Pawn-Sample

 

 

 

 

Pawn

By Karen Lynch

 

 

Copyright @ 2020 Karen A Lynch 

 

This is a sample. The number of pages is limited.


 

About Pawn

 

Jesse James is a normal eighteen-year-old, even if her parents are the best faerie bounty hunters in New York. Jesse’s only concern is how to pay for college, but that changes the night her parents disappear.

 

Equipped with her parents’ weapons and her own smarts, Jesse enters the dangerous world of bounty hunting in search of her mother and father. In her quest, she encounters all manner of Fae, but the scariest is Lukas, the mysterious, imposing faerie who offers to help her find her parents.

 

But there are powerful forces at work, and Jesse is about to become a player in a dangerous game that could decide the fate of everyone she loves. In this world of magic and deception, it’s hard to tell her allies from her enemies in the race to find her parents before their time runs out.

 


 

Chapter 1

 

“Sorry, kid. I wish I could help you, but you know how it is.”

I gave the manager of the coffee shop a weary smile. “I appreciate you taking time to talk to me.”

“I heard one of the hotels in Hoboken is looking for maids,” she said as I turned to leave.

“Thanks.” I didn’t bother to ask which hotel because there was no way I was getting a job across the river. My parents would never allow it. I hadn’t told them I was extending my job search into lower Manhattan. I figured I’d wait until I found a job before I brought it up. If Dad had his way, I wouldn’t leave Brooklyn until I went to college.

I left the warm shop and stepped out into the brisk November air. Pulling up the collar of my coat, I leaned against the building while I contemplated my next move. It was late afternoon and I’d been out here all day, but I wasn’t ready to give up yet.

I pushed off from the building, and a poster tacked to the wall of the newsstand next door caught my eye. It was an Agency recruitment poster, featuring a male and a female agent, both sharp and attractive in their crisp black suits. “The Fae Enforcement Agency needs you,” it read in big bold letters.

Beneath the poster was a rack of celebrity gossip magazines. My eyes skimmed the covers, and I wasn’t surprised to see the front-page story on every one of them was about the new Seelie prince and his upcoming introduction to society. There weren’t any pictures of him, so no one knew yet what he looked like, but the entertainment world had been abuzz with speculation for months. The closer we got to his big debut, the more the excitement built.

I didn’t get what all the fuss was about. Sure, we hadn’t had a new Fae prince since before I was born, but it wasn’t as if there weren’t already a ton of royals for people to gawk at. What was one more? There were more important things to obsess over, such as the shortage of jobs.

“Come back here, you little freak!” yelled a man’s voice.

I looked up the crowded sidewalk and caught sight of a tiny figure weaving between the pedestrians, with a large angry man in hot pursuit. The kid, who couldn’t be more than eight or nine, was a dozen feet from me when I saw pointed ears protruding from his white-blond hair, and luminous green eyes. His face and clothes were filthy, and he looked scared out of his wits.

As he came abreast of me, my hand shot out and snagged his thin arm. In one move, I yanked him forward and shoved him behind me into the narrow gap between the newsstand and the coffee shop. I backed up, hiding his small body with mine and ignoring the tiny hands pushing ineffectually at my backside.

The man slowed to a stop, his mean face mottled and sweaty as he furiously scanned the area. When he didn’t spot his quarry, he let loose a loud string of profanities that earned him looks of censure from the people around him.

Behind me, the elf boy whimpered, and I put a hand on his shoulder. “Shhh.”

The man stomped away, halting at the intersection to look around again. I didn’t know what beef he had with the elf, and I didn’t care. There was no good reason to chase down a child like he was an animal.

Feeling eyes on me, I looked across the busy street and caught sight of a tall, dark-haired man watching me. He was in his early twenties, handsome and well-dressed in dark pants and a gray shirt that did nothing to hide his powerful physique. I was pretty sure he was a faerie, but he was too far away to say for certain.

He continued to watch me, probably wondering why I would go out of my way to protect an elf street urchin. I stared back in a silent challenge, while praying he didn’t tip off the other guy.

I let out a breath when a silver SUV pulled up beside him and he looked away from me. He and a blond male, who also looked Fae, got into the back of the car without another glance in my direction.

“Hey! Let me go,” wailed a muffled voice behind me, dragging my attention from the departing SUV. I glanced around to make sure the elf’s pursuer had moved on, and then I stepped aside to free the little guy.

His pale face was pinched in indignation. “What did you do that for?”

“Do what? Save you from that brute?”

He drew up to his full height, which was all of four feet to my five-seven. “I don’t need no saving. I can take care of myself.”

“Yes, I can see that,” I retorted, taking in his gaunt face and brittle eyes that had probably witnessed more than any child should ever have to see. Life on the street was rough, but it had to be twice as hard for children, especially faeries.

I opened my mouth to ask him if he was alone out here, but he bolted before I could speak. I watched him dart away through the passersby, who paid him no heed. It was a sad statement about our society that the sight of a homeless child didn’t make people bat an eye.

No longer in the mood to wear a polite smile, I decided to call it a day and resume my job search tomorrow. I stuffed my hands into my coat pockets and headed to the subway station half a block away. Passing storefronts with festive holiday decorations in the windows, I was reminded I still hadn’t started my Christmas shopping. Knowing Mom, she already had our presents wrapped and hidden in her closet. I smiled to myself. There was no one as organized as my mother.

It wasn’t until I was at the subway turnstile and reaching into my back pocket for my MetroCard that I realized my day had taken another downward turn. I felt around in my pocket a few times to be sure, and then checked my other pockets, before my shoulders sagged. That little bugger had picked my pocket and made off with my card and the ten dollars I’d had there.

Way to go, Jesse. I patted my coat pocket, relieved to find my phone still there. At least he hadn’t gotten that.

Heaving a sigh, I turned away from the booth. I cast one last longing glance at the train before I climbed the stairs to the street. I had a long walk ahead of me, and if I wanted to make it home before dark, I needed to get moving.

A bus passed me as I neared the bridge, and my lip curled at the video ad playing on the side of the bus. It was for one of those entertainment shows, promoting their upcoming exclusive interview with the as-yet-unseen Seelie prince. We had faerie kids living in the gutter and stealing change to survive, and the country was obsessed with some royal faerie who hadn’t known a day of suffering in his pampered life.

Thirty years ago, when the Great Rift happened, my parents had been kids. A tear had formed between our world and the faerie realm, forcing the faeries to reveal their existence to us. At first, there had been widespread panic, but once people got over their shock, they embraced the Fae with open arms.

Well, some of the Fae. The beautiful, immortal Court faeries, who looked like genetically-perfect humans, were accepted immediately. Among them were the Royal Fae, who became instant celebrities and moved in the upper circles of society. Lower Fae races such as dwarves, elves, trolls, and many others, lived among us, but their lives weren’t as easy as the upper Fae. They had to deal with bigotry and hardships that their beautiful upper class didn’t need to worry about.

Mom and Dad loved to tell me stories about what life was like before the Great Rift. I found it hard to imagine a world where faeries and magic existed only in books. The old movies we watched that were made before the Rift didn’t feel real to me.

What did feel real was the cold drizzle that started just as I reached the halfway point of the bridge. “Great,” I muttered, increasing my pace. Not that it made any difference. By the time I reached the Brooklyn side, the drizzle had become a steady rain, and I could barely see through my glasses.

I was soaked through and chilled to the bone by the time our three-story brick building finally came into view. I spotted a tall, dark-haired figure getting out of a blue Jeep Cherokee farther down the street. My father looked up, and his smile became a frown when he took in my appearance. I didn’t need a mirror to know I resembled a drowned rat.

“Don’t ask,” I grumbled when he met me at the steps. One thing I didn’t do well was lie to my parents, and I really didn’t want to tell Dad I’d gone to Manhattan and gotten my money stolen.

He chuckled and followed me into the building. “That good, huh?”

I glowered at him as Mrs. Russo came out of her apartment the moment we entered the small lobby.

“Patrick, the pipes in my bathroom are making that noise again,” said the eighty-year-old widow, her messy updo at least five shades redder than my ginger curls.

Dad rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Russo. I’ll look at them tomorrow if you can wait until then.”

“That’ll be fine.” She smiled warmly at him, and then her gaze narrowed on me. “Child, are you trying to catch your death, running around like that?”

I was saved from answering by the arrival of a stocky, gray-skinned dwarf with scruffy black hair, who came through the front door behind us, pushing a bicycle. He stopped when he saw the three of us and lifted a hand in greeting. “Evening,” he mumbled in a guttural voice.

“Hey, Gorn,” I said as he propped his bike against the wall beneath the mailboxes and opened his box.

He grunted and flipped through his mail. With a curt nod in our direction, he grabbed his bike and wheeled it to his door, which was directly across from Mrs. Russo’s.

If he were human, Gorn’s behavior would seem standoffish and rude. But as far as dwarves went, he was downright sociable.

“Such a nice boy.” Mrs. Russo gave an approving nod. “Never has much to say, but he always takes out my garbage for me.” She patted my father’s arm. “You’re a good man, Patrick, for letting his kind live here.”

