Panther Prowling

Panther Prowling by Yasmine Galenorn (Book 17 of the New York Times Bestselling Otherworld Series)

Berkley (Mass Market); January 27, 2015
Urban Fantasy
ISBN: 978-0515154764

We're the D'Artigo sisters: savvy half-human, half-Fae ex-operatives for the Otherworld Intelligence Agency. My sister Camille is a wicked good witch with three gorgeous husbands. Menolly is a vampire married to a werepuma. And me? I'm Delilah, a two-faced werecat and a Death Maiden. While the war in Otherworld is expanding, so is my newly-renamed PI business. And when our cousin Daniel gets himself in trouble stealing an ancient artifact from the wrong person, he also puts us in deadly danger...

We have to do something while waiting for Shadow Wing's next move, so I've renamed my ragtag PI Agency-Cat's Eye Investigations-and have opened my doors again. Leave it to fate that my first client is our cousin Daniel, a topnotch cat burglar. He's stolen a rare and valuable weapon, and now finds himself pursued by an elusive enemy. My investigation uncovers a ring of ghostly warriors dedicated to protecting the sword, and the soul that is trapped within it. As my sisters and I try to elude these deadly shades, we begin to realize that the soul trapped within the sword is a far more dangerous enemy-and that he's about to break free from his prison...

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Excerpt:

Chapter 1

"Do you think she knows what we're up to?" Menolly fretted.

She hiked herself up onto the counter of the newly renovated Wayfarer Bar & Grill and leaned back on her hands, swinging her legs. The bar had been rebuilt, revamped, and revitalized, and tonight we were going to rock the block with a grand reopening party, welcoming back-we hoped-all the regulars who had made the Wayfarer their local watering hole. The doors opened in twenty minutes and we were just killing time as the staff finished last-minute touches, which included sorting out a massive number of balloons for Camille's birthday, which also happened to be today.

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I sat on one of barstools, absently flipping through a book I'd picked up at the pet store: How to Take Care of Your Mouse. I had no plans on raising pet mice anytime soon-that idea could too easily turn into a disaster. No, my friend Misha, a mouse who had helped me out in a sticky situation, had just died. I wanted to look after her children . . . and her children's children. The micelings were still frightened of me, but I'd managed to keep my promise to her and never once had chased after her extended family when I shifted into cat form.

"Probably. Camille makes it her business to know everything about everybody. She can't help it. It's the control freak in her. You know that by now. So, did you have any luck finding a new guard?" The portal to Otherworld downstairs needed constant watching, but Menolly had recently gone through a turnover in staff and now was shy not only an evening bouncer, but someone to watch over the portal during the morning shift.

She grumbled. "Not yet, and it worries me. I don't like leaving just one person on duty-not after what happened to the bar. But there's nothing I can do. At least Derrick and I can take care of tossing out the troublemakers during the evening shift until we find someone, though."

Hunger pangs hit my stomach and I ran my tongue over my teeth. I'd just had them polished and the dentist had been a nervous wreck the entire time. Even though he was Supe-friendly, my fangs were sharp, and while not overly large, they didn't retract like a vampire's. Slicing a finger open would be all too easy. I could feel him tense up the entire time he was checking through my mouth.

Occasionally I cut my tongue on them, but I figured that was all part of being a werecat. What was really dicey were blow jobs. Shade and I had worked out a system where I managed not to hurt him most of the time, but in the end, it was easier to focus our attentions on other forms of love play, given the risks.

"I'm hungry, you have any snacks in this joint?"

Menolly leaned over and flicked my nose. "Doofus. I'm surprised you aren't packing a candy bar. Go check near the birthday cake in the kitchen-we have plenty of cupcakes and one or two won't be missed. We won't be firing up the grill till it's officially opening time, so if you want, grab yourself one . . . or some nuts from the bar." She smiled and let out a satisfied laugh. "Kitten, I can't tell you what a relief it is to actually have a decent grill to go with the name."

Before an arsonist had torched it, the Wayfarer Bar & Grill's kitchen had been barely passable. The cook had managed a few simple things like fries and burgers, or grilled cheese, or cold sandwiches. Standard dive food: filling, but nothing to write home about.

During renovations, Menolly had consulted with the architect and they'd redesigned the entire joint. She had commandeered the upper floor and ditched her attempts to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast. Instead, they'd relocated the kitchen upstairs, added an elevator, and revamped the staircase to make it user-friendly. A dumbwaiter and intercom system completed the cooking arrangements. They'd gutted two of the bedrooms in order to create a large private meeting room, to be rented out as needed.

