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Wicked Game (Uncanny World Book 2) by L.K. Rigel (1)

ONE


RÉGIME PARVUS
(Northern California)

DURING THE NEW MOON, SHE could—almost—believe anything was possible. No hidden force pushed her toward what she hated or pulled her away from the precious object of her desire. The dark black night let her loose to run free, lost in shadowed woods and fields. Unseen. Unbound. The new moon was Phaedra Castell’s favorite night of the month.

But tonight everything felt off. Even her boots crunching the parking lot gravel outside Dobey’s bar had an ominous sound. She had some personal business to take care of with Gina Dobey, and she just wanted to get through it without her friends noticing.

At least she’d managed to get the representative from Chancery to come along down the hill for a few beers, get the asshat away from the Great Hall where she’d caught him bothering one of the younger serving girls. She wanted to keep Duilio in her sights.

A typical Friday, Dobey’s was crowded. “Find us a place to sit down. Okay, doll?” she told Bucky. The wolf scanned the room for an empty table, oblivious to the fact he’d taken an order from a female. Nancy went with him, more to get away from Duilio than to be with Bucky.

Duilio de la Cruz was from Chancery, the judicial and administrative arm of the Uncanny world’s government. It sounded boring and legalistic, but Chancery had the power to change lives.

Chancery could adjust the boundaries of a clan’s demesne—or decide sections belonged to another pack or clan entirely. Chancery could find that a person’s inheritance, built up over hundreds of years, belonged to someone else nobody had ever heard of.

Phaedra’s brother, Cole, had a claim before Chancery, a petition bring his human wife’s forty-nine acre mandarin orchard into the Castell demesne. Duilio’s recommendation, up or down, could make or break that claim. She should be pleasant to him.

But hell’s bells, Duilio was a creep.

He shadowed Phaedra while she dropped several coins in the antique Wurlitzer in the corner. The man was a worse snob than Lord Ensor, the Castell Alpha. He sniffed with disdain, taking in the bar’s layout: twenty or so tables in the large front room, a long bar, a pool room in the back off to the left, and an empty stage in the far right corner. No band tonight.

“Your brother will be here, did you say?”

“I said he might be.” She started to look Duilio’s way, then checked herself. It wasn’t just that he was from the Régime Magnus, a foreigner. Something about the guy was off putting—beyond his attraction to underage females.

The opening cadence of Rusted Root’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” drummed out of the jukebox and she didn’t bother to hide her smile. Of course she was lying about her brother. Cole had other plans for tonight. Good thing too. He was a sucker for hidden agendas. For trouble in general.

And this new-moon night felt absolutely bathed in trouble.

And she was pretty sure Duilio de la Cruz was the troublemaker.

Just for a moment, she pushed the rep out of her mind, closed her eyes, and drank in the sensual feast that was Dobey’s. The music, the smells of greasy food, people laughing, flirting, fighting, the crack of the break of pool balls in the back. She loved it here. Another place she felt free. Not labeled.

The bar had been designated Perpetual Neutral Territory years ago, after the clan war. All packs and clans were welcome, and tonight was especially crowded, it being the end of the week.

Even Carver Castell had deigned to grace Mack Dobey’s bar with his presence. In the far back corner, Lord Ensor’s grandson struck a studied pose, as if he were holding court. The female with him was the daughter of a high-ranking lieutenant, but she hung on his arm like a slut.

“Nancy, put your tongue back in your mouth.” Phaedra sat down next to her friend at the table Bucky had found.

Duilio took the chair on Nancy’s other side.

Nancy ignored the rep, still gazing longingly at the clan’s future Alpha. As if Carver would ever look at someone from the Tracks.

Besides, Nancy should show some self-respect. Sure, the guy would be Alpha one day. Yes, he was a gorgeous example of the male of the species. Very. But he was a sadist. Everybody knew it.

“Here you go.” Gina Dobey brought out the order Nancy had put in when Bucky commandeered the table. “Two pitchers, four chili cheese fries.”

“Thanks, Gina.” Bucky genially passed around the four frosted mugs she’d set down. “May I say you’re looking mighty fine tonight?”

