“No, no, no, no, not today. You can’t do this to me today!”
But the car died anyway. It throbbed onto the shoulder of the empty highway, bucked twice, and gurgled to silence.
“Aw, damn it.” Carly’s four-inch heels landed on the pavement, followed by tanned legs and a tight, white sheath dress. She glared down at the car, the Texas wind tugging her light brown hair out of its careful French braid.
She would have to be wearing white. Carly jammed her hands on her hips and skewered the Corvette with her enraged stare.
Take the ’Vette, Her fiancé, Ethan, had said. It’s a big day. You want to make an entrance. She’d been in a hurry to get on her way out of the city to the gallery where she worked, so Ethan had pressed the keys into her hand and pushed her out the door.
Carly had agreed with him—the artist they were showcasing liked classic cars, and he was doing an exclusive with her boss’s gallery in the little town northeast of Austin. Buyers were already lined up. Carly’s commission could be enormous.
If she could get there. Carly kicked one of the tires in rage, then danced back. Her shoes were substantial but that still hurt.
Perfect. Ethan could be generous—and he had the filthy richness to do it—but he also forgot little details like making sure cars got tuned up.
“His lazy highness can just come and get me, then.” Carly went around to the passenger side of the car and leaned in through the open window to grab her cell phone from her purse.
Today. This had to happen today. Still bent into the car, she punched numbers with her thumb, but the phone made the beeping noise that indicated it was out of range.
“No effing way.” Carly backed out of the car and raised the phone high. “Come on. Find me a signal.”
And then she saw him.
The man stood about ten feet from the car, not on the road but in the tall Texas grass beside it. That grass was dotted with blue, yellow, and white flowers, and this being summer the grass was also a nice vivid green.
It wasn’t every day a girl saw a tall hunk of a man, shoulders broad under a black and red SoCo Novelties T-shirt standing by the side of the road. Watching her.
Really watching her. His eyes were fixed on Carly, not in the dazed way of a transient wandering around in an alcoholic haze, but looking at her as no human being had looked at her before.
He wasn’t scruffy like a transient either. His face was shaved, his body and clothes clean, jeans mud free despite him having walked through the field. And he must have walked through the field, because she sure hadn’t seen him on the road.
His hair . . . Carly blinked as the strong sunshine caressed sleek hair that was orange and black. Not dyed orange and black—dye tended to make hair matte and stark. This looked entirely natural, sunlight picking up highlights of red orange and blue black.
She knew she should be afraid. A strange guy with tiger-striped hair popping out of nowhere, staring at her like he did should terrify her. But he didn’t.
He hadn’t been there when Carly had first stopped the car and climbed out. He must have arrived when she’d bent over to get the phone, which meant he’d seen every bit of her round backside hugged by her skintight white dress.
This stretch of road was deserted. Eerily so. The streets in Austin were always packed, but once outside the city, it was possible to find long stretches of highway empty of traffic, such as the one Carly drove down to get to the art gallery every day.
There was no one out here, no one speeding along the straight road to rescue her. No one but herself in now-rumpled white and the tall man staring at her from the grass.
“Hey!” Carly shouted at him. “You know how to fix a car?”
He didn’t have a name. He didn’t have a clan. He’d had a mate, and a cub, but they’d died, and the humans who’d held him captive for forty years had taken them away. They hadn’t let him say good-bye, hadn’t let him grieve.
Now he lived among other Shifters, brought to this place of humidity, heat, and colorful hills. He only felt completely well when he was running in his tiger form, way out in the back country where no one would see him. He usually ran at night, but today, he hadn’t been able to stay in the confines of the house, or Shiftertown. So he’d gone.
He’d left his clothes hidden behind a little rise at the side of this road. Connor was supposed to pick him up, but not for a couple more hours, and Connor was often late. Tiger didn’t mind. He liked being out here.
