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An ill wind moves through Chicago," Lulu said, sniffing the air.
"It's not an ill wind," I said. But I stared down at the malformed lump of sickly gray dough currently spreading across the sheet pan and admitted to myself I didn't have much room to argue.
"It worked in Paris," I muttered, frowning as I mentally retraced my steps. Measure the ingredients. Add the sourdough starter. Knead, rise, shape, proof.
Lulu Bell, the thoroughly anti-magic daughter of two sorcerers and my best friend, moved into the kitchen area of the Near North loft she was letting me share, and looked down at the lump.
"But not in Chicago." She patted my shoulder. "Maybe you could try something else."
By "something else," she meant hobbies-fun, stress-relieving activities meant to give me an outlet other than coffee, katanas, and, since I'd returned to Chicago from my stint in France, supernatural politics. The latter was partly the fault of my temp job at the city's supernatural Ombudsman's office, the OMB, and partly because I was a vampire. We were dramatic sorts.
And maybe because of that, the Great Hobby Search had not been a success. Baking bread was only my latest and not-greatest attempt. We had a half dozen succulents on the window ledge that had gone either mushy or crispy, a pyramid of tangled yarn, and an array of glass vials and jars, sellers of which had promised me the best coffee experience of my life. Lulu now used them to store paintbrushes, and I continued to buy cups from Leo's, which slung the best coffee in Chicago.
"We have an hour before everyone gets here. We can call someone and ask them to pick up bread. Maybe Connor can bring something from NAC."
Connor Keene was the crown prince of the North American Central Pack of shapeshifters, which had a lucrative restaurant business.
"The only NAC goods Connor will bring is Alexei. And I'm not begging at the Pack's table."
Lulu ignored my mentioning Alexei Breckenridge. She found Connor's Packmate irritating; he had a crush on her, which made for interesting watching. "I'll bet it's not the first time you've begged a member of the Pack," she said with a wily grin.
In addition to being my occasional supplier of barbecue, Connor was also my boyfriend. Tall, built, with dark hair and blue eyes that usually carried a wolfish gleam. I'd seen him as a human and as a wolf. Both were impressive.
"Why do you need bread anyway?"
I walked to the trash can, dumped the bowl's contents inside. "I'm making sourdough crostini with burrata, arugula, and tomato jam. Or I was."
She just looked at me.
"What?" I put the bowl in the sink. "A potluck was your idea. 'Let's have people over,' you said. 'Just make your favorite food,' you said."
Lulu rolled her eyes. She opened the refrigerator, pointed to the shelves inside the door, where bottles of blood and caff mocha were chilling. (In separate containers. Because mocha-flavored blood was a crime against vampirity.) "Your favorite food is not crostini or burrata or arugula or tomato jam. It's coffee and blood, in that order."
"I like other things," I protested. "And your favorite food is not deviled eggs, but that doesn't explain why there are three dozen percolating in the refrigerator." I wrinkled my nose in disgust. The person who'd decided the best way to eat boiled eggs was to mix the innards with relish and mayo should be drawn and quartered.
She plucked one from the tray before closing the door again. "They're just an experiment," she said, then looked at it with narrowed eyes, as if inspecting it.
I didn't believe her. But I watched her for a full minute, and she didn't so much as twitch. Fortunately, I only had to wait a little for the truth. "When the party starts, all will be revealed," I predicted, spreading my hands in a rainbow for dramatic effect.
"And speaking of deviled things," I murmured, as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Lulu's cat of sleek black fur and prickly attitude, sauntered toward us. She looked up at Lulu with tolerance, and at me with unconcealed disdain.
"Hello, devil cat."
"If you call her things like that, she'll pee in your shoes."
"Again," Lulu acknowledged.
I'd tried being nice to her. I bought her catnip, made salmon for her dinner, read from a book of poetry I'd brought home from Paris, showed her the only legitimate version of Pride and Prejudice that Lulu and I acknowledged. (Sure, fans loved Harry Styles as Darcy, but that was just for the novelty. Colin Firth was the One and Only, thank you very much.) But she would have none of it. I was the third wheel. Maybe cats didn't like vampires. Or maybe she'd seen what so many others hadn't. That I wasn't just a vampire, or just the only vampire born instead of made.
