Coyote shifter Tate Allen has been watching. Learning his mate every possible way before he moves in. Protecting her through the night, always from afar.
He’ll be the one to teach her about her gifts. He’ll be there when she changes for the first time.
With him, she’ll fulfill her destiny.
Elise Ralston loves Tate for the patience he’s shown. The faith he’s demonstrated—denying himself what he needs sexually, even as he teaches her about pleasure.
For Tate, Elise is willing to try. To revel in touch, to give him control…and to embrace her healer’s need.
But someone unknown is still stalking the clan, threatening more than Tate and Elise’s bond. And Elise is a prime target—precious for the magic she hasn’t even learned yet.
This book is approximately 102,000 words
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No signs of movement. No shadows moving as the early evening sun sunk behind the isolated cottage just thirty feet away from where Tate watched. No wavering of the curtains that shielded his mate's window.
But Elise was in there.
In coyote form he'd scented her. A faint mix of some exotic flower a man like him didn't stand a chance in hell of identifying, and a sweet treat warm from the oven. He had prowled the heavily wooded perimeter of the outdated home Elise shared with her mother, Jenny, and choked back a frustrated howl as the soft patter of water filled the old claw-foot tub and painted vivid images of her lingering in the warm water.
He backed farther into the trees and scanned the footpath that had begun to form between Elise's home and the one Tate shared with Priest, Kateri and Jade. The jaunt wasn't a difficult one. A brisk five-minute walk at most that wound through the unspoiled woods near Eureka Springs's Beaver Lake.
And Jade was supposed to have made that trek twenty minutes ago.
His hackles bristled, and a low growl rolled up his throat, his beast chiming in with its own displeasure. In the two weeks since he'd met Elise, his companion had grudgingly played along with the self-imposed distance Tate had kept between them. A distance his instincts insisted was crucial to learn and prepare for the hunt ahead. Hell, the way Elise's heart had hammered in those first few seconds, distance had been downright necessary. The only reliable action that kept him from pinning her to the floor and taking her right then and there.
But his coyote was done with waiting. Had exhausted its patience and was ready to get on with the business of winning their mate.
Almost time. Just a few more hours.
It was more thought and emotion than actual words, the connection between man and animal as natural as his heart and lungs working in synchronization.
A twig snapped.
Tate spun toward the sound, ears tweaking in the direction of soft, but steady footfalls against soil softened by April's steady rains. Logic told him it was Jade finally showing up to do what he'd asked of her, but with Draven still on the loose and hunting clan primos, the warrior in him wasn't willing to run on logic alone.
A second later, Jade strode into view, her long dark hair loose and swinging with each confident step, and the silver charms she'd woven into braids on one side of her head sparking in the waning sunlight. While she wasn't his sister in the truest sense, they may as well have shared blood. He sure as hell wanted to strangle her right about now the way a blood-bound brother would.
He waited until she was within ten feet to welcome his shift, the snap and burn beneath his skin as he re linquished his animal form to the Otherworld nothing compared to the impatience twisting his insides. "You're late."
Apparently, he and his coyote weren't the only ones in a nasty mood, because Jade snarled back at him as only a woman could, a little of her lynx mingling with the sound. "Elise is my friend, not an assignment. If you don't want to work with my timetable, then get off your ass and engage with your mate the way you're supposed to."
"So? Katy was new, too, and Priest barely let her out of his sight."
Oh, Elise hadn't been far from him. Maybe not always visible, but aside from time spent at work with a tattoo iron in his hand or running down leads on Draven and their missing seer primo when Priest demanded it, Tate had stayed close to her. It'd meant a lot of time in coyote form to maintain control and sleeping hidden outside her home, but he'd kept as tight of a connection as he dared. "She's different."
Jade opened her mouth as though she meant to argue, then frowned and snapped it shut. She'd been around Elise enough to sense it. The careful distance his mate kept between her and everyone. The watchful, sometimes skittish gaze so common to easy prey. The hesitancy craftily hidden behind a determined mask when she interacted with new clan members she met. The woman Elise presented to the outside world wasn't the real deal. It was armor. A protective shield his gut said had been honed from something painful, and he'd be damned if his predatory actions did anything to fortify that armor.
He wanted it off her. Wanted the woman he'd glimpsed in the unguarded moments when she hadn't known he'd been watching. To help her live and experience what it meant to be Volán without fear. To free the soft and sensual creature he sensed caged underneath. "She might be different," Jade said, "but pretending to be someone you're not is no way to build a relationship."
The soft but pointed sentiment struck hard and deep, rattling a truth he'd worked hard to ignore. "I'm not pretending. I'm being careful."
"You're a predator. A man who thrives on the hunt. I've never seen a male in our clan more primal with a woman than you, but you've barely allowed yourself in the same room with her. That's more than careful. That's avoidance. Don't tell me there's not more to this than being cautious with Elise."
