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Purity 5: Phantasm

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Your father is going to kill you.’

Bas Zelig grimaced as he slammed the door of the late-model Ford Bronco and faced the imposing edifice of the mansion he called home. ‘It was hardly my fault,’ he argued. ‘Dad would have killed me if I hadn’t done a thing.’

Tom was your best friend, idiot. Safe to assume he’s not anymore.’

Bas snorted as he strode toward the doors and up the wide porch steps, stopping long enough to set up a pot of his mother’s beloved lilies. ‘Like I care,’ he scoffed. ‘Tom had it coming.’

Yeah, and about that . . . do you think your parents are going to be pleased? You were kicked out of law school, you know. I don’t think either one will be impressed . . .’

It was boring. I wouldn’t have lasted an hour as a lawyer, anyway . . .’

Oh, well, that’s good reasoning for you. Never mind you’ll be damn lucky if Tom doesn’t press charges for battery.’

Bas didn’t bother answering that as he stepped inside the mansion.

“Sebastian? You’re home early,” Gin Zelig said, setting aside the dust cloth as she hurried over to welcome her son home. He had to bend down to receive the greeting. Wincing at the long version of his name, Bas sighed and brushed a chaste kiss over his mother’s cheek. “Class cancelled today?”

He shrugged. “Well, uh, no,” he grumbled, staring at his feet and wondering just why his tiny mother had the ability to make him feel about five years old without even trying. “I . . . got kicked out.”

Gin had been retrieving the cloth. It fell from her fingers as she whipped around to stare at her son. “What?”

He cleared his throat. “I was expelled,” he stated a little louder.

“But why? How?” Gin blurted then shook her head as she waved her hands in a dismissive gesture. “Never mind that. I’ll have your father call. I’m sure it was just a misunderstanding . . .”

“Forget it, Mom,” he said as he headed for the stairs. “I didn’t like it, anyway.”

“Sebastian—”

“No, it’s fine,” he interrupted, taking the stairs three at a time in his haste to get away from his mother’s line of questioning. Mother was easy to evade, but his father . . .

It was safe to say that people didn’t normally evade Cain Zelig. The North American tai-youkai was a force to be reckoned with, and Bas wasn’t looking forward to his father’s demands for answers. Grimacing as he heard the light footfalls of his mother following him up the stairs, he didn’t have to be brilliant to know that she was probably heading straight to Cain’s studio. He’d give it ten minutes before his father was knocking on his door.

Sebastian grimaced. It only took five. “Come in,” he called, bracing himself for the rapid-fire interrogation that Cain normally reserved for those who had displeased him.

Filling the doorway with his nearly seven-foot-tall frame, Cain Zelig crossed his arms over his chest and stared thoughtfully at his oldest son. “Your mother said you were kicked out of law school. Care to tell me why?”

Bas sighed. “It isn’t important. Just a disagreement.”

“A disagreement doesn’t get you kicked out of school,” Cain argued. “Try again, son.”

“It was stupid. Tom was running his mouth, and I shut it for him, was all.”

“Tom was . . .?” Cain sighed, knowing well enough that Bas’ friend had a nasty habit of saying stupid things at the wrong time. Normally harmless enough, Cain figured Tom must have gone a little too far, or maybe Bas had just heard it one time too many. Either way, it wasn’t the first he’d heard tale of Tom’s having said something stupid, but it would be the last . . . “Running his mouth about what?”

Bas shot his father a glower that might have ordinarily have earned him an upbraiding. Cain seemed to realize that it wasn’t necessarily directed at him, and he simply waited for an explanation. “What do you think? The same shit he always says.”

Cain’s bland expression dissolved behind a mask of controlled irritation. “He’s just not the brightest bulb, is he?”

Bas snorted. “Pfft! No, not really . . .”

He looked reluctant to ask, probably because he knew that whatever it was, wasn’t good. In the end, curiosity won out over trepidation, and he heaved a sigh. “Okay, I’ll bite. What did the little punk say this time?”

Bas made a face. Cain knew that Tom had a habit of fairly drooling over Bas’ mother. He had since he’d hit puberty. As far as Bas was concerned, he’d issued enough warnings on the subject. Apparently they hadn’t stuck in his friend’s head, though, and Tom, in Bas’ considered opinion, had deserved the walloping he’d gotten. “Nothing much . . . just details of things he’d love to do to Mom . . .”

Cain grimaced. “I hope you wiped the floor with him.”

Bas sighed. Sure, Tom had overstepped himself. Still, Bas was nearly full-youkai, and with that came almost freakish strength in comparison to mere humans like his ex-friend. He’d been told forever that he had to control his temper. One hit from a youkai would probably kill a human, and while Bas had controlled himself enough not to cause lasting damage, he had caused damage enough. “He’s . . . got a broken arm . . . and nose . . .” Bas confessed.

Cain nodded slowly. “I’d have done worse,” he grumbled. “Is he going to press charges?”

Bas shrugged. “Don’t know . . . I doubt it.”

“As much as I hate to, I suppose I should call and offer to take care of the medical bills . . . Consider yourself lectured over the ramifications of fighting with humans,” he said, “so if your mother asks . . .”

He nodded, tugging off his shirt before rifling through his closet for his practice hakama. “Yeah, fine . . . ‘Don’t fight with humans because they’re weak and pathetic, blah-blah-blah . . .’ I got it.”

Cain rolled his eyes but let the subject drop.

“Hey, Dad . . .”

Cain stopped and turned to face his son once more. “Yes?”

Bas dropped his jeans on the floor and pulled on the hakama. “I was thinking . . .”

“I’m listening.”

“Since I can’t go back to school and the odds of transferring aren’t good, considering . . . You, uh, got an opening for a hunter?”

“What?”

Glancing up as he tied the pants—a gift from his grandparents—Bas grimaced at the foreboding expression on his father’s face. “I thought I could hunt for you.”

Cain sighed. “I hate your uncles, you know that? Didn’t used to hate Ryomaru, but I think I do now . . .”

“It isn’t Uncle Ryo,” Bas maintained. “I’m just not cut out for a nine-to-five job, Dad.”

“And that’s a good reason to become a hunter?”

“No, but I can do it. I’ve been trained.”

“And I hate your grandfather, too, by the way . . .”

“This isn’t about the old man or anything,” Bas said, referencing his grandfather in what InuYasha Izayoi considered to be the highest respectful title any of them could use. Well, Gin and her younger brother notwithstanding. They called him ‘Papa’, as did Bas’ half-sister Bellaniece, who was married to Gin’s brother, and that was another can of worms that Bas would rather not open . . .

Bas had spent almost every summer vacation since he was eight with his grandparents in Japan, learning how to fight and being trained in tracking and hunting skills. It was considered that since he would one day usurp his father as North American tai-youkai that he should be trained, and in the tradition of old, he’d received his training not from his father, but from his grandfather, and a couple of summers had been spent with Toga Inutaisho, the next Japanese tai-youkai. The belief used to be that one’s father would not be as diligent in training, and while InuYasha had taught all of his children the skills, Cain had been fostered by InuYasha’s older half-brother, Sesshoumaru, the Japanese tai-youkai as well as the overall Inu no Taisho. Cain hadn’t liked the idea of sending his eldest son to Japan, especially not at the tender age of eight, but Gin wanted her sons trained by her father, and when Bas had quietly voiced his own desire to go, Cain had made the arrangements.

The ruckus that preceded the youngest of Cain’s sons made Bas roll his eyes as he sank on the edge of his bed and slowly shook his head. “Does he have to make so much noise?” he grumbled moments before Evan Zelig poked his head into his brother’s room.

“Busted!” Evan hissed with an incorrigible smirk. “Is it true? Daddy’s boy got in a fight?”

Bas shot his father a look. Cain reached over and thwapped his youngest son across the back of his head. “Don’t pester your brother.”

Evan’s grin widened. “About time you grew some balls. I was starting to wonder . . .”

“Go crawl back under your rock, brat,” Bas retorted.

“So what did good ol’ Tom say this time?”

“Does it matter?” Bas countered, nearly tripping over Badd, his butt-ugly dog. A mix of several breeds of very large dogs, Badd actually stood for Big-Ass-Dumb-Dog, but since Gin objected heartily to the name, Badd’s name had been shortened. Badd cocked his knobby head to the side, tongue hanging out as he slobbered on the floor. All in all, he looked fairly stupid—hence his name—but Bas loved him, anyway.

Evan shook his head. “Not really, but you can’t blame the poor bastard for looking. I mean, being completely objective, Mom is hot.”

“Hey!” Cain barked.

“Makes me wonder why she married an ugly mutt like Dad,” Evan joked.

Cain snorted. “Pfft . . .”

“Your father isn’t ugly,” Gin scolded as she brushed past her youngest son to slip her arms around Cain’s waist.

“Daddy? Ugly? Puh-leez!

“Oh, my God . . . is there a reason why every one of you nutters has to be in my room?” Bas grouched as fifteen year-old Jillian Zelig ferreted her way past Evan to hug Cain’s other side.

“You’re not still mad about Lisa, are you?” Jillian asked with a disapproving shake of her head.

Bas snorted but didn’t deign to answer. So what if Lisa, his last girlfriend—and the one before that, come to think of it—had become smitten with his father? Bas wasn’t upset about that; not at all . . .

There’s just something about the brooding artist-type,” Lisa had said.

Brooding artist? Right . . . Dad hasn’t ‘brooded’ since he met Mom . . .’

Lisa had just laughed at him, patting his hand as though he were no better than a pup in love with his babysitter.

“I still don’t see the need for the family reunion,” he grumbled, glowering pointedly from one sibling to the other, neither of whom got the message that they were welcome to leave.

“So did we find out why Bassie was expelled?” Jillian asked, ignoring her brother’s obvious irritation.

“Fighting,” Cain answered simply.

Gin looked shocked. “Fighting? Sebastian Kaemon Zelig!”

“You got the full name treatment!” Evan chortled. “Really, really busted!”

“You’re about to get the full ‘foot-up-your-ass’ treatment if you don’t get the hell out of here,” Bas growled, advancing on his brother.

Gin stepped over, placing a hand in the center of her eldest son’s chest to stop him. “No swearing at your brother, Sebastian.”

“Sorry, Mom,” he grumbled as Evan laughed out loud.

“That’s not the real issue,” Cain interrupted with a sigh. “Bas wants to become a hunter.”

Gin blinked, mouth falling open. She closed it and swallowed, shaking her head as she stared from her mate to her oldest son and back again. “A hunter?”

Cain seemed to think of something, and he grinned. “Yep, a hunter, Gin. He wants to be a hunter, just like your brother. Isn’t that great?

Bas winced. He knew his father’s ploy: banking on the idea that Gin was going to disagree completely, Cain waited for the gauntlet to fall. “I think he’d be a good hunter,” Gin finally said.

“What?” Cain demanded.

“Go, Mom,” Evan muttered.

“Shut up,” Bas growled at his brother.

“Bassie? A hunter?” Jillian remarked with a raised eyebrow. “When donkeys fly . . .”

“Don’t you have someone else to pester?” Bas demanded. “Where the hell is your damn Gavvie when he could be useful?”

“You leave Gavvie out of this,” Jillian complained, her expression registering her instant hurt at Bas’ below-the-belt attack.

Bas ignore the stab of guilt over having reminded Jillian of her one-sided love affair with her childhood friend, Gavin—Gavvie, for short.

“Yeah,” Gin stated, nodding her approval. “He’s been trained by the best, and he is your son, Cain. He’ll be fine. I think you should give him a shot.”

“Eh?” Cain rasped. “Gin . . .”

“I should call Papa. He’ll be so proud,” she said, turning to speed out of the room before Cain could stop her.

“I want to talk to Grandpa!” Jillian hollered as she ran after her mother.

The tai-youkai heaved a sigh and shook his head slowly, sparing a moment to eye his eldest son before turning on his heel and striding out of the room. “Damn it . . .”

“Swe-e-e-eet!” Evan exclaimed, grinned as their father pushed past him to follow his wife. “If you get slaughtered, I’ll be tai-youkai,” he remarked as he grabbed an autographed football off the dresser. “Choice.”

Bas stood up and snatched the ball out of his demented sibling’s hands before slapping Evan upside the head. “Dad’ll live forever if you’re his only heir,” he shot back, thumping the football onto the dresser again before shoving his brother out of his room.

Evan chuckled and retreated across the hall into his upstairs bedroom that he rarely used since the basement had been soundproofed for his musical delusions, slamming the door behind him.

Bas let out a deep breath just before the vaguest hint of a smile surfaced. A hunter . . . he could do that.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Staring in morbid fascination as blood spiraled down her arm from her raised hand, she blinked and swallowed hard, forcing the bile that rose in her throat back into her stomach as the reek of death filled her nose. ‘Curious, really,’ she thought as she cocked her head to the side; as she gazed at his body, askew on the bed. She thought there would be more of a feeling of completion, didn’t she? She thought she’d feel something more than the hollowness of nothing. No pity, no sorrow, no despair . . . Nothing . . .

Raising her hand in front of her face again, she sighed softly. Blood as deep as scarlet; glistening on her claws like stars in the night sky . . .

He hadn’t cried out, had he? He hadn’t made a sound when she’d stared into his eyes, when she cut his throat with a flick of her deadly-sharp claws. His blood had flowed over her like a macabre flood, and she hadn’t shoved his body aside until the flow had slowed to a drip. The pool of crimson on the white sheets . . . She’d remember it forever. Insanity, perhaps? Divine retribution . . . Maybe she was as much of a monster as he was. Maybe that was why she hadn’t felt a damn thing.

The opulent apartment solidified in her line of vision, and she smiled almost sadly. She wouldn’t miss it; not at all. The trinkets and baubles . . . he had thought he owned her, didn’t he? It was all a charade; a well-played deception, and she was absolutely, unequivocally an expert on deception . . .

With a sigh, she slipped into the adjacent bathroom, turned on the shower taps and stepped into the frigid cold. Closing her eyes against the sight of the watery streaks of red that washed down her body under the unrelenting flow, she stood there for what could have been hours. The water warmed, washing away the remnants of a terrible dream; of a dim shadow of life that sustained her.

Would the nightmares stop now? Would they leave her alone? The contorted beasts of distorted memory that had haunted her sleep . . . They’d tormented her for longer than she could recall; the demons of a night that would never let her go.

There should have been a sense of finality. There should have been some sort of recognition; a sense of completion to something that had begun so long ago. There was nothing, really. No peace, no happiness . . . not even self-loathing at the things she had done. She’d bided her time, waited for her chance, struggled to live in a world that hadn’t even noticed her; fading in and out of the shadows that had offered her a strange sort of solace only to emerge into the light that blinded her . . .

It was nearly over, wasn’t it? The end was so close she could feel it. She was tired; tired of running, tired of hiding, tired of living the charade in her world—a hall of mirrors. Good and bad had become a matter of perception, and maybe that was the truest evil of them all.

Shutting off the taps and stepping out of the shower, she dried herself off with curiously steady hands as her mind clicked over into habit. ‘Dress . . . brush your hair . . . remember, you have to get out of here. Don’t fall apart . . .’

Hand pausing with the brush in mid-stroke, Kit suddenly smiled. ‘Fall apart?’ she mused as she resumed the brushing. ‘Fall apart . . .’

Catching the odd sparkle in her deep green eyes, she wondered why she looked so calm, so nonchalant. She’d killed someone—premeditated murder. Funny. She didn’t look like a killer, did she?

Dropping the brush onto the counter, she wrenched the door open and slipped back into the filmy light of the bedroom. The coppery scent of his blood was already fading, shifting into something darker, more rancid, something deeper and uglier . . . an odor she couldn’t forget . . .

The flicker of memories that she knew only too well shot to life and flared up like the flames of a fire. Another time, another place . . . a run-down building where no one could possibly live . . . Another body left broken and bloody, and in the darkest corner . . .

Impossible, wasn’t it? Images and memories combined in her head. Muffled screams, cries for mercy . . . Kit shook her head and drew a deep breath.

Get out of here. You’ve done what you came to do. Don’t get caught; not yet. Get out of here because they’re coming. They’ll hunt you, and they’ll find you, and they’ll kill you . . .’

She knew that. Of course they would. They’d come with the wrath of God on their side, and they’d be right, wouldn’t they? She expected no mercy, no quarter. It wouldn’t matter in the end. It was a game, and it was still her move. She’d see it through till the end.

Sparing a moment to gaze around the room, committing the scene to memory, Kit didn’t smile as she blinked, staring at the disheveled bed, the blood soaked linens . . . His arm hung limply, knuckles scraping the floor. An edgy laugh welled inside her. Knuckle dragger? Somehow fitting, wasn’t it? Clothes strewn haphazardly—he’d been in a hurry to get them off . . . She’d played her part well. He hadn’t realized a thing until it was too late to do a damn thing . . .

One more, Kit . . . just one more . . .’

Digging through his wallet, she took his cash—cheap bastard. Pocketing the hundred dollars she found, Kit turned toward the window and pushed it open. Into the night, into the shadows, blending into the darkness that she knew so well, she didn’t look back. Somewhere in her mind, she wondered if the sense of accomplishment would come with the other. ‘New York City . . . That’s where he is . . .’

Just one more, and she’d be free . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“It’s not a game, you know. Hunting is serious business.”

Trying not to roll his eyes at the unnecessary censure in his father’s voice, Bas sat back in the chair across from his father’s desk and nodded. “I know.”

Cain wasn’t finished; not by a long shot. “It’s kill or be killed most of the time. Are you sure you’re ready to kill someone? They won’t hesitate to harm you, especially if they know who you are.”

“Yes, sir.”

“For the record, I think this is the worst idea you’ve ever had, but your mother thinks you’ll be all right . . .”

“Yes, sir.”

“I trust you, of course. You’ve been trained. It’s dangerous, Bas, and if you’re smart, you’ll guard your real identity with your life.”

“Yes, sir.”

Cain sighed and slouched back, dragging a hand over his face before scowling at his son. “I’m dead serious, damn it.”

“I know you are, Dad. So am I. I can do this.”

Staring at Bas as though he were trying to measure him up, Cain finally nodded and leaned forward, pushing a large manila envelope across the smooth desktop. “Here you go. Your first hunt. This one is kind of different, though.”

“Oh?” Bas questioned, picking up the envelope and bending the tabs to open the flap, scowling at the contents of the packet. A thick stack of hundred-dollar bills, a prepaid cell-phone, a one-way ticket to Los Angeles on a flight set to depart at noon, and a very thin folder . . . “What’s this?”

“Expenditures. Never use anything that can be traced; never use a phone that can be tapped. I want you on that plane. Time is of the essence right now . . . and that,” he said, nodding at the file, “is the profile of the girl I want you to bring in, such as it is.”

“Girl?”

Cain nodded, watching Bas’ face as he opened the file and scowled at the single piece of paper that should have had all the identifying information as well as a photo attached. Most of the lines were blank. Where height should have been listed was the vague reference, ‘somewhere between five and six feet tall’, which pretty much encompassed better than ninety-five percent of females, and for hair color, it said, ‘rumored to be red’. The name was actually filled in. ‘Kit’, it said, but didn’t give a last name, either. “Cat youkai?” he asked dubiously. “What the . . .? Dad, there’s nothing to go on here.”

“We don’t always have the best information,” Cain remarked. “That’s all we were able to get. She was apparently Cal Richardson’s girlfriend, and the last one to see him alive.”

“Cal Richardson?” Bas echoed, eyebrows lifting in surprise. The man in question wasn’t a general but he was a high ranking youkai officer. He was murdered? Why? “This girl killed Cal Richardson?”

Cain sighed. “So it would seem. I don’t know . . . there’s something weird about it. I can’t put my finger on it. Anyway, I thought it’d be best to bring her in for questioning before a real hunt is issued for her.”

That gave him pause. Cain never ordered someone be brought in for questioning. Then again, unless it was dire, hunts were considered to be last-resort options . . . “What do you think is weird about it?”

“I don’t know, exactly,” Cain admitted. “Just a feeling, maybe . . .”

Bas hesitated, knowing his father’s feelings about that particular youkai, but had to ask, “Are you sure that you’re not looking for more since you hated the bastard?”

Cain leveled a dark look at his son and sat back. He’d never made any bones about his feelings toward Cal Richardson. The man had been a pain in Cain’s side for years. Too cowardly to challenge the tai-youkai outright, Richardson had spent way too much time trying to undermine Cain’s authority in hushed whispers to others who might object to Cain’s decision to take a hanyou as a mate, especially after Cain’s first wife—a human—had died. “Just because I wasn’t fond of Richardson doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t have his killer brought to justice.”

Bas grimaced inwardly. “Sorry.”

Cain sighed, relaxing out of his wary posture. “If you read the file, I think you’ll see what I mean. There’s something missing; some crucial bit of information that simply isn’t there. This girl might have that answer. Bring her in, Bas.”

Bas frowned as he glanced back at the pitiful document. “Age: unknown . . . rumored to be very young? Is that right?”

Cain nodded. “That’s one of the things that doesn’t make sense.”

“I see.”

“Think you can do it?”

Bas stared at the paper for a moment before tucking it back into the folder and slipping all the items into the envelope once more. “Yeah.”

“We just want her for interrogation right now, but remember: if she did kill Richardson, then she’s dangerous.”

“Understood.”

“She was last rumored to be in the Los Angeles area. I’ve made arrangements for you to take your sword, but you have to take it in the suitcase you pack. They won’t let you take it as a carry-on.” Cain sighed. “Don’t make your mother worry, all right?”

Bas nodded. Cain hid his emotions well enough most of the time. He couldn’t hide the trace worry in the depths of his sapphire stare. “I won’t.”

“You’d better get packed.”

Bas stood and strode toward the door. His father’s voice stopped him. “That cell phone . . . it’s not standard to take one along. If anything goes wrong—and I do mean anything—you call me. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” he answered, using the address that he’d been taught to use when speaking to Cain the tai-youkai, not Cain the father.

Cain stared at him for a long moment then finally nodded. “Good luck, hunter.”

Bas nodded once and turned on his heel to leave.

This feels weird, Bas . . . Your father didn’t give you hardly anything to go on.’

I know.’

You don’t suppose he wants us to fail, do you?

Don’t be stupid. Dad’s never wanted me to fail.’

Can we do this? Can we, really?

Bas’ golden gaze lit with determination as he ran up the stairs to his bedroom. ‘Yeah,’ he thought as he checked his watch. He had less than an hour to pack and to be on his way to the airport. ‘We can do this, or we can die trying . . .’

'. . . Nice choice of wording.’

She’s a cat—a young cat. We’ll find her and be back within a week.’

What makes you so sure?

Bas shrugged, spotting the suitcase Gin had already opened on his bed. ‘It was probably just a fit of jealousy or something. Stranger things have happened. Maybe the girl didn’t realize what she was doing. She’s probably hiding somewhere, scared to death.’

Your father was right, though. If she did kill Richardson, then she’s dangerous. Just don’t take any stupid chances, and don’t underestimate her, okay?

I won’t,’ he agreed as he tossed the envelope onto his bed and pulled the top dresser drawer open. ‘If I can find her . . . I don’t have a helluva lot to go on, do I?

Let’s just get there and see what we can dig up. Maybe one of Richardson’s friends can give us more information.’

Bas nodded, tossing a few changes of clothes into the suitcase before tucking his sword, Triumvirate—a gift from his grandfather, great-uncle, and father—between layers to keep it from being jostled around in transit then closed the locks with a snap. ‘Good idea . . .’

His youkai sighed. ‘You ready?

Bas did, too, staring at the closed suitcase before tugging it off the bed and grabbing the manila envelope, too. ‘Yep. Let’s do this.’

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“You know the rules, Kit. Either buy something or get the fuck out.”

Tapping her claws on the warped old counter in the dingy little place, Kit tossed a dollar bill at the balding man with the middle age spread behind the bar. “Water.”

The barkeep, better known as Leech, snorted. “‘Water,’ she says . . . One of these days . . .”

“I paid for it, didn’t I?” she countered, her smooth voice dropping to a near-purr as she cocked an eyebrow at the disgruntled human.

Leech slammed a grimy glass of tepid water onto the bar and slipped the dollar into his pocket. Leaning over with his meaty arms resting on the counter, he crooked his finger to lure her closer. “There’s a guy been lookin’ for you the last couple nights. Thought you needs ta know.”

“You don’t say. What does this guy look like?”

He shrugged and craned his neck, scratching his chin with grungy fingernails. “My mind’s goin’ in my old age,” he deadpanned, eyes shifting around the bar. “You want to jar my memory?”

She smiled insincerely, restraining the desire to wipe the lecherous smirk off the native New Yorker’s flabby face. “And how could I do that?”

Sheer force of will kept her from recoiling as Leech leaned in. Hiding her disgust at the grimy yellowed teeth, the squalid breath as he laughed in her face, she narrowed her eyes and waited. “We could make a deal, you and me—something mutually beneficial, if you know what I mean . . .”

His gaze roamed up and down her body, and she didn’t even try to delude herself in thinking that the man wasn’t stripping her naked in his mind. “I don’t know, Leech . . . can you still get it up?”

Face contorting in an angry scowl, he turned his head to the side and spat on the floor. “Stupid bitch! Why don’t you go into the back room with me, and I’ll show you what I can still do.”

“You can shove your information and your stubby little prick up your ass, as far as I’m concerned. I can take care of myself. I don’t need you to worry about me. Lay off the junk food, you fat bastard. You’ll live longer, don’t you think?”

Leech’s expression clouded over, and for a moment, she thought he might try to strike her. Suddenly he wheezed out a laugh, his breath hollow and airy before the laughter gave way to a wet smokers’ cough. “I likes ya, even if ya are a real bitch. You’s got balls.”

She crossed her arms over her chest, tiring rapidly from the game that Leech just loved to play. “Are you going to spill your guts or not?”

“Ain’t much to tell, thinkin’ on it. He just came in and asked fer yas. ‘Do you know a woman named Kit?’ he asks, all business-like. Stood out like a sore thumb, he did. All neat and clean and young . . . Hell!” He laughed and coughed in turns, “He even said fuckin’ please and thank you!”

“What’d he look like?” she asked, ignoring Leech’s amusement.

Leech made an exaggerated face as he straightened back up, wiping a glass with a dingy gray bar towel. “Tall . . . real tall: a huge motherfucker—a real brick shithouse . . . Long hair—a fuckin’ weird color, like Goldilocks or some damn thing—a little darker, mebbe . . .”

“Anything else?”

With a shrug, Leech dropped the towel and grunted as he picked it up and wiped the next glass. “Yeah, one thing.”

To her surprise, Leech seemed unsettled, almost scared. “His eyes were the same fucked up color as his hair. Musta been contacts or some shit. Do you know who he is?”

She ignored Leech’s question as she grabbed the glass of water and walked away. In the darkest corner of the establishment, in the hidden recesses of the deepest shadows, she slipped into the chair at the table as she digested Leech’s words.

They’re coming for me? That was fast . . . Sounds like a different hunter, then . . .’

She was supposed to leave for New York City, had planned on doing that right after slipping out of Cal Richardson’s apartment, but she had a few more things to take care of. By the time she was ready to go, she’d learned through the police radio she’d tapped that there was a full-scale, albeit quiet hunt for her, and while humans and their pitiful excuse for law enforcement didn’t worry her, if she was detained for any length of time, she’d be a sitting-duck for the hunter that the tai-youkai had apparently sent after her . . .

At least she didn’t have to worry too much in her neighborhood. People learned quickly that squealers normally met with their own sort of comeuppance. Everyone was an outcast. No one conformed to the standard of society’s molds. It was a vast network of eyes and ears where even a hunter better expect to watch his back.

She pushed the water glass away and sat back in the chair, eyes darting over the room, she took in the same faces she’d seen a hundred times if she’d seen them once . . . The man at the bar who never spoke sat slumped over the one mug of flat beer that he would nurse all night until closing time . . . The haggard woman at the table by the window . . . She had to wonder if the woman had ever seen whatever it was she was looking for. Precious few strangers milled into the establishment. They drew attention to themselves in a strange sort of way. More transient than the seasons, the unfortunate few who wandered through the doors. ‘Just how do people end up here? Is it by accident or design? Is it something destined to be? Preordained or just a fluke?’ Frowning as she considered her own questions, she bit her lip and sighed. If it was the luck of the draw, could she accept that? Maybe that was the bitterest of ironies. Maybe there wasn’t any real choice in it, at all . . .

The tired bell above the door announced the arrival of another shapeless stranger. She glanced up and started to look away only to stop as her eyes darted right back to the man who had stepped inside. “Youkai . . .” she murmured softly, leaning her elbow on the armrest and letting her chin fall into the ‘L’ of her thumb and index finger. ‘Dog-youkai? Interesting . . .’

Impossibly tall, he had to duck to clear the doorway, and he stood in the entrance as his eyes traversed the room. There was a strange tinge in his aura, a predatory sense of dexterity in his movements. Golden bronze hair that caught the dingy light behind the bar, he seemed to be looking for someone. She could feel him extending his youki, felt it brush over hers with a tentative air. Probing, searching, he was. He must have realized that he wasn’t the only youkai in the room. He stared at the shadows where she sat, and for the briefest moment, she thought that perhaps he could see her. Leech asked him what he wanted, and the man turned. Black leather duster flaring around his lean legs, she wasn’t surprised to see the flash of the sword hilt strapped to his side. He was young, she noted—very young. She couldn’t see his eyes from where she sat, but the wash of curiosity that surged through her was electric.

Golden,’ she thought fleetingly, a whimsical notion, the fleeting breath of a transient dream. He looked younger than he seemed. The commanding air of his youki . . . ‘A fool’s arrogance? He’s not a hunter—he’s not a killer. Could he really possess the tenacity to perform the task?

Don’t underestimate him . . . it might well be the last mistake you ever make.’

She smiled lazily, gaze narrowing as she studied his mannerisms from the security of the shadows. Broader of build than most youkai, he moved with a strange sort of grace, an elusive sense of something untamed with eyes that could see right into her soul . . .

As though he could sense her ardent perusal, he slowly turned around, gaze sweeping the barroom once more.

Well, well, well . . . if it isn’t the hunter . . .’

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Bas stepped into the grimy bar on a whim. He’d already been there a couple times, but having had no luck anywhere in the week since his arrival in Los Angeles, he figured it couldn’t hurt. If anyone knew Kit’s whereabouts, they were keeping their mouths shut tight.

Ignoring the curious glances he garnered, Bas glanced out over the thin population. The place was a study of shadow.   One long fluorescent bulb illuminated the bar but did little to dispel the pervasive darkness. “Water,” he said in a low tone to the slovenly barkeep.

The barkeeper snorted. “I don’t serve fucking water, pretty boy. Try again or get the hell out.”

Bas cleared his throat. “Fine. Whiskey.”

The man glared at him for another moment before slamming a shot glass onto the counter and sloshing the whiskey into it and shoving it across the counter. Bas dropped a five dollar bill onto the counter and turned away with the drink in hand.

There was a youkai in the back of the room. He could sense her there. ‘Cat youkai . . . it couldn’t be . . . could it?’ Then again, that would be way too easy, wouldn’t it? He sighed inwardly.

Slowly, deliberately, Bas straightened his back and ambled into the darkness.

“Excuse me,” he said, clearing his throat as the pinpoint flashes of light from her eyes flicked up to meet his gaze. “May I sit here?”

“It depends. Do you bite?”

Bas shook his head, feeling the rich smoothness of her soft alto voice flowing over him like water. “Not unprovoked.”

“Oh? And if I provoke you?”

He didn’t even crack a smile. “I’m a fairly patient man. It’s not that easy to provoke me.”

She sighed. “Well, that’s a shame, then.”

Slipping into the chair across from her, he set the glass down and waited for his eyes to adjust to the trace light.

“So what brings a puppy like you out to play?”

Gritting his teeth at the allusion to his age—or lack thereof—Bas shrugged and pushed the grimy glass away. “Funny thing coming from a feline.”

“Aww, did I touch a nerve?”

“Nope, not at all . . . tell me something. I’m looking for a woman named Kit. You know her?”

“Should I?” she countered.

He didn’t miss the almost defensive way she’d asked her last question. “I hear she’s a cat like you. Do you know her?”

“I know . . . of her . . . why are you looking for her? Tired of playing with the mutts?”

“I just want to talk to her. Is that a crime?”

“Talk is cheap. Haven’t you heard?”

“If you don’t know her, just say so.”

The girl didn’t answer right away. He heard the rustle of fabric, the soft snick of a zipper. Moments later, she struck a match to light the end of a cigarette. Bas blinked in surprise. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected to see in the harsh flare of light. In those seconds, those fleeting heartbeats, he saw her face. Unsure what he had really expected, she caught him completely off-guard.

Golden skin warmed by the paltry light accentuated the delicate curves and hollows of her face. Hidden in shifting shadows and brushed with a softness that belied the age he saw in her emerald green eyes, he could tell that she was young, at least biologically. If she was twenty years old, he’d be amazed. Her eyes, though, bespoke an age that had nothing at all to do with her physical body. How much had she seen in her lifetime? Shaking the match with a painfully bony hand, she dropped the burnt stick into a bent tin ashtray. Bas tamped down the desire to growl. He wanted to see her face in better light.

The glow of the cigarette’s ember gave the enveloping shadows a hazy feel. She exhaled softly and blinked. “I know her,” she said, her voice little more than a breath. “I probably know her better than anyone.”

“Can you tell me where to find her?”

“Kit?” she asked with a jaded little laugh. “Kit . . . she’s easy to find.”

“You don’t say,” he mused and shrugged. “Go figure.”

“Why do you want to talk to her?”

Bas sat back, narrowing his eyes as he tried to discern more than the vague outline of black against black, as her silhouette blended a little too easily into the shadows. “I just want to ask her a few questions.”

She sighed. “So ask them.”

He snorted. “I’d rather ask her, if you don’t mind.”

“Oh, right . . .” She was quiet a moment. Bas could feel her gaze on him even if he couldn’t really see her expression. “I could . . . take you to her, if you want.”

He frowned. “And why would you do that?”

She chuckled. “I don’t know . . . maybe I feel a little sorry for you.”

“Sorry for me?”

“You look so lost and miserable, puppy. Let’s just say I’m just feeling magnanimous tonight.”

She moved so quickly that Bas had trouble covering his surprise. He stood up slowly as the girl laughed. “How do I know I can trust you?”

“You don’t.”

Not comforted at all by her admission, Bas followed her anyway. It was the best lead he’d had so far. Even if the girl was just toying with him, he didn’t have anything better to do.

She didn’t say anything else until they were out of the bar. The light from the streetlamps cast the area in grating shadows, severe misshapen things, dilapidated buildings and contortions of life. Casting her an appraising stare under the cover of his thick bangs, Bas narrowed his eyes. She looked even younger than he had first thought—definitely younger than himself. If it weren’t for the knowing glint in her eyes, he would have thought she was no older than his fifteen year-old brother and sister.

Rubbing her bare arms against the chilly night air, she glanced up and down the street, eyes ever-moving, as though she expected someone to leap out at her from the shadows, and while she didn’t appear to have a weapon on her, he didn’t doubt for a moment that she knew how to use her razor-sharp claws. Flexing them almost nervously as she turned on her heel and started away, she stopped long enough to glance back at him, to jerk her head, indicating that he should follow.

Absently wondering just how she could move so fast as he shook his head and stared at the four-inch stiletto heels she wore, Bas strode after her, trying not to gawk at the tiny tube of black spandex—he supposed she considered it to be a skirt—that barely covered her bottom.

“Where are you taking me?” he asked, breaking the lull, the shocking quiet. Didn’t the girl have enough common sense to wear a jacket or something? He wasn’t cold, but he was from Maine, and the weather there was easily twenty degrees cooler back home. Los Angeles might be a hell of a lot warmer, but the girl kept rubbing her arms, crossing them over her chest in a pitiful attempt to retain body heat. The black tank top didn’t reach her navel, and she adjusted the left shoulder strap before snatching at her purse, protectively cradling it against her chest.

She peeked up at him quickly, shrugging her thin shoulders as her eyes darted around: constant motion, or so it seemed. “It’s not far,” she assured him, tucking a strand of deep auburn hair behind her ear.

“What’s your name?”

“What’s yours?”

“I asked first.”

“But I’m a lady.”

He couldn’t argue that logic. “Bas,” he supplied slowly. “Your turn.”

She smiled vaguely and stopped. “Sydnie. Should we shake hands now, or are there more pleasantries to exchange first?”

“I’d rather you take me to Kit,” he remarked.

She shrugged and started walking again. “Suit yourself, pretty boy, but I warn you: Kit’s not exactly what you’d call a ‘people-person’.”

“I’m not really here for a social call.”

“Why are you here? Was Kit a bad . . . kitty?”

“I’m not really at liberty to discuss anything with you. You understand.”

She smiled. “Right . . . Don’t tell me you’re a long lost boy-toy? You don’t really seem her type . . .”

Keeping his chin down in an effort to hide the hot color that filtered into his cheeks, Bas shrugged in what he hoped was an indifferent show and cleared his throat. “Ever meet her boyfriend? Cal Richardson?”

“Cal Richardson? Yeah, I met him . . . a real bastard, if you want my opinion. Are you a dic?”

“A what?”

“A dic? A P. I. A detective . . . a cop.”

“Oh . . . no.”

“Yeah, you don’t look the type.”

“Don’t I?”

“Nope. You don’t look like a complete asshole.”

“Thanks . . . I think . . .”

She glanced around again, biting her burgundy painted lower lip before veering to the left, into the gaping black doorway of a derelict building that looked like it was ready to crumble.

Bas had no choice but to follow her into the ramshackle building. Listening intently as he scanned the darkest corners, he didn’t sense anyone else and shook his head. “Listen, Sydnie . . . I don’t know what your game is, but—”

“Ask me no questions; I’ll tell you no lies.”

“. . . What?”

Standing in the center of a shaft of moonlight filtering through the line of ventilation windows that ran the length of the building, she whirled around to face him, a strangely sad, almost ironic sort of smile twisting her lips. Her bangs fell over the left side of her face, her skin glowed blue in the weak light. So impossibly slender that he could see the pronounced hollows above her collarbones, she looked somehow unreachable and altogether vulnerable at the same time.

“What is it you want to know, Bas the Hunter?”

He stifled a sigh, dragging a hand over his face as he shook his head and stared at her. “I thought you said—”

“I know what I said. I said I’d introduce you to Kit.”

“So where is she?”

That enigmatic little smile appeared again, and she dropped her purse on the floor, raising a small cloud of dust. “She’s me . . . I’m her . . . and this is my turf.”

He couldn’t stop the incredulous laugh that slipped out at her outlandish claim. “You’re Kit? Ri-i-ight . . . Come on, Sydnie. If you don’t know her, just say so.”

She sighed. “You don’t believe me?”

Bas snorted. “Pfft! No.”

She nodded slowly, lowering her chin as she paced around the filthy room. “How can I convince you?”

“Why would you want to? Your friend is in some very serious trouble.”

“Are you here to kill me, Mr. Hunter—a nameless, faceless nobody?”

“Assuming I believe you’re who you claim to be—which I don’t—what makes you think that I’m here to kill anyone?”

“Oh? Isn’t that what hunters do?”

“Sometimes.”

“They’re called ‘hunters’ for a reason, right? So what are you here for, if not to kill me?”

“I told you. I just want to talk to Kit.”

“And I told you, puppy, talk now or forever hold your peace.”

Grinding his teeth together in an effort to keep his irritation under control, Bas shook his head as he stared at the cat-youkai. “You really want me to believe you’re Kit?”

She shrugged and stared at him, her eyes glowing almost yellow in the murky dark. ‘Cat eyes,’ he thought with a slight shake of his head. ‘Cat eyes . . .’

“It doesn’t make a great goddamn to me, one way or the other, pretty boy. If you don’t want to believe that I am who I say I am, then you can walk out that door right now and never look back. Then I suppose you can go back to your tai-youkai and tell him that you failed, can’t you?”

But . . . she can’t be . . . can she?

She could be, sure. Stranger things have happened. Red hair, Bas . . . She does have red hair . . .’

Assessing her where she stood in the shaft of moonlight, she looked completely harmless, didn’t she? Hair cascading around her like a silky waterfall, translucent skin stretched so taut over an otherwise bony frame . . . Youkai could exist without eating, of course. If they didn’t, though, they ended up looking much like this girl. Painfully thin, every bone of her body seemed visible. Under the short shirt, he could see the discernable lines of her ribcage, and he winced inwardly. There was a vast difference between word games and murder. This girl, no matter what her story might be . . . His mother always said that he should trust his heart, trust his instincts, and those instincts were screaming at him: she wasn’t a murderer. She couldn’t be a murderer, and he knew it.

“Prove it.”

“Prove what?”

“If you’re Kit, then prove it.”

“And how shall I do that?”

He shrugged. “Find a way.”

She smiled slightly; a cynical expression devoid of humor, of emotion. “Nine days.”

“What?”

She sighed, pinning Bas with a look that bespoke her disgust at his ignorance. “Nine days . . . To be more precise, nine days, twenty hours . . . some odd minutes . . .”

He shook his head without taking his eyes off her.

“You poor stupid puppy . . . Isn't that what you came here to find out? You wanted to know, right? I killed Cal Richardson—that miserable bastard.”

Her words stung him, and yet his mind still refused to believe. Could someone so young, so innocent-looking despite the age writ in her eyes really be a murderer? “Reciting a time of death that is of public record barely proves guilt or innocence in this world.”

“Did you go there?”

“Go there?”

“To Richardson’s apartment. Did you go there?”

“Of course I did.”

“You didn’t smell me there?”

“It’s a crime scene. There have been a hundred people parading in and out of that place. Picking up a scent is nearly impossible.”

“I suppose it is. Makes your job harder, doesn’t it?”

“Why do you want me to believe that you’re Kit?”

“Why do you want to believe that I’m not?”

He shook his head. “So you tell me you are her, and then you say you killed Cal Richardson? Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

“Tell me why you killed him.”

Sinking down on a broken cinder block, legs askew but knees together, she seemed to be considering his question. Bas draped his hands on his hips and waited for her answer. “It doesn’t really matter, does it? To kill . . . to live . . . to die . . . it all circles back on itself.” She didn’t move as her gaze shifted to meet his, green eyes glowing with something akin to amusement . . . or maybe it was something a little deeper, a little more frightening . . . “I don’t fear you. I don’t fear any of Cain Zelig’s hangmen.”

“All right,” he allowed slowly. “If that’s the case, then you have to come with me.”

“I do?”

“Those are my orders. The tai-youkai wants to talk to you.”

“Sorry to disappoint him,” she remarked in a rueful tone. “I’ll have to decline his offer.

“You don’t have much of a choice.”

She stood up slowly, refusing to drop her gaze. He saw the fleeting glimpse of regret flash through her eyes. “In another life,” she murmured softly. “In another time or place . . .”

“What’s that?”

Her smile was sad, mysterious, and the flash of her movements startling. Caught off-guard, Bas started to draw his sword as he whipped around to face her. Blinding pain flashed, an explosion behind his eyes, and he slumped to the floor with an expelled gust of breath.

Sydnie caught him, carefully lowering him onto his back despite the immense weight that accompanied his very solid physique. He’d be safe enough here, in this building. No one dared to enter it. She’d made sure of that, herself. Kneeling beside the young hunter, she bit her lip and sighed. Pushing his bangs out of his face, she almost smiled at the boyish features he hid behind those startling golden eyes. The angles and planes were tempered by the wide set of his jaw, by the smoothness of his skin. He might well be older than she was, but not by much. Why did looking at him make her sad? She shook her head, pulled her hand away from his cheek. “Why didn’t you listen to me? Why didn’t you just turn around and walk away?”

His only answer was the even rhythm of his breathing. “I’m sorry, Bas the Hunter . . .”

 

 

 

 

 

With that, Sydnie stood up, retrieved her purse, and disappeared into the murky shadows of the night without looking back.

Chapter Text

Groaning softly as he sat up slowly, rubbing the side of his head where the girl had hit him with . . . God only knew what . . . He had a feeling it was that gargantuan monstrosity she called a purse. He should have realized it wasn’t a purse at all but a weapon . . .

Way to go, Bas . . . She could have killed us.”

Damn her . . . I just want to talk to her, not hurt her. What the hell . . .?

Never mind that. Let’s find her.’

Wincing as he got to his feet, swaying precariously as he bit back the edges of dizziness, he shook his head and blinked.

He wasn’t unconscious long: five minutes at the most. She obviously wasn’t trying to kill him, but he had underestimated her. How dangerous was she, hiding behind that innocent face? ‘She really is the one I’m looking for, isn’t she?

Your father would have your ass if he knew how careless you were just now.’

Shuffling toward the empty doorway, Bas snorted. ‘Yeah, I know . . . Damn it, I didn’t think she would do that.’

What is it that your grandfather always tells you?

Though he didn’t really feel like hearing ‘The Lecture’ from his youkai, no less, Bas heaved a sigh as he stepped outside the building and carefully perused the empty street. ‘Don’t let your guard down.’

And what did you just do?

He made a face as he caught her lingering scent. ‘Yeah, okay, you made your point.’

Be more careful next time, moron. You know, right? If you die, you kill me, too, and if I die, then I’ll really be ticked off . . .’

Shut up, will you? I’m trying to concentrate. I don’t think she got far . . . I think I can still catch her.’

Breaking into a sprint despite his aching head, Bas gritted his teeth and forced himself to run, following her scent—the unsettling mix of vanilla and warm spice. ‘Cinnamon? Cloves? What is that?

Who cares what spice she smells like, you moron? You’re tracking her, not looking for a date to the prom . . .’

The first place he’d gone after arriving at LAX was Cal Richardson’s apartment. Sneaking past the guards stationed outside the apartment was easy enough. Dropping from the roof onto the balcony, he’d slipped inside without commotion, only to find that the place had been crawling with investigators and police officers. He’d tried to come up with a scent of the elusive girl despite all that. It wasn’t possible. Whatever scent she might have left behind was covered with the reek of way too many humans. Even Richardson’s scent on the bloodstained bed was faint and masked.

None of Richardson’s friends were helpful. Richardson normally divided his time between Chicago and New York City, and the few friends he had in the Los Angeles area had never met this alleged girlfriend, which just figured. Humans, he was coming to understand, were a horribly indifferent lot who didn’t notice much of anything if they weren’t told to look for it. They could talk to someone for twenty minutes and not be able to recap the gist of the conversation, let alone to describe what the other person looked like.

The waif-like appearance of the young woman seemed to dance before his eyes. In the harshness of the yellow street lamps, her eyes seemed to glow as her lips turned up in a thoroughly amused grin. ‘Frustrated, puppy? You poor widdle thing . . . You’ll never catch me, will you?

Squelching a frustrated growl as he sprinted past derelict buildings and ramshackle businesses that looked like they’d fail an inspection by the Department of Health, Bas couldn’t tell if he was closing in on her or not. A left turn here, a right turn there, and still her scent lingered, teasing him, goading him, as if she were doing little more than toying with him, batting him to and fro between her proverbial paws.

Cat and mouse . . .’

Damn it . . .’

When he turned the corner by the abandoned building where he’d started the chase, Bas skidded to a stop and growled. She really was playing with him, wasn’t she? “All right, Sydnie . . . Kit . . . whatever the hell your name is,” he mumbled as his gaze swept the area. He could feel that she was close. If only he could see her . . . “The game is on . . .”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Sydnie peered over the edge of the building and bit her lip. ‘I shouldn’t have circled back . . . He was fine, right? I knew he was fine . . .’

Still, she hadn’t been able to shake off the feeling that she really had hurt him. She’d taken off with every intention of disappearing for awhile—at least until the Bas the Hunter was gone. She hadn’t gotten more than a few blocks away when her conscience had begun gnawing at her. Though she’d tried to tell herself that it didn’t matter, that he would wake up eventually, she wasn’t surprised to see that she’d circled back, but when she’d ducked inside to see if he was still breathing, she figured out he was gone.

The dusty darkness played tricks on her. The lingering remains of his aura seeped out of the drafty cracks, the blackened holes. Filtering through the shrunken floorboards as the chill night winds siphoned in, it seemed as uncontainable, as untouchable as a midsummer’s dream. Why did she feel even more alone? The hunter with the golden eyes . . .

He’s coming, Sydnie. Get out of here, will you?

He’s coming? Who?

Bas—the hunter—the one you ran from . . . he’s coming, and you really shouldn’t be here when he gets here.’

The building was so decrepit that she didn’t dare run up the old staircase when she felt his presence closing in. She’d barely had time to leap onto the roof outside before he came back into view. ‘He’s a damn good tracker; I’ll give him that . . .’

In her haste to get away, she hadn’t forgotten the few simple things she’d learned over the years. Altering her course between the sidewalk, the roofs, and the alleys normally made it harder for the few youkai that inhabited the area to find her, and humans? She smiled insincerely. Humans had a tendency not to look up.

This is all your fault,’ she sneered, shrinking back into the shadows but still leaning over enough to see as Bas the Hunter’s head came into view.

My fault? And how do you figure that, Missy?

You just had to feel bad, didn’t you? You just had to come back to check on him . . .’

Oh, and you didn’t want to? Come off it, Sydnie. I’m your youkai, but you know, I don’t make you do anything you don’t already have a mind to do.’

That’s stupid! I was all set to disappear, remember? You’re the one who—’

Yeah? Well, you’re the one in charge of the body, so don’t even go there. I can’t make you walk anywhere you don’t want to go, but if you sleep better at night deluding yourself, then knock yourself out.’

His hair looks really soft,’ she mused, smiling slightly as she peered over the edge.

You think so? Then ask him if you can feel it, but you’d better do it fast. He’s like to want to throttle you when he finds you.’

‘If he finds me, thank you very much. I’ve spent a lifetime escaping and hiding, haven’t I? Bas the Hunter might be good, but he’s not that good.’

It’s getting tiring, isn’t it? The running? The hiding? All of it . . .’

Sydnie stifled a sigh as she sank back on her knees, resting her chin on her clasped hands atop the low lip that ran around the perimeter of the roof. ‘Just a little longer . . . Just a little more, and I can stop . . .’

There is no going back, Sydnie. You know that, right?

I know that,’ she agreed with a sad sort of smile. ‘No going back; not ever . . .’

There wasn’t, was there? Nowhere to hide, nowhere to run . . . the only thing she had was the hope that she could elude them long enough to see her vengeance through.

She’d spent her entire life hiding in the shadows; had run so far for so long that it was the only thing she really knew. What did Bas the Hunter hide behind those golden eyes? What sort of things had he grown up with? A loving home, no doubt . . . a beautiful life full of smiles and laughter? A mother who tucked him in at night until he got old enough to make her stop? A father who went to all his football games and said silly things, like, “That’s my boy . . .” Siblings? Pets? The golden dream . . .

Unleashing a piercing scream as a firm hand wrapped around her wrist and jerked her to her feet, Sydnie was whipped around, crashing straight into the very solid mass of a body—Bas the Hunter’s body. Glowering down at her behind a mask of barely contained irritation, he looked like he’d rather choke her than capture her, and just for a moment, her heart skipped a beat.

“Care to tell me why you bitch-slapped me back there?”

“So you caught me.”

“Yeah. Answer my question.”

“What are you going to do with me?” she countered.

Eyes shrouded in the darkness as he glared down at her, Sydnie wished that she could read his eyes. She could sense the barely contained anger that flowed through him, and though he wasn’t holding onto her tightly, he was definitely too strong for her to easily gain her freedom. “I could have sworn I told you: you’re coming with me.”

“I’d love to take you up on that,” she drawled, “but I’ve got things to do. You’ll understand.”

“You don’t have a choice. Don’t make me lock you up.”

“Lock me up? That sounds fun . . .”

“Are you going to try to escape?”

She smiled. “Every chance I get.”

He sighed, reaching into the inner breast pocket of his black leather duster. Her eyes flared as she watched him pull a set of shiny silver handcuffs, and she couldn’t suppress her amusement as he slapped one around her wrist without taking his gaze off her.

“You don’t really think those are going to stop me, do you?”

He chuckled. “Actually, I do.”

“Really?”

“Ofuda.”

“What?”

He shrugged as he clipped the other handcuff around her free wrist. “Ofuda. Paper charms. The scrolls are sealed inside the metal. If you had a mind to escape by transforming into an energy form, you can’t.”

“Oh, now, that’s sneaky.”

“And coldcocking me wasn’t?”

“You’re not going to hold that against me, are you?”

“Let’s try this again,” he said, ignoring her question. “Who are you, really?”

“Not this again . . . I’ve told you, right? I’m Kit.”

“You’ve also said you’re Sydnie.”

“I am.”

He stared at her for several moments. “So you’re saying you’re both Kit and Sydnie?”

“You catch on quick, puppy. Not just a pretty face, are you?”

“Are you schizophrenic?”

“No.”

“Then how can you be both Sydnie and Kit?”

She rolled her eyes and giggled. “Come now, Bas the Hunter. Surely you’ve heard of aliases before.”

“Ri-i-ight.”

“Don’t you think that this is a little extreme?” she questioned, holding up her bound hands.

“Nope.”

“But I can’t pet the puppy this way,” she pouted.

Bas snorted, grasping her arm as he prepared to leap from the roof.

“So you are trying to kill me,” she said before he could jump.

He stopped abruptly and glowered at her. “What?”

“How am I supposed to jump when my hands are tied up?”

“You’re a cat. You’ll land on your feet.”

“Without my arms, I’ll lose my balance. Killing your quarry? Then where will you be?”

“And how do you know I haven’t changed my mind about killing you?”

She grinned. “You haven’t. Your tai-youkai wanted me alive, didn’t he?”

“That was before you decided to sucker-punch me.”

“Hardly a sucker-punch. You should have known that a murderer can’t be trusted.”

“Just move it, cat.”

“Well, if you’re supposed to bring me in alive, then you’ll be in trouble if I die when you drag me off the roof.”

He sighed and rolled his eyes as he pondered her not so subtle threat. With a frustrated grunt, he hefted her up over his shoulder and hopped off the roof before she could protest. As soon as he lit on the ground, he let her slip off his shoulder. She stumbled but managed to catch her balance as she shot him a fulminating glare; as she tried not to blush at the obvious insult.

“Move it, will you?”

Cheeks burning at the hunter’s brusque treatment, Sydnie narrowed her eyes as she glowered up at him. “I don’t think I will.”

“Suit yourself,” he growled as he reached for her again.

Sydnie stepped back in retreat and nearly stumbled over a large rock behind her. “I don’t think so.”

“Then walk.”

Seeing no way around the intolerable predicament, Sydnie stomped away with a heavy sigh. Bas fell in step beside her, deigning only to grunt and point when they reached the end of the block. She turned to the left, following the sidewalk that he’d indicated. ‘I can’t believe he’s such a jerk!’ she fumed as her purse strap slid off her shoulder. The bag thumped against her knee as she continued to stride forward.

Well, you can’t really say you didn’t earn that.’

That’s irrelevant. I thought he was nicer than that.

Nice? You want nice? You clocked him with your purse, Sydnie! It’s a little late for ‘nice’, I think . . .’

The brush of his fingertips against her arm made her falter, and Sydnie stopped short, staring incredulously as Bas the Hunter clumsily pulled her purse strap up and let it fall on her shoulder again. “Thank you,” she said before she could stop herself.

He shrugged and started walking again. “You got lead in that thing?”

She blinked as her gaze fell to her bag, and for a moment, she almost smiled. “Nope, bricks.”

“I thought as much.”

“I’m sorry I hit you,” she muttered.

It was his turn to stop and stare at her, his eyes hidden in shadows. The chill breeze rippled through his hair, carrying an odd but inviting scent of wood and sun-dried grass. “Come on,” he finally said, turning away from her as he moved on. “We’re leaving first thing in the morning.”

“Leaving? How?”

Bas sighed. “Not sure. I have to call my—the tai-youkai and ask him how he wants you brought in. If you really are Kit, then the human authorities are probably looking for you.”

“Human authorities? You mean the cops? They don’t frighten me.”

Bas shook his head and snorted. “Yeah, well, we don’t really need to mess with them if we don’t have to, right?”

“We? Hmm . . . that has a nice ring to it . . .”

“There is no ‘we’, Sydnie. There’s just me, and this ‘me’ is taking you back to Maine so you can plead your case to the tai-youkai.”

“I’d rather eat dirt than talk to him,” she quipped pleasantly.

“Ah, then it’s a good idea that you don’t get to choose. You’re already scrawny enough. You look like a sack of wet cats, you know. Can’t think that eating dirt would help that, in any case.”

“A sack of—!” she sputtered indignantly, trying in vain to jerk her hands through the tight confines of the handcuffs. “Why, you—”

“Just move it, will you?” he grumbled. “I’m tired, and for some reason, my head feels like it’s going to explode.”

Snapping her mouth closed at the blatant reminder, Sydnie kept walking. She tried to catch the eyes of a passing group of teenagers, but they all seemed too busy to notice her plight. ‘That’s fine,’ she thought as she bit her lip and kept moving. ‘I’ll find a way to escape . . .’

Maybe you should go with him, Syd . . .’

What?

Think about it: you need to get to New York City, right?

Frowning as she realized the truth in that, Sydnie slowed her pace. ‘Sure, but with him?

Why not? At least you won’t have to travel alone.’

There’s nothing wrong with being alone.’

Of course not, but you know, at least you won’t have to worry about getting there, or did you really think the hundred bucks you lifted off Richardson would get you all the way across the country?

Sydnie grudgingly conceded the truth of that as she stole another glance at the hunter. Eyes shifting around as he scanned the street for trouble, he looked deep in thought.

He’d just be a means to an end, right?

Sydnie’s youkai voice laughed. ‘. . . Sure, Syd. Sure . . .’

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Bas sat in the overstuffed chair in the small hotel room and rubbed his forehead with a tired hand as he heaved a sigh and peeked up through his lashes at the cat-youkai perched on the double bed, rubbing her emancipated wrists.

“That’s hardly a way to treat a lady,” she pointed out, lips drawn down in a moue.

“All this from the girl who had no qualms about walloping me with her purse? I think not.”

“Really . . . you don’t think I should have just stood by and waited for you to handcuff me, do you?”

It was on the tip of his tongue to say that she should have done just that. “Of course not,” he grumbled.

“And I apologized for hitting you.”

“All right,” he growled. “You’ve made your point.”

She rolled her eyes as she brought her legs up, sitting on her knees with her hands planted on the tacky floral print coverlet, leaning forward as she regarded him curiously. “Where are you from, Bas the Hunter?”

“Does it matter?”

She shrugged. “No, not really . . . So, where?”

He sighed. “Maine.”

“Ahh . . . Is it pretty there? Maine? I’ve seen pictures . . . postcards . . .”

“Sure.”

“What are you doing?” she demanded as he reached for the telephone.

“I’m hungry,” he said, measuring his words, struggling for a patience that he just didn’t possess. “I’m going to order food.”

“Food?” she echoed.

Bas sighed and shrugged. “Yes, food. You don’t look like you’ve eaten a decent meal in—well, ever, and I’m starving.”

Ordering two steaks with all the trimmings, a bottle of water for himself, and a glass of milk for Sydnie, he didn’t look at her again until after he hung up the phone.

“Two steaks? You’re really hungry,” she commented.

He shot her a dark look. “One of them is for you.”

“For me? But I’m not hungry . . .”

Bas stared at the frail girl and shook his head. ‘Stubborn, prideful . . . she’s starving, damn it! Look at her!

Then trick her,’ his youkai shot back calmly.

Trick her? How?

I don’t know . . . find a way.’

He sighed again. “Then don’t eat it.”

“I-I won’t.”

“Fine.”

Flexing her claws, kneading the coverlet, Sydnie pursed her lips as her eyes darted around the room, scanning the corners, as though she were afraid that something was lurking in the semi-dark.

If he hadn’t been so irritated when he’d turned on the lamps in the room, he’d have paid more attention to her. As it was, he’d ended up staring for several moments when he’d turned around only to come face to face with what he hadn’t really expected. She looked completely different in the light . . .

He hadn’t realized that her hair was so vibrant. While he had seen the deep auburn sheen of her hair, he hadn’t realized that she had golden streaks running through it. Catching the light, bathing her in a warm glow, her eyes seemed even more startling; darker, deeper, full of secrets that she guarded with jealous tenacity. Her body was thin—almost painfully so—making her seem even more delicate, vulnerable, and he supposed it was that impression that had caused him to let his guard down with her in the abandoned building.

She looked like the proverbial girl next door, not some deranged woman who had killed a man in cold blood.

She nearly jumped out of her skin when the curt knock sounded on the hotel room door. Bas stood up as Sydnie shrank back, eyes widening, pupils dilating. If he listened really close, he wondered if he would be able to hear her heart beating . . .

Holding the door open to admit the young man with the rolling cart, Bas waited patiently while he anchored the cart’s wheels then slipped a tip into the waiter’s hand before closing the door.

Strolling over to the cart as he caught the way Sydnie rose on her knees, lifting her chin and tipping her head back as she tried to see the food, Bas slowly, deliberately lifted the silver domes off the steaming plates of food. “Hmm, looks good,” he remarked. Sydnie snorted but didn’t comment. “You sure you don’t want one?”

“I’ll pass,” she grumbled, sinking down on her heels.

“You positive?”

She forced herself to nod. “Uh huh.”

“All right,” he said with a defeated sigh. “Suit yourself.”

Eyes shifting, watching him as he grabbed the bottle of water and returned to the comfort of the easy chair, Sydnie sat back, drawing her legs up, wrapping her arms around them as she dropped her chin on her knees.

Bas cut into his steak and ate in silence, ignoring the voice in his head that upbraided him for eating in front of someone who wasn’t doing the same. Wrinkling his nose at the whisper that sounded entirely too much like his mother, Bas stifled a sigh and took his time chewing, peering up at Sydnie without lifting his head.

Sebastian, I’m surprised at you! I know I taught you better than that . . .’

Give me a break, Mom . . . She won’t eat.’

Good God, Bas! You’re talking to your mom, and she isn’t even here!

Hmm, well, blame it on her. If she hadn’t whacked me upside the head, I wouldn’t be hearing Mom’s voice in my mind.’

Oh, for the love of—Don’t be stupid! Besides that, look at Sydnie. She wants that food; you can see it in her eyes. Find a way to get past her pride, would you?

Following the advice of his youkai, Bas nearly smiled at the wistful expression on the girl’s face. Staring at the food as though she were willing it to move into her hands, he swallowed some water and cleared his throat. “You can have it if you want it,” he coaxed almost gently.

“I-I’m not hungry,” she stammered.

“All right, but . . . seems like a waste.”

“What do you mean?”

Bas shrugged as he cut another bite and stuck it in his mouth. “I mean,” he said around a mouthful of food, “It’ll just be thrown away if you don’t want it.”

“Thrown away?” she echoed, looking entirely too outraged to credit. “You can’t do that!”

“Why not?” he asked as he swallowed.

“Because,” she shot back, cheeks pinking in indignation, “it’s wasteful!”

“Well, I’ve got my food. I don’t need that. Do me a favor, would you?”

Her eyes narrowed dangerously. “What’s that?”

“Dump that milk in the bathroom sink. It’ll be gross if you don’t.”

He saw it in her eyes, the wavering resolve as she frowned at the food on the cart. “Millions of people starving all over the world, and you’re going to throw away food?” she grumbled.

He heaved a sigh and set his plate aside to cross his arms over his chest as he stared at her. “Listen, Sydnie. I’m too damn tired to care about saving millions of people. If you want to do something about it, then eat it. If you do, then you won’t have to feel bad about my wastefulness.”

He didn’t think she was going to comply. She scowled at him for what seemed like a full minute before slowly untangling her legs and cautiously approaching the cart. Moving in stilted, jerky motions like she was afraid that someone would swoop down and snatch the food out from under her nose she glanced around as her hand slipped under the plate and picked up the glass of milk before shooting him an inscrutable look before hurrying back to the bed.

They ate in silence. Bas didn’t really taste his food, his attention too keen on the girl. She seemed a little clumsy with the steak knife. He caught her eye and shrugged offhandedly, gesturing at the knife with the one in his hand. “Would it be easier if you used your claws?”

Cheeks darkening as she quickly looked away, she stubbornly worked the utensil without comment.

You embarrassed her, Bas,’ his youkai pointed out.

I didn’t mean to . . . It probably would be easier for her to use her claws,’ he mused.

Still, you hurt her pride.’

She’s got more than enough pride, don’t you think? One little comment about using her knife isn’t going to crush her, is it?

Interrupted from his thoughts as he watched Sydnie swallow the milk in a series of gulps without coming up for air, Bas sighed inwardly as he reached for the phone to order more.

“I don’t need it,” she said as he dropped the handset back into the cradle.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“But I don’t want anything from you.”

“I know.”

“I have money,” she offered grudgingly.

“Keep your money. I didn’t ask for it.”

“But—”

“It’s just a meal, Sydnie. You look like you could use one.”

That shut her up. Cheeks reddening as she stared at her empty plate, she slowly got to her feet and set it back on the cart before retreating to the bed again.

Bas stifled a sigh. It was going to be a long night . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“What are you reading?”

Bas didn’t look up from the paper in his hand. “None of your business.”

Sydnie scowled as she chewed the last bite of green beans. “Fine, fine . . . You’re pretty grouchy.”

“And you’re pretty nosy.”

“What do you expect? I’m a cat.”

“Haven’t you heard the old saying? ‘Curiosity . . .’”

“Ah, but what a way to go . . . Anyway, is it important?”

Bas sighed and shot her a bored glare before tucking the paper back into the manila envelope and sticking it in his suitcase before snapping the locks and striding toward the bathroom.

Sydnie grabbed the empty milk glasses and carried them over to the table, pausing as she stared at the condiment packets strewn on the cart. Before she could think about it, she scooped up the packets of salt and pepper as well as the two foil packets with wet-naps inside. Hurrying over to grab her purse and ferret away the items, she scowled at her fingers as she quickly yanked on the zipper.

“What are you doing?”

Choking out a startled yelp, she whipped around, clutching her purse tightly. “Doing?”

Bas eyed her suspiciously, rocking back on his heels as he crossed his arms over his chest. “Yes, Sydnie. What are you doing?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing,” he echoed dubiously.

“That’s right—nothing.”

“What’d you put in your purse?”

“My . . .? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she scoffed.

Bas stared at her for another moment before tugging her purse out of her arms.

“What are you—? What do you think you’re doing? Who do you think you are? Give that back!” Sydnie hollered, trying in vain to retrieve her bag.

Ignoring her pleas, he unzipped it, holding it open to frown at the contents inside. “Sugar . . . salt . . . pepper . . . ketchup? What the hell is all this?”

Sydnie snatched her purse out of his slack hands and retreated to the sanctuary of the bed, wrapping her arms around her purse as she glowered at the coverlet where she sat.

“Why do you have all that crap?”

Unable to fight back the deep blush that rode high in her cheeks, Sydnie refused to answer.

“I don’t get it, Sydnie. Do you need it?”

“You never know,” she grumbled. “I might.”

“You’ve got plastic silverware in there,” he pointed out.

“I might need it.”

“What? Do you live out of that bag of yours?”

Ducking her chin a little lower as she wondered just how this stranger—Bas the Hunter—could make her feel so stupid. “So what if I do?”

He sighed and shook his head before flopping into the chair once more. “Reminds me . . . I’ll take you by your place tomorrow.”

“My place? Why?”

Telegraphing her a look that stated quite plainly that he thought she was simply being stubborn, he tapped his claws on the armrest impatiently. “To get your things . . . your clothes.”

“I don’t need to go anywhere,” she grumbled.

“Don’t be stubborn. You need some clothes, and whatever else. Just pack light.”

“I’ve got everything I need,” she countered, wondering just why she was telling him anything at all.

“Sydnie—”

“Not everyone lives in a stupid apartment. What is it anyway, but a cage with a door?”

“So where do you live?” he asked almost cautiously.

Sydnie shrugged and lifted her chin defiantly. “Here . . . there . . . lots of places, really.”

“You don’t have a home?”

“Define ‘home’.”

“Don’t be catty.”

Mee-ow.”

“I’m being serious.”

She sighed, rolling her eyes as she zipped her bag and shoved it behind her back. “And you think I’m not?”

“What about your clothes?”

Flicking her claws to examine them, she jerked her head, indicating her bag. “All there.”

“What?”

“I thought puppies had good hearing.”

“What-fucking-ever, cat,” he grumbled.

“Besides that, having too much stuff is overrated. Sooner or later, someone comes along and tries to take it.”

“. . . People stole your things?”

Sydnie shrugged. “Well, it wasn’t ever like I had much, anyway. Does it matter?”

He stared at her, eyes bright, searching. A flicker of some foreign emotion surfaced before she looked away. It wasn’t pity, exactly, and for that, Sydnie was thankful. She couldn’t stand to be pitied . . . “I wasn’t trying to steal your purse,” he said quietly.

“Didn’t your mother ever teach you that it’s not polite to snoop in a lady’s purse?”

“Didn’t your mother ever teach you that it’s not polite to smack someone upside the head with the same lady’s purse?”

She smiled slightly at the belligerent expression on his face. “Touché, pretty boy. Careful, or I might start liking you.”

“God forbid,” he muttered, reclining in the chair as he propped his ankles on the dresser. “Go to sleep, will you? And don’t make me handcuff you, okay?”

She almost argued that with him out of spite. Staring at the warm, clean bed, she bit her lip and stole another glance at the hunter. Eyes closed, completely relaxed, he almost looked like he was already asleep. She knew better, but still . . .

How long had it been, since she was comfortable enough to sleep well? Grimacing inwardly as she decided that she was far better off not answering, Sydnie crawled under the covers and curled up on her side, purse nestled between her knees and her chest as she closed her eyes.

She’d figure out everything in the morning. It would all make more sense in the light of day . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Bas stifled a frustrated growl as he tapped his foot impatiently and tried to figure out just how to convince the irrational woman to comply. Arms crossed over her chest with a mulish scowl on her pretty features, she gazed around in a rather bored manner as she slowly lifted her eyes to him once more.

“Hurry up, will you? Just pick some clothes so we can get moving.”

“I don’t like anything in here,” she informed him.

“Seven outfits, Sydnie.”

“Seven?”

“Yes, seven.”

“I told you, I don’t like the clothes here.”

Striding over to the nearest rack, Bas jerked down the first dress he saw. “This one will do,” he growled as he reached for another.

“I am not wearing that,” she warned as she glared at the floral print, knee-length dress.

“If you won’t pick out some clothes, then I will, and if I do, you probably won’t like them. Now get moving, will you? We should have been on the road hours ago.”

She opened her mouth to retort then snapped it closed as an entirely . . . catty grin surfaced on her face. “You haven’t been laid in awhile, have you?”

Unable to staunch the flow of blood that darkened his cheeks to a ruddy hue, Bas blinked and squeaked out something between an outraged squeal and a frustrated growl. “That is none of your business,” he grumbled as Sydnie, wisely choking on her laughter, quickly turned away before she burst out laughing, right in his face.

She’s got to be the single most impossible woman ever created,’ he fumed, jamming the dress back onto the rack before pinning her with the fiercest glower he could muster—entirely unsatisfactory since he could tell his face was still flushed. Between her outrageous line of questioning and her desire to challenge him at every turn, he figured that if it had been safe to fly back to Maine with her, he would have hustled her onto the first plane out . . .

Unfortunately, that really wasn’t an option.

Worried that the human authorities were also searching for her, Cain had left explicit instructions that Bas was to drive back with her. “It would look suspicious,” Cain had maintained this morning while Sydnie was in the bathroom, “if you were hightailing it back here. Better to take your time . . .”

Take my time?” Bas echoed incredulously, glowering at the rumpled sheets that still smelled like the girl who had slept there. “Dad—”

You’re pretty good with people,” Cain went on, ignoring his son’s reluctance. “Maybe you can get her to talk.”

About what?

You said she told you that she killed Cal Richardson?

She did, but . . . I don’t know. I don’t believe her.”

Cain didn’t reply right away, and when he did, Bas grimaced. “So you like her?

It’s not like that, Dad. It’s just . . . call it gut instinct . . . she’s not a murderer.”

Well, if you don’t think she did it, do you think that you can get her to talk?

Thought that’s why you wanted me to bring her in.”

It is, and I do. Since you’ll be traveling with her, though, I thought maybe you could try to get something out of her.”

Bas sighed, rubbing his eyes with a weary hand. “I can try.”

Okay. Call me in a couple of days. Let me know how it’s going.”

Will do.”

And he’d hung up just as Sydnie, wrapped in a thin hotel towel, came padding out of the bathroom, toweling her hair dry . . .

Of course, then she’d pitched a fit about going clothes shopping, but there was no way in hell Bas was letting her run around for God knew how long in skirts that barely covered her and shirts that revealed more than they concealed.

“I tell you what, puppy,” Sydnie said, snapping Bas out of his recollections as she idly pushed hangers aside on a rack of skimpy summer dresses. “I’ll humor you with the clothes if you’ll humor me in return.”

“Humor you?” he repeated dubiously. “And just how will I humor you?”

She shot him another catty grin before turning her attention back to the rack in front of her. “I think you need to get laid.”

He closed his eyes for a moment, gritting his teeth together as he counted to twenty—then on to fifty for good measure. “I think you need to mind your own business.”

“You said that you were taking me to Maine, right? That means that we’ll be traveling together awhile, and if you’re this grumpy now, I can just imagine how bad you’ll be in a week or two. You need to get some ass; that’s all there is to it.”

He wasn’t sure if he were more shocked that she was actually suggesting that she would help him find a willing girl or that she was able to discuss such things in a thoroughly nonchalant manner. Either way, it didn’t bode well for him, and he snorted. “Yeah, my sex life is none of your concern.”

“Do you even have a sex life, pretty boy?”

Taking the time to count to twenty again, Bas slowly shook his head. “I could have sworn I told you that it’s none of your business.”

“Relax, Bas the Hunter. It’s not like I’m saying you have to jump into bed with me . . . I’m sure we can find someone you can handle . . . a librarian or something.”

The color that rushed to his cheeks this time had more to do with anger than it did embarrassment. Bas could feel his jaw ticking and wondered if she were trying to nerve him on purpose. “Just pick out some clothes, Sydnie,” he gritted out between his clenched teeth.

“Is this really necessary?” she asked with a sigh. “This all looks so . . . domestic.”

Rolling his eyes at the disgust evident in her tone at the very idea of being ‘domesticated’, Bas shifted his jaw to the side, lips pursing as he reminded himself that he didn’t dare yell at her in front of everyone in the store. “Look, it’s cold where we’re going. You’ll be sorry if you don’t have something warmer to wear.”

A sudden scowl crossed her features, more of a thoughtful frown than a show of displeasure, and she slowly turned to regard him. “Bas?”

“What?”

“It snows there, doesn’t it? In Maine?”

He frowned, too. “Snow? Yeah . . . ‘course it does.”

He wasn’t sure how to interpret the strange glint that lit behind her sparkling green eyes. “I’ve never seen snow,” she finally admitted, her voice soft, husky—caressing.

Mentally brushing aside the distinctly pleasant shiver that ran down his back as her voice flowed over him, Bas shrugged. “Guess it doesn’t snow in LA.”

“That’d be a crime, wouldn’t it?”

“Yeah,” he agreed, relaxing just a little. “You’ve never been out of LA before?”

Sydnie pulled a short little wool sweater dress off the rack and held it in place with her chin as she stretched out her arm to measure the length of the sleeve. “Nope.”

Bas’ frown shifted into a thoughtful scowl. “Not ever?”

“Nope.”

“The white one would be prettier on you,” he commented absently.

She shot him a quick glance. “White stains too quickly.”

“So just be careful not to spill on yourself.”

Sydnie stared at the sweater dress for a moment before casually slinging it over her arm. “Fine, but only because I’ll get to tell you that I told you so when it gets ruined.”

“Does it matter? I’m paying for it.”

He regretted the words almost as quickly as they came out of his mouth. Sydnie’s back stiffened and the tell-tale wash of color filtering into her cheeks told him before she spoke that he’d managed to offend her—again.

“I don’t need your charity, pretty boy.”

“It’s not charity, Sydnie.”

“Yeah, well, whatever you call it, I don’t need it.”

Grimacing, he watched as she jammed the sweater dress back onto the rack and stalked away. Bas stifled a frustrated growl and grabbed the abandoned dress before running after her, catching her arm to stop her. “How did that offend you?” he asked, careful to keep his voice down.

Her eyes were bright, scathing, as she slowly lifted her chin to glare at him. “I’ve taken care of myself for years. I don’t need some puppy to come along and think that he can toss around a few bucks to make me forget that there really isn’t anyone else I can depend on. Just step off, Bas the Hunter. I don’t need you or your sympathy.”

“I’d hardly call it sympathy, Sydnie. You make it damn near impossible to feel sorry for you.”

Her only reply was the slightest narrowing of her eyes.

“Look, let’s go pay for this so we can get moving, okay?”

She arched her eyebrows meaningfully but refused to speak. Heaving a frustrated sigh, Bas pulled her along toward the cash register.

“Let go,” she grumbled as he stopped behind a few women standing in line at the only open cash register.

“Why?”

She made a face. “I need to use the bathroom.”

He sighed again. On the one hand, he wasn’t entirely sure he could trust her. On the other, she’d very likely make a scene if he didn’t let her go. “You’ll come right back?” he asked slowly.

“I’ll think about it,” she shot back.

“Sydnie . . .”

“You really want to cause a scene about my going to the bathroom?”

He shook his head. “I’ll trust you,” he finally allowed. “Don’t make me regret it.”

Her answer was an insincere smile as he let go of her arm. He watched her walk away, disappearing in the aisles of merchandise until loud throat clearing behind him caught his attention. He was holding up the line.

I think that was a mistake, Bas.’

Bas didn’t reply as he handed over the dress and paid for it with cash. Following Sydnie’s lingering trail to the bathrooms, he sat on the bench to wait and sighed as he checked his watch with a scowl.

Two young women hurried past, murmuring to each other as they pushed into the bathroom. Bas’ scowl darkened, and he tapped his foot impatiently.

Leaning forward, dangling the bag between his knees as he waited until well after the two women he’d seen go into the bathroom came out again.

Hey, Bas . . .?

What?

You don’t think . . .?

He sighed, gaze darkening menacingly. ‘Damn it . . .’

You’ll come right back?”

I’ll think about it.

Before he could consider his actions, Bas shot to his feet. Two steps separated him from the women’s bathroom. Stretching out his arm straight, he smacked the door open. It hit the white tile wall with a resounding thud that echoed in the otherwise empty room. Repeating the process at each of the five metal doors only verified what his nose already told him, and when he got to the last stall, he sighed, shaking his head, staring incredulously at the wide open frosted glass window. While it wasn’t a big window, he figured it really didn’t have to be. As scrawny as Sydnie was, she could have easily slipped out of it, and, failing that, she could have even taken an energy form, if she were capable of it.

Damn it, damn it, damn it,’ he growled, stomping out of the bathroom and garnering disgusted looks from a few women who were walking into the bathroom as he was leaving. “Sorry,” he muttered, cheeks pinking as he stormed past them. One said something in reply that Bas didn’t catch. Knowing Sydnie, she had decided that it was as good a time as any to escape.

Running through the store as he berated himself for letting her go off by herself, Bas growled as the automatic doors slowed him down. Squeezing between the still-opening doors, he scanned the street when he reached the sidewalk, sniffing the air in the hope that she hadn’t gotten that far.

When I find her,’ he fumed, catching the vaguest hint of her unmistakable scent on the shifting wind and setting off at a dead sprint, ‘I swear to God I’m going to handcuff her. I don’t care how much she pouts, damn it . . .’

What do you expect, Bas? It’s not really like she’s traveling with you by choice.’

That doesn’t matter! There’s such a thing as courtesy . . . Sydnie, it seems, doesn’t know what that is . . .’

Oh, come on! Did you really think she was going to tell you what she was planning?

Not really,’ he allowed, dashing around the side of the building. Sydnie was close; he could smell her. Hell, he could feel her aura, but she didn’t seem to be moving.

Racing down the alley, he let his senses guide him. He didn’t really see the slight alcove to the left. So intent on finding Sydnie that he didn’t slow his gait at all, he was brought up short by a voice off to the side as he sprinted past.

“Going somewhere?”

“What the hell are you doing?” he barked, sliding to a halt as he rounded on the cat-youkai.

She uncrossed her legs and stood up slowly, smoothing the short black skirt over her thighs as she reshouldered her bag and sauntered over to him. “Just waiting for you,” she quipped lightly.

Digging into his inner breast pocket with one hand as he locked his other around her wrist, he jerked her slightly to bring her closer as he tugged the handcuffs loose. Her eyes flared wide as she blinked at the contraption. She tried to step back, but couldn’t escape.

“You can’t put those on me!” she gasped, shaking her head, turning imploring green eyes up to meet his angry gaze.

“You wanna bet?” he growled, flicking his wrist to open the cuff.

“I never take a bet when I don’t like the odds.”

“So you’re not completely stupid.”

She winced as he snapped the first cuff around her imprisoned wrist. “Bas?”

“Quiet.”

“But—”

“That means that you’re supposed to shut up.”

“But—”

“You’re not shutting up.”

“I wanted to tell you something—”

“Shutting up would mean that you’re supposed to stop talking, wench.”

“Wench?”

“Yeah, wench. Give me your other hand.”

She snorted indelicately, making no bones about the idea that she wasn’t about to hold out her hand to let him snap the other cuff onto her.

“Now.”

“As if! And since you’re so busy being a jerk, then what do I care if your shoe is untied?”

“What?” he echoed, shaking his head as he glanced up from the unlocked handcuff.

She rolled her eyes. “Your shoe is untied, Bas the Hunter.”

It was an automatic reaction, he figured. Glancing down at his feet, it took a moment for his mind to grasp that his shoes were most certainly not untied since he’d worn boots instead. The moment was all that Sydnie needed. Whipping around so quickly that he barely had time to react, she jerked her hand free and vaulted onto the building, wasting no time at all in taking off over the rooftop.

Damn it!’ he growled as he leapt after her. He couldn’t believe he’d fallen for such a stupid ploy as that. She was fast—almost too fast. Dropping off the far side of the building, Sydnie didn’t look back as she broke for the cover of the park.

I don’t think so,’ he thought grimly. Pushing off near the edge of the roof, he landed on the asphalt in the middle of the street and sprinted after the irrational cat.

Weaving in and out of the trees, Bas slowly closed in on her. Close enough to hear her harsh breathing, he closed the distance between them. She darted into the shadows created by the network of tree branches high overhead. She was wearing heels, he noted absently. How the hell much faster would she have been if she weren’t? He grimaced. He wasn’t sure he really wanted to know the answer to that . . .

She veered off to the left again, running deeper into the cover of the trees. If she kept it up, she just might be able to elude him, but every second that passed only served to irritate him that much more.

Come on, Bas! Don’t let that scrawny little cat get the better of you!

Don’t you think . . . I’m trying to catch her?’ he grunted as he sped up a little more.

She broke through the trees and stopped abruptly. The rattle of a chain link fence echoed through Bas’ ears. The fence had been unremarkable in the blur of motion. Sydnie must not have realized that there was something to thwart her escape. She crouched to spring over the fence as Bas lunged at her. Catching her around the waist, he grimaced as his weight carried them both against the fence before springing back and falling to the ground.

She landed on top of him, her elbows sinking into his stomach as the air rushed out of his lungs. It was pure instinct that kept his arms locked around her, and when she started to struggle, he stilled her with a harsh growl.

“Let go, you damned oaf!” she hollered then squealed when Bas’ arms tightened around her.

He didn’t answer right away, taking a moment to regain his breath as well as the rapidly dwindling control over his soaring temper.

“I mean it! Let go!”

“Knock it off, Sydnie,” he finally bit out, jaw clenched tight as she renewed her squirming attempt to escape.

“You’re such a jerk!” she yelled, pushing against his chest, which only made him tighten his grip a little more. “Let go, let go, let go!

“I’m a jerk? You’re trying to run away, and you expect me to let you?”

“You’re hurting me!”

Bas rolled his eyes and snorted. “Right. You think I don’t know my own strength? I’m not hurting you, so knock it off, will you?”

Sydnie wrinkled her nose and scowled petulantly. “I don’t like you.”

“The feeling’s mutual.”

“You’re an ass.”

“And you’re a brat.”

“Stupid dog.”

“Catty bitch.”

“Let me go!”

“Over my dead body.”

“That could be arranged.”

He narrowed his gaze. “Just bring it.”

She tried to lean away again. “I hate you.”

Bas sighed but held her firmly. “Give up, Sydnie. You’re not getting away.”

She didn’t reply, but the mulish set to her mouth told him that she was far from finished in her plight to escape.

“Are you going to tell me just what crawled up your ass to make you decide to run away?”

She wiggled enough to pull her hand out from between their bodies and took her time regarding her claws with a bored affectation.

“I could lie here all day,” he goaded, giving her a little squeeze to remind her that if he did, she would be, too.

“I have money,” she grumbled as color stole into her cheeks. “I don’t want anything from you—no clothes, no food . . . nothing.”

He shook his head, scowling at the stubborn girl who refused to meet his gaze. “Is that what this is all about? You’re mad because I wanted to buy you a few dresses?”

Her eyes were bright with obvious irritation, indignation that he would dare overstep his bounds with her, he supposed. “I don’t need you. I don’t need anyone. I’ve taken care of myself for years, you know. Why don’t you just go back to wherever you came from and leave me alone?”

“I’d love to,” he ground out. “I’m here to do a job. It’s nothing personal, Sydnie; just a job.”

Sydnie paused for a moment, her gaze darkening with a strange sort of melancholy. It was masked as quickly as it had appeared, and she relaxed, as though all the anger she’d been harboring had suddenly evaporated. “I didn’t think there was anything else to it,” she whispered.

Does she have to look so sad?’ he thought with an inward grimace. Sensing that she was done trying to escape, at least for now, Bas let his arms go slack though it was another moment before Sydnie realized it and sat up.

He sat up too, staring at the handcuff that dangled from her limp wrist, and sighed. “If you swear that you won’t try to escape, I’ll take that off you.”

“Not try to escape? For how long?”

Bas shook his head. “Until after you talk to the tai-youkai.”

She shot him a quizzical glance that melted into a rather sad smile as she looked away, raising her gaze to the sky. “I can’t promise that.”

“It’s all or nothing, Sydnie. I can’t let you run off whenever you feel like it.”

She thought that over and sighed. “How about if I just promise not to try to escape for the rest of the day?”

Bas nearly smiled as he slowly got to his feet and held out his hand to help her up. “I’ll think about it.”

Sydnie rolled her eyes but let him take her hand.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“What are you reading?”

Bas sighed but didn’t even glance up from the manila folder open in his hands. “Something.”

“Obvious, but still not a real answer.”

“Something that’s none of your business.”

“Grumpy, aren’t we, Mr. Puppy-Pants?”

That earned Sydnie a scathing glance before Bas returned his attention to the file once more.

“What’s it about?”

“Research.”

She blinked and sat up straighter, leaning forward from her perch on the end of the bed as she sat up and tried to see over the top of the folder. “Intriguing . . . so what are we researching?”

“We?” he echoed pointedly.

“Yes, ‘we’.”

“I could have sworn I just told you, it’s none of your business.”

“Incidentals, Bas.” A sudden thought dawned on her, and she sat back, mouth rounding in a knowing ‘oh’. “I see . . . it’s me, isn’t it? Let me see!”

“I don’t think—”

“Hand it over,” she demanded, wiggling her fingers as she held out her hand.

“It’s not about—”

“So you say; so you say . . . what else would you be researching, if not me?”

“Would you stop being a pain in my—?”

She hopped up and snatched the file out of his hands before retreating to the sanctuary of the bed as he growled in frustration and slowly stood up to retrieve the pilfered document.

“‘Name: Kit’,” she read before glancing at him. “Or Sydnie . . . I prefer Kit.”

“Give it back, Sydnie—what is your last name?”

She made a face and held out her hand to stave him back as she kept reading. “Mine? Taylor . . . ‘Age: unknown; rumored to be very young’.” She shifted her eyes toward the ceiling with a thoughtful scowl as she tapped the edge of the file against her chin. “Whoever does your research really sucks.”

“So how old are you?” he countered, crossing his arms over his chest, figuring that maybe he should see if he could get any of the answers out of her since she was obviously in the mood to chat.

“How old are you, puppy?”

Bas snorted. “If I tell you how old I am, will you tell me how old you are?”

“I don’t know . . . will you show me yours after that?”

“What?”

The catty grin resurfaced. “I’ll think about it.”

He rolled his eyes. “I’m twenty-five.”

She seemed genuinely surprised at that. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know why. “Really? I’d have said younger.”

He wrinkled his nose. He figured it would have to be something like that. “Okay, now how old are you?”

“Twenty.”

He couldn’t quite keep his eyebrows from shooting up at her nonchalant statement. “You’re twenty?”

She peered up at him with a scowl, and slowly nodded. “Yes, twenty . . . at least, I think I’m twenty . . .” She shook her head and waved a hand dismissively. “Yes, I’m sure I’m twenty—pretty much.”

Bas blinked and shook his head. “You think you’re twenty?”

A barely discernible blush crept up her cheeks as Sydnie bit her lip and shrugged in a nonchalant manner. “Yeah, I think so . . . why?”

“You mean you don’t know?”

“Does it matter? Age is irrelevant, don’t you think?”

He shook his head again, sinking down onto the edge of the bed and gently catching her arm, forcing her to meet his gaze. “How could you not know how old you are?”

A momentary flicker of something . . . sadness? Regret? Fear? It was gone too quickly to discern, and Sydnie shrugged again. “No one really told me . . . at least that I can remember.”

“Your mother or father—”

“Dead.”

“Sisters or brothers?”

“None.”

“. . . Aunts or uncles . . .?”

“Get it through your thick head, pretty boy: when I said there was no one, I mean just that, all right?”

“Everyone has someone.”

“No, they really don’t.”

“Sydnie . . .”

She grimaced and dropped the file, swinging her legs off the bed as she abruptly pulled away and shot to her feet. “Don’t do that to me, Bas the Hunter. Don’t you dare look at me with pity in your eyes.”

Bas let his hand drop to the coverlet and sighed, turning his face away as color stole into his cheeks. “It’s not . . . I don’t pity you.”

Sydnie uttered a sound suspiciously like a frustrated growl, back stiff and proud as she deliberately strode across the room and sloshed ice water into a glass on the table. “I take care of myself, puppy. I don’t need a mommy or a daddy to tuck me in at night. I don’t need . . . I don’t need anyone.”

“Is that why you killed him? Cal Richardson? Because you didn’t need him?”

She whipped around, her eyes sparkling dangerously as her pupils narrowed to tiny slits. ‘Cat eyes,’ he thought absently, refusing to look away as her skin blossomed in indignant color; as her youki crackled with the sudden surge of anger.

“You don’t know a damn thing about Cal Richardson, do you? You don’t know what a sick bastard he was . . . you have no idea what he was capable of.”

Bas stood slowly, took a step toward her as she stepped back in retreat. “Did he hurt you? Is that what you’re telling me?”

She swallowed hard, forcing her gaze away, her hands shaking so badly that water sloshed over the brim of the glass, spilled over her fingers and dripped onto the floor. “No one hurts me.”

“Why’d you kill him, Sydnie?” he asked softly, reaching out a tentative hand to take the glass before she dropped it.

She bit out a bitter chuckle—a sound devoid of humor, as dry as the autumn leaves skittering across the barren, brown earth. “It doesn’t matter. I won’t make excuses.”

“It might matter,” he argued. “It might matter a lot.”

She sighed and shook her head slowly, sadly, rubbing her bare arms as though she were cold. “I . . . I’m going to take a bath,” she said quietly.

He watched her go without a word, scowling as he tried to make sense of her riddles; of the things that she refused to acknowledge. She was paradox in motion, wasn’t she? A walking mystery that eluded his reason.

Just who is she?

I don’t know, Bas, but I think . . .’

Think what?

I think she’s lonely. I think . . . I think she’s tired of running.’

That’s ridiculous. Tired of running? She didn’t kill Richardson that long agoif she even really did do it.’

His youkai was silent as he retrieved the file off the bed and dropped it onto the table. ‘You don’t think she did it? She told you she did.’

Sure, she said she did,’ he agreed, ‘but she’s not a killer. She’s not a murderer.’

Killing and murdering are two entirely different things, yes. Don’t doubt for a second that she killed Cal Richardson even if you don’t want to believe that she could be a murderer.’

I’m not stupid,’ he grumbled. ‘I’m not a pup.’

You’ve underestimated her a few times now. You’d better stop that or she’ll end up making you regret it.’

Make me regret it, huh . . .’

Wincing when his cell phone rang, Bas snatched the black leather duster to rifle through the pockets for the digital device. “Hello?”

“Bas? How’s it going?”

Letting out a deep breath at the sound of his father’s voice Bas dropped into a chair and rubbed his temple with a weary hand. “It’s fine.”

“You sound . . . odd.”

“Yeah, well . . .”

“Have you had any luck in getting any answers out of her?”

Bas rubbed a little harder. “Nothing that makes any sense.”

“I see.”

Shaking his head since he saw no way around telling Cain exactly what Sydnie had told him, he heaved a sigh and leaned to the side to make sure that the bathroom door was still closed. “She talks in riddles. She says she killed Richardson, but . . .”

“But you don’t think so?”

“No, I believe her. I just think that there’s more to it that she isn’t saying.”

Cain was quiet for a moment. “Do you think she’ll tell you?”

“I don’t know. She doesn’t trust anyone, especially me.”

“Can you get her to trust you?”

Bas sighed. “I can try.”

“Sebastian . . . there’s more to it than just trying. This girl . . . If she did kill Cal Richardson—if she did have a solid reason . . . I have to know.”

“Understood,” he replied. “Look, I have to go. She’s taking a bath, but I’m not sure how long she’ll be in there.”

“All right,” Cain agreed. “Keep in touch, will you?”

“Yes, sir.”

Cain sighed. “And your mother sends her love.”

Bas stared at the cell phone long after his father had hung up.

He’s catching hell over this entire situation.’

Of course he is. Your father’s never made any bones about hating Cal Richardson. If he’s not careful, people will start thinking that he doesn’t care that the man was murdered.’

Yeah, well, you have bigger fish to fry, as it were.’

Like what?

Like the fact that Sydnie isn’t exactly the most forthcoming person with her secrets . . . Just how do you plan on getting answers out of her, anyway?

A dull pounding erupted behind Bas’ eyes, and he furiously rubbed them, trying to dispel the throb before it escalated into a full-blown headache.

Sydnie’s secrets . . .

He heaved a sigh, dropping his cell phone onto the table and leaning forward to cradle his temples in his fingertips. The image of her very real upset when he’d broached the subject of her family flashed through his mind, and he grimaced.

That’s a good question . . . damn it . . .’

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

If you were smart, you’d get the hell away from him before he gets to you more than you’ve already let him.’

Sydnie slouched lower in the cramped little tub and stretched out her toes to catch the handle of the hot water tap to shut it off. ‘I haven’t let him get to me . . . he’s just a pretty boya puppy.’

A puppy? Come on, Sydnie. He’s older than you are.’

Biologically, maybe, and I thought you agreed with me that age is irrelevant.’

Be reasonable, will you? Whether you want to believe it or not, that man’s dangerous.’

He wouldn’t hurt a fly. He’s no hunter.’

So you’d like to think. He must have the credentials. You might not like the tai-youkai, but even you know that there’s no way that he’d send out a hunter who couldn’t cut it.’

Get a grip. It’s not like I’m planning on running off with Bas the Hunter. I’m just trying to get to New York Cityyou should remember. It was your idea, wasn’t it?

That was before,’ her youkai maintained stubbornly as Sydnie worked up a lather on a snowy white wash cloth.

Before what?

You can’t tell me you don’t sense it. If you try, you’ll be lying.’

Dunno what you’re talking about,’ she grumbled, taking her time as she washed her arms, her shoulders.

He’s familiar.’

Now who’s being stupid? I think I’d have remembered if I’d met him before, don’t you?

It has nothing to do with meeting him before, Syd. This is different—entirely different.’

He’s harmless. I’m just with him to get to New York City; that’s all. Now shut up, will you? You’re giving me a headache.’

All right, fine. Answer one question, and I swear I’ll shut up for the rest of the night.’

‘. . . Okay.’

If I’m so stupid . . . if I’m wrong . . . Why are you telling him things?

I haven’t told him anything important.’

You’ve told him more than you’ve told anyone. In a couple days, he knows you better than anyone else has since K—”

You’ve had your question,’ she cut in, flopping back in the tub and submersing herself in the water to rinse the shampoo from her hair.

Her youkai sighed but grew quiet, and Sydnie pushed herself back up, setting against the back of the tub and slowly letting her eyes drift closed. It was nice, she had to admit. Feeling safe enough to take a long, relaxing bath was nice. How long had it been since she’d felt that way? She grimaced and squeezed her eyes closed for a moment before letting a soft sigh escape in the steam-fogged air. ‘Maybe I’m better off, not answering that.’

Sydnie?

Popping one eye open, as if she were looking for the owner of the voice only she could hear, Sydnie wrinkled her nose and braced herself for whatever her youkai was going to say. ‘What?

He’s got really pretty eyes, doesn’t he?

Sinking a little lower in the tub, letting the vanilla scented bubbles cover her chin, Sydnie stared at the tile wall without actually seeing it. No, what she saw were a pair of brilliant golden eyes touched with a softness, tinged with unmistakable curiosity . . . a little shiver ran down her spine, and she rubbed her arms as gooseflesh broke out over her skin.

Shaken out of her reverie by the faint sound of someone knocking on the hotel room door, Sydnie frowned and sat up, reaching for a towel to dry her face and arms as she slowly stood up.

