·SERIES: Shrew & Company Book 7
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When solitary Marcella Bailey ventures to join her sister on the staff of Shrew & Company, she doesn’t anticipate being partnered with the man she’s been avoiding for weeks. Bear shifter Soren Ursu claims she’s his mate.
But witches like Marcella don’t get mates.
Soren hopes he can convince Marcella to accept their connection, but she’s got a one-track mind. She’s focused on winning the job and ending the company’s crusade against the unscrupulous research firm CarrHealth. He needs her to understand that nothing bad will happen if she lets him love her…in spite of the fact his parents are trying to pull her into the family’s supernatural assassination business.
Marcella can’t help but to be skeptical. Getting close to Soren would force her to reveal shocking secrets about herself that not even her sister knows.
She might be perfectly suited to navigate the demands of one of Bear-kind’s most notorious families, but to save Soren from the obligations of his clan, she must be willing to let him rescue her as well.
Taking a deep breath, Marcella Bailey worked the pad of her right thumb across the buttery, eggplant-colored material of her leather gloves. The thin layer would be the only insulation between the magic of an untutored natural witch and a Machiavellian cockroach by the name of Gene.
If he hadn’t been shackled to the interrogation room table, she might not have bothered using such restraint. But the ex-Were-bear alpha was immobilized, and she believed in fair fights. She believed the universe was keeping close watch on her, too. Playing dirty wasn’t in her nature.
She worked one snug-fitting glove onto her left hand and, fastening the button at the wrist, eyed Gene. His nostrils flared in time to the heaving of his chest, his upper lip curling up in a sneer.
Quietly, she scoffed. If he’d had use of his hands, he might have even thumped his chest like a threatened gorilla. If his ankles hadn’t been restrained as well, he might have tried to get in her face as a show of dominance. To get her to back down and go away like so many of the abused Bears in his old pack.
She wasn’t a Bear, though, and she wasn’t afraid of him because he had no power over her.
Putting on the right glove, she glanced over her shoulder at her partner and observer for the day, the Shrew & Company Investigation Agency’s second-in-command Sarah Castillo.
Ever patient, Sarah tracked her keen gaze from the insolent man tugging at his restraints to Marcella’s hands. Sarah wouldn’t rush her, but knowing that she was being judged on her fitness to join the company made Marcella more anxious than Gene did.
She needed to do things right—everything needed to be perfect. Having spent much of the past decade roaming the Americas selling her magic and knowledge of the arcane, Marcella craved steady work. She needed a home base that wasn’t her same old haunts back in Jamaica. Her mama and grandmama’s reputations seemed to pervade every angle of the island at times, and Marcella needed to go her own way.
She’d felt like a complete buffoon the first time she’d pulled on a pair of gloves, pleading she’d caught a chill in the heat of a Jamaican summer while everyone else around her was clad in shorts and cotton shirts.
As she eased farther into the room, Sarah closed the door and leaned against it. “Whenever you’re ready,” she said quietly.
Gene yanked at his restraints and hollered, ostensibly to the surveillance camera, “I want my fuckin’ lawyer! Can’t hold me here without my lawyer!”
The camera wasn’t on. Even if it were, no police officer would be coming to his rescue. The Durham Police had an arrangement with Shrew & Company, and besides, they’d already been through the song and dance with Gene.
He wasn’t getting a lawyer because, technically, he wasn’t under arrest. They could arrest him for a number of schemes involving extortion, assault, kidnapping, drug possession and distribution, and so on, but he was the Bears’ to punish. They’d deal with him in time. First, they needed to see how deep his rabbit hole of deceit went.
“I’d save my breath if I were you,” Marcella murmured. She pressed her palms against the tabletop a couple of feet from Gene and looked up at Sarah.
Sarah nodded in a go-on fashion.
“Your rodeo,” she seemed to be saying.
Marcella hadn’t worked with Sarah before, but knew how she operated. The core staff at the Shrew & Company Investigation Agency—including Marcella’s half-sister Maria—had some important traits in common. They were freakishly strong and all a little bit psychic. Most had come by their physical quirks after having been subjected to an unregulated drug trial. Their DNA had been mutated, and they’d recently learned that although the results hadn’t been what the coordinators had expected, mutation had been the goal all along.
