I HATED the holidays. I would be thrilled when they were over. And not because I was the bah humbug sort, but because the grounds of L’Ange, the estate I lived on, turned into a zoo every year at this time.
People took sleigh rides over the sprawling grounds, walked the lantern-lined paths, and marveled at the stonework of the arches, footbridges, and ornately carved stone benches scattered near the snowed-under gardens. Inside the manor house, people peeked into the brightly lit rooms on the first floor and admired the chandeliers, the painted and gilded plaster, Venetian mirrors, portraits, tapestries, and antique furniture. I, of course, could not have cared less about the “sumptuous surroundings”—as Architectural Digest put it—of the interior of the château. It wasn’t my area. I was not paid to catalog the treasures that resided in the opulent rooms. I was paid to ensure the security for the grounds. I kept everyone who lived on the property safe. The things in the house were of no concern to me; I was responsible only for the people. The day-to-day running of the house fell to Linus Hobbes, the overseer of L’Ange, who I was on my way to interrogate.
Between me and my quarry stood two things: one a report of the recent killings on the preserve; the second, Tucker Flynn, one of the jackal shifters who had come to protect his new alpha, Quade Danas, the husband of my boss and owner of L’Ange, Roman Howell.
“Sarge? Are you listening to me?”
I didn’t answer Jagger Schulz, one of the two members of my team standing with me. I glared at him instead. Altogether, I had four men who worked for me: the two with me at the moment, Schulz and Luke Blaymore; and Hastings Lange and Scott Chau, who were out patrolling on horseback. Normally one team worked days and the other nights, and they switched off weekly so no one became permanently nocturnal. But being as it was New Year’s Eve, everyone would be inside the château this evening—or was supposed to be, per Roman. But we had found the third slaughtered elk in two days, and the rising body count made me uneasy.
“Okay, here, look,” Schulz said, opening up the map on his tablet. “This is where we found the carcasses, right along the—”
“And you’re sure,” I interrupted, “the animals weren’t killed for food?”
“No, sir,” Schulz assured me. “They were attacked and—”
“Attacked is a gentle word for what was done,” Blaymore chimed in pointedly, his gaze meeting mine. “It was savage. They were disemboweled and left bleeding out in the snow.”
Schulz cleared his throat. “An animal wouldn’t have done it.”
We were all in agreement.
“We’re chasing a shifter,” Schulz concluded.
“Or several.” Blaymore sighed. “Lange says they’ve got more than one set of tracks.”
The fact that all four members of my team knew the difference between a shifter attack and that of a regular animal was a testament to the faith I had in them.
None of my men were shifters, but as I was—and I had trained them to be able to take me down—I was confident in their ability to subdue whatever they came across.
I’d instructed them in areas of combat that others couldn’t dream of because the idea of a shifter would never occur to most. But for the four men in my unit who now worked for me, paranormal was their reality. Hiding information about something realistically dangerous that could kill them was not an option. It was imperative for them to know the difference between an animal and something more. It was why I had first changed in front of their eyes, so they’d be prepared. They were my men; they counted on me for their survival. I would never leave their safety up to chance.
With them clad in body armor, carrying Heckler & Koch G36C assault rifles as well as Glocks and assorted knives, I wasn’t concerned that they would be hurt. If they called me for backup, I could drive down to the police station and have a rescue helicopter in the air five minutes later. It was a L’Ange asset—Roman owned the machine—it was just housed at the police station as they needed it upon occasion. I had twenty-four-hour access and was a trained pilot; I would do whatever was necessary to take care of my men.
My team trusted me and I, them. I had to. They knew what I was. It helped, of course, that I had been their staff sergeant when we all served in the Marine Corps together. I had enlisted at eighteen, was active duty Force Recon, and switched to the reserves at thirty after twelve years in. It worked for me, and now, nine years later, still in the reserves, I’d achieved the rank of gunnery sergeant. When my status changed, the guys tried to start calling me Gunny, but I had been just Sarge too long, so it didn’t catch on. When we were called on to perform our duties in the field, they used the correct title, but that was the only time. With twenty-one years in now, I was going to hang around for at least another three or four and reap all the benefits. I had always been the guy who had a plan, and being a Marine with my background and skill set made me a valuable commodity in the civilian world. In fact, my reputation initially placed me on Roman’s father’s radar.