She wrapped one of the towels around her body, tucking in the end to secure it, but grimaced as she turned to eye the clothes she’d just taken off. Both of her outfits were dirty. She normally just settled for baths—clothes and all in the pond at the park near the derelict building she called home—with whatever soap she’d managed to procure at the time. She washed herself and her clothing all at once, and while it wasn’t really preferable, it was the only real alternative she had. Now the very thought of putting her clothes back on wasn’t one she liked. While she could wash them out in the tub and wear them till they dried, she’d never been fond of trying to sleep in wet clothing, and she had a feeling that Bas the Hunter would complain about that, anyway.

Sydnie sighed, digging her change of clothes out of her purse before kneeling beside the tub and dumping her clothes into the still-warm water.

It didn’t take long to scrub the two skirts, two shirts, and two pairs of panties she owned. Standing on her tiptoes, she hung the garments over the shower curtain rod and readjusted the towel. It really couldn’t be helped, could it? Surely he’d understand . . .

Oh, sure he will, Syd. Never mind that you had to go and act like a baby when he tried to get you to pick out more clothes earlier.’

It was the principle,’ she maintained as she wiped off the cloudy mirror with a hand towel before leaning her head to the side to run her fingers through her hair since she didn’t have a brush, either. ‘I don’t want him to buy me things.’

Don’t be so proud, Sydnie. He wasn’t trying to offend you.’

I thought you said you weren’t going to talk the rest of the night?

Yes, well . . . and another thing . . . do you really think that wearing just a towel is a good idea?

What’s wrong with the towel? It covers everything, doesn’t it?

Sure, but the implication—’

I could go out there naked . . .’

The towel’s fine,’ her youkai blurted.

Sydnie grinned as she opened the door.

Bas was standing at the window, holding the sheer curtain aside as he stared out at the night sky. The glow from the lamp on the nightstand cast him in a golden hue. Staring at his back, she smiled just a little, enjoying the moment of peace that would shatter the second either of them opened their mouths to speak. Not for the first time, the thought came to her, ‘If I’d met him in another lifetime, things might have been so much different . . .’ Why did the thought make her feel so sad, so hopeless . . . so lonely?

“I didn’t know what you wanted, so I just ordered us the same things,” he said quietly without turning to look at her.

She glanced at the table and stared, swallowing hard as she took in the tall, frothy glass of milk standing beside what had to be her plate since the other glass was filled with soda. For some reason, that he had remembered something as basic as her affinity for milk . . . it scared the hell out of her.

Deliberately ignoring the food, Sydnie sat on the foot of the bed, tucking her hands under her thighs as she scrunched up her shoulders and gathered her waning bravado. “I’m not hungry,” she lied, tugging her hands free to wrap her arms over her stomach to staunch the rumbling inspired by the enticing aroma of the food.

“Oh, hell, Sydnie, do you have to turn everything into a battle of wills?” he growled as he pushed himself away from the window and strode toward the table, hands jammed in his pockets as he stared at the floor. “I’m not your enemy, damn it.”

“I beg to differ,” she retorted stiffly.

Bas stopped and looked up, eyes bright, flashing, angry. They lit on her and flared wide as his mouth dropped open, as color shot into his cheeks. “I—you—wha—Where the hell are your clothes?” he bellowed, waving his hands in her direction.

She smiled sweetly, oddly calm in the face of Bas’ tirade. “They’re wet,” she stated simply.

“They’re . . .? What the hell did you do? Throw them in the tub?”

She crossed her knees and wrapped her hands around them. “No, silly . . . I washed them.”

“Washed . . .?” Snapping his mouth closed tight, he looked like he was fighting for control of his soaring temper. He strode over to his bag, yanked the zipper open, and flung the first thing he laid hands on—a maroon colored tee-shirt—at her. “Wear that.”

She wrinkled her nose as she made a show of holding the shirt up and inspecting it carefully. “I’ll pass, thanks.”

“Hmm, yeah, well, this isn’t negotiable, Sydnie. Put it on. Now.”

“If it’s all the same to you, I don’t think we know each other well enough to start smelling like a couple. You’ll understand, I’m sure.”

“What I understand is that you’re obviously devil-spawn posing as a cat-youkai. Now get the fucking shirt on, Sydnie. I’m not joking.”

She tossed the shirt aside and slowly stood up, arching her back as she reached above her head to stretch. Bas’ loud gasp echoed in her head, and she quickly turned away to hide her amusement. “Relax, puppy. My clothes will be dry in an hour or two. I’ll get dressed when they are.”

He didn’t respond. Daring a peek over her shoulder, she couldn’t help but grin at the completely dumbstruck look on his face. If he realized he was gaping at her, she wasn’t certain. Pulling her hair over her shoulder as she turned to face him again, she ran her fingers through the length of it. “What’s the matter, pretty boy? Cat got your tongue?”

He opened and closed his mouth a few times. He didn’t make a sound.

Giggling softly, she sauntered toward him. His eyes flared a little wider, but he didn’t move away. So close that she could feel the raw heat radiating from his body, she slipped her hands between them, kneading the muscles hidden by the fabric of his shirt as she gazed up at him, issuing him a silent challenge. “You look a little shocked, Bas the Hunter. Is something wrong?”

He swallowed hard once, twice, blinking rapidly as he fought for a semblance of his composure. “S-Sydnie . . .”

“Yes?”

He closed his eyes against the husky quality in her reply. “Put the shirt on.”

“Scared of the little kitty?”

“Just . . . do it.”

Arching her eyebrows, she stepped back. “If you say so,” she countered, bringing her hand up to toy with the edge of the towel. “Are you sure?”

He finally realized what she was threatening. Closing the distance between them in one long stride, his hand shot out to stay hers, and he stifled a low growl. “Damn it . . .”

“What’s the matter? Haven’t you ever seen a naked woman before?”

Violent color blossomed in his cheeks. He jerked her hand away from the towel, gaze burning her as she bravely—or was it stupidly—stubbornly stood her ground. “What do you want, Sydnie?”

“What makes you think I want something?”

He narrowed his eyes and snorted. “Last I checked you could barely tolerate me. That would mean that all of this is just an act, so why don’t you forego the dramatics and just tell me what it is you’re after?”

“I tolerate you, puppy,” she said, letting her eyes travel up and down his chest. “My clothes were dirty, so I washed them. That’s all. Now aren’t you ashamed? You really are a dog, aren’t you? Did you think that I made up the story about my clothes just so I could parade around in front of you in a towel?”

He let go of her hand and stomped over to the table. “Whatever.”

She laughed. “Rest assured, Bas the Hunter . . . if I wanted to flash you, I wouldn’t make up a lame story like that. I’d just do it.”

“Eat your food before it gets cold,” he grumbled.

Sydnie retreated to her perch on the end of the bed once more, thoroughly enjoying the feeling of having beaten the hunter in a battle of wits. ‘The game’s on, pretty boy . . .’ she thought with a grin.

The grin widened when her youkai heaved a loud sigh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“I seriously think you need to get laid.”

Bas stopped short and swiveled his head to glower at Sydnie. Unsure if her completely nonchalant attitude bothered him more than the current subject that she refused to drop, he slowly shook his head and ignored the urge to tell her to shut the hell up.

“This is a waste of money.”

“Just pick one, and let’s go,” he growled.

Wrinkling her nose at the array of winter coats, Sydnie shook her head and shrugged. “I don’t need one, thanks.”

Bas sighed and rubbed his cheek, counting to twenty in an effort to keep control over his temper. “You might not now, but you will soon enough. Pick one, or I swear to God I will, and if I do, then I doubt you’ll like it. You’ll wear it, even if I have to put it on you, myself, but you won’t like it.”

“Awfully good at tossing around the threats, aren’t you, puppy? I’m youkai, or did you forget?”

“So?”

“So I don’t get cold.”

“My ass.”

“And I don’t need you to buy a coat for me.”

“Humor me.”

Her hand dropped away from the rack of coats as she slowly turned to eye him. Arms crossed over his chest, he blanked his features as he stared over the women’s department without meeting Sydnie’s gaze. “You’ve been in a bad mood since this morning,” she remarked, her lips twitching as a little smirk formed.

“Yeah, that tends to happen when I wake up with someone staring me down,” he growled.

Sydnie laughed before turning her attention back to the coats once more.

He couldn’t understand her; not one damn thing about her. Most of the time, she acted like she couldn’t stand him; as though she thought he was a stupid little puppy. The rest of the time? He straightened his back and told himself that she was trying to irritate him and that reacting wouldn’t do him any good.

The rest of the time, she confused the hell out of him.

He’d fallen asleep in a chair after sitting up half the night, wondering if he was being foolish to leave her out of the handcuffs. Waking up this morning with the oddest feeling that someone was staring at him, he’d opened his eyes only to find her perched on the edge of the bed, clutching the coverlet in her hands as she leaned forward, eyes trained on his face and the most curious expression on her face. If she realized that he’d opened his eyes, he wasn’t certain, but she’d continued to sit there for several minutes, staring at him without blinking, her gaze curious, almost fascinated . . .

What are you staring at, cat?” he demanded, sitting up and pushing the thin white blanket aside. He wasn’t sure where the blanket had come from. He hadn’t had it before he sat down.

She snapped out of her reverie, color rising in her cheeks as she deliberately stood up, arched her back, and stretched as a wry little smirk surfaced on her features. “Don’t be silly, Bas the Hunter. I was just checking to see if you were dead.”

Wishful thinking, kitty,” he grumbled, tossing the blanket onto the bed and just missing Sydnie.

She blinked at it before shifting her gaze back to him, her eyes brightening as the smirk widened into a smile. “Do you always wake up crabby?

You’d be crabby, too, if you’d spent the night sitting up in that chair.”

He regretted the words about the moment they were out of his mouth. Back stiffening as she snatched up the blanket and shook it out, he could tell that he’d offended her yet again, only this time, he wasn’t certain how.

“Hurry it up, will you?” he growled, shaking off the memory as the store came back into focus again.

“What’s the rush?” she countered, pushing hangers back and forth but not bothering to pull any of the coats off the rack.

Bas sighed. “We were supposed to be on the road two days ago, Sydnie, that’s what.”

“Oh, that? Incidentals, don’t you think?”

“No, I don’t think.”

Her answer was a mocking stare, her eyebrows arched as an impish smile taunted him. “You said a mouthful.”

“I don’t feel like arguing with you. Just pick a coat, okay?”

“I don’t like them,” she complained, stepping away from the rack and slowly shaking her head.

Bas regarded Sydnie for several long seconds before snatching a coat off the rack, grabbing her hand, and dragging her toward the cash register. “Good enough.”

“But—”

“You weren’t picking one, and I warned you.”

“Will you—?”

“Nope.”

She heaved a sigh. “Really need to get laid,” she mumbled.

“Listen, cat—” he cut in, cheeks flaming.

“Are you always such a grouch?”

“Just when cats piss me off.”

“Aw, but this kitty loves the puppy.”

“Ri-i-i-ight.”

“Just think, Bas . . .” she began, her eyes narrowing into little slits as her smile widened to Cheshire cat-like proportions. Whatever was on her mind, he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear it.

He stifled a groan, cheeks heating even more. “Sydnie.”

“You could have your own personal . . .”

He groaned. “Don’t say it,” he warned, absolutely positive that he didn’t want to hear whatever she was about to say.

“Private—”

“I’m warning you.”

Pussy.”

The hot color that he’d been struggling to hold back exploded in brilliant Technicolor in his cheeks, and Bas tightened his grip on her arm and propelled her forward as Sydnie’s soft laughter taunted him.

“What’s the matter, Bas? Don’t like the allusion?”

“Allusion? Cat . . .”

She ran around him, planting her hands in the center of his chest as she positively beamed up at him. “Hmm?”

He swallowed hard, all too aware of just how beautiful the elusive youkai really was. Green eyes glowing as she gazed at him, she smiled at him, cheeks kissed with a soft pink flush, she laughed softly before leaning up on her toes to lick his cheek. “S-Sydnie . . .”

She giggled, cupping his cheek in her free hand. “Yes?”

He cleared his throat and knocked her hand away. “Come on.”

“I thought puppies were playful,” she pointed out with a melodramatic shake of her head.

“Maybe they are,” he grumbled, slapping the coat onto the counter. “Too bad I’m not one.”

“You’re not? Are you sure?”

“Seventy-five dollars and thirty-nine cents.”

“That’s highway robbery,” Sydnie informed him indignantly.

“Shut up, Sydnie.”

Mee-ow.”

Bas sighed, rolling his eyes as he dug a hundred dollar bill out of his pocket and dropped it on the counter. Swiping up the bag without waiting for his change or for the receipt, he grabbed Sydnie’s hand again and hustled her toward the exit.

“You didn’t wait for your change,” she pointed out.

“Acceptable loss.”

“Are you so rich you can toss money around like it’s nothing?”

“I don’t think it’s nothing,” he said with a weary sigh. “I just didn’t feel like standing around, waiting for you to say something else completely outrageous.” He wiped his cheek on his shoulder. “And no more licking.”

“I don’t like that coat,” she told him, her eyes darkening as she slowly shook her head.

“At this point, I don’t really give a rat’s ass, what you like and don’t like.”

“You’re really not very nice, are you?”

Bas pulled her into a small drug store and jerked his head toward the hygiene products. “Need anything? Deodorant . . . toothbrush . . . whatever?”

She opened her mouth, probably to tell him that she didn’t want or need a single thing from him, but she stopped, a perplexed look on her face, as if she were trying to decide if she weren’t biting off her nose to spite her face. “I have money of my own,” she said grudgingly. “I’ll buy my own toothpaste . . . and I don’t need deodorant because I don’t stink.”

“I just bought a coat for you that cost a helluva lot more than a few measly toiletries, Sydnie. Just pick out what you want, and let’s go, okay?”

She smiled tightly and offered a nonchalant shrug. “I’ll buy my own things.”

Rubbing his forehead, he nodded. “Fine. Whatever. Just move it.”

She shot him a glower before turning on her heel and stalking away, back straight and proud, the cloak of thick auburn hair cascading down her back as she moved, her body projecting an easy grace, a feline dexterity, a sense of subtle refinement. Bas watched her for a moment, the barest trace of a smile breaking over his features as he watched her haughty retreat. What was it about her that set him on edge? More than her penchant for saying things that could only be construed as intentionally outrageous, there was something about Sydnie that spoke to him without the need for words.

Oh, awesome . . . I’m losing my mind.’

Ehh, she’s not so bad, Bas. Give her a break. It’s not really as though she’s coming along with you for the fun of it.’

Well, no. I didn’t think that she was.’

And she’s just trying to test her boundaries—trying to see how far she can push you before you snap.’

Snap? I’m well past snapping. I’m ready to throttle her . . .’

Because she unsettles you? Come on. You’re the next tai-youkai. You think your father ever got that rattled by your mother?

Bas snorted, knowing very well that the one person on earth who could ‘rattle’ Cain Zelig was, in fact, Bas’ sweet little mother, Gin.

Okay, bad analogy. Just think about it, though . . . She’s keeps you on your toes; that’s all. She’s not all bad, and you know it.’

Yeah, you’re not helping . . .’

Give her another chance. Who knows? You might like her.’

He wasn’t sure if he’d go that far, but Bas finally nodded. ‘All right, fine. One more, but I swear to God, if she . . . licks me again . . .’

His youkai laughed. ‘That wasn’t so bad.’

The hell it wasn’t.’

You didn’t like it because you didn’t know how to take it.’

She licked me! That has to be unsanitary . . .’

Unsanitary? A hot as hell woman does something as personal as lick you, and all you can say is that it has to be unsanitary? Good God, Bas . . . you’re a lost cause.’

Bas wrinkled his nose and tried not to blush as he looked around to find Sydnie. She grinned, sauntering toward him, and as she approached, he noticed two things. Firstly, she hadn’t picked out anything that she might need for the trip. Secondly, she held a slip of paper in between her first and middle fingers. Narrowing his gaze on the suspect paper, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know just what so obviously amused her now.

“How much do you love me, Bas the Hunter?” she gushed as she linked her arm through his.

“What did you do?” he asked, ignoring the sinking feeling in his gut that told him that he was better off not asking that particular question.

She grinned, eyes shining with mischief as deep dimples dipped into her cheeks, as his heart skipped a beat. Unable to think as precious seconds ticked away, he blinked in shock, in surprise as he realized somewhere in his Sydnie-clouded mind that this girl—woman—enigma . . . she was far more dangerous than he could have possibly imagined.

“See that girl?” she asked, tugging on his arm and pointing with the fingers that still held the slip of paper.

Bas slowly lifted his gaze, following the direction of Sydnie’s outstretched hand. A tall blonde near the wall of coolers smiled timidly at him, raising her hand to wiggle her fingers. He scowled but lifted a hand to return the greeting. The girl giggled and whispered something to her friend. Sydnie tugged on Bas’ arm again, and he shot her a sidelong glance. “What did you do?” he repeated, his tone cautious, almost reluctant.

She laughed. “I told you, puppy . . . you need to get laid.”

He groaned.

“She looks easy enough, don’t you think? Not easy in a dirty way, but, you know: loose.”

The groan escalated into a low growl as disbelief gave way to irritation.

“Her name is Buffy, if you can feature that . . . Total sex-kitten, if you ask me. I wonder what her parents were thinking . . . I mean, what are the odds that she will ever find gainful employment with a name like that, right?”

“Sydnie,” he choked, hoping, praying, that he wasn’t quite as red in the face as he suspected he was.

“Anyway, I figure she’s a shoo-in, so to speak . . . Not even you can mess this up, pretty boy.”

“Absolutely not,” he snarled, grabbing Sydnie’s arm and hustling her toward the doors.

“You should probably pick up a box of condoms,” she went on, trying to turn around.

He slung an arm around her shoulders and shoved her forward. She stumbled and caught herself on his jacket, but her mood hadn’t waned, and she laughed. “Don’t you want it?” she asked, waving the paper under his nose as they stepped out of the store into the plaza.

He shot her his version of the ‘We Are Not Amused’ look and snatched the paper out of her fingertips. Scowl darkening as he read what had to be a phone number with the name ‘Buffy’ scrawled above it, he crumpled it into a tight little ball and tossed it to the side before grabbing Sydnie’s upper arm and shoving her toward the mall exit.

“Bas . . .”

“If you value your hide, you won’t say a fucking word to me right now,” Bas bit out.

She sighed. “I was just trying to help you with your little problem,” she pointed out a little too reasonably.

“I mean it, cat . . . be quiet.”

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, you know. Sex is an integral part of a well-balanced psyche . . .”

“And just where did you hear bullshit like that?”

“Maevis,” she answered simply, giving the name of a popular talk-show host-slash-renowned sex therapist.

Bas growled and propelled Sydnie toward the exit again.

“She said that if you don’t have sex, a part of you just sort of shrivels up and dies . . .”

“Damn it . . .”

“Care to guess which part, puppy?”

He stopped abruptly and swung around to face her, eyes blazing as he felt his skin shoot up in flames. Grabbing her arms and giving her a quick shake, he growled again when her smile only widened. “Stop it, Sydnie, I mean it! Just shut your pretty little mouth for five minutes!”

He glowered at her as her smile slowly disappeared. Blinking as she stared at him, she was speechless for once as a strange sort of brightness filtered into her eyes, and she nodded.

Pausing a moment to make sure that she’d gotten the message, he finally jerked his head in a curt nod, hands dropping away from her as he slammed open the mall doors and strode outside to the rental car.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Bas wasn’t sure what woke him. A dull thump . . . a muffled sob . . .

Sitting up in the chair where he’d fallen asleep and pushing the thin hotel stock blanket aside, he stumbled to his feet—they were tangled in the blanket—and he blinked in confusion as he slowly shifted his gaze around the small room.

The bed was rumpled where Sydnie had lain down. She wasn’t there. The bathroom door stood ajar, blackness oozing from the threshold like a hideous gaping maw. He could feel her close; he knew her aura. He could smell her, sense her . . . he just couldn’t see her.

Another soft sound . . . almost a whine; not quite a cry . . .

Scowling as he slowly shuffled toward the little alcove where the sinks stood outside the actual bathroom on the left, he glanced at the sliding panel doors of the closet on the right. He paused with his hands on the doorknobs and drew a deep breath.

He couldn’t see anything in the darkness. The light of a single lamp left burning near the windows cast deeper shadows, and in the blackness there was nothing but emptiness; the echo of shattered breathing, the dull patter of a broken heart. Bas narrowed his eyes, tried to discern a shape in the unfathomable blackness as the sorrow of her aura scalded him; the fear, the pain, the consuming sense of loneliness . . . Sydnie.

“No . . . Kit . . .” she whispered, her voice so soft that he had to strain to hear her. He could sense her upset as she whimpered.

Too dark, too deep, the hurt that she guarded so jealously radiated from her, wrapped around him like a silent entreaty. He could feel her movement, her body shaking somewhere in the shadows. Another soft cry made him wince, and without thinking, reacting on instinct, he lifted her into his arms, cradled her against his chest, clumsily patted her back to soothe her.

She didn’t wake as she buried her face against his chest. Absently noting just now little she actually weighed, he winced as he uttered little sounds meant to comfort her. Slowly she calmed, relaxed in his arms. The frown that marred her features waned but didn’t disappear completely. She looked so vulnerable, so soft, so different from the hellcat he had come to know. ‘Who is she? Who is she really?’

There were no answers, no whispers, no secrets. The bits and pieces that she’d told him only served to further his confusion.   She spoke in riddles, answered in innuendo. Somewhere between the two lay the truth. Cain thought that Bas could get answers out of her? Bas sighed. He wasn’t nearly as confident as his father.

Standing up without waking her, he carefully carried her to the bed. She whimpered when he laid her down, automatically curling into a little ball with her chin tucked into the cradle of her crossed arms.

He pulled the blanket up to her chin and smoothed her hair back gently, kneeling beside her. Studying every angle, every curve of her face, he watched her features contort as she moaned. He stroked her cheek with his knuckles, and marveled as the upset on her face faded. She seemed to scoot toward him, unconsciously seeking the acknowledgement that she wasn’t alone.

She concealed so much behind her tough façade. He’d sensed that before, hadn’t he? ‘She’s not a murderer; I know it . . . She might hide behind her pride; she might infuriate me to no end, but . . .’ Bas shook his head. ‘It’s all just an act, isn’t it? Sydnie—the real Sydnie . . . I don’t think she really is all that tough.’

He finally stood up, his fingertips lingering on her cheek before he turned back toward the chair once more. Absently dragging the blanket over himself as he flopped down and leaned back, he didn’t take his eyes off Sydnie for a very long time.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“We want answers, Zelig,” Jared Brantley demanded, settling back in his chair and shifting a glance around at his fellow generals.

Cain rubbed his eye and shrugged. “You know what I know, Jared. Bas has located her and is in the process of bringing her back for questioning.”

“You sound as if you doubt that she murdered Cal Richardson,” Martin Sanstrom, the general in charge of the west coast division of the North American faction, added.

“I never said that,” Cain countered, dark blue eyes shifting to meet Martin’s stare. “I think that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to check into it a little more. By all accounts, this girl is young. I just wonder if there isn’t more to the situation than we know so far.”

Steve Vasquez—Mexico, and Marshall Billings—southern states—exchanged significant glances. Cain didn’t miss it. “What?” he demanded, his tone sharper than he intended.

Marshall cleared his throat, steepling his fingertips together as he took a moment to figure out the best way to state his concerns. “Are you sure your . . . sense of fairness . . . isn’t impaired by your own dislike for Cal Richardson?”

“Do you honestly believe that?” Cain challenged.

Steve leaned forward, holding out his hands to stave off the escalating argument. “Of course not, Zelig. No one in this room doubts your integrity.”

“The fact is, I’ve heard grumbling,” Marshall went on. “Cal Richardson was a powerful youkai—maybe the most powerful of those who aren’t generals.”

“His power was illusory at best,” Cain cut in coldly. “Power over the weak isn’t really power at all.”

“Be that as it may,” Ben Philips interrupted, “they have a point. Richardson was a bastard; we all knew that. He spent his lifetime saying that the reason he wasn’t chosen as one of your generals was because you feared him. The faster we resolve this, the better.”

Cain shook his head. “I’ll not issue a hunt for a girl who might not actually have done anything wrong at all.”

“She was the last one to see him alive,” Jared pointed out. “The hotel staff working that night said that she accompanied him to his room.”

“Which might account for why the girl ran, don’t you think? I’d run like hell if I were the prime suspect in a murder case,” Cain growled. “Anyway, Bas is bringing her in.”

“When will she be here?” Steve demanded.

“She’ll be here when she gets here,” Cain said.

“I have a few questions for her,” Jared added.

Cain shot him a dark look as he sat up straight and narrowed his eyes. “Yes, well, need I remind you? You’re not the tai-youkai. I’ll question her, and I’ll tell you what she said. I am not asking your approval over my actions, because, to be quite honest, I don’t need it. The office of the tai-youkai has never been a democracy, remember?”

Marshall shook his head and sighed. “The people deserve answers, Zelig. Mark my words: if this girl has killed once, she’ll do it again.”

“I’m not saying that she won’t. I am saying that I just want to talk to her before I make a decision, one way or the other. I might not have liked Cal Richardson, but that doesn’t mean that I’ll ignore a murderer. Then again, we all know what he was capable of.   If this girl had just cause, I won’t sentence her to death, either.”

The generals didn’t respond to that. Whether they were satisfied with Cain’s answers or if they simply didn’t want to garner the wrath of the tai-youkai, Cain wasn’t sure.

They filed out of the study, grumbling to each other without sparing Cain a second glance. He heard Gin’s soft voice bidding the generals goodbye, and he heard the door close. Moments later, she poked her head into the room, offering him a compassionate smile. “Bad meeting?”

“Understatement,” he grumbled, letting his face fall into the cup formed by his raised hands. “Sometimes being tai-youkai sucks—really sucks.”

“Surely they can’t blame you for wanting to make sure that what you decide is fair.”

Cain held out his hand and shook his head. “Oh, they can, and they do . . .”

She stepped into the room and skittered over to his side, slipping her hand into his and letting him pull her into his lap. Nuzzling her hair, letting her scent soothe the frayed edges of his nerves, he couldn’t help but smile at the woman who still looked so young . . . his mate, his world, his life.

“You’ve put a lot of trust in Sebastian,” she mused, tangling her fingers in the long bronze ponytail that hung over Cain’s shoulder.

“I know,” he admitted.

“He won’t let you down.”

“I know that, too . . .” Cain scooped Gin up and stood, depositing her on her feet before stalking across the floor. “That’s the thing, baby girl,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if he brings her back or not. If he succeeds in his hunt or even if he fails . . . Bas . . . Bas won’t ever let me down. He’s my son.”

Gin’s smile was bright though her lips trembled, her eyes filled with tears. “You’re a good man, Cain Zelig, and your son is a good man, too.”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Sydnie’s claws were literally embedded in the armrest mounted to the passenger side car door, and for once, the cat-youkai was completely silent. She’d been like that the entire time since early this morning when he’d finally managed to get her out of Los Angeles. She’d tried cajoling him into getting a room when they’d stopped for lunch just after they’d crossed the border between California and Arizona.

“You okay, Sydnie?” he asked without taking his eyes off the road.

She didn’t answer.

“Haven’t you ever ridden in a car before?”

Her head jerked once: no.

“Really?”

He could feel her eyes penetrating her skull. “No.”

“Not . . . ever?”

“A few times, when I was little,” she replied. “Does it matter? I just don’t like cars.”

Bas flicked his wrist, glancing at his watch with a sigh. ‘Only four in the afternoon . . . damn it . . .’ He shot her a quick glance. She was staring out the window, her golden skin pale under the California tan. He could only see a sliver of her face, but he couldn’t mistake the absolute panic in her youki, either. “We can’t stop yet,” he told her, his tone almost apologetic. “We need to put in a few more hours of driving time.”

She nodded slightly. Bas grimaced. They were closing in on gas station, and while they didn’t need fuel, he knew that Sydnie desperately needed the break. He pulled up beside the only empty pump and killed the engine. “Need anything?”

Her hands were shaking as she fumbled with the handle. “No,” she muttered, her voice barely above a whisper.

He reached across her and grasped the latch. “No running?”

“I’ll think about it,” she replied though her tone lacked much of her usual candor.

Bas nodded, figuring that was probably as good as he was likely to get, and pulled the lever to open the door. Sydnie stumbled out of the car, taking a moment to draw a deep breath before she squared her shoulders and slowly, deliberately, walked toward the gas station doors.

How can she not have traveled in a car?

Is it really so hard to believe, Bas? She lived in LA, for God’s sake, and she’s youkai. She’s probably never had to ride in one before.’

He frowned, drumming his claws against the steering wheel for a moment before opening his door and stepping onto the asphalt. Carefully standing so that the gas fumes were carried away from him, he started refueling and turned his face to the side.

The trill of his cell phone cut through him like a knife. Grimacing as he dug into the inner pocket of his black leather duster, he frowned as he flipped it open and hit the ‘connect’ button. “Hello?”

“Bas. Can you talk?”

Bas peered over his shoulder. He could see Sydnie through the window. She was looking at a shelf of generic truck stop knickknacks. “For a minute.”

Cain Zelig’s sigh was audible. “How’s it going?”

“All right. We’re on Interstate 10 . . . I’m hoping to reach New Mexico before we stop for the night, but I’m not so sure that’ll happen . . .”

“Oh?”

“Sydnie . . . hates cars.”

“Does she?”

Bas managed to unhook the nozzle and recap the gas tank one-handed. “Yeah, she does. Says she never rode in one before.”

Cain digested that for a moment before speaking again. “Have you gotten any information out of her? Anything at all?”

“Not yet.”

“Damn it.”

“Why?”

“The generals are demanding answers. They want to know why nothing’s been done as yet.”

“Last I heard, the generals took orders from you; not the other way around,” Bas remarked as he strode toward the station.

“Yeah, I reminded them of that. Anyway, I’m counting on you, Bas. You’ve told me that she isn’t a murderer, and I trust your judgment. The only way to save her is to get her to talk.”

“I’d love to, Dad,” Bas grumbled. “It’s not that easy. Getting straight answers out of her . . . well, it’s damn near impossible.”

“Trade stories with her. Maybe if you told her a little about yourself, you could get her to open up a little.”

“What? You said not to tell anyone who I am.”

“And I’m not telling you to tell her that, either. Just . . . you know . . . little things so she feels like she can trust you.”

Bas sighed and rolled his eyes as he jerked the door open and strode inside. Sydnie had moved on to a small section of the store with an array of travel size toiletries and some other grooming items that travelers were notorious for forgetting. She pulled a hairbrush off the rack and stared at it for a moment before replacing the item and sauntering toward the check out counter. He frowned. She didn’t appear to have anything to pay for . . .

“I don’t know . . .”

“Just try, Bas. That’s all I’m asking. I’d hate to order a hunt for someone who might have had just cause.”

Bas rubbed his temple and nodded. Sydnie said something to the boy behind the counter and dug some money out of her purse as the boy retrieved a pack of cigarettes. She smiled sweetly and dropped the change into her purse before sauntering out of the store once more. Standing beside the car, she tapped the cigarette pack against the heel of her hand and dug one out of the pack, pausing to wave at him before lighting the end and exhaling a puff of smoke.

“All right,” he agreed, wondering why such a simple gesture could make him want to smile. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Keep me posted.”

“Yes, sir.”

Cain sighed again. “Thanks.”

The line went dead, and Bas snapped the device closed. Striding over to grab a soda out of the glass cooler, he stopped and stared at the single serving sized bottles of milk lined up in a plastic rack in a cooler further down. He grabbed one and let the door slide closed with a dull thump before heading for the check out to pay for the drinks and the fuel, stopping along the way to nab the brush Sydnie had been eyeing and deliberately trying to keep from analyzing why he wanted to buy it for her. On impulse, he picked up two tacky little silver spoons with an enameled picture of a cactus and the word ‘Arizona’ emblazoned over it—one for his mother, who collected the cheesy keepsakes, and one for Sydnie—before heaving a sigh and hurrying over to the checkout before he could impulse-buy anything else for the crazy feline.

Sydnie ground out the butt of her cigarette under the spiked heel of the black stiletto shoe as Bas drew nearer. Tucking his soda under the arm that held her milk, he quickly shoved the other items into his pocket. “Here, cat,” he said, tossing the milk bottle to her.

She caught it and turned it over in her hands. “What’s this, puppy?”

“Let me move the car, and we can go for a short walk.”

Emerald eyes narrowing in suspicion, she nodded slowly as he ran around to the driver’s side and got into the car. She stayed put while he moved the vehicle into one of the parking spaces beside the station. He climbed out of the car and waited as she wandered over. “Where are we going?” she asked, one deep auburn brow disappearing under her thick fringe of bangs.

“Just for a walk,” he told her, twisting the cap off his soda and tossing it into a nearby trashcan. “Unless I’m mistaken, and you want to get right back into the car . . .”

“I didn’t say that,” she said as she glided toward him, a lazy grin twitching on her lips, her voice low, husky . . . almost a purr.

Bas stared at her for a moment before stuffing his hands into his pockets and jerking his head to indicate that she should follow him.

“Where are we?” she asked, falling into step beside him as she broke the seal on the milk container.

“Arizona.”

She digested that as she tipped the drink to her lips. “Well, I knew that much, pretty boy . . . where, exactly, in Arizona are we?”

He snorted. “Pfft! Then you should reconsider the way you word things,” he informed her but chuckled. “We’re about sixty miles from Tucson.”

“How much further do you want to go today?”

“New Mexico.” He pulled the brush out of his pocket and handed it to her. “Here.”

“Why’d you buy this?”

“You were looking at it, weren’t you?” he grumbled.

Sydnie made a face. “So?”

“So that’s why I bought it.”

“I don’t want it.”

“Then throw it away.”

“But it’s brand new.”

“And I have one. Do you?”

Sydnie didn’t reply right away. “I make do.”

“Oh, for the love of—”

“I could have bought my own,” she pointed out.

“Yeah, you could have, but now you don’t need to.”

“Does money just grow on the trees for you?”

“What?”

She walked faster. “You toss it around like there’s no tomorrow. I’m not jealous, mind you. I simply think you’re incredibly wasteful.”

“Oh, that’s rich . . . Sydnie, I’m not your enemy.”

She stopped, her chin dropping as she drew a deep breath. “That’s where you’re wrong.”

“Fine, fine . . . I swear I’ll never buy you another brush again.”

Her head snapped up, and Bas grimaced. “How much do I owe you for the milk?” she demanded.

Bas shot her a disbelieving look. “Nothing, Sydnie.”

He could sense the return of her legendary pride. It blew in on the crisp autumn air. “But—”

Rounding on her, glowering at her misplaced show of stubborn pride, Bas shook his head, held up his hand to silence her. “Why do you have to be so damn stubborn? It’s just milk; that’s all.”

“I refuse to owe you, Bas the Hunter. I refuse to owe a single soul.”

“Look,” he said, raking his hand through his hair. “The tai-youkai gave explicit instructions that I was to bring you back. He didn’t say a single thing about making you go without.”

Her eyes flared wide, nostrils quivering, and he could sense the rage that spiked in her aura. “The tai-youkai? Fuck him. Fuck you both . . . I don’t need a damn thing from either of you; not your pity, not your sympathy, and certainly not your milk.”

“What is your problem with him? What did he ever do to you?”

“Nothing,” she spat as indignant color blossomed in her cheeks. “Nothing at all.”

“Really,” he challenged, crossing his arms over his chest as he met her defiant glare with one of his own. “You sound like you hate the man.”

“I do.”

“Have you met him before?”

“Of course not!” she scoffed.

“Hmm, well, you can’t very well hate someone you’ve never actually met.”

“I can, and I do. Get over it, puppy.”

She started to stomp away. Bas caught her arm and pulled her back. “Tell me why.”

He didn’t think she was going to answer. Eyes narrowing dangerously in an entirely feline way, she pursed her lips and shifted her gaze to the side. He loosened his grip but didn’t let go. The sound of her voice—soft, silky—startled him. “I told you. He did nothing.”

Bas shook his head, stifling the urge to growl at her incessant riddles. “How could you hate him if he didn’t do anything?”

She finally looked back at him. Every line of her face was etched in fury. The wind whipped her hair into her face, her eyes, and she didn’t blink. “It’s easy. It’s simple. I never said he didn’t do anything. I said he did nothing. There’s a huge difference.”

“Hide behind your riddles, Sydnie, if they help you sleep at night, but then, you don’t sleep at night, do you?”

“What?”

Bas snorted. “Your nightmares. I’ve heard them. Tell me why I found you in the closet.”

She snapped her mouth closed, eyes darting away as a furious blush rose in her cheeks. “Was I?”

“Yeah, you were. Why?”

Sydnie shrugged, a thin smile backed by bravado and little else gracing her lips. “Maybe I was sleepwalking.”

“Maybe,” he agreed. “I don’t think you were. What were you hiding from?”

She rolled her eyes, uttered a terse laugh. “I don’t hide, Bas the Hunter.”

“God, you have got to be the most infuriating creature on earth!” he fumed, letting go of her arm and squeezing a fistful of air in his empty hand.

“Puppy . . .”

“What?” he snarled.

“Your shoe is untied.”

Bas erupted in a low growl. “If you think I’m going to fall for that line of shit again—”

“Whatever. You were warned.”

Careening around, she darted down the road. “Damn it!” he ground out. He started to sprint after her but stumbled, catching himself before he ended up face-first in the dirt. Glancing down as he gave chase, he ground his teeth together as his face exploded in a painful blush.

So they really are untied,’ his youkai commented, obviously amused by the predicament.

Shut up.’

That’s what you get for wearing sneakers today.’

Bas forced himself to run faster, stifling a groan as Sydnie veered off the road and neatly vaulted over a short wire fence. He followed suite, thankful that there was nowhere for the infuriating cat to hide. Launching himself at her, he tackled her, arms locking around her as he turned just before impact so that he took the brunt of the fall.

“Let go, you stupid dog!” she hollered, squirming for her freedom as she pushed against his chest.

“Oh, I will,” he growled. Securing her with one arm, he dug the handcuffs from his pocket with his free hand, deftly flicking his wrist to open the gadget before slapping it around one of her slender wrists.

No!

“Yes,” he countered, easily catching her other wrist and securing the cuff before shoving her off and sitting up to tie his shoe.

“I hate you!”

“Feeling’s mutual!”

“Take these off me!”

Bas stood up and grabbed the short chain between her wrists, jerking her to her feet and dragging her back toward the road.

“Ouch!”

“Save it, Sydnie.”

“You’re an ass—a complete ass. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who quite measures up to your level of assitude.”

He kept walking, ignoring her tirade.

She stumbled. He yanked on the chain to keep her moving. “Tell me, Bas,” she ground out.

“Tell you what, Sydnie?”

“Is Bas short for ‘bastard’?”

He snorted but didn’t stop.   “Is Sydnie short for ‘bitch’?”

“I swear, I’m never talking to you again, you mutt!”

Bas hefted her over his shoulder and jumped over the fence. He could only hope that she was being serious for once. . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Hold out your hands.”

Sydnie shot Bas a glare, uttered a low ‘hrumph’ and turned her attention back to the television screen.

He rolled his eyes, wiggling his fingers in a gesture meant to hurry her along. “Don’t be stubborn.”

She lifted the remote control between her bound hands and flipped through the stations until she found something that suited her: reruns of Friends on Classic Comedy Central.

“Knock it off, cat,” he growled, kneeling before her and tugging her hands toward him.

Bas turned the tiny key and pulled the cuff away when it sprang open. Sydnie jerked her hand back, cradling it against her chest as he unlocked the second restraint. Grimacing at the bluish red that ringed her slender limbs, he held onto her left hand despite her resolve to pull away. He stifled a sigh. He’d smelled her blood just after they’d entered the Lordsburg, New Mexico city limits and stopped to eat at a small diner just inside town. At least, he’d eaten. She’d refused to let anyone see her bound wrists, and had opted instead to keep her hands in her lap under the table top. The only concession she’d made was to pull her glass of milk close enough so that she could reach the straw. He’d stopped at the first decent hotel he could find after that. Sydnie hadn’t deigned to speak a single word to him since she’d announced that she was never speaking to him again. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know just why that bothered him, either.

Tiny lacerations oozed trace amounts of blood, and she sucked in a sharp breath when he gently rubbed his thumbs over the sensitive skin. ‘I left them on her too long . . . I should have known she’d never tell me if they hurt her . . . Way too proud for her own damn good . . .’ Leaning in close, he licked the wounds, the coppery tinge of her blood drawing a grimace that she—thankfully—didn’t see.

“B-Bas?” she stammered, trying to jerk her hands away. He held on, concentrating instead on cleaning her wounds on a purely instinctual level. “Wh-what are you doing?

Bas blinked and glanced up, realizing a moment too late just what he had been doing. Dropping her wrists as he sat back on his heels, he turned his face away as he fought down an agonizing blush.

Sydnie alternated as she rubbed her wrists, her cheeks nearly as pink as his.

“You should have told me that they were chafing you,” he grumbled under his breath.

She snorted. “I told you they hurt.”

Shoving himself off the floor, he stood up and stomped over to his suitcase. “Yeah, you did—in that loud, obnoxious way that meant they really didn’t hurt at all—at the time.”

He could feel her eyes boring in the back of his skull as he dug through the suitcase for clean clothes.

“If you hadn’t been yanking me around like some sort of rag doll—”

Shaking his head as he stared up at the ceiling, Bas drew a deep breath and tried not to lose his temper. “You were trying to run away!”

“And just what was that a minute ago?”

“What was what?

“You were slobbering all over me!”

“That—I—You—I wasn’t slobbering!

“Oh? Then what would you call it, puppy?”

“I was cleaning your wounds!”

“Why would you do that?’ she hollered, rising on the bed, standing on her knees, arms crossed over her chest.

“I haven’t a clue!”

“You should!”

“Why?”

“Because you did it to me!”

Bas threw his hands up at his sides and stomped toward the bathroom. “I’m taking a shower. If you’re not here when I get out, I’ll find you, and I’ll stick you back in those handcuffs for the rest of the trip, so help me God!”

She grabbed a throw pillow off the bed and hurled it at him just as he slammed the door. “Argh!” she bellowed. Bas sighed.

He tossed his clothes onto the counter beside the sink and locked the door, wondering why it was that he always seemed to lose every last ounce of common sense he had whenever Sydnie was even remotely close.

You’re just upset that you inadvertently hurt her.’

Oh, hell, aren’t you dead yet?

His youkai chuckled. ‘Not by a long shot, Bas. Anyway, it’s a set-up.’

A set-up?

Yeah . . . like a sting operation, and that girl . . . she’s the one pulling the strings.’

You make it sound as though she’s the puppet master.’

Maybe she is. Bas . . . your father told you, right? You have to be careful . . .’

Careful? I’m being careful.’

She’s dangerous.’

I can handle her. She’s just a scared little kitty, trapped in a room full of rocking chairs.’

Cute, cute . . . don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

Bas yanked the shirt over his head and dropped it on the floor, his eyes darkening as he sank down on the lid of the toilet and leaned forward, letting his face fall into his open hands. ‘She’s making me look like a fool,’ he fumed, wincing as the image of Sydnie’s earnest expression, as her words whispered in his mind.

Your shoes are untied . . .”

No wonder she didn’t ever seem like she was taking him seriously. ‘Hell, I wouldn’t take me seriously,’ he thought with a grimace. ‘Damn it . . .’

He’d been trained to fight by the best of the best. He’d started his training with his father, and despite the fact that Cain Zelig wasn’t really a fighter at heart, he was certainly no slouch. If push came to shove, he could take care of business. It was simply that Cain chose to try other ways, viewing fighting and violence as absolute last-resort. At nine, Bas had been sent to his grandfather, InuYasha, the hanyou of legend. Gruff and surly, what InuYasha lacked in people skills he more than made up for in his ability to fiercely protect those whom he considered his own. During the summers Bas had spent with his Japanese grandparents, he’d trained with his cousin, Morio and the future Japanese tai-youkai, Mamoruzen—better known as Gunnar—Inutaisho, Bas’ second cousin.

Gunnar’s mother, Sierra was originally from Chicago, and while her husband, Toga had insisted that his successor have a Japanese name, Sierra had complained that Mamoruzen was too difficult for her son to say. She’d started calling him ‘Gunnar’, and so had everyone else. At fifteen, both Gunnar and Bas had started alternating between being trained by Cain and being trained by Sesshoumaru Inutaisho, the current Japanese tai-youkai. It had cemented the friendship that extended beyond simply being second cousins, and the years of training had given Bas the skills necessary to protect himself and to defend his right to be the North American tai-youkai. The thing was, something about Sydnie constantly disarmed him . . .

She’s catty . . . she’s clever . . . but I don’t think she’s as much of a fighter as she is an actress.’

An actress, huh?

Think about it, Bas . . . she’s not a murderess; you’ve said as much yourself, but she’s tough, and she’s got the art of escaping down to a science.’

Whatever. It doesn’t matter. The faster I get her back to Maine, the faster I’ll be rid of her.’

Don’t forget the other stuff your father said. Someone needs to get the story out of her.’

Yeah? Well, count me out. She hates me, and at the moment, I’m not too fond of her, either.’

That’s just your bruised ego talking.’

Bas kicked his shoes off and leaned down to tug at his socks. ‘How do you figure?

You’re irritated because Sydnie didn’t like your attention.’

What? That’s ridiculous! I don’t care about that! I don’t even know why I did that!” he blustered, face growing hot at the reminder of what he’d done.

Don’t you? Come on, Bas . . . You knew what you were doing on some level.’

Standing up to shed his jeans, Bas kicked them off and turned on the shower tap with a vicious jerk. ‘Dunno what you’re talking about.’

Keep telling yourself that. Maybe someday you’ll believe it.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Sydnie sank down on the bed, staring at her wrists with a thoughtful frown. A delicious shiver prickled up her spine at the memory of Bas’ touch. She didn’t understand exactly what it meant, but the languor that seeped into her very bones made her swallow hard as she pressed her wrists to her chest. ‘Why did he do that?

The stillness of the hotel room was broken only by the dull hiss of the running shower, and Sydnie bit the side of her bottom lip. What was it about Bas the Hunter that spoke to her in a voice so quiet and yet so very powerful at the same time?

He’s nothing . . . just the means to an end, right?

Do you believe that?

She glanced up at the television, and made a face, retrieving the remote control and turning up the volume. ‘Yes, I do.

He keeps you on your toes, Sydnie. He does things for you. You might say you’re independent and that you don’t need anyone, but the fact is, you like that he takes care of you, even if it isn’t a permanent thing.’

I don’t, and he doesn’t. He doesn’t do anything but yell at me.’

Oh, and you don’t do a thing to deserve that, do you?

That is completely irrelevant. What I do or don’t do doesn’t matter. Bas is the one who bullied me into coming along with him, and . . .’ she trailed off as her frown deepened as she rubbed her wrists again. ‘Why did he do that?

I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him?

Sydnie snorted and scrambled off the bed. ‘I think I will.’

Sydnie . . . what are you doing?

Rolling her eyes as she strode toward the closed bathroom door, she finally broke into a smile. ‘Like you said, I’m going to ask him,’ she thought as she jiggled the doorknob. ‘Locked . . . smart puppy . . .’

I meant after he comes back out.’

Procrastination is the root of all evil.’

So you say, so you say . . .’

Kneeling down, she cocked her head to the side and licked her lips as she examined the lock. It was a simple hole in the middle of the knob—standard, if not somewhat cheap. One strategic poke later, and the knob twisted easily enough. ‘Score one for the kitty . . .’

Your inability to wait is going to be the death of us.’

If you didn’t want me to go in, then you shouldn’t have told me to ask him.’

Her youkai only heaved a sigh as she deftly turned the knob and strolled into the bathroom. “Bas, I was wondering—”

“Ah!” he hollered, “Sydnie!

She giggled. “Something the matter, puppy?”

“Get out!”

“In a minute.”

He erupted in a menacing growl. “Will you get out of here?”

“I will; I will . . . Let me ask you a question first.”

“You can ask me after I get done in here,” he snarled.

Sydnie heaved a melodramatic sigh and jerked the shower curtain aside. “Tell me—oh my . . .” Eyes rounding in wonder as her smile brightened, she stared at Bas’ very naked, very wet backside. Glancing over his shoulder, face a deep shade of crimson, he turned away from her a little more as he dropped the bar of soap and glowered at her, slapping the only thing available—the cheap, thin hotel washcloth—-over his crotch, which was amusing since she couldn’t see that side of him at all. Hair plastered to his head with the points of his ears peeking up through the tangled strands, the muted bronze was darker; made his eyes appear to glow brighter, fiercer. Muscles rippled under his skin . . . Wide shoulders tapered to a narrow waist . . . She couldn’t help but gape at the cute little indentations just above his buttocks, and without a second thought, she reached out, giving one of his cheeks a firm squeeze.

He jerked away with a hiss, slamming against the wall. “Sydnie!” he snapped. “Get out of here!”

Uttering a shaky laugh, she forced her eyes to meet his. “You should walk around bare-assed more often,” she goaded.

Bas blushed a little darker and reached back to yank the shower curtain closed. “Shut up, cat.”

Sydnie pushed the curtain out of the way again. Bas caught it and tried to pull it closed once more. A moment later, the curtain gave with a loud ripping sound. Bas spared a moment to glare at Sydnie before stretching to nab the towel hanging over the rack.

“Need some help, Bas the Hunter?” she offered innocently.

He fumbled with the towel, trying to wrap it around his hips without allowing her any more of a view than she was already getting. “Damn it, Sydnie! Get the hell out, will you?”

“Not until I ask you—”

Now!” he bellowed.

Sydnie started to reach out to touch his chest as he tucked the end of the towel in. “Oh, calm down! You shouldn’t be ashamed of your body.”

“I’m not ashamed of my body,” he grumbled, shoving her hand away from his chest as he shut off the water and glared at her.

“You absolutely should consider running around without your clothes more often.”

“Get the hell out of here, Sydnie, or I’ll—”

“Get out?” she repeated with an innocent blink.

Yes, damn it!” he snarled.

She broke into an enigmatic little grin. “If you say so, puppy . . . It’s been a real slice.”

Turning on her heel, she sauntered out of the bathroom, grabbing her purse off the end of the bed as she walked past, pausing long enough to slip on her stilettos before heading for the door.

That was low, even for you, Syd.’

He’s the one who said that he wanted me to get out.’

Getting out of the bathroom is one thing . . . he didn’t mean for you to leave.’

Then he should be more careful when choosing his words, don’t you think?

Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you . . .’

Yeah, yeah . . . hush, will you?’ She grasped the doorknob and turned. ‘Free as a bird . . . or in this case, a kitty . . .’

The hand that flashed past her head to slam the door made her gasp out loud as the doorknob slipped from her grip. Moments later, the rough jerk on her arm that brought her around and flush against a damp, hard body forced the breath out of her as she stared, transfixed, into the golden eyes ablaze with irritation. He gripped her biceps in his hands, tightly enough to keep her from bolting, but not nearly tight enough to hurt her. Her heart hammered against her ribcage, so loudly that she wondered vaguely whether or not he could hear it, too. “Fancy meeting you here, pretty boy . . . Anything I can do for you?”

“Where the fuck do you think you’re going?” he growled, jaws clenched so tightly that his cheeks bulged just a little.

She flashed him a grin full of more bravado than she was feeling and shrugged. “You told me to get out, remember?”

“You knew what I meant.”

“Then you should reconsider the way you word things,” she said, using his words against him.

“Don’t play with me, Sydnie.”

“You might like it, puppy.”

“Damn it—”

Swallowing hard as she lifted her hand, running her index finger down the shallow vale in the center of his chest, she cleared her throat before she could find her voice. “You’re still all wet, Bas the Hunter. If you don’t dry off, you’re going to catch a . . . cold.”

He shook his head, eyes never leaving her face as his nostrils flared, as his eyes burned brighter.

“I could help you,” she offered. Leaning toward him, pressing her hands against his damp skin, she flicked out her tongue, caught a droplet of water that was running down his chest. He gasped and jerked back but didn’t relinquish his hold on her. She stepped forward and repeated the process again—more daringly this time; her tongue raking against his flesh. He uttered a ragged groan, closing his eyes for a moment before tightening his grip. Fingers digging into her arms, he didn’t seem to notice, and Sydnie wasn’t inclined to mention it, either. The heat in his stare burned her, and this time, Sydnie was the one who couldn’t look away. She cleared her throat and pressed her lips together as he simply stared at her.

“D-Don’t . . . do that . . .”

“Don’t do what?”

He grimaced, swallowing hard. “Don’t . . . lick . . . me.”

“Why not?”

“It’s . . . it’s . . . unsanitary.”

She giggled. “No more unsanitary than you licking my wounds earlier.”

He blinked as the florid blush deepened. “Sydnie . . .”

Slipping her arms around his neck, she stood on tiptoe, pulling his head down, her lips lingering so close to his that she could feel the moist heat of his breath. “Yes?”

Water dripped from his hair like rain on her cheeks. He stared at her, his expression an odd mix of hesitant fascination and unmistakable distrust. The conflicting emotions lent a brightness to his gaze that intensified as she licked away a droplet of moisture that trembled precariously on the edge of his upper lip.

“Stop . . .” he murmured, his tone more bemused than demanding.

“What’s wrong, pretty boy? Frightened of a little . . . pussy?”

He flinched at her choice of wording. “I just . . . You should . . . Sydnie . . .”

“Hmm?”

His reply was cut off by a sharp hiss of breath when Sydnie nipped his chin. Pulling her closer, his muscles straining as he tried to resist her, Bas uttered a low growl as she let her hands trail along his shoulders; down his arms.

He squeezed his eyes closed as Sydnie stared, transfixed by the conflicting emotion that he just couldn’t hide. “Stop,” he demanded, his voice harsh despite the subtle hint of underlying longing. “Just . . . stop.”

“Do you really want me to?”

His nod seemed more like an afterthought, and he cleared his throat, grimacing slightly as she let her claws drag along the skin of his sides, down his waist, down his hips, tracing along the edge of the towel as his muscles jumped under her inspection. Wincing, he let go of her arms only to grab her wrists, jerking them away from his body, her claw caught in the hem of the towel, and he growled as she tugged the end loose. Shoving her hands back, he grabbed the towel before it fell, stepping back as an infusion of heat and color surged under his skin. “Damn it, cat . . . just . . .” He trailed off as he backed away before turning to stride off toward the bathroom once more.

Sydnie’s soft laughter filled the room, gaze trained on the sagging towel that barely covered his ass. “Need some help, puppy?”

He snorted but kept walking, slamming the bathroom door behind him.

Her laughter faded but her smile didn’t. Sure, she’d known that he was strong. Of course she’d sensed as much. She just hadn’t expected him to be put together quite so well; that was all . . . Bas the Hunter was just full of surprises, wasn’t he?

The smile widened as a soft giggle escaped her. ‘Well, well, well . . . what other surprises do you have for me, pretty boy?

She shoved herself away from the door and sauntered around the room, prowling, she supposed, like a feline. ‘We’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we?

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Bas dropped into the nearest chair by the table, studiously ignoring Sydnie, who was sitting on the bed, legs tucked demurely to one side as she carefully examined her claws.

To add to his discomfort, it had only taken him a minute to figure out that his clothes were soaked. When the curtain had been pulled down, the errant spray had misted everything in the room, his clean clothes included. So he’d had to stomp right back out of the bathroom to dig more out of his bag, much to Sydnie’s undisguised amusement. Since all the towels were wet, too, he’d had to settle for the driest of them, which wasn’t really dry at all. Damp skin worked against him, making his clothes cling to him uncomfortably, but he’d finally managed to get dressed, and by the time he’d stepped out of the bathroom, he’d almost wished that Sydnie were gone. At least then he’d be able to relieve some of his aggressions by chasing her. In true Sydnie form, though, she hadn’t done any such thing.

At least she’s not laughing at you anymore,’ his youkai pointed out reasonably.

Aw, shut up, will you?

Okay, you’re mad because you liked what she does to you. You just don’t know what’s in it for her.’

I . . . I said to shut up.’

Come on, Bas . . . think about it. Sydnie never does anything without a reason. What do you suppose she’s after?

Isn’t it obvious? She’s trying to kill me.’

Don’t be stupid.’

He sighed. ‘She’s just trying to get under my skin.’

Maybe she likes you.’

Ri-i-i-ight . . .’

Then ask her.’

Like she’ll give me a straight answer. She doesn’t know the meaning of that.’

Then maybe she’s just playing with you. She’s a cat, right?

Deliberately ignoring the sarcasm in his youkai’s voice, Bas snorted inwardly. ‘That’s exactly what she’s doing. Damn it. She’s just batting me around like a fucking mouse . . .’

Bas—’

“Are you going to ignore me all night, puppy?”

He stifled a growl. “That was the plan, yes.”

“Why would you want to do that?”

“Look, Sydnie, I don’t know what the hell you’re trying to do, but you can knock it off. I’m here to do a job, not to entertain you. Got that?”

“You sound a little angry, Bas the Hunter . . . is something wrong?”

“Just stop, all right? Stop with the riddles and the innuendos . . . stop trying to fuck with me, okay?”

She sat back, leaning on her hands. “Fuck with you? Is that what you think I’m trying to do?”

“Aren’t you?”

She sighed, lips turning down in a pout. “Maybe I’m finding a new respect for dogs.”

“Sure, Sydnie.” He shook his head and rubbed his forehead to stave back a rising headache. “I’m not a toy, okay, and I’m not stupid.”

“What makes you believe that I think you’re either of those things?”

“Come off it, cat. It’s not like we’re on a vacation here. I’m taking you to Maine. I’m taking you to the tai-youkai.”

Her back stiffened at the mention of the tai-youkai. “That’s right . . . That’s right . . . How stupid of me. You don’t really think I’d forgotten that, do you?”

“I don’t know.” He stood up and sighed, striding over to grab the room service menu from the caddy behind the telephone. “Just stay the hell away from me. I mean it.”

She was silent for a moment. When she didn’t respond, he shifted his gaze to the side, eyeing her cautiously. She sat back, mouth rounding in an ‘oh’ as her eyes lit with some sort of understanding that eluded Bas’ comprehension. “I get it . . .”

“Get what?”

She waved her hand, curling her legs under her as she sat up and squared her shoulders. “You’ve got a bitch back home, don’t you?”

“That’s none of your b—yes,” he blurted, face reddening as he tamped down the misplaced feeling of guilt that assailed him over the lie.

Blinking rapidly, she managed a stiff little smile as she slowly scooted off the bed. “I see.”

Bas watched as Sydnie strolled over to his suitcase, hefted it onto the bureau, and deftly unfastened the locks. “What are you doing?” he demanded.

She didn’t even spare him a glance, lifting the lid and carefully rummaging through it. “What’s her name?” she asked, her tone carefully neutral. He couldn’t see her face.

“Her name?”

She nodded as she pulled a neatly folded shirt and sniffed it. “Uh-huh.”

His mind blanked as he tried to think of a name—any name—to appease the cat. “Mad-Madison,” he said, latching onto the first female name that came to mind; the first female name that didn’t actually belong to a family member. “What are you doing?”

Dropping the shirt on the short bureau, she reached for the next one, repeating the smelling process before answering. “What does it look like I’m doing?”

Bas stared as she continued sniffing through more of his clothes. “You’re not going to smell anything in there.”

She shot him a dark glower.

“No, I mean it. You’re not.”

“We’ll see, puppy.”

“Why do you care, Sydnie?”

“I don’t.”

“You don’t, but you’re sniffing all my things?”

She shot him a cursory glance as she lifted a pair of jeans to her nose. “That’s right,” she replied sweetly enough, her voice muffled by the coarse denim.

“You’d have a fit if I rifled through your purse.”

“That’s different,” she shot back.

“How so?”

She dropped the jeans onto the pile of shirts and reached into the suitcase once more. “It just is.”

Bas rolled his eyes and pushed her aside, scooping up his clothes and smashing them back into the suitcase again. “Enough, cat.”

She hopped onto the lid of the suitcase after he’d fastened the clasps. “Is she youkai?”

He leaned back, staring at her, trying to figure out just what was going through her head. “Yes, she is.”

“What kind of youkai?”

“Half pole cat—well, mostly pole cat. Her father is pole cat, anyway . . .”

“A pole cat?” Sydnie demanded, eyebrows disappearing under her thick fringe of bangs. “You’re dating a skunk?

Why did it have to sound even worse coming from Sydnie? Bas swatted her hip with the menu that he still held in his hand. “Move it.”

She wrinkled her nose and leaned to the side, allowing him better access to her rear. “Care to try again?”

Bas rolled his eyes but couldn’t stave back the blush that rose. “Just get off my suitcase . . . not that you’d hurt it since you’re so fucking scrawny.”

She opened and closed her mouth a few times as indignant color tinted her skin. “I’m not scrawny!” she gasped.

“You are,” he countered mildly. “Disgustingly scrawny, actually . . .”

Disgustingly . . .?” she sputtered.

Bas wrapped his hand around her upper arm and nodded at where his fingers overlapped themselves. “Scrawny,” he stated again.

“I’m not scrawny,” she gritted out, yanking her arm away from him. “I’m sleek. There’s a huge difference, puppy.”

He chuckled and leaned in toward her, his face no more than inches away from hers. “You’re scrawny, cat—pathetically so. Get used to it.”

She snorted, shoving him back and hopping off the suitcase before she stomped over to the bed and threw herself down on it in a huff. The bed barely trembled, and Bas tried not to laugh—and resisted the urge to point that out to her, too. “I’m from LA, pretty boy. Everyone’s skinny in LA . . . have you seen most of the famous actresses? They’re all underweight—in fact, they’re probably more underweight than I am.”

“They say the camera adds ten pounds,” he agreed.

“See?”

“Sydnie?”

“What?”

“You’re not on TV.”

“So how . . . chubby . . . is your bitch?”

That effectively ended his amusement. Bas winced inwardly. “She’s not chubby,” he told her, “but she’s not scrawny, either.”

“Does she stink?”

Bas shot her a dark glower. “No, she doesn’t.”

“Well, she’s a skunk.”

“And that isn’t even remotely funny.”

“I think it’s hilarious.”

“Yeah, and you’re bent, too.”

“Are you sure you have a girlfriend?”

“Are you calling me a liar?”

“Oh, heavens no!” she said, her eyes wide with mock innocence. “I’m just wondering why you didn’t mention her before, and you know what they say . . .”

He turned away, pinching the bridge of his nose and closing his eyes. “No, I don’t. What do they say?”

“If it looks like a skunk . . .”

“Sydnie . . .”

“And it smells like a skunk . . .”

“Cat . . .”

“Then it must be a skunk.”

“Quiet.”

“But you know, you don’t smell anything like skunk, so that can only mean one of two things . . .”

Whipping around to pin her with as menacing a glower as he could muster, Bas planted his hands on his hips and narrowed his eyes. “Can we drop this?”

“Hmm, nice try, puppy . . .”

“I mean it.”

“Either you’re lying about having a bitch . . . or you haven’t been very close to her . . .” Her expression brightened dramatically as she snapped her fingers and rolled onto her hands and knees, staring at Bas with undisguised amusement. “Is she frigid?”

Bas stifled a growl. “No!”

“Are you?”

“Will you just shut the hell up, Sydnie? Just sit there . . . don’t talk, don’t think—don’t do anything!

She opened her mouth to argue.

He poked a finger at her. “Not . . . a . . . thing.”

She scowled at him, sitting up and crossing her arms over her chest. “For how long?”

“Knock it off! Just sit there while I order something for you to eat.”

“I’m not hungry,” she ground out.

“Well, too damn bad! You look like you’re going to blow away if the wind picks up! If you weren’t youkai, I’d swear you were anorexic.”

She snapped her mouth closed and seemed to shrink back a little. Bas ignored the twinge of guilt that assailed him as he turned around and grabbed the phone. ‘Irritating cat . . . I swear to God, she’s trying to kill me . . .’

Bas’ youkai sighed.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Bas made short work of ordering a meal along with a gallon of milk for Sydnie and slouched into a chair, shaking out the newspaper and taking refuge behind it while he waited for her meal to be delivered. The relief he felt over her odd silence faded quickly enough, only to be replaced by distinct twinges of guilt over the lie as well as over the harshness of his words. Peering at her out of the corners of his eye, he scowled. Letting the newspaper slip as the pretense of inattention fell away, he watched Sydnie.

Her eyes kept roaming over the room, coming to rest time and again on the tiny closet across from the bathroom. There was another small closet near the door, but that one didn’t seem to interest her at all. ‘Why?’ Bas wondered with a scowl. ‘Why closets?

He’d found her in one the night she’d had the nightmare. Why would she do that?

He shook his head. The only person who could answer that was Sydnie, and she certainly wasn’t talking. His father’s words came back to him, and he sighed.

Yeah, I reminded them of that. Anyway, I’m counting on you, Bas. You’ve told me that she isn’t a murderer, and I trust your judgment. The only way to save her is to get her to talk.”

Uh-huh, except we can’t seem to talk at all.’

Don’t be so harsh . . . I mean, you’ve gotten some information out of her, right?

Some information? Like what?

She says she has no family to speak of.’

That could be a lie.’

Could be, sure. I don’t think it is.’

Oh? And what makes you the expert on this?

Think about it, Bas. If she had family, she certainly would have tried to get away, at least to tell them she’s safe, wouldn’t you think?

Not necessarily. She wouldn’t put them in danger, would she?

And you’ve told her that she’s just being brought in for questioning.’

He sighed. ‘Okay, fine. She has no family. What else have ‘we’ learned?

There’s also the idea that for reasons she won’t elaborate on, she hates your father.’

Bas snorted.

Okay, not exactly your father . . . but she hates the tai-youkai.’

There’s not a lot of difference there.’

There is. Cain is your father, and he’s the tai-youkai, but the tai-youkai is not your father. You know the difference.’

She hates the office of the tai-youkai, is what you mean.

Yes.’

Good thing she doesn’t know who I am, then. She already hates me enough.’

That’s the thing, Bas . . . I don’t think she hates you, at all.’

Uh-huh . . .’

Seriously, I don’t.’

Okay, then I don’t like her.’

You do, too.’

Oh?

Sure you do. If you didn’t, why would you lie about having a girlfriend?

What do you mean, why? You heard her. She’d never leave me alone otherwise!

I think you like her.’

I don’t—’

I think you need a reason to keep her away from you . . . at least, you think you do.’

It’s not—’

There’re only a few degrees of separation between love and hate, Bas, just so you know.’

Bas sighed and propped his head on his hand, watching as Sydnie’s eyes darted to the closet once more.

A few degrees of separation? That’s a bunch of bullshit . . .’

She drew her legs up against her chest, wrapped her arms around her shins and rested her chin on her knees.

Why does she always have to look so damn lonely?’ he fumed, dropping the newspaper in a careless heap on the floor. So fragile . . . so delicate . . . and so very, very sad . . .

The knock on the door drew him out of his reverie, and Bas let out a deep breath as he heaved himself out of the chair and strode over to answer the door. The bellhop smiled as Bas stepped aside. “Evening, sir . . . miss.”

Bas watched as the boy wheeled the cart past, digging into his pocket for a few dollars for a tip. Glancing up long enough to intercept the young man’s bemusement as he stared at Sydnie, who was still sitting on the bed, Bas cleared his throat loudly and jerked his head toward the door. “Thank you,” he grumbled, trying not to wonder just why the bellhop’s ardent attention on Sydnie bothered him.

The boy blushed slightly and hurried back the way he’d come, pausing only long enough to take the money from Bas’ hand before slipping past him. Bas watched him go, arms crossed over his chest, until he disappeared into the elevator. Moments later, Bas heard the door slide closed.

Where the hell is she now?’ he growled, scanning the room as he slowly shook his head. He could sense her youki near, and he knew that she hadn’t tried to escape. Closing his eyes, he dragged a tired hand over his face and sighed. She was close . . . very close.

In his mind, he could see her, gazing at the closet.

The closet . . .’

Pausing long enough to pour a glass of milk for the stubborn girl, he carried it over and slowly pushed open the doors. “Your food’s here,” he told her gently, kneeling down and holding the glass out toward her.

She glanced at the milk but made no move to take it. He’d have been surprised if she had. Setting it carefully on the floor, he pushed it toward her then sat back on his haunches. “How about you come out of the closet and eat?”

“I don’t need it,” she replied, her voice barely above a whisper.

Bas nodded slowly. “I know you don’t,” he agreed. “Humor me, will you?”

“Why should I?” she asked listlessly.

“I’ll get in trouble, you know,” he teased, deciding to try a different tactic. “The tai-youkai might think I starved you, and then I’ll catch seven kinds of hell.”

“I told you, I don’t need it.”

He sighed. “Okay, okay . . . if you change your mind . . .”

“I won’t.”

Another inspiration hit him, and Bas scooted the milk a little closer to her. “I’ll make you a deal, Sydnie.”

That seemed to have gotten her attention. “What kind of deal?”

He shrugged and stood up. “If you eat your dinner, I’ll give you something.”

She wrinkled her nose, gaze narrowing in suspicion. Her aura seemed to close in around her, protecting her, he supposed. “I already told you, I—”

“—Don’t need anything from me; I know.” Bas stuffed his hands in his pockets and shrugged, fighting down the urge to blush as he concentrated instead on luring her out of the closet. “It’s just something little. I thought you’d like it . . .”

“A comb to match the brush?” she grumbled.

Bas sighed. “No, Sydnie.”

“What’s it for, then?”

“Nothing. It’s completely useless, actually.”

“Useless? Why would you buy something useless?” she scoffed.

“I don’t know. I thought you’d like it. If you don’t want it, you can throw it away, but you can’t have it until after you eat.”

Her face contorted in a stubborn scowl. “I don’t want it, puppy.”

“That’s fine. Do what you want.”

He walked away, retrieving the newspaper and sat down with a quiet groan. Leafing through to find the sports section, he browsed the football scores and pretended to ignore Sydnie.

“What . . . is it?” she asked.

He glanced over the top of the paper and bit his cheek to keep from grinning. She’s crawled halfway out of the closet and was peering around the accordion-style doors, her gaze still suspicious but her eyes glowing with curiosity. “Dunno. Guess you have to eat before you find out, cat.”

“I didn’t say I wanted it,” she shot back, cheeks pinking prettily as she scooted back into the closet just a little. “I just wondered.”

“I know; I know . . . come on, Sydnie.”

She looked around slowly, searching for something. “I don’t see it,” she challenged.

“It’s in my suitcase.”

She snorted. “You’re a liar, then.”

“I am?”

“Yes . . . I looked in your suitcase, remember? I didn’t see anything . . .”

He rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Maybe you didn’t look in the right place.”

She made a face but hesitantly crawled forward a few paces. “You’re not lying?”

He shook his head again. “Nope.”

“And it isn’t useful? Not at all?”

“Not in the slightest.”

She sat still, bit her lip. He was starting to think that she wasn’t going to fall for it after all, but she slowly stood up and shuffled toward the table. “What’s that?” she asked, nodding at the plate.

Bas glanced at it and shrugged. He’d avoided ordering her something that required a knife since he hated to see her stubbornly struggle with the utensil. “Beef tips and mushrooms . . . It’s good. Try it.”

“Beef tips?”

“Steak.”

“I know what beef is.”

“Just try it.”

She reluctantly slipped into the chair and sniffed at the food. “Is it big or little?”

“Is what big or little?”

She carefully stabbed a mushroom with her fork. “The useless thing.”

“Oh . . . it’s little.”

“Why would you buy something useless?” she asked grudgingly, lifting the mushroom to her lips and nibbling at it. She made a face and leaned the fork against the plate. “Those aren’t good,” she declared.

“Leave them if you don’t like them. Just eat the steak . . . and the vegetables.”

She cleared her throat. “But that’s wasteful.”

Bas stifled a sigh. “Fine . . . I’ll eat them, then.”

“You like mushrooms?”

“Yeah.”

She made a face and glanced around uncomfortably.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I left my glass in the closet.”

Bas stood up and retrieved the empty glass with a smirk. Glancing back toward Sydnie, he saw her sweep the condiment packets off the table. She peeked at him, but he turned away before she could see him watching. Sliding his eyes to the side, he watched her hurry over to stash the packets away in her purse before skittering back to her seat. He’d come to understand that the peculiar habit was more of a compulsion than anything else, and since she tended to get overly embarrassed about it, he tried to make sure that she didn’t realize that he knew what she was doing.

He picked up the glass and sighed inwardly. Somehow he’d known that she’d drink the milk as soon as he turned his back. Detouring into the bathroom long enough to rinse the glass out, he strode over and set the glass on the table. She watched as he carefully filled the glass then pushed it toward her, her expression grudgingly thankful. He hid his smile as he sat back down again. “There.”

She blinked at the glass and shot him a quick glance. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

She ate the steak and green beans without complaint. Bas stabbed mushrooms with his claw and ate those, too. Eight glasses of milk later, she sat back and stared at him expectantly. “Well?” she prompted.

He shook his head in mock dismay. “More milk?” he deadpanned.

She almost grinned. “The pitcher is empty.”

“I can order more . . . or you can.”

She made a face. “I don’t like to use phones.”

“All you have to do is dial nine-zero. That connects you to the front desk,” he added.

“I don’t need more milk.”

Bas sighed and stood up, ambling over to his suitcase and unfastening the latches. “Do you want more?”

She twisted her hands together in her lap and scrunched up her shoulders. “. . . No.”

He smiled wanly as he dug the present he’d picked up earlier out of the small compartment on the side of his suitcase. Without bothering to close it, he reached for the phone instead, calling down to order more milk as Sydnie turned to stare at him.

“Here.”

Blinking, she leaned forward and peered at the small plastic case he held out to her. She reached out to touch it but jerked her hand back, as though she were afraid that he was going to yank it out from under her nose. She shot him a wary glance and leaned forward a little closer. “What is that?”

“It’s a spoon, Sydnie.”

She made a face. “I know that! Why did you buy me a spoon?”

Bas sighed and slipped the box onto the table before slouching down in his chair. “It’s a souvenir; that’s all, and a cheesy one at that.”

She leaned to the side to stare at the spoon through the clear plastic case. “It’s tiny.”

“Yeah, well . . .” He shook his head. “I bought two of them. I don’t know . . . I thought . . . you’ve never been out of Los Angeles, right? I thought you should have something to remember the trip.”

She did a double take and unleashed a curt laugh. “Remember the trip? I’m going to be dead in the end. Awfully short memory, don’t you think?”

Bas narrowed his gaze and crossed his ankles, settling deeper in his chair. “You’re being taken in for questioning, Sydnie. Don’t read more into it than that, all right?”

She cautiously reached out to touch the box then snatched it tight and brought it up under her nose. “Questioning. Right. For murder. Uh-huh.”

“The tai-youkai wants to know why.”

“Why, what?” she asked absently, tilting the box from side to side as she stared at the chintzy trinket.

“Why you killed Cal Richardson.”

“Oh, so you finally believe me?”

“I believe you,” he answered. “I also believe there’s more to it than he was a ‘bad man’.”

“Why?” she challenged, green eyes flashing as she lifted her eyes to meet his.

“Because,” he parried, standing up to answer the knock on the door, “you also said that you hate the tai-youkai, so that would make him a bad man in your book, too. Do you plan on killing him?”

Sydnie wrinkled her nose. “No.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think so.”

He took the pitcher from the bellhop and slipped a five dollar bill in the boy’s hand before wordlessly shutting the door and taking his time, pouring milk into Sydnie’s glass.

“What do you do with this?” she asked, her attention on the spoon once more.

“Nothing . . . just look at it, I guess. I told you, right? It’s not really useful.”

She started to smile, her eyes glowing brightly. Just as suddenly as it began, it faded, and she glared at him as though she’d just realized something important. “You bought two of these?”

He nodded as he flopped back into his chair again. “Yes.”

Her gaze narrowed on him as one deep auburn eyebrow arched. “Is the other one for your bitch?”

He grimaced inwardly. He’d forgotten about that . . . “Actually, if you must know, it’s for my mother.”

She blinked in surprise, the animosity dissipating as quickly as a spring storm on the ocean. “For . . . your . . . mother?”

Oh, nice . . . way to go, Bas . . . You might not know much about girls, but do you really think that she’s going to be flattered that you bought her the same thing you bought for your mom?’

Shu-u-ut u-u-u-up!

“Uh . . . yeah,” he replied, cheeks pinking as he waited for her tirade to swing into full-gear.

“Your mom . . . likes these?”

He nodded, unable to meet Sydnie’s curious gaze. “Yeah . . . She . . . collects them. She’s got a huge collection of them . . . cheap ones . . . expensive ones . . . I’m babbling . . .”

“You . . . really bought . . . me . . . something you bought your mom?”

“Yeah, I know. It’s lame as hell. I’m sorry. If you don’t like it, I’ll just take it back and get you something else.”

Her reaction was almost violent. Bas blinked in shock as she smashed the small box against her chest with both hands, effectively sheltering it from view as she turned to the side as she uttered a territorial little growl—almost more of a hiss—and glowered at him. “You can’t take it back! You gave it to me! It’s mine!

“I-W-Y—You . . . like it?”

She swallowed hard and nodded. “Yes.”

“It’s just a stupid little spoon,” he protested weakly, still shaken by the vehemence in her reaction.

“It’s my stupid little spoon—and it isn’t stupid, at all.”

“Okay,” he agreed quickly, holding up his hands to show his surrender. “It’s yours, absolutely.”

“You can’t take it,” she warned him.

“I won’t,” he promised. “Sydnie . . .”

Satisfied that he wasn’t going to try to take it from her, she lowered her hands and stared at the spoon once more. “Hmm?”

“I’ll . . . I’ll buy you one in every state we travel through.”

She seemed almost happy and looked completely surprised. “Okay,” she agreed slowly.

Bas finally broke into a smile. “Why is it that you’ll accept the spoons but have a fit when I buy other stuff for you?”

Staring at him for a moment, her gaze friendly for once, she grinned shyly and shrugged, stroking the box with her delicate fingers. “That’s simple,” she replied, her smile widening. “It’s useless . . . it’s a gift.”

“You could consider the other things to be gifts.”

She shook her head and reached for her milk. “No . . . I don’t need you, Bas the Hunter . . . but it’s okay to accept a gift.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“So you grew up in Maine?”

Bas nodded as he glanced into the rearview mirror and turned down the radio. “Yep . . . on the ocean, even.”

“Does it look the same as the Pacific?”

He shrugged. “Dunno. I can’t say I noticed the Pacific when I was in LA . . . I had other things on my mind, you know.”

She rolled her eyes at the blatant barb and dug around in the center console between the seats to select a different CD. “All your music is crap,” she stated flatly, wrinkling her nose as she shuffled through the cases.

“Picky, aren’t you, kitty?” he shot back. “Stop changing the CD every five minutes.”

“Live with it, puppy. It keeps my mind off other stuff.”

“Like what?”

“Like this infernal deathtrap you’ve locked me into.”

“Relax. I’ll have you know, I’m a very safe driver.”

“Famous last words, pretty boy.”

“Shut up and look at your spoons,” he grumbled.

Sydnie heaved a sigh and ejected the CD, carefully slipping it back into the case before opening the cover on the new selection. “When will we reach the Texas state line?”

Bas grimaced when the speakers erupted in very loud music and turned it down again before answering. “You’ll be sorry if I end up deaf, Sydnie, and it shouldn’t take that long to reach the border.”

He could feel her gaze penetrating his skull but didn’t look to confirm it. “And you . . . you’ll buy me another spoon?”

He grinned at the hopeful tone in her voice. “Yes, cat, I’ll buy you another tacky-assed spoon.”

Digging the two plastic-encased spoons from her purse, Sydnie sat back and stared at the trinkets.

“You can take those out of the boxes, you know,” he informed her when she fell silent.

“I know.”

“They sell wooden display racks,” he went on. “Mom’s got a few of them.”

Sydnie didn’t look away from her spoons. “Really?”

He kept his eyes on the road but nodded. “Yep. It’s got built-in slots to hold the spoons for display.”

“I’d have to take them out of the boxes, wouldn’t I?”

“Well, yeah . . . don’t like that idea, huh?”

Sydnie shrugged. “But they look so nice in the boxes.”

“Then keep them in their boxes, if you’d rather.”

She held up her spoons and examined them. “I’m not sure which one I like better . . . Arizona’s is nice, with the cactus . . . but New Mexico’s is interesting with the Indian . . . What do you think?”

Bas spared a glance at the spoons. “They’re both nice. I don’t really think one is better than the other . . .”

She considered that and nodded, slipping the spoons back into her purse with a happy little sigh. “I like them both, too,” she declared.

The conversation seemed to die, and Sydnie bit her lip as she peeked out the window. To her surprise, Bas had stopped after a few hours’ driving yesterday, citing a headache as the reason for his desire to call a halt to their journey. He’d spent the rest of the day walking around a mall with her, pointing out silly things and buying odd little treats for her to sample. So far she’d figured out that she liked soft pretzels with cheese sauce, large sugar cookies, and vanilla ice cream, but she didn’t care at all for saltwater taffy—even though Bas swore that it was ‘great stuff’.

When they’d gotten into the car this morning, Bas had suggested that Sydnie pick out some music, which had effectively kept her from dwelling on the car, itself, and all the news reports she’d seen through store windows of lethal automobile accidents. It seemed as though there were at least five or six during the nightly news. Projected through the ten huge televisions in one store’s windows, it seemed much more daunting . . .

She knew on some level that he was just trying to distract her from clawing at the door—she figured that he’d probably have to pay the rental company because of it but hadn’t really been able to help herself, either. It still made her feel better, just to know that he was attempting to get her mind off of what she considered to be the most upsetting aspect of the trip.

The car slowed down, and Bas pulled it over beside the road before shutting off the engine and turning to look at her. “We’re here.”

She looked around and shook her head since he’d stopped in the middle of nowhere. “Here, where?”

Bas rolled his eyes and got out of the car, striding around it to open her door and pull her out by her hands. “Texas. See?”

She blinked, following the direction he was pointing in and smiled at the large stone monument that did, indeed, proclaim it to be Texas. “Looks like a tombstone,” she quipped.

Bas shook his head but tugged her toward the hulking stone edifice. “Must you always think in terms of death, cat-girl?”

“I could climb this,” she announced as she eyed it.

“In stilettos?”

“Sure.”

“I’ve got to get you new shoes,” he grumbled.

“These are fine,” she retorted.

Bas stood back as Sydnie leapt onto the top of the slate marker and sat down. “Be careful, Sydnie.”

She rolled over onto her stomach, feet kicked up in the air as she leaned forward to peer down at Bas. “Do I make you nervous?”

He grinned and shrugged, shielding his eyes from the mid-day sun. “Not at all.”

A breeze stirred his hair, whipping it back from his face, and he turned his head to the side to scan the area. She frowned. It wasn’t the first time she’d noticed that he didn’t seem to wear a concealment. The other time she’d noticed was a couple days ago, when she’d walked into the bathroom while he was showering.

If he wasn’t wearing a concealment, then where were his crests?

Her youkai sighed. ‘That’s not really something that should concern you, don’t you think?

Maybe. Maybe not. I mean, it is an interesting question, right? Because I saw quite a bit of him then, and I didn’t see any signs of youkai crests . . .’

Ah, Sydnie . . . you shouldn’t—’

“Bas . . . tell me something?”

“Hmm?” he replied, still staring at the area, as though he were looking for something.

“You don’t wear a concealment, do you?”

He shot her a suspicious glance. “No . . .”

She shrugged as she sat up and scooted forward to drop off the monument. “So where are your crests?”

She wasn’t sure what sort of reply she was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t the violent surge of color that stained his cheeks crimson. He cleared his throat, shifted from one foot to the other, crossing his arms over his chest as he looked everywhere but at her. “I . . . uh . . . It’s not . . . I-I-I don’t have any,” he blurted.

“You don’t have any?” she repeated.

He shook his head. “Nope. None.”

“But you’re youkai.”

“Actually, I’m hanyou.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re not. I think I could tell if you were youkai or hanyou.”

He shrugged. “My mother’s hanyou, and my father’s youkai, so I’m hanyou . . . technically speaking.”

She shook her head. “You’re almost full youkai then, and youkai have crests, so where are yours?”

“Let’s go, Sydnie,” he grumbled, grabbing her wrist and hurrying her back toward the car.

“Do you have crests?” she pressed.

“No.”

“Can I see them?”

“No.”

“Are they intimidating?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Drop it.”

“Bas?”

“What?”

“. . . I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

She really hadn’t thought it would be possible for his face to redden any more than it already was. She was wrong. “Get in the car and shut up, Sydnie, or I swear I’ll gag you, too.”

She laughed at him but did as he instructed. ‘Oh, now that’s interesting,’ she mused as he stomped around the car and slipped into the driver seat. ‘Really, really interesting . . .’

I don’t know, Sydnie . . . maybe you ought to leave it alone.’

Maybe,’ Sydnie agreed noncommittally. ‘May bees don’t fly in November . . .’

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

The basement was a bereft, lonely place, undoubtedly intended to shroud the inky shadows of the youkai sitting in the corner of the empty space.

Jeb Christopher strode into the chamber slowly, deliberately, heels resounding like gunfire in the cavernous void. Well below the earth’s surface, there’d been rumor that the basement had been used to store illegal goods in days long past. Smuggling was a simple thing for youkai. Supplying whatever demand might come of the latest embargos and sanctions was an art form, and in this place, Jeb could still smell the lingering stench of liquor from the long-past days of prohibition, of guns and artillery used to supply small suburban gang wars, of all manner of illegal substances . . . The place had seen just about everything at one time or another. Now it stood empty; the silent witness, the sentient dark.

Dragging the long fingers of his right hand through light brown, shoulder length hair, Jeb flicked his left wrist, knuckles cracking in dangerous warning. He’d heard tale of these youkai: Darius Trent, Mort Corvelle, Roddy Durvin . . . He made it his business to know as much about potential clients as he knew about the jobs they offered. Most of the ones who retained Jeb’s services were rich—disgustingly so. He’d discovered over time that it didn’t take much to convince that kind to seek out the ultimate vengeance, and these three . . . they weren’t really any different. Overseeing jobs as simple as bringing back the fiancé of a spoiled debutante to the nastier but always interesting tasks that involved a more hands-on approach, so long as the money was paid—half down, and the other half when the job was done—then Jeb left his conscience at the door, figuring that whatever blood was ultimately spilled, would be on the hands of the one who had done the hiring.

Jeb smiled coldly. These youkai thought that they were so smart . . . He already knew what they wanted. What he wanted to know was how much they were willing to pay.

“Mr. Christopher, we’re glad you could agree to meet us here.”

Jeb stopped, casually rubbing his neck as he narrowed his gaze to make out the nondescript forms. “You can dispense with the pleasantries. I just want to hear your pitch.”

The youkai on the left cleared his throat. The youkai on the right shifted uncomfortably. The one in the middle chuckled. “We want justice.”

“Of course you do.”

“Cal Richardson’s killer . . . we want her dead.”

Jeb nodded slowly, digging a clove cigarette out of his pocket and taking his time as he struck a match. In the dim light, he could make out the faces. He’d already known who they were. “Isn’t that the job of the tai-youkai?”

“It isn’t a secret that Zelig felt threatened by Cal Richardson. We simply don’t think that the tai-youkai is compelled to see the bitch brought to justice,” Darius Trent commented casually.

“There’s not much information available on her. It’ll make it damn difficult, and difficult will cost you.”

Trent grunted. “We realize that.”

“Good, because I happen to know that the tai-youkai already has her in custody, so to speak.”

“One of Zelig’s hunters has her, yes. There never was an official hunt issued, though.”

“Zelig’s hunters aren’t pussies. One of my men tangled with Cartham last year.”

“Oh?”

Jeb shrugged. “Good thing I never really liked that guy . . . Cartham scattered him on the seven breezes . . . or so I heard.”

“We’re prepared to pay accordingly.”

“Are you now?”

“There isn’t a price high enough to ensure peace of mind,” Trent replied.

Jeb barked out a terse laugh. “Enough of your sanctimonious bullshit. I’m not a priest, and I don’t give a shit.”

“Of course.”

“Three million down and five more when the job’s done,” Jeb said.

The men were silent for a moment. “Eight million?” Trent asked, unable to mask the incredulity in his tone.

“Take it or leave it.”

“Here,” the youkai on the left— Mort Corvelle —said, tossing an envelope down at Jeb’s feet. “There’s two and a half . . . and we’ll pay another three when the job’s done.”

“So much for no price being too high to ensure your peace of mind,” Jeb tossed back acerbically.

“It’s far more than you normally make, isn’t it?” Trent parried.

“Careful. I’m not the one who wants someone dead.   Eight or no deal.”

The men mumbled to one another. Jeb didn’t care to listen to their mundane jabber. “Done.”

Smiling insincerely, Jeb kicked the envelope back, ignoring the belligerent question. “Try again,” he replied, inflicting a measure of boredom into his tone. “I don’t bend over.”

Corvelle picked it up and hesitantly stepped forward to hand it over. Jeb took it, digging a flashlight out of his pocket, and glanced into the envelope before returning his gaze to the youkai assembled before him. “I’ll count this later. You understand that if you’ve shorted me by so much as a dollar, I keep the cash, and you’re shit out of luck.”

“We’ll call you—” Roddy Durvin began.

I’ll call you,” Jeb cut in. “And you’d better have the rest of the money when I do.” He turned on his heel and started away, flipping off the flashlight and stowing it away in his pocket once more. He stopped abruptly and whirled around. “Oh . . . I forgot to tell you . . . should there be any unforeseen complications, the price is subject to change.”

He strode across the floor once more, heading for the exit as his cell phone vibrated against his hip. Waiting until he was out of earshot in the blackened stairwell of the three story climb, he pulled the device out of his pocket and clicked the button to connect the call. “Talk to me.”

“Hey, Jeb, it’s Myrna. I got some interesting intel.”

Jeb grinned as the velvety smooth sound of his second-in-command’s voice. “Let’s hear it.”

“Target located, and, uh . . . she is not in the company of any of Zelig’s normal hunters. In fact, my sources tell me that this one . . . he’s young.”

“Young, huh? That is interesting . . .”

“Any orders?”

“Not yet,” he replied, pushing open the heavy steel door and stepping into the dim light of the early evening. Taking the concrete steps up to ground level, he slipped out of the alley and blended into the milling crowd heading for their treks home on the packed New York City subways. “Tell Cody I want him on standby.”

“Cody?”

Jeb tucked the envelope into the inner breast pocket of his leather jacket. “Yes. He’s ready. He should be able to take care of this job alone.”

Myrna hesitated before she answered. In the end, she sighed but didn’t question his decision. “Consider it done.”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“—Room 215 . . . yes, the room is very nice . . .”

Bas cracked one eye open and scowled slightly as his vision adjusted to the hazy light of the dusky room. Illuminated by a weak shaft of fabricated light from the streetlamps three stories below, he couldn’t see Sydnie’s face very well, and she was obviously keeping her voice down in hopes that she wouldn’t wake him. ‘What’s she doing? She hates using the phone . . .’ he thought, shaking his head as he tried to figure out what she was up to.

Sydnie turned away, wrapping the coiled phone cord around her finger. “Um, it’s a little cold up here, and I was wondering if you could bring me a spare blanket?”

Cold . . .?’ Bas shrugged inwardly. Then again, with as skinny was the feline was, it really wouldn’t surprise him if she really were cold. She could have asked him. He’d have gotten her another blanket . . .

“Thank you,” she continued. “Oh, but please don’t knock . . . the man I’m traveling with is sleeping, and I’d rather not wake him.”

She hung up the phone, taking care not to make any noise. Bas watched her slip over to the door. She turned the deadbolt lock slowly and cracked it open. He edged his hand closer to his black leather duster, slung casually over the back of the chair beside him. Ready to take off after her if she decided to attempt an escape, he spared a moment to glance at his sword. He discarded the idea of reaching for it. Even if he could get it without drawing Sydnie’s notice, there really wasn’t a chance in hell that he’d actually use it on her. Grimacing since his back hurt from nights on end spent sleeping in chairs, he noticed that she didn’t have either her purse or her shoes, and at that realization, he relaxed just a little.

She kept leaning into the hallway without actually leaving the room.

She wouldn’t get cold,’ he thought with a slight snarl, ‘if she’d wear more than just those stupid miniskirts and tank tops . . .’

‘. . . Bas?

What?

‘. . . I don’t think the blanket is for her.’

Not for her? Then for whom . . .?

He nearly sat upright as slow understanding dawned on him. The vague memories of nights past, of waking up in the morning only to find himself covered in blankets that he never remembered getting for himself . . . ‘Sydnie . . .’

“Thank you,” Sydnie said, her voice low, soft. She closed the door, turning the deadbolt just as quietly as she had unlocked it. Bas closed his eyes as she turned around and padded toward him. She let the blanket fall open and carefully tucked it in around him, and moments later, he felt the warmth of her knuckles brush against his cheek so softly that it might have been no more than a whisper of a breeze if he hadn’t known the truth.

He sat frozen, unable to move as she breathed out a sigh and shuffled back to the bed. When he finally dared to open his eyes a crack, she was curled up in a little lump, her face buried in the cradle of her folded arms. A tiny smile twitched the corners of his lips, and Bas swiveled the rocker-recliner so that he could watch over her while she slept.

She fell asleep quickly enough. The night grew thicker in the hotel room. Her hair glowed in the wan light filtering through the windows. It reminded him of a candle flame: the golden glow of her natural highlights; the darkest auburn below . . . Spilling over her shoulder, hiding her face, he could only see the black fringe of lashes that lay so softly against her cheek.

She whimpered suddenly, the sound stark, shocking. Bas sat up, dropped the blanket as he strode to the bed and knelt beside it. “It’s okay . . .” he whispered, smoothing the hair back out of her face. “Sydnie . . .”

Smoothing the lines that furrowed her brow, he scowled, wishing he understood the phantasms that only she could see. “Don’t . . . leave me . . .” she moaned.

Bas grimaced at the raw emotion behind the quietly uttered words. Sydnie scooted a little closer to him, turning her cheek, pressing into his palm, as though she needed the contact, and maybe she did. Just how long had she been alone? She’d said she’d been alone since she was a small child, but how could that be? She’d have been too young to make it on her own, hadn’t she? Three years old . . . what could a three year-old possibly do to take care of themselves? He sighed. Somehow he knew that it had been far, far too long . . .

Slowly she relaxed again. The nightmare’s grip loosened, and she slept peacefully once more. He pulled the blankets over her and sat back. The silence in the room was comforting. Sydnie moaned softly. Bas could hear his youkai voice talking, but he paid it no mind. So intent on watching her sleep, nothing else really mattered to him. The mystery of her spoke to him, unsettled him. He wanted to help her. He wanted to understand the things that frightened her in the darkness of her dreams.

She infuriated him, confused him, left his sanity in tatters to scatter on the breeze. He’d never known anyone like her before, and he knew in his heart that he’d never find another woman quite like her again, either. Sydnie was mysterious and magical, and Bas couldn’t help the slight smile that started somewhere deep down inside him as he stared at her.

Seven days.

He’d known her for seven days, and those seven days . . . they felt like a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

I wonder what he’s dreaming about . . .?

Sydnie sat, perched on the edge of the bed, hands clasped between her knees as she tilted her head to the side, regarding Bas as he slept in the reclining chair. A soft smile touched his lips now and again, and his smile made her smile, too.

He looked so different when he was sleeping. Younger, softer—less intimidating . . . there was a certain air about him, almost a sense of vulnerability, that she couldn’t ascertain when he was awake. True, she liked to tease him. She called him a puppy and laughed when he got all defensive. Still she could sense that he really wasn’t nearly as inept as she had first thought. Her first impression had been that he was a little too soft, a little too refined. Maybe it wasn’t weakness she’d sensed, after all. She’d come to realize that it was something entirely different, something wholly contrary. Bas the Hunter possessed compassion, and that was a trait that Sydnie wasn’t sure how to deal with. She hadn’t seen it often over the years. It confused her. It frightened her.

I don’t need a damn thing from either of you; not your pity, not your sympathy, and certainly not your milk.”

Digging her claws into the coverlet, Sydnie leaned forward, hunching her shoulders as she watched the sleeping hunter.

I don’t like it, Syd . . .’

She wrinkled her nose at the intrusion of her youkai voice. ‘Don’t like what?

What do we really know about him? Think about it, will you? He knows more about you than you know about him, and that’s not good.’

It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t know anything important; not really . . . and even if he did, that wouldn’t really change anything.’

You’re not serious, right?

She grimaced when Bas frowned in his sleep. ‘What’s he dreaming about?

Her youkai sighed. ‘Good God, Sydnie . . . can you hear yourself?

What?

You’re getting all up in arms because he’s having a bad dream? This . . . isn’t good . . .’

Dreams can be scary,’ she replied hotly. ‘They can be worse than reality.’

‘ . . . So that’s what this is all about . . .’

Scowling stubbornly, she shook her head and shifted her gaze away from the sleeping hunter as she crossed her arms over her chest and proudly straightened her back. ‘It’s not ‘about’ anything. It’s . . . not.’

Uh-huh. Then why do you make sure he has a blanket every night?

Don’t be ridiculous! It gets chilly; that’s all.’

Look, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with him. It’s just not like you to let things slip, either.’

Bas groaned quietly, the frown intensifying as he mumbled something that she couldn’t discern. Scooting off the bed, Sydnie crept closer. The watery gray light of the dawning morning lent Bas’ skin a bluish tint. Kneeling beside his chair, she carefully smoothed the lines that marred his brow. He let out a soft sigh, unconsciously turning toward her touch. “Syd . . . nie . . .” he murmured.

Her heart skipped a beat as her name slipped from him, and she leaned in closer, waiting . . . hoping . . . ‘Is he . . . dreaming about . . . me?

Something in his expression drew her, captured her. His lips parted slightly, his breath misting her face. A tremor raced up her spine as the air stilled in her lungs. He looked so peaceful, so relaxed . . . She heard the unvoiced whispers that she didn’t completely understand; as though his very being was calling out to her. Leaning toward him, drawing a ragged breath, she felt her eyelids fluttering closed but couldn’t stop, couldn’t think, couldn’t fight against the temptation . . .

