Rae looked across the tossing water at Zander Moncrieff and couldn’t decide whether she should jump overboard or leap onto his boat and smack him.
He was huge, a bear Shifter, with muscles bulging out of a black sweatshirt with a Harley logo and hard legs stretching out blue jeans. He wore a long black duster coat that whirled in the unceasing wind and thick-soled boots for walking around a wet deck. Zander’s white blond hair was cut short against his head, except for two dreadlocks that hung on either side of his face, swinging down to his shoulders. He’d braided blue beads into the dreads, stark against the white. His trim goatee beard was, in contrast, jet black.
His eyes were the same black, burning with anger and glaring at Rae. Rae read a boatload of other emotions behind those eyes—pain and a loneliness that ran deep.
Goddess-touched, Eoin had called him. Brimming with power but never quite fitting in.
Like me, Rae thought with a jolt.
Zander’s fury reached Rae across the narrowing space between the boats. He was not at all happy Eoin wanted to bring Rae aboard.
Well, tough shit. Rae didn’t want to be out here either. One day she’d been an innocuous Lupine Shifter, hanging out with her friends and comfortable with her family, the next she was a Guardian, sent away to the middle of the northern Pacific to be trained by a polar bear z claimed was insane. Doesn’t play well with others, they’d said.
The boats bobbed up and down out of sync, the waves becoming more pronounced the closer the boats slid to each other. Rae was getting seasick. She’d been fine riding on the boat from the island where the small plane had landed, but now that both boats were rocking in the calm, rising and falling at different rates, she grew dizzy.
Eoin sprang to the deck of Zander’s boat with the grace of a Feline and faced him, one Shifter entering another’s territory.
Now it was Rae’s turn. She paused with her feet on the edge of the speedboat, where a gate in the rail had been opened for her. Rae was wolf, okay with water but not with boats. And by water, she meant streams, lakes, and ponds, not the vast expanse of cold ocean she found herself in now. If she fell into the drink, she’d freeze to death before she could be fished out.
Zander was a polar bear. Super-cold water and ice off the Alaska coast must be paradise to him. Rae liked beaches in Baja or Hawaii, long stretches of warm, empty sand, breezes, and cabana boys bringing her fruity cocktails. In theory—Rae had never actually been in any of these places.
Zander glanced behind Eoin to watch her impatiently, every inch a bear. Arrogant shit.
Rae drew a deep breath and willed her feet to make the jump, but her boat heaved upward while the other dropped. She lost her balance, dancing as she tried desperately not to fall between the undulating decks.
Zander reached Rae before Eoin could. He leaned across the stretch of blue water, grabbed Rae by both hands, and hauled her aboard.
His grip was immensely strong, pulling Rae right off her feet. She floated a few inches above the deck before she landed on the boards with a whump. The Sword of the Guardian banged against her back.
Zander dropped Rae’s hands and kicked aside an empty beer can, the liquid remnants trickling out. Eoin only steadied Rae, making sure she was all right. He said nothing about her clumsy entrance or Zander’s assist.
“Kendrick called me,” Zander said to Eoin. His voice was big and deep, matching his size. “I don’t get why you all expect me to train her. I’m not a Guardian.”
“You can show her how to fight with the sword,” Eoin countered. “And keep her safe at the same time.” His dark brows drew down and his voice filled with anger. “I didn’t have a choice. Shifters across the country are furious with me. They suspect me of rigging the sword, of cheating to bring a Guardian into my family. I can’t risk sending Rae to a Guardian in another Shiftertown—he might not be able to protect her from hostile Shifters. And no Shiftertown will let their Guardian leave long enough to travel to Montana to train her. I’m out of options.”
Zander listened to the barrage of words then held up his hands. “I understand. You need to hide her. You picked me because I’m allergic to happy, dancing-naked-in-circles love-fest Shifters. You also picked me because Kendrick has me by the balls. Doesn’t matter that I saved his frigging life. I save everyone’s lives. So, what happens if I out-and-out refuse to train her?”
He burned with frustration, while Eoin burned with sorrow. The two men stared at each other, each trying to make the other back down or at least come to some agreement. The forgotten factor in this equation was Rae.
She raised her voice. “Excuse me!”
Neither of them looked at her. Zander and Eoin were battling it out while remaining absolutely still, two Shifter alphas trying to out-dominate the other without lifting a paw. Zander didn’t want Eoin there—Eoin was shoving Rae onto him as a last resort.
Rae swung away on her booted feet and marched to the stern—at least she thought it was the stern. She knew crap-all about boats.
The speedboat that had brought them here was temptingly near. If she could leap back onto it, maybe she could convince the pilot to take her the hell out of there. Could the speedboat reach Hawaii? It was due south of here, however many hundreds of miles—not that Rae had ever been there. The bad thing about being Collared and stuffed into a Shiftertown was that Shifters didn’t get many tropical vacations.
