Armens are known for two things--crafting the finest blades in the Warrior world and falling for saved, hard and fast. It's one of the few Warrior-rich ranges, but printing is rarely easy.
James Armen's only wish is a home and family. Beth Havens is a widow with twin little girls. She never imagined life with a vampire hunter. He never dreamed that he'd be blessed with daughters.
Devon vowed to do anything to have Michelle as mate. When he goes too far in the grips of printing madness, it's up to him to make peace somehow, even if that means serving her father, James Lord Armen.
Insubordinate. Bastard cursed. Felon. Scott Danvers has been called many things in his life, few of them favorable. Born to a blade chaser and hidden from the Warriors, Scott is nothing like his peers, from his blond-tipped hair and tattoos to his attitude.
Alyssa Bradley is a minefield, a Warrior widow, traumatized, alone and pregnant. But Daniel Hunter knows there's something beyond that, something his gut tells him is much worse.
Stevie has had a rough life. Terry has been attracted to men as long as he's been attracted to women, but he never followed through. Warriors of Armen tend to fall fast and hard for women they save, but it's not a woman that catches his attention and stokes his need to print.
Nothing in his training has prepared Corey for the Beast enclave he encounters. After three days in the hands of the Beasts, Hannah is scarred, blood weak, and suffering severe PTSD. The only person Hannah trusts is Corey. With the aid of the Stone in controlling his drives, can he help Hannah reclaim her life and her sexuality?
"Damn it," James Armen grumbled, staring at the hamburger in his hand in longing. "Is it too damned much to ask to get a meal in?"
The sense of a beast nearby was eclipsed by the sense of its coercion of a victim.
"Apparently so." He took one bite, tossing the rest over his shoulder, knowing the rodents of the city, scurrying and flying alike, would finish it off.
The beast wasn't far. James made the distance in a few short minutes. He swallowed a sigh at the sight of the woman, enthralled, unbuttoning her coat slowly while the beast watched. It was a disgusting thing to order her to do, especially if it intended to let her keep the memories of this degradation.
However, the fact that the beast was sloppy, completely engrossed in his play to the exclusion of all else, would aid in James's job. He unsheathed his sacred weapon and took the beast's heart in annoyance, cleaning his blade on its foul clothing before letting it fall, his eyes watering at the stench of beast blood.
"I gave up my dinner for a waste of skin like you," he growled, unghosting. Now he'd have to return home and properly clean his blade, or he'd smell faintly like a beast all night long. The damned thing hadn't even had the decency to give him a fight to take the edge off his need to hunt. A kill without battle was almost worse than no kill at all.
He turned to the victim, sheathing his weapon before she could see it clearly. As he'd expected, she was pulling her coat shut, shaking, confused.
"Are you all right?" he asked, leading her away gently.
"What...what happened?" she managed thickly, looking back at the body they'd left behind.
"He was robbing you," James lied. "He had a knife and--"
"No. He had fangs and...and glowing eyes."
He winced. "If you tell someone that, you know they won't believe you."
She stopped cold, but her eyes didn't challenge him as he expected. She fumbled her watch up, her pale face draining of all remaining color. She turned, swearing softly.
"What is it?" he asked. "Can I help?" James didn't question his reason for offering that. It was a weakness most Armens shared, the knight-like inability to leave a woman in need to fend for herself.
"No." She sobbed, pushing his hands away. She ran full out, crying.
"Damn this." James fought his natural inclinations, then gave into them, gritting his teeth and loping after her.
The woman darted from alley to street to backstreet. James could have caught her easily, but he didn't want to stop her; he wanted to find out what made her cry...and solve it. That's what Armens did.
Finally, she stopped at a row house and knocked, stifling her tears.
The door opened, and an old woman scowled at her. "You're late, Beth."
"Yes, I know. I... Oh, Alice."
"Come in. They're waiting to go."
James furrowed his brow, sliding silently toward them, ghosting. The women disappeared inside. What was Beth late for? Who was waiting for her? And why would these people make her frantic?
