Hunters’ Watch Brigade: Initiation ~ Chapters 1-4

 

Paula Millhouse, Hunters' Watch Brigade, Initiation, Paranormal Romance, Urban Fantasy, Demigod, Witches, Wizards, Vampires, Shape shifters, Romance, Fiction

 

 

Hunters’ Watch Brigade: Initiation 

It’s never just another day at the office…

Demigod Samantha Silverton, a full-time monster hunter in the Hunters’ Watch Brigade, is on a mission to hunt down a scorned mermaid with her familiar Max when she finds out she has bigger fish to fry. Her mother—a powerful witch—has been abducted. And the most likely villain is her mother’s enemy, Francesca Rosencratz.

Being a familiar to a sexy monster hunter has its perks, but Max wants more. He might look like a cat, but he’s also Sam’s best friend…and the man who loves her. But in order to defeat Francesca, he’ll have to shift into his human form, something he’s avoided. Because once he’s officially a shifter, he’ll have to join the Brigade. And that could take him away from Sam for good.

But Francesca’s becoming more and more dangerous. She and a mysterious ally are working to take down the Brigade, and take over the paranormal community. Sam will have to dig deep if she’s going to save her mom. But Max will have to risk even more…to save Sam.

When supernatural creatures go rogue, who are you going to call?

The Hunters’ Watch Brigade!


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HEA unveils the cover of urban fantasy/paranormal romance Hunters’ Watch Brigade: Initiation by Paula Millhouse, arriving March 9.


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Chapter 1

Sam

“JUST MY DAMN LUCK!” I pointed into the blue-green waves of the Gulf of Mexico, held on tight to the side of the Fish & Get ’Em, and peered into the crystal clear water for my prey. A deep-sea fishing rod whirred right next to me, and yards of translucent fishing line screamed out behind the charter boat, arching the rod tip over until it disappeared into the ocean. “I think we foul-hooked the mermaid!”

Hunting mermaids is not for the faint of heart. I flung off my Aviator Ray Bans, and peered over the side of the sixty-foot charter boat, searching the churning turquoise waves for my catch. She darted off behind the boat. Looked like I was gonna have to go in after her. I wasn’t about to let her get away.

This was a different way to spend a day in always-sunny Key West. Hey, at least I wasn’t dodging drunken crowds of tourists down on Duvall Street. Five miles off the coast of the Southernmost Point in the middle of the ocean was definitely more my speed.

One glance back at the captain’s face revealed a grim expression, his weathered old face pinched tight, his eyes wide. He wasn’t the first old salt on Charter Boat Row out of Garrison Bight Marina who’d lost a boat to the mad mermaid in the past three months. We’d barely convinced him to help us go out this far and fish for the creature—and that had taken a lot of cash.

My bare feet slipped and slid across the white fiberglass floorboard when the stern of the mighty Fish & Get ’Em groaned, and dipped dangerously close to the water’s edge.

“That little bitch. Watch out, Max! She’s got the anchor line, and she’s coming around for the kill.”

Rumor had it this particular muse from the deep, whose name was Moriah, had it in for the sailors of Key West, but no one knew why. I didn’t really care. I’d volunteered for the assignment when the Hunters’ Watch Brigade posted it on the mission board.

Legend has it my boss, Shade Vermillion, organized the Hunters’ Watch Brigade after some asshole turned him from a human into a vampire against his will about two hundred years ago. We’re a tight-knit group of paranormal peacekeepers who protect humans from things that go bump in the night.

My official badge reads Samantha Silverton, Water Elements Specialist, Lieutenant Hunter. I’ve worked on the team of supernaturals who police activities of other supernaturals for ten years now.

Okay, so I’m a monster-hunter.

Our mission statement is simple. When creatures like vampires, werewolves, or even innocent-looking fairies go rogue and endanger human lives, we show up and stop them.

I don’t get involved in the whys of my missions. I just get the job done.

My job here today was to round up the frisky mermaid, then turn her over to my superiors at the Hunters’ Watch Brigade, or the HWB as I called it, for questioning and possible reform. To do that, I’d brought along my trusty sidekick, Max. I turned and yelled at him over the chaos of the lurching, and soon-to-be listing, charter. “Cut her loose before she sinks the damn boat!”

Max, my thirty-five pound, black-tabby Maine Coon cat had skills. He leapt up, extended razor-sharp claws, and slashed the fishing line. The rod sprung free. Max bounded up to the back of the fish-fighting chair, and yelled, “Cut that anchor loose, Captain Tom. Now! If you don’t, we’re all going down to meet Poseidon.”

Captain Tom’s expression fell, and his jaw went slack. Yeah, poor guy. It was hard for humans to comprehend a talking cat. To his credit, he moved into action and obeyed the cat’s commands. The back of the boat lurched free from the threat of the deep.

I stalked to the stern, and pointed my index finger at Max. “You stay here, understand me? Keep the captain safe, and do not follow me into the water. Our guys from the HWB should be here any minute to collect the mermaid.”

He flipped me a black-striped paw. “You get to do all the cool stuff while I wait for the cleaners. That’s just great, Sam.”

I tossed him a half-smile. Max had always fancied himself a monster-hunter too. But even with his awesome skills, cats had limits.

I leapt up onto the wide side rail of the Fish& Get ’Em, double-checked the ties on my pink string bikini, then dove down into the cool, blue water.

The sea is my home, and, as soon as the salt water covered my sunburned skin, things felt right. As a halfling daughter of Poseidon, it took only seconds to adjust my inner sensory gills. The sensation of breathing underwater was liberating, like a cool breeze on my face on a sunny afternoon. I looked around for my catch, balancing on a bank of fire-red coral rock just fifteen feet under the drifting boat.

I grinned. This capture was sure to make Shade and his fellow commanders sit up and take notice.

Max wasn’t the only one with skills. With ninety-nine successful missions behind me, my intention was to be the best damn monster-hunter in the Hunters’ Watch Brigade.

“Freaking mermaids . . .” My words were clear and pure underwater, but if any humans had been near, they would have only heard a distortion, a fracture of my voice. The stories I’d read in human literature spoke of mermaids as denizens of the deep who lured sailors to their deaths. Those tales were, in truth, based on fact.

Moriah the mermaid was the latest uber-bitch of the deep, and I wondered if her story would change the history books. My father always warned me to steer clear of the mermaids, and mermen were strictly off-limits.

I tapped the raised line of a seven-inch scar with three distinct barbs on my left wrist twice. My scar looks kinda like a cool tattoo to any curious human eyes, and it mimics what lies beneath. My trident, Atlantis, sprang forth from the scar and materialized before me.

Seven-foot long, with three crystal tines, Atlantis felt secure in my hands. The ice-blue sparkling staff was both my weapon and a gift from my father for my twelfth birthday. He’d insisted I take it for protection if I chose to remain on Earth with my human mother, so I’d complied. Besides, how could I turn down a super-cool weapon that had bling, and magic?

I gripped the crystal staff diagonally, with both hands in front of me, then aimed the three tines out to show I meant business. Spotting the fish-tailed floozie, I stalked over the red coral toward the floundering mermaid.

The top of her body was human-like, her generous boobs uncovered, with perky nipples that jutted skyward. That topless slut. And, just like in the movies, her bottom half was scaled and fishy. Her green tail looked powerful, its fin the biggest part of her. The fishing line from Captain Tom’s charter boat was tangled around her emerald-scaled hips. She struggled to free herself, and plucked the fishing hook out of her side.

“Looks like I foul-hooked you,” I said.

She turned and glowered at me, her blond hair floating around her like an angel’s halo. “How dare you interfere?”

I jabbed my index finger upward, motioning to Captain Tom’s boat. “I dare because these men have done nothing to deserve your anger. I’m here to take you in for questioning, to make sure you leave these innocent humans alone.”

Planting her fists on her green hips, she said, “Just who the hell do you think you are?” She eyed Atlantis with suspicion.

I beamed. I’d never met a monster who hadn’t given my weapon the respect it deserved.

“You’ve got two choices, Moriah. You can come with me, surrender to the Hunters’ Watch Brigade and take your chances on rehabilitation with them, or we can conclude this conversation with my father, Poseidon.”

The mermaid flinched, and swam backward. “How do you know my name?” Her face was awash in terror and surprise, her eyes as wide as sand dollars. “You’re no daughter to Poseidon. You’re half-human.”

“My dad and his brothers get around. What can I say?” I shrugged. My father’s reputation was well-known around the seven seas. I didn’t have to justify his behavior.

