Hard Bitten - By Chloe Neill

Chapter One

Late August

Chicago, Illinois

We worked beneath the shine of floodlights that punched holes in the darkness of Hyde Park - nearly one hundred vampires airing rugs, painting cabinet doors, and sanding trim.

A handful of severe-looking men in black - extra mercenary fairies we'd hired for protection - stood outside the fence that formed a barrier between the blocks-wide grounds of Cadogan House and the rest of the city.

In part, they were protecting us from a second attack by shape-shifters. That seemed unlikely, but so had the first onslaught, led by the youngest brother of the leader of the North American Central Pack. Unfortunately, that hadn't stopped Adam Keene.

They were also protecting us from a new threat.


I glanced up from the elegant curve of wooden trim I was swabbing with stain. It was nearly midnight, but the golden glow of the protesters' candles was visible through the gap in the fence.

Their flames flickered in the sticky summer breeze, three or four dozen humans making known their quiet objections to the vampires in their city.

Popularity was a fickle thing.

Chicagoans had rioted when we'd come out of the closet nearly a year ago. Fear had eventually given way to awe, complete with paparazzi and glossy magazine spreads, but the violence of the attack on the House - and the fact that we'd fought back and in doing so had thrown shifters out into the open - had turned the tides again.

Humans hadn't been thrilled to learn we'd existed, and if werewolves were out there, too, what else lurked in the shadows? For the past couple of months we'd seen raw, ugly prejudice from humans who didn't want us in their neighborhood and camped outside the House to make sure we were aware of it.

My cell phone vibrated in my pocket; I flipped it open and answered, "Merit's House of Carpentry."

Mallory Carmichael, my best friend in the world and a sorceress in her own right, snorted from the other end. "Kind of dangerous, isn't it, being a vampire around all those would-be aspen stakes?"

I looked over the trim on the sawhorse in front of me. "I'm not sure any of this is actually aspen, but I take your point."

"I assume from the intro that carpentry's on your agenda again this evening?"

"You would be correct. Since you asked, I'm applying stain to some lovely woodwork, after which I'll probably apply a little sealant - "

"Oh, my God, yawn," she interrupted. "Please spare me your hardware stories. I'd offer to come entertain you, but I'm heading to Schaumburg.

Magic is as magic does, and all that."

That explained the rumbling of the car in the background on her end. "Actually, Mal, even if you could make it, we're a human-free abode right now."

"No shit," she said. "When did Darth Sullivan issue that dictate?"

"When Mayor Tate asked him to."

Mallory let out a low whistle, and her voice was equally concerned. "Seriously? Catcher didn't even say anything about that."

Catcher was Mallory's current live-in boyfriend, the sorcerer who'd replaced me when I made the move to Cadogan House a few months ago. He also worked in the office of the city's supernatural Ombudsman - my grandfather - and was supposed to be in the know about all things supernatural. The Ombudsman's office was a kind of paranormal help desk.

"The Houses are keeping it on the down-low," I admitted. "Word gets out that Tate closed the Houses, and people panic."

"Because they think vampires pose a real threat to humans?"

"Exactly. And speaking of real threats, what are you learning tonight in Schaumburg?"

"Har-har, my little vampire friend. You will love and fear me in due time."

"I already do. Are you still doing potions?"

"Actually, no. We're doing some different stuff this week. How's the head honcho?"

The quick change of subject was a little weird.

Mallory usually loved an interested audience when it came to the paranormal and her magic apprenticeship. Maybe the stuff she was learning now was actually as dull as carpentry, although that was hard to imagine.

"Ethan Sullivan is still Ethan Sullivan," I finally concluded.

She snorted in agreement. "And I assume he always will be, being immortal and all. But some things do change. Speaking of - and how's that for a segue? - guess who's now got a big ol' pair of spectacles perched on the end of his perfect little nose?"

"Joss Whedon?" Although it had taken her a little while to get used to the idea of having magic, Mal had always had a