Hi, all! Lily asked me to stop by today to talk to you about my new book, ILLICIT, which comes out TODAY!! The best way to tell you about the book is to let you read some of it. Tor Books was kind enough to feature the first chapter of ILLICIT on Tor.com:
So, go read that first. Then come back here right away, because today, only here on Lily’s Reviews, will people get a chance to read the next chunk of the book! Here then, is (most of) chapter 2 of ILLICIT. It’s only “most of” because, well . . . I want you to go buy the book to find out what happens next!
Rachel pulled the orange-patterned kerchief from her head and used it to wipe her sweaty brow. The cloth came away dark with dirt—unsurprising, since she’d been clearing out closets and cleaning up for the move. She turned off the blaring Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance,” leaving a sudden quiet that was almost dizzying. “Well, I think that’s about it.”
`The pile of trash bags full of garbage towered over the small stack of boxes containing things she planned to keep. So many memories were tied up inside those black plastic bags . . . horrible memories that soon would fester and rot in a landfill somewhere, out of her life at last. Rachel kicked the closest sack hard enough to make the whole stack vibrate.
“Man, I’m really going to miss you.” She turned at the sound of the medium tenor voice behind her and saw her best friend, Scott Clayton, collapse onto the couch. He’d been helping her pack. “Do you have to leave right now? It’s barely light.”
Rachel snorted harshly. Inhaling, she was surprised to smell that Scott really was wistful. The thick, wet scent of his sorrow made her respond with less sarcasm than she might have otherwise. “I wish I could have left a week ago. I can’t believe you’re going to stay. I’ve only got a reprieve until Claire’s term as town Omega ends.” Just the thought of the Ascension made her stomach sick. Maybe it started out as a good idea—Sazi testing their skills in competition instead of fighting each other—but it had turned out to be just another way to keep the lesser shifters “in their place.” Under the boot heels of those at the top.
“Claire’s an alpha,” Rachel continued. “You know that if the next challenge is between me and you, you’ll win—you’re just flat out a better flyer than I am. So if I don’t leave town now, I’ll be the Omega again. I’ll never be free.
“This owl wants to spread her wings. Every corner I turn in town, every person I see, makes me . . . damn, I just want to beat their faces in with a shovel.” She couldn’t help that there was real vitriol in her speech.
Scott shook his head; his blond hair, with its one long streak of white, fell into his face. Even though he was sweating and had been working hard, his skin was so pale that it nearly matched the streak.
“I’m staying because I want to believe Mayor Monk was the one behind everything we had to deal with,” he said. “Hell, we were mind-controlled, Rach. Why can’t you believe other people were too? He’s dead now. People should get back to normal.”
Rachel shrugged. As far as she was concerned, there was no use trying to fix what was broken in Luna Lake. “After a decade, this is normal, Scott. People who have never actually been the Omega don’t know what goes on and wouldn’t believe us if we told them.
“Hell, our own family didn’t believe how bad the abuse was, and the rest of the townspeople will lie through their teeth, deny that there were any problems.” That was the worst part . . . the lying, the hiding, the pretending.
“I still think you should go with me and Dani to Spokane. Dani wouldn’t mind you sleeping on the floor until you could get your own place, and frankly, the expenses would be easier with three. No more free ride from the town; we’re going to have to hit the street to find jobs so we can pay tuition.”
Scott leaned back and sighed. “It’s not that easy for me. I know what I want to do with my life. I want to open an herb shop, and most of what I want to sell grows in the woods around here. If I don’t live in town, I doubt the Council will let me harvest herbs. I can’t take plants from state or federal land, and I sure as hell can’t afford to buy them, even at wholesale prices. Not yet, anyway. I’ll just tough it out for a year or so, while I get my business started.
“At least those two bastards are dead,” he said with a grin that was more like a show of bared teeth.
Rachel still couldn’t believe that Mayor Monk and Chief Gabriel were gone. After the years of abuse the two men had put her and Scott through, being free of them seemed like a dream, one she kept fearing she’d wake up from.
“Maybe sane people will take over. I wouldn’t mind if one of the Kragans became mayor. They’re cool.” A smile came unbidden as she thought about the old white Cajun woman who ruled their owl parliament. Hell, black, white, or even green, Rachel had never had a real pack leader before and was thrilled that Aunt Bitty was encouraging her to find her own way.
