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Authors: Shelly Laurenston

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BOOK: Big Bad Beast
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“All right. All right.” Hutton cut in, waving her hand dismissively. “I get your point. God, you’re such a drama wolf.”
“But now that Katzenhaft is involved,” Matilda Llewellyn suddenly volunteered, “perhaps they can take the lead—and the financial hit.” Matilda was one of those ancient shifters who just wouldn’t die. She-lions had a tendency to live a long time anyway and Matilda seemed to be ready to outlast everyone if she could manage it. Van was afraid that she could manage it quite nicely at the rate she was going.
“Katzenhaft is involved now?” Melinda Löwe sat up straight. “Katzenhaft doesn’t get involved in anything to do with hybrids.”
“Apparently their philosophy has changed—as has ours. And perhaps you should talk to your niece Victoria, since she runs KZS.”
Melinda, who’d known him for what felt like centuries, rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on, Van. This is KZS we’re talking about. Even the Prides don’t have control over them.”
“That’s probably why they get things done,” Clarice Dupris of the Dupris hyena Clan muttered loud enough for everyone to hear.
Seeing where this would quickly be heading, Van stood. “Meeting adjourned. Because I’m rather sick of all of you right now.”
With shrugs and eye rolls, the predators he was forced to work with for the good of his kind, got up and headed out for the lunch he had set up in one of his Pack’s restaurants on the top floor of this Chicago hotel. Really, Van would rather get to his jet and head home to his wife, kids, and kitchen, but he’d make it through lunch. That was the great thing about predators—little talking while they ate, and they all ate quickly. In another hour, he would be heading home.
Thinking about that, he motioned to his assistant and began to pull the papers together when Matilda made her slow way to his side with the help of a cane and one of her young great nieces.
“So young Niles,” she greeted, flashing those fangs that could no longer retract. That’s how old she was. It was like she was turning into a very large and lean cat full time. It was weird. Even for fellow shifters . . . it was weird. “How’s it going with that She-wolf? Egbert Smith’s daughter.”
“She’s working out well.” Matilda always had problems with the hiring of Eggie Smith and then Eggie Smith’s daughter. Van didn’t know why, nor did he care. What Matilda always failed to understand was that sometimes one needed killers when they were protecting more than a few dollars in the bank or some jewels in a safe. And Eggie and Dee-Ann Smith were both born killers.
“Best watch her, though,” Matilda warned, slowly moving around him, and heading toward the door. “Just like her father, she kills for fun.”
Van’s assistant stood next to him and noted, “You didn’t really argue that point with her, did you?”
“There’s no point in arguing the truth.”
C
HAPTER
5
 
R
ic walked into his apartment, placing his hockey bag right by the closet. Yawning, he headed down the hallway toward his kitchen, but stopped when he saw light coming from his office. Without thought, he pulled out the .45 he kept holstered to the back of his jeans more and more these days. Checking corners as he went, Ric made his way to his office, but stopped right inside the doorway.
“Dee-Ann.”
“You gonna shoot me, supermodel?”
“If you keep calling me supermodel.” He put the safety back on his weapon and pushed it back into the holster. “What are you doing here?”
“Needed some information and knew your computer was linked in to the Group’s database.”
“True. Of course, you can also access the Group’s database by using one of the PCs at the Group office. As opposed to illegally breaking into my apartment, I mean.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” She pointed at his TV. “Plus you have a plasma flat screen and a real comfy office chair. Ergonomic and all that.”
Ric walked over to the desk and yelled, “What I’m trying to say, Dee-Ann, is that you can’t just keep coming in and out of my apartment whenever you like!”
Startled, Dee gawked up at him, which was when he added with a smile, “Unless you’re naked.”
She rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Like a wolf with a bone.”
“Don’t I deserve to get a little something out of it if you’re going to come and go as you like?”
“You get the blessing of my company.”
Ric resumed his trip to the kitchen. “I’ll make your blessing something to eat.”
“You don’t always have to feed me, Van Holtz.”
“If I don’t, who will?”
