Virginia City, Nevada was a curious mix of history and touristy kitsch that left me wondering what type of charun called this place home. The location was remote, the mountains in the distance a fascination that kept my eye traveling back to them, so different from my lowland birthplace. But the boardwalk lined with shops of every kind — candy, jerky, gemstones, T-shirts, jewelry — bustled with tourists exploring the Old West town under the watchful eyes of tour guides from dueling companies. Squinting against the sun, pretending I wasn’t searching the sky for a certain dragon, I angled my chin toward Santiago. “Are you sure we’ll find what we’re looking for here?” “One of our first missions on any terrene is to identify pockets of Conquest loyalists.” He glared at human tourists foolish enough to stumble into his path. “This is one of the larger charun communes in this state, and they’re all devoted to your glory.” A shudder tripped down my spine, and he grinned even wider. “You’re an asshat,” I told him. “These people worship you. The least you can do is stop scowling at them.” “I’m not … ” Movement drew my eye to the second floor of a saloon, to the male who kissed his fingertips then pressed them to his heart while bowing his head. “They’re watching.” Now that I knew to look, I examined each upper window lining the boardwalk. More faces looked back.
More fingers were kissed. More heads bowed in reverence, making my skin crawl. “They’re everywhere.” “Told you.” He sounded smug about it. “We’ll meet up with them tonight, after the tourists have been bussed back to their hotels in Reno.” He laughed under his breath. “Until then, smile and wave.” Campaigning for soldiers in our upcoming war made me queasy. Who was I to ask these people to follow me? To fight for me? Die for me? Because that’s what war was — death.
Only the number of casualties had yet to be tallied. The air kicked up, and dust swirled around me. When I paused, the thick coils of an invisible dragon tail wrapped my ankle. “Cole,” I breathed. “You’re late.” Warm breath fanned my face, and soft scales glided against my skin as he rubbed our cheeks together. “Break it up,” Santiago groused. “I didn’t come here to watch you two make out.” “You can’t see him,” I pointed out, scratching Cole under his chin. “Maybe not, but I can smell him.
” Santiago wrinkled his nose. “He’s pheromone central lately, thanks to you.” Stupid charun hormones. Stupid charun sense of smell. Stupid me for not being able to control myself. The IUD had cured the worst of the effects the coterie experienced, but Cole was my mate, and I couldn’t settle around him. The heat was always there, a slow burn waiting to engulf me in flames. The others kept telling me it would get better after we had sex, after I claimed him, but the only thing that might be worse than them telling me to jump his bones and get it over with was the fact they would know the instant I did. Apparently Otillians scent-marked their mates, and I was just enough charun to want other females to smell him coming from a mile away. “Mistress,” a soft voice hissed to my right.
“We have everything prepared.” I didn’t have to search hard to find the source. An elderly female knelt, her forehead pressed to the planks and her arms stretched toward my feet. Taking a step out of range, much to Santiago’s amusement, I did my best to remain calm in the face of adoration. “Thank you.” I stared at the back of her head. “We appreciate your hospitality.” “We live to serve,” she murmured. “Our lives are yours to command.” Rubbing my face, I set a task to get her off the ground before she made an even bigger spectacle.
“Can you guide us to our hotel?” The strip was short, the town small, but she sprang to her feet with a rush of energy that startled me. “Right this way.” She hustled down the boardwalk, bowling over people who got in her way. Clearing a path for me, I realized with a groan. “We have all your rooms prepared.” Hand resting on the heaving side of the invisible beast, I murmured, “See you there?” A soft growl of confirmation set my heart fluttering as he uncoiled his tail. “Hurry up,” Santiago called, already ahead of me. “She’s old, but she’s fast.” A buzz in my pocket had me fishing out my phone, my pulse skipping before the familiar number flashed across the screen. “How is she?” “Maggie is resting.
” Miller kept his voice soft. “She’s still dizzy, and she’s drinking water as fast as I can put fresh bottles in her hand.” “Poor Mags.” Having never traveled outside the Deep South, she had no clue how hard the altitude would hit her. None of us expected it to knock her, and therefore Portia, on her butt. Missing Thom, and now Portia, divided our numbers dangerously. And forced me to keep company with Santiago. “Book a flight for two back to Mississippi.” Any excuse to put off the next rally, even for a day, was a welcome break on the campaign trail for me. “Already done,” he assured me.
“How are things up the mountain?” “We met our contact.” I jogged to catch up to Santiago. “We’re en route to our hotel. Cole’s meeting us there.” “Any trouble?” “None so far.” I knocked on a wooden beam as I ducked under a general store’s awning. “We’re being watched, though.” “Pay attention,” Santiago growled at me then snatched the phone out of my hand and barked into the receiver, “Stop distracting her. We’re surrounded. We need all eyes and ears focused on staying alive.
