Prologue

 

 

“IT IS confirmed, Master.” The sniveling voice practically whimpered into the phone.

“Did you kill him?” the harsh male voice ground out over the connection.

“No, Master. The assassins are dead. I have confirmation from my contact that the DNA blood tests came back conclusive. Lance Fitz is a pureblood—of the royal line, no less.”

“How did this happen! That line has been decimated. They couldn’t produce a pure heir even if they tried inbreeding. Hell, they’re practically human.”

“My contact seems to believe it is a member of the family who is more animal than human and lives as a beast. You know how they go crazy when they lose their mates and revert to an animal and die in the creatures’ lifespan. My contact seems to think some member of the family must have remained sane enough to breed, carry and give birth to a child before returning to the wild. Whether the breeding was an accident of two shifters as animals meeting up and having sex or some other oddity of their species that allowed this, we don’t know. All we know conclusively is that he is a royal pureblood shifter.”

“I want you to get close. Use your contacts, play your part. Get him to trust you. I want this animal brought under control before he can do any more damage. It would be best if you could kill him… quietly… make it look like an accident, if possible. Just make sure he is dead before the shifters realize who he is. Once the royal family and the shifter nation as a whole discover what they have, he’ll become a martyr and war will begin again. With our numbers as they are, we will lose. Even against these worthless half-breeds.”

“I won’t fail you. I’ll—”

“You will do as you are told! I’ll make the arrangements. You just get close to him, get him to trust you.”

“Yes, Master,” the voice whimpered, then the connection went dead.

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

I SAT in the late-afternoon sun up to my elbows in clay. Gwen had told the twins the last time they’d stopped into the Pottery Hut that my stoneware had been selling almost as quickly as she could put it in the window. She only had a couple pieces left and had asked that I make more. I’d never had my work requested before, so there I sat, red clay piled before me, kneading it to the proper consistency. Andrew had gone down to the ranch; he had chores to catch up on. I stared absently at the clay, lost in my thoughts….

 

 

TWO weeks…. It’s been two weeks since Andrew claimed me… mated with me. Before that, saying my world felt like it was falling apart really would have been an understatement. Everything seemed to be happening so fast I couldn’t catch my breath, but we are one now and it’s been bliss. The man loves me and I, having grown up not knowing what it was to be loved, am reminded by his constant presence in my mind how much he cares.

You know that old saying life is crazier than fiction? They must have been talking about me. If my life were fiction, it’d be… well, I suppose it’d be on the Horror shelf—I am a monster, after all. Top of the food chain. Well, almost. Everybody keeps telling me the vampires are on the top of the food chain and we shifters come in a close second. Personally, I’ve met a couple vampires. Granted, they were drones and not born vampires, but still, I’m pretty sure they aren’t above me on any food chain when it comes to monsterliness. I know that’s not a word, but you know what I mean. There’s no way on this earth a drone could beat me in a fight. In fact, I’ve already killed two of them, and they were warriors. I’m assuming that born vampires are much stronger because Dr. Tim—who I really like, by the way, and hope to never fight—is also no match for my wolf, despite his hundreds of years of life.

I guess I should be grateful. If you ignore the insanity that brought me to this point and what that might mean for the future, things are pretty good, though I can’t decide if I’m in the eye of the hurricane or if it’s just the lull before the storm. If we discount my own feelings at having learned of a whole world I never dreamed was real, and my personal issues as to how I got there as being insignificant to the big picture, then I would guess it’s the lull before the storm.

As unbelievable as becoming a shape-shifter once felt, I’ve become accustomed to my animal spirit’s voice. I call him my wolf, though it’s much more than just one animal. I’m capable of becoming many different animals. The wolf was the first, then the black falcon. The animal spirit is one and many creatures at the same time. They are all the beast within.

Dr. Tim Carlson, my family’s—yes, I’m thinking of Andrew’s family as my own, isn’t that a shocker—doctor seems to have confirmed my status as the one and only living pureblood shifter. And as if that wasn’t enough, my bloodline is not only pure, but also royal. Somewhere, Fate has to be just rolling on the floor, laughing her ass off. I mean, really, a street brat nobody wanted and now I’m royalty—me, of all people. Yeah, it’s a mind fuck. I’m still getting used to it.

 

 

WITH a deep breath, I reached down into the bowl beside me, grabbed the cup and scooped up some water to add to my clay, then dropped the cup back into the basin of water. The consistency still wasn’t right. I stared at the pile of earth before me, unable to shake the musings that fluttered about my mind….

