Secrets at midnight, p.1
Secrets at Midnight,
Part #12.50 of Psy-Changeling series by Nalini Singh
Berkley titles by Nalini Singh
Slave to Sensation Visions of Heat
Caressed by Ice
Mine to Possess
Hostage to Pleasure Branded by Fire
Blaze of Memory
Bonds of Justice Play of Passion
Kiss of Snow
Tangle of Need
Heart of Obsidian Shield of Winter Shards of Hope
Allegiance of Honor Guild Hunter Series
Archangel's Kiss Archangel's Consort Archangel's Blade Archangel's Storm Archangel's Legion Archangel's Shadows Archangel's Enigma Anthologies
An Enchanted Season (with Maggie Shayne, Erin McCarthy, and Jean Johnson)
The Magical Christmas Cat (with Lora Leigh, Erin McCarthy, and Linda Winstead Jones)
Must Love Hellhounds (with Charlaine Harris, Ilona Andrews, and Meljean Brook)
(with Angela Knight, Virginia Kantra, and Meljean Brook)
Angels of Darkness (with Ilona Andrews, Meljean Brook, and Sharon Shinn)
(with Ilona Andrews, Lisa Shearin, and Milla Vane)
Texture of Intimacy Declaration of Courtship Whisper of Sin
Secrets at Midnight
Published by Berkley
An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
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Copyright (c) 2014 by Nalini Singh.
Excerpt from Allegiance of Honor copyright (c) 2016 by Nalini Singh.
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Berkley mass-market edition / November 2014
InterMix eBook edition / August 2016
Cover design by Rita Frangie.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Berkley titles by Nalini Singh
Excerpt from Allegiance of Honor
About the Author
Bastien Smith knew he'd been suckered. By his own mother no less. The only thing that might make it bearable was if Sage had been suckered, too. "Tell me you didn't know," he said to his younger brother through gritted teeth, both of them propping up the wall nearest the door and an escape they couldn't make.
Eyes narrowing, Sage folded his arms. "Are you accusing me of breaking the bro code?"
Bastien shoved a hand through his hair, the dark red strands no doubt a mess by now. "Sorry." It was only right he apologize after suspecting Sage of something so heinous, even if it had resulted from sheer exhausted frustration. "Mom told me she needed help setting up."
"Technically, she did." Sage nodded toward the heavy dining table their mother had asked the two of them to shift into the large living area of the home where they'd both grown up. It fit, plenty of space around it for their mother's guests to mingle, only because Bastien and Sage had first hauled the usual living room furniture into other rooms of the house.
It hadn't taken long, both of them happy to help their mom prepare for the "book club luncheon" she'd been looking forward to all week. What she'd neglected to mention was that all her book club buddies were bringing along their nubile daughters, nieces, neighbors, and any other random young female they could corral into this excruciating exercise.
Normally, Bastien would've groaned, then sucked it up. He loved his mother, would never hurt her. But normally, he wasn't strung out from two solid weeks of sleepless nights . . . because he didn't want just any woman. He wanted her, the woman he knew in his gut was his mate, but who, against all known laws of changeling mating, he couldn't find.
He'd first tasted the scent of his elusive lover on a street in Chinatown fourteen days, eight hours, and seventeen minutes ago, the scent igniting a possessiveness in him that was as feral as it was joyous. Yes, he'd thought, yes, and turned to follow the scent that spoke to him in a way nothing else ever had . . . only for it to dissipate into intangible mist even his changeling-acute senses couldn't pierce.
Refusing to believe he'd lost her, he'd spent hours searching the area, day fading into darkest midnight, until he'd finally had to go home empty-handed, his soul craving the touch of hers. The leopard inside his skin had clawed him awake only hours later, certain she was just beyond his reach, hurt and in pain. Torn apart at the idea that he wasn't there when his mate needed him, he'd immediately gone out again.
Dawn had come on a smudge of light that grew steadily brighter, bringing with it hundreds of people of every size and shape and hue, but not her.
The rest of the world might be in the grip of a tense silence as they waited to see if the days-old historic change in the lives of the Psy, the psychic race that shared the planet with changelings and humans, would spill out into new violence, but Bastien cared only about finding her.
He'd repeated the pattern from that first night every night since, prowling the empty and fog-shrouded city streets in his leopard form long after its other residents found their beds. He'd discarded thousands of trails, sensed myriad secrets, and three or four times, he'd caught the wild, sweet, utterly unique and just as intoxicating scent that was hers, but it never lasted. Not as a scent should last. It faded out with impossible abruptness in the middle of a narrow pathway between buildings, or halfway down a flight of stairs--places where she couldn't have gone anywhere unless she had wings.
The idea that she might be an aerial changeling, perhaps part of the falcon wing with which Bastien's pack had an alliance, would've been an answer that gave him a way to find her, but there was a feline undertone to her scent that told him he was stalking a fellow cat changeling.
One who was there one instant, gone the next.