I jabbed Atlantis toward her. She jerked back like a fish on the line, but I pursued her. “You violated the supernatural code Moriah—you’ve injured humans. You’ve sunk four charter boats in the last month.”

“What business is that of yours?” Her words were haughty. Most monsters had the same reaction when they found out the HWB tolerated zero interference with humankind. Hey, I didn’t make the rules. I just enforced them.

I’d joined the Hunters’ Watch Brigade when I turned twelve years old. My mom signed me up under Shade’s protection when it became apparent that my demigod heritage made me stick out in a crowd. And honestly, working for Shade is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. I get to travel to exciting locales, use super-cool weapons, and stop supernatural bullies from picking on unsuspecting humans.

“Call it a public service of sorts. I volunteered for this assignment, and we don’t take kindly to supernaturals misbehaving.”

“You’ll never stop me, halfling. You don’t have the guts.”

Okay. Now she was pissing me off.

“Yes. I will. We’ve been tracking you, collecting data on your shenanigans up and down the Florida Keys.” I flourished my hand through the water. “Some of the humans wised up. They reported your activities. Sure, the sailors were stinking-assed drunk because you scared them witless, but you know as well as I do that humans can’t know about us. By that breach, you put a target on your back.”

“You could not possibly understand my pain.” Moriah frowned, and for a minute I thought she might cry. In another context, I would have found her beautiful, ethereal, like a siren of the deep. But when the mermaid turned to hurting people—whatever her reasons—it wasn’t pretty at all.

“So, what happened to you? Let me guess. It’s a tale as old as time, right?” I glanced at my nails and almost yawned. “You fell in love with a man, and he did you wrong?” It was the same old story . . . and the reason I maintained my rule of not getting mixed up with human men.

“He told me he’d come with me,” she said, and lowered her head, her beautiful expression almost broken. Could mermaids cry? Underwater? Her story was really tugging at the heartstrings. I could almost hear violins as she went on, “He told me he loved me.”

I firmed my lips. “So, one jerk of a sailor rejected you, and now you’re taking your grief out on all these innocent men? By sinking their boats? How is that right?”

“They’re all in it together,” she cried, her sweet frown morphing into a mangled grimace. Seriously, if I hadn’t seen all sorts of freakish monsters in my time with the HWB, I might have been terrified. “All men leave. None of them can be trusted,” she said.

So, she’d figured out the truth about life, and love. I nodded my agreement, totally empathizing with her fishy story. One thing was for sure, Moriah was one pissed-off mermaid. “Totally sucks that happened to you, girl, but I won’t allow this to continue.”

She fisted her hands on her curvy green scaly hips again. “And just what do you think you can do to stop me?” She tossed her blond head back, her voice echoing through the water.

Yes, I felt bad for her. But trust her, no. Not even close.

“I can do this,” I said, and aimed Atlantis at the angry mermaid. A bolt of electrical energy snaked out from the three tines. The charge blasted her back against the white sandy bottom. She landed with an audible oomph, totally incapacitated. The blast from my trident fried the remaining threads of monofilament fishing line tangled around her.

I grinned. You’d think a weapon from Poseidon would just move water around, but no, sometimes Atlantis surprised me with these freaky bolts of lightning. Totally cool, it was like the weapon knew what I needed before I did.

I ran across the coral reef, stopping before the mermaid. A rather large flounder startled away from my bare feet, and swam off to safety. I held my crystal fish fork up, ready to lance her about the throat. “I’m taking you in so you can explain yourself to my supervisors.”

The high keening sound of a speedboat’s motor cut through the silence of the clear seawater. I looked up toward the charter boat. Good. My backup is approaching. Once they arrived, we’d haul the fishy bitch up to the surface so the soldiers I work with could take her in. I just hoped they had some reliable way to contain her. All in a good day’s work, though. I practically beamed, thinking of how pleased Shade would with be with my catch of the day.

I’d worked hard to make my way through the ranks to become a Lieutenant Hunter for the organization. Was I a little competitive? Well, yes, but in my line of work, that was an asset. I liked it when my boss was happy with me. It meant more missions, more money, and more advancement. Bagging the mermaid had been way easier than I’d counted on.

“I’m not leaving until they all pay, halfling!” Moriah’s voice boomed through the water, popping my ears like a sonic boom. Oh, shit. I whipped around to the sound of her voice. I’d forgotten lesson number one—never take your eyes off a furious mermaid.

She was fast, I’d give her that. In one fishlike dart, Moriah was on me. She swung her mighty finned tail around, and pounded me in the legs.

She caught me off guard with my preemptory victory dance. The force of her tail fin dislodged Atlantis from my grip. The trident flew from my hands and landed on the bottom twenty feet away. I landed on my back, stunned, the water knocked out of my gills. Sand billowed up all around me, obscuring my vision, and my chest burned like the fires of Hades. Oh, hell no, she did not nail me with that slimy green tail. . . .

Sitting up, I blinked sand out of my eyes. I waved my arms up to clear the cloudy water obscuring my view.

I heard a splash, and looked up. Max had jumped into the water, and was swimming toward the mermaid, fury lighting up his blue-green eyes. His black-striped fur was plastered against his hide. Why the hell was he in the water?

And then I saw the reason. Max had disobeyed my direct order to stay on the boat because he was coming to protect me. He swam toward the lady fish with iron-sharp claws extended.

Moriah ignored Max, and dove for Atlantis.

I shook my head no. She was going to pick it up, and use my own weapon against me. I blanched, then screamed, “No, Moriah! Don’t. Touch. Atlantis!

But my warning came too late.

Max didn’t have time to intervene, though I was impressed that he’d tried. He had this insufferable thing about protecting me, and while I loved him for it, sometimes he tried my patience. I darted up from the sand, caught Mr. Super Kitty in my arms, and sheltered him from the impending explosion.

When the blond green-scaled denizen touched my trident, a surge of blue-white magic blew through the water, and blasted Moriah into a million tiny little fishy bits.

The explosion was remarkable, and the shock wave blew us back through the water. Damn. . . .

It generated a blast that would hammer the shores of the Gulf and the Atlantic with waves all the way up to the coast of Miami. Captain Tom’s boat lurched above us, but stayed afloat. I bit my bottom lip. Oh, boy, my dad was sure to hear about this mishap, and then there’d be hell to pay. Well, at least the surfers on the coast of Florida would see some action today.

I curled my fingers, calling Atlantis home. When my trident bolted toward me, I gripped the staff firmly.

The only issue now was, Moriah’s accidental death meant my vampire handler Shade wouldn’t have anyone to question. He was a furious taskmaster. As founding leader and co-commander of the HWB, Shade made every monster hunt his business. Unlike me, he prided himself on understanding the reasons behind bad supernatural behavior. Sometimes I wondered if he wasn’t a little obsessive-compulsive about conspiracy theories. Crap. He was gonna be mad as hell. He liked to interrogate bad supernaturals, and he hated it when I killed them.

I snagged what was left of the Mayhem Mermaid, one lone green tail fin, and ascended toward the surface with Max in my arms.

A second later, we bobbed our heads above the waves.

Max held on to me tight, gasping for air, his sharp claws caught in the top of my pink bikini. With a furious kick of my long legs, I leapt out of the ocean onto the deck of the sleek black HWB speedboat.

Max

MAX GASPED IN A deep lungful of air when Sam plopped him on the deck of the HWB speedboat. The Hunters’ Watch guys had moored the two boats together, and Captain Tom stared over from the Fish & Get ’Em with sharp eyes, and a confused expression. Sam tossed the mermaid’s green tail down beside him. Max wiggled his nose, and fought to breathe. The damn thing stank to high heaven.

Three supernatural agents stared at them, their mouths agape, making them look like fish out of water. When Max realized they were leering at Sam’s bikini with rapt appreciation, he growled. Sam tapped the deck of the boat three times with the butt end of Atlantis. “Don’t even start, boys,” she warned.

“Somebody get her a towel. Now,” Max demanded. If it had been up to him, she’d be dressed from neck to toes in a black neoprene wetsuit.

The HWB attracted alpha males of every persuasion. Some of them were human, but most of them weren’t. Today, Shade had sent two white-blond Nordic elf twins who stood at least seven feet tall, taller if you measured their jutty pointed ears.

The other soldier looked like a musclebound, almost-naked lifeguard from Baywatch. He even wore tight little red swimming trunks, and he smelled like coconut rum, his tanned skin shiny from suntan oil. Max looked back at Sam. Was she staring at the lifeguard?

