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Katies hellion (rhyn tri.., p.12
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       Katie's Hellion (Rhyn Trilogy, Book One), p.12

           Lizzy Ford
 
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  Chapter Three

  Katie maneuvered her sequined ball mask into place only to see her sister on the verge of disappearing in the masses of women in custom gowns and masks. The women’s coatroom was off one side of the entrance of a mansion even larger than that of Giovanni.

  "Who throws a Halloween gala where no one dresses up?" she grumbled, uncomfortable in her formal dress. She’d last dressed up for Hannah’s engagement party two years ago.

  "Masquerade, not Halloween," Hannah replied.

  Katie didn’t reply, gaping at a woman in her sixties with enough diamonds to reverse world hunger.

  "Stop it!" Hannah hissed. "Pretend to fit in. Don’t embarrass me."

  Hannah struck off, and Katie lost sight of her one again. She emerged from the coat room in time to see her sister stop beside her fiancé. Katie moved toward them steadily, self-conscious in the snug teal gown that displayed the curves the slender women around her didn’t have. The neckline was plunging, revealing the curves of her full breasts.

  Her sister had chosen the gown and--thankfully--paid for it. It was three months’ salary for Katie, though Hannah had added it to the black AmEx her fiancé paid in full every month without a second thought.

  Just like their four-hour trip to the spa, the wardrobe Hannah bought Toby, the jewelry they both wore. Within a four-hour period, Hannah had dropped $50K. For once, Katie was beyond grateful. She felt almost human again after the drama of her week. She fully intended to return the gown and tanzanite jewelry dripping off her ears and neck, but for the night, she enjoyed feeling like Cinderella.

  She trailed Hannah into the massive foyer with a dangling chandelier, regally arcing stairway, and an army of wait staff in tuxes circulating alcohol and hors d’oeuvres. Massive ballrooms flanked either side of the foyer, one whose orchestra filled the mansion with calming music, and the other devoted to a buffet unlike any Katie had ever seen. The swirl of gowns of dancing couples drew her attention to the ballroom with the orchestra. She walked through the masses, comfortably hidden behind her mask. No one would know she didn’t belong among the blue bloods in this crowd. Beyond the main room were two hallways, also packed, and opened doors along both where men and women circulated.

  Katie paused to look around. She’d lost Hannah in the crowd. Her sister wore maroon, as did many of the other women in masks around her. She fingered the small teal evening purse hanging around her wrist, where her cell phone was. Worst case scenario, she’d call her sister.

  Completely free, she relaxed and accepted a glass of champagne from one of the wait staff and waded toward the buffet. She paused in the doorway, realizing she was squeezed too tightly into her dress to eat anything. Instead she crossed to the full bar and traded the champagne for a triple shot of whiskey on the rocks. She sipped, surprised at the smooth flavor. It wasn’t cheap like the stuff she bought.

  "Triple shot of whiskey, no ice."

  She shifted as the male form attached to the voice squeezed into the area behind her. Saluting the bartender with her glass, she started to move away when a warm hand on her forearm stopped her. She turned, surprised, and looked up into eyes the color of her jewelry. Most of his face was hidden behind the mask, but his silver-white hair was too familiar to be anyone else’s.

  "We have similar taste in alcohol," he said, and lifted his glass to her.

  "Did you follow me here?" she demanded, refusing his salud.

  "I got you invited."

  She suddenly felt foolish for believing David Kingsly. No blue blood like the Kingslys gave a damn about some deadbeat assistant GM at a fast food joint! She tossed the whiskey back and gulped it down, then slapped the glass on the bar before turning away.

  She searched for half an hour before spotting her sister sitting in one of the airy rooms off the hallway near the buffet. There were several women sitting and talking while choosing delicacies from large silver trays. They’d all removed their masks.

