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Rio Jones knew she had maybe an hour, tops, before somebody found her. She had that kind of luck; the kind that trips over cracks in sidewalks, falls off her bike in the middle of rush-hour traffic in the middle of Bordertown, and sees a major supernatural heavyweight kidnapping a kid in broad daylight.
A major magical heavyweight. She’d heard a flash of something so wrong—so other—in his thoughts that she’d nearly wrecked her bike when she’d turned to look at who or what was making that horrible noise. The taxi hadn’t even clipped her that hard; she’d had far worse working as a bike messenger for Siren Deliveries.
Not that most of the fancy companies she delivered to would believe they’d hired a company owned by an actual siren. They just knew they got their packages on time. Ophelia liked to hire humans as messengers. She said they were slower but harder to distract. More reliable. Gave her the chance to focus on her budding opera career, instead of dealing with Fae and demon hatreds, feuds, and failures to deliver on time. Punctuality was king in the cutthroat bike messenger wars, and Rio was human enough to pass muster.
Rio nearly growled at the thought of Ophelia and her damned rules. If Rio hadn’t been so focused on making it to her next delivery on time, she wouldn’t have taken that shortcut through the alley, and so she never would have rounded the corner in time to see the tall, dark-haired man step out of a limousine and snatch a small girl right off the street.
The girl had screamed, Rio had slammed on the brakes of her bike and gone over the handlebars, and the kidnapping bastard had met her gaze with eyes that blazed a surge of dark power across the distance between them. Black eyes, almost all pupil, had tried to bore into Rio’s mind until the struggling child had screamed again and the man had thrown the girl into the limo and slammed the door. He’d given Rio one last dismissive glance as she knelt, bleeding, on the filthy pavement, and then he’d angled his tall body into the front seat next to the driver. By the time he’d changed his mind and the brake lights had flashed on the limo, she’d seen them over her shoulder as she glanced back while racing away. She’d used her throw-away cell phone to call in an anonymous report to the sheriff’s office, complete with license plate number, for all the good it would do.
Bordertown hadn’t had any law of its own since the last demon uprising, when the rebels ate the sheriff. That very lawlessness was the draw for most of the people—human and, mostly, other--who lived, worked, and played in the five square miles of dimensional fold that lay hidden behind, beneath, and between the streets of Manhattan. Bordertown was the Wild West, but the cowboys and outlaws of the typical frontier town were demon and Fae here.
Dangerous and deadly, with or without six-shooters.
But she’d made the futile call, and a few minutes later, still shaking, she’d tossed her cell phone in the back of the first trash truck she saw, with some vague idea that the kidnapper might trace it back to her if she kept it.
It was all too little, too late, though. She knew it. She’d heard his thoughts—they’d shattered the everyday barrier she wore around her mind like an icy wind slicing through a flimsy scarf. Her mental shield was plenty to keep out human thoughts; if she heard everything that people thought around her all day long, she would have gone insane years ago.
But this man—the kidnapper—he wasn’t human. Okay, she was used to that, working for a company in Bordertown and living there, too, but he wasn’t a low-level demon or a Fae or an ogre or anything else she’d ever heard before. Fae and demon royalty never leaked their thoughts, so they were out, too. His thoughts had been wrong. Dark and raging and, yeah, demons were often the same to a degree, but this guy was something . . . more. Icy. Determined. Powerful.
She wasn’t even sure how she’d known, but she’d somehow felt it. His thoughts had crawled with power and focus—and once he’d changed his mind about her being beneath his notice—no loose ends had been the exact words running through his jagged mind—he’d aimed that focus at her.
That had been eight hours ago, and she had no doubt that he’d been trying to find her every minute since. She’d heard the rumblings of a new force in town from Europe who played with the Old Magic; a man bent on taking over organized supernatural crime. It was too much to hope that this hadn’t been him.
“And one little freak of a telepath isn’t going to have a chance against that,” she muttered to her tiny stuffed fox before tossing it in her backpack. She was already wearing her locket, as always, so there were the only two mementoes of her childhood safely retrieved. Other than that, she didn’t know what to bother taking. A couple of changes of clothes, all available cash, and her laptop. Packing wasn’t exactly difficult when you lived in a closet disguised as a studio apartment and owned next to nothing.
