Authors: Jennifer Ashley
Tags: #Romance, #Paranormal, #Fiction
“That Guardian is Lupine, and Ely’s my kin. Dad says Ely wants me, and I don’t care about the human rules right now. They think what we do is only ceremonial anyway.” Sean looked down at her, his eyes tight with pain. “Come with me?”
Andrea started shaking her head before he finished the sentence. “I can’t. I shouldn’t. I’m a half-Fae Lupine. His family won’t want me there.”
“Doesn’t matter. You might be able to help.”
“If you’re thinking of my healing gift, I told you; it’s not very strong. It might make no difference at all.”
“Damn it, Andrea, we have to try.”
The desperation in Sean’s eyes caught at Andrea’s heart. She hadn’t recovered from his smiling suggestion that they go into the house—no one was home; she knew that. She’d wanted what he offered so much it worried her.
But their personal lives had just dwindled to background noise. Once again, Sean was being asked to go and watch someone die.
Andrea drew a breath. “All right.” She might be able to ease Ely’s pain a little, at the very least.
Sean looked at his bike in pieces, then turned away, sunshine dancing in his dark hair. “Dad left his truck in the back. The keys are in it. Fetch it and meet me round front.”
Andrea nodded. Sean wiped off his hands, picked up his tools, and disappeared into the house without a word.
He’d gone to get the sword. Andrea’s heart beat faster. Sean’s expression, before he’d turned away, had been so empty that she’d wanted to put her arms around him. She hadn’t had the heart to refuse his request to accompany him, though she still wasn’t sure how much good she could do. Her healing talent had fixed up Ronan, but that had been the equivalent of bandaging a skinned knee. Kodiak bear Ronan was tough and strong, and he had an amazing metabolism. A few bullets in the shoulder were to him what bee stings were to everyone else. If Sean’s father had told Sean to bring the sword, it meant that Dylan thought Sean’s cousin beyond saving.
Andrea found the white pickup parked behind the house, keys hanging from the ignition. No Shifter would take another Shifter’s vehicle, and few humans ever ventured into Shiftertown without invitation, so the chances of someone stealing it were slim to none. Despite the fact that the truck was ten or more years old, Andrea knew, as she started it up, that it would be in perfect condition. Shifters learned to keep vehicles running in top shape, being forbidden to buy brand new ones.
She pulled the pickup through the alley and around to the front of the house. Ellison Rowe, another Lupine and a friend to the Morrisseys, came out of his house across the street and jogged over.
Ellison’s pack had been relocated here when Shifters took the Collar twenty years ago, but by all evidence he loved being a Texan, even by adoption. He never left home without his big belt buckle, cowboy boots, hat, and Texas drawl.
“What’s up?” he asked, leaning on the open window.
“There’s been another shooting. Down in San Antonio. Sean’s cousin.”
Ellison’s face changed. “Aw, shit, not again. What the hell is going on?”
“Must be a new hobby for humans.”
“Damn,” Ellison growled. “Come and play Shoot the Shifter. Step right up, have a good time. Assholes.”
Sean emerged from the house in a button-down shirt in place of his T-shirt, the sword strapped to his back. Ellison straightened up. “I’m sorry, man,” he said.
Sean nodded his thanks. He approached the driver’s side, and Andrea slid over to let him get in. Sean carefully laid the sword across the seat, but the pickup was narrow, and the hilt had to rest on Andrea’s lap.
“Goddess go with you,” Ellison said as Sean buckled his seat belt. “Andrea, don’t let this Feline get you into any trouble, now, hear?”
“No worries there,” Andrea said, giving him a little smile. “Will you tell Glory where I am if she comes back?”
“You bet.” Ellison patted the top of the truck and stepped away as Sean pulled the truck away from the curb. Ellison watched them go, his stance somber.
Sean was silent as they rolled through the streets outside Shiftertown. As though a switch had flipped in him, Sean had gone from a Shifter male flirting with a female to a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. His blue eyes flickered as he gave the traffic on Ben White a steely gaze, his hands tight on the steering wheel.
