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I touched a shirt on the rack without seeing it, working with Mordecai to play the part. “Let’s keep calm. We don’t know that he’s here for you.”

“He’s slowly veering in this general direction, Lexi, and this doesn’t seem like a section that would interest him.

A sly glance up and it was easy to see Mordecai was correct. Taller than Mordecai, the middle-aged man probably clocked in at six-one, maybe six-two—Kieran’s height. A plain, loose T-shirt stretched over his large chest and flowed down a flat stomach. Ratty jeans, run down yet stylish, hugged muscular thighs.

They were clothes a shifter wouldn’t mind tearing apart. He wouldn’t be interested in the business casual attire around us.

I noticed his movement. Sleek and graceful, though not as oiled or confident as any of the Six, this guy was probably a decent fighter. Being a shifter, no doubt he could run like the dickens. Surely faster than my two legs could carry me.

“There is no way he could’ve…” I let my words trail away as I thought back to entering the shopping complex. Our windows had been down, and the entrance was closer to the other end. With the funny microclimates in this area, and my accidental trailing of Mordecai’s smell through half the shopping complex, this guy might well have picked up the scent. “Humpty bugger, fuck a tart.”

“I haven’t heard that swear in a long time,” Mordecai said softly, a trace of sadness lining his words. My mother had been known for stringing curses together until she practically beat you with them. It had seemed like a worthy occasion to use one.

“Right. Okay. No problem. This store is a dud, anyway.” I slapped the shirt out of Mordecai’s hands and shoved him to the side. “Go. Head to the doors. We’ll see if he follows.”

I slipped my arm in his, a means of controlling his direction without looking obvious. “Oh look. These would really fit your face.” I stopped to point at a horrible pair of sunglasses made for a woman. “Oops. My face, I guess.”

The pause was for show, and Mordecai’s stiffness didn’t sell it.

“Loosen up.” I pulled him forward again. “The worst thing you can possibly do is advertise your wariness. That just excites the predators. You need to think big. Act big.”

“That guy would wipe the floor with me. He is big.”

“That bastard won’t even touch you. He’s big, but he’s not as powerful. I have no idea how that translates into claws and teeth, but it has to count for something. And I bet he feels pain a whole lot more than you do. Worst case, you take a few punches and beat him in the long game. Noses can be fixed.”

“What if he has friends?”

“Mordecai, fretting is not a good look on you. Trust me, he doesn’t have friends like we have friends. You think a wolf wants to mess with a freaking Kraken?” I lifted my eyebrows at him as the doors slid open in front of us. “A Kraken, Mordecai. No one wants to mess with one of those. They are legendary.”

“And a Djinn,” Mordecai murmured, allowing me to turn him right.

“Don’t tell people we have a genie on our side. They’ll just laugh and ask about the lamp.” I pulled power from the Line to expand my magical awareness. Souls pulsed or burned around me. A spirit zipped from the edges of my vision, and I just barely noticed it slip beyond the veil. “That’s…weird.”

“What?”

“I’ve never seen a spirit slip beyond the veil like that. Run from Bria and escape behind it, sure. Stumble beyond it, yep. Lots. But that one seemed like a confident pro comfortable moving between the realms…” I barely kept myself from looking in the shadows away left. There, between a leafy tree and a grime-coated wall, I sensed Bria’s soul. “Text Bria and ask if she is working Necromancy.”

He bent to his phone for one beat before snapping his head back up and looking straight ahead. Every muscle on his frame popped tight. His phone vibrated in his hands.

There, leaning against a pillar, stood a man in a tight black shirt that did amazing things for his defined torso. His stylishly ripped jeans molded to his powerful legs and ended at brown, high-top boots with the laces undone. The silver watch encircling his wrist caught the light and gleamed. Power pulsed within him. A strong class four. I couldn’t make out his exact facial expression, but it was clear he was looking right at us.

No, not us. He was looking at Mordecai. Without knowing how, I was confident this man knew who Mordecai was and meant him irreparable harm. I didn’t know if he would challenge him right now, but he certainly intended to do so eventually, and was sure he would beat, and maybe kill, my ward.

