Read Darklands Online

Authors: Nancy Holzner

Tags: #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction

Darklands (6 page)

BOOK: Darklands
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Did
he want to start his own pack? Kane had always been so immersed in his work—his goal was to establish paranormal rights at the federal level—that other concerns got pushed aside. Work came first, just as it did for me. It was one of the reasons we got along so well. Or so I thought.

If instinct was tugging at Kane, Simone knew how to manipulate its pull. I didn’t have a clue. But I didn’t want to manipulate
him. I wanted to talk to him. If he wanted more than I could offer, it was something we both needed to know.

I checked the kitchen clock. Six thirty. As a lawyer, Kane kept norm hours, so he was usually up by seven. I’d surprise him with breakfast in bed, and we could talk.

I pictured him, lying between the sheets, his silver hair rumpled, his gray eyes hooded with sleep and desire.
Mmm.
First bed, then breakfast, then talk.

IN GENERAL, DEADTOWN ISN’T BIG ON BREAKFAST. THE norms’ morning is Deadtown’s bedtime. When the sun comes up, most residents are home snoozing behind their blackout shades, as Juliet was now. But for werewolves it’s a different story. Most werewolves hold professional jobs in the human-controlled part of town: they’re bankers, lawyers, accountants, architects, engineers. They earn salaries and have expense accounts and go to work in clothes that need dry cleaning. Each month, for the three days and nights of the full moon, state law requires them to be in residence at one of the state’s three secure werewolf retreats. But state law also requires that employers make accommodations for werewolves to go on retreat. Werewolves tend to be such valuable workers that employers are happy to comply. As long as the guy who manages your investment portfolio or the woman who arranges your business loans stays out of sight while becoming a huge, slavering, bloodthirsty wolf, it all works out fine.

I stopped at a place I knew would be open, a cafe that was a popular spot for werewolves to grab coffee and a bite to eat on their way to work. Inside, the air was fragrant with scents of coffee and frying bacon and sausage. (Werewolves need their protein in the morning.) The cafe was decorated in cheerful shades of yellow and green, and ferns hung in the big front window. Werewolves lined up at the takeout counter; others sat at tables or the booths that lined two walls. I threaded my way through the tables to join the line.

I was halfway to the counter when a familiar voice called my name. I turned, scanning the room, to see Kane sliding out of a booth near the back.

His smile cast a warm glow over the bustling cafe. His silver
hair gleamed, and his suit—black with a subtle pinstripe—looked like it had just waltzed out of a Milan menswear show. The cut emphasized his broad shoulders and slim hips. Nice. Too bad I hadn’t made it to his place before he’d put it on.

He wrapped me in a warm hug. His scent, which always made me think of a moonlit forest at midnight, sent shivers through me. His lips brushed the top of my head.

“Sit with me for a minute,” he said, pulling me beside him into the booth. His arm felt good around my shoulders.

“You’re out early,” I said.

“Breakfast meeting.” He gestured at his open laptop on the table. “I was going over my notes before the others arrive. But I’m surprised to see you here. I thought you’d be asleep by now.”

“I was going to do that at your place.” Heat flushed my cheeks as that image of him between the sheets flashed into my mind. “After I woke you up with breakfast in bed.”

His gray eyes shone. “I wish you’d been an hour earlier. I gladly would’ve blown off this meeting for the chance to…” He leaned in close, his lips brushing my ear as he whispered, “To have you for breakfast.”

“I do have the time right, don’t I?” A woman’s voice cut through the moment like a hatchet. “We did say seven o’clock.”

Simone Landry stood over our table. In person, she looked even lovelier than she did on TV. That damn chestnut hair framed her face in silken waves. Skillfully applied makeup highlighted her green eyes, and her suit, a matching shade of green, was tailored to show off her curves. In my sweats, I suddenly felt less comfy and more like a bag lady.

“Simone,” Kane said, keeping his arm around me. “Have you met my girlfriend, Vicky?”

Her smile didn’t waver as her eyes shifted to me. “I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure.”

Kane made the introductions, and Simone extended her hand. I didn’t like squinting up at her, so I stood to shake it. Her palm was cool, her handshake firm and confident. She looked like any successful norm businesswoman, except for the way her nostrils flared and twitched as she sized me up by scent. Her eyes gave nothing away.

