Jennifer Ashley

Excerpt: White Tiger

Book 8: Shifters Unbound

It was almost time. Addison Price slid the coffeepot back on the heater, unable to keep her eye from the clock.

The diner closed at midnight. Every night at eleven fifty-five on the dot, he came in.

Tonight, though, eleven fifty-five came and went. And eleven fifty-six, eleven fifty-seven.

She’d have to close up. Bo, the owner, liked everything shut down right at midnight. He’d come in about fifteen minutes later and start going through the accounts for the day.

Eleven fifty-eight. The last customer, a farmer in a John Deere cap he must have picked up forty years ago, grinned at her and said, “Night, Addie. Time to go home to the wife.”

He said that every night. Addie only nodded and gave him a warm good-bye.

Eleven fifty-nine. In one minute, she’d have to lock the door, turn the “Open” sign around to “Closed,” help with the cleanup, and then go home. Her sister and two kids would be asleep, school day tomorrow. Addie would creep in as usual, take a soothing shower, play on the Internet a little to unwind, and then fall asleep. Her unwavering routine.

Tonight, though, she wouldn’t be able to analyze every single thing the white-and-black-haired man said to her and decide whether he liked her or was just making conversation.

The second hand on the analog clock above the pass to the kitchen swept down from the twelve toward the six. Eleven-fifty nine and thirty seconds. Forty. Forty-five.

Addie sighed and moved to the glass front door.

Which opened as she approached it, bringing in the warmth of a Texas night, and the man.

Addie quickly changed reaching for the door’s lock to yanking the door open wide and giving him her sunniest smile. “Hello, there. Y’all come on in. You made it just in time.”

The big man gave her his polite nod and walked past her with an even stride, his black denim coat brushing jeans that hugged the most gorgeous ass Addie had seen in all her days. Because this diner’s clientele had plenty of men from all walks of life, she’d seen her fair share of not-so-good backsides in jeans or showing inappropriately over waistbands.

Her man was different. His behind was worth a second, third, and fourth look. He was tall but not lanky, his build that of a linebacker in fine training, his shoulders and chest stretching his black T-shirt. The footwear under the blue jeans was always either gray cowboy boots or black motorcycle boots. Tonight, it was the motorcycle boots, supple leather hugging his ankles.

And, as always, Addie’s man carried the sword. He kept it wrapped in dark cloth, a long bundle he held in his hand and tucked beside his seat when he sat down and ordered. At first Addie had thought the bundle held a gun—a rifle or shotgun—and she’d had to tell him that Bo didn’t allow firearms of any kind in his diner. She’d lock it up for him while he ate. They had a special locker for the hunters who were regulars.

The man had shot her a quizzical look from his incredibly sexy eyes, pulled back the cloth, and revealed the hilt of a sword.

A sword, for crap’s sake. A big one, with a silver hilt. Addie had swallowed hard and said that maybe it was okay if he kept it down beside his chair. He’d given her a curt nod and covered the hilt back up.

But that was just him. He was like no man Addie had ever met in her life. His eyes were an amazing shade of green she couldn’t look away from. The eyes went with his hard face, which had been knocked around in his life, but he still managed to be handsome enough to turn the head of whatever woman happened to be in this late. Which, most nights, was only Addie.

His hair, though, was the weirdest thing. It was white, like a Scandinavian white blond, but striped with black. As though he’d gone in for a dye job one day and left it half finished. Or maybe he simply liked the look.

Except, Addie would swear it was natural. Dyes left an unusual sheen or looked brittle after a while. His hair glistened under the lights, each strand soft, in a short cut that suited his face. Addie often studied his head as he bent over his pie, and she’d clutch her apron to keep from reaching out and running her fingers through his interesting hair.

In sum—this man was hotter than a Texas wind on a dry summer day. Addie could feel the sultry heat when she was around him. At least, she sure started to sweat whenever she looked at him.

For the last month or so, he’d come in every night near to closing time, order the last pieces of banana cream pie and the apple pie with streusel, and eat while Addie locked the door and went through her rituals for the night. When Bo arrived through the back door, the man would go out the front, taking his sword . . . and the other things he always brought.

They came in now, walking behind him—three little boys, the oldest one following the two younger ones. The oldest’s name was Robbie, and he brought up the rear, looking around as though guarding his two little brothers.

“Hello, Robbie,” Addie said. “Brett, Zane. How are you tonight?”

As usual, the two littlest chorused Fine, but Robbie only gave her a polite nod, mimicking his father. Although Addie thought the man wasn’t actually Robbie’s father.

The youngest ones had the man’s green eyes and white-and-black hair, but Robbie didn’t look like any of them. He had dark brown hair and eyes that were gray—a striking-looking kid, but Addie figured he wasn’t related to the others. Adopted maybe, or maybe a very distant relative. Whatever, the man looked after all three with protective fierceness, not letting anyone near them.

