Authors: Jennifer Ashley
His rage rose so quickly that he started to shift. Then his Collar shocked him.
The pain was fierce. Jace dug his fist into his mouth to cut off the scream that had welled up, ready to burst out.
Son of a bitch. He closed his eyes, trying to breathe, rapidly repeating the meditation mantra to calm the Collar. The Collar shocked him again, and he balled his hands in agony.
What the fuck?
Jace found himself on the floor, arms curled around his legs as he rocked in pain. Flashes of rage went through him, followed by just as intense flashes of need. Need for Deni.
He needed her touch, her kiss, to breathe her scent. Her body against his. Another time of passion with her, another time when he’d bury himself inside her and be, for once in his life, complete.
“Shit,” he said out loud. This wasn’t mating frenzy. Or maybe it partly was. But Jace recognized his symptoms from seeing them in an unfortunate few. Rabid hunger. Intense need for sex. Quick to anger, ready to kill, especially to protect what was his.
Only two links of his Collar had been pulled away, not even that, but it had triggered the feral in him.
Shouldn’t surprise him, he reflected. Liam had said taking off the Collars made the instincts suppressed by years of wearing them burst out in a volcanic flare. The trick would be figuring out how to negate the effect.
For now, Jace had to control himself. Somehow. The police upstairs were interrogating the woman he wanted . . . but he couldn’t think about that. If he did, he’d rush up there and destroy them all.
Keep it together.
Funny, it had been easy to tell Deni to keep herself calm. Difficult to convince himself to do so now.
Jace yanked open the door of the cabinet—he stopped himself from simply smashing the glass and putting his hand through it. He took out the photo of Deni by herself, smiling cheerfully out at him.
He touched her face with his fingers, drawing a deep breath. Looking at Deni kept him cool, but barely.
Jace had to know what was happening upstairs. Were they taking away Deni in a patrol car, arresting her for whatever reason?
He clutched the picture to his chest, trying to still his need to run up the stairs and drag Deni to safety. He had to
Jace was smart—he’d designed most of the underground space and its gadgets in the house he shared with his dad and family in the Vegas Shiftertown. He’d been recruited to design the spaces in the new houses being built out there as well. What had he done to make sure they wouldn’t get trapped in their own hiding places, without knowing what was going on in the outside world?
He moved to the TV, made sure the sound was all the way down, and clicked it on. A little button pushing on the remote . . . yes, they’d done it too. Or maybe they’d followed Jace’s design, which Eric liked to brag about.
One of the TV channels monitored the upstairs. Ellison must have put cameras in the big living room and one on the front porch. They focused now, showing Deni standing next to Ellison, both she and her brother upright but easy, without defiance.
Four cops barred their way out of the room, the female one with the tranq rifle talking to them. Ellison and Deni answered, standing casually, trying not to betray nervousness through body language. Humans were not as good at reading nonverbal signals as Shifters, but some could be good at it, especially the police sent to deal with Shifters.
Jace inched up the volume, but the sound was too muffled for him to make out what they were saying. No one was lunging to put Ellison or Deni in cuffs, fortunately. Just cops talking to citizens, citizens who happened to be Shifters.
Jace sat down on the couch, unwilling to look away. He hugged Deni’s picture to him almost without realizing it. He was still hugging it when the cops finally left the house and Deni came downstairs to find him.
* * *
Jace was off the couch and at the bottom of the stairs as soon as Deni stepped off them. Deni found herself caught in a hard hug, Jace lifting her from her feet.
“It’s all right, Jace,” she said quickly. “I’m all right.”
Jace growled and buried his face in her neck. Deni held him, the solidness of his body against hers slowing her racing heart.
“You touched stuff,” Ellison said, half joking. He went past Jace, snatched the remote off the couch, and clicked off the television. He started to close the cabinet door and stopped. “You touched more stuff.”
