Then she sat up, and remembered what it felt like to want.
Andrew was doing pushups. Shirtless. The muscles in his shoulders and back flexed with every effortless movement, which made the tattoo on his back flex right along with them. Thick black ink cut across tanned skin in a style she recognized all too easily. One of the Ink Shrink’s creations, an intricate phoenix with a vaguely tribal feel, so large the bird’s wings spanned Andrew’s back and curled around his shoulders.
The Ink Shrink wasn’t always subtle, either.
“Almost done,” he said without looking up. Two more pushups and he rocked back on his knees, stretching his arms. “Feel better?”
He had a tattoo on his arm too, and finding it fascinating kept her from dwelling on his chest. “Uhm, I feel less drunk. More like I got shot.”
“Stiff and sore?”
Yeah. Those were two very important things to remember, especially if Andrew was going to stay half-naked. “Pretty much. And I should have taken my shirt off last night, I think. There’s blood on it. I could use a shower.”
“Bath,” he corrected. “And keep that arm dry.”
She hadn’t brought a change of clothes, and the bathtub looked so questionable she opted to do the best she could with a towel and some warm water. The grimy mirror reflected an unpleasant picture—pale skin, tangled hair, bruised-looking eyes. She did her best to avoid her own reflection as she washed, then dragged her fingers through her shaggy hair and gathered the mess up on top of her head.
Trying to rinse her shirt in the sink proved pointless, and the effort just made her left arm burn. She abandoned the garment in the garbage can and pulled on the closest thing to a shirt that she had—a black hoodie with the word meh emblazoned across the front in all its apathetic glory.
Meh pretty much covered it. She eased the sweatshirt on over her bra and zipped it up as she returned to the main room. “I really need to buy some clothes.”
He rose and passed her on his way to the small bathroom. “We’ll take care of that as soon as we figure out—” His words cut off in a curse.
Kat jumped and regretted it. “What?”
He backed out of the bathroom and turned, his eyes shadowed. “You left your stuff all over.”
“My T-shirt? Why would it…” Shit. Sera was addicted to one of the thousands of procedural crime shows that cluttered the airwaves every Wednesday, which made Kat a captive audience. “You mean I need to clean up the evidence?”
Andrew averted his gaze. “More like it’s a damn hard thing to look at.”
“Oh.” He’d been acting so restrained that she’d forgotten the main reason alpha shifters drove her insane—the stifling, oppressive protectiveness. Even Sera, the most submissive shifter Kat had ever met, got downright testy when she thought her human roommate was in danger. The fact that Andrew hadn’t dragged her into the bathroom to bathe her himself probably evidenced the kind of self-control people gave medals for.
Against her better judgment she reached out and touched Andrew’s shoulder. His skin was hot under her fingertips, and she traced the swooping whorl of one of the phoenix’s stylized feathers before she could stop herself. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Kat.” He tensed, and his voice dropped to a rasp.
“Sorry.” She leaned into him, pressing her forehead to his shoulder as she snuck her good arm around him in an awkward hug. “Thank you. For not flipping out and getting neurotic bossy alpha on me. But if there’s something I can do that’ll make it easier, you can ask.”
He smoothed her hair. “Help me figure out what comes next.”
No commands. No plan, already outlined and fixed into place. She swallowed hard and held him tighter. “My technopathic friend lives in Birmingham. If we need to keep off the grid, he’s the guy to see. I think it’s farther than going back home, but he could probably figure out where this key belongs.”
“The harder we are to track without magic, the better. Hell, the harder we are to track with it.”
“I can email Ben before we leave. He could have IDs and credit cards for us by the time we got there.”
Which would mean a real hotel, with a bath she wasn’t afraid to climb into and sheets she’d let touch her body. “Ben will know the local magical community too.”
“Good. We might need that.”
Kat didn’t want to ask the next question, but she had to. “My life’s boring right now, but you have things to do. Important things. Do you need to—” Both his eyebrows shot up. “Are you about to say what I think you’re about to say?”
Stepping back gave her space. “Someone should say it.”
“Does someone also want her cousin to find out she got shot before she gets what she came here for?”
Not so reasonable after all, then. Kat could read between the lines. Andrew would let her pursue any leads she felt the need to, as long as he got to watch her back. “That’s a little bit like blackmail.”
“It’s a little bit like self-preservation,” he argued. “I don’t want Derek to murder me.”
Whatever the reason, she didn’t have to do it alone. “So we go to Birmingham?”
