Authors: Moira Rogers
This is for Teri Garrett, whose generosity and kind spirit are an inspiration. Thank you.
Thirteen months earlier
“Try to relax, sweetheart.”
Sera curled her fingers around the edge of the stool and studied the spell caster in front of her. She’d never met Jackson Holt before, but she’d heard enough stories. He was trustworthy and solid, and he carried the scent of a shapeshifter on his skin. A cat, maybe a lion or cougar, though both breeds were so rare she couldn’t be sure.
Whichever it was, Jackson was clearly a man who understood shapeshifters. He smiled easily and waited like he had no place else to be, and it made it possible for her to take deep breaths and bring instinct under control. “I’m okay. Just had a long night.”
“You bet.” His lazy tone betrayed nothing, but his mouth firmed into a tense line.
No mysteries there. The throbbing in her face had settled into a dull ache, but one of her eyes had begun to swell. Jackson could play casual all he wanted, but he couldn’t look at her without seeing a victim.
None of them would, not until the bruises were gone. “I’m ready.”
“You sure? It’s not going to be a walk in the park for you.” His voice held the steely ring of harsh, necessary truth.
Not merely a victim. Weak. “I’m ready,” she said again, trying to put force behind the words. “I can handle it, I promise.”
The door closed, startling her. “He’s worried you’ll freak out,” said a new voice. Sera leaned to one side and saw Julio, the doctor’s brother. The one who possessed all the edgy power of a dominant, dangerous shifter but none of the disdain she’d come to expect from wolves.
He stepped deeper into the room and shoved his hands into his pockets. “If your dad hears you, he’ll try to come running, and he’ll hurt himself.”
Her dad was in an operating room somewhere, being prepared for hours of painful surgery. He needed her—but he needed her whole. One glimpse at her face and he’d crawl on his broken legs back to Arkansas, back to Josh, and finish the job she’d started.
So she’d get her face fixed. She’d stay quiet. She’d be there for her father in a way she hadn’t been in years.
She couldn’t quite bring herself to meet Julio’s eyes, but resting her gaze on his chin felt safe enough. Respectful, nothing that could be interpreted as a challenge. “I’m not going to freak out. I’m stronger than I look.” And she’d had to say those words so many times tonight she was starting to doubt them. For them to have a hope of being true, someone had to believe her.
He watched her silently until her gaze skipped up to his, just for a moment. Then he smiled a little. “Yeah, you are. You’re going to be fine.”
It wasn’t a question. Wasn’t even a statement. The words were a command, backed by magic and power, and all the parts of her that weren’t strong twisted in on her, eager to obey. It didn’t matter that he was a wolf and she was a coyote, or that he was a stranger and she was so emotionally drained she was practically numb.
Julio Mendoza was dominant, and she was…
“Fine,” Sera whispered, closing her eyes. “I’m going to be fine.”
“And I’ll be here to help you,” he murmured.
He had a voice you could fall into. A soft hint of a Southern accent—the pretty Hollywood kind, not the backwoods drawl she lapsed into at her worst moments. When the magic started, it could be good to have something to concentrate on. “Can you tell me what happened to my father? While Jackson fixes my face, I mean.”
“Okay.” The wizard touched her cheek and a low buzz of magic gathered, but Julio’s steady voice drowned it out. “There was an explosion at the clinic. He was hurt, but Carmen and I—Carmen, that’s my sister. Remember her?”
Her skin felt too tight. She fidgeted uncomfortably but forced herself to focus on Julio’s question. “Yes. She seemed nice.”
“Great, she’s got you snowed too.” His amusement faded. “We were there. Your father was hurt, but Carmen was able to stabilize him until we could get him and Lily out of there.”
“You helped save—” Pain splintered through her, and the rest of her words disappeared in a hissed breath. Her coyote stirred, nervous and fretful, but her instinct wasn’t to fight.
“It’s what I do.” Closer now, and she realized he’d walked over to stand beside her. “Pulling people out of wrecked and burning buildings isn’t anything special. My typical Thursday night.”