” After ending the call, he tossed me the phone. I considered throwing it as hard as I could at the back of his skull, but I didn’t want these charun to think I was a violent brute like my predecessors. Plus, impact with his hard head would shatter the cell if the drop to the ground didn’t, and I couldn’t afford to be incommunicado in case Dad needed me. Dad, who I still hadn’t visited, who had no idea his best friend had been murdered, and who must be getting antsy about the discharge date that wouldn’t come until I was declared the victor or the permanent resident of a pine box. Rather than spark a fight with Santiago, I pocketed the cell and daydreamed about wiping three or four of his tablets clean. I didn’t know how to do that, and he kept backups out the wazoo, but imagining the expression on his face as I took a hammer to the screen made me smile nonetheless. “Here we are,” our hostess announced. “Your rooms are on the top floor of the saloon. There’s a bar downstairs, and the kitchen is open until midnight.” Spry for a female her apparent age, she led us through the front door and right up the rickety staircase off to one side.
She indicated three rooms available for our use. Two were neat as pins but small for the guys. The third was a honeymoon suite with an oversized bed covered in a handstitched quilt in a double wedding ring pattern. I recognized it because Granny Boudreau had left several in a trunk up in the attic. A pang arrowed through me, reminding me the farmhouse had been listed by a realtor in Canton. All the quilts, all the dolls, all the memories from generations of Boudreaus, were boxed up in climate-controlled storage. Only the furniture remained for staging purposes. Thinking of home circled my thoughts back to Dad and opened a pit in my stomach. “Are the accommodations to your liking, Mistress?” Yanked back to attention, I nodded. “These are perfect.
” I smiled. “Thank you.” Flushing with pleasure, she scampered down the stairs and left Santiago and me to freshen up before meeting with her clan to hit them up with pro-Conquest propaganda designed to win them to our cause. Ugh. Santiago lifted a finger, waiting until she passed beyond charun hearing, then shifted his hand into a thumbs-up gesture. “They know Cole’s here,” I mused, eyeing the third bedroom that would sit empty tonight for security reasons instead of any fun or sweaty ones. “You were talking to and petting thin air when our escort arrived,” he replied dryly. “Not to mention the fact these aren’t humans. They’re charun. They would smell him, sense him.
Cole is a power, and he’s saturated in your scent.” A primal corner of my heart swelled with the knowledge, and it kept expanding when heavy footfalls on the stairs announced the arrival of the man in question. The second bedroom didn’t earn a spare glance from him. He spotted me standing on the threshold of mine and joined me, dwarfing the doorway. This close, I had to tilt my head back to meet his piercing blue eyes, but the view was always worth it. The black stubble covering his head had grown longer in recent weeks, almost brushing the tips of his ears, even the one with the top curve missing. Windburn slashed his cheeks and reddened his nose, which had been broken and reset badly, multiple times. Probably by him. In the field. When it would have taken Thom minutes to patch him up as good as new.
When he brushed his scarred knuckles across my cheek, I remembered thinking once that you could play tic-tac-toe with the raised slashes crisscrossing the backs of his hands. Leaning into his touch, I closed my eyes just for a second, relishing the contact I had been missing lately with him spending so much time in his other form for ease of travel. Santiago snorted behind him, and Cole cut him a glare through meltwater eyes. He ground his square jaw, knuckles popping on his left hand. “Is there a problem?” Without Portia as a buffer, Santiago’s attitude got old fast. I’m talking ancient. Even Cole was losing his patience, and it took effort to rile him. Deliberate effort. Eyebrows quirked, Santiago challenged, “Does it matter if there is?” “Not really,” I chimed in. “Why don’t you make yourself useful and sweep for bugs?” These charun might follow Conquest, but that didn’t mean they would follow me.
I was an aberration, not the warrior they expected to rise and trample this world to dust. I had to put on a show and win them over if I wanted them to come when I called and lay down their lives if that’s what victory cost. “It will be fine,” Cole rumbled behind me. “They will see hope in you.” He lowered his voice. “The same way I do.” Warm fuzzies bubbled up inside me, and I wrapped my arms around his waist, letting my head rest on his broad chest. I breathed him in, and my nerves settled, my worries calming. I didn’t want to let go. I wanted to hold him and pretend we had a different agenda.
Tasting elk and alligator jerky. Eating apples dipped in caramel then rolled in every topping known to mankind. Maybe hitting up one of the jewelry shops and buying him a simple band. Though it would be selfish of me, human of me, since I’m the one who would get a thrill each time it glinted on his finger. Arms closing around me, he chuckled softly. “You’re growling.” “Sorry about that.” I cleared my throat. “I was thinking … ” “Hmm?” With me in his arms, he relaxed, allowing the hours of flight to show in exhausted lines on his face. “Would you be opposed to wearing a ring?” Like a human couple.
