“When I came up and that bastard was over your throat…”

Not a moment she really wanted to relive.

“I didn’t think I’d get to you in time.”

But this was a moment that called for honesty. “Neither did I.” And her last thought had been of him.

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Her Jude.

Her tiger. With eyes that burned so very bright.

She touched his face. “You saved my life.”

“Only fair, considering you’d already done the same for me.”

And she’d do it again, any day. Because—because—

Antonio cleared his throat. Hard.

—because she was in love with her badass, wild tiger shifter.

In love. Absolutely, freaking, crazy, I’d-kill-to-protect him—and had— in love. For the first time in her life. Pity that it had taken almost dying to make her realize that fact.

But, better late than never.

Chapter 21

“I’m sorry, Ms. Jerome, but your mother isn’t here.”

Erin’s eyes widened as she stared at the emergency room desk clerk, sure the woman was wrong. She had to be wrong.

“But she was brought in on an ambulance not even an hour ago.”

The clerk, a short, balding man with a round face, flushed. “Ah, yes, um, I remember that.”

This wasn’t going to be a good story.

“When the doors opened, the EMTs were there, but the patient—ah, she’d…already exited the vehicle.”

Erin blinked. “Run that by me again.”

His face a deeper red now, he said, “The EMTs said she jumped out when they slowed for a blocked intersection. She shoved right past them and managed to kick open the doors.”

A smile lifted her lips. “Really?”

Sweat beaded his brow. “I assure you, this isn’t normal routine, and the EMTs did everything they could to restrain her.”

Her smile widened. “I guess she didn’t feel like being restrained.” If her mother was back in fighting and fleeing form, then she’d be all right.

And Erin knew she’d be seeing her again soon.

Thank you, Theresa.

Their life was far, far from perfect, but a mother who was willing to risk her life in order to get back into her daughter’s good graces, well, that was a woman who deserved a second chance.

Erin would give her one.

Her nails tapped against the counter. “And what about Dee Daniels? How is she?”

Seriously, no human should be that shade of red. “Dee.” He said the name like it was a curse. Based on that telling response, Erin figured the guy had probably seen Dee in the ER a few times. With the way Dee fought, that sure made sense.

“Dee, she’s ah…in recovery. Not up to visitors yet.”

“But she’s okay?”

A weak nod. His Adam’s apple bobbed.

Her shoulders relaxed. “Good.” Better than good.

She’d come to the ER at Mercy General alone. Jude had stayed behind to keep answering all the million and one questions that the cops had.

She’d gone after her mother because she’d had to make certain she was all right.

If the woman was well enough to flee, then, yeah, she had to be on the mend.

Voices buzzed behind her. Machines beeped. Doctors rushed past.

She couldn’t see Dee yet—

But there was someone else upstairs.

Erin shoved away from the counter.

“Ah, ma’am?” The desk clerk’s strangled voice.

Erin walked toward the bank of elevators.

“Ma’am? You—you’ve got a lot of blood there…”

She glanced down. The shirt had dried, finally, but the blood made it thick and heavy. And her fingers, the ones she’d been tapping on the counter, were stained red. Whoops.

The elevator doors opened with a chime. She walked inside and turned back to face the clerk. “Don’t worry,” she told him. “Only half the blood’s mine.”

The doors slid shut, but not before she’d seen his face turn from red to a very dark purple.

The crime scene looked like chaos, but Jude knew Tony had everything under control.

The body had been tagged and bagged. The area had been sectioned off. Evidence collected. No detail would be overlooked under Tony’s watch.

Erin wouldn’t be charged. Hell, after she’d given her story, Tony had even gotten one of the cops to take her to the hospital. A police escort.

No, she wouldn’t be charged, and good old Judge Harper would go down as a twisted freak who’d gotten too attached to one of the lawyers in his courtroom.

“When we start digging into his past,” Tony said, coming to stand beside Jude and staring out into the darkness of the swamp, “I give you fifty to one odds”— Tony loved to gamble—“that we’re gonna find out this wasn’t the first time he got batshit crazy.”

Jude grunted his agreement. No telling what skeletons were about to fall out of the judge’s closet.

“This isn’t his first time.” Ben Greer paced toward them, his hands shoved deep into his pockets. He’d clipped his badge to the front of his shirt. Lines were etched across his pale face. “There have been some…killings in Lillian over the last few years.”

Jude narrowed his eyes on the cop. “What kind of killings?”

“The kind that some cops don’t care about.” Ben’s lips twisted. “A rapist had his throat slit two years ago and his body was tossed onto the steps of the PD. Before that, a guy who’d walked on a murder charge—a guy guilty as fucking sin, because everyone knew he’d killed his wife and her lover—ah, someone cut out his heart…and then sent the package to the guy’s lawyer.”

“You’re saying that Harper did this?” Tony demanded. “If you knew about him, why the hell didn’t you move on the guy?”

“Because I didn’t have any proof.” A shrug. “I still don’t.” He didn’t look at the bagged body. “I remember though. Harper was the judge on those cases, and a few others where the defendants walked when they shouldn’t have gotten off.”

A pattern. “Like Donald Trent,” Jude said quietly.

“Yeah, yeah, just like Trent. And just like him these other bastards all ended up dead within six months.” Disgust had faint lines appearing around his mouth. “No evidence was left behind, except, on a few of the bodies, we found some damn dog hairs—” He broke off and gave a loud burst of laughter, the kind that sounded a little crazy and the kind that didn’t have one ounce of humor. “Dog hairs. Guess that makes sense now, doesn’t it?”

Jude just stared back at him.

