It’s Sneak Peek Week. I’ve been eyeball deep in revisions for one of my projects. For this Sneak Peek, I’m offering up the first chapter of The Riding Hood Files. It’s currently free on Kindle Unlimited. Take a peek and enjoy!
Rule seven: Don’t mess with dwarves. You’ll end up at the bottom of a mine shaft. After we finished our last case, Brendan and I didn’t end up at the bottom of a mine shaft, but it was a close call.
The phone jangles and the new receptionist, Jacquie answers it. “Weatherly and Hunter, Private Investigators, how may I direct your call?”
The blonde elf presses her lips together and holds her hand over the receiver. “It’s Mr. Grimm, Miss Weatherly,” she whispers.
“Put him through to my voicemail. We don’t have an update, yet.”
Jacquie nods, her attention going back to the phone call. “I understand your concern, Mr. Grimm.”
A painter is adding my name in gold paint to the giant glass doors. It’s a little thing, but very satisfying.
After the payoff from the Albright case, Brendan moved our office from the seedier side of the city to a high-rise in the Magister’s District. I stifle the urge to sharpen my claws on the furniture. My cat wants to mark its territory in this shiny, polished place, but Brendan wouldn’t approve.
Light pours through plate-glass windows and glints off metal and wood. It’s too new. Too clean. I miss the familiar scent of Brendan’s aftershave mixed with the must of old wood. Creaky floorboards that squealed when he paced in his office. A desk with drawers that didn’t close unless you knew the trick. It wasn’t a pretty place. Not like this one. But, it was home.
“Ms. Dickens wanted to reschedule her appointment to Friday,” Jacquie says as she motions me over to the desk. She is as prim and proper as any elf. Tall and thin, with no sense of humor or adventure. I’ve never understood it. It must be something genetic. Not so much as a single blonde hair is out of place in the tight bun that rests on the top of her head.
“Please call me Stasia,” I say for at least the hundredth time this morning, “and Mr. Hunter prefers Brendan.”
“Yes, Miss, er, Stasia.”
Brendan walks through the door and gives me a cocky grin. His sapphire eyes sparkle with mischief. He’s gotten his dark curls cut short since yesterday. I prefer his hair longer and messy, but the new cut matches his usual white, button-down shirt, plaid tie, and khaki pants.
The painter catches my attention, and a growl rumbles in my throat. “That’s Weatherly with an L-Y. Not L-I-E.”
“Sorry, miss,” the painter mumbles. His scent screams frustration.
I finger the carved rose resting at my throat, willing myself to relax, regain control. The shift prowls under my skin, my panther is restless and ready to spring out any chance she gets. Sprouting fur and claws in the middle of the office is a horrible idea. I grit my teeth and force the memories that haunt me into the back of my mind. Time for that later.
“How’s it going, Miss Weatherly?” Brendan asks.
I roll my eyes at his wink and smug smile. He’s been insufferable lately. This change in our relationship is taking some getting used to. I prefer rules and boundaries, but Brendan likes to fly by the seat of his pants. Mixing romance and business is probably not a good idea, but I wouldn’t change it. Not if it means giving up Brendan.
He follows me into my office and shuts the door. “What’s up?”
The complicated scent of my partner wraps around me: thick woods and shadowy forests coupled with icy mountains and stiff winds. There are so many layers to Brendan, and I love every one of them.
“I got a call from an old” —my words come from between clenched teeth— “acquaintance.”
His eyebrows twitch upwards. “And …?”
“And he has a case for us.” I trace the wood grain of my desk, refusing to look Brendan in the eye. “He’s coming by in a few minutes to give us the details.”
“All right. Who’s the client?”
This is not going to be good. I close my eyes and take another deep breath to settle my nerves. “My bondmate.”
“What!?” The shock in Brendan’s voice tells me he’s not happy. Pair that with the sharp scent of worry, and I’m in for trouble.
