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Authors: Dee Tenorio

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Deceiving the Protector

BOOK: Deceiving the Protector
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Deceiving the Protector

By Dee Tenorio

After a series of murders is discovered along the trail of the Shifter Underground, wolf soldier Jensen Tate is assigned to find and protect a missing stray. But Lia Crawford doesn’t seem to want his protection. When she eludes his watch and returns with mysterious injuries, Tate knows she’s hiding something. To discover her secrets, Tate will have to win her trust…and get closer to the woman he thinks may be his mate.

Lia has reasons to keep her distance. The killer is haunting her steps, determined to claim her. He will come after them both if he sees how drawn she is to Tate, though it becomes increasingly difficult to deny her attraction to him. Protecting Tate is vital—but will her deception cost her his love?

88,000 words

 

Dear Reader,

I feel as though it was just last week I was attending 2010 conferences and telling authors and readers who were wondering what was next for Carina Press, “we’ve only been publishing books for four months, give us time” and now, here it is, a year later. Carina Press has been bringing you quality romance, mystery, science fiction, fantasy and more for over twelve months. This just boggles my mind.

But though we’re celebrating our one-year anniversary (with champagne and chocolate, of course) we’re not slowing down. Every week brings something new for us, and we continue to look for ways to grow, expand and improve. This summer, we’ll continue to bring you new genres, new authors and new niches—and we plan to publish the unexpected for years to come.

So whether you’re reading this in the middle of a summer heat wave, looking to escape from the hot summer nights and sultry afternoons, or whether you’re reading this in the dead of winter, searching for a respite from the cold, months after I’ve written it, you can be assured that our promise to take you on new adventures, bring you great stories and discover new talent remains the same.

We love to hear from readers, and you can email us your thoughts, comments and questions to
[email protected]
. You can also interact with Carina Press staff and authors on our blog, Twitter stream and Facebook fan page.

Happy reading!

~Angela James

Executive Editor, Carina Press

www.carinapress.com

www.twitter.com/carinapress

www.facebook.com/carinapress

Dedication

For Zoe, who loved this story from inception and kept me sane for every step of it. For Limecello, who told me I wasn’t crazy, I wasn’t going to die and it wasn’t horrible. Thanks for the online Prozac. For Christine Bell, Heather Rae Scott, Alisa Rowley and Pet Monroy, who saved my life and helped incalculably in keeping me from losing the good stuff.

 

For Daph.

Acknowledgements

A special thank you to everyone who read and loved
Tempting the Enemy
and especially for those of you who hoped for a sequel. I hope I did you proud.

Prologue

The sound of her own breath—ragged, desperate gasps—echoed in the girl’s ears. But not nearly as thunderously as the pounding feet behind her. Coming closer with every lunge.

Down alleys and streets she ran, past people who were less than streaks of color blurring her vision. Blocking her way. Clouding her senses with gasps and shrieks of terror.

Run. Faster. Faster!

Claws sliced through her sweater and grazed her skin. Screaming, she jerked to the left, half diving, half falling into the alley between brick buildings. The sudden redirection cost him a step, the hulking man she’d seen only for a split second before he bared fangs and followed her, unable to resist the scent of Heat that spread out around her.

Her fingers scrabbled on the edge of a trash can she passed, sending it flying in her wake. He crashed through it, growling with frustrated rage, but she didn’t dare look back to see if it slowed him any. One alley turned into another, buildings crowding close, creating nooks and small spaces she raced into.

Shift. Shift. Please God, help me shift fast enough…

But her frantic prayer changed nothing. Her lungs burned, her muscles screamed, but the tingling feeling she’d only experienced a few times before refused to wash over her.

A powerful swipe to her side sent her crashing into a wood pallet leaning against the wall. Even before she hit the ground, she tried to scramble free, but he was on her.

“Nooooo!” Her fingers dragged on the rough pavement, reasonable thought erased by frantic terror.

“Heat,” the man snarled against the back of her neck, his weight over her pushing the air from her lungs. There was no getting out from under him, not even when he bared his claws to start tearing at her jeans, not caring that he was cutting into her skin. The fabric made a horrible rending sound, louder than the cry that took more of her breath. “Mine!”

A vicious slash and she screamed, pain transforming into a sizzle of shock as her body changed. Her hands became paws, claws dragging on the unforgiving concrete, and the color leached from her vision. The man roared in frustration as she finally found purchase enough to slip from him. But not to get away. He held on, his grip on her hind leg bending her limb the wrong way. She twisted, her body falling hard when she met his crazed gaze. There was no man there, just a creature of instinct, desperate to take her. He lunged forward again, yanking her beneath him. Just like that, her bone snapped in his hand, her yowl of agony echoing off the close walls of the alley.

