Chapter no 3

House of Earth and Blood

The Pack of Devils was already at her apartment by the time Bryce got home from work.

It had been impossible to miss the roaring laughter that met her before she’d even cleared the second-floor stairwell landing—as well as the canine yips of amusement. Both had continued as she ascended the remaining level of the walk-up apartment building, during which time Bryce grumbled to herself about her plans for a quiet evening on the couch being ruined.

Chanting a string of curses that would make her mother proud, Bryce unlocked the blue-painted iron door to the apartment, bracing for the onslaught of lupine bossiness, arrogance, and general nosiness in all matters of her life. And that was just Danika.

Danika’s pack made each of those things an art form. Mostly because they claimed Bryce as one of their own, even if she didn’t bear the tattoo of their sigil down the side of her neck.

Sometimes she felt bad for Danika’s future mate, whoever that would be. The poor bastard wouldn’t know what hit him when he bound himself to her. Unless he was wolf-kind himself—though Danika had about as much interest in sleeping with a wolf as Bryce did.

That is to say, not a gods-damned shred.

Giving the door a good shove with her shoulder—its warped edges got stuck more often than not, mostly thanks to the romping of the hellions currently spread across the several sagging couches and armchairs—Bryce sighed as she found six pairs of eyes fixed on her. And six grins.

“How was the game?” she asked no one in particular, chucking her keys into the lopsided ceramic bowl Danika had half-assed during a fluff

pottery course in college. She’d heard nothing from Danika regarding the Briggs meeting beyond a general I’ll tell you at home.

It couldn’t have been that bad, if Danika made it to the sunball game. She’d even sent Bryce a photo of the whole pack in front of the field, with Ithan a small, helmeted figure in the background.

A message from the star player himself had popped up later: Next time, you better be with them, Quinlan.

She’d written back, Did baby pup miss me? You know it, Ithan had answered.

“We won,” Connor drawled from where he lounged on her favorite spot on the couch, his gray CCU sunball T-shirt rumpled enough to reveal the cut of muscle and golden skin.

“Ithan scored the winning goal,” Bronson said, still wearing a blue-and-silver jersey with Holstrom on the back.

Connor’s little brother, Ithan, held an unofficial membership in the Pack of Devils. Ithan also happened to be Bryce’s second-favorite person after Danika. Their message chain was an endless stream of snark and teasing, swapped photos, and good-natured grousing about Connor’s bossiness.

“Again?” Bryce asked, kicking off her four-inch, pearl-white heels. “Can’t Ithan share some of the glory with the other boys?” Normally, Ithan would have been sitting right on that couch beside his brother, forcing Bryce to wedge herself between them while they watched whatever TV show was on, but on game nights, he usually opted to party with his teammates.

A half smile tugged at a corner of Connor’s mouth as Bryce held his stare for longer than most people considered wise. His five packmates, two still in wolf form with bushy tails swishing, wisely kept their mouths and maws shut.

It was common knowledge that Connor would have been Alpha of the Pack of Devils if Danika weren’t around. But Connor didn’t resent it. His ambitions didn’t run that way. Unlike Sabine’s.

Bryce nudged her backup dance bag over on the coatrack to make room for her purse, and asked the wolves, “What are you watching tonight?” Whatever it was, she’d already decided to curl up with a romance novel in her room. With the door shut.

Nathalie, flipping through celebrity gossip magazines on the couch, didn’t lift her head as she answered, “Some new legal procedural about a pack of lions taking on an evil Fae corporation.”

“Sounds like a real award winner,” Bryce said. Bronson grunted his disapproval. The massive male’s tastes skewed more toward art house flicks and documentaries. Unsurprisingly, he was never allowed to select the entertainment for Pack Night.

Connor ran a calloused finger down the rolled arm of the couch. “You’re home late.”

“I have a job,” Bryce said. “You might want to get one. Stop being a leech on my couch.”

This wasn’t exactly fair. As Danika’s Second, Connor acted as her enforcer. To keep this city safe, he’d killed, tortured, maimed, and then gone back out and done it again before the moon had even set.

He never complained about it. None of them did.

What’s the point in bitching, Danika had said when Bryce asked how she endured the brutality, when there’s no choice in joining the Auxiliary? The predator-born shifters were destined for certain Aux packs before they were even born.

