Magic Steals (World of Kate Daniels) – Ilona Andrews

I looked at myself in the mirror. I wore tiny black panties and a tomato red satin garter belt with black lace-up inserts. The price sticker had described the color as scarlet, but really it was tomato red. The garter belt held up black fishnet stockings. A matching bra did its best to push up my small boobs. It didn’t have much to work with. I wasn’t just skinny. When my body was made, someone had read the instructions wrong. I had tiny boobs, narrow hips, and thin chopstick legs with knobby knees. I looked ridiculous. The description of the bra had promised “enticing curves” and encouraged me to “flirt with your most stunning cleavage.” I leaned on the bathroom vanity and blew the air out. This sucked so much. I stared at my reflection in the mirror. “You’re a weretiger.

Confident. Aggressive. Roar.” Still ridiculous. It could be worse, I told myself. I could’ve gone for the chain mail bikini. The lingerie shop had one of those, too. The sales clerk had recommended a floaty pink see-through thing with bows. Buying that was out of the question. I was already short and skinny.

The see-through thing would swallow me. Besides, that outfit was a baby-doll outfit. Looking cute and sweet was the last thing I wanted to do, because tonight Jim Shrapshire and I had a date. Jim Shrapshire ran Clan Cat, one of the seven clans in Atlanta’s Shapeshifter Pack. A werejaguar, he normally served as the Pack’s Chief of Security. Jim wasn’t just a badass. He was a badass who wrote a book for badasses on how to be a badder badass. Which is why, when Curran, the Beastlord and the ruler of the Pack, had to go on an expedition to the Mediterranean, he left Jim in charge of fifteen hundred shapeshifters. Curran had been gone for about a month and Jim was keeping the Pack together with iron claws. He was the smartest man I ever met.

He was scary, funny, had muscles in places I had no idea muscles existed, and for some weird reason he liked me. At least I thought he liked me. Things were complicated. As the alpha of Clan Cat, he was in charge of me and he’d been really careful not to take advantage of it. We’d been trying to date, except that Jim was busy and I was busy, too, so we barely managed a date every two to three weeks. When we did connect, we talked about everything under the sun and we made out. He let me set the pace. I decided how far we went and the first few times we got together, we didn’t go very far. Kissing Jim was my definition of nirvana, but some small part of me never believed he was really there for me. Jim needed his equal: a powerful, aggressive, and sexy woman.

He got me, Dali, a skinny vegetarian girl who had to wear glasses with lenses as thick as Coke bottle bottoms, threw up when she smelled blood, and was about as useful in a fight as a fifth leg on a donkey. To top it all off, my own mother, who loved me more than the whole world, wouldn’t describe me as pretty. She told people that I was smart, brave, and educated. Unfortunately none of it helped me right now, because tonight I wanted to be sexy. I wanted to seduce Jim. I had the whole thing planned. I bought the wine. I cooked a big meal. I even made him a steak. I cooked it last in a separate pan to make sure no meat juices got onto my gnocchi.

I may have gagged a few times from the smell and I had to use two forks to move it around because I didn’t want to touch it, but I was pretty sure it was cooked correctly. I chose this outfit, because the model wearing it in the ad looked exactly the way I wanted to be: she was tall, with double-D breasts, plump butt, tiny waist, and she had the kind of face that would make men turn to look at her. The lingerie was great on her. I glanced back at my reflection. I wanted to knock him off his feet, not make him fall down laughing. If I hadn’t already put mascara on, I would have cried. None of it might matter anyway. It was twenty minutes past eight o’clock. Jim was late. Maybe he got held up.

Maybe he changed his mind on this whole dating thing. The doorbell rang. Ah! I spun around the bathroom, grabbed my blue silk kimono, slipped into it, and ran down the stairs. The doorbell chimed again. I checked the peephole. My heart skipped a beat. Jim! I swung the door open. He stood on my doorstep, tall, dark, and so hot, it made me weak in the knees. I’d been crushing on him for years and every time I saw him, my breath still caught. His scent washed over me, the sandalwood, light musk, and creamy vanilla of his deodorant; the hint of citrus and spearmint in his shampoo; and the fragrance of his skin, a complicated mix of tangy sweat and slightly harsh male smell, blending into a multi-layered chorus that sang, “Jim” to me.

All of my smart words disappeared and I turned into a half-wit. “Hey!” Oh, great. Hay is for horses. “Hi.” He shouldered his way into the house. He wore dark jeans, a black T-shirt, and a leather jacket over it. Jim usually wore black. His skin was a dark, rich brown, his black hair cut short, leaving his masculine face open. He leaned forward. I stood on my toes and brushed a kiss on his lips.

He didn’t kiss me back. Something was wrong. “I’ve got a bottle of Cabernet Franc,” I said. Jim cooked like a chef and liked wine. The man at the wine store told me this was an award-winning wine. “From Tiger Mountain Winery.” He nodded. I didn’t even get a smirk. What if he were breaking up with me? “I’ll go get it.” My voice turned squeaky.

