Phillip Lanning is beyond tired. The jobs they’ve been doing with their search and rescue company are just draining him. He needs a break and isn’t sure how to tell his brothers that he’s burnt out. When Nic appears in his apartment to tell him of another mission, this one happens to be his mate, and she’s sick to boot, Nic tells him that the only way she’ll live is if he converts her into a leopard. She doesn’t have much time left. Phillip doesn’t know what to think.
Charleston Grant, better known as Charlie, knows her days are numbered. The tumor’s pressing on her optic nerve and the doctors aren’t giving her long. And when she fell into possession of a coded book, she and her mom became a target. Charlie just wants to get her mom to safety before she dies. Nic tells her he can help her with that, to go with the Lannings and everything will work out.
When Charlie wakes, she knows something is off. She was supposed to die, but instead she can see. And the story she gets about shifters and immortality has her head spinning. Not to mention finding out that her mother isn’t really her mother and her life to this point has been one big lie. And the woman she’s been protecting has sold her out…Charlie is at her wits end. Now a surprise visitor, a fate, shows up and says that Charlie and Phillip were never supposed to meet…she had gone to great lengths to make sure of it…now both Charlie and Phillip are pissed. Who does this woman thinks she is?
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Phillip moved through the apartment without seeing anything. He was exhausted and he hurt. Going up the stairs to his bed seemed like too much effort, so he just stripped down to his boxers and sat on the couch. He felt the man in the room before he closed his eyes. “You should take better care when you are home alone, young Phillip.” Phillip didn’t even bother answering Nic. “I could have killed you and been gone before you even sat down.” “I’m too tired to fuck around right now, Nic. Go away.” The room brightened with light from the fireplace and he glared at the man. “Are you really going to make me pay attention to you? Have you any idea how tired I am right now?” “I do, and yes. You must pay attention to me. It is very important.” Phillip got up and moved to the kitchen, snagging a pair of pants from the laundry basket as he moved by it. He had no idea if the stuff was clean or not, but he didn’t want to talk to Nic half-naked. “Trouble is brewing. And I fear that you are going to be hurt most of anyone.” “What else is new? I’m so tired right now all I want to do is sleep. I’m beginning to hate this job, if you want to know the truth.” He opened his refrigerator and closed it quickly. “I think I forgot to dump stuff before we left this time.” “It is fine now.” Nic sat at Phillip’s table and a glass of something appeared in front of him. Phillip opened his refrigerator again and wasn’t surprised to find it not just fully stocked, but cleaned of all the old stuff as well. He took out the tray of luncheon meats and went to find a loaf of bread. “We have been searching for Grant for you. There is something that you should know. Plenty…but for now, this will be very important to you and your family.” “I’m sure, but right now unless it’s a matter of life or death, just give me the highlights.” Nic nodded and watched him as he put together four thick sandwiches. It was really too much for him, but he knew that Nic would help him out. After getting a large glass of water, he sat down and handed one of the sandwiches to Nic. “Tell me while I eat.” “Charleston Grant is not dead as we have assumed. Hiding, but not dead. There are others still searching for…Mr. Murphy was not the only one that has been looking. Charlie is human, and as far as I can tell, never had any encounters with non-humans.” “What do you mean, as far as you can tell? Have you seen him?” Nic smiled and shook his head. “What does that mean? You don’t smile like that unless you know something very creepy. Not that much of what you do isn’t sort of on the creepy side, but right now I’m too tired to figure it out.” “I do not know what you mean about being this creepy person. As for what I know about Charlie, as she tells people to call her, it is very little. Not by that name anyway.” Phillip nodded and had taken a large bite of his sandwich when what Nic had said occurred to him. Choking on the bread and meat, he had to take several deep breaths before he was able to dislodge it from his throat before he looked at Nic again. “She?” Nic nodded and smiled again. “Charleston Grant is a female? You’re sure about that?” “I do know the difference between a female and male, young Phillip.” Phillip nodded, not sure he wanted to know anything else about this woman. “She will need to come here, and