Gem met him, her eyes watery and her chin trembling. She knew. “You’re leaving.”

“Yes.” There was no way to soften the blow. Though he hadn’t expected the blow to hurt him as much. Just when he was getting his life together, just as one wound had finally healed, he’d been knocked back to square one, because even though he wasn’t prepared to take Arik at his word, this couldn’t be ignored. “I’m sorry, Gem.”

He kissed her, putting everything he had into it. And then he walked away.

Chapter 23

It had been nearly a month since the last full moon—which had been Shade’s first shift to a werewolf, and Runa’s twelfth. Tonight would kick off Shade’s last; Eidolon’s vaccine was ready to use after the moon phase was done. But it would be her thirteenth shift, and while many people believed thirteen was a bad omen, Runa had always felt the opposite. Thirteen was her lucky number, so she couldn’t understand why she felt so unsettled lately.

Even Shade had been behaving strangely over the last couple of days, had been extra-attentive and plastered by her side. If not for the fact that he’d been called into the hospital for some sort of emergency, he’d not have let her out of his sight. He’d wanted her to go with him, but with the full moon only hours away, she’d needed to prepare.

Smiling, she approached her house. Their lair. Shade had sold his city apartment, and now they spent most of their time at her place, though sometimes, when Runa was feeling extra frisky, they spent their days off at his cave.

Shade had wanted to abandon the cave, but she’d convinced him to keep it. With a little redecorating—which meant getting rid of most, but not all, of his toys—the place had become downright homey. She’d even surprised him by researching his Umber background and then filling the cave with Umber art and woven carpets. When he’d seen what she’d done, he’d been too choked up to speak, but he’d drawn her into his arms and held her as if he’d never let her go.

Which would be fine with her.

Her cell rang as she mounted the old wooden steps. The ring tone unique to her brother sang impatiently as she set down the grocery bags on the porch and dug in her windbreaker’s pocket.

“Hey, Arik, you home?” He’d come for a visit last week and had left this morning to head back to the base.

“Yup. Got off the plane about fifteen minutes ago.” The clank and whirr of a baggage carousel forced him to raise his voice. “Maybe you could bite me or something, so I can use Harrowgates. Much faster than airplanes.”

She laughed. She’d learned to use them, though she still preferred the good old-fashioned feel of a steering wheel in her hands. In fact, she almost always drove to work … at Underworld General.

A couple of days after the battle in the dungeon, Runa and Arik had talked things out. After meeting Shade, he’d been willing to keep her secret from the R-XR if she wanted to continue working there, but the idea had made her uneasy. She couldn’t put Arik’s career in jeopardy if the truth ever came out, and besides, she’d found something even better to do with her time.

She’d approached Eidolon with an idea to take over management of the hospital’s cafeteria. The challenge of providing for the needs of dozens of species excited her, and where she’d taken a conservative approach with her coffee shop, she now felt free to take risks. Sure, she wasn’t trotting all over the globe to sniff out shapeshifters and were-beasts, but Shade could take her anywhere she wanted to go when she felt the urge to travel.

“Arik, it’d kill you to be locked up three nights a month.”

“Maybe.” She could hear the smile in his voice. “It was good seeing you so happy, sis.”

“I’m very happy,” she said. “I know you had your doubts about Shade, but you don’t need to worry.”

“I’m not. He’s obviously devoted to you. Doesn’t change the fact that he’s a demon, but he did save my life.”

“And mine,” she said softly.

“Which is why I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.”

“What about Kynan? Is the Army giving him the benefit of the doubt?” She still didn’t know what was up with that situation. Kynan had been taken to R-XR headquarters, where he’d been subjected to a battery of tests. He wouldn’t talk, and neither would her brother, but Ky had given her a message to pass on to Gem.

“Tell her not to wait.”

“I can’t talk about Kynan. You know that.” Arik paused. “There’s my luggage. Gotta sail. Love you.”

“You, too.”

