Babet wasn’t sure she could fall asleep, but Prosper wanted an early start in the morning. They gave their werewolf guest a pillow and blanket and helped him settle on the leather couch. The poor man had loped a long distance in a short time, and he was asleep before they made it to their own room. Morgana coiled in the corner of the hallway, just outside their door. If Fang did anything suspicious, she’d know.
Babet kissed Prosper goodnight and rolled over, facing in the opposite direction. As usual, even with the air conditioning, he was too warm. He pushed the sheet to his waist, fidgeted a little, and finally tossed it off. His shifter metabolism burned hot. On a cold night, he was better to snuggle with than an electric blanket. Turning to see him naked, she couldn’t stop impure thoughts, but their guest would hear and smell them if they did anything naughty. Weres and their super senses! She turned back to stare at the cream-colored wall.
“Sorry, Babs. I can’t scratch your itch tonight.” She could hear the smile in Prosper’s voice.
He wouldn’t be so damned cheerful if she was lying naked next to him. He wasn’t all that good at “look, don’t touch.” At least, not with her.
Babet plumped her pillow and closed her eyes. She thought she’d be awake for hours, but she was wrong. She nuzzled into the pillow, and that’s all she remembered.
Prosper woke before she did. She heard him in the shower and pushed herself onto her elbows to watch him walk to their closet. She didn’t care how other men looked without clothes, but she never got tired of ogling her husband. A delicious gumbo of Creole, American Indian, and all things good, his skin glowed with a bronze tint. His body was a road map of muscles. He turned and smiled at her, flashing his dimples. Damn. Too bad duty called this morning.
While he dressed, she got ready, too. By the time she walked into the kitchen, Prosper and Fang were drinking coffee and frying eggs and bacon. She wrinkled her nose. It was too early for serious food. She poured herself a mug of coffee and dropped four pieces of bread into the toaster slots—one of them for her. Hatchet arrived in time to join them. He’d stopped on his way to pick up Dimitri. To go fight an underground dragon, the fire demon looked as suave as always. Tall and elegant, he wore creased casual slacks and a white, button-down shirt. Hatchet was almost as perfect with his wrinkle-free obsession.
Babet glanced down at her jeans and sleeveless T-shirt. Battles were dirty work. The thought of Maw made her nervous and tiny sparks flew across her knuckles.
Morgana slithered to greet Hatchet. The boa had a fondness for him, and vice versa. Hatchet bent to stroke her smooth scales. Fang stared.
“I always thought witches had cats for familiars.”
So had Babet. “We usually do, but when I went to visit the voodoo village, Morgana chose me. Maybe she could tell I’m part succubus and that intrigued her.”
Fang stared. “Where did all of the magicks come from in this town? We have shifters, witches, and vampires—just like you do—but that’s all.”
Prosper finished eating and carried his plate to the sink to rinse it. “My family lived here a long time. They said supernaturals got tired of being persecuted by mortals, so they’d follow the river down until it emptied into the gulf. Then they stayed here.”
“That’s how I ended up in Mississippi,” Fang said. “People in the north are pricklier about magic. They’re more accommodating down here.”
Babet gathered the rest of the plates to rinse and put in the dishwasher. When she finished, Hatchet said, “Ready?” He took his keys out of his pocket. “Let’s go.”
Babet glanced at the four men. Dimitri’s legs were long enough he’d have to sit in front. Prosper’s shoulders were so broad, he’d press against whoever was sitting next to him in the back—which would probably be her. She usually liked it when he bumped against her, but not when she was squashed in the middle of the backseat. “Are we all taking one car? It’s going to be a little tight. And Morgana’s coming, too.”
“She can curl on Prosper’s feet. And it will only be snug on the way there. Fang won’t ride back with us.”
Babet turned to Fang. “How long does it take to reach your town?”
How bad could a few hours be? She started to the door. “I can stand that, but pump up the air conditioning. I’ll be wedged between two shifters.”
“Will do.” Hatchet motioned for Morgana to follow them.
Prosper locked the bungalow and the back gate before he joined them. No enemy could pass Babet’s wards, but if a mortal came to see them for any reason, he wouldn’t be able to wander inside.