soon. It is…it will be important to all that she is here and safe.” He wasn’t going to ask. Phillip didn’t want to know. Not really. She was someone’s mate, he just knew it. When Nic got up and poured him more water from the sink, Phillip wanted to ask him for something stronger but didn’t. He wanted a clear head. “Daniel let it be known that she had his book. And those men are after her. Her business was quite successful. She has a great deal of money on hand, all of it cash, and she can hide for as long as she wishes. However, she’s not very good at it and someone has let them know where she is. They are closing in on her now and she will be out of options soon. Not just from the men who are hunting her, but other things as well.” Phillip asked him what they had to do with it and regretted the question as soon as it left his mouth. “She cannot die. You need her.” “She’s my mate then.” It wasn’t a question, but Nic confirmed it anyway. “I didn’t think you’d be able to tell me that. I mean, I guess I just thought you’d let me find out on my own. Fumble around a little until we fall into the bed and then in love.” “It will not work that way with you.” Phillip got up to put his dinner on the sink and turned to stare at his friend as he continued. “Charlie will need special care from you. A great deal of it from everyone. She does not see.” “You mean she’s blind.” Nic shook his head no, then yes. “I don’t understand. How can she not see?” “I’m not sure how to explain it. I’ve never run into this kind of problem before.” Phillip didn’t know either, and if Nic didn’t, then it was going to be something he wasn’t sure he was going to understand. “She is ill. Very much so. Not from the running, but an illness. I have helped her a little, but she will need you to convert her so that she might live. Her mother is with her now.” “You think that will save her? And make her see?” Again, he said he didn’t know. “This is not the least bit helpful, you know that, right?” Nic stood up and stretched. “I did not want you not to have the opportunity to fumble around some. But I must go to her now. She is in danger as we speak. You and Misha, you will need to go and get them. Bring them here as soon as possible.” When he disappeared, Phillip cleaned up his kitchen. He was currently house hunting, having decided that after seeing how much fun his brothers were having in their homes. Living in an apartment wasn’t really something that he was enjoying. His neighbors could be heard at all times, and that was driving him nutty. Phillip wondered if he should wait until his mate came to…. “Well, fuck.” Sitting down, he stared off into the living room, which was darkened now that the gas fireplace was off, and thought about what Nic had told him. His mate was the elusive Charleston Grant, and she was sick. He knew nothing more about her other than…well, even that was an unknown to him. How she was ill. His cell phone ringing in the living room had him go to where he’d dropped his pants and answer it on the third ring. Misha didn’t sound all that happy either. “Nic was just here. Motherfucker scared the shit out of me showing up like he did.” Phillip told him he’d been there as well. “Did he tell you about this Charleston person and the mom? That they were in trouble? And that we’re going to have to help them?” Phillip wondered if he’d told his brother about her being his mate and decided to wait and see. “He said that Grant would have to come to the compound to be safe. You suppose that he might be wrong?” He was hoping but knew that Nic was right. “No. He told me that you and I would have to go and get them. That they’re in some deep shit. I don’t mind telling you that I want something to go normal for a change. Normal would be good.” “I agree.” Phillip knew then that Misha didn’t know anything but what the rest of them knew. “When does he think we should go?” “In the morning. He’ll be here at nine to pick us up. I guess that Thomas is going to go too, to help with bringing him here. I guess he’s sick or something. Did he tell you what from?” Phillip told him that he’d not said. “I guess you should stay here then, for a little while anyway. Just to help keep this guy safe.” Phillip didn’t think that once he saw the woman that he’d be able to go anywhere, but said nothing like that to Misha. After a little more conversation about what time he was going to be there, they hung up. Phillip turned on all the lights in his small apartment and looked around. This place was much like his other brothers’ homes. Not the married ones, but the single ones. Andrew prided himself on the fact that he only had a bed in his place, and nothing more than a stool that he ate at the counter with. There was a fridge, but he was pretty sure that he’d never even plugged it in since it had been