* * * *
Beth Havens wiped at her cheeks roughly, managing a tight smile as Melissa waved her hands from her seat in the playpen. She reached down and picked her up, hugging her younger daughter by an hour to her chest, avoiding Alice's eyes. Beth knew what she'd see there.
"You can't keep doing this," Alice stated.
"It will never--"
"Happen again. I know. How many times have you told me that, Beth?"
Her heart sank. Please... I need this sitter. No one else reliable will watch the girls for a price I can afford. Beth lifted Melissa's coat from the corner of the playpen and slipped it on.
Beside her, Alice did the same for Michelle. "I had plans tonight."
"Oh, God. I am so--"
"Sorry. I know."
"You know I--"
"Don't usually have the misfortune of coinciding with my schedule. You did tonight." She set Michelle in the double stroller, placing her hands on her ample hips.
"You know--" Beth began.
"I know you need this arrangement. I know it's been difficult for you to keep house and home together since Ethan died. I know you don't mean to inconvenience me, but you have more than once."
Beth held her breath, praying that Alice wouldn't send her packing.
"It can't continue this way."
"You'll guarantee me this. Every time you're late, there will be a five dollar late fee."
Breathing became difficult. Beth pulled the bonnets from her pocket, trying to fathom how she could possibly arrange never to owe that fee.
Beth turned to her, sick at the thought of paying it this week. Rent was due, and the cabinets were nearly bare.
"I mean it, Beth. If you don't have the late fee by Monday morning, don't bring the girls back."
"End of subject."
Beth bit back tears at that. There was no way she could come up with another five dollars in her weekly budget. There was nothing else she could give up and still have food and an apartment. But without childcare, she would lose her job. There had to be some way to convince Alice.
What? Are you planning on telling her that you're late, because a vampire attacked you? The man who'd saved her had been right; no one would believe that.
A knock at the door interrupted her inner argument. Alice marched to it and opened it.
Beth's heart seemed to stop beating, and she barely noted Melissa patting at her shoulder. Her mystery man was standing in the doorway--a wad of money in his hand.
Alice looked from him to Beth and back again. "May I help you..." she asked, hinting for an introduction Beth wasn't capable of giving.
"James, ma'am," he offered.
She shot a hard look at Beth, but what answer could Beth possibly give? She didn't know this man, and the only thing she did know about him, that he'd killed a vampire, would hardly sound sane.
He didn't hesitate. "It's my fault Beth is late," he lied. "I...caused her extra work. Please, take this." He pushed the money at Alice again, his expression pained.
Alice stared at the money in shock. "It's too much," she breathed.
It was too much. The bill on top was a ten, and even if the rest were ones, it wasn't small change he was handing over.
"I've inconvenienced you, and I've inconvenienced Beth. Please. Look on it as a bonus for your fine work." James tucked the bills into her hand, staring at Beth and Melissa.
Michelle made a grumbling sound of complaint and bounced in the stroller, no doubt a warning that it should be moving and she'd be happier if it were doing so. He locked on the movement, rounding Alice and striding toward her, his eyes wide in wonder.
Michelle turned to him, waving her fist his way. James crouched to her level, and she touched his face. Beth held her breath, biting back hysterical laughter as he kissed her daughter's wrist.
* * * *
James reached out and took the bonnet from Beth's hand, settling it on the little girl's head, covering her blonde curls, chuckling as she fought the process. Twins! He could barely comprehend how lucky she was to have two precious baby girls. They were beautiful babies.
A few moments' delay, and I would have orphaned them. I considered ignoring their need for a damned hamburger! He swallowed a cry of dismay at that thought. It was the truth. Ani help him, he'd honestly considered taking the time to eat at the risk of this woman and her children.
Never again. He touched the baby's chubby cheek, managing an honest smile as she honored him with one of her own. "I'll see you home," he assured her.
"That's really not--"
He snapped his gaze to Beth and the other baby, rising to his feet slowly. She took a deep breath, meeting his eyes steadily. James lifted the child from her arms, untangling the baby's fist from her mother's shoulder-length, slightly-darker than honey hair. He strapped her into the stroller behind her sister, topping off the job with the second bonnet.
Then he smiled at the sitter. "Good night, Alice."
The silver-haired woman straightened her dress with a blush. "And to you."
James rolled the stroller onto the front porch.
Behind him, Alice whispered to Beth, "That man is one you grab onto and hold tight, dear."
He smiled at that, lifting the stroller down the single step to the sidewalk. Why couldn't he pursue this? Not that I have much of a choice with my family history. Armens are fond of saving the ladies in distress and bringing them home as mates.
If Beth were willing, he could have more than he'd ever dreamed of. Few Warriors were lucky enough to have a daughter, and two were unheard of, even when they adopted daughters in.
His smile faded at the sight of Beth, her amber eyes assessing him. She wouldn't be easy to court. She was a sensible woman. On the surface, his life wouldn't seem a sensible choice.
"You didn't have to do that," she began cautiously.
"It was nothing." It was. Most Warriors carried much more than that for emergencies. In truth, James had been lax by carrying so little pocket money. "Which way? Or should I drive you?"
She blushed. "No. It's close, but you don't have to--"
"I do." Step one. "There are dangerous beings about."
Beth scooped her shoulder-length hair behind her ear, motioning him east and falling into step beside him. "I'll pay you back," she stated proudly. "In two weeks--"
"There's no need to. It was my fault you were late."
"It was the vampire's fault...and my own. I was already late." She grimaced, as if admitting that was painful for her.
"You don't owe me anything." James rolled the stroller around a heave in the concrete.
"I don't need your charity," she snapped.
"It's not charity. It's a gift."
She shot him a wary look. "You don't even know me. Why would you give me a gift?"
"I didn't. I gave your daughters a gift."
Beth looked away, seemingly rattled by the concept.
James ached to take her hand and comfort her, but he had no doubts that she wouldn't allow that. It simply wasn't fair. The type of woman he wanted most was least likely to accept him in her life. Why couldn't he just be happy with the typical blade chasers?
He turned to a door as she did, subconsciously matching her movements. Beth unlocked it, and James removed the baby from the front seat, anticipating her dismissal at the door.
She turned back, looking at the stroller and then James, her expression pained. "I can get them--"
"I need to talk to you." He tried to state it calmly, but it came out as a plea.
She hesitated, glancing at the door nervously.
"Please. Have I done anything to prove myself untrustworthy?"
Beth looked as if she might say that he had. She sighed, shaking her head.
"It will only take a few minutes. You have my vow."
She lifted the other child and pushed the door wide. "Park the stroller beneath the mail slots," she instructed, heading for the stairs without a backward glance.
The baby in his arms yawned widely and snuggled into his shoulder, and James bit back a laugh. Even if Beth refused his bid for a relationship, this moment was priceless to him.
He followed her up the stairs and into a cramped apartment. Beth breezed through the front room and into the kitchen, removing the baby's coat and bonnet and setting her in a playpen. She turned on a pot of water already set on the stove. She peeled off her own coat, revealing a trim body, maybe a touch on the thin side but still nicely rounded.
James took her hint, removing the coat and bonnet from his little charge. He glanced into the refrigerator as Beth opened it, then away to the baby in his arms, his heart aching as she stuffed her thumb in her mouth. There was little in the fridge, and what there was inside seemed to be primarily for the babies. He smoothed his hand in circles over her back and promised his protection silently.
"What did you need to talk to me about?" Beth asked, setting two glass bottles in the pot to heat.
His head spun. James had to make his continued presence a sensible move. "I want to offer you protection." He didn't stop to consider how he'd justify that to Carrick.
She went still, staring at the stovetop. "What does that mean?"
"You know what's out there, Beth. You know about the beasts."
Beth turned, looking at her girls in horror. "They'll come back?"
James cursed his inability to lie to her. As much as he'd like to lie to gain the advantage, it would be dishonorable, and he wouldn't do it. "Probably not, but anything is possible." After all, Veriel had fixated on Corwyn's mate. The thought of a beast doing the same with Beth made his stomach clench. "What I want to do is a simple thing--just an amulet and a blessing that keeps them from harming you."
She fingered the silver cross at her throat.
"As you saw tonight, it doesn't work. What I offer does." He paused, gauging the effects of his words on her. "For your girls. I offer them protection as well. If something happened to you--"
"Yes." Her voice was a strained whisper.
He sighed, relieved that she'd accepted his offer.
Beth stepped toward him, watching James pull the amulet from his jacket pocket. He settled it over her shoulders and cupped his hand behind her head, whispering the words of protection. He didn't hesitate, pressing his lips to her forehead, then releasing her immediately.
She stared at him, touching the spot he'd kissed, moving her mouth as if she couldn't decide what to ask first.
"It's required," he assured her.
Beth cleared her throat. "And this will work?"
"Guaranteed, as long as you keep the amulet next to your body."
"But the girls--"
"We typically pin them to the inside of a child's clothing until the age of four. Do you have spare diaper pins?"
"Yes. Of course." She retrieved two from a Life Savers stacked bowl set on the counter, offering them to him.
James accepted them, then stared at the sleepy baby in his arms. "I need to know your name, princess," he hinted.
Beth darkened. "You're holding Michelle. Melissa is in the playpen."
"Michelle. What a beautiful name for a princess."
* * * *
"What's troubling you, James?"
He ground his teeth at the sound of Carrick's voice, acknowledging that his moment of truth had come--literally.
"Oh, no. When one of you won't answer me, I know it's bad news." His grandfather settled on the couch across from James. "What is it? Did you lose a sacred weapon? Or break one? If you did, you're forging the new one. You know that's the house rule. Did you lose an amulet?"
"I--offered protection to...someone last night."
The old lord's bushy white brow rose in a way he hadn't seen since Kord Maher had delivered himself for judgment after spending the night with the Lord Farmer's daughter. "There was no feeding," he noted.
He shook his head, feeling his cheeks heat. "No. There was no feeding, Grandfather."
"Would you care to explain why you offered protection to someone who hadn't been fed upon?" The bitter edge in Carrick's voice spoke of punishment--or worse.
James prayed to Ani that his grandfather wouldn't revoke protection. He started to ask the same of Syth, then decided his house god being Stone god made Him a bad choice to ask for something so outrageous and added a second prayer to Ani. With a woman and children involved, surely She was a better choice to ask for aid. On a whim, he added a prayer to Tes. She was female and known for granting unusual wishes.
Carrick cleared his throat, demanding an answer.
"It was actually three amulets," James admitted. Maybe if I'm honest, Carrick will let them keep the amulets. Please, Ani--
"Three? You committed three amulets to persons who are not marked without my permission to do so?"
He nodded miserably.
"This tale had best amuse me, James."
He sighed. "It's a widow with two babies. She was attacked, and I couldn't... I can't bear to think of them unprotected."
Carrick stared at him, a look of calculation on his face. "Do you intend to take this woman as your mate? Do you have interest in it?"
"If she'll have me. I--I don't understand this feeling, Grandfather," he admitted. "I just met her, and I already ache to touch her, to soothe her, to--"
He laughed long and hard, wiping moisture from his eyes. "The right one is often like that. Just ask Kord about what the right one will do to a man." Carrick sobered. "Have you considered the difficulties of bringing human boys into a Warrior household? It might not be wise."
James chuckled in spite of the seriousness of the situation. If Carrick refused him... No. He wouldn't think about that. "They're girls. Twin girls, ten months old, the most beautiful I have ever seen, much like their mother."
The old man looked at him in shocked silence, no doubt remembering his sister and niece.
"Michelle and Melissa," James sighed, touching the shoulder Michelle had cuddled to, a smile curving his lips.
"A true treasure," Carrick croaked. "Never forget what a treasure they are."