Black Ice is in the final stages before its April 4th release, so I thought I’d share a bit of a preview. I say “bit”, but this is actually the first four chapters of the book. It’s such a big preview that I’m going to have to take most it down once the book goes live in order to stay within the 10% preview rules allowed by Amazon’s Terms of Service.

[Note: Because I’m releasing this preview before my editor has finished proofing it, there may be some typos and errors.]

Black Ice – Black Records Book 3

 

Chapter 1

Loath as I was to shed my fuzzy slippers, I kicked them off and quickly tugged on the thickest pair of wool socks I owned. The room was near freezing except for a narrow cone of warmth radiating from the compact space heater next to my bed. The little beast had been working overtime since the temperature had dropped below zero the week before. The city had been blanketed in an abnormally persistent layer of snow that became a slushy wet nightmare for the few hours the sun managed to peer out of the clouds each day. With the coming of night, everything would freeze and become a deadly sheet of ice that made walking anywhere a royal pain in the ass. The weather was so bad, there had even been videos posted of people playing ice hockey in the streets.

Since it was only five o’clock in the morning, a good three hours before the sun was theoretically due to rise, the house was at the apex of its nightly chilliness.

“How are you so awake right now?” I asked Chase.

He looked up from the computer balanced on his lap. He’d been sitting in my bed for the last fifteen minutes to discourage me from climbing right back in rather than packing my things like I was supposed to be doing.

“Easy,” he said, flashing a slightly wild-eyed grin before returning to his typing. “I haven’t been to sleep yet.”

“What the hell have you been doing all night?”

“Working mostly,” he said. “Chatting with Lailani a bit. She gets back from the Philippines in a couple of days.”

“You guys must be getting pretty serious, huh?”

Chase’s expression darkened ever so slightly. “As serious as we can be, considering she thinks I’m a digital security consultant.”

We’d had countless discussions bordering on arguments about how much he could tell his girlfriend about the true nature of his work. He hated lying to her, but there was no way I was going to be responsible for yet another person learning magic was real. Even bringing Chase into the world of the supernatural was enough to get me in hot water with the Conclave of Eleven, but given that it had been a life or death situation, I had no regrets over that little transgression. Still, telling my best friend was one thing. Telling a girl he’d been casually dating for six months was another matter entirely. I still hadn’t even met her. I wasn’t about to blindly hand my trust over to some random girl no matter how much Chase liked her.

“Maybe we can all hang out when I get back?” I ventured.

“Yeah, maybe.”

Ok. Time to change the topic.

“Are you sure this job is a good fit for me?” I asked. “Babysitting some rich guy’s daughter seems kinda below my pay grade. Why doesn’t he hire a nanny or something instead?”

“Like I told you last night, he’s worried about her safety,” Chase said. “And don’t forget that he doesn’t know anything about magic your ability to use it. As far as he’s concerned, you’re a highly trained former agent. For once, you looking like a teenager was a selling point instead of a concern. I convinced him it was a deliberate choice on the part of your original recruiter so the agency could put you into situations where you’d be overlooked because of your supposed age. It’s one of the reasons you’re now able to work private security gigs without anyone identifying you as a trained agent.”

“Which agency exactly did I supposedly work for?”

Chase shrugged. “I find it’s best not to be specific about these kinds of things.”

“Right,” I said. “That all sounds totally believable.”

“Well, the client bought it, didn’t he?”

“Yeah. At least until he sees me in person.”

I hopped off the bed and went to thumb through tops in my closet. There weren’t exactly a lot of practical options. Most of my sweaters and jackets felt too thin or impractical for the even worse wintery conditions I was heading into. After trying on and rejecting a few options, I settled on pairing my warmest wool sweater with an insulated plaid work shirt. I had no idea what people in ski towns considered fashionable, nor did I have the energy to care so early in the morning. Even thinking about it made me feel a little queazy. All those pompom knit beanies and fur-lined everything. Gross.

Trying to figure out if I was missing anything, I sat on the edge of the bed and began plaiting my hair into two long braids. I considered packing an extra wool sweater, but after socks and underwear, a spare pair of black jeans, a couple of t-shirts, a hoodie, the hard case for my bulky but kick-ass noise canceling headphones, travel snacks — a half pound bag of peanut butter M&Ms, Twizzlers, salt and vinegar Pringles, and a large bar of dark chocolate because antioxidants — e-reader, scarf, and re-purposed pencil case stuffed with toiletries and makeup; I didn’t exactly have any extra room for non-essentials.

“It just seems like I should stay available in case something serious comes up,” I said as I snapped an elastic around the end of the second braid. “Something that actually requires me to use my magic for more than just changing diapers.”

“Like what?” Chase asked. “We haven’t had a paying job in three months. It’s been nearly impossible to find real clients since word got out about you getting between Trang and Montgomery last summer. From what I hear, even the Conclave is starting to take notice.”

That was enough to make me stop fiddling with the strap on my pack to stare at Chase. The Conclave was the most secret of secret organizations. Other than the vampire Eskola I’d tussled with the year before, I had no idea who any of the core eleven members even were. There were several layers of proxies, agents, and mercenaries who carried out the business of the Conclave; none of which were likely to blab about what their bosses were up to. Suggesting he knew what the Conclave was thinking wasn’t far off from claiming Chase had a direct line to God.

“I have contacts,” he said with a smirk. “While you’ve been going off to parties at mansions for your research, I’ve been doing my own legwork. We can’t operate in the dark anymore, Alex. If we’re going to piss off people like Trang and Eskola, we need to know where we stand with the Conclave.”

“For the last time, that was a demon summoning,” I said with a shake of my head. “I almost lost an arm that night. You saw the claw marks on my back. I wasn’t exactly sipping champagne and munching canapés.”

Chase’s sullen silence told me what he thought of that. He knew full well his lack of magic would keep him locked out of some parts of my life. At the same time, I also knew how hard it was for him to get left behind when I attempted to broaden my own knowledge of the arcane. The fact remained that if I was going to keep running up against the kind of big players the last year had thrown at me, it was time I learned a few new spells. The kinetic blast I defaulted to most times I needed something aggressive had served me well for years, but it hadn’t been cutting it lately. The only other attack spell I had in my arsenal was mage fire, and that had a nasty tendency to burn down entire swaths of the city before another magic user showed up to help the ungifted firefighters put it out.

“Do I have to tell you to be careful?” I asked. “You know what’ll happen if the Conclave finds out you’re digging into their business. I won’t be able to save you from them if it comes down to it.”

At this, Chase finally smiled again.

“I’m always careful,” he said. “Otherwise I’d probably be dead or in prison.”

It was too easy to forget that until I’d met him, Chase had been secretly moonlighting as a thief. Although, for all I knew, he could still be taking jobs on the side. I’d done my best to avoid worrying that particular thread of thought. After all, I was living in a house Chase paid for, being driven around in the new car Chase had bought after his old one had blown up on the job, and generally eating the food he had delivered each week. It wasn’t like I was hurting for money with what we’d made on our last few gigs, but I wasn’t going to boycott the state of the art 72 inch 4K TV dominating one wall of our living room just because it had most likely been paid for with the profits from breaking into some millionaire’s personal safe.

Bag fully packed, I searched the room for my knit wool hat. I found it sitting atop a dusty pickle jar on my dresser. A tiny hand clawed at the glass when I lifted the hat free. I made a mental note to talk to Chase about setting up that secure storage area in the basement when I got back, then fetched a t-shirt to drape over the jar for the time being.

I tugged the hat down over my head and hoisted my bag onto my shoulders.

“Guess that’s it,” I said, still not moving for the door. “You’re sure this job is worthwhile?”

“For the last time, we’re in no position to turn down paying work,” Chase said. “Think of it as a paid vacation. Do a good job, and maybe we’ll get a referral for local work in the future.”

I guess that gave me an answer on Chase’s freelancing status. I couldn’t remember the last time he’d been concerned about money.

“And no whining when you get up there,” he continued. “Try to act at least a little professional when the client is around, okay? The rest of the time you can drink cocoa and sit by the fire while this kid Snapchats and Instagrams selfies, or whatever it is kids do these days.”

