Shift Inc, Book 2
by Crymsyn Hart
Ebook ISBN: 07684-02478
[ Shifter Romance, MMF ]
Kele and Misha have been friends for years, but when Misha discloses his vision — that they are all three mates — Kele can’t accept Misha’s revelation. The only one he has seen in his dreams is Lark.
Misha studied the swirling wood grains of the desk. The monstrosity had belonged to his half-brother’s grandfather on his mother’s side. It now sat in Ward’s office. His brother was older by twenty-five years and the oldest of his other half-brothers: Booker and Toren.
The phone rang on Ward’s desk. Misha fought the impulse to pick it up. He had been working at Shift, Inc. for the last five years, slowly moving up through the ranks of the family business. He had started off in the mail room and worked his way up to being a glorified secretary.
He was tired of being behind a desk. Ward headed up the Charlotte, NC location of Shift, Inc. Booker was the president of the Boston office and pack leader in New England. Toren floated between jobs. Mostly he freelanced watching clients, expanding the client base. Many of them were actors, but Toren didn’t talk about his patrons. They had an office in California which was run by one of his uncles. All the family had a stake in the company.
Misha was the youngest at thirty. His brothers treated him like the runt of the litter, but they would all live to be at least two or three hundred years old. Misha was a hybrid-half wolf and half fox. When he shifted he was smaller than his brothers. They thought he was scrawny in comparison. He was larger than his mother, who was a full fox shifter. His brothers’ mother had died giving birth to Toren. Although his father had never considered finding another mate, he had run into Misha’s mother when she had been wounded on their land. It was a match made in heaven. His father and brothers ran the bodyguard business. His mother was forty years younger than his father and arranged the events they hosted on the premises. And it was the part of the family business he wanted to get into. Not sitting behind a desk and answering phone calls.
Toren was the only brother he could talk to. He told Misha to sit down with Ward, and make him see Misha was a full grown man who could handle himself and protect clients. So that was exactly what Misha had done. He made an appointment with Ward to talk about his work in the family business.
The phone rang one more time.
Misha checked his watch. Running late as usual.
It wasn’t unusual for his brother to get so caught up in business he forgot about other things. So far, he was only running fifteen minutes behind.
Misha got up from his chair and walked over to the French doors which led out to the garden behind the mansion. The floorboards creaked as he paced. He looked around the room. His gaze passed over the bookshelves and the frosted glass windows on either side of the door to Ward’s office. The photos on the wall were of forests and wilderness. There were bookcases along the wall filled with books and other small bits of artwork. But it was the space between the shelves which caught his attention. It was the opening to the crawlspace which led into the main part of the basement where the boiler and furnace were located. It was securely locked. Misha had one in his bedroom but it only led into a crawlspace with nothing but a dirt floor. There were a few other such spaces and cubby holes around the mansion.
Shift, Inc.-Charlotte was located in an old mansion, in the city, but it was tucked away in a fairly secluded neighborhood with a decent amount of land with it. Misha had an apartment in the basement. When he moved down from Massachusetts it had been a temporary fix. Five years later, he still resided in the apartment and thought of it as home. It also included the responsibility of watching over the house to prevent break ins. The garden in the back was surrounded by high brick walls. The old oak trees ringing the property were lucky to escape the Cankerworm infestations. On balmy nights the garden was large enough for him to prance around in.
“Hey, Misha,” Carol, his brother’s assistant, called from the doorway.
He turned and looked at her. Blonde hair framed her face. She was thin and fragile looking. She had determination. Keeping Ward on schedule, was an impossible task. He didn’t know how she put up with him. Carol was a duck shifter. He hadn’t met very many bird shifters, but the company didn’t discriminate.
They even serviced human clientele. Some shifters requested not to be paired with a human. Others didn’t care. Misha interacted with them all day long. His face was the first one everyone saw when they walked in. He manned the phones and directed the calls about needing a bodyguard, hiring a clown for a birthday party, or if someone needed to book a wedding at the mansion. He had amassed a great deal of knowledge on who to call if a client needed something else. It was all an interconnected web of contacts that he juggled. Sometimes he felt his mind was swimming in random numbers of what someone did or where was the best place to get a plate of loaded nachos. It was like he was an entire hotel concierge wrapped up in one body.
It was exhausting.
Her smile turned into a frown. “I’m sorry, but he’s not coming.”
She shrugged. “You know how he can be.”
Misha shoved his hands into his pockets, trying not to let his disappointment color his judgement of his brother. “Yeah. I know how he can be. Did he say anything?”
“No. Sorry. I’m not sure when he’s going to be back in. Ward’s schedule has him out of town meeting with some clients for the next two weeks. Why don’t you text him? I’m sure he’d answer you then.”