By habit, she reached up to run her fingers through her hair and flinched when the curls fell through her grasp in just an instant. She still wasn’t accustomed to the loss of her formerly long, luxurious, straight hair. Now her hair was barely shoulder length and completely unprocessed and without product.
As always, Scott noticed. “For what it’s worth, I like the new do. Sort of predisco ’70s. You look good with shorter hair. Shows off that long, dark neck of yours. You’ll drive the guys in Spokane crazy.”
She grimaced. “I hate it. But the store-bought straightener I was using ruined the ends. I never should have stopped making my gramma’s special conditioner. When my hair started tearing off in chunks in the shower, I knew it was a lost cause.” She shrugged. “Since I’m making a big change in my life, I might as well have a big change in my looks to go with it.”
Scott smiled. “College. So cool. What are you thinking of studying?”
Sitting in the chair across from the couch, she curled her legs up under her. “I don’t know. I like to do a lot of things . . . Dani suggested not declaring a major right away. Maybe I’ll just take basic classes and try a few electives my first year and see what grabs me.”
“You’re going to sign up for a full load?”
She didn’t even have to think about it. “Oh, yeah. I’m planning on at least fifteen credit hours, more if I can do it. I want to finish in four years or less. I’m already the same age as people who are graduating, and I’m just starting school. Competition for a job in the real world will be stiff. But even college and work combined won’t be as bad as being the Omega in this hellhole.”
Scott nodded with a snort. “No doubt. When you’re used to breaking your ass for eighteen hours a day, twelve will feel like a vacation.”
The phone rang as Rachel was nodding agreement. She jumped up to retrieve her cell from to the other side of the room.
“That must be Dani. She was looking for a truck big enough to hold my bed.” Seeing Scott’s puzzled expression, she explained. “Dani’s place has only one bed—hers. It’s easier—and cheaper—to take mine from here instead of buying one there.”
Dani Williams was what Rachel had always imagined a sister would be like, though they didn’t look all that much alike. Dani was curvy, with a dancer’s grace. Rachel felt like she was a twelve-year-old in comparison, all skin and bones, without enough butt to hold up a decent pair of jeans. But she and Dani had been close from the first, trading gossip, books, and tips on hair and makeup.
Even so, Dani wasn’t her sibling, not really. A pang of regret swept through Rachel as she thought about her brothers, wondering what had become of them in the decade since she’d last seen them, the day she’d been kidnapped. Sometimes she really missed her family. Scott and Dani were supportive, but it just wasn’t the same.
She was surprised to see that the phone’s screen wasn’t displaying Dani’s name but Alek Siska’s. Perplexed, she asked Scott, “Can Alek talk yet? This call’s from his number.”
Alek had been attacked and seriously injured by the former town leaders just a few weeks earlier. Saving him, Scott had been one of the heroes of that night. Rachel was so proud of him—to go from being an omega to protecting his brother from the toughest alpha in town, wow. It gave her hope that maybe something better was out there for her too.
“Yeah, for a few days now.” Scott smiled.
Rachel nodded and accepted the call. “Hey, Alek. How’s the newest Wolven agent?” New job, new love. Good things to good people.
“Hey, Rachel.” Alek’s voice was lower than it used to be, and hoarse, but being able to talk at all after having his throat nearly torn out was very awesome. “Better every day.”
“Scott and I just finished packing. Will I see you and Claire before Dani and I leave? I didn’t realize you were out of the hospital yet.” For Alek to find Claire, another awesome. Claire was Rachel’s sorority sister in captivity. Both had been attack victims of the snakes and both had come out of that dungeon, made it through. A lot of other kids hadn’t.
He paused long enough that she prompted, “Alek?”
“Yeah . . . about leaving.” His voice was hedging, making her nervous.
“Don’t mess with me, Alek. Dani and I are leaving today. I got approval from Wolven.”
“Which . . . just got overridden by the Council. I’m really sorry, Rachel, but something has come up.”
Her expression must have been thunderous. Scott got to his feet and came toward her, his face full of concern. No doubt he could hear what was being said. One of the good things about supernatural ears. Panic made her start to pace.