Deni took the framed photo of herself from Jace’s hand. She had to tug at it before he blinked and let it go, as though he’d forgotten he was clutching it so tightly. Deni handed it to Ellison, who restored it to the cabinet, not before giving Jace a sharp look.
“Did you hear what they said?” Deni asked.
“Not well.” Jace released her from the hug and took a firm hold of her hand. “I only saw they didn’t arrest you, thank the Goddess. What happened?”
“They’re interested in what Shifters have been up to lately,” Ellison said. “
interested. Looking at identification, asking where we’re working, what we’re doing when we’re not.”
“Have to wonder why they’re asking all the sudden,” Jace said. “Right after I arrived. I don’t believe in coincidences.”
“Neither do I.” Ellison and Jace shared a grim look. “I hate to say this, but you’d better stay down here awhile. They’re roving Shiftertown, and probably won’t be leaving soon.”
Deni saw the flash in Jace’s eyes, the wild look she saw in herself sometimes.
She touched his arm. “I’ll stay here with you.”
Jace’s look changed in an instant to something hungry and raw, his eyes going very light green. “You shouldn’t.”
“You’re hurting.” Deni put her fingers to the red marks around his Collar but she didn’t touch them. “Because of this?”
“I don’t know.” Jace’s hand was sweating, slick against hers. “I think so.”
“I knew Liam was crazy,” Ellison said. “Going on about releasing us from Collars. I’m going to go get Dylan, have him look in on you.”
“Be careful,” Deni said.
Ellison tipped an imaginary cowboy hat. “I’m always careful, ma’am,” he drawled, then went past them and up the stairs.
“Let’s sit down.” Deni started to lead Jace to the sofa, but he didn’t budge. His body was strong, a boulder she couldn’t move.
“Den, you should get out of here.” His grip was tight, his hand hot.
Deni’s heart beat faster as she touched his wrist and found his pulse banging beneath her fingers. “I think I should stay. Ellison will be right back.”
” Jace pushed at her, his breath coming fast. “If you stay, I don’t know what I’ll do. I want you—last night wasn’t enough. I want it hard, and I want it now. Don’t let me take it from you.”
Deni let go of his hand, but she remained squarely in front of him. A Shifter going feral and feeling mating frenzy was a dangerous thing. Jace could do anything, even kill her, if he was crazed enough. She understood that.
On the other hand, in mating frenzy, only the mate kept a Shifter from completely losing his mind. She thought of Jace behind her on the motorcycle, warming her and giving her the strength to cut through her fears and get them home. He’d been with her every second, and he’d held her in victory when she’d made it. When Jace had to hide down here, Deni had reasoned that she owed him. She still believed that.
“I’m not leaving,” she said.
Jace’s eyes turned all the way white. He grabbed Deni by the wrists and hauled her against him.
Deni landed against Jace’s chest, his skin hot through his thin shirt. His jacket’s zipper rubbed Deni’s arms, the friction of it releasing the heat in her own body.
Jace’s kiss was hard, opening her mouth, his grip on her wrists crushing. But Deni was strong, had always been strong. She could not have endured so much without strength. She rose on her tiptoes, kissing him back, her body fitting to his.
Jace raised his head, breaking the kiss. His lips were parted, the moisture inside his mouth beckoning her. Deni knew his taste now and craved more. She also knew what he felt like inside her, and she wanted that again. She wanted his firm body on top of hers, wanted the heat of his thrusts to fill her. Deni reached for the button of his jeans and slid it open.
Jace tightened his fingers on her wrist again. “Don’t play with fire.”
“I’m cold,” Deni said in a low voice. “Warm me up.”
Jace was struggling with coherence. “Ellison will be back soon, you said.”
She gave him a hot smile. “Then we should hurry.”
Deni unzipped his jeans. He hadn’t bothered with underwear this morning, she found as she dipped her hand inside. His cock, hard and hot, tumbled into her hand.
Jace let out a groan. He jerked Deni against him, his arm solidly behind her as she lightly stroked him. “Gods, woman.”
