Orbit Loot

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Chapter One

I awoke slowly, languorously, my still-mostly-sleeping brain registering surprise when my nose smooshed into soft leather rather than sheets. For a second I nearly panicked, before I realized I was nestled into a hugely over-stuffed cushion that was part of a leather sofa. The sofa and the shabby, homemade afghan in which I was cocooned smelled deliciously of lemon polish, cardamom, and just a hint of something more masculine. I knew, then, where I was. Not least because I was soon brushing a few stray dark dog hairs off my face as I rolled over and stretched.

And where is the man himself? I wondered, sitting up to peer around Anyan’s dawn-infused living room. It was only last night that we’d rolled into town from the Alfar Compound. For almost the past month, Anyan and I had been on a desperate hunt to find my mother’s killers and shut down their pseudo- laboratories of torture, culminating in our finally outing Jarl as the menace he truly was. As tended to happen when I visited the Alfar Compound, a huge melee ensued, and the Alfar king, Orin, had been murdered by none other than his loving wife, Morrigan. Turns out the queen had been tupping her husband’s second and brother, the even nastier than previously assumed Jarl.

During the chaos of the fight, Jarl and Morrigan escaped. So not only were the bad guys on the lam, but the Territory had been left leaderless until Anyan suggested they make like humans and vote on a new leader. Next thing I knew, my former lover, Ryu, and his favorite nemesis, Nyx, found themselves tied as interim leaders of their Territory.

Much to my delight, I also discovered that Anyan did not want to stay in the Compound. Instead, he wanted to return to Rockabill. With me.

Where I thought we would make sweaty monkey lovin’, I groused, sighing as I stretched out legs tight from the previous night’s ride back to Eastport on Anyan’s motorcycle.

Instead, all my fantasies of playing ‘hide the Milk-Bone’ had been scuppered when, on the way home, we’d run into Blondie. The tattooed enigma had been shadowing me, saving my life quite a few times over the course of our recent shenanigans. We didn’t know who she was, or what she wanted, but last night she’d let us know she was an Original: powerful, ancient, and supposedly a myth.

‘And a total cock-blocker,’ I grumbled to myself as I stood, slowly and stiffly, before shuffling off to dig my toiletries bag out of my duffel.

I’d been looking forward to having Anyan alone, finally, and I’d nearly done a backflip when he suggested I spend the night at his place. His excuse was that it made sense for me to wait for the morning, as I had all of Rockabill’s supernatural community – plus Grizzie and Tracy – bunking down in my house for safety after Iris had been kidnapped. I knew, however, it was really because he wanted some patented Jane True sexorcizing. But then Blondie showed up, all nekkid and pierced and tattooed and totally foxy. After which, the conversation between Dog-Boy and me went (roughly) as follows:

DB: ‘OMG! Whatever could that woman want?’

JANE: ‘I don’t care! Let’s go to your place! NOW.’

DB: ‘No! I must be valorous and protect those under my care by investigating!’

JANE: ‘Um, why don’t you be valorous and protect those under your care AFTER we mambo horizontally. Then vertically. Then maybe to the Northwest.’

DB: ‘I’m sorry, what?’

JANE: ‘Nothing.’

So Anyan had tossed me through his front door with our luggage, telling me to ‘make myself at home’. I’d flipped off the shutting door, reminding it loudly that I had been planning to make myself at home on his face. At which point the door was thrown open again, and Anyan had demanded, ‘What?’

To which I’d replied, ‘Nothing.’

So not only had we not had sex, but I’d also spent the night on the sofa, as I didn’t feel comfortable invading Anyan’s man space without express permission. Not to mention, my hormones probably would have forced me to do terrible things to myself in his bed, as he owned the raunchiest, Anyan-wrought, supernatural-Sutra headboard ever.

Still grumbling, I shambled over to Anyan’s downstairs bathroom to go potty and clean myself up a little. Staring into my own eyes in the mirror as I brushed my teeth, I reminded myself that, while it sucked I had yet to molest the barghest, at least I was alive. There’d been more than a few times during the past weeks when my survival was anything but guaranteed. Not to mention, quite a few people – supernatural, human, and halfling – had died before we’d stopped Jarl and his crazy experiments.

Including my mother, I thought, my heart falling as I remembered what I had to do today. My dad needed to know that the woman he still loved and still waited for, after all these years, was never going to come home. She’d been murdered by Jarl, her body one of the first to be discovered in an abandoned laboratory.

