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The psychic rumble seemed to vibrate Eva Roman’s skull. She jumped. “What the heck was that?”
Her father glanced over at her. “What? I didn’t hear anything.” Bill Roman was a bear of a man with a broad, handsome face and a gray-shot black beard that blended with the salt-and-pepper bristle of his hair.
The customer he was talking to shook his head and slid his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “I didn’t hear anything either.”
Eva hadn’t either, but she still felt as though she were sitting next to the amps at a rock concert. Her chest vibrated as if from a deep bass note, and ripples of ice crawled along her spine.
What was that?
Something that isn’t making you any money. Unpack the boxes, Eva. Dragging her attention back to the job at hand, she used a box cutter to slice open the cardboard box at her feet, pulled out a stack of books, and started counting. It was Wednesday, and the week’s shipment had arrived, so she needed to check the contents.
Yep, fifty copies of Amazing Spider-Man, just like the shipping manifest said. She put a check on the list and propped the books up at their assigned spot on the New Releases display rack.
Ruuuumble. Despite her instinctive jolt, Eva tried to ignore the vibration as she started pulling copies of X-Men out of the box.
“It was completely out of character.” Her father leaned an elbow on the counter, settling in for his favorite pastime: debating his beloved comics. “Deathrage would never torture anybody, not after what Psichopath did to her in issue 28. It’s like Batman using a gun or Superman beating somebody to death.”
“The writer’s just trying to take the book in a darker direction.” A tall, handsome blond, Joel Harmon had intense opinions and a love of comics almost as deep as her father’s, which was why Bill loved to argue with him.
Eva had fallen in love with him for basically the same reasons. At least until she realized what she was doing to him. Or worse, going to do.
“Darker? Her name’s Deathrage, for God’s sake. How much darker can she get?”
Rummmmmmmble. Something about that sound gnawed at Eva, gave her the nagging feeling that something was deeply wrong. Something she had to do something about. Stop. Fix. Fight. Something.
And she had to do it now.
Dropping the stack of books back into the box, Eva looked over at her father. “Mind if I take off, Dad?”
He turned around and examined her face. Whatever he saw carved sudden lines of worry around his hazel eyes. “Hey, are you all right?”
Eva rolled her shoulders uneasily. “I just don’t feel well.” She had to find out what the hell was causing her Spidey sense to tingle.
She hadn’t even known she had a Spidey sense.
“Go. I’ve got this.” Bill took the box cutter out of her hand and went to work on the next box of books.
“Thanks.” She gathered up her purse and headed for the door, striding past massive wooden display racks stacked with comics. “See you tomorrow, Dad.”
“Bye.” He pulled out a stack of books. “I’m telling you, Deathrage wouldn’t have laid a finger on that guy . . .”
The bell attached to the door jangled merrily as Eva stepped out of the Comix Cave. It was dark, the moon riding the stand of pines that bordered the strip mall’s parking lot. In the distance, dogs barked in hysterical chorus. Probably at the same thing that was making her crazy.
She could head into those trees, transform, and go investigate. Might be better to take the car, though. Especially if she needed a quick getaway from whatever was doing . . . whatever the hell it was doing. Eva dug her keys out of her purse and clicked the fob to unlock her dark blue Ford Focus.
Curiosity might have killed the cat, but she hoped it didn’t do anything to werewolves.
Greendale, South Carolina, was a New South town, which meant it was one big suburb and a small city core that included one or two tall buildings with skyscraper pretensions. The Comix Cave lay on the western outskirts, among ranch houses, subdivisions, and so many trees you had to drive carefully to avoid hitting Bambi. It was mating season, and amorous deer and speeding cars made very bad mix.
But there was something out there that definitely wasn’t a deer. Driving toward the psychic rumble, Eva tightened her grip on the steering wheel. Should I be doing this? What if it’s dangerous? I could be getting myself in real trouble.
On the other hand, what if somebody else was in trouble? It certainly felt like trouble, and Eva could handle threats other people couldn’t. If, that is, she could figure out a way to do it without scaring the crap out of the innocent bystanders. Most folks found the sight of a seven-foot werewolf seriously disconcerting.
That included rapists. There’d been the incident last year when Eva had heard a woman screaming near the shop late one night. When she’d gone to investigate, she’d found four drunken frat boys trying to rape a seventeen-year-old girl.
Eva was strong enough and fast enough to knock all four of them out before they even knew what hit them. Their victim, however, did see her; in fact, she’d screamed louder at the sight of werewolf Eva than she had during the attack. Eva had told her to shut the hell up and hand over her cell phone. She had, shaking.
