Carter McCown protected a vampire turned without Red Court sanction once before. That ignited a war, created powerful enemies, and strained an alliance with his only supporter, an ancient no one should ever cross. Carter won't escape with breaking the Changeling Pact as he did then. He's been drawn into a trap and Miranda Hansen's life expectancy can be measured in hours. Even his wolf wants him to turn his back on her. Yet whether it's a sense of guilt or his beast's stubbornness, he's committed to saving her. Failure ensures he won't see his two-hundredth birthday. Not an earth-shattering milestone for a changeling, but one he'd like to reach.
Changeling PactChapter One~The surge of agony and ecstasy, claws thickening my fists, chest expanding, and teeth crowding my mouth forced me to suck in a breath. I pushed away the stack of invoices. Was I shifting because of the inanity of me auditing the auditors? Full moon wasn't for three more days. I shouldn't be—The bitter taste of blood as my gums accommodated my canines activated the salivating. I couldn't swallow fast enough and had to wipe my mouth.The scent reached my conscious brain. Not my blood. Someone else's. I tilted my head back. It didn't filter through the office door from the shop downstairs. Idiots were always busting their knuckles loosening bolts, but this wasn't a dab. It was rich, beautiful, streaming blood, the kind that made a meal worth curling up and dreaming about afterward. I spun in my chair and jogged to the window. Maggie hates my open window. Vamps work too hard to shut out stimuli. I wonder why. I should ask. One day. When I have nothing better to do.I inhaled deeply. Clean, human blood. With it, a screeching, guttural, human breath, clamped down beneath a strong hand, rasped staccato. Hell.Not my business. Don't interfere. Go back to work.A muffled, “Help.”Oh, just great. I closed my eyes and dropped my head forward. All I need. Though life has grown a little too routine the last few years. What am I thinking? I like boring.Still, I ran for the rear exit, which I only used to avoid race teams looking for sponsorship. The door slammed hard against the wall. That would bring Trudy in to investigate. All I needed. I hit the first landing before I even considered it wouldn't be good if she followed me. In two decades I've never let her catch me shifted.What the hell. Finding the door wide open she'd probably cuss me, shut the door and lock it, hope I didn't have my keys with me so I'd have to return by her desk and give her an explanation. Why did women always need an explanation? Females stick their nose into everything.At the first-floor landing I didn't take the time to unlock the alarm, which blared as I slammed the panel opening the fire exit. It was dark. Hell, Trudy would have already left for the day. Did she tell me adios? There shouldn't be anyone on the shop floor either. That was convenient, considering.Pausing in the back lot only long enough to determine the smell came from the left, I pivoted and sprinted. My feet, bulging in preparation for a more serious shift, complained in my slip-on Italians. The Egyptian cotton of my dress shirt pulled tight against my expanded chest, threatening to pop buttons.I hurdled the three-foot wall that separated my property from the neighbor and the full aroma of the blood hit me. A fraction of a second later, the gasp, more a gurgle of lungs expanding for air, unable to get it. A familiar sound, one I heard through my wolf every time he clamped down on a deer's throat. I ran past the line of cars, already focused on the point of the kill. A kill if I was too slow.My leather soles slid on the asphalt as I stamped to a stop.The bastard lunged to face me, still grasping his prey by the neck with one hand. His eyes flared that freaking weird, illuminated-opal. He hissed. Was that supposed to scare me? He reached out with his free hand. I didn't have to see the razor claws to know what he was. I'd already smelled the antiseptic-absence that vampires spewed. He continued toward me, drawing back a paw to give me a swipe. If he succeeded, he could open up my throat. But he was a little too confident and I wasn't going to wait for him. They need to learn how to smell wolf. Would I give this piece a crap a chance to learn? I hadn't decided.I bitch-slapped him. His head dented the quarter-panel of the F150 he bounced off. I felt badly for the truck. Its owner would be pissed. Pickup drivers tend to build a special bond with, not for, their trucks.The vamp's neck cracked, skull squished, and he fell flat, face bouncing off the asphalt. Had to hurt something awful. Too bad. I so empathize with my pale cousins. Not.The human female slumped, the flesh of her throat flayed from his claws being jerked from her. Her gagging covered the traffic noise from the boulevard forty yards away. At least she wasn't dead. Lucky wench. I counted. One. Two. Three. Was on ten when Idiot Vamp's limbs jerked as he reanimated. Maybe I should have ripped off his head. He might be ticked off when his senses returned.I