Home > Wicked Hour (Heirs of Chicagoland #2)(15)

Wicked Hour (Heirs of Chicagoland #2)(15)
Author: Chloe Neill

I walked forward and watched it tumble down another set of cataracts, lights from more torches glittering like diamonds.

“What do you think?”

“It’s . . . amazing,” I said, looking back at him. “Absolutely amazing.”

“It should probably be a state park,” he said. “But it’s privately held, and the owner’s a friend of the clan.”

I turned around, found Alexei standing right behind me.

“Jesus,” I said, feeling bones jolt against skin as I startled. “What is wrong with you?”

He grinned. “Did I scare you?”

“You disturbed me.”

“I scared you.”

“No, that’s not really the emotion.”

“You should probably look down,” Connor advised Alexei.

He did, saw the small dagger I’d drawn in the blink of an eye, held near his groin.

Connor leaned forward. “Did she scare you?” he asked Alexei, whose expression was dour.

He lifted his hands. “Initiation’s a bad time to pull a knife on a shifter.”

“And you shouldn’t startle a vampire when she’s surrounded by shifters in a foreign territory.” But I slipped the dagger away again.

“Truce,” Alexei said, and took a step backward, putting a little more space between us. The boy could learn.

“I thought you weren’t armed,” Connor whispered.

“It’s a very small dagger. You never know when you’re going to need one.”

“For the sake of peace,” Connor said, “try to keep it hidden.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“You did the introductions?” Alexei asked Connor.

“We did. Cash was an asshole.”

“So, as expected.” He looked at me. “You appear to have survived.”

“I mostly stood there and tried to look stern.”

“Wise choice,” he said with a faint smile.

“What did you find last night?” Connor asked.

“Nothing useful. Ground in the woods didn’t hold footprints. No fur, no scent of non-shifter blood.”

“In other words,” Connor said, “no sign of the animal.”

“Zip.”

Clapping and whistling split the air around us, and we followed the others’ gazes to the movement at the top tier of waterfalls.

Shadow and light began to shimmer across the rock and water as shifters carrying candles and torches moved across the plateau, walking toward the middle falls. In the arms of a smiling brunette with sun-kissed skin was a smiling baby boy. His cheeks were flushed pink, his hair pale blond. He looked to be about nine months old, and he gnawed on his fist like it was a favorite snack. Behind them a man followed with tan skin and the same shade of blond hair as the child, although his was longer and shaggier, reaching his shoulders in what I considered classic shifter style: halfway between “hair metal” and “cologne model.”

“That’s Cassie with the baby,” Connor said, gesturing. “Her husband is Wes, and her mother is Georgia. All of them are McAllisters.”

Georgia was tall and pale, with long legs and a generous build topped by a bouffant of black hair with a streak of silver just above her eyes. She had a face that would have been called “handsome.” Strong features, with sharp blue eyes and a wide mouth with a beauty mark at the left corner.

“So Georgia is one of your parents’ cousins?” I asked.

“My mother’s cousin,” Connor said. “Their mothers were sisters.”

“Big family.”

“My mother has to keep a list.”

“I bet.” I glanced at him, saw pleasure and pride as he watched his Packmates assemble, prepare to welcome another into their fold. “You were initiated, weren’t you?”

“I was. My parents, aunts, and uncles were there. It’s where Jeff stood up to my father for the first time. I think that was before you were born.”

“Old-timer,” I said.

“Maybe. But I got to wear a crown.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Seriously?”

“Well, technically it was a coronet,” he admitted with a shrug. “But that’s close enough.”

“I’m jealous.”

“Of course you are, brat. You did always love a good crown.” He slid his fingers into mine, squeezed, and trained his gaze and satisfied smile on those who gathered on the plateau beside the trickling waterfall.

I could hear the murmurs around us, surprise and whispers moving through the crowd like a wave as they observed their prince, their would-be king, and the vampire he’d brought to the ceremony and publicly joined himself with. If their magic was any indication, their emotions were mixed. Some were confused, others surprised. A few were angry, but since I didn’t know anyone here other than the few we’d met last night, that could have been prejudice or preconception talking.

I wondered if I should be concerned, glanced at him, and found him looking at me, brow lifted in amusement.

