Home > Wicked Hour (Heirs of Chicagoland #2)(14)

Wicked Hour (Heirs of Chicagoland #2)(14)
Author: Chloe Neill

“Everett,” Cash said in warning.

Everett’s lips compressed into a thin, unhappy line, but he held his peace.

“As you were informed before we made this trip,” Connor said, “we’ll be attending together, and with Georgia’s and the Apex’s blessings. If you’ve got a problem with that, you’re welcome to take it up with the Apex. Or, if you’re not interested in a trip to Chicago, with me. Now.”

Tension and magic rose in the room, swirled in invisible eddies.

Cash sat back again. “I don’t know you or your old man like some of the others do. Not like your aunt does. You’re Pack, and that gives you a right to be here and an invitation. We aren’t looking for trouble. We’re looking to be left alone, to live our lives. We have nothing to hide here.”

“Including from humans?” I wondered.

Cash looked at me, jaw tight. “What we do in our territory is no business of humans.” Or of vampires was his silent addition.

Connor let those words hang, apparently didn’t feel it necessary to respond to them. “We appreciate your hospitality. If you want to talk to me about anything else, we’ll be here for at least a few days.”

That was a longer trip than we’d discussed, so I guessed from Connor’s expression he was testing the clan, watching their reactions to the possibility we’d be around for a while.

“You’re staying past the initiation,” Cash said.

“I don’t see that we need to be in a hurry,” Connor began, shifting his gaze back to the windows. “Like you said, you have everything a shifter needs right here.”

SEVEN

We’ll take the bike,” Connor said, then glanced at me. “Unless you prefer a vehicle to protect your . . .” He circled a finger over his head.

“My head?”

“Your hair.”

I just lifted my brows.

“Just checking,” he said with a teasing smile. “We are going to an event, after all.”

“An event for shifters, which means most of them will probably be in T-shirts and boots. And I revise my prior conclusion: You’re still a punk.”

“I prefer ‘thorough.’ Your impressions of the shifters so far?”

“Cash is worried.”

Connor looked down at me. “Worried?”

“He sat down on the couch—moved away from you. He wasn’t going to show you any deference. Casual disdain,” I decided.

“Okay,” Connor said.

“But that’s not what was in his eyes. That wasn’t casual, and I don’t think it was about you. It was worry or concern. He didn’t like you asking questions, because I don’t think he’s comfortable with whatever the answers might be.”

He studied me before turning the bike, picking up his helmet.

“What?” I asked, a little unnerved by the intensity of his stare.

“You’re good at this.”

I lifted my brows. “Did you think I wouldn’t be?”

He grinned. “I’ve never known you to half-ass anything. But this isn’t just practice. It’s . . . innate. A kind of instinct for reading people. You’ve got it.”

“I’m a vampire,” I said.

“A lot of people are.”

“No, seriously,” I said. “I mean, I appreciate the compliment, and I’ll take it. And you told me you wanted to know what I thought, so I assumed you were serious and I paid attention.”

“Good.”

It was my turn to smile. “But vampires—” I paused to gather my thoughts. “Wolves are predators, but they’re predators—mostly—of animals. You understand land, animals, their behavior. We hunt humans. We know how to watch them. It’s our nature.”

“Have you ever bitten a human?”

“No. Have you?”

His smile was lazy. “Only when asked.”

I just rolled my eyes, picked up my helmet, but paused before getting on the bike. “I want to ask you something. Not about biting,” I added at the flare of heat in his eyes.

“Okay,” he said, his response quick and sincere.

“Did you bring me here, into this compound and this lodge, to piss them off?”

Heat flashed in his eyes. “I don’t use people. You’re here because I want you to be here.”

“But?” I prompted when he paused.

“But, yes, I’m paying attention to how they react to you. Because they’re a microcosm of the Pack.”

My belly quivered at the admission and the implication. He anticipated—planned—that I’d meet the Pack. Not just as a Sullivan or a vampire or an Ombud. Because somehow, despite years of pushing it away, we’d found something important between us.

Connor tucked a lock of hair behind my ear, and I could all but feel my heart melting. Then he dipped his head toward mine.

