Jennifer Ashley

Excerpt: Mate Claimed

Book 4: Shifters Unbound

Chapter One

Iona smelled him long before she saw him—Eric Warden, the alpha Feline who ran the local Shiftertown, who’d decided to make half-Shifter Iona Duncan’s life hell.

She loped down the desert canyon, rock grating on her paws. The Nevada night was warm though it was early winter, the sky a riot of stars, the glow of the city far behind. Out here, Iona could be what she was meant to be—a wildcat, a Feline Shifter, running free.

For some reason, Eric wanted to end that.

Catch me if you can, Feline.

Last night, after her half sister’s bridal shower, Iona had stayed out until dawn with Nicole and about twenty friends—all human. They’d gone to a human bar, no Shifters allowed, thank God. They’d liberated the bar of plenty of margaritas before limping home in the light of early morning. Iona had snatched a couple hours of sleep before she’d dragged herself to work.

The frenzy of the night out followed by the hangover of the day triggered Iona’s need to shift. After work, Iona had driven her red pickup out to her favorite spot in the middle of the desert, off-roading half an hour to get there. She’d barely shed her clothes before her wildcat had taken over.

And now Eric was following her.

He pounded behind her, a powerhouse Shifter, his wildcat more snow leopard than anything else. Sleek, strong, cunning. Feline Shifters were a mixture of all wildcats—lion, leopard, jaguar, cheetah, tiger, and others—but most Shifters tended toward a certain type.

Iona was mostly panther, with black fur to match the hair she had while human. Her panther was long-legged, sure-footed, and a good jumper. This was her territory, and she laughed with glee as she left Eric far behind.

She dodged across a dry wash, kicking up dust, and scrambled into the rocky crevices on the other side. She knew by scent how far she was from Area 51, a place guarded by men with SUVs and rifles. Shifters could escape their detection if they wanted to, but the other direction, east and a little north of here, was safer. Iona hopped from one sandstone ledge to the next, her paws scrabbling a little in the gravel.

She loved this. The joy of being in wild country nearly impossible for humans to reach was heady. This is what I’m meant to be.

Damned if Eric didn’t follow right after her, faster than she’d thought he would. Iona crested the ridge at the top of the canyon and kept going.

She ran along a ledge and dropped down the other side of the ridge. Before she got to the bottom, she slunk into a shallow cave she knew was there from previous exploration. Anyone watching from the top would see only that she’d vanished.

Eric wouldn’t need to see her to find her, though. He’d scent her, but why make it easy for him?

Ever since Eric had spotted her in Coolers last spring, one of the few clubs that allowed in Shifters, he’d tracked her. Stalked her, Iona corrected.

Damned stubborn, hotter-than-hell Shifter with the green eyes—he’d followed her when she went out at night, sometimes showing up at her house or coming after her on her runs. She’d spot him here and there throughout the day, when she went to work or ran errands or drove out to a building site. Protecting her, Eric said. Driving her insane, was more like it.

The fact that Iona was half Shifter was a deep, dark secret her mother and half sister had kept for thirty-two years. Eric’s interest in her was dangerous, could expose her as Shifter, and once that happened, her happy life would be over.

But Eric’s scent had triggered something in Iona from the moment he’d sat down next to her in the club’s dark corner and told her he knew what Iona was. He’d smelled of sweat and the night, and a musk that had made everything in her alert and aware.

His scent was stronger now, overlaid with that of his wildcat. He was coming.

Iona flattened herself into the black shadows at the back of the cave, but Eric was at the entrance, his leopard filling the opening. She faced him, ears flat against her head, her fur rising on her neck.

Eric didn’t move. Dominants didn’t need to show teeth or make any noise to tell another Shifter who was in charge. You knew.

He was far larger and more powerful than a natural snow leopard, his pelt creamy white and branded with a black jagged pattern. His eyes, fixed on her, were jade green.

Iona’s wildcat was more slender than Eric’s but no smaller, though it would be an interesting contest to see whether she matched him in strength. The biggest difference between them, though, was that Eric wore a silver and black Collar, and Iona did not.

Eric rose on his hind legs until his head nearly touched the roof of the cave. At the same time, his fur and cat limbs flowed into human bones and flesh. In a few seconds, a man stood in the leopard’s place, a tall, muscular, naked male who made Iona’s heart pound.

His face was hard and square, his chocolate brown hair cut short. A black tattoo swirled around his large shoulder and trailed down his arm in a jagged line. The tattoo wasn’t magical—Shifters didn’t need tatts. Eric just liked it.

His green eyes saw everything. There was no escaping that gaze once it fixed on you, even across a packed dance floor in a Las Vegas club. Iona still remembered the burn of his stare across the room; Eric, the first person in Iona’s life outside her family who’d looked at her and recognized her as Shifter.

Even through her worry and anger, Iona had to concede that Eric was delectable. He put to shame all the guys who’d tried last night to get her to dance with them.

What was between Eric’s legs put them to shame too. The man was hung.

“You can’t keep this up,” Eric said. His voice, deep and fine, with the barest touch of Scots, had lately started invading her dreams.

Iona gave him a snarl to let him know he didn’t worry her. Which was bullshit. He could take her in a heartbeat and both of them knew it.

Eric took one step forward. She crouched, waiting, letting him take another step, and another.

Once he’d cleared the entrance to the cave, Iona leapt up and sprang past him. His leopard she couldn’t outrun, but she could outrun him in her animal form while he remained human. She barreled out of the cave and onto the rocks . . .

And found two hundred pounds of leopard on top of her, pinning her to the ledge.

How the hell did he shift that fast? Shifting took a while for Iona, and it could be painful. Eric flowed into his wildcat so smoothly it made her sick.

His growl became bad tempered as Iona struggled. His ears went flat, and he locked his teeth around her throat.

Fur protected Iona from the prick of his fangs, but she panicked. He could kill her right now, rip out her throat or slice open her belly. The panther sensed his strength—a fight with him would be tough. She couldn’t get away—he was too fast.

Iona shifted. She didn’t want to, but some instinct told her he wouldn’t hurt her if she became a human. She felt her claws change to fingers and toes, her pelt fade and withdraw to become human flesh.

Eric lifted his long teeth from her throat, but he didn’t do anything to stop her shifting. He waited and watched until Iona became a human woman, one with a large, soft-furred snow leopard draped over her bare body.

That large, soft-furred, snow leopard suddenly became a man. One minute Iona had a big kitty lying on her, the next, a strong, naked human male pinned her to the ground.

She struggled, but Eric trapped her wrists and held them against the cold gravel. He wanted her to look away as he stared her down, but she refused to. Somehow Iona knew that if she ever did look away, she’d lose—not only now, but always.

“I told you to call me when you needed to go running,” he growled.

“You follow me anyway. Why should I bother?”

“I scented you fighting the shift even as you drove away. It’s getting harder, isn’t it?”

Iona tried to ignore the stab of fear his words gave her. “Why can’t you leave me alone? If anyone finds out I’m Shifter . . .”

