Change of Heart by Hailey Edwards

One

Ayoung girl, maybe eight or nine, greeted me at the only unlocked door. Her dark hair was braided tight against her skull, the tail tucked into the collar of her shirt, and she wore a fitted tee with two crossed cartoon swords appliqued on the front. She paired it with loose pajama bottoms, tiny bare feet, and a feral glare that dared me to underestimate her.

Warg.

Definitely warg.

“What do you want?” She blocked the entrance to the gymnasium the Lollybrook Women’s Shelter rented once a month with her small—but fierce—body. “Well, lady?” She jerked her chin toward the sidewalk. “If you’re looking for Thin Mints, there’s a Girl Scout troop with nothing better to do than take your money three doors down.”

A smile tickled the corner of my mouth, but I kept it off my face. “I’m looking for Midas Kinase.”

“Ugh.” She rolled her eyes. “You’re one of them.”

Though I could guess, I still asked, “Them?”

“We call them his fan club.” Her laugh was short and mean and made her hard eyes glitter. “They come to watch him teach and hope they’ll get chosen as his partner.”

The shadow at my feet coiled in response to my unexpected spike in temper. “I see.”

“You’re wasting your time.” She bared her teeth. “And mine.” She glared. “The class is almost over.”

“He left his phone at my place.” I reached into my pocket. “I need to give it back to him.”

“Sure, he did.” She shook her head. “Like I haven’t heard that one before.”

Pushing out a slow exhale, I tried again. “Tell him his girlfriend is here.”

I almost choked on the word, but it was guaranteed to snag his attention. It sure got hers.

“You really want me to embarrass you like that?” She glanced behind her, inviting me to do the same, as if I might have somehow missed the standing-room-only basketball court layered in thick mats. “In front of all these people?”

All those craning necks, scrunched brows, and thinned lips curious about me? All those yearning hopefuls praying he would tap their shoulder and ask if he could put his hands on them? All those women without a single shadow darkening their eyes who made a mockery of his dedication because this space was open to the public?

Heck yes.

“Yeah.” I bared my own teeth. “I do.”

“All right.” She propped the door open with its built-in kickstand but held up her hand. “Wait here.”

“Sure thing.”

The girl pivoted on her heel and marched into the packed gymnasium with starch in her spine that made my chest ache. She was a tough kid, and I respected that. But it made me want to break the world’s face for roughing her up so young.

Without her barring my access, I got a clear picture of the chaotic scene and wished I hadn’t.

No seats were available in the bleachers. Not a one. Women stood shoulder to shoulder on the polished floor, their shoes pressed into the mats as they shuffled closer and closer to the action.

Most of the crowd wore flashy clothing and carefully applied makeup. Jewelry. They weren’t dressed to participate. They were here for one reason, and one reason only.

One blond-haired, blue-eyed reason dressed in a sweat-soaked wifebeater and loose jogging pants.

Midas paused in leading a group of rail-thin girls with lank hair and haunted eyes through a kata when he spotted the pint-sized bouncer en route.

“Midas,” she said, her voice loud enough to carry. “Your girlfriend is here.”

An invisible hand pressed a cosmic mute button, and the chatter in the gym died a swift death.

Nostrils flaring, Midas whipped his head toward the doorway where I stood.

And he smiled.

Like I was the only person in the world.

Like the dozens of onlookers no longer existed for him.

Like I had made his whole night by showing up out of the blue.

A tremor in my knees warned me I was in over my head with him and sinking fast, but I held my ground.

“Wait.” The girl scrunched up her nose. “She’s really your girlfriend?”

The kid looked me up and down, a frank assessment of the results from running five miles after I woke at dusk.

Sweaty blonde hair curled beneath a discount Atlanta Braves ball cap. Stains darkened the underarms of a thrift store tank top. Bleach splotched my ripped leggings. Mismatched socks peeked out above the ratty heels of unbranded sneakers with holes in both toes. A rusty safety pin kept the left strap on my sports bra from unraveling. And, the pièce de résistance, a pimple dead center in my forehead, large enough to be my third eye.

This level of sexy couldn’t be taught. Either you were born with it, or you died trying.

