Defensive Magic Excerpt: Chapter P-3

Prologue

Worth shifted his cell to the left ear. While it was necessary to keep this particular player well within his sights, he wasn’t overly concerned. He had more power, more experience, greater resources—but someday she might become a problem. Worth was certain she had a scheme of some kind in the works. Hardly surprising. She was a creative, ambitious little thing—which was exactly why he’d recruited her.

“You want her gone,” she said in the passionless way he’d previously admired. “I’ll take care of it.”

Perhaps too dispassionate.

“I want IPPC out of my business more than I want Lizzie gone—for now.” He allowed the faintest hint of disapproval to enter his voice. “Killing Lizzie will only push them even further into my affairs. And Braxton—no. I have no interest in dealing with him or his Pack right now.”

“Then we act covertly,” she replied blandly. “It’s not as if they don’t have any number of enemies. Especially Braxton. The blame is easy enough to shift.”

“No. Lizzie Smith and the Texas Alpha are off-limits for now. I have more pressing concerns than dealing with the trouble that would cause.”

“Of course,” she immediately agreed.

“But—keep an eye on them.” He had no intention of losing sight of any of his enemies.

 

***

She was glad this conversation wasn’t in person. Her acting skills were exceptional, but it was so much easier by phone. With Worth hiding in the Philippines as he waited for several financial transactions to clear, she was guaranteed a few weeks free of his interference. And a life free of Worth suited her just fine. She owed this respite from Worth’s attention to the Inter-Pack Policing Cooperative. Thank you IPPC for being clever enough to find, let alone seize or freeze, such a sizeable chunk of Worth’s assets.

She was brilliant. But she had been a little careless recently. Worth was beginning to understand the full extent of not only her brilliance, but also her ambition. That was a problem. But apparently he didn’t know that much. Because she lived for the long game. And her goals were loftier than her current position as runner-up right-hand man, second not only to Worth but also his heir apparent. A shame Worth wouldn’t figure that out in time. Well, no. It wasn’t actually.

And Lizzie and John? They’d work quite nicely for what she had planned. With a bit of luck, their elimination would be a happy side effect to her plan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

Lizzie Smith had just crawled into bed, deciding she might give in to jet lag and head to bed without John, when she felt the crinkle of paper under her pillow. She didn’t think anything of it, until the paper was in her hand and she’d read it three times.

The Pack doesn’t need a pretentious, self-important bitch like you. Watch your back, little girl.

What the…? Lizzie couldn’t help but think of someone walking through her bedroom, touching her sheets, her pillow. The small scrap of paper was basically a threat on her life. She huffed out a pent-up breath of air. Or was it a threat? Shit. Did it matter? Threat or warning, someone had been in her house. She felt sick, her stomach churning with uncertainty. In her home. A stranger had touched her things and walked unimpeded through her home. She grabbed a pair of shorts, feeling vulnerable and exposed in her tank and underwear.

John Braxton, her mate and Alpha of the Texas Pack, needed to know about this. Right now. The note screamed pack politics, and she knew trouble had been brewing in the Pack for the last few weeks.

“John,” Lizzie called as she walked through the house. It was a stupid note. It could mean anything or nothing. But something about the note Lizzie gripped in her fingers made her sick. A feeling pushed at her, like someone was out there hating her, wishing her ill. The vitriol of the author’s feelings seemed to have soaked into the paper. The words alone really weren’t that bad—right? She was jetlagged and exhausted from the last few days of magical mayhem and drama, which meant she was too tired for this shit.

“John,” she called a little more loudly. With his Lycan super-senses, he should have heard her. She could feel the edge of panic in her voice. He would certainly have responded if he had heard her. Where was he? He’d received a call from his uncle about an hour ago on the drive home from the airport. The conversation had been a little mysterious, and he hadn’t wanted to discuss it right then. “Later,” he’d said. Was he speaking with his uncle on the phone again?