“Wrong,” I said between clenched teeth.

“What?” Mordecai asked, and I heard a quiver in his voice.

“I’m not going to let some sideburns-wearing doofus fucker threaten my ward. There is nothing worse than a pretty boy with an ego problem playing for the role of head dick.”

“It’s not ego, it’s confidence, and he’s probably near the pinnacle of his pack.”

“But he’s not near the pinnacle of mine. If he messes with us, I’ll crush him.”

The man pushed off the pillar, a contained movement that hinted at coiled energy straining at the confines of his muscular body. He looked almost amused, as though he’d found a fun little toy to mess around with for the afternoon.

My stare beat into the stranger, but I still hadn’t been noticed. That had to be purposeful.

“He’s strong, Lexi,” Mordecai mumbled. “I feel it. I feel the push of it. It’s like an invisible force, shoving at me. He means to show his dominance over me.”

In shifter terms, showing dominance could sometimes result in death. In this situation, given what I’d already concluded, it almost certainly did.

“Get behind me,” I said, feeling the fire rise within me. I simply would not tolerate someone threatening one of my wards. Mordecai would have the future he deserved. If I had to rip off the legs of every pretty boy shifter I ran into for the rest of my life, I would. “We got this.”

“Lexi, no. Let’s just get out of here.”

“Then what, Mordecai? If he knows who you are, and I think he might, this is just the beginning. These guys are predators. They’ll hunt you down and take you out when you’re vulnerable, just like they did with your parents. We cannot show weakness—”

Mordecai’s phone vibrated and he brought it up to read the text message.

“What does it say?” I asked, willing the shifter to notice me. Clearly, he didn’t think I was a threat. For some reason, that rankled.

“Jack says we have to handle this because he shouldn’t be seen with us in public. He says not to run. The shifter will just follow. Also, you shouldn’t use your power on anyone but him.”

“See that? We’re on the same page. We’ll just quickly show this sucker who the top dog is, and then we’ll get to that home store and buy the place out.”

The familiar souls on my radar moved locations behind the scenes—Zorn to the left among the cars, and the others fanning out right. They had faith that I’d send this guy running, and they planned to scoop him up after I did.

My confidence surged. They were no longer treating me like Kieran’s girl pal who needed to be protected, but like one of their crew. I’d elevated my status in their eyes.

Warmth welled within me as the shifter sauntered out in front of us with easy movements and the self-assurance of someone who thought he owned the ground we walked on. He stopped in our path and smirked as he squared his shoulders. Violence crept into his eyes and raw energy throbbed in his middle, desperate to break free.

I didn’t change pace or my path. We headed straight for him in a game of chicken.

“Something is wrong with this picture,” the stranger said in a higher-pitched voice that didn’t match his rough look. His gaze held steady over my left shoulder. He still refused to look at me. “You’re alive.”

My blood boiled.

I jerked my hand up like I had a knife, drawing his notice, then shifted to point at my eyes.

“Hey, pretty boy, eyes up top.”

The man’s gaze flicked over…then caught my hard stare. Confusion stole over his expression for a brief moment until the violence seeped back in. His boots slid marginally against the concrete as he ever so slightly repositioned toward me. He now knew who was in charge.

“Who’re you?” he asked.

He theoretically knew who was in charge.

“It doesn’t matter who I am,” I answered, stopping out of striking range. “You’re in my way.”

His gaze slid over me and his eyebrows pulled down into a V. One of his hands closed into a fist, and the humorous violence in his eyes turned to unbridled hostility. Whatever the mark was showing him, he no longer thought the situation was funny.

“I’ll say it one more time.” I sucked power from the Line. “Move.”

He bristled and his chin raised ever so slightly. The same fire I felt in my middle filled his gaze. He bunched, about to strike.

I whipped a line of spirit through his middle, snapping it against his spirit box. His eyes widened and his face went slack, stopping him cold. Pushing my advantage, I snapped his spirit box again, harder this time, and took a step into his space.

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