Dee-Ann walked into the apartment, dropping her duffel Dbag by the door.
“Is that you?” Ric called from one of the back rooms.
“I’ll be out in a minute.”
“Take your time,” she called back, heading toward the kitchen.
Dee-Ann really hoped there was some of that angel food cake sitting in the refrigerator. She needed it after that useless waste of a trip to Italy. The Guerra twins and that Mairi MacKilligan were long gone. Not only that but she’d spent several days trapped with Cella Malone in a foreign country.
The fact that she hadn’t killed that feline should get Dee-Ann a reward, but it wouldn’t. At the very least it should get her a slice of angel food cake from her mate’s restaurant.
It did seem perfect, didn’t it? A slice of cake, a kiss from her mate, and a big hug from Dee-Ann’s baby girl.
But when Dee-Ann entered her kitchen, she froze in the open doorway and stared across the room. She felt the hackles on the back of her neck rise and, for the first time she could remember, she had to fight her urge to shift to wolf. To howl for her mate. To howl for her Pack.
Lizzy grinned at her and waved. “Hey, Mama.”
The female holding her daughter in her brawny arms looked up and smiled. “Dee-Ann.”
The She-badger sat cross-legged on the floor, with Lizzy-Ann sitting in front of her, playing with the plastic knife set Dee-Ann had gotten her to train with.
“Your daughter is awesome,” the honey badger said. “She’s gonna kick butt one day, huh?”
“Yes!” Lizzy cheered, giggling when Max hugged her tight, those brown eyes coldly locked on Dee-Ann’s face as she snuggled Dee-Ann’s only child close.
Dee-Ann’s fingers twitched, ready to grab hold of the blade her daddy had given her all those years ago. Just so she could rip out the badger’s guts and show them to her before she died.
“Now, now,” the badger cautioned. “None of that’s necessary. I’m just here to talk.”
“You mean the Guerra twins.”
“I do. And, of course, Mairi MacKilligan. My cousin is dangerous for all of us, I’m afraid. Still, I’m used to working alone. But I was thinking I’ll have a better chance of hunting those lovely ladies down with the help of you and your people. Don’t you think that’s true?”
“So you wanna work for us?”
“No. Work with. Because if you think the Guerras are going to back off now . . . you don’t know the MacKilligans. And that’s what they are, you know. No matter what country they were raised in. How rich they are. In their souls, in their blood, they are MacKilligans. And I’m pretty sure . . . there’s going to be a war.”
“And you think you can stop this war?”
“No. But I am hoping to mitigate damages. Something you and your fancy teams won’t be able to do without me and my sisters, I’m afraid. Because the problem is, the Guerra twins now know what they are. And Mairi will show them what they can do. How far they can really go when they no longer have the boundaries of being full-human to think about. They are just learning what their claws can do.” She stretched her arms out, unleashed her claws.
Her grin wide, Lizzy slid her fingers along those claws. Fascinated and eager to get her own.
“My concern,” Dee-Ann admitted, “is that this might be more personal for you and your sisters than is good for any of us.”
“Don’t you worry about my sisters. They’re the only reason I’m as loving and caring as I am.” Max glanced down at Lizzy, who was still exploring the badger’s claws. “They’re the only reason I’m willing to work with people I don’t necessarily like. Because family is everything, Dee-Ann. And that was the Guerras’ mistake. They’ve messed with the wrong family.”
Dee-Ann understood. The badgers didn’t have a Pack or Pride. All they had was family or those they considered family. The MacKilligan girls weren’t close to their blood relations, but half-sisters or not, they were as close as three sisters could be. And Max was going to make the Guerras and Mairi MacKilligan pay for what they’d done. For trying to use that bond against them.
Still, having her pup in the arms of a honey badger . . .
Dee-Ann fought her urge to just “start the killin’” as her daddy liked to say and instead replied, “I think we can work something out.”
“Good.” Max hugged Lizzy again. “I am so in love with this kid.” She looked at her. “Do you know how awesome you are?”
“Yes,” Lizzy replied. “I do.”
“Excellent. Never forget it.”
She placed Lizzy on the floor and stood. With one more smile at Dee-Ann’s daughter, she silently moved through the kitchen until the badger stood beside her. She stopped there, a tiny little thing. And if she were anyone else, Dee-Ann would assume she could crush the bitch under her big She-wolf feet.
But Dee-Ann knew better now.
“Don’t feel bad,” Max said. “There are very few people who can keep me out of their house.” She leaned in close, going up on her toes, and whispered, “I’ve fondled the Queen of England’s crown jewels.” She winked at Dee-Ann.
“I’ll be in touch. And let’s keep this between us, shall we? Like I said, I’ll handle my sisters in my own due time.”
With that Max walked down the hallway. A minute later, Ric came from the other direction. He kissed Dee-Ann on the cheek and smiled. He’d had no idea that female had been in their house. And he wouldn’t until he realized that his only daughter reeked of honey badger.
“I’m glad you’re home,” he whispered in Dee-Ann’s ear. “Want some angel food cake?”
* * *
Charlie stood on the back patio of her rental house and yelled up at one of the trees, “Get your ass out of that tree!”
“Why? I’m comfortable.”
“Did you go off your meds?”
“You should just let her stay up there. She’s comfortable.”
Charlie looked at the child eating her food. “Why are you still here?”
“I live here now.”
“I pay rent.”
She faced Kyle. “You’re not even eighteen.”
“I will be.”
“Does your mother even know you’re here?”
“She will eventually,” he said, already walking away. Still eating her food.
“I don’t think his mother knows,” the panda said from beside her, munching away at bamboo. A noise that was really beginning to grate on Charlie’s nerves. “But his sister knows and she’s the only one you have to worry about. That’s why I’m here. To protect him.”
“Does he need protection?”
“No, but his sister thinks he does. Besides, I’d rather stay here with you guys. He’s got these twin sisters that freak me out.” He finished one bamboo stalk and pulled out another from a small pack. Like a cigarette pack. “One favor, though . . . could you tell your baby sister to stop . . . hugging me?”
“Absolutely. But do you really mind?”
“No, and that’s a problem. Because she’s not actually interested, she just thinks I’m cute. Like a stuffed toy. That can only end badly for me.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Max announced to the panda as she came around the side of the house. “Hey! Crazy!” she yelled up to the trees. “Leave the giant panda alone!”
“But he’s so cute!”
“You’re making his dick hard! Stop it!”
Charlie laughed as poor Shen, face red, went back into the house.
Max grinned. “What?”
“You’re such a fucker.” When Max turned to go inside, Charlie caught hold of her arm. “Where were you?”
“Do you really want to know?”
Charlie released her sister and smiled down at the giant dog that was now standing next to her. “Hi, baby boy,” she greeted the beast, leaning down to rub his neck and shoulders while he licked her face.
“Who’s a good boy?” she asked. “Who is my good boy?”
“It’s not him.”
She looked up at Berg. “Hey, you.”
“Hey.” He slipped his arm around her waist and pulled her close, kissing her. But before Charlie could get her arms around his waist, Benny forced his big-headed way between them.
“That’s it,” Berg growled, pulling away from Charlie.
“Don’t get mad at him!” she yelled after him as he went back into the house. “He just loves me. He can’t help himself.”
Berg came back through the door holding a leash. “I understand. And that’s why I brought him a friend of his own.”
“Friend?” Charlie cringed a bit. “What is that?”
“It’s a dog.”
“What kind of dog?”
“No idea.” Berg glanced down at the female animal. “Got her at the pound.”
All Charlie could see was a hundred pounds of . . . hair. She couldn’t even see eyes. She didn’t even know if the dog could see with all that hair!
“I’m pretty sure this is not how you’re supposed to introduce new dogs to each other.”
“I don’t care. I need to sleep in bed with you alone, and he’s not letting that happen with the whining at the door every night.”
“Well, this should help with that.” Berg unhooked the leash from the new dog’s collar.
“I wouldn’t do that—” Charlie began, but it was too late. The new dog took off running, cleared the back fence, and was gone. “Well, that was ineffective.”
“She’ll be back,” Berg said, slipping his arms around Charlie’s waist and again pulling her close.
“She is not coming back.”
“She will when she realizes she’s surrounded by nothing but bears.”
As soon as he said it, the dog cleared the fence yet again and charged across the yard and crashed through the screen door leading to the kitchen.
Tongue hanging out, Benny went after her. Hopefully he could calm her down.
“Now I need to get a new door or Tiny’s gonna bitch.”
“You have to start seeing the positive.”
“Really? I’ve got one sister in a tree.”
“I’m comfortable!” Stevie yelled.
“Another sister disappearing to who knows where.”
“You said you didn’t want to know!” Max yelled from the kitchen window.
“And apparently an artistic genius and his panda bodyguard are living in my house.”
“I’m paying rent!” came Kyle’s response.
“And you want me to be positive?” she asked, smiling up at Berg.
“Yes. Because you’ve got me . . . and I have a house right across the street that we can live in so you don’t have to be here.”
“Dag and Britta are mostly quiet.”
“Quiet and well-mannered. And tonight . . . not home.”
Charlie went up on her toes, wrapped her arms around Berg’s neck. “That sounds perfect.”
“What about us?” Stevie demanded.
“You’re in a tree!”
“I’m in a tree, but I’m hungry!”
“I’m hungry too!” Max chimed in. “Let’s get Dutch to foot the bill for that overpriced steakhouse. I want to try the giraffe.”
“It’s overrated,” Charlie heard Kyle explain. “And gamey.”
“I thought that was the rhino.”
Charlie stared up at the bear she loved. “I really hope you know what you’ve gotten yourself into.”
“I’m a grizzly,” Berg replied. “If they really get on my nerves, I can just start roaring and gnawing on their extremities. Trust me . . . they’ll run.”
“I knew it!” Stevie suddenly screamed from the tree. “You want to eat us—aaaah!” She fell off the limb and hit the ground hard. “Owwww. That really hurt.”
“Or we could move,” Berg suggested, lifting Charlie up so she could put her legs around his waist and he could carry her back toward his house . . . and their bed. “I hear Siberia’s nice.”
“Unfortunately,” she admitted, “MacKilligans aren’t allowed in Siberia. There was an incident.”
“With the bears?”
“Oh, no.” She placed her head on his shoulder, snuggling close, before admitting, “Not with the bears. With everybody.”