I enjoyed ghost stories as much as the next werewolf. I’d assumed, though, they were just that, stories. Something to make your heart beat faster and your skin prickle with unease. Tales told by the fireside, evoking ancient, unnamed fears and causing our eyes to seek out shapes in shadows. Turned out I was wrong.
A colorless, almost transparent woman who seemed vaguely familiar glowed in the moonlight. She gesticulated wildly, blocking the dark path to The Slaughtered Lamb, my bookstore and bar currently under renovation. Silently shouting, eyes filled with urgency, she flickered in and out of existence. I moved forward and strained to read her lips, more concerned than scared.
Cold air chilled my skin, damp from running. I caught ‘no’ and ‘vampires.’ Mostly, I was onboard with that sentiment, but my boyfriend—a stupid term for a gorgeous British man who appeared to be about thirty but was actually hundreds of years old—was a vampire.
While I contemplated how I was supposed to refer to Clive, even in my own head, the woman shot forward and clamped a hand around my wrist. She was a ghost. I’d swear it, and yet I felt her cold fingers digging into my skin. Her filmy image became a shade more solid at the contact and I heard a whisper of words.
“They’re coming! He’ll be killed. Go!”
Understanding, without a doubt, she meant my manfriend Clive, I tore my arm away and sprinted the four miles to the vampires’ nocturne in Pacific Heights. There was unrest amongst the vamps. One of Clive’s people had recently shown herself to be an enemy, working against him, trying to exact revenge for a dead lover. Clive had been investigating, to determine if others in his nocturne were plotting a coup attempt. He’d routed out two with an allegiance to her but suspected there were more.
Dodging trees and startled rabbits, I raced through the Presidio, a fifteen-hundred-acre park that was a former military post. Why had the ghost looked so familiar? I couldn’t put my finger on it. They’re coming, she’d said. Emerging from the park onto Pacific Avenue, I had to slow to human speed. I was almost there, four minutes tops.
Rounding the last corner, I slowed at the looming wrought iron gates. The vampire standing guard studied me warily, but stepped out of the way, allowing me to speed across the courtyard. Before I had a chance to touch the door, it swung open, Clive’s butler already there.
“Where is he?” I shouted, racing past and skidding to a stop in the foyer.
“Who?” he responded after a moment.
I knew the vampires loathed me, considered a werewolf no better than a stray mongrel, but I wasn’t putting up with his bullshit. Long, razor-sharp claws sprang from my fingertips as my eyes lightened to wolf gold. “I will shred you, you pompous ass! If anything happens to Clive, I’ll be back to slice the smug off your face.”
I spun and there he was, burnished hair glowing in the light, chiseled features, cool gray eyes assessing me. The door closed behind me as Clive waited, amusement coloring his expression. Retracting my claws, a skill I’d recently mastered, I crossed to him.
“As you see. Why did you think I was otherwise?” Taking my hand, he led me over the marble floor toward the library. “And how was your lesson with Lydia?”
My shoulders slumped. “Miserable.” Lydia was my right-hand man Owen’s mom. She was a powerful wicche who had trained all her children. I was coming into my magic late in life, but we were hoping she’d be able to teach me, as well. So far, I’d proven to be a failure at all things wicchey.
He closed the door of the library behind us and waited for me to explain. I crossed the room to my window seat. He’d had it built for me. It was mine.
“Tell me all about it and why you raced home searching for me.” He followed, settling in next to me.
Studying him, I made sure he wasn’t hiding an injury. “You’re really fine?”
He kissed me softly, tenderly, until I’d almost forgotten all about my horrible magic lesson and the ghost who’d scared the crap out of me. “I am,” he finally said.
“I don’t understand what that was about then.” That’s what I got for believing random apparitions.
“Tell me what you were up to while I slept.” He leaned back and pulled me to him.
“Before or after I ruined another of Lydia’s pots?”
Taking my hand, he squeezed. “I’ll have a new set of cookware delivered tomorrow.”