Mrs. Russo spoke with the candor of someone who had lived a long life and felt they had earned the right to say whatever they wanted. But we knew she didn’t have a racist bone in her body. When she said “his kind,” she meant lower faeries, not just dwarves. Many landlords refused to rent apartments to lower faeries, and they were not required by law to do so. That meant most faeries, like Gorn and the quiet elf couple on the second floor, were forced to live in slums and pay exorbitant rents.

I was proud to say my parents were nothing like those landlords. Our building might be a little dated, and something usually needed repairs, but anyone was welcome as long as they weren’t criminals. Not that the criminal element was stupid enough to come around here.

Dad and I stayed for another minute to chat with Mrs. Russo before we climbed the stairs to our apartment on the third floor. The unit across from us was home to Dad’s best friend, Maurice, when he was in town. He traveled a lot for work, so his place was empty at least nine months out of the year. That meant we mostly had the floor to ourselves.

The mouthwatering smell of meat loaf greeted us as soon as I opened the apartment door. Mom’s meat loaf and mashed potatoes was one of my favorite meals and the perfect way to make up for my crappy day.

Mom was in the kitchen when we entered the apartment. Her hair, the exact same shade as mine, was pulled back in a ponytail, and her glasses were in their usual spot on top of her head. If I wanted to know what I’d look like in twenty years, I only had to look at her. Except for the blue eyes I’d inherited from Dad, I was a carbon copy of Mom, right down to the dusting of freckles across my nose.

“Great timing. Dinner’s almost ready,” Mom said before her eyes landed on me. “Jesse, you’re soaking wet.”

I grimaced as I kicked off my Chucks. “I’m fine. Nothing a hot shower and your meat loaf won’t fix.”

She laughed. “Call your brother when you’re done.”

My wet socks left a trail behind me as I walked to my bedroom, which overlooked the street I’d lived on my entire life. My room was small, but I made the most of the space. The walls were a cream color, and my twin bed was covered in a pretty patchwork quilt that brightened up the room. On one side of the window was my desk, and on the other side was a stuffed chair that had seen better days. Next to the chair, my old acoustic guitar was propped against the wall.

Grabbing a change of clothes, I went down the short hallway to the bathroom. Three people sharing one bathroom wasn’t the most convenient arrangement, but we made it work. And my parents were great about giving me privacy.

As chilled as I was, I would have loved a prolonged stay under the hot water, but hunger had me rushing through my shower. I left my room twenty minutes later, dressed in a long-sleeved T-shirt and warm fleece pants.

In the living room, I went over to the small tree house in one corner of the room. A narrow ladder ran from the floor to the house, which was nearly hidden behind the flowering vines that covered it.

“Finch, it’s dinnertime,” I said to the tree house.

The vines moved, and a round, blue face framed by bright blue hair appeared. Large lilac eyes blinked at me, and a devious smile was the only warning I got before he leaped at me.

“Gah!” I yelled, even though I should have expected the attack. I tripped over my feet and fell backward onto the couch, making sure not to crush the little monster in the fall. My reward? An evil, twelve-inch-tall sprite tickling the crap out of me until I begged for mercy.

“Finch, stop torturing your sister,” Dad called from the dining room. “Mm-mmm these fresh blackberries sure are tasty.”

Finch was off me and out of the room before I could blink.

Grinning, I got to my feet. I followed him into the dining room where he was already sitting on the table beside his plate, stuffing a fat blackberry into his tiny mouth. Juice dribbled down his chin, but he was blissfully unaware as he devoured his favorite food.

“How did it go today?” Mom asked Dad as he helped her set the meat loaf and potatoes in the center of the table.

“Phil and I caught that banshee he’s been after, so we’ll get half the bounty for that one.”

“That’s great!” She sat across from me, looking pleased. “I spoke to Levi earlier, and he said he might have another level Four for us this week. He’ll know in a day or two.”

“November might be our best month this year,” Dad said with a smile.

I dug into my food while my parents talked shop. Most kids listened to their parents discuss their office jobs or something else equally mundane at dinner. I’d grown up hearing about bounty hunting.

The Fae presence in our world hadn’t come without complications. Suddenly introducing faeries and magic into the human realm caused a whole slew of problems. Crime increased, and our police force was not equipped to handle the nonhuman cases. The Fae Enforcement Agency was established to police and protect the Fae, and to regulate the use of magic. But even the Agency couldn’t keep up with it all.

That’s where my parents came in.

The Agency contracted out the overflow of their cases to bond agents, who, in turn, gave the jobs to bounty hunters. I didn’t know all the ins and outs of the business, but I’d heard enough from my parents to know that bounties were classified by threat level, and the higher the threat, the bigger the payout. There were five levels that I was aware of, and a level Four job carried a nice fat bounty.

Mom and Dad were two of the best hunters on the eastern seaboard, and widely respected by their peers. That was why Levi, one of the bond agents they worked for, always gave them a heads up when a choice job was coming down the wire. Bounty hunting was a competitive business, and everyone wanted the top jobs.

Our neighbor, Maurice, was also in the business. He’d started out working with my parents, but now he traveled all over the country, taking on the really big jobs. Dad always said if there was someone better than Maurice Begnaud at bounty hunting, he had never heard of them.

“Any luck today, Jesse?” Mom asked.

Yeah, bad luck. “I think I have better odds of marrying a Fae prince than finding another job in this city.”

She chuckled. “You’ll find something. Nancy gave you a great reference.”

Nancy owned the coffee shop where I’d worked part-time for the last two years. After I’d graduated in May, I’d gone full-time at the Magic Bean, the plan being to take every shift I could and bank all my earnings for college. It had been going well until a freak drought wiped out entire coffee bean crops in South America.

Overnight, the price of coffee beans skyrocketed, and most people could no longer pay for their daily cup of joe. Smaller coffee shops, like the Magic Bean, hung on as long as they could before they were forced to close their doors. Even some of the chain stores were struggling now that only people with money – like the patrons at that Manhattan coffee shop – could afford to drink coffee.

I toyed with my food. “Unfortunately, there are too many people like me with good references.”

“The economy will turn around,” Dad said cheerily, even though we both knew that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon with the country in its second year of a recession. The only business booming these days was bounty hunting.

“I guess I could always join the family business,” I joked, earning disapproving looks from both of my parents.

Dad laid down his fork. “As proud as I would be to have you working with us, you are going to college. You still want that, don’t you?”

“More than anything.”

“Good.” He nodded and picked up his fork again to dig into his mashed potatoes.

Something cold touched the back of my hand, and I looked down to see Finch standing beside my plate, holding out a blackberry. His pretty eyes were sad, like they always got when he saw I was down.

“Thanks.” I took the offered blackberry and popped it into my mouth. “You’re the best brother a girl could ask for. You know that?”

His face lit up, and he scampered back to his own plate. I couldn’t help but smile as I watched him attack a piece of mango. All it took to make Finch happy was to see his family happy. That and lots and lots of fruit.

Realizing my parents had gone quiet, I glanced up to see sadness flit across Mom’s face before she hid it behind a smile. As I replayed my words to Finch in my head, I berated myself for my thoughtlessness.

Finch must have seen it, too, because he walked over to bring her one of his precious blackberries. She smiled and leaned down to let him put it in her mouth. Sprite children liked to feed their parents as a sign of affection, and Mom loved it when he did it. He was close to both of our parents, but there’d always been a special bond between him and Mom.

Her phone rang in the kitchen, and she jumped up to answer it. She was back a minute later, wearing a serious expression I knew well. It was her work face.

“That was Tennin,” she said to Dad. “He’s in town, but he’s leaving again tomorrow. If we want to talk to him, we need to go now.”

Dad was already standing by the time she finished speaking. The two of them looked at me, and I waved them off.

“Go on. I’ll clean up.”

I finished my dinner while they hurriedly changed into work clothes, which consisted of combat boots and dark jeans and T-shirts. Though I couldn’t see weapons, I was sure they both carried them. My parents never went anywhere unprepared.

“We shouldn’t be too late,” Mom told me as she tucked her phone into her back pocket.

“Be back by curfew, or you’re both grounded.”

Finch whistled in agreement and wagged a finger at them.

Mom laughed, and Dad winked at us as they rushed out the door.

I put the leftovers in the fridge and made short work of the dishes. Leaving Finch to finish his meal, I went to my room and spent the next hour scouring the classifieds and job sites. It was a depressing task, but one I did every night. I was going to college, even if it took me years to save enough to get there.

I looked at the envelope bearing the official seal for Cornell University that was pinned to the bulletin board above my desk. Beneath that envelope was one from Stanford and another from Harvard.

I had been over the moon when I got acceptance letters from three of my top picks, until I saw how much it would cost. Tuition had almost doubled in the last decade and colleges didn’t give full-ride scholarships anymore unless you were an athlete. Mom and Dad had some money put away for college, but it wasn’t enough to pay for tuition, books, and years of living expenses. I’d thought I could work my way through college, but I would need a full-time job with great pay just to cover tuition.

