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Alaskan Tigers Collection

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Alaskan Tigers Collection

Books 1 – 3

Marissa Dobson

eBooks cannot be sold, shared or given away as it is an infringement on the copyright of this work.

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Dobson Ink

Martinsburg, West Virginia

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Alaskan Tigers Collection Books 1 – 3

Copyright ©2017, Marissa Dobson

Tiger Time

Copyright ©2012, 2016, Marissa Dobson

The Tiger’s Heart

Copyright ©2013, 2016 Marissa Dobson

Tigress for Two

Copyright ©2013, 2016 Marissa Dobson

ISBN: 978-1-946474-06-3

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination and are used fictitiously and are not to be constructed as real. Any resemblance to actual person—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of Dobson Ink. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to five years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

www.MarissaDobson.com

Contents

Newsletter

Tiger Time

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

The Tiger’s Heart

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Tigress for Two

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Preview: Night with a Tiger

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Preview: Forever’s Fight

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Preview: Romancing the Fox

Chapter One

About the Author

Also by Marissa Dobson

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h1=. Newsletter

Don’t miss a new release, sign up for my {color:rgb(99, 15, 50);}newsletter.

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Your introduction email will include links to free books. Also be sure to enter the monthly giveaway.

To my husband, Thomas who spent many hours listening to my ideas for the Alaskan Tigers series.

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To my sister Jenifer who loves tigers as much as I do. She inspired me to write the Alaskan Tigers.

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To my readers who love the Alaskan Tigers as much as I enjoy writing them. Enjoy this newest adventure to Alaska.

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h1=. Tiger Time

Alaskan Tigers: Book One

Tabitha Leigh has no idea her mundane life is about to change. Every day she gets up, goes to work, comes home—an average, almost drab existence. Lately she’s been getting sick, and she can’t figure out why. As fever and fatigue consume her, she has no idea she’s being followed—and danger stalks her every step.

The Alpha of the Alaskan Tigers, Ty Reynolds, has been watching her from a distance to see if she will go through the change. When she finally does, he sees more in her than just the future of their kind. Now that she is embracing her tiger side, he must tell her she is the Queen of the Tigers—and she has a bounty on her head.

Tabitha must be protected at all costs; she must embrace her future and her mate. If she doesn’t, it will mean the end of everything she’s come to know and never realized she needed.

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h1=. Chapter One

Tabitha Leigh staggered up the steps to her cramped studio apartment. A plain white envelope was taped to her door, piquing her interest, but she was too exhausted and sore to care. Licking her dry lips, she realized the fever had taken a toll on her body; last she’d checked it was a hundred and one. Her weak muscles barely carried her up the steps.

Despite this, she couldn’t sleep. Night after night, she lay in bed glaring at the ceiling, her thoughts filled with visions of a far off place. Deep inside she felt a desire to leave, to start over somewhere new. When she thought about where she wanted to go, the only place she could picture herself living was Alaska. Odd, since she hated cold weather and snow more than anything else. Beside her bed hung a beautiful picture of Alaska with the aurora borealis lighting up the sky. It was the last thing she saw before going to sleep at night. Her coffee table was littered with brochures and Alaskan travel books.

She grabbed the envelope from her door, planning to toss it on the table to deal with later, but the moment her hand wrapped around it, she felt lighter somehow—calmer.

That’s insane.

The steaming hot bath she longed for could wait a few minutes. Plopping down on the sofa, she tore open the envelope. The stationary was soft, yet heavy. As she unfolded the page, the masculine scent of cologne assuaged her, rich and fragrant. Not from the landlord then.

Dear Tabitha,

I was a friend of your father’s and I need to speak to you immediately.

Please meet me at Tony’s Bar & Grill tomorrow night at seven o’clock.

It’s important.

Sincerely,

Ty

A number of questions ran through her head. Had he really known her father? Maybe he could tell her about her parents and why she’d been left in the state’s care.

Even if Ty answers some of my questions, I don’t know him or what he really wants.

Foster homes had made her cautious of others; it was hard to make friends when all she’d been surrounded with were people who were out for themselves.

She wouldn’t go. She wasn’t much of a risk-taker, and this was too big of a risk. As she laid aside the letter and went to take a bath, her brain told her she was doing the right thing.

But her heart wanted answers.

Relaxing in the blistering hot water with lavender bath salts and a touch of vanilla normally eased the tension from her body. But tonight she was on edge. The letter bugged her. She cursed its timing; why now, when she was at her worst? This sickness was awful. She didn’t want to be bothered by anyone, least of all a stranger who might have known her family. The exhaustion in her body gave way to a miserable depression that took hold of her heart and wouldn’t let go. She had so much darkness in her past, and she wanted answers. But now?

“What shitty timing,” she mumbled, sinking into the water until her chin touched the surface of the foamy soap.

Saying he was a friend of her father’s wasn’t something that would make her want to meet him. She knew next to nothing about her parents. They could have been murderers for all she knew.

No, they weren’t murderers. The caseworker said her parents died in a car accident when she was a year old. Not that she remembered any of it. Thanks to a very nice police officer, she had a picture of her parents that had been taken a month before the accident. It was the only treasure she had from her family as she moved from foster home to foster home. Even now, she kept it next to her bed.

A year ago, on her eighteenth birthday, she aged out of the system. Her caseworker, Bev, handed her five hundred dollars and told her to leave. The only constant in her life until that point was suddenly gone. Bev had only been doing her job and now that it was done, it was time for her to move on. There was certainly another child ready to take her place.

Tabitha dunked her head under the water as the memory of how exciting and scary that time had been came flooding back. All her life she had been tossed from home to home like some unwanted pet and she hated every minute of it. Until the day she was told to leave, and she had nowhere to go. Trying to save every dollar she could, she ended up in a fleabag motel, scared and alone. The worst part was not being able to find a job. It was an endless cycle. No one would hire her without an address, and she couldn’t get an apartment without a job.

She had been desperate when a little mom-and-pop family restaurant hired her to clean tables and wash dishes. She didn’t care what kind of work she did as long as it kept a roof over her head. The day after she was hired, she found a little rundown apartment two blocks from work. Thanks to Alice, her best friend and fellow foster child who lived in the building, she was able to rent it without a deposit. It wasn’t much—only a studio—but it came furnished. The day she moved in, she had nothing but a suitcase full of clothes.

Alice had aged out of the foster care system a little more than a year before, and she suggested living across the hall from each would provide a sense of security. Their bond was strong, but Alice was preoccupied with her boyfriend, and only had time for Tabitha when Mike wasn’t around. For the first time since they’d become friends, there was distance between them, and Tabitha worried about Alice all the time. She couldn’t help it; both women were troubled and had their own unique issues, but Alice’s worst downfall was that she always chose the wrong men.

Tabitha thought again about the letter. She and Alice often mused on how they wished they could learn something about their families, about where they came from. Now Tabitha had a chance. Whoever this Ty person was, he knew something about her origin.

I don’t know what to do. She sighed heavily, torn by indecision.

The bubbles were gone and the water grew cold. Tabitha wasn’t sure how long she’d been lost in her memories, but it was time to move on. Grabbing a towel off the rack, she wondered if she would ever find her place in the world.

What is my purpose? Why Alaska?

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h1=. Chapter Two

Tabitha woke when the sun shining between the curtains hit her eyes. The bedside clock showed it was just before six in the morning. Three hours of sleep—not much to the normal person, but she was grateful for any sleep at all. Maybe taking it easy would help her get over the flu or whatever she had. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could go on in the condition she was in. She was constantly tired and her body ached all over. She struggled through the days, exhausted, but laid in bed unable to sleep.

Unlike most people, she wasn’t a coffee drinker in the morning. She preferred a cold glass of iced tea to push away the fog of sleep. The bed was only ten steps from the refrigerator, not far to go, but she didn’t make it before someone began pounding on her door. Whoever it was would put wrench in her plans for the day. It was too early for a social call, so it must mean something awful had happened or was about to happen.

“Tabitha, are you in there? Please, I need your help. Open up.”

“Alice, what’s…?”

As she yanked open the door, Alice fell into Tabitha’s apartment and landed on the floor with a loud thud. Covered in blood, her face was marred with black and blue bruises. Her short brown hair looked black from blood.

Tabitha stood back, appalled, bile rising in her throat.

How could someone do this to another person?

Her hands trembled in anger as she examined Alice. She wanted to comfort her, but she couldn’t see an unmarked spot where she could put her hands.

“I took your advice and told him I’m pregnant.” She let out a pitiful sob before she could go on. “He beat the crap out of me and told me it couldn’t be his. He doesn’t have any children. None of his other girls got pregnant, so I must have cheated.”

Tabitha listened to Alice ramble on as she grabbed her cell phone off the stand by the sofa. The phone was the only luxury she could afford. It was an expensive thing to keep up, but walking home late at night by herself in Pittsburgh—she needed it just in case. Tabitha dialed 911, hoping an ambulance could get there in time to save Alice and the baby, and maybe the police could arrest the creep.

“What’s your emergency?”

Tabitha wished there was something she could do for Alice, but the only thing she could give her was comfort as she gently wrapped her arms around her. “My friend is in real bad shape. We need an ambulance. She’s pregnant, and I think she might be having a miscarriage. She was beaten badly.”

“What’s your location?”

“Fifty-fifty East Liberty Street, apartment three on the second floor.” She gulped, forcing the words out, panic rising in her chest.

“Okay, I have an ambulance on its way. Can you tell me what happened?”

Alice moaned in pain. Tabitha spoke louder so the dispatcher would hear her. “I…I don’t know. She’s my neighbor, she came banging on my door, screaming her boyfriend beat her.”

“I am sending the police out also.”

Alice must have overheard because she whispered, “No, please. He’ll kill me.”

Not if I get to him first.

She wasn’t sure where the thought came from; violence wasn’t in her nature. But if Mike were there, she’d need an army to keep her off him. Alice was the only real friend Tabitha ever had, and even though they’d grown apart recently, she’d be damned if she’d let him get away with this. Fury ignited every cell in her body until she thought it might burn her alive.

“Shh, it’s okay. You’re going to press charges and he’ll be in jail, he won’t be able to do anything to you.” Tabitha pushed Alice’s hair off her face, holding her close. Her fingers came away with blood on them.

The dispatcher continued gathering information, and Tabitha answered every question as best she could but her mind was racing. [_Could Mike have followed her to finish the job he started? Will he come back later looking for her? _]She wanted to believe she could handle him on her own, but she knew she couldn’t. Especially not now with how sick she was.

Two paramedics rushed up the stairs, leaving no time to quiet Alice’s fears.

Tabitha spoke into her cell phone again. “Thank you, the ambulance and fire department are here.”

“You’re in good hands now,” the operator said before the line went dead.

Tabitha slipped her phone into her pocket and tried to step aside so the paramedics could take over, but Alice grabbed Tabitha’s shirt.

“Please stay. Don’t leave me.”

The blond paramedic looked from Tabitha to Alice. “She’s just going to move back a little so I can help you. She can go with you in the ambulance if you like.”

Eyes wide, Alice looked like a scared child. “Please come with me. I don’t want to be alone, he’ll find me and finish it.”

Tabitha brushed some hair off her friend’s face. “Sure, I’ll go, now let them look you over.” After a slight hesitation, Alice nodded in agreement. While the paramedics examined her, Tabitha took the time to change out of her sweats and into a pair of jeans.

She’d just stepped out of the bathroom when the blond paramedic looked over his shoulder. “Miss, if you’re going with us, we need to go now. She’s lost a lot of blood.”

While they loaded Alice onto the stretcher and prepared to move her, Tabitha grabbed her purse and keys. She followed them down the steps and out to the waiting ambulance. With speed and precision they loaded the stretcher. As the ambulance pulled away from the curb, Alice passed out.

“Josh, call it in. The victim is unconscious, and they need to have blood standing by. She’s lost too much and will need a transfusion.” Then he turned to Tabitha. “Do you know her blood type and if she’s on any medication?”

[_How could all this be happening? _]Tabitha sat there in shock until the blond paramedic reached over and touched her arm. Recalling his inquiry, she shook her head to clear her mind.

“No, I don’t know her blood type, but she wasn’t taking anything. Maybe prenatal vitamins. She was so happy she got pregnant and didn’t want to do anything that might hurt the baby.” She looked at her friend lying so still and pale on the gurney, blood soaking her jeans. The baby.

Tears filled Tabitha’s eyes as she quivered in terror and fury. “Did she…did she lose the baby?” She already knew the answer.

He nodded. “I believe so. I’m sorry.”

The rest of the trip was a blur.

Upon arriving at the hospital, she tried to stay out of the way. It wasn’t too hard since Alice was still unconscious and didn’t need her. She stood against the wall away from everyone. Her thoughts and fears kept her company as she waited to find out about her friend.

How could that good-for-nothing jerk do this?

You didn’t love someone if you beat them.[_ That_] wasn’t love.

Lost in her thoughts, she barely noticed the blond paramedic come up to her with a police officer at his side. “Miss, Officer O’Malley would like to have a word with you, if that’s all right.”

“Yes, but I don’t know if I can be of any help.”

“Thank you, Jason. If you will excuse us.” The officer led her over to the chairs in the hallway. “What’s your name?”

“Tabitha Leigh.” She perched on the chair, straightening and peering into Alice’s room.

When Officer O’Malley looked up from his notebook, his face was stone-cold and blank. A true cop’s face. “Miss Leigh, what happened this morning?”

She tried not to cry as she thought back to how she got dragged into this. “When I woke up, Alice was pounding on my door begging me to help her. She told me her boyfriend did this.”

“What is her boyfriend’s name? Why would her boyfriend do this?”

“I don’t know him. Alice refers to him only as Mike. It was…it was because she’s pregnant.” Her voice broke, and she bit her lip to keep from breaking down. “He told her he doesn’t want children and since he doesn’t want them, he believes he can’t have them, so she must have cheated.” She looked down at the tissue in her hands, then rocked forward, taking a deep shuddering breath.

“Is she sure this is his baby?”

She couldn’t control the tears running down her face. It was unbelievable he had the nerve to ask that when her friend was in there dying. “She said it was, but I wasn’t there.” She looked up, glaring at him. “I don’t know who she’s sleeping with, but I’ve known her for years. She’s more honest and trustworthy than anyone I’ve met. She wouldn’t tell him it was his child if she wasn’t sure. She wouldn’t cheat when she’s in a committed relationship.” Her voice rose with irritation. She wanted to be with her friend, not sitting here answering the officer’s questions.

“We’re going to have to question the boyfriend. Do you know where I might be able to find Mike?”

“No.” With that, she was done with his interrogation. She stood and walked back to Alice’s room. She wouldn’t sit there listening to him. He was just like all the other people in her life—foster parents who put all the blame on her, people she couldn’t trust, people who didn’t trust her. Well, Alice wasn’t going to take the blame this time. There was nothing she could do to make him believe the story if he wanted to doubt it.

“Miss Leigh, I might need to ask you a few more questions later,” her interrogator called after her.

Without turning to look at him, Tabitha snapped a terse reply. “You know where to find me, but I don’t think I’ll be of any help.”

Hours passed in a blur with Tabitha glued to Alice’s bedside, not wanting to leave in case she woke up. When Alice woke she’d need the comfort of a friend, and someone to hold her hand as she cried over the child she’d lost. Darkness fell and her eyes were growing heavy when Alice finally woke.

“Thanks.” Her voice was hoarse.

Tabitha jumped to her feet, a sudden surge of energy rushing through her, and poured a glass of ice water from the pitcher the nurse had brought in a little while ago. She carefully handed it to Alice, tenderly wrapping her fingers around the glass. Her hands were shaking.

“There’s no need for thanks. If you need anything, I’m here. I’ll stay as long as you need me.”

Alice tried to sit up to take a drink. She winced from the pain but managed to force her body into a reclined position. “I feel awful. Tell me what you know. Will the baby be all right?”

“I better get the doctor.” Tabitha stood and walked toward the door.

“That bastard killed my baby, didn’t he?” Alice shrieked, shuddering, tears flowing down her bruised cheeks.

Her heart broke for her friend. She wanted to do something to make things better, but she couldn’t. She went to her and held her close. With her arms wrapped around Alice, she reached for the call button, and it wasn’t long before Doctor Roberts rushed in.

Alice was almost hysterical, leaving the doctor with no choice but to give her a sedative to help her sleep. As she closed her eyes, Tabitha laid her back down on the bed, gently squeezing her hand.

Doctor Roberts narrowed his eyes, frowning. “I thought I gave you instructions to page a doctor and not to tell her she lost the baby.”

She whipped her head around so fast, she couldn’t believe it was still attached to her body. “I didn’t tell her anything. When I wouldn’t answer her question and I tried to get a doctor, she freaked out. There was nothing I could do. She just knew. Mothers know these things.”

Doctor Roberts looked from her to the nurse. “Why is it the family and friends always think they know what’s best for the patient and disregard the doctor’s orders?” With that, he stormed out of the room.

They’re all the same. No one believes what I have to say.

Tabitha sank down into the chair by Alice’s bed and wept.

The nurse who’d brought the pitcher hung back after the doctor left. “Miss, she’s going to sleep through the night. Why don’t you go home and get a good night’s rest? We’ll take care of her. When you come back in the morning, she’ll be awake and she’ll need you then.”

“Maybe you’re right. Could I leave my number and if anything changes, you can give me a call?”

The nurse nodded and handed her a pen and paper.

She wrote her number on it and handed it back. As the nurse walked out, Tabitha leaned over the bed. “Alice, I’m going home to sleep. I’ll be back in the morning. You rest, and we’ll figure something out tomorrow.” Knowing there was nothing more she could do, she kissed her friend’s forehead before grabbing her purse to leave.

Stepping out of the hospital, the cool evening air of October enveloped her with a sweet scent, foretelling rain was on the horizon. Freshly fallen leaves crunched under her steps, and danced along the pavement while the moon hung overhead lighting the way. To save some money, Tabitha decided to walk home. It was only a few blocks and Pittsburgh was a beautiful city with lots of different shops and so many lights. If the crime rate wasn’t so high, it would be the perfect city to live in. As it was, a young woman walking on the streets at night alone had to worry about being mugged or raped. She kept her hand inside her coat where she kept her cell phone and a can of pepper spray.

The walk home gave her time to think about Alice and how things had turned out for her. Tabitha suspected Mike had hit her before, but when she’d confronted her, Alice denied it. Her friend wouldn’t listen, and she was almost killed as a result.

She could have died! Tabitha’s anger boiled close to the surface and threatened to overtake her. She didn’t understand it, but lately she was more emotional than usual. Could it be because of the flu she’d caught?

When she reached out to open the door to the apartment building, she found the lock broken. That was nothing new. Every time it was replaced, a few days later it was bashed in again. One day the landlord was going to get tired of fixing it and just leave it broken. Having that extra lock on the main door made her feel a little safer. With the lock, the only people who could get in were residents or someone buzzed in by a resident.

She was more tired than usual, so the fifteen stairs up to her apartment felt like climbing Mount Everest. At the top, she got her door open. Not bothering to turn on a light, she slumped, eyes closed, onto the sofa—and onto a man.

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h1=. Chapter Three

Tabitha shrieked and jumped up when she felt the solid body against hers. “Who the hell are you?”

“Don’t scream, Tabitha.” A deep voice called to her as the table lamp flicked on. “You didn’t meet me tonight. I wanted to make sure you were all right. When I arrived, there was blood in the hall, your door was open, and when I stepped inside I found more blood in the entryway. I called the hospitals, and they had no listings under your name, so I stayed here to see if you would return.”

While he spoke, she noticed his body. He was an imposing figure, even sitting. He must have been two hundred and twenty pounds, all of it muscle, with arms nearly the size of her thigh. He reminded her of one of the biker guys who came into the restaurant. His chin-length black hair and broad shoulders gave him a menacing look. The only thing that hinted he might have a softer side was his spectacular ocean blue eyes.

“Back up. How do you know my name?”

“Didn’t you get the note I left on your door yesterday? My name is Ty Reynolds. I was a friend of your father’s.” He sat there on the sofa watching her, careful not to move as if worried he’d scare her.

Shock must have shown on her face, because before she could say anything, he added, “I’m not here to hurt you. If I wanted to hurt you, I would have done so already. I made a promise to your father that when you were old enough, I would tell you everything, and I would do everything I could to protect you.”

“I don’t care who you are. I want you out of my apartment!” She walked over to her door and opened it. “Please leave.”

He frowned, glancing down at the blood stains on the floor. “You seem to be uninjured…but there’s the question of the blood. What happened here?”

“Alice.” A lump formed in her throat as she fought back tears. The single word came out softer than she intended, as if it was a reminder to herself of the terror that had played out only hours before. Alice—dear protective Alice—would’ve had a fit if she knew Tabitha was alone with a man who’d broken into her apartment. “She’s a friend of mine. It’s her blood, but that’s none of your business. Now leave.” Tears stung the back of her eyes. She refused to weep. She was tough, she’d been through awful things. But this sickness, whatever it was, heightened her emotions and made her want to fall apart. What’s happening to me? She’d been asking that a lot lately.

“Listen, Tabitha, I know you’re scared, but you need to listen to me. Please just give me ten minutes.”

“You broke into my apartment and now you want me to listen to you? I don’t want anything to do with you.”

He made no attempt to move toward the door. “I know you’re not feeling like yourself. You’re running a fever of a hundred and one. No matter what you take, it won’t break. You can’t sleep. Your body hurts and you’re sore. You feel like your body’s doing things it hasn’t before. You’re faster, you can smell and see better. If you read that note, just holding the paper would have eased the symptoms. I can help you if you will just listen to me.”

His words shocked her enough to pause. “How do you know all of this?”

“Because you’re a tiger shapeshifter.”

A what? A wave of lightheadedness fell over her as she dropped her hand away from the door handle.

He’d said it with such ease she almost thought she’d heard him wrong. Tabitha stared at him in disbelief for a moment as her vision narrowed and black dots danced before her eyes. Inky blackness consumed her as she collapsed.

When she came to, she was on her sofa with a wet wash rag on her forehead. This meant he’d placed her carefully on the cushions and tended to her—a total stranger. It wasn’t something she expected from a man his size. He appeared more likely to throw someone across a bar than attend to a fainting woman.

She tried to scoot away from him but there was nowhere to go on the sofa. His very size made the place feel small. “I thought it might have been a nightmare,” she muttered.

“Sorry, it’s not. I’m real, and everything I have told you is the truth.” He handed her a glass of water.

“How do you know about my fever and my other symptoms?”

“All shifters have the same symptoms when they’re going through the change. If you were among your clan, it would be less intense but still there.”

“This stuff is only in books and movies. It doesn’t happen in real life.” Tabitha took the glass with a shaky hand, struggling to steady it as she raised it to her parched lips.

He perched on the sofa next to her. The heat from his body warmed her even as the cool water slid down her throat.

He brushed a strand of her hair away from her face, leaving a trail of fire on her skin. “I know it’s hard to believe. Trust me, I had a hard time believing it at first also, but when I needed someone to drill home what was happening to me it was your father who was there. I was a foster care child, just like you. So alone and scared…if it wasn’t for your father I wouldn’t have made it. Tabitha, you’re going to need my help. I don’t want to scare you, but if you don’t have the help of an Elder during this time, the chance of your death is higher. I know you have no reason to trust me, but please let me help you.”

“Were my parents’ tigers too?” She began to wonder if that was why her eyes changed from hazel to fiery orange when she was angry, or why she purred when she slept as a child.[_ _]It had gotten so bad she was sent home from a sleepover when she was seven for scaring the other children.

“I don’t believe your mother was, though I never met her. But I know your father was. All the gene needs is for one parent to be a shifter.” He knelt beside her, covering the cloth with his hand and pressing the coolness firmly against her skin.

“You said you promised my father you would help me and protect me. Why would he make you promise that? You don’t even know me.” Her hands were still shaking as she set the glass aside.

“Your father was receiving death threats. He knew there was a possibility he wouldn’t live until you were old enough for him to explain your heritage. He asked me to take care of you if he didn’t make it.”

[_Could this be real? _]She sat up fully, her heart racing, her palms sweaty. She might have forced him to leave if she wasn’t interested in learning more about her parents. “Why would someone want to kill my father?”

“Your father was the leader of the tigers, his clan’s Alpha. Someone from another clan wanted to take over our group, he challenged your father, but lost. Still, he wouldn’t give up. After that challenge the death threats began, and before he could take care of the tiger behind the threats, he was killed.”

“My parents were killed in a car crash.” Her mind reeled.

“Tabitha, there’s much you need to learn about the shifters, especially the tigers. Your parents didn’t die in a car accident. A car accident might have killed your mother, but it wouldn’t have killed your father. Your father was shot in the head with a silver bullet. They just made it look like a car accident. The police officer who investigated it wouldn’t have been able to tell. It was a very gruesome scene.”

“If what you say is true, wouldn’t they have found the silver bullet?”

“There was no autopsy. The officers investigating the scene ruled it an accident and the case was closed.”

Tears welled up in her eyes as her world came crashing down around her. Why was everything I’ve been told a lie? She’d grown up thinking her father had slid behind the wheel drunk, resulting in the accident. She’d always assumed it was his fault she was in foster care. As she moved from house to house, she’d thought so many times, if only my father hadn’t been drinking that night, then she could have had a proper home like her classmates.

“I’ve blamed him my whole life.” She placed an unsteady hand over her mouth as though a part of her wanted to keep the truth inside. To speak it aloud carried a stinging shame.

He leaned forward and clasped her hands in his as he stared at her intently. “I know what your caseworker told you. I wanted to step in and tell you the truth, but you couldn’t find out about your heritage until you were ready. It would have put the whole clan at risk. There are so few of us now.”

As she cried harder, she instinctively sought the comfort he offered, letting him hold her close. “Tabitha, your father was a great man, and he wanted the best for you. I will tell you all about him if you want.”

Between the tears, she nodded. “Yes, that would be great. I never knew anything about him. I have a picture, but that’s it.”

They sat in silence for a long time, Tabitha lost in her thoughts while Ty quietly gave her the time she needed. All of this was a shock for her—his revelations, his presence, the unusual feelings he aroused within her.

Finally, she got the courage to ask, “What happens next?” Her heart skipped a beat as she pondered what his reply might be.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Four

“What happens next is up to you. I must return to Alaska soon. You can stay here and continue on with your life. I can find a local tiger to help you through your transition. Or you can come to Alaska with me.”

Tabitha sat up straight as he released her. “I can go to Alaska with you?” She tried to keep the excitement out of her voice.

“If you want to.” The twinkle in his eye made it clear he’d picked up on her eagerness. “You know, most people wouldn’t be so excited about relocating to Alaska and the cold weather.”

“Well, I’m not most people. I have always wanted to go there. I’m not sure why but something about it calls to me. I can’t explain it.”

“That’s not surprising, you would have the desire to go where your clan is. Even with closer clans, you’d have been drawn to the clan that held your legacy. Right now, our small clan is in Alaska, and not everyone is happy about that.”

“Why Alaska if the clan isn’t happy?” Despite her distrust in the situation, she was interested in learning about them. She didn’t know where to begin, but Ty had given her an opening.

“I took over the clan five years ago. Once I did, I assessed the situation here in Pittsburgh and realized staying here would only to lead to more problems. At that time, there were a few tigers in Alaska and once their Alpha died they needed help organizing. My Lieutenant, Raja, and I talked and decided it was best to move there and form one clan.” Ty tossed the rag he used on her forehead into the kitchen sink with perfect accuracy. “We gave the other tigers a choice. They could either stay in Pittsburgh and be prey to others since they would be without a clan, or they could come to Alaska. All but two chose to come. The two who didn’t come were a husband and wife pair, and they needed to stay close to the Pittsburgh due to an ill human family member. We found them a home with the Ohio clan, because of their special circumstances.”

Listening to him, Tabitha could hear the love in his voice. It was his family. Would going to Alaska give her the home and acceptance she longed for? Would they consider her part of their circle? She tried to put her worries into words without sounding scared or childish. “Will the clan accept me? I’m an outsider.”

Ty put his arm around her and gently pulled her close. “Tabitha, of course they will accept you. You’re part of us, and, everyone will be glad to have you back. Many of them wanted to get you out of the system and give you a home among us, but we were unsure if you would even go through the change. Children with one shifter parent have a fifty percent chance of shifting, whereas if both parents are shifters, the child will be too. Growing up, you would have been in danger, because if you didn’t change, you would be put at risk. No one wanted to risk your life. Since no one other than the clan knew of your existence, we knew you would be safe even if that meant being in the state’s care.”

“Ty, I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to go with you.” Before he could say a word, she was up and in the bathroom with the door locked. The tears ran coursed her face, sorrow tightening her chest, making it hard to breathe.

“I don’t know what I said to make you cry, but come out here and let’s talk about this. If you don’t want to go to Alaska, I understand, but there’s still more you need to know before I can leave.” Ty’s voice came from just outside the bathroom door.

She tried to pull herself together enough to speak. “Please just leave me alone.” Her throat constricted and tears threatened to overtake her again.

“I can’t leave you alone. Now come out here or I will break this door down if I have to.”

Not wanting his pity for the tears she shed, she stayed perched on the edge of the bathtub, hating the hand life had dealt her. It was cruel and there was nothing she could do about it.

“Just sit down and talk to me. If after that you wish me to leave, I will.”

Washing her face in the sink, she caught a glimpse of her reflection. Her eyes were bloodshot, and her face was flushed from crying. Nothing would change that except time, and she’d didn’t have enough of it. No matter how she felt, she knew she couldn’t just leave him standing by the bathroom door. She did the only respectable thing, she opened the door and faced him. “There’s nothing more to talk about, I can’t go with you.”

“Only moments ago you were thrilled to know the clan was in Alaska. What changed your mind? Are you still worried the clan won’t accept you?” Ty must have noticed she looked unsteady on her feet. He wrapped his arm around her and led her to the sofa.

“No. I just can’t go.” Looking down at her hands, she continued but in a softer voice, “I can’t afford it, I can barely make ends meet now.” It came out in more of a whisper than she expected. She was hopeful he heard her because she didn’t think she could say it again.

“Tabitha, you don’t need money. All you need is to agree to it. The clan is ready to accept you and pay for your plane ticket back to Alaska with me. We’re family. When your father found me, I had nothing to my name, I was living on the streets. He helped me get a place to stay and everything I needed. I want you to return to Alaska and stay with me.”

Stunned that he would offer her this, she just stared at him. She couldn’t understand why someone who didn’t know her would want to help. All of her life, no one had wanted to help her with anything. She’d always had to deal with things on her own. If this guy wanted to help her because of what her father had done for him, then he must be very altruistic.

When she didn’t respond, he tried again. “Tabitha, are you still with me?”

She shook her head to try to lift the fog that settled in her brain. “I’m sorry, what?”

“I asked you, will you return to Alaska with me?”

I have nothing holding me here. Alice will do fine on her own. I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska and here’s my chance. Maybe I can learn more about my parents.

“Yes. When do you want to leave?”

“As soon as you’re ready. We’ll be able to help you more in Alaska. Being around people of your own kind will help make the transition smoother. It should alleviate the soreness. You’ll still feel tired because your body is working overtime trying to adjust to the changes.”

While Ty spoke of leaving, she remembered the hospital, the attack, the death of the unborn baby. Her heart swelled with fear and pain. “What will I tell Alice? After all she’s been through in the last twenty-four hours…and now I up and leave without much notice. We’ve been through so much together, and now I’m about to run off when she needs me the most.”

He placed his hand over hers. “Alice? You mentioned her before when I asked about the blood. Who is she?”

“My neighbor. When I was seven I moved into a group home temporarily and that’s when I met her. She’s my best friend.” She glanced toward the door as if she could see through the walls and across the hall to Alice’s apartment. “This morning she showed up after her boyfriend beat her. That’s what the blood is from. She was hurt so bad…and the miscarriage…she’s been admitted to the hospital.”

“I’m sorry.” He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “You can’t tell her the truth. She wouldn’t understand. We’ll come up with something.”

“I know. She’s been my only friend for so long, I’ll have to tell her something _]before I leave.” Again, tears threatened to overcome her. [_What’s wrong with me? All the years in foster care had taught her that she had to have a hard outer shell. She knew better than to cry in front of people, otherwise it revealed a weakness they could take of advantage of later.

“I understand, we’ll think of something to tell her. In the meantime, you need to rest. In the morning we can pack and then see your friend. If you don’t mind, I’ll spend the night on your sofa. Someone might have seen me come in. It could put you in danger. Until you go through the change, you should stick close to me or someone else in the clan. It’s a risky time for you. There are those out there who hunt us. There are also rogue shifters, and if you come across one they’ll smell the impending change. They’d exploit that weakness.”

She grabbed her sweats from the corner of the bed where she’d dropped them that morning and headed to the bathroom. “I’m going to change. You can take the bed, I don’t sleep much, so I can just curl up on the sofa with a book.” She didn’t wait for a reply before she slipped into the bathroom.

She needed the time it took her to change to get her mind wrapped around things. It was all moving so quickly that she wasn’t sure she was doing the right thing. She was normally more cautious than this, but something told her she could trust him.

A few minutes later, when she stepped out of the bathroom, she noticed he hadn’t moved. He picked up the conversation where they’d left off. “If you would allow, I can help you with your insomnia.”

A snicker escaped her lips before she could stop it. “How would you manage that? I’ve been to the doctor, and there’s nothing he can give me to help me sleep. He can’t even give me something for my fever. All the tests say there’s nothing wrong with me.”

His gaze bore into her as he rose from the sofa and walked over to her. “That’s because they don’t understand your body as a tiger. Anything they give you, your body would metabolize before it could help. I can help you just by being near you. Being close to another tiger will help your symptoms.” Tugging gently on her hand, he added, “Come lay on the bed with me.”

Slight hesitation was overcome by exhaustion, and the fact that his presence was strangely comforting. She allowed him to lead her into the bedroom, trying to ignore the odd arousal rising within her.

Just having his hand on hers made the stomach cramps recede a little, and the tightness of her muscles began to fade. The biggest relief was that her heartbeat slowed, returning to normal. It was amazing how it felt to just feel normal. No erratic heartbeat, no tightness throughout her body.

“Lay down on your side facing the wall. I’m going to lay behind you with my body snuggled against yours,” he told her.

She looked at him for a moment, wondering if this was some cheap trick to get her into bed…and would she mind? It’s plausible, right? His hand in mine does help. Throwing caution to the wind, she climbed into bed as he’d instructed.

As their bodies came together, she felt a shock of energy course through her limbs, causing her to startle and try to move away. He held her close, keeping her tight against him. “It’s all right. Relax. It’s nothing to worry about, that sometimes happens with shapeshifters. Sleep.”

When he lay with his full body touching her, she finally felt normal, whole, and secure. She wanted to hear more about her family, but her eyes wouldn’t stay open. For the first time in weeks, she began to drift into a deep, peaceful sleep.

Before she fell completely asleep, she heard his voice whisper, “You will soon understand what the jolt was. We are mates. You’re mine. I will protect you with my life.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Five

Tabitha awoke to the screeching ring of her cell. By the time she rolled over to get out of bed, Ty had already grabbed her phone and was handing it to her. Before answering it she looked up at him, letting the memories of the night before wash over her. With him standing before her there was no chance she could deny what had happened.

“Are you going to answer that?”

Remembering the phone, she slid her finger over the screen and brought it to her ear. “Hello.” Sitting on the edge of the bed, she realized the hospital calling her could only mean bad news.

“I’m calling for Tabitha Leigh, this is Doctor Roberts.”

“This is she. How’s Alice this morning?” Hoping for the best, she wondered if her friend had awoken early and asked for her.

“I’m sorry to be the one to inform you, but Alice died during the night.” The doctor’s voice remained unsympathetic, flat.

She clung to the blanket, her heart in her throat. “What? How?”

“She was attacked in her room…”

“How the hell did that happen, she’s in a hospital?” Tabitha shrieked, cutting off the doctor. “You just let people stroll in after visiting hours?” She didn’t want to believe what she was hearing. If only she had stayed, this wouldn’t have happened, but she also wouldn’t have met Ty or had the best rest of her life.

“I can’t go into the details, but there’s an Officer O’Malley here who wishes to speak with you. He’ll be able to answer any questions you might have.” He paused before adding, “I know it’s not much, but I’m sorry for your loss.”

She wanted to scream. Being sorry couldn’t bring Alice back. There was nothing that could be said, nothing anyone could do. She was gone. Hatred flooded Tabitha—hatred for the hospital, for the doctors, for the people who should’ve been watching over her best friend, keeping her safe.

“I understand. I’ll be right over,” she added tersely, hanging up before he could say anything else. Tears stained her cheeks. Not bothering to hide them, she looked at Ty. “What the hell! This can’t be happening.” She gasped, then began to sob.

“Tabitha, what is it?” He pulled her into his arms. He’d held her all night, and he held her as she cried now. He clasped his hands over her wrists to keep her from digging her nails into her arm.

“Ali…” Her voice cracked and she had to clear her throat before she could continue. “Somehow Mike found out she was at the hospital.”

“But she’s okay—”

She shook her head. “I don’t know how but she’s…” She couldn’t get the words out.

“I’m sorry.” He rubbed his hand over her back, giving her as much comfort as he could.

“Officer O’Malley is there and wants to…wants to speak to me,” she stammered. “I have to…I have to go to the hospital.” She felt disconnected, lost, as if she were living someone else’s nightmare.

“Get dressed and I’ll take you. My car is downstairs.”

Her body moved in a daze, nothing registering yet. Her only friend for so many years had been murdered. Murder…the word stuck in her throat. How does something like that happen in a hospital?

Ty being there didn’t even cross her mind. She slipped out of her sweats and into a pair of blue jeans and a black turtleneck sweater before heading to the bathroom to wash her face and brush her hair. She wanted to get this over with. From the brief time she’d spent with Officer O’Malley, she knew he wouldn’t get more pleasant waiting for her.

She was stunned by her reflection. Her eyes no longer had dark circles around them; they were bloodshot from crying, but there’d been a remarkable change overnight. She walked out of the bathroom and found him standing by the end of the bed, grabbing a shirt from a bag she’d never noticed. He looked over his shoulder and stopped midway through putting his deep red dress shirt on.

“You look so much healthier after a good night’s sleep.”

“I…I feel like a new person. It’s miraculous what sleep can do for you.” Her throat closed as she realized while she slept, her best friend had been murdered. I should have stayed with her.

Ty finished buttoning his shirt. “The change is close for you, and once you go through it, you’ll feel better than you ever have. I’ll teach you everything you’ll need to know.” His words conveyed more than he was letting on.

Despite the way her body trembled, the way her stomach tied itself in knots as she thought about Alice’s death, Tabitha felt safe with him and she was glad he was there to help her through this. She barely knew him, but for some reason she knew she could trust him. Maybe it was their connection, the clan.

“Let’s go get this over with. The sooner we can do this and pack, the sooner you can get back to your clan.” Everywhere she looked she thought of Alice. My whole life I’ve loved and lost people, maybe I’m meant to be alone. Or will going to Alaska change this?

He took her hand. “It’s our clan. When I spoke to Raja this morning, he wanted you to know the clan is excited you’re coming. They’re going to have a party to welcome you home.”

People she didn’t know were happy she was coming home.

I can’t believe how much my life has changed in less than twenty-four hours. Oh Alice, I wish you were here to see this. Even if you would’ve thought I was crazy if I told you I was a tiger shifter.

Even with the promise of a new family out there, waiting for her, it didn’t replace the one person who’d been a part of her life since she was a child.

I miss you so much, Alice.

Tabitha walked up to the nurses’ desk, and the kind woman who’d been on duty when she left the night before was still there.

“I’m so sorry about your friend. I don’t know how he managed to get in.” The nurse’s voice was gentle, quiet.

Officer O’Malley came around the corner. “Thirty minutes.” He neared them, looking unpleased. “You find out your friend was murdered and it takes you an awful long time to get here. Seems to me you might have been trying to avoid answering my questions. After all, you were the last visitor.”

His words cut through her like a knife; she wanted to lash out at him, at anyone or anything to ease the pain within her. Before she could say anything, Ty spoke up. “Hey, we came as fast as we could. She was asleep when you called. There’s no need to take that tone with her, she just lost her best friend. She came down here to answer your questions, to help you catch the killer, not be scolded.”

Officer O’Malley took a step back, clearly shocked anyone would stand up to him. It seemed as if years of wearing the uniform had made him cocky, and obviously he enjoyed the power; yelling was his way of getting things done. He appeared to be sizing up Tabitha. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I don’t understand how he got in. The camera shows him just walking in past the nurses’ desk. No one was paying attention. The cameras caught what happened, and I sent another officer to arrest him. I just have a few questions for you, if you could give me a few moments of your time.”

“Yes, I want to do whatever I can to help. She was my best friend.” Ty had already said it, but she’d say it again; she wanted to make it absolutely clear how much she cared for Alice, and how distasteful she found Officer O’Malley and his attitude. At least he seemed to care that Alice had died, and he wanted to catch the culprit.

“Good. Let’s go into the staff break area. That’s where we’re set up right now.” He led them down the hall and into a large room with sofas and tables. One of the large round tables was already set up with recording devices, files, and tablets. “Please have a seat there. Do you mind if I record this conversation?”

Shaking her head, she took a seat at the table. She maintained a firm grip on Ty’s hand, needing his comfort. She didn’t care if the officer recorded it, she just wanted to help Alice and put this whole thing behind her. Now more than ever, she wanted out of Pittsburgh. She wanted away from all these painful memories.

The officer sat at the table across from her and clicked on the tape recorder, stating the time, date, and who was present before directing his attention to her. “Ms. Leigh, what happened last night to cause the doctor to give Alice a sedative?”

“When Alice woke up last night, she wanted to know if the baby was all right.” She tried to blink the tears away but they kept coming. Grabbing a tissue from the box in the middle of the table she mopped her cheeks and soldiered on. She needed to get this over with before the walls began to close in on her. For once, the cop appeared sympathetic as he listened. “The doctor told me to page him and not to tell her anything, but it didn’t go as planned and Alice got emotional. She knew she lost her baby after that bastard beat her. Instead of getting the doctor I comforted her and hit the call button. When the doctor finally came, she was hysterical. The only way to calm her was to give her something.”

“What happened next?”

“After she was sedated there was nothing I could do, the nurse suggested I go home and get some sleep. Alice would need me when she woke up in the morning and I needed to be ready for the emotional trauma she’d need someone to guide her through. I gave the nurse my number in case things changed, and I went home.”

Officer O’Malley reached into one of the files and pulled out a picture of a man with black hair, about thirty-five, with a teardrop tattoo in black ink under his eye. “Have you ever seen this man before?”

She was startled as she stared at the picture. “Not in person. Alice had some pictures on her phone, she told me that was Mike. Though the last picture I saw of him he didn’t have that tattoo. The video shows him?”

“Yes. He’s shown going into Alice’s room and coming out with a bloody knife in hand. He’s also wanted for the murder of another pregnant girl.”

She didn’t want to think about how Alice was killed. Had she felt pain in her final moments? She started to shake as if she was cold, and Ty put his arm around her, pulling her close. As his strength and warmth penetrated her clothing, the tremors slowed before stopping all together. “She was my best friend. I want to see him pay for this.” Anger replaced her grief and caused a stiffening in her spine.

Officer O’Malley nodded as he spoke. “With this evidence, I believe he’ll never see the light of day again. If we need you to testify at a trial, where can I reach you?”

She looked to Ty, unsure what to tell the officer. Ty understood. “Tabitha is going to be joining me in Alaska. You’ll be able to reach her at twenty eighty-seven Snowman Lane, North Pole, Alaska. We will be leaving as soon as possible.”

“That’s a big move.” Officer O’Malley glanced from Tabitha to Ty, then back at her.

She smiled through the tears. “Will there be anything else? I do have a lot to do before we can leave.”

As she started to stand, he spoke again. “One last thing. Did Alice have any family?”

“No, but I am sure you know that. We were raised in the foster care system together.”

From the look on his face, she gathered he’d done his research on them and knew damn well they were raised by the state. He was just being rude by asking. Rather than continue that line of questioning, he switched tactics. “Are you going to be making arrangements for her body to be buried?”

“I don’t have the money to make arrangements for her. I told her about my wishes a few weeks ago and she mentioned she wanted to be cremated.” She tried not to think about the reason that topic of conversation had come up, or about the weeks she’d thought she was dying from some unknown illness. “I’m sure the state will take care of that. It’s the least they can do when they gave us so little growing up.” With that, she took Ty’s hand and walked out of the room. She’d had enough of Officer O’Malley’s rudeness, and most of all she’d had enough of the hospital.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Six

Instead of going straight back to Tabitha’s apartment from the hospital, they stopped by the restaurant she worked at. She wanted to break the news to Betty—her boss—that she wouldn’t be returning to work. Entering the small restaurant, Ty directed her to one of the corner booths so he could watch the door. She didn’t have much of an appetite but he insisted she eat something or the symptoms could worsen.

One of the younger waitresses had just stepped away from the booth to put their order in when Betty came around the corner.

“Betty,” she called out.

“Tabitha, what are you doing here on your day off?” Betty’s brown hair, graying at the temples, was pulled back in a tight bun.

“I was hoping you had a moment to talk.”

Betty glanced back into the kitchen, where everything looked under control, before joining them.

“Betty, this is Ty Reynolds, an old friend of the family.”

Betty eyed him cautiously.

“My parents were good friends with her family. It wasn’t until recently that we were able to locate Tabitha. I’ve asked her to come home to Alaska with me. That’s where my family and I live.”

Tabitha watched Ty and Betty with a twinge of sadness. Betty had been the only person willing to give her a job when she was tossed into the world with only a few dollars and completely alone. [_ _]She was a sweet lady who had taken Tabitha under her wing, slowly bringing her out of the shell she’d built around herself after being tossed around from foster home to foster home.

From across the table, Betty beamed at her. “You’ll be missed, but I’m happy for you.” She laid her hand over Tabitha’s. “You’ve been so sad since you’ve come here. Maybe now that you’ll have people around who love and care for you, that will change. You deserve a chance at happiness, my dear.”

Betty was silent for a few moments, her gaze traveling between each of them before finally settling on Ty. “You will make sure she’s happy, won’t you?”

“You have my word on that.” He gave her a brief nod. “She’s very special to my family and it will be nice to have her with us.” His words seemed to be hinting at something more but before she could ponder the hidden meaning, Betty stood up.

“While you eat, I’ll get your final paycheck written out.”

“Thank you.” As Betty walked away, Tabitha turned her attention back to him. “Is there something…” Before she could continue, the waitress returned with their food.

“Now’s not the time, wait until we get to your apartment,” he whispered before picking up his fork and digging into his stack of pancakes.

During the meal they shared small talk, while she picked at her French toast. She only managed to force down a few bites before her stomach began to roil. For weeks it had been a constant battle between depriving her body of food and forcing herself to eat until she was almost sick. She had grown tired of the fight and just wanted it over.

“I can’t stand this.” She tossed her fork down on the plate where it landed with a clatter.

“Your appetite will return with a vengeance as the transition gets closer, but right now I think this has more to do with the loss of your friend than anything.” He reached across the table and took her hand in his. “There’s nothing I can do to ease the grief, I’m sorry.”

“I just want to go.” She glanced around the restaurant. “Being here reminds me of Alice and it’s just too much.”

He brought his coffee cup to his lips, polishing off what remained before reaching into his pocket for his wallet. “Then let’s go.” Within seconds he had the money for the bill and tip tossed on the table. Before they could make it to the door Betty called to them.

“Wait a moment, Tabitha.” Betty hurried across the floor to them. “This is for you.”

After an emotional goodbye, Betty handed Tabitha an envelope. Hugs were exchanged, and they promised if they were back in the area they would stop by the restaurant to see her.

“I’m sorry, Betty, but we really must be leaving. Tabitha and I have a plane to catch this afternoon.” He rubbed the small of Tabitha’s back as he made their excuses.

Betty pulled her in for one last hug before he could whisk her out the door.

“Thank you,” Tabitha whispered as they strolled around the corner to his car.

“You’re welcome.” He waited as she got into the car before shutting the door and walking around to the driver’s side.

As he pulled away from the curb she slid her finger under the envelope seal. Inside was her final paycheck with a nice bonus, along with a handwritten note containing Betty’s number and the words: If you ever need anything, I’m only a phone call away.

A single tear ran down her cheek.

Tabitha closed her apartment door, and the stress of the day hit her like a semi-truck. She tried to push the weariness away and focus on the things she needed to do. First she had to pack. She wasn’t sure where to start, but when Ty took hold of her hand, all she wanted to do was fall against his body. She wanted to feel someone’s arms around her as she cried all the tears that were left in her.

“Oh, Tabitha. I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend. I wish I could ease your pain,” Ty murmured.

“Thank you. I just want to pack and get out of here…there are too many memories here.” She glanced around the apartment and all she could see were ghosts of Alice. “There’s also the fact that Mike knows where I live. If he thinks I could identify him, what’s to stop him from coming after me? I want to get away from all of this.” The words came between wracking sobs, and her body shook, a panic attack threatening to overtake her.

He pulled her into his embrace as the first tears fell. His body stiffened as he rested his head on top of hers. She calmed down as he held her. It was almost as if his energy wrapped around her and forced away the terror.

“I won’t let him hurt you. I won’t let anyone hurt you. Tabitha, before you pack, I want to talk to you. I don’t know how to put this, but I feel you should know everything before we leave.” He seemed at a loss for words as he let go of her and walked over to the sofa.

She tried to remain calm, but her knees felt weak with worry. She managed to walk to the other end of the sofa, keeping some distance between them as fears raced through her. Did he change his mind? If so, why couldn’t he have said so before I quit my job?

“Remember the jolt you felt last night?” Without waiting for her to answer, he continued. “That’s what you feel when you find your mate.”

A nervous laugh escaped her, and she jeered at him.

“I’m being serious. I know this is all new to you, but I want you to understand what that means. You’re my mate. If you accept me, it is my job to protect you, to please you. You will be my world.”

She stared at him, too amazed to form words. There was a whole other world than the one she’d grown up in. It seemed unreal. “But…I want to marry and have children.”

“Oh, Tabby.” He scooted down the sofa until he was sitting next to her and slipped his arm around her shoulder. “We can do all of that, but maybe we should take it slow. After all, you just found out you’re a tiger shifter.”

She relaxed in his arms. In his embrace she found a comfort she’d never felt before. Everything was sinking in, but instead of being concerned about being a tiger shifter, Alice’s death, or finding the man who was supposed to be her mate, the shock at the forefront in her mind was that he’d called her Tabby. “You called me Tabby. I’ve never had a nickname before.”

For a brief moment, a hurt look crossed his face. Just as quickly as it appeared, it was gone. “You don’t like it?”

“That’s not it at all. I love it. I’ve always believed nicknames meant you mattered to someone.”

“You matter to me, you’ve always mattered and always will. I have watched over you since your parents died. You’re my world. Come on, babe, you need to get some more sleep. You haven’t been getting enough, and I know you’re still tired. We’ll pack when you get up.” They hesitated, neither of them wanting the embrace to end, but sleep was best. He was right; she was tired. She wanted to curl up in bed and cuddle next to him.

“What about Mike? He might send someone after me.”

She crawled into bed, and he pulled the blanket up from the bottom of the mattress and covered her. “Tabby, I won’t let anything happen to you. I’m going to make us flight reservations, and then I’ll lay down with you. Is leaving tomorrow fine with you?”

She nodded, snuggling deep beneath the blanket as she watched he move around her cramped apartment. Dodging the sofa, he stepped into the kitchen. He tried to speak quietly so not to disturb her, but she could still hear him making reservations for them to fly to Alaska.

[_Home? I have a place I can finally call home, with people who care. _]No matter how many times she told herself that, she couldn’t believe it. Growing up in foster care, all she’d wanted was people who cared about her and a place to call home. Now she wasn’t so sure. She’d been trained to be a loner, to not rely on anyone. Would that have to change now? Could she handle it?

She lay lost in her own thoughts as he finished making reservations. She opened her eyes to find him standing next to the bed.

“I thought you would be sleeping. You’ve had a difficult day.”

“I missed you. Won’t you lay with me?”

Without answering, he took off his dress shirt and crawled into bed next to her, cuddling his body close to hers. He felt warm, and their bodies fit side by side like they belonged together. She couldn’t get enough of his warmth and the sense of belonging she found in his embrace.

He slid his arm under her head, her cheek rested on his bicep, and their gazes met. He rolled onto his side to face her. He reached for her, drawing them together until their lips met. His touch made her body tingle. It felt as if the electromagnetic fields around their bodies pulsed, threatening to explode. It didn’t hurt, just provided a strange sensation of pins and needles on her skin. She didn’t let her mind talk her out of it. She wanted this. Her heart knew this was what she needed, no matter what her head was saying.

He was her mate.

Gently pulling back just a little, he looked at her. “My sweet Tabby, I’m sorry, I don’t want to rush you. The tiger in me wants to claim you as my mate now. My beast is not very patient.” As he said that, a smile crept over her face.

“You’re not rushing me, I want this. I love feeling our bodies together. You’re like my other half, and I need you next to me.” She didn’t wait for him. Instead, she leaned back in to kiss him, craving his hands on her body.

All of a sudden there was pounding on the door and someone yelling. “If you don’t open this door now, I’ll break it down.”

He jumped off the bed and grabbed his duffle bag, expertly retrieving a gun and holding it ready. She opened her mouth to ask what was going on, but he put his finger to his lips, motioning her to remain silent.

Someone was screaming and pounding outside her door, and he wanted her to be quiet?

He stepped back toward her, lowered his mouth to her ear and whispered, “This could get bloody. We should head down the fire exit and get you somewhere out of danger. I’ll come back and deal with them once you’re safe.”

She nodded, turning to grab the picture of her parents from the bedside table. If she didn’t make it back to her apartment, she wanted to have the memento. Tossing it into her purse, she headed for the window. He already had his duffle bag slung across his chest, and he held his car keys out to her while motioning for her to go.

“Not without you,” she hissed.

Ty kept his attention on the door. “I’ll be right behind you, I won’t leave you. Now go.”

As they ran down the fire escape, her apartment door slammed to the floor, slowing her for a moment.

“Come on, we’ve got to go.” He urged her on.

As they reached his car, which was right by the steps, someone leaned out the window and shouted, “You can’t protect her forever. We’ll find you!”

Adrenaline coupled with fright caused all the blood to rush to her head. Her breath caught in her throat.

Ty said nothing, just got into the car and sped away. Once they were out of immediate danger, outside the city, she turned in her seat. “Who were those men? What did they want?” She placed a hand over her still rapidly beating heart.

He didn’t take his eyes off the road, giving her no sign he was listening. She wasn’t sure if that was because of the speed they were traveling or because he couldn’t look at her. “That was Pierce and his gang. Pierce is the tiger who killed your parents.”

“What? You mean [_that’s _]him? He looks…like he’s…like he’s only in his twenties.” She could barely find her voice. She wanted to vomit, but she held back.

He briefly looked away from the road and raised an eyebrow at her. “I tell you he’s the one who killed your parents, and all you can think about is how old he looks? I thought you might want to go back and kill him yourself.”

“Well, trust me, I’d love to, but I don’t think I could do much harm to him. After all, he killed my parents. I haven’t even gone through the change yet, so I’m still basically human. But he couldn’t have been around when my father was alive.” She shook her head in confusion. “That’s impossible.”

He reached for her hand, bringing it to his lips. “I’m glad you have some common sense and you don’t let your emotions get in the way. Pierce isn’t as young as he looks. Shifters age a lot slower than humans, he’s really in his forties. Just so you know, the clan has been after him since he killed your father. The clan claimed their right to demand Pierce’s death for killing one of our kind. He knows we want him dead, and he’s been in hiding. I was on the original team sent to find him. We were on his trail for a while, only a day or two behind him when he disappeared. We’ve sent men out every time we get a hit, but this is the first real proof we’ve had that he’s alive. I promise he’ll pay for what he did to your father, but it wasn’t worth it today. I couldn’t put your life in danger to settle a debt.”

“Once I go through the change, I want to go after him.”

He gave her a look that let her know he wasn’t for that idea. “We’ll see after the change is complete.” His tone told her he would fight her on the subject.

There was nothing she could do at that moment to change his mind, and it didn’t really matter now. They had more important issues to deal with. She let it go and moved on to another subject.

“How old are you?”

He let out a slight laugh before answering. “The better question is how old do you think I am? How old do I look?”

“Ty, don’t play games. Just tell me.” She crossed her arms and rolled her eyes.

He rubbed her hand. “Come on, babe. I want to know what you think. I promise to answer after you tell me how old you think I am.”

“Okay fine.” She looked him over, trying to guess the right age. He said tiger shifters looked younger, but she didn’t want to guess too old. She took her time, looking at his features, searching his face for wrinkles, gray hair, mannerisms that would make him older than he appeared. “Umm…twenty-four?”

“Are you saying I look twenty-four, or that’s how old you think I am?”

She turned even farther, rested her back on the car door, and propped her left leg on the seat, giving her a better view of him. Also, in turn, allowing him a clear view of the nasty look she was giving him. “I think you look younger than twenty-four, but you knew my father. I’m just now going through the change at nineteen. I would guess you went through the change when you were my age, which means you’re a lot older than that, but if I guessed too high, it would be an insult. So please just tell me.”

“Did anyone ever tell you you’re cute when you’re frustrated? Because you are.” He grinned and looked back at the road. “I was one of the few people who went through the change at a very young age. Normally, the change happens in your mid-teens to early twenties. I went through it when I was nine. I believe the youngest person ever to go through the change and live was eight. That person was your father. I don’t believe anyone has beat that record since. Therefore, I am twenty-eight. Does that bother you?”

Relief flooded her. “No, not at all. I was worried you would have said ninety or something.” She settled back in the car seat. “Where are we going?”

“I thought it would be a good idea to get you out of here. I know this little place about an hour outside of the city. Once we’re somewhere safe, I need to call Raja. I think it might be best for us to find a quiet place to stay until your change, before returning to Alaska.”

She stared out the window as the guilt ate away at her. She didn’t want to mess up Ty’s life because people were after her. Plus, didn’t the clan need their Alpha? “Ty, I would understand if you wanted someone else to stay with me until I go through the transition so you can go back to your clan. I’m sure you have someone you trust who can keep me safe. The clan needs their Alpha.”

He pulled the car to the side of the road and after putting the vehicle in park, turned his body to face her. The look on his face wasn’t friendly. “First of all, no one can keep you as safe as I can. I’m one of the best. Second, you’re my mate, and it’s my number one priority to keep you safe. The clan has Raja, and just because I’m not there in person at the moment doesn’t mean they don’t have their Alpha. I will be in direct contact with Raja at all times, and if I’m needed, we can be there in a matter of hours. The clan will understand.”

Her heart fluttered. She’d never had someone care for her like he did, so much he was willing to change his life for her. “I’m sorry. This is all new to me. I feel bad you’re making this sacrifice. I’m no one special.”

“Just let me care for you. You’re someone special to me and the whole clan. Not only are you my mate, but you’re Queen of the Tigers, our Alpha female. After you have changed, you will take your rightful place beside me. They’ll respect you and love you the same as I do. Okay, maybe less than I do since I’m your mate. I don’t want to hear you say you’re no one special again.” He leaned over in the seat to kiss her. “You’re going to be fine. I promise.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Seven

The rest of the car ride was quiet. Tabitha was lost in her thoughts, and Ty was giving her the time she needed to understand everything that had happened. Before long, she noticed they were driving in the middle of nowhere. On both sides of the car, all she saw were trees, trees, and more trees. No houses as far as the eye could see. “Where are we going?”

“Not much farther. When the clan was in Pittsburgh, Raja purchased a cabin in Wind Ridge, Pennsylvania, he’s kept it because of the great location. It’s right on the other side of Ryerson Station National Park, so when he shifts, he has a lot of free area to run and not draw attention to himself. He loves to come back here whenever he gets a chance. He gave me a key before I left, in case I needed it.”

“Why are they trying to kill me?” Could Alice’s murder tie into this too? There’s no way. How could it? She tried to shake the thoughts but they refused to go. They stayed in the back of her mind, nagging her.

Ty never flinched as if he were waiting for her to ask. “It’s a long story, Tabby, but in short, your father’s line of tigers have been given special gifts. No one knows why, but some say your father’s line was among the first tigers, and you were royalty. You’re the last tiger from any of the lines of royalty. You have to be protected at all costs.” He rubbed his thumb over the back of her hands. “Without trying to be too insensitive, you must carry on the line. We’re unsure what will happen if you don’t. Some believe the tiger shifters will die off, never being able to have more children, and others believe that if you do not carry on the line, we’ll die with you. Most tigers will do anything to protect you. Pierce is not one of them, he wants to see all tigers dead.”

Thinking the whole tiger population depended on her was just too much to handle right then. She put it in the back of her mind to think on later. “You said he was a tiger shifter. If what you say is true, then why would he want to kill me? He would die if I die.”

“Even if the tigers didn’t die off with your death, he would be killed. I would not take it lightly that he killed my mate. Second, he’s not a born tiger like you and me. He was bitten and therefore he cannot fully become a tiger. He can only change on the night of the full moon, and then he’s a cross between a man and tiger. It’s against everything we believe to bite a human, but once in a while, we have a rogue shifter who will bite a human. That’s what happened to Pierce.”

“You said he becomes a cross between a man and a tiger. What happens to us when we change?”

“You, my dear, will most likely be one of the rarest tigers alive. He looked at her with amazement in his eyes. “Your father’s line was Golden Tabby tigers, also known as the Strawberry tigers. Seeing your beautiful strawberry-blonde hair makes me think you’ll be a beautiful tiger. When you change, you’ll take the body of a tiger completely.”

Tabitha had never seen a tiger in real life, only in pictures. It would be amazing to see what she looked like when she was a tiger. “You said I would be a Golden Tabby, but what do you look like? Are you also a Golden Tabby?” Trying to picture Ty as any type of tiger was hard; he was such a handsome man with black hair and bright blue eyes.

“No, I’m not a Tabby. I was a born tiger like you, so I change into a full tiger, a Bengal tiger.”

She leaned back into the car seat, picturing Ty as a Bengal tiger. It made her wonder. “Can we only change during the full moon?”

“Since we were born tigers, once we go through the change, we can change forms any time. However, most less dominate shifters have to stay in their animal form for a number of hours before they can shift back and once they shift back, they sleep for ten to twelve hours.” Ty took his eyes away from the road to look at her. “You’re taking this very well. When your father told me what was going on, I freaked. I thought he was crazy and wanted nothing to do with him. I thought he’d escaped the loony bin.”

She looked down at her hands, wringing them, because she was scared to ask but wanted to know what it was like. “Ty, I hate to ask but…” She paused, figuring it was worth a shot. “Will you shift for me?”

His eyes widened slightly with shock. “I don’t know, Tabby. If you get freaked out about what you see, it could scare you and make your shift harder. If you fight the change, it will hurt. You need to just go with it and let the tiger take over your body.”

“I need to see it, I need to know what’s going to happen to my body. Will I still be me inside of a tiger body or will the tiger take over and make me uncontrollable? You’re the only one I can ask. Please.” She reached a hand out and laid it on his well-muscled arm.

As she waited for him to answer her, they pulled onto what looked like a small, hidden side road. He sighed. “Okay. You need to remember it might look scary, but it’s not as bad as it looks. Tomorrow night I will, okay?”

She leaned over to kiss his cheek. “Thank you. Just one question: how long until you think I will go through the change? Not before tomorrow night, I hope.”

Turning his head slightly so he could meet her lips yet still keep an eye on the road, he kissed her back. “No, you won’t go through the change before I can shift for you. You’re close, but not that close.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Eight

The cabin finally came into sight after what seemed like a two-mile drive on the dirt road. “Once you’re settled, I’ll call Raja. If there’s still cell service out here. I’m going to tell him to send a few of my best guards to protect you. They should be here tomorrow sometime. I’ll have Raja get them on a plane first thing.”

Slowly getting out of the car, Tabitha had to admit she was disappointed he was calling in others to protect her. She enjoyed their time alone together and didn’t want it to come to an end. She had hoped they could pick up what they started back at her apartment once they reached the cabin. Are there other women in the clan fighting for his attention? Will they be jealous because I’m his mate? Will they treat me differently?

“What’s wrong? Your mood changed once we arrived here. I know it’s not perfect, but it’s the safest place right now. Very few people know Raja has this.” Ty opened the cabin door.

It was small and cozy. A little kitchenette to the right of the door provided the basics. The king size bed with a red and black quilt was pushed up against the far wall with a trunk at the foot of the bed leaving the center of the room for the sofa and chair. There wasn’t a television, just a small CD player on the coffee table. Whoever came here wouldn’t be spending much time indoors.

Maybe it’s too small, if he is in a hurry to get away from me. She eyed the bed and sofa, not sure which one she could make it to first. Her body was exhausted, and she felt downright awful.

She must have made the unconscious decision to lay on the bed, because next thing she knew she was on the mattress. She wanted to rest, but she could feel his gaze on her. Without opening her eyes, she knew he was in front of her. She could feel his presence the same way she could feel the sun on her skin.

“Come here, let me make you feel better.”

“You should call Raja. He needs to know what’s going on, and that way they can start making arrangements for your guards to be sent here.” Her shoulders were slumped and her voice deflated.

“Oh, so that’s why you’re so upset?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She tried to make her voice sound sincere and kept her eyes closed, knowing they would deceive her.

“You think I’m calling in my men so I can leave, don’t you?”

“Well, isn’t that it?” She embraced her anger. Being angry was better than crying.

“Boy, Tabby, if you’re going to be my Queen, you must learn how to read people better. No, that isn’t why I would like guards for you. I want the added protection so I can concentrate on you. I don’t want to run after someone who comes after you and leave you by yourself for someone else to harm. What if there was another attacker, waiting until I took off after the first one? I would feel better if I had a few more people close by in case we need them.”

Boy, did I read that one wrong. “I’m sorry I doubted you. I just thought you were trying to find a way out without being rude. No one has ever stuck around, so why would you? Especially since people are trying to kill me.”

“For this to work, I need you to trust me. I don’t plan on going anywhere, but if I need to go anywhere, I want you to go with me. That means if the clan needs me back in Alaska, that’s where you’re going. Don’t push me away, I’m not like everyone else. I’m your mate, and we’ll be together always. Once I have officially claimed you, you’ll understand. The tiger in you won’t have doubts about me leaving. We fit together.”

She knew he was right, but she couldn’t stop the human part of her from wondering if it was crazy. Her brain was screaming at her that there wasn’t even a small possibility she could really shift into a tiger, but her heart knew everything he told her was the truth. This was who she was and what she was meant to be, so she had to embrace it. She looked up at him and smiled. “I know you’re right. I’m sorry. Please call Raja, then lay with me.”

He kissed her forehead before taking out his cell from his jeans pocket and stepping away from the bed. A moment later, the cabin was filled with his rich voice, making her heart pitter-patter.

“There has been a small change in plans, Raja. Pierce attacked her apartment this evening.”

A long pause while he listened to Raja. “Yes, we’re at your cabin. I thought it was best to get her out of the city, and this was the first place I thought about. I need you to make arrangements for Leo, Thomas, and Felix to get over to Pittsburgh as soon as possible.” He rubbed his neck as if out of anxiousness.

“Great. Get Felix here right away then. Have the other two fly into Pittsburgh. We’ll pick them up at the airport when I exchange cars—with all of us we’re going to need something much bigger—and then we can head there. Let me know when they’re flying in.”

There was another long pause, and he started pacing the small cabin. There wasn’t much room for him. He was a large man in a small space, which meant he only had to take a few steps in any direction to be at the other side. A low growl came from deep in Ty’s throat. “Keep me informed about the situation there. We can be back in a matter of hours.”

With that, he ended the call and tossed the phone on the bed. “Were you serious when you asked me to shift for you?”

“Yes, have you changed your mind?”

“No, I was going to shift for you now if you still want to see it. It’s a great way to relieve stress and anger. Tomorrow, we’ll be driving, so I won’t be able to.” He unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it on the back of the sofa. “I won’t do it if you’re not ready.”

Butterflies swarmed in her stomach. His muscles were tense with anger, his hands balled into fists. Shifting would help him release whatever made him furious. “No, let’s do it. I need to see what happens. You won’t attack me or anything, will you?”

A mixture of a growl and laugh came from his throat. “No, love, I won’t hurt you. Once I change, I’ll still be me, just in a different form. A much bigger form. I have one request before I shift.”

She cocked her head to the side, waiting for his request. “What would you like?”

“I want a kiss. If my shifting freaks you out, it might be my last one. Will you kiss me one last time, Tabby?”

She left the bed and eliminated the short distance between them. “You told me yourself this is natural and I’ll have to go through it. Why would I be so freaked that I wouldn’t want to be with you once you’ve shifted?” She stood on her tippy toes, and not waiting for an answer, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. What she thought would have been a sweet peck on the lips turned into a hungry and demanding kiss.

He broke the kiss but kept his arms around her waist, still holding her close. “If I don’t do this now, I will take you. As much as I want that, I want our first time to be gentle. If I take you in the mood I’m in right now, I won’t be gentle.”

He slipped out of his clothes and stood in front of the sofa. Her breath caught in her throat as she stood in awe of his body. She wanted to run her hands through his hair to see if it was as soft as it looked. Then explore every inch of him.

“This is going to look painful, but I promise it’s not as bad as you think. Just stay over there until I complete the change. I don’t want to hurt you by accident.”

He stood in front of the sofa and started to shake ever so slightly. Slowly, fur started to come through his skin. The reddish-orange and black hair looked so soft. She took a step forward, wanting to touch it, before remembering his words. She stayed where she was, never taking her eyes off him.

The air seemed to glimmer around him as the sounds of bones breaking filled the small cabin. She grimaced, her heart pounded. Before her very eyes he seemed to snap apart as he morphed into a different shape, forcing him to fall forward toward the floor. Just when it appeared he would hit the ground, his body completed the transition. There in front of her was a tiger, and four large paws supported his massive body. His mere size had her speechless. From head to tail, he had to be eight feet long and likely weighed over four hundred and fifty pounds.

He shook his body, fluffing his hair out, as he observed her. She watched, not moving from the bed until he lay on the floor softly purring. Taking that as a sign, she moved slowly, leaving the bed and gradually inching closer.

Even though she knew he wouldn’t hurt her, she was a little hesitant about rushing up to him. Closing the space between them, she reached out to touch him before lowering herself to sit on the floor next to him.

He lifted his head from between his paws and laid it in her lap. She raised her hand and touched the top of his head. Velvety fur slid across her fingers. As she ran her palm over it, he let out a soft purr and when she rubbed behind his ears, his purring grew louder.

“I don’t know if you can understand me, but you’re picturesque. I have only seen tigers in photographs, but this is amazing.”

He licked her cheek, as if to let her know he understood, and that’s when she noticed his long, sharp teeth. Without thinking, she reached for them but then thought better of it. He must have understood she wanted to touch them because he opened his mouth and moved it closer to her hand. Inching her hand farther away, she closed her eyes, and she could have sworn she heard him say, go ahead, baby, touch them.

She froze in place. She would have bet her life she’d heard him, but she couldn’t have, could she? “I must be crazy,” she said more to herself than him.

You heard me, didn’t you? The voice was in her head, not out loud.

She shook her head. “No, I’m losing my mind. This must be some kind of dream, and I’m going to wake up any moment.”

Tabby, it’s not a dream, you can really hear me. I think we just found out what your power from your father’s line is.

She wanted to turn this into something exciting and enjoyable, but she worried he might be able to hear everything she was thinking. “Does that mean you can hear my thoughts also?”

No, you don’t have to worry. I can’t hear your thoughts now. I might be able to hear them when you’re in tiger form if you project them to me. I don’t have the gift to hear what others are thinking. But let me tell you you’re amazing. You have taken this all so well. Most people would have run off screaming by now. We normally don’t shift for newbies.

She was still rubbing his head. “You’re pretty amazing yourself, big guy. I needed to see the change. I was starting to freak myself out about how bad it would be. It doesn’t look nearly as bad as I thought it would. The only thing I can’t get over is how much of [_you _]that you still are when you’re in tiger form. I was thinking the animal would take over.”

You can feel the animal there, but it’s not all-consuming unless you allow it to be, and that’s when we get rogue shifters. Want to feel the teeth? I know you wanted to earlier but thought I might bite your hand off. Come on, darling, I only nibble.

She chuckled. “Only nibble, huh?” She could have sworn the tiger smiled at her. “I didn’t think you would bite me. I just thought it wasn’t such a good idea. They’re so long and look so sharp.”

Come on, I know you want to.

He opened his mouth, and she hesitantly began to move her hand toward it. He wouldn’t hurt her. He was gentle and loving, but another tiger could turn in a moment. “They are sharp.”

When she moved her hand away from his mouth, he looked up at her. His crystal clear blue eyes gazed at her with so much trust.

Satisfied, love? she heard him say in her head.

“With you changing, yes.” She chose to keep silent about other things she wanted him to satisfy. She wanted him to claim her as his mate. “Do you have to stay like that all nigh—” Before she could finish the sentence, he had changed back to human form. One moment he was a tiger and she was rubbing his head, and the next moment he was a naked man with his head resting in her lap.

“Oh my.” She shivered from the magic in the air.

“Sorry, babe, didn’t mean to frighten you. I was anxious to change back and continue what we started before I changed. That is if you’re still in the mood?” He gave her a cocky grin, as if to say she wouldn’t turn down a naked man in her lap. To wipe the smile off his face, she bent to kiss him.

Their lips met, drawing her in. She wanted, needed, more of him. He leaned up, taking the kiss that began sweet and innocent to an entirely different level. As their kisses grew deeper and more passionate, he slid her turtleneck up, parting their mouths only long enough to lift it over her head.

The sweater was discarded on the floor, and he kissed her neck before slowly working his way down to her breasts. He drew his tongue along the tops of her breasts where the cups of the bra hid the best part from view, then he slipped his hands around back to unhook her bra.

When the bra slid down to join her sweater, a purr filled the space between them, making her freeze.

“Did you just purr at my breasts?” Her voice held the disbelief she felt.

He glanced up at her and nodded slightly. Taking her nipple into his mouth, he rolled his tongue around it before gently placing it between his teeth and pulling. Her thoughts skittered over those huge tiger teeth, but his gentle nipping stole her control. Her back arched, leaving him no choice but to loosen his teeth or cause her pain. He removed them from her nipple and slowly kissed his way across to the other one.

He pulled the blanket from the back of the sofa and laid it behind her on the floor, and in a deep sexy drawl, he instructed her, “Lay down, and let me pleasure you.” She stretched out on the blanket, watching him with wanting eyes. He was the only thing she could see.

He leaned over her, claiming her lips before taking his sweet time kissing a path down her body, spending extra time for each breast. As he kissed her abdomen, his fingers worked to unbutton her jeans before he pulled them down her legs. Using her toes, she kicked off her sneakers, allowing her jeans to slide completely off. Once they were out of the way, his teeth latched onto her red bikini panties, tugging until they broke free.

“What the hell?” she gasped as she propped herself up on her elbows.

“My patience wore thin.” He cocked his head to the side, giving her a sly grin.

She had to agree with him there. He’d spent so much time and effort taking off her clothes, it was beginning to feel like torture. She’d never had anyone take her clothes off, and tonight all she wanted to do was be as naked as he was. She wanted every inch of their bare flesh touching.

She caressed his cheek, and he turned his head to kiss her wrist. Her face heated with awareness from the way he was staring down at her. “Let me make this time memorable for you. Mating is supposed to be special and all about the female. Lay back and enjoy this.” She did as he asked, running her hands over his body, feeling the muscles on his skin contract as he moved and the warmth he gave off.

Look at him. I could never get tired of his body. I want to run my tongue over his abs and have his arms wrapped around me as if I am his entire world. Now that would be the life.

She was jolted out of her thoughts by the heat of electricity sparking around their bodies. There was a beauty to it that whipped away any fears she might have had.

“Tabby, I need to ask, are you sure about this? Once I have claimed you as my mate, there’s no going back. We’re not like humans, instead we’ll be mated forever. You won’t be able to divorce me. If you have doubts, it’s best to wait.” His voice cracked. There was a gentle quality to him, not only during sex, which would have surprised many. Most would have seen him as menacing and intimidating because of his size. She was lucky enough to see another side of him, a side she was sure not many were afforded.

Propping herself up on her elbow, she kissed him. “I’m sure. As you said, I’m your mate. Why would I want to fight it? I want you.” She kissed him again but this time, she let her desire race through her. She wanted to chase his worries away.

Her hand slid down his chest, letting her nails graze over the skin with just enough pressure. “I need you.”

He leaned in closer, his shaft pressing tight against her thigh. She was captive underneath him, his fingers slid between her legs and teased her bundle of nerves, dragging pleasure from her in hard, hot waves. His mouth claimed her until she moaned around his unrelenting kiss, her fingers reaching up to cup the back of his head, keeping him there. He thrust his fingers into her as his thumb continued to wring more pleasure from her core. It took everything in her not to break away from his lips and scream as desire rushed forward; she was so close.

His teeth grazed her lower lip and he pulled back enough to let her cries of frustration escape. “Not yet,” he whispered, withdrawing his fingers. He caressed every inch of her body, sending moans of ecstasy from between her lips. For such a big man, he was incredibly tender, as though trying to memorize every curve of her body with his hands and mouth.

Heat soared through her blood, impatient and demanding. It had been too long since she had been intimate with another, and she wanted him hard and fast. “I need you.”

He gently eased her legs open farther, giving him just enough room to position himself between them. He slipped on top of her, his bulky frame hovering above her as he stared down at her, desire burning in his eyes. His shaft teased along her entrance without entering as he watched her.

“Ty!” She reached up and grabbed his hips, determined to have him inside her.

As if calling his name tore away the last shred of control he had, he drove into her with one powerful thrust. With it came a moan of both pleasure and pain. Even with the foreplay she was still tight, her body wasn’t ready for hard and fast yet, but he’d get her there. He gave her no time to catch her breath before he began rocking in and out, slow enough not to cause pain.

She could feel the cord that reined in his desperation to touch her fraying. He pushed her arms above her head, his mouth claiming hers as his pace quickened. With each pump his hips increased speed, driving the force deeper and faster. Finding a perfect rhythm, their bodies rocked back and forth, tension stretching her tighter as she fought for the release she longed for.

She cried out as her orgasm tore through her. Her nails clawed at his back as she pulled herself tight against him, meeting his thrusts. He pumped twice more and growled her name, his own climax finding him. Eternity stretched on until he collapsed beside her.

Her breath slowly returned to normal and she lay cradled beside him. Now that the act had been completed, the mating energy was pouring through them, connecting them through their thoughts and needs. These urges, intense desires, were like extensions of her own body.

She finally felt like she belonged somewhere. She belonged with him, in his arms. They snuggled together, their hands interlocked. All of a sudden a burning sensation coursed through her right hand.

Whimpering, she pulled away from him as he hissed, and the smell of burning flesh filled the room. In the light she could see there was a moon design burned into the tops of their hands.

Cringing as the pain subsided, she asked, “Did you know it would happen?”

“No, Tabby, I didn’t…” He couldn’t seem to tear his gaze away from their hands as if he couldn’t believe it. “Not really.”

“What do you mean not really? Either you did or you didn’t. Which is it?”

“I’m sorry. I guess I knew there was a chance.”

“How could you? You knew there was a chance of this and you didn’t tell me?” This time she couldn’t keep the pain from her voice. The searing sting from her hand made her testy, leaving him the unfortunate outlet for her discomfort. She was hurt he’d tried to hide something like this from her.

“Let me explain.” He must have taken her silence as a sign she would listen, because he continued. “There hasn’t been a tiger of your line to mate with another tiger in the last eighty-five years. There were rumors it would happen if someone from your line mated with another tiger and not a human, but no one could be sure. It was just information the Elders passed down from generation to generation. I never believed it until now. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but I honestly didn’t think of it.”

She could feel the truth of his words through the mating connection. “So what does this mean?”

“If I remember the story right, it means we’re the highest ranking tigers. Once you mated with me, it brought me into the line. It means we can claim our rightful titles as King and Queen of [_all _]the tigers and not just the Alaskan Tigers.” He paused as if gathering his thoughts. “If this is a fact, then I would say everything in the book is true.”

She could feel her eyes widen, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know but she had to ask. “What book? What does it say?”

“Your father gave me a book to give to you once we were sure you were going to go through the change. No one can open it other than your line, but since I was entrusted with helping you through the change, your father opened it one evening and we read it together. If I remember correctly, it says there will be a female tiger who claims her place as Queen of[_ all_] tigers and unites us.”

“Where’s this book now?”

He leaned over to kiss her cheek before he shot up onto his feet and grabbed his discarded jeans. “I brought it with me. It’s in my bag in the car.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Nine

By the time Ty returned from the car, Tabitha was dressed again and digging around to see if there was anything in the cabinets to make coffee or tea. There was a slight chill in the cabin, causing her to shiver.

He must not have spotted her when he opened the cabin door because there was a slight edge of panic in his voice. “Tabby?”

“I’m over here. It’s chilly in here.” She closed the cabinet door.

He gave her a smug little grin. “Come here, I’ll warm you up.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t we just do that?” Grabbing the book from his hands, she gave him a rewarding kiss.

“Honest, I was just going to offer to have you sit on my lap while we looked at the book. You would be warm in a matter of moments. Once you go through the transition, your body temperature always runs at one hundred and one. But I do plan to do what you were thinking again later. Come on, we need to find out what’s in store for us…and if there are any more little surprises coming up.” He led her to the sofa. Once there, he grabbed the blanket and set it next to him. “On my lap and I promise to be good.”

She was pretty chilly, and he was right; his body was like her own personal heating blanket. She sat on his lap, and he threw the blanket over them. The heat coming from him made her want to curl into him. He seemed to know what she was thinking and put his big arms around her, pulling her closer. She rested her head against his chest and opened the book.

There was a lock on the side of the book, but when she went to unlock it, it seemed to spring apart.

“It did that for your father too.”

She turned to the first page, and there was a handwritten note addressed to her.

Tabitha,

If you’re reading this letter, I didn’t get to see you grow up, and I’m sorry for that. I’m sure you’re an amazing woman. Hopefully you took after your mother more than you did me. Though if you’re able to open this book, you must be on the brink of going through the change. I always knew you would follow in my footsteps. I’m just sorry I won’t be there to help you through it. But I know you’re in good hands. (Ty, you better take care of my baby.)

Everything you read in this book is true and has been passed down through our family for generations. Now it goes to you. Everything you’ll need to know lies within these pages. I have faith that you’ll be able to accomplish much. I’m honored that it’s my daughter who will bring the tigers together.

In case you didn’t guess, my gift was to know the future. I love you, Tabitha.

Love,

Your father

P.S. Ty, welcome to the family. Glad to have you as my son-in-law. If you were wondering, it’s why I picked you. I wanted someone who cared as much about her as I do, even if you didn’t know it at that time.

Tears were flowing freely down her face and she didn’t bother to wipe them away.

“He[_ knew_]? He never let on.” Ty shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe what he read. He took a moment, gathering his thoughts before he tugged her tighter against him. “Are you all right? You don’t have to do this now.”

She wiped the moisture away with the sleeve of her shirt. “Yes, I’m fine. He loved me.”

He hugged her tighter to his body. “Yes, baby, he did, and he wanted the best for you.”

They spent hours going over the book. It consisted of spells, names of enemies, important dates in shifter history, and pretty much anything the Elders of Tabitha’s line thought might someday be useful to the tigress who would bring together all tigers. They wanted to pass on things they thought might be important.

When they got to what they believed was the end of the book, another hundred pages or so magically appeared. The first page read:

Tabitha and Ty have been chosen. Everything you read in the following pages has been sealed since the beginning of time and will only open for the chosen ones. It will walk you through bringing tiger shifters from around the world together. Whenever you need advice or think you’re missing something, come back to the book. It will know what you need and will show it to you.

Your first step is to return to Alaska. The safest place for you right now is with your clan. Tabitha, you need to meet and get to know your clan. From them you will choose three other tiger shifters to help you on your journey. We’ve chosen a number of good tigers you can select from. You’ll be able to tell them apart from the others by the gold aura around them. Other than the two of you, only Raja may know about any of this. Raja is your Lieutenant now and will remain once you unite the tigers. Once you’re in Alaska and have decided who you want as part of the chosen team, you’ll be told what to do next.

“I guess I should call Raja and inform him there’s no need to send Leo and Thomas. We’ll leave for Alaska tomorrow if that’s all right with you. Getting you among your own kind before your transition will make things easier on you. I’ll have Raja make us reservations so we can rest.”

She nodded in agreement, still shocked. This is just too much. I went from being no one to someone pretty freaking special in such a short period.

Before he could call Raja, his cell started ringing from the side of the sofa. “Raja?” He answered, pausing to listen. “About that, I was just about to call you. There has been a change in plans. I can’t explain on the phone, but it’s safer if we come back to Alaska. I’ll explain everything when we get in.” He still had his arm wrapped around her back, holding her close.

