Crossroads

Southern Arcana, Book Two


Digital

February, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-60504-705-8

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Print

November, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-60504-925-0

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Crossroads

Derek Gabriel was born human in family of psychics, aware of the supernatural world but never a part of it…until a rogue shapeshifter took humanity from him in a vicious attack. He’s spent two years struggling to adjust, not just to a change that’s driven many insane, but also to the prejudices of a culture where transformed wolves are considered inferior. A serious struggle, indeed, when the woman who attracts the man and the wolf inside him is the daughter of the most powerful wolf in the country.

For Nicole Peyton, nothing is more important than escaping the stifling confines of elite shapeshifter society, an old-fashioned world where women are valued only for their bloodlines and bank accounts. In New Orleans, she has a bar she loves, friends she cares for, and a smoldering, unspoken tension with an unsuitable but incredibly attractive man.

Neither could predict how quickly forbidden longing would erupt into burning need, but Nick and Derek have more than themselves to think about when Nick’s sister arrives in the city with a shapeshifter strike team hard on her heels. The only way Nick can save her sister may be to play by the Conclave’s rules–but it will mean giving up the man she’s falling in love with, unless he’s willing to risk everything in a challenge that will shake the foundations of their world.

Warning: This book contains forbidden lust, strip poker, instinct-driven sex in odd places, devious shapeshifters, and love and loss in a world of paranormal politics and supernatural schemes.

Read an Excerpt


“If you don’t get off your ass, someone’s going to snake that woman right out from under you.”

Derek tore his attention from the paperwork spread out over his desk and leveled his sternest glare at his best friend and partner. “Excuse me?”

Andrew didn’t look up from his drafting table, but he cocked one eyebrow. “Hey, I’m just saying. It’s a small miracle she’s not already dating someone. At least, that’s what Penny says.”

“If you and Penny don’t have anything better to do than talk about my love life, maybe we should go find some more work.” He turned his attention back to his invoices, which had piled up at an alarming rate and made it clear that the last thing they needed was more clients. “Besides, give me one good reason I should listen to pithy advice on love from you.”

Andrew grinned and spun his stool to face Derek’s desk. “Tell me you don’t want to ask Nick Peyton out, and I’ll shut up about it.”

Two invoices went into the stack on the right, the ones that would go in the mail on Monday. Derek ground his teeth and picked up a third one, but he couldn’t focus on the words.

Maybe because he did want to ask her out, and everyone knew it. Hell, Nick probably knew it. But he had his reasons for hesitating. He had plenty of reasons.

He realized he’d been staring at the invoice in silence and put it down with a disgusted sigh. “I can’t believe the man who’s been in love with my cousin for, like, two years is over there lecturing me on getting off my ass.”

“We’re not talking about me.” Andrew’s easy smile didn’t fade. “You keep stalling, and you’re going to end up kicking yourself. Women don’t wait forever, not without a little encouragement, at least. And Jackson said that wizard’s been asking Nick for dates. The one who runs the fake ghost tour out in the Quarter.” He pulled out a small drawer, stored his technical pens and rose. “He’s coming to the party tonight.”

Derek had been a shapeshifter for almost two years, and he still wasn’t prepared for the rumbling snarl that worked its way out of his chest. It was instinctive, like the way his fingers tightened around the arm of his chair until he was sure he’d leave permanent dents. “Fuck.”

His friend eyed him solemnly. “Now imagine having to watch him hump her leg all night.” He grabbed his keys and wallet from another drawer. “I can’t pretend to know what it’s been like for you, Derek. But I know you don’t want to see her with someone else.”

Derek slumped back in his chair and tried to rein in the homicidal urges that accompanied the mental image of another man laying hands on Nick. “You’d think I’d have it under control now. Alec’s one cool fucker. He makes it look so damn easy.”

Andrew sat on the edge of Derek’s desk and made a face. “He was also born into all this crap. You’ve had a couple of years. That officially makes this the stupidest comparison ever.”

“Yeah.” Derek pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes. “Shit. I was going to ask her out anyway, you know. But every damn time something like this happens, I think I’m not ready. It’s fucking hell, Andrew, not knowing if something will make me snap and freak out.”

“She can probably handle a little crazy better than thinking you don’t know she’s alive.” He nodded toward the door. “I’m cutting out so I have time to go home and wrap Kat’s present. I’ll see you at the bar?”

“Yeah. Hey, send Mari in here, would you?” He picked up the next invoice on his stack and forced himself to look at it. “I need to talk to her before she takes off for the party.”

“Sure.” The door closed behind Andrew, but Derek still clearly heard his voice when he spoke to their office manager. The shapeshifter hearing had taken a while to get used to, if only because twenty-nine years of experience told him he shouldn’t be able to clearly make out words spoken in another room.

