Home > Wicked Hour (Heirs of Chicagoland #2)(10)

Wicked Hour (Heirs of Chicagoland #2)(10)
Author: Chloe Neill

She nodded.

“Tell me what happened.”

“I was getting some firewood,” she said, and gestured to the woodpile.

“Do you do that often?”

“Often?” she asked.

“Is it part of your routine?”

“Oh,” she said. “No. We wanted a firepit, and the box near the pit hadn’t been refilled, so I volunteered. I grabbed two pieces, heard something in the woods. Got a little excited, because I thought it might be a rabbit or a deer, and I could use a good run.”

She looked up at Connor for confirmation, and he nodded. “Go on.”

“I put down the wood again, very quiet in case I needed to bolt, then walked really quiet toward the edge of the woods. I saw something—a flash of fur, I think—and then something hit me from the other side.” She touched fingers gingerly to the left side of her head, where the skin had started to purple.

“Hit you with something?” Connor asked.

“No, I think it was an arm or paw. It wasn’t rough or hard on the outside, like a log or pipe or something. But it had force behind it. Anyway, that hit me, and then it moved again. It was fast, and it was big. Huge claws,” she said, and pointed to her cheek.

“An animal?” Connor asked.

“Some kind of animal. I don’t know what specifically. It was really close—and really big. The only thing I saw was fur. I hit it back, made contact. There was strength beneath the fur, but not much muscle, if you know what I mean? Kind of . . . stringy strength.”

“I understand,” Connor said.

“There was a howl,” Alexei asked. “My cabin’s on this side of the resort. Was that you?”

She shook her head.

“It was me,” said Maeve, the third shifter. Early twenties, with tan skin and brown hair that fell straight to her shoulders, bangs long enough to partially hide her dark brown eyes.

“I was heading out for a trail run,” she said, gesturing to her shorts and tank. “I smelled blood and called out. I found her on the ground. I yelled for help.”

That explained the scream.

“Something was crashing in the trees,” she continued. “Moving away from us. I thought it might have been a bear or something. They’re active right now, trying to eat up before hibernation season. And there was a bear attack a few weeks ago near Boyd.”

Connor shifted his gaze to Beth. “Did it look like a bear?”

“Not really,” she said, and looked guilty at the admission, as if she was letting Maeve down.

Connor nodded. “That’s fine. It’s better not to jump to any conclusions. Did you smell anything?”

She frowned, shifted her gaze down as she considered. “Nothing but Pack,” she said, and looked up again. “No animals. But we were upwind, and the wind was really strong.”

“What about unfamiliar magic?” I asked.

“Like sorcerers?” Beth’s gaze darted to mine, then away again. “Vamps?”

“Or shifters,” Connor said. “Any kind of magic that didn’t seem common or usual. Or maybe no magic at all?”

Beth lifted a shoulder. “I don’t know. Nothing unusual, I guess.”

“There are rumors about a beast,” Maeve said.

“What kind of beast?” Connor asked, voice quiet and careful, as the chatter dipped to silence around us.

“Something big,” Maeve said quietly, and goose bumps lifted on my arms at the warning in her voice. “Something stronger than us. Something that’s out there hunting.”

Despite the warning in her tone, her eyes glittered, and I wasn’t sure if it was fear or excitement about the possibility of a hunt—or a battle.

“Details?” Connor asked.

“Only what we’ve told you so far,” she said. “No one’s gotten a good look at it. No one has really seen.”

“Because it’s nonsense,” Jae said, closing the first aid kit with a click. “Maybe there’s an asshole in the woods. Maybe there’s an asshole in the clan. But there’s no mythical beast.”

Maeve didn’t seem to like that pronouncement, made an expression that said she’d eaten something sour—or held back salty words.

“Did anyone see or hear anything else?” Connor asked.

“Not that I can think of,” Beth said. Maeve just shook her head, and then shifted her gaze to the lawn, where a man approached.

He was tall and lean, with a short crop of white hair that was perfectly styled. I guessed he was in his late fifties, and he eschewed the shifter denim-and-leather uniform for pressed khakis and a polo shirt of blue-and-green stripes. He looked less “shifter” and more “insurance agent.”

Gaze scanning the scene, he saw us, nodded, headed in our direction. “Loren,” he offered with a smile. “And you’re Connor Keene. It’s been a few years.”

