Authors: Jennifer Ashley
Deni had no business confronting Liam, who wasn’t in her family and held plenty of rank over her. His tracker meeting might have nothing to do with her or Jace, or the police. Shit involving Shifters and Shiftertown happened all the time.
One of the groupie girls sat in a booth by herself, talking on her phone. And talking and talking. She’d look around, and then start talking again. If she wasn’t talking, she was texting.
The young woman didn’t look much different from the other groupies. She wore a short, skintight pink dress with mile-high black heels, had short dyed-black hair that had been cut into cute wisps, and she’d painted her face with cat’s eyes and whiskers. Her outfit shouted,
Come and get me, Shifter, I like to purr,
but her looks and actions spoke of extreme nerves.
After Deni had watched her covertly for a time, she realized another thing that made this woman different. The other groupies were eyeing Shifters hungrily, or sashaying up to them without shame. Most groupies were female, as many of the Shifters here were male, but some young male groupies were eyeing the male Shifters—and Deni—with the same kind of interest.
The young woman in the booth was doing her best
to catch any Shifter’s attention. Which made no sense if she dressed like a groupie and hung out in a Shifter bar.
Deni picked up the bottle of beer the bartender had slid to her and carried it with her to the booth. Deni plunked the bottle onto the table and sat down opposite the young woman.
The young woman jumped as though struck by sparks. Deni held her gaze, the girl trying to evade her eyes.
“That Shifter over there.” Deni pointed. “Broderick. He’s looking for some action.”
Whether Broderick was or not, Deni didn’t know, but the young woman’s reaction was telling. She flinched and didn’t look where Deni indicated. In fact, she moved a little so Deni would block Broderick’s line of sight from her.
“I’m waiting for someone,” the young woman mumbled. “Leave me alone, Shifter.”
“Yeah? Who are you waiting for?”
The woman stared at her. She had light blue eyes and smelled strongly of fear, and even more of anger.
“None of your business.” She had defiance her words and eyes, but her voice shook.
“Interesting,” Deni said. She snatched the woman’s cell phone from her hand and stood up.
The girl shrieked. “Hey, give that back!”
Deni stepped away from her reaching hands and scrolled down her list of recent calls. Only one had been made today, much earlier this afternoon, which meant she’d been faking talking to someone. Stalling. She’d made plenty of calls yesterday, though, and the day before that, and on into the previous week. All to the City of Austin police.
“Don’t think so,” Deni said.
Broderick turned around, scowling, not liking to have his beer drinking with his brothers interrupted. “Who the hell is making all the noise?” Broderick growled.
Deni ignored him. She swung away from the groupie lunging for her phone and went for Liam’s office door. This was too important for respecting Liam’s privacy. “Broderick, don’t let her leave,” Deni said, then was through the door and into the office.
Liam was on the phone at his desk, Dylan hovering next to him, listening. Usually Liam sat back here with his feet up, casually going over billing, invoices, payroll, and the like, but today he sat straight up in his chair, his hand over his eyes, and he was speaking rapidly into the phone.
“Have you pinpointed where?” he asked whoever was on the other end. “Well, damn it,
“Find what?” Cold washed through Deni, triggering the dizziness she’d been fighting all day. “Liam?”
Dylan came quickly around Deni and closed the door. “Keep it down, lass. We can’t let the world know.”
“Know what? Damn it,
Liam glanced up at her, his face strained as he listened to the stream of words coming from his phone. He shot a look at his father and nodded.
Dylan took Deni’s hand between his, pressing warmth into it. “We didn’t want you to know until we were sure, Den. Marlo’s plane went down, somewhere in West Texas. We don’t know where yet, and we don’t know who survived.”
Deni’s world stopped—or maybe it kept spinning, whirling out of control while she froze in one place. She could barely see Dylan as she stared at him, only the blue of his eyes as he held her gaze.
Shock and then panic swept through her, and her wolf started to howl, a grief-stricken, wild howl that only happened with the death of a mate.
