Wendy had almost forgotten how huge Jack was. Now that he was looming over her, shoulders puffed and amber eyes burning, she was reminded. The dragon was always imposing, even in human form. Smoke snorted from his flaring nostrils and she took a step back, quivering her lower lip. Jack paused in mid glare, wincing at her expression. Under her frightened glamor, she smiled. The lip quiver always worked, no matter what their relationship status. Still, she couldn’t remember the last time he was so angry.
Oh wait, she could.
It was when she had broken up with him.
Well, it's his own fault for not getting over it faster, she thought.
Wendy glanced at her cousin, Adelle who stood stiffly to the side, pinching her forehead. Adelle’s siren’s blood made her drop-dead gorgeous which clearly caught Jack’s eye, whether he realized it or not. Wendy had been counting on that. He was always a sucker for damsels in distress, especially redheads. That weakness was going to solve her current problem, namely getting Adelle out of her hair and out of her house. Wendy was about to speak when a terrified death grip caught her arm.
Oh yeah. She had brought the vampire along. Damn her memory.
A wiggle of Wendy’s nose swapped Steven’s fear with a stoic, fierce illusion, complete with flashing red eyes. Did half-vampire eyes change when angry? Well, they did now. Jack grumbled at their linked elbows, his rage renewing. Worried murmurs echoed through the coffee shop, patrons moving as far away as they could while still enjoying their lattes.
“Wendy, you told me you’d never screw around with me like this!” Jack barked, his light Scottish accent thickening.
“I’m not screwing around with you! You promised!” Wendy replied.
Sure, Wendy might have planted a teeny tiny persuasion spell in Jack’s brain so he’d vow to protect Adelle. And Adelle might be in danger from the vampires who had kidnapped her and fed off her magical blood. And Wendy might want that danger as far away as possible. But it was a harmless spell. Just a nudge, really. With her knowledge of mind magic, she could have done a lot worse. Steven moved closer to her, his fingers digging into her skin.
He won’t kill you, Wendy sent telepathically. Jack is a lot of things but he’s not a cold-blooded killer. Just stop looking like a scared raccoon.
I’m going to be slayed by a dragon! Steven whimpered in her head. I can’t not look like a scared raccoon!
You. Are. Fine. She held onto him, in case he tried to bolt. On the off chance he does try to hurt you, I’ll make sure he doesn’t.
How? He’s three times your size!
Wendy turned to him with an arched brow and twisted lip.
Steven blinked. Oh, yeah. The mind fuckery. Forgot about that.
“Okay, let’s all relax here,” Adelle said, her voice cutting through their mind-speak. “Look, Jack. I need a place to stay. I’m sorry Wendy left that important part out but as melodramatic as this sounds, I’m not safe at Wendy’s place. At least not now.”
Steven gave Wendy a frown. What does she mean, not safe?
Adelle ran into some vampire trouble down in San Diego and she was sent here to Washington to hide. Wendy tried to make her thoughts sound less annoyed but there it was.
No wonder she kept giving me the side-eye! You should have told me that days ago!
Steven lifted his hand to his mouth as if trying to hide his fangs. Without batting an eye, Wendy reached up and pulled the offending appendage away, casting an illusion of Steven giving her a comforting squeeze.
Adelle scowled at the exchange, unaware of their ruse. The urge to stick her tongue out at her cousin was overwhelming. Afterall, Wendy was doing her a favor. Jack was fierce, loyal, and deadly. If anyone could protect her it would be him.
Adelle gave a hopeless sigh. “Look, I don’t like this anymore than you do but please. I got nothing, man.”
In an instant, Jack softened. Wendy fought the grin.
“Well, it doesn’t matter anyways.” Jack spit out his words like they were poison. “I’m bound now.”
A dull pang strained against Wendy’s ribs. Guilt. That was definitely guilt.
Oh yes, her conscience muttered. Doing Papa proud with this behavior.
Instead of pretending her father wasn’t rolling in his grave, she flashed one of her best smiles. Can’t feel guilty with a great big smile. At least that’s what her mother always said. And God, her mother smiled a lot.
“Fine. I got a spare room,” Jack grumbled. “You can stay with me for now, Adelle.” He raked a hand through his hair, jaw clenched.
She wiggled her fingers, her spell seeping right between the dragon’s ears to whisper its sweet honey. You’re not mad. You’re only a bit miffed and will get over it.
Jack’s tension released and the fire in his expression faded.
Bull’s eye as usual.
“Thank you,” Wendy said, ignoring Adelle’s incredulous glare. She patted her arm and told her “Be good, please,” then added in mind-speak, Not one word about my mind spells or I’ll wipe your memories clean!
Adelle snorted and plopped down at Jack’s table, not bothering to send a response. Good. Wendy didn’t want to hear it anyways. Before she could give anymore sneers to her cousin, Steven hauled her out, the bell over the door ringing madly on their exit.
Wendy looked back at What a Grind as she was dragged down the street. Jack and Adelle sat beside the picture window, staring awkwardly at each other. That would pass. It would only be a matter of time before Jack would fall all over her. Wendy remembered how intrigued he had been when Adelle and her older sister Valerie came to help her move out of her father’s home.
A hot sigh shook her chest. She tossed her head back, forcing that smile one more time.
Just count to ten and it will all go away! One. Two. Three...
“Well, that could have gone better,” Steven grumbled.
“It went fine,” Wendy replied. She ushered him further down the street, despite his car parked right out front. “Let’s take a walk.”
In the distance, a woman laughed and Steven almost jumped out of his skin.
“Because of that reaction, right there.” Wendy gave his arm a squeeze.
Steven sighed, tapping his forehead. “I don’t like being outside for long. Not since… you know.”
“I know.” Wendy gestured to the sky overhead. “But it’s broad daylight.”
Steven worried a fang across his lower lip, unconvinced.
“It’s fine. You’re with a Guardian, remember?”
“Yeah. Guardian of Whitmore. Not of the vampires.”
“Stop being such a worrywart.” Wendy gave him a little nudge. “This town is locked down. No one gets in or out without my knowledge, including crazy bloodsucking bitches.”
His throat bobbed but he nodded just the same, the grip on her arm growing tighter.
It was Autumn in Whitmore, blustery and grey. The air was sharp with a cold that would soon grow fierce. It sank into Wendy’s bones and she shivered, releasing Steven pull her coat closed. Ski season was approaching, which meant the tourists would start pouring in. She would be a busy little bee making sure each one of them had good intentions coming into town. More sleepless nights. More mind spells to cast. The mere thought of it exhausted her.
God, I hate ski season.
“So, now that Adelle is out of the house, do I still have to sleep on that air mattress in your room?” Steven asked.
Wendy chuckled. “No. You can have your room back. I’ll get your things out of storage.”
“Storage?” Steven arched a bow. “You put all my stuff in another dimension.”
“It’s called a sanctum, Steven. It’s just a pocket dimension.”
“But it's still another dimension!” He shoved the heels of his hands into his eye sockets. “How do you even do that? And is it all still there? I know I don’t have much but I can’t live without my laptop and-”
“I only have access and I can open it at any time,” Wendy shook her head. “Honestly. You act like I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“That’s because I don’t know what I’m doing!”
“Then aren’t you fortunate that you have a friend who does?” She gave his cheek a pinch and wiggle. “Yes. Yes you are.”
Steven stared at her for a long moment, then muttered, “You are so lucky you’re cute.”
They continued their walk, Wendy fiddling with her buttons and Papa still lurking on the edge of her mind. Two years had passed and the bad memories still squatted inside her like a sick toad. Weren’t they supposed to fade by now? There should only be his smile, the games they played, and the spells he had taught her. But all she saw were those milky white eyes and gaunt face.
The wild rages.
“What’s wrong?” Steven asked.
Wendy stumbled, grabbing a hold of his jacket sleeve, then waved a hand at him. “Nothing. Nothing at all,” she said, adding in an airy chuckle.
“Uh huh. Sure.”
The damn vampire had empathy like a laser scope. Steven had developed the uncanny knack of cutting right through her bullshit. Today was no exception.
“Stop it. You’re making that bug-eye expression I hate,” Wendy snapped.
In reply, Steven opened his eyes wider, leaning in. His upper lip curled, exposing his fangs and he gurgled, flicking his tongue like a lizard.
Wendy laughed, shoving him back. “Quit it, you nutjob. ”
Steven chuckled, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “Fine. Fine. That’s what I imagine your mom looks like, by the way.” He made the face again.
“Hush.” Wendy gently jabbed his side.
“Like a cross between Joan Crawford and Ursula the Sea Witch,” Steven continued. When Wendy gave him a blank look he sighed. “Don’t mages watch movies? Or listen to music? Or leave the house?”
“Can I assume both of those characters are... aggressive?”
“Ooooh yes.” he grinned.
Wendy tried not to laugh, half afraid her mother would hear. Annette Connelly had a way of knowing when others were speaking ill of her. They continued on their way when a familiar voice called “Wendy!”
She skidded to a halt, a tingle of excitement trailing down her spine. That was a voice she hadn’t heard in years. “Deirdre?” Wendy gasped.
There she was; a tall woman hurrying down the sidewalk, waving her arms as if flagging down a life raft. She caught up, tucking a lock of her black hair behind her ear with a bright smile. “Get over here so I can hug you!” Deirdre cried.
Wendy flung her arms around Deirdre’s neck, laughing out loud. “What are you doing here, Dee? It's been so long!”
“I live here now!” Deirdre smiled. “I finally got my teaching credentials! Guess who’s the new force mage professor in your town?” She snapped her fingers, and blue sparks flew from their tips in a mini-tornado. She preened. “That would be me.”
Wendy clasped her hands to her chest, happiness bubbling from her in a giddy giggle. “That’s wonderful! Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”
“Well, I know things have been stressful for you and I figured you had left town by now. I mean, I heard about….” The joy in her expression faded as she took Wendy’s hands. “I’m so sorry about your dad, Wendy.”
Wendy bit the inside of her cheek. Deirdre’s sympathy turning her insides to acid.
“I know you two were close. And I know that it wasn’t… pretty.”
Grief shook Wendy’s bones with a stinging bzzzt. “It happens.”
Deirdre leaned in, whispering, “It's not something our kind does, but if you need them, I know some human grief counselors that-”
“Tell me all about your dream job!” Wendy quickly said, swallowing the edge in her voice.
Deirdre blinked then stepped away with a timid smile. “Oh, well… They set me up in an apartment near the school. I’m starting in the spring. The old force professor just retired and I was on the shortlist to take over.” Soon her wariness was replaced with glee and she spun a little pirouette. “I can’t believe it! I’m going to be a professor! I worked so damn hard and it's all finally coming to fruition.”
Wendy’s excitement waned. You’re living your dream. And I’m still here.
Deirdre blushed. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to get so excited.”
“No, you should,” Wendy replied. “I’m ecstatic for you, Dee. Truly,” The words tasted bitter.
Chase the emotions away, smile! Count! One. Two. Three...
Deirdre gave her shoulder a squeeze. “If I can do it. You can do it. You said you always wanted to travel and do…” Deirdre puckered her lips in thought. “What is it you wanted to do now, Wendy?”
Fuck if I know anymore. Wendy thought.
She clenched her fists, tucking her hands behind her back. “Oh, I already have my dream job.”
“Woah, really?” Deirdre squealed. “You finally told your mom off and became an enforcer?!”
“Even better!” Wendy held out her arms towards the buildings around her. “I took papa’s mantle. I’m the new Guardian of Whitmore.”
Deirdre’s smile wavered. “Oh. That’s…” She widened her eyes as if trying to rally her enthusiasm. “That’s great. Congratulations.” There was that pitying look, The one Wendy always dreaded seeing. Deirdre twisted her fingers together. “Wendy, are you sure that’s what you want?”
“Absolutely. It’s what the Connellys do. It's our family’s pride and tradition.”
“I know, but you always talked about wanting more when we were in college.”
“Things change. Afterall Dee, you wanted to be a rockstar when we first met And now…” She gestured to her, as if that would make her point.
“Okay, fine. Sure. Dreams change,” Deirdre said. “But you despised the idea of being Guardian from day one. Hell, you said even your dad didn’t want to take the mantle.”
“Well he’s gone now,” Wendy barked.
Deirdre put up her hands. “I know. But your mom has always been…” She paused then tilted her head as Steven slid beside Wendy. “Can I help you?”
“Uh, Hi,” Steven said then tugged on Wendy’s sleeve like a lost child. “Wendy, we really should get home.”