The pilot wouldn’t obey her; she already knew that. The guy was human, paid by Eoin and intimidated by him too. Rae glanced down at the hefty man in stained sweatshirt and loose jacket, hands resting competently on the speedboat’s wheel. The guy had given her interested looks—many human males did, wondering what it would be like to have a quick shag with a Shifter—but he’d tried to hide his curiosity around her father. Rae supposed she could always promise him a taste if he’d take her out of there, and then overpower him and steal the boat once they’d gone far enough.
Rae shuddered immediately and turned away. Even if she could convince the man to disobey Eoin, he’d probably drive her over the horizon and then demand his price. He might throw her overboard if she refused. If Rae went wolf and subdued him, what did she know about navigating a boat through trackless sea? Plus, the guy might have a tranq rifle lying around, being a human used to dealing with Shifters. Rae didn’t want to think about what he’d do once he had her tranqued.
Besides, Eoin really was in a bind about Rae. He couldn’t keep her home and he couldn’t send her to another Shiftertown. A fishing boat with a crazy Shifter healer in the middle of Alaskan waters was the best he could do.
Rae reached the stern. Two fishing poles had been fixed here and one of them was whirring, the line playing a long way out.
“Hey, you have a bite!” Rae called down the deck.
Neither man paid attention. They’d started debating again, words carried out of Rae’s hearing by the wind.
Rae might not know about boats, but she knew about fishing. Montana’s lakes were full of fish, and she and her dad and foster brothers went out on lazy summer days and crisp fall mornings to fish. Big cats might hate water, but they loved fish.
Rae caught up the quivering pole and started reeling in the line. Steadily, not too slowly, not too rapidly.
Whatever had grabbed the bait was heavy, strong, and feisty. The fish jumped and pulled, trying to get free of the hook, but Rae kept on reeling, unrelenting.
When it came to the surface, she sucked in a breath. The fish was a giant of a thing; what it was, she didn’t know. It flashed silver, its belly white, as it leapt from the water.
“Woo-hoo!” Rae cried as she fought it toward the boat. “Fish steaks tonight.”
“Hey, don’t touch that!” Zander’s big voice rolled down the deck, followed by his stomping footsteps. A rush of air, fresh like a mountain breeze, brushed by as Zander reached her. His duster coat slapped her legs as he snatched the pole from her. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Landing your fish for you,” Rae said impatiently.
Zander snarled, his beaded braids swinging. “First rule on this boat—don’t touch anything.”
The fish made a final, amazing leap, and as it came down, the hook somehow worked itself from its mouth, the line snapping at the same time. Bleeding but free, the fish dove hard into the water, streaking away under the foam, and was gone.
“Shit!” Zander threw down the pole, line all over the place.
“I had it,” Rae growled at him. “I know how to fish—I was bringing him in.”
Zander glared at the empty waves, at the pole, at Rae, and then at Eoin, who’d come up behind her.
“Tell her . . .” Zander trailed off. He pointed at Rae, then at Eoin, then Rae again, words failing him. “Just—”
He made an exasperated noise, waved his hands, then spun and strode from them down the deck, his duster swirling.
“Seriously, Dad,” Rae said. “You want him to train me? He’s an idiot.”
“Rae, sweetie.” Eoin was in front of her, all his focus now on her. His large body blocked out the sea and sky as he cupped his hands around her face.
“There’s no choice, honey,” Eoin said sadly. “If you won’t do it for me or yourself, do it for Daragh.”
Oh, so unfair. Rae’s thoughts flashed to the first time she’d seen Daragh, their Guardian, who was now dead and dust. Rae had been a tiny cub, newly orphaned, lost and howling, horribly alone.
She’d been terrified when two Shifters had crashed through the brush to find her, both of them Feline—Eoin, with tawny hair, hard face, and dark eyes, and Daragh, with his intense green gaze, sword drawn. Rae remembered being surrounded by booted feet and stained denim, and then Daragh had crouched down to look at her. “It’s all right, sweetie,” he’d said. “We’ll take care of you now.”
Daragh had picked up Rae and tucked her inside his coat, carrying her all the way home. Eoin, leader of his clan, had adopted Rae and taken her into his house, already populated by two Feline cubs who were fascinated by the wolf who’d be their little sister.
Daragh, no relation to Eoin, had stopped by often. He’d looked out for Rae as she’d grown up as Eoin’s foster daughter, and Daragh was often her champion against her rough and tumble brothers. He’d been especially protective of Rae when the humans came to round them up into Shiftertowns, interfering when humans wanted to break Rae from her family because she was Lupine. Daragh had helped make sure that Rae, whose parentage was still undetermined, was able to stay with the only true family she’d ever known.
