**CONTENT WARNING for implications of sexual assault and brief descriptions of blood**
I crept through the door to the kitchen. Only a couple prep chefs were here and I had my excuse ready, not that I would dignify them questioning my presence in my place of employment, but I wasn’t exactly known for being on time. Let alone showing up on my night off. Not like the rest of my … family … had done much to support this quest. No money. No house. I was on my own. Working three jobs to stay afloat and fulfill their mission. Guess I should be thankful the thief hadn’t run off to NYC or LA. It was hard enough making ends meet in this small town.
Being lowest priestess on the broomstick sucks slimy frog entrails.
I paused at my locker and stowed my bag, carefully pulling out the pouch I’d need to safely collect the item I’d been sent to retrieve. I tucked it the back of the locker, not ready to use it yet, but wanting to have it nearby. The old burlap didn’t look like much, but it was lined with protective spellwork in iron and silver threads that would neutralize the item until I returned home. Items that didn’t belong with those who had them. For once I agreed with everyone on the Priestess Council; some things were simply not meant for mortals to possess.
Yet somehow no one else was qualified to do the actual retrieval.
Initially I wasn’t sure if I was flattered or insulted. Eventually I chose not to think of it at all and get my damn job done so I could go home. I didn’t expect that it would take months to search out where the thief had gone off to, let alone where they were hiding the item. Or how they were using it.
And of all things to do. I still didn’t get it. The thief could’ve done countless awful things with the gemstone they’d stolen. But they were using it to make risotto that encouraged people, magical beings, to fall in love. Not even force… just encourage.
Now that I’d sussed out the where, I still needed to find out who. It wasn’t my job to bring them in, merely to retrieve the magical item and report back. I had my suspicions, but those weren’t any good. I needed proof. I needed to be sure. And I really needed to get this camera installed.
I wasn’t supposed to use magic unsupervised yet, but desperate times and all that. I chanted low, keeping my thoughts on the one thing I really needed: not getting caught. A lightness settled around me, protective and reassuring as my ratty old hoodie. At least I hadn’t screwed that up.
I’d picked the perfect spot for the video surveillance a few nights ago after discovering the secret hiding place of stolen gemstone, but I’d been off since then and hadn’t been able to act on it until now. Carefully balancing on a stepladder, I attached the small camera to the top of one of the large vent hoods in the kitchen so I could see everyone coming and going. And stopping. I could access it from my phone later tonight and put together a plan. Now all I had to do was get through the next few hours and hope I caught the culprit in the—
“Liv? The hell you doing up there?” Chef spat. “You shouldn’t be back here. Didn’t think you were even working tonight.”
I scurried down, heart thudding like an over boiling pot of water. “Though I saw a … a … roach on the wall,” I stammered, then tried to redirect the big man’s attention elsewhere. The camera kinda blended in with all the pipes and crap up there, but I wasn’t taking any chances. “Scurried down when you came in. Headed thatta way,” I added and pointed toward the pantry.
“SHIT! SHIT! SHIT!” Chef bellowed and waddled off to investigate.
Hopefully he’d forget that I’d been on the ladder and that I’d even been here at all. And so much for that stupid spell. I was horribly out of practice. Quick as possible, I dashed for my locker, hoping to get out before anyone noticed me. All I wanted was to chill in front of my laptop and watch for the guilty party to use the item. Then I could rage quit and—
“Hey Liv,” Mrs. Mallory, one of the café’s owners, called out from her office, “I was just about to call. But since you’re here, can you clock in and clean up before dinner service starts? Three servers called in, so I’ll need you to stay all night and help out with the tables. I mean, since you’re here and all.”
Fuck. It was all I could do to swallow the one-fingered reply I wanted to give, and replace it with a thin, agreeable smile. “Yeah, sure thing.” Stupid rent. Stupid bills. At least I’d get dinner free tonight.
My pulse should have been racing. And it would be if I had one, but it hadn’t been active for a very long time. I’d forgotten what the steady thrum of a heartbeat even felt like. I fiddled with my water glass, the gleaming surface devoid of my reflection. I tried not to look at my watch again, afraid I already reeked of eau de first date.
