Read Feral Heat: Shifters Unbound Novella Online
Authors: Jennifer Ashley
His face lost its teasing expression, and his grip tightened. “Deni, you make me glad to be alive.”
She looked up into his eyes, which held fire, and something in her that she hadn’t realized was tight unwound itself.
Deni spread her fingers on his chest. “Don’t let them have it all their own way.”
Jace gave her a startled look as though surprised at her defense of him. He leaned down and kissed her, drawing the fire that had already begun inside her. He rested his cheek against hers after that, rocking a little as he held her, warmth to warmth.
Jace lifted his head, brushing Deni’s hair from her face. “I’m beat. Too bad. I was hoping to do other things this morning.”
The light in his eyes was suggestive, but he did look tired. Exhausted. He hadn’t had much sleep in the night, and he’d been gone at dawn. Deni was willing to bet he hadn’t eaten anything either.
“Take a load off,” she said, gesturing to the porch. “Let me finish here, and I’ll make a late breakfast. Or early lunch. Whatever you want to call it.”
Jace gave her a smile and kissed her forehead, tightening his grip on her again, but finally he let her go. “Liam and Sean went home to consume a boatload of Guinness,” he said, moving to the porch. He shook his head. “Irishmen.”
He laughed, but Deni grew irritated. Liam expected Jace to sit still while he and Sean poked at him, and then they didn’t even bother to feed him.
She jerked on her gardening gloves as the porch swing creaked—Jace let out a sigh as he relaxed on it—and went back to her task of spreading mulch around her new plants. A few roses to deadhead, and then she’d go whip up a mountain of eggs and a stack of bacon. Ellison would be up soon too, and she knew how much male Shifters loved to eat.
A small car pulled up across the street. Deni straightened to watch as Kim Morrissey descended in a neat skirt and blouse with low-heeled shoes. Deni sensed other Shifters in yards and on porches down the street coming alert, watching too.
Kim looked over and gave Deni a brief wave, but her usual smiles were gone, her face set in grim lines. The passenger door had opened as Kim got out, and Dylan emerged.
Deni let out a breath of relief. Dylan was safe. She sensed the other Shifters relax as well, and saw them turn back to their morning tasks.
Dylan glanced at Deni then walked swiftly across the road toward Deni’s yard. He paused at the edge of the browning grass, too much a Shifter to invade Ellison’s territory without invitation. He only continued toward Deni at her flowerbed when she gave him a nod.
Dylan looked terrible. His cheeks were covered with black stubble, the gray that brushed his temples more prevalent this morning. His face was lined with dirt, his hair lank, his clothes smelling of stale smoke and sweat.
“You all right?” Dylan asked her.
“I should be asking
that,” Deni said, pulling off her dirty gloves and dropping them to the ground. Dylan’s blue eyes were always difficult to look into, but Deni met his gaze for a few beats.
“I’m good,” Dylan said, though it was obvious he wasn’t. He put a firm hand on Deni’s shoulder and pulled her into a hug. “You did well last night, lass,” he said. His arms tightened, the alpha giving one of his frightened Shifters reassurance.
A growl sounded. Low and vicious, it rolled out from the shadows, its threat clear.
Dylan jerked around, releasing Deni. An answering growl came from his throat, Dylan too tired to worry about any kind of protocol. A Shifter threatened him—Dylan was going to strike him down.
It took Deni a second to realize that the rumble had come from Jace on the porch. He was still sitting on the porch swing, but alert, upright, his eyes glinting in the shadows.
Shifters in another’s territory were always careful about what they did—this entire Shiftertown was technically Morrissey clan territory, though they respected the rights and privacy of individual families, packs, and prides. But a Shifter from out of town couldn’t threaten, challenge, or cause any problems when he was an invited guest. It wasn’t polite, and it was dangerous besides.
So why the hell was Jace Warden leaning forward, his gaze fast on Dylan, growling with full menace and ready to attack?
Don’t touch her,
Jace’s growl said.
He knew Dylan understood him, because Dylan was staring back at Jace with full comprehension. Dylan was also angry, the short fuse of his temper not helped by his night in jail.
Jace knew he was violating all kinds of protocol, but he didn’t give a crap. Dylan had put his hands on Deni, and Jace had seen her first.
