Authors: Tracey Martin
Tags: #goblins, #fairy tale, #shifters, #gryphons, #magical creatures
I neglected to point out that I was the one who’d involved them. If it hadn’t been me, the paramedics would have done it eventually.
“I see.” His tone didn’t leave me very confident of that.
For Lucen, there would never be a way to
. To him, the Gryphons were the enemy and always had been. I supposed they were my enemy too these days, but it wasn’t the same. I hated them because of what they’d done to me. Lucen, and every other pred, hated them because they tried to keep preds in line. To make them actually obey the laws, both mundane and magical, rather than give lip service to them.
Historically, neither side had bothered with laws. Preds and humans had been at war until only the last couple centuries. Then a peace agreement known as the London Accords had been drawn up. While a couple of centuries was a long time for most of us, preds lived long lives. Their memories were likely just as long, and the peace was uneasy at best.
Sighing, Lucen ran his fingers through his hair. “After what they did to you, little siren, I can’t believe you’re willing to even walk into that building.”
“Me neither, and I wouldn’t normally. But it’s Steph. She helped me commit a felony a few weeks ago to clear my name.”
“Aren’t you even? Didn’t you once commit a felony for her?”
I shrugged. Ten years ago, the night I’d met Steph, I’d gotten revenge—or justice, depending on your perspective—for her by trading away the souls of the two bullies who’d beaten her up.
Was that a felony? There was no law specifically for soul-swapping, probably since I was the only known person to ever try it, but Olivia Lee had threatened to charge me with endangering humans for it. That was very much a felony. “Since I’ve never been charged with anything, there’s no legal precedent that says I’d have been convicted for endangerment. So no. But that’s what best friends do for each other. Commit felonies and work with the enemy.”
“Then consider this is what your boyfriend does for you—try to talk you out of it.”
It was my turn to raise an eyebrow. “Boyfriend?”
And it was Lucen’s turn to shrug. There was almost something self-conscious in the gesture. Maybe it was my imagination, but it made my heart beat faster. “What would you call me?”
Self-conscious myself, I reached for my bottle. “I’ve been thinking of you as my satyr-with-benefits.”
Lucen choked on his swallow of beer. “That’s so cold. I don’t even get labeled a friend?”
“I thought that part was obvious.”
Friend. Frequent bedmate. Lover? Ugh, that sounded so cheesy. But boyfriend didn’t sit right with me. Boyfriend implied total commitment, something I wasn’t sure we could have since Lucen was always going to be sharing a part of himself with other people.
I cleared my throat, hoping to change both topics of conversation. “So, were you hanging out here with your TV tonight? I hope I’m not interrupting any quality alone time since the point of me not crashing here any longer…” Was so I wouldn’t get uncomfortable when he had addicts over.
So much for changing the topic.
“You weren’t interrupting. I was working, but I can entertain you and do that at the same time.”
“You sure?” I pushed my bottle away. “Because I wanted to talk about what happened, but if you’re busy, I can leave.”
He grabbed my arm and pulled me closer. “I’m sure. It was just some satyr business. Not anything so important I couldn’t do it while watching TV.”
I nestled my head against his shoulder, but my stomach twisted. Was that some sort of euphemism for having an addict over? “Satyr business means what?”
The question tumbled off my lips. Dragon shit on toast. I was supposed to be learning not to care. Instead I was acting like a jealous wife.
Across the room, Lucen’s pet dragon, Sweetpea, snorted smoke. It had to be my imagination, but I could have sworn the scaly rat was laughing at my paranoia.
Lucen shifted position, running a finger up and down my spine. In spite of my tension, I closed my eyes. “Stuff for the domus, little siren. Not what you were thinking.”
Because, of course, he could tell. “Sorry. I’m trying to be okay with sharing you.”
“But that’s the thing, Jess. You’re not sharing me.” He put his finger under my chin and lifted my head so I faced him. “This is what’s important. It’s your head on my shoulder. Feeling your heartbeat. The way your breath glides over my skin. The smell of your shampoo. It’s knowing you come to me to talk about important things, and me trying to help you. Even if you refuse to take my good advice.” He smiled wryly. “But it’s not sex. Sex is fun. It isn’t what’s important.”
I swallowed, returned my head to his shoulder and tightened my hold on him. His words warmed me inside. Snuggled up against him, I felt safe and wanted and loved, although neither of us had yet to use that word. But I felt like I belonged. I was content.