Two of the ladies at Shrew & Company were odd even before the SHREW study was a thing. They were bear shifters. Tamara Ursu was the outlier who happened to be both Bear and Shrew. A force to be reckoned with, for sure.
The five original staff members had been working together for years. In the month Marcella had been getting to know them, they’d proven themselves time and time again to be honorable sorts. So, she believed without question that Sarah would have her back.
But Marcella had never worked with a team before. She was used to making her own way and being her own boss. Having two new bosses was going to take some getting used to.
“You’re going to want to hurt him.” Sarah’s voice was a silky alto, completely lacking any discernible regional American accent. All the Shrews were good at that, even Tamara who’d been born in Romania and had spent most of her life moving from one European country to the next.
The Shrews were masters of disguise—the perfect spies—and Marcella wanted more than anything to be a part of the magic. She was tired of being a solo act, and tired of feeling like her innate skills were dirty. She hadn’t asked to be born what she was. The folks back on the port had called her “obeah woman.” They’d smiled and laughed every time, and had done the same with her mother and grandmother. Then they’d always asked for some trifling favor—for her to find them love or wealth.
Her magic didn’t work like that. She wished her practice was that simple.
“He’s got a special knack for antagonism,” Sarah continued. “You’ll want to hurt him badly, so if I were you, I’d try to repress any compulsion you have to get too close. Touching him should be a last-resort tactic. Get me?”
Touching him…could make me lose control.
She could get what she needed from him and strip away every ounce of shame until he cried like an infant, but she’d be the one who’d be truly weak if she wasn’t careful. She couldn’t let Sarah see her like that. She’d tell Dana, and Dana would think Marcella wasn’t fit to hire.
Considering her strategy, Marcella fondled the wrist edging of her right glove.
“Marcella.” Sarah narrowed her dark-as-night eyes and toyed with the strap of her empty holster. Some cop had made her hand over her weapons. The Durham Police Department may have been doing them a favor by jailing the shitheel in the interrogation room, but Marcella still didn’t like their terms. In her opinion, the Shrews had done them a favor by getting the man off the streets. They should have let Sarah hold on to her guns.
Marcella gave a grave nod. “I’ll behave, Miss Sarah.”
Sarah snorted. “You may not have the strength of some of us, but you have natural magic, and that makes you a wildcard. Normally, we wouldn’t dream of immediately tossing a potential hire straight into the fire, but we want this case closed and locked away. We’re all tired of having our lives upended by this man and the people he associates with. He has no conscience, and we’re not going to let ourselves feel guilty about doing what we have to anymore.”
“But you still prefer for there to be no blood spilled, even his.”
Sarah slanted her head toward the surveillance camera mounted in the corner of the small anteroom. “Blood means more paperwork. Fuck paperwork. I wasn’t a big fan of bureaucracy even when I was in the Marines.”
“Mmm. I imagine they’ve got their way of doing things.”
“That’s an understatement. Let’s get this done. If we’re lucky, we’ll get out of here in time for paella.”
“You bitches talk too fuckin’ much,” Gene said.
Sarah rolled her eyes. “Anyway, my father-in-law wouldn’t admit that was what he was making for dinner, but I saw the shopping list. I’m a private investigator. I know how to put two and two together.”
Marcella put a hand on her hip and cocked her head. “You inviting me, Miss Sarah?”
“Maybe. Depends. Are you one of those Rastafarian vegetarians? I get enough of that Mother Earth lecturing about eating animals from Maria.”
“No, I’m Catholic like my mother.” Mostly. “I have no problem with eating things that were once able to move, though I admit I’ve inherited a few of my father’s Rastafari quirks. Maria likely has as well without realizing she has. He is very”—she grimaced—“charismatic that way.”
Or at least, he had been the last time she saw him a year prior. Gerald was something of a rolling stone, and one that had no qualms about casting its seeds wherever it went. Marcella had no way of knowing how many siblings she had. Her father claimed there were only four, and he’d vowed to always be honest with her, but his concept of truthiness didn’t always overlap with hers.