She knew exactly what they’d do. The human Shifter bureau would slap a Collar on her without listening to her protests, strip Iona of all her rights, and keep her in quarantine before releasing her to whatever Shifter they assigned to keep her under control. Three guesses as to who that Shifter would be.

And who the hell knew what they’d do to Iona’s mother, who’d kept the fact that Iona was half Shifter quiet all this time.

“I can’t leave you alone. You’re in my jurisdiction, my responsibility. And you’re losing control, aren’t you?”

Iona shivered with more than anger. His long body was hard on hers, muscles gleaming with sweat in the moonlight. Eric’s living strength made the wild thing in her want to respond.

“I was hung over,” she said. “I’m not like this every day.”

Eric lowered his head and inhaled, his nose touching her throat. “You will be soon. Your mating need is high and getting stronger.”

That need pounded through her, tried to make Iona’s body rise to his. A male, ready for you—take him!

“What I do is none of your business,” Iona managed to say. “Leave me the hell alone. My life has been fine so far without you in it.”

“But I’m in it now.” His voice was deep and rumbling, almost a purr. The tattoo that wound down his arm kept drawing her gaze, and she so much wanted to touch it . . .

For Eric’s part, he was barely holding on to his self-control. Iona’s scent was that of a female Feline who’d reached her fertile years, a little over thirty by human standards, a few years past cub by Shifter.

This female Feline didn’t know how to control her pheromones, didn’t realize she was broadcasting her availability to every Shifter male far and wide. She might as well hold up a flashing sign.

Good thing Eric was so disciplined, still mourning his mate lost long ago, so uninterested in mating. Right?

Or he’d be hard as a rock, wanting to say to hell with it and take her. They were alone in the middle of nowhere, and Eric was within his rights to take whatever stray adult female wandered into his territory.

He didn’t necessarily have to mate-claim her. As clan leader as well as pride leader, he could father cubs on a lone female belonging to no pride or clan if he wanted to. For the good of the clan, for the strength of his pride. So he could say.

But those had been the rules in the wild. Shifters were tamer, now, civilized. Living together in a community, in harmony. And all that crap.

Eric’s instincts said, Screw the rules. She’s unmated and unclaimed. By rights, she’s fair game, and I found her. That makes her mine.

Wouldn’t that be sweet? Iona Duncan had a face that was pure Celtic, her hair black as the night sky, her eyes the light ice blue of her ancestors. Shifters had been created about the time the Nordic invaders would have been subduing Celts in northern Scotland, and some of that mixture had gotten into Iona.

Now her soft but strong body was under his, and her blue eyes held longing, oceans of it.

“Does it hurt?” Eric asked in a gentler tone.

“Having a big Shifter male resting his weight on my wrists? I’d say yes.”

Eric wanted to laugh. He liked the challenge in her, liked that she wasn’t cringing, timid, and submissive. Untrained, yes; terrified, no.

“I mean the mating need,” Eric said. “It’s rising in you, and you can’t stop it. That’s why you’re out here, why you’ve been running around like a crazy thing. You want to be wild, to taste the wind. To hunt. To feel the fear in you flow to the innocent creatures out there, to make them fear you.”

Iona stopped squirming, her eyes going still. Eric read the hunger in her, the need to find a male, to mate in wild frenzy for days. Iona wasn’t stopped by a Collar. Her instincts would flow like fire. Untamed.

Eric’s own need rose in response. He wanted to kiss that fire, to taste the freedom in her that was now only a memory to him.

He nuzzled the line of her hair, already knowing her scent, already familiar with it.

“I’ll take care of you,” he said. “You’ll become part of my pride, and I’ll look after you. Me and my sister and my son. We’ll take care of you from now on.”

Iona’s glare returned. “I don’t want to be part of your pride. They’d put that Collar on me.” Her frenzied gaze went to the chain fused to Eric’s neck, the Celtic knot resting on his throat. “It’s painful, isn’t it? When the Collar goes on?”

“Yes.” Eric couldn’t lie. He remembered the agony when the Collar had locked around his throat, every second of it, though it had been twenty years ago now. The Collars hurt anew whenever a Shifter’s violent nature rose within him—the Collar shocked so hard it knocked said Shifter flat on his ass for a while.

“Why would you want me to experience that?” Iona asked. “You say you want to take care of me, but you want me to go through taking the Collar?”

“No, I don’t.” And if Eric did things right, she wouldn’t have to wear a Collar, ever.

The urge to take Iona far away, to hide her somewhere from prying eyes, to protect her from the world was making him crazy. Protect the mate was the instinct that drove all males.

Eric caressed her wrists where he held them down. “If you don’t acknowledge the Shifter, if you don’t learn how to control what’s going on inside you, you’re going to go feral.”

“Feral?” Her sable brows drew down. “What the hell does that mean?”

“It means what it sounds like. The beast in you takes over, and you forget what it is to be human, even in your human form. You’ll live only to kill and to mate. You’ll start resenting your family for trying to keep you home. You’ll try to get away from them. You might even hurt them.”

Iona looked stunned. “I’d never do that.”

“You won’t mean to, but you will. You can keep them safe if you learn how to be Shifter and live with Shifters. I won’t let humans know anything about you until the Collar is on you, and you’re ready.”

“My point is that humans should never have to know I’m Shifter. No one’s ever suspected, but they will if an asshole Shifter keeps following me around.”

Eric clamped down on her wrists, at the end of his patience. “If you go feral, they might not bother Collaring you. They’ll just shoot you like an animal, and your mother will go to prison for not reporting your existence. Is that really what you want?”

He felt her fear reaction, but Iona kept up her glare. “I’m half human. Won’t that keep me from going feral?”

“Not necessarily. Sometimes the human side helps. Sometimes it doesn’t.”

“I’m not giving up my entire life to live with you in a ghetto because you say I might go crazy,” Iona said. “I’ll risk it.”

Eric growled. “I can’t let you go on living without protection.”

Her eyes widened. “How do you plan to protect me? Abduct me and lock me in your house? What would the human police say to that?”

Taking her home and keeping her there was exactly what Eric wanted to do. At any other time, he’d simply do it. Iona was getting out of control, and she needed help.

But Shiftertown might not be the safest place for her at the moment, now that the idiot human government had decided—to save money—to shut down a northern Nevada Shiftertown and relocate all those Shifters to Eric’s Shiftertown. The humans, in their ignorance, had decided that the new Shifters would simply be absorbed under Eric’s leadership.

What the humans didn’t understand—in spite of Eric talking himself blue to explain—was that Shifters of both Shiftertowns were used to a certain hierarchy and couldn’t change it overnight. The other Shiftertown leader was being forced to step down a few rungs under Eric, which wasn’t going over well, especially since that leader was a Feline-hating Lupine.

Eric at least had persuaded the humans to let him meet the other leader, Graham McNeil, face-to-face before the new Shifters moved down here. Eric had found McNeil to be a disgruntled, old-fashioned Shifter, furious that the humans were forcing him to submit to Eric’s rule.

McNeil was going to be trouble. He already had been, demanding more meetings with humans without Eric, insisting that Eric’s Shifters got turned out of their houses and crammed in with others so McNeil’s Shifters wouldn’t have to wait for the new housing to be built.