“Steven, darling!” Wendy yanked him into a hug. He grunted, practically falling on her. “Oh, honey. I’m so sorry I didn’t introduce you.”
Deirdre’s brows rose high. “Who’s this?”
“This is Steven Lewis.” Wendy pushed him away, dusted him off, then leaned her head against his shoulder. “My new beau. He’s a half-vampire. Steven, Meet Deirdre Ramírez. We were roommates in college.”
Wendy? Steven’s nervous voice rolled into her mind. I thought the whole boyfriend act was done after the Jack stuff?
Wendy ignored him, reaching up to pinch his cheek. “I suppose the cat is out of the bag now. He’s the real reason I won’t be leaving any time soon.”
Deirdre sighed, resting her hands on her hips. “Another boyfriend?”
“What, I’m not allowed to have a boyfriend?”
“No, it’s just- Hey! Watch it!”
A tall male swept through, hip checking Deirdre and bumping Wendy off the curb. Steven steadied them both with quick hands as the male barreled down the sidewalk, not sparing them a glance.
Wendy cupped a hand around her mouth, calling “Rude!” to his back.
He stopped in an instant, then turned. A shaft of sunlight peeked through the clouds, shining down on him like an omen. Wendy’s breath caught. His eyes. Dear God, his eyes were liquid gold.
“My apologies, Lovely,” he said, a hint of laughter under his low, smooth tones. He flourished a hand, giving the three a dramatic bow.
Wendy shook off her surprise. “Be more careful. Others around here are not so forgiving.”
He straightened, then ruffled his ginger hair with a grin. Hidden under that bright mane were two pointed ear tips, graceful and slender. Wendy pressed her fingertips to her throat. He was a fae. No, that was not just any fae, it was a fae with golden eyes.
He was a Trickster.
He didn’t seem perturbed by her souring expression. With a wrinkle of his nose, his eyes went from gold to brown, the tips of his ears rounding until he looked human. He pressed a finger against his lips with a sly smirk, then sauntered down the street. It took Wendy a moment to realize both Deirdre and Steven were also staring at the male’s tight backside.
“Is that what I think it is?” Deirdre whispered.
“Yes,” Wendy replied.
“A Trickster in Whitmore? Where the ley-lines are?!”
“I have the ley-lines heavily warded,” Wendy said glaring after the fae. “There’s no way he could find them.”
“What the hell is a Trickster?” Steven asked. “And ley-lines?”
“I’ll explain later,” started to give chase, fists clenched.
“Wait, where are you going?” Steven called after her in a panic.
“Just stay with Deirdre,” she called over her shoulder.
A Trickster fae in Whitmore. One who wanted tribute, to cause trouble, or take claim of the power that flowed beneath the town. Ley-lines. Wendy narrowed her gaze. She’d be damned if some pointy eared asshole decided to start shit on her watch.
The Trickster turned the corner, Wendy broke into a sprint stumbling into the town square. If she lost sight of him, he’d vanish for sure, hide somewhere in plain sight with his shapeshifting. She spotted him heading to a small park, settling on a bench under a whitewashed Victorian gazebo. He reached into his pocket. This was it. He was going to start his havoc right in the middle of town. Wendy charged, readying one of the few force spells she knew as he pulled out a hand full of…
Was that birdseed?
The Trickster whistled sharply between his teeth. A swarm of goldfinches flew from the branches of a tree, delicately landing at his feet, picking at his tossed seeds with greedy little beaks. She paused in the middle of the street, her jaw falling open.
He was feeding the damn birds? Really?
A smile peeled across his lips as he clapped his hands clean and leaned back on the bench, looking to the sky. Wendy held her breath, waiting for the finches to explode, or at least transform into an army of mutated bird monsters. They only sang happily, finishing off the last of their lunch before fluttering back to their perches.
“What in the-”
The blare of a car horn made her screech and she leaped onto the sidewalk as a truck zoomed past. Out of the corner of her eye, the fae canted his head towards her, mouth thinned in a thoughtful line. Wendy primly folded her hands and strolled towards him as if she wasn’t almost flattened like a pancake.
“Is this seat taken?” she asked, nodding to the empty spot with one of her more beguiling smiles.
The Trickster gestured beside him with a grand sweep of his hand. “Be my guest.”
She settled, adjusting the skirt of her blue dress with a feminine sigh. “Lovely day, isn’t it?”
He looked up to the miles of grey that blanketed Whitmore and chuckled. “From a certain point of view, sure.”
“I happen to like blustery days,” Wendy replied, giving him a bat of her eyes.
“Really?” The fae tapped his chin. “You look more like a Summer type to be honest.”
She giggled. “You’re right. I’m not a fan of winter. I’m only making conversation.”
“Ah. I see. Well, I couldn’t ask for a more stunning conversation partner.”
“Oh my. Aren’t you charming?”
“Indeed I am,” he smiled.
Wendy tittered while poking at his mental shields.
They were down.
She held her breath, prying open a gateway between their minds.
I wouldn’t recommend not starting anything, she thought to him.
The Trickster jerked in surprise, turning his astonished gaze on her. His mouth twitched then threw his head back and laughed.
Not the reaction she wanted.
You’re a mind mage? His voice rolled with ease.
Wendy nodded, lifting her chin proudly. The Trickster slung an arm over the bench, casting his gaze back to the sky.
So we’re going to mind-speak, eh? Well, if that’s what you want, Lovely. I’m game.
What I want is to know why you are here. Wendy kept her serene expression intact despite the anger in her tone.
The fae sighed. My disguise was too little too late, huh?
And very sloppy. Now please, answer my question.
Not to worry, Lovely. I’m only a tourist.
A tourist? Sure. Wendy smirked. The fae are not simply tourists.
You’re not wrong.
He didn’t elaborate, only examined his fingernails as if she weren’t there. Wendy’s frown darkened. No one ignored Wendy Connelly and left with their brain still in once piece. She rested her chin on her knuckles, appearing peaceful and serene. The complete opposite of the righteous indignation that roared through her.
I get to decide if you stay or go, she snarled.
The fae let out another laugh, merry and robust. It was smooth, stroking her from head to toe. Wendy almost slid right out of her seat the moment it touched her mind. She shook off his velvet chuckle. Clearly, you don’t know who I am.
You’re right, I don’t. Enlighten me.
Wendy bowed her chest, still not looking in his direction as she tossed her hair back. I am the Guardian of Whitmore.
The fae looked right at her. His eyes widened, then the corners of his mouth creased with laugh lines as yet another glorious chuckle filled her.
Really? he asked. Aren’t Guardians considered archaic?
Whitmore is an old fashioned town. We like our traditions.
Well, my day just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it? The fae rubbed his palms together eagerly.
Oh really? she asked.
Yes. A fine day in the earth realms. A beautiful female sitting beside me. What's not to like?
I don’t believe you. Fae never come to our realms without wanting something.
The fae turned to her, his gaze as hot as the sun. I think I found what I wanted.
Warmth coursed through her, spreading from her chest to her fingertips, her toes.
Between her thighs.
She almost arched towards him, aching for that adoring lustful gaze to pour over her. To touch her core. To touch so much more than that.
Wendy shoved herself to her feet, heart pounding.
“Thank you for the sit,” she said in an all too chipper tone.
The fae nodded, a twinkle of gold swimming under the dishwater brown of his irises. “Anytime, Lovely. Anytime.”
Wendy walked away, trying to keep her pace and her pulse steady. Without slowing, she glanced back, only to find him studying her like an algebra final. For a split second, his human form winked out, the faint outline of his ears wavering and his eyes flashing to brilliant gold. Butterflies filled her belly and she released a ragged sigh. The Trickster wiggled his long fingers with a wave then got to his feet and strolled away, leaving Wendy trembling.
She only wished it was out of rage.
The exquisite blonde disappeared down the street, her hypnotic backside swaying. “Hate to see you go,” Galen murmured. “But I love to watch you leave.”
He grinned. The Guardian of this wee town was a mind mage A powerful one if she slipped past his shields to talk. And if a town had a Guardian, that meant they also had ley-lines. Just what he was hoping for. Now he just needed her full name and what type of drink she preferred so he could take her soul.
After the mage stomped her way around the corner, Galen slipped down an alley between a quaint looking bookshop and a grocery store. He swiped his hand through the air, a pinpoint of light pulsing under his palm tearing the atmosphere. A sparkling edged portal tore the atmosphere and he stepped through, into his palace.
Courtesans were strewn about the throne room, a wave of colorful silks, brocades, and jewels. They stopped their idle chatter, bowing before him as he entered respectfully saying murmuring their greetings. Galen nodded, returning each greeting basking in the sun pouring through the skylights of the domed ceiling. Thank god he was out of that earthly chill. The white marble walls glittered like stars, the royal sigil -a laughing fox mask with two snakes entwined through its eyes- shimmered in brass on the throne room doors. With a flick of his fingers, the portal snapped closed behind him.
“Caid?” he called.
Usually, Caiden was waiting for him in the throne room but only his crown sat on the throne’s cushion. Chances were he was talking to the seers about doubling the protection wards on their borders. After a few surprise attacks, neither wanted to take any chances.
Galen climbed the dais plucking up the intricate crown of snakes and plopping it on his head. He cupped his mouth and shouted. “Caiden! I’m back!”
His voice boomed through the palace. The giggles of the courtiers were followed by running footsteps. With a devilish grin, Galen rubbed his temples, sending his thoughts coursing through the corridors. The walls hummed, vibrating with power. Stone and wood groaned, shifting floor tiles rippling like the ocean. Then everything settled, the room wider than before.
In the distance, a male cried “Oh, come on!” The sound of his running rose and fell as it constantly changed direction.
“Wait for it.” Galen tapped his foot, looking at his wrist as if he were wearing a watch. “Waaaaait for it.”
Speeding around the corner came a tall, slender male, his pale hair falling in wisps from its cue, his finely tailored suit was a blur of yellow and red. He skidded to a halt, boots squealing across the tiles. In one fluid moment, he flourished his arm and fell to one knee, head bowed. The room broke into thunderous applause.
Galen applauded his entrance. “Wow! Ten seconds faster than your usual, Caiden! Good work!”
“Thank you,” Caiden grumbled, his breath heaving.
“Are you training for something? Like a marathon?” Galen shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans, grinning like a cat.
Caiden glanced at the chuckling crowd then discreetly extended his middle finger at Galen with a smirk.
“Well, it looks like I’m not the only one studying various earthly gestures,” Galen said.
“You just had to change the halls, didn’t you?” Caiden grumbled. “Of all the power you wield as king, that’s the one you use the most.”
Galen pressed a hand to his chest and in his best snooty voice said, “It is tradition.”
Caiden shook his head with a little laugh. “Permission to stand, your majesty?”
“Don’t call me your majesty,” Galen said. “I’m your brother.”
“All right. Permission to stand, dumbass?” Caiden corrected.
“Permission granted, asshole.” He took Caiden’s extended hand and pulled him to his feet. He held up his hands. “Nobles. My brother and I need to discuss matters. If you would not mind…?”
He nodded to the door. The court made their way out, chattering along the way. Caiden dusted his knees, his upper lip curling in disgust.
“Your clothes are hideous,” he said.
“What?” Galen ran his hands down the front of him. “I’m just blending in with the earth dwellers.”
One snap of his fingers and his jeans and grey sweater rippled into an elegant purple brocade suit. He flicked some lint off its sharp lapel, then held out his hands. “Better?”
“I wish you would send a scout to do this work,” Caiden said. “It’s dangerous for you to go alone.”
“I don’t trust scouts.” Galen fluffed his gold ascot. “Besides, it's what everyone expects. We send one. They get apprehended. And then we’re in trouble.”
“And if you get captured, we’re in even deeper trouble.”
“I won’t get captured. I’m stronger than any scout. I can fight my way out if need be.” Galen rubbed his hands together eagerly. “But that’s not the issue right now. Because I’ve returned successfully.”
Caiden lit up like a candle. “You found ley-lines?”
“In a little town, I stumbled across that’s crowded with Wyrdlings. With that many in one place, there must be powerful magic running underneath it. And…” Galen grinned. “There’s a Guardian.”
Caiden blinked. “Really?”
“A feisty one, too.”
Galen‘s thoughts fell back on the mage. Hells Bells, she was breathtaking; willowy and graceful with eyes as blue as the summer sky and hair the color of wheat. And dear lords and ladies that mouth. Full and pink. What would it take to see those plump lips wrapped around his throbbing-
“Are you sure?” Caiden’s voice cut through Galen’s lustful meditations. “Guardians are anonymous. Only other mages know about their identity. You think one would just spill their secrets?”
