Authors: Eileen Wilks
Books by Eileen Wilks
(with Jayne Ann Krentz writing as Jayne Castle, Julie Beard, and Lori Foster)
(with Christine Feehan, Katherine Sutcliffe, and Fiona Brand)
(with Laurell K. Hamilton, MaryJanice Davidson, and Rebecca York)
ON THE PROWL
(with Patricia Briggs, Karen Chance, and Sunny)
(with Karen Chance, Marjorie M. Liu, and Yasmine Galenorn)
TIED WITH A BOW
(with Lora Leigh, Virginia Kantra, and Kimberly Frost)
InterMix Books, New York
AN IMPRINT OF PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE
375 HUDSON STREET, N
EW YORK, NEW YORK 10014
An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright © 2010 by Eileen Wilks.
copyright © 2015 by Eileen Wilks.
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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-40655-1
Berkley mass-market edition / January 2010
InterMix eBook edition / August 2015
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Penguin Random House is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity.
In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences, and the words are the author’s alone.
Note: Readers who are following my Lupus series will want to know that the action in “Human Nature” falls at the same time as some of the events of
. While Cynna and Cullen were off having adventures, Lily and Rule had their hands full, too.
blouse was silk, crimson, and new. The blood was crimson, too.
Lily looked down at her ruined blouse, grimaced, and slid out of her government-issue Ford. She ought to put on her jacket. It was too damned chilly for April, dammit, and the jacket would hide the blood and her shoulder holster. She tried to avoid alarming the neighbors, which both blood and gun were apt to do—but the blood was still damp.
Bad enough she’d ruined the blouse. She didn’t want to ruin her jacket, too. It wasn’t new, but it fit like a dream.
Good thing she didn’t have far to go. Wonder of wonders, there had actually been a parking spot only two houses down from the pleasant two-story row house where she was staying while in Washington, D.C…. which had been way too long. She missed San Diego. She missed the heat. She missed her cat, her grandmother, her father. She even missed her sisters. And maybe, though she was sure it was a sign of imminent mental collapse, she actually missed her mother.
Lily could have parked around back. There was a single-car garage off the alley with room for a second vehicle behind the first if you left the garage door open and didn’t mind having the rear of your car jut slightly into the alley. But then getting the other car out—Rule’s Mercedes—would be a pain, and she had places to go in that car tonight.
It was her birthday. She intended to celebrate, dammit.
Lily stabbed her key into the lock, entered, and shut and locked the door behind her. Rule was at the back of the house. That was one of the cool things about the mate bond: she
where he was. The direction, anyway, and in a rough sense the distance.
“Sorry I’m late,” she called as she sped for the stairs. “I need to shower and change, but I’ll hurry.”
“They’ll hold the reservation.”
The man who’d spoken came out of the dining room that bridged the parlor with the kitchen. His black dress shirt was unbuttoned at the neck. His black dress slacks broke at just the right point on his black shoes. His hair stopped just short of black, being mink brown, thick, and a bit long for current fashion. He had a lean face, sharp-featured, with a sensuous mouth and eyes the same color as his hair. The dark slashes of his eyebrows mirrored the pitch of his cheekbones.
Dressing all in black made most men look like Goth wannabes. Not Rule. Maybe it was the excellent body beneath the civilized clothing that made it work. Maybe it was the sheer arrogance of the man. He looked good. He knew it. He would have looked good in tattered jeans, a doorman’s uniform, or in nothing at all.
He knew that, too. Lily’s heartbeat hitched and she paused without intending to, one hand on the banister, and just looked at him.
It was a thought, an attitude, Rule wouldn’t have approved. Tough. He
hers and sometimes she just had to revel in that. In him.
“This is supposed to be dinner, not a race,” Rule said mildly as he walked toward her. “If you…” Those wonderful eyebrows drew down. “Is that your blood?”
The way she stood, with one foot on the stairs and her back mostly to him, he couldn’t have seen it. Must have smelled it. “Damned gremlins,” she muttered, and turned. “Yes, but it’s a scratch, no more. I was careless.”
His eyes were getting blacker. Too black.
“There’s no one for you to kill,” she said firmly. “The surviving imps have already been sent back.”
“Imps?” His eyes returned to normal and his eyebrows lifted. “I hadn’t heard of an outbreak.”
“It wasn’t a biggie. Probably be on tonight’s news, but the gist is that a seventeen-year-old idiot in Arlington used a spell from some Internet site to summon a demon. He got a handful of imps instead.”
The eyebrows went higher. “This spell was on the Internet?”
She sighed. “So not good news, is it? MCD tries. They have people watching for stuff like that, but they can’t catch everything.” It would be worse, of course, if any of the summoning spells actually worked. This one had been more effective than most, since it actually did summon something.
