A Cursed Embrace Page 2

Aric’s deep tenor voice tugged at my heart, yet a nod remained my only response. When I said nothing more, he fell to one knee and examined the body. The were who’d driven the pickup—a tall male with military-cut black hair and ebony eyes—hustled to his side.

Commando Guy shook his head after taking a sniff. “Not one of mine.”

“Lone?” Aric asked.

Lone were, he meant. I was right, this were hadn’t belonged to a pack.

Commando nodded. “Yeah. And not from the area. I keep track of the few lones around here. Who found him?” He scowled. “And why the hell do I smell vampire?”

I stepped forward. “I found him, and, uh . . .” Hmmm, how to explain why the vampire family of Aric’s enemy was here?

Before I could ease Aric into knowing Misha’s keep arrived ahead of him, Edith Anne leapt onto the porch in her muddy boots. “Can I go now?”

Edith returned Aric’s glare with a smile that clearly said, Why, thank you, I’d love a bite.

I groaned. “Yes, Edith Anne, please go.” The last thing I needed was another dead thing on my doorstep. Thank God the porch rails and potted plants hid the view from our nosy and evil neighbor.

Edith twisted her body playfully as she twirled the edges of her long hair. She kept her eyes on Aric when she spoke. “Okay, Celia. Be sure to wear something sexy for dinner. The master has arranged for a cozy meal and looks forward to seeing you again.” Her smile widened as the burning scent of Aric’s shock and anger singed my nostrils. “Oh, I’m sorry, mutt. Didn’t you know Celia and the master have been spending time together? Why, just the other night—”

“Good-bye, Edith!” I hissed.

Edith tossed her hair back and strutted to her candy-apple red Mercedes. She blew one last kiss Aric’s way and sped off. Where was something sharp and pointy when you needed it?

Aric turned back to me once Edith disappeared. “Paul, this is Celia Wird. Celia, this is Paul Nalis, Leader of the Raccoon Gaze in the area.”

Paul stepped over the threshold and held out his hand for me to shake. His grip was strong, yet lacking the challenge Alphas notoriously threw in the faces of unknown preternaturals. So why did Aric’s brow knit into a tight frown as he watched us?

“Good to meet you, Celia,” Paul said before releasing my hand. “Could you tell me what happened?”

I focused on him, rather than Aric. “My sisters were sitting down to breakfast and I was getting ready for a run. I heard something hard smack against the door while I was tying my shoes. When I opened it, he fell through.” My head angled back toward the were. “His skin was barely warm when I touched him, and his heart had stopped. He bled out in puddles of blood and pus. I’d never seen anything like it.”

Paul huffed. “Yeah, that much gold in a were’s system will have that affect.” He stuck his black boot beneath the raccoon’s chin and lifted it, lolling his head side to side. “The dagger used to cut him was gold, too. You can tell since there’s no evidence his body had tried to heal him.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” I’d seen gold mess up a vampire. Preternaturals couldn’t even hold the stuff without making them want to hurl. Except I’d never seen damage to this extent. The poor guy had been brutalized.

“Did you hear the shots or see anything suspicious?”

I shook my head.

“What about them?” He motioned to my sisters.

“Celia’s inner beast is a golden tigress. If she didn’t sense anything, the others wouldn’t have, either.”

Aric didn’t typically answer for me. And it would have bothered me had I not picked up on the underlying protectiveness of his tone.

Paul gave me the once-over. “But she’s not were.”

Aric’s tone grew more of an edge. “No. She can’t heal.”

The corners of Paul’s lips curved into a smile. “What a shame.”

Judging by the way Aric leapt over the body and wedged his way between us, Paul didn’t pity my lack of healing abilities. “Watch it, Paul.”

Paul cocked his head to the side. Something he saw in Aric forced the smirk from his face. “Jesus, Aric,” he said.

I glanced at both of them, confused about what had transpired.

“Just get him out of here,” Aric growled.

