“Yo! Girly, you’re late.”
Astrid Jonasson stopped in her tracks and cringed. She pivoted on her heel and faced her boss. “Yeah, sorry about that, Mr. G! The L-train’s running late again.”
Vito Garavaggio took a drag of his cigar and blew out a puff of smoke, then took it out of his mouth and pointed it at Astrid. “That’s the third time this week. Why don’t ya leave earlier? You know that train’s always late, especially in this weather.”
“I just … forgot.” She breathed through her mouth, trying not to inhale the acrid haze Mr. G’s Cuban was creating in the tiny hallway. “I will next time.”
“I swear to God, girly, they could invent a machine that can transport you from one place to another like in those TV shows, you’d still be late.”
She tried not to let the irony of her boss’ words faze her. “I won’t do it again, Mr. G.”
“See that you don’t.” He placed his meaty hands on his fat belly before turning around and waddling away.
With her enhanced Lycan hearing, Astrid could clearly hear him muttering under his breath about if I didn’t need her and if the girls didn’t like her so much. She let out a relieved sigh and sprinted down the hallway.
“Hey, Astrid,” Coco greeted her as she entered the girls’ dressing room. “Mr. G got on your case again for being late?”
“Yeah,” she said as she shut the door behind her. “But, don’t you worry. I took care of him.”
Coco chuckled. “You know he’s a softie. Unlike other places I’ve worked at before, he actually cares about us. Now,” she stood up, carefully balancing herself on the sky-high heels on her feet. “Would you be a dear and take care of my top in the back there? That knot you do makes it easier to pull off.”
“Sure, Coco.” Astrid pushed the long, lustrous locks of dark hair aside and tied Coco’s bikini strings into a slip knot. “There ya go.”
“Thanks, babe. You’re the best!” Coco gave her a kiss on the cheek before sauntering out of the door.
“Good luck out there!”
If someone had told her that she’d someday be using her knowledge from doing a year of Girl Scouts helping strippers get dressed—and undressed—she would have laughed at them. But then again, with the way her life had turned out the last couple of years, she wasn’t surprised she ended up as a security guard at The Vixen Den, New York’s premiere gentleman’s club. Before this, she’d been a barista, dock worker, waitress at a Michelin star restaurant, bookstore clerk, and nanny, all before her grand old age of twenty-six.
Still, she considered this the best job she’d ever had. She could use her unique talents, and she loved her coworkers. Of course, it was also the best job she could never ever tell her family about, but that’s why she had last told her mother that she was “working security during night shifts.” Which, to her credit, was entirely true. She just didn’t tell them where exactly.
Not that her parents or brothers were judgmental about these things, but a strip club—er, gentleman’s club—wasn’t exactly the most reputable of places to work, even if she was just hired on to protect the girls. She wasn’t judgmental of the girls’ jobs either, but personally, she drew a hard line at taking her clothes off to make a living.
As she crossed the room, all the girls greeted her happily. The Vixens—as they were called—loved the fact that she was a woman, which was one of the reasons she’d been hired. The previous bodyguard Mr. G had hired was apparently some mouth-breathing idiot who took his job way too seriously—as in, guarding the bodies of the women with his eyes. She had answered the help wanted ad because she’d been desperate to get out of that waitressing job, and she didn’t care where she would go next, as long as she never had to serve Upper Eastside bitches who had to special order everything and tipped horribly again.
Mr. G had eyed her suspiciously when she came in for the interview. “You’re certainly tall enough to be a bodyguard,” he said, “but can you protect my girls?” She proceeded to show him just how she could do it by putting one of his burly bouncers into a headlock, and she was hired on the spot. She knew her training would come in handy someday, and she did learn from the best.
“Astrid!” Fantasy, a tall, Amazonian-like girl with cornrows hopped over to her, her perky tits covered strategically by two glittering star-shaped nipple pasties. “I’ve missed you, girl!” She embraced Astrid, engulfing her in a flurry of feathers, Swarovski crystals, and a cloud of flowery perfume.
“How was the Bahamas?” Astrid asked.
“Amazing!” One of Fantasy’s regular clients had flown her down to the Bahamas for the holidays. “Oh my God, I have so much to tell you. But first,” she turned around and grabbed a gift bag that was sitting on her dressing table. “I got this for you. Merry Christmas!”