delivered a few weeks ago. Phillip knew that if he went out on the deck at Andrew’s place, he would see that the only thing that was out there was a big box with his grill inside, and nothing else. He’d not even bothered putting that together. Rider might have had a little more stuff fixed up, as he actually lived in a house and not an apartment. It was being built now and as rooms were finished, Rider was living in them. Phillip thought it was crazy, but then it was Rider. Rider would have hated living in boxes because it was something that he could control by emptying them, but he’d be no more set up in anything other than a bachelor pad than Phillip or Andrew. There would be nothing on the back of the couch, no throw blanket like those that were forever on the backs of Misha’s and the other two married brother’s couches. And he’d bet anything that even though Rider had a house, there wouldn’t have been any kind of decorations left over from Christmas. He would have put that crap away the day after. Much like Phillip had done. Phillip decided to go online while he was already awake and make a better effort toward getting him a house. Or a mate a house. He wondered if he should get one on a single level or…Christ, he didn’t have any idea, but looked anyway. Just as the sun was coming up, he’d marked four of them. Two he really liked, one he was so-so about, but the fourth one was the one he really wanted. It wasn’t too far from his family’s homes, and he thought the acreage was perfect for him and the rest of them should they come over to run. There was even a lovely lake on the property that had a boat house as well as a boat should he want to purchase it. Leaving a note for the realtor, he made his way to the bedroom to shower and change. Wondering what one should wear to meet their mate for the first time, he pulled out a pair of jeans, his usual mode of dress, as well as a Lanning tee-shirt. Going back to his closet, he changed it out for a nice button down and turned on the water in his bathroom. While the water heated up, he looked in the mirror. He’d been beaten around this time, more than the rest, when he’d gone into the water to catch the body that had been floating down the fast moving water. The cuts and burses on his body would heal as his broken rib had already. He was alive, and thanks to a little extra magic from his brother and his wife, Phillip would live for a very long time. But Phillip was, like he was pretty sure Carter was, sick of the depressing assed job all together. The accident up the river had dumped several bodies into it, and there had still been three missing when he pulled the older man out. It was better than the twenty-six that had been missing before they’d gotten there. But Misha had told the people they were done in and had to leave. It wasn’t like them to leave before all were accounted for and Phillip, like the rest, had been surprised by the move. Until they got on the plane. “I talked to Linyah and she said it was done. There would be no finding the bodies simply because they weren’t there. It was a scam.” Rider had asked him what he meant. “Two men are claiming their spouses were on the bridge when it collapsed. They’re hoping to get in on the money that is going to be flowing when the attorneys get started on this.” Phillip had been shocked. Not as much as Murph had been, but then she was new to this kind of search and rescue. And being a former cop, she’d wanted to go and find the men and have them brought to justice. Thomas assured her that it was being taken care of, and Phillip was sure that it was. Phillip was nearly to his brother’s house an hour later when he heard from his realtor on the house that he wanted. He could afford it, no problems. But he would not pay the asking price if he didn’t have to. The realtor agreed with him, pointing out that rarely did anyone ask what they really wanted for a house. “Let me do some talking and I’ll get back to you sometime today. I have some insider information on the house and it’s been on the market for some time. I will tell you that the owners are very motivated to sell, and perhaps we can get a much better price.” He told her to do what she could. Pulling in the drive, he assured her that he’d be available if she needed him. Before he left Misha’s with Nic and Thomas, he asked Hannah to look into the address of the house he was interested in. He wanted some first-hand knowledge on the place, and even some reassurances that the place wasn’t a total mess. She assured him that she would, and Max said that he would as well. The little guy was going to hang out with them today, as Murph and Carter had some things to look into about her dad’s estate. Phillip wasn’t looking forward to this. ~~~ Charlie felt the air around her move gently and tilted her