“Whatever,” I grumbled. “I’ll see you in a week, I guess.”

Leaving Chase and the snug warmth of my bed behind, I tromped down the stairs and slipped into my gusseted leather boots. The wind hit me like a slap in the face when I stepped outside, stinging any bit of exposed skin. I blew on my hands to warm them, then shoved them in my pockets and put my head down to navigate the icy sidewalks. Vancouver didn’t even see snow on the ground most winters, so the average resident didn’t own a shovel. It should have been less than a ten minute walk to the bus station. Instead, the trip took nearly forty minutes, during which I suffered no fewer than three different wipeouts which blessed me with three new bruises on different parts of my ass.

Once inside the terminal, I sprinted to the departure area and waved my hands in the air to stop the driver who was just about to back out of his berth. He opened the door for me, offering a surprisingly understanding smile as I climbed aboard.

“Supposed to be a beautiful day in Whistler today,” he said, his tone far too chipper for the early hour. “First day of sun in weeks.”

I mumbled something vaguely polite, then shuffled down the aisle. The bus was surprisingly full, but I managed to snag a seat to myself near the back. As we rolled out of the terminal and made our way through the city, I unpacked my headphones and flipped on the noise cancelation. The dull hum of the bus engine and the idle chatter of my fellow passengers disappeared as though silenced with a spell. I leaned my head against the window, each exhalation fogging the window slightly, blurring my view of the buildings and mostly empty sidewalks that scrolled past outside. It took a half hour for us to clear the city limits, but we were soon rolling along the long winding highway that was the only way to get to the ski resort town of Whistler seventy-five miles north of the city. The sun took some time to crest the mountains on the east. When it eventually did rise, it lit up the even higher mountains looming over the other side of the valley. Brilliant white peaks stood watch over the highway from across the river, breathtaking in their severity.

The imposing figures served as a stern reminder of how out of my depth I was. I hated the snow and everything people did in it. Why get wet and cold when I could be warm and dry inside? And don’t get me started on skiing. Anyone who thought putting two slippery sticks on the bottom of their feet so they could whip downhill at breakneck speeds was a lunatic in my books. The only good thing about snow was watching it fall through a window from beneath a warm blanket. Even then, only if the snow melted the second it touched the ground. You can have your winter wonderland; I’d take a trip south to bask in the sun any day.

But there I was, shuffling off the bus with a dozen radical dudes and dudettes dressed in baggy jackets and even baggier snow pants. They all filed off to the side of the bus to collect their skis and snowboards. I made a beeline past them, digging out my phone to look up directions to the client’s house. I grimaced at the sight of one measly little reception bar. No matter how I held the phone, the signal didn’t improve. Trying to do something as basic as fetching new email resulted in nothing more than an endlessly spinning loading icon.

If there was anything worse than lack of service, it was the false hope of maybe being able to connect if I could just find the right angle.

“Need help?” asked a chipper Australian guy strolling past with coffee in hand.

I’d soon learn that Australian was the official second language of Whistler. Already, I heard the lilting accent drifting towards me from a nearby cluster of snowboarders on their way to the lifts.

“Yeah, maybe you can help.” I pulled the address up from a stored email. “Can you tell me where this is?”

The Australian’s eyes narrowed a little when he saw the address.

“Why d’you wanna go there?” he asked.

“I’m supposed to meet a client there.”

He eyed me with obvious skepticism. “Winston Bloedermeyer is your client? What you could you possibly be doing for a sleaze bag like that?”

“I’m a private consultant,” I told him. “Do you know where this guy lives or not?”

“Yeah, I know where he lives. Everyone in town knows where Bloedermeyer lives,” he said. The Australian’s demeanor had become cold. A second ago he looked like he’d been on the verge of hitting on me, now he seemed eager to be rid of me. “Follow that road to the end, then keep taking lefts until you can’t go any further up the hill. You’ll know it when you see it.”

“Great, thanks.”

“Whatever,” he grumbled as he turned and walked away.

I set off down the road he’d indicated, searching for the sidewalks until I realized they’d been covered under several feet of snow. Thin parallel grooves I eventually identified as cross-country ski tracks when a lycra clad skier zipped past seemed the only way to traverse the glistening white surface, so I stayed on what I guessed was the road itself. A few dirty tire tracks marked up a stretch of heavily packed snow that was easier to walk on than the thigh deep stuff on either side of it. Small embankments lined either side of the road, but the snow was so dense it didn’t seem like the plow could even get down to the pavement hiding somewhere below. It was so deep they hadn’t even bothered trying to salt it.

Several times on my trek, I had to stand aside as a truck or SUV with burly winter tires wrapped in chains sped past. Each time, I had to scamper up onto the embankment and hold on for dear life until the vehicle had passed by. The farther up the hill I went, the larger the houses became. What had begun as tightly packed row homes with no vehicles out front were now individual chalets with luxury SUVs parked in every driveway. By the time I’d made the last turn, I understood what the guy back in the village had meant about knowing the house when I saw it.

The chalet was twice the size of anything else I’d yet seen. It wasn’t huge by city standards, but in the exorbitantly high priced resort town, it was a veritable mansion. Looking like someone had done a ground-up remodel of a house lifted straight from a Swiss fairytale, its three stories were built into the hillside that sloped up steeply behind it. Traditional wooden peaked roofs jutted out over floor-to-ceiling glass walls. That much glass would have been a voyeur’s dream, had the sloping angle of the street not made it impossible to see anything other than high vaulted ceilings and dangling modern light fixtures. Wide balconies jutted out from the first two floors. The curved driveway was the only bit of pavement in the neighborhood to have been fully plowed. A stately black SUV sat in the middle of the drive, a formally dressed professional driver reading a newspaper in the front seat.

A little self-conscious of my shabby choice of attire, I walked up to the front door and used the heavy brass knocker. The door opened only a few seconds later, a young and attractive woman in a housekeeper’s uniform ushering me inside. The chalet was toasty warm, and it smelled strongly of fresh baked bread. I noticed a dusting of flour on the woman’s skirt. A lock of hair had fallen out from her tight bun, and she swept it back self-consciously. I couldn’t help but wonder if Bloedermeyer had hired her for her looks or her talent as a housekeeper. The tidiness of what I could see of the house and the drool-inducing smells wafting from the kitchen made me figure it was a bit of both.

“You must be Miss Black,” she said with a strong European accent. Swiss maybe? “Mr. Bloedermeyer is presently on the telephone. Might I offer you some coffee and croissant while you wait?”

The housekeeper helped me out of my flannel jacket. I then kicked my boots off and slipped into the fleece-lined house shoes that had been set out for me. They were exactly the right size.

Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all, I thought as I followed the woman into the house.

Chapter 2

Having stuffed two croissants into my face with unladylike efficiency, I sat and sipped coffee while waiting for Bloedermeyer to be ready for me. The housekeeper cleared my crumb-laden plate without a word, returning a minute later with a glass and a small decanter of orange juice. I drained the last sip of coffee from my cup, then killed the orange juice in one long swig. I wondered if this wasn’t just the warm up for several more courses of breakfast, but once the remaining dishes were cleared, I was left alone while the housekeeper disappeared to some other part of the chalet.

The room I’d been deposited in was a large living room that was surprisingly warm and cozy given the fact that the ceiling must have been thirty feet high and that three out of the four walls were mostly glass. There were two fireplaces. The larger of the two sat cold and dark at the back of the room where it was set into a rustic stone chimney. The other fireplace was a blob of black metal sitting two feet off the ground on a tube that went from floor to ceiling. A pleasant little fire crackled away, kissing the room with heat and lending the air the subtlest touch of bright smokiness. Three modern white couches were arrayed in a loose horseshoe in front of this smaller fireplace. A low rustic wooden coffee table the size of my bed back home sat in the middle of the horseshoe, displaying an overly tidy selection of coffee table books and architectural magazines. The rich hardwood floors radiated a heat I could feel even though my new slippers.