“For me? You shouldn’t have.” She accepted the bag and opened it. “Um, really, you shouldn’t have.” She took out the fabric gingerly and held it up. It was a dress—long and flowery, with sexy straps that showed off the back.
Fantasy crossed her arms over her boobs. “Girl,” she began. “This dress would look fabulous on you. With your height, that skin, those tits.” To emphasize, she poked Astrid in the chest.
Astrid groaned inwardly. Fantasy and some of the other girls at the club were always trying to give her a makeover. They kept telling her she was gorgeous and that if she wanted to, she could probably make a killing on tips if she ever wanted to get on stage. She thanked them gracefully, but continued declining their offers.
“Why do you keep hiding that bod under those clothes.” Fantasy tsked and shook her head.
Astrid frowned and looked down at her faded jeans and T-shirt. “What’s wrong with my clothes?”
“What’s wrong? Those mom jeans don’t exactly flatter your ass. And that shirt!” She pointed to the logo over the left side of her chest. “That company went out of business twenty years ago.”
“I got it at the thrift store,” she said defensively. “I like my clothes, okay? They’re comfortable, and they let me do my job.” She looked over at the table next to Fantasy’s. “Hey, where’s Petal?”
Fantasy swung her head around. “Hmm … I’m not sure. I just got off the stage and I swore she was here.”
A pit formed in the bottom of Astrid’s stomach. “I should go check on her.”
She asked a couple of the girls if they had seen Petal since the last set, but none of them could tell her where she was. She had shown up for her shift, but with the flurry of activity backstage and in the dressing rooms, no one noticed where she’d gone.
The pit in her stomach grew heavier. Petal had texted her this afternoon, saying she saw her old “boyfriend”—i.e., pimp—Leon, hanging around outside her apartment again. Astrid didn’t see the text until she was on her way to work, and though she texted back, she hadn’t heard from her.
Astrid had never met Leon, but according to Petal’s stories, he was a piece of shit. He was mad when Petal broke up with him, and furious when she started dancing at The Vixen Den and made more money than she ever did working for him.
Apparently, the asshole had been trying to intimidate her, and even showed up at the club one day. A couple of the bouncers were able to scare him away, but Mr. G told them all to keep an eye out for him; Leon was violent and didn’t take no for an answer. That was the only time Astrid had truly seen Mr. G look even remotely scared.
She searched almost every inch of the backstage and still there was no sign of Petal. As she walked back to the dressing room, she stopped and closed her eyes. Concentrate. She called on her inner wolf’s abilities, opening up her senses so she could try and sniff out Petal’s perfume from the various scents in the air. There, her wolf seemed to say. A faint trace of the brand she favored. She followed it, down the hall and toward the rear entrance to the alley where the girls would sometimes take their smoke breaks. When her ears picked up the sound of men laughing, and someone else sobbing, she froze.
Dread formed in her chest, but was quickly replaced with adrenaline as her she-wolf pushed her toward the source of the sound. The wails grew louder and made the hairs on the back of her neck raise. She burst through the rear door, barely containing her superhuman strength as it flew open and slammed against the brick wall.
“What the fuck?”
The alley was well-lit, so she saw the three men clearly as they turned to her. The sound of a sob drew her attention, and she immediately noticed the small figure huddled in the corner.
“Petal!” she screamed, and sprinted over to where her friend lay in a heap on the dirty, snowy ground. “No. No!” She lifted her head up, brushing her hair aside. Blood flowed down from a gash on her eye and her lips were split. Tears flowed down her bruised and battered cheeks.
“Shh … don’t talk.” Rage began to boil in her veins. Her she-wolf too, was furious; Petal was one of theirs, to protect and keep.
Slowly, Astrid got to her feet, hands fisted at her sides. “You motherfuckers,” she said, turning around. “You all are gonna pay.”
The tallest and largest of them laughed. “And who’s gonna make us? You, little girl?”
The goon beside him licked his lips. “My man Leon over here,” he gestured to the third man, “said we could have a taste of his sweet Petal once he was done with her. You gonna join us too?”
“Enough,” Leon said, then spat on the ground. “This ain’t your business. I’m taking Petal with me and that’s final. Run along now and go back to your daddy on the Upper East Side.”
“Ha! I’m from Brooklyn, you motherfucking asshole.” Okay, so technically, she lived in gentrified Williamsburg and she was raised in Tribeca. “You’re not going to get away with this!”
