Anna Lenoir has always fought. First to escape a broken childhood, then to prove a female shapeshifter can stand shoulder to shoulder with the men. Now she fights for money, and her reputation is as legendary as her stone-cold heart. She’s never met a man she couldn’t walk away from.
Bounty hunter Patrick McNamara has a scary reputation of his own, along with mysterious powers linked to his many tattoos. On the clock, they’re the perfect supernatural-crime-solving team. After hours, she’s ready to rock his world. But Patrick won’t settle for just her body, and Anna’s better at breaking homes than making them.
When the heir to the Southwest council goes missing, their combined skills are the best chance of averting a territory war. But the hunt will drag them through the most vulnerable parts of their broken pasts. Daring to risk her heart might be the first fight she loses, and the stakes have never been higher.
Because Patrick will sacrifice anything for her. Even his life.
Read an Excerpt
Seven months earlier
She’d been staying at the small, one-bedroom apartment over the bar for so long it was starting to feel like hers. That made it even stranger when Anna unlocked the door and invited Patrick McNamara in for the second time.
The first, she’d been riding high on victory, a fight won, and every instinct had urged her to extend that exhilarated feeling with good booze and even better sex. Patrick had seemed like the perfect remedy, right up until he’d carefully turned her down.
“I work, and then I play.” In retrospect, a damn good idea, considering how things with the cult had shaken out, but at the time she’d been disappointed and mortified.
Neither feeling had gone away.
She tossed her keys on the coffee table and set his bag down by the couch. “How’s your back?”
“It stings.” His voice was dull now, lacking its usual undertone of wicked humor, and it hurt to hear. “Thanks for giving me a place to crash.”
“It’s no trouble.” Just in case he thought she had ideas about both of them being there, she added, “Sera said I could stay with her. Kat’s not going to be there anyway.”
“Okay.” Every movement seemed precise. Careful, like moving too quickly would hurt more than his back. He eased down onto the couch and stared blankly at the coffee table. “Do you have anything to drink?”
She had water, diet soda and the bottle of top-shelf whiskey she’d filched from the bar the night she’d intended to seduce him. “Did they give you any pain meds?”
He dug a bottle out of his pocket and tossed it on the table. “Haven’t taken them yet.”
He could have those or the booze, but not both. So she pocketed the bottle of pills and poured him a glass of the whiskey.
Handing it over should have been the end of her duties—Christ knew she was no good at taking care of people—but she found herself asking anyway. “Do you want me to stay or go?”
Patrick stared at the liquor and didn’t answer. Not directly. “It’s so damn quiet.”
There it was again, that odd tightness in her chest that left her wanting to reach for him. She sat down instead. “I’m sorry about Ben.”
“Thank you.” Automatic words, like he was thanking her for passing the salt, not for acknowledging the loss of his brother. A shudder wracked his large frame as he tilted back the glass and gulped the whiskey.
Shit, she wasn’t good at this. Everything she could think of to say felt silly, trite, and the last thing she wanted to do was sit and spew inane platitudes that would do nothing but irritate already raw wounds.
Nick would know what to say. Then again, Nick would have already gotten to know Patrick, and he’d be sitting there with a friend instead of her, a woman more comfortable with weapons than hugs.
Anna drew her legs beneath her and opted for the truth. “I don’t know what to do. I wish—I just wish you didn’t have to hurt.”
Oddly, the words made him smile. “Me too, Lenoir. No magic bullet for this, is there?”
“There’s magic for everything else,” she whispered, “but no. Not for this.”
“Then what’s the point?” His expression barely changed, but the glass shattered in his hand. “What is the goddamn point?”
“I don’t know.” He’d managed not to cut himself, though she wasn’t sure how. She tugged him away from the shattered glass and led him down the hall to the bedroom.
He sank to the edge of the bed, and she knelt beside it to tug at his boots. “You’ve got to be exhausted, and you’re hurt. You need to rest.”
“I know.” He looked down. Met her eyes. “Don’t leave. Please, Lenoir. I just…can’t handle the silence. Not tonight.”
“I won’t leave.” She’d stay if it eased the pain bracketing his eyes and vibrating off him in miserable waves.
She’d do anything.
Anna rose and threaded her fingers through his hair. Her heart thumped, and she touched her lips to his temple. He turned in to her, pressed his forehead to her shoulder.
He was utterly, completely silent. Even when the first tear splashed on her collarbone, he didn’t make a sound. She held him closer and wished like hell she knew what to do, how to bring him peace, if only for the night.
In the end, all she could do was kiss him again. “I won’t leave, Patrick.” She would stay, comfort him with her presence and her touch and her words, if he wanted them.
She hated this part.
Anna never bothered to tell anyone how much she disliked hunting because she wasn’t sure they’d believe it. People, as a general rule, wanted to think things were simple. Easily classified. She was good at tracking, even better at eliminating threats. Knowing she hated every moment of it wouldn’t fit with anyone’s expectations of a badass bounty hunter.
She stopped in her tracks as a breeze kicked the scent of iron and cotton into her nose. Anna pushed through the dense foliage of the forest floor and found a torn T-shirt under a pitcher plant, the blood so fresh it could only belong to the man she was tracking.
Wolf. Forgetting wouldn’t do either of them any good. He wasn’t a man, had tried to be one again and failed because he’d discovered his human body didn’t fit right anymore. That was why he was there.
Why she’d followed.
She picked up the trail and ran, nose to the ground, paws rustling through the moss and ferns. The track ended in a shallow stream, little more than a trickle, and Anna growled.
If she didn’t find him…
Doubts were indulgences—wasn’t that what the Conclave instructors always said? Every moment wasted on second-guesses was a moment someone could die.
One path beyond the stream led farther into the depths of the bayou. The other, back toward the tiny town whose scant lights twinkled through trees heavy with Spanish moss. Intellect told her the darker path was too facile, too obvious. If she were on the run, she’d head toward town, double back and catch her pursuer at his heels.
But the man had come here because his wolf had pushed down everything rational in his mind and let instinct take over. Instinct would tell him to flee from signs of man, to take to the woods and stay there. Live as the animal he was.
If it were that clear-cut, Anna would have been content to leave him be. But the man would always push back, struggle to reassert control over the beast. Sooner or later, the memory of what he’d once been would drive him to seek out humanity—with disastrous, deadly results.
Anna took the dark path and forged deeper into the swamp.
Too much thinking, and it almost got her. She rounded the end of a fallen tree and stumbled into a small clearing—the perfect place for an ambush.
Her paws dug into the earth as she scrambled back, but the sharp snap of a twig heralded the attack. The feral wolf sprang from the cover of the trees to her left and took her down hard. She twisted, barely avoiding the massive jaws aimed at her throat.
Anna came up biting. She wasn’t part of his pack, and they weren’t playing. He’d go straight for the kill, and that gave her an edge. Let him try it, exhaust himself with lunge after lunge. Eventually, he’d tire. He’d make a mistake.
He was strong and he was desperate, and the fight dragged on long enough to worry her. The magic spilling out of him wasn’t dominant, and in other circumstances she’d have tried her best to cow him and end the fight with submission instead of death.
But crazy men didn’t surrender, and that was exactly what he was, only worse.
Finally, he stretched too far as he charged her, baring the vulnerable expanse of his throat for a shade too long. One lucky shot and she took it, sinking her teeth in deep and holding on.
For as long as the fight had lasted, he died quickly, the light seeping from his eyes like his blood into the soil. Anna imagined that he looked grateful in those last moments, but she knew it wasn’t true.
Ken Trumaine of Corpus Christi, Texas, hadn’t wanted to die any more than he’d wanted to be bitten, turned into a wolf and driven insane by the whole fucking experience. He probably wanted to get drunk on Bourbon Street, pay a stripper way too much for a two-minute lap dance and go home with some goddamn hilarious war stories about his long weekend in New Orleans.