“Connell O’Grady, my bondmate. He’s coming by.” The words are sour as I spit them out.
“Why?” A muscle in Brendan’s jaw jumps.
I warned him our relationship would be complicated. Being a shifter, I come with attachments that I can’t break. Namely, a heart bond formed at birth. Only death will break the stupid thing. My chest tightens at the hurt in Brendan’s eyes.
He reaches out and takes my hand, giving it a tug. I resist. This isn’t a good idea. His arms wrap around me, and I can’t help myself. I settle into him, laying my face against his chest.
Brendan once told me that I’m his home. He’s not my home, he’s my rock. My safe harbor. I don’t know what I’ll do when this falls apart. With my secrets, it’s a sure bet that it will.
“Like I said, he has a case for us,” I mutter into his chest.
Brendan tips my chin so that I have to look at him. His blue eyes sparkle with mischief. I’m in so much trouble.
“Are you okay with this?” he asks.
“Not really,” I say, “but we’ll have to face him sometime.”
Brendan kisses my forehead. I savor the feather-light touch, and my cat purrs with contentment. She’s never been like this with anyone else. She curls up in my chest, warm and happy.
“True.” Brendan kisses me again. “I had hoped it would be later.”
“Me, too.” Much later. Like never.
“Any idea what it’s about?”
I shake my head. “He said that it’s urgent and has to do with the clans.”
Brendan stiffens, and his arms tighten around me. “Do you want me to talk to him?”
He knows that I avoid anything to do with the shifter clans, but I’m perfectly capable of handling Red O’Grady. “No, and he said I needed to be here.”
“Fine, but—” A knock on the door interrupts Brendan.
Jacquie pokes her head into the office. “There’s a gentleman here to see you.”
My hands ball up at my sides. Red is hardly a gentleman. Calling him that is an insult to every man that carries even the smallest shred of dignity and honor.
“Send him in,” Brendan says. He steps away from me, crosses his arms, and leans against the wall; a wolf, rangy and dangerous.
Red swaggers into the office past Jacquie. A flutter in my gut is followed closely by hot anger. Red’s a handsome man and knows it. Those auburn curls, bright green eyes, and that wicked smile have set many women’s hearts on fire. Not mine. Not anymore.
“O’Grady.” I pour as much ice into my voice as I can manage.
My claws slip free of my restraint and dig into my palms. It’s all I can do not to launch myself at Red. I scent him. He still smells like the ocean on a summer’s day, but there’s something new. Something underneath his complex scent that doesn’t make sense. My nose wrinkles at the smell.
“Hello, love. You look ravishing.” Red offers one of his charming smiles.
“Can it, Red,” I growl. “You said you had a case.”
He ignores me and turns to Brendan, offering a hand to shake. “Connell O’Grady. My friends call me Red. And you must be Brendan Hunter. I’ve heard all about you.”
The handshake turns into a mini-wrestling match as they try to establish dominance.
“Let me guess, you’re a shifter,” Brendan says.
The air tingles with magic, and a hint of pine and snow washes into the room. I press my lips together to keep from grinning.
Red jerks his hand back and rubs at it. “Nice grip.”
I love it when Brendan plays the magic card. He must have zapped Red good.
“Play nice, boys,” I admonish. “Why are you here?”
“Nana’s gone missing.” Red points a finger at me and pins me in place with his stare. “And you’re next in line for leading the Riding Clan.”
The world slips out from underneath me. Quicksand threatens to close over my head. I grip the edge of my desk to hold myself up. My grandmother is the world’s toughest, most resourceful woman.
“Missing?” I ask, still not believing what Red said.
“Yep. Gone. Along with every other elder in the seven clans.”
“Every one of them?” My vision narrows to Red’s face. Nothing leaks through the heart bond. The walls I’ve put in place go both ways now. “Why not get the Constables involved?”
Red gives me a pointed look. “They are involved, but they can’t go everywhere. I know you have connections Underground. I’m betting you can find information the Constables can’t.”
