Authors: Hailey Edwards
etween the late
flight and the car ride, and Graeson appointing himself our driver, I managed three hours of sleep before we arrived at a two-star hotel in Andalusia, Alabama. Harlow, Graeson and I checked in then went our separate ways. I headed to my room for a shower and a change of clothes. At this point, I wanted the food I still hadn’t eaten more than I wanted a power nap before facing Vause.
Dressed in a black pantsuit with a white ruffled shirt, I twisted my hair into a tight bun at the back of my head then left the room and rode the elevator down to the lobby. I stepped off and bumped right into Graeson, who stood with his feet braced apart and arms crossed over his chest, waiting. His hands shot out to steady me, and even after I stopped wobbling, he was slow to release me.
The damp hair slicking to his scalp reminded me of the first time we met and the circumstances that had brought us together. I stepped out of his reach and headed across the lobby where leftovers from the free continental breakfast were being picked over.
“Where do you think you’re going?” His voice slid over my shoulder, his breath warm at my ear.
“I’m starving.” I pressed a fist to my gut. “I’m heading where the food is.”
He hooked my arm and spun me around. Once my head stopped whirling, I realized he was marching me out the front entryway.
“What are you—?” I struggled to get free. “The food is that way.”
“No.” His rough palm cupped my jaw and turned my head. “The
food is that way.”
The familiar red Shoney’s sign glowed from across the street, and my stomach gurgled. All-you-can-eat eggs, bacon, pancakes and home-style fried potatoes. That sounded so much better than bottomless orange juice and kiddie cereal.
“Wait.” I glanced behind us. “Where’s Harlow?”
“Already gone. Got picked up five minutes ago.” He tugged on my arm to get me moving. “She’s got orders to search the lake for evidence of occupation.”
The odds Charybdis had stayed put after a failed abduction were slim. He hadn’t managed to elude authorities this long by taking chances.
“We should probably get moving too,” I said weakly. We stood at the entrance to the restaurant, and Graeson pushed open the door, allowing the scents of fried meats and waffles cooking to breeze past us. My mouth filled with water, and I glanced back at him. “You don’t play fair.”
He placed his hand at the small of my back and pressed. “Fair doesn’t taste like bacon.”
I couldn’t argue with that logic.
A waitress greeted us, saw the bacon lust in our eyes and showed us to a table. While she fixed our drinks, we hit the buffet. I grabbed a little of everything and a lot of the fried potatoes. Those tiny cubes were my favorite thing. Beside me, Graeson piled mountains of ham, sausage patties and links, and crisp bacon strips on his plate. He caught me goggling at the sheer volume of meat and added a scoop of potatoes to his plate.
Shaking my head, I took my breakfast and found our table. Graeson sat at the same time, waiting until I had taken the first bite before tucking into his meal. I didn’t stand on formalities. I was shoveling potatoes and eggs into my mouth almost as fast as he was inhaling sausage links. After I had cleaned my plate, I sat back, eyeing his stack of country ham with a fork in hand, all the while wondering how quick his reflexes were.
“Don’t even think about it.” He scooted his meal closer to his side of the table. “There’s a whole buffet out there.”
“I don’t think I can move,” I admitted. Eating so much so fast had made me lethargic.
He rose with liquid grace. “Sit tight.”
Sitting wasn’t a problem. It was the getting up while carrying a sack of Idaho’s best in my stomach that would be the issue. I shut my eyes and basked in the sensation of fullness. I jumped when an arm brushed my shoulder. I jerked upright, but it was only Graeson. He had leaned over me to place my plate on the table, which set off fluttering in a stomach already feeling twitchy. Having a predator at my back wasn’t helping my digestion.
“Here.” He lingered in my personal space before withdrawing. “That should tide you over until dinner.”
“Dinner?” Fork in hand, the better to stab him at the least provocation, I examined what he had chosen for me. “What about lunch?”
“Lunch is the least dependable meal of the day.” He reclaimed his seat and lifted his fork, again waiting for me to take a bite before he began eating. “It’s smarter to fuel up now in case we don’t get another chance.”
The mountain of potatoes loomed, and though I shouldn’t have kept scooping them in, I did. I only stopped after noticing Graeson’s attention on my lips as I chewed. I fumbled the fork and grabbed a napkin. “What?” I wiped my mouth. “Did I get grease on my face?”
