“This isn’t about VIPER, but it’s important. I know you’re on a tight schedule. That’s why I’ve been waiting out here for over an hour.”
Storm had waited an hour to talk to her?
That was … nice.
She could afford a few minutes to find out what he had to say and still make it to the park on time.
He eased forward, reducing another slice of space between them. His dark eyes stirred with interest that would cause another woman with her sordid history to retreat.
Not her. She cowed to no man and, deep inside, she believed Storm wouldn’t try to harm her. And she wasn’t a vulnerable fifteen-year-old girl anymore but a twenty-three-year-old woman with Belador powers.
He hooked one long finger under the string of leather tied around her neck. “You’re still wearing the amulet.”
She blinked at his change of topics and looked down to where a silver disk the size of a half dollar hung from a leather thong tied around her neck. An intricate pattern had been inscribed inside the pentagram center. Nicole, a white witch friend, had placed an invisibility spell on the amulet before loaning it to Evalle for Storm to wear during a mission.
Even though the spell had run out last night, this thing had to be valuable.
“Glad you reminded me,” Evalle said. Dipping her head down, she reached up to untie the leather thong. “I need you to return this to Nicole.”
Storm’s fingers curled around her wrists, heating her skin.
She froze at the contact. Her pulse rocked with awareness that excited her … and raised nervous hairs along her arms. No matter how strong she’d become in the past five years, some things from her past would haunt her forever.
Without moving a muscle, she met his gaze with her unyielding one. “Don’t.”
He swore softly and released her wrists, muttering, “When are you going to trust me?”
Not in this lifetime.
Storm deserved someone’s trust and had earned a little from her in the past few days, but she didn’t know how to give it freely to men other than Tzader and Quinn who wanted nothing but friendship from her. Her biggest problem with them was when they acted like overprotective brothers.
She couldn’t fault Storm for stirring an unnatural reaction born of hideous memories.
Was she attracted to him? Yes.
Was she comfortable with that attraction? No.
His next words came out as a vexed sound pushed through gritted teeth. “I’m not taking the amulet.”
That ticked her off, and she could deal with anger better than desire. She retied the leather thong, dropped her arms and raised her head until their noses were an inch apart in a battle of wills. “Why not? You could tell Nicole thank you while you’re at it, since this kept you from being seen in public last night as a jaguar.”
“The only reason you want me to take that now is because you think you won’t be coming back after the Tribunal meeting. And, as far as Nicole goes, I sent her flowers and a thank-you note.”
Really? I’ve never gotten flowers. She frowned and backed up two steps before she could stop the reaction, a ridiculous one at that because she appreciated what he’d done for her friend.
Storm missed nothing. Like now, when he studied her as if he’d just noticed something that surprised him.
He had better-developed empathic senses than hers plus the ability to tell a lie from the truth. No point in wasting her time trying to convince him she believed differently about her chances with the Tribunal.
“Okay, fine.” She’d give Tzader the amulet when she saw him at the park. “So why’re you here?”
“Two things. First—do you know about the latest Alterant attacks?”
“No.” Was this her week or what? More attacks would not aid her case one bit.
“One in San Francisco this morning. Three more up the West Coast in Portland yesterday.”
“Four? What the—” She stopped short of cursing, since Brina, the Belador warrior queen, hated for her Beladors to curse and Evalle wanted Brina in an accommodating mood tonight. She would need Brina’s help to swing the Tribunal’s decision in her favor. But what was up with so many Alterant attacks in just twenty-four hours? She’d thought the last two in less than a month had been unusual. “How’d you find out?”
“I talked to a VIPER agent earlier tonight who had caught a few details. He said our agents on the West Coast heard about a family of five found slaughtered around their campsite and the authorities couldn’t figure out what had attacked them, because it hadn’t killed like a bear, a mountain lion or a wolf. They’re waiting on a bad fog to lift before they try tracking.”
Evalle felt sick. An Alterant had killed a family. Anything that murdered deserved to die, but she asked, “Did they capture the Alterants?”
“By the time VIPER’s team found the beasts another group had them surrounded. Five human men in black-ops-type camo gear were closing in on three Alterants. Casper said the beasts attacked the men as if out of their minds.”
“And the men in camo had megaweapons they used to blast the Alterants to pieces,” Evalle finished.
This only got better.
Four more Alterants. Multiple attacks in less than a day.
Storm cocked his head, thinking. “You know who those black ops guys are?”
Sounded like Isak Nyght’s men, but she didn’t want to get into that right now. “Maybe. Have to tell you about it later when I’m not in a hurry. What about the Alterant in San Francisco?”
“Killed a man and his wife on a pier. Authorities have no idea what happened because the only thing they found besides the mutilated and half-eaten couple was the nude body of a man floating in the water nearby. The nude guy had chunks of human flesh in his throat.”
Gross. “So the Alterant maybe fell into the water, drowned and shifted back to his human form?”
“That’s what VIPER thinks. They stole the body and disposed of it. I hate to give you bad news going into this meeting,” Storm said, “but I didn’t want you blindsided either.”
She nodded, noticing the concern behind his words. “Thanks. I’m not in a hurry to face the Tribunal, but I can’t show up late, so what else did you have to tell me?”
“I need you to do something for me,” Storm said.
Was he serious?
