Authors: Cynthia Garner
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Fiction / Romance - Paranormal, #Paranormal, #Fiction
Dante scowled. “Offense taken.”
Nix pressed her lips together while the two men sized each other up. Even as alpha as he could be, Dante was one of the most easygoing guys she knew, yet she wouldn’t be surprised if Tobias managed to rub him the wrong way. When he wanted to be, Tobias could be a real charmer. Most of the time he didn’t bother to put forth the effort.
Tobias cocked an eyebrow but didn’t respond. With slow deliberateness, almost as if he were taking the time to say good-bye, he drew the tarp back over Amarinda’s face and stood. He shoved his hands into the front pockets of his jeans, drawing Nix’s gaze there. The material pulled taut across his groin, showing the outline of his cock. She jerked her gaze away and glanced at his face. Thankfully he hadn’t seemed to notice where she’d just been looking.
“There is something… It’s familiar, yet not. I don’t know what it is.” Frustration colored his voice, made the low tones tight and even raspier. “Who the hell did this?” His gaze caught Nix’s. “Humans? Or someone trying to make it look like humans?”
She didn’t have an answer. Not yet. “Since she wasn’t killed here, it’s hard to say. But the strongest scent is human, not pret.”
“That might be technically accurate,” Tobias murmured. He pressed his lips together and drew in another slow, deep breath. “That other smell. It smells like… demon.” All demons had an underlying scent of burned wood or paper that was undetectable to humans. From the scent you couldn’t tell one demon from another, but you could separate demons from other prets. Vamps and shape-shifters had no trouble picking it up. He looked at her, a hint of accusation in his eyes that immediately made her mad.
Not back in her life five minutes and already he was pointing fingers. She couldn’t help being part demon, damn it. “Not every unexplained murder has a demon behind it, you know.” She darted a glance around, making sure the police officers and assorted crime scene specialists weren’t within earshot, then looked back at Tobias in silent warning. He should know better than to bait her about her lineage in front of the cops.
Of course, he probably figured there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot she could, or would, do about it. And he’d be right. If he really did want to “out” her, he could. But she didn’t think that was what he was after.
“It’s not demons,” Nix muttered, glaring at him. So, yeah, she’d caught a whiff of the same scent, but it was too faint to mean anything. She was about to say more when activity from beyond the yellow crime scene tape caught her attention. Two tall, slender men in dark blue one-piece uniforms stood on either side of a gurney upon which lay a folded crimson body bag. Council-appointed corpse retrievers, though they generally called themselves body snatchers, were there to collect Amarinda’s body.
Tobias waved his hand at the cop at the perimeter. “Let them in.” Since the victim was a vampire, authority in this case fell to Tobias. He took a few steps back from the body, making room for the two men.
Nix stepped back, too, and watched in silence as they unfolded the body bag and stretched it on the ground next to Amarinda. They picked her up and placed her with great care in the open bag, then pulled the top portion over her, zipping it until she was completely covered.
It wasn’t until the men had wheeled the laden gurney to the other side of the yellow tape that Tobias, his gaze on the departing body of his friend, said, “There’s really not much else you can do, Nix. The crime scene techs will gather enough evidence so that equal measure can be tested by human forensics as well as turned over to the council for testing by our lab. You don’t need to stay.”
Werewolf Tori Joseph, council liaison, knows more about a recent spate of attacks on humans than she can ever let on. But as she gets closer to her human colleague, Detective Dante MacMillan, her attraction to him becomes the secret she must hide…
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ard muscles rippled beneath skin and fur. Sharp teeth reformed themselves. Bones crunched, shifted, and realigned. Glossy brown fur receded, leaving behind only silken, tanned skin as wolf became human.
