In the future
Sebastian came toward me, that look in his eyes. There was energy there, spreading through his stiff cheeks and hard jaw. Hell, who was I kidding? Energy spread through his whole body. I didn’t need to see the magical illumination breaking around the cuffs of his expensive suit or the glimmer playing along his signet ring. It was in his eyes, in his strong shoulders, and more than anything, in the hand holding the wedding ring.
“You ready?” he asked in that breathless voice I was now getting far too used to.
My stomach kicked as if I’d swallowed a thousand horses. Ready? Hell no.
“There’ll be no going back. Then again, it’s preferable than dying at the burning hands of a demon, isn’t it?”
Preferable? I wasn’t so sure.
He reached me. My hand was shivering beside me. He plucked it up. That tremble only raced into my shoulder, pushed down my back, and settled in my stomach. It got a hell of a lot worse as he angled closer. I saw the gold ring glinting in the moonlight making it in from the window behind him. It gave it this otherworldly presence. Fair enough; it was otherworldly.
Sebastian didn’t look away, not once. There could be an earthquake behind me. The whole city could fall to demons. He wouldn’t care. He only had eyes for me. And if his promise was correct, he’d only have eyes for me until the day he died.
I suddenly became aware he hadn’t taken a breath for a while. His chest froze, his muscles pushing against his expensive white shirt and crisp black tie.
… Then, in a rush, I realized I hadn’t breathed ever since he’d walked toward me. I took a rattling gasp. He didn’t shift his eyes off mine, but I knew he was well aware of every single one of my nervous symptoms. His superior vampire body would be able to track them, just like a scientist noting down every single milligram change in blood pressure, every new electrical potential racing through my heart, the temperature building across my skin, and the sweat collecting between my fingers.
From somewhere outside, I thought I heard this crack. It could have been a car approaching the manor – and maybe it had backfired. The sound was far too close to the crack of a demon’s wings, though, and I let out a scream.
At the sound of my fear, Sebastian’s body tensed. It was like his nervous system connected to mine.
He held my hand tighter. He gazed at my finger once, and as soon as he dragged his stare away, it was like the sun moving behind a cloud. But when he sliced his eyes over to me once more, intensity built in his pupils, gathering like sparks ready to surge into flames.
This was it. Everything would change from now on.
He placed the ring on my finger. I secured my eyes as tightly shut as I possibly could. I couldn’t stare at him anymore, and I sure as hell couldn’t face this moment.
“Millie Crown, I do thee wed. From this day forth, you will be my bride under the auspices of the St Vern family. Those who attack you, attack me. The protection of my family now falls upon your shoulders. And the weight of your heart is now borne by my hands. From ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Only death will do us part.”
It wasn’t the standard wedding vows a human like me was used to. But this was no standard wedding.
Only one thing remained. He leaned toward me, his lips close. I could feel his breath on my cheek.
And outside, that crack changed. It turned out it hadn’t been a car backfiring after all. It was a demon. And it was coming right for me.
I thrust my hands into my pockets and stared at the TV screen past my niece’s shoulder. She was joyously bouncing up and down on the couch.
“Aren’t you a little too young for this?” I frowned hard, shoving my hands further into my pockets and disturbing my police tag. It was brand-new.
Because I was brand-new. Okay. That was a lie. I was not new. I was pretty crusty around the edges. But I was brand-new to the violent crimes division of the Angeles Police Force.
I’d made my way as a consultant witch up from the traffic division to violent crimes. And that was a feat indeed.
My niece, Vivian, whipped her head over her shoulder, her blond locks playing around her face. She gave me this scandalized frown. “Too young for what?”
I gestured toward the TV. “Watching vampire romances. I mean, who even does that anymore? They had their heyday, like, 20 years ago, back when I was a kid, but times have well and truly moved on. Right?” Maybe there was a hopeful note in my voice. I’d been obsessed with vampire romances as a kid. As I’d grown, I’d kind of hoped the whole world had grown up with me.