You didn’t die for nothing, Mom, I thought, outmaneuvering the tears in my eyes by washing my face rather roughly. My mother’s death had helped kick off the investigation that led to stopping Jarl. It wasn’t much consolation, but it was something.

It’d be even better if Jarl were dead, I thought grimly, as I dried my face and hands. But at least he was on the run, his operations and people disbanded. For now.

Visibly shaking myself out of my depressing reverie, I tried to figure out what to do right then. Anyan must still have been out chasing Originals, and it was barely six o’clock in the morning. I could go home, although no one will be awake. Or I could go for a swim . . . Then I froze, a feeling of elation sweeping up from the soles of my feet as I put two and two together.

I’m in Anyan’s cabin.

Anyan isn’t here.

And Anyan did say to make myself at home, I thought, audibly purring. I’d been so curious about Anyan’s life for so long, and now I had his cabin all to myself . . .

Which means there is nothing standing between me and his kitchen.

Like a flash I was out of the bathroom, all traces of sadness eradicated by my excitement. I peered around one last time to make sure I was alone, and then I darted toward what I knew was waiting for me. Every time I’d been here, it had taken pretty much every ounce of self- control I had not to go and hump the stove dominating Anyan’s kitchen. I don’t normally hump kitchen appliances, but this was no ordinary mod-con. It was something sublime. Something that transcended beauty, form, and function and could make an angel weep.

It was a Wolf Challenger Restaurant Range. And I loved it. I skidded to a stop before my destiny, blinking as the ever-awakening sun gleamed off its brightly polished surfaces. Gliding a hand over its hard, proud, stainless-steel frame, I caressed its burners, prying one up just to see how unabashedly it opened itself to me. I thought of all the pots I could get on it, and how each one would simmer. Simmer just for me.

I dropped to my knees, pulling open the oven door. I could practically crawl inside. I wouldn’t, because I’d (almost) seen firsthand what ovens can do to a body – albeit a goblin body – but I could if I wanted to. And if I can get in here, I thought as I peered inside greedily, just think what else will fit . . .

‘Jane?’ asked a voice. It was curiously nonchalant, considering I was half in, half out of an open oven door. But it still scared me enough that I started, whapping the top of my skull for my trouble.

Anyan sighed as he dropped down to haul me out of the Wolf’s gaping maw. The barghest had a tendency to treat me like a sack of flour, and today was no exception. Without batting an eyelash, he lifted me up and set me on the counter, in order to look at the top of my head.

I was watching the little birdies fly in front of my eyes, so it took me a second to re-combobulate myself. In the meantime, he ran his fingers over my scalp, prodding until I winced, and then I felt a pulse of healing warmth filtering through my body.

‘If we lived in a Road Runner cartoon,’ his rough voice grumbled, ‘I would come home one day to find your teeny-tiny arms and legs sprouting from underneath a gigantic Acme anvil.’

I gave him the stink eye.

‘You are a disaster,’ Anyan clarified, in case I didn’t catch his drift. ‘And are you all right?’ he amended, treating my head to one last gentle prod, followed by another rush of healing magics.

Anyan’s gray eyes sought mine but I ignored him, instead giving him a good once-over. Now that I could finally enjoy being around the barghest without all the stress of the investigation – not to mention the stress of not knowing whether or not he had any feelings for me – I felt like I hadn’t actually seen Anyan in ages. Starting at the top, I noticed that he clearly needed a haircut. His thick curls were extra poufy, sticking out in barghestian afro-puffs shot through with grass and twigs from last night’s Blondie hunt. Then my eyes raked downward, over his long nose and almost too wide mouth, loving the perfectly sensual imperfection of his features. His nose twitched at me, as if in response to my gaze, and I felt my own lips twitch in response. Traveling farther down, over clothes rumpled from undoubtedly being left to lie under a shrubbery somewhere while he ran about in dog form, I noticed he had a hole in his jeans, which rode low and sweet on his hips.

There’s bones under that there denimmy libido reminded me, unhelpfully. Bones for nibblin’ . . .

 I told the libido to hush even as I felt my mouth water.

‘Did you find Blondie?’ I asked, as much to distract myself as to make conversation.

‘Nope,’ he grunted. ‘Chased her to the edge of Nell’s Territory, but then all scent of her faded, including magical. She must have holed up somewhere I couldn’t get to. Underground, or in the water.’

