Home > Wicked Hour (Heirs of Chicagoland #2)(6)

Wicked Hour (Heirs of Chicagoland #2)(6)
Author: Chloe Neill

I glanced back at him. “Are you asking me if I can hold my own?”

“Yeah, I am.”

We walked into the small alcove between exterior and interior doors. There was tile on the floor, paneling on the walls, and an old-fashioned gumball machine in a corner, topped with a pile of real estate brochures.

I arched an eyebrow. “Not that I need to prove anything, given we fought the fairies together—and won—but I’ve walked forty miles of Hadrian’s Wall, hiked Lac Blanc in the dark, spent three nights in a tent in the snow in the Pyrenees. That acceptable?”

His mouth twitched. “Yeah. That should do it.”

“Yeah,” I said, pushing through the interior door. “I thought it might.”

* * *

* * *

  We sat down at a booth along the diner’s front glass wall and ordered black coffee, which the pinafored waitress delivered in plain stoneware mugs.

I took a sip, grimaced at the harsh bite of what tasted like liquid creosote.

“Coffee’s shit,” Alexei said, staring down into it.

“It’s pretty bad.” I looked at Connor. “I don’t suppose there’s a Leo’s in Grand Bay?” Leo’s was my favorite coffee shop in Chicago.

“Leo’s is good coffee,” Alexei said. The most words he’d said directly to me so far, and since we agreed, I considered it a good step forward.

“No Leo’s,” Connor said. “But there will almost certainly be coffee, and it will probably have ‘north’ or ‘moose’ or ‘lake’ in the name.”

Alexei grabbed a half dozen sugar packets from the condiment holder, ripped off the tops, and emptied them into his mug. He piled the leftover paper into a neat little mountain, then took a sip of the coffee-flavored sugar, swirled it around his mouth.

“Did that help?” I asked.

“No,” he said, putting down the mug and wrapping his hands around the ceramic to warm them. “Just makes it sweet.”

“Alexei has a bit of a sugar problem,” Connor said.

“Sugar isn’t a problem,” Alexei said. “It’s a solution.”

“You riding dirty?” Connor asked.

Alexei humphed.

“How much you carrying?”

Connor’s voice, dropped to a whisper, had gone so serious, I thought we’d shifted to talk about transporting contraband across state lines. Especially when Alexei reached into a small leather backpack, pulled out a wrinkled and folded paper bag.

He unfolded the top, poured the contents on the table. But where I’d been expecting to see drugs or contraband, I found a hoard of candy. There were gummi bears, sour sharks, licorice, and lemon drops. A rainbow of taffy, a sleeve of candy wafers I didn’t think they even sold anymore.

“You’re hilarious,” I said to Connor.

He smiled at Alexei. “Told you that would make her nervous.”

“I won’t apologize for being law-abiding.”

“Long as you aren’t a square,” Alexei said, tracing the shape in the air with his fingertips.

I rolled my eyes. You could take the shifters out of Chicago, but that apparently meant bringing along their inner fourteen-year-olds.

“Shifters,” I muttered, and took a square of banana taffy. “Sarcasm tax.”

Alexei almost—but not quite—smiled.

I unwrapped the taffy, read the joke on the inside of the wrapper. “‘Knock, knock.’”

“Who’s there?” Alexei asked. At least he was game enough for a bad joke.

“‘Orange.’”

“Orange who?”

“‘Orange you glad you ate this delicious taffy?’” I read.

Alexei’s expression was grim. “That’s moronic.”

I smiled, handed him the wrapper. “You’ll have to take that up with the taffy people. Tell me about Alaska,” I said to Connor. “Has everyone made it to Aurora?” I popped in the candy.

Alexei snorted, stirred his coffee, metal on ceramic making a tinkling sound as he mixed.

“Almost no one has made it yet,” Connor said. “They take their time. It’s a tree,” he said, and unwrapped a bundle of silverware. He put the spoon on the table. “Main branch,” he said, then added the fork and knife so the blunt ends of all three touched, but the functional ends were fanned out. “Secondary branches,” he said, pointing to the fork and knife. “Most of the travelers take the main branch, but there could be as much as two days of riding between the first and last riders. That’s a long column with potential stragglers, and it’s hard to defend. So we use the branches. Two separate groups of shifters edge out from Chicago on routes that run alongside the main branches, but between fifty and a hundred miles apart. They ride ahead, scout territorial problems.”

“And provide a shield,” I guessed.

