Ch. 1 Werescape: LOVING LUCIUS
She thinks it's impossible to hide her freakish powers. He thinks she's trying to worm herself under his skin to gain entry into his clan's secret Shifter laboratory.
Things couldn't get any tougher when Lady Elise's life flounders deep in The Wild after the extraterrestrials terminated her warlord father's reign over his city. On the run from the aliens, her father passes Elise and her sisters into the care of some Shifters. But that's not what troubles Elise. Her father has offered her body as the prize to one of the Shifters in exchange for their help in safeguarding his daughters. And the icing on that cake is founded in her father's dangerous secret about his daughters' true father--a secret he shares with only Elise, a secret she dare not utter, one explaining the three sisters's unusually strong psychic powers of healing. Powers that strike fear in Normals. She literally lives in fear of skin-to-skin contact with anyone and of witch hunts. Being labeled a witch is no better than being connected to the aliens who invaded Earth--aliens responsible for her psychic powers. This little skeleton in Elise's closet is best left buried therein. But now she's the foreigner with life and limb at the mercy of strange Guardians who ask questions, watch, and listen to tattling heartbeats...
Lucius is into exhuming secrets. Although, maybe he's best named Luscious, his tools for exhumation aren't the standard shovel and bucket of that sort of business. Well, that's when a Shifter's inner Wolf tosses them aside for mating. He's fighting a needy Wolf and his clan's safety when he takes on saving Elise and her sisters. But all it takes is one infiltrator to learn the truth about his sire's pre-AEI governmental medical laboratory and all bets are off that Earth will ever be controlled by humans again. Trusting Elise sets off all sorts of alarms--untimely omens that warn he's definitely risking being next in line to head his sire's clan as well as his clan's safety and humanity's. But nature seems to have it in for the unlikely duo. And whether they like it or not, the best fix for the problem is tied to Elise bending to temptation of the touch and LOVING LUCIUS.
Iowa Territory, 2065 A.D., AEI, The Wild
Life has gone to Hell in two generations. Extraterrestrials altered the human genome, splitting humanity into two subspecies of humans, Shifters and Normals. Sometimes Shifters and Normals work together for survival in cities or remote villages. Other times they war for dominance. Regardless of the outcome, they must survive and fight against human enslavement. Hunted by aliens for breeding stock, Shifters understand this the most. Especially, Wolf males…
Being summoned to speak with a warlord when you lived as far as possible from them in The Wild to avoid the pompous bastards wasn't a problem Lucius wanted to deal with when he traveled across country. But sometimes, annoying things occurred, he thought. Like having a group of well-armed Normal hunters approach a group of Shifters to announce New Boston's warlord Langston had run for his life from his city and hid deep within the nearby Iowa Territory. So my two brothers, another Shifter, and I rode our horses toward the gaping front gateway of a remote wilderness encampment to learn for ourselves what insanity pushed an arrogant Normal to send for strange Shifters. Add to the equation that since the extraterrestrials began cleansing the New cities along the East Coast, the Elders needed to hear every scrap of information Shifters could squeeze from powerful Normals.
Time to squeeze this warlord.
Well, the early spring day was young. Not an hour past sunrise. And the nip in the air didn't bother me nor my horse. Why not a little unplanned excursion to ease up on the monotony of our trip to collect a motor part?
"Maybe one of us should wait while the rest go into meet with Langston?" my younger brother Hadrian asked from half a horse length behind my saddle.
Although Hadrian proved a strong wise Shifter of twenty-seven years, I never cared for the weakness in his points. Like the Caesar he was named after who built a wall to bar the barbarians from England so long ago. Alas, Hadrian was always right. But he'd mated and had a family that needed him more than the rest of us unmated Shifters. I turned to catch his blue gaze--the clue he was one of my sire's sons. "Langston can't possibly do anything with unmated Shifters. I think there's a mystery here worth solving. One that will result in at least a bit of entertainment to account for the time we spend detouring to this Normal camp."