She was wasting time. She knew where she had to go. The one person whom she’d tried to stay away from, because he scared the crap out of her. She knew he’d help—he was a private investigator. She had money to hire him. Problem solved.
Luke Oliver had power; she knew it and everybody, even the riffraff, in Bordertown knew it, too. He could help her figure out a way to find and help that child, and she was smart enough not to get caught up in the weird attraction she’d felt to the man whenever she’d made a delivery to him.
A knock on the door broke through her stupid mental rambling and scared her so badly she stumbled and nearly tripped over her milk-crate coffee table.
“Rio? Rio, it’s me. Are you okay?”
Rio’s heart slowly dropped out of warp speed, and she took a deep breath and opened the door. Mrs. Giamatto, her landlady, stood just outside the door in a pale pink robe that had to be older than Rio. The elderly woman gasped when she saw Rio, and the tips of her ever-so-slightly pointed ears turned a vivid pink where they peeked out of her fluffy white hair.
“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry to bother you at this time of night, but I had a very odd phone call just now, and I wanted to warn you--”
“I know. I’m leaving.” Rio shouldered her backpack, picked up her bike and stepped into the hallway, pulled the door shut behind her, locked the door and handed Mrs. Giamatto the keys. “Thank you so much. I might be in a little bit of trouble, so I’m going to go away for a while. I don’t want to bring any problems here. Linda down the hall just had her baby, and of course I don’t want--”
“No!” Mrs. Giamatto folded her arms across her frail chest and raised her chin. “I won’t have it. I know you, Rio Green, and you’re no trouble-maker. Even if you did do something you shouldn’t have--and the gods know that’s easy enough to do in Bordertown--well, we stick together. Nobody is going to mess with my tenants.”
For an instant—only a fraction of a moment—Rio saw someone else underneath Mrs. G’s little-old-lady surface. Someone ancient; far older even than the renovated Victorian home in which they stood, and maybe older than New York itself. Her landlady was more powerful than she appeared, it seemed, like so many in Bordertown. But the memory of the kidnapper flashed into Rio’s mind, and she shuddered before shaking her head, too afraid to feel even her usual twinge of guilt for having given Mrs. G another of her many fake last names. She was Rio Green with Mrs. Giamatto, Rio Jones at work with Ophelia and clients, Rio Smith with strangers, and Rio To Be Determined when she got the hell out of town after this debacle.
Sometimes it was hard to keep all of her names straight, but a lifetime lived in the school of brutal knocks—and worse than knocks—had taught her caution. True names held power, and she knew better than to offer hers up—even if she’d known what it was. The names she used regularly were already beginning to take on a de facto sense of truth; at least enough for rudimentary spells to be cast. It was maybe time to become Jane Doe.
“I love you for it, too, but he’s not an ordinary bad guy. This is more trouble than we can handle. I have to get help. There was a horrible man. Somebody with Old Magic. He . . . took a child. I think he plans to kill her. Or worse.”
Mrs. G slowly nodded. “You’re going to Luke?”
“I don’t think I have a choice.” Rio took a deep breath and hugged her landlady and dear friend, and then she held out her laptop. “Will you keep this for me? Just for now? I’ll try to keep in touch. I’ll try to come back.”
They both knew neither might be possible. When trouble came to somebody in Bordertown, it was often of the permanent kind.
Mrs. Giamatto took the computer and nodded, a hint of tears shining in her eyes. She put her other hand in her pocket and held out an envelope.
“Take this. It should help.”
Rio glanced in the envelope, which was stuffed with hundred-dollar bills.
“I can’t take this. I’m fine. I have money; I just need to get to the bank in the morning--”
“You’ll take it,” Mrs. G said firmly, closing Rio’s fingers over the envelope. “I never paid you for planting those flowers.”
Rio heard the edge of panic in her own laughter, and knew it was time to go. “The going rate for landscapers is not a thousand dollars an hour, but I’ll take it as a loan for now. I have to go. If they called you, they know where I live.”