Lizzie walked through the living room, her heart thudding. He should have responded. Something was wrong. And then movement from the backyard caught her eye. Two wolves, crouched low, standing at opposite corners of the yard. There was enough moonlight to see the first was the familiar mottled gray, black, and white of John. The other… She swallowed reflexively. The other was a massive black wolf. Bigger than John.

Scent void—her brain latched onto one reason that a strange wolf could appear without warning on her property. John’s fight a few days ago with two of Worth’s Lycan guards had involved some trick that masked or scrubbed away any trace of scent from the air. There’d been an absence of any scent in the corridor and room where the guards had ambushed John. Without the warning of their scent, he’d been surprised and the guards had gained a temporary advantage. Afterwards, he’d explained that he’d never before encountered a scent void—that’s what he’d called it—an area scrubbed of all scent.

John should have detected a stranger’s scent as soon as they’d arrived home, and he hadn’t. No way would he have left her undefended if he knew another wolf was here. He wouldn’t have missed the signs of another wolf on the property. Something had prevented him from scenting the other wolf. Shit. What if there was another Lycan that John didn’t know about? Or a spell caster, one who was masking the attacker’s scent?

All of these thoughts raced through her head in a few brief seconds. She collected herself and tried to think what she could do, how she could help John. First, she needed to know if the black wolf had brought reinforcements, Lycan or spell caster. She took a slow, shaky breath, trying to bring herself away from the edge of panic. She yanked her magic from deep inside, envisioned as best she could how to create a sensing ward so large it could encompass the entire house, braced herself against the nearest wall, and then she slowly exhaled. She willed that breath to softly push out tiny pieces of her sensing ward, like drifting snowflakes on a calm winter day. She gently prodded the small bits and pieces of her ward until it softly blanketed the surface of the house, including the walls and floors. It was a massive cast. As she cast, she briefly considered whether it was diffuse enough or delivered with enough care to prevent a correspondingly large repercussion. But it didn’t matter—if it revealed anyone else on the property, the bumps and bruises were worth it. She grimaced, the memory of falling on her ass after she cast her first sensing ward sharp enough to bring a twinge of remembered pain. It had been a small ward, but in ignorance she’d clumsily shoved an excess of power into it as she’d cast and the recoil had bounced back on her.

As she waited for the recoil that never came—her care and finesse had paid off—the results of the cast shone brightly in her mind. One wolf, the one facing John in her backyard. The black wolf was covered in spell caster magic. Where was the spell caster? Head whipping back and forth, she checked the far corners of the yard. But her ward revealed no spell caster hiding in the shadows, only the residual magic of a caster.

Her body sagged against the wall as relief coursed through her. The sensing ward had worked, and she wasn’t hurt. Leaning against the wall, her mind failed to fully process what exactly she’d just done—the size of the ward, the method of delivery, both completely outside her experience until she’d attempted it. She blinked, her mind sluggish. John. Dammit. John was alone with that massive wolf. And immediately her feet began to move.

She lifted her hand and inspected the mild trembling of her fingers. Walking with calm deliberation, mentally pushing herself to slow her breathing and her pounding heart, she went to the hall closet. After a brief search, she pulled out the .357 Magnum she’d recently acquired. She’d never been much for guns, but she was discovering that in this new life she’d entered, things were changing.

 

Chapter 2

The weight of the revolver in Lizzie’s hand failed to steady her nerves as she moved to the backdoor. The two wolves had been at opposite ends of the yard when she’d last seen them. As she tried to slow her breathing and calm herself enough to keep her hands steady, she was hoping—unlikely though it might be—that they were still crouched and waiting. When she arrived at the door, she spared a moment to evaluate the situation, not wanting to stumble into the fight, or, worse yet, become a hostage. And it was good she’d paused on the threshold, because the two wolves had clearly finished sizing each other up.

