New Orleans, 2015
“You know, really, someone should just drop a razor-wire fence around this entire place and declare it an insane asylum.”
Max snorted at Dev Peltier’s dry wit as he set the plastic rack of clean glasses onto the mat for Aimee Kattalakis to put away. With blond hair a few shades lighter than Max’s, Dev was one of the rare males at Sanctuary who was also more muscular.
Pausing behind the counter next to Dev, Aimee draped one long, graceful arm around her brother’s waist and wrinkled her nose at him. “The correct term is mental health facility. Get with the times, you old knuckle-dragging cave-bear.”
Max laughed at the female werebear’s quick humor. One thing about the prickly bar owner, Aimee always kept her brothers and employees on their toes. She stepped away to pick up two glasses from the crate and placed them on the shelf under the bar while she sang along to the jukebox metal song. For a bear, she had the voice of an angel. That snarky, long-legged blond had been one of Max’s favorite members of the Peltier bear clan since the day he’d sought refuge in the famed Sanctuary her family had founded in the heart of New Orleans over a century ago.
Wounded and barely alive after a nasty encounter with an ancient enemy, Max had collapsed on the third floor of this very building at Aimee’s feet. When he’d awakened a week later, she’d been sitting on the floor of their attic next to him, petting the scales of his head, completely unafraid of his dragon form, and humming a soft French lullaby. She, alone, had nursed him back to health and made sure that he survived. The true depth of her kindness and compassion for others never failed to amaze him.
There wasn’t a shapeshifter in this building or the one adjoining it who wouldn’t give his life to save hers.
But none more so than the lucky dark-haired bastard who called her his.
Fang Kattalakis came up to the front of the bar and met Max’s gaze as he passed around the specially brewed long neck beers reserved for their “unique” shapeshifter metabolisms to let them know he’d locked the front door and that Sanctuary was now closed to the humans for a few hours of Were-Hunter respite. He angled his fortified beer at Max. “So many village idiots, brother. So few fire-breathing dragons.”
Dev burst out laughing.
Max arched a brow at the strange remark, curious as to what prompted it. “Pardon?”
Fang released a long-suffering sigh as he glanced to his mate. “How attached are you to Cody? Can I offer him up as a sacrifice to Max? Please?” He glanced at Max. “I know he’s not a female or a virgin, but exactly how picky are you dragons about those things?”
Not wanting to go there for several personal reasons, Max moved to breakdown and clean the soda dispensers while Dev prepped the beer taps. “Depends on the dragon.”
Aimee tsked at them. “Please don’t kill and eat my little brother. I don’t want to listen to you bitch about the indigestion he’d give you, and I doubt Carson has enough Rolaids to cure that burn.”
“Damn.” Fang sighed again. Then he looked up hopefully. “Hey, if I accidentally blew pepper in your face, Max, and you happened to sneeze, what are the odds you’d spew fire all over him?”
Running carbonated water into a metal bin, Max shook his head at the wolf. “Doesn’t work that way.”
“Then what good is having a fire-breathing dragon on hand?”
“There’s always Simi,” Dev said. “With enough barbecue sauce, she’ll eat anything. Even obnoxious bears.”
“Y’all are so bad.” Frowning, Aimee placed her hand to her distended stomach and sucked her breath in sharply.
Fang immediately teleported to the backside of the counter to support her. “You okay?”
Leaning back against him, she smiled up at her husband. “Your sons are frolicking like cubs on a picnic-honey high.”
A proud smile spread across his face. “The little she-wolves are nocturnal . . . Like their father.”
She snorted at that. “I swear, if I have puppies, I’m turning you into a wolf-rug for my floor.”
Fang laughed, then kissed her cheek. “Why don’t you go on up and rest? I’ll finishing closing and prepping the bar.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t even attempt the paperwork. After the gnarled mess I made of it last time, I have learned my lesson to keep my paws off it.” Fang motioned for the tall, blond Amazon who was sweeping the floor to join them. A former Dark-Hunter, Samia was Dev’s better, much more attractive half. In spite of the Greek goddess Samia had once been enslaved to, Max liked her a great deal, especially since she didn’t talk much. And she never asked him questions about his guarded pastâ€” something he appreciated even more.
Like Aimee, Sam was compassionate and kind when it came to others, whether they were people, animals or a mixture of the two.