“Jamal,” Leon barked. “Make sure she doesn’t get away and go blabbing to the cops.”
As the smaller of the men approached her, Astrid gritted her teeth. “I’m not trying to get away. And like I said,” she cracked her knuckles together, “you guys are going to pay.”
Jamal lunged at her, but Astrid easily ducked and lunged away. “Bitch, hold still!” he shouted. When he attempted to grab her again, she caught his wrists. “What the fuck? How are you so strong—ooowww!” He let out a string of curses as she twisted him around and forced him to his knees, bending his elbow into an unnatural position. “Fuck! Get this crazy chick off me!”
“For fuck’s sake!” Leon cried. “Monroe, give that bitch ass a hand!”
Monroe ambled toward her and Astrid acted on instinct. She knocked Jamal out with a fist to the side of his head, then grabbed the small vial she kept in the pocket of her jeans and threw it at the lumbering giant. A cloud of green smoke materialized in his face, and his eyes rolled to the back of his head before he landed on the ground with a heavy thud. Thank you, Dad and your cabinet of potions.
“What the hell did you do?” Leon’s voice was cold as ice. “Bitch! You’re going down.”
The sound of the gun cocking echoed through the alley. A split second passed before the loud explosion went off and once again, her instincts kicked in. She closed her eyes, and with a soft poof sound, she was behind Leon.
“What the—where?” Leon turned around, the gun in his hand still smoking from the shot he fired. “How the hell did you get there?”
By being a badass, motherfucking half-witch with the power to teleport. But she never got a chance to say it as her wolf ripped out of her skin. Leon had raised the gun to fire at her again, but her wolf sensed it and took over their body.
Astrid’s wolf was pure white with red eyes—a rare albino wolf. It was huge, twice the size of a normal wolf, but that was typical of Lycan shifters like her. The she-wolf landed on top of Leon, pinning him down, growling and gnashing its sharp teeth at the terrified man.
“Get off! Get off me!”
The smell of urine made Astrid gag. Coward. Her she-wolf wanted to rip his throat out for what he did to Petal. Make him pay, it seemed to roar.
“What the fuck?” A gasp and several shrieks made the she-wolf turn its enormous head. Shit.
Mr. G and several of the girls were standing in the doorway, their eyes wide with fright and shock as they stared at the wolf. Mother—
And of course, the stupid wolf chose that moment to withdraw, leaving Astrid in charge of their now-human body.
“Jesus H. Christ! Is that—Astrid?” Mr. G’s normal ruddy face went completely white.
“I … I … can explain,” she gasped and rolled off Leon. “Can someone please …” She looked down at her naked state.
“I got you, honey.” Fantasy sashayed over to her and took off the red fur-trimmed peignoir she was wearing over her negligee, then helped her put it on. She shivered visibly and rubbed her arms. “You okay? Jesus, how are you not freezing your ass off? You’re like a heater!”
The snow had stopped some time ago, but the temperatures had remained below zero. As a Lycan, Astrid could adjust her body’s temperature to suit the environment.
“Must be my Scandinavian blood. I—Petal!” She darted toward the girl, suddenly remembering her friend. “Petal, what—”
Petal screamed. “What are you? Stay away from me.” Her body shook, and her one good eye was wide as a saucer. “Someone, help, please!”
Astrid’s heart fell. “Petal, no, please—”
“Baby, it’s okay,” Coco soothed as she rushed over. “Oh dear. They did a number on you. It’s okay, it’s okay. Astrid, honey, you should … maybe just give her some distance, okay?”
She nodded numbly and got to her feet. This was that bastard’s fault. Leon!
Mr. G was standing over Leon, a booted foot to the man’s chest and the discarded gun pointed at his face. “Don’t even think about it,” he warned the man. “Someone, call 911.”
“No!” Astrid pleaded. “Please, no police!” Oh God, her secret would come out. Not just hers, but her entire clan. Her entire kind. Humans were not supposed to know about Lycans or witches. She was going to be in big trouble, as she happened to be both.
“But we have to get help,” Coco said. “For Petal.”
Astrid swallowed hard as she looked over at her friend. They were right; Petal needed medical attention now, and these guys had to get locked up. “I can get help,” she said, feeling the dread creep up in her.
“You got people to call?” Mr. G asked, raising a brow at her skeptically.