He shouldn’t be able to…but he could. Just like he could tell that Penny had been in the office earlier today, because she always smelled of an oddly soothing mix of sawdust, engine oil and cinnamon. The world was alive around him in a way it hadn’t been two years ago but, no matter how hard he struggled, he couldn’t seem to find solid footing.

The door opened again and Mariko stuck in her head. “Are my invoices ready, or do you want to ask me a question I’ve already answered four times? Because I’m about to start rationing those.”

“Invoices are ready. Mostly.” He waved to the mess of files on the desk. “You know I’m crap at this.”

She walked in, clad in head-to-toe black despite the lingering October heat. “I’ll check them before I mail them out. Did you have a chance to look over the subcontractor estimates for the Halstead project?”

“Those were…” He stared down at the disaster he’d made of his desk, trying to remember what color the folder had been. “Shit. When did you give them to me?”

Mariko leaned past him and pulled a yellow folder off a file cabinet. “They can wait, you know. It’s not urgent.” She eyed him sympathetically.

The sympathy grated on his nerves, but it had become a common fixture around the office since Jackson’s new flame had shown up. Now, more than a month later, Derek still felt the same panic that had gripped him when he’d learned Nick was about to make a suicidal assault on a madman’s stronghold to rescue Mackenzie–and that she’d left town to do so without saying a word to him.

Kat had pointed out, with some volume, that Nick didn’t owe him an explanation of her actions. What his cousin didn’t understand was that the truth only irritated him more. Fear had kept him from staking his claim, and that fear had left him in the dark when she’d been in danger.

Never again, he promised himself. Things had finally settled back to normal–or as normal as they ever got in this city–and Nick’s decision to throw a birthday party for Kat made the perfect excuse. Tonight, he’d make his move. And kill any wizards who get in the way.

Mariko cleared her throat, and he started and reached for the folder. “My brain’s shot this week, but I promise I’ll pick up the slack. Thanks for keeping everything under control, Mari.”

“You need some time off,” she admonished. “You’ve been going nonstop, and then that mess with the break-in and Kat’s bosses…”

“Yeah.” He flipped open the yellow folder and glanced at the first printout. “If everything calms down next week, maybe I’ll actually take the vacation I was supposed to go on last month.”

“I already shuffled some things around, so just say when.”

“You already–” Derek snorted and shook his head. “Andrew and I may have our names on the letterhead, but I guess I should have figured out by now that you and Penny run this place.”

“You have the best construction foreman and office manager in southern Louisiana. Quit your bitching and thank your lucky stars.” She leaned a hip on the edge of his desk. “Where are you planning to go?”

“Shit, I have to go somewhere?” His gaze skated to the bottom of the invoice without actually reading anything for the third time, so he shut the folder. “I might just sleep for a couple weeks.”

“Any reason you can’t do that in a hammock on the beach in Maui?”

Because someone could be asking out Nick or breaking into Kat’s apartment? While his libido was more concerned with the former possibility, the protective instincts borne of looking after his cousin for nearly a decade still hadn’t settled after the excitement from the last two months. Twenty-four or not, Kat was an empath running haplessly through a supernatural community whose collective power dwarfed her own.

He had a feeling Mariko knew what he was thinking. “Is Kat still digging in her heels about letting you put a magical security system in her apartment?”

She pulled her heavy, dark braid of hair over her shoulder and curled the ends around her finger. “Less these days. The break-ins scared her pretty badly.” She hesitated, then pursed her lips. “Nina and I could use a roommate. I wonder if Kat would be interested.”

“I think her lease is up soon. She moved in not long after her birthday a year ago.” Having Kat live with a witch and a telekinetic psychic would certainly make it easier for him to sleep at night. Alec had tried to warn him about the instinctive need to protect his family, but day-to-day life hadn’t prepared him for the overwhelming rage that had nearly incapacitated him the first time Kat had been threatened.

“If I get the chance, I’ll ask her tonight.” Mariko rose and straightened the short hem of her skirt. “Speaking of which, you’d better get off your ass.”

This time he didn’t bother to choke back his growl. “Jesus, did you put it in the company newsletter? Do you see me getting all up in yours and Nina’s sex life? Back the fuck off, Mariko.”

She raised both eyebrows at his outburst. “I meant it’s getting late. You’re not going to have time to go home before the party if you don’t leave soon.”

“I–” Shit. Derek covered his face with his hands again and groaned. “Sorry, Mari. I’m an asshole.” A hypersensitive asshole. “Listen, I’m going to come in tomorrow and finish up the crap that can’t wait, then I’ll take my vacation and hopefully come back here in a better mood.”

