Magic Rises Chapter 12

When I walked through the door, Andrea's eyes were really big and she had that pained expression that usually meant she wanted to pull her gun out and shoot somebody.

"What's up?"

"The Italians won the hunt," Raphael said. "We're supposed to have a big celebratory dinner in a couple of days in their honor."

Okay. Not really surprising. I'd stayed behind, which dropped our team's numbers to eleven. Half of them had guarded Desandra, and I had a feeling that Aunt B, Raphael, and Andrea had concentrated purely on getting the best kill for the panacea.

"I was just telling them it was Gerardo," Desandra said. "It's his long legs. He can run forever. Most men don't have sexy legs, but he does. They are very elegant."


"And, like I was saying, he is hung."

Oh boy.

Andrea turned her back to Desandra and rolled her eyes. Raphael grimaced. They both looked scandalized. Dear God, what could she have said to scandalize a bouda . . .

"No, really!" Desandra nodded. "Okay, so most guys don't have a nice ball sack, right? It looks all hairy and wrinkled like some small animal died between their legs, but Gerardo's is like two plums in a velvet bag . . ."

Derek, who'd been lingering in the doorway, took a careful step to the left behind the wall and disappeared from my view.

Kill me, somebody. I raised my hand. "Hold that thought. I need to borrow Andrea for a minute."

I grabbed her arm and pulled her into the hallway. Behind us Raphael growled, "Don't leave me!"

Andrea leaned toward me. "Plums."

"Listen . . ."

Andrea raised her hands, imitating holding plums the size of small coconuts, and moved them up and down. Desandra had no idea, but I was about to save her life.

"I'm sorry I'm late. There's been another murder."


"On the tower." I brought her up to speed. "So sorry I got held up, but I'm here now to take Desandra off your hands."

"I love you. In a purely platonic way." Andrea stuck her head into the doorway. "Honey, come on."

They escaped. I came in and sat in the chair so I could see the door and Desandra. Derek parked himself just outside.

Desandra tried talking to me. I let her go on. After I listened for twenty minutes to detailed descriptions and point-by-point comparisons of Gerardo's and Radomil's private parts, complete with size demonstrations, Desandra finally wore herself out and fell asleep. She snored a little, whistling to herself, her belly propped on a small pillow.

Derek rose and walked over to sit by me. "How can you stand her?"

"She is lonely. She's pregnant and scared. Her father is probably trying to kill her, and neither of the men she married is offering her any support. Nor can they protect her from her own father. I don't mind cutting her some slack. She isn't the worst body I've guarded."

"Who was the worst?"

"One of the state senators got on the bad side of the law and took some bribes. His accountant blew the whistle on him. His wife was convinced that state protection wasn't good enough, so they called in the Guild. I was with them for seventy-two hours. The accountant and his wife fought the entire time. There were four of us guarding him, and by the end of the fourth day, Emmanuel, he was one of the mercs, big, cut Latino guy, really calm, walked away. He just got up and left. I asked him about it later and he said it was that or he would knock their heads together just so they would shut up . . ."

A familiar revulsion rolled over me, like an unclean oily residue laced with rotten fat. A vampire. Moving in from the right.

The only person who could possibly have a vampire in this castle full of shapeshifters would be Hugh. He either piloted it himself or had some Masters of the Dead stashed someplace, but somewhere a necromancer was pulling on a vampire's strings, sending it steadily toward us, like a worm on a hook.

Trying to figure out if I could sense vampires. Nice try, Hugh.

"A good way to piss away your fee," Derek said.

The vampire came closer, its mind a pinhead of hateful magic. The urge to reach out and crush its mind like a walnut was almost too much. It was close, too close. My hand itched. I wanted to get my sword and stab it.

I couldn't leave it just sitting here. If by some miracle it wasn't Hugh, it could get into the room and kill Desandra. She would give it a run for its money, but a vampire was nature's closest equivalent to a killing machine. It had no thought, consciousness, or doubts. Like a huge predatory cockroach, it obeyed only one basic impulse: feed.

I lowered my voice. "It was mostly about self-preservation. Do you remember when you and I went to White Street? The time you got your leg ripped open?"