Sherman Howell had wanted the grounds of L’Ange safe in a way that most people wouldn’t contemplate. For instance, if someone came for his wife or child, he wanted them dead, not simply dissuaded. It was interesting to me that such a warm, caring man had such a dangerous collection of personnel under his roof.
“So you’re doing what?” I asked Schulz, fiddling with my shoulder holster at the same time. I was wearing it over a sweater, under my half trench. It fit too snugly with the added layer over my dress shirt, but I hadn’t paid any attention—too distracted by thoughts of Linus—until after I was dressed and making my rounds.
“We’re going up to join Lange and Chau. They think they found a den or something, so we’re going with them to check it out.”
“Everything down here will be on you,” Schulz explained, like I didn’t know. “You want me or Luke to stay behind?”
I scowled at him even though I couldn’t help fidgeting.
“It was just a question. We’ll call you as soon as we find anything.”
“Good,” I said irritably.
“Why don’t you just loosen it up?” Blaymore chuckled, moving the placket so he could see the holster. “Can I mess with it? Is that okay?”
“I was busy,” I groused, pulling off the left arm of my jacket so he could reach the buckle. “This is driving me nuts.”
He laughed as he adjusted the leather holster my Beretta 92FS Inox sat in.
“Okay, so whatever it is—or they are—do we have your permission to bring them down?” Schulz checked.
I knew what he was asking. Once a dead animal shifted, there would be a dead man, or woman, to contend with.
“Yes,” I agreed, rotating my shoulder once Blaymore was done and sliding my jacket back on. “Print them first.”
“Understood,” Schulz said flatly. “You’ll have a report in an hour, and then another every fifteen minutes.”
“I want everyone here before dawn whether you find anything or not.”
“Roger that,” both men responded.
When they left, I turned and found myself face-to-face with Tucker Flynn.
My life and Tucker’s had intersected earlier in the month when I was called to Phoenix to protect Roman during a challenge Quade participated in. Afterward, since Tucker offered and I belonged to no one––having been assured that Roman was absolutely in no danger––I had flirted with both the man and the idea of taking him to bed. It would have been nothing more than a harmless dalliance, but even as I was considering it, I knew the chances of me following through were first minute, then quickly implausible. As much as my body wanted the release, my head and heart didn’t agree.
The thing was, I liked him, liked Tucker. He was quiet and gentle, and that appealed to my hard, cold nature. I even got upset with Quade for suggesting Tucker didn’t belong to me and that he would find a mate. But the truth was, it had less to do with Tucker and more to do with Quade. I didn’t like the newly made alpha assuming that just because he was Roman’s husband and mate, he had any power over me at all. Roman was my boss—that was a real-world consideration—but it had nothing at all to do with being a shifter. Simply because I was one—and Quade and now Roman were as well—did not make me part of their jackal pack.
The very idea was revolting. Not that they knew I was a shifter anyway.
So what made me bristle was his presumption that I was his to order about, and nothing more. Unfortunately I had acted on my irritation with Quade by insisting Tucker return with me to my hotel.
For just a moment, I had let down my guard. What piqued my interest in Tucker had been his submissiveness. I’d wanted Linus to allow me to be possessive of him for so long. To find that in another who so obviously offered me dominion was a rush. But back in my hotel room, after I’d kissed Tucker breathless and had him ready and willing, halfway undressed on my bed, I realized that only Linus would do.
Tucker was surprised when I stopped and had him get dressed, explaining that I didn’t want to be a dick and take advantage of him. I used the fact that I was there to guard Roman, even though, by that point, Quade had retaken that duty. Tucker had wanted to stay the night with me anyway, just to sleep beside me, but I lied: told him he was far too much of a temptation, and sent him on his way. The truth was I wanted to forget all about him, but that turned out to be impossible when he followed Quade—and thus me—home.