‘Do you think she can do thaaaaaaa—’ I tried to ask, before my whole body turned to goop as Anyan’s fingers started running through my long black hair. It was ridiculously erotic, until I winced as his fingers found a knot.

‘Did you pack a brush?’ the barghest chided.

‘Did you raid a dog food convention to acquire your wardrobe?’ I countered, jerking my hair out from underneath his hands in punishment.

After all, I thought with irritation, I’m supposed to have sexy, postcoital bed head. Not ‘I slept on your couch’ head.

His hands stilled in my hair as he looked down at his chest. His now filthy T-shirt sported an advert for Eukanuba. I’d already seen shirts for Alpo, Iams, and Purina, among many others.

‘Okay, I admit, the joke got out of hand. But I’m not going to go out and buy myself a whole new wardrobe. These shirts are perfectly serviceable.’

 I rolled my eyes. ‘Serviceable? Anyan, I get it that you’re utilitarian. If we were in the old country you’d write odes to factories. You’d sing the praises of the communal farm while you gnawed on a perfectly “serviceable” radish. But this is the new millennium. In America. Buy a button-up.’

The very tip of his crooked nose twitched, something that would never cease to amuse me. The hand on one knee shifted to pinch my outer- thigh fat, something that I found significantly less endearing.

‘Jane, I’m a barghest, not a Stalinist. And what do you mean by “the old country”? I was born in this Territory, as you well know. And you should talk about writing odes to factories. You were practically committing sex acts on my range.’

I cast a long, lascivious gaze at the Wolf. Gods, it was gorgeous. I had to come clean.

‘I can’t help it, Anyan. I’ve never felt this way about a machine. It’s just so big . . .’ My voice trailed off as my hot eyes roved up from its sturdily planted legs to the boldly flaring expanse of its saucy extractor fan.

‘Jane, you are starting to creep me out. Someone who pees on the local fauna in order to mark his Territory. That says something.’

I eyed the Wolf, suddenly inspired.

‘And no,’ he added hastily. ‘If you pee on it you do not get to take it home.’

I pushed my bottom lip out in a pout, feeling a thrill up my spine when I noticed Anyan stare like he wanted to bite. His hands, resting right above my knees, squeezed lightly and I was happily visualizing pulling him in tight to make that bite a reality when he spoke.

‘Speaking of home, do you still want to tell your father today?’ And just like that, the libido crawled back into its hole. I’d asked Anyan if he’d be with me when I told my dad about my mother’s death, mostly for support but also because the barghest – even with sticks in his hair, like he had now – oozed authority. I was going to have to tell my father a combination of truths about my mom, Mari’s, death and careful omission, and I figured Anyan’s presence would make the idea that I had outside sources more credible.

But mostly you just want him there, reminded the part of my brain that always insisted on being brutally honest. I frowned, quashing the thought, unwilling to examine my emotions regarding the barghest too closely.

‘Yes,’ I replied, finally, my chin dropping to my chest. ‘I need to get it over with.’

 Anyan’s big hand found its way under the heavy wing of my long, black hair, stroking gently at my nape. It felt as comforting as apple pie, and I marveled at how easily he touched me now. My own hands itched to reciprocate, but I still had to get used to the idea that touches were okay. Anyan had been a fantasy for so long; it was going to take me some time to adjust to the reality.

‘Come on, then. Let’s clean up. You use my bathroom. I’ve a shower out in my workshop I can use.’

I raised my black eyes to meet Anyan’s iron-gray gaze, letting all my anxiety shine through. The hand on my nape squeezed, gently, in response.

‘It’s going to be okay, Jane. We’ll find a way to tell your father so he understands. You’re doing the right thing. He can’t live in ignorance and false hope for the rest of his life.’

I nodded, finally. Anyan stepped back so that I could hop down off the counter, and then we went our separate ways to clean up. I’d already used his upstairs bathroom once, so I knew where everything was located. The only thing that took a while was finding something clean(ish) in my duffel, but soon enough I came downstairs to find Anyan all spiffy, sitting on his sofa and waiting for me.

We walked outside to his motorcycle. I slung my arms through my duffel bag’s straps, wearing it like a backpack, and then plunked the helmet Anyan held out to me on my head. I fiddled with the straps, watching as Anyan started to set his own helmet down over his still-wet hair.

 I was just imagining the helmet head with which he was going to wind up when he suddenly lowered his arms, breathing deeply and looking around with confusion written across his expression.

 ‘Why do I smell strange humans?’ he asked, a split second before we were attacked.