Babet couldn’t see much on the trip there. If they passed interesting scenery, she wouldn’t know. But Hatchet drove over the speed limit the entire way, and they pulled into Fang’s town close to lunch time. Babet leaned forward to see better. She counted three liquor stores, two gas stations, and a scattering of businesses along Main Street.
“What’s the population here?” she asked.
“About forty thousand.” Fang pointed toward the next intersection. “There are restaurants and bars up and down the side streets.”
Dimitri turned to see them in the back seat. “It’s small enough, shifters and witches can’t really blend in, can they?”
Fang shook his head. “No, the mortals know about us. We all get along, and we’d like to keep it that way. We don’t want this new magic to change things and make mortals afraid of us.”
Hatchet, as the liaison officer in River City, bridging the gap between mortals and supernaturals, had dealt with that fear often. “The thing to do is to be open with the law enforcement here. Share any information you have.”
“There was nothing to share until I came to see you.” Fang pointed to a stop sign a few feet away. “If you turn left here and take Lee Street out of town, my alpha’s called everyone together to meet you.”
Hatchet made the turn and in five blocks, the town ended. Crowded houses with small lawns gave way to large yards and then farmland. They drove a few miles before Fang pointed again.
“It’s the brick house on the right,” he said.
A big, rectangular, red-brick house that had been added onto in back sat at the end of a long asphalt drive. A bright red barn huddled on the edge of row after row of bushes that stretched to a deep forest.
“What kind of bushes are those?” Jazzi asked.
“Blueberry, we grow a lot them around here.”
Who knew? “I thought those mostly grew in the north.”
Fang shook his head. “We have a special variety that likes our soil and climate, and Cole can use machines to harvest them. Gives us more privacy than hiring pickers.” The bushes ended in a forest perfect for shifters to run and hunt in. “There’s room to park by the barn. We’re meeting there.”
Prosper gripped the back of Hatchet’s seat as they bumped along a packed dirt drive to the barn. “Did you say your alpha’s name is Cole?”
“He shifts into a coal-black wolf, the biggest bastard you’ve ever seen.” Fang sniffed the air and studied Prosper. “You smell like shifter, but you sure don’t smell like wolf.”
“Brown bear,” Prosper told him. A monstrous one.
“You don’t say. Haven’t met any of them, but then, not many shifters drift through town.”
Hatchet parked on the grass at the end of a row of cars. “How many shifters in your pack?”
“Ten, not much compared to River City’s, but we’re happy here.”
Prosper threw open his car door and helped Morgana uncoil and lower herself to the ground before prying himself out of the backseat. He held out a hand to help Babet. She hoped she didn’t look as wilted as she felt. Prosper tugged at his damp T-shirt to peel it off his skin.
Fang glanced at the cars and said, “Looks like everybody’s here.” He opened the barn’s side door and motioned for them to go inside.
The room went silent when they entered it. All eyes turned on them and Morgana. Half of the barn was walled off to make a meeting room with a large, round table in its center and office chairs circling it. Through an open door, Babet could see farm equipment and crates in the other half.
A tall, muscular man with black hair rose and waited until Fang shut the door and started toward them. “Are these the River City folks?”
Fang motioned for them to find seats at the table. “Yup, let me introduce them.” He started with Prosper. “Prosper, a werebear and a supernatural detective. His wife Babet, a witch and succubus. The boa’s her familiar, and it’s poisonous. Prosper’s partner Hatchet, a Druid. And Dimitri, a fire demon. Hatchet’s fought the thing who came to our city once. Either her or something like her.”
Cole waved a hand to include his pack. “We’re all wolves, and the only things we’ve fought are rogue vampires who think they can prey on a small town. We have a few witches who live here, too, but they’ve never been in a battle before.”
Hatchet looked from one man to the next. Not one of them shifted his gaze or looked down. “You look like a strong pack, but having more than one kind of magic will help you fight Maw. She’s old magic, and she’s fierce.”
“What is a Maw?” one of the men asked.
“A dragon who lives underground. She digs tunnels and makes traps for people to fall through.”
“Like a trapdoor spider,” Fang said. “That’s how he described her to me. It stuck.”
Cole frowned. “Can we dig down to find her? Are we strong enough to kill her?”