Derek nodded. "I remember."

Here was hoping he remembered it was a vampire who tore his leg. "I think that's how Emmanuel felt. Like something was closing on him and he just had to get out."

Derek looked at me, his brown eyes focused.

"Another ten hours or so and he might have committed a homicide." Come on, Derek. Vampire. Ten o'clock. In the wall.

"So let me guess, he got no money." Derek rolled into a crouch in a fluid move. He was only half listening to me.

The vampire was almost directly to the left of me. I felt it. It was precisely eleven feet away, which put it right at the end of the room. The wall had to be hollow, because I saw nothing.

"Nope. And the Guild slapped him with an abandonment-in-progress fee."

The vampire shifted about ten inches to the left. Derek turned slightly. He was tracking it.

"In his place I would've left, too. When you've got to go, you've got to go."

Derek shot toward the wall. He sprinted for half a second, jumped, flying through the air, and hammered a kick to the wall. The stone block cracked and fell, breaking. Before the last chunks bounced off the floor, I was up and moving. Derek shoved his hand into the hole and yanked a desiccated, ropy arm out. He twisted the wrist, locking the elbow, and I stabbed into the dark opening. Slayer sank into vampiric flesh, sliding along bone. Need to adjust the angle. Coils of smoke rose from the blade as it bit into undead tissue and began to melt it. I freed it with a sharp tug and thrust again. The point of the saber pressed against the hard ball of heart muscle and I felt the precise moment the bloodsucker's heart ruptured. It writhed on the end of my sword. Still alive, nasty bugger.

In less than a breath Desandra was off the bed and next to us. "What . . . ?"

Derek kicked the wall directly under the opening. Cracks split the stone blocks. He kicked it again. Chunks of plaster showered the floor. Faux stone. Ahh. That explained it. Last time I checked, shapeshifters were strong but not strong enough to kick through solid stone.

Derek yanked the vampire out of the wall, slapping it on the floor and pinning it. I moved with them, keeping Slayer right where it was. A pale body writhed on the floor: hairless, nude. Its pale green-tinged skin fit too tightly over its frame, and every muscle and ligament underneath was clearly visible, as if someone had taken a world-class athlete, bleached him, and stuck him in a dehydrator for a few weeks. The vamp hissed. Its eyes bore into me: hot, bright red, and devoid of any thought except for an insatiable thirst for hot blood.

Slayer smoked. The flesh around the blade began to sag as the saber liquefied the vampire's heart, trying to digest it. The vamp struggled to rise. Derek strained. The muscles on his body bulged. I leaned into Slayer.

The vamp arched, lifting Derek off his feet for half a second. The moment I removed the blade, it would go for my throat. Slayer was taking too long. We couldn't hold it.

"Drop it." I jerked the blade free. Derek hurled the vamp out and onto the stone floor. The pale body landed with a wet thud, and I beheaded it with one quick stroke. The vamp head rolled toward Desandra. She nudged it with her foot and wrinkled her nose. "Stinks, doesn't he?"

I wiped Slayer down.

Derek rolled to his feet and stuck his head into the opening. "I can see a ten-foot-wide passage to the side with a vertical shaft at the end." He indicated a rough rectangle of the wall. "This is plaster. Looks like the size of a small doorway. The rest is stone."

A light staccato of steps came down the hallway and four djigits ran into the room and halted.

"Tell Hibla we need maid service," I said. "We could handle trash in our room and an odd smell, but now we have a dead body. If this continues, we won't be able to give your hotel a decent rating."

"Yeah," Derek said, his voice completely deadpan. "The continental breakfast better kick ass or we'll complain to the manager."

* * *

Dinner was served at midnight. I had expended some calories-Doolittle's healing made the body burn through food with wild abandon-and I was so ravenous, I could've eaten one of those mountain goats in the courtyard raw.

Sitting still while Desandra napped and the castle staff poured alcohol on the vampire blood, set it on fire, and then scrubbed it off the floor, diligently ignoring my questions such as "How did a vampire get into the castle?" and "What was it doing in the wall?" gave me a lot of time to think.