Gina smacked the back of Bucky’s head with her tray. “I look mighty fine every day of the week, sweetie.”

Sweetie. Translation: you’ll be on my bad side if you continue acting like a jerk. If Gina was in a mood to like you, she called you chickie-babe. Her neutral, catch-all term was hon.

Poor Bucky. Weren, wikken, and latents all around him laughed. He reddened, but then laughed too and joined in on the joke. Duilio silently poured a beer for himself, less than impressed with the antics of Phaedra’s packmates.

She felt inwardly ashamed—then immediately angry with herself for that small betrayal. Bucky was pack.

Bucky never would make the Castells proud, he was such a fool. But a good-natured one. She couldn’t hate him for his simple sweetness. And who was Duilio to judge, a jerk from the Régime Magnus who messed around with underage girls?

She turned away from de la Cruz’s piercing gaze—it really gave her the creeps—and caught Gina, who’d just cleared the adjoining table.

“Can we do some business?”

“Sure. Meet me at Mack’s office. I need to dump these.” Gina indicated the empties she’d just picked up.

Phaedra shouldered her bag, which she’d sequestered on the floor between her feet, and headed for the passageway behind the stage (hidden during the clan war,  but everybody knew about it now). She bypassed the stairs to the second-floor residential quarters and waited in the hall outside the office.

The one-way window in the back door was a relic from the war. It let someone on the inside watch the employees’ parking lot without being seen from outside. At the moment, a couple was making out against the hood of a classic Dodge Charger.

Past the parking lot, the lane ran down a sloping hill through a neighborhood of cute cottages on half-acre lots that looked like a model for a Thomas Kinkade painting. The sector was included in the Perpetual Neutral Territory designation, and Dobey rented the cottages out to various and sundry types, some permanent, some passing through. Duilio was supposedly staying in one of the bungalows.

It was a nice bit of magic, that window spell. Phaedra wondered where Mack had got hold of it—and whether she could cast one herself. She had no idea where to start though. If only she could find a mentor!

Or someone’s Book of Shadows. She wondered if Ruah had started hers yet. Every witch had one, a handwritten journal of spells and charms that were her personal favorites. Experiments that had gone well… or badly. Special triumphs and particular disasters. A witch’s best secrets and most tragic sorrows.

“Hey, girl.” Gina sounded out of breath coming through the passage. “I have to make this fast. It’s crazy out there tonight.”

“No problem. I don’t want to leave Bucky alone with Duilio long enough to get himself in trouble.”

“Sorry about whacking the little dude. I can’t help giving him a hard time though. He begs for it.” Gina laughed and slipped her key into the office door. Phaedra liked her.

When Phaedra was young and dreamed of having a big sister, Gina Dobey was her imagination’s model. The panther shifter had a flashy, fluid kind of power—she was all grace and sass and joie de vivre. And fun when she felt like it.

It was the “when she felt like it” part Phaedra admired the most. Plus the fact that Gina was an equal partner in Dobey’s bar with her brother Mack. Gina stood back (if you could call it that) and let Mack be the face of ownership to the clans and packs, but she ran the operations with iron claws.

And she shared equally in the profits.

“Not worried about Nancy then?” Gina went straight to the wall and opened the safe, then turned on the computer at her desk.

“Nancy can handle herself.”

“Huh. That’s a matter of opinion.”

While Gina brought out the hard copy ledger, Phaedra shuffled through the overlarge black leather messenger bag she used for a purse and pulled out a bundle wrapped in butcher paper.

What she was about to do suddenly hit her with a flutter of excitement. “Is everything ready for tomorrow?”

“It’s all a go. The funds have been transferred. Just show your license and sign the papers—you do have a driver’s license.”

Phaedra nodded. “Thanks to Dedo.”

For years, Dedo Dobey, Gina’s niece, had had a sweet little business going providing the Uncanny with impeccable human documents such as driver’s licenses and birth certificates.