A faint, logical voice deep inside Jace told him Dylan’s reassurance of Deni was natural, and the intruder in this picture was Jace.
Jace kicked at the voice until it shut up. He knew if he rose from the swing, there’d be a fight, and he wasn’t sure he wouldn’t welcome it. If Dylan was a good Shifter and went along home, Jace would let him go. Otherwise . . .
Dylan started for the porch. Jace recognized the determination in his stride, having seen it in his own father often enough. Dylan was coming to teach the upstart Jace a lesson.
Jace held his place on the porch swing. The logical voice had just enough volume to tell him that no one in this Shiftertown would take his side in a fight against Dylan. Not in a real one. This wasn’t the fight club—fight club rules didn’t apply here.
Dylan was on the steps, moving slowly but menacingly. Jace saw a flash out of the corner of his eye, and then Deni was leaping from the ground, up and over the porch railing with Lupine grace. The fact that she’d crushed one of her newly planted petunias as she made the vault told Jace of her apprehension.
Deni moved swiftly in front of Jace, facing Dylan before he reached the porch floor.
“He’s tired and hurt,” Deni said to Dylan, words coming fast. “Like you are. Let it go.”
True, Jace was. But he was also enraged. A fight with Dylan would be fun. Lion against leopard—brute strength against finesse. Which would prevail?
Dylan looked at Deni, willing her to move. Deni held her ground—good for her. Dylan growled a little, then he looked around Deni to Jace, his blue eyes going Shifter white. “Den is right,” Dylan said, every word slow and deliberate. He was holding himself back from throwing Deni aside and going for Jace, and making it clear he was holding back. “We’re both exhausted.” Dylan’s gaze went to Jace’s neck, where Jace’s jacket had slid back again to reveal the loosened Collar link. “And you’re in pain. Eat something. Sleep it off.”
“Good advice,” Deni said to Dylan. “Take it yourself. Neither of you got much sleep last night.”
Jace remained silent, but he gave Dylan a slow nod. Dylan rested his gaze on Jace for a few moments longer, the weight of his stare palpable, before he turned and walked off the porch. He said nothing, not a good-bye or an acknowledgment, only strode away and back across the street to where Kim waited anxiously.
Deni watched Dylan go, her hands on her shapely hips. Jace could reach up and clasp those hips, pulling her back to his lap.
Deni swung around before he could move. “Are you all right? Why in the Goddess’s name did you do that?”
Jace shrugged, which rubbed his jacket against his sore neck. “I didn’t like the way he touched you.”
“He’s Shiftertown leader.” Deni folded her arms and glared down at him. “It’s his job to reassure us all, to make sure everyone’s okay.”
“He’s not leader anymore.”
“Not technically, no. But Liam still relies on him pretty heavily to keep the peace. Didn’t Dylan invite you here in the first place?”
“He did.” Jace knew everything Deni said was true and reasonable. But the mating frenzy only knew
stay away from my mate.
Time to apologize, make amends, tell Dylan he didn’t mean to be an idiot. But Jace didn’t want to. He still hurt from Liam’s knife and Sean’s soldering iron, and he needed a break.
Jace pressed his hands to his thighs and rose to his feet. He liked that Deni didn’t take a step back but remained in his personal space, as though she belonged there.
“We’re both tired,” Jace said. “Like you said. Now, about this breakfast. Let’s get something started. I’m
* * *
Deni watched Jace eat. And eat, and eat. She put away a plate of eggs, bacon, and Texas toast herself, but Jace kept shoveling it in. Ellison woke up and joined them, as hungry as Jace.
“I guess no more fight club for a while,” Ellison said after they discussed what had happened with the cops. “Damn. Shifters need to work off steam somehow or else we combust.”
“You can work off steam by cleaning out the gutters and fixing the roof,” Deni said, piling more eggs, cheese, and salsa onto both males’ plates. “That will cool you down.”
Jace laughed out loud. He was sweet and sexy, filling up the place at the table as though he belonged there.
Ellison grimaced. “Don’t be so literal, woman.”