  Hannah glanced up with a smile at her approach and patted the seat beside her. Katie sat, irritated to see who followed with a confident stride and two glasses of whiskey, one with ice and the other without. He drew the eye of every woman in the room and silenced those around her with his presence.

  "Excuse me, ladies. Katie, you forgot your drink at the bar," Kris said, holding out the iced whiskey to her.

  She didn’t miss Hannah’s stunned look, as if it were a miracle her homely sister could catch the eye of anyone!

  His move was too deliberate to be other than planned. He stood far enough away that she had to stand and walk a step to reach him. When she accepted the glass, he followed with a quick and confident, "Let’s take a walk around."

  If not for Hannah’s surprised silence, she would’ve refused him. He held out an arm she ignored, instead marching past him. He caught up to her in the hallway.

  "Whatever it is you want, the answer is no," she told him. “I just want you to leave me alone.”

  She felt his gaze and suspected she’d pissed him off again with her directness. He placed a hand on the small of her back and led her through the crowd to the ballroom with the orchestra and the dancers. He snatched the whiskey from her hand and placed their glasses on a table.

  "I don’t dance," she told him.

  "Hush."

  He spun her to face him and pulled her against him with one arm while his other took hers to the side for a waltz pose.

  "Where you been hiding?" he asked casually.

  "None of your damn business!" she snapped, craning her neck back to look up at him. Even in her heels he towered a head above her. His eyes flared amber then faded to tanzanite as he gazed down at her.

  "You drop off some sort of demon in my house, try to convince me I’m either completely crazy or suffering from amnesia, stalk me to this gala, and expect me to tell you where I spend every minute of every day?" she demanded at his silence. She tugged at her captured hand and was squeezed against him even harder.

  "You weren’t supposed to remember anything," he replied calmly. "You have a genetic--"

  "Don’t want to hear it,” she cut him off. “Take Toby and the damn death guy and leave me the hell alone."

  "I can’t."

  "The hell you can’t."

  "You’re in danger," Kris said.

  She studied him.

  "Some very bad people know who you are now," he added.

  "So what? You feel guilty for dragging me into this and are obligated to help me?"

  "Guilty, no. Obligated, yes. You're destined to work alongside us immortals." His honest answer silenced her. She stepped out of his embrace, the two of them freezing in the middle of the dance floor like rocks in a flowing creek. "Katie, I need to talk to you about something very serious."

  He made no move toward her. At his severe tone, she took another step back, ready to exit as fast as she could in the snug dress and high heels.

  Suddenly, the lights flickered and went out. A murmur went through the dancers, several of whom sounded as if they ran into each other before pausing. The orchestra fell silent, and somewhere someone--possibly the host--called for the generators to be turned on. A woman gave a cry, and the sound of jostling grew closer.

  A man walked calmly through the crowd, strange red tattoos glowing all over his body, similar to the tattoos she'd seen on David Kingsly's neck when he invited her to the gala. She didn’t know what he was, but she felt cold inside.

  He was evil.

  Kris rested one hand on her shoulder. She started to pull away.

  "He can’t sense you while I’m here," Kris whispered.

  She watched as the creature neared in the shadowy darkness. Katie's breathing grew shallow. Her eyes stayed on the creature, which joined several more tattooed beings in the hall before they all struck out in different directions. As if on cue, the auxiliary lighting came on, casting a romantic glow around her.

  "No one should know you're here. We gotta get out of here," Kris said.

 
; His hand gripped her neck loosely. A pulse of warmth dispelled the tunnel vision that had begun to form.

  "We'll take a shortcut."

  He took her hand and led her through the crowd at a steady pace. She looked over her shoulder, uncertain where the men with tattoos were. She didn’t know what they--or he--wanted, but if the man before her was worried, she should be terrified. Kris reached an alcove out of sight of the crowds and faced her.

  "Close your eyes," he ordered.

