Pack of Lies – Hailey Edwards

A wisp of masculine laughter, the barbed tail of a fading nightmare, stung me awake. The pungent reek of garbage baked all day in the sun clogged my nose, and absolute darkness surrounded me in a cloying embrace that reminded me of cramped hours spent locked in the pantry when my brother misbehaved. No. Not my brother. Not anymore. I was Hadley, not Amelie. I had one sister, not two brothers. The familiar cadence of ants marching across my thighs on their way to dinner blasted a shiver down my spine, and I balled my fists to keep from slapping at them until my skin stung. Ants had found their way into the pantry with me during the hot summer months. Mother had given them simple directions, a trail of granulated sugar to follow that could be blamed on a spill while making sweet tea if Dad noticed, but he never did. Not the grit under his bare feet or the pants I wore in hundred-degree heat to hide the bites. To this day I hated tight spaces, ants…and my mother. Fingers trembling as much from the memory as my current predicament, I reached out to discover if the walls pressing in on me were real or imagined this time. “Cardboard?” I pushed again, the heavy paper bowing under my hand. “That can’t be right.

” Ambrose slithered through the blackness, a snake preparing to strike, but he kept his findings to himself. “Well?” I yanked on his metaphysical chain. “Is it safe to remove it?” As best I could tell, I sat on damp concrete, probably in an alley, with a large box blocking out the stars. The shadow who was not a shadow seeped underneath the nearest flap, spreading like an oil slick. Seconds pulled like taffy into sticky minutes that clung to me the same as my sweaty shirt, but Ambrose took his sweet time on his scouting mission and offered no warning before honing himself into a bolt of sheer agony he aimed right for my brain. Jolting from the shock, I hissed through the swirling eddies of images, smells, tastes, and other sensory clues that made our wordless communication possible. Once the gentler waves ebbed, I could focus on the information he had gathered. A red exit sign glowed two doors down, its restaurant closed at this hour, and its dumpster shielding me from passersby. Aside from the ants dining on soured chicken alfredo and cockroaches swarming moldy breadsticks, I was alone in the alley with no one to see me lift the soggy cardboard over my head or toss it aside to land in a greasy puddle. Silky moonlight slanted across my shoulders, boosting my night vision enough for me to perform a quick inventory.

Filth covered my palms, and I had skinned both knees. One ankle twanged when I shifted that leg, but otherwise I appeared to be in one piece. The starched cuff of a man’s dress shirt slid over my hand when I reached down to finger the crusty tear in a pair of black leggings I had never seen in my life. The shirt was unfamiliar too, except for the whisper of cologne I couldn’t put my finger on. The sneakers were mine, the bleach pattern on them familiar, but I had fallen asleep naked in my own bed after a hot shower. That was my last memory. Goddess, no. Not again. Please not again. I’ve been good.

I’ll be better. Just not this. Nausea swept through me when I forced my legs to accept my weight, but I had to get moving. I couldn’t cower here in the dark and pray this was all a bad dream. I tried that the first time my eyes opened on a strange place, my body sore and clad in borrowed clothes, my sluggish mind a blank slate, and my cowardly denials had gotten people killed. Never again. Never. Again. Do you hear me, Ambrose? Never. Again.

A smoky whirl encircled me, and the clarity of his mirth in my head spiked my skin with chills. Leggings meant no phone, no wallet, no ID. I couldn’t call for help, and I couldn’t find HQ without texting with Bishop. Swyft, the city’s paranormal rideshare app, required a smartphone to book passage. So that was out too. Left with one truly sucky option, I went in search of an open store to call a plain ol’ taxi. A limp developed in my right leg as I reached the mouth of the alley, but I pushed through the weakness. The nearest beacon of hope turned out to be a grungy package store. The clerk didn’t spare me a second glance, just kept thumbing through a faded Southern Living magazine older than both of us. The roadside tree farm on its cover reminded me of Christmas, and a pang of sadness added its weight to my other pains.

Two years in a row there would be no tree, no presents, no family for me. Joy to the frakking world. Aware I smelled like I had slept behind a dumpster, I offered him a bright smile. “Can I use your phone?” With a grunt, the man handed me a cordless landline phone that might have begun its life white but had yellowed with age and the grime of unwashed hands until touching it made me long for a heaping squirt of antibac. Thanking its annoyingly catchy jingle, I dialed the number of a local cab company from memory then arranged for a pickup on the corner. “Thanks.” I passed the phone back. “I appreciate it.” “Next time buy a wine cooler or something.” Setting down his magazine, careful to mark his page with a spread palm, he replaced the phone in its cradle.

