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Claimed by Fate: An Alpha Shifter Romance by Amaryllis Lanza – Sample

Chapter One: Old Acquaintance Best Forgot


It was one of the worst days of my life and the sticky, damp heat of Florida wasn’t helping. I felt it boiling me from the inside out, even after I crossed the barrier of thorny bougainvillea that grew like a wild wall around Everlasting Springs, separating it from the ordinary world. The hammock trees and royal poincianas offered shade, but they didn’t lessen the steam in the air at noon, even in October. The sight of the man who sat on the steps of my late Aunt Clara’s house only made things worse. The expression on his face—a raw blend of hatred and desire—caused my stomach to clench and made me wish I didn’t have to be back in this damned place.

My driver was still a little disoriented. Having helped me with my luggage, he was unsure how he’d gotten there or how to get back where he belonged. The lost town of Everlasting Springs did that to outsiders. He saw the growling man too, and got back behind the wheel of his taxi, though he didn’t start the engine. Instead, the little man grabbed a roadmap from his glove box, as if that would do him any good. He’d find his way out again, eventually. The town didn’t really welcome strangers for long.

“Go back, Amalia,” Paul roared. He didn’t budge from his perch at the entrance of my home. “Right this minute. Get the fuck out of here.”

“Fuck you, Paul,” I said. “I’m not in the mood for this shit right now.”

He stood up, all of him, still taller and wider than any ordinary man needed to be, a wall of tense, bulging muscle that cast a shadow on anyone standing too near.

“I did not go through hell over the past ten years just so you could come back and ruin everything, Amalia Ruíz,” he insisted. “You’ll get back in that taxi, right this minute, if you know what’s good for you. You got out. You should never have come back.”

I’d been traveling for four hours, one of them spent helping the taxi driver find the correct road to the right gap in the bougainvillea wall which surrounded Everlasting. I was tired to the bone.

“It’s not your business or your problem, anymore, Paul,” I said. “I’ve got a promise to keep and nowhere better to be.”

“Is it money?” he asked. “If it’s money, I’ll buy this house from you right now and the store too. I’ll give you half a million for both. That should be enough to see you settled.”

“I gave Clara my word, Paul!”

I couldn’t help my eyes tearing up. Clara, my aunt, was the last member of my broken, fucked-up family. Now she was dead too. She’d given me so much and only ever asked me for one thing: that I’d take over Circle Books when the time came. Days before I got the call from her attorney in St. Augustine, I’d received a postcard from her, sent from Toulouse, reminding me that I’d promised to return.

She knew.

Somehow, she knew she was going to die. I had to find out why. I had to figure out who had killed the smartest, toughest, kindest, most beautiful woman I’d ever known.

Paul didn’t get a say in that. He’d given up his right to have a say in anything when he’d broken my heart.

He came right up to me, so close that his broad, heaving chest was right in my face. Then he grabbed me around the waist, carrying me like a sack of dirty laundry back to the steps where he tossed me over his lap and began swatting my ass mercilessly. “You will do as I say, Amalia!”

“Stop it!” I kicked back with all my strength each time his punishing palm struck my backside like a concrete block. He adjusted, locking my legs between his, and all I could do was weep and howl. The taxi driver, still trying to figure out where he was, was getting quite a show. As were the neighbors, no doubt, peeking through their Venetian blinds.

“You will get back in that taxi, Amalia, now. Or you will regret it,” Paul growled during a brief pause in my spanking. My ass was throbbing keenly. I could barely focus on his voice. It wouldn’t have made a difference, though. I had made up my mind and no amount of punishment Paul could dole out was going to change it.

“You have no right, Paul!” I cried. “You stop right this minute, or else.”

“Or else, what?” he asked, putting emphasis on the ‘what’ with another hard smack against the back of my thigh, the searing sting radiating up my leg.

“I’ll make you regret this,” I said, through tears, but the threat was weak.