  She stared at him. He gripped her arm. Before she could shove him away, the sounds of their world fell silent. She looked around, stunned. Their surroundings looked as if someone had left a fog machine on too long in a gym. Several doorways glowed around her, and Kris yanked her toward one. She opened her mouth to speak and then clamped it shut, her stomach turning. He all but dragged her through one of the glowing doorways before she vomited.

  Kris muttered curses and touched her shoulder.

  Warmth and cold shot through her, righting her stomach but bringing intense pain to her head. She pushed his hand away, unable to stabilize the hot and cold racing through her blood. Her teeth chattered and her body felt so hot she wanted to scream.

  "Stop it!" she all but shouted. "God, my head!" She gripped it, vision blurred and balance precarious atop the four-inch heels.

  Kris reached for her and she stumbled back, holding up her hand to ward him off. He snatched both hands in one of his, balancing her with his body as he placed his other hand against her forehead. The sensations stabilized and then dissipated.

  "Enough, enough, enough!" she belted with a shove.

  Her vision cleared to reveal she now stood in a luxurious living room with several people in front of her displaying varying levels of alarm on their faces. She wiped the tears from her face, feeling more torn up than she had the day before. Tattoos flared on the arms and necks of the people in front of her before fading and growing invisible again.

  "Whiskey?" Ully was the first to speak.

  "Two," Kris replied.

  Katie caught her balance against the arm of a sofa.

  "Your rescue mission went well," one of them commented with a half smile. He was built like Kris with dark hair. The similarities stopped at their tanzanite eyes and chiseled features; the speaker’s skin was as dark as night.

  “Well enough,” Kris replied.

  "Are you all right?" the night-skinned man asked her. He rose and motioned for Katie to take his seat in a plush armchair.

  She didn’t answer, concentrating on figuring out where the hell she was.

  "I’m Andre. This is Jade and Ileana. You know my brother Kris. You also know Gabriel and Ully, I believe."

  She lowered herself onto the sofa. "Feels like I've been on a drinking binge," she murmured.

  "Kris, real people aren’t supposed to go through the shadow world," Ully said, wide eyes on the man with glowing amber eyes.

  "No shit, Ully," the man named Jade responded.

  "I went through the shadow world?" she asked, brow furrowing.

  "Technically, you may have died," Ileana said with a sip of wine. "Death gets pissed when mortals go through the shadow world."

  Built more like the beauties Hannah surrounded herself with, Ileana was a natural bombshell with pillowed lips and large eyes.

  "Hey, we’re alike now!" Ully said, handing her two glasses of whiskey.

  Katie took the glasses from him and downed them one at a time, then handed them back.

  "Glad to see you’re taking this so well," Kris said.

  Fury lit her insides at his calm words, as if he wasn’t responsible for destroying her life! She rose, wobbled, and pulled off her heels. She looked around until her eyes met those of the death dealer.

  "Gabriel, you’re taking me home," she ordered.

  The death dealer rose.

  "Sit, Gabriel," Kris responded.

  Gabriel obeyed, and Katie flung a shoe at the domineering man with the jewel-toned eyes. He caught it with reflexes too fast for her to follow.

  "You will send me home, and you’ll remove Toby, Gabriel, and every other interference you placed in my life, down to the scuff marks in the hallway, which I know weren’t there on Tuesday! No more dead doctors, no more kidnappings, no more blood draws, nothing!"

  The angrier she got, the calmer Kris looked. His eyes went from emerald to tanzanite again.

  "When you calm down, we’ll--" he started.

  "No. Now. I’m going home now. Back to my boring life, my horrible job, my tiny apartment. Now, Kris!" She saw the white of his knuckles as he gripped her shoe hard and sensed she was pushing a wild animal. His jaw was clenched and ticking as the muscles jumped.

  He wasn’t going to budge. Neither was she.

  "Let’s take a step back, shall we?" Andre said, stepping in front of her. "We shouldn’t take you through the shadow world to return you. If Kris didn’t kill you on the way here, he might on the way back. I’m going to send Kris away and bring you a bottle of whiskey. Then we’ll talk. Is that okay?"