As soon as Aimee’s pregnancy had been made public, Sam and Dev had moved back into Dev’s old room in Peltier House next door to soothe Dev’s fears as he worried like an old woman over the health and well-being of his only sister. Not that Aimee needed it. With eleven blood-related brothers and even more in-laws and close friends, she had more than her share of males wanting to help her lift any object in the place, and carve body parts off her husband for risking her life with a complicated hybrid pregnancy.
“Sam?” Fang asked as the Amazon paused at the counter. “Will you please take Aimee up to bed for me and make sure she’s tucked in?”
“Sure. Be glad to.” Sam held her gloved hand out to Aimee. “C’mon, hon. You don’t want to overtax yourself. You need to take care of those Chow Chows you’re carrying.”
Aimee groaned at her worst fear of what her hybrid bear-wolf children might look like. “You’re off my Christmas list, Sam. Anyone else?”
Dev held his hands up and shook his head.
The bearswan glared at him, then turned toward her husband as Dev’s identical brother sauntered up to grab a fortified beer from Fang. The fierce, bloodthirsty grimace on his face would have sent small children screaming for their mothers and made seasoned gladiators wet their armor in terror.
Aimee tsked at his expression. “Fang, make sure Dev doesn’t kill RÃ©mi while I’m gone.”
Popping the top off the beer, the bearswain looked at her with an even fiercer scowl. “Not RÃ©mi . . . Cherif. Damn, Aims, you’re usually the only one who can tell us apart. Has the pregnancy knocked loose your brain cells?”
Aimee bit her lip. “Sorry, boo. The way you’ve been scowling all night, I could have sworn you were RÃ©mi.”
Dev, RÃ©mi and Cherif were part of a set of identical quadruplets with their brother Quinn rounding out their number. Alone, the bears were bad ass. Together, they were damn near invincible.
Unless you happened to be a fire-breathing dragon. Then there wasn’t much in this world that provided a threat to your health or well-being.
Cherif snorted. “Yeah well, what do you expect? Y’all threw me upstairs with Etienne all night. He’s been dry humping my last nerve like it’s the only female he’s seen for a hundred years. I swear, Maman should have done us all a favor and eaten that cub at birth. At least it would have saved my humor . . . and sanity. You’re all lucky they’re not hauling me away for murder right about now.”
“Here, here.” Dev clanked bottles with him. “Where is the little prick?”
“Finishing up a hand of poker with Eros. I’m hoping he wins and the god splinters him on the wall in anger. That’s one mess I’d volunteer to clean.”
Aimee met Max’s amused gaze. “Oh my God, they’re awful! I’m so glad you love your brother.”
Max shrugged as he rinsed off the soda nozzles and put them back in place. “What can I say? Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder and the guilt of having him locked away in a hell realm for a thousand years means I have to tolerate any annoying habit Illarion possesses with utmost patience.”
She popped Dev in the stomach. “See how great dragons are? You should be taking notes.”
“Fine. Lock Etienne and RÃ©mi in a hell realm for a thousand years and I promise I’ll be nice to them when they get out.”
Fang laughed. “Give it up, Aimee. You’re not going to win this one.”
“Are you seriously taking his side?”
Fang went pale. “Uh, no. Never. I’m not a dumb wolf and I have no desire to sleep in a doghouse tonight.”
Playfully, she wagged her finger at him before she tapped his nose and kissed him.
All of a sudden, there was a loud crash upstairs that said Cherif might have gotten his wish that Eros had killed Etienne for winning. But it wasn’t the unexpected noise that made the hair on the back of Max’s neck rise. It was a fissure in the air he hadn’t felt in centuries. One that went down his spine like a shredder.
Every sense he possessed was on high alert.
No. There was no way it was possible . . .
It couldn’t be.
His breath caught as he saw a bleeding Serre scrambling down the stairs, leading a small group of women dressed in the ancient war garb and armor of a long dead race. While Sanctuary closed at 4:30 in the morning to humans, it remained open around the clock to any preternatural creature who needed a safe haven to rest from battle. Limani such as this had always been few and far between, and in the twenty-first century, there were only a handful left intact and operating.
As a precaution to keep humans from accidentally discovering their supernatural breed and freaking out, the Peltier bear family had the entire building shielded. Anyone coming here by way of magick was confined to do so on the third floor only where a shapeshifting bouncer was always posted.
Tonight, Serre Peltier had pulled that duty. As blond as his brothers and sister, he was a slightly smaller version of the quads, which meant he was still bigger than most creatures. But even so, it hadn’t kept him from getting hurt by the Arcadian newcomers who kicked him down in front of their group.
So much for abiding by the eirini or so-called peace laws Savitar and the Omegrion had set down for their species to follow.
Blonde and built for murder, the leader of the small group of women grabbed Serre by his short hair and wrenched his head up to show his battered face to their group. She held an old-fashioned Greek kopis to his throat. “Who owns this place?”
When Aimee started forward, Max, her brothers and husband cut her off to protect her and the unborn babies she carried. It was obvious this preter group was here for war and not to make peace or truce.
Fang moved to meet the warrior bitch face-to-face while Max covered Aimee. “That’s my brother you hold. I suggest you release him or lose your head.”
She raked a scathing glare down Fang’s body. “I am Drakaina Arcadia and we don’t deal with inferior species. Stand aside, animal.”
Sam stepped to Fang’s side. Gloved hands on hips, she met the women with the open hostility of someone ready to battle. “And I am Samia, Basilinna of the Thurian Riders, granddaughter of Hippolyte, daughter of Ares. Declare yourself.”
“Nala, Basilinna of the Drakaina, most favored of Ares, Artemis and Athena.”
Samia scoffed. “Color me unimpressed. Now release my most beloved brother or suffer my full wrath and battle-tested blade.”
Nala tightened her grip on his hair. The pain of it must have been severe since a moment later, Serre shifted into his native bear form. Something that only happened when the Katagaria were in severe pain or suffered an electrical shock.
Sam manifested her staff. The men moved forward to engage their group as Aimee shot past him to cover Serre.
All eyes went to the stairs and for a full minute, Max stood completely motionless as the mark on his hand heated and burned in response to her appearance. Every part of his body came alive in a way it hadn’t for more centuries than he could recall.
The dragon inside salivated and it was devouring the human in him so fast, he could barely hold his form.
He struggled to breathe. If he broke dragon right now, he’d take out half the bar. He was far too large in his native body to shift here and now.
But it wasn’t easy to remain human . . .
Not when the beast inside him was stirred to this level. Not when it wanted blood.
Like a grand queen wrapped in a mantel of red, brown and gold feathers, a lush, full-figured, Titian-haired beauty descended the stairs. Her red helm fell over her face to form a sharp beak that shaded her eyes.
But he knew their color. Searing, haunting green that was salted with gold. Filled with bold intelligence. And they had a way of looking at him with ball-shriveling scorn.
Seraphina of the Drakaina-Scythian Riders. Voluptuous. Passionate.
How he hated every breath she drew.
The Amazons parted to make way for her to pass through them, to reach their queen. To the baretos humans, her armor would appear as painted bronze. Yet it wasn’t. Those were the tanned and preserved scales of Katagaria dragons she’d slain and marked her as one of the most vicious dragon-slayers of her tribe.
Her queen’s champion rider.
Seraphina struck her chest in salute and lowered her head. “Forgive my interruption, Basilinna, but perhaps I can be of assistance?”
Nala hesitated, then released Serre. “Is he here?”
“No, my basilinna. I fear your informant lied to you. I would know if my mate were here.”
Nala cursed and kicked Serre in the ribs. With a flick of her vibrant red cloak, she faced Seraphina. “I’m going to gut that demon.” And with that, she led her warriors back upstairs.
Seraphina stayed behind as they left. It was all kinds of stupid to lie to her queen. She knew that and yet . . .
She swept her gaze over the gathered men. The raven-haired one was definitely not the drakos she sought. By his fetid stench, she knew him to be wolfborn Katagari. The rest were all blondes. All exceptionally handsome and well-built. Two were twins. They couldn’t be her Maxis. They, like the one wheezing as he pushed himself to his feet, were bears.
That only left the one.
Like the others, he wore strange clothingâ€“ not that of a warrior or traditional drakos. His dark blond hair was cropped very short, but as their eyes met, she recognized those perfectly chiseled masculine features. That strong, rigid and unyielding jaw. That look of fiery defiance that pierced her with its proud arrogance. A pride that had always dared her against their traditions and culture.
Her hand heated up with that familiar burn. Something that only happened when two mates were brought together again after a long separation.
Determined, she headed toward him, only to have her path blocked by the other Amazon in the room.
Samia gestured toward the stairs. “You need to leave with your tribe.”
Seraphina shook her head. “You have something that belongs to me.”
Samia stood fast and solid. “There’s nothing here for you.”
“Oh yes, there is.” She held her hand up for Samia to see the dragon mark on her palm. “I’m here for my mate.”