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Wildfire by Ilona Andrews (1)

When life hits you in the gut, it’s always a sucker punch. You never see it coming. One moment you’re walking along, worrying your little worries and making quiet plans, and the next you’re rolled into a ball, trying to hug yourself against the pain, frantic and reeling, your mind a jumble of scared thoughts.

A Christmas wreath hung on our door. I paused with my hand above the lock’s keypad. That’s right. Today was Christmas. This morning I was at a mountain lodge playing in the snow with the most dangerous man in Houston. Then Rogan’s surveillance expert texted him, and now here I stood, six hours later, my hair a mess, my clothes rumpled from being under a heavy jacket, in front of the warehouse that served as my family’s home. I would have to go inside and break the ugly news, and nobody would like what was going to happen next. With everything that had happened, we had agreed not to exchange gifts this year. Not only had I missed Christmas Eve, but I was about to deliver one hell of a terrible present.

The main thing was not to panic. If I panicked, my sisters and my cousins would panic too. And my mother would do her best to talk me out of the only logical solution to our crisis. I’d managed to keep a lid on my emotions all the way from the lodge to the airport, during the flight on the private jet, and through the helicopter ride from the plane to the landing pad four blocks away. But now all my fears and stress were boiling over.

I took a deep breath. Around me the street was busy. Not as busy as it had been a few days ago, when I was helping Cornelius Harrison, an animal mage and now an employee of the Baylor Investigative Agency, find out who murdered his wife, Nari, but still busy. Rogan’s views on security were rather draconian. He was in love with me, and had decided that my home wasn’t assault-proof, and so he’d bought two square miles of industrial real estate around our warehouse and turned it into his own private military base.

Everyone wore civilian clothes, but they weren’t fooling anyone. Rogan’s people had all gone through armed forces in one way or another, and they didn’t wander or stroll. They moved from point A to point B with a definite goal in mind. They kept their clothes clean, their hair short, and they called Rogan Major. When we made love, I called him Connor.

A dry popping sound came from the street. The memory of snapping David Howling’s neck gripped me. I heard the crunch his bones made as I twisted his head to the side. In my mind, I saw him fall as I let go, and panic drowned me. I let it wash over me and waited for it to recede. Finding Nari’s killer had been an ugly and brutal mess, and at the end I watched Olivia Charles, the woman who had murdered her, be eaten alive by a swarm of rats as Cornelius sang, mourning his wife. I relived her death in my dreams almost every night.

I didn’t want to walk back into the world. I just . . . I just wanted a little bit more time.

I made myself look in the direction of the sound. An ex-soldier was coming my way, in his forties, with a scarred face, leading an enormous grizzly bear on a very thin leash. The bear wore a harness that read Sergeant Teddy.

The ex-soldier stretched his left arm and twisted, as if trying to slide the bones back in place. Another dry crunch, sending a fresh jolt of alarm through me. Probably an old injury.

The bear stopped and looked at me.

“Be polite,” the soldier told him. “Don’t worry. He just wants to say hi.”

“I don’t mind.” I stepped closer to the bear. The massive beast leaned over to me and smelled my hair.

“Can I pet him?”

The soldier looked at Sergeant Teddy. The bear made a low short noise.

“He says you can.”

I reached over and carefully petted the big shaggy neck.

“What’s his story?”

“Someone thought it would be a good idea to make very smart magic bears and use them in combat,” the ex-soldier said. “Problem is, once you make someone smart, they become self-aware and call you on your bullshit. Sergeant Teddy is a pacifist. The leash is just for show so people don’t freak out. Major bought him a couple of years ago. Major is of the opinion that fighting in a war shouldn’t be forced on those who are morally opposed to it, human or bear.”

“But you’re still here,” I told the bear.

He snorted and looked at me with chocolate-brown eyes.

“We offered him a very nice private property up in Alaska,” the ex-soldier said. “But he doesn’t like it. He says he gets bored. He mostly hangs out with us, eats cereal that’s bad for him, and watches cartoons on Saturdays. And movies. He loves The Jungle Book.”

I waited for the familiar buzz of my magic that told me he was pulling my leg, but none came.

Sergeant Teddy rose on his hind legs, blocking out the sun, and put his shaggy front paws around me. My face pressed into fur. I hugged him back. We stood for a moment, then the grizzly dropped down and proceeded on his walk, his leash dangling on the ground.

I looked at the ex-soldier.