I was lost in thought trying to mentally calculate Bloedermeyer’s monthly heating bill when the housekeeper returned to fetch me again. She led me past the fireplace and through an opening on the other side of the room from where we’d first entered. After a short hallway that branched away from the main building, we stepped through a door and into a more modest rectangular room with windows running along the length of both walls. A small conference table at the front of the room was piled high with binders and rolled up building plans, as was the drafting table opposite. As messy as these two surfaces were, Bloedermeyer’s own desk was an oasis of calm. Aside from the sleek notebook computer sitting open in front of him, only a single picture frame and a soapstone carving of a bear adorned his desk.

Bloedermeyer himself sat perpendicular to his desk, ankle resting on knee while he nodded and spoke the occasional reassurance into the phone he held to his ear. He twisted towards me and held up one finger to indicate he’d be with me shortly, so I settled into one of the chairs in front of his desk to wait. I couldn’t have said what I’d expected him to look like, but he certainly wasn’t anything I’d have guessed. He looked quite young despite his salt and pepper hair. He had the kind of chiseled good looks that would have made him right at home perched on the cabin of a sailboat in a magazine advertisement for retirement investments. When he spoke, it was with a faded accent I eventually identified as South African.

“I know, Jerry,” he said. “Believe me, I know. I’m doing everything in my power to keep the project on track. You don’t have to worry about a thing; that’s what you pay me for, isn’t it?”

I couldn’t make out exactly what Jerry was saying on the other end of the line, but the rapid pace of the murmuring that made it through didn’t sound very reassured.

“Sorry about that,” Bloedermeyer said after he’d ended the call and set his phone down next to his laptop. “It never rains, but it pours.”

“Is this related to why you’ve hired me?” I asked.

“There have been several incidents over the last few months that have begun to concern me,” he said. “Until recently, these incidents were confined to the site of a development I’ve been spearheading for the last three years. A few weeks ago, someone smashed all the windows of my car while it was parked in front of my office in the village. Last week someone burned an effigy of me in the driveway outside. There have been emails and notes — all anonymous — threatening me and the safety of my loved ones if we don’t kill the project immediately.”

“How far along is the development?” I asked.

“We began clearing land this summer, but there were five separate mechanical breakdowns that each set us back as much as a week. When our on-site office was burned to the ground, there was no doubt in my mind that someone had been sabotaging our equipment.”

“Why so many attacks?” I asked. “Do the police have any leads?”

“The police here are useless,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Our project is somewhat contentious with the locals and environmental activists, but it’s always like this. Everyone is happy to live in the product of near constant development, yet they all think their new house should be the last of the new development in order to preserve the natural charm of the area. Never mind that the people who came before them fought against all new development, as did the people before them. If no new areas were ever cleared, this whole resort would still be a backwater blank on the map known only to those few whose families owned the first decrepit old cabins. When Whistler was built in the late 60s, there was little more than a gravel track leading up here. There are probably people upset that the road was even paved in the first place. No, progress is never met with open arms.”

Judging by how much Bloedermeyer’s cheeks had reddened, this wasn’t the first time he’d delivered this little speech. I wasn’t about to weigh in on the subject of whether or not building more vacation property on the side of the mountain was a good idea or not, but it was now quite clear why that guy in the village had reacted as he had when he’d realized I was working for Bloedermeyer. Whistler had a reputation for being barely survivable for the legions of minimum wage earning staff that worked in the many hotels, shops, and restaurants just so they could ski all winter. New development meant a new influx of wealthy property owners. It would herald yet another rise in the already outrageous cost of living.

Bloedermeyer shut his laptop and leaned forward, elbows planted on his desk, hands clasped together in front of him. He stared at me with shrewd intensity, as though he could calculate my value to him by peering into my soul.

“Your assistant says you’re some sort of special forces agent,” he said, making it sound more like a question than a statement.

“I am highly trained in a number of specialized disciplines that make me quite capable of protecting your daughter from a wide array of potential threats,” I said. “Rest assured, your daughter will be safe in my care.’

I’d practiced the line on the bus ride up. Although I hadn’t been able to muster quite as much Liam Neeson particular-set-of-skills seriousness as I’d been aiming for, it seemed to do the trick. Bloedermeyer still didn’t look completely convinced, but he’d already agreed to hire me based on the assurances Chase had given him. If he had any remaining doubts, he chose to keep them to himself.

“Very well,” he said. “Nicola can be quite willful at times. She’s a sweet girl, but I fear all of this nonsense has set her somewhat on edge. I had to fire her last bodyguard after he lost track of her on the first day. Perhaps you’ll have a better chance at finding some common ground that will keep her happy enough to not attempt to undermine your duties.”

“I’m sure we’ll get along famously,” I said through a forced smile.

“Ada will show you to my daughter’s room,” he said. “I don’t doubt you’ll find her still in bed. Consider my asking you to wake her as something of a trial by fire. Once Nicola is awake, tell her I asked you to give you a tour of the house.”

The housekeeper appeared a second later, as though she’d been listening from the other side of the door. I rose and followed her towards the exit, pausing when Bloedermeyer spoke again.

“This week is going to be very demanding on me,” he said. “I trust you’ll be able to perform your duties without daily oversight?”

“I work better with the freedom to operate as I see fit,” I said. “Leave your daughter to me. I’ll keep her from harm’s reach.”

Bloedermeyer nodded, rising and placing his computer into a slim leather satchel as an indication that our meeting was done. I followed Ada back down the hallway and into the main building. We climbed a narrow set of stairs to the second floor, and Ada indicated a door that I presumed led to Nicola’s bedroom. I looked to Ada for advice, hoping she’d accompany me into the room to wake my new charge. Unfortunately, she’d already turned and retreated back downstairs.

I knocked three times.

“Fuck off!” came the muffled response.

So that was how it was going to be.

Not wanting to let this kid get the better of me right out the gate, I twisted the door handle and stepped into the room. It looked like any normal teen girl’s bedroom. There were clothes strewn about the floor and draped over every surface. On her bedside table was a mountain of fashion magazines. The room lacked the kind of posters some of my more stable former foster sisters had tacked to their walls, but there were several large digital picture frames rotating through a gallery of images that appeared to be made up of nothing but selfie group shots of girls in various states of intoxication.

“Time to get up,” I said, stepping over a pair of inside-out jeans to get to the foot of the bed.

I sent a little energy into my fingertips, willing it out in a tiny burst of electricity when I touched the edge of her blanket. The crackling static electricity raced through the puffy duvet, pricking the girl’s skin. She shot upright, flinging the blanket aside to reveal flannel shorts and a threadbare t-shirt sporting a picture of Grumpy Cat.

If looks could kill, the glare Nicola flashed me would have stopped my heart instantly. She rubbed her eye with the back of her hand and yawned loudly.

“Nice shirt,” I said.

“Who the fuck are you?” she mumbled.

No point in beating around the bush. From what her dad had said, I wasn’t the first person who’d been given the job of watching her. If I wanted to collect my paycheck, I was going to have to last more than a day. I had more than a passing familiarity with bitchy teenage girls, having been a particularly nasty one myself, and I figured directness was the only real course of action.

“Your father hired me to protect you,” I said. “I know you don’t want me here, and to be honest, I’d rather be doing just about anything else. It is what it is, though. We can either make the best of it, or I can tie you up and lock you in the closet the second your dad leaves the house.”

“Rawr.” Nicola mimed pawing at me with clawed fingers. “Where’d he find you? Matrons “R” Us?”

“I’m not that much older than you,” I spluttered. Most people mistook me for a teenager myself.

“Yeah, you keep telling yourself that.”

Nicola threw her legs over the edge of the bed and snatched her phone. Every app on the home screen was lit up with notifications. She began systematically processing them with remarkable proficiency, her thumbs swiping from post to post — jamming heart icons, re-tweeting, re-gramming, and commenting. Somehow managing to snap an elastic around a loose ponytail without putting her phone down, she took no fewer than ten selfies to send to different Snapchat contacts in under two minutes. I’d barely let Chase see me when I first crawled out of bed looking like a natural disaster, and here this kid was broadcasting her face to the entire internet.

