Andrea Gray had just set the beer bottle in front of her customer when the first of the shots rocketed through the open front door. The bar just outside of the Austin Shiftertown had no windows, but the front door always stood wide open, and now a cascade of gunfire poured through the welcoming entrance.
The next thing Andrea knew, she was on the floor with two hundred and fifty pounds of solid Shifter muscle on top of her. She knew exactly who pinned her, knew the shape and feel of the long body pressing her back and thighs, trapping her with male strength. She struggled but couldn’t budge him. Damned Feline.
“Get off me, Sean Morrissey.”
His voice with its Irish lilt trickled into her ear, swirling heat into her belly. “You stay down when the bullets fly, love.”
A ferocious roar sounded as Ronan the bouncer ran past, heading outside in his Kodiak bear form. Andrea heard more shots and then the bear’s bellow of pain. Bullets splintered the bottles above the bar with a musical sound, and colorful glass and fragrant alcohol rained to the floor. Another roar, this one of a lion, vibrated the air, and the hail of bullets suddenly ceased. Tires squealed as an engine revved before the sound died off into the distance.
Stunned silence followed, then whimpers, moans, and the angry voice of Andrea’s aunt Glory. “Bastards. Human lickbrain assholes.”
Shifters started rising, talking, cursing.
“You can get off me now, Sean,” Andrea said.
Sean lingered, his warm weight pouring sensations into Andrea’s brain—strength, virility, protectiveness—you’re safe with me, love, and you always will be. Finally he rose to his feet and pulled her up with him; six-feet-five of enigmatic Shifter male, the black-haired, blue-eyed, Collared Feline to whom Andrea owed her freedom.
Sean didn’t step away from her, staying right inside her personal space so that the heat of his body surrounded her. “Anyone hurt?” he called. “Everyone all right?”
His voice was strong, but Andrea sensed his worry that he’d have to act as Guardian tonight, which meant driving his sword through the heart of his dying friends to send their bodies to dust and their souls to the afterlife. The Sword of the Guardian leaned against the wall in the back office, where Sean stashed it any night he spent in the bar. Since Andrea had come to work there, he’d spent most nights in the bar, watching her.
She’d also seen in the two weeks she’d lived next door to Sean Morrissey that he hated the thought of using the sword. His primary job was to be called in when there was no longer any hope, and that fact put a dark edge to his entire life. Not many people saw this, but Andrea had noticed.
Andrea was close enough now to Sean to sense his muscles relax as people assured him they were all right. Shifters climbed slowly to their feet, shaken, but there was no one dead or wounded. They’d been lucky.
The floor was littered with glass and splintered wood, the smell of spilled alcohol sharp, and bullet holes riddled the dark walls. Half the bottles and glasses behind the bar had been destroyed, and the human bartender crawled shakily out from under a table.
A wildcat zoomed in through the front door and stopped by a clump of humans not yet brave enough to get up. Feline Shifters were a cross between breeds: lion, leopard, tiger, jaguar, cheetah—bred centuries ago from the best of each. The Morrissey family had a lot of lion in it, and this wildcat had heavily muscled shoulders, a tawny body, and a black mane. It rose on its hind legs, its head nearly touching the ceiling, before it shifted into the tall form of Liam Morrissey, Sean’s older brother.
The human males at his feet looked up in terror. But what did the idiots expect if they hung out in a Shifter bar? Shifter groupies baffled Andrea. They wore imitation Collars and pretended to adore all things Shifter, but whenever Shifters behaved like Shifters, they cringed in fear. Go home, children.
“Sean,” Liam said over the crowd, eyes holding questions.
“No one in here got hit. How’s Ronan?”
“He’ll live.” The anger on Liam’s face mirrored Sean’s own. “Humans, a carload of them.” Again, he didn’t say.
“Cowards,” Glory spat. Eyes white with rage, the platinum blonde helped another Shifter woman to her feet. The Collar around Glory’s neck, which she wore like a fashion accessory to her body-hugging gold lamé, emitted half a dozen sparks. “Let me go after them.”
