Authors: Kat Simons
Tags: #Romance, #Werewolves & Shifters, #Paranormal, #Literature & Fiction
She’ll never run.
Among the tiger shifters, Alexis Tarasova is regarded as fierce and dangerous, with a reputation that would make even the most daring tiger think twice about challenging her. Female tiger shifters may be rare and the Mate Run a critical part of their species’ survival, but Alexis is the only female Tracker and will not back down, even at the threat of Tiger Law. She will not be forced to mate. So when a handful of males band together to force her to participate in the run, Alexis chooses to stand her ground and fight instead.
He's forbidden to run.
Outcast from the tiger shifters after a vicious childhood attack left him mute, Victor Romanov has never taken part in the Mate Run. He’s never particularly cared, though, since the woman he loves refuses to take a mate. However, when he learns Alexis may be in danger, all bets are off. Nothing will keep him from her side.
Together, they’re unmovable.
The chemistry between them burns wickedly hot and forges them into an unbeatable pair. Alexis knows that being with Victor means she will have to break another one of her people’s laws—a move that might push the tigers too far. But, for Victor, she will risk everything, including her life, and do what she thought she’d never do—run.
ONCE UPON A TIGER
Copyright © 2013 by Katrina Tipton
Edited by Kemberlee Shortland
Cover by The Killion Group
Published by T&D Publishing
All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.
They cannot be sold, shared or given away as it is an infringement on the copyright of this work.
To my family. Just because.
ONCE UPON A TIGER
“Idiots.” Alexis Tarasova growled low in her throat at the scent of five…no six male tigers invading her territory. She couldn’t tell who they were yet, but in her current state, their presence set off deep instincts.
This was her space. No males were allowed here without her permission. And she had not given it. She didn’t give a damn she was in estrous or that her body was a raw bundle of need and lust. She
run and wasn’t going to be forced into it by anyone.
If she had to beat the lot of them into bloody pulps to make her point, she would.
She stood in her human form on the front porch of her small Catskills cabin and folded her arms across her chest, staring into the trees. Despite the full moon shedding light into the clearing in front of her home, the woods beyond were pitch black. She was surrounded by the orange, gold, and red leaves that made this area of New York so beautiful this time of year, but only shades of grey and black were visible now. If she were an ordinary human, she wouldn’t have been able to see much of anything beneath the trees. In tiger form, she’d see well into that darkness.
She didn’t bother stripping off her loose jeans and flannel shirt to make shifting easier, though. She would face them in her human form to make a point. After twelve years working as a Tracker—the only female Tracker—she didn’t need to be a tiger to take them on. She’d been trained by her uncle to be the most deadly of the elite enforcers of Tiger Law. She’d dedicated most of her life to upholding her peoples’ rules, hunting down dangerous tigers, killing when necessary. No one forced her to do anything—not even the Mate Run.
The males were approaching fast, but carefully. She heard them now. They weren’t making any attempt to hide their presence. Her quiet growl drifted out on the still air.
Alexis wasn’t opposed to the mating ritual on principle. The Run had saved her people from self-destruction. The female birth rates had dropped so significantly two centuries ago it had left them on the brink of extinction. Out of desperation, the males had started fighting too much, and raping—sometimes killing—the females. The situation grew increasingly worse until the elders, the leaders of her people, instigated a new law.
During estrous, a female ran from a group of males, allowing one to catch her and spend that cycle with her. The couple had as much sex as possible during those three days. If she got pregnant, they were allowed to be mated—either permanently marry or be together for as long as they wanted. If she didn’t get pregnant, she had to run again. The tigress could choose the same male or a different male, but until she got pregnant, she kept running.
The ritual had saved Alexis’ people. No more gang rapes, no more death-match challenges amongst the males. The female birth rates were still extremely low, her people were still on the very edge of extinction and searching for some way to survive, but at least they weren’t making things worse anymore.
But she was a Tracker. An enforcer of her peoples’ laws. She required a level of fear and respect from the other tigers in order to do her job. And having to run from any of them was contrary to every instinct she had, even if she got to choose who caught her.
She didn’t run. She fought. She wasn’t chased. She did the chasing.
The elders had supported her decision to forgo mating. Why these males thought they could overrule their governing body and force this on her, she didn’t know. She didn’t really care. She had no intention of giving in to the pressure.
If she got pregnant, the entire point of the Mate Run, she’d be forced to give up her job. Not something she was ready to do, and might never be ready for because the only man she could see having a family with wasn’t allowed to mate.
She released a soft breath and tried pushing the ridiculous longing she felt for Victor Romanov to the back of her mind. She couldn’t have him. And no one else had ever come close to capturing her interest. She’d wanted him for years, but they weren’t meant to be. That made forgoing the Run easy.
She forced herself to focus on her anger and those stupid fucks stalking through her land. Being distracted now would only get her hurt. A cool autumn breeze brought her the rich smells the surrounding woods, the moist dirt, the sweet, pungent detritus, the earthy mix of beech, maple, and a hint of pine bark, the faint tang of the few small mammals brave enough to frequent her territory…and the sharp bite of male tiger musk.
