I blindly moved through the dark void, searching for a way into the fae nightclub while trying not to hyperventilate. Thundering music still rattled my bones, so the entrance to Shade had to be here somewhere.
Unless the bouncer tricked me and magicked my ass to some gnarly witch prison.
Soft velvet brushed my fingers, and I grabbed the heavy fabric, yanking it aside. Strobe lights washed over the dim interior and painted the sea of gyrating bodies in vibrant colors. I sucked in a shaky breath, lust and desperation lingering beneath the mixture of sweat, alcohol, and perfume.
Nope. Not a prison.
I stumbled to an empty spot and clutched a pole wrapped in waxy ivy vines for support while my senses adjusted to the sudden chaos. My eyes widened at the sheer size of the two-story room. Trees lined the walls, massive limbs hanging to create private canopies for the swanky VIP sections. Low-lying mist swirled around the figures cramming the dance floor, perched at tall tables, and congregating near the bar carved from a gigantic boulder.
My breath of relief spilled into the smoky air. Now that I’d escaped whatever might or might not have been following me, what the hell was I supposed to do?
I withdrew my wallet from the slightly soggy pocket of my leather jacket and checked the scant contents. My lips puckered. Ten dollars wouldn’t get me far in a place like this.
Movement along my shoulder sent me jerking back.
What was that!
Had someone crept up beside me?
Instead, one of the vines had uncoiled from the pole and tried tangling in my hair.
Tightness crept into my chest as I craned my head back, taking in the plant life gently twisting and curling while lights twinkled between them.
My jaw dropped. Did I take a walk through an enchanted dark forest? Everything in Shade had a life all its own. Anything could be lurking in the thick shadows. I wouldn’t be surprised if the stools fashioned from tree stumps dragged out their roots and began dancing—or killing the creature sitting on top.
“Watch out!” A waitress carrying a tray of colorful drinks slinked past, her gold bikini top nearly blinding me. She whipped back in my direction, her eyebrows arching toward her hairline. “Well, that’s interesting.”
My shoulders stiffened. “Yeah, I’m a real anomaly.”
The air moved around her, stirring long locks of cinnamon. “I’d be careful if I were you.”
“So I’ve been told.” Was that a warning or a threat?
As a faerie—not the cute, pointy-eared, winged creatures humans imagined—she could control at least one of the four natural elements. Air seemed to be her specialty. Would she use it to attack me?
Her nose crinkled as she eyed my disheveled appearance then jerked her chin toward a curtain of moss tucked amongst two gnarled tree trunks. “You might want to hang out in the nightworlders’ bar through there. You’re scaring the humans.” The fae disappeared into the throng, her gossamer skirt trailing behind her like a ghost.
Heat blossomed in my cheeks. I didn’t look that bad, did I?
Yes, I did.
Another vine began to twist along my arm, tiny suckers attaching to my jacket. Hell no. I lurched away from the frisky plant and bumped into a solid frame. A pair of vibrant blue eyes locked onto mine, shooting a line of ice down my spine.
This was just not my night.
“Hello, beautiful. I don’t see a lot of witches here.” A Cheshire cat smile melted across his stunning, flawless face. But beyond that charming exterior awaited a monster. “What’s your name?”
When I tried to angle my body away from his, he countered my every move with one of his own to bring us closer. Sweat rolled down my back. Most demons were only after one thing—souls. And I wasn’t about to let this one feast on any part of mine. After the bad things I’d done in the name of my former coven and the grand witch, I needed every ounce of my remaining soul.
“Playing hard to get?” His unsettling gaze dipped to my shirt, tracing the lines of my pink bra still visible beneath the damp material.
My molars ground, and I shoved back the power in my veins begging to be released. This situation would only take a sharp turn from bad to worse if I attacked him in the nightclub. “I just want to be left alone.”
Without looking back, I slipped into the swarm of bodies, squeezing toward the curtain the waitress had pointed out. Tiny waves of magic shimmered in front, no doubt a glamour to hide the entrance from humans. I sucked in a ragged breath and stepped through.
