Xander glanced up from the thriller he was reading when he’d heard the sound of car tires turning onto his driveway, realizing that time had gotten away from him. Gunnar and Kane were coming over for weapons training Ghost had scheduled on New Year’s Day, for a reason that escaped all three of them. Xander had designed and built the gun range deep into the woods behind his newly completed house and Ghost had designated it the training center for all of the assassins. And he couldn’t fault Ghost for wanting his assassins to train. There had been another threat to Dark Company that Ghost had downplayed, not giving any of them details, but Xander could tell that he’d worried about it.
Besides, Xander had bought a Sig Sauer P226 over the holidays and it would be his first chance to test it out. And although he would never admit it aloud, he was grateful for the company so soon after the holidays.
Seth and Aubrey had gotten married back in November and although he was happy for them, and for Kai and Liv, and Reaper and Ara, he felt the stark loneliness acutely. Shaking off his melancholy, he opened the door. But before he could greet them, the three of them froze. They could hear the distinct crunching of snow and pine needles under heavy boots.
“About two miles north. Are you expecting anyone else?” Gunnar asked.
“No.” Xander closed the door behind him and engaged the lock before he followed the other two as they moved toward the sound at a quick clip. He hadn’t even bothered to grab a coat, but the snow and cold barely registered, even in his thin pullover and jeans. At least he had his shoes on before his friends arrived.
His eyes searched for movement, sensing the other two close, as they approached the origin of the sounds.
“I hear seven different strides…no, wait, make that eight. The last one has a lighter footfall than the others. Woman, possibly?”
That was when they heard the sound of metal slapping against a palm, as if they were getting ready to fire a gun.
Split up and we’ll surround them. He used their mind link so no one could overhear their conversation.
Gunnar and Kane met his eyes and nodded, once, before they disappeared into the pines.
Xander heard the distinct steps, those trudging through the knee-deep mountain snow at an almost prohibitive pace, grunting as they grew tired from their trek. He knew that if they engaged them, the assassins would have the advantage of stealth, along with their ability to move freely.
Xander received a flash of an image. Kane had gone for higher ground and had a view from miles around.
Yeah, on three of them. Dressed in white camo. They don’t seem very coordinated and they are dragging the barrels of their AR-15s through the snow. Dumbasses. Xander heard Kane’s sarcasm and bit back a laugh.
Then he heard from Gunnar. He and Jade were the best trackers he knew. I got the others. There’s a smaller figure, but whoever it is, their features are obscured by a hood and bulky jacket. That one doesn’t have a weapon.
Another image flashed and this one showed the clearing where the entire group sprawled out without any thought to formation or protection. Some had guns strapped to their backs; others held the guns loosely in their hands, unprepared to shoot at any sound or movement.
Xander soon moved into position and had eyes on them. He spotted an older man with short cropped, dark hair sprinkled with gray as he turned toward the small figure Gunnar spoke about.
“What animals made those tracks?”
Xander rolled his eyes. The snow was too deep for any definitive answer. It could have been anything from a bear to a fucking moose. He paused to hear the answer, but the mumble that came did nothing to clarify who the person was with these armed men. But something clicked and it made perfect sense.
I think they are looking for us. They have magazines clipped to their belts, handguns within easy reach, and knives for hand-to-hand combat. They are looking for animal tracks, and they are way too fucking close to where Reaper, Kai, Seth, and I have houses. There’s nothing else up here that they could be searching for.
Xander froze when he heard a feminine voice carry over to him. She sounded closer than she had been even a few moments before. He should have sensed her coming closer. But the only question on his mind was why the fuck she was tagging along with a group of mercenaries. He heard the voice again, a tinny version of her voice, and for a long moment he couldn’t understand the words. Until she stepped forward.
No, no. Not that way. Not that way.
Something warmed his chest as he heard her in his head as clearly as if they were speaking aloud. A familiarity washed over him and he felt connected to this woman in an elemental way. A feeling of a peace settled over him. He knew this was the first time he’d ever heard her voice. He was so stunned and happy that he didn’t even question how they were able to mind link.
Can either of you hear the woman’s thoughts?
Woman? Gunnar sounded confused.
Kane’s reply was quick and clipped. No.
Xander tried to get her attention. Can you hear me?
He held his breath when he heard her distinct gasp, knowing that their mind link worked. His chest filled with dread at the thought that she gave herself away, until he heard her next words.