He hadn’t wanted to die.
She didn’t realize she’d shifted until she heard her own hoarse, muttered curse. Anna rose and stumbled back, caught herself before breaking into a sprint. She could run, but what was the point? Nothing to run from here, just a dead wolf and a man whose family would never find him.
She could run, but she couldn’t run away.
Anna Lenoir had gotten tattoos.
Crouched against a tree, Patrick let his gaze slide over her naked skin, indulging himself in the few moments he had before this crossed the line from cautious to creepy.
Maybe it already had. Charms masked his scent, little wooden discs etched in runes and blooded with power. They throbbed against his skin under his black T-shirt, their prickling energy a reminder of his own weakness. The last time he’d raced Anna Lenoir for a kill, he hadn’t needed magic. He’d had his own, the power and spells etched into his skin instead of wood.
She’d beaten him then too, without even knowing it.
Any second now, she’d realize he was there. His charms might hide him from most of her senses, but Anna was a wolf, a creature of instinct. She’d feel his gaze soon enough, and then he’d have a damn hard time explaining why he’d crouched in the bushes, admiring her ass, when he should have been making sure she was okay—or throwing her some damn clothes.
But she had ink. When he’d last seen her naked, she hadn’t had any. They’d been in the bayou then too, preparing for a battle. It hadn’t stopped him from fixing her surprisingly curvy figure into his mind.
Now he focused on that ink. It stood out against her skin, provided fascinating contrast even though he wasn’t close enough to make out the distinct shapes. He wanted to get closer. Touch her.
Damn, he was creepy. Closing his eyes, he whistled sharply. “Lenoir, it’s McNamara.”
Her ragged, indrawn breath carried in the still night. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
“Showing up late to the party again. You’re fast, woman.”
Her cheeks glistened in the moonlight, and she swiped at them with the back of her hand. “There’s no paycheck attached to this one, so you may as well go home.”
She was crying. Guilt punched through him, and he rocked to his feet, stripped off his T-shirt and tossed it into the clearing before turning his back. “Wasn’t about the paycheck. This is my town now too.”
“Sure.” The word was muffled, and her footsteps rustled out of the clearing. “You can tell Alec it’s done if you want.”
His shirt came down to her knees, covering everything he’d been leering at a few minutes ago. “I wasn’t really thinking. You probably want to change back to get out of here instead of walking barefoot.”
“No,” she said too quickly. “I’m fine like this. Thanks for the shirt.”
“No problem.” He glanced at the wolf—dead, a neat, fast kill. Merciful. “Walk back with me?”
She hesitated, then nodded and fell into step beside him. “I didn’t know you were on this one. No one at council headquarters tells me shit.”
“I volunteered.” Patrick shrugged. “Not that Alec tells me much, but Julio’s always willing to put me to work.”
“It’s not that you’re not handy to have around,” she muttered. “If it sounded that way, it’s not what I meant, okay?”
“You just sounded like you wanted to be in the loop. I don’t blame you.”
She sighed almost inaudibly. “How have you been?”
No one asked that question wanting to know the answer. Not really. “Doing good. Living the posh life in the Southeast council headquarters. I’m surprised Julio and Sera don’t bully you into coming over for family dinners.”
Anna stopped and looked up at him until he met her gaze. “How have you been, Patrick?”
Stupid him. Anna wasn’t everyone else. “Still in one piece, more or less. You?”
“Same as ever.” She fidgeted with his shirt, her fingers clenching in the black cotton. “Are you careful?”
The thought that she cared could make a man giddy, but he’d been dancing with Anna for too long to let himself cherish that hope. She blew hot and cold depending on the weather or the phase of the moon or the day of the week.
But she seemed sincere enough, so he bit back the snippy reply he’d given the last person to ask that question. “I’m not out to get myself killed, I promise.”
She frowned, intense and troubled. “I don’t know if I believe you.”
Patrick caught her chin and fought momentary shock at how smooth her skin was, how delicate she felt beneath his fingertips. She was tiny, standing this close to him, but she never seemed small. Not until he touched her. “Anna, I’m fine.”
She heard the lie. She must have, because her eyes flashed with hurt and then anger, and she jerked away from his touch. “Good. One less thing to worry about.”
If he didn’t turn it into a joke, he’d tell her the truth. “Didn’t know you cared, Lenoir.”
She ignored him and stalked in the direction he’d found her clothes, folded neatly and hidden out of sight.
She was fast, but she was also barefoot. It was easy enough to catch up, and he planted himself in front of her. “Maybe I don’t want to spill my guts in the middle of the bayou. If you wanted to know about my brooding pain, you could have called me back. I’ve invited you to go get a drink how many times?”
“Right.” She stepped closer, right up against him, and her voice dropped to a sultry whisper. “And how many times would you have called if you ever thought for a second I’d say yes?”
None. A hundred. Fuck if he knew. “So say it now.”
“Now?” She slid one hand up his stomach to the middle of his chest, brushing past the charms he wore. “Here?”
She was naked under his shirt, and that made him almost as hard as her fingers tripping over his body. “I don’t see any beer.”
Anna leaned in and traced her tongue along the outside edge of the tattoo framing his left pectoral.
He bit back a groan. “Don’t let adrenaline from shifting make you do something you’ll regret, Lenoir.”
She released him and backed off. “That’s right. I’d regret you more than all the other shit combined. Remember that.”
“Ouch.” Amazing, that he managed to make it sound lighthearted. “Shot through the heart.”
“Shut up.” She dragged his shirt over her head and threw it at him.
His hands darted up out of reflex, holding the fabric to his chest. “Anna, just take my shirt. I’m sorry, okay?”
“I’ve got to go.” She reached the shrub that hid her clothes and scrambled to pull on her jeans. “It’s been a really crappy night, McNamara. You don’t want to talk to me right now.”
This was how it was now. Lick or bite. Hot or cold. The spark was there, had been from the first time he’d laid eyes on her. But Anna wanted to fight and fuck, and he needed…
Family. The one thing he’d never have again, no matter how many dinners Julio and Sera forced on him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, watching her pull on her shirt. “I’ll see you later, right? All the wedding stuff coming up.”
“Yeah, sure.” She finished dressing in a rush and pushed her blonde hair back from her face. “The monkey suits. Wouldn’t miss it.”
This was the definition of awkward silence. It went on and on, until nothing he could think of to break it seemed important enough to say.
“I’ve got to go.” She mumbled it this time, then turned and fled through the trees, leaving him standing in the woods like an idiot.
Par for the course, which made him some kind of masochist for knowing he’d try again.
There wasn’t a goddamn man in the bar worth crossing the room for, much less one worth taking upstairs with her.
Anna threw back another whiskey and grimaced when it barely burned. Too many, too fast, and even the impressive metabolism of a shapeshifter couldn’t keep up forever.
She ignored the little voice in her head that laughed, mocked her for needing to get wasted and laid after her disastrous encounter with Patrick in the woods. It wasn’t her fault he’d followed her, and she sure as hell wasn’t to blame for the fact that he didn’t know whether to pull her closer or push her away.
That left her with the cold, hard truth she’d been facing for the past half a year—the one man she couldn’t have was the one who made all the others look like silly little boys.
“Scratch that,” she muttered to herself. “Fuck me.”
Her phone vibrated in her pocket, indicating a message. She’d set it to go straight to voicemail before heading out to hunt earlier, and she hadn’t bothered to change it after deciding a different sort of hunt was in order.
So much for that.
She stepped outside and pressed the command on the screen that would bring up her voice messages. There was one from Sera, and her tone was frantic enough to make Anna tense before she made out the words.
