Jennifer Ashley

Excerpt: Wild Things

Book 7.75: Shifters Unbound

Mason McNaughton jolted out of a sound sleep when several hundred pounds of enraged Feline landed on his chest and started to rip the hell out of him.

Mason rolled out from under the deadly claws, shifting as he went. He came up in his half-wolf form, grabbed the Feline around the waist and threw him into the wall. The wildcat bounced off and used the momentum to crash back into Mason.

They both went down, landing on the edge of the bed, which collapsed with a massive clatter. The wooden frame splintered, the mattress sliding off and pinning Mason with the Feline on top of him. Mason’s Collar triggered, shocking and sparking pain into his neck, but if he stopped fighting, he’d die.

Mason’s half-beast form gave him the strength to battle for his life. It also let him yell.

“Son of a bitch, get this fucking feral off me!”

He heard running in the hallway and then his oldest brother, Broderick, burst into the room with his usual energy. Broderick grabbed the snarling, spitting Feline and tried to yank him away from Mason.

The Feline turned around and went for Broderick, who was in human form and wearing nothing but a small pair of underwear. Broderick’s skin reddened with blood as the Feline’s claws raked his unprotected skin.

Mason launched himself off the floor, landing on the Feline and dragging him from Broderick. Broderick, swearing and bleeding, came back fighting.

“Aleck!” Broderick shouted at the Feline. “Stop!”

The Feline didn’t even acknowledge his own name. He was far gone in the feral state, snarling and biting, his green cat eyes a crazed and burning red.

They’d have to kill the bastard this time for sure. What if he hadn’t burst into Mason’s room but Broderick and Joanna’s, or Aunt Cora’s?

Mason wrestled the Feline down, his wolf claws tearing through the cat’s fur, drawing blood. Broderick was shifting, Mason saw out of the corner of his eye. The feral Aleck was a writhing ball of wildness, ready to gut everyone in the room, the house, maybe all of Shiftertown.

Mason knew they wouldn’t be able to stop him short of breaking his neck. Aleck’s mate was ready to drop a cub, and killing him would bring her terrible grief. But they had to stop him before he slaughtered the rest of the house.

Broderick became his full gray wolf and landed in the fray. He and Mason dodged giant cat paws and the snarling mouth, the wildcat’s ears flat on his head. Aleck had no idea who they were—who he was. He was only following his instincts, killing the Lupines he thought were threats to his mate, no matter that Aleck was alive at all because of Mason and his brothers.

Aleck, unlike Broderick and Mason, didn’t wear a shock Collar. Broderick’s Collar was sparking as deeply as Mason’s, slowing him down, while Aleck was free to surrender to the deadly violence that lurked inside every Shifter.

No more delays. Mason saw that thought flash through Broderick’s eyes as well. Mason moved to grab the Feline in a headlock. He would break Aleck’s neck and take the fall for it—Broderick couldn’t do it because he was alpha and would need to calm down the rest of the family after Aleck was dead. As the youngest, Mason was expendable, at the bottom of this family’s little pack.

The Feline slipped out of Mason’s hold, turned around, and sank every one of his front claws into Mason’s stomach, ripping it open. Mason’s yell mixed with a howl as his full wolf took over. His reason faded as the crazed battle beast inside him rose, and he went for the kill.

Mason barely heard the noise just inside the doorway, but a second later, Broderick was tumbling him out of the way. There was a soft bang, a thunk, and the Feline let out a cat shriek that bored into Mason’s brain and stayed there.

The Feline’s scream died to a whimper. He collapsed in a tangle of limbs and tail, his green eyes half closing as his breathing wound down into that of peaceful sleep.

Mason dragged his head up. In the doorway stood Joanne, Broderick’s mate, her hair sleep tousled, her nightshirt dragging down one shoulder. She peered over the barrel of a tranq rifle, eyeing Aleck to make sure he stayed asleep.

Broderick shifted back to his human form. His underwear had torn off in his change to wolf, and now he stood up, in the state Aunt Cora called butt-naked—the butt in question too much in Mason’s view.

“Thank you, sweetheart,” Broderick said breathlessly.

Joanne smiled back at Mason’s brother, very much in love with the dirtbag. The little protrusion in her belly was the obvious symbol of that love.

Aunt Cora, in a hot pink bathrobe with bunnies on it, popped around Joanne and took in the scene. “Thank the Goddess,” she said. “Mason, you all right? Mason …?”

Mason felt himself shifting back to human. He lay against the wall, unable to move, his stomach raked open and gushing blood.

“Don’t worry,” he tried to say, but it came out all slurred. “I’m f—” The rest of the word faded, as did the room, and Mason slid into oblivion.

* * *

The good thing about having a half-Shifter, half-Fae Lupine with healing powers in this Shiftertown was not only that she lived close by but also that she was gorgeous. Might be the painkillers she had given him talking, but Mason didn’t mind looking his fill as Andrea Gray stitched up his wounds and sank her healing magic into him with the brush of her fingers.

So what if she was already mated to the Shiftertown’s Guardian? Mason had no intention of touching the woman—she was a distant member of Mason’s clan, in any case—but he could at least enjoy the beauty of her while she worked.

For some reason, though Aleck had attacked him, everyone was pissed off at Mason. Aleck, finally waking from his tranqued state, had been calm, his feral nature temporarily tucked away. He couldn’t remember much, but he was pretty sure Mason had gone for him first, and Aleck had instinctively retaliated.

Mason, groggy from the painkillers, could only mumble in his defense. Nancy, Aleck’s mate, had glared at Mason and asked why Mason couldn’t accept that Aleck was ill and to leave him alone.

Goddess save me. Mason’s room was a wreck, and there was no extra bedroom in this effing house for him to move into—no extra bed, period. He had to lie on the couch in the living room downstairs while Andrea sewed him up, which annoyed his three older brothers because they wanted to watch basketball.

Shifters had grown used to living in close quarters after being shoved into Shiftertowns, but this house was just getting stupid. Mason and his three brothers lived there with Aunt Cora, who kept them in line. Then Broderick had rescued Joanne’s sister, Nancy, and had dragged home Aleck, her mate, a Feline pretty far gone into the feral state. Broderick had let them both live here so that his mate, Joanne, who also lived here now, would be happy.

Someone should have put Aleck out of his misery a long time ago, in Mason’s opinion. But then Nancy and her unborn cub would be grief-stricken, Joanne would be upset that her sister was unhappy, and Broderick would become even harder to live with than he already was.

But what the hell were they going to do? Nancy would drop her cub any day, and Joanne was due in the fall. No one could predict what a feral Shifter would do to a tiny cub, even his own.

Ferals were Shifters who’d reverted into the wild things that lay at the core of every Shifter, the beast that reason deserted. The Shifter who started to slide into the feral state stopped bathing, forgot what forks were for, slept on the floor, and then just generally went foam-at-the-mouth crazy. Plus, ferals stank. The level of rank in this house had been steadily rising.

Most ferals either ran off into the wilderness to die of exposure, or they were killed by other Shifters to keep them from endangering the cubs. Aleck got to stay here and make their lives miserable while he hovered between sanity and the feral state. One day, though, they’d have to tranq him until he never woke up.

“Can’t you do anything?” Mason asked Andrea as she sponged off his wound. “You’re a healer. Fix him. Or at least make him smell better.”

Andrea shook her head, dark hair moving in the spring breeze from the open windows. She was half Fae, which made her scent odd, but it was a hell of a lot better than feral Shifter. The draft blowing through the house didn’t even make a dent in the stink from upstairs.

“I can heal wounds,” Andrea said in her liquid voice. “Like yours.” Light fingertips moved over Mason’s stomach, the tingle of magic in them warm. “But Aleck is too far gone for me to reach, even if I knew how.” Her brow furrowed in concern. “I’m not sure what we can do. Liam’s called a meeting.”

Liam, the Austin Shiftertown’s leader, was a Feline, but in spite of that drawback, he wasn’t such a bad guy, even Mason had to admit. Liam decided what was good for Shiftertown and what to do about problems like Aleck.

“Liam’s called a meeting for when?” Mason asked. “I’m going.”

“It’s starting now, but you’re staying here.” Andrea gave him a stern look.

