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Moira Rogers
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Cipher

Southern Arcana, Book Four
Series Info:

Digital

Reissued
November 16th

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Kat Gabriel’s empathic ability is no gift–it’s a deadly weapon. She’s used it once, in a bloody confrontation to save Andrew Callaghan’s life. Now she bears the inescapable weight of those deaths—and aches for the loss of the easy relationship she once shared with Andrew. Unleashing her power may have saved his life, but it couldn’t save his humanity. Or their friendship.

Since the attack that turned him into a werewolf, Andrew’s sole focus has been on making himself stronger. Pushing Kat away hurt like hell, but she doesn’t need a friend. She needs a protector strong enough to shield her from the supernatural world that forced her to kill. Strong enough to resist their volatile connection.

As Kat’s quest to understand the violent legacy of her past leads her into the darkest underbelly of the psychic world, Andrew is at her side. Yet every step forward rips open old emotional wounds and shakes his control. Where they’re headed, distractions of any kind can be fatal—especially when the greatest threat they pose is to each other.

Read an Excerpt


Prologue

Fourteen months earlier

Kat tried to open the office door three times before she realized she was using the wrong key.

Her cheeks heated as she lifted the ring until the silver keys caught the faint glint from the streetlight. “Don’t say a damn word.”

Next to her, Andrew chuckled. “Hey, my lips are zipped.”

“Better be.” God, she loved his laugh. And his smile. And his eyes. She was supposed to be mad at him, but her lips tugged up in a smile of her own as she found the right key. “This’ll just take a few minutes, and then we can head back.”

“I’m in no hurry.” He rested his hand on the door and waited for her to unlock it. “With Derek MIA right now, work’s a little weird.”

The reminder brought a stab of worry. Derek was hip-deep in the latest shapeshifter mess, one that came with danger and execution orders and an instinctive need to bundle his baby cousin off into protective custody.

It was annoying. It was condescending. And it was hard to stay mad when protective custody meant spending time with Andrew–even if he had gone over to the dark side by joining the ranks of the overprotective assholes.

She could fume at Derek. She’d never been good at staying angry at Andrew.

Kat unlocked the door, and it swung open without a squeak. Inside the office was dark, so dark that her mind jumped straight to all the things she and Andrew could do in the dark. Theoretical knowledge only, more was the pity, but sometimes she caught Andrew watching her in a way that made her think he’d make it worth the wait.

Someday.

“What were you looking for, again?”

“My binder with the research notes for this stupid OS class.” The door clicked shut behind her, and she pivoted only to find herself staring up at Andrew, his handsome face turned darkly mysterious in the uncertain light.

For one perfect moment, the world went soft-focus. Awareness and potential filled the air–not the magical kind fueled by her empathic gifts, but plain, old-fashioned excitement.

Their friendship had danced along this line for months, no longer just friends but not yet something else. The enormity of what they could be trembled inside her, whispering of epic love, humbling and intimidating. She still felt young and untried, too inexperienced for grown-up relationships with high stakes and ever afters.

She wasn’t ready. Not yet…but soon, and it would be worth it.

He would be worth it.

Andrew’s thumb brushed her cheek. “You’re making big eyes at me.”

She wrinkled her nose and considered sticking out her tongue. “I wouldn’t be if you’d let me come to the office by myself. This is revenge.”

“Nowhere by yourself, those are my orders.”

The soft click to their left was out of place, and it took Kat a moment too long to figure out why.

Triumph spiked through the room in a painful lash of emotion so strong she staggered. Andrew reached out, but rough hands had already closed on her shoulders, dragging her back so fast her heels skittered across the carpet as she belatedly started to struggle.

“Kat!” Andrew’s voice shook with terror–and anger. “Kat!

A dark figure loomed behind him, and Kat’s lips parted on a warning that came too late. “Andrew–”

Brutal fingers slammed over her mouth, muffling her enraged scream as a huge body crashed into Andrew. Her brain flitted in too many directions, and instinct took over. She crashed her heel down, aiming for her attacker’s toes, but pain splintered up her leg as her floppy sandal smashed against a steel-toed boot.

The man holding her laughed. “You’re feisty for a human. Or are you the little psychic secretary?”

They weren’t humans, not if they knew who she was. What she was. Dread froze her in place as Andrew struggled.

One of the dark-clad men punched him, a hard right across the jaw, but he continued to fight. He kicked a second intruder in the ribs, and the man stumbled back, gasping for breath.

