Paige

This short story is about Paige, the Human Coterie leader. She’s appeared in almost all of the books for the Enforcers and Coterie series.

Paige stared at the intimidating mage before her. She lifted her chin a hair, refusing to back down. While she was a fraction of his age, she would one day have more power and control then he ever would. If she backed down now, he would never respect her or her orders.

Not that he’d follow her orders in this moment. She was one of many trainees – new hopefuls for the Human Coterie leader spot. And if she didn’t control the need to cringe when he gazed at her like she was beneath him, then she didn’t deserve the position.

And she would one day rule, no matter what this man thought.

“Why are you blocking my way?” she demanded, glaring at the black-eyed mage. A tiny flame of reddish-orange fire flared in his irises and she backed up, unable to stop herself.

She’d heard of this mage. Everyone in her training class had and they’d all been warned to never, under any circumstances, anger him. And if fire appeared in his eyes – run.

A ghost of a smile chased away the stern demeanour although the black hadn’t returned to his irises. They remained hidden behind the flames.

“I’m to escort you to the meeting place. Have you teleported before?” His voice matched his features, stern and forbidding. Paige now understood why the other female trainees drooled over him. His ice-cold exterior made a woman fantasize about thawing him out.

The mage did nothing for her. Paige’s heart already belonged to another. One whose promise ring rested on her left index finger. She rubbed the tiny ruby, and ducked her chin, hiding the smile Lee brought to her face.

“Yes, I have. Several times, in fact,” she said, exaggerating her familiarity with the spell. She’d never had the opportunity and wouldn’t admit her novice status to this legendary mage.

He placed a hand on her shoulder and she stayed still, which took every ounce of her willpower. A gleam of approval softened his face.

Ozone slammed into her nostrils, and tears blurred her vision.

Teleportation required a ton of magical energy, and the overwhelming stench proved it. Each spell, from what she’d gleaned, was accompanied by the acidic smell. Simple spells, though, created only a hint of ozone, as if a thunderstorm had rolled through.

As a human, she wouldn’t experience any of it firsthand. Magic didn’t flow in her blood and never would. Some days it seemed more of a hassle than anything. She liked, for the most part, being fully human. She would live her life, grow old, and die.

There was a satisfying order to it, an expectation that she would eventually breathe her last breath and join those before her in eternal rest.

A strange outlook for one her age, barely yet twenty, but she took comfort in it. And if life treated her right, she would have Lee by her side until they both passed away from old age.

Paige glanced at the stern mage next to her, his harsh features at home in their new surroundings. A mansion, gothic and gloomy, stood before them. Black bricks, dark grey shutters, and curtained windows all added to the chilling atmosphere. A puff of smoke drifted from one of the chimneys before dissipating into the hazy blue sky.

“The group awaits you inside. You’re the last to arrive, so don’t dawdle.” The mage nodded towards the main doors, then vanished.

Adjusting her plain cotton t-shirt and running fingers through her chin-length hair, Paige strode to the door. Shoulders back, chin up, she assumed the posture of a future leader. Though several others jockeyed for the same position, one day she would lead. Her desire for power demanded success at all costs.

***

Paige released an irritated sigh, pushing out her aggravation towards the other hopefuls. They’d spent more time squabbling and checking each other out than discussing the future of the humans.

She shook her head.

Childish high-schoolers who couldn’t grasp the vastness of the Coterie, or the position they vied for. Though they all were, in truth, just out of high school, none of them had ever had a normal life.

Since a young age, Paige and her compatriots had been groomed for leadership. When the Human Coterie leader for the Americas either retired or died, she would step into that position. Today proved that the others didn’t understand the enormity of it. They wanted to flirt, fight, and act like carefree teenagers.

Morons.

She squinted against the setting sun and basked in its fading rays. The large meeting room had been drafty and cold, unusual given the time of year. A mage spell, perhaps?

With another shake of her head, she dismissed the thought. Made no difference in the long run. She had other matters to concern herself with, such as the missing humans in her neighbourhood. Paige had already brought the matter up to Marvin, the current leader, and he said he’d look into it. A fluff-off if she’d ever heard one.

Arms wrapped around her and Paige instinctively snuggled against the chest at her back. Warmth radiated from the hard muscles and she rested her head on his shoulder, her tension dissolving away.

“Hey sexy lady. Did you miss me?” Lee asked, his breath fanning across her cheek.

She giggled like a damn schoolgirl with her crush, but Paige refused to hide behind a tough exterior when it came to Lee. He alone knew everything about her. Hell, they’d been friends most of their lives and had dated for the past five years. Childhood sweethearts, everyone called them.

“Of course I missed you. Who else is willing to hug me when I need one?” Her question wasn’t rhetorical. Paige exuded a “don’t fuck with me” vibe, one that had gotten her into trouble several times. Didn’t help that she refused to back down. Her vibe matched her personality.

“I’ll always hug you.”

From anyone else, she would’ve scoffed at his sappy answer. Instead she melted deeper into his embrace. His lips pressed against the top of her head and his fingers feathered along her bare arms. She shivered at the sensation, and he chuckled.

“Why are you here?” she asked. “This was a meeting for the trainees.”

He shrugged, his chest shifting with the movement.

“Dunno. Some mage brought me here. The teleport was awesome, but smelled damn gross. I swear, I’ll have rotten eggs in my nose for weeks.”

Paige twisted in his arms and clasped her hands behind his back. A quick peck on his chin.

“So you’re my surprise? How sweet.”

