Welcome to The Shadow Trade world!
(Get ready for some romance, mystery, and hilarity!)
Blood and Bonbons
Vena, my best friend and roommate, snorted at my comment and gestured at the wall.
“It’s only twenty feet, Everly. Stop being a baby, and just do it.”
I stubbornly crossed my arms across my ample chest.
“We could have done anything. Golfing. Bowling. Yoga. Why rock climbing?”
“Because it’s close and takes care of the credit we needed for—”
“The credit you needed, not me. It should be Piper here. She’s the mountain goat.” Even as I complained, I turned my head to look up at the imposing indoor rock wall. The height didn’t bother me. It was the damn cord attached to the uncomfortable harness buckled around my hips that did. While I wasn’t a diva by any means, I did take care how I dressed. The rock climbing harness wasn’t flattering.
“Look,” I said, pointing at my downstairs. “I look like I’m packing. This is not okay.”
Vena turned away from me to hide her laugh as if her shaking shoulders didn’t give it away.
“Reach the top, and I’ll buy you anything you want from the French bakery by the capitol,” she said.
She knew my weakness. I had a love for all things found in a bakery.
“Don’t toy with me, Vena.”
She faced me with a wicked grin. “Anything you want.”
I looked up at the wall and started bouncing side to side, psyching myself up for the most uncoordinated climb in history. “I’m going to own this wall.”
“Yeah, you’re going to need to get closer than that to own it.”
I didn’t bother shooting her a dirty look. Instead, I attacked the wall, grunting and sweating my way slowly up its length. My arms burned, and my legs shook before I even made it halfway.
“Come on, Everly. You got this,” Vena said as she climbed past me.
Easy for her to say. Where I clung to the wall, she kind of just hovered there. She even let go with one hand to brush back a loose strand of her long, dark brown hair that she’d pulled back into a ponytail. Not a droplet of sweat misted her brow. I easily imagined my sweat-matted blonde hair clinging to my face, despite my attempts to tie it back.
I didn’t hate Vena for her athleticism. She worked on it. A lot. And I didn’t.
“You’re going to need to talk dirty to me if you want me to finish this,” I said, straining to maintain my handholds.
“All right. But remember you asked for this.” She took a deep breath then, in her most sultry voice, murmured, “Opera cake. Macaron. Canelé. Beignets.”
I laughed so hard that my grip almost slipped from my next handhold. But her teasing distraction had done the job, and I managed to find the willpower to keep going until I touched the buzzer at the top.
Pretending to faint, I free-fell backward, letting the mechanism slowly return me to the ground.
“Please tell me the first time’s a charm. I don’t think a fifteen-minute break is going to be enough to get me to go again.”
“That’s what he said,” Vena said with a grin beside me.
“How are you almost twenty-two and still using that line?”
“Pfft. I heard your grandma say it to your mom. It’s timeless.”
With a playful groan, I started stripping from my harness on the way to the counter.
“We should rock climb outside once,” she said. “I think you’d enjoy it more.”
I paused in handing over the harness and shot her a suspicious look. “Voluntary outdoor activity? Why?”
“Because, if your skin was any pastier, people will start thinking you’re a vampire.”
The clerk made a choking noise.
“Don’t even joke about that, Vena.” I turned my exasperated look to the guy behind the counter. “It’s the middle of the day. I’m obviously not a vampire.”
He nodded and busied himself with straightening the harnesses while I dragged Vena out the door into the early summer sun to scold her.
“It’s not funny when you do that. You might be comfortable tossing out that kind of stuff in a conversational tone, but not everyone is.”
Three generations hadn’t been enough time to erase the old fears regarding the existence of otherworldly creatures like vampires. It was barely enough to make werewolves socially acceptable. Granted, it helped that werewolves didn’t crave human blood like I craved desserts.
“People need to relax more. Fearing something won’t make it go away,” Vena said, walking beside me through the parking lot.