He’d dressed, walked around the rise to the road . . . and saw a fine backside sticking out of a bright red car. The backside was covered in thin white fabric, showing him faintly pink panties beneath.
Below the nice buttocks were shapely legs, not too long, tanned by Texas sun. Shoes that rose about half a mile made those legs even shapelier.
The woman had hair the color of winter-gold grass. She had a cell phone in one hand, but she waited, the other hand on her shapely hip, for him to answer her question.
Tiger climbed the slope from the grass to the road. She watched him come, unafraid, her sunglasses trained on him.
Tiger wanted to see her eyes. If she was going to be his mate, he wanted to see everything about her.
And this woman would be his mate. No doubt about that. The scent that kicked into his nostrils, the way his heartbeat slowed to powerful strokes, the way his body filled with heat told him that.
Connor had tried to explain that mating didn’t happen like that for Shifters. A Shifter male got to know a female a little bit before he chose, and then he mate-claimed her. The mate bond could rear its head anytime before or after that, but it didn’t always on first glance.
Tiger had listened to this wisdom without arguing, but he knew better. He wasn’t an ordinary Shifter. And this female, hand on one curved hip, wasn’t an ordinary woman.
“Can you put the hood up?” Tiger asked her.
“I don’t know,” she said, frustrated. “This car is different from anything I usually drive. Hang on, let me check.”
Her voice was a sweet little Texas drawl, not too heavy. A light touch, enough to make warmth crawl through Tiger’s veins and go straight to his cock.
The woman found a catch and worked the hood open, then dusted off her hands and peered at the inner workings without comprehension. “Classic car, my ass.” She scowled at it. “Classic just means old.”
Tiger looked inside. The layout was much different from the pickup he and Connor had been tinkering with all spring, but Connor had been teaching Tiger a lot about vehicles. “Got a socket wrench?”
When he looked up at the woman, he saw her staring at him from behind the sunglasses. “Your eyes,” she said. “They’re . . .”
Tiger turned away before her scent convinced him to press her back against the side of the car and hold her to him. She wasn’t a female someone had tossed into his cage to trigger his mating frenzy. This was his mate, and he didn’t want to hurt her.
He wanted to take this slow, woo her a little. Maybe with something involving food. Shifter males around here liked to cook for their mates, and Tiger liked the rituals.
She opened the back of the car and found a toolbox, which did have a set of socket wrenches. Tiger took one and reached inside the car, looking for the silence within himself that would lead him to the problem. He seemed to be able to sense what was wrong with engines, and how to coax them back to life. He couldn’t explain how he did it—he only knew that cars and trucks didn’t watch him, or fear him, and he could see what was wrong when others couldn’t.
As he worked, the neckline of his T-shirt slid down, baring the silver and black Collar that ran around his throat. The woman bent over to him, the top of her dress dangerously open, the warmth of her touching his cheek.
“Holy shit,” she said. “You’re a Shifter.”
She lifted her sunglasses and stared at him. Her eyes were clear green, flecked with a little gray. She stared at him frankly, in open curiosity, and without fear.
Of course she wasn’t afraid of him. She was going to be his mate.
Tiger met her gaze, unblinking. Her eyes widened the slightest bit, as though she realized something had happened between them, but she didn’t know what.
She restored her sunglasses and straightened up. “I’ve never seen a Shifter before. I didn’t know any of y’all were allowed out of Shiftertown.”
Tiger picked up the wrench with one hand and moved the other to the timing belt chain, which had come loose from the gear. “We’re allowed.”
The repair needed both delicacy and strength but Tiger finished quickly, leaning all the way inside and letting his fingers know what to do. He backed out and closed the toolbox. “Start it now.”
The woman eagerly rushed to the car, slid inside, and cranked it to life. She emerged again, leaving the car running, while Tiger scanned a few more things. “The timing belt will hold for now, but the whole shaft is worn and could break. Take the car home and don’t use it again until it’s fixed.”
“Terrific. Armand is going to kill me.”
