Authors: Jennifer Ashley
Tags: #Romance, #Paranormal, #Fiction
Kim was petite by Shifter terms, though humans might consider her about average, maybe a little smaller. She always insisted that she was fat, which baffled Liam and equally baffled Sean. Women
have generous breasts and nice bums. If Kim was a little plumper now, it was because she was carrying Liam’s cub. That made her beautiful. Sean suddenly imagined what Andrea would look like, thickening with Sean’s child.
Kim caught sight of Sean and transferred her glare to him. “Sean,” she said in a voice that brooked no argument. “Tell Liam that he is
to don a bullet-proof vest and go off chasing the bad guys.”
Liam looked aggrieved, but Sean agreed with Kim. Liam was hotheaded enough to do something daft like hunt down a carload of trigger-happy humans by himself.
“Liam,” Sean said. “You are not to don a bullet-proof vest and go off chasing the bad guys.”
“Don’t start, little brother,” Liam growled.
“She has a point. Your cub in there will need his dad.”
Liam slid his large hand lovingly over Kim’s protruding abdomen. Ever since Kim’s announcement that she was pregnant, Liam had been perpetually worried. He ought to be. Though Kim was robust and though Shifter-human pairings were not unknown, having the child would be tough on her.
“We have good people,” Sean went on. “Including me. Use them.”
This shooting hadn’t been the first one. A similar incident had occurred just prior to Andrea’s arrival in Austin, humans driving up to a Shifter bar, unloading bullets, and screaming off again. No one had been hurt, thank the Goddess. Sean had talked to the police, but they’d put it down to gang violence and didn’t seem very interested, not when the potential victims were only Shifters.
“Fine.” Liam frowned, and Sean knew that the preliminary round of this argument had been won. By Kim. Again. “Kim, go back to bed,” Liam said.
Kim’s blue eyes sparkled. “
come to bed.”
“I will. I need to chat with Sean a bit, then I’ll be up.”
Kim slid his hand from her belly but gave him a smoldering smile. “I’ll still be awake.”
“I’m counting on that, love.”
Sean rolled his eyes in mock irritation. “Don’t tell me the two of you will be keeping the rest of us awake again.”
Kim blushed, but Liam only grinned, his good humor restored. The two brothers went downstairs as Kim retreated into the bedroom.
“Andrea all right?” Liam asked Sean when they reached the kitchen. Liam opened the pantry, extracted two bottles of Guinness, and handed one to Sean. Though they’d learned to drink lager cold after twenty years of living among Americans, they still agreed that stout was best at room temperature. “She wasn’t hurt?”
“No, she’s fine,” Sean said absently. He knew he needed to tell Liam about Andrea’s healing gift, but he didn’t want to yet. Sean’s newfound protectiveness of Andrea exerted itself even against his own brother. Besides, at the moment, he was remembering Andrea doing a little booty dance for fun behind the bar earlier that evening. Andrea’s body had moved in a sinuous rhythm, and every unmated male in the place, including Sean, had gone alert and hard.
“Sean.” Liam snapped his fingers in front of Sean’s face. “Dreaming are you? Anyone would think you were smitten.”
He was laughing, and Sean started to answer, but they were interrupted by Connor banging in the back door.
Connor, their late brother’s son, had recently turned twenty-one. While that made him an adult by human standards, by Shifter standards he was still a cub, still waiting to find his place in the clan. In a few more years, though, Connor would be a formidable contender for dominance and ready to find a mate. Connor had enough of his father, Kenny, in him to make him tough, strong, and a force to be reckoned with.
“Hey, Liam. Sean,” Connor said. “Ellison wants to know when we can go hunt down the humans and kick some gobshite ass.”
ean started to grin, doubting that Ellison, a steadfast Texan who lived across the street, had used the term
, but Liam growled. “Ellison can keep his Stetson on and his mouth shut.”
Connor went to the refrigerator and helped himself to a chilled beer. His movements were restless, angry, a young Shifter impatient to make his place in the world. “They invaded our territory, or as good as. They put our females in danger. I say Ellison’s right. We fight.”