“No.” Mason pushed her warm hands away and struggled to his feet. His belly was a mess of lines and stitches, but Shifters healed quickly, and all this pain would go away soon. Right?

“Mason …” Andrea’s grip on his arm was surprisingly strong. “Broderick …”

“Sit your ass down, Mason.” Broderick loomed up from the dining room where they’d dragged the television. The Spurs were playing to rave enthusiasm from their human—and Shifter—fans. “I’m heading to Liam’s meeting to tell him all about what happened.”

Aleck’s version of the story,” Mason said. He grabbed his T-shirt and eased it over his hurt stomach then carefully buttoned and buckled his jeans. “He’s a fekking liar if he says I attacked him. I was asleep when that ton of Feline landed on me.”

“Not a liar,” Broderick said, trying to sound reasonable. “Ferals don’t always know what’s going on.”

“Which is why we have to do something about him.” Mason’s voice turned to a snarl. Broderick was his alpha, but Mason couldn’t hold back his defiance. Mason knew Broderick wasn’t happy with the Aleck situation either, but his word was law in this house … well, as long as Aunt Cora and Joanne didn’t argue with him.

Broderick’s eyes narrowed. “Mason, I’m taking care of it. Get back on that couch and heal up. Andrea, tranq him or something.”

Andrea shook her head and put her torturing needle back into her bag along with the medications she’d brought. “I’m not getting into a family fight, Broderick.” She stood up and headed for the door without any apology.

“’Fraidy-cat,” Mason called after her. The painkillers were making him a little woozy.

Andrea turned around and gave him a very wolf growl. “I’m mated to a Feline, and he’s never afraid.”

“No I meant … Never mind.” Mason grabbed a motorcycle boot and tried to jam it on his foot. He realized it was Broderick’s, kicked it off, and fished under the coffee table for his own.

By the time Mason got his boots on and made it to the front porch, Broderick was beside him. “I said I have this,” Broderick said, scowling.

“You’re busy,” Mason said, hanging on to the railing, the world spinning slightly. “You’ve got a mate and a cub on the way and people to boss around. I’m the one who nearly got killed in the middle of the night. I’m going.”

Broderick drew a sharp breath to say more, then he looked into Mason’s eyes and stopped. Big brother observed him a while, always seeming to know what Mason was thinking. Finally, he gave him a nod. “Fine. You can come with me. But keep quiet unless Liam asks you a direct question.”

“I’m not afraid of Liam, the big bad Feline,” Mason said, but that wasn’t strictly true. Liam had a way of looking at a Shifter with his quiet blue eyes before putting him in his place without twitching a finger. Liam could be extraordinarily generous, and his mate and cub loved him to distraction, but there was no doubt that Liam ran the Austin Shiftertown with a firm paw.

The meeting took place at the bar Liam managed just on the edge of Shiftertown, which didn’t open for business until later in the day. Liam was already there by the time Broderick and Mason walked in. He sat calmly on a barstool, one elbow resting on the bar behind him. Shifters weren’t allowed to own businesses, so this tavern belonged to a human, but it was clear that Liam was in charge.

Sean, Liam’s brother and Andrea’s mate, walked in just behind Broderick and Mason, the Sword of the Guardian sticking up over Sean’s shoulder. The sword unnerved Mason. A few months ago, Broderick had found a medallion from another Guardian’s sword, and the medallion had not only burned a mark on Broderick’s palm but sort of stuck with him like a lost puppy. It had done other weird things too, and because of it, Mason, for a time, had thought his brother lost forever. He’d never told Broderick how empty and grief-stricken that had made him feel. Broderick’s head was already big enough.

Liam regarded Mason with his dark blue eyes as though trying to decide how culpable Mason was in Aleck’s attack. Sean, with the same dark blue eyes as Liam, gave Mason a similar look. Mason growled and slumped down into a chair. He still hurt, his mind fuzzy from the painkillers.

A few other Shifters sat here and there throughout the room. They were Liam’s trackers—bodyguards, fighters, scouts—who generally helped Liam find trouble and keep the peace.