“Deni,” Dylan’s voice cut through the noise. “Keep looking at me.”
The voice that came out of Deni’s mouth was snarling and wrong. “Where is he?”
“South of the I-10,” Liam said. “Somewhere between here and Fort Stockton. Great,” he said into the phone. “Covers a hell of a lot of ground.”
Deni heard a voice on the other end—Ronan, she thought, from the deep timbre. “That’s all we know,” Ronan said. “We can’t ask too many questions.”
“Ask,” Deni snarled. “Find him.”
“Lass,” Dylan said.
“Don’t ‘lass’ me. Find him. He’s my
Both Dylan and Liam focused on her, as the truth of it filled Deni, hurting her and elating her at the same time.
My mate. Hurt. Lost. Find!
Deni was growling again, the edges of her world going concave as her eyes changed to her wolf’s. Dylan pried the cell phone she’d taken from the girl out of her hand, which Deni had clamped down on so hard the plastic was starting to crack.
“Where did you get this?” Dylan asked, looking at the smart phone, which no Shifter would carry.
“Spy,” Deni said, forcing out the word. “Broderick has.”
Dylan’s eyes moved as he read the phone numbers, then he gave a furious snarl and shoved his way past Deni, banging out of the office.
Deni yanked Liam’s phone from his hands. “Ronan. You tell me where he is.”
“Deni?” Ronan’s tone softened. “Yeah, thought so. Sean’s hacking as fast as he can. He’s trying to pin down the location based on reports.”
“Where are you?”
“Don’t know.” Ronan turned away from the phone, exchanging questions with others. “Looks like we’re about where the 55 runs into the 277, wherever that is. A little west of that. Ellison says don’t you dare come out here.”
“Tell Ellison . . .”
Deni’s coherence left her. She didn’t remember dropping the phone or saying anything to Liam. She only knew she was walking out through the bar, past Dylan, who had the pseudo-groupie pinned between himself and Broderick, ignoring them when they tried to stop her. She walked and walked until she found herself in front of her own house, pulling out the new motorcycle Ellison had bought her and mounting it.
Deni must have found the keys, put on her helmet, jeans, and boots. She didn’t remember. In a few minutes, she was pulling out of Shiftertown, skimming through traffic to the roads that led west out of town.
Deni didn’t know Texas like Ellison did, but she knew how to get from Austin across Hill Country west, heading through Fredericksburg toward the 10. At the onramp to the interstate, she paused, debating whether to go north or south. She picked north, turning again after about thirty miles to the 377 and cutting south.
Not until she was well down the highway, heading south and west as fast as she could, did she realize she was riding her motorcycle.
Alone. Out on the road, under the sky, through the flat Texas lands and dust. On her own. No one with her, no Jace holding her and telling her she could do it.
She’d navigated traffic that moved thickly to Fredericksburg and then the speeding trucks on the 10, and now the open highway without any fear except that which filled her about Jace.
The sun was still high, though evening was coming on. Not much traffic out here now. Deni opened the bike up all the way, the high-powered machine taking her swiftly down the road. Shifters weren’t allowed to buy new vehicles, but Deni always thought Harleys were better once they were broken in. Ellison had tinkered with this one until it purred like a lion, or maybe a snow leopard.
Deni ran it so fast she almost missed the 55, which jogged from this road west and a little north. She sped down it, squinting against the bright sun, nice and hot still in late July.
The 55 ended in a T junction with the 277, one leg of the T going north, the other going south. Deni stopped at a little pulloff at the crossroads and looked around. One truck rumbled past south, and a car sped north, its headlights turned on against the gathering twilight. No road went west from here except for a dirt track that headed off into the wilderness.
But Ronan had said they were
of this intersection, and so that was where they were.
Deni waited until the road was clear, then she glided the bike across the highway and onto the faint dirt path that led into nothing. Her wolf senses kicked in as she rode. She’d taken off her helmet at the crossroads, and now she could see, hear, and smell as a Shifter while her human body navigated the bike.