“A firefighter?” Her face ached. Jackson’s magic wound tighter, and she let it. A stronger shapeshifter wouldn’t have been able to quell panic and the urge to flee, but if there was one thing she was good at, it was bending to someone else’s will.
“That’s right.” Julio’s hand closed around hers.
She didn’t need his comfort, but she liked it. It soothed the battering press of instinct and eased the sting of fear.
Julio was safe, and that made him dangerous. The bruises on her face were a harsh lesson about the perils of blind submission to instinct. Strong men with strong magic could soothe and woo and build pretty cages, and she’d always end up trapped, no matter how much she liked it.
Even now, with her own blood on her clothing and a controlling husband turned abusive asshole out to get her—even now, with her life in shambles…
Oh, she could drown in Julio’s magic. If she threw herself on his mercy, he’d catch her. He wouldn’t be able to help himself. He’d wrap her up like a princess, and it wouldn’t even be about men and women and sex. It would be another chance to hide from the world, just like she’d done at seventeen when she’d let Josh coax her away from school and family with whispered promises of being safe and cherished forever.
She wasn’t a princess, and it was time to grow up. Even if the first step was staying the hell away from men like Julio Mendoza.
Something was wrong.
The skin on the back of Julio’s neck prickled, and he stood in the middle of the first-floor kitchen of the council warehouse, trying to put his finger on it. The place was quiet—almost silent, in fact, save for the low mechanical hum of the refrigerator. Andrew was out of town, everything was shut down for the night, nothing.
His unease grew, and he slid open a kitchen drawer and withdrew the Glock 23 he kept on hand. A quick check confirmed it was loaded, and he chambered a round as he crept out into the cavernous main area of the first floor. Still only silence, then the prickle exploded into nausea, and his single deep breath preceded a loud noise.
Two door-rattling knocks, a pause and two more. A familiar voice, laced with tight pain. “Let me in, Mendoza, or I’ll bleed to death on the sidewalk.”
Julio tucked the pistol in the back waistband of his jeans and hurried to open the door. “Jesus, Patrick. What—” He fell inside, and Julio’s tension ratcheted up a notch. “What’d you get into this time?”
“Shifters.” Patrick righted himself, but his leather jacket gaped open far enough to show a rough bandage wrapped around his upper arm. “Never expected the bastard to pull a gun. The rogue fuckers usually like teeth and claws.”
“Can you blame us?” Julio asked shortly, lifting Patrick’s good arm around his neck. “It’s damn hard to drop either of those, and they don’t jam. It makes a bullet one hell of a surprise, though.”
“Lucky for me, my gun’s bigger.”
“Yeah? Next time, work on using it first.” Worry laced the words, but Julio couldn’t help it. The sick scent of blood filled the air, strong enough to make him wonder if this would be the time he couldn’t patch his friend up.
Patrick laughed, a borderline-crazy sound that ripped through the stillness. “Nice to know you care.”
It would have been easier to laugh if it wasn’t the fourth time in five months he’d shown up, ripped to pieces and almost manic. “You’re going to get your ass killed, Patrick.”
“I’m doing my job. Just like I always did my job.”
Except that he wasn’t operating at a hundred percent, and he knew it. “So you’re saying nothing’s different.”
The fake grin slipped away, leaving Patrick looking more exhausted than anything. “If you had a weak side, would you be showing it to the wolves who’ve been sniffing around your council seat?”
“No.” Julio helped him into a chair at the kitchen table, flipped on the overhead light and grabbed the first aid kit from the cabinet. “But I
get some reliable backup, for fuck’s sake.”
“Yeah.” Underneath his jacket, Patrick wore a black T-shirt that had seen better days and jeans as scuffed and dirty as the shirt. He winced as Julio peeled away the makeshift bandage. “I’ll slow down. These were the last ones.”
The last of the mercenaries involved with the cult that had killed his kid brother. “Don’t think I don’t sympathize, man, but would Ben have wanted you to take these chances?”
