Illicit passions, p.1

Illicit Passions, page 1

 part  #6 of  Forbidden Passions Series

 

Illicit Passions
 


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Illicit Passions


  Dedication

  To Loribelle Hunt, for taking a ride with me on this series.

  To the Professor Moriarty, for being my hero.

  To the Mad Madam M, bestie for life.

  To my grandmother, because she was hell on wheels. Rest in peace, Grams.

  Chapter One

  “I need a cigarette.” Tori clutched the cup of coffee the waitress had just dropped off. She’d been feeding her caffeine habit to try to ignore her nicotine habit, but it just left her shaking, jittery and even more irritated. “Seriously, I’d give you my first-born child for just one puff right now.”

  “You don’t have any children yet, and those cancer sticks will kill you, werekind or not. Have you tried the nicotine gum I recommended?” Lyra offered up her best concerned physician look and Tori wanted to lunge across the breakfast table at her.

  Yes, she was feeling totally reasonable and rational today.

  Of course, since she was a swan-shifter and Lyra was a wolf-shifter, Tori was pretty sure she’d get her ass handed to her if she tried it, concerned physician or no. But on the other hand, it might take her mind off the fact that she really, really needed a fucking cigarette. She eyed her closest friend. She’d taken on a predator shifter before and won. It could be worth it, just for the distraction factor.

  Lyra smirked, flashing a bit of wolf canine in the process. “Don’t take your violent urges out on me, birdie. No one’s forcing you to quit if you don’t want to.”

  “I know, I know,” Tori moaned. “But it is bad for me and—”

  “Is she still whining about the smokes?” asked a feminine voice behind her. Lyra’s cousin, Celeste, sauntered up and parked herself across from Tori. Celeste was married to one of Tori’s bosses, but somehow it had never felt awkward to be friends.

  The waitress brought Celeste a cup of tea without asking, while Tori winced at the noise of people talking and silverware clinking. Everything seemed to scrape over her too-sensitive nerves these days.

  They sat at a table in the restaurant at Refuge Resort—an exclusive getaway for shifters of all species—where Lyra ran the local werekind clinic. Her husband, Zander Leonidas, ran the resort. It was a rare patch of neutral territory in the often-contentious world of shifter clans. The resort also served as the headquarters for the Leonidas family businesses, which was where Tori worked. She’d spent the last five years as the administrative assistant to Jason and Adrian Leonidas, Zander’s older brothers. The Leonidases also happened to be the rulers of the leopard shifter clan—and by extension, all feline shifter species in the US. Adrian handled the business end of things, Jason ruled the clan and Tori got to juggle their calendars and make sure their lives ran smoothly.

  Lyra nodded to Celeste. “Yep, we might even get to witness a full-on meltdown from the beauty queen today.”

  Beauty queen. Tori hated that label. She owned a mirror, so she knew she was prettier than the average woman. Okay, gorgeous, stunning, knock-out. She’d been called all those things. She also had a body that made men drool. God help her if she ever dared to put on a bikini. Her platinum blonde hair and Miss-America-pageant-contestant looks made people assume she was all perky sweetness and light…and a bimbo too. Not that she wouldn’t sleep with a guy on the first date if the chemistry was there, but she didn’t indiscriminately drop her panties for anyone. Fuck the bullshit stereotypes. She bit back the urge to spit those words at her friend. The cigarette detox was making her overreact. Her fingers clenched around the ceramic of her cup and she told herself to chill out.

  “Ooh, interesting. Maybe I’ll get pictures and do an interview for a story on kicking the habit.” Celeste’s eyes gleamed with journalistic interest. She was a freelance reporter who wrote for both human and werekind publications. “Imagine the raging addict video on YouTube. We’d go viral in seconds.”

  “You guys are hilarious.” It took everything Tori had to hold back the swan-like hiss that threatened to erupt from her throat. She could feel her wings rippling just below the surface of her skin, and she wanted to shift into her bird form to fly far and fast from the craving that hounded her. Unfortunately, she couldn’t escape herself. “I feel like utter shit. Like soggy, lukewarm, day-old shit.”