Paul leaned against the wall and whistled. Two more wereraccoons appeared sporting thick rubber gloves—the kind I suspected could be found at any local nuclear power plant. We moved out of the way. One of the weres grabbed the legs and the other the wrists. On the count of three, they lifted. The air rippled and translucent waves pushed against my face.

And that’s when the body exploded.


A sonic boom blasted my eardrums. I landed on the couch face-first, Aric on top of me, shielding my body with his. Something hit the wooden floor and glass shattered. Thick, polluted air tightened my chest the moment I attempted to take a breath. It was like inhaling muddy water through my lungs. And the stench—good Lord, a toxic waste dump smelled rosier. I coughed, the sharp smell stinging my eyes. I tried to rise. Aric kept me down. He adjusted his position on top of me so I didn’t bear the brunt of his two-hundred-plus form, allowing me to turn my face enough to see . . . blackness. Or should I say, a solid mass of green?

“Stay down.” Aric’s voice sounded strained. My sisters gagged and hacked. Someone threw open the windows and the sliding glass doors leading out to our deck. Horrible retching ensued from the direction of our powder room.

Outside, Taran voiced her concerns. “Son of a bitch! What the hell is this shit?”

The good news was my skin didn’t melt, my bones remained in one piece, and no funky thing with tentacles attempted to birth through my belly. One never knew what one might have encountered in the supernatural world.

I tried to slow my breathing, not wanting to inhale more of the foul odor than necessary. If only the rising heat between Aric and me allowed it. My tigress, hell, she thought Aric on top was hot stuff and that we should make out with him while we waited for the air to clear.

I didn’t agree.

I twisted a little, hoping to ease him off me. All that did was rub his body against mine and send quivers jetting to my already alert girl parts.

Oh . . . crap.

I’d promised myself I’d keep it together the next time I saw Aric—I was tough, strong, formidable . . .

“Try to breathe through your mouth.” Aric’s instructions came out in panted whispers.

I was in trouble, that’s what I was. “Okay,” I moaned like an idiot.

Aric’s soft growl rumbled against my back. I refused to purr in response. And I didn’t.

Until his head fell against mine and his nose nudged playfully against my ear.

Aric froze when my beast purred to come hither. Damn it. Whose side was she on anyway?

Neither of us moved, despite the intensity of warmth we shared. And just like that, the moment quickly turned from unbearably sexy to horribly awkward. My house reeked of swamp butt, and there we were, acting like two unsupervised hormonal teens.

Slowly, like molasses sliding into water, the dense air thinned out. As soon as the first gulps of fresh air hit my lungs, Aric leapt off me, pulling me with him to stand. Except instead of releasing me completely, his arm slid around my body, keeping me close. I didn’t fight it, welcoming the affection I’d longed for the past week.

A thin haze lingered around the expanse of our large open family room. Similar to when something burns in the kitchen and the remnants hang on despite the opened windows. Nothing appeared stained or destroyed—strange, especially since the force of the explosion hit harder than a truckload of sweaty sumo wrestlers.

Emme and Shayna appeared with their wolves, pale with obvious nausea. The toilet flushed. One of the wereraccoons stepped out from the powder room. Thank goodness he made it in time. The other one waited outside with Gemini and Taran.

Paul stood holding two picture frames. “Sorry. I knocked these over when I hit the floor.”

I hurried out of Aric’s hold and took the pictures from Paul. The only picture we had of our parents remained intact, just chipped at the corner. But the one of our foster mother, Ana Lisa, had a large crack down the center. I carefully placed them on the mantel of our brick fireplace, barely acknowledging Paul’s offer to replace the frames as I focused on the faces of the only people who’d shown us love during our childhood.

I cherished the pictures, so much so it scared me that something could irreparably damage them. Yet I never held or admired the old photos much. Sadness bristled inside me when I thought for too long about those stolen from me. Some things hurt forever, I supposed.

My finger slid along the edge of Ana Lisa’s frame. Shayna had taken the photo with a disposable camera she’d found abandoned on the street. Ana Lisa’s hand rested against Emme’s back. My youngest sister was only about seven then, her tiny arms hugging Ana Lisa’s robust figure. Tears glistened in Emme’s eyes. I remember scolding Shayna for taking the photo. But all I saw was Emme’s pain. I failed to see what Shayna did—the compassion and Ana Lisa’s silent promise to keep Emme safe. She’d kept us all safe. Until the monsters returned . . .