Galen buffed his nails against his vest. “And she was probably trying to impress me.”
“Sure. Whatever helps you sleep at night.” Caiden smirked.
“So, what's the plan then?”
“I’ll buy her dinner and take ownership of her soul, then command her to grant me access to the ley-lines.” Galen shrugged. “It’s not that hard.”
Caiden clicked his tongue. “You really think you can buy a mage a meal? Don’t underestimate them, Gale. They’re among the smartest of the Wyrd.”
“Caid, this might be our last chance to get Devlin back.”
“I know! We’ve discussed this! But- ”
Galen held up a hand, silencing Caiden. His ear twitched at a faint shuffling from the hall and he closed his eyes. His will pulsed energy through his crown. It flowed through the floor, reaching out through every square inch. He and the palace were one. And somebody was lurking in their halls. The intruder wasn’t sneaking but they also weren’t making an effort to hurry along.
Galen reached towards the towering doors. Runes flashed the wood and they slammed shut with a boom. His will tendrilled out once again, shifting the hallways to reroute the uninvited guest. The intruder moved into the kitchens and Galen sighed.
“Caught them?” Caiden asked.
They’re detained for now.” Galen continued in a hushed tone. “If I get Titania the ley-lines, she will free Devlin. She’s the Empress, afterall.”
“But Oberon the supreme ruler. I want Dev back as much as you do, but this scheme is getting too deep.”
Galen frowned. The burn on his temples returned, rage creeping up his spine. “I’m not pledging to the bastard who wrongfully imprisoned our brother. He didn’t deserve that punishment. Oberon is just being a-”
Caiden thrust a finger under Galen’s nose. “Don’t say it, Gale. Not one word. You know the Emperor and Empress love to pop in at random!”
Galen jaw ticked. He leaned in, bared his teeth and shouted, “Dick!”
Caiden slapped his forehead. ‘Gale!”
Galen cupped his hand around his mouth and announced, “Oberon is a dick!” Caiden swatted at his hands, struggling to shove his fist into his mouth but Galen danced around him in a circle, dodging his brother’s swinging limbs. “Every pixie in the fae realm knows how dickish our emperor is! Dickhead Oberon imprisoned our brother for shit reasons! He’s a diiiiiiick!”
“Oh, is he now?” a feminine voice asked. “There are days I’d be inclined to agree.”
Galen gulped as an exquisite female appeared beside the thrones, every inch of her filled with power and elegance. The Empress Titania was clothed in thick swaths of, a crown slender spires and hovering stars haloing her black hair. Her ebony skin glowed with a sheen of power. And ruthlessness.
In a breath, Galen and Caiden knelt.
Oh, we are in deep trouble, Galen thought to Caiden.
What do you mean we?! Caiden shot back. You’re the one who called her husband a dick!
“Your excellency,” Galen said out loud, his voice shockingly steady. “Supreme Empress, Titania. I meant no disrespect.”
Titania gestured for them to rise, golden eyes twinkling. “Galen the Gregarious, King of the Tricksters. And Caiden and the Capable, third prince of the realm. Forgive the surprise. A peculiar thing happened as I was about to enter. The hallways moved and suddenly I was in the kitchens.” She gave Galen a pointed look.
“Ah, strange thing, huh?” Galen chuckled, pretending he wasn’t sweating.
“Indeed,” Titania replied. “Well, I hope you like soup for dinner. That’s what I told the kitchen to prepare. Now, what’s this about my husband?”
Caiden opened his mouth to speak but Galen shoved his palm over his face. “Merely a joke, your excellency. You know how our kind is. Always joking.”
Caiden nodded, his voice muffled against Galen’s hand, “Always joking!”
Titania merely arched a brow as the two slapped at each other. “Am I intruding on a sibling thing?”
“No!” Galen elbowed Caiden to the side, pressing a hand over his heart. “Your radiance is never an intrusion in our bland, wanting, court.”
“Always laying it on thick, aren’t you, gregarious one?” Titania said evenly.
Galen winked. “You’re on to me.”
Titania looked him up and down, her gaze growing sharp. “ Did you find ley-lines?”
“I did indeed,” Galen replied with confidence. “ I just have to gain access to their power.”
“I am pleased. The sooner they're in your possession, I will feel more... confident.”
“Confident?” Caiden asked. “Aren’t you always confident?”
Titania seated herself upon the throne as if the weight of the world rested upon her. Even through her weariness, she looked magnificent there. Just like their older brother once had.
Devlin the Dashing.
Devlin had filled the throne with his head held high and an easy smile in place. Patient, fair, and sure. When Galen there, he felt like a toddler on an overstuffed armchair. Strong rulers ran in his family, so it should have come naturally to Galen. But he wasn’t born under that omen. Or any omen. Not a good sign for a king. But with Devlin gone, the kingdom was stuck with him.
A little groan distracted him from his grief. Titania reclined against the plush red velvet lining with a deep sigh.
“Empress, is something wrong?” he asked.
She pursed her lips, staring at the ornate murals of battle splashed across the ceiling. “Can I trust you? Both of you?”
“Of course, your excellency,” Galen said. “Our homelands are your homelands.”
She reached for her crown, the stars swirling as her fingers disturbed their path around the slender gold spires. Then, as if thinking better of it, she moved her hand back to her lap.
“The true reason I need you to get those ley-lines is to keep our realm safe,” she asked.
Galen arched a brow. “Are you implying that we’re not safe?”
“This feud with Mab is driving Oberon insane. Her children have grown wild and she doesn’t care, letting them do what they will.”
“Surely, she’ll realize this,” Galen replied. “Mab and Gancanagh have always kept tight control over-”
“Gancanagh has vanished.”
The world seemed to stop its orbit. Galen gulped, the color draining from his face “Vanished? As in he went on one of his walkabouts or…” He wiggled his fingers together. “poof?”
Titania imitated his gesture. “Poof.”
“Hells Bells,” Caiden groans. “That’s not good.”
“At first, we assumed he’d gone to the earth realms like he always had,” Titania continued. “But it’s been too long since he left and Mab fears… We all fear that he’s dead.”
“Dead?” Galen and Caiden said at the same time.
Titania nodded, rubbing her temples.
Acid rose in Galen’s belly. The death of a supreme emperor was more than just the loss of royalty. Rulers of both the darkened and lightened fae needed a mate to keep the balance; the life force powering the fae realms. With light, there must be dark. With good, there must be evil. Without Gancanagh, Mab would be weakened. The darkened fae would lose control and start spreading until nothing was left.
Galen swallowed the growing lump in his throat.“How long has he been missing?” he asked.
“Decades now.” Titania didn’t seem surprised by their horrified expressions. “Mab refuses to see anyone about this matter. And Oberon has become paranoid, agitated. He truly believes Mab has killed Gancanagh just to bring her brother’s destruction. And that’s why I need the ley-lines. I need lightened royalty to have control of great power to defend our lands, or if Oberon and I…” She trailed off, the silence in the air finishing that dreadful sentence.
“I see,” Galen murmured. “And Oberon?”
“He knows nothing of this. With the state he’s in, he would command you to use that power to destroy the entire darkened realm.”
“But why us, your excellency?” Caiden asked. “We’re Tricksters. We bring merriment and play games. Shouldn’t this go to a more… ahem… serious realm?”
Titania rose from the throne, gliding down the stairs. “The wish bringers have isolated themselves. And rumor has it that King Tarron of the Dryad was corrupted by the darkened fae ages ago.” She met his eyes. “You are the last of the three lightened realms that I can depend on.”
Galen’s mouth went dry, his fists balling as Titania’s eyes welled with tears. The words exploded from him in a rush.
“The ley-lines will be in my possession and the realm will be protected.”
“Are you insane?!” Caiden shouted.
“Are you insane?!” Galen shot back. “You’re insulting our Empress!”
Caiden held out a hand to Titania. “No offense your excellency. But Oberon is expecting Galen and I to swear fealty. We already missed the celebration and he could look at this as treason!”
“I will delay you fealty sd long as I can,” Titania replied.
Galen grinned. “See? She’ll delay it.” “
This is still too risky!” Caiden cried.
“And so is the destruction of the entire fae realm!”
“I understand the risks I am putting you both in,” Titania said firmly.
Galen turned to his brother. “See? She gets it!”
“ I will be working to keep your task hidden.”
He jerked a thumb towards Titania. “It’s all under control, Caid.”
“But to ensure that Oberon will not find out You are now under my secrecy pact,” she finished.
“And we...wait what?!”
Fire touched Galen’s mouth as Titania raised her hand. His flesh turned to glowing embers the sick smell of cooking meat in his nostrils. It grew, tearing and boiling, burning the pact into him. Galen slapped his face hoping to douse the misery but it rolled on, blistering, bubbling. Beside him, Caiden clawed at his lips crying out in agony.
“From this moment on, Galen and Gregarious and Caiden the Capable are under my spell of secrecy.” Titania’s eyes glowed bright, smoke billowing from her lips as she chanted. “May they honor their pact or pay the price, not in death, but in pain for the rest of their days, should it be broken.”
The fire was extinguished and Galen gulped down cool mouthfuls of air. Through his watery gaze, Titania grinned, folding her arms primly in front of her.
“Send word when you have the ley-lines,” she said. Without another word, she exploded into a million stars, winking and spinning before evaporating in the air.
Caiden poked at his healing lips. He fell into a sit with a groan. “A secrecy pact. It had to be a secrecy pact. Great! Now there’s no way we can pledge fealty even if we wanted!” he buried his face in his hands. “What’s that earth expression? Oh yeah. We’re fucked.”
“ I can do this,” Galen said with a bravado he didn’t quite feel. He forced his smile even bigger when he saw the horror in Caiden’s eyes. “I can! I charm the mage. I get her soul. She gives me the ley-lines and Titania frees Devlin. Everyone is happy!”
“And Oberon?” Caiden asked.
“That’s when you come in!”
“Hells Bells, here we go.” Caiden slumped, rubbing his temples. “Please tell me whatever you’re planning doesn’t involve unicorns. I hate herding unicorns for you, Gale.”
“No unicorns this time.” Galen fetched a scrap of paper and a pen from his breast pocket. He sat beside Caiden, resting the paper on his knee and scribbling as fast as his brain could form the words. “Tell Oberon well will journey to his court soon.” He offered Caiden the note. “But he can only call on me once he answers this riddle.”
Caiden looked to the ceiling with a sigh. “…Really? We’re going this route?”
“Fae can't resist a riddle.”
“But your riddles are awful.”
Galen flashed him a smile and in his snooty voice said, “It is traahhdition.” He tapped the paper. “Awful or not, it should buy me enough time. I can’t let Titania down. Too much is at stake.”
Caiden nodded, flipping the paper over to read the faded print. “What is a Walmart?”
“An earth realm church of some sort.” Galen rose, straightening his vest. “While Oberon puzzles over the riddle, I’ll be back with those ley-lines and no one will ever know.”
Caiden exhaled loudly through his nostrils, wincing as he read the riddle. Then he tucked it into his pocket. “ Fine. I’ll deliver this. But get those ley-lines. Dev’s fate depends on it.” He headed to the door then stopped, hand resting on its handle. “And you should be careful too. I don’t want to lose two brothers.”
“You won’t. I’m not going anywhere Caid.”
A cautious smile peeled across Caiden. “Good luck, Gale. If anyone can pull this off, it's you.” He left, the door closing with a hollow thunk.
Galen threw his fist in the air. For the first time in centuries, hope bloomed within him. Devlin could be freed. Truly be freed! All Galen had to do was persuade one little mage to give him those ley-lines. He rubbed his palms together with a cackle.
“Lovely mage, you will soon be mine.”
“Helloooo. Earth to Wendy. You hear me?”
Wendy’s surroundings snapped back into focus, the white fog drifting away. She was leaning against the door to Steven’s bedroom and he was sitting on his bed staring at her, head cocked to the side, the crease between his eyes deepening. Against her hip was a laundry basket of clothes still warm from the dryer. She swallowed, desperately combing through the memories of the last few minutes.
Sweat trickled down down the side of her face, her mouth dry as sand. “Yes,” she said, trying not to panic. “I heard you. Why would you ask?”
“Well, because we were in the middle of a conversation and you just froze.” Steven put his laptop aside and headed her way. “Then your eyes got all funny.” He pressed a hand against her forehead.
Wendy ducked away from his touch. “I was just thinking.”
Or not thinking at all, really. She had blacked out, again. Those lapses were usually heralded by a dizzy spell, Not this time. Wendy searched Steven’s room, mentally naming each item in hopes of jump-starting her memory; a bed, his clothes, and a squalid number of books and a laptop.