Tucker’s presence was both a blessing and a curse.
As for the curse: The man wanted me to finish what I started in Phoenix and missed no opportunity to confess his desire. I couldn’t shake him. Normally I slept with someone and disappeared. But this was different. We hadn’t even done anything, and he was stalking me as though we had.
I wasn’t flattered—I was annoyed because he was ubiquitous. He was there in the morning when I came down after breakfast to begin my day. I couldn’t change my schedule because my men and I had systems in place, coordinated meetings, check-in times. It had been easy for Tucker to learn about those and then attend, much to the eyebrow raising of my team. It was a mess, one of my own making. I had no one to blame but myself. The simple truth that I wasn’t interested would have cleared everything up, but while his feelings weren’t important to me, the scene it would cause was. I kept my personal life private, and that was how I wanted it to remain.
I was hoping when Tucker went back to Phoenix with Quade and Roman after New Year’s––Roman changed their travel plans from the eve to the following day after he realized he was expected to spend the night counting down to 2014 with the people who worked for him––that Tucker would stay in Arizona with the pack and not return to Maine. His desire needed to ebb, and I was certain distance and time would achieve that goal.
The blessing was the phenomenal effect my shadow was having on Linus Hobbes.
He was ferociously jealous.
I could smell it, taste it. Even if I wasn’t a shifter, from the way Linus puffed up, held his head and squared his shoulders, it would have been obvious. Linus could barely stand to look at Tucker and couldn’t keep his eyes off me. The anger, the hurt—I wanted to bathe in it, and while I knew it was childish, I couldn’t be made to care. Normally Linus wore a mask of frosty indifference, seemingly attached to no one and nothing. But the heated looks I received, seething with anger and hunger at the same time, told me all I needed to know. Linus would thaw for me.
Linus needed to be reminded that I was all he wanted, all he needed. And while I was not the reason Tucker Flynn was at L’Ange—his job was to protect Quade, and so he traveled everywhere with him—his presence was a constant irritant. It didn’t help that I had been going out of my way to duck him.
Every time Linus came near me, I had an excuse to leave. I made certain to show Tucker the house, the grounds, all on the premise of helping him get acclimated. But I watched Linus get more and more agitated, listened to him snap out orders and grow even colder to another transplant in our midst, Jon Slade. But in response, Jon had taken an interest in Linus that I would not have. It was my reason for looking for Linus at eight in the evening. I needed to talk to him concerning what Quade confronted me about a week earlier. But first…
“Tucker,” I said gruffly, stepping around him. “Are you getting excited to go home?”
He easily kept stride with me. “I actually wanted to talk to you about that.”
Stopping sharply, I turned and met his gaze, waiting.
“It doesn’t look like Garrett and I will be back. You and your team don’t need our help protecting Roman or Quade when they’re home at L’Ange. You’ve been doing it for years without us. And even though Roman put us on the payroll full time, it’s stupid for us to be here.”
Even though I agreed wholeheartedly, there had to be more. I crossed my arms. He cleared his throat.
“And?” I prodded.
“So—” He coughed. “We’re going to assist Renau Santos in Phoenix from now on when Quade and Roman are there visiting. It makes more sense.”
“And you know, that’ll be a relief for both of us.”
I huffed out a breath. “I’m sorry?”
He shrugged. “I’m looking for a good guy, Arman, and we both know that’s not you.”
I understood. It was time for blame to be assigned.
“You’re not the hero of this piece.”
I could get defensive or I could let him say whatever he needed to, no matter how passive-aggressive it got.
“I thought,” he said, his voice crackly, “you were a good guy. But you’re not. You’re not looking for a mate; you’re just looking for your next fuck, and because you knew I was going to be around, you’ve already moved on from the idea of me.”
Oh, he’d psychoanalyzed me, how wonderful.
