In the wake of a betrayal, Celia Lawson, the last of a preeminent magical bloodline, is building a new life for herself outside the security of the Colony. Meanwhile, demon raiders have breached the protective barriers of the compound and are threatening everyone she loves. When she learns of the tragedy, Celia races home to help mount a magical offensiveand finds comfort back in the arms of the shifter who broke her heart .
Risking exposure for all that he's done, Malcolm Daniels wants only to redeem himself with the pack and win back Celia's trust. But as demon forces invade, Celia's magicand her own conflicted feelings for Malcolmwill be tested in ways neither of them ever would have imagined.
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As the first streaks of dawn lit the horizon, she ran. Her paws scraped along the fine red dust of the desert floor as she dashed through creosote bushes, snakeweed and prickly pear cacti, her nose filling with the honey scent of graythorn.
She paused, catching a different scentthe tangy musk of fear. Her sharp eyes scanned the area in the lingering darkness as she searched the desert floor for shadows, for movement, for something to chase. And there it was, frozen next to a sage bush, impossibly large ears twitching, its round eyes wide with fear. A jackrabbit.
She gave chasethe rabbit's scent filling her nose, the rapid pounding of its small heart thumping in her ears. The rabbit jumped, launching itself at least ten feet, its long legs propelling it at impossibly fast speeds as it zigzagged through yucca and agave.
Exaltation urged Celia faster. She chased the little creature while the sun, cresting beyond the stark canyons, lit the sky in an explosion of color. Power pulsed through her body, with each step rejoicing in her freedom as she raced through the morning air. She wished she could run like this all day but knew it would be too risky here in the Arizona desert, where people rose with the sun.
Then she heard the sound she'd been so afraid would come.
Just a murmur at first, far in the distance, but then the sound grew louder. Closer.
Warily she paused, letting the rabbit get away. Early-morning campers were up ahead in the canyon. She spun, racing away. Too late. Someone yelled a warning to the others. A commotion sounded. The parking lot was just ahead. Her legs, pumping hard, carried her quickly to her car. In the lightening sky, she deftly changed back to her human form, standing naked in the cool morning air until she could reach her clothes inside.
A wolf living among humans was a bad idea. And this was only one of the reasons why. Striking out on her own, leaving the safety of the Colony, was not going to be easy. But for her, freedom from the Colony was worth the price.
Freedom from seeing Malcolm every day, from hearing his voice or sensing him in the forest when she ran, knowing he'd be sleeping with her every nighta woman who would give him the control he so desperately craved. Freedom from that was worth any price she had to pay.
Even if she had to live each and every moment hiding her true self from humans and from the demons who were determined to hunt her down and kill her.
Celia Lawson's nerves bunched as she gazed out the large picture window at the red rock mountains. It had been almost two weeks since she was able to transform, to stretch her legs and run. To feel the sweet night air against her face, to chase rabbits and run free. She was trapped in this shop of soaps, lotions and scented candles. Transforming here put her at risk of discovery. Humans were a concern, but the bigger threat were the Gauliacho. The demons in shadow form had hunted the shifters for a millennium. They wouldn't overlook her.
She ran her finger across the large red crystal in front of her. The only protection she had from the demons were the crystals composed of dark energy that negated the shifter's energy signature, effectively hiding them from the Gauliacho and the lost humans they possessedthe Abatu.
The irony wasn't lost on Celia that even though she was free of the Colony, from Malcolm, by leaving the safety of the Colony's borders, she was now trapped in a prison of the shop's four walls, hiding behind the energy of the crystals. Energy only she as the Keeper of the crystals had the power to rejuvenate.
She looked longingly at the mountains one last time. She couldn't take the chance, even if her skin felt as if it were on fire. She bounced up and down on her feet, anxiety growing within her by the minute. She had never gone this long without making the change to her natural state. Was it the need to run free that had her so wound up or something else? Something coming.
Abatu? A lost human soul with no will of his own, who didn't have the strength of character to keep the Gauliacho from latching on and hitching a ride. Abatu were rudderless and easily manipulated and gave the Gauliacho a physical form to track the shifters. To search them out and destroy them one by one. There were more of them around lately, almost as if they had her scent but couldn't quite find her.
