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The_Winding_Key_eBook_Cover (1)

Chapter One

Zachary glowered down at the neatly arranged contents of his oldest friend’s suitcase. “Given that our world might very well be on the verge of ending, do you really think now is a good time to go antiquing in California?”

“Are we really about to have the same argument for the fiftieth time?” Mara called out from her bathroom, “Because that would be tedious even by your standards.”

He left off trying to set the suitcase on fire with his eyes and sank into a defeated slump on the black leather chaise lounge that had been illogically placed in the center of Mara’s studio apartment; she had a habit of picking up new bits of furniture then dropping them wherever she pleased before eventually trading them out for another piece that had caught her eye. This explained why her kitchen table had four different kinds of chairs surrounding it, though not why one of them was a wooden deck chair.

It was impossible to move in Mara’s apartment without stubbing a toe or bruising a hip. When Zachary had arrived that day to try convincing his friend not to go gallivanting off, he’d opened the door to find a bizarre conga line of antique steamer trunks curving off to the right and blocking access to the kitchen. He only had the foggiest memory of what the studio had looked like before Mara had happened to it. She’d emailed him two photos of her new home five years ago. Once it had been a pleasingly open space with marbled bamboo floors. Now, with a massive four-poster bed in the far corner eating up the entire apportioned bedroom space, the studio had taken on a decidedly claustrophobic feel. Zachary couldn’t even remember the last time he’d had an unobstructed view of the floors, given Mara’s mismatched rug collection.

He sat in the midst of chaos, struggling to think of a line of attack he hadn’t yet tried. “Perhaps if you called the head of San Francisco-”

“San Francisco is not Los Angeles. We can’t know for certain where the current head’s sympathies lie. And as I’ve said before and really can’t believe I have to say again, if I cancel the arrangements I’ve made for blood while I’m in California there will be questions. Then there’ll be gossip. It will take about ten minutes for our friends on the other side to put two and two together and realize there must be a pressing reason I’ve canceled a trip I’ve had on the books for three months.”

Zachary put his face in his hands. “Yes, I know. As you’ve said, we’ve had this argument already.”

“And yet here we are having it one more time.”

He heard Mara leaving the bathroom and looked up in time to see her zipping closed a polka dot toiletries bag. It matched her layered skirt and suit jacket. Her pin-straight black hair had been pulled up in a side bun, leaving the places where her hair had begun to go grey in life more evident than normal. The average human who looked at Mara Navarro would likely only see a slightly eccentric middle-aged Filipino woman. The truth was she’d passed middle-aged 153 years ago.

She smiled over at him, brown eyes twinkling inappropriately. “Preparing to brood, dear?”

“I don’t brood.” Zachary realized his current position, splayed a touch melodramatically across a chaise lounge, did nothing to support his argument and he stood up. “I don’t have the time it would take to brood. I’m far too busy worrying about the deaths that will be on our heads should we fail.”

Mara turned her attention to her suitcase, running through a mental list of essentials to distract herself from the urge to slap the man. It wasn’t a fair impulse. If she believed in her heart of hearts that Zachary Platt didn’t care about humanity then she wouldn’t count him as a passing acquaintance, much less a treasured friend. However she did find it hard to credit him with more investment in humans than she had. She’d been looking after her descendants since she’d been sired in the Philippines and she intended to continue doing so until her body crumbled to dust. When Zachary spoke of losses, he pictured faceless crowds. Mara could only see the daughter of her daughters, Lilibeth, with her sweet eyes gone lifeless.

She finished with her packing and closed her suitcase without another word. She heard Zachary shift his weight from one foot to the other, which was enough for her to know he felt unhappy with himself. Mara sighed and looked over her shoulder. “If the worst should happen you know I’ll be on the first plane home. But until then we can’t afford to show our hand.”

Zachary’s frown didn’t fade but the man had a face built for frowning. She’d noted often enough that he had the appearance of a Heathcliff with the manners of Mr. Darcy. Thank God it wasn’t the reverse.

“Should the worst happen, by the time you get back to New York it will be far too late to make a difference,” he said.

“If I could go back in time and undo committing to this estate sale, I would. Unfortunately our powers do not extend that far.” Mara took her suitcase off the bed and went to fetch her purse. “The plan is solid enough that it shouldn’t require my presence.”

