Home > Bodyguard (Shifters Unbound #2.5)

Bodyguard (Shifters Unbound #2.5)
Jennifer Ashley

Chapter One

The store's owner had short and sassy black hair with a few red streaks, a compact but curvy body, and a fine-lined tattoo peeking over the collar of her shirt. Her blue eyes right now were wide as she contemplated the gun barrel aimed across the counter at her.

Ronan ducked his huge bulk back down behind the aisle partition, where he'd been crouching to examine merchandise on the bottom shelf. The robber hadn't noted Ronan, who'd come in to do some late-night shopping, almost hidden at the back of the SoCo novelty store. Ronan was willing to bet that the store's owner, Elizabeth, didn't remember at the moment that he was there either.

It was just the three of them on this Friday night: Elizabeth, the robber with the gun, and Ronan, who started making his way noiselessly toward the front counter. Ronan didn't dare charge while the gun was almost against Elizabeth's nose--one wrong move, one sound, and Elizabeth was dead.

Wait for it.

The robber wasn't much more than a kid; maybe twenty as humans figured age. Would be still a cub if he were Shifter. Humans couldn't control their young, Ronan thought in disgust. He'd have taken down any cub that even contemplated carrying a gun, let alone robbing a store.

Elizabeth had her hands flat on the counter. Ronan smelled her fear but also her rage. This was one of the few stores that allowed Shifters inside it, so Ronan knew a little bit about her from the Shifters who regularly shopped here. The human woman Elizabeth Chapman owned this store and worked it with her younger sister, Mabel. The store and the money in it were all they had.

Just stall him, sweetie. Don't do anything stupid.

The man put a shoulder bag on the counter. "Put the money in there. All of it."

"I only have about two hundred dollars." Elizabeth's voice was shaky, but Ronan heard the desperate edge to it. She was going to try to bluff him.

"I didn't ask you how much you had, bitch. I said put it in the bag. Then we'll check your safe."

Give him the cash, Ronan willed silently. Lead him back here.

"I already made the night's deposits," Elizabeth said.

"Don't lie to me, chica. I know when you make your deposits. I've been watching you. Now put the cash in the bag."

Ronan sensed Elizabeth's pounding heart, scented her fear sharpening over the oily smell of the arrogant young man. The kid wasn't wearing a mask or keeping out of sight of the store's cameras. That meant he didn't care if Elizabeth would be able to identify him later, which meant that either he was overconfident, or he meant to kill her and be long gone before any cops arrived.

Not gonna happen.

Ronan heard rustling as Elizabeth put the cash in the shoulder bag. "That's it," Elizabeth said. "See?"

"Open the damn safe."

"It isn't out here. It's in the back. In the office."

"So we go in the back."

Elizabeth made a little sound of pain, and Ronan knew the man had grabbed her. His blood boiled, the Shifter in him wanting the kill, and he almost came up roaring. Not yet. Not yet. But the bastard would pay for hurting her.

Elizabeth and her robber went by the end of the aisle, the guy carrying his shoulder bag, his gun shoved into Elizabeth's side. The look on Elizabeth's face was blank, resigned. She thought she was about to die. She didn't look around at the faint sound of Ronan shucking his jeans; never turned her head to spy him in the shadows, ready to shift. The robber kept his gaze straight ahead, focused on the office door and the potential money behind it.

Elizabeth fumbled with her keys, unlocked the door, and opened it. The lights were off. The robber shoved Elizabeth inside in front of him and let go of her long enough to reach for the light switch.

That's my cue.

Ronan shifted, and charged.

Elizabeth heard a small sound then felt a rush of air as something huge barreled at her in deadly silence. She saw a giant face, a massive ruff of fur, an open maw, a collar around a gigantic neck, and wide dark eyes with murder in them.

The robber, a young man with black hair and dark eyes, still had his hand on the light switch. In the next instant, the doorframe and wall around it splintered, and the robber found himself knocked to the floor with a Kodiak bear on top of him.

Elizabeth scrambled to her desk, grabbed the pepper spray she kept in her drawer, and snatched her cell phone out of her pocket at the same time. She turned around, but stopped, watching in shock as the young man struggled against all odds with the colossal bear on her Victorian pile rug.

The robber's gun went off with a boom of noise. Elizabeth screamed. The bear roared, the sound shaking the walls, and blood splattered to spray the floor.