Last spring, the Agency had tried to recruit me into their intelligence program after graduation. It was normal for them to recruit from the top five percentile of high school graduates, and I’d been in the top one percent. In addition to training, the program included a free college education at the school of your choice, as long as the degree was in an area that could be utilized by the Agency. The lure of a free college education was strong, but I’d also be obligated to work for the Agency for five years afterward.

My phone vibrated on the desk, and I read the text from my best friend, Violet. How goes the job hunt?

Guess, I wrote back.

A sad emoji appeared. Mom or Dad would give you a job.

Violet’s father owned a big accounting firm, and her mother was a high-powered defense attorney. Even if one of their firms had an open position, it would be nothing that an out of work barista with a high school diploma was qualified for. If Violet asked them, they might create an intern position for me, but that felt too much like charity. I wasn’t at that point yet.

Ask me again in a few weeks, I said.

Will do.

The twang of a guitar string interrupted my texting. I looked over my shoulder at Finch, who stood beside my guitar, watching me hopefully.

“Maybe later.”

He plucked another string with a little more force, and I knew he wasn’t going to leave until he got what he’d come for.

Shooting him a playful scowl, I picked up the guitar and went to sit on the bed. “I just learned a new song. You want to hear?”

Finch signed, Annie’s Song.

I scrunched up my nose. “Aren’t you sick of that one yet?”

He shook his head and climbed up to sit on my pillow.

“You’re such a dork.” I started to play. Ever since Mom had come home with an old John Denver album last year, Finch had been obsessed with that one song. It was a good guitar song, so I’d learned to play it for him, but now he wanted to hear it all the time.

Sing, he signed.

I shot him the stink eye and started over, singing the words I knew by heart. My voice was passable, but Finch fell into a trancelike state every time I sang to him. It didn’t happen when Mom or Dad sang, and I’d read that something like one in a million people could entrance lower faeries with song. I’d tried it once on Gorn, and he’d looked at me like I was nuts. That was when I’d learned it didn’t work on all faeries.

I’d used singing against Finch a few times to get my own way when we were younger – until Mom and Dad found out and grounded me for a whole month. I’d also endured a lecture about taking advantage of my brother, who had already suffered too much in his young life.

When I was nine, my parents rescued Finch after they busted a ring of traffickers. Because of their size and exotic beauty, sprites were often illegally sold as pets on the black market. Finch’s parents had been sold off already, leaving the one-year-old sprite orphaned and traumatized. The traffickers had clipped his gossamer wings to prevent him from flying away, and there was no way he would survive on his own or be accepted by other sprites in Faerie. So, Mom and Dad brought him home to live with us.

In the beginning, Finch was so terrified and grief-stricken he wouldn’t eat or let anyone near him. For the first week, we’d all feared he would die. But with time and a lot of TLC, he recovered and warmed up to us. Sprites lived in trees in Faerie, so Dad built him his own tree house in our living room, complete with a ladder because Finch could no longer fly.

Sprites couldn’t vocalize human words, so they were often thought to be of lesser intelligence. But I knew from firsthand experience that they were extremely smart. Finch understood our language just fine, and it had been easy for him to learn sign language. He’d actually picked it up faster than we had. Now, he communicated with us using ASL and a series of whistles. He might not be human, but he was as much a part of this family as any of us.

I played five more songs before I laid down the guitar, and we went to the living room to watch a movie. He picked out the one he wanted, and we lay on the couch together.

I didn’t remember falling asleep. Hours later, I sat upright on the couch, looking around in confusion. A familiar song filled the room, and I reached for my phone, which was on the coffee table. It was Mom’s ringtone – Bad to the Bone – and I blearily wondered why on earth she was calling me at this ungodly hour.

“Hello?” I rasped.

Instead of a reply, I got an earful of garbled sounds. I thought I could hear voices in the background, but they were too indistinct to make out the words.

“Mom?” I said, but there was no response.

I yawned and rubbed my eyes. “You have to stop butt dialing me. This is bordering on child abuse.”

I pressed the button to end the call at the same time that a muffled scream came from the phone. My fingers froze on the screen.

What the hell was that?

My first reaction was to call her back, but I stopped myself before I hit the button. Bounty hunting could be messy and dangerous. Mom had probably dialed me by accident in the middle of a capture, and calling her would only distract her, especially if she saw it was me.

They’re fine, I told myself. We’d have a good laugh about this tomorrow.

I turned off the lights and made my way to bed. Rolling onto my side, I closed my eyes and willed my body to relax, despite the unease that had stolen over me. Eventually, my mind calmed, and I slipped back into sleep.


 

Chapter 2

 

They didn’t come home.

I’d woken up at seven, expecting Mom and Dad to be here, but the apartment was quiet and their bed hadn’t been slept in. I’d showered, made breakfast for Finch and me, and cleaned up. Still, there was no sign of our parents.

It wasn’t unusual for them to stay out overnight on a job, but they always called to let me know they wouldn’t be home. Always. No exception.

The clock on the mantle chimed noon. I should have heard from them by now.

I tried Dad’s phone first, then Mom’s, and both went straight to voice mail. I swallowed dryly. There was no one more capable of taking care of themselves than my parents. Maybe I was overreacting, but I couldn’t wait any longer.

My parents’ office was nothing more than a small bedroom that served as a work space and a storage area for all the weapons and tools of their trade. On one side of the room was the desk, bookcase, and filing cabinets, everything neat and in its place. This was Mom’s domain. She managed all the finances and administrative side of the business. Dad was the tactical and information expert, and he managed everything in those areas. He knew more about weapons, combat, and the Fae than anyone else I knew.

I went to the desk and sat in the chair. Ignoring the computer, I opened the top drawer and pulled out the address book Mom kept all their contacts in. She had them on the computer, but she often said you should never put all your trust in technology that could fail on you at any time.

She was right. A few years back, a hobgoblin went on a rampage in Manhattan, and his magic took out every computer in a city block before a group of hunters, led by my parents, caught him. We had iron grounding rods on the roof to protect our building against that, but Mom wasn’t taking any chances.

Finch jumped up onto the desk, startling me. I almost scolded him until I saw the worry in his eyes. He whistled and signed, Mom and Dad?

“They’ll be home soon,” I told him, wishing I knew that were true. “I’m just going to call around to some of their friends.”

By friends, I meant their fellow bounty hunters in the area. Most hunters worked in pairs, but they sometimes teamed up to help each other out on difficult jobs. And they watched each other’s backs. Thankfully, Mom had them all clearly marked in her address book.

I spent the next hour calling every one of Mom’s contacts. I couldn’t reach a few of them, but no one I spoke to had seen either of my parents in the last two days, except for Phil Griffin. He was the one Dad had helped on that banshee job yesterday. Phil didn’t sound too worried when I told him they hadn’t come home. I had to bite back a retort when he said I shouldn’t concern myself with these matters and that my parents knew what they were doing.

After I’d exhausted all their local contacts, I dialed Maurice’s number. Last I’d heard, he was somewhere in the Everglades on a big job, but he would want me to call him. I wasn’t surprised when I got his voice mail, and I left him a message detailing everything that had happened since yesterday. He’d call me back as soon as he got my message, whenever that was.

The last person I called was Levi Solomon. I didn’t know what job Mom and Dad were working on, but it had to be one of Levi’s. If anyone knew where my parents were, it was their bond agent.

Feeling hopeful, I dialed his number.

“Hello?” rumbled a gravelly voice that sounded like its owner smoked two packs of cigarettes a day.

“Hi, Mr. Solomon,” I replied, all businesslike. “I’m Jesse James. Patrick and Caroline James are my parents.”

That’s right. My name is Jesse James. I could thank my dad and his obsession with old westerns for that.

There was a short pause before Levi Solomon cautiously asked, “What can I do for you?”

I cleared my throat. “Well, um…I was wondering if you know where my parents are. They went out on a job last night and didn’t come home.”

“Sometimes bounty hunters stay out all night,” he said with a note of impatience. “It’s part of the job.”

“Yes, but they always let me know if they won’t be home.” Dread coiled in my stomach as I told him about the strange call I’d gotten from Mom last night.

“They were probably making a capture,” he replied casually.

“If you could tell me what job they were –”

“Sorry, kid. I can’t discuss Agency jobs with just anyone.”

I gripped the phone tighter. “But they’re my parents, and they’re missing.”

He coughed loudly and wheezed. “Listen. I have no idea if you are who you say you are. And a person has to be gone longer than a few hours to be declared missing. If you are Patrick and Caroline’s kid, you should know they can take care of themselves. I’m sure they’ll turn up soon.”

“But –”

The line went dead.

I stared at the phone in disbelief. Did he really just hang up on me?

Finch waved a hand to get my attention. They never stay out this long, he signed fearfully.

My chest squeezed. I picked him up and gently hugged him to comfort me as much as him. “Don’t worry. I’ll find them.”

I chewed my lip and pondered what to do next. My fingers automatically went to the braided black leather bracelet Mom had given me when I was twelve. I rarely removed it, and I took comfort in its familiar texture.