Relax. You’ll have another if you don’t relax. One. Two. Three...
“We were…chatting…” Wendy stammered. “Chatting about… that… thing you asked-”
“I asked you why you kicked Adelle out of the house,” Steven said.
A twinge of guilt intensified her sweats. “Oh. That.”
Dammit, she would have been happier not remembering.
“Then you went all…” He jerked his head to the side, mouth falling open and tongue hanging out. He threw a few twitches in there for good measure.
Dear God, was that what she looked like? A discarded ventriloquist dummy? Wendy hid her blush under a glamor. “I didn’t kick her out. I rehomed her.”
Steven shook his head. “Wendy, she’s your cousin. Not a puppy.”
“She’s a nuisance,” Wendy replied. “And she would have brought trouble.”
If what Adelle had told her was true, a gaggle of unruly vampires was hunting her. Vampires that might have a connection to the one who wanted Steven as a blood slave. While Adelle's family was fond of hyperbole Wendy wasn't going to take chances. Steven would be safe under her care even if she had to keep him hidden for centuries.
Steven rolled his eyes. “Okay. Fine. Be all butt hurt jealous about your cousin.”
“I am not jealous of Adelle. I’m protecting you,” Wendy sighed.
“And I appreciate that.” Steven patted her head. “But you’re jealous.”
“Stop using your empathy powers on me! I’m not jealous. She’s a mess.”
A mess who was raised by a loving mother, has two supportive sisters, is filled with amazing power I can barely comprehend, and now has the eye of my ex-boyfriend. Ugh!
Just because everything was handed to Adelle on a silver platter didn’t make Wendy jealous. It made her annoyed. Well, at least Wendy had control over her own magic. Poor Adelle had no idea how to use her siren’s powers and lived in constant fear of causing mass destruction.
Checkmark for Wendy.
Nope. Not jealous.
Wendy plopped her basket down on the dresser. “Anything else you what to chide me about?”
Steven shrugged. “You still haven’t explained to me who the tall hot ginger you chased down the street was.”
Wendy plucked a blouse from the basket, the folding calming her nerves. “He was not hot.”
Hot was definitely the wrong word. He was devastating. Tall and lean with a wicked mouth, thick red hair and a voice like honey. She snatched up another blouse, counting to ten to calm her libido.
“So what is a fae?” Steven asked. “Are they elves or something?”
“Fairies. Like the ones you hear about in old folktales,” Wendy said. “The most ancient species in the Wyrd next to angels and demons. They’re powerful and manipulative and cause chaos when they show up. Luckily, most never leave their realm, unless they’re bored... or if their Tricksters.”
“So Tricksters are bad.”
“Tricksters cause trouble.”
“What kind of trouble? Like, dangerous trouble?” Steven wrung his hands, his paranoid gaze flicking to the window and back.
Wendy pursed her lips then flashed him a smile. “It won’t affect you.”
“But what if he comes back?” he asked.
“He won’t. I told him he wasn’t welcomed here.”
Steven shook his head. “If Sir Ginger Von Hotness is as crazy as you implied, then I doubt your slap on the wrist will keep him away.”
“Steven, I handled it. He’s gone.”
Well, she assumed he was gone. It had been two days since their encounter and she hadn’t seen a hint of him. Surely he returned to his realm.
Or he’s lurking about in the form of some random Whitmore resident.
Wendy frowned. She’d have to do an entire sweep of the town to be sure. A small ache tapped her temples at the thought.
Steven stared at her, expression flat. He strolled back to his laptop. “Let's change gears before this Wryd stuff freaks me out even more. I want to show you something.”
Wendy groaned. “Is this more of your human social interaction shenanigans?”
“No, it’s just Facebook.”
His blue eyes twinkled, little fangs peeking out behind pale lips as his entire face brightened with a grin. “Finally! I know more than you!”
Wendy indulged her reluctant ward and went to him, peering at his laptop. Her own face stared back at the top of the screen. Below that was a list of information.
Studied at: University of Washington
Lives in: Whitmore, Washington.
Her stomach lurched. Wendy tapped her fingernail against the screen, demanding, “What is this?”
“I don’t want that vampire to find me so I removed my own Facebook profile. ” His giggle was mischievous. “But I got bored, so I made you one.”
“No! No self-respecting mage would ever use the internet! What if my mother saw this?!”
Steven snorted. “I thought no self-respecting mage used the internet.”
Dumping her laundry basket over his head was very tempting. God, if her mother Annette got wind of this, there would be Hell to pay. She shuddered, thinking of that sharp, disapproving stare and the intentions behind it.
“Okay, fine. I’ll fix it.” A few keystrokes and he changed her status from “single” to “in a relationship” and grinned. “Tah dah! Our ruse is still intact!”
Wendy snapped her fingers. “Get rid of it. I mean it.”
Steven stuck his tongue out, blowing her a very juicy raspberry.
She smirked. “Oh very mature. I am not okay with this.”
“Well, I’m not okay with this whole fake boyfriend routine, but that’s not stopping you.” Steven slammed his laptop shut, expression hardening. “How does that feel, Wendy?”
Shitty, she thought.
Wendy took a deep breath before she started shouting. “I told you, others believing that we’re a couple gives you protection.”
“So why not tell everyone we’re relatives instead?”
“Because we’re two different species. No one would believe that.”
“But you’re a mind mage! Can’t you abracadabra them into believing it?”
Wendy’s grip tightened on her basket, almost snapping the plastic handles right off. Steven was right. With the ley-lines help, she could convince all of Whitmore that Steven didn’t even exist. But her mind faded every time she dipped into that immense power. And her headaches were growing worse.
Just like with Papa.
She locked that worry deep down with the rest of them. “Just trust me. I know what I’m doing.”
Steven tensed. “I swear to God, Wendy. You tell me that one more time, I’m going to scream.”
With a bat of her lashes, she sweetly crooned, “Trust me. I know what I’m-”
Steven grabbed a pillow, yanked it over his face, and let out a wild muffled scream. His legs kicked then he went limp as a fish. Wendy peeled the pillow away and tossed it onto the floor.
“You done?” she asked.
“For now,” Steven groaned.
Wendy sat on the edge of his bed, her basket in her lap. “As soon as it’s safe, I’ll announce our break up.”
Hope danced in Steven’s eyes, making Wendy’s heart warm. “You promise?”
“I am not making a vow,” Wendy said. “I hate making vows. They’re so constricting.”
“I didn’t say vow.”
“A promise and a vow are practically the same the Wyrd.”
Steven clasped his hands under his chin, flashing a cartoony smile. “Can you at least not-promise-promise me, then?”
Wendy held up a hand, the other over her heart. “I not-promise-promise you that despite me not promising, there might be a promise in there that I will keep my not-promise.”
Steve laughed. He slung his arm around her shoulders in a sideways hug. “You’re like the sister I never wanted.”
“I am the sister you deserve. You-”
Pain crashed into her temples. The basket tumbled from Wendy’s lap and she slid to the floor on her hands and knees. That relentless pounding rattled her skull, acid creeping up her throat. In a flash Steven was by her side, catching her before her face hit the carpet.
“Shit! Wendy! What happened?!” Steven asked.
She grit her teeth, shaking off the creeping fog. Her laugh was manic as she scooped the clothes back into the basket with trembling hands.
“Just light-headed,” she replied.
Steven worried a fang across his lower lip. “Can you stand?”
Wendy climbed to her feet, stomach lurching. The tremble in her knees made the room spin, colors swirling together as that stark cloud moved over her vision.
“I need to put these away,” she said.
Wendy ran, her shoulder bumping the door with a clumsy thud. She slipped down the hall and into her bedroom. The basket was plopped down on the bed, herself beside it, forearms on her thighs and her head between her knees. She took long breaths. That fog would take her just like it did minutes ago. And it was growing harder and harder to fight her way out.
Just count to ten. Calm yourself. One...Two...Three…
The clouds subsided. She lifted her head, vision returning with a few rapid blinks. Wendy rubbed her face, reaching into her basket for one of her dresses. She inhaled it’s fresh clean scent, letting it slow her heart. Clean. Calm. Papa laughing and singing as they folded towels on Sunday afternoons. Wendy brushed the cotton against her cheek. Her father had smelt like that. Always well pressed and smelling like bay rum and wash day.
Even when he was at the worst of his sickness, Wendy made sure he had stayed as neat as a pin. She stared at the picture on her nightstand; her five-year-old self on her father’s lap. His temples were greying, that wonderful smile under his well-groomed mustache as he hugged her tight. Grief settled in for its long visit, pressing down with each breath. She turned the frame away, cursing as she wiped her eyes. There was a light knock. Wendy looked up to see Steven hovering in her threshold, forehead scrunched.
“You sure okay?” he asked.
She waved a hand, throwing on yet another glamour. “Mm hmm,” she replied, voice tight in her thickening throat.
“Look, Wendy. I know you said mages aren’t the touchy-feely types, but if you need to talk-”
She quickly shoved her clothes into her closet, refusing to look at Steven. His empathy was too damn strong. Eventually, he’d see they mess she truly was. Pry until all her weaknesses were raw and exposed.
“Well…” Steven began. “What about your dad and-”
The doorbell rang. Steven’s frightened stare shot down the hallway and to the front door.
“It's fine,” Wendy reassured. “It’s probably someone selling magazines again.”
“But what if it's… her?”
“It’s not. It's daylight. And she can’t come in unless invited.”
Steven’s throat bobbed, his gulp audible. The bell rang again and the vampire jumped. Wendy clenched her teeth, fingernails digging into her palms. If she ever found the bitch who’d hurt him, she’d melt her mind, turn it into pudding with a snap of her fingers.
Wendy glared at the door. “And my wards set fire to anyone who comes to my door with ill intent.” Steven nodded but edged to the back of the room. She squeezed his shoulder, her face hardening. “I will kill anyone who tries to hurt you,” she said.
A timid smile touched his mouth, “Thanks, Wendy.”
Another bell, followed by frantic knocking.
“Just a moment!” Wendy called, jogging to the door.
No screaming. It wasn’t an enemy. Or Deirdre coming to say hi or yet another magazine salesman. Or maybe Jack was throwing Adelle back and begging for his vow to be lifted. A smug smile curled Wendy’s lips. Perfect little Adelle rejected. The fantasy was too powerful to fight. Wendy threw on one of her prettiest glamours and threw open the door.
“I had a feeling…”
A stunning woman stood on her doorstep, blonde hair in a flawless French twist, willowy frame clad in a pair of tight leather pants and billowing white blouse. Thin gold chains were draped about her swan-like neck. She lowered her huge sunglasses, peering at Wendy with critical green eyes.
Wendy’s heart stopped.
That was definitely not Jack.
Hell, it wasn’t even Steven’s vampire bitch.
Annette Connelly had come. And the world trembled.
“Darling lamb! My beautiful girl!” the woman cried.
She cupped Wendy’s face, pressing quick, air kisses to both of her cheeks, then strode into her living room, tossing her purse onto the coffee table. Wendy clung to the doorknob, her legs almost giving out.
“Mother!” She tried not to choke on her shock. “You? Y-You’re... here?”
“Can’t a mother pop in to see her only baby?” Finally, she smiled, lips parting across perfect white teeth. “Traveling here was a disaster. Even teleporting is such a chore. I remember living here with your father. Why do ley-lines always hide in such Podunk towns? Ugh.” She gave Wendy the once over. “Darling, You should choose another glamor. That one makes you look old.”
Old? Wendy was only thirty. Of course, Annette didn’t look a day over forty-five. Considering she was easily in her early eighties, that was quite impressive. Mages aged much slower than humans and she took advantage of that, making sure others underestimated her experience and power.
“I thought you moved to Whales,” Wendy said.
“Oh bah, Whales became far too tiresome.” Annette settled on the couch, pulling off one tall stiletto heel to rub the arch of her foot. “The mage communities there are so provincial and they insist on inhabiting towns that are hard to pronounce. I swear if I have to say Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch one more time I will go mad.”
Wendy’s belly started rolling again, but there was no fog this time, just Annette. She shut the door, cleared her throat, and kept her smiling glamor in place.
“I assumed you liked it there. Joel was taking such good care of you.”
Annette snorted. “Joel was a dud. He told me he had clout in the mage councils there. But no. He barely had any sway.” She patted the cushion beside her, smiling like a crocodile. “I am far better off here with my little lamb.”
Wendy stared at the spot beside Annette, heart beating like a snare drum. The question vomited from her lips. “For how long?”
