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Zodiac Shifters Aries Love's Warrior by Jennifer Hilt (1)

1

Jessica Tracey wanted to be happy. She really did. She loved baby animals, finding the perfect pair of shoes on sale, and rocking girls night out. But if she’d learned anything at all in her twenty-six years, it was that having Greek Gods as parents did not guarantee happiness.

In fact, lately, it was a guarantee of the opposite.

Here she was three hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle in November. The constant darkness combined with subzero temperatures and frequent blizzards kept all the paranormals at the science station inside, except for the shifters. Nothing good happened here. She’d learned that in the month she’d been here.

Then, only twenty-four hours before, her roommate Teague was murdered.

Yeah. Totally WTF.

Jessica was in a fog trying to process losing her friend. It wasn’t going well. She couldn’t focus on anything. Her thoughts kept looping back to Teague’s frozen corpse.

Twice she’d searched out a landline, determined to call her silver shifter hottie. Carson would know what to do —after all, he was a US paranormal marshal. Goddess knew he loved his job. In the end, she was too chicken-shit to pick up the phone, plus he was her ex now. Things ended badly between them. Help would arrive eventually.

Right now, the only thing she could do was get some exercise. That usually snapped her out of her funks. After an unproductive day in her biology lab, she’d trekked to the station gym for an early evening workout. Thanks to the latest blizzard, she gripped the ropes with her mittened hands. Plastic ropes were tied between buildings to prevent anyone getting lost. Ice cracked under her grip, making the satisfying sound similar to popping bubble wrap.

Anytime she stepped outside up here, she wore her orange station-issued parka and snow boots. Usually she wore her bib overall snow pants too, but she’d left those back in the lab tonight. She couldn’t be bothered.

Behind her, footsteps crunched in the crisp snow. She closed her eyes and inhaled the frigid evening air. It had a bracing effect.

Until the next footfall behind her.

All she wanted was a little ‘me’ time. No company, no sympathy, no gossip. And especially no balls.

No such luck.

Maybe she wasn’t giving her natural blonde hair and generous curves enough credit. Being the daughter of Greek Gods meant she always had some residue of magic hanging onto her aura. She’d never met a male, human or paranormal, that weren’t largely guided by their cocks.

Someone should embroider that on a little pillow.

Her recent admirer, Randy the warlock, followed her into the gym. Calling the re-appropriated mobile home a physical fitness center would be a crime. Everything up here was one-room shacks or trailers. With no trees, any lumber required trucking in over arduous conditions. It was easier and cheaper to move a mobile unit. Unless the mobile units were ancient, and there were a few of those, most of them had better insulation than the sheds and huts. Plus, keeping anything larger warm was difficult—the smaller units made it easier to control utilities.

If Jessica knew entirely too much about the mundane details of the station at Icy Cap, there was a reasonable explanation. The population was only sixty paranormals, ninety percent of them male. In reality, this meant at any given time the majority of the inhabitants were bored and horny.

Jessica stomped up the icy steps, knocking loose snow from her boots. She reached inside the gym door and flicked on the lights. The décor was faux wood grain paneling from 1982 and electric heaters with a few standing mirrors. Donated exercise equipment waited patiently for frustrated scientists. Jessica hung up her parka on a hook then pulled her workout shoes out of her coat pocket.

It was chilly in here. She didn’t want visible nips through her sports bra so she kept her long-sleeved tee on. Boots were left by the door to avoid tracking in snow. Once her workout shoes had replaced them on her feet she headed straight for the step machine.

Although the station was referred to as Icy Cap, in truth that community was fifty miles away. The station was arctic living with training wheels, sixty paranormals crammed into an outdated Army research facility in the frozen tundra in the middle of nowhere.

If the weather permitted, people and supplies were flown in. No one wanted to trek the overland route except ice bears.

“How’s my favorite witch?” Randy, the pasty-faced warlock climbed on the treadmill next to her, passing all four other empty machines.

“Hey.” Jessica nodded, not making eye contact as she popped in her ear buds. She inhaled deeply before beginning her set.

