“Papa, it’s fine right there.” I stared at one of my overprotective parents as he positioned my bookcase, again. Taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly, I tried to keep my annoyance to a minimum—something that was always hard for me. “And I’m perfectly capable of fixing all of this.”

“I know you are, but what is an incredibly strong father good for except moving heavy furniture and beating up would-be boyfriends?” The man sliding the bookshelf across the floor for the fifth time wasn’t my biological father, but he might as well have been. He, along with my mother and her other two mates had raised my siblings and me.

“Quin?” my mom called from the common room of the top floor of our dorm at The Collective University, an extension of the Academy and a mile from home. “You done?” I heard her going into my sisters’ rooms as well, looking for all the dads. “Let’s go, unpacking is part of the fun of living away from home.”

My sensitive ears picked up their grumbles, and I smirked. I’d known it would be like this. They didn’t want to leave. I followed my Papa out of the room to join the rest of the family.

Luckily, Mom had agreed to leave our younger brothers and sisters at home. We were a houseful when everyone was gathered. I wasn’t in the mood for their million questions and the noise from their chatter.

My sisters and I were triplets, the first vampire-lycan hybrids to be known in the world. Most with parents from different species only took after one parent. My sisters and I had two dominant halves—our wolves and our vampires. We each also had a little extra power. Mine was fire.

Of course, being as special as we were meant our lives had been nothing but overprotective dads on top of overprotective guards on top of a seriously overprotective High Alpha mother. It was stifling. Not to mention our grandparents—one set being the rulers of hell.

The fact that we were living away from home while going to school was a miracle.

“You only live a mile away,” I said dryly.

“Meda, hush. I’m still not convinced this is a good idea.” Mom stood at the door, ready to usher my Niswi—all three dads—out of our new living space. All the while glaring at me as a warning to continue being mouthy and see what happened.

“It’s a great idea, Nokas.” My sister, Tala, used our pet name for our mother. The Algonquian languages of our ancestors were obscure, but we’d learned as much of them as we could as small children. “We’re ready. We’re strong, we’re trained. You prepared us to be confident, powerful women.”

My mother’s face softened as she looked at my sister. Tala had a darker nature and needed our mom the most. I’d always wished I could take away some of her anxiety and give her some of my rash personality in exchange, but there wasn’t a spell for that.

Yet. Maybe I’d learn one in my new college classes.

“You’re right. I’m not worried about you three.” She squared her shoulders. “Let’s go.”

The dads had to have their hugs and doled out last-minute advice.

“I can be here in literally five seconds,” Dad said, his fangs peeked out from his upper lip, and his eyes darkened with worry.

“Kane, you’ll not be zipping down here to check up on them. We promised them freedom.” My mother gave him her famous arched-eyebrow stare.

“Like you can call living a mile away freedom,” I muttered.

“We can hear you,” Dad said, but there was no bite in his tone.

I grinned at him. “I know.”

Amitola, the youngest of us triplets, came wandering out of her new bedroom. “Oh,” she said with surprise. “You’re still here?” She had a load of books in her arm. “I was coming to ask Meda if I could use her bookshelf.”

“Sure.” I didn’t read nearly as much as she did, and I always just grabbed one of her books anyway. Might as well let her use it. “Leave me one shelf.”

Her smile of thanks was enough for me. Ami was the absentminded one, with her head in the clouds. We all felt protective of her, but I was sure she was going to surprise us all one day. She moseyed her way into my room, trying to read the opened book on top of the huge stack, completely oblivious to the fact that she passed our Paw on the way.

Mom had mated with two lycans and a vampire the year before we were born. It hadn’t been done before—not since our Algonquian ancestors and hadn’t been done since. When she gave birth to triplet girls, the Collective—the combined Lycan Pack and Vampire Coven—had rejoiced.

They’d spent the next eighteen years smothering us. Bless their overprotective hearts. They didn’t mean to, but they were so worried about us being the only hybrids and the possibility of a threat to our lives that they forgot to let us be kids.

Mom finally ushered the Niswi out the door, leaving Ami, Tala, and I smiling at each other.

“We’re free,” I whispered.

“You’re not free.” A stern voice came muffled through the closed door to the dorm hallway. “You’re on a secure site. Nobody gets on this campus without my security team knowing about it. And everyone in this building has been thoroughly vetted to ensure your safety.”

“Stop ruining it, Paw!” I banged once on the door before turning back to my sisters. “I won’t let him ruin this for us. We may be guarded, and close to home, but for the first time we’re not in their house.” My excitement ran rampant. The world, or at least about a square mile of it, was our oyster.

“I don’t really see how this is going to be that much different.” Tala was being typical Tala. She was a glass half empty kind of girl.

“It will be what we make of it,” Ami replied.

I grinned. Her head wasn’t always in the clouds after all. “I agree.”

We split up, each going back into our bedrooms to unpack our new decorations. Our parents had taken us shopping the week before and told us to pick out things that would make our new dorm rooms comfortable.

After I tugged the new bookshelf back to the original spot I’d wanted it, I hung my new red and black curtains. They matched the bedspread and rug. Soon the room was organized and felt like me.

Our cat, Marvin, wandered in just as I finished smoothing out the bedspread. He hopped onto it and walked around. “Break it in, Marvin. It’s not totally comfortable until it’s covered in your long white fur.”

It was too bad I loved that white kitty. He made my love of wearing black clothes more difficult. After a yawn and stretch, he curled up in the middle of the bed for a nap. “Must be nice, fur ball.”

I supposed I could’ve taken a nap, too, but I was far too keyed up. I ran over everything in my room again—except the bed. Didn’t want to bother Marvin. Eventually, I realized I had more freedom than I’d ever had. I didn’t have to stay in my dorm.

Throwing my door open so hard it bounced off the stopper, I surged into the common area. Tala sat on the couch with the remote pointed at the TV.

“Let’s go out.” I plopped down beside her.

“Where?” she asked in a bored voice.

“Let’s explore. The campus is brand new, but maybe we’ll meet some new people.”

She rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to the show. “Ask Ami.”

“You’re such a buzzkill,” I muttered as I hopped up. “I’m going to ask Ami, but you really should come with us.”

“Maybe next time.”

I knocked on Ami’s door.

“Come in,” she called. I sat beside her on her light teal down bedspread. “What’s up, M?”

“I want to go explore, but Tala’s being a sourpuss.”

She grabbed her bookmark, tucked it inside her book, and closed it. “Well, it’s hardly a brand new place for us. I mean, I’m pretty sure that tree outside my window is where you fell and broke your arm.”

I walked over to her window. My room only had one window, but hers had three. I’d picked it that way. She was a morning person, but I liked to sleep in. My red and black curtains had blackout backs on them. I didn’t want anything waking me up before I was ready.

“Fine. I’ll explore on my own.”

The land we were on had once belonged to a vampire family. My Paw’s dad had gone nuts and attacked the pack, teamed up with a crazy female vampire. The home I grew up in had belonged to the vampire family they murdered. So much land came with it that the Collective built an elementary school, middle school, and high school. My sisters and I had graduated from high school two years before at age seventeen. We’d begged and pleaded to be allowed to go to a human college for as long as I could remember. When we went into high school, my mom had pushed the council to agree to finance a private college for non-humans. We’d had to register it with the humans as a private college, very exclusive, just like they had the other schools on the property. They’d also been forced to set up the class structure to appear to the outside world as if the students would be studying human classes.

And they could if they wanted to. Thanks to lycans working in the business office of an online university, if any non-human wanted a human profession, they could take online classes through the human university, while living on campus and also learning things like how to control their magic, pack history, and different pack-oriented careers, or supernatural biology.

Ami, Tala, and I had signed up for a mixture of courses until we decided what we wanted to do with our lives.

Well, not we. We didn’t get to choose our futures. They did. I had one path in front of me. For better or worse, I’d be the High Alpha one day.

I left Ami to her book and walked into the hallway of the empty dorm. My sisters and I had wanted to move in early to get settled. It was good for us to seem as if we had it together all the time. Showing weakness or vulnerability was unacceptable in our position.

Dad had insisted we be on the top floor for security. Our dorm took up half of the level and our enforcers shared rooms in the other half. I tiptoed past the door to their rooms. There was no reason for me to need a guard on an empty campus on guarded lands.

The staircase was stone, and as I stepped onto it, suddenly I was a medieval princess, escaping the clutches of my evil betrothed. I giggled as I ran down on light feet, holding my arms out as if I had to hold my skirts up to keep me from tripping down.

We’d been allowed to help design the buildings on campus, as long as they followed the Gothic architecture of the rest of the compound.

I’d picked the stone spiral staircase. It was glorious.

The lower floor contained several more dorms, smaller than ours. At least there were a few perks to being heirs to the Collective throne. We had big rooms.

I poked around that floor. Basic wooden beds and desks were in each room and every four rooms had a smaller common area with a fridge and microwave. Our kitchen had a stove and full refrigerator and freezer. I pictured us throwing wild parties, everyone having fun in our space.

Our schooling so far had been less than thrilling. We were the only kids our age in the Collective Academy, but the college opened up so many possibilities. Students from small, supernatural academies across the world had signed up for the first year of Collective College.

Maybe we’d finally get to make friends and—Grandpa Lucian forbid—a boyfriend.

I opened the door to the huge bathroom the floor would share, but then nearly sent a stream of pure fire into the room at the sight of someone in there.

My grandfather was playing with the tap to one of the showers.

“Poppy, you scared me to death.”

He had the good sense to look sheepish. “Sorry. I wanted to check in on you without bothering your little guard. I saw you exploring here, so figured I’d just wait on you to find me.” He pointed at the tap. “This water isn’t nearly hot enough.

With a grin, I pointed at the water flowing from the spout and sent a minuscule stream of fire into it. The room began to steam almost instantly.

“Much better. But you can’t warm all the students’ showers.” He turned the water off. “Come learn from me.”

“Poppy, we’ve talked about this.” I grabbed a stark white towel out of the cabinet so he could dry his hands. “I want to be around people my own age.”