Damned imps. “Supposedly the major search engines will wipe out the cache they have for that site, but who knows how many idiots have already seen it? Listen, I need that shower. If you want to hear more—”
“You need to be tended. Imps’ claws aren’t poisonous, but they probably weren’t clean, either.”
She waved that aside. “The EMTs already cleaned up the wound. Scratch,” she amended. “It’s long but shallow, honest. I just want to wash off, forget about minor hellspawn, and go eat something fancy by candlelight.”
“Hmm.” He studied her face, but whatever he saw there seemed to reassure him. “There may be a present involved, also.”
“Another one?” He’d already given her earrings—exquisitely handmade lilies made from citrine, topaz, garnets, and what she suspected were emeralds. And the way he’d given them to her…well. Rule was big on presentation.
She grinned and started up the stairs. “Even better.”
He followed. “I thought the FBI used Wiccans to deal with imps.”
“They do. We do,” Lily corrected herself. Now and then she still spoke as if she weren’t an FBI agent herself, though it had been almost six months since Ruben Brooks recruited her for his special Unit. Which just proved how weird minds could be, considering the intensive training she’d almost finished at Quantico.
Training that had been much interrupted. Major upheavals between the realms will do that. “But the teenage idiot did his summoning just as I was headed back from Quantico, which of course Ida knew, since she knows everything, so she sent me. There were a couple patrol officers on-scene, but they aren’t trained for imps. Still, we were able to keep them contained until the coven arrived.”
“You had help, then.”
“Sure. Those two uniforms.” She unbuttoned her blouse and pulled it off. “Trash. This is just trash now.” She sighed. The shirt was the perfect shade of red for her, but even if she got the blood out, the silk was ripped.
He took the shirt from her. “Here, I’ll get rid of it. You and two uniformed officers kept an imp outbreak contained?”
“It wasn’t an outbreak,” she said, heading for the bathroom. The row house had been built in the nineteen-teens, way before people routinely put in master baths, so there was a single bathroom on each floor. But the bathroom on this floor was the one thing she’d miss when she finally finished her training and went home…marble floor, granite-topped counter with vessel sinks, a glass-walled shower stall, and a huge tub.
No time for that tub now. She reached into the shower stall and turned on the hot water. “Five of the nasty little creatures don’t constitute an outbreak—just a huge pain in the ass. Good thing Gan’s idea about baiting them with blood worked.”
She fell silent. Gan—a former demon who’d become a friend in the most unlikely way—was missing. So was Lily’s boss. So were two even dearer friends, Cynna Weaver and Cullen Seabourne. They’d been kidnapped, along with a few others—like a special assistant to the president and a trigger-happy FBI agent Lily had worked with. Not just kidnapped, either, but snatched into another realm. There was no saying if or when they’d return.
Lily was not naturally an optimist. What cop was? But she was determined to believe they were okay. All of them. They were okay, and sooner or later they’d find a way to come home. She refused to consider other possibilities—at least for six months. That’s the deal she’d made with herself. For six months she’d assume the best instead of the worst.
Rule took her shoulder, turned her to face him, and kissed her gently on the lips. “They’ll be fine, Lily. Even your obnoxious orange friend.”
She found a smile. “I think it’s my turn to say that.”
“Nope.” He skimmed her lips with his again. “Mine. As often as I want it to be.”
Somehow she and Rule had managed to trade off worry periods. When anxiety about their friends started to choke her, he was feeling steady. When he was hurting, she’d been able to summon enough confidence to reassure or distract him. The thing was, their missing friends mattered to her, but one of them—Cullen Seabourne—mattered hugely to Rule. They were lifelong friends, heart friends, the kind you’d risk your life for…but there was no risk Rule could take that would bring Cullen back.
So Lily smiled and agreed. “They’ll be back, safe and sound. But worrying is my hobby, remember? Speaking of which…maybe you should call the restaurant, make sure they won’t cancel our reservation?”
This time his kiss suggested he’d just as soon be even later, but he straightened without following through. “They’ll hold our table. Knowing how unpredictable your job can be, I made it clear they were to hold it if we were late.”
“I’m going to take this”—he wiggled the shirt he still held—“to the Dumpster outside. The smell…bothers me.”
“Because of the blood? Or because it’s my blood?”
He smiled. “Yes.”
The shower felt good, if hasty. The EMT had applied a gauze bandage she was supposed to keep dry, so that was a pain, but at least she could lather up and rinse the rest of her. She hadn’t gotten anything nasty in her hair, thank goodness, so she could skip the wash and blow-dry bit.