“We’re here for the pickup.” One of the elf twins approached Sam, and offered her his full-length purple cloak. She wrapped it around her shoulders. “Where’s the suspect, Silverton? And what the hell was that explosion we heard?”

Sam motioned to the mermaid’s tail fin, then shrugged. “She touched my weapon. That’s all that’s left of her.”

All three of them backed away from her a couple of steps. She grinned. “Gotta respect the trident, right?”

“You killed the suspect?” Nordic Elf Twin Two said, his lips twisting into a grimace. “What are we supposed to tell Shade?”

Max didn’t exactly care for the elf’s condescending tone. “Sam never touched her. The suspect tried to kill her. I saw the whole thing.” Max gestured to the mermaid’s tail fin with an outstretched paw, then coughed up seawater.

The lifeguard leaned down, and pounded Max’s back to help him expel the part of the ocean he’d swallowed. He twisted away from him, and hissed.

Sam knelt beside them. “What’s wrong with you, Max? I told you to stay on the boat.”

He wheezed, and sneezed up seawater, spraying their faces. “She was coming straight for you.” After three more retches, he sat back and looked at her. His fur was itchy, already drying in the hot ocean sun. Sam wrung the seawater out of his usually spectacular tail. “I couldn’t let her get to you,” he said.

“You have no business putting yourself in the line of fire like that. I’m the monster-hunter, you’re the sidekick.” She stroked back his soaking-wet whiskers with her fingertips. “If anything ever happened to you, I’d never forgive myself.”

“Same here,” he said, and started to fire up his purr. The effort threw him into a coughing fit, and Baywatch Boy leaned away from him.

“So your cat interfered with your mission, Silverton?” Elf Twin Number One asked. “Shade will likely be furious. You realize we’ll have to file that in our report.”

Sam stood up to face him. “He did no such thing. Max saw I was compromised, and like any good team member, he attempted to protect me.” She turned and rubbed Max’s chin in a show of thanks, and smiled at him. “You should commend him in your report.”

Max was practically giddy with her attention, with the way she defended him. But who was he kidding? In his cat form, he couldn’t possibly have helped her down there against a creature like Moriah.

What the hell good was a talking cat anyway when supernaturals pulled stunts like that? He narrowed his eyes at the HWB agents, jealous of their human-like form, and angry that he didn’t look like them. “The mermaid was reckless. At least now we don’t have to worry about her sinking any more damn boats. Job well done.”

“Sure, kitty. We’ll let you explain that to the vampire,” Baywatch Boy said.

Max sighed. Regret gripped him. All he could do was admire Sam from afar.

Captain Tom coughed, took two steps back, his eyes pinched tight, and suddenly clutched his chest. Elf Twin Number One hopped over to the charter boat to help him.

Max frowned. It had to be pretty weird for Captain Tom to see all this. He hoped the man wasn’t having a heart attack. “Is he gonna be all right?”

Sam cast Captain Tom a weary glance, and Max followed her gaze. The last thing she needed right now was to try to explain why she and her familiar were having an outright conversation regarding mermaid hunting, or for that matter, the presence of the HWB guys. She stood up and faced the captain.

Captain Tom gestured at the tail on the deck, and his face turned sort of whitish green. “That . . . the, uh . . . was that a mermaid?” He looked like the words tasted odd on his tongue.

Max stood and switched his tail. Sam nodded. Humans weren’t supposed to see things like Moriah, and other monsters the Hunters’ Watch Brigade dealt with, things they protected them from.

“She near ’bout sank my damn boat, girl,” Captain Tom said.

“She’s gone,” Sam said. “Remember our agreement, though. You promised your silence about what you saw out here in trade for that handsome sum of cash we paid you.”

“Damn, girl. No one would ever believe me anyway,” he said, and gestured to Max. “Thanks to you and your talking cat for saving my boat.”

“I’m under strict orders to wipe his memory,” Elf Twin Number One said, holding Captain Tom’s arm, steadying the old salt. He pulled a sparking green amulet on a golden chain out of his tunic. “Look at this for a minute, Captain.”

Max cringed and looked away.

“Oh, hell,” Sam said, and looked away as well. “Not this again.”

Messes like this called for extreme measures, but Max hated it as much as Sam did. They still weren’t sure what a memory wipe did to a human brain, and if Captain Tom suffered any long-term consequences, Sam would blame herself. Humans and supernaturals didn’t mix. It was what it was.

Max sighed, and walked over to her, weaving in and out around her ankles. Sam was a woman without a country, it seemed, unable to mix with humans for obvious reasons, and smart enough to keep most supernaturals at trident’s length.

Still, stopping the boat-sinking mermaid was the least they could do for their fellow man. Sam had been amazing down there. Her mission scorecard was filling up with confirmed kills. So what if Shade didn’t have anyone to interrogate? His loss. If the paranoid bloodsucker wanted to be angry at anyone, he’d gladly take the heat for Sam. That was what sidekicks did.

Max put his paws up on her long legs, drawing her attention, making sure to put claw marks in the elf’s purple robe. “Now the humans here are safe, for the time being. And so are you.” That was all that mattered in his book.

A brilliant green flash of magic from the Elf’s amulet stole Captain Tom’s memories of hunting mermaids off the coast of Key West.

“Great,” Sam said, her tone morose. “Now I have to deal with explaining myself, and what went wrong with our mission, to a seven-foot vampire.”

conversation regarding mermaid hunting, or for that matter, the presence of the HWB guys. She stood up and faced the captain.

Captain Tom gestured at the tail on the deck, and his face turned sort of whitish green. “That . . . the, uh . . . was that a mermaid?” He looked like the words tasted odd on his tongue.

Max stood and switched his tail. Sam nodded. Humans weren’t supposed to see things like Moriah, and other monsters the Hunters’ Watch Brigade dealt with, things they protected them from.

“She near ’bout sank my damn boat, girl,” Captain Tom said.

“She’s gone,” Sam said. “Remember our agreement, though. You promised your silence about what you saw out here in trade for that handsome sum of cash we paid you.”

“Damn, girl. No one would ever believe me anyway,” he said, and gestured to Max. “Thanks to you and your talking cat for saving my boat.”

“I’m under strict orders to wipe his memory,” Elf Twin Number One said, holding Captain Tom’s arm, steadying the old salt. He pulled a sparking green amulet on a golden chain out of his tunic. “Look at this for a minute, Captain.”

Max cringed and looked away.

“Oh, hell,” Sam said, and looked away as well. “Not this again.”

Messes like this called for extreme measures, but Max hated it as much as Sam did. They still weren’t sure what a memory wipe did to a human brain, and if Captain Tom suffered any long-term consequences, Sam would blame herself. Humans and supernaturals didn’t mix. It was what it was.

Max sighed, and walked over to her, weaving in and out around her ankles. Sam was a woman without a country, it seemed, unable to mix with humans for obvious reasons, and smart enough to keep most supernaturals at trident’s length.

Still, stopping the boat-sinking mermaid was the least they could do for their fellow man. Sam had been amazing down there. Her mission scorecard was filling up with confirmed kills. So what if Shade didn’t have anyone to interrogate? His loss. If the paranoid bloodsucker wanted to be angry at anyone, he’d gladly take the heat for Sam. That was what sidekicks did.

Max put his paws up on her long legs, drawing her attention, making sure to put claw marks in the elf’s purple robe. “Now the humans here are safe, for the time being. And so are you.” That was all that mattered in his book.

A brilliant green flash of magic from the Elf’s amulet stole Captain Tom’s memories of hunting mermaids off the coast of Key West.

“Great,” Sam said, her tone morose. “Now I have to deal with explaining myself, and what went wrong with our mission, to a seven-foot vampire.”

 

Paula Millhouse, Hunters' Watch Brigade, Initiation, Paranormal Romance, Urban Fantasy, Demigod, Witches, Wizards, Vampires, Shape shifters, Romance, Fiction
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Chapter 2

Sam

OKAY. FINE. SO WE had a less than spectacular finish to the day.

Max eyed me as we got back onto the Fish & Get ’Em, and Captain Tom turned the charter boat back toward Key West and the marina. The sun was sinking low on the horizon, and off in the distance, a hint of storm clouds was building. The sky was streaked with pinks and oranges above the blue-green waters.

I wish I could have relaxed and enjoyed it, all this natural beauty, but as I shrugged on my white crocheted swimsuit cover over my bikini, all I could do was frown.

Had we failed in the true sense of the word?

The Hunters’ Watch Brigade boys escorted us back to Garrison Bight Marina, cruising along with us in their sleek black powerboat, but keeping their distance across the water.

