Authors: Zenina Masters
Tags: #Adult, #Erotic Romance, #Fey, #Fantasy, #Magic, #Paranormal, #Shapeshifter
His smile was slow. “No, I was just wondering if you could possibly be the warrior that my brother has described to me over and over.”
She blushed. “I didn’t realise that I came up in conversation.”
“You are the first shifter that he has ever dealt with on a daily basis. You definitely made an impression.”
His hand was on the centre of her back, warming her skin and keeping her against him. Up close, he was a lot larger than he initially appeared. His shoulders were easily twice the width of hers, and staring up at him was giving her a crick in her neck.
She opted for looking at his neck and watching the pulse under his skin. Her beast wanted to nibble on it, and Yval was surprised that she was still so close to the surface. The inner devil had remained quiet, but the second that Yval’s own interest rose, her beast was right in there next to her.
“So, what does being a guardian of the fey gateways entail? I mean, you are pretty familiar with my job.”
“When I am on my rotation, I monitor those using fey enchantments for transportation of anything other than their own bodies.”
She blinked. “Really? That sounds like you are a customs officer.”
He grinned. “Traffic warden. It is a familial responsibility. It is part of our truce with the shifters. We are watching for the supernatural transport of your folk.”
She swayed with him and scowled. “Do your people know you do this?”
“No, it is a family occupation only. The High King is the only one currently in the know about my position. We have a briefing every few weeks.”
“And yet, you just came out and told me about it.”
Drorik’s dark brows furrowed. “Yes, I have no idea why I did that.”
“Perhaps you sensed that I have no patience for men of mystery.”
He smiled. “That could have been it. It also could have been Tovin’s warning that you could smell deception and react violently. If you were even one-third the warrior I was warned of, it might have made for some exciting introductions.”
She narrowed her eyes and looked up at him. “Was that a short joke?”
He snorted delicately through the clearly chiselled nose that set off his elegantly rough features. “I have been around women smaller than you, though not by much.”
Yval swallowed all the sarcastic comments about where he buried the bodies after he crushed them. Swallowing her own wit made her vaguely ill. She had just met him; why was she sparing his feelings? Did he even have feelings? Should she grab his ass and check for feelings? It was all too much to contemplate.
She bit her lip and looked down as her beast ran around the edges of her mind trying to sniff him.
Before she had met the fey on duty, she had imagined all elves in their ancient formalwear. When she had seen them in black cargo pants and tank tops, she had drooled a bit. Now, here she was dancing with a man in comfortably worn jeans, a brushed black cotton shirt that felt like butter under her hands and the edge of a tattoo peeking out of the open neckline.
His hair was tied in a tight ponytail that cascaded down his back. His ears had high peaks, and there was a bright golden topaz winking at her from a hoop through the upper cartilage.
His skin was darker than Tovin’s. Where his brother was lithe, Drorik was solid. They resembled each other side by side, but on their own, she would never have pegged them as relations.
“Are you having fun with your examination? All I can see is your head and shoulders.”
“There are bonuses to being small. It gives you a perspective that most folks don’t think of. Not all predators can tackle you; some can rip your legs apart and bring you down.”
“This conversation got dark really quickly.”
She laughed. “Nocturnal predator here. I get dark as soon as the sun goes down.”
“Is the sun going down?”
“It is in my mind and that is all it takes.” She looked up at him.
“I don’t mind things getting dark.” He lowered his head and kissed her as they swayed to music that had increased in tempo.
His lips were warm, firm and smooth. She took in the texture as the direct skin-on-skin contact sent tingles of energy across her lips. It was a crackle of static that sent energy through her erogenous zones with the speed of lightning and the subtlety of thunder.
She leaned back when the sparks went from pleasurable to frustrated pain. “I think I am going to get some dinner. You are welcome to join me.”
“Is that an invitation?”
She stepped out of his embrace. “The only one you are going to get. I don’t repeat myself.”
Yval walked out of the bar without looking back. When she heard the footfalls behind her, a slow smile crept over her lips. A shifter exiting the café stopped, looked at her and ran off. Yeah, it was either a good smile or Drorik was right behind her. She was pleased with either option.
Dinner in a well-lit café was quite a different situation than a dance floor. She faced off against him and was stuck either staring at his chin or into his gold and blue eyes.
“So, you spend your days on duty?” She mumbled it around a mouthful of hamburger.
“No. I am constantly monitoring the situation. Even here, I am in touch with my duties.”
She did love a man who could multitask.
“Why are you on leave?”
She ran her fries through ketchup and stuffed them into her mouth. She closed her eyes at the starchy, sweet, salty, greasy seduction, and she swallowed. When she opened her mouth again, she said, “My control started to slip. I have been working too hard for too long, and the magic that let me do what I do is very hard on my body.”
“Have you always done work as a hunter?”
She twisted her lips. “No. I used to work security escorting folks around the guildhall.”
“My cousin was taken to be harvested for use in human magic.”
“I heard that there were a number of survivors.”
“She was not one of them. They harvested her to death.” She sipped her lemonade.
“I am so sorry.”
She inclined her head. “Thank you. That was when I went from occasional hunter and full-time security, to full-time hunter.”
“You were looking for revenge.”
Yval tightened her lips. “I was looking to help people out of enslavement before their lives were endangered. I have never been able to save them all, but I can help those that we find.”
Drorik cocked his head. “You don’t blame all fey for the situation they created?”
“Of course not; it is no more all fey, than all shifters in collections. Individuals make their choices. They can either work against those around them or for them. We make these choices every day, and the fey who want to collect shifters are definitely making the wrong choice. It is my job to inform them about their poor decision and to make sure they understand the seriousness of the consequences.”
“But, you changed your basic body. You have the crackle of magic around you, and it is not shifter magic.”
“So, you actually can see it. Arrowheart said that the fey could and the others agreed, but I didn’t think it was true.”
“You are swirling with two energies, and your shifter self is encased in the other power. What effect does that have?” His steak and fries were long gone.
“I half shift. I take on the exterior of my beast but human sized.”
“I imagine it would be a boon in a fight.”
She smiled again, showing teeth. “It does that. I am also enchanted to leave permanent damage in fey flesh. When I claw and bite, it leaves a mark.”
His face underwent a dramatic transformation. His cheekbones exaggerated, his eyes brightened and she watched him lick his lips. “I would enjoy seeing what kind of damage you could inflict.”
In an effort to warn him off, she shifted and growled low in her throat. Dishes clattered behind the kitchen counter; she shifted back to human and finished her fries.
His lids opened and closed slowly, but the aroused expression didn’t disappear.
Yval was both appalled and intrigued. The black fur and pointed muzzle hadn’t spooked him. At this range, it was a definite first.
“Interesting. I thought there would be more animal instinct behind your eyes. You were completely clear.”
“My beast isn’t speaking to me.”
Drorik blinked. “What?”
“It is exactly like it sounds. When I was younger, we shared the body and she hunted with me. For the last three years, the only time she has come forward was...never mind.” She blushed and sipped at her lemonade.
“That sounds like an intriguing admission. I will not press you on that matter.” He smirked.
She tried to distract him. “So, how old are you?”
He pulled his head back. “I don’t think...I am less than a century.”
“You aren’t sure?”
“We were warned against telling our prospective mates about our ages. It might be considered a turn off.”
“What? That you are older than my grandmother? How could that be possible?”
He sighed heavily.
With dinner finished, they sat in silence as the plates were cleared.
“Would you care to go dancing again?” Drorik asked politely.
“No. I think I would like a nice walk in the darkness. It will be good for me to not be constantly on guard.” Yval smiled. “You are welcome to join me if you like.”
“Will you take a four-footed run through the grass?”
Her smile faded. “No. Like I said. She isn’t talking to me. I haven’t done a full shift in three years.”
