Sam’s office wasn’t the most pristine I’d ever seen, but it certainly wasn’t the messiest, either.

She sat at a metal desk that leaned a little to the left, clearly nearing the limit of its lifespan, her eyebrows pinched as she scrawled something in a notebook. I stood in the doorway for a long moment, silent while I watched her. My chest twisted with the urge to draw one finger down the wrinkle between her brows, down the length of her nose, and tap at the middle of her full lips.

I imagined she would look up at me with brown eyes wide, lips parted as a shaky breath escaped. The fantasy might’ve gone further than the soft expression on her face if someone hadn’t coughed behind me. Startled, I found myself four feet from my original spot and standing beside and slightly behind Christine. She gasped, clasping a hand to her chest, before chuckling self-deprecatingly.

“Oh my goodness, you scared me!” she said, smiling at me.

A few different responses streamed through my mind. Options ranging from “you started it” to “and yet, you’re still here.”

I settled on, “My apologies.”

She waved her hand, blonde hair swinging at her chin. “No, it’s my own fault. I’m sure I startled you first. I certainly didn’t intend to sneak up on you, but you looked quite deep in thought.”

I glanced at Sam, still sitting at her desk and utterly in her own world, before turning back to Christine.

“I’m just tired. Sam wanted to talk to me before I left, so…” I trailed off, gesturing to the door.

“Of course! Please, go right ahead,” she said, still smiling.

I didn’t love that she kept smiling. It didn’t feel a threat, exactly. It just couldn’t be normal for a human to smile like that. I tried to return the expression, but I was pretty sure it looked more like a grimace. Giving up, I walked into the office, and gave Sam a nod when her head shot up.

As I sat down across from her, I realized that Christine had followed me in.

Oh, I definitely didn’t love that.

She sat in the chair next to me, crossing her legs and taking a gingerly sip of her coffee. ComRes didn’t have the worst coffee, but it did not deserve the little moan she let out.

Immediately, a flush climbed up her neck, drawing my eye. She chuckled a little, saying, “Sorry. I haven’t had coffee in a week, and even the thickest sludge would be a blessing for me right now.”

Sam grinned, and held up her own mug. “I completely understand.”

The white porcelain proclaimed, “I’m not sorry for what I said before I was caffeinated.” Having interacted with her before her cup of coffee, I could say it was an accurate statement piece.

Sam turned to me, her grin fading. Damn it, I didn’t like that. I wanted her to smile at me. I shifted in my seat, shoving the disappointment away. You would think I'd be used to this, but here we were. 

“Sorry, Seville, I hadn’t actually introduced the two of you. This is Christine Ford. She’s a delegate from the Oversight Board.”

The Oversight Board was exactly what it said on the tin; they oversaw ComRes and its operations. Made sure we were doing what we were supposed to, and communicated with the local residents, who voted the board members in, to make sure our programs reflected what the people needed.

We did the legwork, and they made sure we knew where to go, what to do, and how to do it. And if someone did something wrong...well, they took care of that. 

“Okay.” I didn’t have anything else to say about it. I was relatively certain I hadn’t done anything that would require them to send someone to reprimand me, so there had to be something else.

“Don’t worry,” Christine interjected, turning to me. “I’m not here because anyone has done anything wrong. This branch of CRN is just due for a check-in, and we have some policies that have been voted on recently that we need to implement.”

“So, she’ll just be sitting in on meetings with as many of us as she can while she’s here,” Sam said. “But I wanted to talk to you about Frankie before you left for the night.”

I nodded. “Yeah, I figured that was the case.”

“How did a relocation turn into you coming back with a random orphan?”

Shrugging, I said, “Like I said before, she helped me approach Rhyun, the troll. I wasn’t about to leave her there on her own.”

“I should hope not,” she murmured, her eyes going distant before snapping back to me. I felt pinned by the intensity of her gaze for a breath. “It’s not hard to tell that she’s imprinted on you, Seville.”

The urge to roll my eyes was strong, but Frankie’s lost look as I left her in the hosting room flashed in my head, and I knew I couldn’t argue the point.

“Yeah, I’m aware,” was all I could say.

“Genie is great, and I know they’ll do their best for Frankie,” Sam said. She sighed, and rubbed at her shoulder with one hand, her eyes averted from me. “But if she relies on you, and you…”

I froze, my brow tightening, and looked at her sharply. “What? What does that mean?”

Her lips pursed, and I could hear the words she hadn’t said.

She expected me to bail on the kid.

And...guilt pricked inside my chest, thinking back on my original plan to do exactly that only hours before. Obviously, I had changed my mind, but it did hurt that this was what Sam expected from me.

Frankly, she doesn’t know me well enough to make this assumption, I thought. She hadn't bothered to get to know me well enough. 

Maybe if I hadn’t been feeling quite so insulted, I would’ve understood that her concern was for the kid, and not a commentary on her opinion of me. But I was insulted, and I needed to escape that gross, tight feeling in my chest as soon as possible. General rejection was one thing, but this ... this hurt. 

“Nevermind. I know exactly what that means,” I said quietly. She looked back at me, regret in her eyes as she caught my tone. 

"Seville, I'm --" 

I held up a hand, and, gritting my teeth, I stood up. I made my way to the door, and paused.

“I’ve already told the kid I’d see her tonight. And for the record, I don’t make promises I don’t intend to keep.”

“Seville --”

The door closed behind me.

Ollie was waiting for me when I walked into the foyer, a thirty minute drive later. Leaning against the curved banister in the hall, she tapped the smartwatch on her wrist, raising a brow at me.

I took a moment to admire her look for the evening before closing the front door. Where my sense of style could be described as “jock femme” (or “jemme” as she had once delightedly informed me) -- all function over fashion -- Ollie was the definition of goth femme. She was a fat, black, bombshell, and she gloried in it. It was one of my favorite things about her.

Her shaved head highlighted the sharpness of her cheekbones, the impeccable winged eyeliner, and the vibrant tattoos on her rich brown skin that descended from under her chin and disappeared under her clothes, reappearing at her exposed tummy and thick thighs. Today, she wore an off-the-shoulders black cropped sweater under a pentagram-shaped harness and a short red plaid skirt. She was only 5’1”, but the knee-high platform boots gave her an extra four inches. Watching her walk in them was terrifying.

“You’re not old enough to be out so early, cottontail,” she said, crossing her arms under her ample chest.

I wanted to growl at her, but I didn’t want to take out my frustration about Sam on her.

Olivier Patton was, for all intents and purposes, my cousin. Her sire, Salma, was my sire Mateo's actual biological sister. She’d been there when Mateo brought me home, struggling through my change after my sire had...well. I hadn’t exactly been prepared for the experience, suffice to say. She was my best friend, but sometimes she put herself in the role of big sister -- because gods knew that Shiloh didn’t want the role.

My right eye twitched at the thought. Shiloh was Mateo’s first child. Her change had been similar enough to mine that you would think we would’ve bonded over it.

Nope. It didn’t matter that Mateo had accidentally shot her, accidentally run me over, and decided that the best way to make up for it was to offer to turn us into vampires. As far as Shiloh was concerned, I wasn’t worth her time. I tried not to take it personally, but at the moment, Shiloh’s long-time rejection piggybacked onto the insult from Sam, and nibbled at the back of my mind like angry termites.

“Sorry,” I replied to Ollie. “I got caught up in a meeting, and didn’t realize how late it was.”

I took the time to hang up my jacket, setting my helmet on its designated hook nearby. Any other morning, and I probably would’ve just tossed it on the bench next to the door. Right now, I was feeling very deliberate in my movements. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I lost hold of that, but it seemed conscientious to continue on that path.

She harrumphed, watching me with narrowed eyes. “You must have had an unfortunate night if you’re not even gonna snarl at me over the nickname, and you put your shit away. You okay, Bun?”

“I’ve had better nights,” I replied with a sigh. “I mostly just want to climb in bed, and die for the day, if that’s cool.”

She raised a brow at me as I walked around her towards the stairs. “I won’t be the one to stop you.”

I froze on the third step. Leaning back, and turning to her, I asked, “Which means?”

Ollie shrugged, looking over her shoulder at me. “Could mean nothing.”

“Come on, Oll, spill it.”

She shot me a grin, one fang dipping over her bottom lip. “Mateo and Salma have a guest.”

Unease gripped me, and I glanced toward Mateo’s study down the hall.

Abruptly, I could hear loud voices on the other side of the door, complete with snarls, followed by the sound of Salma’s “scandalized” voice.

“Oh no.”

Ollie’s grin widened.

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