Yes, I should have been smart enough to bring the mermaid in for Shade to interrogate, but hey, it was what it was. Who would have thought she’d have gone for the trident?

Nobody had accused Moriah of being smart.

She was just someone I was obligated to stop, a girl who’d gotten caught up in a lie with a human, then turned rogue.

I couldn’t blame Max for what he’d done either. Not really. Yes, he’d disobeyed a direct order, but his heart had been in the right place. Man, he’d really gotten his whiskers out of joint when the elves and the lifeguard argued about how we’d screwed up. He always stood up for me, and my decisions. He was the best sidekick any monster-hunter could ever want in their corner.

Who cared what those other guys said about him? I didn’t.

At least they’d taken the mermaid tail back to Shade as evidence of the kill. When I talked to him later, and filled out my official mission report, he’d just have to take my word for what went down out there.

Even though we’d failed by Shade’s standards, the day wasn’t a total loss. I’d stopped the mermaid from sinking any more boats, and protected Captain Tom and his charter-boat buddies from any future harm.

What was Shade’s obsession with questioning rogue supernaturals anyway? Yes, he had the organization to worry about, but still, I didn’t get it. He’d always been like this. I’d just have to tell him the truth. Moriah went nuts because a sailor betrayed her, and in the end, I stopped her. Simple as that. End of story.

Mission accomplished.

Man, love really was a super-complicated thing.

Thank the gods I didn’t have to deal with any of that sort of crap in my life.

I looked over at my cat who watched me with wide, observant eyes as the charter boat cut through the sea on our way back home toward the marina.

Max

MAX EYED SAM AS she covered her bright pink bikini. She slipped her perfect suntanned feet into her green Chaco’s, and he almost lost it. He sighed, turned away, and glanced off into the ocean. She was so goddamned pretty. “You’re mad because I disobeyed your order not to come into the water, right?”

“We’ll discuss that later.” She looked away from him and firmed her lips, staring out the back of the boat, her brilliant blue eyes watching the churning wake of the sea behind them. She was thinking about the mission. He set to work trying to dry his fur. He wondered what it would be like if he was the one giving Sam orders.

The Elf Twins and Baywatch Boy escorted them back to Charter Boat Row, and then disappeared. Max had seriously tried to suppress the urge to scratch the elves’ eyes out when they’d called her down back there. The way they’d ogled Sam’s half-naked body had enraged him, the asshats.

If only he were human, or something close, they’d never have gotten away with their leering.

Max fully intended to file a sexual harassment complaint against the Nordic Elf Brothers with Shade by voice text as soon as he got back on dry land. It drove him insane when other guys looked at her like that.

Sam was a monster-hunter, and one of the finest in the HWB. She shouldn’t have to put up with shit like that. Max should have been more forward, more man-like, but who was he kidding? No one took him seriously in this form. He was just a damn housecat.

He looked out over Garrison Bight Marina as Captain Tom eased the Fish & Get ’Em into his slot on Charter Boat Row.

Sam stood up, and searched the marina. He followed her gaze, searching for their vampire handler, but Shade Vermillion was nowhere to be found.

“Where the hell is he?” she asked.

“Bloodsucker probably couldn’t come out in the sun, even if it was for disciplinary action,” Max said. The HWB agents were right about one thing, though. They’d had too many casualties in their unit. They all knew Shade was adamant about interrogating supernaturals who went rogue. He liked to find out who was pulling strings and financing uprisings. He might well be paranoid about HWB enemies, but he was a company man, and the brigade always came first. “Shade is going to be pissed about losing the chance to question the mermaid.”

Max sneezed, and Sam reached down and stroked his head. She’d covered him with a beach towel earlier so he’d dry out on the trip back to the marina. His fur still itched from all the salt water.

“You okay, my little man? Can cats catch pneumonia?”

“I’m fine,” he said. “And no, diseases like pneumonia don’t affect me. I’m not an ordinary cat, you know.”

He nuzzled her hand, reveling in the touch of her fingers on his body. The salt water had dried his long fur into sharp stiff peaks.

“You look like a punk-rock kitty,” she said, and giggled. “I’m sorry your fur dried like that.”

“You can wash my fur in the shower when we get home,” he replied, perking up with her attention. He adored it when she smiled at him. “I’m glad you’re safe.”

Having her mad at him wasn’t exactly how he’d planned to celebrate his heroic actions. When the mermaid went for her, a compelling urge to protect her drove him into the deep to intervene. Hell, he still wasn’t even sure what he’d intended to do once he got down there, but the impulse was strong, so he’d followed it. He’d pictured her hugging him, stroking his fur with her fingertips, maybe even giving him extra cat treats.

But all he’d done was make her mad and compromised her mission.

Who was he kidding? As long as he stayed trapped in this current form, there wasn’t anything he could really do to help Sam. And God forbid he shift—then he’d never be able to help her. He’d be drafted into the service, and likely reassigned to a different division of the HWB, in addition to facing some ancient family curse even he didn’t quite understand.

Sam stroked underneath his chin with her fingertips. “I’m glad you’re safe too, because I wouldn’t know what I’d do without you. How could I explain losing you to your mother, Max?”

“When I can’t see you, it drives me mad.” He sighed, sad at the hand fate had dealt them. They’d gotten along as thick as thieves together for the past seven years, but when it came down to it, what the hell good was a talking cat to a monster-hunter anyway?

At least he’d helped her study for her credentialing with the HWB. She’d taught him to read when he was a kitten, and he’d helped her ace her written exams. Truth be told, he probably knew more about the inner workings and rules of the Supernatural Police Force than her supervisors did.

He prided himself on the voice texts he sent to Shade Vermillion, pointing out errors in the manual, and suggesting quality-control measures to help the organization. The Hunters’ Watch Brigade would do well to give Samantha Silverton her due.

They’d been best buddies since her mother gave him to her, and the thought of that mermaid hurting Sam drew his claws to sharp, deadly points.

What would his life even look like if they were separated? Not happening. That wasn’t something Max ever wanted to think about.

He’d managed to control his emotions, to avoid the shift, because once he crossed that line, he’d have no choice but to join the HWB. But if he remained in his current form, he’d get to stay with her, right by her side, curled up at her feet, in her bed, every single night.

“What’s wrong, Max?”

“You were too far away from me down there.” Compromised, even in her own element where he shouldn’t have had to worry about her. But who knew what treachery mermaids could resort to? “Monster-hunting gets hairy, you know.”

His unusual instinct to protect her was strong. It drove him crazy when she was out on assignment without him. This bone-deep need to guard her consumed him.

“Geez, Max, come on. It’s what we do. Don’t go getting all possessive on me, okay? I can take care of myself.”

Yeah. Right.

From what he’d seen down there, that creature had been about to beat her to death with her tail. A deep, rumbling growl built up in his throat. If he ever got the chance to meet Poseidon, he’d have to thank him for giving her Atlantis. “Whatever, Sam.”

She ignored him, collected their things, and said goodbye to Captain Tom. “My boss will meet you at the bar tonight to settle the rest of your fee. Thanks for a great day out on the water.”

Max ran up the gangplank behind her, drawing more than a few stares from the Key West tourists because of his new spiky kitty-do. They crossed the parking lot to her Jeep, and he leapt up into the vehicle beside her.

Sam

I COULDN’T HELP BUT smile as Max strutted across the parking lot. He settled himself down in the passenger’s seat and started cleaning his fur. Just before I started my Jeep, my phone rang.

I checked the screen. My mom’s face flashed a smile at me with her given name written across the screen, Wilhelmina Silverton, Helmina for short. I didn’t label her as “Mom” in my contacts list, just in case some psycho monster compromised my phone. All my angst flooded away, and I answered her call. “Hey. How’s the weather on Cape Cod?”

“Gorgeous. How’s my girl? Any luck with the mermaid?”

I reached over and rubbed Max’s head. “Well, yes and no. She’s not going to be sinking any more boats.”

“So you turned her over to the HWB. What was her story, anyway?”

“Some man did her wrong. Imagine that. And we didn’t exactly get a chance to turn her in.” I sighed. “All that was left of her was a tail fin. Atlantis blasted her to kingdom come when she tried to use it against me.”

“Wait! How did she get hold of your trident? Never mind. I don’t want to know the details. I worry about you when you’re out on these assignments.”

“I’m totally fine, Mom, but I almost lost Max today. I don’t know what’s wrong with him. He’s acting all weird.”

