Authors: Jennifer Ashley
“Yeah, but why haven’t I met you?” Jace still didn’t want to release her hand. “I’ve made lots of trips out here, but I don’t remember seeing you.”
“I’ve been . . . sick,” she said. “I’m Deni. Deni Rowe.”
Deni watched him anxiously, as though gauging his reaction to the name. “Ellison Rowe’s sister?” Jace asked.
“Yes.” Deni still peered at him, waiting.
Jace tightened his hand on hers. “Why do you have to go? Stay with me and watch Dylan kick ass. You can keep other Lupines from jumping me.”
Deni didn’t smile. She glanced at the arena and the mass of figures there, and Jace scented her nervousness. “I can’t. Sometimes the fighting . . .”
“Calls to the feral in you? Makes you lose control?”
She gave him a startled look. “How did you know that?”
“Because I saw your eyes when you attacked Broderick. You didn’t dive into the fight only to rescue me. You did it because watching made you want to fight too. I was like that during my Transition.” Jace caressed the hand he hadn’t released. “All you have to do is hold on to someone. The touch will calm you and keep you tethered.”
Another startled look. “That doesn’t work. Even my cubs . . .”
“Bet me,” Jace said. “You hang on to a dominant, and he takes the heat and cools you down. Works. That’s what dominants are for.”
A spark of pride returned to Deni’s eyes. “And you’re saying you’re dominant to me?”
“Yep. It’s obvious. You outrank Broderick—I bet you outrank a lot of wolves—but you’re not dominant to this Feline.” He touched his chest.
She gave him a half smile. “And you’re not full of yourself about that.”
“Just stating facts.” Jace did
want to let go of her hand. “Let’s find your clothes and go. Unless you want to watch as wolf.”
Deni sent him another haughty look that made her eyes beautiful, but she didn’t pull away. “I’ll find my clothes.”
Jace left his shredded shirt behind—why bother with it?—but caught up his jacket and followed her into the darkness, her hand on his like a lifeline. A warm, sweet lifeline. He definitely wanted to know this Lupine woman better.
* * *
Deni’s heart beat swiftly as she pulled on the sarong she’d thrown off to rush into the fight with Broderick. Broderick’s scent of arrogance had enraged her, and she’d wanted to pummel him for jumping the other Shifter without challenge.
Then she’d felt her memory slide away, the feral thing inside her taking over. She shivered. Her wildness hadn’t receded until Jace had smacked the wolf down himself, and Deni had fallen away from the fight.
Jace hadn’t then turned around and kicked her butt, as he’d had a right to for interfering. Instead he’d touched her, licked her with his strange Feline sandpapery tongue, then held her hand after she’d changed back to human.
Deni was still shaky as they entered the fight club’s main area. Jace kept hold of her hand. It was a big hand, warm but callused, his grip strong. He was a fighter, a warrior.
If Deni remembered right, Jace Warden was the son of Eric Warden, leader of the Las Vegas Shiftertown. Jace was third in command there, the second in command being Eric’s sister. Jace would be in the most dominant Feline clan of his Shiftertown, and in the most dominant Feline pride of that clan. The top of the top.
Alphas usually bugged Deni, because they could be arrogant shits, but only concern and protection flowed from Jace. An alpha interested in taking care of others. What a concept.
The biggest crowd gathered around the central ring—the other two rings were empty. From throats, beast and human, came wild cries, delight in whoever was winning, groaning from those foolish enough not to back Dylan.
Jace moved through the throng to the ring. Shifters moved aside for him, most without noticing they did so. Instinct, Deni guessed—sensing that they should get out of Jace’s way before he made it an order.
A large man stood at the perimeter of the ring, arms folded, the Sword of the Guardian on his back. Deni always felt a frisson of dread when she saw the sword, whose purpose was to be driven through the hearts of dead or dying Shifters. The sword pierced the heart, and the Shifter turned to dust, his or her soul following the pathway to the Summerland.
The sword shimmered a little in the flickering light. Other Shifters gave the Guardian a wide berth, also uncomfortable with him. Kind of hard on Sean, Deni always thought, but Sean had been much less haunted since he’d taken a mate.
