Authors: Chloe Neill
HOWLING FOR YOU
A Chicago Vampires Novella
Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright © Chloe Neill, 2014
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
“He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf. . . .”
Tension and magic filled the air like invisible smoke, swirling around us with the weight of ancient mysteries. We stared at each other across the small table like foes across a battlefield, weapons honed and at the ready.
But we weren’t enemies.
We just weren’t anything else, either, exactly.
“Are you going to play sometime tonight?” he said. “I mean, if you’re scared, I can give you a little more time.”
“You can’t rush genius,” I said, looking over the fan of cards in my hand at the man who sat across from me.
He was tall and lean with light brown hair long enough to tuck behind his ears or flop into his eyes. His eyes, blue and usually glazed with happiness, smiled back at me. He looked young—fresh-faced and eager—but he had the skills of a warrior and the heart of a tiger. Quite literally.
Jeff Christopher was a shape-shifter and a member of my family’s Pack, the North American Central.
I crossed one leg over the other, my skirt, tights, and dark boots not doing nearly enough to combat the chill in the air. Little Red, the bar where we played cards, was much beloved by the North American Central Pack. But it was old, dingy, and exceedingly cold.
Tonight we were nearly alone, except for my aunt Berna, who stood behind the bar furtively—or so she thought—reading Twilight for the fourteenth time, and the wail of Robert Johnson on the jukebox across the room. But the sun had barely set. Soon enough, more of the city’s shape-shifters would fill the bar with leather, magic, and muscle.
I pulled the four of clubs from my hand and dropped it onto the first of three piles of cards on the table. Jeff glanced at it, then looked at me with calculation.
“Problem?” I asked.
“I don’t want to lose again.” He grinned. “My manly ego can’t handle it.”
“Your manly ego doesn’t care as long as I don’t beat you at ‘Jakob’s Quest.’ ” That was his favorite video game. He was a master at it, as he was with most things related to tech.
“True,” he said. “But we’re, what, twelve games to nine now?”
“Twelve to eight,” I said, biting back a smile. And he wouldn’t make it to nine, given the cards in my hand. “But nice try.”
He snorted, picked up the four, and stuffed it into his deck, then debated which card to give up. If he was picking up a four—a basically useless card—he must not have many options.
Jeff made his decision, dropping a three onto the table. It was a good choice; threes were even more useless than fours. But it still wouldn’t be enough.
And now, I thought, it’s time to pull the trigger and put him out of his misery.
I slid a card from my hand, and placed it on the middle of the three piles with a snap of its corner.
“I call the crown,” I said with a grin, the ace of diamonds shining victoriously.
Shock flashed in his eyes; he hadn’t known I held the ace—much less the ace of diamonds, the penultimate card in Call the Crown, a favorite game of the NAC.
Jeff looked up at me again, smile blooming. “I was sure that thing was in the handmaiden deck.”
“It was. I pulled it in the third round.”
His eyes brightened with amusement. He had such an innocently handsome face, but it belied his strength and passion. Like me, he was fiercely loyal to the Pack.
I was Fallon, the only daughter in the Keene family. Gabriel, the oldest, was Apex of the Pack. I was second oldest, and I was followed in age (and alphabet, because my mother had had a weird sense of humor) by Eli, Derek, Christopher, and Ben. Adam had once been the baby, but he’d betrayed Gabriel, the family, and the Pack. He was no longer a Keene.
If anything happened to Gabriel, I was next in line for the crown. That made me the first possible female Apex in the history of the North American Central. Technically, Gabriel’s son, Connor, was the heir apparent. But he wasn’t even a year old yet, and control of the Pack couldn’t pass to an infant. For now, that made me the runner up.
It also made me the biggest shape-shifting prize in the country.
I put the rest of my cards on the table and gathered up my winnings. The tabletop, one of ten or fifteen around us, was etched with time and sticky with decades of beer and whiskey. It took two passes to collect the quarters we’d anted.
