Cipher
Southern Arcana - 4
by
Moira Rogers

This is dedicated to Mari Fee, who not only helped us with titles for this series, but is the reason we wrote any of it to begin with. Merci beaucoup, lady.

Prologue

Fourteen months earlier Kat tried to open the office door three times before she realized she was using the wrong key.

Her cheeks heated as she lifted the ring until the silver keys caught the faint glint from the streetlight.

“Don’t say a damn word.”

Next to her, Andrew chuckled. “Hey, my lips are zipped.”

“Better be.” God, she loved his laugh. And his smile. And his eyes. She was supposed to be mad at him, but her lips tugged up in a smile of her own as she found the right key. “This’ll just take a few minutes, and then we can head back.”

“I’m in no hurry.” He rested his hand on the door and waited for her to unlock it. “With Derek MIA right now, work’s a little weird.”

The reminder brought a stab of worry. Derek was hip-deep in the latest shapeshifter mess, one that came with danger and execution orders and an instinctive need to bundle his baby cousin off into protective custody.

It was annoying. It was condescending. And it was hard to stay mad when protective custody meant spending time with Andrew—even if he had gone over to the dark side by joining the ranks of the overprotective assholes.

She could fume at Derek. She’d never been good at staying angry at Andrew.

Kat unlocked the door, and it swung open without a squeak. Inside the office was dark, so dark that her mind jumped straight to all the things she and Andrew could do in the dark. Theoretical knowledge only, more was the pity, but sometimes she caught Andrew watching her in a way that made her think he’d make it worth the wait.

Someday.

“What were you looking for, again?”

“My binder with the research notes for this stupid OS class.” The door clicked shut behind her, and she pivoted only to find herself staring up at Andrew, his handsome face turned darkly mysterious in the uncertain light.

For one perfect moment, the world went soft-focus. Awareness and potential filled the air—not the magical kind fueled by her empathic gifts, but plain, old-fashioned excitement.

Their friendship had danced along this line for months, no longer just friends but not yet something else.

The enormity of what they could be trembled inside her, whispering of epic love, humbling and intimidating. She still felt young and untried, too inexperienced for grown-up relationships with high stakes and ever afters.

She wasn’t ready. Not yet…but soon, and it would be worth it.

He would be worth it.

Andrew’s thumb brushed her cheek. “You’re making big eyes at me.”

She wrinkled her nose and considered sticking out her tongue. “I wouldn’t be if you’d let me come to the office by myself. This is revenge.”

“Nowhere by yourself, those are my orders.”

The soft click to their left was out of place, and it took Kat a moment too long to figure out why.

Triumph spiked through the room in a painful lash of emotion so strong she staggered. Andrew reached out, but rough hands had already closed on her shoulders, dragging her back so fast her heels skittered across the carpet as she belatedly started to struggle.

“Kat!” Andrew’s voice shook with terror—and anger. “Kat!

A dark figure loomed behind him, and Kat’s lips parted on a warning that came too late. “Andrew—” Brutal fingers slammed over her mouth, muffling her enraged scream as a huge body crashed into Andrew. Her brain flitted in too many directions, and instinct took over. She crashed her heel down, aiming for her attacker’s toes, but pain splintered up her leg as her floppy sandal smashed against a steel-toed boot.

The man holding her laughed. “You’re feisty for a human. Or are you the little psychic secretary?”

They weren’t humans, not if they knew who she was. What she was. Dread froze her in place as Andrew struggled.

One of the dark-clad men punched him, a hard right across the jaw, but he continued to fight. He kicked a second intruder in the ribs, and the man stumbled back, gasping for breath.

Hot breath spilled across Kat’s ear, and terror cracked her shields, letting in a sick twist of Andrew’s pain and the exhilaration of his opponents. Feral, primal—Andrew was an unanticipated but welcome game, a hunt in which they could indulge themselves.

Shapeshifters.

The second the thought formed, her attacker tightened his grip. “We’re not here to hurt you, but if your friend doesn’t stop fighting, we’ll kill him.”

With his emotions sliding over her skin like slime, she knew the words for truth. As soon as the hand eased from her mouth, her begging plea tumbled out. “Andrew, stop.” God, she sounded scared. She was scared. Andrew was strong for a human, but shapeshifters would rip him to pieces. “Please, Andrew!”