Bryce tried not to glance at the horned wolf tattooed on the side of Connor’s neck—proof of that predestined lifetime of service. Of his eternal loyalty to Danika, the Pack of Devils, and the Aux.

Connor just looked Bryce over with that half smile. It set her teeth to grinding. “Danika’s in the kitchen. Eating half the pizza before we can get a bite.”

I am not!” was the muffled reply. Connor’s smile grew.

Bryce’s breathing turned a shade uneven at that smile, the wicked light in his eyes.

The rest of the pack remained dutifully focused on the television screen, pretending to watch the nightly news.

Swallowing, Bryce asked him, “Anything I should know?” Translation: Was the Briggs meeting a disaster?

Connor knew what she meant. He always did. He jerked his head to the kitchen. “You’ll see.”

Translation: Not great.

Bryce winced, and managed to tear her gaze away from him so she could pad into the galley kitchen. She felt Connor’s stare on her every step of the way.

And maybe she swished her hips. Only a tiny bit.

Danika was indeed shoveling a slice down her throat, her eyes wide in warning for Bryce to keep her mouth shut. Bryce noted the unspoken plea, and merely nodded.

A half-empty bottle of beer dripped condensation onto the white plastic counter Danika leaned against, her borrowed silk shirt damp with sweat around the collar. Her braid drooped over her slim shoulder, the few colorful streaks unusually muted. Even her pale skin, usually flushed with color and health, seemed ashen.

Granted, the crappy kitchen lighting—two meager recessed orbs of firstlight—wasn’t exactly favorable to anyone, but … Beer. Food. The pack keeping their distance. And that hollow weariness in her friend’s eyes—yeah, some shit had gone down in that meeting.

Bryce tugged open the fridge, grabbing a beer for herself. The pack all had different preferences, and were prone to coming over whenever they felt like it, so the fridge was crammed with bottles and cans and what she could have sworn was a jug of … mead? Must be Bronson’s.

Bryce grabbed one of Nathalie’s favorites—a cloudy, milky-tasting beer, heavy on the hops—and twisted off the top. “Briggs?”

“Officially released. Micah, the Autumn King, and the Oracle pored over every law and bylaw and still couldn’t find a way around that loophole. Ruhn even had Declan run some of his fancy tech searches and found nothing. Sabine ordered the Scythe Moon Pack to watch Briggs tonight, along with some of the 33rd.” The packs had mandatory nights off once a week, and this was the Pack of Devils’—no negotiating. Otherwise, Bryce knew Danika would be out there, watching Briggs’s every move.

“So you’re all in agreement,” Bryce said. “At least that’s good.” “Yeah, until Briggs blows something or someone up.” Danika shook

her head with disgust. “It’s fucking bullshit.”

Bryce studied her friend carefully. The tension around her mouth, her sweaty neck. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong.”

The words were spoken too quickly to be believable. “Something’s been eating at you. Shit like this thing with Briggs is big, but you always bounce back.” Bryce narrowed her eyes. “What aren’t you telling me?”

Danika’s eyes gleamed. “Nothing.” She swigged from her beer.

There was only one other answer. “I take it Sabine was in rare form this afternoon.”

Danika just tore into her pizza.

Bryce swallowed two mouthfuls of beer, watching Danika blankly consider the teal cabinets above the counter, the paint chipping at the edges.

Her friend chewed slowly, then said around a mouthful of bread and cheese, “Sabine cornered me after the meeting. Right in the hall outside Micah’s office. So everyone could hear her tell me that two CCU research students got killed near Luna’s Temple last week during the blackout. My shift. My section. My fault.”

Bryce winced. “It took a week to hear about this?” “Apparently.”

“Who killed them?”

Crescent City University students were always out in the Old Square, always causing trouble. Even as alums Bryce and Danika often bemoaned the fact that there wasn’t a sky-high electric fence penning CCU students into their corner of the city. Just to keep them from puking and pissing all over the Old Square every Friday night to Sunday morning.

Danika drank again. “No clue who did it.” A shiver, her caramel eyes darkening. “Even with their scents marking them as human, it took twenty minutes to identify who they were. They were ripped to shreds and partially eaten.”

Bryce tried not to imagine it. “Motive?”

Danika’s throat bobbed. “No idea, either. But Sabine told me in front of everyone exactly what she thought of such a public butchering happening on my watch.”