Paul was one of the most powerful men in Everlasting Springs, owner of Everlasting Construction, Transport and Logistics, with friends in the police, the courthouse, the mayor’s office, and even the fucking fire department. So I had little leverage to use against him, except the thing I’d promised myself I’d never exploit again. What I could feel even then, jutting against me as I laid across his lap, was, ironically, my best hope at thwarting him. Paul had a hard-on the size of an oak, and he needed somewhere to put it. And I knew he wanted to put it in me.

“I already regret it,” Paul said, stroking the backside he’d just set ablaze. Even his caresses stung. “I regret everything, Amalia. But regret won’t do either of us any good. If you stay, we’ll only have more reason to be sorry. I’ll have to claim you. If you don’t hate me enough by now, you will when I do. Once that happens, Sunshine, you can’t leave.”

“Don’t call me that!” The old term of affection burned me more than his hard hand.

“Sunshine?” he asked, as if he didn’t know. His palm squeezed my ass, deepening the ache even through my well-worn jeans. “You’ll always be my Sunshine, but you’ll only be free if you leave. Will you go, baby?”

“I can’t! You know I can’t!”

“Well, then, we’re both fucked, Sunshine.” Paul finally sat me up on the log of his thigh. It hurt to sit there, and not just my ass. I could see his golden honey eyes alight, and I knew what that meant. It was the connection between us, as inevitable as a hurricane, and just as deadly. “You have until the full moon to arrange your business. I suggest you get busy.”

“When the hell is that?” I asked.

Because who has the phases of the moon memorized, anyway? Well, besides someone like Paul.

“Tuesday, midnight,” he said. “You will join me at our gazebo in the park.”

“I will do no such thing!” I didn’t like Paul’s friends’ nighttime parties—from what I remembered of them. They usually got rowdy and rough. In fact, I wasn’t supposed to go to them at all, as Paul had made painfully clear the last time I’d seen him, the night he’d told me to pack my bag, making me think we were finally going to run away together. Instead, he’d left me alone at the SCAT bus stop on Cocoa Beach, with five thousand dollars and an angry warning never to return to Everlasting Springs.

Paul gripped me by the chin, bringing his face right up to mine, his breath hot as he snarled. “If you don’t come to the park, on your own, I’ll come get you. Believe me, Sunshine, it will hurt a hell of a lot more if I have to do that.”

“I hate you,” I murmured, my vision blurring with tears so that he looked like he was underwater.

“Well, we’re even,” he said. “But I’m still going to take you. You’ve left me no choice.”

Then he turned and walked over to the taxi driver, who had been peeking at us over his road map all the while. Paul gave the small man instructions.

“Turn right two blocks, turn right three blocks, turn right one block, go left and don’t look back.” It was the only way out.

The taxi driver crumpled his map, bobbed his head, started his engine, then sped off.

The man was lucky Paul gave him the courtesy of that information. Like I said, Everlasting Springs doesn’t welcome strangers, but it does have a use for them.

Paul left shortly after the taxi driver, without another word to me. We had nothing left to say to each other. I was going to stay, and he was going to hurt me.

I got the key out from under the ceramic frog on the stoop, and stepped into Aunt Clara’s house where the air conditioning was still going full blast. That was something I could be thankful for, anyway. My aunt had hated the humid heat of Florida as much as I did. While October was mild by comparison to most of the year, it had been a sunny day and I was overheated and sweating. Of course, Paul had something to do with that too.

Damn him.

Walking back inside the house where I grew up, knowing I wouldn’t find Clara sitting out on the lanai sipping her sun tea only intensified my heartache. I left my luggage by the door to be dealt with later and headed for the back of the house. She’d kept everything as it always had been, for the most part, a comfortable, homey retro-chic in shades of blue, yellow, and green. The television in the sunroom was now a flat-screen and the fridge in the kitchen was a new unit with a built-in icemaker. Both probably came from Paul. Nobody else could bring modern appliances—or anything else from the normal world—into town. There was still no internet. My cell phone couldn’t get a signal, though radios and walkie-talkies still worked within our boundaries. The TV antenna on the roof could only get the same three TV channels, as always, but Clara had also bought a DVD player from Paul’s crew. There was a collection of DVDs in the wall unit which she probably gathered while going out into the wild, wild world on her various book-hunting missions.