Always when the changeling scent ended, he caught a softer one below it that also awakened his most primal instincts. Despite the fact he knew a changeling male couldn't have that kind of a visceral reaction to two different women, he'd followed that scent, too--only it was too gentle, too easily lost among the bitter odors of coffee and spice outside a restaurant, or the overpowering aromas that poured from a beauty parlor, the city a kaleidoscope to his senses.
In truth, both scents were less intense than they should be. The only reason he could track the feline one longer was that it had a bitingly primal edge to it that made it stand out even amid the other changeling scents in the city.
"I didn't even get a bite of the brownies." Sage's mournful voice broke into his thoughts, his brother's gaze on the table groaning with food on the other side of the wall of female flesh. "I was just about to grab one when they began arriving, and I tried to bolt out the back door."
So had Bastien. Only to be stopped by their mother's firm order to stay.
"Why is it"--Bastien folded his arms, mirroring his brother's stance--"that though we're the ones ostensibly doing the choosing, this feels like a two-man meat market?"
Sage bared his teeth at a tall human blonde who turned his way, her body angled in invitation. She hurriedly glanced in another direction, and Sage smirked . . . until he found himself on the receiving end of a patented maternal glare, Lia Smith's petite body as stiff as a general's.
Smirk wilting, he pushed off the wall, a big, tough leopard changeling with his metaphorical tail between his legs. "Crap, I have to go make nice now, or I might as well say good-bye to ever again tasting one of Mom's brownies." Shoulders hunched, he shot Bastien a pleading look. "Don't abandon me, man."
Bastien turned into a rock, feet glued to the floor and arms still folded. "Hell no. And don't even think of bringing up the bro code," he added when Sage went as if to open his mouth. "I've had to suffer through far more of these than you."
As he watched his brother thrust his hands into the pockets of his jeans and slink off to join the lovely, perfumed mass of women who might as well have been a tank of ravenous sharks, Bastien fought the urge to simply shove open the door and leave. No matter how raw and trapped he felt right now, he knew his mother was only trying to help, because though he hadn't said anything to her, Lia Smith knew her children.
She'd clearly sensed he was unhappy, even made the connection that it had to do with his single status. How could he explain the impossible to his mom? A changeling male never lost the scent of his mate once he'd caught it. He should've been able to stalk her through fire and hail, snow and rain, much less down city streets.
"Sweetheart." His mother's hand on his arm, the scent of her familiar and of home. "Come into the kitchen. I need you to grab some glasses from the top cabinet."
He followed her without argument, avoiding even the glancing touch of other women. His leopard was in no mood to be touched by any unmated female but the one he couldn't find; Bastien wasn't certain he'd be able to control the urge to snarl if one of the women in the room dared attempt even minor skin privileges. Better to make certain the situation didn't arise.
"I know which ones," he said once he and his mom had reached the thankful emptiness of the kitchen. Opening the cabinet, he easily grabbed the spare set his mother would've had to use her step stool to access.
"Thank you, baby boy."
Bastien didn't protest her address. He'd long ago accepted the fact that no matter his age or maturity or position in the pack hierarchy, he'd always be her cub. Now, she cupped his face with gentle hands, her eyes searching his, the brown of her irises ringed by a rich yellow-green as her leopard rose to the surface of her mind. "I made a mistake today, didn't I?"
Swamped by a wave of love for the woman who'd kissed countless scraped knees for him when he'd been a child, he closed his hands over her wrists. "Ignore me. I'm just in a bad mood."
"No." She straightened the collar of the white shirt he wore over black pants, having intended to go into the office to catch up on work after helping move the furniture. "Something's wrong, and I've made it worse. I know I shouldn't interfere"--a rueful cast to her expression--"but I love you all so much I can't help myself."
"I know." Never had he questioned his parents' love for him and his siblings, that love the foundation on which his life was built. It was why he hadn't walked out when Lia ordered him and Sage to stay; hurting her would make neither the animal nor the human part of him feel good.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"No, not yet." He drew her into a tight hug, his leopard rubbing against his skin, akin to how he'd rubbed against Lia's side as a cub when they'd both been in their leopard forms. "I have to handle this myself."
Squeezing him with fierce affection, Lia drew back and brushed his hair off his forehead, Bastien leaning down instinctively to make it easier for her. "Go on," she whispered with a conspiratorial smile, "you can escape out the back."
"Oh good," Vera Robbins said from the kitchen doorway, having appeared just as Lia spoke. "You can give me a ride, young Bastien."
Bastien barely refrained from groaning. The elder was a vigorous and energetic hundred and twenty-five, a woman noted for her warmth and wisdom. She also delighted in reveling in Bastien's past as a "ladies' man." Bastien didn't deny he'd indulged in skin privileges enthusiastically in his early twenties, but so did most leopard changelings at that age, their sexuality an integral aspect of their nature.
