Authors: T. S. Joyce
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Paranormal, #Werewolves & Shifters
The rock hard muscles of his back relaxed fractionally, and he pulled his cell from his back pocket and told her to, “Pack what you need for tonight,” as he punched buttons on the glowing screen.
The second she was finished packing her toiletries, he shouldered her tote and pulled her through the disheveled living room and out the front door. He spent some time settling the door snugly into place, then led her at a jog around her café to the small parking lot out front where his motorcycle sat gleaming under the single street light.
“Wait, we’re riding on that? Without a sidecar? Or airbags, or a seatbelt?”
“You’ll be fine, I promise. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
And she believed him. She trusted him. He’d come for her, stood between her and that vampire, and threatened war between the two biggest supernatural bodies in the world. Aaron Keller had threatened to bring hell to earth to protect her, and every fiber of her being believed he would actually follow through.
Aaron slid his leg over the seat of his bike, jammed the kickstand up with his heal and turned the engine. It was much louder up close than she’d expected, but with only a second of hesitation, she slid her palm onto his offered one and eased onto the motorcycle behind him. Aaron adjusted the bag over his shoulder, pulled her hands around his waist, and told her to, “Hold on to me.”
The warmth had stopped trickling down her neck, and the pain had eased. Her adrenaline dump had left her feeling mellow and like she was floating outside of her body. As Aaron eased onto Main Street and toward the Smoky Mountains, she rested her cheek against his back and sent a silent thank you to the heavens that he cared enough to put himself between her and that monster. He’d told that vampire she was his claim, his mate, and though she’d been too scared at the time to realize what he was declaring, it hit her like a lightning strike to the heart now.
My claim, my mate.
Alana held on tighter to his taut waist as he hit the gas outside of town. When the wind kicked up and something massive blocked out the stars and moon, she tensed, terrified that it was the bats back to finish her off.
“It’s Harper,” Aaron assured her over his shoulder. “She’ll be watching over us coming in.”
But he was wrong. It wasn’t just Harper protecting them as they blasted toward her mountains. Alana smiled tentatively at the giant raven and snowy owl that glided alongside of them on the edge of the woods.
Alana tilted her face back and looked up into the sky at the golden underbelly of the massive dragon above. Harper’s wings looked dark, a forest green perhaps. She scanned the woods around them, snaking her long neck this way and that as she thrashed her wings against the air currents.
Alana should feel scared right now. Terrified even. Her neck still burned, and her muscles remembered how awful it was to be frozen in place. But Aaron had declared her his, and the Bloodrunner Crew being here said they accepted that. They accepted her.
She’d never been in more danger in her entire life.
But somehow, someway, Alana had never felt this safe either.
of Aaron’s motorcycle slowed with their speed as he drove them through a gate Wyatt was holding open. His eyes were glowing brightly in the moonlight as he watched them pass with a nod of his head. When they were clear, Wyatt closed the gate behind them and followed the motorcycle at a jog. In a clearing up ahead, a cabin appeared surrounded by towering trees. The moon was full tonight and cast everything in a neon blue glow, so perhaps that was the reason Alana got chills when she laid eyes on the old log cabin with the sagging front porch.
“Is this your house?” she asked, awed at its ethereal beauty.
“No. Mine is up that trail.” Aaron nodded at a dirt track that wound around jutting black rocks. Up the hill, she could just make out a couple more cabins in the tree line. “This,” he said, jamming the kickstand down in front of the first house, “is ten-ten.”
The raven spread its wings and extended its legs, and in a moment, Weston landed near them in his human form.
“Oh my God, there’s a dick.” A giant one, eek! Alana ripped her gaze away from Weston’s tatted up, rippling, naked body only to land on Ryder, who was standing nearby with his hands on his hips and a giant erection at half-mast. The white of his teeth flashed right before she squeaked and looked away. Harper strode around the house, naked as the day she was born, perky boobs bouncing. She looked completely comfortable with her nudity, but Alana was not. “Tits and dicks,” she blurted out, then buried her face against Aaron’s back as he chuckled. “Can everyone put clothes back on. Please.”
“Naked bodies are completely natural,” Ryder explained.
She looked up to argue, but he was flapping his long pecker from side to side against his legs with a big grin on his face.
“Ryder, cut it out,” Aaron muttered, but his shoulders were shaking with laughter, and this was not funny!
She would simply close her eyes. That worked until Aaron got off the bike and escaped the range of her searching hand. With a growl of utter mortification, Alana eased her eyes open, angled them at the ground
, and stumbled off the bike. Her legs felt like noodles after the ride in, so she bounced this way and that, hands cupped above her eyebrows so she didn’t have to see all the swinging dicks. She followed Aaron’s boots up the creaking porch stairs and into the open doorway.