“Weird how?” Curiosity filled her voice.

“Overprotective. He jumped right in the water to save me.”

“You know as well as I do that familiars protect their people. Why would you take him out on the water with you?”

“I always take him along on assignment.”

“Out on the ocean?” Her voice raised an octave. Mom’s question had me questioning my own sanity.

I looked over at Max. He had his back leg raised, cleaning sand out of his private parts. I swore he grinned at me. “It’s not like he’d take no for an answer, anyway. Maybe it’s time I take him to the vet to get fixed?”

Max growled, low and disapproving. “I don’t think so.”

“Maybe he’s getting ready to shift? Did you think about that?” Mom’s voice sent my imagination into overdrive.

Honestly, I had. We’d always known Max had the potential to shift to another form, but other than speaking, he’d never displayed the characteristic behaviors of shifters. “All of Miss Daisy’s kittens, the ones who’ve shifted, were younger than Max at the time, right?”

Mom and Miss Daisy had been supplying cat shifters to the Hunters’ Watch Brigade for years now, ever since I was a little kid. It was her way of giving back to the organization for all the good they’d done in our lives.

“Yeah, they were younger than him. And Shade was always glad to have them join the brigade,” Mom said. “It was the least we could do for Shade, after he took you under his wing at such an early age. I figured that when Max didn’t shift, our spell had obviously failed.”

“Well, there’s the talking thing, so part of the spell worked.”

“And he reads, so there’s that. Look, Max is your best friend. If he shifts, he’ll be drafted into the organization, and then there’s that nasty business about the curse. Maybe he prefers to stay with you, hon.” Mom sighed. “It’s not an exact science yet, you know.”

I adjusted myself in my seat, and rolled down the Jeep window. A cool sea breeze floated into the vehicle. “He never really talks about it. He gets plenty of monster-hunting action by my side. Hell, Shade should deputize him anyway.” Sure, we’d kinda mucked up the mermaid hunt this morning, but two weeks before, we’d dealt with a fairy uprising at the Jameson factories in Dublin, Ireland. Without his quick thinking, there would have been a disaster. “Max is an awesome sidekick.”

I turned my attention back to Mom. “How’s P-Town?” I’d grown up on the tip of Cape Cod in a farmhouse my mother owned in Provincetown, Massachusetts. She still had our house which sat right on the beach. I suddenly longed to be back home.

“Fall is upon us, and the landscape is blazing with color. Your sister and I miss you.”

I winced. “You know she doesn’t approve of me.”

“That’s not true. Cyn loves you.” Cynthia was five years older than me. Mom had adopted Cyn while she was pregnant with me. She had been orphaned by a witch in Mom’s coven, and Mom wanted me to have a sister. I guess she knew then that she’d never love anyone other than my father, so she adopted my older sister. To say Cyn and I had issues was the understatement of the century.

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, right, Mom. Cyn would love it if I fit into her neat little definition of what it means to be part of our family.”

“You are a part of this family, and don’t you ever forget it.”

Ever since Cyn had found out about my father’s identity, she’d resented me. And she’d made it her mission to make my life a living hell. “When you signed me up for the HWB, she went bat-shit crazy. She has a very narrow description of how to be a good witch.”

“Just because the two of you are different, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you, Sam.”

Different? Yeah. We were different all right. Cyn was a witch. I was a demigod. Trying to convince my mother the reasons why we didn’t get along was an exercise in futility.

I sighed. “Well, we’re finished with this assignment. I still have to talk to Shade about what went down with the mermaid, but maybe I can come home for Halloween, if you promise me it won’t start World War III.”

She laughed. “I’ll make sure Cyn is on her best behavior.  Everyone’s asking if you’ll be coming home for the festival of Samhain.”

Most people celebrate Halloween. My family, however, favored the more pagan holiday of Samhain, which started every year at midnight on October 31. You got that when you belonged to a group of practicing witches.

“They want information, too, like have you met anyone down there?” Her probing voice was full of mischief.

“Oh, good grief,” I said. Here we go.

“Dating one of those fine handsome colleagues you always go on and on about?”

“You know supernaturals don’t mix.” What I meant to say was that all men leave, no matter their origin. I gripped the Jeep’s steering wheel, wanting to talk about anything but this.

I’d go to the grave before I told my mother about the last handsome hunter I’d dated. What an asshole—married and lying about it. I’d never have gone out with him if he’d been wearing a ring. That was false advertising as far as I was concerned, the rat bastard. Max had been the one who discovered he had a wife, and I immediately broke it off. “Nope. Just hanging out.”

I reached over and stroked Max’s head. He fired up his purr and nuzzled my hand with his cold pink nose. He’d always been my eyes and my ears, exposing the world for what it really was.

“I want you to find a partner someday. Settle down. Think about babies,” Mom said. “You’re going to make someone a wonderful mother one day, and if you get started sooner rather than later, maybe I’ll get to play grandmother. I don’t like you being alone all the time.”

Good Lord. “I have the cat for company. He travels well. I’m totally good for now.”

“Just because things are a little weird between me and your father, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t find someone. When I signed you up for the Hunters’ Watch Brigade, I didn’t mean for you never to have a life. Because you’re Poseidon’s daughter, I did it to protect you, not to stop you from ever finding your one true love.”

Yeah, like I’d sit around wasting my life by pining away over an unreliable man, the way she had. If I’d learned anything about relationships from my parents, it was just that—I’d never be like them.

“I have a life, Mom.” I’d worked for the HWB since I turned sixteen, and I’d trained with their agents for four additional years before they commissioned me. I was set. Monster-hunting was my thing. No one needed to worry about me. I didn’t need to add in the part where I loved my job.

“Well, how about taking some time out of your exciting life to come home and help me out this year? I’m in charge of the Central Park Samhain Festival again this year, and I could really use some extra hands. It’s only three days away.”

A shiver of dread snuck up my spine. Going home for the festival would be cool, but I didn’t exactly love the idea of enduring all the family tension. “How many covens do you expect this year?”

“With Samhain falling on the full blue moon, we’re expecting nearly two hundred.” The magic of a second full moon in one month was significant. Blue moons didn’t come around that often, especially ones that coincided with Samhain.

Two hundred covens. Each coven could have as many as twenty witches in attendance. “Whoa, that’s a lot of witchcraft in New York City.”

“I know, and the logistics are a nightmare. Your sister’s agreed to help, but there’s been a little issue with funds this year. I was hoping to chat with you about that.”

I adjusted myself in the seat again. My mother never spoke to me about money problems, so this was weird. Gray clouds from the storm out on the water rolled in across the Gulf. Lightning flashed across the sky with a jagged white-hot bolt, and thunder followed, rolling through the atmosphere with fury. “An issue with funds? What’s wrong, Mom?”

She hesitated. “Nothing’s wrong.” Her pause made me sit up, ramrod straight.

Another snare of lightning snaked through the sky. I needed to drive back up the highway to Shark Key before the deluge started, but I didn’t want to cut our call short. “Don’t lie. You can tell me anything.”

“There’s hardly anything to tell . . .”

She was stalling, and I didn’t like it. I tapped my index finger against the steering wheel. “Someone in trouble?”

Finally she sighed. “More like someone’s causing trouble.”

Now we were getting somewhere. I narrowed my eyes. “Who’s causing trouble?”

“I received an anonymous report that Francesca Rosencratz has abducted a witch’s familiar and is holding him for ransom.”

“She did what . . . ?”

To say that Francesca Rosencratz and Wilhelmina Silverton had history together would be the understatement of the century.

When they were younger, Mom and her best friend from high school, Francesca Rosencratz, had both fallen in love with the same guy. The guy chose Mom, and Rosencratz went psycho. Sure, it seemed a little over the top for two girls who were supposedly BFFs, but hey, the heart wants what it wants, right? “She’s dangerous, Mom. I don’t like this.”

“Francesca had delusions of grandeur even back then.”

“You told me she wanted to be a goddess.”

“She coveted power, and she got this crazy notion that if she used dark witchcraft to spell Poseidon, it would lure him to her. She thought she’d live happily ever after in the luxury of a Greek god’s temple.”

“But you stopped her, right? Because your magic is stronger than hers.”

“It infuriated me, Sam. When her spell actually worked, and he came to her, I felt bad for him. I broke her spell with a counterspell. She’s never forgiven me for messing up her plan.”

When Dad found out how Mom had stopped Rosencratz from trapping him, he fell in love with her instead.

“Or for stealing her guy. Even more reason for you to stay the hell away from her. Does my father know about this new development?”

