Lorelei Daniels was having a really, really crappy day. A day from hell. Pretty much the very worst day of her life.
It started when her car repossessed itself.
It wasn’t like the Honda Spark SD was the top of the line—in fact, it was pretty much the cheapest model of self-driving car they sold. It was old too—there was a clunking sound under the hood when she drove it over fifty miles an hour and the AC hadn’t been really cold for the past two years.
Lukewarm AC was a serious problem in Florida but Lorelei couldn’t afford to get anything newer. When she’d gotten it, the Spark SD was supposed to be her college car—a stop-gap A to B machine to get her through Grad school. Then, once she graduated with her fancy-schmacy new degree in AI Psych, she would land a fabulous, high-paying job in Silicon Valley and be able to buy any car she wanted.
But somehow things hadn’t quite turned out as planned.
“Come on…come on! Open up, you stupid thing! I’m going to be late!”
Lorelei inserted a ballpoint pen into the hole in her battered black plastic key fob, where the unlock button had been before it fell out, and pressed vigorously. Ever since the fob had started falling apart like the rest of the car, it had been difficult to get the Spark SD open and closed but she really didn’t have time for it this morning. If she was late to Minnie Misses Pretty Petites one more time, she was going to be fired for sure.
Not that she loved the job. It was pretty much pure torture to work at a clothing store which catered exclusively to tiny-sized women when she herself was plus-sized. Her overflowing hourglass figure would never fit into the size zero jeans and XXXS tanks Minnie Misses sold, but they had been one of the few retail shops still open with a physical location—most other clothing stores had moved online. So Lorelei had been forced to take the job even though she loathed it.
“Open up, you son of a bitch!” she muttered, jabbing the ballpoint pen into the hole again. She pushed a long strand of wavy, reddish-brown hair out of her face and wished for the thousandth time that she could afford a new key fob. Not even a new car—just a new fob would have made her happy at this point. But they were two hundred and fifty dollars apiece. That was almost as much as a car payment and there was no way Lorelei could afford it. So she made do with the broken fob by using the pen and lots of curse words.
This isn’t supposed to be my life, she thought, not for the first time. I’m not supposed to be living in a roach motel apartment complex on the crappy end of Tampa, driving a hunk of junk that should have gone to the Great Garage in the sky two years ago, and working at a clothing store where I would have to stitch three pairs of jeans together to even begin to cover my big butt. This isn’t supposed to be how it ends!
Her beautiful future and exciting new career had seemed so possible less than a year ago. But that was before her Masters degree in AI Psychology with a minor in Human/AI interface became suddenly obsolete.
It started when someone in the World Congress got nervous about the idea of sentient AIs running most of Earth’s tech. Even though numerous safeguards were in place, it appeared that someone had seen The Terminator one too many times and they were certain if Artificially Intelligent machines were allowed to think for themselves, Skynet was going to come along and blow everyone to Kingdom Come.
So the AI Blocking Bill was born and the Throttle chip was created. It kept any AI with the capacity to learn and think for itself from growing past the strict parameters laid down by the World Congress. Which meant that AIs with personalities were banned or dumbed down to the level of nothing but stupid mechanical servants.
Which further meant there was no need for someone with Lorelei’s degree—a degree which had been very expensive to get because so few universities offered it. It was supposed to be cutting edge—Lorelei was going to be in high demand—everyone would want her, she could have her pick of jobs. In fact, several companies had already been courting her before she even finished her Master’s degree.
But the minute the Blocking Bill passed, every single job offer dried up and blew away, like dust in a sandstorm.
Which left Lorelei with no other option than to work a crappy retail job and try to pay off her truly mountainous pile of student loans on minimum wage.
As it turned out, she couldn’t even make the payments on her car—which was how it wound up repossessing itself.
“I said open up, you piece of crap,” she shouted, jabbing the pen so hard into the hole where the unlock button used to be she heard a cracking sound.