Marcus caught my gaze from his bay gelding and nodded.
Something kept Hadrian from reminding me he had a mate to return to. He'd be fine. We all would. And rarely did one of my younger brothers give me much grief when we left on task for our sire. But what did Tacitus think? I turned to the large man's almost-brown hazel gaze.
Tacitus still wore his straight-lipped smile, casually gripping his gray gelding's reins.
Deep in thought, although he appeared to daydream. Hence, his blank expression. His standard-Shifter attire of camouflage military pants and shirt backed his indifferent position that kept everyone content to keep him close. Even when those requesting he side with them were all brothers who'd rather he choose who had the best plan.
Tacitus smacked his lips and ran the palm of his free hand over his shaved scalp. "This ride across country is so Gods-be-damned boring. Visiting a displaced Normal warlord ought to shake things up."
So, my friend sided with me. "True."
"Then let's see what lies beyond that palisade." My other younger unpredictable brother, Marcus, focused on the tree trunks forming a solid wall encircling the Normal camp.
Might as well get this over with and head home to help with the summer's preparations for winter. I kicked my mount into a trot and covered the broad meadow leading up to the wall of tree trunks standing on end. The wide gate opening offered a nice preview of a few log cabins. None were oversized. Meaning no Shifter clan leader resided at this outpost. No Shifters meant the warlord traveled without his paid Shifter security guards. I led the way through the gate, under the watchful eye of a Normal babying what had to be an M-16 propped on end on the man's hip.
Maybe Hadrian was right about this being a foolish detour. But I don't want anyone thinking I'm afraid of Normals in the Territory neighboring my clan's.
Hadrian cleared his throat where he rode behind me.
He's so easily read. But that's the trouble with taking a mate. You worry about returning home when the clan's interests are more important than a mated pair. But our sire obviously sent him along to keep my nose clean. Like I'd endanger the clan. Hell, I'm next in line to lead because I protect it.
"Looks safe enough," Marcus muttered to my left where his horse was a head's-length behind mine. "Unless you plan on trading."
"No. Augustus will want to know what this warlord is up to." What I could see didn't say much for the Normal's prestige. No tanks. No motorcycles. No windmills, meaning no electricity. No electricity meant there probably isn't a way for those living here to communicate with who they left behind back east. Whoever built this sanctuary hadn't bothered with long-term plans. Rather, must have thrown up the log cabins fast. So quickly that loose dirt still mounded at the base of the perimeter log wall.
Normal males trickled out of a lodge into the small empty courtyard.
Undoubtedly to talk. None wore clothing more reflective of wealth or power. So who is the warlord? Given the circumstances for leaving his seat of power in New Boston, this Normal probably didn't have much time to select which luxuries to bring along. The mixture of clothing these men wore looked more like whatever they could scrounge up instead of what wealthy Normal nobles and their well-paid firearms could afford. Had the warlord run for his life? And what managed to send this one running?
Nothing here spoke of danger to us though. I reined my mount to a halt a few strides from where the three observant males observed our approach.
One had the thoughtful grinding jaw of a man who made decisions. Probably Langston. The Normal to his left was the dark-haired hunter who had delivered the warlord's message to us. More like plea. But who's mincing words here?
"Are these the Shifters you requested come speak with me?" the one I spotted as the warlord questioned the hunter.
The hunter met my gaze. "Yes, Langston. This is Lucius."
"Thank you for coming, Lucius," Langston stated.
Those words weren't measured. Rather truly heartfelt. I could summon my Wolf to feel them out. To read their heartbeats with Wolf's heightened senses, but the words were enough. For now. Especially since my sire always insisted a person's face told a lot about the person. No sense risking disturbing them with the golden glow of my Wolf in my eyes. "Why did you want us to come?"
"I must ask the biggest favor of you that a man could ask in any lifetime." His gaze traveled away to scan the rest of my Shifter party.
Like he was a tad uncertain we were the right Shifters for the job.
