May 2 2014 11:00am
Part of Me: Exclusive Excerpt
Shadow Shifters: Damaged Hearts—a deeply emotional, unforgettable New Adult paranormal romance series by A.C. Arthur about the men who are sworn to protect the females—human or otherwise—from the savage fury of his own nature…
Lidia Morales has always felt out of place. The one stable presence in her childhood has always been Brayden. Every major moment, every growing pain, everything in her life has been shared with him since they were little, so it makes sense to her that they will stay friends at college together. Until one night, emotions are revealed in a heated kiss, and Lidia’s world is turned upside down. Brayden has always been just a friend and she knows she should look somewhere else for love. But the memory of the passion between them is undeniable—and Brayden isn’t about to let her forget it. As trouble brews, Lidia may need Brayden more than she realized and Brayden will do whatever it takes to convince her that they are soulmates…bonded for life, in Part of Me by A.C. Arthur.
Get a sneak peek of A.C. Arthur's Part of Me (available May 13, 2014), a Shadow Shifters: Damaged Hearts novella, with an exclusive excerpt of Chapters 1.
Three months ago
He kissed me.
Brayden Sanchez kissed me, Lidia Morales.
No, to be fair, it wasn’t just a kiss, it was like he was making love to my mouth. If that’s at all possible. I’m almost positive it is, because that’s exactly how I felt when it was happening.
We’d been studying for finals at the end of the spring semester of our junior year. Brayden was smart and the best fighter I knew, but he didn’t like sitting in class and hated the idea of written tests to gauge what someone did or didn’t know. Brayden was definitely more of a physical type of guy. I was getting the full meaning of those words.
“Life’s about applying what you know in everyday scenarios. Calculus is not going to help me in the war against the rogues,” he’d complained when I’d first mentioned I wanted to go to college. I understood because I knew how much he’d detested the tutors we had. The only saving grace was that we were traveling the world, having all types of adventurous escapades in between the schoolwork.
In the end, he’d enrolled in Faust University with me. I think the idea of spending four years in lovely Pacifica, California was what finally won him over.
A part of me knew it was a mistake when the decision was made. Brayden and I should have parted ways amicably when we had the chance. I should have continued on to school to pursue the goal of teaching as I’d always planned, the one dream in life I felt like I could actually reach. The one goal in this messy, split life I’d been forced to live that kept me going. And Brayden should have been allowed to do the same thing. He should have headed straight to Havenway to train with the East Coast Faction Leader, to become the Shadow Shifter warrior he’d always wanted to be. Then none of this would have ever happened.
Unfortunately, with all the added traits shadows possessed, re-writing the past wasn’t one of them.
So, we’d been studying for hours and Brayden had just convinced me to have a glass of wine to relax a little. He could tell I was tense because math was not my favorite subject and maybe because I’d just tossed the textbook to the other end of the couch.
“Calm down, you’ll ace this test just like you’ve done all the others in the previous semesters. You’re brilliant,” he’d said, taking a seat beside me, extending the glass my way.
I’d paused with the complaint I was about to rattle off because there was something different about the way he was looking at me. The slow way his arm extended toward me, holding onto the glass a moment longer than necessary when I already had my fingers on the stem. We’d touched before, hell, when we were fifteen and in the rainforests of Sierra Leone and the only shower was a waterfall at the base of a mountain, we’d stripped and bathed there on more than one occasion. Of course, I’d been flat-chested with acne and dirty hair and his two brothers were also with us, so that couldn’t possibly have counted as being intimate.
Still, Brayden and I had known each other for what seemed like all our lives—or at least all of my life since I didn’t really start living until I met the Sanchez family. That means Brayden was like my older brother—him, Aidan, and Caleb. They all acted like they owned me, yet were extremely irritated by me at the same time. And they had sworn to kill any guy that even looked cross-eyed at me. Those are all threats brothers make.
Except Brayden wasn’t looking at me like a brother.
I knew this look. I’d seen it before on guys I went out with, namely Frankie Morrison, the jerk I gave my virginity to after chugging down one too many Blue Moons and popcorn.
Brayden’s dark-eyed gaze—the one I’d always thought was a little on the foreboding side, rather than sexy—had latched onto mine and held me in a vise grip. I couldn’t move, couldn’t think past his eyes and couldn’t get that glass up to my lips to take the sip I desperately needed.