“Anna, call me back, please. I need your contacts to find me a doctor or a witch doctor or someone with magical medical experience who isn’t related to me. Or Julio. Just…call me back.”
It took Anna a matter of seconds to dial Sera’s number. “What’s going on? Why do you need a doctor?”
“I just peed on a stick.” For a woman who’d kept her cool planning an elaborate wedding in under three months, Sera sounded close to panic. “I think I accidentally got pregnant. I need to be sure before I trigger Julio’s daddy instincts four days before we get married.”
“Oh, balls.” No wonder she was freaking out. Sera knew two doctors—one was her father, and the other was her fiancé’s sister. “Save the stick. I know a lady.”
“Do you mind picking me up? My bodyguard offered to stay, but I felt weird enough about dragging her to buy pregnancy tests with me.”
Anna needed at least ten minutes to sober up, and another ten to get to Sera’s place. “Give me half an hour.”
Sera’s breath rushed out in a grateful sigh. “I love you. Thank you.”
Anna rounded the bar and climbed the stairs to her apartment, where she hopped in the shower and stared at the tile until the world came into sharp focus again. Even that didn’t erase Patrick’s scent from her skin, and she knew the coyote would eye her curiously, even if she didn’t ask.
Sure enough, when Sera opened the door she froze, her eyes going wide. “Shit, were you with Patrick? Did I make you cut something short?”
“No. Hell no, nothing like that. He let me borrow something, is all.” She eyed the bag in Sera’s hand. “You ready to go?”
The younger woman could smell a lie as easily as most shapeshifters, but for once she seemed willing to let it slide. “Yes. I texted Julio, but if he calls, he’s going to know something’s up.”
“I’ll answer and tell him you have cold feet. He’ll be too busy pitching an emotional but manly fit to ask any questions.”
Sera choked on a laugh as she stepped into the hallway and locked the door behind her. “I’m the only one who doesn’t have cold feet. I never knew other people could have them for you.”
In Anna’s experience, other people often felt free to tell you what to feel. “They don’t matter,” she said as she led Sera toward the elevator. “Julio matters, that’s all.”
Once the doors slid shut behind them, Sera turned to Anna. “I’m not freaked out, you know. I mean…I am, a little, because I want to know… But if I’m pregnant? It’s okay. I always wanted kids. Just not with the wrong guy.”
“Hey, you don’t have to convince me.” She’d seen the two of them together often enough to know it was more than infatuation or a passing attraction.
Sera studied her for a few seconds, eyes narrowed. “I know, because you get it. You get that one moment can change everything, whether we want it to or not.”
Maybe. And maybe, if one moment could change anything, putting her tongue on Patrick would have earned her something other than scorn and a stern warning. But that wasn’t what Sera wanted to hear. “I get it.”
Sera’s fingers curled around hers. “Do you want to talk, or for me to pretend I believe you? I can do either.”
Lying was for the weak. “I don’t know what to think anymore. I should probably stop trying.”
“What did he do?”
Even the whiskey hadn’t killed the taste of his skin. Her tongue tingled, and Anna rubbed it against the roof of her mouth. “Nothing.”
Sera leaned into her, and shapeshifter magic whispered over Anna’s skin. Sera’s submissive power was muted now, tangled up so much in Julio’s that she felt different. Still soothing, though, and openly, lovingly accepting. “Men get dumb when they’re hurt. They get so afraid to show a weak side, they don’t realize they’re hurting the people who would help them.”
“Not just men,” Anna conceded grudgingly. “I could make it happen, Sera, I know I could. But it’s a bad fucking idea.”
Sera made a rude noise and all but dragged Anna toward the exit. “Says who?”
“Says me, and I’m serious.”
“Do you think he’d hurt you?”
Anna sighed and unlocked Sera’s door before rounding the car to her own. “I think we’d hurt each other.” And the events of the night had done nothing to disabuse her of that notion.
“I’m not trying to talk you into it. There are hundreds of hunky fish in our sea, Anna.” Sera waited until she started the car, then reached out to touch her arm. “I’m just saying, I thought I had to stay away from Julio, that I’d drown in him. That he’d make me weaker than I already was.”
What would she have done if she’d been pretty sure she was the toxic one? Surely she would have made a different decision then, if only to protect Julio. “It’s a long damn drive to Plaquemines Parish. You sure you want to dish about my love life the whole way there?”
“Since my love life is what caused the trip, it seemed appropriate.”
“Except for the part where mine is FUBAR, and yours is so great you’re about to get married and have a kid?”
Sera laughed. “So let me enjoy it while it lasts. Though I guess if I’d enjoyed it less, we wouldn’t have hit the two percent failure rate on the condoms in under four months.”
“That’s the thing about statistics. They tend to make an example out of you.”
“Let ’em. The world’s not so bad right now, Anna. There’s hope in the air. Can’t you taste it?”
On any other night, Anna might have indulged her. But tonight she’d killed one man and wounded another, and the world felt anything but hopeful. It was closing in on her, bit by bit. “Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies. Isn’t that what they say?”
She felt Sera’s gaze, even in the darkness of the car. “I could stay at your place tonight. We could pretend we’re doing wedding stuff and watch cheesy movies instead. I won’t even make you watch CSI.”
If Anna wasn’t careful, Sera would lock her up and stage an intervention. “We’re road tripping. Find a good satellite station, and we’ll sing along. After that, we’ll see.”
Sera leaned forward to obey. “Can we stop for burgers? I’m starving.”
“Just burgers? No pickles and ice cream?”
“Burgers and shakes.” Sera paused. “And Pringles. But that’s not pregnancy, I’m just really hungry. Wedding stress?”
The words pricked at Anna’s conscience. “I haven’t been helping enough. I’ll be around all this week, though. I promise.”
“Shut up. I didn’t mean it like that, and you know it. You’re doing important shit, Anna. Hell, so am I. The wedding is just…a day. A self-indulgent day because Julio won’t say no to me.”
So much work, and the most taxing thing Anna had done was choose a dress. “It’s a party. Everyone loves a party.”
“Everyone loves a drunk party.” Sera groaned. “Oh shit, unless I can’t. How am I supposed to handle all the damn wolves who are going to show up if I can’t drink?”
“I have no freakin’ idea. I guess you’ll have to rely on your adoration for Julio to see you through.”
Sera’s grumpy, annoyed noise made her thoughts on that clear. “Honestly, I don’t even know who’s coming. After I got the important people on the list, I let Alec and Carmen decide who had to be invited to the wedding of a member of the Southeast council.”
Anna tightened her hands on the wheel and took a turn a little too sharply. If the guest list read like a who’s-who of shapeshifters, chances were good some ghosts from her own past would be making an appearance. “My advice, then, is to shake some hands and get the fuck out of there. Fast.”
“Good advice.” Sera’s hand snuck onto her arm again, this time closing tight. “You take it too, Anna. If any of them give you shit, it’s enough that you’re going to stand up there with me. If you want to cut out after the ceremony, I’ll see you after the honeymoon, okay?”
Sera looked so worried that Anna nodded instead of brushing away the concern. “I promise. I’ll head for the hills.”
“Good.” Sera’s grip tightened to just short of painful. “I think I might puke, and I don’t know if it’s stress, pregnancy or how fast you drive.”
Oh, hell. “Do I need to pull over?”
“I don’t—oh God, yes. Pull over. Please.”
Anna jerked the car to the curb and shoved it into park as her friend threw open the door and emptied her stomach. She’d hold back Sera’s hair and get her ginger ale and crackers, and then they’d drive out to the middle of nowhere and see a witch doctor about a potential supernatural pregnancy.
Sadly, even the vomit was more interesting than the night she’d had planned.
I hate you, Patrick McNamara.