“It’s not for you to replace. I’m the one whose potion turned into a toxic sludge that hardened into volcanic rock.” Thunking my head against his shoulder, I continued. “Owen walked in, wondering what the horrible smell was. I saw it, Clive. Horrified pity passed between Owen and his mom. I’m a failure as a wicche.”
“Nonsense. We just haven’t found your gift yet.”
Snorting, I flopped back on the window seat cushions. “A kitchen wicche, I most assuredly am not. Owen and his mom even did this cool incantation over me to open up my powers and make them manifest. P’fft. That worked real well.”
I’d learned recently that I, like my father and grandfather and many male grands before me, was a born wolf. I hadn’t been mauled by a werewolf and turned. Well, I had been, but the reason I’d survived prolonged torture was due to the werewolf genes that my mother, a wicche, had kept suppressed with a protective amulet. The necklace had been stolen a few weeks ago. Latent talents had begun appearing. Or not, as the case was clearly becoming for any inherent wicchey skills.
“Just as well as I rarely eat, and kitchen magic would be wasted on me.” Lifting my hand, he pressed his lips to my palm. “I still don’t understand why you thought I’d been hurt.”
Oh, right. “I was jogging home by way of The Slaughtered Lamb to check on progress.”
“I wish you’d borrow one of my cars. There are many and you’d be better protect—”
I kissed him quiet. “Nope. Those are your cars, not mine. I’m already living in your fancy mansion while my place is being remodeled,” I said, in reference to my small apartment in the back of The Slaughtered Lamb. “I even went along with you calling the fortune you spent on this necklace a gift,” I added, patting the stunning, spelled replacement for my mother’s stolen one.
This one didn’t hide me, as hers had. It protected my mind from my psychotic aunt hell-bent on retroactively aborting me. My mother was a Corey wicche—a ancient and powerful family of wicches—who had fallen in love with and married a werewolf. My aunt considered that union a blasphemy and their daughter an abomination that needed to be destroyed. She’d been doing her damndest to turn my own mind against me, ergo the new protective necklace around my neck.
“Hell, you bought me a whole wardrobe to make up for the crappy jeans and t-shirt collection I lost when the wolves destroyed my place. I draw the line at expensive sportscars I don’t need. I have legs and I like to run. Werewolf, remember?”
Smirking, I continued. “Anyway, I was jogging down the path to Land’s End and ran into a ghost.”
Clive furrowed his brow, studying me. “A ghost?”
“Yep. At first, she flickered in and out, waving her arms. When I got close, she—” Like a flash, I remembered where I’d seen her. “She was the second wolf. The one I’d gone out into the ocean to rescue. When I got shot?”
“Yes. I remember.” His hand convulsed around mine. “This was the ghost of the woman who had been murdered and dumped in front of your bar?”
“I think so. She’d been torn up before she’d been murdered and her body had been in the water for a while, so I can’t be positive, but it feels right. Anyway, she grabbed my arm and said ‘They’re coming. He’ll be killed.’”
“We’ll come back to the ghost sighting in a moment. How do you know she meant me?”
I opened my mouth and then stopped. Huh. “No idea. She never said your name. Your face popped into my head and I ran back to save you.”
“Thank you for that,” he said, grinning.
I shrugged, feeling stupid for racing in, ready for battle, only to find everyone safe and sound.
“Back to the ghost,” Clive said, rubbing his thumb over my knuckles. “Have you ever seen a ghost before, communicated with one?”
“Nope. First time. Maybe she was grateful I’d tried to help?”
A knock sounded at the library door. I tried to extract my hand from his before one of his vampires saw us. They’d never show the disdain they felt for me in front of Clive. They feared him too much. All bets were off, though, when Clive wasn’t around.
He didn’t let go of my hand, freakishly strong vampire. “Come,” he called.