Now Daragh was gone, murdered, and Rae was expected to take his place.
Grief bit her but she stuffed it down and gave her father a shaky smile. “You fight dirty, Dad.”
Eoin’s hands moved to her shoulders. “We will always honor him. He was brave even in death.”
Daragh had sacrificed himself to save others, typical of him. The sword that weighed heavily on Rae’s back had been carried by Daragh most of his life.
“Daragh would be proud you were chosen to succeed him,” Eoin said. “I will do absolutely everything in my power to make sure you can carry out the Goddess’s choice. If it means leaving you with the eccentric Zander Moncrieff, then so be it. He can keep you safe, Rae, better than I can. Better than anyone.”
Rae doubted that. Her dad, she was sure, could never be defeated.
She knew though that Shifters in her town were giving him hell about the Choosing. They were calling to have him investigated, and Shifters in other towns were backing that investigation. Even Shifter leaders who believed and supported Eoin had expressed great surprise that the Goddess had chosen Rae. In the thirteen hundred years since the swords had been forged, a Guardian had never been female.
Rae drew a breath, the cold Alaska air filling her lungs. The abandoned cub inside her cried out—No, don’t leave me. Have another Choosing, Don’t make me do this!
The adult Shifter she’d become knew that all Shifters’ lives were sacrifices. They battled for territory and protected cubs, fought and died to keep their families, clans, and communities of Shifters safe. The Choosing had changed Rae in one instant from protected to protector.
“For Daragh,” she said, letting out a sigh. “I’ll stay for a while.”
The relief in Eoin’s eyes was so obvious it cut at Rae’s heart. She hadn’t realized he’d been so worried about what to do with her. She’d always thought Eoin fearless.
Down the deck, Zander was fighting the tangle of line, letting out a string of colorful curses.
“I’ll even try not to kill him,” Rae promised, keeping her expression neutral.
Eoin’s answering smile crinkled his warm eyes and squeezed pain through Rae’s chest. Never, in the years she’d lived with this man had she been apart from him or his two sons, not for any length of time. The orphaned cub had been surrounded by love. Now she faced being alone again and she had to be strong about it. Rae had to man up.
No, she had to woman up. Why were all the idioms about being strong male-related?
Eoin’s smile deserted him. He caught up Rae in a hard embrace that lifted her from her feet.
“Goddess go with you, little one,” Eoin whispered into her ear.
Rae choked back a sob. “Goddess go with you too, Dad.”
Eoin set Rae on her feet. He smoothed back a lock of her hair, unashamed tears wetting his face.
Then he squared his shoulders as though convincing himself this must be done. He pressed a kiss to her forehead, touched her hair one more time, and turned away. Nothing more to be said.
Eoin leapt to the other boat, again not allowing the uneven rock of the vessels to unbalance him. He landed gracefully and nodded at the pilot, who brought the motor to life.
Eoin stood in the stern of the small speedboat as it moved away, lifting his arm in a wave. Rae waved back. Eoin remained in the stern, watching Rae, his hand raised, as the speedboat grew smaller and smaller. Rae kept up her waving as well, until the boat finally became a pinpoint on the endless sea, then was swallowed by the horizon.
I won’t cry. Rae wiped her uncooperative eyes, digging her fingers in to stop the tears. I’m only feeling sorry for myself. I’ll get over it.
Right. Because saying good-bye to the only father she’d ever known and being stranded on a boat with a huge bear who didn’t want her there was the easiest thing in the world.
Another curse rang down the deck. Rae swiped hands across her face and made her way to the rear of the boat. A tall wave ran up one side, rocking them hard, and Rae stumbled into the cabin wall beside her.
The man in the stern didn’t notice. He sat cross-legged, his coat spread out behind him, the snarl of line in his lap.
Rae put one hand on the wall to steady herself and made her way toward him. The fishing boat was on the small side but it was by no means tiny. The cabin took up a chunk of it in the middle with wide areas of deck fore and aft for fishing and storing fish. The pilot house—Eoin had told her that’s what it was called—was small and dark. A door in the stern led under the pilot house, presumably down to sleeping quarters.
Zander kept his head bent over his task, his braids falling to touch the line. He was pulling the snarl every which way, succeeding in tangling it further.
Rae unstrapped the sword from her back. She’d been carrying it all day and it was getting heavy.
Never let it out of your sight, Eoin had told her. Not for an instant, not when you bathe, not when you sleep.
Do I have to take it with me to pee? Rae had asked crossly.
Yes, Eoin’s look had been stern. You can drape a towel over it if you don’t want it watching.
Rae had laughed but the thing really did seem to be watching her—always. Made her shudder.
She sat down on the deck across from the tangle and set the sword in its sheath next to her. She reached for the line.
“Here,” Rae said, not looking at Zander. “Let me.”
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