But as frightening as the Abatu could be, it was the Gauliacho themselves in their shadow form that struck terror into Celia's heart. She'd dreamed about them as a child, their insidious whispering, the way they'd get inside her mind and stop her cold, turning her muscles to water.
Throngs of people crowded the busy Sedona Street. She should open the door and welcome them into Desert Winds. Thanks to her cousin's recipes of organic soaps and lotions, they were doing a quick and steady business. And she would invite the shoppers in. She just needed a minute. Pressure built inside her chest, squeezed her lungs and made it difficult to breathe. She needed to run, to escape the walls of the shop, if only for an hour.
Tonight, she promised herself, when the moon was high in the sky, she would drive deep into the desert where only the coyotes dared roam. She stretched her arms high above her head and turned her shoulders, left, then right until the bones in her back popped. It was times like this that she missed the redwood forests of home, the wide-open meadows and majestic peaks of the jagged, soaring mountains. But when she thought of home, a deep ache settled within her, a longing that twisted and pulled with a sharpness that shredded her insides. Longing for what should have been, and pain for what wasn't. Pain caused by Malcolm.
Malcolm. His name whispered across her mind, conjured eyes of forest-green and a smile that could melt the coldest ice-covered peaks that surrounded her home at the Colony. She pushed his image away. She would not think of him. She deserved better. Here in this red desert so far from the lush green forests of home was her chance to start over.
The tinkling of the Kokopelli chimes rang as her twin cousins, Ruby and Jade James, burst into the shop. Celia had come to Sedona specifically to find them. She'd grown up hearing about her crazy aunt who'd left the Colony to find adventure and had fallen in love with a human. Together they'd had twin baby girls. She wondered for years what her human cousins were like and if they would they make the change, too.
"You like them?" Ruby asked, pointing to the peacock feathers in her hair. "I loved your eagle feather so much I had to get a feather for myself. Not too many eagle feathers lying around on the ground here, though. But I thought this was real pretty."
Celia smiled and ran her fingertips along the smooth feather twined in her hair. "My mother said this feather would be perfect for me, since I've always wanted to fly away from home and be free."
Ruby laughed. "Really? I can't imagine why. How beautiful your home in the mountains must be. You have to take me there sometime to see it. Plus, I'm dying to meet my aunt Jaya."
"Absolutely," Celia enthused, but she knew she wouldn't. Humans were not allowed into the Colony. Not even if they were married to a shifter, or were a shifter's offspring. Unless those offspring made the change. But with half-breeds, no one ever knew if they would or even when. Ruby and Jade hadn't, and because their mother had died when they were so young, they were completely unaware that the possibility for them to transform into shifters even existed. Which, she supposed, was for the best.
But the reminder of her mother sent a pang of homesickness echoing through her. Celia wished she could see her again or even talk to her. But her mother refused to use modern contraptions, referring to them as the downfall of humanity. Celia sighed. Malcolm believed the exact opposite and filled the village with as many computers and telephones and televisions as he could.
"You are going to love this new concoction we came up with for our lotions," Ruby said, dropping her natural hemp bag on a nearby table with a loud thud. "Not only does it feel incredible, but we've added sandalwood oil, a natural aphrodisiac. Now not only will the wearer feel silky smooth"
"And relaxed," Jade interceded.
"But it will make them in the mood for love," Ruby said in a singsong voice while holding the lotion under Celia's nose. "Smell."
Celia took a whiff and smiled. "It does smell good." She pulled away. "But since love is not something I'm looking for, I don't think I'll put any on."
"Smart move," Jade said. "Especially after the incantation she put on it."
Celia smiled. She didn't doubt it. She might be able to wield the energy in the crystals, but her cousins could work magic with herbs, oils and spells.
Jade opened a box and handed the bottles to her sister, who strategically arranged them in the window. "Ruby was up half the night practicing"
Celia flinched as Ruby picked up the dark red crystal Celia had placed in the center of the windowsill facing due north, and moved toward the counter.