Bryce asked, “What’d the Prime say about it?”

“Nothing,” Danika said. “The old man fell asleep during the meeting, and Sabine didn’t bother to wake him before cornering me.” It would be soon now, everyone said—only a matter of a year or two until the current Prime of the wolves, nearly four hundred years old, had his Sailing across the Istros to the Bone Quarter for his final sleep. There was no way the black boat would tip for him during the final rite—no way his soul would be deemed unworthy and given to the river. He’d be welcomed into the Under-King’s realm, granted access to its mist-veiled shores … and then Sabine’s reign would begin.

Gods spare them all.

“It’s not your fault, you know,” Bryce said, flipping open the cardboard lids of the two closest pizza boxes. Sausage, pepperoni, and meatball in one. The other held cured meats and stinky cheeses— Bronson’s choice, no doubt.

“I know,” Danika muttered, draining the last of her beer, clunking the bottle in the sink, and rooting around in the fridge for another. Every muscle in her lean body seemed taut—on a hair trigger. She slammed the

fridge shut and leaned against it. Danika didn’t meet Bryce’s eyes as she breathed, “I was three blocks away that night. Three. And I didn’t hear or see or smell them being shredded.”

Bryce became aware of the silence from the other room. Keen hearing in both human and wolf form meant endless, entitled eavesdropping.

They could finish this conversation later.

Bryce flipped open the rest of the pizza boxes, surveying the culinary landscape. “Shouldn’t you put them out of their misery and let them get a bite before you demolish the rest?”

She’d had the pleasure of witnessing Danika eat three large pies in one sitting. In this sort of mood, Danika might very well break her record and hit four.

“Please let us eat,” begged Bronson’s deep, rumbling voice from the other room.

Danika swigged from her beer. “Come get it, mongrels.” The wolves rushed in.

In the frenzy, Bryce was nearly flattened against the back wall of the kitchen, the monthly calendar pinned to it crumpling behind her.

Damn it—she loved that calendar: Hottest Bachelors of Crescent City: Clothing-Optional Edition. This month had the most gorgeous daemonaki she’d ever seen, his propped leg on a stool the only thing keeping everything from being shown. She smoothed out the new wrinkles in all the tan skin and muscles, the curling horns, and then turned to scowl at the wolves.

A step away, Danika stood among her pack like a stone in a river.

She smirked at Bryce. “Any update on your hunt for the Horn?” “No.”

“Jesiba must be thrilled.”

Bryce grimaced. “Overjoyed.” She’d seen Jesiba for all of two minutes this afternoon before the sorceress threatened to turn Bryce into a donkey, and then vanished in a chauffeured sedan to the gods knew where. Maybe off on some errand for the Under-King and the dark House he ruled.

Danika grinned. “Don’t you have that date with what’s-his-face tonight?”

The question clanged through Bryce. “Shit. Shit. Yes.” She winced at the kitchen clock. “In an hour.”

Connor, taking an entire pizza box for himself, stiffened. He’d made his thoughts on Bryce’s rich-ass boyfriend clear since the first date two

months ago. Just as Bryce had made it perfectly clear she did not give a fuck about Connor’s opinion regarding her love life.

Bryce took in his muscled back as Connor stalked out, rolling his broad shoulders. Danika frowned. She never missed a fucking thing.

“I need to get dressed,” Bryce said, scowling. “And his name is Reid, and you know it.”

A wolfish smile. “Reid’s a stupid fucking name,” Danika said.

“One, think it’s a hot name. And two, Reid is hot.” Gods help her, Reid Redner was hot as Hel. Though the sex was … fine. Standard. She’d gotten off, but she’d really had to work for it. And not in the way she sometimes liked to work for it. More in the sense of Slow down, Put that here, Can we switch positions? But she’d slept with him only twice. And she told herself that it could take time to find the right rhythm with a partner. Even if …

Danika just said it. “If he grabs his phone to check his messages before his dick’s barely out of you again, please have the self-respect to kick his balls across the room and come home to me.”

“Fucking Hel, Danika!” Bryce hissed. “Say it a little gods-damn louder.”

The wolves had gone silent. Even their munching had stopped. Then resumed just a decibel too loudly.