Everlasting Springs was cursed, every bit as much as I was. It was a place lost in time, a twisted version of Mayberry—a show which still played on Channel 6. There were only three channels the antenna could get, like I said, but for some reason they were Channel 4, Channel 6, and Channel 10. Local news came on all three at five, three different news teams offering three different perspectives on the same small-town events. They all worked in the same building. National news was limited, and international news was unheard of. Our weather updates were pretty accurate, but they had little to do with the weather outside our boundaries.

Nobody in town really cared what went on outside of our little world, anyway, except for Clara. She always paid Paul’s men extra to bring back copies of the Orlando Sentinel, The Washington Post, El País, Figaro, Time Magazine, and National Geographic. She offered these copies for free to her customers, to enjoy with their coffee at Circle Books, but few people ever took her up on it. They went there for gossip and for her used and rare book collection. Despite the wide variety of titles, the westerns, mysteries, and romances sold best.

I went to Clara’s desk in the Florida room looking for answers. Something Clara had brought back from her trips abroad had led to her murder, I suspected. Everyone in town liked her, for the most part. She could be gruff if provoked, and she didn’t suffer fools, but she was loyal and always willing to help if you were really in trouble. Paul should have helped her. I suspected he must know something about why she died, but with his odd and hostile greeting I didn’t really get a chance to ask.

Fuck him, anyway.

I checked the desk calendar and confirmed what Paul had said. The full moon was five days away—next Tuesday. Well, I had no plans to show up at the park at midnight. If Paul wanted to come get me, I’d be ready for him.

I’d grown up a lot over the past ten years. I wasn’t the same stupid teenager he’d once called ‘jailbait’ and just dumped on the streets without an explanation. I might be small, especially compared to him, but I’d learned to fight, in my own way. If Paul Arrow thought he could get under my skin, he was very much mistaken. Sure, he could spank me, he could physically overpower me, but I had grown claws while I was away.

Anyway, the only clue into my aunt’s death I had to go on was a coded note in Clara’s journal, entered on the page for July 7—my birthday. That made me suspect she had left the note for me to find. Clara didn’t really respect the dates on her journal. She wrote her notes at random on whatever space was available, continuing a long entry into the next few days ahead and then following other entries on the next blank page, whatever day it might be. She didn’t like to leave pages blank, but there was a gap between June 30 and July 7, and another gap between July 7 and August 1. She’d definitely meant for that note to stand out.

It was a warning about La Asamblea Crisol, a secret branch of the Spanish Inquisition, which was still around and committed to keeping the denizens of Everlasting Springs stuck there like prehistoric mosquitoes trapped in amber. The story was that they had cursed the place more than four centuries ago, drawing all sorts of creatures here, then dooming them to be easily overlooked and forgotten, living in a timeline which moved as slow as cold molasses. The town caught up with the outside world only because of Paul’s crew and what remained of my family. Which was only me, now.

Why didn’t Paul want me to continue her work?

We had been allies, once. Friends. Almost lovers. All of it had shattered to pieces—along with my heart—when Paul tricked me. Clara still worked with Paul because he was an important link in the community. She told me he had his reasons for what he did to me, but when I asked her whether they were good reasons, she’d said, “Only to him.”

We pretty much avoided the subject of Paul after that conversation. He had come up, from time to time, when she met me in St. Augustine to talk business and catch up, but only briefly. Each time I heard his name, it was like a fresh cut, and her going into details of what he was up to was more salt in the wound.

My aunt’s warning in her journal didn’t make much sense. Something about protecting a lost scroll, and something else about a ritual for the “blood moon.” I needed more information about that, but I wasn’t about to ask Paul about it. I hoped that once I made it in to Circle Books I might find the scroll she mentioned. Perhaps she’d recently come across it during one of her book hunting expeditions in Europe?

Clara could come and go freely because she was human, just like my mother. They had both been members of La Asamblea, but they had betrayed the ancient organization and settled in town. My mother had stayed because she met and fell in love with my father. My aunt loved her sister and had learned to mistrust her colleagues.

