Fae and vampires collide in the lush surrounding of New Orleans, in a new urban fantasy series by House of Comarré author Kristen Painter.
Life is an unwinnable game. Only the playing time may be prolonged.
— Elektos Codex 13.4.1
New Orleans, Louisiana 2068
Harlow woke with a gasp. Her heart raced in her chest. She swallowed, trying to get air. Sweat glued her tank top to her body. A few deep breaths eased the nightmare’s grip on her, but its claws still dug deep into her subconscious. A few more breaths and the sharp edges wore away, leaving her with a residual fear that clung like secondhand smoke.
She forced herself to lie down and relax. It was just a dream. The coolness of the dark room eased the heat of her skin. This is reality, not the nightmare. She grabbed her Life Management Device off the nightstand and tapped the screen to see the time. A little after three in the morning.
Tossing the LMD onto the nightstand, she kicked the covers off. The whirling ceiling fan wafted cool air over her as she tried to concentrate on something besides the terrifying dream that had yanked her from sleep. She failed. The nightmare filled every synapse. She couldn’t recall exactly what the dream had been, but the dread of it remained, impossible to shake. Something—or someone—had tried to drag her into an abyss. Or had chased her toward it.
Either way, she never wanted to feel that bone-deep sense of fear again.
Minutes slipped by, taking the panic with them. At last she closed her eyes, praying the nightmare wouldn’t return.
It didn’t, but neither did sleep. She focused on the whir of the ceiling fan. The subtle hum drowned out all other sounds. Except for one.
The unmistakable eddy and lap of water.
She got up and padded barefoot across the room, pushed back the sheers, opened the balcony door, and stepped out into the cool night air.
Augustine was swimming laps in the pool below.
She sighed. Seeing him anchored her firmly in reality. His lean, muscled form cut the water cleanly, sending smooth ripples to kiss the pool’s edge. In the submerged light, his skin seemed a darker gray, sleek and seal-like against the water’s aqua blue.
She walked closer to the railing. There was something otherworldly in the way he slipped through the water, the effortless way he spun and pushed off the wall as he turned, the boneless way his body undulated. Even if his horns hadn’t grown back, with his gray skin and the six fingers on each hand—and now she could see six toes on each foot as well—no one would mistake him for human. He was utterly, completely, regrettably fae.
And she was utterly, completely, regrettably attracted to him. She exhaled the breath she’d unwittingly held. Sure, she was fae, too, but she’d spent her entire adult life trying to live as if she weren’t. Now her new life in New Orleans made those bloodlines impossible to ignore. She was the daughter of the city’s most famous fae, movie star Olivia Goodwin. And thanks to her mother’s curious will, Harlow and Augustine had become co‑owners of the house. And roommates. Hard to ignore your true heritage when you shared a house with the city’s fae Guardian.
Who was practically naked in the pool below her.
Steam rose from the water but the trails evaporated before reaching her second-story balcony. He must be using some of his fae skills to heat the water. That would be a wicked cool power to have. Unlike hers, which were mostly bothersome.
She leaned against the metal railing, causing it to creak.
He lifted his head, twisting seamlessly into a backstroke to smile up at her. “Hey, Harley. Come on in, the water’s fine.”
She pulled away from the railing. “I was just going back to bed.” And don’t call me that. But those words never left her tongue.
“Funny. Looks like you’re standing there watching me.” With a smug look, he ducked under, flipped around and pressed off the wall to glide the length of the pool underwater in one long, easy movement. The water calmed, bringing into definition just how very small his black trunks were.
When he surfaced, he picked his head up and made eye contact again. “You can’t sleep or you’d already be doing that. You might as well swim.” He spread his arms out and floated lazily.
“I don’t have a swimsuit.”
His wicked grin returned. “I can ditch mine if it makes you feel better.”
She bit her bottom lip and tried to keep her gaze from traveling below that smile. “Okay. Wait. No. Keep your suit on. I meant okay I would come swimming.” Her tank top and boy-short underwear would work fine. It was dark. Sort of. And all that seemed to matter at the moment was that she get in the water.
She slipped back into the house, wrapped herself in a towel from her bathroom and then went down to the first floor as quietly as she could so she wouldn’t wake Lally, the housekeeper. Outside, the grass muffled her steps. She shivered despite the towel. The unseasonably warm weather they’d been having was gone. At the pool’s edge, she stopped, clutching her towel. She shouldn’t be down here. She should be in bed. Asleep. Alone.
