The urge to reach out with his power and comfort her rose up inside him, but she’d bow up if he did that again. Too much pride to allow anyone to protect her. If she didn’t back off the power that was spinning around her he’d have to do something soon. Like put his arms around her. That’d get his clock cleaned. “Look, Evalle, I can’t help you if I don’t know what I’m looking for.”
She dipped her head and the power fell away.
Thank the spirit gods. Storm drew a breath, unaware he’d been holding his.
“Sen wants me off the team.”
She gave a wry laugh. “Not that easy. My existence depends on remaining with VIPER. Didn’t he fill you in on Alterants?”
“I heard about the ones that have shifted and killed. I know he thinks you’re hiding something from him.” Storm wanted to smile when her lips parted in surprise. She had a damn nice mouth. “I know he thinks you’re lying to him sometimes, which we established last night was credible.”
That flattened her lips across clenched teeth. What would it be like to see her eyes fire up with passion for once?
“What else do I need to know, Evalle?” He had to get moving, away from her preferably, or he wouldn’t keep his hands to himself with her putting out anxiety waves like a cornered animal. He had no choice but to push her a little more. “You’re the one who asked for help. What’s the deal with being an Alterant? What makes you special?”
That shoved the last bit of her rancor over the edge. “Just freakin’ forget I said anything.” She started past him.
He caught her by the arm.
She swung around and ripped her glasses off with her free arm. Her eyes glowed a brilliant green. Not anything like what he’d seen in the truck when they’d ridden to Atlanta from VIPER headquarters. “Take a good look. This is just a little pissed off. The really nasty side comes out if I shift, which Sen thinks I’m already doing anyhow and just keeping it hidden. The minute he has proof I’m a threat to humans, a Tribunal will lock me in a cage where no one will ever find me. That’s what he brought you in for. Take your hand off me before you lose it.”
Her body shook beneath his fingers.
He understood anger that raw and painful. It came from deep within when everything in your world was beyond your control. Storm’s jaguar wanted to come out and kill whatever threatened her, wanted to roar at the anguish buried inside each of her sharp breaths and force the world to stop hurting her.
When he ran out of choices, he kissed her.
Evalle had prepared herself for any reaction from Storm when she yelled at him and showed her glowing green beast eyes, but his kissing her had not been one of them. A rush of shock stole her ability to think or react. Then she only thought about how his lips were soft for someone with hard corded muscle beneath the skin where she clutched his arm.
He hadn’t touched her anywhere except her lips.
She, on the other hand, had her fingers wrapped around his arms. Holding on was sending the wrong message.
Allowing him to continue kissing her was sending a way wrong message. She let go.
He lifted his mouth from hers.
She remembered to breathe again. Noticed the rain still misting. Remembered they were in Piedmont Park, where thankfully few humans visited late on a Monday night. When she met his gaze, she expected a look of apology, but she didn’t see an ounce of regret. Before she could stop herself, Evalle licked her lips.
He looked away sharply and released a morose laugh that sounded half sigh. “Don’t do that unless you want me to keep kissing you.”
His laughing at her dumped cold water on whatever brain lapse had caused her to stand still like an idiot and allow him to kiss her at will. She’d never let anyone get that close to her face since the night the doctor had hurt her.
Why had she let Storm get away with that?
Because he’d surprised her before she’d been able to think to stop him. Because he hadn’t put his hands on her. And once his mouth had touched hers, she hadn’t wanted him to quit kissing her.
She was treading in dangerous waters with this man.
Hormones might do her in before her remaining lies buried her.
She stepped back, pulling away from the gentle blanket of his heat, which had wound around her senses. “Why’d you kiss me?”
He angled his head thoughtfully. “I could tell you it was because you’re pretty, which you are, or because I want you, which I do. But the truth is I don’t like seeing you upset.”
“I want you”? As in … She wasn’t even going to touch that part. In fact, she was in so far over her head in this conversation she’d need a floatie if she didn’t get out of it. “I was angry, not upset.”
The smile that spread across his face called her on the lie.
She huffed at him. “Whatever you perceived my emotional state to be, that does not give you permission to kiss me whenever you want.”
He took a step, closing the distance between them to an inch.
She stood her ground in spite of her feet itching to back up—a smarter part of her body than her hands, which itched to touch him. Well, hell, she might need a whole armada of floaties to save her at this point.
Storm shoved his hands into his jeans pockets and dropped his head close to hers. “I won’t ever do that again if you can tell me you didn’t enjoy it and make me believe it.”
How did she get herself in trouble like this? Telling him the truth—that she’d never been kissed, not in a sweet way like he’d just done—would get her in as much of a jam as trying to convince him she hadn’t enjoyed it. “I don’t have to tell you anything, and we need to get back to work.”
There was that chuckle again, but this time genuine humor spread across his face and reached his gorgeous eyes for several seconds before he turned all business again. “We’ll get back to work then. You wanted my help, so tell me about Alterants.”
She wished she could read his mind and know what to believe about him. Know if he could be trusted.
When she didn’t answer him, he said, “What if I told you we have more in common than not?”
The adrenaline jamming her body from that kiss began to back off so she could think more clearly. Allowed her to breathe again. “I don’t see how you and I could have anything in common.”