Whatever the reason, she'd decided we were enemies.
I leaned down to look her in the eyes, smiled. "I'm going to dress you up like a cowgirl while you sleep. Then I'm going to take pictures and send them to the Tribune."
If her dirty looks were stakes, I'd have been deceased. But she hissed and ran away, conceding the ground. I called that a win.
"Peeing in your shoes will only be the beginning," Lulu said and popped the deviled egg into her mouth.
Boxed brownies substituted when bread failed. While they cooled on the stove, I pulled my wavy blond hair into a low braid and paired a flowy black sleeveless tank with dark, shimmery leggings and boots. I added dark mascara over green eyes and brilliant crimson lipstick to shine against my pale skin.
An hour later, the loft was full of chatter and humans and the bowls, pans, and bags of food brought by guests. Eleanor of Aquitaine lounged under the dining room table, hoping for scraps. Connor hadn't yet made an appearance, but the apparent winner of the deviled eggs sat on the ledge that fronted the wall of windows, each covered with plastic in a different color so they made a rainbow of light.
Mateo, Lulu's newish beau, was a glassblower who worked on big, expensive art pieces. He was muscled in the lean way of a person who rarely stopped moving, and had a tan complexion and a shorn head. His eyes were dark and deeply set beneath heavy brows, his lips generous, his jaw square. He chatted with some of his artsy friends-they were all angular clothes and hair-and Petra, another OMB friend. She was petite, with tan skin and dark hair and eyes, and was an aeromancer in her own right.
"Your glassblower seems cool," I said. Lulu and Mateo had been seeing each other for a few weeks, since we'd returned from a short trip to Minnesota. She'd traveled in an RV with my OMB colleagues to help deal with a Pack crisis. I wasn't sure if it was the trip, the company, or the magic, but she'd seemed sadder after returning, at least until she'd connected with Mateo.
"Yeah. He is. His friends are cool, too. Very . . . edgy."
"I haven't talked to them yet. But if you like them, I like them."
And since they were all human, I could break them like a twig if they hurt her. So that was a nice benefit.
The conversation in the loft quieted, and I instinctively glanced up to find the source of the change.
The source was a shifter. My shifter.
He'd emerged from the long hallway that led to the loft door, his body tough and strong. He wore jeans and a heathered NAC Industries henley that hugged muscle, and he carried a bottle of wine. His dark hair waved around a chiseled face punctuated by brilliant blue eyes and a mouth that was usually arranged into a self-assured grin. He had the bearing of a prince, the body of a god, and the ego to match both, all of it matched by his integrity, wit, and concern for his Pack.
And his eyes were fixed on me.
His mouth curved, and more than one human around me made little sounds of appreciation and lust. The prince, allowing the commoners to take a look.
"People look at him like he's a properly made baguette," Lulu whispered. "Ready to be devoured."
They did, and I couldn't blame them, given that my thoughts ran along the same lines. Minus the implicit insult to my bread-making skills.
"And then he looks at you," she continued, "like he's the big, bad wolf and you're the grandmother."
"That is a very disturbing analogy."
She held up her hands. "You're right. It was, and I take it back. I tried something out, it wasn't the right direction. I made a mistake."
Connor's best friend, Alexei, stepped in behind him. Alexei was just as tall and built, with dark blond hair and hazel eyes that scanned the room with suspicion. Alexei was the quiet and loyal sort. Unless he was harassing Lulu.
"Oh, good," Lulu said. "Alexei's here." There was conviction in the sarcasm, but joined by a spark in her eyes that I was glad to see.
I liked Alexei, and not just because he was loyal to Connor and the Pack. He and Lulu bickered like children, and he was pretty creative with the teasing. Never, I thought, crossing the line into inappropriate-not when she seemed to enjoy their sparring as much as he did. Still.
"You want me to tell him to knock it off?" I knew she could take care of herself, and usually had no qualms about telling off bullies. But, again, still . . .
"Please," she said and waved me off. "I can handle one puppy."
"He's not a wolf," I said. "He's a very big cat."
She just stared at me. "What?"
"The Breckenridges aren't wolves. They're panthers." I cocked my head at her. "I thought you knew that."
"I did not."