“Why would someone kidnap all the clan elders?” Brendan asks.
Long-suppressed memories threaten to choke me. “The clan elders control the packs. Without them ….” I swallow the rest of my words. Too many secrets. Too many things that can’t be shared with Brendan because he’s a mage and I’m a shifter. “We’ll take the case.”
“I never had any doubts, love.”
Red winks at me and a challenging growl builds in my chest, but I suppress it. The last thing I need is the Constable’s arresting me for attacking a client, even if that client is Red. He’s got me right where he wants me. There’s no chance that I can back out. Not with what’s at stake.
“You may have left the clans,” Red purrs, “but the clans haven’t left you. Come by my place this afternoon. I’ll fill you in on all the details.”
“Fine.” I try and fail to keep my tone neutral. “We’ll be by later.”
“Not your boy toy, love. Just you.”
“Fine,” I snarl, “but, Brendan and I are partners. I’ll meet with you this once. We do have some things to … discuss.”
Red shrugs, looking smug. “Whatever you wish, love.”
He closes the door, and I grip the edges of the desk. The shift threatens to break loose, and my cat bristles, ready to pounce.
“Whatever you wish,” I grumble, “I hate him.”
“Then why did you take the case?” Brendan asks.
Deep breaths. One. Two. Three. A moment passes. Then two, before I’m calm enough to answer.
“Because Nana is my grandmother, and if I can’t find her, then I have to lead the Riding Clan.” I step into his arms and wrap mine around his waist, breathing in his calming scent. “I was hoping things would stay quiet for a while.”
Laughter rumbles in his chest. “You hate quiet.”
“This could get ugly, Brendan.”
“It could, but we’ve faced off with a psychotic witch hell-bent on revenge. I think we can handle this.”
“You died.” I squeeze him tight. “Don’t forget that “This’ll be dangerous, but you’re right. We can handle it.”
“Ha! You said I’m right.”
I punch him playfully in the shoulder. “Don’t let it go to your head.”
“Fine.” He grins at me. “Let’s get to work.”
Brendan decides to take a trip to the Magister’s Office to see what he can weasel out of his father. If there’s one thing I know about Marcus Hunter, it’s that he’ll be aware of what is happening to the shifters. It doesn’t directly affect mages, but mages and shifters have always had a touchy relationship. As head of the Mage’s Guild, Marcus likes to keep an eye on anything that might be problematic.
My task for the afternoon is meeting Red. He wants to meet with me alone, but that doesn’t mean I won’t take backup.
Red’s place is Underground. I avoid going there as much as possible. Too many memories. None of them good. I need someone to watch my back and make sure I don’t do anything stupid. That means taking someone who can stay in the shadows and knows what to expect beneath the city streets.
I’m not used to field work. At least, not like this. Before becoming a full partner, I’d spent most of my time in the office. Give me a computer and a phone, and I can dig up dirt on anyone. Tracking people out in the world is Brendan’s strength. Mine is uncovering the stuff that people want to remain buried and being the muscle when Brendan needs backup.
Next to Brendan, Stinky is the perfect person to take Underground. The big, hairy lummox is overdue for a visit, and few people are stupid enough to mess with a six-and-a-half-foot half-ogre.
Stinky’s apartment is on South Fairylight which is a few miles from the office. The walk offers me a chance to get some fresh air and calm myself down before meeting with Red.
Winter is in full force. Snow dusts the trees and coats the sidewalk. Piles of it edge the streets, tinged brown and grey from passing cars. My breath puffs out in a cloud, and I pull my scarf higher over my nose. The sky stretches up forever, a shade of blue that reminds me of Nana’s eyes. My heart sinks. Who would kidnap my grandmother?
The idea that the clans are elderless makes my stomach churn. How many teens won’t be able to make their first shift? How many halfers and shiftless will flood the Underground, cast out because of some line in an outdated treaty?
I clench my jaw around a frustrated yowl. A passerby shoots me a startled glance and nearly walks into a light post in an effort to avoid me.
Deep calming breaths. One. Two. Three. Control. I need to get myself under control.
Beyond the overwhelming emotions, I haven’t been able to shift into any other form but my cat since we ended the Albright case. Every other shape I try ends up as my panther. After the torture, I’ve been an emotional mess and the ability to shift is tied to a shifter’s emotions. Not even Brendan knows just how little control I have.
The rose charm that Marcus gave me helps some, but I don’t want to be dependent on it. Nana would be furious if she knew. Another deep breath. Seeing Red hit a nerve. I hadn’t spoken to him since his betrayal. I left him at the altar after what he did. Working with him is going to test the limits of my patience.
I cross the street to Stinky’s apartment building. It’s nothing fancy, but it's better than the dump he lived in Underground. Once his warrants were cleared up, he decided to stay Topside. I don’t blame him. The view up here is infinitely better than abandoned sewer tunnels filled with shanties and garbage.
The elevator groans its way up to the third floor, and the door grinds open. I make a note to take the stairs on my way out.
Faded ivy print crawls across grimy, green carpet in the hall. A baby wails from the apartment at the end, and the entire building smells like old shoes and gym socks.
Third door on the right, and I ring the bell, a half-hearted buzz that sounds like dying, angry wasps. Wood creaks from inside followed by the heavy shuffling footsteps of a half-ogre. I untie my scarf and unbutton my coat. The door cracks open enough for me to see Stinky’s watery blue eyes.
“Stasia, my girl!” His bellow echoes in the hall, and I stop myself from clapping my hands over my sensitive ears. “Give me a second to get the lock.”
He closes the door and the security chain rattles. After a second or two, the door whips open and the big lug grins at me.
A squashed nose gives Stinky the appearance of an ape crossed with a saber-tooth tiger. It’s a disturbing sight to have something with fangs as long as my hand smiling at me. Mix that with the overwhelming scent of ogre and Stinky is a potent fellow.
“Hello.” I return his smile with one of my own.
The brute pulls me into a bear hug. I can barely wrap my arms around his thick waist, but I do my best to return the squeeze. I’m not short or particularly small. Stinky is just that massive.
“How’s my girl?” he asks.
“I’m not your girl.” I look up at him and wink. This is an argument we’ve had since we first met.
“Of course you are.” He squishes me tighter and then lets me go. “How’s Brendan? Still getting you into trouble?”
“I sense a ‘but’ in there.” Stinky motions to a derelict couch and closes the door. The apartment is sparsely furnished. A sofa and chair in the living room. A tiny dinette set in the kitchen. The furniture is well used but serviceable.
I sit on the edge of the couch. “I’m the one causing trouble this time.”
Stinky lowers his body into a spindly chair that groans under his weight. “Pfft. What kind of trouble could you be in?”
“Oh.” He rubs a thick finger over his bottom lip. “So what do you need?”
Stinky knows a little about the clans, more than most who aren’t shifters, but he doesn’t know everything. This goes against all the rules that Nana ground into my stubborn head.
Shifters only talk to other shifters about clan business. Shifters and mages don’t mix. Nana’s stupid rules rattle around in my brain until I ruthlessly silence them. I’ve got my own set of rules now. Nana’s rules don’t matter.
“What exactly do you know about the clans?” I ask, tapping a nail on my thigh. The paint is chipped, and Brendan still owes me a spa day.
“There are seven clans, grouped by the animals they shift into. The Littles are pigs, the Hoods are wolves, and—”
I hold up a hand to stop him. “Do you know about the elders and the Shifter Treaty?”
“Someone has been kidnapping the clan elders, including my grandmother.”
Stinky gives a low whistle. “That’s big. Your grandmother is not only head of the Riding clan, but Matron to all the clans. Isn’t the Treaty up for renewal this year?”