As the daughter of an original resident, on my father’s side, I was half-in and half-out, in terms of the power the curse had upon me. I had been mostly out, because of Paul. If not for my promise to Clara, I might have stayed that way.

But life outside of Everlasting Springs hadn’t been easy for me, and I’d never really managed to get too far. I didn’t really belong…anywhere. Part of my nature did belong here though, and the draw of the Everlasting triangle had increased of late.

In the end, Clara’s death had only accelerated the inevitable.

I couldn’t bear going into Clara’s room. I knew it would smell more like her than the rest of the house—gardenias and vellum, orange peel and cardamon. Her lingering scent only made me miss her more desperately. Seeing her things would make things worse, and moving into her room felt like a breach.

I had just come out of the shower and changed into a light sundress, after putting my things back in my old bedroom. The doorbell, playing the first few notes of Toreador from the opera Carmen, startled me. It had been Beethoven’s Fur Elise when I lived here. Paul had brought back the crazy combination of cuckoo wall clock and electronic door chime as a gift for my aunt from one of his supply runs. That was back when we were all friends, when Paul didn’t hate me—and I didn’t hate him. I wondered whether Clara had changed the chime the day after I’d left, or only recently.

I rubbed a towel over my head to get most of the water out of my hair, and ran a detangling comb through it, leaving my curls to find their own wayward way back to dry.

When I opened the door, I saw a familiar face which had only become more beautiful over the past ten years. Consuelo Vazquez had always been pretty, with her long, dark lashes framing gray eyes, her creamy skin and rosy pout, but she had matured into a fairy queen to rival Liv Tyler as Arwen Undómiel. She had been my best friend since we were both just barely able to walk. Yet, when I’d left Everlasting Springs, I’d left her too. You could write letters and send postcards back and forth, thanks to Paul’s crew filling in where the U.S. postal service had a curse-enforced memory gap. They retrieved incoming mail at a lockbox outside our borders and mailed out what they collected from our town’s post office with a return address for the lockbox. It wasn’t as much work as it sounded, though. Few people mailed anything to anyone outside because everyone they knew was in town. The phones didn’t really work either, except in town. You couldn’t call into Everlasting Springs from outside, because we’d never gotten an area code. It was just an oversight on the part of the phone company. They couldn’t find us to fix it, and nobody had bothered to complain about it. The local phones worked fine, through our town operator.

The residents of Everlasting Springs, who had no idea why their lives were like this, had zero interest in figuring out what went on beyond our borders. It was all part of the enchantment of the place, and not in a good way either. The magic behind the curse. Everlasting Springs was a Venus flytrap of a town. Even those with little magical blood in their veins got “stuck” once they were inside. They were forgotten…and they forgot. All that mattered to them was the circle, with its ample gazebo for town gatherings at the heart of the roundabout, and all the shops they might want or need in its perimeter. They lived in blissful ignorance within Everlasting’s triangle boundaries of water and bougainvillea.

“Consuelo?” I said, opening my arms to draw my friend into a hug. “It’s so good to see you again!”

Consuelo returned the embrace, and I felt a wave of wellbeing sweep over me, soothing the aches in my body and my soul. She really lived up to her name. If you ever felt hopeless or sad, Consuelo could console you with a gentle touch, and she was a very good listener.

“I’m so sorry about Clara,” Consuelo said. “But I’m also so happy to see you again.”

“Come in, tell me what you’ve been up to all these years.”

“Oh, I haven’t been up to anything, as usual,” Consuelo said, with a shy shrug. I was sure that wasn’t true, but Consuelo had never really liked making conversation about herself. Sometimes getting her to reveal what she was thinking and feeling was like pulling teeth. “I want to hear what you’ve done, though. We have a lot of catching up to do.”

“I’m afraid I don’t have much to offer you, Consuelo,” I said. “I haven’t been shopping yet.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” she said. “I came to get you because Mama has planned a whole welcome back thing at the Cozy.”

“Is there any way I could avoid going?” I knew the answer, even before Consuelo rolled her eyes, gave me a little smile, and shook her head.