I started thinking about Curran and Lorelei, decided it would drive me nuts, and focused on the winged shapeshifters instead. I wished I had access to the Keep's library. I wished I could call a couple of people and ask them if they'd ever heard of something like that. But I had no resources beyond what was in my head and what few books I'd brought with me. Fixating on lamassu would do me no good; there was no indication that lamassu were shapeshifters. When an investigation first began, you simply collected facts. I was still in the collecting-facts stage. Drawing conclusions at this point would cause me to select facts that supported my theories and ignore those that didn't. That was a slippery slope at the end of which lay more dead bodies.

Magic had ways of spitting out new and bizarre things into the world, so just because I hadn't heard of them didn't mean these guys didn't have a long and bloody history somewhere. Up until now, I would've questioned the existence of weredolphins as well, but having killed a few turned me into a believer. If a werewhale waddled into the castle, I wouldn't blink an eye. I'd look for a harpoon, but I wouldn't be surprised.

So suppose this was some odd scale-covered weirdo type of never-before-seen shapeshifters. Why wasn't Hugh turning the castle upside down looking for them? Hibla struck me as smart and capable but also a bit inexperienced. That wasn't a strike against her-it was unlikely that this castle had ever been attacked and she cared about keeping it safe, so much so that she'd swallowed her pride and come to me for help. Considering how everybody and their mother had been lamenting the fact that I was not a shapeshifter and, therefore, must be inferior, Hibla's coming to me was nothing short of a miracle.

So she didn't have the experience to deal with it, but Hugh had experience in spades. Why wasn't he taking any action?

The better question was, did he engineer this whole thing? If this was some sort of elaborate setup, I couldn't see what he had to gain by it, but I couldn't mark him off the list of potential suspects either, just like I couldn't cross out Jarek Kral, the Volkodavi, or the Belve Ravennati.

I would have loved to eliminate one suspect. Just one. It didn't even matter which one. If I could drop one faction from the list, I would do a jig right there in front of everyone and weep for joy.

The cleaning staff left. Derek raised his head and sniffed the air.

If somebody ever hired us for another bodyguarding job, I'd fight tooth and claw to bring Derek with us. He smelled people coming before I ever heard them.

"Who is it?" I asked.

"Isabella," he said.

The matriarch of Belve Ravennati was coming to pay us a visit.

"I don't want to talk to her!" Desandra jumped off the bed and took off for the bathroom.

Okay. I got up, and Derek and I blocked the doorway. Isabella Lovari strode down the stairs and toward us. A young dark-haired woman accompanied her.

They stopped before us.

"I've come to check on my grandchild."

Someone must've told her about the vampire. "Desandra is safe. The babies are fine."

"I will see for myself."

"She doesn't want to see you right now," I said.

"I will have to insist," Isabella said.

"Or you could choose to talk to her later at dinner," I said.

Isabella narrowed her eyes and looked me over slowly. "For a human in the den of beasts, you have a lot of arrogance. What makes you think you're safe?"

I'm sorry, I was a human? I had no idea. What a surprise. "What makes you think I'm not?" And what an awesome comeback that was. Wow, I showed her.

Isabella smiled, her eyes cold like two chunks of coal. "When an alpha stands in front of you, the proper response is respect and fear, you human idiot. Were you a shapeshifter, you would know this."

Name-calling, huh.

Derek bared his teeth.

"If I cringed every time an alpha of another shapeshifter pack showed his teeth, I would be you."

Isabella glared at me. The woman at her side tensed.

Did you like that? Here, have another one. "Where I come from, we don't give up our daughters-in-law just because Jarek Kral snarls. But I understand you do things differently. If Kral ever decides to take away your lunch money, let me know and we'll help you out."

Isabella blinked. The dark-haired woman said something in Italian. Isabella's stare gained a deadly edge. "This will help you not at all. You are being replaced, and you are so stupid, you don't even realize it. When a shapeshifter loves a woman, he doesn't let another woman hunt next to him, nor does he let her finish his kills. When Lennart throws you away, I will be waiting."