Fat chance. The world was just as obsessed with vampires as it had been when vampires had revealed themselves 50 years ago, instantaneously modernizing society while securing themselves firmly at the top of the food chain. Not, of course, that they ate humans. Or at least that’s what they told the ordinary populace.
Vivian turned her head back to the TV just as a ludicrously hot vampire grabbed some trembling woman’s hand and placed a ring on it.
Vivian clapped her hands together. “This is my favorite part,” she cooed. That revealed she’d seen this not just once, but probably hundreds of times, knowing her.
I winced at the TV. It was sickly sweet.
The heroine’s expression made it clear she was not, a) a heroine, and not, b) aware of how manipulative vampires were.
Yeah, before I’d joined the force, maybe I’d had the hots for them. They tended to have preternatural good looks. But after you’d dragged your first arrogant vampire in to speak for a crime, the luster quickly wore off.
On the face of it, they didn’t think they were better than humans or the meeker magical races. In practice, they knew they were at the top and could do whatever they wanted.
So I watched this scene with a slightly more learned eye. While Vivian grabbed a cushion, flopped down onto the couch, and hugged it tightly, I actually growled at the TV screen. I saved most of my attention for the vampire. He was honest to God wearing a lacy cravat. He even had a velvet suit on. It was red. Most vampires on TV wore red, as if they couldn’t get away from the color of their favorite food. It would be like humans walking around dressed as steaks.
The scene lingered. Before the vamp slipped the ring onto his bride’s finger, we got a close-up of his teeth. They were too long. Trust me, I’d seen enough vampire incisors to know just how long they should be. While most of them peered just past the corner of a vamp’s lip, there were vampires with longer teeth. They were the ancestral kinds.
I didn’t deal with them too often. When I did, it was a cringe-worthy affair.
I rolled my eyes again just as the vampire finally kissed his heroine and finished securing the ring on her finger with a whispered spell.
“I do thee wed,” he began.
I couldn’t take this anymore. “You know she is nothing more than a damsel in distress, right?” I said pointedly. “In the real world, you need to look after yourself. You can’t just wait for some vampire to come and sweep you off your feet. Plus, you don’t want. You want to be in control,” I emphasized as I slammed a fist into my palm.
Vivian just looked at me, her brow rumpling. “You haven’t seen the whole story. She’s a kick-ass vampire hunter. She can throw a vamp across the room with nothing more than her mind.”
My lips kinked into a snarl. I didn’t like it when I was wrong. Still, in a way, I was right. “Sure. I don’t care how far she can throw a vampire. I care that she’s giving in to that idiot.” I shrugged toward him. “I mean, look at him? Arrogance oozes out of every pore.”
“Shame on you. Vampires are different from us. We need to accept their culture.”
“This has nothing to do with culture,” I said, now getting really riled up. As she spoke, and as I watched, I thought of one specific vampire I’d been unlucky enough to have multiple run-ins with ever since I began my tenure as a witch consultant. He was the most arrogant of all. He was also one of the strongest vamps in the city. The richest too. And if you believed the gossip mags, he was easily one of the hottest.
I did not. I’d seen him up close. I’d had to deal with his snarling stupidity on far too many occasions to ever think he was hot again.
“That’s not the point. None of this is the point. A real woman,” I said, voice hard, “would never give in to a dumb vamp like that.”
“But this is so romantic. He’s marrying her to protect her.”
“If she can throw a vamp across a room, why would she need protection from him?” I crossed my arms.
“From the damned. You don’t know anything about vampire romances. Just crawl back into that lonely little cave you live in, Auntie, and head to work before you’re late.”
I spluttered as if I was a big fat balloon of anger and someone had just poked me with a pin. “I’m sorry? Lonely little cave? I—”
She brought up her wrist and tapped her smartwatch. “Time’s ticking. You don’t want to be late for your first day in the violent crimes unit, do you? That would not go down well.”
She was right. She was wrong on every other level, though. I didn’t even deign to say goodbye. I turned around fast on my foot and headed for the door.