Alec’s truck was parked outside the Southeast council’s headquarters in the spot where Patrick usually put his motorcycle. This morning he took the place next to it, parking his bike before checking to make sure his anti-theft charm was still wrapped firmly around the left handlebar.
A quick survey of the other vehicles in the lot told him where to find New Orleans’ head wolf. He took the stairs past his own apartment and stopped in front of Andrew’s door, knocking as he stripped off his helmet.
Kat answered before he unzipped his jacket, and Patrick fought the stab of pain that always hit when he saw her. Fought it harder than he should have, because Kat was an empath, and she’d know it hurt him to look at her. More than six months and it still hurt, knowing she’d been the last one to see his brother, knowing she’d watched him die…
His pain reflected in her eyes, but she didn’t say anything. She had, once. The first time they’d come face to face, when he’d been recently injured and she’d been recently tortured. He’d told her then that he didn’t want to hear her apologies, didn’t want to blame her.
She was the only friend of his brother’s he knew. The only link to Ben that existed in his sad little life, so he welcomed the pain, the connection, and smiled at her. “Looking for the boss man.”
Kat pulled the door wide as she rolled her eyes. “God, don’t call him that where he can hear it. His Majesty, King Alec of the Shapeshifters, is still feeling very pleased with himself.”
“Ignore her.” Andrew came up behind her and steered her around. “She’s not suffering the male ego lightly today. How’d it go last night?”
“It didn’t.” Patrick stepped inside. “Anna beat me to the kill. Don’t know how she knew.”
“Huh.” Andrew raised his voice. “Alec, did you set Anna on the Trumaine thing?”
A chair scraped in the other room, and Alec poked his head around the corner. “No. Did she catch wind of it?”
“Yeah.” Patrick followed Kat and Andrew as they headed back to the table. “She’s got damn good contacts in the shapeshifter community. Most of mine are magical, so I never hear about things as quickly as she does.”
“See?” Andrew dropped into a chair. “It doesn’t make sense not to have her helping out, especially since we don’t have to worry about pissing off the rest of the Conclave.”
“You’re right.” Alec braced his elbows on the table, and he looked suitably tired for a man who had helped dismantle the shapeshifter world order. Most people were still trying to decide if the change had made things better or worse.
Patrick had spent most of his life dodging the ruling body that governed the largest group of shifters in the country, but at least the Conclave had provided some damn oversight, however unreliable. The new way was different, messy. Quality of life was going up in the Southeast now that Alec had absolute control, but out in the rest of the country…
Well, not all leaders looked as tired as Alec, and their people suffered for it.
As if he could sense Patrick’s thoughts, Alec frowned. “What? Something else?”
Not the time to blunt the truth. “It’s a mess out there. You guys might need to be prepared for a whole lot of supernaturals picking up and trying to find a home in your territory. And that’ll include people like the rogue wolf that attacked Trumaine.”
Andrew folded his hand around Kat’s. “It’s the same thing we’ve been encountering wherever we go. We were just saying so.”
“I can’t run them down fast enough.” Kat sounded tired too, and sad. The turned wolves had become her crusade, and every time one had to be put down, she took it personally. “We need people like you and Anna on this full time. People with contacts, connections, who can find the ones that won’t talk to us.”
They were all so clean they squeaked when they moved too fast. Andrew and Alec might have the nerves of stone-cold mercenaries, but they looked like what they were—men who enforced laws, even if they weren’t of the human variety. Most of Patrick’s best informants would take one look at either of them and go so far down the rabbit hole he’d have to wait for their kids to come back out. “I told you I’d help out.”
Andrew eyed him. “And if helping out means working with Anna?”
“Then I work with Anna.” Hell, it might help. At least then she couldn’t run away. “She might not feel the same way, though.”
“I think she’ll get the job done, and so will you.”
Alec leaned forward, intense and serious, and Patrick had been around enough shapeshifters to know the body language was instinct, not intent. It didn’t stop him from tensing as Alec spoke in a low voice. “I want to know if you’ll do more than take jobs. I’ve been talking to Andrew, trying to figure out if Anna would be willing…”
That sounded fucking ominous. Patrick looked at Andrew. “Willing to what?”
“Keep an ear to the ground,” he answered. “Like Kat said, people don’t talk to us. But you and Anna have the right contacts, and you run in the right circles. You’re in a position to know the things we need to know.”
“I’m Alec’s NSA,” Kat said. “He needs a CIA.”
Oh, yeah. Nothing big. “That’s something I need to sleep on.”
“Fine,” Alec said, pushing his chair back. “Think about it, because I’m talking a real job, with real pay. Kat, walk me downstairs, would you?”
When they were gone, Patrick raised both eyebrows. “Are you guys serious about this?”
Andrew tapped his fingers on the table and shrugged. “Alec never jokes when it comes to this stuff.”
“What about her?”
“Have you asked her about this crazy idea?”
Andrew looked away. “Not yet. Kat thought we should talk to you first.”
Kat was sweet—and sometimes a meddlesome snoop. “There’s nothing going on with me and Anna. We don’t always get along personally, but that’s never stopped us professionally.”
“Don’t bullshit me, Patrick.” The wolf leaned forward, bracing his elbows on the table. “I know you’re a pro because you’ve proven it time and time again. Maybe there’s nothing good going on with you and Anna, but even that’s not nothing. Not really.”
“Look, you’re protective of Anna because the two of you had a thing once upon a time.” A thing Patrick might have been able to get nice and jealous over, if Andrew weren’t around-the-bend crazy in love with Kat. “The woman can take care of herself, okay? She’d eat me alive.”
“No,” Andrew denied, certain and sure. “She really, really wouldn’t.”
“She already has, man. That’s why there’s nothing there.” Patrick plastered on his cocky, joking little smile and patted his chest. “Good and broken.”
The other man frowned. “So is the not-getting-along-personally going to be harder for you than working alone?”
So much for joking his way out of the conversation. You couldn’t pull that shit on shapeshifters any more than you could Kat and her empathy—and Patrick was getting really fucking tired of these people and their impossible, unavoidable caring. In the real world, people got what they could out of you and left it alone. No long, tortured discussions about his feelings.
New Orleans wasn’t the real world. It was the supernatural Brady Bunch, and it was making him claustrophobic. “Lighten up, Andrew. If you don’t trust me, ask your girlfriend. She can tell you I’m fine.”
“I already did that.”
Shit. “And she said…?”
“She said you seem fine, all things considered. But you haven’t been out pounding the pavement with a lady who hates you yet, either.”
That made him flinch. “If it comes to that, I’ll do what needs doing. First we’ve got to get Julio married off.” Which should give him plenty of time to force the issue with Anna, one way or another, while they were trapped in a hotel together for twenty-four liquor-soaked hours.
“Fair enough, but watch yourself.” Andrew rose. “There are people who’d eat you for hurting Anna. The bride-to-be, for starters. Sera’s fiercely protective.”
“I see.” It explained the edge that sometimes accompanied Sera’s overly forceful friendliness. For a sweet little submissive shapeshifter, the girl could throw some pointed looks. “That’d be awkward for the groom, I guess.”
“Maybe.” He retrieved a beer from the refrigerator and tossed it to Patrick. “I’m not trying to tell you how to live, man. All I’m saying is…I’ve been there. I’ve been the jackass who broke a girl’s heart. It’s lonely.”
An unalienable fact. It settled in his gut, the reminder that the only person in the world who had really known him was gone. “They’re her people, not mine. You’re her people. I know how it works.”
There was only one thing Andrew could say, one thing written all over his face. “I’m sorry.”
“I know.” Patrick twisted the cap off his beer and raised it. “I don’t want to break her heart. For her sake, and Julio’s and Sera’s sakes, and for the future of the little covert agency Kat’s trying to start. I promise to do my best to play nice this week.”