Inside, the warm glow of the lights urged Alana’s shoulders to relax. Harper was pulling on a pair of jeans near the kitchen table, and thankfully the beefy nudists outside didn’t seem inclined to follow them in.
“You’ll stay here tonight,” Harper said.
“What?” Aaron asked. “No, I need her with me.”
“Then you can stay here, too.”
“I don’t understand, Harper. I have a cabin right up the hill.”
Harper let off a long, terrifying growl that was so loud it filled every inch of the room. “Weston asked Wyatt and I to move out of here for a reason.”
Aaron drew back like he’d been slapped. “Where are you living?”
Wyatt handed Harper a sweater and told him, “We moved to the cabin at the top of the hill. The one against the cliffs.”
Aaron settled his confused frown on Alana and pulled her tightly against his side. Then he murmured to Harper, “But you love ten-ten.”
“And I always will, but Weston thinks there is good mojo in here.”
“If Alana is to find sanctuary here, it’ll be in ten-ten,” Weston said from behind them. He was buttoning up a pair of jeans, and when he looked up, his eyes were black as pitch instead of the bright green she’d seen in them earlier. “Aaron, you didn’t grow up in Damon’s Mountains, and you didn’t see what that old trailer did for the mates. You think the original ten-ten gained fame because of ghost stories, but there was something about it. Something beyond this world that kept people safe. I knew these mountains were special the second I saw those numbers on the door. Your mate’s neck has the bite of a vampire, and from what I’m guessing, things could’ve gone very differently tonight. If there’s any chance of putting any good vibes on Alana, ten-ten is my vote.”
Aaron’s voice softened as he murmured, “I thought you were against me pairing up.”
Weston huffed a hollow sound. “I wasn’t scared of you pairing up, Aaron. You’ve picked someone fragile, though, and I don’t want you losing her.”
Weston turned to leave, but that last comment pissed Alana off. “I’m not fragile,” she said, steel in her voice.
Weston shook his head, but didn’t turn around as he said, “Not for long.”
“What does that mean?” Alana asked.
Aaron’s eyes were a frosty blue as he watched Weston disappear into the night. “Nothing.”
But it wasn’t nothing. Suddenly none of the shifters in 1010 would meet her gaze anymore, and there was something big and unspoken hanging in the air between them. Something that festered and grew heavier with every moment she waited for an explanation they refused to share.
After all she’d been through tonight, she deserved the whole story, and once again, she was being shut down. Fine. She wasn’t going to stand in here like a bump on a log waiting for answers that wouldn’t come. “Where’s the bathroom,” she gritted out. Damn her voice as it shook, but she was angry.
“Through there,” Harper said, gesturing to a bedroom. “There’s a first aid kit under the sink.”
“Thank you.” Alana yanked the strap of her tote bag from Aaron’s shoulder and made her way out of the living room.
“I’ll help,” Aaron murmured, but Alana shut the bathroom door before he reached her.
If he was going to shut her down, she wouldn’t share this part with him. This was hers to privately endure so she could wrap her head around all that had happened tonight. Alana slid her back down the cabinets and squeezed her eyes closed as her face fell. She prided herself on being a tough, independent woman, but tonight she’d gone through hell. Tonight everything had changed. Tonight had taken her on the highest highs, the lowest lows, and everywhere in between, and nothing but a good cry would make her feel better.
And if Aaron’s answers to her questions were riddled with “nothings,” then he wasn’t allowed to see her vulnerable side.
Aaron paced outside the bathroom, ran his hand through his hair, and then strode to the door, determined to escape. He couldn’t. Couldn’t move another step away from her, couldn’t lose himself to Bear right now. Not when that soft sniffle sounded through the door. It ripped him apart. She wasn’t the type of woman he would be able to protect by hiding the truth, and he’d been an idiot to forget that.
What the hell was he doing?
He’d been on autopilot since he’d heard her scream his name, scream for help. The sound of terror in Alana’s voice would never leave his memory as long as he walked this earth. It would replay in his nightmares over and over because he’d thought he was going to be too late. Aric had gotten too damn close to her. The rules for vampires were the same as for shifters. Legally, they could Turn one person, but only with consent, and only when choosing a mate. Alana would’ve been legally bound to Aric if he would’ve Turned her. All he had to do was convince Alana and the court that his draining her and raising her from the dead had been consensual. And he could’ve done it! Aric possessed the power of mind control.
“Fuck,” Aaron muttered, clenching his shaking hands. The constant snarl in his chest was unavoidable now.
What was he supposed to do? Alana was crying, and he was teetering on the edge of his control. All he wanted was to hold her, but she’d shut him out, and he had no fucking clue how to make his woman happy.