She wasn’t a witch but it was a good enough cover. Even paranormals would find it hard to believe that an Amazonian warrior was living among them. And even if she told them the truth, all they’d want to do was arm wrestle her. She and her warrior sisters lived in Fairbanks under the guise of a coven.

It made perfect sense really. Her father was Aries, the God of War. She spurned her violent heritage as part of her teenage rebellion. She liked pissing Aries off, which healing people rather than hurting them did. She dedicated herself to herbal remedies. His response was to relocate some of her sisters to Fairbanks to keep an eye on her.

Fuck! This place smelled like sweaty balls. Horny unwashed paranormals smelled just as bad as mortals. And that smell always reminded her of the summer she and her sisters had crashed a boys’ summer camp. Athena was off cavorting with some nymph so these junior Amazon warriors got their first look at mortal men. Spoiler alert: major disappointment. Not to mention the beating Aries delivered for sneaking away left more of a lasting impression than the males. Now all she remembered was the smell. More than once she considered installing a cinnamon roll-scented air freshener.

Such a thought was a slippery slope living in close proximity to other witches and warlocks. Besides the witches and warlocks, there were a handful of shifters and vamps. There was a ‘no magic’ clause here so she didn’t even have to make excuses for her lack of powers.

Since many paranormals viewed this as a training camp for Antarctica, those selected readily agreed. Once they got here, like everything else, life was about degrees. A group of mostly witches and warlocks were bound to bend the rules. But everyone tried to keep it subtle. Hence the gym smelling like it did instead of a French bakery.

The purpose of holding off on magic was to prevent corrupting someone else’s experiments by accident or on purpose. The station provided a safe spot for paranormals to practice only science. Jessica liked pretending to be a regular person. It was much simpler. As soon as her heritage was revealed everyone would start acting weird about having a retired goddess warrior around.

Jessica started her reps on the step machine. Her butt and gluts would burn for hours afterward. This was good because an actual demon served free soft serve ice cream 24/7 in the cafeteria. Good genes were no guarantee against love handles. She preferred the step machine because Icy Cap’s terrain was flat, and she needed to maintain her hiking stamina. In spring, she’d be scouring the mountain ranges outside Fairbanks hunting plants. Her specialization was herbal treatments.

Part of her research here involved the impact of the extreme cold on the lichen, moss and small flowering herbs that grew this far north. The other part of her job required updating a sizeable seed catalog stored here. Her life was so fucking exciting.

Jessica adjusted her ear buds.

“Cold enough for you?” Randy propped the latest issue of Sorcery in Geology Today before him.

Warlock geologists were the worst. Always going on about how they were going to transform common rocks into gold. Everyone referred to them as “Rumples” as in Rumplestilskin, behind their backs.

If Jessica had a coin for every time she heard a Rumple give her that line, she might well have a room full of gold stashed away by now.

“Want to stop by my lab later? I’ve got some interesting data.” Randy’s face reminded her of a puppy. Not in a good ‘I want to kiss his face’ but more like ‘I wish he’d stop slobbering all over me.’ ‘And I hope he doesn’t pee on my bootsway.

“I’ve got a ton of work to catch up on. Sorry.” Jessica didn’t want to give him the slightest bit of encouragement. The Rumples were the nerd set among mages. Usually they were unflappable. So long as their data wasn’t messed with. Little things like misbuttoned shirts and lost keys were commonplace. She didn’t want to take their cluelessness for granted. They were all trapped together for the next few months. Teague’s death was making everyone edgy.

Even the Rumples noticed murder.

“Anytime. Just let me know. I want to keep it between the two of us.”

That’s just what I’m afraid of.

She was so done with relationships since her divorce from a paranormal. She couldn’t imagine dating again but if she did, the guy was going to be a well-hung version of “Darren” in Bewitched.

She bit back a small smile. That was an entertaining thought. No vamp. No warlocks. And in the name of the Goddess, no shifter.

This image increased her heart rate. She wiped her sweaty palms on her yoga pants. Why had Teague wandered out during a blizzard? Who would cut her throat? These thoughts kept tumbling back over her at the slightest suggestion. She was trained as an Amazon warrior to be disciplined. She might not still be a warrior but the foundation was still there.