Russell, Clive’s second, stepped into the room and closed the door. He was a tall, handsome Black man, who seemed born to the formality of vampires, until you got to know him. “I’ve received a call from a visiting party from New Orleans.”
“Have you, now?” He shared a look with me before focusing on Russell again. “Isn’t that interesting.”
“Sire?” Russell’s dark eyes moved back and forth between us.
Clive rose from the window seat, pulling me along. Leaning over the coffee table, he swiped through a tablet until classical music was playing throughout the room and then motioned for Russell to move closer. “Sam was just telling me that a ghost waylaid her to say—and I quote—‘They’re coming. He’ll be killed.’”
“Ghost?” Russell appeared confused. “A ghost told her?”
“Yes. When are they due?” Clive dropped my hand and began to pace.
“Tonight. Lafitte’s people requested, quite politely, an audience with you.” Russell spared me a wary look, before crossing to the fireplace to speak with Clive. “If you believe Lafitte is moving against you, we can get you out.”
Clive turned an incredulous look on Russell. “You’d have me run and hide?” Shaking his head, he patted Russell on the shoulder. “No, old friend, that I will not do. We will meet the envoys, take their measure, and if they lift a hand against us, we will slaughter them all. Afterwards, we’ll send their remains back to Lafitte in a box with a bow.”
Russell glanced at me and then leaned in closer to Clive. “Sire, perhaps we should—”
“No. We let them come. I am very interested in who arrives, and even more interested to see if any of our own nocturne fight with them against us. Leticia has allies I’ve yet to ferret out. Tonight will let us know exactly who our enemies are.” Patting Russell’s arm again, he added, “Trust me. It’s better this way. We’ll know who stands with us and who has betrayed their oath.”
Nodding, Russell conceded, “Yes. You’re right.” He held out a dark hand for Clive to shake. “I’ll speak with Godfrey, but no one else. If the three of us can’t take them out, it has been an honor to be your second.”
Shaking Russell’s hand, Clive said, “The honor is mine. If I don’t survive the night, you know what to do.”
“Good,” Clive nodded. “Go then and prepare.”
When the door closed behind Russell, I stalked over to Clive and drilled a finger into his chest. “What the hell is this ‘if I don’t survive’ bullshit? You’re not dying. And there are four of us, not three!”
Clive was shaking his head before I stopped talking. “No. This is vampire business. I won’t have you hurt because of political maneuvering. Stay with Owen. He’ll take care of you.”
When he tried to pull me close, I shoved him back. “That’s who you think I am? The going gets tough and I need to be protected? Screw that! I’m not hiding anymore, remember? If there’s a fight, I’m in it. The four of us are going to wipe the floor with those New Orleans usurpers.”
Studying me, he shook his head. “I can’t lose you. I won’t. You’re stronger, yes, but you’re still learning.”
“Clive.” I moved forward, resting my hand on his chest. “I love you, but I will kick your ass if you ever say anything this stupid again.” When he opened his mouth to respond, I moved my hand to cover it. “No. We’re in this together. Whatever it is, we’re together. Battling syphilitic zombies or moonlit strolls. Good, bad, or insanely weird, it doesn’t matter. Partners, okay?”
He kissed my palm and then moved my hand. “Point taken. Are you sure you’re up for a vampire bloodbath?”
“That’s my favorite kind of bloodbath.”
Shaking his head, he twined his fingers with mine. “Do the zombies have to be syphilitic? Being zombies isn’t enough?”
Shrugging, I swung our joined hands. “Seemed worse. So, we have visitors coming and I need to change.”
Clive raised his eyebrows and surveyed my hoodie, threadbare jeans, and running shoes. “I like it.”
“Nope. I need to score higher on the badass scale.” Lifting our joined hands to my lips, I kissed his fingers. You, Russell, and Godfrey go work out the battle plan and then let me know my part. I’m going to go dive deep into that closet you keep adding clothes to and find something that says, ‘I will fuck you up and then giggle as I lick your blood from my fingers.’”