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Prague, Czech Republic Saturday night
The club reeked of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll.
If you can call that god-awful noise rock, Morgan Cantrell thought, wishing she'd brought along a set of earplugs. Though she was hardly an expert, the female Watchman doubted the techno trash blaring out of the club's sound system at one hundred decibels could even be classified as music. Torture seemed a more fitting description. Her eardrums—far more sensitive than a human's—were probably bleeding in protest, but she tuned out the pain, focusing instead on her target. On the man, or werewolf that she'd specifically come to track down.
Filled with every kind of depraved vice imaginable, the dark, trendy establishment was the last place on earth she ever would have expected to find fellow Watchman Kierland Scott. And yet, Morgan knew the tall, auburn-haired hunk wedged between two willowy, scantily dressed swan shape-shifters was Kierland. Even with the distance of the massive, strobe-lit room between them, she recognized the hard, rugged angles of his gorgeous face. Recognized that racehorse-lean body that looked as lethal as it did delicious. He wore a faded pair of jeans that hung low on his hips, scuffed leather boots and a soft white shirt that perfectly showcased his sun-darkened coloring and muscled physique, though she knew he would have chosen the clothes solely for comfort. Despite his outrageous good looks, he wasn't vain or pretentious. He was just pure, mouthwatering male animal. Beautiful. Dangerous. And built for sin.
Morgan's breath shortened just as her pulse quickened, and she burned under her suddenly too-tight skin, feeling as if she'd swallowed something hot and thick. It didn't matter how they felt about each other. Didn't matter that they couldn't stand to be in the same room together. Despite how much she disliked him, he always made her feel as if she'd been injected with an overdose of sex hormones…or some kind of head-spinning aphrodisiac.
Don't you mean how much you wish you disliked him?
Pushing the heavy curtain of her hair over her shoulders, Morgan tuned out the irritating voice in her head and focused instead on her surroundings, instinctively searching for any signs of danger. The establishment was obviously geared toward nonhuman clientele, as it was packed with wall-to-wall clansmen. A dynamic, diverse collection of paranormal species, the ancient clans had lived hidden among human society for centuries, the secret of their existence guarded by the organization of shifters she and Kierland worked for, called the Watchmen.
When Morgan had first walked through the door, leaving the howling January winds behind her, she'd been overwhelmed by the strong, thick scents of the varying species all roiling together on the dance floor, their sweat-slicked bodies moving in a kind of hypnotic, sexual frenzy. There were Lycans, witches, various shifters and even a few Deschanel vampires, though they looked over the crowd with the same cocky expression as Kierland, as if they found all the writhing madness a bit beneath them.
Wearing jeans and boots herself, along with a tight black turtleneck sweater, Morgan had more skin covered than any other woman in the club, which suited her just fine. She hadn't come to join the meat market. She just needed to talk to Kierland and tell him why she was there.
So get on with it, then. Don't just stand here gathering dust.
"Right," she whispered under her breath, and yet, she didn't move, her heartbeat picking up speed while her skin went cold and clammy, even with that sensual burn of heat still smoldering inside her. There were too many people, and without enough space, she could feel that familiar flare of panic that had haunted her for the past decade creeping up on her.
Taking a deep breath, she struggled to maintain control. It would be deadly to lose her cool in a place like this. There were too many predators who might seize on the opportunity to bully her. See her as easy game and move in for the kill, for no other reason than she was weaker than they were.
Descended from a freethinking line of shifters who had bred with various species from generation to generation—lion with fawn, wolf with lamb—Morgan was unable to take the shape of any specific animal, and was therefore considered "lacking" by most of the shape-shifting breeds. The prejudice sucked, but it was the nature of the beast for many of the clans. And she hadn't let it hold her back from what she'd wanted, which was to become a Watchman like her paternal grandfather had been. She'd simply trained longer and harder than her peers, tirelessly honing her skills to compensate for the fact that she could only manage a small set of fangs and short claws, and had ended up a damn good Watchman as a result. She no longer even thought of her inability to shift as a weakness, but used it to her advantage, knowing her adversaries often underestimated her.