He scoffed and raked his fingers over his face. Strands of his scruffy black hair fell into his eyes. Figures. I’m tired of being pushed aside. He talks to everyone but me. He gritted his teeth, about ready to lash out. It wasn’t Carol’s fault that his brother was an ass.
“I’ve sent him texts, but he doesn’t answer me back. It took me a month to get this appointment with him. Damn him!” Misha slammed his fist down on the edge of the desk and the phone jumped out of its cradle.
Carol flinched but gave him a sympathetic look.
Weariness overtook him. He hadn’t been sleeping well the past couple of weeks. His dreams were intense and woke him in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. In them he chased another animal bigger than he was. Above him, while he ran, a bird screeched. The sound haunted him, and it was what he woke up to each time. It had run through his mind while he was waiting for Ward. He shook his head and set the phone back in its cradle.
She was about to respond when the phone rang again. She jumped to grab it before whoever hung up. Misha sighed. His wolf stirred within his flesh. Even though he was a hybrid he felt more wolf than he did fox. It wanted to get out and stretch its legs. In the middle of the day, he couldn’t do that.
Misha left the office area and headed toward the back of the house where the kitchen and the employee breakroom were located. He turned down the hallway leading to the rear entrance of the building. Before him lay the vast walled garden connecting to the employee parking lot on one side of the walled garden. On the other side were immense acres where he could run. He loved running at night when no one would see him.
Today, Misha walked along the brick walkaway under a large trellis with roses growing over it. He was headed toward the back of the property where not many ventured. The whole thing was perfectly manicured along the edges with plenty of plots of open spaces to race along with wooded areas in the back that were left untouched. It allowed his wolf to hunt a rabbit and bound through the forest at the back lot which also linked into one of the city’s many greenways.
As Misha took in the crisp air, his wolf quieted some. His anger did not. If he didn’t get his fury under control, he could shift.
This was the kind of behavior he expected from Ward. It just shows he thinks I’m a pup. Maybe he resents my mother. He never interacts with her unless he has to. The man might be the boss, and beloved by many of their clients, but he could be a jackass. Booker was busier than Ward. If Misha called him about something, he answered the phone. If he wasn’t available, he made time to call him back. Heck, he made time to call him at least once a month.
Misha passed through an archway carved out of an enormous hedge. He needed a walk to clear his head.
Before him was a stone labyrinth in a circular design. Benches lined the edges of the maze and other vantage points. This made it possible to sit and contemplate the silence and the beauty of the garden. Beyond the maze was the wall. Most of it was covered in ivy or some other creeping, flowering plant. Buried in the boughs of the trees were bird houses. The little birds were twittering. He watched a cardinal flick from branch to branch while it looked for its mate. The simple action helped him to let go of some of his anger. Misha took in a breath and focused on the path ahead of him. When he was about to step onto the stones, he saw another person walking in the labyrinth.
Wind billowed the blue skirt the woman wore. A whiff of her perfume danced over to his nose. Something fancy with the slight hint of lavender. Her skin was the color of hot chocolate. She was buxom with her grayish blue top stretching over her curves. Her head was down. The ringlets of her hair covered her face as she looked down, concentrating on each step she took. The way she moved was with the grace of a dancer mixed with a large predator. The breeze brought more of her scent to him. Another predator. The woman took one specific step after another, following the lines until she was about to take a turn. As she did, she lost her footing and wheeled her arms out to regain her balance. When she looked up, she saw him.
“See something interesting?”
He stifled a laugh and bit his lip. She didn’t look embarrassed or disturbed at being caught in her fumble. “Nope. Nothing. Sorry.”
Her gaze bored into his eyes, nearly stopping his heart. Misha crossed his arms over his chest as she stalked closer. He couldn’t tear his gaze off the sway of her hips. Something jingled as she walked. The glint of silver around her ankle caught his eye. The anklet wrapped around her bare foot. Her toenails were painted the same color red as her mouth. Those tantalizing lips. She said something again, but his mind had gone blank.
“Hey. You hear what I’m saying?” She snapped her fingers in front of his face, pulling him out of his daydream.
“Sorry. What did you say?”
“I asked if you were here to talk about our appointment. I’ve been waiting for twenty minutes. I thought Mr. Ward Rufus was supposed to be on time. At least that’s what the brochure says or whatever the fuck I was handed. I expect to be treated with respect. I thought this was a professional operation.” She put her hands on her hips. Her nostrils flared. Her blue eyes darkened to emerald green. The skin across her face rippled in a blink. He caught some feline features but not enough to see what kind of a cat she was.
“Ahh…I think you have me mistaken for someone else.” Misha hated to hear his brother had flaked on an appointment. It was one thing for his brother to blow him off. His brother never forgot about a meeting. Carol saw to that.