I moved on, urged by the need to protect what remained of my family.

Everyone had assembled where the body had lain. I casually ambled to Aric’s side, surprised by how easily he gathered me into his arms again. I tensed briefly before his comforting presence relaxed me like the feel of a warm blanket fresh from the dryer. It felt right to be with him. If only I knew his feelings mirrored mine.

“What happened?”

Aric shook his head. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” He motioned to the floor with his chin. “Or that, except in magical sacrifices.”

A charcoal outline, resembling those drawn in chalk on crime shows, was all that remained of the were—that, and the cursed gold bullet slugs. Taran looked around the room at the same time I did, articulating my thoughts beautifully. “For shit’s sake. Is this dead guy all over our house now?”

Gemini’s jaw slacked, the quiet, reserved Beta appearing stunned by Taran’s colorful vocabulary. “Uh, it would seem his remains dissipated in the air and are traveling in the current.”

I reached for a throw pillow and took a whiff. The awful smell didn’t reach my delicate senses. “I think Gemini’s right. What’s left of him is on the floor.”

Taran sashayed to the back of our kitchen and into the laundry room. She returned with a handheld vacuum and proceeded to suck up the wereraccoon and the bullets. “Not anymore,” she muttered. She held it out to Paul, who gripped it by the handle at arm’s length. “There you go. Lone or not, I expect you to give him a proper burial.”

Our friend Bren was a lone wolf, my sisters and our other friend Danny his only pack. I couldn’t think about losing Bren, but if we did, we’d want him honored.

Paul passed the handheld to the other raccoon. “Do you want us to help you track?”

Aric slid his fingers down my side to rest against my hip. “No. We’ll take it from here.”

“If I find anything on this guy, I’ll let you know.”

“Likewise,” Aric said.

Paul paused to watch us. Aric’s hand tightened on my hip. Paul noticed and nodded my way. “Celia.”

“Good-bye, Paul.” My husky tone failed to register as superfriendly, not that that was anything new. After a lifetime of being labeled as “weird,” I never let my guard down. A strenuous way to live, but as my family’s defender, I kept us safe that way. Only Aric had found a way through my defenses.

My sisters and wolves dispersed to the kitchen, leaving Aric and me alone. No, that wasn’t on purpose or anything.

Aric faced me, slipping both hands onto my hips. “How are you?”

I straightened to my full five feet three inches, which, when the wolf of your dreams stood a good foot taller, did absolutely nothing. “Considering I woke up to find a corpse slumped across my threshold, only to have the remains pop like a balloon and attempt to suffocate me? Okay, I guess.” I shrugged. “My sisters are safe. I’m thankful for that.”

Aric gave me a halfhearted smile. “I don’t want you to worry. I meant it when I promised to protect you.” One hand curled around my waist, while his opposite hand traveled beneath my long chocolate waves to cup the nape of my neck. I closed my lids, relishing the addicting warmth that always accompanied Aric’s touch.

I opened my eyes in time to see him lean forward. I turned away before his lips met mine. He dropped his hands and sighed. “I suppose I deserved that.”

My hands found the back of the couch. Lack of experience with males made me kitten shy, not tigress fierce.

“I’m sorry I haven’t called,” he added quietly.

“It’s all right.” I said it, but Aric could scent I didn’t mean it. Still, he humored me.

“No, it’s not, Celia.”

“You’re right. It’s not.” My fingers drummed against the ridge of the sofa. “So why haven’t you called?”

He ran a hand through his dark brown hair. He’d cut it since the last time I saw him. He kept the top long, the sides short. I wondered what else or who else had occupied his time.

Aric crossed his arms. “Things have been more complicated than I’d expected.” He glanced over his shoulder to find Shayna, “Miss I Respect Your Privacy,” peering around the corner. He laughed when she scurried away. “Take a ride with me and I’ll explain.”

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