 

 

IT SEEMS as if I come by this crazy life naturally. My mother was seriously messed up, and I think she must still be, if I understand what everyone’s telling me. Somewhere out there in the wild, among the real animals, my parents are alive and living as beasts. Mommy dearest couldn’t live with her broken heart after her vampire lover died. But because her mate was a vampire and not another shifter, she couldn’t bond fully with him and therefore wasn’t allowed death after a single animal lifetime. I guess even the love of a child wasn’t enough for her because she abandoned me like yesterday’s trash in a world she had to have known I might not survive. But who knows how much of her mind is still human. She’s lived as an animal for more than three hundred years, since the beginning of the war between shifters and vampires. I can’t judge her for her love. If I knew my love for Andrew would start a war, would I continue to love him? Without any doubt or hesitation, my answer is yes. Because my love for him isn’t really a choice. I just do. Not saying I want to start wars or anything, but I refuse to give him up for any reason. I guess that makes me selfish, but I won’t apologize for having love in my life. After growing up the way I did, without so much as a caring parent, I think I deserve whatever love I can find, and Andrew is one of a kind and he’s all mine.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. I recited the mantra to myself that’s become a truism in my life and asked myself, what can I possibly change? I know I can’t change who my biological parents are, so I need to come to terms with this royal pureblood thing. I can’t control others’ reactions to who or what I am, but I don’t want some stupid title to come back and bite me in the ass. Ultimately, the only thing I can control is myself. Beyond that, I might be able to influence those around me, hopefully in a positive manner. Even a royal pureblood only has so much power in a world where vampires rule, and one of those vampires holds Andrew’s life in his hands—Stephon.

 

 

LOST in the past, I had no idea how long I’d stared at the drying clay. The fact the outer edges were beginning to crust told me I’d been walking through my thoughts for quite some time. I looked up and saw Andrew coming toward me from across the meadow, the warm fall sun making his golden skin glow. He wore a cowboy hat, the rim casting a shadow over his eyes. With his powerful arms bare, the sleeveless western shirt only half-buttoned, and worn dusty blue jeans riding low on his hips, hugging his body in all the right places, the man was a vision.

He must have finished his chores at the ranch, and here I was still sitting with the same pile of clay I’d had when he left a couple hours ago. I looked about me and shook my head at how little I’d accomplished. The sun was already setting low over the horizon, and it was apparent the day had slipped away from me. I hoped he’d gotten more done than I had.

Missed you, leannan. His voice, soft as velvet, was like a caress as I heard it in my mind. He always called me that. Leannan—beloved.

The sound of his voice, even if just in my mind, settled my restless thoughts. Andrew was ruggedly handsome. His high cheekbones and straight nose hinted at some Native American blood, but the way he spoke, with just a touch of a Scottish lilt, and those deep-blue eyes indicated he descended from the Emerald Isle. He came around the table and I found myself surrounded by him. Just being there in his arms calmed me. I couldn’t let anyone hurt him, but since there was no way to prevent the future consequences of my past actions, we’d just have to ride things out and hope for the best.

Not going to happen. I’m not going anywhere and we are united. Not even Stephon can change that now. Andrew shored up my wavering self-confidence. When he was with me I had no doubts; it was when I was alone that doubts about my survival in this new world tended to get to me.

I felt a mental zing shoot through Andrew’s mind. It had been happening more often than I liked. This is our time. There is time for us to deal with him later. It isn’t a problem right now, and I want our time to be ours. Andrew’s voice eased the raw edge developing in my mind. I knew from the memories Andrew had passed to me in our bonding that the mental sting was Stephon calling. And the more Andrew ignored him, the more persistent the vampire would become in his mental demands—and the more painful the contact.

“He’s not going away.” I leaned back against Andrew’s chest.

“No. I’m afraid he’s as permanent a fixture in my life as my parents are. The only difference is Mom picks up the phone when she wants to talk to me, and Stephon… well, he reaches out and touches my mind.” Andrew kissed the top of my head.

“I hate it. Nobody should touch you—any part of you—but me!” My wolf growled at the irritation caused by Stephon’s presence in our lives. I was growing to hate the vampire and the hold he had on my mate more and more each day.

“I know, but he has always had a hold of a corner of my mind. It’s just the way things are. Maybe if we can convince Stephon to release me, then who knows… you might end up being the only one in my mind. To be honest, I don’t even know if the mental bond is possible to break. It’s been there since shortly after my birth.”

