Tasia’s life has undergone a spectacular transformation since the night she met Hawk. Now, she resides at the Shifter Lair, is gainfully employed by the Pack and is an integral part of an investigation into the past that allows her to use her unique abilities. In addition, she has a Pack to watch her back and the word of a powerful Alpha to safeguard her cover. Most importantly, she is not alone anymore. She has friends to help her navigate the mysterious maze and unwritten rules of a Shifter Pack and allies who are more than willing to step up when the going gets tough.
Yet, life is also infinitely more challenging and complicated for Tasia from her days of eking out an existence on the fringes of Chosen society. Her truce with the formidable Alpha always seems poised on the brink of disaster, Pack gossip and her unique position in the Pack throw up frequent challenges she must navigate carefully and the terrifying nightmares that force her to experience the worst fears of a Shifter leave her constantly on edge. But it is the investigation that holds the greatest danger for Tasia as it draws her deeper into a past where her own dangerous secrets are threatened.
As they race against time to decode the past, Chosen secrets tumble out and the nuances of The Prophecy as foretold by the Oracle take on more meaning. When Lady Bethesda’s attempt to exploit the existing fissures within the Chosen lets loose a horrific attack, Tasia finds herself thrust into the spotlight, along with the Pack. When the enraged Shifters go after the wizards, the schisms laid bare start to tear apart the centuries-old fabric that hold the Chosen together. After a lifetime in the shadows, Tasia must navigate the changing alliances in her world and trust her new allies to help guard her deadly abilities and unique heritage.
When an intangible thread beckons her heart in a dangerous direction, Tasia finds herself on shaky ground. At stake is her deadliest secret and her carefully built-up relationship with the man whose word holds her enemies at bay. Will Tasia take a leap of faith that goes against everything she has ever believed in or will she walk away from her friends to disappear back into the shadows again?
The Rainmaker is Book 2 of Saga of the Chosen, an urban fantasy epic. It is slated for release in early 2018. Early excerpts from the The Rainmaker will be published here periodically.
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Elisabetta held court with a group of men hanging on her every word. Attired in a green dress that fit her like a glove and matched the color of her eyes, the stunning Shifter seemed in her element. A powerful and ambitious Were-Alpha, Elisabetta had a habit of sending out stinging barbs with a sweet smile on her beautiful face. It made Tasia very wary of the Shifter’s sharp tongue. Despite the admiring male attention directed at her, Tasia couldn’t help but notice that Elisabetta seemed distracted tonight. The beautiful Were-Alpha darted sidelong glances at a tall good-looking man, part of a small group of Shifters and other Chosen. The Alpha looked different tonight without the jeans and tee that was his usual attire. Oblivious to the female Were-Alpha’s glances and absorbed by the conversation around him, he held a glass of amber liquid in his hand that was more decorative than anything else. Just like the night in the Alpha’s Room when she had come upon him brooding into his glass of Scotch, Tasia realized. Then too, he had taken his time in drinking it. So, he wasn’t much of a drinker, she mused thoughtfully. And he wasn’t interested in the gorgeous female Were-Alpha. Or perhaps, as Hawk had explained to Sienna and her, the Alpha never pursued relationships with his Pack mates. How had Hawk colorfully put it – tends to f–k up the chain of command. That sounded like something the Alpha would say. Raoul Merceau took Pack business and the chain of command very seriously, as Tasia knew to her cost.
A mix of his Shifters and other Chosen surrounded the Alpha. Atsa, the Were-Alpha who was Hawk and Sara’s grandfather, was his usual stately self beside his usual companion, the brightly-dressed and grandmotherly Were-Alpha, Maartje. Duncan, looking even more dapper than usual, was the only other Shifter Tasia knew in the group. David and Stuart Hamilton, Caro’s father and brother, and Jason LaRue made up the wizard contingent. Caroline’s father was the highest ranking wizard in San Francisco and was on good terms with the Alpha. In addition to the six, two other men and an elegant middle-aged woman made up the contingent around the Alpha.
“That boy is one handsome devil” Sienna remarked, her eyes on Hawk as he flitted from group to group in his effortlessly charming way.
“And doesn’t he know it” Caro remarked sotto voice from beside Tasia.
“Oh, the boy has charm in spades and he knows it” Sienna concurred with a smile. “But that one can be tamed by the right woman. You mark my words, he’ll make someone a very good partner” she directed a sidelong glance at Tasia.