She turned around and marched away, her younger escort in tow. I waited thirty seconds.

"Did this happen?"

Derek paused before answering. "Yes."

"So he let Lorelei finish his kills?"


"Does this mean something or is she just blowing smoke in my face?"

Derek sighed. "He shouldn't have done it. It's something wolves do. It's not like offering food, but it's close."

My chest suddenly acquired a heavy rock. It rolled inside me, hurting.

"It can also be taken a different way," Derek said. "Parents let kids finish their kills. Older brothers let younger kids do it . . ."

I looked at him.

"He shouldn't have done it," Derek said. "But he never does anything without a reason."

"When I asked you if you knew something I didn't, you lied to me."

"I didn't lie. I just didn't volunteer information. I didn't want you to worry."

I wasn't worried. When Curran got here, I intended to trip him, sit on him, and shake him until he explained this thing to me. So far, he'd let her stand naked next to him, he'd let her hunt with him, he'd let her finish his kills-whatever the fuck that meant-and in the past twenty-four hours he'd spent more time listening to her than he had speaking to me.

A cold thought squirmed through me. From a purely logical point of view, Lorelei would make a better Consort. She was a shapeshifter, she had ties to the largest shapeshifter pack in the United States, and her father wasn't planning to exterminate the shapeshifters because they were becoming too powerful.

Logically it made sense, but none of that mattered, because the man who'd fallen asleep next to me last night loved me. I would bet my life on it. The way things were going, I just might have to.

Derek walked out into the hallway and stayed there.

"What are you doing?"

He nodded at the stairs. Curran jogged down, jumped, covering the last few steps, and headed straight for me, light on his toes, radiating that contained physical energy that pulled me like a magnet.

I scrutinized his face. He seemed on edge, his expression worn, the line of his mouth tired but firm. His eyes said that he was tired and annoyed, and if you got in his way now, he'd snap your neck without hesitation and keep going about his way.

I crossed my arms. "You-"

Curran gathered me to him and kissed me. It was a long, lingering kiss, made from fading exasperation, relief, and happiness. He smiled at me, those eyes so warm and welcoming. "I wanted to do this all day."

Okay. Now I was officially bewildered. I waited to see if question marks would sprout all around me, but the air stayed clear.

He noticed the hole in the wall. "What the hell happened?"

"We redecorated." I kept my voice level. "Where have you been?"

"The Belve and the Volkodavi wanted to discuss things, and I had to sit in as a witness."

"For five hours?"

"More or less. We just finished."

And Isabella must've come here right away to bug Desandra.

Curran dragged his hand over his face, as if hoping to wipe away fatigue. "They are trying to hammer out some sort of agreement to unite against Kral. I haven't eaten since the hunt. I'm starving."

"Did they succeed?"

"Hell no. Everybody was tired from the hunt and irritable as fuck. They bickered about inheriting the pass, and did their grandstanding, and accused each other of things. Radomil fell asleep. For a few minutes it looked like they might actually agree on something. Then the younger brother-Ignazio-decided it would be a grand idea to jump up and announce that when his nephew was born, at least he would be born smart like his father, so he should inherit the pass and not the other kid, who's been fathered by a citrullo."

"What's a citrullo?"

"From what I gathered, it's either a cucumber or a half-wit." Curran shook his head. "Then the Volkodavi started yelling. The Belve yelled back. Radomil woke up and someone clued him in that he had been insulted but apparently not who'd done it, because Radomil went after Gerardo and called him parazeet and viridok."

"Parasite and bastard," I translated. Voron was Russian. I spoke it well enough, better now that I had someone in Atlanta to practice with, and I'd hung out enough with Ukrainians to pick up the language. Curses were the second thing you learned, right behind yes, no, help, stop, and where is the bathroom?

"Ahh." Curran nodded. "That explains why Gerardo's mother went furry."

"So what happened?"

"Then I roared. Then everyone got insulted and declared that they wouldn't stand for this and the meeting was over. Good too, because I've had it with them. I wouldn't give these kids to either one of the packs. They don't give a shit about them or Desandra. As they were leaving, I could hear them yelling at each other. After Gerardo called Radomil every curse under the sun, Radomil's brother told him that smart men keep bitches in heat on a chain."