“Close the door,” Liam said as soon as Broderick had gotten himself up on a barstool. The huge Kodiak bear Shifter, Ronan, who was the bar’s bouncer, shut and locked the door.

“So then,” Liam began in a calm voice. “It seems Aleck has become a bit of a problem.”

“A bit of a problem?” Mason heard the snarl leave his mouth before he could stop it. Must be the painkillers—he’d never have interrupted Liam otherwise.

“A bit,” Liam repeated as Broderick tried to glare Mason to silence. “The poor lad’s nearly gone, but he’s got a mate and a cub on the way. If it comes down to finishing Aleck off, what becomes of his cub? Of Nancy?”

“Nancy’s human,” Mason said, unable to keep his mouth shut. “She and Joanne have a family to take care of her.”

“True,” Liam conceded. “But what human family will want to raise a Shifter cub? They are a handful, to say the least.” Liam shook his head but his voice took on a note of pride. He now had a baby Feline daughter who had him wrapped around her tiny fingers. “Nancy’s sister is Broderick’s mate, so your family, Mason, will have the keeping of Nancy and her cub, if she wishes, but the cub will be clanless.”

The Shifters in the room moved restlessly in sympathy. A Shifter without a clan was in a precarious position—they had no natural protectors from the bad world or even from other Shifters. They’d be at the bottom of whatever pack or pride were kind enough to take them in, and finding a mate would be tough. Shifters had a taboo about breeding within their own clan, no matter how very distant the blood connection happened to be. If a Shifter’s clan was unknown, other Shifters, especially of their own species, would be very reluctant to take them as mate.

Broderick shrugged as though none of this concerned him. “We can make the cub an honorary member of our clan and take care of him. Or her. That won’t be a problem. Even though the cub will be a Feline.”

He said Feline like an insult, and Liam, a Feline with a lot of lion in him, gave Broderick a tiny smile.

“All right, so Nancy and the cub will have protectors,” Liam went on. “But how do we tell the cub that we decided to kill his dad?”

Broderick returned Liam’s look with a bland one of his own. “Easy. I’ll send him to you when he’s old enough and have you explain.”

“Is killing him the only way?” Mason interrupted as Liam gave Broderick another of his tolerant smiles. “The guy sliced me open, yeah, but it’s not his fault he’s crazy. Can we just keep him seriously tranqued until he gets better?”

Sean answered. “No, lad. From what Andrea and I have learned, the feral state eats into your brain—changes the chemistry and synapses. If we can’t bring Aleck back soon, he’ll have permanent brain damage. Then he’ll be a danger not only to the Lupines he smells around him but to his own mate. We can’t let that happen.”

“So we off him?” Mason said. “Doesn’t seem fair. Shifters have been brought back from the feral state before, right?”

Mason didn’t know why he had this sudden rush of compassion for Aleck. The man had been raving and drooling more or less the whole time he’d lived in Mason’s family home. In his lucid periods, Aleck had been clear that he was grateful to them but didn’t much like Lupines, or any Collared Shifters at all. Dickhead. Must be Mason’s painkillers making him soft.

Sean said, “If he’s not too far gone, a healer could bring him back. If we can find a healer.”

“Your mate,” Mason said at once. “She healed me.” He waved a hand at his abdomen, which still hurt.

One of the trackers, nodded. “Yeah, she has a fine touch.”

Sean’s eyes narrowed and a growl left his throat. He went from concerned Guardian to possessive mate so fast that Mason laughed out loud.

“Peace,” Liam rumbled, putting a calming hand on his brother’s arm. “He’s teasing you, Sean, and easy it is to do. No, lad,” he said to Mason. “Andrea’s a healer, but her gift comes from her Fae blood. Sean means a Shifter healer, one that’s blessed by the Goddess with a strong amount of healing magic. A Shifter healer, it is said, can bring another Shifter back almost from the dead. They’re powerful, rare, and extremely elusive. If I knew where I could get my hands on one, I would.”

“That’s it, then.” Mason slapped the arms of his chair and pried himself to his feet. He swayed on those feet, still feeling the effects of his healing and the painkillers. “I’ll go find us a Shifter healer, and we’ll be done with this problem once and for all.”

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