A cross March wind sheered through the air and straight up my skirt. I latched onto the hemline to keep from flashing the world and stumbled. The back of my ankle twisted, causing the side of my foot to touch the frozen, drink-splattered cement. Disgust crawled up my spine from who knew what was sprayed outside the club buzzing with college students about to flee town on spring break. I tried to contort my body to gain my balance, yank my foot off the ground, and somehow keep my foot as far from me as possible.
The neon lights of a dancing horse outside the Gallon Stallion blurred into warp lines. That vomit and urine-soaked ground I’d tried to avoid rushed up to meet me. I foresaw a broken nose in my future. Hands unnaturally warm in this unforgiving night’s chill wrapped around my waist.
I didn’t just stop falling—I righted onto my stilettos while blinking in surprise. The hands became arms winding around me and hot breath curled around my ear. “Beware the terrain, there is treachery in the air.”
My skin shivered from the heat of his body caressing mine. March’s unforgiving cold tried to break in between us but he rarely left any room. Shaking my head, I tried to fight off the sexual hunger of my personal incubus. It was like attempting to battle a ten-story lizard with a French fry.
Falling into a warm, clean bed with Ink brushing his fingertips over every inch of my skin sounded better with every frost-tipped breath. Heat finally wound its way down my thighs, and I turned to face him…when a car turned and slowed.
The jet-black Mustang was a few decades out of date but kept in great condition. It shone like an oil river as it stopped right beside me. The dancing neon horse galloped on the hood while the driver rolled down his window. A face eclipsed by shadow called out, “Layla Leeland?”
“That’s me,” I said, my heart racing. Was this one it? I glanced back at Ink, my partner in more than one sense.
While I was freezing in my dress that was too tight thanks to lots of study nights plus pizza, Ink showed no signs of the cold. He’d dressed in his usual crimson shirt and black slacks, but left the top three buttons undone. On his shirt. Not that it’d take much to get his pants opened.
As I leaned closer to Ink, the driver suddenly called out, “I only take one passenger!”
I nodded hard to my incubus. He clasped his hands around mine and tugged me closer to whisper, “Are you certain?”
Only one way to know. Taking my purse from Ink, I said to the driver, “No problem.” To Ink I added, “I’m certain you can find your own way.”
“I have been known to improvise a time or two.” His wavy black hair caught in the wind, aiding in the nonchalant air projecting off him. But in his eyes, fire flickered against the amber irises.
With a set in my shoulders, I opened the backdoor of the Mustang. Water dribbled from the upholstery, drops striking the dry blacktop. I slipped into the car and closed the door. It surprised me to find the dry leather caught my nearly exposed ass, but I was grateful to be out of the cold.
The Mustang roared to life. With the edge of my vision, I watched Ink pass by. For a moment, black wings of shadow trailed behind him.
Stop worrying, Layla. You’ve been through worse. Standing outside clubs until two in the morning for starters. I rubbed my legs to try to get some life back.
“Any chance you could turn the heat on back here?” I asked.
“Sorry, lass. Heater doesn’t work,” the driver called. In the rearview mirror, I could only see the lip of a cap tugged tight over his eyes. The rest of his face hugged the shadows even as streetlights buzzed past. “You use DriveDrop a lot?”
I checked my phone. The screen was fully cracked, not from attacking witch hunters or even werewolf claws but from my keys rattling around in the same pocket. A dozen other ride-share apps were open, all waiting for pickup. I quickly closed each one while smiling. “No. This is my first time.”
“Good. Good. You go to university?”
His accent flitted in and out like a brush fire he couldn’t quite stomp down. I moved to put my phone in my purse when a text message popped up from Calvin. He was worried. “Huh? Uh, yeah. I’m a nursing student.”
“Oh, so you like saving people?”
“As many as I can.” There wasn’t time to soothe my beast boyfriend. Slipping the phone into my purse, I glanced out of the window. I hadn’t been this far downtown in months, maybe years. In my younger days, I’d have thought nothing of staying up till two, four, even six in the morning.
God, I sounded like a decrepit crone at twenty-five.
A hair caught against my neck and I absently moved to scratch it, when the driver’s head snapped up. In an instant, I remembered what I’d hidden under my full hair and dropped my hands to my lap. Nothing pierced the shadows of his face but a tongue the driver drew across his open lips. They didn’t move as he asked, “You from here? Got a lot of family?”
The only family I knew of was six feet under in a random cemetery. I wound up in this city because it was where my life stopped, thanks to a reckless driver. Biting my lip to keep the roiling thoughts at bay, I glanced up at the shadows in the mirror. “No.”
Only the salivating tongue lashed through the air as an answer. A force rocketed me up out of my seat, the wheels striking something hard. It sent my purse tumbling, and the edge of my book poked from the folds. My spell book. Shit.
I raced to cram it back in to try to hide it. The hairs on the back of my neck rose. Piercing through the shadows of the drawn hat, the driver’s eyes focused on me. Did he see the proof I’m a witch?
A low chuckle rose, his laugh matching the rumbling of the road under the tires. When did the car speed up? The city’s streetlights were a myopic blur. Instinctively, I locked my hand around my purse and held my breath.
“Wh…?” The architecture’s all wrong. My brain screamed that fact at me as I stared up not at the seventies cement apartment buildings that made up my neighborhood but at warehouses. The driver rammed the Mustang up a ramp. It sent me flying skyward again. “Where are we?”
“Packing district, I think. Lots of unloading and the like. Not an easy place to find,” the driver said.
Only the stretch of the half-moon reached through the cold March sky. The city lights faded to a blotchy gray behind us. A pounding began in my heart, one I’d come to recognize as my innate warning system. I had to get out of here. This was stupid. What was I thinking? I wasn’t ready to…
The car swung a turn and ahead of us rested the choppy, endless depths of blackest ink. A single buoy cast a red light from the tip, revealing the rolling waves of the great lake we were driving straight for. “What are you doing?” I shrieked, clamping onto my purse.
His laugh shifted into an unholy whinny. The engine roared, shooting us up a pile of pallets at fifty miles an hour. They crunched under the wheels like the bones of children in a cauldron. I gritted my teeth, my soul wrenching at the sound. A steel barrier wrapped around the dock, trying to keep the lake life away from dry land.
It didn’t even give the madman pause. Giggling in glee, he rammed straight into the barrier. The iron ripped in half as we flew into the air. I lashed a hand out to try to catch myself. The palm planted onto the back of his seat, my nails digging into the headrest, when the whole car splattered into the freezing water.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I screamed and reached for the door handle. I heard the sound of the car being put into park, as if it mattered while we sank into the lake. Water seeped up through the floorboards, its icy grip stabbing into my bare toes. I tried to pull away, when I realized my feet were trapped. The soles of my shoes were glued to the floor. Every time I tugged, nothing happened. Not even the carpet would come up.
“Sit back, don’t struggle,” the madman said calmly.
No fucking way was I going to let him drown me. I moved to yank my foot out of my shoe when I realized the hand on his headrest was glued down too. An unnerving warmth pulsed against it, like a heartbeat inside a whale.
With only one hand left to me, I wrapped it around my wrist and tried to pull. All it got me was a slow laugh from the maniac. “I got a bad feeling about you. If’n we’d met in person, I’d ha’e sensed it. Technology. The great equalizer, eh?” He waved his phone in the rearview—which was when I realized the mirror dripped green slime. My reflection faded to a bubbling mass of mucus.
“Oh, god!” Water washed up to my knees. My skin ached from the cold, but I couldn’t do anything. My legs were trapped, my hand stuck, and freezing cold water was going to drown me.
“Told ya not to fight it. Makes the meat all tough.” He smiled, this time revealing his teeth below the hat. They were serrated like a shark’s. “Just let it go. Sit back and wait for the inevitable.”
“Fuck you!” I shouted and reached for my purse. Damn it. It too was glued to the sinking car. Water seeped up over the seat, waves rushing into my purse. I didn’t care about my phone, but focused on the only means of escape—my book.
“Whatcha doing there?”
“Ending you.” It wasn’t that great of a line, rendered toothless as the car buckled to the right. My book tumbled from my bag, the front page stuck to the gooey seat. Now I could feel the tendrils of the creature suckering to the whole of my back. Why did I wear a backless dress?
Straining, I tried to reach for my book even with my hand and feet trapped. The creature laughed, all semblance of his human shell fading away. A full whinny, high-pitched and squealing like nails on a chalkboard, erupted from the monster.
“What are you up to now, witch?”
What was I? I needed my book. It was the only way to… Water swept up my chest, the cold punching into me harder than a fist to my ribs. All breath fled my lungs in an instant and I blanched. Hold it. Hold it for as long as possible.
Sucking in air, I glared at the creature taunting me. It’d reformed to nothing more than a swiveling pillar of green goo, but that jaunty newsboy cap remained. “Do not fight the inevitable.”
“Why are you doing this?” I shouted, as if knowing why the monster wanted to kill me would help stop it.
The green blob split apart and elongated to a horse’s mouth. It opened wider, drawing me to the razor teeth bursting from inside. “To survive. You humans have such delectable organs. It’s cruel of you to keep them all to yourself.”
“I think my liver’s quite happy where it is,” I said, only for water to rush into my mouth. Straining, I tried to tip my head back, but it sent more waves up my nose. A choke burst from my lungs, spraying the swallowed lake water at the monster.
It shook its deformed horse head but didn’t let me go. Why couldn’t all these damn creatures die from the common cold? Not about to give up, I tugged on my seat one last time. But there was no escape.
Tipping my head back, I pulled in the last of the air I could and sank under. Sound dulled. The beating of my panicking heart overtook me. I’d hoped—once under—he’d let go, or his glue would dissolve, but no luck.
“Abandon your struggles, witch,” the creature taunted. His words didn’t slip from the horse’s mouth now submerged, but reverberated up my skin attached to the seat and into my brain. “The water will cascade down your lungs and I shall feast on your corpse.”