Another day, another problem for Piper Jones and her eclectic mix of allies.
And so far, her pack of vampire enforcers, werewolves, and her warlock mentor have come through it all unscathed. But when a rogue assassin starts killing off Knox’s crew, she’s got more to worry about than the faint blue scar on her chest and her failing powers.
Now she must race against time to heal her broken magic, if she wants to save the wolves she’s grown to love.
BEYOND THE SHADOWS
A Force of Nature Novel
© 2017 Amber Lynn Natusch
“We need to talk,” he said, stepping back from me. The distance between us made my chest hurt more than it ever had. I couldn’t stand being apart from him. “You and I—we have a common interest. A mutual enemy.”
“Who?” I asked, my voice thin and wavering.
He cocked his head at me, curiosity in his eyes. “The fey queen.”READ MORE
He took another step back from me, and I felt my body lurch forward, reaching for him.
“I will kill her,” I replied. I sounded wild and feral, ready to shred her body to bits just to have him all to myself. He laughed at my response, the warm tenor of his voice caressing me in places it should not have.
“It won’t be that easy,” he said, coming closer. “But I will give you something in return. Something you desire.”
“You?” I asked, reaching for his face.
“Peace,” he said, stroking my cheek. “You do know that you cannot have them both, don’t you? They will never concede to that.” He circled behind me, his fingertips dancing along my jaw and down my neck. My breath caught in my throat, the trail of burning they left in their wake an exquisite torture. “But what if there were another option?” he mused, stopping behind me. “One that could give you everything they had to offer without the sacrifice? Without the pain and indecision you clearly suffer from?” He pressed closer to me, his chest grazing my back, his lips at my ear. “What if there were a door number three?” His whispers sent chills up my spine. “I wonder, Piper… do you like pain? Is that why you are unwilling to let them go?” He traced the lobe of my ear with his nose. “I could give you pain…”
Just as my body began to sink into his, I felt it jerked away like a dog on a leash. I struggled against the force, already missing his touch. I looked back at him for aid, but he simply smiled.
“I will send for you soon, Piper. Tell Knox I said hello…”
Then he disappeared.
Grizz shot me a dubious look as I laced up my sneakers. He seemed perplexed by what we were about to do, as though he’d forgotten how we met in the first place back in Alaska. It seemed like so long ago in that moment.
“For the third and final time, it’s called running. You literally just go out and run for an indeterminate amount of time, then stop. It’s for exercise,” I explained, shooting his fluffy rear end a scathing look. “Something you could use, by the look of it.”
He drew his head back as though offended by my words, then promptly walked around me, poking me in the ass with his muzzle as he circled back. He sat down with a thud in front of the door, looking rather pleased with himself. My reaction only furthered that self-satisfaction. He practically beamed with pride as I started to stammer out my response.
“Are… are you kidding me? You think my ass is getting fat? I’m not the one laying around letting Kat hand-feed me all day long.” He snorted and looked away as though unimpressed with my argument. “You listen up, furball. You will go running with me right now and you will like it. I can’t have you getting killed because your tubby butt is slowing you down.” Grizz snorted, but I cut him off with my index finger in his face. “Remember, Drake gave you your man suit, but I can get it taken away if you start shirking your responsibilities. You’ll be stuck back here at casa de vampire… is that what you want?” His low growl was answer enough. “Good. Now let’s go.”
He moved aside so I could reach the panel by the door, and I punched in the updated twelve-digit code. We’d tightened up security since the fey queen had somehow breached the wards on the property and attacked us. Knox, Drake, and Merc had spent days afterward crafting newer, better ways to keep her from doing it again. I didn’t want to tell them that I thought their efforts were in vain. They seemed to need the peace of mind that doing something gave them. Men were fixers; who was I to take that away?
I opened the door to the safety breezeway that led outside as Kat came down the stairs, looking like she’d had a wild night. Her short auburn hair was tousled and there were dark circles under her eyes. Somehow she made it all look good, but it was uncharacteristic to say the least. Either she hadn’t slept or she’d been on a bender—maybe both.
“You hardly look like you’re up for this, but I’ll ask anyway. Wanna go for a run?”
She yawned as she ran her hand through her hair.
“Hard pass on that, my friend. I need food. And coffee. Then more food.”
She let out a humorless laugh. “You could say that.”
“I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Because I only came in an hour ago.”
I looked down at my phone. It was 1:37 p.m.
“Sooo…” I started, trying to figure out how best to broach the subject. If Kat was imploding because we no longer had immediate danger pressing down upon us, I needed to figure out how to shut that down without her realizing it. “What did you get into last night? An entire fifth of JD?”
“’Fraid not, Piper. Though that sounds good right about now. Maybe I’ll put some in the coffee.” She flashed me a grin as she passed, headed for the kitchen.
“For the record, day drinking alone is called alcoholism!” I called out after her. She gave me a thumbs-up over her shoulder and kept moving toward the kitchen, never breaking her stride. I looked over at Grizz, who watched as she disappeared around the corner. He turned concerned eyes to me. “I know, buddy. She’s still struggling with Jensen’s death. Kat needs distraction. If she doesn’t have one, she’ll make one. I’m going to need you to stay close to her, okay?” He nodded once, an awkward bob of his massive head. “Good boy. Now let’s go slim down that rump of yours.”
Grizz and I must have run the property for about an hour before my legs grew shaky and unstable. I stopped a few feet past the tree line and bent forward, holding myself up with my hands on my knees. The bear who’d packed on a few pounds put me to shame in the running department, and the smug look on his face said as much as he looked back at me and strutted toward the mansion.
That was officially the last time I’d ever comment on his husky shape.
“Wait up!” I called, jogging over to him. It took more effort than I would have admitted, but I had to at least try to save face. I’d been feeling off ever since the fey queen had attacked us at the mansion and I’d torn a hole in the veil to save Jagger. I’d inadvertently restored Drake’s amulet in the process, but I wondered at what cost. I looked down at the pale blue marking on my chest and sighed.
Yet another problem to solve.
Like a good little guardian, Grizz stopped to let me catch up. Just as I reached his side, one of the many black SUVs owned by the vampire enforcers came tearing into the driveway, appearing through the magical wards in a flash. One second, there was nothing; the next, dust and gravel flew as the hulking vehicle skidded to a stop by the front door.
Foust and Brunton jumped out of the front seats and ran around to the back. Not a good sign. Grizz and I sprinted to meet them. Jagger climbed out of the back seat, practically running into me.
“What’s going on?” I asked, panic in my voice. He grabbed my hand and led me to the back of the SUV, where I found a gory sight. Benji, one of the youngest wolves in the pack (both in human and werewolf years), was mangled so badly I barely recognized him. Without a word, I put my hands on the worst of the injuries I could see and called forth my magic to heal him. I closed my eyes, expecting the usual blinding white light to come, but it was slow and faint, nothing like it had been only days earlier. I tried to tamp down my rising panic and focus on healing Benji—not worry about the implications of my weakened magic.
When the warmth of power slowly washed away, I glanced down to find Benji looking rough but uninjured. Foust put his hand on my shoulder and gave a squeeze—a silent thank you for saving his lupine brother. Brunton hauled Benji out of the back and helped him walk into the mansion, shooting me a nod over his shoulder.
“Do I get to know what just happened?” I asked, turning to Foust for answers.
“Honestly? I don’t have a fucking clue. One second, we were getting out of the SUV to get groceries. The next, we heard Benji scream and found him lying beside it, bleeding to death. Brunton threw him back in the car and we bolted. Jagger held pressure on the worst of the wounds until we could get him back here.”
“Where was Knox?” I asked.
Foust and Jagger shared a look before speaking. It was only then that I saw how covered in blood the ginger-haired wolf was. Caked in it might have been a better description.
“Trying to find Mack,” Jagger said, the embarrassment in his tone plain. He still blamed himself for the ambush that had almost resulted in both him and me being captured by the fey queen. It hadn’t really been his fault, but he didn’t see it that way. Even after receiving the pack’s forgiveness, the poor guy hadn’t forgiven himself.
“Did you call him?”
“We couldn’t reach him,” Foust said. “I left a message and a text. Either way, though, he should have felt the attack on Benji. He’ll know someone was hurt and follow that feeling back here.”
“Except he’s fine now,” I pointed out.
“True, but he’ll come anyway. It’s impossible for him not to.”
As if on cue, another black vehicle—one of the sports cars in the fleet—came flying into the driveway, grinding to a halt next to the SUV. Knox practically jumped over the top of the low car to get to us.
“Who was it?” he asked, running toward us.
“Benji,” Foust replied. “But he’s okay. He’s inside with Brunton. Piper fixed him.”
Knox let out a loud exhale—a sigh of relief—then grilled Foust and Jagger on what had happened. Once he was caught up, he raked his hand through his hair, his tell that he was trying to calm himself down. The hint of gold flaring in his eyes faded away, leaving only crystal blue in its wake. I loved those eyes so much. I hated seeing the pain in them.
“He’ll be fine, Knox. They got him here in time.”
“Foust drove like a fucking maniac,” Jagger said, trying to help.
“Good,” Knox replied, heading toward the entrance. “I’m going to go check on him.” He stopped in front of me, wrapping his arms around my neck to pull me against him. He wound his hands in my hair and massaged my scalp, then kissed the top of my head. “Thank you, Piper.”
“You know I love the boys. I’d do anything for them.”
He pushed me away to look down at me, a proud but sad smile stretching across his face.
“I know you would,” he said softly. “That fact only makes me love you more—and scares the shit out of me at the same time.”
I let out a little laugh and followed Knox as he led the way inside, Grizz and the boys behind me. I was glad the boys had gotten Benji back in time and that I had been there to help. But the whole ordeal illustrated a problem that I had no idea how to avoid in the future. If the war around us was growing more widespread and vicious, how could I possibly keep all of them safe—especially with powers that had seemed to be on the fritz ever since I faced off against the fey queen? The wolves? The enforcers? All those who had come to my aid when I’d needed it? There were so many of them and only one of me. Sure, Jase, Dean, or Merc could ghost me around, taking me somewhere in a flash if need be, but they were limited to the cover of night. The wolves were not. They could find trouble at any hour of the day—at any place in town.
And I couldn’t always be with them.COLLAPSE