  “Wow, that’s appetizing.” Celeste put down the menu she’d just picked up.

  Lyra waved her cousin away and addressed Tori. “Are you using the nicotine patch? It’ll help.”

  “With what? Is it supposed to do anything other than feel weird and piss me off even more? At this point, I’m going to put some tobacco in it, roll it and smoke it.” Tori took a sip of her coffee, but it didn’t stop the desperate need clawing through her.

  Her foot bounced against the floor, and she sat there amongst friends feeling like she wasn’t even herself anymore. The smoking hadn’t been a big deal, she’d thought, but suddenly it was all she could think about, all she could focus on. She’d been scattered at work since she’d been off the nicotine, had a sore throat and her skull hadn’t stopped pounding in a headache for three—damn—days. She was also mood swinging like she’d slammed into full-blown menopause. At twenty-seven years old. Awesome. Why did she want to quit again? Oh yeah. Because it was healthy.

  “Hey, did you guys see this?” Another friend, Cleo, strode up waving her tablet computer. “This has PR nightmare written all over it.”

  That didn’t sound good. As the public relations officer for the resort, Cleo probably had a pretty good instinct for what might become a problem.

  “What?” Lyra asked.

  Cleo flipped her tablet around to show them the top headline on a newspaper website.

  Scientists Claim Human-Animal Hybrids Exist, Fired From MIT

  Tori felt her eyes bulge. Just what she needed today. Drama in the werekind world. “Oh, fuck me sideways with a hockey stick.”

  Snorting, Lyra cast a glance at her. “Well, that says it all, doesn’t it?”

  “Damn, he made the Times.” Celeste sighed. “It’s that human reporter again—Jeff Nichols—the one who won’t let the shifter thing go. I’ve tried to bury him, but his articles keep getting better and better exposure. But the Times? Crap.”

  “Adrian believes Nichols has an inside source helping him. A shifter selling out other shifters.” A growl rumbled up in Cleo’s throat—the lioness within her showing through. She glanced at Celeste and Lyra. “What do your husbands think?”

  With the exception of Tori, all the women at the table were married to a Leonidas brother. Cleo was a feline, so no one had questioned her mating, but the other two had had a rough time during their courtships. Celeste was a human, but she was the werewolf Alpha’s stepdaughter. And wolves and leopards didn’t mix. At all. It had been majorly controversial when Celeste had mated with the Leonidas heir, but it had blown people’s minds when Lyra—an actual wolf-shifter—had married a leopard. Her father had disowned her for it.

  Tori was just happy that, as a bird, she was neutral in all those disputes. Werebirds were ferocious in their neutrality. No one dragged them into clan wars. She’d take her eagle queen over these alpha males any day. Then again, the queen had married a Leonidas too. Nico—probably the scariest, most feral of the four brothers. Tori would love to see that particular cat caught in an eagle’s nest, but she hadn’t made it out to werebird territory in years.

  Lyra’s cup thumped loudly against the wooden tabletop, jolting Tori back to the unfortunate present. The she-wolf tossed her long black hair over her shoulder. “Zander agrees with Adrian. I think they’ve been talking about how to deal with this information leak.”

  “Jason’s had a few phone calls with Nico about it too.” Celeste leaned forward, dropping her voice. Not that anyone was close enough to overhear, but it
paid to be cautious. “I’m recommending that we finally reach out to my family and see if the wolf clan has any intel on this. The Lykaioses have a different network of allies than the leopards or eagles.”

  “Uncle Michael has been saying for years that our exposure is inevitable,” Lyra pointed out. “He’s not going to help.”

  Celeste shook her head, stress pinching the corners of her mouth. “I’m not thinking the Alpha. I’m thinking we go with his second-in-command. My oldest brother is more reasonable than my dad.”

  “Bastian can also be a dogmatic, hardheaded pain in the ass.” Lyra ran a finger around the rim of her mug, her forehead furrowed in thought. “We’d be asking him to go against his Alpha. I’m not sure he’s ever done that before.”