Then again, she had the benefit of being a beach-blonde haired seventeen-year-old with flawless skin. Straight out of bed, she looked like she was ready to walk on set for a photo shoot. She had none of the ungainly awkwardness I’d still been suffering from at that age. Hips canted to one side while she stood tapping away at her phone, the shoulder of her stretched out t-shirt hung over one shoulder as though it had been carefully arranged to sit just so. She looked better in her pajamas than most girls looked after a full makeover.

That was the first sign this was going to be more trouble than I’d anticipated.

“Let’s go,” I barked a little more aggressively than I’d planned, “Your father wants you to give me a tour of the house so I’m familiar with the layout. You can leave the phone behind.”

Nicola rolled her eyes, tucked the phone into the waistband of her shorts, and strode out of the room.

“This is Ada’s room,” she said, gesturing to the door next to hers. We stopped at the next door in line. “I’m guessing this is where you’ll be since it’s where Ada put the last guy. At least, I think she did. He didn’t last long enough to unpack his bags.”

I opened the door and saw my backpack already sitting on the cedar chest at the foot of the bed. The room itself wasn’t much to look at, but it seemed comfortable enough. All I really needed was a place to sleep and a place to recharge my phone.

“The next two rooms are guest bedrooms,” Nicola continued in a monotone drone. “Bathroom is at the end of the hall.”

I shut the door to my room and followed the girl down the hallway where a wider set of stairs went both up to another floor and down to the main level.

“My father’s room is up there,” she said. “You’ve probably seen that already, though.”

I opened my mouth to defend myself against the implication, but Nicola was already on her way downstairs. Knowing she was just trying to push my buttons didn’t make it any easier to keep from smacking her. As I followed her down the stairs, I indulged in a little fantasy of putting my heel right between her shoulders so I could watch her tumble to the bottom where she’d crumple in a pathetic little heap.

Of course, I’d never be so careless with the merchandise. This girl’s safety was my meal ticket. If anything happened to her, I’d be on the next bus back to Vancouver with nothing to show for it.

“This is the showroom floor,” Nicola said when we reemerged into the living room where I’d enjoyed my coffee and croissants.

“Showroom floor?” I asked.

“It’s where my father entertains his business buddies,” she said. Her disdain was obvious. “He’s always hosting parties for one investor or another. He likes to trot me out to keep their sons distracted while the men talk business.”

Nicola led me away from the living room and into a smaller, more functional version of the front area. The couches looked worn and comfortable. A large TV was mounted on the wall. The dark wood paneled walls were adorned with wild animal heads and large fish that had been forever frozen in parodies of their death throes. A locked gun cabinet stood against the far wall next to a massive floor to ceiling bookcase. An ornate array of custom hunting rifles and shotguns were visible behind the glass.

When Nicola crossed the room, my first instinct was that she was going for one of the guns. It was only when she grabbed a tumbler and unstoppered a crystal decanter that I realized she’d been aiming for the liquor cabinet set into one of the shelves. She threw back a shot of something clear, grimaced, then set the decanter back where she’d taken it from.

“Sorry,” she said as she marched on to the next room. “I needed that if I was going to put up with any more of this bullshit. How long are you supposed to be my shadow for, anyway?”

“Hopefully not more than a week,” I said. “Until your father locks in whatever deal he’s working on. After that, I guess he’s taking you away from here for rest of the winter.”

Nicola’s expression darkened, but she didn’t say anything. I noted the bulge of her jaw muscle while she ground her teeth in anger. She hadn’t known about her dad’s plan. Lucky me for getting to break the news. Now I’d get an extra helping of angst from my already moody charge.

We entered the kitchen where Ada was in the middle of cooking. Thick slabs of French toast were cooking to golden perfection on the griddle of the professional gas range. The air was rich with the salty goodness of bacon sizzling away in the oven. A bag of desiccated orange halves sat on the floor next to the garbage, brave soldiers who’d given their lives in service to the pitcher of fresh squeezed juice sitting on the counter. My mouth watered at the sight even though I’d eaten less than twenty minutes earlier.

“I’ll take breakfast in the solarium,” Nicola told Ada.

We will take breakfast in the solarium,” I corrected even though it was already almost noon.

Nicola stared at me like I’d just suggested we hop on a magic carpet to visit Mars.

“I don’t eat with the help,” she said.

I knew better than to laugh. The girl was obviously trying her best to channel the sternly commanding presence her father no doubt used to great effect. It’s just that she looked downright adorable. What she probably thought was an imperious glare came off as little more than a spoiled pout.

I held the laughter in, but keeping myself from smiling proved impossible.

“Do I look like I give a shit what you do or don’t do?” I asked. “You and I are going to be besties for a while. That means I go where you go. Hashtag deal-with-it.”

Nicola huffed and spun on her heel. She marched out of the kitchen and into the adjacent solarium where she slumped down into one of the chairs. Pulling one foot up under herself, she took out her phone and proceeded to ignore me while Ada served us breakfast. Perfectly content to eat in silence, I dug into the best French toast I’d ever tasted. The bacon was perfectly crisp, the coffee was hot and smooth, and the orange juice was even better than the glass I’d had earlier. If putting up with Nicola’s impertinence was going to be rewarded with food like this, I’d happily deal with her sarcastic attitude all day long.

It also didn’t escape my notice that I had a considerably larger helping of strawberries on my plate than Nicola did. Ada flashed me a conspiratorial smile when she brought me another serving of bacon, letting me know I had at least one ally in the house.

Chapter 3

After drinking three cups of coffee and eating only a few bites of breakfast, Nicola pushed back from the table and announced that she was going up to her room to change. She suggested I was welcome to join her if watching was my kind of thing, but she didn’t wait around to see how I reacted. Even if she had stuck around, daring me to chastise her, I wouldn’t have risen to such obvious bait. While I didn’t enjoy Nicola’s boundary pushing in the slightest, I also couldn’t blame her for it. From what I’d gathered in the short time I’d been in the Bloedermeyer family home, it was easy to guess the emotional distance between father and daughter. With no mother or siblings in the picture, Nicola was left largely to her own devices. A total lack of parental supervision might be the one thing most teens dreamed about more than anything else, but in my experience, it had only left me craving any kind of stability. I’d rather have had annoying parents lecturing me instead of the complete lack of oversight I’d experienced after running away from my last foster home.

“She’s not so bad beneath it all,” Ada said as she cleared Nicola’s dishes. “Mr. Bloedermeyer is under much more strain than he lets on. The family’s recent troubles haven’t been easy on Nicola. I’m sorry she’s taking it out on you.”

“It’s fine,” I said with complete honesty. “I get where she’s coming from. She won’t shake me as easily as she did the last guy.”

Ada paused, placing her stack of dishes back on the table. She smoothed the front of her apron in a nervous gesture before continuing. Her eyes darted from mine to the tablecloth, as though she was too afraid or ashamed to look me in the eye.

“Please don’t take her anger personally,” Ada said in such a quiet voice I had to strain to hear her. “She’s been… difficult since her mother passed away last year. I hear her crying in the middle of the night sometimes. I don’t think she realizes how thin the walls are.”

Unsure of what to say, I nodded my comprehension.

“You won’t let her know I told you this, will you?” Ada asked, her eyes widening at the thought of what would happen to her should Nicola think the housekeeper was spying on her.

“Of course not,” I assured her. “Thank you for telling me. It helps me know where she’s coming from. I’ll try to have patience for her.”

“I’ve been with the family for two years now. Nicola is like a little sister to me,” Ada said, “I hope you won’t think me foolish, but it’s as though this family has been cursed by an evil spirit. Nicola refuses to accept that she might be in any kind of danger, and her father is at a loss for how to protect her.”

“I’ll keep her safe,” I promised. “Mr. Bloedermeyer didn’t hire me to be her friend. She can lash out at me all she wants. I’ll still do my best to protect her from whoever is trying to use her to get at her dad.”

Ada smiled and nodded curtly in thanks before collecting the dishes and returning to the sink. I didn’t know what to make of the housekeeper. She cooked amazing French toast, that was for sure. There was something more, though. They way she looked at me made me uncomfortable. I’d scanned the house with my mage sight, but not a single bit of magic energy had popped out at me. Nothing about Ada made me think she was part of the threat against Bloedermeyer or his daughter. Then again, it wouldn’t take much to fake a few shy smiles and expressions of heartfelt concern. I’d learned the hard way that there were plenty of ways for gifted or fae to hide themselves from my second sight. Ada could very well be a malicious fae creature slowly draining the life essence from Nicola while she slept.