More? That was the understatement of the century. More like a gaping black hole of uncertainty he had no fucking clue how to cross. He'd thought he'd find his mate later in life like Priest had. That he'd be more grounded in his place as a clan warrior. Not twenty-seven and primed with more animalistic drive than he knew what to do with half of the time. A double whammy considering Elise was an intoxicating mix of sensual faery and untouched innocence. Winning her trust without losing control was going to be the miracle to trump all miracles.
"Tonight." The simple admission ripped up the back of his throat with all the comfort of a double-edged blade. Sharing meant a commitment. Someone to hold him accountable if he altered his plans, and Jade would call him on his shit in a heartbeat. "I want to talk to her mother first. Let her know ..."
Out of nowhere, one of the many erotic images his mind had painted in the last few weeks derailed his thoughts. Elise on her belly. Moonlight covering her bare skin. Her knees cocked and her ass lifted for him. His hand pinning her to the ground at the back of her neck while the other gripped her hip and held her steady for his cock.
He shook his head to clear the image and swallowed back a low growl.
A sly grin crept across Jade's face. "Yeah, whatever explanation went with the look that just crossed your face probably isn't the one to use with her mom."
No shit. But he couldn't keep her mother in the dark either. She might have had the benefit of knowing about their clan growing up, but she'd had zero direct exposure to it and hadn't accepted her gifts when given the chance. "She needs to know Elise is my mate. Needs to understand what's going on."
"You don't think Naomi's told her already? Surely, she's at least laid the groundwork."
Maybe. Katy's grandmother wasn't just an elder seer in their clan, but the queen mother of all meddlers. She'd been there the day fate had hit him with a thunderbolt. Had done her part to cover the awkward silence while he wrestled to comprehend he'd just come face-to-face with his mate. No Volán man could miss that reality. The white aura around her had been as unmistakable as the awareness that had roared to life in her presence. The pull and insistent lash to take and claim what was his.
"Just get Elise to Beltane," Tate ground out. "I can't ..." He cleared his throat and forced another huge breath. "I can't think straight when Elise is close, and I need to get this right with her mom."
Jade studied him a moment, the early evening sunlight slanting from between the treetops brightening her shrewd green eyes. "The Keeper gave her to you for a reason, Tate. You won't get this wrong. No matter what you do."
Easy for her to say. She hadn't been semi to fully hard for over fourteen days with a hunter's urge to overtake a sweet woman who hadn't known their clan, shifters or magic even existed a month ago. He jerked his head toward Elise's house. "Go. I'll follow you to the party then circle back and talk to Jenny."
Snapping back to her usual sibling-combative self, Jade scoffed, pushed him out of her way with a none-too-gentle shove of his shoulder and strode toward the cottage. "Whatever. We're on protected land. Draven couldn't have gotten past Priest's wards a month ago. Now that Katy's practicing her magic and adding to them, he doesn't have a prayer of touching Elise while she's here." She paused just before she stepped past the tree line that opened out into the main yard and glared back at Tate. "Tonight, Tate. I love spending time with Elise and would do anything to help you, but she's your gift, not mine. Take it, or I swear to God, me and Katy are going to make Naomi look like a sweet little old woman who knows how to mind her own business."
As effective threats went, it was a doozy, the host of possible complications Katy and Jade could conjure for him effectively scrambling his focus.
Until the heavy door chunked open and left Elise framed in sunlight through the open doorway.
He'd seen her in jeans. Seen her in leggings and those sinful as hell yoga pants that showed off every curve he'd eventually explore. But he'd never seen her in shorts. Insanely short shorts. Denim ones that were faded and well frayed around the edges, effectively drawing his focus to the tender juncture where the back of her thigh shifted to the lower swell of her ass. According to the chats he'd had with her mom, and based on the trophies and medals he'd spied in Elise's room, she'd been an athlete once. Gymnastics, track and dance. He still hadn't learned why she'd given them up, but the fact that she was still an avid runner was evidenced in her toned muscles.
As if the bottom half of her outfit wasn't enough to keep him strung out, there was even more sun-kissed skin up top. Nothing fancy. Just a simple loose tank the color of a blazing summer sunset, but a pale teal bra strap peeked from behind the neckline, practically begging a man to explore underneath. Which all but guaranteed he'd be having his conversation with Jenny in record time and getting back to the party. No man was getting within five feet of his mate. Not without him by her side.
Elise laughed at something Jade muttered too low for him to catch, ducked her head so her golden-blond hair fell forward to cover her heart-shaped face and smoothed her palms along her hips — a self-conscious action that said she was as uncomfortable with her wardrobe as he was with her wearing it. When she lifted her head again, her cheeks were flushed, and her big green eyes were loaded with doubt and uncertainty. "I can't believe you talked me into wearing these."
"Oh, they're perfect," Jade answered, twisting her torso just enough to make sure her answer reached Tate as well. She might not have looked him straight in the eye, but with the amount of smugness in her voice, she didn't need to. "They don't look nearly as good on me. Someone needed to put them to better use and you've got the hips for them."
