She’d had sex with this man, watched him while he slept, held him when he hurt. Somewhere inside that walking menace was the Liam who mourned his dead brother, who teased Kim and worried about the missing Michael, who grieved that he’d hurt his father.
Please don’t let that all be a sham. Please let that man still be in there.
Please let me reach him.
“Don’t leave me,” she said to him. “I love you.”
Liam didn’t move, didn’t betray any emotion. “It’s not love. You’re my mate. We have the mate bond.”
She put her hands on her hips. “I’m not a Shifter, thank you very much. I have emotions, not instincts, not mate-bonds. If I say I love you, that’s what I mean. At least, I love Liam.”
“Emotions are instincts. You dress them up and write songs about them, but that’s what they are.”
“Oh, way to romance a girl. I liked you better with the Collar.”
“Of course you did. Because you could control me.”
“Like anyone could ever control you, Liam Morrissey. The man who does whatever he pleases, Collar be damned.”
Sean leaned down to her. “Do me a favor and run like hell instead of provoking him.”
Liam roared. “I said, don’t touch her!”
Michael started crying. Sean backed off. Kim headed for Michael, and found Liam blocking her way. She hadn’t seen him move, but suddenly there he was, right in front of her.
“Michael’s hurt and scared,” Kim said to him. Right there with you, kid. “Let me take him home. His mother is worried.”
“Sean, get the boy out of here. Before I give in to my instincts and kill him, and you.”
Kim folded her arms, trying a glare. “What, you mean you haven’t given in to your instincts already?”
“No. Sean, do it.”
Kim sent Sean a shaky look. “I agree with him. Please get Michael out of here.”
“And leave you here with him? Are you insane?”
“Liam is right about the mate-bond thing,” Kim said. “I don’t think he’ll hurt me.”
“You don’t think so?” Sean asked. “Not very convincing.”
“Stop arguing. Michael has a mother worried sick about him, and he needs to go home. I’ll be fine.” She glanced at Liam. “I’m pretty sure.”
“Kim, I’ve never seen him like this. He wasn’t like this before we took the Collar. This is—something else.”
“The instincts are enhanced,” said a new voice.
Fergus pushed himself from the wide door frame where he’d been leaning and strolled inside. His own Collar was still intact, thank goodness, but he moved confidently, as though he knew he’d done something clever.
“See, this is why you shouldn’t argue,” Kim said to Sean. “You lose your window of opportunity to get away.”
“Says the woman who never shuts up,” Fergus said.
Kim turned what she hoped was a fearless gaze on Fergus. “Just what I need. Another ass**le to make my day complete.”
“Your mate has a mouth,” Fergus said to Liam. “You need to teach her manners. If you don’t, I will.”
Liam pivoted to face Fergus, his boot heel turning on the gritty cement floor. Fergus stopped, his body coming alert.
“Then again,” Kim said. “I might enjoy this.”
The world had gone to hell. The smell of death clogged Liam’s nostrils, despite Sean already sending the feral’s body to dust. He smelled fear as well. Watery terror from the cub. Fear from his own brother. Fear from Kim, his lover, his pride mate.
Fergus’s fear was the strongest of all.
The whole place stank of terror, enough to gag him. If Liam killed all of them, except Kim, he could get rid of the smell.
A little corner of his brain tapped him. What the hell is the matter with you? Sean was right—it hadn’t been like this before the Collar. They’d lived freely, hunting when they wanted to, going hungry when there was no food to be had. They’d huddled together—three brothers, father, and mother—warming one another, playing together in the good times, sticking together in the bad. Loving each other.
Now Liam hated every Shifter in this room, Fergus especially. He didn’t hate Kim, but she drove him the most crazy. He wanted to get her away from the others, to keep her safe. They wanted her—Shifters needed mates, and Sean had never claimed a mate. Sean was a danger.
The cub was a tiny thing, no threat, but it was the offspring of another Shifter. Kill it, Liam’s senses whispered.
Fergus wanted Liam to kill the cub, then kill Sean. Liam knew it, and he didn’t know how he knew it.
Fergus wanted power, Fergus wanted Kim, and most of all, he was afraid of Liam.
Ergo, Fergus should die first.
“The Collars were programmed to suppress everything that makes us who we are,” Fergus was saying. “The Fae who made them hated Shifters. And understood them. Removing the Collars will remove that suppression and make us powerful. Unstoppable.”
“And crazy as hell,” Kim said. “Look at him.”
Fergus couldn’t look at Liam. His gaze slid sideways, back to Kim. “He senses his mate. He wants to f**k.”
“Wipe that disgusting look off your face,” Kim said. “I don’t even want you thinking about us like that.”
“Shut up, human. You’ll be his slave, and that’s all you’ll be. He’ll screw you until you die pushing out his cubs, and then he’ll find another female to give him more. It’s what we do.”
“I’m sure your mates would be happy to hear that.”
“My mates know their place.”
“I see,” Kim said. “Is this how you plan to take over the world? Repulsive imagery and insults?”
