Did it make you a bad friend if you were completely, a hundred percent envious of that friend? Yes? No? Kind of?
I figured it was somewhere in between.
That’s what I was mulling over as I watched Ivy Morgan brush thick, red curls over her shoulder, laughing at something her boyfriend Ren Owens had said to her.
At least I wasn’t envious of that—their love. Okay, well, that wasn’t entirely true. Pretty sure anyone who was as single as me would be envious of all that warm and fuzzy that was passed back and forth with each long look or casual brush of skin. The two could barely tear their gazes away from one another to eat the dinner we’d grabbed at the cute little diner inside the shopping center on Prytania Street.
I honest to God couldn’t be happier for them. They’d been through so much—way more than two people should ever have to go through to be together, and here they were, stronger and more in love than ever, and they deserved that happiness.
But their epic love story wasn’t the source of a current case of the green-eye monster that was sitting on my shoulder.
Ivy was just such a… badass.
Even right now, relaxed in the chair, surrounded by twinkling Christmas lights with her hand in Ren’s and her belly full of a cheeseburger deluxe and crinkle fries and half of my tater tots, she could kick ass and take names along with addresses, telephone numbers, and social security numbers.
If the proverbial poo hit the fan, you called Ivy or Ren.
If you needed to know what streets Royal intersected with, you called… me. Or if you needed coffee or fresh beignets but were currently busy, you know, saving the world, you’d call me.
The three of us were all members of the Order, a widespread organization that was literally the only thing that stood between mankind and complete, utter enslavement and destruction by the fae. And not the super cute fae found in Disney movies or some crap like that. Humans thought they were on top of the food chain. They were wrong. The fae were.
The only thing pop culture got right about the fae was their slightly pointy ears. That was it. The fae were more than just beings from another world—the Otherworld—they were capable of glamouring their appearance to blend in with humans. But all Order members, even me, were warded at birth against the glamour. We saw through the human façade to the creature that lurked beneath.
No amount of imagination could capture their allure in their true form or how luminous their silvery skin was or how they were beautiful in the way a leopard stalking its prey was.
The fae preyed on humans—on the very life force that kept our hearts beating and brains working. Much like the mythical vampire feeding on blood or a succubus feasting on energy, the life force that they stole from humans fueled their abilities, which truly ran the gamut. They were faster and stronger than us, and nothing on Earth rivaled their predatory skills. Feeding off humans was also the way the fae slowed their aging process down to a lifespan that rivaled immortality. Without feeding, they aged and died like humans.
There were some of them who didn’t feed on humans, something we’d only discovered recently. The fae from the Summer Court chose not to. They lived and died like us, wanting nothing more than to be left alone and out of the crosshairs of their enemies, the Winter fae.
My fingers drifted to my wrist, where I wore a bracelet that, combined with the words spoken at our births, held the charm that blocked the fae’s ability. I never took the thing off. Ever.
Four leaf clovers.
Who ever would’ve thought a tiny plant would negate something as powerful as a fae?
But a week ago tonight the Order, along with the Summer fae, had done the impossible. The psychotic and wholly creepy fae Queen who went by the name Morgana had been sent back to the Otherworld. She could come back, but no one was expecting her to. Not for a long time. Maybe not even in our lifetime, but the Order would be ready when she did. So would the Summer fae.
That’s why the three of us were having dinner—a little celebratory dinner. We’d survived the battle with the Queen and those who supported her had crawled back into whatever cesspools they were hiding in. We all could take a deep breath now and chill out, knowing that while there was still a metric crap ton of Winter fae out there who needed to be hunted down and stopped, we’d leveled out the playing field with the Queen’s defeat.
Things were as normal as they’d ever be for an Order member. Hell, Ren and Ivy were even planning to take a vacation after Christmas. How crazy was that? Super crazy!
I wasn’t planning a vacation, because I hadn’t really taken part in the battle. If I had, I wouldn’t be sitting here. I’d be dead. Like clinically, irreversibly dead.
I’d only received minimal combat training before that had come to a grinding halt when I was twelve. And while I still took the Order-mandated training classes along with Ivy, I’ve never seen any real action. Working through take-down maneuvers or knowing how to avoid a punch or a deliver a bone-snapping kick was completely different than actually taking that knowledge and using it against someone who was actively trying to straight-up murder you.
If my life hadn’t veered off track at twelve, I would’ve been just like Ivy and Ren—a walking weapon on two legs–but everything had changed when my mother had been captured by the fae she’d been hunting.
My mother was a fighter, much like my father, who’d died when I was too young to remember him beyond the photographs that hung in the hallway. She had been one of the greatest, most skilled fighters in the Order - dare I say, even more badass than Ivy. She’d raised me while still pulling all nighters, patrolling the streets of New Orleans for fae, hunting them before they could hunt humans. When I was younger, I swore I was going to be just like her—like every child raised in the Order planned. We were indoctrinated at birth and our duty to protect mankind was what all of us prepared for. Training started young, at the age of eight. Mornings were dedicated to schooling and afternoons were part learning about the habits of the fae and part training.