Voice gone coarse, he ground out a single word. “No.”
There wasn’t enough liquid left in my glass to wet my throat when he looked at me with that potent mix of grief and guilt I understood too well. Living, even for a moment, after someone you loved had died, carved up your insides. I drained the juice and still felt parched. “I need a refill.” I pushed my chair back. “Do you want anything?”
Shadows darkening his eyes, he shook his head, gaze falling to the condensation beading on his water glass.
“Graeson…” I began, not sure where to go from there, comforting others an unfamiliar task.
“We don’t have long.” He flicked off the droplets one by one. “Vause is expecting you.”
Easing from my seat, I approached the beverage station and poured more orange juice, drained the glass and then repeated the process. A prickle of awareness swept over me, and I turned. Graeson sat at the table, fork on his napkin, waiting for me, the ghost of his sister haunting his gaze.
to Falco was silent but for the low buzz of the radio, the car filled with things neither of us was saying. I had turned to answering emails on my phone to distract myself from the price I was about to pay in order to purchase another scrap of information that might help us end this man hunt before another girl was taken. Graeson’s voice, after such heavy quiet, startled me into dropping my cell in my lap.
“You reek of grief.” He killed the radio. “The closer we get to town, the more intense it becomes.”
Suppressing the urge to sniff myself, I wrinkled my nose. “I’m thinking of the victims.”
It wasn’t an outright lie. It was a miracle this one girl out of so many had escaped. I hadn’t stopped wondering what made her different since Vause told me about her. My job put me in direct contact with victims, their families and friends. Meeting a survivor? That was almost enough to buoy my introspective mood.
“That’s not it. You’ve been distraught since you spoke to Vause.” He cut his gaze my way. “Who is Lori?”
The bottom fell out of my stomach. “You were eavesdropping?”
“My hearing is superior to yours,” he stated matter-of-factly. “I can’t help what I overhear.”
He sounded all torn up over it too.
“Don’t mention her name again.” My voice trembled. Grief. Rage. I wasn’t sure there was a line separating the two where she was concerned.
Graeson got quiet, but it was the unsettling peace of a man deep in thought. I didn’t trust it.
Hours later we hit the strip qualifying Falco as a town and parked on the curb in front of a faded meter with crackled glass. Blinds slatted three of the storefronts’ windows. A “For Lease” sign had been taped to the door of each empty space. The fourth, the one on the end, was papered over with old newsprint. If I tilted my head just right, the pane glimmered with a sheen of magic. Nothing about it advertised the purpose of the space, but two people entered and four left before we reached the door.
After stepping across the threshold, glamour flared behind my eyes and faded to leave green images superimposed on my retinas. We had stepped off the mundane street and into a gleaming lobby with a wide receptionist desk manned by a dryad wearing a handful of leaves artfully arranged into a halter-style dress. Other fae lounged in over-plush chairs or helped themselves to a food-service station that smelled spicy and rich with heated beverages.
The scent of fresh chai brewing made my mouth water. “What is this place?”
“This is safe house two-four-nine,” a chilly voice intoned. “It’s a low-level facility for fae assimilating into the area after forceful relocation from their home territory.”
The clipped voice at my ear made me jump. Throat tight, I propped my lips into a smile before I turned.
A petite woman stood behind me. At five-five I wasn’t tall, but I towered over her. Pale blonde hair a few shades lighter than mine was swept into a bun so tight I could probably bounce a quarter off her coif. Cornflower-blue eyes swept over me with anticipation, as if expecting me to yank Lori out of my jacket pocket. Two slender men outfitted in black fatigues accompanied her. Their sharp eyes never stopped scanning the area. Their palms rested on the hilts of swords they made no effort to hide.
“Magistrate Vause.” Speaking her name broke sweat down my spine. “I didn’t expect to see you.”
Trepidation had kept me from reading between the lines. I should have anticipated she would choose to witness a talent I was reluctant to use. The conclave liked to keep tabs on its resources, after all. Especially the underutilized ones.
“This matter requires special attention.” A practical smile. “And here I am.”
