Read an Excerpt
The gremlins must have known I was coming, because they mobbed me the minute I walked into my hotel room. What do you call a group of gremlins? A pod? A flock? A quorum? A lot of gremlins. The Goblin Switchboard I'd seen in the past had nothing on the Gremlin Information Superhighway for passing around information. And apparently, I was big news.
I tried not to flinch at how many there were. Gremlins were simple, but sweet. I'd never met one I hadn't liked. StillI'd never met so many at once.
Gremlin voices collided with each other and overlapped in a mishmash of squeaky exclamations and breathless wonder.
"The lady is here!"
"She came to see us!"
Blurry spots on the flowered wallpaper bunched together and crawled in my direction. Lumps on the paisley duvet undulated in oranges and greens across the bed. My eyes needed a minute or two to adjust. Gremlins weren't always easy to see with their natural camouflage. Once the small figures drew closer and stopped hopping around so much in their excitement, I was able to make out their faces and round eyes. I counted a dozen creatures, though I might've missed some.
They climbed over each other, shoving and grunting in an effort to get close to me. Tiny hands brushed my legs, tugged the hem of my skirt or reached high to pat my hip. Their attention should have been alarmingor at least disconcerting. But it wasn't. Not in the least.
I smiled and nudged a few to the side so I could sit on the edge of the bed.
"Hello." I folded my hands in my lap and gazed around the room. Definitely more than a dozen. I'd missed an entire wall.
At the sound of my voice, the chatter stopped and, as one, they sucked in their breaths. When they held themselves so still, it was more difficult to spot them as a group, but easier to see individuals. I focused on the gremlin who stood directly in front of me with his palm resting on my knee. The back of his hand was striped in turquoise and yellow with the illusion of a velvety texture. It blended into my skirt as if he wasn't there.
"Thank you for welcoming me," I said. "Is there something I can help you guys with?" I sounded like Snow White, talking to gentle woodland creatures. Any second I'd start singing and we'd all dance into the bathroom to clean the toilet and re-grout the shower.
My solemn, stripe-handed visitor shook his head. "No help. Came to see and touch the lady." He gave me a shy smile. "Frit will be famous in his home now. Frit talked to the lady."
The chatter returned, and the room held a steady movement of bobbing paisley, striped and floral heads.
"So," I said, eyes narrowing. "Everything's all right here? No one needs anything from me?" Everywhere I went these days, somebody needed or wanted something. In a space filled with this many Hidden creatures, they couldn't possibly let me go without at least a small request.
Frit shook his head. "Nope."
I opened my mouth to ask again, then shut it as I realized my mistake. I was in another country. They had other Aegises here to take care of the Hidden. My own country had lost all its Aegises, except my mother and me.
I was in England now.
"You must have a wonderful Aegis here. I hope I get to meet heror himwhile I'm visiting."
The chatter stopped again and the room stilled. Frit looked at his feet. "No, lady. No Aegis. We take care of ourselves, here."
I frowned. "You don't have an Aegis?"
He shook his head. "No Aegis. Maybe next year. Council says."
A tear rolled down his blurry face, a prism of light on shadow. I reached forward to wipe it away. "I'm sorry. How long has she been gone?"
Frit sniffled. "Long. Gone long. Minutes and minutes ago."
The shared sadness of the group pattered across my shoulders like a gentle rainnot an intense downpour, but enough to dampen the room. Gremlins had a convoluted sense of time. Minutes and minutes ago could mean yesterday, or it could mean they'd been without an Aegis for twenty years. I made a mental note to ask someone what had happened, and how the search for a replacement was going.
For that matter, why hadn't the next closest Aegis stepped in as a temporary measure? If Mom and I could cover all of the United States while we waited for replacements to appear, surely someone in Germany or France could cover the U.K.
Unless the European Hidden Coalition was as disorganized and useless as the U.S. Board of Hidden Affairswhich was pretty damn likely.
My experiences with our own Hidden government hadn't impressed me.
Shuffling sounds brought my attention back to the room. As far as I could see, the gremlins had cleared out. When I looked back at Frit, he was gone too. Across my lap lay a sprig of heather tied with a red ribbon.
I ran my fingers over the soft flowers and addressed the empty room. "They're beautiful, thank you. And come back and see me soon."
Gremlins tended to come and go like that without warning. They probably hadn't gone far. If I needed them, they'd be back. I smirked, thinking how difficult it must be to have a hotel infested with gremlins. Shiny objects, jewelry, hair scrunchies, mirrorsanything that caught a gremlin's attention could go missing.