Annette’s disapproval made her skin crawl. “You act as if you don’t want me here.”
“No! No!” Wendy inched towards the couch. “I’m just asking so I can plan outings. Shopping trips. Mother-daughter activities. I know you like a full itinerary.”
The answer seemed to appease Anette and she smiled. “We will have plenty of time for that after I find a suitable home here.”
Oh yeah, Wendy was going to puke. “Home? Here?”
“Well, where else will I go?”
“But you hated it here. It was the reason why you and papa separated, right?”
Annette’s gaze narrowed. “This is not the welcome I expected, lamb.”
Wendy clutched her skirt as Annette patted the couch once again. Out of the corner of her eye, Steven peeked out from her bedroom door. He pointed to Annette and mouthed That’s your mom?!
Annette retrieved a small compact from her purse and popped it open, checking her face. “It's been long enough since Walter died and you aren’t showing any signs of returning to San Diego to be with me. Which is probably for the best. Those cousins of yours have been a terror to our community ever since your Aunt Cybil passed away.”
“But they chased out the dark mages,” Wendy replied. “Granted, I think they are just as annoying as you do but-”
“And don’t you think that we average mages will be next? I surely do.” Annette sighed. “The enforcers in San Diego were all killed off by that evil cabal, leaving us vulnerable to those half-blooded daughters of your aunt. Mark my word, they will go crazy with power one day.”
Cybil wasn’t Wendy’s aunt by blood, but Walter had referred to her as a sister as far back as Wendy could remember. She was also a mundane human who took it upon herself to police the Wyrd if any rouge Wyrdlings got out of hand. Unfortunately, Cybil had been killed by dark mages, and her adopted daughters -one who was now presently living with Jack- had taken her mantle. That never sat well with the mages down south, mostly due to Annette’s crusade against them. Her mother hated Aunt Cybil, partly because of her friendship with Papa, partly because she saw through Annette’s bullshit.
“So, will you be staying at the B and B downtown?” Wendy asked, hoping Annette would get the hint. “It's lovely. Very clean. Very well kept-”
“I’ll stay here with you.” Annette gave the living room another critical look. “My God, Wendy June Connelly. Do you ever dust?”
Her gaze flicked down the hall to Steven, His mouth dropped open, shaking his head so hard that it was practically a blur.
“You have a guest room.” Annette rose, running her fingers across the books on the shelves. When she started to carefully rearrange knick-knacks, Wendy’s left eyelid twitched.
“Yes, I do,” Wendy gathered her thoughts then smiled. “And it's perfect for you! ...If not smaller than what you’re used to.”
Annette frowned. “Smaller?”
“Much smaller,” Wendy said.
“Then you need a larger home,” Annette simply said. “At least two stories if you want a decent lab to work on your magical studies.”
Wendy bit into her cheek, the taste of blood coating her mouth. “Oh, I have a perfect lab in a cozy shed in the back-”
“We’ll start house hunting next week.” Annette continued as if Wendy hadn’t said a word. “Hmm, is Walter’s farmhouse still on the market?”
Wendy bristled. That beautiful old farmhouse had been sold to a pleasant human family who took care of the yard and gave it a fresh coat of paint. They probably flushed out all the horribleness that had once occupied it.
Wendy shut her eyes tight. “No, it's not,” she forced through her teeth.
This house was the first place that was truly hers. It was easy to maintain, private, and didn’t allow relatives to invite themselves in to stay.
Except for Annette.
And there was also Steven but he belonged to her and-
Her heart leaped.
Bless that reluctant bloodsucker!
“Oh, Mother! My fiance would be delighted to meet you if you stayed!” Wendy crooned
Annette arched a well-manicured brow then beamed. “Oh? The dragon and you are making wedding plans! Oh, lamb!”
“Oh no.” Wendy chuckled. “Jack and I broke up ages ago.”
And Annette’s smile was gone. “Broke up,” she said flatly.
“Jack was boorish and unrefined. You would have hated him.”
“But he was feared, respected, and had plenty of money.”
“He only has a hoard, mother. You know dragons can’t spend their hoard. Besides, I have another male now. A vampire.”
Annette’s lips twisted into a sneer. “A vampire? Oh, Wendy, how cliché.”
“He’s lovely! You’ll adore him!” Wendy turned to the hall, calling, “Oh Steven! Darling! Can you come here for a moment?”
Steven shot her a frown of warning.
“Steven, love. Come meet my mother.” Wendy glared when the vampire wouldn’t budge.
Get in here and help me! she blasted into his mind.
Steven winced at her volume then trudged over. Wendy took his arm, jerking it as a signal to stand up straight. He did, looking devastatingly handsome when he stood proud.
“Mother, this is Steven Lewis. My fiance,” Wendy said.
Steven gave her a nod. “A, uh…pleasure to meet you, Missus Connelly.”
“Miz Connelly.” Annette looked him up and down. “Wendy’s father and I separated years ago.”
“Oh! I…um...” He stiffened. “Hooray?”
Wendy’s smile grew hard. Hooray? Did you just say hooray?!
I panicked! Steven thought back.
“Where are you from Steven?” Annette asked.
“Seattle, originally,” Wendy said before Steven could answer. If Annette found out he was from San Diego, she’d start digging for information on him the second she’d leave the house. “He came here because he adores small towns.”
“Uh, yup! That’s right.” Steven patted Wendy’s hand. “And your daughter of course. Definitely came here because of your daughter. So much for your daughter, because she is… your daughter.”
“It was love at first sight,” Wendy pressed her cheek against Steven’s shoulder.
“And you are out in the daylight?” Annette asked. “How?”
“Steven is half-vampire,” Wendy replied. “On purpose of course. For his line of work.”
Annette sneered. “And what is your line of work, Steven?”
Steven’s mouth flapped wordlessly before he finally settled on “....garbage man?” He oofed as Wendy jabbed her elbow into his ribs.
“Isn’t he hilarious? No, he’s not a garbage man. He’s a messenger for the Wyrd. You know how important those are. And his abilities are so useful. All the vampire powers; speed, strength, and empathy, with added sunlight immunity.”
Really? Steven thought to her. I’m that cool?
“He’s so unique,” she continued. “We garden together. Take walks together.”
Steven stared at her as if she suddenly turned purple.
Just roll with this, okay? she thought to him.
Steven blinked then gave Annette a thumbs up and shouted, “I love to garden!”
Wendy tried not to slap her forehead.
Annette tapped a finger against her chin, mouth pinched tight. “Really Wendy, a half-blooded vampire is so beneath you.” She gave Steven another revolted look. “With him in the house, I’ll look into that Bed and Breakfast.”
The real smile finally came to Wendy. “Lovely, Mother. I’m sure you’ll adore it. They even have a spa and-”
“Yes, yes. That’s all well and good.” Annette fetched her purse from the couch. “Brunch tomorrow? Of course, brunch tomorrow. Where is the best place these days? It's been ages since I ate around here.”
“Sunnyside. On Main street. They-”
“Good good. Ten sharp. Leave the bloodsucker.”
Wendy gave her an obedient nod. “Yes, mother. Ten sharp.”
“Well, my luggage is waiting in my sanctum and I need a long bath. I will see you tomorrow.” Annette looked down her nose at Steven. He quickly stepped behind Wendy, crouching down to hide. “I don’t know why you didn’t just stay with that dragon. I’m sure you handled that just like all your relationships. And now you have a… consolation prize.” Her glare turned to Wendy, hot enough to melt glass.
Wendy grabbed handfuls of her skirt like she had when she was a frightened child. “I’m sorry mother,” she said quickly.
After what felt like an eternity Annette tucked her purse under her arm, satisfied. “Please, dust your shelves before I return, Wendy June. Really.”
She waltzed out, the ruckus cloud she had arrived in traveling with her. Wendy shut the door, clicking the lock in place. Her heart pounded, stomach in knots. She peeked out the window watching Annette stroll down the sidewalk before teleporting away in a flash.
“So, we’re getting married now?” Steven asked. “This is getting really uncomfortable, Wendy. Especially now that Mommy Dearest is involved.”
“It was just a little lie to placate her,” Wendy said. “It only has to last a bit longer.”
“How much longer? When we’re walking down the aisle?” He blinked. “Hell, can I even go into a church as a vampire?!”
“We won’t be walking down the aisle! Mother gets ideas in her head, then they change on a whim. A few days tops and she’s off globetrotting again. It's nothing to worry about.”
But Annette never suffered from whims. When that woman had her sights set, she pursued it with the tenacity of an angry chihuahua. Wendy tossed her hair over her shoulder with a chuckle. “It's all going to be just fine. You’ll see.”
That huge lie burned like acid on her lips.
A loud knock stopped Galen in mid ascot tie. He waved his door open and Caiden barreled into his bedchambers, crown clutched in his hands. He zoomed Galen’s collection of earthly treasures; fifty bowling trophies, shelves and shelves of salt shakers from every decade, and a torn and tattered structure that a human referred to as a “Cat tree” that he was pretty sure that was not made out of cats. A grimace painted on his lips.
“There’s a situation,” Caiden said.
Galen stiffened. “What kind of situation?”
“One that is hovering nearby.”
Galen scowled. He took the crown, setting it on his brow. “How long?”
“Only a short while ago,” Caiden replied. “I sent the court to the gardens for their safety. I said there was a revel out there, then came to find you.”
Galen looked out the tall windows to the lush gardens. The crowd was laughing, jumping up and down with little jigs without a care in the world. The guard surrounded them, joining in their impromptu celebration, their weapons discreetly at the ready.
Good thinking.” He pressed his palms against his head, sending his eyes into every corner and crevasse of the palace.
Footfalls in the dusty seer’s chamber.
The buzz of magical forces cooking meals in the kitchens.
And then there it was. A dark void slowly moving towards them. A presence that set Galen’s teeth on edge.
“Dagen,” he growled.
Caiden’s eyes grew wide. “What?! Our boundary spells should have kept him out!”
“Well, he found a way in,” Galen cracked his knuckles. “And we should be courteous to our guests.”
Cadien arched a brow. “Buy courteous you mean…”
“Stab him in the face if he tries anything.”
“Ah.” Caiden unsheathed the dagger hiding under his coat. “My kind of courtesy.”
Galen flicked a hand and the door opened. Dagen strode in, wearing a suit of the finest black brocade silk, and an oily smile. His hair was deep indigo. His skin was white as snow. And wore Devlin’s face. Galen clenched his fists before his fingers wrapped around his throat.
“Your majesty. Dagen the Domineering,” Galen sneered.
Dagen flourished his hand and bowed as if he actually respected royal protocol. “Your majesty, Galen the Gregarious. Quite a party you have going on out there. Such a shame I wasn’t invited.”
“Couldn’t you have chosen a different guise for your visit?” Galen kept his voice steady despite the rage bubbling inside him.
“What, and miss your reaction? Not in a million years. Besides, you know how much ass I get wearing this face?”
“You’re in my kingdom, Dagen. I’m sure you understand the delicacy of your presence.” Galen gestured to the king’s disguise. “This is pushing it.”
Dagen’s face rippled, his chin elongating and his cheeks hollowing. He was sharper, harsher, the angles only highlighting the sinister glare in his golden eyes. “You’re no fun anymore, Gale.”
“And you’ve never been fun, Dag.”
“Who let you in?” Caiden barked. “How did you cross our threshold!?”
Dagen fluffed his grey ascot with a sigh. “Galen, can you please leash your lap dog?”
“Answer my question!” Caiden started forward but Galen pressed a hand to his shoulder before he could attack.
“Caiden my lad, we’re shapeshifters. Guise takers. Do the math. You’re supposed to be the Capable one.” Dagen rolled his eyes and looked to Galen. “Your brother is so defensive.”
“Careful, Dag,” Galen snarled. “Cad is skilled with a blade and as cranky as a toddler.”
Caiden gave Galen an annoyed smirk. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it,” Galen replied.
“Relax,” Dagen said coolly. “I’m on a peace mission.”
Galen snorted. “You’ve traveled too far to make jokes.”
“I’ll get right to the point then. I think it's time we formed an alliance.”
“An alliance?” Galen threw his head back with a loud laugh. “Why would I do something as stupid as that?”
Dagen grew serious, lifting his chin with a haughty smirk. “Because we cannot depend on Oberon and Mab to govern us any longer. They have grown neglectful of their populace and of the balance.”
“And if your Empress heard you talking like that, she wouldn’t be pleased. Poof! There go your chances of getting into her panties.” Blackness covered Dagen’s eyes, a frow creasing his jaw. The sight brought Galen a pleased grin. “Oh, did I hit a sore spot? Can’t you accept that Mab rather have sex with a goblin?”