A human woman stood next to Sean—not his mate. She was the scrappy woman who’d tied herself to Ronan, a Kodiak bear, who was even now in the ring, fighting Dylan. The woman—Elizabeth—danced on top of the cement blocks, cheering for Ronan at the top of her lungs.
Sean would be standing as second for Dylan, his father. A second’s job was to make sure that no one interfered with the fight and that the other side didn’t cheat. Dylan and Ronan would go for a fair, straight fight, but other Shifters could be cunning. The seconds were there for a reason.
Dylan was the black-maned lion snarling in the middle of the ring, his paws moving lightning fast as he battled the bigger bulk of the Kodiak. Ronan was fully shifted to bear, his ruff standing up, his eyes alight with fighting fury. Ronan’s Collar sparked deep into his fur, but Dylan’s was quiet.
“Unfair advantage,” Jace said into Deni’s ear. “Dylan knows how to keep his Collar from going off.”
Deni had to turn her head and stand on tiptoe to answer into Jace’s ear. His hand in hers was warm, and she leaned close. “That’s why he only fights the strongest: Ronan, or Spike, who’s the champion. Sometimes Dylan lets his Collar go off on purpose, to keep things interesting.”
“But he usually wins anyway,” Jace finished.
He had a rumbling baritone that tickled inside her ear, his hot breath making Deni tingle even more. She squeezed his fingers a little, and was rewarded with an answering squeeze.
Ronan roared. His Collar was sparking, his mate yelling her encouragement, but Deni saw her worry. These matches weren’t to the death, but Shifters could be badly hurt in them.
Deni could scent and sense Elizabeth’s excitement tinged with fear. She also caught Sean’s tenseness as he watched his father battle. If something went wrong, if one of the Shifters was hurt so much the Guardian was needed, Sean would have to plunge his sword into the heart of either his father or his close friend.
Deni caught his sorrow—Sean had had to send one of his brothers to dust a dozen years ago—which laced through the sorrow in her own heart. Deni wished her cubs were here, her boys, but they were working at their jobs in the city, earning what little money Shifters were allowed to earn.
Dylan backed away from Ronan’s onslaught, ears flat on his head. He didn’t roar—Dylan’s roar could shake apart the town—but his growls filled the space.
The sound caught in Deni’s nerves, calling to the feral inside her. All Shifters had the instinct to throw off any polish of civilization, to revert to their wild forms, to return to the time when they’d been bred to fight and hunt. Even after a thousand and more years, Shifters retained the same basic instincts—fight or be killed, hunt or be hunted.
Shifters had come up with strict rules made to tame their inner beasts. To keep themselves from tearing each other apart after they’d fought free of their Fae masters, Shifters had agreed to certain rituals that must be performed in regard to mating, fighting, and even death. Take those away, and they were simply animals who could make themselves look human.
Deni’s motorcycle accident last year had robbed her of the veneer of calm Shifters strived to learn. The wreck must have jarred something loose in Deni’s brain, because she’d been fighting her instincts ever since, often losing. Knowing the bastard who’d run her down was dead had helped her begin to heal, but she wasn’t there yet.
In the midst of the growls, snarls, roars, and cheers, with the scent of blood and sweat pouring from the ring, Deni’s thoughts began to tangle. Her scent sense heightened, bringing in the excitement of the Shifters, the bloodlust in Dylan, the singed-fur smell from the sparking Collars, the strong male scent of Jace Warden next to her.
She probably would have been all right with Jace’s calming hand in hers, if the fighting Shifters had been anyone else, but Dylan had a powerful Shifter presence. Being alpha didn’t simply mean winning fights and scaring Shifters into submission. It was an indefinable something about the Shifter—scent, timbre of voice, subtle compulsion to follow this male. In animal form, it was more apparent, and Dylan was broadcasting his force loud and clear.
Since the accident, Deni had been able to use her animal senses fully in her human form. All Shifters retained some of their superior senses of hearing, scenting, and tracking ability when human, but they were muted, distant, able to be pushed aside so the Shifter could live as human without going crazy.