The shifters stepped back, forming a half-circle as their prey rose and faced them. The man behind her growled. “Tell us where Jacobson’s safe houses are. I don’t want to torture you into talking, but I will.”

For a moment, she thought Andrew might back down. Then one of the men made a low noise of anticipation, and Andrew swung.

He was going to die, trying to protect her.

She was going to watch it happen.

Fear shattered into a thousand pieces and took her self-control with it, the breakdown so complete that she didn’t realize she’d lost her grip on her empathic projection until everyone in the office froze.

The hands on her shoulders clenched until she thought they might crush bone. One of the men shuddered, a queer-sounding whimper ripping free from his throat. Low, terrified—barely human, and so afraid.

“You goddamned little bitch—” Rough fingers twisted in her hair, but it was too late. Someone jerked her head back hard enough to bring tears to her eyes, and the pain intensified the fear flooding the room.

A low curse ended on a snarl as one of the men began to shift. Andrew yelled something, but the words disappeared in a cacophony of angry yips and howls as a second man shifted, tearing free of his clothing.

So fast. It happened so fast. One second she was staggering under the weight of her attacker’s anger, the next she was on her knees and Andrew-Andrew lay on the floor, his clothes rent and dark with blood. Bleeding, and so pale, clutching at his stomach with one hand and his throat with the other-Dying.

Fear vanished. Pain followed, leaving sweet, icy numbness behind. Cold, cold, cold, she was so cold she should be shivering. So cold they should all be shivering.

She’d make them shiver.

She’d make them crawl.

The power had always been there, a burden and a nuisance. Shields kept it contained, but nothing could contain the protective rage gathering just under the surface.

She took Andrew’s pain. There was so much it should have split her in two, but she took it. Her nails scratched against the rough carpet as she took his anger too, his anger at himself for not being able to protect her. She took the shapeshifters’ rage and their fear and their determination to see her dead, she took her own breaking heart and the ice that would never melt.

She took it all, then took Andrew himself and imagined him safe in her arms, safe in the numbness making the world a distant dream. With him wrapped in her shields, she stripped her soul bare and let everything go in a terrifying thrust of power that hollowed her out and left her trembling.

Her pulse pounded in her ears. Throbbed in her temples. Everything was silent, so silent she was sure she’d failed-And then the screaming started.

Chapter One

Someone was cooking waffles.

For one disoriented moment, trapped between sleep and waking, Kat thought she was home again. A teenager, safe in her uncle’s house with her aunt making breakfast and her parents alive and the world at her fingertips. If she rolled out of bed, she’d find hot chocolate waiting for her in the kitchen, and her aunt would ask her about the boy in her math class and laugh when she blushed…

The bed shifted, and a solid arm settled over her waist, jerking her abruptly into the present. Miguel, her brain identified at once. He was warm, a comforting weight at her back, and as familiar as her favorite pair of slippers. Kat threaded her fingers with his and gave his hand a tug. “Hey, lazy ass. Wake up. Sera’s making us breakfast before she goes into work.”

He laughed but didn’t move. “Score. I’m starving.”

“Impossible. You ate a supreme pizza last night all by yourself.” He’d eaten a few slices of her pepperoni pizza too, proof that his appetite hadn’t waned after six months of being a full-blooded shapeshifter.

“Shapeshifter and psychic,” he corrected aloud. “That burns a lot of calories.”

Kat groaned and dragged a pillow over her face, spending a few careful moments reinforcing her shields. Not that they’d stop Miguel from picking up her surface thoughts any more than his mental shields kept her from reading his mood, but the practice never hurt. “If being a psychic burned that many calories, I’d be a lot scrawnier.”

Miguel slapped her hip through her flannel pajama pants. “That’d be a crying shame. Zola’s already worked too much of your ass off.”

“There’s plenty left.” She tossed the pillow aside and leaned over the side of the bed until her fingers brushed the edge of her netbook. “And all of it off limits. Your new girlfriend doesn’t strike me as the sort who wants to listen to explanations about why you were smacking another woman’s ass this morning.”

“Victoria,” he said slowly, carefully enunciating every syllable, “does not own me. And I’ve done nothing wrong.”

The tiniest hint of defensiveness echoed between them, sharp enough to ruffle his otherwise placid emotions. Kat didn’t much care for How-Dare-You-Call-Me-Vicky-It’s- Victoria and didn’t give a damn if Miguel plucked that thought out of her head. She dragged her computer up onto her stomach and popped it open. “She’s too prissy for you. And you know it, or you wouldn’t have crashed in my sexless bed last night, Mr. Playboy.”