She knew it had been too much to hope that they’d still be far enough apart for her to manage a shot. It was surprising they’d paused at all. From her experience, Lycan in wolf form didn’t posture or bluster—they attacked without hesitation, whether to subdue, injure, or kill. As she watched the two wolves, she was struck by the lack of sound. Fighting Lycan were always much quieter than she expected—eerily so. They looked like giant dogs, so her mind jumped to the screams of pain, the abrasive, growling barks, and the snarls that accompanied most dogfights. But she’d learned that vocalizing intent was not a winning tactic and was generally discarded in any serious confrontation between Lycan in wolf form. If they wanted to chat, they stayed on two feet.

Her heart sank when she saw the fight was well under way, the two wolves tangled together in a vicious wrestling match, silent and deadly. The black wolf’s jaws snapped. The clack of his teeth coming together as he missed his target was loud in the otherwise still night, and the sound made her jump. John’s throat—that had been his target. Her hand tightened on the gun.

Muscles bunched under fur, the intruder’s black coat blended with the silver and black of John’s pelt as their positions changed fluidly from standing to kneeling to rolling. Lizzie smelled fresh earth as their massive claws bit into the ground and tore holes in her lawn. The rich scent brought her fear to a new level, the smell somehow making the fight even more real.

The hot, humid air was making her hands sweat, adding to her worry that she wouldn’t be able to shoot with any accuracy. A heavy gun, only moderate upper arm strength, the lightning fast movement of the two wolves, the twining of their bodies—how would she be able to hit the intruder? She gave her head a tiny shake. She could only wait for the right opportunity.

She cringed as the larger wolf briefly gained traction on the ground with his hind feet. Up to this point, they’d both been locked together and rolling on the ground, inflicting minimal visible damage as they slipped and maneuvered, avoiding snapping jaws and thrashing claws.

And then she realized—there was no damage to either wolf. She blinked in confusion as she estimated the odds. She’d seen John fight before; he was efficient. He didn’t waste time in skill-testing dances of ego and chest thumping; rather, his style was clean and quick. But this fight was looking more and more like a controlled tango. And John was most certainly leading the dance.

The bigger wolf was trying to exploit the advantage he’d gained in planting his hind feet firmly in the grass, when suddenly, all advantage was lost. With one quick twist, John repositioned himself and, quicker than Lizzie could track, snapped his jaws around the other wolf’s lower thigh. She heard the sharp crack of breaking bone, followed by a rapid exhalation and groan rolled into one.

John bounced away, loose-limbed and clearly uninjured. Before she could fully understand what had just happened, he changed—one second wolf, the next man. It always surprised her, no matter how many times she saw it. Her brain struggled to grasp the impossibility of shifting as fact. She’d seen him transform several times now, and it was frustrating that her mind still struggled with the change. Living in ignorance of her locked-away magic for so many years felt like a significant handicap at times like these. She never noticed any of the other casters struggling to grasp the concepts of shifting. And then she remembered that she was in her backyard—with a wrought iron fence, a clear line of sight from two houses into her yard, and two naked men. She blinked. When had the stranger changed?

She huffed out a small embarrassed breath. She wasn’t sure she’d ever get used to John baring all his dangly bits in mixed company, but it was bound to happen now and again. But men who were not John? She could feel the heat on her cheeks, neck, and the tips of her ears. She pinched the bridge of her nose when she realized how asinine her thoughts were. She needed to be more concerned about her neighbors spotting two giant wolves in her yard.

“Don’t move. My mate has a gun, and I’ve run out of patience for the evening.” John’s words made sense, but the tone was all wrong. He was—Lizzie took a hesitant step backwards —he was casual. The words were serious enough, but he didn’t seem worried, and that was all wrong.

Lizzie did her best to glare menacingly. She wasn’t accustomed to the role—that was usually John’s part—and she was tired and confused. So she was almost certain she failed miserably.