Augustine stood in waist-deep water. Vapor trails rose off his sleek gray skin to mingle with the steam from the surface, making him look like some kind of horned god of the underworld. He coasted his fingers over the surface, but his eyes stayed on her.
She shivered again. Standing beside a pool shouldn’t feel this dangerous. This wicked.
He sank down to his neck and pushed back, sending out a small wake. “I can make the water as warm as you like.”
If she didn’t move forward, she was going to turn and run. She willed herself to drop the towel, then forced her feet down the steps. She could do this. She could be this bold. The pool was like a bath. She kept going, sinking down until her hair floated around her. “It’s warm enough.”
Warmer toward Augustine. Like the heat was radiating off him, which she guessed it was. She didn’t know exactly how his power worked, but as skills went, this was a pretty good one.
He kept his distance, drifting about arm’s length from her. “Couldn’t sleep, huh?”
“No.” When he didn’t say anything, she filled the space with, “I had a nightmare.”
He nodded. “Those suck.” Then he moved a little closer, his brow furrowed. “You okay?”
She stayed put. “I’m fine. I’m not eight. I can deal with it.” She hoped.
He shrugged. “I had nightmares after your mom died that felt as real as anything.”
She dropped her gaze to the water’s surface. “It wasn’t about that. I don’t even remember it now, really.” Mostly true. Just the sense of that dark, threatening abyss remained.
“Cylo and Dulcinea should be back with your stuff today.”
He was less than a foot from her, his voice soft. Lally’s room was on the first floor, not that far away. She nodded, keeping her voice down, too. “I appreciate you sending them to Boston to clear out my apartment.”
His face went serious. “Not something you needed to be doing with Branzino unaccounted for.”
She backpedaled to lean against the pool wall and rest her head on the rounded edge. “I don’t want to talk about him.”
Her biological father was a monster, not someone she wanted in her brain after that nightmare.
“Me either.” Augustine joined her at the wall, so close his shoulder almost kissed hers. The heat coming off him felt like a blast furnace. He pointed skyward, water dripping off his hand. “See those five stars forming that wide W shape? That’s Cassiopeia.”
“Who was she? Some Greek goddess, right?”
“Close. A Greek queen.”
“They’re very pretty.” She glanced over at him but his eyes were still on the sky. “How do you know about the stars?”
He turned toward her. “I like beautiful things.”
A dark light flickered in his eyes. Her insides knotted with rare, unused feelings. She faced him, gripping the pool’s edge with one hand while she pushed at him with the other. It was like trying to shove a stone wall out of the way. “Nice line, but I’m not falling for it.” He’d have to try a lot harder than that.
He inched closer. The steam rising off him left little droplets in her bangs. “It wasn’t a line. You’re beautiful.”
She swallowed, unsure how to respond. She didn’t have to. His mouth closed on hers, the kiss unexpected, but not entirely unwelcome. His hands slid up her arms, stopping below her shoulders. She leaned into him, into his warmth. Into the press of a mouth both soft and firm. The surge of emotion she expected never came. Had he figured out how to squelch her gift? Or maybe he’d found a way to control what came through him.
She kissed him back, pleased that for once the only emotions skin‑on‑skin contact made her feel were her own.
His fingers tightened on her arms and his mouth bore down on hers. The pressure became painful. She pulled back to end the kiss and failed. He forced his mouth against hers harder. Panic jolted down her spine. The water chilled. She opened her eyes and struggled to break away.
A shadow passed in front of the pool light, causing it to sputter.
Except it wasn’t a shadow. A crack had opened in the bottom of the pool. The blackness spilled out of it and spread toward her. The abyss had returned. She hit Augustine with her fists, but he didn’t budge. They were locked together. She screamed into his mouth. The abyss came closer as a great emptiness opened inside her.
Augustine was sucking the soul out of her, draining the light and spirit from her body. She could feel it leaving as the blackness reached her. The water lapped over her, climbing up her arms, covering her body, choking the breath from her—
She bolted upright, gasping for air, clutching handfuls of the sheet like they were a lifeline. She was still in bed. It was just another dream. But the pounding of her heart was very real. She panted open-mouthed to get enough oxygen into her lungs. Just a dream, she repeated. Just a dream.