He was the oldest of the Bloodrunners, in his thirties, and when the mating bond hadn’t happened with any of the girls he’d dated through his twenties, he’d assumed he wasn’t meant to be paired up. It happened to lots of shifters, so he’d just accepted it. Accepted that he would watch his friends find mates and be a good uncle to their kids instead of getting to raise his own. And then Alana had come along, and the pull of the bond had been instant—like slamming into a brick wall at full speed. There had been no slowing down or avoiding it. It was almost as if she’d been there all along, arms open wide, just waiting for him to crash into her.
He’d told her he didn’t want to hurt her, and now look. She was the only one on the front line of a war brewing between shifters and vamps, and she was human! Weston was right about her being fragile. She was tough as hell on the inside, but her skin was thin as paper. She didn’t have swift healing. And if he was honest, watching her neck streaming crimson tonight had done something awful to his insides. He hadn’t realized how different it was for humans until tonight. It was one thing to know it, but another to see how easily they bled over something as simple as a bite. How easily the woman he was falling in love with could be taken from him.
Alana let off a soft, heartbroken sound, and he couldn’t do it anymore. He couldn’t just give her space to fall apart without him. His protective instincts wouldn’t allow it. Aaron shoved the door open and dropped to his knees on the floor, pulled her into his lap. She struggled for a moment and told him to, “leave me alone,” but her words didn’t have any vitriol behind them. As he held onto her tighter and buried his face against her neck, she wrapped her arms around him and clung on like he was her air.
“Weston has dreams. Visions,” he murmured low. “Before he even met you, he saw you with eyes the same color as mine.”
As he rocked her gently, Alana’s breath hitched. “What does that mean?”
“Weston thinks I’ll be your maker.” Aaron’s voice cracked on the last word, but fuck it. She should know every single complicated thing so that she could make an educated decision whether to stay with him or leave his life forever.
“Claiming you would be big, Alana, and not something I want to do without your consent. My mark would Turn you. It’s a huge commitment.”
“It would be like marriage for you, right? Like a ring.”
He sighed against her skin and kissed the uninjured side of her neck. “It would be bigger. For a shifter, a claiming mark is so much bigger. It’s the animal choosing without a shadow of a single doubt that he will be devoted to that person forever. There is no turning back, no breaking up, no divorce, no bowing out of the relationship after that. There would only be my unrelenting devotion.”
Alana was quiet for a long time, and he got it. She had so much to think about. This stuff wasn’t public knowledge for humans. It was the part of shifter culture that was no one else’s business but theirs. Slowly, she wiped her eyes, then straddled his lap and hugged him, resting her chin on his shoulder. “Would I feel that, too? If you claimed me, and turned me into a bear shifter, would I feel bound to you?”
He swallowed hard so his voice wouldn’t crack when he answered. “Yes. And it could be amazing. It’s something I want with you, but there is a trade-off.”
When Alana leaned back, Aaron was struck with how damn beautiful she was. Smooth skin shades darker than his, a tone between rich caramel and milk chocolate. Her eyebrows were arched perfectly, her delicate nose slightly rosy from crying. She wore her hair all piled on the back of her head, sexy-messy, and her dark eyes were vulnerable as she searched his face. “Tell me everything.”
And he did. He laid it all out there, all the scary parts of his life, all the complications. He told her about Harper going through The Unrest until they formed a crew. He told her about his excitement over fighting vamps, and how it had really been awful. He told her about the fight with the Asheville Coven in the parking lot of Drat’s and the death of the queen.
“Is that where you got this?” she asked in a whisper as she brushed her fingers over the scars on the side of his neck.
He dipped his chin once. “Aric gave me that.”
She touched her own bite mark. “We’ll match.”
“No,” he said firmly. “There is a woman in the Ashe Crew who makes cream for fixing scars. I’ll have some shipped here, and you won’t have to remember what Aric did to you every time you look in the mirror.”
“Why didn’t you use it on your neck?”
“Because scars are a part of every shifter’s life. We fight battles the humans are never aware of. Scars are a reminder of what happened but also a warning of what’s to come. Scars mean we survived. It doesn’t have to be like that for you, though. It can be easier.” He lowered his voice and cupped her cheeks. “Alana, I’ll make it easier, I swear.”
Her lip trembled, but she kissed his palm quickly. He loved that she was tender, affected, and real. He’d had trouble connecting with his emotions over the years, trouble understanding Bear, but here was Alana, so authentic, soft, and honest, and for some reason, that little lip quiver exposed strength in her vulnerability. It was a measure of trust that she allowed him to witness the dampness on her cheeks. Allowed him to brush them away with the pads of his thumbs.
The choice would be hers, to stay and endure a dangerous life or to move away and find a normal partner who would cloak her life in the safety of normalcy. It would rip him up inside if she chose the latter, but an overwhelming desire for her to be happy had overtaken him. At least he’d laid it on the line. At least he’d told her everything she needed to know about his life to choose her path. He wasn’t hiding anything anymore.