Hugging her knees to her chest, Victoria Joseph took several shuddering breaths and fought her way back from the mind of the wolf. Perspiration dotted her skin. Her body ached, muscles flexed and quivered, recovering from the shock and pain of transformation. As the last of the wolf retreated inside, giving her one final slash of pain through her midsection, a soft moan escaped her. She took another deep breath, the humidity of the August morning traveling deep into her lungs. The rain overnight had cleared out, but not before it had tamped down the pollen and dust that ordinarily floated in the air. It was monsoon season in the Sonoran Desert. Even with the rise in humidity, unbearable with the hundred degree temperatures, she loved this time of year. Monsoon storms were wild, swift, and deadly yet they spoke to her soul.
She skirted a large saguaro and, with arms that still trembled, shoved aside a large rock to retrieve the plastic bag she’d stashed there earlier. She pulled out a bottle of water and took a long drink, then another and another until she’d downed it all. She’d learned a long time ago to rehydrate as soon as possible after a shift. Otherwise she’d be in real danger of passing out from the strain of the metamorphosis.
Dropping the bottle back into the bag, Tori drew out clean clothing and shoes. Once dressed, she tucked her cell phone into the front pocket of her jeans and plaited her long hair in a French braid. She hiked the mile back through the desert to the trailhead where she’d left her car. Whenever she went wolf, she wanted to get out where she’d have some degree of solitude, and the McDowell Sonoran Preserve afforded that, especially at night.
As she steered the Mini Cooper into her driveway, the sun began to rise over the eastern mountains, sending alternating shafts of light and shadow across the valley floor. She shut off the engine and sat there a moment, enjoying the stillness of the dawn, and wondered if her brother was awake yet. Randall had shown up four days prior without warning. The last time she’d seen him had been just before they were stripped of their bodies and put in a holding cell for decades. Their souls had then been sent through a rift between dimensions as punishment for a horrific crime committed by their cousin. As incorporeal entities they’d been drawn to Earth, to the bounty of human bodies available for the taking, for instinctively they’d known if they didn’t take a host they’d die. She’d ended up in London in the body of a woman making her living on the streets of the East End. Through the years, she’d managed to get away from that kind of lifestyle, and the new Victoria Joseph had made her way to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century.
Rand, she’d found out just recently, had gone into a man in a small village outside of Manchester. It might as well have been the other side of the world. In 1866, it had been impossible to even begin to try to find him. She’d been alone, a stranger in a borrowed body, overcoming the guilt at displacing the rightful owner while trying to find her way in a primitive world. Staying alive was about all she could do for a long time.
She and her brother hadn’t seen each other in nearly a hundred and fifty years until he’d shown up on her doorstep, a familiar spirit in a stranger’s body. She’d known him instantly. He was the same sweet brother she remembered, yet he was different in some ways. More withdrawn and evasive with a chaser of surly. But even with the newfound secrecy, she would take what she could get. He was family. She was willing to overlook a few eccentricities and irritating behaviors to have him with her again.
Tori just wished she knew what to do to make him more at ease. He’d had some predisposition toward obsessive-compulsive behavior before the Influx of 1866, but those tendencies seemed to be exacerbated here. Perhaps the human he’d ended up inhabiting, Randall Langston, had also had such predilections.
With a sigh she got out of the car and let herself into her small two-bedroom rental. Smells of lavender and vanilla assailed her from the various bowls of potpourri she had scattered around the house. Her job as werewolf liaison to the Council of Preternaturals was more often than not dark and full of violence, and as a werewolf she was predisposed to be more aggressive in nature than an ordinary human woman. So when she came home she wanted calm and tranquility. She needed it in order to slough off the stress of the day.
Tori drew in a breath and held it a moment, letting the tranquil setting of her home seep into her spirit. Neutral beige and cream furniture was piled with blue and green pillows, and the same color scheme played out on the walls. The wooden wind chimes on the back patio clinked, the sound coming to her as clearly as if she were standing beside them.
She didn’t need to use her keen werewolf hearing to pick up the snores coming from Rand’s bedroom. He rarely arose much before noon, preferring to stay up until the wee hours of morning and run as a wolf as much as possible.
