This week, I'm featuring and excerpt from The Riding Hood Files, Book 2 in my Twisted Files series. It will be released Fall 2017. Enjoy!
Life has taken an unexpected turn for Stasia Weatherly. After solving the case of the missing Lily Whitaker, Stasia and Brendan have become full partners as private investigators and they’ve taken their relationship to a new level. But, things get complicated when Stasia’s bondmate, Red, hires the duo to find Stasia's missing grandmother and the shifter clan elders. Stasia and Brendan find themselves embroiled in a power struggle between the Kingdom and the Dragon Conclave as they seek the missing shifters and try to solve the case.
Underground is the dark and dingy hole where the city tosses all the unwanted things. It’s the city under the city where the throwaways lurk, ruthlessly ruled by the Triad. Criminals and ner-do-wells thrive in the warren of shanties built in the old, abandoned sewers beneath the city. A thriving community and economy that sprang up from the cast-offs of the Topside where the elitists rule. I hate this place and hate that Red wants me to meet here. It’s more fuel for the years of repressed anger and hate.
Red wasn't home, so Stinky led us to Red’s usual hangout, a dank side passage near The Cutthroat’s Purse. Stinky is within hearing distance, but not with me. Knowing he’s there is a comfort. If I lose control, he’ll jump in.
Red offers a smarmy smile when I step into the dim light that dribbles from the sewer grate above our heads. “Stasia, love, I—”
My full-armed slap leaves a red mark on his face. I clench my fists to keep my claws sheathed. I want to scratch his face off, but Brendan would kill me. At least, I didn’t break Red’s nose. This time.
“I’m sure I deserved that, love.” Red backs up three steps and I follow with a growl rumbling in my throat.
“Oh, you deserve that and much, much, more.” My voice echoes in the stone tunnel.
“Now, love, you need to calm down.” His hands go up to show he’s unarmed, but he’s a shifter. He’s never without a weapon.
“I am calm. And quit calling me love.” The shift shudders under my skin, ready to spring loose at any second. I’d let it out, but it makes it harder to have an actual conversation. Unless, I want to talk with my claws, which I’m happy to do, but at the moment, Red has information.
His eyes widen a fraction. He’s caught my scent. The one that says I’m a hair's breadth away from violence. He lifts his chin, baring his throat in the shifter sign of submission.
Red never submits.
It stops me in my tracks. Cold settles in my belly and disgust and doubt worm their ugly way into my heart. I take four steps back, my hands held rigidly at my sides. “Say your piece.”
One hand drifts up to the carved rose that nestles at my throat. Calm spreads through me as I trace the delicate petals. My cat, which was seconds from springing out, settles and curls up for a nap.
Red runs a hand through his hair. “We’ve got lots to talk about, love.”
I bare my teeth at his blatant disregard of my wishes, but knowing Red, he’s doing it to get hackles up. And it’s working. “Then talk.”
“About what happened—”
“You don’t get to talk about that.” The restless energy from years of ignoring a problem works its way out my legs. The tunnel doesn’t give much room to pace. Three steps one way. Four the other. “I’m here to talk about the case. Nothing else.”
“This is about the case.” His scent is filled with regret and fear, which makes me pause. Red isn’t afraid of anything. “Nana has been trying to get the elders to ease the restrictions on the halfers and shiftless.”
“She’s been working on that since I left,” I say.
“Yeah, but she finally made progress.”
“Okay … what’s that got to do with the case?”
Red’s jaw tightens. Light from the overhead sewer grate paints odd shadows on his face. “Most of the elders have at least one halfer in their families now.”
“What!?” Excitement and wariness war in my blood. “How’s that possible?”
He shrugs. A minute shift of his shoulders. “After you left, things got strange in the clans.”
“You mean after Liam.” Sour anger floods me and coats my tongue in bitterness. It matches the fetid stench of the Underground.
“Yes.” Red refuses to meet my eyes. It’s his fault Liam couldn’t complete his shift and got stuck halfway.
My claws pop out, and it’s all I can do not to attack him. I pace. Back and forth. Back and forth. Calm. Breathe. Calm. The mantra plays on a loop in my head. I can’t look at him. If I do, I’ll attack.
That horrid night replays like a bad movie. Liam, exuberant and hopeful, ready to become a full member of the clan. Red, stoic yet proud, chosen to mentor my little brother through his first shift. Nana had left them in the woods, called away to a birthing. Hours later, Red emerged, bloody and alone. My little brother had shifted partway and gotten stuck, a halfer left to fend for himself, ostracized from the clans. He was fifteen.
My heart broke that night. I’d loved Red before that. Worshiped him. He was my best friend and bondmate. Everything I’d felt for him turned to ash when he stumbled out of the woods without my brother. And when he refused to tell me what happened … well, let’s just say revenge was the first thing that came to mind.
“Stasia, I’m sorry.”