Hot breath spilled across Kat’s ear, and terror cracked her shields, letting in a sick twist of Andrew’s pain and the exhilaration of his opponents. Feral, primal–Andrew was an unanticipated but welcome game, a hunt in which they could indulge themselves.

Shapeshifters.

The second the thought formed, her attacker tightened his grip. “We’re not here to hurt you, but if your friend doesn’t stop fighting, we’ll kill him.”

With his emotions sliding over her skin like slime, she knew the words for truth. As soon as the hand eased from her mouth, her begging plea tumbled out. “Andrew, stop.” God, she sounded scared. She was scared. Andrew was strong for a human, but shapeshifters would rip him to pieces. “Please, Andrew!”

The shifters stepped back, forming a half-circle as their prey rose and faced them. The man behind her growled. “Tell us where Jacobson’s safe houses are. I don’t want to torture you into talking, but I will.”

For a moment, she thought Andrew might back down. Then one of the men made a low noise of anticipation, and Andrew swung.

He was going to die, trying to protect her.

She was going to watch it happen.

Fear shattered into a thousand pieces and took her self-control with it, the breakdown so complete that she didn’t realize she’d lost her grip on her empathic projection until everyone in the office froze.

The hands on her shoulders clenched until she thought they might crush bone. One of the men shuddered, a queer-sounding whimper ripping free from his throat. Low, terrified–barely human, and so afraid.

“You goddamned little bitch–” Rough fingers twisted in her hair, but it was too late. Someone jerked her head back hard enough to bring tears to her eyes, and the pain intensified the fear flooding the room.

A low curse ended on a snarl as one of the men began to shift. Andrew yelled something, but the words disappeared in a cacophony of angry yips and howls as a second man shifted, tearing free of his clothing.

So fast. It happened so fast. One second she was staggering under the weight of her attacker’s anger, the next she was on her knees and Andrew–

Andrew lay on the floor, his clothes rent and dark with blood. Bleeding, and so pale, clutching at his stomach with one hand and his throat with the other–

Dying.

Fear vanished. Pain followed, leaving sweet, icy numbness behind. Cold, cold, cold, she was so cold she should be shivering. So cold they should all be shivering.

She’d make them shiver.

She’d make them crawl.

The power had always been there, a burden and a nuisance. Shields kept it contained, but nothing could contain the protective rage gathering just under the surface.

She took Andrew’s pain. There was so much it should have split her in two, but she took it. Her nails scratched against the rough carpet as she took his anger too, his anger at himself for not being able to protect her. She took the shapeshifters’ rage and their fear and their determination to see her dead, she took her own breaking heart and the ice that would never melt.

She took it all, then took Andrew himself and imagined him safe in her arms, safe in the numbness making the world a distant dream. With him wrapped in her shields, she stripped her soul bare and let everything go in a terrifying thrust of power that hollowed her out and left her trembling.

Her pulse pounded in her ears. Throbbed in her temples. Everything was silent, so silent she was sure she’d failed–

And then the screaming started.

Chapter One

Someone was cooking waffles.

For one disoriented moment, trapped between sleep and waking, Kat thought she was home again. A teenager, safe in her uncle’s house with her aunt making breakfast and her parents alive and the world at her fingertips. If she rolled out of bed, she’d find hot chocolate waiting for her in the kitchen, and her aunt would ask her about the boy in her math class and laugh when she blushed…

The bed shifted, and a solid arm settled over her waist, jerking her abruptly into the present. Miguel, her brain identified at once. He was warm, a comforting weight at her back, and as familiar as her favorite pair of slippers. Kat threaded her fingers with his and gave his hand a tug. “Hey, lazy ass. Wake up. Sera’s making us breakfast before she goes into work.”

He laughed but didn’t move. “Score. I’m starving.”

“Impossible. You ate a supreme pizza last night all by yourself.” He’d eaten a few slices of her pepperoni pizza too, proof that his appetite hadn’t waned after six months of being a full-blooded shapeshifter.

“Shapeshifter and psychic,” he corrected aloud. “That burns a lot of calories.”

Kat groaned and dragged a pillow over her face, spending a few careful moments reinforcing her shields. Not that they’d stop Miguel from picking up her surface thoughts any more than his mental shields kept her from reading his mood, but the practice never hurt. “If being a psychic burned that many calories, I’d be a lot scrawnier.”

