A murder case where the stakes are personal…in more ways than one.
As a coroner, I give a voice to the voiceless. But the latest body on my slab raises questions someone doesn’t want me to answer. With my sister’s attacker back in town, I need to uncover the truth. Any way I can get it. Even if that means partnering up with Uri, a Royal feline shifter from the Alexander pride and a by-the-book cop who’d rather keep me safe in my lab…or his bedroom.
Rules are made for a reason. But nothing in the official Shifter Affairs handbook covers what to do when you’re forced to partner up with your true mate. Especially when Lyla has a penchant for fighting for the underdog and finding herself in dangerous situations. But with serial killer on the loose and the body count rising and hitting closer to home, only one rule matters.
Nobody threatens a shifter’s mate and lives.
“A VERY UNIQUE INTERESTING STORY…….AWESOME READ!!!!”
Copyright © 2019 by Nancy Corrigan, the Mainstream Fiction pen name of Dana Archer. All Rights Are Reserved.
Braving an ice storm in the middle of the night stinks about as much as the decayed body back at my lab.
Decomposed flesh is worse, and I have no intention of spending every night this week with a stiff corpse. My social life isn’t that bad. I have friends. Hopefully, one of them will come through for me tonight too.
With the edges of my jacket pulled tight in my gloved fist, I stop under the streetlamp and scan the darkened alley. Likely, the homeless shifters who call this little slice of West Virginia home smelled me the moment I turned down this alleyway. Whether they come out to see me is another story, especially since some of the homeless shifters view my new role as a Shifter Affairs agent as a betrayal. Time will prove I’m not their enemy, but time isn’t on my side at the moment.
Apparently, neither is the weather. The low-hanging fog and freezing mist falling around me hamper my ability to pick out the shifters from the humans propped in doorways and leaning against the run-down buildings.
It was so much easier before the tent city along the river was taken down. Then I knew exactly where to go. I also didn’t fear for my life walking through their collection of lean-tos and pop-ups. Most residents recognized and welcomed me. I always came bearing food and gifts.
There are newcomers in town, and they don’t appreciate kindness. They prey on the weak.
I glance over my shoulder. The way I came is clear. Nobody lurking in the shadows. Nobody following me. At least that I can see. I am only human.
A shadow stretches across the entrance of the alley. Someone’s coming. I grip my jacket tighter. A jeans-covered leg shows in the lit opening of the alley, but someone hacking yanks my attention back to the darkened section. I don’t see anyone, though. I jerk my head the way I came. Nobody there either.
The sound of my blood rushing in my ears dims out everything else. My paranoia is in full force. That’s what I get for watching all those onboarding videos for Shifter Affairs. According to their training, everyone is a potential threat. I’d rather believe everyone is a potential asset.
Even the corrupt can be tapped for information. That’s the main reason I’m here. The shifters who’ve taken refuge in this city aren’t hiding in neutral territory because they like the atmosphere. Many are here in a last-ditch effort to save their lives. It doesn’t always work, though. I’ve written autopsy reports on their bodies too.
A rough cough carries on the night breeze. It’s got that forced edge to it, as if someone is trying to clear their throat. Or get my attention.
I move to the edge of the lit circle cast by the lamplight. Darkness looms ahead of me. The next streetlamp is out. So is the one after that. I can’t even see the end of the alley. That’s where the coughing is coming from. That’s where I can hopefully get my information from. Otherwise, the file on the latest body to have found its way to me will be closed unsolved. Without any other leads, I have no choice.
Another killer will walk free.
Murdered shifters don’t get the same investment of resources as slain humans. If they did, I wouldn’t be here. A fully trained Shifter Affairs agent would. But I am here. I’m not about to leave empty-handed either. I’ve had my fill of death for the week.
My gaze strays to the opening of the alleyway. A car drives past. No one else walks by. No one is following me that I can see. If I learned anything since becoming a Shifter Affairs agent, it’s that as a human female, I’m at a severe disadvantage in the shifter world.
The heavy weight of the gun in my pocket is Shifter Affairs’ attempt at evening the odds. I slip my hand into my jacket and wrap my fingers around the grip, but the weapon offers me little comfort. I don’t know how to shoot. The video tutorials assigned as a prerequisite for that class are buried in my list of to-do tasks. Once I make it through those, I get a box of bullets and one-on-one training. In the meantime, I have an empty gun.