It had been a long time for that, too. The last real date I’d been on involved a poodle skirt and saddle shoes. And horrible pointy underwear. That abomination had still been better than the heavy coats and long skirts of my youth. And the gloves. I shuddered involuntarily at the efforts involved to conceal skin lest a man might see too much and not be able to handle his own damn hormones.
Before my mind could stroll along Bad Date memory lane—and there were so many forks in the road to choose from—two sets of footsteps headed my way. My nose twitched once. The perfect line of my eyebrow went up.
Well, that’s … unexpected …
I raised my eyes, curious, and took another dainty sniff, certain I was mistaken. A little voice inside chuckled at that notion as my suspicions were confirmed.
The young hostess in the slinky crimson dress grinned and made a subtle thumbs-up gesture toward the man as she departed. She was merely a shapeshifter, though, and didn’t possess my enhanced senses, only seeing the very attractive outer packaging.
But for all that, my date was…
And he was absolutely delectable. Strong shoulders and arms, stylishly coiffed chestnut hair, impeccably dressed in a dark grey suit and lilac dress shirt, the collar unbuttoned for the perfect combination of dressy and casual. Skin pink with life.
But how …? I didn’t think humans knew about the dating app we of the non-human variety used.
When I’d scanned his profile, I’d assumed he was something other, most likely of my kind given that I’d been open as to who and what I was. His profile hadn’t specified, true, but many of us preferred wrapping ourselves in the comfort of secrecy, at least until trust was proven. Or a good, in-person sniffing had been accomplished. With all the supernatural battles that happened—under human eyes no less—it was often the wisest course.
Human. How… novel. And rather exciting. It wasn’t like I’d been allowed alone with a young man when I was human. Never mind the scandal, my father would have disowned me, and as tempting as that was, I was not cut out to be poor and on my own. I’d actually been rather fond of the lovely evening gowns and jewels Father’s wealth had afforded me. Continued to afford me, thanks to the numerous wise investments I’d made over the centuries.
In all fairness, the one time I’d been trapped alone with a supposed gentleman whom Father trusted, I’d lost more than my virginity. None of that violent night was worth revisiting right now, though.
“Allandra?” my date confirmed before sitting. With my single nod—for I could barely speak—he gave a slight bow before taking the seat across from me. “What an exquisite name. Allannnndraaaa…” His voice rumbled along all the right syllables. And made me rumble in all the right places.
I had a flash of a young houseboy and the way his glances—secretive exchanges that could have gotten him thrown to the streets, or worse, if he’d been caught—had given me flutters in places I couldn’t even name back then.
For a few seconds I felt like that young lady again.
But I wasn’t some horny teenager any longer. I narrowed my eyes seductively, a gesture that had enticed royalty to bestow fortunes at my bejeweled feet.
“Nikolas,” I purred, admiring the thick muscles of his neck. I chewed on the sound of his name, toying with the feel of it against my tongue and fangs as I repeated it to myself a third time, finally deciding I liked the taste of it, much in the way I enjoyed the slippery, copper tang of a fresh, warm O Positive.
Tonight was going to be one for the books.
Nikolas reached a hand across the table, grasping my fingers. A delighted smile touched his lips. “So cold. Colder than I thought they’d be. Fascinating.”
I pulled the hand back, folding my fingers together, an uneasiness settling over me. I didn’t like it, this feeling of being off-balance, so teenage-love-sick, just from his presence. “What else do you know?”
Nikolas leaned in, deep blue eyes wide with faked innocence. “Know? About what?”
“You obviously know what I am,” I said, not indulging his nonsensical ignorance. “Am I your first vampire?”
Nikolas ducked his head, faux-hiding a delightful, fake sardonic grin. “Guess you wouldn’t believe me if I said you’re the first non-human I’ve ever been out with?”
I sharpened my gaze at the mere human, dismissing his pathetic attempt at denial. It wasn’t becoming to either of us. “We both know that would be insulting. So, it seems you have a taste for the paranormal.”
“Yeah, yeah, okay, you caught me. I’ve been out with a ‘shifter, a few lovely fae ladies, and a werewolf. Talk about that time of the month being rrruff,” he joked, truly not aware he was rapidly slipping off my ‘do not kill’ list.