Dozens of gazes fell on me, assessing and dismissing me as a potential rival, as the women waited for him to blow me off and get back to teaching.

“You forgot your phone.” I held it up, pinched between two fingers. “Figured you might want it back.”

With the debt we owed Natisha hanging over us, our phones were our lifelines.

Ford was worth the astronomical debt we incurred with the vicious old fae, but I dreaded paying up.

Seven hearts.

Still beating.

Goddess.

“Excuse me,” Midas told the girls, then appointed one to continue the exercise. He raked his long fingers through his damp and wavy hair then loped over to me. “You didn’t have to bring it all the way down here.”

“I was in the neighborhood.” I bit the inside of my cheek. “Like two-thirds of the women in that gym.”

That dangerous smile of his turned predatory. “Jealous?”

“You’re the one with a raging crush on me.” I rolled a shoulder. “I keep you around because it’s cute.”

The flash of his teeth set my stomach quivering as he leaned in. “You think I’m cute?”

“I didn’t say you.” I pricked his princely ego. “Your crush.” I watched him deflate. “That’s what’s cute.”

A low growl rumbled through his chest, but the pint-sized bouncer jostled him aside for a better view.

“She’s really your girlfriend?” Eyes narrowed, she squinted between us. “Like for real?”

“Hadley Whitaker, this is Dani.” He squeezed her narrow shoulder, a quick flex of his fingers, but neither looked wholly comfortable with it. “She helps us keep out the riffraff.” He didn’t hesitate as he locked gazes with me. “Dani Freidman, this is Hadley, my girlfriend.”

The title from his lips pooled cold sweat in the small of my back. The coldest. Downright arctic. Antarctic.

Midas Kinase was my boyfriend.

Hecate be merciful.

“Hadley. Whitaker.” Dani’s mouth fell open. “The Hadley Whitaker?” She clung to Midas’s arm, her nails leaving crescents in his skin. “The next Potentate of Atlanta Hadley Whitaker?”

The clear view of her tonsils freaked me out a little. “That’s what it says on my underwear.”

Midas wiped a hand down his face, but he wasn’t quick enough to erase the beginnings of a smile.

“I’m your biggest fan,” Dani gushed, the tough shell around her cracking to reveal the little girl sheltered beneath all that life experience. “I didn’t recognize you, I swear, or I wouldn’t have hassled you.”

“No worries.” I tipped the brim of my baseball cap at her. “I’m incognito.”

That sounded better than a literal hot mess, given the steaming temperature.

“You’re badass.” She wriggled past Midas to stand between us. “I saw you fight a chupacabra once.”

Wincing at how that ended, with its head at my feet, I really wished she hadn’t. “I get that a lot.”

“I want to be just like you.” That tough outer shell hardened once more, protecting her vulnerable inner self. “No one would mess with me if I carried two swords like you do.”

“There’s more to being potentate than carrying swords.”

A vicious gleam made her eyes shine. “Like cutting off heads?”

“Yes.” I palmed my forehead. “I mean, no.” I rubbed the spot between my eyes. “That’s part of it, but it’s not the important part.”

“I would protect people too.” She left the duh unsaid, but I heard it loud and clear. “Would you, maybe, show me how?” She examined her grimy feet. “You’re busy and stuff, and way too important, but Midas helps out, so I thought you might come with him.”

With a kid this frank, I wanted us on the exact same page. “How to…?”

“Use a sword. Oh! Or maybe two swords. How long did it take you to learn? How long did it take you to get good? Did you cut yourself? A lot? Do you think I’ll cut myself? Will you make me sign a waiver? Am I old enough to sign a waiver? I saw Mom working a corner on Peachtree last week. I can probably bribe her to sign with a chocolate bar.”

“Breathe, kid.” I cut her off before she ran out of oxygen. “I’m working a case right now, but I’ll see what I can do after it’s solved.” I cut my boyfriend a sharp look. “Maybe I’ll start coming down here with Midas.”

“That would be amazing.” She bounced on her feet. “Do you mean it?”

“Cross my heart.” I made the gesture to seal the deal. “Mind if I borrow him for a second?”

“No problem.” She backed up a step. “I get it.” She made finger quotes. “You guys want to talk.”