Or she could just be the housekeeper.

The sound of the TV in the other room dragged me out of my thoughts. When I went in to check, I found Nicola flopped on the couch, flipping through the channels. She’d changed into a pair of black tights and a baggy white sweater with Gucci written in block caps across the chest. I might as well have been a piece of furniture for how completely she ignored me. Content to let her do her thing, I settled into an armchair and watched show after show flip by.

I was only half paying attention to the TV — the other half of my brain trying to figure out if there was a real threat in the house or not — when an image of a bear chasing a skier caught my attention. The footage from a helmet-mounted camera was shaky, but there was no mistaking the furry bulk of a grizzly bear running full tilt down the mountain behind an unaware skier. The guy with the camera shouted for his friend to look behind him, sparking a panicked descent with bear still chasing behind.

The crazy scene was suddenly replaced by two women fondling hideous jewelry on a shopping network. Nicola flipped channels again, a stream of commercials and daytime TV shows flickering by at lightning speed.

“Go back a few channels,” I said.

“What?”

“The bear chasing the skier,” I told her. “Go back to that station.”

“Excuse me?” Nicola flipped forward several more channels. “My father might have hired you follow to me around, but that doesn’t mean you get to tell me what to do.”

The easy way to do this would be a light kinetic blast to the side of the head. Nicola would be out cold, or at least too dazed to argue. Hell, I probably didn’t even need to use magic. She was small enough I could take her. A pillow over the face for just long enough to make her lose consciousness. It’d probably get me fired, thrown in jail, and sued for more money than I’d make in the rest of my life, but that might just be worth it.

“Please, Nicola,” I forced myself to say. “This could be related to my job.”

“Fine,” she replied, hammering the channel back button. “But only because there’s nothing else on right now.”

The footage of the skiers had been replaced with a newscaster in a studio. A file image of a grizzly bear was superimposed on the upper right-hand corner.

“— remains in critical condition. The bear, however, was put down by conservation officers to prevent future attacks. Authorities still don’t know what might have provoked the animal to attack a skier, suggesting rabies or some other neurological issue may have caused the bear to act so violently.”

“Is this a local news station?” I asked after they’d moved on to another story.

“Yeah.” Nicola turned the TV off. “Looks like Blackcomb mountain. Crazy, huh?”

Crazy indeed. As I understood it, bear sightings were fairly common in Whistler. As the village expanded and encroached on the surrounding wilderness, it presented tempting feeding opportunities for animals that would otherwise have relied on plentiful supplies of berries. Bears had been bold enough to walk right into people’s kitchens where they opened refrigerators and helped themselves to the goodies inside. It was rare for a bear to ever attack a human in these incidences, rarer still for them to outright chase someone who hadn’t seemed to have come between a mother and cub.

Weirder still was that it had happened in the middle of winter. That bear should have been deep in a months-long hibernation.

“Sorry, what?” I looked up from my thoughts to see Nicola walking out of the room. She’d said something to me, but I hadn’t been paying attention.

She stopped in the doorway, staring at me like I was a special kind of stupid. “I said, I’m going shopping. Let’s go.”

I followed her to the front hall where Ada was waiting to help me into my jacket. Nicola didn’t seem to need one, but I wasn’t the kid’s mother. If she wanted to freeze her ass off in the name of looking cool, that wasn’t my concern. She slipped into shoes that looked more appropriate for a trip to the mall, and I wondered how she was going to make it down to the Village without slipping and falling on her ass every few feet.

The SUV and driver were gone, most likely having taken Mr. Bloedermeyer to his office. Pulling up in its stead was a nearly identical vehicle. A similarly uniformed driver hopped out and opened the back door for us, waiting until we were seated to close it behind us. Heated leather warmed my already chilled bum. The temperature inside the car was as warm as the house, and I began to understand how Nicola could go out in sub-freezing temperatures without a jacket.

The drive into the heart of the Village took less than five minutes. Nicola hopped out of the SUV without looking up from her phone or saying a word to the driver. I followed her into the closest store where she complained about the lack of decent shopping in the area. The price tags on most of the things I glanced at were so high I was afraid to even think about trying anything on. Judging by now Nicola grumbled about most of what she looked at, she considered them little more than second-rate stores hardly worth the time and energy spent browsing rack after rack of non-designer clothing.

That didn’t stop her from spending a small fortune at three different shops. The bags multiplied quickly, and soon I was pressed into service as a porter to help carry them. Over the course of two hours, Nicola bought enough new clothing and accessories to last me the rest of my natural life. I doubted they’d last her the rest of the month. On a whim, she grabbed a cute new ski jacket for just over three grand. When she took the jacket to the till, she also threw in a new pair of high-tech ski goggles without bothering to try them on.

Our last stop before returning to the SUV was a lingerie shop. Despite my clutching bags from half the better stores in the area, the woman behind the counter tracked me like I was about to steal something. It was only when she saw Nicola that she smiled and suddenly became overly eager to help us.

Nicola picked out a few items and disappeared into one of the change rooms. Desperate to sit down for the first time in two hours, I dropped the bags at my feet and fell into a plush velvet chair in front of the small curtained changing area. I was about to pull out my own phone to send Chase a barrage of hate messages for getting me into this in the first place when Nicola swept the curtain aside to stick her head out.

She pointed to a pale blue lacy thing hanging over a chair near her change room. “Hand me that?”

I fetched the hanger for her.

“Do you really think I’m in danger?” Nicola asked through the curtain. “My dad won’t tell me much about what’s going on, but he seems more anxious than usual.”

“I honestly don’t know,” I told her. She hadn’t closed the curtain all the way, and I had to turn away in my chair to keep from seeing flashes of skin and underwear through the gap. “I don’t doubt someone is trying to sabotage his new development, but it’s not exactly common for environmental activists to attack people directly.”

“I think he’s overreacting.” Nicola pulled the curtain aside and posed in the skimpy blue bra and underwear I’d handed her. “Too slutty?”

“I… uh,” I felt my cheeks flush red, and I quickly looked away again. “I don’t think it’s really appropriate for me to comment on that.”

I could feel Nicola rolling her eyes at me as she tugged the privacy curtain back into place. If she’d been trying to fluster me and throw me off guard, she’d done a hell of a job of it. After hours of shopping and practically being ignored, I was having a hard time keeping up with what could well be a genuine attempt at gauging my concern for her safety. Either that, or it was just another way for her to show me how little control I had over her.

“Have you seen anything odd lately?” I asked when I’d recovered my wits a little. “Anyone following your or acting strangely?”

“Not really,” she said. “Then again, this is Whistler. The definition of normal here is a little more flexible than most places. Between the extreme athlete wannabes doing crazy stunts and the fact that pretty much everyone is blissed out on pills or weed most of the time, there’s a lot of random shit happening at any given moment. How much is my dad paying you, anyway?”

“Not nearly enough,” I muttered too quietly for her to hear. More audibly, I said, “That’s not information I’m able to disclose at the present time.”

Fully dressed again, Nicola stepped out of the change room making a mocking face while she repeated what I’d just said.

“Are you, like, FBI or CSIS or something?” she asked. “You don’t look like a cop.”

“Freelance,” I told her. “Hate to break it to you, but you don’t rate high enough for any government agencies to care.”

“I’m surprised I rate high enough for my father to care,” she said softly while she collected her items and went to the front desk.

This was probably where I was supposed to interject with some kind of reassurance that her father cared deeply about her, but as I’d told Ada back at the house, that wasn’t my job. Other than the risk of an overworked credit card causing one of the payment machines to explode, I’d yet to identify a single threat against this girl besides her own shitty attitude. Sure, I knew a thing or two about teenage angst, but that didn’t qualify me to act as the girl’s therapist.

“Why aren’t you in school,” I asked as we loaded her bags into the back of the waiting SUV.

“I finished last semester,” she said. “I did a summer program at the Sorbonne last year that gave me enough extra credit to finish early.”

