They say you can never go home again, especially when an all-powerful psycho is lying in wait to steal your magic.
Series: The Shadow Series
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Becka stared into her closet, hoping for inspiration. She glanced toward the outfit hanging on the back of her bedroom door which had been there for the last week, still sheathed in plastic. A black blouse, black pants, and black jacket uniform were hers for the low, low price of a consulting interim placement with the Enforcers Guild. It wasn’t like she could turn down the gig which fulfilled the conditions of her civic service. Chief Elowen had said she could take a few days and start once she was ready.
But was she? Becka hadn’t even left the townhome in the week since she’d been back.
Oriani mewled plaintively for his breakfast, seeming to understand the exact level of ear-piercing noise required to spurn her fae-touched hypersensitive ears into action. The plump gold-and-brown tabby didn’t care one iota whether she wanted to get dressed, what she wore, or when she started her new job. All he cared about was his stomach.
“Okay, okay, fine,” she replied. She pulled out a springtime green blouse and brown pair of slacks, wanting to look her best for her meeting with Dr. Traut today. As she dressed, Becka told herself everything would be alright. It wasn’t like there were Shadow-Dwellers lying in wait around every corner.
“Mraw,” Oriani repeated, his plaintive tone escalating in pitch. Becka slid on a pair of sandals and tucked her sea silk gloves into her backpack, checking to make sure she had a full bottle of hot sauce in the side pocket.
She glanced at her bedside table, where the Shadow-Dweller glyph book sat next to the two journals she’d picked up at the Shadow-Dweller Mimir’s cabin hideout a few weeks ago. Becka had continued to try and decipher them, but every time she’d picked up one of them or the glyph book they had the same message on every page. Even without asking any questions. Even after asking unrelated questions. Even after she’d cursed and sworn at them.
But Becka couldn’t help herself. She reached out and picked up one of the journals, flipping it open to a random page.
The same message Mimir had left for Becka at the cabin where she’d killed the wolf-shifter Luce, Saige’s packmate.
But there was a second message in the journal. One Mimir hadn’t left for her at the cabin.
TELL ANYONE AND THEY DIE
An ever-present anxiety lived in her stomach, coiled up like a serpent poised to strike. She hadn’t yet figured out what to do about the Shadow-Dweller books or this message, which had to be from Mimir. Becka didn’t want anyone to get hurt, so she’d kept her mouth shut about the message. She didn’t have a death wish, so Becka hadn’t gone to find Mimir by herself either.
Becka threw the journal against the wall and it thudded to the floor. She picked up the next journal. Wash. Rinse. Thud. Repeat. Becka picked up the glyph book and slid it into her backpack, not bothering to check the pages. She knew what she’d see.
When she opened the door to her bedroom, Becka came face-to-face with Enforcer Quinn.
Oriani whooshed out her door and down the stairs, not waiting for her to follow.
Becka’s heart skipped a beat, longing for the comfort of his touch. She’d have thought after a week her heart would have gotten used to having Quinn in the room next door, but no such luck. Having him so close without acting on their mutual attraction or divulging the journal’s messages was wearing down her defenses.
“I heard a series of thumps. Journals disappointing you again today?”
“Just like every other day.”
His amber gaze flicked to her outfit and then back to her eyes, and the intensity of his focus on her had her feeling like they were the only two people in existence, living within their own private universe. “I thought you might want a ride?” This had become Quinn’s gentle way of asking if she was ready to start working at the guild with him. “I know Elowen is looking forward to getting you on board.”
Becka bit her lip. She’d been keeping her distance from Quinn, but that hadn’t stopped her from remembering their kisses or dwelling on the moments she’d slept peacefully curled up next to him.
“I don’t think I’m quite ready yet,” Becka replied, tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear.
He nodded, as if he’d expected her continuing avoidance. “Are you going out?”
“Yes, I have a meeting scheduled with Dr. Traut about my old internship with the Interspecies Department. It sounds like there’s been some progress, so I’m going to see what’s up.”
