Tiger Magic, Excerpt 2
Shifters Unbound Book 5
Pub date JUNE 4!
Barnes and Noble
Continued from Excerpt 1
Tiger woke flat on his back, both wrists enclosed with the hated steel, hands bound to rods on either side of him.
He roared as he came awake, jerking the cuffs and chains, which wouldn’t break. They’d used metal thick enough to withstand a Shifter. He opened his eyes to find himself in a bed, surrounded by white curtains, white walls, machines, tubes, and soft sounds of beeping.
Panic wedged in his throat. The compound, experiments, pain, fear . . .
He roared again, frantically banging against the cuffs. He’d thought himself safe in the strange place called Shiftertown, but now they’d sent him back, had trapped him again. No. No. No!
The voice cut through Tiger’s panic, promising strength. A hard hand pressed his chest, and Tiger tried to rise against it, jerking at his restraints. He had to get out. He had to get out.
“I said, easy.”
Tiger stared up at the hard face and intense blue eyes of Liam Morrissey, leader of the Austin Shiftertown. Liam was a Feline, his wildcat smaller than Tiger’s, his human body smaller as well. Tiger could defeat him.
But the usually laid-back, unhurried Irishman locked his gaze with Tiger’s. He wore the hard resolve of a man who held together a band of Shifters of three species and protected them against all comers. His scent and look willed Tiger back down in the bed, and Tiger found his panic lessening.
When Tiger’s vision cleared a little, he saw three men in black uniforms standing like columns at the foot of his bed, their faces blank. They held automatic rifles, loosely, but Tiger knew they were willing to shoot to kill as soon as someone gave the order.
“You stay down, lad,” Liam said, his Irish tones laced with steel. “You understand me?”
Tiger dragged in a breath. The fear hadn’t left him, but he knew he had to obey Liam or the men in black would bring up the weapons and fill Tiger’s body with bullets, too many to withstand at once.
Tiger managed one nod. His fists stayed balled, but he stopped pulling at the chains.
Liam’s hand remained on Tiger’s chest. “Good lad. You need to stay still to heal. You stay still, and everything will be fine.”
“Carly,” Tiger whispered.
Liam leaned to the bed without lifting his hand from Tiger. “What?”
“Carly. Where is she?”
Liam shook his head. “I don’t know who that is, but you’ve been whispering her name. Someone from the lab?”
“She’s my mate.” Tiger could barely speak, his voice grating and strange, but it felt good to say the word. “My mate.”
Liam blinked slowly, once, but he didn’t let his body move. “You need to stop talking and rest now.”
Liam leaned closer, speaking so only Tiger would hear him. “Was she at this house you broke into? She get caught in the cross fire?”
“You have to give me a bit more to go on, lad.”
“Carly.” Tiger dimly remembered the name the gardener had used. “Randal.”
A machine above him clicked, and the meds or whatever they’d given him coursed through his body again. Darkness rushed at him.
Tiger tried to reach for Liam, but he couldn’t move his hands. He had to settle for pinning the alpha with his gaze, something Connor had told him never to do. “Find my mate,” Tiger rasped, and then nothing existed.
The red ’Vette’s door hung open, Carly’s foot out on the driveway. The rest of her remained behind the wheel, she staring at the blankness of the garage door as more tears slid down her face. The rearview mirror showed mascara smeared into black smudges under her eyes and streaks of it tracking her cheeks.
Carly had driven blindly around the city before ending up in front of her house, but she didn’t want to go inside right now to the silent, empty place. She didn’t want to be alone, but she didn’t want to call her mama or her sisters and tell them what had happened. Not yet. Her energetic sisters and mother weren’t home anyway—they’d gone to
for days of shopping and sampling every kind of tequila they could find. Carly
had decided to give the trip a miss so she could stay behind and help Armand.
If she called them, they’d exclaim in sympathy and anger and give her lots of
support. When that happened, she’d lose it completely.
She’d tried to go see Yvette, Armand’s wife. With Yvette, Carly could pour out her heart and find sympathy, but also sage, clear-eyed advice. Yvette knew the world, and she’d tell Carly what to do.
Except Yvette hadn’t been home. If Carly had stopped to think about it, she would have realized that. Yvette was at the gallery helping Armand, because Carly wasn’t there for the big exhibit opening. Armand was probably even now firing Carly.
And Carly didn’t care.
Nothing mattered right now. Not her sitting in her driveway in a car that wasn’t hers, not her mascara-blotched face, not the black lines that dropped from her cheeks to her pretty white dress.
