Wild About You (Love at Stake #13) by Kerrelyn Sparks
In the dim light of a cloud-shrouded moon, Shanna Draganesti cast a forlorn look at the flower beds she'd once tended with care. They'd become choked with weeds since her death.
To be honest, gardening had ranked low on her list of priorities for the past three months. She'd had bigger things to fret about, such as adjusting to a steady diet of blood when six years ago she would have fainted at the sight of it, and dealing with an increased amount of psychic power that made it too easy to hear people's thoughts whether she wanted to or not.
Practically overnight, she'd been expected to master all the vampire skills. Levitation? Downright scary to look down and see nothing beneath her feet. With no way to ground herself, she kept tipping over. Mental note: never wear a skirt to levitation practice.
And what about teleportation? She was terrified she'd materialize halfway into a tree or a rock. And why the heck couldn't she materialize ten pounds lighter? Her scientific genius of a husband couldn't answer that one. Roman had laughed, under the impression that she was kidding.
Then there were the fangs. They tended to pop out at inopportune times. Thankfully she couldn't see her scary new canine teeth in a mirror. Unfortunately she couldn't see herself, either. She'd nearly dropped her three-year-old daughter on the floor the first time she'd seen Sofia floating in a mirror, held by an invisible mother.
And that was the most difficult part of being a vampire. She was no longer the same mother she'd been before. Every scraped knee or bruised feeling her children experienced in daylight hours would be soothed away by someone else. Because during the day, she was dead.
She'd never fully appreciated what the other Vamps went through each day at sunrise. Death-sleep was easy enough, since you just lay there like a lump, but getting there was the pits. She had to die. Over and over, as the sun broke over the horizon, she experienced a burst of pain and a terrifying moment of panic. Roman assured her it would get easier in time when she learned to relax, but how could she remain calm when she was dying? What if she never woke again? What if she never saw her children or her husband again?
There was no comforting light in the distance, reaching out to her with the promise of a happy afterlife. There was only a black hole of nothingness. According to Roman, that was the way it was for vampires. As a former medieval monk, he had interpreted the darkness as one more indication that he was cursed and his soul forever lost.
He now believed differently. When he'd fallen in love with her, he'd accepted that as a blessing from above and a sign that he wasn't entirely abandoned. And then dear Father Andrew, may he rest in peace, had convinced the rest of the Vamps that they had not been rejected by their Creator. There was a purpose to everything under heaven, Father Andrew claimed, and that included the good Vamps. They were the only ones with the necessary skills for defeating bad vampires and shifters. The good Vamps protected the innocent, so they served an important purpose in the modern world.
Mental note: remind yourself every night that you're one of the good guys. It should make that glass of synthetic blood easier to swallow.
"Come on, Mom!" Constantine ran ahead of her and charged up the steps to the front porch.
Not to be outdone by her older brother, Sofia clambered up the steps, too.
"I don't have to wait for Mom to unlock the door," Tino boasted. "I could teleport inside."
Sofia scowled at him, then turned to Shanna. "Mom, he's bragging again."
She gave Tino a pointed look. How many times had she warned him to be mindful of his little sister's feelings? So far, Sofia had not displayed the ability to teleport, and she was growing increasingly sensitive about it.
"There, now." Shanna's mother, Darlene, gave Sofia a hug. "Everyone has their own special gifts."
Sofia nodded, smiling sweetly at her grandmother. "I can hear things that Tino can't."
"Mom, she's bragging again," Tino said in a high-pitched voice to mimic his little sister.
With a snort, Shanna carried her children's empty suitcases up the steps to the front door. In spite of the recent upheaval in her personal life, her kids continued to behave normally. Like the weeds, they seemed capable of thriving in any environment.
"Nice porch." Darlene looked around. "It needs to be swept, though. And you'll need to get the yard tidied up before you post a For Sale sign."
"I know." Shanna set the small suitcases down so she could unlock the door. This was the first time her mother was seeing their home in White Plains, New York. And maybe the last.
Since Shanna's transformation, they'd all lived at Dragon Nest Academy, the school she'd started for special children, mostly shifters or hybrids like Tino and Sofia. Roman had claimed she'd sleep easier, knowing their children were well supervised during the day.
