As usual, his dark hair was secured at his neck with a thin black hair tie and his long, muscular legs were stretched out on the mattress. With one arm propped up behind his head as he leaned against the headboard watching the muted television, he looked casual, relaxed. But she knew better. His other hand rested lightly over the weapon she knew was covered by his black leather jacket. Not that he’d need it even if they were attacked. As a member of the warrior class, he’d have no problem taking on most beings, human or supernatural.

He flicked a glance her way, then froze, his dark eyes widening.

Immediately her throat clenched and a wave of self-consciousness swept over her. Maybe she shouldn’t have worn the fitted green dress, should have gone with a staid skirt suit instead. Almost everyone at these educational conferences dressed the same. She glanced down at herself. “Is it too much for a lecture?”

“No.” He was up and on his feet before she could blink. “You look fucking gorgeous.”

Oh my. “Uh, thanks.” She felt her cheeks flush then immediately cursed her silly reaction. Looking away, she unzipped the top part of her suitcase and pulled out her five-inch black peep-toe pumps. It was cold and would make more sense for her to wear boots, but she didn’t care. At the ranch it was ridiculous for her to dress up, so she usually wore boring boots. And boring, practical clothes. Not this weekend. After slipping on the pumps, she put on her knee length wool pea coat and cinched the belt tight around her waist.

When she turned back around she found Nikan mere inches in front of her, staring down at her with something in his eyes she wasn’t sure how to define. Wasn’t sure she wanted to. But if she had to, he looked hungry. For her. Fear sparked inside her for a brief moment. He was bigger and stronger than she and could do any damn thing he wanted. Not that her inner wolf worried he would, but past experience told her bigger, stronger wolves sometimes used their size and strength to intimidate beta wolves. Just because she was physically weaker didn’t mean she didn’t have a mind of her own.

She wasn’t sure if he sensed her unease, but Nikan immediately backed off. Maybe he’d scented her fear. Whatever it was, when he moved away, it eased her stress.

As she grabbed her clutch from the bed, Nikan’s deep voice rolled over her. “I would never hurt you, Essie.”

She swallowed hard, feeling guilty and a little stupid for her momentary burst of panic. “I know that. Why would you even say that?” Nerves made her rush on and start babbling like she always did when she was anxious. She hurried toward the door and jerked it open, still talking as they headed toward the elevators. “I’m just excited about this lecture. I haven’t seen Professor Kelly in thirty years. He was human and so much younger than me at least in actual years, but I used to have the biggest crush on him. His mind was so far beyond his peers. At the time he was studying thermodynamics, and for one brief semester in college I thought I might go into physics too, but in the end knew education was it for me. That’s why it’s so nice to have cubs on the ranch again, even if they do get annoyed with their homework.”

As they stopped in front of the elevators she ordered her mouth to stop running. When she glanced at Nikan he had an almost dark expression on his face. “You had a crush on your professor?”

She blinked at his question. “What? Oh, yeah, a long time ago.” She started to say more when the doors opened. They were both silent as they joined the young human couple inside.

Nikan was quiet the rest of the walk through the lobby, outside and as they strode toward the hotel next door. He was slightly tense and she had a feeling he was going to be more so once they reached the room where the lecture was being held. She’d left out one tiny detail when she’d told her Alpha about this conference, and no one had thought to check it out because, well, why would they? She was an adult and could make decisions for herself. So what if this conference was being hosted by vampires? They were all academics and she’d received an invitation.

As they stepped into the lobby of the hotel next door, she could feel Nikan’s entire demeanor change. Without even looking at him, it was like a switch flipped inside him.

“Esperanze,” he murmured, low enough for only her to hear. “We need to leave, now.”

She swallowed hard and glanced up at him. “No, we don’t.”

His dark gaze was sharp and assessing. “I don’t think you understand.”

Oh, she understood perfectly well. Warriors had an innate sense of danger whereas betas still had that innate animal sense, but less honed. He likely assumed she couldn’t sense the vampires. “I probably should have told you, but, uh, this conference is being hosted by vampires. But they’re not the only paranormal beings here. There are supposed to be a few fae, other shifters—lupine, ursine and feline—and I even heard there were a few half-breed demons attending.” She’d never met a demon before and was hoping to. As of twenty years ago humans knew of the existence of shifters and vampires but they didn’t know about all paranormal beings, especially not demons.