“We’ll wait for Felix and catch a flight out of Cincinnati tomorrow night. Just to be safe, since we’re flying home, I don’t want to go back to Pittsburgh. Will you arrange for us to have three tickets waiting at the airport?”

There was a short pause. “I will deal with him when I get home. Confine him to the one of the cells until I return. Thanks. We’ll see you tomorrow night at the airport.” With that, he hung up. “Everything is taken care of. But I’m starving. You?”

“Surprisingly, yes.”

“Raja says there’s a nearby town where we can get something to eat. There has to be some stores there where we can pick you up a few things you might need over the next few days. We can get everything else in Alaska. Want to go? Or do you want me to have Felix pick us up some dinner?”

“Let’s go. We should take the book with us. I don’t want to leave it here, just in case.” She went to grab her purse from the nightstand, and he placed the book back in his bag to put it in the trunk.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Ten

With night completely upon them, Tabitha stared out the window watching the world pass by on their way to the strip mall they’d passed on their way into town. She couldn’t help but wonder what might be lurking in the dark. Was Pierce out there waiting for their guard to fall? Or did they leave him behind in the city? Either way she knew it wouldn’t be the last time she saw him.

A deer stood just off the side of the road, having no care of the passing cars but it brought new wonders. How many other creatures were there that she hadn’t known existed, waiting for her? She tried to push the thought from her mind because it was just too much for her at the moment. Instead she turned to look at Ty.

“Dinner was delicious. Thank you.”

He took his gaze of the road just for a moment to look her way. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

“I can’t remember the last time something tasted so enchanting. I haven’t been hungry the last few weeks, and whenever I ate, nothing tasted right.”

“I remember that part of the change. It was one of the worst things for me.”

“But the raspberry cheesecake with chocolate sauce drizzled over the top…” She let out a moan as she remembered the flavor.

“I enjoyed watching you eat that. You savored every bite like it might be your last.” He slid the car into a parking spot and turned off the engine.

“What’s this place…Gibs?”

“Raja said it should have everything we need.” He grabbed the door handle. “Come on.”

When he grabbed a cart, she gave him a questioning look. “You’re going to need at least a few outfits to get you through until we’re settled in Alaska. We also need a suitcase, unless you wish to carry everything in your arms.”

“I don’t need much.”

“I can see you’re worried about money again. Don’t be.”

She’d always worried about money, having grown up the way she did. She wanted to make her money last, and she intended to get another job when she arrived in Alaska. She didn’t want to rely on the clan or the money her father had left her.

“Are you sure you can’t read minds?” She frowned, disconcerted.

“I think if I had that gift, I would know. You’re just easy to read sometimes. Like I told you before, there’s no need to worry about it. Everything your father had went to the clan, and now it’s yours. Even if you didn’t go through the change, there’s still a bank account set up in your name from him. You’ll have everything you need. Your father’s investments did very well, but why wouldn’t they since he could see into the future? Let’s get what you need. I’d like to have you to myself for a little while longer if we can make it back before Felix gets there.”

She looked at the vast selection of clothes in dismay. No wonder I hate shopping. There’s just too much to choose from. For a moment, she almost wished she was back in her apartment.

“You better get warm things. Alaska isn’t the wet cold you’re used to, but it’s still downright frigid.”

She grabbed a couple of sweaters and turtlenecks before moving over to the jeans.

“Just a suggestion, because I have heard women like to know what to dress for when packing. The clan knows their Queen will be arriving tomorrow, and they’re planning a party for the next evening. You might want something dressy to wear. I saw a beautiful dress around this display that you might like.” He disappeared, leaving her no choice but to follow.

“Why are they having a party so soon? Why not later, once I’m settled?”

“We should be thankful it’s the next night and not tomorrow after we arrive. The clan is full of excitement to meet you. They want to welcome their Queen home in style, it’s our way. Only because Raja explained the time difference and what has happened was the clan swayed to move the celebration to the following night. When we arrive home, you’ll still have to come with me to greet our Guards and Raja.”

He held up the dress he’d mentioned. It was beautiful, a white sweetheart-cut dress, form-fitting to the waist, then billowing out to be free-flowing. It had a red and black belt design at the hips. As he turned it around, she realized it was backless. “What do you think?”

“It’s beautiful, but isn’t it a bit much?”

“Not for the welcome home party. Trust me, you need something like this.” He tossed it in the cart. “What else do you need?”

Crap, I’m going to need to get bras and underwear. It’s crazy to be self-conscious about it when he just saw me naked. I guess it’s either buy them or go without. I can’t go without a bra.

While silently praying he wouldn’t follow her, she crossed the aisle to the intimate section to grab what she needed. She grabbed the first few matching bra and panties sets she saw that weren’t something a grandma would wear. If someone is going to see me naked, I want to look good.

“You would look great in this.” Ty held up a sexy, black, baby doll negligee with pink lace trim.

I always wanted someone I was in sync with, someone who could finish my thoughts. Ty seems to be just that.

She could feel her cheeks heat with embarrassment. “You can’t be serious?”

“Come on, babe, let’s get it. I want to see you in it.”

Alice always wore fancy lingerie, even when she slept alone, but Tabitha had never been that way. Her best friend had joked with her about it, but she just couldn’t see herself in such fancy stuff. Thinking of Alice made her eyes water, and she quickly wiped it away, pretending she’d gotten something in her eye.

“I don’t know, Ty.” It was just too much.

“You’ll look great in it I promise. Once you try it on, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to wear it. Give it a try for me, okay?”

“Okay.”

Knowing she wasn’t likely to wear the negligee often, she also tossed in a pair of red and black plaid pajama bottoms and a black tank top.

“Now you need a duffel bag or some type of suitcase for this. You know, I always hated shopping, but you’re adorable when you’re shopping,” he said, leaning over to kiss her.

Maybe wearing lingerie isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Twenty minutes later, when they were loading the car with their purchases, she came to the realization she had more than enough stuff to last her a week. He insisted she get everything she would need, reminding her of the party. She’d ended up buying more makeup and hair products than she’d ever had in her apartment. Not a wearer of much makeup, she hadn’t known what to buy. His solution was to buy one of anything that caught her eye.

“Now maybe we can go back to the cabin. I have a few ideas about how we can spend the time before Felix gets in.” He pushed the trunk lid closed.

I wish we could meet Felix tomorrow. I want Ty all to myself.

As Tabitha thought about ways they could spend the evening together, Ty sped the car up the driveway, only to have their hopes dashed when they saw a car in the driveway. Someone was waiting for them.

“Shit!” He hit the steering wheel to emphasize he wasn’t too happy Felix was already there. “Do you think we could send him into town for something or to a hotel room?”

She placed her hand on his leg, rubbing small circles. “I’m sure we’ll have a lot of time together in our future. Remember what the book said? I must meet the members of the clan.”

He let out a soft purr as she continued massaging his thigh. “I know, but I wanted you all to myself. Am I selfish?”

“From what I hear, no. Even so, it’s all right, because I want you all to myself too.”

He pulled to a stop behind the car as they watched Felix step out of his vehicle.

“Ty…” She nodded to the gold aura around Felix.

“I see it, but remember they can’t, so don’t act strangely. We can’t let anyone know about any of this yet. You have to decide for yourself if Felix should be one we choose. After you get to know him, we’ll discuss how I feel about him and what I know about it. You need to make your own judgments about him first.” He opened his door and was around to her side before she could grab the handle on her own.

“Thank you.” She stepped out of the car as Felix joined them.

Felix dropped to his knees in front of them and reached for her hand. “My Queen. My name is Felix, and I am at your service now and always.”

What? He makes it sound as if I’m the Queen of England. She shot Ty a desperate glance for help.

“Felix, we didn’t expect you to arrive this soon. I have yet to go over this with her. Bear with us as I walk her through it.” Without missing a beat, Ty gained control of the situation, and the awkwardness fell away. “When a lesser shifter greets an Elder, or in your case a Queen, they are to offer their neck to show they’re subservient to you. In return the Elder will bend and sniff the offered neck.”

“Are you serious?” She felt her face burn with embarrassment. Couldn’t she just shake his hand?

“Yes.” Ty frowned at her as if to let her know she’d better get used to it, because this would be the norm in the future. He nodded toward Felix, who was waiting patiently.

More than a little uncomfortable, she bent and sniffed Felix’s neck. When she was close enough to breathe in his scent, she smelled dried leaves, pine trees, and damp loam. It was strong enough to almost convince her she was there. A rush of pleasure coursed through her body. The pain and soreness in her joints dissipated.

She felt Ty’s hand on her arm as if he were grounding her.

“You smell the clan…home. Everyone from our clan will smell the same while other clans will have other smells. If you mean Felix no harm, then you kiss his neck. If you find him a threat and wish him harm, then you would bite his neck, at least until you drew blood, depending on the situation and the punishment.”

She had no reason to harm the tiger shifter, and he was one of the chosen ones the book mentioned. So she leaned in and placed a soft kiss on his neck.

“You have now accepted him as subservient to you. This is how the clan greets the Elders when they have been away for a while or they are coming for judgment over a crime. Felix, you may rise and sweep the cabin and grounds. Tabby, once he checks the cabin, go in. There’s no use standing in the cold. I’ll bring in the bags and then start a fire.”

Ty grab the last bag from the trunk as Felix came around the side of the cabin.

“All clear.”

He nodded as Felix reached up to close the trunk.

“Thank you for coming so quickly,” Ty said. “I’m sorry to tear you away from your family.”

“It’s fine. I’m glad I was close. We need to do everything we can to protect our Queen from Pierce. She is your mate, the Queen of the Alaskan Tigers. I will protect her with my life.” Felix paused a second, as if he wasn’t sure if he wanted to ask. “You believe the legends, don’t you? She’s the one who will unite all tigers, isn’t she? If you believe that, you must believe if she dies, our line dies also.”

He decided to confide in the man who had been a trusted guard for years. “I don’t just believe. I know. The last meeting I had with her father, he told me it was true. That’s why it’s so important I watch over her and help her with the transition. If she dies before she can bring another tiger into this world, all tigers will cease to exist.”

Felix looked toward the cabin with sadness in his eyes. “Does she know?”

“I told her that’s what everyone believes, but no, I haven’t told her I know for certain. She has enough pressure on her right now. I don’t want the change to be any more stressful for her. She will make it, her father said as much in his letter to her.”

Tabitha might be special to the tiger population, but she was even more so to him. His mate. Unlike other shifters who had to search for a mate, he hadn’t. The clan kept him busy and he knew when he was destined to find the woman he was supposed to be with they’d come together. Now he understood why mated shifters were happier, why they sought out this special connection. Tabitha was everything to him; he adored her, and with his life he would protect her.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Eleven

The men already had a nice fire going, and it was beginning to warm up the cabin, when Tabitha carried a tray with three cups of hot chocolate over to the sofa. She’d always had a soft spot for hot chocolate on a cold night, especially when it was snowing. The ease with which the men communicated gave her the impression they’d known each other for years and were old friends. First impressions told a lot about a person, and she liked Felix.

“Felix, if you don’t mind me asking, what were you doing that you were so close when Ty called?” Snuggled into Ty’s warm embrace, she felt every muscle within him tense. Glancing between them, she was sure she’d seen a flash of fear cross Felix’s dark eyes, but he hid it quickly.

“I didn’t think to tell her. Tabby, leave it be,” Ty said.

Whatever it was, Felix didn’t want to talk about it, she needed to know before she could make a decision about him as one of their chosen team members. She would have to talk to Ty about it when they were alone, but for now, she didn’t want to put Felix on the spot. After all, they’d just met. “I’m sorry, I can tell it’s personal. Just forget it.”

“No, you have every reason to know. It’s just not something I like to talk about.” Felix set his mug on the coffee table.

“I understand. There’s a lot from my past I keep private. So just forget I asked and tell me about the adventure you and Ty had. I love hearing things about him,” she added, smiling.

“My Queen, I shall tell you…” Felix appeared to be gathering his courage for a moment. “I have a twin brother, Henry. Growing up, the whole family thought we would both shift. Both of us had all the symptoms: the fever, body aches and pains, stomach cramps, everything. When the time came to shift…I shifted. My brother’s body wanted to shift; he could feel the tiger clawing at his insides, but the shift wouldn’t happen. We tried taking him to doctors of our kind, but no one could find a reason for it. The agony was just too much for him. He went through a number of treatments to try to bring the tiger out. Nothing worked and eventually he let the tiger take over his mind. The vibrant twin I grew up with is no longer there. He’s insane. He tries to fight anyone that gets close and has to be heavily drugged. Even though he’s not in tiger form, he’s still deadly. He has the strength and speed of a tiger. The Ohio Tigers have a doctor who works with mentally ill patients. He has been looking after Henry for some time. My brother isn’t allowed to live among the clan, he’s by himself and treated by the clan’s doctor. I tried to bring him to our clan, but we don’t have the necessary means to take care of him. I try to get back and visit him as much as I can. Most times, he doesn’t know who I am, but since my parents have left the country he’s the only family I have here.”

Felix spit it out as if it was a bad drink but the pain of having to say it aloud was clear to her. Leaning forward, she took his large hand in hers.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cause you any discomfort. This must be difficult for you. After my change, please take as much time as you need to be with your brother. I’m sorry we interrupted your visit with him.”

“My Queen, you’re most generous. Thank you.”

Mentally she placed Felix on the short list of guards to choose from.

He has the compassion and commitment that’s needed. Instead of being with his brother, enjoying his vacation, he rushed to our call. Tonight he proved himself to me.

He was one she could trust to stand by her side and protect her when things got rough. With a few guards like him, their enemies and Pierce would think twice before coming after them.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twelve

“With three hours ahead of us, I think you should answer any questions I have. I don’t want any more speed bumps like last night,” Tabitha said as Ty pulled out on the main road. Felix was following them to Columbus, Ohio, in his rental car, and then they would continue to the Cincinnati airport together. There, they would catch their red-eye flight to Fairbanks.

“Sounds fair enough.”

[_I have a feeling he’ll regret this decision, _]she fretted, wringing her hands in her lap.

“Let’s start with easy questions. What’s your favorite color?”

“Deep red. Especially the red in the sun as it’s setting.”

“Do you have any siblings?”

“I don’t believe I do. Like you, I was a foster child. My mother, who was a tiger shifter, was killed by a hunter shortly after I was born.”

She understood how the foster system worked and hadn’t had a good experience with it. “Did you have a foster family, or were you in a group foster home?”

“Until the age of nine, I was in a group home. I was a problem child, always acting out. My caseworker couldn’t find a home to place me in. No one wanted to deal with me. Shortly after my ninth birthday, I got fed up with the system and took off. When your father found me, I had been living on the streets for three weeks. He got me a place to stay among the other tigers and helped me through the transition. After my change, he secured a job for me with one of the other tigers who owned a little market, and there was an apartment above the store that I could live in. He had an elderly lady who used to be a high school English teacher tutor me twice a week so I could graduate. Without that, I never would have finished school. I couldn’t attend regular classes because I still had problems controlling my shifts. It’s why most shifter children attend special schools or are homeschooled.”

“Will I be dangerous once I shift?”

He laid his hand over hers and gave a little squeeze. “No, love, you won’t be dangerous. You’ll be fine. When you first go through the shift, you’re likely to shift to animal without meaning to when you’re upset. Your emotions play a huge part in shifting. When you’re young and go through it, your body is still changing.”

“I don’t want to change and get stuck like that for hours.” She heard her own trepidation in her voice.

“You’re Queen of the Tigers. You’ll be able to change at will. If you shift because of emotions, once you calm down you’ll be able to shift back. I promise I’ll teach you everything you need to know. Don’t worry.” He brought her hand to his lips, placing a gentle kiss on it. “You’ll be fine.”

There’s something comforting about having someone believe in you. When he says it will be fine, I believe him, and my doubts fall away.

A smile formed on her face as she realized for the first time she had someone who cared about her and would always be there for her. “You always make me feel better. Thank you.”

The time flew by as she continued to question him. No matter what the question was, he kept his end of the deal and answered. With some questions, she really put him on the spot.

“Last night I noticed you have a scar from your ribcage to your belly button. What’s that from?”

Unconsciously, he moved his hand away from hers and rubbed the scar as if it hurt. “Before we left Pittsburgh, some men from Pierce’s gang found our location and attacked. I believe they were trying to scare us into leaving Pierce alone. There were only a few there when the attack happened, and I was protecting Tora, Raja’s sister, who was pregnant at the time. One of the men attacked with a large dagger while I was fighting off one of his gang members, and he got me there.”

“Tora?”

“She survived. Her daughter, Scarlet, is a little over a year old.”

“Have you ever killed someone?”

He took his eyes off the road for a second to look at her. “Yes, but only either to protect myself or someone else. It’s not something I take lightly or wish to do, but it’s my job as Alpha. I must determine the punishments for tigers who disobey the rules. I, or someone I dictate it to, must hunt down and kill any rogue tigers from our clan. This is something we’ll have to do once you take over as Queen of all Tigers also. I’ve never hurt or killed someone who didn’t deserve it. Are you okay with this?”

“I understand this is something that happens and as long as you’re not killing innocents, that’s fine. We’re tigers. I accept that. Which means things are different for us than normal people.”

This should bother me, shouldn’t it? But it doesn’t. I understand this has to happen. Eye for an eye kind of thing, I guess. Funny until now I didn’t realize I supported the death penalty. Will Mike get the death penalty for murdering Alice? I hope so.

“I’m still amazed you have taken all of this so well. Your father would have been pleased.”

The rest of the trip to Columbus passed quickly. She was able to find out a lot about the clan. At only thirty-seven members, not including Raja, Ty or herself, it was like a large family…and it was now hers.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Thirteen

It was just before nine o’clock in the evening when they arrived at the clan’s complex ten miles outside of North Pole, Alaska. Ty resided in a wing of the main compound, allowing him to be available while he still had some privacy. Tabitha took in her new home while Ty dismissed Felix by explaining they were tired from the long journey and the time change. There were things they would need to discuss with Raja before they could turn in.

Once the guards exited, leaving them alone with Raja in Ty’s quarters, Raja dropped to his knee. “My Queen, it’s a pleasure to serve you. I’m glad you’re among us again. You have been missed.”

She remembered Ty telling her they would greet her like this since she had been away for a while. This time, she didn’t feel awkward bending to kiss Raja’s neck.

Raja rose, turning to leave, but Ty stopped him.

“Raja, there’s much to discuss.”

“I assumed you would like to be alone.” He stopped halfway to the door.

“That’s true, but we must deal with the business first. There will be plenty of time after. Tabby, it’s up to you if you wish to lie down or join us. I know you must be tired, and you didn’t sleep long on the plane.” Ty came to stand next to her, draping his arm across her shoulders, drawing her against him.

“No, I’ll stay. If I’m to be Queen, then I must deal with this business as well.”

He laid a kiss on her cheek before leading her toward the kitchen table. “Come, Raja, tell us about Hunter.”

“As you know, Hunter isn’t a new shifter and knows the rules. My understanding is he was arguing with his girlfriend. Instead of controlling his anger, he shifted in front of her. She was unaware she was dating a shifter, and most likely for good reason, because she freaked out. When she ran, he chased her.” Raja paused, looking from Ty to her before continuing. “She was killed.”

“Witnesses?” Tabitha asked, causing both men to look at her before Ty smirked his approval at her forwardness.

“None.”

“Hunter has been confined to the compound since we spoke?”

Raja nodded. “He has been confined in one of our cells below. He’s very agitated.”

“Tomorrow afternoon we’ll have a clan meeting to announce his punishment. He’ll be unable to shift for six months and will have no contact with humans for an additional five years. I’ll place the collar around his neck at the meeting,” Ty decided.

“I’ll inform the members of the meeting. Tomorrow night is also the welcome home party unless you wish us to move it to another night.”

She didn’t wait for Ty to answer. “No, that’s fine, Raja. I’m sure the clan meeting can be held earlier in the day. I look forward to meeting everyone. I’ve never had a party thrown for me before. It’s an honor.”

Raja nodded. “I know you’ve had a long trip and must be tired. If that’s all, I’ll leave you to your rest.”

“Raja, there’s more we need to discuss.” Ty went to retrieve his duffle bag from the entryway where they’d left their stuff when they’d arrived. Returning, he handed the book to her. “Tabitha’s father asked me to protect this book and hand it over to her when we were sure she was going to go through the change. The legends you have heard about her line are true. She’s the last of the first line of tigers. If she is killed before she can continue the line, the tiger shifters will die with her.”

Raja looked stunned. “I thought those were all legends.”

“Even after her father told me, that’s what I thought too, until I saw the book come alive in her hands.” Ty nodded toward her.

Her eyes widened and she gasped. “A heir? You didn’t mention the legend said I must have a child or the tiger shifters will die. Why?”

“I felt you had enough on your plate. Getting you home was our top priority.”

She leaned forward, setting the book on the table before touching the lock. As her fingers came in contact with the metal, it sprang open and flipped right to where the book started writing for them last time. The words that had come alive for them were still there. If she was in Raja’s position, she would have wanted proof. She turned the book toward him, allowing him to read it for himself.

“Let’s say for just one moment that I believe all of this, and it’s not some joke. Why are you showing it to me?” Raja looked from one to the other, a dubious expression on his face, as though he’d just read that aliens existed.

“We’re showing you this because we need you on board.” She looked him directly in the eye, realizing she needed him to be a part of this. “If you can’t be of help, then we need to know now. There are a lot that will have to change if I’m going to unite the tiger shifters. I need to make sure I have a strong group of supporters and people who want the same thing.”

“I’m sorry, my Queen. This is all just a shock. What can I do to help?”

“Nothing at the moment. I need to get to know the members of the clan. I need to know who is part of the chosen tigers, then I can make my choices. Once I have gotten to know them better, hopefully in the next week or so, we can sit down and discuss them. I want to know Ty’s and your opinions on these people, since you have known them longer than I have. However, the final decision will be mine and Ty’s. We just needed you to know.”

“I understand, my Queen. Thank you for including me in this. Is that all, then?”

“That will be all for tonight.” Ty rose from his chair. “We need to get some rest. We’ll discuss this again soon.”

“Okay. Welcome home again.” Raja bowed before he left.

When the door closed behind him, Ty grabbed the book from the coffee table and said, “Let’s go to bed.” His tone made it clear sleep was the last thing on his mind.

He didn’t need to ask her twice.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Fourteen

The sun had been spilling through the curtains for hours, but Tabitha and Ty were still in bed, enjoying their time together. Her head rested in the crook of his shoulder while he rubbed his hand up and down her arm in lazy circles.

At the bedroom door, there was a gentle knock.

“Come in.” He didn’t bother to get up. There were locks on the door to his compound, but he never bothered to use them. The only ones who would dare enter the area were the guards and Raja.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, but the meeting is arranged for noon.” Raja carried a tray full of food.

“Thank you, Raja. Please leave us to eat and get ready. Arrive back here promptly at eleven forty-five.” He sat up in bed and took the tray from Raja.

With a nod, he was gone.

The food had her mouth watering. Waffles were one of her favorites.

“We have some of the best chefs here. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything as good as they make. Dig in.” Ty set the tray in front of her.

The first bite had her forgetting how to breathe. The waffles melted in her mouth, the syrup was sweet yet bold and full of maple flavor. Gaining control of herself, she remembered what she wanted to ask him before being sidetracked by the aroma. “Why did you ask Raja to join us before the clan meeting?”

“It’s normal procedure. It gives us a few moments to make sure everything is in order. Also when we enter the clan meeting, having the three of us together will give us a stronger presence.”

Tabitha was just slipping on the emerald green sweater she’d picked up on their shopping spree when she heard Raja’s voice. Ty had already discussed the meeting with her, and he was just going over the same things with Raja. Knowing there was no reason to rush, she did a double-check of her makeup.

[_There’s no reason to be so nervous. These people want me here, or they wouldn’t be going through so much to make me feel at home. Ty wouldn’t have come across the country if I didn’t belong here. _]The pep talk was doing nothing to calm her knotted stomach. Biting the bullet, she joined the men, hoping she could keep her nerves a secret.

“Tabby, we need…”

Ty stopped as she strolled into the living room. “Sorry.”

“You’re fine. They can’t start without us, I just wanted to get a move on.” He placed her hand in his. “There’s nothing to worry about. They’re happy to have you home, but you won’t have time to mingle with them now. We need to take care of business, then the clan can get back to preparing for tonight’s festivities. If you want to be nervous about something, be nervous about the party. With everyone demanding the Queen’s attention, you might end up with a jealous mate.” He laughed before kissing her.

The conference room was large and open with a slightly higher platform that dominated the area. It was nothing like she’d expected. In the conference rooms she had been in before, there was normally a large table with chairs surrounding it. I guess when you have forty members, it would be hard to find a table large enough.

In front of the platform, the chairs were set up in rows of five with a walkway between them. The members were already there chatting amongst themselves when Tabitha, Ty, and Raja entered.

Already on the platform was a bedraggled man wearing only jeans and heavy iron chains on his wrists and ankles. Two guards stood on either side of the man she assumed was Hunter.

Her stomach went from knots to doing flip-flops as Ty, still holding her hand, led them toward the microphone. “The first order of business is to introduce you to your Queen. After too many years, Tabitha has returned home as my mate.”

Everyone dropped to their knees. “Welcome home, Queen Tabitha,” the audience chorused.

He stepped back, allowing her to access the microphone. “Thank you, I’m pleased to be among you. I look forward to speaking to as many of you as I can tonight. Those I don’t get to tonight, I promise you’ll have your turn. I want to get to know each and every one of you.”

“Now we have other business to attend to.” Ty turned toward the guards. “Please bring Hunter forward and have him take his place.”

The guards brought the prisoner in front of Ty and Tabitha, and Hunter kneeled before them. “Hunter, you have been charged with changing in front of a human and murder. Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

Hunter looked at them with such hatred in his eyes causing Tabitha to suck in a harsh breath. “I don’t know what happened…I think she drugged me. I never would have done this otherwise. I—”

Before he could continue, Ty brought up his hand, silencing the man. “Raja thought you might say something like that. There were alcohol and drug tests done on you after your capture. They were clean. You were not drugged. You just let your emotions take hold of you, and this is not the first time. Therefore, as punishment for this crime, you’ll be unable to shift for the next six months, and you will be confined to the cell downstairs until the collar is removed. After that, you will have no contact with humans or leave the compound for five years.” Ty gave a nod to Raja.

Raja stepped forward with the collar but Hunter didn’t want to go down without a fight. He went after Ty, attacking in human form, because he couldn’t shift with the chains. Ty pushed her out of Hunter’s reach, toward the guards.

One guard moved in front of her to keep her out of the way as the other one took her arm, trying to drag her away from the scene. She wanted to help Ty, but she couldn’t shift yet.

“I won’t leave him!” she cried out, watching as Ty and Raja became tigers, their clothes torn to shreds.

“My Queen, there’s nothing you can do.” Felix placed his hand on her shoulder as he moved her back. “You need to be somewhere safe.”

She shook her head, and Felix didn’t fight her. He stood in front of her, ready to protect his Queen if the fight shifted their way.

She stood there, utterly helpless as the action unfolded before her. Claws ripped through flesh, sending blood splattering across the stage. Hunter was powerless to fight off two shifted tigers. Ty had Raja helping him, but her heart was in her throat. As they took Hunter to the ground, he went after Ty’s neck, leaving him no choice but to end it.

Hunter went limp, and they changed back. Ty quickly scanned the room until he found her next to Felix. His shoulders relaxed, his relief obvious.

Knowing she was safe he turned to the clan. “Don’t make Hunter’s mistake. I have never put up with this kind of behavior, and I will not start now. Behavior like that is showing no respect for your Queen. Now we will retire to our quarters, and we’ll see you tonight at the party.”

Neither man seemed bothered by their nudity as they crossed the room toward her.

Coming to stand in front of her, he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her against him. “Are you all right?” he whispered.

She nodded, not trusting her voice. She held on to him as though he were the last life raft in a turbulent sea.

“Felix, I would like to see you in my quarters in twenty minutes.” Ty stepped past them, leading her down the hall to their quarters. Raja followed behind, waiting until they were away from the other members before speaking. “If it’s all right with you, I would like to shower and put on some clothes.”

“That’s fine. Felix is on his way. I would like you there before he arrives, if possible.”

Raja nodded, and she followed Ty down a side hall.

As the door closed, he wrapped his arms around her again, squeezing her so tightly she could barely breathe. “Ty…”

“I’m sorry, Tabby. I just needed to feel you in my arms.” He lessened his grip slightly. “These emotions that come with having a mate are all new to me. I wanted to make sure you were safe, but I had to take care of Hunter before he hurt someone else. My emotions were torn, but I had to do what was right for us and the clan. You didn’t get hurt, did you?” He held her at arm’s length for a moment, looking her up and down.

“No, I’m fine. Felix and the other guards tried to get me out of there, but I didn’t want to leave you.”

“Next time, promise me when there’s danger, you’ll let the guards defend you or get you out of there. Don’t be hard-headed.”

“I was in no danger. You and Raja had Hunter under control.”

He took a step back from her, allowing her to see his face and his grave expression. “I’m serious. Things could have gotten out of control today. You’re the Queen of all Tigers and the [_only _]true bloodline left. You need to be protected.”

“I might still be human, but I’m not helpless. I know when to get out of the way. Stop worrying about me so much,” she huffed.

Still he refused to back down. “You don’t know how vulnerable you are to the clan and to me. You’re irreplaceable. You don’t understand what lengths people like Pierce will go to, to kill you.”

“I do understand. I know if I’m killed, the tiger shifters will die. Trust me, that scares me. I have never been responsible for something so big. I might not have gone through the change yet, but I’m not just a normal human either.” She heaved a sigh, raking her fingers through her hair. Then she slipped her hand around his. “Come on, you need a shower before they arrive.”

“Won’t you join me?” Ty kissed her neck.

“Oh, what the heck.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Fifteen

When Tabitha and Ty entered the room, Raja was sitting on a chair speaking to someone on the phone. Cutting off whoever was on the other end, he said, “I’ll call you back.” He stood, slipping the cell phone in his pocket. “I apologize. There was a problem with Hunter’s sister.”

Ty lowered himself to the chair and brought Tabitha to his side. “Do you need to go deal with her?”

“Thomas is taking care of it. She’s distraught over what happened to her brother and is in a state of grief. They were very close. After he was arrested, she confided in me that Hunter had changed. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was something different about him. They were growing apart. She asked me to help her brother. I explained to her it would be up to you and most likely, he would get the help he needed. She thinks I betrayed her.”

“I expected her to be upset, but Hunter left us no choice. You don’t attack your Alpha and get away with it. The punishment for attacking your Alpha and losing is death. There’s no way around that.”

Raja nodded. “Everyone knows this, and if she were thinking clearly, she would understand, but grief does strange things to people. I had the doctor give her something to calm her. She needs to rest. I’ll speak with her soon, but this is not why we’re here.”

“Very well. I asked you here because after today’s incident, I’ve decided to assign around-the-clock guards. One of those guards I have chosen is Felix, he’ll be promoted to Captain of Tabitha’s Guards. He’s done a great job as one of my guards, and I trust him to keep her safe.” He gently squeezed her hand. “Today he came from the back of the conference room, where he was stationed, to get her out of the way. He understands she must be kept safe. Even though she’s a stubborn, hard-headed woman and refused to leave,” he paused, giving her a pointed look, “he kept her out of danger and was ready to protect her if needed.”

“I think he would be perfect for the job. Felix is one of the few I would trust with my life. Who else do you have in mind?”

“I haven’t decided on anyone else yet. I wanted her to meet the rest of the clan. We’ll see who fits well with her, who seems like they would be a good match. I would like four guards assigned to her, at least two at any given time. Most of the time, I’ll be around her, but if something happens like it just did and I have to take care of it, I want to know she’ll be safe. I won’t have her put in danger. I want the guards to protect her when I can’t.”

She didn’t bother to hide her annoyance as she leaned away from Ty to look at him. “Don’t I get a say in this?”

He rubbed the top of her hand that was resting on his leg. “Baby, I’m doing this to protect you. You can have some say on who will protect you. But you are my mate, and I would rather risk you being mad at me for who I choose than have you in harm’s way.”

“I’m safe. I don’t need or want guards protecting me. I’ll be fine.” [_I’m not a possession, _]she wanted to add, but she said nothing. Instead she crossed her arms over her chest and bit her lip.

He looked away from her, toward Raja. “Could you excuse us for a moment?” He grabbed her hand and stood, pulling her along with him. He led them into a room off the living room that appeared to be an office, with deep burgundy walls and the same hardwood floors as the rest of the quarters. A large L-shaped desk, as neat as the rest of the house, dominated the center of the space.

“Tabby, I know you don’t want this—you’ve made that clear—but it’s something you need. I will not have you in danger, and there will be times I won’t be able to protect you like I want to. You need this, and it’s normal for the Alpha and his mate to have guards. I have my own guards. Stop being stubborn and accept it.”

“I don’t want people following me around all the time,” she snapped, not caring if she appeared petulant.

“They won’t be. While we’re in our quarters together, they’ll either be off on their own or outside the door if the threat level is high. If you come into our quarters alone, they’ll have to do a walk-through to make sure no one is here, but they won’t stay here unless you’re in immediate danger. They will only be with you when you’re outside our quarters. If we need to, we can set up more boundaries later, after you go through the change. I just want to make sure you have the guards you need when we need them.”

“Okay, you win on this one for now.” She frowned, glaring at him. “But once I go through the change, we’ll discuss it again.”

“Thank you.” He leaned down to kiss her. “Now let’s finish this.”

When they walked out of Ty’s office, Felix had joined them.

“Felix, thank you for coming.” After they took their seats again, Felix and Raja also sat.

“Tabitha and I have decided we would like you to be the Captain of her Guards. Are you interested in this promotion?”

“That’s such an honor.” Felix’s mouth twitched up into a handsome smile. “Thank you both. I would be honored to accept.”

“Thank you. We’ll let you know soon who the other guards will be. We haven’t finalized those yet. Until then, you’ll be protecting her along with Thomas, from my guards. Before I assigned any long-term guards, I wanted her to meet the clan. Within the next few days, you’ll know and can start training them. You can explain the new changes to Thomas, and I want both of you to meet us here at six o’clock tonight to attend the party.”

“Yes, sir.” Felix rose and appeared to be awaiting dismissal.

“That’s all for now.” When the door firmly closed behind Felix, Ty turned his attention back to Raja. “Until she goes through the change, I want you and the rest of the guards on call twenty-four hours a day. I want the compound security on alert. If anyone comes on the grounds, I want to know, and if that person is not permitted to be here, then I’ll hold whoever is on guard at fault. I won’t have her at risk, no matter how small. Things are dangerous now.”

“I’ll inform the clan. If there’s anything you need, please let me know.” Raja rose, understanding the conversation was over.

“I still don’t think I need guards. I can protect myself.”

When they were alone once again, Ty growled. “I have never felt this way about anyone before. I want you safe, even if that means you’re mad at me. You mean everything to me.”

“You’re the first person who has ever really cared about me. I—” Her voice broke, all the blood rushing to her head. “I love you.” She couldn’t believe she’d said it, but she meant it. She was giving her heart to him. “If you want guards for me, then that’s what I’ll have. I…I was just upset you didn’t talk to me about it first. Please understand, I should have a say in this kind of stuff.”

He leaned down, put one arm behind her legs and one behind her back, lifted her easily from where she stood, and carried her to the bedroom. He kissed her neck as he walked. “You’re my mate. It’s my job to protect you.”

“I’m not a china doll. I don’t want to be protected.” She let out a frustrated sigh.

“I want you safe.”

Tired of fighting, she wrapped her arms around his neck. “I’m not used to someone wanting to protect me. I’ll try, but I’m not some little school girl who can’t stand up for herself. I might not have the physical strength and speed you have, but I’m not a dainty human either.”

He laid her gently on the bed. With her arms still around his neck, she leaned up into his body, kissing him deeply, drinking from his lips, as she gently pulled him onto the bed. Gliding her hands down his tight, toned chest, she stopped for a moment to feel his biceps, and she was glad to have him all to herself—at least for a little while.

He tugged off her shirt before slipping his hand behind her back to unhook her bra as she explored his chest and arms. Tossing the discarded clothes to the floor, he kissed her neck and made his way down her chest. He gently took each nipple into his mouth one at a time and sucked ever so softly, then released it and rolled his tongue over it. He looked up at her with so much devotion in his eyes, her heart fluttered.

The fire between their bodies was like a sweltering summer night. Their hearts threatened to pound out of their chests; their palms were sweating. He caressed every inch of her body, forcing a moan of ecstasy from her. He was tender as he memorized every curve with his hands and mouth. He took his time tasting every inch of her, sending shivers throughout her body.

He gently and lovingly kissed down her stomach as he stroked her thighs. With every touch, her body cried out for more. She couldn’t get enough of him. His hands sought out the central core of her body, while the heat and wetness drove her crazy.

He took his time caressing and kissing her, she could feel their tigers calling to each other, urging her to hurry, while the human part of her wanted to take this slow and cherish every moment.

His fingers delved inside her, and her body moved with the motion. He kissed the inside of her thighs. The passion drove the fire through her, fire like she’d never felt before. He made his way to her core, licking lightly over her sweet spot, flicking over and over, nearly driving her to the edge. She ran her hands through his hair and moaned with intense pleasure.

She rolled him over, laying him on his back. She placed another deep kiss on his lips while she caressed his chest, taking care to feel every chiseled muscle, licking and kissing as he writhed in pleasure beneath her.

She knelt on the bed in front of him, wanting to show him the love she felt for him. As she stroked him, she stoked the fire inside him. She licked the length of him and slowly took him into her mouth, making him throw his head back in pleasure.

She enjoyed the feel of his hands running through her hair.

“Come here.” He tugged on her, pulling her up.

Moving up the bed, she angled herself to allow him access. As he entered, she cried out with pleasure. His thrusts were deeper and faster, but not too fast. Their bodies rocked back and forth until they exploded together in unison.

Breathless, they laid there hot and sweaty, cuddling, not wanting to move, their legs still entwined.

He lifted his head enough to kiss her. “I love you, Tabby.”

“I love you, Ty.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Sixteen

Tabitha was in the middle of the custom-made bed that dominated the bedroom, snuggled deep beneath the warm comforter, still trying to wake up. She wanted nothing more than to stay cuddled with Ty until they were ready for more sex.

“I didn’t think we would sleep that long. We should get ready for the party.” He tossed back the covers before slipping out of bed. He turned around to find she hadn’t moved. “Come on, you can’t be late for your own party.” He smiled down at her.

With a moan, she scooted to the edge of the bed. The floor was littered with red, black, and silver throw pillows they’d tossed off earlier. Grabbing one, she threw it at the back of his head. “If it’s my party, they can’t start without me.”

“Love, you don’t know these tigers. They love to party.”

“Are you sure everything will be fine tonight? Maybe with what happened today, we should postpone it.” She bent to pick up the pillows.

“This is something the clan has been preparing for since I told them I was going to try to bring you home. We cannot deprive them of something they worked so hard on. This means a lot to them.” As he spoke, he walked around the bed to where she was and took her hands. “Everything will be fine. I promise.”

“I know. I just worry they won’t like me.”

“How could they not like you? You’re amazing in every way.” He tilted her head up with his large hands and before she could respond, he kissed her.

Standing in front of the mirror, Tabitha admired the dress they’d bought in Pennsylvania. She pulled her hair into a French twist, allowing a few curls to escape and hang down. She was adjusting the black and red beaded belt when she heard Ty talking to Raja and the other guards in the living room.

I never had a reason to dress up before. I feel like a princess…I guess I should feel like a Queen instead. She chuckled as she glanced at herself once more before stepping out of the bedroom.

As she came into view, everyone quieted. She could have sworn she could hear the air sizzle with shifter magic. The men were dressed in black tuxedos and looked as if they could be on the cover of a magazine. No one moved for a moment, then Ty came forward. “My mate, you look marvelous, absolutely mind-blowing. Let me introduce you to our guards for tonight.”

They walked over to the men standing in the front entryway. Three of the men where kneeling, while the other two, Raja and Felix, stood a step behind. “This is Thomas, Leo, and Korbin. They are our guards for this evening.”

[Our guards? Or did he really mean _]my[ guards? I’m leaning toward mine. Quick catch of the tongue there, mate._]

He gave her a slight nod, letting her know she was to smell each of their necks. They smelled the same way Felix had when she’d first met him, but it wasn’t as overwhelming anymore, because the smell was all around her now that she was in Alaska.

Weird, but now that I think of it, my body isn’t sore, and I have felt fine since arriving. Ty mentioned I would feel better once I was around my own kind, but he didn’t mention it would just go away.

“Welcome home, my Queen,” each of the men said as she kissed their necks before they stood. Inside their tailored jackets, she could see the butt of the guns they wore. The shock must have showed on her face, because Raja stepped in front of the other men, took her hand in his, and kissed it.

“If I may, my Queen, you look stunning.”

“Thank you, Raja. You look pretty good yourself.”

“Men, she’s to be protected at all costs,” Ty announced. “If anything goes wrong, get her out of there and somewhere safe. Felix, I’m placing you in charge of keeping her safe. If anything happens to her, I will hold you personally responsible. I don’t care if it is so much as a paper cut, your ass is mine.” He laid a hand on the small of her back, directing his attention at her. “I want you to listen to them. If they feel the area is unsafe, go with them.”

She didn’t fight him, only nodded. He wasn’t doing this to make her appear weak. There was too much at risk, and she had to think of the livelihood of the tiger shifters as a whole. “Shall we get this over with?”

“It won’t be that bad. Come on.” He took her hand as they left the quarters, surrounded by their guards.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Seventeen

The dome was normally used for training when the weather outside was nasty, but tonight every inch of it was party central. The clan had constructed a ballroom floor in the middle, complete with a DJ playing tunes. The entryway had a large arch that was covered in black and gold balloons. On the far right wall, it said Welcome Home, Tabitha in big gold sparkly letters. Everything was done in black and gold. The tablecloths were black with white and gold plates; the wine glasses had a gold rim around the top. The lights were low and on every table, candles glowed, lending a romantic flare to the gathering. There were buffet tables stretching all the way down the left wall and a large white and gold cake at the end of the buffet. Waiters walked around with glasses of champagne and other drinks.

“This is amazing.” She gawked, trying to take it all in.

“It’s all for you. They’re ecstatic to have you home with us again. Come, let’s get a drink and mingle with everyone.”

Ty stopped one of the waiters and took two glasses of champagne from the tray he was carrying. Raising the glass to take a drink, she became aware they were starting to draw a crowd. Raja and the guards tried to surround them to keep the clan back a little, but they were on them before the guards could close the circle.

A loud growl exploded next to her before she heard Ty yell, “Stop this right now!” Everyone went still around them. “I don’t know what has gotten into everyone, but it needs to stop now. I know you’re excited to meet Tabitha. So here is what we will do. I want everyone to go sit at their tables. We will come around to each table and spend a few minutes with you. Later, after we’re settled, she will have more time to meet with everyone. But tonight, we’ll take some time out to meet with you, and then we would like to enjoy this wonderful party you have been so generous to throw in her honor.”

People spread out, moving to find seats at one of the six tables around the dome. The guards went to their predetermined spots, except Raja, who stayed with them.

They began with the table to the left, allowing them to make a complete circle and end up at their table by the dance floor. Everyone was eager to talk with her, making her want to stay with them as long as she could. It was Ty who kept her moving from one person to another, promising they would have more time with her soon, and that she wasn’t going anywhere.

“I know you want to meet the needs of each member, but don’t wear yourself out tonight. You have plenty of time,” he whispered in her ear as they headed to the next table.

She nodded. That is easier said than done. How can I rush through everyone when they’re so kind and threw this party for me?

As they went around the room meeting the members, she noticed a number of men with golden auras. There were two that impressed her the most. One of them was Marcus, Tora’s husband, and the other was Lance.

Lance was at the first table, and he seemed on alert and ready to take action if something happened. His deep forest green eyes seemed to take everything in while he relaxed in his seat.

Maybe choosing guards would be easier than she’d thought.

After going from table to table, they were finally able to sit down and enjoy their dinner. He had mentioned earlier they had some of the best chefs as part of the clan, and she wasn’t disappointed with the meal. The salmon was delicious.

“Are you having a good time?” He asked as they finished dessert.

“The best time of my life.” A huge smile spread across her face. She leaned in closely and whispered, “There are a few people I’d like to talk to you about later.” She had questions about the people with the golden auras around them, but it wasn’t something they could discuss at the party.

“You met Lance tonight.” He motioned toward the first table. “He’s one of my guards. I gave him the night off to spend with his new mate. This allowed him to enjoy the party and for us to have guards who would devote their full attention to any problems that might arise this evening. He’s a good guard, but the mating bug is hard on everyone.”

She loved how he was able to slide in the information she wanted without it seeming out of place or raising questions from anyone who might have overheard.

A young girl who couldn’t have been older than fourteen months came running toward them, startling Tabitha. Her wobbly legs barely held her up; her long hair was the color of rubies bouncing behind her as she ran, until she tripped, falling down hard. Before the first tear fell, Tabitha was on her feet, heading toward her.

“It’s all right, sweetie.” Wrapping the little girl in her arms, she wiped the child’s tears away.

The little girl’s knee was bleeding. Without wondering where the parents were, Tabitha balanced the child on her hip as she grabbed a napkin from the table to wipe the blood. All of a sudden she realized when she’d jumped up to help the little girl, she’d spooked the guards. Felix and Thomas were the first to respond, at her side before the rest realized what the commotion was. While Ty watched from the table, a smile on his face.

“I’m fine,” she told Felix and Thomas before bringing her attention back to the girl.

Raja must have also come to her aid, because he was standing behind her. “Here, Tabitha, I can take her.”

The child was clinging to her neck and wouldn’t let go.

“Can you believe that’s my niece, and she won’t come to me? I’ll get her mother.” Raja let out a soft laugh before strolling off into the crowd, shaking his head.

Ty stepped up beside her, grinning. “This is Tora and Marcus’s little girl, Scarlet. I’ve never seen her go to someone she didn’t know, and she loves being with Raja. She’s just full of surprises tonight.”

“Is that true? Do you like me, Scarlet?”

Ty led Tabitha back to their table, and she sat down with Scarlet on her lap. The little girl merely bounced up and down, as happy as could be.

“She must, because she never goes to anyone. Hi, I’m Marcus. Uh, we kind of met when you came around the room, but I know you’ve seen so many people…”

“I remember you.” Tabitha smiled softly as she ran her fingers through Scarlet’s hair.

“We had to have our babysitter in a dozen times before we could leave them alone together, because she would throw a fit something terrible. Tonight the babysitter is sick, so she had to come along with us. I’m sorry if she’s been any trouble.”

“She’s been no trouble at all. She’s a darling little girl.” Tabitha gave her a kiss on the forehead and the child giggled, her eyes wide as she took in the sights around her.

Marcus tried to pick her up, but she held strong to Tabitha’s neck.

“She’s fine here if you want to leave her for a bit,” Tabitha assured him. “I don’t mind.”

Marcus looked to Ty, seemingly unsure of what to do. Ty gave Marcus a slight nod, which he accepted and went to rejoin his wife.

“You’re amazing. Everyone is so taken with you, just like I promised they would be.” He wrapped his arm around her shoulders.

“I guess I had nothing to worry about. Everyone is so friendly and accepting. I can’t help wondering what it would be like to grow up with a group like this, people to call family.”

As they talked, Scarlet curled up in her lap as though she were going to take a nap.

“May I have this dance?” Ty stood, taking her hand.

Tabitha nodded, rose, and placed the still sleeping Scarlet on the chair.

“I’ll watch her. Go dance and mingle,” Raja said when she caught his eye.

There were only a few people dancing, leaving them with most of the floor to themselves.

After the song ended, one of the tigresses she’d met earlier stepped up to the microphone.

“If I could please have everyone’s attention.” She waited for everyone to quiet down. “Ty would like to say a few words.”

Felix came to stand next to her as Ty moved to the front of the room. “First, I would like to thank you for this wonderful party you put together for Tabitha’s homecoming. I’m ecstatic to have such a wonderful woman as my mate. We’re blessed to have her back among us and as our Queen.” He turned and looked lovingly at her. “Thank you, Tabitha, for coming home and for trusting us. I love you.”

Before she realized it, she was heading toward him, tears clouding her vision. As he stepped up to her, she wrapped her arms around him.

“I love you too,” she said and kissed him.

Everyone in the room clapped and cheered. For the first time in her life, she felt like a part of something, not out in the cold watching. This was where she was supposed to be…with her family and her mate.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Eighteen

Tabitha and Ty were dancing around the room when Raja came up to them. “Excuse me, but may I cut in?”

Ty nodded and stepped back, allowing Raja to take over dancing with her, and he strolled off the floor toward Felix. As they danced, Raja leaned into her body and whispered, “Ty is a whole new man with you in his life. I have never seen him in such high spirits. He loves you more than he could ever put into words. Never doubt that.”

Her felt her cheeks heat with embarrassment. “Everything changed in just a matter of days. Everything feels so overwhelming, except when it comes to Ty. I love him, he has been my rock though all of this. Discovering we’re mates was more than I could have hoped for.”

When the song ended, he stepped back and still holding her hand, he kissed the top of it. “Thank you for this dance, it was a pleasure.”

“I thought you could use this.” Just as Raja stepped away Ty came up to her and held out two glasses of champagne.

“Thank you.”

He handed her the glass as they walked off the dance floor. “What bad things did he tell you about me?”

“Wouldn’t you be interested in knowing?” She laughed before taking a sip of bubbly champagne and gave him a sexy but innocent smile. He frowned with serious implications, which she returned with another laugh. “Come on, it was nothing. Would he honestly say anything bad about you behind your back? You two seem so close.”

“We’re close, but I’m sure he would tell you some dark secret if he thought he could get away with it.”

Before she could tease him for worrying, a large tiger limped onto the dance floor covered in blood, whimpering in terrible pain.

“Oh my God.” She dropped her glass and it shattered on the floor. She took a step toward the tiger, sidestepping the broken glass, wanting to help. A hush had fallen over those still in attendance.

“Tabby, stay back.” His fingers closed around her forearm, stopping her. “His scent is different, he’s not of our clan.”

The guards gathered around her, keeping her away from the tiger.

“I can help him. You know I can.”

“No, Tabby.”

“Ty, please! I can [_speak _]to him. You know I have that gift. Let me try.”

Ty growled under his breath. “This is against my better judgment. But…okay. You may try.” Upon his signal, the guards allowed her to approach. “Form a protective circle around her,” he ordered.

Ty and Felix stood in front of her, closest to the tiger, leaving her only a small view between their shoulders.

Her power was still new to her, but she knew she would be able to hear the tiger if she could concentrate. She took a deep breath, trying to relax. “Can you tell me your name?”

Before the tiger could answer, someone from the clan yelled out, “What does she think she’s doing? How is this going to help us? He’s in tiger form. He can’t answer her.”

He turned, shooting the man a look that could kill. “Did you forget you don’t contradict your Alpha? She’s of her father’s line. Her gift is telepathy. Now shut up and allow her to help him.”

She could hear the rustle of people moving around, trying to get a better look. It was breaking her focus, and she could barely hear the tiger’s thoughts.

“Okay, Lukas, why are you here?”

You can really read my thoughts?

Not wanting to explain, she nodded.

I mean no harm to you or your clan. I came to warn you. There’s a traitor in your midst. My clan intercepted a message that was meant for Pierce. I need to speak with you and Ty alone in order to show you proof you need. You can’t mention this to Ty in front of everyone or risk the traitor hearing you. Tell everyone except Ty I was traveling through the area when I was attacked, which is mostly true. You should be able to concentrate and send the message to Ty.

She did as he asked and focused on conveying her thoughts to her mate. Ty, can you hear me? Please hear me. Wanting to leave the impression she was still speaking with Lukas, she kept her gaze on him but focused her attention on her mate.

He looked at her as if he were about to say something but was hesitant.

Tabitha tried again. Ty, can you hear me?

Finally, a response. Tabby, I can hear you but I don’t know if you can hear me.

I can hear you. Damn, this is so freaky. Listen, I’m going to tell the clan that he was hurt passing through but he has information about a traitor within our clan. We need to speak with him alone, without the clan watching us.

Okay, but explain to him our guards will be in the room.

Before giving the cover story to the clan, she focused back on Lukas. Ty, has agreed to speak with you, but our guards will be in the room.

Without turning her back on the injured tiger shifter, she raised her voice, allowing everyone to hear her. “Clan, he was passing through the area when he was attacked by a hunter. He managed to get away but is badly injured. My guards will escort him to the infirmary, where our doctor will look him over. Ty and I will make sure he gets the best treatment and is settled in. Enjoy the rest of the party.”

She let out a sigh as the tension from the telepathy fell away, only to be replaced by fears of a traitor watching them. So much for a peaceful evening getting to know the clan. Now she had to deal with her first problem as the Queen of the Tigers, but surely it wouldn’t be her last.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Nineteen

For the doctor to properly care for Lukas’s injuries, he had to shift back. This also made it easier for them to speak to him. He shifted into a boy no older than seventeen; his boyish looks gave his age away. His short red hair had a slight curl to it, and his face showed signs he’d only recently started to shave. His voice was soft and crackling, just like it had been in her head.

“Boy, where are you parents?” Doc asked as he stitched his wound.

“I’m alone.”

“We’ll speak with the boy when you’re finished,” Ty explained when the doctor didn’t seem happy about the answer.

After he was finished examining Lukas and had gotten him settled into a bed in the infirmary wing, Ty turned to Doc. “You will not speak of this to anyone. They’re not to know the boy’s age or injuries. If you’re asked about him, tell them to speak to me. Understand?”

Doc looked back at the boy and nodded.

“Korbin, please escort Doc back to the party. Except Raja, I want the rest of you to wait outside the infirmary. We’ll speak to the boy alone.”

Leo and Thomas started toward the door, but Felix didn’t move. “With all due respect, I don’t think you should be alone with him. He may not be safe.”

“Are you choosing to disobey a direct order?” Ty gave Felix a threatening look, as if to let him know it wasn’t a good idea to push him at this time.

Felix looked between them. Tabitha slowly shook her head, nervously biting her bottom lip.

“I apologize. I mean no disrespect, but as Captain of the Queen’s Guards, I’m in charge of keeping her safe. I don’t know how safe this situation is.”

“Not only are you disobeying an order, you’re suggesting your Alpha cannot protect his mate.” Ty’s face was red with fury. She could see his body beginning to vibrate with the magic that brought on the change.

Felix stood in front of Ty, not willing to back down, but visibly shaken. It was written on his face that he knew this might not end well. If it came down to a fight, he knew he wouldn’t win against his Alpha. “That’s not what I meant. I just—”

He interrupted Felix. “Get out of my sight now!

Felix didn’t try to explain or make Ty understand, he just turned on his heels and walked out the door to join the other guards.

“I can’t believe that boy!” Ty turned to her, anger still clear on his face.

“Remember, you did tell him earlier that if anything happened to me, it was his ass. He just wants to make you proud of him.” She touched his arm.

The touch of her hand was enough to calm him, and he nodded. She turned to look at Lukas, who appeared so small and fragile in the large hospital bed. “Please explain to us how you got this information and who the traitor is.”

“When my father was killed by Pierce’s gang, my brother took over as Alpha of our clan, and since then we have been after them. We intercepted a message that was sent from your clan to him, saying that you had finally joined the clan and mated with the Alpha here.” Lukas tried to sit up straighter in bed, but he was clearly in pain.

“Who sent the message?” Anger returned to Ty’s voice.

“The name was Chris.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I have the proof with me.” The boy looked at her and then back at Ty.

“What do you mean you have it? You were in tiger form, and you didn’t have a bag with you.” She eyed him questioningly.

“I hid my bag before I got here in case something happened and I was searched. I didn’t want anyone to find it before I had a chance to speak with you. On my way here, I was attacked and had to change into tiger form to get away. I’m sorry I forgot to explain that. If you could send someone you trust for my bag, you’ll have all the proof you need. I can tell you where I placed it, but I don’t think I could make it there in this condition.”

“Where is the bag?” Ty asked, already forming a plan, judging by the thoughtful expression on his face.

“It’s in the basement of the North Pole apartment building in the rafters to the left of the heater. It’s a black backpack.”

“Raja, take Thomas and see if you can find this bag. I want to settle this.”

When the door shut behind Raja, she turned her attention back to the boy. “What clan are you from, Lukas?”

“My brother, Jinx, took over the West Virginia Tigers. Our numbers are small, but we’re a tight group. My father was friends with your father. After he was killed and then my father was killed, we felt it was our duty to keep an eye on Pierce whenever we could. Hopefully, this would allow some warning if he was planning an attack.”

“We have been trying to keep an eye on Pierce as well,” Ty agreed. He glanced at the time, anxious to see the contents of Lukas’s bag.

They sat, and they waited while Ty questioned Lukas over and over about everything. Finally, a knock sounded from behind them and he turned toward the door. “Yes?”

“We found it.” Raja entered with a black bag draped over his shoulder.

Ty took the bag and set it on the bedside table. Unzipping it, he pulled out a laptop.

“We found a way to hack into his cell phone and record his conversations,” Lukas explained excitedly. “On there is a message that went to his voicemail. Luckily, we were able to intercept it, deleting it before he received it. Since I’ve been traveling, I can’t be sure he hasn’t been contacted again.”

“Bring the message up.” Ty handed the laptop to the boy.

He flipped it open and hit the power button. The laptop booted up quickly, and he clicked a few buttons before the message started playing.

It’s Chris. Tabitha is on the red-eye plane back tonight. The clan is planning a celebration for her homecoming. You want her dead, then I need backup to take her down. I did what you asked. Now you better pay up.

Goosebumps covered her arms, and her stomach sank. He put his arm around her, drawing her against him.

“We’ll handle this. Lukas, you have to understand our situation. Until this is under control, we’re going to have a guard with you. No cell, computer, nothing. You brought this to our attention, and we appreciate it, but we have to be cautious this isn’t a trap.”

“I understand.” Lukas looked down at his laptop in sadness and nodded. “If you could contact my brother to let him know I’m here, I’m sure he would appreciate it. I’ll cooperate in any way I can.”

Ty nodded, turning to Raja. “Gather the guards including Marcus, Lance, and Milo. I know they had the night off, but we need them. We meet in our quarters in ten minutes.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty

Tabitha paced the bedroom, trying to calm down. Sure, she knew Pierce was after her, but hearing that message still sent a jolt through her. Pierce was seriously after her and wanted her dead. How do you handle someone wanting you dead who you’ve never even met?

“Tabby?” Ty came into the bedroom.

“I’m fine. I just need a moment.”

“Come here, baby.” He wrapped his arms around her. “We’ll take care of this. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

“I know.” His face was full of doubt, making her tremble against him. “It’s just sinking in. I’ve never even met this guy, and he wants to kill me.” She was still having a hard time wrapping her mind around it.

“I know, but it’s going to be fine.” There was a knock on the door to their quarters, meaning the guards had arrived. “Felix, get the door. We’ll be out in a moment.”

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to gather all the courage she could. She wouldn’t break down. “Let’s do this.”

“I can handle it myself if you want a few minutes.”

“I’m fine. I just want it over with.”

He ran his hand down her back one last time as they went to face the guards. “Please have a seat. This is going to take some time.” He led her toward a chair that was angled between the two sofas, giving her a good view of everyone.

Even with the crowd in the living area, it didn’t seem confining. There was still room to move around, as if when building it, they knew there would be a dozen people here waiting for their orders.

“Most of this won’t come as a shock to you. Pierce knows Tabitha is here and is most likely on his way.” He gave them a moment as if he wanted to let it sink in. “I want everyone on high alert. I want the compound locked down like Fort Knox. No one on or off without my knowledge. Felix, I want guards around the clock on Tabitha. You can arrange that, but as Captain of her Guards, I want you in the main compound. You can take the guest quarters.”

Felix nodded.

“Next order of business: Thomas and Leo, I want you to find Chris Knight and escort him to one of the cells. I’ll deal with him shortly.”

“Yes, sir. Charges?” Thomas asked.

“Treason. Conspiracy to commit murder.”

Thomas and Leo left without another word. The rest of the men watched their sovereigns, waiting for orders.

“Marcus, Lance, you have first guard duty. The rest of you, we’ll be discussing your shifts and get back with you shortly. In the meantime, keep this to yourself. You’re dismissed.”

As the guards filed out, Marcus and Lance rose to take their posts at the entryway. “Lance, I want you to inform the guards at the gate we’re on lockdown. They’re to call me if anyone tries to enter or leave. Then change out of your tuxedo and return here.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Marcus, wait a moment. Felix, you need to hear this also. Raja, unless you have something pressing, I’d like you to stay.”

The men didn’t move. They waited patiently for whatever Ty was going to throw at them. Tabitha, on the other hand, shifted nervously in her chair. She knew what he was going to tell them, and she couldn’t help but wonder if they would feel differently toward her.

“Some of you know about the legends, the ones surrounding Tabitha. I trust you to keep this between us. It is true that she must carry on her line or tiger shifters will cease to exist. She has to be kept alive at all costs.”

“Understood,” Felix said.

“There is more…she will unite all tigers.”

“What?”

“Marcus, I know Tora has told you the legend that a tigress will come along and unite the tiger shifter population.”

“Sure, but it’s just a story.”

“This proves it isn’t.” Ty grabbed the book from the shelf they’d laid it on and handed it to her.

“You already know I have the gifts from my father’s line. Why is it so hard to believe?” She touched the book, and it sprang to life. “I’m supposed to choose three more guards to stand at my side through this. Ty and I have already discussed that we would like the two of you to be a part of it.”

“Raja is our Lieutenant and while he remains, we still need three others. We would like the two of you to be a part of that. Felix, as the Captain of the Guards, you needed to know the complete situation. Marcus, I’ll be up front with you. This will be dangerous and will put not only you but your family in danger. But being Raja’s family, the danger will already be there. It’s up to you if you wish to pass on this position. However, no matter your decision, you’ll not be allowed to speak of this.”

Ty laid his hand on Tabitha’s shoulder, gently rubbing it.

“I’m honored to be a part of this and will do whatever I can,” Felix said.

“Marcus?”

“I’ll do it. Who will be the third?”

“We haven’t decided yet. I wanted her to get to know each of the guards a little more. At this time we’re leaning toward Lance. Since he’ll have first shift, I’m hoping Tabitha can talk to him a little longer and get her own feel for him.”

The men seemed satisfied with the answer. She yawned, the excitement was taking its toll on her.

“Felix, why don’t you work up a schedule for the guards and then you can finish enjoying the party if you wish. Plan another meeting with the guards for tomorrow morning after breakfast. We need to go over a plan for dealing with Pierce.”

“Yes, sir.” He stood, ready to leave.

Marcus and Raja didn’t move, as if they understood Ty wasn’t finished with them.

“Ty, I know it’s against the protocol, but I think Tora should be informed.” Raja rubbed his hand over his head.

“He’s right.” She turned to face Ty, who was still standing behind her. “With both Raja and Marcus standing with us, she’ll be in danger. It’s not just her that we have to worry about, but Scarlet also.”

“Okay. Marcus, retrieve her from the party and return here.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-One

Tabitha had changed into her plaid pajama pants and tank top and was stretched out on the sofa when Tora came in, carrying a sleeping Scarlet.

“I was wondering where the party went.”

“Have a seat, sweetie.” Marcus took the sleeping child from her, giving her arms a break.

“Tora, come sit with me.” Tabitha patted the cushion beside her. “We just want to talk to you.” She slipped her legs under her, giving Tora room to sit.

“What’s going on?” Tora eyed everyone suspiciously, lowering herself beside Tabitha. Marcus still stood, softly rocking Scarlet.

When no one else took the lead, Tabitha took over. “Tora, we asked for you to join us so we can explain what happened tonight, and some changes in the future.”

Ty leaned against the armrest beside Tabitha. “We’re telling you this because Raja and Marcus have both agreed to be a part of the operation, and there’s danger involved. We want you aware so you can take precautions for you and Scarlet.”

“What danger could we be in?”

“Marcus and Raja have taken a new position…” Tabitha took a deep breath before continuing. “They tell me you know the legends of the tigress who will come from my line and unite the tigers.”

“Yes, it’s a legend my parents passed down to us.” Tora nodded.

“It’s not a legend. It’s true. Tabitha is the one.” Raja spoke from the window he stood by.

“How do you know this?”

“She can open the book of her line. She has her father’s gift, and it’s what our parents always told us.”

Tora took a moment to think about it before finally nodding. “Why does this place us in danger? Dad never made it sound dangerous.”

“Tora, he told it to us as a bedtime story. If he made it sound scary, do you think you would have been able to sleep?” Raja ran his hand through his hair. “Pierce won’t be the only one gunning for her. Once this is out…sorry, Tabitha, but it is true.”

“I know, Raja. Tora, this will also place you in danger. With both your brother and husband as part of the chosen guards, it could make you a target.” Tabitha watched Tora closely.

“Chosen guards?”

“The book said I must choose three guards to help with the tasks. Raja, as our Lieutenant, will stay in that position. I have chosen Marcus and Felix, and we’re considering a few others for the final position.”

Tora nodded, taking it all in.

“No matter the situation, you’re always in danger being my sister.” Raja moved closer to her.

That very statement reminded Tabitha of how Ty ended up with his scar, but it didn’t seem to faze Tora. She just nodded. “True. What can I do?”

“There’s nothing to do at the moment,” Ty assured her. “But we wanted you to understand the situation and be on your guard. If there’s ever a time we feel the danger level for you is high, we will assign you guards. We’ll do everything we can to protect you and Scarlet.”

“Thank you. Scarlet is my main concern.”

“We understand.” Tabitha laid a hand on her knee.

“He has been detained.” Lance strolled through the door before he realized they were not alone. Tora still sat on the sofa.

“Who?” Tora asked.

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“You know better than that, Lance. However, Tora has been informed of some of the situation. Being Raja’s sister, she is in more danger than most of the clan.” Ty turned to Tora before continuing. “Chris Knight. He’s charged with treason and conspiracy to commit murder.”

The shock she felt was written clearly across her face. “Chris…” She murmured under her breath. Tabitha wouldn’t have heard it had she not been sitting next to her.

“Were you close?”

When Tora didn’t answer, Raja spoke up. “They used to be close, before Marcus came to the clan.”

“We drifted apart once Marcus and I were mated, but I always hoped he would get his life together and find his mate.”

“Would it be all right if I walk my wife back home and put Scarlet to bed?” Marcus asked.

“Just don’t be long.” Ty nodded. “When you return, take your position at the door.”

Marcus reached for Tora’s hand and pulled her up. He wrapped his free arm around her and they left.

“Lance, take your position outside the door until Marcus returns. When he does, we would like to speak with you privately.”

“Yes, sir.” He nodded before taking his post.

The three of them were quiet for a few minutes before Ty broke the silence. “Raja, if you ever wanted to step down from your position as Lieutenant and start your own clan, now is the time to do it.”

“I have no desire to leave. This is my home.”

“Good. I wanted to get that out of the way before things were set in motion.” He rubbed her shoulders gently. “I’ve been giving this some thought while Tora was here. Pierce’s men are stupid enough to attack us here, so I want to be ready. I think they’ll attack tonight after the party when everyone is exhausted. If I’m wrong, tomorrow we’ll see if we can stage something.”

“I agree. Which is why I think you need more than two guards.”

“Fine. After the party, gather up some of the men and station them around the compound. I want them to be ready at a moment’s notice, but I want the place to appear as if everyone is in bed. I don’t want them to know we are expecting them.”

Raja nodded at the same moment Lance opened the door.

“If this is a bad time, I can come back.”

“No, Raja and I were just leaving. Keep Tabitha company until I return.” He kissed his mate’s cheek. “I’ll be back soon.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Two

Tabitha ran her hand down Ty’s chest, her head resting in the crook of his arm, as the compound began to settle around them. She knew there were guards ready to defend them, but her heart was still in her throat as the possible outcomes ran through her mind.

She felt powerless, and doing nothing was driving her crazy. These people were after her, not the clan, but her clan was ready to fight to their deaths for her. She’d never had that before—so many people caring about her. It was almost too overwhelming.

“What did you think of Lance?”

“I liked him. He seems to always be on guard. As if he’s picturing the worst case scenario and is ready for whatever comes his way.”

“Being ready for the worst makes you prepared for whatever happens. He’s a good guard, and I believe he would make our core group stronger. He takes orders well and thinks outside the box.”

Tabitha nodded.

“Then we agree on Lance?”

“What about his mate? Does she get a say in this?”

“Each mated pair is different. Some consider their spouse in the decision, and some do not. Marcus knows Tora well and knew he didn’t need to seek her opinion before accepting. It isn’t normal for the guards to be able to discuss situations with their mates. Assignments are normally on a need-to-know only basis. If Lance wishes to decline the position, that is his right, however with the current situation, he will not be able to discuss it with his mate until it is made public.”

“You mentioned mating hormones before. Do you think Lance’s head is on straight enough for this?”

“That is a concern. I think he would be perfect for the position without the mating. Now that he is newly mated, his thoughts are on other things.” To show what he meant, he kissed her neck. “Then what do you think of Thomas?”

“He takes orders well.” She let out a soft moan as he continued to kiss her neck. “I can’t think if you keep doing that.”

“That’s the whole point.”

He slipped his hand under her shirt, ready to tear it off, when his cell buzzed. “Damn it!” He reached for the phone, growling. “This better be good.” He snarled. “Okay. Stand by until they make their move. Don’t let them escape.” He, glanced at the phone, hit a button, and was silent for a moment. “Raja, they’re approaching. Get Felix. I want you both over here.” He slid the phone back into his pocket as he turned to her. “Ready for this?”

“Not in the least bit, but what choice do we have?”

“Have you ever handled one of these?” he asked, pulling out a gun from the nightstand drawer.

“I’ve never shot a gun before.”

Ty had just finished showing her how to work the gun when the soft creak of their door being opened echoed through the room. He had instructed everyone to leave the lights off, giving the impression they were asleep.

“It’s just Raja and Felix,” he whispered. “You’re going to be fine. Just remember to stay behind us, and if Felix tells you it’s time to move, you move, no questions asked. I don’t care what’s happening to me, you go with him. I’ll find you when it’s safe.” He leaned down until their foreheads were touching. “I love you.” He kissed her.

“Felix, if anything happens to her…” Ty growled.

“She will be safe. I’ll protect her with my life.”

The bedroom door opened, and everyone braced for action. There was a good chance whoever was on the other side of the door wasn’t friendly.

“It’s Thomas,” came a whisper as the door inched open.

“What the hell are you doing, Thomas?”

“I saw Lance leave his post, and I wanted to check it out.”

“Shut the door. I’ll deal with Lance later. Where’s Marcus?”

“He’s still on watch. They were heading this way.” Thomas closed the door behind him.

“Then we better be ready,” Ty said, eyeing Felix, who nodded.

Something tumbled to the floor in the living room. Tabitha stiffened as they readied for what was coming. Ty and Felix moved to stand in front of her, blocking her view of the door, while Raja stood at Ty’s side and Thomas next to Felix.

[_If the time comes, will I be willing to shoot to kill and save myself? _]She wasn’t sure of the answer, but still, she held the gun to her side, while the men had theirs aimed at the door.

The door splintered as the intruders kicked it in. So much for picking the lock.

“Stop right there,” Ty hollered when shadowy figures entered the room.

The faint light coming in the window allowed her a glimpse of the face of the youngest man in the back of the group before he turned as if to run but found Marcus and another guard blocking the door.

Ty let out a deep growl as the two other intruders went for their weapons. “Raise those guns and you will die.”

“Either way, we will die. It is better at your hands than at our Alpha’s.” The two men in the front weren’t going to go down without a fight, while the one in the back looked terrified.

She couldn’t take her gaze off the last guy. There was something about him, almost as if he wasn’t there willingly. Before she could question it further, all hell broke loose.

In a split second, she heard Felix click the safety off on his gun as two of the intruders shifted. The third one stood there, apparently not knowing what to do. Felix pushed her back against the wall as Raja and Thomas shifted to be on equal ground with the others.

Ty braced himself, ready to protect her if they got past Raja and Thomas. Marcus already had the other man detained, cuffed, and on the ground outside the bedroom. He left the other guard to keep watch over the prisoner and came to assist with the others.

Growls echoed around the small space; one of the men leaped toward them but Raja countered him, quickly slamming the smaller tiger to the ground. The eerie sound of teeth breaking bone made her stomach roil while blood and hair scattered around them. It was hard to know which shifter was who, the only one she recognized was Raja. There was a different energy around him she was able to distinguish from the others, and he was a good fifty pounds larger as well.

Her heart skipped a beat as one of the tigers was thrown against the wall to land in a heap on the floor, where he didn’t move. She could see the tiger’s chest rise and fall with shallow breaths, but if he was not moving, he had to be seriously injured. Don’t let that be Thomas!

The fighting went on for what seemed like hours, but only minutes had passed. Her heart was in her throat as she watched people fight for her, knowing that if it wasn’t for her, this wouldn’t be happening.

A second tiger fell to the ground, his throat ripped open. As he died, he shifted back to human form. With one dead and one severely injured, Raja and Thomas shifted back, allowing her to breathe easy.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Three

Tabitha stood there unsure what to do, everything had happened so fast. Was this what her life was always going to be like? How many times would she have to stand by and watch as people defended her?

“Finish him,” Raja ordered, handing Thomas a gun before slipping on a pair of shorts Ty grabbed for him. The others pulled on clothes Ty had supplied and grabbed their weapons. Without hesitation, Thomas took the gun, walking toward the injured tiger. Tabitha tried to make herself call out, to tell Thomas not to do it, but she couldn’t. The tiger in her knew this had to be done.

A shot pierced the night, and her breath caught in her throat. Tonight, as she’d embraced her tiger, she realized part of her human values had died.

“It had to be done. He was here to kill you. There was no way we could have trusted him after that.” Ty put his arms around her, drawing her close.

She nodded, resting her head on his chest, breathing in his smell. “I want to speak with the prisoner.”

“Tabby, I think that can wait until morning.”

“No, I need to do it now.”

He nodded. “Raja, allow him to sit. She can talk to him before he’s taken to a cell.”

Before Raja could react, his cell phone rang, and he tugged it out of his pocket to answer it.

“I’ll deal with the prisoner,” Marcus said as Raja moved away from everyone to take the phone call.

“The grounds secured?” Raja listened, staring downward in intense concentration. “No other intruders on the premises?” There were a few moments silence. “Good. Send out a search party and follow his scent. I want to be notified if you find anything.” He ended the call.

“Thomas, help Marcus and close the door behind you.” Raja slipped the phone back into his pocket.

When the bedroom door was firmly closed behind him and only three remained, he explained the situation. “There was someone down in the cells. Chris is gone, and the guard is dead.”

“Shit! I didn’t question him yet.”

Tabitha decided to share her knowledge. “I don’t think he would have been any help, but I think the one in the living room has information.” The men eyed her inquisitorially.

“What gives you that impression?” Raja wondered.

“I watched him. He knows something. He didn’t want to be here but had to be. If I can speak with him, I think I might be able to find out whatever he’s hiding.” She took Ty’s hand. “Raja, go ahead out there. We will be there in a moment. I want to speak with my mate first.”

Tabitha sat on the corner of the bed, Ty kneeling before her. “Explain to me this feeling you’re getting.” He took her hand in his and gently caressed it.

“It’s hard to describe. There’s a nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach. Sometimes I can just [_tell _]something.” She tried her best to explain.

“I think you might be coming into another gift.”

“What do you mean?”

“As mates, we’re able to sense each other’s emotions. You shouldn’t be able to pick up on the feelings of others, but I think you are. This is one of the abilities some of the members in your line have.” He stood, raking his hands through his dark hair.

“I already have my ability.”

“It’s possible to have more than one. Maybe you’ll have whatever ones you need to bring the tigers together.”

“We don’t have time to question this now. Let’s deal with the situation at hand, and then maybe we can consult the book. Maybe there’s some kind of answer in it.” She took a deep breath. She wasn’t sure how many of these abilities she could handle without it becoming overwhelming.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Four

Tabitha stepped into the living room with Ty by her side, to find the man slouched on the sofa. His head hung, and tears glistened in his eyes. The guards standing beside and behind were ready to leap into action if the situation called for it.

“I don’t think we need everyone here,” she whispered to Ty.

“Everyone except Raja, Felix, and Marcus, resume your duties. We have this under control now.”

“Thank you,” she murmured.

Marcus stood behind the sofa, while Felix watched from the side; Raja and Ty stood beside her.

For the first time, she was able to get a good look at the man before her. He was in his early twenties, young, and if her impression was right, he was a new shifter. There was an odd smell to him. It wasn’t as if he’d just come from another clan, but as if he was entirely different.

“What is your name?” she inquired.

“Connor, ma’am.”

“Why?” she said simply.

The sorrow poured off him, almost drowning her in it.

“Why what?”

“Let’s start with, why are you here? What led you to this point? You didn’t act like the others.”

“I’m here because I was ordered.”

“Ordered by whom? If you were ordered, why didn’t you attack like the others?”

“You already know by whom. I didn’t attack because none of this is about me. I didn’t have anything to do with it and didn’t want to be a part of it. I have nothing against you and see no reason you should be killed. Yes, I know his reason for it, but then he should be doing the dirty work, not sending others out to do it.”

“If you don’t believe in the cause, then why are you out here fighting for him?”

“I have no choice.”

“Everyone has a choice.” She could feel his sorrow mix with resentment.

“I didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“It’s a long story.”

“She’s trying to save your life, and you don’t even have the decency to answer her questions.” Ty growled, his patience growing short. “Answer her or the guards will escort you to your cell while we decide your fate.”

“One of his…Pierce’s followers murdered my mother a few years ago. He took me under his wing and gave me a place to live. I knew someday there would be a price to pay for it, but I never expected he would want me to kill someone for him.”

“What about your clan?”

“Mom was sort of a lone wolf.”

She finalized realized what she smelled. “You’re a wolf.”

It was more of a statement than a question, but he still answered it with a nod.

Ty took a step forward, earning him a glare from her.

“Wolves are a dangerous breed,” he said as if that explained the move.

“I know some find my kind to be unstable, but I mean no harm to anyone. I tried to find a way out of the situation, but they were under orders to kill me if I didn’t complete the assignment. I thought I could find a way to get away from them, but up until we entered the bedroom, I was smashed between them.”

His words vibrated the truth through the room, touching her core. Ty didn’t seem convinced, or maybe he wasn’t taking any chances, but he still had his body angled in front of her, ready to protect her.

“You had to know Pierce was dangerous before now. Why stick around him all these years?”

“Dangerous, yes, but all shifters are dangerous to a point. Certifiably insane is a whole different ball game.”

“Why did you stay?”

“It wasn’t until recently I understood how crazy he is. I had a job offer and was supposed to leave a few weeks ago. I thought I would have been done with him then.”

“Then why are you here?” Ty snarled.

“When I told him about the job, he nearly killed me. I just recovered.”

“What can you tell us about Pierce’s plans?” She touched her mate’s arm, trying to calm him.

“I don’t know what you did to him, ma’am, but he will stop at nothing to see you dead.” Sorrow shone in his eyes.

“I didn’t do anything to him personally. It’s more about who I am.” Ty shot her a warning look, and she knew better than to go into details. “What are his plans? Where is he staying?”

“He didn’t tell me his plans. Only that he wanted you dead. They’re staying in a cabin on the mountain.”

“Give us directions. We need to locate him.” Ty motioned to Raja, who seemed to understand the silent communication.

Raja grabbed a pad and pen from the desk and handed them to Connor. “If you make any attempt to escape or to place any of us in danger, we will kill you. There will be no questions.” He un-cuffed his hands, allowing him to write the directions down.

“Understood,” Conner said as he rubbed his wrist before picking up the pen.

She had adopted a façade of grim determination and confidence, but inside she was frightened. Will going after Pierce and his team threaten the family I found? Will someone die in my place?

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Five

“The men are on their way to the location. They’ll call when they have the suspect in custody. Connor, if this lead is the truth, you might have earned your freedom,” Ty said as he and Raja returned from the debriefing conference room.

Connor stayed silent as if he were considering his fate. Tabitha knew he was wondering if he was going to die that night. He didn’t have family or friends who would miss him, but he had dreams he wanted to accomplish before it was his time.

“Connor, I want you to shift into your wolf…” She didn’t get to finish; Ty cut her off.

“Absolutely not!” he shouted.

“Ty—”

“There’s no way that’s going to happen. He’s more dangerous in animal form. I will not have it, not with my mate in jeopardy.”

She moved closer to him so they could discuss it calmly between themselves. “I might be able to sense more than he could tell us. Something only his subconscious knows.”

“It’s too dangerous.” His eyes flashed with anger.

“He won’t harm us.”

“You don’t know that. This could all be a trap.” He stood with his arms across his broad chest, staring down at her.

“I can feel he’s telling the truth, he means me no harm. You know this could help us. Let me do it before it’s too late, before Pierce has a chance to escape or make a move.”

“You’re my mate. I’m supposed to protect you. This isn’t protecting you.”

“You trusted me with Lukas, so trust me now. We can take precautions if that makes you feel safer.” She laid her hand on his arm still crossed over his chest. “I wouldn’t put myself in danger for the hell of it.”

“Raja, Felix.”

The men came to stand next to them.

“Against my better judgment, I’m allowing this. We’ll stand in front of her. If he makes a move, kill him.” The men nodded, and Ty turned around to face Conner. “Go over to the corner over there. I want you far enough away from her. When you shift, lay on the floor. If you make a move, you will die.”

Connor moved into place, removing his clothing when he reached the corner. Ty touched her cheek. “My mate, I love you.”

“I love you too.” She stood on her tiptoes to kiss him as he wrapped his arms around her.

“We’re ready,” Raja said from behind them.

“Let’s do this before I change my mind.”

“Shift when you’re ready.” She stood protected by the men. She had a spot between Raja and Ty that she could see through, but it was like being behind a wall and only being able to see through a small window.

The magic gathered in the air as the boy transformed in front of them. A gasp escaped her lips as she saw Connor’s life play out before her. Ty watched her from the corner of his eye but when she nodded, he turned his attention back to the wolf.

She closed her eyes, giving full attention to the memories of his life. It wasn’t until the recent memories of Pierce that she could feel his anger. Not at her and her men, but at Pierce. Pierce tortured the boy at every turn, making his life hell. She finally understood why he’d stayed. No other pack would allow him in now that he was associated with Pierce, for fear of problems.

She saw his memories of what happened before he came to the compound. Everything he’d said to them was true, but seeing them, she was able to realize things he didn’t. There was a suitcase sitting by the door in his memory.

Any idea where he’s going? she mentally asked the wolf.

She didn’t get a sense he understood what she meant. His memories continued to play out before her, leaving her the impression he hadn’t seen the suitcase.

“Pierce is gone. You won’t find him at the cabin. He left some of the others behind but took his key people with him.”

“How do you know this?” Ty asked.

“There’s a suitcase in his memory, next to the door. When Connor walked in, there were bits and pieces caught. I don’t think he put them together, but I did.”

“So he told us the truth about his involvement?”

She didn’t answer, just nodded as she saw another house in his memories. This house had bad memories, and she could tell he didn’t want to go back there.

“Whose house is that?” Then she saw both his mother and Pierce. “You can shift back.”

But nothing happened. Connor laid there in wolf form, not moving.

“He can’t,” Raja said as she began to wonder what had happened.

“Oh, hell,” Tabitha exclaimed. “I forgot you mentioned weaker shifters aren’t able to shift back. Why was he so willing when he knew this would happen?”

“I don’t think he thought he had a choice. You’re an Alpha. Even outside his pack, he understands authority.” Ty moved to give her a little more room to see between him and Raja. “I’m sure if he didn’t know it before, once Pierce came into his life, he knew it.”

“But I have questions I want him to answer.” She sighed. “It’s different than with us. He has to think of the image or memory.”

Ty gave a little squeeze to her hand, letting her know she shouldn’t go on. “It’s the best we can do right now. He won’t be able to shift for at least another few hours.”

She sat down on the sofa and ran her hand through her hair. She was drained, and it was going to take time and patience to get the answers she wanted.

“Connor, you showed me a picture of Pierce and your mother. I don’t understand how they owned the house. Was there something between them?”

He shook his wolf head and showed her his mom, a coffin, and then Pierce.

“Pierce took it over when your mother died.”

He let out a howl, as if to tell her yes.

“How did your mother know Pierce? She had to know him to leave him the house, and for him to take you in.”

She wanted direct answers, but all she was getting were bits and pieces of things. Her brain was too tired to put the puzzle into a whole. She rubbed her temples, trying to figure out how everything went together.

“Tabby, why don’t you get some sleep? You can question him more when he changes back.”

“What will happen to him while I sleep?”

“He’ll be made comfortable. Once he shifts back, he’ll be tired and need to rest also. When he wakes, you can continue this. Right now there’s nothing more that can be done, you’re only going to stress yourself out.” Ty sat down next to her.

“I don’t want him in the cells,” she whispered.

“Tabby…”

“No, they know where the cells are. I won’t risk losing him back to their hands.”

“He isn’t a stray dog you can find a new home for,” Ty said roughly.

