“Come on,” the Lupine Shifter drawled. “Show us what you can do, c-c-c-coyote.” He exaggerated the stammer, his eyes full of meanness.
Not coyote, asshole. Red wolf.
Dimitri knew he’d never say that without mangling it, so he gave the Lupine the universal sign with his third finger.
The crowd around them roared with laughter. The Lupine was naked, and so was Dimitri, as they both stood in the cement block–lined ring in the open-walled barn that was the fight club. Dimitri had never seen the Lupine before, but that wasn’t surprising. Shifters came from all over South Texas and beyond to try their luck in the ring.
The refs for this fight—a jaguar called Spike, a huge bear named Ronan, and a wolf called Corey—backed away, clearing the space around them. “Fight!” Ronan said in his giant Kodiak voice.
The Lupine struck immediately. His Collar, the chain that in theory kept Shifters subdued, sparked like blue fire. The Collar that lay around Dimitri’s neck was fake and did nothing.
Dimitri opened his arms and caught the Lupine in mid-spring. The Lupine shifted on the way, and Dimitri went down under a writhing, snarling, biting gray wolf.
Dimitri rolled with the impact, digging his fingers into the Lupine’s fur. He avoided the claws, teeth, and sparks from the wolf’s Collar as he kicked and shoved the Lupine off him.
Dimitri didn’t like to shift too early in the fight. When he did that, his wild tendencies took over—he had no Collar to suppress him and fighting frenzy came easily. He wanted like anything to best this asshole, but if Dimitri let the frenzy come, he might kill the Lupine before anyone could stop him.
Dimitri rolled to his feet. The wolf rushed him, but too recklessly. Dimitri had time to sidestep, grab the Lupine, and use the wolf’s momentum to send him flying to the other side of the ring.
The Lupine skittered, facedown, into the low cement wall. The crowd who’d bet on Dimitri laughed and cheered, loving it.
The Lupine’s friends booed. “Man up, fucking coyote!” someone yelled. “Fucking coy—Oof!” His grunt of pain was lost in the noise, but Dimitri saw a Feline quietly fold in half.
He grinned. Jaycee was here.
She appeared just outside the wall in sweatpants and a tank top that hugged her curves. “Kick his ass, Dimitri!” she yelled. “Or I’ll come in there and do it myself.”
The crowd’s boos turned to her. “Keep your woman under control, coyote,” someone shouted.
Dimitri didn’t respond, waiting until the refs made sure the wolf was still in good shape to fight. If the jeering Shifters wanted to take on Jaycee, good luck to them. Their funeral.
Dimitri waited in the middle of the ring, lacing his fingers and stretching them, his bare feet brushing dirt aside. The wolf’s claws had raked Dimitri’s side, but not deeply, the cuts barely stinging.
Ronan said something to the wolf then he nodded and backed off. “Fight!” Ronan called.
The wolf sprang instantly. Dimitri knew he wouldn’t fall for the sidestepping trick again, so he reached out, grabbed the wolf around the neck as he leapt, and started squeezing.
Claws scrabbled on Dimitri’s bare flesh. Dimitri felt his shift come, his beast instinctively protecting itself. The wolf’s claws met fur, though Dimitri’s hands remained human as he became his between-beast.
The two went down in tangle of dust, claws, and teeth. The Lupine’s Collar sparked hard, the electric arcs singeing Dimitri’s furred flesh.
The Lupine’s gaze went to Dimitri’s Collar, which lay dormant. Dimitri slammed the wolf to the ground with his between-beast strength, then became fully wolf.
Let the jackass call him coyote now. Dimitri savagely bit and clawed, and the wolf bit and clawed in return. They tumbled in a ball of fur and teeth, hitting the wall and then rolling away from it. Dimly Dimitri heard the crowd roaring, and his mate’s shout.
“Dimitri, get him!”
Dimitri rolled the wolf over, pinning him with his large red wolf paws. His wild state was taking over—it told him to kill the threat and walk away. Only a lifetime of discipline allowed Dimitri to tamp down his instincts and remember this was a fight for enjoyment. Not real.
The Lupine snarled his rage. He knew he was losing, knew he’d underestimated the odd-looking red-furred wolf with the stammer.
Dimitri opened his jaw to go for the Lupine’s throat. He was aware of the refs’ feet—two pairs of motorcycle boots and one pair of running shoes—surrounding them. The refs would call the fight and pull Dimitri off before he could kill the Lupine. Maybe.
Dimitri struck. At the same time, he felt a prick in his belly, like a claw had scratched him, then a strange lassitude filled his brain.
It wasn’t quite like a tranq, which could knock out a Shifter in a few seconds. A calm peacefulness stole over Dimitri, one that made him want to back off the wolf, let him go, maybe embrace him when they regained their feet.
He looked down at the Lupine, who had half shifted back to human. The man-beast wore a self-satisfied look.
Drugging an opponent was against the rules. Hell, it wasn’t even done when fighting in the wild.
“You t-t-total b-b-b-b . . .” Dimitri couldn’t get the word out.
The refs hadn’t yet caught on that there was something wrong. Only a second had gone by, though it was stretching for Dimitri. The refs were giving Dimitri a chance to finish the fight, or for the Lupine to throw off Dimitri and continue.
Dimitri heard an uproar at the side of the ring, but he couldn’t make out what anyone was shouting. Words slurred into one another, and Dimitri’s grasp of English deserted him. Russian started going as well. Pretty soon, he’d be only able to growl in wolf.
A streak of fur zoomed into the ring. The refs reached for the leopard who’d sprung in, but she writhed and twisted away from their clutching hands.
She pushed between Dimitri and the Lupine and slammed her strong paw to the Lupine’s half-beast face. The Lupine must have had only one dose of the drug, because instead trying to tranq the leopard, he shifted back to full wolf and lunged for the leopard’s throat.
The leopard sprang straight into the air, as only cats can, and the wolf’s teeth snapped on nothing. The leopard landed behind wolf, grabbed him by the scruff, and shook him. She growled as the sparks from his Collar went into her mouth, but she didn’t let go.
The ref, Spike, with jaguar speed, went for her. Before he reached her, the leopard shook the wolf one more time, dropped him to the ground, and smacked him with her paw. The wolf went limp.
Spike as jaguar planted himself in front of the leopard, his ears flat, his fangs bared in a snarl. The leopard regarded him in disdain, sat down on her haunches, and delicately licked one paw.
Dimitri rolled over onto his back, wanting to laugh his ass off. The laughter came out a wavering wolf howl.
Some in the crowd cheered, enjoying the show. The rest of them were roaring in fury, even the humans who’d come out to watch Shifters fighting each other were shouting in rage.
“The match is a draw,” Ronan said in his big voice. He sounded regretful.
“Stupid bitch ruined the fight!” a Shifter called out.
“’S why women aren’t allowed in the ring,” another chimed in. He was bolstered by many voices yelling agreement.
“Get her out of there!” another shouted.
The crowd surged forward. Two Lupines hauled themselves over the cement blocks and went for the leopard. Spike was right there, intercepting one, but the second made it through, the other refs too far away to stop him.
Whatever drug had laid Dimitri out faded and died as he saw the threat to his mate. He surged up, heat burning away the last of the sedative, and he rushed in a low wolf run to the Lupine heading for the leopard.
Jaycee had turned around, facing the Lupine with a leopard snarl. Dimitri bowled her over, sending her, surprised, to the dust, and then launched himself at the Lupine.
The Lupine, still in human form, went down. The crowd cheered or booed, and then they streamed forward to join in the fight.
Dimitri’s instincts changed from protective rage to alarm. The Shifters were blowing off the rules and storming the ring, becoming a mob. Humans gleefully joined in.
When Shifters didn’t stop themselves, they became destructive killing machines, uncaring who they took down. This was what they’d been bred for centuries ago, why the Fae had won so many battles with Shifters in the forefront.
Dimitri whirled for Jaycee, driving her back from the crowd, herding her with snarls and snaps of teeth out of the ring on the other side.
Jaycee had a hot temper and could be reckless, but she was no fool. She bounded out ahead of Dimitri then shifted back to human form, rising into a beautiful naked woman.
Dimitri tamped down on his need to admire her full breasts and curve of her hips, her wheat colored hair that was always messy, and her tawny leopard eyes. She rubbed Dimitri’s fur in a quick stroke, then moved off to make sure the more vulnerable humans and young Shifters got out of the way of the now-crazed crowd.
The Shifters didn’t care that their original target had just walked away from them. They started fighting the refs, Dimitri, each other.
Ronan had gone Kodiak bear, the huge creature bellowing as he shoved wolves and wildcats out of his way. Spike was fighting with the honed swiftness of a Feline, taking down Shifters with one strike each. Spike was the undefeated fighter of this fight club for good reason.