Apparently, the intruder either feared John or was terrified by her unfriendly demeanor, because he very slowly, very cautiously raised his hands in the air. With John out of immediate danger, Lizzie had temporarily forgotten about the gun, and it hung barrel down in her hand. But the raised hands of the intruder prompted her, and she lifted it. She was careful to support her right hand with her left, and she cautiously aimed at the blond man now standing in her yard without a stitch of clothing on. Great—two naked men. She could only hope no one was walking in the greenbelt behind her house this late at night. Rather than dwelling on how scandalized her neighbors might be at any moment, she steadied the gun with her left hand and concentrated on ignoring the ache in her arms. To her relief, John quickly retrieved it from her.

Gun held much more competently in hand, John asked, “Do you call truce?”

The blond man looked neither angry nor defeated. He stood without showing any emotion at all. Or pain—the change had apparently healed his leg. He finally said, “I do.”

John paused, considering the younger man for a moment. “Sneaking into my home, hiding your scent, delaying the challenge until the last moment—not exactly honorable behavior. And not what I’d have expected from you.”

That comment got a rise out of their visitor. His face hardened and he straightened his stance. If Lizzie had to guess, she’d say he was offended. Seriously? He creeps into their house, plants that disgusting note, threatens her boyfriend, and he’s offended?

As angry as he might be, he remained polite in his response. “The scent cover was a mistake.” And then he looked distinctly uncomfortable. “A friend gave me a gift that was supposed to mask my scent for a few hours. I honestly didn’t think it would work.”

“But you took it.” When the stranger didn’t disagree, John continued. “I should call your father.”

By now, it was clear that John knew him. Hell, he knew his father. It made sense that the important players in the Lycan world would know one another, but since they were generally wary of outsiders, she’d underestimated the connections between packs. She wrinkled her nose. Pack politics.

Posture stiffening again, the blond said, “My father’s not involved. I came on my own.”

“Oh, I’m sure of that.” Turning to Lizzie, John said, “Let me introduce David Clark. You know his father, Grant Clark.”

“Alpha of the Idaho Pack, Grant Clark?” Lizzie asked incredulously. Lizzie gave David a hard stare. “I don’t remember you being there when Grant kidnapped me a few weeks ago.”

He shifted his weight back, and his gaze darted away and back again. “Yeah, about that. I’m really sorry you were involved in that mess.” He even looked like he meant it. She couldn’t believe this guy.

“Are you kidding? You feel badly about my kidnapping, but you’ll come to my home and plant a nasty note and threaten my boyfriend—I mean, my mate.” She’d worked herself into enough of a huff that she misspoke.

And then she remembered—she had naked guys in her yard and little privacy with her vine-covered wrought iron fencing. Worse, the fence running along the back side of the yard was unencumbered by greenery and gave a terrific view out onto the adjacent greenbelt. She liked her neighbors, and they still thought she was normal. She’d love to keep up that illusion for at least a little longer.

“If we’re sure he’s not going to do anything crazy, maybe you guys could get dressed? Or come inside and out of the yard?” Lizzie hated to point out the obvious, but—the neighbors.

John lowered the gun and turned to the house. Lizzie glanced between him and David. What the heck? Apparently, John didn’t consider David much of a threat. That thought flitted through her mind as she contemplated John’s broad and completely vulnerable back. Her poor mind couldn’t shift from nail-biting fear to trust in thirty seconds, and she’d really rather John’s didn’t either. Her brow puckered in annoyance.

Over his shoulder, he threw out an invitation to David. “Beer?”

She poked John in the back and said, “Are you kidding? If he murders us in our sleep tonight, I’m totally blaming you.”

There was a muffled noise from behind her. “And if you even think about laughing, mister, I can always still shoot you.” She paused. “Or call your dad.” Ha. That shut him up.