Eh…sometimes the illusion of power is all that’s needed to make your point, and this empty gun is a heck of a lot more than I ever had walking through these city streets—or growing up on them.
Another forced cough compels me forward. I leave the safety of the lamplight and follow the cobblestone sidewalk. A homeless man is propped against a doorway. I walk by him. He’s too small to be a shifter.
A huddled form leans against the recessed door of a run-down boardinghouse, the luxury choice of the working homeless. Going by the mound of blankets, the person might be large enough to be a shifter. I take a hesitant step closer. Another cough, this one quieter than the last, reaches me from farther down the alley.
Tightening my grip on the gun, I head deeper into the darkness. Movement from up ahead catches my attention.
A massive man steps from the shadows, then settles on the sidewalk a few feet from where he emerged. “What are you doing out on a night like this, Miss Lyla?”
His features are hidden, but the voice is familiar and exactly the one I was hoping to hear. I move closer to where the Royal bear shifter I came here to find is sitting, legs stretched out, against the side of a building. With his head bowed and arms crossed, Bryon could’ve been sleeping. He’s not, though. He’s watching me through the wild, greasy strands of his dark hair. The glow to his brown eyes is unmistakable.
Taking a cue from his posture, I crouch next to him. The hem of my jacket brushes the wet ground, but a dryer vent on the opposite side of Bryon warms the air, making this section of the street he’s claimed almost bearable. Though, I doubt the cold bothers him. He’s not even wearing a jacket. Then again, as an immortal, he doesn’t need to worry about freezing to death. His only concern is keeping his head attached to his body and his heart intact.
“Well, Miss Lyla?” His voice lowers, compelling me to lean closer if I want to hear him. The stench of alcohol and stale cigarettes clings to him. He’s not drunk, though. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him drunk, even though he usually has a bottle of some cheap alcohol nearby. “Are you going to tell me why you’ve braved an ice storm when you have a nice warm bed waiting for you?”
“I need information.”
“I don’t help Shifter Affairs agents.” Bryon slouches and tugs his collar up, then rests his head against the wall. “Move along, little girl.”
“You’ve helped me before.”
“That was before you closed your clinic.”
“There was no way I could keep it open. My time is limited, and Shifter Affairs—”
“You chose Shifter Affairs over helping the needy.” Bryon focuses on me, giving me a disapproving look. “Many of the homeless in this city counted on you to help them when no one else would. Now they have nobody to stop them from dying.”
An argument sits on the tip of my tongue. I am helping those less fortunate by working as a Shifter Affairs coroner. With their resources, I’ll be able to tackle the problems I couldn’t as an inner city doctor. Including the man’s death that brought me out here tonight. “You’re a Royal. With three bears sharing your body and soul, you’re the elite of the shifter world. You—”
Bryon’s laugh cuts me off. He turns toward me and sweeps his hand outward, encompassing the dark alley. “Do you call this the residence of the elite? My ass is frozen, and I haven’t eaten in over twenty-four hours.”
“You’re immortal. You don’t—”
“Immortal doesn’t mean I don’t feel hunger. Doesn’t mean I don’t feel pain either. Just means I won’t die.”
Head dipped, I take a calming breath. Arguing with Bryon will get me nowhere. Truth is, I know all too well what hunger and pain feel like. “A dead shifter was brought in last night. Wolf, a single, not a Royal. Probably a beta, going by his size. If Shifter Affairs hadn’t tagged him as a shifter based on his fingerprints, he would’ve been labeled as a human John Doe. Thomas Michael was a repeat sexual offender, though. He had a file. If I don’t find out anything useful in—”
“Rapists don’t deserve justice.”
Part of me agrees. Part of me knows evil will spread if not curtailed, however. “If I don’t find out anything useful in the next twelve hours, his file will be closed permanently, and his killer will walk free. Do you want that? To have a killer sharing your streets?”
Bryon straightens and pulls his legs closer to his body. “How did he die?”