Her lip curled.
When she sensed them nearing, she let her growl carry into the trees, a warning and a challenge. Two of the five answered with soft chuffing noises. Frowning, she studied the darkness. Five. But she was sure there were six. Where was he now?
She let her senses stretch, trying to find that sixth, but the appearance of the others divided her attention. Three Siberian tigers and two Bengals stepped from the woods, forming a semi-circle around the front of her home. She narrowed her eyes and let their scent-signatures come to her, trying to identify them. Each had a unique combination of feline musk and the complex weave of pheromones that were impossible to put into human words. If pushed, she’d describe them as a kind of individualized spice mixture, but some of the “spices” didn’t actually exist.
She knew two of the invaders.
One Siberian, Nick Jameson, was a fellow Tracker and until this moment she would have considered him a friend of sorts. At the least, a respected colleague. She was more than a little surprised he was a part of all this, as he’d never shown any particular interest in her—not any more interest than he showed any other female.
The second, a Bengal named Dev Gupta, was another story. He’d been pestering her for the last two years. Despite her rebukes, he’d continued hitting on her, once getting so aggressive she’d had to dislocate his shoulder to make her point clear. He hadn’t been nearly as forward since, but she wasn’t shocked to see him.
She studied the other three and thought she might recognize another of the Siberians. He seemed vaguely familiar. She encountered a lot of tigers during the course of her job, especially at the elders’ U.S. compound in West Virginia. As the seat of her people’s government here in the States, the compound saw a steady stream of tigers in and out for audiences with the elders or to deal with political and legal issues. She could have met him there at some point, but she couldn’t put a human face or a name to him.
The remaining two were strangers to her, so she made sure to memorize their unique scent-signatures. She held each of their gazes in turn, letting them see her anger, her irritation, her complete lack of fear. She let another soft growl fill the air.
The woods fell silent. The air went still and cold. Alexis matched the quiet of her surroundings—a dangerous predator waiting for her opponent to blink first.
Finally, Nick stepped forward and shifted. She kept her attention on the group as she waited for him to finish. The process took only a few minutes, which was a sign of a strong male. She made note, filing the fact away for use in the fight she knew was coming.
“Alex,” Nick said when he straightened to his full height.
He was over six feet tall with shaggy brown hair and dark blue eyes. He was muscular, a trained fighter, not a tiger to be taken lightly.
“Nick. You have some explaining to do.” As soon as she said the words, a silly part of her wanted to say the line again with a strong Cuban accent, an imitation of Desi Arnaz’s oft-repeated line in
I Love Lucy
, but she resisted the impulse. This wasn’t a moment for her odd humor.
“You know why we’re here,” Nick said.
“You know I don’t run.”
“You’ve had your little rebellion, Alex.”
She raised her brows at his condescension but didn’t comment otherwise.
“What makes you exempt from this rule of our people?” he asked. “There aren’t enough females for you to be allowed to forgo mating.”
“I. Never. Run.”
Despite her insistence, her hormones were high, her skin alive with sensation. Tingles of unfocused lust skittered along her nerves, sharper for her anger. The presence of so many ready males made things worse. She wasn’t a slave to her reproductive cycle, but it did make her
in a way that could be hard to control. The call to mate always left her edgy and irritable. Usually, she escaped the need by picking up a human man and taking him to bed for three days. But years of this got old, and all she wanted now was to wallow in her own territory, alone, until the desperation passed.
“No female is allowed to skip the Run,” Nick said, taking two steps closer to her porch. The tigers behind him shifted quietly, low grunts and growls greeting his comment. There was a bristling of fur, a slight adjusting of stance.
Alexis took in their positions and sizes, automatically preparing strategies, both defensive and offensive. The cool air brushed her skin as her senses heightened. She unfolded her arms and let them hang at her sides, loose and ready. Then she held Nick’s gaze as she repeated, very distinctly, “I don’t run.”
The tigers surged forward. Alexis braced for the attack, then sensed the sixth tiger, the one she’d lost track of, coming up on the left from behind her cabin. She cursed, half-turned to face the new threat, and the sixth tiger, a blur of orange, white and black stripes, leapt into the clearing between her and the others.
Everyone froze. Alexis blinked several times as she took in the fact that this newcomer was standing between her and the males. A moment later, she caught his scent.
Her heartbeat quickened. A combination of panic, shock, and need tightened like a band around her chest. The one man she was susceptible to, the only one she’d ever wanted…
What was he
here? Especially now, when the call to mate rode her so hard she could barely resist the urge to drag him inside. How could she focus, how could she fight the others with Victor such a powerful distraction?
She gritted her teeth and worked on slowing her pulse. She would question him later. Right now, she had to deal with the more immediate threat.
Nick, still in human form, stared at him. “Victor,” he said quietly. “This isn’t your fight. She has to run. The elders have said she’s no longer allowed to avoid her duty to her people.”
That was news to Alexis and enough of a shock to distract her from having Victor so near.