Dagen cracked his knuckles. His eyes returned to their golden hue, his false cheerfulness falling away. “If we band together our kingdoms can watch out for each other.”
“Just like with the Dryad kingdom?” Galen tsked. “All we’ve gotten from that alliance are tales of Wyrdling torture zoos, and failed rebellions. There is talk that King Tarron has been long corrupted by your kind. You really think I’ll let the same thing happen here?”
Dagen pressed a hand to his chest, batting his eyes. “I wouldn’t do such things to you.”
“Pixie shit! Don’t think I don’t know about the evil spells you create by tearing open mages’ minds. The items of torture you sell to the highest bidder.” Galen poked his chest. “And you imprisoned my brother!”
“I’ll own up to the other accusations gale but you got him imprisoned. Don’t blame that stupidity on me.” Dagen sighed.
Galen fell silent, hands turning to ice. He stammered, desperately wanting to deliver an epic tongue lashing but his words turned to ash.
“Tell me, Galen. How does it feel? To be the one to have led Devlin the Dashing to his fate? Are those rumors to be believed?” Dagen continued, his voice burrowing deep like a thirsty tick. “That secretly you hated Devlin. Hated his charm and confidence. Hated his power. You stole the throne only to realize how hard it is to rule”
“You were there, you filthy son of a bitch!” Galen grabbed Dagen by the lapels, shoving him against a pillar. The marble cracked and the king grunted, but his satisfied smile remained.
“Careful Gale. I may take this as a slight,” Dagen growled.
Galen leaned in, nose to nose with the bastard. “The answer is no. It will always be no.”
He wanted to carve that smug smirk right off Dagen’s face, force him to confess his true crimes in between agonized screams. He wanted to make him pay.
Gale. Caiden’s voice crept into his mind. Control yourself, Gale. He’s trying to provoke you.
Galen shoved Dagen away. After a long breath, his ire simmered to a low boil. He gave Caiden a jerk of his chin in thanks.
“Leave my palace or I will remove you,” Galen said steadily.
“Have it your way,” Dagen replied. “ But mark my words, the next time we meet Gale, it won’t be under such benign circumstances.”
Galen pressed a hand to his crown. Magic surged into his throat and he roared “Guards!”
His voice thundered through the palace, shaking its walls. Moments later the marching clang of armored boots announced the royal guard’s arrival. They aimed their spears, unable to mask their surprise at the sight of the darkened king.
“Show his majesty the exit,” Galen said.
Dagen laughed. “Not going to show me out yourself?”
“Fuck off!” Galen shouted.
The guard flanked Dagen, herding him out. Dagen only gave Galen a lazy salute. He walked oof, whistling the entire way.
Galen sat on his bed, throat constricting with panic. Caiden patted his shoulder and he groaned, unable to look his little brother in the eye. Caiden knew what had happened that night. And yet he remained loyal to Galen despite it all.
I should be dead, not on the throne. I should have taken the punishment.
He placed his hand over Caiden’s, absorbing what comfort he could. “Find the seers and tell them we need to strengthen our wards.”
“Do you think he’ll follow through?” Cadien asked.
The worry in his brother’s eyes fortified Galen’s resolve. He chuckled, waving a hand. “I think Dagen a blowhard that has been trying to get a rise out of me for centuries. I was stupid, and finally, let it happen.”
“He won’t take the kingdom, Caid. You and I won’t let him. But to be safe, we’re strengthening our wards.”
Caiden bit his lip, then hurried away to carry out his orders. Galen flopped onto his bed, brain whirling with millions of scenarios. Yes, Dagen ambitious asshole but even he knew the dangers of upsetting the balance. He wouldn’t put the entire realm at steak just for a chance to dive into Mab’s panties.
You also didn’t think he’d pull the crap he did at the last fealty celebration and yet there it is.
Galen sat up, pulling a portal open and gazing out into the grey blustery streets of Whitmore. It was better to be safe than sorry. He’d grab those ley-lines today, swear his fealty, then insure Oberon’s protection against whatever half-cocked schemes Dagen was cooking. Just that mage stood in his way. And Galen could handle a mage, even if she was one of the most gorgeous creatures he had ever encountered in his long life.
So, he’d get ley-lines and get laid. A win-win in his book.
“Easy peasy,” Galen whispered.
Brunch with Annette was as expected; stilted, and uncomfortable. Even the elegant, shabby chic decor of Sunnyside did little to lift Wendy’s spirit as she silently ate her eggs benedict. When the check came, Wendy reached for it but Annette snatched it out of the waitress’s hand, reading it with a frown.
“Is there a problem?” the waitress asked in a chipper voice.
Annette handed the check back. “We already paid for this.”
“I don’t think so,” the waitress replied. “I just printed it up.”
Threads of silver swirled in Annette’s eyes, catching the waitress in their sparkling webs. “We already paid,” she repeated slowly,
The waitress’s eyes clouded over. Then she blinked them clear, expression bright and cheery. “Oh! My mistake! Have a lovely day!”
Annette dabbed the corners of her mouth with her napkin as the waitress trotted back to the register. Seamless perfection. Just like every spell Annette cast. And it put Wendy in awe. She smiled at her mother, handed folded on the table like an eager student awaiting wisdom.
Annette took another sip of her coffee. “You should study more.”
“I study every day,” Wendy said. “You should see the research I’ve-”
“And your secondary magical branch of study? What is that now?”
The giddiness vanished. It wasn’t a visit with mother unless every one of Wendy’s shortcomings was put under the microscope. In the mage world, there were three branches of magic; force, death, and mind. An amazing mage had talent in all three but those were rare. A good mage had talent in two. Unfortunately -much to Annette’s annoyance- Wendy was an average mage and only had talent in one. Mind magic.
Wendy squirmed as Annette sighed the same exasperated sigh she had heard since she was eight. “Your father had a secondary in force magic and I have a secondary in death. Perhaps you take after me and also have death magic.”
Wendy shuddered. Even if she had that power, she wouldn’t touch it. Death magic always drove its practitioner insane if overused. Annette was always cautious though, only hauling out those spells when she needed them.
“Mother. Every teacher I’ve had said I don’t have one.” Wendy replied. “But they also said I was exceptional with my mind magic and my basic knowledge in the other branches was very strong.”
Wendy could change thoughts, plant ideas, and takedown mental shields as naturally as drinking a glass of water. At the tender age of four, she had convinced her babysitter that she was allowed to stay up as late as she wanted and that ice cream was a suitable dinner. During her teenage years, getting a date for prom was never an issue as long as bendable minds were near. And the west coast enforcers had said he was the best mind mage they ever had the pleasure of working with, even encouraged her to go to the academy after college. She would have if Annette wasn’t so hell-bent on making her Whitmore’s Guardian.
But even then, it was never good enough for Annette.
Nothing was ever good enough.
She was about to beg her mother to leave it alone when a small commotion rose from the back of the restaurant. Two bickering werewolves sat at a back table, their words heated and their volume growing.
“No, you won’t have the northern side of the forested lands! That has to remain neutral hunting ground!” The male shouted.
“Then explain to me why you are building walls there?!” the female snarled.
The male jumped to his feet claws out. Customers hid behind their menus, others hurrying for their checks. Annette turned to the ruckus, then back to Wendy, one brow arched expectantly.
“Well?” she asked.
Wendy rubbed her temples. Dammit, of all the times for the wolves to start their bickering. She tapped her boot on the floor. Power rose through the floorboards, absorbing through the soles of her feet. The ley-lines pulsed inside her, igniting her veins. Webs of light spread across her skin as she blew her magic across the restaurant like a piss. Magic shimmered around the duo before latching onto their wills.
No need to argue. Her voice filled their minds with its sweetness. It's a lovely day, and you two should be out enjoying it, as friends. The best of friends.
Slowly, the wolves returned to their seats, folding their hands in their laps like children at a holiday dinner. Wendy twirled her fingers. The magic surged, hooking deep into their grey matter.
Actually, haven’t you two toyed around enough? she continued. Why don’t you both go someplace private and negotiate more... intimately.
The male grabbed the female’s hand, gaze heated. The female bared her teeth with a lustful snarl and they threw a wad of cash on the table before dashing out the door. Wendy made a fist, yanking the memory of the incident from the atmosphere. The crowd went right back to their plates, pleasantly chatting as if nothing was amiss. She smoothed out her dress, lifting her chin with a satisfied sniff.
Annette tapped her chin, surveying the soothed restaurant. She grinned. “Well, perhaps you have been studying.”
Wendy dove at the crumb of approval, her smile splitting her face in two. “Thank you, mother.”
“My little lamb, controlling such tremendous power. I`m sure the ley-lines have been nothing but beneficial.”
Her enthusiasm waned. “Um...yes.”
“Annette looked at her watch with a sigh. “I should start house hunting.” She suddenly gasped, clasping her hands. “Oh! We should go together! A mother-daughter shopping spree! We can find lovely homes next to each other!”
Wendy stood so quick her chair almost toppled over. “Maybe tomorrow, mother. I have to work.”
“Fine fine. We’ll reschedule.” A sudden smile crept across Annette. “I’m sure you’re doing quite the job taking up Walter’s mantle. I still take a lot of pride in the Connelly name and you must keep it well elevated.”
Wendy was unsure if that was a compliment or a veiled threat. Judging by the sparkle in Annette’s eyes, she’d take it as a compliment.
Annette gave Wendy’s cheek pat. “Some days you make me so proud.” She scooped up her purse, planted a kiss on Wendy’s cheek, then headed out.
“Thank you, mother,” Wendy whispered.
Happiness made her tingle all the way to her toes. Annette was proud of her today. And Wendy was going to cling to that for as long as she could. She skipped out of Sunnyside, the twinkling lights of the tiny chandeliers lighting her way.
It was a lovely autumn afternoon; brisk, but sunny. The orange and red leaves dappled the streets and the bleakness that had weighed on her for so long had lifted. Wendy walked, arms swinging merrily. Perhaps she could outlast the ley-line sickness. All she had to do was hang on as Guardian for another year or two. By then, Wendy might have appeased Annette enough to gain her freedom.
Jack’s Gym came into view across the street. Wendy slowed, staring at the glass doors The dragon’s business was busy, filled humans contorting themselves on the workout machines, sweating and jeering. Her mother’s words circled her mind.
I don’t know why you didn’t just stay with that dragon. I’m sure you messed that up...
“Just like all your relationships,” Wendy finished.
She twirled a lock of her hair, teetering on the curb. One checkmark from mother today. Perhaps two could happen. Wendy sighed. No. She handed Jack off to her cousin. It was done and she had no more feelings towards him. She shook off the urge to peek inside when Jack exited his gym, bag over his shoulder. All power in worn-out sweatpants and a fitted t-shirt.
And no sign of Adelle.
Logic fled, her inner child screaming, Make mother proud!
Wendy dashed across the street, calling “Jack!”
Jack visibly shuddered at her voice. He rushed up the long stairway that led to his home on the gym’s second floor but Wendy chased. he caught up to him before he could slip through the door.
“Do you need another favor?” He jerked his thumb to his door. “Because I have things to do.”
Do those things include Adelle? she thought.
Wendy clenched her jaw. Of course, it did. Perfect Adelle always got want she wanted, even if it was Wendy’s first.
“Of course not, silly. I just wanted to see how you were.” She gave a flirty giggle.
Jack sighed. “I’m fine. Goodbye Wendy.”
Wendy frowned, as he tried to slip into his home. She summoned the ley-lines once again, letting their power take her. Her body throbbed, magic roaring through her like a freight train. She could move mountains now. Command armies. Destroy cities. She was Wendy fucking Connelly, Guardian of Whitmore.
“Talk to me, Jack,” she murmured.
Her eyes churned like mercury, thoughts digging their claws into Jack’s resisting synapses. He slumped, glare softening before melting into a dreamy smile.
“I’ve missed you, lass.” His Scottish accent thickened as he lost control. “Missed you more than anything.”
He pressed his hand against her face and Wendy sighed, leaning into his palm. God, it had been ages since she had been touched intimately. Jack was so damn good at that. She could lure him back, let him claim her as a mate. Maybe Annette would be pleased.
Maybe she would finally stop hurting her.
It's not real, Pumpkin. Papa’s voice was clear as a bell. It's not real and it's not right. Don’t do this to him. Not to please your mother.
Tears stung as guilt punched her in the gut. Wendy pulled back her spell. Jack's hand fell limp to his side. Papa was right. He was always right. Jack was a good male and she…
Lightning shot through her nerves, sharp and hot. That fog. It lurked, waiting to its moment to wrap its tendrils around her and pull her deep. Wendy buckled, crying out as millions of knives stabbed her brain.