Sarah walked over, put her lips to Marcella’s ear, and whispered, “Don’t let him think you don’t know what you’re doing. Twenty percent of this job comes down to being a good faker. If you’re ever uncertain of whether or not you should proceed, look at me and I’ll give you a clue. You’ll be fine.”
Marcella nodded and, straightening up, shook out her hands. She hadn’t expected early confidence from the Shrews. She appreciated receiving some in spite of not having proven her mettle.
Sarah retreated to the door, and Marcella looked to Gene.
His dark-eyed blink was slow, but not slow enough to fully conceal the roll of his eyes.
“So derisive already?” she said. “Truly? My, you are a rude one.”
The man in the chair flexed his fingers into fists, straining his wrists against the cuffs. Uselessly abusing his flesh.
If his goal was to get her blood pressure up, he was failing spectacularly.
“Keep flexing,” she said. “You’re not going to intimidate me. Perhaps no one else has proven conclusively whether or not you’re actually a Bear because there’s no good test for that, is there? But I know.” She nodded for emphasis and stared down at her overturned right hand. The palm beneath the glove itched.
“If you were really a Bear—if you could shapeshift into one of those great beasts you’ve been taking such pleasure in harassing and abusing in the past decade or more, you wouldn’t have let yourself get caught. You may be crafty, for a man, but your ability to outlast your pursuers is only because you’re mean.”
“Is there a point to you pumping all that carbon dioxide into the air?” Gene asked, voice dripping with condescension. “If not, shut your mouth and let me go back to my cell where it’s quiet.”
Here we go.
She didn’t like that—being told to shut up. Being silenced by men always made her want to double down and talk more. She wanted to force them to listen and to wallow in their wrongness.
Marcella rubbed her itchy palm through her glove and, leaning her head from one side of her neck to the other to work out the kink, kept her gaze on the small-framed man.
She could almost understand why he behaved the way he did. He’d infiltrated a group of Were-bears in western North Carolina and made himself their alpha without even having to fight the man in charge. That alpha had been meek. Non-confrontational.
He’d stepped aside to keep discord in the clan to a minimum. After all, Bears were supposed to be peacemakers, not antagonists.
Gene had been an aberration from the start. The Bears should have known something was wrong, but maybe they weren’t like her. Not born skeptics. She wasn’t easy to convince of anything.
Marcella pushed her eyebrows up and held his arresting gaze. She’d been stared down by worse, and those men hadn’t managed to dissuade her from her mission, either.
“You’re not a Bear,” she said. “You’re not anything at all. What you are is a weak, avaricious man who saw an opportunity and cooked up a scheme with some greed and a bit of sociopathy. Voila.” She kissed her fingertips. “Perfect recipe for ruining people’s lives, but of course, you don’t care.”
He rolled his eyes again.
She wanted to form a beak with her fingers and peck them out, but didn’t want to leave the mess behind. The department’s janitor probably didn’t get paid enough for that sort of ridiculousness.
Canting her head, she watched him drum his fingertips against the Formica tabletop. Whether he was fidgeting from nerves, impatience, or some combination of the two, she couldn’t say, but with him behaving as he was, she couldn’t expect compliance from him.
He was cagey.
Guilty as hell.
She had to get him to talk, though. Not to confess his sins—those didn’t need rehashing—but to divulge information about his conspirators. His acts of terrorism hadn’t been a one-man job. He had a network that the Shrews needed to burn down to the ground. They hoped their next target would be the last, and that they could finally put their war with CarrHealth behind them.
“I’m going to get to the point.” She twined her fingers, cracked her knuckles, and drew in a bracing breath. If she were lucky, she’d get through the interview without having to touch him. Touching made compelling people to talk easier, but physical connection also destabilized her other magic. She couldn’t afford to fall apart in front of Gene.
In front of anyone, really. No one knew how unpredictable she really was, not even her mother and grandmother. They thought Marcella had gotten her shit together. But of course, that was the lie she’d told them.
