The Last of the Monsters

Monsters in Hollywood, Book 6

Lila Dubois

Prologue

There was a cool breeze wafting across the patio. Akta pulled her hair over her shoulder, twisting it into a rope. It was long enough to sit on, and on warm nights like this she imagined cutting it. She never would, it was too much a part of her image, as well as a way to honor her heritage. America’s favorite Indian actress couldn’t go from traditional long hair to a bob without causing a stir.

The sliding door opened and a tall man appeared. A little thrill went through her as Henry stepped out of her living room onto the patio. He was tall and lean, but not too skinny. His face was classically handsome, his brown hair short. But it was his eyes that called to her. He had the most intense blue eyes. When he looked at her it was as if there were no one else in the world. Akta was used to attention—it was part of her job as an actor—but attention from Henry was something else altogether.

“Henry, I didn’t know you were still here.”

Henry and his friends had come to her house for a casual party. She’d assumed all the guests were gone. He carefully closed the door, then made his way to her large outdoor dining table. He took the seat next to her and accepted the bottle of beer she passed him from the drink tub on the table.

“I think they forgot about me.”

Akta laughed. He sounded both forlorn and relieved. “I’m sorry. I’ll take you home.”

“If it’s all right, I’d like to stay for a while.”

“Of course. I need to sober up a bit before I drive anyway.”

Akta pushed away her half-empty beer and fished out a bottle of water. The table was littered with dishes and cups, the remnants of a good party. She stacked a few unused napkins that the breeze had scattered, placing the beer bottle on top to hold them down.

“Thank you for dinner. I’ll help you clean up.” Henry grabbed a few other napkins and passed them to her.

“You’re welcome. It was nice to have everyone here, and to celebrate Margo and Runako.”

Two days ago, Akta and three of her best friends—Lena, Jane and Cali—had gone to rescue their other friend and the fifth owner of their movie production company, Calypso Productions. Margo had disappeared over a week ago, and they’d been in a panic, assuming that their newest project had put her in danger.

It had, but not in the way they thought.

Margo had been kidnapped by Runako, one of their clients. Runako was a new—and reluctant—addition to the client group. They’d originally been approached by just three men, Luke, Michael and Henry himself.

Runako kidnapped Margo because he had some very cavemanesque ideas about romance, though from what she’d heard, Margo gave as good as she got in her brief time as a sexy captive. The kidnapping and subsequent rescue attempt ended in an unexpected way—a proposal.

Now they were back in LA, and the guys had spent the night alternately cursing and congratulating Runako. He wasn’t the first of the men to fall for one of Akta’s business partners. Lena’s asking Luke out on a date is what had started this whole project, while Jane and Michael had fallen for each other when she’d used him as a resource for information while writing the screenplay.

Akta tugged at her hair again, using it to shield her face as she looked at Henry. The moonlight made a silver halo around him, while the sputtering candles lit the planes of his cheeks. There was no indication that he was anything other than what he appeared to be—a good-looking guy drinking a beer.

But Henry wasn’t a guy. He was a monster.

An actual monster.

And so were all his friends.

“Your home was beautiful,” Akta said.

“I wish you’d seen it under other circumstances. Not all the caves look like that.”

Henry and his people—he called them his Clan—lived in a network of caves in the Rocky Mountains. They’d made their home in the inaccessible peaks of the mountains, places where the terrain made it almost impossible for humans to go. That didn’t matter for Henry and his friends because they all had wings. Huge, scary bat wings.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, they don’t look so much like…caves.”

Akta laughed at that. Runako had taken Margo to a place they called the Captive Caves, a remnant from a time when humans had been hiding from the monsters, and for good reason. They’d assured Akta that they never ate humans, but in the past they’d kidnapped humans to help them build or make things. Humans were much smaller and more dexterous—because their fingers didn’t end in talons the size of kitchen knives. As Akta’s rather caustic friend Cali had said, humans had been their equivalent of the child factory workers at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

But all that had changed. Human communities’ isolation had meant information couldn’t be spread easily, relegating tales of winged monsters to folklore and myth. In the past one hundred years, humans had spread far and fast. The monsters had retreated, moving to physically inaccessible locations and hiding from the humans. There had once been scores of different clans, each made up of its own type of monster. But now many of these groups had been forced to band together for security, forming one Great Clan in Colorado.

The monsters knew they couldn’t hide forever. They had to either disappear entirely from the Earth or prepare for an all-out war with humans. A third choice had become available to them not long ago. The Clan’s Seer had discovered a spell that allowed them to shift-shape and become humans. Henry and his friends had first come to Calypso Productions’ offices looking like nothing more than three attractive, everyday guys.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

“What does yours look like? Your…cave, I mean.”

Henry tipped his head back, staring at the stars for a moment before answering. “It isn’t too different than your home. There are bedrooms, bathrooms, a living room. Everything is larger, and the furniture is very different, but at its core they are the same.” His gaze shifted to her. “I suppose it’s because we want the same things as you. Security, comfort, safety.”

“And love?”