“I never said he was. He needs help to get out of this situation, and I want to help him. He’s giving us information. It’s the least we can do.”

“Least we can do.” He snarled. “Did you forget he was on the team that came here to kill you?”

“No, I didn’t forget, but he didn’t kill me and he didn’t want to. He surrendered to Marcus.”

He let out a deep growl. “Woman, you’re going to be the death of me.”

“Just put him up in one of the guest rooms with guards, then we’ll both be happy. He’ll be secure and comfortable.”

He just stared at her before nodding. “Raja, arrange it.”

“You won’t do anything stupid that makes me regret this decision, will you, Connor?” His mind told her his thoughts were already on a nice, comfortable bed. “Connor, focus one more time. There was another man with you tonight. Who was it?”

She saw a picture of an older man with gray hair and a limp. The man lived a hard life, and if the memory was correct, didn’t look as though he had long to live.

“Any idea who it was?” Ty asked.

“I see the man, but I don’t know who he is. I’ll ask him about it later.”

“They’re ready for him,” Raja said, getting off the phone.

“One last thing. Did you know Chris?”

Nothing came to his mind. “Ty, do you have a picture of Chris? Maybe he doesn’t know him by name but by face.”

He grabbed the picture of the clan from a nearby shelf. “Last one, second row on the right, but you’re not getting near him to show him.”

She grabbed the picture out of his hands and set it on the floor, halfway between Connor and the door.

“On your way out, look at the picture.” She moved to Ty’s side.

The wolf trotted toward the door, stopping at the picture. Memories flooded her mind, of him and different people, but she couldn’t make sense of it.

“Think about it and we’ll talk about him and everything else when you wake.” The wolf howled in frustration. She could tell there was something he wanted her to know, but he couldn’t get it across to her.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Six

The next morning, Connor woke feeling refreshed. He hadn’t slept that well in ages. For the first time in a while, he didn’t have to worry about someone coming in to kill him while he slept. He wasn’t constantly checking over his shoulder for Pierce. There was a weight lifted from his shoulders, allowing him to breathe easier, even if it was only for a bit.

He wasn’t an Alpha and never had the desire to be. After his mother’s death, he’d wanted the comfort and security of a pack but because of Pierce, no one would accept him. He was a lone wolf, and lone wolves didn’t survive long.

Pierce took him in, gave him a place to sleep and put food in his stomach, but Connor never was a part of the pack; he did it out of loyalty to his mother. Loyalty. What does Pierce know about loyalty? More like guilt. Guilt over getting her killed.

He lay in bed, knowing there was a guard just outside his open door to make sure he didn’t try to escape. [_Whatever they do to me, it’s better than what Pierce would do if he found out I was still alive. How will I ever get myself out of this situation? Maybe if I can help them… _]He racked his brain, trying to figure out a way.

The man in the picture from last night, he recognized him. Chris. He got wrapped up in this mess to save his stupid sister. Didn’t they say he was taken from one of the prison cells?

Knowing Pierce that meant Chris was dead. He wouldn’t let someone survive who could hold something over him. Without Chris, his sister didn’t stand a chance.

Chris? Maybe he’s the key to all of this. If he was anything like his sister, he would have kept records.

Jumping out of bed, he slipped into his jeans that someone had remembered to grab. Zipping up, he found the guard standing in the doorway. “I need to speak with your Alpha and his mate.”

“They will speak with you when they’re ready.”

“Trust me. I have information they need. Please, just tell her I asked to speak with her.”

The guard unclipped his phone from his belt and hit a button. “It’s Adam. He’s awake and demanding to speak with her.” He ended the call. “She will get the message. Just hang tight. There’s a television out here if you wish to watch some while you’re waiting.”

He hated waiting. It made him want to climb the walls, but he knew there was nothing he could do. Forcing the situation wouldn’t help.

“He’s awake and wishes to speak with you,” Felix said, pouring coffee into a mug for Tabitha.

“Finally.” She let out a sigh of relief.

“Finish your brunch, mate, and then we’ll have him brought in.” Ty eyed her over his e-tablet as he read the reports from the guards.

She was still in her plaid pajama bottoms and tank top as they enjoyed their brunch. Ty had kept her in bed long after they woke. She’d enjoyed the early morning sex and cuddling, but she wanted answers. Rolling her eyes, she popped another strawberry in her mouth. “I’m done.”

“Mate, you’re the most impatient woman I know.” He shook his head. “Have Raja escort him in.”

She stood from the kitchen barstool and moved closer to him. With his attention still on the reports, she kissed his neck. “We have a few minutes,” she whispered after getting the soft purr she loved.

“I need more than a few minutes. You’ll get your answers, and then you’re mine for the rest of the day.”

“Maybe I have other plans.” She took his earlobe into her mouth, gently sucking on it.

“You’ll forget all about them. Remember what I told you about mating heat. I can’t get enough of you. You’re always on my mind, I walk around with a constant hard-on. I need you.”

She could smell them coming down the hallway. “Soon, baby, soon.” She leaned down and kissed him.

“Not soon enough for me,” he rumbled.

After a quick knock of warning, the door opened. Raja ushered Connor to the sofa.

“Morning, Connor. I hope you were able to sleep well,” Ty said as they joined him, sitting on the opposite sofa.

“Very well. Thank you.” He ran his hand over his knee. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to convey the message you wanted last night, ma’am.”

“Jumping right in, I see. Good. The man in the picture…from your reaction, I assume you know who that is.”

“Chris. Yes, I know of him.”

“Of him?” she questioned.

“To be clearer, I met him only once, but I knew him through his sister.”

“When he joined our clan, he told us he had no siblings,” Ty stated, his brow furrowing.

“Then he lied to you. His sister got wrapped up in some bad stuff a few years ago: drugs and stuff like that, but then she got with Pierce.”

“[_Got _]with Pierce? What do you mean?”

“It’s unusual for shifters, but you could say she’s his girlfriend.”

“Shifters don’t really date like humans do,” Ty said, turning to Tabitha. “They might go out on a date or two while waiting to find their mate, but it isn’t the same as when humans date. Born shifters have mates. When we find our mate, we know it and pursue it. But before that, there’s no reason for a relationship. We can get our needs met or go out, but relationships are something that is rare, since we’d know there’s no future there.”

“But Pierce isn’t a born shifter.” She tried to understand how that would relate to Pierce.

“True. There are very few bitten shifters, so it isn’t a proven fact, but it’s believed that they do not have mates. They’re just like the rest of the human population. They have to find the one they want to be with.”

“Okay, but what does this have to do with anything? We’re after Chris.”

Connor leaned forward in his seat. “I think the reason Chris betrayed you is for his sister. She mentioned to me before that she wanted to get away from Pierce but couldn’t. I believe Chris and his brother, Mike, thought he could exchange the information about you for his sister.”

“Mike?” Tabitha squealed, feeling queasy at the sound of the name.

“He could have come to me. We would have helped him with his sister.” Ty growled.

“Mike lives in Pittsburgh, from what I hear. He visits his sister monthly. They’re close.”

Could it be the same guy? It can’t be a coincidence that Alice was dating a man name Mike.

Ty obviously was thinking the same thing she was. He pulled out his cell phone, hit a few buttons and pulled up Mike’s wanted picture before showing it to Connor. “Is this Mike?”

“Yes. What’s he wanted for?”

“Murder. He killed my best friend, Alice. When the police went to arrest him, they found his apartment vacated. If he knew who I was, why not turn me into Pierce? My life should have gained his sister’s freedom.”

Connor shrugged, leaving the silence hang heavily in the room.

She pushed it aside to deal with later. “Why lie about siblings when he joined the clan? You said he has been here for years.” She pointed out, trying to get the complete picture.

“They lost touch for many years. He thought she was dead until last year, when she reached out to him for help.”

“I’m not an asshole, he could have come to me,” Ty snapped. “There was no reason to betray me and my mate.”

She laid her hand on his leg. “I’m sure he didn’t see a way out of his situation, and when he traded the information, he didn’t know I was your mate.”

“He knew who and what you were,” Ty hollered. “I’ll see him dead for this.”

“I’m sure Pierce already did that.” When they both just stared at Connor, he continued, “You said the cell was empty. There’s no way Pierce would have let him live. He would have assumed he knew too much. I’m sure he’s dead.”

“Then what information do you have?”

“His sister keeps a record of everything. I know she sent him letters and things. I think if you search his personal belongings, you’ll find something that might be useful.”

“Why do you think any of it would be useful?” Tabitha asked.

“If anyone knew anything, it would be her. She’s the closest person to him. If he trusted anyone, it would be her without a doubt. Let me help search the room. I know her smell. I might be able to find anything that’s there quickly.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Seven

Tabitha was stuck in the compound with Felix while Ty and the others went to search Chris’s cabin. Time dragged, like watching paint peel. She understood why Ty wanted her to stay here, away from the danger. There was no telling what they would find in the cabin. It might be booby-trapped for all they knew.

“I can’t take this.” She growled and walked to the window again to see if she could see anything.

“Relax. They’ll call when they find something.”

“I hate waiting.”

“I’d never guess.” His words were laced heavily with sarcasm.

She gave him a look to let him know she wasn’t amused, but he just chuckled. She could hear a faint ring. What is that? My phone. She raced to the bedroom, where her purse was, and pulled the cell from it.

“Don’t!” He yelled at her.

Not listening, she hit the talk button and put it on speaker. She had a feeling she knew who it was, since the only person who ever called her was dead. “Hello?”

“You escaped my grasp again, but know this: Ty can’t protect you forever. When I catch you, you’ll suffer all the more for making me chase you.”

“Then let’s put an end to the games. Where are you?”

“You don’t think I’m that stupid, do you? I know you would bring your guard dogs. Don’t worry, we’ll meet again and soon.” With that, he hung up. She tossed the phone back in her purse.

“Shit!” He stood behind her, growling. “We should have put a trace on your cell, but we never thought he would call it.”

“I’m not sure he’ll call it again but to be safe, do whatever has to be done so we can trace it next time.”

“We should let Ty know.” He reached for his own cell.

“There’s nothing he can do about it. It can wait until he’s finished. He needs to concentrate on what he’s doing. We can’t allow them to be distracted and miss something.”

“You’re making a great Alpha Female and you’ll be an even better Queen of the Tigers.” He smirked.

“He what?” The anger rolling off Ty nearly buckled her knees.

“Just as she said, he called her cell phone while you were gone,” Felix told him again, helping her to the window seat. “Control your anger. Look at what it’s doing to your mate.”

She could feel him trying, but his rage was out of control. “Come here,” she bit out.

Ty sat beside her, and she wrapped her arms around his body. As they touched, the anger started to subside.

“Her phone should have been set up for us to trace the call.”

“No one thought he would call, but I’ll have it set up right away. Either way, she handled it well. You should be proud of your mate,” Felix explained.

“I am, but I want her safe.” He pulled her into his lap.

She didn’t fight, because she wanted to touch as much of him as possible. “I’m safe. Did you find anything?”

“Connor and some of the guards are going through what we found. There were many letters from his sister and what appears to be a notebook in which he kept records of his contacts with Pierce. I came over here to get you. Pierce must have never considered there would be evidence, or he would have destroyed them.”

“Well, let’s go. I want to see what we can find.”

After spending hours going through the letters and other things that were recovered from Chris’s cabin, they still had no idea what Pierce’s plans were. They knew where they might be able to find him, different houses and locations he’d used in the past, places he preferred, contacts he had, and a number of the people in his clan, but they were still no closer to stopping him.

“Wait, what about this Jessica?” Tabitha asked from her position on the sofa as she read through one of the notebooks.

“Jessica?” There was surprise in Connor’s voice.

“You know her?” Ty asked, catching the disbelief in his voice also.

“Not really know her but know [_of _]her. It’s his sister. She’s human, but she knows about shifters and Pierce’s condition. If anyone would know his plans or where he is, it’s her. She isn’t supportive of his decisions, but still, he confides everything to her. He wants her to accept his life and approve of him.”

“Thomas, see what you can find out about her—location, habits, spouse. I want to know everything you can find.”

“I can help. I’m a master at computers and finding things people want to stay hidden,” Connor stated, somewhat quietly.

Ty didn’t answer right away but looked at her, who gave a small nod. “Okay, go with Thomas. If you two find anything, I want to be notified immediately.”

Connor followed Thomas out of the conference room with a look of determination on his face.

“Now the rest of you, I want you to finish going through this stuff. Same thing stands. I want to know if you find anything. Tabitha and I will check in later.” He reached for her hand. “Come on, mate.”

She laid her hand in his, and he smoothly pulled her to her feet. She eyed him uncertainly. He led her out the door, Felix following behind them.

“I want you and I’m tired of waiting,” he whispered, nuzzling against her neck.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Eight

They made it to the bedroom in record speed. Tabitha was ready for him. The heat and need vibrated through their bodies.

He slipped his hand under her shirt and pulled it over her head. “Mine.”

She ran her hands through his hair, moving it away from his eyes. She loved to look into his eyes. It was like looking into his soul. There was so much love and compassion there.

“You have too many clothes on.” She pulled at the gun shoulder-holster he wore, sliding it down his arms.

“Too slow.” He jumped out of bed and stripped out of his clothes before she could blink. “Now you have too many clothes on.”

She slipped out of her pants. “Better?”

Running his hands over her body, he purred with satisfaction. The heat between them was growing, becoming overwhelming. “We waited too long.”

Beyond words, she let out a hum.

“With the mating heat, if you wait too long, it’s harder to control the beast within. It will be rough.”

“I don’t care. Just take me.”

“I won’t be able to control myself.” Ty snarled, his body tense next to her, letting her know he was trying to control his own beast.

“I love you for who you are. Man, tiger and all. Nothing will change that. Please, don’t make me beg. I want you.”

Without hesitation, he slid into her, making her moan with pleasure. He roared, shaking the walls. This time, there was no exploring of each other’s bodies. Their need had full control over them. Her lips touched his, and a spicy taste drew her in. Their kiss was fast and furious as if matching the pace as he slid in and out of her core.

A moan of desire escaped her lips, and her eyes closed as she soaked in the pleasure that surrounded her.

“Open your eyes, I want to watch your desire build.”

She opened her eyes as her body arched. Her lusty needs came forward to match his urgency.

Her nails dug into his back as ecstasy found them. His release was announced with a roar.

He slipped out, rolling to lie next to her, their legs still tangled. She curled into him, her head on his chest, and listened to his heavy breaths. Her leg draped over his as they enjoyed the after-bliss.

“I didn’t realize it before, but our marks come alive when we’re together,” he said, raising his hand so she could see.

The brand glowed a faint gold light, as if there were a light bulb beneath the skin.

Interesting. “Why do you think that is?”

“I don’t know, but it’s fine with me as long as more don’t keep appearing,” he stated with a laugh.

“One is enough for me.”

“Tabby, before you sleep…”

Opening her eyes just a crack, she looked up at him.

“I think Thomas should be the third chosen guard. I know you liked Lance also, but after last night, he isn’t trustworthy. I still need to deal with him running off to be with his mate.”

“I agree about Thomas. We’ll tell him later. Why did Lance go to his mate? Did he think she was in danger?” She ran her hand over his chest, feeling the tight abs under her fingers.

“I wouldn’t be so upset about it if that was why, but that isn’t the case. He was horny. Since it was quiet, he thought he had time to get his needs met without anyone noticing him. He didn’t see Thomas coming as he was sneaking away.”

“What will you do to him?”

“He will be suspended from our guards and required to work the perimeter. He’ll also have to work with a partner to keep an eye on him until we can trust him again. If he screws up, the punishments will be more severe. Or if things would have gotten out of control last night and you were injured, he would have been at fault. I don’t think he realizes that if last night you would have been injured or killed, I could have demanded his death.”

“His death because someone else harmed me?”

“Yes. Guards have the duty to protect their charge, or you, in this case. If they fail, then they will be held accountable. It’s the way of shifters.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Nine

They were spending so much time in the conference room, it was starting to feel like a second home. Whoever designed the place should have had it connected to Ty’s quarters instead of in a space down the hall. At least the walls were a cheerful yellow, giving a light and airy feel even if there were no windows.

Thomas and Connor sat across from them in the debriefing room. Raja and Felix stood close to the door.

“Connor found the sister. It was buried, but Jessica is living in California. She’s attending college there for her PhD—you’ll never believe this—for animal psychology.” Ty looked over the notes on Jessica as he debriefed the guards.

“Very good. With any luck, she’ll be of some assistance to us. We’ll have to get someone to go check her out,” He rested his hand on her leg.

“If possible I would like to assist whoever goes,” Connor stated. “I have met her and might be able to help. She knew my situation and felt sorry for me. She tried to tell me to get away from Pierce before it was too late. If she’s going to open up to anyone, I think I have the best shot.”

“We’ll discuss it and let you know. You have been a great asset to us, and we appreciate it. My mate believes you mean us no harm and will not betray us. If you’re inclined to stay on, we would gladly provide you with a cabin of your own.”

“Thank you.” Relief washed over Connor’s face. “I’d like to do what I can to help you and your clan take down Pierce.”

“We appreciate that. I think your computer skills might be of great use to us.” Ty took a sip of coffee. “Connor, if you could give us a few minutes to speak with Thomas, then he can show you to Guest Cabin One.”

Connor rose and walked toward the door. She could feel his emotions playing havoc on him. He was thankful for the chance Ty was giving him, but she could also feel his fear that he was placing more danger on them.

“Connor, I’m really glad you will be staying with us. There’s no need to worry any longer. You’re safer here than anywhere else,” she told him as his hand closed around the door handle.

He nodded and closed the door behind him.

“Thomas, last night you proved yourself worthy of protecting Tabitha. I’m sure you know the legends that a female tiger will come and unite all tiger shifters.” Ty didn’t wait for an answer. He just dove in head first. “They’re true. Tabitha comes from a long line of strong tigers, and she will be the one.”

“I suspected she was the one. My understanding is there hasn’t been a female from her line in generations.”

“Great, then we don’t have to drag this out. We’ve been tasked with finding three guards to help us with this transition, and we would like you to be a part of the team. There’s no use lying. It will be dangerous, but there will also be rewards.”

“I’m flattered. May I ask who the others are?” Thomas placed his hands on the table and leaned forward.

“Marcus and Felix are the other two choice guards. Raja will remain our Lieutenant throughout and once the transition is complete. The next step will be put into motion soon…but for now, this must go no further than this room.”

“I understand. If there’s nothing else, I’ll show Connor to his cabin.” Thomas pushed back his chair and rose.

“That will be all. Once you’re done, you may have the night off. Get some rest. You have guard duty in the morning.” Ty stood as well.

“One last thing. I think you made the wise decision in allowing him to stay. His technological skills will be a great advantage for us.” Without another word, Thomas was gone, leaving a heavy silence in the room. Raja and Felix stood, waiting for Ty to make a move.

“Could you give us a moment?” She asked as Ty paced.

The men opened the door, stepping through before shutting it again.

“What’s wrong? I can feel your uncertainty racing through you.” She went to him and wrapped her arms around his waist, hoping to bring him some comfort.

“I’m questioning who to send to speak with Jessica. Raja is the most convincing and most likely our best shot of getting information out of her. But he is also my right-hand man, the one I would trust to keep you safe if something happened to me.”

“Nothing is going to happen to you, love. I was thinking you should send Leo. At such a critical time, I don’t think any of the key people should be far apart. Keeping Raja, Felix, Thomas, and Marcus near for the next stage is what I was thinking. If we need to send in reinforcements, then send Raja. Let Leo and Connor go scope out the situation, and we’ll go from there.”

He lifted her, making her wrap her legs around his waist, then kissed her—long, deep, passionate kisses that made her want to rip his clothes off. A moan escaped her mouth.

“Soon, my love. First, we must finish business.” Without letting her go, he hollered, “Raja!”

Raja opened the door and peeked in. “Yes.”

“Find Leo and tell him he and Connor will be leaving tomorrow night to speak with Jessica. Fill him in on the situation and then make the arrangements. He has seventy-two hours to find her and get the answers we need from her.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Also let Felix know to stand guard, and we do not want to be disturbed unless there’s an emergency.”

Raja closed the door, and Ty continued where he left off. He tugged her sweater over her head, growling. “Mine. All mine.”

Always yours. I love you, Ty.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. The Tiger’s Heart

Alaskan Tigers: Book Two

When Raja Harrison, Lieutenant of the Alaskan Tigers, rescues Bethany from kidnappers, nothing will ever the same. It should’ve been an easy rescue, instead he finds she’s not only injured—she’s his mate. He’d always believed his job was too dangerous to risk having a woman in his life. Now Bethany threatens what’s left of his fragile control.

A rogue shifter wants Bethany Thompson and is determined to destroy all she holds dear, along with the tiger shifter population. When she’s kidnapped and beaten, her whole world tilts on its axis. The shifter problems now are her problems as her family secret comes to light.

Can Raja and Bethany join forces with the other Elders of the Alaskan Tigers to bring down the rogue shifter—or will the rogue destroy all Raja seeks to protect?

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter One

There was no way they’d let the rogues get away; most of the leads turned into dead ends, but they had to explore every avenue regardless. Papers and maps cluttered the table. The search for Pierce filled every hour. The flow of viable information trickled, some of it useless.

The situation ate away at Raja’s gut, while Ty’s agitation shown on his face. They seemed no closer to finding Pierce, yet they sensed his men were in the mountains watching them. His teams of assassins stalked the area, waiting for them. Rarely did anyone leave the compound, especially not the women and children—not with the danger surrounding them.

“Raja, stop pacing. You’re going to wear a hole in my favorite rug,” Ty’s mate Tabitha teased. She watched him over her coffee mug. “We’ve got enough men out there searching all the spots Pierce and his gang frequent. It won’t do you any good worrying now.”

He smiled, unable to help it. Tabitha had a way of lightening the mood. Raja hoped his future mate—whoever she was—would be gifted with the ability to make those around her smile the way Tabitha could. She’d been through so much, yet always seemed more concerned about others than she was herself.

He couldn’t sit still. The hairs on the back of his neck stood at attention. Something wasn’t right. Something was about to break; he could feel it in his soul. He ran his hand over the windowsill. Outside looked like a winter wonderland. Thick, white snow weighed down the tree limbs and the weather reports forecasted more snow over the next few days.

He stopped his pacing to update Ty and Tabitha. “Leo and Connor arrived in California and are on their way to locate Pierce’s sister. It’s extremely unlikely he’s there, but maybe she’ll be able to tell us something.”

“Keep me apprised of the situation. I want them back within seventy-two hours, or we send another team. We don’t have time to waste.” Ty sat reading the reports from the teams spread out all over the country; not one of them had spotted the rogues. Pierce knew they were searching for him, but they didn’t expect him to hide. He had murder on his hands, he’d attacked other tiger shifters; maybe he finally knew his days were numbered.

Raja nodded, still gazing out the window.

“I need to go speak with some of the guards. Raja, could you look after Tabby until I get back? I don’t want to leave her alone in case there’s another attack.”

“Sure.”

“Thank you.” Ty rose, kissing his mate’s cheek. “I shouldn’t be long, love.”

Once they were alone Raja heard Tabitha push her chair back from the table, and listened to her approach in sock-covered feet.

“Raja, are you okay?” She laid her hand on his back, offering comfort. Unfortunately, it only worked on a mate, but the caring gesture touched him.

“I’m fine. You have enough to worry about. Don’t concern yourself with me.”

“I don’t believe you. If you ever need to talk, I’m here. It will go no further than us.”

“Mates don’t keep things from each other.” Reservation thickened his voice.

“To help a friend in need I would do what needs to be done. Raja, I haven’t known you very long, but I consider you a part of my family and can see your pain.” She rubbed his back.

“Thank you, but everything is fine with me. It’s you I’m worried about. I can feel something bad is coming.” He wasn’t being entirely honest. Something else bothered him, but he couldn’t put his finger on it, let alone put it into words to tell his Queen.

“We’ll get through it. We know Pierce is still out there and after me. He has a larger following then we guessed. I know it’s your job as our Lieutenant to worry, but we’ll survive.”

The invisible ear bud allowing him contact with command central and the ground teams sprang to life. “Breach. We have a breach at the main gate. All available units respond.”

“Shit. Where’s Felix?” Raja turned to look at Tabitha.

“Ty gave him the morning off since we were meeting with you and wouldn’t be leaving our quarters. Go. I’ll be fine.”

“Like hell. You have to be protected.” She had her own transmitter, allowing her to hear the same alerts, and fear spilled off her.

“Raja, stay where you are. Felix is on his way. I’m proceeding toward the main gate,” Ty’s order came through the transmitter, further cementing Raja’s decision to stay put.

“Tabitha, come away from the window.” He could feel her reluctance, but his job was to keep her safe. “Everyone always forgets about the windows. You feel safe and secure inside the houses, while the sharpshooter is waiting. Waiting for you to walk past the window.”

The words seemed to frighten her, and she stepped back, visibly paling.

Unlike the other guards, Raja hadn’t vowed to protect her because she was their Alpha Female and Queen of the Tigers. No, his vow had been made to her mate. Ty had saved his ass more than once and the best way to show his appreciation was by keeping Tabitha safe.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Two

Two knocks then a pause followed, but one more let him know Felix was on the other side of the door. Felix, Captain of Tabitha’s Guards, had a key to the quarters. The knock was a warning not to shoot him.

“Things are contained now,” Felix said, sliding the lock back into place.

“What was the breach?”

“It sounds like a news crew.”

“A what?” Tabitha frowned.

“A news crew, here to interview you.”

Tabitha continued to stare at him as if he’d grown two heads.

“About your friend Alice’s murder,” he explained.

“Oh, just what we need, news crews. Get rid of them. I want nothing to do with the whole mess.”

“Ty’s working on it. He explained this is private property and they have no right to step foot on it. He’ll get rid of them. In the meantime, sit tight.”

[_News crews, who would have guessed? _]Raja chuckled to himself as he watched the exchange. After Tabitha’s human friend had been killed, it was only natural they’d want to talk to her.

A roar shook the walls, echoing in the small space, jerking him out of his amusement. “Tabitha, calm yourself. Your body isn’t ready for this yet. Don’t force it.” The energy she radiated would make anyone in the room shift if they weren’t careful. It vibrated along his skin, prickling every nerve.

“Ty, we need you back here. Now!” Raja hollered, hitting the button on his ear transmitter. “Tabitha, Ty’s on his way. Keep it together a few more minutes. Come on. You can do this.” Roars echoed from the other side of the door as Tabitha’s primal energy caused other tigers in the vicinity to shift; not everyone was strong enough to fight the primitive command.

I hope they got the reporters to leave before tigers started roaming the grounds.

“I’m on my way. Situation?” Ty’s voice crackled through the ear bud.

Tabitha’s growl nearly drowned out Raja’s response. “Felix, unlock the door for Ty. We don’t need anything slowing him down. He’s the only one who can help her now.”

Raja chided himself for not having seen this coming, but didn’t have time to question his choices now. He filed it away to examine later. Tabitha was his only priority. The first shift from human to tiger was painful and hard to control.

Ty came running through the door. They exchanged a brief glance as he slid to a halt next to his mate. Felix closed and locked the door behind him.

“Mate, you’re not ready for this.” She didn’t seem to hear him. Her body trembled. Roaring, she sent another wave of magic through the area.

“What the hell happened?” Ty eyed Raja.

“Take her anger from her. We can deal with why this happened later. If you don’t stop her, this could kill her. I’ve seen this happen before.”

Ty reached for his mate, pulling her into his arms. Growls vibrated the room and pictures fell off the wall. His growls coursed with hers until they fell into an exhausted heap on the floor. When he’d managed to calm her, Ty glanced up.

“What the hell happened?” he demanded in a voice hoarse from roaring.

“We’re not really sure,” Felix began. “I was explaining the situation at the main gate when she started—”

“It wasn’t their fault.” Tabitha spoke softly, her eyes closed, leaning heavily on her mate. “Felix mentioned the reporters, it brought back Alice’s murder, and everything that happened in Pittsburgh. My emotions got out of control and I couldn’t seem to do anything about it.”

“Emotions are haywire when you go through the change.” Ty kissed her forehead. “I’m going to put my mate to bed, then we need to discuss the reporters, and keeping them away from the compound. Felix, deal with the guards who shifted. Not all of them are strong enough to shift back, so find replacements.” With that he rose, lifted his mate in his arms before he stalked out of the room.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Three

[_I should have been paying more attention to Tabitha’s emotions. Allowing her to get that close to a shift without my noticing was something I won’t let happen again. _]Raja helped himself to another mug of coffee while he waited for Ty. Felix had left to deal with the guards.

Ty re-entered the kitchen, shoulders slouched and steps dragging as if he should’ve been asleep. His body didn’t appear to glide as it normally did. He ran a hand through his long, dark hair and yawned. Raja poured another cup of coffee and slid it across the counter.

“Thanks.”

Raja nodded and sipped his coffee. “You should be sleeping. I can deal with the reporters.”

“I have no doubts about that. I needed to discuss something with you.” Ty took a drink of his coffee and raked his hand through his hair again.

Raja tensed. His friend wasn’t tired; something else weighed on his shoulders. Something troubled him.

“What’s going on, Ty? We’ve always been straight with each other.”

“I know I told you Tabitha’s friend Alice was murdered. Well, it seems as though the suspect is out on bond. The team I sent to keep an eye on him has been unable to locate him. He’s disappeared.”

“Bond? You’re shitting me. He murdered two girls.” Raja couldn’t believe what he heard.

“Seems as though the justice system is fucked up. Jails are overcrowded. From what I can tell, it looks like someone pulled the right strings to get him out and there’s only one person I can think of who’d do that.”

“Tabitha’s safe as long as she’s in the compound. We’ll double her security to ensure that.”

“It gets worse.” Ty finished the last of his coffee. “He’s teamed up with his mob connections and Pierce.”

“How the hell did they find each other?” Apprehension thickened the air. This made things so much more dangerous. The sooner Tabitha could go through the change, the better; she’d be able to protect herself easier once she changed.

“I’m guessing through the mob connection. We knew Pierce had some limited connections. The mob likes shifters on their payroll for extra protection.”

“How much longer until the change?”

“A week, two at most. She’s close. Today proved it.” Ty stood and put his coffee mug in the dishwasher.

“Are you going to tell her?”

“Sooner or later, yes. But not yet. I don’t want to push her into the change too early.”

It was the reasonable choice. “Then rest with her. You both need each other now. Let me fill Felix in, we’ll get a plan together and keep an eye on things.”

Ty nodded, slipping away to be with his mate.

Raja poured himself another coffee. The day promised to be long. He could tell the stress of not being able to make Tabitha safe ate at Ty.

If that’s what it’s like to be mated, I don’t want any part of it.

He sat in front of the laptop, trying to put his finger on Pierce’s next move. With all the information they had, there was no reason why they shouldn’t have a new lead.

His cell phone dinged, letting him know that he had a new text message. It read,[_ She agreed to meet us this evening. Will let you know how it goes._]

Leo was always short and to the point. With a little luck, Pierce’s sister would be willing to help, not that it would protect him. No way could they allow him to live after so many had died at his hands, especially not after the attacks on Tabitha. Raja would kill him with his own hands if he had the chance.

While Tabitha showered, they put together a quiet meeting to discuss the plans to double her guards without making her aware of any danger. Raja wasn’t convinced it was the best way to deal with the situation, but it was what Ty wanted.

“With Leo gone, I’d like Adam to be temporarily reassigned to Tabitha’s guards. We need the expanded manpower,” Felix stressed when they reconvened in Ty’s office.

“As long as he’s teamed with a more experienced guard. He’s used to guarding the grounds, not the Queen,” Raja cut in. “If she has another episode like this afternoon, he won’t stand a chance against the magic she exudes. We need someone who will still be able to fight if danger arises.”

“Understood, Raja. I’ll team him with Thomas.”

“Very well then.” Ty tapped the desk with his fingers. “We have the guards teamed up and scheduled. Remember, Tabitha doesn’t need to know about—”

The door opened and silence fell.

Tabitha glared. Her face spelled out the truth; she’d overheard them and they were about to pay. “You don’t want me to know about what?”

“It’s nothing, darling.” Ty rose from behind his desk to go to his mate.

“Nothing, my ass. You have been acting suspiciously all day and I want to know what’s up.” Anger threaded her voice, as clear as an Alaskan Tiger’s stripes.

Raja inched toward the door. The last place he wanted to be was in the middle of an argument between mates—especially his Alphas.

“I never took you as a coward, Raja.” Her words startled him. Any chance of slipping out the door without her knowing vanished.

“My Queen, I’m not a coward, but it’s not my place to get between mates.”

“Then tell me what’s going on, since my mate would prefer to keep me in the dark.” She fixed her irritation on him.

He could see Ty’s position, but he was stuck. His Alphas wanted different things. “Tabitha, I think this is something you need to discuss with him. The only thing I can tell you is we’re increasing your protection. We were meeting to discuss the guard schedule.”

Doubling my guards?”

Ty dropped onto his desktop in defeat. He didn’t want to go up against his mate. “Tabby, things have become more dangerous. We’re only trying to protect you.”

“Keeping me in the dark isn’t protecting me, Ty.”

“With all due respect, she cannot afford the stress this is putting on her. Tell her,” Raja murmured. It might not be his place, but he couldn’t stand to see them both so torn up.

“Oh, that’ll be less stressful for her, will it? Now you think you know what’s better for my mate than I do!” Ty snapped.

“This is ridiculous,” Tabitha snapped. “You can’t keep it from me and we can’t take our anger out on Raja. Don’t shelter me. If I’m truly the Queen of the Tigers, then I have a right to know what the danger is.”

“Leave. I’ll fill her in.” Ty growled.

Raja wasn’t sure if Ty had given in out of defeat or because he realized they were right, but it didn’t matter. Tabitha needed to know.

Once he’d departed, Raja paced his quarters, unable to calm himself. He couldn’t put his finger on it. There was something in the pit of his stomach that left him feeling ill. He checked the surveillance of the compound and everything appeared calm. Too calm.

The calm before the storm. Oh, I hope I’m wrong.

Nothing to do but wait—wait until the other shoe dropped. He’d never been good at waiting. He needed to run. Stripping off his clothes, he shifted.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Four

Bethany danced around the hotel room. Coming to Alaska was a dream come true for her. Visiting for five days, she planned to see and do as much as she could. When she won the trip she couldn’t believe her luck; she couldn’t even remember entering the contest. She’d never won anything in her life.

She grabbed her cell from her purse and called her baby sister. When Jamie didn’t answer, she left a message.

“I can’t believe Mom almost talked me out of coming. It’s beautiful here,” Bethany gushed. “Mom’s negative feelings are off. Nothing can go wrong. Tomorrow a day on the slopes, snowboarding. Tonight I plan to check out the nightclub the door attendant recommended. My cell reception is spotty, but I’ll call you soon. Love ya, sis.”

Tossing the phone on the bed, she glanced at the bedside clock. Twenty minutes before the cab arrives. I have time to freshen up.

When Bethany arrived, the first thing she noticed was the nightclub was just like any other she’d ever been to. The drinks flowed, the music was so loud she had to scream to talk, and the dance floor was crowded.

Partying and nightclubs weren’t really her thing, but she’d promised her baby sister she would go. Jamie’s words rang in her ears: “For once in your life, be wild. Let your hair down and do something you wouldn’t normally do. Go to a nightclub for me, dance and have a good time.”

“Can I buy you a drink?”

Turning on her bar stool, she found a man in jeans, a t-shirt, and a cowboy hat riding low over his eyes.

“Okay. I’ll have a cola.”

“A soda? Live on the wild side, darling. How about something stronger?

“Sorry. I don’t drink the hard stuff,” she said, shaking her head.

“I hate drinking alone, but I won’t allow a lady to ruin my night.” He motioned to the bartender.

His rudeness shocked her. She should’ve walked out, but her mom taught her better. She wouldn’t respond to him in the same crass manner. She allowed him to buy her a drink; she’d finish it and then make her excuses.

Why did I ever let Jamie talk me into this?

Life filled the club. Everyone laughed, having a good time it seemed, except her. She was completely out of her element.

“What brings you here tonight?” He leaned into her so he didn’t have to shout.

“I promised my sister I would hit up a nightclub while I’m here.”

“You’re not from these parts then?”

“No. I won this trip.”

“Oh, you must be Bethany. I’m Josh, your ski instructor for tomorrow.” He shook her hand.

“I changed that. I don’t need an instructor. I decided to go snowboarding instead. But thank you for the drink.” Finishing her soda, she rose. “I really must be going. It was a long trip, and I’m tired.”

“Let me give you a ride back to the hotel. I have to go there anyway to pick up a few things.”

“That’s kind of you, but I already called a cab.” She stood, sliding her purse over her shoulder.

“Come on.” He grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the exit.

“You’re hurting me.” She tried to pull away from him, but his grip tightened.

“I will hurt you if you don’t come with me.” He closed the distance between them, his voice a harsh whisper, his breath tinged with liquor. No one in the boisterous crowd seemed to notice her distress.

Her heart beat feverishly, stomach rolling. God help me, Mom was right. I should have listened.

Raja ran until he exhausted his nervous energy. After a long, hot shower, he still felt as if he was crawling to get out of his skin. His cell phone vibrated on the desk. I hope this will be something to distract me.

It was Leo.

“Raja.” He answered as he rose from his bed, listening.

“She’ll only tell you or Ty and it has to be in person. What do you want us to do?”

“I’ll speak with Ty and get back to you on that. There are some new threats where our Queen is concerned. I’m not sure he’ll want a strange human in the compound. But if so, be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.”

“She doesn’t seem like much of a threat, just concerned about her brother. We’ll stand by for your word.” It was late, but Ty would want to know immediately. He dialed his Alpha as soon as Leo hung up.

“Yes?” Ty’s voice was heavy with exhaustion and Tabitha murmured sleepily in the background.

“I’m sorry to bother you at this late hour. I heard from Leo and I need to speak with you.”

“Come over.”

He’d never heard his Alpha sound so tired.

“I’ll be right there.” Raja hung up and slipped on a t-shirt. He didn’t want to delay talking to Ty. Upon arriving at Ty’s quarters, he was surprised to find Tabitha waiting in the living room as well. “My Queen, I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“It’s fine, Raja. I wouldn’t be able to sleep without Ty anyway. What did you find out?”

Ty gave him permission with a slight nod.

“Jessica says she has information, but won’t tell Leo and Connor what she knows until she meets with you. My guess would be she’s trying to save her brother’s ass.”

Ty let out a deep sigh. “I would predict the same. I can’t travel to speak with her in person, but I’ll arrange a call tomorrow.”

“She’ll only do it in person. Leo asked about bringing her here. It’s safer than the alternative.” Raja disliked the idea, even if it was the only way to get the information from Jessica.

“I’m not sure it’s safe, but it seems like our only choice. Call Leo. I’ll expect them tomorrow.”

In the solitude of his quarters, Raja pulled his cell phone out.

“Leo. Bring her here. We’ll expect you tomorrow. But make it clear to her that if she brings danger to our clan, it will be her life on the line.”

He didn’t wait for Leo to respond but ended the call.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Five

Sometime in the early morning hours, the sandman finally visited. It wasn’t restful. Raja tossed and turned; strange and terrifying dreams plagued him. The turmoil of recent events was playing out in his subconscious.

“Raja, you’re needed in Ty’s quarters.” The ear bud he kept in his ear at all times dragged him from his troubled sleep. When he was off duty, he set it to disturb only for an emergency.

He growled.

“Situation has arisen, and you’re needed. Report immediately.”

Situation? He didn’t waste time changing. He grabbed his handgun from the nightstand and strapped his knife to his thigh before rushing down the short hall to Tabitha and Ty’s quarters.

Felix opened the door. Behind him Ty comforted Tabitha. There didn’t seem to be any immediate danger, but their Queen appeared distraught.

He stood waiting, knowing Ty would fill him in.

“Tabby, there’s no use in you being here. Why don’t you go into the study?” Ty said, trying to calm his mate.

“No. I’m fine.”

“Tab—”

“If I’m to be Queen, I have to face even the worst things.”

“You are Queen, but you don’t have to do this. I won’t argue with you. There’s no time if we’re going to save her.”

Confusion filled Raja; it must’ve shown on his face.

“Hit play and you won’t be so perplexed any longer.” Ty nodded toward the laptop that sat on the table.

He stepped to it and pushed the play button. A young girl filled the screen. Her eyes filled with terror and her blonde hair matted with dried blood. Her pleas, then her screams, filled the room as a man hit her over and over again.

“Bethany here will die unless you give up Tabitha Leigh. We tried to be civil about this and confront you directly. Now we’ll kill innocent women until we have her. If you want the girl to live, drop Tabitha off in front of the Fairbanks International Airport at midnight. Once she’s in our custody, you’ll receive the girl’s location. If you wish to play more games, she’ll be the first of many dead women I leave in my wake.” The terrified look in Bethany’s eyes tore out Raja’s heart. In all his years he’d witnessed some awful stuff and yet nothing affected him like the video did.

“Shit.” He ran his free hand over his face, feeling the slight stubble under his fingertips. “Did you put a trace on it?”

“Connor’s working on it now.” Ty nodded, his arm wrapped tightly around his mate.

“I can’t let her die because of me,” Tabitha said firmly. “If we can’t find where this was sent from, I’ll meet him.”

“The hell you will, Tabitha!” Ty roared.

“That girl has nothing to do with this. She’s innocent.”

“Ty’s right. You would be trading one life for another,” Raja cut in. “There’s no way we’ll allow you to do that.” No matter the cost, he wouldn’t allow his Queen to risk herself. He couldn’t get the image of the girl out of his mind. Something about her called to him and he wanted to find her.

“Raja, I wasn’t asking permission. I won’t let her die in my place. She probably has a family that would miss her.”

“What, and you don’t?” Anger darkened Ty’s voice.

“That isn’t what I meant, and you know it.”

Ty held onto his temper by a thin thread. Since finding his mate, his emotions were more on edge, especially when it came to her.

Meanwhile, the large living room that only a few days earlier held over two dozen of their guards closed in around Raja.

“We don’t have time for this now,” he snapped. “Tabitha, get rid of the thought. It isn’t happening. I’ll lock you in one of the cells until this is over if you even think about leaving the grounds. I’ll do whatever I can to save Bethany, but you’re our first concern.” Raja glanced at his Alphas briefly and then turned his attention to the laptop screen where the girl’s face still stared up at him. He’d find a way to keep Tabitha safe and rescue the girl before it was too late.

“Felix, go to my room, there’s a black box on the dresser. Bring it here. Then find out where Connor stands on locating the transmission.” Raja realized he still held his handgun. His pajama pants didn’t have the elastic to keep the gun at the small of his back as he would’ve preferred. “Grab my gun harness. It should be on the dresser as well.” He turned to his Queen.

“Now, Tabitha, sit down. We need to discuss a few things. While we’re talking, I need some coffee to think straight.” He didn’t bother to ask for some. This was his home away from home. He made his way to the kitchen, with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Pulling the coffee beans out of the freezer, he measured out enough to make a full pot. “I know we’ve told you that if you’re killed before you can carry on your line, then all tiger shifters will cease to exist. So why would you be willing to risk everyone’s life?”

“I can’t let someone die in my place.” Her compassion was commendable.

“Then to save one person you would sacrifice hundreds, if not more, tiger shifters? You have to admit that doesn’t make a lot of sense.” Raja hit the start button on the coffee machine. As the smell of coffee filled the air, he considered their options.

“You should be able to get what I’m saying. You put your life on the line every day to protect the clan.” Tabitha begged him with her eyes, pleading him to understand.

“No, Tabitha.” Ty ended the argument and pulled her into his arms. She lost the fight against her wild emotions as tears flowed freely down her face. Mated couples could calm each other through touch. “You [_will _]stay here. Raja will do what he can. But we have to protect everyone.”

“My Queen, you’re a strong and brave woman, but you are our Queen. It’s our—my duty to protect you. We’ll do our best to save this girl and stop whoever Pierce has behind this abduction, but for us to be able to focus on that we need to know you are safe.” Raja knew it to be a cold comfort, but it was all he had.

The coffee machine had a pause button. He hit it and filled up three mugs before letting it finish its duty. He passed mugs to Tabitha and Ty before claiming his own. The first sip hit his tongue, making him want to purr with appreciation. Strong, dark coffee was a gift from Heaven.

“I’m not going to do anything stupid,” Tabitha stated in a reluctant tone, folding her hands around her own mug.

Just in time. Felix entered, handing over the stuff to Raja.

“Good. Then you won’t have a problem wearing this,” Raja said, slipping the lid off the black box before passing it to Tabitha.

Inside the box was a plain silver bracelet on black tissue paper. Ty eyed him suspiciously.

“A bracelet?” The questioning tone sounded in Tabitha’s voice.

“Yes. It has a tracking chip installed in it. That way we’ll always know where you are. I want it to never leave your wrist.”

“How does it work?”

“It’s an app that I created. I have it on my cell phone and once the tracer is activated, you will show up as a little dot.” He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, hitting a few buttons before handing it to Tabitha. “Tora has one. That’s her dot. Yours would be a different color. We can also install it on Ty’s and Felix’s phones.”

Leaning against the kitchen counter, he watched Tabitha mull the idea over. He knew she was trying to come up with a reason not to wear it, but he wasn’t going to let her off the hook unless Ty decided to back her up.

“I think this is a good idea.” Ty topped off his coffee.

“You would like to see me on a leash.” It wasn’t a question but a statement. “How did Tora ever agree to this?”

“Marcus and I didn’t leave her a lot of choice.” Raja frowned, recalling the events that let up to Tora receiving a tracker bracelet. “Before we moved to Alaska, some of Pierce’s clan attacked. We couldn’t find Tora and thought they got her. Marcus was almost insane with anger. Turns out your mate is pretty good in battle.” Raja chuckled. “Ty got her out of danger. Nearly died protecting her. I can never repay him for saving her that night.”

“It was nothing. You would have done the same if it was the other way around.” Ty’s hand went to the scar that marred his chest from that attack. “Tabby, this will help us keep you safe.”

“So, what do you say? You going to wear it?” Raja pushed the box closer to her.

“I don’t think I have a choice. Ty seems convinced this is necessary.” Reaching in the box, she pulled out the bracelet and put it on her wrist. “Happy?”

Raja leaned over the counter to her wrist. He pulled a little pin from the bracelet, activating it. “Now I’m happy.” Her little dot showed up on the screen of Raja’s phone.

“I’ll get my phone and you can put that app on there.” Ty strolled toward the bedroom.

“Great, now I’ll never get rid of him,” she teased.

Raja let out a heartfelt laugh. “It’s a good thing you don’t want to get rid of him.”

They finished programming Ty’s phone when Felix rushed in, carrying a laptop with Connor’s voice coming out of the speakers. “We got the location.”

Raja’s heart skipped a beat, wondering if it was too late. The pain in Bethany’s eyes was enough to break him. He’d seen a lot of suffering and tragedy, but the video of the girl cut deep into his soul.

“Where are they?” Raja’s voice sliced through the air like a dagger.

“On the other side of Fairbanks. It seems to be a remote hunting cabin.”

“I’ll suit up and leave immediately.” Raja was already heading for the door.

“You?” Ty asked.

“Yes. I’ll scope out the location. See if they’re still there. If not, I’ll track their scent.”

“We can send a team to do that. There’s no reason you have to be the one.”

“It’s something I have to do.” Raja didn’t know how to explain it. He needed to be the one to find the girl and make sure the man who’d hurt her paid with his life.

Tabitha laid a hand on her mate’s arm. “Ty, let him go. Raja, don’t do anything to get yourself killed. We can send in a team. We need you.”

He nodded to them before jogging out the door. He had to get to his room, suit up, and be gone before Ty changed his mind.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Six

“You want to run, don’t you?” Bethany’s captor held her in place by her hair and screamed in her ear. Tears streamed down her face; anxiety clogged her throat and made it hard to breathe.

“Please…” Her voice died when he sat on her chest and wrapped his free hand around her throat.

“Begging for your life, are you? It will do you no good. I only need you for a few more hours and then you’ll be worthless.” He wielded a steel bar. “This will ensure you don’t try to run.”

God help me. He’s going to kill me. Mom, I should have listened to you. If I get out of this, I’ll never doubt you again.

He placed the steel bar to her neck. “I could push this against your throat until you couldn’t breathe. Your death would bring you peace. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”

“I don’t want to die.” She whispered, terrified of aggravating him further.

“You’ll be begging for death before long.” He raised the bar from her neck. Rising, he lifted it above his head.

Every instinct begged her to get out of the way before he used the bar to beat her head in. Fear froze her veins and she couldn’t move. He slammed the bar down on her knee. A ragged scream ripped from her throat. Blinding hot pain pulsed through her and nausea rolled her stomach.

He slapped her hard across the face with his free hand. “Don’t think I’m going to let you pass out. That would be getting off easy. I enjoy the sweet smell of your pain.” He leaned close, breathing in her scent. “We have so many other things we can do.” The lust was apparent in his voice.

Not for the first time since waking up in the strange cabin did she wonder what she was doing there. She didn’t know him and when she asked what he wanted, he terrified her, because he only repeated, your screams, your screams.

Raja settled into position in time to see Bethany’s captor slam a pipe into her knee. He swallowed a roar; he couldn’t alert them to his presence. A surprise attack would be the only way to get Bethany out alive. He stood on the hill, watching the window, trying to determine if there was only one captor.

There was no time to wait for backup. He sent a fast text message to Ty:[_ One man with her. I’m going in. Life or death._]

He familiarized himself with the area, preparing his plan. The girl wouldn’t be able to walk, which meant he’d have to carry her. If others arrived, he wouldn’t be able to defend them and carry her at the same time. So I’ll have to make sure he’s dead and can’t call for backup.

Fighting on two legs required a different style. He holstered his gun, preferring to use a knife when it came to hand-to-hand combat.

Bethany, I’m coming for you. Creeping up to the side of the cabin, he leaned back, lifted his leg, and kicked the door in.

“What the fuck?”

“Get away from her.” When he didn’t move, Raja launched at the other man, and drove him away from Bethany. Tumbling with him across the room, Raja slammed him into the back wall and bounced the man’s head off the logs. “I warned you.”

A citrus scent filled the room. The wildly out of place odor attracted him, punching through his concentration. Shaking it off, Raja focused on his prisoner.

“What do you want?” Blood gushing from his head wound, the captor sagged against the wall.

“Your life. But first tell me who hired you.”

“Hired me?” The captor played stupid as if Raja couldn’t smell the lie on him.

“Tell me who hired you and I’ll kill you quickly. Play games with me and I’ll draw it out for hours, maybe days. Now who hired you?” Raja banged the man against the wall again, hoping to make his point clear.

“It was a friend of a friend who needed me to keep the girl here until they got something they were after.”

“Name?” Raja barely held his fraying temper in check. Bethany’s presence was all that kept him from ripping the man’s limbs off. He could smell her barely hanging on to consciousness behind him.

“The friend said it was for a man named Pierce, but I never met him.” His voice cracked with fear. “Please, man, I wasn’t going to hurt her.”

“You already hurt her!” Raja snapped his neck.

Turning, Raja whispered, “Bethany.”

She tried to scoot away.

“Please…” She inched across the floor, but it was clear every motion sparked a fresh wave of pain.

“I’m not here to hurt you.”

Twisting, she fought to escape, but her knee collided with the floor and she slipped into unconsciousness, his body slumping on the dirty boards.

Now was his chance; he had to get her out of there.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Seven

Raja looked down at Bethany’s prone form with the same longing Ty spoke of after finding Tabitha. The citrus smell was stronger the closer he got to her. She can’t be…my mate.

He needed to get her to a safe location. Grabbing a blanket off the nearby sofa, he wrapped it around her. Her badly injured knee left him no way to carry her gently. Good thing she’s unconscious.

He grabbed his cell and sent Ty another message so a team wouldn’t show up after he left:[_ Girl’s badly injured but alive. Back soon. Have Doc ready._]

Message sent, he lifted her into his arms. It was a short trek to his SUV on the other side of the mountain—short for him, but brutal for her. The sooner he got her to the compound, the sooner the doctor could examine her knee. If she was lucky, she’d be able to walk again.

[What a time to find my mate. _]Danger surrounded him at every turn; adding a human to the mix with no training to protect herself seemed wrong[. _]Hot on the heels of that thought came a swift possessiveness, he wouldn’t—couldn’t let her go. Even in her unconscious state, her pain was palpable and ground into him. He would have given anything to fix things for her, then and there.

A moan escaped her lips, and he sped up, hoping to make it to the SUV before she woke. No such luck. She cried out. Her fear of him was immediately obvious.

“Shhh, Bethany. I promise I’m not going to hurt you. I’m trying to get you help. We’re almost there. Bear with me a little longer.”

“Who are you? How did you know he kidnapped me?” The words rode hard breaths of air, and he almost wished she wouldn’t talk. It hurt her more.

“I’m Raja. He sent the video message to us.”

“Us?”

“It’s a long story. Don’t worry about it right now. Focus on your breathing. I can see the SUV. Almost there. I have a doctor waiting on standby.”

“You’re taking me to a hospital?”

“Something like that.”

“Please, I want to go home,” she moaned.

“We’ll deal with that, but first we need to take care of you.”

The sun was high on the horizon by the time he eased her into the back seat. He grabbed the bag of supplies. “This is going to hurt, but you need to keep your knee elevated.” He slipped the bag under her leg, cringing when she cried out, then reached across and finagled the seat belt, doing his best to lock her in place. Once she was secure, he headed to the driver’s side.

At the compound, Doctor Jacobs—Doc—waited in his medical suite in the main building along with Tabitha, Ty, and Felix. Raja carried Bethany in and laid her on the bed.

“What the hell happened to her?” Doctor Jacobs demanded.

Her left eye was starting to swell shut, her lip was broken and bruised, abrasions and cuts covered her body and her knee—God, her knee was a mess.

Raja growled, and Jacobs took a step back. Everyone stared at him.

“Shit! She’s your mate,” Ty exclaimed. “I can smell it all over you.”

Raja didn’t say anything. No point in denying it, but he wasn’t ready to admit it. He was having a hard time coming to terms with it himself.

“Out,” Doc ordered.

“What?” Hostility surged through Raja.

“You heard me. If you’re her mate, I want you out of here.”

“Being her mate gives me more reason to stay.” Raja refused to abandon her, leaving her helpless and alone.

“Doc’s right, but she’ll be fine, I swear,” Tabitha soothed, sidestepping closer to him and Bethany. “Being her mate will only make this harder for you. We can’t delay treatment. I’ll stay with her and when she wakes up, I’ll make sure you’re here.”

“There’s no choice in the matter,” Ty said firmly. “I’m ordering you out. You won’t risk this girl for your stubbornness. I would hope you’d do the same for me if Tabitha was in that bed.” Sympathy thickened his voice.

Raja ground his teeth. “I’ll be right outside and I want to know the minute she wakes up.” He stalked out the door, his heart breaking with every step.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Eight

“Raja.” Tabitha woke him with a gentle touch along his arm.

He lifted his head slowly, needing a moment to orient himself. He was on a sofa in the clinic area. “Bethany?”

“She’s out of surgery and resting comfortably. I thought you might want to be with her when she wakes up.”

He shot to his feet, desperate to be with her. Being apart tore at his insides.

“Raja,” Tabitha said, laying a hand on his arm. “Don’t overexcite her. Give her time to recover before you scare her with the mating thing. She’s been through a lot.”

She was right, but it would be damn hard to keep it from her. A mate thrived under the other’s touch. Bethany had no way of understanding and he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from touching her for long. Hell, he knew what to expect and it terrified and thrilled him in the same breath.

“One last thing. Doc says if you stress her out, you’ll be removed. She just had surgery and needs to rest. Don’t make it any harder on her.”

The order irked him. “I can handle my own mate.” He ran his hand through his hair. “I’m sorry, Tabitha. I’m not used to this possessive attitude.”

“Adjusting to the mating is the hardest part, but it will happen. Go be with her. I’ll be back later to check on her. Being surrounded by big burly men can intimidate a girl. I’m sure a friendly woman’s face will help.”

“Thank you.” He smiled at her before hurrying to the private rooms.

When he stepped inside, he spotted Bethany, whose still form looked so small and fragile in the large bed. Her face was as white as the blanket covering her. He sat in the chair next to the bed, wrapped her hand in his and lowered his head.

My mate. He loved how that flowed through his mind. Will she accept me once she finds out what I am? Can I claim my rightful spot with her when I know the danger it will put her in? If not, am I strong enough to walk away from her?

The questions plagued him. He knew the answers to two out of three. He wasn’t strong enough to walk away from her, no matter the danger it would put her in. He would protect her with his life. Could he convince Bethany she was meant for him, that they belonged together? That was another story entirely.

It hit him like a bear at full speed what Ty must be going through with Tabitha. The constant fear that he could be the reason that his mate was in danger weighed heavily in the pit of his stomach.

“Bethany, believe in me and I’ll make you the happiest woman alive. I’ll protect you with my life. Don’t turn away from me when you find out what I really am,” Raja whispered.

Bringing her knuckles to his lips, he placed a timid kiss there.

Raja paced the small room, feeling like a caged tiger. The walls seemed to close in with each passing hour Bethany lay unconscious. The nurse assured him it was the drugs from the surgery and nothing to worry about. That did nothing to calm the raging tiger inside him. His mate was injured and he could do nothing but sit and wait.

Waiting wasn’t something he handled well. He needed action.

A soft moan came from the bed. In two quick strides, Raja advanced to the bedside, taking her hand in his. “Bethany, you’re safe. Come on, open your eyes.” She didn’t seem to have moved; he was beginning to think he’d imagined the noise.

Until he heard it again.

Finally, her eyelids fluttered as if she were desperate to see her surroundings.

The room was more like a bedroom than a hospital. Shifters healed fast; medical attention was only required at a minimal level. When they crafted the building, they wanted it to feel like home, not a hospital. They didn’t have a large medical staff, only what they needed, including Doc, and could take care of anything including performing surgeries.

“Come on, sweetie. That’s it.”

“Where am I?” Her voice was rough, scratchy. She struggled to take in her surroundings.

“You’re somewhere safe. That’s what matters.”

All at once, she seemed to realize what he’d said. Her face scrunched up, betraying indignation. “How dare you call me sweetie. I’m no one’s sweetie, certainly not yours.”

“We’ll see about that.” He kept his voice low so she wouldn’t hear him.

“What was that?”

“Nothing. You need to sleep.” He tucked the covers around her.

“This isn’t a hospital.” There was terror in her eyes again. Her hair spread over the pillow, and he wanted to lean in close to sniff the citrus encircling her.

“Bethany, trust me. You’re safe. You had surgery and shouldn’t overdo it. Rest. I promise I’ll be here by your side when you wake up. Nothing will happen to you.”

“You expect me to rest? How do I know you’re not teamed with the guy who took me hostage? Maybe you wanted me all to yourself, that’s why—”

“I killed him? That’s ludicrous. I killed him to save your life, and brought you here. Doc performed surgery on your knee, and you’ll walk again. Why would I risk my ass to save you, only to kill you myself? Why would we waste the time and effort for the surgery if we were going to kill you? If that’s what we were going to do, then why not leave you where you were?”

She seemed flabbergasted by the questions.

“I want to help you. I swear you’re someplace safe,” Raja reiterated.

“I asked you to take me to a hospital.”

“Did you not hear him say he was hired by someone? Whoever it was probably knows you escaped and may be looking for you. It wouldn’t take long to find you in a hospital bed with a busted knee. You would be helpless there, drugged, unable to escape. Is that how you want to die?” Raja knew he was being harsh, but if she didn’t see the truth soon she could cause problems. If she tried to leave, she could get herself killed, and he would be damned if he was going to let that happen.

“I don’t want to die.” Lonely fear laced every word.

“Let me protect you, at least until you’re back on your feet. You have to know you’re helpless in your condition.”[_ Until you’re back on your feet, my ass. It will give me enough time to convince you that you’re mine. Then you won’t want to be anywhere but in my arms. I hope…_]

She watched him, her terror giving way to something inscrutable. He couldn’t tell if she was angry he wanted to protect her—or that she was helpless in the first place. Maybe both.

“Bethany, you need help. Let me help you.” He reached for her hand, and she didn’t pull away.

She nodded, still fighting to keep her eyes open. “I don’t seem to have much choice.”

“Rest. I’ll be here keeping you safe. I won’t leave your side.” He rubbed his thumb over the back of her hand in small circles.

A sizzle of electricity passed from his hand into hers, making her eyes fly open.

“What was that?”

“Sorry, I think I shocked you.” Finally, a sign she’s truly my mate.

“It felt like I put my hand in an electric socket.” Her voice dulled, heavy with sleep, and her eyes closed again.

“It just startled you, that’s all.” The jolt of electricity was what he needed. She’s mine.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Nine

“How is she doing?” Tabitha asked from the doorway. Her mate stood behind her, his hand resting gently on her hip.

“Better. I think I convinced her I’m not going to kill her.” It had been too long since he’d had a restful night’s sleep, and it had taken a toll on Raja.

“I can sit with her a while if you want to lie down.” Tabitha stepped into the room.

“Thank you, but I’d rather just sleep in the chair. I promised her I wouldn’t leave and lying to your mate probably isn’t a good way to start.” He tried to smile, making light of the whole thing but Tabitha didn’t buy it.

“I understand, but you won’t be any good to her or us if you’re worn out. You know where I am if you change your mind, send me a text and I’ll be down in minutes.”

His Queen was right but leaving his mate when she needed him the most felt like betrayal.

“Ty, if I could stay with her until she’s awake, I’ll get another guard to watch over her so I can deal with my duties.”

Ty held up his hand. “It’s fine. Your mate needs you. If things change with the Pierce situation, you might need another guard to watch her. But for now stay with your mate, and get some rest. I need you at your best if there’s an attack.”

“Thank you, sir.” His Alpha’s concern and understanding touched him.

“The sister is arriving tomorrow afternoon. I’ll want you in on that meeting. Tabitha and her guards can watch over Bethany then. I’m sure some female bonding time will be good for her.”

Raja nodded. He had to be at that meeting. Pierce’s sister might provide information they needed. He couldn’t let finding his mate jeopardize the clan; taking Pierce down was imperative.

“I did bring you this. I know sitting around waiting for someone to wake up isn’t the best part.” Tabitha handed him a bag he hadn’t realized she held. “I thought you might want to be able to work. It might help keep your mind off things and bring us one step closer to Pierce.”

“Thank you. I appreciate it. I was starting to climb the walls.” He placed the bag on the bedside table, knowing he would find his laptop and notes in it. Tabitha was always well-attuned with the needs and desires of others.

“Lukas’s brother sent another transmission. You should find it in your email. Unfortunately, this one wasn’t in time to stop Bethany’s abduction.”

A growl escaped before he could get hold of it. “Did he mention her by name?”

Ty shook his head. “But it implies she’s the first of many.”

“With a little luck, having to find another to do his dirty work will slow him down…the guy who kidnapped Bethany won’t be any use. He’s dead.”

Neither Tabitha nor Ty said another word. Ty nodded, and the two of them left.

Killing was only done when necessary—and they all knew Bethany’s captor had to die.

It was after eleven o’clock at night when Bethany woke and found Raja asleep on the chair next to the bed. His neck canted at an uncomfortable angle, his hand still wrapped around hers, a laptop on his lap.

[_He didn’t leave. If he wanted to harm me, would he really be sitting here passed out in the chair, holding my hand? _]Something was different about him; he hadn’t been entirely straightforward. Earlier, his face held such concern for her. She wondered why he would care about her.

She caught a glimpse of her cell phone on the nightstand. If I can only reach it without waking him, I can call home. Angling slightly, careful not to jar the bed, she reached out.

Her fingers closed around the phone when a throat cleared behind her. She almost dropped it in her haste to move away.

“Planning to call someone?” Raja watched her as if she was under a microscope.

“Umm…” She swallowed and tried to look at something other than his eyes; his gaze seemed to peer right into her soul. Why was she drawn to him when she should be scared of him? After all, he had brought her here against her wishes.

“You’re not a prisoner, Bethany. You can call someone without sneaking around.”

“Well, then…” She unlocked the phone and pulled up her contact list.

“How about you wait? If you’re calling your family, it’s past four in the morning there.”

Her hands dropped in defeat.

“What are you going to tell them anyway?”

“Umm…” She hadn’t thought of that. [Shit, what _]am[ I going to tell them?_]

“Wow, you have it all planned out, don’t you?”

She glared at him, irritated. “I’m going to ask my father to come get me. He can fly out here and help me get home.” Proud she was able to come up with something so quickly, she wasn’t quite sure it was true. Would she be able to tell her mother she’d been right, that she needed to be saved? She’d be hearing about it until the end of time.

“Are you going to tell them you were kidnapped? How your knee got busted?”

“What do you care what I tell my parents?” Frustration filled her. Damn it, I just want to go home.

“I care because I killed the man who did this to you, remember?”

“If you’re worried I’m going to turn you in, don’t. You helped me when I couldn’t have done it myself. I’m trying to rid you of the problem. I’ll tell them it was a snowboarding accident.”

“I’m not worried about myself. I’m worried about you. You leave here and you’ll have a bull’s-eye on your back.”

“I don’t see how it matters whether I’m here or back with my family. This asshole will still want me. At least back home I have the upper hand. I know the lay of the land and have people who will protect me.” She leaned back against the pillow.

“No one can protect you like I can. Plus, we’re already on the trail to finding this bastard.”

“Oh, a macho man who thinks he’s the only one good enough for the job.” She let a puff of air out, blowing the hair away from her face.

“I don’t think so. I know so.” He growled at her.

She sank back into the bed, wishing it would swallow her whole. Anything to get away from him.

“I’m sorry,” he added quickly. “It’s just that I don’t want to see you hurt worse or possibly killed.”

“Oh, and you think I do?”

“You’re sure as hell acting like you don’t value your life very much.” He set the laptop on the stand and stood. “If you would just trust me, we’ll deal with the situation while you’re recovering, and then you can do what you want.”

She’d met him at the worst possible point in her life; how was she supposed to trust him when her whole sense of trust had just thrown out the window? “Who is we?

“There are a group of us that live here together. I don’t know how you got dragged into this, but the man behind your kidnapping is someone we’ve been hunting for a while. He’s very dangerous and has killed before. He wouldn’t lose a night’s sleep over taking anyone’s life—yours included.”

“What did you do to him?”

“It wasn’t what we did to him. It was more like what he did to us. It’s a long story.”

Anger twined with pain in his voice. She wondered what’d happened that made him hurt like this. “Tell me.”

“Another time.” He reached up and tied his hair back with a leather strap. “How are you feeling? Are you in pain?” She understood his need to change the topic, and for now she let it slide. She didn’t have the strength to fight him.

“Not real pain. I feel drunk more than anything.”

“It’s the pain medication. It will make you think you can fly if you let it.” He smiled down at her for the first time.

“You have a beautiful smile,” she noted; it could’ve lit up the darkest room. “You should use it more often.”

“You’re starting to sound like Tora.”

I can’t believe my luck, he’s married. She glanced at his left hand, but saw no wedding band. Not every man wears his ring. I should know that better than anyone.

As if he’d caught her looking, he added, “Tora’s my sister.”

“Your sister?” She couldn’t keep the surprise out of her voice.

“Yes. She’s married to Marcus, and they have a beautiful daughter named Scarlet.”

Happiness and love filled his voice. His whole being seemed to come alive when he spoke of them. “You seem close to them. How old is Scarlet?”

“I am. Tora and I have been through a lot together over the years. Scarlet’s fourteen months, and she has her Uncle Raja wrapped tightly around her little finger.”

It wasn’t hard to imagine him as the doting uncle. She loved children and hoped to have some of her own one day. “I can tell how much you adore Scarlet. Any children of your own?”

“Not yet.” He laughed. “Someday I’d like a few dozen.”

“Dozen?” Shock rippled through her at the multiplication of her thought.

“Yeah, why not?”

She let out a heartfelt laugh. “You better find a few very understanding women to give you that many. I doubt one woman would want to go through a dozen pregnancies.”

“I guess when I find the right woman, I’ll take as many munchkins as she’ll give me.”

Uncomfortable, she tried to readjust, and pain shot through her.

Raja closed his hand over hers and the pain subsided.

“What just happened?” A fresh wave of surprise pulsed through her.

“You’re not due for a pain pill for another hour, but if you’re in that much pain I’ll get Doc. Surely there’s something he can do for you.”

“Raja, you ignored my question. You know what I’m talking about. Answer me.”

“It’s nothing.” He sat back in the chair he’d recently vacated.

“Don’t tell me it’s nothing. It’s something and you don’t want to tell me.” She wanted him to touch her again, make the pain disappear. She didn’t know how it worked, but it felt wonderful.

“Can’t we talk about something else?”

The pained look in his eye made her think he might be right; it wasn’t time for her to know. A sensation passed over her that she couldn’t deny. Something odd was going on here.

When she said nothing, he asked, “What do you do back home?”

She shrugged. “Nothing too exciting, just a secretary at a local office.”

Chuckling, he rubbed his hand over the stubble on his chin. “That doesn’t sound too bad. Sometimes I wish my life weren’t so exciting, but I guess we all have our own issues we have to deal with.”

“I guess we all want our lives to be different than they are. I always wanted something more exciting. The daily routine of office work is just so boring. I wanted an escape, so when I thought I won this trip I jumped at the chance.”

“Excitement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

“I see that.” She nodded to her leg. “This may sound crazy, but even with what I went through here, it still beats another day in that office, behind a desk.”

“If you’re so unhappy there, why don’t you do something else?”

“Like what? It’s a small town, there’s not much to do. Plus, I never enjoyed school, so I’d rather not go through the whole college route.”

“There’s got to be something you enjoy that you could make a living at.”

“I enjoy baking.”

“See, you could open up your own bakery. Or at the very least, work in one.”

She chuckled. “What are you, a career counselor? Opening a bakery takes money I don’t have.” She shook her head. “I’m not even sure that’s what I want to do. Maybe I just want something different than what my mother had. She grew up in the same small town my family lives in now, and worked at a doctor’s office until she married Dad. I don’t need anything glamorous, but I do want something more exciting.”

“I’ll see what I can do about excitement. For now, it’s time for you to rest.” Like a true gentleman, he lifted her hand and kissed it softly.

Before he walked away, he eyed her as if there was something he wanted to say. He was hiding something from her, she was certain. She had a sinking feeling that when she found out what it was, she’d be floored; there were some heavy secrets around this place.

This one was sure to be a doozy.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Ten

How am I supposed to tell a human who knows nothing about shifters that I’m her mate and can help take away her pain? This is insane. It could expose us all. Tabitha is in enough danger, she doesn’t need more. Raja rose and paced around the small room.

“What is your problem, why won’t you be straight with me?” Irritation laced Bethany’s voice, mirroring the agitation he could feel building within.

“Bethany…” Raja growled and stopped, reining in his temper. “You don’t understand what you’re asking. This involves more than just me.”

“If you’re not going to be straight with me, I’d like you to leave.”

“Everyone wants something, but babe, you don’t have a chance in hell of getting that. So get some rest and we’ll deal with the rest of this crap tomorrow.” Raja stopped at the foot of the bed, glaring down at her.

“I don’t want to sleep.” But her body betrayed her. Her eyelids drooped and she tried, but failed, to stifle a yawn.

“It’s the best thing for you. The faster you heal, the quicker you’ll get back on your feet.” Her eyes closed heavily. “Sleep, my sweet Bethany,” he whispered as she drifted off.

I wanted a mate with spirit. He just hadn’t expected her to be fragile or broken or so determined to assert her own authority when he met her.[_ A full human to boot. How am I supposed to handle this?_]

The hair on the back of Raja’s neck stood up. Glancing behind him at the doorway, he found Shadow standing just beyond the frame. Shadow may have barely turned twenty, but her life had been hard before she came to their clan. She spent much of it on the street, working odd jobs to keep food in her stomach, and had only come to the clan recently. Yet, she still possessed a childlike innocence to her. She tried to find the good in everyone, but to get on her bad side was dangerous. She could be as vicious as any male shifter in a heartbeat.

“Shadow, what are you doing here so late?”

“Doc asked me to look in on the patient. He mentioned she was human and wanted to make sure there wasn’t anything going on inside her that his tests wouldn’t show.” In her oversized University of Alaska sweatshirt and leggings, she looked more like a college student then one of their best guards.

Doc didn’t mean medical. Shadow wouldn’t have been useful in a medical emergency. Her abilities lay in the psyche.

“So the rumors I heard are true?”

“I don’t know what rumors you’ve heard, sir. But I’m sure not all of them are true.” Reserved, Shadow spoke in a low tone. At least she spoke. When she first arrived, she never said a word.

“I’ve heard you can tell everything about a person from looking into their soul—everything from their past, future, and even their destined mate. True?”

“To a degree. I know their conscious and unconscious minds. If I have met both of them, then yes, I know who their mate is even before the mating ritual takes place. I cannot say I know everything about a person. People are surprising creatures.” She stepped into the room, nearing the bed. She closed her eyes, and her long dark hair fell forward, blocking her face from Raja’s view.

“Doc has nothing to worry about. She is and will be fine.” She walked to the doorway and paused. “Sir, may I speak freely?”

Raja nodded. If she didn’t feel it was important enough to risk the wrath of an Elder, she wouldn’t have asked.

“Be up front with her. She can handle it. Subconsciously, she already knows of shifters.” With that, she left Raja alone with his thoughts.

Is Shadow right? Can Bethany handle the truth?

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Eleven

She woke to find a strange woman sitting by her bedside, and Raja nowhere in sight. Great, he decided to take my advice and leave. Why send this woman…unless I’m a prisoner here.

“Morning, Bethany.”

Wow, someone is excessively chipper. She glanced at the bedside clock—two in the afternoon. It was too late to call her parents. They would have already left for the weekend trip to their mountain cabin and would be unreachable for the next few days.

“Raja left me with detailed instructions,” the woman continued. “I wasn’t supposed to wake you. He said you needed your rest after a rough night.”

“He’ll be back? Who are you?”

“I’m Tabitha. Yes, he should be back shortly. He’s meeting with my sweetie and some of the…um…employees.”

“I don’t mean to sound rude, but why are you here?”

“He asked me to sit with you in case you needed something. Doc says you can’t put any weight on that knee for at least forty-eight hours. With you stuck in bed, having someone here with you seemed like a good idea. Plus after being stuck with Raja all this time, I thought you could use some girl bonding.” Tabitha let out a laugh.

Bethany might not be a prisoner, but she couldn’t get up and leave either. She lay back against the pillow with a sigh.

“If you prefer I left—”

“No, you’re fine. I just hate being stuck in this bed.”

Tabitha nodded. “I bet you could talk Raja into taking you out of this room for a while when he gets back.”

Bethany gave her a smile. Tabitha meant well, but Raja…she didn’t want to deal with him if he couldn’t be straight with her. If she was supposed to trust a stranger, he needed to be honest with her. “I doubt that. Raja and I don’t see eye to eye,” she grumbled.

“He can be stubborn, but he’s a good man and has his reasons for his actions. Anything I can do to help you deal with him?” Tabitha leaned forward, reaching for the bedside water pitcher.

“I doubt that.” She thought about the night before as Tabitha poured them each a drink. “I’m not in some voodoo colony or something, am I?”

The woman let out a musical laugh. “I’m sorry. What gives you that idea?”

“Something that happened last night. It was weird.”

“You mean the pain left when he touched you?” She handed her the cup of water.

“How did you know about that?” Bethany eyed Tabitha.

“Raja was still grumbling about it when I came down here.”

“What caused it? It was the weirdest sensation.”

“Bethany, I would like to tell you. To explain everything to you and be able to answer all your questions—”

“But you won’t,” Bethany interrupted.

“Correct. Raja will be back soon, and he’ll tell you everything. It’s something you should hear from him. However, I can tell you this. Something similar happened to me, but I wouldn’t change the outcome for the world. Trust in Raja, and you won’t be disappointed.”

Doubtful, Bethany tired of the run-around and leaned her head back against the soft pillow.

A floor above, Raja fought to keep his temper from blowing. Pierce’s sister, Jessica, worked his last nerve. “Your brother killed people, do you realize that? He’ll keep killing unless you help us.” He slammed his hand on the table, making the papers jump.

“He’s still my baby brother. I don’t want to see him killed because of what your kind did to him.” Jessica sat there in near tears, fingering the bottom button on her jacket.

“Miss Black.” Ty sat down across from her. “Your brother isn’t killing out of revenge. He’s killing because he knows no other way. He was never taught the way to handle the beast inside him. In time, the beast took over. He’s not the man you remember. He’s suffering; the beast is making him insane. He’s rabid.”

“He’s still my brother,” she argued.

“I wish I could agree with you. I wish I could tell you there was hope for him. But you have to know deep in your soul there’s nothing you can do for him. With your education and training, you have to realize he’s lost.” Ty leaned forward in his chair, meeting her gaze.

“I won’t give up on him.”

“Miss Black, if there was anything I could do to help you save your brother…if you would’ve come to me sooner I would have done it, but that time has passed. It isn’t too late to protect the innocents.”

“You people are [_not _]innocent. Look at what your kind did to Pierce.” She yelled, tears sliding down her cheeks.

“The shifter who attacked your brother was rogue. Like your brother, he let the beast take control. Once we were aware of the situation, the subject was terminated. The former leader tried to help your brother, and in return for his efforts, he and his wife were killed, leaving an innocent child an orphan.”

Those deaths were news to her. Shock blazed in her eyes like lanterns on a dark night and she clapped a hand over her mouth. Pierce likely only told her things that would make her feel sorry for him, not anything that might turn her against him.

“I need some time,” she relented.

“We’ll have a guard show you to your room. All we ask is please don’t contact Pierce. We have innocent women and children here.”

She nodded and stood.

“Miss Black,” Raja called as she neared the door, “don’t wait too long. Pierce will attack again, and I’d hate for another innocent woman to be caught in his wrath. The next one might not be as lucky as Bethany.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twelve

“She slept the whole time?” Raja headed straight for Bethany as soon as the meeting ended and Ty followed in his wake.

“No, she was up for a bit. She’s impatient about what happened last night. Tell her, Raja.” Tabitha’s face softened with love as she rose, almost flowing to her mate’s embrace. Before he met Bethany, Raja hadn’t realized how much he envied that connection.

“I will, but I’m not waking her up to tell her.”

“It doesn’t look like you have to, she’s waking anyway.” Ty clasped Raja’s shoulder, a show of support before ushering his mate out.

“Cowards!” Raja called to them, earning a matching pair of smug smiles before they closed the door.

“Tabitha left?” Sleep laced Bethany’s voice.

“Yeah. You’re stuck with me now.” He handed her a glass of water.

She took a long drink, watching him over the rim, then handed him the now empty glass in return and wiped the back of her hand against her mouth. “It could be worse.”

“I don’t believe that was your sentiment last night.”

“Speaking of last night—”

“Wait a moment, Bethany. We can discuss that, but first I need you to understand that what I’m about to tell you will come as a shock. There’s no easy way to tell you, and I’m taking an enormous risk by doing so. Hundreds will be in jeopardy if this gets out. Worse, we would become prey and likely exterminated if the government learned of our existence.”

“Raja, you make this sound like you’re some escaped lab experiment or something. You helped me, and whatever it is, your secret is safe with me. Please tell me what the hell is going on.”

He wanted to believe her. He needed to believe. Revealing their secrets went against every ounce of his training, but he couldn’t live with lying to his potential mate. Trusting Shadow and Tabitha, he sucked in a deep breath. “I’m a shapeshifter, a tiger to be exact.”

She raised an eyebrow, clearly suspicious. “Is that like a werewolf?”

“Were-animals can only change according to the moon. Shifters can change at will.”

“Prove it.” Challenging him, she was beautiful and formidable even with her injuries.

“Now?” Raja asked, confused that she wasn’t demanding he take her to the nearest airport. Shouldn’t she be freaked out about this or something?

“Yes, now. You said the moon doesn’t control you. If it’s true, then do it. Or are you a few marbles short? Maybe you need to be placed in a padded cell.”

“I’m not mental.” He growled at her. For the first time in days, he let his inner tiger spring free. He usually saved his shifts for his evening runs, allowing the tiger the freedom they both wanted. Letting the tiger out invigorated his soul.

Doing as she asked, his body shifted and reshaped into the tiger form. Relief banished his discomfort and anxiety. On four legs he experienced only freedom, as though his human form were a tight pair of shoes he wanted to slip out of. Shaking out his coat, and tossing away what was left of his shredded clothes, he padded over to Bethany, nudging her hand with his nose.

He studied her reaction, expecting to see horror and found only wonder. Her eyes lit up with excitement, instead of the panic he had imagined.

“No way!” Bethany touched the top of his head and ran her fingers through his fur. “I always thought Dad was off his rocker. He said things like this existed, but I never believed him. He told me one day I would find out for myself.” Laughing, she used her nails to massage his head, scratching around his ears. “Guess he was right. Can you understand me when you’re like that?”

He purred, delighted and relieved at her response.

Raja wasn’t sure how long they stayed like that. He was perfectly content in his tiger form, with her rubbing his head. He felt almost like a big housecat as he leaned against the bed and let her pet him while she chatted on about her father’s stories. Shadow’s scent drifted up the hallway and he turned to face the door, ready to defend his mate.

“What is it?”

Shadow stepped in.

“I brought you a pair of scrubs. It’s all we have down here. There’s an emergency meeting in the conference room in ten minutes. Tabitha and her guards are on their way.” She set the scrubs on the chair before hurrying away.

Raja shifted, his back to Bethany, slipping on the scrub pants before turning to face her. He eyed the shirt, knowing it wouldn’t fit, and left it on the chair. “I’m sorry. I’m sure you have a ton of questions. I promise I’ll answer them when I get back.”

She nodded. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know, but it’s nothing for you to worry about. You’re safe here.”

“Tabitha, is she—”

“I don’t have enough time to explain that one. Ask her.” The worried look in her eyes tugged at him. “Bethany, you’re safe here, I swear,” he repeated.

“But am I safe without you?”

“You’re worried the others here will attack you?”

“No. I’m wondering if anyone else would protect me like you can.” She played with the edge of the blanket, her face flushed, refusing to meet his gaze.

He wanted to say that no one could protect his mate as well as he could, but he’d already pushed his luck. Better to let her absorb all of this in stages. The Alpha and Lieutenant’s mates were guarded and protected against all threats. They were the Elders of the clan, but telling her this wouldn’t ease her concerns and would only leave her with more questions.

“Tabitha is the Alpha Female. She has some of the best guards on her at all times. Nothing will happen in this room with the two of you here. I’ll be back soon and when I do, there’s more we need to discuss.” Before he could talk himself out of it, he bent down and placed a gentle kiss on her lips. The kiss didn’t send her heart racing, but it was enough to wash her fears away. “I’ll be back soon.”

He reached for his weapons, strapping the knife to his thigh. He’d carry the gun because his shoulder holster lay shredded with his clothes. He’d have to grab his spare while he was upstairs.

Before he could move toward the door, Tabitha entered with Adam and three other guards. Their gazes met briefly. She walked past him toward the bed, whispering so only he could hear, “There’s another video.”

Shit!

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Thirteen

Raja found Ty, Felix, Marcus, and Thomas sitting at the conference table looking shell-shocked. Connor worked on a laptop at the other end, paying no mind to anyone else. The silence hung heavily over the room; the coffee in front of everyone remained mostly untouched. Whatever was in the video had to be unspeakable. These men had seen terrible things in their lives, but now they sat before Raja looking defeated. This isn’t good.

Sitting in the last chair, Jessica Black crunched into a ball. Her body shook violently with silent sobs as she hugged her legs tight against her body.

“There’s another video,” Ty said quietly, coming to stand next to him.

He nodded. “Tabitha said. That bad?”

“Worse.”

“Have Connor put a trace on it, and let’s get a team there. Maybe we’ll get lucky again.”

Ty shook his head morosely. “Connor’s tracing the place it was sent from, but we know where the video was filmed, and it’s too late.”

“Too late?” Raja didn’t want to believe it. But Ty avoided eye contact. “I need to see the video.”

“It’s not necessary.”

“I think it is. Ty, what aren’t you telling me?”

“The attack was in Virginia.” Ty’s gaze fell away, as if waiting for Raja’s rage.

“Spit it out.”

“It’s Bethany’s family on the video.”

His heart sank. “Are they…?”

Ty nodded. “It’s too late.”

“I want to see the video.”

Rather than sit in front of the laptop, Raja wished he could bolt to the bathroom to throw up. The fact that he was about to watch the murder of his mate’s family made it that much worse. They warned him it wasn’t easy to see. These men, whom he’d been in battle with, who fought to protect the compound, were shocked. Whatever he was about to watch would haunt him just as it haunted them—more so.

“Was it sent to Tabitha again?”

“Jessica received it this time. Someone saw her with Leo and Connor.”

He couldn’t postpone it any longer. He slid the headphones over his ears and hit the play button.

A family room came into view, the sun shining in the windows, illuminating the photographs. Bethany at graduation in her cap and gown, standing next to people he assumed were her parents. Another of her and her sister at an amusement park. The camera scrolled through the pictures lining the mantle, pausing on each of them for a brief moment.