“I haven’t spoken to him about it. I’m going to New York to find out if the accusations against Francesca are true.”

“Wait. No. Don’t you go anywhere near her, Mom.” My belly rolled like a fast-moving riptide current at sea. More lightning snaked across the darkening sky.

Max hissed, reflecting my mood. If that witch reared her ugly head, my mother could be in serious trouble. “I mean it, Mom. Stay away from her.”

“I will. I will. I’m just going to see if I can recover the familiar, to see if there’s any merit to the accusation.”

“Why does it have to be you?”

“The money earmarked for the Samhain celebration has been diverted to pay the ransom for the witch’s familiar. I’m responsible for oversight of the coven’s finances. I have to go.”

“Have you notified Shade? This isn’t something I’m comfortable with you doing, do you hear me?”

“Just get here soon so I can hug you tight. And bring Max with you. Miss Daisy has been asking about him,” she said.

Miss Daisy was my mother’s calico cat, her familiar, and Max’s mom. One good reason for us to go home for a visit was so that Max could visit with Miss Daisy. They loved each other something fierce, and it was hard on him to spend so much time away from her.

Miss Daisy had been my mother’s familiar for some thirty-odd years now, but because of Miss Daisy’s magic, she was still spry as a kitten.

I tried to be sensible about the situation. A lecture from me, two thousand miles away, wouldn’t help either of us. “Okay. I’ll tell Shade I have to come home to help you with the festival. I’ll leave tomorrow, and I’ll drive so I can bring the cat.”

“I’m so excited, Sam. We’ll spend our days walking along the beach, collecting shells at low tide in the bay, and watching for waterspouts. I’ll arrange a big bonfire on the beach.”

“Can we do oysters and beer?” I closed my eyes and mentally hugged the phone. I missed my mom so much sometimes, it hurt. Working for the Hunters’ Watch had kept us away from each other for far too long. The thought of her having to deal with a crazy ex-coven member made me swallow hard against a lump forming in my throat. Families could be complicated, and mine was a prizewinner when it came to complications.

“We’ll do all your favorites, I promise,” she said. “And the event on the Great Lawn in Central Park will be amazing because you’ll be with us. I can’t wait.”

“I love you,” I said, my throat aching with thick emotion. “Please be careful.”

“Don’t go getting all sappy on me now. I’ve flown my proverbial broom around the block a time or two, you know. But, Sam . . . ?” Static crackled through the air with the approaching storm. Her voice cut in and out, and I yearned to hear it clearly.

“Yeah? Mom?”

“I love you too, Sam. Get home as soon as you can.” With another bolt of lightning, the call failed, and I lost her.

“Damn.” I loved Mom so damn much. If Francesca Rosencratz came anywhere near her, I’d gladly spear her through the heart with Atlantis.

No doubts. No hesitation. No reservations.

Rosencratz was nothing but trouble.

 

 

 

Chapter 3

Sam

“HOW ABOUT WE GO snuggle on the couch in front of a fire while I check my email?” I asked, after we’d showered and eaten.

The house Shade had rented for us on Shark Key belonged to a billionaire, and we were right in the lap of luxury on this mission. It had an outdoor Jacuzzi and in-ground pool complete with a waterfall. Colorful hibiscus and bird-of-paradise bushes grew everywhere. A small Boston Whaler skiff we’d used to track down intel on the mermaid’s shenanigans. It was gonna be hard to leave this island paradise behind.

“Seriously ready for a nap,” Max replied, yawning. “Rough day, to say the least.”

With our bellies full of the fresh tuna steaks I’d bought on the way home, we retired to the living room where I lit a fire in the mansion’s rarely used contemporary slate and marble fireplace.

I poured myself a shot of Jameson Irish Whiskey over ice, and sipped on the mellow cocktail. I found a cozy blanket, and we curled up together on the couch.

I checked my email while Max stretched out his big warm body against my thigh and dozed. When I absentmindedly stroked his fur, he turned on his back so I could rub his tummy. He purred louder when I touched him, and the comforting sound settled my frazzled nerves.

God, I loved him so much, my cuddly little best friend. Everyone should have a cat like Max. A snuggle bug who loved me despite all my faults. Too bad I couldn’t date my cat.

The wind, however, howled outside. Thunder boomed after each bolt of lightning, and I wondered where the storm had come from. “Man. It’s really grumbling out there. Key West never gets much rain, so I guess a storm would be good for them.”

“Maybe your father found out about the mermaid trying to kill you,” Max murmured. “Maybe he’s causing all the thunderboomers tonight?”

“Yeah. Maybe so?” I mused. “Dad’s never been fond of mermaids.” How was I going to explain all this to Shade? He’d just have to understand. The mermaid went crazy because her lover betrayed her. Simple as that.

But the most important thing I wanted to address with the head of the Hunters’ Watch Brigade was getting a security detail on my mother. The thought that Francesca Rosencratz had reared her head to fuck with my mom after all this time sent ice water through my veins.

If she was a threat to my mother, I wanted her neutralized.

Max stopped purring. He coiled his muscles tight, and leapt down from the couch. He stalked over to the door. “That damn mouse out in the garage is driving me insane, Sam.”

“I could put out a trap,” I offered. “We could stuff it with Vermont cheddar, and when we catch him, you could stuff a cherry in his mouth.”

“No need. I fancy catching this one myself. He’s gotten fat over the summer, and he’ll make a nice meal.”

I wrinkled up my nose in distaste, recalling the few times Max had brought me a mouse as a gift. I’d never found the guts to tell him how much I hated rodents. He’d been so proud of himself, and it had been sort of cute. It had been like he’d been showing me his spoils of war—like he thought I needed to learn how to stalk vermin to be a better monster-hunter. Hell, who knew? Maybe he thought he was helping me hone my hunting skills.

At least he hadn’t asked me to mount their little heads on plaques for his trophy wall back home.

I turned back to my Jameson on ice, took a swig, and looked at my laptop to see if there was anything of importance in my inbox.

Viagra spam. Delete. VRBO spam. Delete. The Fitness Guru newsletter. I saved that one for later. More Viagra spam. Delete. A letter from Zanzibar saying my distant relative in Africa left me twenty-million dollars—reply here to collect. Delete. I sighed.

While I scrolled down through endless useless emails, I made a mental note to go back in and unsubscribe from tons of sites who did nothing more than clutter my mind with useless chatter.

The crackling fire in the hearth warmed the big room, and the Jameson made my tight neck muscles begin to relax. The only problem with relaxing was that I associated it with boredom. Occupational hazard, I supposed. Monster-hunters didn’t like downtime. I sighed again. “Nothing from Shade. How weird.” Where is he?

It wasn’t like I wanted another assignment from the Hunters’ Watch Brigade so soon after the mermaid incident, but if I was honest with myself, working with Shade kept life interesting.

“Disappointed?” Max asked.

I closed the laptop and watched him wash his mouth with one white-socked paw. He took extra care to get his whiskers clean, one of his finest features. He peered up at me with steady blue-green eyes.

“Sort of,” I replied.

“I know how you look forward to his emails.”

Something in his tone spoke of jealousy. I pursed my lips. “It’s not like that, Max.”

“You have a thing for him. No sense denying it, sweetheart.”

I narrowed my brows. The way he emphasized the word sweetheart gave me pause. Another weird interaction with Max. Was that jealousy? Over Shade? Dear God, was he going through some weird cat puberty or something?

“What I have is a thing for is adventure, and yes, he’s the gatekeeper to those adventures. So, who knows? It’s complicated.”

“Would you marry him if he asked?” Indignation had crept into Max’s voice.

What the hell? I narrowed my eyes at him. “Me? Marry a vampire?” I shook my head, the thought curling a shiver over my shoulder blades. “Not in a thousand years. Supernaturals don’t make good bedfellows, Max. Besides, girls like me aren’t exactly the marrying type.”

He bounded over to me and wrapped his body around my ankles, purring. “Don’t say that. One day, someone will come along and sweep you off—”

“Whoa, Max.” I lifted my hands up in mock defense. “I’ve got responsibilities that don’t include picket fences, you know.” It was true. Chasing monsters didn’t exactly make for settling down and getting cuddly with a family.

Was I lonely for a man’s touch? Sure. But the risk of getting involved in an intimate relationship with anyone who could accept me was more than I could wish for at this point in my life. Besides, I didn’t exactly have a line of suitors crowding my doorstep to convince me otherwise. “Have you been conspiring with my mother, Max?”

