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Of Blood and Ashes Chapter 1 Excerpt

Cover by Marginean Anca

You read that right! Here’s an exclusive preview to my upcoming novel, Of Blood and Ashes, the sequel to Of Cinder and Bone. Naturally, massive spoilers for Of Cinder and Bone. You have been warned.

The world’s deadliest dragon, the infamous Baba Yaga, is loose on the streets of Tokyo.

Dr. Rhett “Jack” Jackson and Dr. Kamala Anjali have been tasked with helping the government take down a dragon the size of a Tyrannosaurus Rex after it sends part of the city up in flames. Things worsen when they lose track of dragon in none other than Aokigahara, the Suicide Forest–a section of woods in Japan that is rumored to be one of the most haunted places on earth. They’ve also got the yakuza who cloned the dragon hellbent on getting her back, and they don’t care who they kill in order to re-capture the dragon.

Jack and Kamala are joined by CIA field agent William Fry and dragon-hunting expert Juniper Snow as they infiltrate the forest to hunt the dragon before she can hurt anyone else. Between the ruthless yakuza hot on their trail and the growing mistrust in their small hunting party, it will take a miracle for Jack and Kamala to make it out alive…

Of Blood and Ashes is available for pre-order exclusively in the Sirens and Scales boxed set. The release date is January 2, 2018. Click here to pre-order it on any platform you like.

    When we went hunting the Dragon
In the days when we were young,
We tossed the bright world over our shoulder
As bugle and baldrick slung;
Never was world so wild and fair
As what went by on the wind,
Never such fields of paradise
As the fields we left behind:

For this is the best of a rest for men
That men should rise and ride
Making a flying fairyland
Of market and country-side,
Wings on the cottage, wings on the wood,
Wings upon pot and pan,
For the hunting of the Dragon
That is the life of a man.

For men grow weary of fairyland
When the Dragon is a dream,
And tire of the talking bird in the tree,
The singing fish in the stream;
And the wandering stars grow stale, grow stale,
And the wonder is stiff with scorn;
For this is the honour of fairyland
And the following of the horn;

Beauty on beauty called us back
When we could rise and ride,
And a woman looked out of every window
As wonderful as a bride:
And the tavern-sign as a tabard blazed,
And the children cheered and ran,
For the love of the hate of the Dragon
That is the pride of a man…

-“The Hunting of the Dragon” by G. K. Chesterton

CHAPTER ONE

AND BABY MAKES THREE

“I’m pregnant.”

Those were the last two words Dr. Rhett “Jack” Jackson heard before everything went black.

He woke up on the floor. Something soft and cool lay across his forehead, pushing his wily brown hair back from his brow. The television droned on in the background and faint whitish-blue light spilled over the den of his small apartment, illuminating the beautiful southern Indian woman settled next to him on her knees. His gaze slowly focused on her round face, dark-honey eyes, and midnight hair framing her cheeks.

Dr. Kamala Anjali held up one hand and gently asked, “How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Two.”

“What’s your name?”

“Jack.”

“What is your profession?”

“Post-doc at MIT and recipient of a fellowship grant for the resurrection and preservation of dragons.”

She sighed in relief. “Good boy. No concussion.”

“Did you say what I think you said?”

Kamala swallowed hard. “Yes.”

Slowly, Jack shifted his big feet off the textbooks they’d been stacked upon and took the cool washcloth off his forehead, staring open-mouthed at his girlfriend. “You’re really pregnant?”

She nodded. He licked his lips. “H-How?”

Kamala arched an eyebrow. “Well, Jack, when a man and a woman love each other…”

“No, no, we, uh, we used protection. A lot of it. I thought it was 99.9% effective.”

“The odds were indeed against us and we were careful, but there’s always that .1% chance and I suppose that’s what happened.”

The room started to tilt in front of his vision. “But…but…the condoms…”

Kamala grabbed his hands. “Jack, you’re going to give yourself a panic attack again. Breathe. Just breathe.”

