Chasing Magic (Box Set)
by Kira Stone
eBook ISBN: 07257-02339
[ Shifter Romance ]
Love — and Magic — find desperate lovers in unlikely places.
Publisher’s Note: Chase, A Painter’s Price, and Rythan’s Becoming have been previously published as single title works.
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Chase twisted up the single thin sheet covering his naked body, strangling it between his legs. Worn to exhaustion yet bursting with restless energy, he was too angry, hot and discontented to sleep.
“Damn this place.” He considered the statement, then amended it. “Damn me.”
He certainly felt like one of The Damned. The interior of this cabin on the edge of the Louisiana bayou was hotter than hell.
For a brief minute, he recalled his former life in a black and white montage of mental pictures. A loving family. A one-of-a-kind job he loved, where he could work as much or as little as he wanted and let his sister, Jackie, worry about paying the bills. An urban condo overlooking a man-made view that fed his creative talent with thousands of ideas for Jackie and him to turn into metallic art. And he’d chucked it all, for this.
Christ, he was stupid.
The wanderlust nipping at his heels since puberty had finally turned into a compulsion he had to obey. What was he after? Would he find it here, or would the time come when he’d feel compelled to move on once more? Would he ever be able to go home again?
These questions kept his mind running when his body wanted to collapse into a deep, dreamless sleep. Knowing from experience that the night only got longer when he stared at the ceiling, Chase untangled his legs from the white sheet and got out of bed.
His pampered twenty-four-year-old body had melted in the muggy bayou heat, sweating off fat as easily as pissing water. His long legs had a lean definition he hadn’t been willing to acquire through hard exercise. Same for a set of six-pack abs and an ass so tight one could bounce quarters off it. As if any of it mattered. No one would be looking at his ass, or any other part of him, twice these days.
Naked and gleaming in the moonlight, Chase stood at the door to the old cottage — hardly more than a fishing shack, really — and gazed out across the black water.
The night air was rich with scents. Detritus of millions of years formed an extensive, nutrient rich soil upon which grew a warren of vegetation not a hundred feet from his front porch. Animals of all kinds, from spiders to gators, lived under its canopy. He wondered how soon it would be before he joined them.
Every day a little more of his civilized edge crumbled away. Back in the city, it never would have occurred to him to leave the house without clothes on. Now it took a concentrated effort to recall why he shouldn’t. More often than not, he roamed the swamp bare-assed and footloose. He needed a keeper, but left Tacoma before his sister shouldered that responsibility too. She already had enough to do as the iron backbone of Dragon’s Breath Creations. Controlling his mental illness was something he had to learn himself, one way or another.
The night creatures called to him, a siren song of invitation. Beat them or join them? It wasn’t even a question he paused to ask himself on nights like this. Join them, that was the only possible answer. The dregs of his humanity would draw him back to the cottage come dawn, but in the twilight hours he was just as much a creature of the night as those who had been born there.
He headed down his favorite path, one that would take him into the heart of the bayou. The soles of his feet had toughened during his frequent amblings so he no longer felt the sharp rocks, twigs, and bones poking up through the soft soil. Soon his sweat drowned the mosquitoes trying to extract an ounce of his flesh, and he felt a small measure of peace.
Sometimes he picked up a companion on these nocturnal wanderings. The black wolfhound was hard to see in the shadow-laden swamp. Usually Chase detected him first by scent, then by sound. Tonight the wind brought him neither sign. He was all alone.
Or was he?
Lights danced in the distance, a bevy of blinking faerie lights. Eventually their presence connected with a logical conclusion in his sluggish human mind. Headlamps on an air boat or a rigged up river skiff searching the banks of an inlet, being as quiet and stealthy as such an activity could be.
Curious. He’d seen plenty of boats roaring up and down the channels without regard for the laws of the land. So why were these people creeping around? What were they after?
A fierce, inexplicable protectiveness rose in him. He wanted them off his land. Now. The fact that the strong compulsion made no sense did little to appease the need. If nothing else, Chase had to know what they were doing.