“Go ahead and sit down.” I went into the kitchen, got the two wineglasses, and poured the deep red wine into the glasses. He couldn’t possibly be breaking up with me. I grabbed the glasses and went into the living room. Jim was asleep on my couch. Oh no. Last time I found him asleep in my house, a spider creature had been feeding on his soul. Not again. I shoved the glasses onto the side table, grabbed his shoulders, and shook. “Jim! Jim, talk to me.

” He blinked and opened his beautiful dark eyes. They were glazed over as if he weren’t fully there. “Are you okay? What’s wrong?” He peered at me. “I was challenged.” In the Pack, personal challenges decided leadership. They meant a fight to the death. There was no mercy. “Who?” “Roger Mountain,” he said. Roger Mountain was a panther, vicious and ruthless. Jim was alive, so he had to have killed Roger, but I had seen Roger fight before.

He tore his opponents into pieces. “How bad?” I asked. “Not that bad.” “Jim?” He raised the side of his T-shirt. His entire torso was dark. It took me a second to realize that it was one continuous bruise. Oh you silly idiot man. “Have medmages seen this?” The Pack had its own hospital and our medmages were some of the best. “Sure.” “What did they say?” “They said it was fine.

” “I’m going to hit you with a wine bottle,” I growled. “What did they really say?” “I spoke to Nasrin. She said bed rest for twenty-four hours.” Of course, she recommended bed rest. The fight had to have drained Jim down to nothing, and changing shape took a lot of energy, especially now. Magic flooded our world in waves. When magic was up, spells worked and transforming was easier and still, if a normal shapeshifter changed form twice in twenty-four hours, Lyc-V, the shapeshifter virus, would shut your body down for a nap. I was exempt from this rule, because while I carried the virus, my magic was mystical in origin, but Jim’s wasn’t. With technology in control, a fight behind him, and two shape-changings, Jim should’ve been in bed, not here. “So, instead of resting you shifted out of warrior form and drove here?” He couldn’t have been that reckless.

He could’ve fallen asleep at the wheel. Jim yawned. “I didn’t want to miss it.” He smiled at me. “You look really pretty.” Oh you stupid dummy. “I’m just going to sit here for a second,” he said and closed his eyes. Jim was six feet tall. My couch was tiny. If he fell asleep here, he wouldn’t be able to walk in the morning.

“Nasrin said bed rest, not couch rest.” I wedged my shoulder under his armpit. “Come on. We’re going upstairs to the bedroom.” His eyes lit up for half a second. “Well, if you insist . ” “I insist.” I pulled him upright. I was a vegetarian weretiger, but I was still a shapeshifter. I could’ve carried him up the stairs except I didn’t think he would let me.

“Come on.” We walked up the stairs and I deposited him on the bed. I loved huge soft beds, and this one was a queen with a mattress topper so thick I had to hop to get onto it. Jim landed on it and sank in. I reached for his boots, but he sat up. “I’ve got it.” His boots hit the floor. He lay back and closed his eyes. I slipped into the closet and pulled off my lingerie. I didn’t want him to see me in it.

If he did, he might think that I had a plan for the evening and was upset because it collapsed. I didn’t care about the plan. I just wanted him to be okay. I threw on a pair of plain cotton panties and a white tank top, came out, and slipped into the bed next to him. Magic rolled over us in an invisible wave. All of the electric lights went out and the feylantern in the bathroom stirred into life, glowing with gentle blue. My magic flowed through me. Excellent. He would heal faster during a magic wave. “Sorry I ruined the date,” Jim murmured.

I snuggled up to him, my hand on his chest, careful not to press too hard. “You didn’t. This is perfect.” • • • KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK. I opened my eyes. I was lying in my bed. I inhaled deep and smelled Jim. His scent was all around me, the clean, citrus-spiced smell that drove me crazy. His arm was across my waist, his body hot against my side. Jim was in my bed and he was holding me.

I smiled. Knock-knock-knock. Someone was knocking on my front door. That was fine. They could keep knocking. I would just keep lying here, in my soft bed, wrapped in Jim. Mmmm . “Dali! Open the door.” Mom. I jerked upright in my bed.

Jim leaped straight up and landed on his feet, his arms raised, his body tense, ready to pounce. “What?” “My mother is here!” I jumped to the floor, jerked a pair of shorts from under my bed, and hopped on one foot trying to put them on. He exhaled. “I thought it was an emergency.” “It is an emergency,” I hissed in a theatrical whisper. “Stay here! Don’t make any noise.” “Dali,” he started. I grabbed a pillow and threw it at him. “Shush!” He blinked. I grabbed my kimono, tossed it over me, shut the door to my bedroom, and ran down the stairs, holding on to the rail for dear life so I wouldn’t trip.

