Authors: Jennifer Ashley
Deni moved her body so both she and Sean shielded Jace from the cops who stopped closest to them.
The police had halted in uncertainty, but they kept their weapons trained on the Shifters, tranq guns at the ready. The two cops in charge, a man and a woman, pushed their way through the circles of Shifters until they reached Dylan in the center.
“Tell me what the hell is going on here,” the man said, his pistol trained on Dylan.
Dylan gave him a cold look. “A Shifter religious ceremony.” His words came clearly, and the Shifters stopping chanting and fell silent. “What does it look like?”
“What kind of religious ceremony?” the male cop asked, not impressed. “Explain it to me.”
“It’s private.” Dylan’s voice held an edge.
“Keep it together, Dad,” Sean whispered next to Deni. His gaze was on Dylan, as though he could will his father to stay calm.
“I can arrest everyone,” the cop said to Dylan. “And question each and every one of you. I have the manpower and the time. Or I can arrest you by yourself, Morrissey. Your choice.”
Connor spoke up, his voice shrill and sounding a few years younger than he was. “It’s a memorial ceremony. For my dad.”
A few of the cops moved uneasily, but most of them went more rigid.
“Who’s your dad?” the male cop asked.
Dylan answered, “Kenny Morrissey. My son. He died twelve years ago. We’re remembering him tonight.”
“Remembering him how?”
Dylan shrugged, keeping his voice steady. “Prayers, the circle dance. We usually burn photos or other mementoes.” He gestured at the flames in the trashcan next to them. “Kenny was well liked, and his brother is now the Shiftertown leader. Everyone wanted to come.”
“What about fights?” the cop asked. “Bouts between humans and Shifters?”
Dylan scowled. “I don’t know what shit people have been telling you, but Shifter religious ceremonies are peaceful.” That was absolute truth. “No violence in any of them.”
“Not what I heard,” the cop said. “Cuff him,” he told the female cop beside him.
Connor started forward in anguish but both Dylan and Glory stepped in his way. “It’s all right, lad,” Dylan said. He gave the two cops a nod. “You don’t have to cuff me. I’m happy to come with you and explain everything. I bet someone told you a bunch of Shifters had gathered here, and it made your higher-ups nervous.”
“Something like that,” the cop said, his tone still sharp.
The woman moved forward with the cuffs. Dylan gave her a resigned look and held out his hands. “If I come with you, the others go home.”
“You don’t have a choice,” the male cop said. “But, sure, the others can go home. In fact, they need to go,
. My officers will escort them out. If I like what you say downtown, then they can stay home.”
Sean released Deni’s hand. “I’d better go with them,” he said in a low voice. “Dad can scare the shite out of people just by looking at them. I’m more diplomatic.” He said it without boasting. “Ronan,” he called. “Make sure Connor and Glory get home all right.”
“You got it, Sean,” Ronan said.
“Ride with me,” Jace whispered to Deni as Sean walked away and the Shifters and humans began to disperse. The cops started herding everyone out to the parking lot, Shifters growling and rumbling in annoyance, but not arguing, their human friends walking along quietly.
“I came with Ronan and Elizabeth,” Deni said nervously. She knew Jace had ridden in on a motorcycle—she’d heard it when he’d pulled up.
“I need to pretend I didn’t come alone. Ronan and Elizabeth will understand.”
Deni knew Jace was trying to make himself look as though he belonged in this Shiftertown. If he went off with Deni, as though part of the community, he might escape scrutiny. But that meant Deni would have to climb onto the back of a motorcycle.
“What happened to you?” another cop asked before Deni could answer Jace.
Deni stopped short, but the man wasn’t talking to her. He was looking behind them, at Ronan, his tranq rifle pointed at the big man.
Ronan did look bad, his arms cut and bruised, one eye swollen. He’d skimmed on clothes while the cops were closing in, and Elizabeth now had her arm firmly around him. “I’m a bouncer,” Ronan said. “At a bar. Humans like to throw punches at me.” He shrugged. “I let them.”
The cop gave him a look of suspicion, but he didn’t pursue it. Instead he stepped in front of Jace and gave him a belligerent scowl. “What about you? You let humans take punches at you too?”
Jace’s face, neck, and torso, bared by his open jacket, bore bruises from his fight with Broderick. Deni realized something she hadn’t earlier—a few of the marks on Jace’s neck were from her fingers, some from her teeth. She flushed.
Jace gave the cop a lazy smile without lifting his head all the way. He draped his arm around Deni and pressed a kiss to her hair. “Religious ceremonies can be boring,” he said, his voice slightly slurred. “Found something better to do for a while.”
The cop got a knowing look, and Deni blushed harder. Well, Jace wasn’t lying. What they’d done in the darkness had been swift, hot, and glorious, not boring at all.
“Yeah, well, keep it at home,” the cop said.
“Love to.” Jace kept up his careless slouch, leaning on Deni, his arm around her.
The cop, fortunately, left them alone, looking around for others to harass.
“You’ll have to drive,” Jace said when they reached the bike. Deni thought she recognized it as belonging to Liam, who must have lent it to Jace. “I acted a little drunk so he’d leave us alone, but if he’s watching, I don’t want to give him an excuse to stop me for DUI.” He gave her a grin and dangled the keys in front of her. “So tonight you’re my designated driver.”
Deni looked at the keys Jace pressed into her hand, and blind panic washed through her. “I can’t.” She couldn’t draw a breath. “Jace, I’m sorry. I can’t.”
“Can’t?” Jace frowned down at her, his expression a mixture of compassion, curiosity, and the need to hurry. “Why? Never driven a motorcycle before?”
“I have. I own one. Or, I did. It’s just . . .” Deni’s body was cold, fear pumping through her. “I was in a wreck on my motorcycle,” she said in a rush. “A man ran me off the road last year, on purpose. I was badly hurt—took me a long time to recover. I haven’t been able to ride a motorcycle since then. Plus I have . . . episodes. I don’t know what I’m doing for stretches of time—I’ve even attacked my own family. I start to go feral. Like tonight, when I fought, and when we—”
“Hey,” Jace interrupted her hurried flow of words, his voice warm in the darkness. “Stop. It’s all right.”
“It’s not all right. It’s a long way from all right.” Deni drew a shuddering breath. “I haven’t been able to so much as get
a motorcycle, not even to ride with someone else. I panic—I can’t do it. Sorry, I should have told you.”
“Yeah, well, we didn’t get much chance to talk, did we?” Jace’s eyes glinted, the teasing light in them making her both embarrassed and relieved.
She handed the keys out to him. “Thanks for understanding.”
Jace didn’t take them. “I mean, I get that this is hard for you, Den, but you’re still going to have to drive the bike. Sorry, sweetheart, I can’t risk getting stopped or arrested, or even questioned. If they find out who I am, things could get bad. Not only for me, but my father, Liam, Dylan—maybe all Shifters.” He slowed his words, as though sensing Deni’s fear escalate again. “You’ll be all right. I’ll be with you.”
The keys were heavy in her hand. “Oh, right. So I won’t black out and crash us, because you’ll be on the seat behind me?”
“Something like that.” Jace brushed his hand over her arm, his fingers blunt and warm.
Deni’s fear was too raw to be easily calmed, but she was grateful to him for trying. She knew she had to get on the damned bike and take them out of there—he was right about that—but she couldn’t make her feet move.
One of the cops was looking their way. The man waited a beat or two, then started for them.
Jace gave Deni a small shove toward the motorcycle. “We’ve got to go.” Another push, moving her another step. “Only for a few miles. Once we’re off their radar, we can switch.”
“I can’t ride in
.” Deni gestured to herself, the fabric wrapped around her body. She had, in fact, ridden in a sarong before, but the wind would be cold and chafing. Maybe he’d take pity on her and find someone else to take him to Shiftertown.
Jace slid out of his denim jacket and draped it around her shoulders. That left his torso bare, but he didn’t seem the more vulnerable for it. “You can wear this.”
The jacket held his body heat and his scent. Deni closed her eyes. She looked for something peaceful inside herself, a place she used to be able to find. Jace would be with her. He’d make sure they reached Shiftertown. She willed herself to believe.
Jace said in her ear.
Deni jumped, but his voice galvanized her. She took a deep breath and started to swing her leg over the bike.
It got stuck halfway. Deni’s heart thumped—
—but she couldn’t make her leg go over the seat. She clenched her muscles, willing her body to obey, but she was shaking, her breath leaving her.
Jace swarmed onto the bike behind her, shoving her leg all the way over with his. There, she was on, with Jace wrapping his warm, bare arms around her.
The motorcycle was big—Liam, who owned it, was a big man—but Shifter women were tall. Deni could ride it.
Deni trembled all over as she started the bike, her body brushing back against the solid warmth of Jace’s. The motorcycle rumbled beneath them, the deep throb of a well-tuned Harley, which let every vehicle near it know what a powerhouse it was.
