Chapter One

Lennox, Kenntucky
Friday night

Someone smelled good. No, better than good. Someone smelled downright sinful. And as the warm, womanly, mouthwatering scent
filled his head, Aiden Shrader began thinking that his current assignment was an even bigger mistake than he’d thought it would be.
After all, he was standing on a human female’s doorstep at nine o’clock at night, ready to tell her that she was now under his
protection, for God only knew how long, whether she liked it or not. And he was probably going to have to toss in the fact that he
wasn’t just an armed, bad-ass-looking bodyguard set on keeping her and her three-year-old niece alive, but a shape-shifter, as well. One
who could take the form of a massive, deadly predator. An actual tiger-shifter, to be precise.

Oh yeah, he thought, pushing his windblown hair back with one tattooed hand, while the bitter December night twined itself around his
long body like a cold, clinging lover.
There isn’t a chance in hell that little tidbit is going to go down well.

Aiden and his colleagues didn’t know how much Olivia Harcourt’s stepsisters had told her about the world of preternatural creatures
who lived hidden among humanity, the various races collectively referred to as “the ancient clans.” And since they also didn’t know
how much she might have been told about the Watchmen—the organization of shape-shifters that Aiden belonged to, whose job it was
to watch over the remaining clansmen—there was a good chance the chick was probably going to run screaming, hell-bent for leather,
the instant he laid things out for her. She might even run the second she set eyes on him. Not that he’d blame her, if she was the skittish
type. At nearly six and a half feet, packed with long, solid muscle and sporting a multitude of tattoos and shaggy hair that he hadn’t
bothered to cut in months, Aiden was used to sending some women running for cover. They either loved what they saw or didn’t stick
around long enough to discover if the “bad boy” was really as wicked as he looked.

The simple fact was that some women had a taste for danger…and some didn’t. Aiden had never cared much, one way or another,
seeing as how his interest in the female gender remained purely physical—his inner animal far easier to control when he kept it sated.
The only rules he lived by were that he never messed around with a woman unless she understood exactly how much he was willing to
offer, that she was built to handle a hard ride and that she didn’t touch the darker, more primal aspects of his nature.  

Of the three, that last rule was by far the most important, and now he had to face the unsavory realization that someone in that
goddamn house smelled good enough to arouse the dangerous, possessive hungers of his beast…and he was going to be so screwed
because of it.

Aiden half prayed the mouthwatering scent didn’t belong to the Harcourt woman, but doubted he would be that lucky. Pulling his hand
down his face, he stifled a frustrated snarl and figured he might as well stop stalling and get on with it. As the wind stretched a dark,
ominous string of clouds across the hazy glow of the moon, he lifted his right hand and banged his fist against the front door of the
brick two-story. While he waited impatiently for someone to answer, he silently cursed the fact that he needed to get laid, in a bad way,
while doing his best to convince himself that he was only reacting to
that scent because he’d been forced to live like a monk for too
many weeks. He wasn’t the type of man to go without, his primal instincts constantly driving his sexual hungers to an urgent,
aggressive level, but it was bloody hard to pick up women in the middle of a war. He’d been so busy in the past month, most nights he
just collapsed into bed and didn’t move until it was time to get up and start all over again the next day.

Not that the Merrick and the Watchmen were making a lot of progress. Though the Merrick were one of the most powerful of the
ancient clans, their bloodline had been dormant for centuries, until the recent return of the Casus and the beginnings of the war. A vile
race of immortal creatures who’d been imprisoned over a thousand years ago for their crimes against humanity and the other clans, the
Casus had somehow begun escaping from Meridian—the metaphysical holding ground that served as their prison—and returning to this
world. The first had returned at the end of the summer, with more and more following in recent months. They were now hunting down
the Merrick, one by one, exacting a bloodthirsty revenge against their ancient enemy.