  His presence and words were as soothing as Kris’s were not. She felt herself relaxing at his even tone and the words that seemed logical enough. She didn’t want to be dead, and she definitely needed more whiskey. At her hesitation, he motioned for her to sit again and turned, continuing to block Kris from sight.

  "Brother," he said with gentle command. "Jade, you, too. Gabriel, do whatever you do."

  The death dealer disappeared. She heard Kris stir, and the cocoa-skinned Jade followed. Andre relaxed and sat on the couch near her while Ileana drew close as well. Ully reappeared with a carafe of whiskey and set it down, taking Andre’s head nod as a cue to leave. Andre poured her whiskey and sat back. She sipped it, rubbing the back of her neck.

  "You are handling this well," he said.

  She eyed him. His words appeared genuine, unlike Kris’s.

  "You’d have to be pretty mentally tough to go through all this without cracking."

  "Oh, I’m cracking," she shot back.

  He chuckled. Despite her fury and fear, she found his presence oddly calming, like sitting in a spa surrounded by incense with her feet in a salt bath. The air around her felt heavy and still.

  He was doing something to her. Even with her precious whiskey, she shouldn’t feel like she did. She shook her head, trying to clear it of the fog he’d placed there.

  "I don’t need you to placate me!"

  He leaned forward, curiosity flaring in his tanzanite eyes. Whatever fog gripped her dissipated suddenly, and she breathed a sigh at the palpable release. She tossed back the whiskey, meeting his gaze only when he placed his hand across the top of the carafe.

  "You’ve had enough," he said with genuine concern. "I apologize. I won’t do it again."

  Katie pulled the carafe from his hand and poured herself another two shots. He pursed his lips then poured himself a shot and sat back to sip it. They gazed at each other for a long moment.

  "Did I really die?" she asked at last.

  "No. But mortals shouldn’t travel through the shadow world. It’s hit and miss on what’ll happen."

  "What exactly is going on?"

  He leaned forward and placed the glass on the table. "It’s a long story, one you don’t necessarily need to know to understand your circumstances. My brother’s people found you and identified your unique gift for…blocking their natural talents. It makes you valuable and dangerous. If our enemies find you, they can take your blood and modify the creatures who work for them to make them immune to us."

  "Back up a sec. Natural talents?" she echoed.

  "Our ancestors were immortalized--albeit incorrectly--in myths. Mages, vampires, elves, immortal creatures with extraordinary powers who battle evil for supremacy and the ultimate fate of mankind."

  "And my unique gift could make the bad guys immune to the good guys."

  "Correct," he said.

  "Why is your brother so pissy when he interfered with my life?"

/>   "My brother is never pissy," Andre said with polite offense. "He’s unaccustomed to having his authority challenged. We nicknamed him the Phoenix, which is notorious for not only rising from ashes but also for taking down everyone and everything around them in flames. He’s forever in that stage that precedes a perfect storm."

  "Highly combustible, I get it,” Katie said and rolled her eyes. “Send me home, get rid of everything that shouldn’t be there, and move on. Everyone will be happy."

  "I wish it were that easy."

  "Why isn’t it?" she prodded.

  "Because our enemies have your blood and know everything about you. This started out as a mission about us but has turned into a mission about you."

  "How did you trick my sister Hannah into thinking I had a kid, when you and I know I don’t?"

  "Angels must be raised by humans in the mortal realm,” he said patiently. “It’s something immortals learned long ago. Angels are mortals’ allies, but they can’t appreciate the intricacies of mortals without the years of exposure. When we placed Toby with you, we altered the minds of those in your immediate family circle. We learned that those outside of this circle are less likely to be concerned about the appearance of the child. The human mind is quick to find excuses to accept such things."

  She gripped her head, feeling sick.

  "Go and rest. We'll talk in the morning," Andre said with genuine warmth.