She hung up, and for whatever reason, she looked down the street. A man stood on the corner, his heated gaze focused on her. A tingle skittered over her skin. Why, she had no idea, but when he jerked his gaze away, she followed it to where another man sauntered up the sidewalk toward her. He was as light as the other man was dark, but something united them.

Something familiar.

Her pulse began to race.

The men glared at each other, both measuring the distance between themselves and her. Their eyes glowed with hunger and impending change, and she drew a startled breath. They were wargs.

Her body flooded with heat and liquid arousal. Oh, God. That was why she’d been so unsettled lately. She was entering her first yearly breeding heat.

She needed to call Shade, and now. Before instinct overruled her mind and caused her to do something stupid, like take one of the werewolves into her cage to mate. Female wargs in heat waited for the males to fight it out, and would then mate with the victor. If she became pregnant during the moon cycle, the pairing would become permanent, as wargs formed bonds similar to those of Seminus demons, and mates were for life.

The men came together in a crash of fists. They were as propelled by instinct as she was, and though they’d started the fight in human form, they’d finish it in beast bodies. Which could turn into disaster in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

“Go,” she muttered to herself, because the darkest, most primal part of her wanted to watch, to root for a victor, but the still-human side knew she had to get out of there.

Shade, hurry … He’d sense her sudden hunger and was, no doubt, on his way now. No matter what kind of emergency had prompted his trip to UG, instinct would bring him home.

She looked up at the sky, at the rapidly growing darkness, though she didn’t need to. Her body told her the moon would be up in a matter of minutes.

Quickly, she let herself into the house and darted to the basement. The unfinished room was large, the soundproofed walls allowing for as much noise as two werewolves could make.

She slipped inside the cage in the center of the room, which she and Shade had enlarged and made comfortable for both of them. She slammed the door shut and spun the combination lock.

The crash of glass sent her pulse into overdrive, and then the men were in the basement with her, launching at each other. Come on, Shade. She dug her phone out of her pocket and dialed Shade.

“I’m almost there, babe,” he said, without a hello and with panic dripping from his voice. He hung up before she could say a word.

Cursing, she called Tayla. She’d gotten to know Eidolon’s mate over the past couple of weeks, and right now, she was their best hope to keep the wargs outside the cage from running amok.

“What’s up, Runa?”

“I don’t have time to explain. I’ve got a problem. Wargs in my basement. If they get out of the house …”

“Shit. Okay, I’ll gather a team and get them contained.”

“Don’t kill them.”

“I know. We’ll be careful.”

Runa hung up, wondering if, even after a year of being bonded to a demon, it still felt odd for Tayla to ensure the safety of creatures such as werewolves instead of killing them. Granted, Runa had wanted to kill Luc for what he’d done to her, but she was thankful that she hadn’t. He wasn’t the most friendly guy on the planet, but he had, in his gruff way, apologized for attacking her.

The apology was unnecessary. She was stronger, tougher, and her longer lifespan would give her plenty of time with Shade. If a cure ever became available, she’d turn it down.

She glared at the men who were tearing apart her basement. She’d be happy to inject them with the cure, however.

Shade’s roar shook the entire house. His scent flooded the basement as he flew down the steps and leaped into the center of the fray. He was still wearing scrubs, but he wore his usual combat boots, and they caused the rivals a world of pain as he landed kicks as high as their heads.

“Stay in the cage!” he yelled at her, when she reached for the lock.

“But you could just slip inside—”

“I need to win this.”

Her heart swelled. After a year of being a were, she instinctively understood his determination. The fights struck her human side as barbaric, but the part of her that was female and warg appreciated the raw thrill of being the prize in an age-old battle for possession.

If Shade’s enthusiasm was any indication, he felt the same way. He needed to fight for her. Wanted to fight for her. He’d bonded with her as a Seminus demon, but he was compelled to do the same as a warg.

A shiver of both feminine excitement and fear prickled her skin. If he lost …

Shade’s boot caught the dark-haired man in the chest, sending him crashing into a shelf of canned goods. As the other man crumpled to the floor, unconscious, Runa let out a relieved breath. One down, one to go.