“I spotted a grizzly bear in the trees to the west. Sorry, I startled him and he ran off.”
For long seconds, the men in the clearing stared at the woman before they were ordered to keep searching.
Xander stood close enough that he could see her curves underneath the heavy white parka. And having the worst timing in the world, Xander felt himself harden. He took a deep, cleansing breath of sharp mountain air that instantly cooled his overheated body.
Yes, I can hear you. These men, seven in total, are looking for immortals. They have been contracted by my boss at US Fish and Wildlife to kill them. Apparently the immortals are supposed to become animals. Can you help me without hurting yourself? They are heavily armed.
Xander was taken completely by surprise. She didn’t question their connection but instead relayed vital information that he would need. He could also start to feel her emotions. She wasn’t scared, just determined. He could hear her heart beating at a fast rate and her breathing strained from either the hike up the mountain or the tension in the air. He watched as she subtly shifted her head around as she searched for him, unable to spot him in the trees.
We can help. I’m going to communicate with my team and we’ll take out the men. Are you okay with that?
Yes. I know they are paid mercenaries and I’m pissed that they killed a wolf two days ago for no other reason than they wanted to shoot something.
What’s your name?
Frost, I’m Xander. When I tell you to run, run south. Okay?
Yes, I understand.
Xander relayed the conversation he had with Frost. We are going to have to kill them, there’s no other way around it. They couldn’t have a threat looming over them, especially if one escaped and brought in a stronger, more trained group of mercenaries. Although they could easily defeat any group of fighters, keeping their existence a secret was crucial. The more humans who knew about them, the bigger the danger it posed.
Working as a team, they closed in on the unsuspecting mercenaries. At first, they quietly removed those men who were stationed on the outer perimeter, using knives to subdue them, or in Xander’s case, using his bare hands and quickly snapping their necks. He didn’t want Frost to see blood on him. The only sound he could detect was the grunts of the men who were dispatched. By the time Gunnar, Kane, and he closed in on their ranks, there were only three mercenaries remaining.
The older man spotted movement in Gunnar’s direction and without hesitation raised his weapon and started to fire. The wolf easily dodged the shots before melting farther into the trees. Silence descended upon the area as the man searched for Gunnar.
Frost, run south. Keep as low as you can and use the trees as cover.
Gunnar emerged from the trees in order to distract those left alive and to provide additional cover. He fired at the mercenary closest to him, who had managed to roll away before he fired twice into Gunnar’s chest at close range. The wolf shifter just grunted as the rounds struck. In the next instant, he shifted into his gray wolf form and lunged for the man, gripping his arm with his sharp teeth, and flung the man back and forth like a rag doll. After a few seconds, Gunnar had finished playing with his target and slammed him against the tree, effectively breaking his neck.
Kane darted forward and with one punch, crushed the other man’s throat, effectively eliminating the second of the three.
His friends had taken care of the humans within seconds of hearing Xander’s demand. He never took his eyes off Frost as she tried to run, but Xander noticed when she became distracted by Gunnar and watched as he shifted. On top of the distraction, she had to wade through knee-high snow in the thick winter gear that weighed her down, and she hadn’t made it a few feet before he rushed toward her. Not waiting for the man to target Frost, Xander shifted into his snow leopard form and placed his body between Frost and the older mercenary.
The man froze, his arm straight out in front of him with his finger on the trigger. Xander could see that his pupils were blown and he was shaking in fear. Not lessening the tension, Xander lowered his furry head and raised his lips to show his long, sharp teeth ready to tear him apart limb from limb. He chuffed when he heard the man’s heart quicken in fear.
The gunman snapped out of his stupor when he heard movement from Gunnar and Kane closing in on him; he quickly raised his semi-automatic and fired several rounds. Xander darted forward, taking a couple of rounds to his chest that didn’t stop his momentum. But before he could reach the man, he heard a grunt of pain behind him. He turned in time to see her blood splash against the tree in front of her; she had turned to run during Xander’s shift but a bullet had caught her in the back and passed through her right shoulder and out. As if in slow motion, he watched as she sank to her knees, clutching her wound.
His breath stuck in his throat and it felt as though his heart stopped.
