As we count down to The Italian Screwjob’s March 15th release, I’m sharing one chapter a day from the book. Despite calls from the peanut gallery to pick those chapters randomly and without context, I have once again opted to start at the beginning.
As ever with later books in the series, the text will contain spoilers from previous books, so read at your own risk! Here is The Italian Screwjob: Chapter 1.
IN WHICH PRIVACY LAWS AND OFFICE HOURS ARE EQUALLY IGNORED
I read once that there’s such a thing as getting too much sleep. Someday, I’d love to have that problem. Four and a half hours after I’d gone to bed, I was awake again, still smelling of beer. The usual nightmare was already fading from my brain, replaced by a grim certainty that something new had gone horribly wrong.
Normally, that would have meant I was naked and chained up in a prison cell or even splayed out on the cracked earth of a hell dimension, but I recognized the lumpy mattress beneath me as the one I’d had since high school, and my arms were wrapped tightly around the pillow I’d nicknamed Anastasia, for reasons both personal and obvious.
I stared up at the ceiling of my bedroom. Barely large enough for a dresser and my twin bed, it was a far cry from my family’s old house in Chula Vista. The fact that I was paying rent only added insult to injury. My parents’ recent move to Austin had meant I’d finally had to find a place of my own to live in.
A glance at my wonderphone told me it wasn’t even ten yet. On a Sunday. With my two-person detective agency currently between cases, there was no reason for me to be up.
Yet here I was, awake and troubled.
With pillow-Ana still whispering sweet nothings in my ear, it took an embarrassingly long time to identify the source of that strange sense of doom, but once I had, I flopped back in my bed with an irritated groan.
At the back of my brain lurked a tiny bundle of other, the result of a vampire queen’s failed attempt to enslave me almost two years earlier. What had originally been intended as a leash had instead become a sort of mental tether between the two of us, a two-lane highway across which emotions flowed.
It was Lucia’s worry that had woken me.
I mentally rolled my eyes, fully prepared to go right back to sleep, nightmares and vampire panic attacks be damned, when a second realization struck: it had been literally months since I’d felt the queen this strongly. A combination of the mental walls I’d painstakingly learned to erect and the physical distance between Cardiff and Hillcrest had reduced the femmepire’s presence to a muted buzz at the back of my brain. For me to not only feel her concern but be woken by it could only mean one thing.
She was nearby.
I pulled on a mostly clean t-shirt and went looking. The door to Juliette’s much larger bedroom was open, but neither my business partner nor her blood donors were inside, and the only bathroom was similarly vacant. In a condo as small as ours, that left only the combined kitchen and living room to check.
I crept down the hall.
“Greetings, my thrall.” Lucia looked up from a cup of coffee, one eyebrow arched as she took in my bedraggled state. “It is good that you are finally awake. There is much for us to do.”
Lucia looked like she’d come from a week-long spa retreat, glowing with health and vibrancy, from her golden, toned skin to the pristine perfection of her unlined face. The femmepire was one of my least favorite people in the world, but even I had to admit she looked phenomenal for four hundred.
Not that I was going to tell her that.
“You’ve grown out your hair.” What had once been a platinum-blonde angled bob curving around her face now fell in straight lines down to bare shoulders. Both that hair and the usual snow-white outfit set off her million-dollar tan to perfection.
“Your perceptiveness continues to amaze.”
I walked past the femmepire to pour my own cup of coffee. Two creams and three sugars later, I took a seat across from my so-called mistress.
“I preferred the old look.”
“I will have my stylist whipped and driven from the city.” Before I could say anything, she rolled eyes as cold and blue as an arctic sky. “I was being facetious, Mr. Smith. As ever, your opinion is not worth the air used to voice it.”
“What are you doing here, Lucia?” I took a long sip of coffee, burned my tongue, and did a terrible job of hiding that fact.
“Your skills are required.”
“You don’t have me on retainer anymore, and office hours are eight to five.” I took another painful sip. “Weekdays only.”
“Eight in the morning? Come now, Mr. Smith. Even you are a better liar than that.”
“I wish it was a lie. Juliette’s obsessed with turning the agency around and she doesn’t care whose sleep patterns she has to wreck in the process.”
“A member of the People working for mere humans.” Lucia’s sneer spoke volumes. “I am pleased that I no longer have to concern myself with how that one’s actions reflect upon my House.”
“You don’t even have a House anymore. And the only reason she’s working at all is because you nuked her finances.”
“I agreed to unfreeze her accounts and remove the liens on her properties. I made no guarantees regarding the state they would be returned in.”
That was Lucia-speak for I had someone burn down my former subject’s houses and empty her bank accounts. The queen’s long-held philosophy was to repay all harm three-fold, and her exact definition of harm was… malleable.
“Besides,” she continued, “I left her this space, did I not?”
“Yeah, you’re a real saint. Now, tell me what you want or go away. I have two hours of sleep I’d like to get back to. Maybe three.”
“On occasion, I have permitted your illusions of independence, Mr. Smith, but we lack the time for such frivolities. Tonight, a plane will leave this city’s airport, and you and I will be on it.”
Lucia’s voice was buttery smooth, her tone utterly confident, but that undercurrent of worry that had first woken me remained, seeping across our bond. I didn’t have to be a detective to know something was wrong.
I wasn’t entirely sure I cared though.
“Where is this theoretical plane headed? Aspen? Bora Bora? Should I pack board shorts or ski gear?” Not that I had any of the latter. Even with Big Bear only a couple of hours away, ski trips belonged with booze cruises and three-ply toilet paper on the list of niceties that my budget simply couldn’t support.
