Authors: Jessie Donovan
Tags: #FICTION / ROMANCE / PARANORMAL
Still, a million thoughts raced through Claire’s head. While she would love nothing more than the chance to live with a clan of shifters for a short period to understand them better, there were a few problems. “If I were to do that, then my name would be tainted and my neutrality compromised. Not only that, I won’t be able to work on my campaign. There are only six months before the shifter-human marriage vote takes place. I don’t have a month to spare.”
Kian leaned back in his chair. “I understand your concerns, but I’ve considered all of that. You often work out of town, right?” She nodded slowly. “Then you can remain involved with your people via phones and video conferences. I have people who can protect your location with changing IP addresses and much more. No one, apart from high-level FBI investigators, will know you’re on my land. Believe me, our clan has become rather good at living under the radar. We had to, or we wouldn’t have survived this long.”
Claire wished it were that simple. “Let’s say you can do everything you mentioned, that still won’t allow me to visit with politicians and my other allies for face-to-face meetings. Those have been crucial in garnering support and finances.”
Kian shrugged. “Your second-in-command, Ryan Nguyen, can handle those. I know you often split the meetings between you two anyway and you can come up with an excuse, such as having the flu, for why you have to hand off the meetings to him.”
She scrutinized Kian’s face for a second. “How do you know so much about me?”
Kaya jumped in. “Let’s just say we have our contacts.”
Claire looked between the clan leaders. “I still don’t understand why you picked me for this. There are probably other savvy organizers fighting for shifter equality with much more free time on their hands than me.”
One corner of Kian’s mouth ticked up. “Because, Claire, you’re hardworking and have dedicated a good portion of your life toward shifter equality to help your family and family means everything to a shifter. Don’t you think your aunt deserves to come home?”
Claire blinked. “What did you say?”
Kian waved a hand in dismissal. “Don’t waste time denying it. I know your aunt eloped with a shifter eleven years ago and is in hiding. That’s right around the time when you changed your focus and energy from human rights to shifter rights.”
Stomach churning, Claire struggled to keep her wits. If Kian knew about her Aunt Gwen and her shifter partner, then who else knew? Had Gwen’s disappearance been more permanent than Claire had realized? Had she been caught?
She’d heard from her aunt six months ago. They exchanged anonymous letters once a year, whenever her aunt had found a new place to hide. If something had happened to her, Gwen’s man or his family would’ve let Claire know somehow since they all moved around together as a pack.
She looked at Kian in a new light. He could probably outdo the FBI when it came to intelligence gathering, if he put his mind to it. “Of course I want her to come home, but if you’re going to use my aunt’s relationship to force my hand, then you aren’t the leader I thought you were.”
The female shifter sitting next to Kian gave him a shove. “Stop being so obtuse and threatening; you’re pissing off the poor human.” The woman looked to her. “I’m Trinity, Kian’s mate. Since my mate is botching this up, let me try. We’re not trying to force your hand in any way, my dear. We would never endanger your aunt’s safety. However, I think we could both benefit from your staying here. If we can get the ShadowClaw bears to join in on this, then you could make a huge difference; not just in shifter-human marriages, but for all of the Cascade shifter clans. Won’t you help us? It’s only for a month and I will personally make sure you’re treated like a queen.” Trinity waved a hand toward Aidan. “Aidan will help with that.”
The shifter at Claire’s side had been silent, but his deep voice filled the small room. “And what, exactly, are you going to make me do?”
Trinity looked back to Claire. “I need Claire’s answer first.” The shifter female smiled. “Will you help us, dear? What you do with the Cascade shifter clans could set a trend for the whole country.”
She looked at Kian, Trinity, Kaya, and finally, Aidan. Given what they already knew about her, protesting about a boyfriend or family missing her would be pointless. Her social life was non-existent outside of work, and her only family was her exiled aunt. Most of her friends were part of the Shifter Equality Alliance, which meant she could keep in touch via video conferences.
Not to mention she liked the idea of helping to set a trend for shifter rights. She’d only spent the last decade trying to figure out how to make that happen.
There were only two things holding her back. “If I said yes, I couldn’t tell anyone, could I? Not even my second-in-command?”
Kaya shook her head. “No. Even those with good intentions can screw things up with a slip of the tongue. Your time here would be against the law. We can protect you while you’re on our land since the authorities are afraid to come here after the near-epidemic last year, but our reach only goes so far. We can’t risk critical details getting out that could compromise the clan’s safety.”
Claire remembered hearing about the deadly shifter virus outbreak via her contacts. But she’d confirmed it was safe before coming here. “Okay, but I have one last concern. How can I ensure that your clan will keep my presence a secret, let alone not take out their hatred on me?”
Kian’s eyes turned hard. “Believe me, there are no traitors in my clan. We’ve kept Lauren Spencer-Fisher’s presence a secret for nearly four months. Yours will be a walk in the park in comparison since you’ll only be staying a month. As for the hatred, my security team will be monitoring the situation closely and will squash any threats they find.”
Rubbing her hands against her jeans under the table, Claire tried to make a decision. Daydreaming about living with shifters was one thing, but living with them twenty-four-seven was quite another. She would be the outsider.
Not to mention Aidan Scott would have a hand in something related to her stay. She was pretty sure he’d been close to kissing her earlier when his breath had tickled against her lips. Yet he had a Chloe waiting for him. She didn’t want to fight off unwanted attention her entire stay here.
However, if he became a serious problem, she had a feeling Kian might compromise. Or, at least, he would with Trinity’s influence. After all, the female shifter had promised to have Claire treated like a queen.
Kian raised his brows. “So, what do you say? Will you accept my offer?”
She gave a sweeping look before meeting Kian’s green eyes again. “Will I be treated like a prisoner or will I have free rein?”