Testosterone and fury turned the air to soup as the blond launched himself at Shade, slamming them both into the stair railing. The blond nailed Shade with an uppercut that snapped his head back with enough force that his eyes glazed.

“Shade!” She rattled the cage, fumbling for the combination lock as the blond took advantage of Shade’s stunned state and pulled a Swiss Army knife from his jeans pocket.

In a sweeping arc, the man brought the blade down. Shade twisted away at the last moment. The blade struck a glancing blow at his shoulder, slicing open his scrub top and leaving a thin red line.

“Son of a bitch,” Shade snarled. He whirled, crunching a series of blows into the other male’s torso and face with his fists and feet. The knife flew out of the blond’s hand, but in about ten seconds it would be useless anyway …

The painful tightening of Runa’s skin caught her by surprise. The change was upon them all.

“Hurry, Shade!”

Hands trembling and already beginning to elongate, she shed her clothes. Shade caught the blond by one furry arm and slammed him to the ground, then quickly kicked off his boots. The blond snared his ankle, bringing Shade to the floor with him. They were both more beast than man now, and their snapping jaws and flashing claws brought a whole new element of danger—and excitement—to the battle.

Runa’s mind began to go fuzzy, her thoughts hijacked by her growing lust, her body taken over by the scent of battle in the air. The door. She needed to open the door before she was nothing but animal.

She fumbled with the lock, and as the door clicked open, pain tore through her. Her bones cracked and her joints stretched, and through the roar of blood rushing in her ears, she heard the males’ groans of agony, as well. This was the worst part of being a werewolf, dealing with the painful transformation.

Through the misery, Shade somehow held on to his determination to win the battle. He palmed the other warg’s forehead and slammed his skull into the concrete floor. The sharp crack echoed through the basement, and by the time it had faded away, Shade was there, leaping through the cage door. He slammed it shut, and though he didn’t lock it, she didn’t care. The transformation had taken her completely.

So had the mating heat.

Shade stood before her on two black-furred legs, a massive, beautiful creature that was as fully aroused as she was. He lunged at her, and she dodged to the side. As much as she wanted him, he had one more test to pass.

He had to best her, as well.

His raw, erotic growl swept through her like a muscle-deep caress, warming her, preparing her for him. Right now she was little more than a raging mass of hormones, and deep inside her womb contracted and her sex clenched. Still, when he reached for her, she slashed him with her claws.

In an instant, he was on her. She snarled, snapping at him with her teeth, but he locked his jaws on her scruff and held her in place. With one last burst of power, she threw herself sideways, dislodging him momentarily as they crashed into the side of the cage.

Her victory was short-lived, and in a blur of fur and fangs, he had her where he wanted her once again, and in one smooth, powerful stroke, he filled her.

Ecstasy exploded through her body, far more than a sexual high. Seminus bond or no, this was her true mate.

Shade’s howl joined hers, a celebration in the night.

Shade woke, na**d, battered, and exhausted, spooning with Runa, who stirred as he stretched. Wincing at the twinge of sore muscles and aching joints, he stroked her arm. His eyes were still closed, mainly because he planned to go back to sleep for a week.

The last three nights and days had been the most exhausting of his life. Not that he was complaining. He and Runa had mated constantly in both their warg forms and true forms, taking breaks during the day only to eat. Someone, probably Tayla or Eidolon, had left them meat the first night—he didn’t recall them coming in to take away the males he’d fought and to lock the cage door so he and Runa wouldn’t escape, but he was pretty glad he didn’t remember. No doubt they’d gotten an eyeful of werewolf mating habits.

E would never let him live this one down.

Beneath his hand, Runa’s silky skin heated. Not just heated, but seared his palm. He struggled to open his eyes. His vision was blurry, and having Runa’s mane of hair in his face didn’t help. Groaning, he shoved himself up on one elbow.