Nikan’s hand was gripping her upper arm and he hadn’t let them take another step past the immediate inner area of the lobby. “You knew about this but didn’t tell Connor? Or me?”

She bit her bottom lip and tried to squash the guilt building inside of her. “I didn’t think he’d let me go.”

His expression darkened. “Damn right he wouldn’t have. And I wouldn’t have either. We’re leaving right now.” He increased his grip, but not so much that it hurt. Just so he made his point.

She dug her heels in. “No, we’re not. You can go if you want, but I’m staying. I’m not a child and I don’t need your protection. And I sure as hell don’t need your permission. I didn’t ask for you to come and if you don’t like it, you know where the exit is.”

His lips parted, as if she’d surprised him. Which she probably had. Betas weren’t known for mouthing off. Didn’t mean they couldn’t. “Essie,” he murmured, low and sensual, and ran his hand down her arm, caressing her in a soft, inviting manner.

Her abdomen clenched with impossible need until she realized what he was doing. She growled softly. “That’s pretty low. If you think you can charm me into leaving because of your sexuality, you don’t know me at all.” That he’d even try stung. They were friends. She wrenched her arm away.

He opened his mouth but was cut off by the sound of a male voice calling out her name. They both turned and she immediately smiled at the tall, auburn haired man striding toward them. Antoine Kelly was just as she remembered him. Taller than her, though a couple inches shorter than Nikan. With a lean build and pale skin, he would have blended into the vampire community even before he’d been turned.

“You look just as beautiful as I remember.” Her former professor lightly kissed her on both cheeks before embracing her.

Next to her Nikan growled deep in his throat, and she turned to find him glaring at Antoine. His expression was so dark she was glad it wasn’t directed at her.

Her former professor stepped back and held out a friendly hand to Nikan. “I’m Antoine Kelly. Are you two mated? I didn’t realize—”

“We’re not mated, just friends.” She gently elbowed Nikan, hoping he’d wipe that expression off his face that said he was about to decapitate her old friend.

Antoine raised an eyebrow and gave her a look that said he didn’t quite believe her. Since Nikan didn’t return his handshake—she wanted to throttle him for that!—Antoine let his hand drop.

Thankfully he wasn’t intimidated by the man next to her. “After my lecture a few of us are getting together for drinks downtown. It’s a place that caters to supernatural beings. I’d love it if both of you would join me.”

“Of course,” she said before Nikan could reject him.

They made small talk for a few minutes, but Antoine eventually excused himself, probably because of the death glares Nikan was giving him. Once her friend was out of earshot, she nudged Nikan in the ribs with her elbow. “You acted like a child.”

The tall shifter just shrugged and placed his hand at the small of her back. “We should probably hurry if you want a good seat.” He motioned toward the open doors where others were already heading inside.

Pausing, she grasped his forearm. She wasn’t inclined to complain, but he’d given in way too easily. “Why are you being so acquiescent?”

“Maybe I just don’t want you mad at me.” She snorted and he shrugged again in that maddeningly casual way of his. “Okay, maybe I’ve assessed that of all the paranormal beings I’ve seen and scented so far, none of them are real threats.”

That made sense, but she was still annoyed with him. “So we’re not going to talk about the way you just acted toward my friend?”

He shrugged. “I don’t like vampires.”

“Apparently. Do you think you can act civil when we go out tonight?”

“I’ve never claimed to be civil,” he said with a soft growl, flashing his canines.

After the way her mother had been bullied by her father she’d be damned if she let anyone do the same to her, especially not someone she considered a friend. “I don’t know what your problem is, but keep it up and we’re not friends anymore.” Without waiting for a response, she turned on her heel and stalked toward the open doors.

Let Nikan stew on that. She wasn’t going to allow anyone to intimidate her because of his strength. She completely understood pack rules and her place in the hierarchy, but that didn’t mean she had less worth or didn’t deserve to be treated with respect.

* * *

As the last lecturer finally stopped talking, Nikan allowed a fraction of relief to slide into his veins. There were almost one hundred individuals in the giant hotel conference room. Esperanze hadn’t been wrong about the various types of paranormal creatures. Shifters of all varieties, fae, more than a handful of demons and even some humans. But vamps definitely outnumbered everyone else.