“Easy.” Liam’s voice held such calm authority that Glory backed off in spite of herself, and her Collar went silent. Liam’s Collar didn’t spark at all, although Andrea felt the waves of anger from him.
One of the Shifter groupies raised his hands. “Hey, man, it had nothing to do with us.”
Liam forced a smile, stuffing himself back into his ostensible role as bar manager. “I know that, lad,” he said. “I’m sorry for your trouble. You come back in tomorrow, why don’t you? The first round’s on me.”
His Irish lilt was pronounced, Liam the Shiftertown leader at his most charming, but the humans didn’t look comforted. Liam was stark naked, except for his Collar—a large, muscular male, gleaming with sweat, who could kill the men at his feet in one blow if he wanted to. As much as they pretended to want the thrill of that danger, Shifter groupies didn’t like it when the danger was real.
Ronan staggered back in, no longer in his bear form. Ronan was even bigger than Liam and Sean, nearly seven feet tall, broad of shoulder and chest and tight with muscle. His face was sheet white, his shoulder torn and covered with blood.
Andrea shook off Sean’s protective hold and went to him. “Damn it, Ronan, what were you doing?”
“My job.” The amount of blood flowing down his torso would have had a human on the floor in shock. Ronan merely looked embarrassed.
Sean got to the man’s other side. “In the back, lad. Now.”
“I’m fine. It’s just a bullet. My own fault.”
“Shut it.” Sean and Andrea towed the bigger man to a door marked “Private,” and Sean more or less shoved him into the office beyond.
The office was ordinary—cluttered desk, a couple of chairs, a storage cabinet, shabby sofa, and a small safe in the wall that only the bar’s human owner was supposed to know the combination to. Andrea knew good and well that Liam and Sean knew it too.
The Sword of the Guardian leaned against the wall like an upright cross, and threads of its Fae magic floated to Andrea from across the room. Andrea had no idea whether pure Shifters could sense the sword’s magic as she, a half-Fae, half-Lupine Shifter could, but she did know that the Shifters in this Shiftertown regarded the sword, and Sean, with uncomfortable awe.
Sean pushed Ronan at a chair. “Sit.”
Ronan dropped obediently, and the flimsy chair creaked under his weight. Ronan was an Ursine—a bear Shifter—large and hard-muscled, his short but shaggy black hair always looking uncombed. He didn’t have an ounce of fat on him. Andrea wasn’t used to Ursines, having never met one before moving to Austin. Only Lupines had lived in her Shiftertown near Colorado Springs. But Ronan had proved to be such a sweetheart he’d quickly overcome her uneasiness.
“I can’t stay in here,” Ronan protested. “What if they come back?”
“You’re not going anywhere, my friend, until we get that bullet out of you.” Sean snatched a blanket from the sagging sofa and dropped it over Ronan’s lap. Shifters weren’t modest as a rule, but maybe Sean thought he needed to protect Andrea from a bear in his naked glory. Ronan, admittedly was . . . super-sized.
“I thought I’d be away from the door maybe a minute.” Ronan’s deep black eyes filled. “What if someone had gotten hurt? Or killed? It would have been because of me.”
“No one got hurt but you, you big softie.” Sean’s voice took on that gentle note that made Andrea shiver deep inside herself. “You frightened away the bad guys before anything worse could happen.”
“If I’d been at my post, I would have blocked the door, and none of the bullets would have gotten inside.”
“And then you’d look like a cheese grater,” Sean said. “And be dust at the end of my sword. I like you, Ronan. I don’t want that.”
Andrea set down the first-aid kit she’d fetched from the cabinet and perched on the edge of the desk, her hand on Ronan’s unhurt shoulder. “I don’t want that either.”
Ronan relaxed a little under her touch—he needed touch, reassurance, all Shifters did, especially when injured or frightened. Andrea wanted to give Ronan a full hug, but she feared hurting him. She kneaded his back instead, trying to put as much comfort as she could into the caress.