“No, you don’t get to apologize.” I flex my claws as thoughts of murder dance through my mind.
Red sighs. “I know. I just … There’s nothing I can do to make it up to you.”
“You’re a liar. Your apologies are worthless.” I clench my hands. Calm. I have to stay calm. “What happened that night?”
“I tried to help Liam.”
“How? Ogre’s teeth, Red, he’s a halfer because of whatever you did. ” My voice drops into a growl. My cat wants out. She wants to hunt Red, hurt him the way I hurt. It's all I can do to keep her inside.
Red slumps against the grimy wall. “If you want to blame anyone, blame Nana.”
“Oh, I do blame her. I blame her for being so traditional that she would toss a helpless boy into the Underground. But, my brother is a halfer because of you.”
“You don’t know the whole story.”
“Maybe not, but I know you. You’re a selfish bastard.” I spit the words at him. My cat is dangerously close to jumping out. I hang onto the carved rose at my neck, willing it to calm me down. It does. Barely. I mentally thank Brendan’s father for his gift.
“I never left Liam’s side.”
“Then tell me what happened,” I say through gritted teeth.
Red sighs. “I … there are things that I …” His face matches his hair. He clears his throat. “I want to tell you. I’ve always wanted to tell you … but …” The last words come out in a strangled whisper.
My eyes narrow. Red has never had problems talking about anything. “But what?”
“I—” he clears his throat “—your grandmother.” He shakes his head, his mouth opening around words that don’t come out. “I can’t do it.”
Hate chokes me, and I push back tears. I won’t let him see me cry. “It doesn’t matter. This doesn’t matter.” I take another deep breath and let it out slowly. “You’re supposed to be telling me about the missing elders.”
Silence clogs the tunnel as noxious as the scent of rot that surrounds us. I can’t take my eyes off the man I hate, and he refuses to look at me.
Red picks at a loose rock with his toe, rolling it back and forth. “It all started when the Dragon Conclave and the Kingdoms came to renew the Shifter Treaty. Nana has been trying to negotiate changes. Changes that will let the halfers and shiftless stay with the clans. It was right after the first round of negotiations that the first elder went missing.”
“When was that?”
“About a month ago. Nana’s the last.”
“And why aren’t the Constables more involved?” I ask, trying and failing to keep my tone civil.
“You know why.”
“The Constables can’t investigate without the elders permission.” I rub at my temple. Stupid clan laws. “And what about the Conclave? Having the elders go missing during the negotiations doesn’t paint them in the best light.”
“The Kingdoms and Conclave can’t investigate for the same reason that the Constables can’t. The Treaty. They could force the issue, but the would make the Treaty void, and since the Treaty works in their favor …”
“There’s no reason for them to pursue it.” I pick at the paint on my nails. “So you decided to look into it yourself?”
“The seconds met and decided we needed more help.”
“Okay, but why me?”
Red’s eyes flick up to mine, and then away. “It’s … complicated.”
“It started with threats. Letters sent to every elder, warnings that bad things were going to happen if they didn’t let the halfers and shiftless come back. They didn’t take it seriously until Thomas Moore went missing.”
“Tommy Two-Fingers was the first?”
Red nods. “His clan ring was delivered to Nana attached to one of his fingers.”
A morbid thought drifts through my head. Would we have to call him Tommy Three-Fingers now?
“Who delivered it?” I ask.
“Don’t know. The box showed up on her doorstep. She smelled the blood on the package and sent for me. I tracked the scent Underground, but lost it in the Warrens.”
Uneasy, I lower the barrier I’ve built between us, trying to sense any deceit.
“It doesn’t matter.”
The urge to shake Red is so overpowering that I have to hold myself rigid. “Where in the Warrens did you lose the scent?”
His eyes narrow as he watches me. “Near Lorelei’s mansion.”
I bite back the growl that wants to leap out. “What’s she doing in the middle of this?”
He bares his teeth and the canines elongate. He’s fighting his cat as hard as I’m fighting mine. “Are you mixed up with the Triad, love?”
“Brendan and I took a case that was mixed up with Lorelei and her niece, Lily.”
“That was stupid, love.” He prowls in front of me. His emotions are a tangle of possessiveness and anger.
I pull up the wall between us, sturdy and thick. Most of the time I can ignore the random emotions that leak through, but he’s furious, and I can’t keep that out.
“Calm down, Red.” It’s all I can do to keep my cat from joining him. It’s begging to be let out. I grip the rose charm and pray that its soothing magic is enough. Lorelei has a lot to answer for, and if she’s involved with this, it’ll be my pleasure to sink my claws into her pretty little eyeballs.
“She’s a siren, love.”
I build the wall between us thicker, adding more layers until I finally shut him out. “I know. I don’t believe in coincidence. Rule Nine.”
He blinks. “Rule Nine?”
“There’s no such thing as coincidence.” I wish Brendan were here. He’d understand.