“And that makes thirteen,” I said, sliding them into my jacket pocket.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve won nine,” Jeff said with a smile, pulling the rest of the cards into a tidy deck. “We’re still close. Nearly evenly matched.”
He’d meant the cards . . . and us. The game in which we’d both been pawns. My stomach tightened.
“I’m sorry,” he said, reaching over and putting a hand over mine. He must have sensed my dismay.
The contact sent a jolt of magic and emotion through my body, that sense of belonging and familiarity that Jeff Christopher triggered with every touch and heartrending smile.
But he wasn’t for me. And that’s what it all came down to.
I pulled back my hand, glanced at my watch. “No worries. But I should be going.”
He tried for a smile, but it wasn’t convincing. “Are you going to turn into a pumpkin?”
“I have to meet someone,” I said, and those few words were enough to make the cheer in his eyes fade away.
His doubt only lasted a moment; his eyes steeled with determination, and he settled them on me. “Someone?” he asked, but he didn’t wait for me to answer. “A potential mate, you mean.”
The Pack believed every Apex needed a companion, a man or woman strong enough to help the Apex hold the Pack. Since I could one day be that Apex, it fell to my family to identify potential mates. A doomsday plan in dating form.
Brains and brawn were popular traits, but they weren’t the only qualifications. Each family of shape-shifters took a specific animal form. The Keenes were wolves, the same form as the first known shape-shifters, Romulus and Remus, and thus the most prestigious. Wolves were the First Animals of the First Pack.
The shifting was magical, but the form was all about genetics. And that’s what it
came down to.
Jeff Christopher, brilliant and charming, was a beautiful and powerful animal: sleek fur; wide, predatory eyes; heavy paws; long, swishing tail.
Jeff was a tiger.
Pack protocol—Pack tradition—said shifters who transformed into different animals shouldn’t be together. Sure, some people ignored the rules. But those people weren’t members of the Apex’s family, and they certainly weren’t second in line to the throne. I didn’t have the luxury of rebellion.
Gabe and Jeff had been friends for some time. I’d met him a few months ago. Gabe trusted and respected Jeff, who worked with Chuck Merit, a former cop who’d been hired by a former mayor to help supernaturals in Chicago. Chuck Merit’s agency was no longer official, but Jeff and his sorcerer colleague, Catcher Bell, still volunteered to solve supernatural dilemmas.
Gabe hadn’t stopped our friendship or complained about the time we spent together, believing we’d drift apart eventually. And as each season passed, the number of potentials Gabe trotted in front of me increased. Jeff was good people. But there were rules.
“The price of Jeff Christopher is too high,” Gabriel was fond of saying. “You cannot have him and the Pack both.”
Jeff knew about the tradition; every shape-shifter did. I think he’d hoped Gabriel would change his mind, or the Pack would. That hadn’t happened. But cold, hard facts hadn’t done anything to diminish the fiery spark between us.
“Don’t go,” he said, slipping from his chair across the table to the one beside mine. His unique scent moved with him—the deep and heady aromas of jungle and his warm and velvety cologne. So did his magic. It was usually bright and almost cheerful, shining like ripples of sunlight across water. But the mood had darkened, and so had his magic, the power that electrified the air like the moment before a storm.
He touched my hand again, sending a shock of magic up my spine. I fought hard against the promise of it. Our relationship hadn’t been exactly platonic, but there were lines we hadn’t crossed.
“I’m a Keene,” I reminded him . . . and myself. “It’s tradition. It’s part of the Pack, part of who we are.”
“It’s a lame tradition. And I’ll tell that to Gabe’s face.” His expression was fierce, but I knew better. Jeff Christopher was as loyal as they came.
“It’s the right thing to do,” I said, but even I could hear the quiet whisper of doubt in my voice.
He reached up to brush a lock of my wavy hair behind my ear. “You’re not just a Keene. You’re allowed to be Fallon, too.”