I picked up the address book. The longer I stared at Levi Solomon’s name, the more my jaw tightened until it hurt. He was my only lead to finding Mom and Dad, and I’d be damned if he was going to brush me off that easily. If he wanted proof I was Patrick and Caroline James’s daughter, I’d give it to him.

Setting Finch on the desk, I pushed back the chair and stood. In my room, I changed into jeans and a thermal top and pulled on a coat. I stuffed my phone, a credit card, and some cash into my coat pocket and picked up my keys.

Finch was waiting for me in the living room. Where are you going? he signed.

“To talk to that bond agent. I’ll be home as soon as I can.”

Waving goodbye to Finch, I left the apartment and locked the door behind me. I hated to leave him alone when he was worried about Mom and Dad, but I wasn’t going to get any answers sitting at home. All that would do was drive me crazy.

It took me over an hour to reach the four-story brick building in Queens that housed Levi Solomon’s agency. The Plaza, as it was called, was home to over half a dozen bond agencies, and it was like walking into a bounty hunter convention when I entered the main lobby. Four armed hunters conversed off to my left, while five others talked to my right. Two more waited by the elevator with a bound ogre supported between them. The yellow-skinned ogre growled something around the gag in his mouth, and then he tried to butt one of the hunters with his bald head.

The elevator dinged, and the doors opened. I watched the three get on and decided I’d better wait for the next one. Ogres were unpleasant on a good day. No way I was getting in a little metal box with that one.

I felt eyes on me as I waited, and I met the curious stares of several hunters. I didn’t know any of them, but I was aware of how out of place I was here. Bounty hunters were like a club that everyone knew about, but only members got to see what went on inside. Except for Agency operatives, outsiders didn’t come to their place of work.

“You lost, kid?” a woman called a second before the elevator doors opened.

“Nope.” I stepped inside, and the doors closed behind me.

I got off on the fourth floor and immediately spotted a door to my right with The Solomon Agency painted on it. The door was unlocked, and a bell tinkled when I entered.

I wasn’t sure what I had been expecting a bond agency to look like, but it wasn’t this one-room windowless office that reeked of stale cigarette smoke. There was a metal desk in the corner and a row of tall filing cabinets along one wall. The other walls were covered with wanted posters featuring just about every race of faerie you could think of – except Court Fae, of course. It was extremely rare that a bounty was issued for one of the Fae ruling class.

At the back of the room was a door I hadn’t noticed when I came in. I had no idea if it led to a bathroom or to another office. There was no one sitting at the desk, and I stood uncertainly for a minute before I took a seat on one of the rickety visitor chairs. Levi must have stepped out briefly, or he wouldn’t have left the door unlocked. I would just wait here for him to return.

Five minutes passed before the door at the back of the office opened, and a very overweight man came out. His dark hair was peppered with gray, and he had so many chins I couldn’t see his neck. Wheezing, he lumbered over to his desk, without looking in my direction, and eased his body down onto his chair. Metal groaned ominously, and I held my breath as I waited for the chair to give out under his weight. Miraculously, it held, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he was using some kind of Fae spell to support it.

It wasn’t until the man was seated that he finally noticed me. Surprise flitted across his face, but it was quickly replaced by suspicion. His hand went under the desk, no doubt to grip a weapon he kept there. With that in mind, I decided it would be prudent to stay seated and not make any sudden moves.

“Mr. Solomon, my name is Jesse James,” I said before he could speak. “I spoke to you earlier on the phone.”

It took a few seconds before I saw recognition dawn on his face. No one who knew my mother could miss my resemblance to her.

His posture relaxed a bit, but he kept his hand under the desk. What did he think I was going to do? “Miss James, you’re a long way from home, and I’m sure your parents would not be pleased to find you here.”

I had to bite back a snarky reply. If he’d been helpful when I called him, I wouldn’t have had to come here to see him in person.

I pasted on a smile instead. “You told me you had no way of knowing I was who I claimed to be. I came here to give you proof of my identity and to ask for your help.”

He pursed his lips. “I’m sorry you came all the way down here, but like I told you on the phone, your parents are more than capable of taking care of themselves. They haven’t even been gone twenty-four hours.”

“And I told you they wouldn’t stay out this long without calling me.” My stomach clenched painfully. “Something’s wrong.”

“You don’t know that.” He pulled his hand from beneath the desk and waved it dismissively.

I fought to keep my anger in check, knowing it wouldn’t help me. “Can you at least tell me what job they’re working on?”

“Your parents normally have three or four active cases, and they could have been working on any one of them last night.” He put up a hand. “Don’t ask me what those jobs are because we don’t discuss Agency business with outsiders.”

“Outsiders?” I shot to my feet. “I’m their daughter, not some total stranger. I can call up a dozen bounty hunters who will vouch for me.”

Levi’s expression changed to one of annoyance as he rested his thick forearms on the desk. “It wouldn’t matter if the Pope himself came in here on your behalf. If you aren’t in the business, no one is going to tell you anything. That’s just the way it is. You ask anyone in this building and they’ll tell you the same thing.”

I paced in front of his desk. “So, that’s it? People you’ve worked with for years disappear, and you won’t do anything?”

“Listen here, kid. I’ve been doing this since before you were born, and I think I know a bit more about this business than you.” His multiple chins wobbled. “I’m not going to raise alarms for two of the top bounty hunters in the state just because they forgot to call home. If we don’t hear from them in another thirty-six hours, I’ll report them missing to the Agency and they will send someone to investigate.”

“That’s all you’ll do?” Frustration and fear welled inside me. Mom and Dad could be hurt and unable to call for help, and no one would even start to look for them for another day and a half.

He tapped a finger impatiently on the desk. “That’s all I can do. We have rules I have to follow. Go home, and let us take care of things here. This is no place for a young girl like you.”

My anger flared again. “I’m eighteen, old enough to be a bounty hunter.”

“That may be, but you’re not one, which means you have no business here.”

I stalked to the door and threw it open. “As long as my parents are missing, this is my business. I’ll be back in thirty-six hours, Mr. Solomon.”

He grumbled something that turned into a hacking smoker’s cough. I’d be lucky if the guy didn’t keel over before he had a chance to send someone to look for Mom and Dad.

In the elevator, I tapped my foot impatiently as I waited for the car to reach the first floor. I couldn’t believe I had wasted half my afternoon on coming to see a man who couldn’t care less about my parents. I should have known better after he’d hung up on me. The jerk.

The elevator doors slid open, and I hurried out, almost running into the two sandy-haired men waiting to get on. I jumped back and let out a silent breath of relief when I recognized Bruce Fowler. He and Dad had gone to high school together, and like most of my parents’ friends, he was a bounty hunter. He was a nice man, and his family lived only two streets over from us.

“Jesse!” exclaimed the younger man with Bruce.

I suppressed a groan when my eyes met the brown ones of Bruce’s son, Trey. You might think that with our parents being friends, Trey and I would be good friends, too. You would be wrong.

Two years older than me, Trey had been one of those cocky, good-looking boys who loved being the center of attention and having a cute girl on his arm. That would have been fine if he hadn’t spent his time between hookups trying to get into my pants. Like that would ever happen. I knew he’d only wanted me because I had been one of the few girls from school he couldn’t have.

He’d only gotten more full of himself since he’d started bounty hunting with his father last year. You’d think he was some kind of superhero with the way he bragged about his job. I knew better.

“Hi,” I said tightly, although the smile I gave Bruce was genuine.

Bruce’s brows drew together in concern. “Jesse, what are you doing here? Are you with your parents?”

I shook my head and swallowed past the lump that suddenly formed in my throat. “I don’t know where Mom and Dad are. They went out last night and never came home.” I told him about the weird call from my mother and that Levi had refused to help me find them.

Trey puffed out his chest. “It’s an Agency policy to wait two days. There are a lot of rules we bounty hunters have to live by.”

If I hadn’t been so worried about my parents, I would have rolled my eyes. Trey was harmless, but he could be a pompous idiot at times.

“I’ll talk to Levi and see what I can do. But the Plaza is no place for you. Go on home, and I’ll call you if I hear anything.” Bruce laid a comforting hand on my shoulder. “I’m sure your parents will be home soon.”

“Thanks.” I didn’t want to go home and sit around waiting to hear something, but I wasn’t going to learn anything else here. And if Bruce said he’d try to help, I knew he would. I just hoped he had more luck getting information out of Levi than I had.

I said goodbye and exited the building, having to step to one side at the door to allow three hunters to enter, carrying a shackled, thrashing female between them. The woman’s black hair was wild and matted, and her dress was little more than rags. A muzzle covering the lower half of her face did not completely mute her screeching, and my ears ached from the sound. It was my first time seeing a banshee up close, and I hoped I never ran into one that wasn’t gagged.

Outside the building, I descended the steps to the street and paused while I checked the subway schedule on my phone. I silently cursed my stupidity when I saw Trey had followed me.