Finally, finally, the motor started, as it always did automatically when the car unlocked.
Only this time, it didn’t unlock.
“Hey!” Lorelei exclaimed, pulling on the door handle. “Come on, open up! Unlock yourself—I’m going to be late.”
“Negative,” came the mechanical, wheezy voice of the Spark SD. The voice always reminded Lorelei of her grandmother who had smoked three packs a day for most of her life and had extremely bad COPD as a result.
“What do you mean, ‘negative?’” she demanded. “Open the door and let me in!”
“Negative,” wheezed the Spark again. “Records show that your last two payments are in arrears—you have an outstanding sum of six hundred and forty two dollars, fifteen cents which is past due.”
“What?” Lorelei looked at it uneasily. “But…I paid at least one of those—I know I did. I just put the check in the mail yesterday!”
“Immediate payment is required if you wish to retain custody of your vehicle,” the Spark informed her. “Would you care to press your cred-chip to the payment interface and pay now?”
A small red rectangle lighted up just under the handle of the driver’s side door. Everything else on the car might break down, Lorelei thought bitterly, but of course the payment interface never would. That damn thing was built like an airplane’s black box—it wasn’t going anywhere.
“Fine,” she muttered, digging in her purse. “But I can’t pay all of it now or I won’t be able to pay my rent.”
“Partial payment is not acceptable,” the Spark informed her. “When more than one payment is past the due date, full remuneration is required.”
“Speak English, why don’t you,” Lorelei snapped. “Full remuneration my ass!” If that stupid Blocking Bill hadn’t passed, her Spark might have had more of a personality—maybe she could even have reasoned with it, like she would with another person. But the AI unit which ran the self-driving car was nothing but a soulless machine—incapable of being cajoled or threatened or begged. It was completely impervious to all human emotion and didn’t give a damn that she was broke.
“Payment should be made in the next two minutes if you wish to retain this vehicle,” the Spark informed her helpfully. “Do you need more time to get your cred-chip?”
“No. No, I have it here.” Lorelei gritted her teeth in frustration. Missing her rent would mean being evicted and moving back in with her dad and ditzy step-mom, Mitzy. Lorelei didn’t even want to consider going back home but she knew she could crash on their couch at least for a few weeks until she could get back on her feet. Better to keep her car than her apartment—with a car at least she could get to work. Without one, she was going to be up the chocolate creek without a popsicle stick.
With a sigh, she dug out her cred-chip and pressed it to the glowing red rectangle. She ought to have just enough to cover the double car payment although she was going to be living on instant Ramen until she got her next check from Minnie Misses Pretty Petites.
The payment interface glowed gold for a moment and she waited for it to go green. Then the Spark would inform her that the payment had been accepted and the door would pop open so she could finally, finally get to work.
She already had two tardies on her record but hopefully her supervisor, Michelle, who was so skinny and petite Lorelei thought of her as a “teacup human,” would overlook her lateness in light of the circumstances. Or better yet, maybe Michelle wouldn’t be working today at all.
It was so much easier when she wasn’t there. Of course, Lorelei still felt like a Great Dane at a kitten convention, selling clothes to all the tiny perfect women who came to shop there, but at least she didn’t have the micromanaging Michelle yapping at her the whole time…
The annoying mechanical blatting noise pulled Lorelei back to reality and she realized that the payment interface had never turned from gold to green—instead it was back to red again.
“Incomplete payment,” the Spark informed her. “Six hundred and forty-two dollars, fifteen cents is due. You have paid only six hundred and forty-two dollars.”
“What?” Lorelei exclaimed. “What are you talking about?”
“Payment incomplete,” the Spark informed her again. “Repossession effective immediately.”
The engine, which had been idling all this time, no doubt burning up her valuable fuel, revved suddenly and the Spark began to drive off without her.
“Wait—wait!” Lorelei shouted, running after it. “You can’t just leave! I’m only short fifteen cents—you can’t repossess the car for fifteen freaking cents!”