Vera would be shocked to hear he hadn't taken a lover in eight months, and now the only lover he wanted was an illusion he couldn't track. "Happy to," he said, because while he wasn't sure he could handle Vera's teasing in his current frame of mind, refusing her was simply not on the cards. She was pack--more, she was a former soldier who'd put her life on the line to protect that pack more than once.
Vera had earned the right to demand whatever the hell she damn well pleased.
Kissing his mom good-bye on the cheek, he escorted Vera to the sleek black car that was his own and got her settled in before he went around to take the driver's seat.
"What a nice car." Vera stroked the soft black leather-synth of her seat. "Though not what I'd expect from a healthy young dominant in his prime." A raised eyebrow. "I was looking forward to a ride on that jetcycle of yours."
Grinning despite himself, he put the gleaming beauty of his car on hoverdrive and guided it silently out of the forested area around his parents' home deep in DarkRiver's Yosemite territory. "I'll bring it by next week, take you for a spin."
"Hmph." She tapped her cane on the floor. "You could've at least made sure this car was red."
"I have enough red in my life," he said, referring to the dark shade of his hair.
That made the older changeling throw back her head and laugh, the sound big and open. "I suppose you're too big to fit in those zippy sports cars."
Bastien had sat in one once; he'd lasted exactly two seconds before the claustrophobia had him wanting to rip the damn thing to shreds with his claws.
"All shoulders and muscle," Vera said before he could respond. "Strong thighs, too."
"Are you hitting on me, Vera?"
"You can only dream, young Bastien." Another burst of laughter, before she poked him in the arm. "Why aren't you mated or with a long-term lover? We both know you have no trouble attracting women."
The question grated against his insides. "Does no one respect my private life?"
"You're in a pack. Of course not," was the rapid response, one he couldn't argue with. "Now answer me. I'm a hundred and twenty-five--I don't have time to dillydally."
"No one can pass Mercy's tests," he said, wanting Vera off the painful and currently maddening subject of mating.
"That sister of yours has a good head on her shoulders."
Noticing Vera tug her shawl around her shoulders, he quietly turned up the heat.
"So," the elder said a moment later, "she's overprotective, is she?"
Bastien thought of the infamous "kitten defurring tools" with which Mercy had scared off the last woman he'd been seeing--after first convincing his date Bastien ate live kittens for breakfast. She'd even put a "kitten cage" in one of his cupboards, the better to horrify his date. Bastien had already known he and the woman in question weren't the right fit, so the fact she'd believed Mercy's ridiculous story had simply been the last nail in the coffin. "If it's the right girl," he said, "it won't matter."
Vera's smile caused her face to seam with the lines of a life generously and fully lived. "Yes," was all she said, before settling back
A half hour later--having been forced to insult his panther of a car by keeping it to a crawling speed that didn't make Vera threaten to whack him with her cane--Bastien parked in front of a single-floor dwelling not far from the home of the pack healer. Walking around to open Vera's door, he didn't make the mistake of offering her a helping hand. The elder would bloody him for the insult.
His nape prickled a second later, a wild, intoxicating scent with a softer undertone making his nostrils flare and his pulse slam against his skin: her scent, all of it, the soft and the sharply primal, not two women but one.
Too stunned--too happy--to wonder how or why his mate's scent had split in two on the streets, Bastien's leopard sat up, muscles quivering and head cocked in absolute attention. All this time, he'd been searching the city, but she was here.
Hand clenching on the edge of the car door, he turned to look back down the drive.
A slamming punch to the heart, a kick to the gut, a sense of absolute rightness.
It was as if he'd been seeing the world through a misty fog until this moment of piercing clarity. And what he saw was a small, curvy woman with masses of honey-colored hair and big hazel eyes set against skin of a darker honey.
A cat, he thought at once; he'd been right, she was a cat. Then the feline scent whispered away as inexplicably as it'd done on the streets, and all he could taste was the lush, sweet scent of a human female he wanted to lick up from head to toe. Cat or human, one thing was clear: She was his.
"Kirby, honey. What good timing."
Kirby. Her name is Kirby.
Shutting the door and curling his fingers into his palms to conceal the claws that had sliced out as his leopard reacted to her, he waited for Kirby to reach them instead of pouncing like he wanted to do with every single cell in his body.
Patience, he counseled the more primitive half of his nature, and forced his claws to retract. The leopard growled within him but assented to the human's will--because scaring her away was not on the agenda. No, he'd coax, charm, and pet her into his life, into his arms.
Bastien Michael Smith had found his mate, and he was keeping her.
VIVID green eyes watched her with an unwavering focus that raised the tiny hairs on Kirby's arms and made her stomach go tight, a strange breathlessness in her chest. She didn't recognize the tall, muscled male with skin tanned a beautiful gold, but he had to be part of the DarkRiver leopard pack--there was something feline about the way he stood, a stealthy predator at rest. She had the insane urge to go up to him, touch him, curl naked against him, skin to skin.
Secrets at Midnight by Nalini Singh / Romance & Love / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes