A bar. He brought the kid to a bar.
Rafe Copyright © 2013 by Nancy Corrigan writing as Dana Archer. All Rights Are Reserved.
A bar. He brought the kid to a bar.
Rafe Alexander gripped the steering wheel. The tips of his fingers burned from the press of his sharpened nails against his skin. His jaw ached from the pressure of his fangs sliding into place. He wanted to beat the human for exposing a preschooler to a world of drunks and illicit behaviors.
But if it saved her? Yeah. If the human kept their cub from falling into the wrong hands, Rafe would be thanking the guy, right after he explained with his fists that a bar in the backwoods of West Virginia wasn’t the right environment for a little girl.
Rafe slammed the SUV’s door and strode across the bar’s parking lot. A few males tucked their dates closer and turned in the opposite direction. Others dropped their gazes to the pavement underfoot. The familiar reaction to his presence annoyed him, but it wasn’t their fault. Humans might not know what he was by looking at him, but they sensed the danger—the predator in their midst—and reacted accordingly.
He tightened his control over his primal side. He didn’t need any attention directed his way, not with what had gone down here a few hours ago: a fire that resulted in a fatality.
Sure, tragedies happened all the time, and in the grand scheme of things, one human’s passing was a blip on the radar. For Rafe, though, Tony Conway’s death was personal. The male had unknowingly adopted a shifter, a rare white lion cub Rafe had been tasked with retrieving.
He cursed. The fire was too coincidental. Word of a shifter cub living among humans surfaced, and the next day her human father died. Yeah, it wasn’t related at all. Right.
Once the fire chief finished his investigation, he’d realize the fire hadn’t been an accident too. The authorities would begin to search for the arsonist. It wouldn’t do them any good. Even if they collected evidence from the scene, they wouldn’t understand why Tony had been targeted. Rafe couldn’t share the details surrounding Megan’s uniqueness with them either. Shifters were fictional beings in most humans’ eyes. That fact hampered Rafe’s efforts. He was left on the sidelines with limited options.
Rafe’s lion, one of the three feline spirits he housed, snarled, echoing his frustration. He used a mental hand to stroke the big cat’s side. It was the best he could do to calm the animal since it couldn’t speak or share its thoughts with him. His tiger and jaguar, the other two felines he’d been born with, nudged him, seeking his reassurance too.
We’ll get our cub back. Promise. The vow wrapped around him, strengthening him. He let the connection to his cats fade and took a deep, calming breath. A familiar scent invaded his lungs. Lion. Faint, yet distinctive. He was on the right path.
Long strides took him around the bar, an older structure that appeared as if it had seen several upgrades and expansions over its lifetime. An upper and lower deck graced one side. The raised level had tables, while the lower featured a live band and dance area. People moved on both, and the sharp twining from instruments as the musicians warmed up carried over the drone of laughter and conversation.
The place was packed, a good thing for those partying and an inconvenience for him. He had business to take care of that didn’t need an audience. He continued past the decks to the employee entrance. Several cars and trucks were parked near the door.
He followed the smell carrying on the breeze to a blue SUV. A child’s car seat was secured in the back. He tugged on the door handle. Locked. No matter. Going by the strength of the scent seeping from the cracked window, Megan had traveled in the vehicle recently.
He pulled out his cell and dialed his friend and fellow pride member, Devin.
“Yeah?” Devin answered.
“You were right. Megan is with her uncle. I found Josh’s car, and there are enough stuffed animals and toys in it to amuse any cub with a short attention span.”
“Have you spotted her?”
“Not yet, but if she’s here, I’ll get her.” Rafe glanced over his shoulder at the building. “And once I hand her over to you, Josh and I are having a little talk about how kids should be raised.”
“Just because the neighbor remembered seeing Megan with Josh doesn’t mean he took her to the bar. The woman said he owns the place. Maybe he’s working, and he dropped Megan off at a sitter or something.”
The idea didn’t comfort him. Actually, it’d almost be better if Josh had taken Megan to work with him. It’d be harder to carry a screaming five-year old through a packed bar than killing her sitter without bystanders nearby and walking away with their rare cub—the innocent child who had a price on her head.
“As soon as I find out, I’ll call.”
Devin’s sigh carried over the line. “Good. I want out of here as soon as possible.”
“You didn’t have to come. I could’ve brought one of my brothers.”
“You know I couldn’t stay behind, not when kids are threatened.”