The only true weakness she had was this nauseating fear of being crowded in by people, the sensation worse when she was indoors, without the freedom of the skies over her head. She wanted so badly to turn tail and return to the wide-open spaces of the night, but there was no turning back. Though she hated the situation, she would have to fight through it. Would have to force herself into that massive, swirling crowd if she was going to make her way to Kierland on the other side.
"Just do it," she quietly growled, her hands flexing at her sides as she took a step forward, and then another. Her vision swam and her throat started to close up as a trickle of sweat slipped down her spine, but she pushed on, refusing to give in to her fears.
Don't look at anyone but Kierland. Just stay focused on him.
It was easy to follow the mental instructions, since the Lycan was so big. So…satisfying to watch, and she wasn't the only one who held that opinion. More than a few hungry, covetous stares covered his tall, muscle-sculpted form, drinking him in, coming from women and men alike. You could literally feel the power emanating from him. The strength and deadly potential that he held under such masterful control. It was mesmerizing, drawing you closer like a spell, until you just wanted to press up against him. Touch his dark skin with the sensitive tips of your fingers, just to feel that hypnotic power pulsing and buzzing beneath the surface.
As she watched, he leaned back against the long bar, his stance casual as the blond shifters pressed in close to his sides, their looks so similar Morgan figured they must be sisters. Maybe even twins. They were exceptionally beautiful, but then swans always were, their pale skin and nearly white-blond hair denoting their species. They were also, in Morgan's experience, all a bit birdbrained…and well-known for their jealous rages. They weren't going to like her moving in on their territory—and she knew, without any doubt, that the hardheaded Lycan would be less than thrilled to see her.
He always is.
It was odd, how much that particular truth still bothered her. After a decade of discord between them, during which they'd avoided one another as much as possible, she really should have gotten used to it by now. Frustrating that she hadn't been able to master that simple concept, no matter how hard she'd tried.
She'd last seen him a week ago at Harrow House, his family estate in England and the house where his Watchmen unit had recently relocated from Colorado for protection purposes. Though Morgan herself had been a part of the Watchmen compound in Reno for the past five years, she'd joined up with Kierland's unit a month ago, after his brother Kellan had called, saying that he and the others could use her help protecting a little girl named Jamie Harcourt from a group of Casus monsters who were hunting her. Together, Morgan and the others had made it to England, where they'd met up with Kierland. He'd stayed at Harrow House with them until all the necessary security upgrades had been made to the previously abandoned mansion, but the second he'd been able to leave, he'd run. Though his friends had wanted him to stay, he'd claimed he still had unfinished business in Prague, where he'd been in negotiations with the Consortium, the governing body of officials who ruled over the remaining ancient clans.
Or maybe he'd simply been itching to get back to his girlfriends.
Shaking off the disturbing thought, Morgan was trying to decide the best way to approach him, when Kierland's head suddenly shot up, and she knew he'd scented her. Strands of dark auburn hair fell over his brow, and the full, sensual shape of his mouth compressed into a hard, tight line the moment his pale green gaze zeroed in on her. Although severe irritation was carved into his fierce expression, it was that piercingly sharp, almost violently intense glare that made her shiver.
What? Like I expected him to be happy to see me? Get real. He'd rather cozy up with a rabid chipmunk.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded in a low rasp, the instant she was within hearing distance. "Are you alone? Where are the others?"
She wasn't surprised by the rapid sequence of questions, considering how dangerous it was for the Watchmen at the moment to be out on their own. After all, they were at war.
Although the Watchmen weren't meant to interfere in the world of the clans, unless ordered to do so by their superiors, times had changed with the return of the Casus—and the awakening of the once formidable Merrick clan.
Though the Merrick had once been one of the most powerful of the ancient clans, their numbers were decimated after years of war, and they eventually took human mates. For centuries, the clan's unique traits had remained dormant within their human descendants—until the recent return of the Casus and the beginnings of the war.