As if her smart remark summoned it, a small splash of blue flew in front of my face, startling me. Stumbling back a step, I batted a hand at the tiny creature and squealed.
“It’s already gone, Everly. And stop with the swatting. Neither of us can afford the five-hundred-dollar fine if you hurt one.”
I shuddered. “I hate fairies. How are they endangered if they’re flying around in the city like this?”
“You need to overcome your fear,” Vena said. “It’s been five years.”
“Fairies are my snakes. I don’t tell you to get over your fear.”
“That’s different. It’s natural to fear something that has fangs and wants to kill you.”
“Fairies have sharp teeth.”
“They’re not out to kill a person. They’re nothing more than trash diggers and thieves.”
“Tell that to the one that tried to electrocute me,” I said.
She snorted. “It wasn’t trying to kill you. It wanted the curling iron. And Miles tossed the fairy out of the bathroom before anything happened.”
Lies. Something had definitely happened that fateful day at her family’s home. Her brother, in full-on hero mode, had burst into the bathroom and witnessed my naked flailing in the shower. I’d been traumatized twice that day and wasn’t sure I’d ever get over my fairy grudge.
“Whatever. I’m not a fan. Let’s focus on what’s important. You owe me bakery,” I said as we headed to the car.
“You got it,” Vena said too cheerfully for my comfort. “We’ll have just enough time before Miles gets to our place.”
“Why is Miles coming over?” I asked suspiciously.
“Can’t a brother come and visit his only sister?”
“Sure, but the only time he seems to come over is when he has . . .”
Miles was an avid researcher of one particular thing: Treasure. And not just any treasure. Supernatural treasure.
“No. Absolutely not!”
“He’s coming over to visit. That’s all.”
She was acting way too innocent.
“Spill it, or you’re going to owe me so much bakery that I won’t be able to squeeze into the rock climbing harness anymore.”
She gave the slightest guilty shrug and quickly said, “Miles found a lead, and it’s a solid one.”
“Please. Let’s hear him out.”
Vena hadn’t chosen a nice sedate occupation such as a researcher like her brother. Oh no. She wasn’t one to sit still for hours at a time. She wanted to follow in her grandparents’ footsteps as a treasure hunter.
“Not happening,” I said. “The last time you went after something, you came home with a concussion and bruised ribs. You’re officially grounded from hunting.”
“What if I said this artifact could cover the tuition for both our fall semesters?”
“I’d say it’s not worth the risk.”
“Think about the math. Do you know how long it will take us to pay off our loans at an entry-level ‘normal’ job? Forever. And we’re not the only ones who’d benefit from this. Miles has been working his butt off to establish connections in the trade. The only way anyone will ever pay him for his research information is if it proves viable to someone else. If you won’t agree for our sakes, then do it for Miles,” she said with a sweetness that only came out for coercion. “He really needs a win.”
“This goes beyond bakery. We’re talking high-end chocolate now.”
She grinned, knowing she had won. I sulked a little on the way to the bakery and consoled myself with a beignet and a fancy eight-inch chocolate-layered cake to-go.
“I promise this won’t be like the last time,” Vena said as she drove us home. “I’ve been reading my grandparents’ journals. Prepared will be my middle name.”
Rolling my eyes, I swallowed a bite of my bribe so I could respond.
“It’s impossible to prepare for the unexpected. So your promise is pointless and not appreciated. Why can’t you be a dentist or something?”
“Could you seriously see me doing something that mundane?”
I couldn’t. Hunting for treasure was in Vena’s blood from her father’s side. Her grandparents had been renowned for their finds, and both Vena and Miles sought the same notoriety within the Shadow Trade community. I didn’t. Her grandparents had mysteriously disappeared on a hunting expedition ten years ago, and it wasn’t a fate I wanted my best friend to share. Not that she ever listened to my warnings.
“I’m going to worry the entire time you’re gone,” I said instead.
“Unless you come with me.”
“Ha! Not happening. If treasure hunting concusses you, it would kill me.”