Not so for Deni. She had to constantly fight herself not to shift, attack, or even kill when she was confused, afraid, or angry.
was the term. Her Collar tried to shock sense into her, but that only resulted in more pain, more confusion, more anger.
Deni smelled Dylan’s fighting blood, which announced to everyone there he was far stronger and meaner than the giant bear he battled. Ronan continued swinging his enormous paws, landing blows on the smaller lion. Dylan’s lithe body moved and flowed with the hits that would have crushed any Shifter who’d stood still and taken them. Dylan’s lion’s paws moved in a flurry, batting back the bear with the swift, manic strength of a cat.
Deni’s wolf howled to life. She wanted to leap into the ring, rush to Dylan’s side, and help him fight. He was her alpha—he’d been leader of all Shifters for a long time before conceding his position to his son. Ronan was lesser than Deni, and he dared to confront Dylan. Now Ronan must pay.
Deni clenched her free hand into a fist, jaw so tight it ached. She shouldn’t be here—she should have gone home and not let the compelling Jace talk her into watching the battle. She now wanted more than anything to break all the rules of the fight club and run into the ring. Ronan would knock her senseless before he could stop himself, but her wolf didn’t care. The bear needed to go down.
Deni started to growl, the sound rising in her throat. Her Collar snapped a spark into her, but she didn’t stop. She
stop. And that terrified her most of all.
“Hey,” a deep voice in her ear rumbled. “Hold it together.”
Jace. His warmth covered her side, his stern command reaching her inner beast and stilling the need to shift. Deni realized her fingers had already changed to wolf claws, and fur ran from her head down her back, which was bared by the sarong.
Jace didn’t let go of her hand, though she felt her claws pierce his skin. He ran his other hand, warm and broad-palmed, up and down her back, which returned to human smoothness.
“Want to go?” he asked her.
Deni nodded. She couldn’t see much anymore—the fires and lanterns blurred into one whirling light, the shouts and growls blending into a mass of animal sound.
Jace tugged her away, again becoming the lifeline that drew her through the crowd. In the howling, swirling madness, Jace was a constant, his warmth pulling her onward.
He took her into the parking lot, turning her away from the lights. Once the cool night air touched her, darkness erasing the maddening lights, Deni drew a long breath. Her fur and claws receded, leaving her on her human feet, shaking.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” Jace was saying as they threaded their way through parked vehicles. She heard his voice but didn’t pay much attention to the words. “I shouldn’t have taken you in there. I didn’t realize it was that bad.”
“It’s bad,” Deni said, nodding. She wasn’t concentrating on her words either. “I should have stayed home tonight, but I needed . . .” She shivered. “I don’t know what I needed.”
Not true. Deni had needed escape, life, not hiding in the dark. Her sons had gone to work, Ellison had taken his mate, Maria, out for dinner and probably sex, and the rest of Shiftertown had emptied to attend the fight club. Sit at home and mope or go out and be with her friends and neighbors? She’d been tired of moping, so here she was.
Deni’s uncontrolled instincts were punishing her now. Jace had known to take her out of there before she did something stupid, but the wildness in her didn’t calm. It needed release.
Deni’s wolf needed to fight, to hunt, to kill. Robbed of that, the she-wolf in her wanted the nearest thing to it.
She swung to Jace, his scent filling her, his strength calling to her. He was solid, strong, alpha, male, and he was here with her in the dark. She couldn’t have stopped herself even if she’d wanted to.
Deni slammed both hands to Jace’s chest. He caught her with a strong grip but fell against the side of a pickup, carrying her back with him. He had a musky male scent, a little wild, like the woods on a moonlit night. The moon was high and full tonight, always irresistible to a wolf.
Jace’s eyes were unusual, jade green, the color heightened by his tanned face and brown black hair he’d buzzed short. He was large too, but agile and athletic.
He watched her, not shoving her away, not angry. Just watching.
Another surge of sound came from the arena, human and animal crying out for blood. Deni snarled, pinned Jace against the truck, and kissed him hard on the mouth.
Jace found himself with his arms full of gorgeous woman. A
gorgeous woman. Her kiss pushed him flat against the truck, the ridges of its door digging into his back.
