Home > Shadowed Steel (Heirs of Chicagoland #3)(12)

Shadowed Steel (Heirs of Chicagoland #3)(12)
Author: Chloe Neill

“They never contacted me,” I said. I’d gone to college, made no waves, and had done nothing terribly interesting from a vampiric or magical standpoint. Maybe they’d decided I wasn’t a threat.

But I’d interested them again, and I’d handed them a reason to pursue formal Testing this time. Not just because they were curious or afraid, but because they believed it was justified.

“You should have told me,” I said, as kindly as I could manage. But even the monster was annoyed; I could feel the jagged edge of its betrayal. “I would have been better prepared for this.”

“We’re sorry,” Mom said. “We thought it was over, that they’d been satisfied you were just . . . a vampire.”

Oh, I was anything but that.

* * *

* * *

They promised their support, and to talk to Nicole again. I went back into the living room and found Connor on the couch, arms crossed and frowning as he stared at his screen.

“What now?”

He kicked down his legs and sat up, giving me his attention. “What?”

“You’re glowering at whatever you’re looking at there,” I said and gestured toward the screen. “More bad news?”

“Oh, no. I was reading.”

“Reading what?”

His expression was flat. “A book, brat.”

“Shifters can read?”

He grunted. “I was reviewing a manual about the care and feeding of vampires.”

I sat down beside him, put my head on his shoulder. “What did you learn?”

“Since I already knew they were high-maintenance, not much.”

“Ha ha ha,” I said, mimicking his flat tone.

“How did it go?” he asked.

“They want me to join a House. They’re baffled I won’t just join Cadogan. And that’s not the only thing.”

He drew me toward him, wrapped his arms around me. I let down the shields I hadn’t realized I’d drawn around me, around the monster, and curled into him. And felt a knife-sharp pain in my shoulder. I winced, adjusted.

“Still hurts?”

“Only if I use it. Or touch it. Or think about it. I’ll be fine by tomorrow.” I hoped. Because I was over the ache.

“What’s the other thing?” he asked.

“The AAM has apparently been curious about me for a long time. They came to Cadogan House when I was younger. They wanted to have me tested even then.”

He stilled, as if his body was braced against his own rising fury. “When you were still in the House? You didn’t tell me.”

“I didn’t know, or not the whole of it. Only that vampires had visited. Apparently they’d been trying to get my parents to agree to their examination.”

He snorted, relaxed a little. “I imagine your dad had some choice words. And your mother showed them her sword. And it must have worked. The AAM hadn’t contacted you directly after that?”

“No. Not until this.”

Silence fell, and Connor stroked my back, up and down, up and down, and some of the tension I’d been holding melted away.

“You should think about telling your parents about the—your—monster,” Connor said. “Not because you owe them,” he added, noting my quick jerk, “but because there’s nothing wrong with what you are.”

“I’m not convinced they’d see it that way,” I said. “And I’m not ready yet. I want to have—control’s not the right word, but maybe more agreement with the monster before I do that.”

That I felt its shimmering irritation at the notion that I controlled it just proved my point.

“Okay,” he said. “But I want you to be prepared if they—if everyone—finds out before you’re ready.”

“Because of the AAM,” I said quietly.

“Yeah. Maybe inadvertently, but yeah.” He pressed a kiss to my forehead. “They’re going to keep pushing you, because they want to either pressure you into giving up or provoke you into doing something. I’ve known plenty like Clive. He’s the type who loves a fight. And if the fight doesn’t come to him, he’s happy to start one.”

“And let others take the first swing.”

“Absolutely. Bullies are usually cowards.”

Silence fell across us, soft and comforting as a blanket.

“If you were me,” I finally said, rustling that stillness, “what would you do?”

It took him a moment to answer, and I appreciated that he was actually considering the question. “I’m a shifter. I’d take freedom, always.”

I exhaled, closed my eyes, felt well and truly seen. “Thank you.”

“For?”

“For being you. And for letting me . . . be.”

His strong arms were a wall against the world. “If you can’t be who you are—if we can’t be who we are—what’s the point?”

“I don’t disagree,” I said, especially since he was the only one who knew the truth about me. The only one around whom I could lay down my armor.