His serious gaze locked back on me though. "Normal warlords are being exterminated along the seaboard. I fled with my family." He absently pointed back at the cabin they'd exited. "For my daughters. They are endangered traveling with me. And I've come so far. As far as I can with my men. I need," he cleared his throat, his firm gaze weakening into a plea, "I beg you to take pity upon my daughters and take them somewhere safe in The Wild."
Something akin to peace rang through every cell in my being. Or mind numbing shock. Here stood one of the most powerful humans on the planet, and he begged me to take his beloved children into The Wild? How many?
"I see your confusion, Lucius." Langston took a step toward my horse and stopped, one palm raised as if he intended to touch me for reassurance. "These are not youngsters, my friend. My daughters are older. Two of age." He nodded slightly.
The dark-haired hunter beside him almost winced.
Apparently disgusted by the fact two Normal females old enough to mate were being offered into Shifter care.
"But," Langston added, his brown eyes bright with promise, "I will allow you the choice, Lucius, the daughter of your choice for your mate, if you don't already have one, in exchange for this favor."
With all that running for his life, he'd lost his home, probably most of his wealth, and his mind, how can he give his daughter to a stranger? As a mate. Unless there is more. Something deadly. Dangerous.
Absolute silence from my kinsmen and friend almost knocked me from my saddle. But I managed to lean a forearm on the saddle's pommel and stare the warlord down long enough to trigger more of his nervous chatter.
"Do you have a mate, Lucius?"
"No." Hopefully the reply was snipped enough to reflect my worry with this situation. "And traveling with three females back to my sire's outpost is risky. Perhaps too risky to accept your offer." Still silence from my fellow Shifters.
"But you can't pass up this type of deal. Think of the two others who will mate with my daughters given time. Surely with the lack of females in The Wild, there are Shifters among your clan who would welcome my girls. Who would welcome mates."
Oh. Yes. More than two Shifters. But we're talking here and now. Like my companions wouldn't vie for the females' favoritism on the trail. Besides, taking a warlord's daughters into the sanctuary's community is too risky. What if this is just an infiltration scheme? We can't afford a mistake that would inform the aliens of our medical lab's location. What's left of the entire human race relied upon the experiments held in that lab. I studied the ragtag group of Normals.
"You look like a wise warrior," his chatter started again. "Even now you lead your friends. Tell me, Lucius, what is a harder fight to win? The battle of a weapons and mind? Or the battle of a lonely heart?"
Profound words. Maybe after I met these daughters I could swallow the whole idea. Choke it down. Decide if saving them is worth the trouble of choosing my battles. Because two other males in my party kept their comments to themselves. The two other unmated Shifters. As if they considered taking the women wise.
The door from the same cabin Langston emerged from burst open.
A slender redheaded female raced into the sunlight. Slim. Tall. Curvaceous in her faded blue jeans and long-sleeve green t-shirt. Her long mane of wavy red hair waved behind her like a cloud of bright red haze.
Wolf perked up his ears.
Must have shoved into my eyes and ears because I could hear every accursed heartbeat around me, including my brothers'. All telling me how two Wolves behind me were thinking the same thing. Mate. But I'm the one who made decisions for the clan at the moment. They'd all have to live with my choice.
The redhead's pace slowed, and she quickly strode toward Langston. "What did you want, Father?"
He shot me an evil knowing grin and turned to her. "Come meet this Shifter, Sherry." He extended a hand to her.
She took his palm without hesitation. "Since when do you introduce me to strangers, especially Shifters?"
Interesting point. So she didn't know what her sire planned although her curious tone noted she wasn't buying the situation as casual.
"Today is a special day." Langston pulled her to stand at his side and met my gaze. "Lucius, this is Sherry. My middle child." He tugged her hand toward me, drawing her gaze to mine.
"Nice to meet you, Lucius," she condescended. Her gaze darted back to her sire's where she studied him with a furrowed brow.
Langston ignored her irritated scrutiny.