“Go. The back stairs.” Mrs. G hugged her again, the laptop caught between them, and then gave her a little push toward the dimly lit stairwell. Rio grabbed her bike and ran lightly down the stairs and opened the always-locked door a couple of inches. What she could see of the garden from her vantage point was empty of anybody or anything other than the marble statue of a very plump Pan eternally playing his lute in the fountain. She slipped out and made sure the door clicked shut behind her, not that a door would hold out anybody who really wanted to get in, and headed for the garden gate, only to skid to a stop when the gate crashed open and three enormous, oddly misshapen men pushed their way into the yard.
“Is that her?” One of them said, in a broken, growly voice, like only part of him was human, and the other part was something ugly. Nothing unusual for Bordertown, but this guy was big. World Wrestling Federation big. Half a mountain big.
Rio dropped the bike and backed up, step by slow, cautious step, wishing for the millionth time that if she had to have a superpower it was something useful. Like flying. Or invisibility. What was the use, really, of reading other people’s thoughts at a time like this? She wouldn’t even be in this mess without her sorry excuse for a magical ability.
“I don’t know, she has a long braid, the boss said she had a long braid,” another one said in an unexpectedly high, squeaky voice that nearly surprised a laugh out of Rio. Things that ugly and that big shouldn’t sound like Mickey Mouse.
“Look, if you’re Rio Jones, the boss just wants to talk to you,” the first one said, his hands out at his sides in what was clearly meant to be a non-threatening position.
“I don’t know anybody named Rio Jones,” she said evenly, eyeing the distance between herself and the fence. “You have the wrong person.”
“See, that sounds like a lie,” Mountain Man rumbled, taking a step forward.
The other two moved to flank her, and she pushed her fear aside and dropped her mental barrier, listening frantically for whatever they were thinking that might help her figure out how to escape.
Mountain Man’s thoughts were so unsurprising she wouldn’t have had to be a telepath to figure them out. Too bad the boss said not to kill her. Wonder if he’d mind if I play with her a little, first?
Squeaky’s mind wasn’t quite on business. Shouldn’t have had that spaghetti Bolognese. I need some antacids in the worst way.
And the third guy’s thoughts were so oily and incoherent that Rio nearly gagged just from brushing up against them. Rip, shred, tear, bloody, bloody, Tuesday, lovely cake, lovely cake, rip, shred tear—
She slammed her mental barrier back in place and, in desperation, tried something that only an idiot would fall for. She whipped her head to the side, stared at the gate behind them, and screamed. “Rio! Run! These guys are here for you!”
Unbelievably, all three of them turned to look, so she ran the other way toward the fence like she’d never run before. She put her hands on the flat surface of the wrought iron between two spikes and vaulted over like some kind of track star, marveling even as she flew through the air at what adrenaline could do for somebody in fear for her life. Her ankle twisted a little as she landed; not enough for a sprain, but enough that she knew she’d need to ice it soon or pay the price the next day.
If she lived to see the next day. She hit the ground running and raced through the streets faster than she’d ever moved before.
Seventeen blocks. Hit Tenth, turn left at the charms and potions shop just past the High Line Park entrance at 14th, and she’d be there. If only he’d be there. Luke practically lived at his office, she’d heard, and three in the morning wasn’t all that late for Bordertown, where business and social life came alive at night. Rio’s breath came in short, harsh pants as she tried desperately to pretend she didn’t hear the footsteps pounding after her.
The thugs weren’t all that far behind, and despair tasted like rusted metal in her mouth when she realized she probably couldn’t outrun them. A quick glance back showed them, if not gaining, at least keeping pace. They were fast for such big guys, again with her sucky luck. Terror-fueled adrenaline gave her enough of a boost that her heart sped up, her feet sped up, and she headed straight for the nearest place she could think of where she might find help. The Roadhouse was only a block away. Three a.m. was still happy hour at the Roadhouse, but hopefully the nightly stabbings and bar fights would be over.
It’s not like she had a choice. She wasn’t going to make it four more blocks without getting caught. She put on a burst of speed that made her ankle burn like fire and nearly flew under the garish neon sign and through the door of the Roadhouse, slamming into a brick wall that stopped all forward motion. Arms like curved boulders wrapped around her to steady her, and she looked up to discover that the brick wall wasn’t a wall at all.
It was Miro, the ogre head bouncer.
