Kaden O’Connor folded his six-foot-six frame onto the same bar stool that he had occupied for the last two weeks. Who would have believed that the cat king of Winslow Mountain would be holed up in some dark dive waiting for a double shifter to walk into the bar? Sounded like a bad joke…
He motioned to the bartender to pour him a drink, he didn’t even have to tell them anymore, they knew he was an Irish whiskey connoisseur and liked it strong with no ice. He threw a tenner on the bar as his first drink of the evening was delivered. The bill disappeared as he looked up into his own vibrant green eyes in the mirror above the drink area.
He surveyed his reflection noting his black hair was getting a little long and maybe he should get it trimmed tomorrow…no telling how long he was going to be here…
His eyes scanned the rest of the darkness which couldn’t hide anything from him. His eyes were well adapted to dark corners courtesy of his panther, as well as his hearing. Soft secrets and even softer laughter permeated those dark crevices.
Nothing to get excited about, he had already ruled out any potential targets long before tonight. He wondered again if he was on a wild goose chase, hoping to reunite his friend’s wife, Cassidy, with her long lost sister.
Slayde MacMichael, Alpha of Terravane Valley, a wolf shifter clan two states over had asked him to investigate the possibility of his wife having a sister, one that was pulled from the same car wreck that killed their parents.
Kaden had thought that returning to the small town would conjure up some memories that were best left forgotten, but he had nothing to worry about. With Cassidy choosing Slayde as her mate, his cat relinquished any interest he had had in her. Now he was back to square one, alone and craving for his own mate, whoever that may be.
And with the potential of another double shifter being found, he could not refuse to help. Especially since Cassidy had given birth to a beautiful baby boy and needed to stay safe within the wolf shifter territory as well as her husband needing to be there to protect her. Cassidy had laughed it off since she was under the belief that those responsible for the mass extinction of her people were now gone.
Slayde hadn’t been so sure and had gone to great lengths to see that her double shifter status remained a secret…at least for a little while until he had poured through all of her people’s records. Kaden had agreed with his reasoning, they had already made one mistake that almost took the life of his friend’s wife. There was no such thing as too careful anymore.
And with that, Kaden was more than willing to find out if Cassidy’s assumptions about the items left in the car wreck did not fit with her age, thereby cementing the idea that she had a younger sister. A younger sister that was out there in the world that was not aware of who and what she was.
With the pulling of a few strings and discreet inquiries, they had learned that there was another child that had been taken to the same foster home that Cassidy went to, but there were no records that the two little girls were related or came from the same circumstance. Cassidy was sent to a foster home within the city a few days later, but the second girl was sent out of state.
Slayde and Kaden had spent over a week tracking down the path of the second girl, still not knowing if she was a missing sister or just a coincidence. The only hope that it was indeed her sister was the note at the bottom of the foster home report listing a couple of pink beads with the letters V and A caught inside the shirt of the second girl…
Which matched the description of the bracelet that Cassidy had held onto that identified her as a double shifter, the MacTire’s. And although the report stated Cassidy’s full name that had been on her bracelet, no name had been attributed to the second girl.
Needing to see the mystery till the end, they pulled in favors from several different shifter clans and traced the path of the second girl. Neither Slayde nor Kaden told Cassidy that the girl who may have been her sister did not fare as well with placement within a loving family. Instead, they followed a girl that had been shuttled around from foster home to foster home, running away on several occasions until she was finally old enough to leave and they didn’t bother to find her and bring her back.
The trail would have died there if not for the note at the bottom of her file saying she was believed to be living on the streets on the west side of the city. Kaden didn’t have a lot of hope of finding her, having no picture and the only reference to her name in all her paperwork was Vee.
But luck was on his side as he talked to the homeless, looking for a young woman maybe with blond hair whose name started with V…Vivien? Vivica?... An old man knew exactly who it was, her name was Veronica and she sometimes could be found in a little bar up the street from time to time. Kaden had thanked the man generously, glad to finally find out if this person was more than just another child in the system.
And now he was here for the ninth…tenth?...night in a row, waiting for someone named Veronica to come in through the old metal door. Would he recognize her? Would she look like Cassidy?