“You’re a very loud thinker,” he said.

He couldn’t have known what I was thinking, but when I realized I’d tensed up, I figured it was easy to guess.

“If you’re going to focus on shifters,” he said with an easy smile, “focus on me.”

A whistle cut through the air, high and sharp as a blade. We looked up at the waterfall, where a man with suntanned skin, gray hair, and a thick but neatly trimmed beard in the same shade looked down at us, hands clasped together. He was short and compact; his arms were strong beneath the short sleeves of a button-down shirt he’d paired with khakis. That was practically shifter formal wear.

“Bowling team uniform,” Connor whispered, and I bit back a chuckle.

“Another elder?” I asked.

“His name is Patch,” Connor said. “He’s their, let’s say, spiritual leader.”

“That means he picks the best whiskey.” It was Alexei’s voice that whispered beside me, and damned if I hadn’t totally missed his sidling up to me again.

“How do you do that?” I asked.

He lifted a shoulder. “We’re wolves. We stalk prey. This should not be a surprise.”

I rolled my eyes and demanded better of my predatory senses.

“We are gathered here,” Patch said when the crowd quieted, “to welcome William Avery into the arms of this territory, into the arms of this clan, and into the arms of this Pack.”

There were hoots and shouts of approval, a few hearty claps.

“I’ve known Cassie and Wes, and of course Georgia, for a very long time. We all have. They’re part of the family we’ve grown here. We’ve watched Cassie learn to cook—and occasionally battled fires because of it.”

Sister from another mister, I thought.

“We’ve seen Wes’s skills with a bow and arrow grow. And those times he isn’t so skilled. And now they’ve made this beautiful baby boy.”

He reached out his arms. Cassie pressed a kiss to the baby’s forehead, then handed him over to Patch. The child went big-eyed, clutched at Patch’s beard.

“May your life be long,” Patch said. “May your love be deep. May your laughter be loud. May you be strong and proud and happy. May you remain a member of the clan, a member of the Pack, a wolf until your days are no more. May you find peace in the world around you, solace in the woods, and your family waiting when you return.”

He leaned in, whispering something into the child’s ear, then stood straight again. “You have the object?”

“We do.” Wes held out something long and silver. Patch took it, draped it around the child’s neck.

William immediately popped it into his mouth.

“Military dog tags,” Connor whispered. “Wes’s father was in the Army, killed in duty.”

“Shifter?”

“Yeah. Bribed a doctor to let him skip the physical after he ran the quarter mile in record time. Wes wanted to enlist, follow in his footsteps, but shifters were banned by that time, and there were no bribes to be had.”

A damn shame that was, given shifters were stronger and faster than humans, could heal themselves, at least under certain circumstances, and had a pretty good disguise. The ban was less practical reality, I figured, than human prejudice and jealousy.

“I hereby deem you, William Avery, a member of the Grand Bay Clan. And with the acknowledgment and approval of the Apex, a member of the North American Central Pack. Blessings on you and your family, and congratulations.”

He handed the child back to his parents as applause and shouts rang through the darkness, echoing off rock and water. The baby clapped and tugged at the dog tags as his parents, smiling and misty-eyed, looked on.

After a moment, Patch held up his hands again. “We also have responsibilities,” he said, shifting his gaze back to the clan. “We are to hold this child. To protect it and keep it safe. It is our responsibility to keep the clan strong for little William, and give him a home to always return to.”

A few more shouts and agreement in the crowd.

Then Patch closed his eyes, held up his hands, and began to recite. “‘I will not be clapped in a hood / Nor a cage, nor alight upon wrist.’”

Goose bumps lifted on my arms as the shifters around me, Connor included, began to join in the recitation. “‘Now I have learnt to be proud / Hovering over the wood / In the broken mist / Or tumbling cloud.’”

“Yeats?” I asked quietly, and felt Connor’s eyes on me.

“Yeah. You know it?”

“Educated guess,” I said, and thought of my mother, the vampire with the master’s degree in English literature. “My mother told me he was important to shifters.”

“Probably was a shifter,” Alexei said philosophically.

“We don’t have any certainty about that,” Connor said. “And we aren’t going to out a man who didn’t want to be outed.”

   
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