  "I could use some food, though. Too much alcohol on an empty stomach."

  "I'll send dinner. Your room is the third on the left." He indicated a narrow hallway off the large formal living room.

  She stood, wobbled, and then went the direction he indicated. The room was dark, the floor-to-ceiling windows displaying the incredible views of the Eiffel Tower , whose frame was outlined by lights against the dark Parisian sky. She was about to step onto the balcony when a knock at the door drew her attention.

  Andre entered, followed by a second man carrying a large tray of food.

  "I included the whiskey, though I advise you to stop drinking soon," he said with brotherly firmness. "We'll be going to a soiree across the street in about an hour. You'll have some peace, at least until tomorrow morning."

  Katie offered a watery smile, eyes going to the roast lamb, bread, and custard. They left, and she sat and ate leisurely. When she finished, she crossed to the balcony.

  She’d never left the country and couldn’t help but stare in wonder at the romantically lit Arc de Triomphe. The street below was narrower than it appeared on TV and packed with cars and elegantly dressed men and women walking to a gathering across the street--probably the soiree Andre had mentioned.

  In the distance was a dark swath of park leading up to the lit-up Eiffel Tower, which was larger than she’d imagined. The air was chilly, but she left the window open to the street sounds and the cold, wanting to feel normal.

  Wiggling her toes in the plushest carpet she’d ever felt, she leaned against the window sill, exhausted yet wired. Andre was the only gentleman in this outfit and the only to take pity on her.

  Her headache was gone, her stomach full, and another glass of whiskey in her hand. By the end of this ordeal, she’d be an alcoholic.

  If it ever ended. Andre and Kris seemed to think she was there for the long haul. Her chest tightened again, and she sipped more of the warming liquid. She wondered if this was what immortality felt like, watching humanity progress down a road unable to join them in soirees or understand how precious every second of life was. Did humans understand both their universal significance and their individual insignificance?

  She shook the thoughts away, suspecting they weren’t hers. Whenever Andre tried his shit, her head felt foggy, and right now, she was foggy.

  "Stop it!" she hissed at him, suspecting he’d hear her, even if he was one of those in attendance at the soiree.

  The sense eased. She slumped against the sill, hot from the inside out while the late fall breeze chilled her skin. Her eyes fell to the entryway in front of the elegant building in which she stayed, then to the street further down, where several forms moved from beneath a canopy, trailed by a shadow darker than night. She saw Kris and squeezed her glass to keep from hurling it at him. Andre was with him, the beautiful woman, the dark man Jade. All trailed by Gabriel, who paused to look up and wave at her.

  She waved back, wondering how the most damning of them all was also the only who seemed anywhere able to feel sympathy. Gabriel disappeared. She imagined he went to her apartment to check on Toby and was struck by her longing to return to the tiny, cluttered mess of a life that was hers. She closed her eyes, desperately wishing the whiskey would take effect and knock her out.

  The boom of thunder and a bright glare made her eyes open. It hadn’t come from the sky but from one of the buildings across the street, diagonal to her. She suspected fireworks and saw something streak into the sky. It didn’t explode into lights but fell to her side of the street. She watched in fascination, not understanding what it was until a floor several below hers exploded into flying stone and fire. The impact of the rocket knocked her on her backside. She heard another boom, then a third.

  The building shuddered, one explosion hitting close enough to her room that her windows shattered. Fear lit her insides, and she scrambled to her feet, darting to the door. It was still locked.

  "Let me out!" she shouted, beating on it.

  It wasn’t a cheap plywood door with a simple push lock but a thick, wooden door as ancient as the hotel with deadbolts, as if Andre regularly locked prisoners in his guest room.

  The door didn’t even flinch as she beat her fists against it as hard as she could. She stepped away, sweating from whiskey and fear. Another boom, and the edges of the door lit up and spit fire as the rocket exploded in Andre’s apartment. The impact knocked her back. The door groaned but didn’t give, though the wall on one side crumbled enough to leave a large opening.