They took the four stools at the very end of the counter away from the windows, almost in the hall to the bathrooms. Robbie sat on the seat farthest from the door, Zane and Brett perched in the next two seats with their dad next to them, his bulk between them and whoever might enter the diner.

Addie took up the coffeepot and poured a cup of fully caffeinated brew for black-and-white guy and three ice waters for the boys. She’d offered them cokes the first time they came into the diner  but their dad didn’t like them having sugared drinks.

Considering how much pie they put away, Addie didn’t blame him. Sweet sodas on top of that would have them wired to the gills all night.

“You almost missed the pie,” Addie said to the boys as she set dripping glasses of water in front of them. “We had a run on it today. But I saved you back a few pieces in the fridge.” She winked. “I’ll just run and get them. That’s three banana creams and an apple streusel, right?”

She looked into the father’s green eyes, and stopped.

She’d never seen him look at her like that. There was a hunger in his gaze—powerful, intense hunger. He skewered her with it. Addie looked back at him, her lips parting, her heart constricting.

Men had looked at her suggestively before but they’d always accompanied the look with a half-amused smile as though laughing at themselves, or telling Addie she’d have a great time if she conceded.

This was different. Black-and-white man studied her with a wanting that was palpable, as though any second he’d climb over the counter and come at her.

After a second, he blinked and the look was gone. He hadn’t intended her to catch him.

The blink showed Addie something else. Behind the interest, his eyes held great distraction and deep worry.

Something had happened tonight, some reason he’d come here going on five minutes late.

Addie knew better than to ask if everything was all right. He wouldn’t tell her. The man was not one for casual conversation. The boys talked but kept their answers general. They had never betrayed with one word where they were from, where they went to school, what they liked to do for fun, or why their dad kept them up this late every night.

Addie simply said, “I’ll be right back,” and ducked into the kitchen to fetch the pie.

She took out the pieces, already sliced on their plates, and sprinkled a little extra cocoa powder on the banana cream ones from the dented shaker on the shelf.

Jimmy, the guy who washed dishes, wasn’t there. He liked to duck out for a smoke right at closing time, coming back in when Bo got there to finish the cleanup. Addie hummed, alone in the kitchen, her pulse still high from that look black-and-white man had given her.

If Addie marched out there and said to him, sure, she was interested—in a discreet way in front of his kids—would he break down and tell her his name?

Or would he take her somewhere and make love to her with silent strength, the same way he walked or ate his piece of pie, as though he savored every bite? Would Addie mind that?

She pictured him above her in the dark, his green eyes on her while she ran her hands all over his tight, beautiful body.

Nope, she wouldn’t mind that at all.

She picked up two pieces of pie, still humming. At the same time, she heard a scratching at the back door.

Bo? Addie set down the pie and walked over. Bo always used his key to get in—they kept the back door locked. Even in the small town of Loneview that was pretty safe, robbers passing through might seize an opportunity.

Bo often couldn’t get his key into the lock—his hands shook with a palsy that ran in his family. Jimmy often had to help him, or Addie would open the door for him. Bo was a bit early, but he was sometimes.

Addie reached for the door just as something banged into it.

“Bo? You okay?” Addie unlocked the deadbolt and carefully turned the doorknob.

The door fell inward, a heavy weight on it. Addie looked down.

A curious detachment came over her as she saw Jimmy the dishwasher, a guy of about thirty with greasy brown hair and beard stubble. He was dead, his brown eyes staring sightlessly. She knew he was dead because he had a gaping red hole where his heart used to be.

If this had been a movie, Addie would be screaming, fainting, sobbing, saying Oh my God, or running outside crying, Somebody, help!

Instead, she stood there, as though caught in treacle, unable to move, think, talk, or even breathe.

A faint noise sounded outside, and Addie raised her head. She saw the round muzzle of a gun, one of the automatic ones that shot however many rounds a minute. Her breath poured back into her lungs, burning, and she knew she was looking at her own death.

A rush of air passed her, and the door slammed shut. At the same time a pair of strong arms closed around her, propelling her to the floor, the man with black-and-white hair landing on top of her.

In the front of the diner, every window shattered as bullets flew through them. Glass exploded through the open pass between the kitchen and dining area, as did bullets, shards of cups and plates, tatters of napkins.

The kids, Addie thought in panic. Where were the boys?

There they were, huddled against the door to the freezer. How the man had gotten them in here so fast and out of sight Addie didn’t know, but her body went limp with relief to see them.

“Who’s doing this?” Addie squeaked. “What—”

The man clamped his hand over her mouth. “Shh.” His voice was a low rumble. “I need to you to be very quiet, all right?”

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