The driver’s licenses were particularly sweet since the Uncanny avoided having their pictures taken, for obvious reasons. Dedo’s licenses were spelled so that humans looking at them believed the photo and the thumbprint were accurate. Any copies or pictures taken of the license appeared normal, but over time—say four or five months—the image obtained degraded so as to be unrecognizable. Useless in cases of pesky human investigators examining files in search of weren and wikken who didn’t wish to be found.

“How is Dedo?” The tiger shifter had gone back East to visit her mother.

“According to her bitch of a mother, she’s taking classes, going through the motions,” Gina said. “I miss her, but the longer she stays away from a certain someone, the better.”

“I hear you.”

Dedo had always had a monster crush on Rafael Madoc. It wasn’t a soul bond—Rafe didn’t feel the same—and it had broken the poor girl’s spirit.

Rafael Madoc had that effect on more than Dedo. He had some kind of inner something that was like catnip to a female… and wolfnip and crownip and witchnip too, apparently. His twin brother? Not so much. Rhys was a one-woman kind of a guy.

Phaedra sighed. Maybe Dedo had the right idea. Out of sight, out of mind.

Gina opened the package and counted the bills. Her panther let out an appreciative purr.

“You do all right, hon, but why don’t you come work for Mack? He’s a good boss, and he pays better than any human establishment can come close to.”

“Doesn’t matter. Ranon would be all over my money the second he found out I was working. No, thank you.”

“I had a friendly visit from your Counselor once.” Gina blinked on the word friendly. “He wanted to know why no Castells worked here, since we hire from all the other prides and packs. I told him people don’t like working when they can’t keep their money.”

“Funny how that is. I do okay at Orinoco.”

“I’ll say.” Gina put the cash in the wall safe, entered the amount in a hard-copy ledger, which Phaedra initialed, then into the computerized record. “Your direct deposits are going through on your paychecks now, by the way.”

“Thanks. Dedo’s scheme is brilliant.”

“Yeah. Nobody blinked when she came up with the fake ID stuff because it fit her crash-and-burn persona. But she shocked the packs and clans with her little venture here.”

“In a good way.” Phaedra was quick on the defense. She’d always related to Dedo as a fellow misfit. “People are narrow-minded. They decide who a person is and never see past it.”

“People are idiots.”

Another reason why Phaedra liked Gina Dobey. She was as snarly and fluid as her animal, always on the alert yet open to the new. She’d been the one who encouraged Dedo to pursue setting up Dobey Financial. Mack hadn’t been a naysayer, exactly; he’d just adopted an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it attitude.

The investment services business jacked into the US banking system and made it easier to interact with human commerce. Even the Madocs used DF for their construction company. Phaedra was using it to buy a car, but what she really loved was being able to hide her income from her father.

“When is the old geezer going to die and let your clan wake up in the twenty-first century?” Gina put away the ledger and logged off the DF account. “I can’t believe you Castell females put up with that Handmaid’s Tale, women-can’t-own-property bullshit. Lord Ensor should have escaped to Saudi Arabia instead of the United States.”

Such talk was thrilling and scandalous, but no way Phaedra would admit agreement. She shrugged. “People are used to what they’re used to. I’m sure I’m not the only one of my generation who uses a workaround.”

Gina made a face but said nothing. Dobey Financial guaranteed secrecy. If Phaedra knew about the Madoc Builders account, she’d gotten her intelligence somewhere else.

The “old geezer” was Lord Ensor Castell, who was hundreds of years old. He’d been born in the Régime Magnus in Catalonia, was of noble blood, and never let anyone forget it. He was the Castell Alpha, and all blood-born Castells were bound in fealty to him. Lord Ensor’s laws required female submission in all things.

In Castell females, an alpha nature was considered unnatural and definitely unfeminine. Lord Ensor had decreed females inferior to males, and though he couldn’t override natural law (and females were born alpha every day despite his decree), those females were expected to control themselves.

Phaedra had always pushed the boundaries of that expectation.

Under Lord Ensor’s law, males owned all income earned by their mates, that earned by any son until he came of age, and earned or acquired by any female offspring until she mated—at which time, her assets passed to her mate’s control. Which meant even gifts to a female legally belonged to her guardian.