She just smiled, her expression once again shadowed by sympathy. “Stop worrying about everyone else. You’re going to drive yourself nuts. Just do what you need to do, okay?”

He needed to get his hands on Nicole Peyton and disappear with her into a locked room for a week or two, but somehow he doubted that was an appropriate suggestion for a first date. “Someone’s got to worry about you hooligans. I’m going home to get changed. I’ll see you and Nina at the bar. She’s coming, right? Or has she had enough of your crazy coworkers?”

“Are you kidding? She loves the insane lot of you.” Mariko took the yellow folder with her when she headed for the door. “Leave these to me. If any of the subcontractors are trying to screw you, I’ll know.”

“Thanks, Mari. You’re a lifesaver.” He waited until she’d shut the door behind her before dropping his arms to his desk and slumping down with his forehead on his hands. As much as he hated to admit it, Mariko was right. The last time he’d taken time off from work had been the month he’d needed to physically recover from being attacked by a crazed shapeshifter. He’d come back to the office because there hadn’t been a choice; the insurance he and Andrew paid out the nose for had been sadly lacking in paid leave for werewolf attack. After struggling for so long to build their business from the ground up, Derek had had to keep working.

But they had Mariko now. She could keep Andrew from drowning in work if Derek took a couple weeks off, and Penny was more than tough enough to make up for the fact that Andrew could be a little too nice. The three of them could keep things running.

Then he might just have enough time to consider pursuing something serious with Nick Peyton. If I can keep from howling at the moon or humping her leg or whatever happens to relatively new shapeshifters without a lot of control.

Groaning, Derek lifted his head and pushed himself to his feet. He still had to swing by his place and pick up Kat’s present, shower and change. If tonight was the night he made his move, he could at least make an effort to look good.

Maybe the damn wizard will get a flat tire, and I won’t have any competition.

 

* * *
Nick smoothed her hair behind her ears and stared at the gigantic sheet cake laid out on the stainless-steel counter. “Who likes carrot cake this much?”

 

“No one.” Mackenzie lifted a case of full beer bottles with an ease that made it clear she was finally growing accustomed to her newly gained shapeshifter strength. “Then again, Kat is one quirky kid.”

Nick laughed and pushed open the door from the kitchen into the main bar. “She’s practically our age, Mac. Twenty-four today.”

Mackenzie just snorted as she hauled the beers into the front. “I aged a lot this year. I might be pushing forty now.”

A quick glance around the bar satisfied most of Nick’s anxiety about the festivities. Her staff had worked hard to prepare for Kat’s private birthday party, one to which a good number of the supernatural denizens of the French Quarter had been invited. Including Derek.

She ignored the tiny stab of pain that lanced through her. Of course Kat’s cousin would be there. Nick had been looking forward to the party for months, viewing it not only as an opportunity to celebrate, but also to spend more time with Derek. Maybe even finally convince him to go out with her.

I have a better chance of sprouting wings and flying home tonight, she thought dispiritedly as she checked the liquor supply behind the polished bar. In the weeks since Alec had told her Derek liked her, she’d tried to strike up a few conversations with him. He’d answered politely, but treated her almost with annoyance, as if she’d done something to irritate him.

Or maybe I just piss him off in general. He wanted her; there was no mistaking his physical reaction whenever he came near her. And yet…

“Derek Gabriel hates me,” she told Mackenzie suddenly. “Alec is full of shit, and Derek hates me.”

Mackenzie froze, one hand holding open the ice cooler behind the bar and the other clutching a bottle of beer, and blinked at her. “He–what?”

Nick blew her bangs out of her face and started filling the pretzel bowls. “Alec told me that Derek hasn’t acted on any of the eight hundred flirtatious hints I’ve thrown his way because he likes me too much, and he needed to get all his new shapeshifter crap under control before he could start anything. But our friend is full of it because, lately, whenever Derek lays eyes on me, he looks like he wants to punch a hole in the wall.”

Mackenzie’s confused expression melted into one of guilt. “Shit, Nick. Maybe it’s not you. I mean, not just you. We did get his cousin mixed up in some crazy shit, and none of us bothered to warn him. Someone broke into Kat’s apartment, and if it was Charles Talbot, or someone like him…”

“Maybe.” She exhaled and shrugged one shoulder, unable to dismiss the feeling that it didn’t have anything to do with Kat at all. “I wouldn’t blame him. Jackson told me she was terrified.” Nick hoped being able to unwind with twenty of her closest friends would raise Kat’s spirits.

“Poor kid.” Mackenzie resumed stocking the fridge. “Which one does she have the crush on? Derek’s partner?”