head back to feel the sun on her face. It wasn’t like her to be idle, but she knew that she was being watched right now and let herself relax. Her mom would never do anything to hurt her. Nor would she let anyone hurt her. But they’d been on the run for a while now, and she just knew when they were being observed now. “You should know that men…four of them…are coming toward us.” Sitting up, she tilted her head. “To your left, love. Just beyond us about twenty feet or so. I have my gun out, so you know.” “Don’t shoot them yet, all right?” Her mother would shoot them, too, if they made a false move. “It might be that guy I was telling you about. He’s really tall and his hair is fairly long.” “I think it’s him. He’s with three other men. One of them is big, like strong big. The other two are as well, but younger. Those three are related. They look too much alike not to be.” Charlie knew that the two of them were safe. For now. But in a few days, less more than likely, they’d have to move again. Nic had assured her that they were being cared for and that no one would bother them. She didn’t have any idea why she trusted him, but he’d helped her with a few things and she had it in her head and heart that he was one of the good guys. And he’d promised her that he’d watch over her mom when things were settled in a couple of days too. Charlie had had enough of the pain in her head and wanted it to end now. Charlie knew that she only had weeks to live, more than likely less than that if the way she was feeling was any indication. It had been coming on for a while now and she knew, as did her mom, that it wasn’t going to be long. Mom just had no idea how soon it was going to be. The tumor in her head had gone too long without anyone knowing it was there for much to be done about it. And now it was too late. It had taken over the part of her brain that would eventually shut down all her body, and she’d die. Nic had promised her, after the second time he’d come to see her, that he’d make sure that she did not suffer when the time came. Nor would her mom have to see her in that condition. It was the only reason she was willing to meet with these people today. They were going to take her mom to someplace safe. “Mrs. Grant? We’re here to help your son.” The voice was very cultured, and Charlie waited for her mom to correct the speaker. When she didn’t, Charlie started to speak when the man did again. “We’re here to see Charleston Grant. We’ve been told that he’s in some serious trouble that we can help him with.” “It’s a her, Misha.” The other voice, the other brother she assumed, sounded pissed. She wasn’t sure why, but Charlie thought that she didn’t care for the man. “It’s Charlie Grant, and she’s the younger woman, aren’t you?” “I am.” She’d answered him before she could think that she shouldn’t. “And you would be Mr. Lanning? The one that is going to take care of my mom?” “I’m here to see you, yes, and if this is your mom, then she’s welcome to come with us too.” Charlie stood up and felt the shadow of the man tower over her. She was tall, almost six foot, but he felt bigger than her. “I’m Phillip. This is my brother Misha and my other brother Thomas. And I’m to understand that you know Nic.” Nic touched her shoulder, and she heard a soft growl. Charlie felt the hair on her arm dance at the sound and wondered what the hell that was. Before she could ask, Nic was laughing and letting her go. “Charlie? What do you mean, he’s to take care of me? I do not need taking care of, young lady. I’m very capable of taking care of myself.” Charlie felt her eyes, useless now that the tumor was pressing against her optic nerves, fill with tears. She was going to miss her mom so much when she died. “Charlie?” “They’re going to keep you safe from Mr. Murphy and his goons. They can do it better than I can now.” Her mother touched her, warm and comforting. “Mom, you know that they’re coming. And when they do—” “He’s dead. Daniel Murphy is long gone, but you’re right that more than just him are after you both.” Charlie hadn’t heard that the bastard had died, but was too busy trying to think how to convince her mom she’d be safer with these men to think about it. When the man spoke again, she knew that he was closer to her, and she felt her body wanting to sway to touch him. “I’m going to…we’re going to take you back to our house and keep you safe.” “I’m not going anywhere but back to the apartment and hide out.” She had more plans, but her mom didn’t have to know that. “So if you’ll take her now, she’ll be fine and safe for me. Nic and I have an—” “I can no longer keep you safe.” She turned to the sound of Nic’s voice. “You will need to go with these men now. Both of you. He will…Phillip will need to care for you both now.” The other man—Misha, Charlie thought the man’s