“Let’s make this simple and stop beating around the bush. You have your secrets and so do I. I told you I’m not Sen’s puppet, but that’s all I can tell you about why I’m here. It’s up to you to decide if I’m lying or not. If you want my help, ask for it. If I say I’ll do something, I will, but that’s not a promise I’ll say yes to everything you ask, or that our ideas of what it means to help will always coincide. That’s the best I can do.”
“Did you give Sen the same agreement?”
“Yes, I did.”
If he’d taken his time to answer or tried to convince her otherwise, she wouldn’t have believed him. Agreeing to share her situation with him didn’t mean she trusted Storm completely, but she needed someone who could help other than Tzader and Quinn. She would not put them at risk. “I can work with that.”
“Then tell me what the problem is or what you need from me.”
She gritted her teeth at the idea of giving him all the evidence Sen would need to hand her over to the Tribunal. Would Storm use what she told him against her, or would he really help her? She was running out of time and there was only one way to find out. “Someone sent three demons into Atlanta looking for an Alterant, and I’m the only one here. I need to find out who is behind the Birrn that attacked me and if it’s connected to the Ngak Stone in any way.”
“You’re sure the demons were after an Alterant?”
“No, I don’t have enough real drama. I’m making the demon attacks all about me.” She’d gladly give up the spotlight to someone else.
“What makes you think the demons that have shown up in Atlanta are connected to the Ngak Stone surfacing in the park?” Storm asked.
“Too many coincidences add up to a possible connection. For one thing, I ran into a Kujoo the other night, the one called Vyan that Trey was talking about in the VIPER meeting.”
“Why don’t you tell me about this Vyan while we work our way through the park?” Storm took the lead through the dark.
He moved with the agile grace of a big cat, as if at home in the night. Did he have exceptional vision, too?
Evalle put her sunglasses back over her eyes before he reached one of the paved roads lined with streetlights that dissected the park. She kept an eye out to make sure no one was near them when she continued. “Vyan was trying to grab two teenagers the other night and I intervened.”
“How’d you get involved?”
“One of the teens he was after is a street kid, a male witch I don’t want to see end up as a demon Snackable. The other one is the sister of a demigod. But here’s the odd thing. When I stopped Vyan from taking them, I had the weirdest feeling he was glad I kept the kids out of his hands.” That empathic ability she’d been sensing might have given her that insight now that she thought about it.
Striding at a comfortable pace, Storm shook his head. “That makes no sense.”
“Tell me about it, and Vyan actually told me to read them the fairy tale about Hansel and Gretel. Like he was trying to let me know a witch was planning to use them for a blood sacrifice, which fits with Noirre majik. And here’s the other surprise—he didn’t at least try to battle me.”
“I thought Trey said this Vyan was allowed to walk away free if he didn’t battle a Belador.”
“Few people consider me a true Belador, so that shouldn’t have stopped him. I doubt Shiva would hold him to that agreement when it came to an Alterant.”
Storm had reached the steps leading down a ten-foot drop to the south end of the park when he paused and studied her. His eyes logged some thought he didn’t share before turning to take the steps two at a time.
She wished she had Trey’s exceptional ability to read anyone’s thoughts. He was one of the strongest telepaths among the Beladors. Storm would probably catch her snooping around in his mind if she were bold enough to try. She’d love to know just what was going on beneath all that black hair, what gave his coal-black eyes both a contemplative and a hungry look at the same time.
The rain picked up from a bare drizzle to a light shower, running even the most die-hard dog owners from the park. Evalle started to chide Storm over not even bringing a hat to block the rain from his eyes when she caught a movement on her left about fifty feet away.
“What the heck is that?” she mumbled to herself.
Storm turned to follow her line of sight.
The figure of a distorted old man limped through a wide space between two tall pine trees. The man’s body flickered in and out of view as though he couldn’t hold a shape of any kind.
Evalle took a couple of steps. Her boot scuff must have spooked the thing. He lifted off the ground, floating around with his head and shoulders solid.
His eyes were demon red. Sharp teeth came into view when his lips pulled back in a snaggletoothed snarl.
She spoke softly to Storm. “He looks like a Nightstalker I’ve done business with.” Thankfully, it wasn’t Grady.
“Thought they were harmless ghouls.”
“They are. Something has happened to that one.”
The ghoul flew toward them.
Evalle lifted her open palms shoulder high and shoved outward, tossing a short blast of power that knocked the ghoul backward.
The thing howled, but the sound had no volume. He jerked and shook, looking around with crazed eyes. When his body dropped to the ground still half formed, he turned and ran away faster than she’d expected.
She watched where the ghoul entered the woods. “I have to find out what happened to him. Somebody shook hands with that ghoul too long or put a spell on him when they shook or … I have no idea what they did, but he can’t run loose. He looks dangerous. I’ll check it out.”
“One of us has to catch him before he hurts a human, and we both know Sen doesn’t want you to leave me alone with the Ngak Stone.”
Storm gave her one of his studied looks. “Would you pick up the stone if you found it?”
“No. I’d call Tzader.”
“I believe you. You’ve seen the stone and I haven’t, which means it makes more sense for you to walk the south end of the park and see what you can find out. I’ll track down the ghoul. If you find the stone before I get back, we’re out of here early.” He swept a quick glance around them, then his eyes came back to her. “Close your mouth unless you’re trying to catch rainwater.”
She was speechless. Was he really leaving her alone to hunt for the rock? She had no quick comeback, which didn’t matter since she was staring at his back as he vanished into the thick woods. Swinging around, she headed across the huge expanse of grassed area where people came to hang out and play during daylight.