Authors: Jennifer Ashley
This was the wrong time and place for a mate-claim. He wanted it to be special, right, with his family present, and hers as well. They were from two different Shiftertowns, which would be a problem, but they could work it out somehow.
After they figured out this stupid Collar situation, Jace would get official permission to visit and mate-claim Deni. Deni could always turn him down, her choice, but Jace would take some time to persuade her.
He was busy thinking of fun ways to do the persuading when the workshop door slammed open to admit Connor Morrissey, agitated and out of breath.
“They’re back,” Connor said. “The cops. Liam says to shut down the workshop, and for the Goddess’s sake, hide Jace.”
Another thing Shifters could do, if Fionn was so interested, was galvanize themselves to move swiftly when need be. Dylan and Sean slid Collars and tools into hiding places with the smoothness of long practice, quickly placing the half-finished woodworking projects on the tables, scattering about tools and used sandpaper as though a woodworker had absently thrown them down.
Sean and Andrea departed without much of a good-bye, heading to wherever they’d prefer to be found. Deni helped Jace up from the floor, her touch the only thing keeping him from rushing out the door to confront the cops and keep them away from her.
“Where are they, Connor?” Deni was asking. “I need to get Jace back to my house.”
Connor shook his head. “No time. Too many cops between here and there.”
“I can hide the Shifter,” Fionn said. He was the calmest of all, as though the situation was one more interesting tidbit in his observation of humans and Shifters. “I don’t want humans to find me either.”
“Hide me how?” Jace asked, every nerve a line of fire. “I don’t trust Fae.”
“Very wise of you,” Fionn said. “Fae are treacherous bastards, every single one of us. I should know. Come with me now, or end up in a cage to be poked at by humans. Your choice.”
“Go.” Deni kissed his cheek. “Dylan will take care of me.”
Dylan, the powerful alpha Feline who liked to hug Deni. Jace would rather cave in Dylan’s face and pull Deni with him to wherever the Fae was taking him. But putting Deni under the Fae’s power wasn’t what he wanted either. Jace hugged his arms over his chest, his instincts tearing through him, warring with his common sense. It was hell going feral.
Fionn said. He didn’t touch Jace, as though he knew Jace would attack him if he did, but his voice galvanized. Jace could well believe this man was a general.
Jace caught Deni around the waist. Her gray eyes were large, filled with fear, but behind the fear, Jace saw her mating frenzy answering his. He kissed her, savoring the taste of her warm lips, then he cupped her cheek, pulled on his jacket again, and followed Fionn into the night.
* * *
“And you are?” the female police officer asked Deni. The woman wore a bulletproof vest and a riot helmet and carried two pistols, while her male counterpart had a pistol and a tranq rifle. They’d come prepared to do battle against Shifters if need be. They found most Shifters peacefully cooking out, as Sean was doing behind Liam’s house.
“Deni Rowe.” Deni handed the female cop her ID card, which each Shifter had to update every year. “Same as last time,” she couldn’t help adding. Both these officers had been in the group that had come to Deni’s and Ellison’s house.
“Hmm.” The female officer peered at Deni’s ID, shining a black light on it, pretending she wasn’t nervous. Dylan stood behind Deni, not wanting her to face the cops alone. Dylan said nothing and didn’t try to interfere, but Dylan could unnerve most humans—not to mention most Shifters—simply by standing there. Both the male and female officer were sweating under his scrutiny.
“Seems okay.” The female officer handed the card back to Deni. “Nice bracelet,” she said, glancing at the gold chain on Deni’s wrist.
“It was my mother’s,” Deni said. She tucked the ID into the back pocket of her shorts.
“Looks expensive.” Shifters weren’t allowed to wear costly jewelry, and shouldn’t be able to afford to buy it.
“Handed down through the family,” Deni answered. “I have photos of my mother and my grandmother wearing it, if you want to see them.”
“Hmm.” Another skeptical sound. “Where’s the other guy? The one I saw you with before?”
Deni prayed these two weren’t good at reading body language as she answered nonchalantly, “Ellison? He’s my brother. He’s at the bar with his mate.”
“I mean the other one. The drunk one you were with at the . . . ceremony.”
“I don’t know,” Deni said. She took a step back to Dylan, putting herself into the radius of his warmth. “I’m with Dylan tonight.”
Deni smiled at the female cop, as though willing her to understand. If humans liked to believe Shifter women were promiscuous, Deni would use it to her advantage. The female officer’s look turned to disgust, but Deni didn’t care what this woman thought of her as long as Jace was safe.
