Ava Belle grimaced at the woman she’d spent a lifetime trying to please. Alicia Sharpe, currently known as an all-around ball breaker, had recently returned from a meeting in Washington and was smiling at something Olivia said. Don’t do it, Olivia. Don’t get suckered in by those soft brown eyes and feminine charm. That woman is a shark.
Her grandmother turned to wink at her, and Ava gritted her teeth. Grandmother
was an affectionate term for the woman several generations her senior. Hell, Ava’s mother had called Alicia grandmother. None of the family really knew how old she was, only that she’d been around for a long time. Nothing about Alicia was normal; then again, Ava couldn’t claim to be average on a good day.
She liked to think of her small frame as petite with curves, though her ass seemed to get more than its share of attention. Gunnar especially liked looking at it...when he wasn’t avoiding her. She scowled, needing to unload her frustrations on the actual source of her bad mood.
If she believed half the things both men and women said to her, Ava had a breathtaking beauty, a figure that put swimsuit models to shame, and an astonishing capacity to render the male of the species speechless with a smile. Funny, but none of her positive attributes seemed to make an impact on her absent, stubborn-as-hell mate
She stomped from the kitchen, where Olivia and Sheridan, Jules’s new mate, soon-to-be bride, and expectant mother, were laughing at something her grandmother said. Sure, the younger women could afford to be happy. They were mated, pregnant, and looking forward to their men returning today.
Lately, Ava had only to meet Gunnar’s gaze to send the man racing away in a panic. “Tough guy, my ass,” she muttered as she strode down the hall toward her own office.
“Yo, Ava, wait up.” Keegan Price, one of the dozen psychics now assigned to the protection detail working the house, called out to her.
Ava swore under her breath as she slowed down and turned. Keegan wasn’t a bad guy. Hell, a few years ago, they’d even dated once or twice. It wasn’t his fault he reminded her too much of the man currently avoiding her. Keegan had height, brawn, intelligence, and the psychic wherewithal to tear a body apart with nothing more than his mind. Her grandmother’s new favorite secret weapon. Ava thought Alicia might like Keegan almost as much as she liked the Circs. What that really meant, she had no idea, nor did she want to know.
She sighed. “Yes?”
“Now, honey, don’t be like that.” Keegan grinned, and she imagined him tipping up a cowboy hat if he’d been allowed to wear one in the house. Regulations stipulated that the guards all wear a standard uniform of black boots, trousers, and black shirts. As if Ava or the others would have a hard time distinguishing their new bodyguards from the Circs that lived in the mansion.
“What do you want, Keegan? I have things to do.”
His good-old-boy grin faded. “You okay?”
She wished he would stop being nice. Ava didn’t do well with nice, which was probably why she and Mr. Avoidance complemented each other so well. “No, I’m not. I have to deal with the fallout from the Keisers. Remember them? The husband-and-wife handyman and housekeeper who tried to kill Morgan over two weeks ago?”
“Yeah, about that --”
“I have several meetings between Mrs. Sharpe, Mr. Anderson, and a few House Committee lackeys in DC to coordinate.”
“Right, but --”
“And the Circs are due home today, so we need someone to cook, clean up around here, and make sense of all this housekeeping shit.” She glared when his eyes narrowed. “So if you’re here to whine about the new tasks set before your team, don’t bother.”
He opened his mouth and closed it with a snap. “Fuck.” He swore more under his breath as he turned on his heel and walked away. In his wake, a vase on a nearby table shattered, dribbling water, flowers, and pottery shards to the floor.
Terrific. One more mess for his boys to clean up.
Ava understood his plight but didn’t have time to care. His men had been assigned to Circ central to protect the Circs and their mates from the outside threat intent on killing and/or using them for further Circ experiments. Unfortunately, until Ava found a replacement for the Keisers, Keegan’s men were currently cooking and working as handymen as well as protecting. Their one trustworthy housekeeper could only keep up with so much.
She hurried to her office before someone else stopped her. Most of the guards Admiral London had assigned them had even tempers, but a few put her on edge. She could deal with telepaths and empaths. Guarding her thoughts and feelings from others came naturally. But the telekinetics and pyrokinetics took skill to deal with. Men who could move things with their minds or start fires with a thought made powerful enemies. Keegan had a temper but had the self-control to handle himself. She glanced at the vase and amended. He usually
Unlike some people I might name.
Bright blue eyes set in an unforgiving face stared back at her in memory, and she sighed, more than missing Gunnar, that arrogant idiot.
Once inside her office, Ava moved immediately to her desk chair and began working. For an hour, she made appointments, cancelled meetings, and coordinated with Mr. Robert Anderson, Alicia’s new favorite contact in the Pentagon. Lately they’d been meeting weekly. What her grandmother and Anderson talked about was anyone’s guess, but Ava had too much to concentrate on in this place to worry about the grand scheme of things.
Schemes were why they paid her grandmother the big bucks.
She snorted. If the men up north knew just who they were talking to, they’d shit a brick. Alicia might look like a professional woman in designer business suits and pearls, but the older woman could kick serious ass any day of the week.