Nicola skirted around the side of the vehicle and hopped into the back before I could ask for details. By the time I joined her, she was back on her phone, her body language quite clearly suggesting she was done being friendly with me.

Happy to let the cushy heated seats warm my tired body, I sat back and tried to relax for the whole five minutes it took to drive home.

Chapter 4

What remained of the afternoon passed uneventfully. Nicola retreated to her room to unpack her new acquisitions while I made another tour of the house on my own. Choosing speed over power, I set a few rudimentary wards at key points around the house. They wouldn’t do much to deter an uninvited intruder, but they’d alert me if anything containing magic energy crossed the threshold. No fae, magic user, or enchanted item could enter the home without triggering the protective spells. Learning from a previous experience of having my wards disabled, I added a little something extra that would also alert me if someone tried to tamper with them. Even keeping them as small as they were, it was exhausting work that took me most of the afternoon. By the time I’d woven the last and most prominent ward around the frame of the front door, I was ready for the meal Ada had been working on for the last several hours.

Mr. Bloedermeyer wasn’t there, and I learned from Ada that he rarely made it home before midnight most nights. When he wasn’t at the office working into the evening, he was out entertaining investors. Ada informed me that he came home and went straight to bed most nights, only to rise early the following morning for meetings with people working from time zones that were already well into their day. I was told not to expect to see Mr. Bloedermeyer very often during my stay, and that suited me fine. The last thing I needed was someone watching over my shoulder all the time. I didn’t do well with micromanagement, especially when the client didn’t know exactly what it was that qualified me to do my job effectively.

Nicola and I ate in silence at the small farmhouse table in the kitchen. She stared at her phone the entire time, and I did my best to pretend I was alone. Ada was proving herself a true master in the kitchen. The beef Wellington she’d prepared was one of the most amazing things I’d ever eaten. It would have been right at home in a Michelin starred restaurant. Or so I guessed. I’d never been in anything fancier than an Outback Steakhouse. The pastry covered beef I enjoyed three helpings of made the memory of my previous best meal pale in comparison. It was as though I’d only ever fished stale food from dumpsters until the moment I sank my teeth into the first perfectly cooked bite of prime grass-fed meat.

And it was only Monday. Ada had spent all afternoon preparing a dinner that Nicola barely glanced at after snapping a photo of it for her dozen odd social media sites. She nibbled a bit of the pastry, ate her side salad over the course of twenty minutes, then left the table. In the same amount of time, I’d consumed my weight and more than my daily wages in fancy beef.

After being told sternly that I was most definitely not allowed to help clear dishes, I went to check on Nicola. I found her firmly ensconced on the couch, fashion magazine on her lap, phone still clutched like it was the only thing keeping her alive. The TV blared some inanity in the background, and I decided she was fine on her own. As dark and wintery as it was outside, she wouldn’t be able to sneak out without getting a ride. I escaped to the front living room where I’d be able to see the headlights of any vehicles pulling into the driveway.

The irony of the situation didn’t escape me as I settled into a nearly identical pose of my own. I flipped through the pages of an old issue of Dwell magazine while checking in with Chase on my phone. He claimed he’d started working on a job with our mutual friend, Karyn. He wasn’t giving up many details, but promised it wasn’t anything too dangerous or illegal. Given the trouble he’d gotten into with me over the course of the last year, I worried a little about what he considered dangerous. He was capable of taking care of himself, though. And as much as I wasn’t sure about Karyn’s motives, she’d been there to protect Chase the last time we’d had to work together.

Whatever it was they were getting up to, I decided I’d rather not know. I left Chase to his work and tossed the magazine down on the coffee table. I was in the middle of wondering what the odds were that Nicola was going to go to bed early like a good little girl when she came into the room and announced that we were going to her favorite bar.

“Now?” I asked, realizing immediately how old it made me sound.

It wasn’t even ten o’clock.

“Duh, yeah,” she said. “Car’s coming in twenty minutes, so you might want to change.”

Brain working feverishly trying to figure out how to get out of going to a bar instead of crawling into bed with a book, I got up and followed Nicola up to our rooms. We were halfway up the stairs when I remembered she was only seventeen; a year under the legal age.

“Aren’t you too young to drink?” I asked.

“Like that matters,” she said. “I’ve tipped every bouncer at least a hundred bucks over the last year. No one ever asks to see your ID when you drop a twenty in their hands. They want hot girls in the bar, and they don’t turn people like me away unless they look twelve.”

Nicola stopped on the last stair, turning to look me up and down.

“Don’t worry,” she said snottily, “I’ll vouch for you so you don’t get rejected at the door.”

“Gee, thanks,” I muttered.

Once in my room, I upended my bag and sifted through the clothes that tumbled out onto the bed. I didn’t know what passed for bar appropriate, but I was pretty sure the t-shirts I’d brought weren’t exactly on-trend. Figuring I could at least use a reapplication of deodorant, I peeled my sweater and shirt off, freshened up, and put on a clean tee. That done, I zipped a black hoodie over the shirt and went to check on Nicola.

“The fuck is that?” she said when she saw me.

“It’s all I brought,” I said. “No one told me I’d be playing chaperone while you went out underage drinking.”

Nicola made a sound of annoyance, then turned and swept through the racks of clothes in her closet. She pulled down a few items and came over. She held several things up in front of me as though considering how to dress a mannequin, then she shoved a hanger into my hands.

“Wear that,” she ordered.

The shirt in question was a backless deep V-neck halter that was made of cotton so thin you could practically see through it. There was no way I was wearing something like this out in public, and I told Nicola as much.

“Don’t be such a pussy,” she said, wriggling her tights down so she could kick them off. “If you’re going to be seen with me, you can’t dress like a… a… I don’t even know what that look is. Skater hobo? Wear the shirt, or I’ll tell the bouncer you’re a crazy stalker.”

Swallowing a comeback, I spun around and unzipped my hoodie. As much as I hated to admit it, I knew Nicola was right. Worse, I caught myself caring what she thought of me. I’d never done the BFF thing growing up, and although I was ten years older than Nicola, a very tiny and extremely petty part of me still wanted her to like me. Nicola was one of the cool kids I’d only ever seen from a distance. As much as I’d always hated the generic brand of spoiled rich brats, I’d never been able to fully ignore the inkling of jealousy that just made me hate them all the more. Nicola represented so many things I loathed, but that old jealousy flared up when I briefly contemplated ignoring her attempt to dress me up like her.

I pulled my t-shirt off and unhooked my bra before I lost my nerve. I pulled the thin slip of fabric down over my chest, securing myself in the contoured front as much as the fabric allowed. My chest wasn’t so big I couldn’t easily skip the support of a bra, but I felt naked without it. The shirt showed a scandalous amount of side-boob, and I twisted to either side while checking myself out in the mirror. There was no denying the shirt was sexy, but the white fabric was definitely thin enough that I could see outlines of things that I wasn’t used to having on display.

“It’ll be too dark for anyone to notice,” Nicola said. She had a smug grin plastered across her face, and I couldn’t help but notice how much more modest her own off-the-shoulder shirt was.

I thought about asking her to trade, but that’d end up in me having to take the damn thing off in front of her. I’d had enough communal dressing to last me a decade or two, so I stuck my tongue out at her and put my hoodie back on.

“That’s not coming into the bar,” Nicola ordered. “Besides, you look great in that shirt. You’re young and skinny. Why not enjoy it before it’s gone?”

Too tired to argue, I simply zipped my hoodie up and followed her down to the waiting car.

* * *

True to her word, Nicola made me take the hoodie off before I climbed out of yet another generic luxury SUV. I caught the driver staring at me in the rearview mirror, so I flashed him my middle finger then balled up the sweater up and followed Nicola into the freezing cold night. Goosebumps erupted along the skin of my arms and back. I fought down a violent shiver, trying to keep my cool as we marched past the line of more suitably dressed people waiting to get in. A sultry smile on Nicola’s part got us through the door with a nod of recognition from the bouncer. I left my hoodie at the coat check, losing Nicola in the few seconds it took me to collect my tag and turn around.

