All in all, the confrontation with Alanna could’ve gone worse. Cami could’ve been hooked to a Clockwork Orange
device and forced to watch Nic Cage movies on repeat. Instead, she’d been saddled with the one person she wanted to avoid the most, the one who crept into her thoughts with unsettling frequency ever since he’d crashed back into her life. And currently the one whose self-satisfied grin made her hands itch to punch it off him.
“You’re really going to follow me home?” She glanced over at Dante, who had kept pace since she parked the Camry at the lot up the street. The past threatened to drown her on a daily basis, but now she welcomed it into the same apartment as her.
“You heard Alanna. Someone’s got to be on you at all times.” His dark eyes glinted with a hot sort of mischief, his double entendre clear as day. She tried to ignore the shiver running down her spine at his words and the memories of just how talented those velvet lips were.
“I hope Sirius shits on your shoes,” she grumbled as she jammed her hands in her peacoat pockets and quickened her tread. The bitter chill of winter frosted the tip of her nose and dried out her throat with every inhale. Despite the distraction of Dante Martinez, the events of the night weighed on her mind to the point there’d be no sleep waiting for her when she returned to her apartment at daybreak. She glanced at Dante. When they
returned with his presence and their past dwarfing her tiny place. Because the universe loved to torment her in unique and intricate ways.
“That’s no way to talk to your defender,” Dante responded with a smirk that suggested he enjoyed this situation all too much. Like he’d found a chance to rekindle what they’d lost the night she ran away from them. And holy hell, she’d never loved anyone the way she had loved him. Never felt the incendiary spark or basked in the glow of understanding that bloomed between them again either. Until the curse of the banshee struck. Every time her life headed in a good direction, she’d get the premonition of a death. And then either the reaper claimed tribute, or Cami meddled and had to scram.
“I can defend myself, thank you very much.” She tugged on the sleeves of her peacoat, wishing she had about another five layers on underneath. The Philly winter sneaked in with a bite that seeped all the way to her marrow. The skies above clouded gray with a silver glow from the radiant rise of the new dawn, a subtler herald than the normal showiness. However, based on the damp cling of her fabric to her skin, the day promised to be dismal.
This early on a Monday morning, the city streets were sparse, though commuters were beginning to file in on their forward march to the skyscrapers clustered in Center City. As she strode past another alley, her nape prickled—what might be waiting there? Who might be watching? Bad enough the Caoranach had returned, but her newfound ability to skinride anyone using Wake the Dead skyrocketed the situation to terrifying. Cami should be packing more than a switchblade and her lethal voice. Against this sort of threat she wanted a flamethrower at minimum.
“Want to grab a cup?” Dante said, jerking a thumb at a sign for the Daily Roast, one of the best coffee places near the Coven.
She wanted to head home and sink into the tub to clear her mind, but clarity wouldn’t arrive while Dante waited a room over. Best to down enough sugar to blind herself and get a head start on the day.
“Let’s drown ourselves in coffee,” she responded, turning and making a beeline toward the shop, which had just opened. A film covered her skin, like she needed to scour herself clean for the thousandth time since the Caoranach had begun her visits, so maybe she was better off staying away from home for a bit. Her skin could use a rest after her last attack. She wrapped her hand around the curved door handle and tugged it open.
Yellowed lights beamed down as the hiss of coffee in the brewer and the aroma of freshly ground beans greeted her. She walked inside, and the burst of warmth traveled all the way to her toes as she quick-stepped over to the pastry case. A tired barista nudged her glasses up on her nose before leaning over the counter.
“Hey there,” the woman slurred, her voice thick with sleep. Cami peered into the display case while Dante swerved by her to order a plain cup of coffee. The strawberry crumb cake caught her eye at once; she loved the fruit to the point of addiction. She ordered it and a small cappuccino. Even with the barista’s yawns, she moved with a surprising efficiency, in mere moments dropping off a swirled cappuccino and the moist crumb cake while she exchanged the cash.
Dante leaned into one of the black, wire-rimmed chairs in the corner of the room, watching her with a smile that reached his eyes. She drew in a deep breath, wishing she could equip some sort of armor to disarm the magnetism of his smile and the way his gaze made her heart ache.
She took solace in her six packs of sugar to fill that hole as she stirred them into her cappuccino and carried her food over to where Dante sat.
“You’re going to get diabetes,” he commented, arching a brow at her drink.
“If sugar was going to kill me, I’d get the premonition. Might as well be some use to my shitty ability.” She fixed him with a glare before lifting her crumb cake to her lips and exaggerating her enjoyment to spite him.
Dante snorted in response.
“So,” she started in between chews. Dante lifted a brow. As rough and tumble as the necromancer appeared, he always got cranky about table manners. Which was great, because Cami relished any opportunity she got to annoy him. “When are we going investigating?” she asked, excitement winding through her system faster than caffeine. Alanna might be keeping her out of Coven field duty, but she could still do some legwork on her own. The Caoranach had already made her interest clear, so Cami wasn’t going to loiter around waiting for the next visit.
Dante took a sip from his steaming cup and shook his head with a smirk. “Thought you were an obedient good girl now.”
She shot him a look. “Dunno, I think stopping imminent evil from having its way with the city would earn me some good cred. Besides, when have I ever been obedient?”
Midsip of his coffee, Dante spluttered into the cup. Though his dark eyes glittered with amusement, his mouth grew serious. “Level with me though. Other folks can follow this lead, ones who haven’t been at this monster’s mercy. Are you okay enough to snoop around? Things could get real, fast.”