He was secretly worried that she wasn't happy, that she wasn't adjusting. And deep inside, he was afraid that she blamed him for transforming her and separating her from her children. He never said it, but she could read it in his thoughts. And sense it whenever they made love. There was a desperation in his kisses and an extra tenderness to his touch, as if he hoped to eradicate her fears and heal her sadness with the sheer force of his passion.
She blinked away tears as she opened the front door. Poor Roman. She should reassure him that she was fine, even if it was a lie.
She wheeled the two suitcases into the foyer that was already well lit. The porch light and a few lights in the house switched on each evening thanks to an automatic timer so the house would appear inhabited. "Come on in."
"Oh my, Shanna!" Darlene looked around, her eyes sparkling. "What a lovely home."
Shanna smiled sadly. "Thank you." She'd procrastinated for three months before accepting the inevitable. They had to move. No matter how much she loved this house, it no longer worked, not with her and Roman both dead all day.
Thank goodness her mother was back in her life. Only recently had Darlene broken free from the cruel mind control imposed on her by her husband, Sean Whelan. She spent all of her time now with her children and grandchildren, trying to make up for lost time.
"Come on, Grandma!" Sofia clambered up the stairs. "I want to show you my room."
"Don't forget her suitcase." Shanna handed the pink-and-green Tinkerbell suitcase to her mother. "She can bring whatever toys she can fit in there."
"I want my Pretty Ponies!" Sofia shouted, halfway up the stairs.
"And there's another suitcase in her closet," Shanna said. "She needs more clothes."
"No problem." Darlene started up the stairs. "I'll take care of it."
Shanna handed her son his orange Knicks-decorated suitcase. "Here you go."
Constantine regarded her quietly before responding. "Do we really have to move?"
She nodded. "It's for the best. There are more people at the school who can watch over you during the day."
"I don't need a babysitter."
Shanna sighed. Sofia was delighted with the move, since the school now boasted a stable of horses for equestrian classes. But Tino wasn't so easily swayed. "You'll have other kids there to play with, like Coco and Bethany."
He wrinkled his nose. "They're girls. They just want to do silly stuff."
She tousled the blond curls on his head. "Girls are silly now?"
"Yeah. They just want to dress up and pretend they're movie stars. I want to play basketball or backgammon or Battleship."
"Where did you learn those?" She knew her son played basketball with his dad, but she'd never seen him play board games.
"Howard taught me."
"Oh. That was sweet of him." Howard Barr had been the family's daytime bodyguard for several years now. As a bear shifter, he made a fierce protector, but he had such a gentle nature that Shanna had always considered him more of a honey bear than a grizzly.
"Howard loves games," Tino continued. "People always think he's slow 'cause he's so big and eats so many donuts, but he's really fast."
"I'm sure he is."
"He's smart, too." Tino narrowed his eyes, concentrating. "He says winning is a combination of skill, timing, and . . . stragedy."
"Yeah. Howard's real good at stragedy. When is he coming back? He's been gone forever!"
She thought back, recalling that he'd gone to Alaska at the end of May, and it was now the end of June. "It's been about a month."
"Yeah! That's almost forever!"
She supposed it was for a five-year-old. "I'll call your uncle Angus and ask him, but for now, I need you to pack whatever stuff you want to take back to school."
"Okay." Instead of heading for the stairs, he positioned himself underneath the second-floor landing.
"Tino, wait - " She was too late. He'd already experienced lift-off and was quickly levitating beyond her reach. "Be careful."
He peered down at her with the frustrated half smile he always gave her when he thought she was being overly protective. "Come on, Mom. It's not like I can fall." He reached the second-floor balcony and tossed his empty suitcase onto the landing.
She gritted her teeth as he swung a leg over the balustrade and straddled the flimsy railing. He could certainly fall now if he lost his balance or the balustrade collapsed. She tensed, prepared to levitate and catch him, but he landed neatly on his feet on the second floor.
She exhaled the breath she'd been holding. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. Don't worry so much." He rolled his suitcase toward his bedroom.
Don't worry so much? She was a mom. How could she not worry?
His words echoed in her mind as she wandered into the family room. She was worried. She was afraid he'd try something really dangerous. Like teleport into a moving car. Or levitate to the top of a cell phone tower.