Kaden felt his cat shift inside, remembering the attraction he had felt when he had first met the double shifter…he had been so sure that he had finally found his queen…
The door opened, and Kaden watched in the mirror as a small blond girl strode into the bar, marching right up to the bar, smiling at the bartender, “Mack! I need a pitcher of your finest!”
Mack smiled widely as he grabbed an empty flagon and started pulling a cold stream of beer, “What are you celebrating tonight Ronnie?”
Kaden had been closely studying the new patron until he heard her name. His eyes returned to his glass as he absently listened to their conversation.
“It’s got to be something good if you know who told me to order us up a pitcher,” the girl beamed as she plunked a bill on the bar top.
Mack placed the beer on a tray and reached for a couple of glasses, “Wow, it must be special if you need two glasses.” He placed the glasses on the tray and threw a pouch of peanuts in for good measure, “Here, some snacks so you aren’t drinking on an empty stomach.”
The girl winked, “Wow Mack, you sure know how to treat a girl.”
The bartender smiled, “Only the best for princess Ronnie.”
Ronnie dropped her jaw, “That’s Princess Veronica to all my subjects.”
Mack nodded his head, “Please accept my humble apologies Princess Veronica,” and he gave a short bow.
At the mention of the actual name of the young girl, Kaden looked with more interest at the new arrival. He noted her blond hair that floated halfway down her back and he was sure her eyes were blue. She was definitely easy on the eyes, her figure curvy in all the right places. He studied her face, looking for the family resemblance and supposed that yes, she could be the person he was looking for, even though this girl had blue eyes, he remembered their mother having blond hair and blue eyes.
As if sensing she was being watched, the girl looked up into the mirror and smiled. Then she winked.
Kaden looked away, unsure if he wanted to start the conversation with her yet since she was obviously waiting for someone. He would rather get her alone, that way if the conversation went sideways and she refused to go with him, he would make sure she had no choice. There was no way he was going to allow Cassidy’s sister to fall through their fingers.
He felt the movement as the girl grabbed the tray and retreated to a table nearby. He heard her pouring a glass of beer and he casually looked up into the mirror to study her again. She didn’t look like someone who had shifted yet. She was way too relaxed and…happy. Then again, her first shift could be months away, they didn’t exactly know how old Cassidy’s sister had been.
Absently, Kaden stroked his face, feeling the line of hair along his jawline going up into his thin trim mustache. He hoped she would find him attractive enough to talk with him, giving him time to convince her to meet with her sister…
He watched the girl Veronica as she caught him staring again. She smiled again and waved her fingers as she chuckled to herself.
Maybe he wouldn’t wait after all…she seemed more than interested in meeting him…
Valaria shrugged her coat tighter around herself, feeling the nippiness in the air. Autumn had arrived early this year with the promise of winter hot on its heels. She was feeling happier tonight than she had in a long time. She knew it wouldn’t be long now…the end was in sight…
Not long now…not long now…
Valaria smiled as her inner voice agreed with her wholeheartedly. She sent hugs to her sixth sense, glad for the gift that protected her since she was a little girl. It always warned her when danger was near as well as people to avoid, people who might hurt her in some way.
Valaria lived a tough existence, had only known rejection and pain since she could remember. She had learned early on that she belonged to no one, she was just another paycheck to the people who housed her. Once she had dreamed of having a mom and dad to spoil her, watching as other children were picked over her. She had stood in front of bathroom mirrors looking at her shiny black hair, her light green eyes, her shy smile and wondered why she was never looked at twice.
She also remembered the day her wish was granted, and she found herself traveling with her new parents and listening to the radio play as they drove. She was so excited, so determined to be the perfect daughter…until she arrived at her new home to discover she had two new brothers too. Valaria was determined to fit in and spent her first days, trying to be friendly towards her brothers, showing them how happy she was to have them.
They weren’t happy that she was there. It wasn’t long before they saw the advantage of having a sister…one that they could blame everything on. At first, they just broke things and blamed it on her. She would try to convince her parents that it was her brothers but the old saying that blood is thicker than water held true and she found it was easier to just accept the blame rather than try to convince two adults that their real children were little monsters.