As a result of the Casus’s return, the Merrick blood within the original clan’s descendants was awakening, and some Merrick, like the
Buchanans, were now waging a fight against the monsters, along with the help of the Watchmen. Ian Buchanan had actually been the
first Merrick to be awakened, and thanks to Ian’s sister, Saige, it was the Buchanans and Shrader’s Watchmen unit who were
conducting the search for the Dark Markers. As the only known weapons that could destroy a Casus’s soul and send it to hell, the
Markers were invaluable in their fight against the Casus. The mysterious crosses had been hidden across Europe and the Americas in
order to keep them from falling into the wrong hands, and Aiden and his friends were doing everything they could to track them down.
But it wasn’t enough. Despite the fact that they’d now managed to find five of the hidden Markers, giving up only one to the enemy,
their side was losing the war—and Aiden wasn’t a man who liked to lose. He’d spent too many years under the thumb of his enemies
when he was younger. Now, at the age of thirty-four, he was a man who liked to fight hard and come out on top, no matter what it
took to get there. He’d been working his ass off to make sure that he and his friends were going to end this conflict as the victors, and
he wanted to be out in the field, continuing the fight. Not acting as a goddamn babysitter.

Around him, the night was strangely silent but for the rustling of the leaves in the trees, the other four houses in the cul-de-sac already
dark, though strands of Christmas lights continued to flicker around two of them. Just as he raised his hand to knock for a second time,
he heard the back door open and close. It barely made a sound—just a soft brushing of the mechanisms clicking into place—but it was
enough for his sensitive hearing to pick up. Cocking his head to the side, he listened as someone quickly made their way down a set of
steps, their gait uneven, as if they were carrying something heavy on one side of their body.

With his left hand braced on the porch’s wooden railing, Aiden vaulted over the top, landing with a soft thud in the damp grass on the
side of the house. His mouth watered when he drew in a deeper take of that warm, rich scent as it rode the wintry breeze, stroking his
senses like a physical touch. The predatory beast within him stretched into a fuller awareness, its graveled voice rumbling from deep
within, vibrating through his body like a shock wave.

Stalk. Cover. Take.

Cursing under his breath with a bitter surge of frustration, Aiden wondered why things just kept getting crappier for him, rather than
better, since this was the last damn thing that he needed. One would think that fighting on the “good” side against a sadistic, merciless
evil would earn him some karma points from at least one freaking entity in the universe, but his luck just kept slipping deeper into shit.

Then again, he mused, scraping his rough palm against the bristled surface of his jaw as he moved silently through the shadows, maybe
he shouldn’t be so surprised. Aiden knew, firsthand, that the good didn’t always come out on top. And if they did, it usually took a hell
of a lot of time and pain to get there.

Coming around the corner of the house, he stepped into the backyard…and instantly caught sight of the woman, his exceptional night
vision enabling him to clearly make out her form in the darkness. He could see that she wasn’t overly tall for a female, probably no
more than five-five, her shoulders narrow, graceful hands struggling to control a bulky piece of luggage. She looked as though she was
in a hurry as she hefted the suitcase into the trunk of a small compact, then slammed it closed. She also looked nervous as hell, her
hands visibly shaking as she seemed to take a moment to listen to the night. Did she know that trouble was on its way, then? Know that
the ones who’d killed Monica Harcourt, her eldest stepsister, and kidnapped the youngest one were now after the little girl she was
protecting? Is that why she’d left her home to stay here, at the house of a friend who’d gone out of town?

If so, it’d been a foolish move on her part, because the house couldn’t have been in a worse location. It sat at the far end of a quiet
country neighborhood in a sprawling cul-de-sac, surrounded by woods, the only access road providing the perfect place for an ambush.
Aiden had spent the past week about a hundred miles south of Lennox, searching for the fifth Dark Marker along with fellow
Watchman Kellan Scott and their human colleague, Noah Winston. They’d found the Marker that morning, and would have already been
on their way back to Colorado with it, where the compound they called home was located in the Rocky Mountains, if it weren’t for the
unexpected phone call that had brought them to Lennox instead. Aiden now carried the ornate cross in his back pocket, and Kellan and
Noah were patrolling the woods, on the lookout for the Casus. Monica Harcourt’s ghost had been in contact with them, warning that
the bastards were coming for her daughter, and Aiden knew better than to underestimate them. If he’d managed to find Olivia Harcourt
and her niece at this remote location, the Casus would, as well.

