can’t feel my toes any—”

“I’ll throw in a picnic.”

My head came up. “What?”

“I hid a basket this morning. After the test, I’ll take you to it.”

“It’ll be cold by now.”

“I left it with a warmer,” he said drily. Because war mages ate their fried chicken frozen to the ground and they liked it.

God. Fried chicken, potato salad, baked beans, maybe some apple pie or cookies for dessert—yeah. I could so use a picnic right about now.

“All right,” I agreed, faster than I should have. But I really was hungry. “No time travel.”

“You’re sure? Because when I win—”

If you win.”

“—you’ll stay until you’ve run the entire course. And you won’t whine about it.”

“I don’t whine!”

“Then we have a deal?”

“I guess so,” I said, trying to sound reluctant.

“Good,” he told me pleasantly.

And then he let go.

A couple of hours later, I staggered into the Vegas hotel suite I currently called home and face-planted onto the sofa. There was already someone sitting there, but I didn’t care. I was too tired to even open my eyelids and find out who it was.

Until someone pried one open for me with a finger the size of a hot dog. “Rough day?”

I rotated my eyeball—and, goddamnit, even that hurt—to see the leader of my bodyguards peering at me.

“No. I like being dropped from airplane height without a parachute.”

Marco patted me on the ass, which I guess was fair, since I was draped over his lap. “You seem all right to me.”

Marco, I reflected sourly, was getting awfully blasé where my health was concerned. He’d started out assuming that I was as squishy as most humans, and practically had a heart attack every time I got a hangnail. But after seeing me survive a few dozen attacks, he’d started to relax. These days, if I didn’t come in with a gaping wound or spewing blood, I didn’t get much sympathy.

“Because I managed to shift to the ground before I splattered on it!” I told him testily.

“Then what’s the problem?”

I turned over so I could scowl at him. “The problem is that I just ran a marathon in freezing weather with a maniac chasing me.”

“Why didn’t you just”—he waved the ham-sized hand that went with his bear-sized body—“you know. Poof.”

“You mean shift?”

“Yeah. Why didn’t you shift?”

“I did! But Pritkin expected that, and he borrowed Jonas’s necklace.”

“What necklace?”

I sighed and sat up. “It’s some sort of charm that allows him to recall the Pythia in times of emergency. As soon as I try to shift, wherever I am, whenever I am, it pulls me back.” As Pritkin had known when he made that bet, damn him.

God, I wished I kneed him in the nuts.

Marco seemed to think that was funny, which didn’t improve my mood. I got up and limped into the next room, still freezing cold and starving to death. Because Pritkin’s idea of a picnic left a lot to be desired.

But my bathroom didn’t. I knew it was stupid, but my bathroom made me happy. Maybe it was the size— which was huge bordering on sinful—or the soothing white and blue color scheme, or the rain forest showerhead over the Godzilla-sized tub. Or maybe it was because it was the one place in the whole damn suite where I could actually be alone.

Marco wasn’t the problem. Over the last month, he’d gone from treating me like a burdensome pest to treating me like a slightly bratty younger sister, and most of the time, I found myself actually enjoying his company. But Marco was the tip of the iceberg where my bodyguards were concerned. And they’d only been growing in number since the date of the inauguration had been announced.

Everyone assumed there would be an attack. Even I assumed it. The supernatural world was at war, and killing off the opposite side’s leadership was SOP. And whether I liked it or not, the Pythia was seen as one of our side’s more important assets. Which explained Pritkin’s stepped-up attempts to make me suck slightly less at self- defense, and the dozen or so golden-eyed master vamps constantly patrolling the suite.

They were there for my protection; I knew that. But it didn’t make them any less creepy. They watched me eat. They watched me drink. They watched me watch goddamned TV. They even watched me sleep. I’d woken up more than once to find one of them just standing in the doorway of my bedroom, staring at me, like it was a perfectly normal thing to do.

If it hadn’t been for my bathroom, I really might have lost it.

Too bad I couldn’t sleep in there.

Marco stuck his head in the door as I was running hot water into my lovely big tub. “You need anything? ’Cause I go off duty in a couple.”

“Food,” I said, shrugging out of my coat.

“What kind?”

“Anything. As long as it isn’t good for me.”

He nodded and ducked out when I started to pull off my T-shirt. It was far too flimsy for where I’d been, but the saying on the front fit my mood perfectly: “I keep hitting escape, but I’m still here.” I tossed it on a pile with the coat, my stiff-with-cold jeans and the expensive scrap of silk that had been wedged up my ass for the past half hour. Then I slowly climbed into the tub.

Oh, God.


It was actually a little too hot, but I figured the amount of ice clinging to me ought to even things out. I added a generous amount of bath salts, found my pillow under some towels and let my head sag back against the tub. After a few moments, my muscles began to unclench and my spine sagged in relief, and I seriously began to wonder if sleeping here was such a bad idea after all.

I think maybe I did drift off for a while. Because the next thing I knew, I was at the pink and pruney stage, the mirrors were all fogged up and the water was no longer hot. And a ghost was sitting by the tub, staring at me.

I’d have been more concerned, but this was a ghost I knew. I grabbed a towel and shot him a look; I don’t know why. Billy didn’t worry about his numerous vices. He’d cheated death like he’d cheated at cards in life, and he intended to keep it up. That made his morality a bit of a mixed bag, since he never intended to answer for any of it, anyway.

With an insubstantial finger, he pushed up the Stetson he’d been wearing for the past century and a half. “I’ve seen it before,” he told me with an exaggerated leer.

“Then why are you looking?”

“’Cause I’m dead, not senile?”

I threw the sponge at him, which did no good, because it passed right through and hit the wall. “I can’t feed you yet,” I said. “Not until I eat.”

Billy and I had a long-standing arrangement, dating from the time I’d picked up the necklace he haunted in a junk shop at the age of seventeen. I donated the living energy it took to keep him feeling frisky, and he did little errands for me in return. At least, he did if I complained enough.

He stretched denim-covered legs out in front of him, as if on an invisible sofa. “Can’t a guy drop by without you immediately assuming—” He caught my expression and gave it up. “Okay, I’ll wait.”

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