“I love this place.” He rubbed his hands together. “Waffles and whipped cream in a can.”
“Better than heaven.”
Miguel ducked out of the room and closed the door behind him, leaving Kat staring at her netbook.
Regarding your mother’s association with the Cult o…
She eased the cursor to hover over the subject before noticing for the first time that the email had an attachment. The tiny mouse cursor sat there, balanced on top of the apostrophe in mother’s, and her resolve wavered for a moment.
Ancient history, she’d told Miguel, and she hadn’t been lying. Whatever her mother had done, it had been over for at least a decade. She’d been dead almost that long, and maybe proof of her misdeeds needed to die with her. Ignorance was bliss, wasn’t it?
Holding her breath, Kat clicked on the email.
From: [email protected] To: [email protected] Subject: Regarding your mother’s association with the Cult of Ariel I have information about the Gabriel family’s past and present involvement with the Cult of Ariel, and I’ll trade it for protection from the Southeast council. I’ll be in Mobile, Alabama tomorrow. Meet me at the USS Alabama at 10 AM. Bring Andrew Callaghan or Julio Mendoza.
Kat ignored the way her stomach flip-flopped and read the email a second time. No signature, no name.
Just the attachment which, judging by the extension, was an image. The virus scan seemed unbothered by it, but she still spent a few minutes double and triple checking before opening it.
When she did, she wished she hadn’t. Her mother’s face stared up at her, but not the mother she’d known. This woman couldn’t be any older than twenty-five—not so long after Kat had been born. But it wasn’t her mother’s youth that made dread curl in Kat’s gut—it was the wide, crazy grin and the way her hands gripped an automatic weapon.
So much for the waffles.
Kat stormed the Southeast council’s newly acquired headquarters armed with a laptop, a printout of the offending email, and all of her arguments carefully marshaled. Then she went in search of Miguel’s brother.
When she knocked, an unintelligible shout from inside beckoned her. She found Julio stirring a big pot of something on the industrial range, and he waved her over as she walked into the kitchen. “I guess those wards Mari put up work. Unless…” He eyed her as he wiped his hands on a towel. “You’re not here to kill me, are you?”
She flinched, and hated herself for it. Julio was joking. He wasn’t afraid of her—sometimes she thought the damn man wasn’t afraid of anyone—and even knowing it in her bones, with the confidence only empathy could bring…she flinched. If she closed her eyes, she might see the office, echoes of the nightmare that still woke her in a cold sweat. Walls painted in blood, wolves howling in challenge-“You hungry? I got a head start on lunch.”
Kat dragged in an unsteady breath and used Julio’s confidence to ground herself. He wasn’t afraid of her, and the easy strength that surrounded him was better than a warm blanket for a jumpy empath. “No, I was force-fed waffles before I left the apartment.”
He laughed. “I know my brother was there, but I’m guessing he wasn’t the one who made breakfast.”
Of course he knew. Kat had rolled from her bed into the shower, but one shower wouldn’t be enough to erase Miguel’s scent from her skin, not when he’d spent the night hogging more than half of the bed. Kat felt her cheeks heat and compensated by dropping her laptop bag onto the wide island in the kitchen. “He kept me and Sera company last night and didn’t want to drive home.”
One dark eyebrow shot up. “Tell the truth—he didn’t want to go home, full stop.”
Kat eased her laptop out of its case and shrugged. “You know Miguel. He’s not all that interested in the shapeshifter new world order.”
“That’s putting it mildly. Joke’s on him, though, because I was here all night.” Julio slid onto a stool and propped his elbows on the countertop. “What’s up?”
She’d thought of all of the arguments to convince him to help, but the one thing she hadn’t considered was where to begin. “You know my parents died a while ago, right? My parents and my aunt and uncle, all at the same time.”
“Andrew told me about it, yeah. He said that’s how Derek ended up taking care of you.”
Andrew’s name shouldn’t make her heart twist, not after this long. “Derek came down to New Orleans when his parents died, because I was already living here. With his parents, I mean. My mother…” There was no good way to put it, though her father had always tried. Your mother’s not feeling so great right now, munchkin. “My mom was a little nuts.”
He was too polite to let his sympathy show, but she felt it all the same. “I think we’ve all had a bit of experience with that, but something tells me you’re speaking literally.”