She checked the time on her LMD. Quarter after four in the morning. Her pulse was easing, but the panic was slower to subside. The water, the kiss, the heat of his skin . . . it had seemed so real. She jumped out of bed, ran to the balcony doors and peered out. The pool was empty and dark, lit only by the moon.
She turned and leaned against the door, her back flattening the sheers to the glass. She spread her hand over her heart. The darkness was still there. Darker than the room she was in. She could feel it. Feel the way it strengthened with every nightmare. It sat in the empty place she’d always had inside her.
She’d lived with that all her life, a longing she’d thought had been created by not knowing her father, but she’d met him and that introduction had done nothing to take away the ache. Maybe because Branzino had turned out to be a horrible, manipulative monster of a man, but maybe there was another reason. Maybe she was defective in some way. Like a part of her was missing.
Either way, touching the vampire who’d killed her mother had awakened something in her. Made the hole more apparent. Created a sense of emptiness so intense, she’d assumed it was just temporary. Obviously she’d been wrong. Her encounter with that undead creature had left permanent damage. Some kind of supernatural scar.
She slumped down and hugged her knees to her chest. Was this what it meant to be fae? To be this vulnerable? She wasn’t tough and street-smart like Augustine; she was a computer geek who preferred the indoors to direct sunlight and email to actual conversation.
What would her mother do in a situation like this? Olivia had been strong and fearless. The kind of woman Harlow would love to be someday, but getting there was going to take courage. Something she wasn’t sure she had. At least not in the quantity she was going to need.
She should talk to Augustine and hope that all this craziness happening to her wouldn’t scare him away. He had promised to teach her to defend herself. Maybe that would help somehow. And if it didn’t . . . he’d know what to do. Or he’d find someone who would. He was the Guardian of the city. It was his job to protect the citizens of New Orleans, and now that she lived here, that included her.
* * *
Augustine came down to breakfast to find Lally cooking eggs and Harlow already at the table. She was bundled in Olivia’s old chenille robe, her cranberry-black hair knotted on top of her head. Even rumpled with sleep she intrigued him. Or maybe that disheveled look just fueled the fire she’d already started in him. He wanted to plant a kiss on the side of her neck. Smiling at what the consequences of that might be, he grabbed a mug for coffee instead. “Morning. Cool out there today, huh?”
Lally nodded. “Morning, Augie. I like that cool weather. Makes for good sleeping, don’t you think?”
“It does, but Mardi Gras’s going to be on the cold side this year if this spell doesn’t pass.”
Lally grinned. “Guess that means people just have to drink a little more to keep warm.”
He glanced at Harlow. She’d yet to speak. “You okay?”
She nodded, but said nothing. Her gloved hands were wrapped around her coffee cup as if she were afraid it might try to get away. Purplish-gray semicircles bruised her under-eyes.
He took the chair next to her, fighting the urge to touch her. To comfort her. He stopped himself because she wouldn’t welcome it. “Didn’t sleep well, huh?”
She shrugged, her gaze never leaving her coffee. “I was . . . up late playing Realm of Zauron.”
He’d passed her room at midnight. There’d been no light under the door from her computer.
She sipped her coffee. “My stuff should be here today, right?”
The sudden change of subject wasn’t lost on him. Obviously whatever was bothering her wasn’t something she wanted to discuss. Maybe if he’d been human she would have felt differently, but she was still coming to terms with being fae and that included him. He pulled out his LMD. “Uh‑huh. I got a text from Dulcinea around seven a.m. She figures they’ll pull in from Boston sometime this afternoon.”
“Thanks for taking care of that.” She raised her head a little, but still didn’t make eye contact. She seemed reluctant to be around him this morning, more so than usual, and he had no idea why. Whatever had kept her up, maybe. He hoped whatever she wasn’t telling him wasn’t serious.
“Of course. With Branzino in the wind, it was the smartest way to handle it.”
Lally set a platter of eggs and bacon on the table, followed by a basket of biscuits and a bowl of grits sprinkled with cheese. “I’m glad that man has stayed away. I’m guessing he knows when he’s been beat.”
“Let’s hope so.” Augustine took a biscuit and slathered it with mayhaw jelly. Truth was, it was more likely that Branzino was biding his time, and he was sure Lally knew that, too; she just didn’t want to put the truth out there in front of Harlow. “That reminds me, I can’t hang out too long this morning. I’ve got to meet Fenton.” Fenton Welch served as the Elektos liaison to the Guardian, a role the member of the fae’s high council took very seriously.