“He must’ve felt you needed a hug,” he said. “He stays in HQ most of the time, so you can come and visit him.”

“I will,” I told him.

The ex-soldier nodded and followed the bear.

I punched my code into the lock. I had been hugged by a giant, superintelligent, pacifist bear. I could do this. I could do anything. I just had to walk in and call for a family meeting. It was almost dinnertime anyway. On a Sunday, everyone would be home.

I opened the door and walked into the small office space that housed Baylor Investigative Agency. A short hallway, three offices on the left, and a break room and conference room on the right. The temptation to hide in my office almost made me stop, but I kept going, through the hallway, to the other door that opened into the roughly three-thousand-square-foot space that served as our home. When we sold our house trying to raise money for my father’s hospital bills, we moved our family into the warehouse to cut costs. We’d split the floor space into three distinct sections: the office, the living space, and beyond it, past a very tall wall, Grandma Frida’s motor pool, where she worked on armored vehicles and mobile artillery for Houston’s magical elite.

I took off my shoes and marched through the maze of rooms. Garlands hung on the walls. My sisters had been busy decorating.

Faint voices came from the kitchen. Mom . . . Grandma. Good. This would save me time.

I walked past a big Christmas tree set up in the hang-out room, stepped into the kitchen, and froze.

My mother and grandmother sat at our table. A young woman sat next to my grandmother. She was willowy and beautiful, with a heart-shaped face framed in waves of gorgeous red hair and eyes so grey, they looked silver.

Ice gripped my spine.

Rynda Charles. Rogan’s ex-fiancée. Olivia’s daughter.

“Do you remember me?” she asked. Her voice was breaking. Her eyes were bloodshot, her face so pale, her lips seemed almost white. “You killed my mother.”

Somehow my mouth made words. “What are you doing here?”

Rynda wiped the tears from her eyes and stared at me, her face desperate. “I need your help.”

 

I opened my mouth. Nothing came out.

Mom made big eyes at me and nodded toward the table. I dropped my bag on the floor and sat.

“Drink your tea.” Grandma Frida pushed a steaming mug toward Rynda.

Rynda picked it up and drank it, but her gaze was fixed on me. The desperation in her eyes turned to near panic. Right.

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath from the stomach all the way up, held it, and let it out slowly. One . . . two . . . Calm . . . calm . . .

“Nevada?” Grandma Frida asked.

“She’s an empath Prime,” I said. “I’m upset, so it’s affecting her.”

Rynda gave a short laugh, and I heard Olivia Charles in her voice. “Oh, that’s rich.”

Five . . . six . . . Breathe in, breathe out . . . Ten. Good enough.

I opened my eyes and looked at Rynda. I had to keep my voice and my emotions under control. “Your mother killed an entire crew of Rogan’s soldiers and four lawyers, including two women your age. It was an unprovoked slaughter. Their husbands are now widowers and their children are motherless because of her.”

“A person is never just one thing,” Rynda said, putting the mug down. “To you she might have been a monster, but to me she was my mother. She was a wonderful grandmother to my children. She loved them so much. My mother-in-law doesn’t care for them. They have no grandparents now.”

“I’m sorry for your and their loss. I regret that things went the way they did. But it was a justified kill.” Dear God, I sounded like my mother.

“I don’t even know how she died.” Rynda clenched her hands into a single fist. “They only gave me back her bones. How did my mother die, Nevada?”

I took a deep breath. “It wasn’t an easy or a quick death.”

“I deserve to know.” There was steel in her voice. “Tell me.”

“No. You said you needed my help. Something terrible must’ve happened. Let’s talk about that.”

Her hand shook, and the mug danced a little as she brought it to her lips. She took another swallow of her tea. “My husband is missing.”

Okay. Missing husband. Familiar territory. “When was the last time you saw . . .” Rogan had said his name one time, what was it? “. . . Brian?”

“Three days ago. He went to work on Thursday and didn’t come back. He doesn’t answer his phone. Brian likes his routine. He’s always home by dinner. It’s Christmas Day. He wouldn’t miss it.” A note of hysteria crept into her voice. “I know what you’ll ask: does he have a mistress, did we have a good marriage, does he disappear on drunken binges? No. No, he doesn’t. He takes care of me and the kids. He comes home!”

She must’ve spoken to the Houston PD. “Did you fill out a missing person report?”