“Then who the hell are you? A gardener. You come to weed the flowers?”
“I’m not the gardener.” Misha gestured toward himself and then extended his hand to greet her. “I’m Misha, Ward’s younger brother. Can I help you with something?”
She lifted an eyebrow. Her irritation rolled off her in heatwaves. If she was close enough to anything dry, she could spark a fire. “Why the hell do you think I’m here? To walk this stupid bunch of lines in this garden or look at the pretty scenery? Of course, I need help with something. Are all of you wolves a bunch of impudent dogs? I’m beginning to wonder if I was having smoke blown up my ass.”
“I’m sorry my brother hasn’t met with you and you’ve had to wait out here. No one told me. If they had, I would’ve met you before you got so pissed off. Don’t judge our organization before you even try it, Miss –”
“Thomerson. Lark Thomerson. Misha, you said? You look familiar somehow.”
He withdrew his hand because she wasn’t about to shake it. The spark in her eyes showed she was pissed. Misha hoped he could calm the situation down and make sure she left Shift, Inc. satisfied. At the very least not so perturbed she went out into the community and said how unprofessional they were. The company prided themselves on being professional and making their clients feel safe. They had foiled assassination plots. They had escorted others through cities prone to kidnapping. It all depended on what the client needed. Misha had seen and heard a little bit of everything over the past five years.
He put on his brightest smile and took in a deep breath, slipping into the role he played at the front desk when he greeted people. They were the most important people in the whole universe.
“If you’ve met with Ward, then maybe you’ve seen the family resemblance.” Misha wasn’t about to announce he was the receptionist.
Lark shrugged. “I guess that’s it.”
“Would you care to come back inside and have a seat so we can hash out exactly what you need? We can figure something out to make up for my brother missing your appointment. It’s a little chilly out here. Why don’t we go inside and I can get you some tea?”
“I don’t drink tea,” she snapped.
“Okay. Coffee. Wine. Hot Chocolate. We have a variety of drinks in our breakroom or in one of the conference rooms. You must be parched after being out here for so long. Once you freshen up, we can talk about the reason you’ve come.”
Her eyes narrowed. They became deep forest green and glinted in the dying light. Her pupils became black slits as she contemplated his offer. Misha hoped she would come back into the mansion. Something about her made him desire to be closer to her. His wolf itched to be around her for a few moments longer. Her eyes normalized to their sapphire blue hue.
“Fine. Lead the way. I could use a stiff drink after being stood up.”
He gave her a half bow as she jeered and walked past him. Misha’s head spun from the heady scent of her. It took a moment to regain his composure.
“You coming, or do I have to show myself around this monstrous place?”
“Right this way.”
* * *
As they walked the halls, Lark noticed a few waiters rushing about carrying dirty plates. One nearly ran into her. She skirted out of the way before the plates toppled all over her. What Lark really wanted to do was swat the man who said he was Ward’s brother. They looked vaguely similar. Beyond his eyes and the color of his hair, she didn’t see any resemblance to Ward Rufus at all. She was tired of the games the wolf played on her. This was the third time he had canceled on their date. The only reason she continued with these meetings was because her grandmother had signed her up for an arranged marriage with the eldest Rufus boy. The marriage had been part of a peace treaty between the wolf clans of the North and the large cat clans of the South. The truce could have a lasting peace. Her grandmother, Amelia, had brokered the deal with Edward Rufus, Ward’s father. Since her mother and Edward were already established in their mating, it was agreed that the first eligible female born to Amelia’s line and the first eligible male from Edward’s line would be decreed as mates.
Her entire life Lark had known she was fated to be the mate of a wolf shifter. And Lark hated wolves. They were nothing but puppies who pissed on one another’s shoes to mark their territory. Her mother and grandmother said the mating would strengthen the relationship between the wolves and the cats even though they had already formed the alliance. She had always been told not to expect to be anyone else’s mate even if she dreamed about someone. Six months ago, her mother had received a phone call from Edward saying it was time for her to meet with Ward. Lark had done her duty and met with him for the first time.
The dinner had been awkward on both parts. It was amicable enough. She made it through the night. All Lark had wanted to do was swipe her claws across his face. Ward’s gaze had strayed from her face to the other girls walking by, to his phone, the menu, or anything other than her. The conversation had been about his business. They avoided the subject about the arranged mating. After the initial date, she had set appointments to meet with him to see if they had anything in common. If they were going to be mated, then they had to have something to talk about.
Today Ward had skipped out on her again. I don’t need his reject of a brother escorting me around this place. They walked into the house through some French doors into an elaborate kitchen. Lark wasn’t much of a cook and food didn’t push her buttons unless she was batting her paw at it or eating it. When she hunted, she liked to play with her food. Her mother frowned upon it, but it wasn’t like she was rolling around in catnip.
