FUSED Chapter One

Chapter One

“They’re like the bloody Boy Scouts,” Sullens muttered beside me, scowling at the encampment at the bottom of the hill. His comparison wasn’t completely off base. The wolves had obviously anticipated The Rain’s locked doors. They’d knocked only once when they arrived. I’d watched from a window when they returned to their vehicles, but I hadn’t felt any sense of victory. Three months had passed since my parents had been murdered, and I’d managed to come up with excuses and justifications to keep both the vampires and the werewolves from entering The Rain.

Until yesterday, when I’d tried to postpone their arrival yet again. Octavian Lehr, the most influential alpha in North America and one of The Rain’s self-appointed gatekeepers, had made it clear he would not allow another Turnover to pass without his sanctioned werewolves entering the Null.

“This is acceptable,” Jared, the vampire standing to my left, said. He’d been advocating for the reopening of The Rain ever since I dragged him out of Arcuro’s compound, promising if I did so, he would “instigate nothing” with the wolves or vampires.

That wouldn’t help if they instigated something with him. He’d married Lehr’s daughter, and both the alpha werewolf and Jared’s master wanted him dead.

A crisp mountain wind blew across the land, shaking the treetops to the west and east. The werewolves’ tents were well secured within the Null. They looked expensive and new, and in a clearing between the largest two canvas structures, the wolves had set up a mobile kitchen. Long tables connected to stoves and plastic sinks, and instead of doing something as mundane as roasting meat over a fire, they’d hauled in a barbecue pit big enough to cook for an army.

Honestly, the setup was damn impressive.

But I couldn’t let it stand.

“They have to go,” I said.

Sullens sighed. He, too, wanted to reopen The Rain—all the staff did. They wanted a return to normalcy, to the time when we turned over the guest rooms to Lehr’s sanctioned werewolves and to Arcuro’s sanctioned vampires. They regretted that my parents were dead—some even admitted they didn’t like Lehr and Arcuro holding the power of gatekeepers—but no one cared enough to change the status quo.

Too bad. I owned The Rain now. I wouldn’t allow the status quo to return.

“You have no choice,” Jared said. “You must compromise.”

“Would you compromise?” I countered.

His profile was as stony as the Appalachians rising above the treetops. Of course he wouldn’t compromise. Vampires as old as he was were used to always getting their way.

“Ms. Rain,” Sullens said, “these wolves did not kill your parents. Lehr did not kill your parents.”

True. A coven of witches and the stray werewolves they’d recruited had killed them. Shelli, the coven’s leader, had confessed to it. Then, when all hell broke loose at Gamecraft & Witchery, Shelli had escaped.

A bitter anger made my muscles tense. Astrid and I might have broken her coven, but Shelli was shrewd and deadly, and she had years of experience as the head of the Whitmore coven. People feared her for a reason. Her continued existence was a problem.

Jared turned to me. “You have two options: allow them to stay or start a war.”

Knots twisted in my stomach. I’d been doing my damnedest to avoid war. To have any chance of winning it, I’d have to enlist the help of paranorms. There were a few who might have my back. Garion, The Rain’s bartender and the only employee who’d known me before I left home. Phedre and Thordis would fight because they were Valkyrie—that’s what they did. And despite Jared’s protests, he would get involved too. He didn’t have a choice. He was trapped in The Rain until we found a way to get rid of Arcuro.

Others might decide to side with me as well, but that didn’t mean I wanted them to. It would make them targets, and my actions had resulted in the deaths and the torture of paranorms before. I couldn’t be responsible for that again.

Jared and Sullens both watched me, waiting for my decision.

My jaw clenched as I stared down at the encampment. There had to be something else I could try, some way to avoid involving the staff and to circumvent Lehr and Arcuro. Maybe if I…

I blinked. Well, why the hell not?

“I’m going down there,” I said. I made it three steps before Jared cut off my path.

“Why?” he demanded.

“To have a conversation.” I moved left to go around him.

He caught my arm. “You cannot go on your own.”

I looked at his hand, then glared back up at him.

He didn’t look apologetic, but he released me. “Too many people know the truth.”

By truth, he meant loophole, the oh-so-vague language in the treaty that established the Null zone. I’d grown up believing my family, appointed as the Null’s caretakers, was protected, that paranorms couldn’t hurt us. Most of the paranormal world believed it as well, but there were some who doubted, some who read between the lines and wondered if there might be ways around it.

Some who, like Shelli, had already found ways around it.

“I know,” I said, and because Jared acted as if the whole paranormal world was plotting accidents for me to walk into, I added, “I’ll be careful.”

A few long seconds passed before Jared stepped back. He deserved credit for that. He was an Aged vampire, Arcuro’s oldest scion, and he was used to people falling over themselves to please him.

I headed toward the camp and the horde of werewolves, all in human form because the Null stripped them of their magic. That was why The Rain was an oasis. During the week of the full moon, werewolves sought the peace of the Null to fight the beasts inside them and to quiet the voices in their heads. Most wolves could handle their pack’s constant flood of images and emotions, but a small subset could not. They became moonsick, crazed, a danger to themselves and others, and most importantly in some people’s opinions, they were a risk to the secret of the paranormal world’s existence.

The smell of smoking BBQ teased my nose before the wind whisked it away, leaving behind a faint scent of new-tent smell, which was surprisingly similar to the smell of a new car except more plasticky. The men and women who noticed my approach didn’t look worried about their stay. Lehr had probably told them this camp was a prearranged agreement. Either that or they were fully confident the werewolf striding toward me could handle everything.

Blake looked like he could wrangle a burning comet. He moved with a self-assurance that was impossible to overlook. Even if he’d been an ordinary-looking human—something he most definitely wasn’t—that confidence was my kryptonite, and the more I learned about him, the harder it was to ignore my attraction to him. That made him dangerous, especially outside the Null where his magic multiplied his allure.

His dark brown eyes locked on me, but there was something in the way he carried himself, something in the set of his shoulders and the slight tilt of his head that said he was aware of every man, woman, and creature that breathed the air around us.

He focused behind me, and I stiffened, worried Jared or Sullens might have followed me. But then his gaze met mine again, and something in his eyes reminded me of the way he’d looked at Nora and Jared’s wedding. That was the last time I’d seen him. He’d worn a suit. He’d smiled. He’d been relaxed and carefree and outwardly unconcerned that Lehr would undoubtedly punish him for his attendance.

I’d tried not to worry. Nora said Blake was a valuable asset, a deadly fighter who was proficient and competent. She thought her father was more likely to demote him rather than kill him. With the way Blake stood there radiating confidence, it looked like maybe Lehr hadn’t delivered any punishment at all.

“Was this your idea?” I nodded toward the camp behind him. He had a talent for schemes that walked the line between being irritating and infuriating. This was exactly the type of thing he would do.

“It might be.” His tone and his shrug made me überaware of the way his black T-shirt hugged the muscles of his chest and arms. A five-o’clock shadow darkened his jaw just enough to make my stomach flip, a sensation I quickly snuffed out.

I crossed my arms and made sure I looked unimpressed and bored. I had no plan to let him see that I was even remotely attracted to him, and I didn’t want him to know I was grateful for this scheme, this pressure tactic. Blake knew my human friends. He knew the paranorms who were becoming more than just acquaintances. He knew how much I hated the control Lehr and Arcuro exerted over their secret world, and if he’d been a cruel man, he would have used that knowledge to hurt me.

Blake wasn’t that type of man. He was the type who showed up at his best friend’s wedding despite his alpha forbidding any acknowledgment of the marriage.

“I can’t let you stay,” I said.

“And you can’t make us go.” He slipped his hands into the pockets of his jeans, making it look like he planned to be there awhile.

“Are you sure about that?” I asked.

The corner of his mouth quirked up. “The only way to get us to leave is to forcibly remove us. You can’t do that on your own, and you won’t get the staff involved.”

He knew me too damn well.