Caro, who’d had plenty of opportunity to observe Hawk’s demonstrative affection towards her friend, turned to Tasia impulsively. “Now that you’ve had a taste of Pack life, would you go out with a Shifter, Tas?”
“Me” Tasia exclaimed in surprise, distracted by the glimpse of a familiar face headed in their direction. For once, she was oblivious to the undercurrents in the conversation around her.
“Yeah” Caro reiterated. “Would you date a Shifter, Tas?”
“No” Tasia’s response was vehement, with absolutely no hesitation. “Never!”
Her association with the Pack was a precarious one. Another disastrous misstep with the Alpha and she might be out in the cold. To start all over again somewhere else, far from San Francisco and possibly with a new identity to boot. Tasia was supremely conscious of that fact. These few weeks with the Pack had been daunting, confusing, astonishing and difficult. But Tasia was also aware how much having a Pack to watch her back had changed her life. To be fair to him, the Alpha had not intimated anything of the sort to her. It was just a feeling Tasia had; driven in part by her own ambivalent feelings about the association with the Shifters. In some ways, she was more wary this time around given that this was her second attempt at a partnership with the Pack. Tasia could admit that she liked the way the partnership was shaping up this time around. Barring one particularly bad hiccup, things were better with the Alpha. But it was the rare glimpse of Shifter traditions and their way of doing things, even the casual violence that seemed so much a way of life for them, that gave her pause. And the enigma of Raoul Merceau, the ruthless and aloof Alpha of immense self-control – capable of terrifying fury one minute and surprising kindness the next. What Tasia had seen of them up close wasn’t exactly an ideal advertisement for getting involved with a Shifter. That is, if she were even allowed the luxury of any kind of relationship with a Chosen. That it would be a dangerous idea both for her and the Chosen she picked had been made very clear to her by her father. Therein lay singular disaster for her, she knew. A relationship with a human was the best that Tasia could ever hope for; a human who would remain oblivious about magic, the Chosen and her kitty of dangerous secrets.
Her friends looked taken aback by Tasia’s vehemence, although Sara seemed to be attempting to hide a smile. An expression of comical dismay spread across Tasia’s face. She should have been more tactful before her Shifter friend, she realized too late.
“No offense, Sara” Tasia apologized contritely. “I spoke without thinking, sorry!”
“None taken” Sara’s response was prompt. “I happen to agree with you, Tasia. You wouldn’t catch me dead going out with one.”
“Why not, Sara?” Caro was genuinely curious. Here was a Shifter woman saying no to any kind of entanglement with a Shifter. And a smart Shifter woman at that; one with a good head on her shoulders. Sara was not your average Chosen parroting a widely-held view amongst their brethren, based on rumors and stereotypes that abounded in their world. Sara’s views had been arrived at from her own experience with Shifters.
“Too much aggression, blood and mayhem all the time” Sara said simply. “I see that every day in my Pack. I would prefer less rampaging in my personal life.”
Tasia couldn’t help but silently agree with her friend’s candid opinion. By and large, Shifters tended to be an honorable bunch that adhered to their strict codes of conduct – codes that a lot of other Chosen considered archaic. In some ways, they were uncomplicated, forthright and more straightforward than other Chosen she’d encountered. They were also a throwback to an earlier time. Tasia could see how a woman in a different era might appreciate such a focused protector as a mate. But dealing with one as a romantic partner today would be exhausting.
“What about you, Caroline?” Sienna asked the wizard who seemed thoughtful at Sara’s candid response.
“I’d never even met a Shifter until the night” she paused, very conscious of her surroundings. Caro had met her first Shifter the night she had walked into the Lair to ask the Alpha for assistance. “For Tasia” she continued cryptically, wary of the listening ears. “I have to admit that your Alpha surprised me” she directed at both Sara and Tasia.
“Never” Tasia exclaimed incredulously. She knew that invitations to the Lair for non-Pack were few and far between but Caro’s Dad conducted business with Shifters. Tasia had the impression that the Alpha seemed to know David Hamilton fairly well. How could Caro have never met a Shifter!
“This party is very unusual, Tasia” it was Sara who responded. “Chosen factions rarely mingle socially. For many in the Pack, you are the first non-Shifter they’ve had the opportunity to interact with.”