The bear drew back a paw with six-inch claws and backhanded the robber across the face. The guy's head rocked. Still he fought, and the bear struck again. This time, the young man went limp, slumping to Elizabeth's rug in an ungainly heap.

The bear climbed to his feet, swung his great head around, and fixed red-raged eyes on Elizabeth.

He was the biggest living creature Elizabeth had ever seen. On all fours, the bear stood about six feet tall at the shoulder, which put his head well above Elizabeth's. His breath huffed between immense and sharp teeth, his growls rumbling from his throat like thunder. His gaze still locked on hers, he took a step toward her on one massive paw.

Elizabeth brought her hand up, aimed the can of pepper spray at his face, and gave him a full dose.

The bear blinked, drew back, blinked again, sat down on his hind legs, and rocked his head all the way back. Then he sneezed.

The noise exploded into the room like a sonic boom, vibrating papers on the desk and rattling the Victorian prints on the walls in their prim and proper frames.

The bear rose on his hind legs again and kept rising, ten feet--twelve--fifteen, his bulk hunching to fit under the low ceiling. At the same time, his immense body started to shrink. The bear's face contorted, muzzle shortening, as did, thank God, his teeth.

In about thirty seconds the bear was gone, and a man stood in its place. The man was just as massive as the bear--at least seven feet tall, with chocolate brown hair buzzed short, eyes as dark as the bear's, an almost square face with a once-broken nose, and a chin and jaw dark with five o'clock shadow.

His arm bore a bloody gash where the bullet had whipped by it, but his body was muscle on top of muscle on top of muscle, not an ounce of fat that Elizabeth could see. And Elizabeth saw it all, because the man was stark naked. Except for the Collar, which had shrunk to fit his human neck, the bear-man wore not a stitch.

He wiped his streaming eyes. "Shit, woman," he said in a voice that brought down a trickle of ceiling tile dust to whiten his hair. "That itches."

Chapter Two

Elizabeth Chapman's red-streaked hair was mussed and her blue eyes were filled with fear as she faced Ronan, but she kept her hand firmly on the pepper spray.

"Who are you?" she demanded.

"Ronan. At your service." Ronan raised his hand in a mock salute, and blood from the bullet wound pattered to her pretty carpet. "Why'd you hit me with the pepper spray?"

Said pepper spray didn't move. "Why'd you keep coming at me, looking like you wanted to kill me?"

"I didn't. I was fighting my Collar, trying to keep it from going off. Hurts like a bitch when it does." He put out his hand and lowered the pepper spray without taking it away from her. "Now I know what stops it. Pepper spray." He shook his head again. "Shit."

"Sorry," Elizabeth said, not sounding very sorry.

"Don't worry, sweetheart. I only go after bad guys." Ronan gazed with contempt at the human stretched out on the rose-patterned rug, which now contained extra red blotches from Ronan's wound. Unconscious, the robber looked very young.

Elizabeth snatched tissues from a box on her desk and handed them to Ronan. "He shot you. You need a hospital."

Ronan took the tissues and started wiping the blood from his arm. "Grazed me, and hospitals don't know what to do with Shifters. You gonna call the cops before he wakes up?"

Elizabeth stared at the cell phone in her hand as though surprised to find it there, then she turned around and punched in the three numbers.

Ronan lifted the pistol from the floor and held it between his thumb and forefinger. He hated guns. Any projectile weapon, in fact. He guided Elizabeth out of the office as she started babbling to the 9-1-1 operator, then he set the pistol on the nearest counter and started looking for his clothes.

He found the jeans he'd tossed into the corner and pulled these back on, but his shirt, which had shredded with his swift change, was a total loss. He rummaged the nearby racks and pulled out the biggest T-shirt he could find, a bright red one with Red-Hot Lover: Handle with Care printed on the front.

Elizabeth still had her cell phone to her ear. "You all right?" she asked Ronan, her gaze going to the wound.

Ronan shrugged. "Will be."

"Here. They don't want me to hang up."

Elizabeth handed him the open phone, snatched some paper towels and a first aid kit from behind the counter, and gently dabbed residual blood from his triceps. Ronan liked the brush of her slim fingers as she fixed a gauze bandage over the wound, the smell of her hair under his nose. Strawberries and honey. Bears like honey.

"Thanks," he rumbled.

"What were you doing in here, anyway?" Elizabeth asked as she closed the first-aid kit.

"Shopping. This is a store. I needed to buy a birthday present."

"This late?" It was going on midnight.