“Bethany’s happy family, or so it would seem. Do you think anyone ever told the girls their uncle is a raving lunatic? I doubt it, but tonight everyone will know. Tonight the family will have to face the beast their uncle created.” The words were thick with hatred, and he recognized Pierce’s voice immediately.

The video went black, then focused on three people sitting down at the dinner table.

“This will be the last meal they enjoy as a family. Tonight their life will end as mine did all those years ago. Poor Bethany will be begging for me to kill her when I find her.”

The camera cut out again, only to come back to show the father’s throat slit and the women tied to the kitchen chairs. The forgotten food scattered across the clean kitchen floor.

“The man wasn’t worth my time. Tonight’s about the women. They’ll suffer, begging for me to kill them before they finish serving their purpose.”

He stopped narrating from behind the camera, fixing it to the table and going to the youngest. She couldn’t be older than seventeen; he pushed her long brown hair from her face giving the camera a good view of her. Fear radiated from the girl’s eyes as she wiggled in the chair trying to get away from him. Sniffing her neck, Pierce whispered, “How good you smell. I’m going to enjoy you.”

The mother attempted a scream through her gag, begging for her daughter’s life. Pierce responded by grabbing a Bowie knife off the table and throwing it at her. It found its home buried deep in her chest, below her breast.

“The fear pouring off your body smells so good. I’m going to enjoy this.” Pierce’s face contorted, and his fangs extended. He bit a chunk out of her neck. She violently fought against the ropes to get away, desperate to survive. He bent, licking his way down her arm until he was out of camera range. Coming up, he spit two of her fingers across the table.

He pushed the chair back enough to give a full view of the girl. He ran his hands, claws replacing his fingers, across the girl’s stomach. “I’m going to gut you and bathe in your blood.”

Tears welled in the girl’s eyes, as she looked at the camera, her gaze screaming for a mercy that would never come.

His claws broke the girl’s skin. Blood gushed out, covering her legs before splattering against the floor. Her eyes closed, and her breath became shallow.

“She won’t get off that easy.” He reached behind him, pulling out a bag with small white tubes in it. Cracking one open, he ran it under the girl’s nose. “Smelling salts.” He laughed.

The torture of the girl went on for what seemed like hours, but in reality lasted only minutes. Raja stared at the blanched face of his mate’s sister wishing her death would come swiftly if only to spare her.

Pierce’s voice filled the earphones again. “I wish I had more time to play with you, Momma. Nevertheless, you suffered enough watching your little girl die. Know this, I’ll hunt Bethany down and do the same to her.”

The woman looked defeated. All the fight gone from her. She had a hard time breathing, as the knife in her chest must have punctured a lung.

He sliced the woman’s throat, spraying blood across the camera lens. The woman slumped in her chair as Pierce picked up the camera and tried to wipe it off.

“Dear sister of mine. You have betrayed me. Going to the ones I despise the most. Know I’ll find you too. I might not make you suffer, after all, you’re family, but your life will still be over. Tell me, was it worth it?”

With that, the video ended. Raja leaned back in his chair and roared.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Fourteen

Hours later the conference room was empty except for Raja and Ty. Felix had left moments before to join Tabitha and Bethany, leaving the men alone.

“Do you want Tabitha and I to stay when you tell Bethany?”

“No. I’ll do it alone. Her father used to tell her stories of shifters, but I don’t think she knows they were part of her family.”

“If she does, she might be able to give us an idea of who he’ll target next. I have the West Virginia Tigers looking into possible relatives and connections, but it will take time.”

“I’ll see what I can find.”

“Raja, I know what you’re thinking and the answer is no.” Raja stared at Ty until he continued. “You can’t sit there and tell me you’re not thinking of going after Pierce yourself.”

“I want to be on the team that takes him down.”

“No.”

“What do you mean no?”

“Exactly what I said. You’re too valuable to the clan. Tabitha and Bethany would never forgive me if I let something happen to you. If he attacks the compound or us then yes, you’ll be expected to fight, but as my Lieutenant, you aren’t on the front lines any longer. Especially on this one.”

Raja growled. He couldn’t believe his ears.

“Growl all you want. Face it, you’re mated now. Our numbers are too low to toss away a mated couple.”

“Don’t give me that crap.”

“You wouldn’t support my decision to go into the front lines either, and the whole reason he’s targeting us is because my mate could be the end of the tigers.”

“You are Alpha. You’re not supposed to be in battle.” Raja snarled, getting to his feet.

“You’re my Lieutenant and valuable to the clan. Without you and Bethany, Tabitha cannot complete her mission to bring all the tigers together. Your mating was one of the steps the book mentioned that needed to be completed.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Raja narrowed his eyes.

Tell you that you had to mate for things to go forward? Seriously? You would have fought the mating at every crossroads. You said you wanted nothing to do with a mate. Now, my friend, you have no choice. Your mate is downstairs waiting for you.”

“I’m not sure she’ll be ready to accept me after I give her the news of her family,” Raja admitted, before sliding his hands into his pockets trying to calm his nerves.

Raja was in a battle he wouldn’t win, unless he wanted to fight Ty for dominance, which he did not intend to do. There has to be a way around it without bringing Pierce to the compound.

“We heard a roar. What’s going on?” Bethany asked, panic filling her voice.

“Tabitha, Ty’s in the hall. I need to speak with Bethany alone.”

“If you need anything, Raja can reach me.” Tabitha stood, giving Bethany’s hand a squeeze before leaving.

“What’s going on?”

He closed the distance between them in three quick strides, taking her hand into his. “I told you before we received a video, which is how we knew you were taken. Connor, our wolf computer geek, was able to trace it.”

“What does that have to do with the roar I heard?”

“We received another one.” Raja dropped into the chair next to the bed, his head in his hands.

“Then go save her like you did me. I’m fine. I don’t need you hovering when there’s another life in jeopardy.”

Raja looked up, grief clogging his throat. His heart broke for her. The news he had to deliver was horrific, with no easy way to say it.

“Raja…” Concern thickened her voice.

“It’s not the same.” He took a deep breath, saying a silent prayer for the strength and words to tell her.

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, Bethany.” He leaned in close to the bed, wrapping his hands around her small, delicate ones. Nothing would be the same for her ever again. “It’s your family.”

“What about them? They’re home in Virginia, safe. Right?” When he didn’t answer, she dug her fingers into his palm. “Tell me what’s going on. You’re starting to scare me.”

“The man who ordered your kidnapping, Pierce…he attacked your parents’ home.”

“But they’re fine, right?” She pulled away to grab for her cell on the nightstand, tears already gleaming in her eyes.

Raja recaptured her hands, not letting her reach the phone. “I’m sorry.”

“No, you’re wrong. They were supposed to go to the cabin, they wouldn’t be home. You have to be wrong.” Her voice broke as she pleaded with him, tears spilling down her cheeks.

“I watched the video myself.”

“Jamie? Is she okay?”

“I’m sorry.”

Bethany sobbed, her shoulders trembling. Raja stood, setting his gun on the nightstand. He eased himself on the bed next to her, careful not to disturb her injured knee, then wrapped his arms around her. She snuggled into his embrace, and he held her as she shuddered with grief, wishing he could take this pain away as easily as the physical agony.

After a few minutes of uncontrollable tears, she turned her head away, leaving a wet spot, but he didn’t mind. She tilted her head up to look at him. “I want to see the video.”

“No!” He growled.

“I want to see it,” she stated with more determination.

“It’s out of the question. I won’t let your last memories of your family be tainted by their murders. Bethany, please leave it be. I won’t have it.” He growled again, his tiger pacing furiously inside him.

“I have a right.”

“Please…” He wanted to yell at her to make her drop it, but it was the last thing she needed.

“It’s that bad? You were roaring.” Her voice cracked.

Raja nodded, unable to speak.

“I’ll have to go home…to deal with things.”

“We’ll make arrangements, but we have to wait for the police to contact you. If not, they would want to know where you received your knowledge. The clan has to stay hidden.”

“Why can’t we take the video to the police?”

“He shifts in it.”

“To keep your secret safe, my family dies in vain? No justice for their murders?” Her voice was accusatory as she pulled away from him.

“Your parents and sister will get justice. I’ll see to that. This is bigger than you, or even your family. He killed Tabitha’s parents years ago. We have been hunting him for a long time.”

“He gets to run free for years? If someone would’ve fought for Tabitha’s parents, maybe mine would still be alive!” Grief and helplessness collided in her torn expression.

“Bethany, you know nothing of the situation,” he spat at her before jerking his emotions under control. “We have been searching for him all these years. Hunting him every time a lead comes up. Until recently, we thought—hoped he was dead. We’re working hard to find him and take him out of the equation.”

“Why did you think he was dead?”

“He waited for Tabitha. She’s coming into her tiger, and he wants to stop it. That’s what brought him out of hiding.”

“What does she have to do with any of it?” She shivered as if chilled.

“Come here.” He rubbed her arms, hoping she would relax in his embrace. She rested her head against him, tears dripping onto his chest. She belonged there. Her body fit snugly against him. “It’s a long story.”

“I don’t have anywhere to go.” She sounded so small, desperate.

Maybe the story could help distract her. Distract him. Paltry comfort that it might be. “Tabitha is our Queen. If she dies before she can carry on the line, legend has it that we’ll all die with her.”

“She’s a tiger?”

“She will be. She has the tiger in her but hasn’t completed the change yet. You can feel it when you’re around her that she’ll shift soon.” He ran his fingers up and down her arm.

“You can?”

“A shifter can. Humans wouldn’t know or understand what to look for.” He rolled his shoulder as he told her more about his clan and the people he considered family. She was his mate and not only did she have to accept him for what he was, she also needed to accept the clan.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Fifteen

Bethany finally fell asleep in his arms, leaving him unable to get anything done. Usually, sitting still made him restless, but with Bethany in his arms he experienced contentment. He enjoyed the feeling of her body next to his.

Tabitha entered the room with the Captain of her Guards, Felix. “Ty told me what’s in the video. I wanted to make sure she’s all right.”

“I don’t think she’s all right, but she’s dealing with it the best she can. She wants to go home, to take care of things.”

“I expected as much. However, Ty and I have spoken about this and don’t feel it’s wise at this time.”

Raja’s body stiffened, unable to believe what he was hearing. He didn’t plan to let her travel home alone. He and a handful of guards could go with her. “You’re asking her to miss her parents’ and sister’s funerals?”

“Not exactly. We were hoping she would agree to have the bodies flown here. Ty wants to send a team from the West Virginia Tigers to search for evidence. We need to discuss this with her immediately. We also need you to find out about the uncle. See what she knows about him.”

“Give me some time with her to see what I can find out about, and then we can discuss her family’s arrangements. I’m assuming you would prefer not to wait, but she’s struggling here.”

“Okay. You have forty minutes. I’ll bring Ty back then. Unless you want to bring her upstairs. Doc agreed to allow her to move into one of the guest rooms.”

“She can stay in my quarters,” Raja barked.

“I guess that means you’ll bring her upstairs, then?”

He nodded.

“Good. We’ll see you in forty minutes in our quarters.” She didn’t give him time to change his mind, sweeping out with Felix in attendance.

“Love,” he whispered gently, rubbing has hand against her cheek. She moaned. “Love, I need you to wake up.”

“Hmmm,” she moaned, half asleep.

“Come on, love.”

“Love?” Her eyes snapped open, but there was no anger in her voice.

“Yes, you are my love.” He trailed his hand over her cheek before lowering his head toward hers and kissing her. “Now that you’re awake. Do you have an uncle?”

“Dad has a brother, but I haven’t seen him since I was a child. Why?”

“What’s his name? Do you know where we can find him?”

“What do you want with him?” She questioned.

“Pierce mentioned him in the video. If he isn’t part of this as we believe, then he’s in danger.”

“Uncle James was always more of a loner. I don’t know where he is now, but I remember Dad saying he had a cabin in North Dakota. But what would my uncle have to do with it?”

“I’m not sure yet, but we will figure it out. I’ll see if Connor can locate James. We have to meet with Ty and Tabitha upstairs. Doc said you are doing better and can move to your own room. I’d like you to stay in my quarters. You’ll have your own room. I want you close so I can protect you.” Raja slipped out of bed and grabbed his gun.

“Why are we meeting them?”

“To discuss your plans to travel to Virginia.” He steered a wheelchair close to the bed. “We’ll try to get you on your feet tomorrow with crutches, but tonight you’ll have to use this.” He slid his arm under her legs and the other one behind her back, lifting her. When he stood with her in his arms, as if she weighed nothing, he snuggled her into his body. “I know this isn’t the best time, but I’m in love with you, Bethany.” He kissed her again, this time deeply and passionately. It came so naturally to him.

He felt her body tense when he spoke, but as his lips met hers the tension fell away. She kissed him back, wrapping her arms around him.

“I’m so sorry for your loss.” Tabitha said, bending to give Bethany a hug. “We’ll see they receive justice, we won’t stop until Pierce has been taken down.”

The open space of Ty’s quarters left Bethany feeling exposed. The room had a masculine feel with soft touches that had to have come from Tabitha. The deep red walls made the white and black furniture stand out, while the dark wood of the tables and television stand tied everything together.

Bethany nodded, holding tight to Raja’s hand as if he was a life raft, while tears threatened to fall. I will not cry again.

“Let’s get this over with. Bethany needs to get her leg elevated,” Raja announced, using his free hand to wheel her toward the sofa where Ty and Felix stood.

“What’s this about?” Bethany ran her sweaty palm over her thigh. “If you’re concerned I’ll tell your secret when I leave, there’s no need. Raja saved my life and keeping his secret is the least I can do.”

“That’s not what worries us. We’re more distressed for you and your loss. We understand you wish to travel to Virginia.” Ty stood next to the sofa, his arm around Tabitha. Even entangled with her, he still held an air of danger and foreboding.

“Yes. I’m the only one left and would need to make arrangements.”

“Bethany, I know this is hard right now, and the last thing you need is another shock.” Ty slipped his arm from Tabitha and came around the sofa to stand close to Bethany. “I would like to send in a team of shifters to search for evidence to help us locate Pierce.”

“I’m sure the police will handle that.” She shook her head, unable—unwilling—to understand the reason behind it.

“They’ll miss things. Not because they are inadequate but because they don’t have the abilities we do. Shifters can pick up his scent, and track him. The police won’t be able to give you the justice you deserve.”

“I doubt you could arrive before someone contacts the police.” It was a feeble argument, but she didn’t have much in her—not after learning of the death of her family.

“Not from here, most likely. However, there’s a clan in West Virginia. The Alpha and some of his best guards are already on their way.”

“You were going to do it with or without my consent, is that it?” Her voice was low, but anger roused beneath the grief in her belly.

“We were hoping to gain your permission.” Tabitha moved to stand next to him, gently rubbing her arm across Ty’s lower back before he encircled her in his arms.

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

“You’re right, it doesn’t.” Ty smiled weakly. “I can’t give you a direct answer. Yes, the men would have checked the outside of the home to see if they were able to detect a scent. If they felt it was imperative to go inside, then yes, the order would have been given to do what was necessary.”

Bethany stared at him, unsure of what to say. She appreciated his honesty, yet he informed her as what, a matter of courtesy?

“You have to understand this is about more than just you. More innocents will be killed unless he’s caught. Do you really want their deaths on your conscience?”

A soft growl came from Raja as he placed his free hand on Bethany’s shoulder. She shook her head. “I don’t want to see anyone else die at his hands, but I would also hate for your men to go to jail for destroying evidence. Do whatever is necessary.”

Ty nodded to Felix, who stepped away from the group and pulled out his cell phone.

A teakettle whistled from the kitchen. Tabitha leaned forward. “Adam is making us hot tea. I thought it would be better for you than coffee with your medication. I always enjoyed tea on cold winter nights.”

“Thank you.” Bethany didn’t care about the tea; she wanted this over. She wanted to be alone with Raja again, to cuddle with him on a sofa, or better yet in bed, his arms around him. She wanted to feel his body against hers, her hands on his chest. She was drawn to him as a heroin addict is drawn to the next needle. His touch was all she desired; she wanted it to help her forget her loss. She wished she could look at him, but that meant he would have to move—and the potent desire to stay in his arms wouldn’t leave her.

“I asked Raja to speak with you about your uncle. I’m assuming he did.” Tabitha’s gaze went from Bethany to Raja, who was still standing behind her.

“Yes. I don’t understand what my uncle has to do with any of this. So he’s mentioned in the video. What does that matter? Anyone could search my family tree and find out my father had a brother.”

“He wasn’t just mentioned…” Ty eyed Raja. “Pierce said, ‘Tonight the family will have to face the beast their uncle created.’ That’s the only lead we have to go on. It might tell us why this happened to you.”

“What would my Uncle James have to do with any of this?”

“I don’t know,” Tabitha said as Adam brought in a tray with tea and cookies. He placed it on the coffee table. “Thank you, Adam.” Tabitha made her way back to the sofa across from Bethany and Raja, her hand still in Ty’s, making sure he followed her.

Tabitha scooted toward the edge of the sofa, grabbing her mug and a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie. “Raja, will you please hand a mug to Bethany and help yourself?” She took a sip of tea with eyes closed. “Tell me about your uncle.”

“I don’t know much. Dad always said Uncle James didn’t like to be around people.” She took the mug from Raja and held it. The warmth felt good in her hands.

“Any idea why?”

“No. I haven’t seen him since I was a child.”

“When I told you what I was, you mentioned your father spoke of shifters before,” Raja said gently, rubbing her shoulder.

“Yeah. He told us bedtime stories about shifters growing up. He said shifters—well he didn’t use that exact word—existed, and one day I would find out for myself. I never believed him until you.” She reached up, placed her hand over his again and squeezed gently. “How did he know?”

“I suspect your uncle might be a shifter.” Ty knelt before her, as though doing his best to break the information gently.

Bethany eyed Ty, wondering if she heard him right. My Uncle James a shifter? Nah. “I don’t think so. My father wasn’t, and they were full-blooded brothers.”

“If one parent is a shifter and the other isn’t, there’s a fifty-fifty chance the first child will be. From there, the odds go down with each child. Who is older?”

“Uncle James.”

“It’s possible your uncle is a shifter and the active gene wasn’t passed to your father,” Raja said before turning his attention to Ty. “I’d like to ask Connor to search for her uncle. It’s possible he’s in danger.”

Ty nodded. “Go ahead.”

Bethany raised her hand, interrupting. “Wait a damn second. What the hell do you mean he’s a shifter? Does that mean I’m one as well?”

“No. In order to be a shifter, one of your parents would have to be a shifter. You still carry the recessive genes, but you’ll never shift,” Raja explained.

She sat there dumbfounded. How could all this be in her family tree, yet her father never told her?

“There’s one more thing we would like to discuss with Bethany before she goes,” Ty said.

“I’ll wait. Connor can get started once you’re done here.” Raja rubbed Bethany’s shoulder, reassuring her he was by her side.

No one argued with him, but the tension in the room rose. Behind her, Raja went still.

Ty didn’t mince his words. “We’d like to have your family’s bodies sent here.”

“You what?” Bethany shouted. If she could have stood, she would have jumped out of her seat with anger.

“Please hear him out,” Tabitha begged.

“I thought I wasn’t a prisoner here. I told you I wouldn’t share your secret. What more do you want from me?”

“We haven’t lied to you. This is to protect you.”

She glared at Tabitha, hatred pouring off her in waves.

“Pierce is expecting you to return home, grief-stricken and injured. You would be easy prey. We can’t guarantee your safety in Virginia. We can give your family the proper ceremony here and still keep you safe.”

Bethany sat in shock, shaking her head. “You knew about this?” she demanded of Raja in a whisper.

He stepped to the side of the wheelchair, and knelt beside her. “Tabitha briefly mentioned it. I wasn’t aware of the details. I know it’s a shock, but think about it. It would keep you safe here with me to protect you. You don’t stand a chance against Pierce, especially in your condition.”

“What about family and friends? How would I explain it?”

“You could say your parents didn’t want a memorial service,” Ty explained. “The one here would be kept quiet. An announcement in the papers would need to be made for your family, and loose ends would need to be dealt with, but we can help you.”

“My family wanted to be cremated…my…my parents’ ashes…buried together once they passed.” Her voice was full of unshed tears.

“Whatever arrangements you want can be arranged here. You can save your family’s ashes until you find the spot you wish to bury them. We’re not doing this to punish you for knowing our secret, we’re trying to protect you. Your parents wouldn’t want you to die.” Ty leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees.

“I understand.” She blubbered before taking a deep breath and trying to calm herself. “This is all too much. I’ll need my cell phone in order for the police to reach me. Only my family knew I was in Alaska, and even if they found out where I was, they would expect me to be at the hotel, not here. I want to rest now, if that’s all.” She wanted to be alone; she didn’t know if she’d ever be able to stop crying. The deaths of her family sank in, tearing her apart, until she wasn’t sure she could go on.

“I have it.” Raja patted his pocket. He turned to Ty. “She’ll be in my quarters if there’s anything else. I’ll let you know when the call comes through.”

“Very well. I’ll let you know when we hear from the West Virginia Alpha,” Ty promised as Raja wheeled her toward the door.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Sixteen

“Are you comfortable?” Raja asked as he pulled the blanket up from the bottom of the bed.

“This is your room, isn’t it?”

“Yes. The guest bed isn’t made, and I wanted you to be able to relax—if you can.” He brushed the hair away from her face. “You need to get some sleep.”

“I’m not tired.” She yawned. “Maybe if I give myself up to Pierce, he would kill me quickly and you could trap him. Then he wouldn’t be able to kill anyone else.”

“Don’t even speak like that.” He sat on the edge of the bed. “You won’t sacrifice yourself. We [_will _]catch him.”

“But…”

“He wouldn’t do it quickly.”

“You don’t know that.” She twirled her finger around the sheet.

“Trust me, I know.” He growled.

She watched him closely. “How do you know?”

He pushed off the bed to pace the room that seemed to be closing in around him.

“Answer me, Raja.”

“There was nothing quick about what he did to your sister.” He hated telling her. “I don’t want to see the same thing happen to you.”

She cringed and sank deep into the mattress. The stench of her fear filled the room and grabbed his tiger’s attention. “I’m sorry, Bethany.” He stepped back to the bed and took her hand in his. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“He…he tortured her.” Her voice was raw with fresh agony; she was barely able to get the words out. Her body shook as she sobbed.

He crawled into bed next to her. “I’m sorry, love. I won’t let anything happened to you,” he whispered, holding her close. He kissed the top of her head.

“My baby sister…oh, poor Jamie.” She wept as Raja held her.

She wanted to yell, scream, to fight anyone and everyone. But nothing would bring her family back. She wanted Pierce dead, but even with the bloodlust she knew his death would be an empty one; it wouldn’t resurrect her parents, her sister.

Damn it! Why did I come here? If I’d have been home I could have… Oh what am I thinking? I’d be dead, too.

Raja pressed his cell to his ear. He slipped out of the room while Bethany slept.

“Connor, could you come to my quarters? I need to speak with you.” Raja closed the bedroom door behind him.

When Connor agreed, he ended the call and clipped the phone back on his jeans. He booted up his laptop, placing it on the coffee table before making his way to the kitchen for another cup of coffee. Caffeine won’t sustain me much longer. I’m going to need to get some sleep soon if I’m going to be of any use to Bethany and the clan.

He filled his mug, and the aroma gave his mind the kick-start it needed. Even so, it wasn’t enough to keep his eyes more than half-open.

He stood, mug in hand, looking out onto the compound. A few children were having a snowball fight in the courtyard of the main building. The fluffy white snow flew through the air, as kids dove out of the way, laughing. Finding Bethany had made him more aware of what a dangerous time it was for tiger shifters. He had the obligation to protect not only the clan members but more importantly Tabitha and now Bethany. Those children out there depended on it.

His senses opened to allow him to smell the wolf, Connor, coming down the hall. He didn’t want Connor’s knock to wake Bethany. Rest was the best thing for her, and it gave him time to deal with Connor; if anyone could find her uncle, it was him.

Mug in hand, Raja opened the door. “Thank you for coming. Can I offer you some coffee?”

“No, thanks.” Connor was the epitome of a true computer geek, his light brown hair messy, his ruffled dress shirt and jeans looking as if he slept in them. He appeared ill at ease, but then, nearly everyone did these days.

“Come sit down,” Raja said, moving away from the door toward the sitting area. “I have a task for you.”

“Whatever I can do to help.” Connor took a seat on one of the cushioned armchairs.

“My mate, Bethany, has an uncle. We believe he either is a key to all of this or is in danger. We need you to locate him.”

Connor nodded. “I remember he was mentioned in the video. Monitoring the transmissions coming from Pierce’s camp, I’ve never heard any mention of him. Do you think he could have been the one who bit Pierce?”

“It’s unlikely. Rogue shifters are normally the ones at fault. The uncle doesn’t seem like a rogue, but my guess is he might know who did it.”

“I understand. What information do we have to go on?”

“Very little, unfortunately. Bethany hasn’t seen the man since she was a child. Her father said he was a loner and had a cabin in North Dakota. His name is James Thompson.”

“I’ll get to work and let you know when I find anything.” Connor stood.

Raja nodded, too tired to rise to his feet, his eyes heavier than before he’d had the coffee. Connor shut the door and Raja set his mug aside. Resting his head on the back of the sofa, he let his eyes close.

Bethany’s hotel room. When the call comes in, I’ll have Shadow go to the hotel and get Bethany’s things. We’ll make it look like she’s going to Virginia. Maybe Pierce will fall for the trap and the West Virginia Tigers can catch him.

He tapped Ty’s number on his phone and told him the plan. He could contact Lukas’s brother Jinx and start putting things in motion. The task completed, he let himself drift into a troubled sleep.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Seventeen

The sun shining through the curtains woke Raja. He found himself tightly holding Bethany, his gun digging into his side, still in the same clothes from the day before. Memories flooded back to him. In the middle of the night, Bethany had cried out for her sister Jamie, tearing at his heart. He went to her, crawled into bed and wrapped his arms around her, trying to bring some comfort.

He eased off the bed, careful not to disturb her.

“Where are you going?” Bethany asked, her voice deep with sleep, holding tightly to him.

“My gun…it’s digging in.”

“Take it off. Please stay with me. I need you.”

“Shh, love.” He ran his thumb over her cheek. “I’m not going anywhere. There’s nowhere I’d rather be than right here with you in my arms.”

He slipped his gun out of the holster, and set it on the nightstand within easy reach. Most of the guards carried guns even if they could shift back and forth at will. It saved any embarrassing situations that could arise from someone seeing a tiger roaming free, and the naked moments after they changed back.

The bright pink cell phone next to the gun rang. His stomach sank. This was most likely was the news they were dreading, informing her of her family’s demise.

“There’s no need for you to do this. I can handle this for you.” He closed his hand around the cell; they both knew who was calling without having to answer.

Beside him, she nodded, and he hit the talk button.

“This is Bethany Thompson’s phone. Who is this?” Raja sat on the edge of the bed, grateful Bethany could only hear one side of the conversation, hoping it was enough distance to avoid her hearing any of the details about their murders.

“Detective Davis with the Virginia State Police.”

“Detective Davis, I’m sorry. She’s unavailable at the moment. I’m Bethany’s fiancé, Raja. What can I do for you?” In his peripheral vision, he could see surprise on her face when he said fiancé.

“My information shows Ms. Thompson is travelling, is that correct?

“She’s in Alaska with me. I’m not sure what this has to do with anything. What is the nature of your call?”

“There’s been an incident tonight in Virginia and I’m calling to make notification to Ms. Thompson.”

“She had a snowboarding accident and has just come out of surgery, she’s unavailable to take phone calls. What sort of incident are we talking about, Detective?”

“I’m sorry to have to inform you, her parents and sister were found in their home tonight. Based on their condition, we have opened an investigation.”

He rose and paced to the window as Detective Davis went over some of the details of the murders, reminding him of the horrors he’d seen in the video. They knew it was coming, yet hearing the words from the detective made it even more real. It left a sick feeling in his stomach.

“There must be a mistake,” Raja answered. “Why would anyone want to do that to the Thompsons? Did you catch whoever did this?” He didn’t have to feign the shock, the terror lacing his voice, but he played it up for the officer.

“The person responsible is still at large, but we have officers following up on call tips, as well as doing a door to door canvas.”

“Find the person responsible. When Bethany wakes we’ll discuss arrangements and call you back. But since her family wanted to be cremated and the services held here, I don’t see any reason why Bethany would need to return. Any paperwork that needs to be signed can be faxed, or dealt with through my lawyer.”

The detective apologized again.

“Thank you. We will be in touch shortly with arrangements.”

He ended the call and went to his mate, who wept uncontrollably with her head in her hands.

“I kept hoping it was a nightmare,” she gasped, her voice raw and husky from sleep and crying.

“I’m sorry, my love. I’d take away your pain if I could.” He wrapped his arms around her.

“I’m alone now. I have no one.”

He leaned back, prying her from his chest. “You have me. I’m not going anywhere.”

“You only feel sympathy for me because I’m injured and my family was murdered. I don’t need your pity.”

“I’m in love with you. Sure, I have empathy for what happened to your family, but I’ve been falling in love with you since I first laid eyes on you.” He rubbed her back, trying his best to soothe her.

This only made her cry harder, sobs shaking her body.

“What’s wrong? What did I say?”

“Why now?” She pulled at her hair, as if trying to climb out of her own skin. “The timing is all wrong.” She dissolved into an almost soundless whimper, as if the grief straining to get out couldn’t.

“I know the timing could have been better but I have you now, and I’m not going to let you go.” Pulling her close, he tucked his chin against her hair and held her.

He’d hold her for as long as it took. His touch might lesson the sting of grief but nothing would take it away. She’d have to work through it, to accept it and eventually when Pierce was eliminated it would help bring her closure. Until then all he could do was be there for her each and every step.

“Raja!”

“In here,” he called.

Tora breezed into the kitchen with Scarlet happily bouncing on her hip. “Here, go visit Uncle Raja for a bit.” She passed the bundle of joy into her brother’s arms.

“How’s my favorite girl?” he asked Scarlet, kissing her check. Holding his niece chased away the grief and loss from the last few days.

She snuggled her small body against his chest. When Scarlet started to purr, Bethany inhaled deeply, reminding him she wasn’t used to shifters.

“Don’t mind her,” Raja said. “Shifter children tend to allow their animal nature to come through. They don’t understand that it’s unsafe. That’s why the children rarely, if ever, leave the compound.”

“We have a certified teacher here to educate the children as well,” Tora added, sitting down at the table across from Bethany.

“Tora, did you stop by for a reason or just to pawn your daughter off on someone?” He reached into the fridge for the root beer his sister favored. Raja despised the sweet drink, but he adored Tora so he kept it on hand at all times.

“I came to see the woman my big brother mated. I never thought I’d see the day—” She stopped mid-sentence when Raja turned, shooting her an angry look.

“The woman he mated with?” Bethany queried, looking perplexed.

“Umm…you didn’t…”

“Not yet, Tora,” Raja snapped. “She’s gone through enough in the last few days.” He growled, causing Scarlet to stiffen in his arms. He rubbed her back to soothe her.

“I’m sorry.” Tora cringed as she cracked the tab of her root beer.

“Someone tell me what the heck is going on?” Bethany exclaimed, throwing her hands in the air. “What do you mean by mated?”

“I think I should make my exit now. Come on, sweetie, we’ll leave Uncle Raja alone.” She reached for Scarlet. “Welcome to the family. I’m sure we’re going to be great friends when you forgive me for the bomb I just dropped.”

Tora strolled out of the kitchen, looking more than a little mortified, before Raja could wrap his mind around how his sister always managed to take a simple situation and make it a disaster. Bethany sat there glaring at him, waiting for an explanation. He wasn’t sure if she’d listen, or just want to run. If it weren’t for her injury, she might’ve been out the door by now.

“More to drink?” Raja asked.

“Don’t even try it. Mated?” Her tone was terse, demanding.

“It’s a term shifters use.” Raja plopped down in the kitchen chair. Defeated, he let out a sigh. “Shifters don’t date like ordinary people. We have mates. Our tigers know who they are, even when we don’t want to admit it. Unusual things happen when we find our mate.”

“Unusual things?”

“Things like this.” He touched her hand, and focused on relieving her pain.

“My knee, it’s—” She gasped.

“The pain is gone, I know. My touch relieves your pain. As your mate, I can feel your emotions and your pain as if it’s my own.”

“But mating…isn’t that…isn’t it supposed to be sexual? It sounds sexual.” She flushed with embarrassment.

“Oh, it will be.” He chuckled. “With everything you have gone through, and your injuries, I won’t rush you. I desire to make you mine, the tiger in me wants to claim you completely, but I’m trying to give you the time you need.”

“Could someone else claim me as a mate in the meantime?”

He shook his head. “We believe shifters only have one mate. Sometimes they will have more than one mate, but they are found at the same time. The mating cannot be completed until the mates have joined together. If two out of three come together they will feel a piece is missing. I’m your only mate, and my scent is on you. No one in their right mind would try to claim you. It would be seen as a direct challenge to my authority.”

“Your authority? Over me?”

“I’m Ty’s Lieutenant, second in command. It would be a challenge to my position within the clan.”

“What happens when there’s a challenge?”

“You fight to the death or until one submits. With Ty’s position and mine, it’s a fight to the death. You can’t have the old Alpha or Lieutenant around if you want to take over the clan.” To him, it was as if she asked about the weather outside—simple, a part of life.

“You could…die?” Her voice was brimming with sorrow.

“We all die sooner or later.” He shrugged.

“How can you sit there as if it doesn’t matter?”

“It’s the way of life, but I have no plans to die anytime soon.” He set his coffee aside and leaned across the table. “Especially now that I found my mate.”

“But—”

“Love, there’s nothing to worry about. Someone would only challenge me if I appear weak. If I’m weak, then it’s their right. Clan life is survival of the fittest. I’m around for the long haul.”

“What happens to your mate if you are killed?”

“It depends on the situation. If the mate is human sometimes they leave, return to their families. No matter what they decide, women are precious to us and protected at all costs. The mates can stay within the clan, protected, or join another clan if they chose.”

“Wouldn’t the challenger see the mate as a threat?”

“It wouldn’t matter. She would still have to be treated with the same respect that is given to other women of the clan. It’s unlikely they would be seen as a threat. Few women hold positions of power. Shadow is the only female guard we have within the clan. There are a few others in different clans.”

Raja’s ear bud clicked to life, and he heard Ty’s voice. “Raja, a situation has arisen. I’m heading your way with the team.”

“Acknowledged.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Eighteen

Raja cleaned the kitchen table off quickly to allow the team to gather there. With a fresh pot of coffee already brewing, he placed the last of the dishes in the dishwasher before facing Bethany again. “I’m not sure how long this will last. Do you want me to help you into the bedroom and you can rest, or would you rather sit on the sofa and watch television?”

“Is that a nice way of saying I’m not welcome?”

“No. It’s a nice way of saying this isn’t something that would be enjoyable and if I were you, I would scram.” He snorted. “When situations like this come up, they’re not for the faint of heart. I’m sure it’s not anything you need to deal with.”

“But if I wanted to stay?” She still sat at the kitchen table, watching him.

“Then you’re more than welcome.”

“Do you think Ty will feel the same way?”

“He would have asked me to his quarters or to the conference room if he was concerned with you hearing anything. Plus, as the mate of the Lieutenant of the Alaskan Tigers, you are always welcome at the Elder meetings.” He went to her, putting his hand on her shoulder. “I wasn’t trying to get rid of you, as if you were unwanted, but was thinking of everything you have been through. I was trying to shelter and protect you.”

He heard the door in the living room open. Ty hollered, “It’s us.”

“In the kitchen,” he called before bending down to kiss her. “It’s up to you, love.”

Ty entered the kitchen followed by Tabitha, Felix, Adam, and Connor, each with an expression of gloom. Tabitha looked as if she struggled the most; Ty held her as if to comfort her, but the agony was clear on her face.

“Bethany, you’re more than welcome to stay for this meeting, but if you wish to rest, Raja can fill you in later.” Ty took a seat at the end of the table, pulling Tabitha into his lap and wrapping his arms around her.

“I’d like to stay and help in any way I can.”

Ty nodded while the rest of the men took their seats at the table. Adam stood close to the doorway, while Raja took the last seat next to her.

“What’s going on? Tabitha, are you all right?” Raja studied her with increasing concern.

“The change is close. I pleaded for her to stay in bed, rest, but she wouldn’t listen,” Ty explained as Tabitha rested her head against his chest.

“Your touch makes it bearable,” she whispered, her eyes closing as her face scrunched with anguish.

“I know, babe.” He stroked her arm, misery in his eyes. “Connor.”

Connor nodded. “We found James Thompson. He still has the cabin in North Dakota, and it’s his permanent residence according to the records. Your suspicions are true, he’s a shifter.”

“Okay. Send a team there. Bring him back if possible.” With any luck, he’d have the answers they needed.

“I researched him, and I think you might have a better chance at getting what you want if you contact him directly. It’s possible he would come to Bethany if she asked. It would be better coming from her than a team sent to return with him,” Connor advised.

“I think he’s right. Uncle James might be more forthcoming if I contacted him.” Bethany sat up in her chair, tensing. “Connor, were you able to locate a phone number for him?”

“Yes.” He handed her a printed piece of paper. “This is all the information I was able to get.”

“Thank you.”

“We’ll contact him after the meeting.” Raja reached back to grab the pot of coffee that had just finished brewing. The mugs already sat on the table for anyone who wanted coffee.

“Bigger problems still to go.” Ty frowned. “Your turn, Felix.”

“We received another video from Pierce.”

Bethany gasped, squeezing Raja’s hand. He placed his arm around her, pushing his chair closer to her. He wished she’d gone in the other room to rest; she was a strong woman, but it seemed too much for her. The grief in her eyes was laden with terror, fear for her own well-being.

“The video was addressed to Jessica.” Felix spoke as if the words were bitter and distasteful on his tongue. “He desires to see his sister.” He poured himself a cup of coffee before pouring one for Ty, who still had his arms around his mate.

“Why?” Raja could feel Bethany’s tension. They were all thinking the same thing: had Pierce attacked again?

“I’m assuming he wishes to gain information from her.” Felix stirred sugar into his coffee cup before looking back up at Raja.

“Do you think she would betray us, especially after the last video?” Raja rubbed his thumb over the back of Bethany’s hand.

“I don’t think she would do it willingly. We all know he has ways to gather information when he wants it. I’d rather not risk it.” Ty looked troubled, but continued rubbing Tabitha’s arm—maybe to soothe her, but more likely to comfort himself and calm his own tormented thoughts.

“Agreed. What does she have to say about it?” Raja wondered.

“She believes she could get him to surrender.” Felix snorted. “She’s still in denial about what he is.”

“His sister is here? She’s one of you?” Bethany inquired.

“She’s here, but she isn’t a shifter. We sent Connor and Leo to bring her here, expecting she would bring some insight into Pierce.”

“You aren’t concerned she will betray you, giving him the location of the compound or your plans?” Bethany asked. Raja could tell by the way her body tensed that she was concerned Pierce might attack the compound.

“They flew straight into the compound. We have a small runway here, so she wouldn’t know the location,” Ty explained. “Not that it matters since Pierce’s men already attacked the compound shortly after Tabitha arrived. She might still be in denial, but in her heart she knows what he is.”

“Something isn’t right…I don’t feel very well.” Tabitha moaned, grabbing her stomach.

“It’s all right, Tabby. Don’t fight it.” Ty brushed his mate’s hair from her face. “She’s burning up. Felix, get Doc.”

“Maybe she would be more comfortable on the sofa.” Raja went to the sink and ran the dishtowel under cool water for Ty to wipe Tabitha’s head.

Ty nodded, lifting her into his arms.

“What’s happening?” Bethany stood, using her crutches to keep her weight off her injured knee.

“Tabitha’s completing the change and will shift for the first time soon.” Ty carried her into the living room while Bethany followed. “The first time can be painful as your body makes the necessary transitions.”

Ty lowered her to the sofa and used the rag to wipe her face. Her body started shaking uncontrollably as if she was having a seizure. “Raja.”

He went to them, grabbing Tabitha’s flailing legs, as she screamed in torment. “Where the hell is Doc?” His voice laced with concern. He hated to see his Queen in such pain.

“Don’t fight it, Tabby. You’re strong, you can do this.” Ty held her to the sofa. “I need more hands.”

Connor stepped forward. “Not you, Connor.” When a grief-stricken look showed on his face, Ty continued, “Your wolf might spook her tiger.”

Adam waited by the door and Felix went in search of Doc, leaving Bethany the closest. She tossed her crutches aside and balanced herself, placing the majority of her weight on her uninjured knee.

“Hold her head,” Raja ordered as his mate came near.

She finally got a good grip on Tabitha’s head when Doc dashed through the door. “What did you do to my patient? I saw her this morning.”

“Things have steadily gotten worse throughout the day until she bent over with stomach pains.” Ty growled. “We were meeting with Raja to go over some things. We brought her in here when this started. Help her!”

“I can ease the pain, but that’s it.” Doc placed his bag next to the sofa, looking nonchalant and unconcerned; he’d seen a lot of shifters go through their first change.

“What do you mean, that’s it?”

“She’s started the change. If I stop it now, it will be worse next time.” He pulled out a syringe. “This will help the pain.”

“What’s happening to her, Doc?” Raja had a firm grip on her legs.

“It is rare, but her body has transitioned faster than expected. Her tiger wants out, but her body isn’t ready. What should take a few more days is happening before our eyes.” Doc readied a syringe with the drug. “Bethany, let go of her head. I need you to help me with her arm.”

Doc took hold of Tabitha’s flailing arm, holding it straight out. “Hold it still like this. If I don’t get the vein, it will take longer to work.” Bethany took hold of her arm while he tied it off, making the vein stand at attention. “Hang in there, Tabitha. This will help.”

Tabitha roared as Doc pushed the needle in and the plunger down. Slowly the violent movements of her limbs gave way to shakes and then tremors. Bethany’s legs shook as she reached for her crutches, but she was unable to get to them before her legs buckled. Raja reached out and caught her before she could land in a heap on the floor, injuring her knee more. His mate had risked herself and her injuries to help Tabitha; that was major for Raja. Damn, he’d found a keeper in Bethany.

“Will she be all right now?” Bethany whispered as she cringed with fresh pain. Raja placed her in the chair closest to the sofa.

“She still has to complete the transition. It shouldn’t be long now. She’ll have to stay here until it’s over. We can’t risk moving her,” Doc said, closing his bag.

“Connor, I’d suggest you leave. The transition could bring your wolf out and we need you to trace the last video.” Ty sat on the sofa, Tabitha’s hands in his.

“Yes, sir.”

“Adam, stand guard at the door. No one is allowed in.”

“Why don’t you let me look at your knee while I’m here?” Doc suggested, kneeling before Bethany.

“It’s fine.”

“You’re in pain.”

Raja could feel the pain. She did it to help Tabitha. What a woman I found as a mate. He placed his hand over hers. “Let him look at it.”

“He should be worried about Tabitha.”

“I got Tabby. Let him look at your knee,” Ty insisted. “I’d hate to know you did more damage to it helping my Tabby.”

Doc was examining Bethany’s knee when Raja felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Tabitha had called the magic forth, bringing on the change.

“We should have cleared the building,” Raja said, looking at Ty, who nodded in agreement.

“Too late now.”

The room filled with energy, as Tabitha’s soft moans turned into purrs. Hair started to grow over her skin.

“Get her on the floor, if you can. It will give her more room to shift,” Doc said, pushing the coffee table out of the way while Raja and Ty slid her to the floor.

“Don’t fight it, embrace your tiger.” Ty knelt beside his mate, who now lay on her stomach.

Her hands became paws as her body grew, her stunning strawberry fur mixing nicely with white stripes across her back. She rose to stand on her newly acquired paws and roared.

Raja had witnessed others shift for the first time but there was something magical about being there to witness his Queen completing the change. The magic and desire to shift hung in the air, teasing along his skin until he was ready to embrace his tiger and celebrate. The only thing that held him back was knowing his mate needed him and there was still work to be done.

Tabitha’s roars echoed throughout the space and he was sure the whole compound could hear it.

“Do you think that means she likes her new form?” Ty joked.

Tabitha tried to take a step and toppled over.

“It’s from the drugs I gave her. It should work its way through her system in a few moments now that she’s a tiger. Then she’ll be able to shift back when she’s ready.”

Tabitha lay there contentedly licking her paw, observing everyone with her big blue cat eyes.

Once she rested comfortably, Raja turned his attention back to Bethany and her knee. His mate needed his attention now and he wanted to make sure she hadn’t injured herself more. He smiled up at her, pride seeping from him. “You were amazing, my sweet mate.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Nineteen

“We have to trust your uncle isn’t involved with Pierce. Be up front with him but don’t give him too much information over the phone. Our end is secure, but we cannot be sure his line isn’t tapped. We need him to come to us.” Ty sat on the sofa with his sleeping mate’s head in his lap. After shifting back to human form, she fell asleep. Doc thought it was from the stress of the situation and the leftover medication. She had on Ty’s dress shirt since her clothes were ruined, and a blanket covered her.

“I understand.” Bethany twisted the ring on her finger, nerves getting to her. What if Uncle James wants nothing to do with me? What if he’s behind everything and working with Pierce?

“Stalling isn’t going to help your stomach. Let’s do this. I’ll be right here with you.” Raja squeezed her hand as he grabbed the phone. He dialed the number and placed the call on speakerphone, allowing everyone to hear it.

He isn’t home. The phone rang and rang before someone answered. “Hello?” A rough voice came through the speaker.

“Is this James Thompson?” Raja asked.

“Who’s asking?”

“My name is Raja Harrison. I’m here with your niece, Bethany.”

“Bethany—is she all right?” He sounded harried, his voice edged with worry.

“Uncle James?” The words felt strange on her tongue. I haven’t seen this man in over fifteen years.

“Oh, child. I heard what happened to your parents and little Jamie. I was afraid they got you too. Where are you?”

“I’m safe.” She brushed off his question because even though he was family she wasn’t sure he could be trusted. “Do you know what happened?”

“I’m afraid I know who is behind it, yes. I can’t tell you over the phone. You must come to me. I know somewhere you’ll be safe.”

“I’m safe where I am. Uncle James, did you have anything to do with what happened to Mom, Dad, and Jamie?” Her stomach turned at having to ask the question, but she needed to hear his answer.

He sighed. “I know I haven’t been in your life, but how could you think I could have anything to do with the murder my brother and his family?” There was no anger in his voice, only disappointment and sorrow. He’d been crying, too; they could tell. It was clear in the way he spoke, the heaviness of his words.

“I didn’t think you could, but I had to ask. Uncle James, I need answers.”

“I know you do, child, but I can’t give them to you over the phone. It’s not safe.”

“If you’re truthful in what you say, I can arrange for you to see Bethany,” Raja interrupted. “But if you try to harm her, or us, it will be seen as a threat and will be handled as such. I’m sure you’re aware of our laws.” Raja gently rubbed her leg, comforting her.

“I mean her no harm,” James insisted. “She’s the last family I have left. I want her protected. I don’t want to see what happened to my brother and his family happen to her.”

“Very well. You’re correct, it isn’t secure, so no details. Be ready.” Raja ended the call.

“I don’t believe he had anything to do with it.” Ty ran his hand run through Tabitha’s mussed-up hair.

“I agree. I’ll get the pilot and a team to his location straightaway. Might I borrow Adam to accompany Leo? I need to send Shadow and Thomas to the hotel to collect Bethany’s things and check her out.”

“Very well. One last thing, then we’ll take our leave, and you can put the plans into motion.”

“Jinx and his team found a trail. They’re following it. Are you still planning to contact the detective to make arrangements for the family?”

“Yes. I expect he’s gone for the night, but the message and arrangements will be waiting for him. We’ll send the plane and an escort the day after tomorrow. That will give them the time needed to complete their tasks. I’ve asked Tora to put together a small memorial service for the family.”

Tears sprang to Bethany’s eyes. “Ty, that’s wonderful of you, but you didn’t have to. None of you knew my family.” She was beyond words that he would do such things for people he didn’t even know. She lost her family, but she was beginning to feel like she’d found a second one in these people. They accepted her when she had nothing to offer them in return.

“It doesn’t matter that we didn’t know them. You’re Raja’s mate and that makes you, and them, family.” Ty stated it with such simplicity that she accepted it as a fact. “Send Lance as an escort. With his latest blunder he’s off guard duty and needs something to occupy his time. With that, I’ll get my mate into her own bed.” He lifted Tabitha, wrapping the blanket securely around her. “I’ll have Felix bring the blanket back.”

“Jessica wishes to speak with you.” Shadow told Raja as she placed Bethany’s suitcase next to the sofa.

“What does she want?” Raja looked over at her.

“Adam didn’t say. He only asked me to tell you that she urgently wishes to speak with you. I saw him as they were gearing up for North Dakota.”

“She’ll have to wait. I can’t leave Bethany alone.”

“I can manage on my own if there’s something that needs your attention.” Bethany hobbled into the living room, freshly changed into a pair of pajamas that Tabitha brought over for her.

“I’m not leaving you.” He ground his teeth.

“I can try to find out what she wanted, but she’s insisting that she speak with you or Ty. I would prefer not to disturb Ty if possible.” Shadow stood close to the door, unmoving.

“Fine, escort her here. Bethany, I’d like you to remain in the bedroom while she’s here.”

“Why?” She made it to the sofa and was about to sit and prop her knee up as Doc instructed her.

“She’s the one who received the video about your family. She knows what happened to you. I’m not sure she’s ready to face you yet.” He also didn’t want Bethany to have to deal with Jessica; she didn’t need to see the sister of the man who tried to have her killed. Raja watched as Shadow eased out the door. Obviously she didn’t want to get involved.

“What, you’re concerned she’ll try to kill me like her brother did?”

“No. I told you she’s in denial. I’m not sure she wants to face proof of it yet.”

“Well, ready or not she’s about to.” Bethany lowered herself to the sofa and tossed a pillow under her knee. “I’m not going to hide in the bedroom like some scared chick. Maybe seeing me will shake her out of her denial.”

“Or maybe not.”

“If it doesn’t then you’re no worse off than you are now.”

He threw his hands up in the air, unwilling to fight. Or maybe he knew she was right. Either way, she won this round. Is this what mating is like? Giving in to a woman?

“You’re twisting me around your little finger just like Scarlet does,” Raja retorted. “Am I that easy?”

“You want to make the people you care about happy. You hate to see sadness or pain in them. Therefore, you do whatever you can to avoid it. But no, you’re not easy. You’re an honorable, loving man. I don’t know how I managed to catch somebody like you.”

He grabbed another throw pillow, grateful to his sister for insisting on them, and used it to prop her knee higher. “I’m glad I’m not transparent,” he quipped. “Scoot down. Let me sit behind you with my arms around you, and you can still have your leg on the sofa. I want to feel your body next to mine.”

She did as he asked, and he slipped behind her, pulling her close to him, his arm around her as she rested her head on his shoulder. “Comfortable?”

“Umm…Raja, why haven’t you completed the mating?”

The question stunned him momentarily; she’d seemed shy earlier, blushing when mating was mentioned. Now she was boldly bringing it out in the open. “You’ve been through a lot the last few days, and you’re in pain with your knee. I’m giving you the time I thought you needed.”

“I don’t need time, it’s you I need.”

“Soon, love, soon.” Her words filled him with joy, and he buried his face in her hair, breathing in her scent. “They’re coming. You sure you want to do this?”

She nodded as the door opened and in stepped the women. Shadow kept a close eye on Jessica but gave her space so she wouldn’t feel crowded.

“Jessica, what’s so important that you had to see me tonight?” Raja inquired, his voice calm.

“Ahh…umm…” She eyed Bethany with obvious pity.

“Whatever you need to say can be said in front of my mate. If you don’t wish to, then Shadow can escort you back to your room.”

“It’s…I didn’t expect her here.”

“She’s my mate. Now what did you want?” he repeated, unwilling to coddle the woman and her denial.

“Mate?” She shook her head, as if trying to set aside the new information and focus on why she was there. “I was going through email conversations I’ve had with Pierce through the years. I found a few things that might be of importance.”

“What did you find?” Raja relaxed against the cushions; talking to Jessica was like pulling teeth.

“He mentioned a James Thompson. I don’t know who it is, but I recognized the last name.”

“My uncle,” Bethany whispered.

“What about him?” Raja’s thoughts were spinning out of control.

“I’m not really sure. I remember him saying it all started with James.”

“Started with him how?”

“I’m not certain.” She shrugged her narrow shoulders, looking sheepish. “After he was bitten, he said it boiled down to being James’s fault. James didn’t bite him, but somehow he’s tied into it. In all the years since, the name never came up, except in that instance.”

“Okay. We’ll find out how he fits into this. Anything else?” Raja gently fingered the edge of Bethany’s pajama top.

“There’s also a hunting cabin in North Dakota our parents owned,” Jessica continued. “I own it, but never use it. Pierce has a key and goes there when he needs to regroup or hide. It’s possible he’s there, or maybe there’s a clue at the cabin that might help you find him.”

Bethany gasped at the words North Dakota, but when Raja squeezed her arm, she said nothing.

“If that’s all, Shadow will escort you to your room. Give her the address and we’ll get a team to investigate it.”

With Jessica gone, Bethany leaned forward. She was sure she was going to be ill. After everything that happened to her family, and then discovering Pierce might be in North Dakota so close to her uncle, she had to fight the urge to vomit. She didn’t want to lose the last connection to her family she had. She might not have seen Uncle James in years, but she didn’t want anything to happen to him. “We’ve got to do something. Help me save him…please, Raja.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty

“Adam and Leo are an hour out from James’s location. We’ll need another team for Jessica’s tip. I want them to investigate the cabin and if he’s there, wait for backup to arrive. We’ll send in two teams, but more will be sent if he’s there.” Raja stood in Ty’s living room, giving him the update. Bethany was asleep in his quarters with Shadow standing guard.

Ty nodded. “I’ll get the teams on it. When James arrives we need to debrief him first. Bring Bethany here; she can stay with Tabitha and her guards. I don’t want the women in danger if James is tied in with Pierce. I also want Shadow with us. She’ll know if we can trust him.”

“I have a feeling the women aren’t going to be very happy with either of us when we tell them they have to sit this one out.”

“True, but it’s for the best.” Ty snickered.

“What’s for the best?” Tabitha asked, coming out of the bedroom.

“I’ll let you handle this one. I have my own to deal with.” Raja turned to make a quick exit as Ty gave him a dirty look and Tabitha stood with her hands on her hips. He chuckled, closing the door behind him. Now to tell my mate.

While he strolled through the main building back toward his quarters, he took a moment to text Adam: Be on guard. Pierce’s sister has a cabin in ND. He might be there.

Then he sent Tora a brief message: Your big mouth is going to get us in trouble one of these days. He grinned, remembering all the times he’d covered for his sister. Her big mouth had already landed them in some tricky situations in the past.

His cell vibrated in his hand. Tora’s name popped up. She must have taken it well…you’re still alive. You can thank me later.

“Thank her? She must have lost her marbles,” he mumbled, reaching his door as he slipped his cell phone into his pocket.

He found Shadow sitting on the window seat hugging her legs. Even in the dark he couldn’t miss her bright pink leggings and white and pink sweater. The bright color stood out against the darkness of the room.

“Shadow, when Adam and Leo arrive with Bethany’s uncle, I’d like you to attend the debriefing before I allow her to meet him. We want to make sure he has nothing to do with Pierce before we endanger her.”

“Do you think it’s wise to leave her alone?”

“She’ll be with Tabitha and her guards while we meet James.” He leaned against the back of the chair closest to her, whispering so not to disturb Bethany.

“Very well. If I might make a suggestion?”

Shadow was still unsure of herself, especially around the Elders.

“You’re one of our most trusted guards. You may always speak freely and give your suggestions. We might not use them, but we’re always willing to listen.”

Her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes, but it was warm. “She needs her own guards, especially until Pierce is caught. She’s in as much danger as Tabitha. He’ll come after her again if he gets a chance.”

“Funny you should bring that up. I was considering the same thing this evening. Are you applying for the position?”

“I prefer the field, but I could be persuaded, I’m sure.” Her eyes held a twinkle of excitement.

“Think it over and let me know your requirements. I’d like to have you as the Captain of her Guards if interested.” He slid his hands into his pockets. He’d been worried he’d have a hard time convincing her, when all along she’d been interested and hadn’t let on.

“I’ll sleep on it and let you know tomorrow.” She rose, stretching her long, lean body. “Go to your mate and rest. You both need it. I feel something bad is coming this way.”

“Where were you?” Bethany whispered as he tried to sneak back into the bedroom. “Why are you dressed?”

“I had to meet with Ty.” He slipped his gun holster and knife off and laid them on the nightstand.

“Why didn’t you wake me?”

“You were sleeping soundly. I had Shadow here in case you woke.” He unbuttoned his shirt with her gaze on him.

“You should have woken me.”

“And what? Dragged you with me? You need the sleep. You were safe here with Shadow, and I was just down the hall.” He tossed his shirt aside, moving his hands to his belt. “Plus, what I spoke with Ty about wasn’t something you had to be there for. We were discussing sending teams to locate Jessica’s cabin.”

“You’re right. Sleep was better.” She smiled at him. “Now, are you coming to bed?”

“If you want me to.”

“Oh yes. I want you to.” She slid over eagerly, giving him more room to join her.

I want all of you. I hunger to feel your hands on me. But she didn’t speak the words aloud, for fear it was too soon.

He slipped his jeans off, letting them fall to the floor. The moonlight reflected off his toned, muscular body, as he stood before her in only his boxers. His black, shoulder-length hair cascaded around his face, and desire flickered in his piercing green eyes. Perhaps it wasn’t too soon after all.

“Come here,” she whispered, almost raw with need. She lifted the blanket, inviting him in.

He slipped under the covers with her. Lying on his side with his arm propped under him, he studied her.

“What?”

“You’re beautiful.” He played his fingers lightly on her arm.

“I want you.” She felt her cheeks heat with embarrassment.

“We should wait. Give your knee time to start the healing process.”

“I don’t want to wait. My knee will be fine as long as we’re careful. Don’t make me wait, Raja. I need to feel your hands on me.” She leaned her head forward, bringing her lips close to his. “Please.”

He tasted like bold, black coffee, rejuvenating her. His tongue teased her lips open, turning it from passionate into a deep, hungry kiss. His hand ran through her hair, keeping her close.

“Are you sure?” he asked, breaking away from the kiss, reaching for her nightshirt.

“I’m sure.” She leaned forward, allowing him to slip the shirt over her head. “I need you.”

He tossed the shirt away and kissed her neck. He rubbed his cheek against her neck, like a cat nuzzling her.

“What are you doing?” She laughed as his hair tickled her.

“Marking my mate. I want my scent all over you. You’re mine.”

“Hum.”

“There will be no going back from this. You’ll be mine. If you have reservations, we should deal with them first.” He rested his head in the hollow of her neck.

Mating. “I have no doubts when it comes to you. I love you, Raja.” It didn’t matter that it happened quickly, he was the only part of her world that made sense right now.

“Good, because you’re my world. I love you too.” He kissed her. He slid his hand deep under the covers, gliding smoothly down her torso until he found her sweet spot. His fingers slipped between her lips, entering her core, tantalizing her with yearning.

“These must go.” She hooked her hand in his boxers, and tugged.

“All in due time, my love.” He winked at her. “I want to enjoy every moment, feel every inch of your body against mine.”

She adored when he called her love. It was something so simple yet made her feel completely cherished. She wasn’t sure when the connection between them had bloomed but it had developed into a fierce bond.

She groaned. “You made me wait this long and now you’re going to take your time?”

“Yes,” he teased with a wicked grin on his face.

“If I didn’t have this damn brace on my leg, I’d roll you over and take control of the situation.”

“You could try, but shifters are stronger than humans. Now lay back and let me enjoy myself, bring you pleasure, or I could draw this out longer.”

With no visible choice, she leaned back against the pillows, watching the moonlight bounce off his chest. There was enough light coming through the window to allow her to see him. She had no doubt he was able to see better than she could. Will he like what he sees?

“You’re beautiful.” He took her nipple in his mouth, sucking gently, before letting it slide out again. His cool breath made her nipple harden.

She raked her hands through his hair, moving it out of his eyes, allowing her to truly see him. She loved the feel of the silky strands of hair between her fingertips and the way his hands caressed her body.

Raja tenderly kissed her neck as he delved his fingers inside her, stoking the fire that burned within her.

“You’re so wet,” he whispered, his breath hot against her neck.

“Please, Raja. I need you.” She turned her head to him. “Don’t make me wait.”

He lifted his head from her neck and met her gaze. “Please,” she whispered again as their lips touched. She ran her hands down his chest, feeling his tight abs, then slid her hands inside his boxers, wrapping her fingers around his hard shaft. Their kisses grew deeper as she worked her hand up and down his warm, hard length.

“Let me.” He leaned back and ripped the boxers off. The sound of fabric tearing filled the room before material was tossed to the floor to join her nightshirt. She felt her eyes widen with surprise. “What? They were in the way.”

She laughed, loving his cocky grin and the way he seemed to make her forget about everything that was going on so they could just be together. He couldn’t have come into her life at a better time.

“Keep your leg up on the pillows, I’ll work around it. I won’t have you doing more damage to it.” He slid between her legs, angling himself so the tip of his shaft played lightly along her folds.

He slipped his finger between them, lightly teasing her clit until he drew moans from deep with her. She dug her fingernails into his back as she arched herself toward him. “Please, Raja. I need you.”

Without further delay he moved his hand away. He adjusted his angle again until he could slide into her tight channel, forcing her to cry out with pleasure. His thrust was gentle at first, working his way into her core, allowing her body to adjust around him.

She relaxed, giving him the room he needed. His thrusts came deeper and faster. Her desire bloomed within her, as she met his thrusts with her body. They rode back and forth until they exploded together in unison.

Breathless, they laid there, not wanting to move, legs still entwined.

“I love you, Bethany,” Raja whispered, burying his face in her hair.

She curled into his arms feeling safer than she had in days, her head resting against his chest. “I don’t know how this happened but I’ve fallen in love with you.”

Dad, I hope you’d approve of him. Oh how I miss you, Mom, and Jamie. I wish you were here to see your baby girl in love.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-One

After hours of making love, Raja and Bethany lay tangled in each other’s arms, blanketed by exhaustion as night became day. His mating couldn’t have come at a worse moment. Tiger shifters were living in a dangerous time, but there was no way he could deny himself the pleasures of Bethany.

“You’re thinking too hard.” She nuzzled against him.

“Hum?”

“When you’re thinking hard, you have a deep line that forms on your forehead. Penny for your thoughts?”

“It’s nothing,” he whispered and kissed the top of her head.

“If we’re mates, we should be straightforward with each other. A relationship that isn’t built on honesty and trust isn’t one I want to be in.”

“I was just thinking what bad timing this mating is. Pierce will keep going until he gets what he wants—or we stop him.”

“Do you have control over mating?”

“No. Not really. We can hold it off for a short time, but it infuriates the tiger within. We become on edge, and if it takes too long, our animal will take control of the mating. When that happens, it’s perilous…we can be uncontrollable with the need for our mate’s touch.”

“Then why worry about the bad timing? If there was nothing you could do, isn’t it better to accept the situation?” She ran her hand lazily over his chest, caressing his abs.

“Just because you make a good point doesn’t mean the worry vanishes. I’m not worried for myself, it is you I’m concerned for.” He stared at the ceiling, wishing they weren’t having this conversation.

“Me?”

“Yes. There are transitions that will be taking place soon, and it could…well, to be honest, dangerous situations will arise from it.”

“I can take care of myself. What transitions?” She propped herself up on her elbow and gazed down at him.

“Bethany, you’re an amazing woman with many talents—”

“But?”

His lips curved down until he was frowning at her. “But you don’t stand a chance against shifters. We’re stronger, faster, and deadlier than a raving human on drugs.” He rubbed his thumb over the dimple in her chin. “I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

“I’ll be fine.” Lowering her head, she pressed a light kiss on his lips.

“To see to that, I’m assigning guards to you. It is normal procedure with the Alpha and the Lieutenant’s mates. I should have done it when you first arrived, but I was more concerned about your knee and how you would react to the news of shifters—and coming to terms with being my mate.”

“I think I’ve done very well. Now what transitions?”

“My persistent mate…” But before he could tell her, his cell phone vibrated on the nightstand.

Grabbing it, he read a text message from Ty: He’s ten minutes out. Felix and Marcus are bringing Tabitha there. Meet me at heliport, five minutes.

“He?” she asked, looking at the phone screen.

“Tabitha will explain the transitions when she gets here. I’ll be back shortly.” He slipped out of bed and strolled naked toward the closet.

“Who is [_he?” _]She pushed.

“Nothing to worry about. I’ll be back soon.” He slipped his legs into a clean pair of black jeans then grabbed the long-sleeved t-shirt he favored.

“Answer me.” She threw a pillow at him, hitting him in the back.

“James.”

“Uncle James is here already? Let me get dressed.” She threw off the covers.

“I meant to tell you last night, but we got sidetracked. Ty and I have decided to meet with him first. I’ll bring him to see you after we have spoken with him.” After slipping the shirt over his head, he strapped his knife to his thigh and grabbed the gun holster.

“Why can’t I be there?” The first hints of anger entered her tone.

“Your uncle knows something. We don’t know if he’s working with Pierce or not. I want you here with Tabitha and her guards until we get a read on him. If he’s clean, I’ll bring him to you.”

“How would you know he’s clean?” She grabbed a pair of lounge pants from the end of the bed.

“I’m taking Shadow with me. She has the ability to see into someone’s psyche, to tell if they’re lying. If there’s anything evil about James, she’ll notice it. If he wishes to harm you or anyone here, she’ll see it. I’ll apologize now…if he means any of us harm, he’ll be escorted out of the compound.”

“Raja, we’re here,” Tabitha called, coming into his quarters.

“Make yourself at home. We’ll be out in a moment.” He went to Bethany, kneeling in front of her. “Don’t fight me on this. I’m protecting you.”

She hooked her bra, but she still needed a shirt. Her nightshirt wouldn’t do to meet her uncle after all these years. “I want to see him one way or another.”

“I can’t promise you that. I won’t put you in danger, no matter how angry you’ll be at me. I can tell you I’ll do my best to make you happy.” He stood, grabbing one of the sweaters from her suitcase. “Here.”

Raja stood at the helipad, feeling guilty. It’ll break her heart if her uncle is involved in any of this.

“Worried James has something to do with this?” Ty asked, leaning against the railing surrounding the heliport.

“We don’t know he doesn’t.”

“No, but Adam is quickly becoming an outstanding guard, or I wouldn’t have added him to Tabitha’s guards. He has good judgment. If he found James suspicious, he wouldn’t be bringing him here. Plus, neither of us thought he was part of it. You’re only doubting your judgment because of how this’ll affect your mate,” he added when Raja looked guilty. “Don’t worry, I do it as well when it comes to Tabby. It’s only natural to want to protect your mate from harm and heartbreak. But we have to trust in our instincts. It’s what keeps us and our mates alive.”

“You’re right.” Raja ran his hand down the leg of his jeans as the first sounds of the helicopter came from the distance. “After all this, I need to explain to Bethany the dangers that might be in store for shifters and their mates. Not just Pierce but also with the joining of the clans.”

Ty nodded. “Make sure she doesn’t tell James.”

“I swear if he has anything to do with the attack on Bethany, I’ll kill him myself,” he growled as the helicopter came into view. Adam was at the helm, steering it toward them.

“If that is the case, he’ll be all yours once we get all the information out of him.” Ty stepped forward, standing straight and tall when the helicopter landed. “How long do you think we have before Felix is begging for a break from our mates? He can’t be having an easy time.”

“They were both shooting looks that could kill when I left them. I expect we only have a short time before they drive the guards to a breaking point. Maybe we’ll go back and find them bound and gagged.” They laughed as the men stepped out of the helicopter. The last man to exit had to be Bethany’s uncle. He was an older man who looked to be in his mid to late fifties.

He has her green eyes.

“Ty, Raja, this is James Thompson,” Adam said, coming to stand in front of him. “James, this is the Alpha of the Alaskan Tigers, Ty, and his Lieutenant, Raja.”

“James, if you could follow us to the conference room.”

“Where’s my niece? I demand to see Bethany.”

“You’ll see her once we’ve had our discussion. She’s safe, that’s all that you need to concern yourself with,” Raja said, irritation lacing his words.

“I want to see her now,” James complained as he followed them to the conference room, Adam and Leo taking up the rear.

“As I said, you can see her once this is complete and not until then. If that doesn’t suit you, you’re more than welcome to get your ass back on the helicopter and they’ll return you to where they found you. But you’re on our turf now, and you’ll do things our way.” Raja growled at him.

James was a weak shifter. Raja could feel it in the air around him. Yet he had the courage of a fighter. If he had anything to do with the attack on Bethany, he would be hard to break. His commitment and honor would be strong.

“If anything has happened to my niece…”

Raja’s lips curled into a snarl. Not even five minutes on the ground and he was already losing patience with James.

Ty interrupted and focused his considerable attention on Bethany’s uncle. “No harm has come to her since she has arrived here. She’s with my mate, and they’re safe. If we can get this out of the way quickly, you may see her.” The Alpha opened the door to the conference area. They’d decided to use one of the smaller ones on the far side of the compound, farthest away from their mates.

Shadow and Thomas sat at the table waiting for them. Ty took the chair at the end, leaving the one to his right for Raja, before gesturing toward the other chairs. “Please have a seat and we can get started.”

James stalked to a chair, seething. Raja watched him out of the corner of his eye, but his attention focused on Shadow. He watched her, waiting for some sign of her impression of James. Was he a threat to Bethany? To the clan?

“What do you need from me?” James sat across from Shadow at the middle of the table.

“Do you know a man named Pierce?” Ty dug through the folder lying on the table and came out with a picture of Pierce.

He slid it across the table to James, who leaned back as the picture came into view. The tension in the room thickened. James remained still with everyone watching him closely.

“Nothing, I know nothing,” James said, his eye twitching slightly.

“If you’re not up front with us, you won’t be able to see Bethany. We won’t risk her life.” Raja fought the need to stand, to pace the room.

“She’s my family, you can’t keep me from her.”

“Want to bet?” He snarled.

“Whatever you know about Pierce might help us find him,” Shadow interrupted. “I’m sure you want to see justice for what happened to your brother and his family. Justice for Bethany.” She leaned forward in her chair, her voice low and sweet; one would’ve never guessed she was one of the fiercest guards in the clan.

“I do, but that’s a family matter.”

“It’s bigger than a family matter.” Ty laced his fingers together and laid them on the table. “He he’s gone after my mate. He has a bounty on Bethany’s head. This is bigger than you.”

“I don’t want Bethany injured or killed.” He looked down at the picture again.

“Then help us.”

“It began many years ago.” James deflated. “I married my high school sweetheart. She had problems, split personalities mostly. I loved her and thought I could fix her. It started out fine. We had a small home near the plant I worked at. I wanted to go to college, but there wasn’t enough money. My baby brother had the brains. I got a job and helped my parents, put away what I could for[_ his_] college and did my best for my wife. She got pregnant within the first year of our marriage, but the pregnancy was hard on her. It brought out more personalities, meaner ones. You never knew where you stood with her, and our marriage started to suffer.”

“I don’t understand what this has to do with Pierce.” Raja shot a questioning look at James.

“You have to understand how it started. It started with me and my wife, but it ends with Pierce.” James played with his short goatee as he spoke. “Six months into the pregnancy she had a breakdown one day when I was working a double. I got the call from her sister. She was admitted to the hospital after trying to drown herself. She survived, but she was never the same. Giving birth to our son only made things worse. She wanted nothing to do with him. They wouldn’t discharge her from the hospital, and eventually we transferred her to a long-term facility to receive the treatment she needed. Her younger sister moved in and helped with James Junior—J.J.—while I worked. He was seven when she married and moved away, and he was already showing signs of his instability.” He paused, looking down at his hands. “When J.J. shifted, things became worse. Six months after his first shift, he attacked Pierce.”

“Where is J.J. now?” Shadow asked softly.

“You know our law…” The grief weighed heavy on James; it was clear as his shoulders sank and his bright eyes seemed to dim.

“He’s dead?”

“Yes. He was my son. I took care of it. I should have acted sooner, but I never thought…I guess that’s it. I never thought.”

“That explains the statement in the video.” Raja pushed back his chair. He couldn’t sit there any longer.

“Statement? Video?”

“Pierce has taken to sending us videos of his actions. We received one when Bethany was kidnapped, and he sent us a video of the murders.”

“Kidnapped? You said she was safe!” James hollered, slamming his hands on the table.

“She’s safe now, because Raja went after her,” Ty said. “The kidnapper is dead. Unfortunately, Raja wasn’t able to get to her before they hurt her. Her captor took a steel pipe to her knee to ensure she wouldn’t escape. When Raja brought her here, Doc performed surgery to save her knee. She’s recovering and doing very well.” Ty slid another photo across the table. “This is the man who kidnapped Bethany. Do you know him?”

James shook his head. “No. What’s this about a statement from the video?”

“In the video Pierce said ‘tonight the family will have to face the beast their uncle created.’ Has Pierce made any contact with you?”

“No. I haven’t heard from him. After I became aware of what J.J. did, I dealt with the issue. I went to Pierce all those years ago and tried to teach him the ways of our kind. I wanted to help him adjust. He was angry and didn’t want anything to do with me. I didn’t create him.”

“Regrettably, I believe he places the blame on you, which is why he targeted your family.” Raja leaned against the wall, his hands in his pockets.

“He’ll come after Bethany again,” James said.

Raja nodded. “I won’t let harm come to Bethany. That’s why we insisted on the meeting before reuniting you with her.”

“You thought…I had something to do with all this? With Pierce?”

“It was a possibility we couldn’t rule out.”

“And now?” James asked, fiddling with the picture on the table.

“Shadow?”

“His wants match ours. He wants Bethany safe and Pierce taken care of.” Shadow took one last look at James and turned around to face Raja. “His words are true. I can feel his agony for the loss of his family and his concern for Bethany.”

“What’s the meaning of all this?”

“Shadow here is very valuable. We’re lucky to have her as a part of our clan. She can get into your psyche, she knows if someone is lying. I asked her to attend this meeting to give us a read on you. I wouldn’t risk the clan or reunite Bethany with someone who would only bring her heartbreak and pain in the end.” Raja pushed off the wall. “Shadow, give me ten minutes and then escort James to my quarters. We’ll be waiting.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Two

“James cleared the security meeting.” Raja sat on the sofa next to his lounging mate, her hand in his. “Shadow will bring him along in a moment, but I wanted to debrief you on the meeting first.”

“Uncle James is cleared? You don’t suspect he had anything to do with what’s happened?”

“If I doubted him for a second, he wouldn’t be on his way to our quarters. He’d be out on his ass instead. Family or not.”

Over the next few minutes he went over everything that happened in the meeting, bringing her up to speed on things. He explained what happened with J.J. and how it led to Pierce coming after her and her family. When he was finished she just stared at him. “Love, you okay?”

“I guess.” She leaned back against the sofa. “It’s crazy how things work out. My family died because of Pierce’s hatred and my cousin’s insanity. Doesn’t seem right, and maybe I’m in too much of a shock to really absorb it. I just can’t feel anything right now.”

“I know.” He rubbed his thumb over her knuckles. “Everything is happening at once. It will sink in eventually and when it does you’ll feel that loss of your family again. Right now there’s a man that really wants to see you. Are you up for it?”

She nodded, because even with this new information, she couldn’t turn him away. “He’s all I have left.”

“You’re wrong there, love.” He lifted her hand to his lips, and brushed a soft kiss against her knuckles. “You have me and the clan, not to mention my big-mouth sister.”

“I like Tora.” She squeezed his hand.

“Good because she is already nagging to find out when you will officially be her sister-in-law, and telling me Scarlet wants cousins.”

They were laughing when Shadow open the door. “May we enter?”

Raja nodded and kissed Bethany’s hand again. “I’ll leave you two to get reacquainted. I’ll be in my office if you need me.” He rose from the sofa, already missing her touch. “Shadow, if you could stand guard at the door.” His office was off the living room, giving the impression of privacy while still allowing him to be close if needed. He couldn’t afford to lose her. His heart and soul were on the line.

“Oh, Bethy.” Her uncle sank into the chair across from her. “Your knee.”

“Uncle James, I’m fine. It’s been so long since anyone’s called me Bethy.”

“Your father started that when you were a child. Oh, how he adored you. You were the apple of his eye. My sympathies on your loss.”

“Our loss.” A fresh wave of tears filled her eyes. He looks so much like Dad. A little grayer around the temples, but other than that I’d swear he was Dad.

“What’s going on with you and that man?”

“Raja? He saved me…”

“Don’t give me that, Bethy. I’m not blind. I can see there’s more than that between you. I can smell him on you. You’re sitting in his living room looking as if you belong here.”

“Maybe I do…Uncle James, I never believed you could fall in love with someone in such a short time, but now I do. I love him.” She played with a strand of hair that fell out of her ponytail. She wrapped it around her fingers, eyeing the ends, a nervous habit she’d never outgrown.

“I was afraid you would say that.”

“Uncle James. I don’t need a lecture right now. If you don’t support it, that’s your right…but please, I don’t need this now.”

“It’s not that I don’t support you. I hoped you would settle down with a human. Shifters can be dangerous. Did he at least explain things to you?” He propped his ankle on his knee and leaned back in the chair. His well-worn cowboy boots caught her eye. Dad always loved cowboy boots. His were normally black and well cared for, but had an office job. He didn’t have to do the hard work Uncle James did.

“You mean mating?” At his nod, she continued. “Yes, he told me everything. It hasn’t changed my mind. I love him and want to be with him. If he asked me to marry him—if shifters even do that—tomorrow, I’d say yes in a heartbeat. I don’t care that he’s a shifter.”

“As long as you know what’s in store for you. You realize your children could be shifters as well?”

“Why haven’t I seen you since I was a child?” The question slipped out before she could stop it.

“He—Raja, your mate, told me he was going to explain to you what happened with my son J.J.? After that, I withdrew, kept to myself, only venturing into town once a month for food and supplies. Your father and I exchanged letters a few times a year, but I never went to visit. Seeing him happy with his family when mine was taken from me was too hard.”

“Through the years I asked about you. I missed you coming to visit, the way you would toss me in the air. Dad would tell me stories about you. He even told me about shifters, but I thought he was making it up. Fantasy stories to put me to sleep. Now I realize he wasn’t.”

“Bethy, I missed you more than anyone else. You were like the daughter I never had. I hope you won’t push me away now that you found someone to love.”

“I won’t.” She yawned. Her eyes grew heavy and exhaustion swamped her. “Sorry, it’s been a long few days.”

“Would anyone like anything to drink? I’m going to put another pot of coffee on.” Raja stepped out of the office.

“Is that all you drink?” She laughed.

“It’s the only thing worth drinking.” He shrugged.

“Thank you, but I believe Bethy is tired. I should let her rest.”

“Want me to help you into bed?” Raja asked.

She nodded, grateful for his assistance. Exhausted emotionally, physically, and mentally, she wasn’t sure she could make it to the bedroom with those damn crutches.

“I’ll get her settled. Why don’t you stay and have a cup of coffee with me?” Raja asked James as he scooped her into his arms.

“Uncle James, please don’t leave while I’m asleep.” She rested her head on Raja’s chest, her eyes slipping shut.

“I’ll stay as long as you want me to, as long as your friends allow.”

“Thank you.”

Raja carried her from the room as she fought sleep. He kicked the door shut once in the bedroom. Then he laid her on the bed.

“Here you go, love. I’m going to talk to James for a bit then I’ll check on you. If you need anything holler.”

“You won’t make him leave while I’m sleeping, will you?” she murmured against his neck, rapidly losing the battle to stay awake.

“No. He’s welcome here. We’ll put him up in one of the guest cabins. Now rest.” He kissed her and covered her with a blanket.

Two strong black coffees set on the table between them, and silence weighed heavy in the air as the two men stared at each other.

“You mated my niece.” James finally broke the silence.

“So I did.”

“I don’t want to see her hurt.”

“Neither do I. I love her.”

“But you’re the Lieutenant of the Alaskan Tigers. Danger follows you.”

“I am, but she’ll be protected. I’m assigning guards to her. Danger follows every shifter. If anything, she’ll be more protected as my mate than some shifters. Any threat against her could be seen as a threat against me, and you know what happens then.”

“You would kill someone…” James’s hands were around the coffee mug, his fingers clenching and unclenching.

“It’s the life of being a shifter. If it came down to it, yes, I would. I’m secure in my position and will protect it and my mate to the death.”

“I’m not sure if that comforts or worries me more.” He raised the mug to his lips and took a drink.

“Be reassured that your niece will be safe. I will protect her at all costs. Could she get that with a human? I think not. A human wouldn’t be able to stand against Pierce and his men. A human wouldn’t be able to keep her safe.” If she’d been home with her parents, she’d already be dead. Raja didn’t give voice to those words. The cold reality of it lived like a cancer in his belly. As horrible as her ordeal had been, he was grateful she had been close enough for him to save.

Clearing his throat, he studied her uncle. The man had his own losses to mourn. “As a shifter you should be able to feel the love and bond between us. You heard it from her lips that she loves me.” At James’s look of surprise, Raja smiled faintly. “Yes, I heard that. Did you really think I was far enough away to miss even a moment? The place isn’t big enough to give you that kind of privacy. In addition, you might be family, but I don’t know you enough to trust you mean no threat to me, to her, or to the clan. I won’t allow anyone to ruin her happiness. I won’t stand by idly and let anyone hurt my mate. And you would hurt her by coming between us.”

“I have no desire to cause her any heartache. If she loves you, then I want her happy. But if she’s hurt because of you, I won’t stand for that either.” James took the last sip of his coffee before setting the mug down.

“Good. Now that we have come to an understanding, we have a guest cabin you’re more than welcome to stay in. Bethany would like you to, unless you have some other engagement that you need to return to.”

“No, I told her I would stay. Thank you. I left a small suitcase in the helicopter.”

“I’ll have Shadow show you to the cabin. You can stop by and pick up your suitcase on the way. If you would join us for a family dinner this evening, I’m sure Bethany would like that. It’s at my sister Tora’s house, but she won’t mind an extra person, and it will give you more time with Bethany.”

“If you’re sure Tora won’t mind.”

“It’ll be fine. Come back here at say…eight o’clock, and we’ll go together.” Raja hit the ear bud communication. “Shadow.”

Moments later Shadow stood in the kitchen doorway.

“Please show James to one of the guest cabins. He’ll be staying with us. Then, please return here.”

She nodded. “If you’ll follow me, James, we can get you settled.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Three

He slumped against the sofa, tension keeping his body upright, despite his recent lack of sleep.

“Shadow, please have a seat.” Raja motioned the younger shifter toward a chair. “Have you had time to think over my offer?”

“To be the Captain of Bethany’s Guards? Yes, I have.” She sat in the black leather chair closest to the door. Her white sweater made her look small against the stark black of the leather.

When she failed to elaborate and silence stretched between them, he leaned forward. “And?” He hadn’t considered secondary options if Shadow declined the position; he’d just assumed she would agree.

“I’ll do it on two conditions. One, that I still have an option for fieldwork from time to time. I like being on active duty, but this is an opportunity I can’t pass over. I realize it’s a promotion, one that might not come around again, and I like Bethany. I want to keep her safe. The second condition, I want a say in the other guards. I won’t trust her safety to just anyone.” She crossed her legs and sat back in the chair, making herself comfortable.

“We can arrange for you to have fieldwork as long as there’s someone I trust to keep Bethany safe. As for guards, do you have anyone in mind you would like to work with?”

“Styx for one. Also Drew and Jayden.”

“I understand Styx is a great warrior. But why Drew and Jayden, what makes them stick out from the other guards?

“I’ve completed numerous missions with Drew and Jayden. They’re good soldiers, they take orders well and have great instincts.” She leaned forward in the chair placing her elbows on her knees.

“Very well. I was also thinking of Milo. He’s a very experienced warrior, but since he was hurt, he’s requested time out of the field. It will offer him a new position and responsibilities, while still giving him the time he needs to recover.” Raja traced his thumb down the fold of the sofa arm, recalling the sordid details of Milo’s injury.

“Was it in the line of duty?” Patient curiosity gleamed in Shadow’s expression.

Raja nodded, taking a deep breath before answering. “Milo and Adam accompanied me on a hunt for a rogue. It was supposed to be an easy assignment. While Milo got the human woman out safely, the rogue attacked from behind. The woman wasn’t injured, but in the fight the rogue cut through the nerves of Milo’s arm. Fortunately, Milo shifted after the incident, but his recovery will take time.” He put his hand over his eyes, using his middle finger and thumb to rub his temples. It was probably quite obvious to Shadow that Raja blamed himself.

“If you believe he’s up for the job, then so be it. I have only heard good things about him and his skills.” She sat back in the chair again.

“Then we have the team together. Brief them. If you wish to have a training session to make sure they’ll work well together, go for it. Bethany and I will be at Tora’s for dinner tonight. I don’t believe she’ll need guards there, but I’d like someone on call at all times.”