“At least he’s got a good job,” Bryce said to Danika, who crossed her slender arms—arms that hid tremendous, ferocious strength—and gave her a look. A look that said, Yeah, one that Reid’s daddy gave him. Bryce added, “And at least he’s not some psychotic alphahole who will demand a three-day sex marathon and then call me his mate, lock me in his house, and never let me out again.” Which was why Reid—human, okay-at-sex Reid—was perfect.

“You could use a three-day sex marathon,” Danika quipped. “You’re to blame for this, you know.”

Danika waved a hand. “Yeah, yeah. My first and last mistake: setting you two up.”

Danika knew Reid casually through the part-time security work she did for his father’s business—a massive human-owned magi-tech company in the Central Business District. Danika claimed that the work was too boring to bother explaining, but paid well enough that she couldn’t say no. And more than that—it was a job she chose. Not the life she’d been shoved into. So between her patrols and obligations with the Aux, Danika was often at the towering skyscraper in the CBD— pretending she had a shot at a normal life. It was unheard of for any Aux

member to have a secondary job—for an Alpha, especially—but Danika made it work.

It didn’t hurt that everyone wanted a piece of Redner Industries these days. Even Micah Domitus was a major investor in its cutting-edge experiments. It was nothing out of the ordinary, when the Governor invested in everything from tech to vineyards to schools, but since Micah was on Sabine’s eternal shit list, pissing off her mother by working for a human company he supported was likely even better for Danika than the sense of free will and generous pay.

Danika and Reid had been in the same presentation one afternoon months ago—exactly when Bryce had been single and complaining constantly about it. Danika had given Bryce’s number to Reid in a last-ditch effort to preserve her sanity.

Bryce smoothed a hand over her dress. “I need to change. Save me a slice.”

“Aren’t you going out for dinner?”

Bryce cringed. “Yeah. To one of those frilly spots—where they give you salmon mousse on a cracker and call it a meal.”

Danika shuddered. “Definitely fill up before, then.”

“A slice,” Bryce said, pointing at Danika. “Remember my slice.” She eyed the one remaining box and padded out of the kitchen.

The Pack of Devils were now all in human form—save for Zelda— pizza boxes balanced on knees or spread on the worn blue rug. Bronson was indeed swigging from the ceramic jug of mead, his brown eyes fixed on the nightly news broadcast. The news about Briggs’s release—along with grainy footage of the human male being escorted out of the jail complex in a white jumpsuit—began blasting. Whoever held the remote quickly changed the channel to a documentary on the Black River delta.

Nathalie gave Bryce a shit-eating grin as she strode for her bedroom door at the opposite end of the living room. Oh, Bryce wouldn’t live down that little tidbit about Reid’s performance in the bedroom anytime soon. Especially when Nathalie was sure to make it a reflection on Bryce’s skills.

“Don’t even start,” Bryce warned her. Nathalie clamped her lips together, like she could hardly keep the howl of wicked amusement contained. Her sleek black hair seemed to quiver with the effort of holding in her laughter, her onyx eyes near-glowing.

Bryce pointedly ignored Connor’s heavy golden stare as he tracked her across the space.

Wolves. Gods-damned wolves shoving their noses into her business.

There would never be any mistaking them for humans, though their forms were nearly identical. Too tall, too muscled, too still. Even the way they tore into their pizzas, each movement deliberate and graceful, was a silent reminder of what they could do to anyone who crossed them.

Bryce walked over Zach’s sprawled, long legs, and carefully avoided stepping on Zelda’s snow-white tail, where she lay on the floor beside her brother. The twin white wolves, both slender and dark-haired in human form, were utterly terrifying when they shifted. The Ghosts—the whispered nickname followed them everywhere.

So, yeah. Bryce tried really hard not to step on Zelda’s fluffy tail.

Thorne, at least, threw Bryce a sympathetic smile from where he sat in the half-rotted leather armchair near the television, his CCU sunball hat turned backward. He was the only other person in the apartment who understood how meddlesome the pack could be. And who cared as much about Danika’s moods. About Sabine’s ruthlessness.

It was a long shot for an Omega like Thorne to ever be noticed by an Alpha like Danika. Not that Thorne had ever so much as hinted at it to any of them. But Bryce saw it—the gravitational pull that seemed to happen whenever Danika and Thorne were in a room together, like they were two stars orbiting each other.