I couldn’t bring myself to add that part. It would hardly help my argument. But the feral heart of me wanted this union made permanent. Symbols have power, and I had been raised to picture white dresses and diamond rings after Cupid’s arrow struck. A band, visible proof of our bond, would settle me. Tension coiled through him where my fingers joined at his spine. “Why?” “It’s a human thing,” I finally admitted, daring a peek up at him. “They exchange matching rings so people can identify them as a couple.” Adorable confusion wreathed his face. “Any charun would know I belong to you.
” The scent thing again. Why did everything with charun boil down to the most embarrassing of senses? “The world is made up of more than charun.” I jabbed him in the abs with my pointer finger and almost popped my knuckle on the hard ridges of muscle. “And you don’t belong to me.” Sliding his wide palms up my arms, past my shoulders, he coasted over my throat, cupped my face, and brought his head down to mine. “I do.” His lips brushed mine. “I always will.” “I should tell you I don’t want you to say that but … ” I captured his mouth in a hungry kiss that left him rumbling like an empty stomach, “ … I like hearing it too much.” Covering his hands with mine, I made sure I held his attention.
“As long as you understand it goes both ways, we’re good.” “I’m not sure which was worse,” Santiago grumbled on his way past us, a whirring gizmo in his hand. “When she was an evil overlord or this PDA nightmare.” Ignoring him, which was the best revenge, I lingered in Cole’s embrace until Santiago announced the room was clear and went to sweep his own. “That’s a good sign.” I crossed to the bed and flopped back on the pillows. “That means they’re acting in good faith.” The mattress dipped, and the box springs groaned when Cole joined me. “Many charun who survive their mistress’s demise spend lifetimes waiting to be called to service, and they train their children to hold those same values.” The comfort of hearing my coterie might survive me boosted my morale, though I could never tell them so.
“I can’t knock it since that might be the only thing that saves us.” That didn’t mean I had to like it. “It’s been quiet this week.” Five days ago, we left Death behind at the bunkhouse in Canton to acclimate her coterie to this terrene. We entrusted her with the pod where Phoebe, Cole’s daughter with Conquest, had slumbered for untold years. He was itching to wake her, but it was dangerous bringing a child into the hot mess our lives had become. The alternative, that he might die in the war without seeing her again, was just as awful. A decision had to be made, and soon, but he had a few days before shouldering that burden. Cole stroked the length of my spine, his touch sparking jolts of pleasure down the rukav, even through the fabric of my shirt. “No word from Wu?” “None.
” He hadn’t made contact once since taking a White Horse SUV and leaving us behind at the bunkhouse. “We probably have him to thank for the calm waters.” Wu knew his father better than anyone, and he could predict where and how he would strike next. The destruction of The Hole might have shocked Wu with its brutality — all those lives lost in addition to Famine — but the blow had only rededicated him to our cause. I had to believe the fact we had made it this far, had rallied followers in four towns and counting, was due to him running interference with his father. A weak attempt at nonchalance flavored Cole’s next question. “Has Death made contact?” “Not since she texted four days ago.” I twisted to peek at him over my shoulder. “Phoebe is in good hands. Death will keep her safe.
” I turned onto my side to see him better. “She protected her this long. Have a little faith.” A knock on the door announced Santiago’s arrival seconds before he walked in. He scrunched his nose at our positions on the bed, but he joined us with a tablet in his hands. This right here was the reason why Cole and I hadn’t made any progress in cementing our mate bond. Too many eyes, ears, and noses for my comfort. Not to mention witnesses who couldn’t take a pointed hint to leave even if you stabbed them between the eyes with it. But it’s not like we could press pause on the world while we rented a nice hotel room away from the coterie for a long weekend of naked gymnastics. Saving the world was more important than getting in Cole’s pants.
Probably. “What do you want?” I toed Santiago in the hip. “Didn’t your mother teach you to wait until you’re invited in to enter a room?” “No.” His fingers flew across the keys. “My mother ate one of my siblings because she wasn’t a fan of uneven numbers.” Blinking slowly, I reminded myself that he was charun and not human. Still, it was hard not to picture a female with his features smoking a baby on the grill like a pork roast. “That’s … horrible.” “No, that’s life on the lower terrenes.” Jaw tight, Cole looked ready to thump Santiago’s ear.
“Is there a reason you’re in here instead of in your room?” “I planted a tracker on Wu,” he said casually. “I’ve been mapping his path since he left.” “You — ” I spluttered. “What possessed you to do that?” “Curiosity.” He shrugged. “That, and I don’t trust the guy as far as I can throw him.” He considered that. “Actually, I can throw him farther than I trust him. Anyway. He’s made two trips to a spot near Lake Bevin.