Mrs. Chloe Vazquez always got what she wanted. People largely accepted that as an inevitable natural force, like gravity.

“Where were you all this time, Amalia?”

“I only ever made it as far as St. Augustine,” I told her. It was not for lack of trying, though. I had wanted to live like my Aunt Clara, exploring the world, but no matter what I did to get out of St. Augustine, something would always go wrong: a storm, car trouble, a broken-down bus. Once, I even got arrested for jaywalking on my way to catch the airport express. Eventually, I accepted my fate, as Clara suggested, and I settled there. Until now.

Suddenly, when I had to return to Everlasting, the travel corridor was open to me, leading in only one direction, of course, heading South only as far as the lost town.

“You went all that way?” Consuelo asked. Our maps were a bit out of date, and everything seemed infernally far to people. Nobody seemed to mind that either. Pretty much, if the town or city wasn’t featured on one of the television programs we got on our three channels, people didn’t even know about it. Many of them also thought places like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles were completely made up. The only place that felt believable to them was Mayberry, which was why that program was still really popular. But everyone knew St. Augustine because it was the first city in the U.S. It had been a Spanish settlement long before the curse of La Asamblea descended on us. There was the whole thing with the fountain, too, but that was a whole different mess.

“It’s not that far,” I told her. “Clara traveled much further.”

“But she always came back,” Consuelo said, and I couldn’t help hearing a little reprimand in her voice. I should have come back sooner. I shouldn’t have fought the urge to return for so long.

“I just couldn’t,” I said, but I wasn’t ready to explain everything that had happened over the past ten years to my friend. I was too tired to think about the mess I’d left behind in St. Augustine.

“I know,” she said, putting her hand gently on my forearm. “Don’t worry, but now you are back and Mama has the whole shindig planned. It’s going to be a wake slash welcome back party, I guess, which is a little twisted. I’m sorry. You know how she is.”

There weren’t words to describe Mrs. Vazquez but twisted came close. I hadn’t figured out just what the woman was, but she wasn’t really human. Still, her five daughters were all lovely. Consuelo was the eldest and she had helped her mother look after the others after their father died.

“I guess I should change, then?” I asked.

“No, you look beautiful in that dress,” Consuelo said. “Let’s just go so we can get through it. Then, we’ll come back and have a long chat.”

“I need to do some grocery shopping at some point,” I said. “Does Fosters Foods still close at seven on Fridays?”

“You don’t have to worry about that,” Consuelo said. “It’s all being taken care of for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“I promised I wouldn’t say.” Consuelo smiled. I gave her a hard look. “Okay, fine…the boys are taking care of everything for you while we go to the party.”

“The boys?”

“You know, the handymen,” she said, giggling.

She meant Paul’s crew, of course.

“First he doesn’t want me back and now he’s filling my fridge?” I grumbled.

“Paul’s a complicated guy,” Consuelo said. And that was more than the truth. She had no idea just how complicated he really was, but it wasn’t my place to tell her. “What makes you think he didn’t want you back, though?”

“He told me to leave,” I said. “He actually spanked me right out on the stoop because I wouldn’t go.”

Consuelo laughed. “You’re kidding, right?”

“I am not,” I said. “My butt is still sore.”

“Okay, we do have a lot to catch up on,” Consuelo said, still amused. “But first, let’s get this party out of the way or Mama is going to have a fit. Act surprised, okay? Like we were just going there for a soda, and…oh, look the whole town is there.”

“Really? She invited everyone? They don’t all fit in the Cozy Corner at one time.”

“Well, it’s just the main people, you know, and she’s got it organized into shifts,” Consuelo said.

Though we never talked about it openly—as if it was bad luck to call attention to it—the main people were to some degree or other magical folk: the wolves and other shifters, fae and nymphs, witches and warlocks, ancient deities and demigods. I’d even heard there was a vampire trapped somewhere in town, but I’d never seen him.

Everyone else who lived in Everlasting Springs had sort of wandered in at some point, maybe because they had a small drop of magic in their veins, or maybe they were just touched. That happened too, from time to time. We had people who were drawn here who had no obvious magic at all about them. Some of those people did seem to have the gift of sight though. Others might have been a little loopy but were largely harmless. It all made Everlasting Springs a colorful place. But it was still only a very charming trap. Now I had to meet with its captives as one of them again.

“I’ll be right there with you,” Consuelo assured me, reading the hesitation on my face. I had always been socially anxious and that had only gotten worse in recent years. Crowds made me nervous on my best days, and this was most assuredly not one of them. “Don’t worry. As soon as we can, we’ll sneak out and come back here.”

“I’m going to regret this,” I said, grabbing my handbag from the hook by the door and following her down my walkway to her yellow VW bug. It was my walkway now, not Clara’s. I thought about that on the way, concluding that no, that didn’t feel right either.

It wouldn’t feel right for a very long time. Maybe never.

Everlasting Springs evolved organically, protecting its secret and confounding strangers. The circle is not at the center of town, as you might think. In fact, it is near the long edge of the triangle, butting up against what we know as the Hasi river—you won’t find it on a map—a natural waterway at the westernmost limit of town. We have no access to the ocean, which was one of the things that most amazed me when I got to finally go out. We were so close to the beach and the vast body of saltwater beyond it—only a bridge away—but we might as well have been in the heart of Kansas. It seemed like a cruel punishment to deny the people of Everlasting Springs a chance to see the sea, but I suppose it is because the sea has its own magic.

The major roads of Everlasting Springs radiate out from the circle on the edge of town. All the other roads interconnect like the threads around a spider web, though some are broken up by the park and by the various canals that crisscross the town. The canals keep us mostly clear of floods even when the rains are heavy. Downtown Everlasting is really at the center of the far west. All the shops sit on wedges of an arc cut by the roads that shoot out from the circle.

The Cozy Corner is the town’s only diner and its most popular eatery. People go to Frank’s Ribs Bar and Grill, actually owned by a guy named Cliff Summers, La Esquinita Paz Cuban restaurant, Paco’s Pizza and Italian, and the Golden Lotus Chinese Restaurant, but not every day. Most people will come by the Corner for breakfast or lunch, even if they have their dinner elsewhere, and it’s the only place open all night, for those who need something to eat at odd hours. Chloe Vasquez serves everything you’d expect from a diner, and traditional Southern fare. Plus, she makes her own ice cream that is something out of this world—no matter which world you live in. She was annoyed when my aunt added a small coffee shop to Circle Books, but my aunt decided to only serve pastries and muffins from the Cozy Bakery, which Chloe also runs, and peace returned to the circle.

Some might have thought Frank’s was a better spot for a wake slash welcome back party. I would have thought so, anyway. At least there, you could get a drink. I sure felt like I needed one, or twenty, shots of tequila. From the moment I stepped through the double glass doors, I was accosted by the crowd gathered to give me their condolences and congratulations. I was ready to go after only five minutes, when Chloe Vasquez pulled me into one of her suffocating mama hugs which felt something like being caught in the rings of a boa constrictor. Chloe was a beautiful woman, almost delicate, like Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She didn’t look like she had that much strength. But, like I say, there was obviously something supernatural about her. I just hadn’t put my finger on what she was yet, though I had a theory. Maybe Clara had known, but if she did she never told me.

Despite her promise to stick by me, Consuelo and I were separated soon enough. I couldn’t even be mad at her. Her little sisters kept her busy, particularly the twins who were two mini typhoons of trouble. And I noticed she was distracted by Andrew Finn, our chief of the fire department. Those two were doing everything possible to track each other’s movements in the crowded diner while seeming not to notice each other. It was awkward.

But not quite as awkward as my situation.

I felt Paul even before I saw or heard him, in a way that separated him from all the other old lost acquaintances, some of whom I hadn’t thought about for ten years. He towered over most people in the room, and he emitted a sort of energy that made him terrifying on occasion, and sexy as fuck the rest of the time. But I had no business thinking about that.

I had been chatting with Mayor Flint about the upcoming autumn festival, or I should say he was chatting at me, encouraging me to continue Clara’s tradition of a midnight reading of The Raven from the gazebo in the circle.