Yeah, he knew that. It was an honorable trait, but Devin wasn’t exactly sane. Dropping him in a tense situation with humans close by was a disaster waiting to happen, but Rafe wasn’t their pride leader. He didn’t get to make the decisions. Kade did, and sometimes Rafe wondered if his twin thought through his dictates before issuing them.
“So, what did you find at Tony’s office?” Rafe asked.
“A whole box of documents from the lawyer who handled Megan’s adoption and…”
Rafe waited for him to finish and finally prompted, “And?”
Devin cleared his throat. “The female you smelled at Tony’s house has spent time here too.”
Rafe cursed. When they’d stopped by the house listed as Megan’s residence, they’d found it engulfed in flames. There had been no sign of their white lion cub, but her fragrance had lingered there—a feline scent-marked human. Rafe had to find her. He had questions for her, including what her interest was in Megan.
More importantly, he needed to discover which male had marked her. He’d been a Royal, not a single species shifter. That much Rafe had been able to tell from the unique scent. The mix of lion, tiger, and jaguar was unmistakable, but he couldn’t put a face to the smell. Considering there were only a couple dozen Royal feline shifters in the States, an unknown male was a threat. The safety of their women and children couldn’t be risked.
“Did you pick up her trail?” Rafe asked.
“Nope. She must’ve driven every time.”
“All right. Check out the next of kin addresses. I’ll corner Josh and find out what he knows. Hopefully, one of us will get lucky.”
He ended the call, gave the pile of toys in the car another glance, then headed to the front entrance. The door opened before he reached it. The stench of sweat and stale beer swept out along with the heavy thump of music. He inwardly cringed at the sensory overload. With three animal spirits sharing his body, everything was enhanced, from his instincts to his senses. It was enough to drive a male insane. Fortunately, he’d been dealing with his shifter nature for centuries. He knew how to handle it—with patience and control.
Darkness edged the room. Rafe moved toward the farthest wall, needing a moment to acclimate to the environment. Eyes closed, he parted his lips slightly to taste the scents on the air. He had two very specific ones he sought—Megan’s and the feline scent-marked human’s.
After a few more deep inhales, he cursed. Neither had been in the bar over the last couple of hours. Still, he loped the room and checked the hallways. Nothing. He ground his teeth and leaned farther into the shadows. He might’ve missed out on finding the females he sought, but his trip hadn’t been a complete failure. Josh Conway, Tony’s brother and Megan’s uncle, stood behind the bar with his arms crossed over his chest.
His commanding personality was clear from his confident stance and the way his wait staff interacted with him, responding immediately to whatever direction he gave. Had the tall, black-haired, blue-eyed male been born a shifter, he would’ve been a dominant or maybe an alpha, leading his own pack or pride.
Rafe rubbed his knuckles under his chin. Just his luck the human who’d been left as Megan’s guardian was Josh. Rafe doubted the male would blindly accept the fake speech or the legal papers claiming Megan was an Alexander who’d been stolen at birth.
It wouldn’t matter if it was the truth. Or partially true. She had been stolen, but Rafe had no idea which pride she belonged to. White lion shifters were nearly extinct. Megan was the only female left. No matter the circumstances. Josh wouldn’t give her up without a fight. Rafe would bet his life on it.
Oh yeah, they needed to talk, and Josh’s answer would set his path. The way Rafe looked at it, Josh had two options: become assimilated into the shifter world, vowing to protect their secret, or be handed over to the human government for reprogramming, a procedure that mixed brainwashing and magic and had about a fifty-fifty success rate.
Neither option was ideal, but there was no choice. The general population couldn’t learn of shifters’ existence. Humans weren’t ready.
Rafe’s cell vibrated against his leg, pulling him out of his thoughts. He glanced at the screen and let Devin’s call go unanswered. It was too loud in the room, and he wasn’t about to leave Josh unsupervised. Rafe had no desire to hunt him down a second time.
Knowing the drill, Devin sent a text. The rhythmic thumping announcing its arrival traveled up his arm. He glanced at the screen and breathed a sigh of relief.
Devin had found Megan at the first address: Josh’s parents. Devin was laying low and watching the house. Everyone inside was asleep. At least one thing had gone right tonight. The most important thing—Megan was safe.
Rafe sent a reply saying he’d meet him after talking with Josh. He slid the phone into his pocket and made his way to the bar.
Josh ambled over to the counter. “What can I get you?”
“Actually, the question you should be asking me is, can you help me?” Rafe grinned at the bemused expression on the male’s face. “You see, your brother’s desperation has dropped you in a world I can guarantee you don’t want to be in.”
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