Tiger didn’t know who Armand was and didn’t much care. He carried the toolbox to the back for her and closed the small trunk, then returned to close the hood.
He found her smiling at him on the other side of the hood as it came down. “You’re kind of amazing, you know that?” she asked. “So what were you doing out in that field? Were you running around as a . . . Let me guess. Tiger?”
He let his lips twitch. “What gave it away?”
“Very funny. I’ve never met a man with striped hair and yellow eyes. Call it a clue. Anyway, you’re a lifesaver. I’m Carly, by the way.” She stuck out her hand, then pulled it back from his now-greasy one. “Hang on. I think there’re some wipes in here.”
Carly leaned in through the passenger window again. Tiger stood still and enjoyed watching her, and when she straightened, she knew he’d been looking. “Like what you see?” she asked, her voice holding challenge.
Tiger saw no reason to lie. “Yes,” he said.
“You sweet-talker.” Carly pulled out two damp wipes for him.
Tiger took them and wiped off his hands. Wet wipes were familiar, at least. Whenever he’d been working on the truck, Connor’s aunt always made him clean up with them before she’d let him back into the house.
“You need a ride into Austin?” Carly asked. “It’s still thirty miles from here to the gallery, so I’d better take this car back to Ethan’s and not risk it. Ethan loves this car. Like I said, Armand’s going to kill me, but I’m so late now, it’s not going to matter.”
Carly sent him a wide smile. “Yes, you want a ride? Or are you just being polite while I ramble?”
“The ride.” He could call Connor with the cell phone they made him carry when he got back to town. He couldn’t miss this opportunity to get to know his mate.
“Man of few words. I like it. Ethan, my fiancé, can talk on and on and on about his family, his business, his day, his life—Ethan. His favorite topic.”
Tiger stopped. “Fiancé.”
“Do Shifters have fiancés? It’s what humans call the man they’re going to marry.”
Tiger wadded up the now-dirty wipes in his big hands. “I didn’t know you’d have a fiancé.”
Carly opened the door of the running car as though she hadn’t heard him. “Get in. Ethan’s house is on the river—it’s a ways from Shiftertown, but I can always get you a taxi, or one of Ethan’s many lackeys can run you home.”
“Why are you marrying him?”
Carly shrugged. “Girl’s got to marry someone, mostly so her older sister stops mentioning it every five minutes. Ethan’s a good catch. Besides, I’m in love with him.”
No, she wasn’t. The slight motion in her throat, the scent of nervousness as she replied gave away the lie. She didn’t love him. Tiger felt something like triumph.
He got into the car as Carly slid into the driver’s seat inches away from him. Her fingers ran over the steering wheel as she made a competent U-turn on the still-empty road, and she drove, somewhat slowly, back toward Austin.
Carly tried to talk to him. She liked to chatter, this female. Tiger was fine with sitting back and listening to her, scenting her, watching her.
As they neared the city and the road started getting busier, Carly lifted her cell phone and called the man named Armand. She explained she’d be late, then held the phone from her ear while a male voice on the other end spoke loudly in an unfamiliar accent. Carly rolled her eyes at Tiger and smiled, unworried.
“Bark’s worse than his bite,” she said, clicking off the phone.
“I know some wolves like that.”
Carly laughed, her red mouth opening. Tiger leaned in closer to her, not hard to do in this coffin of a car, and brushed his scent onto her.
She glanced at him, again with the puzzlement of knowing something had happened but not sure what. “It’s dangerous for a woman to give strange men rides. I wonder why I’m not worried with you.”
Because you’re my mate. “Because I’d never hurt you.”
“Well, you can’t, can you? That’s why you wear the Collar. Keeps you tame. Shifters can’t be violent with it on.”
Tiger could. This Collar was fake. It didn’t have the technology or Fae magic that would send shocks through his system if he started to attack.