“Something came up? If Dani can’t leave, that’s fine. I’ll go anyway. I’ll do anything I have to, to get out of here. Seriously, I have to be gone by Saturday.”
Claire’s voice came on the line. “Rachel, I’m really sorry about this, but it’s only for a couple of weeks.”
“Claire, you can’t let them do this to me! I have a chance to escape. Please don’t let them screw me over. I’ll wind up the Omega again, back in the cave.”
“No, you won’t,” Claire said confidently. She lowered her voice. “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but it’s not just you. It’s everyone. All trips canceled, all competitions postponed. You can’t be the Omega if there’s no Ascension challenge. The whole town is getting locked down. For peace talks, if you can believe it.”
Rachel took the phone away from her ear and stared at it. Scott looked as confused as Rachel felt. Putting the phone back to her ear, she asked, “Peace between who and who?”
“Bears, from somewhere in Europe. Warring tribes.”
From a distance, Rachel heard Alek say, “Sloths. A group of shifter bears is a sloth.”
“Okay, sloths then. The Council’s been trying to broker a deal for a while; the last time, their location in Serbia was compromised and the mediator was killed.”
“And there’s nowhere closer to go than Luna Lake, Washington?” She knew she sounded incredulous, but her mind was spinning. “Is this a joke?”
“Nope.” Alek had taken the phone back. “Apparently they couldn’t find anyplace else where people weren’t already taking sides. The only bears in our town are American ones, and as far as the Council can tell, none of them are related to anyone in either sloth.
“I’m getting the impression that this is a really big political deal, not just for the Sazi but also in terms of human politics.”
In the background, Claire said, “Tell her that I’ll take the Omega slot for another month, until she can leave. I owe it to her.”
Eyebrows raised, Rachel asked Scott, “Could that work? Can someone volunteer for the post?”
Scott shrugged. “I have no idea. Nobody’s ever chosen to be the Omega before. I mean, really . . . who would? It sucks.”
“Thanks for the heads-up, Alek,” Rachel said into the phone. “I really mean it.” She forced a smile onto her face, which she hoped translated to her voice.
“I’m really glad you’re taking this so well, Rachel. I appreciate it.”
Hanging up, she looked at her boxes and sighed. “Okay, so that’s it, I guess.”
Scott’s voice sounded sad, but she couldn’t figure out why. “Sorry, Rach. I’ll help you start unpacking. Maybe just do the important stuff, like dishes and clothes.”
Rachel shrugged, picking up her purse and heading for the door. “Your choice. I won’t be here.”
He stopped moving, giving off a concerned scent that was edged with fear. “Why? Where are you going?”
“Spokane, of course.”
She opened the door and the fresh, clean air of the hallway blew away her doubts. This was the right choice. Scott put a hand on her shoulder, and she flinched.
“You’re not thinking this through,” he said. “This is a Council decision. Don’t mess with them, Rachel. It’s not worth it.”
The snort came out as bitter sounding as she felt. His hand started massaging her shoulder. She didn’t turn to look at him . . . couldn’t bear to see if his expression matched the scent of sorrow that filled her nose. “Of course it’s worth it, Scott. Freedom is always worth it. I’d forgotten that. But I never will again.”
The hand paused, then let go. Did she hear a snuffle from him? No, don’t look. Her eyes started to burn and her breath had developed a hitch.
“Good luck, girlfriend,” he said. “Fly free.”
A hint of his clove-tinged pride buoyed her as she walked out into the apartment building’s hallway. The door shut behind her with a soft click. Every step away she took from her apartment, the gilded cage of her Omega status, the better she felt. The rusty shit-brown Pontiac next to the building looked like the sleekest Porsche in the world to her at that moment. As she opened the door and slid behind the steering wheel, she heard the thup-thup of helicopters overhead. It wasn’t light enough to see them yet, but there wasn’t much time. The clock was ticking.
The moment she started the engine, she pressed Play on the CD player. The whirring while the disks shuffled lasted only a few seconds and then the all-knowing ’80s car picked one of her Patti LaBelle favorites—“New Attitude.” That was exactly right. She cranked up the volume and started to sing.