He grabbed a double handful of mud and ground it into his skin, darkening his brown sugar tan into the color of brewed coffee grounds. As far as disappearing acts went in this neck of the woods, it was one of the best. His occasional wolfish companion had taught him that.
Now suitably soiled, Chase advanced through the brush, stopping every couple of feet to listen. The bayou’s evening song had quieted, another indication that something bad was about to happen. If he’d had hackles, they would have been raised. All of his senses were on alert. He strained to capture any hint of danger.
His human observation skills weren’t up to the task. Chase almost stumbled over the wolf before he realized the creature was blocking his path.
“Go away,” Chase hissed at it. “There’s danger for you here.” The wolf shook his head, as a human would. An oddity to be sure, but food for later thought. He had a mission, and a wolf wasn’t going to get in his way. “Get. Run. Leave.”
None of the words had an effect, so Chase resorted to kicking up a bit of dirt, hoping to scare the animal off. The wolf didn’t even flinch.
“Right. Not afraid of getting dirty or whispered words. Stupid of me.” Also, stupid of him to be naked while arguing with a creature capable of tearing his balls off. The wolf had never made a threatening move toward him before, but there was a first time for everything. Chase preferred to delay that particular experience as long as possible. “I’ll just be on my way then. Don’t try to follow me.”
He tried to step around the wolf, but the creature paced him. Crossing the water didn’t shake his furry tail either. No matter how he moved, the wolf stayed between him and the flashing lights.
Chase found a relatively solid stump to sit on while he pondered his options. Several feet away, the wolf turned in a circle before settling down. His huge head rested on his big front paws. He yawned once, then closed his yellow eyes. Chase wasn’t fooled for a second. That wolf knew exactly where he was and would rise as soon as he moved. So where did that leave him now?
Their contact thus far had been limited to traveling companions. The wolf came and went on a schedule that only he knew, and usually kept his distance. This was the first chance they’d had to get to know each other. Since the animal didn’t seem to mind, Chase studied him.
His glossy black coat was matted in places. Mud caked his padded paws. His right ear had a notch taken out of it, about halfway up the outer edge. Otherwise, he looked lean and healthy with a thick plume of a tail. A sexy beast, all in all.
More than a term, it had a direct physical response on Chase’s body. He did think the wolf was sexy, in a thoroughly carnal way. Oh, the things that extra long tongue could do to his balls…
Oh, hell no! Snap out of it!
What was wrong with him? He’d had some pretty strange fantasies lately, but nothing so deviant as this. Was he insane?
Despite the grim circumstances, Chase smiled. Jackie would be the first to tell him that his brain worked in mysterious ways. Considering that particular oddity generated enough money to keep them both out of the poor house, she didn’t voice the observation as a complaint. She accepted him as he was, had been his strongest supporter when he struggled to find himself as a man and an artist, and had been his best friend through it all. And he’d left her without a word to avoid being asked for explanations he couldn’t give. What a selfish bastard he was.
That line of thought wasn’t doing anything to improve his current frame of mind. His attention darted back to the wolf. And his fantasies. “Are you a tame beast? Is that why you seem so comfortable with me?”
At the sound of his voice, the wolf glanced up at him. There was great intelligence glowing from those golden yellow irises, but no answers.
Chase didn’t want to let the subject drop. It suddenly seemed as if all the answers he so desperately needed could be found within the wolf, if only the creature would speak to him. “Come on, you big, bad wolf. Talk to me.”
The beast opened his mouth, letting his tongue slip free. The creature was laughing at him!
“I am losing it,” Chase said, disgusted with himself for even thinking such foolishness.
The boat bobbing in the shallow tide rocked with the recoil of a gun. The angry roar of an injured alligator rumbled through the night. Water splashed violently, as if two creatures wrestled in the waist-high depths. There was another shot, and then total silence.
Gator hunters were poaching on his land. Intolerable!