“Again? Wait, why am I on the floor?” He paused. “Jesus Christ, I fainted?”

“I wouldn’t call it fainting. A head rush in combination with the beer and the stress—”

He buried his face in his hands. “This is not happening.”

“I wish that were true, but it’s not. I was thorough. I took ten different pregnancy tests. Eight of them were positive. Two were inconclusive. Numbers don’t lie.”

He dropped his hands then, his voice hoarse as he stared at her helplessly. “Kam…what the hell are we going to do?”

“I don’t know,” she said very quietly, and he could finally see the tears in her eyes. All at once, the weight of it hit him and he realized he hadn’t even considered how she had been feeling. She’d learned the truth not long before he did.

“Shit,” he muttered, and wrapped his arms around her. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Kam. I didn’t mean to make it all about me. Learning this on top of a rampaging dragon tearing Tokyo to pieces is a little much for me.”

She buried her face in the warmth of his neck and clutched the front of his dress shirt. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to spring it on you, but you had to know. I would never keep something like this from you.”

He rubbed her back in slow circles. “I appreciate you being honest with me. Sorry I fainted.”

“You didn’t faint. You just had momentary vertigo.”

Jack let out a weak chuckle. “Thanks. Maybe someday my ego will recover.”

He glanced over at his cell phone still vibrating on the couch shouting, “Son of a bitch!” in tune to an accompanying harmonica, drums, and tambourine. “Shit’s hit the fan. We’d better get moving before the press tries to corner us.”

“Right.” She straightened up in his arms, holding still as he wiped the faint tracks of tears from the corners of her eyes. “Where do we start?”

“We have to try to get ahead of the storm. Dollars to donuts says Matt’s the one who’s been calling, so we should head to meet up with him first. He’s probably trying to put together a statement for the news before they start pointing fingers.”

He cast a concerned sweep over her. “Other than the obvious, are you feeling alright?”

She nodded. “I haven’t started showing any signs yet. The only reason I knew to take the pregnancy tests was because I just realized I missed my period this month. At least we caught on early.”

He slid his hands down her arms and linked their fingers. “Well, I think it’s too soon to make any sort of big decisions yet, but…what do you need me to do?”

“For now, we’ll keep this quiet,” Kamala answered. “One step at time. Let’s get the other pressing issue in our life under control and then worry about the future.”

Jack squeezed her hands and offered a watery smile. “Whatever you say, angel.”

Then he rested his forehead on hers and took a deep breath. “We’ll get through this. I promise.”

“Thank you,” she whispered back. “That’s all I needed to hear.”

He kissed her fingers and helped her up. “Throw an overnight bag together. I’ll call Matt.”

She disappeared into his bedroom while he grabbed the phone, facing the television again. His gut twisted itself into a writhing snake pit as he saw the footage playing again. It showed a dark grey dragon the size of a Tyrannosaurus Rex landing in the middle of the street. Its huge jaws parted, revealing fangs at least five inches long, and then a pillar of fire at least two feet in diameter spouted from the gaping cavern of its mouth. The banner across the bottom of the news channel proclaimed five dead, seventeen injured. The female newscaster was paler than usual as she reported that the Tokyo police were scrambling to section off the area and get the rampaging animal under control.

Baba Yaga. The world’s deadliest dragon.

And there was a good chance she was loose because of him.

October nighttime in Cambridge, Massachusetts meant chilly temperatures, so Jack and Kamala threw on their overcoats before piling into Kamala’s powder blue Volkswagen Beetle and driving towards the main part of the city. Jack was only newly famous—or infamous, in certain circles—so he still stayed in a modest one-bedroom apartment outside of Cambridge as it was much more affordable than living in the Squares. Whenever possible, he took the train, but with all hell breaking loose on the other side of the planet and their reputation on the line, the pair drove straight to the home of their Principle Investigator, Matt Buchanan. He’d been lucky enough to rent a house where he lived with his wife and daughter rather than having to fight for space in the heavily coveted apartments near Harvard or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Jack and Kamala pulled into the driveway not long after eight o’clock, as traffic had been outrageous considering every other driver was on their phone watching the footage of the Baba Yaga attack. It had only been two months since the birth of the first dragon to grace the twenty-first century, and nearly every person on the planet found themselves captivated by anything related to the long-extinct species now that they had resurfaced. Jack and Kamala’s dragon, Pete, had been the proverbial Prometheus and genesis of all the successful research related to the mysterious reptiles, and she’d also been the source of the biggest struggle Jack and Kamala had ever known.

Until now.

The door opened as Jack lifted a large hand to knock. Matt Buchanan was average height and build with a mop of curly, dirty-blond hair and brown eyes. His reading glasses were perched on his forehead and he looked like he’d aged about ten years within the last hour.

“Hey, guys,” he said with a heavy sigh, glancing to and fro behind them at the yard. “Better get in here before someone sees you.”

They stepped inside and he shut the door and locked it. “Follow me. I’m set up in the den right now.”

The foyer had hardwood floors that creaked a bit underfoot as they walked through it to the left. A huge navy suede couch was pushed against the far wall, facing the flat-screen mounted on the opposite wall. Matt’s wife, Bianca, sat holding tightly to a throw pillow, transfixed by the news report. She glanced up with a weak smile and greeted the two as they entered, then went back to watching the TV.

In front of one of the empty cushions was a small fold-up table with Matt’s MacBook perched on top. Matt gestured towards the pair of love seats on either side of the couch and sat, pulling the table towards him.

“I’ve been gathering as much Intel as I can since the news channels started running the footage,” he said, typing madly. “I’m only getting pieces here and there, but there’s plenty of social media evidence that the government hasn’t taken offline just yet. From what I can put together, Baba Yaga was in some sort of research facility in downtown Tokyo. Witnesses reported an explosion, and shortly after she appeared on the streets.”

“Where is she now?” Kamala asked.

“Hard to say. They’re scrambling. Rumors are that she is just flying around lighting shit on fire and attacking anything she sees, but then others are saying she’s heading out of the city towards the countryside.”

“The latter makes more sense,” Jack said. “If they’ve never let her outside, she’ll be completely disoriented and lash out at everything because it’s all new to her. Her instincts should tell her to head for higher ground, or for something familiar so she can secure food and shelter.”

“Right. I imagine her much like a toddler waking up from a coma. She’ll throw a tantrum, then try to work out what happened and her mood will stabilize. The only problem is that with all this chaos and such a large city, she could be practically anywhere at any time.”

“Matt,” Bianca said, pointing to the screen. “Look. They’ve got the choppers in the air finally.”

She hit the Mute button to disable it and the sound came rushing back into the room. The female news anchor still looked shell-shocked, but as if she’d finally gotten ahold of herself. “The Tokyo police and animal control have collaborated in a city-wide hunt for the creature, who has now claimed at least eleven lives with more than twice that injured according to a current report. Baba Yaga was last sighted in the Akihabara district, and now that air support has arrived, we are hoping that they’ll be able to subdue the creature before it can cause more damage.”

The anchorwoman faded out as the live news from a major Tokyo news channel dissolved in and showed the smoldering remains of the cars below, as well as plumes of smoke drifting up from burning buildings. The English translator said that these attacks happened within the last fifteen minutes, which led them to believe the dragon was still within the vicinity. The camera swept along the brightly lit skyline and over the traffic choking the city streets. People scurried away from the direction the helicopter was headed towards, some abandoning their cars, others rushing into nearby businesses to take cover.

At last, the camera swung up to a six-story building with bright orange and blue neon signs of the Sega logo and long glass windows above it. It focused intently at the roof where there appeared to be a dark shape. The helicopter’s spotlight splashed across glittering smoke-grey scales and then two bright yellow dots glowed like twin cinders in a mound of ashes.