But Jessica wasn’t thinking about it, she reminded herself. She refused to be controlled by her emotions. If she were to give in to her despair she’d be no better than a human.

Teague was a good roommate, for a witch. She picked up her clothes, didn’t hog the bathroom and cleaned up after she used the kitchen. They’d also had more than a few laughs over the Station gossip that resulted from boredom and speculation. The camp was unofficially divided about whether Dr. Deegan, their staff physician, was male or female. It was a tossup for Jessica thanks to Deegan’s pear-shaped body and facial hair. The physician dressed in boxy sweaters and pleated khaki pants, which only fanned speculation.

After getting her heart rate up, Jessica finished her set. Instead of stretching or doing a cool down, Jessica hopped off her machine. She didn’t even bother with her boots. She grabbed her parka and rushed out of the trailer with a noncommittal wave while avoiding eye contact with Randy.

Every time she stepped outside the cold was like a slap in the face. And she was from Alaska. It was just that fucking cold. It settled over her face like a mask, giving her a headache. She started off again, taking a few steadying breaths to adjust.

Jessica mourned her own stupidity of being underdressed. Anytime she wanted to brave the elements she donned her parka, hat, gloves, boots and ski pants.

Except now.

This is what she got for rushing out to avoid Randy. Her teeth chattered. Her sweat froze on her skin.

Her power only worked on healing potions, nothing so practical as creating a bit of warmth. It was unusual for an Amazon to have any skills beyond her warrior related. Her father really didn’t like that about her. He liked uniformity.

The cold set in immediately. Her thighs ached from the step machine, so walking was like pushing blocks of ice forward. She concentrated on how lovely her warm little trailer would be. Even if she had to wait ten minutes for the water to heat up, a hot shower would be heavenly.

Fuck.

She dug her mittened fingers into her parka pocket. Her keys were gone. She must’ve dropped them when grabbing her coat from the gym. Clearly this was not her day, evening or even week.

So much for her escape from Randy.

She turned around and retraced her steps back to the gym trailer.

The trailer lights were already off. Strange, Randy must’ve been in a hurry to leave. Maybe he was only working out to chat her up. Too bad—burning some calories would do him good.

“Randy?” Jessica opened the door. All quiet. She had that spine creeping sensation she wasn’t alone.

In the darkness, she could barely make out the hulking shape of the stair master. She wished for some reflective snow to illuminate the inside. She fumbled for the light switch. Where the hell was it?She flicked it clumsily but nothing happened. The wind gusted, pushing her inside the trailer.

She stopped just short of stepping on him. Randy was face down gurgling in his own blood.

Thoughts of Teague flashed through her mind.

By the Goddess no, not like Teague. Jessica was never going to forget her pale skin against the crimson blood spilling out of her neck and covering her torso.

Now Jessica dropped to her knees and carefully turned Randy over. So much blood. Just like with Teague. Only Randy was still warm and so was his blood. Jessica turned her head aside, unsuccessfully stifling a gag.

Her heart raced. An adrenaline surge kicked in making her hands shake. She needed to stop her freak-out. As a warrior she was trained to enter a zen-like state of focus in combat. This was no different.

“Who did this to you?” She pressed her mitten to the gouge on his neck. Judging from the amount of blood loss, the attacker hit his jugular vein. She smoothed his hair back.

Cell phones were useless up here with no coverage. She couldn’t leave him alone to get help. Each trailer had a landline to reach the Station operator. She wasn’t too proud to prevent her falling tears, mixing with Randy’s blood.

“See? Kept you safe,” the warlock rasped. His eyes already glassy from blood loss.

“Shhh, don’t talk.” Jessica lied, “Stay still. Help is coming.”

Randy’s freckles were more visible with his pallor. He looked even younger than she’d guessed.

She removed the other mitten, holding her palm just above his heart. She kept pressure on his neck with the other. She closed her eyes and chanted.