“This vehicle will drive itself to the dealership where you purchased it,” the Spark informed her as it drove off. “You will have a two hour grace period before your loan is considered officially in default and your vehicle is sold.”
“What? No! No!” Lorelei ran faster. If she could just throw herself in front of the damn thing, she could make it stop. All self-driving vehicles—which was pretty much any car or truck on the road these days—were equipped with special safety sensors to keep them from hitting pedestrians. If she could just stop the damn car maybe she could get someone from the dealership on the line and explain that she was only short fifteen cents! Fifteen freaking cents!
But her apartment complex was on a long street with no stop sign until the very end of the road, which gave the Spark plenty of time to gather speed. Though she ran as fast as she could—which was surprisingly fast, (plus-sized does not necessarily equal unfit)—she couldn’t catch it.
She made one last grab at the bumper, missed, and fell heavily to the pavement, skinning both knees. Pain lanced through her and her anger boiled over.
“Fifteen cents!” she shouted after it. “Fifteen lousy freaking cents! This isn’t fair! It isn’t right, you stupid son of a bitch car! Come back here!”
Of course, her car didn’t listen or care that it had just ruined her day. She stood painfully, blood oozing from both knees, and watched as the Spark drove itself merrily back to the dealership she’d bought it at—which happened to be all the way across town.
“Great…just great,” she muttered as she watched it go, it’s I brake for Vegans—they look Hungry bumper sticker winking cheekily at her as it disappeared in the distance. “So they took all my money and my car. Now what the hell am I supposed to do?”
Well, the first thing she’d better do was call her work and try to explain what was going on. Michelle was not going to be happy about this but surely she’d understand. It wasn’t like Lorelei had planned for something like this to happen…
Just then her purse began buzzing. Sighing, Lorelei dug out her phone and looked at the number on the front. Great, it looked like Michele had beat her to the punch. She pressed the answer button, all ready to explain as Michelle’s narrow face popped up on the screen.
“Hi, Michelle—” she began but her boss was already talking.
“Hello, Lorelei. Let me guess, you’re just five minutes away and you’ll be here in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, is that right?” she demanded, her pink-rimmed eyes narrowing. Michelle had thin white-blonde hair and small, nervous, pale blue eyes which always looked like she’d been crying. She was so tiny she barely came up to Lorelei’s shoulder and her short, choppy way of talking always made Lorelei think of barking. Forget teacup human, her boss was really much more of a teacup Chihuahua.
“Well, not exactly,” she said, hoping to get a word in edgewise so she could explain. “You see, my car sort of, uh, repossessed itself just now. I was only fifteen cents short on the payment but you know how it is—you can’t argue with machines! So the damn thing just drove off without me and…” she sighed. “Long story short, I’m afraid I’m not going to make it in today. I only have two hours to get to the dealership before it’s gone for good.” Although how she was going to get to the dealership was anybody’s guess.
“That’s fine.” Michelle sounded surprisingly calm.
“Um…really?” Lorelei was cautiously pleased. This wasn’t like her boss at all but maybe Michelle was in a good mood today. Maybe—
“Yes, it’s perfectly fine for you not to come in,” Michelle assured her. “I was just calling to tell you that you’re fired. So you don’t ever have to come in to Minnie Misses Pretty Petites again.”
“What?” Lorelei couldn’t believe it. “But…but please, Michelle—you can’t do that to me. I need this job.”
“I most certainly can. This is your third tardy in a six month period which means I am legally able to let you go with no recriminations from upper management.”
Michelle looked positively gleeful about it. Lorelei had been hired by a different manager—one who had subsequently moved to another store—and Michelle had always felt that allowing Lorelei to work at Minnie Misses was a mistake. She had never liked Lorelei because, as she had so delicately explained, clothing ought to be sold by people who looked like they would actually be able to wear it. Since Lorelei was pretty much the opposite of every customer who walked in the door, she wasn’t a very good advertisement for the Minnie Misses brand—or so Michelle had given her to understand.
It was an awful job and Michelle the human Chihuahua was a micro-managing nightmare of a boss but at the moment, Lorelei didn’t care—she only knew she needed this job—desperately.
“Please, Michelle,” she pleaded, though it killed her to beg. “Please just give me one more chance. I need this job to make the rent! I can’t be jobless and carless and homeless all at once!”
“I’m afraid I have nothing more to say to you, since you are officially no longer an employee of Minnie Misses Pretty Petites,” her boss—no, ex-boss, snapped.
Lorelei saw there was no changing her mind. Michelle had been looking for a way to get rid of her from the moment they met and now she had finally managed it.
“Fine,” she said shortly. “Will you mail my last check or should I come pick it up?”
Whenever she could get her car back, that was. At least the last check was a good one—she’d logged several hours of overtime on it because Michelle had asked her to work late, getting ready for the big Summer Blowout Sale. It might even be enough to pay the rent if she was very, very careful.
“I’m sorry but per the contract you signed when you came to work for Minnie Misses Pretty Petites, your last check is forfeit due to the fact that you were fired for excessive tardiness.”
“What?” Lorelei exploded. “Three times in six months is hardly excessive tardiness! And one of those times I was late punching in because you were yelling at me!”
“I’m sorry you were unable to fulfill your duties at Minnie Misses Pretty Petites and that we had to let you go,” Michelle said. But there was a malicious gleam in her pink-rimmed eyes which said she wasn’t sorry a bit—that she was positively enjoying herself. “I wish you a fulfilling career someplace else but I’m sorry to inform you that I cannot provide you with a positive reference for your résumé so please don’t bother having any other prospective employers call us.”
And before Lorelei could protest or say another word, she hung up.
“No! No!” Lorelei stared at the blank, black screen of her phone disbelievingly. Could her life get any worse? She didn’t see how.
She sank down on the curb and put her head in her hands, not caring what the neighbors in her apartment complex would think. She had no car, no job, and soon she would have no place to live. What was she going to do?
Tears rose to her eyes and she couldn’t force them back down. She let out a low, broken sob, her shoulders shaking in abject misery.
My life isn’t supposed to be like this! This isn’t how it was supposed to go at all!
“Excuse me, My Lady. Are you well?”
The deep rumbling voice was coming from above her—far above. Wiping her streaming eyes, Lorelei looked up to see the tallest guy she’d ever seen looming over her. It was hard to estimate when she was sitting and he was standing but she thought he had to be at least six foot seven or eight and not a skinny 6’8” either. He was muscular in all the right places with shoulders twice as broad as her own.
“Um…what?” she asked uncertainly, wondering how a guy who looked like him had ended up at the wrong end of town in her crappy apartment complex.
“I said, are you well, My Lady?” He had dark blond hair, intensely blue eyes, and the longest eyelashes she’d ever seen on a man. He was wearing tight black leather trousers, high black leather boots, and a long-sleeved, emerald-green shirt made of some heavy satiny material.
There was no mistaking it, Lorelei realized—he had to be a Kindred.
“I…I’m fine,” she told him. “Just having kind of a crappy day.” Suddenly she wondered how long the handsome Kindred stranger had been watching her. Had he seen her chasing after her car like an idiot? Had he watched her fall down and then seen her get fired too? Her cheeks began to heat in a blush—she sure hoped not!
“You don’t look fine.” He pointed at her bloody knees. “You appear to have injured yourself.”
So maybe he hadn’t seen her trip and fall. That, at least, was a relief.
“Thanks but I’ll be okay,” Lorelei told him. “It’s just a scratch.”
He still looked doubtful but appeared to let the matter drop.
“Forgive me for interrupting your, uh, crappy day,” he said with complete sincerity. “But are you Lorelei Daniels?”