Working secretly in the human world, laundering her money through Dobey Financial, Phaedra risked her father’s wrath, but it was better than living as his slave.

When she rejoined her table, Duilio was after Bucky.

“Are you sure Cole has not called you in the past couple of hours?”

“It’s his wife’s birthday, man,” Bucky said. “He’s probably busy.”

Cole had told Phaedra he was going to spend the entire weekend with Annie at her farm. If he could stand it.

Cole’s human wife—not mate—was a sweet, insecure wimp who needed constant reassurance. The gods knew Phaedra had tried to befriend Annie for her brother’s sake, but she couldn’t abide the female’s neediness any more than he could. He’d only married her for business purposes. For the land.

“Then he lives there, with his human wife. That is good.”

It was a tried-and-true Castell method to increase clan wealth: discreetly incorporate quality human properties into the demesne. It would be better for the claim if Duilio believed Cole stayed at the property more often than not.

“I hope Cole’s okay.” Nancy’s tone was irritatingly condescending. She was becoming too full of herself since she got that new position as companion to the princess.

“Why wouldn’t he be?” Phaedra said. “He’s with Annie, and I’ve laid a boundary around her place. No one can get in to bother them.” She looked at Duilio defiantly—then looked away. Damn his eyes!

“Yeah, but last night after we left the Great Hall he went over to Madoc country to get that stone—Duilio, stop it!” Nancy slapped the Chancery rep’s hand away from her thigh. “I hope he didn’t get caught.”

Hell’s bells, Cole! Phaedra had warned him not to fall for Duilio’s sweet talk.

She’d distrusted de la Cruz from the moment she caught him in a dark corner, messing with the girl who’d brought his wine. Lizzy wasn’t the freshest rose in the bouquet, but she was still under age and didn’t deserve to be taken advantage of by some old creep from the other side of the world.

And Duilio was old. Centuries of boredom had shown in his eyes as he went over the details of incorporating Mimosa Farm into the Castell demesne. Forty-nine productive new acres, and Duilio had yawned over it.

After the second bottle of wine, he’d begun toying with Cole, egging him on with a challenge to break into the Madoc compound. He’d even promised to provide a masking spell guaranteed to confound the strongest wards.

At the time, Phaedra hadn’t paid much attention beyond rolling her eyes. She figured Duilio was just trying to relieve the tedium of a bureaucrat’s life, cause a little mischief in an unimportant (to him!) backwater.

And besides, the masking spell wouldn’t work. No spell to break the Madoc wards existed in this world. They’d been set by Zara Terranova, a witch whose power was said to rival (maybe surpass) that of Lady Mercedes, the Castell clan mage.

Of course, one did not say such things within the walls of the Great Hall, and not even here at Dobey’s. Not when Carver was in the house.

“There’s no way,” Phaedra said. “He couldn’t get through their wards.”

“You say he is tonight with Annie Belo.”

Phaedra pretended not to hear. Duilio’s eyes burned into her brain, even though she wasn’t looking at him. What is he?

He chuckled knowingly and continued. “Then he will surely be at Mimosa Farm. Perhaps he has the stone with him there.”

“I don’t see how.” She stared at his red silk tie, stark against his perfectly tailored black shirt. “Nothing can break Zara’s wards.”

Duilio stilled. Utterly. “Zara.”

In the word, he belied every scintilla of his boredom act. The very opposite—excitement—charged the word, the name. A smile twitched, then disappeared.

Phaedra focused on her beer, resisting the temptation to look at him again.

“Zara. The Madoc’s mage,” Nancy said helpfully. “She’s kind of famous. Well, ex-mage.”

“Does this famous Zara live nearby?”

Why would a guy from the other side of the world get so worked up over mention of a minor clan’s old mage?

“Yeah, somewhere.” Nancy babbled on, clueless.

Phaedra heard Duilio’s eagerness. He was practically salivating. She wished Nancy would shut up.

“Her wards are so strong they’ve never had to replace them,” Nancy went on. “Nothing can break them.”

