When it comes to urban fantasy, Dianna Love
is a master. 

Tristan's EscapeBelador Urban Fantasy

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Chapter 1

 

Swooping into an approach pattern over Treoir Island, Tristan spread his gryphon wings for descent before he ran out of power and crashed.

He’d flown two double shifts of surveillance flights in the past two days. Exhaustion pushed him to hurry up and get done, but rushing could be hazardous. He’d prefer a nice, smooth landing to slamming into the angry waves dousing boulders below the bluffs. Sunlight faded as the only sign of a day ending. A mist over the Irish Sea hid this realm from the other worlds.

Visitors were not welcome.

The goddess Macha ruled this domain that was inhabited by her warrior queen and Treoir castle minions.

Plus eight unhappy gryphons.

Including the one now in human form, waiting at Tristan’s private landing spot. Just seeing him there was a bad sign.

What was up with Bernie?

That skinny guy could shift whenever he wanted in this place. When he did, he turned into a badass, silver-gray gryphon that rose ten feet in height. On the other hand, Bernie was on the weak side as a human and panicked easily.

Like now. He was wringing his hands. 

He wouldn’t be here about a rift among the gryphons. They were aggressive beasts by nature. Blood flowed sometimes, but Tristan didn’t care as long as his sister wasn’t in the middle of any squabble. Petrina was not currently on Treoir Island.

That narrowed the potential disasters to one serious enough to send Bernie here. Macha.

Shit, if the goddess bitch called a meeting of all the gryphons right now, Petrina would end up screwed four ways.

Tristan picked up speed and slid into a fast landing. The second his giant lion paws hit solid ground he stomped forward. Gryphons were a majestic mix of eagle head and upper body atop a lion-shaped lower half, complete with a tail.

Since none of them could speak in this form, Tristan called out telepathically to Bernie. What the hell is going on?

Bernie lifted his finger to his lips and shook his head.

He didn’t want to use telepathy?

That just reinforced Tristan’s bad feeling. Macha might be listening for telepathic chatter.

No telepathy meant Tristan had to shift back into his human form here, where he had no spare clothes. Unlike the other gryphons, he could majik up a pair of jeans—sometimes—but that would further drain what was left of his power reserve.

Yep, Bernie showing up now was bad news, especially since the guy wanted Tristan rested enough to take him to Atlanta in three days. That would be Tristan’s last secret teleportation trip for the holidays, thank the miserable gods. Had Macha figured out Tristan’s secret transport service? Doubtful, since Tristan hadn’t been turned into a flying ball of flame.

Macha was too arrogant to imagine anyone breaking her rules.

Lack of imagination had been the downfall of others who’d underestimated Tristan.

The goddess had a lot to learn about his gifts. To be honest, he did, too, but he definitely had a few tricks up his sleeve.

Or under his feathers, as it were.

Tristan called up his power to change back into human form, and groaned. With a few hours rest, this wouldn’t take so long, but he’d been flying double shifts for weeks to keep the Treoir guards from getting suspicious about where he’d been spending his time off. Muscle and bone drew tight, changing shape as his giant wings shrank. He twisted and sucked down into a six-foot-two man. Sweat poured off his forehead and ran down his neck by the time he’d finished.

“Sorry, Tristan.”

Cool air brushed his naked skin, but Tristan had lived naked most of four years during an imprisonment, so this was minor. “This better be good.” 

Bernie’s bright green eyes filled with anxiety. “It’s not. Wait. No. I mean, this is important, but not good. What I’m, uh, just trying to say–”

Tristan rolled his shoulders, stretching the tight muscles. He waved his hand in a circular motion. “I’ve got it. Just tell me why you’re here so I can get a damn shower and go to bed.”

“Oh, sorry.”  Bernie wrung his hands again. “Evalle’s coming here in two days.”

Tristan did pause at that.

Technically, Evalle lead the gryphons, because the most powerful beast ruled their pack and she’d killed the deadliest gryphon in the pack when he’d attacked her during a battle. The gryphons were all half-blood Beladors also known as Alterants and, for now, they had to stay on Treoir to guard the island and castle. Evalle generally stayed in the human world unless Macha called her in, due to Evalle’s unique position of being the gryphon liaison.

Some days Tristan hated the Belador part of his DNA.

But he cared even less for the other half.

Beladors were descended from ancient warriors who had once been badasses running around killing everything, especially their enemies. In particular, they’d targeted a group following a Hindu god. That shit stopped when Macha struck a deal with the Hindu god, where she’d keep her warriors under control and he’d deal with his.

The goddess gave Beladors one option. Swear to a code of honor or die. Simple enough, but now they had to fight the Medb coven of warlocks and witches, their greatest enemy, with their hands tied most of the time.

