Book 1: Heart of the Shifter
Bryn McKenzie would be dead by Thursday.
And it was going to be an ugly, terrible death.
It was almost two in the morning, she hadn’t slept yet, and she knew she wouldn’t. She just waited in the bed in the hotel room, staring at the ceiling, listening to the low conversation of the men in her living room.
Men who had been assigned to protect her.
Men who would fail.
They thought they knew how to keep her safe, but they hadn’t seen what she had seen…which was why she had to die. No one who’d witnessed that particular murder would be allowed to live, and she knew that.
She’d known it when she’d gone to the police and told them what had happened.
She’d known it when she’d agreed to testify at Jace Donovan’s trial.
She’d known it when her team of highly skilled police officers had set her up in this hotel room, determined to keep her alive long enough to testify.
And yet she’d done all of it anyway, and she would stay here and hope she was wrong, because a woman had died in front of her, and Bryn was the only one who knew who had done it. There was no way she could stay silent when the man who’d killed that innocent woman went free.
She was trying to do the right thing for once in her life. After her mom had died when she was seventeen, the guilt had driven Bryn into a self-destructive hell to hide from the pain. She’d been fighting her way back ever since, but she still felt like the shadows of the accident and the subsequent dark time in her life were always haunting her. If she died trying to bring justice to the monster who’d slaughtered an innocent woman, then at least she’d die trying to do something worthy with her life. But she didn’t want to die yet, not until she’d made sure that the man who’d killed Kate Stephens paid for his crime. It wasn’t enough to want to make a difference. She had to actually make it. If she could stay alive long enough to testify, then maybe she could begin to understand why she’d survived the car accident that had killed her mother.
She knew she might be assassinated before the trial, and she’d accepted that risk, but God help her, she didn’t want to die, and she really didn’t want to die the way Kate had died: slowly, agonizingly in a pool of her own blood, with her throat ripped from her body.
Bryn squeezed her eyes shut against the images that wouldn’t leave her mind, the image of that horrible moment, that brutal attack, the screams that hadn’t stopped ringing through her mind since it had happened. “Breathe, Bryn,” she whispered, trying to slow the sudden racing of her heart. “It’s okay. Right now, you’re perfectly safe. No one has hunted you down yet—”
She suddenly became aware that the living room had gone silent. The men had stopped talking.
Her heart leapt into her throat, and she bolted upright in bed. Was this it? Was it happening now? She leapt to her feet, grabbed the gun with the silver bullets from her nightstand, and backed into the corner, aiming at the door of the bedroom. She’d already dragged the heavy hotel dresser and couch in front of the door, but she knew it wouldn’t save her. Her hands were shaking, and sweat was pouring down her back. Dear God. How had they found her?
There was a low growl from the living room, and she froze, fear paralyzing her. Dear God. A wolf. Then one of the men screamed, and a frenzy of growls and snarls erupted from the living room. Gunshots. Crashes. Howls. Screams.
Dear God. The men were being murdered.
She looked down at the gun in her hands, and she grimaced at the sight of her shaking fingers wrapped around the metal. Trained, armed men were being slaughtered out there, and she thought a gun would help her? She had to get out, to run while she had time. Frantic, she raced to the window. She was on the fifth floor. Too high to jump. Another crash sounded from the living room, and more gunshots.
There had to be handholds. She wasn’t going to die tonight, and she wasn’t going to die the way Kate had, slaughtered by a werewolf. She shoved the gun into the waistband of her jeans and reached for the window—
A hand clamped down over her mouth and someone dragged her backward, away from the window.
A silent scream erupted from her throat, and she fought frantically, desperate, but whoever held her was a thousand times stronger than her. God, no, she wasn’t ready to die—
“It’s a rose,” her captor whispered into her ear. “A white rose for friendship, a red rose for your heart, and a blue rose because the impossible is always possible.”
She froze in disbelief. She hadn’t heard that poem since she was fourteen, and wildly in love with her best friend, Cash Burns, who had disappeared without explanation one dark night. It couldn’t be him. She hadn’t heard from him or found any trace of his existence in thirteen years.
“It’s me, Bryn,” he said. “Don’t make a sound.”
Tears filled her eyes as she recognized his voice, a voice she’d never thought she’d hear again. Why was Cash in her room? How was he here? She nodded once, and he immediately released his death grip on her mouth.
She spun around, and her heart seemed to stop at the sight of him. She remembered a thin, gawky fifteen year old, but standing before her, illuminated by the moonlight, was a heavily muscled man with piercing green eyes so intense they seemed to bore right through her. His hair was dark and long, ragged. His black T-shirt stretched across his muscled chest, and several long-healed scars crisscrossed his left temple. He was pure danger, elemental male, and wildly sensual, a man she never would have recognized as her childhood friend. “Cash?”