As the sky darkened, the huge arch of it brushed with stars, Deni saw a tiny orange light far to her left. The narrow dirt road bent to her right, taking her away from it, and she had no way of knowing whether the track would curve around again to where she wanted to go.
Deni shut off the bike, stripped off her clothes, stretched her limbs, and changed to her wolf.
Once in wolf form, she smelled the greasy smoke from faraway burning fuel, the scent making her gag. Deni trotted into the empty land, homing in on the fire. She passed oil wells, stark metal giants against the twilit sky, their heads moving up and down, clanking as they pumped. But they were insignificant, an affectation of humans. Deni was wolf now, nothing more, and the night flowed to her.
After a long time of unceasing trotting, she made it to what she now saw was the smoldering wreck of a small airplane. Inside the perimeter of the fire’s light, she saw the hulking forms of Ronan and Tiger and the tall one of Spike bending over a heap on the ground.
Jace? Deni’s heart pounded as she sped up. No, Deni saw and scented as she neared the others. The man on the ground was human, probably the pilot, Marlo. She smelled no stench of death, so Marlo was still alive. Ronan and Spike were lashing him onto a stretcher, preparing to load him into a pickup that was parked nearby. Tiger saw her and gave her a long look then he turned back to helping with Marlo.
Another wolf ran out of the darkness and straight to Deni—Ellison, large and gray, his wolf’s eyes meeting hers. Ellison showed sorrow but also anger.
What the hell are you doing here?
his body language said.
What part of ‘don’t you dare come out here’ didn’t you understand?
Deni snapped back, stopping herself from throwing herself at him and howling in anguish.
Don’t know. Lost his scent.
Deni growled and rushed past him. She heard Ellison snarl a curse behind her and follow.
Deni dashed into the firelight, earning a startled look from the Shifters there. Sean, sword on his back, started to step in front of her, but Deni ran around him to Tiger.
You’re supposed to be so good at search and rescue,
she growled up at Tiger
. Where is he?
Deni glared at him, willing him to understand, but she was a wolf, and he a tiger, and who knew what got through?
Tiger watched her, his brows furrowed over his golden eyes. “You have to find him,” he said.
Why haven’t you?
Tiger kept staring at her. “
“Tiger, a little help here,” Ronan called to him.
Tiger locked gazes with Deni a beat longer then he turned away to where Ronan was doing something near the burning debris, Deni had no idea what. Deni growled in frustration and ran from the firelight, searching the perimeter of the crash site for Jace’s scent.
She picked it up a little way beyond the wreck, when the wind blew the smoke from her face—Jace, loud and clear. She started off after him.
Already tried that
, came Ellison’s growl. Lost it pretty quick.
Deni wasn’t listening. Each species of Shifter had an advantage over the others. Felines could see brilliantly in the dark, and they were
. Bears had great strength and also stamina, probably because they slept so much, Deni had always privately thought.
But wolves beat both bears and Felines in the ability to follow scent. No Shifter could outdo a Lupine on a scent trail. A wolf’s second prowess was communication. Wolves howled from hill to hill, passing information, warning, claiming territory. Their nonverbal skills were the best of any Shifter.
Right now, Deni needed only scent. Let Ellison howl at her—she had a mate to find.
She lost Jace’s trail fairly soon, as Ellison had warned her, near another oil well, this one capped. The metallic stench of old oil and rusting machinery cancelled out the warmer scent of Shifter, and Deni sat down on her haunches, bereft.
Jace had come this way, though, that was certain. Whether he’d doubled back, or was lying hurt somewhere, Deni couldn’t tell.
But Jace was her
They shared the mate bond—no doubt about it. Deni felt it inside her, its warmth around her heart, filling her with strength.
Deni’s accident had robbed her of most of her confidence. She’d gone through episodes where she’d forgotten who she was and didn’t know anyone around her—she’d attacked Ellison, and she’d turned on her friends and sometimes her own cubs. Terrified of hurting those she loved, she’d locked herself into a tiny world, where she went out little, and kept herself from fighting, or even enjoying herself too much. She’d not been able to ride a motorcycle, even behind someone else, as she’d explained to Jace, after she’d been run down, growing terrified even at the thought. Seeing the dangerous man who’d hurt her die had helped her begin to find closure, but the lingering fears died hard.
