“We would love to join you,” Celestina said.
Josh squinted slightly. “Do you also have a no-weapons rule at the dinner table?”
“No. Why? Do you think you aren’t safe here?” I frowned, disturbed by the idea.
“Not at all,” Josh assured me. “Rather, I have a new hidden dagger I wanted to try wearing, and it’s located inside my boxers—I do not think your family would appreciate such a show.”
It was apparently Felix’s turn to choke. He exploded into a rattling cough.
I tapped my cheek. “What good does the hidden dagger do if it’s in your boxers?”
“That is the point I was hoping to test,” Josh said. “Thus far it has been an unsatisfactory experience.”
“I see. Either way, it’s fine.” I tipped my head as I felt the whispery touch of the House. “Gavino, I’d recommend you finish your blood, because my Great Aunt is about thirty seconds away from barreling through the door with the first round of wizards for you to meet.”
“Yes, Miss Hazel.”
I started to stand, but paused midstep. “Oh, and Celestina, Josh?”
“Yes?” Celestina asked.
“Thanks for coming to apologize.”
The following week Celestina came back to House Medeis to pick me up for my first bi-weekly training session.
“You know, I have a car.” I tightened the laces of my running shoes and glanced at my escort. “You didn’t have to drive me.”
“Nonsense,” Celestina said. “It’s cheaper to carpool.”
“Killian does remember that I’m not staying at Drake Hall this week, doesn’t he?” I asked suspiciously.
“Of course,” Celestina soothed.
Unconvinced, I twisted around in my seat to look behind me.
Momoko sat in the back seat, making a thorough inspection of the car’s fancy leather interior. “Wow. Being old must pay really well.”
I smirked at her. “Not all the Drake vampires have Celestina’s sense of humor, you know?”
Momoko blinked. “But I wasn’t being funny.”
I slightly shook my head and glanced out the rearview window. A black SUV followed behind us—it contained Felix, Franco, and Rupert.
I had hoped the mischievous wizard brothers would keep their mouths shut, but based on the way the car was angrily veering around the road, I’m pretty sure Rupert was close to homicidal.
“Rupert must be having fun,” Celestina chirped with innocence.
“Do you think he’ll refrain from killing them?” I asked.
Rupert’s car abruptly slammed to a stop, then raced after us again moments later.
“He learned his lesson when he harmed you,” Celestina assured me.
“Yeah, except the Clark brothers are about twice as bad as I am.” I reluctantly faced forward again, recognizing the rolling countryside, which was cast in long, blue shadows as the sun hovered just over the horizon. Soon, I could spy the wrought-iron fence that divided Drake Hall from its neighbors.
Fleetingly, I remembered their friendly neighbor who’d given me a ride right after Killian kicked me out. “Hey Celestina,” I said. “Do you think we could stop in and see Leila sometime?”
“Certainly.” Celestina glanced at the clock. “She should be home right about now.”
“Do you really think we could visit her right now?” I asked. “Shouldn’t we call or something?”
“It’s not necessary. Leila and her family are used to unexpected visits from us,” Celestina said. “The dogs know she gives out treats, so if their handler isn’t paying attention, they slip through the fence to visit her.”
She cruised past the dragon gates that barred the way to Drake Hall, and kept on driving.
“Huh, I’m surprised Killian puts up with that,” Momoko said from the backseat.
“I’m pretty sure he doesn’t care what the dogs do as long as they are healthy and well cared for,” I said. “He mentioned he got them just to inflict mental warfare against the local Alphas.”
“Correct!” Celestina laughed as she pulled into a gravel driveway and drove up to a quaint, ranch-style house. A beautiful chicken coop was nestled next to the house, and hens that were a reddish-brown with flecks of white clucked at us in lecturing tones as they watched from the coop door.
Out back I could see pastures marked with white, wooden fences, and a small barn that had to be a stable since Leila—holding a bright blue leadrope—was exiting the building with a beautiful horse in tow.
The horse was a chestnut color with reddish brown hair and stockings on its legs that were so white they practically glowed in the dim sunset. It followed placidly behind Lelia as she waved once we parked the car.
“Hey, Celestina. Did the dogs get out again? They haven’t made their way over here, yet.”
“For once I am not here about our wayward pets,” Celestina said. “I brought you a guest.”
Leila curiously peered at me, then smiled again, making her dazzling. “Hazel!”