Nearing the edge of town, she felt the first brush of an aversion spell. A strong one. No surprise they would try to lock down the town, keep the locals in and make humans want to avoid the area, overcoming any natural curiosity about multiple helicopters landing.
“Okay, I can do this. Just gotta keep my foot on the gas.” She pressed down on the accelerator and felt the powerful old engine drive the car forward. She opened the window, hoping the fresh air would give her courage, but instead full-blown fear hit her, as if a tiger were charging right toward her. Fighting the paralyzing panic, Rachel jammed her foot down on the gas pedal. If she could just get through the spell’s area of influence . . .
Her skin began to crawl, the hairs standing on end and seeming to try to pull out of her skin. It felt like tiny, unseen ants were biting and stabbing her. She gasped for breath.
Bad, bad, bad. Something bad is coming. Fly! Fly home! Hide!
Her heart was beating so fast her head was throbbing and there were flashes in her vision. Rachel gripped the steering wheel for all she was worth, struggling to resist the urge to turn the car around, determined to ride it out. Surely the spell couldn’t cover more than a mile. Could it?
The road flew under her, but the panic didn’t ease. In fact, it got worse, until it was all she could do not to pass out. When the car started to slow, she was almost relieved, until a new fear hit her. Why was she slowing down? Her gaze dropped to the speedometer: the needle was dropping, from 70 to 60, 55, 45, 30 . . .
She checked the gas gauge. Plenty of gas. WTF?
The engine stopped. All the lights on the dash turned red.
The car rolled to a stop, the music silenced.
Shifting into Park, Rachel tried the key again and again. No response, not even a sound from the engine. The car was dead.
Her overwhelming fear faded to a level that was powerfully unnerving but not deadly. Rachel drew a deep breath, then nearly shrieked when a mass of feathers fluttered outside her window.
“Going somewhere?” The golden-feathered owl that had landed next to her car was the biggest she’d ever seen, and she wasn’t entirely positive which species it was. She could tell it was an alpha, though, for it spoke in a rich baritone and gave off such strong magic that she felt like she was standing next to a blast furnace—which she remembered doing once, years earlier, when her Girl Scout troop toured a foundry.
She tried to keep her voice calm, but it was hard to get words out. “Spo . . . Spokane. Just . . . heading . . . home. But the car died.”
The golden eyes blinked and the owl shook his head. “Not today, you’re not. No unnecessary travel. That’s why I killed the spark. Don’t tell me you didn’t get the message, because we had confirmation that everyone was called.”
She tried to respond. She honestly did. But his power, combined with the aversion spell, was simply too much. It was all she could do to breathe.
He noticed. “Oh. Yeah, shielding would probably help. My bad.” The owl shifted forms, turning into a tall, handsome dark-skinned man whose close-cropped hair looked as soft as down. To Rachel’s surprise, he looked like he was wearing clothes—blue jeans and a flannel shirt. Only the most powerful Sazi could create such illusions. Rachel had never known anyone other than Asylin Williams, her guardian, who had that ability. In the same instant, his magic was sucked back inside him and the immense weight on her chest lessened. “Is that better?”
She nodded. “Much. Who are you?”
“I’m with Wolven. That’s all you need to know.” He opened the driver’s door. “Scoot over. We’re heading back to town.”
Her fingers tightened on the steering wheel and she didn’t budge. “Maybe you are. I’m going to Spokane.”
He glared down at her, his scent not angry but stern. “Look, we’re not here to tromp on your rights, but you know I can freeze or discipline you, right? You don’t get to say no to a Wolven agent.”
Rachel’s mouth set in a tight line, and she glared what she hoped were daggers at him. She knew she would regret what she was about to say, but she couldn’t stop herself. Tensing her muscles, preparing for the pain that was sure to come, she said, “No.”
There was no agony. She wiggled her pinkie. Not frozen either. She risked a sniff of the air, and the scent made her look at his face, where she saw bemusement mixed with frustration. He crossed his arms over his chest and raised his brows. Something seemed familiar about his expression, but she couldn’t place it.
“You’re going to be a pain in my butt the whole time we’re in town, aren’t you?”