Medb blood ran through Tristan’s body, too, but he’d just as soon let the Beladors and Medb have at each other. He would ignore both camps altogether if it didn’t mean leaving his foster sister and the other gryphons to face the future alone.

Rubbing the sore muscles in his neck, Tristan started thinking out loud. “Evalle’s visit shouldn’t be a problem if I just plan to teleport in and out of Treoir before and after her visit.”

Bernie shook his head. “You don’t understand. She’s coming to stay through New Year’s.”

“For two weeks? Are you freaking kidding me?”

“I know, right?”  Bernie nodded with relief, as if that explained everything.

Tristan ground out, “Why is she coming here?”

“The guards said Macha wants a meeting with all the Alterants, but they heard that Evalle is spending the holidays here as a show of solidarity and support. Word is the Tribunal postponed their vote again on determining if we’re a race until after the first of the year. Evalle wants to do her part and fly some of the security rounds to give all of us extra breaks.”

Damn the Tribunal, run by deities who held the future of gryphons in their miserable hands.

Damn Evalle and her iron conscience, too.

Tristan’s life would have been so much simpler if he’d just been born human, with no clue about all this preternatural crap.

Any other time, he’d appreciate Evalle’s consideration, but right now her unyielding sense of honor was going to royally screw him, his foster sister Petrina, and Bernie. Tristan had teleported Petrina to Atlanta thirty-six hours ago. Once he brought her back to Treoir and recovered from teleporting, Bernie was to be Tristan’s last trip. He’d hoped to spend some of the next two days in Atlanta while he waited to return Bernie.

Macha would call the gryphons to the castle the minute Evalle arrived in Treoir.

Bernie kept fidgeting. “Petrina has to be here.”

“I know.” Tristan and Bernie had to be on-site too.

If not, Macha would ... who knew what she’d do? But the fallout would be ugly and ruthless.

Tristan hated to do this to Bernie, but as their secret gryphon taxi to the human world, he had limitations.

“This changes things Bernie–”

Bernie broke in. “Don’t even think about leaving me here. I have to go back to Atlanta.”

“I can’t physically teleport back and forth that quickly to take you, return Petrina here, then do another round trip to Atlanta and back with you.” Tristan strained to take one person with him each way, since teleporting wasn’t a natural gift, but something he’d gained from a dark source.

Bernie crossed his thin arms. “Take me when you go to get Petrina and leave me. You did that when you took Petrina and came back with Ixxter.”

“That was an experiment, and the effort wiped me out.”

“I understand and I’m sorry to ask that of you, but nothing has ever been this important to me. I’ve pulled double shifts just like everyone else. I want my time back home, just like the rest of them.”

“I know you have, but–”

“No!” Bernie had never sounded so serious. “I haven’t seen the woman I love since that dark witch captured me.” His voice turned pitiful. “She’s beautiful and I’m ... I’m not like you, Tristan. You walk through a room and panties fall off.”

Tristan lifted his eyebrows at that.

Bernie dug in. “It’s true and you know it. No woman looks at me like they want to jump my bones. I can’t expect to ever find another woman even close to Claire.”

What woman could be worth Bernie risking his life when he didn’t make it back for Macha’s meeting? Bernie’s eyes took on the dreamy look of a man who had yet to learn the truth. A woman cared about only one thing–how much she could gain from a man.

Some would sell a guy out for a measly thousand dollars.

Bernie wouldn’t stop once he got on something, dedicated as a dog with a meaty bone. “Women like Claire don’t come along more than once. Ask Petrina. She’ll tell you.”

“Petrina? What are you saying, Bernie?”  Honestly, the guy talked in circles half the time.

Bernie found his feet interesting all of a sudden. “I’m just saying that Claire is like Petrina. Special.”

Tristan wasn’t sure he liked this Claire being compared to Petrina. His sister could be a roaring pain some days, but she was solid and loyal.

He ignored his cramping muscles that wanted a long, hot shower and explained, “The minute Evalle leaves, I’ll–”

That brought Bernie’s head up. “No. Please, Tristan. I won’t ask you to come back to the human realm for me, but I have to go there now. If I lose Claire, then surviving all this doesn’t matter to me.”

Shouting at Bernie that he needed to pull his head out of his ass would probably not help, so Tristan said, “If she truly loves you, she’ll wait for you, right?”  Not that he had any experience with love, but that seemed like a good benchmark.

“That’s just it,” Bernie explained. “Claire planned to stay in Atlanta until Christmas, then she was going home to be with her family in England. We talked about going together. I don’t know where her family is in the UK, or how to find her if she leaves Atlanta. She has no idea I’m still alive. I had two weeks of heaven with her, and was on my way to meet her for dinner to propose. Then the witch showed up. She just wanted a monster to trade for Noirre majik, but she stole my only chance at happiness.”

