By: Stacey Brutger

A book is a huge project that I could never have finished on my own.

To my wonderful cover artist, Amanda Kelsey, who created this gorgeous cover and made my characters come alive.

To my editor, Erin Wolfe, who read the book almost as many times as I have. This book is better because of you. Any mistakes are my own.

To the generous people who’ve offered support along the way.

And to my husband and family for believing in me. You make it worthwhile. Also, a special thanks to my sister for being my first reader. I appreciate it.

Lastly, I want to thank the readers for giving me a chance. I hope you enjoy reading my books as much as I had writing them.

Chapter One

“It’s been six weeks since you’ve been shot. Ever since this latest incident, you’ve locked yourself up in this house like a hermit. All you’ve been doing for the last two weeks is stare out that damn window. People are becoming suspicious of your long absence.”

Leo ignored the harping, gripping the cane until the wood groaned in protest as he waited for the shadows to part.

She was late.

From his third-floor home office, he had a clear view of his backyard, but more importantly, the entrance to the large storage shed where a little slip of a woman had successfully hidden from his men for weeks. He resisted the need to wake up the household and send everyone out to search for her. Worry tightened his muscles, and the wound in his back throbbed in protest, but he couldn’t relax. Not until she’d returned.

“Are you even listening?”

Leo scowled at Victor’s prodding. Then all annoyance vanished when a wisp of a figure gradually took shape out of the darkness, her ever-present stocking cap stuck firmly on her head. She darted toward the shed and disappeared inside with light feet that left no trace.

Despite his keen eyesight, he couldn’t distinguish much about her. Though frustrating, it didn’t matter. She was his the moment she’d set foot on his property.

She just didn’t know it yet.

Once her sleek form vanished from view, whatever spell that had ensnared him finally broke.

“So that’s why. Who is she?”

Leo turned to find Victor at his shoulder, gazing with speculation at the shed. He clenched his fists, barely resisting the temptation to crack his cane over his friend’s thick head.

Goddamn lack of privacy. “Leave it alone. She and the shed are off-limits.”

He would not have them scaring her off.

He took a step toward his desk, gripping the cane harder when the muscles of his back spasmed. He lowered his bulk into the leather chair and heaved a sigh of relief to be off his feet. The bullet that had torn through his back had missed his spine but destroyed nerves and muscle in its wake. Only his accelerated healing had kept him alive and able to walk. Even with his shifter DNA, he wasn’t healing as fast as he should.

At the back of his mind, he wondered if he’d hit CreedMark. When a shifter came down with the symptoms, there was no reversal, no turning back. After the disease ran its course, the animal part of them, their very soul, was stripped away. Few shifters survived the loss of their beast, their death similar to a slow strangulation.

There was no cure. No way to track the progress as it varied in each host, afflicting shifters of any age. Nor was it communicable. Mating helped stave it off, but with fewer matching pairs, there were more cases each year.

“Why are you here in the middle of the night?” He set aside the cursed cane and grabbed the topmost papers on his desk, not really seeing them. Could Victor suspect CreedMark and had come to check on him?

Despite his fear, that was not what had him on edge. He could beat CreedMark by sheer will and simply refuse to succumb to the disease. No, what had Leo perched at the edge of the seat like some virgin at her first bedding was Victor’s apparent fascination as he continued to stare out the window.

Claws slowly emerged from his fingertips, shredding the document in his hands. Every instinct howled at him to protect the girl. His beast was in agreement, one of the few signs he’d had of the lion since the accident.

“It’s practically morning. I wanted to warn you Dame Judith will be attending the meeting. She wants an answer to her proposal.” Victor took his time as he turned away from the window as if bastard didn’t know it irritated the shit out of him.

“A partnership with the clans.” Leo studied the ruined paper, his mind on the girl, worried if she found enough food, if she was warm enough at nights with early frost hitting hard, and how to keep her hidden from his own clan.

Victor snorted and stretched out in a chair in front of the desk. “You in her bed more like it. She’s been chasing you for years. Now that she has you where she wants you, she’s not going to let you go.”

“Then we’ll have to convince her otherwise. I’m not available.”

“Hell, Leo, as of two months ago, you kept a harem of women at your beck and call. What’s the harm in adding one more?”

He lifted his attention from the mangled paper, the hackles at the back of his neck rising. “She has no intention of being one of many. She wants to be the only one. The role of concubine is not open.”

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