Authors: Jennifer Ashley
“You know I’m right, Den,” Dylan said. “We can’t risk that the cops won’t start taking roll call in all Shiftertowns. I’ll get him home as soon as I’m able.”
Deni nodded. True, Jace would be safer at his own Shiftertown, where he had his father and family to take care of him. But Deni’s heart felt like a stone in her chest, and her food tasted like dust.
She set the plate down, nodded at Sean and Dylan, and walked in a daze toward the porch and the cubs. Deni wished Ellison and her sons were here—she needed to wrap herself in her family to ease the sudden pain.
Andrea seemed to sense her need. She handed her little boy to Kim and met Deni in the yard, pulling her into a hug.
“I know,” Andrea said. “I saw it in your eyes when you looked at him tonight. Don’t worry. I’ll tell Liam, and we’ll make it so you can see him again.”
Andrea was sweet; she truly was. Andrea herself had been given special permission to move from a Colorado Shiftertown to this one, which proved it could be done, but she’d had to jump through many hoops to do it. Deni knew she could see Jace again, but it would be tough, and both Liam and Jace’s father would have to be convinced that it was necessary for either Jace or Deni to move permanently.
Andrea released Deni, giving her a reassuring smile, and returned to the porch to lift her cub from Kim’s lap. The look of joy she turned on her son squeezed Deni’s heart.
“Don’t let him go.”
Deni jumped and swung around, her wolf’s senses sending her into a defensive crouch. Tiger had moved to her side in that stealthy way he had, and now he stood right next to her, alone, his bulk filling the space Andrea had vacated.
“Tiger.” Deni straightened up and clenched her hands. “Don’t
“You should not let Jace go home,” Tiger said. “Keep him with you.”
“I can’t,” Deni said. “He doesn’t belong here, and if they catch him . . .”
Tiger shook his head. He reached out his hand, carefully, and touched the air in front of Deni’s chest, as though he saw something there. Deni felt the warmth inside her, the tingling need she’d been pretending not to notice. “You have it, don’t you?” Tiger said. “Don’t let it go.”
Deni swallowed. If she admitted the mate bond right now, she’d fall in a crumpled heap and begin weeping. “I—”
“Tiger, honey,” Carly strolled to him and laced her hands around his arm again. “Don’t scare her. She’s been through a lot.”
Tiger only looked at Deni with his intense yellow eyes, as though willing her to understand and obey. He let Carly lead him away, but he glanced at Deni over his shoulder, his gaze penetrating Deni to the most frightened part of her.
When Jace emerged from Faerie into the grove of trees in Shiftertown, it was dawn. Shiftertown was quiet, the nocturnal Shifters having turned in to sleep, the ones who lived by human schedules not up yet.
Dylan met him. Dylan’s face was covered with new-growth beard, and lines had deepened about his eyes. He hadn’t slept all night.
Time moved differently in Faerie, Fionn had told Jace, sometimes slower, sometimes faster. Jace had spent twice as many hours there as the time had moved here. Scary. What if he popped into Faerie one day, lived a week, and came out to find everyone long dead? Or he aged in Faerie while Deni had lived only one day? Too weird to contemplate. The solution was not to go to Faerie again, which was fine with Jace.
He still felt better, even with the Collar’s loose links chafing him. He’d have to figure out why he seemed to have recovered from his need to go feral, and if whatever he discovered could help with removing the Collars.
The police had given up harassing the Shifters and gone again, Dylan said, but there was no telling when they’d be back. Best Jace go home, to his own Shiftertown. Jace couldn’t argue with his reasoning, though leaving meant leaving Deni, and that thought threatened to make his feral rage return.
Fionn hadn’t accompanied Jace. Dylan told Jace to wait for him there, while he arranged transportation to the airstrip. He walked away, leaving Jace alone.
Not for long. As soon as Dylan left the grove, Deni hurried into it.
Jace said nothing, only opened his arms, and Deni ran straight into them. Jace caught her up, turning around with her, holding her hard, breathing in her warmth, her scent.
“I don’t want you to go,” Deni said. She curled her hands against Jace’s chest, where his heart was pounding.
“I don’t want to go either.”
Their mouths met, locking together, heat joining heat. Jace drank her hungrily, imbibing her spice. He licked the corner of her mouth, and moved one hand to her lush breast.
“Den,” he said savagely, “I haven’t . . . Finding you . . .”
Is all the world to me,
Deni finished inside her head.
I was drowning, far from shore. And then you came.
“Tiger told me not to let you go,” she whispered.
Jace lifted his head, his green eyes dark. “I have to. If they find me, it will be bad for everyone here, not only me.”
“I know. I know.”
“I can’t let you get hurt because of me.” Jace traced her cheek with a firm thumb. “But I’ll fix this. I’ll find a way to come back as soon as I can.”
Deni nodded, tears filling her eyes. No reason to cry, she told herself. This was smart, and he’d just promised to come back for her.