“Just giving you an alternative,” Deni said, resuming her seat. Jace closed his hand over hers, squeezing it, before he returned to his food. “I wouldn’t want you to burst into flames.”
Ellison looked over Jace and Deni, his gray eyes shrewd. He didn’t pretend not to notice the signals between them, how comfortable they were sitting close together.
A knock sounded on the back door, and Jace came instantly alert. His hand jerked on Deni’s, his eyes losing their deep greenness for a lighter hue.
At the same time a police car went by the house, its black body and white doors sliding past in silence. Ellison went noiselessly for the door and opened it to find a small boy with white hair and black eyes standing on the doorstep.
“Olaf,” Ellison said, his body relaxing. “Maria’s not home yet.” Maria, Ellison’s mate, often babysat for eleven-year-old Olaf, who was a polar bear cub, as well as other Shifter kids. She looked after them while their parents—or in Olaf’s case, foster parents—worked.
“Ronan sent me to tell you the police are here,” Olaf said.
“We see that.” Ellison turned to watch a second car go past the front windows.
“They’re going door-to-door,” Olaf said. “Checking ID.” He looked past Ellison and into the kitchen at Jace. “Everyone’s ID.”
Deni’s heartbeat sped in alarm. “Does Ronan know if they’re looking for someone in particular?”
Olaf shook his head. “No. They’re just asking for ID.” He peered at Jace, his small face blank. “What’s the matter with him?”
“Nothing,” Deni said quickly. “Long night.”
Olaf didn’t nod. He kept staring at Jace, his brow puckering. “He’s not right.”
With that declaration, Olaf turned from the door and ran in a loping stride down the porch steps and across the backyard to the next house.
Ronan had been smart to send him as an early warning system, Deni thought as Ellison closed the door. If the police stopped him, all Olaf had to do was look cute and innocent, and charm them senseless. He did that so well.
Ellison came back to the kitchen, his shoulders tight. “Don’t we have a new Shifter Bureau liaison to prevent this kind of harassment? I need to have a talk with Tiger.”
“Maybe it’s coming from a different department,” Deni said. “Not our biggest concern at the moment.”
Both she and her brother turned to look at Jace.
“Shit,” Ellison said. Deni waited, tense. They could help Jace, but only if Ellison agreed.
Jace held up his hands. “I promise not to touch anything.”
Ellison went past Deni and into the hall between kitchen, living room, and bedrooms. “Shit,” he said again, his Texas accent thickening.
“No choice,” Deni said to Ellison as she and Jace followed. “He doesn’t have time to get away.”
Ellison put his hand on the false wall panel in the middle of the hall. “You know this is a sacred trust,” he said to Jace. “Right?”
“I’m familiar with the concept,” Jace said impatiently.
“Damn it,” Ellison said under his breath. “If I still had a pack, they’d kill me.”
your pack,” Deni said. “And I’ll speak for my sons. Jace goes to ground.”
Were Jace anyone else, Deni would be as reluctant as Ellison to open the door behind the paneling and let Jace see what was in there. But this was Jace, and she’d let him soothe her in the darkness at the fight club last night. He’d kept her from going feral, had gotten her home safely, and proved she could start going back to her normal life without fear. She owed him.
The opening door revealed a set of cement stairs heading down into darkness. The three of them paused at the top a moment, letting the air from below cool them.
Secret spaces. Every Shifter house had them. Traditionally built below the main house, they held secrets of that Shifter pack or clan, things collected and cherished, the pack’s wealth. Shifters had survived all these centuries because of the things contained in their vaults. Shifters now lived together aboveground in relative peace—different clans and species rubbing elbows, or paws—because they kept this part of themselves, places only close family went, safely underground.
To let an unrelated Shifter see the secret spaces was unthinkable. Jace wasn’t family or clan—he wasn’t even Lupine.
Another knock came, this one on the front door, and much firmer than Olaf’s. “Mr. Rowe?” a man’s voice sounded.
Ellison let out a growl and headed for the front. Jace, instead of going down the stairs, spun and started after him, stepping in front of Deni as though protecting her.
“No!” Deni whispered. She grabbed Jace by the jacket and shook him. “Get down there.”
Jace swung around and gave her a startled look, as though he’d had no idea he’d gone into his protective stance. His eyes were the light green again, his Shifter rage apparent.