“You woke me up, Jace,” she said. “I want to thank you for that.”
“In the middle of last night, you mean?” His words were strained. “I was feeling payback from the fight. Tried to keep it quiet.”
“You know I don’t mean that.” Deni squeezed his cock until he let out another noise of pleasure.
” Jace tugged her hand from him but only to lift her into his arms, kissing her with a ferocity that tasted of fire.
The sofa was near. Jace tipped Deni back over its arm until they both fell onto its cushions, arms and legs bumping and tangling in each other’s. Deni laughed.
The laughter probably saved her, she thought later. Jace shook his head slightly as though clearing his mind, and his eyes took on a jade hue again. He slowed his kisses to something tender, lips soft on Deni’s. She ran her fingers through the short ends of his hair, liking the warm brush of it.
Jace unbuttoned her shorts, tugging them down and off with a contortion of bodies that had them laughing again. His jeans landed on the floor on top of the shorts, and then they were body to body. Deni took handfuls of his jacket, but before she could start to coax it off, Jace slid inside her.
All the way in. Last night had been wild and fast, a raw coupling at the edge of a parking lot. Now everything stopped. Jace looked into Deni’s eyes, the feral Shifter softening into a man, hard-faced but warm-eyed.
He filled her, his breath slowing as he lay on her, touching her face. The pressure of him inside her loosened her entire body, and Deni wrapped herself around him, drawing him in.
Jace closed his eyes, letting out another soft moan. He kissed her mouth, giving a nip to the corner of it.
After a moment, he opened his eyes again and started to move. Slow thrusts, intensity building as each one completed. Jace held her gaze, his eyes a dark green now. The frenzied animal had calmed. Now it was just Deni and Jace.
Deni arched under him, Jace’s thrusts coming faster. Her back pressed into the sofa’s soft foam cushions, all the way down to the springs. She held him close, laughing into his hair as the springs started to squeak.
“Goddess, you are beautiful,” Jace whispered, feathering kisses over her face. “I came here to find you; I know I did.”
He’d been to this Shiftertown before, but Deni knew what he meant. They’d been ready to meet last night.
The soft fleece of Jace’s jacket felt good to Deni’s hands, the zipper rough against her palms. As he kissed her, she could again see where one link of his Collar and part of another had been taken off, his skin angry red beneath.
He’d been ready to kill Dylan on the porch, and the police when they’d knocked on the door. The loosening Collar was letting out his feral instincts, she guessed. Liam had explained to her when she’d first considered trying to take her Collar off that such a thing might happen. But for now, Jace gentled himself, loving her without madness.
He kept thrusting, and Deni moved under him, meeting those thrusts. His jacket held his heat, and she slid her hands into it, finding his hard back beneath. Jace’s honed body was sleek under her touch, the lithe dance of his muscles exciting.
They were both breathing hard, uttering little groans, holding on to each other when heavy footsteps sounded on the other side of the couch.
A pair of brawny fists jammed to the back of the sofa, and Deni looked up in time to see Ellison spin away in half disgust, half irritation. “Are you kidding me?” Ellison growled.
Jace said, “Shit,” and the feral whiteness returned to his eyes. He was up off the sofa, his jacket falling, but it wasn’t long enough to hide his privates. Deni saw his cock, still dark and hard from what they’d been doing, black hair crisp at its base.
Deni knew Dylan was upstairs, away from their basement sanctuary, of course. Ellison kept his back squarely turned. That back was quivering, but Deni couldn’t tell whether from rage or laughter. A little of both, probably.
“Goddess, Den, he’s a
,” Ellison said. He shook his head without turning around, the overhead light gleaming in his blond hair. “Both of you get your asses upstairs.
you’ve covered them.”
He gave one more shake of his head and started for the steps. His cowboy boots grated on the cement stairs, then he was gone.