“Probably.” It was the truth. “I need to leave this place, and unless you kill me, I’m going to keep trying.”
He shook his head and sighed. “Go,” he said, waving a hand in dismissal. “I’ll lose a strip of hide for letting you leave, but better another one now than the dozen you’re likely to cause me later.” He turned and started to walk back toward town.
Before he could change his mind, Rachel turned the key and . . . miracle! The car started right up. Had the Wolven agent really killed the engine from a distance? She had never heard of anyone doing that. But that was a question for another day. Shifting into Drive, she hit the gas, hearing the tires spin for purchase as the music started to blare again. Free! Her heart soared.
Seconds later, she braked hard and pressed the Off button on the CD player. “Do they really take an actual strip of hide?” She’d heard the phrase so many times: Ooo! Better be careful. You’ll lose a strip of hide for that. The rat bastards that ran the town had never actually done it, but something in the owl shifter’s voice told her it was no mere figure of speech.
The Wolven agent stopped walking and turned to stare at her. He took a deep breath and approached the car. As he neared the back bumper, the illusion of his shirt disappeared. Like most birds she knew, his chest was wide and muscular. He lifted his right arm and she winced at the sight of a wound, raw and red, under his arm, along his rib cage. The shape and size of a playing card, the injury was just starting to heal. If that was illusion too, it was a good one.
“Yes. They do. It’ll take until the next moon to heal, and it hurts like hell to fly. It’s usually done with a silver knife, but this was made with silver-tipped claws. Go. Better me than you. I can tell you’re not alphic, and a wound like this could really mess you up, especially if it got infected.”
“Crap! What did you do to get that?” Unable to help herself, she reached out to touch it. He stepped back, out of reach.
He shrugged, smelling hot and bitter, like he was ashamed of whatever he’d done. “Something stupid. I deserved it. Sort of like now. Last chance . . . go. Before—”
The engine died again. Damn it! A new voice, a deep, growling baritone, filled the car. “Before what, agent? Before I show up?” Something heavy thumped onto the roof, and Rachel ducked instinctively.
The light in the car changed. Rachel turned toward the passenger window to find it covered with thick, coarse black fur.
The man on her left spoke to what she presumed was a bear shifter, if the hideous, rancid musk smell was any indication, over the top of her car. It had to be a damned big bear, judging by the fact that she couldn’t see its head. “No . . . sir. Before the delegates arrive. This woman is an omega, and an owl. She’s no threat to anyone. If she leaves before anyone arrives, there’s no reason to think the peace talks would be in any danger.”
There was a pause, then a sarcastic response with a thick accent from the carpet of fur to her right. “Oh, then I suppose you’ve run a comprehensive background check in the few minutes since we landed? You know for positive this woman has no bear family members and hasn’t been bribed or coerced into spying or setting a bomb before getting away from the fallout? Omegas are known to do that.”
What? Rachel’s mouth dropped open. “Hello? Rude much?” she said, turning toward the mass of fur. “I’m right here. I’m not some sort of whack-job terrorist. And, by the way, who the hell are you to question my background or ethics?”
The fur moved. As it did, the driver’s door was yanked open and the owl shifter pulled her out of the car. The very real fear that was bleeding from the owl’s every pore and the fury coming off the bear shifter in waves were nearly overwhelming.
Getting her feet under her, Rachel looked at the Wolven agent currently leaning on her car. She’d never seen the high school principal—the only bear in Luna Lake—in his animal form and had never been this close to a natural bear. Still, she was sure that this bear was far too large to be normal.
Snarling, it towered over her car. Paws the size of hubcaps flexed, driving claws the size of carving knives through the steel roof of the Pontiac, which bent and protested with a screeching sound before giving way. The bear had put its claws through her car without even breaking a sweat, if bears sweated! Holy baby Jesus!
The owl shoved Rachel behind his back and she stayed there, frozen in terror, heart pounding as tension flooded the air, the scent strong enough to make her sneeze.
“Tamir, don’t,” her protector said. “This is between us. It has nothing to do with her.”
“This has everything to do with her, because it has to do with your judgment. You’re supposed to be protecting the delegates. You know I would never have picked you for this assignment. People have died where you were assigned.”