“Sean,” she said softly. “Please don’t count on me to save your cousin. Ronan’s was a flesh wound. If vital organs have been hit, that’s different.”
Sean acknowledged this with a tight nod. “I know that, love. But I can’t not try.”
“Oh, I’m willing to try. I just don’t want you to get your hopes up.”
“I like hope,” he said, his mouth softening. “Hope—it’s a fine thing.”
The sheathed sword’s hilt was hard on Andrea’s lap. She brushed it with her fingertips and felt the Fae magic in it, a tingle that worked its way through her body. Andrea could see it in her mind, golden threads of Fae spells wafting from the metal.
She saw those same kinds of threads in her nightmares too, shimmering wires that sought to bind her, to trap her. Last night, she’d fought them again, flailing and thrashing to get away, and they’d drawn tighter, tighter.
She drew a sharp breath.
Sean glanced at her, his face too tight. He was nearly vibrating with tension, his grief and anger held too closely inside him. Shifters shouldn’t do that; it ate them up.
Whenever Shifters became overwhelmed with an emotion, especially one like grief, they withdrew from the world, taking time alone to work through it. This instinct had kept the pack from weakening in the wild, because the pack leader wouldn’t have to worry about protecting a Shifter too grief-stricken to fight. But Sean could never disappear for weeks while he licked his wounds, because the clan always needed its Guardian. The Guardian freed souls with one thrust of the sword but was never free himself.
Andrea lifted the sword and slid over in the seat until her thigh touched his. Sean’s need for touch screamed itself at her, and she couldn’t justify denying him comfort because she wasn’t certain how she felt about his mate-claim.
The Shifter in her recognized that Sean had ten times the strength of Jared, physically and emotionally, not to mention in the dominance department. If Sean ever decided to force the mate-claim, Andrea might not be able to withstand him. Sean could have forced it today—hell, any time since she’d arrived. But he hadn’t. He’d soothed her fear with his Shifter touch and told her he’d wait for her. That put Sean a hundred times higher in her estimation than spoiled-brat Jared.
Andrea slid her hand around Sean’s arm, shivering a little at the hardness of the bicep under her palm. Sean looked down at her, eyes deep blue.
“Thank you, Andy-love.”
“Keep your eyes on the road, hot ass. Austin traffic is insane.”
A tiny smile brushed his mouth. “Isn’t it, though?”
“It is. I’m used to wide open roads and mountain vistas.”
“You’ll not be getting that here, love. But I can show you some beautiful places. It’s not so bad.”
“Says the man from Ireland, where mountains don’t exist.”
Sean took his hand from the wheel to rest it over hers, rough fingers tightening. “We had some grand hills there.” His voice matched hers, two people trying to say lighthearted things to keep from thinking about terrible ones. “You should see the black cliffs tumbling into the sea in County Kerry. ’Tis a beautiful sight.”
“But it’s not the Rockies.” While she spoke, Sean squeezed her hand ever-more tightly. “You look at those mountains, and you know no one rules them. Not humans, not Shifters. They’ve stood there for eons, dominating the edge of the plains, fearing nothing.”
“Same thing in Kerry. ’Tis an old place, ancient. You can feel it in your bones. All this—Shifters, humans, Fae—doesn’t matter.”
“You miss Ireland.”
“Aye. But it’s grand here too. No more hunger, no more struggle. Just time to watch Connor grow up, see Liam mated and about to become a father. We’re stronger now, more likely to survive.” His jaw hardened. “Except for humans and their stupid weapons.”
“They won’t win,” Andrea squeezed his hand in return, noting that Sean’s body smelled damn good.
“No, lass, they won’t.”
He fell silent, concentrating on the traffic bottled up on the interstate. In impatience, Sean shot off the freeway to take a back highway that headed straight south.
The clinic lay just inside the city limits of San Antonio on the southeast side. Not many places treated Shifters, and ones that did were quickly deserted by their human clientele.
Sean parked in the clinic’s small lot and came around to open Andrea’s door for her. She handed him the sword, which he strapped to his back, and they went inside to the clinical smell of disinfectant.