Both cops looked Dylan and Deni over and exchanged knowing smirks. They’d seen Dylan with Glory at the fight club. They must think Shiftertown was one big sex fest.
Dylan put his arm around Deni and dared them to say anything. The cops all but snickered as they moved off toward another set of Shifters walking on the dark street.
“Sorry,” Deni said in a low voice to Dylan.
Dylan squeezed her shoulder. “You’re good at thinking on your feet. Nothing to be sorry about.” Another squeeze of reassurance, then he let her go. “But let’s don’t mention this to Glory.”
Deni smiled. “No fear.”
“She would understand eventually, but it’s the ‘eventually’ that would be uncomfortable.” Dylan sent her one of his rare smiles. “Let’s go have some barbeque.”
They had to, to keep up the verisimilitude. Deni only hoped Jace was safe, and that the half-crazed wolf inside her wouldn’t make her break away from Dylan and race around Shiftertown until she could find and protect him again.
* * *
“So this is Faerie?” Jace wrinkled his nose at the smell. “I don’t like it.”
“As my daughter would say . . . Suck it up.”
Shifters had left Faerie forever seven hundred years ago, not that they’d ever embraced it as home. Though they’d been created here, Shifters had cultivated a healthy loathing of the place.
Jace had followed Fionn to a grove of trees between the backyards of Shifter houses. In the glow of the few streetlights, he’d seen police officers walking from house to house, and patrol cars and vans creeping along the streets.
The darkness in the grove of trees had been deep, inky. A mist rose from nowhere in the middle of the ring of trees, one that smelled acrid to Jace. A tingling had begun in Jace’s brain that had him snarling, his claws coming out, before Fionn had grabbed him and shoved him into the middle of the mist.
Jace had blinked, the tingling dying, and found himself in another ring of trees, these old, towering, and damp. His boots squished in mud covered with gray green weeds and dead leaves. The thick trees ran as far as Jace could see, the land wet, dank, and muddy.
“Boring,” Jace said. “No wonder my ancestors chose to live in the human world.”
Fionn made an impatient noise. “This is only one tiny corner of one woods in Faerie. I live miles from here in a valley that would put anything found in your world to shame. Mountains reaching to the skies, snowcaps burnished by the sun, meadows of grass so green it makes you weep, and packed with wildflowers in every color. My garden is designed to run right into the meadows, so it’s as though I step into paradise every time I walk out my door. My manor house has marble floors, and walls veined with Fae gold, which humans have never seen—and never will. Fae gold is rare even for the Fae. Humans would kill each other—and Fae—over it.”
“Walls veined with gold,” Jace said. “No overkill there.”
Fionn started walking into the trees, ignoring him. “When I come to this area, however, I live rough in a tent. This way.”
“Wait a minute.” Jace jogged to catch up with him. The Fae-man was
. “How do you know where the gateway, or whatever that was, is? All these trees look alike—and smell alike—to me.”
Fionn didn’t look back. “Then you’d better stick with me, hadn’t you?”
Great. “How do I know you’re not leading me to Fae warriors with big swords who’d love a Shifter snow leopard head decorating their fireplace?”
“You don’t,” Fionn said. “You have to trust me.”
“Thanks. I feel so much better.”
It was then that Jace noticed he
feel better. The feral restlessness had eased from him, the pain of his Collar lessening. When he put his hand to his neck, he still felt the soreness—did he ever—but the certainty he’d drop dead any second had gone.
Fionn led him around three gigantic trees growing close together and stopped in front of a pavilion.
Fionn had called it.
Ballroom-sized living space
, Jace would term it instead.
He followed Fionn inside, though his Shifter instincts did not want him to. The interior of the pavilion was as lavish as the exterior. It had been divided into rooms by tapestries hung from solid rods, and carpeted with rugs that looked as though they were made of woven silk. Low couches, chairs, and tables were scattered everywhere, and a large brazier burned with a fire that cut the damp.
living rough?” Jace asked, turning in a circle. Everywhere he saw light, color, and shimmering texture.
“You’ve been living in human rejects too long. This is what you could have in Faerie, and much better than this.”
“Not as a Shifter slave I couldn’t,” Jace pointed out.
“Possibly not. Though I don’t keep slaves. Any Shifters who lived in my realm would be free to come and go as they pleased.”
A fair-minded Fae? “Good to know,” Jace said.