“We go to Birmingham.” He backed toward the bathroom. “I’ll clean up in here. You get on the line with what’s-his-name.”
“Ben.” Kat reached out and caught Andrew’s hand, and damnable butterflies fluttered to life in her stomach at the simple touch. “Thanks. Even if you’re only doing it for Derek.”
He looked down at her, his mouth set in a firm line. “I’m doing it for you. I’m just not above blaming Derek.”
She couldn’t look away. “It means a lot. More.”
He pulled away with a quick nod. “Shouldn’t take more than four hours or so to get there. We’ll hit 65 and head north.”
“Got it.” Kat checked her wrist out of instinct before she remembered she’d lent her watch to Sera twenty-four very long hours ago. She circled the bed on the way to her bag and caught a glimpse of the cheap bedside clock. Bright red numbers informed her it was just after six in the morning.
Way too early. If she knew Ben, he’d only fallen into bed a few hours ago. She’d never actually called him before—she’d never needed to, considering how much easier it was to use voice-chat—but his number was stored in her address book along with the numbers to every takeout restaurant within ten miles of her apartment.
She dug her phone out of her bag and plugged it in to charge before calling Ben. After four rings, she was directed to his voicemail.
Sorry, Ben. She left a brief message, then began the systematic process of annoying him awake with a series of text messages. The first was her phone number, followed by a string of abrupt notes typed as fast as she could manage.
Coming to town.
I thought you always answer text messages.
Even if your phone is on vibrate.
Or if you’re asleep.
Wake up, lazy ass. Or I’ll stop using punctuation.
BTW, I’m stuck in a crappy motel room.
She was seriously considering a few messages filled with creative obscenities—or offenses against the English language—when “The Ride of the Valkyries” filled the room. Kat jabbed at her phone to answer the call. “Ben?”
“You got shot? What the fuck?” Ben’s voice was groggy with sleep, but familiar enough from long hours of gaming to bring the stark absurdity of her present circumstances into sharp focus. The residual warmth from her quiet moment with Andrew faded, leaving her cold and scared as she outlined the story to Ben.
Just as well. A little fear was probably appropriate for her first foray into fake identities. And if she concentrated on that, she wouldn’t have to dwell on why she needed one, or who might be out to get her.
They hit Montgomery right at rush hour, so Andrew circled the city to avoid traffic. The rest of the drive to Birmingham went smoothly, though it took forever to park.
“That’s it,” he told Kat as he opened her door. “The Watts building.”
The sun was bright overhead, but the air still held a cold bite. Kat shivered and pulled up the hood on her sweatshirt as she stepped onto the curb. “He’s on the fourteenth floor.”
She started to lift her bag onto her uninjured shoulder, but Andrew took it from her. Let her get pissed off about it if she wanted. “Up there, almost at the top. That’s where the condos are.”
She only nodded and studied the building. “Looks posh. Ben’s a hotshot software designer, though, so I guess he can afford it.”
“Maybe not as expensive as you think. Stuff like this in Birmingham is a lot more reasonable than in New Orleans.” Her friend had probably managed to pick up this place for half what Andrew himself had paid for his old condo on South Peters.
“Yeah?” She reached the door and tugged it open. “I forget you’re the real estate smartie. Maybe when this is all over you can help me find a place, one Sera can afford too. I keep telling her she doesn’t have to pay rent since she actually cooks and cleans, and I wasn’t so great at that, but she’s pretty stubborn about it.”
“It can’t make her feel very independent, not paying rent or anything.”
Kat’s eyes shadowed. “I know. I keep telling myself not to say anything, but then I see her mending her work clothes because she can’t afford to replace them. I feel how worried she is, and I have money.”
The fact that Kat had the money to spare wouldn’t be any easier on Sera’s pride than if they’d both been scraping by. In fact, it robbed their situation of the camaraderie it could have had. “She needs to do it on her own as much as she can. I can respect that.”
Kat’s boots scuffed the lobby floor as she crossed to the gilded elevator and jabbed her finger at the button. “Her ex-husband makes me glad all the controlling bastards in my life have always meant well. I used to say it didn’t make much difference, but I was really, really wrong.”
“Yeah.” His own limited experience with alpha bastards—knowing them and being one—had taught him that. “There’s no avoiding instinct.” Then he proved it when the elevator door slid open and he urged her inside with a hand at the small of her back. “Sorry.”