“She had to work. And I like your sexless bed.” He rolled to his side, propped his head on his hand and blew away the hair that fell over his forehead. “It’s better than being at home until Julio finishes moving out. It’s all politics, all the time since the coup.”

A dangerous route of thought, especially with a psychic in her bed. Thinking about the coup always lead back to the men who’d led it. And one of those men…

She jerked her thoughts under control and wiggled her finger over the track pad on her computer until the screen came to life. “Politics get tiring,” she managed, and it sounded like a weak attempt even to her.

“Sera and I don’t mind you crashing. She gets to cook for three, and I don’t have to turn the heat above sixty-five because you’re like a shapeshifter radiator.”

“Uh-huh. And my sister says that’s why I eat like a horse now. Increased metabolic function.”

“Yeah, it takes a lot of dedicated eating to be a chubby shapeshifter.” She’d left her browser open, and the endless row of tabs retraced the path of the previous night’s research. Seventeen in all, ranging from Wikipedia to her Gmail, which now had thirty-seven unfiltered messages awaiting her attention. “Sera likes cooking for you. Maybe you should ditch Victoria and start putting the moves on her. She could use some damn fun.”

He studied the bedspread and nodded. “She’s not really my type.”

The words were right, but empathy told her he was laughing inside, amused over some joke she was missing. “Is it because she’s a coyote and not a wolf?”

He stretched out on his back and grinned. “Maybe it’d be more correct to say I’m not really her type.

I’m not badass enough for your roommate.”

“That’s a shame.” But easy enough to believe. The last time Sera had managed to get her hands on enough alcohol to make a shapeshifter drunk, she’d scrawled No fucking alpha bastards! across the bathroom mirror with a Sharpie. Kat had tried three different types of cleaner before giving up and repunctuating it. No, fucking alpha bastards! was a motto she could get behind, at least.

And speaking of alpha bastards… She actually had email from her boss. The timestamp was seven-thirty—eight-thirty in New York, where he was clearly already awake and busily messing with shapeshifter politics. Kat flagged it to check later and scanned the rest of the subjects. Junk, most of it, with a spattering of casual correspondence and a few messages from potential clients and colleagues at the university.

Then, third from the top, she stumbled across a sentence that made her heart stutter. Regarding your mother’s association with the Cult o… The subject line was too long to display in full, but what was there stole her breath.

“Hey.” Miguel laid a hand on her shoulder. “You okay?”

“I don’t—” She rocked upright, spilling the netbook onto the covers in her haste. After a moment groping behind her back, she closed her fingers on her pillow and hauled it around to serve as a makeshift desk. “I sent out some emails last week. I just—I didn’t really expect to get a reply.”

He must have caught a stray thought. “Cult? Some kind of cult shit? Is this something you’re doing for work?”

“Ancient history.” Crossing her legs, she set the pillow in her lap and resituated the computer. It could be nothing or a scam or even a joke.

It could be answers.

Miguel hesitated. “Do you need me here, or do you need me gone? I can’t tell.”

Neither could she. Her hands shook like she’d mainlined espresso and chased it with Red Bull…and if she didn’t get herself under control, she’d have two worried shapeshifters climbing all over her. “I think I need a few minutes. And Sera’s going to all that trouble making breakfast—someone should eat it.”

You should eat some of it.”

“I will, I promise. In a little bit.”

“Kat.”

She dragged her gaze away from the browser window and met his eyes. “I’m okay, Miguel. It’s not like I can sneak out the window. I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

“All right.” He rolled off the bed and snagged his shirt from the chair by the wall. “I’ll grab some coffee and wait for you.”

Relief and gratitude made her smile as real as her words. “You’re the best.”

“Hey.” He stopped and rubbed his thumb over her cheek. “You’re still my girl.”

For one crazy second she wished she was his girl, that she’d met him before her broken heart had healed wrong, before life had twisted her up until even a handsome, skilled lover couldn’t keep passion from fizzling out. Maybe her empathy would always be a curse—she knew exactly what she had…and everything she was missing.

At least in Miguel she had a friend, and a friend was more important than a lover any day. “Go get some waffles before they get cold. I’m sure she’ll still be making them when I get out there.”