Another shout echoed from the living room, jerking her attention to the door. The door was closed, but the dresser and couch were ajar, showing how Cash had gotten into the room. Clearly, the heavy furniture had been nothing to him, with his strong frame.
“It’s my job to kill you. We have to make it look good.” He pulled out a heavy knife. “Scream like I’m ripping you up.” Then he dragged the knife across his forearm, spilling blood all over the carpet. “Scream. Now.”
She screamed, a scream that tore from her throat and never seemed to stop. Cash was bleeding all over the carpet, taking the injury to his arm without even flinching. Good God. Who had he become? She backed away as he dragged the comforter off the bed.
“Lie down on it,” he ordered. “I’ll wrap you up when I take you out through there, and they won’t know you’re still alive. But we have to move fast. They’ll be in here in seconds.”
She gaped at him, a million scenarios rushing through her head. The door of the bedroom shook as something flew into it. There were fewer human screams now, and more growling and howling. “You’re with them? With the werewolves? How?”
His eyes glittered. “Now, Bryn, or I can’t save you.” His voice was low and urgent. “They have to think you’re dead.”
She understood suddenly why he’d cut himself. The wolves needed to smell blood on the comforter. “Won’t they know it’s your blood?”
“Yeah, but they’re distracted. It should be enough. Now.”
She had a split second to decide whether to trust him, a man she hadn’t seen in over a decade, who was now, apparently, killing people for a pack of werewolves. He was a stranger, but he was also Cash, and he was her only chance. She’d believed in him once. She had to pray that his heart hadn’t changed the way his body had. “Give me the knife.”
He handed it to her without question, and she dragged it across her own forearm. He swore as she cut herself, leaping toward her and yanking the knife out of her hand. “What the hell was that for?”
“It had to be my blood. They’ll know.” Her knees buckled and her head spun as the pain hit. She bit her lip, fighting back gasps of pain as she cradled her arm to her chest.
He caught her, his hands framing her waist as her knees started to give out. “Shit, Bryn. You haven’t changed at all.” But his voice was affectionate as he helped her down to the floor. “I missed you, babe.”
“You didn’t miss me. You ditched me, vanished from my life without a word.” She stretched out on the floor, yelping when her injured arm brushed against her knee.
“I missed you,” he repeated, his voice softer this time. Their eyes met, and she saw in them the person she’d once known, who she’d trusted with her life so many times before.
She nodded once, then lay down. “If you get me killed, I’ll never forgive you.”
“A threat that still works with me.” He winked at her, then paused just long enough to trace his fingers across her cheeks. “Bryn,” he said softly, his touch achingly familiar, and yet, so different from what it had once been.
A wolf howled in the living room, and he swore. “See you on the flip side, babe.”
She nodded. “Okay.” She kept eye contact with him as long as she could, and she didn’t miss the flash of regret across his face before he flipped the blanket over her.
She sucked in her breath and rolled over, letting him truss her up in the stuffy fabric. Her arms were trapped against her sides, and her legs were locked together, entombing her in the comforter. She was utterly defenseless. Panic hit her, and she started to struggle, unable to stop herself.
“Bryn.” His voice as a low whisper, and she felt him touch her shoulder through the comforter. “It’s just like when we were kids. Be dead.”
She squeezed her eyes shut. “Just how good are you?” she asked. “There are wolves out there! What if they come after me?”
“I’m a serious, fucking badass, babe. I’m a thousand times what I was as a kid. I’ll keep you alive, I swear.” His voice radiated cocky arrogance, just like it had when they were teens, only now his voice was deep, sliding over her skin like a sensual caress.
Heat flushed her body, and she thought back to the number of times that he’d stepped up and taken the heat for her, the way the bullies in the school always left him alone, terrified of the raw strength and power in his thin frame. Back then, he’d been the badass that no one expected, and now, he was pure muscle and man, apparently on the payroll of a pack of wolves. Which would trump, his loyalty to the pack, or to her? “What if you have to kill them to keep me alive?”
He paused for a long moment. “Then I’ll kill them.”
She felt the truth in his voice, and tears filled her eyes. God, it had been so long since anyone had stood up for her the way he always had. She hadn’t realized how much she’d missed that feeling of knowing that she didn’t have to fight her battles on her own. “Damn you,” she said softly.
He laughed quietly, squeezing her ass through the comforter, a move that had been obnoxious when they were teens, but that now sent heat cascading through her. “I love it when I make you cry. You ready?”
She knew he wasn’t asking if she was ready. He was asking if she trusted him. She let out a deep breath, and spoke the truth. Cash had always been the one she believed in, and she still did, despite the gaping emptiness of time since she’d last seen him. “Yes. Let’s go.”
“That’s my girl.” He scooped her up and slung her over his shoulder, his arm locking her down against him as he headed for the door that separated them from the wolves that had been sent to kill her.