He stayed overnight both times. I’m not familiar with the area, so I tagged it.” He spun the laptop toward me. “See all those red spots? They’re heat signatures. Bodies.” I did a quick tally. “There are forty or more in the tree line.” “The trees are concealing them from satellite surveillance. This is the best I can do. But someone is out there, and we have no way to discover who, or what Wu’s connection to them is, without taking a look-see.
” “Knox kept an aerial patrol in rotation.” I pushed upright and tucked my legs under me. “Could it be more of his people? He pulled everyone in, but he would have asked for volunteers to protect the civilians.” Including Thom, who was too injured to fight. He had been sent to recover at the enclave, not defend it. “We’ll scout the area on the way to our next rally.” I gave up looking to Cole for support. He expected me to make the hard calls on my own. That kind of trust humbled and terrified me. I wasn’t Conquest, with her centuries of experience.
I was just me. Just Luce. With not even three measly decades under my belt by comparison. “We need to make sure the conclave is secure.” “Thom can take care of himself,” Santiago said in a rare moment of kindness. “And if he can’t, then we’ll fight our way in, retrieve him, and fight out way out again.” “Good plan.” I gave him two thumbs up. “I especially like the fighting parts.” “If it ain’t broke,” he reasoned, “don’t fix it.
” “Forty-five minutes until the meeting,” Cole announced, giving up on our cuddle session. “Want to grab a drink downstairs?” “Only if you let me buy the first round.” I scooched off the edge of the bed and stretched out the kinks in my spine from the car ride up the mountain from Reno. Life had reached epic levels of weirdness when you preferred clinging to a dragon over a comfy rental. Cole trailed me down the stairs and claimed two stools at the bar. “What’ll you have?” “Hey,” the girl behind the counter called, “that’s my line.” I laughed and called back, “I’ll take a rum and Coke.” Interest glimmered in her eyes. “What about your boyfriend?” A week ago, I would have demurred, but Cole had made his feelings clear, and I didn’t have a problem making mine crystal either. “He’ll take a Scotch on the rocks.
” The poor thing deflated when I didn’t correct her, and I almost felt bad for the amount of glee in my order. There was no easy way to explain my joy came from earning his permission to stake a claim on him with his consent and not from petty girlfriendedness. Since odds were high I would never speak to the bartender again, maybe not even see her, I figured I would tip well to offset any hurt feelings. I might be a happily mated charun, but I didn’t have to be a bitch about it. CHAPTER TWO I understood the reason why Cole invited me downstairs five minutes after our drinks arrived. A full quarter of the patrons stared openly at us. Another quarter cut their eyes our way. The third quarter pretended we didn’t exist, but they thrummed with a sense of anticipation that prickled my hindbrain. The rest I figured must be human. They followed stares to see what all the hubbub was about, but we didn’t do anything interesting or resemble anyone famous, so conversation returned to their plans for the night.
See and be seen. That’s all this was about. Letting these charun acclimate to my presence while I indulged in nonthreatening behavior in front of enough humans to keep me honest. Little did they know I would hurt them long before I injured a bystander. Charun deserved to carve out their own lives and find happiness, but not at the expense of innocents, and the charun on my radar were rarely that. “You’re handling me.” I nursed my drink, enjoying the warmth spreading down my throat. “You have been since we left Canton.” “I’m your consort.” Cole wiped his thumb around the lip of his glass.
“It’s my duty.” “Are you afraid I’ll tell them Conquest is a nutjob, and they’re bonkers for following her?” “They worship the title, but they can be resistant to individual incarnations.” “I’m not going to lie to them. I can’t do that and be true to myself.” “I understand.” He placed his cool hand over mine. “I would never ask you to compromise your beliefs.” A hint of a smile tugged at his lips. “They’re part of the reason why I love you.” Cole Heaton loves me.
“Yes,” he said. “I do.” “I, uh, didn’t mean to say that out loud.” Blood rushed into my cheeks. “I don’t want you to think my entire internal monologue is about you.” “Please,” Santiago quipped from my other side as he claimed a stool. “All you do is gaze into each other’s eyes. You two ought to have sex. Right now. On the bar if that’s what it takes.
This loveydovey crap is going to get you both killed. You can’t fight if you can’t take your eyes off your mate.” “My mate,” I said softly, unable to hide a small thrill. “Do you ever miss Conquest?” Santiago asked Cole over my head. “Remember the good ol’ days?” Moving with inhuman speed, Cole stretched one of his long legs behind me, hooked the lowest rung on Santiago’s barstool, and yanked it out from under him. Santiago cracked his chin on the bar on his way to the floor. Blood dribbled out of the corner of his mouth when he glared up at us with a snarl on his lips. “Mistress?” I spun on my seat to face a young couple who stood on quivering knees with their heads lowered. “Yes?” “We have been sent to escort you to the opera house.”