He tossed his tail high up in the air. Had they been talking? About me? The thought raised my hackles. I needed to check my phone and go through all his voice texts.

“Besides, all the men I’ve met in the Hunters’ Watch Brigade are hunky, to-die-for handsome, sure, but they’re largely over-stimulated testosterone-ladened creatures of the night. Definitely not my type.”

“You’re an amazing woman.” He purred against my calves, and leapt up, placing his front paws on my knees. Tiny pinpoints of claw tips pierced my skin, but he didn’t hurt me. Max’s green eyes focused on mine. “You gotta believe one day the love of your life will find you. Your mother’s right. Everyone’s destined for love in some shape or form. You just have to open your heart to it.”

I pulled back from him. Wisdom from a cat? Good Lord, had they been talking? Had he learned to operate my cellphone while I wasn’t looking? Were they texting each other?

I needed to check my social media accounts for cat selfies.

The lights flickered once, and I lost my Internet connection. While I waited for the network to reload, Max ambled back over to the front door. His ears rotated back and forth, as if he was listening for something outside.

“Is it that mouse again?” I asked.

He looked back up at me over his furry shoulder. “I need to go out.”

“Too bad you never learned how to open doors.”

He lifted a paw. “No opposable thumbs.”

I grinned. “Are you sure you want to go outside? The storm is bound to start any minute. You’ll get drenched.”

“I’ll be quick.”

I opened the door and let him go outside to answer nature’s call, then sat back on the couch to check the weather radar. Somewhere amongst the booming thunder, I caught the unmistakable sound of Harley Davidson pipes roaring down the street.

My belly flipped.

Shade.

I bolted up, my pulse hammering hard, and eyed the door. No wonder he hadn’t sent me an email. My vampire handler had decided to pay me a visit in person.

 

 

 

Chapter 4

Sam

A KNOCK SOUNDED ON the door, and I jumped. Yes, vampires knocked. He would never enter my house without my permission, even if the organization was paying my rent. I heaved in a deep breath, and dashed for the door.

Shade Vermillion had a rep as a bad-boy lover who seduced as many women as he saw fit, particularly when it benefited the HWB. I sure as hell had no intentions of ever being one of his one-night stands, but still, I reached for the mansion’s doorknob with a shaky hand. The vampire had a way about him that got the girly juices flowing, and that made me uncomfortable. Not that getting all hot and bothered was a bad thing. It’s just that I had a feeling a romp in the sheets with Shade would consist of handcuffs, whips, and a lot of safe words.

Was I being ridiculous? Shade wasn’t the only person who rode a Harley, was he?

Sure, there’d been a time or two, when I’d been a hormone-raging teenager in the HWB ranks, that I’d considered it—me and him, together. He’d been turned when he was twenty-five years old—more than two hundred years ago, and goddamn, the man’s body was a work of art frozen in his prime.

But Shade was more of an older brother figure to me. He’d given me a place where I ultimately fit in. Being a halfling daughter to Poseidon and my human mother meant I had skills other kids my age on Earth didn’t have. Take the trident for example. It was always there, a magical reminder that I was different.

Ever since my mom had introduced us, the man had enthralled me. I guess Max was right to be jealous on some counts, but hell, Shade was a vampire. They did that to everyone, right?

“Who is it?” I asked in my most carefree voice. I forced my hand not to tremble as I reached for the doorknob. I wasn’t absolutely sure he could read minds or any of that pop-sugar nonsense going around about vamps, but I had tools too. I’d laid out charms around the property the week before we moved in to keep prying eyes and ears at a distance. It had been a little bit of witchcraft Mom had taught me when I was a girl. Hopefully, everything was intact.

“You need to teach your little guardian some damn manners, Samantha. Open up the door before I deal with him myself.” Shade’s voice boomed low and deep, like the thunder from the storm.

I ripped opened the door to one of the sexiest men on planet Earth. Then my mouth fell open.

The hulking seven-foot vampire stood on my doorstep dressed in black leathers, with chains clinking when he moved. He held a writhing, hissing Max up by the scruff of his neck.

Horrified, I reached for Max and took him from Shade’s massive hand.

“Guardian? He’s my familiar, Shade. Don’t be so damned mean to Max.” I cuddled my cat close, searching for injuries, but found none. Just a growling, pissed off, puffed-up feline.

My familiar’s tail was three times its normal size, and burred out like a bottlebrush. The source of Shade’s agitation was a line of five deep and bloody gashes down the right side of his face. I grimaced.

“Max! Are you all right?” The cat rearranged himself in my arms, faced Shade, and growled, high and loud. He laid his tufted ears back against his head, hissed at Shade, and whipped his tail back and forth. “Easy now,” I warned. The last thing I needed was these two engaging in a fight. “We have to talk to Shade.”

The vampire pointed his finger at Max, and in his deep booming voice, he snarled, “As a professional courtesy to Samantha, I won’t drain you tonight, Guardian. But next time you greet me like that, all bets are off. Consider yourself warned, Kitty Boy.”

Max hissed back at him, and wound his muscles tight to spring. A growl keened low and deep from his throat. I turned him away from Shade and put some distance between the males. The testosterone in the room was palpable, and honestly, it made me nervous. “What is wrong with you, Max?”

“He was skulking around outside, watching you like a pervert. I won’t tolerate intruders. Especially not him,” Max spat, then snarled again.

“As long as we work for the HWB, Shade is welcome wherever we go. Settle down.”

“I found him back by your bedroom window. Probably watched you get dressed. It’s indecent. He deserved the scratch.” Max’s remark was matter-of-fact. I turned and glared at Shade.

Max had never lied to me. He was my eyes and ears, and I trusted him. He’d always warned me of unexpected trouble, and his keen sense of hearing had protected us more than once. Still, I couldn’t see Shade as a Peeping Tom.

“Don’t overreact. He’s obviously here to follow up on the mermaid, or he would have sent an email. Now, behave. The last thing I need is for him to turn you into some horrible vampire cat because of your weird-assed attitude.”

“Kitty Boy having a bad day?” Shade’s snide remark wasn’t helping the situation.

Max continued growling.

“I’ll put you out in the garage, mister.”

He reared back, and stared me in the eye. “So you can be alone with him? Don’t do it. I’d hate to have to tear that door down. Trust me. You won’t like what you see if you do that.”

“Then chill the hell out. Or else.”

Indignant, he leapt from my arms and raced across the room to crouch under the living-room table. I threw my hands up in exasperation, and turned to face Shade. He still hovered at the threshold, waiting for an invitation. I waved him in. “Come inside, Shade, and steer clear of Max, would you? He’s got a hairball or something . . .”

Shade walked in and shut the door behind him. “Thanks for asking me in.” He plopped down on the couch, patted the seat next to him, then stretched his arm across the backrest. “Got an update for me on the mermaid incident, Samantha?” He always used my formal name. It kept us at a professional distance, and I liked it that way.

When I earned my credentials as a lieutenant in the Hunters’ Watch Brigade, Shade had hung my medals on my vest himself. I was one of his best recruits, and one of his most accomplished investments. Letting him down by losing the mermaid wasn’t exactly my idea of a fun Friday night.

I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the gashes Max had carved into Shade’s jaw. They were already knitting together like an invisible sewing machine was going to town on his face. It was so damn cool. His superfast vampy metabolism wouldn’t allow a scar to form, and I looked under the coffee table at my cat, raising a brow. His claws must be made of something as hard as diamonds for him to have cut into a vampire’s skin. When had that happened? What else was I gonna have to explain?

I faced Shade. “Sure. I was just settling in to type up my official report.” I gestured toward my laptop.

“Great. Got any evidence I can turn in to the brigade? The boys I sent to meet you at the pickup showed up with a mermaid tail. They’re concerned your sidekick there has gone feral. They threatened to go over my head to the division commanders.”

There was no use in skirting the issue. I had to come clean. If I didn’t, Shade would know. He could smell a lie before it got out of an opponent’s mouth. He was also a furious taskmaster. The vampire equivalent of a sexy, to-die-for drill sergeant, Shade Vermillion made sure anyone who got out of line paid, sometimes with their blood. I’d never cross him.

I’d seen that sort of thing go bad fast for others in the service who’d tried to hide something from him. Besides, I’d always been honest with him out of sheer respect.

What we did together in the Hunters’ Watch Brigade was important. Humans depended on us. I couldn’t withhold details, even if I wanted to protect Max from the mistake he’d made with Moriah.

I tugged in a deep breath and gestured to the couch. “Sit down. We need to talk about my mother, among other things. Shall I pour you a shot of Jameson?”