She’d looked thoroughly astonished when Eva simply called 911, handed the phone back, and growled, “You never saw me, right?”
Not surprisingly, Eva did not make the papers, though the kid did tell the cops a very thin lie about a big guy with a baseball bat who’d rescued her from her attackers.
To Eva’s satisfaction, all four little bastards had gone to jail—after a stint in the hospital.
Go, Team Fluffy.
Too bad somebody hadn’t been able to do the same for Eva five years ago.
The rumble was coming from the left now. She turned into a neat little middle class development and drove down the darkened street, following the sensation. The vibration had grown so powerful, she could feel it in her back teeth. Howling instincts insisted something evil was up ahead.
Not just bad. Mwwwwhahhahah evil.
Looking through the trees bordering the yard just ahead, she saw something glowing blue. Eva pulled over and parked, staring through the windshield at the light. Could be a police car. Except police cars didn’t go Mwwwwwhahahahahh.
“You are such an idiot,” Eva muttered, swinging the car door open. She was starting to feel like the dumb blonde babysitter investigating the mysterious sound in the basement.
Don’t be a wuss. If you run into a knife-wielding psycho, you can always eat him. There was a certain comfort in being able to kick a grizzly’s ass.
Unfortunately, that sense of Mwwwwwhahaha—whatever the hell it was—made her think it was something a hell of a lot worse than a grizzly bear. And that she’d do well to be a lot more careful than she’d been with those rapists.
Still, she had just as strong a sense that she had to investigate. So one way or another, she was going in.
Time to pop the claws? Eva started toward the glow, her running shoes padding quietly on the pavement. Nah. No reason to risk scaring the bystanders until I see what I’m dealing with. Deciding on caution, she veered into the trees for whatever cover they could provide. If she’d still been human, she probably wouldn’t have been able to see where she was going.
Eva slipped through the woods until she found a good view between two trees. She promptly wished she hadn’t.
There in the driveway of a brick split-level, a man in armor writhed five feet off the ground, suspended in a globe of shimmering energy. Blue bolts of force snaked in and out of his helpless body as the globe grew brighter. He grunted in pain as the energy licked at him.
Eva stared in sickened horror. It’s torturing him! As if that wasn’t bad enough, a huge, white-furred shape stood bathed in the blue glow. Another werewolf, one even bigger than Eva was when she got fuzzy. He’d plugged his fingers into the globe’s shimmering surface, and streams of energy flowed into his claws, as though he was capturing them.
A vicious grin stretched his thin black lips, displaying a mouthful of very white, very sharp teeth. His eyes glowed feral and orange. He looked even bigger than the monster who’d attacked Eva five years ago, easily eight feet tall, as brawny as a polar bear. Like the bear, his fur was white, though flecked with crimson splatters. She realized it was the man’s blood.
All of which made him a fifteen on the Furry Badass scale. Eva considered herself a seven on a good day.
I’ve got to do something. She flexed her hands nervously, cold anxiety drawing her muscles into quivering knots. As soon as the werewolf got tired of torturing his victim with . . . whatever the hell he was doing, he was going to start ripping the poor bastard apart. She couldn’t just sit back and watch.
Claws digging into flesh, fangs slicing into her belly, jerking bloody mouthfuls, the spreading cold of death as her life drained away, the black horror of being eaten alive . . .
Eva swallowed hard, trying to keep from tossing the burger she’d had for dinner. Squaring her shoulders, she started to reach for the magic.
No, shrieked a mental voice, hitting a note that would have made a chalkboard cringe. That thing will come after me . . .
But if she did nothing, the armored man was dead. Spider-man’s mantra flashed through her mind: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Like Dad always said: just because you read it in a comic book, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Eva breathed deep again, shoving aside her howling terror and stuffing the memory of pain and blood back into its scarred psychic box. Time to Change.
But just as she reached for the magic, the armored man did . . . something. Mystical energy surged around him, swirling hotter, brighter inside the force globe, streaming into the clawed fingers the werewolf had dug into the magical field.
What the hell is he . . .
Before she could even finish the thought, the magic detonated. Eva yelped and threw up a hand to shield her eyes from the blinding blast. Another silent psychic rumble shook her skull. Every dog in the neighborhood howled. She damn near joined in.
When she could see again, the werewolf lay on his back, smoke rising from singed claws, muzzle—even his closed eyes. He’d been knocked cold. Both the energy globe and the man were gone.