name was—laughed. It wasn’t like he was making fun of her or the situation, but that he’d found something incredibly funny. And for some reason she was pissed about that too. “I will not be going anywhere without you, young lady. I have spoken to you this….” The sound, very distant yet sharp, had Charlie turning her head toward it. She knew the sound…a gunfire report, and something that had been hit. “Mom, where are you?” “Here.” Taking her mom’s hand after fumbling for a precious second, she backed away from the men. “Where is he, Charlie? Can you hear him?” Close was all she knew. The sound—a gun being readied to fire again—made her skin crawl up around her ears. Backing up, she hit something solid behind her and cried out. The arms at her elbows had her pausing. The whispered voice at her ear made her shiver. “Where did you hear it from?” She told Phillip to the north. “All right. I’m going to wrap my arms around your waist and we’re going to move. As one. Your mom is with Misha, and Nic and Thomas have gone to see to whatever it is you heard.” “I can’t go with you. Nic said he’d help me.” The arm at her waist was firm, and she put her hand over it. “Don’t let anything happen to her. She is all I have in the world.” “Not anymore.” She had no more idea what that meant than she did a great many things lately. But before she could ask him what he meant, she felt movement, fast and very dizzying. Holding tighter to the man that held her, she closed her eyes. It didn’t make much difference, but she did feel better for it. When the movement stopped, she held onto the man just a little longer simply because it felt good. He moved his mouth near her ear, and she could have sworn he nibbled on her. Then the heat of his body was gone from hers. The smells were different. She knew that the dump that they were hiding in, her mom and her, was in horrible shape. The smells alone made her think of old abandoned buildings, and even if her mom had not described it to her, she would have known it wasn’t in the best of neighborhoods. But this place did not smell anything like that. Pine, like a Christmas tree, was strong in the air. She could smell vanilla and sugar too, and wood burning in a fireplace. Charlie reached out her fingers to move and touched the man again, and had no idea why she knew it was him. When he curled his fingers into hers, it felt as right as anything she’d ever done before. She pulled her hand from his, and he didn’t fight. “Where is my mom?” He laughed a little, and Charlie felt embarrassed. She’d been sharp and harsh and that wasn’t like her. “Can you please tell me where my mom is? And for that matter, where I am?” “You’re in my brother’s home…Misha’s house. Your mom is here, too, but in a different part of the house. I think she’s with my sister-in-law, Hannah. That would be Misha’s wife.” Reaching out again, she took his elbow when he offered it to her. “We’re in the living room. Right in front of you is a sofa. It’s about three inches to your left.” The warmth of the fire had her moving toward it a little, and he told her to be careful, it was huge. As her toes touched the hearth, she knew he was right…the fire blazing from the area was enormous, and she put out her hands to get warm. It seemed that lately she was never warm enough…or for that matter, rested enough. “Why am I here and not with her?” Phillip said that he wanted to talk to her. “About what? I want to go and see her to make sure that she’s all right before I go.” “And where do you think you’ll be able to go? You can’t see to drive, not that I think your blindness would stop you. I bet given enough time, you’d do just about anything. And since I’m pretty sure that you have no idea where you are, you’re not going to be safe out there once you go. How am I doing so far?” She wanted to hit him, and she was pretty sure he knew it. “Also, as I said, I wanted to talk to you. About what you are to me and what sort of things you might know about my kind.” “Your kind? You mean men?” He told her no, he was more than that. “How did I get here without you driving me here? And I want to see my mom.” Charlie felt weak all of a sudden. It was coming on her more and more often of late, and she reached blindly for something to sit on. The man put his arms around her again and she had no choice but to lean heavily on him. Blood—she knew what it was without being told—poured from her nose. He picked her up suddenly. Charlie might have protested, but she knew she wasn’t getting over it this time. That was another thing, it was taking her too long to recover. Letting her body go, having no choice on that either, she felt herself being swallowed up. She heard the man saying her name, shouting it really, but there was little to nothing that she could do about it as darkness took her away.