“You were working closely with Wes at CarrHealth and distributing designer drugs into shifter packs for him. You made a lot of money playing Bear alpha, but you’re not going to need money where you’re going. Everything you need, from toilet paper to tube socks will be provided for you. If you’re a good little boy, maybe the guards at the Bear bunker will let you have a television one day. They’re putting together a cell for you right now, and I’m sure it’ll be ever so lovely.”
Sarah snorted. “Doesn’t even have a window.”
“My, sounds like a miserable existence. If I were you, I’d want to make everyone I was associated with suffer the same way I have to. And trust me.” She let her lips curve into a semi-smile. “You won’t have another day of comfort for the rest of your life. So, where is he?”
Gene didn’t respond. He tapped his fingertips together and ground his teeth, glowering at her.
She hadn’t really expected him to talk. Not immediately, anyway. A man like him would never give over power to a woman by choice. She had no problem with using force, but she’d prefer not to leave marks. Sometimes she got carried away, but all the same, the time for escalation had come.
A bit of good cop, bad cop, but Gene wouldn’t be able to tell who was whom.
She looked to Sarah, who nodded.
One of Sarah’s psychic quirks was being able to muddle whatever control centers that existed in the brain that kept people from wagging their tongues. She, basically, knocked away their verbal filters and resistance they had to telling the truth. But what she had wasn’t strong enough for Gene. She’d likely been born with her ability, but she hadn’t put the skill into practice until after her Shrew abilities had surfaced. She was raw. Unfocused. She’d get better in time, but Gene? Gene was too practiced in the art of manipulating people. His superpower was being a lying shit, and he’d reached mega-villain level.
Sarah chewed on the inside of her cheek for a moment. She couldn’t make him talk, but she could still lay the groundwork. She pushed away from the wall and moved behind Gene.
He couldn’t completely turn because of his cuffed wrists, and he gave up trying to look over his shoulder at her. Instead, he stared straight ahead at Marcella in that “Submit” way he was foolish enough to think would work on her.
Perhaps his glare had worked on most he encountered, but she wasn’t like most people—human or otherwise.
“Don’t worry,” Sarah said. “I’m not going to hit you when you can’t see me. If I’m going to hit a man, I’d like for him to see me coming. Fights should be fair. I’m not going to bother trying to preach to you, either. You already know my thoughts on you and all the dirty deeds you got into.”
She rested her hands on the back of his seat, and his jaw twitched and lips flattened.
An unexpected show of anxiety.
Sarah leaned in close, and said in a hoarse whisper, “I don’t really like thinking about how what you did hurt my friends. When I think about that, I get upset, and when I get upset, my husband gets mean. But you already know not to fuck with Castillos.” Her volume had started edging up, but she didn’t move away. She stayed right where she was, her lips near his ear, her grip tight on the back of Gene’s chair.
“Those men may smile like the dickens, but they all get nasty when they hit those breaking points. For the past year, as we’ve been trying to get our families settled and comfortable, you’ve been throwing one monkey wrench after another into the works. Because of your bullshit, I had to cut my maternity leave short.”
Gene huffed. “Cry me a river, why don’t ya?”
Marcella was instantly pissed on her behalf.
How dare he diminish the stress he’d caused Sarah’s family? How dare he be so cavalier about people unable to live normal lives because of shit he’d set into motion?
Sarah had been right. Marcella did want to put a fist through his head, and they hadn’t even been in the room for five minutes yet.
Sarah, fortunately, seemed unfazed. She kept her hands to herself and her expression unchanged. “Want to see me cry? Don’t hold your breath. I lost my ability to easily shed real tears sometime during CarrHealth’s SHREW Study. You know what’s worse than people seeing you cry? Needing to cry and not being able to.”
She stepped away from his chair, only to give the rear legs a hard kick that made his hands jerk inside the shackles.
“Fuck,” he said.
“I hope that hurt. A part of me hopes that maybe you’ve dislocated something and that you’ll sit here in misery until we’re done with you.”
“See. You’re no better than me.”