He sobered and got to his feet, holding his hand out for her to take. The snapping and crackling began between their palms, but it was a slow prickle that she didn’t mind.
He swiped his charm over the pay plate, and they left the café.
“I must say, you look far more groomed than I expected you to. Tovin described you as a bit of a wild woman.”
“I normally am. I spent the day at the spa trying not to think, and this was the result.”
“It is a good look for you.”
“Don’t get used to it. My image is next to the word scruffy in the dictionary.” She smiled.
They walked down the street and toward the meadow.
Yval lifted her head and scented the night air. This was the time she wanted to hunt. She wanted to seek out prey, bring it to the ground and tear it apart.
“Your expression is intriguing. What are you thinking about?”
She felt the sharp fangs of her change and said carefully, “I am thinking about the fun I used to have with my beast.”
“I am guessing it was a bloodthirsty pursuit.”
She shrugged and continued walking; the scent of grass, trees and the hint of water in the air got her beast stirring.
“Why have our people remained apart for so long?”
He turned her hand and stroked her palm with his thumb.
Yval smiled. “Because we have incompatible magic or, at least, magic that fights contact. Basically, two stubborn energies that will not back down.”
“Why did you agree to come here?”
She chuckled. “I needed the vacation, and my nephew wanted me to restart my life.”
“You have a nephew?”
“And a brother. We have different fathers, but we are close, nonetheless.”
“Why different fathers?”
“Ron’s father died of cancer when he was ten and Mom remarried. I became an auntie on my tenth birthday.”
“You and your nephew share a birthday?”
“We do.” She chuckled. “My sister-in-law is not a fan of mine right now, but I don’t foresee that getting any better over time.”
“What is the issue there?”
He seemed fascinated by her family dynamic.
“Many shifters are magic sensitive. Linny’s hackles go up every time I am in the room, and if I surprise her, she goes on the attack. It is hard enough to have two of us in the same room under normal conditions, but when you throw in wild magic, nothing is predictable.”
“Two of you?”
“Female Tasmanian devils. The males get irritated around other males, and the females get cranky around other females. Our beasts want to be solitary, but our human sides want to be social. The small family is the best we can do.”
“What will your nephew do when he and his father can’t be in the same space any longer?”
She chuckled. “Move in with me, I suppose.”
Drorik nodded, considering that.
Yval looked up at him, “Why did you come into the bar without stopping at the Open Heart?”
“I was pulled to you if that makes any sense. There was a line of energy that led out of one of the nearby buildings and into the bar. Tovin came along and recognised you a moment later.”
Yval looked around and took a seat on a nearby rock. “I saw the beam of light as you transported in. I thought it was usual, but now, I am not so sure. Why did you agree to come to the Crossroads?”
“I want a wife. I want a family, and I want that family to have a future.”
“You can’t find an elf to wed?”
He made a face. “Not one that has an interest in the world around her. My people are notoriously insular and that is what has caused our collapse. My parents told us about the slow reduction in family size that has taken over during the last four centuries. We have been in negative population growth, and no one noticed until forty years ago.”
“Which is when the human half elves began to surface.” She chuckled. “Why didn’t the human interbreeding continue?”
“The magic fades in normal humans, and the mages do not encourage their people to wed outside their species. They keep their magic together.”
“And they are growing stronger, and even with a few marriages with normal humans, the magic breeds true.” Yval knew that one. She had friends who were mages, and several of the transporters enjoyed going for coffee after a mission.
“How do you feel about seeking a mate in the shifter community? I know that many of your people consider us more beast than thinking beings.”
“That is not a concern. My family will welcome any bride my brother or I bring home and dote on any child that we produce. My mother is a metal artisan who has her work displayed in museums all over the world; my father works with local communities to increase cottage industry. We involve ourselves with the community and the people around us. The guardian position is just an inherited post because our magic works along the lines of power that move between worlds and carry people on the paths.”