As if she suddenly sensed his presence, the woman turned, caught sight of him at the corner of the house, then immediately started to
run. Without thinking about which direction she was headed, simply reacting to the fact that she was running
from him, Aiden found
himself sprinting across the grassy backyard and taking her down. She started to cry out, but the sharp sound was cut off as they
landed heavily on the cold ground, momentarily knocking the wind out of them both.

Soft. That was the first word that came to mind as he lay heavily against her, his chest to her back. Sweet was the second. He usually
went for his women a little sturdier than this one, so that he didn’t have to worry about hurting them when he let go, but he couldn’t
deny that he liked the feeling of her lush, feminine little body trapped beneath him.

Without thinking it through, acting purely on animal instinct, Aiden lowered his head and nuzzled the warm, tender patch of skin just
behind her right ear. The heavy silk of her red hair tickled his nose, the sleek strands smelling of flowers and spring and things that
were too damn tender for his world. His long frame began to shake, something thick and hot rushing through his body, as if a biting,
visceral craving unlike anything he’d ever experienced had been injected directly into his veins, poisoning his reason.

A rough noise vibrated in the back of his throat, and he jerked from shock when he realized he was actually purring.

Bad, he silently snarled, and he stilled, not even breathing, while a deeper, more guttural voice chanted “Keep her” within the darkness
of his mind.

No, he growled, shaking his head so hard that his long hair flew around his shoulders. No way. Not possible, the rational, human part of
his mind argued, while the rest of him went into total meltdown, coming undone, something dark and possessive clawing against his
insides, demanding its freedom.

Need her. Naked. Now.

He was, to put it bluntly, completely screwed, and as his body crushed hers against the ground, two thoughts fired simultaneously
through Aiden’s brain, obliterating everything else. The first was that she felt better than any other woman he’d ever had beneath him,
even if she was a human. The second was that he needed to get the hell away from her, before he ended up making the biggest mistake
of his life.

This second idea was completely borne from the first, and the first had so many tangled layers to it, it was difficult to find his way
through them all. He’d known she smelled good, but now that he was so close to her, the effect was staggering, like some
mouthwatering cross between the dangerously forbidden and the comforting warmth of home. Illicit, and yet, strangely familiar, as if it
was a part of him. Despite the differences in their heights, she fit against him in a way that just seemed
right, and there was something
painfully erotic about the soft, gasping sound of her breathing…the way she squirmed to get free.

Just calm down, he thought, struggling to hold himself together. And while you’re at it, get a friggin’ grip.

All right. Okay. He could do this, damn it. He just had to think it through. Wrap his mind around it. There had to be a reasonable
explanation for his reaction, because human females did
not call to his beast this way. That was why he slept with them—for the sheer
fact that they did
not affect him…that they were safe. If someone had asked him to explain why he liked to bed down with the things
he most hated, that would have been the answer right there—the fact that he remained completely untouched by the humans he had sex
with. For the most part, he still considered humanity to be nothing more than a cesspool of greed, filth and perversion, aside from the
select few he now considered his friends. And yet, even though he loathed their species, he never hurt the human females that he slept
with. Never allowed that darker side of his nature its freedom.