Laughter and effusive congratulations erupted from the direction of the boat. Chase shot forward, thinking of nothing but killing those men. A life for a life. How he would accomplish such a feat when they had guns and he couldn’t even cover his butt, he didn’t know. But he’d be damned if he’d sit by and let murder happen without at least trying to stop the men who’d committed the heinous act.
Surprise gave him a head start on the wolf. It wasn’t enough. The animal bounded twice and landed squarely in front of Chase. This time he wasn’t playing, or so the soft growl in the creature’s throat warned.
“This is wrong. It needs to stop.”
The wolf dipped his head in acknowledgement, but didn’t move out of the way.
“I need to know who they are. I’ll report them to the police instead of confronting them now if that’s what you want, but I need names. A license plate. Something!”
He was running out of time. The men had hauled their prize into the boat with a noisy flop. Soon the engines would kick up a wild ruckus, destroying most of the evidence, and they’d disappear into the swamp at a speed he couldn’t hope to match on foot. He had to move, now.
Chase charged the wolf, leaping over him with more ground clearance than he’d ever gotten during his stint as hurdler for the high school track team. He sprinted through the trees. The engines started and Chase pushed himself for another ounce of speed. He could almost read the name on the bow…
The wolf tackled him from the side. Chase went down hard. His teeth bounced together, slicing into the soft tissue of his lip. The coppery tang of blood filled his mouth. “What the hell is wrong with you?” As he listened to the boat roar off into the night, Chase swelled with anger. “They’re fucking gone and I have no clue how to track them down! Are you happy now?”
The wolf yipped in response. Chase wasn’t sure how to interpret that, nor did he care to. Someone had violated his territory and killed a beast under his protection, and he’d done nothing to stop it from happening again. The insult stung his pride in a way he hadn’t known was possible. The fact that he still couldn’t explain why he felt so protective of this piece of land had no impact on the intensity of his feelings. “I’m going to see if they left anything behind. Stay out of my way while I do. Got that?”
He didn’t wait for another cryptic response from his furry, unwanted guardian. Instead, he got to his feet. A thin trail of blood trickled from his chin and there was a shallow gash along his arm where a sharp claw had torn the skin. A bad scrape, but nothing permanent. He seemed to heal in minutes these days.
He fought through the vegetation to where the channel had eroded the land, forming a relatively stagnant pool. The signs of a deadly struggle were grim and obvious. A mother gator hadn’t been willing to abandon her nest of eggs. She’d been a sitting duck once the hunters spotted her in the undergrowth.
A great sadness weighed him down as he looked upon the shell fragments. Sticky yolk that would never become gator babies coated the nest. Whether the desperate mother or the careless men had caused the carnage, it was hard to tell. Either way, Chase mourned the unnecessary loss.
With nothing he could do to salvage the situation, Chase turned his back on the destruction and moved under the cover of the mangroves lining the wet bank. He didn’t understand why he gravitated toward the long shadows any more than he understood why he felt so strongly about the illegal hunting. Neither urge had afflicted him back home.
Back home. Tacoma and Jackie and all the familiar sights and sounds of his artist studio. Would he ever see it again? Probably not. Even if he hadn’t burned his bridges by leaving like a thief in the night, he couldn’t risk exposing his sister to whatever illness was slowly overtaking him. Not until he had it under control.
If it didn’t kill him first.
Feeling sad, alone and sick to his stomach, he curled up into a ball on the forest floor. Coward. Weakling. He should have found a way to protect what was his. Jackie would have.
A soft snuffle brought him out of his brooding. The wolf sat near his feet, subjecting him to the same scrutiny Chase had given the animal earlier. “Go away. Leave me alone.”
His dark head cocked at a questioning angle.
“Get out of here!” Doggedly, the stubborn creature refused to budge. Chase kicked out at him, missing his shoulder by a mile as the agile creature darted out of the way. “I don’t need you. I don’t want you around.”
Yes, you do.
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