“Psychic cults.” The outside zipper of her laptop bag held the printout of the email and the photo. She dragged the folded stack of papers out and fiddled with the edge. “Sometimes when I can’t sleep I poke around, see if I can find out what really happened. No one’s ever replied before.”
He rubbed his jaw. “I’ve heard of some. Anyone who’s tuned in to the psychic community has.”
Damn, she’d forgotten that Julio was psychic. Again. Miguel’s telepathy was powerful, almost as strong as her own empathy, but Julio was a precog, and one whose gifts seemed more prone to evidence themselves in hunches than Technicolor visions. It was easy to forget he was anything more than a shapeshifter.
Of course, it might make him doubly useful now. She unfolded the paper, and handed him the email and printed photo without comment.
“Cult of Ariel,” he read aloud. “Your mom?”
“Yeah.” She reached out and touched the edge of the picture. “She cut all of her hair off when I was ten and kept it short the rest of her life, so this must have been before that.”
“And this contact says he has information.” Julio flipped through the photos and the rest of the papers.
“Do you know who this person is? Anything?”
“Nothing concrete yet. But I should know in a few hours.” Hopefully no one would ask how many laws she’d broken or asked others to break to get the information. “I know you wouldn’t want to walk into it blind, but if I figure out who it is…” Please, Julio.
“Not asking for myself, ’cause I’m not going. But you shouldn’t walk into it blind, either.”
It took her a moment too long to understand what he’d said. “Julio, please. I can’t ask Andrew. We’re not—” What, Kat? Friends? “He wouldn’t do it anyway.”
“Can’t ask Andrew what?”
Julio had to have known. He would have heard Andrew’s footsteps, would have caught his scent.
Would have seen him, for Christ’s sake, which meant the bastard had set her up.
Kat pivoted and promptly forgot she needed oxygen.
She avoided Andrew as a general rule, and over the past year he’d seemed happy enough to return the favor. It was supposed to make dealing with him easier.
Instead, she felt like she’d taken a roundhouse kick to the gut. Sometime in the past month, Andrew had lost his razor. The reddish-blond beard made him look older. More intimidating. Not that he needed it-he was the tallest man she knew and looked like he’d been carved out of stone. The gun tucked into the shoulder holster was overkill.
Andrew Callaghan looked like he’d stepped out of an action movie, and her sluggish libido that felt so stunted around other men began to stir.
God, she hated him.
He had his arms draped across his chest and his hard green gaze fixed firmly on her. Waiting for an answer, so she provided one. “I can’t ask you to take a road trip with me.”
He studied her, his expression inscrutable. “Where are you going?”
“Maybe nowhere.” She deliberately turned her back on him and fixed Julio with what she hoped was a nasty glare. “Why not?”
He met her glare with a bland look. “Because I’m busy. Gotta hold down the fort while Carmen and Alec are in New York, dealing with the rest of the Conclave.”
It was a bullshit excuse. Andrew and Julio shared the same damn job, keeping the world running while Alec and his wife danced circles around the Conclave who led the wolves. If Andrew could take a few days off, Julio could too.
Unless he didn’t want to.
Kat held out her hand. “Can I have my papers back, then?”
He turned them over readily. “You gonna do what the email says? If I can’t go, that leaves Andrew.”
Yes, it left the man who stepped out of the doorway and plucked the papers from her hand. “What’s all this about, Kat?”
The human she’d known wouldn’t have waltzed into a conversation and seized control of it. He wouldn’t have assumed he had a right to know her plans. She’d avoided Andrew so successfully since he’d become a wolf that she had no idea who he was anymore.
Maybe it was only fair. The Kat he’d known wouldn’t have snatched the papers back, but she had no trouble doing it. “Someone has information I need, but they won’t give it to me unless I bring one of you along. They want protection from the Southeast council.”
Something flashed in his eyes—a bit of frustration, maybe anger. “The council protects those who need it. This person wouldn’t be trying to buy that protection unless he knew he couldn’t reasonably ask for it.”
She wanted to disagree, but how could she with the world cult plastered all over every page? “Yeah.
He or she might not be a stand-up guy. That’s why I’ve got a friend tracking them down.”
Andrew rubbed the heel of his hand over his forehead, a gesture she recognized as one that meant he was thinking hard. Considering all the possibilities. “When do you want to leave?”