“Brilliant and beautiful,” he’d said, his voice lowering to a deep whisper.
“I need a drink,” I said, gulping my own spit to assuage my dry throat and giving a little tug to the wineglass he was still holding onto.
He released the glass and I chugged that wine like it was grape juice, dipping my head back to be sure I broke that godforsaken eye hold he had on me. When I was finished Brayden had moved closer, so close I smacked him right across the nose with my glass as I brought it down from my mouth.
He frowned slightly and I laughed to sort of break the “oh-my-god” moment that was hanging around. It didn’t work.
“I’ve gotta do this,” he said, his face steadily inching closer to mine. “I’m gonna die right now if I don’t taste you.”
Whoa, what the hell? Really, Brayden? Are you really sitting on this couch acting like we’re long-lost lovers, or maybe new lovers on that date that leads directly to the bedroom? No, not with me, not with your best friend in the whole freakin’ world, you are not going to play me with your sexy-charming-heavily-accented-voice. Not today.
But yeah, he did and when I say Brayden can kiss any female right out of her panties, I mean every word.
His lips rained down on mine like a sultry summer storm. A soft swipe at first to let me know he was there and to let my body know this was definitely going down with or without its permission. The next contact was with a little more force, his tongue coming out to play a little taste testing. Then he grabbed the back of my head, tilting my head one way and his the other and went in for the kill.
I swear I felt like I was drowning, in his scent, his touch, his taste. Damn, it was all I could do to open my mouth and at least try to act like I wasn’t a gigantic idiot when it came to being kissed. Although, it was quickly apparent that I’d never, ever, been kissed like this. I mean, the whole licking at my lips before delving inside to tangle with my tongue was breathtaking. So much so I hurriedly wrapped my arms around his neck—dropping that damned glass onto the couch—and opened my mouth wider so I could have more.
His shoulders were just awesome. I know I’d seen them before and I’d even touched him, more times than I could count, but my fingers never grasped him like this, felt the sinewy muscle right at my fingertips. There’s no point in lying, I pressed into him hard, rubbing my boobs against his chest, loving the hell out of the way his fingers held the back of my neck so firmly while the other hand raked through my hair. In a minute I was probably going to straddle him, or moan or do something much geekier.
Instead, I pulled back.
Like he was a live electric wire and I’d foolishly touched him while wet. I jerked back so fast I almost flipped over the arm of the chair. Shaking fingers flew to my lips as if I could wipe away the sting of that kiss that still had my lips pulsating.
“You feel it,” Brayden said, out of breath, his dark brown eyes searching my face frantically. “I know you do, Lid, I know you feel this too.”
About three or four words into his comments I was shaking my head, denying this ever happened, refusing to believe he’d invaded our safe and cherished friendship with such a foolish and absurd notion like kissing. What was he thinking?
“Bray,” I started but didn’t really know how to finish.
“No. Don’t you dare lie to me, Lidia. We’re so past the lying stage now. Don’t even think about it, you hear me!” He wasn’t happy, his anger vibrated throughout his toned body, his biceps shaking as he continued to stare at me.
Next he’d get up and he’d pace, then he’d rake his fingers through his raven-black hair and try to take as many deep breaths as it took to calm the hell down. Somehow I sensed that the calm and authoritative Brayden that normally prevailed wasn’t in charge here. The animal in him was struggling to break free as evidenced by the ticking of that muscle in his jaw. The light goatee he’d started growing couldn’t hide that movement, not from me since I knew what to look for where Brayden was concerned.
Plus, I knew personally about the animal trying to emerge because I was feeling the same way, only I hated it. I didn’t want to be this way with Brayden, didn’t want to feel like he could be that one for me, that other half that would complete the me that was created in that damned forest. I simply couldn’t go there, not physically and definitely not mentally. The thought alone was too difficult to comprehend, fear struggling to dominate me. The bottom line was that if I gave in to being with Brayden, I would be accepting the shadow shifter in me. I would be accepting that I was half human, half jaguar with the same genetic make-up as the man who had destroyed my life, betrayed his tribe, and killed humans and shifters alike just for the hell of it.
For me, for everyone involved, that simply was not an option.