“Yes. They’re not going to look for him.” Her voice turned bitter. She was getting more agitated by the minute. “He’s a Prime. It’s House business. Except House Sherwood is convinced that Brian is okay and he’s just taking a break. Nobody is looking for him, except me. Nobody is returning my calls. Even Rogan refuses to see me.”

That didn’t sound right. Rogan would never turn her away, even if I pitched a huge fit about it. I’d watched the two of them talking before. He liked her and he cared about her. “What did Rogan say exactly?”

“I came to him on Friday. His people told me he was out. He was out on Saturday too. I asked to wait, and they told me it was a waste of time. They didn’t know when he would be back. I may be naive, but I’m not an idiot. I know what that means. Two weeks ago, I had friends. I had my mother’s friends, powerful, respected, and always so eager to do Olivia Charles a favor. Two weeks ago, one phone call and half of the city would be out looking for Brian. They would be putting pressure on the police, on the mayor, on the Texas Rangers. But now, everyone is out. Everyone is too busy to see me. There is an invisible wall around me. No matter how loud I scream, nobody can hear me. People just nod and offer platitudes.”

“He didn’t stonewall you,” I said. “He was out of state. With me.”

She stopped. “You’re together?”

There was no point in lying. “Yes.”

“The thing with my mother, it wasn’t just a job for you?”

“No. She killed the wife of a man I consider a friend. He works here now.”

Rynda put her hand over her mouth.

Silence fell, heavy and tense.

“I shouldn’t have come here,” she said. “I’ll get the children and go.”

“That’s right,” Grandma Frida said.

“No,” Mom said. I knew that voice. That was Sergeant Mom voice. Rynda knew that voice too, because she sat up straighter. Olivia Charles was never in the military, but three minutes of talking to her had told me that she had ruled her household with an iron fist and had a very low tolerance for nonsense.

“You’re here now,” Mom said. “You came to us for help, because you had nowhere to turn and because you’re scared for your husband and your children. You came to the right place. Nevada is very good at tracking missing people. Either she’ll help you, or she will recommend someone who will.”

Grandma Frida turned and looked at Mom as if she had sprouted a pineapple on her head.

“Right,” I said. I may not have personally murdered Rynda’s mother, but I made that death possible. And now she was a pariah, alone and scared. She had lost her mother, her husband, and all of the people she thought were her friends. I had to help her. I had to at least get her started in the right direction.

“Can I talk to the two of you for a damn minute?” Grandma Frida growled.

“One moment,” I told Rynda and got up.

Grandma grabbed my arm with one hand, grabbed Mom’s wrist with her other hand, and dragged us down the hallway all the way to the end, as far from the kitchen as we could get.

“Children?” I glanced at Mom.

“Your sisters are watching them. A boy and a girl.”

“Have the two of you lost your damn minds?” Grandma Frida hissed.

“She isn’t lying,” I said. “Her husband is really gone.”

“I expect that of her!” Grandma Frida pointed at me with her thumb, while glaring at my mother. “But you ought to know better, Penelope.”

“That woman is at the end of her rope,” Mom said. “How much do you think it cost her to come here? This is what we do. We help people like her.”

“Exactly!” Grandma Frida hissed. “She’s at the end of her rope. She’s beautiful, rich, helpless, and she’s desperately looking for someone to save her. And she’s Rogan’s ex-fiancée. There is no way Rogan and Rynda won’t be spending time together if Nevada takes this case.”

I stared at her.

“She’s a man magnet.” Grandma Frida balled her hands into fists. “They eat that helpless rescue-me crap up. Her husband has been gone for three days. If he hasn’t run off, he’s probably dead. She’ll need consoling. She’ll be looking for a shoulder to cry on, a big strong shoulder. Do I need to spell it out? You’re about to serve your boyfriend to her on a silver platter!”

Rynda was very beautiful and very helpless. I wanted to help her. I knew Rogan would too.

“It’s not like that. He broke off their engagement.”

Grandma Frida shook her head. “You told me they knew each other for years, since they were little kids. That kind of thing doesn’t just go away. Rogan’s people know it too; that’s why they didn’t give her any information. You’re playing with fire, Nevada. Cut her loose. Let somebody else take care of her. She’s a Prime. She’s rich. She isn’t your problem, unless you make her your problem.”

I looked at Mom.

“Third rule,” she said.

When Dad and Mom started the agency, they had only three rules: first, once we were paid, we stayed bought; second, we did everything we could to not break the law; and third, at the end of the day, we had to be able to look our reflection in the eye. I could live with Olivia’s death. I had nightmares about it, but it was justified. Throwing Rynda out now, when she sat at our kitchen table, was beyond me. Where would she go?