Dani shot back into the gym, closing the inner doors behind her to give us more privacy.

“I like her.” I passed over his phone before I forgot. “She’s doesn’t take crap from anyone, huh?”

“Dani is my first line of defense.” He woke his cell to check his messages. “She’s a good kid.”

A wrinkle formed between his eyebrows, and he angled the screen so we could read the first text and then the second and then the third together.

>>You two have put me off long enough.

>>I expect you and Hadley at dinner.

>>Wednesday night.

When Tisdale Kinase, the alpha of the Atlanta gwyllgi pack, invites you to a family dinner to discuss your intentions toward her only son and heir, you accept. Unless you’re me. Then you fake the flu for a week. This gave me three days to relapse or think up a better lie.

“Does that read as attendance optional to you?” I angled my head. “That’s how I interpret it.”

“Hadley.”

“Fine,” I huffed. “Tell her royal highness I’ll see her then.”

Most Atlantans called Midas the pack prince for good reason, so the title wasn’t a stretch.

Thumbs flying over the screen, he edited my response to make it alpha—and mother—appropriate.

“Momma’s boy,”I coughed into my fist then cleared my throat. “Must be those darn allergies again.”

Midas didn’t rise to the bait, which was a pity, but he did flash me her response.

>> Steak or chicken?

“Is this a wedding rehearsal?” I joked then sobered when he didn’t laugh. “Midas?”

“We’ll go with steak.” He fired off one last text then pocketed his cell. “See you later.”

“Midas.”

“I’ll bring home dinner.”

“Midas.”

“Be safe out there.”

“Midas.”

He backed through the door and shut it behind him with a soft click.

A pathetic imitation of a gwyllgi snarl curled my lip as I raised my fist to pound on the door, or on him.

“Forget Prince Charming,” a snarky voice rang out behind me. “I got a hot tip you’re going to love.”

A hard jerk was as far as I let my startled jump make it before I crushed the impulse flat.

Ambrose, however, glided across the pavement in an oily slick that puddled beneath Remy.

Tonight she paired shredded black tights underneath a sparkly black leotard topped with a frilly neon-green tutu. Her combat boots weighed more than she did, and she had added spiked metal studs to the toes since I saw her last. A lace half glove covered her left hand, and her nails had that glow-in-the-dark murky tint to them. Her makeup matched, and there was a lot of it.

“The eighties called.” I mimed holding up a phone. “They want Madonna back.”

“Midas is right about one thing.” She bared her needlelike teeth. “You’re not funny.”

Ambrose bounced his shoulders in mocking laughter that made me want to stab him.

More than usual.

“He smiles at my jokes.” I buffed my nails on my tank top. “He even laughed once.”

“He also wants in your pants.” She snorted. “I could fake a giggle if it got me laid too.”

I almost said Midas isn’t ready for what’s in my pants, but I didn’t want to give her ammo to use against him.

Aside from snuggles, nibbles, and smooches that left me hot and him bothered—if the hardness where his hips tucked against my backside were any indication—sleep was all we had done together. So far.

“Walk with me.” I waved her on. “I need to get home and shower.”

“No time.” She mashed a button on her cell that had mine chiming with an incoming text. “You’ll have to go as is.”

“Go?” After wrestling my phone free of my armband, I pulled up our thread. “Where?”

“I forwarded the deets I got from Seven.” She snapped out a mock salute then started walking backward down the craggy sidewalk. “I’ve got to get to work.” She grinned. “So do you.”

Remy was fae. A macalla, if you wanted to get technical. Or simply an echo in layman’s terms. She could split herself into eight sentient halves, or halves of halves, or halves of halves of halves, as the case may be. Make that seven, since Eight had been reabsorbed into the collective upon her death.

In addition to taking over my Peachy Keen Sheets kiosk at the mall, Remy dispatched her other selves on intel-gathering missions across the city to give me more time to focus on nailing my POA apprenticeship.

Goddess knows, I needed all the help I could get with the witchborn fae coven still at large and Natisha’s bargain hanging over our heads.

And that became doubly true after I skimmed the information she sent.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

From down the empty sidewalk, I swore I heard her laughing.