When life hits you in the gut, it’s always a sucker punch. You never see it coming. One moment you’re walking along, worrying your little worries and making quiet plans, and the next you’re rolled into a ball, trying to hug yourself against the pain, frantic and reeling, your mind a jumble of scared thoughts.
A Christmas wreath hung on our door. I paused with my hand above the lock’s keypad. That’s right. Today was Christmas. This morning I was at a mountain lodge playing in the snow with the most dangerous man in Houston. Then Rogan’s surveillance expert texted him, and now here I stood, six hours later, my hair a mess, my clothes rumpled from being under a heavy jacket, in front of the warehouse that served as my family’s home. I would have to go inside and break the ugly news, and nobody would like what was going to happen next. With everything that had happened, we had agreed not to exchange gifts this year. Not only had I missed Christmas Eve, but I was about to deliver one hell of a terrible present.
The main thing was not to panic. If I panicked, my sisters and my cousins would panic too. And my mother would do her best to talk me out of the only logical solution to our crisis. I’d managed to keep a lid on my emotions all the way from the lodge to the airport, during the flight on the private jet, and through the helicopter ride from the plane to the landing pad four blocks away. But now all my fears and stress were boiling over.
I took a deep breath. Around me the street was busy. Not as busy as it had been a few days ago, when I was helping Cornelius Harrison, an animal mage and now an employee of the Baylor Investigative Agency, find out who murdered his wife, Nari, but still busy. Rogan’s views on security were rather draconian. He was in love with me, and had decided that my home wasn’t assault-proof, and so he’d bought two square miles of industrial real estate around our warehouse and turned it into his own private military base.
Everyone wore civilian clothes, but they weren’t fooling anyone. Rogan’s people had all gone through armed forces in one way or another, and they didn’t wander or stroll. They moved from point A to point B with a definite goal in mind. They kept their clothes clean, their hair short, and they called Rogan Major. When we made love, I called him Connor.
A dry popping sound came from the street. The memory of snapping David Howling’s neck gripped me. I heard the crunch his bones made as I twisted his head to the side. In my mind, I saw him fall as I let go, and panic drowned me. I let it wash over me and waited for it to recede. Finding Nari’s killer had been an ugly and brutal mess, and at the end I watched Olivia Charles, the woman who had murdered her, be eaten alive by a swarm of rats as Cornelius sang, mourning his wife. I relived her death in my dreams almost every night.
I didn’t want to walk back into the world. I just . . . I just wanted a little bit more time.
I made myself look in the direction of the sound. An ex-soldier was coming my way, in his forties, with a scarred face, leading an enormous grizzly bear on a very thin leash. The bear wore a harness that read Sergeant Teddy.
The ex-soldier stretched his left arm and twisted, as if trying to slide the bones back in place. Another dry crunch, sending a fresh jolt of alarm through me. Probably an old injury.
The bear stopped and looked at me.
“Be polite,” the soldier told him. “Don’t worry. He just wants to say hi.”
“I don’t mind.” I stepped closer to the bear. The massive beast leaned over to me and smelled my hair.
“Can I pet him?”
The soldier looked at Sergeant Teddy. The bear made a low short noise.
“He says you can.”
I reached over and carefully petted the big shaggy neck.
“What’s his story?”
“Someone thought it would be a good idea to make very smart magic bears and use them in combat,” the ex-soldier said. “Problem is, once you make someone smart, they become self-aware and call you on your bullshit. Sergeant Teddy is a pacifist. The leash is just for show so people don’t freak out. Major bought him a couple of years ago. Major is of the opinion that fighting in a war shouldn’t be forced on those who are morally opposed to it, human or bear.”
“But you’re still here,” I told the bear.
He snorted and looked at me with chocolate-brown eyes.
“We offered him a very nice private property up in Alaska,” the ex-soldier said. “But he doesn’t like it. He says he gets bored. He mostly hangs out with us, eats cereal that’s bad for him, and watches cartoons on Saturdays. And movies. He loves The Jungle Book.”
I waited for the familiar buzz of my magic that told me he was pulling my leg, but none came.
Sergeant Teddy rose on his hind legs, blocking out the sun, and put his shaggy front paws around me. My face pressed into fur. I hugged him back. We stood for a moment, then the grizzly dropped down and proceeded on his walk, his leash dangling on the ground.
I looked at the ex-soldier.
“He must’ve felt you needed a hug,” he said. “He stays in HQ most of the time, so you can come and visit him.”
“I will,” I told him.
The ex-soldier nodded and followed the bear.
I punched my code into the lock. I had been hugged by a giant, superintelligent, pacifist bear. I could do this. I could do anything. I just had to walk in and call for a family meeting. It was almost dinnertime anyway. On a Sunday, everyone would be home.
I opened the door and walked into the small office space that housed Baylor Investigative Agency. A short hallway, three offices on the left, and a break room and conference room on the right. The temptation to hide in my office almost made me stop, but I kept going, through the hallway, to the other door that opened into the roughly three-thousand-square-foot space that served as our home. When we sold our house trying to raise money for my father’s hospital bills, we moved our family into the warehouse to cut costs. We’d split the floor space into three distinct sections: the office, the living space, and beyond it, past a very tall wall, Grandma Frida’s motor pool, where she worked on armored vehicles and mobile artillery for Houston’s magical elite.
I took off my shoes and marched through the maze of rooms. Garlands hung on the walls. My sisters had been busy decorating.
Faint voices came from the kitchen. Mom . . . Grandma. Good. This would save me time.
I walked past a big Christmas tree set up in the hang-out room, stepped into the kitchen, and froze.