Mercifully, Bryce reached her bedroom without any comments regarding her sort-of boyfriend’s prowess, and shut the door behind her firmly enough to tell them all to fuck off.

She made it three steps toward her sagging green dresser before laughter barked through the apartment. It was silenced a moment later by a vicious, not-quite-human snarl. Deep and rumbling and utterly lethal.

Not Danika’s snarl, which was like death incarnate, soft and husky and cold. This was Connor’s. Full of heat and temper and feeling.

Bryce showered off the dust and grime that seemed to coat her whenever she made the fifteen-block walk between the apartment and the slim sandstone building that Griffin Antiquities occupied.

A few carefully placed pins erased the end-of-day limpness that usually plagued her heavy sheet of wine-red hair, and she hastily applied a fresh coat of mascara to bring some life back into her amber eyes. From shower to sliding on her black stiletto heels, it was a grand total of twenty minutes.

Proof, she realized, of how little she really cared about this date. She spent a gods-damned hour on her hair and makeup every morning. Not counting the thirty-minute shower to get herself gleaming, shaved, and moisturized. But twenty minutes? For dinner at the Pearl and Rose?

Yeah, Danika had a point. And Bryce knew the bitch was watching the clock, and would probably ask if the short prep time was reflective of how long, exactly, Reid could keep it going.

Bryce glared in the direction of the wolves beyond the door of her cozy bedroom before surveying the quiet haven around her. Every wall was bedecked in posters of legendary performances at the Crescent City Ballet. Once, she’d imagined herself up there among the lithe Vanir, exploding across the stage in turn after turn, or making audiences weep with an agonizing death scene. Once, she’d imagined there might be a spot for a half-human female on that stage.

Even being told, over and over, that she had the wrong body type hadn’t stopped her from loving to dance. Hadn’t stopped that heady rush seeing a dance performed live, or her taking amateur classes after work, or her following CCB’s dancers the way Connor, Ithan, and Thorne followed sports teams. Nothing could ever stop her from craving that soaring sensation she found when she was dancing, whether in class or at a club or even on the gods-damned street.

Juniper, at least, hadn’t been deterred. Had decided that she was in it for the long haul, that a faun would defy the odds and grace a stage built for Fae and nymphs and sylphs—and leave them all in her dust. She’d done it, too.

Bryce loosed a long sigh. Time to go. It was a twenty-minute walk to the Pearl and Rose, and in these heels, it’d take her twenty-five. No point in getting a taxi during the chaos and congestion of Thursday night in the Old Square when the car would just sit there.

She stabbed pearl studs into her ears, hoping half-heartedly that they’d add some class to what might be considered a somewhat scandalous dress. But she was twenty-three, and she might as well enjoy her generously curved figure. She gave her gold-dusted legs a little smile as she twisted in front of the full-length mirror propped against the wall to admire the slope of her ass in the skintight gray dress, the hint of text from that still-sore new tattoo peeking over the plunging back, before she stepped into the living room again.

Danika let out a wicked laugh that rumbled over the nature show the wolves were watching. “I bet fifty silver marks the bouncers don’t let you through the doors looking like that.”

Bryce flipped off her friend as the pack chuckled. “I’m sorry if I make you feel self-conscious about your bony ass, Danika.”

Thorne barked a laugh. “At least Danika makes up for it with her winning personality.”

Bryce smirked at the handsome Omega. “That must explain why I have a date and she hasn’t been on one in … what’s it now? Three years?”

Thorne winked, his blue eyes sliding toward Danika’s scowling face. “Must be why.”

Danika slouched in her chair and propped her bare feet on the coffee table. Each toenail was painted a different color. “It’s only been two years,” she muttered. “Assholes.”

Bryce patted Danika’s silken head as she passed. Danika nipped at her fingers, teeth flashing.

Bryce chuckled, entering the narrow kitchen. She pawed through the upper cabinets, glass rattling as she searched for the—

Ah. The gin.

She knocked back a shot. Then another.

“Rough night ahead?” Connor asked from where he leaned against the kitchen doorway, arms crossed over his muscular chest.

A drop of gin had landed on her chin. Bryce narrowly avoided wiping the sin-red lipstick off her mouth with the back of her wrist and instead opted for patting it away with a leftover napkin from the pizza place. Like a proper person.