“By yourself?” Quinn asked, a frown furrowing his brows.
“Yeah. I mean, it’s the middle of the day and the institute is a place I know well.” She’d been avoiding leaving the townhome, but hated to live in fear. She had a target on her back and who knew how many Shadow-Dwellers Mimir had out there watching her?
His frown turned stormy. “I could give you a ride. Wait for you until you’re done?”
“No, that’s not necessary,” Becka replied, forcing a smile. “I know you’ve been busy. Besides, I need to get out on my own sooner or later.”
His eyes widened. “You don’t, actually. The guild has the resources to have you always accompanied.”
Which she knew to be true. After all, they’d had Quinn move in with her and posted guards out front and back twenty-four seven. How that made financial sense when she was just a consultant for the guild, Becka didn’t know. Although she always felt safer when Quinn was around, Becka couldn’t say the same for the guards, who she barely knew.
“Whatever you think is wise.” Becka crossed her arms. “But I’m going. That’s not negotiable.”
A smile passed over his face, but then he masked it with his “I’m taking you seriously” expression. “I can see it isn’t. But an enforcer will go with you, nonetheless. Andre is on shift today, and a solid enforcer.”
She’d put her foot down and she wasn’t at all surprised Quinn had done the same. If she was the epitome of stubborn, he was the pillar of determination.
“Hey up there,” Aunt Lydia called up the stairs. “Breakfast is ready!”
“Coming!” Becka called back.
Becka sidestepped past Quinn, knocking shoulders with him. He put a hand out, touching her arm lightly, an electric thrill running along her skin at the contact. She paused, wanting nothing more than to curl up into his arms, breathe in his scent, and let her anxieties fade away.
After his first night there, Quinn had moved into the room at the top of the stairs, next to Becka’s room and across from Lydia’s. Becka hadn’t complained, preferring the security of his presence close by. The sweet temptation of having him just next door could have pushed her back into his arms, but the warnings from the glyph journal never left her mind.
“I look forward to hearing about how your meeting with Dr. Traut goes,” Quinn said. “I have some leads I’d like to run past you.”
“Yeah, of course,” she replied, thinking the last thing she wanted to do with Quinn was talk about a job interview or Shadow-Dweller cases. Despite sleeping next door to each other, they’d both been cautious, keeping their dynamic light and flirtatious. Then there was the matter of his gift, his ability to know if others spoke the truth, which made keeping the secret of the depth of her Mimir concerns from him tricky at best.
Quinn was so easy to talk to, Becka feared she’d tell him about the messages in the journal, placing this life at risk. So she’d kept her distance, much to both their frustration.
When they arrived downstairs, her Aunt Lydia was setting out a stack of plates and silverware. She wore a flowy deep-blue blouse and a sea-green skirt over her lush figure, her long, golden hair cascading down her back. On the table, a mound of doughnuts filled a large serving bowl and a smaller bowl was filled with a colorful fruit salad. Two large French presses were on the counter, mainly because Lydia had a fear of running out now that both Quinn and Saige had moved in.
“Doughnuts!” Becka said.
“No, they’re beignets!” Lydia replied, holding a hand to her chest in mock horror. “Look at all of that powdered sugar! It’s like a signpost pointing to decadence!”
Becka shook her head and laughed. “I’m looking, and I’m liking,” she replied, pouring herself a cup of coffee.
“Sit, you two!” Lydia hummed along, her cheerful demeanor always a breath of fresh air to Becka. “Hmm, is Saige up?” Lydia said to herself, and then wandered down the hall and knocked on the door to Saige’s room. Then knocked again.
When Lydia returned, Becka and Quinn were both sitting at the table. “Where has that wolf gotten herself off to?” She sat down with a flourish, leaning forward over her coffee cup and diving into the beignets.