McNeil was going to challenge for leadership—Eric had known that before the man opened his mouth. McNeil’s Shiftertown had been all Lupine, and his Lupines were less than thrilled to learn that they had to adapt to living with bears and Felines.

And in the middle of all this, a young, fertile female with the rising need to mate was running around loose and unprotected.

Iona struggled to sit up again. It went against Eric’s every instinct to lift himself from the cushion of her body, but he did it.

She leaned against the rock wall and scraped her hair back from her face. Goddess, she was sexy, bare breasted in the moonlight, lifting midnight hair from her sharp-boned face.

Naked and beautiful, filling Eric’s brain with wanting. And if he did this right, she might provide the answer to some of his Shiftertown problems.

“I was coming to see you tonight for a reason,” Eric said. “Not just to track you down. I came to ask you to have Duncan Construction bid on the housing project to expand Shiftertown.”

Iona stared at him in surprise, letting go of the hair she’d been smoothing. “Why would I want to do that?”

“Because I need someone I can trust to build these houses. Shifter houses aren’t just places for Shifters to live. I need them constructed in a way that’s best for Shifters. It’s important.”

She looked curious in spite of her caution. “What do you mean, in a way that’s best for Shifters?”

Eric couldn’t explain—yet. He’d have to wait before he revealed to her that Shifter houses didn’t simply hold Shifter families. They held secrets of Shifter clans that humans could never know about.

Even McNeil would need to protect the secrets of his pack, probably why the man wanted to move into the existing Shifter houses—they already had the necessary spaces. Eric had planned to modify the new houses the same way he and his Shifters had modified the old houses, a little bit, over time, so the humans never realized they were doing it. But Graham’s Shifters didn’t have the patience, and it would be smarter to do it right away. Using Iona’s company and guiding her through the process could get it done quicker, and help both her and Shiftertown.

“I can’t tell you until you win the contract.” Eric said. He met her gaze, not disguising anything in his. “Please.”

Chapter Two

Iona blinked, for the first time looking at him in more than frustration, anger, or crazed need. “Are you saying you need my help?”

“Yes.” He said it simply, no shame attached.

“And what do I get in return? You leave me alone?”

Eric felt his grin spread across his face. “I can’t leave you alone, love. You’re unmated and unclaimed, in my territory. I need to look after you. But I think we can come up with an agreement.”

“Oh, really? The moment I enter your Shiftertown, all the Shifters there will know what I am. How will that help me?”

“Your sister or your mother can be the on-site manager. You never have to leave your office if you don’t want to.”

Iona wrapped her arms around her knees, gathering herself in. “Never leave my office? Never go to Shiftertown? Seriously?”

“Seriously. I’d come to you.”

“Huh. I’ll think about it.”

Eric moved to her side again but kept himself from touching her. “I really do need you. And you need me. Think of it as an opportunity to better understand your Shifter side.”

“I don’t think I want to understand my Shifter side.”

“Yes, you do. You’re going wild, and you need to learn how to contain it.”

Iona shivered, looking away, and Eric’s protective need sprang to life again. He wanted to fold her in his arms, take her home, keep her safe.

When Iona looked up again, the fear in her eyes was stark. “What do I do?”

Eric leaned into her, inhaling her ripe, sensual scent. “I’ll help you through this. But you have to trust me.”

Iona went still, though he sensed her body reacting to his. She wanted him, and everything in Eric knew it, and responded.

“You have to give me reason to trust you,” she said.

“No, sweetheart. Trust means believing in me even when you don’t understand.”

Eric nuzzled her again, and Iona let him, not pulling away. He’d scent-marked her the night he’d met her, but a scent-marking was not the same as a mate-claim. Eric could scent-mark his children, his siblings, and anyone else he needed to, and it meant that Iona was under Eric’s protection.

Any Shifter coming across her would scent Eric and know he’d need to deal with the Shiftertown leader if he messed with her. Even Graham would understand that, though whether Graham would leave her alone was another question.

Eric breathed his scent onto her again as he brushed the line of her neck, renewing the mark. Goddess, she was sweet. She smelled clean like a mountain meadow, and her underlying scent was warm with wanting.

He made himself sit up and push away from her, rising in one move. Before Iona could scramble to her feet, he reached down and, took her by the arms, hauled her up next to him.

His human side was fully aware of her nudity and the petal-soft feel of her skin. Her breasts were full, the tips dusky, and the twist of hair between her legs black. Beautiful.

“You need me, Iona.”

Iona took a step back, breaking the contact. “You need me, you mean.”

“In theory.”

“Chew on this theory, Eric. I’m not one of your mate-claimed females, or whatever you call them. I’ll give you what you need to build your Shiftertown houses, and you’ll leave me the hell alone. Bargain?” She stuck out her hand.

Eric looked at the hand, Iona offering a handshake in the human way. He didn’t bother to take it. “No bargains, love. We do what’s necessary.”

Iona was gorgeous when she was fired up, blue eyes hot, her stance challenging. Eric’s reaction to her was obvious, even in the dark.

Her gaze dropped down his body, stopping at his very erect . . . erection. She put one hand on her bare hip and kept her voice light. “So what is that? An extension of your tail?”

Eric shrugged, unembarrassed. “I’m a male Shifter at the prime of life, and you’re a female entering her hottest mating years. What do you think it is?”

Iona’s eyes flickered, her need strong. Her pheromones filled the air until Eric could taste them. “Damn it,” she whispered.

She shifted to her wildcat. She couldn’t shift as swiftly as Eric could, and Eric saw that it was painful for her. His hard-on faded as he watched her struggle, but his wanting for her didn’t die. Iona was beautiful and wild, and he wanted her to be free. And safe.

Iona bounded past him. Her wildcat was surefooted and fast, her pelt beautifully dark, her eyes as ice blue as her human eyes.

Eric watched in pure enjoyment before he fluidly shifted and ran after her.

*** *** ***

Graham McNeil watched the humans shrink back in a satisfying way as he walked into the meeting room at the courthouse. They tried not to react to him, pretending they had all the power, but Graham knew he’d rule this room.

The only person who didn’t look intimidated was Eric Warden, the leader of the Vegas Shiftertown. Not leader for long, if Graham had anything to say about it.

The humans didn’t like Graham’s buzz of black hair, the fiery tatts down his arms, and his motorcycle vest. Eric had a tatt as well, jagged lines that started somewhere under his short-sleeved black T-shirt and wove down one arm.

Eric was going to be a problem. He was a strong alpha and had been leader of his Shiftertown for more than twenty years. As soon as Graham walked in, Eric’s jade green gaze fixed on him and stayed there.

The shithead wanted Graham to look away. To acknowledge that Graham was going to be second, maybe way less than that. Pussy.

Graham wasn’t about to look away. Neither was Eric. Graham felt his hackles rise, the wolf in him ready to shift. Eric’s eyes flicked to his cat’s, slitted and very light green.