His lips were warm, moist, yielding. Brushing against his softly, hesitantly, she pressed her hand to his cheek, savoring the feel of the stubble under her fingertips. Tilting her head, she kissed him again as a million shivers broke over her. He felt so vibrant, so alive, and she couldn’t help the ragged little sound that escaped her. Somewhere between a purr and the softest moan, she stood up without breaking the contact, slipping onto his lap, wrapping her arms around his neck.

In the back of her mind, a thread of recognition condensed as a faraway sense of understanding became no more than a reaction. His hands locked around her, holding her close. He returned her kiss—a slow, pulsing thing, as his throaty groan echoed in the room. She relaxed against him, straddling him, legs tucked neatly against his thighs. He shuddered as she drew on his mouth, her tongue stroking his lip as he ran his hands up and down her back.

Groaning quietly, the sound captured by her mouth, Bas pulled her closer. She pressed her palms against his chest, carefully kneading his muscles, her claws poking lightly through the thin material of his shirt. Grinding her hips against his, she traced his teeth, his fangs with the tip of her tongue as he uttered a terse growl, ragged and harsh. “S-Syd . . . nie . . .?” he rasped between kisses.

Sydnie couldn’t restrain the whimper that escaped her when Bas abruptly turned his face away. His breathing was rough, stilted, and he had to clear his throat before he could manage words. “Wh-what are you . . . What do you think you’re doing?”

She couldn’t muster the bravado for one of her normal replies. “You said my name,” she whispered.

Bas glanced at her, skin flushed, eyes bright. “W . . . What?”

She shook her head. “You were sleeping, and you said . . . my name.”

“So you—” He winced as his blush deepened. “—Crawled into my lap and . . . kissed me?”

“No,” she replied with a shrug, hoping that her tone was a little more carefree than she felt. “I kissed you first; then I crawled into you lap.”

He slowly shook his head, his gaze narrowing in abject confusion. “Sydnie—”

She stood up and quickly turned away, snatching up the blanket that had fallen onto the floor and taking her time, folding it, avoiding the questions in his stare. “Oh, relax, pretty boy . . . it was just a kiss. It didn’t mean anything.”

She heard his sharp gasp but refused to look. He stood up and brushed past her, heading for the bathroom. “Yeah,” he agreed, his words oddly hollow. “Not a damn thing.”

Wincing when he slammed the bathroom door, Sydnie’s knees gave out, and she sank down on the end of the bed, blanket slipping from her slack fingers as she stared dumbly at the floor. She’d hurt him, hadn’t she? Proclaiming that the kiss meant nothing to her . . . It was a lie. She knew it was a lie. Bas, however . . . he didn’t know, and with any luck at all, he never would.

It . . . has to be this way,’ she told herself sternly, nostrils prickling as something hot stabbed at the backs of her eyelids. She swallowed hard and shook her head, trying not to think about the rawness of his voice. ‘It just . . . has to be.’

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Bas leaned against the car and shifted his gaze around the parking lot outside the small rest stop, scanning the area with a slight frown. Everything seemed all right, and yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t. He wasn’t sure why he felt so unsettled, but he’d been taught to trust his instincts, and at the moment, he knew—just knew—that something simply wasn’t right.

He scowled, eyes dropping to the asphalt below his boots. ‘No,’ he decided slowly, shaking his head as he let out his breath in a gust. ‘Not wrong, exactly . . . It feels more like something’s about to happen . . .’

Pushing away from the car, Bas snorted as he shot a glare at the short brick building. Sydnie had pitched a fit until he’d agreed to stop for a potty break. Either there was a line in the women’s restroom, which he doubted since there were only two cars, counting his, in the parking lot, or Sydnie was deliberately trying to irritate him.

A man and woman strolled out of the building, murmuring quietly as they headed for the other car. Bas glanced back and sighed. He’d have smelled Sydnie if she had tried to escape out a window or another exit. She was still inside, but he wouldn’t put it past her to stay in there until he went looking for her. ‘Stubborn cat . . .’

She’d been uncharacteristically quiet since they’d left the hotel. He grimaced, rubbing his forehead and slumping back against the car again. ‘She’s been quiet,’ he allowed, ‘since I woke up with her kissing me . . .’

Oh, relax, pretty boy . . . it was just a kiss. It didn’t mean anything.

He kicked his toe against the asphalt. ‘Didn’t mean anything . . . Of course it didn’t . . .’

You don’t believe that, do you?

Bas shrugged. ‘It’s what she said.’

Don’t be ridiculous. Of course it meant something to her.’

It doesn’t have to. It doesn’t have to mean a thing.’

Bas straightened his back and strode off toward the building. ‘This is Sydnie we’re talking about. Everything she says and does means something.’

“Bas!”

Bas stopped, head snapping to the side as he spotted Sydnie being dragged along behind a strange youkai who was hustling the cat toward a small grove of rather sad looking trees. His hand wrapped around her slender wrist, the youkai tugged her forward, sending her stumbling after him. She dug her claws into his arm, and he hissed before jerking on her arm again.

Bolting after the two of them, Bas gritted his teeth as he ran. He didn’t have his sword—he’d left it in the car. He’d stopped wearing it since it was a pain to drive with, and wearing it, or so he’d thought, would cause more trouble than it prevented. “Damn it . . .”

Sydnie glanced back, casting him a pleading glance as the youkai—a cougar—jerked on her arm once more. She stumbled, catching herself against the youkai’s back. Over the distance between them, Bas could hear the youkai growl before shoving her away. She lost her footing and landed on her rear but scrambled to her feet and started to run. Bas skidded to a halt as Sydnie hurled herself against his chest, her body trembling as her heart hammered like a wild creature. “Get behind me,” he commanded.

Sydnie blinked, leaning back to look him in the eye. “I can fight,” she insisted.

“Not now, cat. Just move.”

He thought she was going to argue with him for a minute. She must have reconsidered, though, and with a curt nod, she slipped behind him as the strange youkai slowly sauntered toward them. “So you’re the hunter,” the youkai remarked, light brown eyes glowing with obvious amusement.

“Who are you? What do you want?” Sydnie demanded, the bravado in her voice a familiar and unwelcome intrusion at the moment. Bas’ hand shot back, pressing against Sydnie’s hip in an effort to quell her overzealous tongue.

“It doesn’t matter who I am.” The youkai’s gaze narrowed, as though he were sizing Bas up. “Hand over the bitch.”

Bas didn’t move. “I answer to the tai-youkai. She’s coming with me.”

The cougar-youkai chuckled. “She’s a murderer, hunter. In the eyes of the youkai, the penalty for murder is death.”

“I think I know the laws of the youkai well enough,” Bas remarked without batting an eye. “You’re forgetting that no one is ever convicted unless there is adequate reason to believe that it was a crime.”

“The youkai grow tired of Cain Zelig’s reluctance. It’s nothing personal, hunter. Don’t make it into something that it isn’t.”

“If I were you, I’d walk away,” Bas replied. “I told you that she’s coming with me.”

“You’ll make me kill you?” the cougar asked, raking his clawed fingers through his hair. “Have it your way.”

“I don’t like threats, so you’d better be able to back up that claim.”

The cougar cracked his knuckles, grinning as he shook his hands to loosen up his wrists. “I don’t make threats, pretty boy. I make promises.”

He lunged at Bas without warning. Bas grabbed Sydnie and leapt aside, barely missing the cougar’s descending claws. “You stay here,” he told her as he set her on her feet.

“He’s a bounty hunter,” Sydnie insisted, glancing around Bas nervously. “They do whatever they have to do. He won’t—”

“—Lay a hand on you,” Bas growled. “Now stay out of the way.”

“Bas—”

He whipped around to glower at her, jamming his index finger under her nose. “Sydnie . . .”

She scowled but crossed her arms over her chest, resting all her weight on one hip as she relented to his demand that she not interfere. Satisfied that he’d made his point, Bas glanced over his shoulder in time to see the youkai barreling straight toward him again. Sydnie sprang aside as Bas vaulted off the ground, turning his body in mid-air as he reached back, slamming his arm out straight and catching the cougar in the center of his chest. Wincing as the youkai’s claws cut through the leather duster and into his forearm, Bas heaved him back, sending him flying in the other direction.

The cougar started to sit up. Bas strode over and planted his heel against the youkai’s chest, the steel toe of his boot hooked under the cougar’s chin. “I’ll suggest again that you leave,” he growled.

A moment’s hesitation vanished as the youkai swallowed hard and nodded. Bas pressed down on his foot then shoved the youkai away with his heel before turning his back and starting toward Sydnie once more.

Lousy, miserable, rotten—’

“Bas! Look out!

Whipping around just in time to sidestep the slash of claws as the cougar bore down on him, Bas only had time to react. Stretching out his fingers, he swung his claws at the youkai. The tearing of flesh was an awful sound, the squishy, wet gurgle spraying a mist of blood further than the searing gush that erupted under his claws. The cougar’s eyes blanked for a moment, as though he couldn’t believe what was happening. Dropping to his knees as he clutched his torn throat, he gurgled out a slow cough as his fevered gaze rose to lock with Bas’.

“You . . .” he wheezed, unable to manage more than an airy hiss that Bas could barely discern. “You’re . . . the Zelig . . .”

“Close enough,” Bas allowed, wishing he could look away yet unable to do so. Blood squeezed through the youkai’s fingers, dripped onto the ground as he blinked, trying in vain to keep his vision clear.

The youkai choked out a burbling laugh—a hysterical sound. “I’m not . . . the last . . .” he whispered. “Not . . . the . . . last . . .”

Bas didn’t respond to that. Rasping out a harsh gasp, the youkai fell to his hands and knees, then collapsed into the puddle of pooling blood. Moments later, his body exploded in a flash of light; in a blast of wind. Choking dust scattered on the fabricated breeze. Bas stared at the spot where the youkai had fallen, unable to process the idea that he’d just killed someone.

“Bas?”

Blinking as the soft sound of Sydnie’s distant voice cut through the haze that had wrapped around his brain, Bas slowly turned his head to watch as she darted to his side.

She opened her mouth to say something then winced, hesitantly stepping toward him, wrapping her arms around him. He didn’t move for a moment, but slowly, slowly lifted his arms to hold her close.

He wasn’t sure how long they stood there, holding each other in the shelter of the small grove. Closing his eyes as he deliberately tried not to think about what had just happened, he concentrated instead on the comfort she offered him. How could she know his desperation to reaffirm that he wasn’t a monster for what he’d just done? How did she understand the numbness that had engulfed him?

He felt an odd sense of warmth, of something damp and burning through the thin material of his shirt, but he didn’t look. A vague voice echoed in his mind, and this time, they were words he could comprehend. ‘She understands, Bas . . . because she’s felt the same way . . .’

She . . . she isn’t a murderer . . . any more than I am . . .’

Not a murderer . . . no . . .’

Opening his eyes, he blinked at the unchanging world. Drawing a deep breath as he gave her a quick squeeze and stepped away, he cleared his throat and sighed, scanning the area for any trace of unnatural movement. “Come on, Sydnie. We’ve got to get out of here.”

She nodded, chin lowered so that he couldn’t see her face. He stared at his blood-stained hands and grimaced. As much as he’d like to take the time to wash, he wasn’t sure if the youkai had been alone or not, and his instincts were screaming that he get Sydnie out of there. “Let’s go,” he told her as he started trudging away.

He didn’t see her dash her hand across her eyes; didn’t see her wipe away her tears.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Sydnie swished the water in the tub and sat back on her heels.

Bounty hunters . . .’

Leaning back, letting her head fall into the makeshift cradle formed by her outstretched arms, she sighed. She hadn’t expected the cougar-youkai who had been waiting for her to emerge from the bathroom. Too busy dwelling on the kiss that never should have happened, she had been caught off-guard when the youkai’s arm had snaked around her waist, drawing her back against the solid mass of his chest.

You’re a hard woman to track, Kit,” he growled, breath hot in her ear. “Now you be a good girl, and I’ll kill you quickly.”

Who are you?” she whispered, grimacing as he tightened his arm around her stomach.

Names aren’t really necessary, cat.”

Who do you work for?

The youkai laughed as he dug his claws into her side hard enough to coerce her into moving, drawing a trace amount of blood. “I’ll tell you that before I kill you,” he assured her. “Move it.”

A soft knock on the bathroom door jarred Sydnie out of her reverie. Pushing herself up on the side of the tub, she deliberately shoved the memories aside.

Bas leaned against the doorframe, staring blankly at the curtained windows across the room. He looked tired—exhausted, really—and so much older than he had this morning. Dark circles under his dull eyes . . . a gauntness in his face that hadn’t been there before . . . He blinked slowly, bringing a hand up to rub his cheek. Traces of the cougar-youkai’s blood still crusted his fingers, and his hand shook just a little.

“I drew a bath for you,” she said quietly. “I thought you might need one.”

“Baths are for girls,” he replied in a monotone. “I’ll take a shower.”

“Baths aren’t just for girls,” she assured him.

He shoved himself away from the doorway and stepped over to peer into the bathroom. “Bubble bath, Sydnie? That’s not for girls?”

She wrinkled her nose. “Don’t be such a guy. It’s a milk bath, and milk is good for you.”

He opened his mouth to argue with her but snapped it closed as he relented with a sigh. “All right, cat. Just this once.”

Satisfied that he’d use the bath, she slipped out of the room and hurried over to find a change of clothing for him since he hadn’t bothered to find one, himself. Laying the stack of clean clothes on the floor outside the bathroom door, she wandered back over and retrieved the room service menu from the drawer in the nightstand. She wasn’t really sure what Bas wanted, but he seemed to prefer plain meat like steak to sandwiches, and to that end, she ordered him a medium rare New York strip steak with baked potato and green beans.

You’re being awfully nice to him, aren’t you?

Sydnie hung up the phone and shrugged inwardly. ‘Am I?

Yes, you are . . . you know you are.’

Digging a couple of wet-naps out of her purse, she sat down with Bas’ leather duster and tore the packet open with her teeth. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

You’re mothering him.’

Sydnie paused before tugging the wet-nap out of the foil packet and shaking it open. ‘I am not!

You are, too!   Look at you! You’re cleaning his jacket!

She rubbed the right sleeve, carefully removing the sheen of blood that had dried on it. ‘He’s got enough on his mind,’ she argued. ‘He’s never killed anyone before; I know he hasn’t.

Sydnie, he chose to be a hunter. A hunter kills other youkai. He had to know this, don’t you think?

Carefully wiping away the blood that dulled the leather, Sydnie scowled and shook her head. ‘That might be. Still, I chose to kill Cal Richardson, right? I knew what I was doing, and I’m not sorry . . . that doesn’t mean that I enjoyed it, does it? It doesn’t mean that Bas would, either.

So you do care about him.’

Tossing the first wet-nap into the small trash can on the other side of the nightstand, Sydnie opened the next packet and shook out the cleansing cloth. ‘Maybe.’

You called out for him because you knew that he could save you. Maybe he can even save you from yourself.’

And just what is that supposed to mean?

You know what it means, Syd, and you know that deep down, you want him to do it, too.’

She didn’t answer as she finished cleaning the leather duster. Five wet-naps later, she tied the thin plastic bag closed and pulled it out of the trash can. The crisp knock drew her attention, and she strode over to answer it. “Who is it?” she called, pressing her ear against the solid steel door.

“Room service.”

Bracing her weight against the door, she turned the deadbolt and slowly opened the door. The young man dressed in nondescript white shirt and black slacks smiled at her, and she stepped back to allow him entrance. He strode past her, depositing the tray on the small table. Sydnie hurried over, digging a few dollars out of her purse. Repressing the slight panic that always accompanied spending money, she shoved it at the young man and, as an afterthought, held out the trash bag, too. “Would you mind getting rid of this?” she asked, pasting on her brightest smile as the bellhop took the bag.

“Not a problem,” he assured her. “Do you need anything else?”

Sydnie shook her head and shrugged. “No, thanks.”

She followed him to the door and locked it behind him before heading toward the closed bathroom door. “Bas?” she called.

He didn’t answer.

She frowned. “Bas?” she repeated a little louder.

He still didn’t answer.

Biting her lip as she hesitantly picked up his clothes and tried the knob, she was vaguely surprised that it turned easily in her hand. “I got clean clothes out for you,” she said as she slipped into the steamy room and averted her gaze as she set them on the closed toilet seat.

He grunted something in response. It might have been ‘thanks’.

She sighed and started to leave but stopped. “Do you want me to wash your back?” she offered, carefully keeping her tone neutral.

He grunted again.

Taking that as a ‘yes’, she turned around and knelt beside the tub, absently grateful that the bubble bath obstructed her view since he didn’t seem to care that she was still in the room with him. “Sit up.”

For a moment, she didn’t think he was going to comply. He did, though, bracing his feet against the far end of the tub, he sat up, draping his arms over his knees and leaning forward, eyes closed, bubbles sticking to his hair like little piles of snow. She carefully pushed his hair over his shoulder and grabbed the still-dry washcloth off the side of the tub before retrieving the travel-size bottle of Ivory soap body wash and dumping a generous amount onto the cloth. Taking her time as she dunked the cloth and squeezed it to build up a good lather, she slowly rubbed his back, massaging the tense muscles as she scrubbed.

He sighed.

“I ordered some food for you,” she said quietly.

Bas nodded. “Thanks.”

“You’d better hurry or it’ll get cold.”

“I’m not really hungry, Sydnie.”

“I didn’t figure you were.”

He peered over his shoulder at her, his expression inscrutable. Finally, he nodded. “All right.”

She handed him the wash cloth and rinsed her hands. “Thank you,” she said, leaning in to kiss his cheek before she stood up and hurried to the door. “No one’s ever . . .” she trailed off, cheeks pinking, and she cleared her throat. “Anyway, thanks.”

She slipped out of the bathroom and closed the door, pressing her hand against her chest as she willed her heart to stop hammering out an unsteady rhythm against her ribs as the image of him, standing over the fallen cougar-youkai with his boot to his throat flashed through her mind. He’d looked so proud, so confident, and in that moment, Sydnie had felt a strange surge of emotion, a complete fascination . . . Such easy grace, such power . . . sure, she’d realized that she had underestimated Bas the Hunter before.

Now she was positive. He was no ordinary hunter, but she wasn’t certain just who he really was.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“What’s that?”

Bas stopped shaking the bag long enough to glance up at Sydnie. Perched on the end of the bed, she was sitting up straight, chin tilted back as she tried to see what he had in his hands. “What? This?” he deadpanned.

“What is it?” she demanded again.

Bas carefully pulled on opposite corners of the sealed bag. “Popcorn.”

She bit her lip and scowled, digging her claws into the coverlet but stubbornly remaining silent.

“Want some, kitty?” he asked, shaking the bag close enough for her to see the popcorn but far enough away that she couldn’t snatch the bag.

She shot him a fulminating glare. “That’s the last time I’m nice to you, puppy,” she shot back.

He shrugged, delving into the bag and stuffing a handful of popcorn into his mouth. “Suit yourself.” He swallowed. “Mmmmmmmm . . .”

“Pig.”

“Oink.”

She snorted, crossing her arms over her chest and slumping down as she forced her gaze away from the popcorn bag.

“Popcorn and movies . . . I think they were invented for each other.”

Sydnie replied with a wide yawn as she crawled back to the head of the bed and curled up on her side.

Bas plopped into the chair beside the bed and shook the bag of popcorn at her again. She ignored him. Stifling a chuckle, he settled back with a sigh. “You sure you’re not hungry?”

“Nope.”

“You didn’t order yourself any dinner.”

“I wasn’t hungry.”

“Oh, I know,” he said. “You’re never hungry, are you?”

She muttered a haughty ‘hrumph’. “That’s right, puppy. I’m youkai, and youkai don’t need to eat.”

“Of course you don’t,” he agreed. “Want some milk?”

She hesitated a moment before quickly shaking her head. “No,” she pouted, cheeks pinking. “I’m fine.”

Bas set the bag of popcorn on the nightstand and grabbed the phone to call room service. It didn’t take long to order a gallon of milk for Sydnie. When he turned around to retrieve the popcorn, however, it wasn’t on the table anymore. The definite sounds of crunching popcorn made Bas shake his head. Sydnie cradled the bag in her lap, happily eating his popcorn.

He reached over to grab a handful. Sydnie snatched the bag away and uttered a low, sing-song wail. “Hey, cat! That was mine!” he pointed out reasonably but pulled his hand away.

“You set it down,” she countered. “You abandoned it.”

“I did not,” he argued. “I was ordering milk . . . for you.”

“Possession is nine-tenths of the law, pretty boy. Deal with it.”

“Ever heard of sharing, Sydnie?”

She shrugged. “Sharing’s overrated.”

He sighed. “All right,” he relented, hauling himself out of the chair and shuffling over to stick another bag into the microwave.

“Don’t even think about it, kitty,” warned as he sat back down with the fresh bag of popcorn. “This one’s mine.”

A knock on the door announced the arrival of Sydnie’s milk. Bas nearly set the bag down but thought better of it as he shot her a suspicious glance and headed over to get her drink.

“That wasn’t very filling,” she remarked as he poured a glass of milk for her.

“It wasn’t supposed to be. It was just popcorn,” he said. She crumpled the empty bag and took the glass he offered. He sat back down and leaned back to get comfortable. Sydnie set the glass on the nightstand and crawled across his lap to toss the empty bag in the trash. “Sydnie!” he complained, head falling back to avoid staring at her wiggling backside, clad in a filmy pair of nylon panties—the only thing other than her tank tops that she ever wore at night—as she pushed herself back onto the bed.

“What?”

He sighed, hoping that his face wasn’t as red as he suspected it was. Sydnie giggled, and he grimaced, figuring that it was worse than he had feared. “Red’s a good color on you,” she teased.

“Shut up, cat,” he grumbled.

She rolled her eyes and swallowed her milk. He could see her throat constrict as she gulped down the drink, and he had to force his gaze away once more. ‘Damn it . . . I swear to God, she does that on purpose . . .’

The trill of his cell phone cut through his musings. “Hello?”

“Bas? I got your message. What’s going on?”

Bas grimaced at the obvious concern in Cain’s voice. He’d called his father earlier while Sydnie was drawing his bath, but he’d only gotten voice mail, so he’d just left a message, instead. Bas sighed. “We were attacked today . . . or Sydnie was, anyway.”

“What?”

Bas shot Sydnie a quick glance. She didn’t appear to be listening, but with her, he could never be certain. “Just a minute.” He stood up, setting his popcorn on the nightstand. “Sydnie, I’m going to take this call outside. You’d better not try to run off, got it?” Bas rolled his eyes and waved a hand in front of her face when she didn’t respond. She caught his hand and shoved it way, leaning to the side so she could see the television.

“I hear you, puppy, now quiet. I’m watching the movie.”

He sighed again, wiping his fingers on his jeans as he strode toward the door.   Stopping on the threshold and glancing back over his shoulder, he shook his head and rolled his eyes when he saw that Sydnie had wasted no time in claiming the second ‘abandoned’ bag of popcorn. “Bounty hunter,” Bas explained as he pulled the door closed behind himself.

Cain let out a deep breath. “That’s what I was afraid of.”

“You thought this would happen.”

“I hoped it wouldn’t,” he agreed. “Damn it.”

“He was a cougar-youkai.”

“Did you kill him?”

Bas grimaced, rubbing his temple with a weary hand. “Yes.”

“No idea who sent him?”

“Nope. Sydnie said that she asked him, but he never told her.”

“Great.”

“Yeah.”

Cain sighed. “Let me do some checking around. I’m not sure who’d issue a bounty, but Richardson’s influence cannot be underestimated.”

Bas nodded, scowling as he fingered the hilt of his sword, Triumvirate. He’d strapped it on shortly after his bath. Sydnie had watched him with an expression akin to horrified fascination on her face but hadn’t said a word. A gift from his father, Cain, his grandfather, InuYasha, and his great-uncle, Sesshoumaru and forged from their fangs, Bas treasured the sword above all else. “Yes, sir.”

“Best for you to keep moving, too, but . . .” Cain trailed off, and Bas grimaced. He had a fair guess as to what his father was thinking.

“But you think I’d be better off to zigzag around, right?”

“It might be harder for them to track you if you deviate from the plan, yes.”

“That’s pretty much what I was thinking, too.”

“Where are you now?”

Bas scratched the back of his neck. “A little way north of the Dallas-Fort Worth area . . . Denton, I think it’s called.”

“Okay. Stay there. I’ll see about having some money wired to you in the morning.”

“All right,” Bas agreed. “Anything else?”

Cain grunted. “Make damn sure you don’t tell them who you are.”

“Wasn’t planning on it.”

“Give me a few minutes. I’ll call you back.”

Bas clicked the phone off and sighed. ‘The cougar knew who you were,’ his youkai pointed out.

I know. No way he could have told anyone else, though.’

Still, if he wasn’t alone, and you just didn’t see the others . . .’

If he wasn’t alone, they’d have attacked by now.’

Don’t take chances.’

I won’t.’

Bas?

What?

You, uh . . . We . . . won’t let them take her, right?

He frowned. ‘Hell, no.’

‘. . . Good, because she’s right. Bounty hunters don’t give up so easily. If the price on Sydnie’s head is high enough, they’ll be back.’

Bas’ gaze darkened as he glowered fiercely at the seemingly empty hallway, as he cracked his knuckles and clenched his jaw. ‘They can’t have her.’

You’re sure?

Damn straight.’

Protect her, Bas.’

He didn’t hear the low growl that surged up in his throat, spilling over in the dimly lit hallway. ‘I’ll protect her,’ he vowed. ‘As for the bounty hunters . . . let them come.’

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Bas glanced up over the top of his menu as Sydnie tapped her claws on the Formica tabletop.   “Let me guess . . . the colors of the place offend you?” he asked quizzically, lifting an eyebrow as he dropped the laminated menu onto the table with a dull thump.

“Maybe,” she said mulishly, idly turning her hand in front of her face as she inspected her claws.

He stifled a sigh. “Let’s see . . . the first place smelled bad—”

“It did.”

“The second place was too loud—”

“It was.”

“The last place felt dirty—”

“Did you touch the table, pretty boy?”

“It’s got to be the colors here.”

“That’s as good a reason as any,” she agreed, grabbing her purse and slipping out of the booth.

“Sydnie.”

“Hmm?”

“I’m hungry.”

“I know.”

“I want to eat.”

“I know.”

“I don’t care where.”

“Then let’s go. The sooner we leave; the sooner you can eat.”

He heaved a sigh and stood up, deciding that the battle was not worth the war. “Come on.”

She followed him out of the restaurant and rubbed her arms when they stepped outside. It wasn’t cold, but it was cooler than she was probably accustomed to. She’d refused to wear one of his sweatshirts, though, and at the moment, he was hard pressed not to point that out to her.

He scanned the street with a scowl on his face and shook his head as he shot her a quick glance. “You know, Sydnie, I don’t think there’s much left in the way of restaurants,” he complained.

She wrinkled her nose and pointed down the street at a small neon sign that glowed in the semi-darkness. “We haven’t tried that place,” she told him.

Staring at the blinking pink light of the tired neon sign, he stifled a sigh and nodded. “All right,” he agreed slowly since he hadn’t really wanted to try the dingy-looking diner. If she had complaints about the other places, did he really believe that she wouldn’t have a list of them about that one? He grabbed her hand and tugged. “Come on.”

She followed him without complaint, and she didn’t try to pull her hand away from him, either.

Pausing with his hand on the metal handle on the plate glass door, Bas stared at Sydnie. “I’m really hungry, cat,” he warned.

“Sucks to be hanyou?” she teased, arching a delicate eyebrow.

“I don’t eat just because I’m hanyou,” he grumbled, jerking the door open and waiting for Sydnie to step inside. “I like food.”

“How does that work?” she asked, caught off on a tangent at the mention of his being hanyou.

“What do you mean, how does that work?” he countered as Sydnie slipped into a booth in the corner furthest away from the door.

She shrugged and crossed her arms on the table top, leaning forward as she shot him a toothy grin. “I mean, you don’t look hanyou. Do you become human once a month?”

He grabbed a menu from behind the napkin holder and snorted. “Pfft! No.”

“Hanyous do, don’t they?”

“I said I’m technically a hanyou.”

“Technically?”

“Yes, technically.”

“Okay . . .”

He sighed, dropping the menu onto the table and slumping back as he carefully studied her expression. She looked vaguely amused and even a little confused. He grinned slightly. “Basically, I can’t take an energy form, and I can’t transform into a dog, either. Other than that . . .”

“So you never become human?”

“I used to,” he allowed. “That stopped when I was thirteen.”

“Puberty?” she asked, both eyebrows disappearing under her auburn hair.

His face reddened, and he smiled nervously. “I guess so.”

“That seems odd.”

He shrugged. “My uncle thinks it is because pups have more of their mother’s blood than their father’s, and apparently that changes when one reaches puberty, as you so blithely put it. That’s the theory, anyway.”

“Your uncle?”

“Uncle . . . brother-in-law . . . depends on who you ask . . .”

“How so?”

He grimaced, having not intended to talk about his strange familial ties. “Ehh . . . Dad was married long before Mom, and he had a daughter—my half-sister. Anyway, my sister married my mother’s brother—my uncle—and completely screwed up my family tree.”

Sydnie looked like she was trying not to laugh. “That’s a little messed up.”

“A little?” he echoed with an incredulous snort. “My first grade teacher called my parents. She thought I was being lazy on the assignment to make a family tree when the branches crossed over.”

“She called your parents?”

He sighed. “Dad made Mom explain it. He said it was entirely her fault for having an ass-monkey for a brother.”

Sydnie’s lip twitched. “An . . . ass . . . monkey . . .?”

Bas scowled thoughtfully. “Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Dad call my uncle by name. It’s always ‘the ass-monkey’ or ‘Dr. Fill-in-the-blank’ . . .”

She shook her head. Bas chuckled. “Dad never uses the same adjective twice when describing my sister’s mate.”

“Oh, my . . .”

“What can I get y’all?”

Bas blinked and glanced up at the waitress as she snapped her Winterfresh gum and tapped the chewed end of an ink pen against the small order pad. Reeking of way too much musky perfume and the unpleasant odor of Aqua Net hairspray, she patted the back of her very bouffant brassy blonde hair and shot him an obnoxiously orangey-red, very toothy smile.

“Oh, uh . . . do you have any specials?”

“SOS, hun.”

Bas shook his head. “SOS?”

The toothy grin reappeared as she patted his shoulder in an entirely matronly way. “Shit on a Shingle, sugar. Sounds terrible, but it’s the best in the south.”

He scowled at the description of the food under discussion, casting Sydnie a surreptitious glance and not surprised to find her with her arms crossed over her chest and a rather irritated look pinching her features. “I don’t think—”

Sydnie scooted out of the booth and strode toward the door. Bas grimaced, digging a ten dollar bill out of his pocket and shoving it at the waitress for her trouble before hurrying after the perplexing feline. “Sydnie!” he called as he darted out of the diner.

She didn’t stop walking, and she didn’t look back. Bas heaved a frustrated sigh and sprinted down the sidewalk to intercept her. “Will you wait?” he bellowed, catching her arm and swinging her around to face him. “What now?”

The look she cast him said that she thought he ought to know exactly what was bothering her. Bas rolled his eyes, throwing his hands up at his sides as he shook his head and snorted. “Spit it out, cat! I don’t feel like chasing you down tonight.”

Sydnie tapped her foot, jaw settling into a stubborn line as her eyes narrowed, and she glowered at the building off to the left. “She offended me,” she growled.

Bas blinked in surprise, caught off guard by Sydnie’s haughty claim. “Who did?”

Sydnie wrinkled her nose. “That . . . That . . . That . . . floozy!” she fumed, waving her hand in the direction of the diner they’d just left. “Who do you think?”

“Floozy?” he echoed, shaking his head as he tried to comprehend just what Sydnie was so up in arms over. “Wha—?”

“She was all over you, if you didn’t notice,” Sydnie spat, poking a finger into Bas’ chest to emphasize her words. “All over you like—like—like . . .” She shook her head. “Like a fungus!

“Fungus?”

“Yes, a fungus,” she went on, prowling back and forth as she crossed her arms over her chest then jerked her arms apart to plant her hands on her hips. “A mushroom or an algae . . . or whatever kind of fungus . . . toe jam . . . crotch rot . . . You know, you’d probably catch something from her, if you’re not careful. Ever think of that, pretty boy?”

“But I didn’t—”

“Oh, but you would have!” she spat, rounding on him and glaring up at him. “She was just nasty, puppy—nasty! How could you?”

“How could I what?” he sputtered, cheeks pinking as a moment of hurt flashed over her features.

“You let her touch you!”

“I didn’t!” he protested, holding his hands up in a gesture of complete surrender.

“And the others? I suppose everyone’s just all ‘touchy-feely’ in the south?”

“Others?” he muttered then shook his head since he wasn’t sure just what she was thinking. Bas caught her by the shoulders and grimaced. “Apparently, because I didn’t—”

“Oh, right!”

“Sydnie!”

“Listen, puppy, I don’t care what you do when you’re alone, but as long as you’re with me, you can keep your wandering eyes to yourself because if one more woman so much as touches you, I swear to God, I’ll—”

“You’re jealous,” he cut in quietly, hands dropping away from her as comprehension slowly dawned.

Her face paled as her mouth fell open seconds before color blossomed in her cheeks. “That’s—I—you—Don’t be ridiculous, pretty boy.”

Bas couldn’t help the smug little smirk that surfaced on his face as he leaned back and stared at Sydnie. “Ridiculous, am I?”

She made a face. “Yes.”

“You are jealous!”

“I am not!”

“Oh? Then what would you call it, kitty?”

She blushed a little darker at the perceived endearment. “I . . . I . . . I'm possessive!

“I don’t see a difference,” he scoffed.

Sydnie waved a hand to shut him up. “There’s a huge difference, puppy—huge.”

“Do tell.”

“I will.”

“I’m listening.”

“You’re talking.”

“And you’re trying to think of a difference.”

She narrowed her eyes at him, and for a moment, he thought maybe she was considering sharpening her claws on him. The idea made him chuckle. ‘As if she could . . .’

“I’m possessive,” she began. “Jealousy would mean that I like you.”

“Which you don’t.”

“Of course I don’t!”

“Okay,” he agreed, schooling his features to hide his amusement as he waited for more of her explanation. “I don’t like you, either.”

She snapped her mouth closed on whatever she had been about to say and cast him an almost hesitant glance. “You . . . don’t?”

He snorted. “Hell, no. Why would I?”

“G-Good! Because I don’t like you, either!”

“Already established. Go on.”

“With what?”

He shrugged. “Your definition of the differences between ‘possessive’ and ‘jealous’.”

“Oh, that.”

“Yes, that.”

“Fine.”

He rolled his hand to hurry her along.

“Since you just had to force me out of LA, then I’ve decided that I own you.”

Really.”

“Don’t interrupt.”

He nodded and tried to affect a bored stance, leaning back against a mailbox, crossing his ankles and blanking his features accordingly.

“And since I own you, then that would mean that I possess you, right?”

He snorted.

Sydnie wasn’t finished. Rubbing her hands together as though she were just getting started, she paced a few steps and snapped her fingers. “And to possess something—in this case, you—would make me the possessor, and would, in fact, mean that I am not, as you say, jealous. It means—as I said—that I am possess-ive.”

“Interesting,” he allowed. “Does that mean I . . . own . . . you?”

She wrinkled her nose. “No.”

“Why not?”

“Because, puppy . . . you dragged me out of LA . . . kitty-napped me, you might say.”

He almost laughed at the chagrined expression on her face. Clearing his throat, he bit back the urge to chuckle. “Incidentals, Sydnie. You say possessive; I say jealous.”

“But I’m not!” she argued.

Bas chuckled and grabbed her hand, dragging her back down the street toward the car. “Okay, fine; you’re possessive, not jealous, and I’m starving, not hungry.”

“Where are we going?” she demanded, tugging on her hand but not trying very hard in her attempt to get away from him.

“I saw a little grocery store near the hotel.”

“Grocery store?”

He sighed. “We’re out of options since the hotel doesn’t have room service—unless you want to go back to one of the restaurants?”

She uttered a little hissing growl.

Bas laughed, unsure why Sydnie’s jealousy made him so unaccountably happy. “I didn’t figure you’d want to.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Cain dropped the telephone receiver into the cradle and scowled at the email he’d just received.

Nothing.’

He’d set his best minds on the case, and not one of them were able to uncover a thing about the bounty placed on the cat-youkai. Having just taken the call from the last of his informants who had come up empty handed, Cain’s suspicions had been confirmed. The hunt was being handled by one of two factions, both of which were infamous for their ability to see the job done.

“Damn it,” he muttered as he reread the email.

 

 

Z,

Information scarce. No one is talking. Tighter security than expected. Advise to continue or abort.’

 

Cain sighed, scrolling the trackball and hitting ‘reply’. Grimacing as he stared at the monitor, his fingers hovered over the keys as he considered his options. On the one hand, the search for information didn’t seem to be working, but that didn’t mean that the person he’d sent would fail. On the other hand, delving too deeply might cause more harm than good, in the long run. He’d dealt with both the organizations before, and he knew from prior experience that, while they might not match the might of the tai-youkai’s office, there’d been damage enough done during those encounters to make him reconsider trying to infiltrate them too deeply. ‘Bas might be in danger,’ he reasoned, ‘but he’s been well-trained, and he’s smart . . .’

‘Abort,’ he keyed in and hit ‘send’. He was putting a lot of trust in Bas, but he also couldn’t justify the potential loss, should the spies he’d sent be captured.

“How about a break?”

Cain snapped the laptop computer closed and glanced up at his wife. “In a bit,” he said, giving her a little grin that he hoped she couldn’t see right through.

“Still nothing?”

“I’m not having much luck getting information on this bounty,” Cain grumbled, rubbing his forehead with a tired hand, knowing that it was futile to hide much of anything from Gin’s discerning gaze. She knew him a little too well, he figured. Sometimes it was a really bad thing.

Gin frowned and pushed away from the doorframe, uttering a soft, commiserating moan as she ambled around the imposing desk. “Sebastian is okay, right?”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “For now.”

Rubbing his shoulders, she nodded. “They don’t trust you to see justice done?”

Dropping the pen in his hand onto the stacks of files cluttering the desk, he leaned back to look into his mate’s face. Brilliant golden eyes shining gently, she smiled her encouragement as she ducked her head to kiss him.

“Cal Richardson has been nothing but a pain in my ass for years,” Cain remarked. “If this girl—Sydnie—had reason . . .”

Gin let Cain pull her into his lap. “You’ve always been more than fair,” she assured him.

“I don’t know . . .”

Brushing the wayward bronze bangs out of Cain’s face, she leveled a no-nonsense look at him. “You’re questioning your own judgment?”

“I’m questioning everything lately,” he admitted. “It’s just a gut instinct, but . . .” Trailing off, he propped his elbow on the desk and pinched the bridge of his nose. “What if I’m wrong?”

“About Sydnie?”

“She’s out there with my son—”

Our son.”

Our son,” he amended. “Damn it . . .”

“You’ve always told him to trust his instincts, Cain. You should take your own advice.”

Wrapping his arms more securely around Gin’s waist, he pulled her closer and nuzzled her neck. “You’re right,” he allowed with a sigh. “Absolutely right.”

“And don’t you forget it, Zelig-sensei.” She smiled sweetly then bit her lip as a hint of sadness crept into her eyes.

“What’s on your mind?” he prodded gently.

Gin managed a half-hearted smile. “I was just thinking,” she murmured.

“‘Bout what?”

She shrugged. “Sebastian.”

“What about him?”

Her lips trembled, but her smile brightened. “Just remembering how it was when we first brought him home.”

“Hmm?”

“You hogged him, Cain Zelig,” Gin pointed out.

“You were recovering,” he grumbled.

“For awhile there, I didn’t think you were going to let me hold him at all.”

“That’s why we had Evan, wasn’t it?” Cain countered with a bashful grin.

Gin rolled her eyes. “Ten years later!”

Cain chuckled. “They’re my boys.”

She giggled and tugged his ponytail. “And you never put Jillian down.”

“She’s my girl.”

Gin groaned but giggled and kissed Cain’s cheek. “Cain?”

“Yes?”

Her laughter died away, and she sighed. “Sebastian will be fine.”

He swallowed hard, thankful for the absolute determination in Gin’s tone as he kissed her forehead and hugged her tight. “Of course he will.”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Bas groaned and rubbed his shoulder as he pulled out of the parking lot at the rental car agency. He’d taken to changing cars every day or two, just to be safe, figuring that it would be a little harder to track them if they switched their mode of transportation more often. Sydnie fiddled with a small silver locket she’d dug out of her purse and shot him a probing glance. “Are you all right?” she asked quietly.

“Fine,” he replied, tilting his head from side to side to alleviate some of the built-up stiffness from nights spent sleeping in chairs.

“Good.”

“We’ll cross the border and stop in Oklahoma tonight. You want another spoon?”

“Oh, um . . .” she hedged. He tried not to smile at the anxious glance she cast him. “I don’t need one.”

“No one needs those,” he reminded her. “But you like them.”

She didn’t respond to that, and Bas figured it was her way of agreeing. ‘Stubborn cat,’ he mused with a soft little chuckle. “I’ll get you one.”

“We just switched cars yesterday,” she pointed out.

He shrugged. “I know. You said this one wasn’t as comfortable as the other one.”

She wrinkled her nose and shook her head. “You’re not blaming this on me,” she grumbled, cheeks pinking prettily as she scrunched up her shoulders.

“I’m not blaming you. You just said—”

“I know what I said, Bas the Hunter.”

He sighed. “Are you more comfortable?”

Turning the locket over in her nimble fingers, she nodded. “As comfortable as one can be in a moving deathtrap,” she allowed.

“That’s pretty,” he commented, nodding at the jewelry in her hand.

Sydnie glanced at him, her eyes startled, suspicious. “You think?”

“Sure. Had it long?”

“Long enough.”

“Gift?”

“I guess so.”

He shrugged. “From who?”

She stuffed it back into her purse and shrugged. “Someone I used to know.”

He scowled at her cryptic answer, but let the subject drop, concentrating instead on the expanse of road that stretched out behind them in the rearview mirror. They weren’t far from the Oklahoma border. Since they had some time to spare, he’d figured that crossing the state line wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

“I’m bored.”

Bas glanced at Sydnie and chuckled softly. “We can stop early if you want.”

“But I’m bored now.” Flexing her claws, she heaved a melodramatic sigh. Bas grimaced as she raked those claws idly over the door handle.

“All right, all right,” he relented. “Uh . . . a game.”

“A game?”

“Mhmm.”

“We can’t play a game in the car,” she scoffed. “Anyway, aren’t you a little old for games?”

“Well, you’re the one who calls me a pup.”

She shrugged. “You say you’re not.”

“I’m not.”

She snorted, crossing her arms over her chest. “What sort of game?” she asked cautiously.

“I don’t know . . . truth or dare?” he suggested, recalling the silly little game that his sister, Jillian used to badger his family with, whenever they went for an extended trip. He used to pretend he was asleep to avoid having to participate in the stupid game. ‘Maybe,’ he thought as he tightened his grip on the steering wheel, ‘maybe it’ll work to get some answers out of Sydnie . . .’

“You want to play truth or dare?”

He sighed since he really didn’t want to do any such thing.

Cain’s words echoed in his head. “We need answers, Bas, and Sydnie is the only one who can supply them . . .”

“Sure,” he said in a careless tone. “Why not?”

“Okay, puppy,” she agreed despite the reticence in her tone. “I’ll go first.”

“Fine.”

“Truth or dare?”

Bas turned the radio off and settled back in his seat. “Truth.”

“Does she kiss good?”

“Who?”

Sydnie snorted. “Your bitch.”

He winced. “My . . .? Sydnie . . .”

“Hmm?”

“I don’t think that’s really any of your business,” he grumbled, fighting the wash of crimson color that rose to stain his cheeks.

“It’s truth or dare, puppy. You shouldn’t have suggested it if you didn’t want to play.”

“No personal questions.”

She rolled her eyes. “If I can’t ask personal questions, then what’s the point of playing? Everything’s likely to be personal to you, Bas the Hunter. Just forget it, okay?”

Stifling a growl that welled in his throat, he scowled at the road. “Fine . . . she’s fine.”

“Just fine?”

Deliberately trying to ignore the tiny voice that insisted that he tell her the truth, that he didn’t really have a girlfriend at all, Bas snatched up his bottle of soda and took a swallow. “Yeah, just fine. Truth or dare, cat?”

Sydnie stretched out her arm straight, turning up the back of her hand and carefully examining her claws. “Truth.”

“Do you purr?”

Sydnie shot him a quick glance. “Of course not.”

“But you’re a kitty, and kitties purr.”

“Not this one, pretty boy.” She turned to face him and shook her head. “At least, I don’t think I do.”

“Ah, so you might.”

“Anything’s possible. Anyway, truth or dare.”

“Truth.”

She fiddled with the On-Star control panel but didn’t push any buttons. “You’re kind of boring, aren’t you? What’s the matter, puppy? Don’t believe in taking risks?”

“What makes you think that answering questions isn’t worse than taking a stupid dare?” he challenged.

“Do you have something to hide?”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“Fine, then,” she said with a sigh. “Have you had lots of girlfriends?”

He grimaced. “No.”

“Hmm . . .”

“What?”

She grinned. “That just surprises me.”

“Why?”

“A pretty boy like you? I think you’re lying.”

“Think what you want,” he muttered. “I’m telling the truth . . . Truth or dare?”

“Truth.”

“What about you?”

“Nope, I’ve never had a girlfriend,” she deadpanned.

“You know what I meant,” he argued.

She raised her eyebrows and tried not to smile. “You should have said what you meant.”

“Have you had many boyfriends?” he amended.

Sydnie sat back, resting her temple against the plush bucket seat and curling her legs up under her. “Boyfriends? No . . . Kitty toys? Absolutely.”

“Toys?” he growled, tamping down the irrational surge of anger that rose to choke him.

“Sure . . . pity you made me leave them all back in LA, don’t you think?”

He gritted his teeth. “And yet you didn’t want to say goodbye to anyone.”

“As if you’d have let me.”

“You’ll never know since you never asked.”

“Truth or dare, puppy.”

He shot her a long-suffering look. “Truth.”

“I see . . . All right, then. Tell me . . . have you ever had sex before, Bas the Hunter?”

Bas snorted. “Yeah, I’m not answering that one.”

She opened her mouth to argue. Bas shook his head. “I’m not kidding.”

“Then you have to take a dare.”

“. . . Let’s hear it.”

“Okay . . . I dare you to . . . show me what you can do with your big, bad . . .” She planted her hands on the center console and leaned in close. He swallowed hard, tried to ignore the scorch of blood that surged through his veins. “. . . Sword.”

“My . . . sword.”

“Yes.”

He cleared his throat and stole a glance at her. She was entirely too bright-eyed, entirely too attentive . . . entirely too close. Leaning toward him, she licked his cheek and giggled when his face shot up in flames. “Damn it, Sydnie! That’s completely unsanitary—” he grumbled as he rubbed his cheek against his shoulder.

She sat back with a soft giggle, hands still resting on the console. “So are you going to show me?” she challenged, ignoring his tirade over her wayward tongue.

“Considering there’s no good place to do that? No, I can’t.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Fine, fine . . .”

“I will another time if we find some place that isn’t so open,” he promised.

“Really?”

He shrugged. “Sure.”

She clapped her hands happily.

He sighed. “Truth or dare, kitty?”

“Truth.”

He cast her a sidelong glance and snorted. “Now who’s boring?”

She pretended not to have heard him.

“You really don’t remember what happened to your parents?”

“You’re wasting your questions on things I’ve already told you,” she pointed out stiffly.

“So you were being honest.”

She shrugged, combing her hair with her fingers. “I’m always honest.”

His snort proclaimed that he didn’t believe her. “Honest, but you speak in riddles.”

“I’ve never lied to you.”

“Your turn, cat,” he growled, leaning his elbow on the door and resting his temple in his fingertips.

“Where are your crests?”

“Nowhere special.”

“You’re really cute when you blush,” she countered.

“And you’re really fucking nosy.”

She laughed.

“Truth or dare, Sydnie?”

“Truth,” she told him.

“You were three when you were left alone, you’ve said, and you don’t remember your parents, either, right? So who took care of you after your parents died and until you were three?”

“Who said anyone did?”

“Come off it. I have a little sister, and I remember when she was three. She was just a toddler. She certainly couldn’t have taken care of herself.”

“Well, I did,” she retorted.

“A brother or a sister?” he pressed, careful to keep his tone gentle, neutral.

A strange sense of sadness filtered into her gaze. Bas caught it before she could hide it from him. “It doesn’t matter, does it? I was left alone, and that was that.”

“Sydnie . . .”

“I don’t want to play anymore. This is a really stupid game.” He could feel her turning away from him; not only her body but her mind, as well. She was drawing into herself the way she always did when he asked questions she didn’t want to answer.

Bas sighed and stared out the window. He’d been close to getting some answers out of her. ‘Damn it . . .’ If he could just get her to talk, he’d be two steps ahead of the game, but . . . how? She guarded her secrets closer than he did. Her secrets, he knew, were far worse than his. Still . . . Maybe . . .

So tell her something that you don’t tell anyone else. Tell her something to let her know that you trust her with your secrets.’

The day I trust her—’

Don’t be stupid. Who’s she going to tell, anyway?

He sighed, stealing a peek at her and grimacing when he saw the forlorn expression in the depths of her eyes. “No,” he blurted, unable to staunch the flow of blood that stained his cheeks crimson.

“No?” she echoed, clearly confused as to why he was saying ‘no’.

He grimaced. “No,” he repeated, his voice almost dropping to a whisper. “I’ve never . . . I haven’t . . .” He sighed. “No girls . . . not ever.”

She tried not to laugh; he had to give her that much credit. Covering her mouth with her hand as she cleared her throat a few times, she sat up and stared at him. “So you are a puppy!”

“I am not!” he growled. “I just . . . I hadn’t found the right one, and—and . . .”

“You’re not one of those romantics who believe in happily ever after and all that crap, are you?”

“My idiot brother whores around enough for the both of us,” he grouched.

“Oh?”

He snorted. “There’s nothing wrong with being picky. It’s a big deal to me, okay?”

She nodded. “And your girlfriend? Is she the ‘right’ one?”

Bas dragged a hand over his face and avoided her gaze. “No, Sydnie, she’s not the right one, either.”

“You’re a strange puppy, Bas the Hunter.”

He pulled into the parking lot of the small gas station and shut off the car. “About that . . . I don’t—”

The sound of Sydnie’s door opening cut him off, and he sighed. “I’ll be right back. I’m dying for a smoke.”

He let his forehead fall against the steering wheel for a moment as he uttered a soft groan. ‘Damn it, damn it, damn it,’ he berated himself. ‘Tell Sydnie something personal, huh?

It’s not my fault you decided to stop here before you could try to wheedle information out of her.’

That’s the last time I take your advice,’ he growled. ‘Just shut up, will you?

You know, Bas, it’s not that bad.’

That’s debatable. Arming her with knowledge like that? I’m going to be sorry; I know I am.’

His youkai laughed, and Bas groaned again as he stumbled out of the car. ‘You’re already sorry. Know what I think?

No, and I don’t think I want to.’

I think you should just march in there and tell her you want her to be your bitch.’

Bas stopped short, his hand poised on the handle of the gas station door, and sucked in his breath in a sharp gust. ‘Shut up, you. Just shut up.’

Damned if his youkai didn’t laugh even harder.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Damn him . . .’

Staring out the window at the insignificant humans flooding the streets like vermin, Jeb Christopher crumpled the bit of paper in his fist, digging his claws into his palm. The coppery scent of blood filled his nostril, and he blinked in absent bemusement at the scarlet ribbons that snaked down the heel of his hand, winding around his wrist, disappearing under the cuff of the black linen shirt he wore.

“Jeb?”

He didn’t turn to acknowledge the intruder. That she’d left him alone this long had been a minor miracle. Lifting his gaze back to the city, laid out in a grid of asphalt and steel; of brick and mortar, it stretched to the horizon, as far as the eye could see. “I want to know his name.”

“Already on it,” Myra informed him, the careful comfort of her voice a welcome solace that he shoved aside. “I sent Tom and Lessa.”

“Good . . .” Lips curling in a cynical sneer, Jeb squeezed the paper a little tighter in his fist. “Send Glave, too.”

Myra paused before replying. “All three?”

Jeb’s face broke into a menacing grin, completely devoid of any traces of real humor. “Damn right.”

“Understood.”

He heard the click of her footsteps as she strode toward the door.

“Myra.”

“Yes?”

Jeb tossed the message away. “Bring me the hunter. I want him alive.”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Sydnie tapped a delicate claw against her lips as she stared thoughtfully at the overstuffed recliner. Jammed into the corner on the other side of the nightstand, it looked sorely out of place, and while it might be a nice thing to relax on, it certainly wasn’t a bed, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Since when do you feel bad about the puppy’s sleeping arrangements? It’s not like he’s complaining about it.’

She frowned. ‘Of course he’s not complaining about it. That doesn’t mean it it’s comfortable for him, either. Bas is well over six feet tall, I’d say. Sleeping in that chair? That’s just not a good thing . . .’

You like him a lot, Syd.’

I tolerate him, you mean.’

Just tolerate him?

Yes.’

If you just tolerate him, then suppose you explain why you’re standing here trying to figure out how to get him off that chair and into your bed.

You make it sound a lot worse than it is,’ she pointed out.

It’s bad enough.’

You’re insane.’

Insane? I don’t think so. At least I don’t live in denial.’

Sydnie wrinkled her nose and shifted her gaze to her claws. ‘I could just slice up the chair a little,’ she mused.

You can’t do that. That’d be a little too obvious, even for you, and then Bas would have to pay for the chair.’

All right, if you’re so clever do you have any suggestions?

Her youkai sighed. ‘Do I have to do everything, Syd? Just do something so that he can’t sleep on it, but you don’t have to destroy anything. Put it out of contention, so to speak.’

Hmm, like a temporary obstruction?

Yes, yes, something like that.’

She pondered that with a little frown.

You’d better hurry. He went to the grocery store, and he’s been gone awhile.

Turning her head to gaze around the room, her eyes lit on the empty ice bucket and stuck.

He can’t sleep on a wet chair, can he?’ her youkai prodded.

Sydnie didn’t answer as she glanced back and forth from the chair to the bucket and back again.   It only took two steps to reach the table where the bucket sat. Before she could talk herself out of it, she hurried into the bathroom, filled up the bucket, and, biting her bottom lip, slowly poured the water over every inch of the seat cushion.

She stepped back and surveyed her handiwork with a thoughtful frown as she debated whether or not she ought to refill the bucket again. Eyes flaring wide as her head snapped to the side, Sydnie gave a little yelp as she scurried to replace the bucket and launch herself onto the bed. Scrambling for the remote control, she was shuffling through the channels when Bas stepped into the room and kicked the door closed behind him.

“Milk, cottage cheese, yogurt, bagels and cream cheese . . . Hope you’re hungry, kitty.”

Sydnie snorted and turned up the volume. “Not really, puppy, but I’ll humor you.”

He set the bag on the table and pulled his duster off, tossing it over a metal chair before unstrapping his sword and leaning it against the wall. She leaned her head back and rose on her knees, trying to see over his shoulder as he unpacked the two plastic bags. After neatly stacking the dairy products, he grabbed a clear plastic box and popped the lid before stuffing it into the small microwave on the bureau beside the television.

“What was that?” she asked grudgingly.

Bas chuckled. “Fried chicken. Want some?”

“I’m not—”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re not hungry. I know.”

She shrugged and smiled as he poured a glass of milk for her and closed the distance to hand it to her before sitting down on the edge of the bed to pull off his boots. “You were gone awhile,” she remarked as she leaned to the side to see the television.

“You can’t complain,” he joked. “I brought you food, didn’t I?”

She shrugged. “I suppose.”

The microwave beeped, and he strode over to fix two Styrofoam plates. The smell of the reheated chicken made Sydnie’s tummy growl. Bas chuckled again as he handed her a plate and a clear plastic fork. “Not hungry, huh?”

“Mind your own business, pretty boy,” she shot back, cheeks pinking as she set the fork aside and picked up the chicken with her fingers.

He rolled his eyes but grinned. Plate in one hand and soda in the other, he shuffled over to the recliner and started to sit down. Sydnie choked on a bite of chicken when he sprang out of the chair, dropping both food and beverage with a loud curse. “What the hell . . .?”

“Something wrong, Bas the Hunter?” she asked rather blandly.

He scowled at the soaked chair and slowly turned, narrowing his eyes as he glowered at her. “Sydnie . . .”

“Hmm?”

Heaving a sigh and deciding that it wasn’t worth the effort to argue with her, Bas stomped over and dug a dry pair of pants from his suitcase, mumbling under his breath about heathen cats who just couldn’t be trusted. She managed to keep her expression blank until she heard the bathroom door slam. The little smile that surfaced, though, was tempered only by the slight twinge of guilt over the lowdown tactic she’d employed.

He stomped back out of the bathroom, tossing the wet jeans in the direction of his suitcase. Turning off the television then pulling out the bureau to unplug it for good measure, Bas turned slowly, hands on hips, scowling at Sydnie as though he were pondering her imminent demise. “Care to tell me why you soaked the chair, cat?” he growled.

Sydnie bit her lip and blinked innocently, setting her plate aside and folding her hands in her lap. “It was an accident,” she maintained. “You don’t really think I’d do something as mean as pour water on it, do you?”

He heaved a sigh, raking his hands over his face. “Are you trying to kill me, Sydnie?” he demanded.

“Why would you think that?”

Letting his hands drop, he slowly shook his head before striding over to clean up the mess he’d made with the food. “Forget it. I’m tired,” he grumbled, tossing the plate and soda can into the trash. He strode off toward the bathroom again, this time returning with a dampened towel. He made quick work of cleaning up the spilled soda before stretching out on the floor and completely ignoring Sydnie in the process.

“What are you doing?” she demanded, peering over the edge of the bed.

Bas snorted but didn’t open his eyes. “What does it look like, cat?”

“You can’t sleep on the floor!” she blurted before she could stop herself.

That got his attention, and he popped one eye open to stare at her. “Well, someone soaked my chair—it must have been a ghost.”

Sydnie rolled her eyes and slipped off the bed, curling up on the floor beside him.

“Sydnie . . . what are you doing?”

“If you can sleep on the floor, I can, too,” she assured him.

He sighed. “It’s fine. Get back on the bed, will you?”

“I will if you will,” she agreed.

“Cat . . .”

“Oh, please! We’re both adults, Bas the Hunter, and that is a pretty big bed.”

His expression said plainly that he didn’t really like her suggestion.

“Just make sure you stay on your side, puppy, or I’ll scratch your eyes out.”

Bas growled low but slowly sat up, sweeping Sydnie up off the floor as he got to his feet. Momentarily speechless as he stared at her with an inscrutable look on his face, she wasn’t prepared for him to drop her rather unceremoniously on the bed. He stalked around the bed and stretched out on the other side as close to the edge as he possibly could. Sydnie wrinkled her nose and got up to throw away her plate, too.

Curling up on her side of the bed, facing away from him, she yawned and closed her eyes. She was almost asleep when she felt the brush of a blanket being pulled up over her, but she couldn’t do much more than smile wanly. She thought she heard him murmur something as she drifted off to sleep. Not able to comprehend his words, she sighed quietly and scooted a little closer.

“Night, Sydnie,” he’d said. “Sleep well.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“So what, exactly, do they do at one of these carnivals?” Sydnie asked again as Bas dragged her toward the middle of town. She pulled her hand away to rub her arms as if she were cold, but she smiled a little hesitantly when she peered up at him through the thick fringe of bangs that framed her face.

“I told you, kitty. There’ll be games and crafts and food . . . All kinds of things.”

“You’ve said that already. What else?”

He shrugged. “They’ll probably have rides and stupid stuff like that, too. You cold?”

She rolled her eyes like she thought that question was absolutely ridiculous. Bas grinned and grabbed her hand, leading her past the brightly painted metal barrels that blocked off the street for pedestrians. “I’m youkai, pretty boy. I never get cold, remember?”

“Oh, yes, and I don’t breathe. Tell me if you get too cold. I’ll take you back to the hotel.”

It really wasn’t that cold, Bas mused as Sydnie craned her neck to look around. He’d wager it was around fifty degrees—a little above average for November in Ardmore, Oklahoma, or so he’d heard. The clerk at the hotel had commented on it when she was telling Bas about the Thanksgiving Festival. He figured that it was more of a ploy to get them to stay for another night. He had been about to turn in their key when he’d noticed the acute interest that Sydnie had tried in vain to hide. For reasons that he really didn’t understand, he’d instead paid for one more night, ignoring the voice that cautioned him that it might well be a mistake. The bounty hunter he’d fought wouldn’t be the last, and from what he’d gathered from speaking to his father, the chances were good that they’d run into the thugs again if they lingered too long in one place.

‘She’s never done silly stuff like this before, has she?’ he thought as he waited for Sydnie to take a shower and get dressed.

‘If she really has been alone since she was three, probably not,’ his youkai agreed.

He sighed and brushed some caked-on dirt off his boot. ‘It’s just a stupid festival.’

‘Maybe. Then again, maybe it might mean something to her, and that’s what you want, isn’t it?’

‘Why would it matter to me? She’s just a crazy little cat who spends all her free time devising new ways to drive me nuts.’

‘Like last night?’

He blushed at the reminder, scowling menacingly at the brush he’d been using to clean his boots. ‘She did that on purpose; I know she did.’

‘Of course she did it on purpose. She soaked the entire chair, Bas. Ever wonder why she’d do such a thing?’

He snorted, dropping the shoe brush into the leather case that held his cleaning tools and the oil rag that he used on the blade of his sword. ‘Because she likes to make things more difficult.’

‘Oh, for the love of . . . Bas, you know, sometimes I think you’re a lot stupider than you let on.’

‘Why else would she have done that?’ he shot back, yanking his boots on and tugging his jeans over them.

His youkai sighed. ‘Because, you moron, she knows that you’ve been stiff and sore from sleeping in those God-forsaken chairs.’

‘So she had to drench the damn thing?’

‘And you’d have said yes if she’d just offered to share the bed?’

Bas didn’t answer that, remembering all too vividly, just how warm and nice it had been, waking up with Sydnie curled against him. Sometime during the night, she’d moved closer to him, or maybe he’d gravitated toward her. Either way didn’t matter, considering the end result was the same. She’d rolled over in the night since he distinctly recalled that she had been facing away from him. He was still on his back, but she’d been nestled there in the crook of his arm, her cheek leaning against his ribs and a wan half-smile touching her lips. She’d looked so fragile in the burgeoning light of morning that siphoned through the cracks between the thick brown curtains. Half expecting her to panic when she awoke to find herself, for all intents and purposes, nestled in his arms, he’d been amazed when she’d yawned and slowly opened her eyes only to smile at him with an expression on her face that had made him forget that he desperately needed to breathe . . .

“What’s that smell?”

Bas blinked and quickly shook his head, drawing a deep breath as he glanced around at the milling crowd. “Which smell, Sydnie? There are a lot of things here . . .”

She waved a hand impatiently. “It smells like food . . . Well, kind of.”

“Oh,” he remarked, nodding in understanding. “It’s all the fried junk they are selling.”

“Fried?”

“Yup. Most of the carnivals I’ve ever been to have had tons of fried foods . . . I think it’s easier to fry it out here than to cook real stuff.”

She wrinkled her nose and pointed at a craft booth. “What’s all that?”

Bas rolled his eyes, grasping Sydnie’s hand, and dragged her toward the booth. “It’s all pretty useless, really. Just an excuse to hustle money and eat a lot of crap,” he told her.

Sydnie caught his wrist with her free hand. “Useless? Really?”

He grinned. “Yes, kitty, completely useless.”

She digested that in silence as he hurried her toward the crafting booths.

The first stand was nothing but woodwork: wooden cars with painted wheels, wooden trains with carved wooden tracks, wooden beads, painted and strung to make colorful necklaces, wooden paper towel holders and whatnot shelves . . . Sydnie frowned as she eyed a small cabinet. Bas peeked over her shoulder and smiled. “You want one of those for your spoons?” he asked, nodding at the beautiful oak spoon display box. It had fifty slots with little brass labels above each with the names of the states listed in alphabetical order. There were two more rows of empty slots for miscellaneous ones, too.

“No,” she insisted, wrinkling her nose at the thought of having to take the spoons out of their cheap little boxes.

“Okay,” he agreed, taking her hand and pulling her toward the next craft booth. Mostly little trinkets designed for children that Bas remembered from long ago trips to the dime store with his mother, he couldn’t help but smile at the arrangement of ‘vintage’ toys. She’d always bought him silly little things, like rubber jacks and those tubes of rainbow-colored plastic that she’d smear on the end of an obnoxiously pink straw so that he could make those bubble-like balls that always shrank down, leaving the plastic all puckered and distorted. The stuff stank horribly, but Bas had spent hours chasing his makeshift balls all over the studio while his mother and father worked on their various projects.

Smiling slightly as he pulled a pinwheel out of a little tin can, he held it up and blew on it, grin widening as Sydnie stared at the shiny spinning blades. “What’s the matter, kitty? Never saw a pinwheel before?” he teased.

“I’ve seen them before,” she grumbled, cheeks pinking as her pride reasserted itself. She turned on her heel and stomped a few steps away. Bas handed the girl manning the booth a five dollar bill and strode after her without bothering to wait for his change.

“Here.”

She glanced at the pinwheel and wrinkled her nose. “Aren’t you kind of old for that sort of thing?” she challenged.

He grabbed her hand and wrapped her fingers around the toy. “I bought it for you.”

She blinked at it. He blew on it, and she jerked her hand away, watching in mute fascination as the wheel spun.

“You’re a strange little cat, you know that?”

Sydnie shifted her eyes to the side as a secretive little smile tugged at the corners of her lips. “You think so?”

He chuckled. “Come on. Let’s go win you a stupid, useless prize.”

“You can win those games?” she demanded, nodding at the array of gaming booths and clutching her pinwheel tight.

He shrugged. “Sure, unless they’re rigged.”

“And you’re going to win a prize?”

“Yes,” he told her, dragging her over to a football tossing game. “Excuse me. What are the rules?”

The man standing behind the counter shrugged. “Toss the ball through the holes, and get a prize according to your points. Ten tosses for five bucks; a hundred points for one of the big stuffed animals.”

Bas glanced back at the painted wooden game board. A series of five holes were cut in the board, and each one had a number value. The larger holes had smaller values, and there was only one worth ten points. He grinned as he glanced down at Sydnie and dug a five dollar bill out of his pocket. “All right, kitty. Watch the pro.”

She rolled her eyes but smiled as she stood back and waited. Bas pushed his elbows back and swung them forward a few times, loosening up his shoulders. “You’re not just being cocky, are you?” she teased.

Bas snorted indignantly. “Stand back, Sydnie,” he went on with an arrogant little grin, “and you’d better pick out what you want.”

The eye rolling became more pronounced. Bas palmed the football a few times, testing his grip on the ball. Sydnie leaned toward him with a soft giggle.   “Good luck, Bas the Hunter.”

“I don’t need luck, kitty. I’ve got this all under control,” he assured her as he let the first ball fly. It sailed cleanly through the ten point hole, and his grin widened as the ball caught on the netting behind the board and wobbled down to a stop. The man tending the booth whistled and grabbed the ball to toss it back to Bas.

“I guess you don’t,” Sydnie allowed.

Nine throws later, Bas stood back while Sydnie narrowed her eyes thoughtfully, staring at the array of hulking stuffed animals that hung from the top of the booth. “Any of them?” she asked without taking her eyes off the assortment.

“Any of them,” Bas agreed as he pointed at an overstuffed, over-exaggerated misrepresentation of a white Persian cat, complete with blue glass eyes. “What about that one?”

Sydnie wrinkled her nose. “I want that dog.”

Bas snorted but couldn’t help the little grin that surfaced as the attendant grabbed the dog in question with a long pole with a hook on the end. Bas took it from the man, knowing that Sydnie probably wouldn’t. “Thanks,” he mumbled, stuffing the goofy-looking dog into Sydnie’s arms. “That’s one ugly mutt.”

Sydnie scowled up at him. “He’s not ugly!” she argued. “I think he looks like you.”

“You think he—?” Bas choked out as he stared at Sydnie’s obvious approval of the God-forsaken mutt.   ‘Okay,’ he grumbled to himself. The dog was bronze in color like Bas’ hair. Other than that, however, there were absolutely no similarities between the stupid stuffed animal and himself. “And that just isn’t nearly as complimentary as it should have been,” he grouched.

“Well, I think he’s cute,” she shot back, thoroughly appraising her acquisition.

“Pfft! The day that dog—” Bas cut himself off abruptly as another thought siphoned into his brain. Cheeks reddening as he struggled to keep a neutral tone, he had to clear his throat before he could speak. “You . . . you think I’m . . . cute?”

She shot him a look at told him just how dense she thought he was being. “Of course you’re cute, pretty boy . . . just like an overgrown puppy!” Giggling as she gazed happily at the stuffed dog, Sydnie nodded. “Just like you,” she stated again. “I think I’ll name him Bas Junior.”

“What?” he growled, still irritated over her backhanded compliment.

“Bas Junior . . . he’s our baby.”

Baby?” Bas echoed incredulously. “He’s a stuffed dog!

“Lower your voice or you’ll make him cry,” Sydnie chastised.

Bas erupted in a low growl, clenching his teeth together so tightly that his jaw bulged.

“Can you win a sister for him?”

Stifling a sigh, Bas planted his hand on the small of her back and gave her a gentle shove. “Move it, Sydnie.”

She laughed and hugged the scruffy looking stuffed dog as he led her toward a food stand. “Don’t forget to get something for Bas Junior.”

He didn’t comment on that, either. “You enjoying yourself?” he asked instead.

“I am,” she said, her voice quiet, eyes bright as she gazed at him.

“Good,” he told her. “I’m glad.”

She glanced at him, opening her mouth to say something, but the words died away before she could get them out as the amusement in her eyes faded only to be replaced by a different emotion; one that Bas didn’t fully understand. She stared at him as though she were trying to figure something out. A slow realization dawned on him, and he slowly reached out to brush her bangs out of her eyes, letting his fingertips trace along the curve of her cheek, the line of her jaw. Catching her chin and tilting her face up, he stood, transfixed . . .

“Excuse me, sir . . . did you want something?”

Bas blinked and jerked away from her, startled gaze shifting to meet the grinning expression on the woman tending the food trailer. Forcing a weak smile, Bas swallowed hard, tamping down the irritation at the untimely interruption as he scanned the menu written in festive colors on the dry erase board hanging on the far wall of the trailer.

Beside him, he could hear Sydnie’s soft sigh, and he grimaced inwardly. He had a feeling that he knew exactly what she was thinking, because he was thinking it, too . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Sydnie sat on the bench, watching the spinning pinwheel with a little grin as Bas sat, hunched forward, slowly eating soggy chili-fries. She wrinkled her nose and turned away when he held one out to her. He chuckled and popped it into his mouth as she blew on her pinwheel to make it spin faster. “I bought these for you,” he commented, wiping his hand on a thin paper napkin.

“I’m not hungry,” she assured him.

“Me, either—at least, not for these.” Scowling at the shallow cardboard box of fries, he leaned over to chuck it into the gaudy orange trash barrel beside the bench. “You ready to go?”

“Go where?”

He shrugged. “We can go back and finish looking around, if you want . . . or we could go get some real food.”

“I don’t mind sitting here awhile,” she remarked as the pinwheel slowed.

Scooting back, he turned toward her, resting his elbows on his knees. “Okay.”

Slipping her gaze to the side, she tightened her hold on the stuffed dog, burying her chin in the animal’s fur. ‘He’s really something, isn’t he?

Stop fawning all over Bas the Hunter and pay attention, Syd. You’re acting like a lovesick fool. Can’t you see it?

See what? And I am not!

Oh? Do you remember ogling him when he was palming that football?

Sydnie fought down a furious blush, studiously trying to avoid looking at him while she toyed with the small tuft of golden fur sticking straight up from the top of the stuffed dog’s head. ‘Well, he could nearly wrap his hand around the damn thing . . . that was fairly impressive, don’t you think?

Her youkai groaned. ‘Oh, for the love of—’

Anyway, you know what they say about men with big hands . . .’

Focus, Sydnie, focus! You’re only staying with him to get to New York City, right?

The wind shifted, blowing Bas’ hair into her face. The wispy ends tickled her cheek, and she grinned. ‘Yes, yes . . . New York City. Absolutely.

You know, though . . . it wouldn’t really be so bad, would it? Staying with Bas the Hunter for awhile?

Sydnie’s smile faded, and she scowled at the almost hesitant question. ‘It . . . wouldn’t be so bad, no . . .’

Then maybe . . .?

She sighed. ‘Maybe,’ she agreed reluctantly.

“We should get moving soon. Staying in one place too long could be bad.”

Sydnie started out of her musings and glanced at Bas. He was surveying the park as though he expected someone to jump out at them. She shifted her gaze, scanning the small grove of trees, too. She didn’t sense anything out of the ordinary, but she didn’t like how worried he seemed, either. “You mean tonight?”

He nodded. “Yes. I don’t think the bounty hunters have figured out where we are yet, but . . .”

She didn’t need him to finish his sentence to understand his implication. A distinct shiver ran up her spine, but staring at him out of the corner of her eye was enough to lend her a feeling of security that both unsettled her and somehow comforted her at the same time. “I hate cars,” she mumbled.

“I know,” he replied in an apologetic tone. “We could take a plane . . .”

She scowled at him. “The car’s just fine, puppy.”

“I thought so.”

Sydnie’s retort was cut short at the distinct sound of a crying child. Turning to look back at the path that meandered through the park, she uttered a low sound deep in her throat as a saw the little girl. She had her back to them, and she sat in the middle of the path with her tiny hands pressed over her eyes to staunch the flow of tears. Not more than four years old, the girl’s little frame shook with the force of her tears, and Sydnie stood up, a thoughtful frown marring her brow as she cautiously approached the child.

“Is something wrong?” she asked, carefully keeping her voice low, calm.

The girl sniffled and uncovered her eyes, blinking at Sydnie as her lip quivered precariously. “I dropped my Sno-Cone,” she whispered, her little voice as soft as the breeze.

Sydnie clucked her tongue as she noticed the paper cone on the ground. Lying on its side with the cherry-red treat spilling all over the path, it was slowly melting, dispatching in ribbons streaking the dirt. “Kittens shouldn’t cry over spilt milk,” Sydnie said as she shook her head.

The child wiped her nose on the pink cuff of her light jacket, shoulders slumped, the air of abject despair surrounding her.

Sydnie sighed and slowly held out the stuffed dog. “Here. Would you like this? He could use a good home.”

With a hiccup, the girl reached out and took the offering. A small smile that seemed completely misplaced with the tears that still stood in her eyes spread over her face, and she stood up quickly, throwing her arms around Sydnie’s neck. “Thank you!” she exclaimed.

Sydnie hesitated for a moment before hugging the child. “Shouldn’t you go find your parents?”

The girl nodded and let go. “Mama’s working the hat booth,” she said. Turning on her heel, she skipped away, hugging the stuffed dog tight as she disappeared around the curve of the path.

Sydnie waited until the child was out of sight before slowly pushing herself to her feet, dusting her hands off as she broke into a little grin.

“I won that for you, you know,” Bas said softly as Sydnie turned to face him. He didn’t sound irritated at all, and his eyes were strangely warm as he gazed at her.

“Children shouldn’t cry,” she murmured, unsure why his scrutiny made her knees feel weak.

He stuffed his hands in to the pockets of his duster and ambled toward her. “No, they shouldn’t,” he agreed. “You, uh, want me to win you another dog?”

She shrugged.   “I have a puppy . . . I don’t need another one, do I?”

For once, the term didn’t seem to bother him, and he grinned as his cheeks pinked a little. “You surprise me, cat.”

“It was just a stuffed dog.”

He stopped before her, amber gaze glowing bright, the vaguest hint of a smile touching the corners of his lips. She couldn’t interpret the emotion in his eyes, but the flicker of approval was obvious enough. She’d somehow managed to please him, even if she didn’t really understand how.

Bas’ smile didn’t disappear as he gazed at her, staring down at her as though he were trying to see into her mind. “Who are you really, Sydnie Taylor?”

She shrugged as her eyes skittered away, finding it easier to watch the leaves dance across the muted brown grass. “Who do you want me to be, Bas the Hunter?”

He caught her hand, lifted her knuckles to his lips, blew on the blades of the pinwheel. The exhalation lifted her bangs as another little shiver raced down her spine. She stared at it, watched the convolution of swirling colors. Bas let go of her hand only to bring his palm up to cup her cheek, rubbing her cheekbone with the pad of his thumb. Sydnie caught his wrist but didn’t try to push him away, clinging to him as she shook her head, as she tried to figure out just what was happening. Blood pounding through her body made her feel curiously hot, strangely lethargic. She felt her breath hitch in her chest as his gaze narrowed the tiniest bit. A hint of challenge? An unvoiced warning? Or was it a promise of something that she didn’t quite dare to hope for . . .?

Bas lifted his other hand to stroke her face, his touch feathering over her skin as softly as the brush of a feather.   Sound seemed to fade as he gently tilted her head back, as his lips hesitated on hers for little more than a moment only to return once more. She leaned against him, accepted his kiss, let go of his wrist only to slip her arms around his neck. The idea of trying to resist him hadn’t occurred to her at all. Tilting his head as he moaned softly, Bas wrapped his arms around her, offering her support, stability . . . offering her his protection.

His lips opened to hers; pressed against hers with a gentle ferocity that spoke to her soul. Barely contained emotion simmered just below the quiet façade. His body trembled against hers; strength humbled by a quiet restraint. Sydnie traced the contours of his lips with the tip of her tongue. He growled; a primitive warning silenced by the shocking feel of his tongue against hers: stroking, caressing . . .

The beat of his heart synchronized with hers, wild, erratic, and entirely soothing while the burgeoning swell of desire hung thick in the air. Friends or enemies; rivals or reluctant adversaries . . . it didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered to Sydnie was the draw of Bas’ youki, the lure of something that could be beautiful, if she only had the courage to meet him halfway.

The power that seemed to radiate from him engulfed her; welcomed her. She sighed against his lips and tried to press her body closer, welcoming the heat of his skin that permeated the thin fabric of his t-shirt. Slipping her hands under his coat, she kneaded his wide shoulders, reveled in the raw strength that she could feel simmering just below the surface. The absolute lure of him had become a palpable thing. Driven by an unvoiced desire, she willed him to understand. Maybe her pride wouldn’t allow her to admit as much out loud, but her actions would. Bas crushed her to him, her feet barely touching the ground as the world spun away from her; as time slowed then stood still, leaving only the two of them in a world where nothing else really mattered at all . . .

The intrusion of a shift in the atmosphere was dulled in her mind. She couldn’t think, didn’t want to lose the contact of Bas’ body against hers. With a sharply muttered curse, he tore his mouth away from hers, glancing over his shoulder seconds before he shoved her away. The sharp hiss of his gasp echoed in her ears as a gust of wind and the whistle of swift movement zipped past her. Bas grunted as the impact of the attack hit him, and the anger that had barely begun to form at the perceived callousness of his actions dissolved. “Bas!” she screamed, pushing herself off her bottom to her knees.

The force of the energy blast exploded in a white-blue light, hitting him in the center of his chest, and he grunted as he slid back, his boots leaving scars in the dormant earth. As the light died away, Sydnie’s eyes widened in shock. Bas had managed to draw his sword, and, slamming the tip into the ground, had prevented himself from being sent flying from the blast. Jerking the sword free as he straightened his back, he uttered a harsh sound—not quite a bark, not quite a growl—that she somehow understood. Without looking back, she pushed herself to her feet and darted behind him. She blinked, pressing her hand against her chest as she swallowed hard and willed her heart to slow, resisting the need to melt against him, to draw from his calm, his strength, as hers faltered for just a moment.

Get a hold of yourself, Sydnie . . . The last thing either of you need is for you to lose your head.’

She winced at her youkai’s sound, if not gruff, advice. Closing her eyes long enough to draw a deep breath, she grasped the back of Bas’ leather duster for a moment as she reigned in her rioting emotions. She leaned to the side to peer around his arm, she stifled a groan. ‘More bounty hunters . . .?

“Well, well, well . . . now this is interesting, don’t you think?”

“Quite . . . No wonder he’s taking his time in taking her to the Zelig . . . it makes much more sense to me now.”

The man—a bat-youkai—rolled his head from side to side, neck popping in response to the action as a toothy grin surfaced on his gaunt face. Running his fingers through his spiky black hair, he leaned to the side to get a good look at Sydnie and chuckled. “Can’t say I blame him, Lessa. She’s a pretty little pussy cat, what say?”

Lessa wrinkled her nose but didn’t take her eyes off Bas. “Remember: we’re here to do a job, can’t you?”

She bit her lip. Two against one was hardly fair. Then again, bounty hunters weren’t exactly known for conducting themselves in a sportsman-like manner. They’d fight dirty if they had to, and while she didn’t doubt that Bas could beat them both in fair fights, she wasn’t so sure what his odds were against the likes of these two.

“Bas . . .”

“Quiet, cat. Just stay behind me,” he growled.

“Oh, look . . . he’s going to protect her!” the male mocked. “How precious.”

“Just remember: the boss wants him alive,” the wind-youkai reminded her cohort, crossing her arms over her chest as she smiled insincerely. “As for the bitch . . .”

The man laughed again. “There’s that, too, but a bit o’ sport never hurt anyone.”

Her smile widened. “Sport, you say?” Allowing her gaze to roam up and down Bas’ frame, she grinned lazily. “He’s a little more my type than she is.”

Sydnie couldn’t repress the sing-song howl that rose in her throat at Lessa’s goading. She started to dodge around the obstacle of Bas’ body, but he must have anticipated her move, catching her wrist easily in his free hand and tugging her behind him once more. “Stay back, Sydnie,” Bas muttered. “I mean it.”

Lifting her right hand, fingers splayed before her face as her smile widened, Lessa slashed the air, her hand outstretched, unleashing five blades of wind that shot out of her fingertips. Bas deflected them with Triumvirate, his body jerking slightly as each of the projectiles reverberated against the youkai weapon. “Ah, so you’re not just a pretty face, after all,” she teased.

The bat-youkai shot forward, claws drawn back as he swung a wide arc at Bas’ chest. “Why don’t you just hand her over? You know, save us the time and trouble.”

“Over my dead body,” Bas growled, raising the blade of his sword in time to block the youkai’s descending claws.

The male grunted, pushing off the blunt side of Triumvirate’s blade as he sprang back to regroup. “So sorry, hunter. Nothing personal, but the boss’ orders, you see? Alive, maybe, but the boss didn’t say we couldn’t rough you up a bit, first.”

He threw his head back, uttering a sharp noise, an unrelenting pitch that nearly brought Sydnie to her knees. So high in pitch that human ears likely couldn’t discern it, the sound was designed to disorient youkai, and Bas—a dog-youkai—had to feel the effects of it worse than she did.

She pressed her hands over her ears, unable to do much more than squeeze her eyes closed and wait for the sound to end. The blade of Bas’ sword thudded against the ground, and Sydnie had a feeling that it was taking every bit of willpower he possessed to keep himself from dropping the weapon completely.

The next wave of wind blades zipped past. Bas managed to lift the sword in time to block one of them, but he had to lean to the side to avoid another. It grazed his cheek, and he growled, sparing a moment to glance over his shoulder to make sure Sydnie was still safe.

The sound was deafening. Forcing herself to peer around Bas again, she gasped as the bat-youkai lunged at Bas again. Bas hefted the sword over his opposite shoulder and hissed as the bat’s sharp talon-like claws tore through the leather covering his arm. With a loud grunt, he brought the hilt down against the youkai’s throat. The insidious racket mercifully stopped abruptly as the youkai sprang away once more, hand clenching his neck.

A flash of misty blue light shot out of Lessa’s fingertips and whistled through the air—an energy whip. Bas blocked it with his raised forearm. The end wrapped around his arm, and he gritted his teeth as the wind-youkai flicked her wrist, tugging him toward her. Sydnie caught Bas’ other arm and tried to pull him back.

Twisting his wrist, he caught the whip and sucked in his breath as it cut into his hand. Wrapping his hand once, twice, he jerked on the glowing line. Lessa growled as she stumbled, and the whip uncurled as she retracted it.

“Bas? Are you all right?” Sydnie demanded, forcing her horrified gaze away from his blood-soaked palm.

“Fine,” he muttered tersely. “I thought I told you—” Cutting himself off abruptly, Bas’ chin snapped up as he eyes quickly scanned the surrounding trees. “Fuck!

She looked around, too, scowling at the darkened trees; the shadows she couldn’t discern. Too many flashes of light, too much of the unearthly sound that still rang in her ears, and much too strong, the scent of Bas’ blood that filled her nose and turned her stomach . . . She couldn’t tell what Bas was worried about, and she finally glanced up at him for clarification. “What is it?”

He shook his head, grimacing as he shifted Triumvirate into his injured hand so that he could grab Sydnie’s wrist with the other. “Just stay close to me, Sydnie. Understand?”

The bat-youkai leapt again, arm drawn back to strike, a maniacal light blazing in his wild eyes. With his attention focused on Lessa, Bas didn’t see him. Sydnie wrenched her arm free and darted forward to meet the youkai. With a fierce howl, she slashed her claws, catching the youkai across the side of his head, slicing through the tender flesh of his ear. The sickening rip of cartilage was drowned out by the furious rasping screech as the youkai’s blood sprayed her arm, her shirt, her face. Raising his arm to strike her, he growled in absolute rage. Sydnie reacted on instinct, bringing her foot up and kicking it out, digging the spike of her stiletto heel into the bat-youkai’s testicles.

“Oh, damn,” Bas mumbled, grimacing as he spared a moment to watch the bat-youkai double over. “Remind me to buy you flat shoes, cat.”

“Like I’d kick you in the balls, puppy.”

“God, I hope not.”

“Bitch!” the youkai bellowed as he lurched toward Sydnie.

Bas caught her and shoved her back again, raising his sword and cleaving through the youkai’s chest. He turned away as the youkai exploded in a violent burst of light and dust and wind.

Sydnie shot out of the way of another blast of wind blades, lighting on her feet between Bas and the youkai as she glared at the bounty hunter. “Look at him again; I dare you,” she growled as she skirted around Lessa.

Lessa glanced from Bas to Sydnie and back again. “Jealous, kitty?”

She smiled insincerely as he stalked her prey. “Jealous? Of you? Do you think he’d really want to have anything to do with you when he can play with a real . . . pussy?”

Bas blinked at Sydnie’s choice of wording as he caught her shoulder and pulled her back. “No, Sydnie,” he mumbled in her ear.

She scowled at his almost distracted tone of voice. “She’s nothing but a lot of hot air,” Sydnie scoffed.

“I don’t like killing women,” Bas asserted.

Lessa chuckled. “That’s your downfall, hunter.” She drew her hand back to strike again. Bas grabbed Sydnie and leapt away. The wind blades hit the ground at his feet, sending chunks of earth flying into the air.

“I told you to stay behind me,” he growled.

Sydnie shook her head stubbornly and shot him a baleful glower. “I will when she stops looking at you!”

Bas shook his head and caught her arm again. “We don’t have time to—”

A brilliant flash of light cut him off. He didn’t have time enough to do much more than jerk her into his arms, turning them both so that she was sheltered from the blast that hurtled toward them. He grunted as it struck with a force so powerful that the two were lifted off the ground and blown backward. Somehow he managed to shift their positions in mid-air, gasping as he hit the earth hard with Sydnie’s added weight atop him. “Damn it,” he groaned, carefully shoving Sydnie aside so he could stand. He’d lost his grip on Triumvirate. It lay on the ground about fifty feet away at Lessa’s feet.

Sydnie scrambled to her feet, too, and darted away before Bas could catch her. “You came after me, right?” she called out as she circled around the wind-youkai.

Lessa stepped back to keep both in her line of sight. “It’s nothing personal. You’re just a paycheck to me.”

Sydnie kept moving, luring Lessa into doing the same. “How much am I worth?”

Lessa clucked her tongue. “Ah-ah-ah . . . breech of professional etiquette, you understand.”

“Then you’ll need to tell your boss that you need a raise . . . that is, if you make it back because I won’t die so easily.”

Lessa raised her hands in front of her chest as a bright ball of white energy sparked and started to grow. Out of the corner of her eye, Sydnie saw Bas closing the distance though he still wasn’t close enough to reach his sword. One arm tucked neatly over his ribcage, he looked a little pale despite the grimly determined set of his features. Sydnie concentrated on the youkai, preparing herself to spring out of the way. The ball of energy between Lessa’s hands crackled and popped dangerously; an ominous warning.

Sydnie glanced away long enough to check on Bas’ progress. Lessa noticed the slip and whipped around, ready to unleash her attack. Bas dove, retrieving his sword as he rolled to his knees, his body nothing more than a blur of motion. Sydnie screamed as the energy ball exploded, shielding her face with her arms and squinting as the glow blinded her, as an unnatural wind howled in her ears. Lowering her arms when the wind died away, she blinked, staring in numb disbelief at the lone figure of the man on his knees, his sword still held in the position where he’d thrust it through Lessa’s chest. The wind-youkai was gone, and the park seemed eerily quiet.

“Bas . . .” she murmured, stumbling toward the hunter.

Lowering the sword as he slowly got to his feet, Bas groaned as Sydnie hurled herself against his chest. “Come on,” he grumbled after indulging her for a moment. He stepped back and dropped Triumvirate into the scabbard strapped to his hip. “We can’t stay here.”

“You’re hurt,” she pointed out.

“It’s fine,” he argued, grabbing her hand. He forced a wry smile, but he looked absolutely exhausted. “Let’s go.”

“But—”

He rounded on her, glowering down at her, eyes bright with obvious irritation. “Look . . . that fight was loud, don’t you think? Someone was bound to notice it, and I, for one, would rather not be here when the human authorities arrive. We’ve got to move, Sydnie, now . . . and I’ve got to call the tai-youkai.”

“You should tell him you want a raise,” she grumbled but let him take her hand and drag her toward the trees. He kept glancing around as though he was looking for something, but as the consuming fear that had assailed her loosened its grip, she couldn’t quite help herself, either. “And how dare that bitch eyeball you? You should have let me scratch her eyes out . . .”

Bas sighed. “Be quiet, can’t you? I’m trying to listen . . .”

“Listen for what?”

He shook his head. “To make sure we’re not being followed.”

She stopped short. “Are we?”

Bas tugged her hand and quickened his pace. “Nope . . . now move.”

She let him lead her through the trees, a thoughtful scowl marring her brow. Bas was lying; she could tell. She just wasn’t sure why he was lying . . .

They hopped over the row of hedges surrounding the park, and he grimaced as he hit the sidewalk. ‘He really is hurt,’ she mused as he hurried her toward the cars lining the street. Thankfully, he’d parked nearby, and as the first police car zoomed past, lights flashing and sirens blaring, she couldn’t help but agree that maybe putting some distance between themselves and Ardmore, Oklahoma just might be a really good idea.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Bas rubbed his eyes and tried not to flinch as he kicked off his boots and waited for his father to answer the phone. His entire body ached. The thick leather duster had saved his shoulder from being torn open though the slits in the fabric were rather ominous reminders. His hand had been cut open when he’d touched the wind-youkai’s energy whip though luckily that had stopped bleeding hours ago. The tiny cut on his cheek was minimal, barely worth noting, actually. His ears still rang from the bat-youkai’s ungodly shrill wailing, and his head thumped painfully. No, the crux of his pain centered on his ribs. The right side of his torso ached horribly, and every time he moved, he felt like screaming, which had made the hours on the road sheer torture.

She’d remained quiet as he’d wrapped her cream colored tube skirt around his hand—it was the only thing that they could find to staunch the flow of blood. He’d hastily turned in the car and traded it for a different rental, handing over a wad of cash—he wasn’t sure how much—to pay the agency to turn in their hotel room key. They’d left his suitcase behind along with all his clothing, but he’d been leaving the file with Sydnie’s information in the car since the cat was a little too curious for her own good. Sydnie had everything of hers stuffed into that monstrosity she called a purse, so he’d chalked the sacrifice of his clothing up to acceptable loss and figured he’d just have to take the time to buy new clothes when they were safe enough to stop.

Sydnie had pointed out that it would only take a minute to run inside and get his suitcase, but Bas had refused. So far as he could tell, she didn’t realize that there had been a third youkai in the park. He hadn’t seen the stranger, but he had sensed the presence, and therein laid the problem. He couldn’t run the risk of being trapped in another fight; not with his body suffering the effects of the previous encounter. It was his fault; entirely his fault. He’d let his guard down. He’d allowed himself to be distracted, and he was damn lucky that Sydnie hadn’t been hurt . . .

He’d driven the rest of the day and well into the night, stopping just long enough to change cars again before the rental agency closed. He’d purchased The Old Farmer’s Almanac for the detailed road maps, and had kept on the back roads, only venturing close to towns when they needed to refuel. Sydnie hadn’t complained though she’d kept casting him worried glances; no small wonder since he hadn’t been able to completely mask his discomfort. Country roads might be good for getting around without drawing undue attention, but they weren’t the smoothest to travel on, and more than once he’d nearly moaned out loud when they’d hit a pothole or an unexpected bump.

“Bas? Something wrong?” Cain demanded, voice still groggy from sleep.

Glancing at the clock, Bas sighed, rubbing his forehead with a shaking, weary hand. It was after midnight, Louisiana time. Bas wasn’t sure. Maine time might be an hour later . . . “Sorry, Dad . . . I wasn’t thinking. I should’ve waited . . .”

“No, no . . .” Cain insisted. Bas could make out creak of his parents’ huge oak bed as his father sat up. “You sound a little off.”

“Met up with some more hunters,” Bas went on, his voice sounding oddly detached and flat. “A wind-youkai named Lessa and some bat-youkai . . .”

Cain didn’t reply right away. “You took care of them?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Damn it.”

“I think there was a third, but I never saw him.”

“A lurker? Figures. Did you find out anything?”

Bas grimaced. “I was a little too busy to ask.”

“It’s all right . . . Sesshoumaru’s tangled with these two factions before. He sent Gunnar with the information they have on the groups. Are you sure you’re all right?”

Gritting his teeth as he shifted slightly, Bas paused before answering. “I’m fine.”

“. . . You don’t sound ‘fine’.”

“I took a couple hits,” he explained.

“Tell me exactly what happened,” Cain prompted.

“Not much to tell,” he grumbled, unable to staunch the flow of blood that filtered into his cheeks at the memory of what had transpired just before the fight. “The female—the wind youkai . . . She hurled an energy ball at us. I got Sydnie out of the way, but she hit me.”

“Got her out of the way? How?”

Bas grimaced again. “I shoved her.”

“Oh . . .”

“Anyway, the bat-youkai had some sort of sonic attack. My ears are still ringing, but he was fairly simple to take out. The wind-youkai was tougher.”

“Bas?”

“Yes, sir?”

Cain sighed. “Didn’t you see them before they attacked?”

“. . . No . . .”

“You didn’t sense them?”

“. . . No . . .”

“Were they cloaking their youki?”

Bas squeezed his eyes closed and heaved a weary sigh. “. . . No . . .”

“Then how did they sneak up on you?”

“Well . . .”

“Bas,” Cain began in a warning tone.

He tucked his arm around his ribs and braced his feet on the floor to push himself up a little straighter. “I was . . . distracted . . .” he admitted.

“Distracted?” Cain echoed incredulously. “‘Distracted’, how?”

“Just distracted; that’s all,” Bas muttered.

“Sebastian . . .”

“I-we-she—” He sighed. Getting the proper-name-treatment from his father just didn’t bode well; not at all . . . “I was . . . kissing . . . her.”

In the background, Bas could hear the faint ‘snick’ of a disposable lighter, and he grimaced. Cain had obviously slipped out of the bedroom and was in one of the two places in the house where Gin allowed him to smoke: his personal studio or his study. Bas waited for the gauntlet to fall. “You were kissing . . . Sydnie?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re supposed to be bringing her in for questioning about the murder that she admits to having committed,” Cain reminded him.

Bas grimaced. “She isn’t a murderer!”

“That’s not the point.”

“It wasn’t as though I sat there trying to find a reason to kiss her,” he grumbled.

“That hardly matters.”

“It won’t happen again.”

“Can you really promise me that?”

Bas clenched his jaw. “Yes, sir.”

Cain sighed. “I see.”

“I-i-it wasn’t—I didn’t—I mean, she and I—”

“Is there something you need to tell me?”

His grimace shifted into a low groan, his father’s inference clear. “No, sir.”

“I know you’ve said she’s not a murderer—”

“She’s not!” Bas cut in, unable to keep the sharp edge out of his tone.

“And I believe you. Bas, I trust your judgment, however—”

Bas dragged a hand over his face as he tried to stave back the feeling of complete exasperation. “Everything’s fine.”

“I’m not trying to pry into your personal affairs, son, but I have to ask . . . Are you sure you can handle this? And before you get mad, I mean to say that if you’re letting yourself get . . . distracted . . . by her, then can you really do your job?”

“Yes,” he gritted out, clenching his fist, digging his claws into the heel of his hand.

“I trust you won’t let something like this happen again?”

“Absolutely not.”

Cain sighed again. “. . . I’m going to send Gunnar out there to talk to both of you.”

“I don’t think—”

“I need for you to tell him everything you remember about these bounty hunters. He’s helping me try to figure out who they are, and who hired them.”