His lips curved into a wide grin, lighting up his hazel eyes. “Yep, and I even brought you supper. Your favourite, too, pasta with tomato and spinach in a creamy garlic sauce. With some pumpkin pie for dessert made fresh by my mom.”

She fluttered her lashes and pretended to swoon. “Oh how I love your mother. When I grow up, I’m gonna marry her.”

“Good luck stealing her from my dad,” Lee said with a laugh, then kissed the tip of her nose. “Now come with me, my beautiful lady. It’s time to eat.”

Hands clasped together, Paige matched Lee’s easy, unhurried gait. When they reached their destination, a giddy giggle bubbled from her lips, and she gazed at him with a sappy grin.

“You did all this for me?”

“Who else would I do it for?” he drawled, underplaying the romantic scene spread out before them.

A fuzzy orange blanket covered a small section of the grass, close enough to the creek so they could see and hear the babbling water, but far enough away that they wouldn’t tread through mud. Plates waited on the blanket near an oversized wicker picnic basket and a bouquet of dark purple Canterbury Bells exploded from a green glass vase. Fake candles flickered in the waning light, casting a seductive haze over the display.

The colours should have clashed – orange, green, brown, and purple – instead each item brought a rush of memories. Her favourite blanket she’d worn into nothingness, the wicker basket they’d used for their first picnic when they were small kids, her mom’s green vase Paige had accidently broken, and her favourite flower.

Tears gathered in her eyes and she swiped them away.

“This is wonderful, thank you.” She tugged at his hand, eager for some food and time alone with Lee to wash away the stress and irritation the meeting had caused.

Sitting cross-legged, Lee brought out the pie first and winked at her. “Dessert first, then supper. Don’t want to miss out, right?”

“Hell, no. Gimme!” She held out her plate, waiting for a slice.

The trees behind Lee rustled, and Paige leaned past him. One of the other trainees crashing their private time? She’d rip a strip off the interloper…

Paige opened her mouth, a scathing retort on the tip of her tongue. The words remained unspoken as a figure rushed at Lee’s back, digging fingers into his shoulders, and knocking Lee to the ground. The vase skittered across the ground, scattering Canterbury Bells and water onto the blanket.

Snapping out of her shocked daze, Paige lunged for the monster clinging to her boyfriend. An easy backhand flung her into the air and she slammed onto her back, the wind forced from her lungs. Moments later, she struggled upright, ignoring her protesting muscles.

Save Lee, protect him. This is your job, your duty. Save Lee, protect him. The mantra ran through her mind, lending strength to her feeble human body. She had no magic, no tricks for defeating one who outclassed her, but she refused to give up. Lee’s life depended on her.

Scanning the area around them, she spied a tree branch near her and grabbed it.

Lessons on killing each race flicked through her mind. Demons had to be banished, silver was poison to werewolves while cold iron harmed the Fae, mages and humans were the more fragile races and easier to kill.

A vampire, the one she faced now, could be slowed by staking his heart, but only beheading would kill him, so she’d slam the tree branch into his chest and then run like hell with Lee. There were swords in the mansion’s drawing room.

Paige leapt towards the struggling duo. Lee grappled with the vampire’s hands, trying vainly to loosen the monster’s hold on him. Blood dripped down Lee’s neck, staining his shirt, and the vampire tilted his head, attempting another bite.

Unadulterated fury swept through her as pointed teeth neared his flesh and Paige circled around the pair. She slammed the branch through the creature’s back, aiming for the heart. She’d been trained on the multiple ways of piercing a fighting vampire’s heart. The creature screeched in rage, but instead of letting go, he dug his teeth in deeper, ripping off a large chunk of Lee’s neck and blood spurted across the orange blanket.

She pummelled the vampire’s head, desperate for him to let go. Her breath came in ragged pants as terror pounded through her, lending impossible power to her limbs. The creature tossed her away as if she were an annoying fly bothering him.

Her head whacked against the hard ground and her eyesight dimmed. Muttering vicious curses, Paige willed her body to move, demanded it, but the pain overwhelmed her. A muffled shout, one filled with agony and fading life, seared her and she rolled to her side.

She closed her eyes for a moment against the sight before her.

Lee, her beautiful, laughing Lee, lay on the blanket surrounded by crushed Canterbury Bells. Blood trickled from his torn throat, spreading across the now-stained orange.

Scrambling to his side, slipping when her body wouldn’t obey her commands, Paige pressed her hands against his neck and screamed for help, willing for him to hold on. She couldn’t carry him to the house and had no magic to save his life.

“Love . . . you . . .” Lee breathed out and his chest stopped moving. A piecing wail broke from Paige as her world crumbled around her. She slumped against him, hands still desperately trying to stem his departure.

Pounding feet and loud voices competed with the wounded sound ravaging Paige’s throat.

“Holy fuck –”

“– happened here?’

“Get a mage!”

***

“I’m sorry, Paige. I have reason to believe Lee was targeted to undermine you. So far, you’ve shown the most strength out of all the trainees. Someone doesn’t want you in power and murdered him to break you.” The black-eyed mage’s words held an emotionless void, as if he hadn’t shredded her heart, and yet an odd understanding shone in his eyes.

Her fault. Her fault Lee died.

Paige squared her shoulders, tilted her chin, and said, “I will find out who did this and make them pay. They haven’t defeated me.”

But now she had a game to play. Let them think they won. Show the world a meek woman, one who held a position of power because she was a puppet.

And then when the opportunity appeared, she’d strike like a vicious viper.

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