She'd heard him ask Angus MacKay how high a Vamp could levitate. And he was always begging Angus and the other guys at MacKay Security and Investigation to talk about the dangerous adventures they'd managed to survive over the centuries.
In the family room, she rested her handbag on the back of an easy chair to retrieve her cell phone. She'd ask Angus about Howard and remind him that the guys needed to be careful what they said around an impressionable five-year-old boy.
Her gaze drifted to the space between the sofa and coffee table where Tino had taken his first baby steps. Why was he in such a hurry to grow up? If he attempted something dangerous during the day, she wouldn't be there to stop him. How could she live with herself if something happened to her children while she was unable to protect them?
The solution was obvious. Howard needed to come back. He could guard her children better than anyone. Tino wouldn't dare disobey when a Kodiak were-bear told him no.
With a twinge of shame, she realized she'd been too fixated lately on her own problems. She should have realized something serious was happening with Howard. It wasn't like him to be gone for so long. In the six years that she'd known him, he'd only taken a day or two off each month so he could go to his cabin in the Adirondacks and shift. Was he having some sort of personal problem? Was he ill again?
She recalled the way he had looked when she'd first met him - a balding, middle-aged man with a broken nose. He'd had a ready smile and a cheerful sense of humor, so she had never guessed that he was ill.
Roman had explained that right after high school, Howard's were-bear clan had banned him from Alaska. He'd spent four years at the University of Alabama on a football scholarship, and then three more years as a linebacker for the Chicago Bears. Separated from his kind, he had no safe place to shift.
In fact, the first time he shifted in Tuscaloosa, news of a grizzly on the loose had quickly spread, and he'd spent a terrifying night dodging bullets and shotgun shells. After that, he was reluctant to risk shifting. He was even forced to play football on nights when his body had desperately needed to shift. It had taken an enormous amount of control and strength to suppress his inner nature, but he'd managed it, knowing he would lose his career and endanger his species if the truth was revealed.
Refusing to shift had caused a chemical imbalance in his system whereby he was slowly poisoning himself. He aged. His hair fell out. The injuries he incurred on the football field wouldn't heal.
It was a chance occurrence that had saved Howard's life. Gregori had dragged Roman and Laszlo to a play-off game at the old Giants stadium, where they'd sensed an ailing shifter on the field. Even in pain, Howard had managed to sack the opposing quarterback three times. Impressed, they sought him out and convinced him he would die if he continued on his current path.
Relieved to find a job where he no longer had to hide his true identity, Howard began working for Angus at MacKay Security and Investigations. He built a cabin in the Adirondacks where he could shift, and slowly, his bones mended, his hair grew back, and he regained the younger, more virile appearance that shifters normally enjoyed for centuries. But he never returned to Alaska where he had been banned. Until now.
Shanna wondered what had changed. She leaned against the back of the easy chair as she scrolled through the list of contacts on her cell phone to call Angus.
"Did you call yet?"
She nearly dropped her phone. Her son had suddenly materialized by the coffee table. "Tino, you startled me. I thought you were upstairs packing."
"I was." He climbed onto the easy chair, kneeling so he was facing her. "Did you call Uncle Angus? Is Howard coming back? Will he live with us at the school?"
"I suppose he will."
"Then why don't we pack some of his stuff?" Tino asked. "We could get a room ready for him."
Shanna glanced toward the hallway that led to Howard's rooms. Since she and Roman shared a large, windowless suite in the basement, they had let Howard use the master bedroom and office on the ground floor. As a were-bear, Howard was very territorial, so they had allowed him to treat that part of the house as his private domain. She'd seen his office a few times, but she'd never ventured into his bedroom.
She shook her head. "He wouldn't like us rummaging around in his room. Besides, he's been on vacation for over a month. He must have plenty of clothes with him."
"But he won't have his games." Tino bounced on the seat cushion. "We can't play without his games."
Shanna bit her lip. Howard might not mind her going into his room to fetch a few games.
"And he'll want his secret DVDs."
She turned toward Tino. "His what?"
"His DVDs. He has a box of them hidden under his bed. He watches them when he's not working."
"They don't sound very secret if you know where they are."
Tino shrugged. "I just call them secret 'cause he won't let me watch them. He said they're for older people."