He tipped up my chin, kissed me with a tenderness that surprised me. I curled my fingers into his hair and tugged him closer, felt the answering thud of his heart.

My heart became a drum, my blood a symphony of need. We hadn’t had sex yet, and were again dancing on the precipice. We’d done plenty of flirting and a delicious amount of making out, but with supernatural drama nearly always intervening, we hadn’t yet had the time or space to be physically vulnerable.

I nipped at his bottom lip, and his fingers drew lines up my back, pressing my body against his. I could feel Connor’s own need, the tension of hard muscle as he wrestled desire against control.

And then he growled, and I heard regret in it. He pulled back.

I looked up at him. “What?”

“Not yet,” he managed. “Not tonight. You’re still wounded, and sex with shifters is usually . . . adventurous.”

That didn’t slow the racing of my heart. “I could use that kind of adventure.”

Connor’s smile was wide and satisfied. “And you’ll get it. But for our first time, I don’t want there to be pain. Only joy, only me and you. Not the AAM, not fear.” He traced a fingertip across my lips. “Just us, Lis.”

SEVEN

I slept poorly. Dreamed of being chained in old iron shackles, being led toward gallows where a vampire with a gleaming stake of oiled aspen waited to strike.

I didn’t know what to do, what I could do. There was no precedent to follow, no procedures to take comfort in. Unless, of course, I swore fealty to a House or a band of Rogues. Swore an immortality’s worth of service to a Master. Which wasn’t, as far as I was concerned, an option.

I got dressed, returned to my room, eventually heard the shower running again. That meant Lulu had made it home either last night or this morning. And I was sure she’d tell me if Mateo’s skills as an artist extended into . . . other areas.

Without a better idea, I decided to start with something uncomfortable. I should have done it yesterday, but there hadn’t been time between vampires and shifters and dawn.

Ronan answered quickly. “Elisa. We just heard. Are you all right?”

I had to take a moment, because there was actual concern in his voice. I hadn’t expected that from the man I assumed had ratted me out to the AAM.

“I’m—fine,” I decided on. “You saw the video?”

“We did. You weren’t injured?”

“Not seriously. Is everything okay there? Is Carlie okay?”

“She’s fine. Do you think they’d harm her?” His voice had tightened, become deeper, as he donned the cloak of protector of his coven.

“I don’t think so. They see her as a victim”—and undoubtedly she was, even if that’s not all she was—“not a rule breaker. But it’s possible they’d get in touch, or maybe visit. I don’t know. Ronan—” I started, but he cut me off.

“I didn’t tell them. I can hear the question in your voice, and I didn’t tell them. I can’t say that I’d have done what you did. But I wasn’t there, and you had to make a decision. And Carlie is . . . special.”

I was relieved to hear his honesty and to know that Carlie was appreciated.

“She is,” I agreed. “Do you know who might have reported me?”

“No one here,” he said. “What happened is Carlie’s business. That is how we return her power. She has told no one how or why she was changed, and the coven has respected her silence.”

If word hadn’t come from Minnesota—vampire or shifter—then from who?

“Do you need protection?”

I winced, guilt now a warm wash across my skin. I’d underestimated Ronan, and badly. I’d demanded sympathy for my decision, and hadn’t offered any when I’d brought trouble and a new vampire to his door and he’d reacted with suspicion.

“No, but the offer is appreciated. And I’ll apologize for any difficulties I’ve caused you because of what happened.”

Silence for a moment, then, “Thank you. That is appreciated. What will you do now that blood has been shed?”

“I don’t know yet,” I said, my honest answer. “We should tell her questions are being asked. I can do it, unless you prefer to do so.”

He was quiet for so long I thought he’d disconnected me. “You should tell her. It will mean more coming from you.”

“Okay.”

“This likely feels complicated,” Ronan said. “But in truth, it is not. You agree to their demands, or you don’t. You must decide which consequences will be easier to live with. And Elisa?”

“Yes?”

“If you’re searching for the person who reported you, you should probably look closer to home.”

He left me with that, and I stared at the screen for a moment, and couldn’t disagree with a word he’d said.

   
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