Home > Wicked Hour (Heirs of Chicagoland #2)(9)

Wicked Hour (Heirs of Chicagoland #2)(9)
Author: Chloe Neill

We took our bags and walked to the door, and he pointed to the large dark green shutters installed over the windows. They looked like slatted ornamental shutters but for wide hinges that would allow them to close and hooks that would keep them that way. “Sunlight protection.”

“That’s a relief. Does the clan get a lot of vampire visitors?”

He looked back at me, eyes full of meaning. “No.”

He’d put thought into this, I realized. Thought and time to make sure I’d be shielded if I decided to come. Warmth spread through my belly.

Connor flipped up the welcome mat with a booted toe and flicked out the key someone had stowed there. He unlocked the door, held it open for me. “You’re invited in, if you need the invitation.”

“Only by etiquette,” I said. “Not magic.”

Inside, the decor was simple, a mix of vintage outdoor prints and gear and North Woods kitsch. The wooden walls gleamed golden beneath brassy light fixtures. There was a couch in front of a fireplace and a dining table in front of a small kitchen. The table was small and forest green with matching ladder-back chairs, all of it well-worn, the corners rubbed down to pale wood from hands and feet and legs, the corners softened by others’ lives.

It smelled of woodsmoke and cinnamon and, beneath that, wolf. Magic and pine resin and loamy soil. The scents of wilderness and wild.

“Why did the resort fail?” I wondered, putting my backpack on the small kitchen island.

“They built the divided highway we came down,” Connor said, dropping his duffel onto the floor. “That pushed traffic off the scenic route, and hotels that weren’t close enough to the highway failed. The clan took advantage.” He looked up, gestured toward the hallway. “The bedroom’s down there. You can take that, and I’ll take the couch.”

I hadn’t been sure how we’d handle the sleeping arrangements, and appreciated that he was willing to make the sacrifice. But I didn’t need to be coddled. “We can flip for it.”

He pointed to the sliding-glass patio door. “That doesn’t have shutters, but the bedroom does. So this isn’t chivalry. Or not just.”

“In that case, thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

He smiled at me, and I was suddenly aware of the fact that we were alone together in a cabin in the woods of Minnesota.

“You want something to drink?” Connor asked.

I grinned at him. “Is it last night’s beer, or . . . ?”

Connor grinned. “Local. Much paler than the Pack’s version.”

“Then I’ll take one.”

While he checked the refrigerator, I walked outside the small porch. Firepits along the curving lakeshore winked like jewels among tall and stately evergreens. And beyond them, the sound of soft waves filled the air.

I walked toward the lake, footsteps crunching over a mulch path that ribboned along the shore. Water lapped, slowly and steadily, against the rocks, and crickets chirped in the grass nearby.

“It’s peaceful out here,” I said quietly when Connor moved behind me. “And shifters really like fires,” I said, gesturing toward the closest firepit, where Adirondack chairs circled licking flames.

“It’s part of lake life,” he said. He handed me a bottle, then clinked his against mine. “Fire keeps away the chill, smoke keeps away the bugs, and it’s a chance to connect with friends, especially when you’re preparing for a long winter indoors.”

I sipped the beer, liked it immensely. It was lighter and crisper and went down a lot easier than the Pack’s brew.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do with an entire growler,” I muttered, and caught his soft laugh.

“It wasn’t that bad.”

“I’m sure it wasn’t,” I said. “But we aren’t craft beer aficionados. We drink cheap pink wine out of plastic cups.” I looked at him. “Did you know they make chocolate wine?”

His lip curled in distaste. “That’s disgusting.”

I laughed knowingly. “Oh, but it’s not. It’s delicious. At least until the second bottle.”

Connor offered a long-suffering sigh. “I’m going to have to learn you about good alcohol.” He shook his head. “Back to the point—if she didn’t like the beer, why did she take a growler?”

“Because she loves you guys. Generally,” I added. “Not you specifically. You drive her crazy.”

“Mutual.”

I smiled. “The Pack hired her for the mural, let her show it off at their party. She’s never had an easy time fitting with humans or Sups. The Pack gave her space to be herself, probably more than she even knows. I think that’s been good for her.”

“I think it’s been good for the Pack,” he said. “She’s a pain in the ass, but manageable.”

I chuckled, sipped.

He took another drink of his beer, then set the bottle aside. He turned toward me, gaze heavy as if he was preparing to unburden himself about something very serious.