Andrew drained his beer and changed the subject. “How’s your back?”
Another unwelcome topic. Patrick shifted in his chair and winced at the slight tug. His scarred skin still didn’t move the same way, might not feel right for years, but at least he could answer honestly. “Better. Healed, according to the doctors. Most of the real damage is cosmetic.”
“What’s the Ink Shrink had to say about it?”
“That perfection takes time. He wants to wait a few more months before messing with my ink.” It rolled off his tongue like the truth, because he needed it to be. Because he wasn’t ready to admit reality to anyone, not even himself.
Andrew stared him down for a moment but only changed the subject again. “Got your tux yet?”
“No. I’ve been avoiding it.” Patrick held up one arm and stared at the tattoos climbing from his wrist up under the edge of his T-shirt sleeve. “You should see the looks they give me in fancy places like that.”
“Some people are good at passing as fancy. Then there’s the rest of us.”
“You’re Captain America next to me, buddy.”
Andrew smiled and picked at the label on his empty bottle. “Once upon a time, maybe, but not anymore. That’s Julio’s gig now.”
Compared to Patrick, they were all model citizens. “Why? Because he’s clean cut and getting hitched in a couple days?”
“And about to own a couple of big-ass houses, et cetera. He’s the golden boy of the Southeast council, even if he is marrying a coyote. The old-timers think he might just save their way of life,” Andrew explained. “They think it because they don’t know him.”
The pieces clicked into place. “Because he was born a wolf.”
“Now you’re catching on.”
Shapeshifter politics gave shapeshifters a headache. They exhausted Patrick. “Well, to the rest of us, you’re a good man. It’s nice to see Kat happy with someone who’s going to take care of her.”
“Yeah.” Judging from the man’s expression, he knew talking about Kat hurt. “I think Julio wanted to see you before you went anywhere.”
It felt like a dismissal. Andrew’s way of inviting him to leave before Kat came back upstairs and looked at him with those big blue eyes and Patrick drowned her in the pain of missing his brother. Andrew might have broken the girl’s heart once, but he was going to make damn sure it never happened again.
At least Patrick knew where he stood—and where he’d end up, if he ever hurt Kat with more than grief he couldn’t control. “I’ll check in with him,” Patrick said as he rose. “Tell Kat to call if she needs me, huh?”
A lie, but a polite one. Figuring he’d well and truly worn out his welcome, Patrick collected his helmet and jacket and retreated. Not to Julio’s apartment, but back to his own, where he locked the door and raided the nearly empty fridge for another beer.
He had to get out of this building. Out of this town, and this mockery of a life. He didn’t fit here, playing at being a part of a team, pretending he belonged. Julio had fought to make a place for him, but Patrick could have Julio’s back without breathing down his neck twenty-four/seven, especially now that the man was about to get married and settle down.
Patrick would make it through the wedding. He owed Julio that much, for the number of times the man had patched his battered ass up after he’d taken on a fight he wasn’t strong enough to win. He’d stand there in a tux, looking like a fool…
And then he’d find a job. With Anna, without her, he didn’t fucking care anymore, as long as he wasn’t trapped inside four walls with a bunch of crusaders who rarely got their hands dirty.
Someone had to do the wrong thing for the right reasons, after all, and he belonged in the gray area between the heroes and the villains.
The next thirty minutes were going to be the longest of Patrick’s life.
“I’ve got the booze,” he said as he held up two bottles and used his foot to close the door. The hotel room where they’d stashed Julio before the ceremony was nice, with expensive furniture, dark, manly wallpaper…and magic. The owner was a spell caster who specialized in discreet gatherings for supernatural events, and Patrick had no doubt every room in the place was warded and soundproofed.
Right now, Julio looked like he needed a calming spell more than anything else. Too bad the bar had been easier to find than a spell caster. “Beer or whiskey, man?”
Julio shook his head. “I don’t want to puke on Sera’s shoes. I feel like I might anyway, and booze won’t help.”
From what Kat had told him about Sera’s condition, Julio wasn’t the only one in danger of throwing up. Pointing it out wouldn’t help. “Hey, what have you got to be nervous about? That girl loves you.”
“Hell, I know that. I just wish we didn’t have to trot out the dog and pony circus.”
“Don’t you mean wolf and psychic?” Patrick set the liquor down on the dresser before leaning against the wall. “Don’t worry about it. Your sister has the whole thing under control, and Alec’s snarling at anyone who looks at someone else funny.”
Julio’s shoulders shook, and it took Patrick a moment to realize he was laughing. “So Alec is snarling at everyone, then.”
Patrick gave in and smiled. “Yeah, pretty much. How are you handling the rest of it? It’s been a big week for you.”
“I love it,” he answered immediately. “Every second of every day, including the circus. Me and Sera, that’s what I was made for.”
Endless political responsibilities, a list of enemies a mile long, and a bride who might spend their honeymoon hating him for her morning sickness—and the crazy bastard was glowing. “That’s good, Julio. It’s great. It’s perfect.” Yeah, three adjectives. That wasn’t overcompensating for his own claustrophobia.
Julio caught Patrick’s gaze in the mirror as he straightened his bow tie. “And you’d be gnawing off your own leg to get away, right?”
“You and Sera are the closest thing I’ve got to family now. I’m sincerely glad you’re happy, and I’ll heap toys on that kid when it shows up. But we’ve all got different ideas of happy, right?”
“Yes, we do. Which is why I don’t want you to kill yourself trying to stick around. Sera and I both get it, you know. If you need to get out of New Orleans for a while.”
Some of the tense weight eased from Patrick’s shoulders. “You kept me from going off the edge. You kept me from getting myself killed. I owe you a lot.”
“Did we?” Julio turned and leaned against the low table. “Sometimes I feel like all we did was try to turn you into something you’re not. Shove you into some stupid mold that would make you miserable.”
“Before.” Patrick had to clear his throat. “Before you were with her. When I was…” Crazy. Suicidal. On the trail of seriously unrighteous blood vengeance, because everyone who’d had a hand in his brother’s death had to die, or every life they took from that day forward would be on Patrick.
“Before,” Julio echoed with a nod. “Maybe I did all that because I owed you.”
It was the one thing they’d never spoken about directly. Patrick couldn’t, at first, not while he was still struggling to grieve, and not while Julio was falling head over heels in love.
It sure as hell wasn’t a topic for the man’s wedding day, either, but maybe it was a time for dark confessions. For absolution and understanding. “You don’t owe me anything. When I see Kat—” He swallowed hard and closed his eyes. “She knew him. She’s hurting too. I never blamed her, or you.”
“It wasn’t my fault,” Julio said clearly, firmly, as if to himself instead of Patrick. “I know that now, but I didn’t for a long time. So I think…I started out helping you as a—a favor to Ben. An apology. But you’re not an obligation anymore, Patrick. You’re a friend.”
His chest ached. “Yeah, I love you too, Mendoza. Now stop being so damn mushy, unless you want weeping groomsmen. I bet I could get Alec bawling.”
Julio grinned. “We could tell him his truck was stolen.”
“Tell him Kat upgraded all the software again.”
“Or bought him a new smartphone with voice-recognition technology.”
“No, then it’d be the rest of us crying every time he accidentally called us.”
“He’s married to my sister. I sure the hell don’t want him accidentally calling me at inopportune moments.” Julio picked up the velvet box that held Sera’s ring and turned it over in his hands. “I’m going to do this.”
“Yeah, you are.” For one moment, one weak, horrifying second, jealousy reared its head. Not at the spectacle or the rings or the legal documentation—Christ, the last thing he wanted in life was a paper trail—but that look in Julio’s eyes…
Joy. Possessive satisfaction. Anticipation. All the things that would be waiting for him in Sera’s eyes.