Tonight all Dee got were ham-and-cheese sandwiches with some tomato soup. That is, the sandwich was freshly carved Black Forest ham with some fancy French cheese with a name she couldn’t pronounce, seasoned with cracked black pepper on fresh baguettes, and toasted in the oven. The soup was made from scratch with tomatoes he grew in the hot house he’d had built into part of his big penthouse apartment so he could have fresh vegetables and herbs for his home cooking. She was surprised he didn’t have a cow in there somewhere for the milk he gave her. She wouldn’t put it past him.
“What were you looking for on my computer?” Ric asked her.
“We’re trying to track down the owners of the properties that have been used for fights in the past. They’ve all been empty locations, but each one has been owned. The list is long, so I took half and Desiree took the other.”
“What about Cella?”
“She’s not too good with the thinkin’. Must be all those hits to the head.”
“Dee-Ann . . .”
“What?”
“Make this work. Don’t push her out because you don’t like her.”
“That’s not what I’m doing. She admitted she’s not good with the computer stuff, so I took part of it and Desiree took the rest.”
“That works.”
“I know.”
“Not sure how the headlock in the cafeteria fits, though.”
“It was a mutual headlock and that Charlene’s a tattletale.”
“The lovely Charlene is my eyes and ears, so be nice to her.”
“Lovely, huh?” The wording bothered her—she told herself she didn’t know why—so she suggested, “Maybe you should take Charlene out sometime. It’s been ages since you’ve been on a date.”
“Dee-Ann, I work with Charlene. That would be grossly inappropriate.”
And he wasn’t joking. “How is
that
inappropriate but telling me to get naked isn’t?”
“First off, I don’t
tell
you to get naked. I suggest it in a completely nonthreatening and non-sexually harassing manner. And second, you and I are far beyond the boundaries of workplace etiquette that I normally abide by.”
“And why is that?”
“Because you constantly break into my apartment, wear loose-fitting clothing that simply begs for me to feed you so that they won’t be so loose all the time and, to be quite blunt, you’re damn cute.”
“Cute? I’m cute?”
“Damn cute.” He tapped the table with his forefinger. “
Damn
cute.”
“Charlene is lovely and I’m . . . cute?”
“Damn cute. You keep forgetting the damn part of it.”
Disgusted, Dee went back to her delicious sandwich. No wonder the man made such good food. It was the only reason she hadn’t chucked it at him.
“Almost every one of these properties is shifter owned.”
Dee leaned over his shoulder to get a better look at his computer screen and Ric worked not to bury his face in her neck and sniff. Something she’d already caught him doing more than once.
Honestly, how could the woman be so oblivious to the attraction between them? Or, at the very least, his attraction to her.
It had been ages since he’d been on a date? He knew that! Because he was waiting for her! What was the point of going on a date with a woman he knew would never be who he wanted? It wasn’t that he was a saint or anything, but Ric had never been one of those one-night stand guys. He never knew how to extricate himself from those situations the day after. It was a skill he simply lacked. Like his inability to golf well.
“Do you know any of these people?” Dee asked.
“Some of them. I’ve heard or know of others.”
“Can you get me some home addresses?”
“Why?”
She briefly chewed the inside of her lip. “No reason?”
“Is that a question or a statement?”
“Both?”
Ric turned his chair, facing her. “You can’t harass these people, Dee-Ann.”
“Harass? Who says I want to harass anyone? I’ll just ask a few questions.”
“Uh-huh.”
“What’s that look mean? What do you mean by that look?”
“That—and I’m only suggesting—that you let Cella and Dez handle interviews.”
Slowly, Dee stood up straight, her hands resting on her hips. “And why would you suggest that?”
“Let’s just say your strengths aren’t in that particular area.”
“I am damn good at interviews.”
“No. You’re good at interrogations. Interviews are not your strong suit.”
“Since when?”
“Since you made that six-year-old cry.”
Dee stamped her foot. “She was hiding something!”
“And she was
six
!”
He made her use the front door like some common guest, walking her to it, and handing her a paper bag with several slices of that angel food cake she loved from his restaurant.
“You still mad at me?” he asked.
“Probably.”
“The cake didn’t help?”
“Maybe a little.”
He leaned up against the doorway. “Don’t be mad at me, Dee.”
“You accused me of terrorizing children.”
“No. I accused you of being really good at your job, where little things like age or infirmity or the inability to count past ten without your mommy’s help don’t really stop you from getting the truth.”