“You’re not a monster,” Tristan admonished lightly, although it was an apt description of all of the gryphons. But Bernie had enough self-esteem issues without adding another label.

“I know,” Bernie mumbled then lifted his head. “Claire didn’t see my green Alterant gaze until the night before I was grabbed. I never showed her my real monster side, but I’d love to show off my gryphon now. She’d keep my secret.”

Tristan couldn’t help the slither of suspicion that entered his thoughts. Five years ago, he’d lost his head over a woman. She’d seen his own glowing eyes the night before other Beladors captured him. Their warrior queen had sent Tristan to an invisible cage in a South American jungle.

And here I am, helping to protect that warrior queen.

Fate, meet irony.

In Bernie’s shoes, Tristan would have questioned the timing of the witch finding him. “Are you sure you can trust this Claire?”

Meek little Bernie growled. “Don’t you dare try to convince me that Claire had anything to do with a damn witch. She’s very religious. She even offered to keep me safe until we could find a priest to help drive out the demon in me.”

“You’re not a demon either, dammit.”

“I guess,” Bernie mumbled.

“What do you mean, you guess? I know. I’ve fought demons. Just because we’re Alterants who can shift into gryphons doesn’t mean we’re demonic in any way.”

Bernie brightened at that. “I bet Claire would be impressed with my gryphon form, but I’d have to find a safe place to–”

Tristan lifted a finger and pointed it at Bernie. “Shift in the human realm, and you won’t have to worry about Macha toasting you, not if the VIPER coalition gets their hands on you first. Humans can’t know about any of us. Period. A VIPER patrol would pick you up and drop you at a Tribunal, and your pieces would end up scattered across the universe.”

Bernie started to argue, but Tristan wasn’t done. “And let’s not forget that warlocks from the Medb coven are on the hunt for Alterants. If you’d wanted to face all that, you should have taken Evalle up on her offer to have Macha transport you back to the human world.” 

With the Medb and Beladors being dire enemies, the Medb were demanding half of the Alterants who had evolved into gryphons.

As though we’re a bunch of livestock to be divided up.

Evalle had informed the gryphons of a Tribunal decision that forced Macha’s hand. Any gryphon who wanted to leave Treoir would have to be teleported to the human world, courtesy of the goddess.

Out of the Belador frying pan into a Medb trap.

Bernie snorted with a shot of anger. “I didn’t say I wanted to commit suicide. Evalle also said the minute Macha teleported any of us, Macha would have to inform the Tribunal of the gryphons who were available, so the Medb could extend an offer to join their coven. Medb warlocks would be all over my ass. I’d end up in their dungeon waiting to be used as a sacrifice, or worse.”

“Exactly,” Tristan snapped. When Evalle wasn’t around, the responsibility of overseeing the group fell to Tristan. He was tired of playing counselor to this pack of gryphons. They had every right to complain, but he was sick of listening to it. “I haven’t been risking all of our necks, slipping each of you into Atlanta one at a time, just to have you show off to some woman. If you make it back at some point, changing your form there would be suicidal.” 

The gryphons were all adults, and they knew the risks, but Bernie and Petrina might not be in danger right now if Tristan hadn’t figured out that he could teleport between the Treoir realm and the human world.

And he couldn’t snap his damn fingers and do it.  

Twenty-first century Beladors lived among humans. They were part of VIPER, a force of powerful beings that protected humans. One sure way to get noticed, and not in a good way, would be to shift into gryphon form in the mortal world, where there was always a risk of being seen.

VIPER would release a hunt-to-kill order.

Carrying the blood of both camps put Alterant-gryphons in one hell of a tight spot.

If Tristan got caught leaving Treoir without permission, he didn’t have enough fingers and toes to count all the ways he’d suffer and then die.

“I’ve flown extra hours for every gryphon here,” Bernie went on. “I’ve never asked for anything except my fair share,” he repeated.

True. Tristan let out a long sigh.  

Why couldn’t this be Ixxter’s turn to go home? Ixxter was an asshole of the highest order, and Tristan wouldn’t bat an eyelash at telling him no. Bernie went above and beyond for all the gryphons.

Every one of them had offered Tristan anything for a chance to go home this month for just two days.

He’d finally agreed, on one condition—everyone had to be in on this secret operation and cover for each other, plus fly double shifts to stretch the time they would not be expected to fly.

Everyone had agreed and carried their part.

Bernie had gone above and beyond. Tristan owed him an even bigger debt. Bernie had stepped in to protect Petrina during the recent Medb and Belador battle on this island.