Love. There were worse things to want.
One more time. Romance was in the air. Maybe he and Anna could dance, talk. See if that spark had a chance. If there was any woman in the world who could put up with him, it was her.
If she wouldn’t, he might spend the rest of his life being the guy everyone invited over for Thanksgiving because they knew he’d be alone.
It was a beautiful ceremony. The kind that made people crazy, judging by the furtive looks Patrick kept casting her way. Beautiful wedding ceremonies made people think of white picket fences and babies and living happily ever after.
Left to her own devices, Anna might have spent the reception hiding under the cloth-draped table in the corner, chatting with the bartenders as they passed down drinks. But the occasion called for polite socialization—plus Sera’s dad caught her on her way to the bar.
“Dance with me.” It wasn’t quite a command, but Franklin looked so serious she had to concede, folding her hand into the crook of his arm.
Anna smiled as he led her onto the dance floor. “Are you and Lily enjoying the party?”
“Last time I saw her, my girlfriend was hiding out with the groom’s sister.” He smiled as they turned, placed one awkward hand at her hip. “I wanted to thank you, Anna.”
“Thank me for what?”
“Don’t play dumb. I know you’re smarter than you want anyone to think.”
Anna laughed. “Fine, I’m brilliant. Still don’t know why you’re thanking me.”
He nodded to Sera and Julio, whose idea of dancing seemed to involve swaying back and forth with her head tucked under his chin. “You were her friend when she needed one, and you kept her safe when she couldn’t ask me.”
Only an asshole would have done any of that for gratitude or recognition. “It’s not a one-way thing. Sera’s been my friend too. In fact, you could argue I had the easier end of that deal.”
“Oh, could I?”
“Hey—believe it or not, I’m a bit of a jerk. Sera’s a saint for putting up with me.”
Franklin snorted. Loudly. “I know my daughter. She’s not a saint. And if you think I wasn’t checking up on both of you all this time…”
Anna hid her smile as they sidestepped two of the younger guests dancing awkwardly. “The truth comes out.”
“She’s my only kid.” Franklin steered her past Patrick, who watched them with dark, blank eyes. “I’m an overprotective shapeshifter father. I know how often you looked out for her. You’re a good egg, girl, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Everyone told her otherwise at some point or another, but he had no way of knowing that. “Understood.”
“Good. Now, the groomsman with all the tattoos is headed over here, looking like he wants to steal you. Should we foxtrot away?”
Anna covered her sudden breathlessness with another laugh. “On the contrary. I’m a good egg, and good eggs don’t run from confrontation.”
“They can run from bad boys, though.” But he spun her around, leaving her facing a surprised-looking Patrick, whose eyes widened when Franklin leveled a finger at him. “I’m watching you.”
When he was gone, Patrick held out one hand. “Am I going to get in trouble if I ask you to dance?”
“No.” He looked even more dangerous in a tuxedo than he did in beat-up jeans, like a big cat wearing a beribboned collar. Dress it up like a pussycat, but it would still rip out your throat. “Franklin was just singing my praises. Want to pick up where he left off?”
Patrick slid his hand to her hip—just low enough to be more than friendly, but not low enough to be an obvious come-on. “You’re gorgeous. The men of New Orleans need to thank Sera for putting you in a sexy black dress.”
The compliment nearly shocked her into silence as he drew her closer. “She let us pick them out, as long as they were the same color.”
“You look good.” He smiled and twirled her with surprising skill. “You clean up better than I do. Every time I walk by, the rich wolves hold on to their jewelry.”
All she’d noticed were the men holding on to their wives. “They don’t know what to make of you. Maybe none of us do.”
“I’m a mystery, huh?” When he pulled her toward him once again, his hand found its way to her lower back, fingers splayed wide and possessive. “You know what the funny thing is? People hardly ever ask me questions. Not real ones.”
He was touching her like he owned her, and she should have wanted to kick him in the balls for it. “Easy explanation? They know you won’t answer.”
“You so sure? Try me.”
Of all the mysteries surrounding him, the answer to one would tell her so much. “Why have you stayed in New Orleans?”
No quick response this time. No grin or easygoing laugh. They danced in a wide, slow arc before he tilted his head. “I don’t think anyone would miss me if I left. Maybe I’m so lonely, I don’t want to be forgotten.”
Something in her chest lurched, bringing with it a pain close to nausea. “It isn’t true, Patrick. If you left—you’d be missed.”
“When something happened to make someone think of me, maybe.” His voice roughened to a whisper. “No one would miss me because I’m a big part of their lives.”
“I would.” The words stung like razors, a pathetic admission of weakness. He could hurt her. He had—but not nearly as much as he could.
But Patrick just smiled at her. “Thank you.”
She smiled back before she could stop herself. “You’re welcome.”
“So ask me again.” His thumb smoothed over her back, up and down in a slow caress. “Why I haven’t left yet.”
Anna shivered. “I thought you already told me.”
“I thought of a new answer.”
It had the potential to change everything, and still Anna opened her mouth to form the question.
Before she could, Lily stepped up beside them. “Pardon the intrusion, but the bride and groom are about to make a run for it. Thought y’all might like to know.”
“Smart bride and groom,” Patrick murmured as he dropped his hand from Anna’s back. “So what does this entail? Throwing bouquets? Throwing rice? Throwing the guests at each other?”
“If we’re lucky, all three.” Then she could get back to throwing herself at Patrick.
The reception took an unexpected—and ugly—turn as soon as Julio and Sera disappeared.
Patrick should have expected it. Julio’s groomsmen were mostly important shapeshifters, leaving the tattooed bounty hunter the odd man out. With the bride and groom gone, everyone interested in power turned their attention to unraveling the mystery of what made him special enough to stand among the leaders of the wolves.
He fielded three barely polite conversations while he watched Anna make her way around the reception hall. The questions were repetitive and easy to answer, in any case.
Are you related to one of the wolf families? No.
Do I know your parents from somewhere? Probably not.
Will you be working with the Southeast council? That’s up to Alec.
He excused himself before any of them got up the nerve to ask him what he was, but every time he thought he’d broken free, another stepped into his path.
The next time it happened, it was a well-coiffed blonde in a silver dress holding two glasses of champagne. “Are all the blatant questions wearing you down yet?”
“A little bit.” He accepted one glass and studied the woman more closely, trying to pin down the nagging familiarity. “Have we met?”
“I don’t believe so.” She held out a hand. “Olivia Ashworth.”
“Patrick McNamara.” Shaking her hand was the polite thing to do, but he was tired of the jolt he got each time he touched a wolf. Magic, clashing with his own, though his had been bound into tattoos rather than flesh. “So do you have subtle questions?”
“Will it disappoint you if I don’t?”
Relieve him was more like it. “Not hardly. We could talk about the weather.”
She laughed and shook her head. “My husband and I can’t wait to get back to DC. The heat and humidity are terrible here.”
“Better that than ice and snow, huh?” Maybe if he kept the conversation boring enough, she’d leave on her own. Patrick finally managed to catch Anna’s gaze across the room and raised both eyebrows.
She stared back at him, pale and still, then began to shove through the crowd toward him. She reached him in record time and clenched one hand around his arm. “Patrick.”
“Anna.” Her grip would leave bruises, but he just covered her hand with his own. “This is Olivia Ashworth. Do you know each other?” Is she an enemy? Anna would hear the implied question, even if the stranger didn’t.
Anna said nothing. Olivia smiled blandly and extended her hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Instead of shaking the proffered hand, Anna began to back away, pulling Patrick with her. “Excuse us.”
Shapeshifters had sharp hearing, so Patrick waited until they had twenty feet of noisy party between them and the woman before tugging Anna to a stop. “Are you okay?”