  “I know he hasn’t, even when he really should have.” Old bitterness flashed in Celeste’s gaze, but her mouth firmed into a stubborn line. “Still, it’s worth a shot. Bastian is our best bet for help from the wolves. My husband, my nieces and nephews, my whole family is in danger if word gets out about the werekind, so I’m not standing around and doing nothing. I want to know who this inside source is, and I want him or her stopped.”

  Not just an inside source, but a powerful one if they were managing to bypass Celeste’s efforts to discredit this guy. Tori’s stomach churned for reasons that had nothing to do with nicotine withdrawal. The existence of shifters being revealed to the general population would be a majorly huge clusterfuck. She hated to think that anyone would be helping a human expose them, but the article claimed these scientists had blood and tissue samples. Where the hell would they get those, if not from a shifter?

  This went way, way beyond a PR nightmare.

  “I need a cigarette.”

  Scientists Claim Human-Animal Hybrids Exist, Fired From MIT

  Bastian read the newspaper headline twice before the meaning sank in. His head began to throb. It wasn’t the first time these quacks had made the papers, wasn’t the first time this sleazy reporter had jumped on a story that might hint at the existence of shifters. It was a problem, mostly because the reporter and scientists weren’t wrong. Shifters did exist—but no one outside of the werekind community was supposed to know that.

  How the hell these humans had found out was a question Bastian would dearly like answered. So far, his sources—okay, his spies—hadn’t been able to nail down anything concrete, but it was only a matter of time. Time he feared they might not have. His hands balled into fists and he sat back in his chair, a muscle ticking in his jaw. He felt his fangs press against his lower lip, the wolf within him rippling just beneath the surface. It wanted to hunt down whoever was trying to expose their species. Shifters might be stronger and more powerful, but by sheer numbers, the human population could overwhelm them easily. And if history had taught them anything, it was that mankind feared things that were different. Werekind fit pretty firmly in the different category, and that would make them targets.

  He tossed the paper on his desk with a snarl.

  “Ah, you saw the news.” A gravelly voice spoke from his office doorway.

  He smoothed his expression to one he hoped was noncommittal before the other man came around to look at him. It was wise to step cautiously around the werewolf Alpha. Even when that Alpha was your father.

  Despite his age, Michael Lykaios was an imposing man who wore his authority like a cloak. He jutted his chin toward the discarded newssheet. “What do you think, Beta?”

  Bastian straightened at being reminded of his place in the pack. Second-in-command, charged with protecting and defending his people, but still beneath the Alpha in rank.

  “You know what I think, sir.” And the two of them didn’t agree.

  His father grunted. “Remind me.”

  Doing his level best to keep any confrontation out of his tone, Bastian replied, “They know too much, have too many of the details right to be coincidence. Someone—a shifter—is spilling secrets. This is an inside job.”

  Some emotion flickered across Michael’s expression, too fast for Bastian to tell what it was. His father cleared his throat. “It doesn’t matter where the information is coming from. In the end, this was inevitable. Science and technology have come far enough that they can do tests and know what we are. This isn’t ancient Greece anymore, son. Zeus isn’t going to come sweeping in and save his favored children. We have to take care of ourselves.”

  Each shifter race had an ancient god or goddess who’d gifted mortal men with the ability to change into animal form. For wolves, it had been Zeus who’d turned King Lycoan into a shifter, and his children had inherited that gift. To reward Leonidas of Sparta’s courage against the Persians, Artemis had granted all his descendants the ability to change into a leopard. The werebirds traced their lineage back to Marathon, the great messenger who’d been blessed by the god Hermes. Bears had their roots set in the Native American legend of Rhpisunt, a chief’s daughter who married a bear and birthed halfling twin sons. Shifters originated from all over the world and had scattered to the winds over the centuries. Those who settled in America mostly answered to either the wolves or the leopards, with a few notable exceptions like the neutral birds.

  Bastian snorted. “No one expects the gods to meddle in mortal affairs anymore. Shifters have been taking care of themselves—by staying out of the limelight and keeping our heads down.”