Magic blossomed between us, an invisible arc that enveloped us both, sending goose bumps along my arms.
I swallowed down a bolt of lust. I pushed down the obvious interest from the wolf that prowled inside me, felt her keen disappointment when I stood up and pushed back my chair, which squealed in protest against the sticky and stained linoleum floor. The wolf didn’t care about Jeff Christopher’s form. That he was magic—ferocious and male—was enough for her.
There was no denying Jeff Christopher and I had good magic. But magic didn’t win every battle. Sometimes family had to win, because it was the only victory a girl could afford.
“They’re counting on me,” I said, avoiding his eyes, afraid he’d see my doubts, even though I’d pushed them as far down into my gut as possible. “And you know the other option.”
Abdication. I could have Jeff Christopher if I gave up my claim to the Pack, my spot in the line of succession. But I’d also be giving up my family, rejecting the training and education I’d received as a potential Apex.
I cared about Jeff, but he wasn’t for me. We weren’t for each other. It might have been one of the great tragedies of my universe, but that didn’t make it any less true.
“One of these days I’m going to start taking your rejections personally.” Jeff’s voice was confident, but there was pain in his eyes. Still, he put up a good front. “Today’s not that day. I’ll see you, Fallon.”
His voice drew my gaze back, and the promise in his eyes was unmistakable.
“I’ll see you,” he said again, his guarantee.
The Pack was based in Memphis, but our family had decamped to Chicago earlier in the year. We’d made a promise to help Chicago’s vampires manage the supernatural crises that emerged once they’d announced their existence to the world.
We’d looked for place that reminded us of home, and found a farmhouse long past its prime but with plenty of room to roam and bedrooms for the lot of us. The house wasn’t in the best shape—the once-vibrant cornflower blue paint had faded to a watery blue-gray—but even tired around the edges she was beautiful. An enormous round porch wrapped nearly half the front of the house—a must-have for a family with Southern roots—and a turret with a conical roof jutted proudly from one side. The rest of the facade was a jangle of windows, shutters, and dormers.
The interior of the house still carried the scents of the generations that had come and gone. Each generation, each year, layering one smell over another like geological strata. Bundles of herbs hung to dry in the kitchen. Soft, old-fashioned perfume. Dirt and grass from long days of work.
I think that’s ultimately why Gabe had picked the place—because memories still lingered in the house, and they took the places of the Pack members we’d left behind in Memphis.
I walked inside, hung my black peacoat on the baroque rack by the front door, and glanced into the antique mirror that hung there for a final check.
I had plenty of earrings and ink, and my taste in clothes ran toward black and gray, muted colors, and interesting layers. My dark blond hair waved with curl I’d gotten from my mother. My brandy-colored eyes were lined with kohl, and my cowl-necked sweater was dark, with long pointed sleeves, and fell nearly to the hem of my black pleated skirt.
As I prepared to meet another potential mate, a wolf in human clothing, I gave myself an honest appraisal. My eyes were sharp and clear, my mouth just wide enough to seem cheeky. I had good teeth, a great laugh, and a public school education that had done me plenty well. That didn’t mean the potential would feel the same way. And even if I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of meeting him, no one liked rejection.
I tucked a lock of hair behind my ear, blew out a breath, and walked into the living room.
The entire family was in attendance amongst the faded velvet furniture: my brothers—Gabriel to Ben—plus Tanya, Gabe’s wife, and Connor, his son and the prince in waiting. But as I ticked them off my mental checklist, I realized there wasn’t a suitor in sight.
Maybe he changed his mind,
I thought with a thrill, and I could meet Jeff for pancakes, or we could watch a movie at his place.
The family huddled around Gabriel, tall and tawny-haired, with amber eyes that occasionally swirled with magic and broad shoulders. He was a presence, always. Occasionally the biggest man in the room, always the most imposing.