“Understood. I appreciate the opportunity, Raja.” She rose from the chair to leave.

“You deserve it.”

He knew Shadow and the guards she chose would keep his mate safe and that was what mattered. Some might wonder why he had given her the chance over other guards who had been with the clan longer, but in his eyes she had proven herself time and time again. He wanted his mate to have the best protection possible—when he couldn’t be there to protect her himself.

He held Bethany close as they snuggled in bed together. Breathing in the fresh coconut scent of her shampoo, he enjoyed the way her body felt against his. This is what I’ve been missing all these years. How is it possible to fall head over paws in love with someone in such a short time? Please don’t let me screw this up.

“You’re thinking too hard again. Your forehead crease is back,” Bethany murmured.

“I’m thinking about how much I love you.” He kissed her, drawing her lower lip between his teeth and giving it a little nip. “Shall I show you again?”

“I can’t handle any more of your loving right now. As it is, I won’t be able to walk straight,” she teased.

“Later then.” He kissed her again. I’ll never be able to get enough of her sweet kisses. “We should get ready. We’re supposed to be at Tora’s in an hour.”

“I need a shower.”

“Bath…Doc’s orders. Unless you want me to shower with you. You have to keep your weight off your knee for a bit longer.”

“A bath it is then, because if you shower with me we’ll be late.”

He kissed her cheek. “I’ll run the water, then I need more coffee. Want some?” Not waiting for her reply, he slid out of the bed and went to run the water for her bath. He’d still hear her.

“No thanks. My nerves are jumpy enough without adding caffeine into the mix. Do you drink anything besides coffee?”

“It’s the liquid of the gods, a gift from Heaven. To drink anything else is a sin.” He made it back to the bedroom in time to see her roll her eyes at him and laugh. Even her playful expressions filled him with joy. “Need help into the tub? You’ll need to keep your leg out of the water. I put some towels on the edge that you can rest it on.”

“I’m fine. Go drink your gift from the gods.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Four

An hour later James, Bethany, and Raja stood in Tora’s country cabin living room. The oversized stone fireplace dominated the wall, with a large flat screen television mounted above. The hardwood floors gleamed, while the rest of the house had a comfortable, lived-in look. Scarlet’s toys cluttered the floor, with a rocking pony sitting next to the fireplace. A large, worn throw rug lay in front of the hearth, making the area inviting.

“Please make yourself at home,” Tora told James as she leaned in to hug Bethany. Then she placed a kiss on her brother’s cheek. “You’re in time to read Scarlet a bedtime story. I fed her early so we could have an adult dinner tonight. Bethany, why don’t you join me in the kitchen? James, you’re more than welcome to join us or Marcus on the deck. He’s grilling the steaks.”

[_What does she have up her sleeve? _]Raja eyed his sister with uncertainty. “Come on, James, I’ll introduce you to my brother-in-law.”

Bethany sat at the kitchen table, her leg stretched out to the chair across from her. Compared to the living room, the kitchen was ultra modern. Red walls made the cherry wood cabinets and the black granite with silver swirls pop.

“Can I help you with dinner?”

“No. It’s fine. I have the mixed greens salad chilling in the refrigerator. Marcus is handling the steak and baked potatoes, and mixed vegetables are also on the grill. I wanted a moment alone with you.” Tora took a seat at the end of the table next to her.

“You did?” A sense of unease crept over her as she wondered if Tora disapproved of her brother mating with a human.

“Raja means a lot to me. He’s all I’ve had for years. When our parents were killed, he raised me, protected me. Even now that I’m mated to Marcus, we’re still very close. I want him happy…you seem to make him happy.” She fiddled with the silverware as if nervous.

“Your brother means a lot to me.”

“I don’t wish to be forward, but I must ask. What are your plans? I guess my main question is…once Pierce is caught, will you leave my brother behind as if he means nothing?”

Bethany’s apprehension eased. Tora only wanted to protect her brother. “I love Raja. I don’t wish to leave him. I don’t know how I could have gotten through this without him. As long as he’ll have me, I’ll stay by his side.”

“Raja can be a hard man to live with. He cares deeply for those around him and does his best to protect everyone. He’s astounding at his job of Lieutenant, but it can make it hard on his family. You would be in danger because of his position.”

“First you want me with Raja, now it sounds like you’re trying to scare me away from him. Which is it?” Bethany leaned into the table, trying to catch Tora’s eye.

“I want you with Raja[_ if_] you truly love him. I want you to understand what you’re getting into. Raja’s position can be risky, and he’ll need a strong woman beside him; one who understands the dangers, and will take precautions when necessary. It will make his job easier if he knows his mate will be safe.” Tora looked up, meeting her gaze.

“I can’t honestly say I completely understand, but I’m aware of some of the risks. Yes, his job must be dangerous, I’ll worry about him, but that’s what you do when you love someone. I thought I had a quiet life with nothing to worry about, and look at me now…Pierce killed my family and has me on his hit list. He wanted to kill me before I met Raja. I’ll do whatever I can to aid Raja rather than distract him.” She rubbed her arms, trying to stifle her sudden chill. “Before coming here today, he informed me he’s assigned guards for my protection. It’s not something I want or feel comfortable with. I know it’s normal for the Lieutenant’s mate to have them, but it still makes me feel awkward. I didn’t fight him, and I won’t fight him on it. I can’t protect myself against shifters. Hell, I can’t protect myself against anything at the moment.” She rubbed her leg as if to emphasize the point.

“We’re living in a very perilous time, everything is changing for us.” Tora’s discomfort seemed to worsen.

“So, I’m getting this feeling the danger has to do with more than just Pierce?” She raised an eyebrow, frowning. “There’s so much I don’t know.”

“Who are your guards? Have you met them yet?”

Bethany bit her lip in consternation, noticing Tora’s evasion of her suspicions. So there was more to it after all. She shook her head, making a mental note to ask Raja later. “Shadow is the Captain of my Guards. I’ve met her. There are four other men I have yet to meet.”

She turned her head when Raja opened the sliding glass door and stepped in before shutting it behind him. “Am I interrupting?”

“Go read to your niece before she falls asleep. She’s been waiting for her Uncle Raja all night.”

He stepped closer to Bethany, leaning down and brushing a kiss to her ear, whispering, “You doing okay?”

Bethany nodded. His concern and affection warmed her through and through. He kissed her again and headed up the stairs.

“You two make a remarkable couple.” Tora reached across the table to place her hand over Bethany’s. “Welcome to the family. It’s nice to finally have a sister. All Marcus gave me was another brother.” She snorted, and the two women laughed together. The conversation continued to bother Bethany, who was beginning to feel a tad overwhelmed. There was so much to absorb. Was she prepared for it—or would it be too much for her?

With all the time Raja spent on his Elder duties, he enjoyed the normalcy of a family dinner more than most. He didn’t take a single moment for granted. Time with his sister and her mate had been limited of late. He was grateful for the evening, happier still that Bethany enjoyed herself. It had given everyone time to get to know each other without the pressures of work. Bethany and James had been able to slip off into the living room to talk in private, while he caught up with Tora and Marcus.

For the first time since Bethany had come into his life he was seeing a different side of her, a side that was lighthearted and relaxed. Every once in a while he caught a glimpse of that familiar sorrow in her eyes, but as long as she was busy, or chatting with someone, he could see she was at ease. Whatever had happened between her and James that evening had given her some closure. Slowly, they were starting to reconnect after all these years apart.

After the table was cleaned, leftovers stored, dishes in the dishwasher, and the evening was winding down, Raja was ready to escape with his mate. His tiger paced within him, needing to have his mate alone again. He wanted to feel her naked and writhing beneath him. Tora appeared to be watching him, however, and he could sense something was on her mind. His little sister wasn’t patient; she’d tell him before the night was over.

A light knock on the door interrupted them. “I’ll get it,” Raja told Tora as she served dessert and coffee in the living room.

He sensed Shadow on the other side of the door before he opened it. His mate’s new Captain of the Guard met his gaze quietly. “I’m sorry to bother you during dinner, but I need to speak with you.”

He glanced toward Bethany who was actively chatting with James and hoped she wouldn’t mind that he had to slip off to meet with Shadow. He was used to having family engagements, dinners, and everything else interrupted by clan business but she wasn’t. Unsure how she’d react if he didn’t let her know where he was going he stepped back and let Shadow and Styx in before he went to his mate.

As he neared his tiger peeked up, demanding he swoop her into his arms and rush them back to his quarters. “Bethany, Shadow’s here about some clan business I wanted to let you know I’ll be right back.”

“Can’t this wait?” Tora bitched.

Marcus took hold of his wife’s arm. “Raja, feel free to use my office for as long as you need.”

“Thank you.” He glanced back at Bethany one last time to see her smile and nod to him before turning back to James. His mate was stronger than he gave her credit for. Hopefully she’d never resent him for these interruptions.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Five

Raja met with Shadow and Styx in Marcus’s office. He kept his voice low out of respect for his sister and her family, but his irritation was making the hairs on the back of his neck bristle.

Shadow’s words had incited his anger: “While we were training with Felix and his men, I received a message from Chris.”

“The same Chris who betrayed his clan?” Raja’s words emerged laced with a barely perceptible growl.

“Yes. He wishes to speak with you. Connor could set up a video conference.” Shadow’s face remained expressionless, her back straight, her presentation indicative of a highly trained warrior. Her gaze shifted toward the guard who stood beside her. “I brought Styx along to stay with Bethany. Chris will only be available at the number he left for a short time. This would need to be done quickly.”

“What does he want?”

“He only said he has information.”

Raja stared out the window. Chris was a good guard until his betrayal.

“Fine. Inform Ty of the situation. Let him know I’ll be there to speak with him after I find out what Chris wants. I’ll need a few minutes with Tora and Bethany and then I’ll meet you in the conference room.”

“Styx, wait here,” Raja ordered before following Shadow out of the office.

He approached his sister at the kitchen table, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry for the interruption. Something has come up. Styx is in your office; he’s one of Bethany’s guards. I need to deal with this now.” He turned to his mate, who appeared saddened by the sudden change in plans. “Bethany, after you finish your dessert and wish to leave, he’ll escort you back to our quarters. I hope to be back before then but if not, he’ll stay with you until I’m home.” He moved to Bethany, slipping an arm around her waist and placing a soft kiss on her temple.

“Styx?” Tora’s fork dropped as she glared at him, her eyes fiery with anger. “What are you thinking?”

“He is a great warrior.” Raja’s arm tensed around Bethany’s until he realized if he didn’t loosen his grip he’d bruise her for sure.

“He’s ruthless.” She roared at him. “You’re trusting him with your mate…your future children.”

Bethany stilled under his touch, but he moved his hand to her shoulder to rub her tense muscles. “I know they will be in good hands. He’ll protect them at all costs.”

“Who else did you assign to her guard?” Tora demanded. She rose from the table and glared at him.

“The twins Drew and Jayden, and Milo.” He indulged her because they were guests in Tora’s home, but it only went so far. He paused to eye his sister. “I don’t have time to debate this with you right now. I trust Styx to keep her safe. She’s my mate, I wouldn’t put her in jeopardy.”

“Bethany will be staying here until you return.” Tora slammed the dishrag down on the counter.

“I can make my own decisions.” Bethany straightened, slipping her hand around Raja’s and giving it gentle squeeze. “If this man has Raja’s trust, then he has mine as well. He can escort me back to the main building in a bit.”

Raja exhaled, relaxing. The fact his mate had lent her support filled him with pride. “You’re sure?” he asked timidly, looking deeply into her eyes.

“Yes. I need to put my leg up, it’s starting to throb a little. Go, my love. I’ll be fine.”

“I’ll be back soon. I love you,” he said, kissing her again. He turned his head toward the office. “Styx.”

After the introductions, Raja slipped out quietly. He hated to leave Bethany to deal with Tora’s anger, but he had little choice.

“Five minutes and I’ll have you connected,” Connor called out when Raja entered the conference room.

“Ty said to deal with this, then swing by his quarters.” Shadow handed him a printout. “Connor traced the number. That’s the location. I’ve contacted Jinx and he has a team on the way.”

“Jinx, in West Virginia, is the closest clan to Georgia?”

“It shouldn’t be surprising there are no tiger clans in the south. The heat is not something most of us enjoy.”

“Probably why he chose Georgia. Still no idea what Chris wants?”

Shadow shook her head.

“Raja, you’re almost connected.” Connor vacated the chair, allowing Raja to sit in front of the laptop.

Moments later, Chris’s face filled the screen. “Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Raja.”

“What is it you want, Chris?” Raja watched the screen with a lack of enthusiasm. He didn’t care to be dealing with the rogue; his betrayal cut deep through the clan.

“First I should apologize for what happened—”

“You mean for your betrayal?” He sneered; it was still a raw wound.

“Yes, my betrayal. If I had any choice—”

“Chris, you [_had _]a choice. You chose the wrong option. Now get to the point of this call.”

“I couldn’t risk my sister. They had her and promised to kill her if I didn’t assist them. You have a sister, so you should understand.” Chris leaned closer to the camera. “I hope the news I bring you might start building the bridge to forgiveness, that this news might take my name off your bounty list.”

“What do you want in exchange for this information?”

“I would ask that you call off your hunters.”

“You were a worthy addition to the Alaskan Tigers before your treachery. Nevertheless, you were not worth sending a team after. If you have hunters on your trail, they’re not ours. What is your information?”

“Pierce’s trusted advisor, Victor, will be in San Francisco at the end of the week. He’s meeting with a high-ranking Russian tiger. If anyone knows where Pierce is or what his next move is, it will be Victor.”

Raja sat in the chair unmoving while he ran through the facts he knew of Victor, which were few. He nodded and ended the communication.

“Connor, find out everything you can about Victor, report to me the minute you get something useful. If I don’t hear from you, we’ll have a conference at ten o’clock tomorrow morning. This could all be a setup.”

Raja rose and glanced at Shadow. “Get back to your evening off. They might be few and far between if things continue on this path. I’ll speak with Ty and then I’ll find Bethany, and we’ll be retiring for the night. You won’t be needed unless something happens.”

“Thank you.” She nodded, following him out of the conference room. They parted ways, and Raja headed for Ty’s quarters.

“Ahh, Raja, please sit. Can I get you anything to drink? Coffee perhaps?”

“Thank you, Tabitha, but no. I need a moment of Ty’s time, please.” Raja yawned. His eyes felt ready to close from lack of sleep.

“He’ll be right out. He’s meeting with Felix in his office.”

Tabitha curled up on the large black sofa, propping herself up with red throw pillows, a romance novel carefully laid aside to keep the page. All around the room, small, feminine changes added to the warmth of Ty’s formerly masculine quarters. The throw pillows, new drapes with brighter prints—everything brought a relaxing female touch.

“Sorry to keep you waiting. Felix and I were going over the changes in the guard schedules now that you’ve taken Drew and Jayden from the grounds guards, not to mention Styx and Milo.” Ty stepped out of his office followed by Felix.

“If it is inconvenient, I can make other arrangements.”

“No, it’s fine. We have promoted two boys from the training class for grounds duty and will be testing some of the guards to move into the positions Milo and Styx left. Keeping Bethany safe is priority as well. Now, what did Chris contact you for?”

“Victor will be in San Francisco at the end of the week.” Raja leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees.

“It could be a setup.”

“I thought of that as well. But he asked for us to remove the hunters we had on him.”

“We didn’t send hunters after him.” Ty took as seat next to his mate, pulling her feet into his lap.

“I’m aware of that. I believe they’re Pierce’s. I have Connor digging up everything he can about Victor.” Raja rubbed the arch of his nose. “Chris honestly believed the hunters were ours, and didn’t seem to suspect Pierce. He exchanged the information for the safety of himself and his sister. He hasn’t changed, he’s selfish. He only contacted us to get the hunters off his ass. He probably still believes the hunters are ours, that if the information is correct then we’ll leave him alone.”

“Even if the information is good I want him taken out. He’s too dangerous to keep alive. He betrayed us once; he’ll do it again if he has the chance. Our mates are much too valuable to risk it.” Ty rubbed his hand over Tabitha’s leg.

Raja nodded. “I told Connor to be at the conference room at ten o’clock, just key people for this meeting—Felix, Marcus, Thomas, Adam, Connor, Shadow, Styx, us, and our mates. Chris still has friends among the clan. I doubt anyone else will betray us. But I don’t want to give them the opportunity.”

“Let Lance and Spencer know they’re on standby. I want them ready to leave at a moment’s notice. They’ll be the ones we send to deal with Chris.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Six

Raja found Styx standing inside the door, appearing disconcerted, when he returned to his quarters.

“While you’re here, make yourself at home,” Raja said, shutting the door behind him. “As long as you’re ready to spring to action if the situation calls for it. You don’t have to stand by the door all the time, looking like a marble statue.” He quirked his lips upward in a half-hearted attempt to relax Bethany’s newest guard.

“That’s what I told him.” His mate sat on the sofa, her knee propped up on pillows.

“Styx, thank you for bringing her back. I hope my sister didn’t give you too much trouble.”

The guard’s nippy shake of the head was met with Bethany’s musical laughter, lightening the mood. Even Styx seemed to relax at the sound of it.

“Don’t lie to him.” Bethany grinned. “Tora’s very special and I like her, but she has a stubborn streak. It wasn’t until Marcus stepped in that she backed down.”

“Then I apologize for her actions. Tora has heard rumors from the battlefield. It has left her a little cautious.” He shook his head, amused and exasperated. At least his headstrong sibling listened to her mate. “Marcus is a smart man. He knows better than to question my decisions. Tora, however, is a bit pushy. You think she’s bad now, but she was quite the handful before she mated. She’s always been one to speak her mind and didn’t care how much trouble she got into in the process.”

“I’ll understand if you wish to override Shadow’s decision for me as Bethany’s guard,” Styx offered, but the look in his eyes said that was the last thing he wanted.

“No. I trust you to keep Bethany safe.”

“Very well.” He stepped away. “If that is all, I’ll retire to my cabin.”

“Be at the conference room at ten tomorrow morning.” Raja dismissed him.

“I’ll keep my ear piece in, in case you need me.” Styx slipped out the door, leaving them alone.

Raja secured the locks and went to his mate. His duty handled, his desire to be with her overrode all else.

“What happened?”

“Into bed.” He lifted her from the sofa. She wrapped her arms around his neck, snuggling her head into his chest.

“You’re tired. I can walk.”

“I know you can, but I want to feel you against me.” He nudged the door open with his foot, laid her on the bed, and slipped off his shoes and gun holster before crawling in next to her.

“You’re still dressed.” She rolled to cuddle into his body.

“I don’t care. Undress later.” His eyes fluttered as his head hit the pillow. “Chris contacted us tonight. I had to take care of it.”

“Who’s Chris?”

“He…betrayed…” He wanted to answer her questions, but holding her and knowing she was safe allowed him to relax. In this instance, her very presence was like a sleeping pill. He drifted off, unable to keep his eyes open any longer.

Curiosity nibbled at Bethany. When she caught sight of his phone still clipped to his pants, she retrieved it and found Ty’s cell number. She texted him, hoping Tabitha was still awake.

Tabitha, it’s Bethany. Who’s Chris? Raja fell asleep before I got the whole story.

She slipped out of bed and wandered toward the living room. She needed time to think. Everything was happening so quickly. Her heart told her she was in love with Raja while her mind screamed it was too early, that she needed to take it slow. She wasn’t just falling in love with someone, she was being thrust into a different world. One with shifters, danger, death, betrayal, and who knew what else. She needed to make sure she was ready for this. What if she lost him like she lost everyone else she cared about?

Sinking onto the sofa, she knew it didn’t matter how harrowing this new world was, she couldn’t stop what she was feeling for Raja. She loved him, and it didn’t matter if it seemed like it was too soon because it changed nothing. The adoration coursing through her wouldn’t be denied.

She wasn’t sure how long she sat there, lost in her thoughts, but she almost gave up on Tabitha texting her back. Just as she was about to go back to bed, the cell phone vibrated in her hand.

He betrayed us to Pierce. Tried to trade me for his sister.

Sick to her stomach, Bethany typed back, Oh God. As the message sent, she couldn’t help but ruminate on how her reply wasn’t enough. There were no words she could offer Tabitha, just like there was no real consolation anyone could offer her after the death of her parents.

Then she stared at the cell and waited for Tabitha to tell her more. Finally, it vibrated again.

Said he has info about a member of Pierce’s gang. Geek Connor is on it. We’ll know more tomorrow. Sleep. You both need it.

“What’s this?” Raja woke Bethany sometime in the middle of the night. She was still clenching the cell phone.

“Umm.”

“Who did you call?”

“No one.” She dropped the phone to the comforter as if it burned her.

He scooted up until he could rest his weight on his elbow and looked at her. “If you need to call anyone go ahead. This is a secure line, untraceable, just don’t give anyone your location.” He grabbed the phone before rolling over to place it on the nightstand.

“I didn’t call anyone. I texted Tabitha.” She pulled her bottom lip between her teeth, biting it.

“Tabitha doesn’t have a cell phone. We ordered a new untraceable cell for her, but it hasn’t arrived yet. Our cells are custom-ordered to make them harder to trace. Which reminds me…I’ll have to order you one as well.”

“Ty’s cell phone. Check if you don’t believe me.” Her voice caught until he wanted to wrap his arms around her. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust her, it was just that she didn’t fully understand what was happening, how crucial it was they watched their every step. If she let something slip to the wrong person, it could be disastrous not only to her but to the entire clan.

“I believe you, love. I just worry about you, that’s why I asked you that. It isn’t that I don’t trust you.” He put his hand on her waist, pulling her closer to him. “Why did you text her?”

“You fell asleep. I couldn’t sleep not knowing who Chris was.”

Raja chuckled warmly. “Sorry. I was exhausted. I didn’t mean to fall asleep on you. Were your questions answered?”

“Somewhat. He deceived the clan.”

He nodded, kissing her neck. “He gave me information on Victor, Pierce’s advisor. We have a team ready to move if the information checks out. Connor’s working on it. There’s a briefing at ten you’re more than welcome to attend.”

“The plane…” Tears filled her eyes and threated to fall.

“Oh, sweetie, it’s all right. I’ll be right there with you. The bodies of your family will arrive for the services today. We’ll find out what time. I’ll reschedule the briefing if I have to, I’ll be there with you.”

A lump rose in her throat as her loss struck home again. She swallowed hard, and took a deep breath. “Uncle James will be there, and this is important…the briefing.” She ran her hand over his chest, playing with the soft black hair she found there.

“I’ll be there.” He kissed her forehead. “I love you, Bethany.”

“I love you too. Are you still tired?”

“Why?” He played with a loose strand of her hair.

“I want to feel your hands on my body. I want to feel you in me.”

He smiled. “Come here.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Seven

Raja and Ty stood at the end of the conference table, their mates seated at their sides. Felix sat next to Tabitha and Shadow next to Bethany, clearly showing the hierarchy. Marcus, Thomas, Adam, Connor, and Styx took the remaining chairs.

“Connor, what did you find?” Raja took a sip of coffee.

“It would seem the information is correct. Victor is flying out of Dulles International Airport in Virginia on Friday and has booked a hotel room close to the airport in San Francisco through the weekend.”

“Careless for him to book in his name.” Ty watched the information scroll on the screen in front of him.

“He’s cocky. He probably didn’t believe he would be caught, that no one would be able to track him or want to track him.” Connor hit a button, and a picture replaced the flight and hotel information. “This is his most current picture. Taken less than a year ago.”

The man on the screen before them looked to be in his late fifties. His dark salt and pepper hair was more white than black, and gave him a weathered look. His impenetrable, soulless eyes stared elsewhere. People were a pawn in his game.

“How can a man be so naïve at his age? He has to suspect you could be monitoring the travel arrangements of anyone associated with Pierce.” Bethany eyed the display with disgust.

“Maybe he’s encouraging us to try to take him down.” Tabitha leaned forward in her chair, angling herself to get a better view of the man. “I know him.”

“You know him? How?” Ty touched his mate’s shoulder.

“He came into the restaurant I worked at in Pittsburgh. He was there the day I came home to discover Ty’s letter attached to my door. Two days before Pierce turned up at my apartment. I waited on him.”

“Did he say anything?”

“He mentioned he was in town to reacquaint with an old friend.” She looked at Ty with glassy tears in her eyes. “You don’t think…he meant me, do you?”

The air seemed to pulse with Ty’s rage. Raja understood: if Ty had been late in locating Tabitha, she could’ve become one of Pierce’s victims.

“We won’t lie to you, Tabitha.” Raja frowned. “You’re probably right. But you’re safe here. We’ll bring him down. Connor, what else do you know about him? Does he have any family? A mate? Children?”

“No family on record. Parents are deceased. He’s a born shifter and joined forces with Pierce shortly after Pierce’s change. His beliefs are different from Pierce’s. He wants to rid the world of the lesser shifters and believes the mate, or mates in his version, are only there for breeding.”

“Mates?”

“According to what I have found about him, he believes we have multiple mates. Our first true mate will lead us to our other mates.”

“Interesting. Because we have evidence that a mating cannot be completed until all mates—if there are more than one—are brought together. It’s even more interesting since he’s unmated. One would think he would put his beliefs into action.” Raja glanced at the clock on the wall. Forty minutes until the plane lands. “He’ll be there in two days. We’ll send two teams, along with other men from Jinx’s clan in West Virginia to take him down, and if possible brought alive to a secure location.”

“Lance and Spencer are standing by to leave. Leo, if you would go pack your stuff and join them, you will be a part of the second team. Adam, we would like for you to head the team, reporting directly to Raja.” Ty rubbed his mate’s shoulder as he watched the young guard with interest.

“Yes, sir. I’m honored. Thank you.” Adam rose to follow Leo out.

“You earned it. Give us another few minutes of your time and then you can pack and brief the team before the plane leaves.”

Adam nodded, returning to his seat. The door closed behind Leo.

“Adam, it’s doubtful Pierce will be there, but if he is we’ll send more soldiers. Do your best to find out what his reason for meeting with the Russian tiger is. Confiscate whatever evidence you find in his room, anything that might assist us. Lastly, if possible, take him alive. We’ll want to interrogate him. If he has others with him, do whatever you deem necessary. Jinx’s men will be leaving late this evening and will meet you there. I’ll be available at any time, and we’ll have more men standing by.” Raja poured another cup of coffee for himself. He needed all the caffeine he could get. Their long days were going to get longer. “Unless you have any questions, you’re dismissed.”

“Thank you. I won’t let you down.” Adam stood quickly, leaving the room in a hurry.

“Now, the rest of you…once Victor is taken down, or he’s aware there are men on him, it could lead to an attack on the compound. I want everyone on a code red until you hear otherwise from Ty or me. There need to be two guards on Tabitha and Bethany, twenty-four seven.” He caught the dirty glares from the females, but he was glad they didn’t voice their displeasure. “When in their quarters with their mates, guards are to be outside the main door, or may be dismissed for the night but on call. Felix and Shadow will assign shifts for each mate. That will be all for now. Shadow, Styx, if you two could wait outside while Ty and our mates have a word, then we can meet the plane.”

“Felix, if you’ll wait with them,” Ty added.

The guards filed out of the conference room, leaving the air heavy with tension. Raja knew it was only a matter of moments before the women let loose their annoyance over the guards. Who would be first? His bet was on Tabitha. Bethany would wait until later when they were alone and she could wrap him around her finger.

“Round-the-clock guards? Is that really necessary?” Melancholy soured Tabitha’s voice.

“Yes, Tabby, it is. You’re my mate, and I want you safe.” Ty had less patience for the argument than Raja did. “If something comes up and either of us is called away, we want to know our mates will be safe. If the situation calls for it, you’ll be guarded together. Four guards are better than two. I don’t want to hear any arguing from either of you. Tabitha, you have been here when there was an attack on the compound. Bethany, you know what Pierce is capable of. Don’t fight us on this, because neither of you will win.”

Tabitha’s fiery protest was extinguished. She nodded with obvious reluctance.

“If you believe it’s necessary,” Bethany said in a small voice. Her thoughts were clearly elsewhere.

“I do.” Raja laid a hand over hers. “The plane will be landing shortly. We should—”

A tense moment followed, and before she could stand, Tabitha spoke. “If you don’t mind, Ty and I would like to accompany you. Tora has arranged the memorial service for this evening.”

“Thank you.” Tears glistened in Bethany’s eyes, and Raja could feel his mate’s gratitude. He saw the spark in her that wasn’t there before, as if she’d found a place within their close-knit group. He could also feel the tension emanating from her. It was clear she felt guilty for being happy at this difficult time. But it was okay; the way he looked at it, balance was always needed in life. For Bethany to have a balance of grieving and happy moments, well—that meant healing was in her future. She would get there soon enough, and he would be there to help her through.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Nine

The number of clan members standing at the landing strip overwhelmed Raja. At front and center were Tora and her mate Marcus.

It looks as though all the clan members are here.

Tears streamed down Bethany’s face and her lips trembled.

“We wanted to be here to support you.” Tora reached out and touched Bethany’s arm.

“Thank you, Tora.” Raja wrapped his arm around Bethany, drawing her as close to him as her crutches would allow. He glanced around the area, amazed at what his sister had managed to put together in such a short amount of time. He mentally patted himself on the back for not doing a bad job raising his big-mouthed sister.

“Yes, thank you,” Bethany whispered in a tearful voice.

“Your face will freeze if you keep crying.” Tora smiled sadly, and wiped Bethany’s cheeks with a tissue. “Sorry…I guess it’s the mother in me. Come on, Doc requested a chair for you. He doesn’t want you to overdo it on the knee.”

Walking through the crowd, he realized there were only a few members not present. Only the guards on duty are missing.

As if Tora read his mind, she spoke. “After learning of the memorial service everyone wanted to show their support. The guards on duty send their sympathies but were unable to get away.”

“Where’s Scarlet?” Raja gave Tora’s hand a squeeze, letting her know how thankful he was for all she’d done.

“She’s with Daniella. It’s much too cold for her to be out here.”

Tora had gone all out; a tent waited with chairs and a bench up front. There was a table covered with thermoses of warm liquids and, if he knew his sister, at least one of them had his special, dark roasted coffee waiting for him.

She directed them to a large bench. “Sit. I’ll get you something warm to drink.”

Raja sat with Bethany to his left, followed by Tabitha, Ty, and Felix. Shadow and Styx sat on Bethany’s right. When she rested her head gently on Raja’s shoulder, he wrapped his arms around her.

“Your sister is incredible,” she whispered.

“Don’t tell her that. It will make things unbearable for Marcus. She already believes he couldn’t get along without her, not even for a day.” His lips curved into a smile.

“I distinctly remember someone saying men need their mates. We complete them.”

“You can’t use my own words against me,” he teased.

Tora returned with a tray of coffees and hot cocoa for Raja, Bethany, Tabitha, Ty, and the guards. “This one’s your special blend.” She pointed to the cup closest to Raja. “Bethany, I think you might enjoy the hot cocoa. It’s unlike anything you ever tasted before.”

“Bethany, you must try it. It is amazing.” Tabitha grabbed one of the hot cocoa cups off the tray, her face glowing with pleasure.

“Okay.” She took one of the cups, breathing in the aroma. “It smells delicious.”

“Taste it,” Tabitha encouraged.

She took a small sip and moaned. “Oh my!”

“I told you. Delicious. The kitchen staff makes it with real chocolate, none of that powdered stuff.” Tabitha wrapped her hands around the mug, and sipped.

The distant sound of a plane engine sobered the mood. Raja knew Bethany still held on to a glimmer of hope that it was all a bad dream. It would all come crashing down around them when the coffins were unloaded, and he could do nothing to ease her grief.

Please let my love and support be enough to get her through this difficult time.

The plane came into view and Bethany trembled.

“I’m here, love.”

“I’m fine.” She tried to put on a brave face, but Raja saw through it.

Marcus and Tora took a seat on the other side of Styx, when suddenly someone laid a hand on Bethany’s shoulder, brushing against Raja’s arm in the process. Raja growled, ready to take the head off whoever touched his mate. He turned to find James.

“Sorry, it’s been so long since I’ve been around other shifters, let alone a mated pair.” James pulled his hand away as if Raja had burned it.

“Uncle James, I’m glad you’re here.” Bethany turned slightly to see him. “I need some time alone, but you’ll be at the service for Mom, Dad, and Jamie this evening right?”

“I’ll be there.” He stood behind them as the plane landed.

A man in cowboy boots and a hat stepped out of the plane and walked directly toward them.

Raja leaned close and whispered. “That’s Jinx.”

“Bethany, Raja, I’m Jinx, the Alpha of the West Virginia Tigers. I have brought your family home.” He bowed his head, radiating sympathy.

“Thank you.” Tears flooded her checks.

“Welcome to Alaska.” Ty stood, shaking his hand. “Thank you for bringing our clan member’s family home.”

“I’d like to ask for assistance with the caskets. We can place them where you would like, and then Bethany can have the time she needs. There’s no need to do it out here in the cold.” Jinx spoke to Ty but his gaze, full of sympathy, was on Bethany.

“Styx, Marcus, would you please gather the other men and help him?” Raja rubbed his hand down her arm. They nodded and rose. “We’ll show you to the area once you’ve unloaded them.”

Ty stood. “On behalf of Bethany and Raja, I’d like to thank everyone for joining us. We appreciate the support for Bethany. We’ll have the memorial service this evening and would be pleased if you join us.”

No one moved as the caskets were carried off. Ty, Tabitha, and Felix led the men to the ballroom. It was the only room capable of accommodating the large service, and was already decorated with flowers and a large picture of Bethany with her family in the center where the coffins would go. Bethany and Raja lead the way, with Shadow and James directly behind them, and Tora took up the rear giving them privacy.

“Oh my.” Bethany stopped as she saw the picture.

“Jinx sent us the photo after he found it at your house. I asked Tora to have a larger one made and hung here. It seemed appropriate.”

“It’s wonderful. Thank you, Raja.”

Jinx came to them, carrying an urn. “Bethany, I’m assuming Raja explained to you that due to the condition of your sister, she had to be cremated immediately.”

Bethany nodded, running her hand over the urn.

“If you’d place her on the small table between her parents, that will be fine.” Raja nodded toward the table in question.

“I want to see my parents.” Bethany looked from Jinx to Raja. “Please.”

“I don’t know if that is a good idea, love.”

“I have to. I need to see, to know this is real.”

“They did the best they could, but it’s still an unpleasant sight,” Jinx warned before turning to place the urn on the table.

“I wish you wouldn’t, but if it’s what you want, then okay.” Raja wanted to wrap his arms around her, but those dang crutches were in the way. Instead he rested his hand on the small of her back.

“I want to do it alone. Just us. No one else needs to remember my family like this. When they think of them, I want them to see the picture you hung.”

“James?” he queried softly.

She shook her head.

“Okay, I’ll need a few minutes to clear the room. Why don’t you sit down while I do it?”

Bethany couldn’t get the image of her parents in their caskets out of her mind. She sat curled on the sofa, an untouched cup of tea in her hand, staring into space. The undertaker had done the best he could, but it was clear they’d met a brutal end. Bethany shuddered, her skin crawling, tears welling behind her ears.

“I want him to feel the same agony he put my family through.” Her voice didn’t sound like her own—clogged, heavy with sorrow. “I want him to beg for mercy, plead for his life to be spared.”

“You’re angry now, but I promised you we’ll find Pierce. When we do, your parents and Jamie as well as Tabitha’s parents, will get the justice they deserve. He has blood on his hands, and it’s only a matter of time before we catch him. With any luck Victor could be a vital key to Pierce’s location.” Raja squatted before her, taking her chin between his fingers to make her look at him. “I need you to be strong. I’ll see he gets what’s owed to him.”

“No.” Horror shook her out of her thoughts. “You can’t.”

“Shh, love. You’re shaking like a leaf.”

“Please, don’t. He could kill you. I can’t bear to lose you too. Please, Raja.” Terror ricocheted through her.

“Bethany, nothing is going to happen to me. I promise you. A bitten tiger couldn’t take me down. His strength is nothing compared to mine. I’m not going anywhere. You’re stuck with me for the long haul.” Raja’s hand went to his ear. “We’ll be here,” he said, hitting the button on his ear bud.

“What’s going on?”

“Ty and Tabitha are on their way. I should put more coffee on.” He rose, still holding her hand. “I promise everything will be fine. All you have to do is trust me.” He seemed convinced, but fear lingered in the back of her mind, making rest impossible.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Thirty

“I’m sorry to intrude today of all days.” Tabitha sat next to Ty on the loveseat.

“You’re not intruding. We’re family.” Raja sank down on the sofa across from her, nodding toward the book in her lap. “I see you’ve brought it.”

“Yes.” She cradled it almost lovingly, the book her father passed down to her. Raja was aware every bit of information the Queen of the Tigers needed was in her hands. It was her guide to uniting all tiger shifters. Tabitha gestured to the weathered cover. “Raja, have you explained this to Bethany?”

“Yes. Shadow as well. Being the Captain of Bethany’s Guards, she needed to know what trouble could lay ahead.” He cuddled Bethany against him. His mate had taken more emotional blows than most could handle, but she bore up with remarkable strength. She was more than the right match for him.

“After we separated earlier, we took Jinx to his brother Lukas’s cabin. Jinx is going to stay on at least through the weekend, depending on what happens in San Francisco. When we returned, I felt as if the book called to me, the magic caressed my skin, drawing me to it, impossible to deny. I went to it and found this.” She unlocked the book, letting it fall open to where she bookmarked it, before handing it to Raja.

Now that you have gone through the change and your team is assembled, it’s time to begin uniting the tigers. Having your Lieutenant, Raja, mated makes for a stronger core, and though Bethany might be unaware, she’ll play a key role throughout the transition as well. Expect a new tiger named Galen soon. He’s a healer, he knows nothing of this situation, and means you no harm. He has come to heal Bethany.

Danger surrounds you not only with your battle against Pierce but also with your tasks ahead. You’ll need your core group and warriors at their full strength, uninjured. Galen will see to your injuries and keep you at your strongest.

Felix, Marcus, and Thomas are wonderful choices as your guards. Shadow is also an unexpected yet valued addition. She’ll be most helpful in the coming months. Styx will also be a treasured addition as a warrior, as well as a guard. You have chosen well.

The first step lies with Jinx. He needs to be brought into your trusted confidence, and you need to form a bond between the West Virginia and Alaskan clans. Family has run the West Virginia Tigers for generations. That doesn’t mean they aren’t the strongest, because Jinx would put the other members of his clan to shame if he showed his full power.

This will help to put fears to rest before they reveal themselves. Once the tigers are united, they will remain as they are with an Alpha and Lieutenant to each clan. However, instead of running things their way and reporting to no one, they will report to you. Look at it as if the ten of you are the Committee of Tigers. Tabitha and Ty being Queen and King have the final say. This will calm some of the disputes that could arise if shifters were losing their positions of power.

There’s a young woman, Robin Zimmer. She’s human, innocent, but had become a pawn in a debt her ex-husband owed to Pierce. Trading Robin for his own life got him nowhere, as he’s dead and Robin is on the run. Find Robin. She holds key information about Pierce and his members.

When Raja and Bethany finished reading it, he handed the book to Shadow, who sat cross-legged in the chair angled between the sofa and loveseat. Felix sat beside her on a chair he’d brought from the kitchen.

“Have you put Connor on finding this Robin Zimmer?” Raja asked.

“Not yet.” Ty shook his head. “This was our first stop. Connor’s still working on digging up any information on Victor and the Russian tiger.”

“Zimmer…Bobby Zimmer? No…” Bethany whispered.

“What?” Raja asked.

“In high school I knew a Robert ‘Bobby’ Zimmer. He married a girl, but I thought her name was Rose. It could have been Robin. We weren’t really friends, more like distant acquaintances. I remember Mom telling me he died a few months ago. But it couldn’t be the same Bobby, could it?”

“It’s a good lead. I’ll have Connor start there, and we’ll see if we turn anything up,” Ty said, taking his arm from around his mate to lean forward. “I know it’s bad timing, but I’d like to meet with Jinx today. It’s something I don’t want to put off any longer. Raja, I’d like you by my side, but Bethany, I understand and am sure Jinx will as well if you wish to rest.”

Before Raja could speak, Bethany did. “We’ll be there. When?”

“If you’re okay with the decision, I’ll send for Jinx now. I’d say it’s best to get it over with quickly. After the service this evening, I’m sure you’ll want to be alone.” Ty cocked his head slightly toward Felix. “Would you see if Jinx is available to join us?”

“Very well.” Felix rose.

“I’ll bring in a kitchen chair.” Shadow unfolded her small frame and stood.

“What do you think the book meant when it said I’ll play a key role through the transition? I’m human, how could I be of great assistance?”

“Only time will tell, but if it’s in the book you can count on it,” Ty assured her. “As for being human, you couldn’t stand against Pierce and his gang in hand-to-hand combat, but there are still things you can do. Once your knee is healed, Raja will work with you, training you to defend yourself if the case calls for it. We won’t have you unable to protect yourself. I hope you’ll never need the skills he gives you, but it’s better to have them and not need them. We have assigned you guards not because you’re human, but because you’re Raja’s mate. You and Tabitha are the Alpha women of the clan…you’re to be protected at all costs. The guards will be there to protect you if we cannot be.”

Jinx strode into the room, pulled his cowboy hat off, and ran his hand through his dark hair. Felix followed behind him.

“Jinx, thank you for joining us. Please have a seat.” Ty gestured to the empty chairs.

“My pleasure. What can I do for you?” Jinx took the chair that Shadow vacated earlier.

“Do you know the legends of a Queen of the Tigers?” Raja dove right into the reason for the meeting.

“Doesn’t everyone?” Jinx shook his head.

“Tabitha is the Queen of the Tigers. She comes from the line of tigers, and her father passed this book down to her. It explains everything and will walk her through the trials and tribulations of uniting the tiger shifters.” Ty ran his hand over his mate’s leg.

“How do you expect to unite us?”

“It will take time, there will be many steps. According to the book, we need to form a bond with you, and unite the West Virginia and Alaskan tigers.” Tabitha held open the book to the most recent page and handed it to Jinx. “We found this today, after we left Lukas’s cabin.”

“I always hoped I would live to see the day we would be united. I never thought I would have anything to do with the process, let alone hold this book in my hands.” Jinx looked down at the page in astonishment. “Anything you need from me you shall have. My clan is small, there are only fifteen of us, but we’re at your disposal. Does your clan know she’s the Queen?”

“Not completely. Some suspect it, but since Tabitha arrived it has been nonstop. First, the homecoming party, then the videos from Pierce, finding Bethany, her family’s murder…there hasn’t been time to explain things to them. There are approximately ten who do know—the ones in this room as well as Connor, Marcus, Tora, and Thomas. We’ll be briefing Styx today as well. The clan will be briefed soon, with any luck before you return to West Virginia, but when would depend on how the Victor situation turns out.” Ty ran his hand down his mate’s leg. “Once the clan is told it will still need to remain quiet until we’re ready to start the process of uniting all tigers. When you return to your people, you can give them the information as well, as long as they keep it amongst themselves.”

“Understood.” Jinx handed the book back to Tabitha. “Lukas is my best warrior. You could say he’s my unofficial head of security. He is powerful enough to be my Lieutenant but prefers being in the field. We were discussing your issues with Pierce, and he’s interested in being on the front lines of this war. He planned to approach the subject with you, but needed to seek my approval first. He has my consent. If you would be interested in his skills, he can stay here among your clan. I believe he would be of great service to you.”

“He’s more than welcome as long as he understands the hierarchy here. He’s young and would need to work his way up. Prove his worth, per say. He seems to fit well with the other guards and clan members. Raja?” Ty opened the floor for Raja to share his thoughts.

“I agree. Lukas is young. He’ll need to prove himself not only to us, but also to the guards and members. Due to his injuries, I haven’t seen his fighting skills yet. We need someone to start training some of the younger clan members. With his age he might be perfect for the position.”

Raja’s ear bud sprang to life. “There’s a tiger out here asking for you, Raja.”

He sent Ty a glance to let him know something was happening before slipping out from under Bethany. “Excuse me,” he said, moving toward the window. He hit the button on his ear communication to allow the guard station to hear him. “What’s his name?”

He could see the main gate; the guards gathered there blocking the entrance, but he couldn’t make out what or whom they were keeping out.

“Says his name is Galen. He has some crazy story about a dream telling him to come here and ask for you. He seems nervous.”

Raja recognized Korbin’s voice. He was one of the regular bounder patrol guards. “I’m sending Shadow. If she believes his story, escort him back with her.”

He turned the button again to end the communication with the gatehouse and turned to find all eyes on him. “Galen’s here. Shadow, as a precaution go and listen to his story. If you believe him, bring him back.”

Shadow nodded and stood, slipping away without a word.

“Ty, Tabitha, I think it would be best if you weren’t here. I know the book says he brings us no harm, but let’s play this safe.” Raja looked back out the window, watching as Shadow made her way toward the main gate.

“I disagree,” Tabitha said when Ty stood. “If Galen’s a healer, we need him. Maybe we could convince him we need him to stay here. If we’re going to war with Pierce, having a healer handy could mean the life or death of one of our members.”

“She’s right.” Bethany twisted and looked at him. She’d disagreed so little with his decisions, he knew it was right to listen to her on this.

“Felix, get Marcus and Styx in here. If you’re going to stay I want more guards here now.” Raja flexed his hands. “I still think you two should be somewhere safer. If things go ape-shit…”

“Things will be fine,” Tabitha reassured Raja.

“Now you see what I go through. She’s stubborn.” Ty laughed. “I’d say they’re going to keep us on our toes.”

The men laughed and it brought them a brief respite from the tension. But events were proceeding swiftly. Raja glanced back out the window, and watched Shadow approach with their newcomer.

Too swiftly.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Thirty-One

“My Queen.” Galen’s weathered skin crinkled around his eyes. His white hair was combed back, his appearance neat. Raja guessed he was in his mid-seventies. The elderly man dropped to his knees mere steps inside the door, his head low. “All my life I’ve waited for you.” His voice was heavily laden with emotion. “I knew one day I’d find you. I tried not to let my devotion waiver, but it was hard at times. People doubt the legends, but I knew the truth.”

“How did you know?” Raja asked, inserting himself between the old man and Ty and Tabitha. The couple had risen when Galen dropped to his knees. Despite the book’s promises, Raja wanted to be close enough to take him out before he had a chance to do any harm.

“I had a dream when I was a child about the Tiger Queen who would someday be in need of my service. I’ve traveled, hoping to find her. Two days ago I had another dream that pressed me to come here.” He looked up and focused on Tabitha. “My Queen, I’m at your service. Anything I can do for you. I’ve been waiting all my life to be in your presence.”

“Galen, is it true you can heal with your touch?” Tabitha asked, circling around Raja to stand at his side.

“Yes, my Queen.”

“Please call me Tabitha. Besides the people in this room no one else is aware I’m the Queen the legends speak of.” When Galen nodded, she continued, “If it’s true, heal Raja’s mate, Bethany.”

Galen rose to his feet and went to Bethany. Watching Galen slowly reach toward his injured mate, Raja couldn’t swallow the growl in his throat.

“I mean her no harm. In order to heal I must place my hands on her. Come hold your mate. Her injuries are extensive, and this may cause some discomfort.”

Raja took his place behind Bethany, wrapped his arms around her and pressed his lips to her temple. “You okay with this?” he whispered in her ear.

“Let’s get it over with.” She nodded.

“If you could come stand by her as well?” Galen slipped off his gloves, directing his question at Ty. “You might need to hold her still if she bucks.”

“You said there would be discomfort. I can handle it. Why would I need Ty to hold me down as well?” Bethany asked, worry coating the words.

“It depends on the injury and the person’s pain threshold. Your knee is seriously injured. Without my healing, it’s possible you’ll always have a limp after a long recovery period. I won’t lie, this could be more painful than just some discomfort, but it will get you back up on your feet today. It’s your choice, ma’am.” Galen kneeled next to the sofa.

“It’s your choice, love. If you don’t want to do this, you don’t have to.” Raja held her close. The thought of his mate being in pain at Galen’s hands made him want to tear the old man’s head off.

“Do it. Better to be whole all at once than worry about the future. I can take it.” Bethany clenched her jaw.

“Very well. Whatever happens, Raja, do not take your hands off her,” Galen advised. “Maintain skin-to-skin contact. A mate’s touch will help the pain be more bearable.” Galen undid her knee brace, sliding the pant leg up. “I must have skin contact.” His voice remained patient, seemingly understanding Raja’s objections.

Control yourself. Raja scolded himself, trying to rein in his basic instincts. His muscles constricted with tension, his claws threaten to spring forth. “Let’s get this done.”

“Everyone ready?” Galen asked, his hands hovering inches from her knee.

As his hands made contact with her leg, a warm, golden aura formed around her knee. Bethany screeched with pain, struggling under Raja’s grasp. He held tight to her, trying to take her pain. “It’s almost over, love.”

It tore him apart to see her like that, the agony in her screams.

When he didn’t think he could take any more, his heart breaking from the pain she suffered, it ended as quickly as it began. Bethany collapsed against him, softly moaning.

Galen bent back on his heels, shaking his head. “It can’t be,” he muttered under his breath.

“What can’t be?” Raja asked, still soothing his mate.

“She’s human,” Galen said, still not making any sense.

“What are you mumbling about?”

“Her body fought me.”

“So? You told us that would happen. What are you going on about? Is she not healed?” His frustration piqued. Raja was sure he’d hurt someone if she’d gone through all that pain for nothing.

“That’s different. Normally they show signs of pain, fighting to get away, struggling and hollering. They don’t normally fight the healing itself. She did.” Galen slipped his gloves back into place, still watching Bethany closely as he straightened his small body.

“What does that mean?” Tabitha asked, coming to stand next to her mate by the sofa.

“It shouldn’t be possible, since she is human…but she’s a healer.”

“Then wouldn’t she heal herself?” Raja held Bethany close, feeling her fatigue as if it were his own.

“Most would. Except she hasn’t accepted her gift.” Galen rose from the floor, moving back to an empty chair. “Bethany, have you ever noticed anything different about yourself?”

She shook her head, eyes closed.

“Have your injuries ever healed quicker?”

Realization overwhelmed Raja. “He tried to strangle her. There were marks on her from where his fingers dug into her, and there were bruises as well. They’re gone. I never realized it before.”

“It proves my point. Bethany, you’re a healer. I can work with you, teach you the skill.”

“But I’m human.” Her words emerged as a mumble, the exhaustion clear in her voice.

“You must have shifters in your family somewhere or you wouldn’t have the gift.” Galen looked at her for confirmation, but it never came. “She needs her rest. Whenever she’s ready I’ll work with her. It shouldn’t take long for her to develop the skills, as she’s already beginning the process physically without her knowledge.”

“Galen, we would like for you to stay with us if you have no other commitments. The future is uncertain, and to have a healer here would be beneficial.” Tabitha looked down at Bethany. “Well, two healers. We can provide you with a guest cabin.”

“Thank you. As I told you before, I’m at your service. I’ll stay as long as I’m needed.”

“Very well. Felix, could you have one of the guards show Galen to a guest cabin?” Ty looked to another guard, who stood near the door. “Korbin, we’d like to speak with you in our quarters about what you heard here. Raja, we’ll be back in thirty minutes for the memorial service, and we can all go together.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Thirty-Two

Bethany curled up beside him, and they watched the lights from the aurora borealis through the large floor to ceiling windows. The blue and greens swirled in the sky, dancing around the night.

“It wasn’t all a dream—I’m really a healer?” Bethany rested her head on his shoulder.

“It would seem so. Galen has offered to work with you to bring your ability out, if you’re willing.”

“I want to learn. It will be a great asset for your people.”

“For our people. You’re a leader of this clan too.” He stroked his fingers through her hair, soothing himself with her nearness. “You should get some rest. Galen said you would be tired from all your body’s gone through during the healing, not including the stress of everything else.”

“Soon.” She stared out the window. Something weighed on her mind, but Raja didn’t want to press her after all she’d been through.

“Bethany.” Using his finger, he gently guided her head so she could look at him. “Are you okay?”

She gave him a halfhearted smile. “If I…”

“What love?”

“If I had been there…maybe…I could have healed them.”

He was painfully aware she meant her family. “He would have killed you as well.”

“If I could have…”

“Say you came in after it happened, after he was gone…there still would’ve been nothing you could have done. You didn’t even know you had this ability. Without training you wouldn’t have been able to call it forth and heal them.” He ran his thumb over the dimple in her chin. “Bethany, listen to me. There’s nothing you could have done to change this outcome. If you were there, it would have meant one more life lost at Pierce’s hands.”

She sat silent for a few minutes, processing his words. “The memorial service was beautiful. Now that I’m back on my feet, could we have Tora and Marcus to dinner to thank them? I’ll cook…tomorrow if you could arrange it. She put together a wonderful service for people she didn’t even know.”

“I’ll call her in the morning if you’re still up for it.” He kissed the top of her head. He could never repay Tora for putting together the service; it had given Bethany the chance she needed for closure. A dinner could never be thanks enough, but if Bethany wanted it, she would have it.

“Bethany, there’s a place on the edge of our compound lot. It’s a small sitting area, beautiful views…my parents are buried there. I thought after the ashes of your parents came back we could bury them there with your sister.”

“I would like that.” She looked up at him. “I love you, Raja.” She kissed him.

She kissed him with fervor and his passion roused. She slipped on top of him, straddling his lap. She pushed her fingers through his hair and tugged the leather strap he used to tie it back with free. “I love your hair when it’s loose. I want to run my hands through it while you’re inside me. I need you now.”

He slid his hands under the loose nightshirt, delighted to find her naked beneath.

“Surprise, surprise,” she whispered softly against his ear. She grazed his earlobe with her teeth; the lightest of tugs, then traced a path of kisses down his neck.

“It would appear someone planned to seduce me,” he teased, helping to pull her shirt over her head. Her dusty pink nipples called to him, and he indulged himself, drawing one into his mouth and licking the tip with his tongue. Her back arched and she clung to him, nails digging into his shoulders.

She slipped a hand between them to unbutton his jeans and the zipper glided downward loudly. He sighed in anticipation, grazing the pebbled tip of her nipple with his teeth.

“I want you in me.” She stroked his shaft, her warm hands a gentle demand.

“Someone is impatient tonight.” He rubbed his head in the crook of her shoulder, marking her. You’re mine. You’ll always be mine.

“You have been so cautious with me, with my injured knee. Tonight I want all of you. I don’t want you to hold back.”

He kept his mouth shut. He wanted to tell her he would always have to hold back to a degree. Without a tight leash, his strength could hurt her, but he angled between her thighs and eased inside, the slow friction a delicious torture for them both.

As his shaft slid firmly into her, he paused to let them both regain their breath, before he placed his hands on her hips and helped them find the rhythm they needed. She writhed against him, encouraging him with sweet little gasps, her muscles tightening around him. Every stroke added to the tension coiling at the base of his spine. Bracing one hand against the bed, he slid the other between them and teased the tight bundle of nerves between her legs.

Her body clenched around him and she clawed at his back, marking him. The simple act reached his soul and he purred as she exploded around him. The heat lacing his spine turned molten and his climax followed seconds later. Throwing his head back, he roared.

They collapsed together, and he rolled so she sprawled across his chest. “I love you, Bethany.”

He reveled in the contentment, awareness flaring deep inside. Tension built with every passing moment. War loomed on the horizon; they’d already paid a steep cost in blood. But more was coming…and all he could do was brace for the storm.

Sometime between bouts of sex, they managed to find their way into bed and his phone vibrated twice in as many minutes.

“Don’t you think you should answer that? It might be important.” Sleep muddied Bethany’s voice.

“If it’s important they would have used the ear communication when I didn’t answer the first time.” Raja lay still, ignoring the phone.

Whoever called hung up and placed the call again. The cell phone neared the end of the nightstand, teetering, about to fall off.

She yawned. “I don’t think they’ll give up.”

He growled as he reached to grab it. Pressing the talk button, he snarled, “What?”

Connor needed to see him. He’d found something. Dammit. “Connor’s on his way. He wants you to look at something. That boy has the worst timing.” Irritated by the interruption, he also understood it. They were at war. Hadn’t he just been appreciating those fleeting moments of passion and peace? He growled.

Raja dressed in jeans and armed himself. The battle hardened habits so ingrained he didn’t have to think about it. In the bathroom, he splashed cold water on his face. The musk of their couplings still heavy in the air soothed the agitated tiger inside. Bethany followed in a pair of gray cotton lounge pants and a pink and gray tank top, beautiful, feminine…and utterly flimsy in their colder climate.

“You need more clothes. I know you only had a few things with you. Order whatever you’d like online and we’ll have it shipped.”

“I’m fine. I’m sure I can get someone to ship my things from Virginia.” She pulled her hair into a ponytail.

“No, that won’t be possible.”

“What do you mean?”

“Most of the stuff inside the house was destroyed, particularly your things.” He tried to keep his tone light, but it was just another sign of Pierce’s madness. Destroying her home—her family—her things. Pierce wanted to erase Bethany from existence.

“Everything?” She locked gazes with him, her voice small.

“Anything that can be salvaged, pictures, mementos, valuables, Jinx has a team there waiting to gather them once the police are done with the scene. With clothes and things like that it would be best to get you new ones. If there’s anything particular that you would like them to check for I can get them that information.”

“Jamie had a music box that she loved. I’d like it. Mom’s jewelry. After a fire when I was a kid, she kept it in fire-safe box under her bed. Pictures. There are photo albums that line the bookcase in the living room. Dad always loved taking pictures.” She sank to the bed. “I thought I was coming to grips with this…”

“It will take time, love.” He knelt in front of her. “It’s hard to lose your parents no matter how old you are. Even worse to lose a sister, to lose your family the way you’ve lost yours. I remember the pain when my parents died. I bottled it up inside me. I couldn’t grieve, not when I had my sister to care for and the clan. But eventually it happened, and it was worse than if I would have dealt with it when it did happen. Don’t put on a brave face. I love you no matter what. We’ll get through this.”

A knock interrupted and he sighed.

Bethany gave him a weak, watery smile, but beneath her ghost white expression he saw the strength in her. “Go and let Connor in. Give me a minute and I’ll be out. I want to wash my face and pull myself together.”

“Don’t be long. You need some sleep before you pass out on your feet.” He kissed her.[_ She’ll get through this. No one can replace her family, but hopefully Tora and the clan can help ease her pain._]

He opened the door to find not only Connor, but Lukas as well. “Come in. Bethany will be out in a moment.” He held the door wide, eyeing Lukas.

“After Jinx spoke with you and Ty, I offered my services to Connor. Computers have always been my passion, finding people is new to me. My skills are in hacking,” Lukas explained.

“He’s brilliant when it comes to hacking. It’s how we were able to find the information as quickly as we did.” Connor followed behind, carrying a laptop and a folder with what looked like printed papers hanging out of it.

“If either of you ever betray us, we could be in serious danger.” Raja shook his head, not seriously considering either of them would do such a thing. Connor might be a wolf-shifter, but he had found a place among the Alaskan Tigers, and Lukas’s devotion to the tigers was pure.

“Never.” They swore in unison.

“Then let’s hope they don’t have anyone as talented as you two on their side. Please have a seat.”

“About that, I’m sorry to bother you at this unthinkable hour.” Connor looked at Raja nervously. “But if we don’t have the right people, it would be wasted time going after the wrong lead. A quick confirmation from her and we can be out of your hair.”

Connor had a rocky past with shifters, first from his own kind and then with Pierce, making his apprehension understandable. “No worries. We’d rather be disturbed than have you waste hours looking into the wrong people.”

A calmer Bethany entered the room, but her voice was heavy with grief when she said, “Whatever I can do to help.”

Raja held out his hand and she crossed to take her place at his side. The ease and the comfort he took in her presence was profound. He couldn’t imagine being without her.

“I believe we might have found Robin. I have two pictures for you to look at. One is of Robert ‘Bobby’ Zimmer and the other is of Robin. I need to know if you believe these are the people you knew in school,” Connor explained.

“Okay. Bobby was a year ahead of me in school and we were acquaintances, if that.”

“Did you know Robin?” Lukas asked, setting up the laptop.

“No. She was three or four years younger and was coming into the high school as I left. I never did understand how they became a couple, especially in high school. She was so young, a freshman in high school, while he was already in his second year of college.”

“Bethany, that’s Lukas,” Raja said. “He’s Jinx’s younger brother. I’m sure you heard from either Tabitha or Tora. He’s the tiger who appeared injured during Tabitha’s homecoming party.” Raja gently pulled Bethany toward the sofa. Tiredness weighed heavily on her.

“It’s nice to finally meet you.” Bethany’s smile was weak, but sincere.

“Here’s what we could find.” Connor turned the computer screen around and two pictures appeared side by side.

The woman looked no older than her late teens, early twenties if that. She had long black hair, and the terror in her eyes pained Raja. The man in the second picture looked older. His face was harsh and weathered as if he had lived a hard life. His eyes were cold, an expression of hatred on his face.

“That’s them. What happened to them? He was an attractive guy when I knew him. He liked to drink and party, but look at him now. The loathing is apparent in his body language. She looks downright terrified.”

“Like you said, he liked to drink. He cared more for the bottle than anything else. Seems he got himself into quite a bit of trouble with both the law and loan sharks. He’s been in and out of jail for the last few years, until he ended up dead. From what we were able to find on the police reports, I believe Pierce ordered the hit.”

“What about Robin?” Bethany asked, still looking at the picture.

“Her cousin filed a missing persons report on her. According to the cousin, Robin was worried about someone that Bobby owned money to, and they were after her. That’s all we found so far. It’s possible Pierce and his gang have already found her.” Connor turned the screen around, closing the laptop.

“No, he doesn’t have her yet. He’s after her now,” Raja snapped. “We need to find Robin first. Get us a lead; find out where she might have gone. Find any family she might have stayed with. In the meantime, get me what you have on the cousin. Check the financials, maybe the cousin gave her money so she could hide under the radar. Find me something.” They needed everything, anything they could get their hands on—they needed to catch a break. The tip about Victor was small, but the sooner they stopped Pierce the better for everyone involved.

“Yes, sir.” Lukas and Connor grabbed their stuff.

“You think she’s still alive?” Bethany asked Raja when they were alone.

“She has to be. The book wouldn’t send us on this search if she wasn’t. I believe once we find her, she’ll be able to help us. If not, then what’s the point of this?”

“Maybe the point is to save her.”

“We would have done it anyway. The book says she holds a key to finding Pierce. We need to find out whom Pierce has in his pocket, or as part of his clan, before we can move forward in uniting the tigers. If we don’t, it will only lead to more betrayal.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Thirty-Three

“Tora’s on the line. She wants to know if they can bring anything.” Raja held the phone toward her.

“Tell her just bring themselves.” Bethany finished basting the chicken and slid the roaster back in the oven.

“You heard her. Don’t forget my beautiful niece.”

Tora cut him off. “Speaking of that. I’m going to have Daniella watch her. I want to get to know Bethany without having to watch Scarlet. Plus you know Scarlet goes to bed early. If I bring her she always wakes up on the way back to our cabin and it’s so hard getting her back to sleep.”

“Then bring Daniella along. She can take her back to your cabin for bed. I want to see my niece. James will be here as well tonight. See you soon.” He hung up before his sister could give him another excuse to leave Scarlet at home.

“She didn’t want to bring Scarlet?” Bethany peeled potatoes over the sink.

“Normally they put Scarlet to bed early when they have family dinners, as it allows the grownup time she craves. She planned to leave Scarlet at home with Daniella. I hope you don’t mind Daniella will be coming as well. She’ll be here to play with Scarlet and then take her home to bed.”

“No, that’s fine. If there’s anyone else you want to invite, please feel free.”

“No, I don’t want any of them here. I want you all to myself.” He came up behind her to wrap his arms around her and kiss her neck. “I have to admit I find this awfully sexy.”

“What, me in the kitchen? With flour on my shirt, my hair clipped back in this messy style to keep it off my neck because of the heat? This turns you on?”

“Umm-humm.” He traced the whorls of her ear with his tongue.

“If I knew you were that easy to turn on, I wouldn’t have gone to all this work,” she teased.

“This isn’t for my benefit. You’re doing this to repay Tora. Can I distract you?” He might as well have been a teenage boy discovering sex for the first time.

“No. You’ll have to wait. I’m going to put these potatoes on and then jump in the shower. Before you even ask, no, you can’t join me. You need to watch dinner.”

“You’re taking all the fun out of this mating,” he teased, nuzzling her neck.

“Tonight, I promise. Now go over to Tabitha’s, because she’s letting me borrow her cupcake rack. I was digging around in the cabinets trying to find something to display the cupcakes on when she stopped by earlier.”

“You made cupcakes?”

“I make a delicious devil’s food cupcake with butter-cream icing. I made them when you were discussing guard schedules with Shadow. I thought it would be a nice dessert after the roasted chicken, rosemary potatoes, and vegetables.” She seasoned the last of the potatoes before placing them in a baking dish and putting them in the oven. “Now, go get it so I can shower and get ready.”

Bethany iced the last cupcake and placed it on the rack. She licked the spoon clean of the remaining icing and looked around the room. [_Everything seems ready but I feel as if I’m forgetting something. _]She left the cupcake rack on the kitchen bar and grabbed the dishes to set the table.

“Bethy.” She turned to find her Uncle James.

“Uncle James, I’m glad you came.”

“I wouldn’t miss it. You look beautiful. What can I do?”

“Thanks. Everything’s almost ready. Tora and Marcus should be along soon, but until then we’re just waiting. Can I get you something to drink? A beer? Coffee? Soda?”

“Have a beer with me, James.” Raja came strolling into the kitchen freshly showered and dressed. His hair still damp from the shower hung loose, giving him an angelic look.

Wow. I thought he looked killer in jeans. It’s nothing compared to how he fills out those dress slacks and pullover green sweater. Wonder if anyone would notice if we slipped away? What am I saying—they would hear us.

“Sure, I’ll have a beer.”

“I’ll get them,” Raja told Bethany as she set down the plates and turned toward the refrigerator.

Her gaze followed him as she set the table. I want to run my hands over his body. She took a deep breath, trying to push the lust from her thoughts. “You’re having a beer?” She looked at him, shocked he was drinking something other than coffee.

“Once in a while it’s okay to enjoy a cold beer.” He ran his hand down her arm and kissed her cheek as he walked past. “Tora texted while I was in the shower. She’ll be here shortly. Scarlet spilled her apple juice down the front of her dress. Marcus is giving her a quick bath, to clean up the sticky mess I call my niece.” A moment later, someone arrived. “Ahh, that must be her.” Raja passed a beer to James and went to answer the door.

“I hope you won’t be uncomfortable tonight,” she whispered to her uncle as she neared him, placing the last plate at the end of the table. It might have been years since they were together, but he was still her family. Her only living family.

“It’s fine. They’re part of your family now. Tora did a beautiful job on the service.”

He’s right, they’re my family now. Then why am I so anxious? Deep breaths, you can do this.

“How’s my Scarlet?” Raja took his niece from Tora, tossing her slightly in the air to make the toddler giggle.

“If you make her sick, Raja, you’ll be cleaning it,” his sister scolded.

“She loves it.”

Bethany stood close to the kitchen counter, watching them. When Tora rolled her eyes, she couldn’t help but laugh. “Thank you for coming.”

“It’s our pleasure. I wish you would have let me bring something. Can I do anything in the kitchen?”

“I told you she’s used to being in control when it comes to family dinners.”

“Thank you, Tora, but I have it covered. Everything’s in the oven and should be ready in fifteen minutes. Until then, please make yourself at home.”

“Have a seat. Marcus, want a beer? Tora, that revolting root beer that you prefer?” Raja asked as Scarlet tugged on his hair. When they nodded, he placed Scarlet on the floor and headed to the kitchen. “Where’s Daniella?”

“Tonight’s the night for the monthly chat for her online college class. She’ll be over after that to take Scarlet home. I brought her a few toys that should keep her occupied.”

Bethany watched as Scarlet came wobbling toward her. Her pudgy little legs looked unsteady as she made her way across the room. When she came close, she tugged on Bethany’s jeans with her little chubby fists.

“Seems as if she likes you.” Tora laughed. “She wants you to lift her. She’s our cuddling kitty.”

Bethany leaned down and picked up Scarlet as if she were fine china.

“She won’t break,” Tora teased.

“I haven’t been around children this young in a long time. Jamie was the last toddler I had any real contact with, she’s…umm…was…seventeen.” Scarlet wrapped her arms around Bethany’s neck, bringing her closer, and gave her a slobbery kiss.

“You were always so caring with Jamie. You were like a little mother to her,” James recalled. “You’ll make a wonderful mother when your time comes.” He leaned against the wall, drinking his beer and watching Bethany closely.

“She’ll have you wrapped around her fingers before long. She’s had Uncle Raja there since she was an infant.” Tora unloaded the bag of toys she had, putting them on the living room floor for Scarlet to play with. “Look on the bright side—she’s the perfect introduction to your own.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Thirty-Four

The table was cluttered with documents and pictures. Two different groups were at work. Connor and Lukas sat at the far end, their eyes boring into the laptops in front of them. Behind them, there was a board with a map of the United States, with different colored pins poking out. Each pin represented a place Robin was seen and her trail zigzagging across the U.S.A. At the other end of the conference table Marcus, Thomas, Shadow, and Felix worked feverishly, trying to gather information on Victor and the Russian tiger who would meet in less than twenty-four hours.

Ty, Raja, and Jinx sat in the middle of the conference table going over the information that had already accumulated. “I spoke with Adam this morning. Victor checked into the hotel. They’re standing down to see if the Russian makes an appearance. No information has been found as to why they’re meeting. Unless Victor flees, they’re going to observe.” Raja tossed aside another folder.

Ty leaned forward, catching everyone’s attention. “We’ve got less than twenty-four hours to find out whatever we can about this Russian. Otherwise, Adam and the team will have to take down Victor. Taking down Victor will upset the balance of Pierce’s gang and hopefully make him think twice about future attacks.”

“Now this is interesting.” Raja passed a fresh folder to Ty. “It would seem as though Victor’s mother is Russian. His financials show he’s receiving money quarterly from an account in Russia. Connor, can you trace the money, find out where it’s coming from?”

“If there’s another laptop around here, I can start the process to narrow it down as I continue with Robin’s trail. When it’s finished narrowing down the points of origin, I’ll give Lukas what I have on Robin and attend to that.” Connor didn’t look up from the laptop. “I don’t mean to sound demanding, but if we could set up a computer station, I’d be able to run multiple searches simultaneously.”

“Start the search. Then find whatever you need online and order it. Rush the shipping if you have to. We’ll turn one of the smaller conference rooms into a central hub.” Ty scanned the papers Raja handed him. “Felix, I have an extra laptop in the top drawer of my desk. Would you please get it? I also want you to find out whatever you can on Victor’s mother. Who’s his father? Siblings? Who was Victor before he became Pierce’s right-hand man?”

“It will take some time to find what you’ve requested.”

“Time is one thing we don’t have. Lukas, can you handle tracking Robin’s course?”

“Sure. Right now we’re a few months behind her.” Lukas stabbed another colored pin into the map then grabbed a marker to input the date she was seen there.

“Good. Connor, focus on Victor, see what you can find, and quickly. I know you’re both working around the clock, and we appreciate it. No one else here are computer experts like you two are. Maybe we can recruit or train others to help you in the future, as of right now this is a need-to-know only situation.” Felix returned with the laptop, handing it to Connor as Ty spoke. “Ahh, here you go. When you find something let us know. In the meantime, Raja and I have some other things we need to attend to. Shadow, Felix, with us. The rest of you keep working.”

Bethany and Tabitha were in Ty’s quarters hunkered down in front of a laptop, shopping, with Styx standing guard.

“Are you two spending all our money?” Ty teased, gracefully taking a seat on the opposite sofa. “We were gone over two hours, and you’re still at it?”

“We could spend an entire day shopping. You make our task harder having to do it online. We can’t see how it will look on us, or how it feels,” Tabitha told him before pointing to something on the screen. “This would look great on you, Bethany.”

“I can’t believe you’re the same woman I took shopping in Pennsylvania who barely bought anything.”

“That was different. I had a target on my back and wanted to get out of town. Plus, it’s more fun to shop with another woman. I’m just giving my expert opinion on what would look good on her.”

“So you’re not buying then?” Ty questioned.

“I didn’t say that.”

“We left our women with our credit cards. Did you really expect they’d be finished?” Raja leaned against the arm of the sofa. “I know you both prefer jeans and sweaters. Nevertheless, make sure you order a couple dressy outfits. It’s possible you’ll need them as things progress.”

“See, and I [_told _]you this would look great on you.”

“Okay, but that’s it. I bought enough clothes,” Bethany said, adding the dress to her shopping cart.

“You don’t get off that easy. You need shoes to go with these and the other outfits.”

“While the women finish their shopping spree, why don’t we take this to my office?” Ty rose and stretched before strolling out of the room.

Inside the office, Raja grabbed four water bottles from the mini fridge, handing them Shadow, Felix, Ty, and keeping one for himself. “What’s up, Ty?”

“Once Adam and the team detain Victor, we’re going to need a place to take him. Raja and I decided we don’t want him here at the compound. Remember Taber, the Kodiak bear shifter from Nome? His family has a few cabins about an hour’s drive from here, less in the helicopter. I’ve already contacted him, and he agreed to meet us there.” Ty took a sip of water before setting it on his desk, and plopping down on the office chair.

“Are you suggesting taking your mates?” Felix sat in front of Ty’s desk, water bottle untouched in his hands.

“It’s something Ty and I have gone back and forth on. Pierce knows the location of the compound, making it more dangerous here. In addition we would have to leave some of the key people behind to protect the mates. Whereas if they were with us, kept safely in a farther cabin, we would still be able to protect them while having the key group together to interrogate Victor.” Raja set the half–empty bottle of water aside. He didn’t want it. Instead he wanted coffee. Soon, he promised himself.

“There would be no perimeter set up. No guards on guard duty,” Felix warned.

“Good point. I’m sure Taber could bring a couple of his family members to patrol the grounds, or…” Raja’s attention was diverted from Felix when Shadow let out a soft moan, grabbing her temple. “Shadow? What is it?” Raja stood quickly, catching her as her knees buckled.

“Ahh,” she moaned as Raja gently placed her on the chair he’d vacated.

“Should we get Doc?”

“No. I just need a moment.” She let her eyes close while everyone else stood around watching her. “No cabin. It’d be worse there.”

“Are you sure, Shadow?” Raja kneeled in front of her.

“Yes. Someone Taber knows, I’m not sure who, owes Pierce a favor. He’ll squeal that something’s going on at the cabins…there will be an attack if you go there. Have Taber come here without telling anyone. The cabin on the edge of the compound. It needs work but it would do for this. Put Victor there.”

“Having him here might raise the chance for attack.” Ty looked out the window. “It puts more lives on the line. Not only the guards but mates, women, and children.”

“It does, but there are more guards here to protect everyone,” Raja reminded him. “We’ll raise the security level and keep everyone on call. It’s the best chance to keep everyone safe if Shadow’s vision is true. Splitting our guards between two places will make us weaker.”

“Okay, Felix, Shadow, I want you to take the guest rooms. I want you in the main building with us. Even with other guards on our mates, I want you seconds away from them. If there’s an attack, I want the women guarded together if it’s safe enough to move one of them. This will allow for more guards on them.” Ty closed the curtain before facing them again. “Tabitha and Bethany’s training starts tonight. I want them well-versed in shooting a gun. I have started Tabitha’s hand to hand training but if there’s an attack, their best chance is weapons that allow them to keep their distances.”

“Give us about an hour to debrief the others then meet us back here to go to the firing range.” Raja rose from his kneeling position in front of Shadow but still eyed her cautiously. “Are you okay now?”

“I’m fine.” Shadow stood and followed Felix out, leaving Raja and Ty alone.

“I’ll let you have the honor of telling Tabitha and Bethany. After all, you’re Alpha here.” Raja winked.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Thirty-Five

The shooting range turned out better than Raja could’ve expected. Bethany’s father had already taught her how to shoot a gun, and she proved to be a decent shot. Tabitha wasn’t too bad either for someone who’d only held a gun once before, and that was since becoming Ty’s mate.

“You’ve both done very well. I want you both to keep the guns with you.” Raja grabbed a box of bullets off the shelf. “If you want shoulder and thigh holsters, we can get them for you. Even with your guards, I want you armed in case something happens. Once Victor arrives, Pierce might decide to attack.”

“Raja, Connor found something,” Felix called. “He’s requesting you join them in the conference room.”

“I’ll tend to it. Bethany, go with Ty, Tabitha, and the guards. I’ll come for you at Ty’s when I can.” He slid his reloaded gun back into his holster, kissed Bethany, and jogged toward the main compound.

Please let this be a break we need. I hate feeling Bethany’s panic.

After pulling the conference room door open, he found the room brimming with anxiety and all eyes trained on him. “What’s going on?”

“We can’t let the meeting Victor has scheduled happen,” Connor announced, plugging the projector into the computer to allow whatever was on the screen to appear on the wall.

“Why? What did you find?”

“The Russian is Victor’s father. He heads a small terrorist group of shifters in Russia. That’s where the money is coming from. This meeting is to discuss joining their forces, making both of them more treacherous than before.” Connor displayed a table with numbers on the wall. “This tracks each transaction back to the organization Victor’s father heads. Victor Senior arrives tomorrow evening. My suggestion would be to have the team take down Victor tonight and get them out of San Francisco.”

“Great job. I’ll deal with Adam and the team. Marcus, gather any guard not on duty in the ballroom, meeting in thirty minutes. Either Ty or I will brief everyone. Anyone on duty will be notified following the briefing. From this moment on everyone is on high alert and on call at all times. Thomas, you help him. Connor and Lukas, I want you both working on Robin,” Raja added. “I’m concerned this will put her in more jeopardy.”

Raja spent the next fifteen minutes filling in Ty, Felix, Shadow, and Styx on what Connor found. “Adam and the team need to take Victor down tonight. We can’t leave this to chance any longer. If Victor Senior gets there before he’s detained, it could mean a full-on assault.”

“I agree. Contact Adam and I’ll brief the guards.” Ty turned to the women. “You’ll stay here with guards.”

“Ty, with Victor soon to be on the grounds, I’d like Tora’s family to take the final guest room here in the main building. If Marcus is called away, it leaves Tora and Scarlet easy targets.”

“Agreed. Deal with Adam then see to Tora. Inform her that if there’s an attack on the compound, and if it’s safe to move within the main building, she should find Tabitha and Bethany. She’ll be all right with them.” Ty had his hand on the door handle when he turned around to face Raja who already had his cell phone out and was dialing Adam’s number. “Tell Adam he’ll find a strong muscle relaxer that’s used on our kind in the medical kit Doc sent him. I want Victor sedated for transport.”

Raja nodded, hitting the call button. “Are you somewhere private?” he asked Adam as his voice filled the line. After a pause, he continued. “Good. The Russian is his father, Victor Senior. He heads a shifter terrorist group in Russia. Victor needs to be detained tonight. We want him sedated and brought bound and blindfolded back to the compound. Do you need more men?” I pray not. There might not be enough time to get more men there. “Great. Contact me when the job’s done. Stay safe.”

He hit the end button before clipping the phone back on his jeans. “I need to go see to Tora.”

Bethany watched Raja leave and closed her eyes. What the hell was I thinking to get involved in all of this?

“Bethany, you okay?” Tabitha laid her hand on her leg.

“Okay? No, I’m not okay.” Tears filled her eyes. “How do you deal with this?”

“With our men running off? The guards? The danger?”

“All of it. Don’t you worry about, Ty? Aren’t you scared you’re going to be the next to die, that you’ll lose him?” Bethany snapped the ponytail holder off her wrist and pulled her hair back in a messy ponytail, to get it out of her face.

“I always worry about Ty, as well as Raja and the rest of the clan members. I don’t want to see anyone else die because of this. Pierce has taken too many lives as it is. I deal with it by realizing it has to be done. If not, Pierce is out there with a free killing pass. I can’t live with that. I’ll do whatever I can to see him pay for what happened to our parents, Jamie, and countless other victims. There’s danger but it’s everywhere. You could walk outside and a bus could hit you tomorrow. I’d rather live my life to the fullest with the man I love than cower in fear.”

“But we [_are _]cowering behind the guards.”

“I don’t see it as cowering. We have a job to do for the tigers. We have to be kept safe until the job is complete.” She sounded utterly reasonable.

“That might be fine enough for you. You’re their Queen. Me, on the other hand, I’m no one.” Bethany leaned her head back, resting it on the back of the sofa.

“That’s where you’re wrong, Bethany. Without you we could never do what the future holds for us.” Tabitha gave her an encouraging smile.

“What?”

“After I came back to the clan, the book you’ve already seen told us Raja had to find his mate before we could start the process of bringing the tigers together. You’re part of this destiny as much as the rest of us. You’ll play a key part in this. Don’t doubt that you’re meant to be here or that Raja would give his life for you.” Tabitha squeezed her leg.

“That’s the problem. I don’t want him to give his life for me. I don’t want to live without him.”

Shadow walked from the window, coming around the sofa to squat near Bethany. “I’m sure Raja has told you of my gift. That I know things, mates, the future, pasts. I can tell you there’s nothing to worry about. Nothing is going to happen to Raja. You’ll be together for many years. One way to protect your mates…[_don’t _]fight them on your guards. They want to keep you safe. You are their top priority, but they also have other things they must worry about. If they know you’ll listen to your guards, and we’ll keep you safe, it will allow them to focus on whatever task is at hand.”

As expected, Tora fought Raja; she didn’t want to leave her cabin, until Marcus returned from the briefing and put his foot down. “I agree with Raja that it’s a precaution that we should take. Now go pack what you need for yourself and Scarlet. You have twenty minutes. I won’t have you and Scarlet alone as a target when I’m needed to defend the compound. At least in the main building you’ll be safe. There will be more guards there.”

After Tora stormed out of the room, leaving them alone, Marcus turned to Raja. “Taber will be landing in ten minutes. Ty’s meeting him at the landing field. I’m sure you would rather be there. Also, Adam’s team will move in on Victor within the hour.”

“Appreciated. Get her moving. I want her in the main building long before Victor is detained.”

After leaving Tora’s cabin, he pulled out his cell phone to text Shadow. Moving to the landing strip. Taber’s due in. Adam moves on Victor within the hour.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Thirty-Six

“Taber, this is my mate Bethany and Ty’s mate Tabitha. Ladies, Taber is a Kodiak bear shifter. He’s been generous enough to come look intimidating while we interrogate Victor.”

“Wow,” Tabitha and Bethany both quietly whispered.

“I know my size can be daunting, but I promise you unless provoked, I’m a big teddy bear. Ty, Raja, and I go back many years. I’m only here to help.” Taber stood almost seven-foot-three; every part of his body was toned and tight. His massive frame made people shy away at first glance but not Tabitha and Bethany; they stared at him with open mouths.

“I’m sorry.” Bethany blinked a few times. She looked as if she wanted to pinch herself to make sure she was truly awake. “I just never…”

“Don’t worry, Bethany, I get that reaction a lot.”

“I didn’t mean to be impolite.”

“I understand. Raja tells me shifters are new to you. I hope you won’t hold my size against me.”

“I should apologize as well,” Tabitha said, shaking her head like a cat would to shed water.

“Now that we have the stares and apologies out of the way, maybe we can move on.” Raja laughed, amused by their reaction. “Bethany, Taber is going to bunk in our guest room since the main guest accommodations are full. I hope you don’t mind.”

“No, that’s fine. I hope you’ll find it suitable.”

“Where’s Ty?” Tabitha looked to the door as if expecting him to be only moments behind Raja and Taber.

“He went with Milo and Thomas to check on the cabin we’ll be using. He’ll be back shortly. When he gets back, we’re going to have some downtime. Anyone who wants to catch some sleep before shit hits the fan better do it. Adam’s team is taking down Victor within the hour. If all goes well, they should be here within the next six hours.” Fatigue began to overtake Raja as he dropped to the sofa like a ton of bricks. Too much stress, long hours, and not enough sleep was catching up with him.

“You want some coffee?” Tabitha asked.

“No thanks.” He rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger before squeezing the bridge of his nose. “I’m going to try to catch a few winks once Ty’s back. Tabitha, while Ty and I are questioning Victor, Felix and Thomas will be guarding you. Shadow and Styx will be with you, Bethany. If anything changes, the guards will bring Bethany here, unless this area is compromised. We decided this since Ty’s quarters overlook the main area of the compound, giving the guards a chance to see out, and because it’s more protected. Marcus will remain with Tora unless he’s needed. They’re just down the hall in one of the guest rooms.”

He went over the strategy while they waited for Ty. They agreed to keep the women and the guards abreast on the situations. Being informed allowed them to be ready if and when something happened.

Raja’s cell vibrated as he looked up to see Ty and Thomas entering. Moving on him. Will contact once he’s in custody.

Raja lay on top of the covers next to Bethany, dozing. She slept deeply, but even in sleep she held onto him. He could feel her uneasiness and knew she was fearful of losing him. She’d lost so much already.