It was an old argument. While treasure hunting might call to her as a means to earn money, it didn’t call to me. No matter how boring regular employment sounded, it was safe. I liked safe. And I liked knowing when and how much I would get paid.
Miles’ empty car sat at the curb in front of our house when we arrived. Seeing it tweaked my anxiety. I knew there was nothing I could do to stop Vena from diving head-first into whatever hunt her brother’s latest research lead would take her on, which only made me worry for her more.
She parked behind his car and got out.
Taking care with my cake, I did the same and looked at our old, one-story bungalow. A cheery yellow coated the wood siding, one of the few nice attributes of the place. The deafening noise of the train rattling behind our house was the biggest negative. However, our home’s proximity to the still active track was one of the reasons we could afford the rent. The daily mini tremors were the reason we couldn’t hang any pictures.
We climbed the weathered steps and crossed the slanted porch to the front door. Inside, the train was muted enough that Vena called out a greeting once the door was closed.
“In here,” Miles called back.
We set our things on the coat hooks by the door and made our way through the small living room to the dining room. Papers were spread out over the table, along with a few maps. Miles’ research, no doubt.
Shaking my head, I continued to the kitchen and found Miles bent at the waist, looking at the contents of our fridge.
In the month since we’d last seen him, he’d changed. Based on the way his jeans hugged his backside and thighs, he’d built muscle. It looked good. But then again, forbidden usually always looked good.
“Looking for something?” Vena asked, walking in behind me.
He straightened and flashed us a grin. His tousled light brown hair and the excitement dancing in his bespeckled blue eyes made my stomach dip.
As Vena’s lifelong friend, I should have been immune to Miles’ good looks and charm. Not a chance. He was smart, fun to be around, and had an athletic build that would make any straight girl’s mouth water.
“Please tell me there’s something in that bag for me,” he begged, seeing the bakery bag I held.
I set it on our yellowed counter and gave him a hard look. “I’ll let you have half of this cake if you promise that your sister’s not going to get hurt hunting whatever little treasure you’ve found.”
He made a face. “No cake for me, then. I only make promises I know I can keep.”
I shot Vena a look. “More reason not to do this, Vena. Even Miles thinks you’re going to get hurt.”
“That’s not what I said,” he interjected quickly. “The cache should be an easy find, but we both know the nature of this business. The unexpected happens. Even a stubbed toe could count as an injury.”
“You’ve been working with fae too much,” Vena said. “Even they would have no reason to skirt around the truth. You know Everly means serious bodily harm.”
He shook his head. “I’m not dumb enough to promise that either. You take risks you shouldn’t take.”
My stomach gave another sickening twist. “For the sake of my sanity, I’m going to shower while you two bicker and work out what kind of hellish mission you’re sending your sister on.”
Neither tried to stop my retreat.
After grabbing a change of clothes, I closed myself into our only bathroom. While the water ran, I stripped and thought of anything but what they were talking about in the kitchen.
Vena knocked on the door as the water started to cool.
“You can stop hiding in the shower and come out now,” she called.
She knew me too well.
Five minutes later, I emerged dressed from the bathroom and saw half my cake on the dining room table. The other half was missing along with Miles and his stuff.
“He said it’s as close to a promise as he’ll give you,” Vena said with a smirk.
“He just wanted half my cake.”
“Yeah. Probably. What time are you heading in to work?”
I checked the time and grabbed the remainder of my cake.
“Four-thirty. What if you don’t find what you’re looking for, Vena? Why not have a ‘day job’ as a backup plan? It’d be a smart move for times when hunting jobs are sparse.”
“Let me guess…there’s an opening at Blur.”
“No, but say the word, and I can get you in. Shepard loves me.” He truly did. I never missed a shift, didn’t need smoke breaks, and the customers loved me because I knew how to be cheerful.
“I’ll make you a deal,” she said. “Agree to come rock climbing with me tomorrow, outside in the wilds of nature, and I’ll go in with you today to talk to Shepard about a job.”