“I’m pretty sure you were on that same assignment. In fact, I think your body count is higher than mine. Maybe we need to ask the delegates who are still alive which one is the better protector.”
Whoa. Peeking around the owl agent, Rachel said, “For what it’s worth, I feel a lot safer around the one who pulled me out of my car rather than the one who just destroyed it.”
The owl shifter turned his head sharply. “Quiet. Be grateful it’s just your car.”
Though she could see his shirt, only skin brushed her hand when he moved. With a jolt, she recalled that despite what her eyes saw, she was pressed up against a stranger’s very naked backside. She took a step back, nearly blushing.
The bear—Tamir—reared back and pulled his claws out of her roof. “Return her to town. The councilman will decide who should be punished . . . and how.” With that, the bear turned and loped off into the trees, shrinking before her eyes until he was the size of the wild bears she’d sometimes spotted from a distance in the forest, near the lake.
The owl was just short of livid, and Rachel didn’t know if he was angrier with her or the bear. He opened the driver’s side door.
“You should have gone when you had the chance,” he said flatly. “Get in.”
Rachel wanted to stand firm, wanted to appear as tough as the two Wolven agents, but knew she wasn’t. She was all bluff and bluster, as her gramma used to say. Plus, this man had risked his neck for her. She got in the car and slid over into the passenger seat, ducking to avoid the sharp slivers of metal hanging down around the puncture holes in the roof.
Without another word, he seated himself behind the wheel. When he slammed the door, the whole car shook. He started the engine, threw the car into gear, and soon had them turned around and heading for Luna Lake. After a long silence, broken only by the sound of his fingers thrumming on the steering wheel, Rachel sighed and said, “Sorry.”
He grunted in acknowledgment but didn’t respond, which annoyed her, and the smell of his anger continued unabated. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared out the side window. Jerk.
She reached over and turned the music back on. She didn’t sing, though—with a pissed-off Wolven agent in the car, that seemed somehow . . . inappropriate. But she kept the mantra in her head. New Attitude. I am in control. She noticed that his fingers began to tap in time with the beat of the music.
As they drove into town, Rachel spotted a half dozen or more strangers wandering along the street next to the police station. The Wolven agent parked near the station and took her keys, then hopped out of the car. Rachel was reaching for the passenger door handle when he opened it from outside. She wasn’t sure whether he acted out of courtesy or suspicion that she might bolt, but she thanked him as she got out and stood up.
The area was full of animal smells she didn’t recognize—exotic cats and birds and even a snake. That made her head turn, searching—she knew the scent of snakes all too well. The odor pulled an old fear from deep inside her, something she thought she’d overcome. She eyed the newcomers with suspicion but couldn’t figure out who smelled of reptile.
Her foster father, John Williams, separated from the crowd and half ran toward the car. He pulled her into an abrupt, powerful hug. It surprised her, since he wasn’t much of a hugger. His thick green cable sweater was warm against her face. “For God’s sake, Rachel! You could have been killed. What were you thinking?”
What could she say? He put a dark, cool hand on the side of her head, pressing her cheek against his fluffy sweater. His smell, warm feathers and cologne, made her feel safe. She whispered, “There’s a snake in town, Dad.”
He hugged her even closer as warm concern flooded her nose. “Is that why you ran? He’s a councilman, just here to check security. He’s leaving. A cat will be taking his place for the meetings.”
She decided to let John believe the snake was why she’d tried to escape. “As long as he’s leaving.”
She felt his head turn as he addressed the owl shifter who had captured her. “Thank you for bringing her back. She still has PTSD from her time with the snakes. But she’s not a spy or a threat. Please don’t let them hurt her, Agent Adway.”
Adway. Wow. That was a surname she hadn’t heard in a long time . . . in a lifetime. The owl agent let out a long sigh. “It’s not up to me. I’m not in charge of this operation. But I’ll try to get them to understand. What’s her name, so I can pull her file?”
Sliding out of John’s hug, she faced the other man, holding out her arms in frustration. “Again . . . right here in front of you. What is it with you guys?” Not really expecting an answer, she continued, “I’m Rachel Washington.”