Zachary mulled that over. Strictly speaking, Mara wasn’t wrong. At some point within the next ten days the package would be delivered to her antiques store downstairs and then he would make it vanish as quickly as possible. The trouble started with the package’s contents. More than a few similar boxes had fallen into enemy hands or been poorly secured. Mara had mentioned Los Angeles, a known bastion of vampires with similar interests to their own, but even there a box had appeared some years ago containing a nightmare. New York was much more divided in its sympathies. There were too many in the state who dreamed of what those boxes could unleash.

Zachary had those dream, too, although he usually woke up screaming.

As much as he hated to concede defeat, he knew Mara was acting sensibly. The whole of their society knew her interests. She’d been a steadfast ally against the rising tide of madness overtaking the community. If she didn’t appear in San Francisco as planned, someone would dedicate themselves to discovering why. They couldn’t afford too many eyes pointed towards her store this week. All the same, he despised the notion of what Mara was leaving him here to deal with in her stead. Without her there were only the humans in her employ to receive the package, young girls with no clue that vampires existed. “You can’t expect me to rest easy knowing you’ve entrusted a matter of such importance to your juvenile assistants.”

Mara flapped her hand at him before slinging her purse over her shoulder. “So long as Pru is here to keep an eye on Lili the quality of my rest will remain unaffected.” She rolled her suitcase past him, deftly negotiating the cramped conditions.

Zachary had to hurry to catch up with her as she swept out the door and down the spiral stairs into the little storage room that also served as a staff lounge. He supposed even a staff of two deserved some consideration. There was a round glass table to the left of the stairs and he had to step around a mini fridge in order to follow Mara to the door. Briefly his eye caught on a canvas bag perched on a pile of boxes. A pair of running shoes peeped out from within and he noticed the trace of rose water perfume, a rare enough scent these days to give him pause.

Mara nudged the swinging door to the main floor open with her shoulder and then halted abruptly enough to almost cause Zachary to collide with her back. He followed her gaze out past the shelves of assorted crystal knickknacks to the round sales counter towards the storefront. A woman sat with her back to them, neatly ironed white shirt tucked into beige pants. He didn’t remember seeing her when he had first gone upstairs but then his focus had been elsewhere.

“Actually, about Pru…” Mara began. She paused, apparently struggling for words. It was not a reassuring display. “She can be a little odd.”

Zachary hadn’t experienced a headache since he’d been sired but he could have sworn he felt one brewing now. “What kind of odd?”

She gave him a crooked smile as she rolled her suitcase out into her store. “The kind of odd that can still manage to surprise me after 200 years.”

Zachary’s eyes darted to the human and he held up a hand to his friend. She couldn’t have been more than twenty feet from them. “Keep your voice down,” he hissed.

Mara shook her head. “Don’t fuss at me.” Then, to his consternation, she called out, “Prudence, dear?”

The woman, Prudence, turned in their direction on what was apparently a swivel chair. Zachary briefly noted the brown fishtail braid that coiled over her left shoulder, the slender fingers slipped neatly between the pages of the small book that had been open on her lap. Her youth rendered her temporarily ageless. She could have been anything from fifteen to thirty, although he wagered she was no more than twenty. He judged her to be an ordinary person but he didn’t care for the look of her eyes. They were a very specific green color that only occurred in the sky when a wicked storm loomed on the horizon.

“Yes, Mrs. Navarro?” she asked. Her voice had a smokier quality than he’d expected.

Mara continued to approach the counter, suitcase rolling nonchalantly behind her. “What was I saying a minute ago?”

Prudence frowned. “Were you talking to me?”

“No.”

This appeared to confuse the young woman, the pinched line between her brows deepening. “Then how would I know?”

Mara shot him a smug look. “Sorry, Pru, just demonstrating to a friend. By the way, this is Mr. Platt. He’ll be picking up an order sometime next week.”

Zachary watched as Prudence turned her storm eyes on him, flicking briefly over his face. For all that she was looking directly at him they only made eye contact for perhaps two seconds. It irked him that he couldn’t discern any reaction in her politely blank gaze. Her heartbeat remained level and he couldn’t pick up any betraying scent from her aside from the pleasant notes of rose water.

“I’ll give him a call when it arrives,” she said. A smile flickered at the corners of her mouth as she turned her attention back to Mara. “Have fun in California.”

“Thank you, dear.” Mara walked past her employee and Zachary followed after her. He saw Prudence return to her book out of the corner of his eye but he couldn’t make out the title.

His friend came to another stop by an intricately painted carousel horse next to the entrance of her store. She gestured behind him, indicating the woman they’d left. “She happens to have the most selective hearing I’ve ever come across. If you haven’t addressed her, she isn’t listening. And if she’s reading she might as well not be here at all.”

Zachary didn’t understand why Mara sounded so proud of that fact. A continually distracted and unnervingly blank employee struck him as a liability. “Fabulous. Our futures rest on the shoulders of the densest girl on the planet. Will she even remember my name in a week?”

In an instant Mara’s eyes transitioned from warm brown to fathomless black. The hint of fang in her mouth was evident when she spoke. “Have a care, Zachary. I trust my family with that girl. Question her fitness and you question mine.”

He fought the urge to gawk at her. “Mara, really, you’re not going to stake your honor on a human girl barely two decades old.”

“As it happens, she’s twenty-three.” The handle on her suitcase gave an unsettling little creak where her hand rested.

His friend had always been good-tempered and hard to rile. Unfortunately Zachary had been fool enough to tread on the one nerve that would get his head torn off. He held up his hands in surrender. “My mistake. If you’re confident in her abilities – ”

“I am.”

“ – then I will endeavor to follow your example,” he finished with a defeated sigh.

Her impossibly wide pupil retracted enough to pass for human again. She patted his shoulder with a contented smile. “Oh, cheer up. If all goes well then in a little over a week we’ll be living in a safer world.”

“And if it doesn’t, we’re all damned. No reason to worry at all.”

The two of them made their exit and only the quick tinkling of the bell over the door drew Prudence’s attention from her book. She blinked at it then traced Mrs. Navarro’s progress to the black Mercedes parked in front of the store. The man with her boss helped load the suitcase, which surprised her. She didn’t often see men in three-piece suits do heavy lifting.

Prudence gave an internal shrug and went back to reading. If she’d kept watching she would have seen the bouncy little figure zoom across the street and fling itself into Mrs. Navarro’s arms. As it was she missed her employer saying a last goodbye to her niece, only realizing Lilibeth had arrived when the bell alerted her.

The eighteen-year-old, soon-to-be high school graduate skipped through the door, blue ombre hair shorn into a pixie cut. Her eyes were as warm and brown as her aunt’s but she was on the shorter side with a fuller figure. She stopped in front of Prudence, drumming a quick beat on the mahogany counter. “Aunt Mara’s off to the airport, Pru. Time to call your friends on campus to come down for an antiques party.”

Prudence feigned a thoughtful expression, tapping a finger on her chin. “Tricky. All my friends have graduated and wisely fucked off for the summer. What about your friends?”

Some of the bounce went out of Lili then as she looked away, brown hands fiddling with her rainbow suspenders. “They only talk about college stuff.” Who knew choosing to take a gap year would be so isolating?

Prudence’s head tilted to the side as she studied her young friend. It was early evening on a Tuesday. Walks-ins weren’t very likely, even if they were on their town’s main street. Besides, cheering up her boss’s niece was an unspoken job requirement. It certainly beat explaining to teenagers that this wasn’t a pawnshop and VHS tapes didn’t count as ‘antique’. “You’re in luck. After four years I’m finished talking about college. We’ll have to have an antiques party of two.”

Lili grinned. “I’ll break out the wine coolers.” She headed to the staff room then spun back on her heel. “Hey, who was the hottie giving Aunt Mara a lift?”

All she received in response was a long, slow blink. Luckily she could interpret the question mark hovering above Pru’s head by now. “Sad Siberian Husky eyes, fluffy raven hair?”

“All I get from that is the impression I missed some weird-looking chimera abducting your aunt.”

Lili dragged a hand over her face with a groan. “Why are you always so literal?”

“Habit.”

“Okay, well, there was a handsome guy with your boss. He helped her with her luggage?” she prompted, hoping for some spark of recognition. She was disappointed when Pru continued to stare. “Just… never mind. What flavor wine cooler do you want?”

“Mojito, please.” Then Pru half-spun in her chair to put away her book.

Lili shook her head at her. “Dude walks in looking like a sexy storm cloud, you totally miss it, and yet I’m the gay one. Weird.”

THE WINDING KEY will be released October 31, 2018

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