Damn my hips.
I shifted to the right, hoping the dagger on my left hip would slide over the window frame and allow me to shimmy inside with greater ease. I probably should have taken the blasted thing off before trying to shove myself through a tiny window, but you know . . . hindsight and all.
Why does this have to be the only way into this stupid home?
The mark, a shifter mafia leader, must have thought no one would come after him while he was on the toilet. And honestly, it was a good assumption.
How many people could scale four stories, and squeeze themselves through a window barely bigger than a chihuahua sized doggie door?
I was among the few, and I’d only chosen this route because Xavier wanted this job done fast. What that dang vampire wanted, he usually got.
My fingers gripped the windowpane, and I pushed. Inch by inch I wiggled my way forward, until the next thing I knew, I was flying over the toilet and headed straight for the floor. Thankfully, my hands had remained in front of me. Air flew from them, cushioning my fall so I didn’t break my face.
Still, I hadn’t acted quickly enough to eliminate all the evidence of breaking and entering. The sound of my landing rang through the bathroom, loud and telling.
I leapt up and froze, waiting to see if anyone in the mansion had heard. Shifter ears were particularly sensitive. When no footsteps or voices came closer, I breathed a sigh of relief. I’d gotten lucky.
Taking a moment to readjust my dagger, I caught my reflection in the mirror. My long, white-blonde braid had gone seriously astray in my struggle with the window.
I huffed out a breath and deftly fixed it. Even the most despicable marks—and they were all pretty nasty individuals—deserved more respect than being done in by someone who looked like hell.
Once I was presentable, I moved to the door and twisted the knob slowly. Entering the hallway, I scanned left and then right before turning in the direction of the master suite. Quick glances inside every room I passed confirmed that they were empty of people. Actually, they weren’t just empty. Most reminded me of staged rooms in a furniture store, cold and un-lived in.
I’d taken a right turn when confirmation that I was closing in on the mark hit my ear. Music, identifiable as a song from the first Godfather movie, trilled through the hallway, punctuated by bursts of male laughter.
The Godfather, how typical. He’s probably taking pointers.
I rolled my eyes and pulled my dagger from its scabbard, careful to keep the tip away from my skin.
Shifters were formidable foes, their senses unparalleled. They were also strong and could outlast most of their opponents. Especially when the shifter was a 250-pound alpha wolf, and his opponent was a 140-pound demi-fae.
But not even shifters could survive the batrachotoxin my employer purchased from South America for jobs like this one. Still, even with the aid of poison, I had to be silent as the night to succeed.
I called air again, and bid it to create a buffer along my skin, holding in my scent. Only when I was sure that defense was secure did I begin walking, dagger poised in my striking hand.
Once I reached the door to the theater room, I peeked inside.
An exhale left me. The alpha wolf was alone. This job would be much less messy than I’d expected.
I pressed the air buffer as far out as possible, bidding it to muffle my sound as well as my scent. Then, with bated breath, I tiptoed toward the brown leather sectional.
I had the good luck of arriving right in the middle of a scene riddled with gunfire. The sound system was on point, loud and crisp and perfect for covering my tracks. And, unsurprisingly, the alpha wolf was cheering and howling with laughter at every grizzly death.
Geez, this guy’s a disgusting asshole.
As I got closer, the scent of popcorn, buttery and delicious, filled my nostrils. I approached the couch and was close enough to distinguish the alpha’s gray hairs from the brown when the wolf-shifter turned slowly and stared me dead in the eyes.
“You’re a little young, aren’t you?” He spoke without a trace of fear in his well-lined face. Obviously, he’d never heard of me.
“I’ve been around the block a time or two,” I replied coolly.
A corner of his lips lifted. “We’ll see about that. Get her, boys.”
My stomach dropped as two figures appeared at the edges of the couch. Hulking wolf-shifters with pistols aimed straight at me.
I flew into motion, rebounding off the couch and into a roundhouse kick that clocked the closest wolf straight in the temple. As he fell, I swiped him with the dagger before twisting and hurling it at the other attacker. The blade landed on target—between his eyes—and he fell too. I yanked the dagger out of his skull, and was about to burst out of my crouch when the click of a gun cocking stopped me.