Baba Yaga uncurled her long, titanic form and roared into the night.

The roar made the camera’s audio levels shriek from the sheer volume. It sounded like the blast from a thousand trumpets mixed with the bone-shaking growl of a crocodile. The hairs on Jack’s arms stood up beneath his shirt, and even thousands of miles away from the danger, he felt the urge to flee at the terrifying bellow.

The dragon fixed her citrine eyes on the helicopter and snarled as she crept towards the ledge of the GiGo Sega arcade building. Clear liquid dripped from her open jaws and burst into flames at her massive clawed feet. Greyish-brown webbed skin reflected light as she stretched her mammoth wings and leapt into the air, heading straight towards the camera.

Panicked voices spoke as the helicopter wheeled wildly to the right, seeking to get lost behind another building as the dragon gave chase. A man in SWAT gear shouted at the pilot to hold steady as he aimed a sniper rifle out of the open hatch, sighting down the barrel at the reptile as it glided after them. Baba Yaga belched a mouthful of fire that just barely missed the tail of the helicopter and the sniper gripped the edge of the door, grimacing as it ruined his shot.

The skyline tilted underneath them as the helicopter climbed higher above the city, hoping to get lost in the cirrus clouds in the night sky. The dragon vanished from sight a moment later and nothing but darkness billowed beneath them as they flew. The translator said they lost visual and would now rely on radar to stay out of the dragon’s reach. The camera man climbed towards the front seat and focused on the electric-green blips on the console, depicting an ominous blob following their position.

The sniper said he had a shot, and told the pilot not to change their course yet. He pulled the trigger. The camera man wheeled around to try to catch the footage, but was too late; nothing but darkness and clouds blurred past them. The pilot said she was outside of their radar and asked if the sniper could confirm that he’d hit his target. The sniper said he saw the dragon drop out of the air and grabbed his walkie-talkie to speak to his commanding officer.

A sharp beeping sound filled the cabin of the helicopter and the pilot threw his weight forward onto the joystick. They narrowly missed an enormous plume of fire as Baba Yaga came charging at them from below. It threw the sniper to one side and he lost his balance, clinging to the strap in the cabin as they fell a hundred feet within seconds. The camera man lost control of the set and it smashed against the floor of the cabin, lodged beneath one of the seats.

It gave everyone watching the chance to see Baba Yaga snatch the sniper out of the helicopter and bite him clean in half.

The feed abruptly cut there. The American anchorwoman returned, flustered and shaken, as she told everyone that they lost the signal.

“Gods,” Kamala whispered, bringing her hands up to her mouth.

“They have no idea what they’re up against,” Jack said, his mouth dry and his eyes wide. “We have to help them however we can.”

“However they’ll let us,” Matt said grimly. “You know where this is going to head, Jack. They’ll try to blame you for this, even if it’s not directly your fault.”

“Let them. I didn’t start this project to be an international hero. We can’t let this happen. It’ll start the dragon hunting wars all over again. What should we do?”

Matt massaged his sinuses. “We need to draft an official statement to let them know that we don’t condone the illegal experimentation on dragons and that we aren’t in any way connected to the resurrection of Baba Yaga. We will then meet with the authorities and see if we can offer some kind of consultation if they don’t catch her tonight, or within the next twenty-four hours. That’s all we can do.”

“What about the embassy?” Kamala asked. “They’ve been keeping tabs on the yakuza since we rescued Pete last month. Wouldn’t they be willing to hear us out?”

“It depends. What was the last story you heard from the feds related to the investigation?”

“They’re building case files, nothing more. The real work is being done by the Criminal Investigation Bureau of the Tokyo Metropolitan police department. All of the known associates of Kazuma Okegawa and Dr. Yagami Sugimoto have been imprisoned, but there are too many members of the Inagawa-kai and Yamaguchi-gumi who are in on the scheme of cloning the dragons. Still, this sounds like the work of the Sugimotos. They’re the only ones with technology to have produced Baba Yaga in only a month of acquiring our methodology.”

