Captured by Moonlight
It rose like a fever all day, burning through his veins, searing his thoughts, feeding the headache that had throbbed relentlessly, dry kindling to the flame. Strange sensations. Hot, surging, swamping his control with sudden harsh urges. Violent. Sexual. Frightening and exciting. Concentration was gone, burnt in the firestorm of compulsive desires.
He struggled with it, alarmed and repulsed by the visceral rips and ebbs of mood that spiked when he’d found Cee Cee and LaRoche together. He had almost convinced himself he had it conquered. While holding Charlotte in his arms as she wept, it receded, forced into abeyance by the sheer magnitude of his feelings for her. But then the music had started and something in the beat, something woven almost subliminally beneath the tempo moved to the same compelling pulse in his temples. Then it was in his blood, that hard, urgent hammering, so hot he could barely breathe as he moved amongst those who seemed to understand better than he did why he was not himself.
The women. His awareness of them rose in a subtle, dizzying waves until he was drowning. Scent and heat fed the voracious hunger, building a blinding rage of need. The greedy, desperate drive had nothing to do with his mind, nothing to do with his will or his wishes. The animal inside him distilled down to a raw, basic compulsion to mate. Not just with the woman he’d chosen in his heart and soul. But with every nameless, faceless signature of female that crossed his primitive radar. He wanted them all. And he wanted them now.
And why not?
He was the King of Beasts. Their Shifter king. Who would stop him?
Who, indeed. And with a very tasty right hook.
Max got to his feet slowly, off balance. With his first step, he stumbled, tripping over Cee Cee’s discarded shoes. He gave one an ill-tempered kick before he could stop himself, and knew a sullen satisfaction as it flew into one of the fountains. He picked up the other one, turning the patent leather with its lethal spiked heel in his hand, slipping his fingers down into the wickedly pointed toes where her warmth was still held in the insole. Her scent clung to him, heavy and exotic, and the beast within him growled back to life with a new focus. A small bit of reason in the back of his brain hoped frantically that she had hopped into her muscle car and roared back into the city, where she would be safe from him.
But the minute he emerged from the darkness, he saw he was wrong.
She was up on the porch, standing tall and fiercely proud with her bruised arms akimbo and bare legs set in a combative stance. Her dark eyes flashed to his, conveying an unspoken dare across the distance of the yard. Just try and make it up to me, Savoie. Coward.
That pitch-black glare, so steady, so penetrating in its blame, held him at bay, kept him circling like something wild and wary. She stood on his porch, with her greatest enemy’s people at her back in silent support of her right to be there, her right to take him to task. His pride and his own clan’s scrutiny kept him from going to her. That and the warring shame and umbrage chafing his already raw restraint.
He prowled through the revelers, darkly dangerous. And while he nuzzled a willing neck or ran his hands along a pliant form, his gaze never left her.
The scent of her, the feel of her, the taste of her swirled about his sharpened senses, consuming him with hot madness. The others who would cling and coo at him were nothing. Cool, bland moons compared to the volatile gravitation of her sun. And he couldn’t resist the pull.
Wanting her shivered icy cold over the burning pump of his blood until she filled every hard, reckless beat.
Agitation quickened his light steps and had him tacking back and forth like a graceful sloop pushing against a determined gale force blow. Closing in on her with calculated purpose, he finally strode toward the porch with stalking intensity.
A big hand closed on his arm, jerking him from that self-destructive path. He rounded on Jacques LaRoche with a cold snarl. “You’re in my way.”
“You planning on making rough with your lady and putting more of them bruises on her?”
Max reared back, eyes glittering, unable to believe he was being challenged. “She’s mine to do with as I want.”
“She’s not one of us, Max. You’ll hurt her. You might even kill her. Is that what you want to do?”
He paced, a wild thing in a small cage, his movements tightly controlled as his breath shook from him in harsh bursts. He slowly lifted his gaze to the porch and that hot twist of desire fisted in his groin, the pain unbearable.
“Get out of my way, Jacques.”
“Max, think. Think of Charlotte. She’s going to fight you, and you’re going to hurt her. You won’t mean to, but you won’t be able to stop yourself.”
Max bent over, panting hard against the violence pounding through him, his face dripping sweat. His voice was deep, hoarse. “Don’t let me hurt her. Please, Jacques. I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t think. I don’t know what to do. I can’t stop myself.”
LaRoche cursed softly, then grinned. “I must be crazy, but all right, Max. There are other ways to work off some of that mean you’re feeling.”
Max looked up at him. “How?”
The sudden punch dropped him to his knees.
“Let’s dance a bit, you and me. Nothing fancy. And nothing fatal. Just man to man. For fun.”
The music had stopped. Curious and intrigued, the others began to circle to watch.
Max licked the blood from the corner of his mouth, darkly amused. “There’s no challenge there. You can’t beat me.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. On your hind legs, Savoie. Like men, nothing more. Afraid I’ll embarrass you?”
He grinned ferociously. “No.”
“Make it a wager,” someone called.
“See? Our friends are anxious to earn a little fast cash off our sweat and blood. What do you say, Max? Ready to let me knock some of the arrogance out of you? I can get in a few good licks before you pulverize me.”
Max straightened slowly. “Name the stakes.”
They both turned toward the strong voice, where Charlotte glared down from the porch, taking a savage satisfaction in the abrupt slackening of Max’s expression.
