Her father had been gone for twenty-four hours and mild panic had set in.
So much for independence.
Sera rubbed her thumb over the caller ID display on the phone, as if cleaning the tiny plastic window would change Blocked to something else. A name, a phone number. Some information about whoever had felt the need to call--twice--only to hang up when she answered the phone.
Panic was silly. She lived with a bounty hunter and had a half-dozen of the scariest supernaturals in New Orleans on speed-dial. Her apartment had sufficient wards to keep out anyone short of God himself, and He might not get past them fast enough to avoid the cavalry. One phone call, and Sera would have rescuers piling onto her doorstep, ready to eviscerate anyone who made so much as a threatening noise at her.
Even that knowledge couldn't keep sick dread from twisting in her gut until the scent of freshly baked brownies drifting out of the kitchen made her queasy.
Twenty-four hours. Long enough for an ex-husband to decide it was safe to come courting.
The front door rattled under a quick, efficient knock, and Sera started, her fingers clenching around the phone until the casing creaked. A second later sense kicked in, and she rose from the table and took two steps toward the door, close enough to get a feel for the person standing on the other side.
Wolf, partially obscured by the scent from the kitchen but unmistakable. Power pulsed on the other side of the door, not the angry, aggressive magic of an alpha trying to set someone in their place, but a steely dominance that flowed from only two wolves currently living in New Orleans.
Andrew was clear across the country, which left... "Julio?" The door was heavy, but he'd hear her.
A pause. "Yeah. Can I come in, Sera?"
Wards aside, there were still lots of locks. Two deadbolts and a chain, remnants of the days when Kat had lived here on her own, and she'd come home to more than one break-in. Kat was gone now--living with Andrew, even if her name was still on the lease--but the locks remained, a reminder that the people who had broken in had upped their game to kidnapping.
And Julio had been one of their victims.
Sera eased open the door and tried to smile as her stomach flip-flopped again, this time for an entirely different reason. Julio Mendoza was a beautiful man. Broad and solid, built like a wrestler but graced with the dark good looks of a playboy. And that was only the physical, the shell for all that delicious alpha power. Even a coyote knew what to do in the face of such unchecked magic--roll to her back and pray the wolf felt merciful.
Looking at him was such a mistake. Words tumbled out, the human equivalent of baring her belly. "Come on in. Can I get you a drink or something? I just took some brownies out of the oven."
"No, thanks. I've eaten." He cast a glance around the room and frowned. "Is Anna here?"
Sera closed the door and was proud when she managed to only refasten one lock. "She had some errands to run. She'll be back in an hour, maybe less."
"You know where she went?"
As if Anna ever told anyone her plans. "No. But she usually has her phone, if it's important...?"
His brows drew together as he stared at the phone clenched in her hand. "Is everything okay?"
"I'm--" She forcibly relaxed her hand, concentrating on each finger until she could set the cordless phone on the counter. "I'm probably just jumpy," she admitted, silently begging him to agree. "I had a couple hang-ups from a blocked number. It could be some contact of Anna's who doesn't want to talk to me, though."
"Could be," he agreed easily before nodding to the sofa. "I'll wait for Anna, if that's all right."
Silent question. Unspoken answer. She didn't need to tell Julio how much she needed soothing, because he'd always know. Sera smiled. "You sure you don't want brownies?"
He stretched his legs out before her and shook his head. "I'll take a beer, though."
When Kat had lived there, she'd stocked the fridge with imported beers and a collection of questionable wine coolers. Anna was more likely to bring home expensive liquors. Sera had nothing more exotic than Bud Lite. She retrieved two bottles and offered him one before retreating to the loveseat. "Nothing bad's happened, right? I mean, that's not why you need to find Anna?"
"Patrick McNamara's in town," he explained. "He needs a place to rest up for a while, so I was going to ask about the apartment over the bar."
Anna was liable to do everything short of toss Sera into the street to give Patrick a safe place to stay--and admitting as much would betray a weakness Anna fought bitterly to hide. "She probably won't mind. No one really stays there most of the time."
"Nick wanted it free for emergencies, and Andrew said she couldn't rent it out short-term. Some kind of zoning thing."
"Then it should be fine." Sera studied Julio, looking for signs that Patrick's arrival had unsettled him. Instead he seemed as steady as ever. Tired, a little stressed...but if Patrick had shown up in the usual condition, that was understandable.
It wasn't her place to ask. Wasn't her business, since Julio's care of her was probably a favor to her father or his sister, or simply a member of the Southeast council taking care of another shifter in his town. Reading too much into it would be asking for a bruised heart.
He sipped his beer. "How have you been, Sera?"
"Okay." Which was the truth, as far as it went. Life was okay. Not good, not bad. Status quo. "Keeping busy at work. And taking cooking lessons."
"Yeah? From John?"
"He says I'm not too bad." What polite, banal small talk. She balanced her unopened beer on her knee. "You don't think it's one of Anna's contacts calling, do you?"
He watched her, unblinking. "Does it matter what I think?"
"Yes." Because he was strong. And because he'd seen her at her worst, the day she'd walked--run--away from her husband.
Julio finally shrugged. "None of Anna's contacts have a reason to call her on the landline. It doesn't mean the calls were ominous, but there you have it."
She closed her eyes and exhaled slowly. "I feel like I'm overreacting and not worrying enough."
"Can't hurt to let Anna know, all the same."
It was a relief, knowing Anna would protect her, and a twisting pain in her chest that Julio was so willing to let her. "I will, I promise."
He drained half his beer, then leaned forward and set the bottle on the coffee table with a thump. "If it keeps happening, you need to call your dad."
"He's busy." She wanted to lean in too, close enough to let his aura brush hers, to steal safety from him. "And my dad's..." Even thinking it was a betrayal. She couldn't bring herself to say it. Not even to Julio.
"Recovering," he murmured. "I know."
He knew. Everyone knew, and still she flinched. "He's recovered enough for daily life, not to be fighting challenges."
"So you think it's him."
Him. Sera shuddered. "If it's anyone, it's him. No one else gives a shit about me."
"I don't think that's true." There was something intense about the words, oddly certain, but before she could press him, he retrieved his beer and finished it.
Hers was unopened, so she held it out. "No one else is stupid enough to start trouble in New Orleans over me."
He accepted the proffered second beer and twisted off the cap in one skilled motion, but didn't comment on her words. Instead, he asked, "Have you talked to Kat lately?"
A safe topic. "Yeah, she calls or texts every few days. Either I scared her into regular check-ins, or her cousin did."
Julio swirled the brew in the amber-colored bottle. "Either one's possible."
With Kat's overprotective cousin married to a very pregnant, very snarly alpha wolf, Sera didn't have any doubts. "By the time Nicole has that baby, no one's going to want to get near the state of Wyoming. I guess that's the downside of dominant shifters having babies together. Hormones and instincts."
"Always fighting to see who comes out on top?"
"Always fighting just because." Sera brought one heel up to rest on the edge of the loveseat and dropped her chin to her knee. "Because y'all don't know how to stop."
That earned her a rusty chuckle. "No. No, I guess we sure the hell don't."
His laugh raised goose bumps on her arms, the kind that preceded arousal instead of fear. She clung to the conversation out of self-defense. "Alphas having babies together makes sense if you're wolves living in the wild. Doesn't work so well all pent up in human society. Not enough danger." Usually.
"Isn't that the point, Seraphina?" He leaned forward, letting the beer bottle dangle between his fingers. "We're human too. It's easy to please a wolf--or a coyote. It's everything else that muddies the water."
Oh yes, her coyote was easy to please. Wasn't that why she'd avoided him to begin with? Such casual, arrogant self-assurance, the kind that tugged at those instinctive places inside her. She was probably blushing, splotchy pink cheeks that would clash with her red hair and make her head look like a freckled tomato.
Too bad she couldn't think of a coherent response. "Don't call me Seraphina."
One dark eyebrow crept up in a slow arch. "Sorry. I didn't mean to offend you."
He wasn't an idiot. She wasn't an innocent. Men were a game she'd played plenty, and this one was teasing her.
Damn, she liked it. "If you do it again, I'll bite you."
He grinned and shook his head. "I don't think I'm man enough for a woman like you."
If he believed it for a second, he never would have admitted it. He was a cocky bastard, all right. Too damn cocky. "Yeah, but you're still young. Maybe you'll grow into it."
"You're calling me young? What're you? Twenty?"
He sounded amused. Curious, like he didn't actually know, which made her feel stupid for knowing he'd turned thirty-one on his last birthday--and when his birthday had been. "Twenty-two. But I'm old for my age. Facing the extinction of your species can do that."
That sobered him. "I guess it could."
From teasing banter to uncomfortable silence in twenty words or less. So much for being good with men. "I didn't mean it like that. I know some coyotes care, but I don't. I'd just as soon any kids I had weren't coyotes."
"It doesn't bother you that soon there won't be any more of your kind left?"
There was no way to answer the question without revealing too much. Julio made her instincts sing. He made her body melt. But in over a year, this was one of the few real conversations they'd had. She didn't know him.
So she lied. "It does, I guess. But there's nothing to do about it, right?"
He shrugged. "I suppose not."