Miguel slapped her hip through her flannel pajama pants. “That’d be a crying shame. Zola’s already worked too much of your ass off.”

“There’s plenty left.” She tossed the pillow aside and leaned over the side of the bed until her fingers brushed the edge of her netbook. “And all of it off limits. Your new girlfriend doesn’t strike me as the sort who wants to listen to explanations about why you were smacking another woman’s ass this morning.”

“Victoria,” he said slowly, carefully enunciating every syllable, “does not own me. And I’ve done nothing wrong.”

The tiniest hint of defensiveness echoed between them, sharp enough to ruffle his otherwise placid emotions. Kat didn’t much care for How-Dare-You-Call-Me-Vicky-It’s-Victoria and didn’t give a damn if Miguel plucked that thought out of her head. She dragged her computer up onto her stomach and popped it open. “She’s too prissy for you. And you know it, or you wouldn’t have crashed in my sexless bed last night, Mr. Playboy.”

“She had to work. And I like your sexless bed.” He rolled to his side, propped his head on his hand and blew away the hair that fell over his forehead. “It’s better than being at home until Julio finishes moving out. It’s all politics, all the time since the coup.”

A dangerous route of thought, especially with a psychic in her bed. Thinking about the coup always lead back to the men who’d led it. And one of those men…

She jerked her thoughts under control and wiggled her finger over the track pad on her computer until the screen came to life. “Politics get tiring,” she managed, and it sounded like a weak attempt even to her. “Sera and I don’t mind you crashing. She gets to cook for three, and I don’t have to turn the heat above sixty-five because you’re like a shapeshifter radiator.”

“Uh-huh. And my sister says that’s why I eat like a horse now. Increased metabolic function.”

“Yeah, it takes a lot of dedicated eating to be a chubby shapeshifter.” She’d left her browser open, and the endless row of tabs retraced the path of the previous night’s research. Seventeen in all, ranging from Wikipedia to her Gmail, which now had thirty-seven unfiltered messages awaiting her attention. “Sera likes cooking for you. Maybe you should ditch Victoria and start putting the moves on her. She could use some damn fun.”

He studied the bedspread and nodded. “She’s not really my type.”

The words were right, but empathy told her he was laughing inside, amused over some joke she was missing. “Is it because she’s a coyote and not a wolf?”

He stretched out on his back and grinned. “Maybe it’d be more correct to say I’m not really her type. I’m not badass enough for your roommate.”

“That’s a shame.” But easy enough to believe. The last time Sera had managed to get her hands on enough alcohol to make a shapeshifter drunk, she’d scrawled No fucking alpha bastards! across the bathroom mirror with a Sharpie. Kat had tried three different types of cleaner before giving up and repunctuating it. No, fucking alpha bastards! was a motto she could get behind, at least.

And speaking of alpha bastards… She actually had email from her boss. The timestamp was seven-thirty–eight-thirty in New York, where he was clearly already awake and busily messing with shapeshifter politics. Kat flagged it to check later and scanned the rest of the subjects. Junk, most of it, with a spattering of casual correspondence and a few messages from potential clients and colleagues at the university.

Then, third from the top, she stumbled across a sentence that made her heart stutter. Regarding your mother’s association with the Cult o… The subject line was too long to display in full, but what was there stole her breath.

“Hey.” Miguel laid a hand on her shoulder. “You okay?”

“I don’t–” She rocked upright, spilling the netbook onto the covers in her haste. After a moment groping behind her back, she closed her fingers on her pillow and hauled it around to serve as a makeshift desk. “I sent out some emails last week. I just–I didn’t really expect to get a reply.”

He must have caught a stray thought. “Cult? Some kind of cult shit? Is this something you’re doing for work?”

“Ancient history.” Crossing her legs, she set the pillow in her lap and resituated the computer. It could be nothing or a scam or even a joke.

It could be answers.

Miguel hesitated. “Do you need me here, or do you need me gone? I can’t tell.”

Neither could she. Her hands shook like she’d mainlined espresso and chased it with Red Bull…and if she didn’t get herself under control, she’d have two worried shapeshifters climbing all over her. “I think I need a few minutes. And Sera’s going to all that trouble making breakfast–someone should eat it.”

“You should eat some of it.”

“I will, I promise. In a little bit.”

“Kat.”