No wonder Evgeny’s friends had been so curious about her, Tasia mused. She’d put their curiosity down to youth but now she understood that it was more than that. This was Tasia’s first attempt at engaging with Chosen – she’d lived her life incognito amongst the humans, or Si’ffa as her brethren referred to the ones without magic. Until her association with the Pack, she’d had little knowledge of how different Chosen lived their lives. Now, she was slowly starting to learn about the intricacies of life amongst Chosen. Her father, had he been alive, would have had his reservations about the path her life had taken but Tasia had a feeling that he would have approved of the lessons she was fast learning from her new friends and from her life with the Shifters.
“It’s true” Caro chimed in. “That’s why this is really nice” she gestured around her at the party in full swing, Shifters mingling with other Chosen guests.
“Tasia Armstrong” greeted a vaguely familiar voice.
Tasia’s heart sank. It was Justin Markham – the Shifter who’d fought and injured Sara when her friend had tried to warn Tasia about the nuances in Shifter courtship rituals. Tasia could sense Sara stiffen up beside her. But this time Tasia was prepared. She’d once inadvertently provided this Shifter an opportunity to exploit her naiveté and inexperience with Shifter and Pack customs for his own ends. But not this time! Tasia was wiser to the ways of the Pack now. And she had an ace in the hole, if Duncan was to be believed. She could be as blunt with Markham as she liked and he would never dare retaliate against her – for fear of the Alpha’s wrath.
“What can I do for you?” Tasia asked him, her voice not encouraging. Sienna and Caro, already forewarned by Sara’s sudden poker face, needed no further reminder at Tasia’s unusually unfriendly manner with the male Shifter.
“Is that any way to greet an old friend” he chided lightly, his smile unaffected by her discouraging manner.
“You’re no friend of mine” Tasia retorted fiercely, her mind vivid with memories of Sara’s crumpled body lying still amidst broken furniture before Duncan had swooped down to carry her off to be patched up by the Pack doctor.
Markham contemplated her silently for a moment, his good humor unchanged and his eyes rife with speculation.
“The Lair is abuzz with whispers of your fractious relationship with the Alpha. He’s got a short fuse, our Alpha, and no love for your kind. You’ll be out on your pretty behind in no time. If I were you, Tasia Armstrong, I wouldn’t be so hasty to reject any overtures of friendship.” He paused for emphasis. “You never know when you might find yourself in need of friends” he added lightly.
Tasia’s expression tightened imperceptively at his allusion to Lair gossip. She had no idea that her difficulties with the Alpha were a source of gossip in the Pack. But she knew that it’d never do to let the Shifter know that his barb had hit home.
“I have all the friends I’ll ever need” she assured him composedly, her glance encompassing the three women who flanked her.
Before Markham could respond, Duncan and Hawk descended on them from different sides of the room, united in their determination to handle Markham. Hawk wore a thunderous expression on his face while Duncan was his usual unflappable self. To Tasia’s great surprise, Luis Beltran strode up to them too, to take a position beside Sara and her. He said nothing, seemingly content to allow his mere presence to send a message. Sara’s twin and her Were-Alpha hotfooting it to Sara’s aid against a Shifter known for targeting her was no surprise to Tasia. But Luis’s presence by Sara’s side was a mystery. The suave and taciturn Were-Alpha had never demonstrated any concern for Sara before. Luis’s presence must have caught Hawk by equal surprise for Hawk directed a frowning glance at the other Shifter. For a moment, Tasia wondered if Luis Beltran was Markham’s Were-Alpha – that might certainly explain his presence.
“Markham” Duncan greeted the Shifter in his usual placid manner. The English Shifter was dressed impeccably as always in a light-blue shirt and dark trousers. His brown eyes sized up Markham with no particular expression in them but Markham seemed to get the message.
“Time to move on, lad” Duncan suggested mildly and Markham directed a short nod at Tasia before striding away.
There was a short silence before Caro piped up irrepressibly. “Who was that bozo?”
Sara, busy directing uncertain and wary glances at Luis Beltran’s impassive presence beside her, was prompt to respond. “A prime example of why I will never date a Shifter” she said smartly.
Sienna laughed aloud, Caroline giggled and the tension was broken. Hawk’s thunderous expression lightened and even Luis cracked a smile.
“You can’t judge us all by Markham, Sara mia” Hawk protested, his good humor restored.
“I have to concur with Hawk on this, my dear” Duncan remarked in his precise way although Tasia noted that he had a twinkle in his eyes.
