Authors: Hailey Edwards
at the bait shack consisted of hamburgers, wings, footlong hotdogs, fried chicken and, oddly enough, bologna. A buffet of the finest fried foods available in Abbeville. The pack wolfed down the meat and gnawed the marrow from the bones, in human form, but the extra crispy thigh I had picked apart with my fingers never made it past my lips.
Two pack members had escorted Daphne home after Graeson assessed the situation. A male had packed her things and driven her car to the address listed on her driver’s license, and the female whose name I hadn’t caught gave Daphne a ride in the van because she had no longer been speaking or doing much of anything but staring into the distance while tears rolled silently down her cheeks by that point.
The female borrowed my badge and a business card, and then memorized my cell phone number so if the Tanners had questions they would dial her—
—instead of hunting down a representative from the local marshal’s office. The quieter we kept this, the better. Even with the Tanners assured we were doing our best, we had a tiny window to produce results before Mrs. Tanner raised a ruckus over her missing daughter. A sobering thought considering how it was my name and badge number she would recite if questioned about the phony marshal visit.
Across the room, Graeson sat in a far corner staring out a broken window into the marsh. A paper plate piled high with food rested on his knees, but he hadn’t eaten a bite. The others pretended not to notice, but I stared, hoping the weight of my gaze would turn his head and we could talk about where to go from here. But his attention belonged to the swaying grasses, not to me.
Slurping noises brought my attention back to Dell, whose face was smeared with hot sauce. A wing bone stuck to her bottom lip, and she chewed one end the way a farmer might grind a wheat stem between his teeth.
The makeshift table wobbled when I nudged my plate across it. “I need to clear my head.”
The bone fell onto her lap. “But the food will be gone when we get back.”
“That’s okay.” Careful not to jar the others at the table, I stood and inched past them. “I’m not hungry.”
“Well, I am.” She grabbed a handful of napkins and wiped her face. Most of the sauce had dried and stuck to her chin. “Come on, Camille. Ten minutes. Just long enough for me to go for fourths. I’ll never make it to fifths with this crowd.”
The itch beneath my skin intensified the longer I stood there with the wargs staring at me. The pack bond at work no doubt. Gossiping about the kidnapee where she couldn’t hear them. How polite. The female warg tucked her plate to her chest and released a warning growl. Before the nearest man could stop me, I snagged an entire untouched bucket of chicken, thrust it into Dell’s arms and started walking.
“Hey,” he protested.
“Haden.” One word from Graeson ended the quarrel before it began.
I withered Haden with a glance and then hit the porch as though the pack were nipping at my heels. Or worse, its beta. The muggy air stank of old house and wet dog. The wolves had been in the water again, scenting the sandbars for fresh signs the kelpie had passed through. When the kelpie’s scent trail had vanished at the edge of the parking lot, the Garzas suspected magical intervention, but there was no handy Fury to blame this time.
The longer we chased Charybdis the more convinced I became he and the kelpie were two separate entities working toward a common goal. Catching two killers was a daunting prospect since I had only ever registered one magical signature at the crime scenes. We had blamed the erasure spell in Alabama on the Fury, but maybe we were wrong. Maybe it was Charybdis scrubbing his presence from the kelpie’s kill sites so the conclave focused on the killer responsible for the wet work.
A whiff of jasmine and honeysuckle hit my nose. I descended the steps and set off in search of the origin. Why not? I had nothing better to do. No books. No TV. No Internet. No phones. Wargs didn’t need them to communicate, but I was getting twitchy without my cellphone and its distracting apps.
Paper shredded, and I heard Dell inhale over the bucket. “I’m ready to go home. My meemaw’s chicken is so much better than this.”
“I know what you mean.” Not the chicken part. Aunt Dot wasn’t allowed in the kitchen unsupervised. The poor woman could burn water. The going-home part? That sounded good right about now. Graeson still owed me a phone call, but last night was riding us hard today, and I wasn’t ready to do battle for that promised trip into town.
I was starting to regret not using Daphne’s cell while I had the chance. Paranoia had warned me the conclave might trace her phone records to corroborate her story, and the last thing I wanted to explain was why I hadn’t reported the incident or checked in with Vause. Letting Aunt Dot worry a while longer seemed the lesser of two evils.