She dragged her gaze away from the browser window and met his eyes. “I’m okay, Miguel. It’s not like I can sneak out the window. I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

“All right.” He rolled off the bed and snagged his shirt from the chair by the wall. “I’ll grab some coffee and wait for you.”

Relief and gratitude made her smile as real as her words. “You’re the best.”

“Hey.” He stopped and rubbed his thumb over her cheek. “You’re still my girl.”

For one crazy second she wished she was his girl, that she’d met him before her broken heart had healed wrong, before life had twisted her up until even a handsome, skilled lover couldn’t keep passion from fizzling out. Maybe her empathy would always be a curse–she knew exactly what she had…and everything she was missing.

At least in Miguel she had a friend, and a friend was more important than a lover any day. “Go get some waffles before they get cold. I’m sure she’ll still be making them when I get out there.”

“I love this place.” He rubbed his hands together. “Waffles and whipped cream in a can.”

“Better than heaven.”

Miguel ducked out of the room and closed the door behind him, leaving Kat staring at her netbook.

Regarding your mother’s association with the Cult o…

She eased the cursor to hover over the subject before noticing for the first time that the email had an attachment. The tiny mouse cursor sat there, balanced on top of the apostrophe in mother’s, and her resolve wavered for a moment.

Ancient history, she’d told Miguel, and she hadn’t been lying. Whatever her mother had done, it had been over for at least a decade. She’d been dead almost that long, and maybe proof of her misdeeds needed to die with her. Ignorance was bliss, wasn’t it?

Holding her breath, Kat clicked on the email.

From: 876@johndoeanon.com

To: kat@katgabriel.com

Subject: Regarding your mother’s association with the Cult of Ariel

I have information about the Gabriel family’s past and present involvement with the Cult of Ariel, and I’ll trade it for protection from the Southeast council. I’ll be in Mobile, Alabama tomorrow. Meet me at the USS Alabama at 10 AM. Bring Andrew Callaghan or Julio Mendoza.

Kat ignored the way her stomach flip-flopped and read the email a second time. No signature, no name. Just the attachment which, judging by the extension, was an image. The virus scan seemed unbothered by it, but she still spent a few minutes double and triple checking before opening it.

When she did, she wished she hadn’t. Her mother’s face stared up at her, but not the mother she’d known. This woman couldn’t be any older than twenty-five–not so long after Kat had been born. But it wasn’t her mother’s youth that made dread curl in Kat’s gut–it was the wide, crazy grin and the way her hands gripped an automatic weapon.

So much for the waffles.

* * *

Kat stormed the Southeast council’s newly acquired headquarters armed with a laptop, a printout of the offending email, and all of her arguments carefully marshaled. Then she went in search of Miguel’s brother.

When she knocked, an unintelligible shout from inside beckoned her. She found Julio stirring a big pot of something on the industrial range, and he waved her over as she walked into the kitchen. “I guess those wards Mari put up work. Unless…” He eyed her as he wiped his hands on a towel. “You’re not here to kill me, are you?”

She flinched, and hated herself for it. Julio was joking. He wasn’t afraid of her–sometimes she thought the damn man wasn’t afraid of anyone–and even knowing it in her bones, with the confidence only empathy could bring…she flinched. If she closed her eyes, she might see the office, echoes of the nightmare that still woke her in a cold sweat. Walls painted in blood, wolves howling in challenge–

“You hungry? I got a head start on lunch.”

Kat dragged in an unsteady breath and used Julio’s confidence to ground herself. He wasn’t afraid of her, and the easy strength that surrounded him was better than a warm blanket for a jumpy empath. “No, I was force-fed waffles before I left the apartment.”

He laughed. “I know my brother was there, but I’m guessing he wasn’t the one who made breakfast.”

Of course he knew. Kat had rolled from her bed into the shower, but one shower wouldn’t be enough to erase Miguel’s scent from her skin, not when he’d spent the night hogging more than half of the bed. Kat felt her cheeks heat and compensated by dropping her laptop bag onto the wide island in the kitchen. “He kept me and Sera company last night and didn’t want to drive home.”

One dark eyebrow shot up. “Tell the truth–he didn’t want to go home, full stop.”

Kat eased her laptop out of its case and shrugged. “You know Miguel. He’s not all that interested in the shapeshifter new world order.”

“That’s putting it mildly. Joke’s on him, though, because I was here all night.” Julio slid onto a stool and propped his elbows on the countertop. “What’s up?”