She grabbed a bottle of whiskey from the bar setup and dragged him out into the hallway. “Come with me. Somewhere, I don’t know—the roof.”
“This way.” He pulled her in the opposite direction, toward the west side of the building where the freight elevators were tucked behind an ice machine. “I checked the place out last night.”
She mumbled something he couldn’t hear over the noise of the ice machine. When the freight elevator slid open, she pushed the top button and backed him against the wall. “Why haven’t you left New Orleans?”
He caught both of her hands. “My turn. Who was that woman?”
“A stranger.” The whiskey bottle clanked against the metal wall as she wiggled closer. “Didn’t you hear her say it was nice to meet me?”
It had to be a lie, because Anna was flipping out—losing her everloving shit—and it scared the piss out of him. “I told you the truth. The whole damn truth.”
She tensed—and closed her eyes. “I’ll tell you when we get to the roof. Away from everything.”
It didn’t take long. The hotel was a squat building of only ten floors, and from the top one, it was a short walk to the roof. Patrick shoved open the access door, let Anna out and wedged his jacket between the door and the jamb to keep from getting locked out.
Anna opened the whiskey, tossed the cap to the ground with a clink and took a long gulp straight from the bottle before holding it out. “Want some?”
She could drink him under the table. A year ago, he might have had a hope of keeping up, but not now, not with scars across his back, disrupting the magical tattoos that kept him alive against shapeshifters.
He still drank. The whiskey burned, but so did the pain in her eyes. She looked wrecked. Crushed. “Who’s Olivia?”
Anna tilted her face to the moonlight and swayed a little. “She’s my mother.”
Oh, hell. Patrick offered her the bottle again and caught her wrist once she’d taken it. One pull and he had her tucked against his chest, both arms around her. “What is her damage?”
“I don’t—” The bottle shattered to the rooftop. “I don’t have anyone, either.”
“Bullshit,” he whispered. “Those people down there care about you. Trust me. I’ve been warned not to mess with you.”
She slipped both arms around his neck with a soft sigh. “Tell me you’re not going to let that stop you.”
He shouldn’t kiss her. A decent man wouldn’t, not when she was spinning out of control. Her body trembled under his fingers, so much of her strength stripped away by the emotional blows of the day.
He shouldn’t kiss her, but he did, sliding his fingers into her careful hairdo with enough force to dislodge it. But the kiss—gentle. Soft. He licked her lower lip, tasted her like he’d imagined a thousand times before, and wondered if there was a hell dark enough for him.
“Don’t think,” she whispered, tilted her head and fused her open mouth to his.
Still so wrong, but he fell into her anyway, sliding one hand down to her ass to lift her against him as he bit her lip. Her moan disappeared into his mouth, swallowed along with the taste of her, and her trembling intensified.
Then Anna’s fingers bit into his shoulders through his shirt, and she turned her face, breaking the kiss. “The stairs—”
He caught the sound a second later, footsteps tromping up the stairs so loudly the noise had to be deliberate. Wincing, Patrick lowered her and hoped like hell the darkness was heavy enough to hide his hard-on.
Not that it would hide Anna’s disheveled hair. He smoothed one strand back into place as the door pushed open, revealing Alec Jacobson, his eyes tight with stress and worry. “You two have a second?”
The top of Anna’s strapless dress had twisted just enough to reveal an edging of flesh-colored lace. She tugged it back into place. “What is it?”
When the wolf didn’t crack a joke about the two of them making out like teenagers on the roof, Patrick knew they were in trouble. Instead, Alec exhaled sharply. “I got a call this morning, but I wanted to get Julio out of here before I said anything. There’s trouble on the Southwest council.”
Anna nudged the broken whiskey bottle with the toe of one satin sandal. “Most people would consider that Jorge Ochoa’s problem.”
“That was my first instinct. Then I talked to my younger brother.” The already tense set of Alec’s shoulders tightened. “Wolves have been going missing across the southwest region for a while now. I guess it just didn’t make a dent in the council until Ochoa’s son disappeared.”
“Goddamn, motherfucking—” Anna sucked in a breath. “If the investigative stuff you were talking to me about is going to involve a lot of stupid political dancing, you can shove it up your ass, Jacobson.”
Alec huffed. “If it was about politics, I’d have sent Julio, honeymoon or no. But if wolves are disappearing in the next state over, I don’t get to ignore it. Especially if Ochoa’s too busy grieving to take care of the problem without getting humans involved.”
She lifted a challenging gaze to meet Alec’s, though she jerked her head toward Patrick. “It’s up to him. If he says we go, we go.”
It caught him off guard, and Patrick blinked. Alec was doing the same thing, and it was a good thing he didn’t have an easily wounded ego, because the expression on the wolf’s face was picture-perfect shock.
Alec continued to stare at him, and Patrick felt compelled to point out his qualifications. “I do this for a living. For money, which is the operative word. Investigations like this don’t come cheap. Informants need to be paid and officials need to be bribed.”
“I know.” Alec reached into his jacket, pulled out a folded piece of paper and looked at Anna. “This isn’t simple politics. Oscar Ochoa just got engaged to my baby sister.”
“Emily? And you didn’t rip his…” Anna trailed off and groaned. “I get it. We have to find Oscar or his body before his daddy does, or maybe Jorge will think you made his kid disappear.”
With Oscar Ochoa’s reputation as a philandering jackass, even Patrick could see the problem. “Did you make his kid disappear?”
“I haven’t had time,” Alec said darkly, with more than a little bite. “She agreed to the engagement. I don’t like it, but I’m trying to remember that she gets to choose, even if I don’t like her choice. She’s staying with my younger brother in Austin, and you two can probably get more information from her than you could from his family. She’s a smart kid.”
“And arguably better informed about Oscar’s habits than his father.” Anna snatched the paper from Alec’s hand. “Nathan, right? That little brother?”
“Yeah.” He nodded to the note. “That’s all the details I have so far. It’s not much, and I don’t know if it’s reliable. You may not know how much is accurate until you get boots on the ground. But I can transfer the payment into your account tomorrow, if you take the job.”
She passed the note to Patrick without opening it. “The sooner we can talk it over, Jacobson, the sooner we can give you an answer.”
Alec’s gaze flicked back and forth between them. “I’ll be downstairs.”
He left, and wasn’t as careful with the tuxedo jacket. It fell to the ground in a crumpled ball, still holding the door open but trashed. Patrick expected a glare and a cleaning fee from the rental owner, who’d seemed dubious enough about fitting a thug to begin with.
Then he flipped open the paper and stopped worrying about a few hundred bucks. “Shit, that’s a lot of zeros. Suicide-mission-level zeros. How much does Ochoa like his kid?”
“Don’t know.” She peered down at the paper and swore. “That looks about right for how much Oscar means to him, though. He’s the favored oldest son. The heir apparent.”
Patrick skimmed the rest of the notes. “Five wolves missing over the last three weeks, and that’s just the ones someone reported to the council. I’d bet there are more.”
“There are always more.” She took the scribbled sheet from him and frowned at it. “Who do you know out there?”
“In the southwest?” Patrick closed his eyes and summoned the list of names. “A spell caster detective out of Albuquerque. A few psychics in Dallas, and a jaguar in Phoenix. And the Lore Keeper, but he’s gotten dodgy in the past few years. Won’t even open that crazy underground missile silo he lives in unless you catch his interest. What about you?”
“Most of my contacts are closer to Vegas,” she admitted, “but I should be able to bang on a few doors.”
This was always the surreal part, the part that kept him coming back. It never mattered if they’d been five seconds from fighting or fucking, when work hit the table, the pieces fell into place. “So are we doing this?”
The corner of her mouth kicked up. “No one’s better than us, right?”