“Yes, sir,” Bas forced himself to say. He just knew that Cain had ulterior motives for doing such a thing, but he also knew that Cain would never admit as much, either. “Fine.”

“Stay put. I’ll send him out as soon as possible. Tell me where you are.”

“Shreveport, Louisiana,” he replied. “The Cypress Hotel, room 102.”

He could hear the faint scratch of a pen on paper while Cain wrote down the address. “Are you sure you weren’t followed?”

Bas started to say that he was then scowled. “Not unless they were on foot,” he allowed.

“And that’s entirely possible, too.” Cain let out a deep breath. “Can’t be helped, but I doubt they’d walk into the hotel . . .”

Bas grunted. He’d thought as much, too. Unlike humans, who didn’t seem to care where they did their dirty deeds, youkai, for the most part, tended to lean toward secrecy, normally lying in wait until an opportunity presented itself to avoid drawing undue attention. Even those who hated humans kept to the unwritten rule. After all, stirring up suspicion and drawing notice weren’t exactly conducive to covert operations. All the same, Bas added, “I doubt it, too. Then again, I didn’t figure they’d attack in that park, either. The city was sponsoring a Thanksgiving festival downtown, and the park was just off the main quad.”

“Just lie low, okay?” Cain asked.

“Yes, sir,” Bas assured him. Sighing again as he lowered the phone and snapped it closed, he dropped it carelessly onto the table as Sydnie stepped out of the bathroom. She’d bathed and changed into her only change of clothes—a black tank top that didn’t quite reach her belly button and a pair of decidedly feminine pale pink g-string panties. Toweling her hair dry, she gazed at him with those bright, jewel-like eyes. “Where are the rest of your clothes, Sydnie?” he rasped out, quickly turning away before he did something utterly stupid—like grab her and kiss her again.

She clucked her tongue. “You used my other skirt for a bandage, remember? And the clothes I just took off were filthy. Anyway, I drew a bath for you. You should soak awhile.”

Snapping his mouth closed on the retort that had been forming on the tip of his tongue, Bas sighed instead. Sydnie was right. He had used her skirt as a bandage—at her insistence. “I’m fine,” he grumbled, gritting his teeth as he ignored the pain in his ribs whenever he drew a breath.

She folded the towel lengthwise and careful laid it over the back of a metal chair at the rickety old table before grabbing his leather duster and her purse and settling on the end of the bed. “Are you sure? The fight was pretty intense.”

“Yes, cat, I’m sure,” he grouched. “Anyway, what are you doing?”

Sydnie spared him a quick glance before digging into her purse for a packet of wet-naps. “Cleaning your jacket,” she said simply. She scowled at the torn shoulder. “I can try to mend this, if you want. I have a little sewing kit in here . . .”

Momentarily surprised at her offer, Bas could only nod while she fished around in her purse for the aforementioned sewing kit. “Thank you,” he mumbled. “That’d be really nice.”

“Mmm,” she murmured as she examined the ripped leather.

Bas watched her for a moment, a hesitant grin surfacing on his face before he turned slowly and headed for the bathroom.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Sydnie knocked on the bathroom door.

Bas grunted in reply, and she grinned. “Are you all right in there?”

“As fine as I was two minutes ago when you asked, Sydnie.”

“You need me to wash your back, puppy?”

He sighed. “No.”

“You need me to wash your front?”

“. . . No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” he growled.

“Are you positive?”

“Sydnie . . .”

“Don’t say I didn’t offer.” She laughed softly and sauntered back toward the bed, settling down with Bas’ jacket to figure out how to stitch the torn leather. She’d bought the small sewing kit months ago, figuring that it would be cheaper to mend her clothing than to replace them. She wasn’t very good at it, but she wasn’t terrible, either. Thing was, she’d never tried to mend anything as difficult as Bas’ leather coat, either.

Pressing her lips together in a thin line, she scowled as she held the leather and carefully caught the edges as smoothly and evenly as she could, whip-stitching the smallest tear. The needle was difficult to force through the unforgiving leather, but, using the small plastic thimble in the sewing kit, she managed to close the laceration fairly quickly, and was mid-way through the second cut when the unnerving trill of Bas’ cell phone made her jump. It took a moment for her system to settle down again, and she cast a fulminating glower at the ringing phone before wrinkling her nose and trying to ignore it. After ten rings, it fell mercifully silent, and Sydnie heaved a sigh of relief as she resumed her task once more.

Two minutes later, it rang again. Sydnie ground her teeth together and tried to ignore it, but when the phone started ringing for the third time, she gave up with a frustrated sigh. Dropping the leather duster onto the bed beside her, she sprang to her feet and grabbed the annoying device before stomping toward the bathroom. “Bas,” she called, rapping lightly on the door, “your phone is ringing.”

The slosh of water drifted through the thin, pressed wood door. “Just ignore it, cat.”

“But it keeps ringing,” she whined.

He sighed. “Then shut off the ringer.”

“How do I do that?”

“Look on the side. There’s a switch that says ‘ringer’ and you can turn it off there, okay?”

“You should have taken it in there with you,” she pointed out as the final ring cut itself off mid-tone.

“Just shut it off, and leave it alone.”

Sydnie growled out a ‘hrumph’, stalking away from the door and shuffling over to the bed once more. Sitting down once more, she turned the device over in her hands, looking for the switch he’d mentioned. The cell phone rang, and she squeaked out a strangled little scream, very nearly dropping the phone in the process. Flipping it open, she scowled at the digital display screen. She pushed the button labeled ‘connect’ and cautiously lifted the phone to her ear. “Hello?”

“. . . You’re not Bas.”

She blinked in surprise at the deep, lazy sound of the caller’s voice. “No, I’m not,” she agreed.

“You sound much sexier than Bas.”

Sydnie grinned, her initial irritation melting away. “I am!” she agreed.

“Kami, I hope so . . . Can I ask to whom I’m speaking?”

She giggled. “Sydnie.”

“Sydnie,” he repeated. “As in, the Sydnie?”

“The one and only,” she quipped.

“Sydnie the kitty?”

“Mee-ow.”

“Nice . . . very nice . . .”

She shifted her weight, curling her legs onto the bed beside her. “And who are you?”

“Me? I’m Bas’ cousin, Gunnar.”

“Cousin?”

He chuckled. “Well, technically, more like his second cousin or some such . . . my father is Bas’ mother’s cousin.”

“Gunnar,” she repeated. “I like Gunnar.”

“And I think I really like Sydnie.”

“Of course you do,” she assured him.

“So tell me, Sydnie the kitty . . . are you as sexy in person as your voice is on the phone?”

“No.”

“No?”

She grinned. “More.”

Really.”

“Absolutely.”

“I can’t believe that,” Gunnar replied. “You sound damn sexy . . . I can’t imagine you being sexier than that . . .”

“Oh, I am, Gunnar . . . are you a puppy like Bas?”

“A puppy?”

“Mhmm.”

“I assure you, Sydnie, there’s nothing ‘puppy-ish’ about me.”

“You don’t say.”

“I do say.”

Sydnie laughed. “Does that mean you have a big . . . gun?”

“Damn straight.”

“Why are you calling so late, Gunnar?”

He chuckled again, countering Sydnie’s question with one of his own. “Do you always answer Bas’ phone?”

Eyebrows lifting in surprise at the sound of Gunnar’s strange accent, she noted that he spoke English perfectly despite the foreign lilt in his tone. “Only when it keeps ringing at me.”

“Can I ask where my cousin is?”

She sighed. “He’s taking a bubble bath.”

“. . . A . . . bubble . . . bath.”

“Yes.”

“. . . Bas is in a bubble bath?”

“Of course . . . he was in a fight, you know.”

Gunnar grunted. “Ah, yes . . . the fight.”

“Let me see if he’s almost done.” Sydnie untangled herself and sauntered back to the bathroom door again. “Bas?”

“What?” he growled.

“Do you want me to bring you the phone?”

“No, Sydnie, I don’t.”

She rolled her eyes. “Are you sure?”

“Damn it, cat! You’re the one who insisted I needed a good soak, weren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Then leave me alone while I’m doing it!”

Sydnie wrinkled her nose. “Suit yourself, puppy . . .” She lifted the phone back to her ear as she skulked away from the door. “He’s a little grumpy right now.”

“Aw, poor kitty.”

“Hmm, yes, poor kitty . . . He just doesn’t understand me at all.”

“You know, Sydnie, I am still having trouble believing that you’re hotter than you sound.”

“Believe it, puppy.”

He paused for a moment, as though he were considering something. Finally, he cleared his throat. “Tell me something . . .”

“Hmm?”

“Does that phone have a camera on it?”

“I don’t know . . .”

“Well, look at it. If it does, there should be a small LCD screen and a button with a camera icon on it.”

She lowered the phone and looked it over. “Oh, so there is! You’re such a clever puppy!”

“Why don’t you take a picture of yourself and send it to me?”

“I can do that?”

“Sure.”

“Hmm, hold on.”

“Okay.”

Beside the camera button was one with a little depiction of a stopwatch. Sydnie slowly pressed the button, mouth rounding in an ‘oh’ when the screen asked her to select how much time she wanted. She selected twenty seconds and folded the device so that it would sit on the low bureau beside the television. It snapped the picture, and Sydnie stared thoughtfully at the area shown on the small screen before resetting the timer—this time for thirty seconds—and hurried over to sit on the floor in front of the bed, leaning on her hand as she curled her legs to the side.

The click of the camera was strangely loud in the silent hotel room, and Sydnie crawled over to retrieve it. Grinning happily at the image, she lifted the phone back to her ear. “So tell me, Gunnar . . . how do I send this to you?”

“Hmm,” he drawled, “well . . . if it’s like my phone, you have to scroll through the list of numbers in memory and send it to me. If it’s one of the newer ones, you should be able to just tell it to send it now.”

“Let me look,” she agreed. She tapped the ‘menu’ button and grinned, selecting the ‘send image’ option from the list presented. “There!”

“I’m getting it now,” Gunnar told her. “Hold on . . .”

She waited for a few moments when he stopped talking. Sinking down on the floor and leaning against the bed, she drummed her claws on the carpet as she waited for him to speak again. “Well?”

He cleared his throat. “Holy dogs,” he murmured, his voice a little gruff, almost hoarse. “Damn . . . I think I just came in my pants, kitty . . .”

“Really?”

Hell, yes. I like your little panties.”

“Bas was complaining about them.”

“Well, maybe you should just take them off?”

“Maybe,” she giggled. “I’m hot, huh?”

Gunnar chuckled and cleared his throat again. “Hot . . . no . . . I think you need a whole new word.”

“Like what?”

“Hmm,” he muttered as he thought it over. “How about . . . pussylicious?”

She giggled. “Oh, I like that!”

“I thought you would.”

“Bas thinks I’m scrawny,” she went on.

“The hell you say!”

“The hell I do say!”

“Is he blind?”

Sydnie laughed. “No, but he seemed to like kissing me well enough.”

“Bas . . . kissed you?”

“Mhmm . . . right before those bounty hunters attacked us.”

“I see . . . you know, Sydnie, if you get sick of Bas, I’d be happy to help you out.”

“Oh?”

“Absolutely. How’d you like to be my goddess? I swear I’d worship you properly . . .”

“Bowing to the power of the pussy?” she teased.

“I’d hit my knees for you.”

“Of course you would, puppy . . . I’m pussylicous, right?”

“Da-a-amn . . . You wouldn’t me interested in being my mate, would you?” he teased.

“Well, I’d have to see what you look like before I made a commitment like that,” she quipped.

“Me? I’m an ugly mutt . . . only one uglier than me is Bas.”

“Bas is uglier than you, is he?” she mused.

“Yes. Yes, he is.”

“Then I definitely have to see a picture of you. After all, you’ve seen what I look like . . . What’s it called? Tit for tat . . . I titted you . . . time for you to show me your . . . tat.”

He chuckled softly. “Fine, fine . . . I think I have a picture on this. Let me look, okay?”

He fiddled around with his phone for a few moments then sighed. “There.”

Sydnie giggled as the picture appeared on the small monitor. Long black hair tumbling over one shoulder, lean face with a slightly mocking grin, she noticed that the man in the picture had the same eye color as Bas, but most surprising of all were the tiny triangular dog ears perched atop his hair. “You’re hanyou!” she exclaimed. “You have puppy ears!”

“You want to stroke ‘em, don’t you, kitten?”

“I want to bite them,” she clarified.

“You can do that tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?”

He chuckled. “Yep . . . I’m coming out there in the morning to get information on the bounty hunters from you both.”

“I get two puppies?”

“Sydnie, sweetie, you can have anything you want from me.”

Sydnie laughed but didn’t even glance up when the bathroom door opened. Bas shuffled out of the bathroom and stopped short, uttering a terse growl as he stalked over to snatch the phone out of her hand, glancing at the caller ID screen before bringing the device to his ear. “What the fuck do you want?”

Sydnie pulled the duster off the bed and grinned as she resumed her mending. Bas grumbled unintelligible words into the phone and stomped toward the door, slipping outside into the hallway to have some privacy while he finished the phone call.

She giggled softly. She wasn’t sure what to make of this cousin of Bas’, but she was looking forward to his impending arrival very, very much.

I don’t know, Syd . . . How do you know that you can trust this ‘Gunnar’ person?

She wrinkled her nose. ‘He’s Bas’ cousin, isn’t he? Bas trusts him or he wouldn’t have his phone number, right?

You’re playing with fire; just so you know.’

Gunnar is a lot better for a girl’s ego than Bas is . . .’

You’re asking for trouble, Sydnie.’

She sighed, her grin widening as memories of the kiss filtered through her mind. ‘Then again, Bas has a few redeeming qualities, doesn’t he?

Her youkai groaned softly as Sydnie’s laughter filled the hotel room.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Bas groaned as the incessant pounding on the door rattled through him, jarring him awake. Sydnie whimpered and buried her face against his side, and with a smothered yelp of pain, he sat up a little too quickly, only to flop back down once more. “Damn it . . .” he gritted out, wrapping his arm over his sore ribs before attempting to sit up again. Sydnie pulled the blankets over her head as he staggered toward the door and jerked it open with a vicious yank to glower at his cousin. “Oh, hell, you found us.”

Gunnar Inutaisho grinned and held up two McDonald’s bags. “Yeah, yeah . . . let me in, will you? I stopped off and got you some breakfast. Hope you like sausage McMuffins . . . it was the only thing that sounded even slightly appetizing . . .”

Bas made a face as Gunnar pushed past him. He closed the door and turned around in time to see Gunnar, who had deposited his suitcase as well as the two fast food bags on the table and was leaning over the bed, gingerly pulling back the covers.

“Step away from the cat, you asshole,” Bas growled.

“Aww, she likes me,” Gunnar mumbled as he knelt down and leaned in close. “We had a nice, long talk last night. I think we bonded . . .”

Sydnie sighed as she rolled over, uncurling herself from the tangle of arms and legs that she found most comfortable for sleeping. Arching her back as she stretched languorously, she kicked the blankets away with her feet, exposing the very tender skin of her belly as the high string of her panties peeked out from under the covers. Bas growled as Gunnar sat back, and maybe he would have found the absolute amazement in his cousin’s face a little more amusing if the bastard weren’t gaping at Sydnie with obvious interest. Gunnar Inutaisho was known for his ease with women, and not for the first time Bas had to tamp down the desire to shove his cousin right back out into the hallway again—before Gunnar got a chance to work his charms on Sydnie.

“If you like your balls, you’ll get the fuck away from her,” Bas growled, stepping over and jerking Gunnar to his feet by the front of his rumpled white shirt.

Gunnar grinned unrepentantly. “What’s the matter, Bas? Do you even know what you’re supposed to do with a kitten like her?”

Bas let go of Gunnar’s shirt and cracked his knuckles. “Why don’t you suck my—?”

“Gunnar!” Sydnie squealed, launching herself off the bed—straight into Gunnar’s arms. With a giggle, she pushed herself up on his shoulders to lick his cheek as Bas grabbed her around the waist and tossed her back on the bed, gritting his teeth as his sore ribs cried out in agony but completely ignoring the painful burn in his muscles.

“Get dressed, cat!” he bellowed, yanking the blanket out from under her and tossing it over her instead.

“Oh, hell . . . don’t make her do that,” Gunnar complained.

Bas’ head swiveled around to glare at his cousin. “Shut it, Gunnar. I mean it.”

“Jealous much, Bas?”

“Bastard much, Gun?”

Gunnar grinned. “I can’t help it. I see a pretty little pussy like her—”

“Gunnar . . .” Bas began in a warning tone.

Sydnie scrambled off the bed, mercifully hidden under the folds of the blanket that she’d wrapped around herself.   Gunnar chuckled as he reached out to stroke her hair. “—And I just have to . . . stroke it.”

“You’re so dead,” Bas ground out, advancing on his cousin with every intention of making him rue the day he was born. Gunnar—the ass—laughed, ducking to avoid Bas’ first punch. Sydnie caught Bas’ arm. He gently but firmly shook her off as he swung at his cousin again.

Gunnar evaded that one, too. “What’s the matter, Sebastian? You’re moving a little slowly.”

“Fuck you, Mamoruzen,” he shot back, lowering his shoulder moments before he barreled into Gunnar’s chest.

The wall shook as Gunnar—still laughing—grimaced as he pushed himself away from the surface. “Damn, you’re still a fucking howitzer,” he complained, throwing a quick jab of his own—and missing.

“Sebastian?” Sydnie piped up. Bas winced and shot a glance over his shoulder at the entirely too-quick cat. Gunnar took the opportunity to land a blow on Bas’ right side just below his arm. With a harsh cry, he fell to his knees, gripping his ribs as he tried not to pass out. Ordinarily, Gunnar’s hits didn’t faze him, but on ribs that were already quite bruised . . . He concentrated on drawing deep breaths as Sydnie gently cupped his face in her hands, forcing him to look at her as she gently smoothed his hair back out of his face. “You are hurt! I should have known last night when you swore you were fine . . . stubborn dog!”

“I am fine, Sydnie . . . he’s just an ass; that’s all.”

“Let me see.”

He shoved her hands away as she tried to yank on his shirt. He brushed her off and slowly got to his feet. “Leave it alone.”

She uttered a sound suspiciously close to as hiss, knocking his hands aside and grasping his collar, rending the material under her claws as if it were made of little more than paper. “Damn it!” he growled.

Sydnie sucked in her breath and pushed the ruined shirt off his shoulders.

“Holy dogs . . .” Gunnar muttered. “Bas . . .”

She winced, gently brushing her fingertips over the mottled bluish-purple-and-black skin that started just under his sternum and wrapped around his chest, extending across the flesh on his back. Bas stubbornly refused to look, pushing her hands away again as he turned on his heel and strode off toward the bathroom, slamming the door before sinking down on the covered toilet with a grimace.

Seconds later, the door opened, and Sydnie slipped into the room. She didn’t speak as she strode over to the high rack on the wall, yanking down a few towels that she tore into wide strips. “Stand up,” she said, her tone gentle as she set the strips aside and shook out the first one.

“Sydnie—”

“Stand up,” she repeated, her voice wavering, faltering.

Bas stifled a sigh and slowly got to his feet. Sydnie leaned toward him, reaching around him to wrap the first strip over his torso. She worked in silence, wrapping all the strips around him and pinning the last one in place with a couple of tiny safety pins she’d likely dug out of her purse. “You should have told me,” she finally said.

“I’ll be fine in a day or two,” he mumbled.

“You still should have told me.”

“It’s okay, Sydnie.”

She stepped away, tugging her skirt off the shower curtain rod and shaking it out before slipping it over her feet. Bas turned his face toward the ceiling and tried not to blush. “You should lie down,” she told him as she adjusted the tiny tube of fabric.

“I’m—”

“You’re not!” she interrupted, her eyes flashing angrily. “You’re not! Those bounty hunters . . . they’re coming after you because of me, and—”

Bas caught her arm and pulled her close, clumsily wrapping his arms around her to silence her tirade. “Sydnie . . . it’s okay.”

She whimpered quietly, and he sighed. “Bas . . .”

“It’s my job, cat. Don’t worry about it.”

She let her arms drop and stepped away from him, her back straight and proud despite the curious flash of hurt in her gaze. “Of course it is,” she agreed quietly as she grasped the doorknob but didn’t turn it. “Your job.”

Bas heaved a sigh as Sydnie slipped out of the bathroom, wondering just why it was that, no matter what he said, it never seemed to be the right thing. She made absolutely no sense to him, and he wasn’t even sure why it bothered him as much as it did. Somehow, seeing her so upset because of his injuries . . . it didn’t set well with him; not at all.

You don’t know, Bas?’ his youkai chimed in gently.

No,’ he thought as he sank down on the toilet once more.

Then listen a little closer. She’s the one, you know?

The . . . one . . .?

Yeah,’ his youkai added cryptically. ‘She’s the one . . . the only one.’

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Sydnie stirred the cup of coffee with a delicate claw, watching as the low-fat non-dairy creamer swirled in a rich tan color. Gunnar opened the door and stepped into the hotel room as he snapped his cell phone closed. “Still sleeping?” he asked, jerking his head toward the bed where Bas slept.

She nodded. “Out like a light.”

“Good.” He sighed as he slumped into the chair across the table from her. “So tell me what happened?”

Sydnie shrugged. “Not much to tell. They showed up and attacked us. Bas—Sebastian—killed them both.”

“Bas said he was distracted.”

She grimaced. “That’s a new word for it. Yeah, okay . . . he was distracted.”

Gunnar crossed his arms over his chest, eyes bright, curious as he gazed at her. “I don’t mean that in a bad way. Just that as a hunter, he really can’t afford to let himself get distracted . . . at least, not in public.”

“And that’s my fault?” she challenged.

Gunnar chuckled. “Not really. I’d be distracted, too, if I had a kitty like you around.”

She didn’t even smile.

“The bounty hunters didn’t say anything about who sent them? Nothing at all?”

“Nope . . . all I know is that the bitch’s name was Lessa, and she had a preoccupation with staring at Sebastian.”

“And that bothers you?”

She snapped her mouth closed on the retort that had been forming and turned her face to the side as she willed the hot flood of color not to surface in her cheeks. “No.”

“Women normally think Bas is a little intimidating,” he supplied.

“Sebastian?”

He nodded. “Yep.”

“He’s just a puppy,” she scoffed.

“Maybe to a kitty like you.”

“Maybe,” she agreed.

“Oh, yeah, I almost forgot.” Sydnie blinked as Gunnar stood up, digging into his pocket and producing a thick wad of bills that he dropped on the table before her.

“What’s that?”

He grinned. “I sold your picture to Bas’ brother, Evan. Figured you should have it.”

She slowly took the money and counted it, blinking in surprise as she shook her head. “Four hundred dollars?”

Gunnar shrugged as he sank back into his chair. “Sure . . . I could have gotten more. It was all he had on him.”

“Four hundred dollars for that picture of me?”

A wolfish grin surfaced, and he chuckled. “Evan said he’d have paid more.”

She laughed, tucking the cash into her purse. “So you know Sebastian pretty well?”

“Better than anyone, I guess. He’s pretty much my best friend.”

“I see . . . so you know his bitch.”

“Come again?”

Sydnie wrinkled her nose, unable to keep her eyes from narrowing as she scowled at the coffee cup. “His bitch—Madison.”

Gunnar coughed suddenly as he sat up a little straighter. “Wait . . . did you just say Madison?”

Her answer was a significant glare.

“Did Bas say . . . anything else about her?”

Sydnie fluttered her hand dismissively and rolled her eyes. “Madison—Maddy—pole cat youkai . . . Is she pretty?”

“Pretty?”

“Where’d he meet her?”

“Meet her?”

“How long has he known her?”

“Uh . . .”

“Have they been dating long?”

“Well . . .”

“What does she smell like?”

Gunnar winced since the last question was accompanied by a very pronounced cracking of her knuckles. “Let’s see . . . Pretty? She’ll probably be damn gorgeous one day . . . She’s the daughter of a family friend . . . He’s known her almost all her life . . . to my knowledge, he hasn’t been dating her . . . and she smells like . . . a fourteen year-old girl, I suppose.”

Her eyes flared wide seconds before her pupils thinned to tiny slits. “He’s dating a fourteen year-old girl?”

“No, no . . . he’s not dating her at all, though I’ve very little doubt in my mind that she’d be more than happy to date him . . .”

She dug her claws into the pressed-wood table. Gunnar grimaced as it creaked and groaned. “That . . . that . . . he lied to me?”

Gunnar sighed. “Sounds like it, but . . . Sydnie, he might not have been trying to—”

She shot to her feet, but sank down again, her shoulders slumping dejectedly as she struggled to hide the sudden pain that welled in her chest. “I see.”

“Would it matter to you if I told you that Bas isn’t really that great with women?”

She sent him a scathing glance. He held up his hands in mock surrender. “Okay . . . that would be a ‘no’, right?”

Taking a moment to compose herself, Sydnie slowly got to her feet and grabbed her purse.

“Where are you going?”

She strode toward the door. “For a walk.”

The scrape of his chair told her that he wasn’t going to let her leave, and she stifled a frustrated sigh as he caught her hand and pulled her back. “I can’t let you do that. What if more bounty hunters followed the two of you?”

“I’m not helpless,” she informed him. “I can fight if I have to.”

“I’m sure you can,” he agreed easily enough. “I still can’t let you do it.”

Jerking her arm away from Gunnar, she turned on her heel and strode off toward the bathroom.

“Sydnie?”

“I’m going to take a bath. That’s allowed, isn’t it?”

Gunnar sighed but let her go. She slammed the door behind her and locked it. Eyeing the small frosted glass window over the tub, she snorted. ‘All right, Bas the Hunter . . . if you can be a bastard, I can be a bitch . . .’

The window pushed open easily enough. After checking the area outside the hotel, she balanced on the edge of the tub and turned on the water taps for good measure. ‘There is something to be said for being scrawny,’ she decided as she shimmied out the narrow opening and slid to the ground below, thankful that Bas, for once, had gotten a room on the ground floor, probably because his ribs were so banged up, she supposed. She hadn’t questioned it last night . . .

Straightening her back proudly, she smoothed her skirt and slowly walked away from the building.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Bas opened his eyes slowly and grunted as he tried to take a deep breath only to remember a little too late that it wasn’t a good idea to do that. His brain seemed sluggish, and he carefully sat up with a wince. “Fuck,” he muttered, squeezing his eyes closed against the intrusion of pain that shot through him with every movement of his body.

“Feeling any better?”

“God . . . you’re still here?” he gritted out, eyes popping open to glower at his cousin.

Gunnar glanced up from the manila file in his hands. “So it would seem.”

Bas opened his mouth to tell Gunnar to get the hell out but stopped as he looked around the room. “Where’s Sydnie?”

“Taking a bath.”

Bas grunted in reply, forcing himself to stand up. “How long are you staying?” he demanded, draining the cup of lukewarm coffee sitting on the table.

“Till your ribs are healed up,” Gunnar remarked. “Anyway, we need to move tomorrow. It’d be a bad idea to stay in one place more than a day or so.”

“Yeah, fine.”

“So Bas . . . you know, if you wanted to lie to Sydnie, don’t you think it’d have been a good idea to tell me not to blow your cover?”

Bas dropped the Styrofoam cup and coughed, wincing as the movement sent shockwaves of pain straight to his brain. “What?”

“Your girlfriend . . . Maddy.”

“. . . Shit.”

“Coming up with a fake girlfriend isn’t really that bad, but don’t you think you should have at least picked a girl who wasn’t jailbait?”

“Shut up, Gunnar. Did you tell Sydnie?”

“Yeah, I did,” he replied with a grimace. “She was rather upset with you.”

Stifling a sigh, Bas nodded. “I tried to tell her, but—wait . . . did you say she’s taking a bath?”

Gunnar closed the file and dropped it onto the table as he sat back to stare at his cousin. “Yes, but she’s been in there awhile.”

“Fuck!”

It took five long strides for Bas to reach the closed bathroom door. “Sydnie,” he called, knowing that she wasn’t going to answer, and knowing, too, that it was because she wasn’t in there. He could hear the rush of water from the tap, and with a muttered curse, Bas grunted as he slammed his shoulder against the door. Another long string of expletives accompanied the sight of the empty bathroom and the window that stood wide open. Pausing only long enough to shut off the running water, he stomped out of the room again, grabbing his sword but not bothering with his coat as he ran out the door into the hallway of the dimly-lit hotel.

Down the hall and out the glass doors at the end, Bas paused long enough on the sidewalk to sniff, catching the lingering hint of Sydnie’s scent. She’d headed west, and he gritted his teeth together in a determined scowl as he sprinted after her. His chest ached horribly, his ribs protesting the jarring motion of his strides. Vaguely he heard Gunnar call out to him, but he didn’t stop. Uttering a low string of invectives, he ignored the pain and kept moving: cursing Sydnie for being so stubborn, cursing Gunnar for not having realized that she’d bolt the first chance she got, cursing himself for being stupid enough to fall asleep . . . cursing himself for being stupid enough to lie to her in the first place.

He wasn’t even sure why he had lied; not really. Chalk it up to his inability to think whenever she was close at hand, he supposed. Damn her for being so provocative. Damn him for letting her get to him time after time . . .

Sydnie’s scent led him down a side street just off the main drag that ran past the small hotel. The surreal sense of suburbia was lost in a haze of motion as Bas sprinted down the sidewalk. He wasn’t sure how much of a head start she’d gotten, but her trail hadn’t diminished very much. Running past houses, he tried to assure himself that he didn’t need to worry, that he’d find her. Unfortunately he knew only too well that Sydnie was just too damn good at getting herself into massive amounts of trouble. With his luck, he’d find her all right, and he’d end up finding more bounty hunters, too . . .

Damn her! Why can’t she just stay where I fucking leave her?’ he fumed, pushing himself a little faster, grimacing as his ribs jarred painfully. ‘When I find her, I swear I’ll . . .’

You’ll what?

Bas scowled but didn’t miss a stride as he closed in on a large grove of trees off to the left of the road. ‘I’ll beat her; just see if I don’t!

You won’t beat her,’ his youkai scoffed.

Bas snorted in reply since the ache in his body precluded a more rational line of thought. ‘Fine, but if she puts up any sort of fuss at all, I’ll slap her into the handcuffs, damn it!

You can’t,’ his youkai pointed out.

Oh? And why can’t I?

Because, Bas . . . you left those in your jacket, and your jacket is still at the hotel. Besides, it’s bad form to handcuff your future mate, don’t you think?

‘. . . Shut up,’ he growled as he darted through the trees on the moisture-sodden earth.

Would you do that? Would you really? You know, right? You were wrong—dead wrong. You never should have told her that you have a girlfriend back home, even if you don’t think it’s any of her business, and another thing . . .’

What?

Do you really think that she’ll trust you now? She knows you’ve lied to her once. How do you expect her to tell you things when you’ve been dishonest with her?

He sighed, skidding to a stop as he broke into a small clearing beside a picturesque little lake. It wasn’t the water that stopped him, and it wasn’t the view of the placid scene laid out like a postcard image. Sydnie sat on a small boulder on the shore, her back straight, proud, and her legs tucked neatly to one side as she stared out over the lake. Her hair whipped around her in the wind coming off the water, but she didn’t make a move or give any indication that she’d heard his approach. She sighed, a delicate lifting of her thin shoulders, a rippling of her flesh as the pale pink crescent moon-shaped youkai crests encircling her shoulder blades contracted slightly before dropping in an entirely defeated fashion. He grimaced as his anger suddenly dissolved.

“Sydnie,” he murmured, taking a hesitant step toward her. “I . . . I’m sorry.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sydnie’s back stiffened at the softly uttered words. Fighting down the surge of pain that welled inside her, she swallowed hard, staring out at the expanse of water before her. She’d stopped beside the picturesque lake to gather her thoughts, or so she’d told herself. She certainly hadn’t been waiting for Bas. ‘That’s absurd,’ she insisted. ‘As if I’d do something as stupid as that . . .’

“It’s getting dark,” Bas said gently. “You . . . you should come back to the hotel.”

“I don’t think so,” she murmured stiffly.

She heard him take a few steps toward her. She leaned forward enough to let him know that she would bolt if he even tried to touch her. He stopped and heaved a sigh. “Where were you going?” he asked.

Sydnie shrugged offhandedly. “I was waiting for the bus, puppy.”

“Waiting for the . . . bus,” he intoned. “I see.” She saw him shuffle forward into the line of her peripheral vision. She lifted her chin stubbornly and refused to meet his wary gaze. “Tell me, Sydnie . . . wouldn’t it be better to wait for the bus at a . . . bus station?”

“Maybe,” she agreed, her nostrils flaring slightly as she tried in vain to curb her rising irritation. “But since the next bus isn’t coming through until midnight, I had a few hours to kill.”

“I can’t let you leave,” he told her, his tone almost apologetic.

“I don’t remember asking for your permission, pretty boy.”

“Good, because I don’t remember giving it.”

“You’re such a bastard, did you know? A real jackass.”

He nodded slowly. “We’ve all got our own burdens to bear. Now come on, will you? You can yell at me later if you want.”

She rolled her eyes and shifted her weight, tucking her legs under her as she finally deigned to look at him. “You’re a liar, Bas—Sebastian—whoever the hell you are. You’re a liar and a jerk, and I’m not going anywhere with you!”

“Sydnie—”

“Go to hell, puppy! I don’t know which was worse: thinking that you were whoring around on your bitch with me or knowing that the only reason you kissed me is because you’re no different from every other guy I’ve ever met!”

Did he have to look like she’d just slapped him? Did he have to flinch and blush? She hadn’t missed the flash of acute embarrassment that he hadn’t been able to mask fast enough before he hid behind the emotion behind a calm façade that hid everything that he was thinking. He drew himself up proudly, his expression blank, stoic. Sydnie steeled her resolve, reminding herself that he had been the one who had lied; that he had deliberately tried to hurt her.

Bas stepped toward her, grasping her arm and pulling her to her feet. “I’m not going to stand around and argue with you, cat. Move it, will you? Come on.”

Narrowing her gaze, she jerked on her arm in a futile effort to free herself. Bas held onto her, tightly but firmly. “I’d rather swim naked in a lake of molten lava. I’d rather eat a million maggots. I’d rather die a million times than to go anywhere with you ever again! Leave me alone, damn you! Just leave me alone!”

“I can’t, Sydnie,” he explained. “You know I can’t.”

She uttered a low hiss, a sing-song little growl. He tugged on her arm, and she leaned back, using her weight as leverage in her struggle to keep from being dragged back to the hotel.

“Don’t make me toss you over my shoulder,” Bas warned.

“As if you could, you swine. You’re still hurt, remember?”

If the look on his face meant anything at all, the man really had forgotten that he was hurt, and he was also quite seriously considering hefting her over his shoulder as he’d threatened to do. Golden eyes flashing dangerously, he looked more irritated than he ever had. Bas tightened his grip on her arm and yanked. She stumbled, catching herself before she fell. Glaring up at him, she dug the heel of her stiletto into his foot until he let go with a grimace and a grunt of pain.

She didn’t wait for him to recover. Darting around him, she broke for the trees again, intent on escaping the hunter before he could try to make good on his threats. She could hear him barreling after her, and she didn’t dare spare a moment to glance back. If he hadn’t been upset with her already, she didn’t have to be stupid to know that he had to be now. The trees provided a modicum of cover, and she dodged in and out of the shadows in an effort to elude Bas the Hunter.

Damn him . . . how can he run so fast when he’s hurt?’ she grumbled, sprinting faster as the sound of his heavy footfalls grew steadily nearer. Determination, maybe? The all-important ‘job’ he’d been hired to do? She snorted, covering her face with her hands to keep from being struck by the low hanging branches of so many cypress trees. The earth tried to mire her down, the spongy ground still saturated from rain seemed determined to thwart her. Careful to keep her weight on the balls of her feet as she ran, she gasped and stumbled when her heel caught in the tangled tree root. Her scream was cut short by Bas’ considerable weight as he tackled her. His arms wrapped around her, his body rolling to the side to break the fall. He landed on his left shoulder, grunting as the impact rumbled through his body. They rolled a few times and finally stopped. Sydnie gasped and shoved futilely at Bas’ shoulders as the hunter slowly rose on his elbows, shifting some of his weight off her in the process.

“Get off me, you oaf!” she yelled, grimacing as clammy moisture seeped through the thin material of her clothes.

“If you’re smart, Sydnie, you’ll shut the hell up,” he ground out.

“And if you’re smart you’ll move,” she countered, “or I swear I’ll knee you in the balls.”

His already impatient expression darkened even more, and Sydnie gasped when Bas thrust his knee between her legs, effectively blocking any attempt she might have made to carry out her threat. “Knock it off or I’ll lock you up until we reach Maine.”

She pounded on his shoulders. He didn’t even flinch. “Lock me up, bastard! See if I care!”

“Damn it, Sydnie, stop it! You’re coming with me, and that’s final.”

“The hell I am,” she spat, jerking her arm free and swinging her hand to scratch his cheek.

He caught her wrist and slammed her arm against the ground beside her head. She bucked her hips to dislodge him. Bas gritted his teeth and leaned to the side, cutting the bandage that she’d wrapped around his chest earlier. Catching the first strip between his teeth, Bas jerked her arm toward him, deftly looping the fabric around her wrist before catching her free hand and repeating the process, overcoming her resistance without any real trouble. “No!” she hissed as he pushed himself off her and jerked her to her feet.

“I’d shut it now if I were you, Sydnie,” he bit out, tucking the loose end of the makeshift bandage under the other layers. “Now move it.”

She tried to pull her hands free, but he’d tied them much too securely. Scowling at his handiwork, Sydnie made a face and stifled a frustrated growl. “Thought I told you, Bas-tard, I’m not going anywhere with you.”

“And I thought I told you, bitch, you’re coming with me whether you like it or not.”

She jerked her arm away when he reached out to grab it then stopped suddenly, her gaze shifting from him to the surrounding trees.

“Sydnie, will you just—”

“What’s that?”

Bas sighed and shook his head, shifting his weight to his right leg and draping his hands on his lean hips. “That’s my idiot cousin, Sydnie. Now will you move?

She scowled at him for a moment and stubbornly shook her head. “It’s not Gunnar, Sebastian. I think I can tell the difference between him and someone I don’t know.”

Bas shot her a suspicious glance but slowly turned to peruse the area, drawing his sword as he took a limping step toward the trees.

Sydnie pursed her lips, taking a quick step toward him.

“There’s no one there, just like I said,” he informed her as he swung around to scowl at her. Sydnie bent over, slipping her hands under Triumvirate’s blade and neatly severing the cloth that held her tight. “Damn it!” he roared as she pushed off the ground and darted away again.

She didn’t get far, though. Her gasp as he threw himself at her again veered into a groan as she took the brunt of the hit, smashed between him and the ground once more. He levered himself off her before she’d managed to catch her breath, hauling her to her feet and stooping so that his face was mere inches away from hers. Eyes blazing, every line of his countenance seething with rage so powerful that she could feel it singing the edges of her aura, he grimaced angrily, his fangs glinting in the rapidly waning light of day.

She swallowed hard, hating him for intimidating her; hating herself for feeling afraid of him, even if only for the moment. He bent down, jerking her foot off the ground to pull off her shoe before repeating the process with the other one before straightening up again, dropping Triumvirate into the scabbard hanging on his hip. Grabbing her arm roughly and tucking the shoes under his elbow, he grunted to tell her that she’d better start walking.

Unable to think of another means of escape, she went with him, consoling herself envisioning a million different painful demises for Bas the Hunter.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“You’re not really going to leave her like that all night, are you?” Gunnar asked quietly.

Bas snorted and shrugged. “That was the plan, yes.”

Gunnar sighed. “Bas . . .”

“Shut up, Gunnar. She’s a menace.”

“A menace? Oh, please! You shouldn’t have lied to her.”

Bas glared at his cousin as he reached for a slice of pizza. “Drop it.”

“At least take the cuffs off her so she can eat.”

Bas rolled his eyes and sighed. “You hungry, cat?”

She straightened her back but didn’t bother to look over her shoulder at him. Sitting ramrod straight in the center of the bed, she didn’t make any moves to indicate that she’d heard him. “I’m never hungry, puppy,” she reminded him.

Bas waved his pizza at her. “Told you.”

Gunnar made a face. “Come on. I doubt she’ll try to run away again tonight, don’t you?”

Bas snorted. “You going to try it again, cat?”

“Absolutely,” she replied.

Bas rolled his eyes.

“She can’t even drink anything that way,” Gunnar pointed out.

Bas grunted. “You want some milk, Sydnie?”

She didn’t even bother to answer him, and Bas shot his cousin a meaningful look.

Gunnar wasn’t ready to admit defeat. “Okay, but you know, her arms will be hurting by morning—if she can feel them at all by then.”

“You want them off, Sydnie?” Bas asked.

“Go to hell, hunter,” she tossed back.

Gunnar sighed. “I’ll take responsibility for her tonight,” he offered. “Just give me the keys, Bas.”

“Forget it,” Bas growled, giving up on the pretense of eating as he dropped the untouched slice of pizza onto the table with a dull thump. “You’ve already underestimated her once.”

“Give me a break . . . I didn’t realize she’d take off out the window.”

“I have to use the little kitty’s room,” Sydnie declared loudly.

Bas ground his teeth together. Gunnar sat back, crossing his arms over his chest, and watched as Bas stood up slowly, hobbling over to pull Sydnie off the bed and roughly propel her toward the bathroom.

“Are you going to pull my panties down for me?” she asked, tossing a scathing glare over her shoulder.

Bas blushed but shook his head. “Gunnar, go outside and stand under the window.”

“I think you’re being a little ridiculous,” Gunnar grumbled.

“I didn’t ask you, did I?” Bas shot back.

Gunnar stared at him for a long moment before slowly heaving himself out of the chair and stalking toward the door.

Bas waited until he heard Gunnar’s voice outside before unlocking one of the cuffs and letting it drop free. Sydnie spared him a fulminating glower before slamming the door in his face. He tapped his claws on the wall while he waited, deciding that if she took even one second longer than he thought was necessary that he was going to break down the God-forsaken door.

She opened the door and turned around, holding her hands behind her back to make it easier for him to refasten the handcuff. After the last click, she stomped away from him, chin held high as she crawled back onto the bed, facing the wall once more.

The smallest twinge of guilt made him sigh as he shuffled back over to the table and sank down. He was tired; he hurt; and his head ached. All in all, he figured it couldn’t be much worse.

Sydnie curled her legs beside her and rolled her shoulders. For some reason, the very real memory of her, cuddled against him in the morning, flashed through his head, and he winced.

Then again, maybe it could.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“How’s everything going?”

Gunnar rubbed his forehead as he slumped against the wall outside the hotel room, contemplating the first question that Cain Zelig had asked the moment Gunnar had answered his cell phone. “It’s . . . going,” he allowed.

Cain paused for a moment. “. . . Going? Sounds cryptic, don’t you think?”

Gunnar sighed, trying to decide what, if anything, he ought to tell Cain regarding Bas’ disagreement with Sydnie. Bas knew Sydnie better than he did, sure, but Gunnar hadn’t ever seen his cousin quite so irritated, either. Granted, it couldn’t have been good on his already battered body to have to chase her down, and then to watch as she ground her heel into Bas’ foot . . . He couldn’t say he blamed his cousin, but he also had to admit that he thought that Bas was being a little extreme. “Bas and Sydnie aren’t getting along very well at the moment,” he hedged.

“Oh?” Cain asked.

“I don’t think it’s a huge deal,” Gunnar admitted. “Bas is just overacting a little.”

“Overreacting? How?”

He winced. Ordinarily, he would leave it alone since technically, this was Bas’ job, and he really did know Sydnie better than Gunnar did, but . . .

But he couldn’t shake the image, either, of Bas, towering over the girl, glaring down at her with a look on his face that would have made grown men stand down. Sydnie hadn’t, though she had finally come back to the hotel with Bas. The thing was, she was so tiny, so fragile looking . . . and the entirely too-real knowledge that, while the girl might be strong enough to weather Bas’ tirade, she wasn’t nearly experienced enough with Bas to know that he might bark and bluster, but he really didn’t have it in him to harm anyone he considered to be his responsibility. Then to see Bas jerk the girl around as though she were no more than a little rag doll while he forced the handcuffs onto her slender wrists . . . Gunnar trusted Bas, of course, but even he had to wonder just what his cousin was thinking . . .

“Sydnie found out that Bas lied to her, and she . . . well, she tried to run off. He tracked her down and brought her back, but . . .”

“But?”

Gunnar rubbed his forehead. “But . . . he’s got her handcuffed and swears she can stay that way for the rest of their trip back to Maine.”

“He’s just blowing,” Cain remarked, more to himself than to his nephew.

“That’s the thing,” Gunnar admitted. “I . . . well, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him look more serious than he was when he said he was going to do it.”

Cain sighed. “Let me talk to him.”

“Cain . . .”

“Just let me talk to him.”

Gunnar let out his breath in a whoosh. “All right.” Opening the hotel room door, he peered inside. Sydnie was settled on the bed once more, and Bas was leaning back in a thick recliner. “Bas.”

Bas opened his eyes and leveled a dark look at his cousin. “What?”

Gunnar held out his cell phone, and Bas grimaced but planted his hands on the arms of the chair to heft himself out of it. He stomped past Gunnar, snatching the phone out of his hand as he narrowed his eyes and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, ‘fucking tattle-tale’.

“Hello?”

Gunnar pulled the door closed again and slouched against the wall, hands jammed into his pockets as he heaved a sigh and tried not to eavesdrop.

“Gunnar says you’ve had some trouble with Sydnie today,” Cain began in a carefully neutral tone.

“Oh, did he?” Bas asked, shooting Gunnar a menacing glance. His cousin was staring at the ceiling, obviously trying not to draw attention. Bas sidled closer and slugged Gunnar’s shoulder. Gunnar grimaced and scooted over, furiously rubbing the spot.

“Want to tell me about it?”

“No.”

“Humor me?”

“Rather not.”

Cain sighed. “Do it anyway.”

“Not much to tell,” Bas growled. “She took off; I chased her; she tried to maim me, so I brought her back and put her in handcuffs.”

“Bas . . . you know, right? Sydnie’s life depends on whether or not someone can get her to talk about why she killed Cal Richardson.”

He grimaced. “I know.”

“Are you sure that you can get her to do that? I mean, if you have a conflict in personalities . . .”

“It’s fine, Dad. Just fine.”

Bas could hear Cain’s claws drumming against the desk blotter and braced himself for whatever it was his father was thinking. “Maybe you should let Gunnar take over,” he finally said.

“Wh—? No. Absolutely not. No. Fuck, no!”

“Bas, there’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t mean you failed. Certain people just can’t really get along, you know? Like you and Evan, for example . . .”

“Sydnie and I get along just fine,” Bas growled. “I’m not leaving her.”

Cain sighed. “I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong. I know you’re doing the best you can, but—”

“No, Dad. Hell, no.”

“Just hear me out, Bas. Right now Sydnie is the most important thing. Getting her to trust you; getting her to talk . . . Do you want to save her?”

Bas stifled a growl and raked a hand over his face in exasperation. “Yeah, I do.”

“Then you need to think about what’s best for her, don’t you?”

Bas ground his teeth together so hard that his jaw ached. “Yes, sir.”

“Just consider it.”

“. . . Yes, sir.”

“All right,” Cain relented. “Get some rest. You sound exhausted.”

Bas clicked the phone off and slapped it into Gunnar’s hand as he leveled a glare at his cousin. “Thanks, Gunnar, you bastard.”

Gunnar shrugged and grimaced. “I’m sorry. He called and wanted to know about you and Sydnie . . .” He lifted his hand as though he were trying to explain something, only to drop it against his leg again. “Bas . . . that kitty is tiny, you know? She’s tough, but . . . but she’s still just a little kitten.”

“Stop calling her that,” Bas gnashed out. “She’s not your kitten, damn it.”

“I never said she was. Thing is, you want her to be your kitten, don’t you?”

Bas blushed but grunted. “Don’t be an ass.”

“Well, you do, right?”

He grunted again.

“Are you really going to leave her in those handcuffs?”

“. . . No.”

Gunnar nodded. “Look . . . is there anything else you need to tell me so that I don’t say something that you haven’t told her?”

“No, I . . . yes.”

“Okay . . .”

“One thing . . . I haven’t told her who I am.”

“Who you are?”

Bas nodded. “She, uh . . . she hates the tai-youkai.”

“No one hates your dad.”

He glared at Gunnar. Gunnar grimaced but held his hands up in silent surrender. “Okay, I’m listening.”

“I don’t know why she does, but trust me: she does.”

“All right, but you know you’ll probably have to tell her eventually. You’re your father’s successor, right.”

He nodded. “I know.”

Gunnar slipped the cell phone into his pocket again and opened the hotel room door, set to leave Bas alone with his thoughts. He disappeared into the room. Bas scratched the back of his neck and shook his head.

Your father’s right, Bas . . . if Sydnie doesn’t feel like she can trust you, she’s not going to tell you squat.’

I know . . . I know . . .’

Maybe . . . maybe you should consider leaving her with Gunnar then.’

Bas snorted. ‘Never. Gunnar isn’t a fighter; not really.’

He can do it if he had to. You know he can.’

But he doesn’t like to. He’s always been that way, and even if he were . . .’

His youkai sighed. ‘Even if he could, the idea of leaving Sydnie . . .’

Bas made a face. ‘Yeah.’

“Bas?”

Bas snapped out of his reverie and glanced at Gunnar, who was leaning around the door with a strange sort of expression on his face. “She’s gone.”

Pushing himself away from the wall, Bas shot Gunnar a dark look as he pushed him aside and strode into the hotel room. The moment of panic that gripped him subsided. He could feel Sydnie’s youki close, and with a grimace, he realized where she had hidden herself. Taking the few long steps that separated him from her chosen place of seclusion, Bas let out a deep breath as he pushed the closet doors open.

Sydnie didn’t even spare him a glance. Sitting with her back toward him facing the rear corner of the darkened closet, she sat on her knees.

Bas sighed and hunkered down behind her, trying not to think about why finding her in the closet could dispel all his irritation. “Give me your hands,” he told her, his tone gentle, coaxing.

She ignored him. He’d figured she would.

“Come on, kitty. Don’t be so stubborn.”

She snorted.

“You don’t want to stay in those all night, do you?” he tried again.

She didn’t answer, but after a moment of deliberation, she did lift her hands behind her back, extending them to him just enough to show that she wanted him to remove them after all. It was enough for him, and he carefully dug the keys out of his pocket to unlock the errant cat. The handcuffs fell away with a loud clatter on the tile floor. Sydnie folded her hands together, pressing them to her chest, slumping her shoulders as she leaned forward enough to shield them, should Bas change his mind about letting her loose.

He grimaced and stuffed the key back into his pocket before retrieving the handcuffs and pushing himself to his feet. Dropping the cuffs into the deep pocket of his duster, he grabbed the telephone and dialed the number for room service, ordering a gallon of whole milk and ignoring Gunnar’s questioning gaze before he shuffled back to the closet once more.

“You going to stay in here all night?” he asked in what he hoped was a neutral tone of voice.

Sydnie shrugged, rubbing her wrists and not deigning to as much as glance at him.

“Okay,” he agreed, sitting with a grimace and leaning back against the wall. His legs stuck out of the closet in a somewhat farcical show of exaggerated size, but he didn’t comment on it. Sydnie shifted her weight to the side, untucking her legs and wrapping her arms around her raised knees. “If’ you’re going to sleep in here, then I can, too,” he declared.

Sydnie laid her cheek on her knees. He could feel her gaze on him though he didn’t look to confirm it. “You can’t sleep in here,” she whispered.

He sighed. “Listen, Sydnie . . . I’m sorry.”

“You should be.”

Bas touched her shoulder. She stiffened, but she didn’t pull away. “I’m really, really sorry.”

“If you didn’t like me,” she began in a tone barely more than a whisper, “you could have just said so.”

He grimaced. “It isn’t about liking you . . . I—”

“Then what was it about?”

Bas let his head fall back against the wall, tamping down the acute embarrassment at being forced to admit things that he hadn’t really wanted to face at all. “It’s just . . . you . . . I . . .” He sighed and clutched his head between his hands as he struggled with what he was trying to say. “It was for your own good,” he grumbled.

“My own good? Of course it was . . .”

He wanted to reach out to her, but he couldn’t do it. Seemingly paralyzed by the misery that radiated from her aura, he couldn’t do much more than shake his head, opening and closing his mouth as words failed him completely. “It’s better this way,” he finally said with a wry grin that felt more like a grimace. “Do you understand?”

Peering over her shoulder, her eyes glowing in the semi-darkness, she gazed at him in silence.

Bas could feel heat filter into his face, but he stubbornly refused to look away. “You’ve got to be safe, Sydnie. I have to keep you safe.” He dragged his hands over his face and let his head thump against the wall. “Do you . . . do you want me to leave you with Gunnar?” he asked, praying that she refused, but entirely unsure what she’d actually think of the offer. Of course, even if she did choose Gunnar, there was no way that Bas was just packing it in and walking away. He’d follow along behind them, if he had to, but there was no way in hell he was going to leave her with Gunnar Inutaisho, either . . .

She shot him a quick glance, a scared sort of look, eyes flaring wide as she quickly shook her head. “Just think about it, Sydnie . . . If it would make you happier . . .”

She still didn’t answer, but he couldn’t shake the strange feeling that maybe she really did understand after all. She scooted toward him just a little, letting her back rest against his shoulder.

A knock on the door announced the arrival of the bellhop. Bas sighed and pushed himself off the floor and out of the closet, striding past Gunnar to answer the knock. He tipped the boy and set the milk on the table after filling a glass. Gunnar cleared his throat.

Bas ignored him as he returned to the closet and set the glass of milk beside the obstinate cat. She eyed it suspiciously but finally, hesitantly, reached toward it. Snatching it off the floor, she spared him a warning glance but downed the milk in a series of gulps. She set the glass down and carefully slid it toward him. He tried not to smile as he nodded, retrieving the glass and pushing himself to his feet again.

“Are you hungry?”

She didn’t answer.

“If I ordered something, would you help me eat it?”

She shot him a look.

“Think about it while I get you more milk, okay?”

He strode back to the table and refilled her glass. She blinked at the drink when he set it beside her.

“How about I order something for you, and if you don’t want it, you don’t have to eat it. Come out, if you want.”

Sydnie shrugged, and he nodded. That was as close to a ‘yes’ as he was likely to get. It was enough. Wincing as his foot twinged in reminder that he’d do well to buy Sydnie some soft soled flat shoes, he shuffled over, grabbing the laminated menu tucked neatly under the phone on the dresser and ignoring the odd look gracing Gunnar’s face. “You want steak tips, Sydnie?” he called, glancing up long enough to see her peeking around the accordion-style closet door. She narrowed her eyes, and he finally grinned slightly. “I’ll eat your mushrooms, okay?”

She offered him a barely perceptible nod. He nodded back and picked up the phone as the soft scrape of Sydnie’s glass on the floor told him that she also wanted another refill. After ordering food, he dropped the receiver back into the cradle, turning just in time to see Sydnie’s chagrined expression as Gunnar picked up the empty glass and headed for the table. “I’ll get it,” he said, neatly swiping the glass from his cousin’s hand and choking back the irritation that Gunnar would try to do something that he perceived as something that he, alone, did for Sydnie. Gunnar looked like he wanted to ask a question but wisely remained silent while Bas refilled the glass and returned it to Sydnie once more.

It’s going to be a long night,’ he predicted with. Gazing at the cat-youkai who was still lingering near the open closet and looked like she might be ready to retreat at the slightest provocation, he sighed. ‘A really, really long night . . .’

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Gunnar groaned softly as he rolled his head from side to side and pushed against the raised footrest on the reclining chair. ‘This . . .’ he thought, scrunching up his shoulders to dispel some of the stiffness that had set in overnight, ‘sucks ass—a lot of ass . . .’

Glancing around the quiet room, he blinked in surprise as his eyes lit on the bed. Bas and Sydnie were completely tangled up together, and if his cousin’s ribs were still bothering him, Gunnar couldn’t tell. Lying on his side with his body wrapped around the cat-youkai, he looked like he was shielding her from something, and Sydnie, who had started out curled up in a little ball on the far edge of the bed, didn’t seem to mind being nestled so closely to Bas, despite her obvious upset with him.

He couldn’t figure them out.

Bas had given her the plate of food where she still lingered in the closet. Half outside, half in, she hadn’t taken the food he’d offered until he set it on the floor in front of her. She was a curious creature, Gunnar thought. Too full of pride for her own good, she had stubbornly refused to come to the table until midway through the meal, and even then, she’d spent a long time, scooting closer and closer while Bas had pretended not to notice at all . . .

And the milk thing . . . now that was strange. For reasons that Gunnar didn’t really understand, Bas was the only one she’d allow to give her the drink when it was quite apparent that she had an affinity for it. Bas had taken a shower shortly after dinner, and while he was in there, Gunnar had refilled Sydnie’s glass. She sat at the table staring at him in a strange sense of confusion and had simply refused to touch the glass. When Bas had emerged from the bathroom about fifteen minutes later, she’d looked at him, nodded at the still untouched glass, and had informed Bas that Gunnar had filled it for her. Bas had stood still for a minute; as though he were trying to figure out what it was she wanted him to do. In the end, he’d picked up the glass and offered it to her, and only then would she drink it. Strange, indeed, if you asked Gunnar . . .

Perhaps the most perplexing thing, though, was Bas’ behavior. In the number of years that he’d known Bas, he couldn’t remember even one time when he’d actually heard Bas apologize. He’d come close before, certainly, but to actually say the words, ‘I’m sorry’? Nope, Gunnar couldn’t remember that one; not at all. Even then, Bas wasn’t exactly known for his patience, yet there he’d been, coaxing Sydnie out of the closet and trying to make amends. Bas wasn’t known for his finesse with women, either, and yet he’d somehow known just what to do with her. Maybe Bas didn’t understand Sydnie. Maybe he never really would. Thing was, he seemed to want to, and Gunnar had to wonder if Bas had any inkling, just how it looked to an innocent bystander. The way Bas cared for Sydnie . . . it was the way one mate cared for another.

Bas groaned quietly, opening his eyes and yawning as he pulled Sydnie a little closer. She uttered a whimper of protest, tucking her head further into the crook of Bas’ neck. “Sleep okay, kitty?” Bas mumbled, voice still bleary and tired.

“Mmm,” she agreed. “Warm . . .”

Bas yawned again then grimaced. Obviously his ribs were still quite sore. Sydnie stretched out her legs, rolling onto her back as she stretched. Bas’ arm had been tucked around her waist. His palm rested on her belly, and he grunted something unintelligible as she slowly sat up. She blinked a few times and looked around, seeming more than a little surprised when her eyes lit on Gunnar. “Morning, puppy,” she greeted.

Bas sat up with a wince, stifling a growl as he remembered a moment too late that they weren’t alone. “Get dressed, cat,” he growled.

Sydnie stood on her knees and crawled toward the edge of the bed but stopped to peer over her shoulder at him. “Something the matter, Bas the Hunter?” she challenged.

Bas broke into a low growl. Gunnar coughed indelicately and forced himself to look away since he had a good idea what, exactly, was bothering his cousin. Sydnie had taken off her skirt before crawling into the bed, and her tiny black g-string panties didn’t provide as much in the way of coverage as they provided in the way of eye candy . . .

“Just do it,” he grumbled, swatting Sydnie’s backside to make her get moving.

Mee-ow,” she nearly purred, bending over slightly to stick her rear out at Bas.

Gunnar didn’t have to look to know that his cousin’s face had to be crimson. He coughed again, covering his mouth with his hand to hide his amusement at Bas’ expense.

Now, Sydnie,” Bas demanded.

Sydnie giggled and slipped off the bed. Gunnar didn’t raise his eyes until after he heard the bathroom door close. “Holy dogs, Bas,” Gunnar began. “You sleep with that?

“Shut it, Gunnar, I’m warning you . . .”

“You need to get some of that pussy; I swear to kami you do.”

With a low growl, Bas rolled to his feet and advanced on his cousin. Gunnar couldn’t help but laugh at the acute embarrassment coupled with the obvious irritation that veiled Bas’ eyes. Cracking his knuckles in warning, he stomped over to stand in front of the chair. Gunnar held up his hands in mock surrender but couldn’t help but laugh a little louder.

“It’d improve your mood,” Gunnar quipped, ducking to the side as Bas’ fist set the chair to rocking.

“My mood’s just fine, asshole.”

“She’d let you, I think,” he added, leaning the other way to avoid another flying fist.

“Gunnar—”

Gunnar slid off the chair and rolled to his feet to elude his cousin. “Bet she tastes as good as she looks, and she looks downright pussylicious in that teaser she calls panties, don’t you think?”

Bas tried to corner Gunnar, who was smart enough to stay way from any corners in the hotel room. “Stand still, you little fucker,” Bas growled.

“Oh, right, so you can pound me with those ham hocks you call fists? No, thanks . . . but you know, I noticed yesterday when she licked my cheek . . . she’s got a bit of a textured tongue.”

“Shut the fuck up, damn it!” Bas snarled as he threw another punch that Gunnar easily evaded.

“Bet she gives damn good head.”

“That’s it,” Bas ground out, grabbing for Gunnar’s shirt and missing. “As soon as I get my hands on you, I swear to God I’ll kill you . . .”

“You won’t kill me,” Gunnar taunted, ducking another swing directed at his face. “You like my mother, remember? She’s your favorite auntie.”

“I like your mother just fine,” Bas agreed. “They can have another son since you were a fucking accident, to start with.”

“Oh, now that’s just cold,” Gunnar complained with a mock grimace.

“Cold but true,” Bas shot back.

“Admit it: you want Sydnie—unless you’re gay . . . you’re not, are you?”

“I’m about as gay as you are, you moron,” Bas gritted out.

“You tell her yet that she’s your mate?”

Bas stopped short and stared at Gunnar as even more color deepened the color in his cheeks. “Don’t be stupid,” he grumbled, letting his fists drop as he quickly turned away. “It’s not like that.”

“Really? Strange . . . the two of you act like it’s a done deal, or didn’t you know?”

“Shut up, Gunnar,” he grumbled, stomping over to the telephone to order a gallon of milk for the cat.

Gunnar remained quiet while Bas made the call. “Tell me, then, Bas . . . if she’s not your mate, why are you bending over backward for her?”

“I’m . . . not.”

“Ri-i-i-ight.” Sufficiently sure that Bas wasn’t going to try to kill him again, Gunnar dropped into a metal chair at the cheap little table. “For the record, you could do a lot worse than her. You’re right, you know. She’s not a murderer.”

Bas shot him an inscrutable look then shrugged. “No, she’s not.”

“Gotta tell you, though . . . if you screw it up with her, I’ll be more than happy to take her off your hands.”

“Don’t make me regret letting you live.”

Gunnar laughed. “You know better than anyone that I don’t put much stock in the whole idea of mates. I mean, come on . . . do you really want to wake up with one woman for the rest of your life?”

Bas rolled his eyes. “You’re a little stupid, aren’t you?”

Gunnar shrugged. “Your father had it right, Bas . . . waiting almost three hundred years before finding a mate . . . I think he’s my hero.”

“You’ll be waiting longer than that. I don’t think there’s a woman alive—youkai, hanyou, human—who will put up with your ration of bullshit, so the discussion of mates in conjunction with you is moot.”

Gunnar grinned unrepentantly. “Why tie yourself down to one if you don’t have to? Granted, if I had to pick one, I’d definitely pick a kitten like Sydnie . . .”

“Do you have some sort of death wish?” Bas grumbled.

“Come on, Bas . . . she’s damn fine, you know.”

Bas broke into a low growl.

Gunnar relented. “Okay, okay . . . women are a touchy subject for you, right?”

A knock on the door kept Bas from answering, and Gunnar wisely hid his amusement as his cousin took the milk from the bellhop and made short work of filling a glass for Sydnie since Bas was liable to light into him again if he pointed out just how it looked . . .

Gunnar stood up and grabbed the keys for the rental car off the table. “I’m going to go exchange the car,” he told Bas. “We need to get out of Shreveport today.”

Bas grunted in response as he headed over to tap on the bathroom door while Gunnar headed out.

As much as Bas would likely hate traveling by car for any length of time, Gunnar thought it would be best to distance themselves a little. It was bad enough that they’d stayed in the same place two nights in a row. Gunnar also had little doubt in his mind that the bounty hunters would find them sooner or later, and he only hoped that they could delay the next attack until Bas was recovered enough to fight.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

The dull clunk of footsteps echoed against the black marble floor in the dimly lit passage. The building was empty, the hour late, and he didn’t miss a beat as he strode toward the dim circle of light that siphoned from the doorway at the end of the hall. Squeezing the corner of his worn leather jacket, double checking to make certain that the mini-DVD was safe, he didn’t miss a step.

He’d followed his orders to the letter. He hadn’t been seen, and to his knowledge, he hadn’t been sensed. He had been surprised, though—very surprised. He hadn’t been sure what to expect, but the fight he’d witnessed . . . He gritted his teeth, a harsh growl slipping from him as he approached the doorway. Lessa and Tom had been good fighters, and that hunter, whoever he was, hadn’t had much trouble dispensing with the both of them.

Raising his hand, he knocked on the doorframe. He couldn’t see Jeb since the door was only partially open. He sensed his boss nearby, however, and he waited for the terse reply before he stepped inside the office.

“Come.”

Glave Minor slipped into the room, locating Jeb in the shadows of the thick curtains that were drawn away from the windows. He appeared to be staring out at the lights of the city twinkling below. Glave knew better. Jeb was deceptive, and the perceived inattention had been the downfall of many a youkai over the years.

“Lessa and Tom failed, didn’t they?”

The question sounded more like a statement. Glave strode over to the desk and dropped the mini-disc onto the PC tablet. “Yes.”

Jeb nodded, jamming his hands into his pockets though he didn’t turn around. “He is formidable, this hunter.”

Glave clasped his hands together before him. “Yes.”

“Did you recognize him?”

“No.”

“No,” Jeb repeated as he slowly turned to face Glave. “Weaknesses?”

Glave shook his head. “Not many to speak of.”

“Everyone has a weakness,” Jeb bit out tersely.

Glave shrugged. “When they found him, he was . . . kissing the target.”

“Oh?”

“Took a hard hit from Lessa because of it . . . It wasn’t enough, though.”

“I see.”

“He is dog-youkai,” Glave supplied as Jeb wandered over, lifted the mini-DVD, turning the case over in his fingers.

“Hmm . . . Dog-youkai . . . now that is interesting, wouldn’t you say?”

“My instructions?”

Jeb shook his head without taking his eyes off the disc. “Just wait . . . I want to see this hunter for myself.”

Glave nodded.

Jeb dropped the case onto his desk and finally met Glave’s gaze. “That’s all for now.”

Glave turned to go without a word, leaving the cougar-youkai alone with his thoughts—and the mini-DVD that Jeb believed would answer his questions.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Sydnie turned the spoon from side to side, staring at the newest addition to her State spoon collection before slipping it into her purse for safekeeping as Gunnar pulled the minivan out of the truck stop parking lot. Bas grimaced when Gunnar hit a deep pothole. Stretched out on the bench seat behind her, he looked comfortable enough despite the discomfort from riding in a vehicle. He’d said that his ribs were feeling better, though in Sydnie’s estimation, they didn’t look like they were healing very quickly.

She crawled out of her seat, along the narrow opening to carefully crawl onto the seat beside Bas’ bent knees. “Thank you for the spoon,” she said, her tone hesitant but friendly enough.

Bas lifted his arm—he had draped it over his eyes—and offered her a wan little smile. “You’re welcome.”

“How much further are we going?” she demanded, raising her voice so that Gunnar could hear her.

“Not that far,” he told her. “We’re almost at Morgan City.”

“Morgan City,” she repeated. “Is that where we’re stopping?”

“Sure,” he agreed. “I know the owner of a hotel there. We’ll be safe enough, at least for a day or two—until Bas can pull his own weight, that is.”

“You can suck it, Gunnar,” Bas grumbled mildly.

“Not me, Bas . . . maybe Sydnie . . .”

Bas erupted in a low growl. Sydnie giggled. He caught her amused gaze and blushed, mumbling something about moronic cousins who should have been drowned at birth. Sydnie giggled louder. Bas wrinkled his nose and took her unopened bottle of milk, popping the seal for her before handing it back and chucking the cap at Gunnar’s head.

Sydnie drank the milk quickly; tilting the bottle back to make sure she got all of it before licking her lips and smiling at Bas, who was staring at her with a strange sort of expression on his face. He looked fascinated—like he had just before he’d kissed her in the park, and she swallowed hard, her pulse racing wildly, as a hint of a blush rose in her cheeks.

“So tell me about the fight. Was there anything that either of you remembered? Even if it seems insignificant, the smallest detail might help for me to figure out who’s after you.”

Bas blinked and quickly forced his gaze away. Sydnie stifled a sigh as the moment passed.

“I already told you everything,” Bas grumbled.

Sydnie wrinkled her nose at the memory of the wind-youkai and her penchant of staring at Bas. “They didn’t say anything else . . .” she trailed off and bit her lip as she played the altercation back in her head.

The bat-youkai’s words . . . “So sorry, hunter. Nothing personal, but the boss’ orders, you see? Alive, maybe, but the boss didn’t say we couldn’t rough you up a bit, first.”

She rubbed her arms as a distinct shiver ran up her spine. “They were supposed to . . . kill me and bring in Bas alive,” she murmured.

“What was that?” Gunnar demanded, having not quite heard Sydnie’s quiet admission.

She cleared her throat, casting Bas a surreptitious glance. He scowled at the back of the bench seat before him, as though he were pondering Sydnie’s words, too. “I said that they were told to kill me and bring Bas in alive.”

Gunnar’s amber eyes met hers in the rearview mirror. She couldn’t see any other part of his face, but she didn’t have to. He looked alarmed—very alarmed. “I see,” he drawled slowly. “Alive . . .”

“I forgot about that,” Bas admitted.

“Fuck,” Gunnar muttered. “Sounds like you pissed someone off . . . what exactly did they say?”

Bas shrugged. “Just said something about their boss wanting me alive.”

Gunnar shook his head. “That can’t be right . . . bounty hunters know the potential risks; the dangers. Anyone who does a job like that has to realize that if they screw up, the penalty can be death . . .”

“Yeah, well . . .”

“So he wants you alive . . .”

“Over my dead body,” Bas snorted.

Sydnie set the empty milk container in the cup holder beside her before carefully pulling Bas’ duster open to examine his bruised ribs. He grimaced but didn’t try to stop her. She bit her lip, telling herself that she was just being silly despite the foreboding that she couldn’t quite brush aside. She hadn’t stopped to think about why the bounty hunters would have said such a thing, but she didn’t have to be brilliant to know, too, that bringing Bas in hadn’t originally part of their contract.

Gunnar shook his head. “I don’t know, but I’d say that you got their attention.”

“Shut it, Gunnar,” Bas grumbled as he caught Sydnie’s hand and gently squeezed her icy fingers. She glanced up at him, her eyes wide, her cheeks pale, and he offered her a hesitant, if not reassuring, smile.

Gunnar started to argue but must have thought better of it. He sighed and turned his attention back to the road once more.

“It’s okay, Sydnie,” Bas mumbled.

Sydnie shrugged. “I know.”

“They’re not going to hurt me, and I’m not going to let them hurt you, either.”

She tried to smile, but it must not have worked because he grimaced. “I know.”

“Do you trust me?”

“I . . .”

“It’s alright, you know. It’s okay to trust someone.”

She pressed her lips together and jerked her head in a nod. “I . . . trust . . . you.”

He smiled, nodded, squeezed her fingers again. “Good.”

Blinking quickly, she turned her face away, dashing the back of her hand over her eyes as she heaved a heavy sigh. ‘They won’t hurt Sebastian,’ she told herself sternly. ‘I . . . I won’t let them . . .’

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Jeb slouched in the black leather chair, scowling at the widescreen television. “Back,” he growled loudly enough for the voice sensor to pick up on the command. The image stilled then rewound. “Play.” The video stilled once more before resuming the playback. Gaze narrowing as the hunter wheeled around, cutting down Tom Fulton, the bat-youkai, Jeb didn’t hear the slight hiss that escaped him.

He’d watched the footage countless times. The hunter possessed an efficacy in his movements, a deceptive grace despite his huge physique. Aside from the first hit that he hadn’t seen coming until too late, he hadn’t been caught off-guard, taking hits only when he couldn’t avoid them, and taking them in an effort to shield the cat-youkai from the attacks . . . ‘Damn him . . .’

The flash of golden eyes . . . the bronze hair . . . the hunter was tall, broad, obviously well-trained, and entirely too recognizable—at least, to those in the know. Just what was the Zelig thinking, sending his heir off on a mission such as that?

Fool . . . sending the next tai-youkai out on a hunt? Not very wise, Zelig . . . not wise at all . . .’

It was a good way to get killed . . . or perhaps it was simple arrogance. After all, who would dare defy the next tai-youkai? Then again, the Zelig was known for his propensity to guard his personal affairs. The artist might well be tai-youkai and famous for his work, but he also tended to be somewhat reclusive, as well. In fact, Jeb might not have known exactly who the hunter was had it not been for the uncanny looks he possessed. The Zelig was remarkably tall; ‘golden’ was how he’d been described by those who had seen him. There wasn’t another clan of dog-youkai who looked like that. No, there was no mistaking the son of the Zelig . . .

A whisper of movement drew Jeb’s attention. “Stop. Power off,” he muttered, triggering the soft hiss as the flat-panel television slowly folded back where it stored itself flush against the ceiling before turning to glance at his mate. Serena Christopher slipped into the study with two mugs of coffee. She handed one to Jeb without a word and slowly sat on the sofa, leaving the chair beside Jeb conspicuously empty. “I’m busy, Serena,” Jeb grunted, lifting the fragrant brew to his lips.

Serena stared at the empty chair, her eyes uncannily bright. “She’s ready to die,” she stated simply, the slight catch in her voice the only hint of emotion in Serena’s dull tone.

Jeb nodded. “It’s only a matter of time.”

Serena sighed, shaking her head as she gripped her mug in both hands, fingers trembling, her claws clattering against the enamel cup. “But the baby—”

Jeb grunted, cutting off his mate’s sentence. “Knock it off, woman! The kit won’t have a chance without her anyway . . . best to let them both die.”

Serena choked back a sob. “Jeb . . .”

“There’s nothing I can do about it now,” he gritted out. “Not. A. Thing.”

“I could take care of the baby,” she pleaded, though she didn’t seem to know if she were pleading with her mate or with herself. “It’s been done . . . it can be done . . .”

“Be realistic, Serena . . . Beth isn’t even three months pregnant . . . there’s no way she could hold on that long.”

Serena flinched, shoulders slumping as she conceded Jeb’s point. “I know,” she whispered.

Jeb sighed. “Damn it . . . he said he was ready . . .”

Dark brown eyes lifted to glare at him, narrowing dangerously as a hint of redness crept into her sallow cheeks. “Why did you send him? Why? It’s your fault! Damn you, Jeb!”

His own glare was fierce, defiant . . . and yet tinged with remorse. “Enough! Do you think I haven’t cursed myself a thousand times? Do you think that it’s easy for me? It was my order; my command!”

“And Cody never wanted to let you down!”

“I know that!”

She set the mug aside with a shaky exhalation of breath, tucking an errant lock of dull yellow hair that had escaped the low knot at the nape of her neck behind her ear. “I want him dead, Jeb! The one who did this . . . He deserves to die!”

He nodded slowly. “Yes, he does, Serena. Yes, he does.”

Son of the tai-youkai or not, this hunter . . . he deserved to die.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sydnie grabbed a handful of strawberry blonde hair in each fist and pulled it apart, taking her time inspecting the spot with a thoughtful scowl. “You look so different,” she crooned, leaning back to glance into Gunnar’s face.

Gunnar wrinkled his nose. “Rub it in, Sydnie,” he grumbled.

She giggled and resumed her perusal of his head. His long black locks had turned a lovely shade of gold touched with the barest hint of red. His cute little hanyou ears were gone, too—which was the reason she was currently searching his hair.

Bas rolled his eyes but chuckled. Sydnie had never seen a hanyou during their period of vulnerability, and judging from the look on her face, she was enjoying Gunnar’s a lot.

“So you’re like this once a month?” she demanded, kneeling on the floor so she could peer up into Gunnar’s face. “Green eyes . . . who would have thought?”

“I have my mother’s coloring,” he told her with a scowl. “Would you quit it? I’m not a science experiment.”

Sydnie peeked back at Bas, who was sprawled on the sofa. “And you used to do this, too?”

“Used to,” he agreed, “but it happened to me on the night of the new moon.”

Sydnie pondered that for a moment before turning her attention back to Gunnar once more. “You’re so pretty!” she gushed. Gunnar grunted.

Bas shook out the newspaper he had been reading and scanned the sports page.   He, like his oldest sister Bellaniece, hadn’t actually changed much on their human nights, unlike Gunnar, whose coloring changed completely. When they’d returned from exchanging the rental van, Bas had ordered food from room service while Sydnie wandered around the hotel suite. Examining the interior of the armoire that held the television, she had reminded him of a cat checking out new surroundings, and the thought had made him smile. Sure, he was a dog-youkai, and there were moments when he couldn’t help certain compulsions, but Sydnie . . . She was a cat, through and through, and he couldn’t help but find the mannerisms endearing.

Where’s Gunnar?” she asked finally, turning her back on the armoire.

Bas shrugged. “In his room, maybe?” he mused, dropping his leather duster over the back of a chair at the table and reminding himself that he really had to do something about his lack of clothing since they’d left all his clothes behind in Ardmore during their impromptu escape.

Sydnie nodded, staring thoughtfully at Gunnar’s door for a long minute before slowly sauntering toward it.

What are you doing, cat?

She shot him a quick glance. “Something feels weird,” she told him.

Well, Gunnar is a little strange,” he deadpanned. “I’m going to go take a quick shower. If the food gets here before I’m done, have him get it.”

She nodded as he headed off to take a shower before the food arrived, and she raised her fist to knock on his door.

Gunnar either hadn’t heard Sydnie, or he’d been trying to ignore her. She was still knocking when Bas emerged from the bathroom ten minutes later, striding through the room to answer the door since he knew that, if at all possible, she wouldn’t. Sydnie wrinkled her nose as she opened the door and let herself in, and her excited shriek made Bas cringe as he closed the door behind the bellhop. He started toward Gunnar’s room but stopped when his cousin, with Sydnie in tow, had stomped out. She was trying to touch his hair, and he looked quite out of sorts about the entire affair. She hadn’t left him alone since.

“So you’re always human on the night of the quarter moon?” Sydnie demanded.

“The first quarter, yes,” Gunnar replied with a sigh.

“Interesting,” she drawled. “Very interesting . . .”

Bas grunted, scanning the football scores. “Awesome,” he mumbled. “Looks like the Patriots are going to make the playoffs.”

“I still don’t get football,” Gunnar remarked blandly. “I mean, the ball’s not even round.”

“You don’t get it because you’re not a real man,” Bas shot back.

“You don’t like football?” Sydnie asked.

Gunnar shrugged. “Nope . . . while Bas was busy chasing around a misshapen ball, I was too busy being chased by women.”

“Shut up, you ass,” Bas grumbled.

Sydnie giggled and rolled to her hands and knees, crawling toward the sofa. She climbed up beside Bas and leaned against his arm, letting her fingertips trace his bicep.

Gunnar stood up and stomped off toward the small kitchenette while Sydnie flipped through channels with the remote. Bas folded up the newspaper and snatched the control out of her hand, setting on the news while Sydnie sighed and let her head fall against his shoulders. “How are your ribs?” she asked.

Bas shot her a quick glance. “Better. A little sore if I move the wrong way, but all right otherwise.”

She nodded. “Good.”

Gunnar dropped into an overstuffed recliner off to the side with a bag of microwave popcorn. Sydnie leaned forward, peering around Bas, her eyes widening as she sniffed the air. Bas almost smiled. “Want some popcorn, kitty?” he asked.

Sydnie blinked and forced her gaze away from the bag lying casually in Gunnar’s lap. “Maybe,” she allowed.

Bas grinned. “Okay.” He cleared his throat as he turned his attention on his unsuspecting cousin. “Hey, Gun . . .”

“What?”

“I left my cell in my coat . . . could you get it for me?”

Gunnar shot Bas a suspicious glance since Bas rarely asked anyone to do anything for him, and consequently rarely did anything for anyone when he thought that they could do it themselves. Of course there were some significant exceptions to that rule, namely his parents and Sydnie, but Bas tended to hate it when people were lazy, and Gunnar knew it. He nodded just the same and stood, setting the bag of popcorn on the coffee table before heading over to dig Bas’ cell phone out of the duster slung over one of the wooden chairs at the table.

Bas lifted his eyebrows at Sydnie. She grinned and stood up long enough to grab the bag before dropping back onto the sofa beside him with a little smile on her face as she popped a few pieces into her mouth. “Thank you,” she said.

He chuckled. “You’re welcome.”

Gunnar dropped the cell phone into Bas’ lap and snorted. “Oi, my popcorn!” he exclaimed as he reached for the bag. Sydnie batted his hand away, uttering a low hissing growl. “Now listen here, kitten—”

“You abandoned it,” she pointed out reasonably.

“I set it down to get Bas’ stupid phone,” Gunnar argued.

“Possession is nine-tenths of the law,” she replied.

Bas sat back and watched the exchange with a very amused grin.

Gunnar flopped into his chair and shook his head. “Okay, cat, I got you.”

She sighed happily as she continued to eat the pilfered popcorn while Gunnar stalked off, muttering under his breath. Bas reached for the bag. Sydnie slapped his hand away, too. “You know, I helped you get that,” he remarked.

“I know you did,” she agreed, “and I said thank you.”

Bas shook his head. Gunnar sat back down and whistled, drawing Bas’ attention just before chucking a piece of popcorn at him. Bas scowled but caught the food in his mouth. Sydnie giggled and sat back, watching with avid interest as Gunnar continued to throw popcorn at his cousin.

“Enough,” Bas growled, catching yet another bite as he scowled at Gunnar.

“You’re as bad as Ryomaru,” Gunnar chuckled.

“Ryomaru?” Sydnie asked.

“My uncle,” Bas mumbled around a mouthful of popcorn. “I can’t help it! I’m a dog, remember?”

Gunnar laughed, probably since he was human and wouldn’t be as compelled to catch anything that came flying at him, Bas supposed.

“He catches food, too?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, now that’s interesting,” she mused.

Bas sighed. Somehow, he had a feeling that he was going to regret arming Sydnie with that knowledge.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Sydnie bit her lip as she slowly paced around the foot of the bed, staring at Bas as he bent his knee and scooted down in the bed, making himself more comfortable. Propped against the wooden headboard, he was reading the newspaper, clad in the only pair of jeans he had and pleasantly bare-chested. Pausing for a moment to appreciate the solid configuration of muscles under his skin, she almost smiled as he turned the page of the newspaper. The action set off a reaction in his body, every muscle moving in accordance like a well-honed machine. She loved watching him, doubted she’d ever grow tired of doing it. She remembered a phrase she’d read before, and at the time, she’d thought it was cheesy and stupid. ‘Poetry in motion . . .’ she mused as she indulged herself for a moment longer. Funny how she remembered it now. Funnier still that she finally realized just what it had meant . . .

He didn’t give any indication that he noticed her rapt attention, and that was just as well. She turned and shuffled back across the floor, eyes trained on the hunter who looked so relaxed at the moment . . .

She stopped, grasping the end of the coverlet and kneading it in her hands. Bas glanced over the top of the newspaper and looked from side to side almost nervously. “Sydnie? What do—oof!” he grunted as she pounced on him, the sudden impact knocking the air out of him. Snuggling against his chest, she wiggled around for a minute until she was comfortably situated with her head tucked neatly under his chin, her ear pressed against him, close enough to hear his beating heart. “What are you doing?” he asked, his tone gentle, amused, as he dropped the paper on the bed beside him and clumsily stroked her hair.

She closed her eyes, sighing in complete contentment as she rested her hand on his chest. “Stalking you, puppy,” she told him.

“Really.”

“Yes, and I caught you.”

“Oh? So what are you going to do with me now?” he asked.

She yawned. “What do you think? I’m going to go to sleep.”

“You’re going to sleep on me?”

She nodded, struggling to answer him while the inviting lure of sleep beckoned her. “Mmm.”

“Sydnie . . .”

“Hush, Sebastian. I can’t sleep when you’re talking.”

He sighed but slowly relaxed. She was almost asleep when she felt the soft brush of covers being pulled over her, and she smiled vaguely. The gentle pressure of his arms wrapping around her added to the feeling of complete security that enveloped her as she drifted off to sleep.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

God, she’s beautiful.’

Bas smiled in the dim glow of the security lights filtering through the hotel room window as he stared at the sleeping cat-youkai curled up on his chest. He’d never seen her fall asleep so fast, but the subtle shift in her scent was enough to assure him that she was, indeed, sleeping. Her legs were bent, curled to the side, neatly tucked under his raised knees, and he held her, rubbing her back with one hand as she nestled closer to him.

Lifting a lock of her auburn hair to his nose, he shuddered as an entirely too-pleasant shiver raced down his spine. Breathing in the scent of her, he brushed her hair over his lips. ‘My . . . mate . . .’

The words seemed strangely comforting in his mind. They felt natural, like opening his eyes in the morning, like drawing breath. She was mysterious yet familiar. He might not know some things about her, but the things he did know were enough for now . . .

A strange rumble cut through the silence in the room, and Bas blinked in surprise. It took him a moment to figure out what it was, and he shifted slightly so that he could better see her face. She wasn’t smiling but her face was peaceful. ‘She . . . she’s . . . purring?

Do you purr?

Of course not.”

But you’re a kitty, and kitties purr.”

Not this one, pretty boy. At least, I don’t think I do.”

Ah, so you might.”

Anything’s possible . . .”

He shook his head, slowly brushing her hair back out of her eyes. ‘So . . . she does purr, after all . . .’

Maybe she didn’t know she did,’ his youkai pointed out reasonably.

Maybe,’ he agreed.

Or maybe . . .’

Hmm?

Maybe she’s never had a reason to before.’

And that thought made him smile.

She wasn’t purring loudly. Weak and faltering now and again, as though it wasn’t a sound she made often, it was somehow reassuring nonetheless. A sudden surge of pride washed through him. She felt safe with him, didn’t she? ‘Safe enough to purr . . .’

Frightening really, how perfect she felt in his arms. He wasn’t sure he’d ever really bought into the belief that there was someone out there that he would consider his mate. He’d never honestly believed that he’d feel that way about anyone, and Sydnie . . . He never would have thought that a woman like Sydnie could turn him inside out with such flair. The difference was that he wanted to take care of her; he wanted to be the one that she relied on. She’d been alone for far too long, hadn’t she? ‘You’ll never be alone again, Sydnie . . .’

She stirred slightly, a soft moan escaping her as she snuggled closer to him. He rubbed her back a little more, and the purring started up again.

Jillian had done the same thing, hadn’t she? Crawling into his bed sometime during the night, his adopted sister had made herself at home in Bas’ bed almost entirely from the start. Cain had sensed a youkai in the area, and when he’d found the woman deep in the forest on their estate, she’d asked him to take her daughter—she’d given birth in the woods—and to keep her safe. Cain had brought the infant home, and he and Gin had kept her despite the fact that Evan had only been about three months old at the time.

Bas distinctly remembered sitting up for hours with Jillian nestled in the center of his chest. She’d only sleep if she could hear a heartbeat, and while most nights were spent with the infant on Cain’s chest, every so often, Bas would fall asleep with Jillian on him, and she’d still be there in the morning. As she got older, she never outgrew her penchant for slipping into his bed. Bas hadn’t minded it very much until, at five and unceremoniously ousted from his parents’ bed, Evan had started crawling into Bas’ bed, too . . .

What he hadn’t realized at the time, since most of his summers were spent in Japan, was that Jillian had started migrating in his summer absences. Latching onto Gavin Jamison, the son of one of Cain’s hunters, she’d started sleeping with him—the first summer he’d come to visit. She had been four. He was nine at the time. Every summer after that, she slept with Gavin, going so far as to abandon Bas completely during the few summers when he had remained in Maine. Bas, though, had finally managed to kick Jillian out of his bed last year, citing that she was too old to be sleeping with him, which didn’t mean she didn’t still try—which also didn’t mean that Bas hadn’t given in more than once and let her, deciding that sitting up and arguing with her for hours on end while she whined and cajoled wasn’t really worth the effort, after all . . .

He frowned. Two very different girls, sure; two entirely different feelings . . . Jillian felt safe with Bas because he was her big brother, he supposed, and Sydnie? Deep down, maybe Sydnie just desperately wanted to belong somewhere with someone, to know that she was loved and cherished . . . and maybe, in that, there wasn’t really a difference between Jillian and Sydnie, at all . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sydnie sighed and cuddled closer, savoring the feel of Bas’ arms wrapped snugly around her. Opening one eye, she blinked at the gray, overcast skies. Somehow the world seemed so far away, so insignificant. Something about the feel of Bas’ arms chased away the nightmares, the darkness that she’d felt lingering over her heart for so long. He took care of her in a way that no one ever really had, at least not that she could remember. The security he offered her so freely . . . it was humbling and frightening even as it comforted and cosseted her at the same time.

She cuddled closer and smiled. He smelled nice, too—really, really nice. ‘Earth and air and . . . pine trees . . . warm and comfortable and safe . . .’

Sydnie . . . you know, right?

Know what?

These feelings you have for him . . . they’re . . . nice . . .’

Nice is good. Sebastian is good.’

Good, yes . . . but you know what they mean, right?

Mean? Hmm, yes . . . they mean that he’s my puppy . . .’

Stop being catty . . . there’s more to it than that.’

Like what?

Her youkai sighed. ‘We . . . we could stay with him . . . couldn’t we?

Stay with him? I can’t . . . stay with him . . . I can’t stay anywhere . . .’

Maybe we could, Sydnie . . . maybe we could. He protects us, doesn’t he? And he brings us milk . . .’

She sighed again, this one a little more hopeless—as Bas’ arms tightened around her. ‘It doesn’t work that way . . . nothing good ever lasts, and Bas the Hunter—Sebastian . . . he’s definitely one of those things.’

‘. . . Maybe we could stay with him till it ends, then?

Sydnie frowned. ‘Yeah, I suppose . . . So long as he’ll keep me . . .’

“Morning, kitty.”

She arched up to stretch, pushing her arms out straight on either side of his head and drawing her body back before snuggling against his chest once more. He chuckled as she stretched out her fingers and curled them, careful to keep her claws from cutting into his bare chest. “Morning, Sebastian.”

He sighed. “Damn . . .”

“Hmm?”

“Never thought I’d like the sound of my name as much as I do when you say it.”

“You don’t like the name ‘Sebastian’?”

“Not particularly.”

“I do.”

“I . . . like the name ‘Sydnie’, too.”

She grinned, savoring the feel of his hands rubbing her back. “Do you?”

“Mmm,” he agreed. “You know, you lied to me.”

“About what?”

He took his time stroking her hair, smoothing it back off her face. “You do purr.”

“I do?”

He nodded. “Yes, kitty, you do.”

“I wasn’t purring.”

“You absolutely were . . .”

“Did I keep you awake?”

“Never slept better.”

“. . . Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“So you don’t mind having a kitty sleeping on you?”

“Not so much, no.”

She smiled. “Can we stay here all day? Like this?”

“I think Gunnar wanted to move again.”

“But he was human . . .”

“Just for the night. I’m sure he’s back to his obnoxious self now.”

“I like Gunnar.”

He snorted. “That figures . . . took you forever to trust me, then Gunnar shows up, and—”

“Jealous, puppy?”

“Pfft! Hardly . . .”

“You sound jealous.”

“Not jealous . . . just . . . why do you trust him when you hated me?”

“I never hated you.”

His grunt indicated that he thought she was lying. “Uh huh . . .”

“Shouldn’t I trust him?”

“Why would you? You didn’t know him from Adam . . . you sent him your picture . . . chitchatted with him on the phone . . .”

Sydnie leaned up, propping herself on her elbows to look into Bas’ eyes. He was scowling, and he turned his face away as a hint of color crept into his cheeks. “You trust him, right?”

“Sure,” he mumbled. “Even though he is a little shit.”

“Then I should trust him, too.”

Bas digested that for a moment as Sydnie carefully stroked his face. “You . . . you trust him because I do?” he asked.

“Yes.”

He finally grinned—a lopsided little smile that was completely devastating and wholly endearing at the same time. “In that case,” he drawled, wrapping his arms around her waist again. “I guess it’s all right . . .”

“You’re okay . . . for a puppy,” she mumbled, leaning down to nibble the roughened skin of his chin.

He shuddered. “Sydnie . . .”

“What’s the matter, Bas the Hunter? Afraid of a little kitty like me?”

He growled low in his throat but let his head fall back. Sydnie gently raked her teeth over the exposed flesh, taking her time as she carefully explored the area. Nibbling her way along the sharp line of his jaw, she flicked her tongue out as his arms tightened then released, tension rippling through his body and into hers. He moaned softly, one hand twining in her hair as he held her close. She kneaded his shoulders, feeling the rising tension that spiraled around them, secreting them away from the rest of the world, even if only for the moment.

Ducking his chin to capture her lips, he kissed her gently, sweetly. Lips molding against lips, the smoldering burn of burgeoning desire swelling inside her wrung a whimper from somewhere deep down as the steady pulse of rising need goaded her. His hair—silky strands wrapped around her hands . . . his body—a study of strength and quiet resolve . . . He reached out to her heart, touched her deep inside . . . The unsteady throb of his pulse resounded in her ears. The beat of her heart synchronized with his, and in her bemused mind, she understood what she couldn’t voice out loud.

He brushed his lips over hers time and again; the tenderness of his actions culminating in a bittersweet ache as she reveled in a powerful warmth, a startling realization that he was the one she needed—the one she wanted. He ran his hands up and down her spine, soothing her rioting senses . . .

Sydnie sighed against his lips, the sound captured by his mouth and returned. Maybe he felt it too; the strange yet familiar pull . . . the frightening understanding that he was a part of her, and that she was somehow an extension of him, too. He caught her hand, dragging his mouth away from hers long enough to kiss her knuckles before pressing her hand against his heart. Somehow that one action calmed her, soothed her, wrapped her in a beautiful hope, the wildest wish that maybe—just maybe . . . Maybe the good things that she had always thought weren’t meant to be . . . Maybe they could be, after all . . .

“Come on, you two! We’ve got to get moving!”

Bas growled in frustration and whipped the first thing he could lay hands on—a pillow—at his cousin’s face as Gunnar stuck his head into the room. “Get out, Gunnar,” he snarled.

Gunnar chuckled. “Yeah, yeah . . . I’d want to stay in bed all day, too, if I had a kitty like her perched on my chest. Let’s go.”

Bas snatched the clock off the nightstand and hurled it at Gunnar’s head. The cord stretched tight then popped loose from the wall plug, smacking into the wall just left of the intended target. Gunnar laughed and closed the door before Bas got really angry and decided to try to heave the bed at him next.

Sydnie giggled and snuggled against Bas’ chest again. “I’d rather stay here,” she pointed out.

Bas grunted. “I would, too.”

She sighed as he hugged her then gently moved her aside. “Come on, cat, before he decides he needs to pester us again.”

She wrinkled her nose but complied, rolling off the bed and sashaying over to retrieve her skirt. She’d folded it neatly and set it on the dresser the night before. Bas watched her pull the garment on with a little smile toying at the corners of his lips.

“What’s the matter, puppy? See something you like?” she teased.

“Maybe,” he agreed despite the dusting of pink on his cheeks. “I think I just might have . . .”

Sydnie pulled her shoes on and smoothed her skirt over her thighs. “I guess I’m ready.”

He made a face but nodded, holding out his hand as he reached for the door.

Sydnie stared at his fingers for a moment before hesitantly slipping her hand into his. He gave her fingers a gentle squeeze before sighing heavily and pulling on the handle.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“Are we going somewhere in particular or just going?” Sydnie asked, leaning on the back of Gunnar’s seat in the rented Chevy Blazer.

“We have to go to Baton Rouge,” Gunnar replied, glancing to the side to meet Sydnie’s gaze as she idly toyed with one of his ears. He flicked the appendage, and she giggled.

“Baton Rouge? Why?”

“I have to pick up a few things,” Gunnar replied.

Sydnie frowned at his evasive answer. “Sounds mysterious.”

“Not really,” he replied. “Just some information and stuff . . . nothing that would interest a cute little kitten like you.”

Bas snorted. “Stay away from the kitty, you little shit,” he growled without moving the arm that covered his eyes as he stretched out as much as he could on the bench seat behind them.

“You know, Sydnie, if you get sick of that idiot, I’ll be more than happy to let you sleep on me,” Gunnar quipped.

“Oh, really?”

Bas growled and sat up, leaning over the seat to drag Sydnie away from Gunnar. She giggled but didn’t fight him, and when he flopped back down again, she happily stretched out on his chest, hands slipping under the shelter of the open leather duster. He snorted but grinned just a little.

“Kami, you two are just pathetic,” Gunnar grumbled, peering in the rearview mirror in time to see Sydnie close her eyes and snuggled closer to Bas.

Bas didn’t answer as he tweaked Sydnie’s nose with his fingertip.

“You two realize, right? You’re in a lot of danger . . . the bounty hunters are still after Sydnie, and they don’t seem to be huge fans of yours, either, Bas,” Gunnar pointed out.

Sydnie nipped at Bas’ finger when he tweaked her nose again.

Gunnar rolled his eyes. “If they show up again before you’re fully healed, it could be bad news.”

Bas rumbled a low growl at the feline, and she giggled.

Gunnar sighed. “All right; all right . . . I warned you, though,” he grumbled. “You two . . . ungh . . . that’s just wrong, you know.”