She rarely left the outpost the Northeastern Conclave called home. I glanced behind her, almost expecting to see her Unseelie counterpart. Magistrates came in pairs—one Seelie and one Unseelie—as a means of keeping the balance between their two factions. As a Seelie myself, it was natural she would be my contact person. But the absence of her counterpart pricked at the worry budding in the back of my mind.
Thierry had warned me that Charybdis was the product of a portal breach, and that changed everything. He was a dangerous fae preying on other fae. Wouldn’t both parties be equally invested in seeing the killer captured in the interest of appeasing their partisans? He had targeted both Seelie and Unseelie, as well as Earth natives like Graeson’s sister.
To distract myself from what was to come, I glanced around. “It’s busy for a safe house, isn’t it?”
“As far as the mortals are concerned, it’s Tuna Tuesday at the homeless shelter.” She extended her arm, and I braced for impact before shaking her hand. Electricity swam through my veins and fisted my heart in a vise. “Camille.” Her lips curved upward, but her gaze remained distant and hard. “Despite the circumstances, it is good to see you. We miss you in Maine.”
“Tennessee is nice. I like the mountains.” I retreated closer to Graeson, which earned me an arched eyebrow from him. “I like the marshal’s office I work out of now.” Remembering my manners, I forced out, “I appreciate your recommendation. It went a long ways toward convincing the office they could afford me.”
“It was nothing. I’m pleased your new environment suits you. For the time being. I know how much your family enjoys travel.” Vause held out her hand, and one of her guards squirted hand sanitizer into her palm. The scent of strawberry lemonade tickled my nose. “Who is this? Did you take a cab from the hotel?” She massaged in the liquid, gaze raking over Graeson with no small amount of disdain before turning back to me. “Ask your driver to wait in the car.”
“No offense, ma’am—” and he made it sound plenty offensive, “—but the conclave governs fae.” A feral grin. “I’m not fae.”
Wargs were, in polite terms, human genetic mutations. The same as vampires. Magic was in the mix too, but it was Earth magic. Not Faerie-born.
“This is a conclave-owned facility.” Smugness radiated through the rub of her hands. “And I am asking you to leave.”
In a heartbeat, one of the guards drew his sword and pressed it to Graeson’s throat. The warg didn’t blink. If anything, his impending decapitation appeared to bore him. I wasn’t half so blasé about blood spilling without cause.
“The previous victim—” a cold title for a girl who had been Graeson’s sister, “—was killed on Chandler pack land.” I glanced between the wicked sharp blade, the disinterested warg and the magistrate with glittering eyes. “Mr. Graeson, as a member of the Chandler pack, has rights under the Native Species of Magical Origins Act.”
Some of the sparkle left Vause’s gaze. “So he does.” A cutting glance from her and the guard sheathed his blade. “Very well, Mr. Graeson. You may stay.” Vause pretended interest in her nails. “You may observe Camille’s technique with me.”
I flinched at the punishment. It didn’t go unnoticed by Graeson. The last thing I wanted was for him to witness what I was about to do. Vause knew it, and she had offered him a front-row seat.
“We can’t detain the girl much longer.” Vause strode down the hall with the confidence of someone who expected her orders to be followed. One guard accompanied her. The other, the one who had drawn on Graeson, hung back to babysit him. She snapped her fingers. “Camille?”
“Coming.” I reached her side in a few quick strides. She hadn’t been waiting. Her legs were just that short. “What you’re asking me to do…” I wiped my damp palms on my pants. “I don’t know if…”
“You can do this.” She sounded more confident in my abilities than I ever had been. “It’s one of your gifts. To perfect it, you must practice it.”
I sucked down a shuddering breath, seconds from pleading with her to let me off the hook or to find someone else to conduct the interview. She must have sensed my crumbling resolve, because she guided me into a small room and shut the door behind us. It locked. The interior was dark, and the front wall was made entirely of glass. A two-way mirror.
The view made my chest ache. A figure wrapped in a fuzzy canary-yellow blanket sat on a chair bolted to the floor. All the furniture in the interrogation room was secured, but the stark contrast of that quivering mound of fabric worn soft by multiple washings and the sterile room made me cringe. All I saw to confirm someone was underneath were the tips of two slender fingers holding it in place.
“She hasn’t spoken a word since she was recovered.” Vause peered at the girl with a frown cutting her mouth. “We need to find out what she knows before shock erodes her memory.” A grimace. “Children are so resilient.”