“At first glance, it looks like he swallowed a bullet.” My stomach rolls. No matter how many times I’ve seen death, I can’t stop my visceral response. The sight of dead bodies literally makes me sick. “Toxicology report shows an unknown drug with a similar makeup to Elixir that caused cardiac arrest before the gunshot.”
And for mortal single shifters with only one animal sharing their souls, cardiac arrest is enough to end their long lives.
“Not suicide, then.” Bryon doesn’t sound surprised by this fact.
“Nope. His body was found washed up along the riverbank several miles outside town. No gun was retrieved. Nothing in his possession. He didn’t even have shoes on.” I brace my body with my left hand on the ground. Cold water soaks into my knit glove. I don’t move it. I hold Bryon’s gaze. “I’m looking for what he might’ve been involved in that got him killed. Was he dealing? Cross a dealer? Saw something he shouldn’t have?”
“And you think I’d know something about his death?” Bryon smacks his palm against the sidewalk, splashing icy water onto my hand. His voice takes on a gravelly edge, not quite a growl but something equally as ominous. “Why? Because you think I’m involved?”
“Because I think if there was something going on in your city, you’d know.” Out of all the homeless shifters calling this city home, Bryon is the oldest, claiming to have roamed these streets since the late seventeen hundreds.
“This isn’t my city.” His voice turns gruffer, sending chills down my spine. “Not anymore.”
“Who does it belong to, then? One of the newcomers?” And if so, I’m out of luck. I don’t know who they are. I never met them.
Bryon leans closer. A whiff of evergreen reaches me over the stench of living on the streets. He lowers his voice to a near whisper, making me lean even closer, until his rough beard brushes against my cheek. “You’re going to get yourself killed coming here and asking these sorts of questions, Miss Lyla.”
“I have no choice. A man was murdered. If I don’t come up with a clue or motive or something to keep his case open, his killer will walk free.”
“And if you keep following this trail, you’ll be the next victim. Maybe get yourself raped or sold off like your sister to some deranged bastard.”
Bryon’s warning sparks that primitive fear all women harbor. We live it, day in and day out, always wondering if what we wear or how we act will turn us into victims. Swallowing hard, I ignore the primal instinct and tighten my grip on the empty gun. “If I don’t follow this trail, his killer will strike again.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Call it instinct.” Or an educated guess. If that concoction of drugs was enough to stop a single shifter’s heart, it’ll do the same for humans. And if I’ve learned anything running a clinic for the homeless and downtrodden working class, it’s that drugs are a tempting escape from the harsh realities of life. If this new drug works in a similar manner as the hallucinogen Elixir, people will take it regardless of its risks.
Bryon looks past me. His mouth opens on a soundless snarl, revealing a wickedly wide and pointed fang. In one quick move, he wraps his wet, cold fingers around my throat, squeezing hard enough to stop me from screaming, and yanks me to my feet, then bends close, his mouth to my ear and his fang scraping my earlobe. “The shadows mask death. Never forget that, Miss Lyla. Never forget you’re only human. Now get out of here. Run and don’t look back.”
On a hard shove that spins me away from Bryon, I stumble, sliding on the slick cobblestones. I abandon my grip on the empty gun and fling both hands in front of me, stopping my face-first landing onto the sidewalk.
My throat burns on a harsh inhale. With a hand at my tender neck, I hop to my feet and seek out Bryon. He’s gone. I pivot and scan the alley. Nobody’s around. Not the huddled form at the boardinghouse or the smaller homeless man. Everyone ran.
On another slow pivot, I scan the empty alley, then make my way to the main road where I left my car. After a few feet, I stop. There’s a pickup truck with its door open idling at the top of the alley. I don’t see the driver. I don’t see anyone.
My tongue sticks to the top of my suddenly dry mouth. I slip my hand into my jacket and feel for the butt of the gun.
A lighter flicks on. Then off. Then on again. The clicking of the metal is as loud and as deliberate as Bryon’s coughing.
My attention strays to the shadows, where someone’s playing with their lighter. I have to walk past them to get out of this alley. I reel away from them and run deeper into the darkness. A masculine laugh and the thumping of booted feet follow me. I run harder, sliding on the cobblestones, before moving to the road and running through the icy water lying in slushy tire tracks.
