As promised, here’s a very early peek at the first two chapters of a new series. I don’t want to give too much away, but here are a few tidbits to tide you over. This is from what is technically the prequel novella, explaining how Caroline gets tangled up with Darien and his very special teammates.
I can’t lie, I’m pretty excited about this. Hope you enjoy and let me know what you think in the comments!
Caroline shivered under the table and hoped that nobody could hear the shaking. It served her right, really, that everything had gone so horribly wrong. She shouldn’t have been there in the first place, and now she was paying for it.
It was the dumbest thing, too. She shouldn’t have let Monique and her cronies get under her skin. She should have just let it all wash over her and not snapped back like that. If she had just let it go and not started mouthing off, the gym teacher would never have heard her, and then… ugh. Such a mess.
It wasn’t even worth remembering, but she still felt her face heating over the humiliation of it all. And that, of course, was why she’d decided to skip school that afternoon, for the first time ever. And, being her first time skipping school, she’d gone somewhere she was positive that nobody would look for her: the city’s Local History Museum. It was just a few rooms in the back of the city hall, with a small side entrance so that visitors wouldn’t disturb the grand municipal business of the city and nobody ever went there.
Until today, naturally, when Caroline decided to be a truant. Today would, of course, be the day armed thugs decided to come crashing into the front room of the museum nobody ever went to, to start rummaging loudly through the displays, while she sat in the furthest back room with her novel.
So, now she huddled under the table covered in pamphlets and the empty mailing list signup sheet, hoping that none of the weird attackers would find her and she could go home to confess everything to her parents. She didn’t even care what sort of punishment she’d get, anything they could dole out would be heaven compared to this.
A boot stopped right in front of her, it’s scuffed black leather feeling huge from what she could see of it, just the couple of inches between the bottom of the cheap blue tablecloth and the floor.
“You’re sure there’s nobody here? I could swear I keep hearing something,” said a deep, male voice. It almost sounded musical and was so far from what Caroline expected to hear that she almost gasped. She slapped her hand over her mouth and held her breath, eyes wide and staring at the boot as it shifted.
“Me too, but I can’t find anyone. We ran off a couple of gawkers. Not like anyone cares about their local history these days, after all,” said a second voice, very close. It must belong to Boots in front of her here. A few more footsteps and another foot appeared, facing Boots. This man’s footwear was similar in style but they were pristine. Shiny, even, for all their rugged foot protection.
“As long as we find the artifact. We will deal with any witnesses one way or another,” Shiny said. Caroline could almost hear the smile in his voice, and it felt oily to her.
“Another hostage could come in handy. Those idiots in the FPAA might not worry too much about how to retrieve one of their own considering what he is, but a civilian might give them a few minutes to think,” Boots agreed.
A loud crash nearby made Caroline jump. It sounded like part of the building collapsed, and there was a shout of triumph accompanying it. Both pairs of feet in front of her turned to face the noise and she squeezed her eyes shut and prayed that any noise she’d made in her surprise had been muffled by the ruckus, whatever it was.
“I got it!” someone shouted. There was a sound of more feet rushing around, Boots and Shiny stepped away from the table and out of her view, then after a few minutes, there was quiet. Caroline stayed under the table, motionless and silent for a long time. An odd image flashed into her mind of a rabbit that lived in her mom’s garden that would sit just under the edge of a bush in the twilight and watch you watching it. She’d sat there watching the animal for maybe fifteen minutes once, both of them sitting completely still, the rabbit no doubt hoping that either Caroline hadn’t seen it already or that she wasn’t hungry.
Finally, when she couldn’t take the heavy quiet anymore she crept towards the sliver of light where Boot’s boot had appeared and pressed her face to the floor to peek out. The room was a mess, one of the display cases overturned and the contents scattered across the floor, mingling with shards of glass and splinters of the wooden frame that had held the case together.
No feet. No people at all. Still, she waited a few more minutes, holding her breath and watching the dust swirl in the one shaft of sunlight that speared through the window. The displays usually needed dusting, she thought to herself, but this seemed like a terrible way to go about it. As soon as she thought it, she breathed a quiet giggle. It was such a ridiculous thought that the tension drained out of her all in a rush and she decided that she was being completely silly, hiding under a table when the thieves had gone a long time ago. The police were probably outside right now, and she could go tell them the little bits that she’d overheard and then go home to be grounded for the rest of her life when her parents found out.
Caroline crept out from under the table, careful not to put a hand or knee on a glass shard— the last thing she needed was to cut herself and start bleeding everywhere— and stood up with a shiver to survey the damage.
A hand gripped her arm and she froze again.
“I knew I heard something.” It was Shiny’s voice. Caroline twisted to look over her shoulder and saw his perfect boots matched the rest of him. He was dressed like the undercover military SWAT team guys usually were in the movies with his black boots and cargo pants, and the black long sleeved shirt under a black vest of some kind, but at the same time, he managed to somehow look like he was wearing formal wear. He was sitting cross-legged on top of the table so she would never have seen him when she looked across the floor, and when he was still it was the complete stillness of an inanimate object. Or a predator.
Caroline did the only thing at that moment that she felt that she was fully capable of. She fainted.
Caroline shivered. She wasn’t sure why but she was terrified and just hoped that whatever it was she was scared of wouldn’t notice her. Probably just the end of a nightmare. She had them sometimes and could never really remember them after, just the odd, creeping feeling of dread that didn’t wear off for a few hours.
“Hey, miss. You need to wake up and let me know you’re okay.” Okay? Why wouldn’t she be okay? And who the heck was asking?
Then the whole scene rushed through her memory at high speed: the disaster at school, running off campus to just get away from all that drama, going to the tiny town museum, and the robbery.
She’d been kidnapped. Holy shit.
“Miss, if you’re unhurt, please let me know. I don’t want to be locked in here with a corpse. Again.” The voice was strained and not at all melodic like Boots or Shiny. Still, she kept her eyes closed and didn’t say anything. She just focused on keeping her breathing deep and even so he’d think she was still out while she tried to come up with a plan.
“Oh, good,” the voice said. “You’re not hurt too badly then. Thank goodness for that anyway.”
Caroline’s eyes flew open and she sat up. There was nobody else in the room that she saw.
“How could you tell I heard you?” she demanded. Then she wanted to smack herself in the face for being so easily taunted into revealing herself. The man chuckled softly. There was no malice in the sound, just amusement.
“I could hear your breathing change. You were working too hard at sounding asleep,” he said. Caroline looked over and saw a man sitting on the floor in the corner across from her, one arm propped on his bent knee, his other leg stretched out in front of him. He looked relaxed lounging there in the corner, but she had the strange sensation that it was an act.
He was wearing jeans and a polo shirt, and scuffed up hiking shoes, and looked a bit like anyone. Well, aside from the dirt smearing him from head to toe, and the rips all over his clothes, and the blackening bruises she could see all down the left side of his face and peeking through the holes in his shirt. Dried blood trickled past his right ear from somewhere under his hair and his left eye was swollen almost shut. She was kind of glad that she couldn’t see his torso if his shirt looked that bad.
“Holy shit what happened to you?” She was clearly going to have to work on her filter when under stress. The man shrugged.
“You should see the other guys,” he smirked before sobering a bit. “Well, some of them anyway. They got me with elf shot from behind. Stupid, rookie mistake leaving my back exposed like I did, but to be fair to myself it was a bit of a brawl. The rest of this is just them enjoying themselves for a few minutes. Stress relief or something.” He snorted inelegantly and Caroline supposed he thought he was making jokes.
“Elf… shot?” Caroline wondered what kind of weird slang that was. “Where are we? What’s going on, anyway? Who are those guys? Why are we here? Why would those guys want anything in that boring old dustbag excuse for a museum?”
“Well, what were you doing there then?” he countered.
“Er…” Caroline wondered if she’d lost her mind. Why was she feeling guilty about admitting that she skipped school when she’d been kidnapped by museum robbers “I, um. I cut class. I was kinda hiding out.”
“Hiding out? I guess a dusty unvisited museum room is a good place to do that,” the man nodded. “Although I hope you weren’t hiding from them, because in that case, you did a lousy job.”
“Well, not when I went there to begin with, no.” Caroline slumped on… what was she on?
She actually took a moment to look around now and discovered that they were in what looked like a basement room, with a small, barred window high up in the wall letting in a trickle of sunlight. She sat on a cot that she had expected to be filthy but was surprisingly clean and comfortable. There was even a wool blanket folded up at the foot of the narrow mattress. It wasn’t fancy, but it was clean and probably warm, though the room itself wasn’t very cold.
In the wall opposite the window was the expected door, and as expected it looked thick and strong and had no opening in it anywhere. What she hadn’t expected was in the wall opposite her own seat on the cot was another door, standing halfway open, and leading into a small bathroom.
“Where…” Caroline didn’t even know what to start asking. The man sighed and the noise sounded so… defeated somehow that she looked back at him.
“I’m not honestly sure how much I should tell you,” he said, staring at the floor between them. “If we ever get out of here it might be best if you don’t know.”
“If? Won’t the police come to save us?” she asked. Caroline knew that she was a bit sheltered. She was a self-admitted nerd and her parents knew that she was probably too trusting of people and as such kept her on a pretty tight leash. Skipping school today had been her first and so far only act of rebellion since third grade unless one counted wearing navy blue instead of black like her mom had picked out to go to her dad’s formal club dinner. Still, wasn’t that the whole point of having police? Even in a smaller town like this one? The man sighed again.
“Not very likely. Well, not the police you’re thinking of anyway. My team will have pulled rank on them pretty damn quick, and they work under slightly different rules. If they come here they will try to get us out, yes, but we’re not going to be their main focus.” He huffed a humorless laugh. “My chief probably won’t even bother looking for me, frankly. He’ll be glad to be rid of me. And they may not even know about you.”
“What? But why?” Caroline heard the bitterness in his voice as he spoke. There were frustration and anger and defeat there as well, and a few other things that were less strong. She’d never been very good with people, felt that ‘socially awkward’ was probably the nicest way to describe herself, but she had always been able to hear more shades in people’s words than everyone else. It was how she reacted to the knowledge that she didn’t know how to deal with.
He flashed her a small smile, wincing at the flair of pain from his eye.
“He’s never cared much for my kind. Hated it when my transfer application was approved. I used to work up in Washington state.” He shrugged again.
“Your kind? What, like some sort of special undercover cop or something?” Caroline asked. He glanced up at her and blinked. Then took a deep breath and slowly started to sit up straight. She watched him unfold himself from his spot lounging on the floor and realized that he was tall. Very tall, it seemed to her, easily another foot and a half taller than she was herself. And he was strong, she could see the muscles flexing under his clothes. Not body-builder macho-man style, but more like a swimmer. It was strangely comforting.
“Someone’s coming,” he said, leaning back against the wall again and crossing one foot over the other. Again she got the feeling that he was pretending to lounge, but was actually more like a coiled spring.
“What? How do—”
The door opened and three men came in. Shiny, in the middle, carried two trays and the other two men had very serious looking guns pointed at her cellmate. Caroline watched the men with huge eyes, but they didn’t even glance at her, keeping their whole attention trained on the beaten man leaning against the wall under the tiny window.
“Here you go, young lady. Dinner is served. I hope the accommodations meet with your approval, but let’s be honest with each other. It wouldn’t much matter if they didn’t,” Shiny said. “Pity that you had to pick today to investigate local history, but that’s simply the strange way fate works. Until we decide what to do about you— both of you,” he glared at her companion now, “you’ll simply have to stay here and be patient.” He set the trays down on the bed beside her. It was clear that nobody considered her a threat, but that they were very careful of her cellmate.
“As for you,” Shiny was saying. “Your colleagues don’t seem terribly interested in retrieving you. I’m somewhat amused by that. Office politics go sour?” Caroline heard the taunts in his voice but was confused by what lay underneath. Smugness, which made sense, but also nerves and just a hint of fear. Caroline felt dizzy with questions but knew one thing for dead sure. She was in way over her head.
Her cellmate just shrugged and stayed otherwise still. Shiny narrowed his eyes and glared for a moment before turning and walking out. The gunmen backed out slowly, never taking their attention off their target before the door closed and she heard a heavy thunk as it was locked.
“What…” Caroline’s voice squeaked and she had to clear her throat. “What’s your name? I can’t just keep thinking of you as ‘that guy.’ I’m Caroline.” She swallowed and waited.
“Darien,” he said, then slid down the wall to sit on the floor again. He was breathing heavily like he’d been running and she saw that the blood running down his face, which had been dry when she woke up, was now dripping onto the shoulder of his shirt. He swiped at it gingerly. “Darien Webb, but my friends usually shorten it to just my first initial. Because they’re lazy and think they’re clever, I guess.”
“So just D?” she said, grabbing a water bottle from one of the trays and twisting the top off. She scrambled over to where he slumped on the floor and tried to hand it to him. “You’re really badly hurt, aren’t you?” He glanced up at her and shrugged.
“Besides the obvious?” He gestured to the bruises on his face and winced at his movement. “Yeah. A few broken ribs I think, maybe some internal damage. And I think my wrist is broken. Maybe a concussion. Almost certainly a concussion”
“Why aren’t you lying down?” Caroline swore she felt herself go pale as he casually listed off injuries that should have him in a hospital bed. “Why did you stand up like that? You need a doctor!” He shook his head.
“If they think I am anything less than a very serious threat to them, it won’t end well for me certainly. Maybe not for you either, since they’ve tossed us in together.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “Although maybe they didn’t have a choice. I think they just had this room ready in case they needed it, not because they were expecting lots of prisoners. Maybe it’s the only one they have.” He shrugged again. And winced again. “I have to stop doing that.”
“There’s no way you can be a threat to anyone besides yourself if you’re so badly hurt,” she said. “Let me help you over to the bed, okay?” Darien shook his head.
“No, I’ll heal. This isn’t the first time I’ve been on the losing end of a fight. Trust me, this will pass. Eventually.”
Caroline sat on the floor beside him. It was strangely comforting, even as badly injured as Darien was, to know that she wasn’t in this alone. Just having his company was probably keeping her from hysteria.
“That guy did sound kinda scared of you. And then the extra scary guns on top of it. The other guys must look really terrible after all.” That got a laugh.
“Yeah. I’d have made it out fine if I’d been less of an idiot.” Then he frowned. “What do you mean he sounded scared of me?”
“Oh, just his tone of voice, you know? Under the taunting bravado, he was kinda… I dunno. Scared of you. And a little confused maybe? Which doesn’t make much sense, but…” she shrugged now herself.
Darien emptied the bottle of water, using what Caroline now realized was his good hand. He was frowning at the floor again.
“I wonder what my parents are doing. I should probably have been home hours ago by now.”
“How old are you, if I may ask?”
“Seventeen. They don’t know I was there at all, at the museum. I…” Caroline shifted, her guilty conscience driving tears to prickle in her eyes. Now that she was feeling them, she was pretty impressed that she hadn’t cried sooner. I mean if there was ever an appropriate moment to break down in tears, it was when you wake up kidnapped by crazy, violent thieves.
“Hey, it’ll be okay. Somehow.” Darien bumped her shoulder with his own. “I’ll think of something.”
“How did you know that there was someone coming?” She swallowed her tears down, trying to will them away. Crying never helped and she hated that it seemed so out of her control.
“I heard them,” Darien said.
“Like my breathing.” Caroline glanced at him, and he nodded. “The breathing I’ll grant you, but there is no rational reason that you could have heard anyone walking down that hallway. Those guys all move like freaking cats, and that door is about four inches thick. I looked when they opened it.” She watched him and saw his expression harden like it was freezing in place the way parents always threatened.
“I, uh…” he said. Caroline felt like she’d caught the edge of something. Like there was a piece of clear tape on a window, and now that she’d found the edge of it she felt compelled to pick at it.
“And how did you even manage to stand up like that, anyway? If you’re so badly hurt— and I believe you, for some weird reason. I mean about the internal injuries and the concussion and stuff. If you’re that beat up you shouldn’t be able to stand up and look almost bored about it. You should be curled up and unconscious or something.”
“Um…” Darien started to look uncomfortable. Which as she had just said, he should have looked this whole time. Uncomfortable at the very least.
“And you said something earlier about your boss not liking your ‘kind.’ What did you mean? You never answered me, and I don’t think you just meant cop.” Caroline turned to face him fully and realized that he looked almost embarrassed.
“Boy, you’re tough. And you’re just in high school? Sure you’re not an undercover cop or something?” He hunched over a bit and groaned before sitting up again.
“I’m about to graduate,” Caroline huffed. “Assuming those creeps don’t murder me or sell me off or something. What’s going on here? Why would they want to rob the town museum? I mean it doesn’t even have anything interesting to us and we live here.”
“Remember when I said it might be for the best if you didn’t know?” Darien asked, glancing at her. Caroline nodded. “Well, I think that with as many questions as you have, and how much you’ve noticed already, that ship has sailed.” He sighed and looked sad for a moment. “Those guys are elves, and they seem to be after some sort of artifact that was broken up into bits. I have no idea what it is or why they want it, but those guys specifically are from a small group of elf supremacists, and they’re not averse to violence, so whatever it is they have planned can’t be good.”