“Yes, sure, I guess,” I told the man. “I don’t plan to change anything Clara did with the bookstore. It’s worked fine for over forty years. I’m not going to break it.”

He smiled at me, approving, through his pearly white brush mustache. Then he stuck his thumbs in the pockets of his seersucker suit, stood taller and began an oratory on the value of tradition.

“It is gratifying to see the younger generation value what Everlasting stands for—”

Then I felt a chill in my spine and a heat between my legs that alerted me to Paul standing behind me. He grabbed my hand and dragged me out of the Cozy Corner before Mayor Flint got to finish his speech.

“You can’t reopen the store,” Paul growled as soon as we were on the sidewalk, standing by the flower boxes full of the multicolor chrysanthemums that Chloe had planted.

“That’s the whole reason I came back,” I said, talking to his wall of a chest. He towered over me, and I didn’t want to look up at his eyes. “Of course I can reopen the store. I have to.”

Next thing I knew my feet weren’t on the ground anymore and I hung like a rag doll as Paul’s hands gripped my arms, lifting me to bring me even with his face. “You will not reopen the store.”

I kicked at his shins, not that it did much good because I was wearing espadrilles so it mostly hurt my toes, but it was the only thing I could think of to do. “Fuck you, Paul! You don’t get to boss me around. I’m not a child anymore and you have no say over me.”

“Stop kicking!” he boomed, putting me back down. He loomed over me, putting his sharp, pointy nose right up against mine. “I have a say in everything. Do you understand? I offered you an out and you refused it. Now, I have an obligation to monitor every moment of your life. You will not reopen that damned place!”

“Why?” I asked, my fists at my waist.

“Because I goddamned said so, that’s why.”

“I’ll do whatever the fuck I want, Paul.” I spat at his construction boots, and tried to walk around him back toward Ponce Boulevard to make my way home on foot. I knew I wasn’t going to get far, but that wouldn’t stop me from trying.

I got about six feet before one of those huge hands clamped around my arm again and the other landed a swat on my ass, my whole body buckling with the power of it, the sound echoing in the night like a gunshot.

The pain battled with the ache it produced between my legs. And the heat, so much heat—inside and out—melted me. Honey slipped from between my lower lips, soaking my panties with slick, sticky shame.

Another spank followed in short order. And another.

I choked on a whimper.

“I will break you, little girl,” he growled in my ear, raising goosebumps on my skin from my neck to my ankles. “I will bring you to your knees and make you beg me for mercy. But there will be none. I will mark you and I will hurt you and will fuck you in front of some of those fine people in there. That’s what it means to be my mate. That’s what you asked for, Sunshine. It’s what you always wanted. Now you’re going to get it.”

His menace vibrated in my womb, and something twisted in my nature, making me wish he would hurry. While my body craved all of that and more—violence and ache, passion and release—my mind could not let go of the truth.

He had torn us apart.

“I am not that girl!” I raged. “You killed her, Paul!”

And that’s when it happened, the thing I never knew was going to happen until it was too late for me to stop it. It started with a fire in my lower belly and built up to an earthquake in my head that threatened to crack my skull. An inhuman roar from my mouth followed, one that was usually sufficient to scare the shit out of any decent person around me.

Then my nails ached as they extended into claws, and my vision turned black and white and sharper than real life. And God help the person standing near me, who in this case happened to be Paul.

I slashed my claws across his chest, cutting ribbons in his forest green Everlasting Construction polo shirt, and drawing blood.

Usually, when it had happened before, the person offending me ran away at that point searching for the nearest madhouse.

But Paul didn’t budge.

Instead, he grabbed me by the neck, lifting me up again, his eyes alight, twin rings of fire, his snout and teeth extended. “Oh, bitch, you are more than ready for me,” he growled, his voice as deep and dark as the abyssal plain at the center of the Atlantic. “But you’ll just have to wait.” He dragged his long, wet tongue over my face, then dropped me to the concrete, walking away.

My anger spurring me on, I ran the rest of the way home.

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