Skies of snow, ice so blue

Let the Goddess come to you

Her healing gift, so strong so true

In spirit let her power you imbue

Randy pawed at her bare hand, smearing it with his blood. “Tell him you’re safe.”

The blood flow was less and that wasn’t a good thing when his pulse was thready. It didn’t mean her charm worked—it meant that he’d lost so much blood there wasn’t anything to conserve.

“My boss,” Randy’s slurred.

His forehead was clammy under her bare hand.

His boss? What the hell did a warlock geologist know about murder?

Randy blinked slowly. His life force slipped away from him.

Witches were superstitious by nature. Nobody wanted his or her soul trapped in a trailer when they could be returned to nature. Jessica carefully laid his head down. Not trusting herself to stand, she crawled on her hands and knees to the door and propped it open.

His soul slipped by her like a whisper out into the night.

She let the door fall closed then crawled back across the floor, creating more bloody handprints on the linoleum. Leaning against the wall for support, Jessica stared down at Randy’s corpse.

Just like a bad dream, she wanted to wake up. Randy’s violent and senseless death deserved more than a cliché ending.

Across the room, the phone cord lay severed on the carpet. The murderer made sure no outgoing calls would be coming from here. Jessica had to get up. Go outside and find help.

Just a short time ago she’d been desperate to be alone here. Now it was the last thing she wanted. In two days, she’d lost the same number of friends to violent death. What kind of sinister forces were at work on the paranormals at the Station? Was it just coincidence they’d been close to her?

Pushing up against the wall, Jessica forced herself to move away from Randy. It didn’t feel right to leave him here alone but she had no other way to get help.

She exited the trailer. The sharp wind made her tear up and then there was no stopping her tears. They flowed down her cheeks as she staggered along the trail to the Hub. The Station was laid out like a wheel. The Hub was the original timber building at the center housing the dining hall, kitchen and infirmary. The trailers were like the spokes radiating out from the Hub. Even more mobile units made a perimeter ring and these were mostly laboratory trailer spaces.

Her tears didn’t freeze on her cheeks but her eyelashes stuck together. She wiped at them, glimpsing the Hub in the distance. It was a beacon. Only a bit farther to go.

Until yesterday, the Station’s two shifter security guards had one main job---keeping the ice bears away from camp. Now she hoped more than anything one of them was nursing a cup of coffee in the twenty-four-hour mess hall.

She opened the Hub outer doors, drawn like a moth to the light.

Beyond the foyer stacked with parkas, boots and other cold weather gear, the mess hall was packed with paranorms. Everyone from the Station was here on Friday night.

Dr. Deegan stood at the front of the timber-framed mess hall. She cranked a metal sphere and then stopped to remove a small white ball. “L -13.”

Everyone in the room bent their heads over their bingo boards. They held ink blotters over paper score cards.

“L-13.” Dr. Deegan peered over her bifocals at her. She pulled her severe black brows down into a frown. “Jessica, you’ll have to wait until we start a new round.” Nobody disturbed bingo night. “Is that blood?”

She’d renounced violence of any sort. She’d turned her back on her training and tradition. She’d paid a heavy price for that decision.

Dozens of heads turned to her.

At the scent of fresh blood, several vamps leapt across their tables, heading straight to her. Only the very powerful vamps could curb their instinct for fresh blood. Like flies to honey, the vamps driven by instinct would kill Jessica unless she defended herself.

The two shifters met them midair, bodies smacking in a tackle that shook the rafters. The adversaries crashed to the floor. Everything seemed to slow. She swore she even saw the particles of dust hover in the air. Shifters and vamps battled on the broken tables. Witches and warlocks scattered out of the way. Luanne, a shy fox shifter, grabbed two pieces of broken table. She stood at the edge of the fighting ring, ready to hand off the stake to the security detail. Or maybe she would deliver the fatal blow herself. The fox shifter tracked their movements intently.

Suddenly, Wallace the vamp broke free of the shifter. A short middle-aged man with a fondness for hockey jerseys lunged at Jessica. Only a force from behind knocking her to the ground saved her from the vamp’s bared teeth. Her head made contact with the mess hall floor, and it was lights out.

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