I paused with my fork halfway to my mouth and stared at her.
“Yep.” She smirked. “It won’t be a vertical climb like we do indoors. More like a rocky hike. Nothing you can’t handle.”
“How long?” I asked.
“We’ll be home before dark.”
“Before dark? We’d be hiking all day?”
“No. I know you’ll want to sleep until ten, minimum. Plus, it’s an hour’s drive to get there. So, not all day. We’ll be home well before dark. A few hours in exchange for working some epic shifts at Blur with me at your side.”
“Deal.” Anything so she wasn’t dependent on her hunting money. “So when are you going hunting?”
She grinned at me. “I thought you didn’t like knowing the details.”
“I need to know when you leave so I know how long to wait before I report you missing.”
“Ha-ha. I promise to tell you before I leave your side. Until then, we both know you’re happier when I keep you in the dark.”
As I ate my cake, I flipped on the news for a bit then switched to our guilty pleasure. The Other House, a reality TV show that had held the highest ratings for thirteen years running. It followed a group of eight housemates that changed from season to season. What made this show stand out above and beyond all the others was that only seven of the housemates were human. It was like Jersey Shore meets Clue with everyone in the cast trying to figure out who wasn’t human while the viewers heard the confessions of everyone, even the non-human.
It was a damn fine drama and one of the major reasons people were more accepting of werewolves. The guy from season one had been a knockout who fell hard for a human woman. Vena and I gobbled up the romance.
An hour before my shift, I stood with a stretch.
“Let’s get ready so we can talk to Shepard before my shift starts.”
Vena sighed and headed to her room.
While I couldn’t see her working in most “normal” places, I could see her managing well at Blur. Serving drinks while listening to music wasn’t bad.
As an upscale nightclub, Blur cultivated a clientele that didn’t get rowdy, appreciated a smile served with their cocktails, and tipped well. Blur also openly welcomed patrons who identified as non-human, which made the place a novelty.
“You know,” I called as I pulled on my black tights, “by working at Blur, you might even make a few connections that could help you and Miles.” I smoothed my hands over my fitted skirt when I finished and inspected myself in my full-length mirror. Playing on my curves usually got me better tips. My naturally sunny blonde hair with a natural wave and thickly lashed grey eyes helped too.
“Or you could make those connections for us,” she called back.
I rolled my eyes and fiddled with the black-silver medallion hanging around my neck, thankful for the protective charms etched into the delicate weave. While Blur’s clientele was generally more refined than the average club, I was smart enough to know that didn’t mean it was completely safe.
After smoothing the white, button-up shirt over my chest, I put on my loose black tie, which was part of the standard uniform. When I emerged from the room, I found Vena slipping on her low-heeled, black shoes. The top she wore showcased her medallion while mine was safely hidden under my shirt and tie.
“What do you think?” she asked as I gave her a once-over.
The black stretch pants hugged her lean figure and looked nice enough for a potential interview. The red top complemented her feisty personality. Vena’s hair was down for a change, and she’d put on a little makeup to accentuate her deep blue eyes.
“You’ll do,” I said with a conspiratorial smile.
We drove separately since I knew she wouldn’t want to hang around all night. She parked in front while I went to the back employee lot.
The aromas coming from the kitchen off the service entrance made my mouth water. Most nightclubs didn’t offer food, but Blur wasn’t most nightclubs. The pricey tapas Shepard put on his selective menu tempted any patron with a designer palate.
After placing my purse and keys in my locker, I hurried through the door to the main lounge. The extensive seating area offered a range of tables near the dance floor and stage. The svelte chairs upholstered in purple leather matched the purple accent lighting and table tops. The black ceiling and walls toned down the color and added a moody element Blur’s patrons enjoyed.
I saw Vena already waiting at the bar. A sparkling water sat in front of her. She grinned at me as I approached.
“Who was at the door?”
“Doc,” she said. “He remembered me. And I thought for sure you were going to appear with a tie and tell me to get to work.”