shared another quick glance at the female. Her own senses seemed to be returning. Her eyes were more focused and her breathing no longer sounded like a shredder ripping an elm limb. She pressed her shoulders against the block wall that separated the parking lot from the houses across the way.I could smell a dozen dinners being prepared, the chlorine stench of swimming pools, and the crap of a hundred city mutts. Couldn't humans clean up after their animals? Disgusting. If my wolf crapped in the corner of my office, I could never leave the pile lying there for weeks.Humans are disgusting.It's a wonder my kind manage to eat them. Badgers and muskrats don't have as much meat on them, but they're cleaner. That might be an exaggeration. Never ate a critter that smelled as though it'd recently showered.“You son of a bitch,” the idiot-vamp mumbled, pulling up on all fours. “I'm going to kill you.”I relaxed, allowing more of my beast to surface, enough to let this pale jerk know who he dealt with. Action always draws a quicker reaction than talk.His eyes widened, and he fell back on his butt.“Get lost,” I hissed. “And this doesn't have to get around.”He considered too long. I had decided I'd have to kill him, but he scrambled to his feet and fled. He was clumsy. A baby. No wonder the female was still alive. Twit couldn't thrall a squirrel yet. Hadn't acquired the powers of a half-mature vampire. He disappeared around the corner of the All Sports, one of my favorite places on earth. In my nightmares. Running naked in the woods for a couple days every twenty-eight days is all the sport I typically need, any more. Though I'm not against a friendly game of three-on-three with other wolves as long as they keep their claws tucked in. Or a jog to release some sexual tension when I haven't allowed my wolf to run in too-long.I turned to Bleeding Chick. She sobbed now, head bounced up and down like a fishing bob. Did I have to play the pathetic, sympathetic male now? That stuff makes me sick. “You gonna live?”A rivulet of blood streamed down her well-cleaved chest. Not a rack to write a song about, but perky. What did that jerk do to her? Damn. I smelled his saliva. He probably got his fangs into her.Crap.A sob jolted mid-bob, and she looked up at me, frozen for a full second, and she laughed. Maybe in pain, a little panic, but she had a sense of humor. The laugh vibrated into a pair of sobs, which she tried to suffocate. She made a belching, passing gas kind of noise that forced a grin on my face, despite the situation. Hope she didn't notice. That might come across less than sympathetic.Here I was staring down at her. Either I had to go all mushy and soothe her with pansy-assed you-poor-thing, or perform some first aid. Her blood was likely to induce me to finish her off, carry her to a darker corner. Damn. I pulled out my cell and dialed 911. One way to get my mind off her blood. It wasn't right to save her from a vamp to eat her myself.“A woman has been mauled, I mean beat up, badly. She needs an ambulance. Bleeding a lot.” I answered the questions, trying not to think too much about the blood.“I'll ask her.” She looked up at me. Alert. A chick who didn't go acting the oh I'm a pitiful thing who needs protecting routine. I could grow to like her, if the jerk hasn't ripped out her jugular. Didn't appear the case. Not that much blood.I must have hesitated too long, because she executed a what-flinch.“Uh—”“I'm thirty. Five-nine. Hundred twenty pounds.”I considered telling her, “No, they want to know if you have insurance.” But I held on to that tidbit of humor and passed the data on. She scooted up and leaned against the wall a little straighter, closed her eyes. I finally got the emergency chick to stop asking questions and slid my phone in my pocket. I sighed. I had to do it. I pulled my arm up and bit into my sleeve, ripping the material off my arm. Two-hundred dollar tailored shirt shot to hell. She better survive or I'd be pissed.I tore it in half and knelt in front of her. Beneath the pheromones of fear and pain whiffed an expensive perfume. Not one I particularly care for, but I wouldn't kick a chick out of my bed for wearing it. Not that many chicks ever get in my bed. I tried to remember how long it had been, as a human. Too long. Way, too long. Elizabeth, maybe? And she didn't even count. In the back of an armored truck? That couldn't have even counted as a tryst. Damn, I hadn't thought of her in a while. She had been like a bad cold that never went away. Not that my wolf lets me catch colds.“Blood make you ill?” she asked.I actually jerked. That gave me a smile inside, which may have made it to the surface, I'm not sure. But even if it did, crammed between two cars well past sundown, she wasn't going to read my face, as I could hers. Not that I'm good at reading faces. My wolf is way better separating scents than I am discerning body language. So I usually leave him to make those kinds of situation calls.“I didn't want to startle you, after, you know.”“After some asshole tried to rape me?”You wish. “Yeah. That.”“I'm good.”“Good.” I knelt in front of her and pressed the wadded up halves of my former, tailored sleeve to the sides of her throat. Her pulse made it through the material, and I shuddered. Memory of the last heart that dulled under my touch visited, before other thoughts. Damn. It had been a long time since I'd been this close to a woman. Maggie didn't count. I hadn't ever looked at her as a woman, more a project. No. A pain in my ass. And technically she isn't a woman any longer. I felt a little off. How much pressure was I applying?The siren of an EMT from the fire station two blocks away vibrated in the truck and sedan we crouched between. Another siren, a police unit, neared from the other direction. A new scent filtered through the blood, pheromones, and perfume. Healing. I had smelled this before, once. Turned my world upside down. The jerk did infect this woman. The scourge that allows changelings to shift and reanimate already performed its thing. In a month she'd be a baby vamp, if they let her live that long.That was unlikely.“You aren't going to throw up on me, are you?” she asked.In this light, could she—the moon neared full. I looked east. Of course the sedan was in the way, but inside, my gut knew the moon hovered in the sky like an irritated mother-in-law. Not that I've ever had an irritated mother-in-law. Or any kind of mother-in-law.“You want to take these. I better catch the, you know.”“Yeah.”Her hands pressed against mine, and I shuddered again, like a teen at a sock hop. The back wall was already lighting up red and blue. Thankfully the sirens were off now. That would have catapulted my heightened ears. My beast, still fighting to fully emerge, would have been pissed. It isn't good to piss off my beast. I personally go to great lengths to avoid ticking him off, or any wolf's beast, for that matter. That's not actually true. I can be a prick to anyone who gets in my face. And it doesn't take much to irritate me. I imagine that's true for all lone wolves. Though I'd never met another lone wolf.I lurched and stepped away from the cars as the panel truck came around the corner of the All Sports the vamp had disappeared around. The headlights, turned on high-beam, blinded me, gave me a sense of vertigo. I held one hand over my eyes, the other waved them over, as though they couldn't figure out they looked for me. The truck pulled twenty feet past me before stopping. A police car pulled around the store and neared.Did I go to the EMTs first, or the cops. The EMTs. I walked to the passenger side and the calm, fortyish-looking guy in his starched-white shirt already pulled out a second kit from a side panel. Our conversation lasted ten syllables. For the next fifteen minutes I dealt with the cop's questions. No I couldn't identify the guy, it was too dark. I happened to be fifty feet away and heard her cry for help. Just lucky, I agreed. No, I'd never met the lady. Maybe a shopper at the All Sports. I didn't do anything heroic, other than dial my phone.The EMTs raised the gurney the chick was now strapped down on. She called me over.“Could you do me another favor?”I nodded. Why me? Saving your life isn't enough? The cop sat in his car now writing up his all-important report. He hadn't even peered around the corner of the store for that freaking pale. Not that he would have loitered after the fact. But still, shouldn't the cop have at least gone through the motions?“My car is in the front of the store. I was getting in when— Would you lock it up for me?”“Sure. Be happy to.” Yeah, sure. I walk the neighborhood at night looking for damsels to help every freaking night. Favorite pastime of mine. Yep. My cape is just at the cleaners.And in three seconds she was inside the ambulance, the rear door closed. It didn't move for another three minutes. The fire department guys were gone. The cop still worked on his report, which was taking more time than he spent talking to me and the female combined.I walked to the front of the store, glancing at my Rolex. Seven-fifteen. Not as late as I expected. EMTs were here fast. The cop too. So he could fill out his forms so the city could get its federal funds.Five cars. Wasn't hard figuring out which was hers. I followed her perfume directly to it. The driver's door hung ajar. Her purse, along with her keys, lay on the ground in front of it. There were bags in the backseat emblazoned with the All Sports logo. This part of Tampa was full of vampires, but not petty thieves, and no one willing to investigate an abandoned vehicle with a woman's purse lying on the ground. The motto, don't get involved, stands.The world we live in. Such as it is. I got in the BMW and closed the door. Nice. For pretend luxury. Stiff, leather seats. My Audi was more comfortable. Some of the stuff in the high-end cars my Hyde Park shop drew in would make this thing look like a ten-dollar hooker.I sighed. I'd grown into a proper prig. An absolute prick, considering my humble beginnings. If I'd made it home to Tennessee after the war, I would have split Papa's ten acres with my