Deni swallowed, tamping down her need to burst into hysterical laughter. “I guess he was faster than I thought he’d be.”
Jace didn’t smile. “He needs to respect you.”
Deni sat up, pushing her hair from her face. “He just caught you making the beast with two backs with his little sister. Give him a break.”
Jace growled again, then he reached down and helped Deni to her feet. As she came off the couch, he pulled her against him. “You all right?”
“Yes.” Deni truly was. She should be embarrassed at being caught by her brother—at being reckless like this. But she wasn’t. It seemed natural to be coupling with Jace. Shifters celebrated sex, because it meant life, cubs, continuance. She wouldn’t apologize for it.
“What about you?” Deni asked. Jace was shaking, but his hold on her was strong.
“I’ll be okay.” Jace took a long breath and pulled her into a tighter hug. His bare cock touched her abdomen. “I get it now—what you must go through when you start losing track of who you are. I shouldn’t have made light of it.”
Deni looked up at him in alarm. “Are you losing track of who you are?”
“Not quite.” Jace kissed her hair and rested his cheek on the top of her head. “But almost. You keep reminding me who I am, though, all right?”
* * *
“They’re looking for someone,” Dylan said when they emerged upstairs.
They spoke in the kitchen, where the windows were high, small, curtained, and looked out to the backyard. The wide windows of the bungalow’s living room were out of bounds.
Jace didn’t like human police roving Shiftertown, but right now, his body hummed from the nearness of Deni, and the remembered joy of being in her one more time.
He loved the sweetness of her scent, today coupled with fresh earth from her digging in the dirt. The taste of her filled him like heady wine. He was imprinted with her now, the feel of her soft thighs against his legs, the way she squeezed him when he pressed inside her.
“Jace?” Deni said.
She wasn’t trying to get his attention, he realized after a heartbeat. She was asking Dylan if Jace was the Shifter the police were looking for.
“They didn’t say,” Dylan answered. “I don’t even know if they’re looking for a Shifter. They had a tip-off, I got one of the officers to tell me, about the fight club. I told them there’s always rumors of a Shifter fight club, because humans find it titillating. Same as rumors of Shifter hookers.”
Shifter women never sold sex, never had. But Shifter women could be promiscuous, because Shifters didn’t find sex shameful. As long as a Shifter was unmated, they could have as many partners as they wanted. Not all liked to go roaming, but some Shifter women spread it around. Humans confused that with the sex trade; hence, the rumors.
“Tip-off from a human?” Ellison asked.
“They wouldn’t tell me that.” Dylan’s eyes glinted. “What Shifter would betray us?”
Ellison shrugged. “One pissed off for some reason. At other Shifters, or at you. Broderick springs to mind.”
“He sprang to my mind too. I’ll be having a talk with him.” Dylan’s Irish accent made the words sound casual, but Jace heard the steel behind them.
“If they’re going door-to-door, what about the workshop?” Jace asked.
Dylan shook his head. “They haven’t found it yet. Lie low here, and I’ll send for you when it’s clear. If it is.” Dylan looked Jace up and down. “We might want to stop the experiment anyway. It’s affecting you.”
“Agreed,” Deni said quickly.
Jace shook his head. “No, we’ll never get the Collars off by being afraid to have them off. I want to keep at it.” It was tempting to turn his back on the agony, and Sean with his soldering iron, and run for home, but learning all they could about the Collars was too important. Besides, Deni was here.
“We’ll see.” Dylan gave him another hard look. Jace knew his display on the porch had not won him any favors from Dylan, but Jace had definitely not liked Dylan touching Deni, even innocently.
“Why did you want me to meet you at the fight club?” Jace asked him. “I could have come to Shiftertown and waited for you.”
Dylan’s face shuttered. “For reasons that are no longer important. Don’t leave this house until I let you know it’s all right. Catch up on sleep or something.” Dylan glanced from Jace to Deni. “I mean real sleep.”