She’d thought of all of the arguments to convince him to help, but the one thing she hadn’t considered was where to begin. “You know my parents died a while ago, right? My parents and my aunt and uncle, all at the same time.”

“Andrew told me about it, yeah. He said that’s how Derek ended up taking care of you.”

Andrew’s name shouldn’t make her heart twist, not after this long. “Derek came down to New Orleans when his parents died, because I was already living here. With his parents, I mean. My mother…” There was no good way to put it, though her father had always tried. Your mother’s not feeling so great right now, munchkin. “My mom was a little nuts.”

He was too polite to let his sympathy show, but she felt it all the same. “I think we’ve all had a bit of experience with that, but something tells me you’re speaking literally.”

“Psychic cults.” The outside zipper of her laptop bag held the printout of the email and the photo. She dragged the folded stack of papers out and fiddled with the edge. “Sometimes when I can’t sleep I poke around, see if I can find out what really happened. No one’s ever replied before.”

He rubbed his jaw. “I’ve heard of some. Anyone who’s tuned in to the psychic community has.”

Damn, she’d forgotten that Julio was psychic. Again. Miguel’s telepathy was powerful, almost as strong as her own empathy, but Julio was a precog, and one whose gifts seemed more prone to evidence themselves in hunches than Technicolor visions. It was easy to forget he was anything more than a shapeshifter.

Of course, it might make him doubly useful now. She unfolded the paper, and handed him the email and printed photo without comment.

“Cult of Ariel,” he read aloud. “Your mom?”

“Yeah.” She reached out and touched the edge of the picture. “She cut all of her hair off when I was ten and kept it short the rest of her life, so this must have been before that.”

“And this contact says he has information.” Julio flipped through the photos and the rest of the papers. “Do you know who this person is? Anything?”

“Nothing concrete yet. But I should know in a few hours.” Hopefully no one would ask how many laws she’d broken or asked others to break to get the information. “I know you wouldn’t want to walk into it blind, but if I figure out who it is…” Please, Julio.

“Not asking for myself, ’cause I’m not going. But you shouldn’t walk into it blind, either.”

It took her a moment too long to understand what he’d said. “Julio, please. I can’t ask Andrew. We’re not–” What, Kat? Friends? “He wouldn’t do it anyway.”

“Can’t ask Andrew what?”

Julio had to have known. He would have heard Andrew’s footsteps, would have caught his scent. Would have seen him, for Christ’s sake, which meant the bastard had set her up.

Kat pivoted and promptly forgot she needed oxygen.

She avoided Andrew as a general rule, and over the past year he’d seemed happy enough to return the favor. It was supposed to make dealing with him easier.

Instead, she felt like she’d taken a roundhouse kick to the gut. Sometime in the past month, Andrew had lost his razor. The reddish-blond beard made him look older. More intimidating. Not that he needed it–he was the tallest man she knew and looked like he’d been carved out of stone. The gun tucked into the shoulder holster was overkill.

Andrew Callaghan looked like he’d stepped out of an action movie, and her sluggish libido that felt so stunted around other men began to stir.

God, she hated him.

He had his arms draped across his chest and his hard green gaze fixed firmly on her. Waiting for an answer, so she provided one. “I can’t ask you to take a road trip with me.”

He studied her, his expression inscrutable. “Where are you going?”

“Maybe nowhere.” She deliberately turned her back on him and fixed Julio with what she hoped was a nasty glare. “Why not?”

He met her glare with a bland look. “Because I’m busy. Gotta hold down the fort while Carmen and Alec are in New York, dealing with the rest of the Conclave.”

It was a bullshit excuse. Andrew and Julio shared the same damn job, keeping the world running while Alec and his wife danced circles around the Conclave who led the wolves. If Andrew could take a few days off, Julio could too.

Unless he didn’t want to.

Kat held out her hand. “Can I have my papers back, then?”

He turned them over readily. “You gonna do what the email says? If I can’t go, that leaves Andrew.”

Yes, it left the man who stepped out of the doorway and plucked the papers from her hand. “What’s all this about, Kat?”

The human she’d known wouldn’t have waltzed into a conversation and seized control of it. He wouldn’t have assumed he had a right to know her plans. She’d avoided Andrew so successfully since he’d become a wolf that she had no idea who he was anymore.

Maybe it was only fair. The Kat he’d known wouldn’t have snatched the papers back, but she had no trouble doing it. “Someone has information I need, but they won’t give it to me unless I bring one of you along. They want protection from the Southeast council.”

