Authors: Kate Rudolph
"Can't you just do a spell to find it?" asked Maya.
Krista shook her head, "No spell would lead me directly there. Ava's spells gave her an area. She can track it once she's close. There isn't one that would give me GPS coordinates, and even if there was, I'd be wary. Ava is damn powerful and any magic I do is at risk of being detected by her, no matter the precautions I take."
"Then we'll find this thing by traditional means." He turned to Brynne, Jonas, and Killian, "I want you monitoring the pack. Put security on high alert and keep everyone close. I want daily check-ins from everyone. Now is not the time for a nice vacation. Update me on strangers in the territory and get some eyes on those witches."
"You’ve got it," said Brynne.
"Jonas and Sinclair, you two will take the eastern half of the territory. Mel and I will take the west." His advisors didn't like that, but this was the first step to easing them into accepting her. If she agreed to stay.
"Do I get a say in this?" asked Mel, her tone halfway between amused and frustrated.
"He's the alpha," said Killian, "And he gave an order."
The room went silent. Mel pivoted to face Killian. In two huge steps she was in front of him, her hands held tightly by her sides. "This isn't my pack."
Luke waited before speaking. He would protect Mel from Killian, from anyone who tried to harm her, but he would not undermine her, especially not in this first clash of authority.
Killian bared his teeth and the faint rumblings of a growl burbled in the back of his throat. "You will respect this pack and the alpha's authority while you remain in the territory," he demanded.
Mel leaned back, all tension seemingly gone from her. But Luke could still see her clenched fist and wanted to know what she would do next. He didn't think that she could beat Killian in a fight, but if she were to ever accept that she was his mate and fellow alpha, she would need to handle his inner circle without drawing blood.
She smirked and tilted her head to the side. "Seems to me that if the alpha had a problem with what I said, he'd tell me." She turned and gave Luke her brightest smile. It was utterly fake, and yet he was still affected. "Do you have a problem with me, your big bad alphaness?"
It wasn't respectful. It was downright insubordinate. But the tension evaporated and Luke saw Brynne and Jonas trying – and failing – to hide their grins. Maya didn't even try to quash her smile and only Sinclair was left looking pensive.
"See to the town," Luke told his people. “We search at nightfall.” They left, each clasping his arm before heading out.
"I'd like to see to Cassie," said Krista.
"Of course," Luke nodded. He led her back to Cassie's room and noticed that Mel followed along with them. Maya split off, but he didn't question where she went. She had plenty of work to do without his meddling.
They were about to head upstairs when the front door opened. Luke thought it was one of his inner circle returning, but when a barely familiar scent hit his nostrils he stiffened. This was their third partner, Bob.
The tall black man entered and closed the door behind him. He smiled when he saw Krista and she rushed over to hug him. Mel stayed beside Luke and merely nodded at Bob. There was a good deal of history between the three of them and Luke didn't know most of it. He doubted he would completely understand the drama that went on in a band of thieves.
When Krista stepped out of the embrace, she was smiling with hope in her eyes. "What did you find out?"
"It's Ava." If Bob had dropped that bombshell a few minutes before, he might have earned a shocked gasp.
"We figured that part out," said Mel, completely recovered from the trauma of hearing Ava’s name, or, at least able to hide her emotions now that some time had passed.
Bob nodded. "She's had her eye on the area for the past three years. A group of vamps only just agreed to help her. She has no plans to stay."
Luke had spent the last eight years learning the ebb and flow of local supernatural politics. He had dedicated informants in every city in Colorado with a population greater than 100,000, and even more scattered throughout the rest of the region. He didn't know everything that went on in the supernatural world, but he was far from ignorant. Which begged the question: "How do you know that?" he asked. He didn't like the thought of missing out on so much.
Bob met his eyes and Luke saw a depth of knowledge far greater than a man of about forty should possess. He wondered at Bob's real age, though it would be beyond rude to ask. "It's what I do," was Bob's only explanation.
Krista was unfazed by that declaration. "And anything for Cassie?"
Bob let the question stretch out between them for an uncomfortable moment. He eventually spoke. "If it comes to it, there's a favor I can call in." After a pause, he added, "Let's hope that it doesn't come to that."
"She's just a kid." Luke said. And his sister at that. There wasn't anything he wouldn't do, any favor he wouldn't call in, if it meant saving her.
Bob laughed, the sound hollow and short. "You're all kids to me."
Luke took a step forward. He wouldn't be challenged in his own territory, not so blatantly.
Krista sensed the danger and spoke up once more. "Can you help me trace the hex?"
Bob broke eye contact with Luke to smile down at Krista. "Of course." The two of them went off without a farewell to Mel or Luke.
"I'll meet you at dusk," Mel said. She left before Luke could say anything to stop her. Not that he knew what to say to keep her from leaving. Mel was complicated, and Luke had a lot of learning to do before she would agree to stand by his side.
For the first time in years, Mel started to think about what she would do when Ava was gone. Her entire life had revolved around avoiding or destroying that woman. At least as much of her life as she could remember. Her memories pre-Ava were more flashes and dreams than substantial thoughts.