“Come on. I’ll give you a lift home,” he said with a saccharine smile. “You don’t need to be riding the subway alone.”

My hackles went up at his insinuation that I couldn’t take care of myself. “I’ve taken the subway plenty of times. I think I can handle it.”

He was a little taken aback by my tone but quickly recovered and tried another tactic. “Your father would want to know someone was watching out for you while he’s gone. Dad agrees with me that you shouldn’t be all alone in the apartment either. I’d be happy to sleep on your couch until your parents come home.”

I bet you would. “Thanks, but that won’t be necessary.”

“I’m serious, Jesse,” he pressed. “This city can be a dangerous place for a girl on her –”

“Do not finish that sentence, Trey Fowler, if you value your life.” I planted a hand against his chest and shoved him backward. “This girl is more than capable of taking care of herself, thank you very much. And if you don’t mind, I’ll be leaving now to catch my train.”

I spun away and stomped off down the street toward the subway station. The gall of him to suggest I was helpless because I was a female. I should go back there and kick his ass, just to show him how well I could defend myself. I wasn’t as good a fighter as either of my parents, but thanks to Dad’s rigorous self-defense training, I could hold my own.

My temper had cooled by the time I reached the station. I paid my fare, thinking I should probably buy a MetroCard if I was going to be taking the subway a lot. My old job had been within walking distance of home, so I hadn’t needed to take the subway to work.

I was waiting for my train when I got the eerie sensation of being watched. My gaze scanned the station and landed on a tall man in a long, dark coat leaning against one of the support columns about twenty feet away. A hood shadowed all but his lower face, so the only thing I could make out was that he was white. But I could feel his eyes on me. I stared back, hoping to make him look away, but his gaze stayed locked on me.

A cold tingle ran across the back of my neck as my creep alarm went off. I edged closer to the other people waiting for the train and out of his sight. When the train arrived, I got on with everyone else and made sure I sat with a group of passengers.

Daring a glance out the window as the train departed the station, I nearly sagged in relief when I saw the man standing in the same spot. He looked up when my car passed him, and all it took was one glimpse of his beautiful face to know he was a faerie. Our eyes met for the briefest moment, and the cold scrutiny on his face sent a shiver through me. It was a good ten minutes until I felt warm again.

By the time I got home, I had convinced myself that I’d overreacted to a stranger’s harmless stare. I was under a lot of stress today, and it was making me imagine things.

Finch was standing on the back of the couch waiting for me when I opened the door. The relief on his small face made guilt prick me. They were his parents, too, and he’d been here alone for hours with no idea of when I’d come home.

“Hey.” I tossed my coat over the back of a chair and faced him with my hands on my hips. “What? No dinner?”

I was rewarded when he made a face. Finch hated cooked food, especially any kind of meat. If it wasn’t fresh fruit or vegetables, he refused to touch it.

Mom and Dad? he signed, watching me closely.

I let out a long breath. “Sorry, buddy. No one will do anything until they’ve been missing for two days. But don’t you worry. I’m going to find them, with or without anyone’s help.”

How?

“I don’t know yet. I’ll think better after I get some food in me.”

I entered the kitchen and took last night’s leftovers from the fridge. Putting a large portion of meat loaf and mashed potatoes on a plate, I stuck it in the microwave to heat while I made up a small fruit plate for Finch.

When both of our meals were ready, I carried our plates over and laid them on the coffee table. Mom didn’t like us eating in the living room, but there was no way I could sit at the table and look at her and Dad’s empty chairs.

After I’d washed up our plates, I headed for the only place that could give me a clue to my parents’ whereabouts. Mom was meticulous about record keeping. If there was anything to find, it would be on her computer or somewhere in her desk.

Luckily, Mom had given me her password ages ago. “Just in case,” she’d said. At the time, I couldn’t imagine ever having a reason to go into their work computer. I think, at the back of my mind, I’d always known there was a chance one of them could get hurt or worse on a job. But I had never let myself consider the possibility of something happening to both of them, and at the same time.

I logged in and thanked Mom for her amazing organizational skills when I easily located the main folder for the business. Inside was a directory of subfolders, all titled by year, and in the folder for the current year, I found a spreadsheet containing every job my parents had worked on since January. Each job was color coded by level, with links to other tabs that contained more detailed notes.

I scrolled through the spreadsheet, amazed by how many jobs my parents had done this year. And not level One jobs either. All of these were Threes and Fours.

All bounties were categorized by threat level, according to Agency guidelines. Level One was the easiest, and the bounty for that one was a thousand dollars. Level Two carried a bounty of two thousand. Level Three jumped up a bit with a bounty of five thousand. A level Four was a whopping ten thousand dollars. There was a level Five, but I had no idea what the bounty was for that one. If my parents had ever brought in a level Five, they hadn’t told me about it.

Experienced bounty hunters competed for the Threes and Fours because they were the most lucrative. Beginners and junior hunters took most of the Ones and Twos until they were ready to move up to the next level.

According to the spreadsheet, Mom and Dad had two open jobs, a level Three and a level Four. The Three was for a goblin that had been burglarizing houses in several Brooklyn neighborhoods for the last month. The Four was for a dealer peddling a highly addictive drug called goren.

Goren was made from a Fae plant of the same name that had been banned in our realm. Faeries ate it as a garnish on their food, and it was harmless to them. For humans, it created a state of intense euphoria. It didn’t harm them physically, but once they tried it, all they cared about was getting more of it. They would sell everything they had just to get more of the drug.

“Aha!” I almost shouted when I spotted a name I’d heard before in the contact list for the second job. Tennin. Mom had mentioned him yesterday at dinner. I rubbed my chin as I tried to remember what she’d said. Tennin was in town for a day, and they had to talk to him before he left again. He was the one they’d gone to see last night.

According to Mom’s notes, Tennin was a photographer, and she’d flagged him as a trusted confidential informant. Wondering what was so special about a photographer, I did an internet search for photographers named Tennin in New York City. It didn’t take long to find out that he was a paparazzo, and a damn good one, if his website was any indication.

I sat back in the chair and stared at the monitor as I contemplated what to do with this new information. I could call Bruce and Levi and ask them to talk to Tennin, but there was no guarantee either man would take me seriously and actually reach out to the photographer. Or that Tennin would confide in them about why my parents had gone to see him. He was listed as a confidential informant, so he might not take too kindly to being outed to others.

And then there was the fact that Mom had said Tennin was only in town for a day. I only had today to talk to him before he was gone again, for God knew how long.

I was standing before I realized I’d made a decision. I would go talk to Tennin myself. If I explained the situation, he might open up to me because of who I was. It was worth a try, and it was all I had right now.

Taking a piece of paper, I jotted down Tennin’s address and logged off the computer. I called goodbye to Finch, and I was about to leave the apartment when a set of car keys hanging beside the door caught my eye. Dad’s keys. I hadn’t noticed them earlier, but their presence meant Mom and Dad had taken her car last night instead of his Jeep. They always used the SUV when they expected to do a capture, which told me they hadn’t planned on anything big going down last night.

I hesitated only a second before I grabbed the keys from their hook. Then I hurried from the apartment for the second time that day.


 

Chapter 3

 

I stared at the tall, blond male who opened the door of the Williamsburg apartment. My gaze took in his stunning blue eyes, full mouth, and perfectly symmetrical face, and I knew immediately that Tennin wasn’t human. No human gene pool or plastic surgeon could produce such flawless beauty. He certainly looked nothing like those scruffy, unkempt paparazzi I’d seen glimpses of on TV.

“Hello, gorgeous,” he drawled appreciatively as he looked me up and down. “When you buzzed up and said who you were, I was dubious. I guess I don’t need to see your ID to confirm your identity. Has anyone ever told you that you could be a clone of your mother?”

“I might have heard that before.”

Tennin smiled and waved me inside his sparsely furnished apartment. In the living room, there was a white leather couch with a matching chair and some small glass tables. The walls were mostly bare, and the place hardly looked lived in. It was a nice apartment, but a lot less grand than I would have expected for the home of a Court faerie. Not that I’d ever been in one of their homes before, but I’d imagined they lived more luxuriously than this.

“What brings you to my home, Miss James? I’m delighted to have such alluring company, but I am reasonably certain your parents don’t know you are here since Patrick isn’t beating down my door.”

I turned to face the faerie. “I’m here because my parents came to see you last night, and now, they’re missing.”

The playful smile fell from his face. “Missing?”

“They never came home, and I haven’t heard from them. And before you say something about them being able to take care of themselves, I know that. But they would never be gone this long without calling me.” My words came out sounding defensive, so I softened my tone. “I just want to know what you told them, and if you know where they might have gone when they left here.”

He pressed his lips together, his gaze flitting impatiently from me to a door off of the living room. “You caught me in the middle of something very important. Not that your parents aren’t important,” he rushed to add. “But this is time-sensitive. I need to take care of it and then we’ll talk.”

“Okay.” What else could I say? I needed his help.