Her gaze caught his for a moment and then skipped away. “Just don’t get protective and weird because of Ben. Or his girlfriend, since she’s probably more dangerous than he is. She’s some sort of priestess.
Pretty sure she can smite people, though she probably wouldn’t do it in downtown Birmingham.”
He forced a smile. “Now why would she smite me?”
Kat’s expression stayed deadly serious. “Because I’m hurt, and Ben’s a stranger to you. And you are an alpha bastard, no matter how hard you’re choking it down. I don’t want anything to explode.”
“Least of all me?”
Her hand snuck into his. “I’d be sad if you got smited. Smote? What’s the past tense?”
Smitten. He squeezed her fingers. “Don’t know. You’d better Google it.”
Because she was Kat, she shook her hand free, pulled out her phone, and did just that. She was still muttering under her breath when the elevator doors slid open, and she stepped forward without looking up. “Fourteen-C.”
“Got it.” The hallway was clear and the door solidly closed, so Andrew knocked.
Kat laughed her triumph just as the door opened. “Smite, smote, smitten!”
The pretty brunette on the other side of the door tilted her head. “You pretty much have to be Kat, which makes you Andrew. Come on in, Ben’s finishing up in his office.”
The front room of the condo was packed with expensive electronics. A longsword that looked like it had seen some use stood propped in the corner, and it drew Andrew’s eye. “Nice sword.”
The woman gathered her hair up into a ponytail and rolled her eyes. “His brother’s,” she said in a voice that made her disapproval clear. She picked up a badge and clipped it onto her scrubs, then braced both hands on her hips. “Now, Kat. Ben told me you’re hurt. Do you mind if I take a look?”
Kat glanced at Andrew, a quiet question in her eyes, and he swallowed the protest that rose automatically. “Bathroom?” At least if there were windows, they’d be covered, with no easy visual access from someone perched on a neighboring roof.
“All right.” Kat slipped her bag from her shoulder and held it out. “Admiring the weapons should keep you entertained until Ben comes out.”
He took the bag, and she disappeared with the brunette, leaving him alone in the room. Aside from the sword, he found two guns, a taser, a collection of knives, and a scuffed set of brass knuckles.
Soft footsteps warned him before the loft’s owner appeared. Ben proved to be a lanky redhead with a neatly trimmed beard and sharply intelligent eyes. His gaze fell on the brass knuckles, and he grinned.
“My brother keeps some of his shit here.”
“So your girlfriend said.” He held out his hand. “I’m Andrew.”
“Ben. I take it Lia dragged Kat off to look at her arm?”
“Yeah. She’s wearing scrubs. Is she a doctor?”
“She’s a chief resident at UAB.” Ben jerked his head toward a smooth wooden table. “But she’s also an acolyte of Panacea. They’re a healing order of spell casters, and she’s good.”
“Couldn’t ask for better credentials, I guess.”
“Kat’ll be fine.” Ben dropped a folder to the table. “So, she finally jumped your bones, huh? Took her long enough.”
The last thing he wanted to deal with was five minutes of stammering apology or, worse, Kat killing the guy. “Yeah. Your brother’s really into weaponry, huh? What’s he do?”
“Bounty hunter, kind of. Takes care of dangerous witches and the occasional rabid beast. He’s over in Georgia, tracking down a rogue shifter who’s been causing trouble.”
Andrew was surprised he hadn’t run across him yet, since he sounded like exactly the kind of person Alec and Jackson would know. “What about you? Kat said you design software.”
“Mmm.” Ben slipped into a chair and flipped open the folder. “Not as cool as my monster-chasing big brother, but at least I can talk about my job at parties. Well, my day job.” He pulled out a piece of paper with a driver’s license and a credit card paper-clipped to the top. “This one, not so much.”
It looked like solid work, just from the glimpse he’d gotten. “Will the license records check out, or are they just for show?”
“Oh, they’ll check out. You’re Andy Normanson. Construction foreman from California. Kat picked the job and place, relevant details are attached.” He pulled out a second set of IDs, these with Kat’s photo attached. “Kate Normanson. Congratulations on your recent elopement. Elvis officiated.”
Andrew studied the dossiers. Similar backgrounds to their own, similar first names. “You do good work.”
“Sure, and I do it real quiet, just like Kat with her brain-scooping lie-detector thing.” Ben’s eyes narrowed. “Psychics are the underdogs of the supernatural world. We have a habit of disappearing down rabbit holes if we prove too useful.”