This first look was included in my last newsletter. Because I’m such a stellar marketer, a lot of people don’t realize I have a newsletter and wanted to know where they could get it. I figured I’d better post it here : ) For those of you who are interested in signing up, now that you know I have one, you can do it here http://eepurl.com/B0gm1 .
People always think they know what’s important. That it’s not something you need to spend hours debating. You just know. Or you should. I’d always thought I’d known.
When I lost my family, I didn’t need to think about how it was going to feel. It was instant devastation and it nearly broke me. According to some, it had broken me.
But I was realizing that sometimes you don’t know what’s important at all, not until you’ve really gone and botched things up so badly you aren’t sure if you can ever make things right.
As I stood in the alleyway, the Underground loomed ahead, casting me in its massive shadow. It was a large converted warehouse where the paranormal came to play, but it wasn’t only home to creatures better off not named. This was Kane’s lair.
The last time I’d set foot in this place, there’d been snow on the ground. Now the trees had buds and the smell of spring was fresh in the air.
As I struggled to catch a deep breath, I knew it wasn’t allergies clogging up my lungs but fear. Three months ago, almost to the day, I’d walked out of here without so much as a note, and today I’d find out how badly I’d botched things up.
I hadn’t lived at the Underground for long, and yet as I walked toward the steel door, I felt like I was coming home. This wasn’t my home, but I hadn’t been able to shake the longing to come here, no matter how many times I reminded myself that it hadn’t been all good. Still, every step forward I took felt better than the last.
The door swung open before I was close enough to knock, and an attractive man in his early twenties stood there, looking at me as he filled the opening with his large frame. Jerry didn’t look like he belonged manning the door of a club in Boston, let alone this place. With his sun-kissed skin and blond glints in his brown hair, he looked like he should’ve been dropped behind a bar on some tropical island, wining and dining attractive patrons as they sipped piña coladas, instead of sleeping his way through the female vampire population while they sipped on his blood. Although I’d never confirmed whether the vampires feasted on him during sex. My overactive imagination had made that addition.
Jerry stood there silently as he soaked in the shock of seeing me here. Considering how I’d left, he was probably checking to see if I’d grown horns in my absence. It took him a moment to get his voice back, but when he did, he finally began to speak.
“Whoa.” His one word sized up my appearance better than anything else.
Yeah, that was exactly how I was feeling about my visit too, except hopefully I wasn’t being as obvious about it. “Nice to see you, too,” I said as I closed the distance.
“And I thought today was going to be boring.” He stepped back, offering me entrance, and I walked into the Underground.
The place was as electric as I’d remembered it, the energy seeping into my pores. The music was pounding while people milled about the industrial-looking space, drinking, playing cards, lounging at tables and in the few booths.
I caught a couple of nasty stares from the witches; the shifters mostly ignored me, disregarding me as unimportant to their lives. The vampires weren’t awake and up yet. Yep, everything was exactly as I remembered.
Our booth in the corner—Butch and Leon’s booth in the corner—was empty. I’d caught glimpses of Butch and Leon a handful of times over the last few months. I’d wanted to approach them but they never came close enough, and I feared having to chase them down the street if I was headed in their direction. After I left the way I had, only a fool would think things would be the same. That if they’d been here, I’d be able to slip into the booth like old times and joke with them and laugh like we used to. Nothing was like it used to be.
My eyes shot to the office up above. I feared just how different things would be now. Kane had never struck me as the forgiving type.
I’d stalled long enough. I’d come here for a purpose and I wasn’t chickening out now.
I leaned slightly toward Jerry, who was standing beside me, while keeping my eyes on the office. “Kane upstairs?”
“Oh yeah.” Even that simple answer and the way he dragged out the O was telling.
I’d only taken a step before Jerry asked, “You want me to go see if he’s free?”
What he really meant was take the temperature of the room for me and make sure it was safe for entry. Jerry had always been the softy of the group.
Some things had definitely changed. I hadn’t expected a warm welcome, not after the way I left. But Kane needing a warning of my arrival? That didn’t bode well. I turned back toward Jerry. “Is that necessary?”
“Probably not? It’s not like he’d kill you anyway. Otherwise he would’ve already done it.” He shrugged, looking as unsure as I felt.
I wasn’t sure if that was supposed to make me feel better. If it was, Jerry was going to have to spend some serious time working on his people skills. Worst part was, he’d always had the best skills out of the whole gang.