He was right too. Those were the things that were important. That emotional intimacy. There was no denying we’d had a connection like that for years, but I’d been afraid of indulging it. Yet I didn’t know if it was really enough. I didn’t know if I could let go of this need to have all of him to myself.
And if I couldn’t? Would I lose the part I had too? How did a person learn to accept this situation? Was it possible? Just wanting to accept it was clearly not enough.
Lucen had told me to sleep around with other people. Get it out of my system. Begin to see sex as no big deal. Why couldn’t I be one of those people for whom it
no big deal?
I kissed the patch of skin beneath my lips. So warm. So tantalizing. “I know that’s what’s important. I do know it.”
But I love you and I want you all to myself.
I clamped my lips together. Thinking it was scary enough. Saying the words opened me up to too much possible pain in the future.
Lucen stroked my hair. “I know you know it. This, little siren, is what I can’t have with anyone else. We’re a work in progress. Think how far we’ve come already.”
“True. Two months ago I wouldn’t let you touch me.”
“Exactly. And it only took ten years for you to get over that. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another ten for the next step.”
“Yeah.” Although ten was preferable to never-going-to-happen.
The hand running through my hair stopped, leaving me disappointed until he slid it under my shirt. “Don’t think I’m done trying to talk you out of the Gryphons, by the way.”
I laughed once. “Yeah, I know that much too.”
And that was okay because I understood it meant that he cared.
I spared Lucen the agony of an alarm going off early by returning to my new place around one in the morning. After closing my cheap, hand-me-down drapes, I fell onto my futon and promptly stared at the ceiling for the rest of the night. Exhaustion be damned.
I was alone. In a tiny apartment. In what should be a dangerous neighborhood.
But mostly, I was alone. Funny how when I’d lived with roommates, I’d cherished those evenings when they would be gone and I had the place to myself. I could watch what I wanted, blast my music or take up the entire kitchen.
Now I lay awake, contemplating my life choices. That was never a good thing to do, and it was an especially bad one at two…then three…then four in the morning. At that point, I might actually have fallen asleep long enough to dream because I woke up at nine with vague memories of fires, intense, skin-searing heat, and choking on smoke and blood. So much blood. Mine, I thought.
Goose bumps broke out on my arms, despite the sweaty sheets that clung to me.
Just a stress dream, I told myself. The result of it being the first night in an unfamiliar place after I watched Eric Marshall’s soul be devoured by an asshole goblin. Oh, and I was going back to the Gryphons today. Back to an organization that screwed up my life so I could be some kind of super warrior for them.
Yup, stress, and no wonder. So fuck that anxiety. I needed coffee. Everything was easier to deal with when I was caffeinated.
I dragged my butt into the shower and let the hot spray wash off the remnants of the nightmare. Once cleaned, fed and clothed, I only required a minor pep talk—
think of Steph, remember Eric
—to get over my reluctance and head over to Gryphon headquarters.
Sometime around two thirty last night I’d realized I should call Olivia Lee and let her know I’d changed my mind and would be coming in today. Alas, the good director hadn’t answered, which would have been sweet revenge for the several mornings she’d woken me up with her damn calls. But instead I’d left her a voicemail.
She hadn’t called back yet. Standing in the bustling downtown lobby, I wondered what to do. When I’d quit last week, I’d thrown my ID badge at her. As a result, I’d been reduced to just another visitor.
After I cleared the visitor’s security check, I hopped on the elevator to the top floor. If Olivia wanted me back so damn bad, she could have returned my call. Since she hadn’t, she’d have to deal with my unscheduled arrival.
The elevator stopped on the second floor, and a petite woman about my age got on. Anna had been the lab technician who’d worked on the case with me and Andre.
I steeled myself for questions about my sudden departure, but Anna threw me a genuine smile. “Hey, Jess. I didn’t know you were back. Did they find a new case to bring you in on?”
She didn’t know. She had no clue about how I’d stormed out or why.
I let out a breath, discreetly I hoped. Anna was reminding me of what my conscience had been whispering for days—that I shouldn’t condemn the entire Gryphon organization for the actions of a few.
Truth was, there was no reason Anna should know what happened regarding my leaving. Based on the little I knew myself, my entire existence was top-secret stuff. None of which was Anna’s fault, or Bridget’s, or probably even Olivia Lee’s. It was hardly right of me to hold a grudge against any of them for it.
No, my grudge—make that my very righteous fury—should be directed at the group within the Gryphons behind this. The Brotherhood of the Wing.