It pained him to think of how frightened she was. He wondered how he could alleviate her concerns, but he didn’t think there was a way. It was his job to protect Ty and Tabitha. He was on the front lines, which was why he’d avoided mating in the first place. He never wanted to be in this position, with a lover always terrified he’d never come home.

Oh Bethany, I wish I could take your fears away, to promise I’ll always be here for you.

He brushed a stray hair from her face, when all of a sudden his phone vibrated.

He’s in custody. Little worse for wear, but he’ll live. Boarding plane now.

The news he’d been waiting for. Call when you’re an hour out. Great job.

He quickly typed a message to Ty before closing his eyes again: Team’s on the way with Victor. They’ll call an hour out.

“I thought you were supposed to be sleeping?” She peered at him through half-shut eyes.

“The phone woke me,” he lied.

“About Victor?”

“They’re on their way.” He cuddled against her. “Should be here in roughly six hours.”

They couldn’t have timed Victor’s arrival better if they tried. In the early morning hours, the compound was quiet and only the guards patrolled the grounds. They’d doubled the number of guards on each shift, as well as adding extra guards to watch Victor. A makeshift cell was installed in the cabin, allowing them to hold him without concerns.

The lights lined the runway as everyone turned to the plane coming into view. The apprehension and the energy in the air was almost palpable. Ty and Raja stood surrounded by a few chosen guards, all anxious to deal with Victor. Despite their eagerness, they knew the likelihood of discovering something useful about Pierce was doubtful. If Victor had any honor or loyalty, he wouldn’t betray Pierce.

“If he is badly injured, Galen should be here,” Doc said, coming to stand next to Raja.

“You’re not here to heal him, unless he’s dying. You’re here to make sure his wounds won’t kill him before we have a chance to question him. If he’s suffering from injuries from his attempt to avoid capture, then so be it. He deserves them.”

The plane landed before Doc could argue further, but he had no doubt he would hear Doc’s complaints in time. “Let’s break this bastard,” Raja announced, jogging toward the plane that stopped a few yards in front of them.

Raja’s life was fuller than he’d ever expected. He’d found his mate, and Bethany somehow changed his heart. She’d gone through hell, but came out stronger. She lost everything yet remained willing to love again. She gave him back his reason for living.

He was no longer just the Lieutenant of the Alaskan Tigers; he was also her mate. With more determination than ever to keep his mate and the clan safe, he opened the plane door, and dragged Victor onto the ground, where he hung limply from the drugs in his system. Anger invigorated Raja, and he wouldn’t stop until he dismantled Pierce and the entire gang—for Ty, Tabitha, and Bethany.

“Time to play, Victor.”

The war is on…

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Tigress for Two

Alaskan Tigers: Book Three

A life lived in fear…

Kallie lived her life hiding from everyone and everything except selected members of her clan, fearing someone would discover who she was and what she had fled. She would not be tortured again, no matter if the cost was her life. When Taber enters her life, she isn’t sure if she should trust him or run as fast and as far as she can. His presence changes everything, and to let him in means she must remove the guards keeping her safe since her escape.

A debt that is owed…

Taber owes the Alaskan Tigers more than he could ever repay. They supported him and his Kodiak bear sleuth when they needed backing the most. He has joined their fight against the rogue tigers in order to repay his debt. Finding his mate among the Alaskan Tigers was unexpected. He always wanted a female bear as his sow mate, and to raise a few cubs of his own. What he didn’t need was a tigress with trust issues.

A love that could destroy them…

Finding his mate should be the best day of Thorben’s life, but when he comes to Taber’s aid and discovers his destined tigress mate is already his brother’s mate, brotherhood must overcome nature, because bears mate for life.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter One

Taber Brown rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand for the umpteenth time in the last twenty minutes. Hour after hour, they scanned every shred of evidence Adam’s team brought back from San Francisco once they seized Victor. They hoped to discover something that would lead them to Pierce, but nothing so far. Everything they discovered reinforced their belief—Victor only teamed with Pierce to further his own agenda.

Could Pierce be so daft he wouldn’t have seen Victor’s true motivation? That was the question haunting not only Taber, but the Elders of the Alaskan Tigers as well. If they could see through Victor, surely Pierce had as well.

The papers cluttering the table detailed Victor’s plans to bring Bratva—the brotherhood, a Russian shifter terrorist group—to the states. Over the years, it appeared Victor had been gathering followers from different shifter groups with like-minded beliefs.

Taber pushed papers aside, searching for his squeeze bottle of honey buried somewhere under the clutter. With hours left, before the day’s end, he needed his honey to see him through. Where did that damn bottle go?

“Bear.” Adam growled when Taber shoved more papers out of the way. “You finished your honey an hour ago.”

“Shit.”

“We stocked some for you in the compound’s kitchen. Go get a refill and then get some damn sleep. You’re grumpy when you’re tired.”

“I’m a bear, damn it.” He rose, stretching his long legs. To him being a bear explained everything, but to the tigers well it might have been another story, especially after Adam raised an eyebrow. At that moment, Taber didn’t care.

He’d swing by the kitchen for another bottle of honey before checking in with the men guarding Victor. He also hoped to find Ty or Raja before hitting the sack, to see if any progress was made gaining information from Victor.

The kitchen was on the far side of the main compound building, away from the private quarters of the Alpha and Lieutenant, giving them both seclusion and security. He slipped his hand into the front pocket of his sweatshirt, his fingers wrapping around his cell phone. As he turned the last corner, leading to the long hallway toward the kitchen, he collided with a woman.

“Shit,” she said. Coffee covered the front of her shirt.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t expect anyone to be around here this time of the night.” Being over seven foot, he stared down at her. The white stripes sprinkled through her long, curly brown hair caught his attention. [_Did she do those on purpose? _]According to his cousin, they were highlights, but Taber couldn’t fathom why anyone would want such stripes painting their hair.

“You’re a damn shifter. You should have sensed me coming!” She growled at him, blotting the coffee stain with a napkin, but it only served to make matters worse.

“I said I was sorry, what more do you want woman?”

“Obviously nothing.” She snarled, shoving the napkins in her nearly empty coffee cup. She released a heavy sigh and moved to pass him.

He reached out, wrapping his hand around her small arm. She winced as if expecting him to cause her pain. He hated seeing fear resonating from her. What happened to cause her such distress? “You’re right, I should have sensed you, but I wasn’t paying attention. Let me get you another cup.”

A sudden shot of electricity vibrated through their contact. He couldn’t tear his gaze from her.

This can’t be happening. My mate can’t be a tigress. I won’t have it. Especially a tigress with a haunted look in her eyes.

“So you can spill it over me again? I think not.” She pulled her arm free and pushed past him. He turned, his gaze following her as she sauntered down the hallway away from him. The sway of her hips drew his attention to her long, lush legs. The three-inch high heels she wore only served to add more sashay to her swaying hips. He wanted to run after her, to explore the electric jolt he received from her contact, but he instructed his feet to remain where he stood. He didn’t want a tigress as his mate, and he doubted he could help ease the pain within her.

Unwilling to go back to the kitchen for another cup of coffee, Kallie walked across the compound back to her room. The cold night air sent shivers down her spine, thankfully it wasn’t snowing again. She loved winter and all the white, fluffy snow, but they had more than enough the last few days to satisfy her need.

[_Damn, bear. Who the hell does he think he is, laying a hand on me? _]A simple touch served to remind her of all the years she suffered at the hands of another. She did her best to block the haunting memories and thanks to Adam’s appearance she managed to keep them at bay again.

“Hey Kallie, what you doing out at this time of night?” Unlike with Taber, she now had her senses on high alert and smelled Adam before he stepped from the darkness. Heavy circles shadowed under his eyes and his shoulders sagged in defeat. Whatever is going on is taking a toll on the lead guards.

“I was grabbing a cup of coffee before my shift at command central.” When Adam’s gaze fell to her empty hands, she pointed to her solid sweater. “That damn bear wasn’t paying attention and spilled it on me. I’m just going to change quickly.”

“Tigers are quiet creatures, unlike bears. He probably didn’t hear you coming.”

“I guess.” She glanced down at one of her favorite green sweaters and hoped the coffee would wash out. “I’ll see you later. I have to change. Mark gets grumpy when I’m late.”

“Be safe. You know we have a prisoner on the grounds.”

She nodded and left to change. Who is this prisoner? Many in the compound assumed because of her job in command central she might have inside information, but in reality she was in the dark as everyone else. The Elders and their guards were tightlipped when it came to security issues, unless they were briefing the whole clan.

Her apartment was a studio at best, with a small kitchenette, sitting area, and a bed that dominated most of the room. Many of the unmarried guards lived in similar styled studios. The small space didn’t bother the male guards since they rarely cooked, but she missed having a house and privacy without neighbors on each side. Every time she opened her door there was someone nearby. Since moving to Alaska, her clan had been building new cabins for the guards, and her name had nearly reached the top of the list. It wouldn’t be much longer until she had a real home to call her own.

The only one benefit to her current living arrangement was that she didn’t have to do the laundry. Twice a week some of the clan woman would come by to pick up her linens and clothes. They’d be returned later that day washed, and folded neatly on her bed. Doing laundry had never been high on Kallie’s enjoyment list.

Slipping the soiled sweater off, she tossed it into the laundry bag, before grabbing another from the drawer. Another favorite sweater, a warm, heather gray with bright white stitching, and rosy pink trimming around the collar, waist, and sleeves.

If that bear came near her again she’d be sure to stay a good distance away, especially if she had anything to drink in her hands. She wouldn’t tolerate him ruining another favorite sweater. This particular sweater gave her a confidence she didn’t normally have, even helped her forget about those damn white streaks in her hair.

Changed, she headed back to command central, where she dreaded seeing Mark who would be irritated for cutting her arrival so close to shift change. She avoided stepping on any slick icy spots along the way. Yes, high-heeled, knee-high boots weren’t best for this climate, but since finding the security of the Alaskan Tigers, she favored heels. For the first time, she could embrace being a woman and not just a tiger. She had heels to go with every outfit, for every occasion.

She opened the door and saw Mark pacing the room, his arms crossed over his chest. “Where have you been?”

“Mark, you’re never going to find a mate if you keep barking at women. I thought you were a tiger, not one of those idiot wolves.” He continued to glare at her, waiting for an answer to his question. “Come on, Mark, give me a break. That damn bear ran into me. He spilled coffee on my sweater, so I had to change. Plus, I’m on time.” She flashed him a smile, hoping to warm his chilly heart.

“Fine.” He grabbed his coat from the back of the chair, nodding to the bank of computer screens. “You see any unannounced movement in area four, contact Ty or Raja privately about the activity, no matter the time. You understand?”

Her gaze moved to each computer monitor before returning to Mark. “It’s not my first day on the job, I can handle it.” Would he ever trust she could do the job even though she was a woman? She doubted it, but what mattered was Ty and Raja thought she could. “Is that where the prisoner is being held?”

“How…” He frowned.

“I ran into Adam on my way to change, he mentioned there was a prisoner on the grounds. So, is that where he is?” She glanced to area four to be certain there was no change in activity. She’d have to watch that section very carefully while on duty. They wouldn’t have a prisoner in their compound, especially not one of their own, unless it had something to do with the rogue gang they had been tracking.

He stepped toward the door, his dark shadowed eyes indicating he was clearly ready for his shift to end and to get some sleep. “Yes, now be sure to pay close attention to the monitors.”

“I got it.” She saluted as he closed the door.

Peace. She sank onto the chair, her gaze scrolling over the monitors and then returning to area four again. Who do they have in that old abandoned cabin? It couldn’t be Pierce, the leader of the rogues. There was no way Ty or Raja would stand for him to be that close to their mates, not after he single-handedly killed Tabitha’s and then Bethany’s parents, and nearly killed Bethany when she was kidnapped and used as ransom to gain Tabitha. To her Alpha and Lieutenant, whatever information could be gained would never outweigh the risk to their mates. They were good men and would protect not only their mates, but the whole clan, regardless of the danger to themselves.

Movement in area three caught her eye, drawing her attention from area four for a brief moment. Taber.

Her core moistened with desire just watching him stroll across the grounds. Ever since their encounter earlier, her body longed for his touch, to feel his fingers running over her skin. It had been too long since she had the touch of another, but then she remembered why.

Betrayal.

Only once had she given her heart and body to another, and in the end it nearly killed her. She vowed to never make that mistake again, and she’d be damn certain she wouldn’t with a bear. Filthy creatures.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Two

Honey in hand and one in his sweatshirt pocket for later, Taber crossed the grounds, determined to check on the progress of their prisoner before crashing for the night.

He swallowed a squeeze of honey and then using his forefinger, he pressed the button on his ear to transmit a signal to the guards, as well as command central. “Taber, area four.”

His ear piece crackled. “Approved.”

It was her voice! That woman—his destined mate—he spilled coffee on. Even with a hint of anger lacing her words as she yelled at him earlier for staining her sweater, she sounded like an angel to Taber.

Too bad, she’s a freaking tigress.

He had nothing against tigers. He considered the Alaskan Tigers part of his family or he wouldn’t be helping them with their fight against the rogues. Though, he’d rather be home in Nome catching salmon in his stream and searching for a sow mate of his own. Not a tigress…

He shook his head, pushing her from his thoughts, before opening the cabin door. The West Virginia Alpha, Jinx, leaned against the wall with his cowboy hat riding low on his head, effectively shielding his eyes from view. Next to Jinx, Korbin stood guard, his body stiff and arms crossed behind him—ready for action.

“How’s it going?” Taber shut the door behind him.

“He’s not giving anything up yet. Raja just sedated him for the night. Everyone needs rest. Ty and Raja selected Korbin and a couple other guards to take watch,” Jinx explained.

Raja exited the adjoining room. “I thought you would have turned in.”

Taber waved the bottle of honey. “Honey run and I thought I’d check the progress before I did.”

“Jinx, you mind waiting until Thomas gets out here?” When Jinx nodded, Raja turned back to Taber. “Come on, I’ll fill you in on the way.”

They stepped out into the cold night air. Snowflakes dotted the air, landing in Taber’s hair and on his cheeks. Before long, the snow now coating the ground would be covered with another fresh layer. Not that it bothered Taber. He lived in Alaska for the cold weather. Snowy terrain was second nature to his kind, and with the snow forcing humans inside they didn’t have to worry about prying eyes catching them when they shifted.

“Victor’s not giving anything up. He doesn’t believe we have any leads. Connor was able to add a few red flags to Victor Senior’s passport, so he didn’t make it through customs, and is now on his way back to Russia.” Raja stared into the night’s sky for a moment. “Being the head of the shifter terrorist group in Russia isn’t going to stop him from trying to get back in the states if he wants, especially if he suspects someone is onto him. He would have the same connections we have, and could remove those red flags without too much hassle.”

“If he’s not telling us anything, what now? Want me to take a crack at him?”

“Not yet. Ty and I will go at him in the morning. If he still doesn’t give us the information we need, we’ll find other means of making him talk, but we have to be quick. The longer he’s here, the more dangerous it is for the clan.”

Taber knew Raja was concerned about Tabitha and Bethany. The original plan had been to detain Victor somewhere outside the compound, away from the mates, woman, and children. “We’ll keep them safe.” Taber hoped to relive Raja’s concerns. “We’ve already doubled the guards on duty.” Taber sighed when they neared the warmth of Raja’s quarters, his body screamed with exhaustion.

Raja nodded and waved Taber inside. “Get some rest. We’ll deal with Victor tomorrow, when we’re both refreshed from a night’s rest.”

Taber caught sight of the tiger’s mate, Bethany, asleep on the sofa. She must have been waiting for Raja. Shadow and Styx, her guards, sat nearby. Taber tapped Raja’s shoulder and headed to the guest room. He was ready to collapse into bed and catch as much sleep as he could in the few short downtime hours he had. But sleep proved elusive. Thoughts of Kallie crept into his mind, the memory of her sexy voice hardened his shaft instantly. If only she wasn’t a tigress.

After hours of tossing in bed, Taber gave up on sleep. His hard shaft and body demanded he go to Kallie. Rising, he stretched and rolled his head from side to side. He needed coffee and more honey to lift the fog from his brain.

Not wanting to wake Raja and his mate, he quietly stepped to the counter and made a pot of coffee. While the coffee perked, he stood by the counter looking out the window at the snow covered grounds. A thin layer of white powder lay on top of what had fallen yesterday. Before long spring would be upon them and the snow would melt. Alaska didn’t have summers like the continental United States. Winter being the main season here, there was no need for air conditioners. To Taber the colder air made the land even more special—a place he never wanted to leave. This was his home.

The communication device, still in his ear, pierced his hearing. “The activity level is increasing in area four. I can’t raise the guards on their communication device. Nearest Elder or Elder team member report to area four and advise on the situation.” Kallie’s voice was sharp and held a note of concern.

“Taber, reporting to area four.” He shut off the coffee and ran steady to the door, no longer worrying if he woke Raja and Bethany.

“Raja, reporting as well. Contact Shadow and have her report to duty.”

“Yes, sir.” Kallie responded to Raja through the transmitting system, and then added Shadow to the conversation, explaining the situation. The urgency in her voice tugged at Taber, but his need was trumped by the threat hanging in the air.

Taber fought the temptation to shift. He was faster in bear form, but with no idea of what awaited them, he had to preserve his energy and keep his weapons intact. He normally didn’t carry a gun, but with Victor on site and the danger level spiking with each minute their prisoner drew breath, all guards who knew how to shoot were equipped with weapons. Tranquilizer guns were also stored throughout the compound, within quick reach if the situation became out of control.

Taber skidded to a halt as Thomas stumbled out of the cabin where Victor was being held. Thomas’ face was pale and blood dripped from his nose.

“What the hell happened?” Taber held a breath.

“Victor somehow broke through one of the chains. I thought he was still passed out, and I was checking on him when he attacked.” Thomas slipped off his shirt and used it to soak up some of the blood. “He only had one arm free, but he packs a damn punch.”

Taber whipped around him and into the cabin. Korbin was already there, adding more chains to secure the now sedated Victor. Raja entered on Taber’s heels.

“I told Thomas to shift and go to a healer. Marcus is on his way, he’ll take over Thomas’ duty. We need to deal with Victor today. We got lucky this time, next time we might not.” Raja glanced from the prisoner to Taber. “Ty’s gathering the team and we’ll need a plan of action before we take on Victor. I’m tired of putting the clan at risk. We’ll gather the information from Victor one way or another and then…”

Raja didn’t say more. Everyone in the room knew once they had the information they needed from Victor, he was a dead man. They couldn’t allow Victor to roam free again as a rogue. There were no alternatives. Being a shifter meant no weakness, especially not one in a position of power, like Ty and Raja.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Three

Taber sat on one of the leather chairs surrounding the conference table. The weeks of only a few hours of sleep had begun to take its toll on not only him but everyone in the room. Even dividing their resources to have someone working through the extensive information and potential leads night and day, still meant longer hours for him and the Elders. He knew he couldn’t continue down this path of little to no sleep night after night if he was to be ready for an attack. Rest was a must.

The Elders of the Alaskan Tigers clan, Ty, Tabitha, Raja, and Bethany, sat at the head of the table, the weight of the situation clearly visible in their eyes. The Captain of their Guards, Felix and Shadow, stood on each side of the Elders as they always were. Ty and Raja not only had the clan to think about, but also their mates, and Tabitha had the imposing duty to not only the Alaskan Tigers, but to all tiger shifters. Without her they would cease to exist. She was the Queen of all Tigers.

Though Taber was a Kodiak bear shifter, it didn’t mean he would not be affected if she did not carry out her duty. The Alaskan Tigers and the Kodiak Bears had worked together to bring peace to the region’s shifter population. Without Ty and his clan, Alaska would still be in turmoil. Rumor and lore suggested once Tabitha united all tiger shifters, other shifters, and other species, they would band together and there’d be harmony amongst all.

Taber was here not only to repay a debt, but because he valued their friendship. Their fight was his fight, just as he knew he could count on them if things were reversed. Victor was a threat to all shifters. Victor and his father planned to bring Bratva to the states. If that happened, all shifters would be in danger.

“Now that everyone has had their coffee and the fog is lifting from your brains, we can begin.” Ty waved a hand for everyone to be seated. “Regardless of our attempts, Victor has been uncooperative. He keeps repeating the end will be coming for you. Long live Bratva. We know who Bratva is, but the members, besides Victor Senior, are unknown. Connor and Lukas are heading the intelligence team, so if anyone can find the information it’s them.” Ty turned to Connor. “Do you have anything to report at this time?”

“Only that the Bratva is very dangerous. They control all Russian shifters, no matter the species. If you don’t conform to their ways, they’ll send a message by killing someone you love. If all else fails, they won’t hesitate to kill to maintain order. Humans and shifters live in fear of their organization. The Russian citizens only know them as a terrorist group. They don’t realize the Bratva are shifters. Humans are collateral damage to them. They could care less if any humans were injured or killed because of their actions.” Connor placed a picture on the main screen. “This is Victor Senior. The information I gathered leads me to determine his animal has taken over and there’s nothing left to the person who once was.”

“There must be something we can do…to save the Russian shifters?” Bethany stared at Raja.

“Do you want to go to Russia?” Adam lowered is head. “I apologize. I spoke out of line. I only mean that it’s unlikely anyone would volunteer to go, and if the Russian shifters are under Bratva’s control already, there’s little we can do.”

“No, we can do something,” Raja said. “Taking Victor Senior out of his position of power might be enough to halt the organization and free the shifters under its control.”

“And how do you plan to do this?” Taber stepped forward.

“A trap. How else?” Raja raised an eyebrow. “You know the kitty within all of us loves to draw people in. We’ll dangle a string and he’ll come running, that string being his son.”

“You want to bring him to the states? Isn’t that what we’ve been trying to avoid, why we took Victor down before Victor Senior could arrive?” Adam frowned.

Ty stood at the head of the table. “We don’t want him here, and he’d realize it’s a trap. Nevertheless, with any luck we’ll be able to find out more of his plans. We have too much to deal with already. The Russian shifters need to free themselves from his hold if they’re going to survive. We’ll keep a close tab on Bratva and if his followers become a problem for us, they’ll be dealt with.”

“What’s this trap that will help take Victor Senior out of his position within Bratva?” Marcus, Raja’s brother-in-law, asked.

“We’ll send him a video like Pierce sent us when he kidnapped Bethany.”

Taber noticed Raja didn’t mention the other video, the one where Pierce killed Bethany’s family. Everyone in the room was probably already thinking about it. The sadness around Bethany’s eyes and frown engraved on her forehead were clear indications where her thoughts laid.

Ty continued. “Let Victor Senior know we have his son, and if he wants him back, he’ll have to come for him. If he comes, which is doubtful, there’s our chance. We’ll offer him a deal, his son’s life in exchange for information and that he step down from his current position.”

“After all this, we’re going to let Victor live?” Marcus leaned forward, placing his hands on the table, his energy vibrating off the table. Marcus was the only other mated male in the room besides the Elders, and he wasn’t just thinking of the clan, but also of his wife Tora, Raja’s sister.

“No, Victor is too much of a threat to us, other shifters, and humans. He’s a rogue and he’ll die, no matter the outcome with Victor Senior. Like I said, it’s just a string we’re dangling, playing our cards to win.” Ty stalked the room like a caged tiger. “Back to Victor, Tabitha has a way to get him to release any information he might be withholding.”

Tabitha placed her coffee mug on the table, her gaze sweeping across the room. “Everyone who sits before me knows of the book that will help guide me in uniting the tiger shifters. It has let me know about the healer, Galen who has recently joined our clan, and many other things. The book has provided us a way to gather what we need.” She pulled a small vial from her pocket, holding it between her thumb and forefinger. “This will give us everything we need.”

“How?” Adam leaned forward, his attention on the bottle in her hand. “If you’re supposed to make him drink it, that’s going to be difficult, he hasn’t touched anything we’ve offered him.”

“He doesn’t drink it. I do.” She sat the vial on the table.

“I’m not sure this is a good idea.” Taber’s voice broke the silence. “We can’t risk you, Tabitha.”

“I already had that argument with her.” Ty leaned against the wall looking from his mate to Taber. “It gets worse,” Ty said. “Go ahead, Tabby, tell them everything.”

“Once I drink the liquid, I’ll be able to see everything Victor won’t tell us. I’ll have full access to his mind, his memories, everything.” She lifted her coffee cup, taking a sip before she continued. “I will have the information we need.”

“How?” Felix, the Captain of Tabitha’s Guards spoke up.

“With a touch…”

“There has to be another way!” Taber cut off Tabitha’s explanation, glancing from Tabitha to her mate, Ty.

Tabitha nodded, acknowledging Taber’s concern for her safety. “We’re running out of time. The longer Victor’s here the more danger for everyone. We need to worry about everyone’s safety not just mine. He’s restrained…”

“My Queen, this is too much danger. He broke free from his chain only hours ago.” Felix turned to Ty. “How can you support this?”

“Felix, I understand your concern,” Ty responded. “It’s your duty to protect her, but the guardians of the book wouldn’t put her in danger if there was another way. They wouldn’t give us a guide to the information if it meant her death.” Ty pushed away from the wall and walked toward Tabitha. “I’m not happy about this anymore than the rest of you. Tabitha is my mate, and more than anyone, I want her safe, but there’s no alternative. The room will be full of guards, and Galen and Bethany will be standing by to heal in case anyone is injured.” He touched his mate’s shoulder. “Like Tabby said, the longer he’s here the more danger the clan is in. We need to eliminate one threat so we can focus on Pierce. The longer we wait to take the gang of rogues down, the harder it will become.”

Raja rose from his seat. “Ty, our mates, and I will come up with the best strategy for this plan. Once we have the final details the guards will be notified. In the meantime, we need your help in finding Pierce. He’s our main concern if we’re going to keep our clan safe. I want everyone to focus on locating him, and finding Robin Zimmer. The book has advised us she’s also a key to finding Pierce. Her late husband had dealings with Pierce and might have told her something. She may know where the rogues were held up. We have to find her before the rogues do.” Raja nodded, his signal the meeting and further discussion was over.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Four

Taber stopped by command central for another stack of intelligence that needed to be reviewed before making his way back to Raja’s quarters. Catching Kallie’s scent at command central, invaded his head with visions of her. The memory made his shaft hard. Damn fate for mating me with a tigress.

Angry at his dumb fate luck, he had to blow off steam. He promised the beast within him a shift as soon as he read through the files. He’d let the bear free to roam in the icy stream running through the back of the compound, and if he was lucky he’d find dinner. In his bear form maybe Kallie wouldn’t be so ever present in his mind.

“Hey, Taber.” Raja pointed to a chair as Taber entered Raja’s quarters. “We’re about to get started, and we’d like you to join us.”

Taber grew apprehensive. Why would Raja want him to sit in on the meeting when both sets of their guards were standing outside Raja’s quarters? Taber knew Raja never acted without a reason, so he nodded, tossing the files on the coffee table and pulled a chair out at the kitchen table where the Elders sat. Taber glanced to Ty and Tabitha who were hand in hand at the end of the table. Taber still didn’t like the idea of Tabitha risking her life to gather information from Victor. It wasn’t a woman’s place to confront danger head on. Women were precious and needed to be protected if their species was to continue, especially for the tiger shifters. Without Tabitha, they would simply cease to exist.

“What’s on your mind, Taber?” Bethany asked when he continued to stare at Tabitha, his lips curved into a frown and the muscles in his shoulders tense with concern.

He shook his head, lowering his bulky frame onto the chair. “Nothing. This vial, how do you know it’s safe?”

Tabitha released Ty’s hand and placed hers on the book before her. It sprang open. “This book has been my guide since Ty came to Pennsylvania and found me. It’s been the reason behind everything we’ve accomplished so far. Without it I wouldn’t have thought to create the core group with Felix, Marcus, Thomas, and now Shadow. They’re going to be key elements to our success. This book brought us our healer, Galen. Without him we might never have known about Bethany’s ability to heal.”

“Okay, but…”

“Let me finish, Taber, and I promise you’ll soon understand.” Tabitha paused a moment, waiting for his silence. “This book has been passed down from generation to generation in my family. There was a whole section hidden, lying in wait until it found me. Every time I need answers it’s there, guiding me on the path I need to take to unite the tiger shifters. This newest development is just one of many. I have no fear this vial will do anything more or less than what it says and I’ll come to no harm. It’s our only option, and we’re running out of time.”

“I don’t think it’s worth the risk. Couldn’t one of us take it instead? That way, you’re safe. I could take it…” Taber reached for the bottle, only to have Tabitha’s hand tightly clench around it.

“As her mate, don’t you think I would have offered the same if it was a possibility?” Anger flared in Ty’s eyes.

Taber retracted his hand as if bitten. “I meant no disrespect. I only wish to keep you both safe.”

“We don’t have time for this.” Tabitha stared at the vial in her hand. “Only I can do it.”

“Tabitha will do this for us, and we need to figure out how to keep her safe.” Raja placed a tray on the table and began pouring the coffee. “After Victor broke his chains this morning, we doubled them, but we don’t know if they will hold him. There’s no way we can surround him since Tabitha will have to touch him. Where does that leave us? Packing the room full of guards armed to the max?”

“Only a few guards. If things get out of control, I don’t want anyone hit by friendly fire. We can have more forces waiting in the other room with Bethany and Galen.” Ty slid his arm around Tabitha’s shoulders, pulling her to his body. “Felix, Adam, Taber, Raja, and I will escort Tabitha. Shadow and Styx will protect Bethany so if there’s chaos I want them to get her out of there.”

Raja leaned back, grabbing his coffee cup. “Felix and Ty will get Tabitha to safety if things go wrong. We’ve already decided to put Victor down in a humane way. There’s a tranquilizer gun loaded with the correct dose to stop his heart. Taber, you’ll be in charge of that. I’d rather take him down with my bare hands.” His voice was low, but in a room full of shifters, everyone heard him. Bethany, the only non-shifter, wrapped her hand around Raja’s, squeezing it lightly. He brought her knuckles to his lips and kissed them softly. “Don’t worry love, we’ll protect you.”

Taber watched the display of emotion with an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. His gaze wandered to the left to find Ty and Tabitha embracing as well. He understood that shifters preferred to touch their mates, to put them at ease, but their intimate moment of affection made him feel very alone.

Alone? Bears preferred to be alone, but for the first time, Taber didn’t. He wanted a mate, the same happiness that Ty and Raja had with their mates. What I don’t want is a tigress mate. Why can’t I settle down with a sow, and raise a few cubs?

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Five

Taber thumbed through yet another file, his eyes crossing after reviewing one computer printout after another, while Raja and Styx filmed Victor. Connor would place a sound over, before they sent the final recording to Victor Senior. Everyone was on standby waiting for the recording to be sent before Tabitha could find the answers they need, because once they had the information from Victor there would be no reason to keep him alive.

“Taber, why don’t you take a break? You and the others have been at those files nonstop for days.” Bethany handed him another bottle of honey to replace the one he just finished.

“Thank you.” He took the bottle of honey and squirted the golden liquid in his mouth. As he swallowed, the tension melted from his body. “That’s exactly what I needed. I’m fine now.”

“You’re working too hard.” Bethany stretched on the sofa across from him, her own stack of files on her lap.

“Isn’t that like the pot calling the kettle black?” He raised an eyebrow. “You’ve been putting in just as many hours as the rest of us, and I suspect getting less sleep. Yet you’re sitting there doing the same thing I am.”

“That’s different.”

“How?” Interested in her excuse, he put the pages he was reading down on the table.

“Ummm…I’m…the Lieutenant’s mate. I have to pull my weight somehow.”

“Bethany, I’ll give you credit, you’re quick on your feet and that’s almost a believable excuse, too.” He chuckled. “I know how much you want to take down Pierce. We all do. We can’t stop now. The next lead might be the break we need to take down his gang of rogues.”

A knock on the door sent Taber on high alert. Nerves on edge, he shot Shadow a quick glance before advancing to the door. No one should be here, not at this time, without warning. Someone couldn’t have gained access to the compound without alerting security, but until he knew who was standing on the other side of the door it was his responsibility to protect Bethany. As he crept to the door, Taber tilted his neck from side to side, loosening his tight muscles. Taber nodded to Shadow, a signal to be ready for anything.

A familiar scent wafted past his nose just a step from the door. His shoulders eased. The person waiting for him to answer the door posed them no harm. Kallie…

He pulled open the door and the sweet smell of morning, where the dew still clung to the ground and summer just around the corner—pure Kallie—hit him with such force he almost took a step back. His body called to her. He wanted to take her in his arms and hold her against his body. If she wasn’t a different species, he would have. He would have forgotten about all the danger and claimed his mate. Damn it!

“What is it, Kallie?” Taber had to get out of sight before his hard shaft became noticeable. Out of sight, out of mind wasn’t really the case when it came to mating, but it eased the longing, at least until he claimed her.

“There’s a development, I need to find Raja or Ty. I checked Ty’s quarters, but there was no answer. Do you know where the Elders are?”

His gaze traveled over her face, taking in the fear that burned in her eyes and the strain of her clenched teeth. He longed to reach out and touch her, soothe away her anxiety. “Shadow, stay with Bethany. I’m going to take Kallie to Raja.” Without waiting for an answer, he slipped out the door, closing it behind him. His attention focused on Kallie. “What’s going on?”

“I think I should tell my Elders first.”

He gently grabbed her arm when she started to scurry down the hall, her high heel boots clicking on the hardwood floor. “Answer me this, is there immediate danger that I shouldn’t leave Bethany and Shadow alone? Do I need to order more guards?”

“Not immediate, no. Now let’s go.” She jerked her arm free of his grasp.

He followed her down the hall, watching the way her ass swayed in the tight, faded blue jeans. His beast clawed within him, demanding her, but he refused. I need to get out of here and back to Nome before I can no longer keep the beast chained up.

His twin, Thorben, would see that Taber never heard the last of it when he found out Taber’s mate was a tigress. Thorben didn’t have the same open views as Taber did when it came to other shifters. His twin believed the bear shifters should stay in Nome and mind their own business. Their family hadn’t been able to maintain control over the bear shifters of Alaska and the Alaskan Tigers had to step in, injuring his twin’s pride. It was the only thing the brothers disagreed on.

Taber and Kallie stepped out into the cool afternoon air. The shining sun against the snow cast a shimmering glitter over the land. The ground was slick from the snow melting and refreezing, and when Kallie’s high heel boot walked on the ice she nearly fell flat on her ass. If Taber hadn’t hooked his arm around her waist she would have done just that.

“Careful.” He helped her regain balance, but the damage was already done. The electric current that told shifters they were to be mated, traveled between them. Their gazes met. It did not go unnoticed by her because her eyes revealed the shock. History claimed, once a connection was made there was no chance of breaking the bond formed, linking them. Damn it!

“It can’t be.” She pulled from his grasp with such force she nearly slipped and collapsed to the ground. When he reached out to steady her, she jerked back as if she’d been burned. “Don’t touch me. I don’t want or need a mate, especially not a bear.”

“Listen woman, I’m not happy about this either. I want a sow and cubs of my own.” He stepped aside. “Maybe there’s something we can do about this…to get out of the bond.”

“Yeah, stay away from me.”

Raja and Styx appeared from the side of the building. “What’s going on?” Raja frowned.

“Kallie has information she feels the Elders need to know.” Taber was thankful for the reprieve from Kallie before his temper flared beyond his control. “I’ll leave you to talk.”

“Taber stay, we’ll go into the conference room and continue this conversation.” Raja opened the door and led the way.

Taber sat on one of the leather chairs, eager to get this over with and away from Kallie. For someone who was only a member of the Alaskan Tigers, and not an Elder or guard, Taber had seen a lot of her since spilling coffee on her.

“So what’s this information you bring?” Raja leaned against the wall, hands in the pockets of his stonewashed jeans. Styx might be Shadow’s second when guarding Bethany, but he hung back close to the door, guarding Raja.

Kallie sat, clearly uncomfortable to be in front of the Elder and guards, her gaze traveling between Raja and Styx, before finally settling on Raja. “The guards you have stationed above the compound are reporting activity among Pierce’s men. It seems as though they’re preparing for something. I fear from the information I’ve received, they might be planning an attack.”

Her statement got everyone’s quick attention as silence filled the room.

“Styx, find Ty and tell him what’s going on. Get Tabitha and Bethany together and stay with them.” Raja moved to peer out the conference room windows, not that he could see much beyond the trees. The compound area had been picked for its isolation. The undeveloped land surrounding the compound gave them even more privacy. Ty and Raja purchased all the surrounding tracts when they built the small town to ensure no one would infringe on their clan, and that they could expand, as needed.

“Raja, I think we should proceed with the plan, as soon as possible,” Taber said. It was time to let Tabitha work her magic on Victor. If there was going to be attack on the compound they needed to deal with Victor and eliminate him as a threat. They couldn’t afford to have someone help him escape while they were defending their land and clan.

Raja nodded. “I agree. Kallie go back to command central. Work with Mark to find out anything else.”

Ty walked into the room, his green dress shirt hanging open. He spared Kallie a brief look as she left and then focused on Raja. “Tabby’s with Bethany and the guards, but she’s ready. Has the video been sent to Victor Senior yet?”

“I was on my way to deliver it to Connor when Taber and Kallie found me. I think we should send it first.”

Ty fastened the last button on his shirt. “You do that. I’ll meet up with the women and guards, and we’ll meet you in section four. Taber, if you could head over to command central and see if there’s new information. You have twenty minutes and then I want you to meet us in section four to help guard Tabitha.”

Taber rose from the chair. “Whatever you need.” He followed Ty out of the conference room, and then headed in the opposite direction, following Kallie’s trail. She left behind a scent that was burned in his brain.

Heading back to command central, Kallie cursed her luck for running into Taber again. The one man in the whole compound she wanted to stay away from yet it seemed as if fate kept throwing them together. When she went to Raja’s quarters she expected to find Shadow, Styx, or even one of the other guards. She definitely didn’t expect to see Taber. It never crossed her mind that space was limited with the Captains of the Guards, each occupying one of the guest rooms in the main compound along with Raja’s sister Tora and her family in another It made sense for them to be close with danger lurking the clan, especially with a prisoner close by. She expected Taber to have been in one of the cabins, not Raja’s quarters.

She pushed Taber from her thoughts, at least the best she could, and opened the door. Mark sat behind the main station, watching the computer screens. His eyes appeared more drawn and worried than normal as he focused on one of the cameras covering an area of the undeveloped land surrounding the compound.

“Mark, anything happen while I was gone?” She slid into her post at the other desk. Kallie wasn’t technically on duty, but even if Raja hadn’t ordered her to help Mark, she couldn’t leave him to watch all the screens with the impending danger.

“They’ve moved down the mountainside and found better coverage. It works to our advantage because though we can’t see them, they can’t see us either, not enough to attack. We have a team off to their south, watching. If they make a move we’ll know. Did you find Ty?” He swiveled his chair around, cup of coffee in hand.

“I found Raja, but he sent one of the guards to get Ty. They seem to have something they need to do, but want to be kept advised on how the situation progresses.” She glanced at Mark over her computer monitor. “Do you think they will attack?” Concern laced her voice like a well-worn shirt.

Mark didn’t have a chance to answer before they heard someone lumbering up the steps. She met his eyes just as the door pushed open. Taber stood in the doorway. She kicked herself for not paying attention to the monitor. If she had been aware of Taber’s arrival, she could have made an excuse for a coffee run.

“Taber, come in. What can we do for you?” Mark asked.

“Ty sent me for any new information received. I’d like to speak with the guards on the mountain. See what they know.” The bear shut the door behind him and stepped into the small command central.

The hairs rose on the back of Kallie’s neck. Taber’s bulky frame seemed to take up most of the floor space. She couldn’t breathe. She had to get out of here. With her haunted past running fresh through her mind, being closed in was more than she could take. “Mark, I gotta…” She bolted for the door, unable to finish the sentence.

Gulping the fresh cold air, she fought the nightmares that plagued her day and night.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Six

Taber shook his head, completely confused by Kallie’s sudden departure. He knew she didn’t want this mating any more than he did, but wasn’t her reaction a little overdramatic? He rolled his eyes and turned his attention to Mark, ready to get down to business. If he could help it, he didn’t want anyone to know about their mating bond.

“Don’t worry about Kallie, she’s had a tough past. Closed spaces send her right into panic mode. She’ll return once she gets her shit together.” Mark swiveled his chair around to the computer monitors. “Kallie picked up a transmission from the guards shortly before I came to replace her. It’s recorded. Let me call up the file and you can have a listen.”

While Mark typed away on the keyboard, Taber’s thoughts drifted back to Kallie. [_Tough past? _]He wondered what happened to her and if those white streaks in her hair were part of her haunted past.

“Here you are.” Mark clicked another button.

A male voice crackled through the recording. “They’ve moved approximately twenty yards down the mountainside. We overheard that they’re waiting for orders.”

Kallie’s voice was next. “I’ve located them, but they’re semi-hidden from the camera. I can’t get a good lock on them. Orders for what? Team one can you see what they’re doing?”

Her voice held a hint of panic, but after seeing Mark’s blank expression, Taber knew he was the only one to pick up on it. He continued to listen to the recording.

“We’ve got a read on them. They seem to be practicing hand-to-hand combat. No official data on what orders, but I would speculate they’re planning an attack. Do you have a lock on the other threats?”

“All other threats accounted for…” Kallie’s words were cut off by the guard.

“One of my men overheard they’re waiting for Pierce’s signal! Have you located him? Is he here?” The guard’s voice was anxious. Taber suspected the guard was scanning the mountainside for the leader of the rogues.

“Negative. There’s been no indication he’s been here. I’ll alert the Elders. Keep us advised of the situation on your end.”

Mark turned the communication off. “That’s the complete recording.” He turned to Taber. “Do you think Pierce is here?”

“No, he’s not stupid enough to risk being found. Attacking the compound is a death sentence and even with his beast controlling him, he knows he doesn’t have a chance. He’ll risk his followers, but not himself.” Taber glanced at the monitors. “Do you have the locations of the threats? Of the closest one?”

Mark stood and waved a hand at the map on the wall. “The pins represent each of the known threats and their last recorded location. The guards report in hourly unless there’s movement. This is the closest one.” He pointed to the red pin. The location was halfway up the mountainside, but they would have to go around to attack, otherwise with the steep jagged drop not even a shifter would survive.

“Okay. Ty and Raja are going to be busy, so if there is any movement or any other information coming in I want to know. If they are preparing to attack then obviously alert the Elders as well.”

Taber’s ear bud clicked to life with Ty’s voice. “A group of us are heading to section four.”

“I’m on my way as well,” Taber replied and then turned back to Mark. “I want you and Kallie both on duty watching this situation until we’re finished in section four. If there’s even the slightest change, notify me immediately.”

“Understood. I’ll have one of the ground guards find Kallie.”

“Very well.” Taber walked to the door in two short strides. He needed to hurry. They were working on borrowed time, and had to get whatever information they could from Victor to dispel the threat.

Outside he found Kallie leaning against the rail, her earlier pink cheeks now a pale white. “Kallie.” There were so many things he wanted to say, but it wasn’t the right time. “Mark needs you inside.”

The breeze blew her wild curls. For a moment she appeared angelic. Taber wanted to wrap her in his arms and keep her safe from whatever the coming hours might hold. Regardless of her troubled past, he could never see her as anything but innocent, and innocents needed to be protected.

Kallie released a sigh when Taber left. His spicy male aroma mixed with subtle traces of honey, was as a constant reminder that fate had paired her with a bear. She inhaled another deep breath of fresh air and exhaled, releasing the memories of the past.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Seven

Taber met the other guards outside the cabin where Victor was being held. “We set then?” He checked the tranquilizer gun to make sure it was loaded with the right dose to exterminate Victor.

“Once Raja gets here. He’s waiting for Conner to send the video.” Ty turned to address everyone, his arm tightly around his mate’s waist. “Remember, Felix, Adam, Taber, Raja, and I will go in with Tabitha. Shadow and Styx, you’re in charge of protecting Bethany. Get her out of here if there’s any danger. Galen, you leave with Bethany if there are any issues. With the first hint of danger, I want the rest of you to storm the room. Victor’s life will end today.”

“Just give me time to get what I need before you kill him,” Tabitha said.

Raja ran toward them and skidded to a halt, his breathing heavy. “It’s been sent. Let’s get this done.”

“Taber you go first, your bulk is more intimidating.” Ty turned to Jinx. “You’re in charge of the other guards. Remember Tabitha needs to get the information, but if the danger is too great, you know what to do.”

Taber took the lead. He nodded for the guards to step into the adjoining room where the rest of the team waited. He checked the chains securing Victor to the chair. After he’d broken the last chain, the guards added another chain to the collar around his neck, preventing him from shifting. It was attached to the wall and wouldn’t stop him if he broke through the other chains, but it would slow him down long enough to get the Elders and their mates out of harm’s way.

Tabitha drank the vial while Taber double checked the chains. Felix and Adam fanned around Victor, leaving Ty and Tabitha in the middle between Taber, Felix, and Adam. Ty held his mate’s hand as if afraid to let her go. He brought her hand to his lips and gently kissed her knuckles. “Be safe, but quick, my love.”

“You worry too much.” She nodded, an indication she was ready to get started. Slipping her hand from Ty’s, she approached the sedated Victor. His sedation wouldn’t block her from finding the information they needed, and it was safer with him unable to resist her. Taber knew her trust laid with the men protecting her. He valued the courage she shown as she neared the prisoner. She placed two fingers on each side of Victor’s temple, obviously seeking connection to his thoughts and memories. A small light tipped her fingers as a connection flared to life. Victor stirred under her fingertips.

Taber held his breath. The sedation wouldn’t last long. Tabitha had to make the most of the time she had. She closed her eyes and her body stilled with concentration. The room knew of her need for justice for her parents and Bethany’s family. Though she probably wanted Victor’s death to be painful, Taber was impressed with the focused she put into every move she made, reinforcing her courage.

“Tell me about Pierce.” She inquired.

With her eyes closed, Tabitha spoke almost as if in a trance, describing what she saw. “Victor is in a room, packing. He must be preparing for his trip to San Francisco. It’s dark, but there are city lights shining through the curtains. Pierce’s rage is nearly out of control as he paces the room, screaming.”

“Go to San Francisco, visit with your family, while I do all the hard work. Find Robin, prepare to take down those ignorant tigers, and kill that bitch.” Tabitha’s voice was rough and filled with hatred as she spoke Pierce’s words, almost as if she was possessed.

Taber knew Pierce wanted nothing more than to kill her before she could unite the tiger shifters.

Her voice changed to a calm tone. “You need to find Robin before someone else does. We know she left Virginia, traveling to Ohio, go follow her trail while her scent is still fresh. Stop bitching, you know I had this family thing long before you fucked up and killed that family in Virginia.”

Tabitha paused and inhaled a deep breath. When she spoke, her voice was her own. “We have to find Robin before they do. Pierce’s anger over her slipping from under the cover of darkness is great, but there’s an evil in his eyes that tells me he’d rather torture her before killing her. He’s enjoying the kills, and will kill again soon. He has to…” She stopped suddenly. “Wait, there’s something else.”

The room was an eerie silence.

“Tabitha, what are you seeing?” Ty probed.

“It’s an email from his father.” Tabitha’s eyes rolled under her eyelids. “Bratva’s members are already in the states, lying in wait. New York…there’s a group there. He’s thinking of Boston too, but his thoughts are too scattered, I can’t figure out why. But Boston is important somehow. Victor never joined with Pierce because he was rogue, nor did he share his beliefs. He joined to find others for the Bratva, and he had. During his time with Pierce, he converted numerous members to his beliefs.” Her arms began to shake as if the connection was draining her.

“It’s not surprising Victor deceived Pierce the entire time. Rogues never seem to possess a sense of loyalty beyond themselves. Typically, it was that trait that prevented them from forming successful groups.” Taber stated.

Tabitha continued. “Pierce is losing control of his followers. They were looking more and more to Victor. He never wanted to control the rogues, and Pierce’s usefulness was running thin. Victor Senior was coming to the states to force his son to take full control over the rest of the rogues and eliminate Pierce. Victor was trying to do his father proud, to live up to his expectation, but no matter what he did it never seemed be to enough for his father.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Eight

Taber watched Tabitha, unable to do anything but guard her. His tension rose as Victor stirred. He hoped they’d be able to get the job done before he surfaced from the drugs. Tabitha’s body shook. She was beginning to falter with the connection taking much from her. He was about to suggest they end the process, until Kallie’s voice filled his ear.

“Taber, you there?” He sensed dread in her tone.

“Go ahead, Kallie,” he whispered, but didn’t take his eyes off Victor and Tabitha.

“They’re moving. They’re coming straight for us. There’s two teams. Ten threats. Shall I alert the guards?”

“Shit. Hold on.” He turned to Ty, whispering to avoid disturbing Tabitha’s concentration. “We’ve got to finish this now, they’re coming.”

“Tell Kallie to put out a call for all guards to report to their stations.” Ty turned to Tabitha. “Tabitha, if you can hear me, we need you to end this. Danger is upon us. We have to get you to safety. Give me a signal if you understand.”

Tabitha’s eyes rolled, but nodded at Ty.

Taber shot Kallie a quick message. “Kallie, you and Mark stay put and lock the door. Don’t come out, no matter what happens.”

“Understood. Mark says we have ten minutes at most before they’re on our doorstep.”

Taber turned back to Ty. “We have less than ten minutes, we need to get the women to safety.”

Tabitha broke the connection, standing on shaky legs as she reached for Ty. “They’re his…they’re coming for their leader.”

Ty wrapped his arm around her waist. “What? Pierce isn’t here.”

“No, Victor’s men. They’ve been under his charge the last few months. Pierce is losing control. Those are Victor’s men in the hills.” She leaned against Ty, weakened from the connection.

“Felix and Adam, get Tabitha and Bethany to the main compound. Shadow and Styx will go with you, and the other guards will meet you there.” Ty kissed the top of Tabitha’s forehead as Bethany entered the room. “Bethany, try your healing abilities on Tabby, help her regain her strength quickly so you guys can get to safety.”

“You’ve got to go,” Taber ordered. Victor’s demise was approaching and even though Taber was ending Victor’s life as humane as they could with the tranquilizer gun, the women didn’t need to be present. “Go and see the women to safety. I’ll terminate this problem.”

“The guards will keep them safe. We’ll stay and deal with whoever dares to attack our home.” Raja took the gun from Taber’s hand, as Felix rushed the women out of the room.

Victor’s eyes fluttered open, finally surfacing from the drugs. Hatred, kindling like fire, heated his eyes as he strained against the chains. “They’re coming for me. You’ll never see tomorrow.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. The few supporters you have will easily be disposed of, but it’s you who won’t see tomorrow.” Raja raised the gun and shot Victor in the chest. His body shook as the lethal dosage took effect. His breathing grew ragged, and then he collapsed.

Taber stared at a lifeless Victor, and breathed a sigh of relief. Victor would never harm another. Their world would now be a little safer.

“Small victory for us, but Pierce is still out there, and we still have the rogues to deal with.” Raja let the empty gun fall to the floor and stepped to the door. “Let’s go kick some ass.”

Kallie watched the men climb down the mountainside. She could do nothing to stop them, but keep the guards apprised of the rogues’ progress. She slipped the small capsule that she kept around her neck between her fingers, enjoying its soothing coolness. It was the one insurance she had that she’d never again endure the same torture she had before. She’d never again be someone’s pet, with no will of her own. She would die before that happened.

Today might be the day she had no other alternative than to use the capsule to take her own life, to end it all, but she prayed not. She reached into her desk drawer, grabbing the gun she stored there. I won’t go down alone.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Nine

Taber and the Elders had just stepped out of the cabin when Kallie’s voice crackled in his ear piece.

“They’re here.”

He knew, from the way the guards around them were bracing for action, that she used the open communication so everyone with ear buds heard her warning. “I’d advise you, go to your mates.” Taber said. “You’re Elders, you need to be protected as well.”

“That’s not how we operate. When our clan is in trouble, we stand to defend it. Our women and children will be protected by all able male bodies…” Ty’s words were cut off by gunshots at the main gate.

They ran to the gate, no one shifting yet. For security, they fought in their human forms, and would shift only if necessary, hiding their second nature as much as possible.

Taber ran past command central, hoping Kallie had taken his advice to stay safe.

The ground guards defended the main gate as a group of rogues attacked from the other side. “One got through. He broke free before I could detain him.” Lance gave them a quick status update as they neared.

“Damn it.” Taber frowned. “Kallie, do you have a mark on the threat?”

“Searching now,” Kallie answered. “Shit! He’s coming straight…” Her words where interrupted by the sound of a loud crash and a door splintering. Her scream filled his ear.

He turned to the Elders. “He’s at command central.”

“Ty go with Taber. I’ll help here.” Raja waved for them to leave.

“Do you think the rogue knew the layout and chose command central for a reason?” Taber ran even steps with Ty.

“How would they have found out about our layout?” Ty shook his head. “Damn it! It had to be Chris! He betrayed his own clan to assist Pierce when Tabitha first arrived in Alaska. He would have given the rogues the information to attack our compound, in order to save his sister. When we get through this fight, we’ll send a team to Georgia to eliminate him. He won’t get away with risking my mate and this clan again.”

They slowed as they approached command center. The door lay in pieces on the floor, and a tiger’s roar ripped through the air. Taber rushed past Ty, running full speed toward the door, hoping he wasn’t too late to save Kallie.

Inside, Mark, in tiger form, was lying on the floor bleeding and unconscious. The rogue searched the monitors. Taber attacked, leaping in the air to pounce on the rogue and knock him to the floor. Wrapping a hand around the rogue’s throat, Taber began squeezing the life from him. But the rogue wasn’t shifting. Loosened his grip, he realized the rogue was human. “What do you want?”

“I was paid to lead the team. To find two women.” The man’s fingers clawed at Taber’s hands around his neck.

“Who are you?” Ty glared at the man as he bent to check the pulse at Mark’s neck. “And what have you done with the woman that was here?”

“My name is Kenneth. I was Special Forces until I found out about your kind. The woman…she took off.” He pointed to the window. “I wouldn’t have hurt her.”

Ty raised an eyebrow. “Your actions don’t speak very well, considering Mark’s condition.”

“He attacked me first. I know shifters can heal from gunshot wounds.” He glanced back at Taber. “If you’d let me up, I’ll explain why I’m here and maybe we can work this out. I didn’t want to shoot him or anyone else.”

“You’ve got another thing coming if you think I’m going to let you free. Talk, and then we’ll decide what to do with you.” Taber released the man’s neck, but pushed him over and held both arms behind his back.

“I told you, I was hired to find two women. Sisters, taken against their will. If you check my jacket pocket there are pictures of these women.”

Taber reached in and pulled out two photographs. Kallie and Tabitha. “What do you want with them? Who hired you?”

“Their husbands. They want their wives back.”

Ty laughed. “Considering one of those women is my mate, I find your story hard to believe.”

“The other woman is my mate.” Taber’s rage boiled in the pit of his stomach. He tightened his hold on the man’s arms. How dare he threaten what’s mine?

“These men had marriage licenses,” Kenneth said.

“Those can be faked.” Ty squatted over the man. “Who hired you?”

“Pierce and another man. I never met the second guy. He was out of town on business.”

“You didn’t find it odd that the man was doing business while his wife is missing?” Taber was tired of the games. This man couldn’t be a stupid as he was trying to make believe. “Why did you take this job?”

Kenneth’s eyes widened. “Yes, there were a number of questionable things about this job, but Pierce said the other man was trying to make reservations to return, but the flights were booked. I didn’t think to question him. He had men ready, all I had to do was lead them.” The man grimaced at the pain Taber inflicted when he tightened his grip. “Money! I did the job for the money. My sister’s daughter has cancer. They need to pay her hospital bills. I did it for them. This one job allowed me to pay off their bills and cover the rest of her treatments.”

With the human’s blubbering confession, Taber released him and stripped away the soldier’s weapons before he stood. “If you try anything, you’ll regret it.”

Kenneth lay on the floor, rubbing his neck and arms. “If I could see the women, to know the truth, I’ll leave peacefully.”

Taber stepped forward, pointing a gun to his face, ready to kill the man for the suggestion.

“Not going to happen. Do you think we’re that stupid?” Ty laughed.

Raja entered the room, blocking the light from the entry. “He’s human?”

“Special forces after Tabitha and Kallie,” Taber explained.

“Why Kallie?”

“Supposedly they were kidnapped. That’s all he knows. I don’t understand how Kallie plays into all this.” Ty leaned against the desk. “Where is she?”

“I haven’t seen her. The situation outside has been dealt with. What should we do with him?” Raja paused next to Taber.

“We’ll detain him in one of the cells, until we’ve made sure everyone’s safe. Someone needs to find Kallie.” Ty scanned the monitors. “I can’t see her here. I think it’s highly unlikely she went back to her room. She isn’t one to leave her post. We’ll get a tracker to find her.”

“If you don’t need me to deal with this rogue, I’ll find Kallie.” Taber wasn’t one of the clan members who needed permission, but he sought Ty’s consent out of respect.

“Go. Raja and I can handle the situation here. Contact me when you find Kallie. I want to know why she ran.” Ty then turned to Raja. “Get the human in a cage. We need Galen to look at Mark.”

Taber left to find Kallie. Once outside, he closed his eyes, leaning his head back to catch her scent. It didn’t take long for him to get a fix on her, but her scent was different from the normal sweet smell of morning. It was strongly mixed with fear. His Kallie was terrified. Guided by his nose, the faster he ran as her scent grew stronger. Maybe someone else got loose in the compound? He sniffed the air, but didn’t catch the scent of anyone else. Nothing unfamiliar and no one followed her.

He neared the back of the compound, closing in on the creek that only hours ago he promised his bear a rump. Her smell filled his senses. He turned around a corner and found her lying in the snow.

“What the hell?” He ran to her side, searching for any sign of injury. He found nothing. Her jeans and sweater were wet, but unstained with blood. She was unconscious.

Not caring about the snow, he dropped to his knees, wrapping her in his arms. A chain, she wore around her neck, slipped out from the collar of her sweater. The small capsule, which hung on the chain, was open. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with her scent, and that’s when he smelled it. Poison! Painless, but enough do the job.

“Damn it, Kallie, why?” He gently shook her body, trying to wake her, but she didn’t stir. He checked her pulse. She was still breathing so it wasn’t too late.

He stood and pressed his ear bud. “Taber here. I need a healer.”

“Come to my quarters.” Bethany’s voice filled his ear.

“Hang in there, Kallie.” He lifted her weak body in his arms and sprinted back the way he came.

Damn it. I might not be thrilled to have a tigress as a mate, but I’ll be damn if I let her die on me. Who gives a shit what Thorben thinks as long as Kallie and I are together.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Ten

Taber laid Kallie on a sofa, holding her hand and moving only far enough away to allow Bethany access. His head pounded. He hated being useless while his mate lay there dying.

“What happened?” Bethany knelt next to the sofa.

“Poison. I think she took it herself. Can you heal her?”

Bethany didn’t answer. She slid Kallie’s wet sweater up to her breasts and placed her hands on the bare flesh of Kallie’s stomach. Closing her eyes, Bethany began to focus. “I can help her, but she’s going to suffer. My healing will counteract the poison and then leave her ill for the next few hours. Unless Galen, can…”

Galen placed his hand on Bethany’s shoulder “No, my healing would do the same. You’re becoming a wonderful healer. Go ahead, I’ll supervise.”

Galen had been training Bethany’s healing abilities since arriving in Alaska. She was picking up quickly, surprising everyone since she was human and up until a few weeks ago, didn’t know she had any abilities.

“May I, Taber?” Bethany’s green eyes glanced up at him, as if seeking his approval.

He frowned, completely baffled. “Why would I have a say in her well-being? She’s one of your tigers.”

“I feel she’s your mate.” She held up her hand when Taber started to shake his head. “Don’t deny it. As a healer, I can feel the mating current running within a body. The mating process isn’t complete yet, but it has started. You’ll be mated.”

He simply nodded. There was no time to waste debating that he and Kallie were too different to ever work. For years, he searched for his mate, and now that he found her, he wished he had stayed in Nome instead of coming when Ty called. Since literally running into Kallie, he always seemed to be on the wrong foot with her. She made him feel like a bear in a china shop, if he moved too much he might forfeit his hide.

Bethany began the healing process, her hands pressed roughly against Kallie’s stomach. Kallie moaned in pain, but her eyelids remained closed. Her fingers curled around his in a death-grip when Bethany removed her hands from Kallie’s stomach.

“Take her to her room and stay with her. The next few hours will be critical. Strip off her wet clothes and use your body to warm her. She’ll have extreme chills while her body works to repair the damage the poison did to her internal organs.” Bethany stretched and rose from the sofa, grabbing the mug of tea that Tabby held out to her. She glanced back at Taber as he lifted Kallie in his arms. “If she isn’t kept warm, her body won’t heal…and she won’t survive.”

Kallie was surprised to be alive, let alone naked in her room next to a very naked Taber. She squirmed, trying to scoot away from him, but his large arms trapped her against his chest. What the hell? How did we get here?

She closed her eyes, hoping to remember what happened and more importantly how she ended in bed with him. She couldn’t remember anything except the attack. People attacked the compound, a man broke down command central door, she ran, and then held the capsule in her hand. After that, everything was blank.

“Hey, wake up!” Wanting answers, she pounded her fist against the barrel of his chest. He woke with a start and extended his claws. She winced as they pressed into her back.

“Taber.” She whispered, trying not to spook the bear any more than he was.

“Damn it, Kal, you should know better than to abruptly wake a sleeping bear. I could have attacked you.” He retracted his claws and pulled her to his body, snuggling her close to him as his eyelids drifted shut once again.

“Stop that.” She swatted his arm, wriggling to get out of his grip.

“You need to stay here. My body heat…” His words were heavy with exhaustion.

“What the hell do you mean?”

“Kal, you tried to poison yourself. Bethany has done what she could to reverse it, and now your body needs to heal the damage. Stop moving so much. I’m on strict orders from the healers to provide body heat and keep you calm for the next forty-eight hours.”

Her fingers roamed her neck, seeking the capsule she kept on a chain. She could feel by the weight alone, it was empty. She had one safety measure and it failed her. She left Mark, and jumped out the window, running until she was certain no one had followed her. Kallie then grasped the only escape she had been certain of. “You’re dreaming if you think I’m going to stay cuddled with you for the next two days.”

“I’ll sedate you if I have to.” He ran his hand over her arm, and she trembled with excitement. “Damn it woman, look at you. You’re freezing. Your body can’t provide the heat you need while it’s doing such extensive repairs. Once the chills have past you won’t need my heat and I can get out of your bed, but until then be still.”

When she continued to fight him, he added. “The longer you fight me the longer you’ll be stuck next to me. You’re using energy that your body needs to heal.”

She was cold and his body was so warm, like her own personal heater. Sucking up her pride, she curled around him.

“Why, Kallie?” He whispered, gently rubbing her arm.

“They were here for me.” She cringed at the thought. They would find her and try to take her back. She knew it was inevitable, and tried to prepare for it, but her plan failed.

“Kenneth, he was the threat that attacked command center. He showed us a picture of the two women he was here to find. Tabitha and you. But what I don’t understand is why. Why was he after you?” He squeezed her tight against him. “Kal, if I’m going to protect you, I need to know the truth. Why were you so scared that you thought death was your only option?”

No one ever asked about her past before. Regardless of her fight, fate mated her to Taber. She wanted to be honest with him, to confide her deepest fear with him. “Before my father passed, he promised my hand in marriage to someone he thought would protect me since he would no longer be able to. In the end, the man he chose betrayed me. He traded me for his own life when a shady business deal went wrong and he was head over heels in debt to a Russian company. They wanted money or they’d kill him, instead he gave them me. I think he expected them to kill me…and I wish they had.”

“What happened?”

“The man I was taken to in Russia, Wesley, he was human. Through the black market he purchased one of those collars that prevent us from shifting. He drugged me, forced me to shift, and when I came to, I had the collar around my neck. It was modified so I wasn’t able to shift out of my tigress form. It forced submission and wouldn’t allow me to leave the grounds.” Her stomach rolled and she fought the rising bile.

“Did you ever meet someone called Victor, or hear of Bratva?”

“Wesley had a brother named Victor. He was a shifter and Wesley was jealous. What does he have to do with anything?”

“We had Victor Senior’s son in section four and the people who attacked today were his men. We believe Victor and Pierce contacted Kenneth, telling him you and Tabitha were sisters and were kidnapped by us and held here against your will. Kenneth was leading the men, desperate for the money Pierce paid him.”

“I knew Wesley would never give up. He thought of me as a prize because he could keep me submissive.” Even to her own ears, she could hear the terror in her voice. “I can’t go back. I won’t, I’d rather die.”

Taber placed his finger under her chin, slowly guiding her to meet his gaze. “Kal, I won’t let that happen. I’ll protect you, I promise.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep.” Her fingers went back to the empty capsule hanging around her neck. “I just need another safety measure and next time, don’t stop me.” She shivered, more violently than the last.

Taber nestled closer and rubbed her arms. “I never make promises I can’t keep. I need to inform Ty of your past. Connor, the wolf shifter, can perform his computer magic and find out everything on Wesley.”

Ignoring the pain in her stomach, she pushed up, leaning on her elbow and stared at him. “I don’t want everyone to know.”

“The Elders have to know. Unfortunately, you play a part in everything that’s happened here today. Finding Wesley might help us take down the rogues attacking your clan. You have to realize Wesley won’t stop until you’re dead. I’d rather it be him.” He smiled. “You can’t withhold valuable information like this when it can save your life and other clan members.” He reached for his cell phone on the table. “I’ll protect you with my life. Now rest, you’re prolonging the healing.”

She settled uneasily in his embrace, listening as Taber filled Ty in on the information she gave him. [_Damn it! _]She was a tigress and should be able to protect herself. All those years, being locked in her animal form, tortured when Wesley was in a bad mood, and locked in that awful cage when he wanted nothing to do with her. She wouldn’t live like that again, no matter the cost.

She didn’t realize Taber ended the call or that she was crying, until his finger brushed away a tear from her cheek. Glancing up at him, she tried to hold the tears back, but they fell faster. Finding the Alaskan Tigers clan all those years ago, she thought she had finally turned her luck around and settled in nicely. But her miserable past still haunted her dreams and destroyed the small measure of safety she thought she had.

He ran his fingers through her hair. “That’s why you have the white streaks.” It wasn’t a question, merely a statement.

“Yes. I’ve tried to cover them with dye, but it never works. They make me recognizable, easier for him to find me, which is why I don’t leave the compound ever. Instead, I stay hidden, and try to accept the streaks as a part of me.”

“I’m glad they won’t be concealed. They’re unique, like you.” He pressed his lips to her forehead, sending heat racing through her body. The electricity he created stole her breath.

Pressing her hand against his chest, she played with the little patch of hair in the center of his pecs. I’ve always thought bears were hairy. “Taber you know this…we can never work.”

“I thought that at first too, but seeing you unconscious and near death, I know we can make it work. Kal, we’re meant to be. Do you think it’s coincidental I was the one who found you? Or that now, of all times, is when we find each other?” He cupped her face. “Don’t deny fate without giving us a chance. We deserve that much.” He pressed his lips to hers, not allowing her a chance to deny him. He tasted of honey and sunshine, making her crave more of both.

Maybe it was her near death experience, that made her through caution to the wind and return his kisses, but she did and without hesitation. She was never going to be the same after this. Life as she knew it and the woman she’d been before, would both be gone. Diving her tongue between his lips, she devoured him, getting her fill of honey. Their nakedness allowed them to forgo the necessaries of clothing removal and to indulge in their desires. The passion controlling her didn’t allow her to rethink what they were about to do or to change her mind.

She slipped her hand down his chest, until she could take his already growing shaft into her hand. Wrapping her fingers around him, she slowly slid her fingers over his length.

Her body craved his touch and it had been too long since she felt the gentle caress of another. He pulled his mouth from hers and kissed a path down her neck. Sensations collided and threatened to overwhelm her when he teased her nipples. He slipped on top of her, breaking her hold on his shaft. His bulky frame hovered above her and he stared down at her, desire burning in his eyes.

He caressed every inch of her body, sending moans of ecstasy from her lips. For such a big man, he was incredibly tender, as though trying to memorize every curve of her body with his hands and mouth. Heat soared through her blood and her cat clawed under her skin, impatient and demanding. It had been too long since she had been intimate with another and her beast wanted Taber hard and fast.

He blazed a hot, wet trail of kisses across her belly and stroked her thighs with his fingertips. With every touch, she arched her hips, demanding more. She couldn’t get enough of him. Nudging her legs further apart, he cupped her core. His fingers delved inside her and she met the teasing thrusts. A demanding mewling sound, she barely recognized, vibrated in her throat. Passion drove fire through her, melting the chill in her center. The trail of wicked kisses tingled over her thighs. He moved his hand and replaced it with his mouth. Tiny nips and gentle licks flicked over her sweet spot, nearly driving her over the edge. She grabbed his hair, torn between pressing him closer and dragging him up. She wanted all of him.

“Taber, please I need you.” Even in the sexual haze, she realized what she said and those few words changed everything. Sex would complete their mating and no going back, but in that moment she didn’t care, she wanted him inside her.

“Your wish is my command, mate.” He spread her legs further, giving him the access he needed before filling her slowly, inch by inch. Half way in, he slid out before thrusting back in, filling her completely with his manhood. His strokes fed her fire like tinder set to dynamite.

His hips increased pace, driving the force of each pump. The thrusts became deeper and faster, falling into a perfect rhythm, moving with such precision, as if in a well-choreographed dance. Their bodies rocked back and forth, tension stretching her tighter as she fought for the release she longed for. Upon that release, she dug her nails into his back, arching her body into his. He pumped twice more and shouted her name as they came together. Eternity stretched on until he collapsed beside her.

Her breath slowly returned to normal and Taber cradled her against him, caressing her spine with long, lazy strokes. For the first time, in a long time, Kallie’s heart didn’t contain fear. In Taber’s arms she knew she was safe.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Eleven

Sated, Taber cradled his mate and it wasn’t long before her chills returned with a vengeance. They rocked Kallie’s body with such force her health concerned him. He pulled the covers over them, drawing her closer to his body, and nuzzled her forehead. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, breathing in the sweet aroma of her hair.

“For what?” Her teeth chattered.

“We should have waited until you were feeling better. I knew your body had to repair, and now you’re suffering for my desire.”

“A little chill won’t kill me. I’m already feeling better. But more importantly, I wanted you just as much. It’s been too long since I’ve had the caring touch of someone.” She caressed his chest with her hand, playing along the contours of his chest. “Even with that said and everything that just happened between us, I still don’t think we’ll work. We’re different.”

“Species?” When she didn’t answer, he added. “We aren’t that different. We both want love and a family, but more importantly, we both deserve to be happy. Give us a chance, that’s all I’m asking.”

“How? When this is all over, your life is in Nome, and I can’t leave the only security I’ve ever known. I’m sorry, I just can’t.”

He ran his fingers over her cheek, gently caressing. “My life is wherever I want to be and I want to be with you. Ty and Raja are my closest friends, besides my brothers, and I’ve spent a lot of time here.” Of all the times I’ve visited here, why didn’t I notice Kallie before? He frowned.

“What’s wrong?”

“I was just thinking. I’ve spent a lot of time at the compound and I’ve never met you before. There are forty clan members. How is it possible we’ve never met?”

“I’ve…ummm…” Her voice trembled as she glanced up at him.

“Whatever it is, you can tell me.”

“When I arrived here I was scared. Ty and Raja were great. They didn’t force me to join the clan activities and gave me the space I needed to heal. I spent most of my time locked in this room, scared Wesley’s men would find me. I don’t think I saw the light of day during the first six months. I started going for a walk late at night when everyone, except the guards, were in bed. Then one day my tigress wanted to run, and I went without a second thought. I’ve slowly been integrating with the clan. Ty asked me to help Mark in command central and for the first time my life became normal. I still spend a majority of my time alone, but I’m doing better.”

“We’ll find Wesley and see that he pays for what he did to you. No one deserves to live after the way he mistreated you.” He longed to ease the pain in her eyes. But how could he ease pain of years of abuse?

“I don’t want revenge. I just want to make sure he can’t get his hands on me again, and that he can never abuse anyone else.” Her gaze slid to his chest. “No one should hurt like that.”

“Shhh, love. I won’t let him hurt you.” His cell phone vibrated on the nightstand. Reaching, he grabbed it and hit the talk button in one fluid motion. “Yeah?”

“Conner found Wesley. He’s dead,” Ty said. “He was murdered by someone in the Bratva. My guess is if Victor Senior didn’t do it himself, then he ordered someone to do it for him. No one in their right mind would go against him and kill his brother, definitely not someone in Bratva or under his control.”

“That eliminates one problem.” Taber smiled down at Kallie, anxious to tell her the news. She wouldn’t have to retreat back into her shell.

“Connor’s searching for more information, but it looks like Wesley asked Victor to help find Kallie. I don’t know why it would cause his death, but we can’t overlook the unusual timing. How is Kallie?”

“She’s awake, but still suffering chills.”

“Bethany said that was to be expected. After the chills, she’s going to feel worse for a bit, like she has the flu, but that will pass within a few hours. Then she’ll want to sleep. When she awakes she should return to the same shy Kallie.” Ty paused. “She’s come a long way in the last few months. Just move slowly with her. If pushed, she may run and hide.”

He considered Ty’s words, but Taber had already decided to take up residence with Kallie. She was his mate and his responsibility to protect her. “I’ll tread lightly. Thank you for your concern.”

“A tigress is a handful. You have no idea what’s in store for you.” Ty laughed and ended the call before Taber could respond.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twelve

Kallie sat on the only chair in her room, with a cup in tea in her hand. The last two days had been rough as she recovered from the poison, but she was finally able to get out of bed. She wished spending the last two days in bed with Taber had been more—satisfying, instead their one time lovemaking had taken any energy she had. She could only cuddle against him, unable to take advantage of the fine specimen of man she mated.

He walked from the bathroom, a towel tied low on hips. Freshly showered, his shoulder length, brown hair was still wet, and water droplets glistened off his toned chest. She yearned to run her tongue along the contours of his chest, tracing each of the well-defined muscles and worked her way lower until she could take his shaft into her mouth.

[_Damn it! _]What the hell was she thinking? He’s a bear! Think of the children. Years ago, before her imprisonment, she knew a girl with mixed parents, and she was one of the few that could shift to both of her parents’ animals. That girl received such torment from other shifters because she wasn’t able to control which animal she shifted into. Kallie never wanted that for her child.

“Kallie.” He drew her out of her thoughts. “Are you sure you’re okay alone for a little while?”

“I’m fine. When Bethany checked on me earlier she said I’m completely healed. I’m still a bit tired, so I think I’ll crawl back into bed while you’re gone.”

“Maybe I should stay and join you.” He shot her a cocky grin.

“No.” She laughed. “I need my rest and you need to get back to business.” She sat her tea aside and stood. Walking to Taber, she added a little extra sway to her hips. “When you’re done come home and we’ll see what we can do about this.” She slid her hand down his chest until she could feel his rising shaft.

He cupped her ass, pressing her tight against his body. “You better stop or I’ll never leave and we’ll end up in bed. Sleep won’t be on the agenda.” His voice was low and filled with desire.

Even exhausted, she wanted to wrap her legs around his hips again, and she might have taken him up on that offer if a knock at the door hadn’t interrupted. “I’ll answer the door while you get dress.” She slapped his butt.

When she opened the door, she was surprised to find Raja standing there. “Please come in. Are you looking for Taber?” Somewhat confused as to why her Lieutenant was here, she stumbled back and allowed him to enter. Am I in trouble for not telling them about my past?

“Actually I’m here to see you.”

Taber stepped out of the bathroom, stealing her attention away from Raja for a moment. Taber’s faded blue jeans rode low on his hips, his chest still bare. She longed to feel his arms around her again. With the news of Wesley’s demise, her fears were laid to rest, but still wanted the comfort of her mate’s arms around her. Turning to Raja, she took the tiger by the tail. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing that I’m aware of.” He smiled. “I only stopped by to let you know Mark has asked to see you. He’s recovered and would like to speak with you.”

The guilt of leaving Mark when things got rough shot a knife in her chest. “Ummm…okay.” She had to face Mark, to apologize. “I’ll stop by to visit with him.”

Raja glanced over her shoulder to Taber. “Kallie, Bethany said you were concerned about your place here now that your past has come to light. I just want to eliminate those fears. We’re not going to kick you to the curb. You’re part of our family and we stick by family through thick and thin.”

“Thank you.” Relief flooded her exhausted body. When Taber gently touched her shoulder, she leaned on him.

Raja turned to leave and then stopped to face her again. “If we knew sooner we’d have done whatever we could have to stop Wesley. Now that Wesley and Victor are dead, I hope you’ll begin to fully live your life. We’re a family and we’ll protect you. If there’s anything else you think we should know, my door is always open.”

“Thank you, Raja.” Kallie was overwhelmed by his kindness.

He nodded, opened the door, and left.

The clan had become the closest thing Kallie had to a family, since her father passed, and she hated the thought of ever having to leave.

“I told you it would be fine.” Taber kissed her cheek and wrapped his arms around her waist. “You’re too weak to go see Mark now, sleep and I’ll take you when I get back.”

She smiled, loving the feel of his arms around her. “I’m fine.”

“I know, but humor me. Kenneth is still here. I know he’s in the cage until Ty and Raja can verify his information, but it makes me uneasy since he was here for you. Just stay here until I return, okay?”

“You’ll owe me.” She teased, rising to her tippy toes to kiss him. Their lips met and the barely banked embers of desire flamed hot again. She thrust her hands into his hair, tangling her fingers in the wet strands. When he finally lifted his head, she was breathless, and her legs wobbled. She clung to him, not wanting to let him go.

“You make it hard to leave.” His breath was hot against her cheek.

“Go. I need some rest. I’ll be waiting for you, so hurry back.”

“Oh, I will.” He kissed her again and then left.

The moment the door shut, her heart ached for him. After months of hiding away in her room, she was used to being alone, but with Taber gone just mere minutes, it was like a part of her was missing. Is this what mating is like? How do they live with the loss until their mate returns?

She fought to not follow him. Instead, she went to bed, curling under the covers, and tying to sleep, but the pillow and blankets smelled like Taber, increasing her longing. With sleep forgotten, she considered the mess she was in. She didn’t want to be mated to a bear, yet she couldn’t stop her desire for him. Her need for him was like a heroin addict needing another fix.

How could she get out of this situation? It wouldn’t work, but her will wasn’t strong enough to give him up. If there were a way to get out of this mating, it would free them both to find their matched mates. He could find the sow he always wanted and she could…well, she hadn’t wanted anyone in her life before, but she would like a tiger of her own.

If anyone knew a way to reverse a mating, it would be Mark. She snuggled against the pillow holding Taber’s scent, and called Mark.

“Hello.” Mark’s gruff voice filled the line.

“Mark, it’s Kallie, how are you feeling? I’m really sorry about the other day.”

“Kallie, it’s good to hear from you. I was worried about you. Raja said you were poisoned, did one of the threats get to you?”

“Something like that. I’m still recovering, but doing better.” She didn’t want to explain what really happened so to let Mark believe an intruder poisoned her was for the best right now. “I need your help with something.”

“Whatever it is, I’m here for you.” Eagerness filled Mark’s tone.

She swallowed past the lump in her throat. “Is there any way to get out of a mating?” While she waited for Mark to answer, she wondered if she really wanted to give Taber up. They were mated for a reason, even if they were different species. Could she leave the man that was meant for her? What if she never found another mate?

“Then it’s true. You’ve mated Taber?”

“Yeah, but he’s a bear.”

“Girl, take the advice from an old man, don’t pass on your luck. You’re one of the honored to be mated. I’ve searched high and low for my mate, but have never found her.” Mark sighed. “There’s nothing you can do. Until one of you dies, he’ll be your mate. Don’t think distance will help because it only makes the longing stronger, and you’ll go crazy with the desire for his touch. It’s why mates don’t travel far without their other half, and why you always see them touching. Half of your soul is missing when your mate is gone. Neither of you will be complete without the other.”

The longing Mark mentioned already coursed through her body and the bear hadn’t been gone long. She couldn’t imagine if he went to Nome and left her behind. It’s what she expected to happen when his job was done, but how would she live with the yearning she suffered with now, especially if Mark’s words were true and the longing would only get worse over time. “I was hoping for better news, but thanks, Mark.”

“Why? What’s wrong with Taber? He’s a good man.”

“Nothing’s wrong with him, except he’s a bear. I can’t risk our children not being able to control their shifting. Having one beast inside of you is hard enough sometimes, especially as a child, but having two would be impossible.” She wished to enjoy being with Taber instead of fearing a connection with him.

“That’s very rare. Normally the children will take after one of their parents. They aren’t usually able to shift into both.” He paused. “Are you’re willing to give up on happiness and a mate because of a slim, maybe five percent chance, your child might shift between two animals?”

“Yes. I knew this girl, many years ago who could and it was awful for her. What kind of life is that for a child?”

“We have our own school here. There’s no need to worry. The child wouldn’t be ridiculed. Kallie, take my advice, don’t give up on this mating. You deserve to be happy and Taber can make you happy. Let go of your fears. You won’t regret it.”

She said goodbye to Mark and placed her phone on the table. Her conversation with Mark should have eased her worries, but she was more confused than ever.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Thirteen

Taber leaned against the wall, his hands in the pockets of his jeans while Kenneth sat before him and the Elders, explaining his story again. They’d gone through everything twice, and it still seemed like too damn little. Taber didn’t care about the lack of information being produced. All he cared about was getting back to Kallie before she had time to change her mind about them being together.

He knew she had reservations because he was a bear, but he couldn’t change that and there was nothing they could do about the mating. Finding her near death in the snow had wiped away his reservations, and left him with hoping to prove they could make it work. They would have to move past their differences and focus on what they have in common. Such as their support for the clan, he might not be an official member, but he was a friend of the Alaskan Tigers and in the shifter world that was as good as being accepted by them. Ty, Raja, and their mates had no issues with Taber mating Kallie, instead they seemed to encourage it. Bethany could have suggested other ways to make sure Kallie survived the healing and how to keep her warm, instead Bethany urged Taber to help Kallie.

“That’s all the information I have. I don’t know what else you want me to tell you.” Kenneth’s voice brought Taber’s attention back.

“Where did you meet Pierce?” Taber asked.

“Just outside of Boston.”

“You didn’t find that odd, considering you live in Maine?”

“For the money he offered, I’d have met him on the moon. I told you we needed the money for my niece. A desperate man will overlook many faults.” Kenneth ran his hand over his jeans. “Honestly when I took the job I didn’t see the red flags. He said he got my name from one of my former clients, and needed help to find his wife and sister-in-law. Looking back, he seemed on edge, but I thought it was just a man worried about his wife. He seemed sincere in wanting them back.”

“Oh, he wants them all right and it has nothing to do with love.” Taber hands tightened into fists.

“Connor’s working on tracing the money, to see where it came from. If Victor had a part in this, I suspect he covered his tracks. Unlike Pierce, he’d have thought of that.” Ty leaned back in his chair. “Question is, what are we going to do with you now?”

“With me?” His leg bounced with a nervous twitch while his panic level seemed to reach immeasurable levels, teasing along the lines of the control they had on their beasts. Every shifter enjoyed the sensation of a little panic in their toys.

“You’ve served your usefulness for Pierce. He’ll now want to tie up any loose ends. He can’t risk you exposing him.” Taber smirked.

“But, my family…my sister and niece they need me. I’ve been supporting them. My sister can’t work because of my niece, there’s no father in the picture. You can’t let Pierce kill me. You have to help me.” Kenneth pleaded his case.

“We don’t have to.” Ty stood and walked to the window. “I’d bet he has someone in those mountains waiting for you. Pierce would know it was a death trap to send anyone here. He knew where Tabitha was, because he already had people attack. But he didn’t know where Kallie was because she’s been hidden.”

“Ty’s right, we don’t have to help you. We could let you leave and go on with what’s left of your life. It would be better for us since you know what we are.” Raja stepped to the center of the room.

“I’ve known about shifters for years and I’ve never told anyone. Why would I now?”

“Because you’re desperate to save your life. You’d sell your soul to the devil to get out of this mess.” Raja held up his hand when Kenneth opened his mouth. “Don’t deny it. You’ve already proven you were desperate by working for Pierce. How did you find out about shifters?”

“During my years in Special Forces one of my men was a shifter. He kept it secret, but we were stuck together in a gun battle. He was shot and in order to live, he risked exposing himself to me. I’ve never told anyone about him.”

Taber’s stomach twisted in a knot. Something wasn’t right. “If you didn’t tell anyone, then how did Pierce know to hire you for this assignment?”

“It was that shifter who recommended me to Pierce.” Kenneth stared at his hands on his lap. “It was a set up.”

“What’s his name?” Ty demanded.

“Derek Osborn. Will you please help me?”

Ty nodded to Taber, the go ahead to let Kenneth know what they had already set in motion. Taber leaned forward, making eye contact with Kenneth. “Pierce is not above using families as hostages, or worse, to get what he wants. My brother, Thorben, is already on his way to retrieve your sister and niece. They’ll be taken to a safe location. In the meantime, you’ll be returned to the holding cell until we’ve had Connor verify the new information you gave us. After that, we can help you set up a new identity for you and your family to start over.”