Jace tightened his arms around her, pretending to have to cling hard because he was drunk, but he turned the hold into a steadying one. Deni relaxed a little, enough to glide the bike forward, lifting her feet smoothly as they went.
The narrow road back to the highway was dark, rutted, and unnerving. The headlight sliced through blackness, the Texas night vast. Far ahead, tiny lights marked where other Shifters were driving away.
Deni started to calm even more. Her body instinctively knew how to balance the bike, how to guide the big machine, even when the road was rough. Her panic lessened, but then, out here, there were no other cars, no city streets, no humans running their vehicles into Shifters and ruining their lives.
Jace’s arms around Deni, his warm body at her back, reminded her of their wild coupling, beautiful for all its brutality. Jace had a tall, strong body, one Deni would be willing to climb again. And again. Deni wished she and Jace could be truly alone, racing down the road, nothing on their minds but the wind, stars, and what they’d do together at the journey’s end.
They reached the highway, the traffic sparse. Deni swung the bike to the right, heading for the lights of civilization. Austin glowed on the horizon, the city beckoning.
Deni had grown to love Austin and its quirkiness—the music, Sixth Street on a Saturday night, bars that ranged from upscale to shabby honky-tonks, the bats emerging every sunset from the Congress Avenue Bridge, the town’s sense of being different from everyplace else in the world, even from the rest of Texas. Deni had found something like happiness settling here, with her brother, Ellison, and her sons, Will and Jackson. Not the greatest existence, living in Shiftertown, but at least they were together.
And then the bastard human, who’d been involved in some nasty business regarding Shifters that Ellison and Deni had helped clear up, had deliberately run down Deni on her motorcycle, robbing her of control and any sense of tranquility. Tonight, coupling with Jace and now having him hold on to her was the closest she’d come to finding peace again.
Deni turned onto the 183 and headed north. She was sure Jace would tell her to pull over any minute so he could take over the driving, but he didn’t. Jace kept his arms around her, his body leaning with hers as she made the turn and joined traffic.
Deni started to shake again as traffic thickened, cars and trucks surging around them to head for Austin from points east of San Antonio. Jace’s warm hands moved on Deni’s belly, as though he knew she needed his reassuring touch. Deni felt a little better, but when they reached Lockhart, she pulled off to a gas station.
“You can take over now,” she said, sliding off the helmet.
Jace didn’t dismount. “You’re doing fine. Keep going.”
“Jace, come on. I’m scared. The wreck really messed me up. The guy who did it was trying to grab me—he was kidnapping Shifters.”
Jace’s eyes narrowed. “I heard about him. He didn’t get you though, right?”
“Only because there were too many other people around. He nearly killed me.”
“But he’s dead now.” Jace spoke with conviction. Dylan must have told him some of that story.
“Yes.” Deni swallowed, her mouth dry. She wondered if Dylan had told Jace exactly how the man had died, and Deni’s part in it. “My mind knows that I’m safe, but my instincts don’t. The wolf inside me hasn’t fully processed it yet, I guess.”
Jace kept frowning. “I see that. But I’m right here with you. Show yourself you can do it. Don’t let him win.”
Deni wanted to—she truly did. Her brother had given her similar advice:
Don’t let the asshole take everything away from you
Wise words, but still, it was hard. “What if I black out?”
Jace shot her a grin. “I’ll wake you up.”
“You’re wrong. You can.”
Deni grasped the handlebars. She used to love to ride, she and Ellison going all out on the back roads, side by side, racing. She missed it.
She gave Jace a challenging look. “What if I get off right here and refuse to ride?”
Jace shrugged. “Then I take the bike back to Liam and send you a cab. Or you can shift to wolf and go cross-country.”
The grin returned. “Or, you can drive.”
He was a shithead. A sexy one. Damn it.
Everything in Deni wanted to do this. Waiting at this gas station for a cab certainly didn’t appeal to her, especially not with the few good old boys starting to eye them. Humans and Shifters weren’t supposed to tangle, but out in farm and ranch country, in the middle of the night, rules didn’t always stop anyone.
Deni slapped the helmet back on her head. She revved the bike and pulled out of the gas station, opening up the engine once she got out of town to make it throb.
Wind rushed past her, the bike rumbled under her, and Jace, hard-bodied and hot, hung on to her. Deni still felt the ache of their rough lovemaking, and knew she carried his seed inside her. What would happen if that seed took root? The thought of having another cub frightened her almost as much as riding did, but it elated her at the same time.