Bernie deserved more than a damn teleporting trip.

But would he call in that marker right now?

No. He’s a better man than I am, because I would in his place if someone I loved waited for me.

He hoped this woman was not making a chump of nice-guy Bernie.

For the millionth time, Tristan wished for a normal life, which was all Bernie really wanted, too. That had to be the reason Tristan said, “I’ll take you with me, and I’ll try to bring Petrina back then come for you. I have to return her first. She doesn’t know about this, and you have the option of staying here safe.”

Bernie’s face went from hangdog to bursting with happiness. “Absolutely. I would never put my own safety ahead of Petrina’s.”

But you’d put a human woman ahead of your life. Tristan wanted to be happy for Bernie, but he couldn’t trust a woman that easily. The wrong decision might cost Bernie his life.

The Alterants are adults. I can’t make their decisions. Withholding his teleporting power from Bernie would be as wrong as it felt to take Bernie back with no guarantee Tristan could make that last trip.

Macha could torch all of the gryphons if she found out, but she wouldn’t do that. She’d make an example of one, maybe two. She also saw them as valuable livestock, or she wouldn’t waste her time on Tribunal meetings or argue so hard to keep them in her pantheon.

If Tristan believed the entire pack would be punished, he’d never have risked the first trip to the human world.

Once Tristan had Petrina back here safe, he’d make her swear to stay out of the way if there were repercussions, then Tristan would gut it out to return with Bernie.

“Thank you, Tristan. You’ll be my best man.”

Tristan didn’t have the heart to point out that Macha was not going to allow any of them to live any kind of life with a human partner. But all Bernie wanted to do right now was go home and feel like a normal person for two days.

A troll friend of Tristan’s had set up an apartment just for Petrina so she’d be safe in Atlanta. She stayed alone there, since all she wanted to do was watch her favorite movies, take long baths, and visit the Iron Casket nightclub, where strange was normal since a centaur owned it.

Every one of them had their own version of normal.

Bernie grinned from ear to ear. One big happy.

Disappointment stabbed Tristan at witnessing unbridled joy.  He didn’t begrudge Bernie some well-deserved happiness, but no one waited for Tristan.  

He preferred it that way.

Keep telling yourself that.

He’d fallen for a woman once, only to have her stab him in the back. One day he would hunt down Elaine “Mac” Mackenzie, the one who’d sold him out for a thousand dollars.

That’s all his freedom had been worth.

She’d done it the day after they’d spent the night together for the first time.

She would answer for every hellacious year he’d endured living alone and like an animal.

Tristan scrubbed his hands over his face, dismissing things that were out of his reach. For now. “Be ready to leave in an hour, Bernie.”

“You can’t go that soon. You normally need a full day after flying a double.”

“Well, that’s not going to happen, is it?”

“What are you thinking of doing?”

“I’m going to teleport every twelve hours to take you to Atlanta, bring Petrina back, return to Atlanta, and bring you back. The teleporting is going to suck, and you won’t get two full days, but everyone gets their holiday visit and everyone comes home.”

They would all return to Treoir if Tristan was correct about the minimum downtime required for him to teleport that many times in forty-eight hours.

This qualified him for the Stupid Idea of the Year award.

He hated holidays.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

“What the hell are you doing, Laney?”

Making a gamble with my entire future, but it’s my gamble to take. Elaine Mackenzie shifted the phone between her chin and shoulder so she could balance her umbrella as she moved down the rain-wet street.

She hated to be called Laney, but her brother refused to call her Mac. “Last I checked, I’m working and paying my own bills, Brandon. I know that’s a foreign idea for someone still living at home.”

“I’m the person running our thirty-seven-room mansion, managing all the family financials, plus supporting Father’s political career from down here now that he’s in Washington. All that, plus keeping an eye on my errant sister, as if my other responsibilities aren’t enough,” he snarled. “Here’s a novel idea for you–try pretending to be responsible. You’re twenty-four-years old, for crying out loud. Show some appreciation to the family that raised you. Your room is still available if you can get your act together and stop chasing unicorns.”

Unicorns. Her cheeks burned. He’d never let her forget what happened the week she turned nineteen.

Sarcasm was the least of Brandon’s faults.

He snarled, “Hold on and don’t you dare hang up.”

A chill ran across her skin. She didn’t live in the same house with him anymore. She was safe, to some degree.   

Who are you kidding? She’d felt safe with a man one time in her life, and that night had turned out to be a mean joke on her.

A car raced by, throwing a knee-high wall of water against her jeans.