Man, that fae blood is dangerous.
“Hi Leila.” I cautiously approached her—that horse she was holding on to was ginormous—and gave her a side hug. “It’s great to see you again.”
“Hello! I assume it’s safe to wish you a welcome back to the neighborhood?” She pointedly tossed her head in Celestina’s direction and watched Rupert park and throw himself out of the car.
“Kind of,” I said. “I’m not staying here, but Killian and I are talking again.”
When Leila had taken me back to House Medeis after Killian kicked me out, we had swapped numbers, and I’d given her a shortened version of our history, so she was vaguely aware of the problems that had stirred up House Medeis, and that I had stayed with the Drakes for a while.
“Why,” Rupert snarled, “are we here?”
“Hey, Rupert!” Leila waved to the red-haired vampire, and curiously watched Franco and Felix climb out of his car. “Hanging with humans, huh? That’s pretty rare for you.”
Rupert gave her a withering glare.
Leila chuckled. “Awww, you’re just as precious as usual.”
Rupert’s eyes bulged, and I wondered if today would be the day one of us pushed him over the edge into a homicidal maniac.
I glanced at the horse again—which was watching Rupert as it twitched its lips—and smiled. “I wanted to thank you again for your help, and let you know I’ll be hanging around.”
“That’s wonderful!” Leila’s grin amplified the brightness of her violet-blue eyes—one of the reasons why I suspected she had fae heritage. “It’s pretty rare for anyone besides vampires to go in and out of Drake Hall, so I’m so happy for the Drakes in particular.”
Rupert’s right eyebrow twitched, but Celestina nodded her agreement.
“Oh, I’m sorry—I’m being rude. Momoko, Felix, Franco, this is Leila. Leila, meet Momoko, Felix, and Franco—they’re wizards who belong to House Medeis.”
“I remember you mentioning her,” Felix said. “Thank you for bringing our Adept back to us.” He offered Leila a glittering smile that rivaled her own.
“Of course! I’m glad I happened to be in the right place,” Leila said.
“You still haven’t visited House Medeis,” I reminded her. “We need to fix that.”
“For sure! Oh, and you should come over sometime if you ever need a break from all the training that goes on over there.” She gestured vaguely in the direction of Drake Hall.
“You could stop in at Drake Hall whenever you wish, Leila,” Celestina chimed in. “You do have an open invitation.”
“Really?” I whipped my gaze back to Leila. “That’s pretty rare.”
“It’s not as impressive as it sounds,” Leila patted her horse’s muscled neck when he lipped her shoulder. “The vampire in charge of the dogs has me come over a few times a year for a training refresher for them.”
“You’re a dog trainer?” Momoko asked. “That’s awesome!”
“Oh, no I’m not really a trainer—not for any animal.” Leila slung her arm over the horse’s shoulders. “But I’ve got some fae blood, so animals that interact with me for long periods of time tend to be smarter than average.”
Ah-hah! I was right—and I didn’t even have to be rude or nosy and ask!
Franco scratched his chin as he studied Leila. “I didn’t know that was a common fae trait.”
“I don’t know that it’s common,” Leila said. “Not all fae have it. But I won’t lie, it’s really fun!”
Celestina slightly bowed her head. “We Drakes are grateful you are willing to use your talent on our behalf.”
Rupert made a noise of dissension in the back of his throat and pointedly looked away.
An ominous thud followed by the clatter of buckets spilling onto the ground filtered out of the barn.
Leila swung around to face the shadows of the open door. “Again? Really, Bagel. Do you have to be that nosy?”
It sounded like a couple dozen more buckets and bins were turned over before a small donkey emerged from the stable.
He brayed—a noise that sounded like car brakes screeching combined with a sea lion barking, only at a decimal level that was almost loud enough to break your eardrums. When he brayed his whole body jiggled with the force it took to make the noise and suck in enough air. He blasted his bray at us for a few moments, then flattened his long ears, poked his nose up in the sky, and gave us a donkey smile.
“Sorry, that’s Bagel,” Leila apologized. “You can ignore him. He’s a little stinker and gets out all the time, but he won’t go anywhere. He probably just heard us and decided to come say hello.”
Bagel’s fuzzy gray-brown coat made him look extra huggable, and even though he might have just deafened me, the dimple in his velveteen muzzle and the way he flicked his boney tail was too cute to hold anything against him.