"Only time I had free." He growled into the cell phone. "Hey, will you guys be here any time soon? This lady needs to go home."

As though in answer, red and blue lights flashed outside, and the shop soon filled with police and paramedics. They made their way into the back office and found the inert robber, and the paramedics bundled him up and carried him out.

One of the police--a woman with black hair pulled into a hard bun and a take-no-shit stare--handed the kid's pistol and shoulder bag full of Elizabeth's money to her colleague and stayed behind to ask questions. Elizabeth described what had happened, and the female cop eyed Ronan in suspicion.

"Name," she said to him.


"Ronan what?"

"Just Ronan. Bears don't have surnames."

The police officer had a smooth face and cold, black eyes. "You're a Shifter," she said.

"No kidding." Ronan glanced at Elizabeth, whose lips were too bloodless. "Can you let her go home? She's pretty shaken up."

"After she gives me her statement. You too, Shifter. In fact, I want you coming in with us."

She put away her little notebook and took out a pair of cuffs. They were big cuffs, and Ronan saw the markings that told him they had Fae magic in them, fashioned to contain Shifters.

"What are you doing?" Elizabeth asked, wide-eyed. "Ronan didn't rob me. He helped me."

"He's a Shifter," the woman said. "He hit a human, and the human's going to the hospital. That's assault, and for Shifters a capital crime. I have to arrest him." Rules are rules, her flat eyes seemed to say.

"You mean he hit a human who was about to kill me," Elizabeth said heatedly. "If Ronan hadn't been here, I'd be dead."

The officer shrugged. "If you want to come down and plead his case to the judge, it's your choice. But I have to take him."

Ronan saw indecision flicker in Elizabeth Chapman's eyes. This wasn't her fight. She wanted to go home and forget about the robbery as best she could. Ronan wasn't sure what human females did to make themselves feel better, but the cub, Cherie, who lived in his house, liked to take baths that lasted forever whenever she was stressed. Which was often, considering what she'd gone through.

Ronan's fantasies went to Elizabeth in a bathtub, her curved body covered with suds, her black hair wet. He bet she looked cute with her hair all damp and spiky.

The cop clicked the cuffs onto Ronan's wrists behind his back, and the pleasant vision dissolved as he felt the sting of Fae magic. Even the small bite of it ground through his nerves and tried to set off a spark from his Collar. Elizabeth looked concerned as he winced, but Ronan shook his head at her.

"Don't worry about me, Lizzie-girl. But do me a favor. Find a lawyer called Kim Fraser--she's mated to Liam Morrissey in Shiftertown, and they live next door to Glory. I know you know Glory--she comes in here all the time. Tell Kim what happened for me?"

Kim, a human, had set up a law office that specialized in helping Shifters. Because human laws governing Shifters were restrictive and complex, Shifters needed all the help they could get.

"All right?" Ronan repeated, looking hard at Elizabeth. "Tell her?"

Elizabeth pressed her slim hands together and held them a little under her chin. Human body language for I don't know what the right thing is to do here.

"You can call her if you don't want to go to Shiftertown," Ronan said. "Her card's in my front pocket."

Ronan's hands were locked behind his back and staying there. Elizabeth took a step forward. The female cop didn't say or do anything, just watched, ready to take down both of them if they tried anything stupid.

Elizabeth's hair smelled good. So did the rest of her. Ronan scented Elizabeth's residual fear from the robbery, overlaid with the warm goodness of her, and behind that, concern for someone else. Layers of scent that told him all about her.

He liked how she'd put the red streaks in her hair. Defiance--that's what it meant. Elizabeth seemed like a good businesswoman, following the rules, but those little streaks said she could be bad if she wanted to be. Or maybe they were a reminder of a time when she hadn't walked the straight and narrow. Ronan thought he wouldn't mind a glimpse of the bad-ass Elizabeth.

Elizabeth dipped her fingers into Ronan's front pocket. She did it quickly and competently, not touching Ronan at all as she plucked out Kim's business card. The move was practiced, as though she'd gotten good at taking things out of people's pockets. Skill was the word. Interesting.

"I'll call her," Elizabeth said, palming the card. "But I'm coming down to the station with you," she said to the cop. "He helped me, and it's not fair he's getting arrested when some gang kid tried to kill me."

The female cop shrugged. "Suit yourself. Come on, Shifter."

Ronan winked as the cop took his arm in a practiced grip and shoved him out the door. "I like you, human woman," he said to Elizabeth. "See you downtown."

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