That color should be called Blow Job Red, Danika had said the first time Bryce had worn it. Because that’s all any male will think about when you wear it. Indeed, Connor’s eyes had dipped right to her lips. So Bryce said as nonchalantly as she could, “You know I like to enjoy my Thursday nights. Why not kick it off early?”

She balanced on her toes as she put the gin back in the upper cupboard, the hem of her dress rising precariously high. Connor studied the ceiling as if it were immensely interesting, his gaze only snapping to hers as she settled on her feet again. In the other room, someone turned the volume on the television up to an apartment-rattling level.

Thank you, Danika.

Even wolf hearing couldn’t sort through that cacophony to eavesdrop.

Connor’s sensuous mouth twitched upward, but he remained in the doorway.

Bryce swallowed, wondering how gross it would be to chase away the burn of the gin with the beer she’d left warming on the counter.

Connor said, “Look. We’ve known each other a while …” “Is this a rehearsed speech?”

He straightened, color staining his cheeks. The Second in the Pack of Devils, the most feared and lethal of all the Auxiliary units, was blushing. “No.”

“That sounded like a rehearsed introduction to me.”

“Can you let me ask you out, or do I need to get into a fight with you about my phrasing first?”

She snorted, but her guts twisted. “I don’t date wolves.” Connor threw her a cocky grin. “Make an exception.” “No.” But she smiled slightly.

Connor merely said with the unwavering arrogance that only an immortal predator could achieve, “You want me. I want you. It’s been that way for a while, and playing with these human males hasn’t done a damn thing to make you forget that, has it?”

No, it hadn’t. But she said, her voice mercifully calm despite her thundering heart, “Connor, I’m not going out with you. Danika is bossy enough. I don’t need another wolf, especially a male wolf, trying to run my life. I don’t need any more Vanir shoving into my business.”

His golden eyes dimmed. “I’m not your father.” He didn’t mean Randall.

She shoved off the counter, marching toward him. And the apartment door beyond. She was going to be late. “That has nothing to do with this

—with you. My answer is no.”

Connor didn’t move, and she halted mere inches away. Even in heels, even though she fell on the taller side of average height, he towered over her. Dominated the entire space just by breathing.

Like any alphahole would. Like what her Fae father had done to nineteen-year-old Ember Quinlan, when he’d pursued her, seduced her, tried to keep her, and gone so far into possessive territory that the moment Ember had realized she was carrying his child—carrying Bryce

—she ran before he could scent it and lock her up in his villa in FiRo until she grew too old to interest him.

Which was something Bryce didn’t let herself consider. Not after the blood tests had been done and she’d walked out of the medwitch’s office knowing that she’d taken after her Fae father in more ways than the red hair and pointed ears.

She would have to bury her mother one day, bury Randall, too. Which was utterly expected, if you were a human. But the fact that she’d go on living for a few more centuries, with only photos and videos to remind her of their voices and faces, made her stomach twist.

She should have had a third shot of gin.

Connor remained unmoving in the doorway. “One date won’t send me into a territorial hissy fit. It doesn’t even have to be a date. Just … pizza,” he finished, glancing at the stacked boxes.

“You and I go out plenty.” They did—on nights when Danika was called in to meet with Sabine or the other Aux commanders, he often brought over food, or he met up with her at one of the many restaurants lining the apartment’s lively block. “If it’s not a date, then how is it different?”

“It’d be a trial run. For a date,” Connor said through his teeth. She lifted a brow. “A date to decide if I want to date you?”

“You’re impossible.” He pushed off the doorjamb. “See you later.”

Smiling to herself, she trailed him out of the kitchen, cringing at the monstrously loud television the wolves were all watching very, very intently.

Even Danika knew there were limits to how far she could push Connor without serious consequences.

For a heartbeat, Bryce debated grabbing the Second by the shoulder and explaining that he’d be better off finding a nice, sweet wolf who wanted to have a litter of pups, and that he didn’t really want someone who was ten kinds of fucked-up, still liked to party until she was no better than a puking-in-an-alley CCU student, and wasn’t entirely sure if she could love someone, not when Danika was all she really needed anyway.

But she didn’t grab Connor, and by the time Bryce scooped her keys from the bowl beside the door, he’d slumped onto the couch—again, in her spot—and was staring pointedly at the screen. “Bye,” she said to no one in particular.