Something flashed in his eyes–a bit of frustration, maybe anger. “The council protects those who need it. This person wouldn’t be trying to buy that protection unless he knew he couldn’t reasonably ask for it.”

She wanted to disagree, but how could she with the world cult plastered all over every page? “Yeah. He or she might not be a stand-up guy. That’s why I’ve got a friend tracking them down.”

Andrew rubbed the heel of his hand over his forehead, a gesture she recognized as one that meant he was thinking hard. Considering all the possibilities. “When do you want to leave?”

Just like that. No questions, no conditions. They’d barely spoken in a year, and the bastard was ready to climb in a car and drive across three states on what was, in all probability, a wild goose chase.

God, she wanted to hate him.

Chapter Two

Sometimes, Kat was impossible.

They’d already passed Biloxi and she still hadn’t spoken to him, so Andrew took the next exit off I-10 and pulled over at a service station. “Can we talk now?”

“Sure.” She typed a few more words and closed the lid of the tiny laptop balanced on her legs. “My friend wants to know if there’s anything in particular you want him to track down about this lady we’re meeting.”

“I’m not talking about that.” He squinted against the glare of the morning sun and sighed. “Does your cousin know you’ve been turning over rocks, trying to find information on your mom?”

“Derek’s busy being married. And I’m not seventeen anymore. I don’t need his permission.”

“It isn’t about permission. It’s about someone having your back.”

Kat turned away and stared out the window, though there wasn’t much to look at beyond the whitewashed gas station wall. “He practically lives in Wyoming now. Even if he knew about this, there’s not much he can do from there.”

Not much, except help her find a way to navigate the psychological and emotional minefield she was tap dancing on. “Are you sure you want it? Whatever information this contact might have?”

“No, I’m pretty sure I don’t want it. I’m also almost completely sure I need it.” Her voice held a rough edge. “There’s something damn scary inside me, Andrew. You of all people know that.”

His hands twitched into fists on the wheel before he could stop them, a reaction to the flashes of memory that punched him in the gut when he thought about that night.

They’d come for Kat, and he’d tried to stop them. Tried, in his own weak, ineffectual way, and they’d nearly killed him. So Kat had opened herself to darkness to save his life, and it had nearly cost her her sanity.

She stiffened and flashed him a guilty look. “Shit, I’m sorry. That wasn’t–that has to be even worse for you. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“What happened with the strike team wasn’t your fault.” It was mine.

“It’s not–” She sighed. “I don’t want to play the shapeshifter blame game. You guys spend so much time fighting each other over who gets to be the biggest martyr. Isn’t it exhausting?”

If only that knee-jerk alpha reaction was the only reason he claimed responsibility for that night. “It’s like a marathon that never stops. Now, tell me about this woman.”

“Peace Kristoffersen.” Kat popped the computer back open and lifted one hand to shade the screen from the early-morning sun. “Forty-three, born in Seattle. Her parents dropped off the grid when she was five. Resurfaced in rural Alabama. From there it gets a lot less pretty.”

“Survivalist stuff?”

“I guess. A lot of DHR reports, but I haven’t read them all. That’s most everything until she got a GED when she was twenty-four and went to college. Nothing to say if she’s a psychic or spell caster or what, but that just means if she is one of us, she was smart about hiding it.”

He glanced over as he started the car again. “What’s DHR? Like child services?”

“Yeah. I don’t know how much of use is in there.” She still wasn’t looking at him, though now her body language seemed more nervous than hostile. “Usually I could dig this stuff up on my own, but it’s not as fast as some people think. So I called a friend. He said he could send anything you want, up to her bank records or last dentist’s appointment.”

Having the wrong person digging around like that could spell disaster. One bad move could draw the kind of attention no one wanted. “So she’s involved–or has been–with this cult.”

“I guess. Some of the reports make it sound like there was some crazy backwoods militia stuff going on, but I don’t know what my mom would be doing running with a cult in Alabama. Maybe the growing-up stuff was the normal human variety of crazy and this lady got mixed up with the psychics later.”

She needed to hear what this contact had to say, but she also had to prepare herself for what was to come. “It could be bullshit, you know,” he murmured. “A wild goose chase.”

“I know. It could be bullshit, or she could be crazy. I could be crazy for wasting your time.”