“What’s this about Shifters asking you out, Tas?” Hawk bit into his sandwich.
It was a bright and sunny day, unusual for this time of year in San Francisco. In winter, the fog tended to roll in from the ocean, making the city cloudy and misty. The unusually sunny weather had beckoned Hawk and Tasia to attempt a picnic. With sandwiches in tow, they had retreated to a grassy knoll in The Golden Gate Park to enjoy the afternoon. The park was sprawling. To locals in the know, it provided plenty of nooks free from the usual crowds of joggers, rollerbladers and tourists that thronged the park on sunny afternoons.
“I was indiscreet at the party the other night” Tasia said easily. The conversation with the Alpha last evening had gone a long way to calm her agitation on the matter.
“What do you mean?” a frown marred Hawk’s brow.
“I told Caro that I’d never date a Shifter at the Lair celebration, in response to her question.”
Hawk looked taken aback by her words. He had not taken note of that particular conversation the night of the party. But he understood how certain Shifters might react to Tasia’s words. A slow anger began to course through him. Tasia was not a Shifter – his Pack mates ought to know better. He had to take the treatment meted out his twin for being a different kind of Shifter but he’d be damned if he stood by while Tasia was harassed for occasionally forgetting Shifter norms and traditions.
“Just the usual Chosen games, Hawk” Tasia reassured him. “It’s nothing to worry about.”
“Who dares to play such games with you, Tasia?” his eyes snapped to her, sandwich forgotten at her casual comment. This was the Shifter avatar Hawk kept hidden from Tasia, the one that reared its head only occasionally when in her presence.
At the fury evident in his voice, Tasia attempted to explain. “I have to grow a thicker skin if I want to live with the Pack, Hawk” she reminded him softly.
“Not while I’m around” he was furious. “I won’t let them get away with treating you like this.”
Realizing how worked up he was, Tasia tried to calm him down. “I can handle this, Hawk. Don’t worry about it.”
“Who asked you out?” he inquired in a deadly voice, not soothed at all by her attempt.
“Let it go, Hawk” she tried again.
“Who, Tas?” he asked again, his voice implacable. Here was the dangerous predator she’d glimpsed in the handsome and personable young man who had been waiting by her door to meet her that first night. Tasia had to remind herself sometimes that Hawk was a Shifter first, despite the softer side he showed to her. Territorial as they came, aggressive and deadly on matters they considered their purview. Hawk had always looked out for her, especially when it came to his own Pack mates. An unshakeable bond had been forged between them one dark night when a scared young wizard with plenty to hide had taken a chance by setting free an injured wolf from its silver cage.
“The Alpha knows about this, Hawk” she told him, safe in the knowledge that it was the one thing guaranteed to calm him down. Tasia was learning the ways of the Pack quickly.
At her words, Hawk subsided immediately, as she had known he would. Confident now that Tasia would not be harassed any more, Hawk wondered idly how the Alpha had found out about this. Alph wasn’t one to pay any attention to Pack gossip. Tasia held a unique position in the Pack; as Pack as any of her Pack mates and yet, not a Shifter. She also didn’t fit into the usual strict hierarchy of a Pack with a Were-Alpha to answer to and watch over her. Alph might choose to keep himself aloof from petty squabbles between his Shifters but he would never allow the wizard he had given Pack status to, to be thrown to the wolves, especially knowing how ill-equipped she was to handle such a situation.
“Alph will take care of this” he reassured Tasia, calmer now. “You don’t have to take this bullshit.”
“It doesn’t bother me, Hawk” she insisted.
Hawk gave her a searching glance. “Alright, then what is?”
Tasia arched her eyebrow in inquiry.
“Something’s been bugging you, Tas. If it isn’t this nonsense, then what is it?”
She polished off the last of her sandwich before turning her attention to Hawk.
“One of the were-packs has invited me to a New Year’s Party.”
“That’s great news, Tas” Hawk responded enthusiastically. It looked like the Pack was starting to accept Tasia, he thought happily.
She sighed wearily. “The invitation is from Atsa.”
An envelope had been slid under her door a few days ago. She had been introduced to Atsa, the stately Navajo Were-Alpha, but she had never worked with any of his Shifters. The only conclusion to draw was that the invitation had been extended to her because of her friendship with Hawk. Atsa was Hawk and Sara’s estranged maternal grandfather. Hawk had a difficult relationship with the Were-Alpha. Tasia was aware of their past and the reasons for the conflict between them.
