“You can run, but it won’t matter. I will find you and we will talk. I’ve never asked or expected you to deal with me on shapeshifter terms, but this is juvenile even by human standards. You owe me an answer. Here, I’ll make it easy for you. If you want me, meet me and I’ll explain my side of what happened. Or you can run away from me the way you always do, and this time I won’t chase you. Decide.”
“You’ve lost your mind,” I told the answering machine.
I played the message a couple of times more, listening to his voice. He’d had his chance and blown it. I’d paid for it. It would be stupid to risk this kind of pain again. Plain stupid.
I slumped in my chair. The rock in my chest cracked into sharp pieces. Thinking about letting him go hurt. But then he wasn’t mine to let go in the first place.
My father taught me many things. Guard yourself. Never become attached. Never take a chance. Never take a risk if you don’t have to. And more often than not, he proved right. Taking stupid risks only landed you into hotter water.
But if I let Curran go without a fight, I would regret it for the rest of my life. I would rather drag a dozen rocks in my chest and know that he wasn’t my chance at happiness, than walk away and never be sure. And that’s all he wanted—to be sure. We both deserved to know.
As much as it pained me to admit it, Curran was right. I never made allowances for him being a shapeshifter. I always expected him to deal with me as a human. He didn’t think I could meet him on his home turf and play by his rules.
Big mistake, Your Majesty. You want me to act like a shapeshifter? Fine, I can do that. I pulled up the phone and dialed a number from memory.
“Yes?” Jim answered.
“I was told that shapeshifters declare their romantic interest by breaking into each other’s territory and rearranging things.”
There was a slight pause. “That’s correct.”
“Does the cat clan use this ritual?”
“Yes. Where are you going with this?”
When on shaky ground in negotiations, shovel on some guilt. “Do you remember when I stood by you during the Midnight Games, even though you were wrong and your people attacked me?”
He growled quietly. “Yes.”
“I need access to Curran’s private gym for fifteen minutes.”
“When?” he asked.
Another pause. “After this, we’re even.”
Jim was an ass but he paid his debts. “Deal.”
“He’s in the city tonight. I’ll keep him here. Derek will meet you at the Keep in two hours.”
I hung up and punched in the second number. What do you know, I actually pulled it off.
“Teddy Jo,” a gruff voice answered.
“You owe me for the apples,” I said into the phone. I was calling in all favors tonight.
“That’s right. What can I do you for?”
I smiled. “I need to borrow your sword.”
THE NIGHT WAS FREEZING AND I TOOK KARMELION, my old, beat-up truck of a bile green color. It was missing the front light assembly and had more dents than a crushed Coke can, but it ran during magic waves and it would keep me warm. It also made enough noise to wake the dead, but I didn’t care. Being warm won.
It took me two hours to get the sword and leave Atlanta behind. Before the Shift, many of Atlanta’s residents had had the luxury of commuting from nearby towns, driving in through the countryside. Aided by magic, nature had reclaimed these undeveloped stretches with alarming speed. Living things generated magic by simply being, and when put against inert concrete and steel, plants had the advantage. What once were fields now had become dense forest. It swallowed gas stations and lone farmsteads, forcing people to move closer together. Trees flanked the road, their branches black and leafless, sharp charcoal sketches in the snow.
I peered into the dark and petted the attack poodle. I had to lay the front seat flat for him—he was too big. “I always miss the damn road.”
The poodle made a small growling noise and curled up tighter.
A long howl of a lone sentry rolled through the night, announcing our arrival.
We made a sharp turn, picking up a barely perceptible narrow road between the thick oaks. The trail veered left, right, the old trees parted, and we emerged into a wide clearing. The enormous building of the Keep loomed before us. A hybrid of a castle and a modern fort, it jutted over the forest like a mountain, impregnable and dark. It was built the old-fashioned way, with basic tools and superhuman strength, which made it magic-proof. Since I’d been here last, most of the north wing had been completed, and the wall of the courtyard now rose about fifteen feet high.
I steered through the gates into the courtyard. A familiar figure sauntered to the truck. Derek. I’d know that wolf gait anywhere.
Three months ago Derek had been handsome. He’d had one of those perfect male faces, fresh, almost bordering on pretty, and dark, velvet eyes that made women wish to be fifteen again. Then rakshasas poured molten metal on his face. It healed. He wasn’t disfigured, although he thought he was, but his face had lost its perfect lines.
His nose was thicker, his jaw bulkier. His eyebrow ridge protruded farther, making his eyes appear more deep set, the result of the Lyc-V thickening the bone and cartilage in response to trauma. The skin along his hairline on the left temple showed permanent scarring, where bits of his shattered skull had become lodged in the muscle. I touched it once and it felt like grains of salt under the surface of the skin. With longer hair, it would be practically invisible, but Derek kept his hair short. There were other small, minute things—the slight change in the shape of the mouth, the network of small scars on the right cheek. His face now made you want to call for backup. He looked like an older, scarred, vicious version of himself.
And his eyes were no longer velvet. One look into those eyes and you knew their owner had been through some heavy shit and, if he got pissed off, you wanted to be miles away.
I shut off the engine. The sudden silence was deafening.
Derek opened the door for me. “Hey, Kate.” He had a wolf’s voice, raspy, harsh around the edges, and occasionally sardonic. The ordeal at the Midnight Games had permanently damaged his vocal cords as well as his face. He’d never howl at the moon again, in fur or out, but his snarl made you cringe.
He looked my truck over. “Nice vehicle. Inconspicuous. Stealthy even.”
“Spare me.” I got out, carrying Teddy Jo’s sword wrapped in flame-retardant cloth, and shut the car in the poodle’s face. “Stay.”