Jesus, he blew himself up!
No, wait—there he was, running toward her. Actually, it was more a drunken stagger. The man’s face looked white and blank, stunned, as if he was moving on blind instinct. And he was naked.
Really, really naked.
His powerful broad-shouldered body gleamed in the moonlight, sweat slicking his skin as he raced across the neatly trimmed suburban lawn for the shelter of the trees.
Eva blinked. What had happened to his armor?
Not that it mattered. He was hurt. She had to help him.
Even as she ran to intercept the victim, she shot a wary glance at his hairy attacker. He hadn’t moved, apparently still unconscious on his back on the cement driveway, curls of smoke wafting from his body into the spring night.
Why the hell hadn’t the neighbors called the cops? Nobody had even stepped outside to investigate. Had the monster cast some kind of spell to keep them from noticing what was going on?
Though the idea of a magic-using werewolf was just wrong. Wasn’t it enough being eight feet of fangs and bad attitude? Did he have to be the love child of Darth Vader and a yeti?
Really, White Fang? Really?
Meanwhile, White Fang’s former victim wasn’t letting any grass grow under his bare feet. He ran into the woods as if he could see in the dark, long, black hair flying, every step shouting of a grim determination to put as much distance as possible between himself and his attacker.
Then he stumbled over a root, slammed a shoulder into a tree trunk, and fell on his face.
Shit. Eva slid to her knees beside him. “Hey, are you okay?” She took him by one brawny shoulder and rolled him over. He was heavy, massive with bone and muscle. Back in her human days, she probably wouldn’t have been able to budge him at all. He stared up at her, dazed and shocked. She tried again, enunciating. “Are you hurt?”
His pupils snapped into thin slits against crystalline blue irises, and his lips peeled back from fangs. One hand flashed out to clamp around her wrist in a grip like forged steel.
And he snarled right into her face.
Startled, she tried to jerk back. With her strength, she should have pulled free easily, yet his grip didn’t break. “Hey! Let go! I’m trying to help, dammit!”
He stared at her, something profoundly alien in his blue eyes. Abruptly the hostility faded, replaced by a hot male interest. She tugged again, but he dragged her down and breathed in deeply, as if drinking in her scent.
Just as she drank his. Damn, he smelled good. Pure male musk, tempting despite the sweat, rage, and fear lingering in his scent.
Eva frowned. There was blood, too, smelling of copper and pain as it rolled from the cuts and scratches marring muscled ribs and brawny arms.
“It’s you.” His voice was incredibly deep, as dark and soft as black velvet. “At last.”
“Me?” She swallowed. “What are you talking about?”
“We have waited for you for so very long,” he rumbled, his gaze searching her face with a passionate intensity she’d never seen in a man’s eyes. “We’ve hungered for your love—for your simple company. And now here you are. At last.”
As she stared at him in helpless fascination, his nostrils flared and his pupils expanded. With a tug of her wrist, he pulled her right down into a kiss, possessive and deliciously sexy.
For a minute, she was stunned still. Then arousal hit her in a wave, so incredibly hot, it was all she could do not to skim down her jeans and mount him on the spot.
Oh, hell, it’s that time of the year, Eva thought, and kissed him back.
Most of the time, she felt relatively normal. Being a werewolf didn’t give her any desire to kill, and she controlled when and where she fuzzed out; the moon had nothing to do with it. But for one month a year, generally around springtime, Eva’s hormones went nuts. It was like PMS with a nymphomania chaser. She got incredibly bitchy and incredibly horny, all at the same time. Even the skinny geek customers at the shop started looking pretty good, except, given the bitchy thing, they pissed her off.
In the back of her mind, she’d known she was getting close to That Time for a couple of weeks. Now Tall, Dark, and Naked seemed to have triggered a full-blown attack of raging hormones. Eva dragged her mouth away from his to gasp as a wave of heat rippled over her body from hairline to heels. Desperately, she fought to think. I can’t do this. I don’t even know this guy.
Having lost access to her mouth, TDN started working on her neck, right under her ear, licking and kissing and—oh, God—biting her pulse with delicious little nips. One hand found her breast, cupping her in long-fingered heat through her Comix Cave T-shirt and Victoria’s Secret bra, thumb flicking back and forth over a hard nipple. Squeeze. Flick.
Oh, holy God.
Somebody was making a tiny moaning sound. With a jolt, Eva realized it was her.