I passed my sister, Anne, on the way.
She chuckled. “Go easy on her. It’s her favorite genre at the moment.”
“Don’t you think she’s a little young to be watching that crap?”
“You read vampire romances from the age of five,” she said pointedly.
I kind of hid the flush that climbed my cheeks. “Whatever.”
“Yeah. Good luck on your first day.”
I sighed. I hoped like hell I wouldn’t need it.
I walked out to a blustery breeze. It ran down the street. It soon collected the hems of my jacket and sent them whipping around my hips.
I ignored it. I settled the hope in my heart that today would be a good day.
My chief had taken a gamble on me. I wasn’t quite the witch consultant they usually had in violent crimes.
I didn’t have the requisite power, see.
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t selling myself short. I was an absolute ace when it came to potions. I lived with my sister, and I had the whole basement. It was cram-packed with absolutely all of the greatest chemistry equipment you could imagine. I was always distilling something, always enchanting some new potion, and always preparing myself for the next battle.
Okay, I said battle, but I’d hardly ever investigated many violent incidents since I’d started working for the police 10 years ago.
That was not the point.
I didn’t have raw magic, but I had intelligence. That was better by far.
I barely made it to the car by the time my phone rang. I shoved it in its holder, turned the car on, and answered. “Millie here,” I muttered as I pulled out from the curb.
“Don’t bother heading to the station.” It was my boss, Frank Smith. He’d been my boss in the traffic unit, too. He’d hand-picked me to go on with him when he had received a promotion himself.
I frowned hard. “What’s going on?”
“There’s been a disappearance.”
I frowned. “I don’t recognize the name—”
“You should. She changed her last name to her husband’s. She was Samantha Vaughn.”
I clenched my teeth together and forced a whistle through them. “Damn. Wait, one of the most powerful ancestral vampires in the city has gone missing?” My voice shot up high.
“So where do you want me to head?”
“To Franklin Quay. To the superyacht docked off it, to be exact.”
“I have high hopes for you, Millie. You might not be… as skilled in the witch department as our last consultant, but you’ve got what matters.”
I grinned. “Thanks, Frank. I won’t let you down.”
I drove to Franklin Quay as fast as I could. Fortunately there wasn’t much traffic around. Maybe the wind kept people away. Maybe the fact it was a crisp Monday morning kept other people away, too. It looked like it would be a grim week ahead.
I knew I would’ve preferred to stay in bed a little longer.
I parked at the dock. It wasn’t hard to spot the superyacht. You could’ve seen it from space. Not only was it so big that it looked like it had swallowed every other boat, but it just drew the eye. Whichever pretentious git owned it probably had a personality twice the size of it.
And whichever pretentious git owned it was most likely a vampire.
I’d already made my peace with the fact I would be dealing with more vampires as part of this job. As I jumped out of my car, I sealed a breath deep in my chest, and I told myself I could do this.
It didn’t take long to see the other detectives. They waved me toward the yacht.
They weren’t the only ones standing outside. Besuited bouncers stood ramrod straight like tent poles. One look at them, and it was obvious they were vamps.
One look at me, and it was obvious they thought I was no threat at all. Fair enough. I was pretty small, and I certainly didn’t give the impression of someone magical in the first place.
I yanked my tag out of my pocket and secured my lanyard around my neck.
Phillip Jones stood close by one of the bouncers. I’d done a short stint with him on a combined case a while ago. We’d become fast friends.
He grinned and gestured me toward the gangplank. “The boss is waiting upstairs. You ready for your first day?”
I flashed him a smile. “I think what you meant to ask is whether Angeles City is ready for my first day? I’m gonna become a hell of a witch consultant.”
He laughed. Maybe others thought I came across as arrogant, but that wasn’t in my tone. It was just pure playfulness.
“Trust me, Millie, Angeles will never be ready for you.”
I conceded his point just as we reached the top of the gangplank. I jumped down. Then I confirmed my every single suspicion. Not only was the superyacht massive from the outside, but it was so frigging opulent now I was on it, I wondered how many small countries’ GDPs had gone into making it.