The loss of control—the feral rising up in her and taking over—bothered her the most. But in this place, in the darkness, Deni realized that the only way she would find her mate would be to surrender to the beast inside her.
She moved away from the oil well, then sat down and closed her eyes. Deni drew long breaths, scenting past the barrier of the oil and the fire, searching the night.
She remembered what had gone through her when she’d seen Broderick attack Jace at the fight club. She hadn’t known Jace was her mate then, but something in Deni had made her attack Broderick, to fight alongside Jace and protect him.
Deni brought to life the rage that had washed over her then, remembering the feel and taste of it. She let go of all rational thought, and let the beast come.
Her Collar sparked once, but her coherence left her, and instinct took over.
The wolf put her head down and sniffed the ground, walking at first, then moving faster. She crisscrossed back and forth over open earth and then down a rocky wash.
She found nothing, but Deni’s wolf wouldn’t let her grow frustrated. Tracking by scent took patience and time. She climbed up the other side of the wash, continuing to hunt, covering every inch of ground she could. She moved farther and farther from the wreck, leaving the other Shifters far behind. Still she found nothing. Either Jace had left some other way than his own feet, or he’d hidden himself well.
Deni sat down in the darkness, hearing the slither of snakes in the dried grass, they giving her a wide berth. She could scent nothing but the night now—the grains of dust on the wind, the coolness of water far away, the wild dryness of Texas, unchanged for centuries. No wildcats, except those at the wreck behind her, no Shifters at all.
Maybe scent wasn’t what she should be following, the dim thought came. Deni contemplated that in her quiet wolf way, then she closed her eyes, wrapped herself around the mate bond, and sent it outward.
An answering tug, far to the west and south of where she stood. Jace was there. False scents could be laid, and scents could be covered, but nothing could disguise the almost painful tug of the mate bond.
Deni loped back the way she’d come, across the wash, and started running, drawn to Jace with surety.
She heard Ellison howl in frustration somewhere behind her. He’d lost her scent and couldn’t find her in the darkness. No matter. Deni would find her mate and bring him home, and all would be well.
* * *
Jace sensed her coming. The snow leopard stopped in midrun, pulled up short as though someone had snapped a tether on him and yanked him to a halt.
He’d been running, putting as much distance between himself and the wreck as he possibly could. Whoever found him—Shifter or human—would want to drag him back to captivity, Collars, and rules. Shifters taming themselves, Jace was realizing, didn’t mean safety. It meant submission.
But his mate was coming.
Jace stopped on a little rise, a rare thing in this flat world. He sat down, panting, wrapping his cat tail around him as he waited for her.
Deni raced out of the dry grasses, her body a streak of gray under the moonlight. She came fast, running up the rise, not stopping. She let out a joyful yip and barreled into Jace so hard they rolled together down the other side of the little hill and ended up in a heap on the bottom.
Deni shifted into her human form, naked, her body outlined by starlight. Tears streaked her face.
“I found you.” She wrapped her arms around Jace’s leopard, who huffed and nuzzled her. “I found you.”
Jace licked her face, tasting her tears, and Deni laughed as his rough tongue nearly pushed her over.
Come with me, my love,
Jace urged. Into the wild, where we belong.
Deni pulled back, studying him. “Are you all right? It looks like they’re taking Marlo to a hospital. You should get looked at too.”
For answer, Jace jumped on her, knocking her to the ground. Deni’s mouth curved to laughter as she held an armful of fur. “Seriously, Jace. I was worried about you. Everyone is. I thought you were dead.”
The tears returned. Jace licked them away again, this time being gentle.
“I was so scared for you that I jumped on my motorcycle and rode away without realizing it. Did you hear me? I rode.
By myself. And I wasn’t afraid!”