This was the elder Marian had mentioned, the one who’d discovered Paisley. He nodded at Clive, got a nod in response. He was handsome in the way of sharp and precise men, and wore his power comfortably.

“It has,” Connor agreed, shaking his hand. “This is Elisa Sullivan and Alexei Breckenridge.”

“Of the Chicago Sullivans and Breckenridges,” Loren said, blue eyes shining. “Welcome to our home.” Loren glanced back at the women. “Everything all right here? I was just in the lodge and felt the magic. Thought I’d check it out.”

“Beth was attacked,” Connor told Loren, and gave him the details.

I looked back at the women, and noticed Beth and Jae didn’t seem especially thrilled to see Loren. Because he was an elder, I wondered, or because they just didn’t like him?

Maeve wasn’t watching Loren; she was watching me, and didn’t bother to hide her animosity. Because I was vampire, because I was here with Connor, or possibly both, I guessed.

“Animal attack” was Loren’s conclusion.

“Maybe,” Connor said noncommittally.

“We should let her shift,” Loren said, nodding to Beth as if offering her permission.

That was part of the magic of shifters: Transforming into animal form healed any wounds incurred in human form. A neat trick, but unfortunately one that didn’t work the other way around.

Beth nodded. “I would. I’d like to get back to my cabin.”

“Take care of yourself,” Loren said supportively, then turned back to us.

“You might consider putting a guard on her tonight in case this was personal,” Connor said.

Loren smiled, but there was a tightness to it he didn’t quite manage to hide. “This isn’t Chicago, and we take care of each other here. Issues are resolved quickly; we don’t let them fester.”

“What about the Beast of Owatonna?” I asked.

Loren’s laughter was booming and broad. “Thank you for that,” he said when he’d calmed again. “A fairy tale created by humans who don’t realize they have no need for cryptozoology. The Supernatural realm is more than sufficient to fill their nightmares.”

“You think the Beast is a shifter?” Alexei asked.

“Of course,” Loren asked. “Humans don’t know that we live here, so when they see a shifter in wolf form—larger than the average wolf—they draw their own conclusions. It’s the nature of humans to exaggerate.”

Loren struck me as the type happy to exaggerate if it enhanced his own position.

“There are, of course, always believers, regardless of the silliness of the idea. You must be tired,” Loren said. “I’ll handle this, let you get some rest.”

“Appreciate it,” Connor said, but his smile wasn’t reflected in his gaze, which kept its suspicious edge.

“A tidy dismissal,” I whispered when Loren walked over to the girls and we turned back toward the cabin. “Did we find the monster Marian mentioned?”

“We found something,” Connor said. “But I don’t smell anything other than Pack, and apparently neither did they. They also didn’t detect any unusual magic, and Beth’s injuries are consistent with a wolf attack.”

“From a shifter,” Alexei said, “but not one they recognized?”

“That’s an issue,” Connor admitted. “We don’t know Beth, don’t know how skilled she is in fighting. Maybe someone just got the best of her, was too fast for her to make a positive ID. Maybe someone didn’t like Beth, saw their opportunity.”

“And ran off without doing her much harm?” I wondered. “Or telling her how she’d pissed them off?”

“Also good questions,” Connor said. “She didn’t go to this woodpile regularly, so the attack couldn’t have been planned to match her schedule. And, again, they ran off when they were confronted. That’s not very dedicated if they were trying to make a hit.”

“Put like that,” Alexei said, “it seems random.”

“We could look around,” I said. “There could be fur, footprints. Maybe even a trace of magic or scent in case there was something they missed.”

Connor smiled. “You just earned your room and board.”

“I haven’t had any room or board,” I pointed out. “But I’m glad to hear they’re on the agenda.”

“I’ll take a look,” Alexei said.

“I’d appreciate it,” Connor said.

“Did you see Beth and Jae didn’t seem thrilled to see Loren?”

“I did,” Alexei said. “They looked wary. Suspicious.” His gaze fell onto a pile of lumber and debris that might once have been a cabin. “I think there’s some rot in the resort.”

“Yeah,” Connor said. “I think you’re right.”

“Are the black armbands because they’re mourning Paisley?” I asked.

“That would be my guess,” he said.

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