“I don’t have to like it, though. It pisses my wolf off, and I guess I’ve gotten possessive. You belong to me and I belong to you. No one else should have a part of you.” My wolf snarled, and I held him back from mentally sniffing around in Andrew’s mind. He wanted to hunt down the bond between Andrew and the vampire and shred it. I was afraid of what that might do to Andrew, so I forced the wolf to wait. Thoughts of Stephon always had me thinking about the warrior drones that had attacked us a couple of months ago, when Andrew had returned from his trip to see his benefactor. To me, the two were connected. It seemed to be too much of a coincidence that we were attacked so soon after his return, but Andrew insisted Stephon wasn’t capable of hurting his beneficiaries. I tried not to let my suspicions run away with me, for Andrew’s sake. If our attacker wasn’t Stephon, then who else could know and want me dead?

“Come on, let’s get you cleaned up. We have company coming.” Andrew gave me a squeeze before releasing me.

“Are we even remotely ready for this?” I whispered with a slight shake of my head.

“We might not be ready, but we’re strong. You can’t anticipate everything. Ultimately, we don’t know how people are going to react, but together we can face anything. And you know I’ll never leave you.” Andrew took my hand and tugged me up onto my feet.

“Okay.”

Andrew glanced down at the red clay that now clung to his arms and hands. “I think we both need to get cleaned up.” Sighing, I followed him into the cottage.

I let Andrew lead me through the house to the bathroom. I stared as he stripped out of his clothes and stepped into the shower. My own actions seemed sluggish by comparison, as if the thoughts weighing on my mind slowed my limbs as well, but I did eventually make it, and stepped into the hot spray. I just wished I could focus my attention on the beautiful golden-skinned god before me, but knowing someone wanted you dead was a real buzzkill. Andrew pulled me in front of him and began to wash the red clay from my hands and arms, pressing himself against my back. By the time he dragged his hands across my chest, the combination of the slick soap and hot water, along with Andrew’s touch and scent, had the blood pooling in my groin. Any thought not centered on him vanished from my mind.

Andrew rubbed his hand across my stomach, down to my groin, and took hold of the base of my cock. I couldn’t have kept the groan from escaping my lips if I’d wanted to. Andrew ran his hands up my sides to my arms, then guided them up and around his neck.

Hold on to me, his mental voice whispered in my mind. I obeyed, cradling the back of his neck with one hand while burying the fingers of the other in his thick hair. My knees felt like rubber as he stroked back down over my arms to my pecs, where he stopped to tease my nipples. I widened my stance, allowing his cock to slip between my thighs. Andrew groaned, my balls bumping him as he ground himself against my ass.

“Andrew,” I gasped, my breath catching with each twist of my nips. His touch was like an electrical current, lighting up my body. His desire burned through our bond, tingling through his fingers as he caressed my slick skin. I turned my head to the side and stretched for his kiss. He didn’t disappoint, lightly gliding his lips across mine, brushing gently back and forth. I slipped my tongue past his lips and tasted him—so masculine, with a touch of coffee he must have had while at the ranch—tantalizing my taste buds. Taking my mouth, he plundered it, sinking his tongue deep, demanding my response.

A growl rumbled inside him. The vibrations from his chest tingled across my back, making me arch into him, pushing my hips back against his. He shifted his hold, putting one arm across my chest, the hairs on his forearm brushing against the sensitized flesh of my nipples as he slid his other hand along my abdomen. When he reached the short curls on my groin, he moved his fingers in slow circles amongst the hairs, teasing and enticing me. His touch was so gentle, yet it held such passion, driving all thoughts from my mind, along with the air from my lungs.

“An-Andrew!” I cried out as he released my lips and nipped at my jaw. I instinctively tilted my head to the side, giving him more room. I loved the feeling of his lips on my neck.

“You’re so strong.” Andrew bit down on my neck, not breaking the skin, but hard enough for me to feel the burn as he released and licked at the abused flesh. “Thinking… you’re always thinking. That brain of yours only slows down when I’ve got you like this. You work yourself into circles, vacillating between the things you don’t know and the things you fear.” The pinch of pain behind my ear and the tight grip on my erection made me dig my fingernails into his skin. I thrust my hips, pushing my cock forward into his grip, while he rubbed his own between my asscheeks.