“If Rynda’s crying will make Rogan break up with me, then our relationship wouldn’t last anyway.”

Most of me believed the words that came out of my mouth, but a small, petty part didn’t. That was okay. I was human, and I was entitled to a little bit of insecurity. But I was damned if I let it dictate my actions.

“Thank you, Grandma, but I’ve got it.”

Grandma Frida threw her hands up in disgust. “When your heart breaks, don’t come crying to me.”

“I will anyway.” I hugged her.

“Egh . . .” She made a show of trying to knock me off, then hugged me back.

I opened the door to the office and started down the hallway toward my desk and laptop that waited on it.

“It’s James,” Grandma Frida said mournfully behind me. “He ruined all of my practical grandchildren with his altruism.”

Mom didn’t answer. Dad had been dead seven years, but hearing his name still hurt her. It still hurt me.

 

I grabbed the laptop, a notepad, and the new client folder just in case, walked back into the kitchen, sat down at the table, and opened my laptop. A few keystrokes told me Bern was home and online.

I fired off a quick email. Please send me the basics on Brian Sherwood ASAP. I set the laptop aside and switched to the writing pad and a pen. People minded notes on paper a lot less than a laptop or being recorded, and I needed Rynda to relax. She was already keyed up.

“Let’s start at the beginning.”

“You don’t like me,” Rynda said. “I felt it back when we first met in the ballroom. You were jealous of me.”

“Yes.” That’s what I get for deciding to take on an empath as a client.

“And when you walked in and saw me, you felt pity and fear.”

“Yes.”

“But you are going to help me anyway. Why? It’s not guilt. Guilt is like plunging into a dark well. I would’ve felt that.”

“You tell me.”

Her eyes narrowed. Magic brushed me, feather-light. “Compassion,” she said quietly. “And duty. Why would you feel a sense of duty toward me?”

“Have you ever held a job?”

She frowned. “No. We don’t need the extra money.”

That must be nice. “Do you have any hobbies? Any passions?”

“I . . . make sculptures.”

“Do you sell them?”

“No. They’re nothing spectacular. I’ve never participated in any exhibits.”

“Then why do you keep making them?”

She blinked. “It makes me happy.”

“Being a private investigator makes me happy. I’m not just doing it for the money. I’m doing it because sometimes I get to help people. Right now, you need help.”

The laptop clicked. A new email, from Bern, popped into my inbox. Brian Sherwood, 32, second son of House Sherwood, Prime, herbamagos. Principal business: Sherwood BioCore. Estimated personal worth: $30 million. Wife: Rynda (Charles), 29. Children: Jessica, 6, and Kyle, 4. Siblings: Edward Sherwood, 38, Angela Sherwood, 23.

Brian Sherwood was a plant mage. Rynda was an empath with a secondary telekenetic talent. That didn’t add up. Primes usually married within their branch of magic. As Rogan once eloquently explained to me in his falling-on-his-sword speech, preserving and increasing magic within the family drove most of their marriage decisions.

I looked back to her. “I don’t know yet if I’m your best option. It may be that you would be better served by a different agency. But before we talk about any of that, walk me through your Thursday. You woke up. Then what happened?”

She focused. “I got up. Brian was already awake. He’d taken a shower. I made breakfast and fixed the lunches for him and the kids.”

“Do you fix their lunches every day?”

“Yes. I like doing it.”

Brian Sherwood, worth thirty million dollars, took a brown-bag lunch his wife made to work every day. Did he eat it or throw it in the trash? That was the question.

“Brian kissed me and told me he would be home at the usual time.”

“What time is that?”

“Six o’clock. I said we’d be having cubed steak for dinner. He asked if fries were involved.”

She choked on a sob.

“Who took Jessica to school?”

She glanced at me, surprised. “How did you know her name?”

“My cousin pulled your public records.” I turned the laptop so she could see.

She blinked. “My whole life in one paragraph.”

“Keep going,” I told her. “How did Jessica get to school?”

“Brian dropped her off. I took Kyle on a walk.”

Lie.

“I called Brian around lunch. He answered.”

Truth.

“What did you talk about?”

“Nothing serious.”

Lie.

“I’m not your enemy. It would help if you were honest with me. Let’s try this again. Where did you and Kyle go and what was the phone call about?”

She set her lips into a flat, hard line.

