Loose Changeling: sample chapters

Nicole always thought she was regular-issue human...until she turns her husband's mistress into a mouse. The next day, Kailen, Fae-for-hire, shows up on her doorstep and drops this bomb: she's a Changeling, a Fae raised among mortals. Oh, and did he mention that her existence is illegal?

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CHAPTER ONE

Ever have your life turn upside down in the span of a few days? And not upside down in the just-had-a-baby or just-bought-a-house or even the my-brother-joined-the-circus-and-just-got-arrested-for-being-a-little-too-close-to-the-zebras sort of way.

I mean the sort of way where you find out you’re not actually human.

The mysteriously missing staple remover should have been my first clue that my week was about to get much, much worse. My mom liked to say that trouble didn’t just come in threes—it began with something small, almost unnoticeable, and then snowballed from there unless you did something to stop it. In her case, that meant drawing a circle on the ground to keep out unwanted spirits.

I just wasn’t that superstitious. Living in the real world does that to you.

I cradled my phone between shoulder and ear, swiveling from side to side in my cubicle, a packet of papers in my hand. “It’s not happening, Owen,” I said into the phone. I scanned my desk again. Stacks of papers sat in labeled piles, my color-coded calendar was pinned to one wall, and my scissors, staplers, and pens lay lined up by my computer, perfectly parallel to one another.

A blank spot existed where my staple remover always was.

“I’m lonely, Nicole. Come on, please?” My husband’s voice lifted at least three octaves on the last word.

I sighed but held my ground against the auditory onslaught. He’d been acting odd lately—at times clingy and at other times distant. He seemed always preoccupied with his phone. “We’re not getting a dog.” Dogs were hairy, they smelled like death, and there was no way in hell or high water I was letting one into our house.

A breathy, high-pitched giggle sounded to my right. I whirled and could have sworn I saw something—a tiny brown blur and my papers ruffling. I blinked. An afterimage stayed on in my mind, as though I’d captured a photo of the scene. A tiny, naked body, heels kicked up, wild brown hair like a thorn bush about its face. I shook my head, and the image disappeared. I’d started hearing the giggling about a week ago but hadn’t placed the source. “Did you just laugh at me, Brent?”

Brent, the accountant, grunted from behind the cubicle partition. “Have you ever heard me laugh?”

“Point taken.”

“It would be fun,” Owen was saying into the phone.

I flipped the contract in my hand, slammed it on the desk, and started peeling off the staple with my fingernails. “And who’s going to take care of a dog? You?”

A pause, and then, “Well, why not?”

I had a mental picture of Owen on the other end of the line—lying amongst the myriad pillows he’d insisted were necessary for a grown-up bed, curly hair a mess, stubble covering his chin like a light covering of fur, and his breath smelling faintly of alcohol. Six months ago, he’d been placed on administrative leave and then fired for showing The Rocky Horror Picture Show to his sixth-grade students the day before winter break.

Typical Owen. He just didn’t think before he did things.

I flipped the contract back over and then froze, one nail beneath the staple, the metal digging into my skin, a sudden thought occurring to me. “Oh my God, you already got one, didn’t you?”

“He was just wandering the streets,” Owen said. “He’s little—you won’t even notice him.”

I bit back a scream of frustration and checked the clock. “I’ve got sales to log and emails to reply to. I’ll be home at eight tonight. The dog needs to be gone by then. Owen, he probably belongs to someone. Take him to the Multnomah County shelter.”

And get a job, I added mentally. Please, just get a job. This prolonged period of unemployment was taking its toll. On both of us.

“Okay, fine,” he said, and then added under his breath, “At least the dog likes me.” Click.

I finished removing the staple and tossed it into the trash can. When I stood, the sea of cubicles at Frank Gibbons, Inc. greeted me. “Did someone borrow my staple remover?” I called out. I’d returned just yesterday from a sales trip to Milwaukee and had four more contracts to process.

Super-slinger of complex daily planners (“life planners” we called them)—that’s me. I fell into the job after college. It was in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, it paid well, and it was eminently practical.

Replies trickled from cubes. “No.” “Not me.” “Mine’s missing.” “Mine too; that’s weird.”

“So no one has one I can borrow?”

Silence.

I dropped back into my seat with a sigh. My office phone rang again. I seized it from its cradle, trying to unwind the tangled cord. “Owen, for the last time, no dogs!”

“Is this Nicole Philbin?” a voice said hesitantly.

“Sorry, I thought you were someone else.” Heat crept up the back of my neck. “This is she.”

“This is Mariann, from yesterday? In Milwaukee?” She spoke each sentence like a question. “I wanted to cancel my order?”

Mariann, at Bright Futures, LLC. I remembered her—short, quiet woman. Thirty-two planners, one instructional video, no training classes. Small order, but not insignificant.

“Sure, I’ll get that started for you right away. May I ask why you’re canceling?”

“Well, I’m just not sure we really need them?”

A dog. There was a dog in my pristine house, and it was probably peeing on my carpet right now. I squeezed my eyes shut and then opened them again, trying to stay in the game. “Frank Gibbons daily planners have been proven to increase the average worker’s productivity by fifty percent,” I said smoothly. “If you’re happy with the productivity of the workers in your company, then the planner is not something that you need.”

I pulled her contract from my pile. “Thirty-two planners, one instructional video, all at the spring forward discount?”

“That’s the one.” She hesitated. “Discount?”

“Yes,” I said. The dog was probably on my couch now, rubbing its hair and its dog-ness all over the cushions. I’d bought that couch just last year with my bonus. “Spring forward. Twenty percent off all products for three days. Ends tonight.”

“Oh.”

“I hope you don’t mind if I remind you that Frank Gibbons offers a ninety-day guarantee. If you’re unhappy with the product, we’ll refund you half your money.”

“Can I have a couple days to think about it?” she said.

If someone starts trying to bargain with you, you’ve already made a sale. I moved in for the kill. “You can, but the discount ends tonight. If I cancel your order, and you decide you do want our products, they’ll be at full price.”

Owen had probably seated that stupid dog on my countertop, all four of its dirt-encrusted paws flaking onto the granite, as my husband hand-fed it the leftover salmon I’d planned to take for lunch tomorrow.

I couldn’t think about that. I had this sale; I knew I did. A short crackling breath, and Mariann spoke again. “I think I’ll—”

The phone cord pulled free of its base. Bemused, I took the cord, clicked it back in, and gave it a tug. It stayed firm. I picked up the phone and didn’t get a tone. Just silence.

Another breathy giggle from behind me. I whirled. Nothing. “Is someone using a kid’s laughter for their ringtone?” I called out.

No answer except the faint tap of fingers on keyboards and mouse clicks. Someone, several cubicles down, mumbled into his phone. I couldn’t discern the words.

Right at this moment, Owen was probably carrying the dirty pooch upstairs to our room, tucking it beneath the covers in our bed, petting it so that its wiry hair fell all over my pillow, and laughing as it opened its mouth to pant and to drool…

I checked the clock. Five minutes to 5:00 p.m. I was allowed to leave at five, though I almost never did. I stuffed the contracts into my bag, slung it over my shoulder, and headed for the elevator, promising myself I’d call Mariann back as soon as I got home. Trusting Owen to get something done in the time I asked it of him was like expecting a toddler to neatly eat a plate of spaghetti.

And the giggling in my cubicle that no one else could hear? It was starting to creep me out, to the point I was actually considering asking my mom to spiritually cleanse my office cubicle, and to hell with what my coworkers would say.

I was going to nail down the next staple remover I got.

 

OWEN’S CAR WAS STILL in the driveway when I pulled up to my gray, two-story townhome. He hadn’t left to take the dog to the shelter yet, and somehow I wasn’t surprised. But the dog should have been the least of my worries. Yes, it was there when I opened the door, sitting on my carpet, but it was a little thing, with a pink collar and a nametag clearly dangling from the center. It didn’t bark or yap when I entered my home; its tail thumped a few times against the floor and then stilled.

Something about the entire house didn’t feel right. It was too quiet, like the odd stillness just before a hurricane. I stopped on the threshold and held my breath, listening. For a moment, I heard only my own breathing.

And then from somewhere upstairs, a giggle sounded—not the sort that had been plaguing my cubicle—but the deeper, throaty kind. The kind that comes from the mouth of a woman. A woman who had no business being in my house.

I’m not sure how I got up the stairs. I might have actually flown up there. The next thing I knew, I was throwing open the door to the guest bedroom.

I caught a momentary glimpse of my husband clasped in the embrace of someone I didn’t know, before they broke apart, drawing the covers over their naked bodies, horror rising on their faces as surely as a sunrise.

All the air went out of me, sucked out, as if I’d put a vacuum cleaner to my lips.

“This isn’t—” Owen stopped, his mouth gaping like a baby bird waiting to have a worm stuffed into its beak. I wanted to stuff something into his mouth, and my fist seemed the best option. But the woman let out a squeak, and my attention flitted to her.

My first thought was, She’s not even attractive. It was shallow but true. She had ashy brown hair, which, at that moment, stood in wild disarray. Her eyes—brown. Her face had a pinched look to it, and the lines around her mouth indicated that she frowned often. A faint shadow of hair lay on her upper lip.

She looked so very much like a mouse.

I turned to my husband, all my breath coming back in a rush of heat and anger. “You!” He scrambled back in the bed, pale arms flailing among the blankets as if he could somehow launch himself away from me. “You’re cheating on me?”

“Jane is just a friend,” he blurted out.

I think I actually, literally saw red. “How stupid do you think I am?” I seized one of the throw pillows from the floor, where they’d been knocked by Owen and Jane’s…activities. “Oh, wait. You must think I’m pretty goddamned stupid, because you’ve been sleeping with someone else. Right. Under. My. Nose!” I punctuated each word with a thrown pillow.

Each pillow found its mark and exploded into a shower of feathers. That should have clued me in to something. I never bought feather pillows because of Owen’s allergies. And I wasn’t throwing hard enough to rupture them.

I picked up the last three. “You’re a horrible. Lying filthy. Excuse for a human being!” I ran out of things to throw and things to say. I stood there, panting, as my vision began to clear. Owen had never looked more pathetic to me. Naked, slight paunch exposed, arms upheld, dark brown hair covered in feathers.

I stalked to the bedside. Every step made Owen cringe. “What are you still doing in here?” I said to him. “Get out.”

He moved to gather his clothes and then stopped. “Where’s Jane?”

The heat rose to my cheeks again. “Why should I care where your girlfriend is? Get out of my house.”

Owen peered over the side of the bed. “Her clothes are still here. And her purse.”

My head cleared enough for me to notice a few things. The pillowcases had disappeared into thin air, the edges of Owen’s hair were singed, the room smelled faintly of smoke, and I hadn’t actually seen Jane leave. I went over to the other side of the bed. A pile of clothes, homely as the woman herself, lay crumpled on the floor—khaki pants, camel-colored boots, and a sweater the same brown as a swath of carpet from the seventies. A black leather purse lay on its side next to the clothes.

Attached to the purse’s handle, tugging frantically at the strap with its mouth, was a tiny brown mouse. Both Owen and I watched its futile struggles.

“Why is there a mouse in the guest room?” I asked Owen. Anything I didn’t like at that moment was his fault. He didn’t answer. The mouse looked up at me, squeaked, and ran off. It turned the corner outside the bedroom door and disappeared.

Owen turned to me, his expression bewildered. “I don’t know what just happened here.”

“I know what just happened here,” I said. “ Faithful, hardworking wife comes home to find her bastard of a husband in bed with someone else. Now get out before I put my boot up your bare ass!” I began marching over to his side of the bed. I was wearing heels.

That did it. He pulled his clothes on faster than I’d ever seen him move. I’m pretty sure he put his pants on inside out. Finally, he left, closing the door quietly behind him. “Take the dog!” I yelled, and then I let out all my breath at once.

I wish I could say I didn’t waste time lamenting the beginning of the end. I’d always thought that if I caught Owen cheating on me, I would immediately burn the bed sheets, cross out his name on everything that said “Nicole and Owen Philbin,” and cut his face out of all our conjoint photographs—all this while rocking out to Alanis Morissette on the stereo. I got as far as pulling the sheets off the bed before I started to cry. When you really think you’re going to spend the rest of your life with someone, realizing that there are some twists in the road to happily ever after (in this case, a gaping chasm) tends to bring a person down.

I think I would have stayed there all night, curled pathetically on the floor, if Jane’s purse hadn’t begun to secrete the scent of dark chocolate. I might not have noticed except that dark chocolate isn’t exactly known for its strong aroma. The smell built from there into a crescendo of cocoa, rich and deep as a cup of coffee. Finally, curiosity got the better of me, and I reached for the black leather handle. As soon as I touched it, the scent disappeared, as quickly as Jane herself had.

Mousy Jane. What kind of woman ran off without her clothes, and even more strangely, her purse? The mystery lingered, a backseat note in the tumult of my emotions. Some people in my situation might have jumped to far-fetched conclusions when faced with Jane’s disappearance. “Magic!” “A curse!” Or “Epic karma smackdown!” Fortunately for society, there are very few of those people running about, and I’m not one of them.

So I did the next most reasonable thing—I rifled through her bag. Nothing unusual. A tube of ChapStick, a cell phone, a wallet, a few safety pins, Band-Aids, a package of tissues, some stray receipts, and a couple pens. No bars of chocolate, not so much as a Hershey Kiss. I put the purse aside, closed my eyes, and leaned my back against the dresser. My throat hurt, my head hurt, my heart hurt.

I really thought, in that moment, that my world was ending. Funny how retrospection can make past problems seem petty. Back then I hadn’t the slightest clue what world-ending moments actually looked like, not like I do now. Senseless murder, impending war, the Void—these were along the right lines, not two naked people rubbing their parts on one another.

Before I knew it, I’d dozed off.

I woke up to a mouse sitting on my knees. 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

We looked at one another for a long while, the mouse and I. It sat up on its hind legs, paws held in front of its chest, nose and whiskers twitching. If I didn’t know any better, I would have said it had been waiting for me to wake up. It rubbed its paws together, one on top of the other, a gesture not unlike the wringing of hands. Its head turned to the side, eyes averted. Then it launched into a tirade of squeaking.

The squeaking came out soft at first, almost apologetic in nature. It gained in volume and intensity as I watched, paws rubbing together with more speed. It ended with the mouse looking me full in the eye, little paws clenched at its sides.

As the haze of waking up faded from my mind, it occurred to me that I was not dreaming, that I was on the floor of my bedroom, and there was a mouse sitting on my knees. I lurched to my feet, scraping my back against the dresser as I rose. The mouse launched itself to the ground. It ran immediately to the purse, gave it a tug with its mouth, squeaked an exclamation, and scampered off.

I brushed hastily at my jeans, hoping the thing hadn’t pooped on me. I’d have to call the exterminator. Owen and I had been lucky so far in our newer home—we hadn’t yet had any pest problems.

Owen.

It all came flooding back. They say your life flashes before your eyes when you die. The life of my relationship with Owen now flickered through my mind. We’d met in our last year at college, at a party thrown by mutual friends. I’d finished all my necessary coursework in my first three years and had been looking for some relaxation.

Owen, with his messy hair, infectious grin, and everyone-is-my-best-friend demeanor, was exactly what I’d needed. He’d been on what he called the “six-year plan” for graduation, and didn’t seem ashamed. He played me songs he’d made up on his guitar, encouraged me to skip classes once in a while, and had a habit of making loud proclamations of the obvious as if they were profound statements (“Life can be either short or long, but it is always about living!”). We had our first date, first kiss, first sleepover. He proposed at graduation, with a cubic zirconium ring. I accepted.

Life—real life—crept in. I got a job as a saleswoman for Frank Gibbons, Inc. Owen worked as a waiter for a few years, until I pushed him to go back to school to pursue the career he’d told me he’d wanted. He got his teaching credential at thirty-two, on the “three-year plan.” We bought our house when he got his first real job.

Of course, six months ago, he’d been fired.

I sighed and picked up the bed sheets. Burning seemed overdramatic and wasteful by light of day, so I tossed them in the washer, poured in enough detergent for two loads, and turned the knob to Extra Rinse.

I grabbed Jane’s purse and clothes next, stuffed them in a plastic bag, and took them downstairs. I set the bag on the counter, next to the refrigerator. The kitchen in our two-bedroom townhouse was my favorite room. Cozy, functional, brown granite countertops, white tile backsplash, and white cupboards. When it was clean, it practically sang to me. Owen hadn’t made breakfast here this morning; therefore, it was clean. I breathed in deep, willing it to make me feel better.

When I reached for the refrigerator door, my hand diverted mid-path, reaching back into the plastic bag, pulling out Jane’s purse, and grabbing her cell phone. I navigated through Jane’s address book, found a contact labeled “Office,” and dialed. It rang four times before the answering machine picked up. “Hi, you’ve reached Jane Barston. I’m either away from my desk or unable to answer your call. Please leave a message after the tone.” BEEP.

“Hi, Jane,” I said in the friendliest voice I could manage, “this may come as a surprise, but last night you left my house in such a hurry that you forgot your purse. I’d have my husband return it to you, since you two know one another so well, but unfortunately we’re not on speaking terms right now. I know you must be busy, probably sleeping with someone else’s husband, so I’ll give you a little bit of time. You’ve got until tomorrow morning to call me back; otherwise, bonfire it is!”

I pushed “End Call” with trembling fingers. Not the most mature message I’d ever left.

A thud sounded from upstairs.

My heart gave an answering thud-thud-thud as I dropped Jane’s cell phone onto the countertop. Owen must have taken the dog with him; I hadn’t seen it since I’d kicked him out. Besides, that small a dog couldn’t make that much noise, could it? Or was my mind playing tricks on me, as it had in my office?

I’d snatched a knife from the cutlery drawer when I heard another thud, this time followed by the sound of muffled cursing. Oh no. I knew that voice—all too well. I dropped the knife back into the drawer and went to the stairs.

When I opened the door to the guest bedroom, I found the window open and Owen there, hand outstretched toward the knob. He froze mid-step. He looked a mess. A five o’clock shadow crept over his chin, and his hair looked like a cat had slept in it. I checked his pants. Yep. Inside out. There was something tremulous and hopeful in his gray eyes, and for a brief moment my anger softened. Then he opened his mouth.

“Jane, I mean, Nicole, I needed to ask you…” he trailed off as the words from his lips reached his brain.

I felt my blood pressure rising. “Ask me what? How to knock on a front door?”

He frowned. “Now come on—it’s not like you’d let me in.”

“You’re right. I wouldn’t have.”

He held up his hands, shoulders tight, as if warming himself by a fire that had suddenly grown too hot. “Sorry. I’m a jerk, okay?”

“Yes, you are.” I stood between him and the door.

“You can’t blame me entirely for all this. It’s not as if you were there for me when I needed you.”

The nerve of the guy! “What is that supposed to mean? One of us had to pay the bills, and apparently it wasn’t going to be you.”

“Just because you had to pay the bills didn’t mean you had to leave me alone so often. You were always off on one business trip or another.”

“I’m your wife, not your mother. Just because I left you alone so often didn’t mean you had to cheat on me.”

He rolled his eyes. I hated it when he did that. “I already told you I was sorry.”

My face felt as though it were about to pop clean off. “That doesn’t make everything better!” The shout echoed off the walls, making the room feel oddly empty. A sudden, desperate emotion tugged at me. I didn't want to be alone. Was this how my life would pan out? Divorcee with an empty house? This wasn’t what I’d planned for when I’d said, “I do.” Maybe I shouldn't be so hasty to cut ties. Maybe I should let Owen explain.

He spoke into the silence. “Can you at least help me pack my things?”

Then again, maybe not. “You can pack your own things. Yourself. You. Alone.”

I stalked from the room, went downstairs, and called the first person I could think of: my sister, Lainey. She picked up after three rings. “Hey, Nicole, how’re you doing? Haven’t heard from you in a while. Work keeping you busy?” She sounded chipper as usual. I saw her in my mind’s eye—blonde hair worn loose about a face with the same rosy-cheeked skin as mine.

“Why her?” I blurted out.

A short silence followed on the other end. “Oh, sweetheart,” Lainey said. “I’m sorry.” Although she was three years younger than me, ever since she’d had baby number two, she’d taken to calling her close friends and relations “sweetheart” or “dear” or “honey.” I honestly didn’t think she could help herself. “The other lady in your department got the promotion, didn’t she?”

“No. It’s Owen.” I couldn’t say the whole phrase. Saying “I caught my husband in bed with another woman” sounded too Jerry Springer. Fortunately, she caught my drift.

“What!? That bastard. When did this happen?”

“Last night.”

“Did you need a place to stay, dear?”

I considered. It would be nice to get out of the house. But I knew what it was like at Lainey’s place. She’d been the wild child before she met Mark, her husband, and then bam! Before I consistently remembered his last name, they were married with a baby on the way. I would enter their house frazzled, black hair uncombed and unwashed, and Lainey would be sitting on the couch, breastfeeding her baby with the practiced calm of some sort of earth mother while my favorite (and only) nephew, Tristan, ran circles around the coffee table. Mark would be in the kitchen cooking a steak or something rugged and manly, and in the midst of this they’d lift their eyes to look at one another—smiling, glowing, and in love. I’d feel ill, then jealous, then ill for feeling jealous…no. Not right now. “That’s okay. I’ll be fine here.”

“So you’re going to divorce him?”

“I guess.” I hadn’t thought of it in those terms yet. Divorce seemed so final.

“Look, honey, why don’t you and I go out and grab a drink? It’ll be like old times. You can tell me all about it.” A baby began to wail in the background. “Oh, damn it. I have to go. Call you back, okay?” The phone clicked.

Owen’s footsteps sounded from above, the sound of shuffling. How long would it take him to pack a bag? I took a deep breath, trying to pull myself together, and went to the foot of the stairs. “You’ve got ten minutes!” I yelled up at him.

“Where am I supposed to go? My brother’s out of town. There’ve been two murders downtown in the past six months—you want me sleeping on the street? It’s my house too!” he shouted back.

“I fronted the down payment and I’ve been paying the mortgage for six months. Who do you think a judge would award it to?” Oh, wonderful. We were already arguing about how to divide assets. Day one: find husband cheating on you. Day two: fight over who gets what. Day three: murder? Probably.

Owen appeared at the top of the stairs. He had a backpack slung over his shoulders and a half-zipped duffel bag, clothes spilling out and threatening to take up residence on the staircase. “Maybe,” he said, and I’d never seen him look so serious, “maybe we should talk.”

It felt like someone had my brain in a vise. “Talk about what? That woman in our guest bed? I don’t want to hear her name. Ever.”

“Jane?” He looked at me with bleary eyes, brows drawn together.

“Get out!” My fingers found a death grip on the stair railing as I relived the scene, one more time.

He practically ran down the stairs, his hand slapping against the railing as he passed, the acrid smell of smoke filling the air. Was the…was the seat of his pants on fire? What the hell was going on in my life? But then he was gone and the door was shut and I was alone once more.

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

“Great,” I said to no one in particular, throwing my hands in the air. My husband was gone, the dog was gone, and my house now smelled faintly of dark chocolate. I stopped and sniffed. It was definitely dark chocolate, and it was definitely coming from the stair railing. I leaned toward the darkly varnished wood. It didn't look any different than it normally did. For a moment—remember, I'd watched my throw pillows disappear the night before—I thought the railing might have somehow turned into chocolate. I touched it.

It felt like polished wood. And the smell was gone.

A knock sounded at the door. God dammit would he just leave me alone? I would rather pay money for Owen to sleep in a five-star hotel than to have him back in the house, so on my way to the door I pulled up a list of nearby hotels on my phone and grabbed my purse. I opened the door.

It wasn’t Owen.

“Hello, are you Nicole Philbin?” The man who stood in my doorway looked as if he’d stepped out of an Armani advertisement. His dark brown hair was cut short and styled to look somehow casual and formal at the same time. Brows lay low over hazel eyes. He had a jaw that defined the word “chiseled,” high cheekbones, and only the faint shadow of stubble along his chin. I had to look more than a little up to meet his gaze, which at five foot eight was unusual for me. All the moisture seemed to leave my mouth; my stomach and my heart felt as though they’d decided to tussle somewhere in my midsection. It took me a moment to realize the man was dressed in a black suit, crisp white shirt, and black tie. He held a black leather briefcase in his left hand.

“I...what?” My mind raced, trying to remember what it was that he'd asked me. I became acutely aware of my rumpled and unwashed work attire—I still hadn’t changed out of it from yesterday.

“Forgive me,” he said, gaze traveling over the purse beneath my arm and the phone in my right hand. “You were expecting someone else.”

“I forgive you,” I replied without thinking. Idiot, idiot, idiot! I chastised myself.

He looked at me oddly, but didn’t comment. “Are you Nicole Philbin?”

I gathered myself. Distantly, I saw one of my neighbors jogging past, her head turning to check out the ass of my visitor. “Yes, that's me. Are you selling something?” Somehow everything would make sense if he were selling something.

“In a manner of speaking,” the man said. “You contacted me earlier. You were looking for a divorce lawyer?”

I had? I didn’t remember contacting divorce lawyers. But something brushed over my unease, burying it. Sometimes I was so efficient I surprised myself. “Oh. I was. I mean, I am.”

“I apologize for coming over like this, but I have a very limited schedule, and it was on my way.” He held out his hand. “Kailen.”

I slipped the phone into my pocket and took the proffered hand. Warm, firm grip. My wits began to assemble themselves into an orderly line. I’d never mooned over a man before anyway, even if he was tall, handsome, a lawyer, and had warm hands. “Nice to meet you, Kailen. Why don't you come in and we can discuss business? How long do you have?” Kailen...had I contacted someone named Kailen? All these lawyers went by things like Teagan, O'Farrell, & Associates. I just didn't recall.

He checked his watch—brushed silver with a thick band. Something clicked and whirred. “Twenty minutes, give or take five.”

I stood off to the side as he brushed past me and into the house. The faint scent of cologne followed him—slightly sweet and with a hint of spice. I found myself leaning in a little and breathing it in. What was wrong with me? He was a divorce lawyer—D-I-V-O-R-C-E. I’d been speaking to my husband not five minutes before. I shook my head. “This way,” I told him as I took the lead. “We can sit in the kitchen.”

I settled myself in the chair closest to the window, my customary spot. Kailen set his briefcase on the surface of the table but didn't open it. Odd. I folded my hands on the tabletop. “Are you part of a firm?”

He shook his head. “No, I used to be. I work independently now. I find it allows me to better focus on my clients. When I worked as a part of a firm, I felt the clients were treated more as paychecks than as people. I think each client deserves individual attention.”

He drew out the last two words, made them sound slick as damp silk. Oh god. Was I blushing? “And how many years of experience do you have?”

He shrugged. “I have plenty of experience. Six years. How much experience are you looking for? My previous clients seemed to think I was well-versed.”

I’m sure they did. A man who looked like that probably had women throwing themselves at his feet. Experience, experience—why'd I choose that word? “Oh. That sounds fine. So,” I said, “why should I hire you?”

He raised an eyebrow. “Do you always cut to the chase like that?”

“I do when I'm paying for an employee out of my own pocketbook.” Finally, back in familiar territory, no innuendos to speak of.

“Fair enough. You should hire me because I won't cost you an arm and a leg, I'm able to settle most of my cases out of court, and you think I'm ridiculously handsome.”

“What?” I was with him until that last part.

He met my gaze with those hazel eyes and my knees went suddenly weak. “Don't you?”

“What if I did?” I brushed a hand over my black hair, wishing I were wearing something a little more appealing. My gaze focused on his lips and my heart pounded in my chest. Was I...was I flirting with my possible future divorce lawyer?

“Nicole”—he reached his hands across the table and took mine between his—“you're young, you're beautiful, and your husband just cheated on you with someone you don't even think is attractive. Don't you ever just want to live a little? Do something a bit crazy?”

My husband had just cheated on me with Mousy Jane. Wait. “How do you know I don't think she was attractive?” I asked.

He gave my hands a squeeze, one that left me thinking about what else his hands could do. “Let’s get out of here, you and I. I'll buy you a drink.”

“I thought you only had twenty minutes.” My wits stumbled over themselves, jumbling together in an incoherent mass. Somewhere I knew what he was doing, an old sales trick—change the subject when the customer asks a question they won't like the answer to.

Kailen glanced back down at his watch. “Ahh shit.”

I looked over at the microwave. “It's only been four minutes.” Some of the fog in my mind cleared. “Is your watch broken?”

He sighed, and when he turned his gaze on me again, the playful seductiveness had disappeared, replaced only with steel. “Get up.”

I was on my feet before I'd registered what he'd said. A knot of tension formed at the back of my neck. You know that moment when you realize that things are about to go from bad to worse? Everything goes sort of hazy and clear at the same time, and you don’t even feel like the things that are happening are happening to you. You just retreat inside your head.

The events of the past day blazed through my mind, bright and clear as pictures on a wall. I hadn't written an email to divorce lawyers. He couldn't possibly know where I lived. I'd invited a stranger into my house and I was alone. “Who are you?” I'd have been proud that I kept my voice steady if my hands hadn't been shaking like two little hairless dogs.

“As I said, I'm Kailen, and I'm a lawyer.” He stood up and hit the clasps on his briefcase. “I'm also here to protect you.” The case fell open and he pulled out a long piece of metal. In two movements I couldn't quite follow, he snapped his wrist up and out. The piece of metal unfolded and clicked into place.

It was a sword. A fucking sword.

“What are you doing? Get out of my house!” I didn’t even try not to be shrill. Protect me? The guy was nuts.

“Nicole.” He reached out with his free hand and grabbed my upper arm. “I'm going to need you to listen to me very carefully. In about one minute, things are going to get very strange. Your instinct will be to run. Don't. Stay by me and I'll keep you safe.”

“Strange?” I laughed, and even I heard the hysterical note in it. “You don't know what my life has been like these past few days.”

“Yeah, I smelled your signature a mile away, just like everyone else in the area. But whatever it is you've been doing here, it won't compare to this.” Firmly, he pulled me into the living room, pushed me toward the wall, and stepped in front of me. “Stay put. There are going to be quite a few of them.”

“Them?”

The watch on Kailen's wrist beeped out an alarm, and the sunlight coming in through the windows went dim. Dark spots began to form on my beige Berber carpet and on the linoleum of the kitchen. They grew—about ten of them—black and pooling like liquid. When they'd each reached the diameter of a trashcan lid, they began to bubble.

Kailen was right. Things got strange.

Out of the puddles, as if they were stepping up and out of a swamp, came shadowy humanoid figures, one for each pool of liquid. They looked like they were made of a thick and dark fog—I could see through them if I looked hard enough. In place of eyes were two yellow, glowing slits. Each had three shadowy pairs of arms and was as tall as Kailen.

They all turned in unison, focusing on me. Their eyes didn't have pupils or irises, but I was sure they were staring at me. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. This isn't happening. This can't be happening. I had the sudden urge to flee upstairs. If I ran upstairs, maybe I would find out that this wasn't happening. I could close my bedroom door, and leave Kailen and the shadowy figures to do whatever it was they did, as long as it didn’t have anything to do with me. I tensed, took a step toward the stairs.

Kailen's free hand came up and blocked my way. “Don't move!” he hissed at me. “They'll follow you, and they kill their prey so quickly that I won't have another chance to save your life. They're here for you, not me. Trust me.”

“Why should I trust you?” I shot back.

“Because if you don't,” Kailen said, as he slowly removed his hand from in front of me, “you'll die.”

The shadowy figures rushed us all at once.

I think I screamed, but I'm not sure. Neither the creatures nor Kailen paid it any mind if I did. They lumbered across my carpet, multiple pairs of arms reaching and grasping. As soon as they came within striking distance, Kailen moved, as quickly as he had when he’d unhinged his sword. He ducked and swayed, moving with the grace of a dancer, all the while remaining in front of me. He never let them get a grip on him. The blade cut through the creatures’ heads, torsos, legs, and arms, dissolving them into smoke and black drops of foul-smelling liquid. One. Two. Three, four, five, six. Four were left, one replacing the next as soon as it had fallen. A thought occurred to me—would the fluid stain? The thought vanished when one of the monsters reached past Kailen to put one of its six hands on my arm.

It felt cold, like being gripped by someone who'd just come in, gloveless, from a walk in a snowstorm. The chill seeped through my sweatshirt and through the T-shirt beneath that. Shadowy though the hand was, it felt real to me. Something pricked at my skin. Claws. “No!” I cried out.

Without even turning around, Kailen brought his sword up into the space between the creature and me. It gave a rasping cry as the blade separated the arm from its body. The hand on my sweatshirt dissolved.

He moved again, bringing his sword out in a sweeping stroke. He caught the last two creatures square in their midsections. They howled before liquefying. The patter of drops sounded as they hit the carpet, and then silence. The sun shone in my windows again, as though it were simply peeking out from behind a cloud. Black specks covered my carpet. Kailen stood there for a moment, panting, his sword held in front of him, still at the end of his last stroke. The scent of his cologne mingled with the sharp tang of masculine sweat. I wished he would never move. Not because he was handsome and standing alarmingly close to me, but because if he didn't move, then I would never have to hear an explanation of what just happened, or to accept that it might have been real—never mind the black marks on my carpet that would probably take hours of scrubbing to get out. It smelled like someone had dragged a week's worth of trash through my living room. Some things, it seemed, just couldn't be wished away. I sighed and tapped Kailen on the shoulder. Better to deal with it.

Like an automaton, he snapped his wrist twice, and the sword folded away into a harmless-looking tube. He turned.

“I'll bet you want to know what those were,” he said.

I crossed my arms. For the first time since he had walked in the door, my head felt clear. “Yes.”

He pursed his lips, walked over to the briefcase, and dropped the metal tube back inside. “And you're probably wondering why they're after you.”

“Yes again.”

Kailen looked at me, eyebrows raised. “No chance I can convince you that they were just burglars dressed in frightening costumes?” He snapped the briefcase shut, but didn't, I noticed, lift it from the table.

I didn't even dignify that with an answer. It just hadn't been a good enough day for me to have any sense of humor. “You're going to tell me what this was all about, or I'm calling the police.”

“Okay, okay,” Kailen said, hands held up in a gesture of surrender, “but don't blame me if you don't believe me. Those were hobgoblins. Nasty critters. Very grabby, as you noticed. They get a hold of you with any two of those arms, they'll tear you into pieces. They may look foggy, but cut them in any of their vitals, and they dissolve.”

“Hobgoblins.” I repeated, slowly.

He shrugged. “People are discovering new species all the time—guess they just haven't gotten around to hobgoblins yet.”

Something—call it instincts, call it a bullshit meter, call it whatever you like—told me he wasn't giving me the whole story. “And you're a lawyer who's here to protect me,” I said flatly.

“Yep.”

I made my way to the kitchen counter, where the only landline phone in the house sat in its cradle. “I'm calling the police.” I picked up the phone. I pressed the call button and stopped. The number to the police station wasn’t something I’d memorized, and 9-1-1 was overkill at this point.

The light tickle of a breeze brushed against my neck. I turned. Kailen was gone, as was the briefcase. It was as if he'd never been there at all. I stepped gingerly around the island, phone held in my hand like a weapon. When I reached the area where carpet met tile, I lowered my hand. The only reminders of what had happened were the black stains on my rug. I looked to the right. My front door remained shut.

A squeaking sound, loud and insistent, began to emanate from the cupboard next to my microwave. “And there's more?” I said out loud, to no one in particular. I went over and opened the door. There, on the lowest shelf, was the brown mouse. It had chewed a hole in my bag of pasta. The spilled noodles neatly spelled, “MEJANE.”

I slammed the cupboard door shut, grabbed my keys and purse, and fled the house, my heart leaping in my chest.

 

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