“I can’t speak for other Fae, though,” Fionn said. “So if you went outside my territory, yes, you’d probably end up a slave or a mantelpiece decoration.”
“You’re so comforting.”
“Wine?” Fionn poured a golden, smoothly trickling liquid into a cup. “Best I can get out here. The good stuff doesn’t transport well.”
Never drink anything offered by a Fae.
The old tales about Fae, passed down by Shifters, rang in Jace’s head. His dad used to tell him the stories, as had Aunt Cass. Jace said nothing, but couldn’t stop himself from taking a step back.
Fionn laughed. “You’re superstitious. But probably wise. I know Fae who try to drug, poison, or spell everyone they meet. You’re lucky I’m not interested. If I want someone under my thrall, I’ll take over their territory and let them choose between following me or being put to the sword.”
“What a nice guy,” Jace said dryly. Fionn held out the cup, but Jace shook his head. Even if Fionn proved to be trustworthy, Jace couldn’t be certain what Fae wine would do to his system, especially as traumatized as it had been lately. Fionn shrugged, lifted the wine cup to his lips, and drained its contents.
Jace looked around the lush living quarters, again reflecting that he felt much better. He was afraid to pursue why. If living in Faerie was the only way to stop Shifters who had their Collars removed from going feral, he’d rather take his chances being feral.
“So tell me,” Jace said, as Fionn poured himself more wine. “If this is more or less the armpit of Faerie, why do you come out here?”
Fionn lowered his cup. When he spoke, his voice was softer. “To be near my daughter.”
Fionn raised his brows and drank deeply again. “Yes, I am that maudlin. But I had to give up Andrea for more than forty years. I want to spend as much time with her as I possibly can. And my grandson.”
“I get that.”
The hard-faced warrior suddenly looked much older and more vulnerable. “That’s why I conquered this part of Faerie. So I could see her without anyone being the wiser. I’m alone now, but Andrea makes life worth living.”
“You old softie,” Jace said, grinning.
“I am. I admit it without shame. Make yourself comfortable, Shifter. This might take some time. Dylan will send word when the way is safe.”
* * *
Deni didn’t want to eat, but she managed to choke down a burger Sean prepared for her, made with sautéed mushrooms and Havarti cheese, which Deni loved. Mouthwatering goodness, but tonight, Deni had no appetite.
The police still roamed Shiftertown. They’d interrogated the Shifters in Liam’s yard—including Deni, again—and now they wandered the blocks.
Deni noticed that they’d left the cubs who’d gathered at Liam’s alone. A large number of cubs had found their way here, sent by their parents for safety, and now they sat on the porch and its steps, devouring Sean’s burgers. Spike’s cub, Jordan; Olaf the polar bear; the older bear girl named Cherie; Liam and Kim’s little girl, sitting on Kim’s lap; and others from around the town. Andrea carried her son and helped Kim look after the kids, but mostly the cubs had been sent here because of Tiger.
The police hadn’t talked to Tiger much, leaving him and Tiger’s mate, Carly, pretty much alone. They hadn’t gone near the cubs at all, because Tiger had positioned himself between the police officers and the cubs on the porch. The officers, after taking one look at Tiger, had seemed to tacitly agree to stop even looking at the kids.
The cops might have the badges, armor, guns, and authority, Deni reflected, but in this corner of Shiftertown, Tiger had the power. The police seemed to know it, just as small animals knew they were prey for the cat that strolled by, even if the cat wasn’t attacking. They’d feel better once the cat was gone, and they could duck inside their holes again for safety.
Even after the police finally left the yard, Tiger remained on guard. The huge man with black and orange hair unnerved even the Shifters. The only adult truly comfortable with him was Carly, a Texas girl with honey brown hair who wrapped her hands around Tiger’s big arm and smiled up at him. She was just beginning to show her pregnancy, and the look Tiger gave her warmed Deni’s heart. Those two had found love. Knowing what Tiger and Carly had gone through, Deni felt a lick of hope that she too could find happiness—even with the Feline Shifter who was right now hiding out in Faerie, and who couldn’t legally be in her Shiftertown.
“He’ll have to go,” Dylan said to Sean not two feet away from Deni.
Deni turned to them, not bothering to pretend not to listen. If they hadn’t wanted her to hear, Dylan wouldn’t have said anything while she was standing so close.
Sean, turning burgers with tongs, nodded. “We’ll have to try again later.”
They were going to send Jace home, while he was half-crazed with the partially removed Collar, and wait for who knew how long. She opened her mouth to argue, but Dylan shook his head.