Eli had our mother’s dark hair and blue eyes. Gabe, Ben, and Christopher, had the blond-brown hair and amber eyes of my father’s side of the family, and Derek was a mix of the two, with dark hair and amber eyes. My parents had been a strange and beautiful pair—his sundrenched athleticism against her small, exotic beauty.
Like my parents, Tanya was Gabriel’s physical foil. Absolutely beautiful in a soft and natural way, with cheeks that always seemed to glow healthy pink and dark hair currently pulled into a topknot. She bounced Connor in her arms and winked at me.
“Hey, sis,” Ben said, slinging an arm around me. “I thought you were out with Jeffrey tonight.” Ben wasn’t a fan of the mate-parading tradition.
“Gabe wanted me to meet someone,” I said, sliding my eldest brother a glance. He ignored the jab, kept his gaze on the box that sat on the pedestal table in front of him.
“A potential?” Ben asked, glancing at Gabriel. “You didn’t mention that.”
“He’s not here for you,” Gabriel said, then looked at me. “You’re just in time for the unveiling.”
“What are we unveiling?”
“The old man’s brought the crown out of storage,” Eli said, stepping forward.
“Ah,” I said with a smile. “For Connor’s initiation.”
The initiation was another Pack tradition, an opportunity for the actual heir apparent to be formally inducted into the NAC. Tomorrow, Connor would get a crown. Tonight, I got a blind date.
The prince won that round.
Wordlessly, Gabriel opened the box. The coronet, delicate and golden, with arches across the top, gleamed like a star’s corona, nestled on a cushion of purple velvet.
Magic, heavy and ancient, spilled into the room.
Gabe lifted the crown, the etchings along the band catching the light and sprinkling it around the room. The history of the world was drawn there, the origin story of the men and women whose shadows unified the worlds of men and animals. The artist was long forgotten, but his or her craftsmanship lived on. As did the magic that had been spelled into it.
“I think Connor might be a little small for it,” Christopher said.
“Not if he’s got Gabe’s gigantic melon,” Ben said, reaching out and knuckling the top of Gabe’s head. Only Ben could have gotten away with the gesture without pulling back a nub. He was the happiest of the Keenes, the one who smiled the most. And now that Adam was gone, he was the baby.
“Every melon in my family is fine,” Gabe said, handing the coronet to me and running a hand through his hair to settle it again.
The crown was heavier than I’d expected, and the metal was warmer. It had adorned generations of Pack leaders, Keenes and otherwise, and as the story went, had absorbed their magic along the way. Maybe that explained the weight.
“You think you can get the giraffe away from him long enough to get that thing on his head?” Christopher wondered.
The giraffe had become Connor’s favorite toy. He bathed with it, slept with it, played with it. And when it was taken away for cleaning or dinnertime, the young prince made his displeasure known to all.
Gabriel looked at him with a considering glance. Connor smiled back, kicking his feet merrily against his mother and holding his giraffe with drool-covered, pudgy baby fingers.
“Doubtful,” Gabriel said. “But it cost a fortune to get a guarded courier to bring it from Memphis. He’ll wear it with or without the giraffe.”
When Gabe extended a hand, I offered the coronet back to him, happy to have it out of my hands. We had no scepter, no ermine cape, no crown jewels. But we had the coronet. And as long as the Keene family held the crown, we held the Pack.
It wasn’t just a symbol of the NAC; it was the heart of the Apex’s power. It allowed the Apex to reach the individual members of the Pack and call them together. It was a profound power—the ability to compel shifters to the side of their alpha—and one that had to be judiciously used. There weren’t even many who knew what it could do; there wasn’t much to be gained by advertising its power.
Many Pack members, including our extended family, had stayed in Memphis. We’d left the crown and its weighty power in their trusted care. Now that it was here, the burden was ours to protect it.
“You’re putting it in the safe?” Christopher asked.
We’d stored emergency supplies inside an ancient steel safe we’d hauled out of a building in Memphis that was being demolished.