“Thanks, but I’m good.” I headed toward the stairs with a confidence that was all bluster with no meat. Whether I was actually good didn’t matter. I had to do this, and now. If I talked to Jerry for another couple of seconds, I might not make it to the office at all.
Isabella, Kane’s stalker—or assistant, as they liked to call her around here—was leaving Kane’s office as I hit the first step of the metal staircase. The gloating smile on her face prepared me for my reception and was better than a warning flare out of the door.
So, he already knew I was in the building, which wasn’t surprising, and guessing from her level of happiness, it was going to be really bad. Isabella didn’t say a word as she walked past me on the stairs, and her smile seemed cemented in place. It made me even edgier.
As I climbed though, excitement mingled with the fear. I hadn’t seen Kane in a long time. I’d missed him so much more than I ever imagined I would. I almost wanted to run up these stairs, like I used to. Back then, I’d always been running from something. Now it was as if I wanted to run to something: Kane. Wanting to be around Kane was a very bad idea, considering my current situation. I was only here because I had to be, even if part of me was happy about it.
I knocked on the door before I could think about it any longer. I’d avoided thinking about Kane, and the shit that bubbled up inside of me when he came to mind, for three months. I could do another day standing on my head with one hand tied behind my back, or at least pretend to.
There wasn’t a response from inside, so I tested the doorknob. It was unlocked, so I let the door swing forward.
Kane was standing by the wall of windows that overlooked the main floor of the Underground, looking out.
He looked better than I’d remembered, and the memory was already pretty damn good. The dim lights reflected against his black hair. His profile seemed a little more hawkish, predatory. The woodsy, masculine scent of him was subtle in the air as I took a deep breath, remembering how much I liked his scent. His posture was relaxed, his white shirt sleeves rolled back, his arms crossed over his chest. I had to remind myself that even though he wasn’t looking directly at me, he was probably aware of my every move.
I could feel the tension in the room as I took a few hesitant steps forward.
He finally turned toward me, and his deep-set hazel eyes seemed much colder than they used to be. That wasn’t exactly unexpected, not after the way I’d left. No note, no goodbyes, just a bag packed in the wee hours of the morning.
When I first came here, I’d never thought of it as a permanent situation. It had been a means to an end, that end being a normal life at some point, one without crawlers breathing down my back at every turn. But along the way, the means had morphed into something else, something maybe just as important as the end goal. Even before I formed relationships with these people, not once had I imagined slinking out without a word. If I imagined a hundred different goodbyes, none of them would’ve been like that, if I’d wanted a goodbye at all.
Still, I’d had to do it, and I knew from the second I made the choice it was going to be hard. I just hadn’t expected it to be downright agonizing.
Kane lifted a single eyebrow. It was the subtlest what the fuck do you want I’d ever gotten. Kane was good like that, making you feel like dirt without saying a word. In the time I’d known him, I’d seen him do it to countless people. Being on the receiving end sucked much worse than I’d imagined it would, and I gripped the back of the chair I’d stepped beside.
I was here now. I couldn’t exactly go running from the room. Well, I could, but how stupid would I look then? Maybe if I warmed him up with some chitchat? I had to do something, because I feared I was about to get booted out of here on my ass.
“So, how are you?”
Both eyebrows rose now, as if to ask, Did you really come here for small talk?
He tilted his head slightly, getting the angle of his stare just right. I knew there was no way I’d get a warm welcome, and I was prepared for it. I hadn’t been ready for the look in his eyes that called me an ingrate at best, a traitor at worst. I felt like my legs had been chopped out from underneath me and I’d shrunk a couple of feet.
He cleared his throat, in a spit it out type kind of way.
This was turning out to be much harder than I’d thought. I figured leaving the way I had might have hit the reset button between us—perhaps it would be similar to the tension when we first met, or maybe a couple of steps back. As I stood here in front of him, his stare harder than I’d thought it could be, I felt like I’d fallen to the bottom of a deep ditch and had nothing but my bare hands to claw my way out.
But I wasn’t a quitter, and I’d come here because I was running out of options, so I’d claw until my fingers bled. “Everything looks like it’s going well.” Dead silence, and he turned back to his previous view of the Underground. I kept talking. “I’ve been meaning to stop by one of these days.”