“Since when do you listen to Lupine assholes like Ellison?” Liam’s voice had an edge to it. “We’ll get them, lad.”
“By sitting around drinking Guinness?” Connor took a swig of his beer, swallowed, and wiped his mouth. “Fine leaders you are.”
“I talked to the human cops before I closed up,” Liam said. “Sean’s going back downtown tomorrow morning to speak to the detective he talked to last time. Ronan at least remembered the license plate of the car. Not that it will help much—the last car turned out to be stolen.”
Connor swung a punch at air. “The police should let
track them. And then take them down.”
“Sure, lad,” Liam said. “We’ll find the humans and jump on them, and then our Collars will go off, and won’t we look like fools rolling around, screaming in pain? We’ll get them, Con, but another way.”
Connor thumped down on a chair. “Why can’t we just get these damned Collars off of us?”
Liam and Sean exchanged a glance. Last summer, secret experiments by Shifters on removing the Collars had produced some horrifying results, and Liam had declared that the experiments were to be terminated. But Sean knew full well that Liam and their father, Dylan, were still working on it, looking for a safer way for removal. They hadn’t told Connor about it, or Andrea, though Glory and Kim knew, because they’d been involved. But it was strictly a need-to-know basis.
Connor shrugged, a picture of youth frustrated. “Sometimes it looks to me like you’re not doing anything.”
“That’s when I’m most dangerous, lad,” Liam said. “Anyway, what were you doing rushing off with Ellison? You were supposed to stay here and guard Kim.”
“I was only across the street. I could see the house the whole time.” Connor wriggled on his chair, too energetic to keep still. “It’s not fair, is it? The humans snap Collars on us and make us work shit jobs—they make it so we can’t fight back, and then they try to shoot us. We were just lucky no one got killed.”
Liam only nodded, but Sean was pulled to Connor’s distress. Sometimes Liam’s stoic “don’t worry, I have it” attitude wasn’t exactly reassuring. Sean moved behind Connor and wrapped his arms around his nephew.
“We have the luck of the Goddess on our side,” he told him. “And the Irish.”
“Yeah, that potato-famine thing was sure lucky,” Connor growled, but Sean felt the lad’s body relax under his touch. Sean rubbed Connor’s arms, kissed his hair.
Take care of Con for me,
Kenny had whispered the night he’d been killed, his broken body in Sean’s arms.
Promise me, Sean.
Sean had promised to protect Connor with his life as he’d held his brother close and come apart with grief. Kenny had died before Liam and Dylan could arrive, and Sean had rocked Kenny’s body and wept.
Then Sean had gently laid his brother on the ground, taken up the silver Sword of the Guardian, and sent Kenny to dust. That had been the hardest night of Sean’s life.
Under Sean’s light massage, Connor calmed. He reached up and rubbed Sean’s hair, indicating he felt better. Sean released him, and Connor went back to drinking his beer. Connor had insisted on buying his own beer and going to the bar now that he’d reached the lofty human age of twenty-one.
Sean kissed the top of Connor’s head, touched Liam’s shoulder as he went past, and told them both good night. He went up to his room, the smallest in the house, but Sean didn’t need much. A bed, a desk for his computer, a place to stash his clothes, and life was good.
The wooden case that held the sword—polished, inlaid, velvet-lined—rested on his dresser, the elegance of the case incongruous with the functional sword inside it. The Sword of the Guardian itself, made more than seven hundred years ago, was fairly plain, with runes covering the magically hardened silver-alloy blade.
The hilt was unadorned and easy to grip, though runes had been etched on it as well. It was an ancient thing, made by the best swordsmith in the old kingdom of Kerry, a Shifter called Niall O’Connell, and passed down through the generations. The Morrisseys were descended from the smith, through his offspring from his first mate, a Feline Shifter who’d died, leaving him two sons. Naill had taken as his second mate the Fae woman who’d woven her spells through this sword, the legends said.
Sean turned off his light and sat on the end of the bed. From this position he could look across the yard that separated the two houses to Andrea’s bedroom window. She’d pulled the curtains closed, but light glowed against them, and he could see Andrea’s silhouette moving about the room.