The third ref, a wolf called Corey McNaughton, was younger than the others, less experienced. Dimitri put himself with Corey, snarling and fighting, protecting as he battled.
The place became chaos. Dimitri fought in silence, anger making him fierce. If the police got wind of the free-for-all and showed up, they’d be screwed—tranqued, rounded up, possibly killed. Dimitri’s Collar was fake, as was Jaycee’s. Other Shifters from Dimitri’s enclave also had false Collars, which they put on when they had to interact with humans. If the humans in authority found out about the fakes, they’d all be up shit creek. This riot had to cease.
Shifters in fighting frenzy, though, were all but impossible to stop. This was what the humans feared—Shifters out of control, going on killing rampages, slaughtering humans and taking over. Stupid, because there were far many more humans in the world than Shifters, and Shifters rarely worked themselves up into this kind of collective frenzy. But right now, Dimitri could understand their worry.
Dimitri tripped over the Lupine who’d been his original opponent, the one Jaycee had knocked out. The Lupine was coming around, human now. Dimitri shifted back to human, hauled the man to his feet, and shoved him toward a relatively calm part of the ring.
“Get out of here,” Dimitri snarled, speaking with the clarity he achieved when his emotions were at their most intense. “Asshole.”
The Lupine gave him a look of sly amusement. What the hell was so funny, Dimitri didn’t know. He pushed the man to the side of the ring and over the blocks.
The Lupine turned to study Dimitri from the other side of the wall. “Yeah,” he said, nodding. “You’ll be perfect.”
“For what?” Dimitri yelled, not sure he’d heard him over the crowd.
The Lupine smirked and walked away, his shoulders back in arrogance; then he disappeared into the darkness beyond the arena’s flaring light.
Another Shifter smacked into Dimitri, carrying him sideways. Dimitri gave up on the Lupine and rolled back into the fight.
Jaycee was yelling at a couple of Shifters who were barely past their Transitions—their fighting blood would be at its hottest. Dimitri waded over to help her.
Behind him, a truck was pulling up, a big thing, unmarked, with a water hose coiled behind it. Shit, where had a Shifter found . . . ?
He stopped worrying about it. Dylan, the most powerful Shifter in South Texas—or his son Sean, a Guardian; or Kendrick, Dimitri’s leader—would have the resources to come up with a water truck on the spur of the moment.
Dimitri reached Jaycee and the overgrown cubs. They were Collared, from the Austin Shiftertown, and eager to fight.
“Time to go,” Dimitri said. He swept open his arms, carrying Jaycee and the two younger Shifters out from under the old barn that was their arena and into the night.
Behind him, squeals and howls rose as a hundred Shifters suddenly got very, very wet.
“Jaycee,” Dimitri said.
She turned from shoving the younger Shifters into the trees at the edge of the clearing, inquiry on her face.
Dimitri wanted to yell at her. He wanted to demand what the hell she was thinking rushing into the ring like that, breaking every rule of the fight club. She’d endangered herself not only from the crazy Lupine fighting Dimitri, but from every Shifter in the place.
He thought about how she’d fought the wolf, almost casually avoiding his attack and then smacking him down into unconsciousness.
“What?” Jaycee asked when he didn’t speak. “You mean, why am I such an idiot?” Sometimes she’d talk for him, so he wouldn’t have to struggle with what he wanted to say.
Dimitri shook his head. He reached for Jaycee and dragged her to him, her fine flesh bare against his. He tucked his hand under her soft hair and turned her startled face up to him, his mouth coming down on hers in a long, hard kiss.
Around them, pandemonium reigned, Shifters shouting and furious as the water truck cooled down the hot mob. None of that reached Dimitri, in a bubble of calm with Jaycee.
Her mouth was hot, her body the same, her kiss holding her fire. She wrapped her arms around him and stepped closer, letting him know she could give into mating frenzy if he did. Her breasts were firm against his chest, her nipples tight, her skin smooth as he slid his hand down to the round softness of her buttocks.
The chill in the air to either side of them kicked Dimitri out of the warm place into which he’d been sinking.
He lifted his head to find Kendrick, his leader, a white tiger Shifter, on his left, the hilt of the Sword of the Guardian rising above his shoulder. On Dimitri’s other side was Dylan Morrissey, a Feline every Shifter around answered to.
Jaycee looked up, color flooding her face. She kept close to Dimitri, hiding her body, her sudden shyness making Dimitri’s protectiveness surge.
“Dimitri,” Kendrick said in his growling voice, which was deceptively soft. “Jaycee. We need to talk.”
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