Thinking back on the fight, it was becoming clearer to Lizzie that John had never felt the same sense of fear or the same level of threat that she had. The problem was she’d been terrified for him. She’d suffered the same adrenaline dump and fear that any harrowing experience delivered. What the hell was going on here? Her frustration was compounded by jet lag and the shaky, nauseated feeling of exhaustion that always followed in the wake of terror.

She took a slow breath, trying to ease the nausea. She just wanted to go to sleep. Or take a shower, she thought, as the icky feeling of having her personal belongings handled returned. What she didn’t want was to entertain a wannabe murderer. She scowled at John’s back as she followed him through the living room. Her scowl deepened when the sight of John’s bare back reminded her that the wannabe murderer was starkers. She snagged the throw off the couch and paused only long enough to toss it over her shoulder. He’d have to be an idiot not to understand what that meant.

 

 

 

Chapter 3

After the three of them settled around the kitchen table, beers in hand, Lizzie decided if she had to be awake she would at least interrogate their guest. Drinking beer with someone who’d tried to hurt John was bad enough. Doing so in ignorance was more than her tired, mushy brain could handle.

To top it off, the three of them were a sight. She was braless, with eyes so dry it hurt to blink. John had stopped just long enough on the way in to grab the jeans he’d abandoned before his change. At least his disheveled hair looked rumpled and sexy. She was sure her dark curls were tangled into messy knots. And David—well, David must have picked up on her overt cues of embarrassment. He’d wrapped himself toga-style in the blanket she’d thrown at him, covering the greatest surface area possible. If he weren’t such a giant of a man, he’d look foolish.

Before she could gather her thoughts sufficiently to ask David an intelligent question, he said, “What note?”

With a sinking feeling, Lizzie replied, “The one you placed under my pillow?”

His big brown eyes locked on her briefly. “Not me.” Shifting his gaze and looking directly at John, he said again, “It wasn’t me.”

“The note?” John held his hand out, palm up, in Lizzie’s direction.

“Just a sec,” Lizzie grumbled. She really was cranky tonight. She wasn’t usually so short. She was polite, dammit. And she didn’t cuss. She wrinkled her nose, thinking the girl she used to be was fading into her past.

After a few seconds of fishing around, she found the crumpled note in the back pocket of her cargo shorts. She didn’t remember putting on the shorts or stashing the note. She hesitated, spending an extra moment to straighten out the creases before finally handing it over to John. It was silly, but handing it over made the invasion seem more real. And John was going to be seriously pissed when he read it.

Turning to David, Lizzie decided that now was a great time to get some answers from him—while John was too busy getting a good mad going to notice. She was just tired enough, just overwhelmed enough, that she didn’t pity the idiot who thought it was a good idea to threaten her. It was almost comforting to think that the vicious twit who wrote the note was likely to become a dead or maimed idiot in the near future. Almost.

“Why were you in the house?” Lizzie delivered the question with an abruptness that seemed to startle David.

“I wasn’t. I mean, I never came inside.” He cast a sideways glance at John, waiting for something.

Lizzie snorted. No help there, buster. John didn’t even notice; his attention was still fixed on the note.

“What were you doing on my property?” she clarified.

David swallowed. “Challenging the Texas Alpha.”

That sure as hell better not mean what she thought it did. “Aren’t challenges to the death?”

“No,” John replied at the same time that David said, “Yes.”

“Not necessarily,” John said after silencing David with a narrow-eyed look. Tipping his head in David’s direction, he added, “Otherwise, we’d be burying him out on the greenbelt right now.”

David turned his head decisively away from John, looked her directly in the eye, and said, “Challenges are usually to the death.”

Her chest tightened, squeezing her lungs. For a second, she felt like she couldn’t take a breath. Then the moment passed. And she remembered that John hadn’t given any indication he felt threatened by David. Not now, and not earlier as they’d fought in her yard. Viewing their fight in hindsight, Lizzie could see that John had controlled the pace, their movement through the yard, and the inevitable outcome. But he wasn’t dismissive of David—not exactly. He just wasn’t nearly as cautious as Lizzie thought he ought to be. Another surprising thought occurred.