I spotted her at the nearest stretch of bar. A group of guys had moved aside to let her in, and by the time I arrived, they were doing their best to impress her.

“Ah, here iz my sister Mikhela,” she said to in a thick and fake eastern European accent. She put her hand around my waist and pulled me close, resting her head on my shoulder in a manner that was far too personal for sisters. “Ve come here for ski and party. You like ski and party?”

“Oh yeah,” said a guy with sparkling white teeth and the kind of messy bedhead that required an hour and three different hair products to achieve. “We love to ski and party.”

“Vat do you sink, Mikhela?” Nicola asked me. “Vould you like to have some shots for varming up?”

“Uh, da?”

Nicola laughed and hit me playfully on the arm.

“Always vis ze jokes,” she said. “Of course ve do shots.”

“You girls like vodka?” the guy I’d mentally nicknamed Bedhead asked.

He plucked a wad of cash from his pocket and peeled off several twenties. Waving them in the air was enough to get the immediate attention of the bartender who quickly set up a row of shots for us and the guys.

“Fuck it,” I growled before slamming the shot back.

I plucked Bedhead’s glass from his hand before he could down it, and I made that one disappear too. See how good I am at magic?

Bedhead laughed it off and signaled for the bartender to pour another round. This one made a dent in my clearheadedness, and not for the first time that night, I questioned how responsible a protector I was for letting my charge into such a potentially dangerous place. At the very least, I should have stayed as sober as possible in order to keep alert for threats.

Then again, I wasn’t even convinced anyone was actually after this girl. Someone was definitely trying to disrupt her father’s development, but I’d learned nothing to indicate anyone was out to harm Nicola. The most likely scenario was that Bloedermeyer was being overly cautious when it came to his only daughter’s safety. I couldn’t blame the guy for wanting to keep Nicola safe, but given how little he seemed to know or care about his daughter’s antics, I had to wonder if he was worried about a problem that didn’t exist. If I was going to be stuck on babysitter duty, I’d need a few drinks to numb myself against the tedious acting out that didn’t show any signs of slowing down in the near future.

I felt a hand slip under the fabric of my shirt to rest on my back while hot air from Bedhead’s lips brushed my ear. He was saying something about taking me out on the dance floor, but that wasn’t going to happen if I had anything to say about it. I’d sooner take a bath in a pit of snakes than make a fool of myself dancing in public.

Desperate to extract myself from the situation, I grabbed Nicola’s wrist and began pulling her away.

“Come,” I said, sounding less like an exotic bond girl and more like a Russian weightlifter. “I must make the peepees.”

“WTF?” asked Nicola, pronouncing it double-u-tee-eff. “Those guys were good for plenty more drinks. Why’d you drag me out of there?”

“I’m not your mother, but that doesn’t mean I have to go along with your ridiculous games,” I said. “You can go back to them if you want, but no more fake names for me. If I stay out of your way and let you have fun tonight, will you promise me you won’t try to ditch me?”

Nicola seemed to turn the idea over in her head for a few seconds before finally nodding her acquiescence. Whether the threat to her safety was real or not, her father believed it was. Angsty rebellion aside, she was still enough of a daddy’s girl to worry his concern might not be unfounded. So long as she believed there was a chance someone was trying to get at her, I hoped I could count on her to at least tolerate my presence in the background.

Nicola wasted no time returning to her new friends. I hung back to keep an eye on her, sticking to quieter pockets of shadow where I wouldn’t be as noticeable. I tugged the edges of my shirt self-consciously, happy at least that I wasn’t wearing my hoodie. The room was so hot it could have doubled as a yoga studio. Given the amount of skin on display from both guys and girls, the sweltering temperature seemed like a calculated move by whoever managed the place.

I got a beer from the bar on the other side of the room. It was overpriced domestic swill, but it was ice cold and refreshing after the three shots of vodka. I nursed it until it was flat and warm, finally giving up and replacing it with another. The generic pop music that had been playing when we arrived transitioned into a dubsteppy kind of hip hop something or other, and the lights dimmed considerably. Several tables and chairs had been cleared away to double the size of the dance floor, turning the bar into a nightclub. Judging by how many people had been packed inside, and how uniformly white and good looking everyone was, I didn’t doubt this was the most popular spot in town.

Keeping an eye on Nicola wasn’t hard. When she wasn’t surrounded by a knot of completely enthralled guys who all thought they were going to be the one to take her home, she was on the center of the dance floor. She held one hand in the air while she moved with a fluid and unselfconscious grace that I couldn’t help but envy. This chick didn’t give a damn what was going on around her. She was there to party and have a good time, and she wasn’t going to let anyone stand in her way. Wherever she went, the crowd parted before her. Bartenders stopped mid-pour to see what she wanted. Other women eyed her with a mix of lust and jealousy. And every male eye in the room gave her at least a passing glance if not a full-on stare that lingered even after she’d disappeared into the crowd.

Surprisingly, the hardest part of the whole deal was rebuffing the attempts of several guys trying to flirt with me throughout the night. While clubbing wasn’t exactly my thing, I’d been in my share of bars and nightclubs for one reason or another. I’d been hit on before, but nothing like this.

Adjusting my shirt for the fiftieth time, I realized what was different. My idea of dressing up to go to a bar was swapping a dirty black t-shirt for a clean one. Wearing Nicola’s shirt, I looked like a proper bar star. I could only imagine what would happen if I got my hairs did and put on a bit of extra makeup.

“If you want to go fuck some guy tonight, I don’t mind,” Nicola slurred into my ear during one of her breaks from dancing. “I mean, it’d probably do you some good to get that stick banged out of your ass.”

I took a sip of my beer and let the comment pass through me. Had I been seventeen, I might have slapped her so hard, her firstborn child would have felt the sting. Instead, I practiced being the bigger person by pretending she hadn’t said anything at all.

“Having a good night?” I asked.

She shrugged. “S’alright. It’s normally insane here on Mondays. This is pretty lame.”

A cheer went up from one side of the room where a shirtless guy standing on the bar poured a foamy stream of champagne from the giant bottles he held in each hand. Men and women alike crowded near, getting splashed with bubbly while they fought to get a bit into their mouths.

The rest of the dance floor was absolute chaos. Packed to what looked like beyond capacity, the place was literally jumping. The floor shook beneath our feet from so many people moving on it at once. My eardrums throbbed from the too-loud music despite my having positioned myself in the quietest corner I could find. If this was a lame night, I had no desire to see what Nicola considered a wild one.

“I’mma go dance again,” Nicola said. “You wanna come with? Guys love it when two chicks grind up on each other. I could probably break ten K likes if I posted a photo of you and me all sweaty and sexy. Fifty K if you let a bit of nipple slip.”

“I’m fine here,” I said.

“No doubt.” Nicola laughed at some private joke as she melted back into the crowd.

I followed her progress as well as I could, debating whether or not to get another beer. The clock on my phone read 11:43. Last call wouldn’t be for another couple of hours, and I had a pretty good feeling that Nicola wasn’t going to want to leave much before that.

It took me nearly ten minutes to make my way towards the bar. In the process, my ass was grabbed three times, one guy professed his undying love to me, and two different girls snarled at me for bumping into them while I tried to squeeze past. My arms were slick with other people’s sweat, and my jaw hurt from clenching it so hard. I needed that drink more than ever, but before I could order it I felt a cold chill wash over me. No one else reacted, but it the sensation like someone pouring a bucket of ice water over my head. The resulting adrenaline cleared my alcohol-muddled brain in an instant, and I scanned the bar looking for the source.

I found it at the other end of the bar. Staring at me intently was a blonde twenty-something with the deepest blue eyes I’d ever seen. He wore a plaid shirt with only three buttons done up, exposing the smooth skin of his chest and a few tightly cut abdominal muscles. His sandy blond hair was swept back into a loose bun, and a light layer of ruddy stubble coated his chiseled jaw. Everything about him screamed sex, right down to the way he narrowed his eyes and tilted his head to get a better look at me.

I didn’t need to activate my mage sight to see that he was a vampire.

