Southern Arcana - 5


Moira Rogers

This is for Teri Garrett, whose generosity and kind spirit are an inspiration. Thank you.


Thirteen months earlier

“Try to relax, sweetheart.”

Sera curled her fingers around the edge of the stool and studied the spell caster in front of her. She’d never met Jackson Holt before, but she’d heard enough stories. He was trustworthy and solid, and he carried the scent of a shapeshifter on his skin. A cat, maybe a lion or cougar, though both breeds were so rare she couldn’t be sure.

Whichever it was, Jackson was clearly a man who understood shapeshifters. He smiled easily and waited like he had no place else to be, and it made it possible for her to take deep breaths and bring instinct under control. “I’m okay. Just had a long night.”

“You bet.” His lazy tone betrayed nothing, but his mouth firmed into a tense line.

No mysteries there. The throbbing in her face had settled into a dull ache, but one of her eyes had begun to swell. Jackson could play casual all he wanted, but he couldn’t look at her without seeing a victim.

None of them would, not until the bruises were gone. “I’m ready.”

“You sure? It’s not going to be a walk in the park for you.” His voice held the steely ring of harsh, necessary truth.

Not merely a victim. Weak. “I’m ready,” she said again, trying to put force behind the words.

“I can handle it, I promise.”

The door closed, startling her. “He’s worried you’ll freak out,” said a new voice. Sera leaned to one side and saw Julio, the doctor’s brother. The one who possessed all the edgy power of a dominant, dangerous shifter but none of the disdain she’d come to expect from wolves.

He stepped deeper into the room and shoved his hands into his pockets. “If your dad hears you, he’ll try to come running, and he’ll hurt himself.”

Her dad was in an operating room somewhere, being prepared for hours of painful surgery.

He needed her—but he needed her whole. One glimpse at her face and he’d crawl on his broken legs back to Arkansas, back to Josh, and finish the job she’d started.

So she’d get her face fixed. She’d stay quiet. She’d be there for her father in a way she hadn’t been in years.

She couldn’t quite bring herself to meet Julio’s eyes, but resting her gaze on his chin felt safe enough. Respectful, nothing that could be interpreted as a challenge. “I’m not going to freak out. I’m stronger than I look.” And she’d had to say those words so many times tonight she was starting to doubt them. For them to have a hope of being true, someone had to believe her.

He watched her silently until her gaze skipped up to his, just for a moment. Then he smiled a little. “Yeah, you are. You’re going to be fine.”

It wasn’t a question. Wasn’t even a statement. The words were a command, backed by magic and power, and all the parts of her that weren’t strong twisted in on her, eager to obey.

It didn’t matter that he was a wolf and she was a coyote, or that he was a stranger and she was so emotionally drained she was practically numb.

Julio Mendoza was dominant, and she was…

“Fine,” Sera whispered, closing her eyes. “I’m going to be fine.”

“And I’ll be here to help you,” he murmured.

He had a voice you could fall into. A soft hint of a Southern accent—the pretty Hollywood kind, not the backwoods drawl she lapsed into at her worst moments. When the magic started, it could be good to have something to concentrate on. “Can you tell me what happened to my father? While Jackson fixes my face, I mean.”

“Okay.” The wizard touched her cheek and a low buzz of magic gathered, but Julio’s steady voice drowned it out. “There was an explosion at the clinic. He was hurt, but Carmen and I-Carmen, that’s my sister. Remember her?”

Her skin felt too tight. She fidgeted uncomfortably but forced herself to focus on Julio’s question. “Yes. She seemed nice.”

“Great, she’s got you snowed too.” His amusement faded. “We were there. Your father was hurt, but Carmen was able to stabilize him until we could get him and Lily out of there.”

“You helped save—” Pain splintered through her, and the rest of her words disappeared in a hissed breath. Her coyote stirred, nervous and fretful, but her instinct wasn’t to fight.

“It’s what I do.” Closer now, and she realized he’d walked over to stand beside her. “Pulling people out of wrecked and burning buildings isn’t anything special. My typical Thursday night.”

“A firefighter?” Her face ached. Jackson’s magic wound tighter, and she let it. A stronger shapeshifter wouldn’t have been able to quell panic and the urge to flee, but if there was one thing she was good at, it was bending to someone else’s will.

“That’s right.” Julio’s hand closed around hers.

She didn’t need his comfort, but she liked it. It soothed the battering press of instinct and eased the sting of fear.

Julio was safe, and that made him dangerous. The bruises on her face were a harsh lesson about the perils of blind submission to instinct. Strong men with strong magic could soothe and woo and build pretty cages, and she’d always end up trapped, no matter how much she liked it.

Even now, with her own blood on her clothing and a controlling husband turned abusive asshole out to get her—even now, with her life in shambles…

Oh, she could drown in Julio’s magic. If she threw herself on his mercy, he’d catch her. He wouldn’t be able to help himself. He’d wrap her up like a princess, and it wouldn’t even be about men and women and sex. It would be another chance to hide from the world, just like she’d done at seventeen when she’d let Josh coax her away from school and family with whispered promises of being safe and cherished forever.

She wasn’t a princess, and it was time to grow up. Even if the first step was staying the hell away from men like Julio Mendoza.

Chapter One

Something was wrong.

The skin on the back of Julio’s neck prickled, and he stood in the middle of the first-floor kitchen of the council warehouse, trying to put his finger on it. The place was quiet—almost silent, in fact, save for the low mechanical hum of the refrigerator. Andrew was out of town, everything was shut down for the night, nothing.

No one.

His unease grew, and he slid open a kitchen drawer and withdrew the Glock 23 he kept on hand. A quick check confirmed it was loaded, and he chambered a round as he crept out into the cavernous main area of the first floor. Still only silence, then the prickle exploded into nausea, and his single deep breath preceded a loud

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