Brayden was right about one thing, I’d known this was coming. I’d seen it in his eyes, felt it in the way he talked to me, or stared at me for too long, or touched me when it was really unnecessary. I could just tell we were headed in that direction.
And I’d been too stupid to stop it.
I’d been as reckless and unpredictable as the Elders had said I would become. I was falling into my uncle’s footsteps, becoming the rogue shifter because I didn’t step into line with what I was now presuming was Brayden’s plan for us.
But I wasn’t my uncle. I wasn’t a rogue shifter and I wasn’t going to get sucked up into the romantic and totally hot-as-hell world of Brayden Sanchez.
I just wasn’t.
“We’re not doing this,” I’d told him before standing up and packing up all my books.
His reaction was quick, his words almost desperate as he stood with me. “Don’t go. We can talk about this,” he insisted.
“No. We can’t,” I told him. “We will never talk about this again and it will never happen again. Do you hear me, Brayden? This,” I yelled while moving my arm back and forth motioning to him and me, because my nipples were so hard they ached, my mouth watering for another one of those steamy kisses. “This will never happen again!” I’d said it so empathically Brayden had actually winced.
He grabbed me then, his strong hands gripping my shoulders, pulling me closer to him as he stared down at me.
“Words won’t wish this away, Lidia. You’ve been trying that for way too long. This, as you call it, is inevitable.”
He hadn’t yelled, had actually spoken through clenched teeth, but the intensity of the words was just the same. They vibrated in the air, filling me with such trepidation I wasn’t sure if running was actually an option or not.
I shook my head, answering him and yet not really doing so. “No,” I told him, determined to stick by my decision. “No, this will not happen. I can stop it. I will stop it!” I insisted, pulling out of his grasp and turning away from him.
He said my name so simply, so familiarly, I couldn’t help but stop and for endless seconds, consider, wonder.
Then I was moving, grabbing my purse and books and heading for the door.
“Don’t do this, Lidia. You’ll regret it,” he warned.
I was already regretting so much. It was time to make things right, to do the right thing and walk away. It was the only choice I had, the only way to keep us all—especially Brayden—safe.
“I won’t let you do this.” He finished that sentence with a growl, low and deep in his chest.
The sound echoed through the otherwise quiet room and something inside me stirred. It awakened and stretched, began a little purr of its own. I yanked that doorknob so hard and so fast I probably could have torn it straight off. Then I was gone, getting the hell out of his apartment faster than I’d ever moved before. The next day I took my finals and boarded the first plane I could to the summer educational conference I’d already registered for in Los Angeles. And for the first time in longer than I could remember, I didn’t talk to Brayden. Not that day or the days immediately following.
His hadn’t been the first voice I heard when I woke up, either on cell phone or at the door of my apartment yelling about needing breakfast. I hadn’t seen him a thousand times throughout the day or had at least two of my three daily meals with him. And at night when I lay in bed staring up at the ceiling, too afraid of the nightmares to fall asleep, Brayden hadn’t called my cell phone or even sent me a text to calm my nerves, to whisper that I’d be okay, that nothing done in dreams could ever hurt me. His warning that I’d regret leaving had echoed in my head every day, several times a day. And in the end, my friend, my confidant hadn’t been there to comfort me, to forgive me, to simply be. That’s what I’d missed most of all.
Brayden said he’d be here even though he hadn’t registered for any classes this semester. He’d even rented a new apartment without the benefit of a roommate to help him pay for it, which perplexed me but I’d vowed to wait until I’d seen him before I started interrogating him. As for me, my schedule was full, with eighteen credits and a part-time job at the bookstore to help with the costs my meager scholarships didn’t meet.
I’d walked back and forth through the main hall of the café where students, some anxious and some not so much, milled around getting dinner and catching up with other students they hadn’t seen over the summer. My two new roommates were somewhere around here collectively ignoring me as I told them there was somebody I needed to find ASAP. I guess they’d assumed it was a guy, as in a guy that I was involved with, but it was just Brayden. Just my best friend.