I followed him into an office and stopped short at the sight of the room that was such a contrast to the rest of the apartment. Where the living room looked like it was barely used, the office was bursting with color and personality. Magazine covers and celebrity photographs covered almost every inch of wall space, and the large bookcase was full of camera equipment instead of books. The L-shaped desk was cluttered with more cameras and piles of photos, along with a bowl of questionable food I suspected was Fae in origin.

Tennin sat at the desk in front of two large monitors and typed something on his keyboard. Since there were no other chairs in the room, I stood near the door, waiting for him to speak. He surprised me by calling me over beside him so I could see what was on his monitors. On one was an open folder of digital photos, and on the other was photo editing software.

“I need to get these uploaded ASAP,” he said as he selected a few dozen pictures and opened them in the software. He clicked around too quickly for me to follow him and ran some kind of batch program. In seconds, all the pictures had a watermark of his name across the faces. Opening a browser, he uploaded the edited pictures to a gallery on his website. The whole process took less than five minutes.

“How do you sell the pictures?” I asked, fascinated by this glimpse into his work.

He started to work on another group of photos. “Most I sell to agencies, who sell them to magazines. The hotter ones I auction from my website. When I upload new pictures, an alert is sent out to interested parties, and they can log in to bid on the pictures they want.” He tapped the monitor. “This lot is going to make me a fortune.”

“Who is he?” I leaned in for a closer look. Most of the pictures were of a blond faerie, probably royal if the pictures were as hot as Tennin said. Only royal Fae got people really excited these days.

Tennin smiled smugly. “That is Prince Rhys.”

“Who?” I furrowed my brow, trying to place the name. “Oh, the new prince, right?”

He spun in his chair to narrow his eyes at me. “Are you serious?”

I shrugged. “I’m not really into celebrity stuff, but I do know he’s a big deal.”

“A big deal?” he sputtered, shaking his head. “He’s only the crown prince of Seelie, whose debut the entire world has been going crazy about. Well, everyone but you apparently.”

“I know this will come as a shock to you, but some of us have lives that don’t revolve around your royalty.” I pointed at the monitor. “If no one has seen the prince, how did you get pictures of him?”

Tennin smiled deviously. “I have my ways. I found out he was going to be at the Ralston yesterday for a secret exclusive interview that will be aired with his official intro into society. People will pay seven figures for these photos of him.”

“That’s obscene.” Seven figures for pictures of some faerie prince whose face would be everywhere in a few weeks anyway?

“I know.” Tennin rubbed his hands together. “It’s all about supply and demand. I have a product everyone wants, and they are willing to pay big for it.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Wait. Aren’t you Court faeries already rich? Why do you do this?”

“Because I’m exceptionally good at it and I enjoy the game.”

I shook my head at his total lack of humility and studied the prince’s face again. “Why are you letting me see the pictures? Aren’t you afraid I’ll tell someone about the prince?”

Tennin laughed as if I’d said something hilarious. “My dear girl, by the time you walk out of here, these pictures will already be in the hands of my buyers, and in the process of being uploaded to their websites. By the time you reach the street, millions of ravenous fans will be feasting their eyes on the new prince.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling foolish.

“Even if you did run out and tell the world before I’d uploaded the pictures, you’d only be able to say that he’s blond and handsome, like half of the faeries in existence. No one has been able to get shots of him because this is the first time he’s left Faerie, so I doubt anyone would take you seriously.” He turned back to the monitors and uploaded the last batch of photos. “And now we wait.”

Guilt suddenly pricked me. I was supposed to be looking for my parents, and instead, I was chatting away as if this were a social call. “Can we talk about my parents now? I know they came to see you about a job they’re working on. Can you tell me what you told them and where they might have gone after?”

Tennin hesitated as if he was deciding how much to share with me. “I told them one of my contacts said the goren dealer is an elf, and they might find out more about him at Teg’s.”

“What is that?”

His brows drew together. “If you have to ask, it’s no place for you.”

I was getting tired of men trying to tell me what my place was today. “I can look it up when I leave here, or you can save me the trouble and tell me.”

Tennin huffed. “It’s a place where humans and faeries go to socialize and hook up.”

“I’ve heard of those. My friend Violet has been to a few Fae clubs.” Violet was a little Fae-crazy, like half the population. She’d started going to their clubs the moment she turned eighteen, because that was the legal age to enter a Fae establishment.

“Teg’s is not one of those upscale night clubs. It’s a bar, and it can get wild there at times.” Tennin looked like he regretted mentioning it. “That place will eat you alive.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

He scowled. “Look at you. You might as well walk in there and ring a dinner bell.”

I looked down at my outfit of jeans, red top, and short puffer jacket. “What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”

“It’s not the clothes, silly girl. It’s you.” He waved a hand at me as if I should know what he meant. “And you don’t even know who’s who in Fae royalty. The moment you open your mouth, they’ll know you don’t belong there.”

I crossed my arms. “I can be tough if I need to.”

His arched eyebrow said he didn’t believe that for one second.

Tennin’s computer dinged, and a new email notification appeared on the screen. He rubbed his hands together. “And so it begins. If you don’t mind, I need to take care of a little business.”

“Sure.” I walked around to the other side of the desk to give him some privacy.

Tennin didn’t waste time. He hit a few keys and settled back in his chair, wearing a broad smile. “Two point five. I’d call that a good night’s work. Wouldn’t you?”

“Two point five million?” I nearly choked out the last word, unable to imagine having that much money. A tenth of that would pay for all the college I wanted.

“Like I said, it’s all about supply and demand.” He stood and began packing camera equipment into a bag. “I hate to cut our visit short, but I have to be in LA in two hours for Princess Titania’s birthday bash.” He stopped what he was doing to shoot me a quizzical look. “You do know who she is.”

I scoffed lightly. “Of course.” Just because I didn’t keep up with current celebrity news did not mean I didn’t know Fae history. Princess Titania was the first faerie to address the world after the Great Rift, and she was the most loved and celebrated among the royal Fae.

Tennin resumed packing, and I wondered what it was like to be able to travel across the country or the world in a matter of minutes. Faeries were able to do it by creating portals between our two realms. They passed through the portal into their world and then created a second portal to arrive at their destination here in our world.

There had been much debate and speculation over the years about when and if this technology would ever be available to humans. But humans could not enter Faerie, so I couldn’t see how the portals could work for us.

Tennin zipped up his bag. “Something tells me it’s no use asking you to stay away from Teg’s. If you insist on going there, don’t go alone. Take someone you trust with you, preferably someone who knows more about us than you do.”

“I will.” I already had the perfect person in mind.

“Good. Come on. I’ll walk out with you.”

 

* * *

“You can’t wear that.”

“Why not?” I frowned at the petite Chinese girl standing in the doorway of my apartment.

Violet Lee shook her head of long, blue-and-black hair and walked past me into the apartment. She wore artfully ripped jeans, a white V-neck camisole, and a gray suede jacket that probably cost more than I’d made in a month at my old job. She’d paired the outfit with knee-length boots that brought her within an inch of my height.

“The jeans and combat boots are great, but that sweater and coat…” She wrinkled her nose. “You’re going there as the daughter of two of the most badass bounty hunters this city has ever seen. You need to channel Caroline James and dress like you mean business.”

“You’re right.” I turned on my heel and went to my room to change into a plain black T-shirt. Then I walked down the hall to my parents’ bedroom to borrow one of Mom’s short leather jackets. I stood in front of her mirror, my chest tight as I donned the jacket that smelled of her favorite soap. With my hair tied back in a ponytail, I could pass for her from a distance.

I was about to turn away from the mirror when my gaze landed on a framed photo sitting on the dresser. I looked at the beaming faces of my much younger parents and a chubby, red-haired baby boy. My brother, Caleb.

I’d never known Caleb. He had been only two months old when he’d died from an undiagnosed heart defect two years before I was born. Because of that, I’d spent the first year of my life under the care of a pediatric cardiologist. Thankfully, I had been blessed with a strong, healthy heart.

We didn’t speak of Caleb often because it hurt Mom to talk about him. Dad was better at hiding his emotions, but I could see a flash of pain in his eyes whenever Caleb’s name was mentioned.

“That’s more like it,” Violet said from the doorway. “Do you need to wear those glasses?”

I frowned. “Yes, if I want to drive.”

She tilted her head to study me. “I guess they do work on you.”

“Thanks, I think.” I rolled my eyes as I walked past her.

She followed me. “Ready to go?”

“Almost.” I went to the office where I rooted through the supplies. I picked up a knife but decided against it. I’d had a lot of self-defense training, but I’d never practiced with a weapon. Placing it back on the shelf, I continued my search until I found a small leather pouch. I checked the contents and stuck the pouch into the inner pocket of my jacket.

“What’s that?” asked Violet.

I patted down the front of my jacket to make sure there was no bulge. “Just a little protection in case we need it.”

“Protection from what?”

“The boogeyman,” I quipped dryly. “Protection from faeries, of course.”

She chuckled. “You might be more like your parents than I gave you credit for.”

“Just because I don’t have your obsession with faeries doesn’t mean I don’t know much about them.”

Sharing a home with two bounty hunters gave me access to information the average person didn’t have. My parents had accumulated an impressive collection of reference books on everything Fae, and I’d read them all from cover to cover.

Mom and Dad didn’t want me hunting with them, but they’d always encouraged me to learn everything I could about faeries. When I went to college, I planned to study law so I could be a legal advocate for lower faeries, like Finch and Gorn, who didn’t have someone to fight for their rights.

We left the office, but I turned and went back. I searched the desk drawers until I located Mom’s spare bounty hunter ID. It might come in handy, and the picture on the card was so small that I was counting on no one looking at it too closely.

Back in the living room, I found Violet and Finch watching an entertainment news show. Finch didn’t like most outsiders, and he normally disappeared the second we had a visitor. Violet was the exception. She’d spent so much time here with me that he was used to her. Plus, she was the only one who would watch these shows with him. I think he secretly loved it when she came over.

“I still can’t believe someone actually got those pictures of Prince Rhys,” she said.

Tennin’s photos of the prince were splashed across the TV screen. The internet had blown up last night the minute his pictures hit the first gossip site. You couldn’t look at social media or television today without seeing the prince’s face.

“It was bound to happen eventually,” I said with a shrug.

Violet gave me the side-eye. “How can you not be the least interested in this? A new Fae prince is like history in the making.”

I snorted. “A new world leader is history. This is pop culture.” I didn’t tell her I’d seen these pictures before they’d been released into cyberspace and taken on a life of their own.

“You’re hopeless.” She glanced at her phone screen. “We should probably get going.”

I looked at Finch, who sat on the back of the couch. “I’m leaving now. I’ll try to be back before midnight.” I hated leaving him alone, but I didn’t have a choice if I wanted to find our parents. He understood my reasons, and he wanted Mom and Dad to come home as much as I did.

“Later, Finch.” Violet gave him a finger wave as we left and he waved back.

She stopped me when we reached the lobby. “By the way, Mom wants you and Finch to come stay with us until your parents come home.”

Warmth filled my chest. “If it were just me, I would. But I don’t think Finch will want to leave here. He’s pretty upset about Mom and Dad, and you know how he is with strangers.”

“I figured as much, but she still wanted me to ask.”

I gave her a one-armed hug. “You’re the best.”

She pushed open the main door. “I know.”

Teg’s was a graffitied, one-story brick building in the Bronx. It didn’t look like much on the outside, but Violet said she’d heard it was a popular spot.

Music, laughter, and a wave of warm air hit me when I opened the heavy door and stepped inside. The place smelled like alcohol and an intoxicating scent I couldn’t identify. It made me a little lightheaded and filled me with a sense of longing, but for what I didn’t know.

Violet caught me sniffing at the air and leaned over to whisper in my ear. “It’s the Court faeries. When you get a lot of them together, they can be a little overpowering. You’ll get used to it.”

“Oh.” I felt stupid for not remembering that from the books I’d read. Everything about Court faeries made them attractive to humans: their beauty, their voices, and even their smell. It was forbidden for them to use their magic on humans, but it wasn’t as if they needed help finding willing bed partners.

The interior of the bar was bigger and much less dingy than it appeared from the outside. To my right was a cluster of tables where I recognized trolls, elves, ogres, and a few humans, sitting and drinking together in small groups. Past them was a raised section where all I could see were Court faeries and humans.

On my left was a long bar manned by three bartenders, who were busy serving up drinks to the human and faerie patrons lining the bar. Violet was right. Teg’s was a busy place. Tennin had been full of it, though, when he’d said this place was too wild for me. It looked pretty tame.

“Do you see him?” Violet asked, coming to stand beside me.

“Not yet.” I scanned the room for the bar’s owner. I’d done a little research on Orend Teg last night. There wasn’t much to read about him, but I’d found a picture of him on his bar’s website. Not that it was much help. Teg looked like half the male faerie population: young, blond, and beautiful. The other half was young, brunette, and you guessed it – beautiful.

We walked over to the bar and squeezed between two men in their mid-twenties, who looked like they’d spent more time getting ready tonight than I had. The man next to Violet looked me up and down before his gaze slid to her.

“Whatever you’re drinking, I’m buying,” he said to her, earning a scowl from the pretty blonde on his other side.

Violet smiled politely. “No thanks.”

“One drink,” he pressed, and I thought I heard an angry harrumph from the blonde.

“Sorry, not interested.” Violet leaned in to direct a saucy wink at the other girl. “But I just might steal this beautiful girl if you don’t treat her better.”

The girl blushed and averted her gaze, but her little smile told me she wouldn’t mind being stolen by my best friend.

A bartender approached me. “What can I get for you?”

“I’m looking for Orend Teg. Can you tell me where to find him?”

He studied me for a moment, and his brow furrowed. “Are you sure? You don’t look like his usual female visitors.”

I swallowed a scoff, having a pretty good idea of the kind of visitors he was referring to. Pulling out my mother’s ID card, I flashed it at him, just long enough for him to see the official Agency seal. “I’m here on business.”

The bartender nodded and pointed toward the rear of the room. “In that case, you’ll find him in his office. Just follow the hallway in the back.”

“Thanks.” I tucked the card into my pocket and went to Violet, who was making eyes at someone on the dais.

“Teg is in his office,” I said, pulling her attention to me. “Will you be okay out here alone while I go talk to him?”

She frowned. “You don’t want me to go with you?”

“I think I can handle it. I’m just going to ask him if my parents came to see him the other night.”

“Okay.” She winked. “Don’t worry about me. I can think of something to keep me occupied.”

I shook my head. “Behave yourself while I’m gone.”

Violet looked toward the dais again. “Take your time.”

Leaving her to her fun, I strode with purpose to the back of the bar. A number of Court faeries looked my way with interest, but I ignored them. I was here for one reason only, and I had zero interest in hooking up with anyone.

I easily found Teg’s office and knocked sharply on the closed door. I waited thirty seconds and was about to knock again when it swung open.

Orend Teg’s pictures hadn’t done him justice. Up close, he was even more handsome. When a slow smile spread across his face, he exuded that potent sensuality that Court faeries were known for. Tennin had it, too, but I had a suspicion he’d been holding back because of who I was.

“You’re early, but I can’t say I’m put out about it. Jesper outdid himself this time.” He took my hand and lifted it to his lips to press a light kiss to the back of it.

A little thrill went through me at his touch. I tugged my hand out of his as I schooled my face into a polite expression. “I’m sorry. I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else. I’m here on Agency business.”

Teg’s eyes widened a fraction, and then he let out a delighted laugh. “The Agency. I love it. The glasses are a nice touch, by the way. Where on earth did Jesper find you?”

“I don’t know any Jesper,” I said tightly, reaching for my mother’s card. I held it up for him to see as I’d done for the bartender. Except Teg wasn’t content with a brief glance. He caught my hand in his firm grip and studied the card – closely.

His whole countenance changed, and he dropped my hand to go sit behind his desk. Leaning back in his chair, he watched me with cool shrewdness that hadn’t been there before. It felt like his eyes could see right through me, and I had to stop myself from squirming.

“It’s a crime to impersonate an Agency employee, including bounty hunters,” he said in a voice that had gone hard. “I admit you look the part. You could pass for Caroline James if you were a little older.”

“You know my mother?” I blurted before I could stop myself. So much for being coolheaded.

“Your mother?” Teg stared at me, and recognition dawned in his eyes. “How did I not see it? You could be her –”

“Her clone. I know.” I took a step toward the desk. “My name is Jesse James. You know my parents?”

Teg gave me an are-you-kidding-me look. “Everyone knows Patrick and Caroline James, but I had no idea they had a daughter. Seeing you now, it’s clear why they kept you a secret.”

I ignored his comments about me and got straight to the point of my visit. “Did my parents come to see you two nights ago?”

He thought about it for a moment. “I haven’t seen them in at least a month. Why are you asking?”

Before I’d come here, I’d thought about how much to divulge to him. Even though I’d confided in Tennin, I didn’t think it was smart to let the whole world know my parents were missing. Instead of the truth, I gave him a cover story I’d concocted. “They’re testing me. I’m supposed to track them down while they work on a job.”

“Testing you for what?”

I held his gaze. “To see if I can work with them.”

At this, his eyebrows shot up. “You’re training to be a bounty hunter? How old are you?”

“Old enough.” My shoulders straightened.

His gaze swept over me again. “You don’t look old enough.”

“You didn’t think I was that young when you opened your door,” I retorted.

Teg smiled lazily. “What I have in mind is a lot less dangerous than hunting, and infinitely more pleasurable for both parties involved.”

“I’m…uh…sure it is.” Heat rose in my face.

He leaned forward to rest his arms on the desk. “Curious, Jesse?”

“No, I’m not, Mr. Teg.”

His smile widened. “I think I like you, Jesse James.”

I folded my arms across my chest. “You’re still not getting into my pants.”

He threw back his head and laughed. “Okay, Miss James. Tell me why you think your parents paid me a visit?”