Somebody else was making a low rumbling sound. That was him.
It wasn’t a growl, but it was loud, coming from deep in his broad chest, a rhythmic in-and-out rumble in time to his breathing. She’d never heard a human make that particular sound before, but something else had . . . Wait, the cat she’d had as a teenager.
TDN was purring.
People didn’t purr. Books said they did, but humans weren’t capable of making that sound . . . and who cared? He had amazing hands. The other one was exploring the curve of her butt through her jeans, squeezing and stroking.
There was some very good reason she shouldn’t make love to him right now. Damned if she could remember what it was, though. Oh, yeah—White Fang. We really need to . . .
TDN tangled a fist in her hair and dragged her head back down so he could kiss her some more, his mouth surprisingly gentle despite its searing heat.
With a heroic effort of will, Eva jerked back far enough to talk. “We can’t,” she gasped in desperation against TDN’s hot, soft lips. “We’ve got to get out of here. When that werewolf comes to, he’s gonna eat us. That happened to me once, and believe me, it’s not fun.”
The purr cut off, and TDN stiffened against her. “You are right. We must leave.”
“I’ve got a car.” She dragged herself off him despite the protests of her lust-crazed body. “Right over here.”
“Good.” He rose easily to his feet as she scrambled to hers. “We will go to your home, away from my enemy.”
“Yeah, I’ve got an apartment a few miles away. We’ll be safe there.”
He nodded, flicking a long lock of silken black hair over his shoulder. “Yes. Then we can have sex.”
Eva stopped and stared at him. He was easily six-four or –five and built like an NFL quarterback, all broad shoulders and long legs, power and speed in one yummy package. He had hair like the hero of an eighties Native American romance, long and straight, reaching halfway to his waist. The bone structure of his face was stark and sharply chiseled, with a broad, square jaw, a generous Roman nose, and a sensual mouth that definitely knew its way around female real estate.
Actually, sex with him sounded pretty good.
The heat abruptly drained from his eyes, replaced by confusion. “Who are you?” He looked a little lost. “I know I want you, but I don’t know who you are.”
Oh, now that was flattering. “I’m Eva Roman. And a werewolf wants to eat us, so we really need to go.”
“Yes.” He squared those amazing shoulders. “That I remember.”
“Good. My car is that way. You go. I’ll follow along when my ego stops twitching.”
“What? I don’t . . .” He blinked at her, still white around the mouth.
She sighed. “Come on.”
They called her La Belle Coeur. It wasn’t her real name, but after so many centuries, that scarcely mattered. She was Belle even in her own thoughts now.
Davon’s cock felt like a length of stone, thrust to the balls inside her as he rolled his hips, grinding deep. She braced her palms on the hard rise of his muscular chest as she rode him at a fast, hard jog. Belle always made a point of being on top the final time. It was safer if things went wrong.
His velvety skin looked as dark as expensive chocolate under her pale hands, striking and beautiful. Davon was a handsome man, with his high, stark cheekbones, full mouth, and broad, regal nose. At thirty-three, he was no boy, yet he seemed very young to her. They were all young to her, unscarred and innocent in a way she hadn’t been a long time.
A stinging pulse of power suddenly rolled from the soles of her feet to the top of her head, and Belle shuddered. Her magic was gathering, preparing to trigger Merlin’s Gift, buried deep in Davon’s DNA.
Triggering the Gift was a court seducer’s job, and Belle hated it. Unfortunately, she was also a very good court seducer, and her sense of duty was too acute to permit her to quit. Still, it hurt, and the effort reminded her far too much of giving birth. Which in a way, she was.
Like giving birth, it was dangerous for them both. If she’d misjudged Davon, if the Majae’s Council had erred in sending her to him, he could kill her.
If he got very, very lucky. More likely she’d kill him, as she’d killed sixteen of her Latent lovers over the past thousand years. She loathed killing, and every one of those boys haunted her, but none of them had given her a choice. The Gift brought insanity to those not strong enough to handle it. Usually she could spot the ones who were too weak to make the transition, but everyone made mistakes.
Belle didn’t think she was making one now, though. Davon was as intelligent and determined as he was handsome. Which was no surprise: wimps didn’t become surgical residents specializing in trauma at Chicago’s Mercy Hospital.
Merlin’s Cup, she hoped she hadn’t called it wrong. Killing Dr. Davon Fredericks would be a tragic waste. He didn’t deserve madness and death because she’d screwed up.