“Duilio’s spell did,” Bucky said. “Broke the wards. Cole got in.”

Phaedra caught her breath. But of course Cole couldn’t resist a prank. Hell’s bells! Was her brother ever going to grow up? He was twenty-six, four years older than Phaedra, and sometimes he acted like an adolescent. He was at the age when their clan leaders would write him off as lowlife trash, as useless as their father. Cole had this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to raise himself up in the clan hierarchy using Annie Belo’s property. He should be focused on that.

“I don’t believe it.”

Not true. She did believe. She just didn’t want to.

Duilio waved his hand. “A simple spell from the Régime Magnus.” The blasé attitude was back, but he was faking it now. Lying, but about which part? “I would imagine Parvus magic, even from so famous a mage, is not quite up to the mark.”

She snapped inside, wanted to hurt the rep with maximum pain—not over the juvenile insult to Régime Parvus magic but because Duilio had put Cole at risk.

With the acquisition of Mimosa Farm, her brother was on the verge of getting out of the Tracks, moving up into the ranks. He didn’t need to lay a petty squabble with the Madocs at Lord Ensor’s feet.

And irritating Kane Madoc was never a clever play.

Why had he taken Duilio’s bait?

Not that Phaedra minded seeing the Madocs knocked off their lofty moral pedestal. Like all Castells, she made a sport of resenting their rivals. But Lord Ensor prided himself on his aristocratic heritage, living above the riffraff. He wouldn’t be impressed by a juvenile prank played on another Alpha, even Kane Madoc.

Damn Duilio! The foolishness Cole and Bucky got up to on their own was bad enough without his encouragement.  She wasn’t powerful enough to fight him though. She wasn’t even sure what kind of shifter he was—everyone assumed he was a wolf, and he hadn’t denied it, but there was something strange about him. Something exotic. Those eyes.

Plus he was old. He was irritating and weird, but he reeked of power. She wasn’t going to risk messing with foreign forces she didn’t understand.

Carver and his date passed by the table on their way out. He winked at Nancy and she turned beet red. Hell’s bells. Nancy had to know Carver fucked every Castell female who’d allow it—and some who didn’t—and never left them better off for the experience. And he was betrothed!

Too bad he didn’t care as much about clan needs as he did his own desires. He didn’t even glance at Duilio. It wouldn’t occur to Carver to wonder whether the rep was a problem. And if there was a problem, and Carver had to choose between someone from Chancery and his own clan member from the Tracks, Chancery would win.

But there was always a way. Phaedra’s whole life was about navigating fences and slipping through holes. When Gina brought the next round, Duilio was in the men’s room, and Phaedra told her about his attempt to molest Lizzy, knowing the cat shifter couldn’t keep quiet about something like that. Messing with cubs was loathed above all things.

Gina could merely have Mack throw Duilio out of the bar, but there was a good chance she’d rile up an ad hoc gang of shifters to teach the jerk a more physical lesson.

Yes, Dobey’s was Perpetual Neutral Territory—but did that really apply to foreigners?

Then fortune smiled. Gabriel Madoc, the Red Right Hand himself, walked in, looking for an object stolen from the Madoc compound the night before. Rafael was his second tonight, and the inner animals of many females—and a few males—came alert to his presence. Too bad. Phaedra wouldn’t have minded seeing Rhys.

Gabriel and Gina were pals, and the panther wasted no time telling him about Duilio and Lizzy. Gabriel had come in exuding a mood for violence. When he returned from talking with Gina and Mack at the bar, his focus was on Duilio.

That’s what the guy got for fucking with Phaedra’s brother.

Her scheme worked perfectly.

Gabriel and Rafael hauled Duilio (with poor hapless Bucky caught up in the mix) out of the bar and out to no-man’s-land for one of Gabriel’s special interrogations. Phaedra was simultaneously pissed off, intrigued, and delighted.

Pissed off that Cole had done something so stupid.

Intrigued that the Madoc wards hadn’t held against the locator spell.

Delighted that Gabriel Madoc was about to make Duilio pay.