Cami sucked in a deep breath as she tugged on her pendant. The softness and care in his voice slayed her, and even if she wanted to puff her chest with bravado and pretend, she couldn’t hide her feelings for anything. “I’m scared as shit, D. I’m getting these spells where I freeze up, where my body’s paralyzed. What I’d love to do is just hibernate under my blankets for the next couple of months with Sirius and about a thousand books. But whether I like it or not, she’s taken an interest in me, and I’m connected to this. So yeah, I’ll step up to the plate.”
He reached over and placed a hand over hers, rubbing his thumb in circles into her palm. The comfort of his touch dosed her like heroin, shooting straight through her circuits. Once, she’d been addicted to his touch, and time and distance had done nothing to dampen the intense effect he had on her. Yet every time she wanted to indulge, wanted to confess why she’d left and throw herself into his arms, doubt tugged her away.
“I don’t like the idea of that bitch tormenting you again, not after what Akanda put you through,” he murmured, his voice thick with anger.
The swell of dark emotions rose in her chest, threatening to haul her over the way they often did when her mind revisited her time at Mount Moriah’s cemetery. If she never saw that place again, it would be too soon. The scars on her ankles throbbed, as did the ones seared into her stomach. An ugly feeling crawled over her like spiders, and she shuddered, gripping tight to the warmth of her cappuccino mug, as if it might keep those foul memories away.
“Well, then let’s keep her from tormenting me,” Cami forced the words out, keeping her voice tempered so as not to alarm Dante. He worried over her enough, concern she didn’t deserve after the way she’d abandoned him.
Before she could say another word, her mind swirled, and her throat tightened.
Cami had experienced this tug a thousand and one times, the curse of her kind. Her palms slammed to the tabletop, and her nails dug into the waxy finish. The whir of the coffee beans grinding and Dante’s murmurs grew distant in the face of the live broadcast wired straight to her brain.
Rotting leaves. Shifty eyes. Cold, cold wind.
This addled mind rushed river quick with just as much wild chaos. Like always, Cami entered the mindset of the victim, watching the surrounding alley through his murky gaze. Cars zoomed in the distance, and she tried to hone in on any details. Cobblestones below. Older buildings, narrow and tall, peeked out from beyond the crack of light as the alley spilled out to the street. Red shutters, glaringly bright, across the street.
A ripple shuddered the air in the middle of this narrow corridor, spreading the shadows like a stain. A harpy descended from the sky with a shriek that made the cobblestones tremble. The creature was a horror to behold—angled beak of a nose and sharp, beady eyes—as the opened mouth, full of razor teeth, promised destruction. Cami tensed, waiting for the harpy to shred the human with those nasty claws.
Instead, the harpy lifted the human in the air to slam him against the brick wall as another creature slunk out of the abyss.
Obscured by the liquid darkness, Cami only needed one glimpse of those molten eyes to know the Caoranach had arrived, and this time not via skinriding but a shade of her real self. A knife glinted as she slashed out, sinking the tip of the dagger into the human. Blood coursed out of the body like a tidal wave as it trickled down the bricks. A couple of blinks before lights out.
Cami snapped out of the vision, her nails nearly embedded into the table. Her mouth opened as the banshee shriek ripped from her throat with a ferocity she couldn’t control. Dante swayed on his feet, and the barista froze at the coffee bar. The wail contained the coiled intensity of grief, of all the loss she’d witnessed before and what would still come. The savageness of her wail scraped her throat raw like it did every time, as if a creature scratched its way out of her throat.
A pair of hands grabbed her shoulders, tugging her away from the table. She didn’t resist the firm direction and followed blindly, instinct and touch telling her she was safe. As the wail died down, her surroundings soaked back in, from the checkerboard tile on the floor to the rich aroma of coffee permeating this place. The barista behind the counter gaped at them while Dante guided Cami forward, out of the café.
“She just lost someone,” he explained while they made their way to the door. Cami lifted her hand to rub at her throat, which had grown sore. The brisk air outside the coffee shop scorched her senses, snapping her to the present with whiplash immediacy. She’d long since given up being embarrassed by the public outbursts her premonitions caused, and instead weariness settled over her, thick as paint.
“Who’s the reaper claiming now?” Dante asked, letting her go as he leaned against the brick wall. Though his eyes danced with curiosity, he remained unfazed by her premonitions, a familiarity she missed. Nothing was more hellish than trying to go on dates and meet guys when the unpredictability of a premonition might drop right while she tried to get to know them. To most, her banshee issues were a clear run-away sign, which led to a lot of guys “forgetting” to call back or tossing her number in the trash on the way out.
Except Dante. He’d accepted her banshee damage. Hell, he’d accepted the whole package: book addictions, sugar binges, empathy hangovers, and all. She leaned against the wall beside him and adjusted her glasses, letting her raw throat settle for a moment. She rummaged in her pockets, snagged a super-strength throat lozenge, and popped it in her mouth. The menthol was a familiar caress. She sucked on the candy as they stood there in silence, watching the bustle in the streets as commuters clacked their way to work along the chipped and splintered sidewalk. Dante pulled out a cigarette and lifted it to his lips before lighting the end.
“Like we need more throat problems between the two of us,” she murmured, her voice scratchy from her brief stint as an opera singer.
“Just trying to compete,” he said with a wink. “We should head back to your apartment after all the excitement, though.”
Cami shook her head, her lips thinning together. “We can’t. Not yet. We’ve got one bitch in charge of a certain Order to track down.”