Another pulse rolled over her, hot and burning. She ignored it, concentrating on the handsome face lost in delight as she ground down on him. Yet even as he rode the breathtaking build of his climax, he worked to pleasure her, one hand flicking a hard nipple, the other thumbing her clit, each tiny motion sending another sweet jolt through her body.
As her power built, the magic started coming in rolling waves like the contractions of labor. She caught her breath, recognizing how close she was from all the times she’d brought men to the Gift. And then . . .
The spell exploded out of her to lance into Davon like a solar flare. Merlin’s Gift ignited in his DNA, and he turned into a glowing thing of pure, blinding magic, his cock pulsing inside her as she came, screaming out her release, screaming out the magic.
Too late to stop now, we’re committed, please God, let him keep his sanity . . .
Belle rode out the spell like a woman in a hurricane, clinging to Davon’s blazing body with all her strength. Until the glow faded some endless instant later, leaving her half-blind and deaf, feeling seared to the bone. She collapsed across his sweat-slicked body, sides heaving like those of a horse run too hard. His heartbeat galloped in his chest, a wild thudding, and she listened to it, praying she wouldn’t have to kill him. He groaned.
Then Davon put his arms around her. It wasn’t a grab for prey, but a tender lover’s hold, light with affection and gratitude, perhaps even a little love. Belle closed her eyes in relief.
But there was one more test they had to get through. And it was the trickiest part, the one that determined if he’d really made it—or if insanity rose out of some dark cave in his soul and turned him into a monster.
They really should start, but instead Belle lay listening to his heartbeat slow as his abused body adjusted to its magical transformation.
Until she could put it off no longer.
Lifting her head, Belle met his eyes and forced a smile. “Hey, you.”
“Hey.” Davon smiled, dazed and happy and clueless. She’d warned him about the risk of blood-madness, but she was fairly sure he had no idea how much danger he was in. “God, that was . . .” He blinked big brown eyes. “Surprisingly painful, actually. I’ve never been hit by lightning, but it’d probably feel a lot like that.”
“Yep, that’s the Gift.” He sounds good. So far. “Are you hungry?”
“Yeah, now that you mention it.” Another blink. Dazed delight slipped into discomfort as he processed the implications. “You mean . . . ?”
“Your body needs blood to complete the transformation.” Rather a lot of it, more than the cupful vampires usually took. Which was what made this so damned tricky.
“Now?” He looked queasy and apprehensive, though nowhere near as scared as he should be.
They never were.
“Now. I’ll show you what to do.” Belle slipped off his limp cock and eased up his torso to reach his mouth. Unable to resist his worried expression, she gave him a quick kiss. “You’ll be fine.” I hope. She tapped a forefinger at the point right under her jaw where her pulse thumped. “Bite here. It’s better if you do it fast. And for God’s sake, don’t gnaw.”
“One clean stroke, like with a scalpel.” He frowned. “But won’t it hurt you?”
“Don’t worry about that. You’ll learn how to give pleasure during the bite later.” She leaned down, carefully bracing her left hand on his upper arm, the other on the center of his chest. She eased up her right knee until it was next to his left arm, ready to clamp down and pin his hand if she had to.
Angling her throat right over his fanged mouth, she waited, doing a little praying while she was at it.
Davon hesitated a long moment, as if working up the courage. Then he bit, quick and stinging.
Both of them froze, nether so much as breathing. Until he finally began to drink. First one swallow, then another, then another. He moaned in startled pleasure at the taste.
Belle swallowed at the lush sensation of his mouth working at her flesh, delight seeping through her dread.
She lifted the right hand she’d braced on his chest, angled it. And conjured a knife, its blade thin and sharp, its point bare inches from the underside of his jaw. Ready to drive into his brain if he lost it and began to rip.
She’d have only the blink of an eye to decide if he’d gone blood-mad. If she stabbed too late, she’d be dead before her knife broke the skin. If she stabbed too early, she might murder a sane man who could have been a warrior Avalon needed.
Merlin’s Cup, I am so sick of this. The thought flashed through her mind, cold and heavy as lead.
Davon opened his mouth and tugged his fangs free of her throat with exquisite care, so as not to tear her skin any further. “I think I’ve had enough.” He was breathing hard, but as she lifted her head, his dark gaze met hers, sane and intelligent.
The knife vanished from her hand as she gave him a grin of pure, dizzying relief. “That’s good. That’s very good.”
But as he wrapped his arms around her in a hug, the thought came again: I am so very sick of this.