Sydnie wrinkled her nose. “They’re not in here, are they? And you’re driving, so there’s not a problem at all.”

“That’s got to be the most messed up bit of logic,” Gunnar complained.

Bas sat up with a grimace. “Get over it, Gunnar. Everything’s under control.”

Gunnar snorted in reply.

“Why aren’t you freaking out?” Bas demanded, ignoring Gunnar’s commentary in favor of questioning Sydnie’s uncharacteristic calm.

She shrugged. “I don’t freak out.”

“You do. You hate cars.”

“I don’t hate them,” she argued. “I just think they’re moving death traps, is all.”

“Yes, well, you’re not acting nervous today,” he pointed out.

She slipped him a sidelong glance as a secretive little grin surfaced on her face. “Maybe I’m distracted.”

Bas grinned, too. “Oh?”

She tucked her head under his chin and sighed. “Yes.”

“That’s not so bad,” he allowed.

Gunnar sighed again. “Just don’t let your guards down.”

Sydnie closed her eyes. “Sebastian won’t let anything happen to me,” she informed him.

Bas blinked, staring at Sydnie as a slow smile spread over his features. The absolute conviction in her voice warmed him. She really did believe that he could keep her safe from the bounty hunters, didn’t she? “Nothing,” he assured her, “will happen to you, kitty.”

She peered up at him through the thick fringe of her eyelashes, eyes sparkling as she stared gazed at him. “I know, Bas the Hunter. I know.”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Jeb Christopher paced the length of his office, hands tucked into his pockets as he stared at each of the bounty hunters he passed. Glave Minor—jaguar-youkai who had recorded the last altercation . . . Flap-Jack McGuinness—thunder-youkai . . . Darrian Snow—wolf-youkai . . . Shakes—earth-based-youkai . . . They didn’t blink or move as they waited for Jeb’s instructions.

“The hunter and the target slipped past intel after the last fight,” Jeb remarked quietly, irritation lending his tone a clipped, harsh edge. “Myrna’s working on locating them at the moment. Until we get word of a sighting, I want you all on stand-by, ready to be dispatched as soon as I give the word.”

The bounty hunters nodded but remained silent. Jeb clenched his jaw. “This hunter . . . I want him alive. He’s dangerous, he’s deadly . . . and he’s the son of the Zelig.”

An uneasy stirring erupted in the gathered youkai. Jeb didn’t blink, and he didn’t look away. “Yes, the son of the Zelig,” he repeated in answer to their unvoiced questions. “I don’t care who he is. I want him brought in.”

Darrian Snow was the first to clear his throat and step back slightly, eyes lowered as he shook his head. “I don’t know, Jeb . . . It’s not so smart, to tangle with the tai-youkai.”

“Good way to get yourself killed,” Flap-Jack mumbled.

“If we touch his son, Zelig won’t rest until he sees us all dead,” Shakes added.

Jeb leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest as he glowered at his bounty hunters. “Die by my hand or die by the hand of the tai-youkai . . . take your choice.”

Darrian scratched the back of his neck. “Alive, you say?”

Satisfied that he’d made his point, Jeb relaxed a little bit. “Alive,” he reiterated. “I want a completely synchronized attack. Kill the target, but bring me the son of the great dog. The bitch is of no use to us alive.”

“Is this the Zelig’s heir?” Flap-Jack demanded, his one good eye shifting to meet Jeb’s gaze directly.

Jeb regarded the lumbering bulk that was Flap-Jack McGuiness. Though he was of the thunder-youkai classification, the brute’s grandfather had been a very large bear-youkai, and Flap-Jack had inherited his grandfather’s massive size. This son of the tai-youkai . . . he would not be taking Jeb’s hunters down this time without a lot of help . . .

Glave shifted uncomfortably. “Does it matter? He’s just a pup.”

“A pup whose granddad took out Naraku,” Flap-Jack growled. “The nephew of the Inu no Taisho . . . You can underestimate Sesshoumaru’s kin. I’d rather not.”

“And still just a pup, right?” Shakes interrupted. “Don’t matter whose grandson, son, or nephew he is. None of them are watching his back, are they?”

“Just the hunter,” Glave remarked. “Brute strength was what he used against Lyssa and Tom . . . He can’t watch four of us at once.”

Flap-Jack snorted at the mention of brute strength. “You don’t say . . .”

“Be that as it may,” Jeb cut in coldly, “just be ready for my orders. Understood?”

The bounty hunters nodded tersely. Jeb jerked his head toward the door in blatant dismissal. He watched as the hunters filed out of the office before pulling his cell phone from his pocket and dialing Myrna’s number. Letting the son of Zelig and the cat-youkai out of their sight . . . Why did he feel like that was a huge, huge mistake?

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Sydnie wandered into the bedroom with a towel tucked neatly around her small frame while she dried her hair with a second one. Bas glanced up from the letter his father had sent when she closed the door then back down at the papers in his hand, but his gaze shot right back up and stayed there as Sydnie neatly hung the towel over the back of a chair and crawled onto the bed. “Sydnie? Where are your clothes?” he demanded, unable to keep the rasping quality out of his voice.

“I washed them, puppy,” she replied, pulling her hair over her shoulder and dragging her claws through it.

“Listen, cat—” he began.

“Relax, Sebastian. I have clean panties on.”

“. . . Panties.”

“Yes.”

He shook his head and rolled off the bed, striding over to rummage through her purse for the brush he’d bought for her. She watched him but didn’t comment as he held the brush out to her. She ignored it. He sighed and shook his head, pushing her hands away as he pulled her hair back and carefully pulled the brush through it. “You are going to put something else on to sleep in, right?” he asked with a pointed arching of one eyebrow.

“I’d love to,” she remarked lightly, folding her legs and wrapping her arms around her ankles as she laid her cheek on her raised knees. “Too bad I don’t have anything else to wear.”

He stifled a snort since it was on the tip of his tongue to point out the times he’d tried to buy clothing for her. “Fine . . . I’ll borrow one of Gunnar’s shirts, but we’re going shopping tomorrow . . . you need clothes, and so do I.”

“I don’t want to wear Gunnar’s shirt,” she argued, closing her eyes as he continued to brush her hair.

“Too bad.”

“So you want me to smell like your cousin?” she challenged sweetly.

The brush paused mid-stroke. “. . . Damn it . . .”

“I would have suggested it myself,” she went on airily, “but I really would have thought that you’d be a little irritated if I smelled like another man.”

He dropped the brush into her lap and snorted. “Pfft! Fine, but you can’t sleep in that.”

She frowned and stood up to put the brush away. “Okay,” she agreed. “I could take the towel off, if it bothers you so much . . .”

“Sydnie . . .”

She lit a cigarette and slowly turned around to face him again, leaning against the short bureau as she exhaled a puff of smoke. “You’re really cute when you blush, Sebastian.”

Bas stifled a growl as he strode over to pluck the cigarette out of Sydnie’s hand before stomping over to the window and tossing the offending thing out into the night. “This is a non-smoking room, cat,” he pointed out.

She wrinkled her nose. “It’s rather mean of you to only rent non-smoking rooms, don’t you think?”

He rolled his eyes and flopped onto the bed, snatching up the letter and burying his face behind it. “No, I don’t. Smoke gives me a headache. Always has. Can’t stand it when Dad smokes, either.”

Sydnie stilled for a moment before slipping back onto the bed beside him again. “Your father smokes?”

He grunted. “Yes.”

“Interesting . . .”

“Not really.”

She crawled onto his chest and made herself comfortable. Bas shifted but didn’t try to push her away. “What are you reading?” she finally asked.

“A letter.”

“From who?”

He sighed. “The tai-youkai.”

“Oh? Orders to kill me?”

“That’s not even funny, Sydnie.”

She sighed, too. “It’s just a matter of time.”

“That’s not true.”

“It is . . . he wants me dead, remember?”

“He wants you brought in for questioning . . . that’s all.”

“Don’t be stupid . . . of course he’ll want me dead.”

Bas sighed and crumpled up the letter, dropping it on the nightstand before wrapping his arms around Sydnie. “He just wants to know why you killed Cal Richardson, I promise.”

She stiffened but didn’t pull away. “I . . . don’t want to talk about it.”

“I know you don’t,” he agreed. “If you’d just tell me, I could—”

“Could what? Help me? Save me? What would you do, Bas the Hunter? You can’t do either . . . and I don’t want to talk about it, okay?”

“It’s not okay, Sydnie . . . you have to tell me . . . you have to let me help you.”

“I don’t need your help!”

He held onto her when she tried to get up. She scowled at him, but he refused to let go. “Can’t you believe that maybe I want to do this? I have to do this . . .”

“Why?”

He frowned, his gaze skittering away as he scowled at the walls.

“Why?”

“Because,” he grumbled, cheeks reddening as he stubbornly refused to look at her, “I just do.”

She shook her head, an odd sense of sadness filtering into her green eyes, clouding them with a strange melancholy that he didn’t really understand. “I’m a nobody, Bas the Hunter. In the end, nobodies like me don’t really matter.”

“You do matter,” he argued. “You matter to me.”

She swallowed hard. “Then you’re a fool.”

“Maybe I am,” he agreed. “I don’t understand a damn thing about you, Sydnie . . . because you won’t let me.”

“You understand enough,” she whispered, relaxing against him again. “Just leave it at that.”

He sighed. “All right, cat,” he relented despite the irritation that creased his brow.   “You win . . . for now.”

She nodded vaguely as he pulled the blanket over her tiny frame and leaned over to shut off the lamp. “Good night, Sebastian,” she murmured.

He sighed again. “Good night, baby. Sleep well.”

She smiled moments before she started to purr.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Bas yawned and slowly opened his eyes to gaze down at the cat-youkai still snuggled against his chest. Her shoulders were bare, pale in the wan light of the gray morning filtering through the rain-streaked window. Bending his knee, he shifted slightly, careful not to wake the feline. Sydnie uttered a little moan, the reassuring sound of her purr cutting off abruptly but resuming the moment he stopped moving.

He sighed, a small grin surfacing on his face as he gently smoothed her hair.

Seven-fifteen,’ he read, peering at the clock on the nightstand. He had very little doubt in his mind that Gunnar would want to get moving soon. He’d said as much before heading off to his bedroom last night. Obviously worried that the bounty hunters weren’t far behind, Gunnar had been quiet, terse, almost pensive since Sydnie had told him about the order that the bounty hunters were to bring Bas in alive. Add to that the fact that Bas and Sydnie both sorely needed to go clothes shopping, and Bas figured that staying in bed all day was really out of the question . . .

As if,’ Bas snorted indelicately. ‘I’d love to see them try it . . .’

He rubbed her shoulder and pulled the blanket up to tuck snugly under her chin. She sighed happily and nestled a little closer. She shifted slightly as Bas’ eyes widened. Sometime during the night, her towel had come undone, and there was nothing separating their bodies but her flimsy pair of panties and the jeans that he’d worn to bed. ‘Oh, damn . . .’ he thought with a grimace as the heat of Sydnie’s body on his shot through his system with a wicked abandon. ‘Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn . . .’

Don’t panic, Bas . . . So long as she doesn’t move . . .’

The grimace shifted into a low moan. ‘So long as she doesn’t move? What the . . .? Of course she’s going to move, and when she does—’

When she does, you’ll . . . what?

Die,’ he decided, closing his eyes tight. ‘Absolutely die . . . Damn it . . . How stupid could I be? I should have known . . . and now I’m going to die . . .’

“Morning, puppy,” she mumbled as she stretched.

Bas stifled a groan as she rose up and leaned over him, her nipples dragging against the overheated skin of his chest as she rose on her knees and lifted her ass, hands clenching fistfuls of pillow on either side of his head. As languorously as she stretched back, she leaned forward again, her breasts sliding over him in a tormenting motion. “Something the matter, Bas the Hunter?” she asked innocently as she cuddled against his chest once more.

He shook his head quickly, refusing to open his eyes. Brain dangerously close to malfunctioning, he struggled for words that just wouldn’t come.

She rested her hands on his chest and nipped his chin as he swallowed hard.

“S-Sydnie . . . st-stop . . .”

She giggled huskily, flicking her tongue, lapping at the curve of his jaw. “Mmm . . . stuttering . . . Now, that’s nice . . .”

He gulped again. “You need to . . . stop . . .” he rasped out.

She drew her legs up, letting them fall open as she straddled him, as she pressed herself against his groin. Bas uttered a sound caught somewhere between a growl and a moan. She laughed softly, trailing the lightest of kisses over his face. Rising on her hands placed on either side of his head, she nibbled on his lips with a throaty purr.

“Damn,” he muttered between feathery kisses. “Sydnie, I . . .” He trailed off, forcing his eyes open moments before she ground herself against him. The shocking pressure built; the rampant desire surged . . . Arching away from him, she delved her tongue into his mouth, tracing his fangs with a wanton fervor that slammed through his body straight to his heart. Gasping at the sight of her dusty rose nipples, Bas couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t remember anything but Sydnie’s name, couldn’t hear anything but the rush of his blood resounding in his ears. He felt the unrelenting throb as his body reacted to hers—the ache, the burn . . . the consuming fire that seared him. “Oh, God . . .”

“Holy dogs . . .”

The sound of Gunnar’s voice cut through the haze of Bas’ Sydnie-induced stupor. Uttering a low growl, he held Sydnie tight to keep her from doing something insane, like sitting up to greet his cousin. “What?” he snarled, grimacing at the heated flush that shot into his skin as he peeked over Sydnie’s shoulder.

Gunnar wisely looked away despite the obvious amusement on his features. “I take it you’re not ready to go.”

“Get the hell out, Gunnar,” Bas growled.

Gunnar cleared his throat and shrugged. “I’ll, uh . . . wait out here.”

She drew back far enough to smile at him, her laughter shaky, husky, caressing. “Sebastian?”

“Huh?” he murmured, shaking his head to dispel the haze created by Sydnie’s close proximity.

“. . . You’re poking me.”

“Wha . . .?”

She giggled and ground her hips against him, eliciting a low, ragged groan from Bas. “You’re poking me, puppy . . . and a quite impressive poke, it is.”

Bas’ mouth dropped open as even more color stained his cheeks. Shoving Sydnie off his chest, he rolled over and sat up, hunching his shoulders as he leaned on his knees, cupping his face in his hands as he stifled the desire to groan.

She giggled and sat up, too, pressing her breasts into his back and reaching over his shoulders to knead the muscles on his chest. “I hear that’s a problem for men,” she teased.

“Get off me, Sydnie,” he growled.

Sydnie carefully brushed his hair aside, letting it trail over his shoulder as she kissed the back of his neck. “You don’t really want me to do that, do you?” she pouted.

Gritting his teeth as he tried in vain to ignore the mischievous cat, Bas sighed. “Yes . . . no . . . maybe . . .”

She laughed softly, her breath fanning over the moistened skin and sending shivers down his spine. “Don’t you want me?” she whispered, nipping his earlobe as his eyes drifted closed.

“Not . . . now,” he told her, catching her hands and holding her gently but firmly as he turned to face her. “Just not now, okay?”

Sydnie’s eyes clouded in confusion. Shaking her head, she sat back with a sigh before curling up on her side. “Are you ashamed of me?” she asked quietly.

Bas scowled at her. “Don’t be ridiculous!”

She stared at him sadly. “Am I?”

“Yes,” he growled, raking his hands through his hair. “Absolutely ridiculous.”

A little sound escaped her—a choked sort of whimper. “I see.”

He made a face and heaved a sigh. “I . . . you . . . It’s not . . . no Gunnar,” he blurted. “Not while he’s . . . here.”

“This is about him? But—”

“Just not yet, Sydnie . . . go get dressed.”

She scowled at him. “Sebastian—”

He glared over his shoulder—a look meant to gain her compliance. “Move it, kitty,” he said, words gruff despite the gentleness in his tone as he tried not to notice that she wasn’t making a single move to cover herself.   He turned away and stood up, striding over to the window.

She snorted but scooted off the bed. He could hear the whisper of her movements. Moments later, he heard a dull crash from the adjacent living room of the hotel suite. Wheeling around, his gaze swept over the bed and stopped. In the jumble of tangled blankets, he spotted the towel. He snatched it up as he strode past into the hallway, uttering a string of muttered expletives as the irrational woman stomped into the bathroom and closed the door.

“Oh . . . kami . . .” Gunnar choked out behind him. Bas whipped around in time to see his cousin leaning heavily against the wall with a stunned look on his face and a shattered coffee mug at his feet. “I think I just had a wet dream . . .”

Bas shot across the room, catching Gunnar by the throat and smacking him hard against the wall. “I’ll fucking kill you, Gunnar . . .”

Gunnar groaned then chuckled. “If you can’t figure out what to do with her, I’ll be happy to take her off your hands.”

“Damn you . . .” Bas growled, pulling Gunnar away from the wall and smashing him against it so hard that the wall trembled. “Keep your hands off her!”

“Did you see the way her ass moves when she walks? Holy damn!

Bas slammed him into the wall once more. Gunnar grimaced when his head struck the doorframe. “I mean it, Gunnar . . .”

Gunnar groaned. “Want my advice?”

“No,” Bas snarled.

“You really need to fuck her.”

That comment didn’t deserve a reply, as far as Bas was concerned. Slamming Gunnar against the wall one last time, he turned and heaved his cousin across the room. Gunnar fell over the back of the sofa, clutching his stomach as he laughed even harder and groaned intermittently. Balling his hands into fists and reminding himself that he really didn’t want to kill Gunnar; Bas stomped off toward the bathroom, planting himself in front of the door, lest Sydnie should decide to come out in anything less than full coverage.

Gunnar’s laughter taunted him, and Bas stifled a frustrated growl. Either way he looked at it, he was a damned man, no doubt about it. Between Gunnar, Sydnie, and the bounty hunters, he was positive that he was going to be dead before the dust settled . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

The hotel room was quiet—unnervingly so. They’d only traveled a few hours to reach Natchez, Mississippi, before stopping for the day. Gunnar hadn’t been pleased with the delay, but Bas had grumbled about not having any clothes at all, not to mention that he was absolutely not putting himself in another situation like he had been in earlier while his idiot cousin was still traveling with them.

Gunnar crossed his arms over his chest and scowled thoughtfully at his cousin. Bas was mirroring his posture but seemed preoccupied as he peeked over his shoulder toward the bathroom.

Gunnar sighed. “It had to have something to do with that first fight: the one where you killed the kid . . .”

Bas grunted. “I thought that, too.”

“It’s strange, though . . . in that sort of profession, death is a huge risk.”

“I know that.”

Gunnar shook his head. “Just a pup, you said?”

Bas nodded, dragging a hand over his face since they’d been over this a few times since Sydnie had announced that she was going to take a bath. Bas hadn’t wanted to discuss anything in front of her. Gunnar had the distinct feeling that he was trying to protect her from the truth of the situation, not that he could blame her. He’d seen the panicked look on her face. It didn’t surprise him at all that Bas would want to keep her from worrying any more than he had to. “Younger than me,” Bas grumbled. “No more than twenty-two or twenty-three . . . too young to be a bounty hunter.”

“Maybe . . . then again, the new Asian tai-youkai just turned twenty-two . . .”

Bas shrugged. “That’s different. His father died, and he’s been training all his life for it.”

“True enough, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not going to get a lot of grief.”

One of Bas’ eyebrows lifted meaningfully. “Are the challenges being issued yet?”

Gunnar sighed. “Nope, but so far as Grandfather reckons, it won’t take long before they do.”

“Sesshoumaru said that?”

“Sure he did . . . he was telling Dad that the youkai in China are grumbling despite Fai-sama’s support from the generals.”

“He’ll be fine. He’s pretty tough,” Bas insisted.

Gunnar rubbed his forehead. “Yes, well, that’s my point. He is tough despite his age. Maybe this bounty hunter was, too.”

“Not that tough,” Bas grumbled.

“Or maybe he just made the mistake of underestimating you.”

Bas snorted but didn’t reply.

“What kind of youkai was he?” Gunnar asked.

Bas sighed. “A cougar.”

“Cougar,” Gunnar repeated thoughtfully. “Cougar . . .”

“Yes, a cougar.” He threw his hands up and shook his head in disgust. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Gunnar’s amber gaze slowly lifted, brow furrowed as he pondered what he’d been told. It wasn’t much, and not for the first time, Bas wished that he’d tried harder to get information out of the bounty hunters. Even then, he doubted that he’d have gotten anything substantial. Still . . .

Gunnar uttered a terse grunt.

“What?”

“Unless the boss thought very highly of the bounty hunter.”

“Well, that makes sense. He sent the pup on a mission, didn’t he?”

Gunnar nodded slowly, sucking in his cheek as he considered Bas’ words. “Maybe, but think about it: if you weren’t Cain’s son, do you think that he’d have sent you out on a hunt of any kind?”

“You make it sound like I’m useless,” Bas grumbled.

“Not useless, Bas, but not experienced at hunting, either.”

Bas had to admit that it made sense. Maybe the boss thought highly of the bounty hunter’s skills because he knew him well, and more importantly . . . “So you think that this pup I killed was, what? Related to the boss or something?”

Gunnar narrowed his eyes and leaned his elbow on the arm of the chair, propping his forehead on his raised fingertips. “I’m not sure; it’s all just supposition, but . . . there are two factions who could be handling the bounty at this point, and of those two factions, there is one—the Onyx—that we’ve tangled with before over the assassination of one of Grandfather’s generals. The problem was that we never could find any concrete evidence; no paper trails, no witnesses . . . Anyway, I seem to recall that the leader of the Onyx is an old youkai named Christopher—an old cougar-youkai . . . You follow me?”

Bas sat up, digesting Gunnar’s words. “I follow,” he agreed. “You think I killed this guy’s . . . son?”

Gunnar shrugged and pushed himself to his feet, heading toward one of the two bedrooms in the hotel suite. “Let me look into it a little more: check my facts and all that.”

“All right . . . Gunnar?”

He stopped and glanced back over his shoulder. “What?”

“Don’t tell Sydnie any of this—at least, not until we know for sure.”

“All right.” Gunnar sighed, draping his hands on his hips as he looked around the room. “Listen . . . you’re feeling better, right?”

Bas nodded.

“I need to make a few calls, and if you don’t want her overhearing anything . . . There’s a mall a few blocks down. We passed it on the way here. You left all your clothes behind, right? Why don’t you take Sydnie shopping?”

He made a face. The last thing he wanted to do was take the cat shopping.   Those trips never, ever turned out well.

“Shopping?”

Bas turned in time to see Sydnie slip out of the bathroom, toweling her hair dry as she wandered toward them. Dressed in the same black tank top and miniskirt she wore the first night he’d met her, she looked calm, relaxed . . . and very, very mischievous. “You want to go shopping?” Bas asked dubiously.

“Yes,” she agreed, slipping into the chair beside Bas.

“You hate shopping . . . you give me nothing but grief when I’ve taken you shopping,” he pointed out.

Sydnie giggled as she dug the hairbrush he’d bought her out of her purse. “That was before.”

“Before what?”

“Before I had money of my own.”

He frowned. “How did you get money, Sydnie?”

She paused as she dragged the brush through the length of her hair. “Some guy named . . . Evan . . . Was that right, Gunsie?”

Bas blinked. “Evan? As in, my brother, Evan?”

“Oh, is that your brother?”

Bas’ incredulous gaze shifted from Sydnie to Gunnar as he slowly rose to his feet. “What the hell is she talking about, Gunsie?

Gunnar shrugged offhandedly and turned around to face them.

“He paid four hundred dollars for a picture of me,” she went on, ignoring Bas’ obvious irritation.

“He—what?

“Well, he would have paid more, but that was all he had on him,” Gunnar added for good measure.

Bas erupted in a low growl as he shoved himself away from the table and strode toward his cousin. “What picture?”

“Oh, the one I took with your phone-thingy when you wouldn’t come out of the bathroom,” Sydnie supplied.

“With my—” Bas cut himself off and turned on his heel, striding over to jerk his duster off the back of the sofa, digging for his cell phone. It didn’t take him long to find the image of Sydnie, sprawled out by the foot of the bed in her tank top and g-string panties.   “You fucking bastard!” Bas gnashed out, deleting the picture before tossing the phone onto the sofa and striding toward Gunnar with his hand out. “Give me your phone, damn you.”

Gunnar pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. Bas jerked it away from him and made quick work of scrolling through his pictures and deleting the offending one. “Evan still has it,” Gunnar pointed out reasonably, “and the tai-youkai does, too.”

What?

Gunnar shrugged. “The tai-youkai needed a picture for her file—duh!

Bas stifled a frustrated growl and slammed his fist into Gunnar’s arm. “Why the hell would you do that?” he bellowed.

“Now, Bas—”

“Aren’t you the one who is always telling me I ought to share?” Sydnie broke in, grasping Bas’ forearm and tugging gently. “Besides, Gunsie-Wunsie wants to be my mate.”

That stopped Bas cold. Blinking in silence as Sydnie’s claim sank in, Bas slowly shook his head. “. . . He . . . what?

Sydnie smiled sweetly. “He asked me to be his mate,” she replied.

Bas rounded on his cousin again, cracking his fingers as he slowly, methodically, stalked toward him. “Dead, Gunnar,” he growled.

Gunnar retreated, holding up his hands in mock surrender. “Now, Bas . . . you can’t really blame me, can you? I said it before I knew that you wanted her to be yours . . . No harm, no foul, right?”

Fucking dead.”

Sydnie ran around Bas, planting her hands in the center of his chest as she pressed herself against him. “You want me to be your mate?” she asked quietly.

Bas grimaced, fighting down the blush that flooded to the surface of his skin. “That’s not—I didn’t—I never said—Oh, hell!

Her skin was flushed though her eyes were uncannily bright, and she stared at him without blinking as he tossed a scathing glower at his cousin and refused to meet Sydnie’s gaze. “You’re an odd puppy,” she mumbled, dropping her hands and turning away.

Bas heaved a sigh, narrowing his eyes on his cousin before catching her arm and gently pulling her back. “Come on, Sydnie. You need some new clothes, too.”

She shot him an inscrutable look but finally nodded. “Okay,” she agreed.

Bas shook his head as Sydnie wandered over to retrieve her purse from the table. Pausing long enough to grab his sword and pulling the duster on, he didn’t glance at Gunnar again as he strode over and jerked open the door, waiting for Sydnie to pass.

He didn’t miss Gunnar’s soft chuckle as he pulled it closed.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Cain Zelig scowled at the email displayed on the screen of his computer. His informants weren’t any closer to gathering information than they were before. There were times when he hated being tai-youkai. This was one of them. Bound by the need to fulfill his obligations that couldn’t be left unattended, he had a million little things to do that really didn’t account for much but did thwart his desire to head out in search of information, and the knowledge that his eldest son was in danger only exacerbated Cain’s mounting frustration. The tai-youkai in him didn’t doubt for a moment that Bas could and would handle the bounty hunters, no matter what faction they represented. The concern was more of the father for his son; the futile wish that he had told Bas that he hadn’t wanted him to go out on a hunt, in the first place. Logic told him that Bas was absolutely capable of taking care of the cat-youkai. Sentimentality, though, was much more difficult to reconcile.

Cain closed the email with a sigh and slumped lower in his chair. Gaze lighting on the manila file lying carelessly in the center of the blotter, he scowled. He’d been adding to his notes on Sydnie as Bas had mentioned things. While Bas had said that the girl claimed that Kit was just an alias, Cain hadn’t been able to dig up any information on anyone with the name ‘Sydnie Taylor’, either.

Slapping his hand on the file to drag it toward him, he opened it and tapped the photograph stapled to the left side of the cover. He had cropped the image just below the girl’s chin. ‘She’s trouble; I know it . . .’

Gunnar sat in one of the overstuffed recliners across from the sofa in the living room, staring thoughtfully at his telephone as Cain read through the information that Gunnar had given him on the two bounty hunter factions that they were trying to research.

You know, I think maybe Bas has finally met his match,” Gunnar remarked with a smirk.

Oh?

Bubby has a match?” Evan Zelig asked with a snort as he flopped down on the sofa, draping his forearm over his face.

Shoes off the furniture,” Cain grumbled absently as he waved a hand at his son’s feet. Evan shifted his legs, letting his legs dangle, apparently too lazy to remove the offending shoes.

Gunnar glanced up from his phone and gazed at Evan speculatively. “How much money you got on you?” he asked.

Evan lifted his arm and turned to stare at his cousin. “Dunno . . . why?

Gunnar leaned forward, extending his hand, palm up. “Hand it over, pup.

Evan let his arm drop over his face again and snorted. “Like hell, Gunnar.

Just do it.”

Evan heaved a sigh but sat up, leaning to the side so that he could dig a wad of money out of his pocket. He scowled at the money for a moment but finally slapped it into Gunnar’s outstretched hand. “There, now suppose you tell me why I just gave you my money.”

Gunnar counted the bills and shook his head. “I’m not stupid, Evan. I know you have more than a hundred bucks on you.”

Evan growled but dug into his other pocket, producing another wad of money that he handed over, too. “Spit it out already.”

Gunnar rolled his eyes. “Two-fifty? You can do better than that . . .”

Not till you tell me what I’m paying for,” he grumbled.

Let’s just say that I swear that you’ll not be disappointed.”

Evan stared at him for another moment but finally pulled one more wad of bills out of his back pocket, slapping it into Gunnar’s hand before sitting back and crossing his arms over his chest. “That’s it.

Gunnar grinned. “Four hundred dollars? You’re losing your touch, Evan.”

What do you expect?” he retorted. “I just bought a new amplifier.”

Oh, God,” Cain groaned. Evan loved music, and that wasn’t a bad thing. That he loved to be as loud as he possibly could well into the wee hours of the morning, though . . . It wasn’t surprising that Evan had moved into the basement, as far away from the rest of the family, who much preferred to keep normal hours, as he could get.

Gunnar chuckled but tossed Evan his cell phone. Evan shot him a curious scowl before glancing down at the device. He started to look away only to jerk his head right back as his eyes flared wide and a slow grin spread over his features. “Oh, damn!” he breathed. “Talk about an insta-bone . . . Who is she?

Gunnar’s chuckle deepened. “That would be Sydnie . . . the cat-youkai Cain sent Bas out to capture.”

Cain glanced up from the papers he had been reading. “What’s that?

Send me that picture,” Evan demanded as Cain reached over to snatch the phone out of his son’s hand. “I want to go hunting, Cain!

The day I send you on a hunt is the day I die, and I’m ‘Dad’, remember?” Cain grumbled, eyes widening as he stared at the image on the tiny monitor. “That’s her?

Can’t blame Bas for being distracted, don’t you think?” Gunnar quipped.

Cain snorted and handed the phone back to Gunnar. “Send it to me, too.”

Cain, you old dog!” Evan chortled as he stood up and tried to snatch the phone away from Gunnar.

Cain reached over and slapped his son across the back of the head. “For her file, you little pervert.”

You know, Gun, I’d have paid more than four hundred for that picture . . .” Evan added, still trying to grab the phone.

Gunnar laughed, trying to send the picture while evading Evan’s nimble fingers at the same time. “Knock it off, Evan, or I won’t send it to you.”

Evan grinned when his cell phone beeped to announce the receipt of the image in question. “Brings a whole to meaning to ‘getting some pussy’, you know?

Where are you going?” Gunnar called as Evan ran toward the door.

Where do you think?” the fifteen year-old tossed back without stopping. “I’ve gotta go do something about the full-on woody!

Cain shook his head as the memory faded. He wasn’t sure how his youngest son had ended up as bad as he tended to be. He should have known since Bas hadn’t ever really given him or Gin any real trouble. That should have been warning enough, he supposed. Evan seemed to think that he needed to be bad enough for the both of them. Cain sighed, closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose. Between Evan’s penchant for stating the outrageous to his youngest daughter’s propensity for sleeping with whomever would let her crawl into their beds, he had to wonder if he had somehow been cursed . . .

At least Jillian adhered to the rule about leaving the bedroom door open. Cain had checked since Gavin Jamison—the young man who Jillian had proclaimed at the age of four would be her mate—had come back after better than two and a half years of college, completely grown up and not even close to the scrawny youth he had been. The last thing Cain wanted or needed, he figured, was for his daughter to end up mated at the tender age of fifteen regardless of Gin’s insistence that Jillian wouldn’t do any such thing . . . He grinned despite his abysmal thoughts. He’d made a habit of threatening Gavin’s body parts about the time the boy should have hit puberty. He was pretty certain that Gavin would behave—that was, as long as Jillian didn’t try to work any of her female wiles on the poor pup, because in the eleven years since Gavin had started coming to Maine to be trained, Cain had yet to see the boy say ‘no’ to Jillian—and mean it.

The telephone rang, and he leaned forward to snag the receiver. “Hello?”

“Cain . . . Gunnar here.”

“If you don’t have anything useful to say then you’d better hang up right now,” he grouched.

Gunnar sighed. “Useful? I think so.”

“Good. Let’s hear it.”

“I think I know which faction is handling the bounty.”

Cain sat up a little straighter. “Oh?”

“Yeah . . . It’s not good, though.”

“Didn’t figure it would be. Tell me what you know.”

“I believe it’s the Onyx.”

Cain grimaced. “Why do you think this?”

Gunnar paused for a moment before answering. “I think the first youkai Bas killed . . . I’m pretty sure that he was the boss’ son.”

“Damn it . . .”

“And it gets worse.”

Cain gritted his teeth and furiously massaged his throbbing temple as a dull ache erupted behind his eyes. “Okay.”

Gunnar sighed again. “He said that Sydnie is expendable, but that Bas is to be brought in alive.”

“Over my dead body.”

Gunnar chuckled. “That’s what Bas said, too.”

“Are you sure?”

“About ninety-nine percent, yes . . . It’s too coincidental to be anything else. Bas killed the first bounty hunter—a cougar-youkai . . . and the Onyx’s boss is a cougar-youkai.”

Cain rifled through the stack of papers in the file and scowled at the statistics that Gunnar had compiled regarding the Onyx. “Jeb Christopher: cougar-youkai,” he mused, reading the only name listed in conjunction with the exclusive organization. “Shit . . .”

Gunnar grunted in response. “I had hoped that the bounties would back off when and if they figured out who Bas was. If this is the case, though . . .”

“It’s just adding more fuel to the fire.”

“Something like that.”

Cain grimaced, shoving the file away as he slumped back in his chair again. “And Bas?”

“What about him?”

“How are his injuries?”

“Better . . . Hopefully he can rest another day or two before anything happens. If he had to, he could fight now, but if Christopher sends more than two hunters—very likely, considering—I’m not so sure how he’d do. Figured I’d hang around for at least a couple more days to make sure, just in case something happens.”

Cain nodded. “Good . . . Gunnar?”

“Yes?”

Drumming his claws against the armrest did little to alleviate the sense of foreboding that gripped him. “That cat and my son . . . how close are they? Truthfully . . .”

Gunnar took a moment before answering, and when he did, he cleared his throat and sighed. “Truthfully? Well . . . how much do you like kitties, Cain?”

Cain grunted. “Really?”

“Really.”

He stifled a low groan, feeling his burgeoning headache ballooning into a full-out aneurism. “That much? You’re sure?”

“Absolutely . . . wouldn’t surprise me if he’s thinking about taking her as his mate—not that I blame him. Sydnie’s damn hot . . .”

“Hardly a good reason for taking a mate,” Cain grumbled. “You’re positive you’re not reading more into it than what’s actually there?”

“Yeah, but it makes sex much more palatable, and yes, I’m absolutely positive.”

“Put Bas on the phone,” Cain gritted out, trying to ignore Gunnar’s commentary.

“Love to, but he’s not here.”

“What do you mean, he’s not there?”

Gunnar snorted. “I mean, he’s not here. He took Sydnie shopping. He left all his clothes in the hotel back in Oklahoma, and she just doesn’t seem to have much of anything, anyway. Bas didn’t want me to call you about the Onyx while Sydnie was around. Seems that he doesn’t want her to know anything until we’re positive who we’re dealing with.”

“Protecting her.”

“So it would seem.”

“Pfft!”

“Anyway, I’ll keep you posted should something else happen.”

“Thanks.”

Cain leaned forward and dropped the phone onto the receiver before flopping back once more. Smashing his hands over his face, he heard the door to his study open softly and close again. He didn’t have to look to know that Gin had slipped into the office. Moments later, he felt her hands on his shoulders and sighed as she massaged the tenseness away. “Bad news?” she asked quietly.

He let his hands drop away and tilted his head back to gaze at his mate. “You could say that.”

“Want to tell me about it?”

Cain shook his head. “Not really, but you’ll hear about it, anyway.”

“Sounds foreboding.”

“Gunnar thinks we’re dealing with the Onyx.”

Gin flinched, alarm registering in the depths of her golden eyes. He’d told her about the two factions. She understood all too well, just what sort of threat the Onyx posed. “I see.”

He winced. He always had hated to tell her things that worried her, even the smallest bit. “It’s okay . . . He’ll be fine.”

“You’re right,” she agreed. “He’s been trained, and he’s smart . . .”

“But you’re still worried.”

She shrugged, wrinkling her nose as she tried to brush aside his concern. “Sebastian is my baby.”

“Your ‘baby’ is twenty-five years old.”

“I’ll never stop worrying about my children.”

Cain nodded. “No, I don’t suppose you will.”

Narrowing her gaze on him, she crossed her arms over her chest and stepped back. “Okay, Zelig-sensei . . . what else is bothering you?”

“Among other things . . .” He sighed. “Gunnar said that your son might have found his mate.”

Gin’s eyes lit up, and she squealed happily. “Really? That’s fantastic!”

“Not as fantastic as you think, baby girl.”

She waved a hand to shut him up. “Don’t be silly! This is wonderful news! Who is she? Do we know her?”

“Gin.”

She hurried over to fold the afghan that was askew on the couch. “Hmm?”

He stood up and stuffed his hands into his pockets. “. . . Where is Bas right now?”

“Didn’t you say he was in Louisiana?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Then why are you asking me?”

He blinked and pressed his lips together to keep from laughing. “And what is Bas doing in Louisiana?”

She slipped the blanket over the back of the sofa and straightened up, planting her hands on her hips as she leveled a disbelieving look at her mate. “You don’t know why he’s there?”

“Of course I do . . . I just wonder if you do.”

Gin squinted at him, and he had the distinct feeling that she thought he was being simple on purpose.   “He’s bringing that girl in for questioning . . .”

He nodded slowly, pinning Gin with a knowing look.

“But what does that have to do with Sebastian finding his mate?”

Cain lowered his chin, curling his fingers over his lips as he continued to stare at Gin. “Do you honestly have to ask me that?”

She shook her head. “I don’t understand . . . It’s not like he’s on vacation, right? When did he find time to meet anyone when he’s been spending all his time with that cat-y—?” Her eyes flashed open as her mouth rounded in wonder.   “Oh . . . really?”

“So I’ve been told.”

Gin looked stunned for all of thirty seconds before she grinned sweetly and hurried over to hug her mate. “Evan showed me that picture of her . . . she’s lovely.”

“I guess.”

Gin leaned back to gaze up at her mate. “And you don’t like this idea, do you?”

Cain sighed and grimaced. “It’s not that,” he allowed. “I don’t care so much that he’s found his mate, and I don’t really care if he’s chosen her . . . It makes everything that much more difficult, you know? I just don’t want him to do anything . . . permanent . . . at least not until after he can help her clear her name.”

“Sebastian said she’s not a murderer. That’s enough for me,” Gin mused.

“Me, too . . . I don’t have a problem with it at all. I just don’t want him to have to deal with youkai asking questions after the fact.”

She nodded. “He’s smart, Cain.”

Cain shook his head, brushed her bangs back out of her face. “I know he’s smart, but sometimes even the most rational people do stupid things when it involves their mates.”

Gin nodded slowly. “Like us, you mean?”

He finally smiled, though the expression was thin, weak. He hated reminders that he’d almost lost Gin, and while she maintained that she was fine, he knew in his heart that he had been the one to fail her all those years ago. “Like us,” he agreed. “I was so busy trying to protect you that I completely messed it up.”

She pushed herself up on tiptoe and kissed his chin. “Like that was completely your fault. Tell me: why do I think that there’s still something else bothering you?”

Cain grinned ruefully. He didn’t want to alarm Gin, but he couldn’t really see a way around telling her everything he knew, either. He sighed and pulled away from her, wandering back to his chair before speaking again. “Gunnar said something else,” he allowed. “He said that there’s reason to believe that the first bounty hunter that Bas fought was the son of the Onyx’s boss. He said . . . He said that this boss handed down orders that Bas was to be brought in alive.”

Gin sank into one of the chairs facing Cain’s desk and shook her head. “Revenge, you mean?”

“Something like that.”

“I’d try to pull him off the hunt, but if he knows that Sydnie is his mate . . .”

“He won’t leave her,” Gin concluded. “Of course he wouldn’t.”

“Exactly.”

Gin frowned as she met Cain’s gaze. “Papa said that Sebastian is a good fighter; a strong fighter . . .”

“It’s not about strength, Gin. If Jeb Christopher sends groups of bounty hunters after them, they could overpower him. The last fight was two against one, and Bas defeated them. If Gunnar’s right, and Christopher wants revenge, he’ll just send more of his people after Bas. They’re not going to fight fairly; not if they think there’s a score to settle.”

“Sebastian . . . is in danger . . .”

He winced but nodded.

Gin digested that, her skin pale, her eyes wide, confused. She stared at her hands, clasped demurely in her lap. When she finally lifted her chin, Cain wasn’t surprised to see the determined light that brightened her gaze. “You can’t leave Sebastian out there alone,” she murmured.

Cain shook his head, rubbing his temple to alleviate the pain behind his eyes. “You think that he’d let me send in backup? Besides . . . I don’t want him to think that I doubt his abilities.”

“He wouldn’t think that,” she assured him.

“Wouldn’t he?”

Gin scowled. “If they’re not going to fight fairly . . .”

“What do you want me to do, Gin? He wanted to be a hunter. You said he’d be able to do it. I can’t pull him off now.”

“I know what I said,” she assured him. “I’d just feel safer if there were something watching out for him, just in case.”

“You mean like someone trailing him?”

“Just to make sure that he will be okay if they try to ambush him.”

“Gin—”

“Someone who won’t interfere unless Sebastian is in trouble.”

He sat back and regarded his mate suspiciously. “What are you thinking, baby girl?”

Slowly, she finally broke into a little smile . . . a smile that made him feel even more uneasy than her upset had. Somewhere deep down he knew that he wasn’t going to like whatever suggestion she was going to make. Gin stood up and brushed at her skirt—a gesture that escalated his rising trepidation. She ambled over to the desk, trailing her fingertips over the phone thoughtfully.

“What are you doing?” he demanded quietly.

Gin lifted the receiver but didn’t dial a number. “I’m going to make sure our son comes home.”

And suddenly, the pieces fell into place. Cain leaned forward, pressing down on the switch with his index finger to keep her from placing a call. “Oh, no . . .”

She tilted her head to the side and leveled a no-nonsense look at him. “Oh, yes, Cain Zelig.”

“I don’t think—”

“I don’t care! This isn’t an ordinary hunt; you said so, yourself. I believe in Sebastian as much as you do, but I refuse to take any chances when it comes to his safety!”

She didn’t smile, but her expression seemed quite relieved, and there wasn’t a doubt in his mind that, as much as she might wish it were otherwise, Gin really didn’t believe that everything would be all right in the end. The look in her eyes was the unerring look of a mother who feared for her son, and he could absolutely understand that. Bas was a damn good fighter, but even the best fighter would have trouble if he had to face more than one enemy at a time. Her fear was rational, grounded, and while Cain hated the idea that Bas might find out about the perceived interference and think that Cain doubted his abilities, maybe Gin was right. Maybe the need to make certain his son came home unscathed took precedence over the chance that he would find out and be angry. “He can’t interfere, Gin . . . not unless Bas is in real danger.”

“Okay,” she agreed easily enough.

Cain scowled at her for another long moment before settling back with a longsuffering sigh and giving his permission with a curt nod. As much as he hated the idea of sending anyone in to shadow Bas and Sydnie, he had to allow that the peace of mind that their son would be safe far outweighed the off chance that Bas would find out that he was, in fact, being followed.

She shot him a solemn glance then dialed the phone.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“I like this shirt,” Sydnie commented, idly fingering Bas' soft cotton t-shirt in the dimly lit restaurant where she sat between the cousins. A waiter quietly removed the dinner plates and hurried away as she gazed up at Bas in obvious appreciation.

He snorted. “Pfft! I told you, it's too small.”

She grinned. She'd chosen the shirt. Since she had shredded the only one he had, he'd sent Sydnie into the store to buy one with the explicit instructions that she should get a double-extra-large and tall shirt. She'd gotten the tall part right, but the plain black t-shirt had only been a single-extra-large, and when he'd asked her if they'd been out of the double-extra-larges, she'd just smiled and said that his other shirts had been too big, anyway. This one wasn't small, but it was snug across his shoulders and chest. She couldn't help but appreciate the way it had accentuated his trim waist, his broad shoulders . . . Sure, she knew that Sebastian had a hell of a body. `Might as well show it off, right?' she thought with a smirk. “I don't think it is,” she argued. “I think it's just perfect.”

He snorted again and made a face as embarrassed color washed into his cheeks.

“Don't know about his clothes,” Gunnar remarked as he swigged his beer and made a face. “You look damn good, though, kitten.”

Bas shot Gunnar a pronounced glower but didn't respond in kind.

Sydnie sat up straighter and giggled, glancing down at the pine green suede vest-skirt combo she'd talked Bas into buying for her. The skirt hugged her hips and was as short as her tube micro-mini, and when she'd stepped out of the changing room for his inspection, he'd looked as though he was about to tell her to turn right around and take the ensemble off. In the end, he'd given in when she had casually mentioned that she'd be happy to buy it, herself, with the money his brother had paid for her picture.

“You're such a sweet little puppy,” Sydnie purred, grinning as Gunnar slipped his arm along the back of the booth behind Sydnie's shoulders. Bas uttered a low growl and pulled Sydnie closer to his side.

“Find your own kitty, you little fucker,” Bas grumbled, cheeks pinking though he didn't relinquish his hold on Sydnie, either.

“That's okay, Bas. I'll just take that one.”

“The hell you will,” Bas growled.

Gunnar chuckled and sat back. “But she likes me,” he pointed out.

“She tolerates you, you ass.”

Sydnie glanced from Bas to Gunnar then back again, thoroughly enjoying the needling rapport between the cousins. She hadn't realized just how much the relationship between family members intrigued her. Having grown up without any family to speak of, she couldn't help but feel a certain compulsion to absorb every moment she could, and the feeling that she was somehow included . . . it added a sense of well-being that reassured her more than she wanted to admit.

Gunnar caught her gaze and winked. She giggled.

“When are you leaving, Gunnar?” Bas demanded, tapping his foot on the floor beneath the table as he shot his cousin a somewhat bored glare.

“As soon as you're healed,” he replied. “At least, I was going to. Then again, maybe I should stick around . . .”

“If you do, I swear I'll kill you,” Bas grumbled.

Sydnie leaned against Bas' arm. He glanced down at her and smiled bashfully. “You want more milk, kitty?”

She shook her head. “I don't need it.”

He rolled his eyes and called out to the passing waiter. “Excuse me. Would you bring another glass of milk?”

The waiter nodded and hurried off. Sydnie scooted a little closer to Bas' side.

Gunnar sighed. “I'll probably be leaving at the end of the week,” he remarked with a shake of his head. “Soon enough for you, Sebastian?”

Tomorrow wouldn't be soon enough for me, Mamoruzen,” Bas shot back.

Sydnie blinked. It wasn't the first time she'd heard Bas call Gunnar by that name. “Mamoruzen?” she repeated, mangling the pronunciation but managing it well enough to get her point across.

Gunnar made a face. “Bas is just being an ass . . . oi, that rhymed . . .”

Bas snorted. “That's his real name—and he hates it.”

“You hate it?”

Gunnar shrugged. “Let's stick to `Gunnar', shall we?”

“His father's Japanese,” Bas supplied when Sydnie frowned. “His mom is American.”

“Oh, that's what your accent is,” she concluded. “I wondered.”

“Born and raised . . . though I spent quite a bit of time here in the States for my training.”

“Mamoruzen Gunnar,” she mused. “So what's your last name?”

Gunnar glanced over her head then smiled. “Don't worry about it, Sydnie. It's quite a bit harder to pronounce.”

She rolled her eyes but shrugged. “What's his last name?” she questioned, jerking her head at Bas.

Gunnar's grin widened, amber eyes sparkling mischievously. “Bas'?”

Sydnie shrugged. “Yes.”

“I think you should ask him.”

Bas snorted. Sydnie giggled. “Is it hard to pronounce, too?” she questioned.

“Sure,” Gunnar agreed as he dug into his pocket and pulled out a handful of change. “Here, Sydnie. Why don't you pick some different music? Something that isn't . . . country.”

She scooped the change out of his hand and slipped out of the booth after Gunnar stood up. She blinked in surprise when Bas followed suite, unsure why the sudden show of manners unsettled her. Smiling uncertainly, she smoothed her skirt before sauntering off toward the jukebox standing on the far side of the restaurant near the bar.

“Nice evasion,” Bas remarked as they sat back down, his eyes following Sydnie's retreat.

“Wasn't it?” Gunnar quipped dryly.

Bas sighed. “God, she's going to hate me when I tell her . . .”

“Maybe not.”

Bas snorted. “Pfft. You have no idea just how much she loathes the tai-youkai . . .” He trailed off, eyes shifting to narrow on Gunnar, who was busy watching Sydnie flip through the selections in the gaudily-colored jukebox. “Hmm . . . maybe I should tell her you're in line to be tai-youkai in Japan,” he mused. “Bet she abandons the Gunnar fan club pretty quickly.”

Gunnar chuckled. “Yeah, well, I figured that telling her my last name would do more damage than it was worth.”

Bas nodded. “So you do possess some modicum of logic.”

“Suck it, Bas.”

Bas grinned. “I can't suck something you can't find.”

“Ouch.”

His smile faded, and he sat up straighter as the waiter set a full glass of milk on the table. Leaning to the side, Bas erupted in a growl as he scooted out of the booth and took a step toward Sydnie. Some guy was talking to her, and while she looked vaguely amused, she didn't seem to welcome the attention. She had a polite little smile plastered on her face, and when the man stepped closer, the smile disappeared.

Gunnar grabbed Bas' arm and pulled him back. “Don't make a scene,” he hissed in Bas' ear.

Bas spared him a baleful glower and yanked his arm away but stopped, hands balling into tight fists, teeth gritted together so hard his jaw ticked. “Damn it . . .”

“The last thing you need is to draw attention to yourself, especially when Sydnie is obviously not interested in the guy. Hear me?”

Bas snorted but glanced back at the cat-youkai. The man leaned toward her, murmuring something that Bas couldn't hear. She smiled just a little and put her hand on his arm, bracing herself against him as she said something in reply. The man's face contorted in a pained grimace. Bas' scowl darkened until he saw the reason why. Grinding the heel of her stiletto heel into the man's foot, she was still smiling sweetly, and after sparing another moment to add extra emphasis to whatever statement she'd made, she turned her head and nodded toward Bas, who, for the most part, concentrated on glowering as fiercely as he could at the defeated human.

“Holy dogs, Bas . . . are you trying to scare the shit out of people?” Gunnar complained.

“Whatever works,” he grumbled.

Satisfied that she'd made her point, Sydnie let go of the man's arm and wandered toward Bas, her smile brightening, her eyes softly glowing, and if she noticed anyone else in the restaurant, Bas couldn't tell.

“Changed my mind, kitty,” he remarked as she kissed his cheek and slipped into the booth. “You can keep those shoes, after all.”

She laughed as Bas sat back down, too. Gunnar chuckled and rolled his eyes. “Remind me not to tick you off, Sydnie,” Gunnar said with an exaggerated grimace. “Damned if that didn't look like it hurt a hell of a lot.”

“It does,” Bas grumbled despite the hint of amusement lighting his gaze as he watched Sydnie down the glass of milk.

“That's right . . . you have had personal experience with her shoes, haven't you?” Gunnar added.

Bas grunted in reply.

Sydnie set the empty glass aside and shot him a catty sort of smile. “Don't worry, Sebastian . . . I have no intention of using my shoes against you ever again.”

He grunted again and finally looked away. “Good.”

“Which doesn't mean I won't.”

“I didn't figure it did,” he said with an exaggerated grimace.

She giggled.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“I swear there's something wrong with you,” Bas pointed out as he pulled the SUV out of the parking lot onto the street.

“There's nothing wrong with me,” Gunnar argued as he crumpled up a wrinkled napkin with a phone number scrawled on it and dropped it on the floor.

“Is, too.”

“Is not.”

“Telling me not to draw attention to myself and then going out and getting all . . . jiggy with the women.”

Gunnar laughed. “Wait . . . did you just say . . . `jiggy'?”

Bas snorted. “Shut it, dog.”

“Woof!”

Sydnie turned around with a slight frown as she tried to brush aside the odd feeling that wouldn't quite leave her alone. She'd been watching the car that had been following them since they'd pulled out of the restaurant parking lot. Sure, it was possible that the people had gone there to eat and that they were heading home or something. Still it struck her as strange, and she just didn't know why. Instinct, maybe, she figured, and she had been a bit edgy all day. Unable to shake the strange feeling that something bad was coming, she sighed inwardly and forced a smile when Bas peeked into the rearview mirror to look at her.

“Can I help it that women think I'm irresistible?” Gunnar lamented.

“Go to hell, Gunsie,” Bas shot back. “You're such an idiot.”

Sydnie giggled despite her foreboding thoughts. It had perplexed her, really. She'd danced with Gunnar—Bas claimed he didn't know how—while Bas sat in the booth, watching them. He'd smiled at her a few times, and it had been his idea that she dance with Gunnar, but when a slow song started, it hadn't taken more than a few seconds before she'd sensed Bas' approach and was pleasantly surprised to be pulled away from Gunnar and into Bas' arms. She'd reminded him that he said that he didn't know how to dance. He'd blushed, telling her that slow dancing wasn't much more than swaying, really, and that any fool could do that.

When the song was over, Bas suggested that they get back to the hotel since Gunnar wanted to get moving again in the morning. Sydnie hadn't argued but she had sighed, and when she turned around to return to the booth, she'd stopped short at the sight of Gunnar, surrounded by four young women who were all too busy fawning over Gunnar to notice Sydnie and Bas' approach.

Why are they doing that?” she demanded, leaning closer to whisper her question.

Bas shrugged. “What? That?” he asked, waving a hand at Gunnar and the women.

Sydnie nodded.

It's always like that everywhere we go,” he grumbled. “I guess they think he's cute or something.”

Sydnie blinked. Something in Bas' tone gave her pause. He didn't sound jealous, exactly . . . more like resigned to it, she supposed. “Well, he's cute, sure,” she agreed slowly, her frown deepening as she shook her head. “But he's certainly not you.”

Bas stopped abruptly and stared at Sydnie. “Oh?

Of course not! Cute versus sexy as hell? I think I'll take sexy as hell, thanks.”

She wasn't surprised to see the vivid blush that stained his cheeks almost instantly. “You . . . y-you think I-I-I'm . . .?

She smiled and pushed herself onto her tiptoes to kiss his cheek. “What do you think, puppy?” she murmured in his ear.

Bas could only smile bashfully, taking Sydnie's hand and pulling her back toward the booth once more.

“Like I asked for the attention,” Gunnar remarked with a snort.

“Like you didn't,” Bas shot back.

“I didn't,” he argued. “What can I say? I just have loads of animal magnetism.”

“You've got loads of something,” Bas grumbled, turning the corner on the street that led to the hotel.

Sydnie glanced over her shoulder in time to see the car that was still following them. Gunning the engine, the driver sped through the yellow light at the intersection, and she frowned. If she weren't sure before, she was now. They were definitely being followed . . .

“Yeah, yeah, you're just jealous, Bas . . . It's just a matter of time before I steal Sydnie right from under your nose.”

Sydnie rolled her eyes. “Bas?”

He didn't seem to have heard her. “You're asking for a pounding,” Bas remarked dryly.

“Gunnar?” she said a little louder.

“Bring it, bastard . . . I'd love to see you try.”

She leaned forward and cleared her throat to garner their attention. “Sorry to interrupt, puppies . . . but I think we're being followed.”

“What?” Bas demanded, glancing into the side mirror. He scowled at the car but shook his head. “You sure, kitty?”

Gunnar turned around, peering over the back of his seat and out the rear window. “How long?”

Satisfied that they were finally listening, she perched on the edge of the seat and shrugged. “Since we left the restaurant. They were already in their car, and they pulled out right after we did. They just blew that caution light back there, too.”

Bas nodded. “Hold on, Sydnie.”

She reached out in time to steady herself on the armrest as Bas abruptly cut around the corner. The car followed suite, and he sighed. “Damn it.”

He deliberately meandered through the city streets for twenty minutes to no avail. “Hand me Triumvirate, Sydnie,” Bas commanded, his eyes shifting from the street ahead of them to the rearview mirror and back again. Sydnie did as she was told, reaching under the bench seat to retrieve both his sword as well as Gunnar's. She handed Bas' over first.

Gunnar grabbed it and sighed before taking his sword from her, too.

Bas leaned forward while Gunnar reached around him to strap the sword on his hip, carefully weaving along the city streets. “Watch where you're grabbing,” he growled. Sydnie shook her head as Gunnar rolled his eyes.

“Like I'd be trying to grab anything on you, you ass,” Gunnar shot back, fastening the strap and maneuvering in his seat to strap on his sword, too.

“Well, you tell me you want me to suck it often enough,” Bas grumbled.

Sydnie rolled her eyes. “Focus, please! There are bounty hunters following us!”

“Maybe not bounty hunters,” Gunnar remarked quietly.

“True enough . . . maybe it's the Gunnar fan club,” Bas snorted sarcastically.

“Hmm, I think you're being a tad facetious this evening,” Gunnar shot back.

Bas grunted as he turned again only to be followed in short order. He shot Gunnar a meaningful glance that wasn't lost on Sydnie. “Damn it.”

“What are the odds they aren't the Bas fan club?” Gunnar muttered darkly.

“What do you think we should do about this?”

Gunnar narrowed his gaze on his cousin and slowly shook his head. “What do you mean, what should we do? Move it, damn it!”

“Move it? Move it, where?”

“Where do you think? Out of the city! I'd rather not get into this in the middle of a bunch of humans, and I'm pretty sure that your father wouldn't like it, either.”

“Maybe not,” Bas agreed, “but running isn't a great idea, either.”

“Open to suggestions.”

Bas shook his head. “Your logic is completely fucked up, by the way.”

“Oh?”

“Uh-huh . . . even if we get them out of the city, we still won't have any sort of real advantage.”

Sydnie frowned. True enough, she figured. Their followers were much too close for them to be able to stop the car and formulate any sort of real offense before the hunters caught up with them. Still there had to be something they could do . . .

“Look . . . maybe they don't realize we know they're following us,” Gunnar reasoned.

Bas glowered at him. “Have one too many beers, Gun? They've been following us for the last twenty minutes . . . If they don't realize we know they're back there, then they're fiercely stupid . . .”

“Stop at that gas station,” Sydnie interrupted before Gunnar could retort.

“Gas station?” Bas echoed incredulously, scowl darkening as he glanced in the rearview mirror to gape at her. “Listen, cat—”

“I need a pack of cigarettes,” she maintained stubbornly.

“A . . . pack . . . of . . . what?” he growled.

Gunnar's eyes flared wide, and he nodded quickly. “Absolutely,” he agreed. “And we can gas up the SUV.”

Bas shook his head slowly. “Have you two lost your fucking minds? If those are the bounty hunters following us, do you really think that they'll just sit around and wait till you're done running your errands before they attack?” he snarled.

“No, she's right,” Gunnar cut in patiently as he unfastened his sword. “They won't attack in plain view if they can help it . . . If they were going to, they'd have done it after we left the restaurant. If you want them to think we don't know they're there, then we need to act like we don't. In any case, we need to fill up the SUV so we can get the hell out of here when it's all said and done.”

Bas scowled as he pondered Gunnar's words and heaved a frustrated sigh but did pull into the gas station, stopping in front of the pump closest to the building. The girl working behind the counter glanced outside at them. Bas turned to eye Sydnie. “You stay down and out of sight,” he demanded with a pointed lifting of his eyebrow.

“Well, I really do need cigarettes,” she told him.

He snorted, opening his mouth to tell her that she really didn't need any such thing. Gunnar shook his head and opened the door. “Forget it. I'll take care of it.”

Letting his head fall back against the headrest, he closed his eyes for a moment until Gunnar tapped on the window and pointed at the back of the vehicle. Bas released the door covering the gas tank and pushed himself up straighter, idly drumming his index fingers against the steering wheel.

Sydnie slid off the seat and knelt on the floor, leaning on the center console between the seats to peer up into Bas' face. Half hidden in shadows, he stared out the window, his gaze lit by a strange sense of determination.

“Where are we going, then?” she forced herself to ask.

Bas' eyes narrowed. “Back to the hotel. We'll check out and get everything around . . . might as well be ready to run.”

“They won't attack us around humans?”

Bas shook his head. “I doubt it. Bounty hunters might not be honorable, but they aren't stupid, either. They won't attack where they'd draw attention to themselves. It's bad for business.”

She grimaced at his choice of wording and slumped against the seat. Bas reached back and held out his palm. She stared at it for a moment before slipping her hand into his. She could feel the steady strength in his grip, found his calm entirely comforting. He continued to stare out the window as he rubbed his thumb over her knuckles. A cold rain splattered the windshield, and the pinging droplets beat down on the vehicle in an ever-increasing tempo as the winds escalated.

“Don't be scared, Sydnie,” he told her at last, breaking the stilted silence.

“I'm not,” she replied.

He nodded. “Good.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“I don’t think this is going to work.”

Gunnar shot Bas a perturbed glance and slowly shook his head. “It’ll work,” he argued. “I think it’s a damn good plan.”

Striding the length of the hotel room, Bas raked his hands through his hair and sighed. “No,” he growled.

“It’s only for a little while, Bas. We’ll double back, but it’ll give you time to see if you can’t figure out how many we’re up against.”

“Think of something else, Gunnar. This one isn’t happening.”

“It’ll be all right, Sebastian,” Sydnie said quietly, staring at the little silver locket in her hands and refusing to meet his gaze.

Bas snorted. “I said no, Sydnie.”

“Contrary to popular belief I’m not so inept that I would let something happen to her,” Gunnar pointed out.

“It’s not about what you may or may not be capable of,” Bas grouched. “She’s my responsibility, damn it, and I won’t sit back and let you take her anywhere.”

Sydnie shrugged and let her shoulders slump. “Gunnar’s right,” she added. “It’s a good plan.”

Bas draped his hands on his hips as he whipped around to glare at the cat-youkai. “The hell it is! You’re the one they’re after, and—”

“And you changed that when you killed the first bounty hunter,” Gunnar cut in. “Face it, baka: they want you as badly as they want her.”

Bas glowered at his cousin out of the corner or his eye but didn’t turn to face him. The spike in Sydnie’s youki bespoke her anxiety over the idea that he was in danger more than mere words could have conveyed, and Bas had to squelch the urge to knock Gunnar upside the head for stating things so bluntly. “Shut up, Gunnar.”

Gunnar slowly rose to his feet as he glared at Bas, all trace of his more playful nature gone. “I won’t, damn it! Need I remind you that you have other responsibilities: ones that require that you live in order to fulfill them?”

“If you think I’m stupid enough to forget—”

“You want to protect her? Then this is the best chance we’ve got! You have no idea how many hunters were sent out this time, and neither do I! Stop trying to be the hero and think about what you’re doing!”

Bas heaved a sigh and stifled a growl. He really wished that he could think of another plan; something that wouldn’t involve letting Sydnie out of his sight, even for a moment. Unfortunately, Sydnie and Gunnar were right: this was the best plan. Of course, it didn’t mean he had to like it, and the stubborn set of his features said that quite clearly as he glowered at his cousin . . . “If anything happens to her . . .”

Gunnar relaxed slightly, sensing that Bas was finally ready to admit defeat. “Yeah, yeah . . . If anything happens to her, you’ll kill me. I got that.”

He leveled a no-nonsense look at Gunnar but nodded before shifting his gaze to Sydnie. “You’re sure about this?”

Slowly lifting her chin, she met Bas’ concerned scowl and tried to smile. “It’s a good plan.”

He snorted.

Gunnar grabbed his sword and strapped it around his hips before reaching for the knee-length gray wool trench coat he wore to conceal the weapon. Sydnie closed her hand around the little silver locket she’d dug out of her purse just before Bas had taken it out to the waiting SUV. She squared her shoulders and shot Bas an almost nervous glance. He tried to smile, wanted to reassure her. She winced at the expression, and he heaved a sigh.

He caught her wrist as she followed after Gunnar. “You’ll be fine, Sydnie.”

“I know,” she replied.

“Be careful.”

She nodded. “You, too, puppy.”

He could feel the erratic flutter of her pulse under his fingertips, could sense the anxiety that she tried to hide from him. With a wince, he pulled her close, wrapped his arms around her as he buried his nose in her hair. “Okay, kitty . . . It’ll be okay, I . . . I promise.”

She accepted the gesture, slipping her arms around him, her body relaxing against him, and she nodded.

Gunnar cleared his throat and sighed. “Come on. Might as well get moving, don’t you think?”

Sydnie swallowed hard as she forced herself to step away from Bas, and with one last, lingering stare, she slowly backed away from him to follow Gunnar out the door.

Bas waited until they were gone before grabbing the black leather duster and striding after them. He heard the soft hiss of the elevator doors closing behind Sydnie and Gunnar as he strode toward the door that led to the stairwell and ran up the steps, taking them two at a time.

Relax, Bas. Gunnar can handle things on their end.’

Scowling at the overly-reasonable tone of his youkai, Bas snorted. ‘Sure, he can.’

He was trained, just like you . . . and you know the plan is sound enough.’

Right.’

He sighed, smacking open the door and quickly casting his gaze around the dimly lit corridor. It looked like the floor below, but this one had another doorway at the end with a sign glowing above it: ‘exit’.

Simple reasoning, he supposed. Gunnar had surmised that the best idea would be to separate the two targets: Bas and Sydnie, forcing the bounty hunters to make a choice as to who they would follow. Thing was, Bas wasn’t so sure that it was that great of an idea. Sydnie was the ultimate target. She was the one they were hired to dispose of. Bas was secondary. Whether he’d managed to piss someone off or not, the fact of the matter was that the danger to Sydnie was more important than the inconvenience of the bounty hunters to him.

She has to be safe,’ he told himself as he pushed the metal bar on the fire escape door. It opened with a whisper, and he strode through it, running up the metal stairs and slipping out the door on the roof.

From his vantage point, he could see all the area surrounding the hotel. Four stories off the ground, he crouched and scooted toward the low stone lip that ran around the perimeter of the roof just in time to see Gunnar close the passenger side door on the SUV before striding around the vehicle to get into the driver’s side. The car was still parked in the row behind the rental, and when Gunnar started the engine, Bas wasn’t surprised to see the car’s headlights flicker to life.

Damn, I knew it,’ Bas thought with a grimace. Contrary to what they’d thought, Bas had believed that the bounty hunters wouldn’t waste their time coming after him. If Sydnie left with Gunnar, they’d follow them. Gunnar had been sure that they’d split up with some coming after Bas while the rest of them—however many there were—followed Gunnar and Sydnie.

Bas started to stand up, ready to vault the side of the roof, but stopped. Two shadowy figures in the parking lot caught his attention. He could sense their youki, and he frowned. Malignant, dark, almost stagnant, it wrapped around Bas with an unwelcome grip. Dangerous, certainly, and older than the last two bounty hunters he’d faced, the pair skirted around the parked cars, blending into the shadows as they made their way toward the hotel, Bas grimaced and shook his head. He’d been certain that the hunters wouldn’t dare try to stir up trouble where there were bound to be witnesses.

Unless they’re desperate.’

Desperate . . .’

Face it, Bas. You’ve already made a fool out of their organization. If you think that they’re just playing around, you’re a fool . . .’

A fool, huh?’ Bas’ scowl darkened as he backed away from the edge of the roof and ran to the far end of the building. Dropping over the edge onto the ground and hidden in the shadows, Bas clenched his hands in tight fists as he sprinted toward the trees on the outskirts of Natchez, thankful that they’d chosen a hotel that wasn’t in the center of town. Brushing aside the nagging feeling that he was running from the conflict, he concentrated instead on the plan . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Gunnar glanced in the rearview mirror and sighed. “Let’s hope this works,” he muttered, more to himself than to Sydnie.

She nodded—more of an afterthought than a show of agreement—and fingered the locket in her hand.

It . . . it has to work,’ she told herself, squeezing the trinket as the solid metal bit into her palm. ‘If Bas can just get away . . .’

If he could get away from the hotel . . .

Sydnie had nearly screamed when she’d seen the two skulking figures in the darkness of the parking lot as they’d pulled out into the winding driveway heading toward the main road. She’d hoped that the hunters would just follow her. She was the one they wanted, wasn’t she?

It had seemed simple enough: drive back to the hotel, gather their things, pack up the SUV, and check out . . . From there, Sydnie and Gunnar would leave in the vehicle, as though she were being removed from Bas’ custody. Gunnar had thought that the bounty hunters would split up so that they could follow Bas and Sydnie, both. She’d hoped he was wrong. She’d hoped that they’d all follow her.

Bas would exit the hotel via the roof, cutting through the woods behind the hotel where he’d wait for them, giving them the advantage when Gunnar stopped the car—unless Bas ended up having to fight the lingering bounty hunters, that was . . .

Closing her eyes, Sydnie pressed the locket against her heart and swallowed hard. ‘Be safe, Sebastian . . . you promised you’d be all right . . .’

Gunnar pulled onto the street, checking the LCD monitor from time to time to make sure that they were on the right path. The access road where they’d meet up with Bas only had one entrance nearby, and for reasons that eluded Sydnie, that one was nearly five miles away.

She glanced in the passenger side mirror and bit her lip. The car was still following them.

Gunnar sighed softly, understanding her unvoiced upset. He managed a weak smile and squeezed her icy hand. “He’ll be fine, you know. Don’t worry about Bas . . . he’s trained with the best, or so I’ve been assured.”

“And who would that be?” she demanded, unable to keep the sharp edge out of her voice. ‘Whoever thought of the phrase, ‘Out of sight, out of mind’,’ she mused with a grimace, ‘ought to be strung up and left for the vultures . . .’

“His grandfather,” Gunnar went on, oblivious to the mutinous train of her thoughts. “One of the best, if not the absolute master . . . Bas will be just fine; you’ll see . . .”

Sydnie nodded, unsure why she felt like he was trying to convince himself of the same thing, too. She stole a glance at him. Eyes narrowed on the road ahead, his jaw ticked menacingly, knuckles white with the force behind his grip on the steering wheel, Gunnar’s ears twitched, turning almost backward as he pushed the button to crack the window and drew a deep breath.

Gunnar chuckled softly when their pursuers were unceremoniously cut off by a truck that pulled off a side road. Taking the opportunity to buy them a little more time, he sped up, mumbling under his breath about being thankful for the oncoming traffic that would keep the hunters at bay and just might buy them a little time that they desperately needed.

Gunnar turned off onto the access road as Sydnie slipped the locket back into her purse. Scanning the forest that lined the path, she knew that looking for Bas wouldn’t do any good, and yet she couldn’t help herself, either.

“You sure you want a mutt like Bas?” Gunnar asked, his teasing tone oddly strained.

Sydnie couldn’t muster the bravado to rise to the bait. “Even good fighters can be outnumbered,” she whispered. “What if there were more than two left behind?”

Gunnar winced and sighed. “Then Bas can deal with that, too.”

She didn’t reply to that.

“You ready to run, Sydnie?”

She swallowed hard and nodded. “I’m ready.”

“All right,” Gunnar agreed. “This looks like as good a spot as any. Remember: no matter what, you cannot let them touch you.”

“I won’t.”

“Good, because Bas will kill me if anything happens to you.”

“You’re scared of him?” she couldn’t help but ask.

“When it comes to you? Hell, yes,” he quipped. The smile he shot her was a little closer to what a smile ought to be. It faded quickly, though, and he sighed as he pulled off the road in a small shoulder area that was partially obscured by trees that lined the road and stopped the vehicle. “You know what to do.”

Sydnie nodded absently, scanning the trees for any sign of Bas. Gunnar got out and loped around the SUV. The wind had picked up, and with a deep breath, she threw her door open. Gunnar grabbed her hand and sprinted into the forest.

Where is he?

Unable to catch his scent in the escalating gale, Sydnie had to narrow her eyes to keep flying debris from blinding her. Gunnar growled low in his throat and stopped for a moment, dropping to his knees as he tried to catch Bas’ scent. Sydnie choked back the anxiety that rose inside her as she scanned the trees. “He has to—”

“He’s close,” Gunnar said as he got to his feet. “Come on.”

Sydnie followed Gunnar further into the forest, shielding her face with her hands. The wind had a bitter bite that whipped through her with a vicious abandon, and she had to turn her head to the side a few times so that she could breathe.

Glancing over her shoulder, she scanned the area for any sign of Bas or the bounty hunters she knew weren’t far behind. ‘He has to be close,’ she told herself stubbornly. ‘Bas . . . where are you?

Gunnar grasped her hand and tugged her forward. Sydnie followed, eyes trained on the darkness: the shadows that thwarted her. A sudden thump, a quiet growl, and suddenly Sydnie felt herself jerked away from Gunnar’s grip and pulled back against a very solid, very welcome body. “Bas!”

“Keep your damn hands off her,” he growled, glaring over her head at his cousin.

Gunnar shrugged, but his grin was obviously relieved. “About time you joined us,” he drawled.

Sydnie shook her head. “Where . . . where were you?”

Bas jerked his head heavenward. “The trees.”

“I saw two of them in the parking lot,” Gunnar interrupted. “Where are they?”

Bas grunted. “They were going into the hotel when I took off. They can’t be too far behind.” Bending down long enough to scoop Sydnie up, he vaulted back into the trees as Gunnar followed suite. “You stay up here,” he told her.

Sydnie made a face. “Are you nuts?

“I mean it, cat. I can’t concentrate on what I’m supposed to be doing if I’m all preoccupied, worrying about you!”

She opened her mouth to retort then snapped it closed again, whipping her face to the side as she scanned the forest below. “They’re here,” she whispered.

Bas uttered a low growl and let Sydnie’s feet drop to the solid branch. “Stay here, Sydnie,” he told her again. “I mean it.”

She scowled at the stubborn dog but nodded. “Okay,” she agreed. As much as she wished it were otherwise, she knew that he was right. If he ended up injured like he had been the last time because of her . . . Sydnie swallowed hard and hunkered down on the branch beside Bas as two bounty hunters—a wolf- and a jaguar-youkai—stepped out of the trees into the range of Sydnie’s sight below. They were the ones she’d seen in the parking lot—the ones who had been following Bas. She dug her claws into the branch as two more youkai slipped into the area . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Four bounty hunters?’ Bas thought, cutting off another growl before he gave away their position.

The hunters were still looking around below, and not for the first time, Bas was thankful for the wind that was effectively carrying their scents away before they could be discerned. The four exchanged looks before continuing to comb the area. Bas glanced over at Gunnar, catching his cousin’s eye. Gunnar pointed down then pointed behind him. Bas nodded, sparing a moment to place his hand over Sydnie’s before silently maneuvering through the tree branches, circling around the bounty hunters while Gunnar did the same on the other side.

Crouching low, he dropped from the tree onto the soggy forest floor, the sounds of his movements lost in the rising winds of the storm. The two hunters didn’t seem to realize that he was almost directly behind them, and, gritting his teeth hard, he drew his sword and held it at ready. “Looking for someone?” he growled, his voice a low rumble underlying the distant thunder reverberating through the air.

The two swung around to face him, masking their surprise quickly but not quickly enough for Bas to miss the expressions. Before he let them gain any sort of advantage, he whipped around, hefting Triumvirate over his shoulder and bringing it down across the wolf-youkai’s chest. He howled in pain, the hot spray of his blood hitting Bas in the face. His body exploded in a wave of dust and light and wind before he hit the ground as Bas turned in time to smash an elbow into the jaguar-youkai’s stomach.

“You’re the one I sensed the last time,” Bas snarled, narrowing his eyes on the jaguar-youkai as he tightened his grip on Triumvirate. “Too afraid to come out of hiding, were you?”

“I had my reasons, son of the Great Dog,” the jaguar hissed, cracking his knuckles as he straightened up.

“Reasons . . . right . . .”

He lunged at Bas, claws flashing with an unearthly blue hue as they sliced through the air. Bas blocked him with Triumvirate’s blade and heaved the jaguar-youkai away. He slid across the forest floor, the stagnant scent of decaying leaves and molding wood rising from the earth.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Gunnar whip around, the blade of his sword whistling, catching the arm of one of the youkai as a fine sheen of blood arced through the air. The earth-based-youkai bellowed and stumbled back as the second one—a thunder-youkai—slammed his meaty fists into the ground. Gunnar sprang out of the way as a blast of thunder struck where he had been standing.

“You’d be better off to pay attention to me!” the jaguar growled, sprinting toward Bas. Bas leaned away in time to avoid the brunt of the attack, head snapping to the side when the jaguar’s razor-sharp claws grazed his cheek.

“Sebastian! Look out!” Sydnie shrieked. Bas growled, glancing over his shoulder in time to see the furrow of earth rippling toward him. Trees groaned and shook; dirt flew through the air. The earth-youkai stood gripping his arm while Gunnar crossed swords with the thunder-youkai. The torrential rain picked up, splitting the treetops and drenching the forest as the wind drove in more rain from the east.

Bas dove to the side moments before the ground shifted under his feet. The jaguar-youkai leapt at him, and he reacted on instinct, bringing his feet up, catching the miscreant in the gut, and shoved him away. Rolling to his feet as the jaguar smacked into a gnarled tree trunk, Bas wiped the rain off his face and tightened his grip on Triumvirate.

“Don’t . . . kill . . . them . . . all,” Gunnar grunted. Standing his ground with swords crossed, he and the thunder-youkai seemed to be engaged in a battle of brute strength.

“Kill us all?” the thunder-youkai scoffed. “I’d like to see you try, puppy!”

Gunnar grunted again, regaining his footing on the slippery earth. “Bring it, old man.”

“Why don’t you give up? Tuck your tail between your legs, and I might let you run away.”

“This Mamoruzen will not run,” he growled.

Bas hefted his sword over his head and slammed it down on the ground. The shockwave shot out of the blade in waves, intercepting the earth-youkai’s attack in a violent collision of Bas’ yellow-white flames and the earth-youkai’s reddish hue. “Sure thing, Mamoruzen . . . I’ll have Mother invite them over for fucking tea,” he snarled back.

“Strong for a young’un,” the thunder-youkai mused with a grim smile, “but not strong enough.” With a growl, he shoved Gunnar hard. Gunnar stumbled back a couple steps before hurling himself toward the thunder-youkai again. The swords crashed as the two faced off, sparks flying as the scrape of the blades ignited in an eerie purple glow.

The jaguar-youkai sprang at Bas once more. Bas spun away to avoid the attack a moment too late. The youkai caught his right wrist, claws scraping against bone as he grunted in pain. The hit sent Triumvirate flying end over end, and it embedded itself in the earth fifty feet away, the blade resonating with the force of impact.

“Only as good as your sword, aren’t you?” the jaguar gloated. “Let’s see what you can do without it—if you can do anything at all.”

Bas clutched his bleeding wrist for a moment but let go, shaking the appendage and gritting his teeth against the searing pain. Cracking his knuckles, he blanked his features and narrowed his gaze on the youkai. “If you believe that,” he began, “then you’re stupider than I thought you were.”

“Don’t make the mistake of underestimating him, Glave,” the earth-youkai grumbled.

“I’ve seen him fight,” Glave scoffed. “He used the cat as a decoy, all because he lost possession of his precious sword. That’s what I saw.”

Bas didn’t bother replying to the obvious taunt. The reason he’d relied so heavily on his sword in the last fight wasn’t because he was weak. He’d been more dependent on it because he’d allowed himself to be caught off-guard, and with the injuries he’d sustained to his ribs, he couldn’t fight without Triumvirate as well . . . Not that the bounty hunters needed to know that. On the contrary, he’d be the last one to tell any of them that crucial bit of information . . .

Glave leapt at Bas again, his claws whistling through the air as he recklessly swung his arm. Bas stepped to the side to avoid the brunt of the attack, left hand flashing out in a blur of motion. Catching the jaguar-youkai by the throat, he dug his claws into the vulnerable flesh. Blood dripped down his arm, spiraling in a hot wash of fluid. The jaguar’s eyes flashed and flared, and he gasped as he clawed at Bas’ hand. Tightening his grip, Bas gritted his teeth, and snapped his head to the side just in time to avoid the blast of wind and dust as the jaguar-youkai’s body disintegrated.

The earth-youkai sent another furrow of earth after him. Bas pushed off the ground, evading the attack easily enough. Landing in a crouch, he spun around in a broad sweep of his leg, intent on knocking the earth-youkai off his feet. The youkai sprang back, taking a moment to gather his bearings before lunging at Bas. Bas hurled himself at the bounty hunter, arm stretched out behind him. The manic light in the youkai’s eyes flashed in the illumination of lightning that split the night. The macabre light siphoning through the treetops . . . the hiss of the leaves in the bitter wind . . . the strange, almost dream-like quality that delineated his movements . . . It all combined in Bas’ mind to create an unnatural sort of urgency.

Bringing his arm around in a semi-circle, he slashed through the youkai’s thick leather jacket. The earth-youkai tried to spin away from Bas’ claws. The pungent scent of his blood mingled with the blood already saturating Bas’ hands, and with a grunt, Bas landed, flicking his hand to shake off some of the dripping fluid.

The earth-youkai stumbled, clutching his twice-injured arm. Bas strode forward, more than ready to end the fight. The youkai barreled into him, using his shoulder as a battering ram and sending Bas sliding back a few feet. He caught his footing, boots squelching in the thick mire of mud. The earth-youkai slammed his fist into the ground, sending a wall of mud straight up around Bas only to spill over him in a torrent.

“Don’t kill him, Shakes,” the thunder-youkai—still engaged in a pushing match with Gunnar—remarked as Bas wiped the mud off his face. “The boss wants him alive.”

“Who is your boss?” Gunnar demanded.

“Doesn’t matter to you, pup,” the thunder-youkai scoffed. “You’ll be dead before this battle’s over . . .”

“That’s what you think,” Gunnar shot back. Jerking his sword back and whipping around in a circle, he brought the weapon down, aiming for the thunder-youkai’s legs. The youkai hopped backward but not fast enough to avoid the blade. It grazed his left hip, leaving a gash in the youkai’s jeans as a ribbon of blood welled from the wound, staining the dark fabric with an even darker shadow.

“First time you’ve taken a hit in how long, Jack?” Shakes asked with an incredulous expression on his face.

“Barely a scratch,” Jack growled. Gunnar snorted and slammed his sword into the ground, unleashing a wall of flames that surged over the sodden forest floor. Jack jumped out of the way, landing just below the tree where Sydnie was perched.

Bas opened his mouth to tell Gunnar to watch out as the earth-youkai shot forward, slamming Bas to the ground. Catching Shakes’ descending claws by the wrist, Bas grunted as he twisted the appendage with a sharp jerk. The sound of splintering bone collided with the earth-youkai’s screech of pain. Bas shoved him aside and rolled to his feet, catching Triumvirate’s hilt as he whipped around. The blade flashed in a blur of motion as Shakes lunged for Bas once more. Grimacing as the sickening scrape of the youkai blade against bone groaned loud in the night, Bas wrenched the sword, severing Shakes’ head with a single blow.

Breathing hard, he wiped his face with the filthy sleeve of his leather duster. Bas turned around, Triumvirate clenched tight in his fist as the fissure of light illuminated the forest. The fabricated wind died away, and Bas stopped short. Gunnar heaved Jack away, sending the huge youkai careening back against the tree trunk.

Sydnie shrieked as she toppled from the branches. He sprinted forward as Sydnie fell. Jack shook his head and glanced up, catching the cat as though she were little more than a feather on the breeze. “Sydnie!” Bas bellowed, skidding to a halt as Jack’s grin widened. With a stifled growl, Gunnar slammed his sword into the scabbard and crossed his arms over his chest.

“It’s raining cats and dogs tonight,” Jack mused, sensing that he had suddenly gained the upper hand.

“Let her go, damn you,” Bas snarled.

“Well, that would be stupid, wouldn’t it?” Jack pointed out.

Sydnie uttered a sing-song wail; a vicious growl. Jack tightened his arms, and she winced.

Bas started toward the two. Jack lifted a hand to her throat, his claws grazing over the soft flesh in a warning. “Do you really want her dead that badly? Drop the sword, pup, or the cat dies now.”

Sydnie’s hand shot out, slamming against the side of the thunder-youkai’s head. With a predatory howl, she pushed against him with all her strength as her claws raked over his ear, shredding the skin as he bellowed in pain. He dropped Sydnie, who sat still for a moment, blinking almost incredulously. Gunnar grabbed her arm and pulled her back as Bas leapt over her, driving the blade of his sword straight into Jack’s chest—straight into his heart. The forward motion of Bas’ body drove the two back against the tree. Triumvirate trembled in his hands as the blade embedded itself in the wood.

Jack’s murky eyes glistened in the semi-dark. He wheezed out an incredulous chuckle that shifted into a groan of pain as Bas jerked his sword free then twisted the blade. The thunder youkai’s eyes dulled slowly as the rain beat down around them. The last blast of dirt and wind and light flashed through the trees as Bas turned around with a weary sigh just in time to see the blur that was Sydnie.

She’d pulled away from Gunnar’s grip and threw herself against Bas’ chest, body quaking, breathing harsh, and even in the onslaught of the pouring rain, he could smell the salt of her tears. “It’s okay, baby,” he told her quietly, slamming Triumvirate, point down, into the earth so that he could wrap his arms around her. “It . . . it’s okay . . .”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“I could have sworn I told you not to kill them all,” Gunnar grouched as the trio trudged through the forest toward the waiting SUV.

Bas rolled his eyes as he shrugged off his jacket and grimaced at the mess his clothes had become. “Yeah, well, I’d have been happy to oblige, but I’d rather have kept Sydnie around a little bit longer.”

“Baka,” Gunnar mumbled, glancing back at his cousin.

Bas sighed. “Baka this, you dick-weed,” he growled, grabbing his crotch and giving it a little shake.

“You know, there’s a good chance the rental company is going to charge more for the interior cleaning they’ll have to do,” Gunnar remarked, ignoring Bas’ show of vulgarity.

“So bill the tai-youkai for it.”

Gunnar chuckled. “I think I will.”

Sydnie slipped her hand into Bas’ and peered up at him. The last thing he felt like doing was smiling, but the stricken, scared expression on her face was enough to draw a wan little grin as he squeezed her icy fingers and let go to slip an arm around her.

Unlocking the side door of the SUV, Gunnar turned around and made a face at Bas’ filthy clothing. “Let me get you something clean,” he grumbled, striding around the vehicle and opening the trunk.

Sydnie frowned as she stopped, head cocked to the side. “Are you hurt?” she asked, gingerly reaching out to touch Bas’ filthy shirt.

“I’m fine,” he told her, his tone gentle despite the underlying gruffness. “Why don’t you get in the truck? You’re cold.”

She shook her head stubbornly and scowled at his chest. “Let me see, puppy.”

“Sydnie—”

“Let me see,” she repeated again, brushing his hands aside when he tried to stop her. Moments later, she rent his shirt with her sharp claws and pushed the ruined fabric aside impatiently.

“Syd-nie!” he complained, but didn’t make a move to push her away.

She inspected his chest thoroughly before grabbing his arm and turning him around. She slipped the shirt off and dropped it onto the ground, repeating the examination process once more. “Good,” she finally decided. “You look fine.”

“That’s what I told you,” he grumbled, cheeks pinking. The only saving grace was that, standing as he was with his back to her, she couldn’t see his ruddy complexion.

Gunnar cleared his throat to gain Bas’ attention. “Here,” he said, whipping a clean shirt at his cousin before slamming the hatch closed and heading around the vehicle for the driver’s side door. Bas caught it and dropped it on the seat while Sydnie retrieved the stained remnants of his other shirt. He watched with a grimace as she dipped the still-clean portion that had covered his back in a shallow puddle of rainwater. She squeezed out the excess liquid and shook the shirt out as she hurried over to him once more, using the clean portion to wipe the mud and streaks of blood off him.

Bas heaved a sigh but waited patiently as Sydnie cleaned him up. Nothing could be done about the mud that was caked in his hair, and he shook his head, knowing that it was going to be a hellacious mess when it dried. Worst case, he’d end up having to cut off all his hair—a thought that didn’t really amuse him since he’d never, ever cut his hair before. At least it would grow back quickly enough—one plus about being youkai, he supposed.

Grimacing as Sydnie carefully wiped the blood off his wrist and hand, Bas caught her troubled expression and reached out with his free hand, crooking his index finger and lifting her chin to make her look at him. “I’m okay, Sydnie,” he told her gently. “Really.”

Her nod was jerky, stilted. She licked her lips, eyes dark in the flash of the streaking lightning so high overhead. “You’re filthy,” she murmured.

Bas broke into a wan smile. “I know.”

“Come on,” Gunnar called, turning the key in the ignition as the SUV rumbled to life. “Let’s get out of here.”

Sydnie dropped the ruined shirt into a plastic grocery store bag and tied it closed. Casting Bas another quick glance, she climbed into the vehicle and perched on the edge of the bench seat as Bas got in behind her and closed the door. She shivered in silence, curling her legs under her as she stared out the window into the stormy night. Bas stifled another sigh and leaned forward. “Find a truck stop,” he grumbled. “I’ve got to get a shower.”

Gunnar opened his mouth to protest. Bas’ grunt cut him off. “Before I end up with adobe hair, if you please.”

Gunnar flicked on the dome light and glanced into the rearview mirror. “Yeah, all right,” he agreed with a grimace. “I should call Cai—the tai-youkai.”

Bas shot Sydnie a quick glance to see if she’d heard Gunnar’s near-slip.   She was still staring out the window, and Bas had to wonder if she were paying attention to anything at all . . . “Hey, kitty,” he said, scooting closer to the cat-youkai. “You okay?”

She shook her head but didn’t turn away from the window. “Fine,” she assured him, her voice weary.

He didn’t believe her, but he let the subject drop. Entirely too aware of the fact that Gunnar was listening to everything they said, Bas stifled a sigh and rubbed his eyes with a slightly trembling hand.

A huge crack of thunder reverberated through the vehicle. Bas lifted his hips to unfasten Triumvirate from his hip, dropping it on the floor with a dull clank, he maneuvered his body so that he could reach over the seat, grunting as he unzipped the leather suitcase he’d purchased to hold their newly-acquired clothes. He dug out a dark green sweatshirt and dropped it into Sydnie’s lap. She glanced quickly at him and shook her head in silent question. “Put it on, Sydnie,” he told her. “You’re freezing, and don’t even try to tell me you’re not.”

She stared at him for a moment before tugging the sweatshirt over her head without complaint. It was huge on her tiny frame, and she fussed around for a few moments before sticking her hands through the sleeves, pulling the green suede vest out, too. She laid it over the passenger-side front seat to air dry before settling back on the bench seat once more. Bas smiled wanly, watching her bring up her folded knees and pulling the sweatshirt over them, too. Satisfied that she wasn’t going to freeze, he slumped back and closed his eyes, his entire body weary and strained. Casting him an enigmatic glance, her eyes glowing in the darkness, Sydnie looked like she was concentrating; almost sad, a little wary . . . She looked away before he could question her.

He wasn’t sure what Sydnie was thinking. He was too tired to try to figure it out. ‘She’s safe,’ he told himself, over and over. ‘She’s safe, and that’s all that matters . . .’

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

I had my reasons, son of the Great Dog . . .”

That was what the bounty hunter had said, wasn’t it? He’d called Sebastian the son of the Great Dog.

I should call Cai—the tai-youkai . . .”

What’s his last name?

Bas’ . . .? I think you should ask him . . .”

She brushed the memories aside and stubbornly tried to ignore the things she knew. They’d taken Bas’ words to heart and stopped so that he could get cleaned up in one of the trucker’s pay-showers. Sydnie had slipped out of the vehicle just after Bas disappeared into the building, and she was leaning against the SUV in Bas’ huge sweatshirt with her purse slung casually over her shoulder and a burning cigarette dangling from her trembling fingers.

“You’re awfully quiet, kitty,” Gunnar remarked almost distractedly as he scanned the parking lot of the truck stop. “What are you thinking?”

Sydnie shrugged and drew another deep drag off her cigarette. “Nothing,” she replied.

Gunnar sighed. “It’s been a long night, hasn’t it?”

“You think so?”

Gunnar shrugged and took the cigarette from her slack hand, drawing a deep draught before letting his breath out in a long, slow gust. “Sure . . .”

“I didn’t know you smoked, puppy,” she mused as she took the cigarette back from Gunnar.

“I do, sometimes,” he said. “Anyway, Bas is fine, you know.”

“I know,” she agreed. “It’s not that.”

Gunnar nodded. “You’re good for him.”

She shot him a quick glance. “How so?”

“Isn’t it obvious? He cares about you.”

Sydnie didn’t reply to that right away, staring off over the semi trucks and cars; the lights of the highway beyond. “How long are you staying?”

Gunnar stuffed his hands into the pockets of his coat and slumped back against the SUV beside her. “Don’t know. I was planning on leaving in the next couple days, but . . .”

He didn’t have to finish his statement for his meaning to be clear. Bas was good—maybe the best fighter she’d ever seen, but if the bounty hunter organization kept sending more and more hunters after them each time . . .

“He’s tough,” she grumbled, staring at the ground as she shuffled her feet on the asphalt, dropping the cigarette butt and grinding it underfoot. “He can handle himself.”

“He’s tough,” Gunnar agreed. “Probably the toughest of anyone I know, with a few notable exceptions. He’s always been a little more ruthless than the rest of us, I suppose . . . Thing is, the Onyx isn’t going to fight fair, and I’ll be damned if I’ll leave, knowing that they’re targeting my cousin.”

“Your cousin,” she echoed wanly. “Because you’re family . . .”

“Something like that.”

She fell silent then, her thoughts returning full-circle. Swallowing hard and blinking quickly, she tried to ignore the overwhelming wash of panic that rose deep inside her. ‘He really is the son of the tai-youkai, isn’t he? The son of the Great Dog . . . Sebastian . . . Zelig . . .’

The knowledge was a frightening thing. The words echoed through her head; spun around, twisting inside itself in a blur of noise and sound. ‘Sebastian Zelig . . . his son . . . Sebastian Zelig . . .’

She shook her head, as though trying to dispel her own dismal thoughts. She couldn’t make sense of anything, and she fumbled around in her purse for her pack of cigarettes and lighter. Gunnar stooped down to retrieve them, shaking one out of the pack and slipping it between her fingers. “May I?”

She nodded, shivering as he stuck one between his lips and gently took her lighter. She let him light the end of her cigarette, exhaling softly as she lifted her gaze to the overcast night sky.

Sydnie . . . you know, right? If he’s Cain Zelig’s son . . .’

Sydnie winced, dropping the cigarettes and lighter back into her purse before jerking the zipper closed. ‘He can’t be that,’ she argued. ‘He . . . he just can’t be . . .’

Her youkai sighed. ‘He could be. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that he isn’t the next one . . . you know that it’s entirely possible.’

No,’ she argued stubbornly. ‘Not even he would be foolish enough to send his son out on such a dangerous mission . . .’

I was just sent to bring you in, not to kill you, okay?” he’d said, his eyes blazing with anger, daring her to gainsay him . . .

Unless the tai-youkai didn’t think that bringing you in would be a dangerous thing . . .’

Sydnie bit her lip and squelched the little moan that threatened to escape. ‘No,’ she asserted a little more firmly. ‘He has a brother . . . he said he does . . . Cain Zelig wouldn’t send his oldest son out as a hunter . . . he wouldn’t . . .’

Wouldn’t he? He didn’t do a damn thing for you when it would have mattered, or don’t you remember? Cain Zelig is a monster—a horrible, awful monster . . . He’s not kind and benevolent. He’s the tai-youkai who only cares about those he deems worthy. You’re letting your feelings for Sebastian cloud your better judgment when it comes to that man. Don’t forget, Sydnie. Don’t you ever forget . . .’

She shook her head, trying to refute her youkai’s vicious words. Of course she didn’t forget. She’d never forget any of that . . . but Sebastian . . .

He . . . he’s not the oldest,’ she thought suddenly. He’d said as much, hadn’t he? He wasn’t the oldest; she was positive he wasn’t. He wasn’t the oldest, and that meant that he really wasn’t Cain Zelig’s heir—the future tai-youkai. He had a brother—Evan—and Bas wasn’t the oldest . . .

He’s a nobody to his father, just like I am. That’s why the tai-youkai sent Sebastian after me. He’s expendable, in a way. He’s not as important as an heir would be . . .’

“Why don’t you get back in the Blazer?” Gunnar suggested, jerking his head at the vehicle they were leaning against. “You look cold.”

Sydnie blinked, tossing the cigarette away and nodded. Gunnar opened the door for her and closed it after she’d climbed back inside.

Gunnar turned around again, slumping back against the vehicle as he slowly dug his cell phone out of his pocket. She’d looked upset—more upset than she had the day she’d found out that Bas had lied to her about Madison being his girlfriend—and that spoke volumes. He sighed and shook his head. It could be that he was reading more into the situation than there actually was. Maybe she was simply upset about the fight. No matter what she said or what she told Bas, she cared more than she ever wanted to admit, and perhaps that was the real reason for her current upset. Gunnar frowned, deciding that it wasn’t really doing any good for him to try to analyze Bas and Sydnie’s strange relationship, and dialed Cain’s number.