Just like that. No questions, no conditions. They’d barely spoken in a year, and the bastard was ready to climb in a car and drive across three states on what was, in all probability, a wild goose chase.
God, she wanted to hate him.
Sometimes, Kat was impossible.
They’d already passed Biloxi and she still hadn’t spoken to him, so Andrew took the next exit off I-10 and pulled over at a service station. “Can we talk now?”
“Sure.” She typed a few more words and closed the lid of the tiny laptop balanced on her legs. “My friend wants to know if there’s anything in particular you want him to track down about this lady we’re meeting.”
“I’m not talking about that.” He squinted against the glare of the morning sun and sighed. “Does your cousin know you’ve been turning over rocks, trying to find information on your mom?”
“Derek’s busy being married. And I’m not seventeen anymore. I don’t need his permission.”
“It isn’t about permission. It’s about someone having your back.”
Kat turned away and stared out the window, though there wasn’t much to look at beyond the whitewashed gas station wall. “He practically lives in Wyoming now. Even if he knew about this, there’s not much he can do from there.”
Not much, except help her find a way to navigate the psychological and emotional minefield she was tap dancing on. “Are you sure you want it? Whatever information this contact might have?”
“No, I’m pretty sure I don’t want it. I’m also almost completely sure I need it.” Her voice held a rough edge. “There’s something damn scary inside me, Andrew. You of all people know that.”
His hands twitched into fists on the wheel before he could stop them, a reaction to the flashes of memory that punched him in the gut when he thought about that night.
They’d come for Kat, and he’d tried to stop them. Tried, in his own weak, ineffectual way, and they’d nearly killed him. So Kat had opened herself to darkness to save his life, and it had nearly cost her her sanity.
She stiffened and flashed him a guilty look. “Shit, I’m sorry. That wasn’t—that has to be even worse for you. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“What happened with the strike team wasn’t your fault.” It was mine.
“It’s not—” She sighed. “I don’t want to play the shapeshifter blame game. You guys spend so much time fighting each other over who gets to be the biggest martyr. Isn’t it exhausting?”
If only that knee-jerk alpha reaction was the only reason he claimed responsibility for that night. “It’s like a marathon that never stops. Now, tell me about this woman.”
“Peace Kristoffersen.” Kat popped the computer back open and lifted one hand to shade the screen from the early-morning sun. “Forty-three, born in Seattle. Her parents dropped off the grid when she was five. Resurfaced in rural Alabama. From there it gets a lot less pretty.”
“I guess. A lot of DHR reports, but I haven’t read them all. That’s most everything until she got a GED when she was twenty-four and went to college. Nothing to say if she’s a psychic or spell caster or what, but that just means if she is one of us, she was smart about hiding it.”
He glanced over as he started the car again. “What’s DHR? Like child services?”
“Yeah. I don’t know how much of use is in there.” She still wasn’t looking at him, though now her body language seemed more nervous than hostile. “Usually I could dig this stuff up on my own, but it’s not as fast as some people think. So I called a friend. He said he could send anything you want, up to her bank records or last dentist’s appointment.”
Having the wrong person digging around like that could spell disaster. One bad move could draw the kind of attention no one wanted. “So she’s involved—or has been—with this cult.”
“I guess. Some of the reports make it sound like there was some crazy backwoods militia stuff going on, but I don’t know what my mom would be doing running with a cult in Alabama. Maybe the growing-up stuff was the normal human variety of crazy and this lady got mixed up with the psychics later.”
She needed to hear what this contact had to say, but she also had to prepare herself for what was to come. “It could be bullshit, you know,” he murmured. “A wild goose chase.”
“I know. It could be bullshit, or she could be crazy. I could be crazy for wasting your time.”
The sadness in her voice made his chest ache, and he regretted his harsh words. “I’m sorry. I just don’t want to see you disappointed.”
If anything, sadness sharpened. “Disappointment’s not the end of the world.”
Plenty of people lived through that and worse every day, but it didn’t ease the pain she’d feel—or the way his own traitorous instincts would react to it. “We’ve got time to stop and eat if you want.”
“If you’re hungry. I’m fine.” She eased the netbook closed and set it on the floor between her feet before rubbing her hands against her jeans. “This is all kind of spectacularly awkward. I’m sorry you got stuck with it.”