Read an Excerpt
Lennox, Kentucky Friday night
Someone smelled good. No, better than good. Someone smelled downright sinful. And as the warm, womanly, mouthwatering scent filled his head, Aiden Shrader began thinking that his current assignment was an even bigger mistake than he'd thought it would be. After all, he was standing on a human female's doorstep at nine o'clock at night, ready to tell her that she was now under his protection, for God only knew how long, whether she liked it or not. And he was probably going to have to toss in the fact that he wasn't just an armed, badass-looking bodyguard set on keeping her and her three-year-old niece alive, but a shape-shifter, as well. One who could take the form of a massive, deadly predator. An actual tiger-shifter, to be precise.
Oh, yeah, he thought, pushing his windblown hair back with one tattooed hand while the bitter December night twined itself around his long body like a cold, clinging lover. There isn't a chance in hell that little tidbit is going to go down well.
Aiden and his colleagues didn't know how much Olivia Harcourt's stepsisters had told her about the world of preternatural creatures who lived hidden among humanity, the various races collectively referred to as "the ancient clans." And since they also didn't know how much she might have been told about the Watchmen—the organization of shape-shifters that Aiden belonged to, whose job it was to watch over the remaining clansmen—there was a good chance the chick was probably going to run screaming, hell-bent for leather, the instant he laid things out for her. She might even run the second she set eyes on him. Not that he'd blame her, if she was the skittish type. At nearly six and a half feet, packed with long, solid muscle and sporting a multitude of tattoos and shaggy hair that he hadn't bothered to cut in months, Aiden was used to sending some women running for cover. They either loved what they saw or didn't stick around long enough to discover if the "bad boy" was really as wicked as he looked.
The simple fact was that some women had a taste for danger…and some didn't. Aiden had never cared much, one way or another, seeing as how his interest in the female gender remained purely physical—his inner animal far easier to control when he kept it sated. The only rules he lived by were that he never messed around with a woman unless she understood exactly how much he was willing to offer, that she was built to handle a hard ride and that she didn't touch the darker, more primal aspects of his nature.
Of the three, that last rule was by far the most important, and now he had to face the unsavory realization that someone in that goddamn house smelled good enough to arouse the dangerous, possessive hungers of his beast…and he was going to be so screwed because of it.
Aiden half prayed the mouthwatering scent didn't belong to the Harcourt woman, but doubted he would be that lucky. Pulling his hand down his face, he stifled a frustrated snarl and figured he might as well stop stalling and get on with it. As the wind stretched a dark, ominous string of clouds across the hazy glow of the moon, he lifted his right hand and banged his fist against the front door of the brick two-story. While he waited impatiently for someone to answer, he silently cursed the fact that he needed to get laid, in a bad way, while doing his best to convince himself that he was reacting to that scent only because he'd been forced to live like a monk for too many weeks. He wasn't the type of man to go without, his primal instincts constantly driving his sexual hungers to an urgent, aggressive level, but it was bloody hard to pick up women in the middle of a war. He'd been so busy in the past month, most nights he just collapsed into bed and didn't move until it was time to get up and start all over again the next day.
Not that the Merrick and the Watchmen were making a lot of progress. Though the Merrick were one of the most powerful of the ancient clans, their bloodline had been dormant for centuries, until the recent return of the Casus and the beginnings of the war. A vile race of immortal creatures who'd been imprisoned over a thousand years ago for their crimes against humanity and the other clans, the Casus had somehow begun escaping from Meridian—the metaphysical holding ground that served as their prison—and returning to this world. The first had returned at the end of the summer, with more and more following in recent months. They were now hunting down the Merrick, one by one, exacting a bloodthirsty revenge against their ancient enemy.
As a result of the Casus's return, the Merrick blood within the original clan's descendants was awakening, and some Merrick, like the Buchanans, were now waging a fight against the monsters, along with the help of the Watchmen. Ian Buchanan had actually been the first Merrick to be awakened, and thanks to Ian's sister, Saige, it was the Buchanans' and Shrader's Watchmen unit who were conducting the search for the Dark Markers. As the only known weapons that could destroy a Casus's soul and send it to hell, the Markers were invaluable in their fight against the Casus. The mysterious crosses had been hidden across Europe and the Americas in order to keep them from falling into the wrong hands, and Aiden and his friends were doing everything they could to track them down. But it wasn't enough. Despite the fact that they'd now managed to find five of the hidden Markers, giving up only one to the enemy, their side was losing the war—and Aiden wasn't a man who liked to lose. He'd spent too many years under the thumb of his enemies when he was younger. Now, at the age of thirty-four, he was a man who liked to fight hard and come out on top, no matter what it took to get there. He'd been working his ass off to make sure that he and his friends were going to end this conflict as the victors, and he wanted to be out in the field, continuing the fight. Not acting as a goddamn babysitter.
Around him, the night was strangely silent but for the rustling of the leaves in the trees, the other four houses in the cul-de-sac already dark, though strands of Christmas lights continued to flicker around two of them. Just as he raised his hand to knock for a second time, he heard the back door open and close. It barely made a sound—just a soft brushing of the mechanism clicking into place—but it was enough for his sensitive hearing to pick up. Cocking his head to the side, he listened as someone quickly made their way down a set of steps, their gait uneven, as if they were carrying something heavy on one side of their body.
With his left hand braced on the porch's wooden railing, Aiden vaulted over the top, landing with a soft thud in the damp grass at the side of the house. His mouth watered when he drew in a deeper take of that warm, rich scent as it rode the wintry breeze, stroking his senses like a physical touch. The predatory beast within him stretched into a fuller awareness, its gravelly voice rumbling from deep within, vibrating through his body like a shock wave.
Stalk. Cover. Take.
Cursing under his breath with a bitter surge of frustration, Aiden wondered why things just kept getting crap-pier for him, rather than better, since this was the last damn thing that he needed. One would think that fighting on the "good" side against a sadistic, merciless evil would earn him some karma points from at least one freaking entity in the universe, but his luck just kept slipping deeper into shit.
Then again, he mused, scraping his rough palm against the bristled surface of his jaw as he moved silently through the shadows, maybe he shouldn't be so surprised. Aiden knew firsthand that the good didn't always come out on top. And if they did, it usually took a hell of a lot of time and pain to get there.
Coming around the corner of the house, he stepped into the backyard…and instantly caught sight of the woman, his exceptional night vision enabling him to clearly make out her form in the darkness. He could see that she wasn't overly tall for a female, probably no more than five-five, her shoulders narrow, graceful hands struggling to control a bulky piece of luggage. She looked as though she was in a hurry as she hefted the suitcase into the trunk of a compact Honda, then slammed it closed. She also looked nervous as hell, her hands visibly shaking as she seemed to take a moment to listen to the night. Did she know that trouble was on its way, then? Know that the ones who'd killed Monica Harcourt, her eldest stepsister, and kidnapped the youngest one were now after the little girl she was protecting? Is that why she'd left her home to stay here, at the house of a friend who'd gone out of town?
If so, it had been a foolish move on her part, because the house couldn't have been in a worse location. It sat at the far end of a quiet country neighborhood in a sprawling cul-de-sac, surrounded by woods, the only access road providing the perfect place for an ambush. Aiden had spent the past week about a hundred miles south of Lennox, searching for the fifth Dark Marker along with fellow Watchman Kellan Scott and their human colleague, Noah Winston. They'd found the Marker that morning, and would have already been on their way back to Colorado with it, where the compound they called home was located in the Rocky Mountains, if it weren't for the unexpected phone call that had brought them to Lennox instead. Aiden now carried the ornate cross in his back pocket, and Kellan and Noah were patrolling the woods, on the lookout for the Casus. Monica Harcourt's ghost had been in contact with them, warning that the bastards were coming for her daughter, and Aiden knew better than to underestimate them. If he'd managed to find Olivia Harcourt and her niece at this remote location, the Casus would, as well.
As if she suddenly sensed his presence, the woman turned, caught sight of him at the corner of the house, then immediately started to run. Without thinking about which direction she was headed, simply reacting to the fact that she was running from him, Aiden found himself sprinting across the grassy backyard and taking her down. She started to cry out, but the sharp sound was cut off as they landed heavily on the cold ground, momentarily knocking the wind out of them both.
Soft. That was the first word that came to mind as he lay heavily against her, his chest to her back. Sweet was the second. He usually went for his women a little sturdier than this one, so that he didn't have to worry about hurting them when he let go, but he couldn't deny that he liked the feeling of her lush, feminine little body trapped beneath him.
Without thinking it through, acting purely on animal instinct, Aiden lowered his head and nuzzled the warm, tender patch of skin just behind her right ear. The heavy silk of her red hair tickled his nose, the sleek strands smelling of flowers and spring and things that were too damn tender for his world. His long frame began to shake, something thick and hot rushing through his body, as if a biting, visceral craving unlike anything he'd ever experienced had been injected directly into his veins, poisoning his reason.
A rough noise vibrated in the back of his throat, and he jerked from shock when he realized he was actually purring.
Bad, he silently snarled, and he stilled, not even breathing, while a deeper, more guttural voice chanted "Keep her" within the darkness of his mind.
No, he growled, shaking his head so hard that his long hair flew around his shoulders. No way. Not possible, the rational, human part of his mind argued, while the rest of him went into total meltdown, coming undone, something dark and possessive clawing against his insides, demanding its freedom.
Need her. Naked. Now.
He was, to put it bluntly, completely screwed, and as his body crushed hers against the ground, two thoughts fired simultaneously through Aiden's brain, obliterating everything else. The first was that she felt better than any other woman he'd ever had beneath him, even if she was a human. The second was that he needed to get the hell away from her, before he ended up making the biggest mistake of his life.
This second idea was completely born from the first, and the first had so many tangled layers to it, it was difficult to find his way through them all. He'd known she smelled good, but now that he was so close to her, the effect was staggering, like some tantalizing cross between the dangerously forbidden and the comforting warmth of home. Illicit, and yet strangely familiar, as if it was a part of him. Despite the difference in their heights, she fit against him in a way that just seemed right, and there was something painfully erotic about the soft, gasping sound of her breathing…the way she squirmed to get free.
Just calm down, he thought, struggling to hold himself together. And while you're at it, get a frig gin' grip.
All right. Okay. He could do this, damn it. He just had to think it through. Wrap his mind around it. There had to be a reasonable explanation for his reaction, because human females did not call to his beast this way. That was why he slept with them—for the sheer fact that they did not affect him…that they were safe. If someone had asked him to explain why he liked to bed down with the things
he most hated, that would have been the answer right there—the fact that he remained completely untouched by the humans he had sex with. For the most part, he still considered humanity to be nothing more than a cesspool of greed, filth and perversion, aside from the select few he now considered his friends. And yet, even though he loathed their species, he never hurt the human females he slept with. Never allowed that darker side of his nature its freedom.