I groaned inwardly as I heard my small talk. It wasn’t my forte under good circumstances, let alone a hostile environment. I might have been better off spitting out why I’d come and let the chips fall where they may, or come shooting back at me, if that were the case.
I forced myself not to look back at the door as I calculated how much of a mistake this had been.
He glanced back over at me before turning away again and saying, “I saw your commercial. All those Sesame Street-looking characters running around painted black? Stroke of genius to be sure. How did that work out? Get any bites from Shadow Walkers?”
My spine stiffened even as I felt my skin heat, in spite of the fact that I thought I’d forgotten how to blush a long time ago. Even if I hadn’t heard the sarcasm that laced his voice, I would’ve known he was poking at me. After all, I’d seen my own commercial and I wasn’t delusional.
Maybe that hadn’t turned out the way I hoped, but I’d been trying to save Shadow Walkers. My intent had been good. What had I known about commercials? The director had a hundred good reviews online—all probably sock puppets, now that I thought back.
Even if Kane was mocking me, at least he was speaking to me. One hurdle crossed.
He straightened, still not looking at me as he said, “I’ve got a busy day. What do you want?”
There it was. The dismissal. He was finished with me. Yes, I’d left in a bad way, but I hadn’t committed mass murder on the way out.
His eyebrows rose slightly with the silent question: Why are you still here?
Small talk was over. I wasn’t ready to run out the door, but trying to get the words out felt a little like trying to cough up dirt.
It shouldn’t be this hard to say. He needed me too. Our relationship hadn’t been a one-way street, and I was sure after how long it took to find me, he hadn’t replaced me. This was mutually beneficial. Nothing to sweat over. “I’d like to get back to work.”
“Get back to work?” he repeated, as if he couldn’t believe what I’d just said.
My fingers tightened a little more on the chair beside me. “Yes. I know from firsthand experience how hard it is to keep Shadow Walkers, so you can’t say the position has been filled. We both need things, I’m sure.” He was looking at me like he needed nothing except me out of his office.
He took a step toward me, and it didn’t feel in the least friendly. It felt like I was about to be helped to the door.
“I already have what I need. Your services aren’t required here. If you need money or resources, maybe you should ask that new boyfriend of yours.”
I’d known Kane had eyes on me. That’s who Kane was. He had eyes on everyone and everything. There was a reason he had this club, rented to all walks of life. He knew everything. Or thought he did.
But he definitely didn’t know who he was calling my new boyfriend. So at least from afar, Asher passed for a regular guy. I’d been worried about that, and some of the tension I carried in here with me seeped out. Not all of it, though. I was still in the same mile-deep hole, and I desperately needed the man in front of me.
“I’m fine financially,” I said, knowing that broadcasting my desperation would only hurt any slim possibility of negotiations. “I would like to shadow walk again, is all.”
He walked over to his desk and perched on the corner of it as he gave me a grin that chilled. “Really? No problems financially? I heard you paid nearly double what you should’ve for that building. From what I heard, it was nearly eight million.”
It had been him. He’d screwed up my deal. Every time I put a bid in, more bidders seemed to jump into the deal. I’d considered whether Kane had been behind my bad luck but told myself I was being paranoid. “It was you.”
“I like real estate. What can I say if we have the same taste in buildings?” He picked up a pen and drummed it on the desk. “Then there was your commercial. Primetime is pretty expensive air.”
“Are you willing to work with me or not?” I blurted out, not needing the accounting of my last three months. I knew it well. And he didn’t know the full extent of it, like how the last million had disappeared out of my account.
“No.” It was succinct and firm.
“No?” I thought he’d make it hell to work with him for a while, but I hadn’t expected not to work with him at all.
“Yes. That is what I said. No.”
“But you had said—”
“My offer has expired.”
“You didn’t tell me there was an expiration on your job offer.” I was entering into a precarious place, and I knew that desperation was starting to cling to me like the stink of day-old gym clothes.
“There was. It expired the day you walked out without a word.”
I could beg. I didn’t know if it would make a difference, but it was either that or walk out. I’d never begged, no matter how hard my life had gotten, but I was damn close right now. I knew what would happen if I walked out. I didn’t have family or friends to lean on. I’d eventually lose the building, and Asher and I would be homeless.
His eyes shifted to the door and back to me.
No. I still didn’t have it in me. These knees didn’t hit the floor for anyone. I’d rather sleep in my car than kneel for him.
I walked out, fairly certain I was entering worst-case-scenario territory.