Harlow looked up. “I thought we were going to train today.”
Was that part of what was bothering her? “I know, I promised I’d give you some self-defense lessons—and I will. Fenton just needs me for a bit this morning, then I’ll be home.”
She nodded. “Okay. Good.” But her mouth bunched to one side and she sighed.
Damn it. She was obviously disappointed. He’d do whatever he could to make the morning meeting quick. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Lally sat at the end of the table and helped herself to a spoonful of scrambled eggs. “Do you have a lot to do to get ready for Mardi Gras? As Guardian, I mean.”
“Some.” Mostly he was going to nudge Fenton about getting the house warded before they returned to finalizing the investigation into the death of Dreich. The fallen fae had been the late Guardian’s cousin and one of his lieutenants. Hard to believe the man had been involved in letting vampires into the city. Vampires who’d killed not only some tourists and the last Guardian, but Harlow’s mother, Olivia Goodwin.
But the man both Augustine and Harlow truly suspected to have been behind the whole thing was Joseph Branzino, Harlow’s biological father, raptor fae and known killer. They just didn’t have any hard evidence, and without hard evidence, there was no lawful action Augustine could take. Unlawful action, on the other hand, was something he was coming to believe would be his only recourse. He was okay with that. Before becoming the Guardian, unlawful action was all he’d known.
He shifted his attention to Harlow. She stared at the tabletop, taking a sip of coffee now and then and looking very much like a troubled soul. Maybe he should tell Fenton he needed a day off. “I could try to cancel, maybe push the meeting until tomorrow—”
“No.” Harlow shook her head and the briefest of smiles bent her mouth. “I’m not even awake yet. Go do your Guardian stuff and we’ll train when you get back.”
Lally pushed the platter of eggs toward her. “Eat something, child. You need the energy just to keep yourself warm.”
“Thanks.” She took a piece of bacon, finally seeming to perk up. “I was thinking about how nice it will be to have all my stuff back. If it’s okay with you two”— she turned her gaze to Lally—“I’d like to set up shop in one of the spare rooms.”
“Shop?” Lally asked. “You’re not going to get yourself into trouble again, are you?”
“No. Nothing like that.” Harlow glanced at her. “But I still have clients and I need to work. It’s not in me just to live off my mother’s estate. If it was, my life would have been very different.”
“True words.” Lally nodded.
“I need to do something.”
Augustine sat back. “What about the business you were already doing? Hacking into companies to test their security.”
“Penetration testing. Word about my conviction has spread through the community.” She frowned. “The jobs have dried up. And while I realize New Orleans may not have the same kind of business going on that Boston did, there’s got to be some opportunity in a tourist town like this. I’m thinking I could do web work, maybe some graphic design stuff. I’ll even do repairs. Whatever people need. There have to be people in this town who’d like a website designed. Most businesses here still have them, right?”
Lally shrugged. Augustine raised one shoulder. “I guess. Is that a thing most businesses do? My LMD is the closest I’ve been to a computer in a long time.” The Great War had created a huge divide in who could afford things like electricity and technology. Once upon a time, connectivity had been an almost inherent right. Now it was a luxury for those who had the funds.
Harlow toyed with her fork. “I hope so. I’d like to do something with my time besides read my way through my mother’s library. Not that that’s such a bad way to pass the time . . .”
“You’ll be plenty busy when we get this training schedule figured out.” Augustine would keep his promise, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t having mixed feelings about teaching her to fight. It would be good for her to be able to defend herself, but he worried she’d get overconfident and do something with lasting results.
“I know.” She chewed a bite of bacon. “But I still want to start this new business.”
“I get it,” Lally said. “No shame in wanting to feel productive.”
“Take whatever space you want. It is half your house,” Augustine added. “Just don’t take the ballroom, that’s going to be our training space. I’m requisitioning the stuff from Fenton today.” If lack of activity was behind Harlow’s unhappiness, then he was all for her starting up a new business. How busy she’d actually be, he had no idea, but it would give her something to do. With that and the training, she should be well occupied. And, hopefully, starting to feel like this place was really her home.
He popped the last of the biscuit in his mouth and pushed his chair back. “I should be back before Cy and Dulcinea get here.”