Adult only? Shanna swallowed hard. Was there a side to Howard no one knew about? No, she couldn't believe it. Sweet Howard, who always had a smile on his face and a donut in hand? Surely he wasn't . . . "Did he say anything else about these DVDs?"
Tino tilted his head, considering. "There's a girl and two guys. The guys are called Big Al and The Hammer - "
"Okay." Shanna tried to keep any alarm from showing on her face. Good Lord, she'd trusted her children with Howard. Forget privacy issues. As a responsible parent, she had to investigate. "I . . . think I could look in his room for a few board games."
"Cool! Can I come with you?"
"No!" Shanna softened her voice to continue. "Why don't you be a sweetie and help Grandma bring your sister's suitcases down?"
Tino frowned. "All right. But remember to get the chess set, too. Howard promised he would teach me."
"I will." She waited for her son to teleport upstairs, then hurried down the hallway.
She glanced inside the office Howard used as his security headquarters. One wall was covered with monitors. A few screens normally showed the outside perimeter of the house in White Plains, while others were linked to surveillance cameras in Roman's townhouse on the Upper East Side. The monitors were all dark now, since no one was living at either place.
Her gaze wandered across the room. A file cabinet topped with a few trophies and awards Howard had earned during his football career, a plain wooden chair, a pair of hand weights on the floor. Fifty pounds each? Good Lord. Howard would be formidable if ever crossed. It was a good thing he was so sweet-natured. Or was he? How well did she really know him? She eyed the handcuffs on his desk.
Howard loves games. Tino's words slipped back into her mind with a new and disturbing meaning. No, this was easily explainable. Howard was their security guard. He needed silver handcuffs to prevent bad vampires from teleporting away. But what about the adult-only DVDs under his bed?
The door to his bedroom was locked, but that didn't present a problem with her new vampire strength. Mental note: repair the splintered doorframe and broken doorknob before the house goes on sale.
She flipped on the light as she entered the bedroom, then stopped with a small jolt of surprise. This was how Howard had furnished his room? She'd visited his hunting cabin on several occasions when Connor had hidden the Draganesti family there in dangerous times. The cabin was exactly what you would expect from an Alaskan were-bear. Lots of wood, leather, Indian blankets in shades of earth and sky, and a few animal heads mounted on the walls.
There was nothing rustic about this bedroom. Sleek, sophisticated, and modern, it didn't seem to match Howard. Was there a secret side to him that no one knew about?
The king-sized bed was covered with a black-and-white striped comforter and bright red pillows. The bedside tables were chrome and glass. Across from the bed, a shiny black dresser was topped with a wide-screen TV. A black leather recliner rested in the corner next to a glass and chrome bookcase. She spotted the games Tino wanted on the bottom shelf.
But what about the secret DVDs? As she approached the bed, the unusual headboard drew her attention. Tin ceiling tiles?
She ran her fingers over the embossed tin. How interesting. The tiles were mounted on a piece of plywood to make a headboard. Had Howard made this himself? Apparently, there was a lot about Howard that she didn't know. With an uneasy feeling, she dropped to her knees and peered underneath the bed.
There it was. A black alligator-skin box. She pulled it out, then took a deep breath and opened it.
Homemade DVDs. She rummaged through the stack, reading the labels Howard had written and attached to the plastic cases. Elsa in London. Elsa in Amsterdam. Elsa in Berlin. This Elsa certainly got around. Elsa in Pittsburgh. Elsa in Cincinnati. Was this like Debbie Does Dallas?
Shanna inserted the first disc in the DVD player on Howard's television, then lowered the volume in case she happened across a scene with loud moaning.
A collage of stately old homes rolled across the screen, then the title of the show appeared. International Home Wreckers. A map of the U.K. and the Union Jack flashed by, followed by the photo of a well-dressed man. Alastair Whitfield aka Big Al. The outline of Germany and its flag, followed by another photo. Oskar Mannheim aka The Hammer. And finally, the map and flag of Sweden, followed by the photo of a beautiful blond woman, dressed in cut-off jeans, a plaid shirt tied beneath her breasts, a pair of work boots, and a utility belt resting on her hips. Elsa Bjornberg aka Amazon Ellie. A commercial began for the network, HGRS. Home and Garden Renovation Station.
"Oh my gosh," Shanna breathed. "I love this channel." She glanced back at the tin-tiled headboard. Howard was into home decor?