The words seemed to hang between them and Akta had to look down at her lap. She was a sappy romantic at the best of times, and her intense crush on Henry was only making it worse.

“Yes, and love.”

Silence, save for the rustle of palm fronds swaying in the breeze, fell over them. There was more to this silence than the ones before it, a note of tension Akta’s question had put there.

When it got to be too much, Akta stood, grabbing a few things to take them inside. “I’m just going to clean up a bit.” She reached for the tub of drinks, the few remaining ice cubes clinking as she heaved it.

“I’ll take that.”

Henry reached out, his hand closing over hers.

An electric thrill went through Akta. She twisted her head to the side so he wouldn’t see her reaction to his touch. It had been a long time since Akta had felt so out of her depth with a man. She had no idea if the lingering looks he gave her when he thought she wouldn’t notice were the result of interest in her, or if he was just curious.

“Akta.”

She took a breath. There was no doubt now. That single word, her name, was laden with longing and promise.

Lowering the tub to the table, she turned to face him. Hesitantly, he raised his hand, smoothing her hair away from her face.

“You are beautiful.”

“Thank you.”

He scrutinized her cheeks, her lips. Akta licked them, and he stiffened.

Kiss me.

Henry seemed frozen, one hand cupping the side of her head. Now that she was so close to him she could see the hunger in his eyes. Excitement swelled within her.

“Henry.”

“Yes?”

“Do you want me?”

“Yes.”

“I thought so.”

Akta lifted onto her toes, cupped his head in her hands and kissed him. He was stiff for a moment, before he relaxed into the kiss, his arms twining around her. Akta kept the kiss light, lips closed, until he pulled her tighter against him, their hips pressed together.

Akta leaned into Henry, giving him her body weight. She waited for him to take charge of the kiss, but he seemed content with the rather chaste meeting of lips.

He may have been, but Akta wasn’t. She wanted more.

She parted her lips, touching his with her tongue. His mouth opened and she slipped her tongue inside to taste him. She savored the earthy, bitter taste of hops as his tongue met hers. He seemed unsure what to do, and Akta had a jolt of realization. This was probably the first time he’d ever kissed a human woman.

She took control then, something she’d never dared do before. Head tipped to one side she coaxed him into the kiss, nipping and sucking his lower lip, deepening their connection. With each passing moment his hold on her tightened, and now she could feel the rigid line of his cock against her belly.

They broke apart, both drawing deep, gasping breaths. She dropped onto her heels, calves aching, and looked up at Henry.

Even in the moonlight she could see that his cheeks were flushed, his eyes soft.

She smiled, touched his cheek. “You’re blushing,” she teased. “Am I the first human you’ve kissed?”

Henry’s reaction was not what she expected.

He pulled his hands away from her and took two jerky steps back. His face was twisted in an expression she couldn’t even begin to understand. He looked down at his hands, as if he’d never seen them before.

“Henry? Henry, I’m sorry, I was just teasing.”

His gaze snapped to hers and as she watched the irises went from a deep ocean blue to bright purple.

He ripped his shirt off, then shucked his jeans.

It took Akta a moment to figure out what was happening. It was only when he turned his back to her, revealing the large tribal tattoo, that she understood. He was changing.

Akta screamed as the skin on his back split open, two massive blue wings emerging, unfurling and expanding as she watched. Akta stumbled back, biting down on a second scream. She’d never been alone with one of them before, never been the only human present when one of them changed.

In that moment, every ounce of fear and distrust she’d buried deep within her rose to the surface. She kept retreating until she was at the far side of the table. She’d seen them fight, knew that if he wanted to attack her she was doomed.

The change was complete, and where there had once been a nice-looking guy was now a massive gargoyle-like monster. The one other time she’d seen Henry in this body he’d had pale blue skin and wings, the color of the summer sky. But now his skin was changing color, the pigment seeming to swirl just under the surface of his skin like ink in water.

It was probably a trick of the light, but his skin looked almost red rather than blue.

Akta pressed her hands to her mouth and sank down, crouching behind the table.

Without another word, Henry leapt into the sky and disappeared into the night.

Chapter 1

One year later

This was a disaster. Akta knew it, the director knew it—she could tell by the look on Cali’s face—and Akta suspected her reluctant costar knew it too.

They were almost two weeks into principal filming of a movie about the monsters. The film would serve as official notice to the world that they weren’t folktales and stories, but were real. Akta and Henry had the starring roles—Akta as Padma, the human girl who fell for Henry’s character, Ebon, when she was too young to realize who and what he was.

Movies were usually shot out of order, though there were famous exceptions, like The Maltese Falcon, which was so complicated that they had to shoot it in order so the actors could follow what was happening. Their own shooting schedule was dictated by locations. Because they were doing everything they could to keep the movie under wraps, they were using locations outside the city limits, ones that didn’t require permits. For the most part, that also meant that they were using locations that weren’t dedicated or experienced filming spots, so they had to be in and out quickly and cleanly.

Today they were south of the city in an industrial area. Jo, the production designer, and her team had taken an otherwise clean, functional street and made it look derelict and scary.

Today’s shoot included the scene where Padma and Ebon meet again as adults, years after their respective families discovered their young love and separated them. The scene culminated in a kiss.

And that was the problem.

The kiss wasn’t working. It was awkward, forced and uncomfortable. Akta was a good actor, and Henry was the best actor in his Clan but, despite that, they hadn’t been able to overcome the awkward tension that existed between them. In every other scene they had great chemistry, but the kiss…they just couldn’t make it work.

Cali, Akta’s friend and the director of the movie, pulled them aside after a few failed takes. “Henry, what would you do, normally, if you wanted to kiss a woman shorter than you?”

“I’ve never kissed a human woman.”

Akta clenched her teeth at his lie. Then again, maybe he’d forgotten what happened a year ago on her patio. Maybe, unlike her, he didn’t think about it…almost every day.

“Well, you’ve kissed Akta through five takes, so, yes, you have, but that’s not what I’m asking. Surely you’ve kissed someone, something, that’s shorter than you.” Henry paused, then nodded once.

“Good. How?”

Akta stiffened as Henry turned toward her. He was in his real body, meaning he was a tall blue monster with bat wings, lower legs like a horse but thicker and more muscular, and hands that ended in three fingers and a thumb, each tipped with a large claw.

She’d gotten used to seeing and working with him in his true physical form. And yet, when he took hold of her wrist and pulled her toward him, Akta stiffened. She wanted to jerk away, scream at him that he had kissed a human woman before, he’d kissed her. The other part of her wanted to throw herself into his arms.

Because, despite everything, Akta still wanted him.

Instead of holding her up with his arms the way he had before, his wing swept around to cradle her. He cupped her ass with one hand and lifted. Her feet left the ground and Akta reached up to grab his shoulders while his wing supported her back.

“Hold there,” Cali said as she circled them, examining the pose.

Akta stared resolutely over Henry’s shoulder.

“This looks good. Thanks, Henry.”

Henry carefully set Akta down. She tugged at the hem of the sweatshirt she’d pulled on over her wardrobe pieces to keep them clean, looking everywhere but at him. He shifted from foot to foot, wings opening and closing slightly in what Akta had determined was a sign of boredom.

“Let me show you something,” Cali said.

They followed her to the editing trailer. Oren, the editor, had an office offsite but also used a mobile editing bay. Filming real monsters had never been done before, so department heads were constantly watching the footage and making adjustments. They’d found that what looked good in the camera monitors while shooting didn’t always translate to HD film.

Akta didn’t like to watch the dailies—that day’s footage. She didn’t want to be distracted by having to watch herself. She’d rather rely on the director to give her feedback. Cali knew this was how she liked to work, so the fact that Cali was taking her to watch the dailies meant the scene seriously wasn’t working.

She could feel Henry at her back. It was hard not to be aware of him when he was almost double her height, with a wingspan longer than a car, but she was doing her best to ignore him.

Cali mounted the steps to the editing trailer and Akta followed her in.

*

Henry stared at Akta’s back as she disappeared into the trailer. He sighed and pressed the heels of his hands to his forehead.

What a mess.

The movie had been clipping along rather well up until this point. He’d been dreading the romantic scenes, and with good reason.

Time to face the music.

Henry called on the spell that allowed him to change into a human, which their Seer, Maeve, had made. The crack and crunch of bone reforming was never a pleasant sound, but those sounds, and the accompanying pain, were so familiar to him that he barely noticed. Picking up the now too-large pants he’d been wearing, he climbed the steps into the trailer.

“Sorry about that,” Cali said. She turned to Oren, who was sitting in front of a bank of monitors. “Oren, can you key up scene nineteen again?”

“Akta, Henry,” Oren said pleasantly as he swung his chair around and started tapping on a keyboard. Henry, who had only ever acted in theater since his people didn’t have motion picture technology of their own, was fascinated by what Oren did. From what Luke and Michael said, Oren had once been one of the best editors in the business until he got addicted to drugs.

The scene they’d just tried to film popped up on three monitors, each showing a different camera angle. Henry heard Akta sigh as the awkward kiss played on-screen. What showed in this footage was not Ebon meeting up with his long-lost love, but Henry, deeply uncomfortable and awkward as he touched Akta—not the character Padma. It was as if Henry had lost his ability to move outside of himself and become a different person. He should be able to wear the character’s emotion like a suit of armor, but the armor had a chink—no, a gash—in it.

“You both look beautiful,” Cali said, voice soft and encouraging. “The shot is good, but it could be great. What I’m not seeing a lot of is passion.”

Henry nodded. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Akta toy with the hem of her sweatshirt.

“Why don’t we go outside and take a few minutes to get to a different emotional place?”

Henry turned and slipped out of the trailer, glad to leave. He heard Akta’s and Cali’s footsteps behind him. Akta was tiny, nearly a foot shorter than him, even when he was human, and her small, delicate steps were easy for Henry to pick out.

“Let’s go over here,” she said. Henry turned, saw where she was pointing and fell in step behind her. She was leading them to an area between the talent trailers, where they were a protected from the bustle of the set. “Cali!”

Henry turned to see Seling walking quickly toward Cali. Seling was one of his Clansmen and had joined the project only after Runako and Margo had rescued him from a group of militant humans called Blackwolf.

Thinking about that led to thinking about their “rescue” of Margo, and the party that had followed when they’d returned to LA.

Henry gritted his teeth as he thought about The Kiss.

Cali stopped to talk to Seling, leaving Henry alone with Akta. For one cowardly moment Henry considered veering off to his own trailer—a converted refrigerated big rig that he fit in even when he was in his real body.

But Henry knew hiding would only prolong the problem. He stepped behind a rolling box of equipment and changed back into his monster form.

He only hoped that, no matter what was said in the next few minutes, his secret would be safe.

* * * *

Akta heard him coming and took some deep breaths. They needed to have a very serious conversation about what was going on between them, and what had happened a year ago. They’d managed to stay friendly, neither one of them bringing it up, until they’d started filming.

Composed, with her feelings bottled up tight inside her, Akta turned to face Henry. He had his wings folded around himself, which made it look like he was wearing a long, leathery blue cloak.

They stared at each other in silence.

“We have a problem.” Akta took the bull by the horns and just said it. There was no point in talking around it.

“I agree.”

“What do you want to do about it?”

Henry’s wings rustled and he looked to the side as if considering. “We should put aside our feelings and act as professionals.”

“You’re right, but I’m assuming you’ve already tried that. I have.”

He nodded slowly. “It’s complicated.”

Complicated? She actually thought it was pretty simple.

“So what do we do?” she asked.

He said nothing.

“Henry, will you at least look at me?” It tore at Akta that he wouldn’t look at her when the script didn’t call for it. How wrong she’d been a year ago when she thought those long looks were desire. Henry barely tolerated her—at least, that was how it seemed, and yet there were times when Akta got the impression that there was still something there. His mixed signals were making her crazy.

He looked at her. “I’m sorry.”

“Is this because of what happened a year ago?”

“What happened a year ago?”

Anger burned in her belly. “It’s one thing if you want to lie to Cali and say you never kissed a human before, but we did kiss.”

For a brief moment his gaze met hers and there was fire in his eyes. “I remember.”

“So you just want to lie about it?”

“That’s not what I…” He trailed off, and though she waited, he didn’t finish the sentence.

Silence fell between them again.

“Oh, I know why you don’t want to admit to it. I’ve heard what you say. You don’t think humans and monsters should be together.”

He nodded, but hesitantly. “I do not think monsters and humans should mate.”

“So what was that? Why did you kiss me?”

“You kissed me.”

“No.” Akta shook her head, her hair thumping against her back. “I’ve thought about it, and you initiated that kiss. You started it.”

“Maybe. It was a mistake.”

“Thanks, just what every girl wants to hear.”

“My reasons are my own.”

“And that excuses you? You’re entitled to your opinion, but you have no right to make me feel like there’s something wrong with me.”

As she said it, Akta realized it was not just anger and confusion that she harbored. She felt guilty about the way she’d reacted when he’d changed in front of her, and felt that she’d done something wrong by kissing him when he didn’t believe in human-monster relationships. She hadn’t known that at the time of the kiss. Henry hadn’t said it until months later. He should have been up-front with her.

“So what is it? Do you only pretend to like humans and secretly you hate us? Or is it that you think humans are nice, but not good enough to be with?”

“That’s what you think I feel?”

“Am I wrong?”

Henry’s jaw clenched.

“So what is it? And why did you kiss me if you didn’t want me?”

She waited, hoping she would finally have the answers she needed. She wanted to understand what had happened, wanted to finally hate him enough to kill the feelings she still had for him.

But Henry didn’t respond. Akta felt tears pricking the back of her eyes. She didn’t want him to see her cry. Spinning on a heel, she turned and ran. She didn’t want him to see her like this. Tears filled her eyes, one finally spilling down her cheek.

She passed Cali on her way to the makeup trailer. She’d have the girls fix her makeup before anyone noticed she was crying.

Chapter 2

Henry paced the set, wondering how he’d managed to fuck everything up so royally. He knew—well, he figured—that Akta had been upset after he freaked out and left mid-kiss all those months ago. He couldn’t believe it had been a year. But in all the times they’d hung out together since then, she’d been nothing but kind. He assumed that she was no longer angry…and secretly hoped that she still wanted him.

There were nights when he’d catch her looking at him, or she’d take a seat next to him when she could have sat anywhere else in the room.

The thought that she wanted him, that she might want to kiss him again, thrilled and terrified him.

Henry scrubbed his claws through his short hair. A girl ran up to him, lips pursed.

“Mr. Henry, please don’t do that.”

“Sorry.” He bent down so the wardrobe girl could fix his hair, checking it against a picture she had of him in the last shot.

“Causing trouble?” Tokaki, paint cans in each hand, stopped to look at Henry.

“Apparently,” Henry said, closing his eyes as his head was coated in hairspray. “What are you doing?”