She had ten minutes to reach Inman Park by foot before the light rain gave way to the thunderstorm threatening downtown Atlanta. Why did it have to rain tonight when she’d planned to get Miss Wilma a Christmas tree? The eighty-eight-year-old woman had been a lifesaver since Mac’s last apartment had burned. Mac had been walking Sampson, the elderly woman’s Dachshund, during severe weather just to help her out. Then when Mac’s apartment building went up in smoke, Miss Wilma invited Mac to share her Victorian cottage.

The sweet old lady had never asked anything of Mac since she’d moved in, but Mac had figured out that Miss Wilma longed for a tree to decorate.

Mac picked up her pace. First she had to change out of her best cable-knit sweater and spiked-heel boots. She needed flat-soled shoes and a poncho so she could carry a tree in this weather. She clutched an umbrella in one hand and her electronic tablet in the other while she jogged to beat the threatening downpour.

A lithe woman in neon yellow tights and matching top speed-walked by in the opposite direction, mocking Mac’s definition of jogging.

She moved with such grace that rain seemed to dance off the bright yellow fabric.

Whatever. I’m not athletic.

Mac was physically strong and did mental gymnastics, so there. She slung a wet curl out of her eyes as Brandon clicked back on the line and started in on her again.

She talked over him. “I’m busy and I don’t care what you think of my new job. Wait. Unless you think it’s awesome ... in which case, I do care,” she finished in the sweet tone she saved for children and idiots.   

“Are you even listening to me, Laney?”

“It’s been said that common sense is often an issue for geniuses, so let me analyze this for you, even though you did graduate from Harvard. Have you heard the distinctive click of disconnecting? Me neither. Therefore, it should be obvious I’m still listening, right?”

“You’re not as funny as you think.” 

This man had destroyed her chance at a normal childhood and now he wanted to ruin the normal life she was trying to live. Brandon was a Mackenzie, and the men in her family put their public reputations above all else.

Never mar the perfect family image.

She’d been born a mistake and raised as a lie.

The minute she turned eighteen, she’d walked away with nothing and scratched out an existence. Brandon and his spin crew had done their usual job of turning her decision to “go it on her own” into more campaign fodder for her father, the senator. They played up how he’d raised a strong woman.

As if.

Wait, she did give them credit for hardening her heart. A shame it hadn’t been enough to keep her from being devastated by a man with bright green—

Laney!

What?

“We allowed you to have your moment of independence. Father accepted that you needed some time to sow your oats.”

She stopped and the rain tapped harder on her umbrella. If she could afford a new one, she’d sling her phone down on the ground so she could stomp his voice to death.

Don’t destroy the phone your boss just gave you yesterday.

That calmed her down. “Are you on crack, Brandon? Sow my oats? I busted my butt every day between carrying a full load at college and working any minute I could. How dare you reduce it to nothing more than some act of defiance.”   

She’d hidden in corners her whole life, but her scholarship had given her the freedom she’d needed to leave home. Thanks to Jacob Kossman, who was also her new boss as of yesterday.

Every person had a breaking point.

Brandon didn’t want to test Mac’s again. Not now.

He’d terrorized her at sixteen, and she’d bloodied his nose when he’d tried to grope her. She’d threatened to tell their father. Brandon scoffed at her, convinced his father would believe him over her, which was true.

That night, she’d started sleeping with a knife under her pillow.

Senator Carson Mackenzie pretended he was a family man. Brandon pretended he loved his adopted sister. Another man had pretended to care about her, too, and that had been just as much a lie.

All men wore masks. She’d grown up in a family of pretenders. The scary part? She was better than all of them at hiding her feelings from the world.

Brandon only thought he knew the truth about her.

But right now she wanted to know what this call was really about, and his turning quiet was not a good sign.

Next would come his infuriatingly calm time-to-put-little-Laney-back-on-reality-highway voice.

Four, three, two, one …

Brandon pushed a loaded sigh through the connection. “Father called from China this morning. I promised him I would handle this issue before he returned, but I can’t manage damage control without your cooperation.”

Issue? Damage control?

This was her life, not a political campaign issue. Mac set her jaw. “There is no damage to control. I don’t need your help with anything.”

“Oh really? I’ve already had two calls from tabloids wanting the inside scoop on the poor little girl the Mackenzie dynasty raised and how we feel about her signing on with the eccentric Jacob Kossman.”

The edge of her tattered self-respect frayed a bit and her glow of happiness dimmed a little. “It was a requirement as part of my scholarship deal.”

“Which you should not have agreed to.”

“That was my decision. You’re just angry because you didn’t know before now and because Kossman answers to no one, not even a Mackenzie.”

