Lila Crane sauntered through the creaky door of Porter’s Tavern like a goddamn queen. She stood in the entryway, the blue and red neon “Open” sign reflecting in her lavender eyes. She didn’t move, waiting for the sea of bodies to spread in her wake. I wished for once her expectations wouldn’t be met. That she’d finally experience disappointment, but a beautiful bitch like her always got what she wanted.
Youthful, beautiful—and a soul blacker than coal.
Her arrival could only mean one thing: his fucking majesty was summoning me again.
Not that Bastian Marquis was actual royalty. Well, technically, the ancient Fae could’ve been, but I didn’t have the slightest idea. It was just the nickname I’d given him. He certainly acted like it, and of course, he’d chosen Lila as his messenger. My severe distaste for the woman seemed to fuel his desire to send her.
Everyone assumed if supernaturals existed, they lived in glamorous, mysterious cities like New York or London. But the truth was, hiding out in the least obvious places gave them the freedom to do as they chose. No one cares about what happens to a shitty little town in the middle of the Southern California desert. Especially in Shelton Sea, a desert town whose name mocked its total lack of water.
Here, they owned the world. They were each gods—and I an unwilling minion.
Instead of heading straight for me, Lila detoured left toward the back side of the bar. She rarely handled other business when she was sent to summon me. I pitied the idiot who’d been foolish enough to get caught up in Bastian’s schemes willingly.
A legendary UFC matchup and cheap beer had packed the regulars into Porter’s, every seat in the house taken by the weary, the drunk, or the apathetic. At the edge of the bar sat Lester Simmons and his girlfriend, Winnie; a couple who loved to fight as much as they loved to . . . well . . . you get the idea. They bickered constantly and fought often. Who needed cable TV when those two were around?
Flirt, fight, screw, repeat. Their never-ending routine.
Winnie was in rare form tonight. Her target? A leggy red-headed tourist who’d been unfortunate enough to catch Lester’s surly, six-beers-deep gaze. She didn’t welcome the attention, but she sure as hell had it.
In my two years at Porter’s, I'd learned to tune out the drunken yelling, but it didn’t blind me to it. I pulled the tap, filling a scuffed pitcher with pale maple lager, as both women's voices raised over the classic rock from the speakers above. Winnie had a good fifty pounds on the redhead, who’d shrunk away in an attempt to make herself invisible. Fat chance. The Amazonian blonde cornered her against the bar, jabbing a finger into the other woman's chest.
I glanced around for Clive or Porter, the two men whose job it was to intervene on occasions such as these.
Even through the masses, Clive’s dusty cinnamon hair stood out. His official position? Designated bouncer. But more times than not, he was too busy trying to get laid to notice—or care. At present, he leaned across the pool table, attempting to demonstrate a pocket shot to his ex. The devil himself could ride down on a flaming steed and still, Clive wouldn’t move.
I scanned the crowd, searching for Porter’s signature black cowboy hat. At six-foot-four, I’d easily be able to see it above the other, average-sized, humans, but it was nowhere in sight. He must have still been restocking the basement.
Their absence left Violet, Jade, or myself. There was no way in hell I'd let my sisters get involved in any of this crap. As the oldest, it was my job to protect them from the enemies they didn't even know they had, including stupid humans who couldn’t hold their liquor.
We were forever changed since it happened to us, but it didn’t eliminate the humanity within our hearts. It was our greatest strength and our eternal weakness. We each had a unique set of “gifts,” as Bastian called them, bestowed upon us, but I remained the strongest. Specifically, thanks to a special present he’d saved only for me. A secret I had yet to divulge to my sisters.
Glass shattered across the bar, and I sighed. Porter didn't mind the arguments. Hell, they were a part of day-to-day business, but he never allowed altercations on fight nights. The cops would undoubtedly get called, and the fire chief would shut us down if we broke capacity rules again.
Neither Porter's wallet, nor my tips, could afford it.
I slammed the pitcher down onto the counter and crossed the bar. We couldn't risk drawing any more attention than we already had, especially from the other supernaturals. If they knew what we were, what Bastian had made us into, they'd be clamoring to get their hands on us.
Half-breed creatures. No longer human but not born into the supernatural world. Made. Created.
“Enough.” I caught Winnie's calloused fist in my hand, stopping her from bashing the terrified tourist.
Any other woman—or man—would have been too intimidated by her massive frame and sheer attitude. Not me. I had the strength of ten men, maybe more, and unmatched speed.
Winnie’s glossy, ruby-tinged eyes bugged out as they flashed to her enormous hand locked in mine. “What the hell?”
She tried to pull herself free, but her efforts were in vain. Getting out of my grip, especially when I wanted you there, was an impossibility.
"You know the rules on fight night, Winnie." I kept my tone low. Unlike most of the brawlers in this craptastic town, I didn’t like to advertise my abilities.
She made a second attempt to remove my hand, without result. "This little slut’s trying to make a move on my man."
Untrue, but you can't argue with stupid.
She jutted her jaw toward the woman cornered and cowering a few feet away. “You expect me to do nothing?”
I took my other hand and turned Winnie toward the door. "Time for you to go."
"LikehellI'mgoin'." The words slurred into one another, and she stepped into my space, a sign she was prepared to take this to the next level.
Too bad for her. I was, too.