“I almost feel like I know you,” she said. “Kane has told me so much about you.”

“He has?” I mentally kicked myself for sounding surprised.

“Of course.” Kane had gotten out of the booth to stand beside me. His arms circled my waist.

Simone didn’t back off; her smile broadened. “He’s very proud of you. Just the other day, when we had drinks after taping our
Paranormal Perspectives
interview, he made it sound as though you’d single-handedly driven all the demons out of Boston.” She chuckled, and the tone of her laugh revealed the malice that her face held in check.

That laugh declared war.

You want to challenge me, Councilor Landry? Bring it on.

Before I could say anything, a werewolf and a human came over, both junior partners in Kane’s law firm. As they greeted me, Simone had to step back. Good. Let her learn who’s part of Kane’s inner circle—and who’s not.

“I’ll let you have your meeting,” I said. Touching Kane’s cheek with one hand, I buried the other in his hair and pulled him to me. I kissed him the way I’d planned to wake him up—deep and slow and sensual. “See you tonight.”

Kane caught his breath, his smile full of promise. “Can’t wait.”

He sat down again, sliding over in the booth. “I’m glad we met,” I said to Simone, stretching my lips back in a grin that I hoped would look territorial to a werewolf. I stood in front of her, smiling and blocking her way, until one of the junior partners sat beside Kane.

Simone glanced at the booth, whose sole empty seat was now the one farthest from Kane. When she returned her gaze to me, she dropped the mask, and I could see everything in her eyes: her desire for Kane, her confidence, her utter contempt for me. I’d been wrong about Simone. There was no challenge there. She was certain she’d win.

4

IN THE LOBBY OF MY BUILDING, I WAVED TO CLYDE, WHO stashed a bag of chips in his doorman’s desk. He swallowed and patted his mouth with a handkerchief. Nobody cares that zombies eat on the job, but Clyde’s big on propriety. I pretended not to notice his snacking.

“I’m glad to see you’re walking better,” he called.

Mid-stride, I realized my injured leg no longer hurt at all. I
was
walking better. Good. At least I hadn’t been limping in front of Simone. She’d interpret any sign of weakness as vulnerability—and I was not going to let that bitch-in-heat perceive me as vulnerable. My memory burned with the image of her smug face, those green eyes already lit up with triumph.

I was going to wipe that expression right off her perfectly made-up face.

Upstairs in my apartment, I picked up the phone to check for messages. The voice mail’s robot voice told me I had four new ones. The first was from my mother in Florida, just to say hi. A wave of guilt hit me as I listened to her describe a dinner-theater play she’d seen with friends. Mom’s tone was cheerful and chatty—nothing to suggest I’d done anything wrong—but mostly
I heard, “You should call more often,” even though she didn’t say the words.

She was right; I should. I pressed the button to get out of voice mail and dialed Mom’s number. Her machine answered. I’d bet anything she was out having breakfast. Mom loved going out for breakfast. When I was in high school, once a week I’d grab some toast and pack my own lunch so my parents could have their breakfast date. Mom always said she’d rather go out at the beginning of the day, when she felt fresh and awake, than eat a heavy restaurant dinner at the end of a long, tiring day.

I left her a chatty message saying I was sorry I’d missed her call and telling her I’d spent the night at the local high school lecturing a classroom of zombies on demon extermin— er, slaying. I left out the part about being attacked by a Harpy—no point in worrying her. I ended with a quick “Love you” and hung up with the hollow feeling that I hadn’t said enough.

I went back into the voice mail menu and listened to the remaining messages, one after another. All three were cancellations.

“You won’t believe it!” raved one client. “For three nights in a row, not a single nightmare. The first night, I thought it was a fluke. After the second, I thought maybe I was getting lucky. But after three nights of deep, wonderful sleep, I know they’re gone.
Gone!
” His voice rose to a giddy pitch. “Sorry to cancel at the last minute and all, but I no longer need your services. So, um, give me a call when you get this so we can discuss refunding my deposit. Thanks.”

I’d give the guy a call, all right. He obviously needed a reminder of my no-refund policy.

I checked my calendar. It showed one Drude extermination still on for tonight. Otherwise, my schedule for the next week had been wiped clean. I didn’t get it. What was happening to all the demons? If not for last night’s Harpy attack, I’d almost think Boston had become a demon-free zone.