"Are you going to miss having a bed-and-breakfast?" I glanced around. While the outside of the building looked the same-red brick, old, and historic-inside, the Wayfarer had a far different feel than when we'd first come Earthside and Menolly had started working as a bartender for her cover job.

"No, I don't think so. I barely had one anyway. The bar had its charms, but now it's my vision, through and through." She glanced around, a satisfied look on her face. "As painful as the fire was, at least I was able to rebuild and put my own stamp on it."

She bit her lip, drawing a drop of blood with her fangs. That they were showing told me she was stressed. Vampires had retractable fangs and they only came down during hunger, arousal, or stress. I knew she was thinking about the lives that had been lost during the fire but I said nothing. No use in scraping an open wound.

The walls were covered with postcards and wine labels, and the bar itself was polished to a high sheen, as were the bar stools. Two large tables, each seating up to ten people, took center stage. The booths had been rebuilt, their upholstery now a supple black leather. All the tables on the floor were new, the wood was a deep mahogany, rich and warm.

Menolly had asked the contractor to build a dance floor, and to replace the antiquated jukebox, she'd installed satellite radio. Large-screen televisions were mounted on the side wall of the bar for the sports freaks who occasionally came in-she kept the sound off, but they were continually running different games.

But despite all the Earthside trappings, everywhere I looked, I could see touches from Otherworld, giving the Wayfarer an exotic feel. Star crystals from the mines of the Nebulveori Mountains. Woven lattice tapestries from the shores of Terial, the Eastern Port on the Mirami Ocean. And sand-cast urns holding dried flowers, potted from the dunes of the Sandwhistle Desert. The Wayfarer Bar & Grill had become a beautiful hybrid between the two worlds.

"Well, I approve of the kitchen. I approve of anything to do with food." I reached out and ran my hand along the red brick of the wall. There was a lot of brick in this building, and together with the warm wood and muted lighting, it gave the bar a cave-like feeling, but in a cozy, protected manner.

Menolly sobered. "To tell you the truth, I don't think that I could rebuild as a bed-and-breakfast. No matter how much people say the deaths weren't my fault, I'll never be able to forget." She gave a quick nod toward the new waitress. "I just hope she works out."

I followed her gaze. Jenny was an FBH-full-blooded human. Camille had met her at Broom Stix, a magic shop, and Jenny had taken Chrysandra's place as head waitress. She was a good worker, eager to learn, and just as eager to be out of her stepmother's store.

"She'll do a good job. She's sincere. But I'm surprised you hired another FBH, given Chrysandra . . ." I stopped at the stricken look on my sister's face. "I'm sorry . . . I didn't think." Great, I was just making things worse. I had a knack for opening mouth, inserting foot.

After a moment, Menolly shrugged. "What can I say? Her death will always weigh heavy on my shoulders. Especially at the end." She flinched. "But you're right, Jenny will do a good job. She's smart, personable, and sassy enough to handle the customers. The vamp crowd will love her." She glanced at the clock. "So when does the birthday girl arrive?"

"Camille and Smoky are supposed to be here in about ten minutes. Smoky said he'd have her here right before the opening. They'll come in the back, so the crowd out front doesn't swarm in behind them. You have a fan club waiting, you know." I jerked my finger toward the front of the building.
"I'm surprised anybody's showing up. The final count was twenty-five deaths, you know. Including vampires." Again, the haunted look.

I wanted to wipe away the memory, to wipe away the guilt Menolly felt, but there was nothing I could do. Only time would help her sort out everything that had happened. So instead, I forced a bright smile. "Well, I'm not surprised. People love this place. And they love you." I reached out, patted her hand. The coldness of her skin had ceased to bother me. She was my sister, even if she was a vampire. I wasn't lying. There was a crowd out front. A number of vamps-I assumed they were vampires by their pallor-had shown up to show their support for the Wayfarer. There were also a number of Weres and Fae. All in all, there must have been fifty people outside, waiting in the rain-soaked January evening.

But tonight was more than the reopening. Tonight, we'd planned a special surprise. Since it was also Camille's birthday, Smoky had volunteered to keep her occupied while the rest of us decked out the bar for both the reopening and her party.

"I'm not so sure about this, Delilah. You know Camille isn't much on surprises. You think we can pull this off without a hitch, given our track record?"