Rage rushed through him when he heard the recognizable sound of the magazine being discharged and reloaded. He turned and the sight of his face twisted in fury must’ve been a horrifying sight, because the man paled and fumbled with the reload, forgetting completely about his sidearm. Not giving him a chance to remember, Xander leapt forward and opened his mouth around the man’s neck as he landed with measured precision. With a quick tilt of his head, the man’s neck snapped and Xander dropped him to the ground, forgotten.
He heard Kane snarl and Gunnar let out a howl, but Xander ran toward Frost. She had managed to sit up and lean back against the tree nearest to where she fell, her bright-red blood unnatural against the stark white of her parka and the snow that surrounded them. Her eyes widened when she took in the snow leopard that loped toward her. Without fear, she reached out with her left hand, asking silently for permission to touch him. He lowered his head and moved his lips over his teeth, not wanting to scare her. When her fingers ran through his white fur, he purred when her touch electrified his body.
“You’re beautiful.” Her eyes widened as she turned her gaze to the gigantic gray wolf that sauntered over with blood on his muzzle. “Wow, you too.”
She tried to sit up and lean forward, but instead her movement caused a hiss of pain to escape her throat. “Well…shit. I was kinda hoping to avoid getting shot by those trigger-happy fuckers. I’ll just have to try harder the next time I’m forced to track immortals so they could be eliminated. Oh, wait, there won’t be a next time because they are dead.”
Xander shivered at the look of glee that sparked in her bright-green eyes as Kane laughed and Gunnar let out a low growl. Then Xander noticed that her eyes were more than green. There was a light-blue crescent, similar to the color of his eyes, that blended easily into the green. He shook off his thoughts when she flinched in pain and shifted back. He noted that her eyes widened as she roamed over his naked form, but after a minute, her eyes darted back to his sure to be amused ones.
“Are you Xander? The one I’ve been talking to in my…well…mind, I guess you could say?”
He nodded as he moved forward, taking her left hand in both of his.
“I really was trying to lead them away, but despite me trying to convince them that they were headed in the wrong direction, they noticed the smaller animals avoiding this area. All animals will always listen to their instincts and stay away from apex predators.” She paused for a long moment, her eyes never leaving his as she explained. “Sorry, I tend to talk a lot when I’m in pain…or nervous. But I got shot in the shoulder and it hurts like hell.”
Xander and Kane chuckled, bringing out a huge smile on Frost’s face.
“There you go. You guys looked so serious for a minute. But seriously, the cold is helping, but my ass is starting to go numb. You don’t talk much, do you? Well, I ramble so that’s why I became a wildlife biologist. So I can talk to the animals instead of getting weird looks from people. If I didn’t see him in his human form, I could’ve sworn the gray wolf thought I was crazy. Although, animals give me about the same confused looks that you guys are giving me now. Huh.”
Xander couldn’t tear his eyes away from her.
“Are you sure she was shot? She’s not really acting like it,” Kane said.
Frost pulled her gaze away from Xander and glanced up, way up, to where Kane stood with his arms crossed, wearing a short-sleeved shirt and jeans with just a pair of tennis shoes on. Xander could tell that her pulse didn’t increase, nor did her pupils widen, as she glanced at Kane. He relaxed until her eyes narrowed a fraction.
“And what do you know about it, Blondie?”
Kane raised one of his eyebrows, too stunned to talk.
“I’ve been running on adrenaline for the past few days, trying to lead these assholes off a cliff while avoiding any evidence I found of animals in the area, but there isn’t a cliff around here that is hidden. So how about we cut me some slack?”
Xander jerked out of his astonishment when she tried to stand. As she spoke to Kane, he traced every inch of her. Beautiful pale skin, plump peach lips, beautiful green-blue eyes, and long, flowing dark hair. But her cry as her movement pulled at her wound had him darting forward, wrapping his arm around her waist and pulling her close. The humming that he hadn’t recognized before faded away abruptly when he touched Frost. She seemed to sense the silence and comfort as well, because she sagged against him, blowing out a relieved breath.
Should I get Liv? Gunnar communicated while still in wolf form.
“Can you point me to the nearest hospital?” Frost grunted with her face pinched in pain.
“No.” Xander’s fierce anger came out of his mouth, before he realized that the harshness might have Frost fear him. Instead, she smiled.
“Yes, Gunnar, can you go and get Liv?” The wolf ran off through the trees as soon as Xander spoke.