“If Ben were alive, he’d be taking them too.” The deep furrow cutting through the tattoos had to hurt, but Patrick showed no sign beyond that tiny flinch. “They didn’t just kill him. They killed the love of his life.”
“I won’t argue with that.” Julio saturated a gauze pad with saline and patted the wound. “What happens to your tattoos after these things heal? Do they…work again?” It was the closest word he could think of for the undeniable thread of magic that buzzed through the ink, the buzz that was noticeably absent from Patrick’s damaged skin.
The silence went on too long. Finally, Patrick looked away. “Not so far.”
No wonder he was getting his ass kicked. “Can the Shrink fix it?”
A heartbeat. Two. This time, the words sounded tired. “Not so far.”
At least, with the last of the mercenaries gone, he might not be rushing right out into danger again. “You going to stick around for a while? I bet Anna would let you have the apartment over the bar.”
Anna’s name did what a bullet wound couldn’t—made Patrick shift uncomfortably in the chair. “I need to go to Atlanta to sign some paperwork about Ben’s estate.”
“For how long?”
“I don’t know. A few days, maybe a week. You want me to check in on your aunt while I’m there?”
Aunt Teresa loved having Patrick visit, and she never missed an opportunity to tell Julio to encourage him to do it more. “She likes cooking for you. She says you eat more than any non-shifter she’s ever seen.”
Patrick pursed his lips, as if he was fighting a smile. “Who wouldn’t, when the food’s that good? Especially when you’re like me and used to living on gas-station chili dogs.”
If they both enjoyed that, all the better. “Is she doing okay? From what you can tell, I mean. Is she
“I think so. Her new boyfriend’s so damn charming I wanted to run a background check on him.” Patrick shot him a guilty, almost challenging look. “So I did. He’s quite the Romeo, but squeaky clean. He’s making your aunt happy too.”
She’d had so little of that, and Julio couldn’t help his relief. “Good. That’s what matters.”
“Maybe your cousin will be there when I drop by,” Patrick said, obviously trying for a breezy smile—an effect ruined by his pallor. “I could try to flirt my way into the Mendoza extended family.”
“She knows better than to fall for your crap.” And so did Julio. If Patrick had the slightest bit of interest in Veronica, he wouldn’t have flinched at the mere mention of Anna.
Judging by the tight set of Patrick’s eyes, he knew as much. He waited for a moment, but when Julio didn’t press the issue, some of the tension eased from his body. “Yeah, I’m full of it. I’ll check in on them when I make it to Atlanta.”
And while he was gone, Julio would handle sweet-talking Anna. “I’ll ask about the apartment before you get back.”
“Only if she’s not staying there,” Patrick amended. “She’s living with the little redheaded coyote, now, isn’t she? Franklin Sinclaire’s daughter?”
It was Julio’s turn to tense—at the mention of Sera. “I wouldn’t have suggested it if it was going to be you and Anna crammed into one bedroom. You’d kill each other—or worse.”
“Most likely.” Patrick dropped his good arm to the table, scratching at one of the scuff marks. “I did it for all of you, not only the ones who died. The ones who had to live with what happened too.”
Panic rose in a tumultuous wave, threatening to drown Julio before he crushed it down with a slow, deep breath. “You don’t owe anybody anything, McNamara, and thinking you do is going to drive you nuts. Worry about yourself. Hell, worry about Ben too. But let the rest of us worry about ourselves.”
“Aren’t you a cheerful hypocrite?”
“Uh-huh. I’m also the hypocrite patching you up at the moment, so spare me the lecture.”
“I lasted six weeks in-between injuries this time. That was some damn epic self-restraint.”
“Maybe.” And maybe they were all just spinning. God knew therapy sessions with Callum had barely put a dent in
nightmares, the ones where he woke with his heart in his throat, the sheets soaked with sweat.
“It’s over, Julio.” Patrick twisted far enough to meet his eyes. “They’re dead. The ones who kidnapped you, the ones who helped, even the ones who took their fucking money and ran. It’s over.”