Celia lurched forward to stop her. "That can't be moved," she said, and snatched the crystal out of her hand.
Ruby looked up at her, startled. "Why not?" she asked, sounding surprised and a touch confused. She took a step back from the crystal, rubbing her hands across her jeans.
Celia cringed at her too-sharp tone. "I'm sorry." She smiled and tried to soften her words. "I have four of them placed at each compass point of the room for protection. They can't be moved."
"Protection from what?" Jade asked, her icicle-blue eyes narrowing as she studied her.
From the Gauliacho, who want to kill me. But Celia couldn't tell them that. She could never reveal the truth of who and what she was. Not even to them. It was better they didn't know the horrific details of how their mother died, or how easily she could just disappear one day. Even though her aunt, like Celia and her mother, had been a Keeper, the crystals' power hadn't been able to protect her from the demons.
As Keepers, they alone had the gift to rejuvenate the dark energy of the stones and keep the protective force field strong. But as her mother had warned, she couldn't stay away from the Colony for too long. Keeper or not, she would be safe only in the Colony. Aunt Sue's death had been proof of that.
"I'm sorry. Old Native American folklore." Celia forced a smile and spun to place the crystal back in the window.
"No problem," Ruby said, continuing to rub her hands across her jeans. She began rearranging her bottles again. But the happy mood had been broken.
Celia glanced out the window again as an uncomfortable skittering raced once more along her nerves.
Something was definitely coming. Something or someone.
Malcolm Daniels sped along the winding desert road through mountains unlike any he'd seen before. And completely unlike the towering ragged granite peaks he'd left behind at the Colony. The deep red of the rocks of the Arizona desert were stunning against the backdrop of blue sky, but the sparse trees and wide-openness of the land left little room for cover against prying eyes. Here there was nowhere to run without being seen. No way to hide.
How could Celia stand it?
He was getting closer to her now. He could feel hera wave of warmth in the pit of his stomach that spread out to encompass him. Their connection was strong. She might think she could run away from him, but there was no running from the bond they shared. He would find her and he'd make her come back to the Colony. She had to return to rejuvenate the boundary stones. If she didn't, if he couldn't bring her back to the Colony in time, the shifters would die.
He would find her.
Even if she hated him for it.
He touched the string of stones on his wrist, running his finger over the black-and-red crystals that offered protection for three days. Day three was here, and if he didn't find Celia soon, his presence would become known to every demon out there. In physical form and in shadow.
He slowed his truck as he turned the bend on 89A and the town came into view. Small eclectic shops and restaurants lined either side of the highway displaying woodcarvings, paintings, crystals, beads and palm readings in this metaphysical mecca.
He crawled past several stores, each quaint and unique with outdoor tables and pots overflowing with bright flowers. His gaze shot to a storefront displaying an abundance of beauty products. Copper vortexes spun outside the large picture window, but his eyes fixated on the large red crystal sitting on the sill.
A crystal from the Colony.
This was it. Finally!
A quarter mile down the street, he found a parking place and pulled into it. His heart was pounding. He rubbed his damp palm on his jeans. He'd wanted to see her. Had thought of nothing else during his three-day journey, but now that he'd found her How was he going to tell her what had happened to Jaya?
He walked slowly toward the shop, trying to think of words that should never have to be said or heard. What was the best way to break someone's heart?
"I'm sorry.I don't know where to start," he said, practicing, not paying attention when a large man stepped out of a restaurant directly in front of him. Almost plowing into him, Malcolm sidestepped the man, stiffening, his eyes widening. Malevolence, thick and rancid, rolled off the man. An Abatu.
Dammit! Malcolm kept his head down and kept going, adrenaline surging through him, kicking up his heartbeat. The Abatu hesitated on the curb. Malcolm continued forward, hoping there was still enough energy in the stones on his wrist to keep him shielded.
Through the reflection in the restaurant's large picture window, Malcolm saw the Abatu turn toward him, confusion tightening his face for a long moment before he finally spun around and walked away. Malcolm let out a relieved breath. He got by him. This time.
If he was going to find Celia and get his crystals regenerated, he'd better do it soon.