Jacob Kossman funded laboratories all over the world and three specialized in rare genetics. One of those was right here in Atlanta. Years back, Mac had suspected her brother was behind the lack of scholarship offers from the ten schools she’d tried to get into, which was why she’d jumped at the scholarship to a university near Rome, Georgia. They were offering specific candidates a special chance to double major in an odd combination of genetics and mythological studies. Then she’d chosen the mythological studies program for her masters as the final part of that program.

Brandon and his father were not happy.

That alone made accepting the scholarship worth the snide remarks she’d suffered about studying fairy tales. The icing on the cake had been getting to delve deep into ancient accounts of the mystical, something she’d always found fascinating.

The scholarship had covered only part of her expenses. She’d racked up a few school loans on top of needing to actually eat regularly. So when Jacob Kossman offered her a chance to negate those school loans by accepting a position with his research empire for after graduation, she didn’t hesitate. Yesterday though, she realized her job only waved a red flag in the face of her beast of a brother.  

Because Kossman hadn’t hired her for one of his labs where she could use her undergraduate degree in genetics.

He wanted her to use her mythological studies degree.

Didn’t matter. She had the background and now she had a job. Kossman’s deal would settle her scholarship contract if she stayed for two years, and the salary would allow her to buy a car and maybe find her own place to live. She would not sponge off Miss Wilma, and Mac wanted her own place, somewhere she’d feel good about inviting a man when she decided to date again.

The chances of dating happening any time soon were about as good as finding another guy with crazy green eyes.  

Mac might not be entirely thrilled with her new job, but Brandon and his father no longer pulled the strings in her life.

She shoved warning into her voice to finish this conversation with Brandon. “Let me make myself clear. I have been paying my own way since I turned eighteen and I have asked for nothing.” Except to be left alone.  

“Must I remind you of your tenuous position that does not allow you to be cavalier when it comes to the media?”

Claws of dread climbed her spine at his not-so-subtle warning. “What are you saying?”

“That you aren’t as smart as you think.”

She knew just by his tone that he was not addressing her IQ. Had Brandon figured out that she’d been digging into the family background?

Mac would not allow Brandon to know how many nights she’d slept in terror, or how hard she’d worked at the self-defense classes she’d taken while in college. Still, the threat he’d thrown out so casually had the result he’d wanted. She stopped and caught her breath as a tingle of fear ran up her spine, then shook it off and forced confidence into her voice.

“I’m tired of you threatening me, Brandon. I’ve done my part as the Mackenzie charity case you and your father have turned me into. Poor little Elaine, adopted after she was found stuffed in a dumpster. I should be getting paid for all the good press you two have gotten from using me as a poster child for your supposed philanthropic endeavors. I owe you nothing. I’m out of your hair.”

“As long as you walk around as a Mackenzie, you owe us everything. Don’t ever think you don’t.”

Her fingers tightened on the umbrella to the point the cheap plastic handle squeaked in protest. If only she could tell the truth to the world, but the minute she did, her life would be forfeit. She’d end up in a dumpster for real.

Had Brandon discovered what she knew?

She’d once warned him that she’d left an incriminating letter with a person he would never find. Should anything happen to her that looked the least bit suspicious, it would be mailed to three major news outlets, as well as the senator’s fiercest political enemies.

He’d laughed in her face and said, “Please give Father a reason to let me off the chain and send me after you.”

She kept walking, ready to be warm and dry. “I know what you’re capable of, Brandon, but if you think I’m crawling into a hole to keep you and your father happy, you have another think coming. No one cares that I’m working for Kossman unless you let them think it’s an issue.”

Brandon’s words sounded as if he squeezed them from between clenched teeth. “You’re drawing unnecessary media attention with this ghost-busting crap, plus there’s a rumor that Kossman’s going to support Dad’s closest challenger for his seat.”

She muttered, “I should have known this was all about political games.”

Now she understood why Brandon had his jockstrap twisted in a knot. She turned the media comment around on him. “Hey, you’re the tabloid darling. Didn’t I see a snippet on a rag cover about you in an intimate relationship with that very young movie star? What was she? Sixteen? The Mackenzie name survived that shit storm.”

“No one bats an eye at sex these days,” he said in dismissal. “How many times must I tell you that a Mackenzie doesn’t use vulgar language? It shows a lack of breeding and education.”

That was a load of crap. She’d heard both men drop F-bombs plenty of times, albeit behind closed doors.

She smiled, hoping it came through in her voice. “I doubt anyone will question my intelligence.”  She might not have inherited the Mackenzie good looks, but she tested off the charts when it came to IQ.

“Yes, yes, you do have a few brain cells. If you want to be taken seriously as a researcher, then don’t accept a job hunting for goblins and fairies,” Brandon said, changing his tactic.

Mac trudged on as the drizzle turned to showers. Why did home always feel twice as far away in dreary rain? Or maybe it was because of the conversation grinding on her nerves.