I wrinkled my nose. "Our parties always suck. Why should this time be any different? At least this time nobody's hired a stripper."

It was sadly true that we seldom had people begging us to throw another shindig. But it was also true that there was no stripper in a fringed G-string for me to attack as my fluffy-butt tabby self. Although the balloons were mesmerizing, I could keep a handle on myself unless the ribbons were left dangling. Then all bets were off. Candy in front of the baby time.

Shade sidled up to me and slid one arm around my waist. He nuzzled my neck and I planted a kiss on his cheek. We were officially beyond the honeymoon stage, and had been together almost a year and a half. But as I leaned my head against his side, the warmth of his musky scent quickened my pulse. I'd never experienced this kind of love before we met. He was sweet and funny, and sexy in that easy, comfortable way. And I could be myself around him.

Shade reached into his pocket for something, but at that moment, Jenny came scurrying out from the back.

"Your sister is here." Her eyes were wide. Camille had cowed her at one point, and Jenny still seemed to be scared of her.

"Thanks, we'll take it from here. You go ahead and finish checking all the booths and tables to make sure everything is ready." Menolly jumped off the bar. She glanced around. "Everybody here?"

I counted. Trillian and Morio were in the corner-Camille's other husbands. She had three of them and they were all very happy together, if at times a little loud.

Vanzir and Roz were playing darts together. We called them the demon twins because Vanzir was a dream-chaser demon and Roz was an incubus, and they liked to hang out together, like a couple of slightly demented frat boys. Hanna, our housekeeper from the Northlands, and Maggie, our baby calico gargoyle, sat at a table with Iris and Bruce.

Nerissa-Menolly's wife-carried the cake down from the kitchen. She placed it on one of the large tables. Everybody was here tonight, including Erin, Menolly's middle-aged "daughter"; Roman, the son of the vampire queen; and Chase, the FBH detective who had become part of our extended family. Even Mistletoe and Feddrah-Dahns had traveled over from Otherworld for the party, though having a unicorn at any function was always problematic.

"Everybody's here and we're good to go." I motioned to Jenny. "Will you ask Smoky to bring her in?"

Whatever excuse the dragon had made for keeping our sister out of the way appeared to have worked. Menolly doused the lights, and a moment later, a rustle told us they'd entered the room. But as she flicked the lights on again and we all yelled "Surprise," we found ourselves shouting and throwing confetti at one very nervous toadsquatter.

"Ah, hell!" Menolly launched herself forward, but just then Camille and Smoky followed the creature through the door.

"Stop!" Camille grabbed the arm of the toadsquatter, yanking him out of the way. The squat goblin-like figure let out a shriek and hissed at her. "Shut up, you little weasel." She swatted his nose as Smoky loomed up behind her, all six-foot-four of him.

"What the fuck?" Menolly pulled back. "What's that doing in my bar?"

A whiff of the toadsquatter's stench hit me and I gagged. Lovely. Cross a patch of skunk cabbage with a lumberjack who's gone a week without showering and that's pretty much what the creature smelled like. My stomach lurched.

Derrick Means, one of the bartenders and a werebadger, stared at the thing with a horrified look on his face. He leaned over to me and asked, "What the hell is that? It looks like a goblin that's been squashed and deformed."

"Toadsquatter. From Otherworld. A mutant version of a goblin. Goblins use them as slaves, and the toadsquatters hate them as much as we do. The little creeps aren't blameless, though. They can be nasty tempered, fickle, and they're all a pack of thieves." Which begged the question: Why was one of them standing in the bar, and why had Camille protected him?

Derrick, whose ponytail was black streaked with white, shook his head. "Guess it's no worse than some of the things we have over here. I bet you have no clue how many strange beasties we have running around the woods."

"I'll bet you're right." I grinned at him. Derrick was usually pretty grumpy, but he was fair, honest, and respectful. And that was more than we got from a lot of the Earthside crowd, FBHs or Supes.

Camille was trying to calm the toadsquatter, who was disturbingly close to tears. And trust me, a crying toadsquatter wasn't any more appealing than a happy one. "Don't upset him any more. He has important information for me, or so he says."

Menolly paused. "Information?"

"We think he may know the name of the sorcerer who is tracking Camille." Smoky glared at the toadsquatter, obviously not thrilled with this turn of events. Camille knelt down by the creature. Toadsquatters were about four feet high, and squat. And butt-ugly. "Listen, calm down. I warned you people would react this way, so chill out. I promised you that if your info was worth it, I'd give you a reward, didn't I?"