“That’s what I’m having trouble with,” Jack said, rubbing his face haggardly. “How the hell is she adult-sized? I checked the math. Baba Yaga was alive during the Triassic period. Most of the prevailing theories about her run parallel to that of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and they didn’t mature to their maximum size until the age of ten years or older. If we assume that she’s between a few weeks and a month old, she should only be the size of a rat. What the hell happened? She can’t have had the same genetic mutation that made Pete the size of a horse in just a week. That’s impossible.”

“Agreed,” Kamala said. “Something rotten is going on. I don’t think it had to do with the data they blackmailed out of us. I think we’ve uncovered some kind of conspiracy. Even if they catch Baba Yaga, that won’t be the end of it. There is bound to be more to it than just her.”

“Alright,” Matt said. “Kam, I need you to help me write this statement for the news. Jack, I need you to get on the phone with your contacts in the embassy to see if we can extend an olive branch. Bianca, can you keep an eye on the news while we work?”

“Of course.”

He kissed her cheek. “Thanks, babe.”

He scooped up the laptop and headed towards the dining room with Kamala while Jack stood and started pacing in the foyer as he searched through his phone for the right number. He’d just found it when his phone rang and the image of a brown-haired, hazel-eyed woman in her early fifties appeared. Jack winced and answered the call.

“Hey, Ma.”

“Oh God, Rhett,” Edith Jackson said, sounding near tears. “Baby, are you okay?”

“I’m alright,” he said softly. “Calm down.”

She sniffled. “I know you’re safe, but you saw that news report, right?”

“Yeah.”

“God-above, what happened? How did they bring that monster to life? Is it the people who stole your research?”

“More than likely.”

“Dammit. You know as well as I do what’s about to happen.”

“It’s not like I didn’t see it coming, Ma. Remember the Green Goblin in the first Spider-Man movie? I think he said something about the only thing that people love more than a hero is to see their hero fall from grace. They’ll have a field day with it in the media, but I can handle it. I never cared about my reputation to begin with. I’ve only cared about studying and preserving these animals for the benefit of mankind. No one said mankind was reasonable.”

“I know. It’s just that…God, you’ve been through so much already and now this. I can’t believe it.”

“Well, I remember a certain woman raised me to be strong, so I think I’ll be okay in the meantime. I’ve got a lot of work to do, but stay near your phone in the morning. I’ll give you and Dad an update as soon as I can.”

“Okay, honey. Be safe. I love you so much.”

“I love you too.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Anjali and I are deeply saddened and shocked by the tragedy that occurred in Tokyo tonight. We join everyone in mourning the loss of innocent lives and the sacrifices made by the brave souls of the Tokyo police department. We would also like to make it perfectly clear that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had nothing to do with the illegal replication and resurrection of seraphim tenebris, or more commonly known as the dragon Baba Yaga. Any experimentation that resulted from the fellowship project headed by our department at MIT is not sanctioned or considered acceptable by the law, and those responsible for this willful corruption of our project will be pursued by the authorities. We have offered full cooperation to Tokyo in order to see to it that this animal is captured and to ensure that no other lives will be lost as a result of her escape.”

Jack took a deep breath. “We will now answer just a few questions, but keep in mind that we are pressed for time as we try to resolve this matter as quickly as possible.”

The press swarmed forward along the steps to the MIT School of Science. Jack and Kamala stood beneath the massive pillars in the cold night air, both attempting to appear passive despite the multitude of microphones shoved in their faces and the bright lights from the local news cameras.

“Do these attacks at all change your mind about your project?”

“No. The purpose of this project is to educate and explore the unknown data related to dragons and their importance in relation to the preservation of endangered species. Whoever did this was careless and reckless with technology they likely stole from us in order to produce the dragon without any controls or measures to ensure the safety of the people of Tokyo.”

