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prologues & epilogues

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Fixin' Vixen epilogue

FIVE YEARS LATER

JACK

Vixen was wailing as she gripped the sheets on my palace bed. We didn’t stay here often, but considering the situation, I thought it best. “I can’t believe I’m missing Fiji for this shit. Ow, it hurts. It fucking hurts, Jack. Can’t you just freeze me numb until this monster comes out of my womb?”

“I’ve told you several times it doesn’t work that way. You’re the strongest person I know. You’ll get through this. It won’t be long now, Flame. And our child will not be a monster.”

The truth was I didn’t know that for certain. Fae and other supernatural beings would often reproduce, but I’d found no evidence of fae and reindeer shifters, so we were going into this blind. I had faith in us though. She truly was the most remarkable of people.

But I had the fae healers there in the room, just in case. Hence, the palace.

I glanced at my pocket watch. The contractions were very close. Our child would arrive soon. And I was going to murder Yeager and Hart for not being here. I’d texted them hours ago.

“Oh, my soul, Jack. Please, please help me with this pain,” she shouted. “Distract me.”

I made some ice from the chandelier over her head drip, dropping small frigid droplets on her forehead. She instantly smiled. “That reminds me of the first time.”

“I know. Me too. You were so beautiful then. You’re beautiful now too.” I kissed her forehead, letting the coolness of my skin soothe her. “I had never in my years encountered someone like you. And I hope our daughter will be just like you.”

“No, I want her to be like you,” she said through panted breaths.

“Cold and distant? Daddy vibes? Unable to stand warm locations?”

She laughed through another contraction. “No, strong, reliable, smart. All the things you have been to me, to us, for years. I want her to have your piercing eyes and your ability to think your way out of anything. I want her to rule her future kingdom with grace and regard for her subjects. I want her to look at someone, or maybe even several someones, the way you look at me every day and every night. I want her to feel the love we have for each other, all of us.”

My heart seized at her words. I didn’t deserve her, of that I was certain, but I had her, and I was going to do everything in my power to help our child achieve all that she’d said and more.

She released a screeching wail. The healer rushed over and pulled back the sheet. She looked up at me with certainness in her eyes. “It’s almost time to push.”

I pulled her up and positioned myself in place behind her, propping her up and giving her all I had. A commotion in the hall drew our attention.

“Get the fuck out of our way, Burl. Don’t you know we’re having a baby today?” Yeager came bursting through the door, shoeless, belt hanging halfway out of the loops, hair disheveled beyond belief. At least he had on a shirt, unlike Hart behind him.

Burl shuffled in. “Sir, Yeager and Hart are here to see you.”

“Thanks, Burl. That’ll be all.” I loved my most loyal butler, but he was getting on in years. I’d given him a full retirement package, but he insisted on staying on for me at the palace. I didn’t have the heart to refuse him. It was no surprise he’d had trouble keeping up with the two of them.

Vixen screeched in front of me, riding through another painful contraction. As soon as it passed, she lifted her head. “Were you two assholes fucking while I laid here in pain delivering a dinosaur out of my vagina?”

Uh-oh.

Yeager said “yeah,” while Hart said, “nah.”

Vixen literally growled. “Which one is it?”

Hart popped over, taking her hand and kissing her knuckles. She swiped it away from him. “Technically we hadn’t gotten to the actual fucking part yet. But in our defense, the baby’s early, and my phone died after the run last night. Yeager’s is back in the cabin. We didn’t know to be here now, now.”

Yeager strode over, kissing her temple, which she shied away from. “It’s true. If we’d known, we’d have been here. Nothing is more important than you and this child.”

She grunted.

Her anger wasn’t real. She didn’t mind when the two of them strayed off together at times. Just like we all did with her. Hart and Yeager alone didn’t happen often, but when it did, we all understood it for what it was. Just another reason I found her so remarkable. She loved that they loved each other.

And the flip side of it was that the two of them were going to love this child as much as I would. While I got the honor of being the first to father children with Vixen, we were all going to be her Daddy.

My soul, I pitied the boys who’d want to date her in the future.

She let out another roaring yell and the healer nodded. “Okay love, you need to push on the next one. Your baby girl wants to meet you.”

*****

A couple hours later, a sweet bundle of pink was wrapped in Vixen’s arms, sound asleep as she listened to the thump of her mother’s heart. All three of us were stuffed in the bed around her. We hadn’t gotten up since the moment she was born.

Hart ran a finger over her round cheeks before leaning in to kiss Vixen. “You know, this spot right here still hasn’t been claimed.” He thumped his chest. “Today would be a great day to tell us your name, Ginger. I’ve got my artist on standby.”

“Nice try, next.”

He shook his head, unable to stop himself from touching our little bundle. “She’s so tiny. And so very beautiful. If you won’t give up her name, have you at least decided what to call her?”

We’d decided as a group that I, as her biological father, would choose her name. Vixen had total veto rights, naturally, but she and I had talked privately about it at length, coming up with what I hoped would be the best name for her. I cleared my throat because for some reason I couldn’t get rid of the lump in it. I was in total love, deeper than I could ever find words to express. Different from what I felt with Vixen, but just as potent. It had happened between two heartbeats. “Her name is Ivy for the vine that stays green throughout the Winter.”