“It’s a little late for a delivery, isn’t it?” His bushy black brows drew together in a tangled frown as he released her. He was a solid wall of muscle, eight feet tall and a good five feet wide at the shoulders. The coarsely woven shirt he wore with his jeans made him look like a farmer on the way to his barn in a land of giants. His ruddy skin only had the faintest tinge of green—those kids’ movies had gotten ogres all wrong.
“No delivery, Miro; I just picked up some unwanted traffic on my trail,” she said, in between sucking in deep breaths. She hadn’t run much since she’d started taking the bike everywhere. Out of practice, out of shape. She glanced at the door.
Out of time.
“Miro, can I duck out the back door, and you stall these guys? They’re big, and I don’t want to cause trouble, but--”
Miro laughed his big, booming laugh, and the floor underneath Rio’s feet actually shook, but only a few of the sparsely scattered bar patrons bothered to look up.
“I will snack on their bones like pretzels if they try to cause trouble. You run along, little girl, and bring me some jelly beans the next time you deliver.”
She rose up on her tiptoes, and he leaned down so she could kiss his cheek. “I promise. No black ones.”
Miro’s cheeks flushed a deep red. “You’re a good girl. Now go. I hear somebody coming. Time to do my Fee Fie Fo Fum routine. You go.”
By the time she heard Miro’s rumbling growl thunder through the room in warning or threat, she was already halfway out the back door. Her ankle was throbbing, and the initial burst of adrenaline was wearing off. She didn’t know how she was going to make it all the way to Luke’s office.
“That was a hell of a lot easier than I expected. I’m good, but even I’m not that good,” a deep, sexy voice said from behind and to the left of the door.
A voice she recognized instantly.
“Hello, Luke. I was actually just coming to visit you,” she said evenly, trying not to look like somebody who needed rescuing--even if she did.
“There’s a funny coincidence,” he said slowly, sweeping his gaze from her head to her toes and back up again, assessing, measuring, and probably finding her wanting. After all, he’d never had more than five or six words to spare when she stopped by with a package.
Damn him, though, he was as gorgeous as ever. Silky black hair just a little too long, unshaven jaw line as if he were a pirate come to plunder, and chiseled face like a woman’s secret fantasy. He was nearly six and a half feet of hard muscle and lean, dangerous lines, and rumor had it that his steel trap of a brain of his was always calculating his next moves at least ten steps ahead. It was why he was so good at his investigation job—some called him the Dark Wizard of Bordertown, even though he’d always denied having any real magic.
Some called him the man who should be sheriff, and it was rarely a compliment.
She’d never called him anything but Mr. Oliver. And yet here they were.
A cacophony of shouting and crashes sounded from the bar, and she hurriedly shut the door behind her. Luke glanced from the closed door to her, raising one silken eyebrow.
“That anything to do with you?”
She lifted her chin. “Why do you ask?”
A corner of that seductive mouth quirked up, and he shook his head. “Stubborn, I see.”
She clenched her teeth against the wave of hostility that crashed through her. It wouldn’t help her case to punch the private eye.
“Can we go to your office? I need . . . to hire you,” she said, unable to say the other H word. Unable to ask for help. She had money. She’d get more out of her savings account in the morning and mail Mrs. G back her cash. All she needed was to find that little girl, rescue her, and then maybe get out of town without being killed.
Her shoulders slumped. She didn’t even know how to begin to explain all this to Luke. Luckily, he didn’t ask.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Just like that. Like women always came crashing into him asking for help in the middle of the night. She almost laughed at herself. They probably did.
He stood waiting, silent and watchful, although he tilted his head when the sounds of what might be a full-scale battle inside the bar grew louder. Luckily, she’d never heard that he could read minds, and she’d never been able to penetrate his, either, on those few occasions she’d tried. He was a strange anomaly, but she’d never been bothered by it. Until now, when she wanted to know what he was thinking.
What he was thinking about her.
“Let’s go,” she echoed, nodding firmly and taking a step toward him. She landed on her injured ankle and cried out, then tumbled face-forward toward the sidewalk. Strong arms scooped her up, and she found herself cradled against Luke’s hard chest, her nose pressed against his shirt, breathing in his scent of forest and spice.
“This is not how I expected this to go,” he said softly, almost as if he didn’t want her to hear him. “I think I’m in trouble.”
The door behind them smashed open, and Mountain Man stormed out, carrying an axe.
“I think we’re both in trouble,” Rio said.