I tolerated the continuing contact of his hand on mine for now—curiosity getting the better of the warning bells. Not like he could hurt me. I said nothing and simply stared, adjusting the upward angle of one eyebrow and narrowing my lids. It was subtle, a more intense version of the earlier stare. This one had brought world leaders to their knees, begging for their lives moments before I struck.
This human man was impressive, withstanding the withering glare for a full five seconds before he released my hand. With a gulp he tugged at the collar of his shirt and swallowed.
He’d walked himself into a dangerous game and I was a Grand Master playing a novice. Nikolas’ neck veins pulsed with delicious fear, wafting off him like the most delectable aromas from the palace kitchens.
My fangs ached with hunger.
He relaxed only when I released him from my stare. There would be no doubt as to who was in charge tonight. If this human wanted to play with sharp toys, he was going to find himself handling the pointy end.
“So, uh… dinner?” he coughed. “I hear the risotto is to d… uh, that it’s really good.”
“Whatever you like. My palate is very adventurous after so many centuries.”
A petite woman, with funky cropped hair and several tattoos peeking out from the cuffs of her long-sleeve black shirt, stopped at our table. “Sorry, we’re short a few servers tonight. I’m Liv. I usually work the bar, but can get an order going if you’re ready,” she said. Her heart hammered, echoing in my hollow body.
Okay, maybe I did remember what it was like, enough to miss that steady companion.
I smiled at the young woman. There was something about her stance that was familiar, and in the cadence of her words. But I’d learned and unlearned so many languages, dialects, and customs that it was impossible to keep them straight. “I’ll have a glass of your nicest Bordeaux,” I said, “and a steak. Very rare.”
“Of course. As rare as Chef can get away with,” she promised, her nod confirming she understood. “And you sir?”
Nikolas glanced at the menu again. “Don’t worry, dear, this one’s on me,” I said. “Get whatever you want.”
His lips tightened. The smile forced deep curves along his cheeks. His muscles contracted so tightly I could hear them. Guess he didn’t like the idea of a sugar mama… I stared, daring him. To do what, I didn’t really care. Just daring him.
Honestly, I hadn’t had this much fun in decades.
“The risotto, please, and I’ll start with a house salad and a glass of the same Bordeaux you bring the lady,” Nikolas finally said.
“Of course,” Liv said. “I’ll get that in right away, and be back with your wine.” She glanced backwards over her shoulder, making a peculiar crossing motion with her fingers as she strode away.
Ah! I recognized that blessing! Our server was part of the Order of the Soul, a fringe coven dedicated to policing the use of love potions and other such nonsense. They weren’t overly fond of vampires, but generally stayed out of our way. Not that we messed around with magic of the heart very often. Why bother when time had little meaning?
The ladies of the OS were badass warriors, though, studying for decades. This girl barely looked over fifty and that was being generous. She certainly wasn’t high up in the Order, a junior priestess at most. On a mission alone? It was almost unheard of.
Wonder why she’s here of all places?
The curiosity didn’t linger. Wine and food were brought and consumed. The steak was beautifully seasoned on the outside, the wine was deep and complex. Unlike my date, who’s attention was decidedly on my boobs and not my attempts at conversation. I didn’t fully blame him; my bosom is awesome and worthy of adoration, but so was my witty wordplay. More and more it was like talking to toy poodle.
Once our plates were cleared and dessert menus set on the table, Nikolas reached for my hands again, this time a stinging, lemon-juice-in-a-paper-cut heat radiated across my fingers. Those bright blue eyes had grown hard as sapphires. His grip tightened, the pain increased.
Silver rings adorned his fingers now, two on each hand.
Still thought he could win this. Still legitimately thought I’d feed his supernatural kink. Silver hurt yes, and it could indeed kill me if used in the right manner, but I hadn’t lived for three hundred and twenty-eight years only to be brought down by a dumbass wearing a couple silver baubles.
So yes, they hurt. But hurting made me mad.
Mad was fun. Mad was powerful.
“I think we both know how this night is going to end,” he leered. “Don’t care that you paid. I asked you out, and you’re not going to be the first to tell me no, get it?”
Oh, I got it.
Liv had stopped by a few times, refilling wine and water glasses and checking in. As far as fringe witches went, she seemed like a nice kid. And she clearly saw right through the attractive packaging on this fool, given how often she rolled her eyes as she walked away.
