Home > Shadowed Steel (Heirs of Chicagoland #3)(6)

Shadowed Steel (Heirs of Chicagoland #3)(6)
Author: Chloe Neill

“What does the Grove look like?” I asked.

“There’s a pergola for outdoor weddings, a building where receptions are held, and a meadow behind, where brides take pictures with boots on or whatever. It’s atmospheric.”

“Not unlike your cousin’s wedding,” I said.

She grinned. “Yup. The place is yours if you want it. There’s nothing scheduled tonight, and the owner said she owed me one for getting my cousin’s people out of their building. They were ready to clean up and go home after the wedding.”

“Cost?”

“Free,” she said. “Due to that favor. I mean, if you trash the place, you have to clean it up. But otherwise free.”

I seriously hoped “trashing the place” wasn’t on the menu. The AAM couldn’t expect to come to Chicago and pull a stunt like that without consequences.

“I’ll have to get the AAM’s okay,” I said. “But if they’re good with it, it’s fine by me. It’s out of town, there’s open space, and it’s free. Thanks for doing the legwork.”

“You’re welcome,” Petra said. “Now, let’s discuss your entrance music.”

* * *

* * *

Cool as it might have been to walk in to my own theme song, we were trying to avoid attention, not attract it. And while I wasn’t going to kowtow to the AAM, I also wasn’t trying to provoke them further.

When Connor and Alexei gave me the thumbs-up for the Grove, I told the AAM. They agreed. They’d arrive at midnight; we’d arrive at eleven, an hour early.

Lulu came out as I put my screen away, tote bag over her shoulder. “I’m out like skinny jeans.”

“You’re wearing skinny jeans,” I pointed out.

“I’m wearing them ironically.” Petite as she was, she leaned up on tiptoes to kiss my cheek. “Be careful.”

“I will. Hey, before you leave, do you by chance have a cloak?”

Sighing woefully, she walked to the door. “You aren’t wearing a cloak.”

“I could pull it off.”

“You’d pull off nineties vampire princess goth. And that’s not a compliment.”

But the worry seemed to have drained from the hard set of her shoulders, which was what I’d wanted. I’d nudged too closely to the supernatural boundary she’d drawn, and that wasn’t fair to her.

It was time for vampires to learn some boundaries, too.

* * *

* * *

Vampires being vampires, how I presented myself at the meeting was essential. There must be black, there must be leather, there must be blades, and there must be ferocity.

Fortunately, I was well stocked.

I considered and discarded a trim suit, leggings and a military-style jacket, and a leather fighting ensemble. I couldn’t go in looking like a warrior, a fighter. They’d assume I’d already given up the argument and was ready to fight.

No, I needed to show authority. Power. I wasn’t a Master, but I was someone to be reckoned with.

I opted for an ensemble I’d never worn, one I’d purchased in Paris to wear for a night at the clubs. And hadn’t gotten there before coming home again. It was a fitted black jumpsuit that smoothed down the body from neck to ankles in the front, the back open in a deep vee. No sleeves, but a cape of pleated panels of black organza that fell from the shoulders. It was a little red carpet, a little military, and very badass. Part of me was irritated by the superficiality; part of me was very psyched about the look.

There was a chance I’d have to fight, so I opted for kitten-heeled leather boots rather than the stilettos the jumpsuit demanded—and despite the fact that they’d have made excellent weapons of their own.

A dagger went into my boot, and I’d belt on my katana on-site. I slicked back my hair into a low bun and pushed diamond studs into my ears. Wealth also impressed vampires. Not to the same degree as fairies, who were like magpies when gold and silver glinted, but it mattered.

Eyes and lips were accented, cheekbones highlighted, so that when I was done I looked fierce, fashionable, intimidating.

“Good,” I said and snapped off the light. It was time for some intimidation.

* * *

* * *

Connor was waiting outside, already on Thelma—his low, matte-black motorcycle. He was in head-to-toe black leather, from boots to sleek jacket, his dark hair waving in the breeze. He looked up at the sound of my footsteps, his smile widening as he watched me move toward him. I could feel his magic stretch out, caress, and beckon.

I kept my gaze on him as I walked, practicing my bravado, and liked seeing the desire that clouded his eyes.

“Elisa Sullivan,” he said, voice deep. “You are a picture.”

I tipped up his chin with a finger, pressed a kiss to his lips, giving the same teasing caress that he usually offered to me.