I touched the satin ribbon around the gift they'd left me and wondered if another guest might be missing it.
I placed the bundle of heather on the table next to the bed and shoved my suitcase in the corner, out of the way. The bed looked comfortable and tempted me with its soft comforter and squishy pillows. I rubbed my bleary, travel-weary eyes and looked around.
The room wasn't big, and the bathroom was a little weird. It wasn't so much adjoining as it was in the room. A toilet with an old-fashioned overhead pull, a small sink and a shower stall took up the cramped space. Around these three fixtures, someone had built a wall to distinguish it from the rest of the room and allow for a bit of privacy. The wall, however, didn't go all the way to the ceiling. If I stood on the bed, I could look over the wall into the bathroom.
I was grateful I'd insisted on my own room. The idea of sharing such a lack of privacy with Bernice, the head of our Board of Hidden Affairs, was about as distasteful as it got. I couldn't imagine having to sit in the room while someone used the toilet right there. We might as well have been in a public restroom.
I smoothed my skirt, tightened a buckle on my dark chocolate boots, fluffed my hair a little, then adjusted the yellow beret amid my wild, dark red curls. Determined not to give in to jet lag, I left my odd-but-cozy room and headed downstairs for a drink.
The man who'd checked me in was now behind the bar. He was tall, with eyes that grinned and dark hair cropped neatly on the sides but in tight curls hugging the top of his head. His smile brightened when he saw me. "Alright, my angel? Do you want a drink? What would you like?"
Most Americans expect two sorts of British accents. Either the snooty parody of the British well-to-do, or the fake cockney we learned from Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Wiggy's accent was neither. It was fast. It was friendly.
"I'd love a glass of cider," I said, stifling a yawn.
"Point or hoff point?" he asked.
Sometimes his speech was so fast, I lost a word and looked at him with my jaw hanging open, feeling like an idiot.
I stared at him. "What?"
"Point? Do you want a full point?"
It was as if he were speaking a foreign language. Hell, maybe he was. I was in a different country. I shrugged and shook my head. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
He held up a tall glass in one hand and a short one in the other, his smile never wavering. "Point. Half point." He indicated each glass as he spoke.
My eyes widened, and I laughed. "Oh, pint! Got it! Sorry. A pint, please."
Chuckling, he filled my glass from the cider on tap then slid it to me. I tried to pay him, and he waved a dismissive hand at me. "No worries, my angel. Welcome to the U.K."
He wandered off to wait on a customer at the other end of the bar before I could thank him.
I leaned an elbow on the bar and sipped the ice-cold, dry taste of apples while I took in my surroundings. The place was old. I wasn't sure how old, but I'd been told on arrival the church across the street was twice the age of my own country. I found this far more disconcerting than a dogpile of handsy gremlins waiting in my room. It made me feel small and insignificant, realizing how young America was in comparison. History surrounded me in every stone and wooden beamhistory that predated everything that was familiar to me.
Hell, the wood that made up the bar had probably been blessed by Druids five hundred years ago before a peasant chopped down the tree and dragged it here. I ran my fingers over the scratches and scars of the polished wood and pondered in my own insignificance in the big scheme of history.
Taking a sip of my drink, I glanced around the bar for other inconsequential humans.
The evening was still young, so the pub hadn't filled up much. A few people talked in hushed voices at a table across the room. Glasses clunked on the hard wood, missing the thick paper coasters. Smoke curled over the heads of patrons.
Behind them, two teenagers faced a dartboard. The taller kid stood with his hand in the air and his face screwed up in concentration, ready to let his dart fly. The other sat slumped in a chair, arms folded across his chest. When the dart finally flew, two more followed in rapid succession, barely hitting the board.
Somebody needed more practice and less beer.
I squinted at the staircase. So far, Bernice hadn't come down from her room. I sipped my drink and sighed. I'd known she wouldn't. She'd regret it when she woke in the middle of the night ready to start the day. I yawned again and rubbed my burning eyes. Just a few more hours and then I'd sleep.
Movement to my right caught my attention. A guy in a tight T-shirt and even tighter jeans perched on the stool next to me and regarded me with careful attention. He tipped his head back and smiled. "What's up?"
I frowned and sipped my drink. "Hi."
I swear to God, his biceps flexed when he said it. "I'm never really alone," I said. "Hey, you're American too!" He scooted his stool closer.