But then came the morning, when I was a few days shy of my twelfth birthday, that Mom… she hadn’t come home. Those days that had followed, those days that felt like an eternity, were some of the worst memories I will ever have.
Mom had been found on day four, in one of the bayous several miles out from the city, left for dead. Even as skilled as she was, she had fallen to the fae. They’d tortured her. Worse yet, they had fed on her, and while they hadn’t enslaved her, all those feedings had done something to her. To her mind. Thank God, my mom had come home to me.
But she hadn’t come home the same.
There’d been days and weeks where it was like nothing had happened to her, and then things weren’t okay. She’d just up and disappear one day or would refuse to come out of her room. She’d rant and rage and then break into fits of laughter that would last hours. Things got easier in the months and years following her attack, but taking care of her had replaced training, and when I came of age, I was given an administrator-type job with the Order, something reserved for the lucky few that made it to retirement. I accepted it even though the money the Order had paid out to my mother for her ‘injured in the line of duty’ situation was substantial.
But I was hoping that could change now. Things were going to simmer down, and I was hoping with a little more training, I could start patrolling. The Order needed me—needed all the help they could get since so many had been lost in the battle with the Queen. I could become just as badass as Ivy and Ren and then I’d finally be able to fulfill my duty.
I’d finally be… useful. Worthy of those I called my friends and, most importantly, worthy of the legacy of my family. I could—
Fingers appeared directly in my line of vision. They snapped, causing me to jerk back in my seat. The fingers lowered to reveal Ivy staring at me.
My cheeks heated as I laughed softly. “Sorry. I spaced out. Were you saying something?”
“I was saying that I was about to strip naked and run outside.”
Ren’s green eyes practically twinkled. “I am so down for that.”
“Of course you are.” Grinning, she gestured at the menu. “Did you want dessert, Bri?”
Only Ivy called me Bri. Everyone else called me Brighton or Ms. Jussier. I hated the latter. It made me feel like I was three decades older and should be living in a home full of stray, un-neutered cats. And I was already twenty-eight and living with my mother. I didn’t need to feel worse than I already did.
“No, I’m good.” I’d already peeked at the menu. If they had cheesecake, I would’ve made room.
Ren glanced over the menu and then shook his head as he handed it back to Ivy. “So, you going to let Tink move in with you?”
I nearly choked on the sip of diet Coke. “What?”
Dropping the menu on the table, Ivy smiled as she clasped her hands together. “If Ren and I go on vacation, Tink’s going to need an adult in his life.”
I opened my mouth, but I had no words. I could not have heard them right. No way could I move Tink into my house—my mother’s house—because not only would Tink most likely destroy it, he was….
Well, Tink was Tink.
“And he really likes you,” Ren added. “He actually listens to you.”
My brows lowered. “That’s not true. Tink listens to no one. Not even his boyfriend. And why wouldn’t he stay with him?”
“Well, I made that suggestion, and according to Tink, he’s not ready for that kind of commitment,” Ren replied dryly.
“What? That’s not a commitment,” I reasoned. “It would only be temporary, right?”
“We tried explaining that to Tink.” Ivy rolled her eyes. “But you know how he is.”
I didn’t. I really didn’t. I lowered my voice so we weren’t overheard. “Why can’t he stay at Hotel Good Fae?” That was what Ivy called the compound the Summer fae lived in. “They love him. Like near worship levels.”
“We suggested that, but he said, and I quote, he can’t ‘be himself’ around them. That their admiration is too much pressure on him.”
I stared at Ren. “You’re joking.”
“I wish.” He leaned back. “You know we can’t leave him alone. He’d burn down Ivy’s apartment.”
“He’ll spend all my money on shit from Amazon,” Ivy added as her phone rang. She picked up her bag. “Anyway, we’ll talk out the details later.”
We were so not talking out the details later. “But—”
“What’s up, Miles?” Ivy held her hand up, and I snapped my mouth shut. “What?” She glanced at Ren, who was alert and all eyes on Ivy. “Yeah, we’re nearby. We can check it out.” There was a pause. “I’ll update you in a few.”
Disconnecting the call, she pulled out her wallet and said, “Miles said Gerry didn’t show up for his shift and no one can get ahold of him,” she explained, and that wasn’t normal at all. Gerry was habitually on time. “He asked if we could swing by his place and check things out.”
“Can do,” Ren answered as Ivy dropped several bills on the table. “By the way, I’m pretty sure Tink is at your place now with Merle.”
“Wait. What?” I immediately forgot about Gerry not showing up for patrol.
“Yeah, he said something about wanting gardening tips or something bizarre.” Ivy shoved her wallet into her bag. “Honestly, I wasn’t really listening.”
“Oh God.” I fumbled for my wallet as visions of my mom impaling Tink with steak knives danced in my head. “He cannot be there alone with my mom.”
“I think Merle likes Tink,” Ivy said.
“Really?” I dropped cash on the table—more than enough cover my food and a tip. “Depends on if he’s Tink-size or people-size.”