“Everything you tell me now is confidential. It isn’t privileged, like conversations with your attorney, which means I will have to disclose it in a court proceeding. But short of that, it won’t go anywhere.”

She covered her face with her hands, thought about it for a long moment, and exhaled. “Kyle’s magic hasn’t manifested. I manifested by two, Brian manifested by four months, Jessica manifested at thirteen months. Kyle is almost five. He’s late. We’re taking him to a specialist. I always call Brian after every session, because he wants to know how Kyle did.”

For a Prime, a child with no magic would be devastating. Rogan’s voice popped into my head. You think you won’t care about it, but you will. Think of your children and having to explain that their talents are subpar, because you have failed to secure a proper genetic match.

“Your anxiety spiked. Why? Was it something I said? Is the specialist important?”

“I don’t know yet.” She would be a really difficult client. She registered every emotional twitch I made. “Did Kyle manifest?”

“No.”

“What happened next?”

She sighed and went through her day. She picked up Jessica, fed the kids, then they read books and watched cartoons together. She made dinner, but Brian didn’t show. She called his cell several times over the next two hours and finally called his brother. Edward Sherwood was still at work. He had happened to look out the window when Brian had left at his usual time and remembered watching him get into his car. Just to be sure, Edward walked down to Brian’s office and reported that it was empty. He also called down to the front desk, and the guard confirmed that Brian had signed out, left the building a quarter before six, and didn’t return.

“How far is your house from Sherwood’s BioCore?”

“It’s a ten-minute drive. We live in Hunters Creek Village. BioCore is at Post Oak Circle, near the Houstonian Hotel. It’s three and a half miles down Memorial Drive. Even with heavy traffic, he’s usually home in fifteen minutes.”

“Did Edward mention if Brian was planning to make any stops?”

“He didn’t know. He said he wasn’t aware of any meetings scheduled that afternoon.”

“Did he sound concerned?”

She shook her head. “He said he was sure Brian would show up. But I knew something was wrong. I just knew.”

All the standard things someone does when their loved one is missing followed: calls to hospitals and police stations, driving the route to look for the stranded car, talking with people at his work, calling other family members asking if they heard anything, and so on.

“He didn’t come home,” she said, her voice dull. “In the morning I called Edward. He told me not to worry. He said Brian had seemed tense lately and that he would turn up. I told him I would file the police report. He said that he didn’t feel there was a need for it, but if it would make me feel better, I should file it.”

“How did he seem to you?”

“He seemed concerned for me.”

Interesting. “For you? Not for Brian?”

“For me and the kids.”

“And Brian has never done anything like this before?”

She didn’t answer.

“Rynda?”

“He disappears sometimes when he’s stressed,” she said quietly. “He used to. But not for the last three years and never this long. You have to understand, Brian isn’t a coward, he just needs stability. He likes when things are calm.”

That explained why his brother didn’t immediately sound the alarm and bring all hands on deck. “Can you tell me more about it? The last time he disappeared?”

“It was after Kyle’s one-year birthday party. Edward asked him if Kyle manifested, and Brian told him no. Then Joshua, Brian’s father—he died a year later—said that Brian and I better get on with making another one, because Jessica is an empath like me, and a dud can’t lead the family.”

He called his grandson a dud. Ugh.

“Thank you,” Rynda said.

“For what?”

“For your disgust. Brian’s anxiety spiked. I felt an intense need to escape coming from him, so I told them that it was late and the children were tired. The family left. Brian didn’t come back to bed. He got into his car and drove off. He came home the next evening. That was the longest he had ever disappeared during our marriage.”

“Did he say where he went?”

“He said he just drove. He eventually found some small hotel and spent the night there. He came home because he realized that he had no place to go and he missed me and the kids. He would never leave me, and the last time I saw him, he was calm.”

Truth.

I rubbed my forehead. “Did you share this with the police?”

“Yes.”

And they dismissed her as being a hysterical woman whose husband bolted when the pressure became too much.

“Do you have access to Brian’s bank accounts?”

“Yes.” She blinked.

“Can you check if there has been any activity? Has he used his cards in the last few days?”

She grabbed her purse, rummaged through it frantically. “Why didn’t I think of . . .” She pulled the phone out and stabbed at it.

A moment passed. Another.

Her face fell. “No. Nothing.”

“Rynda, did you kill your husband?”

She stared at me.

“I need an answer.”

“No.”

“Do you know what happened to him?”

“No!”