“Seems the best place for it,” Gabe said, returning it to its cushion and closing the box again. “Although there are spiders downstairs. I do not like spiders.”
Gabe had faced pissed-off shifters, irritated vampires, and worse. But spiders were his mortal enemies. To be fair, the basement’s spiders were large and in charge.
“We know,” Ben said, clapping him on the back. “We all have our burdens to bear.”
“Enough,” Gabriel said. “We have company.”
We all looked to the doorway, where a man nearly blocked it completely.
He was built like a linebacker. Shoulders wide as mountains, every muscle defined beneath a leather jacket, snug cotton shirt, and jeans. He had dark, wavy hair and gray eyes beneath a hooded brow; his mouth was lush. He had the kind of good looks people would describe as “rugged,” and he certainly looked like he could handle himself.
He tugged leather gloves from his hands and stuffed them into the pockets of his jacket.
“Patrick York,” Gabe said.
Gabriel hadn’t told me whom I’d be meeting today, and I hadn’t bothered to ask. But I absolutely hadn’t expected this.
There were three other Packs in the U.S.: Consolidated Atlantic, Western, and Great Northwestern. Within those packs were a few big, old families, including ours and the Yorks, led by patriarch Richard, Patrick’s father. But while we controlled a Pack, the Yorks were members, and not very active ones. The family lived in Wisconsin, which put them in the territory of the NAC Pack, but they hadn’t attended a Pack convocation in years.
If Patrick York was here to meet me, that was changing. And the pressure was on.
“Patrick, meet the family,” Gabriel said. He pointed us out in turn. “Christopher, Ben, Eli, Derek, Tanya, Connor. And Fallon.”
I offered a wave, my stomach clenching with nerves.
Patrick smiled at me, his gray eyes intense. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“How was your drive?” Ben asked.
“Good, thanks. Hasn’t started snowing yet, although I think it’s coming.” His gaze fell on the box on the table, and his eyes widened. “Is that what I think it is?”
“All four pounds of it,” Gabe said, giving him a considering glance. “You want to hold it?”
“Oh, no,” Patrick said with a grin, lifting his hands and stepping back. “Definitely not. I don’t want any part of that.”
“Who wouldn’t want part of a crown?” Ben asked, patting Gabe on the back. “All the power. The fame.” He glanced around the living room, which had seen better days. “The glamour.”
“I’m sure it’s lovely, but I’m happy to take your word for it. You preparing for Connor’s initiation?”
“We are. Would you like to join us?” Initiations were usually family affairs, but Gabe knew when to extend the olive branch.
Patrick shook his head. “Thank you, but I don’t want to intrude. And I’m only in town for the night. Leaving in the morning.”
He was, he’d meant, only in town to meet me. Which somehow made the potential mate thing feel even more tawdry.
Gabriel smiled. “You’ll have to stay longer next time, get a feel for Chicago. It’s a great town.”
“Looked like it coming in,” he said. “At least the parts I saw from the car. I’ll see a bit more of it on the way to the hotel.”
Gabe nodded. “Since you’re only here for a little while, we should get out of your hair.” Gabe looked at the rest of the family, who made awkward throat clearing noises. Ben winked at me, picked up the box, and headed out of the room.
The air—and the magic in it—thinned.
“They’re . . . intense,” Patrick said.
I shrugged. “I have a lot of brothers. It’s the worst case scenario for potentials.”
He looked at me with curiosity. “You are not at all what I expected.”
I wasn’t sure how to take that. “What did you expect?”
“A debutante, I guess.” He looked me over, took in hair and clothes. “Less serious. More giggly.”
“I am definitely not giggly. But I can kill a man in forty-two different ways.”
“Forty-two. That’s impressive. I appreciate a woman who can take care of herself.” He looked around the room. “I have a car outside. Would you like to go for a drive?”
Fraternal magic—hopeful and concerned—seeped in from the next room. Space seemed like a good idea.
“More than you can possibly imagine.” I headed for the door.