The human shook his head. “Hell. I still don’t have a bit of solid evidence, though, do I? It’s not like I can go to my captain and tell him the judge was a werewolf who liked to get off on-on—”

“On handing out his own justice.” Because Jude realized that was exactly what the judge had been doing, probably for years. If he’d been Lone all that time, battling a nature he couldn’t control, he would have needed prey.

The criminals would have been perfect for him.

So, during the day, Harper had presided on his bench, looking all perfect for the humans. Then at night, he’d let the beast out, and he’d hunted his prey.

Until one fine day, Erin had walked into his courtroom.

Not prey, something more.

Good thing the bastard’s dead. His jaw clenched.

“He…he left the bench after Erin disappeared,” Ben spoke slowly now, as if putting all the puzzle pieces together. “He kept a house in Lillian, but he told everyone he wanted to do some traveling.”

And he’d traveled to Lillian. The better to kill and to make Erin’s life hell. “Sonofabitch.” Jude drove a hand through his hair. “That’s why the woman acted so surprised to see him at the government building.”

“Man, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Tony said. “Slow it down. I’m the bastard you have to bring up to speed, remember?”

Jude crossed his arms over his chest. “When we were in Lillian, Erin and I stumbled across the bastard in the government basement. A woman was there, too, Lacy something. She was acting funny around the judge. I thought it was because they were screwing, but I guess she was just shocked to see the bastard there.”

Ben pursed his lips and a glimmer of humor appeared in his eyes. “Actually, they were screwing, until the judge left the bench.”

“The DA was focused on the Trent case, so he didn’t say anything about the judge.” But the puzzle pieces had all been there. Staring him right between the eyes.

“We’re gonna need to search the judge’s place in Lillian,” Tony said, nodding his head. “No telling what we’ll find there.”

Those skeletons. Because somebody like Harper wasn’t the kind to kill and forget. Wolf shifters never were.

There would be trophies. Keepsakes.

And Ben would get his evidence to hand in to his captain.

Case fucking closed.

Erin hesitated in front of the hospital room door. Her hand lifted and touched the wood. The door was already ajar. She could hear voices. A man’s voice, raspy, weak.

A kid’s voice, high with excitement.

Now probably wasn’t the best time. She could see Lee later, talk to him and explain.

Footsteps padded quickly toward the door. Her breath caught and she eased back a step.

But it was too late.

A small hand pulled open the door, and a little boy with a mop of curls stared up at her. “My daddy’s awake,” he said, and a broad grin split his face, revealing one front tooth.

Erin swallowed. “Th-that’s great.” The door was fully open now. She could see Lee. Pale, bruised, and bandaged. He was propped up in bed, pillows all around him.

A woman stood beside him. She wasn’t touching him. Just standing close. She had the same curly hair that the kid did, only darker.

“E-Erin…Jerome,” Lee spoke with the rasp again. Probably from the tubes they’d shoved down his throat. Or maybe—maybe just from the whole near-dying thing.

A smile swept over the woman’s face. “You’re the one who found Lee! You saved him! I-I heard the cops talking…”

Oh, this wasn’t going to be easy.

The brunette’s stare dropped to rake down Erin’s body. “Uh…are you—are you hurt?”

She’d managed to wash the blood off her hands and she’d traded in her bloody shirt for a scrub top. But Erin knew she still had to look like warm hell. “May I talk to Lee, alone?”

“But what—”

“It’s ok…ay, M-Melis…sa…” His blood pressure and heart rate flashed on the monitor behind him. “Give us…a m-minute…”

The cute kid was still smiling up at her, and Erin shifted from one foot to the other. Then his mother was there, catching his hand and guiding him outside. “Thank you,” she whispered and Erin had to look away.

She closed the door behind them and knotted her fingers behind her back.

Lee watched her. Both of his eyes had thick, dark shadows around them. “You…saved me…” He shook his head.

“Don’t…re-remember much. How—how did…you know…where I w-was?”

This was the hard part. Erin eased into the chair next to the bed. Okay. The guy had almost died. She figured he was owed the truth—the whole truth. He might not believe her. He might think she was certifiable, but she was going to tell him. What he did with the knowledge, well, that would be up to him. “Lee, I’ve got a story to tell you.” She glanced at her small, oval nails. “One you might not believe at first, but I swear, every word of it’s true.”

The machines beeped quietly. If he gets too crazy and starts screaming for help because there’s a monster next to him, I can always blame his reaction on the drugs. Yeah, the orderlies would buy that.

But maybe excuses wouldn’t be needed. Erin took a deep breath. “You see, Lee, there’s a whole lot more to this world than most people realize…”

Jude was waiting for her when she came out of the hospital room. He’d heard the soft whisper of her voice and been stunned by her words.

But probably not quite as stunned as Lee Givens had been to hear that Erin was a…sort of werewolf.

Her shoulders were slumped when she came out but her eyes seemed to lighten a bit when she saw him. Good sign. He caught her hand and led her to the elevator. It was nearing one a.m. now. A curly haired kid slept on his mom’s lap in the waiting area. The mother brushed back his curls, humming softly and crying a bit with each slow movement of her hand.

Erin glanced at them, swallowed, and let him push her inside the elevator.

He waited until the doors closed before he spoke. “The guy seemed to take it well.”

“H-his grandmother was a charmer. He already knew about the Other.”

He’d caught that part of the conversation, but he let her talk anyway. He figured she needed to.

“I thought he’d…blame me.”

The lights on the elevator wall blinked as they descended.

“He didn’t.” She shook her head. “He just…thanked me. He let me talk, let me tell him all about Harper— and he thanked me.”

Maybe Lee wasn’t as much of an asshole as he’d always thought.

“He said things would be different for him, that he had a second chance.”

Second chances were damn rare.

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