The sadness in her voice made his chest ache, and he regretted his harsh words. “I’m sorry. I just don’t want to see you disappointed.”

If anything, sadness sharpened. “Disappointment’s not the end of the world.”

Plenty of people lived through that and worse every day, but it didn’t ease the pain she’d feel–or the way his own traitorous instincts would react to it. “We’ve got time to stop and eat if you want.”

“If you’re hungry. I’m fine.” She eased the netbook closed and set it on the floor between her feet before rubbing her hands against her jeans. “This is all kind of spectacularly awkward. I’m sorry you got stuck with it.”

Because their relationship for the last year or more had been one of constant awkwardness. Once upon a time, she wouldn’t have hesitated before coming to him for help, and he wouldn’t have felt the bone-deep need to warn her away from potential pain. He would have seen it through and picked up the pieces.

He would have been her friend.

“Don’t mention it.” He pointed the car back toward the interstate on-ramp. “I ate early this morning, and I’d rather have the time to check things out.”

“Sounds good.” Silence fell, and they’d gone five miles before she spoke again. “Is there a reason Julio wouldn’t come with me?”

None he could discern–except that he hadn’t wanted to tangle with Andrew. Not that he was about to try and explain that to Kat. “Busy, I guess. I didn’t ask.”

She blew out a sudden breath. “Damn. You’re still impossible to read.” Sudden color flooded her cheeks. “Not that I was trying, I mean. It’s just…you’ve always been in control, but now you’re stone cold. Are you sure you’re not psychic or something?”

“Nope.” His parents had been remarkable people, but nothing about them had been the slightest bit supernatural. “No psychic powers, just me.”

“Yeah, well, whatever secrets you have, rest assured they’re safe from me.”

“Don’t have any secrets, Kat, least of all from you.”

“A lot has changed since we used to share them.” She hunched down in the seat, her posture defensive even though her next words sounded perfectly casual. “How’s Anna doing?”

Andrew tensed, because there was nothing he could say that wouldn’t piss her off. “Fine. She’s fine.” He changed lanes and chanced a glance at her. “Is that really what you want to know?”

She was staring straight ahead, expression blank. “I’m glad you’re happy.”

He snorted out a helpless laugh. “You know, you’re so sure of everything, and you don’t even–” He bit off the words. “Ask me if I’m with Anna.”

“I take it back. I was just–I was trying to say the right thing.”

“Ask me, Kat, so I can tell you what you should have already figured out.”

Her sigh sounded equal parts exasperated and annoyed. “Fine, Andrew. Are you and Anna still seeing each other?”

“No.” He clenched his teeth to keep from elaborating.

“I’m sorry.” It sounded genuine. “That it didn’t work out, and that I brought it up. I just… Hell, it’s stupid.”

“Tell me, please.”

The sound of her heartbeat filled his ears, pounding too hard and too fast for her placid exterior. “It’s the elephant in the room. It doesn’t matter if we never dated. Everyone tiptoes around like you left me at the altar or something. I’m not going to make it all the way to Alabama with you, me and a couple elephants squeezed into this car.”

It was the converse of his own experience. The flip side. For every time someone had threatened to kick his ass for breaking Kat’s heart, someone else had comforted her. “Yeah, well. That big-ass elephant you were asking about? We broke up about five minutes after we started dating, and that’s not much of an exaggeration.”

“The elephant was less Anna and more…” She waved a hand in a vague gesture. “I don’t know. The fact that this is the first time we’ve really talked in over a year? If you’re with someone else, or you wanted to be, you don’t need to tiptoe around me. I’m a big girl, even if no one else thinks I am.”

“Don’t worry, I get enough shit for the both of us. I’m the last person who’ll go out of his way to spare you, out of sheer self-defense.”

“It’s not–” Her teeth snapped together. “Never mind. This isn’t what we should be talking about anyway. We need to make plans or something.”

They hadn’t talked in a year, and this was why. There never seemed to be a good time or place to start. “If it looks like a setup, we can’t stay. And you know why.”

“Because my cousin married the werewolf princess and now I’m good hostage material?”

Because Andrew would get himself killed making sure she escaped any such fate. “You’re not going to argue the point, are you?”

She sighed quietly. “No. As long as you acknowledge that I’m not helpless.”

Andrew fought to hide a smile. “Hell no, you’re not helpless.”