He watched Andrea’s shadow pull off her top and slide down her jeans, and Sean’s mind filled in what he couldn’t see. The curve of her waist, the slashes of lace that would be her bra and panties, the soft round of breasts that had teased him from behind her tight shirt all night.
He adjusted himself on the bed, his skin hot, his arousal hard and painful. She was a delectable woman, and this edge of mating frenzy was driving him crazy. He’d told Andrea that she could leave his mate-claim unanswered for as long as she wanted, to give Wade’s pack time to get used to her. Sean wouldn’t force the issue, but he might burn up and die before she made her decision.
The light went out in Andrea’s bedroom, and the night flowed into silence. Andrea had closed her window against the cold, but Sean knew when her nightmares began. Andrea cried out in her sleep, tossing and turning, the frightened noises she made heartbreaking.
“Hush now,” Sean whispered. “Hush, love.”
As though she heard him, Andrea quieted and settled into even breathing. Sean made himself lie down and pull the covers over himself, but sleep eluded him for most of the night.
he next day, Andrea had time off from the bar, but Glory had business to take care of—she wouldn’t say what. Whatever it was, it made her spend forty-five minutes in the bathroom before she waltzed out again bathed in perfume and every hair in place.
Dylan, Sean’s father, had been living here with Glory but had left for who knew where the night Andrea had moved in. That had been two weeks ago, and Glory had been in a foul mood ever since.
Andrea had long ago given up trying to figure out her aunt Glory. Glory was nothing like what Andrea remembered of her mother, Dina. As far as Andrea knew, Dina hadn’t worn outlandish outfits, mile-high shoes, and rivers of Oscar de La Renta. Andrea’s mother’s scent had been like warm baked bread overlaid with the freshness of the outdoors. Andrea remembered her mother’s touch, the hand on her back when she went to sleep at night, reassuring Andrea that whatever happened, her mother would be there to protect her. Until one day, she wasn’t.
After Glory left, Andrea ate a little breakfast, then returned to her room and took out a file folder she’d stuck under her mattress. She sat on the bed and opened it, flipping through her notes and maps, the sparse information she’d gathered about where exactly her mother had met her father.
Forty years ago, the Lupine pack that had contained Andrea’s mother and Glory had been living in Colorado, isolated in the mountains. The pack hadn’t been very big then. By now it contained fifty or sixty Lupines, but back when Shifters had been wild, low fertility rates had been good at keeping their numbers down.
Andrea’s current map of Colorado contained colorful lines that marked roads and highways, noting scenic views and tourist attractions. She overlaid it with a map she’d made herself, a transparent sheet covered with crisscrossing lines of a different kind.
These were ley lines, magic currents that ran under the earth. Much the same way fault lines formed where geologic plates met, ley lines marked where magic rammed together and flowed along the path of least resistance. Northern Europe contained a huge number of lines, which stretched from there to all corners of the planet. Interestingly, on Andrea’s map of Texas, a line snaked along the Colorado River that ran through Austin on its way to the Gulf Coast. There was a concentration of magic right under the Congress Street bridge—Andrea wondered whether that was why the bats liked it there so much.
The maps didn’t tell Andrea any more today than they had yesterday. She hadn’t learned anything new about her real father, or how he’d crossed from Faerie to this world and where, or how he met her mother, or why he’d left again. Glory’s only explanation for him was a long, foul-worded diatribe against the Fae, nothing very helpful. When Dina’s pregnancy was discovered, she, a mateless female now smelling strongly of Fae, had been cast out of the pack. Glory hadn’t been able to stop it.
Dina had survived only because a Lupine of another pack, Terry Gray, who was now Andrea’s stepfather, had found Dina, fallen in love with her, and mate-claimed her. The mate blessing had been allowed, because females were scarce and Terry could have more Lupines with Dina once her Fae-get was born. Andrea’s stepfather had been commanded to kill Andrea at birth, and Terry, for the first time in his life, had disobeyed his pack leader.