Kenneth nodded. “Whatever I need to do, as long as they’re safe.”

Taber watched Raja escort Kenneth back to his cell. The man had only tried to do right by his family and ended up being wrapped up in something that could cost him his life, or worse, the life of the people he loved. They had to stop Pierce, soon.

Remembering Tabitha mentioning Robin held the key to finding Pierce, Taber turned to Ty. “Has Connor been able to trace Robin yet? Any ideas where she’s hiding?”

“Not yet, but they’re closing in on her. Connor said they’re about two weeks behind her. They should be able to pinpoint her location within the next few days. Connor and Lukas are working around the clock. We need to get them some help before they burn out.” Ty walked across the room to stand next to the conference table. “Raja mentioned things appear to be going rather well for you and Kallie. Are you planning on staying on?”

“If I did, would that be all right?”

Ty placed his hand on Taber’s shoulder. “You’re a friend of the clan. You’re always welcome here. I was wondering because we can make a cabin available for you and Kallie. Where she lives now isn’t suitable for a couple.”

Taber nodded, happy Ty approved his stay. “I don’t want to rush her. Right now, she’d take any excuse to push me away. The fact I’m a bear really bothers her.” He shook his head. “Hell, I think if there was a way out of our mating, she’d take it in a heartbeat.”

“And you?” Ty’s brow rose.

“I’ll be honest, at first I didn’t want a tigress as a mate. But when I found Kallie lying in the snow unconscious and thought she might die, I realized I didn’t care that she was a tigress. I want her and the last few days I’ve been trying to prove it to her.” Speaking of Kallie made him desperate to return to her. He missed her touch, her smell. Damn, he missed everything about her.

“Whenever you’re both ready let me know and a cabin will be provided. I’m not sure Thorben will be overly excited about your mate, but I’m proud to have you as part of the Alaskan Tigers family.”

No matter what Thorben thought of Kallie, it wouldn’t change Taber’s relationship with her. As long as they were happy, it didn’t matter what anyone thought. He’d spent too much of his life concerned with making his family happy, pleasing everyone around him. No, this time was about him and his mate, Kallie. No one else.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Fourteen

Taber jogged through the compound eager to get back to Kallie, his body aching to touch her. His normal cravings for honey were replaced by his need for her. The bear within him was calm whenever they were together and it was the first time he experienced contentment in weeks.

Not bothering to knock, he turned the knob and pushed opened the door to Kallie’s room, half-expecting to find her asleep. He was surprised to see her lying in the middle of the bed, surrounded by pillows, reading. “I thought you were resting?” He shut the door behind him.

“I tried, but I couldn’t.” She placed her book aside and yawned.

“Did you miss your bear, darling?”

“I guess you could say that. After sleeping next to your warm body the last forty-eight hours, I’ve grown used to it.” When he padded toward her, tossing his clothes to the floor as he neared the bed, she grinned. “But don’t get cocky, bear. I only want you for your body heat.”

“I feel so used.” His jeans fell to the floor, leaving him naked before her. “Maybe me and my body heat should leave you here to freeze.” He teased.

“Get your ass in this bed.” She whipped the blanket to the side.

He leaped on the bed, landing on his back next to her. He slipped his arm around her. “Come here, kitty.”

“Kitty?” She curled into his body and pillowed her head on his arm.

“You’re my kitty.”

“You better watch what you say. I have claws that will tear the hide from your body. So what happened today? Were you able to find out anything from Kenneth?”

“We weren’t able to gather much, just the stuff we already knew. Connor’s following up on Boston to see if he can find anything. That’s where Pierce met with Kenneth, and considering he lives in Maine, it has to have something to do with Pierce’s location. We just aren’t sure how yet.” He ran his hand down her arm. “You’ve got too many clothes on.”

“You’re going to be a mate who always wants me naked, aren’t you?”

“There’s nothing better than your naked body next to mine. I’ve been thinking about running my hands over your body since I left.” He tugged her green tank top over her head. “When do you want to go see Mark? Do you want to sleep first?”

“I called Mark while you were out. He’s doing fine.”

He sensed hesitation in her voice. “Is there something more?”

“I asked him if there was a way to get out of a mating.” She glanced down at his bare chest. “I needed to know.”

“And?” He’d fight to keep her. She was his mate and didn’t want anyone else.

She shook her head. “There’s nothing. No matter our choice, we’ll be mated until one of us dies.”

“Well, mate, I have no plans to die anytime soon. I guess you’re stuck with me.” He gazed at her. “Ty’s offered us a cabin.”

“What about your family. Your life in Nome?”

“My mate is the most important thing in my life. My home is where you are. I told you before, I’m staying here to be with you. You’re comfortable and so am I, there’s no reason to pick up and move. The compound is safer for you than anywhere else. My family is in Nome and we can visit, but there isn’t the security there that you have here. I want to be with you, Kal.” He didn’t care where they were, he just wanted to be with her.

“Mark also told me the girl I knew all those years ago, who could shift between both of her parents animals, was extremely rare. Is that true?”

“I’ve only heard of it happening once or twice, but if anyone knows for sure it would be Doc. We can speak with him to put your worries at ease. Would that help?” He tugged her closer.

“I’d like to speak with him, but it doesn’t really matter. I don’t think I can get rid of you.” She teased. “I just don’t know if I want to bring children into the situation, to have them suffer for our choices.”

“Kal, let’s take one day at a time. If we have children, they won’t suffer. They’ll be happy and there’s a school here so they won’t experience the torment shifters have gone through in the past. But if you decide you don’t want children, we’ll deal with that.” He rolled to his side, facing her. “I just want you.”

He claimed her mouth, running his tongue along the seam of her lips until they parted for him. Sliding his hand down her body, he twisted the waistband of her boy shorts. “These need to come off or I’m going to tear them off of you. Your choice.”

“Take them off.” She caught her breath before biting his lower lip. She needed his touch more than her next breath. Her tigress wasn’t satisfied with only one roll in the hay. She wanted the gentle caress of his touch, the warmth of his body, and the sweet taste of his lips. She couldn’t get enough of him.

While their mouths devoured each other, she slipped out of her shorts, and tossed them to the floor. He had her top gathered at her neck, but in order to pull it off they had to separate, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to do that.

In order to remove the obstruction, she had no choice but to move slightly from him, lifting her tank top over her head. Dipping lower, he pulled one of her already hard nipples into his mouth, teasing the tip with his tongue. She moaned as pleasure swept her body. Holding tight to her nipple with his lips, he eased between her legs and rose on top of her. His bulky frame made her feel small, protected, and shielded.

The heat burning within her didn’t allow them to take time exploring each other’s bodies, or to enjoy the caresses they enjoyed the first time. Their desire controlled them, forcing them to speed the foreplay, or lose control completely to their beasts. His hands slid down her body, to rest on her knees. He stared down at her, and then hitched her knees to his hips and buried his shaft to the hilt in one smooth motion. Rocking in and out, the ferocity of his thrusts stole her breath. A moment later, he found that special place within her core and ignited the liquid heat that turned her body molten. She ran her fingers through his thick hair, her scream of pleasure became a roar.

His hips increased the pace, driving the force of each pump, and she shivered with impatience. The thrusts were deeper and steady. They moved together as one, a union she never experienced before. All those years alone and abused were washed away with the love Taber filled her with. Their bodies rocked back and forth, the tension tight and increasing as they sought the pleasure of release. Taber joined her explosion of lovemaking as another moan escaped her lips. He then collapsed next to her. Their legs were still entangled as she curled into his body, feeling utterly satisfied.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Fifteen

Hours later, Taber woke to find Kallie wrapped in his arms—a vision he would never tire of. Having her pressed against him was unlike anything he ever experienced. She completed him, and with each intimate moment they shared, their mating bond would grow stronger making it impossible for them to live without each other.

He scowled at his cell phone vibrating on the edge of bedside table. He slowly lifted his arm from her waist, stretching to reach the phone. It was a text message from Ty. New development. We need you and Kallie in the conference room, twenty minutes.

“Dammit.” Stroking her cheek with the tip of his finger, she stirred. “Kitty,” he whispered in her ear.

Her sea green eyes, that he loved to gaze into, fluttered open before closing again. “Humm?”

“I know you’re tired, but Ty has requested our presence in the conference room in twenty minutes.”

Her eyelids shot open, fear clear in her eyes. “Why? What did I do?”

“It’s okay. Ty just mentioned there was a development and they needed us.” He brushed her hair away from her face. “Don’t worry, whatever it is we’ll handle it. I’m by your side now.” He pressed his lips to hers in a gentle kiss.

When their lips parted, desire seemed to soften the sharp bite of her fear. “How can you do that?”

“Do what?” He raised an eyebrow.

“With one kiss you managed to wipe away my fear. Even if Ty would have cast me out of the clan because I didn’t tell them of my past, I know I’d still be safe as long as you were by my side.”

“My Kitty, I promised I’d protect you and I’ll do just that and so much more. Trust me, I can be more than your protector and mate, if you let me. I’ll be your lover and your friend.” He kissed along the side of her face and stopped at her earlobe to breathe in her scent. She desperately needed a friend, even the loner in him recognized that.

“I think you’ve already proven your skills as my lover, and we don’t have time for another round.” She kissed him again before scooting to the edge of the bed.

He wrapped his hand around her arm, turning her to face him. “Kal, I know you still have doubts. Just give us time…that’s all I ask.”

She stroked her fingers through his hair. “Don’t take this personally, please. It’s hard for me to trust anyone. When you’re betrayed by someone who was supposed to love you, it’s hard to open your heart again.”

He rose from the bed and lifted her in his arms. “I know you’ve been hurt, and I’ll do my best to give you the time you need, but our beasts won’t let us hold our desire from each other for long.” He tipped her chin with his finger. “I have to know. Why would your father promise your hand in marriage when shifters mate? Rarely do any of us date before we find our mate. It’s pointless, and no one wants to fall for the wrong person. It’s torture to have your body belong to someone and your heart to another.”

She frowned. “Dad’s mate was killed shortly after she had me, by a hunter. He said he’d never mate again. Her death nearly killed him. He didn’t want me to experience the same pain. He wanted me to have a normal life, and to remove the risk of losing someone the way he had.”

“Why do you call her his mate and not your mother?”

“She might have given birth to me, but the woman I considered to be my mother was human. It wasn’t until I started going through the change for the first time that I found out she wasn’t my biological mother, or what my father and I were. By then, he’d already made the marriage arrangement and I was starting to fall in love with my groom-to-be. My father deceived me. He might have thought he was making the decision out of love, but he was selfish. I was too young and stupid to know. But it should have been my choice.” She pressed her cheek to his chest.

Sadness coated her and he wished he could rinse it away. “I’m sorry, love. He should have told you what you were long before then. Shifters raised outside of a community with no support normally experience life harder, especially the children when they have to attend a public school. By not telling you about your ability he could have taken away so many opportunities from you.”

“Opportunities?”

“Children, you can only have children with your mate. You can have children with a human, but only if they’re your mate. With only one shifter parent the child will have a fifty-fifty chance of shifting. Whereas if both parents are shifters the child will be too.”

She took a step out of his embrace. “None of that matters now.” She tapped his chest. “Ty is waiting for us, so we need to get dressed.”

As she padded to the dresser across the room, he had to stop from going to her. [_Damn, I love the way her tight little ass sashays! _] He couldn’t tear his gaze away as she put on her clothes, his imagination working overtime about how he would peel them off her.

[_Mating, also known as permanently horny. _]He smiled before following suit and getting dressed.

“You can’t be serious, Ty!” Anger poured off Taber, as he stalked toward the Alpha. After everything Kallie had been through, nearly killing herself to stay out of the hands of Wesley, and now Ty was asking her to risk her life again.

“Taber, maybe we should hear Ty out. I’m sure he has a good reason for asking me to do this.” Timidly, Kallie reached out to rest her hand on Taber’s arm.

“Actually I do, so if you’d sit down, I’ll explain.” Ty held his stand, his gaze unflinching even in the face of Taber’s temper.

Taber knew attacking Ty would solve nothing, but fury surged through him like lava from a volcano. “There’s no good reason to put [_my _]mate at risk.”

“Oh, but it’s okay when we risk my mate, is it?”

Taber valued his friendship with the Alaskan Tigers, even more now that he was mated with one of their tigers, and he didn’t want to go up against him. They needed to remain strong if they were going to take down Pierce and his rogues. If they began fighting among themselves, they’d never last. “Damn it, Ty, you know that’s not what I meant. If you remember, I was against risking Tabitha as well. Women are protected, it’s our way. If we throw that to the wind, what morals do we have?”

Kallie squeezed his arm. “Taber, please.”

His gaze left Ty for a moment, shooting toward Kallie before he nodded and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “Fine, tell us what this plan of yours is.” He took a step back from Ty, but didn’t sit, instead he stood there with Kallie pressed against his side, her arms stretched around his waist.

“We have reason to believe there’s still a traitor to our kind, but this time we can’t draw them out because the traitor is in Nome…”

“You’re accusing one of my family members?” Taber cut in. Disappointment overwhelmed the anger flooding through him.

“I’m afraid so. Shadow has visions. She sees things that will come.”

“Ty, I’ve been around long enough to know Shadow knows everything about a person if she’s met them, including who their mate will be. I know her visions are true, so can we just get to the point?” Taber was tiring of the conversation.

“Very well. When we were deciding where to take Victor, and we wanted to bring him to your family cabins, Shadow had a vision there would be an attack. Someone among your sleuth would have leaked our plan. Shadow said it would be by accident, not directly, but the only way to catch them and make sure there’s no information leaked, is either stop sharing any developments with your sleuth or put a plan into action to catch them. If we act quickly, there’s little chance the rogues can gather enough people for a strong attack. This is why we need immediate action.” Ty sighed.

“I swear if it’s Thorben I’ll kill him myself.” Taber and his twin had been inseparable until a year ago when Thorben began keeping company with the wrong people. Thorben had always been the wild child of the family, while Taber was the responsible one. He’d hoped his twin had wised up when he was arrested for stealing a car and spent almost a week in jail before the charges were dropped due to lack of evidence. A shifter in jail was never a good thing, and they usually had to be eliminated before someone found out about their ability and exposed everyone.

“We won’t know unless you’re willing to go along with us.” Ty dragged Taber’s attention back. “If you’re willing, then you and Kallie will take the helicopter to the hunting cabins in the woods with Adam. I’ll stay behind with some of guards to protect the compound and the others, while a second group will follow Raja’s lead and fly to the nearby landing strip. According to Shadow, once you’ve called your family to inform them you’ll be at the cabins with your new mate, the traitor will follow. If our plan is a success everyone will be back here within a few hours.”

Kallie lifted her head from his chest and gazed at him. “Taber, we need to find out where the leak is.”

He detested that she was right. If his people were causing this latest issue, he needed to fix it. “Fine. I’ll need to gather some weapons from Raja’s cabin and we should pack a bag to make our trip realistic. I’ll call my family and let them know Kallie and I are going to the vacation cabins, to cement our mating.”

“I’ll advise the teams, and Raja will be in charge. Unfortunately, there will be no contact between you and the teams until the attack, in case they’re monitoring the radios and cell lines. Adam will be standing by when you’re ready to leave. He’ll need one of the other cabins in order to fly you out whenever we’ve caught the traitor.” Ty walked to the door to leave, but turned and added. “We’re trusting you to keep Kallie safe.”

“I’ll protect her with my life. No one will get their hands on her.” When Ty shut the door, Taber wrapped Kallie in his arms. “Are you sure you’re okay with this?”

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. Go get your stuff. I’ll start packing and meet you at my room.”

He wasn’t entirely convinced she was okay with the plan, but instead of arguing, he nodded and held her tight.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Sixteen

Kallie knew time was short as she hurried across the compound in search of Doc. [_Damn me for wearing high heels. _]Had she known she’d been sneaking around the compound behind Taber’s back to see Doc, she’d have worn flats when she left her room.

I just need security. I can’t let them get me again. I can’t live like that…ever. She picked up her pace and upon arriving outside the medical suite, she paused for a moment, trying to calm her nerves before pushing open the door.

Doc, wearing his white lab coat, sat behind a microscope. “Kallie, I heard you were recovering well since Bethany healed you. What can I do for you?”

“I don’t have a lot of time to explain, but I need something from you.” She inhaled a deep breath, choosing her words carefully because she wasn’t sure what Ty wanted the clan to know about her. “Long story short, I was held prisoner for a long time by someone. It was part of the reason they attacked the compound the other day. It’s also why I took the poison. There’s no simple way to say this except I’m leaving the compound for a while and I need a security measurejust in case they capture me.” He opened his mouth as if to interrupt her, but she held up her hand. “Doc please, I’d rather be dead than be tortured like a caged animal again. I can’t. Please help me.” Tears tumbled down her cheeks. She knew she was weak for taking the easy way out, but she had to have a backup plan.

“Kallie, sit down and let us discuss this.” He scooted his chair from the desk and pointed to the chair next to him. When she sat, he continued. “I know about the last poison you took and I’m astonished you survived. If Galen hadn’t come to us and brought Bethany into her ability, I’m not sure you would have survived. The counteragents I have for the poison would have left irreparable damage behind. To drink it again may certainly kill you.”

“That’s why I want it. You don’t understand what it was like.”

“You’re right, I don’t understand what you went through, but this can’t be what you want. Have you talked to your mate about this? Would you give it all up when you know he’d move heaven and earth to save you if something ever happened to you?”

For the first time in a long time, words abandoned her. She had no answer.

“Are you going to answer Doc’s question?” A deep husky voice spoke from behind her.

She turned to see Taber leaning against the doorframe, a duffle bag at his feet, and his arms crossed over his chest. His hair, still damp from the shower, had little curls forming, stealing her breath. “I thought…”

“When I left Raja’s quarters I caught your scent heading in the opposite direction from your room. I followed it and ended here.” He pushed from the doorway and walked toward her. “Now that we’ve found each other, you want to give it all up?”

“Taber, I told you what my life was like before. If anyone understood I thought it would be you. I can’t live like that again. There’s no guarantee you’d be able to find me. You might even be killed trying to rescue me. I can’t take either chance.” She hated being trapped between what she might have to do, and Taber.

“There’s no chance involved. I’ll protect you with my life. Even if something happened to me, do you honestly think Ty, Raja, and the rest of the Alaskan Tigers would allow you to remain captive? Everyone here is your family. You need to trust us.” He bent to one knee in front of her, taking her hand in his. “Don’t throw what we have away.”

“How did you get the last batch?” Doc asked, reminding her why she was here.

“I did my research and found the best drug that would be both painless and fast acting. I ordered it online.”

His eyes went wide. “You could have gotten anything online! It could have been an extremely painful way to die. Hell, you didn’t even know it would kill you.”

“I never thought of that, but at the time, I didn’t care. I didn’t have the clan. I just needed something to keep me from falling back into evil hands. It was a safety measure.”

“Kallie, I’m sorry, but I can’t give you anything. It’s against everything I stand for. I’m a doctor. I can’t be part of you killing yourself, no matter the reason.” Doc rubbed his chin, his expression deeply troubled.

“He can’t, but I can.” Taber stood, still holding her hand. “Come.” He tugged her arm, allowing her no choice but to follow. At the door, he grabbed his bag.

She followed him through the compound, the clicking of her heels against the floor punctuating their progress. She wondered where they were going and what he was thinking. She didn’t have to wait long to find out. He led her around the back of the compound to the shooting range.

“Have you ever shot a gun?” He upholstered his gun and placed it in the palm of his hand.

“No. I’ve never even held a gun.” Tears stung her eyes. “I don’t think I can.”

“You can, especially if it’s your life or theirs. This will protect you more than any suicide pill, and it will allow you to live.” He held the gun out to her. “Take it.”

She stared at the gun, before finally shaking her head. “I can’t take another person’s life.”

“To save yourself from being someone’s pet again, I think you could. Anyone can kill when their own life is in danger.” He pushed the gun into her hand. “You need to learn to shoot, and we don’t have a lot of time.”

“Fine.” She accepted the weapon. The cold metal against her hand caused a shiver to run along her spine. She was uncertain she could kill someone even if it meant sacrificing her life. But Taber was right, it was better than the alternative, and a good skill to have. If there was an attack on the cabins, knowing how to shoot might save her life. It would give them both peace of mind. “Let’s do this.”

He moved behind her as she held the gun with both hands.

“Here’s the safety.” He clicked off the switch. He gently raised her arms. “Aim at the target down field. It’s farther than we would normally start with, but we don’t have time to adjust it. Just try your best.” His kissed her temple. “Sorry, about the crash course. I promise when this is over and we’re home, I’ll help you with a proper training course. We can also work on other defenses to keep you safe. Until then you’re going to have to trust me to keep you safe.”

“Taber, none of this is because I don’t trust you. It’s a fear that eats away at me until I can’t think straight.”

“We’ll get through it.” He slipped his hand over hers. “Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and when you’re ready open your eyes, focus. Look down field with your eye on the target. Keep your arms loose and steady. When you’re ready push back on the trigger. The recoil on a handgun is minimal, but you’ll feel a slight jerk.”

She did as he instructed and when she fired the gun, she was surprised by how easy it handled. Shooting should have been harder, the noise louder, but it wasn’t. She wasn’t sure she was emotionally ready for the ability to pull a small trigger that could take someone’s life nor did she ever think she would be.

“You hit the edge of the target, not bad for your first shot. This time I want you to focus on the center of his chest. That’s the best place to hit a shifter if you want to hurt them, but not kill. They’ll go down and give you time to get away. There are only two immediate kill shots for shifters, the head and the heart. There’s no way to heal those before it kills you.” He laid his hand on the small of her back, and pushed her further. “Picture Wesley down there and he’s coming for you. There’s no way out, and it’s you or him. Then aim for the heart and take your shot.”

She shook with fear from his words. She didn’t want to think about Wesley, or anyone coming for her, but instead of fighting she let the memory of Wesley swim into focus. She could almost picture him, standing there waiting for her to react. He would mock her, telling her she’d never have the guts to do it, that she’d never be anything, but the animal she was. She blinked away the tears and pulled the trigger.

“Kal, you did it. Dead center in the chest.” He caressed her back. “I wish we had more time to practice, but I already called my family letting them know we’re going to the cabins. I’d like to be there before anyone else.” He kissed her cheek, and then showed her how to put the safety on again and how to reload the gun. “Do you feel comfortable enough to use it?”

“A little. I know it’s better than the alternative, but to take someone’s life…I don’t know. What if I hit one of our people by mistake? What if I shot you?” Fear strangled her breath.

“You’re not going to shoot anyone who isn’t a danger to you, and I’ll do my damn best to make sure you never have to pull the trigger. This is for your peace of mind. Remember, they have to get through me first.” He took the gun from her and hugged her close. “We’ll swing past Raja’s again and see if Bethany has an extra holster you can borrow. You two are about the same size so hers should fit you. The ones I have are too large for your small frame.”

“I don’t…”

“While we’re off the compound I want you to have it on you. You can use this gun for now and when we get back, we’ll experiment with others to see if you like the weight and feel of something else.” He holstered the gun and guided her back the way they came.

“It’s crazy for me to go to Raja’s when I should be packing.” When he raised an eyebrow, she smiled to reassure him. “I won’t go to Doc’s office or anywhere else. We need to be going. It doesn’t take two of us to get a holster, and still need to pack.”

“Okay.” His reluctance was clear. “I’ll be there in a few minutes and we’ll head to the helicopter pad.” He leaned and kissed her.

She wanted so much more than just a kiss. Her beast was eager to have him inside her again, and wouldn’t be happy until they were able to spend the next several days in bed together. His care and understanding was refreshing. He provided her with an alternative to captivity and death. She was surprised by her growing love for him that was far more important than the desire coursing her body.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Seventeen

Kallie stepped off the helicopter, surveying the grounds surrounding the cabins and the beauty of the location. Alaska was one of the most exquisite places she had the pleasure of living in, but there were areas throughout the state that were more scenic than others. She decided this area was the best of all.

The campground sat higher in the mountains where there was snow no matter the time of year. The trees around the cabins glistened with a fresh layer of white powder, and the dark wood of the cabins stood out against the pristine landscape. Her heart skipped a beat knowing whatever happened here in the next few hours could change everything. She might never see this land as beautiful again, instead only as battlefield.

“Everything okay?” Taber slung his duffle bag over his shoulder, hers in his other hand.

“Yes, it’s beautiful here.” She glanced around, taking in the rest of the area including the other nine cabins. “Why so many cabins?”

“My family uses this area for an escape, vacation, and hunting. Sometimes there are groups of us that come together. We each prefer our own space rather than being in one house together. With seven siblings, you really need the extra space. Even now that we’re older, in Nome we have our own homes, but close enough we can walk next door, and have family dinners weekly. You know, the normal family shit.” He led the way toward one of the large cabins slightly higher than the rest.

“My family never did any of that stuff. It wasn’t until I came to the clan I realized how people are so close. Heck, Raja and Bethany still have family dinners with Tora and her family each week. They rotate hosting weeks now that he’s mated, but he still finds time for family even with his position and responsibilities within the clan. It’s something I never experienced before. Dad was always too busy.” Sadness wrapped around her like a thick blanket, nearly taking her down a sink hole of depression. All her life, she wanted what so many others seemed to take for granted—a loving family that cared for each other and spent time together. She had a family that never provided emotional or physical support, only to grow worse as she began her transition into her tigress.

“It’s never too late. I won’t tell you my family is easy to live with, but they’re supportive. Thorben’s a pain in the ass, but the rest of my brothers are less stressful.” He sat the duffle bags on the deck, and turned to pull her into his arms. “When this mess is over, we’ll go to Nome for a couple days and you can meet them. You’ll be dropped into the center of family drama and quality time. I can’t promise you’ll enjoy every minute, but there’s good parts too. Mom’s going to love you.”

“I’m a tigress. I’m sure they want you to settle down with a sow.” She realized she was slowly coming to accept that while they were different species, she didn’t want it to get in the way of what they have.

“We don’t always have a say in who our mates are. You and I are proof of that.” He smiled. “We’ll be happy, I’ll make you happy.” He brought her hand to his lips, gently kissing each of her knuckles. “Come on let’s go inside. I want you naked.”

She followed him up the three steps to the cabin’s wrap around deck. He let go of her hands to grab the bags, before opening the door. When the door shut firmly behind them, she swung around to him, her tigress crying out for him. She wanted him and hated the words that were about to come out of her mouth. “Do you think now is the best time to be naked? What if there’s an attack?”

“The others are already here watching the grounds, and Adam is next door. We’ll be safe. I’ll recognize their scent before they’re close enough to be a threat.”

“If you can smell them won’t they smell the others?” She glanced around the cabin. The large comfortable furniture dominated the living room, with a large hearth on one wall. It would be a cozy place to spend a snowy evening. Just past the living room she could see a large updated kitchen. The cherry wood cabinets blended in nicely with the cinnamon and cream granite countertops. It was a kitchen worthy of any chef. For a vacation house, this was pure luxury.

“Our team will have their scents covered. It’s a trick your clan discovered and I’ve never told my family. Anyone approaching will only smell Adam and us. Once they see the helicopter they’ll realize why Adam’s here. I have my pilot’s license, but I’m not certified for a helicopter yet.” He left the bags where they sat and took her hand. “Now stop worrying. I want you naked and under me. We should have a few hours before anyone arrives and I plan to take advantage of every second.” He scooped her up in his strong arms and carried her to the bedroom.

The master bedroom was just off the living room and was the only bedroom downstairs. Taber explained that two spare bedrooms were upstairs. A huge bed filled most of the large room, leaving only a pathway to each side of the bed and to another room, she assumed was a master bath. The room was done in warm browns and ebony furniture. The comforter was a creamy white with brown swirls throughout. “That bed is huge. It’s got to be bigger than a king?”

“Oh, it is.” He smiled at her. “Bears are big and we like our space. We spend a lot of time in bed, so why not make it something we’ll enjoy. My youngest brother, Theodore, crafts custom furniture. He made the beds, dressers, and tables for all the cabins. He’s the handiest of all of the siblings, not that the rest of us lack in that department, he just makes it an art form.”

Taber lowered her onto the bed, before unclipping the gun holster. “Enough talk. I want you out of these clothes.” He placed the holster on the night table, and then tugged her form-fitting sweater over her head. “Get out of the pants, while I get my weapon bag.”

Not wanting to waste a minute, she stripped out of the rest of her clothes and let them fall to the floor. “Hurry up.” She called to him. Naked she sprawled on the bed propped up on her elbows watching the door for Taber.

He ambled in, tossing the bag within easy reach of the bed, before stripping off his own clothes. “Did my mate need something?” He teased.

“I need you my bear. You’ve kept me waiting long enough.”

He grinned and he slipped into the bed beside her, pressing his lips to hers. He stroked the length of her body and slid a hand between her legs in search of her core. His fingers delved inside, stealing the remaining sliver of her control. As he worked his fingers, her body moved with the motion.

She twisted her fingers through his hair, the fierce need rising within her turned into a storm. His lips tore from hers, working their way down her neck. He slipped on top of her, nudging her legs further apart with his knee.

Her cat’s impatience flexed and she wrapped her legs around him, dragging him closer. “I need you,” she whispered, her body full of desire and need.

“Unwrap your legs.” He winked.

When she obeyed, he speared her with his shaft and thrust, filling her completely. Her back arched and she leaned into him. She needed him inside of her like she needed her next breath. He pulled out and she wrapped her hand around his shaft. Teasingly, she ran her fingers down his length. Feeling the hardness in her hand, she leaned into him. His erection was pressed hard between her hand and stomach. Her mouth was just above his as his hot breath caressed her face, increasing her need. “I want you.”

When her hand loosened his shaft, he lowered, angling his body to the opening of her core. “You told me once, you wanted me for my heat. How do you want me now?” he asked, rubbing his hardness against her core.

“I want all of you.” Impatience shivered through her, catching her breath in her throat. “Now.” Her voice was breathy and full of desire.

Without further demand, his mouth found her nipple as he slid his hardness into her. She arched her body, clawing her nails into his back until she scratched him. He started slow—a pleasurable torture, an inexorable build. Her hands roamed over him, petting him, teasing him, she loved the feel of his tight body under her fingers.

“Faster.” She clenched her inner muscles around his shaft, his thrusts growing deeper and faster, sending the world into a shimmering bliss. They rocked back and forth in rhythm, until she screamed for release. He pumped her twice more before pure ecstasy found them.

“My mate, I love you,” Taber whispered, nuzzling against her neck, kissing the vulnerable point behind her ear.

A wave of new fear washed over her with his three little words. He loves me. With a deep breath she embraced that she too loved him. The determination she had to not be left in pieces if danger stole him away from her, was no reason to deny her true feelings. “I love you Taber.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Eighteen

Dusk blanketed the room and Taber still had his arm firmly wrapped around Kallie’s body. They hadn’t left the bed since they arrived. He fully understood the reasons to have such large, comfortable beds and he wasn’t sure if he ever wanted to move from this room. He sighed, eventually they’d get hungry and would have to go in search for food, but until then he wasn’t letting her out of his reach.

The muscles in his shoulders tensed as the beast within him caught an unfamiliar sound. Someone was moving in the woods, just downwind of him so he couldn’t quite pick up on the scent, but the distinct crunch of snow under their weight and the changes in wildlife let him know there was more than one body heading toward the cabin.

“Get dressed.” He gently shook Kallie and slipped out of bed, pulling his jeans on.

He listened carefully as he laced his boots and grabbed his gun. Kallie dressed swiftly, her head cocked to one side. He counted at least four more bodies in addition to the first. Not bothering with a shirt, he reached into his weapon bag. “Get your gun.” He strapped the knife to his thigh before walking toward her. “No matter what happens I want you to stay in here, and have your gun ready.” He brushed a kiss across her lips. “I’ll be back for you.”

He secured the bedroom door and headed to the living room to peek outside. He had to get a superior view of the approaching threats. Squatting near the sofa, he opened the window just a crack to gain a whiff of their scent. Anything to find out what they were dealing with before danger ignited around them.

He closed his eyes, focusing only on his sense of smell. You’ve got to be shitting me! His eyes shot open, and his body coiled like a snake ready to spring into action. Travis? One of his brothers and someone he never suspected. When I get my hands on that boy.

Adam slipped through the darkness and onto the steps. “Taber, it’s me.”

Still in a crouched position, Taber unlocked the door and let Adam in.

“There are five of them.”

“Yeah, I caught that much. Three shifters and two humans. Travis is there.” His tone held disgust as he thought of his brother giving information to an enemy. He had drilled it into Travis and the rest of his brothers repeatedly—you don’t betray your kind to another.

“Travis?” Shock marred Adam’s voice. “Damn, I met him once. He seemed like a good kid. We’ll do what we can to take him down alive.”

“He’s family, but if he tries to harm Kallie, do what needs to be done.” Taber rose from the side of the window. “I need to warn her. She’ll be able to smell he’s my kin. If something happens and he slips past, she must know that she can’t trust him.” He shook his head. “I’ll kill him if he goes near my mate. I can’t believe he’d betray me.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Nineteen

Kallie stood in the corner of the room, fighting the surges of Taber’s pain as if it was her own. He might be in the other room, but his anger and deep sense of betrayal ate at her heart. He had entered the bedroom to tell her about his brother’s betrayal, kissed her briefly on the forehead, and then returned to the living room.

How could someone betray a family member? Especially a brother. She might not have had the close family and bond that she longed for, but she would have never betrayed her family. Why was Taber’s brother here? Does he still play into Wesley plan? They had to be here for her. If they wanted Tabitha, they would have attacked the compound and not here.[_ _]Kallie held the gun tight in her hand, determined not to fall victim again.

She heard the footsteps of five men tramping toward them, near the cabin’s step. Her heart pounded so loudly in her ears she could barely focus. [_Damn it, don’t fall apart now. You have to focus. _]The only light in the room came from the moon shining through the slats on the window blinds. If someone entered the room, she’d have to rely only on her sense of smell, instead of vision.

She inhaled a deep breath to steady her nerves as the footsteps sounded on the porch. The gun felt heavy in her hand and she checked to make sure the safety was off. She stepped quietly to the bedroom door.

The front door crashed opened and a fresh breeze of air moved through the cabin. “Travis, what the hell are you doing here?” Taber called out.

Clinging to the wall, she peered through the crack in the door to see a younger and shorter version of her mate. His hair was lighter and his lack of confidence showed in his posture.

“Where is she?”

Taber raised his gun. “What do you want with her?”

“There’s a large bounty on her head and I plan to collect it.” Travis advanced toward Taber and she wondered for a moment if Taber would shoot his own brother.

“You’d betray your own brother, and take his mate for money?”

“I’d do a lot more than that for money. I’m getting out of here, away from you and the rest of the family. I’m tired of being smothered by everyone. I want to live my life on my terms.” Travis took another step toward Taber. “Just get out of the way, brother, and no one will get hurt. You’ll be free of her and can mate again.”

Taber growled and glared at Travis. “You’ll stay away from my mate if you value your life at all.” When Travis continued to advance, Taber jumped, taking his brother down.

Kallie fought the urge to run out there, to break up the brothers, but she promised Taber she’d stay hidden until it was safe.

The floor to her right creaked, forcing her attention away from what was happening in the other room. She swung around and found a man with short red hair, glaring at her by the window. Tiger. Her attention, swayed to the other room, hadn’t heard the window open. When he stepped toward her, she recognized him. She couldn’t believe Brian stood before her. He had spent years as a pet to Wesley as well. But unlike her, he was given privileges. He could shift when he desired, but spent most of the time in his tiger form unless he had to do something for his master. Just the thought of him saying, yes master, infuriated her. “Brian, what are you doing here? What do you want?”

“Oh Kallie, I’ve always wanted you, but you were the one thing he denied me. I’m here to take you back.” He leaned against the window, staring at her. “Wesley’s dead and you’ll finally be mine.”

“I’m mated now, I’ll never be yours.”

“Do you think that mating will stop me?” He snarled a deep and evil laugh, pushing away from the window to stand straight. “Oh, it will hurt you to be fucked by another man, but then again your comfort never mattered. Wesley left me his house and workshop, and I’ve modified the collar even more. I’ll be able to control your shifts with a push of a button, so I can force you into your human form anytime I want to be relieved. You remember just how much control the previous collar had, well this one has so much more.” Something in his hand caught the light of the moon.

She gasped. The collar! Her finger tensed around the trigger. “I won’t live like that again.”

“No, you won’t. It will be much worse this time.” He came at her with the speed no human had.

She didn’t think twice, she just shot. Her hands shook causing her to miss her chosen target, but she did hit his shoulder.

“Damn, you bitch!” He grabbed his shoulder and continued to advance toward her. “You’ll pay for that and when I’m done with you, you’ll beg for me to end your life.”

She shot again and again, tears pouring down her face. He finally collapsed to the floor and she shot one final time right between his eyes. She sank to the floor, hands shaking. The gun now empty in her hands after she used all the bullets to take down a man she once pitied.

The door flew open and Taber ran in, his gun drawn and ready for whatever he found. Scared and confused, she raised her gun, determined to protect herself.

“Kal.” He stepped around the dead man, holstering his gun. “Kitty, it’s me.” He approached her, reaching slowly as if afraid she’d shoot him.

“It’s empty.” She dropped the gun to the floor. “I…I killed him.”

He reached down and scooted her into his arms. “It’s all right.” He carried her to the kitchen, caressing her back with his hand.

“The others?” She inquired when he propped her up on the kitchen counter. He turned the tap on and ran water over the dishrag. He touched it to her cheek, but she pushed his hand away. “I don’t need this.”

“You might be in shock, the coolness will help. Put it against your forehead and focus on me.” He pressed the cool cloth against her skin. “The others are taken care of. They’re all dead.”

“Not Tra…” She wanted to say Travis, but the name stuck in her throat.

“Afraid so. He shot at me and Adam had no choice but to take the shot. It was Travis or me.” He ran his hand through his hair, droplets of sweat clinging to his hand. “I’ll have to tell my family.”

She pulled him to her, wrapping her arms around his waist and resting her head against his chest. For that moment, she forgot about the man she killed, all she could feel was Taber’s pain. He lost a brother today and it didn’t matter if Travis betrayed him, the loss still hurt. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too.” He held her to him, their bodies pressed together, and for once it wasn’t about sex or their mating bond. It was just about them and the comfort they provided each other.

She clung to him and thought about the brother she never got to meet. Guilt washed over her. She was the reason behind Travis’ betrayal. Everywhere I go disaster follows.

Movement by the door forced her to lean away from Taber. Raja and Adam placed a body, she assumed to be Travis, into a body bag. Her heart sank.

“You know none of this is your fault,” Taber said when she stared at him, her questions obviously clear in her eyes. “Mates sense everything the other is feeling, no matter how out of control their feelings are. I feel your guilt, but this had nothing to do with you. He’s the one that betrayed your clan, my family, and me. It was all about money for him.” He frowned. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to protect you. No one caught the second scent in your room until just before the gun went off.”

“That’s because he was inside the window then. He was careful not to move, until he was ready to attack. I didn’t catch his scent until he was already in the room.” She tossed the cloth aside and clung to Taber. She didn’t care that she was sitting on the cool granite countertop. She just wanted to feel his body against hers. To know he was safe, and to give him comfort as he grieved for his brother.

He tensed and shrugged out of her embrace, pulling his gun from his holster. He swept her off the counter with his free arm and tucked her behind his back, aiming his gun toward the cabin’s back door.

She was tempted to ask what was going on, but kept quiet and still.

Hard souled boots cluttered up the steps and a new scent poured into the cabin. Another bear. Her heart skipped a beat. Another traitor within Taber’s family? She wasn’t sure if her bear could stand another betrayal from one of his brothers.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty

If the scents weren’t different, she would have sworn it was Taber standing before them. They were identical, down to the defiance that shimmered in their eyes. He stood in the doorway, his hands up, showing he was unarmed.

“What are you doing here, Thorben?” Taber kept his aim pointed at his brother.

“I called Ty to inform him Kenneth’s sister and niece were safe. He mentioned you were here. I had a feeling something was going awry. I’m only here to help. I spotted Travis with Sanchez last week and when they saw me, Travis ran off. I thought he was up to something, but I never expected…” His words trailed off as anger replaced the sadness in his tone. “Theodore called to find out when I’d be back. He needed help making a delivery and Travis split on him. I put Travis’ actions together and figured he’d be here. I’m sorry I was late. I hit some bad weather flying in.”

“Thorben, I want to believe you, but after what Travis did you’ll understand if I find your timing suspicious.”

“I might be a pain in the ass and we haven’t always seen eye-to-eye.” Thorben stepped in and shut the kitchen door behind him. “But when the hell have I given you reason to think I’d deceive you? To plot against you enough to get you and your mate killed? Damn it Taber, no matter our differences we’re twins, I’d never do that to you.”

“You haven’t…”

“Damn right I haven’t and I wouldn’t. I’ve been there any time you’ve needed me. How could you think…”

Taber lowered his gun, but he didn’t holster it. “All we knew is that there was a leak. You’ve kept company in the wrong crowds, how could I not suspect you might have left something slip, even if it was on accident.”

“Taber, you should know I’d never risk my family, or friends of the sleuth. No matter who I keep company with, I watch what I say when it comes to shifter business.”

The men silently glared at each other for what seemed like eternity. Kallie finally stepped out from behind Taber. He shot her a glare and took hold of her wrist.

“I’m not going to stay cowering behind you all night. You two are brothers, even with your differences. One of your brothers stabbed you in the back, but that doesn’t mean you should start doubting all of them. Especially if we’re going to Nome.”

“Go to Nome? Now?”

“Taber, we need to tell your family about Travis. You can’t do that over the phone. What did you think, I’d go back to the compound without you?” She pulled her wrist free and stood next to him.

“She’s right.” Thorben leaned against the table. “Mom deserves better than finding out about Travis over the phone.”

“It’s too much of risk for Kallie.” Taber slipped his arm around her waist, pulling her to him. “I won’t risk you.”

“Your family needs you. At least go tell them, spend a little time with them and then we can leave. You have to take Travis’ body home to your parents.” Before he could debate further, Raja stepped in and Adam followed him.

“Thorben, it’s great to see you again.” Raja held out his hand.

Thorben accepted the extended hand and shook it. “You too. Sorry I wasn’t here for the action.”

Raja nodded. “My sympathies concerning your brother.” He turned to Taber. “What are your plans? Will you be returning to the compound?”

“We were just discussing that.” Kallie cut in. “If acceptable, Raja, I’d like to accompany Taber and Thorben to Nome, to return Travis’ remains to their family. It’s not the best time to meet his family, but as his mate I feel it’s my place.”

“I haven’t said you could go.” Taber snarled.

“Taber your family needs you, and you need your mate,” Raja said. “Adam will take you by helicopter and you can return to the compound when you’re ready. I’ll also send Korbin with you for additional protection, but I have no doubt she’ll be safe with your sleuth.” Raja nodded and walked to the door. “We’ve dealt with the other attackers so we’ll return to compound. Adam and Korbin will be ready when you are. If you need anything, call us.”

Once Raja left, Taber spun around. “That was backhanded. You played the situation and your Elder to force me to take you home with me.”

“You did want me to meet your family, right?”

“Shit Kal, that wasn’t what I meant. I want you safe.” He held her hand in his and stared at her.

“I’m safest with you, and you need me. Now let’s stop arguing and get out of here before it’s too late.” She snuggled into him, exhausted over the day’s events. Even with the sadness of the situation, and danger still looming, anxiety coated her stomach over meeting her mate’s family.

“I’ll take Travis’ body in the airplane and meet you there.” Thorben pushed away from the table, rising to his full height. “Unless you’d like to come with me and I can bring you back to get the helicopter?”

“Go ahead. We’ll grab our stuff and take the helicopter. There’s no need to come back here.” Taber nodded at his brother before stepping around the counter with her in tow.

“Very well. It will take me longer to get to the plane. I’ll see you there.” Thorben’s gaze shifted to Kallie. “I wish the circumstances were better, but it’s a pleasure to meet you. My brother is stubborn and hard to live with, but he’s a good man.”

“Bears are always stubborn.” She teased. “I have no worries he’ll see my way in the end.”

Thorben laughed and left.

Taber turned to her. “So that’s how it is, mate? You’re planning to wrap me around your little paw, are you?”

“There’s always a good woman behind every man.” She smiled. “If it means I have to wrap you around my paw for you to do what’s right, then yes. I have faith you’ll keep me safe, and I don’t think your family is a threat we need to worry about. You speak of them with such love. I know if it wasn’t for me you’d never give it a second thought and you’d be on that plane with Thorben now.”

“You’re an amazing woman.” He pulled her tight against his body and kissed her forehead. “I wish you were meeting them for a better reason—at a better time.” He released her and stepped back. “I’ll grab the bags.”

“One thing, just in case…I need more bullets.” She pointed to the empty gun that lay on the bedroom floor. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust his family, but it was better to go armed, than need it and not have it. He nodded and padded to the bedroom to finish dressing and to gather their things. She followed and stared at the gun. Her stomach heaved. I killed a man tonight.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-One

Tension surged through Kallie as the helicopter landed at the small airstrip on the Brown’s family property. Meeting your mate’s family was always a nerve-wracking experience, but add delivering the news that Travis died betraying Taber, only made the situation tense. Stepping out of the helicopter, she zipped her thin jacket closed.

Knowing Taber was from Nome she expected him to live on the outskirts, not on an island inhabited only by the Brown family. The island was beautiful, stunning homes spaced off in the distance and plenty of undisturbed nature to make any shifter happy. Flying in, she had seen a small dock on the other side of the island, providing them easy access to Nome until the water froze.

Damn is it cold. She rubbed her hands together and bounced on her toes to keep warm. Because she didn’t know she would be flying north, she had left her heavy winter jacket at the compound.

Taber slipped his arm around her and ran his hand up and down her arm, trying to warm her. “Nome is always colder and the breeze from the water causes it to always feel like winter here. Even in the hottest summer months the temperature barely reaches fifty degrees.”

Years of being Wesley’s pet had taken away her enjoyment for the cold. She seemed to have lost the ability to keep warm. During her captivity she had only been outside a few times. Taking a deep breath, she pushed those haunting memories from her mind. “I’m okay.”

Before they landed, Taber had strapped addition weapons to his body and handed her a knife she had attached to her thigh. They left their bags in the helicopter with the hopes to escape back to the compound in the coming hours.

She told him they could stay as long as he needed, but he reminded her that the Elders still needed his help to find Pierce. There was also the on-going search for Robin, if the rogues got their hands on her before the Alaskan Tigers it would mean her death, and they would never find out whatever information she had, leaving them a step behind Pierce.

“That’s my parents’ house.” Taber nodded toward the large log house sitting on the edge of the tree line. “But I thought we’d wait for Thorben. He should be there soon.”

She knew he’d want Thorben with him when he told his family of Travis’ death. Mates had the ability to remove physical pain from each other, but she was helpless against the grief he suffered with. She snuggled into him just to let him know she was here for him.

A plane engine hummed as it loomed over the trees, and landed on the airstrip. Moments later the small airplane shut down and Thorben stepped out, jogging toward them. He abruptly stopped in front of them, looking toward their parents’ house. “I’m surprised Mom isn’t out here. She had to have heard us land.”

“I haven’t seen anyone but Theodore,” Taber said. “Four houses over, under the deck asleep. He created a cave under there for his afternoon naps. When we were growing up, Mom never allowed us in the house in our animal form. She complained we were too large and always broke something. Under the deck has always been his spot.”

She followed the direction of his pointing finger and saw a sleeping bear. If he hadn’t told her Theodore was there she’d have never noticed him, he blended in the surroundings so well.

“Standing around, putting this off won’t make it easier. Let’s get this over with.” Taber kept his arm around her waist as he moseyed across his parents’ front lawn. With each step his back grew more rigid, most likely apprehensive about delivering the sad news to his mother.

As they neared the house Kallie’s stomach twisted in knots. This moment was very personal for a family, something she had no right to be part of. It wasn’t how his family should meet her. What if they thought back of how she came into their lives and they always remember this moment? At the bottom of the porch steps she paused, forcing Taber, who had his arm still around her waist, to stop with her.

“What it is?” He frowned.

“I should wait out here. I shouldn’t go in. This is a family moment. I’ll wait with Adam and Korbin.” She glanced over her shoulder at Adam still in the helicopter, Korbin outside leaning on it. She’d rather be freezing with them than go inside that house.

“You’re family.” Thorben smiled and reached for her hand. As his fingers wrapped around hers, electricity poured through her, sending goose bumps over her already chilled skin. Her hand sizzled as though she touched fire, tearing her breath away. “What the hell?” He released her hand.

Taber pushed her behind him. “She’s mine!”

“What the hell is going on here?” At a complete loss for what just happened, Kallie glanced between the brothers. If she hadn’t already mated with Taber she’d have sworn she was destined to be with Thorben, but that wasn’t possible. Shifters only had one mate.

The brothers[_ _]glared at each other.

A woman stepped out of the house, her brown hair streaked with gray, and holding a little extra around the middle of her body, but it was the woman’s height that caught Kallie’s attention. She stood over six feet tall. Her gaze shined at her boys. “Damn it, you two! You’re not home five minutes and already fighting.”

Kallie noticed how quickly the demeanor changed between the brothers. Instead of arguing with each other, they turned to their mother, both sighing and stepping next to Kallie on different sides. Electricity soared through her arms. What the hell is going on?

“Bring her with you. You’ll need to explain what’s going on between the three of you. I’ll find your father and brothers, they’re hunting.” She sauntered down the steps and off toward the trees. Over her shoulder she hollered back. “No fighting while I’m gone.”

“Explain what?” Kallie’s body fought for control as a turmoil of emotions poured through her.

“Come sit.” Taber held her waist and forced her forward.

She slowly climbed the steps, exhausted as if climbing a mountain. He led her to one of the wooden rockers decorating the porch. When she sank onto it, he reached for her hand. Thorben stayed back, leaning against the railing, his fingers white where he gripped the banister. He stared at her, his eyes wild and full of desire.

“Will someone please explain what the hell is going on?”

“Occasionally bear shifters will mate like we do in the wild, where there are multiple men for the same female. It is rare, but it does happen.” Taber’s lips pressed tight together.

Kallie’s vision blurred. “No!” She knew where this conversation was going and didn’t want him to continue. As if it wasn’t bad enough I found a bear as my mate, fate has decided to give me two!

“Kal, I’m trying to explain.”

“Damn it Taber, I know where this is going and I’m telling you here and now, no. This is not going to happen!” She wanted to rant and rave until she lost her voice, but deep down she knew this rare occurrence wasn’t Taber’s fault. Taber and Thorben had no more say in this than she did, and from Taber’s first reaction, he was even less happy about it than she was.

“Mating doesn’t give any of us a choice.” Thorben finally spoke, his tone both furious and compassionate. “From the day we’re born we’re destined to a particular mate. There have been cases in the past when one of the mates die the one left behind will eventually find another, but I don’t care to test that theory.”

“What if I refuse this?”

“Have you experienced the desire with Taber? Has the need gotten so bad that it’s painful?” Thorben shoved his hands into his jeans pockets and met her gaze. “That’s what it will be like if you deny one or both of us.”

Taber, still holding her hand, stepped in front of her. “You’re talking about sharing her. We both know that won’t work. It’s been years since we got along for more than a few hours and now you want to implant yourself into our lives, and take my mate as your own.”

“Do we have a choice, Taber? Because I don’t see one, but please enlighten me if you do.”

Kallie snatched her hand, annoyance coursing her thoughts. “We don’t have time for this shit. We’re here to tell your parents what happened to Travis. We didn’t need this now, and we sure the hell don’t need you two going at it.” The men stared at her, and she shook her head. “Why would I be mated to brothers?”

“I think I can answer that question better than my sons.” Taber’s mother stood at the far side of the deck.

“Mom, I’m not sure this is the best time.” Taber peeled a heated glare off his brother, to look at his mother.

“Actually it’s the perfect time. It will help explain this bizarre situation to your mate.”

“Ma’am, I’m Kallie. I apologize for the timing.”

“No ma’am here, I’m Ava.” She claimed the rocker next to Kallie. “I’m afraid your current predicament is my fault.”

“Mom, be serious, this has nothing to do with you. Fate makes the decision.”

“Taber, you know better than to interrupt your mother. Now sit and listen to what I have to say.” Ava turned her attention back to Kallie. “My mother, Annabell, was in the position you find yourself in now. My fathers were twins and both mated to her. They sought high and low for a way to break their joined matting—for something that would remove the connection, and allow them to each find their own woman.”

“And?” Kallie probed when Ava paused.

“They found nothing.” She smiled at Kallie. “When denying the mating the longing became excruciating. They were left with no choice than to return to my mother.”

“Why didn’t you ever tell us this?” Taber raised a brow.

“It didn’t matter prior to now. My parents were gone before you were old enough to remember them. It seemed useless to bring up something unless I had to. But know this, I loved both my fathers and was never ashamed of them.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “My fathers were just like you two, but over the years they learned to work and live together. They were not only my mother’s mates and her lovers, but they were also her protectors.”

“So it’s the twin connection?” Kallie started to understand. “But it would make more sense if the twins were close and shared willingly. These two…” She glanced at Taber and Thorben.

“These two boys can barely get along for more than ten minutes when they’re together.” Ava tapped Kallie’s hand. “Trust me they weren’t always like that. Years ago they were as close as any two bear cubs. I don’t exactly know what happened, but you’re just the woman to bring them together. Identical twins have the same DNA, which is why they normally end up with the same mate. It’s rare for bear shifters to have twins. I was blessed with two sets, which means I believe it will be time to tell Turi and Trey what is possible for them.”

“I won’t share my mate.” Taber stalked toward the railing.

Kallie wanted to go to him, to wrap her arms around him, and let him know that he wouldn’t have to share her. But fate didn’t work that way. What choice did they have? She already sensed the claws of the painful longing for Taber, and it was not something she wanted to endure again.

“Son, you don’t have a choice. You might be willing to accept the pain of denying your mate, but would you put Kallie through that as well?” She turned from Taber to Thorben. “Would you, Thorben?”

When neither man said anything, Kallie broke the silence. “I’ve already mated with Taber.”

“Child, that doesn’t matter. He claimed you and that would make the mating desire clear to all of you. Thorben didn’t sense it until he touched you. Now that the connection has been made it will only be a matter of time until the longing sets in.” She rose from the chair. “You three need to figure things out. Take the time and then join the family for dinner. It would be nice to spend time getting to know you.”

“Mom wait.” Thorben stopped his mother before she went inside. “Where is Dad, and the rest?”

“Dad returned while we were talking. I heard him at the back door. I suspect he’s having a shower. Your brothers will be back later. Why?”

“I’ll get him.” Taber walked to the door and pulled it open.

And in a few seconds the focus changed. The brothers had to break the news to their family before Kallie could even consider her own problem with the twins.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Two

Kallie sat at the kitchen table with Taber, Thorben, and their parents. The brothers’ grief ravaged her. She could barely tell what feelings and sensations were theirs and what were hers. She tightened her grip on the mug of hot tea with honey. Ava swore the tea would help her discomfort, but she still felt like a ship lost in the turbulence of a stormy sea. Making her nerves worse, she sat between Taber and Thorben, while their parents sat across the table, waiting the news that would devastate them.

Taber began. “There’s no easy way to tell you this. Travis led a group of men to the cabins tonight, to kidnap Kallie. Mom, I’m sorry, but we were left with no option. He was killed during the attack.”

Kallie noticed his explanation left out the fact that Travis tried to kill Taber.

“What?” Tears fell from Ava’s eyes as she stared at her sons. “Why would he do that? He didn’t even know Kallie. Are you sure it was Travis?” Their father wrapped his arm around Ava’s shoulders as she wept.

“I was there, and it was him. Travis had been hanging out with bad people. We haven’t figured out all the details yet, but the Elders of Kallie’s clan were able to trace money that was transferred from one of Pierce’s accounts to Travis. He was paid good money to kidnap her.” Taber retrieved his cell phone from his pocket and hit a couple of buttons before sliding it across the table. “Twenty thousand dollars was delivered into his account an hour after I called home to let everyone know I’d be at the cabin for a few days along with a couple of the Alaskan Tigers.”

Taber’s father, Devon, glanced at the screen and read the information before looking back at Taber. “What would he need that money for?”

“He said he wanted to get away from Alaska, away from the family. There was nothing we could do. Travis attacked.” Taber lowered his head. “We tried to detain him, but…”

Ava’s sobs cut off Taber’s words. “I need to see him. Where is he?” Ava begged.

“We brought him home.” Thorben rose from the chair. “I can bring him in.”

“No, sit down,” Devon’s ordered. “We’ll need to tell your brothers first. They deserve to know before they see you carrying his body.” He turned to his mate, his hand gently caressing her arm. “Love, why don’t you lie down? I’ll tell the boys. Kallie, will you see that she rests, while we talk to the rest of the family?”

Kallie rose from her chair, thankful for something to do. “Yes, sir.” She walked around the table and took the larger woman’s hand. “Come on, Ava.”

Long past midnight Thorben sat on the porch with a beer in hand. His head rested against the back of the rocker, eyes closed. Someone passing by might think him asleep, but his thoughts wouldn’t allow him rest. His mind reeled from events that happened in the last twenty-four hours.

He was supposed to be grieving for Travis and instead all he could think about was Kallie naked. The demand to mate had invaded his rational thinking. What kind of man thinks about sex when they’re grieving a sibling? “No wonder Taber doesn’t want me anywhere near his mate. Hell, when she has the golden child of the family, the one that can do no wrong, why would she want me? She deserves better.”

He stopped mumbling when he heard the screen door swing open, but he kept his eyes shut, hoping whoever it was would think he was sleeping and leave him alone. Bare feet padded quietly on the porch and eased into the chair beside him. The fresh scent drifting through the cool breeze could only be—Kallie. Shit. He debated keeping his eyes shut, ignore her, and maybe she’d go back inside.

“Thorben,” she whispered and laid her hand on his arm.

Her voice was like a caress against his shaft, making it instantly hard. He opened his eyes, meeting her gaze.

“I think we need to talk.”

“What’s there to say? You have Taber. You don’t want another mate, right?” He pulled his arm from under her hand, not able to stand her touch any longer.

“Thorben, give me a chance. I never expected this to happen. I rejected Taber at first too. I need some time to adjust to everything that’s happened.”

“You think I expected this? I’d have stayed away if I did. I’d rather not be mated then have to put any of us in this situation, especially you.” He set the half-empty beer bottle on the armrest of the chair.

“Your mom explained to me, even if you wouldn’t have come to us now we’d have begun to suffer from the longing for each other, until Taber’s touch became too painful for me because I was longing for you as well. We couldn’t have changed this, and fighting it now isn’t going to make the situation any easier.”

He wasn’t sure what to say to her, and he didn’t have to because his Aunt Bev stormed up the deck heading straight for them, anger pouring off her in waves. She rushed toward them, screaming. “You bitch! You killed my baby!”

He jumped to his feet, and not thinking of the consequences of touching Kallie, he reached for her and pulled her behind him. “Aunt Bev, she’s not responsible.” He wanted to be reasonable and respectable to the woman who was like a second mother to him and his siblings.

She rushed toward them, her claws drawn as she reached around Thorben. Determination filled her eyes, to see Kallie pay.

“You’d protect the woman who killed two of your family members?” Rage was thick in her voice.

“Stop! I won’t let you harm her. You don’t know what happened.”

“I didn’t…” Kallie’s words were lost in Bev’s screams.

“Don’t deny it, bitch. He was with Travis.”

Taber and his father stepped out of the house, each grabbing one of Bev’s arms and dragging her away from Thorben and Kallie. Taber turned his aunt around to face him. “Aunt Bev, we don’t know if John was with Travis or if he was killed.”

“How dare you protect your cousin’s killer?” She glared at Taber and then her brother. “I can’t believe you allowed your sons to bring her here. She got your son and nephew killed, Devon.”

“Damn it, Bev, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Come inside and I’ll tell you what happened.” Devon looked to his sons as he opened the door for Bev. “Why don’t you three go to the cabin next door. Get some rest and we’ll deal with everything in the morning.”

Thorben stood, legs braced and arms flexed, still protecting Kallie until Bev went into the house. Only then did he relax his muscles. “Let’s go next door. Dad and Aunt Bev need privacy.”

“What is she talking about? Who’s John? Was he at the cabins?” She stepped around Thorben and stared at Taber.

“Come here.” Taber held out his hand and as soon as she was in reach, he slid an arm around her waist and dragged her against his body. Ignoring Thorben, he guided her down the steps.

Thorben followed.

Taber hugged Kallie close. “John is our cousin. He left with Travis shortly after I called home. They haven’t seen him since. I spoke to Raja and sent him a picture of John to determine if he was there. Raja said he didn’t see anyone matching John’s description. They’re still checking.”

“If he was there, then it was his choice. Aunt Bev should have never have come after you.” Thorben walked next to Kallie, longing to touch her.

“Her son might be dead. No one can imagine what she’s going through, and we have no right to judge her. She’s hurting and lashed out at me because she feels I’m responsible. Most people would do the same in her position.”

“Kal, you have more compassion and understanding for people than anyone I’ve ever known.” Taber kissed the top of her head. “I’m going to grab our bags. We’ll spend the night and decide what to do tomorrow. Adam and Korbin are already set up in one of the other cabins.”

Taber’s lips on Kallie flared Thorben’s irritation. [_How do I stand by and watch him embrace my mate? _]A moment after the question passed his thoughts, a sense of calm found him. It didn’t matter that she was Taber’s mate or that he had already claimed her. Kallie was now Thorben mate as well.

“If anything happens to her while I’m gone, I’ll hold you personally responsible.” Taber scowled at Thorben as he headed toward the helicopter.

“She’ll be safe with me.” Thorben nodded and turned to Kallie. “Let’s go inside. It’s too cold out here for you. I’ll get a fire started.”

He climbed the steps two at a time with Kallie lagging just behind. Thoughts of laying her down in front of the fire and claiming her filled his mind, tightened his muscles, and hardened his shaft.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Three

Kallie stood behind the sofa watching Thorben stroke the fire until it was raging and heating the coolness of the cabin. She wasn’t sure what to say or how to make the situation easier for any of them. Taber seemed to be cold, his embrace contained a chill she hadn’t known before, while Thorben acted like she had the plague whenever she reached toward him.

“Make yourself feel at home. Do you want a blanket? The house should warm soon.”

“We can’t go on like this. We need to talk. Sit down.” When he stood by the fireplace, unmoving, she smiled. “Please, Thorben.”

Sinking onto the sofa, she pulled her legs under her and waited for him to sit. He chose the chair next to the sofa. She turned to face him. “As I tried to tell you earlier, I never expected this. It’s like being tossed in the middle of the ocean and not knowing how to swim. Being trapped between Taber’s emotions and yours has the waves slamming into me, and I’m already barely keeping my head above water. I realize neither of you are doing this on purpose, nor is it out of spite, but it doesn’t make it any less difficult for me.”

“I know you have a lot to deal with, that’s why I wanted to keep my distance. You need time to adjust and when you have a clear head we’ll figure this out.” Thorben leaned back in the chair, the firelight highlighting his strong face.

Frustration ate at Kallie.[_ ]“There’s nothing to figure out. Your mother has experience with this and says there’s nothing we can do. In order to make _us work, you and Taber need to work out whatever is going on because this war between you two is becoming unbearable for me.”

“I don’t want to make things any more difficult for you.”

“It’s not going to happen overnight and it’s not going to be easy.” She laughed. “To think only days ago I rejected mating because he was a bear…now I’m to be mated to two bears.”

“You have something against bears?”

“Not exactly. I knew a girl whose parents were different species. She had a hard time controlling her shifts. She’d shift to both animals. I don’t want that for my child.”

“That’s a very rare condition.”

“So I’ve been told, but I’m not sure I’m willing to risk it. She was teased to a point she nearly took her life.” She hugged her legs to her chest.

“Your clan has their own school which would allow our children to have the support of other shifters.”

She didn’t want to leave her clan’s compound and Taber already said he’d stay with her. Would Thorben join them?

The door opened. Taber walked in, their bags in his hand.

“I feel your anxiety.” Thorben leaned forward, taking her hand in his. “Is it the thought of having children?”

She shook her head and tapped the sofa. “Taber come join us. I need to know why you two can’t get along.”

Taber sat next to her, just far enough away to not touch. “Kal, I think we have more important to deal with. My brother and I can work out our issues later. You have to decide if you’ll accept him and if you do, will he move to your clan. Or we can see if there’s a new development that can remove a twin mating.”

“I talked to Mark and he said there was nothing to stop us from mating, so what makes you think there’ll be something to stop your twin?” When Taber remained silent, she continued. “I already told Thorben we’ll make this work, but the tension between you is horrible. It’s hard to be in the same room with both of you. I’m tired, and you don’t need me to work out your issues. While I rest, you two talk.” She yawned and rose from the sofa. “Thorben, I know this might be unfair to you, but Taber and I are returning to my clan. There’s a cabin for us and if you wish, you’re more than willing to join us. Not that I see much of a choice with the mating longing, but I wanted to give you the option. My clan is where I feel safe and with people out there trying to kill me, safety is priority.”

“That’s what I don’t understand, why are they after you?”

“Taber will explain. I’m going to bed.” She walked around the sofa and paused, not knowing where to go.

Taber understood her hesitation and pointed. “Straight down the hall, the bedroom at the end.”

Following his direction, she moseyed down the hall. She hoped they could work out their problems by morning. Adam and Korbin could take her back to the compound and the brothers could stay here. She was done with their flood of emotions, and having to watch for enemies.

Thorben rose from the chair and moved to the fireplace. He glanced at pictures lining the mantel. All of the pictures were of the family, dating back to when him and Taber were closer than any bear cubs could be, with their protective mother hovering over them until she knew they could make it on their own. The problems started when she stepped back and their father guided them into manhood.

“I know our issues won’t be resolved overnight. My actions over the last few years have driven a wedge between us and no words I say will undo it. I’m sorry for the shit I pulled in the past, and haven’t done things that you and the family approved of, but I’ve always been there when the family needed me. I never meant for things to get this bad. One day I woke up and realized I screwed up. Only time and my actions will prove I’ve changed. Unless you give me a chance, we’ll always be in this same spot.” Thorben turn to his brother. “I probably don’t deserve a second chance and I wouldn’t ask, but our war is tearing Kallie apart.”

“There’s no reason to tell me what my mate is going through. I know what she feels.”

Fire splinted in the fireplace, but in Taber’s eyes too. “There you go again, Taber, she’s not [_just _]your mate. I don’t want to fight with you. We have to figure out a way to live together.”

“She hasn’t accepted you yet, Thorben. I barely got her to accept me because I’m a bear.”

“But she will accept me. She said that tonight. No matter how much we deny it, we don’t seem to have a choice. Have you ever heard of someone being able to get away from their mate except through death?” Would his brother consider that an option?

“No, and get that confused look off your face. I’m not thinking of fighting you to the death for Kallie.” Taber slammed his hand against the cushion.

“How did you know I thought you might?”

“Because if I were in your shoes I’d think the same. No matter our problems, we’re brothers and we already lost one tonight. I won’t lose another. Kallie would suffer too. We’ve seen what happens to a mate left behind. I won’t risk her.” Taber rose, stretching his long legs. He met his brother’s gaze. “I’ll do my best to keep the past in the past not only for Kallie’s sake, but because I miss you. We’re a good pair, and that’s what Kallie needs. If we’re going to keep her safe, she needs us to be the brothers we once were.”

Thorben nodded. “I won’t let you down.”

“Good because if you do you’ll be risking our mate.”

Thorben knew nothing would change their fate. They were destined.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Four

Kallie woke to the sweet smell of bacon. Her stomach growled. She rolled onto her back to check if anyone had come to her bed last night, but the other pillow was untouched. She slipped out of bed, ignoring her duffle bag at the bottom of the bed, and padded barefoot to the kitchen, wearing the same clothes she had on the day before.

She expected to sense the wave of emotions from the brothers again, but instead she found them cooking, and an awareness of longing from them. “Something smells good.”

“Good morning.” They said in unison, as they glanced away from the stove and counter.

Realization hit her. She was mated to twins. They looked almost identical, with just small physical differences, such as Thorben’s dimples were deeper than his brother’s, and his hair a little darker. Taber was the more outspoken and outgoing of the two, while Thorben tended to be reserved.

She longed to go to them, to wrap her arms around them, but unwilling to stir their animosity, she denied herself the pleasure. She sat at the bar and watched them cook. [_Men cooking, I could get used to this. _]“It seems as though you’ve worked things out.”

“When a woman orders her mates to do something, it’s our duty to comply.” Taber teased, placing a plate of eggs and bacon on the bar. “We’ve come to an understanding.”

“That would be?” She grabbed a piece of bacon and took a bite.

“We’ll deal with this mating like adults. When Mom taught us to share, we thought she meant just our toys. We never expected to share a woman, but we will. We’ll rotate nights, so we each have time with you. Most important, you’ll have us both to protect you.” Taber smiled, dishing two more plates of breakfast.

“Are you sure?” Her question held caution.

“There are no others for us, Kallie.” His hand cupped the side of her face, his palm so large it covered her cheek. “You’re all we want. If you’ll have us, we’ll give you everything your heart desires. You’ll be protected and cherished. We just want you.” Taber leaned close, pressing his lips to hers.

Thorben leaned against the counter, eating. “He filled me in last night. I have some connections that might be able to help. John called, he’s alive. Thaddeus, the next oldest after us, has gone to fetch him. Taber and I have decided we have to leave before they return. John’s a liability, and we won’t risk you.”

“What about Travis’ funeral?” She added a dash of pepper to her eggs.

“We don’t have funerals as some do. Most of us prefer to be cremated, and instead of a service, we believe in a celebration of life. The family will understand.” Taber’s cell phone rang. He unclipped it from his belt and checked the caller ID. “After breakfast we’ll say goodbye to Mom and the rest of the family. Thorben’s already packed and Adam and Korbin are standing by when we’re ready. It’s Ty, I have to take this.” He walked to the other room, phone to his ear.

“I know this isn’t easy for you, but we’re trying our best.” Thorben joined her at the bar.

“I told you last night we’ll make this work.” She took another bite of the eggs before glancing up at him. “Taber said you’ve only been to the compound once, are you going to be okay staying there?”

“Neither of us cares where we are as long as we have you. I agree with Taber, you’re safer there. The compound has guards and security we don’t have here.” He reached across the bar and laid his hand on hers. “We’ll make sure you’re safe, and I know your Elders are working on finding Pierce. I’ll do whatever I can to see he’s taken down as well. Victor Senior or anyone else won’t get their hands on you. I promise.” He kissed the top of her hand, just as Taber rejoined them again.

She expected to sense jealousy in Taber as she had the night before, but his calmness surprised her. They obviously reached a compromise last night.

“There’s a development in Russia. Connor worked his computer genius skills and was able to make it sound like Victor told us his father’s plans. The Russian shifters are revolting.” Taber smiled and she could feel his delight. “They also believe they’re only a few days behind finding Robin. Tabitha has requested Adam return to the compound soon. He’ll be sent to find Robin.”

“That won’t be a problem. Thorben’s agreed to come home with us.” She grabbed the last piece of bacon from her plate and stood. “I’ll take a shower and change. Then we can go see your parents.” She hurried to the bathroom, anxious to feel the hot water pour over her aching muscles. The tension of the last few days buried itself deep and made her stiff. I needed a hot shower, and one of my naked mates. Her tigress paced impatiently inside her, demanding a shift. Soon. She promised.

Kallie sat on the back porch with Ava, a glass of tea with honey in her hand. [_These bears have never heard of coffee? _]Her caffeine deprived brain and the mating heat had her edgy. She tried hard to keep her impatience down as she waited for Ava to get to the reason she pulled her away from the rest of the family. “Why did you ask to see me alone?”

“Having two fathers and a mother, I was always surrounded by love and understanding. I wouldn’t have changed a minute of it, and I don’t think my mother would have either. You’ll have to make both of my boys happy. I have faith you can. My boys were raised right. They might have had some differences over the years, but they’re good boys and will treat you right.” She paused taking a sip of her tea. “Growing up, my siblings and I never knew who was our biological father and honestly it never mattered because they were both our Dads. I just didn’t want you worrying about that when the time comes.”

“I appreciate your concern.” She almost told Ava she wasn’t sure she wanted children, but didn’t want to hurt to woman’s feelings. Even if Ava wanted grandchildren it was Kallie and her men’s choice. “I know I’m taking them away from you right now, but we’ll return to visit soon. It’s just…”

“Don’t worry child. Taber already updated me on your situation. The boys want you safe, and with your clan is where you need to be.” She sat her mug aside. “Come on, I know the boys are waiting for you.” She took Kallie’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I want you to know if you need anything I’m always here for you, and if things get out of control with whatever is going on, the family will have your back. You just call and my other boys will be there.”

“Thank you, Ava.” She followed Ava inside and searched for Taber. He was standing with Thorben and their father in the kitchen. She smiled at them, wanting to run to them, but held back. They seemed to have accepted the joined mating, yet uncertainty still filled her.

Adam arrived on the porch. “Adam, are we ready?” she asked.

“Whenever you and the Browns are ready, Korbin and I are.” He leaned in to whisper, but in a room of shifters it was pointless. “I heard what happened with your mating. You okay?” She knew everyone heard him.

Adam was her friend. They saw each other often after she went to work in command central, but rarely discussed anything personal. “It’s a little much to take in, but yeah. They’re good men.”

“I’ve known Taber for years and he’s a standup guy. If Thorben’s half the man as Taber then you’re truly blessed by fate. Not to mention you’re a special woman and deserve a good mate…or two.” Adam chuckled. “That will treat you like a queen.”

“Thanks Adam, I wish you an amazing mate to complement you in every way.” She honestly meant it. Adam would make a woman very happy if he could only find the woman he was destined to be with.

“Are you packed and ready to go?” Taber came up next to her, placing his hand high on her back.

Thorben slipped up to her other side and placed his hand low on her back. A sense of security wrapped her like a soft, warm blanket. She savored the moment. She tried to remember the last time she was so cared for and the only time she remembered was as a child on a particularly nasty storm, curled into her father’s arms. “Yeah, I’m ready.”

Taber stepped away to pick up their bags, but the moment his hand left her, longing shot through her like fire. Need swept over her, buckling her knees. Thorben’s arm, tight around her waist, kept her upright. She dipped closer to his body.

Her hand went to his chest with the thought of pushing away from him, but as contact was made, longing replaced distance. She wanted him like her next breath. Forgetting about everyone surrounding them, she clawed at his shirt, trying to unbutton it, but failing miserably.

“Taber, touch her!” Somewhere in the distance Kallie heard Ava’s faint command.

As if being propelled by another force, Kallie pressed her lips to Thorben’s, frantically diving her tongue into his warm mouth.

A hand timidly touched her shoulder and she collapsed to the floor, drawing Thorben with her. Taber bent, his hand still firmly on her shoulder.

“What just happened?” Her voice sounded strange and unlike her own.

“The mating desire. You haven’t confirmed Thorben as your mate yet and until you do, you’ll suffer.” Ava explained. “Taber’s touch will only hold the desire off for so long. I suspect with what you’ve displayed just now, you only have a couple hours until it’s uncontrollable.”

The room cleared, and relieved that she was no longer putting on some kind of show for the family, Kallie leaned against Thorben. “A few hours, can we get back to the compound in time?”

“It’s risky, but if we can’t control it, we’ll be in trouble in the helicopter.”

Taber was right. There wasn’t enough room in the helicopter if the mating desire became overwhelming. What choice did they have but to stay where they were?

“Why not go back to the cabins? It will be private. I can take the plane if Adam and Korbin can’t stay. As soon as this passes we’ll fly to the compound.” Thorben snuggled his chin into her shoulder, nuzzling her hair.

Taber seemed to consider their options before nodding. “Mom, can you ask Adam to come in?”

“Sure son. Don’t break the contact. I’m not sure what will happen if you do and it might not be something you can stop again.” Ava tapped her son’s shoulder and then left to fetch Adam.

“Kallie, do you think you can stand? We’ll try to get you to the sofa.” When she shook her head, Taber sat next to them, sliding his other arm around her. “We can be at the cabins within the hour.”

When she glanced up at him, concern filled his eyes. She knew he was feeling her pain as the mating desire continued to bubble like boiling water just below the surface. It was suppressed, but just barely. Soon it would be upon her and there would be no way to ignore it. She longed to say something to ease Taber’s concern, but fighting the desire was too much effort. Lying against Thorben, she was completely drained.

Adam stepped into the living room. “Ava said you needed me.”

“We have to go back to the cabins. Kallie’s mating desire with Thorben won’t last long enough to get us back to the compound. I’d like you and Korbin there for protection, but if you wish to return back to the compound I can get my brothers.”

“No Taber, we’re at your disposal until I have to follow a lead to Robin. I’ll let the Elders know so they don’t expect us this evening.” Adam pulled his cell phone from his pocket. “The cabins are almost an hour from here, will she make it?”

“That far yes, but we’ll need to be airborne in the next fifteen minutes. We want her away from here before John gets back. My father will find out if he means Kallie any harm or if he got wrapped up in it because of his friendship with Travis.” He smiled at Kallie, before turning back to Adam. “We’ll bring her to the helicopter. You and Korbin meet us there in ten minutes.”

A moan escaped her lips, as another wave of longing hit her. Unlike before the waves were gentler, but still took everything in her to not start grinding her body into Thorben’s.

“Make that five minutes. We’re running out of time.” Taber squeezed Kallie’s shoulder. “Come on Kallie, hold on a little bit longer.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Five

Kallie’s head fell against Taber’s chest as he carried her to the same cabin they shared before. Thorben walked beside them, close enough to keep his hand in hers. He wanted to carry her, but they all knew they might not make it to the cabin if he did. “Hurry,” she cried out as another wave hit her. She squeezed Thorben’s hand and her back arched. Her resolve was almost gone and when that happened, they’d be in trouble.

Minutes seemed to be hours to finally reach a bedroom. Taber laid her in the center of the bed, both men careful to remain in contact with her. They glanced toward each other before turning their sparking green eyes back to her.

“Naked! I need you…now!” She squirmed on the bed.

“I’ll leave you two.” Taber released her hand and pain coursed through her.

She snatched his hand back to ease the pain, but this time it didn’t help. “It’s not like before. We’ve held off for too long. I need you both.”

Thorben wasted no time striping his clothes. She suspected his own yearning had stripped his control away too. Naked, he crawled onto the bed next to her and tugged her shirt up over her head. It hung from the arm where Taber still held her hand. Thorben pushed her bra to the side as his lips feverishly claimed her nipple. His other hand went to her jeans, unbuttoning them and pushing them down her legs with them went her last shred of her sanity.

“Taber, please…”

Taber removed his own clothes, only letting go of her hand when he had to. She wasn’t sure, and at that moment didn’t care, if Taber stripped because he wanted her or because his own yearning had become too much for him. She reached out, her hand landing firmly on his chest, needing to feel him against her. He slid on the bed, lifting her up so he was behind her, and tilted her head so he could claim her mouth. His shaft prodded her back. She wanted to turn and take it, but he trapped her against him, holding her still.

Thorben fingers slipped between her legs and teased her bundle of nerves, dragging pleasure from her over sensitized system, in hard, hot waves. She moaned around Taber’s unrelenting kiss. She was captive between their bodies. Thorben’s fingers thrust into her as his thumb continued to wring more pleasure from her core.

Taber’s teeth grazed her lower lip and he pulled back enough to let her cries of frustrations escape.

“I need one of you inside me. Please…” They stopped and she thought they were going to ignore her demands, but Thorben quickly slipped on top of her, angling between her spread thighs, and drove into her with one powerful thrust. He gave her no time to catch her breath before he began rocking in and out.

Taber scooted from behind and knelt before her, the hard length of him jutting toward her. Without invitation, she took him into her mouth, working her way to the base. She used her hand to cup the end of the hard shaft, moving her mouth up and down the length, slowly at the tip. Taber groaned and reached to cup the back of her head. He allowed her to set the pace.

Trapped in pace of Thorben’s thrusts, she fought to find the perfect tempo to allow them to work together. Their rhythm quickly synced and she moaned, knowing they were being pleasured as one, rocking together in perfect harmony, as her ecstasy began to overwhelm her. Digging her nails into the back of Taber’s thighs, she held on to him as every pump sent pulses exploding through her. She came apart at the seams, her inner muscles clenching Thorben as he continued to drive his shaft into her.

Ecstasy engulfed her. Taber cried out his release. She writhed beneath Thorben, swallowing Taber juices, before another wild climax spiraled through her.

Thorben cried out as he slammed home a final time before he collapsed to the side, their legs still entangled. Taber leaned against the back of the bed, his eyes closed.

She tugged his hand, too exhausted to speak. He scooted down on the bed and her breathing slowly returned to normal. She cuddled against both bears, contented.

Who’d have thought I’d end happily snuggling with two bears.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Six

Kallie roused in a daze of satisfaction, aware of the weight of her mates huddled on her sides. She was exhausted. Since arriving at the cabin their bouts of lovemaking were only interrupted when one went in search of food. Longing to burrow back to sleep, but knowing the clan needed them at the compound, forced her up.

“What is it, mate?” Thorben rubbed his face against her hair, marking her with his scent.

“I don’t want this to end, but we have to return to the compound. The Elders are waiting.” Will things change when we’re surrounded by my clan?

“There’s more.” Taber prodded. “You’re worried about something else. I can feel your anxiety like a lead weight in my stomach.”

When she remained silent, Thorben added. “I feel it as well. What is it? Whatever it is, we’ll do our best to relieve your worry.”

If only it was that easy. “I just want you to be happy at the compound.”

“You don’t get it, do you Kal?” Taber propped up on his elbow, staring down at her. “You’re all we want. It doesn’t matter where we are, as long as you’re with us.”

Those were the words she wanted to hear, but the nagging doubt her father drilled into her for so many years continued to creep inside her insecurities. “There was another reason I never wanted to mate. I didn’t want to be tied to someone because of hormones, or because we’d produce children to keep our lines alive. I want someone to love me for me, not because of the chemical reaction our bodies create.”

Thorben dragged his fingers slowly up her naked stomach, gazing at her intently. “The mating desire only brings people together, it doesn’t produce love. I believe mates would eventually find each other even if our bodies didn’t go through the mating desire, because we’re destined to be together.”

“I agree.” Taber added. “Look at shifters that mate with humans, their first child has a fifty-fifty chance of being a shifter and from there the odds go down with each child. That has nothing to do with keeping the shifter genes alive. The mating desire is the same as what humans have with love at first sight, except stronger.”

“Humans can get their relationships wrong, where we don’t. We have to search for the one we’re meant to be with, but once we find our mate, we’re united until death. What could be better than spending your life with the one you’re destined to be with?” Thorben used the tip of his finger to tilt her head toward him, bringing her face inches from his.

“When you put it that way, nothing.” She pressed her lips against his, this time not out of desire, but because he said the right thing—what she needed to hear.

When their lips broke, Taber’s hand went under her jaw and drew her toward him. “We love you for who you are, not because of desire. Never doubt that.” His lips covered hers before she could say anything. “I told you before and I’ll tell you every day. I love you Kallie. You’re my mate and you complete me.”

As if not to be outdone by his twin, Thorben kissed her shoulder. “My heart belongs to you and only you. I love you with every ounce of my being, Kallie.”

She turned to him, raising her arm so she could run her fingers across the stumble that marred his face. Thorben was her quiet mate, more laid-back and willing to follow Taber’s lead, and the more emotional of the two. He wore his heart on his sleeve and eagerly gave it to her for safekeeping. “I love you both more than I could have believed possible.” She let her hand fall from his face. “I fought this mating from the beginning, but you two restored a part of me I didn’t even know was missing. I’m whole again, and after…my past, I never thought I’d feel this way again.”

Traveling back to the compound drained Kallie of any further energy she had left. All she wanted to do was to crawl into bed and sleep. She’d prefer with both men beside her, but Taber had to report to the Elders to find out where things stood.

Raja was waiting for them at the landing strip. “Welcome back. Thorben it’s good to see you again.”

“Thank you, Raja, same to you. Anything I can do to help please let me know. I’d like to keep my mate safe as well as do my part to keep your clan safe.” Thorben shook Raja’s outstretched hand.

“Appreciated. For now you can focus on Kallie.” Raja slipped his hand into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out a key. He glanced at Kallie. “I need to bring Taber up to date on a few things and then he’ll be along, if that’s okay with you, Kallie?”

“Don’t keep him too long.” She teased.

“I’ll do my best.” Raja held out the key. “You’d probably like some privacy after all you’ve been though, and with two mates to protect you, we thought cabin twelve at the far end of the compound would be suitable.”

She loved that section of the compound. It was close to the creek. “Thank you.” She smiled and accepted the key.

“It’s perfect timing for building. Our crew can get started on a new cabin. If you want to sit down with Ryan, he’s the head of the construction team, and go over floor plans. They assure me a cabin of your choice can be completed within two months.”

“Thank you, Raja.” Happiness erupted in the pit of her stomach. A place I can truly call home.

