The brakes on my old Jeep groaned as I slowed, then followed the green turn arrow through an intersection. Above the surrounding buildings, clouds glowed with ribbons of sunset like someone had spray-painted streaks of fuchsia and sapphire across the sky, and long shadows cloaked the street down which I drove. At the far end of the block, orange lights flashed by the side of the road. I eased off the gas and swore.
Maggie’s gaze swung from the gently swollen belly she’d been rubbing happily to the front windshield and locked on the mobile checkpoint on the approaching corner. Her thick black curls bounced with the sudden motion. She cut her eyes to me. “Can you—”
“I’ll be fine.”
“I didn’t think the ultrasound would take so long. I wouldn’t have—”
“It’s fine, Mags.” I set my hand on her wrist and smiled. “This isn’t my first test.”
Despite my words, my heart was racing. The new governor of Colorado had pretty much turned the local branch of the Paranatural Task Force into his own private army. PTF mobile checkpoints had gone up the day after Anderson’s State of the State Address in conjunction with his newly implemented curfew. Any paranatural caught out after dark, registered or no, was taken to one of the detention camps resurrected from the Faerie Wars. Luckily, the basic test they performed on street corners wasn’t enough to identify me as the fae halfer I was, thanks to my immunity to iron.
That didn’t make the process any less nerve-wracking.
The brakes groaned again as I pulled up beside the checkpoint, knuckles white on the wheel. A woman in a PTF uniform and an orange safety vest stepped around the Jeep’s front end and tapped my window with a flashlight. Swallowing, I lowered the glass.
The warmth pumping through my vents escaped into the bitter night, and cold air rushed in to take its place.
“License and registration.” The woman sounded bored. Her cheeks and nose were red compared to the rest of her pale skin.
Reaching past Maggie’s knees, I pulled the registration from my glove box and handed it over with my license.
BRONZE DUST AND red buffing compound coated my work surface, my jeans, and my hands. Pulling down my respirator mask so it hung over my collarbone like a necklace, I set the Dremel aside and, fingers clasped, pressed my palms toward the ceiling until my back popped. My stomach growled, and I glanced longingly at the dregs of coffee staining my empty mug. Breakfast had been a long time ago. The air in the studio smelled of warm metal and sulfur patina, and my nose twitched with the warning of an oncoming sneeze.
Sniffing, and brushing the back of my wrist over my upper lip, I snatched up a polishing cloth to wipe out the residual red rouge caked in the corners of the bronze queen chess piece. I was careful to keep my mind clear as I worked, blocking off my emotions so they didn’t accidentally spill over into Uncle Sol’s Christmas present due to my magical ability.
That would be a fine gift. Here’s a fun game full of anxiety and stress that makes you sick to your stomach when you touch the pieces.
When the queen shone with a mirror finish, I set her besid e her king, ready to lead her army across the cherrywood chess board.
On one side of the battlefield, fractal-pattern pawns guarded a court of frozen snowflakes—all sharp angles and hard lines—their shapes as bright and clear as their finish. Across the no man’s land of checkered space, a second army sat, ready for war. These pieces were dark, stained to an oilslick finish. In contrast to their counterparts, the patinaed court swooped and curled with organic curves.
MY BREATH PUFFED out in angry little clouds as I shivered under the star-streaked sky that stretched above my patch of frozen mountain. Jaw clenched, I shoved a key into the lock on my front door with enough force to jerk the purse off my shoulder. It slid down, snagging at my elbow, and the shift in weight jostled the dome-covered cake balanced in my other hand.
I couldn’t believe James had stood me up again. After all his promises. Twenty minutes standing outside his house. Then a quick call about unavoidable business at the gallery. Sure he’d apologized, given me his
usual line about making it up to me “another time.” But another time never seemed to come for James and me.
I twisted the keys. Those not in the lock dug into my palm.
Another time. If he said those words again, I was going to run him over with my Jeep.
The door stuck, swollen by moisture. I growled and pushed harder, hissing when my weight settled onto the freshly re-knit muscles of my right leg. I gave the door another shove, and it finally gave way, slamming
into the adjoining wall with a bang, my keys still dangling from the lock.
I froze in the doorway. My living room was occupied.
I’d been looking forward to curling up with my cake and my anger. Habits formed through years of solitude were hard to break, and I still wasn’t used to having roommates. Company was going to put a serious crimp in my plans.
Kai and Chase were sitting across from each other on my faded furniture, cards and poker chips on the coffee table between them. Neither seemed surprised by my dramatic entrance.
“You’re home early.” Kai glanced in my direction, and his eyes were swirling galaxies of color rather than the deep brown of his glamour—the human disguise he wore less and less these days. He was a fae knight from the Realm of Enchantment who’d been living in my guest room for about a month, most of which was spent saving the world from a murderer with a magic, world-eating box. He cradled a hand of cards to his chest so his opponent couldn’t cheat. “Didn’t think we’d see you till much later.”
“Or tomorrow,” added Chase without looking up.
METAL DUST CLUNG to the sweat on my arms, glittering like shining scales. Even with the studio door propped open behind me, the uncommonly warm October air did little to temper the heat of the forge. A shower of sparks erupted as I plunged the carbon steel rod back into the annealing embers and dragged an arm across my forehead, taking care to avoid the bulky, blackened welding glove. I’d probably still end up with sooty streaks decorating my otherwise pale face. I always did.
Lost in the beat of my old MP3 player, I started belting out the lyrics of Robert DeLong’s Don’t Wait Up as I prepared the next rod. Then a touch settled—light and tentative—on my arm, and the bottom fell out of my stomach.
Tongs clutched in one hand, hammer in the other, I spun.
“Whoa, whoa.” His lips formed the words, though I couldn’t hear them over the music blaring through my headphones.
An inch shorter than I was, wearing jeans and a polo shirt, I had no reason to think the man was anything but human. But then, who could tell these days? He took a step back, hands raised, either to show he meant no harm or to ward off the blow he thought was coming.
Behind him, near the open door, stood a second man. He wore a rumpled brown suit that matched his hair and eyes. Average height, average build, average looks. Nothing remarkable about him.
Moving to put the anvil between us, I set the hammer down and pulled off my headphones, but kept a white-knuckled grip on the tongs. The higher-than-average number of violent crimes this summer had me on edge—along with everyone else—though none of the violence had come so far as my neck of the woods. It seemed unlikely a murderer would get my attention before attacking, but my heart raced a mile a minute as I faced the strangers. “Who are you?”