Once I put my gun and wallet on the table beside the door, I tripped over a pair of Steve Madden peep-toe pumps. I caught my balance before falling but was rewarded by snagging my flip-flops on the pointy heel of my strappy gold Jimmy Choo cage sandals.
My shoe collection was like other people’s art collections—a demented passion that had almost no use in the real world. My chosen career required a lot of running, and though I could run in Manolos if need be, flats or running shoes were much less risky.
When my eyes adjusted, I could see the contents of my hallway shoe closet strewn across the entranceway and spilling over into the living room. T-straps, Mary Janes, cage sandals and wedges, the shiny, expensive debris of a fashion hurricane. I plucked my glossy black Louboutins from where they’d been hurled and clutched them to my chest.
On the living-room table I noted several empty blood-donor bags. In the hall I reached for the light switch, but turning it on yielded nothing.
My power had been shut off.
Something small and fluffy passed in between my legs, and I resisted the urge to assume it was of demonic origin. The furry thing introduced itself with a “Brrr-eow?”
The tiny white kitten looked up at me, and I hugged my shoes tighter. Cats. Close enough to demons. As if it had read my mind, it began purring and rubbed itself against my ankles. Until that instant I had forgotten about who I should have expected in my apartment all along.
“Brigit,” I screamed, startling the fur-demon so badly it shot off like a bolt and hid under the armchair.
My bathroom door opened and steam spilled into the hall. At least she’d paid the water bill.
“Oh. My. Gawd!” Wrapped in one of my towels, with her blonde hair sticking to her slick, wet skin, Brigit Stewart looked surprised to see me.
The baby vampire had been assigned to me as a ward by Sig before I left. The decision had given me a pretty impressive promotion within the council, and also made the ditsy ex-beauty queen a giant, and permanent, pain in my ass.
The kitten came out from under the chair, and I kept it at bay with one foot while continuing to cradle my shoes, all while I avoided tripping over the explosion of footwear on the floor. I fixed Brigit with a deadly serious glare.
“I wasn’t expecting you!” she said, half-smiling and shrugging as if to say what can you do? I understood how, in life, Brigit had managed to get everything she wanted. I was not about to play games with her, however. If she was my charge, maybe it was time for her to start respecting my position as a warden.
“What the hell, Brigit?”
“Well.” She eyed the scene, trying to assess it as I must be seeing it. “Umm?” Big round blue eyes and an innocent smile were all she offered.
“And what the fuck is that?” I pointed a five-inch heel at the purring, evil cotton ball rubbing its face against my flip-flop.
“Ohmigod, so cute, right? I got her from some homeless guy, and I was totally gonna eat her.” She snatched up the kitten, almost losing her towel in the process, and for a moment I thought she was going to turn the thing into a Happy Meal. Instead she held it in my face, apparently for my approval. “But how could I eat something so cute?” The cat’s purring was loud and constant. Brigit rubbed the kitten against her cheek and giggled. “Her name is Rio.”
I was dumbfounded, and it was only getting worse. “Excuse me?”
“Rio.” She forced the kitten into my hands, so I was holding it as well as my shoes. “I named her that for you!”
“Because of my deep-rooted love of Brazil?”
She looked at me like I was retarded. “Uh. No. From that song. By that band. Oh, you know.”
“Clearly I don’t.”
“You know.” She searched her memory. “Depeche Mode! The song about the wolves.” She winked at me. “Because you loooove wolves.”
I was appalled by both her cavalier reference to my werewolf consorts and her flagrant disregard for eighties pop culture.
“Duran Duran,” I sighed.
“Hmm. I know all your boyfriends had names that started with a D, but wasn’t the cute brunet called Desmond?”
I set the cat on the yellow loveseat and placed my shoes on the mantle above my fireplace. “Duran Duran is a band. They did sing a song called ‘Rio’, but the song about wolves was ‘Hungry Like the Wolf’, and it was more of a metaphor than an anthem.” I plopped down on my overstuffed, oversize armchair and stared at the ceiling, trying to will myself back to Elmwood.
“Oh.” She adjusted her towel. “Well, we can’t really call her that.”
The cat was staring at me. This was all a little too much for me to handle so soon after getting back. I kicked off my flip-flops, then stood back up and grabbed the Louboutins, stepping into them and enjoying my new height.
Ignoring Brigit’s inquiring stare, I picked up a small purse from the floor, then took the only two things I needed off the table next to the door.
A gun and my keycard for Rain Hotel.