“Please Andrew… I need…,” I begged incoherently as I humped at his fist.

“I know what you’re thinking. Your wolf’s getting all protective of me… of our family.” My knees quaked. I could hardly stand as my balls began to tighten and draw up. Andrew felt it too. He took a firm grip at the base of my cock and squeezed, not letting me come.

“Ahhh—” I screamed, denied my release.

“Not yet. I’m not finished with you,” he whispered, and then he nibbled on my ear. My arms quaked as shivers of my denied release flowed through my body. “You don’t seem to understand love. You’ve been alone so long, I guess it makes sense that love would be a mystery to you. But I’m going to love on you until you get it.”

As the trembling from my denied orgasm slowed to a simmer, Andrew began to stroke my erection again. He slid his tight fist down the length then slowly back up to circle the glans, then fisted the head with a twist of his rough callused hand. I swore I could feel each groove and line on his work-hardened skin as he stoked the fires of my passion. “We are one. That means whatever’s coming, it isn’t just you who has to face it. You. Are. Not. Alone.” He punctuated each word with a tug on my shaft and a nip to my neck that I was sure would bring up a bruise.

“Andrew…,” I panted, my lust rising, the thrust of my hips becoming erratic.

“Say it, leannan. I need to know you understand.”

“Say….” I shook my head, understanding coming slowly through the haze of need. He expected an answer from my lust-fuzzed brain.

“Lance, lean on me. Together we’re strong and we can be anything. You just have to let me help. Stop trying to take on the world alone.”

“God, Andrew… I can’t think when you’re….” His attentions made me feel like my body was turning into Jell-O. I leaned back into his arms, knowing he wouldn’t let me fall. My brain was mush, but I could feel his underlying need.

“That’s it. Trust me. I’ll always be here to catch you.” Andrew growled his approval as my body automatically understood and gave my mate what he needed. I’d forgotten—he was the alpha, my big strong man who needed to take care of me just as much as I wanted to take care of him.

“Please, Andrew…,” I gasped. How stupid to be working on plans to keep us alive, but not tell him. Of course he knew what I’d been doing because of our mental connection. He could hear me mulling over the issues and feel my self-doubt.

“You need to understand, Lance. It isn’t just you anymore. We’re in this together, and you need to talk to me.”

“Yes. I trust you.” My words, barely audible, seemed to ease the frustration I could feel coming off him in waves. “Love you. Need only you.”

He began to jack me in earnest, playing with my balls as he did. I rocked my head from side to side on his shoulder, trying to hold off my orgasm, knowing I needed to wait for him to let me come. Andrew required my obedience, my submission, and I gave it willingly… gratefully. I craved his control, his power over me. It centered me as nothing else could. I wanted him to make the decisions—not because I couldn’t, or was afraid to—but because some part of me desired to be cared for, coddled, even. Andrew wanted to take care of me, and I needed to let him do it.

“Come now,” Andrew growled, as he sank his teeth into the flesh of my shoulder.

“Andrew,” I screamed as the overwhelming bliss of my orgasm rocked my body and cum shot over his hand and onto the shower wall. Andrew howled. He released my shoulder and pulled back just a little, allowing his hot spunk to cover my back. His breath sent aftershocks through my body as he milked every drop from my softening cock. Never once did his hold on me waver, nor was I afraid that passion would knock him off his feet. He was my rock, steady and sure. I understood.

I love you so much. Even my mental voice sounded soft and sated. I felt Andrew’s deep chuckle against my back in the very core of my body.

You are my life. So share it with me. He kissed my temple and with his free hand, he grabbed the body wash from a shelf in the shower. I turned in his arms as a soapy cloth slid along my skin, removing the remnants of our loving. By the time my muscles were able to obey my commands again, Andrew was gently leading me from the shower and wrapping a towel around me. He vigorously rubbed the moisture from my body before seeing to his own needs.

“Tim called while I was at the ranch. He’s gathered the vassals, and they’re coming to meet you.”

“Great… just what I need—more vampires.” I couldn’t prevent the troubled sigh that escaped me.

“I won’t let anything happen to you. Tim says he trusts these two, and it’s important for us to have some support from the vampires. Have a little faith.” Andrew handed me a comb before heading to the bedroom for some clothes.

He was right. We needed the vampires. The more support we could gather, the better. But faith in others was hard for me to give, even with Andrew guiding the way. After a lifetime of rejection and abandonment, trust wasn’t handed out lightly.