They’d have stared each other down across the room for hours if a clueless human male, with no idea that a dominance fight was in progress, hadn’t walked between them.

“Mr. McNeil,” the man said. “Sit down, please.”

“Graham’s fine.” He’d rather remain standing, a better position for facing an enemy, but humans had a thing for chairs.

They wanted Graham to sit next to Eric. Idiots. Eric proved he wasn’t stupid by walking to the other end of the table and planting himself in a chair, leaving Graham to sit at the opposite end.

What did the humans expect Graham to do? Shake Eric’s hand, give him a big hug, wait for Eric to say, Welcome to my territory, let’s be friends?

They did, the morons. Amazing.

Graham’s Shiftertown had been tucked inside a mountain range south of Elko, a long way from anywhere, and he and his people had done pretty much what they wanted. A man with a check sheet came around every once in a while to make sure Shifters were behaving themselves and not eating people or whatever they thought Shifters did, and then he’d go.

But then someone in an office way back east, who’d never been to a Shiftertown in his life, had decided that times were tough, budgets had to be cut, and there was no reason to have two Shiftertowns in Nevada. So why not shove all the Shifters into one? The Shifter bureau could keep a better eye on them all that way.

Graham was used to the vast emptiness of rural Nevada, a place where a wolf could shift and run and run, never see a human for months if he didn’t want to. In this effing city, there were humans everywhere. They smelled like shit. Even Eric smelled wrong.

Graham had seen, on his way to the meeting, a sign on the top of a taxi advertising Shifter women dancing nude in clubs just off the Strip. Shifter females, taking off their clothes for human males. And Warden sat back and let it happen. That needed to stop.

He felt Eric’s eyes on him again. Graham returned the look with as much determination. You’re going down.

The trouble was, Graham was getting the same message back from Eric. This was going to be a long, bloody fight. The humans in this room had no idea what they’d started.

*** *** ***

Eric took the seat on the opposite end of the table from Graham, not only to keep himself from ripping out Graham’s throat, but also to prevent Graham smelling Iona on him. It had been two days and many scrubbings since Eric had chased Iona in the wild land north of town, but he didn’t need Graham to catch any lingering scent.

Her sexy scent. Eric had dreamed of her for the last two nights, the dreams so vivid that he woke up surprised he was alone in his bed. He woke up hard and sweating, groaning as the sheets brushed his aching cock. He was like a Shifter in mating frenzy, but Eric had conquered that a long time ago, right?

Iona was made for mating frenzy. He thought of her long limbs curled around herself as she’d gazed at him in the moonlight outside the cave.

Eric needed to protect her, yes, but he also wanted to go to her, wrap himself around her, declare her his mate, keep her away from all others. A Shifter’s primal need was to hole up with a female for weeks at a time, keeping her safe while they sexed themselves mindless, nature’s way of ensuring that cubs came.

Times were more civilized now. Females could reject the mate-claim, and they all lived in peace and harmony.

Bullshit. Whenever Eric looked at Iona, or scented her, or felt her warmth, civilization went to hell. He wanted Iona, wanted to be naked with her, nothing more.

Those thoughts were dangerous while Graham McNeil watched him from the other end of the table, but he couldn’t stop them coming.

One of the humans cleared his throat, calling the meeting to order.

The humans in the room were nervous. The smell of fear was rank, and Graham didn’t hide his disgust. But at least their fear scent would cover any residual one of Iona’s.

The talk moved instantly to housing, a bone of contention.

“Every effort is being made, Mr. McNeil,” the leader of the bunch said, a shit of a man called Frank Kellerman.

Kellerman was the head of the Shifter liaison committee, and the only one of the humans who wasn’t sweating hard in his suit. The rest eyed Graham in outright fear if they could bring themselves to look at him at all.

Kellerman went on, “The housing being built will equal that which is already in Shiftertown. For now, your families will have to adapt to boarding with others.”

Graham balled his hands on the table. “I’m not putting my wolves in houses with a bunch of fucking Felines or bears. His Shifters can double up. We’ll take the houses they empty.”

“I agree,” Eric said. All gazes shot to him now, including Graham’s. “Shifters have a tough time living with strangers,” Eric went on. “The Elko Shifters should occupy houses together, and our Shifters will move in with their own clan members.”

Kellerman gave Eric his smooth smile. “The point is that the Elko Shifters and the Las Vegas Shifters need to integrate as quickly as possible. Bunking together will induce camaraderie and make the transition painless.”

What an idiot. Eric kept his face straight, but Graham rolled his eyes. When strange Shifters found themselves thrown together in a tight space, the natural instinct was to go into a dominance battle.

Who controlled each house was as important as who controlled Shiftertown. Members of the same clan or same community already knew who was dominant. There would still be conflict, but exponentially less.

Eric said, “You shove us together without letting us get used to each other first, and there’ll be a blood bath.”

“But you have Collars,” the nervous man who’d called the meeting to order said. “Shifters can no longer fight one another.”

“Then you’ll have a crapload of Collar-shocked Shifters all over the place,” Graham said from his end of the table. “We’ll fight for dominance, Kellerman. It’s instinctive, and it won’t be pretty.”

Eric stared down the table at Graham, willing the guy to shut up. Graham wasn’t used to dealing with humans. Eric had learned how to let the humans understand just enough Shifter business to keep them happy and how much to keep from them.

Graham met Eric’s gaze, but instead of subsiding, he sat up straighter, meeting the challenge. Dumb-ass. Challenging for leadership in this room would only get them both arrested.

“An even better solution,” Eric said, still looking at Graham. “Would be to get the houses built before the wolves transfer down.”

“We can’t wait that long,” Kellerman said. “Though the houses will be started soon. We formally accepted a bid from a construction company this morning.”

Eric kept his gaze from moving. He hadn’t heard from Iona since their encounter, and he didn’t know whether she’d had her company make the bid. His Guardian, Neal Ingram, good at getting info Shifters weren’t supposed to have, said he hadn’t seen a bid come forward from Duncan Construction in the Shifter council’s records. It must have been sent at the last minute, right before this meeting, in fact.

Graham’s gaze sharpened as he watched Eric, catching Eric’s subtlest reaction. The Lupine was good.

“What construction company?” Graham asked without looking away from Eric.

Kellerman consulted his notes. “A small, local company who does quality work. They put in a decent bid, and we accepted it.” He closed the file, but Eric couldn’t see it anyway from his vantage point. “Their architects are already drawing up plans. Within a month, you’ll have new places to live.”

Eric didn’t let his expression change. The players in the poker tournaments downtown would have envied his blank face. Graham kept his gaze hard on Eric for a few moments before switching it to Kellerman.

Graham turning away didn’t mean Graham was giving up. He’d sent Eric a signal that he knew there was something going on, and he was going to find out what.

After the meeting ended—with nothing resolved—Graham fell into step with Eric as they headed for the parking garage and their separate vehicles. “Why so interested in the construction company, Warden?”

Eric didn’t bother looking at him. “You aren’t?”

Graham stopped. They were relatively alone, the upper floors of the parking garage sparse at the human lunch hour. “What are you up to?”

