Marcus has his own reasons to hate the Keepers. A scientist who sacrificed himself to test the fragile boundaries between witch and wolf, he believes there’s a way to harness the combustible power between the two species. If he succeeds, he’ll be protected from the Keepers, but he needs a willing partner—and the delicious Katie just might be the perfect test subject.
Katie knows working with a wolf, an adversary she’s undeniably attracted to, is a dangerous proposition…no matter how tempting she finds Marcus’s proposal. But when a common enemy from their past threatens them both, working together might be the only option.
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The shop door chimes bonged, rattling the test tubes and Katherine Zhang's teeth. Her hands jerked, and she scattered the point thirty-three ounces of granular ginseng she'd painstakingly measured.
By the Lady, she hated that damn doorbell.
"Ba," she yelled into the next room, where she could see her father snoozing in the recliner in front of the giant flat-screen television. "Wake up."
He lurched, shaking his head. "I'm not asleep. Huh? What?"
"The chimes gotta go, Ba. I mean it." She swiped the ginseng into a pile for later and walked to the door of the den. What she wouldn't give for a real stillroom instead of a converted dining roombut it was better than the bathroom she'd used in their last safe house.
He raised two gray, bushy eyebrows. "I didn't hear anything."
"That's because you're half deaf." She glanced around for the remote and spotted it beside Dad's coffee mug. "Somebody came into the shop. Switch it over to the store cam."
He waved a gnarled hand. "Just go tend to it. I'm watching my program."
"You can miss ten seconds and let me see who's in the shop before I go downstairs." Depending on the customer, she, Dad and Tonya, who was technically the shop owner, donned magical disguises to put clients at ease. And make them more likely to shell out for a tattoo. Walk-ins weren't their staple income, but money was money.
"Don't waste juice on a whole mask," Dad advised. "I finished ten tats this week. Tonya did eight. With the money from the permabrand you cast on that Brazilian witch, we're flush for two months." Her father might be half deaf and arthritic, but he was an ink and accounting whiz.
"Fine." Katie whipped off her lab gear, found her regular glasses and clomped down the stairs to the shop below. With her everyday mask that concealed her genetics but not appearance, she looked like herself. The only people likely to want to be tattooed by an inconspicuous, half-Asian nobody were middle-aged women, and they didn't get a lot of middle-aged women in this neighborhood. Their block boasted a lot of empty lots, empty buildings and For Lease signs in windows.
She paused at the Employees Only door and checked herself in the mirror. No smudges of spell components, or lunch, marred her face, her hibiscus tunic or her blue jeggings. Jean leggings. So comfy and clever only a witch could have invented them.
She unlocked the dead bolt, slipped through the protective barrier around their living area and stepped into the shop. The customer wasn't in the back room, so she called out, "Welcome to Ink Inc. Be right with you."
She grabbed the phone receiver in case Dad called, trotted to the bead separator and peeked through.
Her friendly smile dissolved.
That damn wolf again.
She knew she should have slipped some be-gone powder into the last tat he'd gotten! She'd done a shit job on the design in hopes he wouldn't come back.
So much for hindsight.
Marcushis name was Marcuslifted his chin as he sniffed instead of looked. Sampling her scent. He was the one with hackles, but hers rose anyway.
"Good evening," he said in a rich, cultured voice, either oblivious to or not caring about her leap of anxiety.
"Sorry you had to wait," she managed. Why had he come back? What kind of idiot didn't care that the cash he kept sinking into tattoos disappeared every time he changed form?
Granted, she was assuming he'd lost the tats. He'd had different limbs done all four timesthree times by Dad and once by her, when she'd been fully masked as a pink-haired biker chickbut there were only so many parts of the body she was willing to work on.
Even a body as fine as his.
"I'm in no hurry," he told her, his attention on the flash wall.
She edged into the room, bead strands clacking. It was all she could do not to grab the gun under the counter. Marcus hadn't displayed criminal tendencies on previous visits, but one could never be too safe with wolves. She, Tonya and Dad had chosen this area to set up shop because it was a hundred miles from the closest pack compound and almost as far from the closest coven headquarters. They didn't want witch or werewolf traffic if they could help it, and the only thing they had to juggle were the weekly pack patrols.
Yet here the blasted wolf was. Back for more.
Instead of acknowledging he'd been here before, she decidedafter putting the counter between themto play dumb.