“Man,” she griped. “You kick one walker out of an old sow’s hands and suddenly you’re all levels of evil.”
“Are you kidding? You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to the Group and to shifters. You’re a protector, and I can’t think of anything that means more to me or to the people you protect.”
Damn him! Damn him to hell and back!
Being all nice and well-spoken. Thank the Lord he was actually a good guy, because if he decided to become a serial killer, he could be worse than Ted Bundy! Luring girls in with his supermodel looks, sexy body, polite ways, and damn waffles!
“Are we okay?” he asked, and she hated him a little for making her want to ease his worry.
“Yeah. We’re okay.”
“Good. I’ll talk to you later.” Then he leaned in and kissed her cheek, taking Dee completely by surprise because he’d never done that before. He kissed his female friends all the time, like Teacup and Gwen, but Dee usually just got a little pat on the shoulder or back.
Before she did something weird like analyze what a kiss on the cheek from Ulrich Van Holtz meant, she simply walked away.
Once she was outside, she realized that she didn’t want to take the long trip home. Especially since the cabbies would never take her all the way to her apartment. God, when was the last time she’d been at her apartment anyway? It didn’t matter. She’d go stay with Rory. Maybe she’d get to toss another full-human female out on her ass. Much to her private shame, she enjoyed doing that sort of thing way too much.
C
HAPTER
6
 
“C
offee! Coffee! Coffee!
” Dez MacDermott barked until Cella Malone handed her the Starbucks cup.
Once she had several sips, she smiled at the taller female and said, “Thanks.”
“Are you like this every morning?”
“Not a morning person until I get the coffee.”
“Then maybe you should have coffee
before
you come to meet us.”
“I would have, but my fuck session with Mace this morning lasted longer than I thought it would, and then I had to shower, walk the dogs because Mace was all, ‘They’re not my dogs’ and I was all, ‘Fuck you, we’re married, they
are
your dogs’ and then I had to feed the baby and he was all fussy and clawing and then I had to feed Marcus, who was busy imitating his father by being all fussy and clawing.”
“Wow,” the She-tiger said. “You
really
needed that coffee. And kind of deserved it.”
“That’s my feeling.”
Dee-Ann walked up to them and now that Dez had her coffee, she greeted her with a cheery, “Hey, Dee-Ann!”
“Am I intimidating?”
Since Dez had bent back to nearly a U-shape because Dee was all up in her grill, Dez decided to lie. “Of course not.”
“It’s your freak eyes,” Cella told Dee-Ann while she buffed her dark-red painted nails and popped gum. Dee always wondered if that was a skill taught in all Long Island high schools. Like in Home Ec or something.
“My freak eyes?”
“Yeah. They’re freaky.”
“My eyes are not freaky. I got my daddy’s eyes.”
“Heard his eyes are freaky, too.”
Dez quickly stepped between the two females. Something Mace had made her promise not to do from the moment he’d heard about this new assignment.
“My eyes,” Dee-Ann said over Dez’s head, “are the same color as yours.”
“They are so
not
the same color as mine. My eyes are a beautiful, feline gold with a touch of green for mystery. Your eyes are a direct, blunt canine yellow.” She pointed to a pitbull tied up to a fire hydrant outside the café. “Like his.”
“You’re comparing me to a pitbull?”
“No. I find pitbulls sweet and cuddly and misused by man. You . . . not so much. Except maybe the misused part.”

Ladies
,” Dez cut in, desperate. “Can we please get to work?”
Dee-Ann held up several sheets of paper. “A list of fight locations that are owned by our own kind with addresses.”
“Great. I have a list, too,” Dez said, patting her backpack. “I had Mace take a look at them, see if he recognized anyone or had any juicy gossip.”
“Oooh,” Cella cheered, eyes gleaming. “Anything really good?”
“As a matter of fact, you will not believe what he told me about Lattie Harlow of the Harlow Pride out of Queens—”
“Work,” Dee-Ann pushed. “More work, less bullshit.”
Cella snapped her gum. “Fine, Working Dog.” She snatched the pages out of Dee-Ann’s hand. “Let’s get to work. Especially since I have an exhibition game tonight with the Carnivores.”
With one more snap and pop of her gum, Cella walked out.
“Don’t let her get to you, Dee-Ann.” Dez told Dee.
“I’m not. And maybe I can handle a couple of the interviews.”
“Or,” Dez hastily countered, “you can start off with basic questions.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’d like to hit public records before we see these people directly. See if there’s anything else there.”
“Okay, but what does that have to do with me—”
“If you can handle public servants, Dee-Ann, you can handle interviewing
anybody.
As a cop . . . I know this.”
Dee-Ann grunted in reply and walked out, and Dez went back to the counter and ordered herself two more cups of coffee. Because she knew this was going to be a really long day.
It was a busy, midweek lunch rush and Ric’s kitchen was one dropped pan away from being “in the weeds.” Thankfully, they’d managed to avoid that and keep the food going out as quickly as possible without any major errors that would have his head exploding and him ripping into one of his crew.
He slammed two plates down on the board. “Table ten up!” he called out and spun toward his oven, but stopped short when he scented one of his own through all those meats, herbs, blood, and other breeds.
Ric looked up, his eyes narrowing, fangs sliding from his gums. With one leap, he was over the kitchen island, ignoring his scrambling-away crew, and latching on to the arm of the wolf trying to slink in. He yanked him into the hallway and out the back door into the alley. With one shove, he sent the kid slamming into the opposite wall.
“What the hell are you doing here, Stein?”
Stein Van Holtz, one of Ric’s younger first cousins, winced and moved his shoulder around. “No need to be so pushy.”
“Out,” Ric ordered. “Or I’m sending my chief sommelier after you. She’s a sloth. She’ll beat you to death with one of the wine bottles.” Ric turned to walk back into his restaurant.
“Wait!”
Ric stopped, his hand on the alley door.
“Please.”
Ric glanced back at the kid. He didn’t look good. He was too lean, looked too old. He wasn’t getting enough food and his body was beginning to feed on itself.
“I know how you feel about me,” Stein said. “I know how all of you feel about me. And . . . and you’re right, too. I fucked up. I know.” He scratched his forehead, struggling to find the right words. “I just need you to give me one more chance, Ricky. I hate that I have to ask. I hate that I have to beg, but I need—”
“What?” Ric demanded, facing him. “Money? How much do you owe this time?”
Stein winced. “I don’t want money.” He stopped, shook his head. “That’s a lie. I do want money.”
“Of course.”
“But I want to work for it. I’m not asking for a handout.”
“You expect me to trust you in my kitchen again? After last time?”
“I have no excuse for what I did last time. I know that.” Stein looked down at his feet. He wore Keds. Worn ones that seemed to be holding on by a few threads. His T-shirt and jeans didn’t look much better, and the denim jacket would be too small for him if he were his proper weight. This definitely wasn’t the cocky con artist who had sold spare equipment and expensive cuts of meat and seafood out of the back of Ric’s kitchen for three months. Right under Ric’s nose, too. And, because of that, Ric had felt certain he’d lose his kitchen to one of his other relatives. Losing one’s kitchen was the worst thing that could happen to a Van Holtz wolf, but Uncle Van had stepped in and overruled Ric’s father.
A decision that, three years later, Alder had still not forgiven Van or Ric for. But dealing with Stein had been left up to Alder and he’d gone even farther with the twenty-year-old-kid—he’d forced him out of the Pack. And the kid had walked off without once looking back, his middle finger raised high in the air, heading right for Atlantic City, and based on the look of him, even more trouble.
Back then, Ric had wanted to stop Stein. He’d wanted to explain that a wolf needed his Pack, but Alder wasn’t having that either. Because once Alder made up his mind, that was, tragically, the end of it.
As for Ric, there were few things he would not forgive, but making him look bad in front of his father was incredibly high on the list. So he had no intention of forgiving Stein now or ever.
But still . . . the kid looked like hell. Ratty clothes, dirty hair, and he kept pressing his left forearm into his side.
Ric stepped forward and Stein immediately backed away, eyes down, head dipping low. If he were wolf, his tail would be tucked between his legs, and he’d be pissing himself. Definitely not the kid Ric had known.
Once Ric backed Stein up against the alley wall, he took hold of the kid’s T-shirt and lifted. Stein immediately pulled away from him, eyes still down, but Ric had seen enough.