That seemed to mollify her. Her stiff posture eased, though she kept her arms crossed over her chest. “I know I don’t look like I went all soldier of fortune like you do, but I’ve been getting my ass schooled five days a week by Zola and Walker. I’m a ninja with a taser.”

He nodded solemnly. “I’m sure you would be, if you owned a taser instead of a stun gun.”

“Thanks, Alec Junior. And by the way, I told him the next time he corrected me, I was going to stun gun his balls.”

“Carmen might object to that.”

Kat laughed, a clear sound he hadn’t heard in far too long. “Carmen likes me. Though maybe not enough to forgive me for assaulting her husband, even if he does have it coming.”

He flashed her a grin. “Something tells me she’d stop you, no matter how fond she is of you.”

“Uh-huh. Won’t stop me from doing the same to you.”

The words may have been a threat, but they made him think of her tugging at his belt, passionate fire lighting her eyes. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Good.” Laughter subsided, but the strangling awkwardness didn’t return. After a moment Kat sighed. “I missed this. Laughing. You always made me laugh.”

“You laughed at me. That is not the same thing.”

“You did your share of laughing, too.”

“Well, it was only fair.”

“Yeah.” She lapsed into silence.

They drove for a few miles, and Andrew tried again. “Derek seems happy.”

“He is. He’s so happy I don’t have shields strong enough to block it out.” She sounded satisfied–and a little sad. “He and Nicole have crazy epic love. I think epic love is an epidemic. Seems like everyone’s coming down with a case of it.”

And it left her feeling lonely. Her isolation prickled at his heart and conscience. “Always when they least expect it. That’s something, anyway. It could happen to anyone.”

He caught her looking at him out of the corner of his eye, but she turned away too fast. “I’m not sure empaths are cut out for epic love. Not the strong ones. It’s not really all that safe.”

Another elephant, this one ten times bigger than the specter of Anna. “It doesn’t have to be too dangerous either.”

“Yeah, maybe not.” It was too fast and too bland to be remotely convincing, and she must have known it. “How far to Mobile?”

“Another hour or so. Maybe less.”

“I should check my email. See if Ben’s found anything else. He’s a technopath–they’re pretty fucking rare, which means no one really knows how to protect against them.”

She had her hair up, and when she leaned forward it exposed a complicated pattern of dark ink on the back of her neck. He reached out before he thought about it, brushing his thumb over the tattoo. “When did you get this?”

Goose bumps rose under his hand, and she shivered, her breath catching in a soft gasp he might not have heard if he’d still been human. “Six months ago. I went to the Ink Shrink.”

“You did not.”

“Did so.” Her T-shirt shifted as she reached for her netbook, proving that the ink continued down toward her shoulder blades. “I got it after I finished my thesis. My life needed punctuation. Or a chapter break.”

“Or a tattoo.” He’d been to see the Shrink himself, several times over the past year. “What’s it mean?”

“Hell if I know.” She sat back fast enough to dislodge his hand. “He twisted a little magic into it for me, and you don’t get to pick those. They pick you, whatever that means.”

“I get it.” He certainly hadn’t wanted a giant flaming bird across his back, no matter what the Shrink said about his totem animal being a phoenix instead of a wolf. “The damn man pretty much puts whatever he wants on you.”

“I suppose shapeshifters don’t have a lot of options. Derek said normal tattoos heal.”

With the attack that had caused him to change, he’d gone from half-dead to prowling around in only a few hours. “That goes doubly so for me, I guess.”

“So you have some? Tattoos, I mean.”

She sounded interested in spite of her studiously casual tone, and he couldn’t help teasing her. “I’ve got a few, Kat. Want to see them?”

Her cheeks turned pink. “No.”

He didn’t blame her for lying. “Let me know if you change your mind.”

The gesture she made was sufficiently rude to end the conversation, and she pointedly opened her computer. “Anything else you want me to look up before we get there?”

“Yeah.” He gave her a mild smile. “What’s the architectural and combat history of the ship? I’m curious.”

“You’re such a freak.” But fondness laced the words, and in a few seconds she’d pulled up a page and started to read. “The USS Alabama’s a South Dakota-class battleship…”

She continued to talk, sometimes reading and sometimes paraphrasing, as they drove. Andrew listened, not so much to her words as to the flow of her voice, familiar and soothing.

In an hour, they’d make it to Mobile. In two, if everything went exactly as planned, the meet would go down, and Kat would get her information. The problem was what he knew–and she did too, down past all her hope.

Things never went exactly as planned.