Becka shrugged. They’d barely seen Saige since she’d moved in, so it was anyone’s guess. After Luce’s death, Saige had taken a leave of absence, citing a need to grieve her packmate’s death. Lydia had happily offered her a room at the townhome. From what Becka could see, grieving looked a lot like trying to hunt down the Shadow-Dwellers responsible for Luce’s death.
Not that she blamed Saige. Becka’s mission was the same: find and stop Mimir and the others.
“She doesn’t report to me right now. Brent gave her some time off to mourn Luce, so her time is her own.”
“I should be relieved she’s not moping around, but I suspect we both know she’s out hunting down leads on her own,” Lydia replied.
“Likely, but good luck getting her to admit to it,” Becka said. “You’re all fancy. Where are you off to?”
Lydia positively beamed. “I have a wine tasting downtown.”
“Isn’t it a little early in the day for a wine tasting?” Quinn asked.
Becka barked out a laugh. Quinn had a lot to learn about Aunt Lydia.
“I’m a cosmopolitan woman, enforcer. Besides, it’s a charity event, it’s not like I picked the time. And none of your judgment about it lasting all day, either! I mean, there’s cheese too. Cheese fixes everything.” Lydia took a sip of her coffee. “What about you two? Any mysteries to solve? Together? In—”
“I’m headed to see Dr. Traut,” Becka replied, interrupting her. “He phoned yesterday and said he has something lined up for me.”
Lydia’s heels bounced a staccato beat on the floor. “Oh, I’m so happy for you! You must tell me all about it tonight!”
When Becka had been tossed out of House Rowan as a teen for being ungifted, Lydia had been there for her. For each hardship Becka had endured growing up in the city, Lydia was there for each one, from Band-Aids to broken hearts.
“You know I will.”
“And you, Quinn?” Lydia asked, looking back and forth between them. “Big plans?”
“Just continuing to chase down leads on possible locations Mimir might have taken Alvilda Rowan.”
Becka didn’t miss the sag in Quinn’s shoulders or frustrated tone in his voice. It had been just a week since they’d returned to the city and they hadn’t pinned down any solid leads on Alvilda’s location so far. Becka assumed the chances of finding her kidnapped cousin alive were slim to none.
“Any luck?” Lydia asked.
“Not much on her, so I’ve been mostly reviewing old case files.”
“Riveting, no doubt.” Lydia’s phone beeped, and she swept her dishes to the sink in a rush. “That’s my ride. I’ve got to run. Please make sure Saige eats when you see her!”
“Have fun,” Becka called out as the front door slammed shut.
“Did Lydia always cook for you before?” Quinn asked, beginning to clear the table.
Becka got up, filled a mug to take some coffee with her, and then helped with the dishes. “She loves to cook, but no, it was sporadic. I think she’s trying to make you and Saige feel welcome.”
“Has she always been so eccentric?”
Becka put together a plate for Saige, hoping she’d eat it later. “She’s quirky but I love her. Actually, she’s been more predictable since I returned. Less busy. Around more too.”
“Perhaps out of an abundance of caution for you?” Quinn asked.
If that was true, and she had to think it could be, Becka didn’t know how to feel about it. She didn’t want Lydia changing her ways, but no doubt her aunt would welcome a return to normalcy after all this was over.
The front door opened and Becka assumed Lydia must have forgotten something. When she looked up, it was Saige walking through the door.
“Hey Saige, were you out all night?” Becka asked.
Her appearance answered for her. Saige had dark circles under her eyes and looked like she’d been traveling rough, with dirt on her clothes and unkempt hair. Saige’s need to avenge her packmate and dear friend had driven her to exhaustion hunting for leads on the Shadow-Dwellers.
“I had a lead to chase down,” Saige replied, her voice rough.
“You find another shifter to question?” Becka asked.
“I did, a jaguar shifter on the north end of town,” Saige replied. “They didn’t have any leads, but did give me a number for a pair of bear brothers across town.”
“If you need help, my resources are at your disposal,” Quinn said.