“Did you think you would win?” Her incredulity must have colored her words, because David’s color changed, taking on a slightly pinker hue. It wasn’t her intent to shame him, but she was surprised. He claimed challenges were to the death, yet he was so thoroughly outclassed in the fight. He must have had some idea of what to expect. John was known by reputation in the Lycan community. She’d learned a little of how other Lycan perceived him when she’d been kidnapped by the Idaho Pack.

Setting the note aside for the moment, John said, “I’m not sure the point was to win.”

David’s nostrils flared, and his hand clenched reflexively on the neck of the beer.

“I was approached by someone friendly to the Idaho Pack and offered a gift that would give me an edge. It’s not something I’d normally consider”—his breath puffed out quickly, but quietly, as if he was agitated but controlling himself—“but I thought a new start with new responsibilities might be a better situation for Anna. That it might make her happier, maybe give her a new purpose.”

David’s nostrils flared again and a muscle jumped in his jaw. Shooting John a look filled with some intense emotion Lizzie couldn’t identify, he said, “I didn’t come here intending to die. I am an enforcer. And—you’re getting old.”

How he said that with a straight face, Lizzie couldn’t guess. John wasn’t even forty. In Lycan years, he was in his prime and would be for some time. She looked more closely at the blond man. Good lord, he was a baby. His bulk and height had masked the obvious signs of youth. But now that she was looking, she’d guess mid-twenties at most.

In the ensuing silence, David continued. “Rumor has it you’re not exactly up to your usual….” He stopped, his eyes shifting. Maybe finally realizing his information hadn’t been exactly spot on? She hoped so.

“Go ahead, enforcer. I’m not exactly what?” John’s face had hardened.

Oh. Uh-oh. John had really been shockingly good-humored so far. But apparently, David had been about to cross some line, and he’d realized it a hair later than a wiser man would. Lizzie sighed. He was young.

She stood up, placing her hand on John’s shoulder. “Another beer?” The question was for John alone.

He smiled slightly. “Thanks.”  He turned back to David.

“Shit. I’m sorry. I’m an idiot.” His elbows resting on the table, David dropped his head down and shoved the heels of his hands against his eyes. When he finally raised his head, his eyes were bleary and red, his voice anguished. “I don’t know what to do. I’m terrified she’ll leave me, or worse—she won’t and she’ll make herself sicker. I just wanted a new start for her.” He turned to Lizzie. “For Anna.”

Lizzie bit her lip. “Anna’s your wife?”

As soon as the question left her lips, she knew that, of course, Anna was David’s wife. Anna, the sweet, fragile healer Lizzie had met during a brief, forced stay with the Idaho Pack, was Grant Clark’s daughter-in-law. Since the toga-wearing idiot in front of her was Clark’s son, even Lizzie’s tired and jet-lagged brain could make the connections.

With a quick bob of his head, David acknowledged that Anna was his wife.

“How is she?” John asked, his voice gentle.

“Recovering,” he replied tersely. “She had another miscarriage over the winter. Dad and I are worried…that maybe she’s…” He pressed his lips together and shook his head, not completing the thought.

Lizzie remembered a frail, worn young woman with fine-boned features. At the time, she’d thought Anna recently ill or generally in poor health.

After several minutes went by and David appeared to again be his more stoic self, Lizzie decided it was time to move the interview forward—the conversation was certainly no longer any kind of interrogation. “What was the item that allowed you to mask your scent?”

“A bean.”

“Huh?” Not her most articulate response. “A bean? I mean, how does that work?”

David shook his head. “I have no idea. Honestly. I was told to swallow it when I wanted my scent wiped and that it would last for at least two hours.”

After exchanging a quick glance with David, John burst out laughing.

“What?” Lizzie looked from John to David, who was grinning, and back again. “Am I missing something? Is there something terribly funny about a murderous wolf with scent-masking capabilities? Because that sounds deadly serious to me.”

