Pristine. Stack-less.

"Maxine? What happened to my files?"

"The knight-protector decided to clear your schedule."

"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"

"The Order appreciates your services. Particularly when it comes to your late-night work."

The light dawned. Ted was giving me unofficial approval to screw with the Midnight Games.

There would be no investigation. Ted already knew as much about the Games as could be humanly known. He simply lacked the means or an excuse to do anything about them. Now I presented him with a golden opportunity. He was throwing me at the Games like a stick into a wheel. I was capable and completely expendable. Any public problems I caused would be excused by my half-assed status. I wasn't a knight. I wasn't properly trained. The Order would disavow any knowledge of my activities, paint me as an overeager incompetent, and toss me out on my behind.

Andrea manifested in my doorway, walked in, and closed the door. "Raphael called.

Apparently an order just went down the chain of command. Any member of the Pack who attacks you is going to have a long, unpleasant meeting with Curran."

I raised my pen in a mock salute. "Yippee. I had no idea I was a fragile flower in need of His Majesty's protection."

"Have you been attacked?"

"Yep. I was good and didn't kill anybody."

Andrea sat down in my client chair. "What's going on?"

I got up and activated the ward. Dim orange glyphs ignited in the floor, intertwining in twisted patterns. A wall of orange surged up to seal the door. It was the spell my guardian had used to secure the room. People told knight-diviners secret things, the kinds of things a confessor or psychiatrist might hear. Greg's defensive ward was soundproof, sight-proof and magic-proof. Not even Maxine's telepathy could penetrate it. It had taken me a month of painstakingly retracing the glyphs on the floor to figure out how he had done it.

I unlocked my top drawer, pulled out the file, and put it on the desk. "Do the hand."

Andrea raised her hand. "I will not disclose the information I am about to receive, unless authorized by the person who surrenders this information to my discretion. I will not use this information for personal gain even under duress, coercion, or to save myself or others from imminent physical harm. I do so swear by my honor as a knight of the Order."

It was a hell of an oath. More people flunked out of the Academy on oath breaking than any other test of will. When you've been beaten, drowned, whipped, and then branded with a hot iron, most people will say anything just to make the torture stop. There was a narrow band of pale skin on my back, the reminder of where a hot iron had kissed me. It proved I'd passed. I knew Andrea had an identical scar. We both would remember the secrets we had to keep for our test oaths to the end of our days and never reveal them. Not even through a stray thought.

I handed her the file. She read through the pages and looked at me. I filled in the holes, including Curran's visit.

Andrea blinked a couple of times. "Shit. Fuck shit."

" ' Shit fuck' would also have been accepted."

"The head of Pack's security has gone rogue, Derek is near death, and you're mated to the Beast Lord."

"Jim hasn't gone rogue; he's just not following orders at the moment."

"That's what going rogue is!"

Okay, I had to give her that one. "And for the record, I'm not mated to Curran."

Andrea shook her head. "What planet are you from? He's slipping into your apartment to tuck your blanket in at night. That's the protective urge at work. He thinks you're mated."

"He can think whatever he wants. That doesn't make it true."

Andrea's eyes widened. "I just realized: he's treating you like a shapeshifter alpha. You're playing by the rules of not-quite-human courtship here. Has he asked you to make him a dinner yet? Dinner is a big deal."

"No, he hasn't." Hell would freeze over before I cooked for Curran. "Look, I'm not a shapeshifter and he's dated humans before."

"That's just it." Andrea tapped her nails on the table. "A direct come-on like that is a challenge. That's how an alpha male would approach an alpha female. They are all about power struggles and the hunt, and they don't do subtle well. I realize this sounds twisted, but it's a backhanded compliment on his part."

"He can take his compliment and shove it where the sun don't shine."

"Can I quote you on that?"

"Be my guest. I've worked too hard to be his passing fancy."

I reached to put the folder back into my drawer and my fingers grazed an old paperback. The Princess Bride. That night in Savannah, when he had almost kissed me, he'd been reading it, and when I told him to leave, he'd said, "As you wish."

A frown crossed Andrea's face. "So where does all this leave you? Are you going to disappear for a while?"

I nodded. "I have to see this through, and I can't do it with Curran breathing down my neck."

"Need any help?"

"Yes. I'm putting in a request to analyze some silver samples to the computer database. It might take a day or two to process. If you could pick it up . . ."

Andrea waved her arms. "Of course I'll do it. I meant shoot-somebody type of help."

"Oh. Not at the moment. But I'll call you if I need a bullet through somebody's head."

"You do that. Try not to get killed."

"Will do."

We looked at each other.

"So how was it?" she asked. "Kissing Curran?"

"I can't let him kiss me again, because if he does, I'll sleep with him."

Andrea blinked. "Well," she said finally. "At least you know where you stand."

I CALLED JIM AND LEFT THE OFFICE. I WOVE BACK and forth through the morning traffic. Nobody followed me. Finally I stopped at a small fried chicken joint.

Glenda smiled at me. A plump woman with honey-colored hair, she'd once spent her nights tormented by phantom snakes. It took a week, but I finally found the cause hiding out in her attic and killed it. Now I got a smile with my chicken wings.

I held up ten bucks.

"You want a five-piece?" Glenda asked.

"Nope. I want to use the phone." This was a conversation best had out of the office.

Glenda put a phone on the counter, checked it for the dial tone, and grabbed my ten bucks.

I called the Keep, introduced myself to the disembodied female voice on the phone, and asked for the Beast Lord. In less than fifteen seconds Curran came on the line.

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires