After returning from a long trip, Jody Dahl had been inside his underutilized apartment in Norseton for all of five minutes before finding his girlfriend’s note and emitting a growl that could have woken the long dead. He went ripping back out. He ignored the greeting of his neighbor as he plowed past him and into the stairwell, and called ahead telepathically to his sister, Tess, as he moved. “Is Lora at the mansion?”
Gods, please be there.
Lora worked at the community’s executive mansion where much of his family happened to reside. His little sister was the queen of the Afótama clan. He hadn’t wanted to bother Tess for a while. She had apparently entered the stage of pregnancy where even a glance in her direction could make her moody, and a moody Afótama queen was a bad deal for everyone in the community.
The Afótama people were all linked psychically through the royal family, and Tess was smack-dab in the middle of the web connecting them. Hers was a job she was born to have and that he had to admit she did well, but she was nothing like the queens of the past. She was impulsive and often reckless—like so many of their Viking ancestors were—and occasionally was petty as fuck where at least one of her brothers was concerned. She had a generous heart, though.
Most of the time.
Jody had to take the risk of consulting her because some things were far too important to be discreet about.
Lora was important, and he had a bad feeling that she was gone.
He was on the street, pounding the pavement before Tess responded with a surly, “Oh, you mean my ex-assistant?”
Jody stopped short, heart stuttering with fear as he glanced around. The streets were quiet and looked so idyllic in the all-American town center that just happened to be populated by Vikings. Outsiders didn’t even know they were there. “What do you mean, ex?” he asked his sister and got moving again. He was still better off heading to the mansion and trying to brainstorm with the inner circle than staying at his place, pacing, and pounding his head against the walls with frustration.
“She left me a very sparsely worded resignation note,” Tess projected. “No details except that she had to leave due to circumstances beyond her control.”
“What could that mean?” He picked up speed as he crossed the park, ignoring the greetings from his friends Paul and Chris as he went. He’d have to come up with some kind of explanation for them later. It wasn’t every day that a man’s girlfriend disappeared and left behind impersonal notes as though they hadn’t been intimate for the better part of five years.
That wasn’t like Lora. She wasn’t timid. She’d never been afraid to confront him before, even with the heavy shit.
“I don’t know when she left, and no one in the mansion seems to know, either,” Tess said. “No one was paying her any attention. She’s so efficient that she’s like a ghost sometimes. She’s there when you need her, but otherwise doesn’t lurk. Why are you asking? Do you know more than we do?”
He grimaced and waved at the werewolf standing guard at the mansion’s front door as he ran up.
Wisely, Colt got out of his way. “Everything all right?” He called after Jody.
“No. I’ll catch you up later.”
Jody streaked past the security desk, manned by yet another wolf whom he didn’t bother looking at the face of, ran through the atrium and into the hall that divided the executive part of the mansion from the living space.
Because he and Tess were so closely related, and because being direct descendants from the fount of their magic meant they had a greater parcel of power than many in their small community, he could pinpoint his sister’s location to within a two-room area. She was either in the library or in the neighboring family room.
“Answer me,” Tess demanded.
“I’ll tell you when I get up there. Pointless wasting the energy to communicate like this when we can talk in person.”
There was always a cost in using telepathy or magic, be it small or large. As one of the community’s sentries, Jody preferred to conserve his energy for emergencies. His purview included attacks from hostile fairy assassins, antagonism from their peers in Fallon, Nevada, general kidnapping threats, and so on.
He slapped his hand over the palm reader beside the staircase leading up to the private second floor, waited for the click, and then yanked the door open. He idled in the stairwell just long enough to ensure that the door closed and locked behind him and then hauled ass. The closer to the top of the stairs he got, the more evident it was that Tess was in the family room. Nan was with her and their ancestress, Ótama—an ancient Viking princess in a young woman’s body. After dying in childbirth during her escape from mounting tensions in her clan, she’d been trapped in a purgatory-like realm for almost a thousand years. She’d endured the heartache of having to watch her descendants without being able to live amongst them.
When Tess had been thrust into the queen’s role in the absence of her, Jody, and their brother Keith’s prematurely departed mother, the Old Norse gods had taken pity on Ótama…or maybe on Tess. They released Ótama back to her family to live out the rest of her life. If she found it odd living amongst descendants of varying ages ranging from twenty-nine to around seventy while appearing to be only around thirty herself, she didn’t act like she was bothered.
Jody was pretty sure his only cousin Nadia was upstairs as well. She was Tess’s shadow and pseudo-bodyguard, and the two were rarely seen without the other during working hours.
Sure enough, he could hear the distinct voices of all of them as he opened the door at the landing and bounded down the hall.
“How is it that no one saw her leave?” Tess yelled. “We have guards at every exit of this community, and I seriously doubt she decided to trek through the desert. She may be able to run an eight-minute mile, but come on. She’s not built for extreme hiking.”
Tess was right. Lora wasn’t built for endurance. She was slim and compact—built for speed, not power.
Where the hell did she go?
His mind swirled at the possibility that she’d left because of him, but he didn’t want to believe that. She’d been in a perfectly cheerful mood before he’d left for his Afótama business trip. Or as cheerful as Lora ever was, anyway. She tended to be one of those “smiling on the inside” sorts.
Nothing had seemed amiss. In fact, they’d had a glorious evening that had started with him on his knees and quickly progressed to her sitting on his face.
Jody arrived at the doorway right as Adam, the Norseton wolfpack alpha and the man in charge of most of the community’s security force, opened his mouth.
Jody waved him on and dropped into the empty seat beside his grandmother. “Go ahead. I want to hear the answer to that, too.”
Adam let out a breath and dragged a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. “You all know I’m not one to be making excuses. If I fuck up or if anyone on my crew fucks up, we own up to the error and try to fix what we broke. But you’ve got to admit, Lora knew the ins and outs of this community better than anyone. Every single one of the schedules went past her eyes. She signed off on all the logs. Even if I didn’t know where one of my wolves was, she did. If there was even the tiniest gap in the schedule at a station, she could have exploited it. I suspect she left during shift change.”
“Aren’t there cameras recording every vehicle that passes through the gatehouse barrier?” Tess had her swollen feet atop the coffee table and her head tilted against the sofa back. She looked like hell. For most of her pregnancy, she’d been moving around well enough, in spite of her chronic back pain. The closer she got to her due date, though, she looked more like a husk of her former vibrant, troublemaking self.
There was speculation that her exhaustion had more to do with what her child was than with any failures of Tess’s body. The child’s father was half fae. Ollie’s first wife hadn’t had the same issues due to the suppressed nature of his magic at the time, so no one could predict how her body would respond to the aggressive gestational demands. Tess was just lucky.
Or unlucky. One of those.
Either way, Jody couldn’t wait for her to have that kid. Not only because the baby would be his first niece and the clan’s future queen, but because Tess’s discomfort leached into the web and especially to the people most closely related to her. Nan tried to filter out as much as she could. Ollie and Tess’s other lover, Harvey, buffered a good portion of the rest, but Tess was obviously miserable. Her pain was psychically evident to anyone who got near her.
“Believe it or not,” Adam said drolly, “there was a power shortage twice on the day she was last seen. She could have left during either of those times.”
Jody slid his hand into his shirt pocket and fondled the edge of the letter Lora had left under his apartment key and on top of his counter. He wasn’t ready to share that yet—he wasn’t ready to delve into the nature of their long relationship unless he truly had to. Above all else, Lora had valued her privacy. So had he. He didn’t want to be confronted with the inevitable batch of questions that would come once the truth came to light. He didn’t have answers for all of them yet.
He didn’t know if he ever would.
“What did her resignation letter say?” He let out a ragged exhalation. He just couldn’t wrap his head around her leaving like that. They didn’t keep secrets.
“Like I told you,” Tess muttered, staring at the ceiling. “Due to circumstances beyond her control, she needed to leave.” Furrowing her brow, she tilted her head upright. “Wait a minute. I didn’t call you. How’d you know something was wrong?”
He took a deep breath and slid the note from his pocket. For a few seconds, he held it pressed between his hands. The letter was the last thing she’d given to him, though it could hardly be called a gift. Sighing, he pressed the note across the table. “Do me a favor and don’t share that around, okay?”
Naturally, Nadia leaned in and read as Tess did. Jody couldn’t get too upset. He already knew that any secret he told Tess would get filtered to Nadia. The woman was unimpeachable. She knew how to keep her mouth shut.
He could tell precisely what they were reading by how their expressions shifted. Tess and Nadia spent so much time together that they’d started swapping traits without knowing. Generally, Nadia—having been raised mostly in Norseton and groomed from the time she was young to be Tess’s shadow—was the more leveling influence of the two of them. Tess was basically a hot mess, but everyone loved her in spite of it.
She, along with many other Afótama children, had been abducted by still-unknown agitators as a child and had been missing for more than twenty years. When she’d been found at twenty-eight, having few memories of her early childhood, she had no idea who she was or the position she was supposed to hold. With her installed to her rightful position and having the benefit of her unique tracking magic, they’d found many of the other missing clanspeople. Unfortunately, like Tess, none of them knew who took them or why. Their abductions remained a mystery they were still trying to solve. That kind of ignorance could ultimately topple the safety of their community.
The reason they’d hired the werewolf guards was that people kept trying to make assassination attempts at Tess and Nan. Most of the hit attempts were anonymous—like the kidnappings—and Nan didn’t take unnecessary risks. She’d already lost the daughter who should have been queen. It should have been her there holding the community together, not Tess. Compared to previous clan leaders, Tess was too young to be a queen, but she was doing the best she could with what wisdom she had.
Tess looked at him over the top of the letter, hazel eyes challenging him. “I’m going to kill you.”
“What did he do?” Nan asked, glowering at him.
Jody’s teeth clenched reflexively. “Why do you automatically assume I did anything wrong?”
“I’m not assuming. I’m just trying to find out what she’s accusing you of. Never at any point did I say that perceptions equaled reality.”
“Seems Lora wasn’t the only person in Norseton who was damned good at stealth activities,” Nadia said.
“How did we not catch that?” Tess asked her.
Nadia shrugged. “Probably because she’s not Afótama. She was off your radar. Would have been the same as him boffing someone from outside the community.”
“Wait.” Nan pinched the bridge of her nose and put up a hand in a stilling gesture. “Are you telling me that—”
“Yep.” Tess handed the note to Nadia, who folded it and tucked it into a pocket of her tight jeans.
He growled. There was no way in hell was he going to get that note back. The two of them were going to use it for leverage somehow in the future. It wasn’t an issue of if, but when.
“How long?” Nan twined her fingers atop her lap and gave Jody a lie-and-you’ll-die look.
Jody didn’t doubt his grandmother was capable of making him hurt. He’d never actually seen her use any of her magic to punish people, but there were stories of some of her “accidents” from when she’d been a much younger woman. There was one man who still had scars from the accidental electrocution.
“About five years,” Jody confessed.
She made a sound that could almost be categorized as a gasp, but everyone knew Muriel Hall was made of stuff too stern for gasping. “Casually?”
He grimaced. “I wouldn’t call it that.” There were far too many sparks flying between him and Lora to call what they had “casual.” Perhaps they’d started off expecting nothing to come of their infrequent rendezvous, but it had turned out that they couldn’t stay away from each other. He didn’t want to stay away from her. She was the only woman who’d ever been able to take him down a peg, and yet she’d still wanted him in spite of the fact that she’d had to.
“Then why was it a secret?” Nan asked.
“Yeah,” Tess said and rubbed her closed eyes with the heels of her palms. “Why? Nobody would have cared if you two were a couple. Everyone in Norseton knows and trusts Lora, and they adore her adoptive parents. Her parents really care about this community. Her being with you, especially since she’d been working with Nan for so long before I came in, wouldn’t have ruffled any feathers.”
“She had her reasons,” Jody murmured.
And he’d had no choice but to respect them. He would have told the whole world that they were together if it’d been up to him. They would have been married already, living together.
But Lora was always so conscientious, so careful to not disrupt things.
If only he’d convinced her sooner…
“I thought she hated you.” Nadia pitched a thick swath of her red hair over her shoulder. She and Keith had been the only two Hall grandchildren to inherit Nan’s red. If not for hair color and curl pattern, and slight differences in build, Nadia and Tess might have been indistinguishable from a distance. “All the guys give her a hard time because she’s so strait-laced. I’ve never seen her have a conversation with you, Dad, Ollie, Harvey, Jeff, or any of the fairy men when they visit that doesn’t leave her completely frustrated. She’s so logical, and you guys are nothing if not irksome.”
Jody didn’t have the energy to argue with her, even if she was being purposefully provocative. It wasn’t like she was wrong, anyway. “Not to say we didn’t squabble on occasion, but we understood each other. Or at least, I thought we did.”
“Does she want to be found?” Ótama, silent up to that point, asked. She stood in front of the cold fireplace, straightening tchotchkes on the mantel. As was her standard, she was wearing her long dark hair pinned back and was in another floor-length dress and a hooded cloak that swept the floor when she moved. She had a hard time getting warm since her departure from her afterlife realm. Perhaps she wasn’t entirely used to being back in a corporeal body. The family doctor had given her a full examination and deemed all five feet of her physically sound. He assumed her body temperatures would regulate eventually, but he couldn’t say for sure. Medicine was logical. Magic wasn’t.
“Hard to read between the lines of that note,” Tess murmured.
Nadia nodded in agreement. “Lora was good at that—sending texts and e-mails that were completely stripped of emotion or judgment. She may not have any magic like the rest of us, but brevity and professionalism are definitely her superpowers.”
Brevity and professionalism.
Such emotionless words.
Jody suppressed a scoff.
They thought Lora didn’t feel anything, but she did. The fact she chose not to burden everyone else with the things she found annoying or troubling didn’t mean she didn’t feel as deeply as everyone else. It had taken him a long time to figure her out, but he thought he knew her even better than her parents did. He’d thought he knew every part of her, inside and out.
Lora didn’t want to share her misery. She behaved as though keeping it all to herself was the least she could do, in spite of the fact that no one else would have minded if she’d complained every now and then. It would have made her seem that much more assessable.
Her private personality seemed too intimate a thing to discuss with them, who didn’t really know her. She hadn’t been able to let them in the way she had Jody, and he respected her secrets. Lora was an intensely personal woman, but she loved him.
She’d told him so, and he didn’t have a choice but to believe her—to believe that she loved him but that she couldn’t be with him in the way he wanted. She said it wouldn’t be right for her to claim one of Ótama’s own. She’d insisted there was someone else out there for him.
He could tell them that much. He didn’t want to, but knew he had to.
He took a deep breath and leaned his forearms onto his knees. “She’d always told me that I should be more assertive about finding a partner born of the clan. She didn’t think me marrying her would be appropriate because she didn’t have gifts like mine.”
“Few people have gifts like yours,” Nadia said. “Most people in Norseton have very little magic at all, aside from the ability to communicate telepathically with their families.”
“I agree with you, and I told her that. I’m telling you what the situation was. Magic was one of the few things she was sensitive about. I imagine that if I’d been any other man in Norseton, she wouldn’t have been so rigid about her boundaries.”
“Yeah, she’d dated Afótama guys before you. She was pretty serious with one guy in tenth and eleventh grades.”
“Oh yeah?” Jody cracked his knuckles. Of course, he knew about that guy, though not that their relationship had been more intense than he’d thought. Carter still called Lora on occasion, and because Jody and Lora were on the down-low, Jody couldn’t say shit to him. He suspected his tongue would get much looser in the near future, once Lora came back.
And she would come back. At the very least, she owed him a proper explanation.
“I think if we put clues together and make an educated guess,” Nadia said, “we’d conclude that she’s not expressly forbidding us from looking for her. She said in her resignation letter that there are circumstances beyond her control. And in Jody’s note—”
“Nadia, I will—”
“Simmer down.” Nadia put up her hands, placating him before he could get the threat out. “I’m just going to paraphrase the less personal stuff. Shit, have you forgotten I have a brain?”
Grunting, he made a get-on-with-it gesture. He hadn’t forgotten about her brain. He happened to know exactly how dangerous it was.
“In the note to Jody, she said she was sorry she had to leave like this. To me, that implies that if she’d had a choice, she wouldn’t have gone. So it seems to me, we not only need to find her but learn what chased her off in the first place.”
“I agree,” Jody muttered.
“Thing is, I don’t know if either would be so easy.” Nadia sucked some air in through her teeth and drummed her fingers atop the back of the sofa. “She’s way too smart. I guess she has to be, working around us. She doesn’t have magic, so she has to compensate with brainpower.”
“That may be so, but we’re going to try,” Tess said. “We’ll put our heads together and figure this out, not only because she keeps this place running, but I—” Sliding her gaze to Jody, she sighed dramatically, and then said, glibly, “I guess bringing her back would make Jody happy, too.”
“If you weren’t pregnant and slower than a two-legged hippo, I’d make it rain on you,” he said flatly. He wasn’t in the mood for jokes, but he still believed in fair fights. Picking on a tiny, thirty-nine-weeks-pregnant person was just too easy.
Tess shrugged. “And if I felt like mustering up the energy, I’d electrocute you. Who’d recover first?”
They stared at each other for a long while, probably pondering the answer. Their magic was similar in a lot of ways. Tess could wield static and discharge it when necessary. Thunder and lightning were two of her newest toys. Jody didn’t experiment too much with that component of his magic, though when he got angry or stressed, it rained in Norseton—hard—and the thunder he caused was usually loud enough to rattle the entire community’s windows.
Ótama chuckled quietly by the fireplace. “So much like my siblings and I.” She crinkled her nose. “Well. Somewhat. My magic wasn’t anything like yours. Yours is a throwback from further back in the lineage than I can remember offhand.”
“Huh. You don’t talk much about your siblings,” Jody said.
Ótama skimmed her index finger along the edge of the mantle as worry creased her brow. He rarely saw that look on her. She usually spoke her worries rather than holding them in. “No, I imagine I…don’t, much. The environment was a bit unsettled and unstable before I left the clan. Mostly, my family protected me from the viciousness and all the rumors. I was different, even amongst our kind, and everyone knew. My magic made me unpredictable, and they got weary of rallying around me, I suppose.” Her narrow shoulders bobbed gracefully. “I imagine anyone would have.”
“I can’t believe that,” Tess said. “That would be like saying that one day, Jody and Keith will get tired of dealing with me and will eventually throw me to the wolves.”
No way in hell was that going to happen. If Keith had possessed the physical capacity to throw himself in front of a bullet meant for Tess, he’d do it again and again. That morbid motherfucker had said so numerous times. He blamed himself for Tess’s kidnapping, but it hadn’t been anyone’s fault but the perpetrator’s. Jody had finally convinced himself of that, too.
Jody’s personal strategy for ensuring the queen’s preservation was to try to prevent Tess from getting shot at in the first place. The siblings annoyed the ever-loving shit out of each other, but Jody didn’t really want to think about what life would be like without his little sister in it again. She kept him from taking himself too seriously, and everyone needed someone like that around them.
She’d been laughing so much more since Tess’s return, though in private. She saved all her giggles for after work. She bottled them up, took them home, and let them out when no one but Jody could hear.
His reflexive smile waned as quickly as he wore it when he realized Nan was staring at him with pointed concern from across the room. She was too sensitive, and he was sitting too close to her. If he was upset, she would sense his hurt and try to heal him. That was her job as the clan’s matriarch—soothing them all. He didn’t want her wasting her finite energy on him, though. There were people in the clan who needed the psychic support far more than he did.
“My family wasn’t like yours,” Ótama said after a minute of thoughtful silence. “The times were different then. I suppose the urge for self-preservation was much higher, with circumstances being what they were. The group was wise to try to cloister when they landed in the Americas. They wouldn’t have survived otherwise.”
“This is all fascinating, but we need a plan,” alpha wolf Adam said. In the absence of the clan chieftains, he was always the person compelled to keep discussions on track. He probably had other shit he could be doing besides getting enmeshed in brand new witch family drama. “Tell me what my part is in it, and I’ll pick a crew and make shit happen.”
“Get your team to check all the video from the past couple of days, just in case,” Jody said. “Get footage from the main exit, the staff gate at the back of the community, and also the camera nearest her apartment.” He dragged a hand through his hair and let out a breath. “Maybe have someone check her cabin, too. She’s currently got tenants in it, but maybe they’ve seen her come by to pick up rent money or something.”
“If you really thought there was a chance they did,” Nadia said, “you’d go yourself.”
He grunted. His cousin knew him too well. “Still, it’s someplace to start. I’m going to go search her apartment and see if anything’s out of place. With Lora being so meticulous in general, I don’t expect her to have left any clues behind, but she’s surprised me before.”
Leaving him without so much as a whispered good-bye was a pretty fucking big surprise, for one.
“I’ll go with you, if you’d like,” came Ótama’s quiet voice from the hearth. “To give a feminine perspective.”
For a minute, he concentrated on rubbing his left palm with his right thumb. He’d wanted to go alone so he could search in his own way without having to slow down and explain his strategies, but Lora was too important a person to him for him to let pride get in the way. He wasn’t going to win any prizes for doing it all by himself. If anything, the search would be slower and the chances of her disappearing for good would skyrocket.
“I’d like that,” he said, standing.
He was going to find her, and when he did, he was going to pin that woman down and make her marry him.
Enough was enough.
The only person who gave a damn about her lack of magic was her.