“He’s hoping you’ll use your influence to convince Sara and me to attend the party” Hawk muttered, a hard look on his handsome face. The familiar anger came surging back to him in a flash. Hawk leaned back on the grass, attempting to shove his fury back, secure in the knowledge that Tasia would do nothing of the sort. She was his friend and aware of his issues with the grandfather who had abandoned Sara and him when they’d needed him the most. Tasia would never attempt to influence him on this matter, he knew. Atsa had made a mistake.
“The Pack is speculating about us, Hawk” Tasia said in a low voice. The implications of the invitation, coupled with Markham’s insinuations at the party, troubled her, keeping her up at night. Restless nights she could ill-afford, given that the nightmares still visited her with alarming regularity.
Hawk’s eyes snapped to her face, his gaze searching.
“What do you mean?”
“You and me, Hawk” she muttered. “Why else would anyone have sent me the invitation.”
“Then let them speculate” Hawk said savagely, his handsome face hardening. He hated being manipulated in any way. If Atsa thought this was the way to soften him up, then he would soon discover how mistaken he was. He was not the kind of man who would ever entertain an olive branch proffered by manipulating Tasia.
Tasia said nothing, her troubled eyes moving absently to watch a colorful butterfly hover over a flower. Hawk contemplated her for a moment. “You don’t mind the gossip, do you, Tas?” he asked, a hint of uncertainty in his voice.
“Not if you don’t, Hawk” she responded softly, her gray eyes meeting his dark ones candidly.
“I don’t give a damn what the Pack says about us” Hawk reiterated, the dark eyes holding her gaze compellingly.
“Then I don’t either, Hawk” Tasia smiled. It was time to let go of this, she knew. Hawk’s words were like a balm to her heart.
Tasia walked into the neighborhood café to glance around. Maartje, the grandmotherly Were-Alpha, had invited Tasia out for coffee. The invitation, extended over a phone call last night, had been rather mysterious and Tasia had found herself intrigued. She’d understood immediately why Maartje wanted to meet outside the Lair – to avoid gossip and buy them some privacy from the other Shifters with keen ears. The Lair, always a hotbed of gossip, was currently agog with everything Tasia – she was a novelty and currently, the flavor of the month. Tasia had accepted the Were-Alpha’s invitation with alacrity, reaching out immediately to her usual Shifter escorts. Made wary by the Alpha’s suspicions of the Guardian who’d held her at the Registry, she made sure play it safe. The only time she left the Lair without her bodyguards now was with Hawk.
“Good morning, Tasia Armstrong” the Were-Alpha greeted her with a smile. One that faded abruptly as she caught a glimpse of the two Shifters lurking behind Tasia. “What are these two doing here?” she inquired suspiciously. “We cannot be private with them around.”
“I’m sorry” Tasia apologized. “I’m not allowed to leave the Lair without them. Alpha’s orders” she added, confident that it would clinch the matter for Maartje. No one ever questioned the Alpha’s orders, from the Shifter at the bottom of the dominancy chain to the most powerful Were-Alpha in the Pack.
“I can ask them to wait outside” Tasia offered as Maartje looked dissatisfied with her explanation.
“Not too far though” Joaquim, the older and more taciturn of her Shifter bodyguards, chimed in unexpectedly. “Our job is to keep an eye on Tasia at all times.”
Tasia turned around to shoot him a surprised look. Her Shifter escorts always kept their distance to give her privacy when she met up with her friends. Joaquim gave her a steady look in response. This was an unusual meeting. Maartje had no reason to meet with Tasia outside the Lair. A suspicious Joaquim, more seasoned in Pack politics, did not intend to leave Tasia to the tender mercies of the Were-Alpha. While Maartje would never allow any harm to come to the wizard in her presence, Joaquim had picked up how naïve Tasia was to the ways of the Pack. And he was damned if he’d allow the young wizard to be used as a pawn in their power plays by the other were-packs. Duncan, his Were-Alpha, had entrusted Joaquim and Evgeny with the task of watching over Tasia when she ventured outside the safety of their Lair. And Joaquim was convinced that Duncan’s command encompassed not allowing Tasia to be caught in the vicious little inter were-pack political ploys that Packs thrived on.
Tasia waited patiently while the older Were-Alpha seemed to ponder her options furiously before coming to a decision. “Alright” she assented eventually. “Keep an eye on her from a distance” she directed brusquely.
Tasia ordered a coffee before joining Maartje at her table. Maartje had smartly chosen a table set a little apart from the long lines of customers at the counter waiting for their morning drinks. Her Shifter escorts chose a table closer to the crowds.
“You’ve received an invitation from Atsa” the female Shifter stated without any preamble.
So, this is what she wants to talk me about.
“Yes, I have.”
“What do you intend to do about it?”
“I’m not sure yet” Tasia responded carefully, already on her guard.
Maartje studied Tasia, the faded blue eyes looking sharp as tack.
“Atsa is Hawk’s grandfather.”
“I know” Tasia was composed. It was no secret in the Pack and she did not intend to pretend ignorance of this particular tidbit.
“He’s a good man, Atsa. I’ve known him a long time. He’s also an old man who desires some kind of rapprochement with his grandchildren before it’s too late.”
“I can understand that” Tasia assented quietly. “But I’m not sure what any of this has to do with me.”
Maartje studied her shrewdly for a moment.
“It’s no secret that Hawk’s taken a serious shine to you. And Sara will follow Hawk’s lead on this. If you convince Hawk to put in an appearance at the party, then you’ll have earned both Atsa’s and my gratitude.”
Tasia said nothing, focused on putting up a composed front before the female Shifter.
“It’s also no secret that you’ve had some difficulties with the Alpha” Maartje said slowly, those shrewd blue eyes carefully gauging Tasia’s reaction. “The Chosen world can be cruel and dangerous to someone lacking friends and allies. If you do this for us, then you’ll never have to worry about finding yourself friendless in a dangerous world.”
There was a pause while the women sized up one another.
“I think you overestimate my influence with Hawk” Tasia said evenly.
“I don’t think so, Tasia Armstrong” the other woman responded confidently. “The Pack has never seen Hawk like this with anyone else. He’ll listen to you.”
Tasia stayed silent. She had no intention of influencing Hawk or Sara in any way but she was also wary of stating that openly to this formidable Were-Alpha.
“There’s another aspect that I would like you to reflect on while you consider what I’ve said here. Shifters require their Alpha’s permission to choose a mate from outside the Pack. The Alpha has no love for wizards. I think you can draw your own conclusions about what a disaster asking him for such a blessing would be.”
This time, Tasia couldn’t prevent her shock from reflecting on her face. It was not what Maartje said so openly that shocked her. This was an empty threat as Tasia well knew. Though Maartje didn’t know it, the Alpha had been very blunt about his feelings on such matters to Tasia.
“You give me too much credit, witchling. What kind of Alpha do you think I am? I’d have a mutiny on my hands if I told my Shifters who to date and where to find mates.”
It was the deeper implications of Maartje’s words that shocked Tasia. What did the Pack think was going on between Hawk and her, Tasia wondered dazedly. How wild was the rampant gossip in the Pack about her, she couldn’t help but wonder, and not for the first time. The sheer shock of the Were-Alpha’s assumptions about her burgeoning relationship with Hawk silenced Tasia.
“Some of us older Were-Alphas do wield some influence with the Alpha on such matters, should we chose to exercise it” Maartje added cryptically as Tasia said nothing.
Riiight! Like that man is ever going to listen to anything he doesn’t want to. The Alpha will always do what he wants, no matter what anyone else says. No one but Duncan has any influence over him.
Tasia was silent on the drive back to the Lair, seemingly lost in her thoughts, for once unaware of the troubled glances that young Evgeny shot at her.
Tasia glanced up to see Rafaelo Bianchi make his way towards them, wending his way confidently through the crowded tables. She clenched her hand under the table as memories from that nightmarish evening in Chicago flashed through her. This Blutsauger had casually ordered his men to kill her, after declaring her the spare since the intended target had been Sienna. If not for Sienna’s intervention and the Alpha barging in to the rescue, Tasia would have been in deep trouble. She had good reason to fear the Clan. But even if she didn’t, this one would frighten her for the aura of casual cruelty that hung palpably over him. The hand clasped in Caro’s palm tightened involuntarily, a reaction to her dire thoughts, and Caro glanced up to follow Tasia’s gaze. They watched the young-looking handsome man stride unhurriedly to them.
“That him, Tas?” Caro inquired in a low voice.
Tasia nodded mutely. Sara put away her cell. “It’s done” she murmured softly before turning to watch the vampire make his way to them.
Bianchi came to a stop before them.
“Caroline Hamilton. You keep very unlikely company – I wonder what your father makes of it” he remarked pleasantly, his smile not quite reaching the rather cruel expression in the black eyes.
Caro said nothing, merely returning his stare composedly. The vampire’s eyes moved on to Tasia, his eyebrows arched in mock surprise.
“We meet again, Tasia Armstrong. Perhaps this time, our meeting will be more fortuitous than the last one” he commented sardonically.
His words had an unexpected effect on the young girl. The sarcastic words invoked a slow burn in Tasia as a little spark of angry rebellion grew to fire in her.
Joking about having your men attempt to kill me, are you? Well, I’ve faced down scarier Chosen in my time – the Alpha, for one. I might be barred by circumstances from using my magic on you, but since you’re similarly handicapped from doing anything to me in this crowded café, I don’t have to take this lying down anymore.
“I can’t say the pleasure’s mine” Tasia countered steadily, meeting the Blutsauger’s eyes flush on. “And I must warn you that this meeting is likely to be as much a fiasco for you, as the last one.”
Bianchi’s smile vanished abruptly, his dark eyes narrowing on Tasia with an ugly expression in them. “Watch your mouth, little witch” he warned.
But Tasia was past being frightened by the vampire, her fury overriding her usual caution. She’d been running, in one form or another, since the night she’d climbed a tree and hopped through a window to free Hawk from his cage. And it was time to stop.
“Why should I?” she retorted, her fear banished by a cloud of fury. “Our last meeting ended in spectacular failure for you and so will this one.”
Sara and Caro glanced at their friend, identical expressions of shocked astonishment on their faces. They had never seen Tasia like this before. After the first shock had subsided, Caro exchanged a pregnant glance with Sara before glancing away to hide her amusement. The vampire continued to glare down at a calm and collected Tasia who returned his stare with composure.
“What do you want?” Sara asked abruptly, distracting the vampire from his focus on Tasia. Sara, though amused by her friend’s defiance, thought it prudent to distract the leech.
“You, Sara Manotti” the vampire responded smoothly, his good humor seemingly restored as his dark eyes moved to peruse her. “I came here to talk to you.”
Sara leant back against her chair. She was not a Shifter for nothing. She might not be typical of her kind, but she was a Shifter nevertheless. “What about?” she asked disinterestedly, her attitude one of boredom.
Bianchi pulled out the spare chair to seat himself without permission, seemingly unfazed by his lukewarm welcome. He leaned forward to say softly “I’ve a message for your Alpha.”
“What’s stopping you from delivering it to him?” Sara’s tone was blunt to the point of rudeness.
The Italian vampire laughed lightly as if the query was infinitely amusing. “Tell him that I’ve no beef with him, as you Americans say. I just need a word with Sienna in private.”
“Is that it?” Sara asked. “Is that why you barged in here to interrupt this lunch with my friends?”
“More or less” Bianchi shrugged elegantly. “Of course, if he won’t allow me access to Sienna, then I might have to get more strident.”
“Strident” Caro murmured just as Tasia piped up again to ask the vampire with a hint of amusement in her voice “We’re talking about Raoul Merceau, right?”
“Yes” Bianchi said shortly, without glancing at her.
“Do you really think it smart to challenge him?” Tasia inquired silkily. “He managed to outsmart you in Chicago without much effort. What makes you think he’ll be easier to manipulate on his own turf?”
Nandini came to an abrupt stop, her chest heaving . She glanced back at the way she had come. She caught the faint glimmer of the street she had run through, showing up brighter now that the alley she stood in was almost pitch dark. She panted with the effort, her breathing loud in the silent alley as she pondered what to do next. She’d had the foresight to grab her purse – it had her passport and money. Her case with her clothes and toiletries had been left behind in the trunk of the car.
As she glanced back indecisively at the soft light beckoning her from the sidewalk she had fled from, her sharp ears caught the pounding foot falls of someone headed towards her. Her other form was sensitive to even minute vibrations of the earth. Nandini glanced around her in panic. Barring a few dumpsters and what looked like an abandoned old couch, the alley lay empty. On the far side, angled towards the wall that ended the alley, she spied an arched doorway. It looked like a service entrance for the building. Nandini rushed to it, hoping the door would lead to safety. Not a moment too soon because the footsteps now moved into the alley. She pushed at the door, desperately hoping that someone had left it unlocked. But the door remained stubbornly shut. The footsteps in the alley paused, as if listening for her. Nandini stopped rattling the door, hoping that the intruder would not come further into the alley to check for her.
For a minute, there was silence. Her heart pounded while she attempted to squish herself in the little niche that the doorway allowed her. Should she transform to her other form, she wondered for a wild moment. It would certainly allow her to hide herself in the alley. Then better sense prevailed. She hadn’t mastered the art of transforming without damaging her clothes. And what would she do after she had shaken her pursuer off successfully? She’d be near naked in a strange city in an unfamiliar country with no one to call to come to her aid. That would be the equivalent of jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
The footsteps moved deeper into the alley, deliberate and without haste. Nandini straightened her spine. What was she doing cowering in the doorway like a coward, she admonished herself fiercely. She was a First One, descended from a long line of illustrious First Ones, her power strong. She was more than capable of defending herself against a random stranger, even if he were Chosen. And if he weren’t, well. She knew how to take care of herself. She had been forced to learn how to survive very quickly when she had moved from a small village populated by her Kabila mates to a crowded and anonymous provincial town where she was a stranger.
Nandini stepped out from the doorway, in direct line of sight to the tall figure poised half way into the alley. She opened her mouth to demand some answers from the man before closing it with a frown. She could see only a silhouette of the man but she could tell that he wasn’t the man from the airport. For one, he was taller. Much taller. The man she’d been running from was thin, dark-haired and pale – unlike the fair-haired, well-built and tall stranger watching her now. For a moment, the stranger seemed almost as nonplussed by her presence as she was by him. Then he strode toward her unhurriedly to come close. The blond-haired giant stared at her from bright blue eyes while Nandini stared back at him. She’d never seen him before.
For a second time that night, she opened her mouth to ask him who he was, only to close it again. Someone else was heading towards her alley. Her ear picked up the vibrations of running footsteps coming closer to the alley from the sidewalk.
He must have detected something in her expression for he inquired calmly, “What?”
“Someone’s coming” she answered almost reflexively, her eyes wandering to the arched doorway. Should she hide herself again, Nandini wondered.
The man reached for her, his manner sure and assured as he tugged her by the hand towards the doorway she had left only moments before.
“Hide” he said simply.
She followed him to squeeze herself into the doorway. This time, it was a tighter fit for the tall stranger was squashed in with her too. No sooner had they moved into the archway, then the footsteps rushed into the alley to come to a sudden stop. The blond-haired giant adjusted himself infinitesimally to lower his mouth to her ear.
“Stay put” he whispered before extricating himself adroitly to stride away to face the newcomer.
“Can I help you?” Nandini heard him ask the newcomer.
“I’m looking for my dog” the newcomer answered after a short pause.
“What kind is he?” Nandini’s unexpected savior inquired casually.
“A lab. He’s a puppy.”
“I haven’t seen anyone come in here. You’re welcome to look but I doubt he’s hiding behind the dumpsters.”
There was a short silence, then the newcomer shrugged. “I guess he’s not here then.”
Nandini waited, her ears straining to hear the rest. Then she heard footsteps leading out of the alley. She waited, still hidden by the doorway, not quite sure how to react.
“Stay put. I’ll make sure he’s gone” the blond-haired stranger warned softly before striding away towards the alley entrance.
Nandini waited, puzzled and confused by the circumstances. This had been a strange evening – first the stranger at the airport and now this one.
“He’s gone” the stranger said to her crisply. “Let’s get out before he comes back looking for you.”
Nandini exited the doorway to accompany him out of the alley and onto the sidewalk. She hesitated when he turned right, towards the darkened streets she had wanted to avoid earlier. At her hesitation, he paused to meet her eyes directly.
“I have a car two blocks from here. It might make more sense to use the back roads if you want to avoid him” he said simply.
Under the street lights, Nandini had her first good look at the man. The first thought to strike her was that he was one of the most striking men she had ever set eyes on – a handsome strong face, the gorgeous bones underneath covered by a tan. Striking bright eyes and sun-kissed blond hair worn just a tad too long completed the picture.
As she stared up at him, a little lost for words, the firm lips stretched into a charming smile and the blue eyes lit up with amusement.
“I’m the Good Samaritan, remember” he reminded her gently.