“No. I am better than you, and fuck you for wasting breath to insinuate otherwise. I shouldn’t have to explain this, Eugene. The difference between you and me is that I actually give a shit about other people. I know the world doesn’t revolve around me and that my life is improved and enriched when the people around me are happy. In your worldview, misery is the name of the game. You’re not happy unless everyone else is under your boot heel. You’re not happy unless everyone else is suffering.” She shook her head and retreated to her former spot near the door. “I don’t give a shit if you ever redeem yourself. I don’t believe there’s repentance in store for you, and I’m not Christian enough to urge you to seek salvation.” She shrugged. “Go to hell and burn for all I care.”
“But before you do,” Marcella said, cutting Sarah a rehearsed stunned look. For the moment, she’d be the good cop. “Perhaps you should tell us what you know about Wes. Where is he? What are his plans?”
Gene wrenched around in his seat to face Marcella and hocked.
Bad cop now.
She moved out of the way before the lob of spit left his mouth, but she only moved so far as to catch the left rear leg of the chair with the crook of her right foot. She kicked the support back.
His face hit the table, and she pressed a gloved hand to the back of his neck and closed her eyes.
She didn’t care if there were cops passing by in the hall seeing all. If push came to shove, she’d make up some lie to explain why she’d done what she did, and they’d believe her because her magic was that good. She didn’t want to have to use it. She didn’t want to risk Sarah seeing how weak working magic made Marcella. Marcella could take care of herself, but the Shrews hadn’t seen what she could do. They’d assume she was more trouble than she was worth, and she’d never been the needy sort.
His body started to shake, and she’d barely done anything to him yet. If she’d been touching skin-to-skin, he would have been crying like an elementary school bully who still secretly wore Sesame Street underoos and who’d been shamed by having his pants yanked down on the playground.
“Just a little nervous reaction,” she said quietly for Sarah’s benefit. “Funny how everything in the body connects.”
She tightened her fingers around the back of his neck and, at the pungent scent of fresh urine, opened her mouth to breathe. “You had to know that one of these days you’d mess with someone with power you don’t understand. Too bad we hadn’t met sooner, and maybe not so many people would have had to deal with your ignorant self.”
A bit tighter.
She took a deep breath and forced herself to loosen her grip a bit. Hurting him would have been too easy. In fact, she could have easily convinced him that he should hurt himself.
She didn’t want to carry that guilt. Guilt aggregated and multiplied over time, and she had enough to worry about already without having to carry shit from the past around with her, too.
“You can live out the rest of your sorry life in protective custody alone with no one to bother you, and that’s what we want, too. People like us, we want to be left alone. That’s all. So, tell us where he is, and this stops now.”
“I don’t know where the fu—”
“If I take off this glove,” Marcella said in a rushed whisper, “you will regret speaking that word to me. Try again. Where is he? You have to have some idea of how to find him. You have to know who his contacts are and where he’d go if he needed quick access to funds.”
The Shrews had already cut off access to the SHREW Study coordinator’s “official” accounts. The agency having well-placed friends in various industries who weren’t quite human had obvious perks. They weren’t so naive to believe, however, that Wes didn’t have under-the-table funding, or people who were stupid enough to launder his cash.
She gave Gene’s neck another encouraging squeeze and immediately regretted attempting to breathe through her nose again.
“Don’t know, all right?” he squealed.
“Don’t know what?” she asked. “You don’t know where he is right now, or you don’t know where he might go?”
“What are his routines, then? Certainly, they’ve changed since he left CarrHealth. What are his habits? What might he be doing?”
Gene let out a breath and squirmed in his seat. He had to be very uncomfortable sitting in wet filth of his own making. “He had a place. Met him there sometimes for hand-offs.”
“At the other CarrHealth facility.”
“In Jersey?” Sarah asked. “Jersey said they don’t have shit to do with him anymore.”
“Where, then? Don’t make us squeeze the information out of you drop by drop.”
Better that than the other things dripping out of him right now.
Marcella turned her head and pulled in another bolstering breath. “Where, Gene?”
“It’s in Georgia, south of Atlanta.”
He was holding back on something. She could tell in the same way she could tell that rain was coming. She could feel the change of air pressure in her bones.
“There’s a…black Bear group down there. Been…” He clammed up before he could finish the thought.
“Don’t stop now.” She jostled his neck and made his forehead bounce against the tabletop. “Been what?”