She supposed that theft would remain her job. She was good at it - very good - and the sense of accomplishment that she felt when she defeated someone's carefully placed safeguards and took her bounty was better than anything she'd ever experienced.
But when this was all over, she wouldn't need to keep tabs on Ava. There would be no looking over her shoulder when she visited the east coast. She would no longer be that weird feral girl who grew up among the witches.
She would be free.
If she survived.
Walking along the tree line not far from the house was different than Mel's run earlier. Now she was able to amble and gather her thoughts, though she didn't enjoy the company. It took her a few moments to realize that someone was near her, and another minute after that to determine that he was following her. And it was obvious that this kid wasn't Luke.
Neither Krista nor Bob were in a mood to chase her. She didn't blame them. She couldn't wait for this entire thing to be over either. She supposed that they would all go their separate ways when this was through. After all, they were still sore from Mel's betrayal and it wasn't like she didn't deserve it.
She would miss them.
At the moment she didn't have time to wallow. She grabbed a low hanging tree branch and hoisted herself up, effectively disappearing from the ground. The kid came running after her, an idiotic choice. She really needed to talk to Luke about how he trained the kids in his pack. If he didn't start knocking some sense into them, they were going to run him into the ground.
When the blond boy was right underfoot, Mel dove for the ground, tackling him in one swift motion and gripping his throat with her hands. They both knew that she could shift at any moment and take him out for good.
Mel recognized him. He was the same boy who Cassie had knocked out on the night of Mel's escape. The night that everything had gone to hell.
"Did Luke send you?" she asked. "I don't need a guard."
Mick sputtered, his cheeks a splotchy pink and his eyes wet with moisture he was valiantly trying to keep from turning into tears. "No!" he insisted.
"Then why were you following me?" Of all of the things that Mel hated in the world, being spied on was near the top.
"I wasn't." He tried to shake his head, but she held his neck too tightly for him to do more than weakly jerk.
Mel believed that Luke hadn't sent him. She'd known it hadn't been that simple the second she'd asked the question. But she didn't believe for a moment that this kid wasn't spying on
She crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. Lesser men had been known to fold in under five seconds when subjected to this look. To Mick's credit, he lasted seven before he crumpled into himself, his shoulders slumping and eyes flicking down. "I saw all of the inner circle come in. I just wanted to know what they were doing."
And it wasn't Mel's place to enlighten the kid. Even if it had been, she wouldn't. They didn't need a curious teenager with a penchant for trouble messing up their plans.
Well, they didn’t need
teenager like that.
"I'm sure Luke will talk to you if you have questions." That sounded right. Luke was incredibly reasonable, though she doubted that he would tell this kid everything that was about to go down. But given the way his face paled when she suggested it, Mel realized that there were some things about pack politics that she may never understand.
"Please don't tell him I was here!" Mick begged.
Mel had no reason to be charitable. She knew that Mick had been the one guarding her the night that she escaped. He had been the one that Cassie drugged before begging Mel to help her jump start her ability to shift. Mick must have been feeling the heat from his failure to guard Mel or protect Cassie. Maybe that was a good reason to avoid the alpha for now.
"If you don't want him to know you're here, then don't be here." She flicked her fingers back and forth, shooing him.
Mick didn't stay for any further conversation. He ran back into the woods, disappearing from sight long before his steps disappeared from sound.
Mel leaned against a tree for a few minutes before deciding to head back to the house. The kid had spoiled her mood.
Mel found a book to distract herself once she went back to the house. Krista and Bob were still holed up with Cassie, and she had seen neither Luke nor Maya for hours. The house was strangely silent. Surely there were half a dozen people or more walking around, but in her room she was as cloistered as a monk. She got wrapped up in the story as she sat curled up on the bed.
When Luke opened the door to her room and popped his head in she nearly screamed. It was instinct to shove the book under the covers so that he could not see the title. Ava hadn't let her read at all, and Tina thought that it was more important to finish school work than to enjoy trashy novels.
"Huh," was all Luke said as she floundered. He made no effort to take her book away from her. As he stood in the doorway, haloed by light, he could have been an angel. A dark, sexy angel. Or maybe a devil who knew his angles.
"What?" Mel asked, knowing there was no way to look cool after that. She tried to pretend that he hadn't startled her, her pose deceptively relaxed.
Luke seemed to struggle to find words. But he didn't leave her hanging for too long. "I guess I didn't picture you reading."
It was a little insulting, that statement. Mel had traveled the world, she spoke two languages, and could fake her way through another three. "Did you think that I would be picking a padlock for fun or something?" She meant it as a joke.
"Well, when you say it like that, it sounds offensive." He didn't have the grace to sound apologetic.
Mel let out a little laugh. "They're like Rubik's Cubes," she said.
"What?" Luke didn't follow.
"Simple locks," she explained. "They're like Rubik's Cubes. Once you know the trick, none of them are difficult to crack." She held up her hands in front of her and twisted them, miming solving the puzzle. "It can be comforting, but not very engaging."
But Luke was still caught on the cubes. "There's a trick to Rubik's Cubes? I spent all summer when I was fourteen trying to solve one."
She didn't ask if he had been successful; the frustration lacing his words was answer enough. "Yeah, there's a trick."
"Much as I would love for you to teach me," and this time she thought he was being sincere, "We've got to get going. It's dark out."
Mel stood up from the bed and left the book under the covers. Krista wouldn't look at it if she didn't see it. "I'm ready."
He waited for her for a moment to slip on her shoes, and then they were off. Mel thought they would go directly into the woods, but Luke lead her to the garage. He passed up all of the cars and chose a two-seater ATV. There were two separate ATVs, one sat two people side by side, the other sat them one in front of the other.
Luke chose the latter. Mel would need to hold onto him during their ride.
"Wouldn't it be faster to run?" She didn't object to the up close and personal treatment, but they had a job to do.
"If we didn't need to talk while we worked, then yes."
Mel wasn't used to surveying with a partner. The work she'd done with Krista and Bob had been compartmentalized. When Mel shifted to surveil something, she never needed to share her observations in the moment.
But she climbed onto the ATV after Luke with a smile. This was an adjustment she was more than willing to make.
"And I'm sure you took this one because it handles better?" she asked, teasing.
Luke's voice was thick with sarcasm. "Of course."
He opened the garage and they pulled out faster than Mel expected. She leaned forward, her entire front pressed tightly against his back as she gripped close and hung on.
Yes, she liked his choice very much.
She could feel every inch of him pressed against her, from her navel to her collarbone. Each bump in the road was sweet torture. Mel remembered the feel of his lips on hers, of his body pressed against hers in that erotic dance they'd dabbled in. She couldn't wait to take him.
"This isn't how I thought I'd have my thighs around you," she spoke against his ear, her lips caressing the flesh.
"Jesus," from the sound of his voice she could imagine him gripping the handle bars tightly. "Now you decide to flirt."
Mel tightened her hold on him, feeling his abs contract under her hands. "What else are we going to do?" Her tongue darted out and licked the outer ridge of his ear.
"I'm going to crash this fucking thing if you keep that up." There was a challenge in his words, and Mel didn't think that he wanted her to stop. She was having far too much fun to be dissuaded by the thought of a fiery wreck.
Mel kept one hand anchored around Luke's chest and let the other explore, tracing the ridges of his abs through his shirt.
Luke covered that hand, holding it in place before she could distract him further. "Unless we find the Well in the next hour, what do you say to coming back to my room and forgetting our troubles for the night?"
Mel thought he would never ask. "It sure as hell beats the forest floor."
But he wasn't satisfied. "Is that a yes?"
She kissed his neck again, though only with a quick peck. "What do you think?" His proposal made her more motivated than ever to get this job done properly. They had been heading down the road to sex for too long. Maybe this would get him out of her system and clear out all of those thoughts of mates and a future and all that bullshit.
Even as she entertained the thought, she knew she was crazy. Luke wasn't the kind of man a girl got to forget. And there was no getting him out of her system. Once they were together - really, truly together - there would be nothing keeping her from falling all the way. Mate be damned.
She'd never been in love before.
Was that what this was, now? Not just lust. Lust she understood. But this desire to speak with him, to share her thoughts and learn his mind. The dull pang she felt when she was away from him. And scariest of all, the certainty she felt in her heart that with him she could defeat Ava, defeat any enemy that crossed her path.
Could love make her that strong?
She put her terror on hold once they pulled over, parking the ATV next to a particularly tall tree. Mel climbed off, taking an extra second to enjoy the feel of her hands against his chest before pulling them completely away. But once they were no longer touching, it was down to business.
She took a good look at the woods around them. Nothing seemed strange or out of place. The sounds of animals in the distance were audible, though they'd scared away most of what lived near the path with the sound of the ATV.
"It's probably best to take our section in a big circle and see if anything seems fishy." She didn't want to comb every inch of forest if they didn't need to.
Mel shrugged. "Blood raining from the sky? Weird-ass magic shit. You know." Krista had detailed it all, and she had no doubt that Luke remembered most of it.
They took off between two trees. It wasn't quite a path, but they made do, walking side by side when they could and in single file when the forest forced them. Luke held up a half-fallen log to let her pass under before he began to talk.
He kept his voice low, barely above the sound of the forest around them. "You know what I wish I could do?"
"What?" She'd understand if he wanted magic to roast Ava alive for what she was doing for Cassie. There had been plenty of times in Mel's life where she had wished for the same thing.
"I want to call my parents and ask for their advice." He spoke it as if it were a shameful secret. As if the thought of asking for help was anathema.
"Then why don't you call?" It wasn't something Mel could do. As heartless as it sounded, there were plenty of times when Mel didn't miss her parents or her family. When she was working, when she was eating a particularly good meal, when she fought or fucked. And even when she did miss them, she never thought of the things she could have relied on them for now if they were still alive.