I liked her.
I did not like him.
“Dessert? Or shall I bring the check?” Liv asked.
I raised an eyebrow, waiting to see if this lothario was ready to call it a night, or indulge in dessert and extend his life a little longer.
A cocky smile took over his obnoxious face. One hand gripped mine, digging the silver into the cold flesh of my palm. “We’ll take the check whenever you get a chance,” he said.
An impish flash twinkled her eyes. “Of course,” Liv said, and cleared the dessert menus, placing the check in the middle of the table. “There’s no hurry,” she added.
“Oh, I think we’re ready to call it a night,” I said, sliding a credit card to her before she walked away. “If you know what I mean.”
“I do,” she said. “Be right back. Don’t want to keep you from the rest of your evening.”
As we waited, I pulled on my jacket and then quickly scrawled the signature I’d spent twenty years perfecting. And added a very nice tip in cash, with the unspoken understanding that her silence in the matters about to happen would be most appreciated. Not that I was any kind of mewling new vampire toddler, leaving a bloody trail of destruction wherever I fed. I was a lady, after all.
Nikolas kept a tight grip on my hand as we left, pressing the silver rings against my skin in a faux-loving gesture. As if he had the strength to restrain me if I didn’t allow him the privilege. As if he had any sway over me. As if a mere ring could control me, let alone a human.
“You like to make it hurt, don’t you?” I purred, settling a seductive mask over the hatred boiling inside. My heart ached for any other supernatural being he’d abused in such a manner. Though I didn’t see how he’d survived a forceful encounter with a fae, so I suspected that was as fake as his intentions. “You like to have all the control?”
“You are so perceptive,” he said, as I allowed him to guide me down the street. “Guess all those years really paid off.”
“Those years pay off in so, so many ways,” I answered, batting my lashes in such a comic manner, I thought I’d revealed my true intentions. I brushed the side of my hand against his thigh “accidentally.” The resulting burst of pheromones from him was intoxicating.
Faster than a shadow, I yanked Nikolas into a quiet alley. It was dark. Private. I braced myself against a wall, pulling him closer, pressing his hands against my skin, hissing with each touch of silver. I let him kiss me. Lulled him into thinking he was going to score his first vampire.
Admittedly, I hadn’t started my evening planning to have dessert—I’d never had much of a sweet tooth, and I thought I was meeting a fellow vampire—but I liked to indulge every now and then. Before he could react, I flipped our positions, pressing him against the rough, dirty wall until he whimpered. Pinning him. Letting him know who was truly in control. Who’d had the control the entire time.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “It won’t hurt for more than a minute.”
I licked his neck, tasting the salty fear as his heart fluttered faster and faster. I teased him, enjoying a game I’d given up decades ago out of boredom. The chase was so often too easy. This though, this had been fun.
Without warning, I pierced the thick, warm vein along his neck with my fangs, and drank him as readily that delectable Bordeaux.
No one was allowed to hurt me ever again.
The magic from the risotto, passed from him to me, sang in my veins as I sauntered to the nearest corner to call for a ride share car. I hadn’t been buzzed like this in many a moon, and I planned to enjoy the feeling as long as it lasted. Perhaps one of my nestmates at home would be up for a good romp.
I watched as the vampire led that poor fool out of the café. At least he wouldn’t hurt any other creatures again. The tip she’d left was more than sufficient to pay for my silence. And the next few months’ rent, bills, and groceries. This unexpected shift was the best thing to happen since I got this job.
The bar wasn’t even that messy tonight. Probably because I’d cleaned as I worked, enjoying the drama with the doofus and the vampire as it unfolded.
I just hoped the little show I’d recorded in the kitchen yielded something as entertaining and helpful to my situation.
Soon as everything was prepped for tomorrow, I called goodnight to the last few people and dashed out. Within minutes of getting home, I had my fuzzy bat slippers on and the feed to the hidden camera running.
Please work, please work, I chanted as I fast-forwarded through the recording, stopping abruptly and rewinding when a shadowy figure approached the stolen magical goods.
Then backing it up and watching again before I paused the recording.
The High Priestesses were gonna have a field day with this one.
But at least I could make my plans to finally go home.
Find Jill in all these places:
And follow The Accidental Magic Project: