With shaking hands, I slid over and stuck my thumb on the groove, reaching into the small hole with my other hand to feel around for something that screamed “open the secret entrance this way!” My middle finger slid across a raised area that moved slightly when pressed. A button!
“I got it,” I whispered, adrenaline pumping through my blood.
The loudness of the voices increased, and through the tangle of words I could swear I heard “smell.”
“Shit, shit, shit, shit…” I pressed the groove as hard as I could and a little slat in the wood that I hadn’t even noticed toggled downward.
“That is not proper language for a young lady…” the old man said in disapproval.
“When my life is in danger, the very last thing I am is a fucking lady.” I jabbed the button as hard as I could. My nail bent back painfully. The voices increased in the hallway.
“Bugger fuckballs, come on!” I contemplated abandoning my efforts and diving behind one of the many horrible attractions in the room. The voices were right on me, now, nearly at the top of the steps. A deep baritone rolled down the hall.
The man moved in to help. “If you’ll just—”
The button clicked. The hidden door popped. The crack grew wider.
Heart in my throat, I yanked it open, grimacing at the mournful wail of old, unused hinges. When the opening was big enough, I slipped in, scraping myself against a jagged piece of metal.
The voices paused, possibly because they’d heard the noise. If I’d had more time, I would’ve waited to close the hidden door, but they were right down the hall.
Gritting my teeth, I pulled the door toward me, my hand brushing against cold metal. A handle. I gripped it and pulled harder, the squeal raking across my bones. Wood groaned. Something clicked. Darkness enveloped me.
Kieran stood at the windows in the west sitting room, staring out at the sparkling ocean. The view took his breath away, easily the very best thing about his father’s house. It made the odd choice of décor almost bearable. It also had a way of melting his stress and loosening his shoulders, allowing him a few quiet moments of harmony.
His phone vibrated once in his pocket, a text or email.
Jogged from the quiet moment, he pulled the device out of his pocket and glanced at the screen. Jack’s name came up— That hellion dosed me. I just woke up face-first in the weeds. The girls are on the loose and the shifter kid is with them.
He felt his eyebrows lower. Why would Bria want Jack out of the way? What was she planning?
Fear seized his heart.
Had his father gotten to Bria? Did he know what Alexis really was?
He turned from the window, but before he could take two steps, his phone vibrated again.
Bria: I hear you’re in your father’s house. What a strange coincidence. So am I.
All Kieran could do was stare for a moment.
Another text came in.
Bria: I was just about to animate a cadaver. Should I still do that, or are you going to lend a hand, or…
He started toward the stairs immediately, fear and violence pulsing through him in waves. His father had just gone up with Sodge to check out some strange smell in the trophy room. Sodge was a retired Elite, something like Kieran’s Six, and had been blessed with a sliver of his father’s power. The older butler couldn’t feel magic or power level, but he had heightened smell, one of the few things age hadn’t stolen.
Alexis had wanted to check out the trophy room. That and a few other rooms were on that list his mother had given her.
Jack never would’ve let them into this house without Kieran.
He clenched his jaw. Bria and Alexis had gone too far this time. They were endangering their lives, his mom’s future, and his intricate plans. If his father caught them…
Where are you? Kieran typed out to Alexis, rounding the bottom of the stairs.
A return text immediately appeared on the screen. This is Mordecai. I have her phone. Lexi is with Bria.
Where are you? he typed again, to Bria this time.
Second floor. Some sort of orgy room or something. There are pillows and sex toys everywhere.
Kieran stilled, halfway up the stairs. His father only used that room when entertaining his revolving harem. They’d be safe in there until Kieran could distract his father and send them out.
He flicked through possibilities as another text came in.
I sent Alexis to the third floor.
Kieran’s fingers tightened on his phone. Why the fuck would the paid protection send her mark to another location?
He started forward again. There were two creaky steps on the stairwell to the third floor. He’d cultivated those warnings himself. If they’d been disturbed, he would’ve heard it from his current location.
She was still trapped on the second floor.
Hold, he typed as he walked, sweat coating his forehead. Let me assess the situation.
He slipped the phone into his pocket and picked up the pace.
His father and Sodge stood at the dragon scale desk, glancing around at the various disgusting displays of misspent power. Kieran loathed the trophy room, which made him want to tear his father’s head from his shoulders and add it to the other hideous things hanging on the walls. To keep from telegraphing an unusual interest in the room, he stalled in the doorway like he always did.
His father glanced up with a perplexed expression.
Kieran looked around, as though reading his father’s confusion and trying to discern the problem. He dropped his gaze when he didn’t see anything. It was unwise to appear too interested in his father’s activities.
“I was thinking about going for a swim,” Kieran said, taking a risk. Before the budget meeting earlier, his father had mentioned he wanted to speak with him. Valens had left work early to head home for their discussion, so Kieran figured he had pressing items to discuss. Hopefully that would keep his focus now. “Did you need to talk to me about something, or can it wait until after...”
“Kieran, come in here for a moment, if you would.” His father gestured him closer, the perplexed expression sticking firm.
In keeping with his normal behavior, Kieran glanced behind him at the hall before taking a few nonchalant steps farther into the room. His phone vibrated in his pocket.
“What’s up?” he said, taking out his phone and glancing at the screen.
Jack: I’ve got a lock on Bria’s car. It’s five blocks from your father’s house. Are you home yet?
He fired off a reply. They’re in the house. Bria is covered for now. Alexis unaccounted for. Get the team closer.
“Do you smell anything…odd?” his father asked, walking out from behind the desk. He paused by an old chest that held heavens knew what. He glanced at the floor and then turned toward the back of the room. “It’s faint. I only get it occasionally.”
Kieran shook his head before taking a few steps in his father’s direction. His stomach curdled as the tantalizing aroma of Alexis’s magic seeped into his body and energized his tired mind. He loved that smell—entrancing, strangely intimate, and desperately addicting.
He took a step toward the back of the room, catching another whiff. Pretending he didn’t know what it was, he glanced at the ground and looked at the surfaces around him. “Did the maids put in an air freshener?”
“Oh…” Sodge put out a finger as though he were remembering something from long ago. “Priscilla was complaining about the stale smell of a few rooms the other day.” He looked at the baseboards. “I had forgotten, sir. Excuse me. That must be it.”
Valens’s expression withered, but he didn’t react. He had a soft spot where Sodge was concerned, one of his few.
With a last glance around, Valens turned toward the double doors. “It’s nice, at any rate.”
“It is. Faint, though,” Kieran said, going back to his phone. He tapped into his email as he followed his father out, doing everything he could think of to feign disinterest.
He hadn’t lied— the smell was faint. Alexis had been in that room, but she wasn’t anymore.
He had to find her before his father did.
“Follow me,” I heard as I waved my hands in the air in front of me. Inky darkness filled my vision and stale air clogged my throat.
“How the hell can I follow you when I can’t see anything,” I whispered. The words drifted out into the nothingness before dropping away. They didn’t echo. “There aren’t stairs in here, are there? Or a big pit with spikes at the bottom?”
“Turn on the ultra violets and then you’ll be able to see just fine,” the man said. He was talking about the plane where the Line beckoned. “That was my greatest discovery. The pull of the afterlife was compelling at first, I will say, but eventually you learn to ignore it. You’ll move faster if you stop dragging your feet.”
“I don’t want to move faster,” I said, stopping. “You never answered my question about the pit.”
I slipped into a light trance, and the Line materialized almost immediately. A light breeze fluttered my soul and the colors morphed into strange fluorescent hues, like an overexposed photograph.
“You’re not quite there,” the man said. “You have to go a little closer…”
But I’d never gone closer to the Line, I’d always pulled the Line closer to me. The distinction was a small one, but it was telling, too. Kieran’s words drifted into my memory—I used the power, it didn’t use me. Apparently, I always had.