He fell to the ground. Silent. Still.

She panted, falling away from his inexplicably slumped body, back into the pile of broken wood. Terrified, she looked around but saw nothing. Couldn’t even register why he’d stopped moving. If she moved, would it all start again? Like a sick game of cat and mouse?

Could
she move?

She never had the chance to find out.

A sharp burst of fire burned into her right shoulder, hot acid spreading from the metal dart sticking out of her flesh. She stared at it dumbly, the strange fake flower on the end slowly turning a bright, vivid blue even as the edges of her vision began to darken.

She slumped, with the faint realization that she’d shifted back to human form and was lying there naked in the filth of the alley, unable to move even to cover herself. The pain in her leg muted almost completely as the feeling in her limbs disappeared. Focus faded in and out, her breath growing shallower, while the shadow of a man moved toward her.

At least, she thought it was a man.

Black boots. Black pants and sweater, tight to his body. There was no skin to be seen, not even at his neck or his face, both covered completely by a smooth black mask. Only the reflective round lenses where his eyes should have been, one larger than the other, broke the glossy surface. One lens lifted out on a black ring that twisted first left, then right, like a camera focusing on something far, far away.

Her head lolled as she sank fully onto her back to stare up at him. He’d saved her. Why did he shoot her? She tried to move her lips, just to ask him, but it was all she could do to breathe. To stay conscious. He stared down at her for long seconds, waiting for some sign she couldn’t begin to imagine. Until finally, he lifted his arm, his hand still gripping a handgun.

This was no savior, she realized, too numb to fear anymore.

He aimed it down at her, those glassy eyes staring at her remorselessly over the sights of the weapon. She watched him until he pulled the trigger, knowing as she sank into the darkness that he was Death.

From him, there would be no escape.

Chapter One

Tate shifted the pack on his shoulders, the muscles under his shirt rippling with irritation. Sweat beaded on his forehead beneath the brim of his Stetson, threatening to drip down his brow and into his eyes. He’d lost track of how many miles he’d covered since sunup, but it wasn’t enough. His prey was still ahead somewhere. Lurking in the abundant trees maybe, or skulking in shadows behind the thick shrubbery lining these empty Pennsylvania back roads. He couldn’t be sure how far behind he was, but it couldn’t be long before he found it. He could almost taste the scent now, faint as it was on the breeze.

Despite the impending capture, he felt none of his usual anticipation. This prey wasn’t really his, a detail that set his sharpening teeth on edge. His orders had been to start where this old highway met the river and follow it on foot to track the stray. In fact, this whole journey to the next safe house had to be on foot, per the orders from the Sibile. The only thing that kept him from driving in rebellion was that he couldn’t completely catch the scent even while walking. He’d miss it entirely if he moved any faster. Sometimes he couldn’t even be sure if he’d simply imagined it other than the impression of something that didn’t quite belong. Not until the next subtle taste…

Something about it made his spine itch. Made him feel like running, and not in human form. For the last five miles, it had teased him, occasionally slamming him to a full stop from his brain to his feet, trying to grasp the impact. Urgency set every hair on his body standing on end, but hell if he could figure out why. The few treads he found on the ground were even, unhurried. No blood scented the air. Not a thing out of the ordinary explained the strange need, but it was unmistakable. And getting stronger.

His senses rang with another marker on the wind, slightly stronger. Wolf. Distinctly female. A faint scent, tickling at his senses. Still too light to truly grasp, but he knew without a doubt he’d finally found the oracle’s stray.

Get to her. Protect. Get to her.

He jolted in response to the Instinct’s ruthless whisper. Usually, that Voice—the one every shifter grew up with—reserved itself for times of utmost urgency. Self-preservation, protection of a loved one. He’d never heard it while simply tracking.

The urge to rush pushed at his blood, but he discarded the prospect and the warning of the Instinct with it. He wasn’t about to risk losing this female now, and rushing was a sure-fire way to lose his prey. Every step was measured, the sun overhead forgotten. The hunter he was shed every thought but what was necessary to find her.

He scanned the area carefully, taking in every shifted rock and leaf, positive he’d find something that gave her away. Next he searched the trees for any sign she’d cut through them or if she’d climbed up. He’d need every clue he could find to decide if she was friend or foe. Even steps and attempts to hide her trail indicated a rational thinker. Wild tracks, broken branches or gouges in the wood would tell him if he was dealing with a feral. She wouldn’t be the first to snap from the horrors of life as a shifter, but hyper-aggressive females made for some vicious hunters. Some of them killed simply to feed their desire for blood.

Still, she didn’t
smell
like a demented killer. No sickness overwhelmed the flavor, nothing foul to sting his nose. Just something fresh, enticing in its elusiveness. Almost…tempting.

Not Heat, though, which would have explained his growing need to reach her with a nice, tidy pheromone excuse. He wasn’t picking up the imprint of a male on her either. There was something, though. Something…blank. It was barely there. As if she’d rolled in another scent before traveling the road, but he couldn’t tell what it was and that was new for him. A human deodorant, possibly, but to what end? Trying to throw off males? If she wasn’t in heat, why bother? A male wouldn’t lose his mind at the scent of her otherwise.

Maybe she just didn’t want to be found by other shifters at all, which didn’t make sense either. Shifters were creatures of community. Even without the packs to protect them, they tended to find a sense of relief simply knowing another being like them was near.

Curious little stray.

Then he stepped into an orchard, on a rise of packed dirt between tree groves, and proceeded not to give a rat’s ass what she might be trying to do.

The scent was finally clear.

And it went straight to his head.

Female. Apples. Cool water. Rich earth. Rain. Sunshine.

He almost couldn’t separate the impressions, but the discordant thread of fear kept him from running forward after it. Wherever she was, she was aware she’d been followed. If there was one thing he knew about strays, forewarned meant forearmed.

He followed the scent trail slowly, stepping carefully down the embankment, not needing to draw in a full breath to sense her anymore. To
taste
her. Soft, almost floral but not quite. Cool, like a fresh stream, crisp, laced with…mint. For some reason, the bouquet reminded him of his childhood back in South Dakota, when spring had just begun to melt the snows. Fresh, untouched…promising.

He stilled at the unexpected memory, blinking a few times to clear it from his head. This wasn’t South Dakota and this female might still turn out to be feral. A clouded head could get him killed.

He searched around, but there was still no trace of anyone on the ground.

He nearly missed the bag lying almost under the root of an apple tree. The beaten tan backpack with a sleeping roll tightly tied beneath it blended almost perfectly with the dirt. Almost as if it had been chosen for that specific purpose. But that wasn’t what had him freezing in place.

Crouched on one thick upper limb, nearly hidden by fat, healthy foliage, a woman waited, not even breathing. Green eyes watched him, almost the same color as the light-speckled leaves obscuring her face. Focused. Unblinking. A predator’s stare, waiting for him to walk into her trap.

Attraction kicked him in the gut hard, his body responding to that even glare so fast he just stopped himself from sucking a breath in through his teeth. Difficult not to like a woman smart enough to nearly get the jump on him.

He came closer, keeping his posture relaxed. Loose-limbed. Unthreatening. A human would probably think he was just strolling, but the woman in the tree wasn’t human. She had to have scented what he was as well because she didn’t seem to be lowering her guard. Had yet to blink even. Cautious.

That was fair. In this day and age, a female alone had to be paranoid to survive, period. But her guard seemed a little higher than most, the grip of her fingers on the tree strung extra tight, especially for a shifter with sheathed claws. As if taking the wrong step might turn her from cornered to kamikaze. He stopped moving, taking stock of her once more from this closer position.

Full pink lips that reminded him of lush roses were drawn into an implacable line. Seemed wrong, to see a mouth that inviting pulled into such a stark, emotionless shape. A thick sheaf of wheat-colored hair hung over one shoulder in a fat braid, the tail of which curled around the pleasant hint of a breast. Inexplicably for early August, a dark red winter scarf—looped loosely a few times around her neck—obscured those possible curves more than the fluttering leaves. A smudge of dust smeared one flushed cheek while thick bangs, unevenly cut and wet with sweat, put the bits of her face that he could see into that tiniest bit more shadow. Except for those eyes. They glowed—rebellious, apprehensive, ready for an attack.

Did she have as many knives on her body as he did? The look she was giving him had him guessing she might be packing more. And a few more teeth, too.

The kick in his gut turned into a battering ram.

Screw his assigned agenda, this had just gotten interesting. He bit back the smile that tugged his lips. He already knew it wouldn’t help him lure her closer. The instinctive pleasure of a chasing Wolf never gave the prey much comfort.

“Hello up there,” he said, still a few feet from the foot of the tree, looking at her from under the brim of his hat. His heel made a scuffing sound on the ground as he kicked a pebble out from under his boot.

Her lip moved, just as a soft, feminine snarl rumbled from her throat.

“You wouldn’t be planning to take those apples without paying for them, now, would you?” His
aw-shucks
voice had gotten him in with the most nervous strays in Resurrection like a magic wand. If she wasn’t feral, she should calm right down.

Another step closer and he could see a bit more of her. Her shirt was bigger on her than he’d first thought. Her arm where she braced herself to the trunk of the tree was wiry. Small, over-defined muscles rippled under golden skin, no trace of softness to them at all. The same to her throat. She was all hard angles and sinews. Her bones stood out too far from her flesh, hollowed cheeks leaving her full features sharp and forbidding.