“The set looks too clean.”

“Too clean?” Henry smiled.

“Don’t touch it.” The makeup artist gave him the evil eye before leaving.

“Can’t even touch my damned head,” Henry muttered.

“Want to help me?” Tokaki raised the cans.

“You enjoying that? It’s not exactly fighting.”

Tokaki was arguably the greatest living fighter among the monsters. Unlike the rest of them, he wasn’t part of the Great Clan that lived in the Rocky Mountains. His Clan was still in their native China. Henry had gone to them requesting Tokaki’s help in translating the monsters’ fighting style into something that would work in film. No one had expected that Tokaki would fall for Joanna, their production designer, who’d been recruited to the project about the same time. Now that the battle scenes had been choreographed, Tokaki had nothing to do on set unless they were filming one of the fights.

“I enjoy watching Joanna.” Tokaki nodded once and then ambled off. Henry shook his head. There was no way that anyone who hadn’t seen it happen would believe it if he told them the tall Asian man turned into a twenty-foot-long white tiger.

Akta and Cali walked over, Cali talking to Akta in low tones. He could tell by the focused look on Akta’s face that Cali was helping her get into character, trying to get her to the right emotional place. Henry knew what his character wanted, what he needed. But those were so very different from Henry’s own wants that he couldn’t get himself to give in to Ebon.

The set came alive around him as Cali called the shot. He got into position and watched Akta prepare.

Akta, as always, was beautiful. Her wardrobe was simple, jeans and a hooded jacket, both of which hugged her trim figure. Her hair was in a braid that hung over her shoulder. Henry tried not to look at her hair. He’d had far too many fantasies about that hair.

They stepped up to their marks, waiting as the cameras were rolled to their starting positions.

“Henry,” Cali said, drawing his attention, “what’s something that makes you angry?”

There were plenty of things that made him angry. He focused on Blackwolf, his people’s nemesis, and let the anger take him. He felt it flow over him, coating him in a layer of emotion that was both powerful and rancid.

With Henry, anger didn’t show just in his eyes or the tone of his voice. His anger was right on the surface—his skin color.

While he was normally blue, when angry his skin turned black, his wings and eyes red. It was a secret he’d kept from the humans until a few months ago, when a new woman, Joanna, joined the team. She was in charge of how the movie looked, and Henry had realized that sooner or later he’d have to show one of them. Intellectually he knew that in a visual medium like a movie his ability would be an asset.

In the movie, they were carefully not associating his changing color with emotions, but instead using it to signify when he was dangerous.

“Henry, I want you to hold on to that feeling,” Cali said as she backed up out of their way.

Akta stood at the mouth of a wide alley, arms up, palms in front of her in a defensive, frightened pose. He waited in the alley, hidden in the shadows cast by the buildings. There were two cameras covering the scene, one on a track behind Akta that would circle around her when he lifted her for the kiss.

“Action.”

Akta recoiled a half step.

“Padma,” Henry said, trying, and failing, to see her as her character and not Akta.

“You’re here.” Her voice trembled, her eyes were wide and beautiful.

“I said I would be.”

“Let me see you.” Need was thick in her voice and Henry had to focus on his anger to keep his skin black.

He stepped out of the darkness, moving slowly. Little by little he came into the light, letting it reveal him. As he did, he released his anger, focusing instead on a complex math problem. It was a way to keep himself focused, to keep from feeling anything powerful as skin faded from black to its default blue.

Akta—no, Padma—looked him up and down, her hands falling to her sides.

“Ebon.” There was relief and joy in her voice. “I’ve missed you.”

She took a step, arms open, ready to be swept up in the kiss. Henry reached for her and saw that Akta was not as immersed in her character as he’d thought.

Anger burned in her eyes. Anger at him, anger at what she thought he felt and believed.

If only she knew the truth.

But the truth wasn’t something he was willing for her, or anybody, to know.

He couldn’t tell her, but maybe he could show her just how much he wanted her. And if he did it here, in front of the cameras and crew, it would be Ebon, not Henry. Only he would know what his real motivations were.

Henry dragged Akta to him. Lifting her with a hand under her ass, he brought his wing around to cradle her back and to hold her in place. She let out a little gasp, a soft, needy sound that made him want to do outrageous things to her.

Their gazes met, and sparks jumped between them. Henry could see her surprise a moment before he brought his lips to hers. The kiss was not the soft celebration the script called for, but a fierce claiming. Akta clung to his shoulders as Henry used his free hand to cup her head. Her skull felt small and delicate in his hand, her whole body did, and yet she kissed him back fearlessly.

It was Akta who pulled back, gasping for breath. Her lips were shiny, eyes wide and surprised.

Desire sparked to life in his belly.

Shit.

Henry shifted his gaze to her shoulder, hoping it wasn’t obvious on camera, and started a long division problem in his head. He couldn’t, wouldn’t, lose control. “Cut. That was perfect.”

Henry lowered Akta to the ground. A grinning Cali ambled over.

“That was really great, both of you. Let’s do it one more time.”

Henry retreated into the shadows. He’d almost lost control there. He had to be more careful.

* * * *

Over the next few days they shot scenes that included running, hiding and talking about what their characters had been through while they were apart. Though the backstory scenes, most of which would be overlaid with flashback footage, were emotional, they didn’t test Henry’s control the way the kissing scene had, and it was a welcome break.

The worry that he wouldn’t be able to keep his feelings for Akta hidden gnawed at Henry, but it was the worry that once he admitted those feelings his secret would be exposed that kept him from sleeping.

The reprieve ended today. They’d come to a new location where they’d stay for a week or two. It was a construction site, complete with a ten-story building that was nothing more than steel and concrete. The floors were there, but there were no walls yet, making it look like a massive backless bookcase.

The climactic scene that propelled the movie from the first to second act would be filmed here. It was also one of the most emotional scenes. Ebon must rescue Padma, who’d been kidnapped by Seling’s character and held as bait by Runako. In the battle, Seling is killed before he could reveal that he’d had a change of heart about humans. The battle ends with Henry and Runako fighting their way up the outside of a building, where Ebon is caught on video by news helicopters. Having killed one of his own people and exposed himself to humans, Ebon forfeits any chance of ever returning to his home.

There was one particularly emotional scene in this shooting sequence, and they were working on it tonight. It was the one in which Ebon first tracks down Padma after Seling has kidnapped her. Emotionally, Henry’s character started out angry and afraid, then, when he saw Padma, was relieved that she’s alive and realized exactly how much he loved her. It was the moment that the audience had to identify with his character and root for him, despite the bad things he would do in the course of the movie. They had to feel for him so they would mourn the loss of the life he’d forfeited for love in the next act.

Henry and Akta found a small area out of the way of the crew to rehearse. They’d done the lines in readings, but this was the first time they were working out the physicality of the scene, and the first time Henry would really have to embody the emotions.

Cali was at his shoulder, talking quietly. She’d gone into what Henry liked to call her director mode. The normally rude and abrasive woman was a brilliant director, which he hadn’t expected. He did his best to focus on her, listen to her as she helped him get to the emotional place he needed to be.

“The person you love has been missing for hours,” Cali said. “You’ve been looking for her, searching for her, sure that every minute that passes means she must be dead. Then you find her. You know it’s a trap, but you don’t care, because you can see her. She’s there, alive, waiting for you.”

Henry gave himself over to the character, becoming Ebon. Fear and anger rose within him. The need to find her, save her, clawed at him. He felt his color change, shifting from blue to black. He opened his eyes.

Padma was sitting on the ground a few feet away. She was terrified, confused.

He snarled, eyes sweeping the area around her to assess for danger. When his gaze returned to her, he jerked forward. Throwing himself to the ground in front of her, he curled his wings around them, completely sheltering her as he looked over his shoulder, scanning for her kidnapper.

“Pull one wing back.” He vaguely heard Cali’s suggestion and responded without slipping out of character.

He folded one wing back but kept Padma inside the protective curl of his body and the other wing.

She made a small sound and he looked down at her. She’d tipped her face up to his.

Tears glittered on her lashes. “You found me.”

“I will always…” He paused, raising one hand to touch her face.

He froze. He could see fire in her eyes—passion and anger. He was no longer Ebon wanting to touch and comfort Padma, he was Henry, fighting a losing battle with his desire for Akta. The anger dissipated, and his hand, which hovered a breath from her face, faded to blue.

“Henry…” Cali’s voice was low, urgent. “Stay in the moment, you’ve found her, but there’s still a threat, the people who did this will pay.”

Henry tried to pull himself back, tried to touch the core of anger inside himself, but he couldn’t. His control was as thin and fragile as a worn rope. She was too close to him—he could feel her breath, smell her hair.

His emotions shifted, desire crashing through him, and Henry jumped to his feet. “I can’t.”

Before either of them could stop him, Henry bolted, cursing himself the whole way.

Chapter 3

Akta stared over Lena’s shoulder at the computer screen and felt the world crumbling away around her.

One of the Hollywood gossip blogs was featuring a story about their movie. A story claiming that the actors were real monsters. Most damning of all, there were pictures. Pictures of Akta and Henry kissing, with Henry in his monster body.

Hollywood Heartbeat Monsters Are Real!

We were planning on showing you exclusive stills from Calypso Productions’ untitled film, but it’s not about the film anymore. It’s about the actors.

Check this: The actors aren’t human. That’s right, those hotties who’ve been showing up all over the red carpet along with the lovely Akta Patel aren’t human. They’re monsters.

Real monsters.

Don’t believe me? Think I smoked some bad stuff? Here are the stills from the production.

That’s right, you’re looking at a monster embracing, or killing, Akta. Some of you are going to say that it’s just really good effects, but remember this—no special effects house is working with them. ILM, Zoic…none of them are associated with this movie. Maybe it’s puppets?

Nope, Jim Henson Studios has never heard of them. Handspring says no too.

AND this is a shot from the production footage. Not the post footage.

No CGI, no live action puppetry. How are they doing this?

A source on the production confirms the actors are real monsters who can change into humans at will.

MONSTERS ARE REAL.

It’s not about the movie anymore, people. It’s about these monsters. Where’s the CIA? FBI? Those people from Roswell? We want to know the truth about this movie and who these actors are NOW.

“Who did this?” Akta asked.

“We don’t know,” Lena said, voice measured and low. Akta could read her friend and knew it wasn’t just anger she was holding back, but fear. They were all risking a lot with this movie, and if they couldn’t control the truth about the guys they were in for a lot of trouble.

“It has to be one of the crew,” Margo said. “Those are production shots.”

“None of them would…” Akta didn’t finish the sentence. It was stupid to insist that it wasn’t someone on the production crew when there was no one else it could be.

Cali hissed out a breath. “Oren.”

They’d checked out Oren before bringing him on. His past hadn’t made him their first choice, but he was the best they could get. Whatever his personal issues, he was a very good editor.

“We need to know who this was, and we need to shut this down.” Lena picked up her phone. “We’ll question Oren. Margo, I need you to warn Runako and Luke and the others. Keep them from going after anyone.” Margo nodded and left the room.

Lena called Oren, and Jane, looking sick, headed for the bathroom.

As Akta stared down at the photos, a horrible suspicion rose within her. It couldn’t be. He wouldn’t…

Keeping her fears bottled up, Akta took a seat at the conference table in the Calypso Productions boardroom. She wasn’t going to say anything to her friends until she had a chance to talk to Henry herself.

* * * *

“Where are you going?” Away from you.

Henry wisely didn’t say what he was thinking. “I’m going to get you some clothes.”

Henry could count things he was scared of on one hand. The creature standing before him was one of them. She didn’t look scary—a bit insane by human standards, with her long, tangled dark hair barely covering her naked body. Maeve looked as human as he did at the moment, but unlike him she looked human all the time. Yet, she was probably the least human of them all.

“Clothes…yes, I should have those.” She looked down at herself.

“You can’t wander around naked.”

Maeve pushed her hair back over her shoulders and ran her hands down her belly and hips. “I am very pleasing by human standards.”

“Uh, yes, you are.” Henry shifted from foot to foot, wishing someone else were there to help him deal with her. His once-peaceful condo was turning into a halfway house for new-to-LA monsters. Maeve had arrived in LA tonight. As far as Henry was concerned, it was making an unstable situation more dangerous, rather than less so, but Maeve would help them find out who’d leaked the photos.

Maeve reached for him and Henry jerked back. She cocked her head to one side. “I cannot See you, you know that.”

Maeve was his Clan’s Seer. Incredibly powerful, probably insane and nosy as hell, it was best to steer clear of her when trying to keep a secret. She was connected to the world in a way he didn’t really understand and used magic to do incredible, impossible things. She was both a revered leader in their Clan and one of their most important resources.

Maeve was one of the last of her kind. Where once each clan had been a race unto itself, as their numbers dwindled they’d had to band together, forming the Great Clan in a place that had, at the time, been open and easy to hide in. Now their home in the Rocky Mountains was smack in the middle of the United States, and Maeve was the last American banshee.

Earlier tonight Henry had met with the other monsters in Griffith Park, their go-to meeting place because they could hide in the vast urban wilderness and move around in their own bodies. This had been the grimmest meeting they’d ever called. They were staring down the barrel of a worst-case scenario. The movie was too far along to scrap—the crew and human cast all knew the truth, and if they walked away now the rumors would spread and they’d be vulnerable. Maeve had arrived just then, in their darkest hour, and though they could use her help, Henry knew the fact that she’d arrived when she did meant that the situation was as bad, if not worse, than they understood.

The terrible part of it all was that Maeve would be staying with him. She’d done more to help their people than anyone, but she was a serious pain in the ass. And it was his job to keep her under control.

“I’m going to go. The kitchen is in there. It’s human, but you should be able to figure it out.”

“My kitchen is human-sized.” Maeve wandered through the living room.

“Right. That makes sense. Just, uh, don’t burn anything down.”

Maeve rolled her eyes. “I am not the one you need to worry about.”

He didn’t believe that, but he’d deal with Maeve later. First she needed some clothes. A naked, crazy banshee wasn’t inconspicuous, even in LA.

* * * *

Henry slid into the car with a sigh. He carefully put the key into the ignition. He hadn’t been driving for long, and he wasn’t licensed. There was no way for him to get a California license when, as far as the US Government was concerned, he didn’t exist.

There was a tap on his window and Henry nearly came out of his skin—which for him was really saying something.

Akta was standing outside his car. She was dressed casually in a flowing top and leggings, with her hair in a braid. Henry took a moment to let his nerves settle, then rolled down the window.

“Akta, what are you doing here? Did something else happen?”

“I wanted to talk to you.” She walked around the front of the car to the passenger door. Henry unlocked it and she slid into the seat. “Lena said I shouldn’t go up to your place, that you had a new person there.”

“A new person…that’s close enough. I was going to get her some clothes.”

“I’ll go with you; we can talk on the way.”

Though Akta was smiling, there was steel in her words that he’d never heard before. Henry carefully backed out of the parking space and drove around to the gated entrance of the condo’s parking garage. As the gate rattled open, he looked at Akta.

“How did you get in here?”

“I stayed in one of the condos when I had my kitchen redone. The garage access is still keyed into my car.”

After that, Henry couldn’t think of any other small talk. He pulled out into traffic as the tension in the car thickened.

“Why are you here?”

Akta’s question took him by surprise. Henry looked over at her as he stopped for a red light.

“What do you mean?”

She picked up her braid and played with the end. “I mean, why are you here, in LA?”

“You know why. This movie is our best hope of controlling how humans find out about us and also making sure that they understand more about us than what we look like.”

“I know that.”

“Then why did you ask?”

“That’s why Michael and Luke are here. I want to know why you are here.”

“The same reason.”

“I don’t think so.”

“What? Why do you say that?”

She didn’t answer. Henry stared out the front window, furiously thinking. The way she was talking almost made it sound like she didn’t think he was committed to the project, but he was, and she had to know that. He’d never been late to set, never complained about the long days or about how many times he had to shift in order to get a shot, even when shifting hurt.

“Akta, I don’t understand.”

“That’s funny, because I don’t either.”

Henry hadn’t been paying attention and had ended up on Hollywood Boulevard. The street was jammed with traffic, even this late at night.

“What don’t you understand?” he asked.

“I don’t understand why you’re here if you hate humans.”

Henry stamped on the brake and the car behind him honked. He stared at Akta, waiting for her to smile, to laugh, for her eyes to sparkle the way they did when she was teasing him. There was no smile—she was serious.

A car on the right pulled out of one of the few meter spots on Hollywood and Henry zoomed in, throwing the car into Park.

“What did you say?” he demanded.

They both turned in their seats to face each other. “The past few months, your opinion of humans has been more than clear. You don’t like us, don’t think we’re equal to you.”

“That’s not…” Henry stopped. What could he say? The things he’d been saying had made it sound like he didn’t like humans.

“And all that makes me wonder if you didn’t come to LA only because you assumed no one would agree to make the movie.”

“You don’t think…”

“I think that at least Runako was up front with his dislike. It’s pretty clear that you haven’t been happy, and I can only assume that’s because now the movie is actually happening.”

She tipped her chin up, the picture of beautiful defiance. “And I think that you might be trying to sabotage the movie.”

Her words were like a blow to the stomach. Henry sat back in his seat, staring at her.

“You think I leaked the photos.”

“I think that you want the movie to end, you want to get away from me, from all us humans.”

Henry felt as if he were free falling. This conversation couldn’t be real; she couldn’t really think he would have done something like that.

“Please tell me you’re joking.” His voice was rough with suppressed emotion.

“I’m not.”

“Akta, you know I would never do that—you know me.” He reached out to take her hand and she pulled back, looking at him suspiciously.

“I thought I did, but that’s all changed. You’re not who I thought you were.”

“I am. I’m the same.”

“Then why did you do this?”

“I didn’t. I wouldn’t.”

“Henry.” She shook her head, shifting to look out the window and not at him. “You hate humans. If you admit that, it will be easier.”

“Look at me, please.”

“I can’t.” There was a little hiccup in her voice. “I can’t look at you. I’m so angry.” She didn’t sound angry; she sounded sad. Henry would have preferred that she be angry.

“Akta, look at me.”

She faced him, her beautiful brown eyes shiny with tears.

“I don’t hate humans. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I said, what I’ve been saying…” Henry stopped and considered what he should say. He hadn’t realized what the cost of his lies would be. He needed to come clean to her, but this wasn’t the time or the place. “Akta, I don’t hate humans. I never have, and I never will.”

“So you just think that we’re not good enough to be mates.”

“That’s… No…” Henry scrubbed his fingers through his hair. “I don’t think that either. I was…protecting myself.”

“Protecting yourself? From what?”

He turned to face her, cupped her cheek in his hand and forced her to look at him.

“From you.”

Akta blinked, confusion wiping away the sadness that blanketed her features. “From me?” Henry dropped his hand from her cheek as she looked away, then back, head shaking. “I don’t understand.”

“I didn’t realize how bad this would get, and I’m sorry. I was being an ass. Let me take Maeve something to wear and then we’ll go someplace and talk.” Akta just stared at him.

Henry jumped out of the car and ran to one of the souvenir shops wedged between a stripper shoe store and a pizza parlor. He grabbed a little cotton dress with sparkly writing on it, paid and dove back in the car.

Akta was silent until he’d pulled into the condo’s parking garage.

When he stopped, she opened the door and got out. Henry fumbled with his seat belt, planning to chase her and beg her for a chance to explain. She leaned back in the passenger door before he could get out.

“I’ll see you at my place.”

With that, she closed the door and walked away, the sharp tap-tap of her shoes the only sound as Henry sat in his car wondering how he’d managed to create such a disaster.

~

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