She dodged a deep rut in the broken sidewalk that had created a natural lake and argued, “Kossman’s investment in researching rare DNA strains may one day offer insight into the genetic makeup of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, leukemia–”

“Save that spiel for the media. You can paint this any way you want, but Kossman hired you for the Mackenzie name and your bizarre degrees. Everyone knows he wants to prove the supernatural exists, so don’t try to sell him as some kind of trailblazer and that you’re riding shotgun. Father has laboratory contacts all over the country. He’ll find you a position paying whatever Kossman has offered. Maybe more.”

Senator Mackenzie had gained a reputation of supporting medicine, but in truth that was about pandering to the elderly.

Mac would rather clean toilets than accept any position associated with the man who’d sired her. Yes, she knew Senator Mackenzie’s dirty secret about her birth, but did Brandon? She didn’t think so, or he’d find a way to drag her back to their mansion and put her under lock and key just to keep dear old Dad’s secret safe.

She really shouldn’t push Brandon when he was in his protect-the-Mackenzie-name mode, but it was hard to pass up a chance when she felt a moment of confidence. Still, if anything happened to Mac, who would watch out for Miss Wilma and her precious little Sampson? Not her two worthless children who lived on the West Coast, that’s for sure.

Mac’s phone buzzed with a text.

Kossman’s ID came up on the display.

“I have to go, Brandon. I’m doing my best to stay out of your family’s life. I suggest you all stay out of mine.”

“Just remember that I tried to talk to you. You do what you have to and we’ll do the same,” he warned, then added, “and I know what you’ve been researching. Dump this job and come home, or you’ll regret testing limits with me.”

He hung up before she could ask what he’d uncovered.

She’d told no one about having her DNA tested. No, if Brandon knew the truth about her so-called adoption, he would have already silenced her. He knew something, but he was fishing.

The clouds unleashed buckets of rain, slapping the thin umbrella shielding her from a drenching. The oversized smart phone Kossman had given her was a nice perk, but her fingers weren’t long enough to hold the phone and press the keys with one hand.

A white van pulled up on her side of the street and stopped near the curb. Water sloshed across the sidewalk. Rain pounded the ground in a roar. A thick-chested man who had a flat bulldog face and wore tactical gear exited from the passenger side.

She’d been introduced to Brewster Jennings yesterday, right after Mr. Kossman hired her. “What’s going on, Brewster?”

 “Mr. Kossman called and said he received word of a potential pre,” Brewster explained. Kossman preferred the nickname “pre” to preternatural or supernatural. Pre would not create as much stir if overheard. Kossman’s man said, “We were the closest team to you. He sent us to pick you up, Ms. Mackenzie. Said he’d text you.”

“How did you fi–”

The phone. Clearly the nice perk had come with a GPS and location tracking activated, so her boss could always find her. Good to know.

She took a breath, not happy about her boss wanting her to drop what she was doing and go with Brewster. “In another two blocks I’ll be home and I can–”

Brewster had reached for the door handle to the rear passenger area and paused to step over to her. “I realize you’re new and may not understand how Kossman works. You got the first lead on a call, which has to mean he’s either impressed with you or likes you or ... whatever, but the next tip goes to Seth Kako.”

Mac and Seth had been placed in competition for the top position in Kossman’s program. She would not lose that without a fight.

 Brewster’s rough voice rose to be heard over the increasing downpour. “Kossman’s hell-bent to see this program succeed. I’ve been with him for almost two years and I respect the guy, even though this new job he’s put me on is sometimes weird. You don’t know him like I do, so here’s a friendly tip. You have a small edge right now, but once you and Seth have delivered independent reports on specimens, Kossman will choose who to put in charge based on those reports. The person he designates as the head of this division in his program will have the power to hire ... and fire.”

Kossman hadn’t told her that.

Mac had met Seth Kako as she was leaving yesterday, and he didn’t utter so much as a polite hello to her. His eyes sent the cold message that he intended to win that spot. He saw Mac as a threat, and rightly so. If he won the lead position, he’d fire her on the spot.

She needed this job and if she balked now, he could take it from her.

Would she ever get away from men and their threats?

Brewster stood there, water running off the night-vision headgear with its Terminator-looking monocular. “This is a Code Five to boot. We can’t waste time.”

“What’s a Code Five?” She felt like an idiot, but she hadn’t been clued in to anything that would involve men in tactical gear.

“A civilian has called in on the fifty-thousand-dollar bounty.” At what had to be a confused look on her face, Brewster added, “Didn’t Kossman mention field work?”