“We’re far stronger than humans. Without the Collars, we’ll quickly suppress those who suppressed us.”
“If your plan is so terrific, why is your Collar still on?” Kim asked him.
Fergus gave her a deprecating look. “The leader of the clan couldn’t be risked. We first needed to know that removing the Collars wouldn’t simply kill us.”
“How many did it kill?” Sean asked. The storm outside was building, the pressing humidity cut by an icy breeze.
“One or two.”
“Did it make one victim so crazy he went out and killed a Shifter woman and her cubs?” Sean went on.
Fergus’s eyes flicked sideways. “There were complications. You took care of him.”
“Sure,” Kim put in. “After he attacked me in my house.”
“He wouldn’t have if you hadn’t smeared your scent all over Liam,” Fergus said in disgust. “It smelled a rival’s mate.”
That’s why the thing was so fast and so good at tracking, Liam thought. It was a Collared Shifter, made crazy by having its Collar ripped off.
“I didn’t know that feral,” Sean was saying. “Or this one. Where did they come from?”
“New Orleans. I offered them something better than hiding out in the bayous.”
“Great offer,” Kim said. “ ‘Come to Austin. First we’ll make you insane, then we’ll kill you.’ ”
“No,” Sean said, voice tight with fury. “He no doubt offered them mates, their pick. Maybe the chance to move up in the hierarchy. My guess is they were low in their packs in the first place. And they were Lupines. If something went wrong—death or madness—they were only bloody Lupines.”
“I offered them freedom,” Fergus growled.
“Free to be hunted like you were in the past?” Kim asked.
Fergus’s face darkened. “Free as we were before humans rounded us up like animals. We had the run of the land. We feared no one. Humans took that away from us. All I’m doing is taking it back.”
“We were hungry,” Sean said, his voice quiet. “Remember? Winters with no food, watching family die, watching cubs not make it until spring?”
“And if we had humans feeding us, being our slaves, not the other way around, that wouldn’t happen.”
“Dream on,” Kim broke in. “Shifters are strong and hard to kill, but not impossible. I’m sure machine guns would do the trick. Is that what you want to see happen? Your pride mates mowed down by a SWAT team?”
“It won’t happen if you’re the slaves, you stupid woman. Liam, you might want to consider a different mate. Or at least use her up quick and get rid of her. I knew she was a pain in the ass the minute I laid eyes on her.”
“You touch Kim, you die,” Liam said clearly.
Everyone stopped talking. Liam walked toward Fergus, his boots loud on the stone floor. Fergus wanted to run—Liam saw that in the man’s eyes, his stance, every inch of his body.
Liam wouldn’t let him run. Fergus was his inferior; he had to obey Liam, and Fergus knew it, no matter how much he blustered. The instincts Fergus boasted about would force him to acknowledge his own weakness.
Kim had a power that Shifters lacked: the power to see all sides of a situation clearly, no matter how scared she was or how angry. She could argue with conviction, she could find a flaw in the other person’s obsession and tap it until he opened his mind and saw what she saw.
Fergus would never see anything clearly. But Liam did. At least, Liam had before Justin had ripped off his Collar and made his brain scramble.
Liam’s emotion and instinct warred with his reason, and none of them won. The wind outside grew colder, a bad storm for certain. Liam smelled the icy hail in the clouds, electricity that would fork down on the city at any moment.
One thought stood out from the others: Fergus had to be stopped. If Liam let Fergus go today, he would continue to push to “free” the Shifters, continue his awful experiments, making his victims crazed and violent while he honed the process. Fergus couldn’t control his ferals yet, and, Fergus-like, he was trying to make other people clean up his mess. For him, the end always justified the means.
“Kim is right,” Liam said, surprised his voice was so calm. “You are an ass**le. You’ll set Shifter against Shifter. We’ll kill each other long before the humans even know there’s trouble. We’ll each want our families to survive, and ours alone. Our gene pool, our pride. The Shiftertowns, the living with other species—you’re right, that’s artificial.”
“Exactly my point,” Fergus said. “We get Sean’s Collar off him, we get the Guardian—who can stop us?”
“I can.” Liam came to a halt in front of Fergus.
He saw Fergus’s pupils change to slits, his nostrils widen, his body emanate fear. He was not far shy of wetting himself. He tried to cover it by puffing out his chest with false bravado. “You can’t touch me. I’m your clan leader.”
“You are weak.” Liam’s voice was completely flat.
“I outrank you,” Fergus said abruptly. “It’s me first, then Dylan, then you. You can’t beat me.”
“Liam fought Dylan and won,” Kim said. “Last night.”
“What?” Sean stared.
Fergus’s face whitened until it was almost green. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, girl. No one can best Dylan. Only me.”
Kim went on. “You’ve been out of the loop. Liam defeated his dad. Liam isn’t happy about it, but he did.”
“Shit,” Sean whispered.
“That doesn’t matter,” Fergus tried. “I am still clan leader.”
“You are nothing.” Liam sounded strange, even to himself. “I have no ties to anyone outside my family. Michael would be easiest to kill. But I think it’s more important to kill you.”