But Storm had helped her last night by shifting into a jaguar—a form he hated taking—to track someone for Evalle. He’d also brought an army of Beladors to where the Kujoo had held her captive.
And had rushed into battle, wielding a sword to free her.
She pointed out, “I’m not in a position to be of much use to anyone right now.”
“Hear me out. I left South America six months ago to find someone, and that trail went cold two months back. That’s when I had a vision that you could help me find this person.”
Storm had visions about me? “Who are you looking for?”
“It’s not safe to speak her name.”
Her? A flare of jealousy that was as unexpected as it was uncomfortable jolted Evalle.
Storm’s gaze glinted with a hint of surprise that vanished in the next blink of his eyes. A smile touched the corner of his mouth.
If she survived the Tribunal meeting, she was going to start playing cards with Tzader and Quinn to improve her poker face.
Men. “I’m a little busy to help you find women, Storm.”
“Talking to you is more challenging than petting a porcupine.” He lost his smile and scrubbed a hand over his face, then seemed to regroup. “This is serious and I’m only asking you to help me find one woman, who’s responsible for my father’s death. And she has something important that belongs to me.”
Oh. Add socially inept to my list of flaws. Evalle didn’t care for the porcupine comment, but she’d let it pass this time. “If I come back, I’ll try to help you.”
“There is no if to it.” Storm’s jaw hardened with determination. “There was another part of the vision where I’m tracking you after the Tribunal meeting.”
“Are you insane? If they lock me away and you come after me”—which sort of made her happy when she thought about it—“Sen and the Tribunal would fight over who could kill you first for daring to defy them.”
“I won’t defy them.”
She rubbed her forehead, pulling away fingers damp from perspiration as she tried to process what he was saying. Pacing helped Tzader think, so she started walking in a short circle and muttered, “I don’t understand.”
“To be honest, neither do I, but I trust my visions because they led me here … to you.”
She stopped walking and turned to face him. “What?”
“Yes. The vision I had two months ago showed me working with a woman riding a motorcycle, but I couldn’t pinpoint her location. I could only tell it was in a city in the United States. When I got an offer to work with VIPER I knew it would lead me to her. I started having visions again the night we met. You may be my only hope to find the woman I’m hunting.”
Like I don’t have enough riding on my shoulders? Evalle doubted Storm was searching for just a human female. “If you can’t tell me her name, then what is she?”
His gaze trailed past her shoulder as if he was working something out in his mind, then he gave a shake of his head. “I’ll tell you more when the time comes, and I won’t let her or anyone else harm you in the meantime.”
“I can take care of myself but I don’t think I can help you, Storm.”
“Because you don’t expect to come back?”
Like she needed to be reminded of that? Again. “That’s a distinct possibility. And you don’t need to come after me.”
He made a sound that came out part growl and part frustration. “The Tribunal is judging you unsafe because other Alterants have shifted into beasts and killed humans. Are you willing to spend the rest of your life locked away for a sin you haven’t committed?”
That struck at the heart of what she’d been trying to avoid thinking about. Day after day, year after year, she’d lived in a twenty-by-twenty underground space as a child. The aunt who’d “owned her” had used the threat of sunlight harming Evalle as an excuse to lock her in a basement with no windows because she’d hated Evalle, her own brother’s bastard child.
Living imprisoned again would be a death sentence.
If Evalle lost her case with the Tribunal, the Beladors had to stand by that decision. Any retaliation or failure to support the ruling would breach the agreement between the Beladors and the VIPER coalition. If the Celtic goddess Macha, who ruled the Beladors, backed out of the VIPER coalition because of Evalle—okay, cue up wild laughter at that possibility—Beladors across the world would become enemies to be attacked without retaliation. Bloodbaths would erupt between pantheons, and the world would turn into the battleground Beladors had spent hundreds of years trying to prevent.
No one would go to war for an Alterant.
But if she could prove VIPER needed an asset with her powers she might earn a reprieve from what she considered a death sentence.
Evalle conceded Storm’s point. She would not willingly accept being put away for a sin she hadn’t committed. “You’re right. I’d rather die than live out my life in a cage, but your life would be forfeit as well if you try to find me.”
“My life was forfeited a long time ago. It’s my father’s death that matters.”
She couldn’t untangle what he meant by that statement, which was clearly Storm’s intention. He wasn’t sharing a thing with her yet that he didn’t have to, and he didn’t give her a chance to question him on it when he threw a new worry at her to juggle.
Storm said, “If the Tribunal locks you away, you do realize Tzader and Quinn will not stand by quietly either. Do you want them to come after you?”
“No.” She hadn’t considered that. “They’d have to break their Belador vows to go against a Tribunal ruling. That would be suicidal.” She could never live with either of them paying the ultimate price for her. She’d do the same for them, but Tzader was the Maistir who led the North American Beladors, and Quinn had family, plus he was one of the financial geniuses that managed the holdings of Beladors around the globe.
They were needed. She was not.
But Storm was right yet again. Tzader and Quinn were born to protect others and would not leave her locked away.
They knew she had no one else in her corner.
Except Storm, it seemed.
And he must have a major reason for putting such a low value on his life. That didn’t mean she could live with his death on her shoulders either, even if he did have a personal agenda. “I don’t want anyone coming after me.”
“You don’t have a say with me. If you aren’t back within two hours after you leave, I’m tracking you down.”