But making that distinction emotionally, not just logically, wasn’t easy. Especially because the Gryphons were a good target. I’d already felt spurned by them when they’d denied me entry for being a magical freak, and then they’d come after me when I was framed for murder. In both cases they’d been doing their jobs, but knowing that didn’t lessen the sting.
Hell, knowing that some of them had been responsible for turning me into a freak, which was why I’d been denied entry, which had led me to engage in activities that had gotten me framed for murder… Well, that made it harder.
Still, not Anna’s fault.
My body remained tense, although I tried to cover up my misplaced angst. “Yeah, looks like I’m going to be working on a case that came down last night.”
“Great! Maybe we’ll get to work together again.” She got off one floor below me.
Stepping out on the fifth floor, I squared my shoulders and checked my surroundings. A couple people nodded at me, but no one seemed all that concerned or interested in my presence. Possibly they recognized me from my recent stint here.
I took off down the hall toward Olivia’s grand office, and was waylaid at last as I approached by her perky receptionist.
“She’s in a meeting,” the woman told me, “and I don’t have you on her calendar.”
“Find time.” I plopped on one of the chairs by the door. “She’s been asking to see me.”
The receptionist started to say something else, but she cut off as two large doors on the other side of the reception area opened and out walked none other than the director herself.
“Jessica.” Olivia peered down on me with disapproval. She held up a finger in my direction, and I snapped my lips shut without uttering a word. Sure, I’d wait.
Behind her, three other people emerged from what appeared to be a conference room. The two humans were unfamiliar to me, but the magus bore a face I’d seen before and had never wished to see again.
Xander, the magus in question, was a falcon shifter with bright red plumage on his head and an expensive suit on his body. He was a liaison to important political people within the state, and a plain old self-important jackass. Our first and only run-in had not gone well.
I clenched my teeth in anticipation, but he cast not so much as a disparaging glance my way before striding off. Either he didn’t recognize me, or he simply hadn’t thought a woman in jeans and a T-shirt was worth his attention.
Win for me.
Olivia finished exchanging pleasantries with her companions and turned my way as they left. “Let’s talk.”
I popped to my feet. “That’s why I’m here.”
I followed her into her office, tasting the strange blend of generalized unhappiness she was feeling. So much was going on in her emotions that I couldn’t sort it out, but it tasted awful.
“Have a seat.” Olivia took her own recommendation, and she faced me from across her large desk. Small in comparison to it, she nonetheless radiated authority and a don’t-mess-with-me attitude that I admired even if I didn’t personally like her. She tucked strands of graying black hair behind her ears and got down to business. “I got your message last night, or should I say this morning.”
I adopted the same attitude. “But you didn’t call back.”
“I didn’t see the point. I’d been calling you and you weren’t responding.”
I almost rolled my eyes but managed restraint. “So you were getting revenge?”
“I think we can both be more mature than that. If you were going to follow through and return today, I assumed that you’d do it on your own time.” Disapproval weighed down her voice.
I shrugged. “The only reason I’m back is because of what happened last night.”
“That’s another reason I hadn’t returned your call.” She closed her eyes, and for a second I saw her stress etched clearly over her face. Then she pulled herself together. “Being as famous as he is, what happened to Mr. Marshall has become a rather large and popular topic in the media. As I’m sure you’re aware.”
“Actually, I wasn’t. I haven’t checked the news all morning.”
“Lucky you.” Olivia waved a hand around idly. “There were over fifty witnesses at that bookstore yesterday. The story of what happened is all over the news stations and Internet. There’s even video. Multiple people were using their phones to record his reading at the time.”
“And they made the recordings public?” Stay classy, Boston.
Olivia’s face was a mask of distaste. “When
people share everything these days? Anyway, as you can imagine, it’s been a busy day around here. We haven’t had to deal with such a high-profile case in years. The last time anything with this much gossip potential occurred it was about that actress who got caught planting curses on a baseball team.”
I remembered the incident although it had happened several years ago, and it wasn’t baseball, but basketball. Selena Troy had sold her soul to a harpy for her big break, and the harpy had used her to try to take down the Lakers over some complicated gambling deal. “It wasn’t this office that had to handle it, was it?”
“No, thankfully. That was the L.A. office, but this office does have to handle Eric Marshall. So we’ve been busy.”
I clasped my hands together. “Good thing I’m here to help.”
Judging by Olivia’s expression she wasn’t so sure about that. “Yes, I’ve been informed that Agent Nelson requested your assistance.”
Thank you, Bridget. I think.
If nothing else, she’d kept her word. “Eric’s cousin is a good friend of mine. You could say the family has requested my personal involvement.”