She was starting to feel like an overprotective mama bear, which was ridiculous considering John’s abilities. No. She cocked her head, counting off all the reasons she was absolutely not being silly to worry. David was huge. And strong. And had access to magic that gave him an edge in a fight. And someone had acted behind the scenes to ensure he’d issue a challenge. After ticking those items off in her head, Lizzie decided she wasn’t being foolish. Much more likely, John had a screw loose, or no sense of self-preservation.

John’s laughter moved from deep belly laughs to little huffing chuckles. “Really? You don’t find that even a little funny? A magic bean?” When Lizzie rolled her eyes, he said, “We’re dealing with someone who has a sense of humor.”

“Good lord. That’s just ridiculous,” she scoffed. Then she narrowed her eyes as her few remaining fully functional brain cells kicked into overdrive. She should have held off on that beer. “Actually, it’s not ridiculous; it’s ingenious. They’ve created an item that can be warded but won’t be destroyed by a Lycan’s shift—an edible anchor for the ward.”

“Brilliant,” John agreed, but he was still smiling. He must have seen her disapproval, because he said, “Hey, you have to admit—it’s funny. The caster could have used a grain of rice, a kernel of corn, anything edible. A bean is an inspired choice.”

“There’s an evil genius who wants you dead and you decide to focus on his fabulous sense of humor,” she said, shaking her head in exasperation. “FYI, I’m going to keep sitting here and worrying myself sick over the wanting-you-dead part.”

John swallowed the last of his lingering amusement and sheepishly said, “Sorry.”

“And you—” Lizzie turned an accusatory look in David’s direction. “Weren’t you even a little curious as to why? I doubt their motivations were purely philanthropic. Who gave you the spelled bean? And what did they get out of it?”

“One of my pack members. He has some connections with the magical community in Idaho. I thought he was doing me a solid. Actually, I’m pretty sure he was; he’s a good guy. What do I really care about the rest? The risk to me seemed minimal.” He paused, a thoughtful look crossing his face. “I’m sure there are plenty of Lycan and other magic-users who would like to see the Texas Pack suffer. Texas is a growing force in North America, and some don’t like the direction you’re moving in.”

“Does that include you?” John asked.

Lizzie had the impression that David’s response was important, though John’s tone hadn’t changed at all when he’d posed the question.

“No. No, it doesn’t.”

David’s matter-of-fact response about how others perceived the Texas Pack was hard for her to swallow. That there were so many possibilities—so many people who might want to hurt John or the Pack—was a bigger issue than she was able to fathom in the wee hours.

John must have noticed that her level of distress had quadrupled in the span of seconds—probably his Lycan super-senses picking up some fear odor, with her luck—because he hustled David to the front door rather suddenly. She could hear the murmur of their voices as they spoke in the front hall, but she wasn’t able to focus on the individual words. She tried to hold her eyes open, and then she realized how silly that thought was. Sleep was a much more pleasant alternative than listening to the distressing thoughts racing through her head right now.

Lizzie woke when John gently shook her shoulder. David and John must have lingered in the foyer long enough for her to fall so deeply asleep she’d lost awareness of her surroundings. The last thing she remembered was resting her head on the table, cheek pillowed by her crossed arms, and the subdued noise of their voices in the background. She certainly didn’t remember falling asleep. As she raised her head from the table, her blurry gaze landed briefly on the slip of crumpled paper John had temporarily abandoned.

Leaning in to kiss her temple, he said, “We’ll talk about it tomorrow. You’re exhausted.”

“Yes.” It was all she could say, because anything more and she’d lose the battle with tears that the burn behind her eyes and pressure in her chest predicted. At some point earlier in the night, she’d come to the conclusion that the note originated from within the Pack. From a group of people that John held dearest and considered family. She suspected John had reached the same conclusion. Dammit. She hated crying.

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