They’d tried to put a real Collar on him, and Tiger had nearly gone insane. They concluded that Tiger should wear a fake Collar—not that the humans realized it was fake—and proceed from there.
This Collar would not stop Tiger from scooping up Carly and running off with her if he wanted to. He could sequester her, mate with her, soothe his need for her until they both collapsed in exhaustion.
Or he could be kind and wait for her to get used to him.
Carly kept up the conversation all the way through midtown traffic and up the hill north of the river. She pulled into a drive that arced in front of an enormous house, the mansion white with black shutters and black trim. Carly parked the car and emerged, and Tiger got out with her.
Gates on either side of the house led to the backyard, and Carly opened one, beckoning Tiger to follow. Tiger got in front of her and went through the gate first, his Shifter instinct urging him to make sure the way was safe for her.
The backyard overlooked the river and the hills opposite it, where similar houses had a view of this one. A stair ran down the side of the hill to a private dock, where two boats bobbed.
A row of glass windows lined the back of the house, but the glare of the sun and tint of the windows kept Tiger from seeing inside. A man with pruning shears looked up from a bush at the corner of the house, then stood up in alarm as Carly reached for the handle of one of the glass doors.
“Ms. Randal, you don’t want to go in there.”
Carly turned to him in surprise. Tiger tried to get around Carly to enter the house first, but she was too quick. She was opening the door and walking inside before Tiger could stop her, and he had to settle for following a step behind her.
What Tiger smelled inside the house wasn’t danger, however. It was sex.
He saw why when he and Carly rounded a wall behind which stretched a huge kitchen. Cabinetry in a fine golden wood filled the walls, the long counters shiny granite. It was clean in here, no dishes cluttering the counters, no one cooking something that smelled good, no chatter and laughter as a meal was prepared.
A woman sat on top of the counter with her blouse open, her skirt up around her hips, high-heeled shoes on her feet. A man with his pants around his ankles was thrusting hard into her, holding her legs in black stockings around his thighs. Both humans were grunting and panting, and neither noticed Carly or Tiger.
Tiger stepped in front of Carly, trying to put his huge body between her and the scene. Carly stopped, her purse falling from nerveless fingers to the floor. “Ethan.” There was shock in her tone.
The man turned around. Tiger was growling, feeling the distress of his mate, the animal in him wanting nothing more than to kill the person who’d upset her.
The man jumped, his mouth dropping open, then he stumbled over his pants and had to catch himself on the counter.
“Carly, what the fuck are you doing here?” His gaze went to Tiger, whose fingers were sprouting the long, razor-sharp claws of the Bengal. “And who the hell is that?”
Carly’s anguish hit Tiger in a series of waves. Shock, anger, and then a pain so harsh the edge of it hurt him.
Tiger reached for her, but Carly snatched up her purse and swung away, blinded. She ran from the room, out of the house, and back into the sunshine.
The house’s windows let Tiger trace her progress through the backyard and around to the front. She slammed her way back into the Corvette, started the engine with a roar, and shot around the circular drive and out into the street.
Leaving Tiger alone, unable to comfort her.
He turned instead to the source of Carly’s distress, the man called Ethan. Ethan glared at Tiger, outrage in his eyes, and snarls built in Tiger’s throat.
The young woman Ethan had been with—unknown, not part of this—scrambled from the counter, her skirt catching on her black thigh-high stockings as she righted herself. A flash of yellow satin panties broke the monochrome colors of her outfit before the businesslike gray skirt shut it out.
The woman buttoned her blouse with agitated fingers. “Shit, Ethan, you said she’d be gone all day.”
Ethan dragged his gaze from Tiger, took a step toward the woman, half tripped on his pants again, and leaned down to drag them up. “Lisa, wait . . .”
“You said she knew. You said she was cool with it.”
The woman grabbed her purse and started for the sliding glass door. Tiger remained in front of it, growling.