“Gunnar? Is everything all right?” Cain asked. He sounded wide awake despite the late hour.

Gunnar sighed and rubbed his eyes. “We’re at a truck stop,” he explained. “Bas needed a shower in the worst way.”

“What?”

“Four bounty hunters caught up with us,” he explained. “We took care of them, but the hot-head didn’t bother to leave anyone breathing so that we could ask some questions.”

“The hot-head would be my son?”

“Absolutely.”

“Four of them?”

“Yes.”

Cain sighed, the seat creaking as the tai-youkai sat back. “Hell.”

“I think I should stay here,” Gunnar finally said with a grimace. Cain might not mind so much, but Bas would. It was too bad, though. Bas might well be a damn howitzer, but even a howitzer could be brought down if the opposition wasn’t honorable, and sending four hunters after Bas and Sydnie? That wasn’t honorable; not at all . . .

“You don’t have to,” Cain replied.

“Cain—”

“No, it’s fine. I sent in someone to trail them . . . in case things get out of hand.”

“Someone, huh?” Gunnar repeated with a slight grin. Something in the way Cain had said that . . . something in the man’s tone . . . there was very little doubt in Gunnar’s mind, as to who, exactly, had been called in, and as much as Cain might not like it, he had to know that there was no one better for the job, either.

“Yeah, someone,” Cain agreed with an acquiescent sigh. “Anyway, he should be nearby soon enough. Find a place to hole up for a day or two, and he’ll find you. You need to talk to him—don’t let Bas know. Fill him in, then I want you back here. I want you to tell me everything you know about the situation.”

“You got it,” he agreed.

“Where are you now?”

“Mississippi, just over the Louisiana line.”

“Can you make it to Jackson tonight?”

Gunnar rubbed his chin. “Sure.”

“Okay. You’ll be less conspicuous in a bigger area . . . harder to track.”

Gunnar nodded. “Will do.”

Bas stepped out of the building where the truckers’ pay showers were located. He looked clean enough if not a bit like a drowned dog. He’d even managed to clean off his leather duster, for the most part. Gunnar shook his head. “Bas is done. Want to talk to him?”

Cain grunted. “All right.”

Gunnar held out the phone as he pushed himself away from the truck. “Here.”

Glaring rather dubiously at the device, Bas slowly lifted his gaze to meet Gunnar’s. “Who is it?”

Gunnar snorted. “Keh! Who do you think?”

Bas grimaced but took the phone. “Yes, sir?”

Chuckling at the not-quite-humble tone of Bas’ voice, Gunnar strode around the SUV and climbed into the driver’s seat.

“Gunnar said you had another altercation.”

“Yeah, you could call it that,” Bas agreed.

“What happened?”

Bas shrugged. “We were on our way back to the hotel after dinner. Sydnie noticed that there was a car following us, so we went back, checked out, and Gunnar took Sydnie down around the back roads to the other side of a small forest behind the hotel. I hid in the forest, and we ambushed the hunters.”

“Sounds like a good plan.”

“Pretty much,” Bas replied with a grunt. “I need to ask Gunnar exactly how many hunters work for this Onyx organization. Damn nuisance.”

“That’s pretty much what I thought,” Cain allowed. “Anyway, I trust you’re being careful. This cat-youkai—”

“Sydnie,” Bas corrected.

“Sydnie,” Cain amended. “Don’t let her distract you too much, understand?”

“I understand,” Bas sighed, tamping down the feeling that he was a pup being reprimanded for sneaking into the cookie jar that his mother always kept full and always kept on the counter in the kitchen—or worse: being caught sneaking a piece of one of Cain’s special cakes. “I know; I know. I’m being careful.”

“Were you hurt?”

Bas stared at his wrist. The laceration was already closing up nicely. “Nothing serious.”

Cain grunted. “Meaning?”

“Just a couple scratches.”

Cain paused, as though he were trying to decide whether or not to believe Bas. In the end, he must have. “All right. Get moving, will you? Sounds like you have things under control. I’d like to keep it that way.”

“Yes, sir.”

Bas snapped the phone closed and opened the passenger side rear door. He dropped the phone into Gunnar’s lap and sat down beside Sydnie, pulling the door closed before digging a bottle of milk out of his pocket. “Here.”

She blinked and looked a little surprised, but she took the bottle and let him snap off the cap. “How’s your wrist?” she asked quietly.

Bas held out his arm for her inspection. “It’s fine. See?”

Sydnie leaned closer and peered down at the healing wound. “Good.”

“How far are we going?” Bas asked, not really caring but figuring that Sydnie would want to know.

Gunnar shrugged. “Jackson,” he said simply. “Shouldn’t take too long.”

He slumped a little lower on the bench seat as Gunnar pulled out onto the road that led back onto the highway. “Drink your milk, kitty,” he told her, eyes drifting closed as sudden fatigue washed over him.

She did as she was told, draining the milk bottle before she spoke again. “Sebastian?”

“Hmm?”

“Can I . . . ask you something?”

“Okay,” he mumbled, forcing one eye open.

Sydnie slowly turned the empty bottle in her hands and shrugged. “You . . . you’re not the oldest in your family, right?”

“Hmm? No . . .”

He felt her relax moments before she curled up against his side. “Good,” she murmured, laying her head on his shoulder, twining her fingers into his damp hair.

He wanted to know why she’d asked that, but he couldn’t get the words to come out, either. ‘I’ll ask her . . . later . . .’

The soft sound of her contented purr resonated against his chest, and a vague smile lifted the corners of his lips as he drifted off to sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Wake up, kitty . . .”

Sydnie moaned, burrowing her face deeper against the warm chest where she’d fallen asleep.

Bas chuckled softly. “Come on, baby. Wake up . . .”

“Uh-uh,” she whimpered.

“I know . . . we got in late last night, but knowing Gunnar, he’ll want to get moving again.”

Sydnie uttered a low growl. “Sometimes,” she insisted, voice muffled by Bas’ chest, “I really don’t like him very much.”

“Me, either,” he agreed. “Anyway, better to get up now than to let him come in here to wake us up.”

With a defeated sigh, Sydnie stretched in her customary fashion, arching her back and sticking her bottom up in the air as she reared back, fists digging into the pillow on either side of his head—a gesture that both amused Bas as well as irritated him since he was almost certain that the only reason she did it was to drive him absolutely insane. “I don’t want to go yet,” she argued, curling up against his chest once more. “He can forget it.”

Bas chuckled again and kissed Sydnie’s forehead. “Sydnie . . .”

“Let me see your wrist.”

He opened his mouth to protest but decided against it when she grabbed his hand and dragged his arm over for her inspection. “See? It’s fine. I told you I would be.”

“Good,” she agreed, letting go of his hand so that she could nuzzle closer into the crook of his neck. “Night.”

“Oh, no . . . you can’t go back to sleep, kitty.”

“That’s what you think, puppy.”

“You want some milk?”

“You’re not very subtle, Sebastian.”

“Do you?”

“Not if it means I have to move.”

He sighed but grinned despite himself. “You’re a bad little cat, did you know?”

“The worst,” she agreed with a yawn.

“Are you hungry?”

“Of course not.”

He sighed since her answer really didn’t surprise him at all. “Humor me, then. I’m starving.”

She leaned up, bracing her weight on her crossed arms. Her hair was mussed, spilling over her shoulder in soft waves, and her gaze was steady despite the sleepy slant of her eyes. Lips curving up in a drowsy grin, she stared at him for a few breathless moments before she nipped at his chin and uttered a playful growl.

“A really bad kitty,” he mumbled, eyes closing of their own accord as she dragged her fangs along the line of his jaw, stopping now and again to kiss him before moving further on. A violent shiver raced up his spine. Sydnie giggled, nipping at his earlobe and eliciting another round of shudders that he couldn’t hide. Her body writhed, undulated, her hands opening and closing against his chest like a contented cat.

“We could stay in bed,” she purred, her lips poised above his.

“Sydnie . . .”

“What’s the matter, Bas the Hunter? You’re shaking . . .”

His answer was a low groan as she sat up, straddling his hips, grinding her body against his. The sensation was dulled by the thick fabric of his jeans, but that didn’t matter. He could smell her deepening scent, and as much as he wanted to revel in the knowledge that she wanted him as badly as he wanted her, he couldn’t quite forget that Gunnar could easily walk through the door at any given time. “You . . . you have to . . . stop,” he gritted out, gasping as the dissipating strands of reason that were fraying too rapidly to grab.

Sydnie fell forward, her lips brushing over his as her hair fanned over his shoulders.   The lingering touch only served to stoke the rising flames. He reached out, sinking his hands into her hair as he held her to him, deepening the kiss she’d started. He parted her lips with his tongue, tasted the sweetness of her mouth. She wrapped her hands around his wrists, tugging at him and trying to push him away by turns. Her tongue stroked his, the roughened texture enflaming his nerves. Her scent wrapped around his mind, obliterating every thought but one. The need to touch her, to taste her, to merge with her . . . it was overwhelming.

She let go of his wrists, trailing her hands down his arms, over his shoulders. Traversing his flesh in a surge of fire and heat, her claws set off a chain reaction of rippling muscles. He let his hands snake around to rub her back, holding her close as the thunder of his uneven pulse echoed in his ears.

Her hands delved lower along the shallow vale in the center of his abdomen. She leaned on her elbow, her fingers dancing over his skin. Her touch was light, lingering, brushing over his body with an urgency that slammed straight through him. Sydnie was a paradox in motion: bold and brazen yet wholly sweet in the surrender of her kisses.

She brushed over him, and he tore his mouth away, unleashing a harsh growl as his body jerked wildly: the shock of her touch, the pressure of her returning caress, shot to his brain; a riot of sensation. It registered that he ought to stop her. He just couldn’t remember why. She grasped him gently yet firmly, pumping him unmercifully through the fabric of his jeans. He grabbed her wrist but couldn’t push her away. Her touch was too welcome; too necessary . . . His arms fell to his sides as he shuddered. Sydnie kissed him again, licking his lips, sucking on his tongue while her hand stroked him.

“S-S-Syd . . . nie . . .”

Her answer was increased pressure squeezing him then releasing over and over again. The pleasure bordered on pain, escalating higher and higher into an undeniable need and the unrelenting ache that grew worse and worse. The tension built deep inside, his control slipping away as the first pulsations of absolute pleasure surged through him, and he lifted his hips to meet her hand. His body taut, rigid, he rasped out a hoarse groan as he came completely undone. The hot stickiness of his orgasm seeped through his jeans. Sydnie leaned away and blinked in surprise just before a sweet little smile lit her eyes, turned her lips. Leaning down, she whispered in his ear, soothing him as his body convulsed, as he moaned quietly, the sound of his breathing heavy in the air. Her words were lost to him. He jerked once, twice, then relaxed, chest heaving, a sinful sense of lethargy seeping into his very bones.

She cuddled against his chest, stroking his cheek with her fingertips. It took a minute before Bas could even manage to open his eyes, and when he did, he couldn’t help the crimson blush that shot into his skin as the full implications of what had happened washed over him. Turning his face to the side and refusing to look at her, Bas started to push her off. She wrapped her arms more snuggly around him. “Just a few more minutes?” she whispered.

He grimaced. “I . . . You . . . G-Get off me.”

She heaved a sigh but let him sit up. He made a face and strode out of the room, praying that she hadn’t seen exactly how embarrassed he was.

Stupid . . . stupid! What was I thinking?’ he berated himself as he closed the bathroom door and stripped off his clothes, making a face rife with self-disgust as he dropped the boxer shorts and jeans into the plastic bag lined trashcan. He hadn’t been thinking, had he? Too caught up in Sydnie, he hadn’t been thinking at all . . . If she had wanted more, he would have let her do whatever she wished, wouldn’t he? ‘Damn it . . .’ he grumbled, face flaming so hot that he felt feverish. The last thing he’d wanted or needed was for that idiot cousin of his to know what was going on between him and Sydnie, and now . . . He winced. Gunnar would smell it, he just knew it, and . . .

And then the teasing would start all over again.

Yanking the bag out of the trashcan, Bas tied it closed then repeated the process about four more times. He slipped into the shower and jerked the curtain into place, giving the water taps a vicious twist and heaving a sigh as the cold fluid rained down on him as he grabbed the bar of Ivory soap.

He’d always been sensitive about his size, he supposed. It couldn’t be helped. He’d taken after his father, which might have been a good thing since his mother was barely over five feet tall, but the years that had seemed so long ago were still vivid in Bas’ mind. If it hadn’t been bad enough that he’d always been bigger than the other boys, he’d never forget the day he’d first discovered that he was getting his crests. Thing was, he hadn’t realized what it was. All he’d noticed was that there were strange dark greenish blotches all over his penis. Barely more than odd shadows in the beginning, Bas had done what any normal twelve-year-old boy would have done: he’d hopped into the shower and scrubbed as hard as he dared, hoping that the color would wash off. It didn’t.

He ignored it for the next week, trying not to worry about it too much, but every time he used the bathroom, he saw it, and every time he saw it, it seemed as though the green color was . . . spreading. Near panicked that there really was something wrong with him, Bas had gone to his father . . .

Peering around the door into the airy studio that Gin and Cain shared, Bas lingered in the shadows and wondered if his father even knew he was there. Whenever he was working, Cain had a habit of blocking out everyone and everything, holing himself up in this studio for days or weeks on end. He always maintained that Bas could interrupt him, should he need something. Still, Bas hated to do it, and that he was considering it really did speak volumes.

Dad?” he mumbled, hoping that he wouldn’t have to raise his voice—and possibly the notice of his mother, who was sitting at a drafting table nearby, working on an illustrated children’s book.

Cain didn’t seem to have heard him. Bas made a face but cleared his throat. “Dad?” he repeated.

Cain glanced up, blinking a few times as his eyes slowly focused on his son. Bas waved his hand to beckon Cain over, shooting his mother a worried glance. Cain seemed to understand that whatever it was, Bas didn’t want Gin to know, and he wiped his hands on a clean towel and chucked it onto the table before striding over to his son. “Bas? What’s wrong?

Bas shook his head and backed out of the studio. Cain scowled but followed.

What’s this all about?” Cain demanded when Bas closed and locked the bathroom door behind them.

Bas bit his cheek and tried not to blush as he crossed his arms over his chest and scowled at the floor.

Bas?

There’s something wrong with . . . it!” he blurted as a hot flush shot into his cheeks.

Cain blinked in confusion. “‘It’?” he echoed with a shake of his head. “‘It’, what?

Bas sucked in his cheek and shook his head. “‘It’, Dad . . . you know . . . ‘it’!”

Cain’s eyes flared as slow understanding seemed to dawn. “Your ‘it’, you mean? Your . . . penis?

Bas nodded miserably.

Cain cleared his throat. “What seems to be wrong with . . . ‘it’, Bas?

He sniffled. “I think it’s gonna . . . fall off . . .”

Cain choked back a chuckle. “Why don’t you . . . show me?

Bas shot his father a consternated scowl but slowly unfastened his jeans, shoving them down around his ankles and glancing quickly at Cain before slowly pulling the elastic band of his boxer shorts away from his waist. Grimacing as he stared down into his underpants, Bas’ was horrified when his eyes filled with tears. He was positive now that something was really wrong. It was turning green, for God’s sake! The next step, undoubtedly, was for his penis to shrivel up and fall off . . .

Cain paused but leaned over Bas’ shoulder and peered down into his son’s shorts. He stared for what seemed like forever though in hindsight, it was likely only a minute or so. “Wh-what’s wrong with it, Dad?” he wailed, tears streaming down his face despite his efforts to stave them back.

Cain cleared his throat again and stepped back, a curious look on his face as he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, Bas. I think . . . I think you’re just getting your crests.”

My . . .? On . . .? But I look like a freak!”

I don’t think you do,” Cain said gently, patting Bas’ shoulder in much the same way that Gin always pushed his hair out of his eyes and kissed his forehead. “It’s different, but it’s not bad.”

Bas sniffled, taking the wad of tissues that Cain snatched from the box on the back of the toilet. “Will the concealment hide them?

Cain shrugged and leaned against the counter around the sink. “Well . . . it should, but it’s harder to control that when you’re . . . if you’re . . . during sex.”

Bas grimaced and pulled his pants back up . . .

And he’s vowed that he’d never, ever have sex if it meant that the girl would have to see his crests . . .

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the worst of it, either. Since Morio, Gunnar, and he had basically been trained together, there were always the daunting threats of pantsing. His cousins were terrible about it, especially Morio, who had always been the undisputed prank-meister. Uncle Mikio hadn’t been trained with them, exactly, but he had been a part of their group. His balance problems had precluded his training, so while the others were learning how to fight, Mikio was learning how to shoot a bow and arrow with his mother and later, he was taught how to shoot a gun. Mikio had always been quieter, more reserved than the rest of them, and if he’d been around more often, Bas doubted that the pantsing problem would have been as severe since the hanyou had an uncanny way of calming the more boisterous of his cousins.

Still, those cousins—Gunnar and Morio—and later Evan, as well—had taken to teasing him unmercifully. He’d heard it all at one time or another.

Kami, Bas! You’re a fucking monster!” Morio had exclaimed.

Holy dogs, Bas! How do you keep that in your pants?” Gunnar had said.

When I grow up, I want to be just like you,” Evan had added . . .

Bas grimaced as he shut off the taps and shook off the water that weighed down his hair. He didn’t think that Sydnie would laugh at him, but she wasn’t the main problem. Gunnar was. He’d said far too often over the years that Bas’ size would kill any woman who he tried to sleep with, and whether he was joking or not, the end result was the same. Already overly-sensitive about that particular facet of his anatomy, the teasing didn’t help at all, and the last thing he needed—the very last thing—was for Gunnar to find out about what had just happened, because Bas knew Gunnar well enough to know that Gunnar would have no qualms about teasing the hell out of Bas all over again . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Sydnie stepped out of the convenience store and stifled a sigh as she sauntered toward the SUV where Bas and Gunnar were waiting for her. At least they weren’t going far today; just changing hotels to one across town. Bas had been oddly distant since he’d pushed her away, and Sydnie stifled a dejected sigh.

She had thought he’d liked it. He seemed to have enjoyed it at the time . . .

What were you thinking, Sydnie? You know better than anyone that Bas tends to be a little shy about stuff like that. Never had a real girlfriend, or didn’t you hear what he told you before?

She wrinkled her nose and carefully dug a cigarette out of her pack. ‘I wasn’t trying to embarrass him,’ she insisted. ‘I just wanted to make him feel as good as he makes me feel, even if it is in an entirely different way . . .’

You know what your problem is, Sydnie? You come on too strong with him. You’re going to chase him away, and then where will you be? He’ll end up being scared of you because you can’t keep yourself off of him . . . Just think about that, will you, the next time you’re wanting to ‘show’ him how you feel . . .’

Sydnie stifled a sigh and stopped long enough to light her cigarette. Bas glanced up and shook his head. “Come on, cat. We’ve got to get moving.”

“In a minute, puppy,” she insisted as she sauntered toward the cousins. “We’re just going to a different hotel, right?”

Bas shrugged. “I don’t like having you out in the open, Sydnie, now come on.”

Sydnie wrinkled her nose but took one last drag off her cigarette before dropping it on the ground and crushing it under the toe of her shoe. Bas held the door open, and she climbed in. He got into the passenger side and fastened the safety belt while Gunnar started the engine and pulled out of the parking lot.

Leaning on the console between the two seats, Sydnie peered up at Bas and frowned. “Why are we changing hotels but not going farther?” she demanded.

“Because I have a flight out of here tomorrow,” Gunnar told her, “so it made little sense to go anywhere else.”

“You’re leaving?”

“Yes. Want to come with me, kitten?”

She grinned. “I think I’ll stay with my puppy.”

Gunnar chuckled. “Can’t blame a guy for trying, can you?”

Bas snorted. “Pfft! Knock it off, already. She doesn’t want to hang around with a bastard like you.”

“Better a bastard than a grouch.”

“That’s what you think,” Bas grumbled, “and I’m not grouchy . . . I’m easily annoyed.”

“About as easily annoyed as your grandfather,” Gunnar shot back.

“Leave the old man out of this.”

“You’re exactly like him, you know—just taller and . . . bulkier.”

“Are you dogging my grandfather?”

Gunnar laughed. “Kami, no. He’d kick my ass . . . like I’d be that stupid.”

“Your grandfather?” Sydnie piped up, resting her elbows on the console and glancing back and forth.

Bas grimaced. “The old man isn’t exactly a ‘people person’.”

“He’s one of the toughest there is. He doesn’t have to be a people person,” Gunnar argued.

“I’d rather have my grandfather than your grandfather,” Bas pointed out.

“Mine?” Gunnar blurted. “What’s wrong with my grandfather?”

“Nothing’s wrong with him,” Bas allowed. “You just never know what he’s thinking.”

“Ah, yes . . . he is rather stoic, isn’t he?”

“That’s a good word for it. I’d have said something entirely different.”

“I’m sure you would have,” Gunnar stated dryly.

Bas grinned as Gunnar pulled into the parking lot at the hotel. “Can’t say I’ll miss you,” he commented.

Gunnar chuckled. “Yeah, I didn’t think so. After check-in, we should go exchange the rental for you. I’ll get one, too, so you won’t have to worry about that in the morning.”

“Why not grab a taxi?”

Gunnar shrugged. “Taxis offend me.”

Sydnie hopped out of the SUV and waited while Bas retrieved the suitcase and laptop computer. Gunnar grabbed his bag and locked the vehicle via the keychain remote. She fell in step beside Bas. He didn’t even spare her a glance as they strode toward the front doors.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“So where’s the kitty?”

Bas dropped into a chair at the small table and scratched his head. “Taking a bath.” Leaning back, he drummed his index fingers on the table and narrowed his eyes on his cousin. “Since when do taxis offend you?”

Gunnar glanced around the side of the newspaper he’d been reading and grinned. “They’ve always offended me,” he quipped. “They stink.”

Bas didn’t argue that since he happened to agree. Too many lingering smells from the people who had ridden in them before had always been an overwhelming thing, and he nodded slowly. “Why the hasty departure?”

Gunnar shrugged and carefully folded the paper, laying it on the table before he sat back and crossed his arms over his chest. “It’s not hasty . . . I wasn’t planning on staying that long. You’re fine, right? No need for me to stick around.”

“I’m surprised you think so. Figured you’d stay just to irritate me.”

Gunnar chuckled. “As much as I’d like to do that, Bas, I have to say that you’re being a little paranoid.”

“Am I?”

“Absolutely.”

Bas pushed himself out of his chair and strode over to the fifth-story window. The lights that illuminated Jackson, Mississippi seemed to shimmer in the darkness, casting a yellow glow to the skyline. High overhead, only the brightest stars could be discerned, and just for a moment, Bas couldn’t ignore the sharp stab of homesickness that washed through him. He missed the open skies of Maine; the lulling comfort of the ever-moving ocean. He missed the forest and the cliffs and crags he knew. He’d explored them all in his youth.

Idiot . . . you make it sound like you’re never going home again.’

That’s stupid. Of course I’m going home . . . and I’m taking Sydnie with me.’

You’re more like your father than you like to believe.’

Why’s that?

Maybe that’s why Cain doesn’t leave home often, either.’

Bas sighed. ‘I’m not really like him. I’m not really like Dad, at all . . .’

True enough, he supposed. He wasn’t really like either of his parents. Both Cain and Gin Zelig were artists at heart. Sure, his mother chose to create illustrated children’s books while his father dedicated himself to more serious endeavors, but Bas had far too many memories of spending time with his mother and father in the studio where they’d closet themselves away for long periods of time. It seemed to Bas that they’d stopped doing so as often after Evan was born and Jillian adopted, or maybe, as he’d gotten older, he’d simply broadened his horizons, preferring to spend time out-of-doors, hiking through the forest or climbing the white stone cliffs . . .

“Earth to Bas . . . are you listening to me?”

Bas shook his head, blinking as the city came into focus once more. “Huh?”

Gunnar sighed and stood up, stuffing his hands into his pockets as he ambled over to Bas’ side.   “I said that you should head out of here first thing in the morning.”

“I know,” Bas agreed, pulling the small plastic case containing a Mississippi state spoon out of his pocket and turning it over in his nimble fingers. He’d picked it up at the gas station while Sydnie was buying a pack of cigarettes. He’d forgotten to give it to her at the time . . . “The Onyx will just send more hunters.”

“If you can get ahead of them, you might be able to take a break somewhere . . . if you hide yourselves well enough.”

“Take a break? What for?”

Gunnar chuckled. “I’m not stupid, Bas. Tell me you don’t want to spend some time with Sydnie . . . alone.”

Bas made a face and grunted despite the tell-tale blush that filtered into his cheeks. “You’re such a damn dog, Gunnar . . .”

“I’m not being a dog . . . Christmas is coming up, and if she’s really been alone that long, don’t you think that it’d be nice to have a real holiday?”

Bas’ eyebrows shot up, disappearing under the thick fringe of his bronze bangs. “You’re being sensitive?”

“I can be,” he grumbled. “She’s your mate, right?”

“She is,” he agreed.

“You sound like you’re worried about something.”

Bas shrugged. “I have to tell her who I am.”

“Yeah,” Gunnar sighed, sending the bangs fringing his temple straight into the air. “She’s not going to like that, is she?”

Bas shook his head. “No, she isn’t.”

Gunnar winced. “Well, if she dumps you, maybe she’ll give me a chance.”

“Hardly, fool. You’re going to be a tai-youkai, too—a worse tai-youkai: the Japanese tai-youkai.”

Gunnar’s grin was tinged with regret. “Never thought I’d be sorry for that.”

Bas grimaced. “Me, either.”

“Have you told her? That you want her to be your mate?”

“Not . . . exactly.”

Gunnar snorted. “Keh!” Shaking his head, he sighed again, casting Bas a troubled stare. “Why does she hate the tai-youkai so much? No one hates Cain . . . well, except for your grandfather . . .”

“The old man doesn’t hate him, either. He just hates that Dad brought Mom to America.” He made a face, turning his attention back out the window once more. “I have no idea,” he grumbled. “She just says that Dad did nothing—I’m just not sure what that means.”

Gunnar shrugged and clapped Bas on the shoulder. “Look, I’m going to bed, and I’ll probably be gone when you get up. A word of advice?”

“Do I want to hear it?”

“Probably not.”

Bas made a face, dropping his arms to his sides as he rounded on his cousin. “Then no.”

“But I’ll give it to you, anyway.”

“I figured as much.”

Gunnar grinned wolfishly. “If I were you, I’d just march in there, grab her by the shoulders, give her a good shake, and say, ‘Listen, wench: I’m the next tai-youkai, and you’re going to be my mate. There’s not a damn thing you can do about it, so just get used to it!’”

Bas rolled his eyes but chuckled. “I knew I didn’t want to hear it.”

Gunnar chuckled, too. “It’d be effective, though, don’t you think?”

“No, I don’t think. Anyway, be careful, will you? It’d be a damn shame if you didn’t make it back to Japan in one piece.”

Gunnar’s chuckle escalated at Bas’ tongue-in-cheek tone. “You, too. Take care of her, will you?”

Bas’ smile faded as his eyes took on a determined glow. “I will,” he vowed. “Or I’ll die trying.”

Gunnar grimaced. “That’s what I’m afraid of, Bas.”

Bas didn’t reply as he watched Gunnar disappear into his bedroom and quietly close the door.

She’ll be safe,’ he told himself again. ‘I’ll keep her safe . . . and I’ll make her understand that she’s . . . my mate . . .’

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Bas stole a glance at Sydnie and grimaced when he noticed the way she was staring out the window, her thin arms crossed over her chest, and a sad expression adding a glossiness to her gaze. He knew she was upset with him, and truthfully, he couldn’t really blame her. Tightening his grip on the steering wheel, he leaned his elbow against the window and heaved a long-suffering sigh. “You need to stop for anything, Sydnie?”

She shook her head but didn’t reply.

“Are you going to be mad at me all day?”

“Thinking about it,” she replied lightly.

He stifled a sigh, not doubting for a moment that she was quite serious. She’d been growing more and more irritated with him in the few days since Gunnar’s abrupt departure. She didn’t understand his insistence that they had to keep moving, even when the reasoning should have been quite clear. Staying in one place was too dangerous. Bas had no idea how long it would take for the Onyx to figure out that their hunters had been killed, but the more ground they could cover before the next wave of bounty hunters arrived, the better . . .

Christmas is coming up, and if she’s really been alone that long, don’t you think that it’d be nice to have a real holiday?

Gunnar’s words still echoed in his head. Bas had been thinking about it a lot in the last few days, and as much as he hated to concede to Gunnar’s logic, he had to admit that the dog had a valid point. If he could make it to Chicago by Christmas . . . maybe they would be safe enough to spend a few days there . . .

He sighed. That was, if he could figure out how to get the stubborn cat over the threshold of the house that she was sure to view as enemy territory . . .

You have bigger fish to fry, don’t you, Bas?

Fish?

Yeah, you know it’s just an expression.’

Sure, sure . . .’ He sighed inwardly. ‘I know.’

She doesn’t understand why you keep putting the freeze on her.’

I . . . don’t . . .’

What would you call it?

He made a face. ‘Self-preservation.’

Yeah, of course . . . because Sydnie’s just the devil, isn’t she?

All right, you made your point.’

Good.’

Bas scowled at the road. His youkai voice was right. He hadn’t been trying to push her away, but he couldn’t help it, either. Nothing like being face to face with a beautiful girl to make him realize just how pathetic he was when it came to women . . . when he wasn’t worrying that she was going to think he was a complete and utter freak because of his strategically placed crests, he was worrying that he would disappoint her or worse: humiliate himself completely.

In short, it was a no-win situation.

She’s my mate,’ he told himself. ‘She won’t think I’m . . . weird . . .’

He stole a glance at her and sighed. She looked sad—entirely lost and alone—more alone than she had since he’d found her in Los Angeles, and Bas grimaced. “Here,” he said, digging a Florida state spoon out of his pocket. “I forgot to give this to you yesterday.”

She spared a glance at the offering. “You got that for me?”

“Yep,” he replied, setting it on the seat beside her. “What do you think?”

“It’s all right,” she allowed, gingerly picking up the plastic case. She examined it from all angles before slipping it into her purse. “How long do we have to drive around today?”

Bas rubbed his temple. “Awhile longer. I want to get some more distance before we stop.”

She sighed. “Of course you do.”

He knew she hated the long hours in the car. He wasn’t fond of them, either, but her safety had to come first, even if she didn’t like it. To that end, they’d been traveling from before dawn until well after dusk for the last few days, zigzagging across states so that he could buy more spoons for her and to confuse the hunters, should any be trailing them, and as a result, Sydnie had grown increasingly restless and moody. “Just for a little while longer, okay?” he told her, his tone gentler than normal.

“Whatever, pretty boy,” She wrinkled her nose and dug the psychology textbook out from under the seat. While he had stopped to exchange vehicles, she had gone into the second-hand store next door, emerging with the book. Bas had raised a brow at the purchase but remained silent. He’d almost forgotten that she’d bought it, in the first place . . .

“What did you buy that for?”

She clucked her tongue, burying her nose in the pages. “Why else? So I can diagnose you, puppy.”

“Diagnose me?” he growled. “What’s wrong with me?”

“Classic case of inferiority complex, I’d say,” she replied, “though what you have to feel inferior about is entirely beyond me.”

He snorted. “I do not have an inferiority complex, cat.”

“Are you sure?”

Bas snorted again.

“Do you have some sort of repressed fears?”

“Repressed fears?” he echoed incredulously.

“Do you feel the need to overcompensate for your imagined physical shortcomings?”

Bas snorted a third time. “Pfft!”

“You meet the classic definition, puppy.”

“Can it, Sydnie. I don’t have an inferiority complex.”

“Okay, okay . . . I’ll leave you alone,” she agreed amicably.

He heaved a sigh of relief that was cut short by her next question.

“Sebastian?”

“Hmm?”

“Can I drive for awhile?”

His eyes flared then narrowed, and he tightened his grip on the steering wheel. “I don’t know, kitty . . . can you?”

“Well, no,” she admitted, snapping the book closed. “I’ve watched you, though, and it doesn’t look difficult.”

“Because . . . you’ve . . . watched . . . me,” he drawled slowly.

She nodded. “Yes.”

He snorted. “No way in hell are you driving anywhere, cat.”

Her eyebrows drew together, and she scowled. She seemed to be thinking it over, and suddenly she sat up a little straighter, squaring her shoulders as he stifled a rising groan. “But you could teach me,” she insisted brightly.

“I could . . .? No,” he snorted.

“But . . . why not?”

He could feel his right eye twitching, and he drew a deep breath to calm his nerves. “Because, Sydnie, you can barely tolerate being in a car, much less driving it.”

“I’m not that bad anymore!” she protested.

“You don’t like semis—you cringe and claw the door every time we pass one—”

“Well, they are a little excessive, don’t you think?”

He sighed, dragging his hand through his hair and cracking the window when Sydnie lit a cigarette. “And furthermore, you don’t have a license or a permit . . . which would be really, really bad if we got stopped by the police.”

“Incidentals, puppy . . . we haven’t seen a police car in ages.”

“Will you put that out?” he growled.

She shrugged. “Will you let me drive?”

“Heh . . . no.”

“Heh . . . no, yourself.”

He wrinkled his nose and rolled his window down a little bit more. “Why do you want to?”

Sydnie sat back, exhaling a perfect smoke ring. She smiled proudly and shot him a quick glance. “I just want to . . . what if something happens to you? Who’ll drive then? Though I suppose I could always call my Gunsie-Wunsie and see if he can come back . . .”

She was baiting him. He knew she was. Unfortunately, he couldn’t help but bite at it, anyway. “The hell you will,” he snarled.

“So are you going to teach me how to drive?”

Bas heaved a sigh, trying in vain to figure out a way to counter the troublesome cat. She had a valid point though, as much as he hated to admit it. If something happened, and he couldn’t drive . . . that would be the same as leaving her unprotected, wouldn’t it? “You have to be damn careful,” he told her.

“I know,” she replied. “Careful . . . I got it. What does this do?”

“Syd-nie!” he growled when she reached over and flicked the gear shift. Luckily she only managed to shift the car from drive into neutral. He put the car back into drive, casing Sydnie a narrow glare. “That is the gear shift, Sydnie. You don’t need to mess with that while you’re driving since this is an automatic car.”

Her eyebrows shot up, green eyes sparkling mischievously. “Automatic? It drives by itself?”

He snorted. “Hardly, cat. That means that it isn’t a manual, so you don’t have to change gears every so often to keep it moving.”

“Okay, okay. So you put the stick-do-hickie on the ‘D’ and push those footy-things down there, right?”

Bas grimaced at Sydnie’s version of ‘technical terms’. “Don’t forget the steering wheel.”

“Yes, all right. I got it, puppy.”

Unsnapping her seat belt, she climbed over the console, setting herself on his lap despite his protests to the contrary. “Sydnie! What are you doing?”

She grinned. “Driving, puppy! Let go of the wheel.”

He stifled a frustrated growl. “You can’t sit on my lap and drive! You can’t even reach the gas and brake! And will you stop fucking wiggling around? You’re going to make us wreck.”

“Then you work the footy-thingies,” she insisted, laughing softly.

At least she did stop moving around, much to Bas’ relief. She didn’t act like she was going to get back in her seat, though, and he had to stifle another longsuffering sigh. “Stay between the lines,” he told her, peering over her shoulder as he took his foot off the gas pedal and let the car coast with his foot hovering over the brake.

“This isn’t so bad,” she said with a giggle.

Bas’ snort proclaimed his belief that she was dead wrong on that count.

“Okay, puppy, so the big footy-thingy is the gas, and the itty bitty one is the brake, right?”

He rolled his eyes but smiled despite himself. “Yes, Sydnie . . . also known as right and left, but yes.”

“I think I should try it by myself,” she remarked at last.

Bas wasn’t in complete agreement, but he nodded. “Then pull over.” She did as she was told, and he stopped the car. “Get off my lap, cat,” he grumbled.

Sydnie pulled herself up by the steering wheel and wiggled her butt. Bas blushed but slapped her rear as she giggled and wiggled it a little more. He opened the door and carefully stumbled out of the car. Sydnie sat back down, and Bas knelt, reaching for the levers that adjusted the seat. “Tell me when you can reach the footy-thingies,” Bas told her, using the terms that she seemed to prefer.

Sydnie stretched out her right leg. Bas tried not to notice the gentle curve of her calf; the delicate contours of her lithe body.

“I can reach them,” she informed him.

He let off the switched and sat back, letting his hands dangle between his knees. “Are you up high enough to see over the steering wheel?”

“Yes, puppy.”

“Good.” Bracing his hands on his knees, he pushed himself to his feet and stepped back. “Okay, kitty . . . Gas . . . brake . . . turn signal: up if you want to turn right, down if you want to turn left. Keep your foot on the brake until you’ve put the car into drive—”

“The big D?”

“Yes, the big D. Check your mirrors to make sure you’re not pulling out in front of someone, and then take your foot off the brake and slowly push the gas pedal. Got it?”

“You seem tense, Bas the Hunter. Is something the matter?”

He sighed and closed the door. “Just be careful, Sydnie.”

He started to stride around the car, but Sydnie had other ideas. The clink of the shifting gears registered in his brain moments before she revved the engine and took off in a screech of tires and the acrid stench of burning rubber. “Fuck!” he bellowed, dashing after the car.

She munched on the brakes, and the car squealed to a stop about fifty feet away before turning off the engine and casually stepping out of the vehicle. “How was that, puppy?” she asked, smiling proudly.

“Damn it, Sydnie! What the hell were you doing?” he snarled, grabbing her shoulders and glowering down at her.

She blinked innocently and shrugged. “I was driving, Sebastian, and I’m done now.”

He didn’t reply for a moment, too intent on trying to tamp down the desire to shake some sense into the feline. “That was dangerous,” he growled. “Driving isn’t some game, and you—”

“You’re sexy as hell when you’re disgruntled. Did you know?”

Bas snapped his mouth closed as heat shot through him. “I—you—that’s not—” Letting to of her arm and stabbing a finger at her, he stopped abruptly and repeated the process before dropping his hands with a heavy sigh and pointing at the car. “Get in, Sydnie, and no more funny business.”

“Aww,” she whined, wrapping her arms around his neck and burying her face against his chest. “Please, puppy . . . can we just go for a walk or something? Please? Pretty please? Pretty, pretty please, with a—”

He grimaced. “Don’t say it!”

“—Pussy on top?”

He heaved a sigh and flinched. “Sydnie . . .”

“Don’t make me get back into the car yet,” she begged, trailing her fingertips lightly down the center of his chest. The sensation was blunted by the thin fabric of his t-shirt, but it was enough to send a delicious tremor down his spine. “Just a short walk, and I swear I’ll be good the rest of the day.”

“I don’t think you know the meaning of the word ‘good’, kitty,” he rumbled, wrapping his arms around her waist and trying not to smile at her pouting. He narrowed his eyes as he studied the surroundings. The back country road was abandoned. They hadn’t actually seen another car in quite some time. According to the television, Georgia was experiencing a milder than normal winter, and as a result, Bas’ leather duster was carelessly strewn on the back seat of the car. It was easily over sixty degrees outside, and the early afternoon sunshine made it feel even warmer. Lifting his chin as he sniffed the air, he relaxed just a little. He couldn’t sense anything out of the ordinary, and for that reason, he heaved another sigh, smoothing Sydnie’s silky hair. “You promise, right?”

She nodded quickly, leaning back to stare up at him with her big, green eyes. “I promise.”

“I’ll hold you to it,” he said, cocking a brow as he leaned back to stare at her. “Let me get Triumvirate and lock the car, okay?”

She squeezed him tight and stepped back, wiggling her shoulders in a silent celebration of her perceived victory as she turned her face heavenward and laughed. Bas grabbed the sword off the floor behind the driver’s seat and snatched the keys out of the ignition, aiming the keychain at the car and pressing the ‘lock’ button to secure the vehicle.

He strapped on the sword and held out his hand. Sydnie slipped hers into his, and he pulled her down the slope beside the road and up the hill into an unfenced pecan grove. He wasn’t sure if the small orchard was a part of someone’s farm, but the trees hadn’t been pruned, and the ground was littered with fallen nuts. ‘Safe enough,’ he figured. Sydnie delicately picked her way through the grove, pulling away long enough to clasp her hands together and stretch them over her head. He stopped, leaning back against a tree, arms crossed over his chest as a little grin surfaced on his features. Sydnie let her arms drop to her sides as she wandered toward him once more, her eyes glowing with a mischievous glint. “What are you thinking, kitty?” he demanded.

She giggled. “This is nice, isn’t it?”

“Is it?”

She nodded. “I like it here.”

“Do you?”

“Yes,” she decided. “Very much so.”

Bas wrinkled his nose. “I don’t know . . . it doesn’t really feel like December to me.”

“Because it isn’t cold?”

He shrugged, pushing himself away from the tree and catching Sydnie’s hand to walk a little further. Eyes sweeping over the area, he didn’t let his guard down as they moved through the trees. “That, and because I miss the snow.”

“Snow . . .”

“Yes, kitty, snow. It’s . . . beautiful, I guess . . . quiet and perfect . . .” He grimaced. “At least until the plows go through . . . or until Dad starts yelling at me to shovel it off the driveway.”

“He makes you shovel the snow?”

“Sure, and that wouldn’t even be so bad, but he always wants it done first thing in the morning in case Mom wants to go somewhere.” Bas chuckled suddenly, and Sydnie shot him a questioning glance. “I bought him a snow blower a couple years ago for Christmas,” he explained. “Evan thought it was cool, though, so now he takes care of it.”

“He likes using the snow blower?”

Bas rolled his eyes. “He likes anything that makes ungodly noise and annoys the hell out of everyone else.”

She laughed and glanced up at him just before her head snapped to the side, and she lifted her chin. “What’s that?” she asked vaguely, concentrating on whatever it was she smelled.

Bas sniffed the air, too, and scowled since he didn’t smell anything amiss. “What’s wh—Sydnie!” he hollered as she darted away through the trees. Shaking his head—he really ought to have known that the cat-youkai would pull some sort of trick—Bas strode after her.

Stepping out of the grove of pecan trees, Bas stopped short and cautiously looked around. It took a moment for him to find the wayward kitty. Sprawled comfortably in a shallow vale between two hills, she rolled onto her stomach, propping herself up on her elbows as she glanced at Bas and uttered a low sound caught somewhere between a purr and a mew. He blinked and glanced around, unsure why she’d make that sort of noise, and wondering, too, just what was so damn familiar about the rising smell emanating from the foliage under Sydnie’s body. As her movements released the fragrance into the air, she broke into a loud purr, her eyes heavy-lidded: sultry, inviting, almost intoxicated . . . Still nothing seemed amiss in the general vicinity other than Sydnie’s somewhat odd behavior, and, ignoring the small voice in the back of his head that whispered that Sydnie was definitely acting strangely, Bas wandered toward her.

“Come on, Sydnie,” he coaxed, reaching down to help her to her feet.

She grasped his hands and tugged, catching him off guard. He stumbled, knees skidding over the ground as she let go of his hands, throwing her arms around his neck. Rising on her knees, she pressed her body against his, her heart hammering so hard that he could feel the palpitations. Lips smashing down on his, she made the odd sound once more, pushing him back and crawling on him, straddling his chest as she delved her tongue into his mouth. His nerves frayed and tingled as her scent spiked in his head. The rising burn that flowed through him fed off the deeper instinct that was a powerful force that he fought to ignore. Her hands snaked under his shirt, her fingertips dancing on overheated flesh. The yearning grew into an ache; spiraled into something far headier. Her breath was ragged, harsh, and she ground her hips against him in a rhythmic undulation that shocked him; that thrilled him . . .

Kissing her way along his jaw, she caught his earlobe between her teeth, flicking the soft skin with her tongue, she rumbled a low purr. He groaned softly, his will to fight the overwhelming lure of her wearing thin. His body reacted to her, throbbing painfully as his need to have her spun out of his control.

“It . . . hurts,” she whimpered, nuzzling against his neck as she reached down, squeezing him through the rough fabric of his jeans. He growled sharply, catching her wrist and pulling her hand away. “Why . . .?”

“S-Syd . . . nie . . .” he mumbled, brain functioning painfully slowly. It wasn’t right, was it? The strange sense of urgency in her every movement seemed to stem from something that he just couldn’t understand. Unable to make sense of her sudden voracity, Bas forced himself to push her back despite the protesting of his body, of his youkai blood.

“What’s gotten into you?” he demanded, his tone harsher than he intended for it to be. His hands were shaking, his body trembling, and he had to fight the desire to grab her and kiss her again.

Staring at him with a strange sort of vagueness in her gaze, she half-purr, half-mewled at him, her breasts straining against the flimsy fabric of her barely-there tank top with every breath she drew. He could see her hardened nipples, perfectly delineated by the sheer white cloth . . . Forcing his gaze off the entirely too provocative image of her, Bas drew a deep, ragged breath and closed his eyes. “I want you, puppy,” she whispered with a throaty purr. “Don’t you want to stroke the pussy?”

Ignoring the heated blush that crashed over him, Bas grasped her upper arms and held her back. “What . . .?” He trailed off and scowled as late realization of just what, exactly, they were sitting in dawned on him. “Catnip?” he mumbled, eyes widening as he stared at Sydnie. “All of this is because of the catnip?”

She blinked slowly, her cheeks flushed, eyes still bright, and she shook her head. “Catnip?” she repeated then shook her head. “Come here, puppy . . .”

It is,’ he realized with a sickened grimace. ‘It’s the catnip . . .’

Maybe,’ his youkai agreed. ‘Then again, maybe is a combination of you and the catnip.’

He shook his head and sighed, standing up and pulling Sydnie gently to her feet. He let go of her long enough to scoop her up. She wrapped her arms around his neck and contented herself by nibbling on his ear again. “Stop it, cat,” he grumbled, quickening his pace as he hurried back to the car.

She moaned in dissent and kept nibbling, hands kneading his shoulders.

He winced. He hadn’t wanted to stop early, but considering the smell of the catnip was all over him and her, both, he wasn’t so sure he had a choice, either, because Sydnie didn’t seem to be able to stop herself . . .

Bas sighed, setting Sydnie on her feet long enough to unlock the car and open her door. Extricating himself from her grasp, he gently pushed her into the vehicle and closed the door before she could wrap herself around him again.

Catnip, huh . . .?’ he thought as he strode around the car to get inside. “Damn.”

His youkai sighed, too.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Oh, come on, puppy! You can’t really think I’m going to say I’m sorry for that, can you?”

Bas snorted and rolled his eyes but remained silent as he gripped the steering wheel a little tighter and fought down the rising surge of crimson that threatened to stain his cheeks for the duration.

Sydnie didn’t miss the heightened color and wisely hid her amused grin. “Because that would be a lie,” she went on airily, “and lying is just wrong.”

“You could pretend to be a little sorry,” he grumbled as the first threads of color seeped into his skin.

“I could,” she agreed, “but that’d still be lying.”

He shot her a sidelong glance but didn’t reply to that.

“Anyway, you should have known that I’d get even eventually.”

He snorted.

“Putting me in those handcuffs wasn’t really very nice of you, don’t you think?”

“You wouldn’t stay off me long enough to get you to a hotel and cleaned up, cat,” he growled.

She wrinkled her nose. “Turn about is fair play, pretty boy, or hadn’t you heard?”

“So slapping me into the damn things while I’m sleeping was fair? Since when?” he shot back.

She giggled. “It was fair,” she assured him.

“Yeah? Well, you owe me for the damned bed.”

Sydnie squirmed around to face him, drawing her knee up against her chest despite the restraining seat belt. “I didn’t make you break the headboard,” she protested.

He snorted again.

“Can’t say I didn’t like seeing you do it, though,” she admitted.

He snapped his mouth closed on the retort he’d been forming as more hot color flooded into his face. “You . . . did . . .?”

She leaned toward him, running her fingertips lightly down the center of his chest. “Yes, I did.”

He cleared his throat and fumbled with the radio station, studiously avoiding Sydnie’s gaze.

She giggled again.

You’re heartless, Sydnie. You know that, right?

That’s not true! I just thought that he should be taught what it’s like to be put in those stupid things,’ she argued.

That wasn’t heartless . . . what you were doing to the poor man after you had him at your mercy was, though . . .’

She grinned at the censure in her youkai’s tone. ‘That was just a little harmless teasing . . .’

Teasing enough to goad him into breaking the headboard . . .’

Her grin widened. ‘Yeah, he did . . .’

Will you stop with the illicit thoughts and think about what you’re putting the poor dog through?

Illicit? Hmm, I like that . . .’

Oh, I give up . . . You’re on your own, Sydnie. Don’t get us killed . . .’

She wrinkled her nose. Was it her fault that seeing every single muscle straining and rippling under his skin did strange things to her equilibrium? Could she help it that the idea of standing there, watching him as he fought against the desire to break free, was one that she couldn’t quite ignore? Furthermore, could she really be responsible when he was the careless one who had left the handcuffs sitting on the nightstand beside the bed after he’d finally unlocked her wrists the night before? ‘Absolutely not,’ she decided with a little snort. ‘It’s his fault—all his fault . . .’

He’d looked entirely apologetic when, after a few minutes of trying to push Sydnie over onto her side of the car, he’d finally grabbed his duster and retrieved the much-loathed handcuffs. “Sorry, baby,” he told her as he snapped them onto her wrists, “but you’ve got to stay over there while I find a hotel.”

Unlock me right now!” she demanded, cheeks pinking as she tugged at her hands in a vain effort to separate them once more.

Bas sighed as he reached over and fastened the seat belt for her then started the engine. “No . . . and remind me that you’re never, ever allowed to be around catnip again.”

But I liked it!” she whined, rattling the handcuffs to emphasize her point.

He sighed. “I know you did.”

Sebastian?

Hmm?

She leaned over, rubbing her temple on his shoulder. “I really, really want to fuck you.”

Dear God,” he croaked out, pushing harder on the gas pedal to hurry them along their way.

It hadn’t been much better by the time they’d reached the hotel. In fact, it had been worse. After being trapped in the confines of the car with the intoxicating scent of the catnip clinging on both her as well as on Bas, she was near panic; every nerve in her body completely sensitized to the point that she groaned softly when he grasped her arm to pull her out of the car. He must have been able to smell just how overwrought she was, because he refused to unlock her hands in the room, escorting her straight to the bathroom instead and basically hosing both her and himself down, using all the shampoo and body wash in the little complimentary bottles to get the smell of the catnip out of their clothes. Only then did he trust her enough to unlock the handcuffs, and while it took a bit longer for the inundation of the stimulus to go away, she had to admit that maybe she could understand why he hadn’t wanted to take advantage of the situation.

Of course, that didn’t mean that she appreciated being forced into the handcuffs, which was why she didn’t think twice this morning when she picked up the cold steel things and threaded them through the spindles on the headboard before snapping them around Bas’ wrists. What she hadn’t counted on was that Bas could and would break the bed before he deigned to beg her to release him . . .

All right, you’ve had your fun, kitty . . . unlock me.”

You didn’t say ‘please’, puppy,” she teased.

He snorted, golden eyes darkening dangerously. “Now, cat.”

Taking a moment to appreciate the hard lines, the rigid contours of Bas’ large frame, she let her gaze sweep over him, and he blushed. “Give me the damn key.”

What? You mean this key?” she purred, holding up the tiny silver key, dangling the loop that held it from the tip of her crooked index finger.

He growled.

She met his gaze, and very slowly, deliberately stepped forward, crawling onto the bed and running the key down the center of his chest. The muscles jumped wildly; a ripple of strength that hung in the air. The way his body moved enthralled her; the cadence of motion; the ebb and flow like the waves on the sea . . .

You want the key, puppy?” she crooned, rising up on her knees and staring down at him through half-closed eyes.

Sydnie . . .”

Hooking the delicate fabric of her panties, she pulled them away from her body and dropped the key into them before letting the thin elastic snap back into place.

Bas sucked in a sharp breath; a choked resonance. “That’s not . . . funny, damn it,” he grumbled. “Unlock me—now.”

I don’t think I will,” she countered, slipping off the bed and retreating a few steps. “If you want it, come and get it.”

His body tensed, hardened. Muscles bulging, he hooked his hands together over his head and jerked against the restraints. Sydnie gasped as the splintering crack echoed through the hotel room, and Bas sat up, bringing his restrained hands down before him as he rolled over and slowly got to his feet. Eyes darting from the broken spindle that hung precariously from the top rail of the headboard to Bas’ face, Sydnie couldn’t think that she really ought to run. Standing her ground, she stared at him, her breath shallow and uneven.

There was something entirely primitive in his movements, something completely intrepid in the way he stalked her. Stopping before her, he slowly reached out, hooking the elastic of her panties without letting his gaze drop away from hers. He fished out the keys with his other hand, his cheeks pinking but his expression carefully stoic. She couldn’t suppress the softest whimper that slipped from her as his fingertips brushed against the tiny curls between her legs. “Unlock me, cat,” he rasped out in a harsh whisper, grabbing her hand and dropping the keys into her palm.

And she’d done as she was told, though it took a few tries since her entire body had been trembling with such a voracity that she hadn’t been able to fit the key into the lock. Luckily, he’d taken it after she’d finally managed the first one. After he’d stashed the cuffs back into the pocket of his duster, he’d yanked on a shirt, and, without looking at her, he’d told her that she had five minutes to get dressed before they left.

In any case, he’d barely said more than a handful of words to her since then, and not for the first time, Sydnie had to wonder if maybe—just maybe—she’d pushed him a little too far . . .

She blinked in surprise as she turned to scowl at Bas. He’d pulled into the underground parking lot beside a very large hotel. That wasn’t surprising since he preferred to keep their vehicle out of view.   She didn’t understand why they were stopping so soon, though. It wasn’t quite noon yet, and normally he’d be adamant that they press on ‘just a little longer’. “Why are we stopping already?” she asked.

Bas shrugged as he parked the car and got out. “You don’t want to?”

“Tell me why I think you’ve got ulterior motives, puppy?”

“Dunno, cat. Come on.”

She let him open the door for her and stepped out onto the oil-stained concrete. He handed her the laptop case and grabbed the suitcase, locking the car and stowing the keys in his pocket before reaching for her hand. Following him toward the gaudily safety-yellow painted elevator, she didn’t say another word.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Sydnie jerked awake and shot Bas an irritated glance, scooting away to avoid his swinging arms as he snarled curses at the television and leaned forward, apparently displeased with yet another call made by one of the squirrelly men in the black and white shirts. “You call that ‘pass interference’? It was a clean hit, you moron! Clean!

She heaved a frustrated sigh. Having opted to nap instead of watch the ‘big game’ with Bas, Sydnie had curled up on the bed alone until Bas decided that he should sit with her. That had lasted all of twenty minutes before he’d inadvertently scared her, bellowing like a madman at the television. She’d gotten up and headed for the bathroom. He caught her hand and pulled her over to the bed, settling down on the end with a mumbled apology and something that sounded suspiciously like a promise that he’d be quieter. Satisfied that he would keep his word, she curled up beside him and tried to go to sleep only to discover that his version of ‘quieter’ and hers had to be completely different since he kept yelling off and on. Sydnie didn’t know about his promise, but she did know that, in the course of a few hours, she’d developed an absolute loathing for all things ‘football’.

“Hey, baby,” he mumbled, turning his attention away from the television. Sydnie snorted and glanced at the set, not surprised to see that it was a commercial break—the only time that he seemed to recall that she existed at all. “Did you get a good nap?”

She narrowed her eyes and turned over, burying her face in the pillow she’d retrieved the last time he’d unceremoniously roused her. “Umph,” she muttered, her voice muffled by the pillow.

He chuckled and rubbed her back. “Come on, Sydnie . . . watch the game with me?”

She pushed herself up, arching her back and glancing at the television. Her already mulish scowl darkened as the game broadcast resumed, and she shook her head. “Did they change their clothes?”

“Wha . . .? Oh, no . . . this is the second game.”

Sydnie narrowed her eyes and slowly shifted them to the side to glower at Sebastian. “Second game?” she repeated incredulously. “You said you wanted to watch the game—one game.”

He shook his head. “I said I wanted to watch the Patriots game,” he argued distractedly, “and this is the Patriots’ game.”

She snorted. “Then what was the last one?”

“That was the first game . . . not a big deal.”

She rolled her eyes. “You were screaming at the television. It sounded like a big deal.”

“It’s a double-header,” he informed her. “But I have to watch both games! If the Patriots win this one, they’ll be tied with the Jets in the AFC East since Buffalo just lost to the Dolphins.”

“And not a single part of that made any sense,” she grumbled.

Bas sighed and shook his head. “It just means—oh, damn! Roughing the passer, you bastard! Call the foul! Call the foul! Clean hit, my ass! Get some glasses, you nearsighted moron!”

Sydnie rolled her eyes and pulled the pillow over her head as Bas leapt to his feet, bellowing at the television yet again. “And yet he somehow manages to drop even more IQ points in my estimation,” she mumbled.

He dropped back onto the end of the bed, his weight jarring the mattress so hard that Sydnie had to dig her claws into the coverlet to keep from rolling toward him. Heaving a thoroughly irritated sigh and casting Bas a baleful glower, she rolled off the bed and stomped toward the bathroom as Bas grunted something unintelligible. “Where you going?” he called after her, more of an afterthought than a real question.

“Taking a bath, puppy,” she replied evenly, digging through the suitcase for a change of clothes.

“All right,” he agreed. “Want some milk?”

She peered over her shoulder at him and nodded slowly. “Okay.”

He glanced around quickly and grimaced since reaching the telephone would mean turning his back on the television. “I’ll call in a few minutes. It’s almost halftime.”

Sydnie bit her cheek, snatching the cream colored satin robe out of the suitcase and slamming it closed. She didn’t trust herself to speak, and with a curt little grunt, she strode off to the bathroom and quietly closed the door.

Stupid football,’ she fumed, viciously twisting the faucet to turn on the flow of hot water. ‘It would serve him right if I stayed in here the rest of the night.’

She sighed, trying not to think about the idea that Bas had seen fit to stop early so that he could watch football when she’d been trying to talk him into stopping early for days. He wouldn’t stop when she asked him to, but he’d stop so that he could sit around and yell at the television as though it would make a difference to the game . . .

He said he’d order your milk,’ her youkai pointed out reasonably.

Yeah, he did,’ she agreed, stripping off her clothes and pulling a couple towels off the high rack on the wall. She spread one on the floor and set the other on the toilet before stepping into the steaming water.

At least there’s that, right?

Sinking down in the tub and willing the warmth to soothe her, Sydnie closed her eyes and scrunched down as low as she could. ‘I can deal with football,’ she told herself as a violent stab of desperate hope shot through her, ‘so long as I’m with Sebastian . . .’

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Sydnie felt a little better when she opened the bathroom door half an hour later. Relaxed from her bath and feeling quite a bit calmer, she stepped out of the sultry bathroom and shivered slightly as the cooler, drier air hit her moist skin. Bas was still watching the game, and he didn’t acknowledge Sydnie’s emergence as she stashed her clothes in a plastic bag.

Stifling a sigh, she wandered over to the bed, pulling the simple bow of her robe a little tighter, and sat down beside him. “Are we winning?”

Bas nodded vaguely. “Yeah. Up by ten.”

She blinked. She wasn’t sure what that meant, but the ‘yeah’ was clear enough. “Good.” Looking around the room, she frowned. She didn’t see milk anywhere. “Sebastian?”

“Hmm?”

She bit her lip, cheeks pinking. “Did you—?”

What the fuck!” he bellowed, jerking his arm away from Sydnie as he leaned forward even further. “You have to tackle the guy with the ball, you dumb ass! Don’t just stand there and let him run past you!”

Sydnie recoiled.

Bas snorted in obvious disgust and growled under his breath. His cell phone rang, and Sydnie glanced at him. He made no move to answer it. “Your phone,” she pointed out, raising her voice just enough to be heard over the fuss he was making.

“Pfft! They’ll call back,” he grumbled.

Sydnie wrinkled her nose. The ringing stopped after the fourth time only to start up again minutes later. Unable to ignore the incessant trill, Sydnie scooted off the bed and ran over to the table. She had every intention of turning off the ringer until she noticed the name that appeared on the caller ID. ‘Gunnar’, it said. Sydnie flipped it open and lifted the device to her ear. “Come get me,” she demanded in lieu of greeting.

“Sydnie? You want me to come get you. You and Bas not getting along?”

She shrugged and paced the floor near the table. “It’s fine,” she lied. “I’m just bored.”

“Bored? What’s Bas doing?”

“He’s busy,” she replied, plugging her ear when Bas started growling again. “Football.”

“Oh, the game,” Gunnar mused. “Yeah, he loves football.”

“I see,” Sydnie remarked. “So will you?”

“Come get you?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll send you a plane ticket,” he offered.

“I don’t like to fly.”

Gunnar sighed. “I’m not too fond of it, myself,” he admitted. “Tell him to stop being stupid and pay attention to you?”

Sydnie scowled. “He . . . he forgot my milk.”

“Aww . . . did he?”

She nodded. “Yeah.”

“Tell you what. Give me the name of your hotel.”

“The Windsor,” she replied.

“And the city?”

“I think we’re in Memphis, Tennessee.”

“Okay. I’ll call your hotel and have them send you some milk. How’s that?”

She shook her head. “You’d do that for me?”

“Sure, I would. If Bas is too busy to do it, then someone has to make sure you have milk, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know.”

“Hang up now, Sydnie. I’ll call back when I’m done, okay?”

“All right,” she agreed, then snapped the phone closed.

Her frown deepened. Somehow, the idea of someone else ordering milk for her . . .

She just didn’t like it; not at all . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Bas scowled at the television, trying to comprehend just how the Patriots could lose an early twenty-four point lead. It made no sense. Chalk it up to messy plays and inept refs, he supposed. ‘Just figures,’ he fumed. ‘The first time in twenty years we’ve got a decent shot to win the division standings, and the referee blows ass.

A knock sounded on the door, and Bas forced his attention off the game as Sydnie wandered over to answer it. “Sydnie, no! You don’t know who—”

She shot him a mulish glance and ignored him, deliberately grasping the handle and opening the door wide. “Room service,” the young man said. Sydnie stood aside, allowing the bellhop to step into the room. He deposited a gallon of milk on the table. She slipped a couple bucks into his hand, and he bowed before closing the door behind himself.

“Shit,” Bas mumbled, watching as she snapped the plastic cap off the gallon and lifted the entire thing to her lips. ‘Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit . . .’ He grimaced, realizing a little too late that he’d promised to order her milk awhile ago—and that he’d completely forgotten to do it. “You . . . ordered yourself . . .?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, puppy,” she shot back with a narrow-eyed glare, wiping her lips with the back of her hand. “You said you would.”

“Yeah, well, I . . .” He winced then sighed. “I . . . forgot.”

Sydnie nodded slowly. “I know,” she replied quietly, unable to mask the hurt in her voice at the perceived betrayal.

He winced again. “I meant to,” he began.

“Don’t worry about it, puppy,” she forced herself to say. “I don’t need your milk.”

Bas glanced back at the television when the crowd erupted in a chorus of jeers. “Ah, son of a b—” he growled, shaking his head furiously as one of the other team’s men intercepted a pass and sprinted down the sideline toward the Patriots’ end zone. Catching sight of Sydnie’s disgusted expression, he cut himself off abruptly. “So you ordered it for yourself?” he questioned, jerking his head at the jug of milk in her hands.

“Nope,” she responded, a tight little smile gracing her lips.

Bas blinked, shaking his head in confusion. “Then who did?”

The phone rang, and Sydnie nodded. “Him.”

“Him?” Bas echoed, slowly reaching for the device. “Fuck,” he muttered, staring at the name on the caller ID before he heaved a sigh and flipped open the phone. “What do you want?” he snarled.

“Commercial break?” Gunnar quipped.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing? I was going to get milk for her, damn it.”

“She said that you said you’d get it for her awhile ago, and that you forgot, Bas-tard. Did you?”

Bas ground his teeth together. “Shut it, Gunsie.”

Gunnar sighed. “So what the hell do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.

“Look, smart-ass, I haven’t watched a game since I came after her . . . Anyway, she was napping.”

Sydnie uttered a terse little ‘hrumph’ sound. Bas grimaced.

“Yeah, well, I’ve seen you while you were watching your ‘games’ . . . you tend to be a little involved, don’t you think?”

“So?”

Gunnar sighed again. “So do you really think Sydnie enjoys watching you make a damn fool out of yourself while you bellow at a television set?”

“Butt out, Gunnar,” he snapped, cheeks pinking since he probably had sounded a bit like a raving lunatic.

“Turn the damn TV off and spend some time with your mate, baka—before she decides that she doesn’t want to have an idiot puppy like you as her mate.”

“I mean it, Gunnar: buttout.”

“You’re stupid, Bas—really stupid. No wonder she wants me to come pick her up.”

“. . . What?

“You heard me. She asked me to come get her.”

Bas’ eyes widened then narrowed as he stared at the cat. “Sydnie?”

“Hmm?” she replied, staring at her claws haughtily.

“Fix it before you dig yourself a deeper hole, baka,” Gunnar grumbled. “I’ll call you later to tell you what I’ve found out. Damn fool.” He hung up, and Bas flinched inwardly as he snapped the phone closed and dropped it back onto the table.

“You . . . you really asked him to come get you?”

Sydnie shrugged, striding away from the table and crawling onto the bed, tucking her legs to the side and presenting him with her back. “He bought me milk,” she muttered with a sad shake of her head.

Bas glanced at the television. Two minutes left in regulation time, and the score was tied. With an inward sigh, he grabbed the remote and turned off the set, tossing it down on the table before stepping over to the bed and sitting behind Sydnie. “I’m sorry, baby,” he told her softly, hesitantly pushing her hair off her shoulder.

“I’ve asked you for days to stop early,” she replied in a tiny voice. “You always said that we had to keep moving.”

“Sydnie . . .”

“Then you finally stop so you can watch a game—a stupid football game.”

“It’s a big game!” he argued, tossing his arms up at his sides.

Sydnie turned her head enough to stare at him out of the corner of her eyes. “So you’ve said; so you’ve said.”

“It’s an important game,” he grumbled, cheeks pinking as he tried to ignore the desire to turn the television back on to check the score again.

“More important than me; I got it.”

Bas froze and blinked in surprise at the vehemence in Sydnie’s normally melodic voice. “What? No! I don’t think—I didn’t . . . I didn’t mean to,” he told her. “I really—”

She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin proudly. “I don’t need you, Bas the Hunter. I don’t.”

He flinched, scooting toward her to pull her into his lap. She stiffened but didn’t resist him though she didn’t relax against him, either. “I want you to,” he admitted quietly.

“You . . . want me . . . to?”

He nodded. “Yes, I do.”

She shrugged. “Why?”

“Because I need you—I need you . . . a lot.”

She ducked her chin, shoulders slumping as she let out a noiseless sigh. “You . . . do?”

“Yeah,” he whispered, burying his nose in her hair. “More than I should . . . yeah.”

“You forgot about me,” she pouted.

Bas kissed her temple and held her a little closer. She leaned on his shoulder, content to let him hold her for the time being. “I’m sorry, baby. I didn’t mean to.”

She sniffled. “Don’t do it again, puppy.”

He swallowed hard, stroking her hair, her back, trying to soothe her and feeling like a complete ogre in the process. He had to clear his throat before he could speak, had to force down the painful lump that swelled in his chest. “I won’t.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sydnie paced the floor, casting Sebastian occasional glances as she pondered his offer. “Anything I want to do?” she finally asked, crossing her arms over her chest. “Anything?”

Lounging on the bed, propped on one elbow with his hand supporting his cheek, he nodded slowly. “That’s right, cat,” he reiterated with a grimace. “Whatever you want.”

Sydnie hid a smile. Two things were very apparent: firstly, Bas the Hunter felt completely horrible about his inattention during the game, and secondly, he was more than a little wary of the ‘anything’ that Sydnie might come up with. “That’s interesting,” she allowed, not quite ready to let the dog off the hook just yet. “Anything, huh?”

He shifted, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “Take it easy on me, kitty,” he grumbled, only half-joking.

“You don’t like the terms you set?” she purred, slipping onto the end of the bed and slowly crawling toward Bas. He swallowed hard, tearing his gaze away from the deep ‘v’ of her thigh-length robe. “Fine, fine . . . I suppose we could play a game of our own—your game.”

“My game?” he repeated, a wry grin surfacing on his face. “You want to play football?”

“Football? No . . . that other game. What did you call it?” She sat up, tapping her chin thoughtfully. “Ah, yes . . . Truth or Dare.”

He blinked and slowly shook his head. “You want to play Truth or Dare.”

She nodded. “It’ll do for starters.”

“Okay,” he said, rolling onto his back and propping himself up on his elbows. “Ladies first.”

She grinned. “Truth or dare, puppy?”

Scrunching his face up into a thoughtful little scowl, Bas finally heaved a sigh and grinned. “Dare, kitty. Do your worst.”

Sydnie laughed. “I dare you to order milk for me.”

Bas snorted. “That was your dare? You know I’d do that, anyway,” he pointed out.

“Put up or shut up, puppy.”

Bas chuckled as he rolled over and grabbed the phone, dialing the number for room service and making quick work of ordering a gallon of whole milk for her. Dropping the receiver back into the cradle, he dusted his hands together and stretched out again, tucking his hands together behind his neck and shooting Sydnie and entirely smug grin. “Truth or dare, kitty.”

“Truth.”

“Tell me, Sydnie . . . Would you really have wanted Gunnar to come get you?”

Trying to ignore the hint of trepidation in Bas’ gaze, Sydnie stared at the coverlet and shrugged. “Do you really think I would?” she demanded softly.

Bas winced. “I’d like to think you wouldn’t.”

She shrugged, crawling toward him close enough to trace little circles on his chest. “I wouldn’t have.”

For some reason, her answer didn’t seem to make him feel any better. “I’m sorry, kitty.”

She smiled. “Truth or dare, Sebastian.”

“Truth.”

“Are you sure you’re not just playing with me?”

He blinked. “Playing with you?”

She nodded. “You said that the reason you always stopped me before was because Gunnar was here,” she pointed out. “He’s gone now, you know. He’s been gone awhile.”

“I’m not playing with you, Sydnie,” he assured her, his cheeks pinking though his gaze remained steady. “I swear I’m not.

“Good.”

He tried to smile but failed. “Truth or dare, kitty.”

“Truth.”

“Are you sure you’re not just playing with me to drive me insane?”

She giggled. “Would I do such a thing, puppy?”

He narrowed his gaze on her. “Yes, Sydnie, I believe you would.”

She rolled her eyes but giggled louder. “You’re so self-conscious, Sebastian.”

“Yeah, whatever. Your turn, cat.”

“Truth or dare?”

“Truth.”

Her smile widened. “Do you really believe that the tiny men on the television can hear you when you yell at them?”

He snorted but his coloring darkened as he broke into a sheepish little grin. “Of course I do. Sometimes they even reverse their bad calls.” A knock on the door interrupted the game, and Bas scooted off the bed to answer. Making quick work of taking the milk from the bellhop, Bas gave the boy a tip and poured Sydnie a big glass before returning to the bed once more.

She accepted the glass and drained it in one long gulp before crawling over Bas’ prone body to set the empty glass on the nightstand. Hiding her smile when he uttered a low groan, she sat back and smiled sweetly. “Your turn, Bas the Hunter,” she reminded him.

He blinked a few times, the dazed sort of expression on his face slowly dissipating. He had to clear his throat before he could speak again, and Sydnie laughed softly, unaccountably pleased with her ability to completely fluster the youkai hunter. “T-t-truth or dare?”

She thought it over. “Dare.”

He chuckled, gaze lighting with sudden inspiration. Before he told her the terms of the dare, he sat up again and ambled over to the bureau where a small microwave stood. She watched as he dug a packet of popcorn out of the box they’d picked up earlier. He tore the plastic wrapper off and stuck the packet into the microwave, starting it up before returning to the bed once more. “I dare you,” he began, a slow smile spreading over his face as a triumphant sort of light filtered into his gaze, “to share a bag of popcorn with me.”

Sydnie sat up. “What? That’s silly! I can do that . . .”

“That means,” he went on, “no growling, no scratching, no claiming the bag . . . it sits on the bed between us, and you can’t even lift an eyebrow at me when I take some because we’re sharing it.”

Snapping her mouth closed and trying to resist the blush that rose in her own cheeks, Sydnie’s face shifted into a chagrined little scowl, and she snorted. “That’s easy enough,” she assured him. “Simple, puppy! A complete waste of a dare!”

“And if you so much as give me a look, cat . . . well, you’ll have to abide by the consequences.”

“Consequences?”

“Of course. That’s the whole point of the game, isn’t it? If you can’t complete your dare, there has to be consequences, don’t you think?”

“I can share, puppy,” she bit out.

“I know you can, baby. I’m just encouraging you.”

Wrinkling her nose as he wandered over to retrieve the popcorn, Sydnie snorted, sitting up a little straighter as he shook the bag and carefully pulled the top seams apart. Dropping the bag onto the bed, he reached in and grabbed a huge handful of the snack. Sydnie remembered just in time that she really didn’t dare say a thing, even if she did think that Bas was being a pig. “Mmm,” he moaned in an exaggerated show of happiness as he made a point of stuffing the entire handful into his mouth. “Wan’ ‘ome, ‘itty?”

Sydnie didn’t answer, leaning forward and snatching a couple kernels. “Truth or dare, puppy.”

He flopped onto his back and swallowed. “Truth.”

She shot him a rather nasty grin. Bas paused with his hand in the popcorn bag. She had the feeling that he was dreading her question, and well he should. She let her gaze travel over him as his skin pinked a little more. “Tell me, Sebastian,” she began quietly, “what color are your crests?”

“My . . .?” His face shifted from a light blush to a painful crimson stain, and he coughed. “My . . . crests.”

She nodded, feeling much better as she popped a few pieces of popcorn into her mouth. “Yes, your crests.”

“Ah . . . well . . . I, uh, they . . . I mean, it—them—they . . .” He drew a deep breath, scowling as he shot to his feet and snatched the glass off the nightstand before stomping over, his back to her, and poured her another drink. “Green,” he mumbled, his voice barely above a whisper.

“Green?” she echoed, suppressing the exultant laugh that welled up inside her; the pleasure that she’d finally gotten some sort of answer out of him about the elusive crests. “I like green.”

“Truth or dare, cat?” he growled, stomping over and shoving the glass under her nose.

“Truth, puppy.”

He snorted, sinking down on the bed but careful to avoid her gaze. “What’s your favorite color?”

She giggled. “Green,” she insisted, blinking innocently. “Definitely green, puppy . . .”

He blushed even darker, and Sydnie laughed out loud. “I walked right into that,” he grumbled.

“Yes, you did,” she agreed with a shrug, forcing her eyes away as he reached for the bag of popcorn. “Don’t blush, Sebastian. Red clashes with green . . .”

His answer was a loud ‘pfft!’ as he jammed more popcorn into his mouth.

“Truth or dare?” she demanded.

“Oof,” he mumbled.

“Do I scare you, Sebastian?”

He gulped and quickly shook his head. “N-n-no.”

She rose on her hands and knees and leaned toward him. “Are you sure?”

He nodded. “Y-yes . . .”

“That’s a shame,” she relented, sitting back on her heels with a melodramatic sigh.

Bas snorted. “You smashed the popcorn, Sydnie.”

“Did I? I’m so sorry . . .”

“I doubt that,” he retorted mildly. “Truth or dare, cat.”

“Truth.”

He snorted. “Do you want some more milk?”

She rolled her eyes. “Not at the moment, puppy, but I’ll keep it in mind. What a waste of a question.”

He chuckled, grabbing another handful of popcorn. Sydnie couldn’t help the little half-growl that slipped from her as she reached out to snatch the bag from him. Jerking her hand away at the last second, she bit her lip and bit off the growl, hoping against hope that he hadn’t noticed the mistake. No such luck.

His eyebrows shot up as he slowly rolled over, pushing himself into a sitting position, an entirely triumphant grin surfacing on his face. “I knew you couldn’t do it,” he remarked without even trying to keep the hint of gloating out of his tone.

“I didn’t!” she argued. “I stopped myself!”

“Ah, but you did it,” he insisted. “Now you have to live with the consequences.”

She glared at him. “That’s rather mean, don’t you think?”

“Nope,” he told her. “You were warned.”

Plastering on an exaggeratedly innocent expression, Sydnie batted her eyes and tilted her head. “Please, Sebastian? I won’t do it again; I promise.”

He snorted. “Nope . . . now you get to feed me the rest of the popcorn—without complaint.”

Her mouth dropped open, and she scowled at him. He chuckled, obviously thinking he’d won. Sydnie started to say something then snapped her mouth closed, the thread of an idea blossoming in her mind. “Okay,” she agreed, her voice dropping to a husky purr. “Your wish is my command, my puppy.”

Gaze narrowing as he tried to figure out just what was going through her mind, Bas slowly shook his head as Sydnie picked up the bag of popcorn and scooted toward him. “Sydnie? What . . .?”

Straddling him, she took her time squirming around for a moment as she adjusted her position on his lap. He grimaced and opened his mouth to protest. Sydnie dug a few kernels of popcorn out of the bag and set it aside before leaning forward, slowly running it along the outline of his lips. “All of it, huh?”

“Damn it,” he grumbled, turning his face away as his cheeks shot straight to scarlet, bypassing pink completely. “Get . . . off . . . cat.”

“Oh, no,” she insisted, patiently following his face with the food. “Consequences, you said, right? Far be it for me not to abide by the set rules of the game.”

“You’re bad,” he rasped out, finally meeting her stare. His eyes were dark, veiled in a more turbulent emotion, and Sydnie caught her breath, forgetting for the moment, that she was supposed to be feeding him.

“Bad is a relative term, Sebastian. I prefer ‘playful’.”

He stifled a groan, closing his eyes for a moment as a violent shiver ran down his spine. “And I prefer ‘trouble’.”

“I like trouble,” she assured him, slipping the popcorn into his mouth. “Oh, look . . . you’re a mess . . . let me help you, shall I?”

He chewed almost absently, staring at her in a bemused sort of way. Leaning toward him, her tongue darted out, carefully licking away the sheen of buttery oil that glossed his lips. “God,” he moaned quietly, his arms locking around her. “Sydnie . . . I . . .”

“Me, too,” she whispered, slowly licking his upper lip. She could feel the trembling erupting in his body, and the curious sensation of light-headedness that swept through her in a brutal rush. Pulling another piece of popcorn from the bag, she repeated the process. He gripped her shoulders, pulling and pushing at her at the same time, unable to decide what he wanted to do. The struggle between heart and mind was a palpable thing. Sydnie leaned down, brushing her lips over his, returning once, twice only to draw his bottom lip into her mouth, bathing away the salty remnants of the popcorn with the stroke of her tongue.

“That’s . . . enough,” he murmured, eyes half-closed as his harsh breath ruffled over her cheek. “I . . . you . . . sharing lesson over.”

“But I don’t want it to be over,” she argued, slipping her hand around his neck and burying her fingers in the silky strands of his hair. “You said the rest of the popcorn.”

“The rest of the popcorn might kill me.”

“You’re stronger than that, Bas the Hunter,” she murmured, leaning in, nipping at his earlobe. “Truth or dare, puppy?”

“D-dare . . .?”

She giggled, pressing her body against his, reveling in the sheer strength that exuded from him. “I dare you to show me your crests,” she whispered.

Bas gasped, her words shocking him as his body stiffened. “I . . . no!” he choked, shoving her off his lap and shooting to his feet to stalk across the room.

Sydnie sighed. “Why not?”

“Game over, cat,” he growled. “Forget it, damn it.”

She shook her head and adjusted the hem of her robe, scrunching up her shoulders as she tried to brush aside the hurt that surged through her. “You’re a jerk, Bas the Hunter—a huge jerk!”

“Sydnie—”

Untangling her legs and slipping off the bed, she strode over to him, planting her hands on her hips and glaring up at him. “You’re a jerk and a hypocrite, and—”

“Hypocrite? How?”

She snorted, poking him hard in the center of his chest to emphasize her words. “You’re the one who is always telling me that I should trust you, aren’t you? ‘Trust me, Sydnie’ . . . ‘I promise, Sydnie’ . . . All your big talk, and the one thing that you don’t even comprehend is that you don’t trust me, do you? And that makes you a hypocrite!

Bas stopped short, slowly reaching out to grasp Sydnie’s shoulder as he bent down to look her in the eye.   “That’s not true,” he told her. “I—”

“You can tell me, you know,” she mumbled, glowering at the floor and blinking furiously.

“Tell you what?”

She shook her head, wrenched herself away from him with a vicious jerk. “You don’t want me. I got it now. It’s crystal-clear.”

“That’s not it!” he bellowed, catching her hand and pulling her back before she had a chance to get away. “Don’t be stupid, Sydnie! It’s not that I don’t want you! I just . . . I . . .” he winced and squeezed his eyes closed then heaved a sigh. “O-o-okay.”

She blinked and stole a glance at him. “Okay?”

He jerked his head in a curt nod, face flaming, a miserable expression on his face. “Okay,” he said again. “Just . . . don’t laugh. Please don’t laugh . . .”

“Why would I laugh?”

He snorted, already acute embarrassment rapidly escalating into the desire to have the floor open up and swallow him, at least judging from the misery in his expression. “Because,” he grumbled, cheeks darkening in color, “I look like a damn . . . barber pole.”

Sydnie coughed but didn’t laugh. “A . . . barber pole?”

He shot her a mutinous glare. “Yes,” he gritted out. “Forget it . . .”

Sydnie caught his hand before he could stomp away. “I’m sorry,” she told him, pulling him back. “That was just an amusing visual, but I won’t laugh . . . I swear I won’t . . .”

Bas stared at her for a long moment then finally nodded, backing up until his legs hit the bed and lowering himself down on it slowly. Stretching out without taking his eyes off her, he drew a deep breath and tried to smile. He gave up on the attempt and dragged a pillow over his head, instead. “Make it quick,” he mumbled, voice muffled.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

It seemed to Bas that Sydnie was taking her sweet time in doing whatever looking she wanted to do. Stifling a frustrated growl, he held the pillow over his head so tightly that he could feel the muscles in his arms straining. He felt the bed sag by his knees. He could tell that Sydnie was doing something, but he just couldn’t make himself look, either.

After so many years of dreading this moment, he found that he wasn’t nearly as prepared as he should have been. He’d come to terms with the idea that he would eventually have to find a mate, and that she would very likely end up seeing the crests that he took great pains to hide. Maybe he’d been teased one too many times. Try as he might, he couldn’t really remember a time when he wasn’t self-conscious about that particular facet of his anatomy. As much as he hated it, he also couldn’t quite shake it off, either.

A gentle yet insistent tug pulled the pillow off his face, and Bas blinked as his eyes readjusted to the dim light in the hotel room. Sydnie was stretched out beside him—she must have cleaned up the popcorn mess—smiling at him in a sad sort of way, and he couldn’t help wondering if she somehow understood his reticence better than he thought that she would.

“I won’t look if you don’t want me to,” she said, her voice soft, kind.

Bas reached out, brushed his knuckles over her cheek as she leaned into his touch. “It’s okay,” he told her despite the wild wish that he could just tell her to forget it after all. “I do trust you, you know.”

She nodded, catching his hand and twining her fingers with his. “You don’t trust yourself.”

He winced. It wasn’t a question, and she . . . she was right. “Just . . . fast . . . okay?”

Her gentle smile was tempered by a certain sadness that he couldn’t comprehend. Leaning down, she kissed him softly, her lips no more than a whisper against his. She let go of his hand so that he could slip his arms around her. Feathering kisses over his cheeks and forehead, his eyes and nose, his chin and jaw line, she calmed him, comforted him, almost made him forget the worries that plagued him.

Scooting closer, she pressed her body against his, kissing her way back to his lips, her fingertips stroking his face, tracing the contours of his shoulders, reaching down to tug on the hem of his shirt. He sat up, allowing her to pull it off him before lying back down, granting her the freedom to do what she would . . . Trailing kisses down his neck, along his collarbones, she fanned her fingers over the expanse of skin on his chest, his abdomen. His body reacted in a riot of sensations, a thousand tiny flames igniting, converging, burning him from the inside out. The cool satin of her robe heated to his touch; the brush of her hair over his skin setting off a chain reaction that shot straight to his groin.

Digging his claws into the coverlet, he felt every muscle in his body tensing, straining. Unable to do much more than to lie there and take it, Bas felt as though every strand of his being was being wound tighter and tighter. She sighed, a throaty sound, a rusty purr, and he could feel sweat breaking over his brow, his chest. Fighting against the overwhelming desire to grab her, to claim her, Bas tightened his fists even more, rasping out a strangled sound as Sydnie’s fingers slipped under the waistband of his jeans.

She sat up, biting her lip as she unbuttoned the last of his clothing. Unable to look at her, to watch her, he grabbed the pillow and dragged it over his face once more. She sighed softly but didn’t try to take it away. Wrapping his arms over it so tightly that she likely wouldn’t be able to pull it off him, Bas groaned as the deafening ‘snick’ of his zipper cracked like thunder in the room.

“Lift your hips, puppy,” she crooned. He didn’t want to help her, but he couldn’t stop himself, either. She grasped the jeans along with his boxer shorts, pulling them down the length of his legs and dropping them off the end of the bed. “Oh, it’s . . .” she trailed off. He grimaced at the odd note of wonder in her voice, then gasped sharply, his mind rebelling against the sensation that was both foreign and familiar at the same time as Sydnie’s smooth, soft hands closed around him.

His body reacted, a powerful surge of inebriating desire pulsing through him from somewhere deep down inside. He could feel the rising urgency as she stroked him, her hands gripping him tight then releasing as she pumped the length of him. He tried to hold back; fought to contain the oblivion of pleasure. Her touch was too insistent, too demanding, and with a ragged cry muffled by the pillow, Bas’ body stiffen, lifted his hips against her descending hands. The hot splatter of his orgasm shot onto his stomach, spilled over her fingers, dripped between her hands. She laughed softly, her hands letting go of him, and it took him a moment to register that she’d slipped off the bed.

Minutes later, as his breathing calmed, he felt the warm caress of a wet washcloth. Sydnie wiped him clean before stroking him to hardness once more. Feathering touches, the lightest of caresses, her fingers danced over his flesh as he trembled and shuddered, mumbling incoherent pleas, begging her to stop. If she heard him, she gave no indication, stroking him, her hand tight but gentle. Moist skin pulling against skin added an almost painful friction, and he groaned.

Bas couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t concentrate on anything but Sydnie’s attention and the madness that wrapped around his brain any time she was near. He wanted to stop her, wanted to make her understand that he just couldn’t take it, wanted to beg her to keep going. The conflicting emotions warred within him, the rising temper of resurgent need swelling in the dim light. He felt the bed shift, trembling as Sydnie knelt between his legs. In the incoherent state of his mind, the thread of a thought started to form only to burst in a searing syncopation of heat and light and blistering wetness. She drew him into her mouth, her teeth grazing over the length of him—as much as she could take in. He felt himself hit the back of her throat, and she gagged just a little but didn’t stop. Roughened tongue stroking him, sucking him deeper—a little deeper—she moaned softly, the reverberation rocking straight through him as he involuntarily bucked his hips, sending himself impossibly deep as her hand wrapped around the base of him.

“God, Sydnie, no,” he choked out, body trembling as he tried to hold himself in check. Wrapping her fingers around his balls, she squeezed gently, and he rasped out a fierce groan.

He sprang free from the suction of her lips with a slurpy, wet ‘pop’, shivering violently as the cooler air hit his overheated body. Running the very tip of her tongue along the ridge below the head of his penis, she rumbled out a little purr. He could feel the uncontrollable spasms as he jerked around in her hands, and Sydnie uttered a husky giggle as she sucked him into her mouth once more. The edges of her fangs raked against him, and he drew a sharp breath as she clamped her lips around him, creating a suction, a vacuum, a vortex that drew him deeper and deeper.

“Fuck!” he half-whimpered, half-growled, squeezing his eyes closed as the pillow covering his face ripped under the abuse of his claws. “Stop,” he pleaded, whispering, body convulsing as the pulsing, throbbing flow of blood thundered in his ears. “Sydnie, please, I . . .”

She drew him deeper, sucked him harder, her tongue raking over him; endless pleasure that bordered on pain. He could feel the surge of his orgasm rising higher, closer, harder to ignore. “I don’t . . . I c-c-can’t . . .”

Sydnie’s tongue flicked faster, goading him further, closer and closer to the edge of his control. His breath caught between his lips and lungs, and he smashed the remnants of the pillow tighter over his face. The bittersweet torment seemed to last forever as he fought against the perilous end. He swung his arms to push her away, but the action came a moment too late. One last stifling breath, one last insistent tug, the vortex of her mouth, of her soul, dragged at him, broke the last strands of control that he possessed. With a ragged cry muffled by the pillow, he called out to God, to heaven, to hell, damning himself as Sydnie squeezed him, sucked him, drained him . . .

Somewhere in the distance, he heard her stifled cough. Moments later, the pillow lifted from his face, and he squeezed his eyes closed, face ruddy crimson, unable to look her in the eye as the warmth of her body covered his chest, as she tucked her head into the crook of his neck. Her body was quivering, but she pressed soft kisses on his throat and jaw. Bas grimaced, forcing his lethargic arms to move, to encompass her, to hold her close against his heart as he struggled to breathe, as he fought to form words, as his mind whizzed a mile a minute; far too fast to give voice to the million emotions that humbled him; that lifted him up.

“Baby,” he mumbled, forcing his eyes open and staring at Sydnie. “You . . . why did you . . .?”

Her smile trembled on her lips, her gaze full of a certain reverence; a heartfelt warmth. “I think you’re beautiful, Bas the Hunter,” she murmured. “Why were you hiding yourself?”

Flinching at her choice of words, Bas closed his eyes and hugged her tight. “I’m not . . . I’m a monster—a freak,” he replied quietly. “I’ve heard it all before.”

She shook her head, leaning up on her elbow to gaze down at him. Brushing his bangs out of his face, she clucked her tongue and sighed. “A monster?” she echoed. “Why would anyone say that?”

Bas’ blush deepened. “Because I’m . . . big.”

“Wha . . .? Oh,” she replied, and he grimaced since he knew from the tone of her voice that she was smiling. “That’s bad?” she teased.

He snorted. “Bad enough,” he grumbled.

“I thought all men wanted to be big. You should be proud, I’d think.”

That comment only served to deepen his blush. Bas shook his head. “Not when the girls are pointing and laughing,” he admitted with a wince.

“They laughed at you?” Sydnie wrinkled her nose then shrugged. “I, myself, would have just jumped on you, but . . .”

“Be serious, kitty?”

“And who says I’m not?”

He sighed.

“Why were your pants down around these girls . . . and what do they smell like?”

He chuckled despite himself at the unmistakable menace in Sydnie’s words. “Calm down, baby. It was awhile ago.”

She snorted but cuddled against his chest once more, wrapping strands of his hair around her fingers. “All right, what happened?”

Bas’ wry grin faded. “We were playing basketball at the park—Evan and Gunnar and another of my cousins, Morio . . . the high school baseball team had a game that day, and the park is right next to the school. Anyway, Gunnar and Evan were losing, so Evan—being a dumb ass—yanked my sweatpants down, along with my boxers, and . . . well . . .” He grimaced, wishing that the memory didn’t still have the power to make him blush. He sighed, kissing Sydnie’s temple as she smiled dreamily and closed her eyes. “The baseball game had just ended, and you’ve seen for yourself, what happens wherever Gunnar happens to be . . . So the captain of the cheerleading squad and half of her team were hanging around, watching us play when Evan did that . . . I guess I should have been thankful that I had a concealment on at the time.”

“So they saw your penis? Is that so bad?”

“They pointed and laughed, Sydnie . . . and I spent the rest of my high school career hearing whispers and being told that . . .” he trailed off with a wince, and he cleared his throat. “That I’d kill any girl I tried to sleep with.”

“Their loss,” she mumbled, smiling dreamily as she nuzzled closer. “’Nuff talk, puppy . . . I’m sleepy.”

Bas scowled. “Wha—? You can’t go to sleep now,” he argued.

“Why not?” she whined, her brows drawing together in a petulant little scowl.

“Well, I—you—we . . . You’re just not supposed to; that’s all!”

“Just hold me, Sebastian,” she whispered, the beginning of her purrs tinting the edges of her words.

He heaved a sigh, thoroughly irritated that she would do such a thing to him and then think that she would just go to sleep. She looked so content, though, so happy that he didn’t have the heart to wake her, even if he thought that she would ultimately enjoy his attentions.

Reaching over to turn off the lamp beside the bed, Bas tried not to disturb the sleeping cat-youkai. Pulling the blanket over her slender form, he smiled into the darkness as he closed his eyes.

“Tomorrow, Sydnie . . . We’ll stop early, if that’s what you want—whatever you want . . . my . . . mate . . .”

He thought that he could feel her smile as he drifted off to sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Hello?”

“Got a minute?”

Bas stifled a yawn and rubbed away the lingering traces of sleep that blurred his vision. “Sure,” he replied, keeping his voice lowered, careful not to wake Sydnie just yet. “Something happen?”

Cain sighed. “Not really. Just wanted to touch base with you. Where are you, by the way?”

“Tennessee . . . Memphis.”

“You’re making progress, then. Good. How’s Sydnie?”

Unable to repress the little grin that broke over his features, Bas chuckled. “She’s fine.”

“Any trace of the bounty hunters?”

“Nope, not yet. I don’t doubt they’re looking for us, but they haven’t caught up yet.”

“And you’re being careful?”

“Absolutely.”

Cain let out his breath in a heavy gust. “You’d damn well better be, Bas.”

Bas wrinkled his nose and shifted slightly, bending his knee and leaning his elbow on it. “I know, Dad. I’m not stupid.”

“Never thought you were,” Cain remarked mildly, ignoring the irritation inherent in Bas’ tone. “Your mother wanted me to ask what the odds were that you’d be home for Christmas.”

“Slim to none,” Bas quipped amicably enough. Dragging a hand over his face, he grimaced when Sydnie turned her face, her purring no longer muffled by Bas’ chest.

“Yeah, I didn’t figure you would be . . . What’s that?”

Bas cleared his throat. “What’s what?”

“That sound . . . it sounds like a motor or something.”

“Oh, that,” Bas said slowly. “Yeah . . . that’s just Sydnie.”

“That’s . . .? She . . . purrs?”

Bas snorted. “She is a cat, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. I just didn’t realize . . . Guess I should have, huh?”

“Gunnar hasn’t found out anything else about the Onyx?”

“Nothing substantial, but he has a few leads—and don’t think for a moment that I don’t know you’re changing the subject.”

Bas grinned ruefully and sighed. “Don’t evade the master of evasion?”

“Something like that, yes. In any case, just remember that we need to clear her name before you do anything . . . permanent?”

“Yes, sir,” he promised with a grimace.

“I’ll hold you to that,” Cain remarked mildly. “How are you doing, money-wise?”

“Not bad . . . could use a little more. Trading off cars all the time gets to be rather expensive.”

Cain grunted. “I’m sure,” he agreed. “Necessary expense, if you ask me. Find a place where you can stay put for a day or two, and I’ll wire you more.”

“Okay,” Bas agreed. “I might have enough to get us to Chicago . . . not positive, though.”

“Why Chicago?”

Bas idly stroked Sydnie’s back. She smiled in her sleep but didn’t wake up. “Seems like as good a place as any to spend Christmas,” he hedged.

“You staying at the mansion?”

Bas scowled thoughtfully at the sleeping feline atop his chest. “I was hoping to, yes,” he admitted. “If I can convince Sydnie it’s safe. Security’s good there, and I think she’d like to spend a couple days in one place.”

“If she’s been alone since she was three, as you’ve said, then she hasn’t really had a Christmas, has she?”

Bas sighed. “That’s what I was thinking; show her what a real holiday is, right? Let her forget about everything else, even if it is only for a couple of days.”

“You’ll probably be safer at the mansion than you would be anywhere else,” Cain allowed, “but don’t let your guard down, got it?”

“Yes, sir,” he replied. “Oh, hey . . . who won the game last night?”

Cain grunted. “The Patriots did by a safety . . . triple overtime; thought your mom was going to break my hand. You didn’t see it?”

Bas sighed then grinned as a little blush crept over his skin. “No.”

“Ah, well you missed one hell of a game, then. Anyway, you’d better let me send you money sooner, unless you’re not planning on buying her anything for Christmas?”

“You’re right,” Bas said, wincing inwardly. “Guess that would be pretty bad.”

“Just a little,” Cain allowed with a soft chuckle. “All right, then.   Keep me posted.”

Bas nodded. “Yes, sir.”

Snapping the device closed, he closed his eyes for a moment, content to hold Sydnie, to feel her heart beat in time with his before he woke her up so that they could get moving.

A Christmas present, huh?’ he mused.

His youkai sighed. ‘Yeah . . . too bad you have no idea what to buy a woman—and neither do I, so don’t ask.’

So I’ll get someone else’s help,’ he decided.

Oh, yeah? Who?

Who else? Bitty Belle . . .’

Bas yawned, wrapping his arms more securely around Sydnie’s shoulders for a moment before kissing her forehead and carefully maneuvering her onto the mattress so that he could slip out of the bed without waking her. After making quick work of getting dressed, he paused long enough to fill a glass with the last of the milk before chucking the empty plastic carton into the trash can and setting the glass beside the bed before swiping up the cell phone and striding toward the bathroom.

Absently glad that he’d downloaded the contents of his regular cell phone’s directory onto this unit before leaving Maine, he scrolled through the numbers until he found the one he wanted. Deciding that he wasn’t going to wake her up, Bas dialed the number and waited for an answer.

“Moshi moshi.”

“Hey, Bitty. Got a minute?”

“Bastian!”

He grimaced at the shortened form of his name that his darling cousin-slash-niece insisted on using. “Just ‘Bas’ is fine.”

“To what do I owe the honor of your impromptu phone call?” she asked, her alto voice smooth, silky, and she spoke in perfect English despite the hint of an accent inherent from her native Japanese upbringing.

He sighed. “I need some help.”

“And that’s what I’m here for! Help with what, angel-face?”

Bas rolled his eyes. “I want to buy a Christmas present, and I don’t know what to get.”

“Depends on who you’re buying a present for.”

He grimaced. “A . . . girl.”

“Oh? Oh! Your little pussy cat? Sydnie? That’s her name, right?”

“Yes,” he admitted, unable to keep his face from shooting up in flames at Isabelle’s wording. “How do you know about her?”

“Oh, please! Gunnar sent me a picture of her. She’s gorgeous!”

“Is there anyone he didn’t send that damn picture to?”

“Well, I don’t think he sent it to his grandparents, but Sierra might have . . . I’m pretty sure that everyone’s seen her . . . Alexandra thinks that she’s hot, too.”

“Oh, hell,” he grouched with a grimace since he knew that if Bitty showed her younger sister, Alexandra, then there was no way in hell that he was going to escape teasing from the well-intentioned, if not completely bothersome girls.

“It’s not so bad, you know. She’s beautiful. Have you slept with her yet?”

“The Christmas present, Isabelle,” he reminded her.

“All right; all right . . . you’re pulling the shy act again; I get it.” Isabelle giggled. “Hmm . . . lingerie is always nice, and then you get to enjoy it, too!”

“Be serious, Bitty.”

“I am, Bastian.”

“Fine . . . anything else?”

“Let’s see . . . there’s the old standby: jewelry . . . Papa always gets Mama jewelry just before he says something entirely trite and somewhat droll about tolerating her . . .”

“Jewelry.”

“Yes. A pretty necklace or a nice little bracelet . . . even a pair of diamond stud earrings . . . or an engagement ring?”

Bas grimaced. “I don’t know if that would be a good idea. She doesn’t even want to admit that she’s my mate yet.”

“Really? But you know it, right?”

He sighed. “Yeah, I know it.”

“Then that means that she knows it, too.”

“Sure,” he agreed, unable to keep the hint of frustration out of his tone. “She won’t admit it, though.”

“You’ll get her to admit it, Bastian. I have every faith in you.”

“Yeah, thanks . . . and Bitty?”

“Hmm?”

“Would you mind not telling anyone that I called you?”

“My lips are sealed.”

“Thanks.”

“Any time, darling.”

He chuckled as he clicked off the phone, thoughtfully tapping it against his chin. Isabelle, the oldest of his sister’s children, was only a couple weeks younger than Bas, and because of the odd relation to her father, Kichiro, she was both Bas’ niece as well as his cousin, and having grown up with two very open-minded parents, it wasn’t surprising at all that Isabelle—Bitty Belle to most of the family since she was named after Belle’s mother—was quite frank about sex, in general, and her propensity to state things so bluntly had always made Bas a little uncomfortable.

Though she tended to be closer to Gunnar, she’d always enjoyed needling Bas, trying to set him up on dates with friends of hers and basically asking more questions than Bas was willing to answer—all of them pertaining to sex in some way or another. When Bitty had found out about Bas’ stripes, she’d pestered him all summer to let her see them. Bas winced, recalling just how much he’d hated his trip to Japan that year. Bitty had been sure that all of her friends would line up to see them, as if he were going to put himself up as a side-show freak or something . . . It had seemed to him that Bitty and Alexandra were more concerned about his lack of a sex life than he was . . .

Still, she was the best person to have asked about what to buy for Sydnie, and while jewelry seemed like a rather clichéd gift, Bas had to wonder if cliché might be the best course to take. After all, jewelry was absolutely useless, and Sydnie . . .

He broke into a little grin as memories of the night before invaded his mind. The things she’d done, she’d done for him, because she cared about him more than she wanted to admit, even to herself.

Sydnie . . .’ he decided with a soft sigh, ‘she deserves beautiful things—things as beautiful as she is.’

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Damn him!

The crash of a crystal glass echoed through the silent office as it shattered against the wall, but the outburst of violence did little to dispel the anger that ran hot through his veins. Jeb clenched his fist and relaxed his grip a few times.

All four of his hunters had failed?

It was unfathomable; absolutely unbelievable. How could this hunter—this son of the tai-youkai—kill four of the best bounty hunters that Jeb had in his employ?

Damn him!” he snarled again, his voice quiet despite the absolute vehemence in his tone.

There was no mistaking it, though. He knew it was true. Nearly a week had passed since he’d last heard from them. At the time, they’d located Zelig and the cat-youkai who had been targeted for termination and were following them. Glave had mentioned a third person—a hanyou, but whether the third had helped Zelig or not, Jeb wasn’t certain. At any rate, too long a time had passed without word from any of his bounty hunters. One way or the other, Zelig had apparently eluded them again.

Pushing back the flap of his black jacket to stuff his hand into his pocket, Jeb yanked his tie loose with his free hand. The funeral had been a quiet affair. There hadn’t been many in attendance since Serena had wanted it to be kept private. Though he’d expected that Beth would follow Cody in death, he had hoped until the end that he was wrong; that Beth would find the strength to live. She hadn’t, and in the end, the blame for that rested squarely on Zelig’s shoulders, too. Yes, he’d known that there was always a risk in sending out a bounty hunter, no matter how well-trained the hunter might be. Cody had been ready, and what was more, he had insisted on going.

I can do it, Dad!” Cody insisted, eyes flashing with irritation at the perceived unfairness afforded him.

It’s not a question of what you can and cannot do, Cody,” Jeb explained quietly. “You’re still an apprentice.”

And I’ll stay an apprentice so long as I’m working under Byrne,” Cody grumbled. “I’m sick of doing grunt work. I’m ready.”

Sitting back in his chair, Jeb narrowed his eyes on his son. Ready, perhaps, but he’d promised Serena that Cody wouldn’t be in danger . . . Still, Jeb knew that he’d sent other, much less experienced bounty hunters out on jobs. Gaze shifting to the manila envelope lying on the desk, he nodded. The cat-youkai wouldn’t be much trouble. If Cody could get to her without drawing the notice of the Zelig’s hunter, she’d be easy pickings. It would be a pretty easy job, Jeb figured—the perfect first job.

Cat-youkai believed to have killed Cal Richardson. Rumor has it she’s on the move and in the company of one of the Zelig’s hunters. He wants her brought in for questioning, but we’ve got a bounty on her. Find her and eliminate her.”

Cody nodded, light brown eyes igniting with a fierce determination. “Yes, sir,” he replied. “You won’t be sorry, Dad . . .”

Jeb blinked away the lingering memory, an ironic smile that was devoid of humor illuminating his gaze. ‘I won’t be sorry . . . That’s right . . . not sorry in the least . . .’

“The hunters you called in are here.”

Jeb grunted in response, not bothering to look at his second-in-command. Myrna Loy bit her cheek, deep brown eyes awash with unspoken concerns. It wasn’t her place to question Jeb’s orders, but she couldn’t help but wonder if Jeb wasn’t taking things a little too far this time. Summoning the remaining hunters at his disposal . . . Myrna had to wonder about the sanity of Jeb’s situation . . . She stifled a sigh, smoothing the sleek black leather jacket she always wore over the slim lines of her lanky frame.

“Send them in,” Jeb said quietly.

Myrna nodded and turned away to fetch the hunters. “Right away.”

“Myrna.”

She stopped and slowly pivoted to face her boss once more, crossing her arms over her chest as she waited for whatever it was Jeb wanted to say.

“The son of the tai-youkai . . . what do you know about him?”

Myrna sighed. “The Zelig’s heir, you mean? He has two sons, I’ve heard . . .”

“Two sons . . . the eldest—the one that looks like the Zelig. He’s the hunter: the one with the cat.”

“There’s not much to know, I suppose. The Zelig keeps things quiet, but I remember something I heard about the time he took his mate. She’s the daughter of the hanyou of legend, or so they say.”

“The hanyou of legend? InuYasha . . .”

Myrna tilted her head to the side as she tried to discern just what Jeb was thinking. “Which would mean that there are ties to the Inu no Taisho, as well.”

“Sesshoumaru,” he muttered, jaws bulging with the force with which he gritted his teeth. “Damn the Zelig . . . there’s too fucking much power in that one family.”

“The son—Sebastian—he’s the one who killed Cody?”

Jeb’s head snapped to the side, his glower dark, menacing. “Sebastian Zelig . . . the next tai-youkai . . .”

“Jeb . . . Cody knew the risks . . .”

“Cody knew that the job should have been simple,” Jeb shot back. “Cody knew that I told him that it was a simple task—nothing more than offing the cat who’d killed Cal Richardson.”

“Tangling with the tai-youkai isn’t a wise thing to do.”

He tossed his head proudly. “Neither is tangling with me.”

Myrna nodded. Arguing with Jeb Christopher was futile, and she knew it. He’d never admit to being wrong, especially on this; not when Sebastian Zelig had cost Jeb not only his son, but his daughter-in-law and their unborn child. Vengeance wasn’t a simple thing, and in the end, maybe it was easier to be angry than it was to try to pick up the pieces and move on.

“Send in my hunters,” Jeb ordered.

Myrna nodded again, turning on her heel and exiting the office in a series of crisp steps, heels echoing in the dimly lit corridor of the hallway.

Eight hunters,’ she thought wryly, her discerning gaze flicking coolly from one hunter to the next: Byrne Bine—rattlesnake-youkai . . . Cavalle Cade—poison-youkai . . . Dren Morgan—eagle-youkai . . . Brenna Cruz—fire-based-youkai . . .Vince Thetwhile—spider-youkai . . . Datte Voight—kitsune . . . Keith Frem—bobcat-youkai . . . Trent Smith—chameleon-youkai . . . they stood up, one by one, rising from the cold metal chairs arranged in the office foyer. Myrna remained stoic as they passed. ‘How many of these hunters will make it back this time?

No, there wasn’t a doubt in Myrna’s mind that the hunters would be able to capture Zelig this time. Sheer numbers were on their side, and yet . . .

And yet sheer numbers had been defeated the last time. The failure of the four hunters that Jeb had last sent hadn’t even seemed like a possibility . . .

Stop that, Myrna!’ she told herself sternly. ‘No matter what, Sebastian Zelig is not a god . . . Even the son of the tai-youkai isn’t invincible, and even the mighty have to fall . . .’

Eight against one . . .

She sighed again, wishing she could shake the feeling that the entire thing was nothing but a huge mistake.

Eight against one . . . those were good odds . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Sydnie emerged from the bathroom with a cloud of steam and a waft of moist air, toweling her hair dry and humming a song under her breath.

Bas was propped up on the bed, one knee bent with his other leg stretched out as he scowled at the new almanac he’d purchased when they’d stopped at a gas station after crossing the boarder between Kentucky and Illinois. Tapping an ink pen against the paper, he seemed lost in thought. Sydnie grinned to herself, spreading the towel over the back of a metal chair at the rickety old table before digging the hairbrush out of her purse.

To her surprise, Bas hadn’t done more than smile at her when she’d asked if they could stop early for the day. More out of habit than because she really expected him to comply, she’d asked while expecting him to grumble at her; to come up with excuse after excuse to keep moving. She sighed as a little grin surfaced. Sure, she understood why he felt the need to keep going. Afraid that the bounty hunters were lurking just out of view, he did the only thing he could do: stay on the move in the tireless game of cat and mouse . . .

Sebastian is in danger . . . because of me . . .’

The bubble of contentment that had carried her through the day burst like an over-inflated balloon. Stealing a surreptitious glance over her shoulder, she carefully brushed the snarls out of her hair while eyeing Bas’ relaxed pose. A surge of irrational panic swept through her. The fear that something would happen to him precluded rational thought. He was precious to her, necessary to her . . . Somehow, in the space of a few weeks . . . She shivered.

He’s the one, Sydnie. He’s your . . . mate.’

Wincing at the words of her youkai blood’s voice, Sydnie shook her head, trying desperately, pathetically, to refute the truth. ‘He . . . no . . . I can’t . . . he can’t . . .’

You can, and he does. Is that really so terrible?

Sydnie swallowed a suspect lump that choked her, blinked to alleviate the sting behind her eyes. ‘But . . . I’m going to die, in the end. I killed someone, didn’t I, even if he deserved what he got?

Sebastian wants you to trust him. He could help, couldn’t he? If his father really is Cain Zelig—’

That’s not even a question. He is the tai-youkai’s son . . . and even if he could help me, he won’t be able to; not in the end . . .’

Her youkai sighed. ‘It’s too late for that, you know. His youkai blood has already acknowledged you. There’s really nothing left you can do about it, and deep down, you know I’m right.’

Why worry about it now? Can’t I just enjoy what we have? Can’t I just let that be enough?

But it isn’t enough, Sydnie. It’s not something that’ll just go away.’

No, I didn’t suppose it would.’

In any case, Sebastian is a good man. Would it be so bad to let him know you think that?

Yes . . .’ she allowed then wrinkled her nose, replacing the brush and rubbing her forearms with her bare hands, ‘and no.’

Pushing away the nagging doubts, Sydnie shuffled toward the bed. Bas didn’t look up when she crawled between his legs, nor did he notice when she cuddled against his chest. Wiggling around to make herself more comfortable, she rolled over onto her back, her eyes darting back and forth as she watched the end of the pen thump against the paper. Before she could think about it, she batted at it. Bas chuckled softly, kissing Sydnie’s forehead as the pen stopped moving so that she could unhook the tips of her claws from the cap. “Hey, kitty. Have a nice bath?”

“I suppose,” she allowed. “I was hoping you’d come in and wash my back.”

She wasn’t surprised to see him blush. He dropped the almanac on the coverlet beside him, wrapping his arms around Sydnie’s shoulders. “I was planning our route,” he told her.

“Route? You mean we have an actual destination in mind?”

“Sure,” he agreed, bending his other leg and causing Sydnie to slip between them. She gripped his shoulders and leaned up to kiss him. His lips were warm, moist, soothing, scattering the unpleasant thoughts that had plagued her mind with a gentleness that she could barely credit. His fingers stroked her back; he bent his body to shelter her, lending her a sense of security that she so desperately needed. She reveled in him, lost in the tenderness that he freely offered. The soft hesitation in his kisses—his unspoken fear that he would somehow disappoint her . . . Sydnie twined her fingers into his hair, holding him close, unwilling, unable to let him go.

Deepening his kisses, alternating between the sweetest caress of his lips and the teasing nibbles of his teeth, of his fangs that sent shivers up Sydnie’s spine as she tightened her fists around handfuls of hair, Bas shifted, lowering Sydnie onto the mattress and leaning over her, tossing his leg over her as though to keep her from bolting. ‘I wouldn’t,’ she thought wildly. Too inviting to ignore, the feelings that swelled within her . . . the ferocious tide of a more primitive need . . . she wanted him, needed him, craved him . . .

The flimsy tie holding her robe closed worked itself loose as she writhed against him. Unable to repress the burgeoning need to feel his body against hers, she arched her back, tugged on his shoulders, kissed him with all the desperation that she felt inside. Gasping as her overheated skin touched the smoldering flesh of Bas’ bare chest, she uttered a harsh little mew. His gruff growl came in reply. She could feel her nipples contracting, her skin breaking out in a rash of goose bumps. His hand trailed the curve of her body, resting on her hip, squeezing, kneading, unleashing a wave of consuming fire that fanned outward only to converge again in the depths of her belly, in an ache that spiraled through her body.

He leaned away, his breathing harsh in the silence. Gazing down at her with a fierce intensity, he swallowed hard as he kissed her forehead. “God, Sydnie . . .”

She bit her lip and sighed. “Don’t stop, Sebastian,” she whispered, searching his face for any trace of what he was thinking.

“Sebastian . . .?” he echoed, his brows drawing together in a slight frown. “I need to tell you who I am . . . You . . . you deserve to know.”

A surge of panic ripped through her. Sydnie shook her head. “I already know,” she admitted, unable to bring herself to hear him say it. “I know who you are,” she repeated. “Don’t say it.”

He closed his eyes for a moment and sighed. “I’m sorry, baby . . . My father—”

“Your father is Cain Zelig,” she bit out, placing her fingers over his lips to silence him. “I told you I know, Bas the Hunter . . . Sebastian . . . Zelig.”

He blinked in surprise, his face contorting just a little as he scowled at her. “You . . . know . . .”

She nodded. “I know. Can we just leave it alone? Please?”

“And you’re okay with it?”

She sighed. “No . . . but I’m okay with you.”

He stared at her for a long moment, as though he were trying to decide if she was lying to him. “Good,” he finally said, a thin little smile dispelling his scowl as his gaze brightened in palpable relief. “I thought you’d . . .” he trailed off, shaking his head quickly. “It doesn’t matter what I thought . . . I just wanted you to know.”

Sydnie ran her hand down the center of his chest and smiled when his entire body trembled. “I want you to—damn it!”

Bas’ eyes widened as Sydnie pushed him aside and sat up, face scrunching up as a disgusted scowl twisted her features. “What’s wrong?” he asked a little reluctantly, leaning up on his elbow and hooking her chin with his index finger, forcing her to look at him.

“I left that box of condoms at the hotel,” she pouted.

Bas digested her complaint, cheeks pinking as he let his hand drop away. “Oh,” he replied, swinging his legs off the bed and slowly getting to his feet. “I, uh . . . picked them up. They’re in the suitcase.”

Sydnie sat up, tucking her legs under her as she leaned forward to watch Bas. He unzipped the side compartment—one Sydnie hadn’t checked—and pulled out the condoms. She couldn’t help the little grin that spread over her face, but just as suddenly as the expression surfaced, it dissipated again, and she bit her lip as he tossed the box onto the nightstand and sank down on the bed beside her. “Sydnie? Something wrong?”

She shot him an almost fearful glance and tried to smile. His worried frown deepened, and she knew that her effort to fool him had failed. “I . . . Do you think it’s true? That it hurts the first time?”

Bas sat still for a moment then leaned back, eyes widening in alarm. “What do you mean? You’ve never . . .? You haven’t . . .?”

She shook her head, her gaze dropping to the coverlet, and she shrugged. “Is that a problem?”

He snorted. “No! I just didn’t think . . . I mean, I thought you’d . . . Oh, hell, I thought you had, damn it!”

She shot him a sidelong glance. He was glowering in the direction of the window; not angrily, exactly, as much as deep in thought. He slowly shook his head, shifting his gaze around the room, and suddenly he shot to his feet, snatching the box off the nightstand and striding back to the suitcase where he grabbed the first things he laid hands on—a short taupe suede dress—and tossed it in her general direction before snatching a white t-shirt and jerking it over his head. “Get dressed, Sydnie,” he ordered, plopping into a chair as he tugged on a pair of socks and his boots.

“What?” she demanded, staring at the dress in disbelief but not reaching for it. “Sebastian—”

“Come on. It won’t take long. Just get moving, will you?”

“But—”

“We’re not staying here,” he reiterated. “Let’s go.”

Sydnie snapped her mouth closed on the retort that was forming on the tip of her tongue. Narrowing her eyes and grabbed the dress, she discarded the robe and stuck her feet into the dress before standing up stiffly and pulling it over her shoulders. “Fine,” she bit out, giving the zipper a vicious yank. Pausing long enough to slip on her stilettos, she snatched up her purse and stalked out the door without waiting to see if Bas was following or not.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

With a sigh, Bas turned off the back road onto the graveled path that led to the bed and breakfast inn. The analog clock on the radio panel read nearly four-thirty in the morning. Sydnie slept fitfully in the passenger side bucket seat. Curled as tightly as she could into a startlingly small, unobtrusive little lump, she was shrouded in the darkest shadows where even the wan light of the dashboard lights didn’t reach her.

Damn, Bas . . . you’ve got some serious amends to make.’

He winced. He’d been in such a rush to check out of the hotel that he hadn’t really taken any time to explain things to Sydnie. In fact, he’d been so caught up in the desire to find a nicer place for her, that he hadn’t realized until well after they were moving that she was teetering on the brink of losing her temper.

I’ll explain it to her,’ he told himself. ‘She’ll understand.’

At least, he hoped she would. Caught off guard by her admission, the only thing he’d been able to think was that, while he hadn’t much cared if his first time had been in a ratty little motel room, he didn’t want hers to be. There was an anime convention nearby, so finding accommodations for the night had been harder than usual. In the end, he’d settled for an out of the way motel that hadn’t even been equipped with a television, and after gazing around at the faded curtains, the stained brown, threadbare carpet, the dingy grayed walls that should have been white . . . Bas rubbed his forehead and sighed again. No, that wasn’t the place that he wanted Sydnie to remember.

Do you think it’s true? That it hurts the first time?

The wince deepened into a full-blown grimace. ‘I . . . I can’t hurt her . . .’

Even if it does hurt the first time, you can show her later that it’s not always going to be that way.’

And yet that just doesn’t really make me feel any better.’

Suck it up, Bas. You’re worrying about this too much. Sydnie wants you; you know she does. She probably loves you, even if she is too stubborn to admit as much.’

He sighed, cracking his window and breathing in the crisp night air.

Finding the bed and breakfast had been a stroke of luck, actually. He’d stopped to grab a container of milk for Sydnie—an offering to appease her that hadn’t really worked—but the older man standing behind the counter had eyed him rather cautiously before asking if he was lost.

Bas blinked and shook his head, cheeks pinking when he thought about what he was actually trying to do. Finding a place that could make Sydnie’s first time memorable? Why did it sound more perverse in his head every single time he thought about it?

I, uh, no . . . not exactly,” he grumbled, setting the milk on the counter and digging out his wallet.

You aren’t from around these parts, are you? You got an eastern accent.”

Do I?” Bas asked with a lopsided little grin. Funny. He’d never really thought about that before . . .

Yep. My brother lives in Connecticut. They talk a lot like you do.”

Bas nodded, glancing outside to make sure that Sydnie was still safe enough in the car. “Uh, maybe . . . could I ask you something? You’re right; I’m not from around here. My . . . My girl and I are a little tired, and with the convention, we haven’t been able to find any good places to stay. Can you recommend anything? Somewhere . . . nice?”

The man turned thoughtful, stroking his goatee and leaning back against the counter behind him. “Nice, you say? Your girl . . . You newlyweds or something?

Bas flinched inwardly. For reasons he didn’t want to consider, the idea of telling this man that he and Sydnie weren’t married or even really engaged . . . why did that feel as though he were besmirching her? “Something like that,” he lied.

The man smiled. “Not sure if you’re interested or not, but my sister-in-law has a bed and breakfast. Just outside the city and across from a small dairy farm.”

A bed and breakfast? That sounds perfect. Do you have her number?

He chuckled. “Never mind, son. I’ll give her a call for you. She’s always saying that business is slow this time of year, anyway. I’m sure she won’t mind. Just take the main drag straight north, turn right on the first road after you get out of the city limits. Head out about three miles, and look for a sign: Hawethorn’s Bed and Breakfast. Take that gravel road on down a mile or so, and there you’ll be.”

Bas nodded, pulling the almanac from his pocket and leafing through to find the county map. “Would you mind marking it down for me?

Sure thing,” he agreed. Highlighting the route with a blue ball-point pen, he handed the almanac back and took the twenty-dollar bill that Bas handed him for the milk. “What’s your name?

Bas Kaemon,” Bas replied, using the name he’d been using since leaving home on this mission. “Thank you.”

Wait! Your change!” he called out as Bas pushed the glass door open.

Keep it, and thanks!” Bas replied, loping across the parking lot as he studied the marked route.

The porch was illuminated in a calm yellowish light that mingled with the strings of blue Christmas lights that lined the railings and banisters. Soft light spilled from the large picture window, and Bas stopped the car in front of the winding sidewalk that led to the porch. Sydnie was still sleeping as he got out of the car, and he strode up the path as a short, plump middle aged woman stepped outside, wrapped in a heavy woolen shawl. “You must be Mr. Kaemon,” she greeted.

Bas nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

She smiled. “I’m Betty Hawethorn, and welcome to Hawethorn’s Ben and Breakfast. My brother-in-law, Marty called me a few minutes ago; said you needed a place to stay?”

“Please.”

“Certainly,” she assured him. “It’s our slow time around here, and I don’t have any reservations all week, so you’re welcome to stay as long as you’d like.”

“Thank you.”

“Where’s your wife?”

Bas grimaced inwardly. “She . . . fell asleep in the car.”

“Oh, well . . . here.” Slipping a key into his hand, the woman’s smile widened as she pointed behind herself. “There’s a separate entrance out back. Just take the stairs up, and you can’t miss it. It’s the first door on the landing. “Ordinarily I try to have dinner waiting for my guests, but since I wasn’t really expecting you . . .”

“That’s fine,” Bas assured her. “How much do I owe you?”

She waved away his question. “Don’t worry about it tonight. You can settle up before you leave.”

“O-Okay.” The lowing of a cow drew Bas’ attention, and he glanced around. “He said there was a dairy farm nearby?”

“Yep. My brother owns it, actually.”

“Really . . . I don’t suppose he’d mind if I took Sydnie over there tomorrow? She’s never been out of the city.”

The woman laughed. “I don’t suppose he would. If you’d like, I can bring you up some milk and cheese and bread . . . not really a meal, but the milk’s fresh from the dairy, and the cheese and butter came from there, too.”

“That’d be great,” Bas said then grinned. “Sydnie . . . loves milk.”

“Why don’t you go on and get settled in? You can pull your car into the barn, if you’d like. We’re supposed to get snow, come morning.”

Bas thanked her and ran back to the car.

Sydnie didn’t stir when he stopped in front of the wooden staircase that led to the room. She didn’t wake up when he laid her on the bed in the midst of a cloud of downy white comforter and lacy white throw pillows. He spared a moment to smile down at her before heading off to pull the car into the barn. Strapping on Triumvirate and grabbing the suitcase out of the trunk, he closed the barn doors and hurried back to the room. The place was more perfect than he could have imagined. Set back well away from the road with the car safely concealed in the barn, Bas wondered if he dared to let Sydnie stay here for more than a day or two before they had to move on again.

Betty knocked on the door as Bas set the suitcase down. He strode over to answer it, and stepped back to allow the woman to enter. The pale wood tray was laden with a pitcher of milk and a plate of sliced cheeses, a couple baskets of fluffy, crusty white bread and a ball of light, creamy butter. “It’s not much, but I’ll make up for it come breakfast time. What time would you like that?”

“Uh, any time is fine,” he assured her, stealing a glance at Sydnie when he heard the soft rustle of her movements. She sat up slowly, blinking away the cloudy, dreamy look that lingered after sleep. She rubbed her eyes and glanced around, spotting Bas quickly enough before she curled up on her side once more, lost in the puffy, thick blankets.

“Oh, she’s lovely,” Betty murmured, setting the tray down and squeezing Bas’ forearm.

“She is,” he agreed with a grateful smile. “Thanks again. I-I-I was starting to think I wasn’t going to find anything tonight.”

“Glad I could help,” she said. “I’ll leave you two alone now, and I called over to the dairy. He’s up doing the milking already. Said to come on by whenever you want. He’d love to let you have a look around.”

Bas nodded and closed the door after Betty stepped back outside. Taking his time locking the door, he shrugged off his leather duster and hung it on the wooden hook beside the door.

“Where are we?” Sydnie asked quietly.

Turning to face her as he unstrapped Triumvirate and stowed his beside the hulking wood wardrobe, Bas shot her a shy little smile and stuffed his hands into his pockets. “A bed and breakfast inn. What do you think?”

Pushing herself up once more, she slowly took in the surroundings. “It’s nice,” she finally said then scrunched up her shoulders, staring miserably at her hands as she shook her head. “I don’t understand why . . .?”

“Sydnie . . . I didn’t want your first time to be in that seedy little hotel room,” he admitted, staring at the floor as he shuffled his feet.

“But that would have been okay for you?”

He shrugged. “I’m a guy,” he said quietly. “Besides . . . anywhere is good enough for me, so long as I’m with you.”

Sydnie didn’t reply right away, but he didn’t miss the trembling little smile that finally lightened her expression. Bas wandered over to the table and poured her a glass of milk. “Here . . . it’s fresh from the dairy.”

“Dairy?” she echoed, green eyes rounding in wonder.

He nodded. “Yep . . . there’s one across the way . . . the guy said that I could take you there, if you want. I thought . . . I thought maybe you’d like to see the cows.”

A strange sort of sadness filtered through her gaze. As though he had said something that had somehow hurt her, she blinked quickly and forced a wry little smile. “I’d like to see the cows,” she said almost bashfully.

“Yeah? Well, here . . . it’s a little different from the milk you’re used to . . . I think you’ll like it, though.” He chuckled. “There’s a small farm back home . . . it’s about the only milk my mom will drink willingly. She says it doesn’t taste as bad as the store-bought stuff. Anyway, Mom always says that fresh milk is a lot richer.”

Sydnie slowly took the glass and frowned as she stared into it. “It’s got stuff on top,” she said.

Bas shrugged and sat down on the edge of the bed, levering off his boots and setting them aside. “It’s cream,” he told her. “They skimmed it, I’m sure, but it’s hard to get all the cream.”

Sydnie eyed it another minute before cautiously dipping the tip of her finger into the milk and licking it clean. Her already round eyes grew even rounder, and she giggled softly before draining the entire glass in one long gulp.

Bas took the empty glass and refilled it without a word. Sydnie repeated the process and handed it back before snuggling into the covers once more. “I take it you like it?” he teased with a lopsided little grin.

Sydnie giggled and nodded, curled up on her side with a secretive grin on her face. Hair shining in the ambient light of the table lamp, she was surrounded by a fiery glow. Bas’ breath caught in his throat as he gazed at her, and he had to wonder if she had any idea how very precious she was to him . . . ‘Sometimes,’ he mused with a smile, ‘she looks just like a little kitten . . .’

“You tired, baby?” he asked at last, breaking the companionable silence that had fallen between them.

She shook her head slowly without taking her eyes off him.

“You sure?”

“I took a nap in the car, remember?”

He grinned, scooting closer, running his fingertips along her cheek. She closed her eyes, leaned into his touch, her smile turning wistful. “So you did . . .”

She giggled softly, pushing herself up again, rising on her knees as she stared at him. The brightness in her gaze held him spellbound, her lips parting as her breathing quickened, as she slowly lifted her hand to tug at the heavy silver zipper, revealing the deep vale between her breasts, the trim flatness of her belly, lower and lower until he could see the delicate black satin of her tiny panties. She let the dress fall off her shoulders; let it slide down her arms. It clung to her hips, and she dropped her shoes off the edge of the bed before standing up, hooking her panties, and slowly pushing them down the length of her legs, riding behind the skirt.

The demure tangle of deep auburn curls—no more than a perfectly symmetrical little trail—held his attention. Standing with feet splayed to retain her balance, her scent was dizzying, intoxicating, and he opened his mouth to speak but couldn’t seem to form coherent words. The trim lines of her hips that flared gently from her tiny waist flowed like waves on the ocean, and with a soft moan, she dropped to her knees, wrapped her arms around his neck, seared his lips with hers in a kiss full of desperation, full of need.

He slipped his arms around her, groaned as she pressed herself against his body. Straddling his hips, she ground her hips against his stomach. He could feel the absolute heat of her permeating the thin fabric of the t-shirt he wore, his body reacting to hers, throbbing painfully, deliciously. “Kitty,” he muttered between kisses, “we . . . need . . . to . . . stop . . .”

“Why?” she whined, the underlying hint of panic in her voice digging at him.

“C-Con . . . doms . . .” he rasped out, shuddering when she reached down to fondle him.

She squeezed him tightly then sat back on his knees with a sigh. “Oh, those,” she muttered, cheeks flushed. “Where?”

He swallowed hard, stripping off his shirt and dropping it carelessly on the floor. “My coat,” he told her.

She scooted off his lap, sauntering over to retrieve the box of condoms. Lost in the contemplation of the gentle sway of her hips, Bas gulped again, light-headed, almost forgetting the necessity of breathing. He watched her rummage through his pockets until she found the box. Tapping it against her palm as she slowly crossed the floor, Bas stood up, fingers shaking as he worked the fastenings of his jeans, discarding them as Sydnie slit the box open and pulled a packet out. With a sly little smile, she dropped the box onto the nightstand before shoving the throw pillows off onto the floor and peeling back the blankets, her ass wiggling in the air as she crawled across the bed.

Bas watched her movements, mesmerized by the easy dexterity that she possessed. Tugging on his hair, pulling him down to kiss her, Sydnie pushed herself up on her toes, slowly bouncing on the balls of her feet, rubbing her breasts against his bare skin in a heated caress. He moaned softly, his body jerking wildly, seeking the heat of her that he could feel but couldn’t quite reach; not yet.

She pushed against him until he tumbled back on the bed. Nibbling on his lips, his chin, she whimpered, legs parting, falling on either side of his hips, and after one last, lingering kiss, she sat up, breasts heaving, skin pink, nipples hard and puckered. The dusty pink flesh had darkened even more. Bas lifted his hands, cupping her breasts, squeezing them gently as her head fell back, exposing the creamy skin of her delicate neck. Rasping out a strangled purr, she braced her hands on his abdomen and pushed herself back. He couldn’t do more than watch as she ripped open the small packet and carefully extracted the condom. She tossed the empty packet onto the floor before rolling the condom into place. He squeezed his eyes closed, fidgeting when she crawled over him again, the head of his penis trailing along her skin, between her breasts, down her belly, into the radiant heat that beckoned him.

She rose on her knees, leaned back enough to grip the base of him, positioning her body over him. Bas was too bemused to think, too bemused to stop her, his mind barely registering just what she was doing until it was too late. Sydnie slammed herself down on him, crying out as her body stiffened and shook. The heat—the consuming heat and the absolute tightness that surrounded him was just too much.   Instinct took over, and he grabbed her hips, jerking her back down hard once, twice, a handful of times. She was too tight, the friction was too much, too incredible, and with a ragged entreaty, he felt the world explode.

It took several minutes before Bas could think, before he could even open his eyes. When he finally did, it was to find Sydnie gently wiping him off with a warm washcloth. She must have discarded the used condom because he didn’t see it anywhere. She caught the tender look in his eyes, the almost apologetic grin that he offered her, and she smiled. Dropping the washcloth onto the floor, she leaned down and kissed the tip of his penis before crawling back up to snuggle against him, her contented sigh a sharp contrast to the ragged sounds of his respirations. “Baby,” he murmured, kissing her forehead, smoothing her hair as she cuddled into the crook of his neck.

“I’m sleepy,” she whispered, her fist opening and closing against his chest, carefully keeping her claws from cutting him. “Just hold me.”

Bas’ smile widened as he pulled her closer. “I’ll hold you, kitty,” he promised, closing his eyes as the first wan rays of gray dawn light filtered through the windows. “I’ll hold you . . . forever . . .”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Sydnie awoke to a gentle tickling sensation against her shoulder. Leaning back slowly, she couldn’t help but smile at the somewhat smug grin on Sebastian’s face as he idly rubbed her shoulder. The tickle, she supposed, was from the trace touch of his claw. Giggling softly, she kissed his cheek before snuggling against him again.

“Morning, baby,” he told her without opening his eyes.

“Mm,” she half-purred, basking in the warmth he offered, the incredible sense that she was entirely safe. “Morning, puppy.”

He chuckled. “Want to go see the cows today?”

She sighed. “Does that mean I have to move?”

“I’d think so, yes . . .”

She shook her head. “Then, no.”

His chuckle escalated. “You want to stay here a couple days?”

She sat up, bracing her hands against his chest. “Can we?”

He nodded. “I think so . . . the car’s in the barn, so it’s out of view, and this place is about a mile or better off the main road . . . Safe enough, at least for a couple days, I’d say.”

She grinned. “Yeah?”

He tweaked her nose. “Yeah. Why don’t you go get dressed, and I’ll take you to see the cows. Besides, it’s supposed to snow, or so Mrs. Hawethorn said.”

“Okay,” she agreed happily. Rolling over and tossing back the blankets, Sydnie winced as she shot to her feet. She didn’t hurt a lot, but the sudden movement reminded her that her first experience with sex hadn’t exactly been great—not even good, truthfully, and there was no way that she’d ever, ever let Bas know that . . . Thankful that he hadn’t seen her face, Sydnie hurried to the bathroom, pausing long enough to smile at Sebastian before quietly closing the door.

Not good, huh?’ her youkai mused.

Sydnie pulled the lever to stop the tub and turned on the taps and caught her hair up in a loose chignon. ‘It’s supposed to hurt the first time,’ she argued.

Hurt, maybe . . . you damn near died, remember?

She grimaced. ‘That’s not true,’ she protested. All the same, she couldn’t brush off the disturbing memory of the searing pain of the act, itself. Yes, she had to admit, it hurt—a lot. In fact, she’d thought that she was going to die. Thing was, she didn’t think that Bas had realized it, and she’d be damned if she’d tell him. He was far too sensitive about sex and his own body that the last thing she would ever do would be to add to his feelings of reticence. No, best not to tell him that it had hurt. She was youkai, wasn’t she? She was tough. Bas had loved it, and that was enough. Besides . . .

Besides,’ she rationalized as she stepped into the tub and stretched out a little more slowly than normal, ‘she said it was something that men liked, right? And I don’t remember . . . if she ever really enjoyed it, either.

True enough. Sydnie had seen it a few times, the act of having sex. She’d seen it often enough to know that, while the men always seemed to enjoy it despite the almost tortured expressions on their faces when they came, she never really had. Sydnie had been too young to understand it at the time, but now . . . now maybe she did.

And it wasn’t as though Sydnie hadn’t enjoyed it at all. She’d enjoyed everything before the actual sex part, and she loved the cuddling afterward. It was a small price to pay, wasn’t it, to have those feelings again. She’d never felt so close to someone before, an absolute synchronization of her heart and his . . . in those moments, she felt as though she knew everything there was to know about him, and maybe for an instant, she’d believed that he really could redeem her . . .

She smiled sadly and sighed. What was a little pain as long as Bas was satisfied? It was enough. It was all she had to give him . . .

Think about it, Sydnie . . . I don’t think it’s really supposed to hurt—at least, not like that.’

Maybe,’ she replied dubiously. That was one thing that she’d never bothered to find out about, though. In her sordid pursuit of knowledge, she hadn’t thought to look into sex. Until she’d met Bas, she hadn’t actually believed she’d ever do it, anyway. Aside from a few blow jobs she’d given ultimately to gain information from the target, she hadn’t even kissed a man before Sebastian . . . other than Cal Richardson, the bastard . . . Maybe she was just very good at assimilating various disguises—in giving the illusion that she was exactly what men wanted in order to manipulate them into giving her what she wanted.

Except . . .

Except I’ve never really done that to Sebastian . . . I’ve never really wanted to . . .’

Just think about it, Sydnie . . . of course you don’t want to manipulate Sebastian. He adores you, don’t you know?

She smiled to herself, the warmth that the words inspired in her rivaling the overwhelming sense of belonging that had wrapped around her before she’d fallen asleep. ‘I . . . I like him . . . a lot.’

The hot water was doing the trick, relaxing away the lingering stiffness, dispelling the soreness between her legs. Settling back against the tub, she shut off the water with her toes and closed her eyes. ‘A nice, long soak,’ she decided. ‘That’s all I need . . .’

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Bas watched Sydnie shut the bathroom door and sighed, unable to keep the smile off his face as he rolled his head back and closed his eyes.

Well, it wasn’t awful, I guess,’ his youkai piped up, ‘but it could have been better.’

No, not nearly as horrible as I figured it might be,’ he agreed.

Yeah, well, just do better the next time . . . Bas?

Hmm?

I don’t think she enjoyed it nearly as much as you did.

He frowned but didn’t open his eyes. ‘I don’t know . . . she didn’t seem to mind it at all, did she?

Still . . .’

A knock on the door drew Bas out of his musings. He snatched his jeans off the floor and quickly jerked them up, fastening them as he strode over to answer the knock. Mrs. Hawethorn smiled pleasantly, holding up a tray of assorted breakfast goodies. Bas blinked. “Thanks,” he remarked, stepping back to allow the woman to enter the room.

She carefully set the tray down and took the one from the night before. “I heard the pipes gurgling, so I figured you’d be awake,” she informed him with a bright smile. “How long have your wife and you been married?”

Grimacing inwardly at the bald-faced lie, Bas rubbed his knuckles along the vale in the center of his chest and shrugged. “Not long,” he replied, tamping down the blush inspired by the untruth.

“Newlyweds? That’s so romantic! On your honeymoon, are you?”

He smiled weakly. “Uh, yeah . . . sure.”

“Your wife is just the sweetest looking thing . . . reminds me of my daughter when she got married. Would you like me to tidy the room now, or I could do it later, if you’re planning on stepping out to see the dairy? It’s just started to snow, so I reckon the weather reports were a little off.”

“Snow,” Bas repeated, stepping over to the window and pushing the gauzy curtain aside. Huge flakes were falling softly, blanketing the ground in a fluffy white cloud, and he smiled. “She’s never seen snow,” he mused quietly.

“You’re kidding! Not ever?”

He shook his head, letting the curtain fall back into place. “Nope . . . she’s from the west coast. Guess it’s pretty warm there.”

“There’s a nice little trail that circles through the forest,” she said, nodding at the woods behind the house. “Plainly marked, too, if you’d like to go for a walk.”

“Thanks,” Bas replied again. “I’ll let you know when we leave the room.”

“That’s fine, dear,” she assured him. “If you want lunch, just let me know then, too. Lots of people go into town to eat, but you don’t have to. It’s covered in the price of your room. Anyway, I think a nice chicken corn chowder sounds good on a cold day like today. It’s really good, if I do say so, myself . . . home made with fluffy buttermilk biscuits . . .”

“That sounds great,” he told her. “I think Sydnie would like it.”

Mrs. Hawethorn laughed, eyes crinkling at the corners in an entirely pleasant way. “I’ll leave you alone, then. The kitchen number’s next to the phone, so just let me know if you need anything else.”

“Thanks. I will.”

She slipped out of the room, and Bas smiled, swiping up the clothes that littered the floor and carefully folding them to put back in the suitcase again. Sydnie was taking her time, and that was fine. He felt pretty lethargic, too, and with a sigh, he shuffled toward the bed, pulling back the covers and stopping dead in his tracks. “Good God!” he rasped out, eyes widening in shock as he stared at the huge stain on the bed. He wasn’t sure why he hadn’t realized it sooner. He should have been able to smell Sydnie’s blood. Then again, he realized with a wince, he had been so wrapped up in what he was feeling he hadn’t even noticed . . . With a sickened groan, he sank down on the edge of the bed, hand hovering over the stain that was easily as big as his palm. He’d thought that her cries, that her body’s responses were normal, but maybe . . .

He swallowed hard, uttering a low half-growl, half-whine. Maybe he had hurt her, after all . . .

The trill of his cell phone cut through his recriminating thoughts with the vindictiveness of a knife, and Bas snatched the device, flipping it open and bringing it to his ear as he stared in horror at the crimson stain. “What?” he snarled.

“Wow, now that’s a nice greeting, Bas. What’s crawled up your ass and died?”

Bas grimaced, rubbing his face as he heaved a self-disgusted sigh. “What do you want, Gunnar?”

Gunnar clucked his tongue. “Really, really crabby, I take it. I was just calling to make sure that you’re both safe.”

“I’m safe enough,” Bas grouched. “Damn it . . .”

“That sounded cryptic. What’s going on?”

Bas squeezed his eyes closed and heaved another sigh. Gunnar wasn’t exactly the first person he’d think of calling about this, but he really needed answers before he panicked too much. “Gunnar . . . you ever . . . sleep with a virgin?”

“A virgin? Once . . . why?”

Bas winced. “If you say anything to anyone, I swear to God I’ll kill you,” he threatened. “I mean it.”

“I won’t; I won’t . . . wait . . . are you saying Sydnie was a virgin?

Bas gulped. “Yes.”

“Congratulations, buddy . . . you don’t sound too good for a man who finally got some ass.”

Wrinkling his nose at Gunnar’s vulgar choice of wording, Bas had to count to ten before he dared to answer. “How much . . . bleeding . . . is . . . normal?” he forced himself to ask.

Gunnar sighed. “Bleeding? Not too much . . . why?”

“Define, ‘not too much’,” Bas reiterated.

“Ehh, trace amounts, really . . . a few drops . . . maybe the size of a half-dollar, if that.”

Bas flopped onto his back, draping his arm over his face. “Shit.”

“Why?” Gunnar asked again.

“She bled . . . a lot.”

“Okay, okay. Calm down, Bas . . . how much is a lot?”

Bas pushed himself up on his elbow and winced at the stain again. “About the size of . . . my palm,” he grumbled. “A little wider . . .”

Gunnar paused as though he were considering something. Clearing his throat, he released a deep breath and clucked his tongue. “Send me a picture.”

“What? Hell, no! You damn pervert, I—”

“Don’t freak out on me, Bas. I just want to make sure you’re not exaggerating.”

Bas snorted but lowered the phone, making quick work of snapping a picture and sending it through. “Well?” he grumbled, skin growing hotter by the second.

Gunnar whistled low. “Holy dogs . . . can she walk?”

Bas clenched his jaw and snorted. “Pfft! Yes, damn it!”

“Well, wait . . . before you get all ticked off, you didn’t just jump on her, did you?”

“No!” Bas snarled, face flaming as he struggled to keep from hanging up on his cousin.

“Well, what did happen?”

Bas shook his head. “I . . . we . . . she . . . she put the condom on me, and . . . you know . . . sort of . . . sat down . . .”

“Oh, hell, she did that to herself?

“Gunnar—”

“Sorry . . . listen . . . it sounds to me like she just wasn’t ready for you; that’s all. If she’s not showing signs of being uncomfortable, then I’d say she’s all right. I mean, hell, Bas . . . just take it easy the next time. It gets better.”

Bas snorted again, not sure whether to believe Gunnar or not.

Gunnar sighed again. “If you don’t believe me, just go see if she seems all right to you. If she does, then I’d say you’re fine. She’s not mad at you, is she?”

Bas winced, recalling Sydnie’s complete contentment earlier. “No, she’s not.”

“Then I’d say you’re not doing so badly. Let’s face it: if you’d really hurt her, don’t you think she’d have told you?”

“I don’t know.”

“She’s not averse to letting you know when you’ve upset her otherwise. I’d say that if you did hurt her, she definitely would have let you know.”

Bas flopped onto his back once more. “But it’s only the first time, right? She shouldn’t bleed again . . .?”

“Nope, you’re home free. Now, if she bled the next time? Then I’d be worried, but for now, I’m inclined to think that maybe you two just rushed things a little.”

Bas rolled off the bed and caught the phone between his ear and shoulder, freeing up his hands so that he could fill a glass with fresh milk. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, you ass.”

“Any time, Bas. Just go make sure she’s okay, and stop worrying. She’s youkai, right? She’s tougher than she looks.”

Bas nodded, hoping that Gunnar’s assessment of the situation was correct. “Yeah, okay . . .”

“Anyway, let me know if the Onyx shows up again. Your dad’s spies say that the office has been unusually quiet the last few days.”

“Didn’t know you’d found the office.”

“Yeah, well, we’re about ninety-nine percent positive that it is. I saw Jeb Christopher going in there, myself.”

“I’ll call if I see them,” Bas assured him. “Oh, and can you tell Dad to wire money? We’re in a small town just outside of Harrisburg, Illinois—Cicily.”

“Yep. Bas?”

“Hmm?”

Gunnar sighed. “I’m sure she’s fine.”

Caught off guard by the compassion in Gunnar’s tone, Bas blinked and stared blankly at the window for a moment. “I hope so.”

Gunnar hung up, and Bas snapped his phone closed, tossing it onto the table and picking up the glass of milk before heading for the bathroom. “Sydnie? You okay?” he called through the door after tapping lightly.

“Just fine, puppy,” she replied, voice muffled by the door though she sounded happy enough. “Why don’t you come in here and wash my back?”

Bas drew a deep breath and opened the door, smiling despite himself when he spotted her, covered to her chin with a thick froth of bubbles. “I brought you some milk.”

She smiled at him, eyes reflecting the light filtering through the window as she held out her soapy hands for the glass. He chuckled, retrieving the towel off the floor so that she could dry her hands off before giving her the milk. “Mmm,” she moaned. “This is so good . . .”

“I’m glad you like it,” he said, hunkering down beside the tub and letting his fingers dangle in the water. “Sydnie . . . tell me something?”

“Hmm?”

He reached out, hooking a strand of hair behind her ear before leaning in to kiss her temple. “Last night . . . Did you . . . Are you . . . Did I . . . hurt you?”

She didn’t answer right away, pushing herself up and letting her head fall against his shoulder. He rubbed her back, traced the pale pink crescents that circled her thin shoulder blades—her crests. She sighed in complete contentment as Bas grabbed the washcloth and carefully soaped her back. “You can’t hurt me, Sebastian,” she insisted. “I’m fine.”

He grimaced, taking his time rinsing the suds away. “You bled, kitty . . . You bled a lot.”

“So women bleed the first time. It’s not a big deal, right?”

His scowl insisted that he didn’t believe her. She scooped up some bubbles on the tip of her finger and smeared them onto his nose.

Bas chuckled softly, unable to remain stern when she was determined to be so playful. He caught her hand and kissed her knuckles. “You’d tell me, right? If I did hurt you?”

“Of course I would, puppy,” she replied, the glint in her eye convincing him that she was absolutely just trying to placate him.

He sighed. “It’d kill me to hurt you, you know it?”

Her smile faltered but didn’t disappear. “You haven’t, so don’t worry.”

He shook his head, letting his cheek rest on her forehead. “Come on, baby. You’re going to turn into a prune, and . . . and I want to take you to see those cows.”

Sydnie grinned and kissed his cheek. “Cows,” she repeated with a little giggle.

He gave her a quick squeeze before grabbing the towel off the toilet. She stood up, and he caught his breath. If he really had hurt her, she didn’t show any signs of it. Carefully keeping his face turned to the side, Bas blushed when Sydnie laughed at him. He wrapped her in the towel and grabbed the glass, mumbling under his breath about getting her a refill while she dried off.

Holy hell, Bas, we’re in trouble.’

Trouble?’ he echoed as he pulled the bathroom door closed behind himself and strode over to refill the glass.

If she’s comfortable enough to run around naked all the time? Damn straight, we’re in trouble . . .’

Bas grimaced then grinned as the bathroom door opened with a soft click. Moments later, he felt the clammy moisture of Sydnie’s body pressed flush against his back. Sydnie hugged him tight before letting go to retrieve her clothes while Bas told his body that he did not—did not—want to drag her right back to the bed.

Yeah, okay, I see your point.’

His youkai heaved a longsuffering sigh.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sydnie laughed softly, the white fur lining the hood that framed her face making the green of her eyes stand out in stark contrast as she stared up at the falling snow. He’d managed to talk her into letting him buy her the fawn colored suede, knee length ‘tulip’ style coat when they’d gone shopping to replace Bas’ clothing. That she’d left the hood on after he’d playfully pulled it over her head and adjusted it surprised him. He’d figured that she would take it off since she’d maintained that it distorted her hearing, but she hadn’t, opting instead to slip her hand into his and let him lead her out into the falling snow.

“It’s beautiful!” she exclaimed quietly, holding her arms out and turning around in a circle. The widened skirt of the coat flared around her, and Bas smiled. Her small feet barely seemed to touch the ground as she twirled, the fur lined cuffs of the matching booties whispering on the fresh snow. Catching her around the waist, he pulled her into his arms and chuckled. “I never imagined . . .!” she told him, barely able to keep her eyes on him. “It’s so . . . so . . . amazing!

“I think so, too,” he replied, staring at her instead of at the falling snow.

She glanced at him and bit her lip, cheeks flushed from the brisk winter cold. “It snows like this where you’re from?”

He shrugged, shuffling his feet as he stared around at the falling snow. “Well . . . I suppose . . . It looks different in Maine.”

She laughed. “I’m glad you brought me here, puppy.”

He grimaced but smiled. “Am I ever going to graduate from ‘puppy’?”

She shook her head, leaning up on her toes to kiss his chin. “No, you’ll always be my puppy.”

“And you’ll always be my kitty.”

She giggled. “I told you: it doesn’t work that way. I own you, remember?”

He sighed. “That’s fine. I don’t think . . . I don’t think I’d want to own you.”

“Why not?”

He shrugged again and, resting his chin on her hair. “After all this . . . I want you to stay with me because it’s where you want to be, Sydnie.”

She sighed, slipping her arms under his jacket and around his waist. “I like being with you.”

“Good.”

She fell silent for a moment, content to lean against him, he supposed. His hair whipped around in the brisk winter air, tossed in his face, wrapped around Sydnie like a blanket. “You want to go see the cows now?” he asked finally, breaking the quiet with his softly uttered question.

“Okay,” she agreed, letting her arms drop. She slipped her hand into his and let him lead her across the field and toward the driveway. Stopping at the next to the huge barns where the sounds of lowing cows could be discerned, Bas rang the doorbell and stepped back. Sydnie pulled away from him, wandering to the edge of the wraparound porch to gaze at the snow again.

An older man with a weathered brown face and deep creases that bespoke more character than hardship opened the door and smiled warmly. “Hello . . . I’m Bas, and this is Sydnie . . .”

“Oh, that’s right. Betty said you were wanting to see the cows, right?” he asked. “John Martin. Nice to meet you.”

“Thanks.” Bas nodded, glancing at Sydnie and grinning. “If it’s not any trouble.”

He grabbed a thick, wool-lined suede coat from just inside the door and stepped outside as he pulled it on. “Sure thing. The girls are just having their afternoon milking.”

Bas took Sydnie’s hand and followed the man off the porch and toward the barns.

“Don’t often get visitors who want to tour the place,” the man said as he opened the door and stepped back for Bas and Sydnie to pass.

“Sydnie likes cows,” Bas replied as Sydnie pushed the hood off her head and pulled her hair free. John chuckled, stopping beside Bas to watch as Sydnie pulled her hand away and wandered down the long aisle between stalls where cows were lined up, eating out of the troughs while machinery hooked to their udders carried the milk down a long series of tubes that disappeared through a hole in the far wall.

“Can I touch them?” Sydnie asked quietly, turning around to face the farmer.

“Sure . . . they’re gentle enough.”

She giggled and gingerly reached through the bars of the stall.

“Pretty girl,” John commented, faded blue eyes bright as he watched the cat-youkai.

“She is,” Bas agreed. “I think it’s the first time she’s ever seen a real cow before.”

“Not from around here, I take it.”

“Uh, no . . . She’s from Los Angeles.”

“Pretty far from home.”

“Yeah.”

Sydnie hurried back, a bright smile on her face as she slipped her hands around Bas’ arm but looked at the farmer. “Do you ever milk them by hand?”

John grinned. “Not often, no . . . The machinery is faster. Anyway, I’ve got a few things I need to get done. Feel free to look around if you want.”

Bas nodded, shaking John’s hand as Sydnie giggled and wandered back toward the cows again. John strode down the length of the aisle and disappeared through the door at the far end of the barn. Bas shuffled after Sydnie, leaning his forearms on the stall wall as Sydnie slowly stroked a cow’s head, carefully scratching behind the ears. The cow lowed appreciatively, and she giggled. “They’re so big,” she murmured.

Bas smiled. “Kind of clumsy-looking,” he allowed.

“You take that back, Bas the Hunter! They’re beautiful creatures.”

He wrinkled his nose as his smile widened. “If you say so, kitty.”

She sighed softly, the happy little smile slowly fading. Blinking, she sighed almost sadly, and Bas scowled at the sense of melancholy that surfaced in her gaze. ‘Why?’ he asked himself. ‘Sometimes she looks so lost, so alone . . . but . . . why?

Her words were soft and somehow that much more poignant for him, partially because of the desperation in her tone, and partially because, as much as he would love to give her whatever she wanted, he simply couldn’t give her this . . . “Can I stay here, Sebastian? You could leave me . . . I think . . . I could be happy here . . .”

“Baby,” he whispered, straightening up to pull her back against his chest. “I’m sorry . . . I can’t leave you here.”

She sighed, letting her head fall back against his chest as she closed her eyes, as a trembling little smile turned up the corners of her lips and managed to break his heart just a little more. “I know. I just thought . . . it doesn’t really matter, what I thought.”

“Sydnie . . .”

“You could stay here, too,” she insisted, struck by sudden inspiration. “You could . . . be a cattle doggie.”

He rolled his eyes but grinned. “You’re kidding, right?”

She shook her head. “Nope.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think so.”

“Tell me what else you have planned for the day?” she coaxed.

He shrugged. “Nothing, really . . . whatever you want. We could go for a walk or something . . .”

She sighed, stepping away long enough to pet the cow again. “Okay,” she agreed, grabbing his hand and tugging. “I like walking.”

Bas chuckled softly and let her pull him out of the barn into the clean, white world of falling snow.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“It’s so cold!” Sydnie exclaimed, rubbing her arms through the sleeves of her coat. Fitting so tightly that it looked like a second skin, the coat seemed to be tailored just for her though Bas knew that it wasn’t. Snug to the waist where it flared gently into a full skirt, the supple suede leather flowed with her movements. She laughed softly, linking her arm around his as they wandered through the forest. Flakes of falling snow stuck in her hair, but if she were suffering from the chill in the air, she didn’t remark on it. The afternoon skies were overcast and dull. Being with Sydnie made it all seem brighter . . .

“Tell me, Sydnie,” he began, stuffing his hands into his pockets as he broke a path in the snow for her. “Did you really want to stay with the cows?”

Sydnie sighed, pulling away from him and veering off the path to dust the snow away from a fallen log so that she could sit down. “Yes . . . no . . . I don’t know.”

Bas followed, sitting beside her and shaking his head at her confusing answer. “That was a weird answer.”

“You have to take me to him, right? To the tai-youkai . . .”

Bas grimaced at the abrupt reminder. Sometimes it was easy to forget, just why he was ultimately traveling with her . . . He sighed. “There’s that, too,” he agreed. “You know I’d miss you, right?”

“I don’t know,” she disagreed. “Seems like things would be simpler for you if you didn’t have to worry about me.”

“I like worrying about you,” he pointed out. “You’re my kitty.”

Leaning against his shoulder, Sydnie sighed and smiled wanly. “For now, puppy?”

Forever . . .’

He smiled, too. “For as long as you’ll have me.”

She sat up, scrunching up her shoulders as she stared at her clasped hands, a hint of pinkness filtering into her cheeks that didn’t have a thing to do with the cold winter air. “You . . . you brought me milk,” she said. “How did you know?”

Bas blinked and frowned slightly. “You’re a cat,” he explained. “Cats like milk. Your parents probably brought you milk, too.”

Her bashful expression melted into a perplexed scowl. “They didn’t want me,” she murmured so quietly that Bas had to lean toward her to hear her words.

“What? No . . .”

Sydnie shrugged. “That’s what . . . she said . . .” She ducked her head a little further.

“‘She’? ‘She’, who?”

“It doesn’t matter . . . I just . . . I remember asking, and she said that they left.”

Bas didn’t know what to say. The upset on Sydnie’s face dug at him, tore at him, and he sighed, slipping his arm around her and drawing her closer to his side. “I’m sorry, baby . . . I can’t believe that your parents didn’t want you . . . Do you remember anything about them?”

Sydnie thought it over, slipping her arm under his duster and around his waist. “No . . . nothing. I just remember . . . I missed her . . . my mother . . .”

He couldn’t wrap his brain around it. He couldn’t reconcile himself to believe that Sydnie’s parents wouldn’t want her; that anyone would be able to resist adoring her. Unable to do more than just hold her, he winced as the pain in her youki spiked. Pulling her into his lap, he did the only thing he could do. Holding her, rocking her gently, wishing that there were more he could do, something he could say to alleviate the hurt that seemed so raw to her. Kissing her forehead, he closed his eyes, feeling completely helpless despite the way she cuddled closer, as though he really were soothing her. The secrets she guarded so jealously . . . just how much were they costing her inside? And yet he couldn’t deny the surge of satisfaction, no matter how bittersweet, that she trusted him enough to tell him anything at all . . .

“I’m okay now,” she finally said though she didn’t even try to move away from him.

Bas tucked his arms more securely around her. “You can tell me things, Sydnie . . . you know that, right?”

“I know,” she agreed.

“Good.” He breathed in the clean scent of her hair and sighed. “Things like . . . why you like closets so much?”

“I don’t, particularly.”

He snorted but didn’t argue with her. “Or why you killed Cal Richardson.”

“I told you—”

“I know what you’ve said, Sydnie. I also know there’s more to it than that.”

She grimaced and bit her lip but shook her head, burying her face against his chest. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Baby—”

“Maybe someday,” she whispered. “Just . . . not now; not here.”

He made a face but nodded, letting her have the perceived victory, at least for the moment. “You cold?”

She shook her head, closing her eyes and burrowing a little closer. “Uh-uh.”

“Hungry?”

“Uh-uh.”

“Want some milk?”

She hesitated before answering, and he smiled. “That might be okay.”

Slipping his arm under her knees to pick her up, Bas started to stand. “Ready to go back, then?”

She sighed. “Wait . . .”

He sat back down. “All right . . . what?”

“Thank you,” she whispered, leaning back and clasping his cheeks in her hands.

He frowned thoughtfully, unsure just what she would be thanking him for. “Why?”

She pushed herself up on her toes, pulling him down to kiss him gently. “For bringing me here . . . for showing me the cows . . . for . . . everything.”

“I don’t mind,” he mumbled, trying not to blush at the warm praise.

“You’re a good man, Sebastian . . . Zelig.”

“Am I?”

She nodded.

He sucked in a sharp breath as he stared into her eyes. He could see it: all the things she just couldn’t say. The understanding, the knowledge that she might try to deny . . . she knew as well as he did that they were mates; that they belonged together. He made a lifetime of promises in those moments; an uncompromising vow spoken without words, and he knew that she understood it, too. He offered her forever. All she had to do was take it.

He could see the traces of fear lingering in her gaze, the faint ghosts that still haunted her . . . things that he wasn’t sure he’d ever understand. A dim light flickered, sputtered, but grew the tiniest bit as he gazed at her. Despite her insecurities and the unspoken secrets, somewhere deep down, she hoped. That faint hope lent him strength, the determination to try to convince her.

You’ll believe it, Sydnie . . . you have to. You have to believe in us . . .’

He stared in silence as tears pooled in her eyes. She blinked, a vain effort to stave them back as a solitary tear spilled over, slipping down her cheek in an icy streak. He caught the tear on the tip of his index finger and licked the moisture away. She frowned slightly, shaking her head as she watched him. “Why’d you do that?” she finally asked.

Bas tried to smile then sighed. “My mom says . . . she said her mother used to do this. If you catch the first tear and make a wish, the wish will come true.”

“What did you wish for?” she asked almost breathlessly.

Bas’ smile grew despite the soberness in his gaze. “That’s easy, kitty . . . I wished . . . I wished that you’d be happy.”

“Sebastian . . .”

The smile finally filtered into his eyes, and he stood up, carrying Sydnie through the forest along the path that hadn’t been broken yet. “It’s all right to dream, Sydnie. Do you believe me?”

She linked her arms around his neck and laid her head on his shoulder. “I . . . I want to.”

“Then do it.”

She sighed and drew a deep breath. “. . . Okay . . .”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Why don’t you put that stuff away and pay attention to me?”

Izayoi Kichiro peered up from the research file he was looking over to meet the deep blue gaze of his mate. Propped up on her elbow as she lay provocatively on her side, she smiled sweetly and reached out to run a finger down the center of his chest.

“Okay,” he agreed simply. “That’s enough research for me.”

Izayoi Bellaniece giggled softly, her hair falling around her in a golden bronze wave. Kichiro set the file on the nightstand and rolled over, grabbing his wife and forcing her back, his knee slipping between her bare legs. “Something you wanted, lover?” she asked, her eyes narrowing as a coquettish grin surfaced.

“Oh, I can think of a thing or two,” he parried, nipping her earlobe playfully

She shivered, gasping as his teeth razed her senses. “I’ll be your bitch, Kichiro.”

“Damn straight, you will be . . .”

The trill of Kichiro’s cell phone broke the pleasant idyll. Heaving a sigh, he reached for the device, glancing at the clock and heaving a sigh. ‘Eleven at night, and the phone’s ringing?’ He snorted. “It damn well better be an emergency,” he growled, frowning at the caller ID screen. “Balls . . . it’s your brother.”

“Evan?” Belle questioned. “He ought to know better . . . call him back later. Music questions can wait. I can’t.”

Kichiro shook his head and caught Belle’s roaming hand, bringing it to his lips to kiss her quickly. “Nope, it’s Bas.”

“Bas?” Belle echoed, sitting up straight, her attention peaking. “Oh, you have to answer that, then.”

Kichiro nodded as he hit the ‘connect’ button. That particular brother was much more reserved than Evan was, and maybe even a little afraid of Belle and her penchant for saying outrageous things. While obvious that he held his family in the highest of regard, Bas also tended to have a lot more of his father in him than Belle ever had, and because of that, he hardly ever called them. No, there was no mistaking his intention, either. Had he wanted to talk to Belle, he would have called her cell phone instead of Kichiro’s . . . “Bas? Everything all right?”

“Yeah, sort of . . . not really.”

Frowning at his brother-in-law’s elusive answer, Kichiro cleared his throat. “What’s up?”

“Well, see—” Bas cut himself off and snorted. “Wait . . . Belle’s not listening, is she?”

Kichiro glanced at his wife, who was still sitting up straight, staring at him rather expectantly. “Nope.”

“Are you sure?” Bas demanded.

Belle reached for the phone. Kichiro waved her off, smashing his finger against his lips, warning her to be quiet. “She’s . . . sleeping,” he replied, slipping an arm around his naked wife and covering her mouth with his hand.

Bas sighed. “Good . . . I, uh, had a question about, um . . . sex . . .”

Kichiro hid his surprise under a strategically placed cough. “Okay, let’s hear it.”

“You . . . You’re a doctor, right?”

“Last time I checked,” he teased. “Tell me what you need.”

Bas sighed again. “Is it . . .? How much . . .? Women shouldn’t . . .?”

Belle reached up and turned the cell phone so that she could eavesdrop better. Kichiro shook his head at her but didn’t readjust the receiver. “Women shouldn’t . . .?” he prompted.

“They . . . shouldn’t . . . bleed . . . after . . . sex . . . Should they?” Bas finally mumbled.

“Bleed?” Kichiro echoed. “Depends . . . Was she a virgin?”

“Yeah,” Bas admitted. In his mind, Kichiro could almost see Sebastian’s face, all contorted in a self-conscious grimace. With as quiet as he tended to be, the fact that he was asking Kichiro anything pertaining to sex meant that it really was bothering him, after all. “She . . . was, but . . . I mean, she bled a lot the first time, and now . . .” He sighed for the third time. “She . . . bled . . . again.”

“How much blood are we talking here?” Kichiro asked carefully, waving a hand at Belle, who was trying to tug the phone out of his hand. “A few drops? Sometimes a woman might bleed the second time, but that’s fairly rare . . .”

“More,” Bas grumbled miserably. “Damn it.”

“How much more?”

“I don’t know . . . A lot more . . .”

Kichiro grimaced, loathe to ask yet needing more knowledge than Bas was giving. “Look, Bas, I want to help you, but I need a little more information here.”

“Well, you know–more.” Bas let out a deep breath. “Wait, I have a picture . . .”

Kichiro frowned. “You have a picture of the stain?”

Bas snorted. “Gunnar . . . I was asking him, and he wanted to know . . . Anyway, hold on.”

“Bleeding?” Belle whispered. “Well, most women do bleed the first time.”

“Quiet, you,” Kichiro mouthed back, covering the receiver with his hand. “If Bas knows you’re listening, he’ll never talk to me again.”

Belle made a show of rolling her eyes but snapped her mouth closed before rummaging around in the drawer of her nightstand for a small tablet of paper and a black ink pen.

A little beep from the phone announced the arrival of the picture. Kichiro lowered the phone to examine the photo only to suck in his breath and grimace at the image of the blood-stained sheet. “Balls,” he muttered. “No wonder he’s concerned . . .”

Belle leaned over and wrinkled her nose as she stared at the picture, too. Another picture came through, and Kichiro sighed. The stain wasn’t quite as big, but it was still more than should have been there for a first time, let alone a second, in his estimation.

“Is he rushing her?” Belle asked automatically.

“Was that my sister?” Bas demanded.

“Talking in her sleep,” Kichiro lied glibly, waving a hand at his mate with a scowl. “Bas . . . I have to ask . . . Are you taking your time with her?”

Bas growled. “Taking my time?”

Kichiro scowled, unable to think of a delicate way to phrase his next question. “Yes, taking your time. Do the two of you engage in foreplay before you try to enter her?”

Bas’ inhalation was so sharp, it whistled. “I don’t . . . I mean, she . . . She won’t wait, and . . . It’s not normal, is it?”

“No,” Kichiro admitted slowly. “It looks like . . . Listen, Bas, just hear me out. Did she seem . . . ready . . . both times you had sex?”

“I thought she was,” he mumbled. “I thought . . . oh, hell.”

Kichiro grimaced. “No, I mean, was she—for lack of a nicer term—wet when you made your move?”

“That’s just it,” Bas grumbled. “She . . . gets impatient, and—”

“You mean she rushes you?

“W—I—She . . . Yes.”

“I see . . .” Kichiro frowned, lowering the phone again to stare thoughtfully at the pictures. ‘She’s doing this . . . to herself? Why?

Slow her down,’ Belle scribbled on the tablet and poked Kichiro’s shoulder. He nodded, bringing the phone up to his head again. Belle reached over and tilted the receiver once more. Kichiro shot her another warning glance.

“Listen, Bas. You need to slow her down. I’m not sure why she’d trying to rush you, but it sounds to me like she’d just not wet enough to receive you. You’re a big boy, so—”

Bas’ growl cut him off. “Damn it . . .”

Kichiro slowly shook his head. “Hold on; don’t get angry, okay? You are a big boy, and because you are, you have to make sure that she’s really, really ready for you. I’m assuming you’re using condoms at the moment, and condoms tend to be a little more abrasive for a female than not using one. If you’re not careful, you’re just going to keep hurting her. You don’t want to hurt her again, right?”

Bas erupted in a fierce, albeit low, growl. “Fuck, no.”

“Well, then take your time with her.” Kichiro waved a hand a Belle, pushing her notepad away despite her irritated scowl. “Look, a female body is engineered to be beautiful. You think she’s beautiful, right?”

“Of course I do.”

“Then take the time to show her. Women are designed to attract men, and all those things that attract you should make you want to explore them. All those parts you like looking at? Touch them . . . kiss them . . . lick them.”

Belle scribbled words onto her tablet and shoved it under her mate’s nose. ‘Nibble them,’ she mouthed. Kichiro shook his head.

“It’s not that,” Bas grumbled. “It’s just . . . she . . . touches me, and I . . . well, I can’t think when she does.”

Kichiro nodded slowly. “Yeah, I think most of us have problems with that, to start with. Anyway, think about it: you like it when she touches you, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Then it stands to reason that she would like the same, don’t you think? In fact, I’d say that women need to be touched more than men do, and longer than men do. If you can’t think when she’s touching you, then you need to ensure that you can think. I assume we’re discussing the cat-youkai? Sydnie?”

“Yes,” Bas ground out.

She’s gorgeous!’ Belle scrawled then uttered an involuntary squeal of delight.

“Belle’s listening, isn’t she?”

“Belle? Nope . . . out like a light,” Kichiro remarked, slapping his hand over Belle’s mouth again. “Is she as small as she looks?”

Bas grunted. “Taller than Mom . . . maybe a little skinnier.”

“I thought so. Look . . . women’s tissue is much more delicate, especially the tissue in her vagina. If she’s not completely ready, she’ll tear, and it sounds like that’s what’s been happening.”

“Tear?” Bas rasped out, the recrimination heavy in his voice.

“If she’s ready for you, you won’t have to worry about that. Take your time, and once you’re inside her, give her a minute or two to accommodate you. Her body will loosen up a little—enough to ensure she won’t be hurt, but for the first few times, just take it slowly.”

“Take it slowly. Okay, I can do that.” He sighed. “If I can get her to hold still . . .”

“Yeah, well . . . you’re definitely stronger than her, right? Just make her hold still, if you have to. You can be forceful without being overbearing.”

Tie her up!’ Belle wrote. Kichiro narrowed his eyes at her and shook his head.

“But how would I know if she’s ready?”

Kichiro finally grinned, pulling Belle closer against his side. “Make her beg.”

“What?”

“Make her beg for you. Instinct should let you know when she’s ready enough . . . or you could touch her. If she’s wet enough, you’ll be wet, too. You’ll feel it. Hell, you’ll smell it. Call it natural lubrication, if you want. That’s all it is.”

Bas sighed again.

“Just touch her and touch her and touch her some more. There’s no shame in enjoying her body. Make her enjoy the act as much as you do.”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, and Bas?”

“Hmm?”

Kichiro took his time, deliberately choosing his words. “You might want to try to find out why she would think that being hurt is normal, because it sounds to me as though she might believe that.”

“Yeah,” Bas mumbled. “I sort of thought that, too.”

“She your mate?”

“She will be.”

“Then you definitely want her to enjoy sex.”

“I know.”

“My best advice?”

“Okay.”

Kichiro broke into a wide grin, tugging the notepad out of Belle’s hand and tossing it across the room. “Follow your nose. If it smells good, it tastes good, and if it tastes good to you, it feels good to her. Oral sex is a wonderful thing. I highly suggest you try that.”

Belle cuddled against him, her hand stroking him in silent approval of his advice. He slipped his hand behind her head and gently pushed her down. She shot him a sly grin as she gripped him and slowly ran her tongue up and down the length of him.

“Thanks, Kich . . . Would you mind . . .? I mean, could you just not . . .?”

“I won’t tell Belle a thing,” he agreed. “Call me back if you need anything else.”

“Yeah, okay. Thanks again.”

Clicking off his phone, Kichiro let it drop from his fingers over the side of the bed.

Belle leaned up on her elbows to look at him. “My poor baby brother!” she crooned.

“He’ll be fine,” Kichiro insisted. “Now, where were you?”

Belle giggled, wrapping her hands around him, pumping him up and down. “I believe you were about to fuck me, lover.”

Kichiro grinned then groaned as she slid her mouth over him, sucking him gently as she massaged his balls. “You suck my cock, and then we’ll talk, princess.”

“Can you think when I’m touching you?”

He chuckled. “Oh, hell, no . . .”

She giggled. “Good . . .”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Frowning slightly as he stared over Sydnie’s head at the crackling logs charring on the huge brick fireplace, Bas pondered Kichiro’s advice for what had to be the thousandth time since he’d gotten off the phone with his brother-in-law-slash-uncle hours ago.

Follow your nose. If it smells good, it tastes good, and if it tastes good to you, it feels good to her. Oral sex is a wonderful thing. I highly suggest you try that.”

Sound advice, he figured. Truthfully, he’d wanted to touch Sydnie more. Trouble was, as he had told Kichiro, he just couldn’t think when she touched him, even if she were only touching his shoulders or chest. She made him feel so good that conscious thought was damn near impossible. Thing was, how to get her to stop, at least long enough for him to make sure that she enjoyed making love as much as he did?

Damn it . . .’

Come on, Bas, it’s not that difficult. You can hold her down, can’t you?

His frown darkened. ‘Hold her down? Yeah, but . . .’

It’s not forever, you know. Just long enough to show her what it really ought to be. You want that for her; you want that for you. Even if she doesn’t like it to start with, she will, in the end.

“Do we have to leave here?” Sydnie asked quietly, snuggling against Bas’ chest.

He sighed. “Yeah . . . we should get moving in the morning.”

“I knew you’d say something like that,” she grumbled.

“How are you feeling?” he asked gently, stroking her hair, smiling at the way it cascaded around her, pooling on the crisp, white sheets and veiling her naked body in the warm glow of the dancing flames.

“Fine,” she assured him with an impish smile. “You know, you could sleep naked, too.”

He grimaced when she slipped her hands under the waistband of his boxer shorts. “Sydnie, stop,” he said, carefully grabbing her hands to pull them away and kissing her knuckles.

“Kitty wants to play, puppy,” she purred.

Bas shook his head and wrapped his arms around her, drawing her securely against his chest. “Not this time, baby.”

Grimacing at the upset that flitted across her features, Bas kissed her forehead and sighed. “I mean, this time, we’re doing things my way,” he explained. “Okay?”

“Your way?” she echoed, shaking her head as confusion clouded her eyes. “What do you mean, your way?”

He smiled shyly, a little apologetically. “I mean I want you to let me touch you, and I don’t want you to move.”

“But . . . I don’t understand,” she murmured, cheeks pinking as she shook her head.

“Sydnie . . . baby . . . I want you to enjoy this as much as I do,” he insisted. “And you will, I promise.”

“I already do,” she said quietly. “I like being with you.”

Bas’ gaze narrowed, and he winced. “You don’t,” he replied, “but you will. I just don’t want to hurt you again, okay?”

“You can’t hurt me, puppy.”

“That’s a lie, and we both know it. Let me do this my way.”

“Your way? What does that mean?”

Catching her fingers as she traced little circles on his chest, Bas sighed. “That means I don’t want you to touch me. Just . . . lay here and let me touch you . . . okay?”

“You . . . don’t like it when I . . . touch you?”

“No, no . . .” He grimaced at the instantaneous flash of hurt that registered in her expression. “I love it when you touch me, but I just can’t think straight when you do. Sydnie . . . you’re supposed to enjoy this. That’s all. Do you understand?”

She wrinkled her nose and scrunched up her shoulders. “I do enjoy it, silly.”

“You don’t,” he countered softly.

“I—”

“You bled, Sydnie! You’re not supposed to bleed! I don’t want to hurt you, damn it! I can’t hurt you like that!”

“But—”

Bas snorted belligerently and stubbornly shook his head. “If you can’t keep still, cat, I swear to God, I’ll . . . I’ll . . . I’ll slap the handcuffs on you. See if I don’t.”

Her mouth dropped open as a gasp escaped her. “You wouldn’t!

He quirked an eyebrow. “Try me.” Sparing a moment to kiss her forehead, he pushed her aside and stood up, crossing the floor to dig the condoms out of his coat pocket, and grabbing the handcuffs for good measure.

Sydnie’s eyes flared at the sight of the handcuffs dangling from his fingers and scowled. “You keep those away from me, Bas the Hunter!” she warned.

He dropped them along with the condoms onto the nightstand. “All right, kitty . . . just keep your hands to yourself, and I won’t use them.”

Her expression shifted into a petulant pout. “I don’t think I like you very much,” she whimpered.

Bas sank down on the edge of the bed and pulled her into his lap. “I know, baby, and I’m sorry.”

Still she allowed him to tilt her chin up, didn’t try to fight him when he slowly kissed her lips. Stroking her cheekbones with the pads of his thumbs, Bas brushed his lips over hers in a delicate whisper of a tender caress. She sighed softly, her hands balled into fists that she obediently kept in her lap. Gently sucking her lower lip, Bas felt her shudder in his arms. Her mouth fell open as her head rolled back, exposing the softest skin of her neck. The submissive gesture was not lost on Bas, and he stifled a sharp growl, a predatory sound—the sound of inu-youkai domination. Kissing his way along her jaw line, down the soft incline to settle over the fluttering pulse in her throat, he couldn’t resist the desire to kiss her, to touch her, to taste her.

Sucking on her soft skin until the flesh took on a rosy hue, he uttered a low growl. She whimpered in response. Catching her wrist as she tried to slip her arm around his neck, Bas kissed her hand, her wrist, her forearm. Her pulse raced in his ears; the soothing sound of her rapid respirations echoing in his ears, burning in his veins. Letting go of her hand, trailing his claws along the sunken flesh above her collarbones, he took his time, reveling in the compelling velvet of her skin, reeling in the knowledge that every goose bump, every shiver, every little mew that slipped from her lips were because of him: his touch, his attention.

The gentle slope of her breast . . . the flushed peak of her nipples . . . Catching her under her arms, he lifted her up, supported her, held her close as her knees slipped down on either side of his thighs. Flicking out his tongue, tentatively tasting the hardened nub, he could smell the deepening of her scent as she cried out, her fingers biting into his shoulders, claws digging into his flesh. An innate knowledge shocked him even as he grimaced, letting her nipple spring free from his mouth. He wasn’t hurting her; this he knew. The scent of his blood burned his nose, and with a sigh, a grimace, he laid her on the bed.

The click of the handcuffs on her delicate wrists echoed in the quiet like the report of a shotgun. Sydnie gasped, tugging at her hands, but he’d looped the chain through the spindles on the headboard. She whimpered softly, pulled against the restraints. Bas leaned over her, bearing his weight on his elbows, his hands wrapped around her breasts. Squeezing gently, he groaned, closing his eyes as he let his mouth fall over her nipple again. She sucked in a sharp breath, her body arching off the mattress. Bas’ body pinned hers in place, holding her still despite her whines of protest. The heat of her seared through his abdomen as she opened her legs, wrapped them around him, pressing herself against him, her body undulating, shivering; pushed to the cusp of her shaky control.

Kissing his way to her other nipple, Bas licked it, sucked it, long, slow strokes of his tongue. The smoothness of her skin erupted in goose bumps. He soothed them away with balmy kisses, with gentle insistence. Dragging his hands down the length of her body, feeling the contours: the hollows, the rises, Bas groaned softly, breathing harsh, heavy, living and dying by the sounds of her quiet entreaties. Her skin seemed to leap under his touch, demanding then retreating, her body desperately trying to contain the rioting sensations caused by his touch.

Moisture, heat, a visceral burn singed him deep as the throbbing in his body soared into a painful ache. Reaching back to stroke her leg, he coaxed her into relaxing them as he trailed lethargic kisses down her breasts, down her belly. Delving the tip of his tongue into her belly button, dragging his teeth over the taunt flesh, he savored the feel of her as she mewled, keening softly, the rattle of the chain harsh in his ears. His body shook, the edges of his self-control fraying. Her scent beckoned him closer, drawing him in on invisible strings, a vortex of desire wound so tightly that any sudden movement could shatter him completely.

Kissing his way along the sharp angle of her hips, down along the shallow vale that converged in the thin line of auburn curls, Bas let his tongue dart out, tasting the salty flesh, inhaling the scent of her that was driving him insane. Slipping his arms under her thighs, lifting her pelvis off the bed, Bas lowered his face, kissed her deep, his tongue parting the satiny folds of her overheated skin. She gasped, bucked, cried out his name, her body trembling, shaking, her knees falling open wider, inviting him deeper as he breathed her in, his body tense, straining.

She babbled incoherent words, the sounds of her laughter mingled with the stilted sound of her tears. Rising against him, thighs wet, slick, she thrust against his lips, his tongue, the chain straining hard enough to make the headboard creak. Searching out every secret part of her, reveling in the taste of her, he felt the surge of pride, the inebriating realization that Sydnie was touching the moon . . .

“P-Please,” she gasped, half-sobbing, half-demanding. “Please . . .”

Bas ignored her pleas, his finger sliding deep inside her. She whimpered and thrust against him, her body convulsing around her as he flicked the tip of his tongue over the swollen bud that seemed to call out to him.

She jerked, her body rigid, tense. Back arching, letting her head fall against the pillows, she gasped, cried, whined. Bracing her feet against the mattress, she rose, higher and higher, only to collapse once more, trembling, sobbing.

Pausing long enough to press one last kiss on her, Bas sat up, discarding his boxers and reaching for a condom. Sydnie whimpered at the loss of his body heat, and with a tender little grin, he smoothed the condom down before carefully positioning himself over her again.

“Open your eyes, Sydnie,” he whispered. She shook her head but finally managed to do as he said. Eyes half-closed, green darkened to a smoldering burn, she gazed at him, her breathing heavy, her breasts heaving as he leaned down to kiss her. Cradling her leg, rubbing her thigh, Bas shuddered as the head of his penis slipped between her folds of skin. She gasped, body tensing, and he drew back with a frown. She thought he was going to hurt her, didn’t she? Bas nearly whined as the knowledge solidified. Every muscle in her body was tight, strained, and he had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from pulling away.

Telling himself that he wouldn’t hurt her, chanting it over and over again like a mantra, Bas shushed her quietly, gently rubbed her hips as he nuzzled against her neck. Uttering a low wuffing sound, he felt her slowly relax. If she understood the sound or simply reacted to his touch, Bas wasn’t sure. In the end, it was enough. Making sure that she was thoroughly relaxed, he pressed himself into her with maddening slowness and absolute ease. It hadn’t been that way before, had it? The fluid motion that seemed so right hadn’t been there the other times. Sydnie gasped, eyes flashing open, staring at Bas with something akin to wonder.

Holding himself completely still, he closed his eyes, letting his forehead fall against hers. She lifted her pelvis, ground them against his. With a ragged groan, he grasped her hips and held her still, gently but firmly. She growled in protest, and he shook his head, wondering just how long he could stand to be still while her body convulsed around him.

“It . . . hurts,” she whimpered. “Please . . .”

He winced and pushed himself up on his elbows, scowling at her in the semi-darkness. “Hurts?” he echoed, immediately starting to pull out of her.

She locked her feet around his waist, drawing him back in a sudden thrust. She groaned quietly and shook her head. “Don’t stop,” she whispered. “Oh, God, don’t stop . . .”

And he understood. He wasn’t hurting her, not really. She was talking about that ache, the consuming ache that was ravaging him, as well. Extending his hands over her head, twining his fingers with hers, he swallowed hard, drawing on the last of his tattered resolve, slowly thrusting inside her, kissing her softly, completely. Her body moved against his, matching his rhythm with one of her own. Her heart hammered against his chest, her fingers tightening on his hands.

She opened and closed around him, drawing him deeper into her heat, her moisture. She moaned, the purr he knew so well surging out of her in ragged uneven rasps. Her tongue stroked his as her body locked around him, goading him to quicken his thrusts in a powerful syncopation of tactile sensation. Arching against him, breasts crushed under the weight of him, she strained against him, her legs falling to his sides. Bracing herself against the bed, she lifted her pelvis, crying out when the power of his movements slammed her down against the mattress only to rise again to meet him halfway.

He hung on as long as he could. The desire to make it last just a little longer dissipating as the last threads of his control snapped and dissolved. Tearing his mouth away from hers, he called out her name as the violent explosion of heat and light and energy spun away from him, obliterating everything except her—how much she meant to him, how much he loved her. Somewhere in the back of his mind he understood as she tightened around him, as she shuddered beneath him, that this time had been different: beautiful. With one last thrust, one ragged cry, he collapsed against her, gathered her close, throbbed inside her; completely spent and yet somehow entirely content.

The soft tick of the clock on the nightstand was the first thing to register in Bas’ addled brain. The second thing was the metallic rattle of the handcuff chains, and Sydnie’s stifled whine. Rolling over to grab the key off the nightstand, Bas made quick work of unhooking the cuffs and letting them fall away. Almost immediately, she was wrapped around him, burying her face against his chest as she sniffled and babbled words he couldn’t make out. Grimacing as he realized that he really needed to get rid of the condom, he gave in, letting her have her way, at least for the moment as he rubbed her back and stroked her hair. “You okay, baby?”

She nodded, clutching his shoulders and heaving a sigh. “I guess I can like you again now, puppy,” she allowed. He grinned at the slightly sulking tone in her sing-song voice.

“I’m sorry, kitty,” he said with a wince. “You know, right? You’re supposed to enjoy making love . . . You’re supposed to enjoy it a lot.”

“I did,” she allowed almost grudgingly. She snuggled close for a moment then sat up.

“Where are you going?” he called after her as she darted toward the bathroom.

Sydnie waved her hand over her shoulder but didn’t answer.

Leaning up on his elbows as he scowled at her hasty retreat, Bas’ eyes widened when she re-emerged moments later with a wet washcloth and a brilliant smile. The smile widened as she carefully slipped the used condom off him and carefully washed him clean.

Bas grinned and let her do as she pleased, waiting until she slipped back into the bed before he pulled her into his arms again, kissing her forehead, her cheeks, her nose as she snuggled against him. “You want a bath, baby?”

She yawned and cuddled closer. “In a bit,” she agreed.

He chuckled. “Sydnie . . . Why would you think that you weren’t supposed to enjoy it?”

She stiffened slightly but didn’t try to pull away. “I did enjoy it,” she maintained.

“Sydnie . . .”

“No, I did . . . the beginning was good, and the after was great . . . and you enjoyed the rest of it. That was enough, wasn’t it?”

Bas snorted. “No, cat, it wasn’t. I want you to like being with me. Don’t you understand that?”

“I . . .” She sighed. “I do.”

He sighed, too, but relented. Unwilling to ruin the feeling of closeness, he pushed aside the rest of his questions. They could wait, couldn’t they?

He yawned. Sydnie snuggled closer, the first rumbles of her contented purring bringing a smile to his lips.

“One day,” he murmured, closing his eyes as sleep beckoned. “I’ll understand you.”

“Maybe,” Sydnie agreed absently. “Maybe.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Bas glanced up from the map and slowly shook his head as Sydnie peeked into the rearview mirror before shifting her attention back to the road again. She was doing well, he had to admit. She seemed to feel better, driving as opposed to riding. Maybe it was the feeling that she had more control over the situation. “We’re going to be close to Chicago soon. I’ll drive when we get there.”

She nodded and shot him a cursory glance. Bas intercepted the look and smiled. “What’s on your mind, kitty?”

She shrugged. “How are your shoulders?”

He grimaced at the reminder. She’d been beside herself when she had seen the deep lacerations that she’d inflicted on him just before he’d handcuffed her. Spending a good ten minutes thoroughly cleaning the wounds that had almost been healed when she’d discovered them this morning, she’d curled up on his lap, telling him over and over that she wouldn’t complain ever again, if he wanted to handcuff her all the time. It might have been a little more humorous, he supposed, if she hadn’t been so close to tears . . .

“Can we stop for awhile?”

“Stop? What for?”

“I need to stretch my legs, puppy.”

Bas tucked the almanac into the middle console between the seats and sighed. So far as he could tell, they weren’t anywhere near a rest stop or gas station. She had been cooped up in the car all day, and while she hadn’t seemed to mind, he knew that she was probably feeling restless. “All right, kitty, but just for a few minutes.”

She pulled over after carefully checking the mirrors and turning to make sure that everything was clear. Bas smiled despite the nagging feeling that something was entirely off; not with Sydnie, no . . . just an odd feeling that something was . . . strange.

“Good?” she asked, shifting the car into ‘park’ and turning off the engine.

Bas reached over and ruffled her hair. “Perfect,” he assured her.

She giggled softly, the throaty sounds of a burgeoning purr coming through in the sound. Bas grinned then sighed. “Stay here, baby. Let me look around first.”

She wrinkled her nose but nodded as he climbed out of the car, pausing long enough to grab his sword before slowly staring at the empty road. A dilapidated old work truck clattered past. He didn’t have to look to know that Sydnie was likely shying away from the door. A tap on the glass beside him drew his attention. Sydnie had crawled over the console and held her hands up at her sides in silent question.

Bas shook his head and narrowed his gaze, surveying the landscape once more. Dense trees on one side of the road stood quietly, the skeletal branches covered in undisturbed snow made all the starker in contrast with the dark shadows underneath. The barren field behind him still held the stubble of cut-off corn stalks behind a waist-high barbed-wire fence. So far as he could tell, there was nothing amiss, yet he still couldn’t shake the unsettling notion that someone somewhere was watching them.

Sydnie tapped on the window again, a frown furrowing her brow. Bas opened the door and grabbed her hand. “Come on, kitty,” he said, striving for a neutral tone despite the sense of urgency that was steadily growing stronger. He couldn’t keep moving. Driving into a city would only make it worse. The last thing he wanted was to draw attention to themselves, and if his instincts were right, then best to get the altercation out of the way before they got to a place where youkai-style fighting would only more noticeable.

Sydnie saw right through his forced bravado. He took the keys and locked the car as he hurried her across the road and into the cover of the trees. He could feel the shift in the air; the stroke of foreign youki coming closer. The thing that bothered him most was that it wasn’t a singular sense. No, it felt as though it were closing in on them, and if that were the case, then it meant that there were certainly more than one or two.

“They’re coming, aren’t they?” Sydnie asked softly, her fingers twitching nervously in his firm grip.

“It’s okay,” he told her, his voice vague as he tried to pay attention to the area as well as reassuring Sydnie that everything would be all right. “You trust me, right?”

“Yes,” she answered a little breathlessly. “Sebastian—”

“I’ll protect you, Sydnie. Don’t worry.”

She bit her lip but didn’t argue, glancing around nervously as he dragged her deeper into the trees. They were getting closer which meant that Bas didn’t have much time to hide Sydnie . . . “Take to the trees, baby,” he told her softly, rounding on her, gripping her shoulders. “You stay up there, no matter what. Understand?”

She shook her head stubbornly. “No. I’m staying with you.”

“Sydnie—”

“I can fight, too!”

“You’re the one they’re after!” he argued. “You’re the one they want!”

“They want you, too!” she insisted. “I’m staying with you, puppy!”

“Damn it, I—”

“You promised!”

Snapping his mouth closed on his arguments, he heaved a sigh and glowered down at her, wondering how she could remember something like that when she chose to ignore other things he’d told her. He could see it in her stubborn gaze, though. It didn’t matter what he told her. She wasn’t about to comply with his wishes on the matter . . . “Then stay behind me,” he commanded.

She nodded.

Bas took her hand again, darting through the forest. The trees thinned, and they skidded to a stop on the edge of a large pond. He could see smoke rising over the horizon on the other side of the water. ‘Far enough from prying human eyes,’ he supposed. It wasn’t the best set-up, but it was probably the best he’d be able to find.

Sydnie gasped softly, her grip on his hand tightening. Four shadows shifted in the forest, slowly drawing closer into the watery, gray light of the late afternoon sunshine. Discernable footsteps crunched through the snow as Bas pushed Sydnie behind his back and flexed his fingers. ‘Kitsune . . . fire . . . rattlesnake . . . bobcat . . . and there’re more . . . I can feel them . . .’

“You’re outnumbered, son of the Zelig,” the rattlesnake-youkai pointed out, his voice more of a hiss, golden eyes narrowing to mere slits. “Best to just give up, don’t you think?”

Bas didn’t answer, shifting his gaze from one to the other. The bounty hunters didn’t look all that tough. He didn’t doubt that they could fight, but they didn’t look any tougher than the last bunch that he’d fought. The only thing that really worried him was the feeling that there were more lurking in the shadows.

“He’s protecting his bitch . . . or would that be his pussy?” the female—a fire-based-youkai—spoke up. Bright red hair sticking straight up in sharp spikes all over her head, she looked like some old-style punk-rocker—or Evan after letting Jillian and Madison ‘style’ his hair . . .

“She’s none of your concern,” Bas growled, refraining from reaching for the hilt of his sword.

“She’ll be easy enough prey once we deal with him,” the kitsune remarked.

“If you think so,” Bas began in a bored tone, “then you’re really, really stupid.”

The kitsune made an exaggeratedly low bow, gaze mocking as he stiffly rose and faced Bas. “I don’t think so, runt-puppy. You’ve made enemies of the Onyx, and that was a fatal mistake on your part.”

“Enough talk, Datte,” the bobcat-youkai grumbled, throwing his elbows back and swinging his arms forward a few times. “We gonna talk all day, or are we gonna do this?”

“Where are the rest of you?” Bas asked casually, affecting a bored stance as Sydnie held tight to the back of his leather duster. He didn’t miss the glances exchanged by the bounty hunters.

“Around,” Datte remarked with an arrogant wave of his hand.

Bas grinned. ‘Sending a kitsune? Must be getting desperate . . . tricks and illusions . . . not much more than that.

“Don’t underestimate me, pup!” Datte growled, hurling a ball of white light directly at Bas’ chest.

Grabbing Sydnie around the waist, he sprang out of the way, landing on a fallen log that extended out over the water. “Stay here, Sydnie,” he commanded before letting go and slipping off onto the ground.

The rattlesnake-youkai launched himself at Bas, who managed to duck the elongated arms of the creature. The deadly sound of the rattlers fused onto the youkai’s wrists had the ability to lull the unwitting victim into a near-comatose state, Bas knew. Struggling to block the sound from his mind, Bas drew his arm back, cleaving through the air with an arced hand as he shot forward.

Catching the kitsune—Datte—straight down his back, Bas grimaced when the kitsune’s pained screech pierced through his brain before the eruption of light and wind announced the kitsune’s untimely demise. With an outraged cry, the fire-youkai shot spears of flames from her outstretched hands. The first two spears whizzed over Bas’ head, exploding in a huge ball of fire when the spears hit the water’s surface, and he dodged to avoid the remaining projectiles. Bas lunged again, but the rattlesnake youkai was too fast, spinning away, though not before Bas’ claws connected with the youkai’s left arm. Howling in abject rage, the creature carted around, swinging blindly as Bas landed on the ground in a crouch and pushed off with his hands to flip back out of harm’s way.

Another volley of fire spears whistled through the air. Bas dove to the side, landing hard on his shoulder and rolling to his feet with a grunt. A searing jab erupted in his thigh, and he gasped. The rattlesnake-youkai had sunk his venomous fangs into Bas’ limb, and reacting on impulse, he swung his good leg in a broad arc. The heel of his boot smashed against the rattlesnake-youkai’s head, and the creature let go, hissing angrily as he staggered back a few paces before dropping to his knees, vigorously shaking his head to dispel the fog of pain.

Bas pushed himself to his feet, dragging Triumvirate from its scabbard and brandishing the weapon before him. Casting a quick glance in time to see Sydnie slide off the log, he grimaced and raised the sword over his head, unleashing a primitive snarl as he slammed the blade into the earth. Furrows of greenish flame shot out of the weapon toward the fissure where the energy of Bas’ youki met that of the rattlesnake-youkai. In a blinding flash of light, the explosion rocked through the earth, forcing a deep groan from the ground as the youkai’s haunting shriek died out, stifled by the fabricated wind that died just as suddenly as it had been created.