Ronan grinned weakly at her. “Hey, you’re not so bad yourself, for a Fae.”
Anyone else mentioning her Fae blood made Andrea’s anger rise, but with Ronan it had turned into friendly teasing. Ronan squeezed her fingers in his pawlike hand.
“This is going to hurt like hell, big guy,” Sean said. “So just remind yourself who you’ll have to answer to if you turn bear on me and take my head off.”
“Aw, I’d never hurt you, Sean. Even if I didn’t know Liam would rip my guts out if I did.”
“Good lad. Remember now. Andrea, hold the gauze just like that.”
Andrea positioned the wad of sterile gauze under the ragged hole in Ronan’s shoulder as Sean directed. Sean sprayed some antibacterial around the wound, reached in with the big tweezers he’d dipped in alcohol, and yanked the bullet from Ronan’s flesh.
Ronan threw his head back and roared. His face distorted, his mouth and nose lengthening to a muzzle filled with sharp teeth. Blood burst from the wound and coated first the gauze, then the clean towel Sean jammed over it. Ronan’s hands extended to razorlike claws, which closed on Sean’s wrist.
Sean pressed the towel in place, unworried. “Easy now.”
Ronan withdrew his hand, but not before a blue snake of electricity arced around his Collar, biting into his neck. He howled in pain.
Damn it. Andrea leapt to her feet, unable to stand it any longer. She batted the surprised Sean’s hands aside and pressed her palm directly to the wound. Folding herself against Ronan, she held her hand flat to his chest.
The threads of healing spiraled in her mind, diving through her fingers into Ronan’s skin, swirling until she closed her eyes to fight dizziness. She sensed the threads of Fae magic from the sword across the room drifting toward her, as though drawn by her healing touch.
Ronan’s skin knit beneath her fingers, tightening and drying, slowly becoming whole again. After a few minutes, Andrea opened her eyes. Ronan’s breath came fast, but it was healthy breathing, and the blood around the wound had dried.
Andrea drew her hand away. Ronan probed his injury, staring at it in amazement. “What the hell did you do to me, Andy-girl?”
“Nothing,” Andrea said in a light voice as she stood up. “We stopped the blood, and you heal fast, you big strong Ursine, you.”
Ronan looked from Sean to Andrea. Sean shrugged and gave him a small smile, as though he knew what was going on, but Andrea saw the hard flicker in Sean’s eyes. Oh, goody, she’d pissed him off.
Ronan gave up. He stretched and worked his shoulder. “Slap a bandage on me, Sean,” he said in his usual strong voice. “I need to find my clothes.”
Sean silently pressed a fresh wad of gauze to the wound, secured it with sterile tape, and let him go. Ronan kissed the top of Andrea’s head, clapped Sean on the shoulders, and banged out of the office, his energy restored.
Andrea busied herself putting things back into the first-aid kit. Sean said absolutely nothing, but when she turned from tucking the kit back into the cabinet, she found him right behind her, again invading her personal space.
It was difficult to breathe while he stood over her, smelling of the night and Guinness and male musk. She had no idea what to make of Sean Morrissey, the Shifter who had mate-claimed her, sight unseen, when she’d needed to relocate to this Shiftertown.
A mate-claim simply meant that a male had marked a female as a potential mate—the couple wouldn’t be officially mated until they were blessed under sun and moon by the male’s clan leader. All other males had to back off unless the female chose to reject the male’s mate-claim.
When Andrea had wanted to move to Austin to live with Glory, her mother’s sister, Glory’s pack leader had refused to let Andrea in unless she was mate-claimed. The pack leader had the right to disallow any unmated female to enter his pack if he thought that the female would cause dissention or other trouble.
Andrea, a half-Fae, illegitimate Lupine, was considered trouble. When Andrea’s mother, Dina, had become pregnant by her Fae lover, Dina been forced from the pack. That same pack now didn’t want her half-Fae daughter back. But Andrea had needed to flee the Shiftertown in which she’d been living in Colorado, because a harassing asshole, the Shiftertown leader’s son, had tried to mate-claim Andrea for his own. He hadn’t taken her answer—no way in hell—very well.