“You fuck and forget, and since you’d have to continue to see me––you’re not interested.”
Whatever justification worked for him was fine with me.
He took a shuddering breath, and I could see the anger and frustration all over him: clenched jaw, fisted hands, taking breaths through his nose, all of it told me what he’d been holding in for the past couple of weeks. He’d been in so much deeper than I had anticipated.
“It’s sad, really. I mean, everyone thinks we’ve been together this entire time, but the truth is that we’ve never even been to bed once,” he said curtly. “You took the coward’s way out the first time when you realized what the situation would be.”
“That you’d have to keep seeing me!”
“You have no interest in spending time with anyone more than once.”
He was wrong, but it hardly mattered. I actually wanted to spend all my time with the man I was currently trying to get to. With Linus Hobbes, I suspected my whole life would not be long enough. He was the only one I thought about at all, and because I was more than ready to claim what was so obviously mine, Tucker had to go. I had nothing to give him, Linus being my sole focus. I was sure the sweet jackal would make some lucky man a lovely mate, but he needed to go find whoever that was, as far away from me as possible.
“Say something,” he demanded, returning my attention to him.
“What’s to say,” I replied automatically, just wanting him out of my way. “You’re right; it’s me, not you.”
His eyes searched mine. “You’re so cold, Arman. There’s not a trace of compassion or caring in you.”
“Probably not,” I agreed, brushing by him. We had nothing more to say and I was wasting valuable time. It wasn’t my fault he’d formed an attachment over nothing more than some kisses and groping. He was a grown man, for fuck’s sake.
“You’re an asshole!” he yelled after me.
I didn’t turn. What was the point? He was of no consequence—only reaching Linus was. I knew who I wanted, and to accept anything less after seven, almost eight years, was folly. I would make Linus mine. Or I’d kill him. One or the other. At present I wasn’t sure of the outcome.
IT HAD taken all my self-control not to find Linus on Christmas Eve and throttle him. I knew why he had done it. I always knew. But jealousy was not an excuse to be stupid.
He could have been killed. Lions were never to be trusted.
I blamed Quade.
As the newly restored alpha of the Kos Epirus pack, Quade Danas planned to travel back and forth between Orly, Arizona—where the pack resided—and Corbett, Maine—where Roman’s home and businesses were. Only time would tell if the plan would prove successful.
To begin with, several pack members decided to follow their leader from the desert to the East Coast. A few, like Quade’s sister and her family, as well as his mother, moved onto the grounds. Those changes were all well and good, except that somewhere among the many additions to L’Ange, a lion had been allowed to take up residence in the château itself.
Why Roman considered inviting yet another predator into his home when the grounds were rife with them already was beyond me. Furthermore, lions were the epitome of recklessness. Preening and pompous, they only rose from their beds to create havoc, as the lion had accomplished when he was seen hunting a white stag.
I suspected that stalking might actually be the better word for what Jon Slade had been doing when Quade and Roman observed him. Thinking about the incident again, as I’d been for the last week, it was difficult to breathe around my aggravation. The chance Linus had taken simply because he was upset with me was ridiculous.
I saw him walking briskly through the main hall and yelled his name to get him to stop.
He kept moving.
My growl was deep. “You’re making a mistake.”
He huffed. I heard it easily even across the cavernous space.
I could cajole or…. “I’ll run you down and tie you up!” I threatened, my voice loud, booming, as I strode toward him quickly. “And when you’re tied to my bed—”
He whirled around to face me. “How dare you presume to speak to me in such a manner!”
“I’ll speak to you any way I fuckin’ like,” I assured him, my tone as frigid as his.
Apparently I had the same effect on Linus that I did on Tucker. Both men were seething, and for the very same reason. They both thought I didn’t want them. And while Tucker was right, Linus was dead wrong. He both infuriated and bewitched me.
It all started with his eyes. There should have been sonnets written about them.