“Thanks, Quinn,” Saige replied, turning down the hall. “I’m going to get some rest.”
“Lydia made doughnuts and fruit for breakfast. I made you a plate,” Becka said, holding it up for Saige to see.
“I’m going to get cleaned up and rest,” Saige replied. “Can you put it in the fridge for me?” She didn’t wait for a response and continued down the hall.
“Yeah, of course,” Becka called after her, and then put Saige’s plate away.
Quinn moved close to Becka. “I’m worried about her. She hasn’t taken Luce’s death well at all.”
“You think?” Becka replied, her tone sharper than she’d intended.
Quinn raised a brow and stepped closer to her. “I’m not sure I deserved that.”
“You didn’t. Sorry. I’m just frustrated.” In more ways than one. “What can we do for her?”
“I’m not sure,” Quinn replied. “We need to get Saige to come out of her den and talk to us.”
Becka sighed. As much as she loved being back home, Becka had brought her problems back with her from House Rowan.
He leaned in even closer, lowering his voice. “I’d love to find out what you’ve been able to learn from the Shadow-Dweller glyph book and journals too. If you have ideas on how I can get you to talk to me about that, let me know.”
Becka glanced up at him, pursing her lips as she gauged his mood. “The sarcasm is new for you.”
“Did it work?” He smiled down at her, so she knew he wasn’t really pushing her hard.
Quinn’s ability to read truth and falsehoods in others’ speech was again at the forefront of her thoughts. Becka didn’t want to lie to him, but especially didn’t want to get caught lying.
Had she been reading the journals? Well, yes, she had. Had she tried to find out information on Mimir or Alvilda? Well, yes, she had. But Becka was also keenly aware Mimir was out to kill her. And maybe her friends. Maybe Quinn.
Becka especially couldn’t bear to think of losing Quinn.
She’d lost so much. Her sister. Her friend Luce. She’d almost lost her father, Vott. Even Alvilda, whose betrayal had caused such conflict between Becka and her brother, Calder.
Sure, she was concerned for Alvilda, at least as concerned as she could be over someone who had tried to kill her and her father. But Becka knew Mimir had taken advantage of Alvilda, no doubt leading her down the dark path she’d traveled. She didn’t wish Mimir’s attention on anyone.
Becka took a deep breath, trying to shake off the mental images of Luce’s blood flowing and the threatening messages from the books. “I haven’t wanted to think too much about Mimir and Alvilda and the Shadow-Dwellers,” she replied, which was totally a true statement. “The entire incident with Luce still weighs on me.”
Quinn placed his hands on her shoulders, squeezing her gently, and she found herself leaning into his touch. “I don’t blame you, but we don’t have any other leads and if Alvilda wasn’t dead when Mimir took her, she’s likely running out of time. We have to assume there’s a possibility of saving her until we know otherwise.”
“I’ve been asking the books questions, and they haven’t given me anything useful about Alvilda.” Which was mostly true.
His eyes narrowed. Did he intuit she was withholding information?
“Perhaps you’re not asking the right questions? I bet we could get something useful out of the books with the team helping to guide your questions.”
Guilt over not helping Alvilda and withholding information from Quinn flooded over her, souring her stomach. “Yeah, maybe.” Becka checked the clock, knowing Quinn was not going to let this one go. He was too tenacious to let any clue go. “I’ve got to get going for my appointment.”
He nodded, but his eyes were back to stormy. Quinn wrapped his arms around her and she melted into him, wishing the moment could last forever. “Be careful. Andre will be with you. Call me if you need anything.”
Despite Becka’s overwhelmingly positive interactions with enforcers, she’d grown up within fae territories where distrust of them ran rampant. She’d learned to trust not just Quinn but a few of the others, although the human Andre was still new to her. But if Quinn trusted Andre, so would she, despite her misgivings.
Unfortunately, the Shadow-Dwellers weren’t going away anytime soon, so she’d need to move past her discomfort and embrace her new reality of twenty-four-seven guards.