Between his fingers, I spotted the full-page spread of three naked women doing things I doubted were anatomically possible to one another. He noted my shock and grinned wide. “Merry Christmas.” “Yeah.” I backed away from the counter, feeling dirtier than ever. “You too.” Outside in the balmy air, I waited ten minutes for my ride. The driver was an old woman wearing glasses that made me doubt the legality of the license displayed for my convenience, but her resemblance to Estelle Getty was enough to have me reaching for the handle. “Wait.” She lifted a papery hand in a stop gesture.

“Lula.” “Hadley,” I corrected her, not pausing to see if the cab company had its wires crossed before climbing in. “Hold that thought. I got a fare.” Watery eyes met mine in the rearview mirror. “Where to, hon?” “The Faraday.” “Sure thing.” With her GPS engaged, she tapped the earpiece I had mistaken for a hearing aid due to its fleshy coloring and resumed what I now realized was a phone conversation. “Kenny did what?” The lively chatter between her and her best friend, part of a ring of granny cabbies, kept me entertained during the short trip to the Faraday. “Cash or charge?” For a second, I didn’t grasp that she was finally speaking to me.

“Charge.” “Let me get my chip reader.” She parked in front of the building. “Must have slid under the seat again.” When she bent down, I made a break for it. I threw the door open and wobble-ran to the new doorman. “Hank, can you pay my fare?” I didn’t have to work hard to look pitiful. “I forgot my phone and wallet.” “Stay put,” he warned me, eyes hard when they registered my injuries. “I’ll be right back.

” I let the building prop me upright while he paid off the raging granny with a fat tip that left her grinning from ear to ear. Or maybe it was the cooing and cheek-pinching he let her get away with that brightened her mood. “We will never speak of this again,” he said when he resumed his post. “That didn’t happen.” “That woman fit her thumbs in your dimples and squished.” I shook my head. “Twohanded, Hank.” “What part of we will never speak of this again did you not understand?” “Oh, I understood.” I flashed him a toothy smile. “I just didn’t agree to your terms.

” “I paid your fare,” he grumbled. “You owe me.” “I would rather pay you back plus interest than never revisit the man gwyllgi call The Edible Hulk behind his back letting a little old lady have her way with him.” “That sounds…” “Inspired?” I shoved off the building. “That’s exactly how I plan on retelling the story, FYI.” The glass door swung open behind me, and a flash of blond hair shot my pulse—and temper—through the stratosphere. “Sir.” Hank kept his gaze no higher than Midas’s chin. “I apologize for interrupting your evening.” “You little snitch.

” I punched Hank in the shoulder, my abraded knuckles twinging, and I hissed as the scabs pulled taut over healing skin. “You big snitch.” “Hadley.” The soft command in Midas’s voice didn’t compel me to obey the way gwyllgi responded to their beta, but I recognized power when I heard it, even if I hadn’t heard it since we closed the Bonnie Diaz case together. As in no calls, no texts, no casual waves as we crossed paths in the lobby. Nada. For weeks. “What?” The slip in my control sent ripples of sudden interest through the shadow pooling beneath me. Flinching at my gall more than my volume, Hank dipped his gaze to Midas’s shoulder and stuck there. “Your apartment door was found open,” Midas informed me.

“No one appears to have entered while you were out, but I’d like you to confirm nothing was stolen.” This was business then. Of course. What had I expected? A reason for him avoiding me? A lame excuse? Until he assigned Ford to consult on what was being called (by me) the Snowball Situation, I had gone a year without bumping into him. Now I was pouting because I hadn’t seen him since the night he scrawled a message in pizza grease on the sheet pan I used to heat my leftovers for him. “Okay.” I shoved Hank hard enough to rock him back. “I’m going to tell Roe and Giada about your granny crush. And I’m not paying you back.” Actually, telling Roe and Giada was payback.

Just not the monetary kind. They were a lovely couple, two beautiful older women, and boy howdy did they love to scoop the pack on the gossip circuit. Mostly, I think they enjoyed the game. A different kind of hunt for a different phase in their lives. “Hadley.” Midas rasped my name, and gooseflesh pimpled down my arms. “Leave Hank alone.” From the angle of his head, it was hard to tell if Hank was grinning at the reprimand, but I could feel him smiling because Midas had taken his side. “This isn’t over,” I promised Hank then turned with all the dignity I could muster and entered the lobby. Midas’s toes brushed my heels on the way in, and his warm breath rustled my hair.