“Not alone. Finding her is hard. Weres have great hearing. You might be able to track her when she’s moving. When I hunted her, we watched a soldier fall into her hole, and when we felt her move again, we dove into the tunnel to go after her.”
“But you didn’t kill her?” a gray wolf asked. His hair indicated the color he’d be when he shifted.
“My magic is limited underground. I wounded her, but she dug straight down and we lost her. She left the area, but we couldn’t. Our country was losing a war.”
The gray wolf raised an eyebrow. “If you don’t mind my asking, what is your magic?”
“A fair question.” Hatchet’s tattoos stretched across the table, writhing and snapping. Then he raised his palms, and winds buffeted the sides of the barn. Dark clouds rumbled overhead and lightning bounced across the sky.
The wolves exchanged nervous glances, but the gray wolf nodded toward Babet. “And the witch?”
Babet threw her arms in the air, and a shield of magic encircled her. She stamped her foot, and the ground rose and fell. At a word, winds howled. She lowered her arms and pursed her lips, then inhaled a short breath. Energy slipped from the gray wolf’s lips to her. She gently blew it back again, and the man gave a nervous gulp. She turned to Dimitri. “Your turn.”
“But you didn’t sizzle anything.”
She gave an exasperated sigh, raised her hands, and shot energy at an empty chair in the corner. It bounced as sparks engulfed it, and then it exploded. She raised her eyebrows at Dimitri. “Now?”
He stood to walk a little away from them, then turned into a human torch, encircled by flames. When the flames left, he said, “I can’t throw them, or the barn will catch on fire.”
The wolves looked at Prosper.
“Not gonna happen,” he told them. “I left my sweats in the car, and I’m not splitting my clothes unless I have to.”
Babet smiled. They should understand. They had the same problem when they shifted.
Cole asked the important question. “Can you kill Maw?”
Hatchet answered. “We don’t know. No one’s done it yet.”
Cole pinched his lips together. “I kinda hate the idea of just driving her away so she can go to some other town and eat its people.”
“So do we,” Hatchet said. “But that might be the best we can do.”
“That’s all we can ask.”
Prosper rolled his shoulders to loosen them. “We might not be able to track Maw right away, but we don’t want to lose any more townspeople. You need to warn people about what they’re facing and how to deal with it.”
Cole looked surprised. “You mean, tell people that a demon dragon is tunneling under our town, waiting to eat them? They’ll turn against supernaturals.”
Hatchet shook his head. “It doesn’t work that way in River City. Mortals know we’re their friends and fight the bad supernaturals who mean to hurt them.”
“So they think of you as their protectors?” Fang asked.
“They know we’ll do everything we can to defeat the predators and keep them safe. And they know they aren’t strong enough to do it themselves.”
“Makes sense.” With a curt nod, Cole reached for his phone. “Will you stay to talk to Sheriff Mitchell with us?”
Hatchet and Prosper nodded.
After Cole explained about asking Hatchet’s team to help his pack, he shared what they’d learned so far. Then he shut off his phone and turned to them. “He’s on his way. In the meantime, how do we protect people until we find Maw?”
Hatchet’s tattoos whirled again with nervous energy. “The best bet? Stay indoors after dark. If you can’t for some reason, go everywhere in threes and hold hands. Then if the dirt opens under one of you, there are two people to help yank you up. And they’d better be quick about it.”
Dimitri added, “There’s no guarantee. Nothing’s foolproof with a dragon, but that should increase your odds of surviving.”
Cole spread his hands. “What can we do? How can we help you?”
“Listen.” Prosper told them. “Weres hear and smell things other people don’t. If you hear something, call us. We can’t fight an enemy we can’t find. And stay in threes, like Hatchet said. You’re fast and strong, but so is Maw.”
They’d run out of questions, so they quietly talked among themselves, waiting for the sheriff to get there. Babet replayed what Hatchet had said earlier, that he and his fellow Druid had jumped down the hole to fight Maw in her tunnels. Babet’s earth magic was strong, but she’d never fought an enemy in close quarters or underground. She didn’t like the idea. Would she be brave enough to make the leap? Holy Hecate, she hoped so. One thing she knew for sure, though. If Prosper jumped in, so would she. No one, not even a dragon, would mess with her mate if she could help it.