The hectic music of the club disappeared, replaced by a calmer melody of strings and drums. Swooping green letters wrapped in ivy formed the words Shade of Nightworld on the wall above the bar. The Unseelie Court crest—a green, gold, and navy shield donning a tree, a crescent moon, and an ivy-wrapped sword—hung directly below.
Patrons lounging on plush couches or perched at tables barely spared me a glance as I trudged deeper into the bar. My shoulders sagged. Maybe I’d be perfectly fine hiding out here for an hour or two.
I climbed onto a cushioned leather stool and leaned my elbows against the soft moss running along the edge of the bar. This one was carved from an enormous tree, one you could probably only find in Faerieland. Dangling globes lit bottles filled with drinks in every shade of the rainbow. My stomach churned at the sight of the brilliant crimson beverage near the top. No Nightworld bar would be complete without a blood concoction for vampires.
A Help Wanted sign hung to the left of the mirrored shelf.
I chewed on my bottom lip, staring at the sign like it might jump off and give me a lap dance. No way. I couldn’t seriously be considering working in a fae club, could I?
The fae bartender had his broad back to me as he placed a glass on the shelf. “I’ll be right with you,” he said over the low base filtering through the area. Copper strands curled around a pair of rounded ears.
Like most of the fae residing in Chicago, he was a faerie. What kind of elemental magic did he possess? Earth, air, fire, or water?
He turned, tossed the rag onto the bar, and finally lifted a pair of aquamarine eyes to mine. “Oh, um…” The bartender peered around as if searching for the butt of this joke. Unfortunately, one didn’t exist. “Did you want a drink or something?”
He appeared to be in his early twenties, but he could have been a hundred years old. Like witches, once fae hit maturity, aging slowed to a crawl.
I pointed to the sign above his head. “How about a job?”
He blinked a few times. “You want to work here?” His finger twirled, motioning around the room. “At Shade?”
“Yep.” Gods, had I really stooped this low?
“But you’re a witch.”
Stating the obvious. “The rules haven’t changed. Witches are still allowed in fae territory to work or live, right?”
“Yeah, but…” The edges of his lips hitched, bringing out a boyish dimple in his left cheek. “Are you sure about this?”
“Absolutely.” Absolutely not. What the hell was I thinking?
He shrugged, grabbed a piece of paper from the shelf below, and placed it on the bar. “Fill this out.” He extended his hand to shake. “I’m Jasper.”
“Thea.” My hand completely disappeared in his, but he released his grip before I had a chance to feel threatened. “Got a pen?”
Jasper passed one over, and I began filling out the mundane questionnaire, fibbing on just about everything. New customers folded into the leather and steel seats at a round table a few feet away, the shimmering lily stamps flashing on their hands as a few of them motioned toward me.
Great. They noticed the witch.
I tugged on my jacket collar. Was I seriously the first witch to step foot in Shade since the war between our races? From the dirty looks, you’d think my kind had kicked them out of their own territory in Chicago instead of the other way around.
According to fae, the war ignited because witches murdered a couple of fairies during a dark ritual to harness their elemental magic. But ask any witch, and he or she would claim that the Unseelie King—who envied our power—framed our race and murdered the fairies himself.
The pen in my hand came to a screeching halt. Son of a bitch. Why did I write my real name?
I quickly crumbled the paper into a ball, catching Jasper’s attention. “I messed up. Can I get another?”
His lopsided grin turned him into one of those boy-next-door types in teen romance movies. “Sure.” Jasper slid over a fresh application as a commotion erupted from the top of a winding staircase on the far right.
Shouts echoed, followed by a gust of elemental air magic tossing a body all the way to the black marble landing. From the loud, resonating thud, the fall had to be painful, even for a supernatural creature.
“Meet the guy you’d be replacing.” Jasper jerked his head toward the old-fashioned register. “He was caught stealing from the till.”
Sweat collected on my palms, making the pen slip out of my grip and clatter onto the polished bar top. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
“Did you really think I wouldn’t find out, Anton?” Another fae slowly descended the stairs, his presence sucking every drop of air from the room. “Did you really think you’d get away with it?”
Anton scrambled up, wiping blood from his busted nose. Another line of crimson seeped from a cut above his eyebrow. “I’m sorry. I needed the money. I was going to pay you back, Caleb. I swear.”
“That’s not how things work here.” The guy—Caleb—tilted his head, tossing around an odd combination of midnight hair threaded with strands of silver highlights. His tan skin shimmered in the golden hue from the crystal chandelier. Muscles stretched and coiled along his sinewy arms, making the swirling lines of tattoos come alive.
The customers watched the intimidating guy with rapt attention, each one leaning forward, drawn in by his every move. Even I had shifted my knees to the other side to get a better view. Danger oozed out of him, riddled with the kind of intrigue that brought nothing but lust and heartbreak.
Caleb moved with reflexes almost as fast as a vampire, his hand wrapping around Anton’s throat and slamming him into the wall so hard vibrations rippled all the way to my stool. “Do I need to remind you of what happened to Higgins?”
The blood drained from Anton’s face. “N-No. Don’t do that.”
“Are you sure you still want a job?” Jasper tapped the blank application in front of me with his large knuckles.
Before I could answer, Caleb wrenched Anton from the wall and dragged him toward the curtain concealing the entrance. A pair of light-green eyes flicked in my direction for a millisecond, sending an explosion of icy tingles across my flesh.
I squirmed on the stool. Great. I had to get noticed by the frightening bad boy at Shade. He’d probably toss me out on my ass any second now.
“Get rid of this guy and don’t let him back in. Ever.” Caleb’s low voice rumbled through the curtain before he reappeared, his expression harder than the glossy wood my clammy hands pressed against. He marched in my direction and then curved his tall, lithe form over me like a tidal wave about to crush every one of my bones. “What is a witch doing in Shade?” The word witch tumbled off his tongue with a layer of venom so intense I almost passed out.
All the moisture zapped from my mouth, and I couldn’t remember how to speak let alone breathe. When I finally did manage to suck air into my lungs, it came as some heady mix of citrus and jasmine. Those green eyes—as light and as sharp as peridot—had me frozen to the leather cushion.
Caleb’s arms slammed down on either side of me, making me jump. “Cat got your tongue, little witch?” He crowded my space until his sweltering body heat rocketed my own temperature by a dozen degrees. “I can think of better things for your tongue to do.”
Like being slapped, his filthy words shattered my trance. My nostrils flared, and I shoved my hand into his rock-solid chest. “Get off me.” Unfortunately, the jerk didn’t budge one tiny millimeter. “I’d rather lick the sidewalk out front than put my tongue anywhere near you.”
A mean twist of his lips joined the hatred seething out of his pores. “I wasn’t referring to me. You’d do well with a swamp troll.”
Flames crawled up my throat, seeping into my veins and waking my magic. It stirred like a sleeping beast that had been chained far too long.
“Relax, Cal,” Jasper said from behind me, his voice way too humorous for the tense situation. “She wants to fill the bartender job.”
A barking laugh spilled out of Caleb, his sweet, sugary breath blowing in my face. “Is that so, little witch?” He reached forward and grabbed the balled-up application on the bar.
My heart jumped into my throat. Shit. That had my real name on it. I tried to snatch it, but Caleb stepped out of my grasp and flicked the paper open with a blast of air. He quickly skimmed the information.
“Give that back.” I made a move to snatch the paper again, violet crackling on the tips of my fingers.
Caleb shifted his shoulder to block my attempt and flicked another gust of wind, roughly sending me back into the stool. His penetrating stare had me squirming in the seat again. “You’ve got to be the stupidest witch I’ve ever met to walk into my father’s nightclub of all places looking for a job.”
Did he say father…?
Fuck. My. Life. The arrogant asshole standing in front of me, the one I just threatened, was Prince Caleb, son of the Unseelie king.
He smirked and dropped the wrinkled paper on the bar next to me. “I guess you finally realized who you were mouthing off to.”
“Mouthing off?” My blood began to boil from the way he made me sound like some insolent servant, and before I could rein in my temper, words spewed out. “Let’s get something straight, Prince Tinkerbell. I’m not one of your loyal subjects you can trample on.” Ugh, Thorn, shut the hell up.
“What did you call me?” A cool wind began to stir the hair around his stony face.
I guess he doesn’t like Tinkerbell.
The Seelie Court—light fae—were usually benevolent creatures unless provoked. But the dark fae of the Unseelie Court liked mischief, danger, and everything wicked. They didn’t need a reason to kill you.
“Caleb, there you are.” A smoky voice interrupted the stare-off between the prince and me, and a gorgeous blonde pixie with legs up to her neck appeared over his shoulder. “I’ve been waiting in your apartment.” She slowly licked her lips and then gave her bottom one a nibble.
A scoff slipped out before I could contain my reaction. The girl’s gaze traveled in my direction, her nose crinkling like she got a whiff of something foul.
Crap. Did I smell?
“Who is she?” Her arm wound around Caleb’s tighter than a noose.
“No one, Zeta.” That sinful mouth of his lifted into a leer. “No one at all.”
I choked back the overwhelming desire to toss an energy ball at him, but I couldn’t stop my hand from lifting and giving him the middle finger as he sauntered away.
What a total dick.
Jasper dramatically hissed as he leaned against the bar, flashing another dimpled smile. “Do you still want the job?”
Slight tremors shook my body from my encounter with the prince. “I won’t get hired anyway, not after that.”
He shrugged. “You might be surprised. Besides, Caleb’s not the one who makes that decision.” He placed a tumbler in front of me filled halfway with a vibrant pink liquid and a cherry bobbing on a toothpick. “Why don’t you have a drink and think about it? I need to get more limes out of the kitchen.”
Jasper disappeared behind a swinging door while a flurry of whispers circulated through the room. You’d think I’d just committed murder instead of argued with the prince of the mighty Unseelie Court.
I slid the glass closer, the pink cocktail glimmering suspiciously under the lights of the bar. Did the seemingly kind bartender slip fae wine into this drink that could knock me on my ass after two sips?
Cherry, lemon, and the bitter hint of human alcohol swirled into my nose when I leaned forward.
My night couldn’t get any worse, could it?
The sweet cherry flavor exploded over my tongue, followed by the sting of alcohol. Not bad.
A grimace pulled my lips toward the floor. On the off chance that I did get hired, I’d have to remember a shit-ton of drink orders, and look how well my memory worked out at my last job.
The hairs on my nape stood at attention, and I stiffened. Someone was definitely lining me up in their crosshairs. My gaze slowly lifted to the mirror above the bar, expecting to find a figure standing beside me.
“So, this is where you ran off to.”
I whipped around on the stool, finding the demon I evaded earlier. My hand pressed against my heaving chest. “You scared the hell out of me.”
He chuckled as danger sparked in those unnerving blue irises, raising my hackles like a cat under a full moon. “I’m sorry. I’d never dream of scaring the hell out of anyone.” He winked. “The name’s Batista.”
I turned back to the bar, leaning as far away from the deceptively attractive blond. Was he a ghastly beast under that glamour, or did he appear just as alluring in his demon form? “I’m waiting on someone, so—”
His hand clamped down on my shoulder, fingers of iron digging into my bone. “I just want one little dance.”
“I’m not interested.” I tried to shrug off his grip, but it only tightened to painful levels. My heart rate spiked. “Leave me alone.” Couldn’t this creep take a hint?
Batista ripped me off the stool, crushing me into his solid form. The glamour began to dissolve, and his whole face contorted into a vile creature with sallow skin, long teeth, and hollow cheeks. “It won’t take long, pretty witch.”
My knees trembled while alarms pounded against my skull louder than the thundering of blood in my veins. “Get off!” I spared a quick glance around the room, and not one single customer had moved a muscle to intervene.
A cold, sinister laugh tumbled from the demon while those vivid blue eyes darkened to bottomless pits ready to draw me inside. “The fae hate your kind. No one would care if I drained your soul right here.”
I swallowed hard as Batista’s intentions sent a violent punch to my gut. The moment he spotted me in the chaotic club, he began salivating over my supernatural essence. He knew I’d find no protection from an attack at Shade.
The demon’s ugly maw stretched wide open, revealing a black chasm that would steal every drop of my soul and leave me dead.