I nodded. "Pretty much, yeah."
The guy felt slimy. As an empath, I tried to keep myself as closed up as possible, only filtering in a measured amount of other people's emotions. This asshat was horny, opportunistic and a dirtball. His groping need pulsed from his pores in repugnant waves, and my filters weren't doing much to keep it out. Maybe my inability to block was due to lack of sleep, but my tolerance level wasn't nearly as high as it usually was, either.
Or maybe I was growing as a person. Taking shit from people was no longer one of my official hobbies. Go me.
I scootched my stool a few inches away and watched Wiggy as he cleaned a couple of glasses in the sink. Toad-man leaned toward me, his arm nearly touching mine.
"You know," he said, in a low tone he probably thought was sexy. "The place where I'm staying is only a few blocks away. We could have a few drinks. Maybe watch a movie." He drew even closer. "Or something."
I put both elbows on the bar and spread out causing him to move back. "Dude, I've got a drink already. But thanks."
Again with the husky, thought-he-was-irresistible voice. "I won't charge you for the drinks."
I held up my drink, waved it at him without looking, then took a long pull. "I didn't have to pay for this one, either."
I could have played the I-have-a-boyfriend card to get him to leave me alone, but I've never been a big fan of that one. I shouldn't have to claim I'm somebody else's property in order to be ineligible for groping.
Also, it would be a lie.
Having a relationship while repeatedly trying to save the world had proven too difficult for Riley and I to overcome, especially while it was his job to keep me alive. Two months ago, we'd finally agreed to call it a day. Unfortunately, he was still employed by the Board to be my minder. We had no time for a relationship, but we were together all the time.
No. Not awkward at all.
It was one of the reasons I'd jumped at the chance to take this trip with Bernice. Was it too much to ask for a few days without a constant reminder of how much my heart hurt? Apparently, there was no vacation from a broken heart. I couldn't leave it behind, like a hairbrush or my right flip-flop. Broken hearts were more like a fungal infection or a thigh rashalways along for the ride.
Slimy McAsshat kept talking. I wasn't listening anymore, but he kept flexing and chattering. I rubbed my eyelids with my fingertips.
I could make him cry. It wouldn't take much. I'm tired. I could turn that into a little pity party, then turn it around and blast it at him.
I could make him cry.
I sent tendrils of emotion in his direction, prodding him, testing his defenses. He tasted like ambition and greed, but I could change that before he knew what was happening. I could make him feel anything I chose. Didn't I deserve more respect than what he was showing? Didn't he deserve to be punished?
My eyes flew open in horror. What I'd been thinking was awful. Not six months ago I'd taken down the most powerful empath history had known. Katy had done things like that. She'd used her empath powers to make other people do what she wanted. Feel what she wanted.
And here I was contemplating the same thing.
I swallowed the rest of my drink and set the glass on the bar. "Listen," I said, turning toward the man. "It's been nice meeting you, but I've really got to get some sleep."
He looked startled, as if rejection were unfamiliar to him. As he stammered at me, unable to find the magic words to get me to drop my panties, a shimmer on the wood paneling over his shoulder caught my eye. The wood sort of oozed toward him, then took on the blue of his tight, tight shirt as the blob slid down his arm.
The guy never noticed a thing when the gremlin slipped the watch from his wrist, then disappeared over the carpet with it.
I wanted to object, but he kept flexing at me as he talked. Maybe I wasn't so far gone that I would manipulate somebody's emotions to make them do what I wanted, but I wasn't above allowing petty theft to happen right before my eyes, either. The gremlins loved their shinies.
This asshat was his own shiny. I couldn't imagine why he even needed a fancy watch. The world revolved around him.
Without another word, I turned toward the stairs.
"Your loss," he said behind me. Without the pseudosexy artifice, his voice was whiny and mean.
Wiggy nodded at me then glanced at the guy I'd just left at the bar. I felt secure in the knowledge that Wiggy wouldn't let the guy come upstairs after me.
Thank God, because I couldn't possibly use that bathroom with him in the room.
I yawned and checked my watch.
Screw the time. If I was going to be any use at the Gathering tomorrow, I needed sleep, whether it messed with my internal clock or not.
And to be honest, since I didn't know what to expect at this enormous get-together of world leaders, I was more than a little nervous.
Not enough to keep me awake, though. I didn't remember changing for bed before I was out cold.