The woman looked up at him, and a bite of primal fear entered her eyes. She didn’t know what Tiger was, but something inside her knew a predator when she saw one. She stood a moment, indecisive, then pivoted and ran out the other side of the kitchen toward the front of the house.
“No,” Ethan called. “Wait.”
He frantically zipped and buckled as he swung around to follow her and found himself up against the solid wall of Tiger, who’d stepped in his way.
Tiger smelled Ethan’s outrage and shock, but no fear and no shame. “Who the hell are you?” Ethan had to crank his head back to look at Tiger, but he had an arrogance that would make an alpha smack him down just to make a point.
The front door slammed open, the young woman fleeing. Ethan grimaced as he heard her car start, then turned even more rage on Tiger.
“Carly’s sleeping with you?” he demanded. “You can tell that slut for me she can give me back every penny I’ve ever given her.”
Feral anger rose inside Tiger in a wave. Living outside the cage, experiencing new sensations and feelings had dampened his rages a bit, but hadn’t erased them. Nothing ever would.
This man, this pretend-mate of Carly’s, had hurt her. He’d not done it with calculation, but with careless cruelty. Now he twisted the fact that Carly had walked in on him while he betrayed her to make the betrayal her fault.
Tiger’s reactions were more basic. He saw a source of pain, and he eliminated it.
His snarls grew in volume, a sound so deep it was felt more than heard. The glass-fronted cabinets rattled, and dishes behind them took up the dance. The kitchen windows caught the vibrations and rumbled in response.
A glass cabinet door shattered and broke. Ethan gaped at it, then back at Tiger. “You’re paying for that.”
“Mr. Turner.” The gardener who’d tried to stop Carly from entering the house now stood in the kitchen’s open door. “He’s a Shifter.”
“Is he?” Ethan peered up at Tiger again, taking in his Collar. He started to smile. “Son of a bitch. Carly’s doing it with a Shifter? She won’t have anything left when I’m finished with her. Teach her to mess around with me like that.”
Killing rage beat through Tiger’s blood. Ethan was a small, sniveling creature, smelling of deceit, and he dared to threaten Tiger’s mate.
Tiger slammed his fists to the kitchen counter, a polished slab of granite. It broke into two giant chunks.
“Here . . . you . . .” The gardener held his rake in front of him, a tool Tiger could snap between his fingers.
Now fear appeared in Ethan’s eyes but still not enough. “Get out of here, or I’m calling the police.”
Tiger barely heard him. Because the man was so weak, Tiger’s need to protect Carly would be slaked with something simple, like breaking Ethan’s neck. Ripping him apart and painting the walls with his blood wasn’t necessary. Not this time. He reached for Ethan’s throat.
Fear at last radiated from Ethan, sickening waves of it. Tiger smelled the man’s bladder fail him, and then Ethan turned and ran.
Running was a bad idea. It woke Tiger’s need to hunt, to kill, the instinct to track through the jungle something for his dinner.
Ethan ran into his living room. The place was filled with furniture, all of it white. Tiger threw things aside to clear his path, chairs and the sofa crashing to the floor in pieces. Ethan dashed into a smaller room, darker, with a desk and a computer. And no escape.
Tiger barreled inside like silent death, while behind him, the gardener shouted, “I’m calling the cops! I’m calling the cops!”
Ethan yanked open a desk drawer and scrabbled in it. Tiger picked up the desk and threw it aside. The wooden thing crashed into the wall, smashing desk, wall, and computer.
Ethan came up from a terrified crouch, something black in his hands. There was a loud bang.
Fire bit into Tiger’s gut, but he plowed on, kicking aside the remains of the desk.
Bang, bang, bang. Three more bullets entered Tiger’s body. The pain finally cut through his rage, and he looked down to see blood dripping over the front of his shirt.
Tiger hadn’t been shot in a long time. The humans who’d tried to tame him in the basement had used tranqs at first, and they’d had to shoot him several times before Tiger succumbed to the drugs. Then they wondered, How many bullets would it take to slow him down? And they’d tried it. They’d discovered it took more than the four small ones Ethan had just pumped into Tiger’s front before he felt it.