Glory had turned to Liam, the Austin Shiftertown leader, as was her right, to appeal her pack leader’s decision to keep Andrea out. Apparently the arguments between Glory’s pack leader and Liam had been loud and heated. And then Sean had cut the arguments short by claiming Andrea for himself.
Why he’d done it, Andrea couldn’t figure out, even though Sean had explained that it had been to keep the peace between species in this Shiftertown. But if that was all it was—a formality to satisfy a stubborn pack leader—why did Sean watch Andrea like he did? He’d not been happy with Liam for hiring her as a waitress, and Sean made sure he was at the bar from open to close every night Andrea worked. Didn’t the big Feline have better things to do?
Sean was tall and blue-eyed, and he radiated warmth like a furnace. Andrea loved standing close to him—how crazy is that? I’m hot for an effing Feline. She’d thought that after what Jared, the harassing asshole, had done to her, she’d never have interest in males again, but Sean Morrissey made her breath catch. To her surprise, Sean’s mate-claim had awakened her instincts and made her come alive. She’d never thought she’d feel alive again.
“What?” she asked, when Sean made no sign of moving.
“Don’t play innocent with me, love. What did you just do to Ronan? I watched with my own eyes while that wound closed.”
Andrea had learned to be evasive about her gift for her own safety, but she somehow knew Sean wouldn’t let her. If she didn’t answer, he might try to pry it out of her, maybe by seizing her wrists and backing her against a wall, looking down at her with those blue, blue eyes. Well, a girl could hope.
She made herself turn her back on his intense gaze—not easy—and start straightening the shelves in the cabinet. “It’s something I inherited through my Fae side. Of course it’s through my Fae side. Where else would I have gotten it?”
“I didn’t notice you mentioning that you had healing magic when you arrived. I didn’t notice Glory mentioning it either.”
“Glory doesn’t know,” Andrea said without turning around. “I had a hard enough time convincing Glory’s pack to let me move in with her, not to mention the pair of Felines who run this Shiftertown. I figured, the less of my Fae part I revealed, the better.”
Sean turned her to face him. His eyes had gone white blue, an alpha not happy that a lesser Shifter hadn’t bared every inch of her soul to him. As much as Andrea’s gaze wanted to slide off to the left, she refused to look away. Sean might be an alpha, but she’d not be a pathetic submissive to his big, bad Feline dominance.
“Why keep such a thing to yourself?” Sean asked. “You could do a hell of a lot of good with a gift like that.”
Andrea slid out of Sean’s grip and walked away. First, because it proved she could; second, it got her away from his white-hot gaze.
“The gift isn’t that strong. It’s not like I can cure terminal diseases or anything. I can boost the immune system, heal wounds and abrasions, speed up the healing of broken bones. I couldn’t have magicked the bullet out of Ronan, for instance, but I could relieve his pain and jump-start his recovery.”
“And you don’t think this is something we should know about?”
When she looked at Sean again, his eyes had returned to that sinful, summer-lake blue, but his stance still said he could turn on her anytime he wanted. If Andrea hadn’t been intrigued by Sean the moment she’d laid eyes on him in the Austin bus station, the man would terrify her. Sean Morrissey was different from Liam, who was a charmer, in your face, laughing at the same time he made damn sure you did whatever it was he wanted. Sean was quieter, watching the world, waiting for something, she wasn’t certain what.
It had been one hell of a long ride from Colorado to central Texas, but Andrea had had to take the bus, because Shifters weren’t allowed on airplanes, nor were they allowed to drive cross-country. Glory had brought Sean with her when she’d picked up Andrea from the station. Tall, hard-bodied, and black-haired, Sean had been dressed in jeans and button-down shirt, motorcycle boots, and a leather jacket against the January cold. Andrea had assumed him to be Glory’s latest conquest until Glory introduced him. Sean had looked down at Andrea, his hard-ass, blue-eyed stare peeling away the layers she’d built between herself and the world.