“Go with Thorben and get some rest. I’ll be there soon.” Taber leaned down, his lips covering hers. When he pulled away she saw a twinge of jealousy in his eyes, but this time it wasn’t aimed at Thorben. She knew Taber wanted to join her and Thorben at the cabin.

She rose onto her tippy toes and kissed him again. “I love you.” With those three little words the discomfort eased from his eyes.

“I love you, too.” He shot Thorben a quick look and nodded.

“She’ll be fine. I’ll see she gets some rest.” Thorben waved to Taber as he walked away leaving her alone with Thorben for the first time. “Where to my mate?”

“This way.” She led the way, with Korbin on their heels carrying the last few bags. She only carried her small overnight bag, while both of her men had additional bags since they wouldn’t be returning to live in Nome. The thought of their belongings in those bags warmed her heart, reminding her she was stuck with them. Not that I want to get rid of them anyway.

Opening the door to the cabin, she was overwhelmed by the space. After living in the studio for so long she wasn’t sure what she’d do with all this space. She stepped inside so the men could get out of the chilly air. She soaked in the beauty. A large cream sectional stretched in front of a fireplace, and acted as a divider to the kitchen. It was very open and airy. The creamy brown walls added character and color to the place, and drew out the warm tones of the hardwood.

She tossed her bag next to the table by the door and made her way into the kitchen. Warm honey color wood cabinets highlighted the gold of the granite countertop.

Kallie froze. She didn’t cook! What would she to do with a kitchen that looks like it came out of a magazine? Shit! How could she feed two hungry bears when she couldn’t even make toast without burning it? She had already experience their hunger for food, as well as in bed—more than once.

“Taber and I both cook.” She turned to find Thorben leaning against the bar area with amusement clear on his face.

“What?” She pretended to not know what he was talking about.

“You’re staring at the kitchen with fear.” He teased. “Taber already told me you don’t know how to cook, but don’t worry, Mom made sure all her boys could cook. Heck, I can even sew, well a button on. Mom wanted us to be able to help our mates with whatever they needed. She always said, the home responsibilities shouldn’t just fall on the woman, she’s got to rear the children.”

She raised an eyebrow. “She didn’t believe men should help raise the children?”

“Oh no, Mom would have killed Dad if he tried. She believed it was her responsibility to raise us, and then he would turn us into men. He took over when we were teenagers, teaching us how to build a cabin, furniture, hunt, and everything else a man should know. But when it came to discipline we were always more afraid of Mom.”

“Your mom might reconsider me as a mate for her oldest boys if she knew what a crappy mate I’m going to be.”

“Hey now.” He stepped away from the bar and walked to her. Wrapping his arms around her, he pulled her to his body. “It’s no one’s place to judge, plus I couldn’t have asked for a better mate. You have the courage to face danger head on when so many hide from it.”

“Courage? I think you’re talking about someone else. I have none of that.”

He pulled back from her and gazed into her eyes. “You have more courage than any woman I’ve ever known. When you knew there was a traitor in our family, what did you do? You faced it by going to the cabins with Taber and stood your ground.”

The memory came floating back. “I killed a man.”

“You saved yourself.”

“I killed someone that suffered as I had. He can’t be blamed because he went insane from being held captive. It was hell being Wesley’s pet. I can’t blame Brian because he didn’t know any other life.”

“Brian was anything but a victim. He chose to live like that.”

“No, you’re wrong Thorben. It’s not possible. I was there. He had a collar just like I did.”

“Love, I’m not doubting you.” He pulled her to him and led them to the sofa. “While you were talking to Mom on the porch, Ty called with some interesting news. Brian was Wesley’s assistant. He’s the one that modified the collars.”

“That can’t be true.” She didn’t want to believe the man she felt sorry for was responsible for her years of torture.

“He preferred to be a tiger most of the time and he only wore the collar to make you think he was like you, to gain your trust.” He slid his hand down her arm. “Taber didn’t want to bring your past back to light for you when you had everything else to deal with, but the laptop Raja brought home from the scene had all the information on it. How to modify the collars and so much more.”

“I thought he was my friend. All those years we gave each other comfort, huddled together after Wesley tortured me. It was all a lie.”

“I’m sorry, Kallie. Taber was going to tell you once we were settled here. He didn’t want you to blame yourself for killing Brian and to think he was innocent.”

“Does that mean this is all over?”

“I don’t know. There’s still John. We don’t know where he stands and until we do, we can’t rule out that he means you harm. But Brian and Wesley are dead. You don’t have to worry about them anymore.” He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and hit a few buttons. “Wesley came to the states searching for you. That’s why Brian was here. He put the bounty on your head that Travis wanted so bad.” He turned the phone toward her. “It made the front page paper. Wesley was brutally killed, hacked to pieces not even a shifter could survive.” He set the phone on the cushion beside him. “Brian had pictures on his computer. His diary bragged about what he did. Victor Senior paid him to do it, but I don’t think he ever thought he’d have a monster on his hands with Wesley dead. I suspect he believed as you did that Wesley had kept Brian prisoner and this was freeing him.”

She laid her head in the crook of his arm, breathing in his spicy smell trying to suppress the anxiety that prickled at the back of her neck. “How did Travis get wrapped up in all of this?”

“The human I saw him with is bad news. He’s into a lot of shady dealings and has been known to act as a hired gun if the money is right. He was one of the guys who attacked the cabin that night. He’s also dead. It was him who guided Travis down the wrong path.”

“I’m sorry. He lost his life because of me.” She blinked the tears that threatened to fall.

He pressed tighter against her body. “Don’t you dare blame yourself. Travis chose his path. He knew you were mated to Taber and he didn’t care. Money was more important than family.” A deep sadness stung his voice.

Wishing she could ease his grief, she clung to him, her eyelids falling shut.

“We should go to bed. You’ve had a long few days,” he whispered against the top of her head.

“Just hold me.” She closed her eyes as the long tentacles of sleep began to wrap around her, drawing her into their warm embrace.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Seven

Taber sat at Raja’s kitchen table with Raja, Bethany, Ty, and Tabitha. The women’s guards were in the living room, close enough if needed.

“Do you think Thorben is trustworthy?” Ty frowned.

“I do. I’ve unjustly doubted him in the past because he wasn’t following the road I wanted him to take. He has never betrayed us and he’s always been there when we’ve needed him. With the urgency of the situation and the loose rogues, we need the extra help.” Taber squeezed honey from the bottle he was holding into his mouth. “If you doubt my instincts, know that Kallie can feel his emotions as well as my own since she’s mated to us both. She’ll sense any type of betrayal.”

Ty looked to Raja before nodding. “Okay. But if he betrays us, it will be your hide on the line as well.”

“Not to mention my mate’s life,” Taber muttered. “I wouldn’t risk her or anyone here at the compound if I wasn’t completely sure.”

“Very well, bring him up to speed on everything,” Raja said. “Any news from your father if we should be concerned with John?”

“Not yet. I expect to hear from him soon, and when I do I’ll let you know. He’s family, but if he’s a threat, I want him eliminated. My mate is more important than a cousin who would betray his family. Every threat to Kallie except Victor Senior has been eliminated and it sounds as though the Russian shifters might take care of him in due time.”

“He’s with your sleuth. Devon can deliver whatever punishment he finds suitable.” Ty stood. “Knowing your father, I believe John will get what’s coming to him if there’s even the slightest belief he was involved. For now, return to your mate, bring your brother up to date on everything, and get some rest. We’ll alert you if anything changes.”

Taber grabbed a second bottle of honey and stood. Bethany placed her hand on his arm before he left. “We’ve put more in your cabin.”

Tabitha laughed. “A lot more. We’re taking stock in the honey trade now that we have two bears at the compound.”

He smiled. She might be the Queen of the Alaskan Tigers, but Tabitha was one of the most down to earth people he had met. “Good, because we bears like our honey. Another stock market tip? The fish market, especially salmon.”

Back at the cabin, Taber found Thorben dozing with Kallie in his arms. “I leave you with the simple task of getting her into bed and I find you both on the sofa.”

“I told her about Brian.” Thorben whispered to not wake her up.

“She didn’t need that right now.”

“I know. It just came out. I mentioned she had more courage than any woman I knew and one thing led to another. She never suspected Brian wasn’t anything but another captive. I think once she gets over the shock it will help her move on. She’s burying the pain of killing someone, but sooner or later it will rear its ugly head. We have to be there for her.”

“I still remember my first kill.” Taber leaned against the arm of the sofa. “It never gets easy, but that first kill will always stick with you. She did it to save her life and in time she’ll accept that, we’ll see to it. Right now she needs to rest—in bed.”

“I’ll carry her.” Thorben adjusted to slip his arms under Kallie.

“Very well. When you’re done, I need to speak with you.” He watched Thorben carry their mate down the hall to the bedroom. He longed to be able to go to bed, wrap his body against her soft, warm skin, and sleep. First, he had to bring Thorben up to speed and then sleep before the mating desire hit again.

Kallie woke, sandwiched between her two strong men. Both in a deep peaceful sleep while still maintaining her firmly in their grasp. Were they worried she might disappear while they slept? She wiggled, trying to gain a little more room without waking them up.

Sleep still clung to her, threatening to pull her back under, but a noise disturbed her continued slumber. She was safe here—at the compound—between her men, with no concerned of the threats lurking in the shadows. She listened closer. A vibration? Taber’s cell phone was vibrating on the nightstand. She rubbed Taber’s arm. “Your phone.”

He rolled over and snatched the phone. Barely cracking his eyelids, he read the display. “Damn, I’ve got to take this call. It’s Dad.” He slipped out of bed and walked across the room to lean on the dresser.

She missed the warmth of Taber’s body against hers, but Thorben stirred and quickly filled her longing by pulling her to his body. “What’s going on?”

“Your Dad called. It must be about John.” Worry saturated her tone. She hoped John meant her no harm. The family couldn’t take the grief of another family member right now.

“Don’t worry. John’s a follower, but he isn’t an idiot.” He kissed below her ear, working his way down her neck, biting softly where her shoulder met her neck, and then running his tongue up the length again.

Desire fluttered and she turned to face him. She ran her fingers over his chest, caressing gently through his chest hair. Her lips pressed to his. She wanted him inside her.

Taber cleared his throat. Thorben leaned to the side so she could see Taber too.

“Dad says John didn’t know where they were going. When he learned what they were up to, he took off, wanting no part in it. I need to inform the Elders. Stay in bed, I’ll be back shortly. I need more sleep.”

“What’s that got to do with me staying in bed?” Kallie frowned.

“I like your warm body against mine while I’m sleeping. I’ll be back soon, my love.”

When the door closed, Thorben pushed her back on the pillow and slipped on top of her. “I told you it would be fine.” He lips claimed hers, and her desire surged.

Craving his touch, she pulled him closer. He trailed a path of hot, wet kisses to her breasts, pausing to nip and suck each one. Every stroke of his tongue fired the wild craving in her blood. When they spoke of the mating fever, she thought they were exaggerating, but the force of this primal passion consumed her. His kisses found their way back to her lips, his bulky frame hovering over as he gazed down at her, his desire clear in his eyes.

He stroked every inch of her body. Her body cried out for more. His hands stroked and teased until he found her special central core. His fingers delved inside her. As he worked his fingers, her body moved with the motion, the heat and wetness driving her crazy.

“Thorben, please I need you.” She moaned, wanting to feel him inside her.

“Your wish is my command, mate.” He slid between her thighs and filled her with a powerful thrust. His mouth claimed her nipple, his tongue running lazy circles around her nipple before sucking gently. Thrusting his shaft in and out of her, she clawed at his back, pulling their bodies together. She tightened her inner muscles around him, forcing him to go harder and faster. The hard, blunt force of his rocking hips drove her mad until her world splintered and she heard him roar her name. He rolled to his side, cuddling against her. Kallie’s smile faded as she floated in the sea of bliss, her cat sated for the time being.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Twenty-Eight

Days later, Kallie cuddled with Thorben in front of the large fireplace, the warm glow danced over the otherwise dark room. They were alone again while Taber attended a meeting with the Elders. Thorben had been invited, but the brothers didn’t want to leave her alone, not even at the compound. The danger to her life had passed, but the clan was still at risk.

A few shifters continue to guard the grounds from the mountainside, and Mark had taken over her duties at command central until she was ready to return, or until Ty found someone to replace her. Taber and Thorben urged her to quit the position. She wasn’t sure she wanted to. Her men were working with the Elders and she needed something to fill the time when they were away.

“Mate, you’re a million miles away.”

She smiled at him. Thorben had already proven to be the more romantic of the two brothers, cuddling by the fire, gentle caresses, sweet words of love, and the list went on. She never deprived him of the little alone time they had together. “Tell me what do you think of the floor plan I picked out?” She steered the conversation away from her real thoughts.

She had chosen a large one-floor cabin with three master suites and two additional bedrooms. This allowed everyone to have their own space, as well as two extra rooms for children if they chose to have them. Her men had convinced her that it would be better to build the extra rooms now than to wait and the season be wrong. Since their children would be interspecies no one, not even Doc, was sure how long her pregnancy would last. They’d have to wait to see which gene was more dominant. If she was to have a typical tigress pregnancy, she’d give birth in three and half months. If the pregnancy steered toward the Kodiak bears, she’d give birth seven and half months later. Either way they needed to have the additional rooms in case they were destined to have children.

The cabin would have the same open floor plan as the one they currently resided in and the kitchen that she had fallen in love with at first sight, but there were added changes to suit her men’s needs. Including an additional fireplace in her bedroom, where the men would be with her.

“As long as you’re happy, it’s fine with me. I want our home to be the home of your dreams and as long as we’re all there together, that’s all that matters.” He squeezed her close.

“Theodore has already agreed to make custom beds for the three master bedrooms. It will give us more room in bed.” She wiggled her eyebrows.

“Oh, I can think of a few ways to break the beds in.” He winked.

She laughed. “It will be a real home, and I’ll have you and Taber with me.”

The door suddenly swung open and Taber stepped in, a cool gust of wind following him.

“Speak of the devil himself.” Thorben teased. “How did the meeting with the Elders go?”

“Very well. They believed they have pinpointed Robin’s location and Adam is preparing to leave now.” Taber shrugged out of his jacket and hung it on the hook. He joined them on the floor and planted a kiss on her forehead before pulling her legs onto his lap. “Robin is in a small town, Royalwood, Texas where too many shifters arriving would cause suspicion. He’ll go, gain her trust, and then bring her back here. Hopefully quickly, so we can find out what she knows about Pierce.”

“If it’s a small town won’t it raise questions if he arrives in a helicopter?” She slid her hand down Taber’s arm, enjoying the touch of his skin under her fingertips.

“He’ll fly to Dallas where there will be a rental car waiting for him at a private landing strip. Royalwood is a little over thirty minutes outside of Dallas. Connor speculates that the area is a whole different world.”

“Poor Adam.” Thorben chuckled and when she frowned with confusion, he added. “He leaves the chilly rainy weather to go to Texas, the heat capital of the states.”

“I hope Robin has some information that will bring Pierce down.”

“Don’t worry, Kal. I don’t think Pierce has any desire to kidnap you or help Victor Senior. The tiger has taken over within him and is driving him insane. He’s losing control of his gang of rogues and soon he’ll be alone. We’ve already taken out the rogues he sent after as. We’re diminishing his numbers.” Taber ran his hand up her jean cloaked leg.

“I’m not worried. Worrying gets you nowhere. Instead, I’m going to enjoy every moment with my two mates and live life to the fullest. We’ll find Pierce.”

“We’re hot on his trail. It’s only a matter of time.” Taber tickled her calf.

“We won’t rest until we do, and as long as any danger is out there, you know we’ll protect you.” Thorben pressed a kiss against her temple. “My mate, you’re a lucky woman having two mates for the price of one.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more.” She smiled at her men. “I never expected my life to end up so happy and satisfying. I love you both.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Preview: Night with a Tiger

For Adam Merks the Alaskan Tigers have always come first, but when he finds Robin, his loyalty is divided. His tiger demands he stay home to guard his mate while his duty to his clan pushes him toward danger.

When a rogue shifter murders her husband, Robin Zimmer, is sent running for her life. Looking over her shoulder with every turn, she’s tired and nearing the end. When Adam finds her, she has a choice—trust a shifter or continue running on her own.

Will Adam be able to show Robin the benefits of their mating and living within a shifter clan before the unknown scares her away?

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter One

With the precision of years of experience behind the helm, Adam Merks landed the helicopter. The private landing strip, just south of Dallas, Texas, was quiet. The only sound he heard as he stepped onto the grass was the rustle of leaves and the chirps of birds in the distance. His rented four-by-four pickup truck was parked twenty feet ahead, shining like a black diamond in the evening sun. It seemed too clean and new for where he was going. It would make him stand out, but this vehicle was the best Connor could do on such short notice.

Anxious to begin his search for Robin Zimmer, he tugged his small duffle bag from the helicopter and headed to the truck. With a little luck on his side, he’d be able to seek out Robin before night fell on the sleepy little town she was holed up in this week.

Slinging his duffle bag over his shoulder, he jogged toward the truck desperate to get out of the sweltering sun. After living in Alaska for years, he wasn’t used to the heat, especially not this type in April. He held no desire to spend any unnecessary time here. The sooner he found Robin and convinced her he only wanted to help, the quicker he could return to Alaska and the cool spring weather.

Opening the driver’s door, he found a pair of black cowboy boots and matching hat. Just the right outfit he needed to fit in at Royalwood. Tossing his bag onto the passenger’s seat, he leaned against the truck and unlaced his black steel-toe boots. All Alaskan Tigers guards wore these boots for traction in the Alaskan snow. He slipped on the cowboy boots and wiggled his toes inside, trying to get used to the feel of the pointed toe. He then reached in the cab for the cowboy hat before a quick glace in the side mirror at his reflection. Adam was stunned. The hat made him look the part, but now he had to blend in and appear to be just another southern boy passing through. In a small town like Royalwood, he would also have to act the part for people to look passed him.

Ready to get the day moving, he jumped into the pickup and started the engine, desperate to get the air conditioning on to cool down the sweltering heat filling the truck. With the cool air circulating, he unclipped his cell phone from his belt. Sliding his finger over the screen to unlock it, he sent Ty a text message. Arrived and on my way to Royalwood. I’ll be in touch once I make contact with Robin.

He dropped the phone into the cup holder and shifted the truck in Drive. Determination ran through him. If there was any hope to save Tabitha and all of the tiger shifters, he had to find Robin before Pierce and his gang of rogues. She held a key to Pierce’s organization, and it was Adam’s job to find out what it was.

Robin Zimmer stood outside the small café, soaking up the warm sun shining through the trees, debating her next move. The problem of finding a job in a small town was near impossible, and if she didn’t find something soon, she’d have to move on. Royalwood, Texas was supposed to be her chance to add funds to her stash before moving on again. Running from Pierce and his men began to take its toll, not only on her bank account, but also on her state of mind.

She wasn’t sure how much longer she could handle life on the run, and was eager to end this cross-country marathon. She rolled her stiff shoulders. Maybe I should give myself up? Could what Pierce had in store for her be any worse than what she was already doing to her exhausted body? When she ran as far as she could from Virginia, she considered the option, but surrendering to Pierce meant her ultimate death. Would that be such a bad thing? She shook the disheartening thought from her mind. Damn. There’s got to be a way out of this. I just have to get some food and time to think.

Strolling down the deserted street, she made her way to the family restaurant across from the hotel. Robin cursed again. She had no plan when she ran, only packing clothes for cold weather. Since it had been late February, and cold, winter still sank its claws into the residents. In Texas there was no winter, not like in Virginia. It was now early April and close to eighty degrees, completely unsuitable for long sleeves, but her budget wouldn’t extend to purchasing new clothes. Two months on the run and she was exhausted.

This might be the last hot meal she’d enjoy if she couldn’t find a job. The bag of chips and cold sandwich she had picked up at the gas station just didn’t cut it day after day. Her finances weighed heavily on her mind for the first time in her life. Only eight weeks ago, she had a position in one of the leading law firms, without even a trace of a worry where money was concerned. Now her world was completely turned upside down. Pushing open the restaurants door, she let the coolness of the air conditioning wash over her, and enjoyed a moment of calming.

“Hey sweetie, sit wherever you’d like.” An older woman, with a little extra around the middle and gray sprinkling through her otherwise chestnut, short hair, called to Robin from behind the counter.

“Thanks.” Walking to the furthest table where she could watch the street and still have her back against a wall, her gaze fell over the few people in the restaurant. To determine if they might be the ones trailing her, she visually searched them for clues. On the run, she had no choice but to be cautious, to question every person’s intentions. Her life depended on knowing who was around her and where the nearest exits were.

Satisfied that no one seemed dangerous, and an emergency exit to her right, she settled onto the hard, wooden chair and opened the menu. Even over the top of the menu, her gaze watched everyone. No one appeared suspicious, but still she couldn’t relax. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She sensed something coming. During her time running from town to town she had learned to trust her body’s instincts. Gut reactions had saved her more then once.

The waitress that welcomed her, eased up to the table. “So, what can I get you?”

“Umm…I’ll take the special, to go. Please.” Robin wiped her sweaty hands on her jeans. She knew, without a doubt, she had to get back to her hotel room. Maybe even out of town.

“Sure thing, just hang tight. I’ll get you the meatloaf special, but you’d enjoy it better if you ate it while it’s hot.” The waitress jotted down the order on her notepad.

“Thanks, but I’m in a hurry today.” She pulled out the money for the meal and handed it to the older woman. “If you could rush it, I’d appreciate it.” To get the message of her hastiness across, she added a little extra to the woman’s tip.

The bonus served to work just as Robin planned. Within a few minutes, she was crossing the quiet street to her stuffy hotel room, the hot food in her hand. Taking a quick glance around the parking lot as she made her away to her door, one new addition caught her gaze. A shiny, black truck with an extended cab that seemed out of place. Royalwood was a small farming community; no one here owned a brand new truck. This town was off the beaten path, enough that it was unlikely a businessman would be passing through. [_It’s time for me to move on. Someone or something is coming, and I don’t want to be here when it arrives. _]Speeding her pace, she sprinted to her door. The need to get inside and out of the open was overwhelming.

Once darkness fell, she’d slip into her car and drive out of town as fast as she could. Not expecting to move on before she had time to gather a little money, she didn’t have her next destination in mind yet, but she’d find somewhere and try again. What choice did she have?

Keeping close to the buildings lining the street, she stayed in the shadows in case anyone was watching. She finally reached her room. She balanced her takeout container and drink in one hand, and slipped the key into the lock with the other. Boots clicked on the concrete sidewalk, coming toward her, as the lock slid home, it was too late. Taking a deep breath, she pretended to be just another traveler entering a hotel room, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t suppress the fear pounding in her chest.

Fear stinks to a shifter, more than any other emotion. Those were the last words her husband said to her before he died. Damn him! If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be running across the country, scared they’ll find and kill me.

“Ma’am…”

The man tipped the rim of his cowboy hat, giving her a glimpse of the greenest eyes she had ever seen. They reminded her of wet grass after a heavy rain. Gripping the door handle, she eased the door open, wishing she could step inside and find the safety she craved, but if this man was a shifter, the thin, wood door would do nothing to stop him from getting her. She forced a smile, and backed into the room. She made an attempt to slam the door, but a large boot stopped the speed of her effort.

“Don’t be afraid, I’m here to help.” He stepped toward her, forcing her further into the room.

“Please…” Panic threatened to close her throat. Robin swallowed the lump and backed away from the stranger. “Please, I don’t want to die.”

Stepping into the small room, he shut the door and then shoved the curtain aside to peek outside. “I said, I’m here to help. Why do you think I want to kill you?”

“You don’t?” She couldn’t hide the surprise from her voice. She sat the food on the dresser, not removing her stare from him. “If you’re not here to kill me, then why are you here? What do you want? If it’s money, I don’t have much, but take it.” She tossed her purse toward him.

He turned away from the window and grabbed the purse in the air. He laid it on the table. “I don’t want your money, Robin. I’ve been sent to find you, to keep you safe. I know the people who are after you and the situation behind your disappearance. I understand it’s a lot to ask, but you need to trust me because if not things are going to get hairy fast. There’s been a shifter here—outside your door within the last few hours. It might not be the people after you, either way I’d rather err on the side of caution and ask you to come with me, to somewhere safer.”

“How am I supposed to trust you? How do I know you’re not with them, trying to lure me out of Royalwood to kill me?” She wished she had put her husband’s gun in her purse. Damn! A gun’s not going to be any use in the suitcase. It could have been the one thing that saved her if the situation got out of hand. It wouldn’t kill a shifter, but it might give her time to escape, if not she could hope it would piss him off enough to kill her quickly.

“I realize trust at this point is difficult. It wasn’t long ago that I was put into a similar position that you find yourself in. I was given a choice, which I chose to trust. If you want to save your life, you’ll do the same.” As he advanced toward her, she scurried to the side of the bed. He didn’t let the bed stop him, stepping around it to stand in front of her. “Tabitha, the Queen of the Tigers and my Alpha’s mate, feared you would not see the helping hand before you and reject it out of fear. I’m telling you the truth. I know your husband tried to trade your life for his own, and he was still killed and now they’re after you. We must act quickly. Is there anything I can do to prove my intentions are true to you?”

“Why do we have to leave so quickly?” She was against the wall, unable to go any further. If he wanted to kill her, he was close enough to do it, and there was nothing she could do to stop him. She was no match to a shifter.

“If whoever was here earlier returns, they’ll smell my scent. Pierce would have sent a team, if not more, to find you. I’m alone. I can’t fight the rogues and protect you at the same time. Please, grab your things. I’ll explain everything once you’re somewhere safe.”

“I don’t need you. I’ve stayed alive this long and I can continue until they give up.” It pained her to turn down help, but to trust him might lead her to an early grave.

“You’re doing a great job, going from town to town, hiding in a different hotel room. Is that truly how you want to live?” He grabbed her small, wheeled suitcase from the side of the wall and tossed it on the bed. “If you want to reclaim your life, gather your stuff. I’m leaving in ten minutes. Be ready if you’re coming with me.”

“Are they really here?” Her stomach turned at the thought that if this stranger hadn’t shown up, she might not have been able to escape before the rogues returned and found her.

“Yes, I believe the scent I caught is from one of the rogues.” He walked to the window. “Nine minutes.”

Do I trust him? She wrapped her arms around her stomach, hugging her body. [_What do I have to lose? _]If he was here to kill me, I’d be dead already, and if the rogues were close, she didn’t stand a chance. If she wanted to live, then this man was her only chance.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Two

Adam drove the truck onto the highway, racing back to Dallas. He had already called and made reservations at Manetka Resort, a hotel owned by the Alpha of the Texas Tigers, Avery. This resort catered to the shifters traveling through the area. Manetka, the Polish word for shifter, was a safe haven for their kind. Adam would have them there in twenty minutes and then he’d explain everything to Robin. With luck on his side, they’d fly out at first light.

“Who are you?” Robin sat squished up against the passenger door, her hand resting on the door handle as if she was preparing to jump out at any second, which wouldn’t be a good decision on her part while he was doing seventy miles an hour down the freeway.

“I should have done a proper introduction before, but getting you to safety took priority. I’m, Adam Merks, from the Alaskan Tiger’s clan. For weeks we’ve been searching for you.”

“We’ve?”

He shot her a quick glance. Fear clearly filled her beautiful eyes. “My clan. We’ve been after Pierce and his gangs of rogues, and because of that search, we found information about you. Our computer expert, Connor, has been following your trail across the country. Yesterday he finally caught up to you, which is why I’m here.”

“Why…why would you care if they’re after me?

He checked his blind spot, before guiding the truck into the next lane and then put his foot down on the accelerator. In his rear view mirror, he saw a truck weaving in and out of the traffic, quickly approaching. “Shit.”

“What?” Panic rose in her voice, as she followed his stare.

“There’s a green truck coming up behind us. We need to lose it, before they follow us to Manetka Resort.”

“This isn’t going to end until I’m dead.” The terror seemed to be lost from her words, replaced by unmistakable sadness.

“I’ll keep you safe.” Adam needed to get off the main road. He cut across the traffic at the last minute to catch an exit, which led into a small town. Turning onto one of the side streets, he unclipped his cell phone from his belt and pressed a button before putting the phone to his ear.

“Did you make contact?” Ty asked.

“Yes, sir. Robin is with me. We were on our way to Manetka, but they spotted us. I need Connor to find me a rental that’s open late. I have to swap this truck before they find us again.”

“I’ll get him on it right away. Just hang tight for a few minutes.” Adam heard mumbled words that he was unable to make out. Ty returned moments later. “Instead of going to Manetka, can you come back here?”

“I’ll see what I can do, but I haven’t had time to tell Robin anything yet. Someone was lurking around her hotel room shortly before I arrived. I convinced her to come with me, but I’m not sure she will join me in the helicopter without an explanation first.” Adam paused, glancing at Robin who was frowning at him. “She’s exhausted from being on the run, and she’s in need of a hot meal and a good night sleep.”

“Okay, keep us updated. Connor is sending you the coordinates to the rental company now. They’re expecting you.” Ty paused for a moment, sighing into the phone. “Tell Robin why you went to find her. If she knows we want to take down the man that killed her husband, she might cooperate quicker.”

“Thanks, Ty. Could you make contact with Avery and have someone he trusts keep an eye on the helicopter? I doubt the rogues found it, but if I can convince Robin to leave tonight, I want to make sure we’re not walking into an ambush.”

“Good point. I’ll see to it.”

Adam shoved the phone in his shirt pocket.

“Helicopter? To go where? Tell me what’s going on?” She gripped the dashboard as she bombarded him with questions.

Adam programmed Connor’s coordinates into the truck’s GPS. “I told you, I’m from Alaska. I flew in this afternoon to find you and bring you to our compound—to safety.” With the GPS set, he glanced at her. “Is it safe to assume you’re not willing to fly out with me now? I can explain everything on the way. We could at least leave Dallas and go to another location before going to Alaska.”

“I don’t know. What are you [_not _]telling me?” She turned in her seat, pushing back against the door and stared out the back window.

He drove the truck further into the town, away from the highway, and hopefully further away from the rogues chasing them. “The rental company is just down the road. To explain everything is going to take longer than the drive. I’ll change the truck, and then we’ll talk. Okay?” He wanted to pull to the side of the road and tell her everything she wanted to know, but that would give the rogues a chance to catch up to them.

Fifteen minutes later, they were in a different truck and heading around the outskirts of Dallas. Robin wasn’t sure if they were going to the helicopter or to the resort. Trusting the man that sat beside her, seemed risky, but no more than facing the world alone again. She was tired of being alone, and tired of running. If trusting Adam could get her out of this life threatening situation, then she would.

The town lights drifted away, leaving only darkness outside the truck’s windows. “So what aren’t you telling me?”

He drove the truck into a small turn-around on the side of the road, and put it in park before turning toward her. “We’ve been hunting Pierce for some time now. He’s also the man searching for you. Years ago, he murdered Tabitha’s parents, and he’s recently added to his kill list. Bethany’s parents and her sister were Pierce’s latest victims. Tabitha sent me to find you, so you don’t end up as another life lost to Pierce’s madness.”

“Who’s Bethany?”

“She’s the mate of the clans Lieutenant, Raja. Her family was targeted because Pierce feels they’re partially responsible for him being a weretiger.” He paused as car lights came toward them. He watched the vehicle in the side mirror until it passed.

“Weretiger? I thought those who were two-natured preferred to be called shifters.”

Adam’s gaze left the road to focus on her. “They do. Shifters are born, and weres are bitten. It’s rare and only happens because of rogues. Weres can only change during a full moon. They are extremely unstable and close to rogues. Bethany’s uncle married a woman who suffered with a mental illness that was passed onto her son. As a teenager he turned rogue, and bit Pierce.”

“But why have I been dragged into all of this? I didn’t even know about shifters until they killed my husband.” That wasn’t completely true, but it was the first time she had contact with them. She fiddled nervously with a lose button on the sleeve of her shirt. “I just want my life back.”

Adam slipped his cowboy hat off and tossed it on the dashboard before turning to her once again. His sparkling, green eyes met her gaze. “Pierce won’t stop until you’re dead. We’d prefer to get him first. You have to trust me. I’ll keep you safe, Robin. You just need to come back to Alaska with me. Once you are safe, we can take down Pierce without worrying that one of his rogues is still searching for you.”

She shook her head with such determination; a strand of her long, curly brown hair fell from its clip. “I haven’t trusted a soul in longer than I can remember. Trust has always led to heartache and trouble. It’s part of the reason I’m in this shitty situation.”

“Excuse me for being frank, but your late husband was scum. Offering you to the rogues to save his own skin is one of the worst things a man can do. Even with his barter, they still killed him, and you…had you not ran, your death would have been torturous. He’d have tortured you before killing you, just for sport. Now he only wants to see you eliminated. Pierce fears your husband told you something important. He’ll keep you running until he eliminates you. As long as you’re alone and on the run, you can’t tell anyone those secrets.”

She stared into his eyes, wishing she could fall into them. The green of his eyes reminded her of walking through a prosperous meadow, the sun on her skin, and the wind in her hair. No worries weighed down her shoulders as she gazed into those dreamy eyes. “I don’t know anything. Maybe if he knew that, he’d let me live.”

“If only it could be that easy. Pierce is a rogue, he doesn’t think along the same lines as sane people do. He won’t believe you. He’ll think you’re lying, which will only piss him off more.”

“Then how can you help me?”

“My clan has been after him for some time now and we’re closing in on him. Until then, you’ll be safe in Alaska. There are guards around the perimeter to keep everyone safe. I understand it’s not the life you had, but it has to be better than running from town to town, looking over your shoulder. Once Piece has been terminated, then you can decide what you want to do.” Adam’s phone vibrated in his pocket, drawing his attention. “It’s a text from my Alpha.”

While he checked his text message, she pondered her options. I want to go back to Virginia and gather the pieces that were once my life, not follow this man to Alaska. Damn you, Bobby. That bastard died, but not before he made sure my life was a living hell. With her car back at the hotel, and money running thin, she didn’t have much choice but to trust Adam.

He tossed his cell phone into the cup holder. “One of the Texas Tigers is guarding the helicopter. There’s no sign that anyone has found it. I hate to rush your decision, but if we want to get out here before they find the landing strip, we have to leave soon.”

“Is there anything else you’re not telling me?” She knew he hadn’t told her everything. It was the way he chose his words, with the extra care, as if watching his words carefully.

“Yes. Ty has given me permission to tell you everything, in order for you to make your decision.”

“What?” Disappointment filled her. Would he have held back if she hadn’t asked? “Tell me or I’m not going.”

He turned, resting his arm along the back of the seat. He focused on her as if she was the only person left in the world. “Tabitha believes you’re the key to finding Pierce.”

“Why? Because he’ll follow me to Alaska?”

“There’s a book of old magic that’s been assisting Tabitha on her journey. This book told her of you and your predicament. This information started our journey to find you. Without the book we wouldn’t have known anything about you, or that Pierce was after you.”

A book? This situation was getting more ridiculous by the minute.

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h1=. Preview: Forever’s Fight

Fighting for love and family.

Patrick O’Reilly left behind his medical practice when he and his siblings were forced into hiding. Determined to live through the war against their species, they vow to serve their kind. Patrick will risk it all to ensure none of them end up as experiments in a government lab.

Clarissa Greenwood worked all her life to become a scientist and to get the position at Hathaway Medical where she thought she would be able to find cures for diseases. Instead, she is witness to experiments on shifters. Disgusted by the truth, she gathers as much information as she can, and flees. She wants no part of the experiments—even if the cost is her life.

Shifters Underground was created to serve their species, not to help a human who had worked for one of the organizations that was hunting them. A message from a trusted shifter leaves them with no other option but to search for a woman who might be able to help them. A treacherous journey brings two destined mates together. Now Patrick and Clarissa must work together to protect not only each other, but all the shifters who fight for their lives, for love, and for family.

“Exciting action, well-developed characters, and a fast-paced lively writing style makes Forever’s Fight sure to please!” ~ New York Times & USA Today Bestselling Author Lynn Red

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter One

The law said shifters were lesser beings.

They were to be captured and imprisoned in one of the camps scattered across the country. Resistance meant death. American citizens could kill anyone who showed signs of being a shifter, and it wasn’t considered a crime.

The past year had been rife with change, and the ones affected most of all were shifters. The whole world knew about them now, and they were being hunted down like the animals they shifted into. Mobs used it as an excuse to hunt, and murderers were turning to shifters to get their thrills—if they could catch them.

Patrick O’Reilly stood by the window and remembered what had brought them to the abandoned ski resort deep in the woods. Though the new home was beautiful and safe, it was nothing like the world they’d left behind. Forever Creek Resort wasn’t just any ski resort, it was a castle. It even had a moat, though half the time it was frozen over. Since they were so high in the mountains, the moat had once been used as a place for guests to ice skate. He could almost picture people skating around the castle while others gathered at one of the fire pits now hidden under all the snow. From the window, the shadow of the five floors of the castle was spread across the ground before him. There was plenty of room for them to train, or bring others into their fold to keep them safe. There would come a time when they would have to recruit the best of the best in order to survive.

He stepped away from the window and back to his desk, looking at the computer screen to check on his siblings. Once they’d taken up residence in the castle, one of the first things he’d done was enhance the security system. Whatever areas were lacking, they updated, and now he could make sure they were safe. There on the screen, he could see each of his sibling going about their normal routines. Despite this, he couldn’t stop the rush of memories from before they had gone into hiding.

He pulled the door to his small medical practice shut and stepped out into the freezing temperatures. He should have been home hours before, but a string of last minute patients had kept him late. A clatter caught his attention. It was coming from the alley next to his building. His beast sniffed the air and was met with the rancid odor of blood. Lots of it. The sane part of him told him to turn and continue on his way, to not enter the alley, but he couldn’t stop his feet from moving forward toward the noise.

He had just stepped into the entrance, and not more than twenty feet before him were two police officers. Blood seeped from a man lying against the alley wall. “Shifter. I won’t let you contaminate our world any longer. We’ll kill every one of you. Gun you down and bathe in your blood.”

That night, he’d realized how dangerous things were. It had been the final straw that sent them into hiding. We’re safe now. He could take some comfort in the fact that even if someone were looking for the castle, it was difficult to find, so there was little chance anyone could stumble upon them. It wasn’t the way they had lived before, but at least they were together and alive. None of them were stuck in some camp, or worse, being used for experiments.

They had put their skills together and started Shifters Underground. It had started out as an online forum letting others know of safe places they could seek refuge and places to avoid at all costs. Now, it had expanded. The siblings went out to rescue those who were in dangerous situations. Any shifter could send a cry for help, and the O’Reilly family would do what they could. They planned rescue missions, mapped out a safe route of travel with safe houses, reunited families, and whatever else they could to keep shifters safe, under the radar and out of the camps. Each of them were putting their skills to good use, trying to do what they could to save their species.

There would be a day shifters would take no more, and they’d stand together and fight back, but that wasn’t the case yet. There were little bands that had tried to fight back but for the most part, the government swept into action, making examples out of them. Torturing shifters before finally killing them. Many were killed in public for others to see. It had started on the streets where the townsfolk would gather, and recently it was being broadcasted on television. For those who weren’t killed, their fate was worse for their rebellion. They were sent to labs for the scientists to experiment on as they searched for a way to control shifters, to make them less of a threat. There had been some shifters spread around the country willing to help the O’Reillys on a large scale, but for the most part shifters were trying to stay under the radar. They’d hide someone in their homes, but that was as big of a risk as they were willing to take.

It sickened him to think of what happened to shifters, and through it all he had little doubt that things would only get worse before they were better. If they ever got better. There had already been rumors of experimental tracking chips being placed in shifters in order to control their movements and to possibly control their ability to shift. To take away the capability to shift was worse than locking them away in cells like animals in a zoo. The beast would fight within the body, trying to free itself until eventually the mind collapsed. Shifters wouldn’t last if that were their fate.

Instead of standing there staring out at the woods that surrounded their home, his lion clawed within him, demanding something be done before it was too late. Shifters were dying as he stood there watching the trees blow in the wind, and there was nothing he could do about it yet. He needed to gather other shifters to stand together and fight against what was happening to them. To petition the government to leave them in peace.

It was one thing to kill rogue shifters, those who went on a rampage and started this disaster, but it was another to kill their entire species because of the actions of a few. That was like eliminating humans because of murderers. This was no different, and it made the government no better than the rogues.

“Patrick.” Jade, the youngest, and only sister of the O’Reilly siblings, stepped into his office appearing pensive, her arms wrapped around her body as if she was hugging herself. “I emailed you a document. You should take a look at it now.”

He stepped away from the window and back to his desk. “What’s it concerning?”

“The government is rolling out an injection that hospitals and emergency personnel can use to test for shifters. It can be administered by a needle or through a dart gun. If the person is a shifter, it will force them to shift. If they’re human, they’re saying the only side effect is nausea. It should be in their hands by the beginning of the week and all hospital staff, emergency workers, military, and government employees will be forced to undergo the test in order to keep their jobs.”

“Shit.” He leaned over his office chair and pressed a few buttons until her email displayed on the screen.

“As if that’s not bad enough, within three months’ time they’re expected to make it available to the general public. It will be uncontrollable then, and it’ll be even harder for us.” She rubbed her hands on the outside of her arms.

“We’ll overcome.” He quickly scanned the announcement and found no further information than what she had already told him. He caught the name of the drug—Lycan Ultra Neuro Acid, also referred to as LUNA—and committed it to memory, in case he caught that word anywhere else in his research. “There’s got to be something we can do to counteract it. If I could just get a sample of the compound they’re using to bring forth the beast, I might be able to find a way to bypass the reaction.”

Austin, the next oldest O’Reilly stepped around the corner with only his workout shorts slung low on his hips and a towel in hand. “I can help with that.” When they both turned to look at him, as if wondering where he had come from, he held up his hand. “When Jade passed the gym, she looked agitated so I followed to see what happened.”

“What do you mean you can help with getting a sample of the compound?” Patrick took a seat behind the desk and pushed the chair back to recline slightly.

“If they’re going to distribute it to every hospital, police station, and firehouse, they’re going to go through the military. I still have friends in the service. I’ll call them and see if they can get me a couple vials.”

“Good, then I can go through the compounds and figure out what we can do to make the playing field even.” It wasn’t what he went to medical school for but at least he could put his skills to use. Since they’d been forced to give up everything and move to the woods, he lost his position as the town’s doctor. Now, his medical training was being wasted. “If any of your friends are shifters, you’d better tell them to get the hell out before testing begins.”

Austin nodded distractedly, confirming he’d already been thinking the same thing. Like Patrick, Austin had to give up his career. As a former Army Ranger, turned police officer, it was hard for him to not have the daily activity. “Just my buddy, Nolan. I’m going to try to convince him that Shifters Underground needs him. He’s a good soldier and we could use men like him when things get worse.”

Patrick quirked his eyebrow upward. “We should begin recruiting our troops before things get more menacing. We’re going to need the best if we’re going to stand a fighting chance.”

“Wait a minute, both of you. Are we talking about going to war?” She stared at them both, her eyes wide, letting them know she was appalled by the idea.

“Jade—” Austin started before Patrick cleared his throat.

“We won’t have much choice.” He tried to soothe the youngest of the pride because he knew just how much she hated the idea. “One day things are going to get so bad we’re not going to have any other options. It will be time for us to take up arms and stand together against this, or we’ll all die.”

“Not just in some distant future,” Austin said. “It’s going to be soon. Can’t you feel it?” When no one answered, he continued, “With every step the government makes to crush our species, we’re starting to rise up. Right now, there are just small groups like us but eventually we’ll all stand together. You can see the changes on the Shifters Underground website.”

“We understand the thought of going to battle against them scares you, but we’ll do whatever we can to protect you.” Patrick watched as his sister hugged herself tighter. If anyone understood what the government was capable of, it was her. Things got nasty when the government caught a shifter. Jade had personal experience; she knew. He did his best to set those thoughts aside. There was no need to relive the nightmare now that she was safe in their forest retreat.

“That’s the thing.” Her voice trembled. “You[_ can’t_] stop these people. No one can. We should run, leave the country. We should go home to Ireland.” Her fear permeated the room like a toxic gas.

“Don’t be stupid,” Austin snapped.

“Austin!” Patrick scolded him.

“Come on, she needs to wake up and realize this is going to go worldwide before long. There will be nowhere to hide.”

“You’re right, but she doesn’t need that right now.” He tried to calm the situation, but she had already stormed out the office. “Damn it, Austin.”

“Patrick, it’s time she realizes what we’re up against.”

“Don’t you think she understands? The scars she has from those experiments they did on her before we could get to her, are daily reminders of what the future might hold. How can you be so heartless? She’s terrified, damn it, and comments like that aren’t helping anything.”

Austin slung the towel over his shoulder and nodded. “You’re right. I’ll go apologize.”

“Later. I’ll smooth things over for now.” Knowing she had most likely taken refuge outside, he grabbed the jacket he’d tossed over the back of his office chair and came around the desk. “Before her capture she was a take-no-shit type of girl, but what they did to her broke something deep within her. She’s just beginning to find her way back to the person she was, and she needs our support. She’s safe here, for now, but that might not always be the case. We need to get her back to the person she was, so fight alongside us.”

“What did they do to her?” Austin asked, sounding hesitant, as if uncertain he wanted to know. “In the middle of the night when she has a nightmare, you’re the one who goes to her. Has she told you anything?”

“Only bits and pieces. For the most part, she doesn’t want to talk about it.” He slipped the jacket on and tried not to picture her huddled in that tiny cage, the electrodes and machines attached to her. She had been so drugged when he found her, she’d fought him even as he tried to rescue her.

To discover his baby sister in that condition still haunted him every time he closed his eyes. Worse was the knowledge that others were suffering the same fate and there was nothing they could do about it yet. They needed to locate the labs conducting the experiments in order to attack and close them down. The longer they were operating, the longer people suffered inside them. From what he could gather, they were worse than the camps.

He strolled from his office, leaving Austin in his wake to go back to his daily workout routine. In the distance, he could hear Luke and Blake in a heated discussion about something, and Chase’s lion purrs as he tried to add his opinion to the conversation. He didn’t want to get involved with whatever they were bickering about, so he snuck out the side door. He’d go around the castle, back to the creek that ran a little distance from the building. Jade would have sought her refuge there, letting the sounds of water tinkling over the river rocks soothe her.

Even with the snow on the ground, she sat there next to the creek. She was too lost in her thoughts to notice the cold and wind beating against her. Her long blonde hair whipped around her from the breeze and she didn’t bat it out of her face like she normally would.

“Jade.” He called to her as he neared, but still she didn’t acknowledge him. My dear sister, what can we do to help you?

During medical school, he had studied cases of trauma and depression, and during his time as a family doctor he’d had to treat it, but when it came to his sister, he hesitated. He wanted to do whatever he could to help her return to the woman she had once been, but there were dangers. If he pushed too much, he could send her retreating further into herself. It was a lose-lose situation, but he was the only one there who could help her in a medical way. Besides being her brother, it was his job as her Alpha to heal her. The best way for her to move past the trauma was to talk about it. It didn’t have to be with him, it could be any of the brothers, but she had to talk to someone or she’d continue to relive it night after night in her dreams. He could only hope she’d find the courage.

“Jade.” He called to her again as he stood above her.

“I really just want to be alone.” She ran her hands down her jean clad legs and pulled them tighter against her chest.

“I know, but that’s not always good for you.” He sat down next to her, the snow soaking the bottom of his jeans. It was better than hovering above her. “Austin’s an ass.”

“But he’s right,” she said. “Eventually this will be worldwide. What are we going to do?” Tears welled in her eyes.

“We’re not going to let that happen. With every lead that comes through Shifters Underground, we follow up on it, destroy labs, and rescue those who need us.” He tugged off his jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders. “We’re going to make it through this.”

“Maybe Austin is right, though. Maybe we need to start building our team and prepare to fight if we have to.”

“I know none of this is easy for you, and I know you’re scared, but he is right on this. The time is coming when we’re going to need to fight in order to stay alive and free.” The terror that radiated from her permeated the air until it was almost palpable. He forced air into his lungs and added, “I’d rather have you here where we can keep you safe, but if you want, Dad’s family will welcome you in Ireland.”

“I’m not leaving without everyone. I’ve never deserted the family and I’m not going to now.” She turned to him. “Do you think Dad’s still out there? In one of those camps or a lab?”

He wanted to lie to her, to tell her their father could take care of himself, but she’d have smelled it. A lie wouldn’t bring her comfort, it would only piss her off. It was time the whole family faced up to what had happened to their father the night he’d walked out for some air, only hours before the family went into hiding. “I don’t know. If he were free, he’d have found us by now, but I don’t know if it’s better to wish he was captured and imprisoned in one of the camps, or hope he was killed on sight.”

“I can’t help but fear he might have ended up in one of the labs.” A single tear rolled down her cheek before she wiped it away. He wrapped his arm around her shoulder, knowing she was thinking of her own experience.

“It was his choice to go out that night. He knew how bad things were getting, and he still went. There’s nothing we can do for him now. We’ve watched the board for the last year and there’s been nothing, not even a blip. You listed him as missing and if anyone knew anything about him, they’d have contacted you just like they do with all the others. Good or bad, we would have known.”

“Which is why I can’t stifle the fear he was taken to a lab. We have very few tips on those because they’re so heavily guarded. He could have suffered as I did without being as lucky to have you swoop in and save him.”

“If that was the case, then he’s most likely dead. From the records we’ve recovered at the labs we’ve destroyed, they kept captives alive only a short time.” As he gave her what comfort he could, he was thankful she stuck mostly to Shifters Underground and working with families. It sheltered her from what they learned about the labs and the knowledge of what happened when the shifter was no longer of any use.

He didn’t want her to know the worst of it. If they hadn’t rescued her, she’d have been incinerated alive.

Doctor Clarissa Greenwood stepped out of her new office at Hathaway Medical and headed for the door. The air in the building seemed stifling all of a sudden, and the more she thought about her new position, the more it bothered her. As a scientist, she’d believed her promotion involved studying diseases to find the cures. She fumbled with the keychain locket in her pocket. It was the one thing she never left home without, a good luck charm of sorts that her brother had given her on her first day of college as she stood before the tall buildings, ready to run.

He had always believed in her, even when she didn’t. Right now, she needed that support more than ever, considering what she’d just learned. Hathaway Medical expected her to experiment on live humans. Shifters. According to her bosses, and the government, shifters weren’t humans. They were believed to be no better than the animals companies tested their products on.

Clarissa’s heels clicked against the linoleum as she moved swiftly down the hall. All of a sudden it seemed as if the exit was too far away.

She wanted to [_help _]people, not torture them. And she was having trouble discerning the difference between a human and a shifter. All of it seemed wrong. She didn’t understand why things were happening this way, or why the government thought they could just kill or imprison an entire species. She wanted no part in it. She needed to get as far away from it as she could.

“Doctor Greenwood, just the person I was looking for.” Her boss headed straight for her, sending another wave of sickness through her. “We’ll be conducting today’s experiment on subject one-fifty-nine, so please join us in room twenty-two in an hour.”

Her stomach rolled at the comment. Subject one-fifty-nine wasn’t a subject. That was a person they were about to experiment on. A living, breathing, person with family and friends who were no doubt worried sick about them.

He paused and his gaze traveled over her. “You’re looking pale, are you okay?”

“Actually, I’m not feeling very well. I thought some fresh air would do me good, but I think my migraine is only getting worse.” She cringed as if the overhead light was bothering her, but in reality it was the man before her who made her ill.

“Why don’t you just skip the session, then? There’s normally a lot of noise and growls. You can watch it in your office, then go home for the day. Hopefully, by Monday, you’ll be well enough to assist with the experiments.”

I won’t be here Monday, or ever.

“Thank you for understanding, Sir.”

He patted her on the shoulder, then walked away. She hurried outside, into the sun. As she filled her lungs with fresh air, she put together a plan. She’d go back inside and gather what she could on her jump drive before the end of the business day.

Everyone was always ready to leave at five on Fridays. It was the one day overtime wasn’t permitted. The company claimed they wanted their employees to enjoy relaxing weekends with their families in order to be ready to go on Mondays. To most, it seemed like a family-friendly place to work, especially with the in-house daycare, but to her it seemed suspicious.

What happened at Hathaway Medical on weekends that they didn’t want anyone to know about? There were too many questions and not enough answers, but she was going to do her best to find out what she could. She shut her eyes, relishing the warmth of the sun on her face. Then she rolled her shoulders, stretched, and prepared to go back inside.

“Afternoon, Doctor Greenwood, is everything all right?”

She opened her eyes and found a security guard before her, his forehead creased with concern. “Andrew, I thought you were off today.”

“They wanted additional security for an experiment, so here I am.”

“That must have been the one I was supposed to be involved with, but with this migraine, Doctor Glass told me to watch it from my office.”

After a quick glance around, he leaned in closer to her. “Record it.”

She wasn’t sure what to say to that, but before she could come up with a reply, he stepped around her and headed inside. She stood there a moment, trying to figure him out. Despite his relaxed demeanor, he’d always seemed to be watching for something as if he expected something to happen.

Had he seen too many experiments? Did he think the shifters they were torturing in the sublevels of Hathaway Medical would one day rise up against the staff? No, they were too drugged for that. Because of their fast metabolisms, the staff kept the prisoners extremely sedated.

She wandered back into the building as she continued to question his words. What was going to happen that made him think she should record it herself? She picked up her pace when an idea occurred to her, then pulled out her cell phone in search of the email her brother had sent her before he took a job in South America.

There was one thing that could give her continual access to what was happening—a small virus that would go undetected by even the best surveillance.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter Two

Patrick’s fingers flew over the keyboard in a blur as he typed out his ideas, the various alternatives to the concentration camps. A letter to President Ashworth might not have been the best idea he had, but he wasn’t even sure he’d send it. Typing it out at least allowed him to get his thoughts in order, and Luke swore the email would be untraceable if he decided to send it, hidden by the same security that protected the origin of the Shifters Underground website.

He wrote about the possibility of the government giving shifters land to live on, their own towns where they could exist in peace. To him, that was still giving too much power to the government, as well as confining shifters. Still, the concept was better than the camps the shifters were already living in. They had to find a middle ground, and that’s what the suggestion was. It would give them freedom and make them safe again.

A town with houses for each family, a few little shops, even a bar, and a restaurant. If they didn’t think about the fact that it would be mandatory to stay within the bounds of the settlement—at least at certain times—they could begin to reclaim their lives. He hoped more freedoms would come over time as humans realized shifters were no threat.

Even the government had to see this was a better solution than an all-out war with shifters, who were faster, and stronger. Even so, winning the war didn’t mean they’d win the battle. If there was a war, they’d be seen as an even bigger threat to humans.

Damn it, this is a lose-lose situation. He leaned back in his chair and let out a frustrated growl.

The house intercom mounted on his desk flickered to life, and Luke’s voice filled the room. “Patrick, I think you need to come up here.”

“What is it?” He kept his voice even, not wanting his brother to pick up on his frustration.

“Just get up here.” The urgency in Luke’s tone had Patrick pushing back his chair and heading upstairs. Luke wouldn’t have pulled him away if it weren’t important. Taking the east wing stairs two at a time, he dashed up the four flights without so much as missing a breath. The family had taken rooms on the fifth floor to give them an advantage, the reaction time needed if someone stumbled upon them. This left the first floor as their main living area, including the large castle kitchen.

While all the other siblings had made their offices or workshops on the first floor of the resort, Luke had occupied the suite next to his bedroom. This way, he was able to work at whatever hour he chose, and still be close to the bedrooms if something happened in the middle of the night.

Patrick was grateful the O’Reilly pride stuck so close together. They’d fight to the death for each other, and there was no one else he would rather have watching his back than his siblings.

He entered Luke’s office. “What did you find?”

“I was researching these injections to see what I could come up with. To see who developed them and if I could find out where they were coming from. Maybe if we knew where, we’d be able to eliminate their supply chain before they became a problem for us. That’s when I found this.” Luke leaned back in his chair, giving Patrick access to the computer. He rubbed his chin, his fingers playing over his five o’clock shadow. “Hathaway Medical was behind the discovery of this injection and now they have a missing scientist, so I dug deeper. Doctor Clarissa Greenwood was employed there for less than two weeks, but a contact of a contact said she was appalled they were experimenting on shifters and took off.”

“Wait…how long have you known they were experimenting on our kind?”

“Don’t look at me like that. I just found out this morning. I wanted solid evidence before I brought it to you. A contact of a contact isn’t enough, it could have been a trap. I’ve been working my ass off since I received the email,” Luke added, seeming irritated.

“What do you know?” Patrick leaned against the edge of the desk, ignoring his brother’s attitude.

“My contact sent me information on a shifter who might need our help. He wanted to know if we could extract him and get him somewhere safe. Andrew is a bear shifter, a retired Ranger. He was recruited for what he thought was a standard security job, only to find himself assigned to Hathaway Medical.”

“Once he realized what they were doing, why’d he stay?”

Luke leaned forward and clicked a secondary tab on the screen, which brought up a picture of a young girl, her bleached hair streaked with pink and purple. “His niece.”

Anger rolled through Patrick and his lion. The girl was just a child. She hadn’t even hit puberty yet, and there was no chance she had completed the change. What did they want with her? The hairs on the back of his neck rose, reminding him he really didn’t want to know. He’d witnessed what Jade had gone through and he could only imagine the torture they’d put this child through.

“Patrick, did you hear me?” Luke called to him, pulling him from his thoughts.

“What?”

“I said Andrew’s sister was killed two months ago and the child is missing. He believes she’s been taken to one of the labs.”

“If she has, she’s dead. You know as well as I do, they don’t keep their captives long. You read the files on that hard drive I managed to salvage before we burned down that lab, so you know what they do.” Speaking those words brought him back to that night. That horrible night when he’d seen the worst of what could happen to his kind.

Patrick, Austin, and Blake had crept up and watched as the guards at the lab did their rounds. If things went as planned, they wouldn’t make another round until the next half hour, giving the O’Reillys the time they needed. They’d slip in, rescue the captive shifters, gather any information on other labs, and burn the place. At least, that was the plan.

But nothing that night had gone according to plan. He and Austin headed deep within the building conducting their search, their guns at the ready for anyone they might have encountered, while Blake set up the dynamite that would ignite on a timer once they were clear. Patrick would gather what he could, while Austin continued the search for prisoners.

He used the security card Luke had duplicated using the coding on the security system, and with an echoing click the door unlocked. He wrapped his hand around the handle and pulled it open. Inside, the laboratory appeared tame. He’d known it was anything but. He went to the first computer, hoping to discover more about the experiments, but it was password protected. With only fifteen minutes before the next round, he didn’t have time to break it. Instead, he manually extracted the hard drive and tossed it into his bag.

Papers on the desk piqued his interest, so he shoved those in his bag as well. Later he’d go through them and see if they were of any use to them.

His ear bud sprung to life with Blake’s voice. “Ten minutes.”

“Almost done. Austin, status update.”

“No prisoners. They’re…dead. It looks like they were incinerated…alive.”

“Fuck!” Patrick turned around and there in a cage, curled into a ball, something moved. No, not something, but someone. Her long blonde hair matted with blood. He dropped the bag on the desk and stepped forward. “Shit, Austin get down here.”

“What’s going on?” The urgency in Blake’s voice forced Patrick to explain.

“I think…it’s Jade.” Not having time to find the key he grabbed the bolt cutters from his bag and unclipped the lock. “Jade.” He reached out to push her hair away from her face, and even though her eyes were glazed over from whatever drugs they had her on, he recognized his sister, who’d gone missing a few weeks before while on a mission with Luke and Chase. One that was supposed to be easy and safe, but she got separated from the brothers and was gone. They had searched high and low for her over the last few weeks.

“Are you sure?” Austin’s voice came through the transmitter as the door behind Patrick opened.

Without answering Patrick squatted down, his gun aimed at the door until he could make out Austin from the faint light of the computer screens and the light that streamed through from the hallway. “Damn it, I could have shot you.”

“Is it her?”

“Yes.” He set the gun on the desk, turned back to the cage, and pulled the electrodes and cords away from her, he reached for her. “Jade.”

She only swatted at him, scurrying deeper into the cage. Her moans cut through the quiet and tore at his heart. His sweet sister didn’t recognize him.

“What have they done to her?” Austin questioned coming to stand next to him.

“I don’t know.”

“But she’s alive?” Blake asked.

“Yes.” Patrick and Austin said nearly together.

“You’ve got six minutes, get the hell out of there,” Blake ordered.

“Grab my bag.” Patrick reached into the cage and took hold of her arm. “Come on Jade, we’ve got to go.”

“No!” Tears ran down her face. “No, I…I can’t…take anymore.”

“I’m not going to hurt you, I’m your brother.” He used his grip to force her from the cage. When he dragged her out, he could see the cuts, burns, and bruises that marred her body. Torture. His sister had been tortured.

“Oh shit!” Austin reached out to steady Jade as she tried to fight Patrick, but he seemed unsure where to put his hands. Everywhere they would normally touch was covered in some type of mark.

“Just grab the bag, I’ve got her.” He lifted her over his shoulder and grabbed his gun from the desk. He couldn’t worry that he was hurting her, not when they only had a few minutes to make it out of the building before the guards did their rounds again and Blake’s explosion was set to go off. “We’ve got to go.”

“Patrick, she’s here with us,” Luke’s voice called through the memories and broke him from his thoughts.

“What?” It took him a moment to recall he was in the castle in Luke’s office, not rescuing Jade again. He pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes shut for a moment. Jade wasn’t the only one reliving that nightmare. Those papers he had gathered, many of them discussed the experiments they’d conducted on her. She might not fully remember what happened there, only the agony that had come with it, but his mind was able to conjure up images of what she went through. If they hadn’t gotten to her, she would have been dead the next day. He shook his head. She’s safe now.

“You kept saying Jade’s name over and over. You were thinking about the laboratory again, weren’t you?”

“Shit.” He pushed off the desk and paced the room. His lion needed a long run to get this out of his system, to reset his thoughts and get his mind back in the game. “What about this missing scientist?”

“Doctor Clarissa Greenwood.” Luke leaned forward, his fingers clicking along the keyboard keys for a moment before looking back up at Patrick. “She has her doctorate in chemistry. According to Andrew, she was brought in to try to determine the correct dosage to keep the shifters sedated enough that they can’t fight back but would still be able to suffer. They don’t want to continue to sedate the shifters so much that they don’t feel what’s being done to them.”

“Fuck. That will make the labs worse than they are now. The one plus side to what’s happened with Jade is that she doesn’t remember a lot of it. She sees the scars but everything that happened is somewhat blurred and unclear.”

“She’s starting to remember pieces of it. I can see it in her eyes, the nightmares are more frequent.” Luke leaned back again. “Andrew doesn’t believe Doctor Greenwood knew what she was hired to do. Otherwise, why would she take off when she had finally begun working on the project she was hired to do? He told her to record the last experiment she was there for. That was Friday. Now she’s gone.”

Patrick tried to figure how far she could have gotten in five days. “She’ll have information on the layout of the building, where they’re holding the shifters captive, and maybe she can help us determine the best way to get in.”

“You’re going to go after her, even though she might have known she’d be conducting experiments on us?”

He paused and turned to face Luke. “I don’t see much of a choice. If they’re torturing our kind there, we’ve got to do something. You know how hard it is to get any information on these labs. We need an insider if we’re going to make a successful mission out of it. We want to get in, save as many as we can, and get out ourselves. We find her, and we take down Hathaway Medical.”

“I’ll get on it and see if I can find her.” Luke scooted his office chair close to the desk, a clear sign for Patrick to get lost and let him get back to work. “I’ll let you know when I find something.”

With nothing else to do, he headed out to find Austin and bring him up to speed. They needed to come up with a plan and figure out who was going with him in search of Doctor Greenwood. Once that was settled, he’d squeeze in a quick run before it was time for their nightly family dinner.

Even though they had gone into hiding, they kept some of their normal routines. Family dinners gave them time to forget about the world, or that they were refugees in hiding. They tried not to think about what was happening outside of the abandoned ski resort they’d taken over, or that their father was still missing. They were a family, and they needed to stick together in order to make it through this. As a family, they were strong. He knew they could get through anything.

Five days on the run had begun to take its toll on Clarissa. She wanted nothing more than a shower, a hot meal, and a comfortable bed. Two days and four states ago, she had tried to reach out to her brother, Dean, but he didn’t answer the phone. She couldn’t jeopardize him by leaving a message.

She glanced around the corner, eyeing the pay phone at the edge of the park. She hadn’t seen anyone suspicious, and she hated to take the risk, but it was the only way to contact Dean. If only he were in the states, instead of temporarily reassigned to Brazil. She needed his help to get out of this situation she was in.

With one last glance to ensure she was alone, she stepped out of the alley that had been her hiding place for the last hour and walked toward the pay phone. Not wanting to draw unwanted attention, she tried to keep her pace calm and act normal. If she ran, people would remember her. She knew she was being followed, and she couldn’t give passersby an impression of her that would remain in their minds. A quick phone call, and then she had to get out of the area and find somewhere to hide away again. Knowing rain was about to pound the city, she was prepared to head toward the abandoned warehouses on the outskirts of town and find somewhere she could hunker down for the night.

She took the phone in her hand and deposited the needed coinage before dialing the number. As it rang, she hoped he would answer. Finding another pay phone would take some time and she couldn’t risk coming back to the same place a second time. Pay phones had disappeared over the years so it wouldn’t be easy to get to another one. The past couldn’t survive with all the new technology, but she had ditched her cell phone before she started the journey. Carrying it would have given them a direct way to locate her.

“Hello.” Her brother’s sleepy voice echoed through the phone line.

“Don’t say my name,” she warned, taking a deep breath. “I’m in trouble. That place was just as awful as you heard.” She pressed her back against the wall and kept her head down.

“Where are you?” The sleepiness was suddenly gone from his voice.

“You know I can’t tell you that, but I’m not staying in one place long enough for them to find me. Just like Dad taught us. If they can’t find me, they’ll come for you. I’m sorry…so sorry.” She tried to swallow the tears that were threatening to fall. This was no time to get emotional. If she was going to live through this, she needed to keep her head clear.

“There’s nothing to be sorry for. We’ll get through this. Can you get to the place?”

“Two days.”

“Stay safe.”

“You too.” Knowing that Dean would find a way to get to her and to meet her at their place, she hung up the phone. For the first time since she’d left, she felt more confident she’d get through this. That she’d be able to fight whoever was after her. She didn’t know why they were after her, or what they’d do to her once they caught her. If they caught her, she hoped they’d kill her quickly instead of tormenting her the way they did the shifters in their custody. She’d rather be dead than live through what she’d witnessed.

Watching over her shoulder, she headed toward the outskirts of town to the abandoned warehouses. She couldn’t run forever. Eventually, they’d find her and then there’d be hell to pay.

Again, she wondered why they were after her. She doubted they’d found the virus she put on their computers, or they’d have blocked it. She was still getting information from their system. Which meant they either thought she knew something or they had some use for her. The idea they had a use for her churned her stomach. There were other scientists they could hire to replace her. What could she do for them that someone else couldn’t?

Through the darkness behind her, she couldn’t see anyone lurking. She found a broken part of the wall in the derelict warehouse, and shoved the board aside. As she slipped into the opening, she was careful to keep her bag from getting stuck on the jagged edges. The laptop she carried was her only proof of what was happening, and though the battery had died, she knew it was still recording what was happening at Hathaway Medical.

Tomorrow, once she was halfway to the spot where she’d meet Dean, she would look for a place where she could plug the laptop in for a while to charge. Maybe something on their system would explain why they were after her.

She found a corner in the warehouse that allowed her to see the whole space. The opening that had admitted her was the only spot that wasn’t chained and padlocked. She had to be aware of her now limited escape options. She pulled the handgun from her bag, and set it down beside her. If someone found her, she refused to be taken. If she had to, she would take her own life.

With the gun close by, she tried to get comfortable. Exhaustion made her eyelids feel as if they had lead weights attached to them. Five days on the run meant she’d barely had any sleep, and the only food she’d gotten were from outside food vendors and vending machines. She couldn’t risk being caught in a restaurant or a store with a camera. It would leave a trail she was working so hard not to leave. Even with all the precautions, they were still on her trail. She had barely escaped two nights ago when they’d caught up with her. How they managed to find her was something she hadn’t figured out yet.

She leaned her head back against the hard metal and her eyelids sprung open as realization dawned on her. They weren’t just finding her by luck, it was her scent that was leading them to her. They were using their shifter captives, forcing them to comply.

Unlike ditching her cell phone or never returning to the same place, she couldn’t do anything about her scent. She didn’t know much about shifters. Most of the world didn’t, and the government used that fear to their advantage. What was she supposed to do to keep herself alive? And was being alive better than death? Maybe not, depending on what they had in mind for her.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Preview: Romancing the Fox

No matter how far up the rungs of corporate success Sinopa Locklear climbs, her family will never be satisfied. To them, she’s worthless because she refused to live out her destiny among the tribe and produce cubs. Her decision left an impassable bridge between her and those she loved.

When an offer to wipe the slate clean comes up, Garret Fox can’t pass up the chance. All he has to do is spend a week with Sinopa, and pretend to be her fiancé. Seven days and they could go their separate ways. How hard could it be?

Both are running from something, afraid of getting too close and too intimate—until they are forced to behave as a couple for her family. Who’d have thought a fox would chase after a wolf of her own? Or is she his prey?

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Chapter One

Sinopa Locklear poured her fifth glass of wine with hopes of drowning the panic rising within her, and leaned back against the sofa. Outside, the wind howled, a warning she tried not to hear. All she wanted to do was sit in her living room, alone, and drink until she passed out. She didn’t want to think of what the week ahead of her was about to bring. For five years, she had stayed away from Crimson Hollow, using one excuse or another to get out of the family’s yearly reunion. This year, her grandfather had made a special request for her to return home, therefore, tying her hands. No one disobeyed Granddad. He was the Chief of their tribe, and it was obvious he needed her for something.

She had been dreading the reunion for weeks, but in the morning, she would make the drive to their land. Crimson Hollow was isolated, more than an hour’s drive from any real town in Montana. At one time she had loved it. The tribe had been self-sufficient, not relying on anyone but their own people. But she knew better now—that apparent freedom had been a lie, and now, she had a taste for city life and wasn’t going back—even if her stubborn family welcomed her.

The doorbell rang, pulling her from her thoughts and making her want to put a pillow over her head. Likely, it would be Jenna on her doorstep, armed with another argument for why she should go to the reunion. “Go away, Jenna…I just want to be alone.” She took a deep drink of wine, downing nearly half the glass.

Rather than Jenna going away, the doorbell shrieked again, ringing in her ear drums at double-time. “I told you earlier I didn’t want company tonight.” Even as she bitched, she got off the sofa and staggered toward the front door. As she swayed down the hall, she wanted to kill Jenna, not for interrupting her but for not just coming in like she normally did. Sinopa was too messed up for this; even with her shifter nature to process booze quickly, she was drunk.

Without looking out the glass window surrounding the door, she pulled it open. “Jenna, I told…” Her words died off as she realized it wasn’t her best friend standing on her porch but a man—no, a wolf. His wide shoulders took up most of the doorframe, but it was his eyes that got her. The deep whiskey brown eyes stared back at her, stealing her breath and making her stumble back. Taking a deep breath, she caught the scent of his wolf. Her mind tried to process everything that was happening but the fog wouldn’t lift. Still, she tried to keep the anxiety from her expression. Normally, she could hold her own against a wolf, but plastered, she stood no chance. If he was here for a fight, she was dead.

“Well, you’re not what I was expecting.”

Expecting? “Who…” She clung to the door, unsure if she did that to keep herself on her feet or because she wanted to slam it in his face. “Who are you?”

“The name’s Garret Fox. I’m…I guess you could say, I’m your saving grace.” He adjusted the duffle bag on his shoulder and nodded. “May I come in? It doesn’t look like your legs are going to hold you up much longer.”

“You’re a wolf…” She couldn’t stop herself from saying it.

“I am, and you’re a fox. What a foxy woman you are.” He let out a deep growl as his gaze traveled down her body. “I bet you look even better when you’re not drunk and about to pass out.”

She squared her shoulders and tried to give him her best glare. “I don’t know who you are or why you’re here, but I’d appreciate it if you left.”

“A mutual friend asked me to help you.” He reached out and caught her around the waist as she began to sway in place. “Let’s get you sitting down and I’ll explain.”

“I didn’t invite you in.” She tried to get her legs to support her but they were like wet noodles. Even as she fought to stand on her own, she couldn’t stop the urge tingling within her to lean against his rock hard body. She wanted to let her fingers run over his chest and feel the toned muscles hiding beneath the shirt.

Keep it together girl. He’s a wolf. She wanted to blame her overreacting hormones on the wine, but she knew there was more to it than that. It had been too long since she’d had the company of a man. Shifters were sexual creatures and foxes were social too. She wanted to be around others who had a second nature. After spending much of her life around those who weren’t foxes, it didn’t matter what they changed into, only that they understood what she was.

Settled back onto the sofa, she grabbed her wine glass again, and glared at him. “I’m really not in the mood for company, let alone a stranger.”

“How about you hold off on any more wine until I explain why I’m here?” He wrapped his hand around the rim of the glass, blocking her from taking another sip.

“Then you better get explaining because I have a bottle of wine to polish off before I pass out.” Her stomach roiled in protest of more liquor and her head pounded a warning tempo at her temple that she needed to sleep. “I might just have to call the police on you. First you invite yourself into my home, and now you’re taking away my one enjoyment tonight.”

“I want to say this only once and not have to go through it again when you’re sober.” He took the glass from her hand and set it aside before he lowered his duffle bag to the floor and sat beside her. “I’m here as your fiancé.”

“Fiancé?” With a raised eyebrow, she tried to suppress her giggling, but it was too much. She tipped her head back against the sofa and let the laughter burst through until tears rolled down her cheeks. “You’ve…you’ve got to be joking. Who put you up to this? Jenna?”

“Jase.”

The amusement died away at the mention of her brother’s name. Jase was the only one she kept in touch with in Crimson Hollow and mentioning him sent a wave of homesickness rushing through her. They had always been close, so much that their other brother had tried to drive a wedge between them. That wasn’t a memory she was interested in reliving at the moment, so she focused on trying to figure out Jase’s plan. What was he thinking? A fake fiancé—how was that going to help anything? The better question was, where did he get this guy? I’ll kill him if he put an ad online seeking a fiancé for me.

“He asked me to escort you home.”

“What the hell was he thinking?” she voiced aloud this time. “Granddad will never believe it.” She pulled her legs up against her chest, hugging them to her.

“It’s only a week. I’m certain we can make sure he doesn’t question things too much. Jase seems to believe we can make it work.” He dragged his hand through his thick hair, leaving finger tracks between ebony locks. “I’m under strict orders not to let you return without an escort.”

“Orders…” She looked at him and tried to see through the haze of alcohol in her system. “You’re not part of the tribe, otherwise this act of posing as my fiancé wouldn’t work. So what does my brother have on you? And don’t lie to me; you wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t offering you something. I know how persuasive he can be.”

“What does it matter? We’re both going to get something from this. You’re going to get your family off your back.” He glanced at the wine bottle sitting on the coffee table and back at her. “From the looks of it, you were dreading this visit.”

“Don’t you dare think you know anything about me!” She rose from the sofa, then swayed on her feet for a moment before catching her balance. “I live my life on my terms. I don’t have a man in my life at the moment because I’m very busy with my career. I shouldn’t have to justify my reasons to anyone, not even my family.” She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror above the fireplace. Her chestnut red hair stood wild and unruly as she had raked her hands through it multiple times over the last hour. Her face was flushed and dark circles were starting to form under her eyes. She was a mess and in a few hours she had to face her family. Fighting was no way to start the visit.

Just like lying wasn’t helping this situation—but she could barely admit this to herself while she was alone; she surely didn’t want to come clean to a stranger. Her career…that was just an excuse to explain why she hadn’t mated yet. Jase knew it as well as she did.

“Sinopa, I’m not judging you.” His tone remained soft and compassionate, as if he truly understood what she was going through. “Your reasons are your own. I’m only here at your brother’s request. If you wish to refuse…my company…than please feel free to call Jase and explain it to him, and I’ll leave.”

“Sin.”

“Excuse me?”

She plopped back down onto the sofa and met his gaze. “No one calls me Sinopa except Granddad. It’s just Sin.”

“Sin…that seems to fit you.” His lips curled up into a smirk. “So what are you going to do?”

“Kill Jase.” She meant it as a joke but images of her hands wrapped around her brother’s throat raced across her thoughts. “I don’t know what he was thinking, but I need to have a few words with him.” She grabbed her cell phone off the coffee table and pressed her brother’s number.

“I doubt he’s going to answer. He’d expect you to be upset and call him to bitch.”

She didn’t bother to reply, even as ring after ring echoed in her ear. Damn it, Jase. Pick up. The ringing continued until his voicemail activated. “Shit!” She hung up without leaving a message and tossed her cell phone onto the sofa.

“I told you.”

She glared at him and let the anger override the alcohol still coursing through her. She really didn’t care what kind of deal Jase made with Garret because it wasn’t going to happen. There was no chance she was going to show up at Crimson Hollow with a wolf by her side. Other wolves lived within the tribe, but they were not her type. Wolves were too high maintenance and their alpha personalities proved more than she could deal with. Was it too much to want a quiet life with someone who thought about her needs for once?

“So…” He folded his hands in his lap and watched her. “If we’re going to pull this off, we’ll need to get our story straight.”

“There’s nothing to pull off. I’m not going anywhere with you. Jase was out of his mind to even consider I would go for this.”

“Jase told me you’d say that and he told me I would need to say…” He paused as if he was trying to remember what the exact wording was. “Much has happened since you’ve left and there’s soon to be a new commander. Swift needs you, and so do I. Come home, Sin, and see what can be.”

“What the hell?” She sank down onto the arm of the chair across from him.

“There’s something more—not in his words, but the meaning is still the same. He’s sent me as your escort because until the changes are complete, he cannot guarantee your safety. It would be up to your Granddad and well, you know how that is.”

“You mean the fact he’s never done much to protect me.” Anger tightened every muscle in her body as she fought to leave the past where it was. “Oh yeah, I know all about that. Jase was the only one who stood up for me. If there’s to be a change of Chief for the tribe and Jase wants you to protect me, that means he’s about to take over. But Swift, how does she play into this?” She thought about the only true friend she’d ever had. They had been inseparable until Sin left their land.

“I wasn’t told that.” He leaned forward, his elbows resting on his thighs. “Your brother cares deeply for you. He wants you home, and he wants you safe.”

“I don’t understand his plan.” Once again, she took in the man before her and tried to figure out how he had become indebted to Jase in the first place.

“As your fiancé, I would be able to protect you, where Jase could not.”

“But if this was to be long term…if Jase is taking over the tribe and wants me to come home permanently, then this charade would only make a mess of things. We might marry like humans do, so that things are legal for the rest of the world, but when shifters find the one they’re supposed to be with, they mate. Anyone that got near us would be able to smell that we’ve not mated.”

“He’s thought of that as well.” He leaned back against the sofa and smirked. “A bite will mark you as mine, but will wear off without us completing the mating. You’ve spent so much time among the humans, it wouldn’t be considered unbelievable that you’d want to wait for the wedding night to complete the mating. It will also make sense that we’re still getting to know one another, as we met not long ago, and our wedding will be soon because our animals will not wait long to be satisfied.”

“It seems that you and my brother have considered almost everything.” She glanced around her house, and while it might be small, it was hers. “But there’s one thing Jase didn’t consider. Maybe I don’t want to return to Crimson Hollow. That I won’t want to be under someone’s rule or deal with the crap I went through before. Out here among the humans and maybe against all odds, I’ve come into my own. I have a life, a good job, and my own home. I don’t want to go back to being the tribe’s outcast.”

“I don’t know what happened to you back then, but the choice will still be yours. You can return here and back to your life. This arrangement will at least allow you to be among your tribe for a short time while you consider what your options might be.”

She dragged a hand through her hair, pushing the reddish strands away from her face. “I need to think…I need a clear head before I make any decisions. The guest room is the second door on the right just down the hall. The bathroom is the first door on the right.” Without further comment, she strolled away from him and toward her bedroom. She needed a hot bath to clear her head and think things through. Leaving a stranger alone in her house wasn’t nearly as insane as going home with him as her fiancé.

Alone in the guest bedroom, Garret unlaced his boots and tossed them aside. Sinopa was nothing like he’d expected. The sexy as sin fox looked delicious even when she stumbled away from him drunk. Flecks of her temper had shined through tonight, making it clear that her fury was as fiery as her hair. She was going to be a challenge but one that he was up for, as long as it got him what he so desperately needed.

He unclipped his phone from his jeans and unlocked the screen to send a quick text message to Jase. Things are going as planned. I’ll let you know once we’re on our way. It wasn’t a complete lie. After all, she hadn’t kicked him out of her house.

He was there for one reason, and that was to get out of Jase’s debt. This was a small price to pay after what Jase had done for him months before. There weren’t nearly as many risks or danger now as there had been the last time they worked together. The only danger that concerned him was this attraction to Sin. He couldn’t afford to let himself get distracted by her.

One week—that was all he had to get through, and then everything would go back to the way things were. Surely, he could keep a lid on his attraction to her while pretending to be her fiancé.

Who am I kidding? She’s mine.

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h1=. About the Author

Born and raised in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, Marissa Dobson now resides about an hour from Washington, D.C. She’s a lady who likes to keep busy, and is always busy doing something. With two different college degrees, she believes you’re never done learning.

Being the first daughter to an avid reader, this gave her the advantage of learning to read at a young age. Since learning to read she has always had her nose in a book. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that she started writing down the stories she came up with.

Marissa is blessed with a wonderful supportive husband, Thomas. He’s her other half and allows her to stay home and pursue her writing. He puts up with all her quirks and listens to her brainstorm in the middle of the night.

Her writing buddy Pup Cameron, a cocker spaniel, is always around to listen to her bounce ideas off him. He might not be able to answer, but he’s helpful in his own ways.

Don’t miss a new release, sign up for my {color:rgb(99, 15, 50);}newsletter.

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For more information:

www.MarissaDobson.com

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h1=. Also by Marissa Dobson

Alaskan Tigers:

Tiger Time

The Tiger’s Heart

Tigress for Two

Night with a Tiger

Trusting a Tiger

Alaskan Tigers Box Set Volume One

Jinx’s Mate

Two for Protection

Bearing Secrets

Tiger Tracks

Healing the Clan

Alaskan Tigers Box Set Volume Two

Her Black Tiger

Tiger Trouble

***

Forever Creek Shifters:

Forever’s Fight

Protecting Forever

***

Crimson Hollow:

Romancing the Fox

Loving the Bears

A Lion’s Chance

Swift Move

Purrable Lion

Nearly Alive

Saved by a Lion

Furever Mated Box Set

***

Stormkin:

Storm Queen

***

Reaper:

A Touch of Death

***

Beyond Monogamy:

Theirs to Treasure

***

SEALed for You:

Ace in the Hole

Explosive Passion

Operation Family

***

Marine for You:

Lucky Chance

Back from Hell

A Marines Second Chance

***

Tanner Cycles:

Until Sydney

***

Phantom Security:

Different Sides

Undercover Agent

***

Cedar Grove Medical:

Hope’s Toy Chest

Destiny’s Wish

Leena’s Dream

***

Fate Series:

Snowy Fate

Sarah’s Fate

Mason’s Fate

As Fate Would Have It

***

Half Moon Harbor Resort:

Learning to Live

Learning What Love Is

Her Cowboy’s Heart

Half Moon Harbor Resort Volume One

***

Clearwater:

Winterbloom

Unexpected Forever

Losing to Win

Christmas Countdown

The Surrogate

Clearwater Romance Volume One

Small Town Doctor

***

Stand Alone:

SEALed Rescue

SEALed in Texas

Through Smoke

Starting Over

Secret Valentine

Restoring Love


Alaskan Tigers Collection

The future of the Alaskan Tigers is in the hands of one woman in Tiger Time. Tabitha Leigh is unaware of her path, and Ty Reynolds, Alpha of the Alaskan Tigers, must convince her of the truth. If he fails, Ty will not only lose his soul mate, but the Tigers will lose their chance for salvation. Raja Harrison, Lieutenant of the Alaskan Tigers, feels his job is much too dangerous to involve a mate in The Tiger’s Heart. But when he rescues Bethany Thompson from kidnappers and a rogue shifter, Raja discovers she is his mate, and he must put aside his fears to protect his future—and the future of the Alaskan Tigers. Kallie has been in hiding for a long time, running from her past. In Tigress for Two, she finds comfort with Taber, a member of the Kodiak bears. Though Taber has met his mate, he’s surprised to discover she’s a tiger. And when his brother Thorben offers to help, they discover Kallie is not just Taber’s mate, but also Thorben’s. Will they overcome their differences to find love?

  • Author: Marissa Dobson
  • Published: 2017-06-10 17:06:06
  • Words: 152029
Alaskan Tigers Collection Alaskan Tigers Collection