Jack took her by the shoulders. “Oh shite! Wendy! What’s wrong?”
She pushed Jack away, shouting, “I’m fine!”
You’re fine. You’re fine! Just count to ten! One! Two! Three! Four! Five!
The pain dulled. The fog evaporated. Wendy took a breath, smoothing her hair with shaking hands. Jack gawked at her, eyes wide as saucers and she painted on a smile.
“I..uh...I should go.” Wendy stepped from his grip. “Have a good day, Jack.
“Um, sure,” Jack replied, still staring.
Wendy dashed down the stairs ignoring Jack’s baffled gestures. The sound of his door opening and closing slowed her and she turned to find the rise empty. She pressed a hand against her chest leaning against the banister. They were coming more often now. Bigger. Stronger. She clutched her hair, spirling into an endless panic. It would only be a matter of time now. Faces would fade. Memories would vanish. The violence would come and she’d be taking her final breath in terror and confusion.
“I’ll be honest, Lovely. He is not into you.”
Her fear broke. There he was. The Trickster. He leaned against the side of the gym, a bright splash of color in a beautiful tailored suit with sharp lapels and a double breasted vest that nipped in his waist. Wendy floundered for words but none came.
“Is he an ex-boyfriend?” he continued. “That’s the impression I’m getting.”
Any panic she had was whisked away in his presence. Dear lord he was handsome. Oh no, not just handsome. Sweet God, he was gorgeous. Power, beauty, and merriment wrapped in violet brocade and golden embroidery. Those freckles. Those slender, graceful hands. Strong hands. Strong hands that she would welcome anywhere on her body.
The fae buffed his nails against his chest “I’m flattered,” he said.
Her lust vanished and she scowled. That bastard dared peek into her thoughts. Her! The Guardian of Whitmore! The daughter of two legends! She threw her shields up just in time to block his second poke to her mind.
That son of a bitch!
Wendy’s eyes glowed white, hair waving about her like snakes. The sky darkened with rolling thunderheads, cracking and roaring as the wind rose. Yet the people of Whitmore bustled about, completely ignorant of her display. She lifted her hands, blue fire exploding from her palms.
“You don’t belong here, fae!” Wendy shouted. “I told you to leave!”
The fae giggled.
Not the reaction she was going for.
He wiggled a finger at the flashes of lightning. “Wow! Only a handful of mind mages can cast illusions this convincing! For an earth dweller, you are impressive!”
That patronizing little shit! Wendy thought.
“I’m not trying to be patronizing. My bad.”
Ugh! Get out of my head!
“Hey, you’re the one who opened that gateway when we first met. If you give me an invite, I’m walking in.”
The fae waved a hand. “Let’s just jump to introductions. No calling me ‘fae’ and let’s not even move on to ‘Hey asshole’.” He pressed a hand to his chest. “Call me Galen. Galen the Gregarious if you want my full title. Gale for short if you are so inclined.”
He started towards her but lighting struck the ground between them, charring the pavement black. He halted, paling for the briefest of seconds before that same, infuriating smile curled around his lips.
“Point taken,” he said. “I’m here in peace. No need to get all fire and brimstone.”
The clouds parted. The gentle noise of birds chirping and windchimes singing replaced her sudden storm as her illusion dropped. “What do you want?”
As if she didn’t know what he wanted. The fae wanted deals and bargains. Favors. They craved debts and the more the better. Well he wouldn’t get one from her. Galen closed the gap between them. His welcoming scent wrapped around her; cinnamon and cardamom. Delicious. Inviting. Gooseflesh rose on Wendy’s arms. Her nipples tightened, sweat beading across her collarbone despite the chill. All right, maybe he could get a debt if the price was right.
No! Stop it! Focus!
“You’re quite a beauty, Wendy,” he said.
Wendy took a huge step back, wiping her damp palms on her skirt. “How do you know my name?”
“Well I am a fae; magnificent, cunning, and a snappy dresser. I know things,” he said. “That, and I asked around. Didn’t take long. So you’re Wendy. Wendy…?” He urged her to finish his question with a twirl of his wrist.
“You’re not getting my full name,” she replied.
“Then perhaps five minutes of your time, instead?” he replied. “I’ll buy you a drink.”
“Buy me a drink? Get my full name?” She laughed. “You think I’m that naïve? If you buy me a drink, you own my soul.”
Galen rubbed the back of his neck. “Ah. So you know that one.”
“I’m a mage. I study.” Wendy smirked. “And that? That was a very clumsy attempt to snare me.”
“You, Lovely are going to be a tough nut to crack.”
Wendy’s palms lit with blue fire. “The only nuts that will be cracked are yours if you don’t leave!”
“All right. I get it. No deals today.” He hooked his fingers into his vest pockets, throwing on the worst old west cowboy accent she had ever heard. “Ah’ll just mosey right on outta the territory, paaardner. Don’t want ya throwin’ me into the magical hoosegow.”
The laugh slipped out of her before she could stop it. She slapped a hand over her mouth and stomped her foot. “Just leave!”
With a flourish of his hand, Galen gave her a deep bow. “Until next time Lovely.”
“There won’t be a next time!” Wendy replied.
“On the contrary. There will be a next time.”
The determination in Galen’s eyes made Wendy’s skin grow hot with need. He walked away, whistling a merry tune. The brocade of his suit shimmered, the patterns twisting into a basic pair of jeans and worn leather jacket. He looked over his shoulder giving her a wink, ear tips vanishing and golden gaze turning brown.
Wendy wet her lips, watching that perfect behind turn the corner. Her anger ebbed as she fell under the spell of his body. God, what would a high fae be like in bed? There had been so many stories about their prowess, ones involving words like infinite pleasure, marathon sex, and exquisite ecstasy. No. Galen the Gregarious was bad news and now more than even she had to be vigilant. She was sure that he would ruin everything.
If he didn’t seduce her first.
That thought should have felt a lot worse.
Galen could feel her gaze stroking his back as he sauntered down the street. He grinned. Wendy was proving to be stubborn. Not much of a shock there. Mages were known for their suspicion. It would take more than a few beguiling words to get her to hand over the ley-lines. An intelligent female like her couldn’t be persuaded. She had to be tricked into giving him everything before she’d relent.
Her soul. It was almost within his grasp.
Galen turned the corner away from Wendy’s gaze. The cold air hit him like a brick and suddenly he missed her heat. Oh, there was a definite interest there. More than an interest. Desire poured from her, made his flesh come to life and his cock grow hard. Galen shivered, imagining what she would taste like between her thighs. Springtime and sugar? No. She was far too rich for that. Summer heat and wine. A growl rolled from his throat. Guessing games were all good and fun but eventually, he’d find the truth.
She resisted now, but not for long. Galen never took without consent but Wyrdlings always gave in to his charms. It was only a matter of time. His lovely mage would be in his bed.
Her soul would be in his possession.
And the ley-lines would be his.
“Oh, Lamb! It looks divine on you!”
The twee nightmare Annette had given Wendy was an eyesore at best; a knee-length bubblegum pink dress covered in flounces and dotted with tiny rosebuds. The only thing missing was a pair of white tights mary janes. Then she’d be ready for picture day. The last time Wendy wore something so ridiculous was the first grade.
Wendy picked at the puffy sleeves while her mother cooed. A snicker came from the far corner of the living room. Steven’s shoulders jerked, a hand covering his mouth as he hovered beside the bookshelves. She glared, opening up their mental gateway.
Not one word, she snarled.
You look like you’re ready for your audition for Annie. Steven thought back, then sang, Toooooo-morrow! Tomorrow! I love ya-!
Steven, I swear to God I will strangle you!
Annette sat back on the couch, arms stretched across the back as if she owned it. “You don’t like it?”
“No!” Wendy said brightly. “It’s just, um...don’t you think it's a little... juvenile?”
“Wendy June. You’ll always be my sweet baby lamb.” Annette grinned. “Besides, you should dress more feminine.”
“Uh,” Steven squeaked. “But she’s an adult and should wear what…” he trailed off as Annette fixed her death stare on him. “Nevermind. Carry on.”
“It's lovely!” Wendy said, pulling the focus back onto her. She smoothed her hands down the embroidered sailor collar. “I’ll wear it today!”
And try not to leave the house.
“That’s my good little lamb.” Annette rose, smoothing out her tight pencil skirt and twisting the many rings on her fingers. “I hate to bring gifts and run, but I have an appointment with a realtor this afternoon. He found me an exquisite two-story home in your neighborhood. Plus he’s susceptible enough mundane. It should only take a small spell to convince him that I’m already in escrow. ”
Steven stared at Annette as if she just exploded into twenty other Annettes.
“That's wonderful, mother!” Wendy replied with fake cheer. “I’ll take a tour with you if it's the one you want.”
“Highly unlikely. The homes here are so...old.” Annette wrinkled her nose, slipping into her fur-trimmed coat. “Once I’m settled though, we’ll start planning the wedding.”
The slap Wendy heard was probably Steven's hand meeting his forehead.
“There’s no hurry,” Wendy said quickly.
Annette gave Steven another detestable look. “Well, since that is the best you can do, hook him before your mind spells wear off and he runs like the dragon.” Finally, she departed, leaving air kisses and Wendy’s bruised ego behind.
“I take it back,” Steven growled. “She’s Joan Crawford and Cruella DeVille.”
Wendy rubbed her temples. “Hush.”
“A week ago you said she operates on whims and would be leaving soon. She’s buying a house, Wendy!”
“My mother is just lonely. My father and her separated when I turned eighteen and then I moved up to Washington for college. That gave her…” She twisted her fingers together. “Abandonment issues.”
“And control issues too?” Steven gestured to her dress.
“She is not controlling me,” Wendy snorted.
She turned towards the hall with the intention of abandoning this stupid conversation and stripping off the pink monstrosity, then slowed. A boulder the size of Nebraska landed in her gut with a sickening splash. Annette might come back. It was probably best to keep the dress on, just in case. When she turned back she ran face-first Steven’s scrutinizing stare.
“You’re terrified of her,” he continued. “I can’t feel it. Every time she shows up you’re like a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”
The grinding of her molars was loud in Wendy’s ears. “I’m not scared of her. This is respect.”
Steven sighed, inching to her as if she were a frightened fawn. “Wendy did she… does she... hurt you?”
Memories of sharp barbs pricked her lips. The taste of blood was vivid and raw. Wendy blotted her lips, half expecting to see scarlet staining her fingertips.
Say it and mean it, lamb, Annette’s voice whispered.
“We’re not talking about this,” she snapped.
Steven folded his arms, his blue glare unyielding. “Your mom’s a bitch and you need to hear it.”
“Steven! Dammit, I…!”
Her head pounded, thoughts swimming in a cyclone of chaos.
Calm down. Calm. One… Two… Three...
By the time she got to five, it cleared, leaving behind only her anger. Wendy closed her eyes, sucking in a lung full of air.
“Drop it or I’ll project the memory of your first day as a vampire into the mind of everyone in this town,” she said coldly.
The color drained from Steven’s cheeks. “Y-you can do that?”
Wendy tapped a finger against her lower lip. “Hmmm, you running around my living room on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, trying to figure out what parts of you could and couldn’t burn.”
Steven tugged at the collar of his t-shirt. “You’re not serious, are you?”
“Two hours of you screaming and stripping off your clothes.”
“Tell me you can’t do that!”
“Pressing your balls against my windows, leaving prints on every pane of glass.” Wendy batted her eyes. “You wouldn’t want that image coming to the mind of every single person in town now would you, Steven?”
“All right! You win!” Steven flopped onto the couch, pinching the bridge of his nose.
Wendy smirked. She patted him on the head. “Good.”
“But that doesn’t mean you’re mom’s not a controlling bitch,” Steven mumbled.
A jolt of shame punched her, hot and hard. “I’m running errands. My wards are activated. You’ll be safe inside.” she said curtly as she took her coat off the hook.
Steven sat up, brows knitted. “Wendy, don’t run off. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to push-”
“Its fine, Steven.” She stepped into her boots, zipping them up quickly. “Like always, everything is just fine.”
In a blinding flash, she teleported to downtown Whitmore. The mountain chill crept up her bare legs and she grumbled, wrapping her coat tighter around her. Just a walk. A small little walk to clear her mind. Then she could go back to her life.