The last thing I needed was my mother finding out I had Jim in my bedroom. There would be no end of shock and questions and then she would want to know if we had set the date for the wedding yet and when are the grandchildren coming. I didn’t even know if Jim was serious. I jumped the last seven steps, tied my kimono, and reached for the door. The wineglasses. Oh shoot. I raced into the kitchen, grabbed the two wineglasses, dumped the wine down the sink, stuck them into the nearest cabinet, emptied the vegetarian curry soup into the sink, threw the butternut squash gnocchi into the trash, tossed the steak I made for Jim after it and shoved it deep into the garbage can in case my mother decided to throw something away. I washed my hands, ran for the door, and opened it. My mother raised her hands. She was holding her bag in one and a box of donuts in the other.

She was about an exact copy of me except thirty years older. We were both short and tiny and when we spoke, we waved our hands around too much. A woman about my age stood next to her. She had dark hair, big eyes, and a cute heart-shaped face. Iluh Indrayani. Like me, she was born in the U.S., but both of her parents had come from Indonesia, from the island of Bali. Her mother knew my mother and we met a few times, but never really talked. Something bad had happened.

The only time my mother brought visitors to my house who weren’t family was when some sort of magical emergency had taken place. “You left me on the doorstep for half an hour,” my mother huffed. “I was asleep.” I held the door open. “Come in.” They walked inside, my mother in the lead. Iluh gave me an apologetic look. “So sorry to bother you on a Saturday.” “That’s okay,” I told her. We sat in the kitchen.

“Would you like something to drink?” I asked. My mother waved her hands. “You talk. I’ll make coffee.” Above us something thudded. I froze. My mother stared at the ceiling. “Did you hear that?” “Hear what?” I asked, my eyes wide. I would kill Jim. He could sit completely motionless for hours when on stakeouts.

I’d seen him do it. He had to be dropping things on purpose. Thud! “That!” My mother turned predatory like a raptor. “What was that?” Lie, think of something quick, lie, lie . “I’ve got a cat.” “What kind of a cat?” My mother’s eyes narrowed. “A big one.” “I want to see,” Mom said. “Bring him down.” “He’s a stray and a little wild.

He’s probably hiding. I probably won’t even be able to find him now.” “How long have you had him?” “A few days.” The more I lied, the deeper I sank. My mother had a brain like a supercomputer. She missed nothing. Mom pointed a teaspoon at me. “Is he neutered?” Oh my gods. “Not yet.” “You need to neuter him.

Otherwise he’ll spray all over the house. The stench is awful. And when he isn’t out catting around, little female cats in heat will show up and wail under the windows.” Kill me, please. “He is a nice cat. He’s not like that.” “It’s instinct, Dali. Before you know it, you’ll be running a feline whorehouse.” “Mother!” My mom waved the spoon and went back to making coffee. I turned to Iluh.

She gave me a sympathetic glance that said, “Been there, endured that, got the good daughter T-shirt for it.” “What can I do for you?” I asked. Iluh folded her hands on her lap. “My grandmother is missing.” “Eyang Ida?” Iluh nodded. I remembered Ida Indrayani. She was nice lady in her late sixties with a friendly warm smile. She still worked as a hairdresser. The family didn’t really need the money but Eyang Ida, Grandmother Ida, as she was usually called, liked to be social. “How long has she been missing?” “Since last night,” Iluh said.

“She was supposed to come to my birthday party in the evening but didn’t show up. Sutan, he’s my husband, and I stopped by her house on the way back from the restaurant. The lights were off. We knocked on the door, but she didn’t answer. We thought maybe she’d fallen asleep again. Her hearing isn’t the best now, and once she falls asleep, it’s hard to wake her up. My parents keep wanting her to move in with them, but she won’t do it. We went back to her house first thing in the morning, but she wasn’t there. She hadn’t opened her shop either, and that’s when we knew something was really wrong. My mother has a spare key so she unlocked the door.

My grandmother was gone and there was blood on the back porch.” Not good. “How much blood?” Iluh swallowed. “Just a smudge.” “Show her,” my mom said. Iluh reached into her canvas bag. “We found this next to the blood.” She pulled a Ziploc bag out of her purse. Inside it were three coarse black hairs. About nine inches long, they looked like something you would pull out of a horse’s mane.

“We tried going to the police, but they said we had to wait forty-eight hours before she can be declared missing.” I opened the bag and took a sniff. Ugh. An acrid, bitter, dry kind of stench, mixed with a sickening trace of rotting blood. I shook the hairs out on the table and carefully touched one. Magic nipped my finger. The hair turned white and broke apart, as if burned from the inside out. Bad magic. Familiar bad magic. Iluh gasped.

“I told you,” my mother said with pride in her voice. “My daughter is the White Tiger. She can banish evil.”


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