A sadistic race of immortal creatures who were imprisoned over a thousand years ago for their crimes against humanity and the Merrick, the Casus had finally discovered the means to escape from their metaphysical holding ground. Needing the power that came with feeding upon their longtime enemies, they began to hunt down the awakening Merrick, determined to destroy them once and for all.
Now the Watchmen were acting on their own orders and fighting to stop the return of the Casus, their efforts organized by Kierland's unit. They were being aided by three newly awakened Merricks from the Buchanan family—Ian, Saige and Riley—who each possessed a mysterious power that had helped them in the search for a collection of ornate crosses called the Dark Markers. In fact, it was Saige Buchanan who had discovered the set of encrypted maps that led to the Markers' hidden locations, her unique "power" enabling her to decipher the code in which the maps were written. As the only known weapons capable of killing a Casus and sending its soul to hell, the Dark Markers were invaluable in the fight against the Casus—and time was of the essence, because the Casus wanted them, too. They'd even managed to steal the maps for a short time, no doubt making copies while they had them in their possession. Copies everyone had hoped would prove impossible for them to decipher.
The war, to that point, had been bloody, and the Casus hadn't taken kindly to their defeat in England the month before, when the monsters had attacked Kierland's unit in an attempt to get their hands on three-year-old Jamie Harcourt. Since then, they'd assaulted several members of the unit who had left to search for the Dark Markers, and there'd been some close calls, a few of the injuries serious enough that they could have turned fatal.
And then there were the Death-Walkers. The Watchmen had wondered what effect their war with the Casus would have on the world, and now they knew. The gypsy legends that had foretold the return of the Casus and the awakening of the Merrick clan had been based on the fundamental belief that everything in the world was interconnected—and they were only now realizing just how true that belief was with the arrival of this newest enemy.
Each time a Dark Marker was used against one of the vile monsters hunting the Merrick, a portal would open into hell. Unfortunately, as the Casus's soul was forced through, something else was able to crawl out. Thanks to one of Kierland's sources, the Watchmen now knew that these strange, corpselike creatures were called Death-Walkers, and they were bad news. Once the condemned souls of clansmen and -women who'd been sentenced to hell for their crimes, they were now maddened creatures driven insane by their time in the pit. Their only goal seemed to be the creation of chaos among the clans, for no other reason than they wanted to watch the world slip into madness along with them. And their first order of business was to destroy the Watchmen, since the highly trained shifters acted as the eyes and ears of the Consortium.
Kierland might not like Morgan, but he wouldn't be keen to lose another soldier, especially when so many Watchmen had already fallen victim to the Death-Walkers, another streak of deaths taking place in the past few weeks, which brought the toll to nine. The Lycan and his friends had been arguing for a month now about what was considered an acceptable risk when it came to leaving the safety of Harrow House—which was protected from Death-Walker attack because of the surrounding moat that had its waters salted and blessed by the village priest, making it impossible for the creatures to cross—and Kierland was constantly stressing the need for safety in numbers.
Which meant that he was going to be pissed as hell at her for coming alone.
"I'm not a child, Kier. I don't need a chaperone," she told him, surprised by the huskiness of her voice as she finally got around to answering at least one of his questions.
"So you're here by yourself?" Kierland asked, the steely note of frustration in the graveled words testament to just how pissed he really was. Known as a master of self-control, it wasn't often that the Lycan lost his temper—but when he did, it was always a dangerous, yet fascinating sight, like watching a natural disaster erupt right before your eyes.
"I came alone for the same reason you did. The fewer of us who leave the safety of Harrow House at this point, the better," she replied, the sickly sweet scent of the swan-shifters burning her nose as she stepped closer. Morgan might not have been able to completely shift, but her senses were even more highly developed than a predator's, which meant that her sense of smell was exceptionally acute. It was a great asset in the field, but sucked when forced to breathe down the cheap stench of Kierland's dates.