Who was MIA once again. Slipping my cell from the front pocket of my jeans I was just about to dial his number for the billionth time when a high-pitched giggle caught my attention. I turned to look over at a table about twenty feet away, near the double doors that led to the outside eating area. For whatever reason my senses had been on overdrive today so I felt a little edgy and kind of overstimulated, that’s probably why I could hear this laughter clear across the room and above all the other chatter going on around me. But I couldn’t think any more about that because the person who was doing the laughing was doing it again. And if the shrill, annoying-as-hell sound didn’t make me want to scream, the fact that she was sitting her pert little ass in Brayden’s lap did!
I was not jealous. This is what I repeated to myself the entire time walking over to approach them. I was not jealous that Brayden had a girlfriend, or a friend, or a slut, take your pick. He was certainly free to date whomever he pleased, as was I. But when we’d spent the last three months apart, each of those nights of which I suffered through completely alone, and I’d been texting him like crazy this past week to find out when I would actually see him again, no, he needed to be running to see me, not hugged up with this, this … person!
“Hey,” I managed when I was finally in front of Brayden and the untitled female. “What’s up?”
He’d been sitting with his back pressed against the wall behind him, his legs spread, arms full of the prettily smiling brunette. His head had been down low, like he’d either been listening intently to something the brunette was saying—most likely not—or staring down at all the cleavage she had so boldly on display—more likely. At the sound of my voice or maybe it was the incessantly loud beating of my heart, Brayden lifted his head slowly, those dark, mesmerizing eyes taking me in with a careful gaze.
“Hey, Lidia,” was all he said, the jerk.
He’d shaved the beard and mustache so his face looked even younger than he normally did, but everything else was the same, those hypnotic deep brown eyes, that strong jaw, and dammit, those thick eyebrows and long lashes that I’d always hated him for.
“You comfortable?” I asked trying not to look at the female. My entire body vibrated with this weird energy, like I wanted to do something, needed to break free and…no! I almost screamed the word out loud as I realized exactly what I was feeling. It was a warning, a sense of danger that another part of me was responding to, only I wouldn’t let it.
The Bubbly Brunette chose that moment to speak. “He is and so am I.”
Our gazes connected, mine and hers, and held. Jealousy or warning, I couldn’t tell the difference, the scent of rage filling my nostrils as I attempted to breathe myself calm. I thought about counting sheep or no, maybe daggers, in my mind. Brayden always said I was impulsive and a little on the violent side, so I opted not to add credence to his critique, and chanced a small smile.
“That’s great. I’m Lidia, by the way. I didn’t catch your name,” I spoke in the most cordial voice I was able to conjure.
“I’m Kyra and he’s just too sexy to resist,” she added with a giggle and another snuggle, this time burying her face in the crook of Brayden’s neck.
And that was it for him. Without so much as another word or warning, Brayden was untwining her arms from around his neck and pushing her as gently as he could off his lap so he could stand. It was about time!
“Lidia’s an old friend,” he was saying as Kyra’s big brown eyes stared up at him in question. “And Kyra’s a new friend,” he told me with a half smile.
The half smile that I’d missed more than I was willing to admit.
“Hello, new friend Kyra,” I replied, only to receive a barely tolerant up and down glance from the girl that was a few inches shorter than my five-foot-five stance.
Kyra waved her fingers in my general direction and gave a half-assed “Hey,” before going up on tiptoe to kiss Brayden’s unpuckered lips.
The only reason I didn’t roll my eyes at the entire display was because I refused to stoop to her level or to give Brayden something to gloat about. I was so angry with him at this moment I wanted to punch something. And he knew it, the smug, infuriating jerk knew that I was ready to peel that chick off of him the moment I saw them. Blame it on the temper I’d never been able to tame. Just another part of me that mirrored my uncle the traitor.
Or was there something else? An unknown in this cafeteria putting me on full alert?
“Are you counting backward from one hundred or counting daggers instead?” he asked with a chuckle, nudging me on the shoulder like he used to do when we were younger.
I punched him in his shoulder with much more force. “Neither, for your information.”
He laughed then pulled me to him for one of his terrifically warm and comforting hugs. Even though I was still mad at him, I embraced him because it was what I was used to, what I’d missed all summer.
“You doing okay?” he asked.
“Fine. Why do you ask?”
“Because you’re holding me so tight I can barely breathe,” he said with a chuckle.
“Oh,” I said, thoroughly embarrassed now, and pulling away from him quickly. “I’m fine. Just haven’t seen you in a while.”