“You know we have to alter the houses,” Eric said. “Be good to know what kind of plans these architects are coming up with. Better still to have the plans changed to fit our needs.”

Graham’s wolf gray eyes narrowed, but he gave Eric a conceding nod. “I get that. But how would they make plans to our specs? Without us giving away anything?”

“Agree to let me take care of that. Your idea of liaising is intimidation and fear. There’s an easier way.”

“No, there isn’t,” Graham said. “Terrify the humans, and they do what you want. Works like a dream.”

“In a place where Shifters outnumber humans, sure. Look around you.” Eric jerked his chin at the streets and buildings below them. “Humans everywhere. Trust me, subtlety works.”

“Yeah, look where subtlety’s got you. You didn’t argue with them very much in there, and you tried to shut me down when I did.”

“Because I don’t need humans knowing our business.” The more humans believed that the Collars controlled the Shifters, the better.

“I’m not crawling and hiding from humans,” Graham said.

“Keeping your hole shut about Shifter secrets is not the same as crawling and hiding. There’s too much at stake.”

Graham’s scowl would have sent most of the Shifters in Eric’s Shiftertown running for cover, but Eric met him stare for stare. Graham was going to be hard to tame.

Graham finally shrugged. “All right—I’ll keep my mouth shut around humans. Because I’m not talking to them anymore. You liaise, if that’s what you like. When you fail, tell me, and I’ll scare the shit out of them and get a few things done.”

With a final glare, Graham turned his back and walked away. If they’d been in animal form, Graham might have sprayed behind him or done something equally disgusting to show Eric his contempt.

Eric turned away himself, so that if Graham glanced behind him to see how Eric had taken the insult, he’d see nothing but Eric walking uncaringly toward his motorcycle.

He knew Graham wouldn’t look back, though. Eric unstrapped his helmet and heard Graham start up his own bike. Graham was dominant enough to know his gestures made the right implications, without having to double-check.

Eric waited until Graham had ridden out, watching the man drive through the streets toward Charleston and North Las Vegas, before he started his bike and departed the other direction, heading for Duncan Construction’s office on the west side of town.

*** *** ***

Iona dropped her sandwich and jumped to her feet when she sensed Eric outside the door to the office. It was a terrific sandwich from a little deli down the street, and now it was a mess of roast beef, honey mustard, lettuce, and fresh bread all over her desk.

Eric walked in, bringing with him a wave of November chill, but Iona broke into a sweat.

He wore a short-sleeved black T-shirt under his leather jacket, one that showed the tatt sliding down his arm when he took off the jacket. He removed his sunglasses, giving her the full flash of his jade green eyes.

She’d tried to forget his tall, strong body over hers when he’d cornered her like prey in the canyons, or at least pretended to forget. Now with Eric in front of her, she shivered all the way down, the sensation of him stretched out on top of her as vivid as when it’d happened.

That had been in his territory. This was hers. Iona gathered up the mess of her sandwich, dropped it back on the paper it had come in, wrapped it up, and wiped her hands on paper napkins.

Eric let the door close behind him. Her office was a trailer on the site where they stored their equipment and supplies and sold building goods on the side. At least it was lunchtime—her mother and sister were off doing wedding shopping, the guys lunching wherever they liked to lunch.

Iona was relatively alone here, but . . .

“What the hell are you doing, Eric?” she said, making her voice not shake. “How is a Shifter coming openly to my office going to keep me safe?”

Chapter Three

Eric gave her his stare, not smiling or saying hello, anything a normal person would do. He showed up, sliding into her life again, and that was that.

His Collar glinted above the line of his T-shirt, proclaiming what he was—not human, a wild thing someone had tried to cage. His look said that, though humans might try for centuries, he’d never be tamed, though he might pretend he was for his own reasons.

He asked her, “Did Duncan Construction win the bid?”

No apologies, no embarrassment. Not even glee. Eric leaned against the desk and looked at her, and it was all Iona could do to not react. In any way.

“Yes,” she said.

Eric’s eyes softened the slightest bit. “Good girl.”

Why did that little morsel of praise warm her all over? “You couldn’t have called to ask me that? I know Shifters have phones. Or did you forget how to use yours? You push the numbers on the little buttons . . .”

“Cute.” Eric leaned to her and brushed his fingertips over her chin.

She should jerk away, break the contact, but Iona couldn’t move. He was an alpha male, and she was . . .

She didn’t know. She’d avoided Shifters all her life, so Iona had no idea if she was dominant or submissive or what either of those really meant.

She knew only that when Eric looked at her, her thoughts shot back to the night they’d stood together behind the Forum Shops, and he’d fed her sweet chocolate with his fingers. She remembered every taste of that chocolate, every flavor passing her lips, and best of all, Eric’s mouth following it.

“I thought you wanted to protect me,” she said. “Coming openly to my office isn’t the way to do it.”

Eric straightened up, removing his mesmerizing touch. “No one’s here, and no one noticed me. I need to see the architect’s plans for the Shifter houses.”

That was the reason he’d come? Why did she feel disappointed? “I won’t have them for a while. It takes time to get blueprints, even on a rush job.”

“I need to see them as soon as you have them.”

Iona thought about what he’d said up in the cave when he talked about the houses—I need them constructed in a way that’s best for Shifters. She still didn’t know what that meant.

“Ask the Shifter council to show you a copy when they’re finished,” she said.

Eric leaned across the desk, right over her rewrapped sandwich. “Much more fun to come here and demand them from you.”

Why did she want to agree? “You might be the leader of Shiftertown, but this is my office, and here, I’m the boss.”

Something hot flickered in his eyes, and his lips twitched. “Never try to out-alpha an alpha, sweetheart. You’ll lose.”

His stance said, though, that he liked her sass. This man wasn’t one for timidity. To a Shifter, she’d heard, being timid meant being submissive, and the alpha would take full advantage. She couldn’t afford to be timid with Eric.

Eric brushed his thumb over the corner of her mouth, where she realized that some honey mustard lingered. “What am I going to do with you, Iona?”

“Don’t buy me any more chocolate.”

She hadn’t been able to look at the chocolate box he’d bought her without remembering Eric’s fingers at her lips, his mouth on hers. She hadn’t been able to resist taking out a piece at a time, in the privacy of her bedroom, savoring it, and pretending Eric was there to feed it to her.

“You like the ones with the chiles the best,” Eric said softly. “I remember.”

His finger moved on her mouth then he leaned forward and inhaled, his nose nearly touching her hair.

Eric thought he could drown in her scent. Cinnamon and spice, overlaid with her musk, a heady combination that filled his dreams. She was a woman in her prime calling out to a male, and Eric was losing control.

Iona’s blue eyes were close, her breath warm on his skin. “Why do you do that?” she asked.

“Do what?”

“Smell me like that?” Her voice was sultry, like a caress.

Because I could lie down and bathe in your warmth, and nothing else on this earth would matter.

“Scent is a powerful way to communicate. From scent alone I can tell you’ve been here awhile, working intently on something, and when I came in, I shook you out of that.”

“You can tell all that by sniffing me?”

“Plus I see notes all over your desk, computer files open, and you eating here instead of going out with your family.”

“Had something I wanted to get done.”

“What?” Eric drew blueprints out from under the remains of her sandwich. The careful lines and neat letters and numbers didn’t mean anything to him. “What is this?”

Iona’s slight relaxation told him she cared about this project but didn’t fear him knowing about it. “An extension to my sister’s house. My mom and I decided to put in a couple bedrooms and a rec room for her as a surprise while she and Tyler are on their honeymoon in Hawaii. We won’t finish by the time they get back, but everything will be well underway.”

“I like the way you think.” Eric did, because if Iona could plan a covert extension to her own sister’s house, she’d be able to keep quiet on the work Eric wanted done. He traced the dimension marks on the blueprints. “You understand what all these mean?”

“Of course I do. It’s kind of my job.”

Eric looked around the small but warm office. “Three females running a construction company.”

“Yes.” Iona’s eyes held a challenge. “What about it?”

Eric wanted to relax, to laugh with her, to casually sit down behind her desk and draw her onto his lap while they talked. Soon. “You know, I still have to smack some of my males around to get them to let their mates or daughters have jobs or go to college. McNeil’s Shifters are even more old-fashioned. When I bring you in, you’ll be a good influence on the others.”

Iona’s eyes glinted. “If you bring me in, you mean.”

“You know I have to.” He said it quietly, trying to keep the arrogance out, and the triumph. Eric wanted her in his fold, to be able to put his arm around her and tell all other Shifters, Back off. She’s mine.

“Then I can say good-bye to everything I’ve worked for,” Iona said. “My mom and sister can too. My dad—my stepdad, I mean—built this company from the ground up. I’m not about to do anything to let them lose it.”

Eric didn’t answer. She was right that here lay the problem. If Eric took Iona to Shiftertown—to keep her safe—her family would suffer repercussions for hiding her all this time. He had ideas on how to get around that, but he’d need Iona’s cooperation.

But Iona couldn’t deny her Shifter side all her life. The half human, half Shifters Eric had known who’d tried to shut out their Shifter side had died. They’d gone feral and had either been killed by other Shifters or human hunters, or they’d killed themselves.

Eric couldn’t let that happen to Iona, no matter what he had to do. No matter that he might have to put her in restraints and haul her in, keeping her sequestered in his house while she got used to the idea of being his captive.

And why did that thought beat excitement through him? Iona in bonds, glaring at him with her beautiful blue eyes . . . Being Shifter, she’d be able to get out of any mundane restraints, but it would be fun for a while.

Eric opened the wrapper on her desk and looked at the mess inside. “Is this what you’re eating?”

“I was.”

“What did you do, sit on it?”

Iona slammed the paper back over the sandwich. “Will you go before someone sees you?”

“Come with me. I’ll buy you lunch.”

Iona’s eyes flared hunger. That hunger touched Eric like a flame.

“Can’t. Too busy here, and we’d have to find someplace where no one knew me. Plus, you’re obviously a Shifter.”

Eric shrugged. “I go where I want.”

“No, you don’t. Plenty of places don’t allow Shifters.”

“You allow them.”

She made a noise of exasperation. “No, I don’t. One just keeps barging in.”

He held back his laugh. “Why don’t you throw me out, then? You could call your security guards or the police. Why haven’t you?”

He saw the catch in her breath, the tightening of her eyes. “I can handle you myself.”

“Sure about that?” Eric leaned to her again.

“Will you stop smelling me? It’s just weird.”

“Have you closed yourself off to using your scent-sense? That’s dangerous, love.”

“I had to. It was driving me crazy.”

Eric had some sympathy. Scent could be powerful, triggering emotions and sense memory, as well as physical hunger and mating need. The smell of burned matches took him back to the second world war when he and his sister Cassidy had slunk through the night carrying explosives to sabotage the German army. The smell of strawberries transported him to the happy days when he’d first met Kirsten, his mate, passed long ago now. Iona, untrained and trying to deny her natural instincts, must be going insane.

“That roast beef smells good, even all squashed, doesn’t it?” Eric asked, glancing at the wrapped sandwich. “If you were in your panther form, you wouldn’t worry. You’d gulp it down and spit out the paper.”

Iona’s hunger came to him again. “That’s why I have to ignore scents when I’m in my human form. I’d make a complete idiot of myself.”

“Don’t ignore them. Control it.” Eric spread his hands on the desk. “Starting now. Use your nose on me and tell me what it tells you.”

Iona stared at him, her fear as palpable as her hunger. Then she swallowed, her slender throat moving, and she leaned to him.

Eric held himself still as her nose brushed the line of his hair. His impulse was to grab her, shove the sandwich remains and blueprints from the desk, and lay her across its top, spreading her and letting his body and hers do what both truly wanted. The coupling would be good. Intense. Memorable.

Instead, he made himself stand still as she roved his face to his neck, breasts lifting as she inhaled.

“You had eggs for breakfast,” she said. “You’ve been riding around on your motorcycle, farther than just between here and Shiftertown, and you’ve been very close to at least one other Shifter. You were also extremely angry this morning.” Iona lifted her head, puzzlement in her eyes. “Angry about what?”

“Not angry,” Eric said. “Frustrated. What kind of Shifter?”

“How am I supposed to know that?”

“You’ll know. Come on. Give it your best shot.”

Iona leaned closer, her eyes closing as she drew in a long breath. Her hair brushed his cheek, and Eric’s body tightened.

“Felines,” Iona said, opening her eyes and drawing back. “And another kind, but I don’t recognize it. I’m only familiar with Felines.”

“Lupine,” Eric said. “The Felines were my sister and son at breakfast. I hugged them both before I left. The Lupine is Graham McNeil, the asshole who’s being shoved into my Shiftertown. Which is why we need the new houses.”

“Which you want constructed to your specifications.”

“Without mentioning it to anyone,” he said.

Iona drew back. “How am I supposed to have my crew build houses without them noticing what they’re building?”

“You’re having your sister’s house remodeled without telling her.”

“Only until she and her husband get back from their trip. I think she’ll notice the guys hammering and sawing and putting up walls then. It can’t be done.”

He liked the way she stood and glared at him, not bowing her head and meekly promising him whatever he wanted. She was strong, this lady. A survivor.

“Find a way,” he said. “I’ll keep my Shifters from you, and the humans from finding out about you, and you alter the plans to my specs without telling anyone. All right?”

“And if I refuse? You’ll expose me?”

“You think I’m threatening you?” Eric came out of his nonchalant, Eric-is-everyone’s-friend stance, and leaned over the desk to her again, not stopping the predator. Iona stood her ground, but her eyes widened, and her wild scent washed over him.

“I don’t need to make deals with you, Iona. You’re an unmated, unprotected female in my territory. I could make you mine right here in this office, carry you home, and sequester you, and you couldn’t do anything to stop me. Could you? You’d fight, but in the end I’d win.”

He leaned closer, the desk no barrier, and she stepped back, catching herself on the chair behind her. Her eyes flickered, and he smelled her fear, but she wouldn’t look away.

She wet her lips, which made them red and sultry. “Is this how you romance all the girls?”

The little bit of defiance kicked hot need through Eric’s body. Having her was going to be good, so good.

“Sweetheart, an unprotected female raises the capture instinct in all unmated males, and most aren’t strong enough to control it. McNeil’s Shifters are just this side of wild, and they’re not about to control anything. Females protected by a clan or family are safe, but someone like you . . .” Eric reached across the desk and touched her cheek. “When Shifters see you, alone and unmated, their beasts will come out. The wild things we once were just want.” His touch grew firmer. “And they take.”

She drew a quick breath. “But you control your beast?”

“Barely.” Eric brushed her skin with his fingertips, liking how her cheek flushed. “I can keep it together, but whenever I see you, it’s one hell of a struggle.”

“But you hold it in. Is that why you’re the alpha?”

“One of the reasons.”

Eric felt his eyes change to Shifter, and Iona’s flicked to Shifter in response. He smelled her desires, the wild frenzy in her fighting to take over. She tried to tamp it down, but Eric’s own frenzy was responding.

He could do it. He could pull her across the desk to him, strip her down, make her his in the most inescapable way. It wouldn’t take long.

Eric leaned closer and licked across her lips.

Iona jumped, but she didn’t back off. He felt her body shaking, sensed her rise in temperature, tasted the mustard from her sandwich that lingered at the corner of her mouth.

He licked her again, and this time, Iona’s tongue came out to meet his.

Eric slid his hand to the back of her neck and gripped her while he played, licked, and nipped, chasing her tongue, her hot breath tangling his. Iona licked the pad of his lip, then the tip of his tongue, their mouths meeting and parting, soft sounds in the quiet.

The thick, female scent of her made him growl. Need and frenzy, long buried, rushed to the surface. Iona would be his, and no other Shifter would touch her, ever. She was his.

Eric dragged her closer, the desk still between them. He felt her nipples tight behind her thin blouse and bra, heard the little noise she made in her throat. He remembered her naked up in the cave, firm breasts pale in the moonlight, dark tips beckoning his tongue. He wanted to rip open the blouse, sending buttons flying through the room, to bend her backward and fasten his mouth on her. He would do it, taste every inch of her, lick up every bit of goodness. She was made for tasting.

Iona seemed fascinated by the Collar. As they kissed, she glided her fingertips around it to the Celtic knot fused at his throat—the “eternal” knot, the Fae thinking to make Shifters slaves eternally. Fools. The eternal knot meant two hearts bound together forever, and that’s what would free the Shifters in the end. Their strength and love.

Eric would make Iona understand this, after he took her in every position known to humans and some they didn’t know.

Iona slid her fingers down to find the smooth line of his tatt. She swirled her touch around and around the tattoo, moving her tongue in his mouth in the same rhythm. She probably didn’t even know she was doing it, but Eric’s hard-on was about to dig through the desk.

He felt a sudden draft of air behind him, smelled the strong scent of human, then heard a gasp. “Iona?”

Iona jerked away, her face flushed, her eyes still her wildcat’s—blue, slit-pupilled, almost luminescent. She backed away from the desk, her arms coming up as though to hide herself.

“Mom,” she said breathlessly.

Chapter Four

Iona tried to make her eyes return to human, to the unscary daughter she tried to be. Wasn’t working. Eric’s mouth, his touch, his scent, had her wild side wide awake.

She wanted him. She needed to feel his body heavy on top of hers, Eric holding her down.

No, no, no, no. Eric was hot, and what woman wouldn’t fantasize about him? But if Iona succumbed to her need, that would be the end of her.

Sex with Eric would be more than scratching an itch, and she knew it. Sex with Eric would have a deep meaning, some Shifter connection, a mating thing she didn’t understand.

Iona’s brain told her that, while her body shrieked at the interruption.

“Mom,” she said again. “This is—”

“I know who he is,” Penny Duncan said crisply. Iona’s mother had dark hair pulled back into a sleek ponytail, a short but sturdy body, and dark blue eyes. Iona’s black hair and Celtic coloring came from her Shifter father, but she’d never known him. Penny and Howard, Iona’s stepfather, were the ones who’d taken care of her, kissed her skinned knees better, and protected her at night. “Eric Warden, Shiftertown leader,” Penny went on, her gaze on Eric, not Iona. “What is he doing here?”

Iona’s words felt heavy in her mouth. “He came to talk about the plans for the new houses in Shiftertown.”

“Is that why he was trying to put his tongue down your throat?”


“Honey, I know all about alpha male Shifters and what they do. They work their way into your life, seducing you with their charm and their protectiveness, their out-and-out attraction. And then . . . it’s too late. You can’t get away if you try.”

“You’re talking about Iona’s father,” Eric said. “Who was he?”

Watching, Iona realized she’d been sidelined. This conversation was between Eric, used to being in charge of everyone around him, and her mother, whose heart had been broken by an alpha Shifter male.

“Oh, a charmer, like you,” Penny said. “I was nineteen and spending the summer at my grandparents’ house up in Fallon. He came out of the night and found me on the porch, where I was looking at the stars. I wasn’t used to being out in the country, and I wasn’t used to talking to panthers who’d become human. Next thing I know, I’m sneaking up to his cabin to be with him, and then not much wanting to leave. He gave me Iona, and I’m forever grateful for that, but he tricked me good, Shifter.”

“Times change,” Eric said. “What happened to him?”

“Hell if I know,” Penny answered. “He disappeared one night, and I never saw him again. When Shifters were revealed and took the Collar, I was scared he’d come and find Iona. But he never did.”

“I could look for him,” Eric said. “Find out what happened to him for you.”

Penny stilled a moment, a sudden longing in her eyes, then she resumed her neutral expression. “Like you said, times change. I don’t care what happened to him.”

Iona did, and she’d seen, in that flash, that her mother did too.

“It’s unusual for a Shifter to abandon his cubs,” Eric said. “I’m guessing he never knew about Iona.”

“I raised Iona to be human. I’ve kept her away from Shifters, and I’d like that to continue. You understand, don’t you?”

“It’s easier to hide them when they’re cubs,” Eric said. “I grant that. But Iona’s made her Transition now, entered her mating years. She’s losing control, and it’s only a matter of time before another Shifter sniffs her out.”

“Transition?” Iona broke in. “What are you talking about? What transition?”

When Eric turned his green eyes to her, he’d gone from the teasing, hot, tattooed man who’d been kissing her to the wise leader of Shiftertown, who’d been alive far longer than Iona or her mother. “The Transition from cub to adulthood. It’s your body telling you it’s ready for you to find your place in the pride, to start looking for a mate.”

“Oh.” Iona flashed back to a few years ago, when she’d thought she was going insane. She’d hurt all over and wanted to fight everyone all the time, for any reason. She’d go up to their cabin in the mountains, trying to stay as far away from her mother and sister—from everyone—as possible, and let herself shift and run. And run. But no matter how far or fast she went, she couldn’t run from the fires burning her from the inside out. “Is that what that was?”

