion in. It was time to pay the piper.
I got up off the floor. Sooner or later my job would bring me into contact with the Beast Lord. It was inevitable. I needed to get the hurt out of my system now, so when we met again, all he would get from me would be cold courtesy.
I marched into the kitchen, trashed the dinner, and strode out. I had a date with a heavy punching bag, and I had no trouble imagining Curran’s face on it.
An hour later, when I left for my apartment in Atlanta, I was so tired, I fell asleep in my car moments after I steered my vehicle into the leyline and the magic current dragged it off toward Atlanta.