Against his front, he felt nothing but soft woman—breasts, hands, thighs. Deni’s mouth was all over his, lips seeking, tongue swiping into his mouth, giving him a taste of spice and wildness.
Jace told himself to push her away, but he cupped her waist and ended up dragging her closer. Another roar came from the arena, galvanizing her, winding up Jace’s heat in response.
The sarong bared much of her flesh—the garment clasped at one shoulder and wrapped her hips, leaving Deni’s neck, arms, and most of her back bare. Her warm skin was silken under Jace’s fingers, curves lush. A full-bodied Shifter woman.
Deni was tall, as Shifter women were, but Jace was taller. He scooped her into him, liking how she fit against him. Her buttocks were a handful, her breasts the best cushions.
He opened his mouth to hers, welcoming her greedy kisses. She was hot in his arms, she smelled good, and her hair was silken against his skin.
It was exciting and erotic, pulling a woman he’d just met into his arms, the two of them wound up from the fighting, wanting to relieve themselves in the shadows with fervent, hard sex. Her body rubbed his hard-on, tingling raw pleasure through him. Some Shifters were already scratching their itches tonight in this parking lot, with humans or other Shifters. By the sounds and scents, they were at it in cars or in the shadows beyond. Frantic, basic coupling.
Deni groped for the button of his jeans, fingers sliding along the zipper. In a few seconds, she’d have his hot cock in her hands, and he’d be done for.
“Not here,” Jace managed to say. He had just enough presence of mind to not want to be caught banging Ellison Rowe’s sister up against the side of a Shifter’s pickup. A few steps and they’d be in deep shadow, on hard Texas earth.
Deni nodded, her eyes the light gray of her wolf. Jace swung her off her feet and ran with her beyond the circle of light.
He didn’t bother trying to find a soft place to lie down in the darkness. Jace could hold the both of them up—he was plenty strong. One tug of strings and the sarong fell, baring her to him. Jace buried his nose in her neck as he nipped her flesh. He loved how she smelled. Feminine, strong, beautiful.
Deni managed to get his jeans open. Jace let them slither down his legs, then his underwear followed. He lifted her, cradling her hips, and she slid straight onto him.
Her eyes widened. Beautiful silver white eyes, moonlight eyes. Jace caught her head with one hand, loving the feel of her hair against his fingers, and he kissed her.
Hot, amazing woman wrapped around him, as hungry as he was. Jace was deep inside her, the penetration satisfying, filling him up as much as he filled her.
Deni moaned a little against his mouth. Jace released her from the kiss, but he wanted to go on kissing her, her mouth hot. Goddess, how lucky was he that she’d run to join in his fight?
Jace thrust what little he could, lifting her with hands under her buttocks and lowering her onto him again in small, swift jerks. They were both making noises now, and not being quiet. Anyone passing would know two Shifters were finding relief out here in the dark.
This was raw, rough sex. No finesse, no romance. Just a man and a woman doing what the Goddess had made them to do. Come together, join, mate, create.
Deni cried his name, then her head went back, passion making her incoherent. Jace held on to her, taking their combined weight on his planted feet, rocking to seek more and more of her.
He gathered her hard against him, feeling his seed build in its need to reach her. Shifters wanted more than anything to make more Shifters, and Jace’s body knew it. Instinct, desire, whatever he wanted to call it. It took over, and he couldn’t fight it.
“Son of a
,” he whispered as his climax hit him, harder than any he’d had in his life. He felt his seed go and felt her take it, heard his own shouts drowned in hers and another, final victory roar from the arena.
Jace shuddered, whatever the hell he said lost to the night. Deni clung to him, her gasps of pleasure not muffled. She hung on to him until the last thrust, and then Jace simply held her, wondering that he’d found something so beautiful so unexpectedly.
His body was still crazed with need. He felt his cock rise again, not that it had deflated much.
Oh, hell no. Jace was crawling with heat, desire rampaging through his body. He thought he’d be sated with a quick coupling—that both of them would be sated.
But the Shifter in him had other ideas.
Mate. Take. Mine.
“Son of a bitch,” he whispered again.
the time for mating frenzy—that basic Shifter need to take a mate someplace safe where they could screw for days. And days. Weeks, even months if need be. Not to come out until they were both half-starved and exhausted, and the female was plump with cubs.
