Early April Chicago, Illinois
There were two seasons in Chicago: winter and construction. If it wasn’t snowing, orange cones narrowed the Dan Ryan, or lower Wacker was closed. Snow and traffic defined our lives as Chicagoans.
Nested within those seasons were the other activities that defined life for many in Chicago. During baseball season, it was Cubs versus Sox. During tourist season, you served them, you screamed at them, or, if you worked at Billy Goat’s, both. During summer, the beaches were open. And for a few spare weeks, the water of Lake Michigan was even warm enough for a dip.
Not that I’d had much occasion to sunbathe or swim recently. They didn’t make sunscreen strong enough for vampires.
But when spring rolled around and construction cones popped onto asphalt like neon flowers, even vampires shook off winter. We exchanged quilted jackets, electric blankets, heavy boots, and balaclavas for tanks, sandals, and nights in the warm spring air.
Tonight, we sat on a blanket on the grass at Milton Lee Olive Park, an expanse of green and fountains near Navy Pier honoring a soldier who’d given his life to save others, and won a Medal of Honor for his sacrifice. A burst of spring air had warmed the city, and we’d taken advantage, finding a quiet spot for a picnic to celebrate the end of a long, cold winter. At two o’clock in the morning, the park was definitely quiet.
Ethan Sullivan, Master of Cadogan House and now one of twelve members of the newly established Assembly of American Masters, sat beside me on a piecework quilt, one knee bent, one leg extended, his hand at the small of my back, rubbing small circles as we watched the lights of Chicago blink across the skyline in front of us.
He had a tall and rangy body of hard planes and sculpted muscle, and golden blond hair that just reached his shoulders and surrounded honed cheekbones, a straight nose, deep-set green eyes, and imperious eyebrows. I was his Novitiate and the Cadogan’s Sentinel, and I was utterly relieved that winter had finally weakened its grip on the city.
“This is not a bad way to spend an evening,” said the girl on the blanket beside ours, her striking blue hair drawn in a complicated braid that lay across her shoulder. Her Cupid’s bow mouth was drawn into a smile, her hand clasped in the long fingers of her boyfriend’s. He was well built and shaved-headed, with piercing green eyes and a generous mouth. And, like her, he was a sorcerer. He had a thing for snarky T-shirts, and tonight’s gem was black, with KEEP CALM AND FIREBALL in clean white text across the front.
Mallory Carmichael was my oldest friend, and Catcher Bell was her live-in beau. Catcher worked for my grandfather Chuck Merit, the city’s Supernatural Ombudsman.
“No, it’s not,” I agreed. “This was a very good idea.” I sipped from a bottle of Sweet Summer Blood4You, a blend of blood and lemonade that I enjoyed against my own better judgment. The drink was good, and the air was sweet with spring and the scent of white flowers that drifted down from the trees like snow, forming constellations on the new grass. Ethan’s hand warmed the skin on my back. This was as close to a day at the beach as I was ever likely to get. And it was a pretty good substitute.
“I thought some fresh air could do us good,” Mallory said. “It’s been a long winter.”
That was the understatement of all understatements. There’d been murder, magic, mayhem, and too much mourning to go around, including episodes that had put Mallory in the hands of a serial killer and nearly cost Ethan his life. He was fine and she was recovering, and the incident had seemed to bring her and Catcher even closer together.
Even the vacation Ethan and I had just taken—a trip to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado that should have been filled with relaxation, elk watching, and plenty of sex—had been interrupted by a century-old feud between vampires and shape-shifters.
We’d needed a break from our break, so we’d sipped and snacked with Mallory and Catcher on the goodies Margot, the House chef, had packed. Grapes, cheese (both regular and almost preternaturally stinky), thin crackers, and small cookies coated in lemony powdered sugar with just the right balance of sweet and pucker.
“You’ve been eyeing that last lemon cookie for seven minutes.”
I glanced back at Ethan, gave him a dour look. “I have not.”
“Seven minutes and forty-three seconds,” Catcher said, glancing at his watch. “I’d grab it for you, but I’m afraid I’d lose a finger.”
“Stop torturing her,” Mallory said, carefully picking up the cookie, handing it gingerly to me, then dusting powdered sugar from her hands. “She can’t help her obsession.”
I started to argue, but by then my mouth was full of cookie. “Not an obsession,” I said when I was done. “Fast metabolism and rigorous training schedule. Luc has us on two-a-days now that Ethan’s been upgraded.”
“Ooh, Ethan two-point-oh,” Mallory said.
“I think technically we’re now at Ethan four-point-oh,” Catcher pointed out. “Human, vampire, resurrected vampire, AAM member.”
Ethan snorted, but even he didn’t argue with the timeline. “I prefer to think of it as a promotion.”
“You get a raise out of it?” Catcher asked.
“In a manner of speaking. I’ll nearly be able to afford to keep Merit in the culinary style to which she’d like to become accustomed.”
“You’re the one with the expensive taste.” I gestured to the bottle of wine. “Do I even want to know how much that cost?”