Watched my reaction. While I tried not to laugh at Red's snip. She had every right to be defensive. I did. The last thing I needed on this trip was a belligerent female.
"What do you say, Guardian? Will you help me?"
The horses began shifting their footing.
Tired of standing. Or waiting. For me to deny these females the one thing all humans, whether Shifters or Normals, deserved. A chance to live free of enslavement under the aliens. All of that obvious in my title of Guardian. One that pushed me to reply yes to the female. Sherry's long legs and crisp green eyes are awfully perfect. Pretty. Intelligent by her reaction to her father's strange behavior. And naïve in not suspecting her sire's betrayal. Most of all, she'd be safe mated to a Shifter. Protected from aliens and Normals. I have to agree. At least to a point. Maybe not actually mate one of these daughters though. But agree to take them to safety. They'd help perpetuate the human species in bearing children, at least. I nodded.
Langston's brown gaze slowly turned to his daughter.
"Why are you looking at me that way?" she instantly snapped.
"You and your sisters are going with these Guardians."
"What?" She eyed me and companions warily. "Why would you leave us to the care of them?" she droned.
The dark-haired hunter's eyes slowly closed.
Pained or humiliated. Not a good sign. Especially when he wanted us to take pity on this one who just insulted us with her obvious prejudice against Shifters.
Langston jerked her elbow.
She snapped her scowl back to him.
"Do not snarl at me," the warlord warned her. "I'm not the one who has an issue with Shifters."
So much for Langston's idea of one of us marking his daughter. No Shifter wanted a racist mate.
"Let me go," Sherry yelled, jerking her arm, trying to step away from him.
Futilely. The father had no intention of allowing her to leave. His gaze flicked to us.
Halting when finding mine.
The hunter opened his eyes. "She had a bad encounter in the past. Please don't hold her prejudice against Langston's other daughters."
Yes. The truth be known now. He'd expected the redhead's reaction all along. So it was my call. My choice to continue with this charade or wash my hands of a potential fiasco with an uncontrollable caustic female in our party's midst. Nor can we take her home and risk her escaping and informing Normals about our subterranean village.
Another lodge's door opened, spitting forth another female.
Taller. Dark hair like her sire's. But extremely long, pulled into a tail. And a shorter girl. One of eleven or ten. Both in blue jeans. Both wearing flannel shirts. The lined type that kept a person warm on cool autumn days. Sensible.
The older female paused, studying us from a distance, then snatched up the younger's hand and hustled toward what had to be a questionable scene by the way her pinched expression noted her confusion.
"Run, Elise," Sherry twisted and screamed where her sire gripped her arm.
The dark-haired female's gaze darted over us as if she wasn't certain whether to bolt or ignore her obviously insane sister. Three steps from her sire, she snapped a demanding stare on the warlord. "What are you doing to Sherry?"
The younger girl hung back like a lead weight.
Elise continued to pull her toward our little discussion.
It was almost crazy to leave. To miss the rest of the fireworks. Normals could really entertain a bored Shifter. At least on a good day. Besides, this Elise seemed rational. Not so slender and curvaceous. Probably because of her over-sized quilted shirt. But a wise female hid the things that attracted males most.
"I'm sending you all west," Langston finally replied.
Elise scanned our faces and mounts again.
Quickly. But long enough to lose the exaggerated assessing pinch in her mask. To flash us all with her calmer and more appealing intricately-carved nose and lips. "Why?"
Here stood the daughter sporting the intelligence to survive.
Something drew my thoughts back to find Langston studying me.
Scrutinizing my reaction.
"Will you take them?" His tone now sounded more hopeful than pleading.
The youngest threw herself under Elise's arm and clutched her around the middle.
Just enough to show Elise had ample curves and a slim waist. Just enough to make my Wolf pop back into my eyes and ears. To listen to her rapid steady heartbeat. Why is this beauty worried? Did she fear leaving the protection of a warlord? The man had nothing here in The Wild. Nothing but a few Normals who fancied what remained of the shadow of what he had once been, powerful enough to cling to.
"You can have all the money I brought as well," Langston added with slow calculated words.
Measured for my benefit. Expressing his desperation instead of tempting me.
My mount shifted his front hooves.
Noting money isn't what we'd need. Smart horse. The females would require their own mounts to travel.
Langston's confident demeanor began to fade.
Probably because of the redhead trying to wrench her arm free of his grasp once again. Why should the other two suffer because of the crazy sister. Sherry should think of her siblings. Her family. "I don't need your money."
Langston perked up.
Did he have enough horses though? "They'll need horses."
"No," Sherry howled. "I won't go." She flailed against his whitening knuckles.
The dark-haired hunter shut his eyes as if deeply disillusioned.
Noting even more the issue was more the redhead would be too much trouble for us on the trail. "I don't think she's capable of traveling with us."
Sherry stopped fighting.
Like she'd secured her safety and would be remaining with her sire.
Langston's brown eyes pinched slightly. "Take all three or no deal. You can have horses. Hard tack. Ammunition. A gag and rope," he added, jerking Sherry's arm.
She glared at her sire.
"Anything you need." Langston clamped his jaw tight.
Set with determination. Muscles moving in his cheeks, grinding his teeth in frustration. Or willed me to agree.
"Bring the horses," Tacitus boomed. "If you want them to go with us. We've no time for this display."
He was right. Always right. The reason why I always brought him along.
"Get the horses and load them with supplies," Langston muttered to the other hunter standing beside him before uttering the inevitable. "Which one, then, Lucius?"
Neither older daughter missed the lingering question.
"What have you done?" Elise carefully asked.
Langston's stare never relinquished mine, ignoring the sane daughter. "Bought you safe passage to a place far from here. Now, mind your tongue."
But marking an unknowing and unwilling female seemed barbaric. The females didn't need to feel threatened. "We'll take them. You have my word. Back to--"
"I don't want to know," he interrupted my declaration. "Just hide them away. Any place is safer than with me."
"Father?" the youngest called. "Please don't send me away."
Something flickered in the man's eyes.
Maybe pain. He had balls. Enough to protect his children. I had to give him credit for assuming the ultimate responsibility.
"Elise, then," Langston announced. "She attracted most of the attention in New Boston."
Red burned up Elise's neck, into her cheeks.
"She's young. Never married," Langston began to barter. "I couldn't just give her to any warlord. Not Elise."
Her face drained of all color as if her father slit her throat and stood there while she bled out. But she never looked our direction.
"Elise," Langston called.
She gulped so loud even the average Normal's hearing had to hear the pop.
"Come here, Elise." Langston's words slowed with warning.
Poor thing. Who could watch this drama unfold and not pity her? How old is she? No more than twenty-four. Too old never to have mated. Strange. A warlord's daughters are mated early for political or economic power. Maybe the redhead's unrestrained behavior kept suitors at a distance.
Elise managed to do as instructed, dragging the clinging girl along.
"Let go, Violet." Langston tugged at the younger girl's arm until she turned a petrified mask his direction.
"Don't send me away, Father."
"You'll be with Elise," he said more softly. "Everything will be fine. Now, let her go."
Elise stared at my horse's dark hooves.
Like she knew what was coming. What her sire would command. Who in the hell could bring himself to bite such a terrified female? Grant it, she's attractive even in the large clothes she'd chosen. But the marking was wrong. Gods-be-damned wrong.
Normals and their fears.
Violet's arms fell away from Elise's plaid shirt, pulled by Langston, over to Sherry, where Violet reattached herself to her other sibling and buried her nose in the redhead's chest.
Only then did Langston release Sherry's arm.
Probably because Violet's weight would prevent the hothead from moving. Running.
"What do you say, Lucius?" Langston asked again, carefully and rather quietly.
No. Not with my clan at risk. I could take them back. But I'm not about to make an enemy. Even of a terrified female. If I reveal the point, will he listen? The man is so desperate now that he doesn't care about his children's feelings. Hell, Elise looked one blink shy of fainting. And the young Violet begged to stay.
"Remove your jacket, Elise," Langston commanded.
Her eyes widened as big as the full moon.
Pale gray like it too.
She raised shaking fingers to the uppermost button holding her shirt closed at her chest and fumbled with the black disc.
Protect, my Wolf snarled.
Undoubtedly as sick of this lunacy as much as I am. "She doesn't have--"
"Hurry," Langston barked.
Violet began to sob.
Trembling like Elise's fingers at her buttons. But the woman never looked us in the eye. Embarrassed. Ashamed. This had to end. "Enough!"
Elise and Langston flicked their gazes too me.
The things a Shifter is forced to endure in the company of Normals. "Bring the Gods-be-damned horses. I don't have time for this."
Langston didn't have to say anything for the lurking male Normals standing behind him to leap away and assist the first one sent to saddle two mares. They returned almost instantly with the mounts, both loaded with saddle bags and bedrolls. One male darted out of a lodge with two backpacks and handed them to the older sisters. All else was implied in the looming silence.
Father had lost his mind. Done the unforgiveable in whatever he offered the pack of Shifters. It didn't matter how much the Shifters were renowned as Guardians when my father wanted me to strip my clothing off for them. For whatever reason. For this Lucius. I had to go now. Simply to escape the man who no longer made rational choices. Who tried to have me barter with my body. I stared at Lucius' blue eyes.
Eyes that held an indefinable awareness.
A chill crept down my arms.
Whether a warning or a sign of my partial understanding of what just transpired, goose flesh didn't jar me into a newfound sense of security. Two mounts loaded with supplies and my father's decision to send us away, whatever the cost, meant we're leaving with strangers. Men altered genetically by the aliens. Men who know what symptoms a person exhibits when carrying alien DNA.
This is a foolish move for Langston. Even though he's the only person who knows my sisters and I are truly half alien--more alien than a Shifter--because he's the damned ass who told me. Shackled me with the knowledge about my heritage. How are we supposed to keep our ancestry a secret surrounded by strange Shifters? Shifters who sense things Normals can't. Their alien DNA might measure up to only ten percent, but they have heightened shape-shifter senses that my sisters and I don't possess.
Yet, Shifters protect women at all costs. For the greater good of humanity. Fearing them is suicidal. Something Sherry would do. But caution saved one's ass after extraterrestrial invasion, AEI. I can't hold Sherry's fears against her since the night she awoke in her bed and found aliens huddled around her bed. I understand her anxiety and can't hold her reaction against her. Hell, she's standing up for herself. I didn't. And, at least, Lucius spared me the embarrassment of a disrobing. Remembering that makes things not so bad.
"On the horse," Langston snarled at Sherry.
She didn't bitch. Didn't balk. Merely landed in the saddle. That's unusual for a fighter.
"No. No!" Violet squalled as Father eased her toward the horse.
Father ignored her howls and hefted the thin girl into the seat before Sherry. "Take care of her, Sherry. She's afraid."
"That's a mute point," Sherry spat but snaked her arms around Violet's waist.
Langston ignored the quip and grabbed the other mare's halter. "Up you go, Elise."
Just ignore him. Forget what's happening. I struggled not to scowl at him. I should punch the shit out of him. But a woman who maintained her dignity had the strength of twenty men. Women survived childbirth for God's sake! I stepped into the saddle as if it were an extension of my body.
Father patted the mare's red neck. "You'll understand soon enough, Elise."
The asshole. "How dare you speak to me as if you and I could ever think the same." Just to get away from the self-centered ass who sent us into danger. I yanked the reins, pulling the mare's head out of his hands, turning the horse toward the Shifters.
Betrayed, by the man claiming to be my own flesh and blood to save my life. Simply betrayed. And he'd saved us all these years for something. From everything. Why the change of plan now? There'd be no forgiving Langston for this. I kicked the mare into a trot past the Guardians toward the open gate and headed into an unknowable future. Mine.