“Made- or born-Bears, Gene?” Sarah asked.
“Made,” he said after too damned long. “Made-Bears.”
“Are you responsible? Did you send some of your lieutenants down there to claw them up?”
“No!” he shouted. “You’re not gonna pin me with shit I didn’t do.”
“Sure, so the bastard finally figured out the drug formula and mutated the folks? Is that seriously what you’re telling me?”
Gene had strong-armed his enforcers in the Ridge Bear group and forced them to infect enemies. Maria’s lover, Eric, was one of those made-Bears. He’d been jumped by two of Gene’s enforcers while handling business for his mountain lodge.
Marcella was starting to take the ordeal personally. She couldn’t help her investment. Before, she’d looked at the scenario as a gig that could have earned her permanent employment with the Shrews, but the perversion was hitting too close to home. Perhaps she hadn’t been in Maria’s life very long, but that didn’t matter. Marcella wasn’t going to tolerate anyone in her family getting run roughshod over. She’d never been able to stand for that, and she had absolutely no problems with calling people out for their bad behavior.
She needed to step away from him, or she was really going to hurt him—not with magic, but with her fists and fingernails, if need be.
She needed a little more.
“Yeah.” He swallowed hard. “And no. Both, I guess.”
“Where? What town? And who can we call for confirmation?”
He let out a sputtering breath and gulped audibly. “Town is called Quill. Keep heading south on 85 past Atlanta for an hour, and you’ll see the sign. There’s only one exit. You’ll have to find your own proof because I ain’t got shit else.”
Marcella opened her mouth to press, but Sarah put a hand on her forearm. Marcella looked up to see her shaking her head.
Sarah shook it again.
So Marcella backed away from Gene. She’d accept Sarah’s guidance. She had the experience and the knowledge of Gene. All Marcella had was a lot of indignation and a checking account begging to be fed. She didn’t have the history.
She followed Sarah out to the hall and shut the door.
Sarah peered through the two-way mirror into the room.
Gene had picked his head up and stared straight ahead, not at the door they’d just exited through. He had to know they were watching.
He didn’t care, or else maybe he’d finally found some shame.
“We got what we needed,” Sarah said. “You did good. You’ll get a better handle on what your stopping point should be in time.”
Grimacing, Marcella lifted her dense dreadlocks and swiped her hand across the back of her hot, sweating neck. “How do you know when to stop?”
“Experience. You’ll come to learn that there’s a point where nothing else they say will matter because schemes change too quickly. This isn’t a case where specifics are going to do us a hell of a lot of good. We’re going to make a wide-spectrum attack. Speed and agility are what we need, not precision.”
“So basically, once you know where you’re headed, you don’t pry for more information.”
The advice sounded like the exact opposite thing to Marcella, but she’d read Sarah’s case files. Sarah almost always found her targets. They might have tried to run, but their freedom was always short-lived.
“Also helps knowing who to call when you need a lead.” Sarah canted her head toward the front of the department, and Marcella started moving. “We’ve got a bunch of psychics in our contact list who are very good at tracking people for a fleeting moment if we give them the right clues. We need to be able to translate the leads they give us into a tactical advantage before circumstances change.”
“You always make that sound so much easier than it actually is,” came the familiar, broadly accented male voice Marcella had hoped she’d heard the last of.
She turned in the hall and mouthed, “Damn,” before righting herself and continuing on past the man. She knew better than to make eye contact. Soren Ursu would consider a glance an invitation.
“Did you come to check our work?” Sarah asked him, cocking a hip daringly. “Or did someone bail you out five minutes ago?”
Marcella didn’t wait around to hear his answer. What he said didn’t matter. She stormed past the offices, past the waiting room, outside, and down the steps to the parking lot.
Sarah had the keys to the SUV, so Marcella decided she’d just walk. Shrew & Company was less than ten blocks away. The sun was starting to go down, but she didn’t care if anyone tried her. She could handle herself against most aggressors.
When it came to the man who insisted that she was his mate, she had no such courage. He wasn’t the kind of man who’d take “no” for an answer, and she wasn’t the kind of woman who could say “yes.”
Not without hurting someone.
Not without hurting herself.