“You just want a boyfriend.” He waved the towel at me. “Men are bad, Princess. Trust me, I know.”

My grandfather was the original big bad, Lord of the Morning, Ruler of Hell, Lucifer Morningstar himself. But to me and my sisters, he was just Poppy.

“Where’s Lilipad?” I asked him.

“Your grandmother is dealing with a particularly obstinate band of demons that refuses to come home. I found myself with a free morning and couldn’t think of any better way to spend it.”

He opened his arms for a hug, which I gladly gave. “You’re the best, Poppy.”

“I know,” he said simply. “Now give me the grand tour.”

My grandfather listened with a vested interest as I walked him around the small campus. We snooped through the biology classrooms. “I’m especially interested in the sciences,” he said with excitement.

I explained that my sisters and I planned to learn everything the professors would teach us. We wanted to know who we were and how we worked. “Mom found a lycan scientist who learned about DNA at a human college. He’s moving here to start studies on us and the other members of the Collective.”

He hummed and rocked on his feet. “That’s excellent.”

We both lost ourselves in the new library for about an hour, eventually meeting up in the ‘human occultism’ section. He smiled fondly at the books. “Bless them, they do try hard.”

Once we raided the campus kitchens for a snack, Poppy bid me farewell. “Tell your sisters I’ll be stopping by soon to spend some time with each of them, as my schedule allows.”

I hugged him tightly. “I will.”

“Meda, you’ve always been such a good girl and taken care of your sisters. Do try to get into a little bit of trouble, okay?”

I laughed into his chest. He wore an impeccable suit, dark gray, as usual. He’d worn a suit every time I’d ever seen him, and that was a considerable amount of time. For the man that ran Hell, he sure found plenty of time to spend with his grandchildren. “Sure, Poppy, whatever you say.”

He gave me enough time to breathe his scent in deeply before he disappeared, my arms suddenly empty. He smelled of cinnamon and fire, a great combination to a fire elemental. My sisters said they couldn’t smell anything on him, but to me, he smelled like home.

I touched the small ruby earrings in my ears and smiled. He’d given them to me as a graduation present. Red for me, for fire. Sapphires for Tala, and diamonds for Ami.

My stomach rumbled, the nuts and cheeses we’d snacked on in the cafeteria were not enough to quench my hunger. I was always hungry, it seemed like. My weight fluctuated sometimes, from healthy to a little curvy, no matter how much I ate, so I ate as much as I wanted. We had easy meals back in our room, so I headed that way.

“Tala, Ami,” I called as soon as I opened the door. “Poppy was here.”

They joined me in the kitchen and watched me make ham sandwiches.

“You eat too much.” Tala picked up an apple. “It’s gonna catch up with you one day.”

Ami nodded her head. “I still think your fire burns off energy and that’s why you need to eat more. I only have to eat once a day or so. Air helps create energy.”

“I’m normal,” Tala said dryly. “I eat like mom.”

“I don’t eat much either.”

The three of us turned quickly toward the new voice. My fire flared inside me, startled at the newcomer. No one, except our sentries, was supposed to be there for a few more days.

“Wow, you guys really are triplets. Except for the streaks of color in your hair, you look exactly alike.”

My sisters stayed silent, naturally deferring to me as their alpha.

I took an instant dislike to her. She was the opposite of my sisters and I in appearance. Our hair was nearly black, a gift from our father. We each kept a streak in a different color to help people differentiate us. Mine was red, Tala’s blue, and Ami’s white.

This girl’s hair was white blonde and coiffed perfectly, with curls at the bottom that would make any cheerleader red with envy.

My hair was in a messy bun. Tala’s needed a good brushing, and Ami’s was braided neatly, except for a sprig in the back that she’d missed.

We’d never been the perfectly coiffed types, none of us. Why spend time fixing hair that will be ruined in sparring?

“Hello. I’m Meda. Yes, we’re triplets. Who are you and how are you here?”

She gave us a blank look before flipping her hair over her shoulder. “Calista?” she asked as if we were supposed to know. “I’m your roommate.”

“We weren’t supposed to have one.”

“Well, you do.”

“Sorry,” Tala said firmly. “But we just have to check on that. We’re supposed to be on the top floor for security.”

Calista shrugged. “Me, too.”

“Why?” I asked suspiciously. A soft breeze stroked my face, a little reminder from Ami that she was ready to use her wind if needed.

“My father is a powerful warlock with a lot of enemies. They thought I’d be safest here near your enforcers.” She cocked her head and twirled a strand of hair around her fingers.

It was easy to verify. A shout for Randall, our head sentry, brought him through the door in seconds.

“What’s going on?” he asked as he helped himself to my uneaten sandwich. “Why are you yelling?” He nodded at Calista. “Hey.”

“Do you know who she is?” I asked him with an eyebrow up.

“Don’t snip at me.” He’d been our sentry long enough to feel free with his fat mouth. “She’s your roommate, her dad pulled some strings with your mom.”

“Okay, thanks,” I said, keeping the growl out of my tone. He shrugged and left with my sandwich. When I reached my room, I turned back to Calista and tried to smile warmly. My face hurt from the effort. “Welcome to the dorm.”