Home > Wicked Hour (Heirs of Chicagoland #2)(16)

Wicked Hour (Heirs of Chicagoland #2)(16)
Author: Chloe Neill

“The woods are our home,” Patch continued. “The mist our secrets. The clouds our ceiling. We are Pack, and we are proud.”

This time, the sound of approval was nearly deafening, as shifters clapped and yelled and stamped hands or feet or stone against stone. Magic rose and built until the water itself seemed to vibrate with it, the cascades tumbling in time to the rhythm of their applause, until it reached a crescendo of happiness and union—and then fell into stunned silence.

I moved to a defensive position almost automatically, until I realized there was no fear, no imminent attack. Just awe.

I followed the line of their gazes, looked up at the sky, and stared at the ribbons of green that swam and pulsed in the clearing above us.

“Aurora borealis,” Connor said. “Not usually seen this far south. But occasionally, when conditions are just right . . .”

The colors shifted, expanded, contracted, until they faded from view. And like the end of every fireworks show I’d attended as a child, people began to mill about awkwardly, not entirely sure if they’d seen the end or should wait around for more.

“I’m going to interrogate Georgia,” Alexei said, breaking the silence.

Connor lifted his brows. “About the attack on Beth?”

“No,” Alexei said, pulling a cord of red licorice from his pocket. “About the dinner. I want to discuss hot dish.” With that, he walked away.

“It’s an interesting journey, waiting to see what comes out of his mouth,” I said. And wished he’d left me some licorice.

“It always is. What did you think of the ceremony?”

I looked up at Connor, found his face somehow even more beautiful in the shifting glow of torches on water. “It was beautiful. Powerful. And I can tell it means a lot to the Pack.”

“I wanted you to see it.”

His tone was so serious. So grave. “What do you mean?”

“This. I knew you’d be interested in the event, because you’re curious. And I wanted to get your thoughts on the clan, because you’re smart. But I particularly wanted you to see it. It’s important to me, Lis. The union, the coming together of the Pack. The celebration of what is Pack. I wanted you to see it,” he said again. “And I wanted you to be here with me.”

My heart seemed to swell, emotion tightening my throat. “I’m glad I’m here,” I managed. “And not just because I’m curious.”

He smiled. “But you are.”

“Of course I am,” I said, and looked around. “I know this is a rare occasion, and rarer that a vampire gets to experience it. So thank you for that. For giving me the opportunity.”

“You’re welcome. And not to ruin the mood, but given this is the biggest group of clan members we’re likely to see at one time, and while we’re waiting for the crowd to thin”—he tipped his head toward the shifters who had clustered around the newest Pack member and his family—“any impressions?”

I’d been trying to be polite, to keep from studying or staring at anyone too closely at an event where my behavior—if not my presence—was being hotly debated. But if he was inviting me . . .

I pretended to survey the waterfalls and the high bluffs that surrounded them, but let my gaze drift across the shifters who stood or sat on the rocks, chatting or minding children whose hands and feet were in the small pockets of water in the rock, splashing joyfully. It looked entirely normal. Entirely typical. Just people socializing the way people did, supernaturally or otherwise. They looked happy. But there was something beneath it. A tension, not just in the magic, but on their faces.

If you looked at the group as a whole, the twenty-thousand-foot view, they looked relaxed. But if you looked carefully, more closely, they were on alert. Eyes scanning the edges of the waterfall. Never more than a step away from their children.

These shifters, predators in their own right, were acting more like prey. As if they feared something higher up the food chain.

“There’s more fear,” I said.

“Fear?”

“Apprehension,” I said after a moment, testing the word. “They know something’s off. I don’t think they know anything in particular, but they’ve got concerns.” I looked at him. “Do you feel anything like that?”

“I can sense the change in the magic, the tension of it. Like a string pulled too tightly. The energy is different. But you see more than I do. I honestly think you have a gift.”

I looked back at him. “Come on.”

“No, I’m serious.” He narrowed his gaze. “You aren’t psychic, are you?”

“No. I’m nosy, and I like to watch people, and I tend to notice the . . . discrepancies, I guess.”

Connor grinned. “Is that why you like rules? Because they prevent discrepancies?”

“It’s one of the reasons. I also like level playing fields and people who abide by the rules. Present company excluded.”

He snorted. “I interrupted your review. Keep going.”