Another wave of flaming spears jettisoned from the fire-youkai’s hand. Bas knocked the first three away with the blunt side of the blade. The fourth one grazed his cheek before he could dodge it. More concerned with the bobcat-youkai than the woman, Bas barely had time to swing around, hefting Triumvirate to block the bobcat’s descending claws. Gritting his teeth as the youkai struck wildly at the sword, he could feel his feet slipping on the melting snow. Another flame spear shot past him as his right foot slipped. The bobcat gave him a mighty shove sending Bas sprawling back.

A white-hot pain erupted in his right shoulder as his body was caught and tossed across the shore. Smacking into the base of a gnarled old elm tree, Bas growled in pain, staring rather dumbly at the glowing flame spear that had embedded itself through his shoulder and into the stout tree trunk.

Sebastian!” Sydnie screamed. She seemed to be flying, she was moving so fast. Straight at him, she ran, barely stopping at all when she wrapped her hands around the red-hot spear and jerking hard despite the tears that sprang to her eyes; despite the acrid stench of her burning flesh as she stubbornly freed him from the tree.

He jerked away with an agonized hiss. “Stay back, Sydnie,” he told her, unable to take the time to assess her injured hands as he stepped in front of her. He’d dropped his sword when he’d lost his footing, not that it mattered since his right arm wouldn’t move quite right. Thankful only that the flaming spear had cauterized the wound enough that he wasn’t losing much blood, Bas shook his hand and stalked forward.

“No!” Sydnie pleaded, grabbing Bas’ left arm and trying to tug him back as four more youkai stepped out of the forest. She uttered a stifled little sob. “You can’t! You’re hurt!

He shrugged her off and shook his head. “I told you to stay back, damn it!”

“No! I—”

“Fucking hell, cat! Do you think they’ll let us walk right out of here?”

She flinched, but stubbornly stood her ground. “You’re hurt,” she maintained.

“I . . . won’t . . . run,” he gritted out, sparing a moment to glower down at her.

She narrowed her eyes. “Fine, then I will!”

And before he could stop her, she ran. Diving headlong into the tangle of undergrowth and gnarled tree roots, she ran. “Sydnie!” Bas bellowed. She squeezed her eyes closed for a moment and kept moving.

Into the forest as the sickening sound of an explosion echoed in her ears, as the very earth trembled under her feet, she sprinted. She could hear the youkai giving chase. That was what she had wanted. She wasn’t sure how many had opted to come after her. It was enough that he wasn’t being forced to fight six youkai at once . . .

Stupid Sebastian! He’s not a god, damn it! He’s not invincible! Arrogant, stupid dog!

A painful shriek echoed through the trees, closer than it should have been since she’d left Bas behind by the pond. She didn’t stop to look but stumbled slightly when a harsh wind smacked into her, only to release her just as quickly. She nearly fell but caught herself in time, her fingertips brushing the earth floor as she ran faster.

She could feel the rapid approach of a strange youkai—no, not quite youkai . . . A strangled whimper slipped from her as she shook her head and darted to the right. She didn’t have time to analyze her feelings other than the deep-seated knowledge that someone was too close for comfort, and it certainly wasn’t Sebastian . . .

Faster and faster she ran, darting through the tangled roots and gnarled, low-hanging tree limbs that threatened to trip her up. She had no idea where she was going. Bent on leading some of the youkai away from Sebastian, she pushed herself faster, harder, her heart thumping heavily as she tried not to think about the eerie silence that had fallen over the trees.

Someone’s just behind me,’ she realized with a sickened lurch of her stomach. She didn’t have time to look back or to pause. Another shrill shriek split the quiet, rang in her ears as she dared a peek over her shoulder. It was close behind, the scream. Unsure where it had originated from, Sydnie winced and stumbled again as another wave of unnatural wind struck her back and shoved her forward. Again she caught herself, pushing herself without breaking her stride. The watery, pale light of the clearing wavered ahead of her, and she burst from the cover of the trees with a strangled gasp, eyes widening as panic surged through her.

Bas had managed to recover Triumvirate and stood in the midst of the three bounty hunters that surrounded him. He lowered his shoulder and bumped the spider-youkai back while barely avoiding the descending claws of an eagle-youkai. Whipping around in a circle, he slashed through the air, cleaving through a chameleon-youkai’s reptilian flesh. The creature howled in agony, the blood flowing from the deep laceration traversing his chest staining the dingy snow an ominous rusty, brackish color as steam rose thick and heavy. Bas raised his sword over his head, both hands gripping the hilt before driving it down hard through the spider-youkai’s hunched back.

The shrill cries of abject pain cut through her senses, and Sydnie stumbled back a few steps. Shielding her face as a violent burst of reddish light exploded, obscuring the view of the combatants, Sydnie gritted her teeth and blinked furiously. A ball of energy flame whizzed across the clearing from the flame-youkai’s outstretched hands, straight at Bas as the eagle-youkai unleashed a disorienting cry. Bas staggered as the sound permeated the area, shaking his head as though to dispel the debilitating noise. The energy blast hit him square in the chest, sending Bas flying back, his body tossed like a rag doll. He landed on the ground near Sydnie, his head smacking against a boulder half buried in the snow. Triumvirate sailed end over end, embedding itself in the frozen earth beside him, the blade humming with a dull reverberation as the hilt trembled and shook.

She didn’t think about her actions. She didn’t have to. Bas’ motionless body was too easy a target. Darting forward, she jerked hard to pull the sword loose and heaved the surprisingly heavy blade over her shoulder, wrapping her hands around the hilt in much the same way that a baseball player would hold a bat. Planting herself over Sebastian, she glanced around fiercely, wildly, glaring at the eagle-youkai as he rose in the air. Another voice echoed through the clearing—angry, determined.

Kongousouha!

Sydnie squeaked out a surprised sound as huge shards of diamond spears shot across the earth. Steadily rising higher, they flew straight toward the eagle-youkai. The creature tried to roll to the side but couldn’t get out of the way in time. An unearthly wail shattered the forced calm as the spears shot through the youkai’s chest, followed closely by another explosion of wind and light and dust. Sydnie turned her head in time to see the solitary figure of a silver haired hanyou as he slammed a rusty-looking sword into the scabbard that hung carelessly from his lean hips, uttering a sound suspiciously like ‘keh!’ as he glowered at the dirty mound on the snow where the fire-youkai had stood.

So shocked at the intrusion, unable to grasp whether or not the hanyou was a friend or another foe, Sydnie was caught off guard when powerful arms locked around her, hefting her off her feet and holding her so tightly that the breath rushed out of her. The terrified scream that she couldn’t contain spilled out, only to be cut off when the arms tightened. “For fuck’s sake, wench! Shut the hell up, will you? And put that down before you hurt yourself!”

Sydnie gasped at the gruff voice as Triumvirate was jerked out of her grip. It fell haplessly on the ground as the first threads of panic snaked around the pit of her stomach. The voice was tinged with an accent that she didn’t recognize. She dug her claws into the arms that held her, only to be rewarded with another huge squeeze that drew a whimper from her.

“Yeah, that ain’t gonna do much damage,” the voice told her. “Stop it and listen: you need to get him the hell out of here. Do you understand?”

“Wh-Who? Who are you?” she whispered as a curiously safe sort of feeling flooded through her.

“Don’t matter . . . Just get him outta here. Are you done trying to skin me?”

“Are you done trying to scare the crap out of me?” she countered hotly.

The arms released her, and she whipped around to stare at the silver haired . . . hanyou? Little dog ears perched neatly atop his pristine hair, he looked almost exactly like the other hanyou—the one who had taken out the eagle and fire youkai—he grinned at her. Something about the strange hanyou’s eyes gave her pause—golden, glowing in the darkness . . . She couldn’t help but think that they were familiar to her. “Yeah, sorry ‘bout that. Anyway, the old man’s waiting. Move it.”

The old man?

Shaking her head, she shot the hanyou a curious glance before kneeling beside Bas’ immobile body. “Sebastian?” she whispered, patting his cheek in an effort to rouse him. “Bas?”

“Outta the way,” a second voice growled, pushing her aside firmly but gently. Peering up into the face of the first hanyou, she blinked in surprise as she glanced from one to the other again. Family, certainly; that much she could discern. She thought maybe they were father and son, but maybe it didn’t matter. They were helping, and that was all Sydnie really needed to know. The two picked Bas up with a grunt.

“Kami, he weighs e-fucking-nough,” the one who had sneaked up on her grouched.

“Just move,” the older one gritted out.

The younger one grunted in response. “Better grab that sword, Sydnie-chan. He’ll want it later.”

Sydnie narrowed her gaze but did as she was told, hugging the heavy weapon against her chest with both arms. ‘How does he know my name?

Brushing off her questions, Sydnie hurried after their would-be rescuers.

They stopped beside the car, and she dug the keys out of Bas’ pocket. In the waning light, she could discern the thin trickle of blood that had streaked down his temple and was drying on his cheek. Stifling a little whimper as the scent of his blood invaded her senses, she unlocked the car, opening the passenger side door and stepping back to allow the hanyous to put Bas into the vehicle.

“You can drive, right?” the younger one asked.

Sydnie nodded vaguely, stowing the sword in the back seat of the car as the older hanyou fastened the seatbelt over Bas’ hips.

“Good . . . You’re near Chicago. Don’t stop till you get there. His family has a house. It’ll be the safest place for him to recover.”

“Chicago,” she repeated. “Okay . . .”

“Got something I can write on?”

Leaning over Bas, Sydnie dug a napkin out of the center console, handing it to the hanyou before retrieving a pen, as well. He took it and quickly scrawled the address. “Key this address into the automap, and take him there,” he commanded gruffly, slapping the napkin back into her hand. “His mama keeps poison salve in a cupboard in the bathroom. Get him to wake up after we’re gone, and keep him that way for twenty-four hours after putting the salve on his leg. Rattlesnake poison ain’t pretty.”

She nodded, gaze shifting to the older hanyou who hadn’t spoken since telling his son to get a move on. “Who are you?” she asked quietly.

“Don’t matter,” the older one growled. “Get him the fuck outta here. Now.”

Sydnie didn’t have to be told twice. Dashing around the car, she got inside and started the engine. ‘Who were they?’ she wondered as she fastened her seatbelt and willed her breathing to return to normal.

Who cares who they were? Get him out of here, Sydnie . . . and you heard them. You have to wake Bas up, too.

Wake him up? Right . . .’

Get him to wake up after we’re gone . . .”

She started to reach over to try to rouse the unconscious man. Gently slapping his cheeks with the back of her hand did nothing to bring Bas around. Biting her lip, stifling the little whine that rose in her throat, Sydnie blinked quickly, forcing down the choking panic that surged through her as she steeled her resolve and tapped his cheeks a little harder.

Those strange hanyou . . . If they hadn’t come along when they had, Bas might have been . . .

Grimacing as she slammed the door on those thoughts, Sydnie swallowed hard and shook her head. ‘Best not to think about what might have happened,’ she told herself. That wouldn’t help, not at all . . .

They didn’t want Bas to know they’d helped? But . . . why?

Sparing a moment to check the mirrors and lock the doors, she frowned. The trees stood, empty and still. She couldn’t see any traces of their rescuers. ‘Golden eyes,’ she mused as she craned her neck to survey the area. ‘Like Sebastian’s eyes . . .’

She shook her head and stifled a sigh. The mysterious hanyou were gone.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Bas groaned and jerked his head to the side in a vain effort to avoid the gentle yet stinging slaps that kept trying to jar him out of his forced incoherence.

“Come on, Bas the Hunter . . . You’re stronger than that . . .”

Sydnie?

He could hear the worry tingeing her voice, could sense the underlying panic. ‘Panic? Worry? Why . . .?

Fine, then I will!” The angry flash of her brilliant green eyes burned into his skull as he watched her glare at him just before carting around and dashing into the trees . . .

The bounty hunters . . .’

Bas’ eyes snapped open as he jerked upright, grabbing Sydnie’s wrist as he glanced around wildly. She gasped but didn’t try to pull away. Bas winced, temple protesting the jarring motion as the slow realization sank into his confused brain. They were in the car, weren’t they? They were in the car with the engine running though they weren’t moving. “Wh . . . What happened?” he whispered, unable to bear the idea of raising his voice.

Sydnie choked out a little sound and tried to throw herself against Bas’ chest. The seatbelt caught her and held her back. She unfastened the latch with a frustrated little growl and leaned over the console to hug him. “You’re okay?” she demanded, her voice thick, breaking.

“Yeah, fine,” he grumbled despite the nagging ache in his head, the pervasive pain in his thigh. His stomach felt queasy, and his back and chest hurt, too, but he wasn’t teetering on the brink of death. “Where are we?”

She sniffled. “I had to wake you up,” she babbled. “You have to stay awake until we reach Chicago.”

“Awake?” he echoed vaguely, eyelids drifting closed as he slumped back against the seat. “All . . . right . . .”

Sydnie sat up, brushing his bangs out of his face as she stroked his cheek and grimaced. “No, Sebastian . . . Don’t close your eyes,” she demanded.

He thought he nodded.

Sydnie tapped his cheek again. “I mean it, puppy!”

“Okay,” he mumbled, forcing his eyes open. She bit her lip and scowled at him before settling back into the driver’s seat and tugging the seatbelt back into place.

“I set the automap,” she went on as she put the car into gear. “At least, I think I did.”

Bas nodded, unable to summon the strength to answer her properly. Sydnie shot him another worried glance and sighed. “Talk to me, Sebastian. Just talk.”

“Talk . . . about what?” he asked, his voice thick; his words slurred.

“Anything, anything . . . whatever you want . . . Tell me about your family?”

“Family . . .” he repeated. “Got lots of . . . family.”

“Does everyone in your family look like you?”

Bas forced his eyes open again. Sydnie reached down to hit the selector button on the automap monitor. He wasn’t sure what sort of course she’d set, but the left turn signal flickered to life, and she slowed the vehicle to turn at the next crossroad.

“No,” he replied. “Just my sister and Dad and me . . .”

“Oh?”

“Ev’ryone else looks . . . like Mom . . . Mom’s side of the family.”

“What does your mom look like?”

Bas heaved a sigh, wondering vaguely why Sydnie was being so insistent that he keep talking. “Mom? Silver hair . . . dog ears . . . hanyou . . .”

“Silver hair?” she asked sharply, casting him a curious glance.

Bas smiled wanly. “They say I have her eyes . . .”

“She has golden eyes, too?”

He missed the calculated casualness in her tone as a fine sheen of sweat broke out on his brow. “All of ‘em . . . same eyes . . . like the old man—m’ grandfather . . . and uncle.”

“Golden eyes . . .”

Bas winced as a stabbing pain shot down his leg. “Mmm.”

Sydnie didn’t respond right away. Lost in thought, she drove in silence. Bas was almost asleep again when he heard her voice—gentle yet insistent—calling out to him. “This grandfather of yours . . . he’s youkai?”

“N-N-N . . .” He trailed off. Talking took too much effort.

“Don’t go to sleep, Sebastian . . . You can’t go to sleep.”

Bas opened his mouth to answer but yawned instead.

“Don’t make me pull over, Bas the Hunter!” she said sharply, her voice cracking as it rose in pitch.

He grimaced but sighed, forcing his eyes open again. “I-I-I’m awake, Sydnie,” he muttered, lifting his right hand to rub his temple and being rewarded with a stabbing pain in his shoulder for the effort. ‘Damn fire-youkai . . . fire spears . . . what a bitch . . .’

Bas frowned as another thought permeated his sluggish mind. Forcing himself to turn enough to stare at Sydnie, Bas shook his head and gritted his teeth. “What happened to the rest of the bounty hunters?”

Sydnie shot him a cursory glance before turning her attention back to the road once more. “Don’t worry, puppy. I took care of them.”

Bas blinked. “You did.”

She nodded. “I did.”

Craning his neck despite his body’s fierce protests to the contrary, Bas surveyed the area then growled in frustration. It was too dark to see anything, and even if he could, the car was moving much too fast for him to discern any real movement. Settling back with a worried scowl, Bas reached out, catching Sydnie’s icy fingers and giving them a little squeeze. “You got me out of there, didn’t you?”

“Of course I did, puppy. Did you think I’d just leave you?”

He sighed. “Tired,” he mumbled, eyes drifting closed once more.

“Don’t go to sleep, Sebastian,” she said quietly. “You can’t . . . the rattlesnake-youkai bit you. You can’t go to sleep . . .”

“No sleep . . . poison . . . right,” he murmured. “Damn it . . . so that’s why . . . I feel like . . . shit.”

“Just don’t go to sleep, puppy,” she said, her voice low, raw with unvoiced emotion. “Please don’t go to sleep.”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“How’s the arm?”

Izayoi Ryomaru glanced up at his father and shrugged. “I’ll live. She’s just a little thing,” he replied evenly. “Everything look okay?”

InuYasha grunted as he crouched on the branch of the tall tree just outside the high wall that surrounded the Zeligs’ Wake Forest estate. “He’s sleeping now. Looks like hell, but he’ll live.”

Ryomaru nodded sagely. “Good.”

“Crazy wench . . . just what the fuck did she think she could’ve done with his sword, anyway?”

Shaking his head, Ryomaru let his legs dangle on either side of the branch where he’d been waiting for InuYasha’s return. “What do you think, old man? She was protecting her mate.”

“Keh! Mate, eh? A dog and a cat . . . that’s just wrong.”

“Wrong or not, I’d say it was pretty evident, wouldn’t you?”

InuYasha shrugged, stuffing his arms together under the sleeves of his old fire-rat haori. He’d taken to wearing the youkai garments after they’d located Sebastian and Sydnie, not that Ryomaru blamed him. The clothing was basically like armor, and since they’d been sticking to the areas outside of the towns where Bas and Sydnie stopped, they had been relatively unnoticed, anyway, which was how Gin and Cain had wanted it. The few times Ryomaru had ventured into civilization, InuYasha had stayed behind.

“Anyway, does it matter if she makes him happy?”

“Matters,” InuYasha grunted, golden eyes casing the surroundings for any trace of potential threats. “She’s accused of murder.”

Ryomaru shrugged. “Bas says she ain’t a murderer,” he contended. “Cain trusts his judgment.”

“Maybe; maybe not. Why ain’t the human authorities looking for her?”

Scratching his neck, Ryomaru grunted. “Cain’s like Sesshoumaru, I’d guess. Got spies in places to cover things up so he can deal with certain things without involving humans.”

“Deal with stuff? He didn’t even come after his own pup, damn it.”

Ryomaru didn’t reply to that. InuYasha had been overly irritated when Gin had explained that Cain couldn’t trail Bas. Having too many other things that needed his attention and not wishing to draw undue attention to Bas’ situation, Cain had also been afraid that Bas would find out and think that he didn’t trust his son, and as much as it might irk InuYasha, Ryomaru had to concede to Cain’s logic. His own son, Morio would have been livid if he had been the one sent out on a hunt only to find out that anyone had doubted his abilities.

In any case, Ryomaru had been the one who had called to tell Cain about the bounty hunters’ latest ambush. It had been close—too close. InuYasha and Ryomaru had decided to try to intercept and take care of the hunters without Bas being any the wiser. At least, that had been the plan until Bas had decided to stop in the middle of nowhere. As it was, InuYasha had been sorely put out that he couldn’t do much more than stand around and watch while Bas took on the bounty hunters, and he hadn’t done badly, either, taking down four of the eight of them single-handedly. Ryomaru had taken care of the two who had given chase when Sydnie sprinted into the trees, and InuYasha had cut down the remaining two after Bas had been knocked out cold.

She was smart, that cat-youkai. Whether she realized how much she had helped Bas or not, she’d gained Ryomaru’s grudging respect with her actions. Taking off by herself might have seemed a little foolhardy, but standing her ground over Bas’ fallen body with a sword that she obviously didn’t know how to wield . . . Ryomaru didn’t have a doubt in his mind that she would have fought tooth and nail to protect Sebastian, even from them. What was more, InuYasha had even given his grudging approval of the feline later. Watching the car slip back onto the road and disappear in the distance, InuYasha had grumbled that Sydnie ‘had guts’, which, in the hanyou’s terms, was high praise . . .

InuYasha heaved a sigh and pulled Tetsusaiga, the legendary Sword of the Fang, from his waistband and wrapped his arms around it, obviously settling in for the night’s vigil. Ryomaru followed suite with his sword; two sentient beings perched in the high branches of the tallest pine tree.

We’ll make sure he comes home,” Ryomaru had promised Gin just before he and InuYasha had set out to trail the future tai-youkai.

Gin had smiled sweetly, her eyes bright, clear. “I know you will. I trust you both.”

It was a promise that they intended to keep.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Sydnie slept fitfully in the hard wooden chair beside the huge bed in the silent room. She’d lost count of the numbers of times she’d woken up during the day and night. Afraid to disturb Sebastian by lying beside him, she had pulled the chair across the room from the desk near the floor-to-ceiling windows on the far side of the room after listening to him babble incoherently for nearly twenty-four hours. She’d rifled through the tidy bathroom adjoining the bedroom for the poison salve that the younger hanyou had told her to find.

Opening her eyes when Bas groaned softly, Sydnie leaned forward to touch his clammy skin. ‘The fever’s broken,’ she thought with a sigh of relief. ‘Thank God.’

She’d never been so scared in her life. Sparing a moment to stroke Bas’ cheek, she pushed herself out of the chair and hurried into the bathroom for a cool washcloth, ignoring the throbbing ache in her burned hands.

The two hour car ride had felt as though it had taken forever. Sydnie hadn’t been prepared for the drive around Chicago, and she had to struggle to retain a semblance of calm while the traffic had surged around her. Telling herself over and over that Bas just wasn’t in any condition to drive, she had done it with the help of the automap. Bas rarely used the feature though it was standard in all the vehicles they’d rented. All she had to do was key in the physical address of their destination, and the navigational system—she wasn’t sure exactly how it worked—took over, indicating directions both on the LCD monitor built into the dashboard as well as activating turn signals and such things via satellite, she supposed. In any case, all she had to do was stop at lights and make sure she turned where she was told to, and they’d reached the house on the outskirts of Chicago—Wake Forest, to be exact—safely enough.

Getting Sebastian out of the car had been another ordeal, entirely. It had taken nearly half an hour to rouse Bas enough to coax him out of the vehicle since he was just too large for her to pick him up, and even after she’d managed to help him stand, his left leg was almost entirely useless. She could have lifted him, she supposed, if he weren’t almost seven feet tall. His weight coupled with his towering height made it simply impossible for Sydnie to negotiate without his aid, but he’d finally regained enough composure that he could make it inside the door and up the stairs under his own steam though leaning heavily on her for support.

She later regretted his having to move himself. Traveling in the car had been enough to spread the rattlesnake-youkai’s poison through his system. The fifteen minutes it took to get from the car to Bas’ bedroom on the third floor of the mansion had done much worse. By the time he’d collapsed on his bed, his skin had been burning to the touch, face pale and drawn. Shivering profusely, he’d sweated under the covers that she’d carefully tucked around him, mumbling incoherent words and sentence fragments that made little sense. She’d hurried off to find the salve, returning just in time to shove him onto his side to keep him from choking helplessly on his own vomit.

It had been a long night. After the tenth bout of vomiting, she’d given up changing the sheets. He only had one clean set left in the air-tight, thick plastic bags stacked inside the closet on the shelf. She’d finally changed them that a few hours ago, just after his fever had finally broken. Opening the windows a crack to air out the stagnant space, she’d run downstairs long enough to locate the washing machine, and despite the ten minutes it took to figure out how the thing worked, Sydnie was relieved to find Bas sleeping comfortably, his coloring slowly returning to a normal shade as the dark circles under his eyes diminished. He hadn’t stirred while she’d carefully wiped him off as best as she could. He’d need a shower, certainly, but for now, at least, he was clean enough. That done, she’d curled up in the wooden chair as best as she could, napping off and on while trying to keep an eye on Sebastian, too.

His wounds weren’t healing the way they ought to. Sydnie frowned, carefully pulling the blanket back with a shaking hand. The hole in his right shoulder, while not bleeding, wasn’t closing up, either. Clear fluid seeped from the wound, and Sydnie had to wonder if the poison weren’t retarding the healing process a little, and she winced when she peeled back the gauze she’d carefully taped over the puncture wounds on his left thigh. The skin around the holes was greenish-black, but the coloring was a little paler than it had been when she’d first cleaned it.

Biting her lower lip, Sydnie gently wiped the residual salve off the wound. Bas’ leg jerked though he didn’t wake, and Sydnie made quick work of applying more salve to the punctures before applying clean gauze from the first aid kit she’d found under the sink in the bathroom.

The handwritten instructions taped to the white plastic jar had explained how to mix the powder with water to create a salve that could draw poison out of an open wound. Sydnie had followed the instructions to the letter then had reread them for good measure before applying it to Bas’ leg.

Deliberately ignoring the surge of late panic that welled up inside her every time she remembered seeing Bas flying back from the impact of the energy blast, Sydnie swallowed hard and blinked back the burning sensation prickling her eyes and nose. He was fine now, wasn’t he? He was safe, and he was going to be all right.

She sat back with a heavy sigh, closing her eyes for a moment as she thought fleetingly that she really ought to go check on the sheets. The house, itself, bothered her. It was his house, right? The tai-youkai’s house . . . Bas’ room didn’t upset her so much. It smelled like Sebastian—felt like Sebastian. The rest of the house, however . . . it frightened her. She’d forced herself to find the laundry room, true enough, and she’d poked around the kitchen long enough to find a glass to get Bas some water though he hadn’t been coherent enough to try to drink any of it. Still the place was too overwhelming with the scent of so many people who smelled like Bas yet didn’t, and knowing that Cain Zelig was one of the scents . . . it just didn’t sit well with Sydnie at all . . .

The idea of leaving the sheets in the washer wasn’t good, however, and she sighed. Leaving them there would only make them smell dank and musty, and the last thing she wanted to do was ruin his sheets since that particular stench, she knew, was one that was much, much harder to wash out later. ‘I’ll check them in a few minutes,’ she told herself, leaning her forehead on her propped fingertips but careful not to touch her still-sore palm.

The sound of Sebastian’s light, even breathing soothed her, and Sydnie crossed her arms on the bed, resting her head on her forearms. ‘Just . . . a few minutes . . .’

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Bas groaned and pushed himself up on his left elbow, blinking rapidly to dispel the lingering traces of fogginess that clung to his mind. Sydnie slept in a chair beside the bed, slumped over and so forlorn looking that Bas grimaced just before he reached over and tapped Sydnie’s knee. “Sydnie?”

She jerked upright and quickly shook her head, her startled gaze clouded with concern as she shot to her feet. “Are you okay? Do you need something? Water? Washcloth? Trash can? You’re not going to puke again, are you?”

“Puke?” he echoed weakly. “Sydnie . . . what?”

She sank down in the chair as though her legs had suddenly given out on her. Shoulders slumping, chin dropping as she stared at her hands, clasped in her lap, Sydnie heaved a weary sigh moments before—and to Bas’ absolute horror—the cat-youkai burst into a very loud wail.

“Wh—? Hey . . . it’s okay . . . don’t . . . don’t cry, all right?” he muttered, rubbing her knee since it was the only part of her he could comfortably reach.

Sydnie sniffled loudly and shot him a fierce glower. “You jerk!” she screeched, half-sobbing, half-yelling, dashing the back of her hand over her eyes. More tears washed into her gaze, completely undermining the mutinous expression that she was so obviously striving for. “You’re stupid, did you know? Just stupid! I hate you sometimes; I really, really do!”

Bas drew away from her, her anger crackling in the air surrounding her. Wincing as she slowly stood, Bas dropped onto his back, unable to do more than blink at the angry woman. “Now, Sydnie . . . calm down . . .”

“Calm down?” she sputtered indignantly. “Calm down? How dare you tell me to calm down! I was calm, you dog! I got you out of there, didn’t I? I drove you here, didn’t I? I made sure you didn’t choke, and I cleaned your wounds, and—” She cut herself off abruptly and planted her hands on her hips. “And just what do you think you’re doing? Lie down before you hurt yourself again!”

Heaving a sigh as he complied with her order, Bas obediently lay back, knitting his hands together atop his chest as he waited for her irritation to subside. Oddly enough, he had a feeling that she wasn’t mad at him in the least. No, his instincts told him that she was more relieved than anything, and that maybe it was just her overwrought emotions that were airing themselves at the moment.

“—Scared me half to death, and I’ll have you know that I just spent eight of my nine lives worrying about you! Don’t you do it again, Bas the Hunter! Don’t you dare make me worry like that ever again!”

“Sydnie,” he murmured, refusing to raise his voice or antagonize the cat in any way. “I’m sorry.”

She sniffled, scowling at her feet before slowly sinking onto the edge of the bed. “You should be,” she grumbled haughtily.

“I am.”

She sniffled again. Bas reached over and gently took her hand. “Come here, kitty.”

She shook her head mulishly, stubbornly refusing to let him pull her close. Bas gritted his teeth and forced himself to sit up, ignoring the various pains that shot through his body in lieu of making sure that Sydnie wasn’t upset anymore.   “You scared me, you know,” she whispered.

Bas nodded as he pulled Sydnie against his chest. “I know,” he told her, kissing her temple. “I really am sorry, baby.”

“You should be,” she said with a defeated sigh, letting her temple fall against his shoulder. “I didn’t know . . . you got sick . . .”

“It’s okay. I’m fine now.”

She shook her head but let him hold her close. Slipping her arms around his waist, she sighed again and relaxed a little. “I just kept thinking,” she finally admitted.

“About what?”

She shrugged, her face nearly crumpling despite the stubborn resolve not to let anything of the sort happen. “Who’d get me milk if you weren’t here? Who would buy me useless spoons?”

“I told you,” he assured her, glad that she couldn’t see the grimace that he couldn’t hide. “I’ll never leave you. You believe me, right?”

She didn’t answer, but she did relax completely, content to let him hold her, at least for the moment.

“How are your hands?”

She blinked and shook her head. “My hands?”

“Yes, your hands. You burned them, pulling that spear out of my shoulder, didn’t you?”

She grimaced then shrugged in a show of more bravado than actual nonchalance. “They’re healed.”

He narrowed his eyes on her. “Let me see.”

She snorted indelicately but held out her hands. The flesh was still a little reddened, but there didn’t seem to be any real damage. “Satisfied?” she demanded.

“Yes,” he replied, kissing her temple as he pulled her close and ignoring the twinges in his shoulder that protested the movements. “So tell me, kitty . . . how did you get me out of there?”

She sat back far enough to grin up at him though he could still see the vaguest sense of worry behind her crystalline gaze. “I scared them off, puppy.”

“You . . . scared them off?” he echoed, careful to keep his expression blank.

Nodding, she cuddled against his shoulder again. “Yes. I’m fearsome; didn’t you know?”

“Okay, I’ll bite. How did you scare them off?”

“Easy, puppy . . . I threatened them with your sword.”

He blinked in surprise and bit his cheek. “Really . . . you mean you can lift it?”

She wrinkled her nose and snorted indelicately. “I am youkai, Bas the Hunter,” she reminded him.

“Yeah, yeah . . . you know how to hold a sword?”

“Sure . . . I’ve watched you enough times.”

He chuckled. “Okay, warrior-woman . . . let’s see it.”

“See what?”

He rolled his hand and nodded. “Show me how you threatened them.”

He didn’t think she was going to comply. Scrunching up her face in a determined little scowl, she rolled onto her knees and crawled off the bed, sauntering over to retrieve Triumvirate.

She had to wrap both hands around the weapon’s hilt and strained just to get the blade onto the bed. Bas jerked his feet out of the way before it smashed his toes. With a loud grunt and a great heave, she swung the sword up over her shoulder, letting it rest there as she refreshed her grip, holding Triumvirate like a baseball bat instead of a sword.

Bas coughed indelicately into his fist and thoughtfully scratched his chin. “Oh, yes, now I see it . . . completely fearsome, Sydnie.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Did you smack one out of the ballpark?”

She blushed but uttered a terse ‘hrumph’. “It worked, didn’t it?”

He grinned as she leaned to the side, allowing the blade to fall against the floor with a loud ‘thump’. “I suppose it did, Sydnie,” he said, holding out his hand to her once more. She leaned the sword against the bed and slipped her hand into his, letting him tug her back onto the bed and against his chest once more. “Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it, puppy.”

He kissed her forehead as the soothing sound of her purr surrounded them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“So you’re really going.”

Jeb glanced up from the grim task of polishing his sword, meeting the stony gaze of his mate for only a moment before resuming his task once more. “Of course I am. Did you think I wouldn’t?”

Serena pushed away from the doorframe and heaved a sigh, rubbing her forehead with a weary hand as she wandered over to Jeb’s side. Dull eyes staring at the spot where they normally set up the huge, fat Christmas tree, she blinked quickly to dispel the tell-tale moisture that gathered. Neither of them had felt the desire to celebrate a holiday that was meant to share with family when their family was long gone.

“You’ll come back, right?” she asked, her voice as dry and brittle as the winter winds outside.

“Doesn’t matter,” he replied in a monotone. “I’m a dead man, either way. At least this way I can avenge Cody’s death.”

Serena nodded wanly. She agreed with him; of course she did. Revenge was the only thing they had left. The pain of losing her son and unborn grandchild was just too much to bear. In her dreams, she still saw Cody’s face; could hear his voice. Shuffling over to the occasional table nearby, she picked up a photograph. Taken on Cody and Beth’s wedding day, she couldn’t reconcile what she knew now with the smiling faces in the picture. She wanted to cry. She could feel the thickness of tears stinging her nose, pressing against her eyes. They wouldn’t come.

“You find him,” she bit out, her voice harsh, rasping. “You find him, and you make him pay.”

Jeb nodded without looking up from his task. “Planning on it . . . but you know . . .”

Serena shook her head stubbornly, the picture in her hands crashing to the floor, the glass shattering in a thousand pieces—a million shards. “I know well enough, Jeb Christopher,” she maintained. “I know and I damn well don’t care. My life . . . my life ended the day he took my son away from me.”

“He’s killed all my bounty hunters. He’s killed them all, one by one. What the hell is he? Some god? Some monster? Who the hell is this son of the Zelig?”

“He’s neither,” Serena growled, her gaze crackling with outrage, with pain.

“My hunters were the best of the best,” Jeb pointed out in a clipped tone of voice.

“And he has been lucky, hasn’t he? Well, his luck can’t hold out forever!”

Jeb set his sword on the coffee table and shot to his feet, stalking around the study like a caged beast. “Eight of my best hunters, Serena. Eight of them, and Myrna hasn’t heard a thing from them in days. I’m finishing this, damn it, and I’m finishing it now.”

“Do you know where he is?”

The stubborn set of Jeb’s jaw, the light that blazed behind his gaze . . . Serena knew that look well. She’d seen it many times over the years. When they’d migrated from their native England nearly two hundred years before, he’d promised her that he would build a good life for them, and he had. Yes, he had. He’d worked hard to build what amounted to a small empire for the two of them, and only after he felt as though they were safe enough had he allowed Serena to have a child. Now that child was gone, and the dreams and hopes were gone, too. Revenge was a bitter thing, wasn’t it? Too bad it was the only thing that Serena had left . . .

“The last contact we had from the hunters indicated that Zelig was heading north through central Illinois. I think it’s safe to assume that he was heading to his father’s house.”

Serena nodded slowly. Having overheard countless discussions between Jeb and his bounty hunters, she knew as well as anyone that Cain Zelig had a mansion in Wake Forest, Illinois. “The one outside Chicago?”

“That’s the one,” Jeb agreed. Strapping his scabbard on, he dropped the sword into the sheath and shot his wife a fierce glower. “I’ll come back, Serena. Be ready to run when I do.”

She nodded again, refusing to believe that Jeb would fail.

Soon,’ she told herself, rubbing her frail arms as the sound of the front door closing echoed through the silent house. ‘Don’t fail us, Jeb . . .’

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Bas stared out the window at the falling snow in the gray afternoon sky, grimacing slightly as he rotated his right shoulder to alleviate the stiffness that had set in since the fight near the pond. Cain had called awhile ago to make sure that everything was all right, which would have been much better if Bas hadn’t been in the middle of trying to coax Sydnie out of the bedroom to show her the rest of the house.

He’d been surprised to wake up and find them here, of all places. She’d said that Gunnar had mentioned the Wake Forest house to her, but she hadn’t looked him in the eye, and while she hadn’t said that she wanted to leave, Bas could tell from her uncharacteristic skittishness that she hated being here; hated being reminded of whom, exactly, Bas was.

Still, he reasoned, if he could get her to accept the things he couldn’t change, maybe he could convince her that she really would be fine. All she had to do was tell him why she’d killed Cal Richardson . . .

“You’re feeling better now?”

Bas turned and smiled at Sydnie. She’d been napping. Gazing at him with such a solemn air, she sat perfectly still in the center of the bed. “Yes, actually . . . quite a bit better. Got a shower . . . shaved . . . I’m a little stiff, but otherwise, I feel fine.”

She wrapped her arms around her ankles, resting her chin on her raised knees as she glanced around the room, almost as though she expected someone or something to jump out of the shadows at her. With a sigh, Bas pushed himself away from the window and slowly wandered over to sit on the edge of the bed. “What’s the matter, kitty?”

Sydnie shrugged and tried to smile. It was more like a grimace, though, and Bas winced. “Nothing,” she maintained quietly. “You look better.”

“Why don’t you come downstairs with me? You can look around and stuff . . .”

She shook her head quickly, burying her face deeper against her knees. “Uh-uh . . . Do you think we could go soon? To a hotel or something?”

Bas reached out, brushing her hair out of her eyes and cast her an apologetic little grin. “Sorry, baby . . . it’s safer here. Dad’s got security in place. No one—and I mean no one—gets in or out of here without their knowledge.”

She nodded. “I know . . . they let me in. They brought food.”

He snorted. They’d also called his father. Kingsley, the head of Cain’s Wake Forest security, had done the honors, or so Cain had said. In any case, he ought to be thankful. Because of Kingsley, Bas hadn’t had to go far to get milk for Sydnie this morning. The irony of that wasn’t lost on Bas. No one in the Zelig family was big on drinking milk. That there had been three gallons sitting in the refrigerator . . . that had to have been his father’s order . . . “Just give me a few days, okay?” He made a face, carefully rubbing his right shoulder. “Then I’ll be as good as new. I promise.”

Sydnie made a face but conceded. “All right,” she agreed. “I want you to be okay.”

“I know you do. Come on . . . bet Mom’s got some embarrassing pictures around here.”

“Embarrassing?”

He shrugged, standing up and grasping her hand and tugging until she scooted off the bed. “Sure . . . Mom loves baby pictures, and those are always a bit humbling.”

He could feel her reluctance, but she did follow him. Pulling her into the dim hallway and down the corridor that led to the stairs, Bas gently squeezed her icy fingers and led the way.

You’ll go to hell for lying, Bas.’

Bas wrinkled his nose at the cryptic words of his youkai voice. ‘I’m not lying,’ he maintained. ‘I do still feel a little off. Damn rattlesnake-youkai . . . I’d kill him if he weren’t already dead . . .’

And that was true enough. The poison had seeped through his body faster than he’d been able to combat it. The result had been the horrible fever that had ravaged his body and had scared the life out of Sydnie. No, staying here for a few days would be good for him, and since it was one of the few places that he knew was secure, there was no reason to move to a hotel where he’d have to deal with the constant, nagging worry that they really weren’t safe, even if he wanted to believe that they were.

Admit it, will you? The real reason you want to stay here is because Christmas is just a couple days away.’

There’s that, too,’ he allowed as the barest hint of a smile surfaced. Glancing over his shoulder at Sydnie, he had to smile as she gnawed on her lower lip and peered up at him. The reluctance in her gaze was impossible to miss, but the absolute trust in her expression gave him hope. ‘She deserves a Christmas worth remembering,’ he decided. ‘She deserves . . . everything.’

He let go of her hand to turn on the lights, letting the warm glow envelop the room. Though the family wasn’t often in residence in any of the houses outside of Maine, Gin had made it her mission to make sure that every single one of them felt like home, even to the point of having duplicate prints of pictures made so that she could decorate the houses with her family’s faces, or so she’d said. She’d even shipped many of Cain’s paintings to the houses, every one of them unique since getting Cain to repaint something he’d already done was impossible. Gin tended to keep her favorite ones at the Maine house, but every single place was adored with paintings and sculptures from their private collection. This room was the worst, Bas figured. The casual living room was decorated with paintings and photographs and even Bas’ threadbare baby blanket was carefully folded and lying over the back of the overstuffed tan suede sofa . . .

Sydnie touched the blanket lightly, fingertips dragging over the soft, faded fabric. “This is yours?” she murmured quietly, lifting the blanket and burying her nose in it.

Bas nodded. “Yep . . . my favorite baby blanket, according to Mom.”

“It smells like you,” she told him.

“Yeah, well . . .”

She laughed suddenly, eyes twinkling with a devilish light. “I can’t picture you as a child, Sebastian, much less a baby.”

He snorted. “I was actually a little baby,” he admitted. “I just didn’t stay that way, I guess.”

She carefully refolded the blanket and arranged it on the back of the sofa before slowly, haltingly wandering over toward the hulking brown marble mantle that stretched about a third of the length of the room. Arranged on the deep shelf was an assortment of framed snapshots, and Bas stuffed his hands in his pockets as he watched her. “Who’s that?” she asked, fingering one of the ornate frames.

Bas shuffled over and peered over her shoulder and smiled. It was a snapshot of InuYasha and Kagome, his grandparents. She stood beside him wringing her hands while the hanyou crouched on the ground with the signature scowl on his face. “That’s my grandfather—the old man—and my grandmother.”

“The old man?”

He nodded. “He prefers to be called that. He can’t stand to be called ‘father’ or ‘grandfather’. He’s always been like that.”

“Your grandfather . . . what’s his name?”

“InuYasha. InuYasha Izayoi. My grandmother’s name is Kagome.”

“InuYasha . . . that sounds familiar.”

“Well, sure . . . he’s the hanyou of legend; the one who defeated the great evil—Naraku—years ago . . . he and my grandmother.”

“The angry hanyou?”

Bas wrinkled his nose. “I prefer ‘hanyou of legend’ . . . besides, he’s not always angry.”

She giggled. “And this?”

Bas slipped an arm around Sydnie’s waist, drawing her back against his chest as he breathed in the scent of her hair and smiled. “That’s my half-sister, Bellaniece and her husband, Kichiro. He’s Mom’s brother . . . I told you about that, didn’t I?”

“Oh, yes, you did,” she mused. “The ass-monkey, right?”

Bas chuckled. “Yeah . . . he’s a nice enough guy, though. I think he and Dad like to argue. Kind of demented, if you ask me.”

“And this is your mother?”

Bas nodded. “Yep . . . Mom and the old man . . . she’s the only girl, you know. Dad . . . the old man . . . my uncles . . . they all call her ‘baby girl’ . . . Well, all except my uncle, Mikio, but he’s only a couple years older than me.”

“She’s so little.”

Bas chuckled. “Yeah . . . she’s just over five feet tall. We all outgrew her—physically, at least—long ago.”

“And who are they?” she asked, pointing at a picture of Jillian with her arm slung casually over the thin shoulders of her best friend.

“My baby sister, Jillian and Gavin—Gavvie—her best friend. She’s been telling him for years that he’s her mate, but he’s never really believed her. Then again, might be because he’s been told that he could lose certain facets of his anatomy that he is rather attached to if he tried anything . . .”

“That’s not very nice,” she chided. “You’ve not been threatening him, have you?”

“Who? Me? Absolutely. She’s my baby sister, remember? Besides, he’s, like . . . five years older than her.”

“He is?”

“Yup.”

Sydnie shook her head. “I’d have said that he looked younger. She’s taller than he is.”

“I know. He’s always been scrawny like that.”

“And this?”

Bas shifted uncomfortably, unsure how she was going to react to his answer. “That’s . . . Madison.”

“Madison.”

“Yes.”

“The pole-cat-youkai?”

“Yes.”

“Your fake girlfriend.”

He grimaced and forced himself to answer her. “Yes.”

“She’s just a baby.”

He sighed. “Yes.”

“You’re kind of sick, Sebastian,” she teased.

Bas chuckled, relieved that Sydnie wasn’t going to overreact. “Yes.”

She giggled and leaned back to kiss his cheek. “And there? I recognize you and Gunnar . . . who are those other two and the girl?”

Bas pointed to the hanyou on the far left in the snapshot. “That’s Mikio—I told you about him, and that’s Morio beside him. The girl is my cousin—niece—whatever—Isabelle. Everyone calls her Bitty Belle, though.”

“Morio?”

He nodded. “Morio’s kind of the jokester. I think he’d just gotten done pantsing Gunnar in that picture. See? Gunnar’s hiking them back up.”

“So you weren’t the only one who had to deal with that sort of thing?”

Bas snorted. “Nope.”

“Are you all the same age?”

“Pretty much. Mikio’s a couple years older than all of us, and Morio’s a couple months older than me. Gunnar’s actually the youngest.”

“Really?”

“Uh huh.”

“Your family is close.”

“Yeah, we are.”

“And that’s . . . your father.”

Bas followed the direction of her gaze, scowling at the derogatory way she’d said ‘father’. She was staring up at the huge portrait hanging over the mantle. One of the few traditional pieces Gin had painted, it was a portrait of Cain standing in front of an open window while an unseen breeze blew the floor-length sheer curtains. Cain held Bas in his arms, and was staring down at him with a little smile on his face. Bas grimaced. “Yeah. That’s . . . my father.”

Her back stiffened, and she nodded. “And the baby?”

He winced. “That’s me.”

She sighed and slipped out of his arms, wandering across the room to look at another painting. “Your mother? And the boy?”

Bas blinked and narrowed his eyes at the portrait she was staring at. Gin was walking along the beach holding his brother’s hand. Evan wasn’t more than three or four in the painting, and judging from the angle of it, Bas could tell that Cain had captured the image out of the window in their studio. Cain’s ability to look at something and remember it well enough to reproduce it perfectly had always been something that Bas envied. Evan was the same way, though his interests lie in music instead of art. “Mom and Evan,” he replied quietly.

“Your brother.”

He nodded. “My brother.”

She rubbed her arms as she moved on to the next painting. Bas grimaced, since it was one of the ones he really, really disliked. Lying in the middle of his bed in a mess of tangled blankets, he slept with Jillian sprawled on his chest and Evan lying perpendicular to him, his legs draped over Bas’ waist. Evan and Jillian were just toddlers at the time, and Cain, apparently, had found the image too irresistible to ignore. Bas, on the other hand, had been nearly thirteen at the time, and that he shared his bed with his siblings just wasn’t something he had wanted everyone to know about at the time.

Is that . . . you?” she asked hesitantly.

“Yep.”

“And the children?”

Bas snorted. “Who else? Jillian and Evan . . . it was shortly after Dad had ousted Evan from sleeping with him and Mom, so the little brat decided to take up residence in my room. Took forever to get rid of him. He’s kind of like a leech that way . . .”

She shook her head, casting him a confused sort of glance. “That . . . that can’t be right . . .” she mumbled, her gaze clouding over as a she slowly turned to face him.

“What do you mean?”

“You . . . you’re not the oldest, you said . . .”

Bas shrugged, frowning at Sydnie’s strange commentary. Waving his hand at another portrait, Bas sighed. “I’m not . . . see? Bellaniece is the oldest, then me, then Evan and Jillian . . .”

She shook her head again, stepping back in retreat as the confusion gave way to a shocked sort of panic. Bas took a step toward her but stopped when she jumped and skittered away. “Sydnie?”

“No . . . No! You . . . that means you . . .?” She choked out a little half-sob, half-laugh, smashing the back of her hand over her mouth. “You?”

“Sydnie . . . what . . .?”

“You can’t be . . . you just can’t be . . .”

“Can’t be, what? What are you talking about?”

“You’re the next . . .? No . . . no, no, no, no!

Bas grimaced as slow realization swept over him. She really hadn’t realized that he was the next tai-youkai, had she?   He stepped toward her again, but she withdrew, throwing her weight against the huge glass door and fumbling with the latch before casting him one last, scared glance before darting outside and disappearing into the trees surrounding the house. ‘Damn it . . . Fuck!’

He followed her out of the mansion, down the deck’s wide stone steps and though the yard toward the trees. She was running, but he wasn’t. She wouldn’t be able to get off the estate without drawing the notice of the security Cain had put in place regardless of whether the family was in residence or not. Either way, Sydnie was safe enough, and Bas, loping along through the woods, really couldn’t run much faster. Thigh still affected by the rattlesnake-youkai’s bite, he hurried after her as best he could. He didn’t have to see her to know that she was close.

Damn it, damn it, damn it . . . I thought she knew . . . She said she knew . . .’

Berating himself for hurting her, for not having realized that she really hadn’t known, Bas gritted his teeth and kept moving. ‘How could I have been so fucking stupid? Of course she hadn’t known . . . with as much as she hates the tai-youkai—Dad—how could I have believed otherwise . . .?

You believed her because she told you she knew . . . you believed her because she’s your mate, and you’re supposed to believe your mate—everything she says.’

He winced. Somehow that didn’t make him feel any better . . .

Crashing through the trees into the clearing near the small stream that eventually emptied into Lake Michigan, Bas stopped short when he spotted her. Scrunched low where she sat on a smooth boulder, she looked so sad, so alone, so lost that Bas grimaced, a quiet whine escaping him as he sought to find a way to make her understand.

“Sydnie,” he said, his voice soft, choked. He took a few tentative steps toward her. She wiped her cheeks, heaving a tumultuous sigh, and she refused to meet his gaze. “I thought you knew,” he forced himself to say, hating how lame it sounded in his own ears.

“Go away, Sebastian,” she whispered. “Leave me alone.”

“I can’t,” he admitted, hunkering down before her.

She choked out an incredulous laugh—a hysterical laugh. “Sure, you can . . . just turn around and walk away.”

He shook his head. “No, baby, I can’t.”

“Don’t call me that!” she blurted, chin snapping up, eyes blazing with absolute misery, absolute rage. “I’m not your baby! I’m nothing!

“You don’t believe that,” he insisted. “Sydnie . . . you’re everything to me.”

“Leave me alone; just leave me alone! Can’t you just . . . just . . . leave me alone?”

For an agonizing second he almost wished he could. Bas sighed and shook his head. “You know I can’t.”

“You could, you know . . . it’s easy. Stand up and turn around and . . . and let me walk away.”

He grimaced. “I’m sorry, Sydnie . . . you know I can’t, and even if I could . . .”

“Don’t say it,” she cut in coldly. “I hate you. I hate you.”

He flinched. Her words were all the more painful because of the harsh whisper she’d used. He swallowed hard, blinking rapidly as his eyes burned. “I know,” he agreed, clearing his throat.

“Did you have a good laugh at my expense? Laugh at the stupid little cat, right? You and your father . . . did you think it was funny?”

“I’d never laugh at you, kitty.”

“I guess I deserve it,” she went on. “I should have known . . . maybe I did know . . .”

“Knew what?”

She gulped, shoulders slumping even more. She didn’t answer for a moment. Bas was starting to think that she wouldn’t. Ever so slowly, she met his gaze, eyes bright with unshed tears, a bitter light blazing behind her gaze. Full lips pursed in a petulant little frown, she sniffled, chin trembling, nostrils quivering as a single tear slipped down her cheek. “Good things never last, Sebastian Zelig. They never last, and you . . . you’re really no different.”

“That’s not true.”

“Isn’t it?”

Raking his hands through his hair, Bas struggled to find a way to make her understand. “Nothing’s changed, Sydnie! The way I feel . . . the way you feel . . . it’s all the same!”

“It’s not the same, puppy! Can’t you see that? You changed everything—everything! I hate you!”

He grimaced and shook his head, brushing aside the venom in her words, knowing in his heart that she really didn’t mean it at all, even if she did want to believe what she was saying. “You want to hate me, but you know you don’t, and I lo—”

She barked out an incredulous laugh as dry and brittle as the winter wind that stirred her hair. “Don’t say that to me . . . don’t you dare say that to me!”

He sighed, biting his lip and slowly shaking his head. “What do you want from me?” he asked quietly.

“Nothing.”

Reaching out, catching her hands, he held her tight despite her resistance. “I’ll . . . I’ll call him,” he told her. “I’ll call Dad.” Sydnie shook her head in confusion but stopped trying to pull her hands away, at least for the moment.

“What?”

“Sydnie . . . you’re more important to me than anything, and if you can’t deal with me being the next tai-youkai . . .” he trailed off, closing his eyes and drawing a deep, steadying breath. “Dad . . . has Evan. He’s been trained, even if he is a little ass.”

She shook her head, brows knitting together in silent confusion.

Bas dug the cell phone out of his pocket and dialed Cain’s number.

“Bas? Is everything all right?”

Bas gulped and heaved a steadying sigh. “Dad, I, uh . . . I’m not coming back.”

“What?”

Gripping his temple with his free hand, Bas sighed again. “I relinquish my position as your heir.”

“What? Wait, son—”

Bas blinked in surprise when Sydnie’s hand shot forward to snap the phone closed. “Are you crazy?” she demanded, cheeks blossoming in indignant color. “Have you lost your mind?

“No, I haven’t,” he shot back. “I don’t care about any of that shit! Don’t you get it? Don’t you understand? Damn it, Sydnie—”

The phone rang, and Bas flipped it open, dealing Sydnie a fierce glower as he lifted it to his ear once more.

“Bas, what the hell’s going on?” Cain demanded.

“Sorry . . . I just . . . some things are more important, Dad. That’s what you’ve always told me, right?”

“Sebastian—”

“No. Would you tell Mom I—”

Sydnie snapped the phone closed again, jerking it out of his hand for good measure. Bas sighed and narrowed his gaze at her, trying to discern what was going on behind those turbulent eyes of hers. “You can’t do that,” she murmured. “You can’t change who you are any more than I can change who I am. It never would have worked.”

“It could work, Sydnie . . . you just have to want it to.”

She shook her head sadly, ignoring the ringing phone in her hands. “That’s where you’re wrong. Don’t you see? If you did that . . . if you turned your back on your family . . . Well, you’d blame me for that, and then you’d resent me for it, too.”

He sighed, rubbing his temples as he sought to find a way to make her understand. “I’d never resent you. Listen . . . I didn’t tell you at first because . . . because I was instructed not to tell anyone, and then . . . I swear it, Sydnie . . . I thought you knew. You said you knew . . .”

“I knew you were his son! I didn’t know—” She winced, unable to restrain the tiniest sob that slipped from her lips. “I didn’t want to know.”

Bas nodded slowly and stood, reaching down for Sydnie’s hand to help her to her feet. She ignored the gesture, rising stiffly, brushing past him as she strode back the way they’d come.

The entire world was silent, as though the very forest sensed Sydnie’s upset. She walked ahead of him, back straight and proud, and through the space that separated him, he could feel her pain. It stung him, cut him deep, her anguish over his perceived betrayal shattering him like crystal on a marble floor. The need to protect her was fierce, consuming. The trouble was that the thing that threatened to harm her . . .

He grimaced, a low keen welling up inside him, the sound of desperation a repulsive thing. He bit it back, digging his claws into the palms of his hands, struggling in vain to refute the knowledge that this thing—this terrible, awful thing that threatened to hurt Sydnie . . .

It was him.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Bas set the glass of milk on the nightstand and stuffed his hands into his pockets, scanning the room and not surprised to realize that she had retreated to the sanctuary of the closet in his absence.

She’d told him that she wanted some time alone to think, and that she wouldn’t try to run away if he’d give her that. The very last thing he’d wanted was to leave her, but in the end, he had been able to give her that much. He’d ventured into town long enough to buy her a few little gifts for Christmas; nothing more than silly little presents that might have been better suited for a preschool child instead of a full-grown woman, with the exception of the little pinwheel charm necklace that spun when he blew on it.

How do I convince her? How do I make her want to stay with me?

Bas sighed, shuffling toward the closet as he pondered those questions—the same questions that had been plaguing him ever since he’d followed her back to the house hours ago.

“Fancy meeting you here. I brought you some milk. Come out and get it?” Bas coaxed, gazing at Sydnie as she rocked back and forth in the corner of the closet. Thin arms wrapped so tightly around her shins, chin resting on her knees as her dull eyes saw nothing—everything . . . “Kitty . . . what do you want me to do?”

“Where did you go?”

He blinked at the almost conversational tone in her voice. “Well, Christmas is just a few days away . . .” he hedged, nervously scratching the back of his neck.

“Christmas,” she repeated, her gaze clouding over in a dull sort of way again. “I hate Christmas.”

“Why?”

She shrugged. “Not all of us had the perfect existence with the perfect family and the perfect friends.”

“I know,” he replied. “You just haven’t had a good one yet; that’s all.”

She shook her head. “You can’t fix me, Bas the Hunter. I’m not broken.”

“I’m not trying to fix—” Cutting himself off abruptly with a wince—maybe he really had been trying to fix her all along—Bas sighed and shook his head. “Tell me why you hate Christmas.”

“Bad things happen on Christmas.”

“Like what?”

Sydnie shrugged imperceptibly; more of a shifting in her youki than an actual movement. “Bad things . . . terrible things . . . scary things . . .”

He scowled into the darkened closet, tried to make sense of what she wasn’t saying. “What sort of things, Sydnie?”

“If I tell you, you can let me go, right? If I tell you what you want to know . . .”

“Kitty . . .”

She closed her eyes, turning her face so that her cheek dropped onto her knees. “I will, you know? I’ll tell you . . .”

“Tell me? Tell me what?”

“Why I did it. Why I killed Cal Richardson.”

Bas sucked in a sharp breath but shook his head. “Even then, you know I can’t let you go.”

“Yeah, I . . . didn’t figure you could.”

He sighed. “Tell me? Please? Baby . . .”

She shook her head slowly, wrapping her arms around herself a little more securely. The past and the present warred inside her in a place that he couldn’t even imagine; in a prison that had somehow become something that she couldn’t contain any longer. Whether it was simply the toll of a burden that shouldn’t have ever been hers to bear or the weight of secrets that she’d kept for far too long, the alienation of a broken heart reached out to him, stung him, made him want to scream. The bond between them was too solid, too real. It didn’t matter that the physical act had yet to be complete. Her youki had merged with his, and her sorrow was too bitter, too poignant. He had to take it away from her if he possibly could.

“Sydnie . . . please . . . I want to help you. I want to save you . . . please.”

“Save me?” she echoed, her voice dull, dry. “Save me . . . I don’t know if that’s possible.”

“Come out of the closet?”

She hugged her legs tighter. Bas sighed and scooted closer—as close as he dared before she scrunched up her shoulders, her youki constricting around her as if it were trying to protect her. Bas only wished he knew what it was protecting her from.

“The truth is never as glamorous as the illusions, Sebastian.”

“I didn’t expect it would be.”

She smiled sadly; an expression full of a lifetime of sorrow, and maybe, just maybe, a little regret. “I don’t know where to start,” she admitted, glowing eyes meeting his with a directness that startled him.

“Start at the beginning.”

“Hmm . . .”

Bringing her hand up to her face, she opened her fist and stared at the tiny silver locket. Slowly reaching out, she grasped his hand; turned it, palm side up, and lowered the locket until it touched his skin before letting the chain drop into a pitiful heap in the center of his palm.

He shook his head as he frowned at the bit of costume jewelry. “Your locket?”

She shrugged, wrapping her arms around her shins once more. “Your answers.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Open it.”

“Sydnie . . .”

“You wanted answers, right? Go ahead. I won’t stop you. Everything you need to know is right there.”

He still didn’t understand what she was trying to tell him. Slipping his claw into the tiny seam on the narrow edge of the rectangular charm, he grimaced as it popped open. He carefully unfolded the pieces and held it up to catch the wan light.

A faded photograph was carefully mounted in the left panel of the locket. He stared at the image of a young youkai with her arm slung around the shoulders of a tiny little girl. The older of the two looked exactly like Sydnie. His scowl darkened. “Who’s the baby?” he asked quietly.

Sydnie uttered an ironic chuckle as she shook her head. “That’s me,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

“You?”

She nodded. “Yes, me.”

“Then . . .” he grimaced. “The other girl . . . she’s your sister?”

Sydnie nodded again. “Kit.”

“But you’re Kit?”

“She was the first Kit; the real Kit. I was just a reasonable facsimile.”

“Hardly that.”

“All the same, that’s Kit.”

“So you really are Sydnie . . .”

“Something like that . . . it doesn’t really matter now.”

He scowled at the girl in the picture. “How old was she?”

“I don’t know . . .”

“She looked young.”

Sydnie shrugged. “I remember . . . she talked about getting her license. She was almost old enough, she said.”

“So she was almost sixteen?”

Sydnie shrugged again. “I suppose.”

“Why did she want her license?”

The look in her eyes haunted him; the steadiness behind the crystalline glow seemed ancient, timeless . . . and so very old. “She wanted to get me out of LA. She wanted . . . to take me to see the cows.”

He grimaced, remembering all too vividly, the odd flash of sadness on Sydnie’s face when they’d visited the small dairy farm. “Can I stay here, Sebastian? You could leave me . . . I think . . . I could be happy here . . .”

He clenched his jaw and closed his eyes. “What happened to her? What happened to . . . Kit?”

She shot him an incredulous glance, as if she thought he was being dense on purpose. “Cal Richardson happened to her . . . Cal Richardson and another man.”

“Oh, God . . .”

She heaved a sigh and looked away, her eyes clouding over as she stared back over time, into a place and into a world that Bas couldn’t see. That place was entirely too overwhelming, and for a moment, Bas had to wonder if pressing her for answers hadn’t ultimately been a mistake.

“It was Christmas Eve,” she began quietly, her voice dropping to a listless monotone. The only sign of emotion was the sudden brightness that shimmered in her eyes. “I was three . . . I think I was three . . . I don’t remember for sure. Kit wanted me to see Santa Claus, so she took me to the mall . . .”

“Sounds like a good sister.”

“She was . . .”

He winced as she gulped and shook her head again, lost in her memories; lost in the shadows.

“Thing was,” she went on, her voice a little steadier, “we didn’t have very much money. She couldn’t pay the admission to let me talk to Santa. It was enough, I guess, to see him . . . I knew back then that I wouldn’t get anything on Christmas morning.”

“Sydnie . . .”

She shook her head to silence him. “We stood there for the longest time. Kit told me that she’d make sure that I had a Christmas dinner, and not one from the homeless shelter: a real one with turkey and dressing and—” She cut herself off and swallowed hard once more. “And milk.”

He let out his breath in a ragged exhalation, reining in the desire to reach for her, knowing that she’d still pull away from him, even now.

“Anyway, she saw one of those photo booths—the ones you sit in and it takes a strip pictures for a few bucks. She tickled me so I’d laugh, and then she bought me this locket from one of those cheap, trendy stores . . . We sat on a bench while she cut out the pictures. She put that one in my locket, and one in the locket she’d bought for herself.”

“I see.”

Her hands were shaking as she groped for her purse. Understanding what she was after, he pulled the bag over and rummaged for her cigarettes, carefully lighting one before offering it to her without saying a word. She drew a long drag off it, hands trembling as she propped her elbow on her knees, resting her forehead on the heel of her hand, cigarette dangling from between her slender fingers. “She took me home—you’ve been there.”

Bas shook his head. “I have?”

She nodded. “That abandoned building . . . I took you there from the bar . . .”

“That was your home?”

“It didn’t look much better back then,” she said with a grimace. “Sagging ceilings . . . holes in the floor . . . but see, Kit had made a bed for me in one corner . . . in a . . . closet . . .”

“God, Sydnie . . .” he rasped, his voice breaking with the force of his turbulent emotions.

She went on as though he hadn’t interrupted her, her tone evening out into a monotone once more. “She put me to bed—it was still a little light outside—gave me my doll—she was missing an arm and a leg, and one of her eyes wouldn’t open—weird, isn’t it? The things I can remember . . . and yet I can’t remember my real name or my birthday . . . or how old I was at the time . . .”

Bas scooted over until he was sitting beside her. She gazed up at him, eyes sad, solemn, full of dread at the story she was telling—her story. He slipped his arm around her, pulled her into his lap, cradled her against his chest. She let him soothe her, smoothing her hair for a moment before she sighed and cleared her throat. “She had to go to work so she could buy me the dinner she’d promised. She told me to stay in my closet no matter what, said that she’d be home soon. She always said that, and she always came home.”

“Where’d she work? What was open on Christmas Eve?”

Sydnie choked out a bitter laugh. “She was too young for a real job . . . she needed a license to get one, you know?”

“What did she do?”

She leaned back to gaze up at him, lower lip trembling as her eyes bored into his. “What do you think?”

Bas shook his head, unable to comprehend exactly what Sydnie was telling him. The image of his younger sister came to mind. Jillian was fifteen . . . only fifteen . . . “She . . . she couldn’t have . . . she was youkai . . . youkai’s mate for life . . . you know that.”

“But that really doesn’t matter when you’ve got a little sister to feed, does it?”

The same image of his sister’s face made him grimace, and he knew Sydnie was right. Wouldn’t he do anything for his siblings, even if they annoyed the hell out of him at times? He stifled a sigh and tightened his arms around her. “I guess not.”

She heaved a tumultuous sigh, bringing the stump of a cigarette back to her lips, her hands shaking so hard that he worried for a moment that she’d burn herself. “I must have fallen asleep . . . It was a long walk to the mall and back. I woke up in the dark, but I could hear . . . things.” She shivered at the memory that haunted her. Bas kissed her forehead and remained silent. “She was crying . . . sobbing . . . and she kept saying one word over and over and over . . . ‘Please, please . . . please . . . stop’ . . .”

“Cal Richardson,” he whispered, taking the cigarette butt and tossing it into the empty metal trashcan nearby.

Sydnie nodded, drawing a ragged breath and taking a moment to compose herself before continuing. “My closet wouldn’t close all the way. I sat up, and I peeked through the crack. Two youkai stood there beside Kit. They had her cornered. One reached out and tore her dress. He cut her skin with his claws, and she screamed. They laughed. I couldn’t understand how they could laugh.”

“Sydnie . . .”

She shook her head stubbornly, her expression closing as her voice shifted into a near-monotone. “They told her to run. They wanted her to run. They wanted to chase her, I guess. She wouldn’t, and the other one . . . punched her in the face. I heard her bones breaking, but she didn’t scream. She fell, and one of them kicked her in the head hard enough to daze her. The other one pulled his pants down and raped her before she could fight back. He just . . . grunted and groaned as if it was the best fuck of his life and she . . .” She cut herself off, swallowing hard, closing her eyes just for a moment as she gathered her composure to continue. “She must have come out of it in the middle of the attack. She clawed at him and pushed at him . . . he wouldn’t stop.   He finally shoved her away, and the first guy caught her. He . . . flipped her over and grabbed her hands in one of his, bringing her to her knees, and he held her like that while he raped her . . . while the other man held her by the hair and . . . and shoved his fucking prick into her mouth . . . Kit . . . was crying . . . and . . . and . . .”

She couldn’t finish. It was enough. Bas ground his teeth together as she groped for another cigarette. Her entire body shook in his arms, her breath harsh and stilted. He wanted to make her stop, didn’t want her to say any more when nothing she could say would offer her any sort of comfort. He couldn’t stop her. In his heart, he knew. As painful as it was for her to tell, he knew that this macabre story was something that she had probably never said out loud. She needed to do it. After all those years of bottling it up inside, it was something she had to do, and even if it killed a part of him, he would listen. He owed her that much.

“They did it over and over for hours. I saw the sun coming up through the windows, and they just kept hurting her. When they got bored with fucking her, they used . . . whatever they could find . . . a glass soda bottle . . . sticks she’d gathered for firewood . . . She was hoarse from screaming and crying. I could smell her blood . . . so much blood . . . and finally she stopped crying.”

“Baby, I’m sorry,” Bas murmured, wishing that his words were more than just words, burying his lips in her hair.

“They got dressed; tossed a few bucks on her body, and they left her there . . . broken . . . bloody . . . As they turned to go, I saw their faces. I’ll never forget their faces . . . I see them in my nightmares. They never go away.”

“I don’t imagine they would,” he allowed softly.

She shivered. He tightened his grip on her, willing her to understand that she wasn’t alone anymore; that she’d never be alone again.

“Never . . .” she murmured, her body listless, entirely spent.

“And that’s why you hate Christmas.”

She nodded; smiled almost apologetically; a cynical little expression that cut him through and through, a sadness that he was only beginning to comprehend—a sorrow so deep that he just couldn’t reach her. “Nothing beautiful ever lasts. That’s how I knew that you and I . . .”

“Sydnie . . .”

Shaking her head, refuting his claim, she didn’t try to move away from him, and for the moment, that was enough. “I waited and waited. I thought she was just sleeping. I didn’t want to wake her up. So I waited until the sun was setting, then I crawled out of the closet, but something was wrong with her. She hadn’t moved. They left her lying in the middle of a pool of her own blood with condom wrappers all over the floor. I guess they took the condoms with them. Didn’t want to leave any DNA . . . Kit had her eyes open. She was staring at the ceiling, but her eyes looked . . . dull. I didn’t understand that. I just . . . sat beside her, and I waited for her to wake up.”

Bas heaved a sigh and held her close, hoping she was finished but knowing that she was not.

“I sat there for a few days. I didn’t understand the smell, couldn’t understand why Kit never woke up. I recognize the scent now. It’s the stench of death, but back then, I didn’t know, and I really . . . I wanted to believe that she was just sleeping . . . I got really hungry, and I thought—” her voice broke, and she uttered a small sob, clenching Bas’ shirt in her fists for a moment before composing herself enough to go on. “I thought maybe she’d wake up if I brought her some food . . . I thought she was sleeping . . . just sleeping . . .”

Rocking her gently, rubbing her back, stroking her hair, he tried to tell her though his actions that she really wasn’t as alone as she felt. ‘I’ll make it better; I promise . . . Sydnie, you just have to believe . . .’

“Some cops found me rummaging through the trash cans in an alley behind a restaurant. They took me to the station and fed me junk out of the vending machines. I kept trying to tell them that I needed to go home; that I needed to go back to Kit. They kept saying that she was coming to get me, so I sat there, waiting. The only ‘she’ that came after me was a woman from social services. I tried to tell her, too. I tried to tell them all. No one listened to me. They just wouldn’t listen . . .”

“You told them,” he said softly, ruffling her hair and shaking his head. “You told them . . . and no one did a damn thing.”

“They took me to a home, and there were . . . lots of children. There weren’t any others like me, though, you know? I was . . . the only one—the only youkai . . . I felt . . . lost . . . maybe a little angry . . . It wasn’t a bad place. I just . . . I didn’t belong there. They were kind, I suppose. The woman tried to hug me a few times. There were just too many children, and I was just a face in the crowd. I kept talking about Kit, and the more I talked, the more they’d . . . look at me, and then . . .”

“Then, what?” he coaxed gently.

She sighed. “Then they started feeding me pills. They said they’d help me, but I heard them talking when they thought I wasn’t there. They said that I was hallucinating. Can a three year-old hallucinate?”

“I don’t know,” he agreed. “I know you weren’t.”

She uttered a terse laugh: a sound devoid of any real humor. “And where was your father; your benevolent tai-youkai? Where was he, Sebastian?”

He shook his head.

“I told you before . . . he doesn’t give a damn about the nobodies. Kit had a name and a face and someone who . . . loved her . . . Cain Zelig did nothing. He just didn’t care.”

“He didn’t know . . . he couldn’t have known . . . Sydnie, you have to believe me . . . My father is a good man—the best man. He’s fair, and he’s strong, and if he had known . . . He would have done something, I promise you.”

She sighed and shook her head, her melancholy taking on a resigned sort of air. “I thought you’d say that. You heard the story. You know everything now, and still you defend him. Of course you do. He’s your . . . daddy.”

“You don’t understand. My sister, Jillian . . . She was orphaned. Dad and Mom . . . they couldn’t stand the idea of her being sent to live in some home, and most youkai aren’t interested in adopting someone else’s baby, but Mom and Dad . . . they did, and Jillian . . . she’s every bit a part of my family, just as much as Evan or me . . . or my half-sister, Belle.”

“That’s nice, Bas the Hunter,” she said with a grimace as she slowly shook her head. “Sebastian Zelig. Nice, but it . . . well, it doesn’t really make me feel any better. You’ll understand.”

“Sydnie . . .”

She swallowed hard and heaved a heavy sigh, letting her temple rest on his shoulder, letting the subject of Cain Zelig drop since they simply weren’t going to see eye-to-eye. “Anyway . . . I ran away from the foster home. It wasn’t so hard. Just a house, you know . . . It was easy to escape. I left in the middle of the night, and I managed to find my way back home. When I got there . . . When I got there, Kit was gone. The doors were blocked off with that hideous yellow tape—like that was going to keep anyone out, right? Ugly yellow tape, and nothing left of my sister but a white chalk outline on the blood-stained floor . . .”

“And you were alone.”

“I was alone. There was . . . an old bag lady. Sometimes she gave me food. She died later.”

“How could you . . .? You were three . . .?”

“You do what you have to do,” she replied enigmatically, her eyes darkening, glistening, her voice hardening just before she heaved a short little sigh and quickly shook her head. “I don’t remember how old I was when I saw Cal Richardson’s face again. I was walking down the street, and I stopped to watch the news on the huge television in the window of an electronics store. They showed him. I heard his voice, but I couldn’t read his name. So I . . . worked for the pastor at a local church, filing and cleaning, and delivering things . . . running errands. In exchange, he taught me how to read and how to write.”

“Didn’t he try to get you to go to school or help you?”

“No one knew. I never told anyone how old I was. In LA, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. I suppose in his own way, he was helping me. He asked, sometimes, about my family. I just never answered. He was killed later. A local gang broke into the church. He tried to reason with them, and he got a bullet in his brain for his efforts.”

“So that’s how you found Cal Richardson? On television?”

She nodded. “I saw him again later, and then I could read his name. I researched him on the internet—it’s amazing, the information you can gather there . . . all it takes is the right word, and one of the librarians . . . he liked me. I spent . . . hours . . . reading things. Everything, really, and nothing at all. I learned that Richardson didn’t trust many people, and I wanted him to suffer. I wanted him to hurt as badly as he hurt Kit. I thought . . . I thought that if I could make him see how much pain he caused . . . I thought it would matter, but in the end, I just felt . . . emptier.”

“Baby . . .”

She leaned away, staring at him as though she wanted him to understand something . . . something that mattered to her. “She speaks to me in my dreams. She’s lonely where she is. All she wants is for me to find her. I don’t know where they took her. I’ve never known where she is. In those dreams, I see it over and over, and I can’t do a thing about it. It’s like I’m a child . . . always a child . . .”

“Your nightmares.”

Sydnie tried to stand up. Bas tightened his arms around her, and she relented without much of a struggle. “You chased them away, but I wonder . . . What’ll happen now?”

He shook his head, rubbed her back, stood without relinquishing his hold on her. Striding over to the bed, he stretched out, settling her against his chest. She didn’t complain, simply curled up against him. Whether she was done fighting or was just too exhausted to keep it up, she didn’t resist him at all, accepting the comfort he offered her, at least for the moment. Eyes closed, hands balled into tight little fists that she held close to her heart, she let out a deep breath and slowly relaxed in his arms.

It was unfathomable—unbelievable. How had she been able to live with the memories without going insane? He blinked quickly, sinking his fingers into her hair, stroking her cheek with the pad of his thumb. Maybe the desire to avenge her sister was enough, and maybe Sydnie desperately needed to understand that there could be a future after all was said and done: a future with him—a future filled with smiles and laughter and all of the things that she’d missed in her lifetime; the things she should have had but didn’t.

There were two youkai . . .”

Bas flinched. ‘Two . . . youkai . . .? Then that means . . .’ He grimaced, knowing full well what it meant. “Sydnie . . . baby . . . tell me something?”

She sighed, knowing that it wouldn’t do any good to pretend that she was sleeping. “Haven’t I told you enough for one night?”

He nodded. “I know, and I’m sorry . . . I just have one more question.”

“. . . Okay . . .”

“You said . . . there were two youkai.”

She stiffened slightly; the only testament to her unease. “Did I?”

“Yes, you did . . . Do you . . . know . . . who the second one is? Do you know his name?”

“Does it matter?”

He closed his eyes. “I think it does.”

“It doesn’t. It won’t change anything.”

Bas shifted to the side so that he could look at her face, scowling at the stubborn set of her features.   “You’re planning on going after this other man, too, aren’t you?”

Her only answer was the slight shrug of her thin shoulders; the mulish frown on her face.

“You can’t . . . You have to tell me his name.”

She ignored his demand, and Bas heaved a sigh. “His name, Sydnie. Tell me his name.”

“It’s my responsibility.”

“It was never meant to be your responsibility. Can’t you see that? Tell me his name.”

“No . . . No . . . I don’t want you involved.”

“I’m already involved, damn it.”

“What would you do if I gave you a name?”

He shook his head and shrugged, letting Sydnie wiggle close to him once more. “I’ll fix it,” he assured her quietly. “I’ll make sure you never have to think about it again.”

“I can’t tell you,” she insisted.

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Fine, then. I won’t.”

“Sydnie—”

“No. Can we drop this? Please?”

He sighed. “For tonight,” he agreed. “Just for tonight.”

That must have been good enough for her. She relaxed against him again, her soft breathing pounding in his ears like thunder.   Scooting to the side far enough to reach the full glass of milk he’d left sitting there before he’d crawled into the closet with her, he shook her shoulder gently, helping her sit up so she could drink it before she fell asleep.

“I have to tell Dad,” he said, breaking the companionable silence. Sydnie blinked at him over the brim of the glass, and for once, she didn’t try to play coy. Nodding once before draining the last of the milk, she snuggled against him as he took the glass and set it aside.

He held her until she was fast asleep, staring at the message light blinking furiously on the cell phone. He’d catch hell, he supposed, for turning off the ringer. ‘Some things,’ he thought as he brushed Sydnie’s hair out of her eyes, ‘are more important . . .’

Grabbing the phone, he flipped it open, careful not to disturb Sydnie. Sure, he’d told her that he was going to call his father, but she was so exhausted . . . He didn’t want to wake her. Cain had called a total of seven times since Bas had rushed him off the phone. Bracing himself for his father’s tirade, he dialed the number and grimaced.

“Bas? Is everything okay? What the hell’s going on?” Cain demanded, dispensing with any sort of pleasantry that should have been forthcoming.

“Yeah, Dad . . . everything’s fine . . . at least, it will be.”

“You’re sure? What happened?”

He sighed, idly smoothing Sydnie’s hair, blinking quickly as his eyelids stung, as his nostrils prickled. She looked so forlorn, so lost . . . so very, very lost . . . “Dad . . . we fucked up. We fucked up bad.”

“How so?”

“Sydnie told me . . . Cal Richardson killed her sister, Kit—the real Kit. Raped her, beat her, tortured her . . . and in the end, he and another youkai killed her.”

“. . . What?”

Bas let out a deep breath, shaking his head as he struggled to make sense of it, himself. “In an abandoned building in south LA . . . Sydnie took me there right after I met her. She said Kit was there; that she’d take me to her. Dad . . . she was three, and she . . .” he sighed again, grimacing and drawing a steadying breath. “She saw the entire thing.”

Three?” Cain echoed incredulously.

“Yeah, three . . .”

“Oh, God . . .”

“I know what you mean.”

“So she had damn good reason to kill Cal Richardson.”

“Yeah, she did . . . and that’s why she hates you. She thinks you ignored her on purpose. She thinks . . . she thinks you failed her.”

Cain sighed. Bas could hear the soft snick of a lighter just before his father exhaled. He could see him, slouching in the thickly cushioned chair behind the hulking cherry desk that encompassed one end of Cain’s study. He heard the soft clink of his father’s claws hitting the crystal ashtray that Gin complained about but left on Cain’s desk. Bas wondered if Cain’s fingers were shaking as he drew a deep drag off a cigarette and exhaled before answering. “I think I failed her, too,” he agreed. “Cal Richardson . . . damn it . . . Damn it, damn it, damn it . . .”

“That’s not the only problem, Dad,” Bas forced himself to say. Sydnie stirred in his arms but didn’t open her eyes. Catching the phone between his ear and shoulder to free up his hand, he reached over, dragging the coverlet over her, and she snuggled down with a soft sigh.

“Let’s hear it.”

Bas swallowed hard, smiling sadly as the illumination from the revolving security lights mounted on the poles that surrounded the estate shone through the windows, danced over her features only to dissipate as quickly as they had appeared. “There were two men. Cal Richardson was one. There’s another.”

“I was hoping I’d misunderstood that part. Did she tell you the other guy’s name?”

“No, and she says she won’t.”

“Unacceptable. Get that name. I want it.”

Jaw ticking, Bas’ jaw hardened as he gritted his teeth and tamped down the bitter rage that surged in him. “No, Dad. I want it.”

“Sebastian . . .”

“No . . . and there’s something else . . .”

“Good God, what now?”

Bas grimaced since telling his father the next part . . . it just wasn’t quite as easy. “I’m going to protect her.”

Cain took a moment before answering. “You are.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Just . . . protect her?”

Bas rubbed his forehead. “No . . . I’m going to make her my mate . . . she already is my mate . . .”

“Bas—”

“I mean, I don’t have a choice; that’s all.”

Cain breathed a sigh of relief. “Just don’t do anything . . . irrevocable until your mother meets Sydnie, okay? We won’t stop you, but . . . well, you know Gin . . .”

“Yes, sir,” he repeated again.

“Get the name, Bas. She can’t be responsible for two deaths, even if they are warranted . . . for her own peace of mind.”

“I don’t want her to be, either.”

“I’ll see if there’s anything in the unsolved case files . . . maybe her sister is one of those.”

Bas nodded. “All right. Are you going to tell the generals?”

“I want to talk to her first. I want to make sure I have all the facts, and I want to see if I can find anything to substantiate her claims.”

“Sydnie is no liar.”

“I’m not saying she is. I’m simply saying that I don’t want to go in there half-cocked.”

“All right.”

Cain fell silent for a moment before speaking again. “Take care of her. Sounds like she’s already been alone for far too long.”

“I will, Dad,” he promised.

Cain sighed. “You’d better, and about that stuff you were saying earlier? That you weren’t coming home and that you were relinquishing your right to be the next tai-youkai?”

Bas grimaced. “Yeah?”

“I’ll pretend you didn’t say it. Just get her back here. I’d like to tell her I’m . . . I’m sorry.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sydnie peeked over the top of the psychology book, grudgingly watching as Bas carefully wrapped a long silk holly garland around the overly-fat pine tree he’d set up by the glass doors in the living room. Sparing a glance over his shoulder, he caught her eye and smiled shyly. She bit her lip and jerked the book back over her face. He heaved a sigh and started to hang blown glass ornaments from the tree branches.

What do you expect, Bas? She’s told you she hates Christmas.’

I know,’ he allowed. ‘Anyway, whose side are you on?

I’m not taking sides, ‘puppy’ . . . I’m pointing out the obvious.’

Et tu? You’re my youkai blood, aren’t you? Stop calling me ‘puppy’.’

Entirely off topic, Sebastian. Besides, you should have known that the last thing Sydnie would want to do is to deck Ye Ole Tennenbaum with you.’

Shuddup . . . this’ll work.’

What? You think that showing her that Christmas isn’t a horrible thing will make a difference in the end?

Sure . . . in any case, it can’t hurt.’

Wishful thinking, if you ask me.’

Yeah? Good thing I didn’t ask.’

In a bit of a mood, are we Bastian?

Bas snorted, retrieving another box of glass ornaments. ‘This was more fun back home.’

‘‘Course it was. Your mom made sure that everyone was laughing and joking, singing cheesy Christmas carols and plying the family with hot cocoa . . . I swear she spiked the cocoa . . . your father was entirely too goofy when you were setting up the tree. It was unnatural.’

Bas smiled despite himself. That was true enough. Cain did tend to lean toward the ridiculous on the day they set up the tree back home. Dragging Bas out of bed well before the crack of dawn so that the two of them could go stumble around the forest in order to find what Cain always referred to as ‘the perfect tree’, it had taken years before Bas was fully able to grasp the significance of the gesture. After finally locating said-tree, Cain had cut it down carefully and tied the branches so that he and Bas could drag it back to the house with minimal damage.

Evan always waited by the sliding doors with Jillian since their mother had insisted that it was too cold for Evan to run around outside, which, in Bas’ opinion, was complete bunk since he’d been doing the tree run with Cain ever since he could remember. Then again, maybe it was something that Gin just viewed as special between Cain and Bas. Maybe that was the real reason that Evan never accompanied them. In any case, they spent the rest of the day drinking Gin’s special hot cocoa—spiked or not, it was always more than enough to warm him up after the hours spent in the cold—while setting up the tree and painstakingly decorating each branch.

Bas frowned as an odd sense of loss surged through him, and he had to wonder if Evan had gone with Cain this year since he wasn’t at home . . .

At least Gin was still thinking of him. A box had arrived via UPS second day air earlier in the day. Stuffed full of wrapped packages with Gin’s hand-painted little name cards attached to each one, Bas had smiled to himself. Gin had sent plenty of little gifts for Sydnie, and for some reason, the idea of his mother buying presents for the girl she had yet to actually meet was a huge thing to him. She’d also enclosed a letter, telling him to expect the caterers to stop by early on Christmas day to drop off a ready-to-eat meal for the two of them—Christmas dinner with all the fixings, even if they didn’t taste quite the same as the dinners that Bas remembered best.

“Why are you going to all the trouble to set up a Christmas tree when we’re the only people here?” Sydnie finally asked.

Bas shrugged. “Because the presents I bought you would look pretty stupid if I just set them on the floor, don’t you think?”

She wrinkled her nose but couldn’t help the interested glance she shot him. “You . . . bought me presents?”

He nodded. “Sure . . . did you really think I wouldn’t?”

“I don’t like Christmas, remember?”

Bas grabbed another box of the delicate ornaments. “You said Kit did, though, right?”

She flinched at the ease with which Bas used her sister’s name. “I suppose,” she allowed. “That doesn’t mean I have to.”

“Listen, Sydnie . . . I thought about that last night.”

“Oh?”

“Yep, and as I see it, you’ve just never had a really good Christmas to make an educated comparison.”

“And you’re suffering from ‘do-gooder’ syndrome,” she grumbled. “Can we just drop it?”

Bas dropped the empty box into the wooden crate that he’d dug out of the basement. “Never heard of that one. Is it in your book?”

“I’m sure it is,” she quipped. “I can look it up, if you want.”

“Never mind, kitty. Why don’t you help me hang these ornaments?”

Lifting a hand to wave away his question, Sydnie deliberately kept her eyes trained on the book. “I’m busy, puppy. Besides, you’re doing just fine without my help.”

Bas snorted. “Pfft! Everyone knows that decorating a Christmas tree takes more than just one person.”

“I’m helping,” she countered. “I’m watching, aren’t I?”

“That’s not really helping,” he pointed out with a crooked eyebrow.

“It’s helping,” she argued, “and if you keep talking, I can’t read my book.”

“I hate that book,” he grumbled since she had just gotten finished telling him earlier that she thought he was exhibiting the early signs of dementia.

“I’m educating myself,” she said.

He sighed and rolled his eyes but wandered back over to her. “Here, cat. You put this one on the tree.”

“What’s this?” she echoed, staring at the nondescript white box he handed her.

“I picked it up in town yesterday. It’s a keepsake ornament. I got it for you.”

Sydnie stared suspiciously at him before slowly letting her gaze drop to the box once more. Opening it and carefully pulling the porcelain ornament out, she turned it over in her hands and shot Bas a confused glance before staring at the little depiction of a cat snuggled with a sleeping dog before a roaring fireplace. “Do you think this is us?” she questioned.

Bas shrugged. “Sort of. I thought . . . I thought maybe we could collect these, you know? One every year for every good Christmas memory you make.”

Sydnie shook her head slowly, struggling to gather her waning bravado. “I see. Puppy—”

“We’re meant to be together, Sydnie . . . you want that, don’t you?”

“Sebastian . . .”

“Don’t over-think it, okay? Just . . . let your heart decide.”

Sydnie smiled sadly, turning the ornament over in her hands. “Let my heart decide?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“It can be.”

She shook her head again. “I don’t think it can. You’re . . . you’re . . . It’s different now.”

“Not really.”

“But it is.”

“It doesn’t have to be! Nothing’s changed, Sydnie . . . I still feel the same, and you—”

“We’re too different, you know. They’d never allow us to stay together. You’re the next . . .” she swallowed hard, “. . . the next tai-youkai, and I’m nothing.”

Her softly uttered words ignited a hot rush of irritation, and he swung around, draping his hands on his hips to pin her with a menacing glower. “That’s stupid! Damn it . . . do you think I care who you think you are? Do you think that really matters to me?”

“It should,” she argued. “Can you honestly think that it won’t matter to your parents? To your father? Of course it will! You think they’d want you—their precious son—to be with me—a nobody—a murderer?

“You’re not a murderer, Sydnie . . . the tai-youkai . . .” Bas trailed off, unable to meet her gaze for a moment as the implications of what he was trying to admit sank in. Heaving a sigh, he knelt beside her and shook his head. “The tai-youkai . . . failed you.”

“You . . . you believe me?”

Bas swallowed hard and nodded. “Of course I do. I told you that last night.”

Sydnie smiled slightly—a sad, almost forlorn sort of smile—as she stared at the ornament still resting on her hand. “That’s all I wanted,” she admitted quietly. “Back when it might have mattered, that’s all I really wanted.”

Bas grimaced. “I know, baby. Cal Richardson can’t hurt anyone again. You know that, right?”

“I know that.”

“Sydnie . . .”

She shook her head quickly, as though she knew what he was about to ask, and she probably did. “So where do I hang this ornament, puppy?”

Bas sighed but let it go, at least for the moment. True, he wanted—needed—the second name. At the moment, though, it was enough for him that she was willing to concede to a little victory on his part. “Wherever you want it.”

Sydnie stood up and wandered toward the tree, examining it closely. He shifted slightly to watch her, letting his forearms rest on his knees, hands dangling between his legs as a slow smile spread on his features. Wearing one of his bulky sweaters that had been folded in the closet, she looked even tinier than normal. It had surprised him this morning when she’d selected the garment though maybe it shouldn’t have. In this place where he knew she felt completely out of sorts, the familiarity of his scent comforted her even if she did swear that they couldn’t be together.

Slowly, carefully, she reached up, hooking the ornament’s silver cord over an empty branch and adjusting the way it hung before stepping back and glancing at him a little uncertainly. “How’s that?”

Bas’ smile widened. “Perfect, kitty.”

She blinked, her cheeks pinking just slightly as she stepped back to get the full effect. “Maybe. . .”

Chuckling softly as she moved the ornament closer to the front of the tree, Bas wisely remained silent until she had repeated the inspection process once more. “There . . . much better,” she decided.

“Absolutely.”

She nodded. “Yeah?”

He grinned. “Yeah.”

Sydnie tilted her head to the side, regarding the tree with a critical eye. “Okay.”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Moaning softly as Sydnie felt the gentle but insistent shake of her shoulder, she squeezed closed a little tighter and burrowed deeper under the warmth of the blankets. Bas chuckled and shook her again. “Wake up, sleepyhead.”

“Don’t wanna,” she mumbled, burying her face against his chest.

“Come on, baby . . . It’s Christmas.”

Sydnie whimpered and tried to ignore his efforts to rouse her.

“Don’t you want to see if Santa Claus brought presents?”

That got her to sit up. Scowling at the puppy in such a way so as to let him know that she truly wondered if he had lost his mind, Sydnie wrinkled her nose and slowly shook her head. “There’s no such thing as Santa Claus, Sebastian. Aren’t you a little too old to believe in fairy tales?”

His smile dissipated but his eyes still glowed with his amusement. “You’re never too old to believe in Santa Claus or fairy tales, Sydnie.”

Her expression stated quite plainly, exactly what she thought of that, and he rolled his eyes, bestowing an entirely loud, obscenely slobbery kiss on her cheek. “Puppy!” she protested just before she dissolved in a fit of helpless giggles.

“Come on, Sydnie. Don’t you want your presents?”

She heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Presents?” she asked grudgingly.

“Yes, presents. What’s Christmas without presents?”

“Hmm, I don’t know . . .”

“All right,” he gave over with a mock grimace. “I’ll just go downstairs . . . alone . . .”

“You really think that’s going to work on me?”

He grinned unrepentantly. “Can’t hurt to try, can it?”

She smiled despite herself. He was absolutely incorrigible this morning. In fact, she couldn’t remember seeing him quite like this before . . . “What’s gotten into you, puppy?”

“I got gifts for you, kitty, and I wrapped them myself.”

“Oh?”

He nodded. “Yep. Mom sent you some presents, too.”

Sydnie stiffened and slowly leaned up to look at Bas. “Why would she do that?”

He shrugged. “Guess Gunnar told her that you’re my mate.”

She opened her mouth to argue with him. He pressed his index finger over her lips to shush her. “Not today, kitty, all right? Today’s Christmas, and Christmas is supposed to be magical.”

“Magical?”

He nodded again, wrapping a long strand of her hair around his finger. “Yep . . . you never know what’ll happen on Christmas day . . . and I won’t even try to watch football.”

“No football? That is magical,” she retorted dryly.

Bas opened his mouth to complain but the chiming of the doorbell cut him off. Squeaking indignantly as Bas shoved Sydnie off his chest, she sat up, hair tousled lost in the copious folds of the blankets. “Where are you going?” she demanded, leaning forward to catch his hand as he tugged a pair of jeans over his boxer shorts.

“Caterer,” he explained. “You wanted a real Christmas dinner, right?”

She wrinkled her nose but scooted off the bed, pulling a thick, dark green blanket closer around her as she padded out of the bedroom on his heels. “Do you have catered dinners at home?”

“Nope,” he replied, running down the stairs. “But it was kind of short notice to get Mom to fly in to cook it, don’t you think?”

“You can’t cook?”

“Ha! No.”

“So there is something that the great Bas the Hunter can’t do?” she teased.

“Oh, there’re lots of things I can’t do, kitty.” Bas jerked on the deadbolt lock and grimaced since it seemed to be quite stuck. “For example, I can’t get this door open, damn it.”

“No swearing on Christmas,” she told him, gently pushing him aside and fiddling with the door. The lock finally snapped open, and she raised her eyebrows as she stepped back to let him open it.

Bas wrinkled his nose and jerked his head toward the archway that led into the living room. “Go on in, Sydnie. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Sydnie bit her lip before whipping around and darting back up the stairs. She hadn’t decided for sure, whether or not she really ought to give Bas a present since she was so adamant that she despised all things Christmas, but for some reason, she really, really wanted to give him something, too.

Discarding the blanket on the bed, she grabbed her purse and dug for the small, black velvet box. She’d bought it the day they’d gone clothes shopping while he’d been having the battery in his watch replaced. She hadn’t taken the time to wrap it, but she didn’t think he’d mind too much. Pausing for a moment to open the box and scrutinize the howling dog standing on a cliff etched in graphic relief onto a backdrop of a full moon, the platinum keychain had reminded her of Bas, and she hadn’t thought twice about purchasing it despite the huge dent it had made in her savings.

She set the box down long enough to pull another of Sebastian’s huge sweaters—this one a cream colored fisherman’s style—over her head. It almost reached her knees, and she closed her eyes as the soothing scent of him lent her a small sense of security. Grabbing the gift box off the bed, she hurried back out of the room and down the stairs as Bas was closing the door behind the departing caterers.

“I knew there was a reason I never got rid of those stupid sweaters,” Bas murmured as he turned away from the door and grinned at Sydnie. “They look better on you than they ever did on me.”

She blushed but smiled slightly as he slipped an arm around her shoulders and led her into the living room.

Sydnie stopped short and blinked in surprise, staring at the tree, glowing in the soft illumination of the hundreds of lights that Bas had wrapped around it. Presents were arranged under the low branches, and when she glanced up to see Bas’ face only to find him staring back down at her in a way that made her heart skip a beat. He didn’t smile, but his eyes were shining brightly, a thousand emotions there for her to see. Sydnie tried to smile, but the gesture just didn’t seem like it was enough. Bas leaned down, kissing her forehead and squeezing her shoulders. “Merry Christmas, baby.”

“Puppy . . .”

“Let’s get your presents, Sydnie.”

She let him take her hand and pull her toward the tree. He let go and knelt down, rummaging through the gifts and handing her a beautifully wrapped box. Sydnie took it slowly, turning it over in her hands. The paper seemed to be hand-painted, and she frowned. “What’s this?”

Bas spared her a glance before settling on the floor and crossing his legs. “Dunno . . . it’s from Mom.”

“But the paper . . .”

“Mom and Dad always make their own paper,” he explained. “At least, most of the time. They’ve been known to use store stuff, though, if they run out of that.”

She bit her lip. “It’s too pretty to tear.”

Bas chuckled. “It’s just paper.”

She didn’t know how to explain what she was thinking. To have put that much time and effort into something that she was just using to wrap a gift, and then for Bas not to understand what it should have meant to him . . . Sydnie shook her head. Maybe she was reading too much into things. Untying the plain brown raffia ribbon, Sydnie was relieved when the paper fell away without tearing. Bas’ mother hadn’t used tape to secure the paper, and Sydnie smoothed it carefully and set it aside.

The brown wooden box was plain yet beautiful, with the only embellishment being the scrolling vines that were intricately carved on the lid’s smooth surface. The inside of the box was lined with deep red velvet, and Bas chuckled as he leaned over her shoulder to look at it. “It’s a jewelry box,” he told her.

Sydnie blinked and glanced at him. “A jewelry box?”

He nodded. “You can put your locket in there, if you want.”

“So I could.”

He slip