He nodded and, in a halting variant of the common tongue from Otherworld, said, "Yes, yes . . . You promised. You also have to promise they won't kill me, though." He jerked his finger toward us. I'd say thumb, but since he had six or seven digits I wasn't sure which stood in for what finger.

"I promise." Camille stared at the rest of us, and we slowly nodded our heads. Nobody seemed too enthusiastic, though. While toadsquatters weren't inherently evil like their brother race of goblins, they were sneaky and reminiscent of cockroaches. They might not do anything to you, but they were so nasty you just kind of wanted to squash them on principle.

She straightened up and looked around, her gaze falling on the cake. "Oh, hell-birthday party? For me?"

"Yeah, but you kind of blew that one out of the water." Menolly laughed. "Let's get drinks started, Derrick. Camille, take that . . . thing . . . to my office. I don't want my customers coming in here and finding him."

Camille grabbed the toadsquatter by the hand and started for the back.

Menolly turned back to us. "Delilah, carry the presents to my office, please. We don't want them to get stolen. It's time for me to unlock the doors. Luckily, I ordered a gigantic cake. One big enough to include my patrons. But Jenny, would you move it out of sight till we're done talking to that creature?"

And with that flurry of orders, Menolly headed over to unlock the doors. I gathered up the presents, then paused, watching as she inserted the key to open the Wayfarer to the public for the first time in over two months.

The crowds flooded in, swamping the staff. Once it appeared everything was going off without a hitch, I headed for the back, presents safely in my arms. Menolly motioned
that she'd join us in a bit.

The office had been expanded during renos, and we all managed to fit in, albeit a little snugly. I set the gifts on the desk, and Camille walked over, looking at them. She seemed preoccupied.

"Anything wrong?" I glanced over at the toadsquatter but he was ignoring us.

She frowned. "There was someone in the bookstore today who made me uneasy. He was looking for a rare grimoire and was very pushy about it. He acted as though he thought I was hiding a copy from him, when I told him I didn't have it and didn't know where I could get one."

"What's his name? Did he have a demonic feel?" The fact that that question was always one of our first considerations now saddened me, but we always had to take it into account, given what we were facing.

She paused, considering. "No, he didn't-I think he was FBH, but he did have a lot of magical energy, and there was something off about him. I think . . . he introduced himself as Jay. And he said he'd heard about my store from a friend . . . but that could be anybody."

I sighed, leaning against the desk. "Has he been in before?"

"I don't think so. But I don't trust him."

"Keep an eye out." I leaned against the counter. "If I'm upstairs in my office, you can always call me down next time he comes in. And tell Giselle to do the same."

A garbled grunt interrupted us. We looked over to see Smoky holding the toadsquatter in place, his hand firmly on the creature's head. The toadsquatter wasn't moving, but neither did he look like he wanted to be here and I didn't blame him. He was in the middle of a group of hostile people who could easily make mincemeat out of him without so much as a blink. His gaze flickered toward the door.

"Easy, boy. You're not going anywhere. Not yet. So what's your name?" Smoky asked.

Shifty-Eyes thought for a moment, then sighed. "Rataam."

"Well, Rataam, give us the information we're looking for and you get to leave here alive. However, if I discover that you've gone back to whoever you've been snooping for and ratted us out, I'll personally track down your family and there will be no more little Rataam babies in the world. Do I make myself clear?" When Smoky played hardball, he didn't hesitate to break heads.

The toadsquatter seemed to realize this was no idle threat. He gulped and nodded.

Smoky let go of his head. "Tell us what you know, then. If it's worth it, we'll pay you for your knowledge."

Rataam ducked his squat head. He really did look very toad-like, and for a moment I felt sorry for him. It was a scary thing to be surrounded by people who could pull you apart. I'd been there. But then he let out a noise-I didn't know what it was and didn't want to-and a vile stench filled the room.

"Oh, dude, that's nasty. Do you have to do that?" I blurted out the words before I could stop myself.

Rataam scowled, but ignored me. Instead, he turned to Camille. "The sorcerer following you is named Iyonah."

Iyonah? We'd had a run-in with the woman recently. Or rather, Camille had. But none of us realized she was anything other than a blip on the radar of "potential issues." That she was following Camille and potentially out to kill her was a step up in the game.