“Do you accept the responsibility that your project indirectly caused this incident?”

Jack clenched his jaw for a second before answering. “Do people ask Smith and Wesson to accept the responsibility of the thousands of people killed by guns every year? You’re being fast and loose with your logic there.”

Kamala gently rested her hand on the inside of his left wrist. He let the tension flow out of his rigid spine and settled his expression into blankness again.

“Dr. Jackson, a month ago the two of you traveled to Tokyo to rescue your own dragon. Will you do the same to track this dragon if the authorities are unable to catch it?”

“That is not up to us. We will cooperate with however they decide to go forward from here. After all, while Dr. Anjali and I have a broad knowledge about the various species of dragon, we aren’t experts in the field of dracology. I have a minor in the subject, but there are certainly more qualified minds than my own to assist in the capture of Baba Yaga.”

“To that end, what would you suggest that the authorities do to catch her?”

Jack paused and glanced at Kamala. She stepped forward, clearing her throat. “In our opinion, the key to an efficient capture of the dragon would lie in studying what we know of her species. Animals can be unpredictable when we know nothing about them, but there are a lot of solid theories about Baba Yaga that can prove useful to capturing her. For instance, knowing her behavior and her physiology might help narrow down where she will head next, now that she’s apparently left the city limits. Therefore, we urge the authorities to seek out the top minds in the world related to the field of dracology to narrow down how and where we can strike to end this incident without further loss of life.”

“Dr. Anjali, as a conservationist, do you think the authorities should attempt to take the dragon alive, or should it be destroyed?”

Jack’s fingers curled around her hand. He squeezed it slightly and nodded towards the side, silently urging her to avoid the question and leave with him. She bit her bottom lip and felt her heart hammering in her throat as the silence grew.

“Nature is not inherently evil,” she said finally. “It can be violent, but it is not of ill-intent. I would prefer if Baba Yaga were captured alive so that she can be appreciated for the powerful creature that she is and so that we may be humbled by nature as we were centuries ago when these animals still walked the earth.”

The press exploded with more questions, but Jack held out his other hand, raising his baritone voice amongst the rabble. “No further questions.”

He led her by the hand back down the steps through the crowd and out towards the parking lot, ignoring the flock of cameras and reporters in their wake.

Benjamin Apartments was one of the nicer places to live in the Cambridge area, but it didn’t look particularly friendly as Jack and Kamala pulled up to her building. There were already members of the press hovering near the curb, though curiously they were drenched in what appeared to be water. It was odd, considering it wasn’t raining. Jack wrapped his arm around Kamala and used his six-foot-two inch frame to bully through them as she withdrew her keys and let them in.

Jack pushed the front door shut and toed off his Cole Haans, raising an eyebrow as he noticed a bright blue bucket of water next to the door. “Do I even wanna know?”

“Of course you do,” a velvety female voice called from the kitchen to his right. “If those bastards want to intrude, they can do so soaking wet and freezing their nosy asses off.”

Jack smiled and shook his head as he stepped through the short hallway and into the open archway of the kitchen. It had split counters, a pantry straight ahead, with the stove to the right, and in front of it stood a tall, blonde woman currently making three margaritas.

In Jack’s mind, Faye Worthington looked like she belonged on the cover of Elle magazine: perfect legs that stretched for miles, sloping curves like the Andes mountains, periwinkle blue eyes, silky natural blonde hair, and perfect pink lips. She also had an IQ of 140, could reprogram a personal computer in less than thirty minutes, and threw a mean left hook.

Faye dusted sugar from her fingers and pulled Kamala into a long, comforting hug. The shorter girl melted into it without resistance and let go after a while with a sigh. “Are those for us?”

“Yep,” Faye said, dropping a lime slice into each glass. “I figured you could use one after the night you just had.”

Her blue eyes fell across Jack and she smirked slightly, nodding. “How’s it hanging, Stilts?”