Deni navigated them onto the 130 then off when the 183 split from it again, and kept on straight north for Austin. She was sweating by the time they hit Austin proper, Jace’s jacket cutting the bracing wind. The increasing traffic made her panic rise once more, but Jace was there, caressing her, his touch calming.
Excitement hit Deni when she rolled into the mostly deserted streets around Shiftertown and pulled the motorcycle up behind the bar Liam managed. She swung off the bike after Jace dismounted, and yanked off her helmet.
“I did it. Goddess, Jace—I did it!”
“Yeah, you did.” Jace swept his arms around her and pulled her against him. “You were great. And you didn’t even pass out.”
Deni was too buoyed to respond to the remark. She gave him a hard kiss on the mouth, loving the taste of him. Her excitement increased, her need for him not slaked. Jace didn’t discourage her. His kiss turned hard, his hands on her back strong.
Deni made herself ease away from him, though he remained holding her a moment, his eyes dark green in the moonlight. Shaking a little, Deni stepped back, slid his jacket off, and handed it back to him, though it was a shame to watch him cover himself.
Jace shrugged the jacket on then took a backpack from one of the saddlebags and slung it over his shoulder. He put his arm around Deni. “Come in and have a beer with me?”
This was Deni’s chance to tell him she needed to go home, to wait for her sons to get in from work, her brother and his mate to return from their date. To go back to watching everyone else live, while she sat in the corner and tried to stay sane.
To hell with that. Deni squared her shoulders, slid her hand through Jace’s offered arm, and walked in with him through the back door.
They emerged into the loud bar, half full of Shifters. A tall Shifter covered in tatts spied them and stepped in front of Jace.
“Liam wants to see you,” he said with his characteristic brevity, then turned around and walked away.
“That’s Spike,” Deni said. “Man of few words.”
“I’ve met him.” Jace took Deni’s hand and led her through the crowd, making his way to the black-haired Irishman leaning on the bar. He wasn’t tending it—Shifters weren’t allowed to serve alcohol. A human barman did that.
Liam Morrissey turned as they approached, as though sensing them come, which he probably had. He wouldn’t have been able to hear them over the jukebox, or smell them over the odors of smoke, alcohol, sweaty humans, and Shifters who’d also just returned from the fight club. But Liam had the uncanny knack of knowing where everyone was at all times. Liam was tall, like his brother, Sean, and had the same intense blue eyes. Those eyes took in Jace, then Deni, then Liam leaned forward and pulled Jace into a Shifter welcoming embrace.
Jace dropped his backpack on a barstool and let Liam enfold him. Because the two had met before and liked each other, the hug was more cordial and less wary than many alpha male exchanges. No veiled hint that each would rip out the other’s throat if they had half a chance. Just friendship and camaraderie, arms tightening on each other’s backs.
Liam released Jace, turned to Deni, and pulled her into his arms as well. This hug was more reassuring, the Shiftertown leader trying to calm one of his own. “Well done,” Liam said quietly into her ear, and Deni warmed with pleasure.
Liam released Deni and found Jace right next to him.
next to him, as in slap up against him. Jace’s eyes had tightened, and he pinned Liam with a warning stare.
Liam reached past Jace for a half-filled bottle of beer he’d left on the bar and held it without drinking. “Spike and Ronan told me what happened out there with the cops.” He gave Deni a grin. “I see you two already celebrated.”
As she had under Sean’s scrutiny, Deni flushed, but Jace looked unworried. “Have you heard anything from Dylan?” Jace asked him.
Liam lost his smile. “They took Dad downtown. My mate is with him, and so is Sean. They told me not to come.” He nodded, as though he agreed. “Kim knows what she’s doing.”
Liam’s mate was a defense lawyer who now specialized in defending Shifters. Liam was right that she was plenty competent, and Dylan and Sean were good at keeping human attention away from Shifters. Deni saw the tightness in Liam, however, sensed his need to race to the police station and use any means necessary to extract his father.
“Did the police talk to you?” Jace asked him.
“Aye, they did. Came rushing in here, demanding to know about this fight club they’d heard about. Of course, I knew nothing, did I?” Liam, as leader, had decided to look the other way about the fight club, which went against Shifter laws as well as human. Though the fight clubs had rules, they were dangerous, but Liam had acknowledged long ago that he couldn’t prevent them. “A detective and half a dozen uniforms came in here the same time the arena was being raided, or I would have warned my dad and Sean.” Deni saw the outrage in his eyes that he’d been blindsided.