When she got out and wrapped up in a towel warmed by the heated towel rack—she
this bathroom—Rule was downstairs. She heard him talking, probably on the phone. Maybe he’d decided to make sure about the restaurant after all. She hummed quietly as she hurried from the bath to the master bedroom.
Lily liked things tidy. Her socks were rolled, her bras folded and lined up in a disciplined row, and her jackets all hung together in a color-coded closet. It took only a second to pull out the black silk dress she planned to wear, another second to retrieve hose and bra.
For some reason, her passion for order did not extend to panties. They did all land in the same drawer—but that drawer was a colorful mess. Lily had a lot of panties, in all sorts of colors, fabrics, and styles. Back in her desperately broke days, a new pair of panties had been the one treat she could almost always afford. She still shopped carefully, sensibly…except when it came to panties.
So maybe she shouldn’t have noticed the new ones right away—they were jumbled up with the rest—but she did. First she tugged out a silky leopard print bikini. The midnight blue she didn’t recognize turned out to be boy-cut hipsters. There were a couple more bikinis, one in multicolored polka dots, the other an eye-popping chartreuse. Then she spotted a scrap of raspberry lace.
A thong, she saw, pulling it out.
Her eyebrows shot up. Ordinarily she didn’t like thongs. But why not? Just for tonight, why not? He’d gotten them for her, tucked them away here as the sneakiest of surprise presents. She’d give him a treat, too.
She had on her bra and the new thong when she felt Rule coming up the stairs. She didn’t hear him, but then, she seldom did. He moved as quietly as if his alter ego were feline instead of lupine. She paused with the dress over her arm and turned toward the doorway, smiling with pleasure and a touch of mischief.
His expression wiped out both. It was that damned closed-down, locked-up look she hated. Something was wrong. “What is it?”
“My father called,” he said quietly. “A friend of mine is dead. No one you’ve met, I think. Steve Hilliard. He’s…he was Nokolai.”
“I’m so sorry.” Instinctively she went to him, but something in his face kept her from doing more than touch his arm. “I’m so sorry, Rule.”
He put his hand over hers. His face was tight, his eyes hooded. “There’s more.”
“Steve’s throat was cut. The police have arrested another Nokolai, Jason Chance. They plan to charge Jason with the murder.” Rule’s jaw tightened. “It’s an easy out for them. No need to look for a killer—just charge the nearest lupus with the crime and forget about it.”
“I take it Steve wasn’t killed while in wolf form.” Or else the authorities wouldn’t have any interest in the death. Killing a lupus was only illegal when he looked human. “You don’t believe this Jason guy did it?”
“No. Neither does my father. I have to go home.”
“Of course.” And this was the downside of the mate bond—the sheer inconvenience. Rule couldn’t go unless Lily did, too. The mate bond didn’t allow them to be far apart. Not that they knew exactly what distance would trigger the dizziness, because it changed. Without warning, without any pattern she could spot, it changed. Damned whimsical bond.
“I’m sorry to drag you away. You’re almost finished at Quantico.”
She shrugged. Her training—necessary since she’d been a homicide cop, not an FBI agent, until recently—had been interrupted constantly ever since the Turning hit in December. With the uptick in ambient magic, the FBI Unit she belonged to, which dealt with magical crimes and crises, was stretched thin. “Another delay hardly matters, and I’m not working a case right now. I’ll have to clear it with Croft, but he’ll be cool with it. He understands my situation.”
With Ruben gone, Martin Croft was running the Unit. He was one of the few humans who were aware of the existence of the bond that, in rare cases, formed between a human woman and a lupus. Of course, according to the lupi, the bond didn’t form—it was bestowed on them by their Lady. Who, in Lily’s opinion, wasn’t nearly as mythological as she ought to be.
“Steve was killed in Del Cielo—or at least his body was found within city limits, and the Del Cielo police claim jurisdiction.”
She frowned. The town sounded familiar, but she couldn’t remember why. “That’s north of Nokolai Clanhome, right? In the mountains.”
“Yes. It’s the home of Robert Friar.”
Her breath sucked in. “Shit. The rat bastard who’s started that stupid Humans First organization.”
“Prejudice in Del Cielo isn’t confined to Robert Friar. I’ve had…encounters with the police there, and I’m not the only one. Lily, those cops aren’t like you. They won’t find Steve’s killer, and Jason may well stand trial for a murder he did not commit. I need you to take over the investigation.”
Unconsciously her hand tightened on his arm. “I can’t. Rule, you know that. I don’t have any authority over a regular homicide. Only if magic is involved. You said his throat was cut. If there’s any suggestion this was a ritual murder, a sacrifice, then I could check it out, but—”