"First time in an ink studio?" She used her perky voice and hoped he didn't notice it was forced. Her fingers tightened on the phone. If she held down the 3 it would dial Dad, 4 would dial Tonya. Which one would be more help?
Not Tonya. She was away at a festival and not especially inclined to warn Katie away from wolves who looked like Marcus.
Come to think of it, Dad might not be any help either. He was the one who'd convinced her not to use be-gone on Marcus last month, despite the obvious hazards in having a wolf hanging around. Said he felt sorry for the poor bastard. Wolves without pack affiliations in this part of the country lived lonely lives.
"No, ma'am. Not my first time." One hand in the pocket of his trousers, disrupting the elegant lines of his suit, he strolled along the wall, inspecting the art. A silver metal briefcase was in his other hand. "I've become somewhat of a connoisseur."
When he ambled closer to the counter, Katie tensed. Some wolves had a certain effect on her. It was a weakness she'd grown to expect, a weakness she could handle. Wolves didn't intimidate herwhen she could prepare for them.
She wasn't sure she could ever prepare for Marcus. With his suits and his calm demeanor, he wasn't like any wolf she'd ever known. No leather, no leering, no hassling, no aggression. Combined with innate sexiness, at least as far as Katie was concerned, it was a lethal combination. "Let me know if you have any questions." She set down the phone and reached under the counter to stroke the pistol's cool handle with one finger. She'd never had to use it here, but she sure as hell knew how.
He nodded as if reaching a decision. He turned to face her, finally.
His brown eyes widened, then narrowed.
Damn, she'd forgotten how good-looking he was.
Which was a lie. She'd found it next to impossible to put him out of her mind. And out of her fantasies. For an entire month, she'd been plagued by memories of his chiseled cheekbones, tight black curls, sensual lips, broad shoulders, slim hips, well-tailored clothingthe works.
Despite what she knew about his DNA, or because of it, her stomach fluttered as they locked gazes.
"You aren't Betty."
She debated lying, but a few shifters could smell dishonesty. Most could sense panic and other strong emotionslike attraction. Reluctant, deep-rooted, morbidly fascinated attraction.
God, she hated dealing with wolves. "I'm Katie."
"You smell " He paused and frowned. "What I mean is, your voice sounds like Betty's. Sisters?"
"Close enough." Her Betty mask must have sucked if he could connect the two of them. "But, uh, she was fired."
He raised an eyebrow. "You fired your own sister?"
"Her art lacked permanence," Katie improvised. "She didn't get the pigment deep enough. Is that why you're here? If you have your receipt, we'll refund the money."
He rubbed his right forearm, where she'd inked him as Betty. "I'm not here for a refund."
"You still have the dragon?" she asked dubiously. It had been two inches high and ugly as crap. She'd cursed to herself with every zizz of the needle into his smooth, brown skin.
Tattooing a wolf.
What. A. Waste. Of. Time.
He studied her for a minute. "How did you know it was a dragon?"
Shit. "You look like a dragon kind of guy." Which is why she'd given him a mutant cow.
His chin dropped an inch. "Not a wolf kind of guy?"
Shit more. Did he know something? Smell something? After the shake-up between the coven and pack in Mil-lington, West Virginia, a few years back, when the coven had allowed a wolf to learn the truth about them, witches across the globe had been tense.
She understood that reaction. The thought of a coven not wiping the guy's memories was sacrilegious and stupid. They might have fooled themselves into thinking not all wolves were bestial, but she knew better than anyone how a wolf's veneer of modernity could disappear at the drop of a hat. Or a blouse. Or a gun.
"Your chi says dragon," she told Marcus as artlessly as possible. "Or Chinese characters. Wolf chi is more hairy." His veneer of modernity was the thickest she'd ever encountered. What would he do if she took off her blouse?
"Chi? What do you mean by chi?"
"It's like your inner being. Your personality." Katie pushed her glasses up her nose to read his expression better. To many witches, chi was a term for the magic inside them, which could be visualized through a spell known as the true eye. But to humansand to wolves who didn't know about witchesit wasn't as literal. "Some customers get into that. I'm guessing you don't?"
Wearing a slight smile, he shook his head.
It wasn't like her to let a wolf unnerve her, but there was something about this guy. Something beyond him being dead sexy, beyond her being out of practice. "I confess. We keep a database of all our work and customers."