“Where did you get my shirt?” “Your…?” Hand rising to my collar, I crushed it in my fist. “This is your shirt?” “Yes.” A teasing whiff of amber and cedar on the fabric tickled my nose, mocking me, but the faint scent was nothing compared to standing in close proximity to Midas, who oozed manly smell-good pheromones that made me lean in to fill my lungs when he wasn’t paying attention. “I’m sorry.” I clutched the two halves together like he might rip the shirt off my back. “The truth is, I don’t know.” Midas didn’t press for answers, just led me to the elevator and rode up to my floor beside me in silence. Ares stood guard outside my door, a yawn stretching her jaw until she spotted Midas and straightened. “That’s an interesting look for you, Hadley.” Her gaze tagged the shirt.

“Very interesting.” “Go in.” Midas herded me into the apartment using my reluctance to touch him. One step forward for him, two steps back for me. “Check if anything is missing.” The gwyllgi security team had upped their presence since the last time my place was broken into, but it’s not like you can plan for enemies who can change their faces, voices, heights—their entire selves—with powerful magic. The witchborn fae coven had gone radio silent after Bonnie/Snowball/Iliana’s death. I somehow doubted that was a good sign. In an apartment this size, it didn’t take me long to perform a quick visual sweep to reassure myself nothing was missing. “Everything is where I left it.

” “Good.” Midas turned on his heel to go. “I’m glad.” The impulse to call after him was too strong to ignore. “Don’t you want your shirt back?” The challenge didn’t slow him down or pry an answer from him as he left the way he came. “I’m not going to ask how you ended up wearing his shirt,” Ares informed me. “However, should you feel the need to retrace the events leading up to that moment out loud, I would keep anything I overheard to myself.” “I would dish, but there’s nothing on my plate.” “Mmm-hmm.” She tapped the side of her nose.

“I got you.” After she left, I entered my apartment and gave it a more thorough examination. I came up empty. For all the world, it appeared as if I had left in a rush and forgotten to lock up behind myself. With the Faraday security being what it was, it shouldn’t have been an issue. Just an oopsie easily forgotten. But this displacement had happened to me before. “Are you toying with me, Ambrose?” The shadow pulled up short, feigning shock, and crossed fingers over his black heart, but his acting chops had fooled me once upon a time. Goddess, I thought this chapter in my story was over. “This is me, totally believing you.

” The slow shake of his head chastised me, but then he resumed his leisurely search, acting the part of my dutiful shadow while I had no doubt that if he was cooperating without coercion, he was up to something. As much as I hated flinging out a lifeline, I had no choice when it came to my darker half. I located my cell on the nightstand where I kept it during the day and dialed Linus. Linus Andreas Lawson III was the reigning Potentate of Atlanta. Unlucky for me, he was also currently in Savannah with his fiancée, leaving me to muddle through this final year of apprenticeship solo to prove I had what it took to assume his mantle. Lucky for me, the man never slept. He was always only ever a call away when I needed advice. “Hadley,” he said with warmth that nonetheless gave me chills. Despite his generous mentorship, our past encounters had scarred me too deeply to heal where he was concerned. All I had to do was close my eyes to recall the moth-eaten black cloak that hung from his shoulders when he hunted, or the threadbare cowl that hid his face, making him impossible to read.

Worse was his scythe…the way moonlight glinted off its blade when he raised it to strike a killing blow… Massaging the skin at my nape, I was surprised when my hand came away clean and not bloody. “Hey.” “Is something the matter?” I paced my apartment from end to end, all twenty or so steps. “Maybe?” He shut a door on his end, giving himself privacy. “Explain.” “I woke up in an alley, wearing clothes that aren’t mine, with no memory of how I got there.” The thing about Ambrose was he got one shot at impersonating the figure of his choice each time he bonded to a fresh, power-hungry sucker. That was it. One form, and he was stuck in it until the ties between him and his host were severed upon the host’s eventual death. The person Ambrose had chosen to emulate after our pact was sealed? Well, I was talking to him now.