“What would you like to drink?” Misha asked her.
Her eyes narrowed. Misha was slightly shorter than Ward, but still around six feet tall. He was leaner, too. He was dressed decent in a nice pair of pants and button down shirt. Ward had worn an expensive tailored suit to their dinner. Misha seemed more comfortable in his clothes. Black hair hung shaggy around his ears. His green eyes were more hazel inside than they had been outside. At least he was not feigning interest in her.
“Fuck this. I don’t want anything to drink. I don’t need you being the substitute for your brother either. Go back to Ward and tell him that if he doesn’t meet with me then all bets are off. If that means –”
He held up his hands. “Whoa. Whoa. I’m not here in my brother’s stead. I was out in the garden to calm down because he blew me off, too. I’m not his substitute, Ms. Thomerson. I don’t know why you’re here, but you’re obviously unhappy. His assistant told me Ward was in meetings with a client. Would you like to speak with her?”
He’s trying. Her cat rubbed along her mind. It wanted to claw Ward a new asshole for being stood up. The fury roiled underneath her skin. It was so close to coming out the flesh on her face had rippled in the garden. She never lost control. Her grandmother had said it was in the stars for her to mate with a wolf. Lark didn’t care what the stars told her. I know my own heart and what my dreams are telling me.
Lark had been having consistent dreams for six months. The same time she had been trying to get acquainted with Ward. In them, two male animals were with her. One of them stayed in the shadow even in animal form. The other was more approachable. It was a bird. A hawk of some kind. It was rather a smaller hunting bird. It flew above her and landed before her. It hopped up to her and rubbed its wing along her leg. It hadn’t shown itself in human form. A bird shifter wasn’t something she had expected. But the dreams didn’t show false mates. She had felt an instant connection. The other animal hadn’t made itself known, but the link was there as well. Each time she dreamed of the hawk, its eyes were the grayest she had ever seen. In the waking world, she kept her eye out for a man with such eyes.
How would her other two true mates react to her being married to someone else? Even if that mating was to tie up the treaty. One man wasn’t going to want to share her with two others. In the contract, there was a clause they had to consummate the marriage so they had to sleep with one another. Bile rose in her throat at the thought.
“I don’t need to speak to Carol. Shit, I know her favorite chocolate is malted milk balls. I’ve talked to her more in the past six months than I have my own mother. Don’t you find that a little odd? Where the hell is Ward?”
“I wish I knew,” he muttered.
Maybe Ward didn’t send him after all. She ran her fingers through her hair. Her sharp nails caught on her ringlets. If she didn’t get her rage under control, she would shift in front of a stranger. Sure as shit, Lark didn’t want to be all furry in the kitchen in case someone walked in and wanted to put cream in their coffee. “I’m sorry. You’re not your brother, and I’ve been taking out my frustration on you.”
Misha shrugged. “I’m used to it. I’m the first face people see when they walk in and the first one they complain to if something goes wrong. Trust me, the things I hear because their bodyguard wore the wrong color shirt or some shit like that. It’s ridiculous.”
“Really?” She lifted an eyebrow. “Wait, you’re the receptionist?”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence. I’m so sorry that I’m beneath you.”
“Sorry. Your brother vexes me.”
“You and me both. Do you want something to drink? Or would you like to castigate me for something else that I’m doing now?”
Lark pressed her nails into the meat of her palm. “Coffee. Tea. Whatever.”
Misha grabbed a towel and clutched her hand.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” She yanked her hand away.
“You’re bleeding. I wanted to stop it. You should clean it before it gets infected. I’m not trying to assault you. Look.” He put up his hands and backed away. “You apparently don’t want any help with anything except cussing out my brother. I’ll leave you to it then.” He threw the towel at her. She caught it and looked down at her hand. It was covered in blood. Her nails had cut into her palm. They would heal quickly. She understood why he had given her the towel.
A wave of remorse washed over her for the way she had treated him. She turned around and saw the door swinging on its hinges. Shit. She went after Misha to apologize.
Opening the swinging kitchen door, she slammed into something that knocked the wind out of her. She looked up into the grayest eyes she had ever seen. Lark went to apologize. Instead of speaking, her lips were captured in a hungry kiss. She melted into the man. Her cat purred. It instantly recognized this man as one of her mates.
Lark wanted to say something and fight him off. Everything hardwired in her to fend him off had shut down. All she yearned for was to remain in his arms. Those warm arms would protect her. She had to deal with Ward. And she had to tell her mate about the contract she had been forced into.
When the kiss ended and the real world returned, she couldn’t catch her breath.
“I’ve found you at last,” a deep baritone whispered in her ear.