“Where’s home for you?” she asked around a hunk of breast meat.
“Tennessee is where I live now.”
A thoughtful crunch. “You’re not from there originally?”
A twinge rippled through my chest. “No.”
“Do you live alone?”
“Yes and no. Home is an airstream trailer.” I smiled thinking of its cozy quarters. “My aunt and cousins live in the same RV park as I do. Aunt Dot bought it, actually. It looked like I would be stationed there for a while, and she wanted a new project. She kind of collects real estate from all the places we visit.”
“Huh.” The bucket rattled when she jogged to catch up to me. “You mean your whole family goes where your job sends you?”
“Gemini are nomadic by nature.” We also tended to band together in family groups. “With Aunt Dot getting older, it’s easier to have time to plan our next move and coordinate.”
“Are you seeing anyone?” Dell munched thoughtfully. “All that travel has to be rough on relationships.”
“I don’t date, so it’s not a problem,” I assured her. Dell’s chicken must have gone down the wrong pipe, because she started choking. I whacked her on the back, and she caught her breath after a minute. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” she wheezed. “I just— That sounds lonely.”
Lonely I was used to. Having company outside of blood relatives…now that was weird. First Harlow and now Dell and the ever-present Graeson. “Are you seeing anyone?”
“No.” With a grunt of effort, she hurled her chicken bone into a tree trunk. “My last boyfriend found his lifemate at the grocery store. I sent him out for frozen custard, and he came home with a leggy brunette named Petra.” She selected a wing. “The worst part? He forgot the custard.” She bit down hard. “Bastard.”
“Don’t you want the mated thing?” I assumed all wargs would be excited for the hunt. “That whole fated soul-mate connection?”
“Eh.” Another bite. “The idea of a random stranger walking up to me one day and saying, ‘Hey, baby, you smell like forever. Let’s do it,’ isn’t all that appealing honestly.”
A snort escaped me. “Yeah, I guess not.”
“Not everyone is a traditionalist.” She rattled the bucket and plunged a hand inside. “Some wargs are already in relationships or married when their destined mate shows up on the doorstep. Some of them say no. At least at first.”
I hummed in my throat. “That sounds like a heartache waiting to happen.”
“Sometimes,” she conceded. “I’m just saying, if you meet a male and like what you see, that you shouldn’t write him off because of what
I tripped over my own feet. “Tell me you aren’t playing matchmaker.”
“All I’m saying is Cord’s in my head, and he’s got a one-track mind where you’re concerned, if you catch my drift.”
Prickles stung my cheeks. “That’s not possible.” I gestured around us. “All of this is for Marie. He must be thinking of her. After Lori…” I rubbed the ache under my breastbone. “I was crazed for months. It was all I thought about.”
The quirk of her brow made me think Graeson hadn’t told her about Lori, which earned him bonus points in my book. It was one thing to be a kidnapper. It was another to be a blabbermouth.
“Is the connection always so wide open?” That must make pack life awkward. “Can you all read each other’s minds?”
“Uh, well. It’s like this.” Her gaze darted left to right. “There’s something you should know about that.”
“Dell.” The low voice resonated in my bones. “I’ll take it from here.”
The bucket of chicken groaned where she squeezed it against her chest. “I’ll wait for you on the porch.”
What I hoped passed for a comforting smile bent my lips. She ducked her head and spun on her heel. She couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I didn’t blame her. Alone with Graeson was pretty far down my list of favorite places to be too.
“Do you always walk this much?” Accusation throbbed in his tone. “Or is this a recent development?”
Now that Dell had piqued my interest, I studied him for hints of what she had been about to say. The fatigue etching his face had lessened. The grief that had clung to him when we met, he kept behind a wall that I struggled to see over. His eyes were still dull, but I had witnessed flashes of their brilliance. I wasn’t sure what it meant that he concealed his pain so well. What else might he be hiding?
“I move around a lot. I have a high-stress job.” I pegged him with a glare. “I’ve also been kidnapped by a renegade cell of rogue wargs. That’s enough to make a girl antsy.”
“We’re taking good care of you.” Graeson stepped forward, and sunlight cast shadows under his hollowed cheeks. “We’re providing for you.”