Jace didn’t bother to answer. Deni went pink, but only because Ellison was rolling his eyes.
* * *
Ellison agreed that Jace could stay downstairs until Dylan gave the all clear. Safer, he said, in case the cops tried to surprise them. Police had been known to walk right into Shifter houses, the rules about warrants being a little relaxed when Shifters were concerned.
Deni was glad Ellison shared her worry for Jace, though Ellison was a bit grumpy about it. Finding Jace and Deni in flagrante hadn’t been the highlight of his day, he said.
“It’s not like I’ve never come home to you and Maria in the living room,” Deni reminded him.
Ellison gave her an innocent look. “That’s different.”
“My ass,” Deni said, sending him a smile.
“I know it was, and I don’t want to see it again,” Ellison said. “Or Jace’s. Yetch.”
At least he was teasing now, even if he was annoyed.
When Will and Jackson returned home—Jackson worked for a moving company and Will at a warehouse; humans liked Shifter strength—Ellison apprised them of the situation. Maria, now growing plump with Ellison’s first cub, was home by that time too. She was taking classes at a community college in preparation for entering the university next year and spent the rest of her day taking care of Shifter cubs. Maria had lost the haunted look she’d worn since she’d been rescued, and Ellison had lost his look of deep loneliness. Now if Deni could just lose hers.
They played video games in the basement, Jace proving to be very good at them. Will, who was turning out to be a computer genius, had a hard time keeping up with him.
Deni worried that the games might start drawing out Jace’s feral anger, but they didn’t. Maybe knowing it wasn’t real, only pixels on a screen, made a difference. Deni was never upset by the games either. But then, games had no scent, no texture. Shifters were more stimulated by things that assaulted all the senses at once.
By the time Will and Jackson went to bed, they’d expressed more respect for Jace. He might be twenty years older, but his knowledge of games and computer programming helped him rise in their estimation.
Before Deni could start arguing with Ellison that she wanted to stay downstairs and sleep with Jace, Sean arrived at the back door to tell them the police had gone, had been for several hours.
“But we wanted to wait until we were certain,” Sean said, lounging against the kitchen doorframe, his sword gleaming under the porch light. “Didn’t want them doubling back and saying
.” He glanced at Jace, who stood behind Ellison, Jace conceding Ellison’s place to guard the house. “You ready for more torture, lad?”
“You’re not going to do more tonight, are you?” Deni asked sharply. “Leave Jace alone. He needs to rest.”
“Liam wants to continue under cover of darkness,” Sean said. “We’ll leave sleeping for the day. Felines are mostly nocturnal anyway, lass.”
“It’s all right,” Jace said. “I want to finish this.” He looked less crazed—maybe gaming did have a good effect on the mind. “Liam’s waiting there?”
“Liam’s at the bar, as usual, in case whoever is calling in tip-offs reports any out-of-the-ordinary activity. Me and Dad will be working on you tonight. Plus a little extra help.” Sean looked at Ellison. “Liam says you and Maria are to go to the bar. Laugh it up, talk to your friends, have fun. You too, Deni.”
“Nope.” Deni took a step closer to Jace. “I’m going with him. You Morrisseys are too eager to dig knives into him. Someone needs to be there who’s on his side.”
Sean lifted both hands and didn’t argue. Of the two Morrissey brothers—much alike with their dark hair and blue eyes—Sean was the more easygoing. If Deni wanted to throw her lot in with Jace, Sean was saying, who was he to stop her?
Ellison wasn’t happy to let Deni go to the workshop, but Maria took Deni’s side, saying she wouldn’t let Ellison go alone if she had to make the same kind of choice. The ladies prevailed, to Deni’s satisfaction.
They left the house together, Ellison and Maria breaking away to walk to the bar, Ellison’s arm firmly around Maria’s waist. Sean and Deni put Jace between them, with Jace walking in the hunched manner he’d been taking on, the hood of his jacket up to hide most of his face.