Home > The Monster Ball Year 3 : (A Paranormal Romance Anthology)

The Monster Ball Year 3 : (A Paranormal Romance Anthology)
Author: Heather Hildenbrand

 

1

 

 

I stare down the pool stick as I concentrate on the eight ball. Taking a deep breath, I inhale the stench of cigarette smoke, alcohol, and men who believe I’m just some little girl in way over her head.

“So, I just hit this white ball and cross my fingers?” I bat my eyelashes at Steve, the drunk guy with a pot belly, balding head, and dull blue eyes, who leans against the pool table beside me.

“Yeah, sweetheart. Just like that.” He licks his lips, his gaze traveling across my chest.

The hungry look in his eyes tells me it’s time to end this charade before he gets any ideas that I’m here for more than a game of pool.

It’s time to collect my payday.

I focus back on my task. I need to bounce the cue ball off the upper left corner at the perfect angle, so it will ease the eight ball into the right corner pocket. It’s not impossible, but even for me, it will take some concentration.

I’m aware of Steve’s fat fingers tapping the edge of the table, the heavy alcohol on his breath as he leans way too close to me, and—oddly—I’m suddenly aware of the unwavering attention of the man sitting at a table in the far corner of the room.

Unlike Steve, this man hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol. The shot he ordered half an hour ago still sits on the table in front of him. Half of his face is just beyond the dim light, the other half revealing sharp green eyes and a shadowed jaw. A black tribal tattoo begins on the top of his right hand before meandering up his forearm and chiseled bicep until it disappears beneath the sleeve of his tight black shirt. He rests a big hand on one knee while his other leg is outstretched in a casual pose that serves to stretch his jeans across his muscled thigh.

I nearly lose my concentration as my stomach flutters, but I’m not about to let some sexy-as-hell stranger stop me from paying rent this week.

The stick slides between my fingers with ease. I exhale before smoothly gliding the tip into the cue ball. My eyes follow the ivory as it travels exactly where I expect it to and into the eight ball.

As the final shot sinks into the corner pocket, I squeal and keep up the hustle, spinning to Steve. “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe my luck. Is that game over?”

Steve leans in, his hairy arm brushing against my bicep. “How about double or nothing, and I’ll make it worth your while even if you lose, sugar?”

This is the worst part about my hustle. Concealing my disgust long enough to get paid is a real struggle, but so long as they don’t touch me, I usually manage okay.

I let out a yawn. “I’m getting pretty tired. How about a raincheck?”

“Are you playing with me?” he grumbles while his fat fingers reach for my blonde ponytail.

No way, asshole. The only contact I’ll tolerate from this guy is the minuscule amount needed for me to put him on his ass. Or deprive him of his jewels.

Opting for a less invasive response for now, my head dodges out of the way. “I don’t play with anyone. Now, are you a man of your word, or are we going to have a problem?”

His pale eyes narrow at me as his hand wraps around my arm. “You hustled me.”

My reflexes fire faster than he can follow. My free hand snakes between us, and I grab the center of his pants, unsurprisingly finding very little to hold on to. The helpless woman tone vanishes from my speech as I lean in and lower my voice to a dangerous purr. “Give me my cash, and I’ll walk away without ripping off your junk.”

His shoulders tense and throat bobs, but apparently he’s not smart enough to agree. “I don’t think so,” he says.

My fingers squeeze tighter. My other hand curls around his hipbone. I draw on a tiny trickle of power and allow my fingernails to sharpen to their natural lengths. Well, unnatural as far as humans are concerned. Steve may not see them, but he’ll sure as hell feel them. “I can do this all night, buddy.”

He hisses at the relentless pressure on his jewels and the dig of my nails into his lower stomach, then finally releases my arm, but I don’t let go until he hands me my three hundred dollars.

Shoving the money into my pocket, I grin at him. “Here’s to hoping I never smell you again.”

With one final push, I quickly put as much distance between the idiot and myself as I can. Striding out of the dingy bar, I only glance back once.

The stranger’s table is empty. So is his shot glass. He must have left while I was collecting my winnings.

Shrugging it off, I look around for the nearest alley so I can shift and be on my way.

I startle when a woman speaks from the shadows beneath the bar awning.

“Good evening, Liv.”

I relax when I recognize my best friend, Tori. She peels herself off the wall, appearing calm, but the tension in her shoulders and the determined glint in her hazel eyes tell me she’s not here to catch up.

“Tori, how’s it going?” I haven’t seen her in several months. We only meet up when there’s something wrong—or I’ve gotten myself into trouble. Tonight, the tight black pantsuit she’s wearing warns me I’m in trouble. It hugs her curves in ways that would make idiots like Steve drool over themselves, but I know she only wears black when she has a purpose and doesn’t want to be distracted by color.

She flicks her long russet locks behind her shoulder and steps into the glow of the overhead light from the bar sign, her black heels tapping the pavement. “You’re running out of time.”

Damn. She’s here about that.

“Straight to it, huh? No foreplay this time?” I ask with a smirk, hooking my finger into the pocket of my jeans. I can’t pull off cleavage like she can, but I give it a red-hot go on my hustle nights, my lower-than-usual V-neck white short-sleeve shirt clinging over a visible lacy black bra.

“This is serious, Olivia.”

Great, she’s using my full name.

“I have enough time,” I say. “Three years is plenty to finish seven meager tasks.”

Okay, I’m bluffing, but I refuse to reveal my true anxiety about the challenges I’m facing. For a few moments inside the bar, I could forget about what lies ahead of me and settle into my zone where I could actually win something. Unlike in real life, where I’m staring down devastation.

“Don’t you want to be kitsune?” she asks. “Have you really turned your back on your own kind?”

Anger rises inside me. “I didn’t turn my back on anyone. They kicked me out when I didn’t meet their precious expectations.”

Memories threaten to assault me. As a kitsune, I have to complete nine tasks in nine years to gain my full powers. The tasks are usually completed in a particular order, and each task involves overcoming a human emotion to attain an attribute worthy of a kitsune. I began with friendship, and that’s how I met Tori. She’s the first person I ever trusted beyond my parents. Well, that was until I failed to meet their expectations and they kicked me out when I turned sixteen. According to them, it was tough love. If they couldn’t help me, then I was expected to help myself.

So far, I’ve only completed two tasks: friendship and strength. To attain friendship, I had to overcome distrust. For strength, I had to overcome physical weakness. All kitsune are trained in every sort of combat sport from the age of eight for that purpose.

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