When she started school, she was excited that she would soon have real friends to share her life with, but her brothers also attended the same school and they soon brought their destructive behaviors there too. And Valaria found it was easier to take the blame there too. She soon found herself serving detention quite often, but it almost seemed like a reward since it was the only place where she found true peace and quiet, where she could spend her time drawing and dreaming…dreaming of being back in one of her other foster homes before she got adopted.
She spent a year praying every day that they would leave her alone for a while. And then she came home one day to find her mother weeping because her father had left. Valaria didn’t know what that meant for her, but she found out two days later. Her brothers had cornered her in her room and pushed her down, blaming their father leaving because of all of the trouble she caused. They didn’t clue in that they were the ones causing it all, she just took the blame.
Valaria cried out but one stuffed her mouth with a sock while the other one began to pull off her pants. Valaria cried as they stripped her bare, not knowing what they were doing…
Oh, where was her mother??
Then she screamed as one of them began to touch her between her legs…
She knew if she didn’t get up now, they were going to do something bad to her…
And the voice deep inside her growled and struck out as Valaria squeezed her eyes tight trying to hold her tears inside. All of a sudden, she was free, and she opened her eyes to see the oldest brother now wriggling on the floor clutching himself and trying not to scream while the other was staring in surprise.
Valaria wasted no time in pulling the sock from her mouth and grabbing her clothes. She quickly dressed as her oldest brother started calling her every bad name he could think of. It washed off her back like water.
Then she ran to her room to find her secret money stash, determined that she would be safer on the streets than remain in that home. She packed a few clothes in her school bag and ran downstairs to grab her coat and disappear out the front door.
She would never see her adopted family ever again.
She was twelve years old…
Valaria wiped a lone tear that had rose and fallen as she remembered that day. After that, she listened to everything that inner voice said. She trusted her explicitly and she knew she would never be put in that position again…if people thought she was a troublemaker, then that was what they would get. She had tried to be a good daughter and where did that get her?
And never again would she let any man touch her! She learned her lesson and she made sure she never put herself in that position ever again.
She had grown up a lot since that naïve twelve-year-old girl. She had been caught a year later by the police and found herself shipped off to another group home. She didn’t mind it so much as it finally gave her a warm place to sleep and a full belly, but she ran away when another couple were looking to adopt her again. No way was she going to go through that again! Six months later she found herself caught again and shipped out of state to a group home ranch for troubled youths.
She laughed to herself when she arrived. No one ever got adopted from here. You stayed there until you were old enough to be pushed out on your own, which suited her just fine. And she actually liked the band of misfits that lived with her on the ranch. They were all broken in one way or another…just like her. And they all respected her space because they all understood she was just like them.
And that’s where she met her best friend…her only friend…Veronica, a year later…
Veronica had been broken by a broken system, but Valaria was drawn to her, sensing a spirit that needed her. A month later, she caught her trying to sneak outside with a bag full of clothes and food. Valaria knew this wasn’t the city, she would die in those woods. So, she took the young girl out to the barn and handed her a brush to curry the horses as they talked.
By morning they were the best of friends, determined not to be separated, no matter what. And when they left, they were going together…no matter what…two peas in a pod…sister by another mister…
Valaria smiled in the light of a lamppost, so happy with her life. Her life was perfect just at that moment. Everything was going her way, her plans for freedom were almost within her grasp. Veronica and she were going to be able to disappear into their own little hideaway with no fear of the outside world, not that she felt fear herself anymore. No, she could look after herself very well, but Veronica was a different matter. Although she had been broken, Valaria gave her the strength to put it behind her and start to trust in people again…unfortunately, she was too trusting and Valaria worried that it would put her in a situation that could hurt her again. Good thing their plan was almost ready.
Valaria looked up at the dingy sign hanging outside of their favorite bar. It was a place that you could disappear, and no one bothered you and she was actually looking forward to sharing a beer with her friend as she told her how well they did tonight…
She opened the door and took a moment to let her eyes adjust to the darkness. She saw Veronica waving her fingers, but not at her.