Deni knew he didn’t want to go down the stairs without her, to leave her vulnerable. But this wasn’t the wild. This was the human world, and at the moment, she and Jace had to play by their rules, or risk everything.
“Down,” Deni whispered again.
Jace finally nodded, let her push him to the first stair, and held her gaze as she shut the door on him. Deni had the false panel back in place and was walking out toward the living room by the time two police officers, one armed with a tranq rifle, strode in and demanded to see her and Ellison’s IDs.
* * *
Jace remained in the stairwell, pressing his fists to the stone wall, dragging in deep breaths. He knew he couldn’t risk the police finding him, but the need to keep them away from Deni had risen swiftly, his primal fear for her driving away common sense.
He could hear the police through the thin paneling, talking to Ellison and Deni, asking where Maria was, and about Deni’s sons. Human hearing wasn’t as good as Shifters’, but Jace knew they might be able to hear any noise he made if he wasn’t careful.
In silence, he walked the rest of the way down the stairs, his Feline eyes letting him see in the dark. At the bottom was a door, unlocked. Jace opened it as noiselessly as he could, slipped inside the basement room, and closed the door behind him.
Only then did he flip one of the switches beside the door, only one. A single light came on in the middle of the room.
Jace looked around.
The main room held soft-looking furniture and opened to a kitchen larger than the one upstairs, with more upscale appliances. The refrigerator was stocked, he saw when he opened it. A Shifter could live down here comfortably for weeks.
A flat screen TV had been mounted to a wall, and a game console and controls sat under it. Jace smiled. Will and Jackson must have fun down here. Probably Ellison too. Jace thought about Cassidy at his house, and her prowess at the pool table. Deni likely held her own. Why Shifters liked to play RPGs, Jace had never figured out—they were shapeshifters and fighters in real life—but given the opportunity to take a new identity and kick a troll’s ass, they couldn’t resist.
Games were off-limits right now. Jace couldn’t risk that the humans upstairs wouldn’t hear. Shifter spaces were usually soundproofed, but soundproofing was only so good.
Jace figured Ellison would want Jace to stand with his eyes closed in the middle of the room and not smell, see, or touch anything. And then somehow wipe his memory of everything the moment he left. He had to smile.
In any other situation, Jace might try to keep clear of the Rowe family’s secrets. But this was Deni’s place. It held the essence of her, even more than the house upstairs did.
Jace couldn’t resist stopping by the tall cabinet that held books and a collection of framed photographs. Family photos. A tall couple Jace didn’t recognize must be Ellison and Deni’s parents. The photo was old, but kept with care.
Another older photo showed Deni, much younger, probably just past her Transition, with a male Shifter. The Shifter male, who had black hair and gray eyes, was a Lupine, big and rawboned, like most of the wolves. Deni leaned against him, a smile on her face, looking happy. Deni’s name was still Rowe, though, Jason mused. She hadn’t taken her mate’s family’s name, which meant her mate had been of lesser dominance than her, probably much less. These days, it was a female’s choice which name to take, but in the past, that choice had been made for her by whichever family was dominant. Even now, more dominant families would fight to keep their daughters under their name. Deni had been mated long ago enough that she’d likely gone along with the tradition.
Another picture of Deni showed her holding two wolf cubs, the pair bright-eyed. Will and Jackson, as pups. Deni’s mate must have taken the photo, because Deni smiled out of the picture at him, her eyes full of love.
More recent photos showed Deni with Will and Jackson as tall young men, all of them wearing Collars. Then one of Ellison cuddling the small human woman, Maria, both grinning. Ellison wore a more relaxed expression than Jace had ever seen on him.
Another was of Deni alone. The river was in the background, Deni in a bathing suit and wrap, her hair wet, the gold bracelet she liked to wear on her wrist. She smiled with all the animation she’d showed when she’d held her cubs. This was Deni happy, without the haunted look in her eyes. Before the accident, Jace figured.
A sudden savage fury rose up in him, filling his throat with growls. She’d been deliberately run down by a human trying to kidnap her. Though the man had been killed, Jace wanted the culprit in front of him, so he could have the pleasure of ripping his head off.