Feeling like I was back on solid ground, I said, “They’re hunting a goren dealer who has been seen here.”

“Someone dealing in my bar? I think not.”

“Do you know every person who comes into your bar?” I asked.

“I don’t need to,” he replied confidently. “My wards prevent anyone from entering with drugs or weapons.”

“That’s good to know.” I was glad that I’d decided not to come here armed.

“By any chance, did your parents tell you the name of this dealer?”

“No, just that he’s an elf. I don’t think they know his name.” I didn’t really care about the dealer’s identity. As much as I didn’t want someone peddling Fae drugs to humans, all I cared about was finding my parents. “Is it possible my parents were here and didn’t ask to see you?”

Teg shrugged. “It’s possible, but I can’t see them taking the time to come here without talking to me.”

My shoulders slumped. He was right. My parents were thorough in their job, and they never did anything halfway. But if they hadn’t come here after talking to Tennin, where had they gone? I’d hoped to find something at the bar to lead me to them, and I had no idea where to go from here.

A knock came at the door, and Teg called for them to come in.

The door opened, and a pretty, fuchsia-haired young woman entered. She wore jeans and a tight black T-shirt with the bar’s name across her chest, and she had piercings in her nose and eyebrow. She stared at me with open curiosity before she addressed her boss. “You have visitors.”

“Who is it?”

“Rand and his men.”

“Tell Rand I’ll see him in five minutes.” Teg rubbed his jaw, his good humor gone.

“If he’ll wait that long,” the woman muttered and left.

Teg gave me a look of regret. “I hate to end our little visit, but Cynthia is right. Lukas Rand is not someone you keep waiting.”

I nodded as if I knew who that was. “Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.”

“Anytime, Miss James. Happy hunting, and try to stay out of trouble. Although, something tells me the world of bounty hunting will never be the same.”

Dejected, I left his office and went to look for Violet. I had a feeling I’d find her on the dais, so I scanned that section as I walked toward the bar.

“Oof!” I uttered when I made contact with a hard body. I stumbled backward and might have fallen if a pair of hands hadn’t grabbed my arms to steady me.

The man released me, and I backed up a step to see who I’d plowed into. My breath caught when I looked up into cold, midnight-blue eyes beneath brows that were drawn down in a scowl. The man’s hard gaze held me like a deer in a car’s headlights, until a deep chuckle to my left startled me back to my senses. My eyes roamed over the face before me, taking in its perfect masculine lines and sensual mouth, and I knew immediately that this was no man at all.

“I can’t tell if she’s mesmerized by your pretty face or scared witless,” joked the male on my left.

Tearing my eyes from the faerie in front of me, I glared at his companion. The other faerie – also dark-haired and handsome but in a decidedly better mood – smirked at me in response.

My gaze swung back to the one I’d collided with. As with all Court faeries, he was well over six feet tall, but unlike most, he wore his hair short, and he had an air of power about him that made my stomach dip. It was dark and dangerous, and it told me this was one faerie I didn’t want to mess with. There was also something vaguely familiar about him, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

I took another step back and saw three unsmiling blond faeries forming a semicircle behind him. Like him, they all had short hair, which made them stand out. The five of them made a formidable group, and I got the distinct impression they weren’t here for a drink.

“Excuse me,” I said, moving to go around them.

“Teg likes his girls young,” one of the faeries said scornfully, bringing me up short.

I scowled at them, unsure who had spoken. “Just because I’m in his bar doesn’t mean I’m one of his girls.”

A blond faerie with a crew cut and the greenest eyes I’d ever seen, curled his lip in a sneer. “Whatever you say.”

“You’re here, too,” I said sweetly and maybe a little recklessly. “I guess that makes you his boy.”

The faerie stiffened, and I heard a few gasps from nearby. I glanced around to see the faeries within hearing distance watching us with shocked expressions. Some even looked a little scared.

The joker in the group let out a laugh. “Damn, Faolin, you got served.” He slung an arm across my shoulders. “I think I’m in love.”

“Hey, hands off.” I ducked out from under his arm. Several strands had come loose from my ponytail, and I tucked them behind my ears, feeling disheveled and annoyed. I had too much on my mind to deal with a bunch of arrogant faeries lacking basic manners.

I looked up to find the faerie I’d run into watching me with cool curiosity. Even though he hadn’t spoken, his position at the center of the group told me he was their leader. I would have bet he was Lukas Rand, the one Teg had said didn’t like to be kept waiting.

“Well, this has been fun,” I said in a cheerful voice that dripped sarcasm. “Have a nice night, gentlemen.”

None of them spoke this time as I walked away. Putting them out of my mind, I searched the faces of the women on the dais, looking for Violet. I caught sight of her deep in conversation with two female faeries at a table toward the back, and I headed in her direction.

I reached the steps to the raised section, but before I could climb them, a blond Court faerie stepped in front of me, blocking my path. My first thought was that one of Lukas Rand’s group had followed me. Then I realized this one had long hair. His flirtatious smile and the interested gleam in his eyes told me he had more pleasurable pursuits in mind.

“I haven’t seen you around here before,” he said in a low, husky voice.

I smiled politely. “That’s because I’ve never been here before.”

His eyes widened in delight. “Is that so? Then you must let me buy you a drink in honor of your first visit to Teg’s.”

“Thank you, but I’m just going to get my friend so we can leave.” I craned my neck to look around him, but I couldn’t see Violet from this location.

He made a pouty face. “But the night has barely begun. Surely, you and your friend don’t want to leave so soon.”

“Maybe she needs the right enticement to stay, Korre,” said a male voice from behind me.

The faerie in front of me stared at someone over my head, his mouth tightening in displeasure.

I turned slightly to see a second blond faerie. The two of them looked so alike that it made me wonder, not for the first time, how small the Fae gene pool was. They all had a similar physique and perfect facial features. Even Lukas Rand and his companions, as fierce as they looked, could be easily identified as faeries.

The newcomer smiled at me. “I’m Daoine. May I ask your name, beautiful one?”

“Jesse.” I had to stifle a laugh because he was laying it on a little thick. But he seemed harmless enough, and everyone knew faeries were huge flirts.

Daoine took one of my hands and lifted it to his lips. “It’s a pleasure. Please, allow me to accompany you to your friend’s table. Perhaps I can convince you both to stay a little longer.”

I tugged my hand from his, but I couldn’t think of a way to refuse his request without seeming rude. What harm could it do to walk across the dais with him?

Korre raised an arm to block us when we turned to the steps. The glint of annoyance in his eyes conveyed his unhappiness with Daoine for moving in on his action. “Daoine, didn’t I just see you with the lovely Nicole? You should return to her, and I’ll take Jesse to her friend.”

Daoine chuckled. “Nice try.”

“I think Jesse can decide for herself who will accompany her,” Korre said, his pretty eyes meeting mine.

I shook my head. “Listen, I’m flattered by your interest, but –”

Beside me, Daoine sucked in a sharp breath. “What are you doing? That is forbidden.”

“What?” I jerked my head in his direction, but he wasn’t looking at me. He was staring at Korre, a mix of shock and reproach on his face.

“What are you talking about?” Korre asked a little too innocently.

“You tried to glamour her.”

Alarm shot through me. Glamouring a human violated at least three treaties and carried a punishment of banishment from our realm. The thought that he’d tried that on me made my hackles rise.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Korre said insolently. “Does she look glamoured to you?”

My hand automatically went to the bracelet on my wrist. Thank you, Mom.

“I felt your magic,” Daoine accused him before I could say anything.

Korre smirked. “Says you.”

Daoine placed himself between Korre and me and spoke to me over his shoulder. “Go to your friend, Jesse. I am sorry for this.”

I appreciated Daoine’s chivalry, but I wasn’t going to walk away from someone who had tried to glamour me against my will. I considered myself an easygoing person most of the time, but even I had my limits.

I pushed past Daoine and poked Korre in the chest. “You jerk. Are you that pathetic you have to use magic to get a woman?”

Korre laughed arrogantly. “Humans come to Teg’s for one reason, and that is to hook up with my kind. You can’t come in here looking like that and pretend to be offended when we take notice.”

Looking like what? I peered down at my outfit, which was anything but sexy, and then glowered at him again. “How any woman looks doesn’t give you the right to violate her. I’m sure the Agency will be more than happy to explain that to you.”

Korre’s humor fled, and he grabbed my arm. I reacted on instinct, hitting him with a palm strike beneath his chin. If he’d been a human, it would have hurt him, but Court faeries were stronger than we were, and all it did was make his hold tighten.

“Release her.” Daoine shoved Korre hard just as I brought my knee up between Korre’s legs. The dual attack knocked him off balance and forced him to let me go. Since I only wanted to get away from him, that was enough.

Until the ogres joined the fight.

 

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The Relentless Series

Seventeen-year-old Sara Grey lives a life full of secrets and she is driven by the need to uncover the truth about her tragic past. But while she is looking for vampires, they are hunting her. Will she risk everything to finally get the answers she seeks? And can she learn to trust the warrior determined to protect her even if it's the last thing she wants?

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