She’d been so sure of Ethan, her future cut-and-dried. Ethan had been the antithesis of Carly’s father—her father had never held a job for long, gambled away money he did have, grew angry at Carly’s mother if she didn’t hand over most of what she earned to him. When her father had lived with them, Carly’s family had moved constantly, never able to stay in one house long. And then one day he’d gone. He’d vanished one afternoon when Carly was twelve, walking away from his wife and four daughters, leaving them with unpaid back rent and a mountain of bills—after withdrawing all the money they did have out of the bank account and taking it with him. He’d never come back, hadn’t wanted to see his daughters, had agreed to the divorce from afar, and had vanished from their lives.
Ethan represented stability, ambition, a man who wouldn’t lose everything on the next turn of a card or on a horse that had long odds to win, who wouldn’t leave a wife high and dry. Carly’s father had been quicksand—Ethan was a pillar.
But now that pillar had crumbled, plunging Carly into pain and uncertainty. Ethan hadn’t endangered her financially, but he’d betrayed her trust and had slapped respect in the face.
How long had he been screwing other women? From day one? Had Carly been so blinded by her need for Ethan’s stability that she hadn’t noticed?
And to have his betrayal thrown in her face in front of a helpful stranger, that hot-looking, weird-eyed . . . Shifter.
“Oh no.” Carly scraped tears from her eyes with an already sodden tissue. “The poor guy. I left him in Ethan’s house.”
She’d have to go back. This was Ethan’s frigging car anyway. Much as she wanted to run it off the road, or maybe push it into a deep, muddy creek, she had enough sense to know that Ethan would sue her for it. He liked to sue people.
Carly dragged her foot back into the car. Surely the Shifter-man with the multicolored hair would have left, caught a bus, called a friend.
But she thought of him and his slow stares, his not-quite understanding of what she was saying to him. She’d left him defenseless with Ethan, and Ethan didn’t like Shifters.
Carly started the car.
“Are you Carly?” a male voice said almost in her ear.
Carly bit back a scream. A dark-haired man peered in through the open driver’s-side window at her, regarding her with a pair of very blue eyes. Behind him stood another man, just as tall but without as much bulk, younger. A flash of black and silver showed above the T-shirt of the man staring at her, a Collar. He was Shifter.
“Is the tiger-man all right?” Carly asked him, wiping her eyes again. She had no way of knowing if this Shifter knew hers, but she was worried about him. “Did he get home?”
The Shifter blinked once in surprise, then he masked that surprise like a master. Carly had worked for a while now in the art business, which involved selling high-dollar goods. Those who bought and sold learned to school their faces and words in order to make the most profit or spend the least amount of money, but their body language could speak volumes. This man was telling her he knew all about body language but could manipulate it to serve his ends.
“I’m Sean,” the man said. “You need to come with us to the hospital. Tiger’s been asking for you.”
“Hospital?” Carly gasped. “What happened?”
“Tiger got himself shot, that’s what happened,” the Shifter said, his Irish accent becoming more pronounced. “Seven times, right in the gut.”
“Seven? Oh my God, is he all right? Where is he? I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Surprise flickered in the blue eyes again. “Why are you sorry? Did you shoot him, lass?” A tiny bit of anger also touched him, a flash that told her that this man would be dangerous when he was angry.
“He was hurt because of me, wasn’t he?” Carly cried. “Where is he?”
The passenger door opened, and the younger Shifter slid inside without asking permission. “Follow Sean. He’ll get us there.” The young man closed the door and touched the dash in wonder. “I’ve never been in a ’Vette before,” he said, his accent as Irish as the other man’s. “Wicked, this is.”
“Come on, lass,” Sean said and unfolded himself to walk to a motorcycle parked behind her. Though not as big as Tiger, Sean moved with ease that belied his strength, the balanced grace of a cat.
He started the motorcycle and waited for Carly to back out of the driveway before he started down the street in front of her. Carly’s hands shook a little, but her tears had dried. Concern for Tiger cut through anger at Ethan.
“I’m Connor, by the way,” the young man said as she started to follow Sean. “Still a cub, but getting there. You ever want to sell this car to me, we can negotiate.”
“It’s not mine,” Carly said.
“No? Whose, then? Think they’d be willing to sell? If not to a Shifter, I can find someone to be an in-between.”
There was nothing at all wrong with Connor, but Carly’s temper splintered. “It belongs to a two-timing, gutless, son-of-a-bitch-bastard-asshole, and I wish you’d steal the damn thing from him!”
Oh, that felt good! Carly laid her head back on the headrest, clutched the steering wheel as she floored it down a hill after the motorcycle, and let out a long, heartfelt scream.
“Whoa,” Connor said. “Take it easy, sweetie. Maybe I’d better drive.”
“No way,” Carly said. “He told me to take the ’Vette so I’d be out of the way when he did it with his bitch, and so I’m taking the ’Vette.”
She peeled around the corner after Sean, laughing as the car hugged the road and accelerated at the same time.
Connor’s eyes, blue like the other Shifter’s, rounded. “Are you saying your mate cheated on you?”