Xander lifted her in his arms and walked toward his house, taking care not to jar her too much. But when he spotted a cringe with each step, he cradled her in his arms and it managed to lessen the shock.
“Who’s Liv? Your wife? A doctor?”
Xander’s heart ran a mile a minute because he knew that after searching for years, decades even, that he’d finally found his mate. And she was tough, beautiful, and brilliant. He held her tighter to his body when he started to salivate, already feeling the need to claim her. But putting his selfish needs on hold, he cursed himself because he wasn’t able to protect her.
“No, Liv’s a friend and a vampire. Kai is her husband and mate.”
Frost relaxed in his arms and he continued to explain.
“The blond is Kane—he’s also a vampire. Gunnar is a gray wolf shifter, as you saw.”
“And you’re Xander, who I can somehow communicate with through my mind. Which is completely wicked, by the way.”
He laughed, cutting off the sound, not wanting to jostle her too much. “Yes, and I’m a snow leopard.”
He glanced down and met her gaze, his eyebrow lifted in a question.
“Well, snow leopards aren’t native to Colorado, but since you’re a shifter, it doesn’t really matter. Hell, I didn’t know that vampires existed outside the teen romance vampire books. Which I’m not admitting that I read. But I did.” She winked at him.
He smiled and held her close. “There are several vampires and shifters around.”
“And they all live in Snowfall?”
“Most of us do.”
“But why Snowfall? Oh, are all of you in the same profession? Please don’t say forest rangers.”
Xander laughed. “No, we’re government assassins.”
Frost had gone quiet and when he glanced down, her brows were lowered in thought for long minutes before she spoke. “That’s how you were able to take care of those men so easily. I’m glad I ran into you.”
As the house came into view, Frost glanced up and her eyes widened as she surveyed the massive structure. She darted a glance behind his shoulder and cringed. “Sorry I brought them so close to your house.”
“It’s not your fault. You didn’t know. I take it you didn’t volunteer to lead them?”
Frost scoffed. “No. My boss, that asshole, told the mercenaries that I was the best tracker they had. I mean, come on, mercenaries? Another group I had no idea really existed until three days ago. When I found out what he hired them for, I figured the only way to save humans and animals from being slaughtered was to lead the expedition, but away from anyone they could harm. I tried to steer them farther up the mountain, but they became impatient after two days of spotting nothing and started their own way. If you hadn’t come across us when you did, I was afraid that they would’ve started killing randomly. I wonder why my boss wanted to kill you and your friends?”
“Your boss is probably the middleman. Dark Company is very lucrative and it’s only because we’re trained and very successful at what we do. Anytime there’s money or power involved, someone will try to make a grab for it. It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last.”
“When the leader, the one who shot me, doesn’t call to check in, they’ll send another group to the last known GPS location. He makes the call at ten every night.”
They reached Xander’s front door and he grabbed the spare key in a hiding spot beside the door, all while glancing at her face for any signs of pain. Making sure not to jostle her, he pushed it open. He turned toward the living room. His plan was to lay her on the couch, but as he leaned down, she balked.
“I would prefer to sit somewhere the blood won’t stain your furniture.”
“It’s comfortable and I can always get another couch.”
“No, don’t worry about my comfort. I’ve had worse. The bathroom is fine.”
Frost blushed and looked down. “Early on in my career, I was attacked by a mountain lion. I had been tracking a bear cub who had broken his leg and I wasn’t paying close attention to my surroundings or the direction I headed. The mountain lion pounced and caught me on the side with his claw, before something scared him away. That hurt worse than getting shot.”
She had spoken easily about a wound that might have killed her, and he had been so stunned by the matter-of-fact delivery, that he moved toward the bathroom before he could process what he was doing. He gently lowered her onto the bench in the shower, grateful that it was large enough to cradle her body.
Frost’s face pinched in pain and he silently called for Liv to hurry. To distract both of them, he kept asking her questions as he removed her outerwear and sweater carefully, leaving her in a long-sleeved shirt and jeans.
“Why did your parents name you Frost?”
She laughed and something inside him bloomed at the light and infectious sound.
“My mother loves everything about winter. But I was the opposite of what she expected. They both have light, almost white hair, like yours. They have pale skin and light-blue eyes. And of course when I was born, I had a full head of black hair, and while I do have pale skin, my eyes are green. My mother loves that I’m different. I’m twenty-seven, with no prospects to even think about getting married and I work with animals. She worries about me, but she’s given up on thinking I’ll do anything normal.”