As the show began, the two male stars were gutting a Victorian townhouse in London that had fallen into disrepair. Alastair, dressed in an expensive designer suit, was selecting new wallpaper for the parlor. Oskar, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, was ripping up a hideous orange shag carpet to expose a wooden floor underneath.
"It's extremely important to preserve a site's proper heritage," Alastair explained in a crisp British accent. "But at the same time, we must be sensitive to the needs of the family who will be calling this home. They have their hearts set on a more modern, open concept, so we have agreed to take down part of the wall separating this parlor from the room behind it. Fortunately, we have the perfect person for busting down a wall. Elsa!"
Shanna sucked in a breath as Elsa Bjornberg strode into the room. Good Lord, she had to be over six feet tall. Either that or her costars were a little short. She wore a pair of white overalls splotched with paint and a short-sleeved T-shirt, also white, that contrasted nicely with her golden, tanned skin. Her long blond hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and the upper part of her face was covered with an enormous pair of safety goggles. In her gloved hands she carried a large sledgehammer.
She wasted no time, just hauled off and slammed her hammer right through the wall.
Shanna watched, amazed. No wonder they called her Amazon Ellie. She was a big woman. Big bones, big muscles, and a big smile she flashed at the camera as the last of the wall crumbled to dust.
Returning to the black box, Shanna inspected the contents more thoroughly. A TV guide listed the show as coming on in the afternoon. That explained why she'd never seen it. But why was Howard being so secretive about his interest in house renovation?
Underneath the DVDs she discovered a magazine article with an interview of Oskar, Elsa, and Alastair. And underneath that she spotted a stack of photos that looked like they'd been printed off the Internet. Every one of them showed Elsa. Elsa in her cut-off jeans, which highlighted her long, tanned legs. Elsa in an evening gown showing off her generous curves. A close-up of Elsa's face and her pretty green eyes.
"Oh my gosh," Shanna whispered. This was why Howard was watching the show. He had a crush on Amazon Ellie.
She glanced up at the television just in time to see Elsa rip a bathroom sink off a wall. "Wow."
Her heart pounding, Shanna rose to her feet. Howard had found the perfect woman for a were-bear!
She turned off the television, and with trembling hands, she returned the DVD to the black alligator-skin box. The perfect woman for Howard! She had to make sure he met her. But he was watching the show in secret. At this rate, he'd never meet his dream girl. He needed some help.
Her heart lurched. The old gate house! Just the other night, she and Roman had discussed the possibility of making the old house their new home. Only a few miles from the school, it was part of the estate, so they already owned it. Unfortunately, it was in sad shape. A money pit, her mother called it.
But that made it the perfect project for the International Home Wreckers! It was exactly the sort of historic gem that they specialized in renovating.
She shoved the box back under the bed and jumped to her feet. Did she dare do this? Play matchmaker to a were-bear? Her heart raced, and for the first time in three months, she realized she was grinning.
She grabbed the games off Howard's bookcase and rushed back to the family room. In a few seconds, she had Angus's number ringing on her cell phone.
"Hi, Angus. Can you bring Howard back right away?"
"Is there something wrong, lass?" he asked.
"I'm worried about my children's safety during the day, especially Tino. I'm afraid he'll try something dangerous, and Howard is the only one who can keep him safe for me. I need him back."
There was a moment of silence before Angus replied. "His vacation time ran out over a week ago. There was a mission I wanted to send him on, but he refused to go."
"What?" Her nerves tensed. "He's not quitting, is he?"
"He dinna say he was, but the bugger stopped answering my calls. I sent Dougal and Phil to hunt him down."
Shanna winced. "He's not in any danger, is he?"
"We doona know," Angus said. "That's why we're looking for him. I would have sent more lads, but we have three missions going on right now. We're short on manpower."
"I see." She took a deep breath. Finding a babysitter for her children probably seemed trivial compared to the other issues Angus had to deal with. But that didn't make her worry any less. "If you find Howard, can you tell him that we need him? Tino is asking for him."
"Aye, we'll tell him."
"Thank you." Shanna dropped her cell phone back into her handbag.
It wasn't like Howard to take more vacation days than he was allotted. Or to ignore phone calls from his boss. Angus had sounded annoyed that he'd been forced to track him down.
What on earth was Howard up to?