Linus’s eyes were opaque with the faintest blush of pale blue. His hair was prematurely gray with strands of silver and white running through it, and combined with his frosty gaze, gave him an air of absolute glacial perfection I found mesmerizing. He was stunning, and I wanted to fuck him, eat him, and beat him in equal measure.
“You’re not allowed to say those sorts of things to—”
“Shut up,” I snapped, closing in, enjoying the slight tremble in the man. “You’re never going to guess what Quade accused me of doing on Christmas Eve.”
“I’m certain I have no idea,” he said haughtily, clipping the words, stepping around me, trying to head toward the front of the house. “It’s New Year’s Eve, Arman. Why in the world you would think I have time to stand here and converse with you is ludicrous.”
Grasping his left forearm, I stopped him easily, spinning him around to face me. “I know who you were out running with that day, stag prince.” His shiver, his catch of breath, the delicious way his scent changed from man to prey, and the heat that flowed off him in waves, all of it moved me to tighten my grip and ease him closer. “Are you listening to me?”
I watched his pupils dilate and his Adam’s apple bobble as he swallowed. I wished for the millionth time he could actually step out of himself and see how he reacted to me. If he could, just once, he’d know that all his protests were crap. He ran from everyone else; he was scared of everyone else. But me, he wanted, and it was ridiculously apparent.
“What are you thinking?” I asked softly, making my voice low, gentling him.
“That’s—” He took a breath. “—what color your eyes are.”
Not often, but every now and then when he was really flustered or if I caught him off guard, he’d blurt out some halting, uncertain statement that told me exactly what I’d known all along. He was as attracted to me as I was to him, while at the same time utterly terrified.
“Would you mind unhanding me, please?” he directed, trying to mask the arousal now mixing with the scent of his fear. As if I couldn’t tell.
Walking him quickly into a quiet alcove, I spun him around to face me, and he had to lift his chin to meet my gaze. Even though at six two I only had those couple of inches on him, it was enough that he had to look up at me.
“I wish you wouldn’t manhandle me at any given opportunity.”
“I don’t do that.”
“You most certainly do,” he argued. “Now let go.”
I released him slowly and would have continued my inquisition, but I noticed his clothes suddenly. “What the hell are you wearing?”
His mouth opened but nothing came out.
“Linus,” I demanded, taking a step closer.
He lifted a delicate hand to my chest, and I felt the heat from his palm, even through the sweater and dress shirt I wore.
The urge to run him down and tear his throat out was suddenly swamped by the desire to have him under me in bed. After seven years of dancing around that craven need, I was ready.
“This is most obviously a Victorian dinner jacket in black velvet over a silver and black tapestry cavalier vest with a Regency white cotton shirt and a jabot,” he rambled nervously.
“With ruffled sleeves.”
“I see that.”
“The pants are fall front breeches.”
“And the shoes?” I teased, slipping a hand loosely, gently, around his neck, my thumb sliding up and down his throat.
“My wingtips under button spats,” he said, his voice cracking. “My top hat is in the foyer.”
“Of course it is.”
Wide, expressive lushly lashed eyes fluttered shut, and he jolted under my caress as his pulse started beating wildly. His fight-or-flight reflex had kicked in, and it was visibly taking effort for him to not shove away from me and run. It required the same concentration for me to keep my hands from becoming claws and sinking them into his sleek golden skin. Both reactions, from both of us, were a constant battle.
“Arman,” he whimpered.
“Linus,” I answered, leaning close, inhaling his delicious scent, drawing it deep into my lungs even as my lips parted.
His hands lay against my chest, but he wasn’t shoving away, instead clutching at my sweater, holding tight.
The action sent a jolt of electricity through me, and I realized, as I did often, how desperately I wanted to claim him.
“You scare me.”
I smiled before pressing a soft kiss to the vulnerable column of his throat, warming the skin with my breath.
“But only a little,” he confessed, shivering.
I growled without meaning to and stilled instantly, waiting for him to wiggle free. Any noise that reminded him of attack, he ran from. I knew why, of course, knew the deeper reason for his fear, one beyond the simple explanation of predator and prey. His history was related to me when the promise to always protect him was extracted all those years ago—not that he knew what Roman Howell’s mother, Lily, had told me. He had no idea that I knew precisely how brave he was being at the moment. Or perhaps, how aroused.
“Arman,” he said as his eyes drifted open.
I was startled by the look of raw need I saw, and my body reacted before my brain.
Shoving him backward, I pinned him to the wall, my leg parting his thighs as I grabbed hold of his hips.
The mewling cry torn from his chest lanced through me, and I didn’t stop to wonder if my next action would scare him. I bent and sealed my lips over his.
He opened for me and my tongue found his, pushing and rubbing, savoring what he was offering, wanting more. His hands burrowed up under my sweater, tugging on the shirt before they were there, on my bare skin, skimming over my abdomen.
Never had he been so bold, and while I wondered at the timing, I didn’t care enough to stop and ask why.
When he sucked my tongue into his mouth, ground up against me, and moaned deep and ragged, I slid my hands to his tight, round ass and grabbed hold.
He arched into my grip, breaking the kiss, his head falling back, baring his throat, giving himself over like he never had before.
I stared down into his beautiful besotted eyes.
It was me; I had done that to him, robbed him of his reason with just one kiss. I had to be careful: seeing the effect of passion on him could become addictive.
“What?” he asked softly.
“Linus,” I croaked.
“Oh,” he cried, trying to push me away. “I’m so stupid. You don’t—oh God.”
“Stop,” I commanded, my voice darker, more savage than I’d intended.
He gasped, frozen in my arms.
“I want you, Linus,” I rumbled, my voice hungrily possessive. “Make no mistake.”
“Well,” he said, giving me an indignant sniff. “You can’t have me and your pet both.”
“I don’t have a pet.”
“You most certainly do,” he argued, and I could hear the hurt and anger in equal parts. “That wretched jackal––”
“Was never mine,” I corrected him, inhaling deeply, filling my nose with his scent. “Ever.”
“But everyone said you two have been… together,” he said, his voice tapering to a whisper.
“Perhaps you should have asked me instead of relying on what people thought they knew.”
He was studying my face, determining the truth for himself, deciding.
“I would tell you if I fucked him. Why would I lie?”
There was no reason, I didn’t have to. I didn’t belong to Linus; there was no betrayal if I’d taken another to bed. I just didn’t want to.
“You said while you were in Phoenix that you were going to,” he said, his voice stilted. “You acted as though you had.”
My grunt was smug.
His eyes opened wide. “You did it on purpose!”
I had, and my cackle was evil before I took his mouth again.
He fought me a moment, galled over my actions, I was sure, but his lips parted and his tongue slipped inside to mate with mine, his desire stronger than his pride.
The man tasted like mint leaves and something just him, just Linus. I wanted more.
He wrapped his arms around my neck and held tight as I plundered his mouth, one kiss becoming another and another, an unbroken string of mounting urgency as he whimpered and whined, grinding into me.
I pulled back, finally, to breathe, to gulp air, stunned at the way he leaned to follow before biting down on my bottom lip to hold me still.
My slow grin was impossible to contain. Since when did my sweet little deer bite? “I’m not complaining, but really, what’s come over you, stag prince?”
He cleared his throat. “I’d prefer you not call me that, as I’ve said on a number of occasions.”
“Like I care what you want,” I baited, wedging my face into the hollow of his throat, rubbing my prickly jaw over his silky skin, leaving stubble burn before I opened my mouth and let my passion-elongated canines drag over his carotid.
“You enjoy scaring me,” he accused as he shivered.
“A little,” I rasped before I moved quickly and recaptured his mouth.
The desire to bite him was a ravenous, devouring need, but even more than that, I wanted him to want me. His complete trust and submission was necessary.
No one had any faith in me, not really. They feared me. They respected me. They believed I would protect them and keep them safe. But to know I would not turn on them, never hurt them, no one could say that with any real certainty.