I developed a sudden strong urge to punch both of them in the face.

"He is lucky that he said that to Gerardo. If he'd said it to me about you, that would've been it. He would never say anything else."

Curran fell silent. I turned. Desandra stood in the doorway of the bathroom. Color drained from her face. "Vitaliy said that?"

Curran looked like he wanted to be anywhere but here. "Yes."

"What did Gerardo do?"

"He called him some name I didn't catch."

"But did he do anything?"

"No," Curran said.

"I see," she said quietly. "I don't think I'll be going to dinner today. My bitch chain isn't long enough."

"Desandra . . ." Curran said.

She raised her hand. "Don't." Her voice shook. She was about to snap.

I needed to talk to Curran. But Desandra was about to lose it. Abandon her or straighten this out? It would be a long conversation . . .

Desandra made a small strangled noise in her throat. Damn it. He was tired, we were both starving, and privacy was in short supply. I'd waited this long; I could wait until we were alone. I turned to Curran. "Why don't you go without me? Make an appearance, snarl, and all that. I'll be here."

Curran looked at Desandra for a long moment. "I'll be back."

"Bring us some food," I told him. "And I really need to talk to you when you come back."

"Okay." He kissed me and left the room.

Derek came inside and shut the door behind him.

Desandra sank on the bed, put her hands over her face, and began to cry.

* * *

Desandra wept.

Kill me, somebody. I never knew what to do or what to say. I got a soft towel from the bathroom and brought it to her. Desandra's shoulders shook. She sobbed quietly. At the entrance Derek was doing his best to fade into the woodwork.

I sat next to her on the bed. She cried in a thin, heart-wrenching voice, her sobs leaking complete despair, as if her world were ending. Her father was an abusive asshole who used her as a bargaining chip. The two men she had married didn't love her or her children. Right now only we truly cared about her welfare, and we did so because we would be paid with panacea at the end. I wished I could say something or do something to make her feel better.

Gradually the sobs slowed down. She pulled away from me and pressed the towel to her face.

"I feel so alone," she said quietly. "I just want one of them to care. But they don't."

"They probably don't," I told her.

Her makeup had run and dark streaks of smudged eyeliner stained her cheeks. She wiped her face with the towel. "And I won't have a choice."

"What do you mean?"

"When the babies are born, what will happen? Are they going to force me to go with whoever's son is born first? Are they going to take my children from me and throw me back to my father, so he can tell me every day how I cost him the pass and what a worthless waste I am?"

"I don't know," I said.

She looked at me and whispered, "I'm afraid to love my own babies, because I won't get to keep them."

Oh God.

Thinking of being paid for all this misery churned my stomach. If it had been up to me, I would have said screw it. I'd take her out of here, away from all of them, whether I got my fee or not. But it wasn't about me. It was about Maddie lying twisted in a glass coffin while her family prayed we would make it back safe. It was about Andrea's future babies. And about mine.

"Someone's coming," Derek said.

I rose from the bed and moved to the door. Raphael and Andrea rounded the corner.

"What are you doing here?"

"We heard crying," Raphael said.

"Fuck me," Desandra said from the bed. "Can't a woman cry in peace?"

"Not with these acoustics." Andrea came into the room and showed us a plate of fruit. "I got snacks."

Derek looked at the platter with that particular longing, the way a starving dog eyes a juicy steak.

"Are you staying for a bit?" I asked Andrea.

"You bet."

I glanced at Derek. "Why don't you go and grab a bite to eat? We don't know when Curran will be back."

"Come on," Raphael told him. "I'll walk with you."

Raphael winked at me, and he and Derek took off.

Half an hour later Desandra had finished eating and was passed out, snoring up a storm. We sat on the floor on the rug, the mostly empty platter of fruit between us. I stole another apricot. I was still hungry.

"You should go to dinner," Andrea said. "I'll watch Ms. Preggers."

"It's still my shift. You had your turn already."

"Yes, but Princess Wilson isn't out there making googly eyes at Raphael." Andrea bared her teeth.