The absolute wrongness of that had him forgetting his plan for a crucial half second and losing his practiced expression for one that did nothing to hide his scowl. Like a shot, she bolted up a branch, behind more leaves, so fast he almost missed the movement, and he swallowed a bitter curse at his own stupidity. This wasn’t his first stray. He knew better than to spook them, especially the half-starved ones.

As shifters, they were stronger than humans, could survive harsher conditions for longer, but it also made them more instinctive. A hell of a lot less reasonable. This one looked like she’d gone damn close to the outside of what even a shifter could endure.

The protector in him couldn’t let that go. He circled around until he could get a bead on her again through the coverage. “How long has it been since you ate?”

They were supposed to have fed her at the last safe house on the Underground, but that would have been at least two days ago.

“I have protein bars in my pack if you’re hungry.”

Her mouth pressed tighter together, her gaze icy as hell, before she moved to another branch.

Shit, this wasn’t going well at all. He raised his hands, letting her see that his claws were sheathed. “You don’t have to worry, okay? My name is Jensen Tate. I’m from the Underground and I’ve been looking for you. I’m here to help.”

“I don’t need help.” She might smell like spring, and all that golden skin and hair might look like summer, but the cold hiss of her voice was pure winter.
Deep
winter.

Well, he’d never liked acting charming anyway. He put his hands down to his hips. “You don’t know what’s going on out there. You’re not safe.”

Her chin dipped ever so slightly, and damn if she didn’t smirk at him as if that was obvious.

This time his boot scuffed the ground with frustration. “Look, lady, I’ve been tracking you all day on zero sleep and double time, don’t you think the least you could do is come down here and talk to me?”

“No.” Just that. No. As if she could stay in that tree all damn day.

Given the stubborn cut of her jaw and mouth, he grudgingly accepted that she could stay there all damn
year.
“I’m not going to hurt you.”

“I’ve heard that one before.”

She probably had. Tate ground his teeth, wishing for once his sense of smell wasn’t so strong. This close, his senses were clouded by her. Heat or no Heat, she was intoxicating. Distracting.
Arousing…

He twisted his head until he felt the relieving crack of the joint, then the other way until it did the same for that side. There wasn’t going to be any of that kind of thinking, even if she wasn’t looking at him as if he were some kind of creature. He was there to do a job. A
Sibile
job. If that didn’t kill a hard-on in zero-point-two seconds flat, nothing would.

They stared at each other for another soundless second.

Nope. She still smelled good enough to eat. To drink and let the flavor of her stay on his tongue to savor before dipping down again for more.

Damn it.

“You have to get down here so we can get moving. I need to get you somewhere safer. Now.” Before he got it in his head to unwrap her from that scarf and find out for himself exactly where her soft spots might be. “This part of the Underground is shutting down.”

A flicker in those leaf-colored eyes. “You’re taking me to my next safe house?”

The one she was supposed to have already gotten to, except the woman seemed to travel slower than molasses on a frigid day when she wasn’t up in a fucking tree. He ground his teeth in an effort to speak calmly. “Yes.”

“Then I’ll make sure to get there on my own by sunup.”

His glare didn’t seem to faze her in the slightest. “That’s not acceptable to the Alpha.” Not to mention physically impossible. Her assigned safe house was more than two full days’ travel.

One of her shoulders hitched disinterestedly. Nothing else on her moved.

Goddamn
it. “Might as well get down here, I’m not going anywhere until you do.”

“I’m not the one in a hurry.”

“You should be.” He allowed the darkest aspects of his Wolf to rumble through his voice. She might not be interested in what he had to say, but there wasn’t a Wolf born who didn’t respond to dominance.

An eyebrow raised on her face, but that was it.

Well,
shit.
That just left him with the truth. “There’s a killer out there, lady. Targeting shifters.”

“Everyone’s targeting shifters. That’s not new.”

“This one’s hunting travelers on the Underground.”

She wasn’t so glib this time, her cool-toned voice dropping to a softer rumble. One his ears liked much better. Smoky, rough. The kind of voice he liked waking up to in the predawn hours. “If I’m dead, it won’t matter to me, will it?”

Until he registered what she was saying.

Something dark snaked though his gut. The low, menacing growl couldn’t be kept in. “It matters to the Alpha. You’re a traveler, you’re under his protection.”

She blew her bangs out of her face, fluttering the leaf in front of her face in the process. Here he was, hot, tired, uncomfortably aware of her, and all the while she looked as if he was ruining her Saturday afternoon by coming along to save her life. Worse, those damn full lips looked absolutely suckable when pursed. “Protection is just a fancy word for control.”

BOOK: Deceiving the Protector
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