Kian and Trinity shared a glance before Kian replied, “For the first week, Aidan will accompany you everywhere. If he reports back that you aren’t a threat, you will be allowed free rein in most of the clan spaces. However, a few will remain off limits as they are off limits to any visitors.”
Aidan shifted in his seat next to her, but Claire resisted looking at him. “Well, if you can provide me with clothes and retrieve my car, which has my laptop and other important documents, then yes, I accept your offer. However, I want your word that you’ll work with me to help ensure the vote passes.”
Kian nodded. “Done. I’ll give you the rest of the day to settle in and we can talk further over breakfast tomorrow.” He then looked to Aidan. “As for the answer to your question, you’re going to be Claire’s personal guard while she lives here, Aidan.”
Aidan pushed aside his cougar’s happiness at knowing Claire would be staying with them. A whole month in the human’s presence would be the ultimate test of his self-control, especially since he wouldn’t ruin his leader’s plan by letting his dick rule his brain. He needed to convince his leader to pick someone else. “Kian, there are several other candidates who could do the job. Dani needs my help maintaining the clan’s security and safety.”
Kian merely raised an eyebrow. “We can talk more about that in private. For now, you have your assignment, Aidan. It’s an important one, too. Remember that.”
Aidan wanted nothing more than to ask why he hadn’t been kept in the loop. But from the corner of his eye he could see Claire watching him and he wouldn’t castigate his clan leader in front of the human.
Instead, he merely nodded. “Fine. But I need to know where to take her and then I want a private meeting.”
Kian stood up and everyone else followed suit. “Of course. Take Claire to the empty set of apartments across from yours.”
He frowned. “What? That’s in the soldiers’ wing.”
“I know. It’s one of the safest places inside the clan. Besides, Lauren lives near there, too. Claire could use a friend.”
Claire spoke up from beside him. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I am standing right here.”
Aidan’s cougar urged him to look at the human female. Since it would be pointless to resist, he did and all he could think about was how her curvy body would be living mere feet away from his. Even now, he imagined taking off her glasses and fisting a hand in her long, light brown hair.
Fucking cougar, stop it. She is our assignment, nothing more.
His cat grumbled, but reluctantly retreated. At least, for now. Aidan looked back to Kian. “Who will watch her while I’m away?”
He wanted to say that was a bad idea, but thought better of it. Kian could only be swayed with reason, and for the moment, Aidan was feeling anything but reasonable, let alone logical. He needed time to think of a way out of this assignment.
Once Aidan nodded, Kian, Kaya, and Trinity walked around the table to stand in front of Claire. The human was nearly a foot shorter than the shifters. It would be easy for him to shield her body from Kian’s view.
At that thought, he clenched a jaw and waited. He didn’t trust himself to say anything until asked.
Kian put out a hand. “While I had to force your hand a bit to agree to this, I think we’ll both benefit from the situation.”
Claire shook Kian’s hand and Aidan clenched his jaw harder. “It had better, because if you try to screw me over, Kian Murray, I will find a way to use it against you. I have my own set of connections.”
Kaya laughed. “Good, a woman with bite. Don’t be easy on him. I’m mated to his brother, so I have lots of experience at keeping Murray shifter males in line.”
Trinity leaned against Kian and added, “Oh, I’ll keep Kian in line. I’m the one who will be able to help you the most, Claire. I can be quite persuasive.”
As Kian merely shook his head, memories of Aidan’s own dead mate filled his mind. He and Emily had once been like Kian and Trinity. Yet Emily had been stolen from him after only a few years of being mated. He was long past asking why, but it didn’t mean it was any less painful to watch two mates in love tease each other. Or, to touch each other on a whim.
He’d taken all of that for granted and regretted it to this day.
Claire dropped Kian’s hand. “When can I contact my second-in-command?”
Kian replied, “In the next day or two. We’ll set up secure access to the internet tomorrow. However, when you do contact him, Aidan will be in the background for the first few times, just to make sure nothing slips.”
Irritation flashed in Claire’s eyes and Aidan moved to her side. Placing a hand on her back, some of his cougar’s tension eased. “Unless there’s anything else, I’ll take her to her apartments and get her settled. Have Dani stop by in about twenty minutes.”
Since it was Aidan and Dani’s job to protect the clan, Aidan was allowed to order Kian in matters of clan security. His clan leader nodded. “Sounds good. Now, take Claire to her quarters.”
Before Claire could do much more than open her mouth, Aidan pushed against her back. With a glare in his direction, she moved. He wasn’t quick enough, however, because as he shut the door behind them, he could hear Trinity’s voice. “Don’t have too much fun, you two. Remember, Dani will drop by soon.”
Claire whispered, “What the hell is she talking about?”
Rather than answer, Aidan slammed the door and got them moving again.
As Aidan made them half-jog down the hallway, Claire dug in her heels. With a growl, the shifter looked down at her. “What?”
She poked him in the chest. “Don’t growl at me. I understand that babysitting me is the last thing you want to be doing, but it wasn’t my call. Don’t take it out on me.”
“I’m not, but we have twenty minutes to get you settled in. I can answer your questions inside your quarters. Ears are everywhere. Remember that.”
He pressed gently against her back. What had once been a strong, firm touch only reminded Claire of how Aidan had someone else. Maybe if they hurried, she could spend most of the remaining twenty minutes freshening up. Then she could grill the shifter named Dani about Aidan. Claire liked to know who she was working with.
With a new goal in mind, she moved her feet again and ignored Aidan to study her surroundings.
The hallway was nothing more than a tunnel carved into the rock of the mountain. There were lights evenly spaced apart, as well as occasional vents, in the ceiling. Despite the fact they’d been walking for a few minutes, there hadn’t been any other doors or corridors running off the current one.