Ancestral vampires didn’t just have their own family money. They were into business in every way they could be. Mining, services industries, you name it. If there was a big conglomeration out there, I could guarantee a vampire either ran it or owned it.
I wondered what this guy did.
“What do we know about the case?” I asked.
“Samantha Appleby disappeared last night at a party held here.”
“Why are people so sure she disappeared on the yacht?”
Phillip shot me a look. “The boss didn’t tell you the details of the case, did he?”
I frowned. “Nope. Just told me to come straight here.”
“Everyone’s pretty sure she disappeared on the yacht, because she disappeared in front of them.”
I frowned. “What does that mean?”
“Unsolicited transport spell,” he muttered.
That was some pretty heavy magic. There was a lot you could do with potions if you were smart enough, but hard magic like transportation would always remain out of reach. That was a level of magic so beyond me, there was no point in even comparing me to it. It was like an ant to a mountain.
I scratched the side of my face. “Well, okay. Did anybody get details about the transport spell?”
“Yeah, we questioned most of the vampires involved. The chief is still questioning the owner of the yacht.
“And who is that?” I asked conversationally.
“Sebastian St Vern.”
I stopped and twitched. It looked like I’d been hit.
Phillip turned slowly. He shoved his hands into his pockets and chuckled. “I forgot. You two have a history, don’t you?”
“History? I wouldn’t call it a history. That asshole does nothing but tease me. He’s so frigging arrogant.”
Phillip quickly snapped a finger up and pressed it against his lips. “Refrain from calling him an asshole while we’re on his yacht, Millie. He’s cooperating with us every step of the way.”
I crossed my arms. “Just as he should be. That’s nothing to be thankful for. He’s obliged to.”
“Yeah, yeah, but you still can’t call him an asshole. Don’t let him get to you. You’re right; it’s just a game.” With that almost dismissive comment, he waved me forward.
I tried not to think about it as we walked up to the top deck.
There was a large open area. There usually were on yachts, but on this superyacht, it was so enormous, you could have fit 10 helicopters up here.
Judging by the forensics team, this was where our victim had disappeared from.
I could see the photographer down on her knees taking footage of a mark on the floor. That, presumably, would be the last evidence Samantha had left.
I didn’t have great witch senses, but what I did have I used now.
“Are you picking anything up?” Phillip asked conversationally.
He knew my limitations.
“I guess,” I muttered, even though I hadn’t picked up anything other than the fact the forensics team swarmed over this place. Maybe a different kind of witch would’ve felt tingles rushing over her skin. She would’ve felt some kind of vibe in the air. I was just… a little hungry. And very, very pissed off. If I’d known this was Sebastian’s yacht, regardless of this being my first day, I would’ve chucked a sickie.
Sebastian and I went way back. To be precise, we went back to the day I joined the police force.
On my first mission as a witch consultant to the traffic unit, I’d pulled him over for outrageous speeding.
It’d been a great hullabaloo. I’d actually tried to arrest him. He’d played along the whole time until he’d revealed who he was and made a complete idiot of me.
From that day, the game had begun.
What did I mean about the game?
As I thought about it, I had to back off a little, getting further away from Phillip as he locked his attention on the crime scene. I pressed my back up against the railing behind me and let the cool sea breeze brush along my neck. I even closed my eyes slightly.
Sebastian kept promising to marry me.
Yep. You heard that right.
Me, just some random witch consultant, just some poor, down-on-her-luck tiny fish in the otherwise massive pool that was Angeles City. There were so many ancestral vampires here, it was one of the most important vamp cities in the world.
When Sebastian did marry, he would probably marry someone like Samantha Appleby. Okay, she had disappeared. Not my point. My point was he would marry someone super important and insanely attractive.
He’d only ever started this game to rile me up, likely to get me back for trying to arrest him.
Still, Phillip was right. I just had to shake it off.
So I dropped my hand.
It was just in time to see a uniformed officer walking up to me. “You’re Millie, right?”