“Wait.” Harlow dug something from the pocket of her robe.“Take these.” She held out a handful of business cards. She shrugged. “You know, in case you run into someone who needs computer help.”
He took them. “Sure. Happy to spread the word.” He pulled his coat on, covering his only visible weapon, the sword that hung at his hip, and tucked the cards into his pocket before heading out to the Thrun, the amazing piece of machinery he now drove thanks to his position as Guardian.
He trailed his fingers over the car’s sleek black hood as he approached the driver’s side. He tapped the unlock icon on his LMD, then opened the door and got in.
He smiled at the quiet‑as‑a‑tomb interior when the door shut. Being Guardian came with a lot of headaches. This was not one of them. He pulled out one of Harlow’s business cards and studied it.
His LMD vibrated with an incoming call. He tucked the card back into his pocket. “Answer.”
The com cell behind his ear allowed the conversation to take place in his head, something that was still taking some getting used to. “Augustine, it’s Fenton.”
“I’m on my way.” He started the engine and pulled the car out of the garage. The Pelcrum, their headquarters, was only a few blocks away in the heart of the Lafayette Cemetery. “I’ll be there in five.”
“No, meet me at Loudreux’s.” Fenton sounded tense.
“I can’t discuss it on an unsecure line.”
“This is an unsecure line?”
“In this situation, yes.”
Augustine rolled his eyes. Hugo Loudreux’s position as Prime, head of the Elektos, had certainly filled him with a grand sense of importance. What the man wanted now, Augustine could only imagine. “On my way.”
But he kept the car going in the same direction. Being called to the Prime’s house was a lot like having the police come to your door. Even if they weren’t there to arrest you, they probably weren’t bringing you good news. And that could wait a little while longer.
With Dulcinea out of town, he wanted to check in on Beatrice. The late Guardian’s widow had agreed to become one of his lieutenants, only finding out afterward that she was pregnant. There’d been no reason for him to displace her from the Guardian’s house, since he’d become owner of half Olivia’s estate, so he’d let Beatrice continue living there with the understanding that Dulcinea, who’d never had an address since he’d known her, would also live there. It wasn’t that Beatrice couldn’t take care of herself, but her pregnancy was proving difficult and Augustine felt a certain responsibility for her going through it alone.
Her late husband had been killed by Branzino’s vampires, after all.
The Guardian house was technically his, but he certainly didn’t need it to live in. Not after Harlow had asked him to stay at Olivia’s. That house was half his, but if she’d asked him to leave, he probably would have. Although staying was definitely the option he preferred. Especially since the beginning of something unexpected and wonderful had blossomed between them.
At least it might be wonderful. Harlow was still adjusting to claiming her fae side and living in a city where it was all fae all the time. And he was about as fae as you could get. If she couldn’t accept her heritage, whatever was happening between them would die on the vine. Being fae was who he was.
Regardless, he’d promised Olivia he’d protect her daughter and that was exactly what he was going to do. Hell, as Guardian it was his job to protect every citizen of New Orleans. Getting to live with Harlow was just a bonus. A really good bonus. Now if he could just figure out what was bothering her.
He pulled into the driveway at the Guardian’s residence and turned off the engine, but his head was stuck on Harlow. Since the night the leader of the vampire gang had taken her hostage, she’d started pulling away from him in small increments.
Was it because she’d seen him slip inside the vampire and destroy the leech in a way only a shadeux fae could? Harlow had wanted nothing to do with anything fae when she’d first arrived at the house, though she was opening up to her heritage more and more with each passing day. Seeing him in battle mode like that must have been quite a shock.
Hell’s bells. Of course it had shocked her. He tipped his head back against the seat. He’d vowed to protect her and yet he’d killed that creature right in front of her. No wonder she’d been avoiding him these past few days. He’d scared her. Damn it. That had not been his intention. He smacked the steering wheel, his anger at his own stupidity blinding him.
If she needed some space, he’d let her have it, but there was no way he was letting this go. He’d find a way to fix things. To show her she had nothing to be afraid of from him. There was something between them. Something he wasn’t willing to give up just yet.
But as much as he’d begun to care for her, he couldn’t change who he was. He’d spent his childhood pretending to be human for his mother, and all that had done was make him miserable. He was not about to spend his adulthood the same way.