The owl’s jaw dropped and his eyes narrowed. He stared at her for a long moment, pointing at her with one finger. All that came out of his mouth was, “You—” Abruptly he spun on his heels and sprinted toward a black SUV a dozen feet away.
Her dad put his hands on his hips, raising his shoulders and lowering his head just a bit, like he would in owl form when annoyed. “Well, that was rude. What’s his problem?”
She shook her head, staring after the agent and feeling a weird mixture of gratitude and frustration. “Pfft. They were both like that.”
How to explain? “Another Wolven agent, I’m guessing this guy’s boss, stopped us on the road. He’s a big black bear and he was a total jerk. Look what he did to the top of my car!”
John blinked at the sight of the roof, where four messy punctures cut through to the headliner inside. “Okay, that is not acceptable. Someone needs to fix this.” He glanced around, then nodded and touched her shoulder. “Wait here.”
Rachel had no intention of waiting. She wanted to hear more about what was happening in town, so she followed her dad over to the trio of vehicles parked near the diner. He called, “Excuse me, Mrs. Monier?”
A short, slender woman with reddish-blond hair, dressed in a fluffy tan jacket with a fur ruff that matched the trim on her boots, turned away from a small group of strangers. Amber Monier had been hanging around town since Monk and Gabriel had died, and Rachel assumed the bobcat shifter was part of Wolven. The woman had never taken the time to introduce herself around, which Rachel thought was bad manners. Bitty seemed to know her quite well, based on things the older woman had said.
“Actually, it’s Wingate. Monier was my maiden name, but old friends like our esteemed snake councilman tend to still call me that.”
A few steps behind her father, Rachel crossed into scent range just as the woman said “snake.” The reptile’s scent made the young owl stumble to a stop and gasp for breath. Her father must have been trying to protect her from this when he told her to stay away.
She saw the snake now, right in front of her. He was tall and Middle Eastern in appearance, with a clean-shaven, narrow face . . . a viper’s face. He wore a headdress similar to the keffiyehs she’d seen back home when she was growing up, but the cloth flowed like silk and was embroidered with golden thread that glowed in the rising sun. From the side, he looked just like the man her captors had spoken about in hushed voices, the man she’d seen only once: Sargon, who had inspired emotions far beyond terror.
Like Sargon, this man absolutely reeked of power, which was cast out around him in a halo of pain. Maybe it wasn’t the sun that made his headdress glow. Her skin burned, her hair felt ready to ignite into flame. She couldn’t go any closer. He was just standing there, with people fawning over him. Even her dad had slowed and bowed his head.
Owls do not bow to snakes! She had to master her fears.
All conversation stopped, all faces turned toward Rachel. The snake’s gaze met hers. He narrowed his eyes and started to walk toward her. Though Rachel’s instincts screamed fly! her feet were frozen, as though set in cement. Her dad tried to step between them, but the snake’s hand made a slight movement, tossing John aside as easily as if he were brushing off a mosquito.
The owl agent walked up to the snake without hesitation and put a hand on the taller man’s shoulder. The snake again tossed his hand lightly and seemed surprised when the owl was able to grab him, momentarily arresting his motion. His brows raised in an almost elegant way, but his scent was thick and oily, as angry as a pan burning on the stove. The agent dipped his head, staring at the snake’s neck, but his voice was calm and steady when he said, “Your eminence, please. She was one of those rescued from the cave.”
The snake looked at Rachel again. He nodded once. The woman who smelled of cat touched his other arm. Power burned between them, hot enough to scorch as the cat tried to hold back the snake. Rather than fight her, he turned his head slightly and said quietly, “Release me, Amber. You know this must happen.”
Something unspoken passed between them, Rachel could tell. When the cat dipped her head and stepped back, so did the owl.
They were going to let him kill her!
WOW! You know you need to find out what happens next, right? Well, go forth! It’s available today. Rachel rocks and Dalvin being stunned by her name is a key moment in the story. Thanks for dropping by! Enjoy!
Thank you Ms. Clamp for stopping by Lily's Reviews!
Giveaway: One commenter will receive a print copy of Illicit by Cathy Clamp. Giveaway will end on November 7 at 11:00 P.M. with a name drawn at that time. Please leave a valid e-mail address along with your first name in the comment section.