Valaria’s eyes turned to see who had caught her friend’s attention and as if he could sense her attention, the man turned and caught her gaze.
Valeria felt her insides turn and her hand grabbed her stomach as pain ripped across her middle, like being clawed from the inside out.
Her inner voice spoke as if she were someone else. Valaria swallowed hard as deep green eyes held her own light ones. She clenched her stomach muscles tight trying to ease the ache as her fight or flight mode kicked in. Her eyes were drawn away as Veronica finally saw her and waved frantically for her to come over.
Valaria swallowed again as her feet slipped slowly across the floor as the door shut silently behind her…she could still feel the stranger’s gaze as she silently tread towards the table just out of reach of the man at the bar…
Kaden had turned to smile at the young girl, ready to get up and approach her, regardless of who she was waiting for when he noticed the movement from the door. His eyes skirted sideways at the same time that a very sweet dark smell wafted on the breeze coming in with the stranger.
His eyes met and held the gaze of another petite woman who had stopped in the doorway. He watched as her hand suddenly pressed against her stomach as if trying to hold something in.
There was no mistaking that sweet preshift odor was coming from her. He didn’t miss her almost shoulder-length dark hair and the lightest, sexiest, green pools that stared back at him.
This couldn’t be…
His cat started to claw him inside, needing for him to catch this girl for them to explore and lick every inch of her skin.
He watched as the blond girl that had shown interest in him now waved at the newcomer. Kaden didn’t want to move, scared that the little preshift would bolt before he could get close enough to catch her. And she was seriously thinking about it, he could read her eyes perfectly.
Then he saw her gaze turn towards her friend and he watched as she slowly crept in…like a cat…
His own feline, Leo, began to purr as she came closer. He turned away slowly and looked down at his drink fighting with the urge to grab her and run. It wouldn’t work out very well if he did and Cassidy would never forgive him if her sister got hurt in any way and he now was very sure that this was the girl he was looking for. She moved like a shifter, silent and cautious, but her smell assured him she was not long from her first shift.
Great, he was going to have to convince her to come with him and be in a car with her smell enveloping his every sense before he could get her back to Terravane Valley. And he knew what would happen if her shift came on her on the way…
And he was okay with that…more than okay, although he was sure the girl sitting down not far from him would not be…
Her first shift would be hard enough to explain but explaining that she would have to mate with him to bring about her second shift…no, that wouldn’t go over at all. But she wouldn’t have a choice in the matter either, her wolf would make sure her cat was unleashed.
His gaze rose to the mirror again and he studied her every movement, drawn to her like a moth to a flame. Under his gaze, he watched her shuffle her chair a little farther away from where he sat stiffly on his stool, clutching his now empty glass. He couldn’t help but smile at her small attempt to put distance between them. He wondered if it was her idea or her wolf’s. He smiled and chuckled as he watched her pour her beer while giving a sideways glance towards him like he was going to pounce on her at any minute.
She wasn’t far off, maybe not this minute, but he was definitely seeing some major pouncing very soon in his future…and hers…
Veronica smiled wide as Valaria sat down and grabbed the pitcher, “He’s gorgeous, isn’t he?”
Valaria refused to acknowledge the stranger, “Who is?”
Veronica made a face, “Like you never saw him when you walked in. I know you, Vee, you notice everything when you walk into a room. You probably can tell me what kind of pants he’s wearing and how many rings he has on his hands. By the way, how many rings does he have? Any gold ones on his left hand?”
Valaria couldn’t help but smile at her friend. She was always looking for Mr. Right but always seemed to find Mr. Wrong and that man at the bar was definitely Mr. No Way in Hell.
She took a drink of her beer, enjoying the smooth path down to her stomach as she answered, “He’s not for you, Ron.”
Her friend looked disappointed, “Why not? He could be.”
Valaria needed to remind her friend about their agreed future, “No, he’s not, you know there is no future for any man in our plans.”
Ronnie downed her first glass of courage and refilled her glass before she spoke, “Well maybe I’ve changed my mind, Vee.” She watched as Valaria’s eyes opened wider as she spoke, “I mean, I know you aren’t interested in finding a man, but I think someday I might want a home and some children, and I can’t exactly do that by myself.”
Vee glanced away from her friend, and not towards the bar. This wasn’t the first time her friend had been waffling on the vision of their future.
“I mean I love you Vee, and I understand why you just want to build your own space to keep out the whole world, but I…”
Valaria turned her head, “You what?” She felt guilty when her friend swallowed hard and her eyes started to water.
She spoke softer, “Listen, Ron, I always told you that you can tell me anything. I won’t think any less of you for telling me the truth,” and she added meaningfully, “You never have to fear me, Ronnie. We have been through too much together.”
Veronica nodded, “I know, but I don’t want to disappoint you.”
Valaria smiled, “The only way you could ever disappoint me is not telling me the truth. You’re the only one I can count on to tell me the truth. Now, what do you want to say?”
Ronnie smiled and took another drink before explaining, “I love you Vee, but I want to meet someone who will hold me every night, share my dreams with, start a family…”
Vee cut in, “I told you we could adopt a couple of children and you could be a mother to them…”
“I want a man in my life, Vee, children need…”
“We would be parenting them together…”
“I want a man in my life, Vee. I want to be someone’s wife and life partner. I mean, I know we always talked about having a ranch of our own for children without a home of their own and you could still do that, you are the strongest woman I know,” her friend reached out and touched the fingers wrapped around her glass, “But I want something else.”
Valaria looked away again as she felt her eyes water…I will not cry…I will not cry…
“Are you crying, Vee?” She heard the soft question and felt anger at herself. She hadn’t cried in so long, she thought her eyes no longer knew how to do it.
She bit the inside of her cheek as she turned back, “Of course not, you know I don’t cry. And I totally understand you wanting that kind of life but,” and here she gestured towards the bar, “that man there is not the one to give it to you.”
Ronnie laughed at her friend, “Not all men are liars and schemers, Vee.”
Valarie glanced again at the huge back adorning the bar stool. Her eyes lifted involuntarily to the mirror and found her gaze held again with eyes as dark as the forest. She quickly glanced away and back to her friend. She realized there was no sense in trying to dissuade her, it wouldn’t be fair to force her into a life she didn’t want. But she could help her at least find someone who would treat her fairly and hopefully, with love.
“You know, I think he was going to come over to me before you came in,” Ronnie informed her.
Vee muttered under her breath, “I’m sure he was…”
“I think you scared him off.”
“Vee, how am I going to…”
Valaria sighed loudly as she pushed her hand through her hair in exasperation, “Okay, okay, I get it. If you want Mr. Big and Tall over there then okay. But I want to talk to him first to make sure he has at least something going for him,” besides being big, tall and reasonably gorgeous. No man that looked like that came into a small dive bar unless he was looking for someone…and not a wife or girlfriend…or running from someone…something her friend didn’t need in her life…ever.
Veronica smiled, “Agreed. I trust your judgment completely.” Then she leaned in a little more and whispered, “Just don’t scare him off if he’s a genuinely nice guy, okay?”
Vee pursed her lips and then nodded slightly, “Go into the bathroom for a few minutes. If he’s here at the table when you return, then it’s a go, but if not, we finish up and leave, okay?”
Valaria watched her friend shine as a big smile lit up her face. Hope was plastered all over her. Vee didn’t know if she could recommend any man for her, she didn’t want her hurt in any way. But she had to at least give him the benefit of the doubt…for a minute or two at least to make it look good…then she could convince her friend to go somewhere where the clientele was a little more family-oriented…
She watched her friend move towards the bathroom at the back and then swung her gaze to the man still sitting silently at the bar.
How much had he heard?
Kaden had heard everything that was said at the table at his back. And he knew now that the object of his search was going to approach him on her own. Great that she was approaching him, but it didn’t leave him much time to figure out how he was going to convince her that she had a sister and she should come back with him to meet her. That approach was definitely not going to work on this little shifter.
Her smell increased two-fold as his body felt her coming up behind him. His cat had actually quieted as she arrived beside him. He looked up into the mirror and met her gaze. She wasn’t looking away this time.
He watched her lips move as her voice drifted to his ear, “I am sure you’ve been listening to my conversation with my friend and I don’t know how much you heard, and I really don’t care.”
Her voice rose, “Hey Mack, can we have a refill?” Her eyes broke their gaze as she smiled at the bartender and threw a twenty onto the bar, “And keep the change.”
No more words were spoken until another pitcher was sitting in front of his companion. He was still staring at her when her eyes met his again.
“So, I am going to make this short and sweet. My friend seems to think you might be Mr. Right but we both know you are more like…Mr. Trouble with a capital T. But I told her I would check you out to see if you’re husband material, which you clearly are not. So, when she gets back, I am going to tell her you are married and are looking for a bit on the side. She might be a little disappointed now, but it’s better than being strung along and mixed up with something or someone she doesn’t need.” She paused and then added, “Do we have an understanding? You can just nod your head.”
Kaden couldn’t stop the smile that stretched from ear to ear. Imagine this little thing actually threatening a man his size let alone a King of the cat-shifters! She was like a mother cougar protecting her kittens. She was everything he needed in a Queen…
“Do you think this is funny?” He could hear the building anger in her voice.
Kaden had to turn and look at her face on. He couldn’t resist as he spoke, “Not at all, I just find it amusing that you are attempting to tell me who I can and can’t associate with.”
He couldn’t miss the flush of anger that rolled over his little shifter.
“Amusing? You think I am amusing? How amused would you be if I took you outside and kicked your ass right now?” her voice was hissing like a snake and he was definitely reminded of a very angry rattlesnake.
Kaden raised his hands, “Hey, I am just trying to have a nice quiet drink, you have nothing to fear from me.”
His words seemed to make her angrier, but he wasn’t sure why until she placed her hand on the pitcher and bit out, “No, I don’t and if you know what’s good for you, you will just finish your drink and leave like a good boy,” her voice was like saccharine, her eyes molten fire.
Kaden felt a wave of arousal slide over his body, suddenly making him very uncomfortable in his pants, which was all worth it listening to the little spitfire next to him.
He couldn’t help but poke the lioness, “And if I don’t?”
Her eyes narrowed at his challenge, “Do you have a death wish?”
Kaden let his eyes sweep down over her trim form leaving her in no doubt his interest in her, “That wouldn’t be my first wish.”
He was somewhat surprised when the girl gritted her teeth before backing down, “Listen, why don’t we just agree to keep to ourselves, have our drinks, and never cross paths again?”
Kaden looked at her lazily, “Do you really think you could kick my ass?”
He watched as the girl slid her eyes down his muscular length before coming back to meet his gaze. She never even blinked as she stated, quite surely, “Yes.”
Kaden smiled again as he replied, “Well since you can’t wait to get your hands on me, how about a little wager?” He was finding it more and more difficult to sit and smell her heightened aroma and not haul her into the darkness and push her against the wall while his mouth greedily sucked her soft skin into his mouth.
“You’ve got nothing I want,” she made it clear that she was not interested in anything on his mind.
“If you can bring me to my knees, you, and your friend,” he added, “will never see me again.”
She broke in, “And if I lose?”
Kaden swept his gaze from her feet upwards until it rested on her sweet delectable mouth, “I get one kiss.”
Kaden was mildly surprised as a faint flush crept over her skin. Was she blushing? Maybe her tough exterior wasn’t as tough as she thought it was. Maybe she had a chink in her armor after all.
“Deal?” he pressed her, looking forward to his reward. This was one battle he would definitely not lose.
Her nostrils flared slightly before her gaze drifted to the direction her friend had disappeared. He watched her armor thicken as she grabbed her full pitcher and turned away, her eyes glaring daggers at him, “Go to Hell,” before smiling towards her friend.
Kaden smiled as he motioned for another drink. He definitely wasn’t leaving her now and if she wanted to take him outside to show him how tough she was, he was all for it.
His cat was purring his contentment…