“Do you know where he is?”

“No!”

True on all counts.

“There are several possibilities,” I said. “First, something bad could have happened to Brian as a result of House politics or his job. Second, something traumatic could’ve occurred during the workday on Thursday that caused him to go into hiding. I can look for your husband. Alternatively, I can recommend Montgomery International Investigations.”

When Dad got sick, we’d mortgaged the business to MII, and their owner, Augustine Montgomery, and our family had a complicated history, but that didn’t change the fact that MII was her best bet.

“They are a premier agency, and they are very well equipped to handle things like this. You can afford them. You should be aware that Baylor’s a small firm with a fraction of MII’s resources.”

Rynda sat very still.

Someone pounded down the hallway on small feet.

“Mom!” A small boy ran into the kitchen carrying a piece of paper. He had dark hair and Rynda’s silver eyes. She opened her arms, and he thrust a piece of paper at her. “I drew a tank! They have a tank in their garage!”

Catalina walked into the room, dark-haired, slender, a small smile on her face. “Kyle wanted to show you.”

“That’s a scary tank,” Rynda said.

“Come on.” My sister held out her hand. “I’ll show you more cool stuff.”

Kyle put the paper in front of his mother. “It’s a present for you. I’ll draw one for Dad!” He took off at a run. Catalina sighed and chased him.

Rynda watched him go with an odd look on her face.

“I’ve talked to MII.” She swallowed, and I saw a shadow of her mother’s ruthless logic in her eyes. “Montgomery turned me down.”

Augustine Montgomery declined to get involved. Interesting. I really was her last resort.

“Very well,” I said. “I will look for Brian.”

She shifted in her seat and blurted out. “I want a contract.”

“Okay.”

“I don’t want this to be an act of charity. I want to pay you.”

“That’s fine.”

“I want things defined and professional.”

“As do I.”

“And our relationship is that of a client and service provider.”

“Agreed,” I said.

A door swung open. A thunderstorm appeared behind me and was moving through our house, churning with power and magic. Rogan.

He reached my kitchen and loomed in the doorway, tall, broad-shouldered, his blue eyes dark and his magic wrapped around him like a vicious pet snapping its savage teeth. If I didn’t know him, I would’ve backed away and pulled my gun out.

“Connor!” Rynda jumped up from behind the table, cleared the distance between them, and hugged him.

And jealousy stabbed me right in the heart. He was mine.

Rogan gently put his arms around her, his blue eyes fixed on me. “Are you okay?”

“No.” Rynda choked on a sob. “Brian is missing.”

He was still looking at me. I nodded. Yes. I’m okay.

Rynda pulled away from him. “I didn’t know where to go. I . . .”

“I’m going to take care of it,” I told Rogan.

“Nevada is the best you can get,” he said, his voice perfectly calm.

I checked my laptop: 5:47 p.m. “Rynda, I have some paperwork for you to sign. There are some preliminary things I can do today, but tomorrow I’ll go and knock on BioCore’s doors. It would make things easier for me if you called ahead and advised the family that I’ll be coming by.”

“I’ll come with you,” she said.

“It would be best if I went by myself,” I told her. “People may say things to me that they might not mention in your presence. If I’ll require access to Sherwood family spaces or other restricted areas, I’ll definitely ask you to come with me.”

“What do I do now?” She was looking at Rogan, not at me.

“Sign the paperwork and go home. Brian might call or show up,” Rogan said. “You’re not alone, Rynda. Nevada will help you. I will help you.”

“I hate you for killing my mother,” she told him, her voice strained.

“I know,” he said. “It couldn’t be helped.”

“Everything is falling apart, Connor. How can it all just crumble like that?”

“It’s House life,” he said.

Rynda’s shoulders stooped. She turned to me. “Where do I sign?”

I walked her through the paperwork, fees, and stipulations. She signed and went to collect her children.

Rogan waited until she was out of sight and stepped close to me.

“She’ll need an escort home,” I said. “And someone to watch the house.” There was no telling where this investigation would lead, and extra security was never a bad idea.

“I’ll take care of it,” he said, and kissed me. It was a sudden, hard kiss, fierce and hot. It burned like fire.

We broke apart, and I saw the dragon in his eyes. Rogan was preparing to go to war.

“Your grandmother is in the city,” he said, and pressed a USB drive into my hand. “You must decide tonight.”

He turned and walked away, the memory of his kiss still scorching me.

I took a deep breath and plugged the USB into my laptop.