Olivia took a deep breath and tossed a hefty manila file folder my way. “You need to sign a new consultant agreement and fill out those forms again. Given the way you left, I had to make sure your clearances were formally revoked. Also, turn in your request for a new protective charm to Agent Nelson, and she’ll make sure it gets passed down to the lab. You can have your old cube back.”
I opened the folder. My former badge was clipped to the agreement. “Great. Thanks.”
“So does this mean I’m officially working with Bridget on Eric’s case?”
Olivia leaned forward. “Yes, but let me explain two more things.” She raised her index finger. “One. Gryphon policy is to not allow agents with a personal connection to a specific case to get involved. I’m making an allowance in this situation since the family has requested your assistance, you were a witness to what happened, and this is such a high-profile case that I want to use every resource we can spare. That includes you and your dubious contacts in Shadowtown.”
Dubious? Wait until someone in HR discovered my updated contact information included a Shadowtown mailing address. “And the second thing?”
“Again, this is high profile. It’s entirely possible that during the course of the investigation you’ll get people from the media asking questions and pressuring you for information. If you do, let Agent Nelson handle it. She knows where to direct those inquiries. All you do is tell people to talk to her. Got it?”
Where to direct those inquiries—sounded like code for the trash bin.
“Got it. The less people I have to talk to, the happier I am anyway.”
A shadow of a smile appeared on Olivia’s face. “That doesn’t surprise me.”
Taking that as my dismissal, I got up. “Should I drop the rest of these forms off in HR later?”
“Yes. And, Jessica? One more thing.” Olivia stood. “Whatever your issue is with Agent Kassin? It doesn’t concern me. Next time, leave me and this office out of it.”
I gritted my teeth, but since I’d just been pondering the same thing on my way here, I managed to nod rather stiffly. “Understood.”
Olivia’s dark eyes were hard. “I hope so because I want to be clear. My responsibility is overseeing the Boston Office. And Kassin, although he’s been working out of it, does not report to me. After you stormed out of here, I made some calls because he refused to speak to me about it. I was shut out fast and told this was above my clearance. Since I’m not allowed to know what’s going on, I have absolutely no interest in being caught in the middle again. Now do you understand?”
Though Olivia kept her voice controlled, I tasted the heat of her anger. I couldn’t blame her. Yet interestingly, her anger didn’t seem directed quite as much at me as it was at whoever had told her to fuck off.
I nodded. “I apologize for taking it out on you. I didn’t realize at the time…” Hadn’t been thinking straight, more like. “Didn’t realize who or what was responsible for the issue. I’m still angry with the Gryphon organization, but not everyone in it. I just want to stay away from Tom Kassin.”
Surprisingly, Olivia seemed mollified by my response. She probably hadn’t anticipated an apology.
For that matter, neither had I until one left my mouth. Who knew? I could be reasonable, after all.
“Then you’ll be pleased to know Agent Kassin left for World soon after you quit. Although I suspect he’ll be back. He left a lot of his belongings here.”
Well, wasn’t that interesting. I’d told Tom to fuck off, and he did, in fact, fuck off and run back home. No doubt straight to his creepy fraternity to get his orders for what to do next. Olivia was right about that. No question—Tom would be back, and he and his superiors weren’t likely to be done with me.
But for the moment, at least, I could breathe easier. Tom was on the other side of the Atlantic, in France. That left me room to think about more important things, like why I was here.
Another thing I should be thinking about? Where I was going. As Olivia’s door closed, I realized I didn’t know where to report.
Shifting my grip on the file folder, I decided the paperwork was a good place to start. Olivia said I had my former desk back, so I went downstairs to where my cubby had been located. Much as I didn’t like sitting around and filling out stupid forms, I wasn’t sure anyone would let me touch the case until I did. Besides, Bridget might have a clue where to find me if I stayed put.
I clipped on my badge and found my cube much as I left it. With some amusement, I noted that someone had retrieved the Gryphon windbreaker I’d once asked for—and then had thrown at Olivia on my way out the door. It was draped over the back of the chair.
That saved me the embarrassment of asking for it back.
There were no notes from Bridget or anyone else, and I’d been locked out of the computer as Olivia had hinted. So I got to work on form after form with a pen I found in the desk drawer. Ten minutes into this, as I was recalling that I had a phone and could have texted Bridget, she showed up.
“Knock, knock.” She had her light brown hair pulled into a tidy bun today, but instead of it looking formal or elegant, with her serious face, she looked about twenty years older than her age. “Director Lee told me you were here. Ready to go into a briefing?”