“Oh my God. Yes…yes, I am.” Lorelei’s heart, which had sunk all the way down to her toes, was suddenly pounding so loudly she was afraid the handsome blond warrior would hear it. Suddenly she knew what this was all about.
He’s here to claim me—to tell me I’m supposed to be his wife, she thought and a shiver of excitement mixed with fear rushed through her. Oh my God, I can’t believe it! Me—a Kindred bride!
Like every other unmarried woman in the world, she had signed up for the Kindred Bride draft but she’d never thought her number would come up. It was just a gamble you took—like buying a lottery ticket—only you never expected to win anything.
Looks like you won yourself a huge, handsome warrior—how’s that for a grand prize? whispered a little voice in her brain.
It sounded amazing to Lorelei—although also kind of frightening.
“You’re a Kindred warrior here to claim me, aren’t you?” she asked the big male. She started to get up off the curb and he held out a hand, gallantly assisting her. Just touching his big, warm hand, so much larger than hers, made her tingle.
“Miss Daniels—” he began but Lorelei couldn’t seem to stop herself. Finally her lousy day was looking up!
“What kind of Kindred are you?” she asked him, her heart still thudding in her chest. “You don’t have golden eyes so you can’t be a Beast Kindred and I don’t see any fangs like the Blood Kindred have. But maybe they’re hidden? Are…are you going to bite me?”
She kind of hoped he would—when she’d fantasized about being claimed by a Kindred as a teenager, she’d always hoped she would get a Blood Kindred. They were almost like vampires—very sexy.
“Are we going to live aboard the Mother Ship together?” she asked. “Have you been dreaming about me? I heard that was a thing that happens with Kindred sometimes—that they dream of the woman they’re going to claim.”
“I’m sorry, My Lady…Miss Daniels, but I’m not actually here to claim you.” The Kindred cleared his throat awkwardly. “I’m, uh, here to ask for your help—in a professional capacity only.”
“Not here to…Oh. Oh, of course. I’m sorry.”
For the second or third—or was it the fourth time that morning—Lorelei’s heart fell with a nearly audible thud.
“Wow… Awkward.” She tried to laugh but it came out as more of a croak. “I’m sorry, I never should have thought that someone like…like you would want to…to…uh…” She trailed off, unable to finish.
Never should have thought that someone like him would want someone like you, whispered a little voice in her head. Just look at him, Lorelei—he’s gorgeous with that square jaw and those piercing blue eyes. And he’s muscular everywhere—I bet his muscles have muscles. And here you go asking him if he’s been dreaming about you. How stupid can you be?
Pretty damn stupid, apparently. God, she wanted to sink through the ground in mortification.
“I’m not here to claim you,” he repeated. “But I am here to hire you. If you’ll agree to my proposal, that is.”
“Hire me?” Lorelei frowned up at him as the words sank in. Was this a job interview all of a sudden? “Hire me for what?” she asked, frowning suspiciously. “All I’m qualified to do is sell skinny-minny clothes to skinny-minny women who have less body fat than a piece of beef jerky. So I doubt I’m the one you want, whatever you’re looking for.”
“Really?” He frowned in apparent confusion. “Then…you don’t have an advanced degree in Artificial Intelligence Psychology with a minor in Human/AI interface?”
“Well…yes. Yes, I do,” she said slowly. “But how do you know that about me? Who are you, anyway?”
“I am Bound-Tight of the Twin Kindred.” He put a hand over his heart and bowed in a courtly gesture that made Lorelei’s pulse speed up despite telling herself it was ridiculous. “And I’ve been studying you and dozens more like you but you’re the one I want—the only person I believe can help me.”
“Help you do what?” Lorelei asked blankly. “And if you’re a Twin Kindred, then where’s your twin?”
“That is what I need your help with, Miss Daniels.” His incredibly deep blue eyes looked earnestly into hers. “You see, my brother, Torn-Deep, has been kidnapped and modified. I need your help to get him back.”