Awkward silence fell, and this time she wasn't sure how to break it, or if she should.
He drained the second beer, gathered both bottles and rose. "I'll toss these, if you'll show me where."
The door rattled and opened, and Anna stepped in with a jangle of keys. "Hey, Sera. Julio." She blinked at him. "Something up?"
She could confess her worries to Anna later. For now, she hopped to her feet and snagged the bottles from Julio. "He was waiting to talk to you about the apartment. I'm going to go clean up and start dinner. Mac and cheese sound good?"
Anna frowned as she dropped her bag beside the couch. "Did my dog die?" She said it jokingly, but the tension underlying the flippant question was unmistakable.
Maybe Sera had overplayed her hand, picking Anna's favorite comfort food. "No one's dead. This week."
"That's something, anyway."
Julio slipped his hands in his pockets. "I need the apartment for a while. I'd call Nick, but she'd just tell me to ask you."
Anna's jaw clenched. "For?"
Sera freed a hand to touch her arm before the bristling power could overflow into a challenge that would leave them both snarling. "Patrick's back in town, and he needs a safe place to crash. I told Julio it might be all right."
"It's fine," Anna snapped. "It's what the place is there for, right?"
Julio nodded. After an uncomfortable silence, he cleared his throat. "I guess I'll go. Thanks for the beer, Sera."
"Of course." Sera let Julio get to the door before she spoke again. "If Patrick needs anything, let me know? I could bring him some food, or check in on him." For Kat's sake, because Patrick's younger brother had been her friend, and for Anna's peace of mind, because she needed to know the man was healthy and safe, whether she could admit it or not.
"I'll tell him." Julio lingered with his hand on the doorknob, and Sera knew his words were meant as much for Anna as for her. "This should be the last of it. He's taken care of the mercenaries involved in his brother's death, and I'm hoping I can talk him into slowing down."
"Good." She wanted to keep talking, to find words that would make him linger a bit longer. Choking back the urge, she smiled. "Thanks. For staying, I mean."
"You're welcome." He pulled open the door. "And Sera? Remember what I said."
When he was gone, Sera tossed the beer bottles into the trash before returning to Anna's side. "You okay?"
"I'm peachy." She sank to the couch and dragged her hands through her hair. "I should have told him Miguel owes me fifty bucks. He probably would have paid up."
"Maybe." Miguel was the Mendoza brother Sera should have been flirting with. He was her age. He wasn't an overwhelming alpha bastard who'd bring back memories of a too-controlling ex-husband. But Miguel was nice. Edgy and a little feral, but lacking the core of steely dominance that stirred her blood.
"What did he say?"
"Julio. He told you to remember what he said."
"Oh." Sera perched on the edge of the couch and nodded toward the phone. "Someone called and hung up a couple times. I was worried."
Anna straightened on the sofa. "Caller ID?"
Sera retrieved the phone and handed it to Anna. "In the last couple hours. One right before Julio showed up. That's why he stayed, I think. I was rattled."
She shook her head as she scanned through the stored call history on the handset. "I could have come back sooner."
"I know." Sera nudged Anna with her elbow. "Maybe I just wanted to flirt with the hottie."
Anna snorted. "I thought you were on the wagon."
"You're my alpha-jackass patch." With Anna's friendship grounding her, it was easier to resist the lure of the dominant wolves. Most of the time.
"Uh-huh." She frowned at the phone and tossed it aside. "I have a friend who can get me the number that made those calls. All it takes is a few days and a nice bottle of bourbon."
"I was hoping you would. I don't want to freak Kat out about weird calls to her apartment unless we have to."
"I'll handle it, but only if you make me that mac and cheese."
"Deal." Sera rose and started for the kitchen, then hesitated. "After dinner? I think I'm ready for my own gun."
"Okay." Anna gave her an appraising look. "Jackson's an approved instructor for the state. Spend a Saturday with him, fire some rounds, and you'll be ready to file for your carry permit. It'll take a while to come through, though, and the paperwork's a bitch."
The paperwork could be hell on earth, but it was still time. She'd gotten a divorce and a GED. She'd gotten a job to fill her savings account, a few measly dollars at a time, and with Anna and Kat's help, she'd gotten her independence.
None of it would matter if her ex was back in town. Josh could corner her and drown her in shapeshifter magic, and everything she wanted would fade away under the purest driving need of all.
The coyotes had a few generations left, at most, and desperation pulsed in her blood. She didn't need to love Josh. She didn't even need to like him. The instinctive parts of her would always submit to him, because nothing was more important to the coyote than the survival of their species.
He'd take her. She'd let him. Together, they'd recreate the worst nightmares of her family's past.
Shooting him would be a lot less painful. For both of them.