I laughed. “You’re safe for the moment. Shepard’s probably in his office. You okay hanging out here for a few minutes while I talk to him?”
“Don’t worry,” Buzz said from behind the bar. “I’ll keep an eye on her.”
Vena winked at the big blonde man, and I shook my head. This wasn’t the first time Vena had visited Blur, so most of the staff knew she was a friend of mine. Vena also knew that Buzz liked to tease and flirt. He was harmless enough unless someone started causing trouble. The muscles he flexed when he mixed cocktails weren’t for show. They also helped keep the peace if things got too rowdy.
I gave him a nod and headed toward the stairs.
“Hey, Ev,” the muscled bouncer at the bottom of the steps greeted.
“Hey, Anchor. Shepard in his office?”
“Should be. Tell Buzz to stop gawking at Vena’s cleavage.”
I chuckled. “She’d be the first to say she doesn’t have cleavage. But I’ll let her know you’re watching out for her.”
Making my way up the steps, I scanned the empty VIP section. Everything was as neat as I’d left it the night before, and Detroit was already prepping the VIP bar.
With a nod to him, I made my way along the glass wall toward the offices.
As I reached Shepard’s partially open door, I heard, “Get your shit together. Next time I catch you drinking on company time, you’re fired.”
I rarely heard Shepard use that tone. With shoulder-length dark-blonde hair, sun-kissed complexion, and muscles that had muscle babies, Shepard was the kind of guy people usually wanted to make happy. Including me.
Before I could decide if I should come back later, the door opened fully and Gunther, the dishwasher, blew past me, dark head down and shoulders hunched. He was the quiet sort, one who kept to himself. He’d always been friendly enough, though.
Shepard, who’d been watching Gunther’s retreat, noticed me in the hallway. His hard grey gaze softened, and he leaned back in his office chair.
“Hey, Everly, I didn’t know you were on the schedule tonight.”
“That’s funny since you do the schedule and I’m here every night,” I said, stepping inside.
He gave a small smile.
“Is this a bad time?” I asked.
“Not for you.”
“I brought Vena with me today. She’s interested in adding ‘cocktail concierge’ to her list of life skills if there’s still an opening.”
“Where is she?”
“I left her with Buzz. Do you want me to bring her up here?”
“No, I’m on my way down anyway.” He met me at the door and gestured for me to go first.
He followed me down to the main floor where Vena was sitting at the end of the bar. One of the beverage distributors hovered next to her, and warning alarms blared in my head.
He leaned in to say something to her and set his hand on her shoulder. Sparks of fury lit her eyes as she glared at him, and as she was about to latch onto his wrist, I called, “Vena!”
She glanced over and spotted Shepard behind me. Her expression lightened, and she stood, smoothly maneuvering away from the man.
I let out a breath of relief. It was better if Shepard didn’t learn about Vena’s temperament until after she was hired.
Shepard held out his hand to her. “Nice to meet you, Vena.”
While her hand looked small in his, I knew how much damage she could inflict with that innocent-looking hand.
Shepard pulled away with a practiced smile and gave her an assessing look, his gaze taking in her form-fitting black pants and strong arms.
“You’ll do. Come in on Monday to fill out paperwork.”
“That’s it?” Vena asked.
“Any friend of Everly’s has a job with me. It’s up to you to prove yourself.”
After Shepard gave me a nod and headed over to the bar to speak to the distributor, Vena looked at me.
“Wow. You really do have a lot of pull with him.” Her gaze swept over Shepard’s broad shoulders. “He’s a bit older than you. But so delicious. I think he’d be open to an invitation if you wanted to sample that.”
“Please don’t make this awkward,” I said. “I have to work with him.”
“Or maybe work up a sweat with him.”
“Keep your voice down,” I said, eyeing Shepard to make sure he didn’t hear Vena.
He chose that moment to look over at me. His grey gaze locked with mine and held for two pounding heartbeats before he turned back to the man, making me wonder if he had heard Vena.
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