"Does it matter?"
"I don't know."
"Good evening," Connor said when they reached us, kissing me softly. Just a brush of his lips against mine. A hint and a promise. "Sorry we're late."
"You're right on time."
Literally and figuratively, I thought, still marveling that this boy I'd thought was conceited and obnoxious had grown into . . . well, still conceited. But much less obnoxious. As if he understood the line of my thoughts, he smiled widely. "We were both right on time."
Maybe a little obnoxious. But in the best possible way.
"Lulu," Connor said with a smile. "Thanks for having us over." He offered up the wine. "Hostess gift."
"Thank you," she said, taking it.
"A friend of mine has a vineyard near the Wisconsin border. It's supposed to be pretty good."
"How does it pair with deviled eggs?"
He blinked. "I have no idea and don't want one."
Lulu turned her gaze to Alexei. "I see you brought the tabby."
She'd made that switch quickly enough. Alexei just looked at her, and the challenge in his eyes was clear. I'll take you on. In every possible way.
Pink rose on her cheeks. "Go climb a tree."
"Go suck on a paintbrush."
"Weak," Lulu said, then strode off toward Mateo. He smiled as she approached, waved her closer, then added her to the conversation with Petra.
"Suck on a paintbrush?" I asked, looking back at Alexei with obvious pity.
"I haven't been able to come up with many artist-specific insults." And he was considerate enough not to use her magic-or decision not to practice it-against her. "Who's the human?"
"Date," I said.
Alexei snorted dubiously and wandered off toward the food. With, I belatedly realized, a bottle of vodka in hand. His hostess gift, I assumed.
"Was that disdain for Mateo, or the idea of her dating him?" I wondered.
"I think it was for the concept of her dating, generally. He knows she's not interested, but I think that's actually made it worse. The thrill of the chase, and all."
I gave him a speculative look. "Maybe I should have made you chase me harder. Or further."
His smile went feral, and I could actually hear girls sighing on the other side of the room. "Try it," he said, a dare in his brilliantly blue eyes.
"You think you could catch me?"
This time, the kiss was possessive and consuming, and as arrogant as the dare had been.
"Elisa Sullivan," he said, smiling against my lips. "I'll always catch you."
A throat was cleared. We turned our gazes, found Theo smiling at us, raising a crusty loaf of bread in a paper envelope in greeting. "I'm interrupting," he said with amused and unapologetic eyes.
Theo was a former cop who'd become my partner at the OMB. He had dark brown skin and dark hair in short whirls, and hazel eyes above a generous mouth.
"It's a party," Connor said. "Interruption is impossible."
But I narrowed my gaze at him. "Why did you bring bread?"
Theo blinked. "Because I like bread? And it's a party? And Lulu said to bring something?"
"But did she specifically say to bring bread?"
Theo looked at Connor for help, but Connor just shrugged.
"I got nothing, man." He put an arm around my waist, kissed my temple. "Why are you interrogating your partner over bread?"
I grunted. "It's a long story." A long, smelly story.
"Is it related to deviled eggs?" Connor asked.
"I feel like I've stepped into some kind of alternate universe," Theo said. "Are 'bread' and 'deviled eggs' code words for state enemies or secret missions or anything else that would actually make sense?"
"They are not," Connor said. "I think we're literally talking about bread and deviled eggs. And it looks like those aren't the only two options, so I'm going to take the bread"-he plucked it from Theo's hand-"and put it with the rest of the food, and grab myself something to eat, and you can discuss important Ombudsman things."
I'd taken the night off yesterday to help Lulu clean and prep the loft, so it was possible I'd missed drama. "Do you have any important Ombudsman things to discuss?"
He frowned, considered. "River nymphs fighting over the Chicago River boardwalk again."
"Old news," I said. "Pass."
He smirked. "Bank robbery by two of Claudia's fairies?"
Claudia was the queen of Chicago's band of rather mercenary fairies, including those who'd tried to magically shift Chicago into a facsimile of their green homeland.
"Getting warmer," I said. "How much did they take?"
"They tried for about two hundred pounds of gold bullion because, you know, they like the shiny. But with the weight, they didn't make it very far."
"Arrogant of them," I said. "What did Claudia have to say?"