Knowing that helped keep Ava’s temper in check, because every time she thought about all she’d endured waiting for Gunnar to catch up to her, she wanted to pound something. She knew it was unfair to blame Olivia or Sheridan for having slept with him. Hell, the entire Circ team had fucked Gunnar. Ava should have been incensed, and she was...at herself. If she’d claimed him all those months ago, she could have spared herself the jealousy. But she hadn’t, and her mate had needed Circ contact. Who was she to blame him for seeking ease in the Circs who loved and accepted him? Oddly enough, she didn’t begrudge Gunnar the time he spent with his team. It was the intimacy he’d shared with the females that bugged the crap out of her.
Alicia Sharpe, you seriously owe me for this.
“Ava, dear, you have work to do. Focus on today, and tomorrow will come.”
“Dammit.” Ava hadn’t intended for her grandmother to hear that. Trust the old woman to know every damned thing that happened in this place.
Ava tried to throw herself back into work, but after another twenty minutes, she gave up. She couldn’t concentrate past Frederik Gunnar Tersch. The biggest pain in her ass she’d ever met, and the only man she wanted more than life itself. Tall where she was short, fair where she was dark, his contrasts fascinated her. He was the most powerful Circ she’d ever encountered. Though he and his team had been created by science, Ava and her kind had lived long before the Circe serum came to be.
Her unique abilities made her the perfect mate for Gunnar, if only the stubborn man would stop running from her. She’d thought that revealing herself as a Circ would have relaxed him. Instead, he took her existence as a personal affront.
“Asshole,” she muttered.
Her phone rang, distracting her.
“Yeah?” she answered.
“The men are home.” Mrs. Sharpe disconnected before Ava could say anything else.
Anticipation filled her from head to toe. The men had left to follow a lead on the rogue Circs that had attacked the mansion two weeks prior. Raul LaGarda was their ringleader and an unstable Circ her brother had been investigating. To hear Grayson tell it, Raul wanted money, women, and power, and not necessarily in that order. She wondered if the team had found him and the others.
A sixth sense told her Gunnar had fared well, so she didn’t worry about his health. But she couldn’t deny how much she wanted to see him again.
She joined the others in the large family room attached to the kitchen. The mansion boasted fourteen thousand square feet. It had the requisite pool, gymnasium, and an assortment of high-class amenities she would never have associated with a navy-run program. The laboratory in the basement had been specially designed for the team, in addition to the state-of-the-art security system they’d recently upgraded.
The open kitchen had dark granite counters, white cabinets, and plenty of work space. A large oak table that could easily sit twelve sat off to one side. Over the expansive counter where many of the men liked to sit and eat, the living room invited company with plush leather sofas, chairs, a huge plasma screen television, a pool table and poker table, and a fireplace. Across from the fireplace, a set of French doors led outside onto the patio. The Croatan National Forest bordered the land behind them, the tall oaks, hickories, and pines providing the perfect place for Circs to run and hunt without detection.
“They’ve only been gone three days, but it feels like a lot longer,” Sheridan said to Olivia.
“I know.” Olivia grinned. “Jesse just told me they’re all doing well, and they learned some interesting things on their trip.”
Olivia and Jesse shared a lot without speaking. One of the perks of mating a telepath, Ava suspected.
She studied Sheridan and Olivia, two women she considered very good friends. Olivia was tall and slender with black hair, blue-green eyes, and model-good looks. Her ability to read emotions had made her the perfect mate for Jesse, a man who heard thoughts. She had a great sense of humor and cared for the Dawn Endeavor team. And she had a soft spot for Gunnar. As much as it burned Ava that Olivia knew Gunnar intimately, conversely, it made Ava like her that much more for her open heart.
Sheridan had only had sex with Gunnar once -- that Ava knew of -- and that had been to establish ties to her as the team alpha’s mate. Ava didn’t want to, but she understood and grudgingly accepted Sheridan’s place in the team’s hierarchy. The woman had dark red hair, blue eyes, and a curvy frame that had snared Jules from the get-go. She could also heal with a touch, and she stood at Ava’s eye level. Not someone to look up to, finally.
Keegan entered the kitchen. “They’ll be in shortly,” he said to Mrs. Sharpe and scowled at Ava, still not happy with her, apparently.
Join the friggin’ club.
“We’ll be standing by outside,” Keegan added in clipped words.
The Circs had issue with the psychics. Though Jesse and Olivia had personally scanned every single one of the new men, trust was still a commodity much in demand around the mansion. And not only that, but the psychics had an odd effect on the Circs. Ava sensed it as well.
Jules had explained that it was as if he sensed a kindred spirit with the new guards. He wanted to take them in, make them pack. But the guards were fully human. Making them pack would have involved his beast biting and fucking them -- brutal bonding humans would never accept. So the Dawn Endeavor team kept their distance from the powerful males.
Having men around their mates, and pregnant mates at that, didn’t bode well. So when the Circs remained at home, the guards normally made themselves scarce, patrolling outside yet close to the house, away from the females. Keegan and James Foreman, a pyrokinetic with a wicked sense of humor, remained near her grandmother but out of sight, at Alicia’s command.