My coat flops around me. My breath fogs the air. My legs cramp. I push myself harder. The road running parallel to the one where I left my car is in sight. The flashing lights of a cop car brighten the opening of the alley. I’m almost there. I’m almost safe. Just a little more.
An arm stretches out in front of me, catching my shoulder and spinning my body. I collide with a solid chest. My breath rushes out on a gasp. I open my mouth, ready to scream, at the same time as I pull the gun and shove it into the gut of the man who grabbed me.
The rich voice clues me in to who’s grabbed me. Breath caught, I tip my head back and come face-to-face with Uriel Alexander. Uri to his friends. He told me once to call him that since he’d be training with me, then went on to stand me up for our first session, leaving me to tag along as a third wheel with my sister and her partner.
The flashing lights of the unmarked police car not far away cast the Shifter Affairs agent in a range of colors and give me a perfect view of Uri’s features. The small dip in his chin softens the otherwise strong cut to his jaw and straight, slightly wider nose. It’s his eyes that captivate me, though. There’s no glow to them like Bryon’s. There’s no hint of betrayal or disapproval either. There’s something darker in Uri’s eyes, something more primal.
He parts his lips on a slow exhale, giving me a peek of sharpened teeth. I focus on the hint of those fangs, and a shiver of awareness skips down my spine. Not the frightening kind of response, but a primeval one that relaxes my shoulders and warms my lower belly.
Uri reaches between our bodies and plucks the gun from my hand. I don’t resist. His eyes entrap me, taking away all sense of self-preservation and fear. Nothing can hurt me in Uri’s arms. The thought is powerful, all-consuming.
He bends over me. I arch into his embrace, forcing him to hold me up. I don’t want to look away from him.
His large hand slides lower, settling at the base of my spine. He brushes his lips over mine, compelling me to open to him, and holds my gaze from inches away. He doesn’t kiss me, though. His breath mixes with mine, leaving me lightheaded and very aware of my body.
A small noise escapes me. A whimper, maybe. I’m not sure. I only know my knees feel weak. Needing Uri to support me, I curl my fingers around the edges of his jacket and tug him closer. He firms his hold on me and groans my name, almost in anger. Or maybe frustration. Then he’s kissing me. Deep full strokes command me, not giving me the chance to kiss him back, not giving me the chance to tell him about the man chasing me.
With Uri’s arms around me and the police car’s lights dancing over us, I feel safe, but the longer Uri kisses me, the stronger another feeling grows. This one has no place here tonight or between us. I can’t deny the arousal, however, or the way my body aches for more than this kiss.
Finally, the flashing lights cut. Uri eases back and swipes his tongue over his lips. “You taste like prey.”
I touch my tingling lips. The roughness of my cold, wet glove feels wrong. Uri’s lips were better. “I felt like prey. Someone was chasing me.”
Uri glances over his shoulder and scans the darkened alley. He faces me. “There’s nobody there now.”
Including any of the other homeless I’ve befriended over the years. My shoulders slump. Nothing Bryon told me was enough to justify keeping the file open on Thomas Michael.
Uri tips up my chin. “Why were you out here tonight?”
“A dead body.” No use keeping my reason from him. We’re both Shifter Affairs agents.
“How did you hear about it?” His brows turn down. “We just got the call.”
I grab Uri’s biceps. “A dead shifter?”
He nods. “We’re not talking about the same dead body, are we?”
“Is this one a homeless shifter?”
Uri stares at me for a long moment, then sighs. “Yes. A single shifter with his throat slit.”
My eyes burn. I close them to hide any tears and shake my head. “Not the same body, but maybe the same murderer.”
Uri brushes his thumb against the corner of my eye before urging me forward with a hand at my lower back. “Then let’s hunt him.”
“Yes. Let’s.” Hunting is definitely better than being prey.
I cut a quick look at Uri dressed in dark street clothes with a black beanie on his head. A shiver of awareness skips through me.
Unless the predator after me is Uri. Then I’m not so sure.
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Uri is suitable for readers who prefer closed-door romance without harsh language.
This book is the closed-door version of Baiting the Royal by Nancy Corrigan, the Mainstream Fiction pen name of Dana Archer.
If you prefer open-door romance and adult language, then Nancy Corrigan‘s versions are for you.
“Tons of action and twist in the story. Secondary characters were also well developed.”