Camille blanched. "Oh, fuck. I knew there was something about her! But how do you know this? How do you even know about me?"

"I only know about her because I was paid to find out. I never heard of you before my employer paid me to look into the matter." Rataam shifted, obviously uncomfortable.

I blinked. Someone had paid the toadsquatter to snoop into Camille's life? That alone was unnerving. Apparently, Camille thought so, too, because she knelt beside him, pale and looking worried.

"And who is your employer?" She took his hand in hers, unleashing her glamour, which immediately seemed to have a calming effect on the creature.

He let out a long breath. "Promise you won't tell them I told you?"

She held up her hand. "On the Moon Mother's honor."

Rataam scuffed his foot on the floor, then shrugged. "Raven Mother. She asked me to find out who was following you, and to warn you."

Startled, Camille withdrew her hand and stood up. Raven Mother could be bad news when she wanted to be, but for some reason, she'd decided to help us out. That didn't mean we could trust her, though. Raven Mother was wily and cunning, and she had so many hidden agendas that our enemies looked like simpletons compared to her.

Camille had been getting to know more about the Elemental than she had ever wanted to know-she had no choice given the way events had been turning. As a result, Menolly and I'd been privy to a number of late-night conversations. Intrigue seemed to run rampant in the whole Raven Mother-Triple Threat-Moon Mother triangle that was going on.

"Did Raven Mother tell you why she wanted you to spy on me?" Camille's eyes flashed-they were a vivid shade of violet, and now silver flecks appeared. No, she wasn't happy, and her magic was rising.

Rataam shook his head. "No, but she made it clear it was important. She threatened to destroy my family if I didn't do what she asked." He sounded so disheartened that I instantly felt guilty for feeling so uncharitable toward him.

Smoky and Camille looked at each other, and she slowly nodded. There was no real way of telling if he was lying, but odds were, Raven Mother hadn't told him what Iyonah wanted. Her motives might be questionable, but she wasn't stupid by any means.

Smoky let out a grumpy sigh. "All right, we will pay you well, but only if you vow on your family's life to keep your mouth shut about everything that's happened. As long as you keep your bargain, we won't tell Raven Mother that you told us it was she who hired you." Smoky nodded to the door. "Come, I'll take you to a portal, pay you, and you can return to Otherworld immediately."

Camille kept her mouth shut until Smoky escorted the creature out. Then she let out a slow whistle. "I should have known Iyonah was up to no good. I think I did, I just didn't realize she was after me."

Irritated that we had to focus on enemies, even on our birthdays, I shook my head and gave her a hug. "Well, we should be able to take care of the matter as long as she remains clueless to the fact that you know about her. We'll go over there tomorrow." I pointed to her presents. "Meanwhile, birthday party."

"You didn't hire a stripper, did you?" She stared at me pointedly.

I blushed, but then swatted her playfully. "No, and I'm not going to turn into a cat and go lunging after the customers tonight either. But can you imagine Smoky walking into the room to find a guy jiggling his junk in your face?"

Trillian meandered over, laughing. "Oh, I'd pay to see that." He, Smoky, and Morio had a good-natured rivalry going on. While they were all married to Camille and she loved each of them with a passion, they still sparred at times. But when push came to shove, they had one another's backs, and together they surrounded her with a ring of protection that sometimes chafed at her.

Feddrah-Dahns spoke up. For a unicorn, his voice was simultaneously melodic and authoritative. "This Iyonah-I will send Mistletoe home right now to do research on her. Don't take her on until we've dug up everything we can. I don't want you in any more danger than you already are. If she's truly a sorcerer, chances are she's fairly powerful. And powerful sorcerers are danger incarnate."

Before Camille could say a word, I interrupted. "She promises. She'll be good and wait. Now, can we go join the party? This is Menolly's special night, and it's also special for Camille. We don't get many celebrations. Please, let's enjoy the ones we can." I pushed Camille toward the door, and for the moment, the issue was shelved.

The party was rocking, the music loud, and the bar crowded. The two large center tables were reserved for our party, but most of the booths were full, as were the counter stools. People had packed the joint, showing their support for Menolly.

In one corner, Marion Vespa-the owner of the Supe-Urban Café-and her husband were ordering drinks. Jonas and his werebear buddies had crowded into a booth and were eating burgers and fries, along with giant steins of beer. At a table near the door, Frank Willows, the leader of the Supe Militia, was holding court with three other werewolves.