You’re just in a bad way. It’s been too long for you. That’s all it is, he silently argued, forcing his locked muscles to move, and he
managed to lift away just enough that the woman could roll over beneath him. Then everything went to hell, because the instant Olivia
Harcourt was on her back, she stared directly up into his narrowed, no doubt “changing” eyes, and the only thing Aiden could manage
to say was, “Shit.” A red, steamy haze instantly filled his vision, and his cock went so hard he was half-afraid he would go off right
there, inside his friggin’ jeans. She might have been on the delicate side, but her breasts were incredible, cushioned against his chest, her
nipples hard beneath the fabric of her sweater. Her soft, glossy lips were moving, no doubt cursing him to hell and back, but he couldn't
hear her words over the roar in his ears. Through the dizzying, deafening storm of hunger, Aiden watched, helplessly, as he stretched
her arms above her head and pinned her wrists against the cold ground with his left hand, the aggressive action so at odds with the way
his right thumb tenderly stroked the fragile edge of her jaw.

It didn’t matter how hard he tried, he simply couldn’t stop staring down at the strange little human, completely mesmerized by the
things he could see…and even more so by the things he could

The heat blooming beneath the pale, pearl-like luster of her skin.

The provocative rush of blood pounding through her veins.

The heady rise of desire as it softened her body.

Then she exhaled a sharp, shivery breath, the scent of her mouth filling his head, and Aiden realized he’d made a fatal error. A serious
miscalculation. He’d thought she smelled good on the outside, but it was nothing compared to her scent on the
inside, the sweetness of
her inner secrets breaking him down. He could only imagine how perfect it would smell when her warm juices were slipping from her
sex like honey, pooling like melted sunshine between her thighs. They would be mouthwatering—hot and slick and exquisite—and in
that instant the man faded to the background of his mind…and the animal took over.

One second he was poised above her, and the next thing Aiden knew, he’d taken her mouth, thrusting his tongue deep, tasting her
completely, the kiss just shy of violent as he sought out that rich burn of flavor. A devastating burst of pleasure poured through his
muscles and his limbs, scorching every inch of his body, inside and out…the painful, gnawing need so much worse than it’d been

She smelled deliciously ripe…and somehow tasted even better. Though he knew it was madness, the feral part of his soul was roaring
that he needed to mount her, penetrate her, and fill her up with a hot, thick surge of come before she could get away. He growled low
in his throat, wondering where that strange urge was coming from, compelling him to do the unthinkable as he pushed himself between
her thighs in a hard, aggressive movement. He’d never willingly spilled himself inside
any woman, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to
start now.

A chilling shadow from his past crept through him, but he mentally shoved it away, fighting against that slick, nauseating pull.
He would never go down that path again. Which meant that he needed to get away from Olivia Harcourt…and stay away. Now. The
sooner the better, for both their sakes.

If he could just get her and the kid out of there, he could take them to a motel. Then he could switch up, to hell with the promise he’d
made his friends back in Colorado, and hand her over to Kellan. Let the wolf deal with her, while he protected them from a distance.

Struggling to find the presence of mind to break away from her, Aiden became painfully aware of the fact that he was grinding against
her now, thrusting his hardened cock against the warm, tender notch between her thighs. Even as he fought to hold back the release of
his claws and fangs, his fingers and gums burning with the need to change, he was eating his way into her mouth, unable to stop. His
beast had hijacked his body and he was helpless in the face of its primitive demands. Once he’d started kissing her, he was lost. And
God help him, it felt as if she was actually kissing him back, her small tongue rubbing against his, her sweet breaths filling his mouth as
he shifted his head from one side to the other, searching for a deeper angle…a way to get even more of those pansy-soft lips and the
sleek, lush warmth that lay within.

It completely unnerved him, how lost he was to the act, considering he’d never been all that interested in losing himself in the taste of a
woman’s mouth before. After all, there were always more interesting things a female could be doing with her lips and her tongue. And
for some strange reason, Aiden had always viewed a kiss as something a little too intimate for the kind of affairs he had with women.

But he was kissing the hell out of the little human trapped beneath his body and the cold, hard ground, and he never wanted to stop. He
was also dangerously close to taking her right there, and he could not let that happen, for too many reasons to count.