Ava scented the team as they neared, attuned to Jules’s signature. He gave off a subtle waft of vanilla and grass, an earthy blend of sultry Circ. Kisho smelled like cinnamon, Jesse like mint, and Morgan like citrus. Morgan was human, but since he’d mated to Kisho, he’d taken on Circ energy, altering his physiology enough that to Ava, he was Circ.
And Gunnar... She drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to manage her sudden fiery libido.
Gunnar smelled perfect
. A blend of cedar and the light scent of the Amazon. Thick, humid, a jungle of sex and lust and violence. Her beast absolutely loved his darker, wilder self, what he called his berserker. Unfortunately, Gunnar rarely let the creature out to play, too afraid of hurting anyone in the event he lost control. She’d seen him that way once -- huge, his hair long and white, his eyes black agates of danger.
She shivered, wishing she could see him like that again.
The men followed Jules into the living space. Sheridan raced to meet him and jumped into his arms. Jesse found Olivia and kissed her long and hard. Kisho and Morgan entered together, the pair of them like bookends. Different yet the same, fitting together as if made for each other. They collapsed onto the couch and sighed with relief.
“It is so
good to be home.” Morgan pulled Kisho into his arms and just lay there with his eyes closed, his head back against the couch.
God, I want that. To belong to someone else, to need and be needed.
Almost against her will, Ava sought Gunnar. She turned to see him frowning at her, his bright blue eyes narrowed in anger.
She sighed. What had she done now?
“Good trip?” Alicia asked, one brow raised in inquiry.
To Ava’s trained eye, her grandmother had always spent more attention on Gunnar than the others. Though Jules commanded the team, Alicia had always seemed partial to Gunnar, though Ava had never understood why.
Gunnar answered, “Raul’s dead. We killed two of his three buddies but brought the fourth to Quantico for the admiral to deal with. Fallon read him before we handed him over, though.”
“Excellent.” Alicia beamed and took Gunnar by the arm before he could blink. “Why don’t the rest of you settle in and relax. Gunnar can fill me in on the mission. Keegan has the guards in hand. There’s no one new and no problems to speak of.”
“You expecting one?” Gunnar asked. He stood stiffly under her grandmother’s touch, but he didn’t refuse it. Progress.
“Not at all. I just like to make sure we’re all on the same page.” Alicia paused. “Ava, dear, see to it that Gunnar has fresh towels. I’m not sure that was properly attended to.”
“I’ll have James --”
“Ava.” Her grandmother frowned.
Gunnar smirked, and she wanted to smack him right in the mouth, then kiss his fat lip all better. “Fine. I’ll see to it. Welcome home, guys.” She left the living room and started down the hall toward the wide stairway leading to the Circ wing upstairs. Once up on the second floor, she paused to grab a few large bath towels from the linen closet -- God forbid Gunnar actually find his own linens -- and continued on her task.
She walked into his room, expecting the worst, and got a pleasant surprise. Housekeeping had obviously taken the time to fix Gunnar’s mess. The usual Tastykake wrappers and dirty clothing no longer littered the floor. The king-size bed had been neatly made, dark blue and gray pillows littering the headboard. The room had a masculine feel while still being luxurious. Across from the bed an antique desk was being used as a small media center. A video game console and a stack of magazines sat beneath a television mounted to the wall. The smaller chairs that graced the other rooms had been replaced with a large, ugly recliner to fit Gunnar’s massive frame.
She tingled just thinking about his size. Though small, Ava knew she would fit him if the blasted man would give her the chance.
Ava pushed through another door and walked into an attached bath. Gray and green porcelain tiles covered the floors. A huge shower stall with multiple showerheads, a large sink, and a toilet completed the room. In this wing, the Circs each had a bedroom suite complete with bath.
Down the hall in the next wing, where the guests stayed, some rooms had attached baths, and others didn’t. Ava snorted. Her own room, downstairs next to her office, was a third the size of Gunnar’s. A half bath connected the bedroom to her office, but in order to shower, she had to make use of a guest bathroom upstairs. She hadn’t minded so much because she’d never figured on making the mansion her permanent home. And with Gunnar’s recent attitude, she’d begun to wonder if she’d made a huge mistake in thinking him her mate.
Mine. My mate.
Her beast growled low in her throat. Trust the animal within her to want the most obnoxious Circ she’d ever met. She could only be glad she didn’t suffer the same mating heats as the team. She couldn’t imagine needing to have sex with a Circ and being denied Gunnar time after time. It was bad enough she had to watch him flinch from her touch.
She knew he was afraid he might hurt her. But she had no idea how to get him over his fears. Maybe I should just jump him, tie him up to the bed, and have my way with him.
Her beast liked the idea, a little too much.
Sighing, Ava turned to leave the bathroom. She made it as far as Gunnar’s bed before pain, the likes of which she’d only felt once before, splintered her mind. She didn’t even get a chance to cry out before she fell to the floor and passed out, trapped in a nightmare of jumbled thoughts and images that seemed never ending.