I nodded. “Where do you need me?”
“The chief wants you down in the main room. He’s questioning the remaining witness.”
I followed her down the stairs. All the while I tried not to touch a thing. They belonged to Sebastian, after all.
I might have said I’d grown up ever since I’d been infatuated with vampire romances, but I still had a childish streak. If there had been no one around, I think I would’ve petulantly kicked the wall.
There were a lot of police people coming and going, so instead I held my head up high.
I was taken through the yacht. It was so much bigger than I’d first assumed. It was like a floating apartment block. It was like a frigging cruise ship. And it was all for one person?
Sorry, not person. Not even a vampire. One arrogant, pigheaded prick of a man.
And speaking of the arrogant prick of a man, we walked into this massive room, and there he was, draped on one seriously comfortable-looking couch with another vampire draped over him.
She was stunning, likely some kind of model, and wearing this silky thing that looked so slippery, she was probably holding onto him for dear life so she didn’t slide off the couch, over the floor, and into the ocean.
She of course didn’t look like that. She had this almost purring expression on her face.
I stopped in the doorway, long before Sebastian could see me. Or at least that’s what I hoped.
He was currently ensconced in a conversation with Frank.
Sebastian leaned all the way back, one arm holding a tumbler of golden liquid while his other arm rested along the back of the couch.
His vampire model leaned forward, plucked something up off the table in front of him, and slipped it into her mouth. The whole while, she moved exactly like her dress. It was like there was no friction in her life.
Meanwhile, I grated into the room while the uniformed officer beside me cleared her throat because I’d just stopped dead.
Sebastian’s attention was already on me by the time I took a step into the room. As for his eyes, they slowly slid my way.
Then that smile, that same damn arrogant smile he always used when I was around curled his lips. He leaned forward. He didn’t exactly push his model vampire off his lap, but he made it harder for her to drape there. She sat straighter, arching an eyebrow in confusion.
That smile just grabbed Sebastian’s lips harder. “Long time no see, wife.”
My hackles rose so high, I thought my skin would crack off my back like ceramic hit with a sledgehammer.
The uniformed officer beside me made a face.
My chief didn’t. He’d been there that first day when I’d tried to drag Sebastian in. He knew all about this game.
If it were anyone else, he would tell Sebastian to hold his tongue. But Sebastian wasn’t anyone else, and that was the damn point.
I tried not to make my anger too obvious. Don’t get me wrong, if it had just been us, I would’ve told Sebastian to shove it.
But it wasn’t just us. I had a crowd, and while I hated it, Sebastian just smiled harder.
I locked my hands behind my back, securing my fingers in hard. At this rate, it felt like I’d dig through my hands. Whatever.
That smile somehow continued to grow on Sebastian’s lips. I mean seriously, was it a weed? Was it going to take over the rest of his damn head and choke him to death? I could only hope.
He leaned back again, but when his model tried to drape over him once more as if he was cold and she was his blanket, he just shook his head. “I wouldn’t want to be disrespectful to the missus.”
God. I just wanted to walk over to him and punch him. I settled for coming to a stop beside the chief.
He shot me a look telling me he knew exactly how pissed off I was right now, but a look that also told me I had to hold onto that anger.
“We should get back to discussing the incident,” Frank said pointedly.
Sebastian nodded, but he didn’t take his eyes off me once.
It was so damn obvious that he was paying so much attention to me that everybody else in the room was now staring at me too. The chief might know what was happening, but no one else did. I had to work with these people.
Why was it that Sebastian always ruined everything?
“What did you see?” Frank began.
“Samantha was nervous most of the night,” Sebastian said. He leaned forward once more. He locked an elbow on his knee, and he started to brush his fingers down his jaw and lips.
It was a very pointed move. He looked at my jaw, too. And it didn’t take my otherwise slow brain long to figure out what he was doing.
God. I just wanted to punch him. Once. That was all it would take.
Then again, if I punched him, it wouldn’t do anything. He was a seriously powerful ancestral vampire, and I was a tiny little potions witch.
