In retrospect, choosing to live near a sylph who could wield a straight razor might not have been one of my best decisions.
True, the sylphs hadn’t done more than shoot me dirty glances in the past few weeks, and also true, razors were essential tools in a barbershop. But neither of these things made me feel better. Sylphs plus razors plus apartment building reeked of a bad idea.
Or maybe I was just nervous about living on my own. For the first twenty-eight years of my life, I’d always had to share space with people, be they family or roommates. What if I discovered the hair in the shower drain had been mine all along? What if the peanut butter got moldy because no one was sneaking spoonfuls of it behind my back? What if the glorious peace and quiet drove me insane?
“Jess, I’m not holding this door forever.”
What if my satyr-with-benefits was getting impatient while I rambled about stupid shit?
I snapped my gaze away from the sylph-owned barbershop on the bottom floor of my new apartment building, and let it fall on Lucen. Six feet of mischief-eyed, blond-haired and sweetly muscled satyr adjusted the box he was holding and motioned impatiently.
Who was I kidding? I would never have peace and quiet as long as I had him in my life, and for that I was grateful.
I picked up my suitcase and hurried over to where Lucen had the building door propped open with his back. “Coming. I’m coming.”
He let the door swing shut behind him as he followed me into the dimly lit lobby. There were four mailboxes on the right, an ancient art-deco-style chandelier dangling from the ceiling and a wide set of stairs in front of us. Cozy.
“Second floor,” I told Lucen, and led the way.
The wood steps had been polished to a dull sheen by years of shoes, and they were slippery as a result. But the beige walls, unpainted wainscoting and warm light gave the building a homey feel. Not bad for a place that, by Boston standards, was dirt cheap.
Thank dragons for Shadowtown rents. The only humans who lived in this neighborhood were crazy or desperate, and the preds owned more buildings than they could fill with their own kind.
Technically, their own kind included me since I’d recently discovered that I was a strange subspecies of satyr. It was a fact I was slowly learning to accept, although most people—human and pred alike—had no idea about my true biological makeup. They both believed I was just a crazy human freak.
One of these days I would have to enlighten some of them. Sooner rather than later if Lucen had his way.
The old brick building contained only two tenants per floor, with the second and third floors given over to apartments. I stopped on the second-floor landing, setting my suitcase down once more to fish my key from my jeans pocket.
The lock gave way, and I pushed open the heavy door with a flourish. “Welcome to my new apartment. Much nicer than my old. And roommate-free, to boot.”
“I’m glad you’re so proud of yourself.” Lucen smirked. “Welcome to adulthood.”
I stuck my tongue out at him and dropped my suitcase in what would become a combined living room and dining room space.
Lucen followed suit with the box and circled around. “Do I get a tour?”
“It’ll be the briefest tour in history.” I walked him over to the picture window that overlooked the street and pointed straight to the back of the apartment. “You can see everything from here except the bathroom.”
Frowning, Lucen crossed his arms. “So you can. It’s…quaint.”
Fine. So the apartment wasn’t much, but even so it was more than I could currently afford. I’d signed the lease the same day I unexpectedly quit my consulting job with the Gryphons. Which meant I was temporarily unemployed. Again.
Like the last time I found myself jobless, Lucen had offered me a waitressing position at his bar, The Lair. He’d even offered to pay me more this time, but that was no surprise. I could actually work, seeing as I didn’t have a sprained wrist. Plus, Lucen was probably so thrilled that I no longer associated with the Gryphons that he’d do anything to prevent me from missing the generous hourly wage they’d paid me.
Then again, it could have been Devon’s fault that he was willing to pay me more. Devon was Lucen’s best friend, lieutenant to the satyr’s Dom, and now—thanks in part to me—the sole owner of the strangest nightclub in Boston. He’d also offered me a job as a cocktail waitress.
Kind as it might be for both of them to keep me gainfully employed, I didn’t really want to return to my pre-Gryphon life as a server. Ever since I’d been forced into finding the guy who’d framed me for murder, schlepping drinks and food didn’t have as much appeal. My short stint working for the Gryphons had driven that point home.
Alas, there was no way I was going back to the Gryphons, but there had to be another job out there that let me use my brain to help people and that paid me better than the satyrs were offering. No offense to Lucen or Devon.
I had time to figure it out. My first three months’ rent had been paid upon signing.
“It might be small, but it’s all I need,” I told Lucen.
It was the truth. Behind the living room was a narrow galley-style kitchen, and behind that was the bedroom. A door off the bedroom led into the narrow bathroom that ran parallel to the kitchen. There wasn’t much space to fill, but I didn’t own much stuff.
While Lucen went to check out the kitchen, my phone rang. Pulling it out of my pocket, I scowled. The number on the caller ID had become very familiar to me over the last week.
It was Olivia Lee, Director of the Boston Regional Office of the Angelic Order of the Gryphon. The woman who, a few weeks ago, had blackmailed me into working for her as a consultant and as a result had almost gotten me killed on my first case.
Okay, I suppose I had almost gotten me killed, or Lucrezia—the satyr I’d busted had almost killed me—but it was Olivia’s fault I’d been sucked into the mess.
She wasn’t pleased that I’d quit afterward, though it had nothing to do with her or the case and everything to do with a Gryphon named Tom Kassin and his damned Gryphon fraternity, Le Confrérie de l’Aile, AKA the Brotherhood of the Wing.
The Brotherhood were the ones who’d made me the satyr-ish freak that I was, and they had done so when I was a teenager, without my consent or even my knowledge. When I’d discovered the truth, I’d had a good rant at Tom, and had then told Olivia she could shove her consulting gig she-knew-where.
I hadn’t heard from Tom since. Olivia, on the other hand, was more persistent. So far, she hadn’t followed through on her original threat to have me arrested if I refused to work for her, but I didn’t know why. Especially seeing as she wouldn’t leave me alone. I could only assume Tom or the Brotherhood had something to do with her hands-off approach, but that didn’t exactly reassure me. The Brotherhood had to count some damn powerful Gryphons as its members, both in the magical and political senses.
I was still frowning at the phone when Lucen emerged from his self-guided tour. “Nice, new stove in there. Too bad it will be wasted on your cooking skills. Was that the evil winged-one calling again?”
Distracted by Olivia’s call, I let the slight on my culinary achievements slide. “Yeah, only this time she left a message.”
That was unusual. Olivia had left a voicemail the first time she’d called me, but none since.
Lucen yawned. He’d gotten up early to help me move. “Well, you going to play that message for my amusement?”
“Sure, if this is what you really find entertaining.”
“Oh, you know what I find really entertaining.” He grinned. “But we’ve got to finish unloading my car first. So give me a quickie with this.”
“I’d rather give you a quickie with something else, but if you insist on listening to my voicemail…” I pressed my body against his, wrapping my free arm around his back. It was hot outside, and hotter inside the apartment’s stagnant air, and a thin sheen of sweat glistened on his skin. The scent of his cinnamon-tinged pheromones was stronger because of it, and I breathed him in deeply. My muscles, achy from loading his car this morning, decided they didn’t ache as bad as my need for him.
Lucen was easily the most gorgeous person I’d ever met, and he would have been hard enough to resist if he were human. With his satyr magic, he was damn near impossible.
Sensing my desire, he leaned down into me and took my lips into his. I let him for a second, grazing my teeth over his bottom lip and sliding my tongue gently over his skin. With a sharp breath he yanked me closer so that my chest pressed into his hard muscles.
I pulled away. My body whined at me for it, but I loved watching the fierce heat on his face when I teased him like this. I was probably the only person who could. Pred power—be it satyr lust, goblin greed, fury rage, harpy jealousy or sylph insecurity—barely registered with me if I noticed it at all.
But Lucen was the exception. Well, Devon too, but it made me uneasy thinking about him.
Still, I had way more resistance to Lucen’s power than I should, and it drove him crazy when I did resist because he wasn’t used to it.
“You said you wanted the message now?” I reminded him innocently.
Putting the phone on speaker, I played Olivia’s voicemail, which turned out to be far less exciting than the foreplay. Big surprise.
“Jessica, this is Olivia Lee, but I assume you know that and that’s why you’re not picking up. Whatever your issue with Agent Kassin, it does not concern me, and I want to remind you of the agreement we struck. I expect you to return my call at your earliest convenience, or I will be forced to arrange a meeting using methods you won’t like.”
I hung up. “Damn. Sounds like Olivia’s getting bored with playing nice.”
“That didn’t take long, and she’s calling on the weekend too. Did she forget your threat?”
When I’d told Olivia our deal was off, I’d also told her that if she arrested me, all the dirt I had on Le Confrérie—and the Gryphon organization as a whole by association—would go public. “Maybe. Or she’s calling my bluff.”
Or she didn’t know exactly what dirt I had and thus didn’t understand the magnitude of my threat. She’d been confused by my quitting, and now that my rage had blown over, it had crossed my mind that Olivia was probably ignorant of what the Brotherhood had done to me and at least four other children.
Ignorant, and perhaps as likely to be appalled by it as I was.
But I wasn’t going back, even if that were true. They were all guilty by association in my mind.
Nonetheless, Lucen must have picked up on some of my internal conflict. “If Olivia is going to get on your case and put you on the outs with the Gryphons again, you know what you should do.”
I lifted my ponytail and fanned the back of my neck. “Let me guess. You mean tell Dezzi the truth.”
“You don’t have to make it sound like a death sentence.”
“How do we know it’s not?”
Lucen didn’t bother to respond to my question verbally. He just gave me a quit-being-stupid look.
Fair enough. It wouldn’t be a death sentence. Not literally. In fact, Dezzi, the satyr’s Dom, was very pleased with me since I’d exposed the plot by Lucrezia to oust her.
Yet telling Dezzi about my quasi-satyr status was a death sentence in one very important way. In my mind, coming out of the pred closet meant the death of my ruse. My entire self-concept. Despite having lived with the truth about myself for a few weeks, I still thought of myself as mostly human. So long as only a handful of people knew otherwise, it was easier to cling to that illusion. Once Dezzi knew, all the satyrs would know, and soon enough, all of Shadowtown. I was certain.
I wasn’t sure I was ready for that, and for what felt like the hundredth time, I explained my thoughts to Lucen.
“You can’t conceal this forever, little siren.” He sighed. “I have obligations to Dezzi. If you don’t tell her, at some point, I should.”
“Then why don’t you?” I asked, suddenly irritable. I blamed it on the heat, but the truth was, my satyr status was growing to be a touchy subject between us.
“It should be you. I don’t understand why you don’t want to do it. As unfair as what the Gryphons did to you was, it’s got to be a relief to know the truth finally.”
I picked at my T-shirt. It was one Steph had gotten me for my last birthday, black with the words Bite me in blue glitter. “It is a relief for me to know, but other people knowing is something else.”
“Dezzi will be happy. The domus owes you a thanks for catching Lucrezia. Besides.” He came up behind me and put his hands on my arms. I held my breath as his mouth brushed my ear, and sweetly cinnamon lust drove away my irritation. “You’re supposed to be embracing your satyrness. Part of that should mean owning up to it.”
He had a point, but I didn’t like it. “I’m working on it. On every part,” I added before he could interject.
The other part I was supposed to be working on was coming to terms with the fact that monogamy was impossible where he was concerned. Lucen was a satyr, and like all preds, he needed to addict humans to his magic to live. For a satyr, that meant he needed to occasionally have sex with those addicts so they remained healthy. I didn’t particularly like it, but as far as I knew, there was nothing I could do about it.
Because Lucen understood that I linked sex and emotional attachment, his grand plan was to break my association. And he believed the best way to uncouple them was for me to have lots of mindless sex. We weren’t even talking one-night stands. More like one-hour stands. Preferably with guys whose names I never bothered to catch. If I did it enough, Lucen was convinced I would separate my feelings for him from my lusty urges.
No surprise, this was easier said than done. We’d had a conversation about it a week ago, and I hadn’t done a damn thing since. Merely thinking about it bugged me. Satyr or human, I’d never been the sort of person who felt comfortable hopping from one person’s bed to another. Lucen’s insistence that it was no big deal was a potent reminder that although I wasn’t truly human, I also wasn’t a normal satyr.
Lucen tugged on my earlobe with his lips, his arms locked around me from behind. I closed my eyes, not for the first time wishing for a magical solution to the problem we faced. But though I didn’t know much about magic, one thing I did know was that it wasn’t a solution for all problems.
“We should finish the unloading,” I reminded him.
“I think I changed my mind. Now might be a good time for a break, after all.” Hot breath fell on my neck, followed moments later by his lips nibbling their way to my collarbone.
I breathed deeply, trying to be strong. “This place is a dusty mess. There’s no furniture and no drapes over the windows yet.”
“Satyrs aren’t modest.”
I twisted around in his arms. “I’m not a normal satyr, and I don’t need to give the people at the pizza place across the street a dinner show.”
Lucen laughed. “Fine. If you insist.” He kissed me hard, as though to remind me what I was delaying, then let me go.
It took another half hour of carting boxes and bags, but we finally headed downstairs for the last load. Packing this morning, I’d been impressed that I could fit my entire life into two trips in Lucen’s midsize sedan. Now, on further reflection, I felt the serious need to do some furniture shopping lest I eat all my meals off cardboard boxes.
Sweat rolled down my neck, and I massaged my throbbing hand. Getting my damn futon frame up the stairs had resulted in minor scrapes and bruises for both of us. Lucen’s healed almost instantly, but being the abnormal pred that I was, I healed more like a human. Slowly and painfully.
Outside, Shadowtown was coming alive. Though I’d joked about giving the pizza place a show, they were only now opening for business. As was the chain drug store next to it and the barbershop and magic supply shop on the ground floor of my apartment building.
Waving politely at the satyr who owned the shop, I turned down the alley next to the building where Lucen had illegally parked his car. In Shadowtown, no one had to worry about tickets. The Gryphons, who policed all magical matters, had more pressing responsibilities, and so did the preds, who policed themselves for pred-on-pred offenses.
Lucen grabbed the last box, which contained my pots and pans, and I grabbed my comforter. “You owe me for this, little siren. You owe me so much.”
“I’m looking forward to it.”
“Oh, no.” Lucen was grinning again as he shook his head. “Not that way. I’m repainting my apartment this fall. I hope you know how to use a roller.”
I banged my hip against the building door to open it. “Your apartment is gorgeous. What does it need repainting for?”
“It doesn’t. I just want to watch you work.”
I called him a few names as I climbed the stairs, but my laugher faded when I reached the top. Lucen smacked me in the back with the box, and I jumped out of his way.
His brow furrowed as he noticed what I was staring at. “Where did that come from?”
“Got me, but someone was sneaky.” And fast. Lucen and I couldn’t have been outside more than a couple minutes.
I pushed the gift basket aside with my toe so I could open the apartment door. After I dumped the comforter on the partially assembled futon, I stuck my head back outside and scanned the landing and stairwell. They were both empty. Not exactly surprising. I didn’t see a reason why whoever had left the basket would hang around to watch me take it. Yet its presence left me with a bad feeling.
Lucen had been moving my kitchen boxes around on the scant counter space, and he opened the fridge and took out the two beers we’d stuck in there earlier. I put the gift basket down in the spot he’d freed. Wrapped in cellophane was a bottle of wine, some cheese, crackers and nuts.
“That’s a harpy-owed shop that sent it.” He must have recognized the logo on the envelope. With a nod, Lucen handed me one of the beers. “So who’s it from?”
The beer hadn’t chilled enough, but it was better than nothing. I took a swig and contemplated. “Dezzi?” I couldn’t think of anyone else who might send me a welcome basket.
“I wouldn’t count on it. What about your family?”
“I wouldn’t count on it. They wouldn’t contact a pred-owned business.”
“The suspense is killing me. Open the damn thing.” Lucen made to grab for the envelope, but I snatched it away and tore into it for the card. Almost immediately, I wished I hadn’t.
Miss Moore, welcome to the neighborhood. I request that you grant me the honor of your presence at four o’clock tomorrow for tea.
Best wishes, Gunthra
I swallowed and reached for more beer. Shit. My gut had been right to be wary.
Lucen grabbed the card from my hand. “What does the goblins’ Dom want with you?”
Since I suspected the answer and it wouldn’t please him, I opted to say nothing. During the week when I’d been framed for murder, I’d made a bargain with Gunthra. She’d known what I was, and in desperation, believing knowing the truth about myself could help save me, I’d made a deal with her. The truth about my gift in return for an unspecified future favor.
I’d been right to a degree. Gunthra’s information had probably kept me alive. But now I’d bet she was ready to collect. I’d also bet that I wasn’t going to like upholding my end of the deal.
Welcome to the neighborhood, indeed.