She’s one of them, you idiot. A friggin’ human. Do you even know what you’re doing?

With a deep, bitter snarl, Aiden finally managed to pull away from the drugging depths of pleasure, breaking the contact of his mouth
against hers. But Christ, it wasn’t easy. Breathing hard, his heavy chest rising and falling beneath his black T-shirt, he forced himself to
change the position of their bodies, pinning her hips between his rigid thighs. With that done, he wiped the back of his wrist over his
damp mouth as he struggled to calm his thundering heart rate.

“Who are y-you?” she stammered. “G-get off me!”

For some reason he couldn’t understand, Aiden found that stutter of hers completely charming. It probably made him nine different
kinds of insane, but watching the way her mouth trembled when she got stuck on a word just made him want to kiss her again.

“Are you deaf?” she cried out in a shrill voice. “I said to g-get off!”

He kept her wrists pinned against the weak blades of winter grass, and did his best to ignore the devastating effect of her struggling
body beneath him. “Just take a deep breath and calm down,” he choked out. “I’m a good guy, okay? I’m not going to hurt you.”

Her eyes went wide with disbelief. “Yeah, r-right. What kind of moron do you think I am?”

Even in the frosty, moon-drenched darkness, Aiden could see her clearly, though he knew he remained mostly in shadow to her human
vision. Her unusual violet eyes were bright with shock, her mouth swollen from the hard aggression of his kiss…the pink, full lips
glossy and smooth, tempting him to take them again. The rational part of his brain knew that her individual features weren’t the most
beautiful he’d ever seen—that they were more cute and fey-like than exotically sculpted—and yet, he was completely mesmerized by
them. She was undoubtedly pretty, but he couldn’t stop staring with rapt absorption, as if he were gazing down at the most exquisite,
provocative female ever created.

Clearing his throat, he somehow managed to say, “Seriously. I mean you no harm,” then immediately winced, thinking he sounded like
some geeked-out alien trying to reassure the panicked earthlings that he came in peace. What in God’s name was wrong with him?

“How do I know that?”

“Because if I wanted to hurt you,” he countered in a graveled tone he was determined to keep even and calm, “I’d have already done it.”

A bitter laugh spilled from her lips. “And that’s supposed to make me t-trust you?”

“I don’t give a shit if you trust me or not. But you’d better do what I tell you if you want to make it through this alive, because the bad
guys probably aren’t far behind me.”

“What do you want from me?” She forced each word through her gritted teeth. “Why are you here?”

She continued to pull at her trapped hands, but Aiden wasn’t ready to let them go, knowing she would only try to strike out at him and
end up hurting herself. “I’m someone who was sent here to keep you alive.”

“That’s not p-possible.” Her stammering words suddenly trailed off, the look of rising horror on her pale face tearing at him like claws.
“Oh my god,” she whispered. “You’re one of
them, aren’t you? You son-of-a-bitch. Monica said they could look human. You’re one of
the bastards who killed my sisters!”

“I’m not a bloody Casus,” he growled, scowling down at her.

“Right! And I’m just meant to b-believe you?”

“Well, if I was, you could bet your sweet little ass that I wouldn’t have been knocking on your front door. And I wouldn’t be taking the
time to talk to you, either,” he finished in a guttural snarl, his own temper beginning to get the better of him.

She calmed a little at his words, sinking her teeth into that full lower lip that Aiden knew was going to play front and center in his
dreams, obviously thinking over what he’d said. Then she took a deep breath, slowly exhaled…and finally stopped fighting his hold. “If
you’re not one of the monsters,” she questioned in a soft, hesitant voice, “then just who in God’s name are you?”

From the book:  TOUCH OF SEDUCTION by Rhyannon Byrd
Copyright © 2010
® and ™  are trademarks of the publisher.
The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
For more romance information go to:
An Unedited Excerpt from Rhyannon Byrd’s