“I feel the same way,” Ren muttered, and then he slid a sly glance in my direction. “By the way, I’m pretty sure your mom has the hots for Tanner.”
I was frozen, halfway standing. Tanner ran Hotel Good Fae. In other words, he was a fae and my mom—well, Mom did seem to like visiting him, but she also talked quite frequently about killing fae, all kinds of fae. Shaking my head, I decided I really didn’t have the brain space to process any of that. “I better get going. God only knows what my mom and Tink could get into.”
“I figure it’ll either be epic or epically disastrous.” Ivy grinned at me as she and Ren stood.
“Agreed.” Wishing they had mentioned all of this at the beginning of dinner, I slung my purse over my shoulder and said my goodbyes.
Hurrying through the small diner and skirting the oversized Christmas tree, I made my way outside. Cool wind caught the fine strands of hair around my face, blowing my ponytail over my shoulder. I lived a handful of blocks from the shopping center, and it was quicker just to walk instead of trying to order an Uber.
Shoving my hands into the front pocket of my oversized hoodie, I jogged across the street. The Garden District was beautiful any time of year, but it really amped up its curb appeal during the Christmas season. Lights of all different colors decorated porches and balconies, twisted around wrought iron fences, and twinkled from the massive oaks that lined many of the streets.
I could not believe Tink was at my place. What in the world were Ivy and Ren thinking? Mom didn’t hate Tink, but Mom had also, at one time, suggested to Ivy’s face that Ivy should be put down.
All because Ivy wasn’t exactly a hundred percent human. She was a halfling and there had been this whole prophecy that involved her permanently opening the gates to the Otherworld, allowing the armies of the Winter Court to enter our world, but all of that was over. Thank God.
And Tink was definitely not even one percent human.
Cutting down a side street, I tried not to let my imagination run wild with what could be happening at home. They could be sitting together and watching Harry Potter. Or Tink could’ve brought his boyfriend, who just happened to be Prince Fabian—one of the two Princes of the Summer Court—to the house. I doubted Tink would’ve brought Prince Fabian’s brother with him. At least there was that.
A shudder racked my shoulders as an image of the Prince formed in my head. I’d never seen him when he was under the Queen’s enchantment, masquerading as the Winter Prince. He’d terrorized the city, becoming a living and breathing nightmare who had kidnapped Ivy to fulfill said prophecy.
I’d only seen him after the enchantment was broken, and even then he’d been the most intimidating creature I’d ever laid eyes on. And when he looked at me, I couldn’t help but feel—
“Mom.” My steps drew up short as I spotted her coming down the wide sidewalk, her thin housecoat flapping behind her like wings. “What are you doing out here?”
She stepped under the street lamp, her short blond hair messy from the wind. “Oh, I was just getting… antsy and decided I wanted to go for a walk.”
I hurried to where she stood, taking her hands in mine. Her skin was cold. “Mom, why didn’t you put on your jacket?”
“Honey, it’s not that cold outside.” She laughed, squeezing my hands.
“It’s cold enough for something heavier than this robe you’ve got going on. Let’s head back home.” My stomach twisted with nerves as I looped my arm through hers and turned her back around.
Anxiety and the inability to stay still was usually a sign that we were about to hit a rough couple of days. It came out of nowhere and nothing and everything could trigger it. She would go from being clear minded and sharp as a tack for weeks, months even, and then wham! She would start roaming off and then the nightmares would start. She wouldn’t be able to sleep and things would…they would just spiral.
Worry was like a virus. By the time you felt it, you were already drowning in it. “How long have you been outside?”
“Long enough to walk from the house to here,” she replied, and I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “And what’s wrong with my robe?”
There were several things wrong with her roaming around the Garden District in a robin’s egg blue robe.
I slowed my pace to match hers as I guided her across the street. “Did you have company while I was gone?”
Maybe Ren and Ivy were wrong about Tink being there. “Did Tink come by?” I asked, starting to get nervous.
She was quiet for a moment and then she chuckled. “Actually, come to think of it, he was watching a movie and then he stepped outside to make a phone call.”
“So, he was still there when you—” The street lamp above us flickered once and then faded out.
All the way down the block, as far as I could see, the lights flickered and then disappeared.
“That’s odd,” Mom commented, a shiver working its way through her. “Brighton?”
“It’s okay,” I said, swallowing hard. “Everything is okay.”
A blast of what felt like arctic air swept down the block, lifting the edges of Mom’s housecoat and stopping both of us in our tracks. The tiny hairs all along the nape of my neck rose as I scanned the empty street, only lit by the faint, twinkling Christmas lights. I recognized the for sale sign in front of the empty antebellum home. We had another two blocks to go.
“Mom,” I whispered, heart pounding in my chest as I started walking again, dragging her along with me. “We need to—”
They seemed to come out of nowhere, moving so fast they were nothing more than shadows at first, surrounding us.
A scream built in my throat as I saw them. Silvery skin. Eyes filled with hate. Four of them, and they were on us before the scream could even part my lips.