“Elisa,” he said, so softly that the word was nearly a breath, hardly a prayer. My eyes drifted shut, awaiting the kiss I knew would follow. Eager for it.

“Just remember,” he said, moving his lips to hover near my ear, “that shifters can manipulate people, too.”

Then he pulled back, turned away, and threw a leg over the bike.

I gave him a narrow-eyed stare. “That was really mean.” But I liked the way my heart thudded in response.

“And effective,” he said with a cocky smile. “Let’s go for a ride.”

I climbed on behind him and planned my revenge.

* * *

* * *

We rode northeast, dipping away from Lake Superior and into the hinterlands of Minnesota. The road became curvier and steeper, forest giving way to rocky hills and striking drops. We disappeared into a tunnel carved into hard rock, the orange lights along the wall flashing as we sped past them.

After ten or fifteen miles, we left the divided highway, and Connor slowed the bike to pick over a gravel road bordered by evergreen trees and steel gray boulders.

He came to a stop at the end of a line of vehicles—bikes, trucks, and SUVs—parked along both sides of the road. We dismounted, removed helmets, ran fingers through tangled hair. And, without the bike’s rumble, could hear the sounds of happy children and chatting adults through the whisper of leaves.

A few muscular men and women stood around in black shirts and pants, casting suspicious gazes at us before looking away.

“Security?” I asked.

“It’s a private event,” Connor said. “Especially since humans don’t know what they are.”

“Where are we going?” I asked. I’d expected to see a park shelter with coolers and balloons, or an overlook where shifters had swagged streamers and drank beers. Instead, trees made a canyon on both sides of the road.

“You’ll see,” he said with a smile, and offered his hand.

I took his hand, enjoyed the satisfaction that flashed in his eyes when I linked our fingers together.

Connor ducked into the trees, and we followed a well-worn trail I probably wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t been with him. We walked maybe a quarter mile, and I was glad I’d opted for boots without stiletto heels, which wouldn’t have worked well over uneven ground and loamy leaves. As the sounds of celebration grew louder, we passed birch trees with curled silver bark, hard-edged boulders that looked like they’d been spewed from a volcano, and delicate white flowers sprouting in blank spaces in the undergrowth. And behind it all, a soft static that it took me much too long to realize was water.

A long, dark shape slithered across the trail, and I stopped short, only just managed not to squeak.

“What?” Connor asked, fingers tensing around mine. “What’s wrong?”

“Snake.”

“It was harmless. Just a garter snake.”

“Don’t care. I don’t like snakes.”

He looked at me. “How do you not like snakes?”

“Biological mandate,” I said. “They slither. I don’t like things that slither.”

“But you both have fangs.”

I slid my gaze to him. “Shifters and skunks both have fur.”

“Fair point.”

“You have no issues with animals?”

“I’m not afraid of any animals, reptilian or otherwise.” His smile was cocky. “I’m wolf and human. That’s two Apex predators for the price of one.”

“Or twice as much trouble in one package, depending on your perspective. And I’m pretty sure if you were being hunted by a great white shark you’d have some fear.”

“There’s a solution to that: Don’t swim in the ocean.”

I couldn’t argue with that logic, and skirted the edge of the trail, where the snake had disappeared.

The sound grew clearer as we edged toward a creek, water trickling like tiny bells over rocks as it raced ahead of us.

And suddenly, the ground disappeared.

We reached the literal end of the trail—and the world opened up. Forest gave way to stone—a rust-colored plateau half as big as a city block. Connor stepped down from the trail, offered me a hand as I jumped down beside him and moved forward, stared openmouthed as I turned around.

Not just a plateau, but waterfalls. The creek had rounded behind us, spilling over a stone cliff before tumbling over cataracts below it, then moving through a narrow groove in the rock across the plateau. Tiki torches had been lit along the edges, casting flickering light and shadows across water and the stone bluffs along the far side of the plateau, black and red and orange stone marked with trees and what looked like a high trail. Even with the dark dome of the sky above us, it was like being in a canyon of color.

For the second time tonight, I was speechless. “I don’t have the words,” I managed, walking toward the rockbound stream. There were pools of water here and there, collected in smooth divots in the rock that had been worn by time or rain or the stream itself. The water disappeared over the edge of the plateau on the other side.

   
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