“Andrew,” Nick confirmed. “The tall blond guy. They have this…thing. It’s epic.” She checked her watch and sucked in a breath. “People should be arriving soon. Dinner’s been set up, right?”

“Yep. It’s all ready.” Mackenzie shoved the last two beers in the cooler and picked up the case. “I could stay back there and keep an eye on it, though.”

“Surely you’re not scared of Jackson’s mother.” He was due back from the airport with her any minute. “Seriously. She’s great.”

“So I’ve heard. What about you? If you’re giving up on Derek, what else have you got going on?”

“Not a damn thing,” Nick muttered darkly. “My love life is officially a barren wasteland, where sexual satisfaction is entirely reliant on a fresh supply of C-cell batteries.” To say nothing of the loneliness that had plagued her for months.

“You could stop throwing out flirtatious hints and ask him out,” Mackenzie pointed out. “I mean, before you resign yourself to dating electronics.”

Nick had been set to do just that on returning from Boston. Then Derek had started gritting his teeth whenever she got within ten feet of him, and it stopped seeming like such a good idea. “Maybe.” She waved both hands in the air and made a disgusted noise. “I don’t want to talk about my pathetic love life anymore. Let’s talk about you and Jackson.”

“What’s to talk about?”

“Moving in with him?” Nick snatched up a towel and started giving the bar one final polish. “That’s a big step.”

Mackenzie laughed. “C’mon, Nick. After the year I had? Not all that big a deal.”

“You make an excellent point. But I’m proud of you for getting past it and moving on with things. Like the dance studio.”

Her friend’s eyes lit up. “Have you seen it lately? The contractors Derek found for me, God, they’ve worked magic.” She hesitated. “You don’t think he found me contractors who actually work magic, do you? I still can’t tell.”

Nick tried not to laugh. “As far as I know, it’s all sheetrock, semigloss paint and mirrors. But I want to come by sometime next week and–” She broke off when she caught sight of Kat waving through the etched glass of the front window. “Guest of honor’s here.”

She hurried to unlock the front door and pulled Kat in past the standing sign which proclaimed the bar closed for a private party. “Happy birthday, sweetie.”

Kat took in the bar’s decorations with wide blue eyes that made her look young, even if she was almost Nick’s age. “Wow, it looks awesome. I haven’t had a birthday party in years.”

“Just wait ’til the booze starts flowing.” She winked at Kat. “I’m going back to start the music. Want some champagne?”

“Sure!” Kat bounced up to the bar, obviously overflowing with excitement. “Heya, Mac. Where’s Jackson?”

“Picking up his mother from the airport.” Mackenzie popped the cork from one of the bottles of champagne. “They should be back any minute.”

“Awesome. Mama Holt is the best. You’re gonna love her. Tell her, Nick.”

Nick leaned into the back office and flipped the switch on the speakers linked to the satellite radio feed. “I did. But she’s nervous because Jackson got shot. I told her that’s a depressingly normal day around here.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say Jackson gets shot every day. But, you know, he’s in some trouble or other, like, every time I turn around. That’s what happens when you hang out with Alec.”

“Amen to that.” Nick surveyed the room again, pushed her hair behind her ears and glanced down at her shorts and T-shirt. “I need to go upstairs and change. Do you guys mind?”

Mackenzie grinned at her. “No problem. I’ll hold down the fort.”

Nick barely made it out the back door before her easy smile faded, and she cursed herself roundly as she climbed the wrought-iron stairs to the unoccupied apartment above the bar. Of all the nights to fall into a depressive funk, this had to be the worst. Not only would she ruin Kat’s birthday, but everyone would know she was upset because…

Because why, Nick? Because you sleep alone? Or because you can’t breathe when Derek Gabriel smiles, but he won’t smile at you?

She stomped through the kitchen and into the bathroom, where she’d left the bag containing her spare clothes and toiletries. At this point, she’d be better off going to New York to let her father fix her up with whatever random, well-heeled werewolf he’d managed to scrounge up.

He’d been dropping hints again, ever since she’d gotten back from New England. “Come home, Nicole,” she mimicked as she tugged off her T-shirt. “You’re missing too many priceless opportunities by living so far away.”

Priceless opportunities to marry well and get ready to take over the family business, something he knew she couldn’t care less about. She didn’t want to be queen of the werewolves, or whatever.

So what do you want?

Nick dropped her shorts, snatched up her lightweight black slacks and stepped into them. “Tonight, I want to be the consummate hostess,” she whispered to her reflection. “I want everyone to have a good time, including myself, if at all possible.” She paused before shrugging into her sleeveless red silk blouse. “And I don’t want to think about the fact that I’m going home alone.”