“Awful and always to the left,” he said smoothly, scooping up a margarita and draining half of it in one go as she laughed.

“At least you’re being honest for once. I saw the press meeting. Brutal. That’s why I had no problem dousing those hyenas on our front porch all evening. Pricks.”

Jack shrugged. “It’s their job. No such thing as privacy in this society.”

“Or fair representation,” Faye said, sipping her own margarita. “Fox News is already painting Kamala as a ‘heartless traitor’ for saying they should try to take Baba Yaga alive.”

“Big shocker there,” Kamala said, fishing a Red Delicious apple out of the fridge. “I’m sure that’s not a biased opinion at all.”

“Right?” Faye frowned at her roommate. “What? No drink?”

Kamala shot a panicked look over at Jack, who jumped in immediately. “She had one at Matt’s place. Better not overdo it since we’ve got to get up early tomorrow.”

“Ah.” Faye shrugged. “More for me, then.”

Kamala suppressed the urge to sigh in relief. “On that note, we should get to bed. That way I have an excuse to avoid my parents telling me ‘I told you so’ until tomorrow. I think my father will probably fly here from Columbia University just to say it to my face.”

Faye patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry. I’ll have a bucket waiting for him too.”

Kamala laughed. “Thanks, saheli. You’re the best.”

She got up on her tiptoes and kissed Jack. “Don’t stay up much longer, you great useless pagal.”

He winked. “Wouldn’t dream of it, angel.”

She headed around the corner to her bedroom. Jack rummaged through the fridge for some leftover Pinocchio’s pizza. Faye leaned against the opposite counter watching him and polishing off her margarita.

“How are you holding up, Stilts?”

He shut the fridge door and found a paper plate, sliding a slice of tomato-basil pizza into the microwave. “Probably best if I don’t talk about it.”

“Why’s that?”

“It’ll ruin your opinion of me if I curl up into the fetal position and sob for several hours.”

Faye snorted. “That bad, huh?”

Jack shook his head as he watched the microwave plate slowly rotate. “Worse. I’ve been keeping it together for Kam’s sake, but I’m not in a good place right now. I might need something stronger than a margarita to get any sleep tonight.”

“No worries.” She opened the pantry and squatted, returning with a long glass bottle with a black label and gold font. She handed it to him and he gave it an appraising look.

“Johnnie Walker black label? Holy shit, Faye. These go for fifty bucks a pop.”

She shrugged. “Guilt present from my mom for missing my birthday. Just don’t go HAM on it, alright? I’m saving it for my own rainy day.”

He regarded her warily. “This is disturbingly nice of you. What’s the catch?”

Faye grinned toothily. “Why, Jack, I’m offended. Why would you immediately assume that there is a catch?”

Jack rolled his eyes. “Spill it already, blondie.”

“I have a dumb get-together tomorrow night that I need an escort to.”

“I don’t get it,” he said, getting two whiskey glasses out of the cupboard. “Why can’t you ask one of your usual Man Candy victims to take you?”

“None of them are of the right pedigree,” Faye sniffed, watching him pour the amber liquid. “I need someone who can fake being a gentleman for about an hour. None of them could even come close. You’re decent looking and you can actually carry on an intelligent conversation for more than five minutes, so you’re all I’ve got.”

Jack handed her a glass. “That’s probably the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me. I might cry.”

She sipped the whiskey. “Don’t expect to ever hear it again. So are you game or do I have to go rent a male prostitute?”

Jack snorted into the glass. “If I’m still around, yeah, fine. I’ll be your arm candy.”

“Thanks. Don’t worry. It won’t all be bad. I’ll wear a low cut dress and everything.”

“Damn. That’s what I was gonna do.”

Faye sprayed a bit of whiskey and Jack grinned as she started coughing and turning pink. She glared and wiped her mouth. “You did that on purpose.”

He drained the tumbler and set it down on the counter before heading towards Kamala’s bedroom. “Payback’s a bitch, blondie.”

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