  Andre’s apartment was black and fiery. The rocket had exploded as it landed on the floor, leaving a gaping hole. She squeezed through the hole in the wall to find there wasn’t enough of the floor left to walk on let alone make it to the door across the apartment.

  She wriggled back into her room, mind working quickly. Another boom, another flash of light outside the window, another shudder as the building struggled to stand upright. Screams and blaring horns came from the streets. She tiptoed through the glass and leaned out the window, eyeing the wide ledge. There were balconies along the far side of the building that hadn’t been destroyed. Any thought she had at Andre’s apartment not being the target fled as she saw the damage done to her side of the building.

  The booms stopped. She saw dark figures jump from the top of the building across from her to the ground, unaffected by what seemed like a thirty-story drop. They wove their way through the panicked crowds toward Andre’s building.

  Coming for her.

  "Shit, shit, shit!"

  Half drunk, shoeless, scared shitless, she had no option for escape except to crawl from her balcony onto the ledge. She wiped the glass shards from the ledge and carefully stepped out, standing against the outside wall. The ledge was just wide enough for her foot to fit fully. The wind was harsher, colder than it was just a few minutes ago. She pressed the front of her body against the building, dug her fingertips into indents in the stone, and slid her foot along the roughened ledge to the right, stepping slowly and forcing her head up.

  "I don’t even speak French," she muttered. "No passport, no identification, no shoes."

  She moved along, foot-by-foot, focusing on the next stone and on her anger to keep from sobbing and falling to her doom. The sounds of chaos below grew as emergency vehicles responded.

  Boom. She tensed and held her breath. The rocket slammed into an ambulance parked in front of Andre’s, the brilliant explosion throwing heat and light that reached her on what she estimated was the twentieth floor. She started moving again, panic rising as she realized not all the attack
ers in the building across the street had jumped to the street. She was vulnerable, exposed. If they wanted her dead, she’d given them the best target imaginable.

  A shuffling drew her attention, the sound at odds with the chaos below. She looked back toward Andre’s apartment, surprised to see two dark forms on the ledge following her.

  She reached a balcony and lowered herself carefully onto it. The French doors were locked, and she beat on them, looking around wildly for deck furniture to break the glass. The patio was empty.

  Boom. She dropped instinctively to the ground. The rocket smashed into the floor below, shattering glass and pulverizing part of the balcony. The impact was close enough to deafen her to everything but her own breathing. She stared at the broken glass before her and then at the men nearing on the ledge. Across the street, she imagined the man with the rockets taking careful aim at her. Her only chance at safety was across a swath of broken glass.

  For the second time that night, she began to think she hadn’t drunk enough whiskey. She rose unsteadily and brushed some of the glass away with her bare foot, near tears.

  Boom.

  She ran, crying out as glass shredded her feet. She forced herself to continue to the apartment’s entrance and flung open the door, revealing a hall with auxiliary lighting reflecting off a white marble floor. She stepped inside, sagged against the wall, and lifted one bloodied foot. She pried glass free with shaking hands between sobs, then set her foot down and did the same for the other. Familiar dizziness assailed her. She shoved herself away from the wall and staggered down the hall. A hole in the floor was between her and the elevators.

  Boom. The lights went out. She clung to the wall, at a loss as to what to do. Right about now, she’d be happy to see Kris and would even risk going to the shadow world!

  She felt two tiny bites on her arm, and suddenly electricity flew through her. Her mouth opened in a frozen scream as the burning pain paralyzed her. The current stopped, and she convulsed on the cold marble floor.

  Red flashlights blurred before her eyes. Gloved hands snatched her. A hood went over her head, and she was flung across someone’s shoulder hard enough to make her ribs flare with pain.

  Dazed and pained, she couldn’t help but wish she’d just jumped off the ledge instead.

 
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