And then a sharp howl split the air.

Connor tilted his head toward the sound, one of the most wolfish things I’d seen him do, frowning as he listened, interpreted.

Until the howl became a scream.

The beers were left behind, and we took off running.

FIVE

We ran across the resort toward the sound of voices, the wild blossoming of magic. The wind had picked up, that magic swirling farther, faster, in response.

Along the way, we passed what looked like the resort’s former main lodge, a dozen cabins, and a few piles of rubble that I guessed had once been buildings, but time or neglect had stripped them of the title.

Connor was right. The resort hadn’t been kept up. Paint left to peel. Lawns gone to dirt and scrubby weeds. Overturned and rusting picnic tables. You could see the bones of the resort behind the mess, but it would take time and care to carve the decay away again.

We saw no shifters until we reached what I guessed was the far edge of the property, given the thick treeline. A half dozen men and women stood near a woodpile that was surprisingly straight and tidy given the rest of the resort’s condition.

There was chatter—agitated, excited, confused—not unlike the magic in the air. And the voices went quiet when they realized someone had joined them—and realized who that someone was.

I wondered if that reaction bothered Connor. Not the pause, but the implicit acknowledgment that he was different. Pack, but different.

The monster shifted, wanting to touch the magic, wanting access to that power. I ignored it.

“Everything okay?” Connor asked.

A man stepped up to him, beefy and strong and nearly a foot taller than Connor. His skin was ruddy and freckled, his hair short, red, and spiky. His eyes were small, blue, and suspicious, his nose Roman in profile and knobby from being broken. “Who the fuck are you?”

Connor looked completely implacable. “I’ve gotten taller since I last saw you, Clive, but you should still recognize me.”

Clive’s eyes went wide, and he moved back a step as if to get a better view. “Keene? Holy shit, man.” He reached out, gripped Connor’s arm in one of his enormous hands. Connor returned the gesture. “My bad. It’s been too long.”

“A few years,” Connor agreed. “This is Elisa.”

The shifter nodded. If he recognized my face or my name—or realized that I was a vampire—it didn’t show on his face.

“What happened out here?” Connor asked. “We heard screaming.”

“One of our shifters, Beth, was attacked.”

He moved aside, gestured to a female shifter who sat on a small bench along the mulch path. She wore a T-shirt and shorts, and her skin was pale, her hair nearly as light. A set of crimson scratches stood out starkly across her cheeks. Bruises blossomed around puncture marks on her arms, and her lip was cut and bleeding.

Shifter blood was a powerful thing—full of magic—and the monster became more insistent. It stirred, curious. I was afraid to force it down too harshly, for fear that might make it fight back. And this wasn’t the time or place to let it go, especially when I wasn’t sure I’d be able to push it down again. Instead, I focused on staying calm, on breathing through the magic.

Two more shifters, both female, sat on either side of Beth. One was pulling gauze from a plastic first aid kit. She folded a mound, pressed it to Beth’s arm.

All three women wore strips of black fabric, like emblems of mourning, around their arms. For Paisley? I wondered.

There were footsteps behind us. We looked back, found Alexei had reached us. He gave me and Connor a silent nod.

“This is Alexei,” Connor said, and gave him the basics. “Who attacked her?”

Clive cleared his throat. “She said she was attacked by an animal out near the big woodpile.”

“An animal?” Connor asked.

“Something with fur,” Clive said. “Fangs, claws. That’s all we know so far. We just got here—me and my girl, Jae.” He pointed to the shifter with the gauze, who had pale skin, a fall of straight dark hair, and dark eyes.

“The other girl is Maeve. She got here first. We haven’t questioned Beth yet, just made sure the immediate area was clear, then got her treated. We asked her to wait to shift until we talked to her, looked around.”

“Have you told Cash?”

Clive rubbed a hand over spiky hair. “That was the plan. He’s apparently at the cataracts preparing the site for the initiation.”

“I’d like to talk to her,” Connor said.

Clive looked at Connor, back at the girl, debating whether Connor was an acceptable substitute. “That works for me. Let me just give them a heads-up.” He walked toward the women, talked to them as he gestured back at us.

“Cash?” I whispered.

“One of the clan elders,” Connor said quietly.

Clive gestured us over. Connor moved to the women, while Alexei and I stayed a few steps behind. “Beth, I’m Connor. We’re in town for Will’s initiation—me and Elisa and Alexei.”

   
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