I woke to the sound of a jiggling doorknob. I had spent nearly three years as a federal agent and had been a cop for over seven years. Two of those had been spent in various undercover operations. Deep sleep was a distant memory. My hand crept across cool cotton sheets to the dagger and SIG Sauer on my nightstand. I wasn't the fiercest thing in the city, not by a long shot, but breaking into my house was pretty stupid. And ballsy.
My bare feet were silent on the cold, hardwood floor. On my toes, I stalked out of the bedroom, down the short hallway, and to the front entrance. The door was hollow wood with a core of steel. The hinges were reinforced and Shifter proof. Or so the salesman had guaranteed. I hadn't had a chance to put them to the test. If I was very lucky, I never would.
There were three locks on the door. My fingers were steady as I quietly unlocked the three bolts and stepped back. The jiggling of the doorknob stopped. Either the would-be intruder would run away or he would burst in. I hoped he burst in. A Canadian cold front had blown through that morning and I wasn't dressed for a foot chase.
I brushed my fingertips over the sheathed dagger tucked into the waistband of my flannel pajama pants before flicking off the gun's safety. I stretched my senses and tasted the magic in the air. There was something faint, Shifter mixed with death magic and human and blood magic and my own wards. It was too much for my tired brain to sort out. The door slowly swung open. Cold, autumn air swirled around my ankles. My eyes zeroed in on the short shadow that fell across the floor. A midget? Troll? Leprechaun? No. The magic didn't feel right.
"Stop right there, moron," I ordered. My voice was thick with exhaustion and sounded like I'd swallowed a mouthful of gravel. Definitely not my best sound.
The shadow froze. "Aunt Gracie?" A high, thready voice spoke my name. I thumbed the safety back on and set the gun on the small bookshelf. Pale hair came into view. Tiny, pink-polished fingers clutched the edge of the door.
I rushed forward, swept the slender young girl into my arms. Lily Lassiter. My six-year-old niece. One of the handful of family members I had left. She was ice cold, shoeless, and smelled like blood.
Fat tears dripped out of her round blue eyes, down frost-nipped cheeks, and onto my shoulder. I buried a hand in her wind-tousled bob and balanced her on a hip while my other hand quickly checked for injuries. She wasn't hurt, but dried blood was streaked across her arms and neck. Her feet were scraped and bloody.
I kicked the door shut, flipped the locks. Lily clung to me like a chimpanzee. I didn't mind. Panic clawed at my stomach, burned the back of my throat. Holding on to Lily was the only thing keeping me grounded. After pocketing my gun, I carried her to the living room and sank onto the tan leather loveseat. Leather was uncomfortable in summer, but it cleaned well. Resistance to stains, especially strange fluids and bloodstains, was an important trait for a person in my line of work.
Lily hiccupped. I tugged the soft, woven blanket off the back of the couch and draped it around Lily's shaking shoulders before rubbed soothing circles across her thin back. The pink cotton nightgown was familiar. I'd given it to her for her last birthday. Rosie Posie was her favorite cartoon character, though I found the perpetually cheerful tot creepy. When the sobs quieted, I brushed clumps of blonde hair off Lily's wet, flushed cheek.
"What happened, kiddo?"
She pulled back, scrubbed the back of a blood-stained hand across her forehead. "D-d-daddy is dead."
I'd assumed as much. There was no other reason for Lily to be at my house in such a condition. Expecting it didn't stop it from slamming into my gut like a fist. My throat ached and my eyes burned. Everything, from the roots of my hair to the tips of my frigid toes, ached. I was shattering, breaking apart on the inside while my skin held firm. If the pain continued, there would be nothing left but an empty shell.
"Daddy!" Lily wailed. Her arms clenched around my neck. She buried her face in the curve of my neck and shook with the force of her sobs. I pressed my lips to the top of her head. She hadn't been old enough to truly grieve over the loss of her mother, but she would feel the pain of losing her father.
Three years earlier, Lily's mother, my older sister Mercy, had been murdered by a rampaging werewolf. By her husband's younger brother, who'd thought she was having an affair with her boss. He'd been wrong and then he'd been dead.
Anything involving Shifters was usually left to the Order. The Houston Order controlled all the Shifters in a six county radius. Clans, classified by animal family, had some measure of autonomy but all were part of the Order. And all answered to Nathaniel Lassiter, the Rex.
Technically, it had been Lassie's job to investigate the murder and punish the guilty, but Gregory Lassiter had ripped out my sister's throat and desecrated her body. Lassie had kept him under house arrest while they investigated the matter. Afraid the Rex's baby brother was going to get away with a slap on the wrist, I'd locked myself in a room with Greg, forced a silver locket containing my sister's picture down his throat, and then cut out his heart. I'd left the broken body, minus the heart, on Lassie's doorstep.
It had been the final nail in the coffin of my up-and-down relationship with Lassie. For a time we'd been the best of friends, almost closer than lovers and on our way diamond rings and vows and a lacy white gown. Then there had been betrayal and separation, and a slow reconnecting. Murder and distrust were a gaping chasm we couldn't cross with a bridge of memories of the good old days. There were times when I missed him. Mostly when it was quiet or I was doing something that reminded me of him, which was, unfortunately, often. Every time I saw him, though, I was reminded of why I was better off without the egotistical, patronizing jerk.
Paul Lassiter, the middle Lassiter brother, was Lily's father. He and I were on better terms. We both wanted what was best for Lily and he'd been as thirsty for Greg's blood. I helped Paul with Lily and tried not to interfere with her Shifter education. One day my niece would grow fur and fangs and there wasn't a damn thing I could do to stop it. My sister had become a Shifter to marry Paul, she'd chosen the Shifter lifestyle, and I would honor her decision. Paul was my closest friend, my brother of sorts. And he was gone.
"Who murdered him, Lils?" I kept my tone gentle, fought to swallow back the grief. Lily needed me and I'd die before I let the kiddo down.
"Man in a coat. Dark man." She shivered against me. "Smelled like eggs."
A dark man in a coat. Or a man in a dark coat. Who smelled like eggs. Houston had three million citizens. Half of them were men. It was likely all of them owned a coat. Eggs, though? Some magic smelled like eggs. Homeopathic medicine smelled like boiled eggs. Death magic smelled like rotten eggs. Tracer spells smelled like scrambled eggs. Certain curses smelled like egg salad.
I pressed my palm against Lily's sweat-dotted forehead and stretched my senses. Her mind felt so fragile, so precious. She recoiled, threw up a shield.
Average citizens didn't bother with shields. Reading someone's mind without permission was against the law. Only in the direst of situations could I use my ability while performing my duties as a cop. Telepaths were branded with a tiny blue star on the back of their left hand as soon as their abilities manifested. Lily's shields were weak. I hadn't taught her and Paul would have warned me if he had. The construct was painfully familiar. Lassie.
"Shh… presh. It's me. Aunt Grace. I just need to take a peek."
The shield collapsed. I sorted through Lily's recent memories. Under normal circumstances I would have simply replayed the memories while I was in her head and she was conscious, but I couldn't do that do her. I couldn't force her to watch them again.
Ancient, powerful words fell from my lips. If she was in a trance, I could view the memories without subjecting her to a horror movie. Her eyelids drifted shut. Her sobs stilled and her breath grew slow and even.
I pressed the play button on Lily's memories. She was asleep in her princess bed. The splintering of wood had roused her. She'd laid perfectly still under her canopy while her father screamed. Glass shattered, the walls shook, and Paul howled. The echo of it sent a shiver down my spine. Through the open bedroom door, she'd caught a glimpse of a tall, pale man in a long, dark coat. He smelled like rotten eggs. She'd checked her father, drenched her hands in his blood, and had raced out of the house.
I slipped out of Lily's head and woke her from her trance. She blinked up at me with glazed, red-rimmed eyes. "Aunt Gracie?"
I swallowed and kissed the top of her head. She'd gotten her eyes and the Shifter magic from her father, but the blonde hair and small-boned frame were all from my side of the family. She was a mini-Mercy.
"Will you find the Egg Man?"
"Yes." Resolve stiffened my spine, hardened in my stomach like a stone. "I'll find him and make him bleed."
Lily fell asleep in my arms. I carried her to the bathroom and sat her on the vanity. She'd roused momentarily while I'd cleaned the blood off her soft skin and bandaged her feet. In my bedroom, I'd changed her out of the dirty gown and into one of my old t-shirts. The nightgown ended up in the trash can. I wondered if she'd ever look at Rosie Posie the same.
It was just after midnight. I'd been up since four the previous morning and had spent the day training telepaths for the Houston Police Department's Para-Unit. Lily was huddled under my blankets and I knew from experience her soft snores could lull a person to dreamland, but I couldn't sleep.
I had to call Lassie. His brother, his former Second, was dead. If the Shifters got there and found Lily missing, they'd tear apart the city looking for her. I couldn't subject the good citizens of Houston to a Shifter rampage. The Rex was known to throw a hell of a hissy when things didn't go his way.
I reached for my cell phone. I prayed Lassie wasn't entertaining any overnight guests. My finger was steady as I scrolled through my contacts and found his number. A low, husky voice barked into the phone after the second ring.
A growl rumbled in my ear. It was not a good time to use the nickname I'd given him, the one I knew he hated, but a habit was a habit. "It's Grace."
"I know who it is!"
I licked my lips, blinked back tears. His sharp, canine ears would pick up every sound I made. Damn wolf. I forced my voice to remain steady. "Nate, Paul is dead. I have Lily."
The phone was silent for a moment. The insistent buzz of a disconnected call followed. I pressed the button to stop the buzz and sat down on my couch to wait. The King of the Beasts was on his way.