More than once, I had woken in strange places wearing Linus’s clothes with no memories to clue me in. Yet another reason why he was invested in rehabilitating me. “I’ll be there in three hours.” His tone inspired fresh chills. “Lock yourself in and don’t fall asleep.” Ambrose was stronger when I slept, when my ironclad control eased, and I dreamed of his crimes. No. Our crimes. There was no such thing as a free pass. Even if there was, I didn’t deserve one.

“Okay,” I whispered, a chastised student expecting her teacher to rap her knuckles for failing. He ended the call, and I stood there with the phone pressed to my ear, wishing I had someone else to dial, someone else to share this fear, but there was no one to smooth my hair and tell me it would be okay. Besides, anyone who tried would be lying. A knock on the door startled me into dropping my cell, spoiling my plan to stew alone in the dark. “I brought food,” Ford said through the door. “Heard you had a rough day.” Ford wasn’t the last person I wanted to see, but I didn’t feel up to socializing. “I did.” I held my ground. “I’m going to shower it off.

” “Can we not talk through the door?” Rubbing grimy eyes with dirty fingertips, I caved for the single reason entertaining a guest would force me to stay awake. I wasn’t drowsy, but sleep was sneaky. When a person told you not to doze, that was the instant your body would decide a nap was a great idea, the best one ever. Trudging over, I flung open the door then sagged against it. “Fine.” Lips kicking up in a smile, he didn’t dawdle in the hall. “With an invitation like that, how can I refuse?” “I got home maybe a half hour ago.” I goggled at the plastic bags strung down his arms. “When did you have time to order all this?” “Confession.” He aimed straight for the dining table built for two.

“Security had a staff meeting scheduled for tonight.” I prompted him when he got distracted during his search for condiments in my fridge. “Okay?” “This was my week to provide refreshments, so I picked up a few things on my way in.” The hot sauce in his hand earned me a frown, too mild for his palate, but I preferred not to blister my taste buds while eating. “The meeting got cancelled after Midas stomped off in a snit.” He slanted me a pointed glance. “I heard about the possible break-in from Hank, so I thought I would come see how you’re doing.” The drop in my gut upon learning Hank, not Midas, had prompted this visit made me scowl. “What did he tell you?” “That you left sometime during the day without locking up behind yourself, which isn’t like you, and that you came home wearing one of the shirts Midas left out in the hall for the twins’ laundry service.” The twins, sons of one of the pack enforcers, had absconded with the rolling laundry cart Bishop acquired for us to smuggle Snowball, in gwyllgi form, into the Faraday.

They used it to launch their own laundry service for single, busy, or just plain lazy gwyllgi in the building. That explained how Ambrose got ahold of Midas’s shirt when Midas still lived at the den with the alpha. Linus informed me early on that Midas kept a suite at the Faraday, the warning meant to help me avoid him, but as far as I could tell, it was used for showers and changes of clothes. That was about it. The odds of bumping into Midas in the elevator were slim to none, though he often hung out in the lobby with the other enforcers. “Linus is on the way.” I might as well tell Ford since everyone would note his arrival. “He’ll sort it out.” “Okay.” “That’s it?” I followed him into my microkitchen.

“You’re not going to ask more questions?” “I’m not going to bully you when you obviously have no answers for me or yourself, no.” Unlike Midas, Ford plotted a collision course with me daily. A quick hello, a wink, a smile, a movie date. Or, like now, showing up on my doorstep with food, which was a gwyllgi love language that spoke to every degree of friendship right on up to matehood. I hoped he understood I wanted to rank at the lower end of that scale. “I have tea downstairs, about six gallons in jugs. You interested?” He spread out the food. “I couldn’t carry it all, but I can pop down and grab one if you’re feeling sweet.” A reluctant smile touched my lips, his easygoing nature too hard to resist. “Stop cheering me up.

” “Yes, ma’am.” He gathered plates, cups, and utensils, totally at home in my kitchen. “I’ll just sit here and let you scowl at me.” He whipped his head toward me, caught my slip, and grinned even wider. “You almost laughed. I saw it. You’re not holding up your end of the deal.” “You’re obnoxious.” “Momma says the same.” He pulled out my chair and waited for me to plop down in it.

“Guess I’ll have to find a girl who loves me, warts and all.” “You won’t have to look hard.” I sat and let him play the gentleman. “You’re a good guy.” “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear you friend zone me with good guy.” After investigating the mountain of boxed foods, I stabbed a riblet with my fork. “I have no zones.” “And yet, here I am.” He hung his head, black hair sliding over his cheekbones. “Sidelined.

.

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