And, of course, Roman, the son of the Vampire Queen, sat in the most luxurious booth, along with several of the higher-ups from the Seattle Vampire Nexus. Menolly was his official consort, and boy, did she walk a tight wire between her wife and Roman. All in all, the bar was crowded. The look on Menolly's face made me happy. She'd expected people to ostracize her after what happened, but truth was: none of it was her fault. Maybe tonight would drive that through her thick skull.

As we gathered around the tables, Jenny brought over the cake. Camille winked at her, and the girl, flustered, stuttered out a "Happy Birthday" and immediately left.

"Hey, I wanted to order-" Camille laughed. "I'm going to have to do something to put Jenny at ease, it seems." She stood up, looking over at the bar.

I motioned for her to sit down. "You're the birthday girl. I'll get a waitress. What do you want to drink? Do you want anything to eat?"

"I want a Goblin Blaster and can you order me a grilled cheese and fries? We'll cut the cake while we're waiting for the food." She was eyeing the massive sheet cake like I eyed catnip. Normally Camille didn't go for sweets but Earthside store-bought birthday cake had proven to be a weakness for her.

I motioned to a different waitress and gave her Camille's order, and my own. Grilled cheese sounded good, so I asked for two. As the others ordered their food, I pushed my way up to the bar. Derrick, along with Digger-the assistant bartender, who was a vamp-were mixing drinks as fast as they could.

Derrick winked at me. "What do you need?"

"Camille wants a Goblin Blaster. For me? A Kahlúa and cream, please." I didn't drink a lot, but when I did, I preferred my booze with something to soften the impact.

He raised an eyebrow. "She wants a Goblin Blaster? We don't get much call for those. They're an acquired taste, that's for sure." As he began mixing up the basil liqueur with orange juice and both light and dark rum, the drink took on an earthy, pungent smell. The drink almost glowed green, and I grimaced. I preferred my drinks sweet. Derrick added a twist of orange to the glass, then whipped
up my Kahlúa and cream, and slid both drinks across the counter. I started to thank him but he had already moved on to his next order.

I picked up the drinks and carried them back to the table, handing Camille's to her. She took a long sip and closed her eyes. Something about the basil and orange really appealed to her. Like me, she wasn't much of a drinker, but ever since Menolly had concocted the recipe, Camille had, for the most part, stuck to a standing order.

Over the past few weeks, Menolly had gotten so irritable without the Wayfarer to distract her that she'd turned her lair into a makeshift bar and had managed to get just about everyone in the house drunk at one point or another, experimenting with new recipes. The upside was, the drink menu at the Wayfarer had increased by at least fifty percent.

While we waited for the food, Camille cut the cake. The frosting was an inch thick and my taste buds were doing a happy dance on my tongue. Camille's favorite flavors were strawberry and lemon, so the cake was strawberry with lemon icing. There were chocolate cupcakes for those whose tastes ran to the more traditional, but I wasn't picky. If it was cake, I'd eat it. And I did. Two pieces of cake and three cupcakes.

Menolly climbed on the counter and whistled to the bar. "Listen up! Tonight's not just the reopening of the Wayfarer, but it's also my sister Camille's birthday, as you may have surmised. We have a lot of cake here, so feel free to drop by our table for a slice. It's free till it's gone."

A general round of applause and a chorus of "Happy Birthday"s rang through the bar as I settled in beside Camille and Menolly with a sigh of satisfaction. Despite the toadsquatter, everything had gone off without a hitch.

A little voice in the back of my head kept whispering, Don't let down your guard, but I was tired of always being on alert. I decided, what the hell, for once I'd ignore the warning and let down my hair. That was more than a cliché. I actually could let down my hair more than usual, because I'd started growing it back in. I was sporting a chin-length shag. Shade liked it, and while I wasn't sure I'd ever grow it long again, it was fun for a change.

I downed the Kahlúa and cream and got a second, then a third round of drinks for Camille and myself. A fourth followed shortly.

The volume of noise had risen to a steady buzz now as more people crowded into the bar, and I blinked, realizing that I wasn't following any particular conversation, but instead, I just sat back, taking it all in.

Menolly was beaming. Another round of drinks later, and the party was growing louder.

Wild Cherry came over the speakers, singing "Play That Funky Music." Nerissa grabbed Menolly's hand and dragged her up to dance. Nerissa towered over Menolly in her tawny, werepuma glory, but the two could boogie it up good. In a skintight hot pink minidress, with golden hair and gold sparkling heels that sent her over six feet tall, Nerissa was a striking sight.