"I see." The man's gaze was infernally steady. He was doing that wolf thing where he stared and stared without blinking. "Then you know I'm not here for the first time."
She shrugged, her emotions reined tight. She refused to be curious about why he kept blowing money on disappearing ink. She refused to be curious about him, period. "Do you still have the dragon?"
"I do, although some of my other tats faded."
Katie stiffened with surprise. "You do have the dragon?"
"Oh, yes." He rubbed his left forearm. "I don't need a refund for ones that disappeared, though. There were extenuating circumstances."
If he'd kept a tattoo, that was cause for concern. Wolves who maintained ink, brands, scars or piercings through shifts were few and far between. They were either really strong or really weak, both of which presented their own set of problems.
"I'm sorry about your other tattoos." Her everyday mask could hide some of her inner turmoil from his keen senses, but not all of it. "How can I help you?"
"I'm here for another tattoo." The corner of his mouth curled up. "Would you like to read my chi and choose for me?"
The wolf had a sense of humor? Since when? Last month he'd been quiet. Courteous and gorgeous, but quiet.
She popped open a canister of disinfecting wipes and buffed the counter, giving herself an excuse to walk the length of it. She trailed her other hand along the cluttered shelf underneath, feeling for the small plastic tub that held the be-gone. "You trust me to pick your artwork?"
He sniffed again but didn't growl at her. "You aren't planning on saddling me with a teddy bear, are you?"
"I No." More humor. Maybe someone had given him a nice hunk of raw meat for lunch.
"I liked the idea of Chinese characters." He slipped off his suit coat and set it on the counter. His muscular, lean build filled out his dress shirt oh so nicely. "What would you suggest?"
That he leave. Soon. Her reaction to this wolf was unmanageable. She couldn't use it to her advantage as she had in the far-off past. He had to go.
"Lots of people get symbols for luck or prosperity." She continued groping for the be-gone dust under the counter. When he unbuttoned his collar and the button that came next, revealing a slice of flawless brown chest, her hunt came to a screeching halt.
"Are you taking off your clothes?"
"My shirt. I'm interested in a larger tattoo this time. One that covers a greater expanse of skin. Simple lines, preferably straight ones, but multiple colors. I've blocked out the afternoon and evening in my schedule. If you need to do the artwork in stages, I could return Sunday or Monday."
He was proposing they spend the rest of the day together. And perhaps other days as well. When Katie gaped at him, he said, "Do you happen to know the Chinese character for moon?"
She wrenched her gaze away from those long agile fingers slipping buttons through buttonholes. "What?"
"Moon," he repeated with a small smile. "Other astronomical terms would also be acceptable."
He unbuttoned another button. Her mouth dried out.
It suddenly felt urgent that she convince him to leave before his shirt came off. Goddess, she'd lost her nerve. "I don't, ah, know Mandarin. Or any other Chinese dialect."
"I didn't assume you did, Katie." Many people did assume it when she wore her true face, but her family had been in this country for two generations. In witch lifespans, that was a long, long time. "Do you have somewhere we could look them up? A series of Chinese characters would suit my purposes."
He made the tattoo sound more like an experiment than a form of self-expression. "Let me check an art book."
She ducked behind the counter and spotted the be-gone in the far corner. Gotcha.
Now how could she get the powder from her hands to him without being obvious? The be-gone was premixed, a staple Tonya ordered from a coven in West Virginia. All Katie had to do was infuse it with magic and sprinkle it on him.
Her most potent option would be to rub the powder directly on his skin. Some shifters required more than a flick of spell components. Some were stubborn. Intractable. Suspicious.
She heard him inhale. What was he sniffing now, her nervousness?
Or something else?
She pulled the lid off the powder too hastily, jolting the container. The greenish-brown dust scattered all over the shelf.
Into her face.
Katie sneezed, hard. She lurched up, thonked her head on the underside of the counter and went down like a sack of beans.
In a flash, Marcus was around the counter, crouching, hands all over her.
"Katie?" He checked her pulse. His fingers were hot on her wrist. Her throat. His shirt, unbuttoned halfway to the waist, gapped open like a model in a Hunk of the Month calendar. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," she croaked, hissing when he threaded his other hand into her short hair, probing for wounds. And found one. "Ouch."
He pulled his hand back, fingers red with her blood.
Oh, hell. He couldn't be touching her, and now he had her blood on him. He had her blood.