  “That’s not going to cut it anymore.” Michael scowled, slicing a hand through the air. “Science is going to win this one. We can’t just pretend we’re human.”

  It took everything Bastian had to hold back a growl. “We wouldn’t have to worry about it if someone weren’t offering up skin and blood samples to scientists and telling them what to look for. How long would it have taken them to figure it out on their own? Maybe fifty more years, a hundred, two hundred. DNA testing only matters if you have the samples to test.” He stabbed a finger against his desk. “What I want to know is how these lab coats got those samples. Unlike you, I think it does matter who’s putting us all in danger. No one has that right.”

  His father’s mouth tightened, his tone turning condescending. “You’re missing the point, boy. We need to be in control of this situation, make sure the only information humans have about us is what we want them to have. That’s the only way to protect our people.”

  Bastian tensed at being referred to as boy, a word that hadn’t applied to him for almost two decades. His father wanted him on the defensive. Why? He narrowed his gaze at the older man. “Secrecy has protected our people. Why are you so supportive of a traitor?”

  His father flinched, and that was when Bastian saw it.

  Guilt.

  He felt like he’d taken a punch to the gut, and the air rushed out of his lungs. He was glad he was sitting down because his legs might not have held up under the shock. His father wasn’t supporting a traitor—he was the traitor. There was nothing conclusive to tell Bastian he was right, and yet a lot of little inconsistencies in the last few years clicked into place and suddenly made sense.

  Namely, the amount of time his father had been spending with their former enemy—the retired leader of the wereleopards, Hector Leonidas. Michael wasn’t one to let go of a grudge that quickly, but those two had been as thick as thieves lately. Good, considering Michael’s human stepdaughter had married Hector’s oldest son, but to go from ready to rip a man’s throat out to having a beer and hanging out with him on a Saturday night was a bit extreme.

  Unless the two had been plotting to expose weres to the human world.

  Michael crossed his arms, his nostrils flaring. “You’re unable to be reasonable about this and can’t see the truth when it’s right in front of you. Our kind is going to have to go public. We either let it happen or we control it, and you want to stand back and let someone else run the show. That’s not how a future Alpha should behave. You disappoint me, boy.”

  Bastian’s assistant appeared in the doorway. “Beta, may I—”

  “Leave us, Pe
nelope.” Bastian held up his hand. His tone was harsher than he’d intended and the woman cringed and scurried to obey.

  His father sniffed, his gaze lingering on the closed door. “Your mother was hoping you’d want that one for more than just a secretary.”

  “No.” There wasn’t a single spark of attraction between them, for all that the woman was well-connected in the wolf pack.

  “It’s time you mated and started producing heirs.”

  A standard line, another area where Bastian disappointed. His jaw clenched and anger burned away some of his shock at realizing what his father was up to.

  “I’ll mate when I’m ready and not a moment before.” Bastian’s voice was every bit as implacable and arrogant as his father’s, and he didn’t give a damn if that pissed off the Alpha. Even a clan leader couldn’t dictate a man’s mating, and Bastian wasn’t about to give ground on the issue. “Is there something else you wanted to discuss? I have a conference call.”

  Clearly disliking being dismissed, but not having anything else to say, Michael grunted and slammed out of the room.

  Bastian stabbed the button on his intercom. “Penelope, can you get the New York office on the phone? And when you have a moment, grab a cup of coffee for me, please.”

  Her response was immediate. “Yes, sir. Right away.”

  It took all his control to remain focused during the call, and then he spent the rest of the day distracted. He should have been working on plans for acquiring real estate for a new apartment complex here in Chattanooga. Or any of the other ventures the Lykaios family or wolf clan was looking into. Instead, he spent the time turning facts over in his head.

  The leaks had begun around the time Hector and his father had started getting chummy. It had been little things, initially. The sleazy reporter with an “inside source” but the stories had been published in a rag paper no one believed. At first. Then he started getting wider circulation in better news sources. The next thing they knew, there were photos of weres plastered across the internet. Then a big game hunter went after a female fox—a woman under wolf pack protection. Now, they had scientists with DNA proof.

 
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