Camille and Trillian followed, spinning onto the dance floor in all their fetish goth-glory. Dark and vampy, they made one hell of a pair. I blinked. Trillian cut a damn fine figure, now that I looked at him through my Kahlúa-colored eyes. The song shifted to "Super Freak" by Rick James, then it was fully into retro city with "Electric Avenue," followed by "She Blinded Me with Science," then "Whip It," and of course, "Safety Dance."

I polished off my drink and grabbed Shade's hand. "Dance with me."

He blinked. I danced, but it wasn't a common request, considering I preferred curling up on the sofa with television and junk food.

"Are you sure, babe? You look a little flushed." His voice sounded huskier than usual and I wanted nothing more than to press up against him.

I glanced down at the glasses on the table, counting them. Apparently, I'd had seven rounds, not four like I thought. But though my mind was a little fuzzy, more than anything, I wanted to dance with my lover.

"Dance. Now!"

We whirled out on the dance floor, but I whirled a little too enthusiastically and would have gone toppling over except that Shade had a tight grip on my hand. He pulled me back into his arms and we began shaking it up to "Elevator Man" by Oingo Boingo.

But as Shade spun me around, I began to realize that maybe I was really was a tad drunk. Booze hit my system overly fast and I hadn't planned on having seven drinks-that was for sure. Not entirely certain what I was doing, I just attempted to stay on my feet. I probably should have asked Shade to take me back to the table, but I was so light-headed I couldn't seem to form the words.

The next minute, none of that mattered.

The door burst open and Daniel, our Earthside FBH cousin, darted inside, followed by what looked like a very angry Viking. The muscle-bound man wearing the leather breeches and tunic grabbed Daniel by the collar and lifted him over his head.

Shade let go of my hand and I was so startled that I tripped back into the crowd, taking down a couple of vampires who were dancing. We hit the floor as Daniel sailed across the room, the Viking tossing him like a Scotsman tossing a log in the Highland Games.

As Daniel landed in a shuddering heap by my side, Camille darted toward the northern intruder, but the man took one look at her, then at the rest of the bar, and vanished from sight, as if he'd never existed.

COLLAPSE

Playlist

AJ Roach: Devil May Dance

Android Lust: Saint Over, Here and Now, God in the Hole,

Awolnation: Sail

Black Angels, The: The Return, You on the Run, Evil Things, Black isn't Black, Young Men Dead, Manipulation, Phosphene Dream

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Feel it Now

Bravery, The: Believe

Broken Bells: The Ghost Inside, The Hight Road

Crazy Town: Butterfly

Cure, The: From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea; The Hanging Garden

Death Cab For Cutie: I Will Possess Your Heart

Eastern Sun: Beautiful Being

Eels: Souljacker Part 1

Faun: Iduna, Hymn to Pan, Arcadia, Sieben, Rad

Feeling, The: Sewn

Foster the People: Pumped Up Kicks

Garbage: Queer, #1 Crush, I Think I'm Paranoid,

Gary Numan: I Am Dust; Here in the Black; Everything Comes Down To This; A Shadow Falls on Me, Splinter, Haunted, Melt, Cars (re-mix), Petals

Godsmack: Voodoo

In Strict Confidence: Silver Bullets, Snow White, Tiefer, Silver Tongues

Kyuss: Space Cadet

Lady Gaga: Teeth, I Like it Rough, Paparazzi

Ladytron: Destroy Everything You Touch, I'm Not Scared, Ghosts, Black Cat

Mark Lanegan: Methamphetamine Blues; Phantasmagoria Blues; Gravedigger's Song; Riot in My House, Black Pudding, Pentacostal

Morcheeba: Even Though

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Red Right Hand, Ain't Gonna Rain Anymore

REM: Drive

Screaming Trees: Where The Twain Shall Meet, Dime Western, Gospel Plow

Stone Temple Pilots: Sour Girl, Atlanta

Tamaryn: While You're Sleeping, I'm Dreaming, Violet's in a Pool, The Waves, Afterlight, Transcendent Blue

Tom Petty: Mary Jane's Last Dance

Verve, The: Bitter Sweet Symphony

Voxhaul Broadcast: You Are the Wilderness

Warchild: Ash

Zero 7: In the Waiting Line

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