I blew out a breath, took another look. Noticed the groups, the clusters, of shifters. That they were grouped together wasn’t necessarily unusual; that happened whenever people socialized.

Here, the young and old shifters seemed to stand apart. Again, not necessarily unusual. Maybe they wanted to talk to the people in the same generation, those who were facing the same issues. But there seemed to be tension. Not fear or apprehension this time, but suspicion in their glances at one another. Sneaky looks, side-eyes, and armbands.

“Young versus old,” I said quietly, and Connor nodded.

“I’m wondering how much is caused by his attitude.”

“Leadership matters,” I agreed. “Hard not to learn that lesson growing up in a House with a Master. No one is perfect, but the Cadogan vampires respected my father. Same for the Pack and your dad.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Until you find the groups like this where the Pack is no longer number one.”

“And what is?”

“That’s what we have to figure out.”

Cassie, Georgia, and the others began to descend from the top tier of the waterfall and head toward us.

“All right,” Connor said. “Let’s go meet the family. And keep the rest of this to ourselves.”

EIGHT

Hey, Connor,” Cassie said, pressing a kiss to his cheek when they’d descended to our level of the cascades. “It was wonderful of you to drive up.”

“Glad to be here,” he said, shaking Wes’s hand. “My parents send their regards.”

“Appreciated,” Wes said.

Cassie looked at me, eyes appraising above a bright smile. “And you must be Elisa.”

“I am. It’s nice to meet you. And thank you for the invitation.”

“I wasn’t aware I had a choice,” she said, sliding a grin toward Connor.

“Don’t be dramatic,” Georgia said, stepping up to us with Alexei.

“Aunt Georgia,” Connor said. “This is Elisa.”

“Welcome,” Georgia said, frowning at a smudge of something she tried to wipe from her grandson’s face. “Lovely ceremony, wasn’t it?”

“It was beautiful,” Connor said.

Cassie smiled, danced in place to keep the baby smiling. “And Will was surprisingly well-behaved.”

Right on cue, the baby burped, gurgled spit-up across his front and his mother’s new dress.

“He has good timing,” Connor said with a grin.

“We’ll see how good his timing is,” Cassie said, putting the baby into Connor’s arms before he could object. But he situated the baby like a champ, tucking him into his hip and tapping at his little round belly with a fingertip so Will flashed his toothless grin.

I hadn’t grown up with many babies—seeing as how I’d been the only baby vampire—but I did find them fascinating. Since that probably wasn’t a thing a human mother wanted to hear from a vampire, I kept the thought to myself.

Will reached out, grabbed a lock of my hair, began babbling at it.

“Sorry,” Cassie said. “He’s in the grabby stage.”

“Not a problem,” I said with a smile, and offered up my index finger. The baby dropped my hair, wrapped his chubby fingers around mine and smiled like a madman.

It twisted my heart a little to see Connor holding Will, the depth of his enjoyment—and match that against my biological weirdness. And the likelihood I couldn’t have children.

What would I be forcing him to give up? I wondered, and hated the way the question tightened my gut.

I forced myself to ignore it, to shake off the worry. We’d just started dating. Planning was fine, but it was unfair to both of us to put that much weight on the relationship. We’d cross that bridge—that very large and unstable bridge—when we came to it.

A kid came running back toward us, a teenager of thirteen or fourteen with hair in tiny blond tufts at the top of her head, like fuzzy little ears. She was thin, with the slightly awkward build of a girl still growing. She reached Cash, who stood a few yards away, and stopped, nearly out of breath. “You have to come.”

He frowned down at her. “What’s wrong, Ellie?”

“There’s . . . Someone hurt Loren. He’s dead.”

Connor turned back to Cassie, carefully shifted the baby back into her arms.

“Show me,” Cash said, and the girl nodded, turned around again, and took off.

Connor, Alexei, and I followed them at a jog. Georgia walked behind us, along with the other shifters who’d heard Ellie or seen the commotion.

We moved toward the edge of the plateau, then jumped down the five-foot drop to the next level. The creek narrowed here, the rest of the space overtaken by trees and undergrowth. There was another trail, and we followed it to a small wooden bridge that arched over the creek.

Ellie led us onto it, then pointed to the water below.

Loren lay in the shallows at the edge of the creek, arms and legs spread like an “X” marking the site of his own death. And by the look of him, that death had been hard.

   
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