I nod. “Without the elders or the Matron, the Treaty can’t be renewed. Everything reverts back to the Kingdoms.”
“Does that mean you’re—?”
“Not if I can help it.” I swallow the lump of distaste that lodges in my throat. “Red is our new client.”
Stinky’s eyes look like saucers. “How’s Brendan taking that?”
I shrug. “Fine.”
“But you’re not okay with it.”
Stinky may look like a brainless lump, but he’s nothing of the sort.
“I’m just getting used to the idea of Brendan and me. I don’t need this.” I rub my hand over my pants.
“I know you and Red don’t get along—”
A low growl rumbles in my chest. “That’s a nice way of saying I’d like to—”
“Eviscerate him? Rip his throat out?” Stinky grins. “I don’t blame you. He’s a slimy bastard.”
My growl turns to laughter. “That’s what I love about you, Stinky. You understand me.”
“See I told you. You’re my girl.” His expression turns serious. “What do you need, Stasia? What can I do to help?”
A lump forms in my throat. Stinky’s a good guy. He took me in when I first arrived Underground. Showed me the ropes, taught me how to fend for myself, how everything outside the clans worked.
“I need to meet with Red. He wants me to come alone, but I don’t trust myself to play nice. Not after what happened with Farran.”
Stinky bares his fangs. “I wish I could’ve ripped that bastard’s throat out myself. Stupid, worthless dwarf.”
The memory bites me hard. It wasn’t just Melania that I’d killed the day Brendan almost died.
Blood, hot in my mouth. The sour stink of fear. The last quiver of Farran’s dying breath.
My cat purrs at the memory while I want to retch. I savored his death more than Melania’s. It was his hand that held the Rod of Dominion. His laughter that haunts my nightmares. Both of them deserved their end, but I’d never taken a life before. Even when I fought in the Arenas.
My fingers curl around the cushion of the couch as my claws puncture through the fabric. “I need someone who can stop me if I lose control.”
“And Red can’t do that?”
“He’s never been good at stopping me. Only pissing me off.”
“Okay, but on two conditions.”
“What are they?” I ask warily.
“You tell Brendan everything.”
The window in the apartment doesn’t have an impressive view—only the brick of the building next door—but I don’t want to look at Stinky while I contemplate the wisdom of accepting his terms. “Everything?”
“Everything,” he repeats.
“And the second one?”
It’s Stinky’s turn to refuse to meet my gaze. “The dragons have a representative in the city. To deal with the fallout from Melania’s death. He’s staying with Magnus Albright.”
“I want to meet with him,” Stinky says.
“Why?” Dragons and ogres, or half-ogres in this case, don’t usually mix. It’s a volatile combination, so I’m more than curious to hear his answer.
Stinky shifts in his chair. “That’s … personal.”
My finger taps against my thigh. Faster and faster until I press my fingernails into my palm. This isn’t a good idea, but I can’t break rule three. I’m likely to kill Red if I don’t have someone waiting in the wings to stop me if my temper gets out of hand. “I agree.”
“Good girl.” Stinky stands and offers me an arm. “Shall we go?”
I take it with the sinking feeling that I’m about to step into all kinds of trouble. “Let’s get this over with.”
He leads me out of his apartment and to the nearest entrance to the Underground, a sewer grate in the parking lot.
“Do you know where to find Red?” I ask.
Stinky snorts. “Everyone Underground knows where to find Red. Just look for the trail of broken dreams and bodies.”
“I hate shifter clan politics.”
“So does everyone else, my girl. You lot are messier and noisier than all the dwarven clans put together.”
“At least, we don’t kill everyone who gets on our nerves.”
“No, you just toss them Underground and let them rot or send Red to deal out punishment.”
That sour twist hits my stomach again. That’s why I left. Too many people tossed aside for stupid reasons. “Tradition stinks.”
“So does the Underground, but you get used to it.”
“Very true.” The sewer grate groans when I tug it open. “After you.”