She heard Tiger’s gruff voice in her head.
Don’t let him go.
Everyone knew Tiger was a little nuts, but he’d looked at Deni as though he could see the threads of the mate bond around her heart. He was telling her to latch on to the bond and not let go, damn the consequences. But Deni needed to be sensible. If they did everything by the book, asking for official permission for Jace to move here, or she and her sons to go with him, then the humans couldn’t legally keep them apart. But permission was difficult to obtain—the human government might deny it for any number of reasons, and then it would be more difficult for Jace or Deni to sneak away to be together.
“You could always hide here until they get tired of looking,” Deni said, though without much hope.
Jace shook his head, pressing her closer. “Dylan’s right. The police might start checking the other Shiftertowns. My dad can’t cover for me for long.”
“I know.” His words made sense, but Deni’s heart ached. She tried to smile. “The next time you come, we’ll take my motorcycle out on one of the back roads and see what it can do. We’ll open it up—just us and the wind.”
“Yeah.” Jace cupped her cheek. “That sounds good.”
They kissed again, mouths seeking, needy, each of them holding on tight. Deni memorized Jace’s scent and his goodness, his taste, his hard body against hers. He was large, strong, whole, the answer to her emptiness.
From beyond them, Dylan cleared his throat, the sound rolling from the edge of the grove. Jace broke the kiss, lifting slowly away from Deni. His green eyes held anguish. “I have to go.”
“Wait.” Deni fumbled with the catch of her bracelet, an old-fashioned clasp. The bracelet had been in her family for so long, no one remembered where it had come from. She took off the bracelet and pressed it into Jace’s hand. “Keep this for me. Bring it back to me.”
Jace started to shake his head. “It’s special to you, I can tell.”
“It is. But if I know you have it, that will be special too.”
Jace hesitated another moment, then he closed his fingers around it. “I’ll keep it safe. I promise.”
Deni nodded. She stepped back from him and clasped her hands. “The Goddess go with you.”
“No.” Jace reached for her once more, his arms coming hard around her. “That’s what you say to someone you’ll never see again.”
His kiss was fierce, wild. Deni held on to Jace and kissed him back with as much force, her heart pounding and aching.
At last Jace eased away, and Deni made herself let him go. Jace laid his hand on her chest, between her breasts.
“Be well, my heart,” he said, then he turned and walked away, following Dylan into the Texas dawn.
* * *
There was no question of Deni coming with Jace to the plane. Jace understood—the fewer Shifters who left Shiftertown the better.
Jace hunkered down with a bunch of junk in the bed of Dylan’s small pickup, and Dylan tied a tarp over it all. Then Dylan drove out of Shiftertown without ceremony, heading east along the Bastrop Highway.
After a long time, Dylan took a turn off the main road, pulled over, and lifted the tarp. The road was deserted, and Jace climbed out, stretching his cramped limbs. Dylan would leave Jace here to wait for a human man to come by who would take him the rest of the way to the airstrip—they’d done this on Jace’s previous trips as well. Safer for all concerned if a Shifter wasn’t spotted driving out to an abandoned airfield.
“Be well,” Dylan said, clasping Jace in a brief but tight hug. “I’ll work on things from here.”
Jace nodded his thanks, jogged into the tall grasses, and crouched down, hiding himself, to wait. Dylan got back into his truck and drove smoothly away before any other vehicles came down the road.
Jace didn’t wait long, though it felt like forever as he lay in the dew-laden grass. Another pickup, which was driven by one of the men he’d seen this trip at the landing strip, slowed down and waited for Jace to climb inside the cab.
Fifteen minutes and an unpaved road later, Jace was back at the airstrip, boarding the small, old cargo plane a man named Marlo flew. Marlo had long ago worked for very bad men, transporting things for them from Mexico, but had given it up. Now he smuggled Shifters anywhere in the country they wanted to go.
“Let’s get up in the air,” Marlo said, ushering Jace up the little stair into the body of the plane. “The wind is getting bad. Want to get out of this system.”
To Jace, the sky was clear and beautiful, only a little breeze stirring the grasses around them. But pilots spoke a different language. Jace stowed his backpack, then took the copilot’s seat in the cockpit. He didn’t know how to fly, but Marlo tended to talk a lot on the trips, and Jace always felt better if Marlo faced forward, looking at his instruments, than if he constantly turned around to yell at Jace in the back.
Marlo did his checks, started up, checked some more instruments, waved at the ground crew, and taxied out to the grown-over airstrip. The two men at the tiny shed waved back, then returned to the pickup that had brought Jace and drove away.
Marlo sped the plane down the little runway, bouncing over ruts, then lifted off without much of a bump. The plane flopped around a little as they climbed, buffeted by the winds Marlo had mentioned, but soon they were running in a fairly smooth layer of air. The city of Austin spread out to the north of them, hugging the river and its hills, the river country receding to a streak of vivid green in the otherwise dry Texas brown.