Danika met her gaze from across the room, her eyes still wary but faintly amused. She winked. “Light it up, bitch.”

“Light it up, asshole,” Bryce replied, the farewell sliding off her tongue with the ease of years of usage.

But it was Danika’s added “Love you” as Bryce slipped out into the grimy hallway that made her hesitate with her hand on the knob.

It’d taken Danika a few years to say those words, and she still used them sparingly. Danika had initially hated it when Bryce said them to her

—even when Bryce explained that she’d spent most of her life saying it, just in case it was the last time. In case she wouldn’t get to say goodbye to the people who mattered most. And it had taken one of their more fucked-up adventures—a trashed motorcycle, and literally having guns

pointed at their heads—to get Danika to utter the words, but at least she now said them. Sometimes.

Forget Briggs’s release. Sabine must have really done a number on Danika.

Bryce’s heels clacked on the worn tile floor as she headed for the stairs at the end of the hall. Maybe she should cancel on Reid. She could grab some buckets of ice cream from the corner market and cuddle in bed with Danika while they watched their favorite absurd comedies.

Maybe she’d call up Fury and see if she could pay a little visit to Sabine.

But—she’d never ask that of Fury. Fury kept her professional shit out of their lives, and they knew better than to ask too many questions. Only Juniper could get away with it.

Honestly, it made no sense that any of them were friends: the future Alpha of all wolves, an assassin for high-paying clients waging war across the sea, a stunningly talented dancer and the only faun ever to grace the stage of the Crescent City Ballet, and … her.

Bryce Quinlan. Assistant to a sorceress. Would-be, wrong-body-type dancer. Chronic dater of preening, breakable human men who had no idea what to do with her. Let alone what to do with Danika, if they ever got far enough into the dating crucible.

Bryce clomped down the stairs, scowling at one of the orbs of firstlight that cast the crumbling gray-blue paint in flickering relief. The landlord went as cheap as possible on the firstlight, likely siphoning it off the grid rather than paying the city for it like everyone else.

Everything in this apartment building was a piece of shit, to be honest.

Danika could afford better. Bryce certainly couldn’t. And Danika knew her well enough not to even suggest that she alone pay for one of the high-rise, glossy apartments by the river’s edge or in the CBD. So after graduation, they’d only looked at places Bryce could swing with her paycheck—this particular shithole being the least miserable of them.

Sometimes, Bryce wished she’d accepted her monstrous father’s money—wished she hadn’t decided to develop some semblance of morals at the exact moment the creep had offered her mountains of gold marks in exchange for her eternal silence about him. At least then she’d currently be lounging by some sky-high pool deck, ogling oiled-up angels as they swaggered past, and not avoiding the letch of a janitor who leered at her chest anytime she had to complain about the trash chute being blocked yet again.

The glass door at the bottom of the stairwell led onto the night-darkened street, already packed with tourists, revelers, and bleary-eyed residents trying to squeeze their way home through the rowdy crowds after a long, hot summer day. A draki male clad in a suit and tie rushed past, messenger bag bobbing at his hip as he wove his way around a family of some sort of equine shifters—perhaps horses, judging by their scents full of open skies and green fields—all so busy snapping photos of everything that they remained oblivious to anyone trying to get somewhere.

At the corner, a pair of bored malakim clad in the black armor of the 33rd kept their wings tucked in tight to their powerful bodies, no doubt to avoid any harried commuter or drunk idiot touching them. Touch an angel’s wings without permission and you’d be lucky to lose just a hand.

Firmly shutting the glass door behind her, Bryce soaked in the tangle of sensations that was this ancient, vibrant city: the dry summer heat that threatened to bake her very bones; the honk of car horns slicing through the steady hiss and dribble of music leaking from the revel halls; the wind off the Istros River, three blocks away, rustling the swaying palms and cypresses; the hint of brine from the nearby turquoise sea; the seductive, night-soft smell of the crawling jasmine wrapped around the iron park fence nearby; the tang of puke and piss and stale beer; the beckoning, smoky spices crusting the slow-roasting lamb at the vendor’s cart on the corner … It all hit her in one awakening kiss.

Trying not to snap her ankles on the cobblestones, Bryce breathed in the nightly offering of Crescent City, drank it deep, and vanished down the teeming street.

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