Tiger reached for the pistol.
Five, six, seven. The bullets hit Tiger one by one, pain escalating. Tiger snatched the gun from Ethan’s hand and broke it in half.
Ethan was screaming now, his terror beating against Tiger’s pain. Tiger lifted Ethan by the neck, higher, higher. The man gave Tiger one look of intense fear, and then he went limp, eyes rolling back into his head. Tiger shook him, and Ethan’s head lolled. He still warm and alive, but unconscious.
Disappointing. Tiger dumped Ethan’s body on top of the ruins of the desk and turned to leave. Blood slid down the shirt and his torso behind it, pooling in his waistband. Kim was going to be angry at Tiger for ruining the shirt. She always shook her finger at him when he got his clothes too dirty.
The gardener jumped out of the way as Tiger came out of the office. The man still held the rake, ready to swat Tiger if he came too near, but Tiger ignored him. The gardener had done nothing to Carly.
Tiger pressed his arm to his abdomen as he found the front door of the house, left open by the other woman’s swift exit. He staggered out on weakening legs, vision blurring.
Dimly, he heard the wail of sirens, growing louder as he stumbled down the long driveway and out into the street. He saw and smelled other humans popping out of front gates to peer at him, reminding him of prairie dogs he’d seen while he’d roamed, peeking up out of burrows to check whether the way was safe.
Shiftertown lay to the east of this place, so Tiger turned his steps that way, feeling the warm asphalt through the soles of his shoes.
The sirens grew louder. Tiger remembered how afraid he’d been when he’d first heard them charging through the city, how Connor had explained what they were and what they meant. Police, fire, ambulance. Get out of the way, because someone needed to be saved, or someone needed to be hunted.
Hunting should be silent. Predators had to stalk, to move silently, to find their prey and strike before the prey knew they were there.
Five police cars charged up the hill toward him, followed by a small red truck, lights blazing. They cut off Tiger from progressing east, but he could climb walls and cut through yards if he had to.
Tiger turned in through a gate to another house, scattering two more men with garden tools. Behind this house, the river gleamed at the bottom of a hill, a better way to escape than the roads. He could swim down the river, pull himself out near Shiftertown, and make his way home from there.
Police cars hurtled through the gates after him. Tiger jogged around the house, heading down the slope, his breathing labored now.
The river flowed, cool and sweet, at the end of the path at the bottom of the hill. The water would feel good on his wounds. Tiger would wade in and then just float away, dreaming of Carly and her scent, her red-lipped smile, and her eyes assessing him without fear.
Another loud bang ripped away his daydreams. Pain tore into the base of his spine, and Tiger’s knees buckled.
He landed facedown in a lawn of green grass, the blades tickling his nose. “Carly,” he mumbled. “Carly.”
A boot landed on his backside. A man pulled one of Tiger’s hands behind his back, and a cool cuff touched his wrist.
Bound, chained, trapped . . .
Tiger rose, the Shifter beast tearing out of him as he went up, and up, and up. The bloody mess of his clothes fell away, and the cuff shattered and fell to the grass.
He roared his Tiger roar, opening his mouth filled with fangs, his in-between beast huge and deadly.
A barrage of guns pointed at him, including a large air rifle loaded with a tranquilizer.
Tiger went for the man with the tranq. Too late. The dart entered Tiger’s already battered body, and the quick-acting tranquilizer made him stumble. But it wasn’t enough. Never was.
“Takes two,” he said, his voice clogged, clawed hand reaching for the rifle. “Maybe three.”
The man had already reloaded. The second dart hit Tiger’s throat, right above his Collar, a third one entered his thigh, shot by a second man, and peaceful tranquilizer poured into Tiger’s blood.
“Good shot,” he said, or thought he said, then he rushed to the ground at sickening speed.Return to Tiger Magic