Board shorts, however, would not be a problem.
“We will be traveling to Rome.” The femmepire took another sip of coffee, either immune to its scalding temperature, or—
Oh. Right. I tapped a finger against my own mug and concentrated. The ceramic chilled quickly, as if it had been left in the refrigerator, and my next sip of coffee was just about perfect.
A spike of irritation floated across the bond to me, but Lucia’s face remained calm and composed. Which was very un-Lucia, to be honest. She’d been irate when she first learned the witches had inadvertently given me access to her Talent.
I was still puzzling over the queen’s strange behavior when her words finally sank in. “Wait… Rome? You mean Italy? The place you were banished from on pain of death like a hundred years ago?”
“Yes.” Mention of her exile brought back the femmepire I was used to, blue eyes flashing with rage, voice cold and sharp.
“Don’t get me wrong,” I said. “I’m all in favor of a plan that might get you killed. I just can’t see why I would join you.”
“Lady Dumenyova is in trouble.”
That simple statement sucked all the air out of the kitchen.
“What kind of trouble?” I finally asked.
“Without our aid, she will be executed by month’s end.”
Before I could ask any of the questions that had started to bubble up in my brain, we heard the front door open.
“Little bird,” Juliette shouted, “are you up?”
“If I wasn’t, I would be now.”
“Good. You can help Angel with the bags—” Juliette’s voice cut off as she came into view. The femmepire I called the Duchess of Snark was clad in her usual riding garb of a motorcycle jacket, t-shirt, and skin-tight jeans. After a narrow-eyed glare at Lucia, she turned on me. “John, when I said you could have house guests, I was thinking desperate divorcees or emotionally stunted coeds. This,” she said, waving in the direction of the femmepire queen, “is totally unacceptable.”
“Distressed that I am witnessing the depths to which you have fallen, child?” Lucia took another sip of coffee, as comfortable as if she were in her own home.
“More like worried that industrial strength bleach won’t be enough to remove your stench,” the other woman shot back. “Now get the hell out of my house, you overfed, overprivileged, skanky-ass bi—”
Lucia surged to her full—if unimpressive—height, her voice a winter storm that filled the small kitchen. “I will visit my thrall whenever and wherever I choose. If you think it is within your power to stop me, do so now or be silent.”
“Let’s maybe talk about this like rational adults,” I suggested in my best mediator voice. While I loved Juliette like a smoking-hot, wildly disturbing stepsister, her propensity for starting trouble had always exceeded her ability to finish it.
“Whatever.” Juliette dropped down into a chair, running a hand through her spiky hair. “If you and your thrall want to meet, go do it somewhere else.”
“You can both stop calling me a thrall any day now.”
“It is what you are,” Lucia replied irritably.
“This is what you deserve for opening our door to someone like her,” growled Juliette at the same time.
“She was already at the table when I woke up!” Which raised the obvious question. “How did you get in, Lucia?”
Before the queen could respond, Angel came around the corner, laden down with shopping bags. “Don’t everyone get up and help on my account or anything. I can totally carry all the damn groceries—”
She stopped dead at the sight of Lucia, eyes wide and fixed upon the curvaceous femmepire. I rose from my chair, peeled unresponsive fingers away from plastic, and transferred the bags to the counter.
“This would be your other donor?” Lucia stalked over to Angel, a head shorter than the barista despite her snow-white, skyscraper-high heels. The two could not have been more different. Lucia was gorgeous, even for one of the People, with salon-perfect hair, flawless skin, and a wardrobe worth more than my still-new car. Meanwhile, Angel was every bit as human as I was, skinny and casually dressed in a black tee, black jeans, and a brown vest, her only jewelry the silver bangle that Juliette had bought her for Christmas.
Vampire-quick, my partner was between Angel and the queen.
“Rest easy, child.” Lucia’s teeth flashed in the vague approximation of a smile. “I have no intention of taking her from you. And our tastes are not at all in alignment.”
I winced, anticipating an angry retort that never came. Instead, Juliette was frowning.
“Did you say other donor?”
“I did. I was given leave to enter by a delightful young man carrying a wetsuit and a six pack of beer. Easy on the eyes, for a monkey, and with barely three brain cells to rub together.”
“That sounds like Bobo.” The surfer entrepreneur had been a dick since the very first night Juliette brought him home. I continued to hold out hope that he would fall beneath the waves and wind up a blood sacrifice to the Mer’s watery gods.
Assuming the Mer performed sacrifices. Or worshipped gods, for that matter. I had yet to meet one, given that they didn’t breathe oxygen, and even wading into the ocean was enough to get me seasick.
“You know he hates it when you call him Bobo. But it does sound like him,” agreed Angel, her gaze still stuck on Lucia.
“Brian.” Juliette breathed the name like it had four letters instead of five.
“I didn’t ask,” replied Lucia with a shrug. “This pathetic shambles you call a life is of no concern to me.”
The longer this conversation dragged on, the greater the likelihood of it ending in a fiery apocalypse. Or a wintry one. And I’d had enough of those for three lifetimes. I interposed myself between the two femmepires, aware that even Juliette could tear my arms out of their sockets without the slightest effort. “Was there anything else you needed to tell me, Lucia?”
“Our flight departs at seven. A driver will swing by to collect you at five. See to it that you are on time for once.” A small frown marred the beauty of her face as she took in my appearance. “And try to look presentable?”
She swept out of the kitchen and the front door banged shut.
“I hate that woman,” fumed Juliette.
I shook my head and went to burn some toast.
“Try being her thrall.”
I’ll be back tomorrow with Chapter 2, in which packing ain’t easy.