“Exactly,” Connor said approvingly. “They can close in from the sides if necessary, but they give the main Pack plenty of room to move. And spreading them out—keeping the main group smaller—tends to keep the locals calmer.”

“Tends to,” Alexei muttered. “But does not always.”

“Thus your last two weeks,” I said to Connor.

“Thus. Shifters in Colorado. Vampires in Arizona. Among other problems.”

“How’s Riley? I forgot to ask last night.” Riley was Lulu’s ex-boyfriend, a hunk of a shifter who’d been wrongly accused of murder when the fairies had worked to take over Chicago. We’d helped secure his release, and the moment he’d walked out of his cell, he’d joined the caravan.

“Better,” Connor said.

“He’s the knife.”

I looked at Alexei. “Leading the line?”

Alexei nodded, sipped his coffee.

I looked at Connor. “You want to tell me why Gabriel thought we might need backup?”

“’Cause the clan is run by assholes?” Alexei suggested.

I shifted my gaze from him to Connor, brows lifted.

“The leader’s arrogant,” Connor said. “I called my great-aunt Georgia to get the details about the initiation, found out there’s been some dissent in the ranks over the last few months. Clan elders versus young guns, as far as I can tell, but I don’t think I’m getting the whole picture.”

“You think they’d hide something from Gabriel?”

“Yeah,” Connor said. “A Pack’s not like a vampire House. There are more of us, but we’re spread over a larger territory, so the local outfits tend to act like fiefdoms. That’s fine by the Apex. As long as everyone is treated well, things are run fairly. But sometimes they aren’t. I don’t know if that’s the situation here, but we’re hearing grievances, and the responses from the clan leaders don’t engender much confidence.”

“And that’s where we come in,” I guessed, and Connor nodded.

“Ought not pull the sword unless you have to,” Alexei said.

I smiled thinly. “Vampires don’t pull swords unless they mean to use them.”

He made a sound I thought was approval, but how would I have known?

“I’m going to gas up the bike,” Connor said, rising and pulling bills from his pocket, tossing them onto the table. “Pay that, will you, Alexei?”

He gave me a meaningful look, then walked out, leaving the two of us alone. And, I thought, trying to get us to talk to each other.

I looked at Alexei, found him looking back at me.

“How’s your family?” I asked him.

“They’re Breckenridges.”

“Rich, fancy, and condescending?”

A corner of his mouth lifted. “Pretty much. Yours?”

I considered my answer. “They’re Sullivans. Political, particular, and very focused on Cadogan House.”

“I think we’re supposed to be enemies.”

I looked up at him. “Are we? I mean, I know there’s no love lost, but I didn’t know there were active grudges.”

“I’d call it more lingering resentment.”

I nodded. I didn’t doubt he was telling the truth about his family—they were Brecks—but I think he was being sarcastic about the rest. His voice was so flat, it was hard to tell. On the other hand, there were shifters who didn’t like me, and they hadn’t bothered to mask the emotion, so I decided to play along.

“Okay. We should put on a good front for Connor, though. Especially since he went to all the trouble of assuring we’d talk to each other.”

He nodded, cast a dour glance out the window. “I don’t care for conversation.”

“So I gathered.” I finished my coffee, slid to the edge of the booth. “I’m going to do you a solid and let you out of it early.”

He looked at me, skepticism in every inch of his face.

“I have no argument with introverts,” I said.

“I’m not an introvert,” he said, sliding out of the booth to stand beside me. “I’m just a misanthrope.”

I grinned. “Then I guess it’s a good thing I’m a vampire.”

He was smirking when I turned back toward the door. I considered that a victory.

* * *

* * *

When the bill was paid and the gas was pumped, we gathered outside again. Alexei took off first without a word to me or Connor, taking the lead for this portion of the trip.

“He has a unique sense of humor. Dry as a bone.”

Connor smiled. “It took me a while to catch on to that. Figured he was just an asshole Breckenridge. He’s quiet around those he doesn’t know. But he’ll talk the ears off those he trusts. He’s smart, savvy, and loyal. And loyalty matters.”

I couldn’t argue with that.

FOUR

We saddled up again and headed northwest. Two more hours slipped by beneath a rising crescent moon that shone among a million diamond stars. We pulled off the freeway near our third (or fourth?) cheese curd castle, then drove through flat pasture to a small town with little more than a grocery store and a gas station. We turned into a neighborhood of tidy ranch houses with flowers on small porches, then into the gravel driveway of a low brick house. Flowerpots flanked the door, and a wrought iron bench held court beneath a picture window.

   
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