I caught a cab a few blocks away from home, and in those short blocks I was already reconsidering my plan. Admittedly, I was chickening out on seeing Lucas. We hadn’t left our relationship on the best footing when I ran away. First, there was the small problem of me also being connected to Desmond and the teeny-tiny issue of me having slept with him. Then there was the real problem—they both now knew I was part vampire, and Lucas had made a huge sacrifice to save my life when he shared his blood with me.
We hadn’t had time to discuss the ramifications of that particular revelation. I’d needed to heal, and then I’d needed a lot of time to clear my head. All of this was time spent apart from them. The wolf king was a patient man, but he was probably having to field a lot of questions at home about what had become of his Southern wolf princess.
The pack within New York was small, only twenty-four wolves. Twenty-four people were not likely to forget their leader telling them he had met his mate.
“Lady, this ain’t a sitting room. Where you wanna go?”
If the cab were a sitting room, it would have been one in a sauna. There was no air conditioning, and the bitter tang of sweat was rolling off the potbellied, wifebeater-clad cab driver. If it was still legal to smoke in taxis, I was willing to bet he’d have a cigar dangling from his meaty lips. His singular eyebrow was dipped in a scowl in the rearview mirror.
I was about to say SoHo, but it came out as a sibilant breath. No. I wasn’t ready, not yet. He must have seen the slight head shake, because he coughed with a phlegmy rattle and spit something out his open window. A cyclist cursed and the cabby snarled at him.
“Lady.” He drew out the word, emphasizing his impatience.
I gave him an address in the West Village, northwest of Rain Hotel, and he put the car in drive before I listed the cross street. As we drove, I pulled my cell phone out of my purse and dialed a number I almost never had cause to use.
“Miss me so soon?”
“Sig,” I said, no friendliness in my tone. “We need to talk about Brigit.”
“Yes?” As if he had no idea what I meant.
“She needs to go.”
“She is your charge.”
“I never had to live with my warden.”
There was a long pause. I hadn’t mentioned Holden by name, but it hung unsaid in the air.
“You will continue to monitor her. She is your responsibility.”
“She can be my responsibility somewhere else. Somewhere I am less likely to shoot her in her sleep. I got home and my shoes were everywhere. My power’s been shut off.”
I was thankful I’d had the foresight to pay up my rent until the end of the summer, especially now that I knew the newbie vampire hadn’t spared much thought for the little things, like bills.
“Shoes,” Sig said with a laugh. I don’t know if I’d ever heard Sig laugh, and it made my pulse trip. “Very well, Secret. I will have Ingrid make arrangements for Miss Stewart. And I will make a call about your power.” His tone told me he was less than thrilled about having to deal with such trifling issues. He hung up without any further comment.
The streets slid by slowly, and I watched as groups proceeded along the sidewalk to find their place in the Manhattan night. Girls in too-short sequined dresses and too-high heels moved in giggling packs. Men in cheap suits were leaving happy-hour pubs and advanced on to more promising nightspots. A red double-decker tour bus snaked past the cab, and groups of wide-eyed city virgins snapped endless photos of the glittery face of the city. New York was a shameless showgirl who never took off her makeup and always had a little too much leg showing. She was dazzling and unrepentant. I smiled, feeling like I was well and truly home.
We turned onto Christopher Street and followed it for a few moments until we arrived at Carmine, where the cab stopped in front of a short strip of brick buildings. I got out at a bakery called Sweet Jean’s and thrust some crumpled bills at the cabby. The air outside was cooler than it had been in the cab, and I enjoyed the slight turn of breeze that smelled like hot brick and the promise of a dirty night.
Beside the entrance to Sweet Jean’s was a small alley where a wrought-iron gate was the only indication something lay beyond. I squirmed down the pass and found the door buzzer next to the locked gate. After a short run of rings, a female voice asked, “Yes?”
“Cedes?” I knew it was her, if only because of the peevish, tired tone in her voice. Mercedes Castilla was a homicide detective with the NYPD. She knew I was a little wolfish, but that was about it. She was the only human I knew, aside from Keaty, who believed in monsters.
“Secret?” So many question marks, so few actual questions.
“The one and only.”
“You wily little skank. Stay right there.”
The buzzer fell silent, and I watched a couple walk by the mouth of the alley, laughing at a joke I had missed. I heard the fall of her footsteps raining down the inner stairwell, and then with a click of bolts being turned, she emerged on the other side of the gate, pushing it open to get a better look at me.