Jace opened his hand and studied the bracelet resting in his palm. Delicate, yet strong, like Deni was. He rubbed his thumb over the smooth gold, determined to see her smile at him when he brought it back to her.
He growled. Jace already missed her like crazy, and the wildcat in him snarled at him for walking away. The torn skin on his neck hurt again, the soreness making his beast that much angrier. Whatever mitigating effects being in Faerie had given him must be wearing off.
Interesting about that. Jace let the bracelet trickle over his hand as he thought. Maybe they should try taking off the Collars inside Faerie. Then again, what if inside Faerie Shifters behaved normally and then went insane when they walked out once more?
Jace let out a sigh. He’d been full of enthusiasm about removing the Collars when he’d come to Austin, but things had changed. He no longer wanted to risk himself for what might be. He had something to lose now. If the Morrisseys wanted to experiment with the Collars so much, they could, as Fionn might say, suck it up, and test it on themselves.
His gaze returned to the bracelet, and he imagined it still warm from Deni’s wrist . . .
The plane bounced once, hard, as though it had hit some kind of airborne speed bump. Marlo shouted, “Whoa!” and grabbed for the stick as dials started spinning.
” Jace yelled over the engines that had started to roar. “You can fix that, right?”
“Shit,” Marlo said. He added quickly, “Nothing to worry about—this has happened before. I need to set down. Help me look for a place.”
“Nothing to worry about?” The plane was heading downward, leaving Jace’s stomach behind, everything in back banging and clattering. Another bump shook the plane, which nosed harder downward. The small airplane gave a profound rattle and smoke poured out the left-side engine, flames licking the wing. “The engine’s on fire!” Jace shouted. “You call that nothing to worry about?”
“The wind will put it out. Help me look!”
“Aw, crap on a crutch,” Jace snarled.
He wrapped his hand around the bracelet and held it hard, as though it were a link to Deni herself.
Goddess, Goddess, great and good, Jace began the ritual prayer, then gave up trying to remember the words. Help me. Let me be with Deni again. I feel the mate bond, for crying out loud.
The warmth in his heart he’d told himself he didn’t yet have time to think about, now suffused his body. Saying good-bye to Deni had been one of the hardest things Jace had ever done. Jace had been ripping out his heart and walking away bleeding, but he’d made himself do it, believing leaving was the right thing to do.
The mate bond meant you gave yourself to that other person, body and soul. You protected them; they healed you, and you healed them while they protected you. Jace didn’t know if Deni felt the mate bond for him—sometimes both parties didn’t share it—but he remembered the look in her gray eyes before he’d left her.
She had to feel it. They’d grown from acquaintances to lovers to mates rapidly, but it often happened like that with Shifters. Shifters formed the mate bond,
they got to know each other—throughout their long, happy lives.
And now, with Marlo fighting this tiny bird, fire whipping around the wing, and the flat ground of West Texas coming up fast, Jace might never move beyond knowing the mate bond had settled in his heart.
Tiger told me not to let you go.
Tiger, damn his crazy, striped ass, had been right. He might not have predicted
, specifically, but he’d known Jace should have made sure he stayed next to Deni and figured things out from there.
Something cut his palm. Jace opened his hand and saw he’d clutched the gold bracelet so hard it had pressed into his skin.
Jace clenched the bracelet again and shook his fist at Marlo, the ends of the chains dancing. “Fix this damned thing. I’m taking this back to her.”
“You are fucking crazy, Shifter. I need a landing strip, or I’m not fixing anything ever again.”
“Shit,” Jace said. He’d been scanning the ground, but what did he know about good places to put down a plane? Then he saw it, a flat stretch of land, unbroken, a dirt road without an oil well at the end of it. They were low enough now that he could see the way wasn’t full of rocks or hidden washes. “What about that?”
“Good enough for me.”
The plane was rattling with bone-jarring intensity, something popping in the back like a row of fireworks. Jace prayed it wasn’t really fireworks.
The road came at them, Marlo desperately pulling at the stick to lift the nose enough. The wheels were down, at least, because Marlo had never pulled them up.
“Hang on!” Marlo yelled.
Jace braced himself on the instrument panel, trying not to look at the dials going around and around.
They hit the road with an upward burst of dust, grinding it so thick it coated the windows, blocking their visibility. That was fine, because grass and whatever huge weeds this part of the state grew came up out of the ground and bashed into them, winding around the burning engine and spewing the flame higher.
The plane hit something and skidded sideways, throwing Marlo on top of Jace, and whipping Jace into the window. The window cracked, and flame raced inside.
At the last minute, Jace yanked off his seat belt, hauled himself out of the chair, threw the already unconscious Marlo to the bottom of the plane, and landed on top of him. A roar of explosion met Jace’s ears, and then nothing.