She remembered thinking, I wonder if he’s black-haired all the way down?
Sean, being the alpha he was, had sensed her distress and exhaustion and pulled her into his arms, knowing she needed his touch. He’d smelled of leather, maleness, sweat, and cold February air, and Andrea had wanted to curl up in a little ball against him like a wounded cub. “You’re all right now,” Sean had murmured against her hair. “I’m here to look after you.”
Now Sean stood patiently, waiting for her explanation. The damn stubborn Feline would stand there all night until she gave him one.
“I wasn’t allowed to talk about it in Colorado,” Andrea said. “The Shiftertown leader gave my stepfather permission to let me use it, but they didn’t want me telling people how I healed them. I understand why. Everyone would have freaked if they thought I was using Fae magic on them.”
“That’s a point,” Sean conceded. “But we’re not as easily, as you say, freaked, around here. You should have told me, or Glory at least.”
Andrea put one hand on her hip. “My life as a half-breed illegitimate orphan hasn’t exactly been pleasant, you know. I’ve learned to keep things to myself.”
“And you thought we’d treat you the same, did you, love?”
Damn it, why did he insist on calling her love? And why did it sizzle fire all the way through her? This was crazy. He was a Feline. If Sean Morrissey knew little about her, Andrea knew still less about him.
“Well, you’re part of us now.” Sean came to her, again stepping into her space, a dominant male wanting to make her aware just what her place was. “You’re right that not all Shifters are comfortable with Fae magic, but my brother has to know about your healing gift, and my father. And Glory has a right too.”
“Fine,” Andrea said, as though it made no difference. “Tell them.” She moved to the door, again deliberately turning her back on him. Alphas didn’t like that. “We should go help clean up out there. Does the bar get shot up often? I should get hazardous duty pay.”
He was right behind her, his warmth like sunshine on her back. Andrea stopped with her hand on the doorknob. Sean rested his palm on the doorframe above her, his tall body hemming her in. She remembered the feel of him on top of her on the floor, the tactile memory strong.
“Glory says something’s been troubling you,” Sean said. “Troubling you bad. I want you to tell me about it.”
Andrea shivered. Damn Glory, damn Sean, and no, she didn’t want to talk about it.
“Not now. Can we go?”
“It’s my job to listen to troubles,” he said, breath hot in her ear. “Whether I’m your mate yet or not. And you will tell me yours.”
Andrea’s tongue felt loose, her pent-up emotions suddenly wanting to spill out to this man and his warm voice. She clamped her mouth shut, but Sean stunned her by saying, “Is it about the nightmares?”
She hadn’t told anyone about the nightmares, not Glory, not Sean, not anyone, though Glory might have heard her crying out in her sleep. The nightmares had started a week after she’d moved in with Glory, when they’d risen in her head like a many-tentacled monster. She didn’t know what they meant or why she was having them; she only knew they scared the hell out of her. “How do you know about my nightmares?”
“Because my bedroom window faces yours, love, and I have good hearing.”
The thought of Sean sitting in his bedroom, watching over her while she slept, made her shiver with warmth. “There’s nothing to tell. When I wake up, I can’t remember anything.” Except fear. She had no idea what the images that flashed through her head meant; she only knew they terrified her. “I really don’t want to talk about it right now,” she said. “All right?”
Sean ran a soothing hand down her arm, stirring more fires. “That’s all right, love. You let me know when you’re good and ready.”
From the feel of the very firm thing lodged against her backside, Sean was good and ready now. One part of him had definitely shifted.
Andrea deliberately leaned on the door and pressed back into him. A jolt of heat shot through her, the fear of the nightmares dissolving. After Jared, Andrea thought she’d be afraid of Sean, turned off, ready to run. Instead, Sean made her feel, for the first time in years . . . playful.
“So, tell me, Guardian,” she said, lowering her voice to a purr. “Is that where you carry your sword, or are you just happy to see me?”