"Is Lorelei at dinner?"

"Yes. Yes, she is. She's wearing a see-through dress and she is practically melting when Curran looks at her."

There were times in my life when supreme mental powers would come in handy. Right now I wished I could telepathically reach into the dining hall and slap Lorelei out of her chair.

"I have a job to do." I leaned back against the bed and closed my eyes for a moment.

"You okay?" Andrea asked me.

No. No, I wasn't okay. People were dying. A pregnant woman was in danger. A young pretty shapeshifter girl with heavy political clout was going after Curran and there wasn't anything I could do about any of it.

"Did you know Hugh has a man in a cage in the inner yard? He's been in there for weeks. He's slowly starving to death. And I can't do anything to get him out."

"The worst change of subject ever," Andrea said. "I thought we were talking about Lorelei?"

"I don't like her," Desandra said from the bed.

Damn it. "I thought you were asleep."

"You never talk about anything interesting when I'm awake."

"That's because we don't trust you," Andrea said.

"I know that. But I've got gossip on Lorelei and you don't." Desandra scooted up, propping herself up on the pillows. "Like who invited her to the stupid meeting."

"Okay, I'll bite. Who?"

"She invited herself," Desandra said. "She wrote a letter to Lord Megobari and told him that she and Curran were childhood friends, and that she knew many people from Atlanta. This was her only chance to see him and could she please visit. She wouldn't be any trouble."

Hugh must've just loved that. The smug bastard probably laughed when he read that letter. How did Lorelei even find out about this entire affair?

"Who knew about Curran coming over to arbitrate?" I asked.

Desandra shrugged. "I didn't know until two weeks before Lorelei showed up."

"So she had insider information," Andrea said. "I wonder where she got it."

"That I don't know." Desandra grimaced. "I can tell you that when she got off the ship, she was really friendly. Really. She had the whole sweet and innocent act going." Desandra fluttered her eyelashes. "Oh poor me, I am a sweet and honeyed flower, too delicate and . . . What's the word when you are like, Oh, I am so honest and I just want to help?"

"Earnest?" Andrea suggested.

"Yes, that. But I did the same thing at her age. I could tell she was a snake. Once she realized I wasn't about to be her best friend, this whole big holier-than-thou thing came out. I had a fight with my father and she told me that I was inappropriate. Then one time . . . okay, so pregnant women get gas. Your stomach is the size of a backpack, and when you do get gas, it hurts to breathe. So I farted. I couldn't help it. She called me vulgar. I told her to mind her own business, and she said that I was shameful and no self-respecting person would associate with someone like me. I was an embarrassment to my father and my husband. I had no honor." Desandra grimaced. "She must've grown up in a fish tank or something. She has all these weird ideas about how people are supposed to interact. Like she is some kind of nobility and we're all just peasants."

Interesting. "What did you do?" I asked.

"I'd checked up on her. Her dad is some big alpha in the U.S., but her mom couldn't stand him so she took Lorelei and moved back to Belgium. There is only one major shapeshifter pack in Belgium, and Lorelei's grandparents are running it. They didn't really want her mother or her back, so they let them come back on one condition: neither of them can have anything to do with the running of the pack. There is some family money and they are not hurting, but neither of them can ever be an alpha. They didn't want them to compete with their son. So when Lorelei told me I was an embarrassment, I told her I was daughter of an alpha and wife to two future alphas, and that three packs were crossing the sea because of me. I asked her how fast did she think they would throw her into the sea if I asked them to do it."

"Ha!" Andrea grinned.

I wouldn't mind throwing Lorelei into the sea, but right now the need to punch Curran was much stronger. "What did she say?"

"She got all shocked, worked up some tears, told me I was a horrible person, and ran away. We were eating at the time, and nobody followed her, which probably spoiled her plan." Desandra leaned forward and winced. "Ow. I keep forgetting not to do that. Anyway, I grew up in a pack that was a minefield. I like that word, by the way. Very nice. I've seen her type before. Lorelei is intelligent, meaning she has some brains, but she's also young and inexperienced. She doesn't understand what makes people tick and she thinks that everyone is much stupider than her. She's a classic sociopath: she's charming and manipulative, she believes she's entitled, she never genuinely feels guilt, and when she offers an apology, it's superficial. She mimics happiness and she can probably mimic love. She isn't psychopathic-her temper is pretty even, she isn't necessarily predatory, and I can't see her trying suicide. Way too narcissistic."