Shifters could follow their rituals, ceremonies, laws, protocol—whatever they called it this century—but the truth was that the mating frenzy could still grab them by the balls at any time and not let them go.
The woman in Jace’s arms had awakened his frenzy as no other female had before. This was crazy. Jace had only just met her—he hadn’t known her more than an hour.
The mating frenzy didn’t care.
With effort, Jace made himself loosen his hold on her. At least he could give Deni the chance to run.
Then I can hunt her
, the leopard in him said with glee.
Chase her. Catch her. Make her mine.
He was so screwed.
Deni gasped. Jace hadn’t been able to look away from her, her light hair and face a pale smudge in the darkness, but now her eyes were round with fear as she gazed off at something behind him. Jace turned his head to see what had caught her worry, and his own breath constricted.
Across the flat plain behind the arena, about a mile away Jace would guess, came lights. Flashing lights—red and blue—and the white pulses of headlights. A ton of them, sirens blaring, all heading toward the arena.
* * *
Jace snarled and grabbed at his jeans, zipping them as Deni groped for her fallen sarong. She wrapped the cloth around herself, fastening it quickly, her heart pounding.
Human police poured toward them, racing for the Shifters’ very illegal fight club. Not good. Not good at all.
Even as Jace pulled on his denim jacket and started at a run for the arena, Deni following, her body thrummed with elation. For a year now, she’d been walking around in a half-aware state, but at this moment, in spite of the imminent danger, she was
She was a little embarrassed she’d grabbed Jace like that, barely able to control her mating urge, but dear God and Goddess, he’d taken her in a storm. Deni wasn’t a stranger to casual sex—Shifters often needed to burn off steam—but this encounter went beyond in intensity anything she’d experienced before.
Deni couldn’t stop watching Jace’s lithe body as he ran, the grace of his wildcat evident even in his human form. He smelled of the road, of Texas dust, of himself, and now of what they’d done together. The combination made Deni want to catch him, throw him down, and fling herself on top of him. She was shameless, but he was beautiful, virile, and strong, and Deni wanted him with a mindlessness that unnerved her. Even the string of lights and sirens couldn’t dampen her need.
Deni sprinted into the arena alongside Jace to find that Dylan’s match had finished, though the noise hadn’t much lessened. Ronan was sitting heavily on a bench, human again, breathing hard and looking rueful. His mate was wiping his naked body with a towel, giving him it’s-all-right-I-still-love-you
Dylan took his triumph in stride, but quietly, without gloating. His mate, on the other hand, a tall blonde named Glory, watched Dylan admiringly, her gaze roving Dylan’s honed body. She opened her mouth, probably to boast that her mate was undefeatable, but Jace’s voice cut over the din.
“Cops!” he boomed. “Coming.
The Shifters who’d been celebrating, or grumbling about Ronan’s loss, came alert. Shifters stopped, jerked around, stared at Jace or gazed beyond him. Stillness, silence, and animal wariness took over, erasing anything human about them.
Then one of the Shifters yelled, “Go to ground!” and the arena erupted again into noise.
“No!” Jace bellowed over them all.
The power of his voice sent a hush rippling across the Shifters again. Jace had the compelling presence of a leader, Deni noted with admiration, the ability to make others stand still and listen, no matter how dire the situation.
Jace had his hands up. “If we run, they chase,” he said, his words carrying across the arena. “The slowest will be caught.”
The Shifters’ unease didn’t lessen, Deni saw, and the smell of fear was high. They wanted to flee, and damn the consequences.
“The lad’s right,” Dylan said. In spite of his bruised and abraded body, he stood upright, his blue eyes hot. “No one gets taken. We stand.”
“Then we all get arrested,” someone else shouted.
No one moved, though. They wouldn’t ignore Dylan.
“No, we won’t,” Deni said. She stepped up onto one of the cement blocks, using Jace’s shoulder to steady herself. “They’re going to find us—no time to get away. But
decide what they find. I have an idea.”
In a few brief sentences, Deni outlined what she had in mind. The humans looked bewildered, but Shifter faces began to relax, smiles starting to take the place of fear.
“You’re cunning, sweetheart,” Jace said. His hand on her back was warm as he slanted her a grin. “Anything you’re not good at?”
Deni went hot all over, her face flaming as his eyes sparkled. She wasn’t sure what the consequences would be of her crazed mating in the parking lot with Jace, but the look he was giving her made her decide that losing control had been worth it.
“You heard her,” Dylan said. “This is what we do.”
Shifters broke off, organizing themselves as only Shifters could when the need was upon them. The police cars and lights came nearer, sirens cutting the air. Deni still sensed deep fear, the humans barely containing it, the Shifters striving to suppress it.
The waves of panic caught her, jarring Deni’s already-heightened nerves. The wolf in her growled, wanting to shift, to confront her enemies and make them run. To chase them if need be and bring them down.
Deni clenched her hands, shuddering, a bead of sweat running down her back. Damn it. If she lost it now, she’d condemn them all.
A comforting touch warmed her shoulder. “Easy,” Jace said, his breath in her ear.
He was leaning close, his body heat wrapping around her, his scent relaxing the tightness inside her. Deni’s fear eased before a wash of relief and also desire. Jace put his hand in hers, and she leaned into him, wanting to twine herself around his big body again.
Sean came to them, sword on his back glinting, and took Deni’s other hand as the Shifters formed circles. “Smart idea, Deni. I commend you,” he said. Then his nostrils widened, taking in her scent combined with Jace’s. His gaze sharpened as it moved over Jace’s mussed hair and Deni’s hastily tied sarong. “Shite,” he said to Jace. “You’ve been in Austin, what, twenty minutes, lad? You didn’t even stop for a meal first.”
Deni went hot again, though she kept her head up under Sean’s scrutiny and made herself meet his gaze.
“Keep it down,” Jace said. “Don’t embarrass the lady.”
can keep it down.” Sean didn’t burst into laughter, but his big smile showed amusement enough.
“Shut up, both of you,” Deni said, certain her face must be burgundy red. “They’re here.”
Every law enforcement agency in this county must have answered whatever call had reported Shifters up here. Cars and SUVs surrounded the arena, floodlights glaring over the circles of Shifters, gleaming in eyes, glinting on Collars. Police in bulletproof vests swarmed out of the vehicles and into the arena, carrying guns, chains, nets, and tranq rifles. They’d come prepared to round up all of them.
The cops stopped when they found, not Shifters fighting in primitive frenzy, but Shifters and humans standing in quiet circles. The largest circle, where Deni and Jace stood, outlined the perimeter of the arena floor, with concentric circles inside it, smaller and smaller as they neared the middle of the arena. The circles of Shifters moved slowly, each one in the direction opposite of the one before it, the Shifters walking in a slow, shuffling gait. The smallest circle ringed around Dylan, Glory, and Dylan’s grandson, Connor, who stood in front of a trashcan full of fire.
Shifters held hands—or had tails wrapped around hands, if they were still in animal form—and chanted a prayer to the Goddess as they moved. Each Shifter spoke quietly, but the mingling voices reverberated to the starry sky.
Deni clasped Jace’s hand tightly on one side, Sean’s on the other. Sean should technically be in the innermost circle with his father and nephew, but he’d stopped to make sure Deni was all right and hadn’t had time to reach it.
Sean had his gaze on the inner circle and his father, but Jace looked at the ground, his shoulders hunching. The posture made him appear smaller than he was, less challenging, just another Shifter in the bunch. Deni understood why. Jace wasn’t supposed to be in Texas at all. If the human police discovered he was from the Las Vegas Shiftertown, here without official permission, he’d be arrested, and things could only go downhill from there.
Shifters weren’t allowed to leave the states where their Shiftertowns were located without special permits, and Jace didn’t have one. Deni knew that without asking—permission was difficult to obtain and took forever. Jace had been coming and going from the Austin Shiftertown when he pleased for the last year or so, to work with Dylan and Liam on the Collars. Shifters like Jace had figured out how to go where they wanted whenever they wanted, but humans didn’t need to know that. If one of the cops realized that Jace wasn’t from around here . . .