Call me crazy, but the subtext rang loud and clear. That
was the one doing the providing. Must be some alpha he-man impulse.
I stood my ground. “Haven’t you ever heard the saying that a gilded cage is still a cage?”
“You’re not rattling your bars too loudly. We both know you could leave at any time. Say the word, and I’ll drive you to the airport myself.” His jaw flexed, as if he had to force out the offer. “You could have used that girl’s phone at Upper Branch. Yeah, I saw it in your hand through Dell’s thoughts.” Another step closer when my cheeks flamed. I
that would bite me on the butt. “Why didn’t you?”
“A girl is missing.” I tilted up my chin. “I owe her the best chance at being found, and right now that’s you and me.”
“I like the sound of
,” he growled softly.
Graeson towered over me, his warm breaths hitting my cheeks. They were rapid and deep, drawing in my scent. His golden eyes burned until all I wanted to do was blink, but I knew he would view it as submission, and I wasn’t bending an inch where he was concerned. He cupped the side of my neck. One of his large hands, warm and calloused, pulled me forward. My gaze held steady, and the challenge in his made my stomach quiver. My hands hovered over his chest, almost touching but not ready to concede to tactile curiosity. When his head lowered, he kept his lips a whisper above mine, daring me to close the gap and take what he offered.
I jerked out of his grasp and backpedaled several steps. His hand closed over air, and his jaw set. Annoyance flashed in his eyes.
“I— Sorry.” Dell skidded to a halt, eyes wide as she panned from him to me. “Miguel’s got a fix on the kelpie.”
The gold in his eyes simmered. “Where?”
“It’s in a cave system beneath the lake.” Specks of dirt on her tennis shoes commanded her sudden interest. “Our patrols must have corralled it.”
“We drove it into the water,” he said under his breath as though that outcome unsettled him.
Why hadn’t it escaped when it had the chance? The absence of a scent trail meant the wargs had no way of tracking it. Why had it approached us in the first place? Why parade its prey in front of us? The thing was inciting us to action, and that kind of boldness made me nervous. “The girl couldn’t have survived this long in the water.”
“Unless that’s what he does,” Graeson said, shifting uneasily. “We don’t know how he picks his locations. I’m not sure about the other sites, but I know there is a cavern beneath the pond where—” his voice hitched, “—Marie was found. A water sprite lived there when I was a boy. She used to talk to me when I was hunting in wolf form.”
The way he said it made me curious. “Does she still live there?” Some fae hibernated for decades at a time.
“No. She was accused a drowning a young man she favored. Some said they were lovers. I think she was beautiful and he was tempted by her. If she harmed him, then she was protecting herself.” His expression soured. “The conclave swept in and removed her before Bessemer got it in his head to sanction a hunt without a trial. Now her name will never be cleared, and she won’t be allowed to return home for as long as Bessemer lives. That type of fae…” Old sadness rang out. “They bond to their homes. Relocating her was a death sentence.”
That might explain his distrust for the conclave. They had hurt a friend of his. His fondness for the sprite might also explain why he had greeted me with an open mind instead of the prejudice so many wargs held against fae.
“You think this might be part of his pattern.” I turned the idea over in my head. “We know he keeps his victims alive for a week or longer. If he’s choosing bodies of water with fae-created cave systems, then there may be dry caverns and oxygen too.”
“The kelpie could stash its victim there until the time was right,” Graeson agreed.
“How do we find out what’s underneath this lake without tapping into conclave resources?” Without Internet access, we couldn’t Google geography or touch base with my contacts. “Local fae would know. I’m going to need that ride into town now.”
“No.” Graeson rubbed his chin. “You won’t. I have someone in mind.”
“Who? Last I checked, wargs don’t have gills.” I crossed to Dell and touched her shoulder. She peered up at me through fringe bangs. “We have to call Vause.” We had no choice. “It would take days to assemble a dive team capable of handling the kelpie without asking the conclave for assistance. This victim doesn’t have that kind of time.”
“There’s another option, a safer choice.”
On reflex, my hand clamped over the pearl bracelet on my opposite wrist as though protecting it might shield Harlow too. “Harlow isn’t well enough to go up against a kelpie.”