Catching him by the neck, Ric dragged Stein back into his restaurant.
Dee-Ann circled around to the back of the Queens house. She kept low, and stayed down wind. She peeked around the corner, but saw no one in the backyard. She hated dealing with hyenas but it seemed the most logical place to start. At least one of the properties that had hosted a hybrid fight belonged to the Allan Clan, although they’d buried the fact that they owned that property under many layers. Why they would bury that information was what Dee wanted to know.
True, she could ask that question directly of the matriarch of the Allan Clan, but after what had happened earlier in the day it was decided that wouldn’t be a good idea.
“If we want them beaten up and terrorized, Smith, we’ll call you,” Malone had snapped at one point, after they’d left a cheetah sobbing in the middle of Public Records.
All right, so maybe Ric was right. Her strengths lay in other areas. At least she had a supervisor who understood that and appreciated the skills she did have.
The Allan Clan territory was a simple place. Nothing remotely fancy, although large enough for a Clan of its modest size. The backyard was spacious enough and had its own swing set. There was also a detached garage, locked. Dee got the lock open and eased inside. It seemed the Clan had a healthy taste for really nice cars, but still . . . nothing that suggested they were rolling in money covered in the blood of hybrids.
Not finding anything that she could yell out “a-ha!” over, she slipped outside, barely ducking in time to avoid the baseball bat aimed for her head.
Snarling, she looked up into the faces of two male hyenas. The one with the bat was pulling back for another swing, while the other one had a small blade, lashing out with it and slicing across Dee’s arm.
She felt the first trickle of blood slide down her forearm and, Dee would admit later, that’s when she got a little ornery.
Cella Malone sat across from the three hyena females in the Clan living room and tried to figure out how she’d gotten here. Not the physical place she was in at this moment, but more a philosophical question.
She had the full-human sitting next to her, reeking of lion—one of her least favorite scents—and a She-wolf, who’d always annoyed the fuck out of her, outside. And she had to work with them. Maybe her father had been right. Maybe she should have just focused on playing hockey. Or she could have joined the family business.
But Cella always believed in protecting her kind. It was a flaw that her parents blamed on Cella’s grandmother. She was another “helper,” and the one who’d suggested Cella should join KZS after her time in the Marines. Katzenhaft Security might sound like any old security company where you get big guys to cover the front door of your daughter’s sweet sixteen party, but it was much more than that. For hundreds of years, KZS had protected felines from all over the world. It was necessary, since most cats were solitary. They might live with their families, if they settled down like Cella’s parents did, but unless they had the power of a Pride behind them, the lone tiger or leopard or any other feline could find him or herself in serious trouble with nowhere to turn.
She’d been proud of her work over the years and loved that the job still allowed her to play pro hockey, something that meant a lot to the Long Island girl who started skating with her father when she was barely three years old. And with four, not-too-much younger brothers hoping to beat their father’s record, she’d had to learn hard and fast how to survive on the ice. It was worth it in the end, though. She still wasn’t as great as her father, but she held her own and had a great time doing it. Plus, she had a bit of a reputation that she enjoyed. But what could she say about that? Cella loved a good brawl.
“Why were you trying to hide that you owned the property?” MacDermot asked the three hyenas. Sisters, the one in the middle was the matriarch of the Clan. They were an odd-looking bunch, though. Maybe because if she shut her eyes or it was slightly darker in the room, Cella wouldn’t know if she was talking to men or women.
“We weren’t trying to hide anything. It was a simple business transaction set up by our accountant.”
“So you’re trying to evade paying your taxes.”
“Did we say that?” the matriarch asked. “I don’t remember us saying that.”
Cella had a feeling this wasn’t going anywhere. Like the bear territory in Ursus County a few months back and the other territories they’d checked during the day, it seemed that someone knew about these properties and used them for the fights—unbeknownst to the owners. But MacDermot had been determined to check the Allan Clan out. The former Bronx girl had a real hard-on for the hyenas and Cella could only figure she must have picked that up from her lion mate.
As a tiger, Cella found the hyenas annoying and, if she was bored, she had no problems slapping them around, but other than that . . . they just didn’t get to her the way they got to the gold cats. Then again, the wind blew wrong and the lions got bitchy.
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