“Who sent you?” the alpha demanded.
I turned my neck ever so slightly to look at him, and he growled.
“Don’t move an inch, faerie. Now, answer me. Who sent you?”
“My boss. I don’t know who wants you killed, but they hired us for the job.”
I gave him a longer explanation than was necessary. It bought me time to figure out what to do. At this range, he wouldn’t miss me if he pulled the trigger.
“You aren’t around when he takes the jobs?” the alpha pressed. His need to learn who’d betrayed him was written all over his face.
“No. My boss called me today.” I tilted my head to the side as if I was thinking something over, hoping to deflect from my slight repositioning my dagger. “Maybe around five. So whoever wants you dead must have come in before that. It’s usually someone close to the mark. Who wasn’t around you today?”
His brows furrowed, unable to resist the urge to recall his day.
Knowing that I wouldn’t get another chance, I pushed a gust of air at him—straight in his eyes.
The gun went off, but I was already out of the line of fire, ducking and then hurtling over the couch. The alpha opened his eyes milliseconds before my blade sank into the side of his neck.
Blood spurted everywhere, splattering the rich brown leather of the couch, and my clothes. I pressed my lips together. I hated the thought of someone’s blood on my clothes.
A heartbeat later, the alpha fell. When he stopped breathing, my shoulders relaxed.
One more bad guy down.
Knowing that the alpha was no longer roaming the streets of L.A., doing shady criminal stuff to innocents, made what I had to do a little easier.
At least, that’s what I told myself so I could look in the mirror.
* * *
The door to my apartment whined open.
“I’m home!” I sang out, aware that no one would be there to welcome me.
Moving into the kitchen, I laid my scabbard on the counter, pulled a jug of OJ out of the fridge, and drank straight from the carton. After a brief examination of my meager rations, I settled on making mac and cheese with frozen peas tossed in for nutritional value. In my opinion, everyone needed to eat their veg.
Once the water was on the stovetop, I went to change. As soon as I stepped foot into my bedroom, my shoulders lowered and my heart rate slowed.
Despite Xavier’s warnings, I liked to keep a window cracked open to feel the fresh air on my face and watch the way my veil-like white curtains fluttered in a breeze. My bed was a massive canopy, also surrounded by gauzy linen. Sheepskin rugs littered the floor, and a teal pod chair, perfect for reading in, sat in the corner.
Unlike the shell I presented to the outer world, which included an all-black attire and hard attitude, this place was all softness and light and air. I loved it and hoped that when my contract with Xavier was complete, I could bring a bit of this feeling out into the world with me.
I stripped, releasing my wings from the bindings that allowed me to pass as human. I hated wearing the straps, but visiting an aether-blessed fae, the only type of fae with the ability to construct glamours to conceal such features, cost time and a lot of money. So much money that organizations like the government and fae academies often had an aether-blessed fae on retainer—but not Xavier Doru. When the vampire did hire one, he thought the money the fae demanded was better spent hiding my pointy ears.
His reasoning was sound. If my wings were rendered invisible, and therefore freed from their bindings, I’d still have to be careful that they didn’t hit anyone in crowds. The bindings were more practical than a glamour, even if they were annoying and stifling.
My clothes got tossed into the trash. I couldn’t wear them again without thinking of the shifters I’d killed.
After a hot shower to rinse the blood off my body, I wrapped myself in a loose, soft robe that gave my diaphanous gold-veined wings a little room to breathe, and padded barefoot to the kitchen.
The water was boiling, so I poured in the noodles. I’d finished stirring them when a knock came at the door.
My spine straightened, and I dashed to the counter where I’d set down my dagger.
As soon as I unsheathed the cold metal, a chuckle came from the other side of the door. “It’s me.”
I exhaled. Xavier.
I flung the door open to find the ice-blond vampire leaning against the entryway, looking as cool as a cucumber.