The hipster vampire pushed off the bar and began making his way toward me. Women and men alike melted at the gentle touch of fingers on a back or a hand on a shoulder. Everyone stepped aside with bashful awe in their expressions as though he was some kind of celebrity. Even I felt myself caught up in the powerful sway of his psychic aura. My pulse quickened. A tiny tsunami of nerves crashed over me. Without realizing I was doing it, I found myself tilting my hips and biting my lower lip along with what passed for my best come-hither stare. A soft sigh rushed from my lips when the vampire stepped in close, his ice-cool hands slipping around my waist. He pulled me towards himself, then began swaying his hips to the music. I dissolved into him. We moved against each other like every other person in the bar had simply vanished. The room faded away. All that remained was the music, and his body — his perfect, amazing body.

I don’t know if it was my idea to spin around or if he’d spun me, but backing up against him seemed the most natural thing in the world to do. I held my hair to the side so he could kiss my neck. His lips were soft and warm, but not as warm as they should have been. His fingers traced the curvature of my body, triggering little waves of icy shivers that made me want to give myself over to him completely.

“What are you doing here, mage?” he hissed into my ear, the intoxicating spell falling away immediately.

I spun around to face him, blinking in confusion. His hands still gripped my waist, fingers digging in a little more tightly than was entirely appropriate. I felt superhuman strength in that grip, the kind of strength that could snap my spine in half if I gave him any excuse. Fortunately for me, feeding on a mage without consent was strictly forbidden thanks to centuries-old agreements between our kind. Had the vampire taken full advantage of the situation, I’d have been powerless to stop him. Worse, I’d have wept with joy, begging for more even as he drained the lifeblood from me.

“I’m on a job.” I had to shout to be heard over the music. “The real question is, what are you doing here?”

The vampire’s grip loosened. His pupils flared, and I felt psychic energy hammer my skull. I was by no means a master, but I’d learned a thing or two about blocking unwanted psychic ingress during my years of study and training. A powerful enough vampire could easily smash the barriers I constructed in my mind, but this guy didn’t seem to be that old. He probed for only a second before giving up.

“You’re not here to stop me?” he said, obvious confusion in his eyes when he leaned in to speak into my ear.

This conversation was getting more and more confusing by the second. “That depends on what you’re here to do.”

The vampire took a hand from my hip and swept it out towards the seething crowd of dancers. His smile revealed extended eye teeth. The razor sharp points were intimidating, yet terrifyingly intoxicating. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to have them sink ever so slowly into the flesh of my neck, penetrating me more completely than…

Snap out of it, Alex. I gave myself a mental slap in the face and returned to the business at hand. I’d been on the wrong end of teeth like that before. It wasn’t an experience I wanted to repeat.

“This is your feeding ground,” I said.

“Best I’ve found in decades,” he replied. “Not as good as Ibiza, but the lack of sun more than makes up for it.”

“When you feed, it’s consensual?”

The vampire shrugged. “Sure, why not? If it makes you feel better to think that.”

Palm out, I jammed my extended fingers and thumb into the vampire’s stomach. I’d spent a good chunk of the last few months experimenting with converting my energy into electricity, and here I’d found the perfect test subject. I let a few volts surge into his stomach. The vampire’s muscles clenched violently in response. His body straightened, and he vibrated ever so slightly. The hand that had still been on my hip popped away from the force of what I’d nicknamed the stun gun spell, but not before it flowed through the vampire and into me with enough voltage to make me grunt in pain. In response, I pushed harder, ratcheting the energy up to a level that would have killed a normal human.

“I thought your kind weren’t allowed to feed without consent,” I growled.

Tiny sparks of electricity jumped from his body to mine. The air snapped and crackled, flickers of pain lancing the skin of my arms and my cheeks. I’d definitely have to refine this spell a bit if I was going to use it again.

The vampire looked like he was about to swallow his tongue. I eased off the spell to give him a chance to speak, leaving my fingers pressed into his stomach to remind him that I could power it up again in a heartbeat if he provoked me.

“I am so turned on right now,” he said. “Let’s get out of here and take this someplace more private. You can torture me all you want.”

Men. Doesn’t matter if they’re frat bros or undead hipsters. Everything comes back to sex.

“Stay on topic,” I told him. “Are you feeding without consent?”

“Consent is such a vague concept,” he replied. “Is there really consent when two blackout drunk strangers fuck each other? I don’t kill, and I leave my partners happier for the experience. They remain blissfully unaware that I sipped a pint or two of blood, and they retain the memory of the best night of their pathetic little lives. I’m a bloody charity worker.”

“Pun intended?”

“Always,” he said with a wink.

I glanced around the bar in an attempt to get eyes on Nicola. She wasn’t anywhere on the dance floor that I could see, and I wondered if she’d gone back to find Bedhead and his friends. If this vampire wasn’t part of the threat against her, I was wasting my time talking to him.

“To be absolutely clear,” I said to him. “You’re not here to get at Nicola Bloedermeyer?”

“What the hell is a Blow-der-mayer?”

Call me naïve, but I believed him. If it was Nicola he’d been after, he’d had several opportunities to snatch her before now. Vampires tended to be primarily interested in one thing and one thing only. Feeding. Sabotaging a developer and terrorizing his family seemed too mundane for creatures that cared only for their own pleasure. I supposed Eskola — the head of Vancouver’s biggest and scariest vampire family — could have some competing business interest that might involve sinking Bloedermeyer’s project so he could swoop in with his own, but this was too drawn out and subtle for Eskola. He wouldn’t have vampires hanging out in bars seducing people. He’d have simply sent someone in to slit Bloedermeyer and his daughter’s throats and drain them dry in the middle of the night.

“Don’t get in my way again,” I warned him as I broke away. “You wouldn’t be the first vampire I’ve killed.”

“Feisty.” The vampire mimed scratching the air with clawed fingers.

His expression hardened somewhat and his eyes flicked to the crowd and back. He still hadn’t retracted his fangs, meaning his blood lust was in full effect. In a place packed with people already largely stripped of inhibitions, his control would slip away bit by bit if he didn’t feed soon.

“I don’t know what this job is that brought you here,” he said, “but you may want to reconsider it. There’s new energy in town. It’s subtle, but I’ve felt it growing over the last several weeks. It’s malicious and dark.”

Now that got my attention.

“What can you tell me about it?” I asked.

He shook his head. “That’s it. It’s little more than background noise when I awake each night. I’m getting out of town before the sun rises. This is my last feed before I head to the city to lie low for a while. You might want to do the same.”

“Thanks for the advice, but that may be exactly the reason I’m here.” My suspicion over the sudden goodwill of a vampire got the better of me. “Why tell me this?”

He licked his lips, eyes once again drifting to the neck of a girl dancing beside us. It seemed to take him a significant effort of will to drag his attention back to me.

“I need to feed,” he said softly. I felt the pressure of his psychic seduction acting on me again. “It’s my hope that this information might buy me a little leeway to work without interruption.”

I looked at the girl in question. She was about my age, and she looked like she was deep in the throes of an extended MDMA high. Undulating and swaying in her own little bubble of bliss, she’d hardly notice a few more lost hours. The idea of consenting to a vampire feeding on her didn’t sit easy, but I had to face the facts. This guy was going to feed on someone whether I allowed him to or not. Even if it came down to me fighting him, I couldn’t afford to use lethal force in such a public place. He’d be able to slip out and grab the first person he saw out on the street.

“Fine,” I grumbled. “Do what you have to do. I’ll look the other way.”

The vampire nodded in thanks and slipped away to work his magic on the unsuspecting girl. She welcomed his advances with eagerness. Still within range of the vampire’s psychic influence, I had to once again fight down an urge to push her out of the way so I could slip into her place.

Needing to get eyes on Nicola, I put the vampire as far out of my mind as I could, then checked the dance floor again. The music had ramped up another notch, spastic strobe lights making it nearly impossible to get a decent look at the crowd. I pushed my way to the nearest bar, and without pretense, climbed up onto it to scan the entire room.

“Fuck,” I muttered to myself.

Nicola was nowhere to be seen. First day on the job and I’d already lost my charge.

That’s all you get for now! Black Ice goes on sale April 4th. Kindle Unlimited subscribers read free.

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