“Yes, but ... bounties? I thought ...”  What? To be honest, she had heard “field work” and assumed she’d be going to research ancient writings. Besides, where would anyone come up with any being that fit Kossman’s guidelines?  

Could she actually do this job?

She had no choice and hadn’t considered that Kossman would go to such lengths. She respected the man as a brilliant researcher, but she’d expected to test samples and write reports on evidence of strange creatures found in other countries.

Not someone here. Surely Brewster was not talking about someone ... human.

Brewster had been professional and patient with her, but his rapid-fire words indicated he was about to move on. “Kossman wants you on-site for consultation, in case we have any questions should there be a dispute later if this results in a capture.”

Capture?

Capture what? She hated to admit Brandon was right about anything, but he’d nailed the reality. This would trash her reputation in the research community.

If it got out.

It couldn’t.

“Ms. Mackenzie?” Brewster said, and she knew it was his last attempt to sway her before he left her standing there.

She’d been upfront with Kossman about wanting to be a part of the new lab he was building for genomic medicine.

He agreed to consider her request if she proved valuable in his pursuit of uncovering supernatural abilities tied to blood.

This was an all or nothing deal with Kossman. She knew that when she originally took the scholarship, and yesterday when she signed on. And with Brandon breathing down her neck, she didn’t have options. All or nothing. Against her better judgment, she was in. She had to be.

But, at the moment, she was most concerned about some unsuspecting person who was being set up or someone trying to scam Kossman.   

“Just one more question, Brewster.”

“That’s more than I have time for.”

“What exactly did someone call in about?

“Something with glowing green eyes.”

Blood rushed from her face, leaving her lightheaded. Not possible. Glowing green eyes. Again. “What else did–”

“I’m out of time, Ms. Mackenzie. You going or not?”

Oh, yes, she was going. She hurried toward the van, because she had to see this for herself and wanted to make sure nobody innocent was going to get hurt during this fiasco.

Green eyes.

Please, God, don’t let there be any media on scene.

Kossman took his RUB–Research of Unusual Beings–operation very seriously. He’d fired someone over a media leak about hiring Mac, something that was to have been confidential.

He went to extreme measures to keep the media out of his business, and wanted no one privy to the details of his operation except a small circle, which now included her.   

Okay, honesty time. Mac had always been curious about the unknown. That inquisitiveness, as much as her lack of options, had propelled her to accept the scholarship Jacob Kossman had offered where she could actually be taken seriously for her interest in the mystical. But she’d never expected this.

She settled on the back seat as Brewster shouted directions to the driver over the sound of the rain pounding the van roof. The driver looked just as broad shouldered and deadly as Brewster in matching tactical gear. The driver whipped the van back into traffic without a word or a glance at Mac.

She laid her collapsed umbrella in the floorboard and sniffed at the smell of worn leather and wet clothes.

Leaning forward, she put her hand on the back of Brewster’s seat. “What are the chances of us getting lucky and this going down without attracting the press?”

Brewster grabbed the “holy shit” bar above the passenger seat as the van barreled around a hard corner. “Relatively good. Kossman’s requirement for paying the bounty is that no media be present at the captures.”

Mac breathed a little easier. “What type of ... being did the person say had these green eyes?” Maybe it was some four-legged animal.

Brewster looked over his shoulder. The grim cut of his mouth and brutal gaze promised anything deadly would have an equal match. “All I know is we’re after something that looks human but he has glowing eyes.”

He? No, no, no. This couldn’t be happening.

She stared openmouthed as Brewster turned back around to take a call. She shivered, as if ants with tiny claws ran along her arms and neck.

This could not be happening.

Brandon had to be behind the bogus bounty report. There would be media present, because Brandon wasn’t after the bounty money.

That bastard had called her for one reason. So that once everything went sideways and the media nightmare started, he could tell his father that he’d warned her. Senator Mackenzie would lose his shit over this and Brandon would call her, offering to make it all go away if she returned to the Mackenzie prison.

But she couldn’t stop the van from barreling toward disaster. Not with a human possibly at risk. It couldn’t be him, but it was someone else at risk of being harmed.

If Mac bailed out now before she knew for sure what waited at the end of this trip, her deal with Kossman would vanish.

She’d be lucky to find work anywhere. Brandon had been thorough in limiting her choices years ago. She had no doubt he’d already squashed her chances of a job of consequence—without accepting his offer—even at an environmental lab, where she’d be shoved in a corner testing dirt samples and never seen or heard from again.

Maybe she could change her name and disappear.

If so, her next job would require her to ask, “Do you want fries with that?”

If this bounty call turned out to be a trap Brandon had set, complete with media ready to expose this “capture,” Kossman would blame her for the leak.

Glowing green eyes.

Not possible.

 

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