A broad grin stretched across Yeager’s face. He placed a sweet kiss on Ivy’s head. “That’s perfect, Ice Man. Hello there, Ivy. Welcome to our family.”

********

 

FOUR YEARS LATER

HART

Vixen had our baby boy in her arms, bouncing and singing as she paced behind the counter, trying to get him to settle for a nap. Jack was at the coffee table attempting to teach a four-year-old chess. Ivy kept making towers out of the pieces. The whole time she had a serious look on her face, just like Jack. But she had her mother’s laugh and when she used it, we would move any mountain for her.

Yeager unhooked his suspenders and they fell over his ass in that perfect way. He went for his son, grabbing him to give Vixen some rest and swinging him around, causing him to laugh too. “Cedar’s going to be a reindeer on his papa Hart’s fleet one day, aren’t you little guy?”

It was possible. He’d taken the reindeer DNA from his mom and thankfully wasn’t born with those yeti tattoos that would’ve been very concerting on a baby. I loved me some tats, but I could not stomach Yeager’s baby photos.

Cedar had his father’s light hair and sunny disposition, hardly ever crying and making everyone laugh with his constant gurgling baby sounds. He was a little confused on the Dad thing thus far, but he’d eventually sort it out. Ivy had no trouble calling us all Daddy. Maybe she was as smart as Jack and had already figured out how to play us. Because what we wouldn’t do for that girl.

And for that chunk of a boy.

I had planned all this. Not the timing or the names, but everything else had come with my last miracle. First Jack would give her a child, then Yeager. Mine was yet to come. I hadn’t even hesitated to flip that top and drink the miracle down for us. 

Vixen had been the very best kind of mother, giving to our kids at the same time managing the Inn year round, and running the silly games that we still did for the clients I’d send when I crossed paths with those who needed a special kind of Christmas cheer. Every group had been a success and it was all thanks to Vixen.

Now that Yeager had taken Cedar off her hands, I snuck up behind her, pressing in so she’d feel my jingle bells. I kissed her neck, reaching around to cop a feel as I placed my hand over her heart. “You know I’m still waiting to get that tattoo. You better tell me today or I just might tattoo some other woman’s name over my heart.”

She turned around, grabbing my face in her hand and kissing me like she did the first time in the kitchen behind us. “Idle threats aren’t a good look for you.” Called my bluff. Always did.

“They’re here,” Jack called from his position at the window. He was as excited for our guests this week as the rest of us, not that he’d admit it out loud.

Beside him, Ivy bounced in a circle. “They’re here, they’re here, they’re here.” She paused, glancing up and frowning. “Who’s here, Daddy?”

It’s funny. He never called himself Daddy in the bedroom anymore. Stopped the minute Ivy was born. He scooped her up in his arms and opened the door. “Very special friends of ours. Ivy, this is Isaac, Mandy and Cherish, and…”

Cherish was gripping the hand of a tall muscular blonde guy, grinning that huge smile she had. Her braids were gone, replaced by a sleek pixie style that framed her face. She’d turned into a beautiful young woman, and I swear on my life I choked up about it. Pictures and NickTocks had not done her justice. She was radiant, confident, and that smile was so bright. “You remember Xayden? He’s a little taller than the last time you saw him.”

Xayden reached out to shake Jack’s hand, stopping for a second at the coolness of Jack’s skin, but recovering nicely. Points for that. “Nice to formally meet you. I’ve heard nothing but good things about all of you. Which one of you is Hart?”

I raised my hand. “That’s me. Are you going to come at me for being her crush before you?”

He strolled over and grabbed me for a long hug. “Nope, I’m going to thank you for bringing her to my house all those years ago.”

“No sweat, man. Nice to meet you.” I had to turn away so he wouldn’t see me choking up over it. Cherish and I had a bond like no other and it was fucking hard to give her up to him, but I knew the way they looked at each other, she was in good hands. They both were. And to think, I’d had the idea to take her on the ride that night because she didn’t believe in Santa. I suppose that was my first official act, even before I knew I was meant to be Santa.

Luckily Vixen squealed and ran over, distracting everyone long enough for me to take a deep breath and reign in my emotions. Yeager sidled up to me, handing me Cedar. “You okay?”

“Yes. Shut up.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You’re thinking it.”

“Oh yeah, you can read minds? That’s a new skill. What am I thinking right now?”

I looked up at him, readding the heat in his emerald eyes. I covered Cedar’s ears and whispered so only Yeager could hear me. “You’re thinking about putting that Redwood in my hot mouth until I gag.” I uncovered Cedar’s ears, kissing him on the head.

“Damn, you’re right. Guess you know what we’re doing later then.” He winked then went over to greet Cherish and the rest. He’d successfully distracted me and kept me from being a blubbering nostalgic mess. He was good. We fit together in ways I still didn’t quite understand. But it didn’t matter. Our family got it and that was all that was important.

After Vixen and I fixed an amazing dinner, we waited in front of the fire for our next guests to arrive. Jack was understandably tense about the rest of the company, but Yeager had volunteered to do all the dishes he was so pumped about it.