“I could use the money,” he replied, keeping his voice light. “Hell, who am I kidding? I could use a good hunt. I’m ready to climb the walls in this town.”
Anna folded the note neatly and handed it back to him with a slight bow. “When do we leave?”
This was a dance they were good at. They both knew their places, not to mention all the steps. It wouldn’t be the first time they started a job with lingering tension in the air, but if there was one thing they could do well, it was wipe away the personal and get down to business.
Besides, it just might be fun. Not the tragedy of the circumstances, but the thrill of catching the bad guy. “Got any plans for tonight?”
Anna was six miles shy of Beaumont, Texas, when her gritty, burning eyes forced her to take the next exit. She signaled in plenty of time before the ramp, and she heard the deep, rumbling engine of Patrick’s bike follow as she took the right indicated by the roadside signage.
In the next few days or weeks, as the danger grew and they found themselves avoiding populated areas, they’d surely see their share of dumpy motels. For now, she chose a bright, fresh-looking chain hotel and turned into the lot.
Patrick pulled to a stop next to her and had his helmet off by the time she pushed open the door. “Want me to get the room?”
The room, singular. “More than one doesn’t really make sense,” she agreed. “We’re both adults. Two beds and we’re square, right?”
“I won’t even sleep naked.” He swung off the bike and nodded to a fast food joint across the street. “Or you could get the room and I could get us a dozen cheeseburgers. I was too busy getting chased around the reception hall to eat any of that fancy wedding food.”
“Even better.” Anna grabbed her bag from the front seat, walked back and opened the trunk. “And McNamara?” When he stopped, she grinned. “I want fries with that shake.”
Patrick laughed at the corny joke. “Sweet thing, you can’t handle my shake.” He tossed his bag toward her.
She caught it and dropped it next to hers. “Maybe not,” she agreed, because every other response she could think of sounded like a challenge.
The clerk tried to engage Anna in cheerful conversation, as if it wasn’t almost two in the morning. It reminded her why she usually preferred the shitty motels. Sure, the bathrooms were questionable and sometimes you could hear the people at the other end of the complex having sex, but the clerks were universally bored and didn’t ask questions.
She requested a first-floor room, took the keys and waited for Patrick by the coffee machine. He arrived with three enormous takeout bags in one hand and a tray with four sodas in the other. “They wouldn’t believe it was for two people.”
“Would you?” She nodded down the hall and hefted the bags. “First floor, by the fire exit.”
Patrick nodded at the clerk and followed Anna toward the room, laughing as soon as they were out of earshot of the main lobby. “She’s bright-eyed and interested for two in the morning.”
“Probably desperate to know why I wanted a double if you’re with me.”
He grinned. “I thought everyone knew that you need one bed for sex, one for sleeping.”
The idea of Patrick tearing up a hotel bed in the heat of passion was nothing less than torturous, and dwelling on it an invitation to madness. Anna clenched one hand around the leather strap of her bag and unlocked the door to their room. “You don’t sleep with many shifters, do you?”
When she opened the door, he pushed a booted toe against it and shoved it wide, holding it for her. “What makes you say that?”
She brushed past him, avoiding his gaze. “Switching beds. A shifter would want to stay in the one that smelled like sweat and sex.” As soon as the words left her mouth, she wanted to pull them back and bite her tongue until it bled.
Patrick just followed her inside and let the door swing shut behind them. “Some of them,” he agreed blandly. “If the shifter sticks around, and the bed’s in any shape to be slept in by the time you’re done.”
Of course. She’d done it again, let her own urges—the ones she couldn’t even form, much less voice—color what should have been black and white.
The beds loomed, huge and spread with white coverlets, the proverbial elephants in the room. They’d never get anywhere with blithe quips, so she tossed her bag on the bed nearest the door and faced him. “We have to talk about this.”
“You mean the thing where we’re both trying too hard?” Patrick set the food on the table and unzipped his jacket, revealing another of his seemingly endless collection of black T-shirts. “You’re fun to spar with, Anna. You’re fun to flirt with. You’re just flat-out fun. But this is work…”
“Yeah, I know.” It wasn’t the first time they’d had this conversation—or something like it—and the last thing she wanted was for him to spell it all out for her again. “This is work, so we keep it in our pants.”
He looked like he wasn’t sure he agreed, but after a moment he nodded. “Yeah. That’s probably the best way for neither of us to get dead.”
She couldn’t resist poking at him a little. “Hey, if you’d rather casually break a few beds, I’m game for that too.”
“You and me, Anna? Casual?” He rolled his eyes and reached for his food. “That ship has sailed, honey.”
“It was worth a shot.” Anna sat at the table and opened another of the bags. “You work, and then you play. Me too, nowadays. I guess I should thank you for the life lesson.”
He flinched. “Really? You know what I learned this last winter? No one should learn life lessons from me.”
“Patrick—” She started to reach for him but jerked her hand away. It wasn’t her place to comfort him, not when they still couldn’t manage to figure out what the hell they were to each other. “We were both there. What happened to Ben and Lia is either no one’s fault, or it’s mine too. So get mad at me. Hate me.”
“Didn’t Julio and Sera tell you?” The bag rustled as he pulled out three cheeseburgers. “I killed all the people at fault. I buried every fucking one so deep Jesus won’t find them at the end of days.”
Their friends hadn’t had to tell her. Anna had known, the same way she’d known everything else that sometimes seemed more important than breathing—she’d watched out for him. Kept tabs on him. “I hope you’re not waiting for me to tell you I think what you did was wrong.”
Patrick finally looked at her. “Everyone else has. Or at least told me it was stupid.”
“Going after them all alone was stupid. You should have let me help.”
He laughed raggedly. “That’s what Sera said. She’s a bloodthirsty little thing, isn’t she?”
Sera would have killed everyone who hurt Julio and Kat with her bare hands, slowly and gleefully. “She can be. She doesn’t understand the truth.”
“What truth is that?”
“You can stop them from hurting anyone else,” she murmured, “but that’s it. The vengeance part of it? It’s worthless. The people you loved are still just as dead when you’re done.”
He leaned forward, and his tattoos flexed as he fisted his hands. “Ben and Lia are just as dead. But I started sleeping at night again.”
“That’s something, then.” The pressure in her chest grew painful, squeezing tight like a vise, and she rose. “I’m not hungry, so I think I’m going to grab a shower while you eat.”
Patrick held out a hand, like he’d try to stop her. “Wait, Anna. I’m sorry.”
“For what?” He wasn’t the only one who could fake it, and fake it hard. “Look, you’ve got your shit. We all do. It’s no big deal.”
He capitulated, turning his attention to his food. “Yeah, okay.”
Anna grabbed her bag and fled to the bathroom. In minutes, she’d stripped off her clothes and climbed under the stinging spray. She’d made it too cold, but she left it that way—a warning and a reminder that you couldn’t always control things.
Sometimes, you just had to endure.
She spent half an hour shivering under the water, then toweled off and dressed in a tank top and panties. If Patrick hadn’t taken the hint and turned in already, he deserved to watch her walk around half-naked.
But he was still up. She brushed her teeth at the vanity sink before crossing the room and climbing into bed. “Get the light, would you?” she asked as she peeled back everything but the thin sheet for covers.
“Sure.” Patrick had stripped down to his boxers and that same black T-shirt. He had tattoos on his legs too, extending down to encase strong thighs and calves.
Fuck my life. She rolled over and fixed her gaze to a spot on the wall. Her heart was pounding, but she was somewhat mollified to realize she could hear his as well, thumping way too hard and fast. “Good night, McNamara.”
“Good night, Lenoir.” The other bed creaked. He didn’t shift around, trying to find a comfortable spot. Just stretched out in silence, the only sound his steady breathing and his unsteady heart.