The streets were filled with people, their Sunday afternoon spent shopping and entertaining themselves. Wendy paid them little mind, her thoughts swirling with numbers and schemes. Perhaps if she called one of Annette’s ex-beau’s she could beg them to take her back. Or perhaps she could convince her that a month long cruise would be a better option than setting up house in Whitmore. Dammit, didn’t the woman understand she had work to do?
Work you never wanted.
She shook her head but the thoughts clung tight.
She’ll never leave if you make a fuss. Just do what she says and things will be fine. She only does the things she does because she loves you.
A mother and daughter swept past, cups of warm cocoa in their hands. The little girl stumbled and the sweet liquid splashed down her ruffled blouse, staining the baby blue. Wendy tensed, grinding to a halt.
“Oh no!” The little girl looked up at her mother with sad wet eyes. “I’m sorry mama!”
Look at the mess you made! Annette’s voice shouted in her memories. You ruined your dress because you were careless!
Wendy barely noticed the force spell sparking between her fingers. She eyed the mother, ready to strike. Just one harsh word. That’s all she needed to motivate her. One harsh word. The girl’s mother knelt down to blot the stain with a napkin from her purse, a gentle smile on her lips.
“It’s all right. We’ll wash it out when we get home,” she replied, kissing her daughter’s cheek.
She took the girl’s hand once again strolling away, the two giggling happily. Wendy’s spell winked out, Steven’s question ringing loud.
Did she...Does she hurt you?
Wendy set her jaw, marking away. It was out of love. Annette said so herself. Without discipline, Wendy would have never become the powerful mind mage she was today.
Though you were on that path all on your own as a child.
She’d never taken the prestigious mantle of Guardian of Whitmore.
A position neither you nor Papa wanted.
She’d never gone to college or moved to Washington.
You only moved to get away from her. And now she’s following you.
Everything she did, she did for Wendy’s sake.
And so did Papa but he never treated you cruelly. Never.
A gust of icy wind blew up her short skirt. she shivered then dashed into the heated interior of a drugstore, the door creaking behind her. Bland music played over the speakers, the muted sounds of crash registers beeping in harmony. Wendy unbuttoned her coat, walking up and down the aisles. After a few deep breaths and a lot of counting, she regained herself. Things were fine. They always had been. Steven just didn’t understand her and Annette’s relationship. He was being over critical.
The feel of eyes made the hair on her arms prickle. An older woman with teased orange hair and neon green cat-eye glasses stood behind the pharmacy counter. A smile plastered over her gaunt face she chomped down on what Wendy hoped was gum, watching her with purpose.
Wendy snagged a roll of breath mints and waved as if to say “See? Paying customer!” The woman continued to stare. Wendy sighed. Silver swirled in her eyes as she readied her persuasion spell. Just a tiny one to send the woman to the back room and out of her hair.
Pain cracked Wendy’s skull. She stumbled, into the shelves, bottles rattling as they split around her feet. A high pitched squeal rattled her ears, white haze swallowing her vision. Wendy’s lashes grew sticky, as the fog grew thicker. And then there was nothing. Wendy reached out, praying for something to grab hold of. But nothing was there. Only an endless white void and the garbled music warping into nightmarish cords.
Please, god! No! No no no no!
Someone grabbed her arm. The pain stopped. Her vision returned. there were bright fluorescent lights and worn blue carpet. The long shelves filled with pill bottles. She was in the drug store.
...But how did she get here?
Remember, come on! Remember!
“Anything I can help you with, sweety?”
Wendy yelped as she noticed the hand holding hers. She followed it up to an orange bouffant, cat-eye glasses, and the name Gladys embroidered across a blue vest. Gladys smiled, bright pink lipstick smeared across her maw and she helped her up, her strength surprising.
“Why are you on the floor?” Gladys asked.
Wendy toed the breath mints at her feet, mind whirling in frantic circles until the memories reformed. She had taken a walk and had come in from the cold. That’s why she was here. She snagged her mints trying to side-step the woman.
“I’ll just pay for this and go,” she said.
Gladys slid in her way, her gum popping loud. “Can I show you anything in particular? Vitamins?”
Wendy shook her head. “No. Thank you.”
“Scented candles are on clearance,” Gladys continued, still smacking away with wet chomps.
“No. I’m fine,” Wendy said, hoping a firmer tone would move her.
Gladys jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “There’s a special on laxatives right now.”
“What? No! Why would I...” Wendy smoothed her hair back and forced a smile. “No, I’m fine.”
Gladys rubbed a wrinkled hand across her chin. “You sure you don’t need anything? Candy, deodorant, five minutes alone with a Trickster fae?” Gladys lowered her glasses, eyes shifting from blue to liquid gold. Her tight feminine voice slid into a male’s smooth tones. “The Trickster I can easily deliver.”
The mints slid out of Wendy’s hand, bouncing off the toe of her boot. She pushed past Galen, unable to suppress a frustrated, “Ugh!”
“Well, how else was I going to get another word with you?” Galen asked.
Wendy shoved her way out to the street, the cold air hitting her like a sledgehammer. She wrapped her coat around her tight, too bugged to fidget with her buttons. That damn Trickster had returned. Returned and beelined right to her. If the Enforcers got wind of a high fae in Whitmore, they would take her guardianship away in a heartbeat. And with Annette in town to witness the fall of her good name, there would be hell to pay.
“Wait, Lovely!” Galen called.
As soon as he hit the sidewalk, his form rippled from frail tacky lady to handsome pointed eared male. His clothes followed, twisting into his fine three-piece suit of purple brocade. Wendy wanted to be mad, wanted to twist his mind until he thought he was a cow. But the warming throb in her temples kept her vengeance curbed. Galen hopped in front of her, hands out like he was about to start tap-dancing.
“Why are you still here?” she groaned.
“Because you are beautiful and intriguing,” Galen leaned back, eyebrows raised. “Even if you’re partial to dressing like a kindergartener.”
Wendy looked to the sky for help. As predicted, none came. “Change your form before someone sees you!”
“Bah. If anyone asks, I’ll tell them I’m in a play.” He adjusted ascot and fluffed the matching pocket square. “There’s always a production A Midsummer’s Night Dream playing somewhere.”
Galen gestured to his ears and in a flash, the tips vanished. “Now. About those five minutes.”
Wendy took a deep breath steadying her voice to an acceptable level. “Give me a reason, a good, honest, reason to give you one more second of my time.”
Galen held up her discarded roll of breath mints. “For one, you dropped this.”
A smile graced his face, warm and bright. God, it was like the sun poured out of him. Wendy didn’t want her pulse to race, didn’t want butterflies in her stomach. And yet there they were.
“Two minutes. You have two minutes to explain who you are and why you’re here.” She pointed at him. “And don't fuck with me.”
Galen pressed a hand to his chest with a sigh. “Gods, I love hearing you curse. It's like music.”
“Now you have one minute.”
“Then let's start at the basics.” He looked around then cupped his hand around his mouth speaking in a loud, theatrical whisper. “I'm the king of the Tricksters.”
Wendy sputtered a messy laugh. “Oh please.”
“Don’t believe me?” he asked.
“Why should I? Tricksters lie. Go find someone gullible or give me proof that…” Galen took off his jacket and yanked away his ascot, throwing both down. “Uh… What are you doing?”
“Giving you proof.” He unbuttoned his vest all while keeping unsettling prolonged eye contact.
All her bravado fled. “By getting naked?!”
Galen peeled off his lavender shirt, adding it to the pile at his feet. “Yup.”
The sight of his sculpted chest whisked further protests from her. Galen was indeed tight muscled and dusted with freckles. Strong and solid, perfection. And she was staring.
“All heirs to the throne have the royal insignia tattooed on them. You want proof, you get nudity.”
Wendy slapped her cheeks. “I don’t know what rules you have in the fae realms but here you can’t get naked on the streets!”
He unbuttoned his trousers, wiggling them down his hips.
He wasn’t wearing underwear.
“Oh my stars!” A little old lady elbowed Wendy aside, all a twitter at the gorgeous male stripping on the curb. “Eleanor, look! This boy has barely a stitch of clothing on and he’s ripped!”
More passerbys stopped, gawking and laughing, some pulling out their phones for photos. Wendy snared Galen’s pants in a death grip before anything large was unleashed.
“Put your clothes back on!” she hissed. “People are watching!”
“What’s the big deal?” Galen looked at the drooling old lady. “Madam, do you mind this display?”
She shook her head, grey hair whipping side to side as she howled, “Nooooooo.”
“See?” Galen replied to Wendy.
“This is not the time or the place!” Wendy cried.
“Fine.” Galen jerked his chin down, pulling open his fly. “Just a peek then. The tattoo is right there.”
In a moment of weakness, Wendy’s gaze went down his trousers.
There it was, a grinning fox mask, two snakes entwined through its eyes beside the most well-defined hip creases she had ever seen. A royal tattoo. Or a shapeshifter trick. She couldn’t tell, too busy ogling the red curls surrounding the base of his thick cock.
Not the time, Wendy! Not the time!
“Fine! I see it!” Her hands shook as she slammed his fly closed.
A strangled noise of disappointment came from the old woman and her pal Elanore, who had a fist of dollar bills ready. Wendy whipped a hand towards the gathering crowd, wisps of light flowing from her eyes and fingertips.
“Nothing to see here,” she said, voice hypnotic as it echoed on the wind. “Go about your day.”
The crowd disbursed and Wendy glared daggers. Galen paid her no mind. pulling his shirt over those magnificent broad shoulders.
“You are absolutely no fun.” He gave her a devilish grin. “But I bet you could be with the right encouragement.”
“Skip the show and tell me why you are here.” Wendy held up a hand. Silver weaved through the blue threads of her irises. “Truthfully or I’ll pull the answer right out of you.”
Galen laughed. “Pull the answers out of me? I’m a fae, Lovely. And while you’re clever, you’re just a…” He trailed off as he fell into Wendy’s gaze. “You’re...just… a...just a...a...”
He only fought a moment before his head tilted to the side, and his eyes went blank. Wendy tangled her spell with his every thought, tugging the truth free.
“Why are you here, Galen?” she asked.
Galen’s mouth parted, barely a syllable escaping before his lips began to glow like a forge. Flesh popped, the smell of burning flesh making her gag, the heat scalding her cheeks. Galen clawed at his face with a scream and she broke her threads, her spell flying away.
“Never mind! Never mind!” Wendy cried. “Stop talking!”
Galen obeyed, gasping as the fire dimmed. He coughed out a cloud of black smoke then bent in half, taking a deep breath. Wendy wrung her hands, unable to stop staring. Did mage magic and fae magic clash? Was there a hex already sitting on Galen’s head? He shut his eyes tight, hands balling into shaking fists. With a soft hiss, the wounds healed to plump, healthy flesh. He wiped his now damp brow.
“Are you… all right?” she squeaked.
Galen straightened his jacket and finger-combed his hair back into place as if his face didn’t just become a barbeque. “It could have been a lot worse.”
Wendy fidgeted in awkward silence, the passing cars and distant chattering a muffled mess through the boom of her heart.
Galen twirled a wrist at her. “So, this is the part when you apologize for lighting my lips on fire then sing of my bravery in the face of your incredible power.”
“I...I didn’t do that.”
“No, but you did slip into my mind.” He whistled low with amazement. “I never had a mage slip past my shields before. You are a complete wonder, Lovely.”
She bloomed under the shine of his complement. A fae, one of the most ancient and powerful beings in the Wyrd thought her a wonder. Galen tucked his hands behind his back, lifting his chin. His needful stare made her toes curl. Heat swelled between her thighs. She wanted that golden gaze on her forever, wanting and sweet.
And he is so into you.
Wendy had taken a fae’s mind, had slipped past his defenses. Not just a fae. A Trickster king. A grin curled her lips. Get them before they get you. It was her life’s motto. Control like that over a powerful fae would be very useful indeed.
“Fine, I’ll meet with you.” She cleared her throat. “On my terms, and on my schedule, of course.”
“Of course,” Galen replied. “Name the time and place.”
“Tomorrow. The park. Noon.”
Galen took her hand, kissing her knuckles. Sure, he was trying to charm her. Yes, it was all a game. But as soon as his lips touched her skin, she quivered.
“It’s a date,” Galen replied. “I’ll bring the wine.”
“No.” Wendy pulled her hand away. “No drinks from you. You’re not owning me.”
“You’re on to me. ” Galen gave her a flourishing bow. “Until tomorrow then, then Lovely.”
Wendy smiled teleporting to her porch before Galen could spew more enticing complements. She leaned against her door, fanning herself despite the chill. Oh yes, Galen the Gregarious would get his date. And Wendy was going to make this shit show this work in her favor.