Not what you’d call great PR when Boston’s demon exterminator is the only person in the entire city being attacked by demons.

I was debating whether to call the ex-client back and argue about his deposit when the phone rang in my hand. Oh, no, I thought as I pushed the button to answer. Please don’t let this be
another cancellation. The few dollars left in my bank account were getting lonely.

But it wasn’t a client. It was my sister, Gwen.

“Will you please talk to your niece?” Gwen’s voice sounded like she’d reached the end of her rope and kept on going. “Maria is refusing to go to school.”

“Sure, put her on.”

“No, I mean come out here and talk to her. She’s barricaded herself in her room and won’t answer no matter how hard I pound on the door. I bet she’s got her iPod turned up full blast. She’s probably giving herself permanent hearing damage as we speak.” I wondered if Gwen knew how much she sounded like our own mother twenty years ago, except instead of an iPod, Gwen would have been blasting her boom box for the whole neighborhood to hear.

“What makes you think she’ll open the door for me?”

“Of course she will. You’re the great and powerful Aunt Vicky who can do no wrong.” The bitterness in her voice made me think that driving out to Gwen’s suburban home and getting in the middle of a mother-daughter dispute might not be the best way to round out my morning. But then she softened. “Please, Vicky. Right now, Maria doesn’t want to hear a word I have to say, but I know she’ll listen to you.”

“I’m on my way.”

TEN MINUTES LATER I WAS IN MY JAG, PAST THE CHECKPOINTS out of Deadtown, and driving through the human-controlled world. Navigating rush-hour traffic is never fun in Boston, but at least I was driving out of the city when everyone else was heading in. Inbound traffic on the Mass Pike was bumper-to-bumper, but the westbound side wasn’t so bad once I reached Newton.

During the half-hour drive out to Needham, I wondered what was going on with my niece. At eleven, Maria was reaching the age where shapeshifting tendencies start to manifest. Gwen had married a human—Nick was a great guy, but at least part of the reason Gwen had picked him was a hope that her kids would be norms, not monsters like her own family. Like me.

Since Cerddorion females lose the ability to shapeshift when they give birth, Gwen had chosen to be as human as it was
possible for her to be when she became a mom at twenty-two. I don’t know if it was her
very
worst fear that her daughter would become a shapeshifter, but that one was pretty high on the list. And it was happening. Maria was showing all the early signs of being a full-blooded Cerddorion female: shapeshifting dreams, a talent for controlling her dreamscape, an ability to communicate with others of our race while sleeping.

I wondered what had happened to make Maria so upset she wouldn’t go to school. Probably a dream had turned into a nightmare that she couldn’t control. I’d gone through the same thing at her age, and I remembered how scary it could be. It had to be even worse if you couldn’t go to your mother for comfort. Gwen didn’t mean to let her fears about Maria’s Cerddorion nature show—I was sure of that. Yet the kid couldn’t help but pick up on those fears. They’d surrounded her from the day she was born.

I STOOD IN THE UPSTAIRS HALLWAY OF GWEN’S COLONIAL-style home, knocking on a door decorated with a hand-drawn sign that proclaimed
NO BROTHERS ALLOWED
. When I’d arrived, Gwen was in the kitchen picking up Cheerios that Justin, her two-year-old, kept dropping on the floor from his high chair. She hadn’t said much, just that Maria was still in her room.

“Maria?” I knocked again. “Maria, it’s Aunt Vicky. Can I come in?”

I heard a thump on the other side of the door, but it stayed closed. “What are you doing here?” Maria’s muffled voice asked. “I thought you go to bed in the morning.”

“Usually I do. Not always. Your mom said you weren’t feeling so great and thought maybe I could help.”

“I told her not to call you.” A pause. “Nobody can help.”

“Let’s talk about it and see. It’ll be easier, though, if you open the door. Now that I’ve driven all the way out here, I’d hate to go back home without seeing my favorite niece.”

“You want to see me?
Fine.
” The lock clicked and the door flew open as though an explosion had blasted it off its hinges. Maria stood there, one hand on the door, her chin jutting out defiantly. “Okay, now you can see me. Happy?”

“Yeah, I am. Although I’d rather see a smile on that pretty face.”

Maria’s eyes were red and puffy. Her lips quivered as she
drew in a shaky breath. “Don’t tease me, Aunt Vicky. I can’t take it right now.”

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