I settled for staring at anything other than him.
“To be honest, Samantha’s been a little on edge for the past week,” Sebastian added.
I could tell Frank frowned hard even though I wasn’t looking at him. This was the kind of detail he would latch onto. “We didn’t hear that from anyone else.”
“I had a lot to do with her over the last week. One of my businesses was planning a merger with one of hers.”
“Did you notice anyone hanging around with her? Did she mention anything to you?” Frank asked quickly.
“She did seem to get a lot of phone calls. I don’t know who was calling her, however. I imagine you can track it, though. That being said, whoever they were, they were likely using strong spells to hide their footprints. But if you have a strong witch consultant, I imagine you’ll be able to tease apart the real evidence.”
Here we go. Sebastian knew exactly what kind of witch I was. And what he was suggesting was well, well outside my skills.
“Is there anything else you can share?” Frank asked.
“Samantha bought a new apartment last week. She planned to move in straight away. I know she spent a lot of time looking at it yesterday. You might find something there.”
The chief nodded, and he wrote that fact down straight away. He turned around to talk to an officer behind him. He clearly wanted to get the investigation going, but that just left me alone, right in Sebastian’s sights. Now he’d given his witness report, I could tell there was nothing to stop him from playing with me.
That model vampire took one look at me then at him. “You know her, baby?” The word baby slipped off her lips just as I imagined the satin dress could slip off her body if she wanted it to.
Sebastian smiled at me again. He had a range of smiles – this was the most predatory of all. “I told you before. That’s my wife.”
She clearly had no idea how to react.
Most of the other officers had returned to work. Now they paused and looked at me again.
I was clenching my hands so tightly that my shoulders were practically popping out of my shirt.
“Wife?” The slinky vampire’s voice shot up so high, I thought it would crack the glass window behind Sebastian.
Sebastian just chuckled. “We’re not married yet, but that will come sooner rather than later.”
I just stared at him. There were a thousand things I wanted to say to him. More than anything, I wanted him to just leave me alone. I get it, I’d had the hubris to pull him over. But the bastard had broken the law.
He’d also broken my heart, but not in the way he thought. Before I’d met him, I’d still been enamored of vampires. I’d thought they were the coolest things out there. I’d never had personal experience with their arrogance, though.
Sebastian had pulled the wool from my eyes. And I had not been blinded to the real vampire world since.
The chief quickly came back. “That will be all. You don’t object to our witch consultant here walking around, do you?”
That was a polite way of Frank asking Sebastian if he had anything to hide. But it was just another invitation for Sebastian to shoot me one of those sarcastic smiles. It was even worse. I didn’t just want to punch him now. I wanted to throw him off the side of the ship.
“I would never object to my wife walking around here. What is mine is hers.” He graciously bowed forward.
I took that as permission to leave, and I turned around so stiffly, I could’ve cracked.
I practically ran for the door.
Frank was behind me. When we made it into the corridor, he winced at me. “Sorry. I thought someone would have told you this was Sebastian’s yacht.”
I took a tense breath. “It’s fine. I dealt with it, right? I didn’t punch him, did I?”
“Keep your voice down. He can definitely still hear us,” Frank said as he locked a hand on my shoulder and drove me forward through the wide corridor. When we were at a safe distance, he turned. “You held yourself together well. Now, do your thing.” He gestured to the yacht like I was a bloodhound and all I had to do was follow a scent.
I became very uncomfortable. “You… know my limitations, right—”
“Yeah, I also know that while you can’t sniff out vibes or snap your fingers and conjure weapons, you’ve got a better head than any other witch I’ve ever worked with. Now go use it. This is an important case. The commissioner is already breathing down my neck.”
With that, he walked off and plucked his phone from his pocket. He was engaged in a serious conversation before he was several meters away.
That left me alone on Sebastian St Vern’s yacht.
Great. This was my first day. It couldn’t get worse, right? Wrong. It was about to get much worse. Not just for the day – for the rest of my frigging life.