Paula Millhouse, Hunters' Watch Brigade, Initiation, Paranormal Romance, Urban Fantasy, Demigod, Witches, Wizards, Vampires, Shape shifters, Romance, Fiction
Buy your copy today —>  http://amzn.to/2EtnEPf

Shade

WHILE SAMANTHA POURED HIM a shot of Irish whiskey, Shade stared at the cat under the living-room table, and wondered what was holding him back. He’d done everything he could think of to encourage him to get angry enough to shift. Maybe he’d have to push things to the edge to make him react.

Really mess with his head.

He’d gotten bad news an hour ago. Samantha was in jeopardy, and he’d authorized the HWB to mobilize to help him solve what looked like an ages-old issue with her family. Worse, he had it on good authority that the witch Rosencratz was in league with one of his oldest enemies, and they were working together to take down one of the shifter’s divisions of the brigade.

He’d worked closely with both Sam’s and Max’s mother for years now. They kept expecting Max to shift, but the possessive furball wasn’t playing the game the way Shade needed him to.

Who knew? Maybe Max was scared, a real pussycat. But Shade was here to change all that.

Some sinister shit was about to go down. Halloween was just a few days away. She didn’t know it yet, but Samantha, Max, her entire family, and the Hunters’ Watch Brigade were about to be involved in a paranormal shit show, and he needed Kitty Boy to shift to his true guardian form to watch out for Samantha. For the time being, that was.

That way Shade could attend to another HWB issue.

A threat loomed on the horizon. The vampire who’d turned him two hundred years ago was financing a paranormal uprising in the witch community, and somehow Kristoff West had gotten his manipulative fangs into Samantha’s worst nightmare: Francesca Rosencratz.

Max

THE GUARDIAN IN MAX wanted his freedom.

He was destined for something bigger. He knew that. And now that Sam was entertaining the bloodsucker right here, in their home, Max’s true nature clawed for release. It was a burning instinctual thing, and trying to keep it at bay was killing him. Shade’s presence only made it worse, and even Max’s whiskers felt odd, like they were twitching off his face.

He growled again, a low, guttural wail, a sound of warning, but Sam wasn’t listening. It infuriated him the way she paid attention to the vampire.

He’d barely been able to contain his emotions, to control the urge to shift when the mermaid threatened her life. Now it was an overwhelming fire burning in his veins. His mother had told him his first shift would not be easy, but he didn’t care if he suffered. As long as he protected Sam.

“Moriah’s gone,” Sam said, and handed Shade a glass of liquor.

Did the bastard even realize that last month in Ireland, he and Sam had taken on an entire rabid flock of fairies to save the distillery? He doubted it. The pig.

The vampire nodded, then insisted they clink their glasses. Max flicked his tail, and let out another warning. Sam looked over to him, but then she turned back to face the fanged bully, to talk with him, to explain herself.

She engaged him in easy conversation, and even smiled at the undead abomination. Max sneered. Couldn’t she smell how repulsive the undead creature was? Max covered his nose with his tail to block the stench.

“You killed her?” Shade asked, expectantly. “The mermaid wasn’t brought in, so naturally I guessed after the explosion was reported, you had to fall back on your best judgment.”

Sam set her glass down. “Things took an unexpected turn. She got the jump on me. She went for my trident, but Atlantis doesn’t tolerate anyone else touching it.”

Max raised his shoulder blades, and every hair on his coat stood on end. Was she going to lie to him?

Shade shook his head. “Your job was to escort her back to me so we could interrogate her. We’ve talked about this, Samantha. We need intel on the monsters we neutralize, not just grave markers.”

“Trust me, she wasn’t part of some master plan to destroy the HWB. She wanted revenge on a sailor who dumped her. And then, there was a distraction.” Sam looked away from the vamp. Her gaze met Max’s eyes. No wonder she’d been so angry with him.

She hadn’t been furious that he’d interfered, or that he’d tried to distract Moriah from killing her. She was angry because she had to explain herself to the vampire. That she had to protect him from Shade.

“What happened?” Shade asked, draining the whiskey from his glass, then turning and staring at Max. “The light elves and the lifeguard said you had a problem with your assignment.”

“I know you had eyes on the charter boat, Shade. Are you baiting me, hoping I’ll lie to you?” Sam’s heartbeat sped up, and Max keyed in on the subtle acceleration of the pitter-patter beat, just as the vampire did. He was trying to catch her in something Sam would never do.

Sam was loyal beyond a fault to the HWB. How dare Shade try to color her intentions? God, he regretted not listening to her now. He squeezed his eyes shut and shuddered. Suddenly he understood what a difficult place he’d put her in, and remorse clouded his frayed emotions.

Shade swallowed hard, set his empty glass aside, and opened his hands to Sam. “The last thing we saw was your little furry sidekick interfere with your duties. Tell me exactly what happened. The commanders are demanding a full report.”

Max bolted out from underneath the table. “She was compromised,” he hissed, his tail poofing out like a damn feather duster. “I didn’t interfere. I saved her from that sea monster. More than I can say for you or any of those interlopers you sent to check on her.”

Shade crossed his arms, pointing at Max. But he addressed Sam. “So, their report was accurate. Kitty Boy did interfere with your assignment.”

Max rushed to Sam’s side, but he glared at Shade. “It’s true, vamp, and I’d do it again. In a heartbeat,” he growled. “Service document 789.2 of the HWB field manual states, if any supernatural is in harm’s way, every aid will come to them unobstructed afterward. I was well within my right to lend her aid. Where the hell were you when one of your best hunters was compromised?”

“Yeah, I got your latest text.” The vampire pulled back and glared at him.

“That’s right,” Max said. “Did you even read the damn manual?”

Sam gestured to him with an outstretched hand. “You’ve been texting him? From my phone?” she asked, her expression incredulous.

“What’s his problem?” Shade asked, shifting forward on the couch. “Has the furball shifted?”

Sam glanced down at him. “No, no, nothing like that. Max has become a little sensitive. Overprotective, maybe. I have no clue what’s going on, but I plan to schedule an appointment with the veterinarian.”

A smile twitched at the corner of Shade’s lips. Max caught it. Did he know? About the potential for him to shift into his true guardian form?

“Look. I know Max has been with you since you joined the HWB. If he’s ready to shift, I can help him. You know the drill. Hell, he knows more about what we do than some of our best hunters.”

“We don’t need your help. This is personal. It’s none of your concern,” Sam said. She paced the room, nervous, her movements jerky. Max stood his ground between her and Shade. Maybe she didn’t want him to shift.

“Oh, this is definitely my concern.” Shade got up, the chains on his leathers clinking. Max lowered his ears, crouched low, and snaked his tail around like a whip in a rhythmic motion.

“He’s one of Miss Daisy’s bastard offspring.”

“What would you know about it, Shade?” Sam said, her voice angry, and tense.

“I know plenty. Max is not the first shifter I’ve encountered. He was born in a witch’s house, right?”

With every word the vamp uttered, Max’s fury grew. He held it back, though. Shade could insult his parentage as much as he wanted, as long as he didn’t threaten Sam. With coiled muscles, and diamond-sharp claws halfway extended, he waited as Sam had asked him to.

Shade threw a hand in the air, gesturing at him. “He was probably even born the night of some damn full moon, right, Samantha? He’s what, about seven in human years? So that makes him about twenty-eight years old now, if he makes the move to the shift?”

Sam whipped around and glared at Shade, surprise glowing behind her blue eyes. “How’d you know that?”

Shade shrugged. “The virtue of immortality is you get to see a lot of strange shit along the way, baby. Let’s see if your little guardian can put some muscle where his whiny little growls are coming from.”

The bastard took a step toward Sam, and Max hissed, then wheeled around, ready to counter the vamp’s eerily fast moves. “Forgive me, Samantha. This is the only way I think I can force this situation out in the open,” Shade said.

Sam backed away from him, confusion clouding her eyes, but the vampire was on her in a blurred flash of motion.

Sam’s shriek blasted through Max, jolting his soul into guardian mode.

One second the vampire was all over Sam, wrapping her tight in his arms and stealing a full-mouthed kiss, and the next second, every fiber in Max’s body and mind willed the shift Miss Daisy had foretold.

Damn the consequences.

The transformation overtook him, and Max let it happen. His fur glimmered with fiery magic, and he twisted, and burned. He called on the power of his Egyptian ancestors, Ra, Isis, and Bast. Their magic crashed through his veins like a tsunami, and Max commanded the shift into his true guardian’s form.

 


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