“How did you know I was home already?” I asked, unable to shake the idea that despite all our talks of trust and being a family, he’d bugged my place. After all, there was precedent.
Jax, my ex-boyfriend, knew that Xavier had been spying on him, but he’d never done anything about it. Well, nothing except live at my apartment until the day his contract was up, and then skip town without so much as a goodbye.
My heart clenched. It still hurt to think about Jax, the one person I’d thought I could trust. He’d been the first guy I’d given myself to and thought I loved. My best friend . . .
But I should have known better. No one wanted this life. Everyone who aged out of their contracts left as soon as they could.
I should have guarded my heart. Over the years, I’d learned many times that the ones closest to us had the power to hurt us most.
“Our client called. They wanted to thank you for a job well done.”
“They already know he’s dead? But it’s only been—” I glanced at the clock above the stove. “Forty minutes.”
“The mate was in the next room.” Xavier’s lips curled up as shock flitted across my face. “I see you didn’t realize she was present. You’re losing your touch, Queenly.”
I rolled my eyes and stirred the noodles again. “Please. I’m the best assassin you have. Just because I didn’t check all ten-thousand square feet of that monstrosity doesn’t mean I’m losing anything. It means that I was more direct—more lethal—than usual.”
Xavier chuckled. “I’ve always appreciated your inclination to get down to business.”
“In that case, why are you here?”
The vampire flopped onto my hard gray couch and planted his feet on the coffee table adorned with various sci-fi romance novels that I was halfway through. “What? We’ve known each other for so long! We can’t be pals? Paint each other’s nails?”
Pals? That was a laugh, coming from a vampire who I’d once called Father, only to receive a long lecture about how Xavier was better than both of my parents because he would never leave me—as long as I stayed in line.
The lonely child I’d been had signed away her freedom soon after that. My desperation had cost me greatly, and I’d been paying the price ever since.
“I don’t do pals. You know that.”
“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to bring that up. It’s something you should consider. In the real world, people appreciate being smiled at now and then.” He shook his head. “Maybe I should have let you get that cat. It might have softened you up a bit.”
My teeth ground together. His refusal to let me buy a kitten was a major sore spot. “This may not be made of silver but I’m sure I can do some damage with it.” I picked up my dagger and waved it at him. “Tell me what you want or get out. I’ve had a long day.”
He leaned forward and placed his elbows on his knees. “New job came in, and you’ve been requested. No details yet, but they’ll come in soon enough. Swing by my apartment at eight in the morning. I’ll have travel arrangements sorted out by then.”
I arched an eyebrow. “But I just finished a job.”
Xavier shrugged. “Money is money. Surely you understand?” He gestured to the empty room as if he was trying to make a point that he didn’t need to make.
I wasn’t yet a legal adult, so I lived in an apartment Xavier rented for me. Not only that, but I survived on the difference between the money my jobs brought in and what it took to pay back my debts to the vampire. A debt I had to repay or risk being hunted down by a team of fellow assassins or a vampire clan. I’d seen both groups hired for those who broke their contracts, and they always found their mark. As a result, I understood the value of money well. It bought freedom.
I also understood that Xavier was a cheapskate, and I couldn’t wait to age out of my contract. When that day came, I’d payoff the last of whatever I owed Doru and walk away. And I’d never look back.
I exhaled a long breath. “Why didn’t you text me?” The noodles were almost done, and I moved on autopilot, adding the frozen peas for thirty seconds before transferring the mix to a colander then back into the pan. I added an obscene amount of delicious butter, followed by the nuclear orange cheese powder, and stirred.
“I need you at my place early, and you would sleep through a bomb, Queenly. I couldn’t risk you missing the text.”
“Fine. I’ll be by tomorrow. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” I began pulverizing the cheese clumps. “I’d like some personal time.”
Xavier stood, a shit-eating grin on his face. “Until tomorrow, blondie.”
I scowled at the hated nickname, and was about to retort something cutting when the sound of the front door shutting hit my ear.
Looking up from the pan of mac and cheese, I found myself alone yet again.