It had been a happy Christmas for all of us this year. While I was out on my run—most of the other Santas hated Christmas Eve, but it was my favorite part, so I did it more often than the others—Vixen and Jack had spent time in the Frost court with the kids while Yeager had gone to visit his parents, Ivan, Nadia, Camilla and Destiny. She was full of sass, and she’d learned to use her gift already. We’d even helped Nadia and Camilla open up a clinic where Destiny often helped out. Uncle Yeager had not only helped them build it, but he’d—we’d—paid for the setup and kept them stocked in supplies.

We had the bank to do it.

No one in my family had believed I’d give up all my ops just because I was Santa. Sure, I was a little more careful about them, but Buck Marigold had turned out to be a suitable second. I still enjoyed the best of two worlds.

It was a running theme for my life, I guess.

The energy in the lodge shifted and in the next second, Holly and John Sun stepped into the room, each wearing sunglasses. She ripped hers off and ran—sprinted—at Yeager who wrapped her in his arms and spun her around like he always did Cedar. “Holl, you look amazing! You’re all tan.”

She was wearing a black sweater that had a sunshine made of rhinestones with a Santa hat on its head. Yeager chuckled when he sat her back down and noticed it. “I guess you can take the girl out of Christmas, but you can’t take Christmas out of the girl.”

“Indeed. Now let me smoosh the cheeks of these babies before I explode.”

John Sun stood in the middle of the room, fidgeting. “I’ll take my leave now. You know how to get back Holly. I’ll see you in few weeks when we meet up for minigolf.”

The awkward silence was tangible. First of all, John Sun played minigolf?  With Holly?

Record scratch.

Jack broke the silence with a voice that sounded like glass. “Wait. There’s no reason you can’t stay for a drink. Have a seat.”

Vixen swung her head around, looking at Jack to make sure he heard him right. She had. It was subtle, but as Jack poured John a drink, she went over to him and whispered in his ear. He smiled in response.

Over the past five years, Jack had rarely mentioned John. They’d stayed in their own lanes and had very little business to conduct at all. I guess Jack was finally thawing to the idea of John being something that wasn’t an enemy.

Still, I kept my eye on him, just in case. Yeager and I could still pack a punch.

Later when all our guests were settled in their cabins and we’d tucked the kids in, the four of us climbed the stairs together. Even though we had a routine that included splashy baths, forcing Ivy to brush her teeth, and bedtime stories, we still—all four of us—made our relationship a priority.

Because at the end of the day, yes, we were a family that shared so much love it was Immeasurable, we still liked to smash like crazy.

That night, it started with Yeager’s cock in my mouth while Vixen sat on his face and Jack stood next to the bed with his cock in her mouth. And it ended with us in a big lump on the bed.

No miracle I could ever have used could’ve been better.

*******

 

TWO YEARS & TWO MONTHS LATER

VIXEN

This time Jack had been forced to bring the fae healers to our realm for the pregnancy. I’d had complications. Nothing serious, but none of them wanted to move me and the healers could do their jobs anywhere. I’d been on bed rest for a week and was going a little stir crazy. Especially knowing that the Inn was running without me.

My men were capable, but I still hated making them do the things I normally did.

They didn’t mind. Just like they didn’t mind taking the brunt of the childcare responsibilities while I was laid up. Ivy and Cedar usually spent afternoons napping with me and evenings entertaining me so that helped.

Ivy turned out to be quite a serious artist. She drew sketches of everything she came in contact with, sometimes from the inside out. She was curious and wanted to know how everything worked, then she’d go and draw it piece by piece. I imagine Jack being like that when he was a child.

Cedar, on the other hand, was a one-kid swirling tornado. He was never still, never quiet, but always loving. I’d seen him running from room to room to room, then stopping on a dime to look over Ivy’s shoulder and study what she’d drawn. He’d always give her what she called ‘green googly eyes’ which was her way of saying he was looking too closely, but then he’d hug her neck and say, “Oh, I wike dat one Sissy. Good job,” then take off flying down the hall again.

I loved them so much.

And I would love the next one. If it ever decided to arrive.

Hart popped into the room carrying popcorn. I almost lunged off the bed trying to get my hands on my salty snacks. He jerked the bowl away at the last second. “Nope, not until you tell me I’m your favorite.”

“You’re my favorite.”

“No, say it like you mean, Ginger. I want details.”

“You’re my favorite. I love the sound of those jingle bells when you make me come.”

“Much better.” He set the bowl in my lap and plopped next to me, leaving room for Yeager beside him.

Jack came in next after tucking Ivy in bed. He was going through the works of Shakespeare as bedtime stories. She was either going to be the smartest kid in her class or the most traumatized. Jury was still out. She certainly loved the sound of her Daddy’s voice, and she wasn’t wrong about that. “What are we doing tonight?”

“Vixen was just about to tell me her name, actually.”

“Nope, I don’t think I was.”

“Was what?” Yeager strolled in, looking like he’d battled with Cedar and lost. He slid in next to Hart, leaning over him to give me one of his slow, panty- melting kisses. And stealing some of my popcorn in the process.

“Get ready for it. Vixen is going to share her name with us. Weren’t you?” Hart batted his eyelashes, and he looked so ridiculous that I cracked down the middle. He was still next-level sexy, but when he did adorable silly things, I melted even more.

“Okay, you asked for it, but you’re never going to be able to unhear this. You’re all going to go through the rest of our very long lives knowing you could’ve prevented this knowledge from escaping into the world, so that’s on you.”

Hart, in particular, sat up and paid attention.

I couldn’t believe I was going to tell them after all these years. It was time though. Time to put it to bed. I took a deep breath. “My last name is Shore.”

Jack cocked an eyebrow. “That’s an unconventional way to introduce yourself.”

I held up a finger, telling them to wait for it. “My first name, the one my parents thought would be a super cool name for someone with the last name of Shore is…Sandy.” I closed my eyes, waiting for the brunt of it to hit them.

To give them credit—they didn’t laugh right away.

It took about three or four seconds for Yeager to let loose a gut-busting chuckle that almost woke the kids. Jack followed suit, but Hart just sat there blinking. He popped away and we didn’t see him again for an hour.

During the time he was gone, I went into labor. With his child.

It was slow going, so not a big deal that he wasn’t there yet, but still, I had no idea where he’d gone and if I was honest, I was a little pissed. If he narrowly missed the birth of yet another child because of my birth name, I might have to hurt him.

When he popped back, he lifted his shirt, showing me the white patch covering a new tattoo. Yeager stripped him of his shirt and peeled back the bandage and started laughing. So hard. “What? Let me see it.”

Jack strolled over and all I got from him was a raised eyebrow.

“If you don’t come over here and show me that tattoo right now, Hart Brandywine, I am going to refuse to birth your child.”  I kind of had that Mom voice down.

He pushed Yeager aside, crawling in the bed and facing me. Right there over his left pec was ‘Ginger.’

I couldn’t help but laugh. “I told you.”

“You’re right. I should’ve listened, but there is no way I was going to get Sandy Shore tattooed on this body. None. Sorry, you’re Ginger and I love you for it.”

“I love you too. All of you, now find me some entertainment while we wait for this baby to come out.”

*****

Nearly seven hours later and I was still not fully dilated. The healer was checking things out down below, so Yeager took the remote and flipped some channels. “Oh, I forgot the Olympics were going on.”

“Yeah. Me too.” Something on the screen made me pause, so I sat up, leaning in to get a better view. “Is that?”

“Holy shit, turn it up.” Hart said, fumbling for the remote.

Yeager grabbed it out of his hand and turned up the volume. All four of us were glued to the screen. The announcers were getting ready to call the four-man bobsled races and they were doing one of those special segments about the teams. The ones that made you want to root for the participants no matter the country.”

‘This may be the strangest story to come out of these Olympics, Bob. A surprise entry from the brand-new nation of Transylvania has taken the world by storm.’

Jack crossed one leg over another, smiling from ear to ear. “They actually won their independence. I can’t believe it wasn’t on the news.”

I laughed. “Yeah, leave it up to the vamps to quietly form a nation and not tell anyone about it.”  

‘You’re right, Olivia. Transylvania is a brand-new country, and they brought a four-man team to the Olympics. They’re the only Transylvanians to make the trip, but we’ve learned they’d been training for this event for many years.

‘Yes, they have and what’s even more bizarre is that the four-man team go by the names Lestat, Edward, Dracula and Spike.’

I put my hand to my mouth. What more could I do?

‘Those are some interesting monikers for certain, Olivia. It kind of makes me hate my parents for naming me Bob.”

Hart elbowed me as I said, “Same, Bob.”

 We spoke with team captain Lestat earlier. Here’s what he had to say about Transylvania’s first Olympic team.’

The screen flickered and zoomed in on Lestat and the rest as they stood in front of their black bobsled in their black bobsled suits with their black helmets and face covers. Yeager laughed so hard, he tipped over the popcorn. “They have to keep their gear on for people to see them on camera. That’s fucking brilliant.”

An offscreen reporter shoved a mic in Lestat’s face. “Lestat, we heard your team has done some unusual training for this Olympic event. Can you tell us about that?”

“Of course, thanks for asking. Twelve years ago, my team and I found ourselves at a lovely cabin near the South Pole. We went there in hopes of acclimating to the colder climate and preparing for this event. While we were there, we met some amazing people who became our friends. They helped us build a course and functioning bobsled made from a fir tree. I know, you must think this is unusual, but it was our first foray into bobsledding and what we learned there in those cabins at the time was the catalyst for many good things to come. So, we would not be here if it weren’t for Jack, Yeager, Hart, and Vixen. If we win any medals, they belong to them as much as us.”

Yeager wiped the tear tracking down my face. It was the hormones I was certain.

“That’s an amazing story and your team has definitely got the mysterious vibe going on. Your nation’s flag has a skull on it, and I hear your bobsled has an unusual name. Can you share it with the audience so they can cheer you on?”

“Of course. Our sled’s named Frostbite.”

“I’ll be damned. If that’s not a kick in the ass,” Hart murmured as the announcers went back to the race.

My heart was thumping in my chest. Like the salty snacks, it probably wasn’t too great for the baby, but I couldn’t help it. Never in my life had I wanted someone to win so badly. When I say we cheered for those vampires, we fucking cheered. Loud enough to wake up both kids who came in our room to see what was going on. Cedar immediately picked up our enthusiasm by jumping all around the bed shouting “Frostbite, frostbite” over and over even though he had no idea what it meant. Ivy stood there with her head cocked to the side watching, trying to figure out the physics of the race.

In the end, they failed to qualify, coming in second to last. Yeager gave me a squeeze, reading my disappointment. “At least they beat the Jamaican team.”

*****

Several hours later, the kids were back in bed and Hart was holding our child against his bare chest. I don’t think he felt the pain in his newly acquired tattoo either. “She’s stunning, Ginger. I can’t believe we made her.”

Yeager reached around from behind him, hugging him tight and pressing a kiss on her head. “I love that we finally got one with red hair.”

Jack slid in next to them. “It means she’ll be fiery.”

Hart shrugged. “We’re used to that.”

He finally handed her back to me and I snuggled her against my breasts. She was smaller and more delicate than our other kids, but perfect in health and had wailed like a banshee when she came out. I stuck my finger out and she gripped on. I couldn’t help but cry at the feeling of it.

Hart slid in next to me, trying to calm me down. “Sh, it’s okay. Everything worked out.”

“It’s not that. I’m relieved she’s healthy and yes, I’m tired right now, but I’m so full of love for all of you, I think it’s spilling out of me. I just know now. Our family is complete, and this is just the beginning for us. I can’t wait to see what’s next.”

“You’re right. I wished for this, you know? Your last night as Vixen, while you were talking to Santa Craft, before I walked into the cabin, I took my last vial of Christmas miracle and wished for us, for these kids that I didn’t even know yet, for a life like this.”

Yeager spoke again. This time, there was a choke in his voice. “Then? We didn’t even know we were planning to be together as a unit that night. Not until Vixen came in and asked us to run the Inn.”

Hart looked him with such love I broke in half. “Are you saying you didn’t know then, Redwood?”

“No, I’m not. I knew, or at least I hoped more than I dared to.”

Jack had been very quiet. More than normal. I looked up and found him standing there with his hands stuffed in his pockets and tears in his eyes. He gave me that quarter-grin, then turned to Hart. “You may just get another fro job for that.”

Hart laughed, turning to Yeager as if to ask his permission. He knew Jack was kidding, but deep down I think he always hoped one day.

Still reeling from Hart’s revelation, Yeager kissed him, softly. He could say so much with a kiss. When he pulled back, he was crying too. “I don’t think I have the ability to express what I feel right now. Maybe you should just tell us her name.”

I gave Hart the nod, giving him what he wanted on the name. How could I not, especially after I had confirmation of what I’d suspected for years. He’d made this life for us. We did our part in it too, but if it weren’t for him? I don’t know what our life would’ve been like. Didn’t want to know.

‘Her name is Belle.”

Yeager laughed. “It’s perfect. She’s perfect.” He leaned down to kiss her once again before he said. “Welcome to the family Belle. Let me tell you how we met your mom. It’s a long story and you won’t understand it for a lot of years, but this is how you began so I want you to know.

“It was a cold winter night at the South Pole…”

 

*** THE END ***

Cat Collins C. Collins v4 ebook.jpg

Jewels of Clay Prologue

            Dry leaves crunched under his boots as Liam, the leprechaun paced in front of me. We were standing under a bridge in the park nearest my home at five-freaking-thirty in the morning like a couple of trolls, negotiating.

            Characteristic name aside, for creatures who supposedly had pots of gold stashed under every rainbow, he was exceptionally greedy. But he was my last and best hope for a solution to my impending life of homelessness and poverty, so I forced a calm, sweet tone into my voice. “I understand. If I had more, I’d give it to you, but after I pay for the ride to get to where I’m going, I’m literally down to my last penny.”  Absolute truth.

            My Gram’s old Magic 8 Ball would say: Outlook not so good.

            He paused to smell the sweetness of the air as the sun began to beat life into the park. I couldn’t help but join him. We were both Earth elementals and it had been over a week since I’d allowed myself outside even a second to absorb the Ambient magic around me. Saving yourself turns out to be a time-consuming task.

            Liam paused and cocked his head, his long red beard tangling in the zipper of his hoodie. “For Mage’s sake, I should get to the barber.” I didn’t disagree. He was pretty much rocking the leprechaun look in every way he could: red hair, green hoodie and sweats, full beard. The only thing missing was a top hat.

            Most Magicals wanted no part in looking like our species out in the world. We liked to blend in with the humans, keep a low profile. But Liam appeared to be in the lean into it category. The closest thing to gnome I ever got was my favorite red beanie, which I was rocking that day.

            Before she died, my Gram gave me all sorts of unhelpful, but fun information about Magical species. For example, leprechauns may be diminutive in size, but they’re not diminutive in size. I looked down to see if Gram had been right, but I couldn’t tell from his loose-fitting sweats. Not that I had time for attachments or feelings of any kind, but he was kind of cute if you could ignore the bush on his face.

 He untangled his beard and lowered his gaze on me. “Okay. Because your grandma was a good client, I’ll accept two hundred. But you’ll have to get yourself to and from the location and I’ll answer no more questions for free.”

            “Deal.”  Before he could change his mind, I whipped out my phone and cash-apped him the money. After he confirmed the receipt, he pulled a small carved trunk from his duffle bag and shoved a piece of paper with an address on it into my hand.  “Once you capture your prey, put them in here. There’s a magic spell to keep them from fleeing before you’re ready. Luck o’ the Irish, Terra.” He was in his green VW bug faster than I could say thanks.

            I took a deep breath.  This was it. I was on my way to the most important thing I’d done in twenty-two years. I just had to get there first. After glancing at the address and doing a quick calculation, I was certain I had just enough money left to get me there and back, so I pulled up the ride share app.

            He must have been nearby because my ride showed up just a few minutes later. It was an expensive black SUV and my chest fluttered as the driver rolled down the window and looked through his dark shades at me. He glanced at his phone, then back up. “Terra? I’m your ride.”  The way he said my name in a rough husky voice made other places on my body flutter.

           Lock it down. You have work to do.

“Um, yeah?” I shoved the piece of paper with the address on it at him, anxious to get him to stop looking at me. Even through his sunglasses, I could tell his stare was intense. “I have a hundred dollars. Will that get me to the address and back to at least somewhere close to here?” I could walk a few miles home if necessary. I hoped it wasn’t.

            He read the address, then slid the sunglasses up on his head. It made the little wavy strands of his dark hair stick out in a way that was both adorable and sexy at the same time. I was right.  His gaze was intense, like he was trying to bore a hole into my brain and root around in it.  His eyes, though, on a scale of one to ten, they were a hells yes. “I can do a hundred. Get in.”

            I slid into the back seat and after he input the address into his GPS, he took off without a word. I didn’t even get his name or even one of the normal rideshare speeches about adjusting the air control or radio. Nope. He said nothing.

The entire way.

            An hour.

            It was simultaneously unnerving and nice.

            I didn’t know if this dude was human or Magical and I didn’t want to have to come up with a lie about where I was going and why. But at the same time, would it have killed him to put a little effort into small talk?

            He finally found his voice when the GPS told him he’d arrived. He turned around, slinging a muscular arm over the seat.  “You wanted to go to the ass end of one of Oregon’s National Forests? Why?”

            There was the question I’d been dreading. “Never mind. Just stay in the car. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

            I hoped so anyway. Never caught a fairy before so, in truth, I had no idea how long it would take. I just hoped Mr. Silent, Dark and Handsome would stick around long enough. He grunted, which I took for ‘okay sure, I’ll stay here as long as you need, by the way, you look really pretty today’ and scooted out of the SUV.

I probably should’ve just told him I was doing a drug deal.

            We’d arrived at an abandoned campsite which was blocked off by a gate. I never would’ve found the location myself.  The only way Liam knew was his leprechaun Location magic that allowed them to track down any little thing in the world. He’d sent me to the fairy ring closest to me and I needed to hurry if I was going to make it back home in time to do what I needed to do before my esteemed guests and werewolves arrived at eight.

            I stepped over the gate and into the dense woods, enjoying the Autumn scent of the trees as I traveled deeper into the forest. After several yards, I spotted the ring and dropped on my knees, breathing in the rich aroma of the mushrooms. The trunk lid squeaked as I opened it, and a chill raced through me. I was about to catch a fairy. And this fairy was going to save me.

            I held my breath, peeping under the largest mushroom in the ring without disturbing the ground around me. I was a bit of a klutz, and I couldn’t let anything get in the way of my goal, including myself. I hoped I wouldn’t have to wait long, but I was prepared to sit there like a statue until I had my prize. Even if it meant denying the part of me who wanted to dig deeper into the woods and surround myself in the dense, dark, quiet it offered me.

            “If you’re trying to catch fae in that trunk, you’re going be there a long damn time.” I looked up and found the rideshare driver staring down at me.

            Okay, that answers the question. He’s Magical with a capital M.

            I had the immediate urge to argue with him, though I shouldn’t have. He obviously knew more about catching fae than I did. He tromped over, upsetting the dirt and trampling at least five mushrooms with his massive feet. I winced at the thought of the fae he’d just Godzilla’d under his shoes.

            I yelped. “Careful, you’ll hurt them!”

            His throaty laugh echoed across the dense forest, shaking some pine needles loose from their branches. “Oh my Mage, woman, do you know nothing? The fairy ring isn’t their home. It’s their bathroom.”

            I jumped up, wiping the dirt from my jeans, and grossing myself right out about it. Then I had it on my hands, which I wiped back on my jeans and suddenly I was covered in fae poo. Heat bloomed across my face as I planted my hands on my hips. Great, fae poo on my favorite black shirt now. I huffed at the driver. “I didn’t have a typical Magic upbringing, okay? You could stand there and laugh at my ignorance, or you could tell me how to do it.”

            The driver kept his hands in his pockets and pointed to the circle of trees around the fairy ring with his head. “Free fae live in the trees around the ring. You’ll have to climb up and catch one in your hands, then wrestle it into the trunk.            Assuming the trunk has been spelled, just close the lid and the fairy will be yours to command.”

            I glanced up at the circle of trees. They were all very tall, as trees tended to be. I blew out a breath of determination then made my way over to the pine with the lowest hanging branch and jumped up. I had no time to waste. I had things to do, and, thanks to the mushroom-bathroom situation, I wanted a shower more than anything. Other than the fairy.  

            The driver chuckled behind me after I fell on my ass, almost breaking the trunk underneath me. His laughter lit a fire within me like I’d never known. I was going to get in that damn tree if it killed me.

            Which it almost did.

            I fell a dozen more times and I was certain my butt was black and blue.

Finally the driver took pity on me and came over. He made a step with his hands and hoisted me up like I weighed nothing. Almost shot over the branch like a cannon. Whatever species he was, it was strong. I was more than curious, but it was rude to ask Magicals what they were.  I know I hated the inescapable torment of being asked what species I was.

            I slung my leg over the branch and clung to the trunk of the tree as I stood and steadied myself. Below, the driver was tense and focused, peering up like he expected me to fall. Which, given my previous attempts to get up there, was almost inevitable.  I just hoped he was as good at catching as he was at being silent and strong. And hot.

            Steering my brain in a different direction, I looked up. A dozen small birdhouses dotted the upper branches of the tree. They were well-hidden from passersby, but cute and brightly painted, like a little beach community in a tree. It made my stomach churn to think I would be ripping a fae from one of them.

            I had no choice.

            Taking a deep breath, I reached for the closest home. It was lime green with turquoise trim and it came off the branch easily. I opened the door, peeking inside, then slamming the door closed when I confirmed there was a fairy inside. I couldn’t tell the fairy’s age or sex or any other feature but it’s big, blinking blue eyes.

            A flutter of movement startled me and before I could think, dozens of fae burst from the houses, flying around and shouting warnings. Some of them flew right at me, poking me with small sticks they used like daggers. A couple of fae flew around my legs. I couldn’t figure out why, at first, but when I started to lose my balance on the branch, I tried to stick a leg out to steady myself, but they’d flown a long vine around me ankles, tying my legs together.

            I couldn’t really blame them. I was destroying their homes and faenapping one of them. I was definitely the bad guy in this scenario. I hated that, but there was no other way, or I would’ve taken it.

            I tottered on the tree, grasping the fae house in one hand and trying to grab the tree trunk with the other. I yelped as the carved trunk my fairy was supposed to go in, slipped from my grasp. Wincing, I looked down, expecting to find it’s tattered remains on the ground, but I squealed with glee when I saw it perched lightly in the hands of the driver. He’d caught it, thank the Mage.

            Man, I wish I had money to tip him after this.

            In my distraction, the fae took their opportunity to pull the vine around my ankles tighter. I wobbled, feeling myself teetering. “Oh shit!”

            My feet slipped from the branch, but I held tight onto the fae house with the blue-eyed fairy inside as I dropped, hoping I would break the fall and keep it alive. My stomach plummeted and the next thing I knew, I was being cradled in the arms of the rideshare driver.

            "I got you.” His arms were tight around me and his massive, and granite-like chest heaving. I sucked in a breath. I was stunned at the beauty of his deep purple eyes.  He was glaring at me like I was the most precious thing on the earth, and I wanted nothing more than to feel worthy of that look.

            But before I could react to it, to him, he shook himself out of it. Then deposited me on the ground and picked up the carved trunk he must have laid down before he went all hero on me and caught my ass. “You have to put the fae in yourself or it won’t be bound to you.”

            I took a huge step away from him because it felt too intimate to be standing chest to chest with the alluring Magical. And it wasn’t just his stunning good looks. It was everything emanating from him. He was like a magnet. I needed to pull away. Far. far away.

            Like, Toledo.

Refocusing, I stuck my fingers under the roof of the lime green house, and it opened just like the birdhouses my Gram had placed all over our back yard.  A cute male fairy with cerulean wings and eyes was tucked in the corner of his home on a bed he’d made from what looked like bird feathers. He just sat there blinking at me.

I kept my voice to a whisper. “I need your help.”

            He cocked his little head and guffawed. “Tough titties.”

The driver snarled and the fairy poked his head out of the roof to see what had made that sound. His eyes went wide, and he dove back into his house, trembling as the driver cursed. “Shut the fucker up, shove him in the trunk and let’s go. You don’t have to be nice about it.”

            I turned to the driver, annoyance coloring my tone and rocketing through my body. “You’re scaring him. Just go start the car. I’ve got this.”

            “Do you?” he drawled, the corner of his mouth kicking up when I stepped toward him and nodded. He ran his hand over his stubbled jaw for a few seconds before he skulked away toward the car.

            I took a calming breath. That guy was intense.

            Looking down into the fairy’s home, I decided to try for tact instead of brute force.  “As I was saying, I need you to help me cook a meal tonight. It’s super important and I can’t hire a chef who isn’t Magical. A leprechaun told me fae are good at tasks like these. Can you help me?”

            He laughed. “Well, why didn’t you just say so, Babycakes? I’m known for my skill in the culinary arts before I came over to this side.  I can make you anything you want. And frankly, I was getting tired of the other fae I’ve been stuck with here. They aggravate me around the cock.”

            I shook my head. “What did you say? They aggravate around your cock?” I couldn’t imagine what kind of fae orgies were happening in that place. It ramped my need-to-shower urge to maximum plus.  

            “You know, around the cock, it means all of the time.” He looked at me like I was the dumbest person on the planet.

            Oh. Okay. “The phrase is around the clock.”

            “Eh, I guess that does make more sense.” He shrugged. “Anyway, is this my ride?” He pointed to the trunk.

            “Are you sure you want to help me?” I asked. I don’t know why I needed his cooperation, why I felt the deep urge to make sure he was okay with this arrangement. Especially when I wasn’t telling him the whole truth about my needs.

“I love to cook. Going new places, travelling? That’s my jelly.”

            I sighed. “Your jam?”

            “Yeah. That. So, you want me in the trunk, yes?”  I nodded. He sailed from his home and straight inside, closing the lid himself. Maybe it wasn’t going to be as hard as I’d originally thought. I just hoped he really was a good cook like he’d said.

            When I got back to the car with my trunked fairy, the driver was sitting behind the wheel with his shades back on and arm slung around the seat next to him. He peered over his shoulder as I slid in the back. “Did you get him?”

            “Yep. We can go now.”

            He started the car, and it was a silent ride all the way back to town, save for the fairy in the box humming and talking to himself about recipes. Little did he know I had the entire meal planned from start to finish, but I let him have his fun because he seemed to be happy enough in the trunk.

            I was on the opposite end of the spectrum, entranced with worry about how the rest of my night was going to go, I didn’t even notice when the driver pulled in my driveway. He jumped out of the car and opened the back door for me and walked me all the way to my front porch.  Was he a gentleman, as well as a hero?

            Reply hazy. Try again.

            Hold on. Wait a second.  “How did you know where I lived?” Was that info in the rideshare app?

            He crossed his arms across his chest. “I know a lot about you, Terra.”

            I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, glancing around the neighborhood to see if maybe Mr. Rodriguez or Mrs. Holmes were outside and could call for help. This guy knew my name and my address. He stepped so close I could feel the heat radiating from his body. I clutched the trunk, thinking maybe it could be used as a weapon, but feared it may hurt the fairy inside.

            The driver glared at me and despite myself, I was caught in the ferocity of his gaze. His eyes flicked down to my mouth, like he was thinking of kissing me.

            And I was thinking I wanted him to.

            That was absolutely the worst thought ever to cross my traitorous brain.

            He pulled small bag from his back pocket. His voice was low and gravelly, and it settled inside my bones as he spoke. “Believe me, I don’t want to do this to any of us, but it’s the only way I see to keep you safe.”

            My stomach clenched. “Do what? Safe from who? Who are you?”

            I was a veritable font of questions.

            He was a vault of no answers whatsoever.

            He opened the trunk I was still clutching in my hands, then took a bit of black dust from the bag he held and blew it at the fairy. He coughed a couple times, then sat back down in the bottom of the trunk like nothing had happened.

            The driver shrugged like it was no big deal that he’d just accosted my fairy. “This powder is made from ground up Glawackus eyes.” When I blanched at that, he continued. “Glawackus eyes cause memory loss. Once we inhale this substance, we won’t remember the last four or five hours.”  

            “Why would we want to do that? The fairy needs to remember he’s bound to me.” Panic clawed its way up my throat. “I have to make sure everything goes right tonight and if I don’t remember, I’ll—”

            He decided to stomp down the panic and shut me up by kissing me. He pressed his lips to mine, and I completely was lost in the feel of them. I grabbed the buttons of his black Henley, pulling him closer to me. It was dumb and exhilarating and the best kiss I’d ever had in my sorry life. No idea why I thought kissing him was a good idea, but I would thank myself later.

            If I remembered.

            We were both panting when he pulled away from me. “I shouldn’t have…"                    True, but I couldn’t complain.

            Oh, I wanted to, but I couldn’t.

            That kiss had woken me the fuck up from the slumber of my life.

            He took a step away from me and I missed the warmth of his skin. “Please tell me what’s happening here?” I meant other than the raging landslide of hormones this guy was causing.  

            “I can’t. I don’t know exactly what you’re planning to do with the captured fairy, but you’re smart and capable and I hope he can help you get what you want. I just have to keep any knowledge of this from my alpha or he won’t even show up. I’m trying to help you here.”

            “Alpha? You’re not just some random rideshare driver, are you? You’re one of the wolves coming tonight? With the Conclave leader?” I knew before he answered I was right. And I had the feeling he was telling the truth—he wanted to help me in some way.

            He blew the Glawackus dust into my face, then I watched in horror as he snorted a bit up his nose like it was cocaine or something. I coughed and he touched my cheek in the most tender way, the warmth of his thumb skating across my skin made me shiver. “I won’t remember helping you or being with you this morning, but know this, Gnome, there is no fucking way I’ll ever forget you.”

            He took off for his car faster than I could track.

            I shook my head. What a freaking morning I was having. Who knew catching fae could make your ass ache and your clothes filthy? Not me. It would be worth it in the end though. As soon as those werewolves showed up and I delivered them the meal of their lives.

            I laughed. I couldn’t believe I’d done it: I caught a fae all by myself and I was on my way to securing my spot in the Conclave. For me, for gnomes, just like my Gram wanted.

            For the first time in weeks, I felt like I was going to be okay.

            Concentrate and ask again.

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