He smoothed his hand down her black hair and she leaned into his hand. He smiled knowing that she trusted him.
Before they could continue the conversation, he heard Liv’s tiny footsteps as she rushed up his staircase. She rushed into the bathroom and directly into the shower stall where Frost struggled to sit up the moment she spotted the tiny vampire in the room. Xander propped her up on the bench as she stared at the small, curly-haired vampire who came to a stop inches in front of her face. Xander shook his head as he watched Kai, Gunnar, Kane, Seth, and Jade rush into the already crowded room.
Frost’s movements had slowed significantly, but when she spotted Jade trail after the others, a low growl erupted from her throat. When Jade stepped forward, Frost erupted with a more animalistic growl that had Jade take a step back and hold her hands out in front of her. Frost’s eyes never left the red fox, but Jade made the mistake of glancing over to Xander before she took a tentative step forward.
“Get the fuck away from Xander, before I rip your head off.”
The room stilled at the threat, and for the first time since he’d known her, Xander could see actual fear reflected in Jade’s eyes.
Xander stepped closer to Frost and felt her entire body relax. But he could see that the tension in her body caused her to bleed profusely. He knew that he needed to get Jade out of the room before Frost went critical, but when he said Jade’s name, he realized his mistake at once. A loud roar, the sound almost deafening, erupted throughout the room. Disregarding her injury, Frost stepped in front of Xander and bared her teeth at Jade.
Before Jade could leave or Frost could attack, Liv stepped in Frost’s view, despite Kai’s protesting snarl. Instead of pushing Liv out of the way and attacking, Frost slumped back against Xander and he wrapped his arms around her to pull her closer.
Xander could spot the anger in Liv’s eyes as she glanced up at him.
“You haven’t explained it to her yet?”
Xander shook his head, not sure in Frost’s condition that she was ready to hear about their connection.
Liv turned her gaze to the woman in front of her. “I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t catch your name.”
“I’m Frost, and you’re beautiful. Are you Liv?” Frost’s voice sounded strained.
“Yes, I’m Liv. Do you remember what happened to you?” While she asked her questions, Liv reached for the hem of Frost’s shirt. Moving faster than either he or Liv thought possible, Frost jerked back out of Liv’s reach and to Xander’s surprise, forced him back as well.
“Not the shirt. You can rip off the sleeve, but I’m not taking it off.”
Liv nodded and without hesitation, ripped the right shirt sleeve off and examined the wound. She pressed a clean bandage against her wound on both sides, and flinched as Frost screamed before biting her lower lip.
“Do you mind if Seth draws some blood?”
She shook her head. Her lids were slower as they blinked up and down.
Seth darted to Frost’s side and she blinked at him before he smiled. “You’re fast. Oh, right, immortal. I keep forgetting.”
After Seth made quick work of the blood, Liv removed the bandage and examined the bullet wound, which exited the front. Tears formed in Liv’s eyes, and then in Seth’s, while the others in the room took a gasping breath.
“It’s okay. I’m okay. It’s nothing. I won’t need surgery, especially with the range of motion I still have. So if you just sew me up, I would appreciate it.”
Xander couldn’t believe how Frost was able to deal with the pain, as if it were nothing. But when Liv pressed a clean bandage around the leaking wound, the pain and exhaustion caught up with her. With a moan, Frost’s eyes fluttered closed and she passed out in his arms. He moved to lay her on the bench and without realizing it, his movements caused her shirt to ride up and expose her old wound to their view. It looked as though a chunk of her side was missing. When he glanced closer, he could see claw marks.
Xander’s throat clogged with emotion, taking the time to brush her hair out of her face, before he placed chaste kisses on her face. When he pressed one last kiss to her lips, unable to stay away not that he’d found her, he could’ve sworn that she kissed him back. Her breathing was even, although it hitched every once in a while, as Liv made quick work of cleaning the wound, before she stitched it and dressed both the entrance and exit wound.
When Liv indicated that she had finished, he lifted Frost in his arms and gently laid her on the bed.
“Xander?” Liv’s voice was tight, but she wanted to know.
“She was mauled by a mountain lion several years ago. And tonight, I wasn’t fast enough to stop her from getting shot.” As he ran his hand down his face, blowing out a frustrated sigh, he realized that his words were met with complete silence.