“I’ll go home with the winner. Whichever one of you can still walk, come get me.”
And with that monumental claim of indifference, she turned her back on them and went inside.
“Thanks, Charlotte,” LaRoche muttered. “You sure know how to suck the fun outta things.”
Then the impact of Max’s fist exploded his consciousness into a halo of bright lights. He shook it off to see the younger man fling out of his coat as he said, “Consider me highly motivated.”
The sound of his footsteps sped up her heartbeat. Max’s steps were usually light, barely making a noise. These footfalls were heavy, almost reluctant, and for one awful moment, she thought it might be Jacques LaRoche coming to claim her.
Then what would she do?
Go with him, of course. What choice had Max left her? Had her own fierce pride left her? Not that she planned to do anything with him, and if he thought different, she’d prove him wrong in a quick minute. But she’d go. That, or let Max put his foot down firmly on the back of her neck for the rest of their relationship.
Would that be so bad?
That seditious whisper shocked her.
To have him, would that be so bad to just give up all the struggling, all the battling, all the barriers. To admit that she wanted him, under any circumstances?
Yes, it would be bad for both of them. No matter how difficult, that tentative balance they’d struck had to be maintained. Which was why, when she saw him fill the door frame, no delighted relief showed in her steady stare.
“Disappointed?” he drawled in a chilly voice.
“In several things lately.”
He looked so temptingly hot with his black hair mussed, his face flushed with temper and exertion, his eyes dazzling jewel-like. Though he showed no physical effects of his tussle with LaRoche, his expensive clothes were ripped, grass- and blood- stained and beyond the resuscitation of even the best dry cleaner. He was breathing light and fast through clenched teeth. The effort of restraint pounded off him like heat from a summer pavement. He was furious. And he was also afraid. She could see that as well, flickering behind his posturing rage.
“Sorry you didn’t get the chance to prove your point?” His words were like jagged glass.
“And that point would be?”
“That you would toss me away on a whim of chance.”
She’d never believed LaRoche could beat him, but her sense of injury wouldn’t allow her to mention that. “It wouldn’t have been personal, Max. No big deal, right? It wouldn’t have meant anything. Just brush it off. Isn’t that what you were expecting me to do?”
He began to prowl the confines of his room, careful to keep away from her. His hands worked in frustrated fists at his side.
She held her ground, watching him, wanting him, unwilling to make the first move.
“I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“Really? And watching you fall into a fornicating free-for-all with those bitches in heat wouldn’t be hurting me? Knowing you were putting your hands on someone else, putting yourself into someone else wasn’t going to hurt me how? Thanks for being so considerate of my feelings.”
He wheeled about abruptly, circling up against her, bumping her with his hard lean form, his cheek against her hair, his hands trembling over the bruises he’d left on her arms. “It wasn’t your feelings I was afraid of hurting.” His words ground up from all the sharp-edged terror weighing cold and heavy in his gut. “I would walk away from you forever before I’d have you look at me like–“ He went still.
“Max? Like what?”
She put her hand over his and he leapt away as if scalded. “Don’t,” he growled. “Not now. Not when I’m like this.”
“Like what, Max?” she pressed.
He brushed by her, reeling slightly as he stepped out onto the balcony. Below, the mood had shifted back to party mode. The music rose, full of energy and spice while unidentifiable shapes danced beneath the moon. Max watched them for a moment, bombarded by the mingling of scent and sound that itched over his nerves.
“Like what, baby? Talk to me, Max.”
She moved up beside him in the heavy shadows and he sidled away with a gruff, “Don’t touch me.”
“I won’t. Just talk to me.”
For a moment there was just the rasp of his breathing, a harsh counterpoint to the good-time tune rising up from the lawn. Then it came pouring out of him, pumping in an arterial gush, unstoppable.
“I came back for you and Mary Kate.”
The instant she took his reference, a cold familiar terror churned up her insides. Immediately, she was back in the awful warehouse, surrounded by unimaginable horror. Unimaginable to a girl of seventeen, not to the woman she was now, who had seen too many horrible things to be surprised by the ugliness humans could summon up from the darkness inside. Though she wanted to tell him to stop, she whispered, “Go on.”
“After I’d killed them, those men, those animals, I bent down to see if you were still . . . if you were all right. They’d left you on the floor, tossed away like something used up and broken. I thought . . . I was afraid I was too late. When I touched you, you opened your eyes, those fierce, brave eyes, and they were empty. There was no soul in them. I thought they’d crushed that spirit that so amazed me.”
“But they didn’t, Max. Because you came back. Because you came back and saved us both.”
“I came back and saved myself.” He shuddering as the memory of what he’d seen that night overwhelmed him. That night when he defied everything he understood, everything he believed, because of what he’d seen in the rebellious glare of an unknown girl’s eyes. Strength. Courage. Freedom.
“I’ve done terrible things, Charlotte. Things I will never, ever share with you. Nothing I did made any impression on me. There was nothing inside me that could feel for those I killed. And then you touched my face, the face of the beast, and you looked at me as if you saw something beautiful. I was never the same after that.”
He turned to her, eyes glittering in the darkness. “I put that empty look of fear into the eyes of every man I killed, that helplessness and terror, because I was like them, those men who raped and tortured you and Mary Kate. Jimmy never told me I could be more than that. He never told me that there was more to me than the monster. I’d forgotten what it was like to feel . . . until you, Charlotte.”