His hand found my hip, squeezed. “If we didn’t have business right now . . .” he began, but we both knew this was unavoidable.

“Let’s hope they’re as intimidated as you are impressed.”

“How are you feeling?”

“Unsettled,” I decided, and he nodded.

“That sounds about right. Let’s head out.”

I picked up the helmet already waiting for me on the second seat, slung a leg over the bike.

Connor was teaching me to ride solo, but had insisted on taking the lead tonight. I considered arguing, but riding across Chicago with my arms around his waist, curled into him as he bobbed and weaved through traffic, wasn’t exactly a hardship.

* * *

* * *

Forty minutes later, we drove down the tallgrass-lined gravel road that led to the Grove. The reception hall, low and organic, with lots of tall wooden beams and rocks, sat at the end of the drive to the right, just behind a large parking lot. To the right was a pavilion, an open cathedral of wood and glass. Behind them, according to the maps I’d checked online, was the meadow where we’d meet.

Theo and Petra were already waiting, leaning against Theo’s car. Alexei zoomed up on his motorcycle, brilliantly red compared to Thelma’s darkness, and parked beside us. We climbed off, unfastened helmets, and stowed them on the bike.

“What do you know?” Connor asked, striding toward them.

“Not as much as we’d like,” Theo said. “The Compliance Bureau is a relatively new part of the AAM. Established two months ago.”

“That seems convenient,” Connor said, brows raised.

I shook my head. “We’ve had relative peace. At least until the fairies. Vampires hate negative publicity about Sups.”

Theo nodded. “The Bureau is led by a vampire named Clive, formerly of Cabot House in New York. He was a guard before joining the AAM.”

“He also has a brother, made at the same time, who’s in the Bureau. Name’s Levi.”

“Levi was one of the vamps who came to my door. Levi, Sloan, Blake. Clive didn’t bother with the meet-and-greet.”

“Have they done this before?” Connor asked. “Made these demands?”

“I don’t know,” Theo said. “We don’t have access to their records.”

“We searched even the darkest corners of the Internet,” Petra said, “and haven’t found anything that suggests they’ve taken this kind of enforcement action.”

“So I’m special,” I said, but I didn’t want any part of that designation. Not from them.

Connor reached out, squeezed my hand. “We’ll handle this tonight, and finish it.”

I gave him a smile, even as I knew that was a lie. But appreciated it all the same.

* * *

* * *

Crushed stone paths led around the main building and branched off to other parts of the property. We walked toward the actual grove, my hand firmly on my katana, and the monster watching and waiting.

We have a deal, I reminded it, and was pretty sure it metaphorically flipped me off.

The path split again around a wide, round meadow, grass carefully shorn and scenting the quiet air. There was a rise at the far end, and a hill covered in trees that made a dark silhouette against the stars. For a moment, I stared at those trees, and thought of that forest where monsters and fire had raged and blood had been spilled. My heart beat hard against my ribs, each thump like the pounding of paws—malformed and full of rage—pacing through darkness.

Connor slipped his hand into mine, squeezed. I looked at him, found comfort in his steady gaze. “Even then, you were victorious. And will be again.” He leaned down, his dark curls brushing my cheek. “No mere vampire can stop you, Lis.”

“And a wolf?” I asked, smiling as he’d meant me to.

His grin was wide, possessive, intoxicating. “I’ll only stop you if you run. But you aren’t a coward.”

“No,” I said, to him and myself. “I’m not.”

Theo, who’d walked into the middle of the meadow, looked around, put his hands on his hips. “If one is obliged to have a vampire showdown, this looks like as good a place as any.”

“The weather is garbage,” Petra said, looking gloomily up at the star-scattered sky. “I can’t do anything with this.”

“It’s a gorgeous night,” Alexei said.

“Exactly.” She held up her hand and scrunched up her face—and three little sparks hissed in her palm before disappearing again. “Garbage,” she said again.

Alexei just looked at her. “You’re weird.”

With a curl of her lip, she snapped her fingers, and Alexei’s eyes widened at the blue spark in her palm. She might have wanted storms, but she didn’t need them to work her magic.

“Am I?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. “That wasn’t an insult.”

She huffed, but snapped again, and the spark disappeared. Then she pulled white gloves from her pocket, slid them on.

“With friends like these,” Connor asked, “who needs enemies?”

   
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