“I’m not gonna ask again, sweetie.” My fingers crunched down onto her knuckles, the pressure just a flex of my wrist from breaking them.
"Shit!" she screamed as she tried to claw her way out of my steely grip.
I met her eyes, and only for a moment, I let the creature inside flash to the surface. As soon as I released my hold on her, she jumped away. Her normally pink face was ashen and sweat-covered.
“What the fuck?” Her eyes widened as she looked me over. The question in her stare: How had I managed to get one over on her?
I waited, expecting to go another round, but for once, she surprised me. Winnie stormed off through the crowd, Lester trailing behind her like a groveling dog.
Violet grinned at me from across the bar, and I gave her a wink. Too often, I had to keep my abilities under wraps. When I did release them, which wasn’t often, my entire body radiated with a sense of peace.
Our powers simmered within us like a pot of rapidly boiling water, waiting to break free and flow over. I looked to Jade and smiled, only to have my humor instantly fade. Her expression the exact opposite of Vi’s—concern laced with tension and fear.
I'd put myself at risk.
Us at risk.
More than anything in this world, I hated disappointing my sisters. And I would do anything to avoid it, but I have a code I live by, and I don’t veer from it. Number one on my list? I don’t believe in living in fear. Only in awareness.
Lester and Winnie were drunk off their asses and so were the other patrons. They wouldn't have the slightest recollection of what happened by the time tomorrow morning’s hangover set in. Aside from wounded pride, no real harm had been done.
A hand softly tapped my shoulder, and I turned from my sister. The meek redhead who’d been seconds from getting her face pummeled stood and squeezed between two stocky bikers to reach me. “Thank you,” she said, her eyes glazed over in some kind of heroic appreciation for what I'd just done.
I hated when this happened. Why did humans always get the wrong idea?
"Don't thank me. I didn't do it for you." I grabbed her jacket off the counter and tossed it into her arms. The leather cuffs smacked her in the face. "Move on."
Her mouth hung slack as she froze in place. Perhaps she expected to hear an apology for my abrasive behavior—which wasn’t going to happen. I stood there, returning her stare with one of my own, until she shook her head and left.
I’m not a dick. Honestly. But I don't have time to be anyone’s hero. My job is to save my sisters from this life. No more. No less.
So far, I'd been able to buy Jade and Violet time. Time to live freely without being held to Bastian's constant call. I'd been doing his dirty work for the last five years, but I know their time is wearing thin. Soon, he'll summon them, just as he did me. Not something I wanted for them, or would allow to happen.
As Bastian returned to my thoughts, so did Lila. She slid into the newly vacant seat in front of me. A humorous smile lingered on her lips from watching my altercation.
"Ivy." She lifted Lester’s abandoned glass of clear liquid and tossed it back with ease. "Bastian wishes to see you."
"Of course he does."
Bastian, my supernatural sovereign, and the ever-constant pain in my ass, had a penchant for choosing the worst times to call on me. Fight nights were the only time I made any real money. Unlike some people, I needed to work.
"He does know I can't just leave at the drop of a hat, right?"
She raised her eyebrows, giving me a look which said, “Are we really arguing about this again?”
Sometimes it was months, others weeks, but his relentless call came no matter what. The pattern, always the same. Show up at the most inconvenient time, demand my presence with no explanation, and expect unquestioning obedience. I wanted to argue. To say no and screw you, but no wasn't an option.
Stubborn as I may be, even I had to accept the immovable nature of his majesty’s rules.
I wiped the sticky remnants of a margarita from the counter. "I'll be there when my shift ends."
"The car’s waiting outside." She threw down a twenty and stood. "You've got five minutes."
I watched her disappear through the crowd like a ghost shifting through the mist. As quickly as she'd arrived, she’d vanished.
I spun around and faced the liquor just as Porter sidled up beside me. "You all right?"
“Yeah.” I smiled and leaned against the counter. “It’s time again.”
“Damn, I hoped you’d get a longer break.”
Porter knew our circumstances. He'd always protected us, helped us, but there were limits to how far his generosity could go. He'd offered us jobs, a small rental house, and a car. Even more, he offered us security. Something we'd never had. But he also knew when Bastian came calling, you had no choice but to answer.
As far as I understood, Bastian was the top of the supernaturals, at least for our area. Who knew where he stood in the larger scheme of things. Of course I didn’t care. I wasn’t interested in getting to know any more of these assholes than I had to.
“You’d better get to it then. He doesn’t like to wait.” Porter ushered me off, and I slipped into the back office to grab my keys and wallet.
On the way, I stopped in the hallway, my gaze captured by the orange-tinged profile reflected in the mirror. Bastian’s experiment had left me the same as before—and yet completely altered. I placed my palms flat against the glass and studied the woman staring back at me. I looked harmless enough but, as they say, looks can be deceiving.
She—it—stirred in there. Somewhere deep inside of me.
I continued to regard my face, searching for the creature I’d become. The creature Bastian had made me. He tried often to soften my feelings and turn my hatred of this new world into acceptance, but I couldn’t be swayed. In my mind, none of the supernaturals were innocent. Their entire world was responsible for our predicament. They robbed my sisters and me of a future. Of normal lives. Relationships. Children.
Humans were the puppets. The pets of the otherworld. Bastian kept waiting for me to see and accept it, but I couldn’t. No matter how long ago we'd lost our humanity, I'd never side with these creatures. Even if it cost me my life.