She tried to get over his choosing to run alone instead of with her. After all, he’d been on his own just like she had, and he was much more of a loner than she’d ever been. But it bothered her. Why had he gone to the trouble of locating her if he didn’t want to spend any time with her? It was as natural for werewolves to run as a pack, even a small pack of two, as it was to breathe.
Tori moved quietly through the house, not wanting to wake him. She undressed in her bedroom, putting her cell phone on the nightstand. After she took a quick shower, she slipped into a robe and padded barefoot into the kitchen. She was starving, which wasn’t unusual after a shift. She pulled some raw hamburger meat out of the fridge and gulped down a couple of handfuls—just enough to satisfy her inner wolf. She’d long ago gotten over the gross factor of eating raw meat.
That first time, she’d been half asleep and had come wide awake when she realized she was chowing down on raw liver. She’d soon discovered that the longer she denied the wolf its meal, the more violent it became when it finally got out. As long as she fed it regularly, she could shift without worrying that she’d kill someone.
She dumped some granola into a bowl and added a few diced strawberries. She poured herself a cup of coffee and went into her bedroom, closing the door with a soft
behind her. She placed the cup and bowl on the end table and went over to her bookshelf. Reaching for a well-worn paperback, she pulled it off the shelf and went back to her queen-sized bed. She perched on the edge and opened the book in the middle, staring down at the pages before her.
She spooned cereal into her mouth and slipped a finger into the book to retrieve the small black device nestled into the area she’d cut out. The size of a cell phone, it was about half an inch thick with a couple of small knobs and two retractable antennae at one end. Tobias Caine, former vampire liaison to the preternatural council and now a member of the same, had given it to her two weeks ago. Apparently, he and his wife, Nix, had acquired it months ago but held onto it in secret, waiting for a safe moment to hand it off to her.
As Tobias had put it, he’d chosen Tori because she had two things he needed: a background in radio communications and the ability to keep her mouth shut. Discretion was most important until they figured out the gadget’s purpose. She’d been honored that he trusted her with such a task.
He’d also given her the schematics, though they weren’t very useful in getting the thing to work. Oh, she’d managed to turn it on, but within minutes a voice had spoken in the standard language of the other dimension, asking for a password. She’d quickly turned the device off. Now, as she studied the thing, turning it over and over in her hands, she tried to figure out how to activate it without having someone on the other side know. The schematics didn’t seem to indicate that, at least not that she could tell. Perhaps it wasn’t possible.
She wouldn’t know until she tried. As far as she knew, only three other people knew she was in possession of this little doohickey—Tobias, his wife, Nix, and Dante MacMillan, a human detective who’d been right in the middle of the action when the device had come to light. Her resources were limited.
Tori finished her cereal and set the bowl back down on the nightstand. Grabbing her coffee, she took a sip and carried the cup as she went to her dresser. She opened her lingerie drawer and lifted her panties out of the way so she could pick up the folded schematics. She shoved the drawer closed with her hip. Going back to the bed, she spread out the plans and stared down at them while she sipped her coffee.
There were drawings of gears and lines and sections for a first amplifier and a second amplifier, R-F output, a resonator, and at least two doublers. Mostly though, it was a lot of letters and numbers that must have meant something to the person who’d drawn them up, but she couldn’t decipher it. Not yet, anyway.
She placed her empty cup on the table and folded the paper up again. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she slid the schematics under her pillow for the time being and stared down at the device. The idea that this little thing could open up a mini rift amazed and frightened her. What was the purpose? Oh, she knew enough to figure that right now it was used to communicate from one dimension to the other. But there had to be more to it than that. What nefarious plans were being hatched, and by whom? To-bias hadn’t told her from whom he’d gotten the device, just that the person had been mad with ambition.
Tori picked up the black apparatus and brought it closer to peer at the small knobs. She couldn’t discern any labels or hash marks on the casing, nothing to indicate what function each knob had. She needed to get a magnifying glass to tell for sure.
The more she studied this thing, the more intrigued she became. It really was an ingenious contraption created by an imaginative and clever inventor. What had been his intention behind building it? Had he meant to make mischief? Or had his plans been more altruistic than that?