So much for Jade waiting to interfere. In that second, Tate couldn't decide if he wanted to hug her, or hide a handful of tacks in her bed like he had when she'd ratted him and his Playboy stash out to Priest when he was sixteen.
It took another few minutes' worth of hesitation and a whole lot of encouragement from Jade to get them out of the doorway and headed into the woods. Every second of it Tate spent with a death grip on the tree that shielded him from Elise's sight. By the time only their retreating footfalls and Jade's bold laughter remained, the bark had bitten so deep into his skin it stung when he released his grip, and his muscles were strung painfully tight.
He forced one foot in front of the other, the importance of what he was about to share with a woman who could either help or hinder his progress with Elise like a sharp dagger poised to pierce between his ribs. Jenny was smart. Reasonable. Patient and giving with her warm, welcoming smiles. Or at least she had been in the time he'd spent doing odd jobs around her house, helping restore the most immediate things they'd needed to make their new home more comfortable.
But what if that changed when she learned what Elise was to him? He was a tattoo artist, for fuck's sake. Granted, he made decent money doing it. And while his work wasn't as sought after as Priest's was, he wasn't hurting for clients either. But Elise was on track for a solid career in sports rehabilitation. A kinesiology degree that would let her work with athletes and doctors pretty much anywhere she wanted to go.
And then there was the whole Draven thing. Elise and her mom had already had their whole world turned upside down and been forced to leave their home to keep Elise safe on warded ground. What if Jenny's lack of clan knowledge and fears for her daughter's safety worked against him? What if she didn't think he could protect her?
An inner snip and growl from his coyote knocked him out of his spiraling thoughts just as he stepped onto the raised wooden porch. That was the blessing of having a companion. The most genuine of connections to nature. Animals didn't overanalyze. They lived by instinct. Honored and utilized the gifts given by the Creator and simply were. And thank God for that, because in the last few weeks he'd relied on that balance more than he had the whole time since he'd accepted his soul quest and received his gifts.
He squared his shoulders, let out a hard breath and knocked, the reverberations of the thick wood door rattling down his forearms.
Elise's scent still lingered around him, mingled with damp forest soil and the lake's crisp bite. For the first day of May, it was warmer than normal. By nightfall, the temps would be perfect. Not cold enough Elise would be uncomfortable, but chilly enough she'd crave his heat.
Quick footsteps sounded on the hardwood floors beyond and the door swept open.
"Did you forget ..." The fond humor on Jenny's face shifted to open surprise. "Tate! I thought Elise had forgotten something and locked herself out." She scanned the front yard, then eyed him from top to toe. While he hadn't strayed from the tee and jeans he normally showed up at their house in, tonight his hair was loose and the quality of what he'd picked wasn't something he'd do fix-it work in. "Why aren't you at the party? Did Naomi send you? I told her I could cart the food I'm making there on my own."
"No. Naomi didn't send me." Though, now that he thought about it, he'd known Jenny was planning on bringing a load of food to the celebration and should've planned on helping her get it there himself. "But you don't need to carry food alone. I can help."
Like her daughter, Jenny was petite and had startling green eyes, big and wide set so they gave her an ageless and guileless appearance. But where Elise's hair was long and a rich gold, Jenny kept hers cut simply at chin length and had probably been a deep chocolate color before the soft gray had started taking over. She cocked her head to one side, wisdom borne of hard choices and a life alone narrowing her sharp gaze. "But that's not why you're here."
"No." For a second, the urge to dodge the truth and come up with some lame excuse for checking on one of the many repairs he'd done nearly knocked him off course.
Then he thought of Elise. Of those unguarded moments where he'd spied the woman beneath the neutral mask. Of that concentrated look she got on her face when she stared out at the lake from her window and how it always made him want to know what she was thinking. Of how she'd looked walking away from her house tonight, dressed to innocently tempt him and who knew how many other men.
But she was his. His gift. And it was high time he started acting like it.
He met Jenny's stare head-on and let the same certainty he'd felt in those first moments near Elise billow up and bolster his words. "I'm here to talk about Elise."CHAPTER 2
So many people. At least a hundred, if Elise had to guess, all of them milling from one group to another in the wide gorge behind Priest's big lake-view home. From her place between Jade and Priest's mate, Katy — or Kateri, as Priest insisted on calling her — Elise kept quiet and soaked in every detail. The torches that Katy had lit with nothing more than a flick of her hand. The treetops full of rich green leaves softly rustling overhead. The comforting rumble of easy conversation peppered with genuine laughter, and the strains of a laid-back alternative playlist piped through speakers she couldn't pinpoint.
A chance for a clean slate.
From the year Elise had turned fourteen and been brutally indoctrinated into just how cruel teenage girls could be, she'd wanted to rewrite her life. A do-over to see if she could handle things differently the next time around and come out whole on the other side.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Healer's Need"
Copyright © 2018 Rhenna Morgan.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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