Shifters were clumped inside the waiting room—they’d be friends and members of the clan. When they saw Sean walk in, his big sword on his back, some turned away and murmured prayers; others simply looked at him. They all knew what his presence here meant.
Andrea walked beside Sean without meeting any gazes. She saw nostrils widen, eyes snap to her as they smelled Fae, but no one moved to stop her. They wouldn’t while she was with the Guardian.
Dylan waited for them near a nurses’ station in the hall beyond. The nurse there, human, came out from behind the desk when Sean and Andrea entered, her already fierce expression turning to one of outrage.
“You can’t go in there,” she snapped at Sean. “Not with
She held out her hand as though Sean would meekly unstrap the Sword of the Guardian and give it to her, like an unruly pupil handing over a toy to his angry teacher.
Sean walked by her without a word, and Dylan fell into step with him.
“You can’t go back there! I’m calling security.”
Andrea turned back and stepped squarely in front of the woman, putting just enough growl into her voice. “Leave it.”
The nurse stared, stunned. Andrea smelled her fear but also her cunning. She’d be on the phone as soon as Andrea moved to follow Sean.
Swallowing a sigh, Andrea gripped the nurse’s wrist and yanked her along with them. The nurse’s protests died when they walked into the room at the end of the hall, which was full of Shifters and the smell of impending death.
he grief in the room was palpable. It was difficult not to feel anything but compassion when Andrea beheld Sean’s cousin Ely lying in the hospital bed, his face sunken, his Collar a dark streak on his pasty throat. Tubes snaked into his arms, human machines gently beeping around him.
Ely wasn’t much older than Sean, maybe at his century mark. His mate curled on the bed next to him, a ball of misery. Four younger men and a young woman—Ely’s cubs, she guessed by their similar scent—stood in positions of resigned grief. An older man waited on the opposite side of the room, just as grief-stricken. Ely’s father.
Andrea tasted rage against the humans who had done this. No Shifter of venerable years should have to watch his son die; no cubs should have to watch their father cut down before them. And no mate should have the love of her life yanked away from her. The woman’s grief would bury her for years. It had already started.
Sean moved to the side of the bed and touched Ely’s shoulder, his voice softening to gentleness itself. “Now, Ely, lad, what did you do to attract all those bullets to you? Magnetized yourself, did you?”
Ely smiled, his face drawn in pain in spite of the liquids that dripped into his arm. “That’s me, Sean. Too damned attractive.” His whisper rasped. “Thank you for coming.”
Andrea watched Sean suppress all his own rage and grief to caress Ely with a reassuring hand. “Look who I brought with me,” he said. “The pretty she-wolf that lives next door to me. Glory’s niece, the one I mate-claimed. Isn’t she a fine one?”
Sean stretched out his arm, indicating that Andrea should come to him. Andrea had to let go of the nurse, but Dylan moved to block the nurse’s retreat. She’d never get past Dylan.
Sean drew Andrea to him, arm around her waist. Ely’s mate lifted her head in anger.
“The half Fae,” she spat. “Get her out of here.”
Sean ignored her. “Let Andrea touch you, Ely. She can ease the pain.”
Ely dragged in a shallow breath. “Hell, I’m all for that.”
Andrea felt the waves of outrage from Ely’s children, from Ely’s father, even from the nurse. Collars or no, these Shifters were on the verge of violence. If Andrea made one wrong move, they’d take her down. They might do it anyway, angry at her for being here at this private time. If Andrea had any sense, she’d shake off Sean, rush back out to the truck, and take off. She’d heard the River Walk was nice this time of year ...
But Andrea couldn’t walk away. That was the problem with the healing gift—she couldn’t look upon Ely’s suffering and turn her back on it. She’d never deny a man relief from pain just because his family’s anger made her uncomfortable.
Sean eased the blanket from Ely’s torso and parted the hospital gown, and Andrea stifled a gasp. Ely’s pale abdomen was crisscrossed with pink puckered wounds held together with steri-tape where surgeons had tried to sew his shredded insides back together. Half his stomach had been gouged out by the look of things, and unhealthy red streaks striped his stomach. This man was chopped up, infected, dying.