“All Shifters go through it,” Eric said. “You must be very strong to have made it through alone.” He sounded admiring.

“I thought I was going to die.”

“During my Transition I wanted to fight and challenge anyone—everyone. My sister had to hit me with a frying pan, those big cast-iron ones we had a hundred years ago. Several times.”

Iona suddenly wanted to meet this sister. “You obviously got through it.”

“Because I had help, had a family and a clan.”

“And a sister not afraid to smack you down.”

“That too. But you have no protection—no clan, no pride. That why I’m extending mine.”

“But who protects her from you?” Penny asked him.

Another stare down between Eric and Iona’s mother. Iona broke it by walking around the desk and planting herself between them.

“Both of you, stop it. Mom, I’m not you, and I’m not nineteen. Eric, I’ll send you the blueprints when they’re ready. But if you want to protect me so much—stay away from me.

Eric looked Iona up and down and spoke to Penny around her. “She’s feisty. I like that.”

“You heard her,” Penny said. “Get out, Shifter.”

“I’m going.” But only because he chose to. Iona saw that. He could have done whatever the hell he wanted, including carrying Iona off over his shoulder back to Shiftertown. The reason Eric had told her about the Shifters’ instinct to capture her was so she’d understand that Eric wanted to do that himself.

Eric went to Iona and pulled her into a warm, tight embrace. His breath tickled inside her ear. “The Goddess go with you, Iona.”

He nipped her earlobe, then he released her, gave Penny a nod, grabbed his jacket, and walked out of the office.

They heard the rumble of his motorcycle starting up, the powerful throb as the engine revved. Iona went to the window as Eric lifted his feet and glided the bike out of the parking lot, sunlight gleaming on his dark hair and the jacket he’d resumed. He slid into the street and away, and the engine sound faded into the traffic.

Iona blew out her breath, moved back to her office chair, and sat heavily on it. The roast beef sandwich started to stink, and she shoved it away from her.

Her mother remained standing in the middle of the office, as though she couldn’t decide what to do now. “Iona.”

“Mom, I really don’t want to talk about it.”

Penny wasn’t put off. “Why didn’t you tell me that the leader of Shiftertown knows you’re Shifter? How long has this been going on?”

Iona heaved another sigh. “He saw me at a club last spring.” Iona remembered her shock when Eric dropped into the chair next to hers, asked who she was, and announced that he knew good and well that she was Shifter. “He just knew.”

“Of course he did. They can smell you. But why didn’t you tell me?”

“Why did you just tell Eric more about my real father than you ever told me?”

Penny sighed, looking suddenly older. “I don’t know. I really don’t know. I guess maybe I didn’t tell you much because I was ashamed for falling in love with him. But I wanted Eric to understand that I knew what Shifters did.”

If Iona’s father had been anything like Eric—strong, compelling, pinning others with that Shifter gaze—Iona understood her mother’s feelings toward him. But Iona probably wouldn’t have understood, she realized, before she’d met Eric.

“Why should you be ashamed?” Iona said, a little more sharply than she meant to. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“Yes, it was. I went to him, I knew what he was, and I didn’t care.”

“He was Shifter. I bet he made you do things you had no intention of doing until it was too late.”

Penny came alert. “Is that what Eric is doing with you?”

Iona shook her head. “I don’t think so. I’m Shifter too, so maybe he can’t compel me the same as if I were human.”

“Don’t count on that, Iona. You’d be amazed at what they can do. Why do you think I’ve protected you from them all this time?”

“I can’t hide what I am, Mom. Eric proved that when he saw me in the club.” And I’m proving that by wanting to run wild all the time—with him.

Penny glanced out the window. “The guys are coming back to work. We’ll talk about this later.” She snatched up the tote she’d dropped and banged back outside without another word.

Iona dropped into the desk chair and put her face in her hands. Emotions poured through her—anger at her mother, anger at Eric, fear of her own reaction to him.

Even more powerful was her need to see Eric again, to go after him, to bask in his circle of warmth, even if they argued.

The scent of ruined roast-beef sandwich was strong in the room, but stronger to her was Eric’s scent overlaid with the scent of her mother’s stark fear.

Eric rode his motorcycle far out into the desert, shifted, and went for a run. He ran to work off his frustration at being so near Iona and not being able to have her and also to cover Iona’s scent with his own. If he ran long enough under the warming sun, he’d get pretty smelly.

He rode back into Shiftertown later that afternoon and drew up his Harley in front of his house in time to see a Shifter fight in his next-door neighbor’s yard.

He was off the bike and into the yard before the motor died. He grabbed Shane, his bear Shifter next-door neighbor, and hauled him off the half-shifted wolf he was pummeling.

Shane was a giant, but his Collar was sparking like crazy, reacting to Shane’s attack to drive pain and shocks through him. Eric peeled Shane out of the fight and shoved him away. Shane landed, panting, against the pickup with its hood up in his driveway, his eyes wild, but he stayed put.

The wolf, one of Graham’s, was in his half-shifted state, upright, covered with fur, eyes red with rage, mouth full of sharp teeth. He should have recognized Eric as alpha and dropped immediately, apologetically, to wait for Eric to decide what to do. But the wolf, crazed with fury and pain from his own sparking Collar, charged Eric.

Eric spread his arms and growled, feeling himself half shift, his clothes and jacket ripping as his half-Shifter body broke through. The wolf slammed into Eric full force, and Eric caught him in his arms.

The wolf clawed and fought as the two went down. The wolf’s Collar arced blue, the snakes of electricity slapping Eric’s skin. Eric’s Collar remained silent, Eric having learned how to control his Collar’s reaction somewhat. For now. Payback would come later.

The wolf ripped claws into Eric’s chest, and blood ran down Eric’s fur-covered skin. Eric snarled as he fought, the two rolling over each other, dust and gravel rising. Eric heard other Shifters coming out of houses, running to see the fight, sensed their anger and bloodlust rising. This needed to end. Now.

Though a good fighter, the wolf was young and inexperienced. Eric waited for his opening, then he plunged his mouth over the wolf’s throat and sank his teeth in, just enough.

Eric tasted blood, hot and satisfying. The wild thing inside him, harder to control in the half state, urged him to make the kill. The wolf had been fighting one of Eric’s Shifters, and Eric had the right to retaliate.

The tiny part of Eric that was still Eric, the cool-headed Shiftertown leader, knew that killing the wolf would bring down a firestorm from the humans, not to mention from Graham. Graham wouldn’t hesitate to kill.

But the beast in Eric didn’t care. It wanted the blood of his enemy, wanted to roar his victory with the ripped-up body of this wolf at his feet.

“Back off!”

The wolf went suddenly quiet under Eric’s teeth. Eric knew who stood beside them without looking—Nell, Shane’s mother, a formidable grizzly and the alpha bear of Shiftertown.

“Mom, put down the gun,” Shane said.

Eric put his half-shifted paw on the wolf’s chest, unlocked his teeth from his throat, and carefully looked up. Nell stood a foot away from them, a double-barreled shotgun aimed at the wolf’s head.

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