Brayden nodded. “Your choice, remember?”
I so did not want to go back over what had happened that day in his apartment or what we’d said to each other. I just wanted to put all that behind us.
“You let me go,” was my immediate retort. I’d thought about it all summer. He hadn’t tried to stop me from walking out and hadn’t come to get me. I wasn’t sure what the politically correct way to feel about that was but I knew for a fact I didn’t like it.
“Never,” was his deep-toned reply. His entire body tensed then, his face going somber, his eyes darkening.
Heat rose instantly from the pit of my stomach, circling up to my breasts, causing my mouth to water. I took a deep breath, counting as slowly as I could as I released it.
“Anyway, I applied for that internship I told you about,” I told him, knowing that changing the subject was my only saving grace. “Hopefully, I’ll get it.”
“You’re really serious about teaching?” he asked, a frown marring an otherwise pretty good-looking face.
He nodded, even though he didn’t agree. Brayden Sanchez was the son of dedicated and loyal Topètenia Shadow Shifters. His parents, Gil and Marta Sanchez, were ambassadors for the tribe and traveled the world in an effort to keep all the Shadow Shifter tribes united. The differences between shape shifters and humans should have been enough to bond the five tribes together forever, but as with every race, there had been dissension. Hell, there’d been dissension within my own family so I could sing that tune all night long.
Instead, I preferred to be thankful for what I had and to look excitedly toward the future—the one I would make on my own. So I loved Gil and Marta Sanchez for taking me in when everyone, including my own family was turning me away, and for teaching me what it meant to be a Shadow Shifter and for not judging me like the rest of the tribe had when my uncle had defected. I was also thankful to them for allowing me to grow up with their three sons, the brothers I never had and three of the closest people in this world to me. Unfortunately, with all that love and encouragement surrounding me, I was still going to end up disappointing them.
“We’ve been over this before, Brayden,” I said trying to reason with him. “I’m not like you and your family.”
“You’re exactly like us,” he said adamantly. “Exactly like you were trained to be.”
I shook my head, not wanting to go down this road with him again, especially after the time we’d been apart. I missed my friend, the only person I could really talk to and laugh with. The other females, the humans that had been with me at the conference were either shallow and not very smart, or extremely smart and rigid. I’d enjoyed the experience and the knowledge I obtained from the seminars, but I’d missed Brayden and our easy friendship like crazy.
“Let’s grab a pizza and get out of here,” I suggested. “I’m dying to see your new place.”
“Why? There’s no extra bedroom for you,” he teased, reaching out and taking the books I’d just purchased from the campus bookstore from my arms.
“Oh please, I have no problem sleeping on the couch,” I said, falling into step beside him as we made our way through the crowd and out of the café. “Or putting you on the couch instead.”
“Hey, you’re the one who likes this college life so much. You wanted to stay in the dorm and blend in with the rest of the students,” Brayden continued, his deep voice filling the night air once we were outside.
“And I’m not complaining. But when I need to get away, it’s good to know I have someplace to go,” I told him.
Brayden stopped walking and turned so that he was now standing in front of me. He lifted a hand, tracing a finger along the line of my jaw. “I am always here for you, Lidia. Always.”
“I know,” I replied, my voice sounding really small after the intensity of his words. I did know that he was there for me, had always been. After this summer I realized just how much I depended on that knowledge. “That’s what big brothers are for,” I finished and pushed past him, heading to where I figured his truck was parked in the student lot.
He’d been standing too close, looking at me too tenderly and I’d felt like I did when we were back in his old apartment that day, right after he’d kissed me. I never wanted to feel like that again. Ever, because that was the one thing that could destroy all that I’d worked for, all that I wanted to be.
I wasn’t going to let that happen.
Copyright © 2014 by A.C. Arthur
Learn more or pre-order a copy of Part of Me by A.C. Arthur, available on May 13, 2014:
A.C. Arthur was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland where she currently lives with her husband and three children. An active imagination and a love for reading encouraged her to begin writing in high school and she hasn’t stopped since. Her debut novel Object of His Desire was written when a picture of an Italian villa sparked the idea of an African-American/Italian hero. Determined to bring a new edge to romance, she continues to develop intriguing plots, sensual love scenes, racy characters, and fresh dialogue—thus keeping the readers on their toes!