"How the hell do you know all this?" Andrea asked.

Desandra sighed. "I've read a lot of psychology books. I started when I was a kid. I was trying to diagnose my father."

Well, that was a surprise. "What's the verdict?"

"He is a severe megalomaniac. He has intense narcissistic personality disorder, complete with occasional paranoia. He displays every one of Hotchkiss's seven deadly sins of narcissism. That's how I learned to manipulate him. Unfortunately, knowing that didn't help me with my mental health any, and he also knows which buttons to push."

"Why don't you . . ." Andrea struggled for words. "Act more sane?"

"Self-defense," I told her. Suddenly many things made sense.

"She's right," Desandra said. "How long do you think I would survive if they knew I had a brain? The only reason I'm not locked up is because they think I'm emotional and stupid. I am emotional-pregnancy hormones are no joke. But I'm not dumb. My mother was smart, and if you ask my father, he'll show you many spots where people who thought they were smarter than him are hidden six feet under the ground. If Gerardo's mother thought for a moment that I had more brains than a butterfly, she'd have kept me under lock and key the entire time I was married to him. When I told Gerardo we couldn't fight my father, I didn't do it because I was weak. I did it because I knew we couldn't win. I thought about it and I weighed the odds, and they were not in our favor. Personally I hope Jarek pisses Curran off. That would be about the only person here who could kill him. Anyway, did you see Lorelei's book?"

"What book?" I asked.

"Some fantasy book she carries around. Something about a princess on the throne in some kind of crystal. There is this older knight who has known her since she was a child, so he goes on some sort of journey to get a magical blue rose gem to rescue her. He gets the gem, frees her, and she makes him her king." Desandra stared at me. "Lorelei wants her throne. She knows in her heart she is entitled to it. In her head Curran is the only way she can get it. Kate, she will do anything to get it. It's so close, she can taste it. If I were you, I wouldn't stand near cliffs when she's around, because she will push you over."

"At this point she would have to get in line." What Lorelei did or didn't want mattered very little. Lorelei had promised me nothing. Curran, however, had promised me everything. If he was planning on pulling the plug on us, I wanted to know why.

I would sleep on it, and tomorrow morning, I'd get my answers, whatever they would be.

The sound of steps came from behind the door, followed by a knock. If it kept going this way, we'd have to invest in some iron bars and one of those sliding windows, so I could open it and yell at people to go away.

"Who is it?"

"It's me," Hugh said.

Andrea reached for her SIG-Sauer.

What the hell was he doing here? Just what I needed. I walked up to the door. "Whatever you're selling, we're not buying."

"Open the door, Kate. I'm not going to attack you in Desandra's room."

Fine. I unbarred the door and opened it. Hugh stood on the other side in all his glory: black boots, dark pants, dark leather jacket thrown over a blue T-shirt. His dangerously square jaw was freshly shaved. Well, well. Someone had dressed up for dinner.

He glanced at my shoulder. I looked out of the corner of my eye. Black streaks from Desandra's eyeliner stained the green fabric of my T-shirt. She must've brushed against me when she was crying. Considering that it was also smudged with dried blood from the ochokochi, my shirt was beginning to look tie-dyed.

"Can I help you?"

"You weren't at dinner," Hugh said, leaning one arm on the wall. "I came to see if all was well."

That was quite a pose. "Couldn't you just send another vampire instead? I haven't gotten my evening exercise."

"I'm sorry. Next time, I'll be sure to find some lambs for your slaughter."

He showed no signs of leaving.

"Did Hibla tell you that a djigit was killed on the tower? A woman. Her name was Tamara."

"She did."

"Are you behind these attacks?"

He smiled. "And if I were, wouldn't telling you defeat the purpose?"

"I don't know what your plan is, but if you interfere with my ability to do my job, you will regret it."

"Do I look scared to you?" he asked, his voice lazy.

He was trying to goad me into a pissing contest. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. "No, and that worries me. You're supposed to provide a safe environment for this pregnant woman. Instead your guards are dying and some creature tried to kill her two hundred yards from your dining hall. Why aren't you foaming at the mouth? Doesn't it bother you that someone's making a fool of you in your own castle?"

Hugh opened his mouth.

Curran walked up the stairs carrying a platter heaped with food with one hand. George walked next to him. Curran saw Hugh and focused on him with a single-minded intensity.

"Here comes the cavalry." Hugh winked at me.

Curran stepped between me and Hugh. His voice was cold. "One of us isn't supposed to be here."

"Let me guess, would that be me?"

"Yes. Your guests miss you."

Hugh chuckled. "We'll continue our conversation later, Kate." He walked away.

"Couldn't you have waited thirty seconds?" I growled. "I wanted to hear his answer."

"No. He has no business talking to you and anything he says is a lie."

"Is that food?" Desandra called out. "I am so hungry."

"We were just leaving," Andrea said.

"Yes, we were," George confirmed. "I came to walk you to your room."

They took off. I sighed and passed the platter to Desandra.

Later, after we ate, Desandra fell asleep, exhausted, for real this time. Derek came back from dinner, saw Curran, and excused himself to the bathroom. Curran and I barred the door and checked the balcony door and the windows. I put a spare blanket on the floor. He stretched out on it and I lay next to him. Around us soothing darkness filled Desandra's cavernous bedroom.

Derek was still in the bathroom. The boy wonder was giving us an illusion of privacy.

"Are we being listened to?" I asked.

"If we are, I can't hear them."

Figured. Once we nuked the vampire, the hiding place was exposed.

"I saw Doolittle at dinner," Curran said. "He said he has something important to tell you."

"Is it urgent?"

"He said it would wait till the morning. We couldn't really talk. Too many people around. What did you want to talk about?"

This would have to be done carefully, with some finesse. I opened my mouth, trying to find the right words. Think subtle . . .

He raised his eyebrows. "What's the holdup?"

"Trying to find the right words."

"Why don't you just say it?"

"What the hell is wrong with you? You're letting Lorelei stand next to you naked, kill your crap, and do your hunting? Are you out of your mind or do I need to pack up and leave?"

Damn it. Subtle, really subtle.

He smiled at me. "I love you. You don't need to worry about Lorelei. She's happy she's grown up, so she flaunts it. It's harmless."

"What about the hunt?"

"Who else would she hunt with?" Curran shrugged and pulled me closer. "I have no interest in Lorelei. She's a kid."

"So this is not part of some plan you thought up?"


This should've been the end of it, but the suspicion remained, nagging me. I crushed it. He said he wasn't interested. End of story.

"What did you and Hugh talk about while we hunted?"

"He said he killed Voron." I tried to keep the hurt out of my voice and couldn't.

Curran paused. "Is he lying?"

"I don't think so. Voron raised him the way he raised me, then abandoned him. I took him away from Hugh and then Hugh took him away from me. I suppose that makes us even. I still want to murder him."

"Maybe we'll get that chance," he said.


"Did he say anything else?"

"Nothing important. He feels shapeshifters are ruled by their urges."

"If I were ruled by my urges, he'd be dead."

Or you. "Curran . . ."


"I saw him fight. You remember my aunt? Hugh is better."

"It doesn't matter," Curran said. "I will end him."

But it did matter to me. If Curran killed Hugh but died fighting him, it wouldn't be worth it. I just had to kill Hugh first. Piece of cake.

"It's this place," I told him. "It's driving all of us out of our skin."

"We'll go home soon." He closed his eyes.

A deafening crash shattered the silence. I jumped to my feet. Derek burst out of the bathroom.

The familiar grating roar, like gravel being crushed, rolled down the hallway, followed by an enraged deep bellow, pure fury expelled in a single mindless torrent. I'd heard that sound before and it was impossible to forget. It was the war cry of a werebuffalo.

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