“He’s not my mate. No way, no how, never, ever. And that’s exactly what he did. Hang on.”
The road made a sharp turn, and Carly took it fast. The Corvette, made to race, slid around without a waver. “Woo!” She pounded the steering wheel. “I love this car. Way better at getting me excited than Ethan ever was.”
Connor laughed. “I like you, human woman.”
Carly’s anger flashed, sharp. “If Ethan hurt the tiger, I’ll kill him with my bare hands.”
“That’s the spirit,” Connor said. “Tiger will live. He’s tough. But he needs you, I’m thinking.”
“Did he tell you what happened to him?” Carly asked, her anxiety for Tiger cutting through her anger again. “How did you find me?”
“He’s not up to giving out much details,” Connor said. “But once we pried your name out of him, it didn’t take our Sean long to figure out where you lived. He’s a wizard with computers, is Sean.”
A Shifter computer geek. What a day.
Carly blew out her breath and made herself follow Sean the rest of the way without antics. She needed to get to Tiger and make sure he was all right. The fact that the huge, strong man had been shot, hurt, made her heart race and her mouth dry. He needed to be all right.
The small hospital outside the city limits to which Sean led Carly served a large portion of the population on the south and east side of town. Carly parked as close to the front door as she could. Connor got around the car faster than she could register and opened the door for her, helping her to her feet. Ethan had never done that.
Sean waited for them outside the front door, on his phone. “We’re coming. Just keep him quiet.”
Carly heard the exclamation on the other end before Sean closed the phone. He said nothing to Carly or Connor but strode in through the front doors ahead of them.
Inside it was as crowded as Carly would have guessed from the packed parking lot, with mothers and kids waiting to be seen, nurses hurrying through halls, and the admin desk serving a long line of people. The smell of antiseptic covered the odors of worry and illness.
Sean moved without stopping to a back corridor then continued down it and onto an elevator, pushing the button for the top floor. When they stepped off the elevator at the top, Carly heard the noise.
The roar began at the end of the corridor, a wash of sound that flowed to them past every room and the nurses’ station to the bank of elevators where Carly stood. The nurses’ station was deserted, but a knot of people clustered at the other end of the hall.
Sean said something under his breath as he picked up the pace, but Connor, behind Carly, didn’t keep his voice down.
“He’s going to get himself killed, he is.”
Sean kept walking, his broad back upright, moving swiftly. Carly jogged on her high heels to catch up.
The faces of the nurses and orderlies that turned to them were filled with fear. Three hard-faced men in black uniforms tried to intercept Sean, and another shout rose inside the room.
“You threatened him, didn’t you?” an Irish voice said. “Are you that stupid, then?”
The men looked like private soldiers or security guards in all-black fatigue-looking uniforms, but their hands and thick belts were empty. Carly saw why when she peeked around Sean into the hospital room.
The floor was littered with black detritus that Carly couldn’t place at first, but then she saw they were pieces of automatic rifles, radios, and other things too broken to identify.
The roaring came from inside the room, followed by a repeated clank of something metal. Sean blocked most of her view, but Carly could see enough to make out the giant bulk of Tiger, barely covered by a hospital gown, on his feet, one hand fisted. He was pulling, pulling, pulling at the metal bar on the bed to which he was chained.
Near him were two more Shifters, one with a shaved head and tattoos wherever Carly could see skin, the other a Sean look-alike.
The tattooed man deflected a blow from Tiger’s free fist in a practiced move. Enraged, Tiger struck out again, and the tattooed man blocked, twisting Tiger’s arm behind his back. A spark jumped in the Collar around the tattooed man’s neck.
“What in hell happened?” Sean demanded.
“Fucking guards happened,” the tattooed guy snarled. “Nurse wanted to change his IV, the three boy wonders stuck their guns into him to hold him down while she did it. He broke out of one cuff. Guess the rest.”
“Spike, let him go,” the one who looked like Sean said. “Tiger. Stop.”
The last word reverberated through the room. Everyone stilled—guards, Spike, Sean, Connor, the guards, nurses, and orderlies behind them.
All except Tiger. He kept banging, roaring, his eyes yellow with rage. The Collar on his neck was silent, no matter how much he struck out or tried to rip his wrist from its restraint.
That didn’t make sense. The Collars were supposed to shock the Shifters, Carly understood, if they ever got violent, to protect humans from their immense strength. The Collars went off in reaction to adrenaline and intent to harm, so she’s heard. If a Shifter wasn’t trying to hurt anyone, the Collar wouldn’t do anything. They were meant to keep the Shifters peaceful, not to punish them all the time.
Tiger’s Collar lay quietly, looking no different from Sean’s or Connor’s. That meant Tiger wasn’t angry or trying to kill anyone.
He was scared.
They’d chained him to the bed and prodded him with guns, and this after he’d been shot. No wonder he was going crazy.
Carly ducked under Sean’s arm and moved into the room.
“Lass, no,” Sean said sharply, but Carly didn’t stop.
Tiger yanked again at his bonds, and this time, the entire metal slat broke free from the bed. The slat danced at the end of the chain, Tiger still cuffed to it, as he swung around.
The Shifters near him leapt back. Tiger roared, a strange, animal-like sound in a human throat. Blood blossomed on the front of his gown as he hefted the bar like a weapon, crimson stains spreading. Shot seven times.
“Tiger!” Carly shouted into the noise.
Tiger’s roaring ceased as though someone had hit a switch. The rod and chain clanged with the bed slat once, then went silent.
Tiger shoved his way past Spike and the other Shifter without seeming to notice them and reached for Carly. Carly stood her ground as Tiger clasped her by the shoulders, the chain and bed slat bumping gently into her back. He looked down at her with eyes tight with pain, the yellow gold tinged with red.
“I’m here,” Carly said, touching one of his hands. “You okay?”
Her words and breath cut off when Tiger slammed his arms around her and pulled her against him. He buried his face in the curve of her neck and gathered her close.
“Carly.” As though gaining strength from the name, his arms tightened around her, his voice rasping. “Carly.”
“It’s all right.” Carly lightly smoothed his hair, finding it warm and soft. “I’m all right. But you’re not, are you?”
Tiger held her in silence, his face against her neck, breathing in long, shuddering breaths.
“We need to take him into custody,” she heard a man say behind her.
“No,” the Shifter who seemed to be in charge said firmly. “The man’s bleeding half to death. I had him settled. If you pull another weapon on him, it will be me breaking the guns.”
Carly tried to loosen Tiger’s hold, but he didn’t let go. “You need to let them patch you up,” she said to him. “Seven shots. Damn, Tiger, how are you still standing?”
“Shifters heal fast,” Connor said.
The head Shifter growled. “Connor, out.”
“He’s not going to hurt me,” Connor said. “I’m a cub, and a friend. He’s not going to hurt Carly either, obviously. It’s just trackers, Guardians, Shifter leaders, and dumb-ass security that upsets him.” He came up to the two in locked embrace. “You should see her car, Tiger. Classic Corvette. It’s way cool. Let them sew you back up, and maybe she’ll give you a ride home in it.”
Tiger turned his head on Carly’s shoulder to look at Connor. “I saw it. Helped her fix it.”
“Oh man,” Connor said in dismay. “You got to work on it? I have so much envy.”
“Tiger came to my rescue,” Carly said. “He performed a miracle.”
Tiger lifted his head, his eyes quieter now, and touched her face. “He hurt you.”
Carly shook her head. Ethan seemed unimportant at the moment. “He’s an asshole. What happened? How did you get shot, for heaven’s sake? I didn’t mean to run off and leave you. I’m so sorry. I was upset.”
Tiger cupped her face, rubbing his thumbs along her cheekbones. Not speaking, just gazing down into her eyes.
“Did Ethan shoot you?” Carly asked, her anger rising. She knew Ethan kept a gun, not because he shot for sport or anything, but because it made him feel superior to the rest of mankind.
“Doesn’t matter,” Tiger said.
It did matter. Carly’s rage surged like a tide to cover her hurt and grief. “I’m gonna kill him. He screws around on me, then he shoots my friend for trying to help me. Don’t worry, Tiger, by the time I and whatever lawyer I hire get finished with him, he’ll be happy he can scrape what’s left of himself off the sidewalk.”
Her warmth and strength flowed into Tiger like a bright light. He’d been buried in darkness and pain, the guards jabbing with the guns awakening memories he’d long wanted to bury.
They’d taken his mate, they’d promised to take care of her, and she’d died. When he’d demanded to see her, more and more frantic, they’d beaten him back and threatened to kill him.
The memories of the past had fused with the reality of now, and Tiger had known in his heart that Carly, his beautiful mate, was dead. Liam had lied, Sean had lied, the guards had lied. They’d taken her away, and she was dead . . .
Memories slid away. Tiger had Carly here, her scent like a bite of cinnamon, her face petal-soft under his fingertips. He leaned to her to inhale her again, exhaling to leave his mark on her. Mine.
“Tiger,” he heard Liam saying. Liam, the leader, the man he’d been told to obey.
Liam was a strong alpha, and the Shifters under his command felt the weight of his orders. Tiger had watched them all, even Liam’s father, become slightly lesser in Liam’s presence. Tiger was supposed to as well—if he obeyed Liam’s orders and showed fealty, he could live in this Shiftertown in peace. Any challenge, and Liam would have to take him down.
Liam hadn’t actually said all this specifically, but Tiger knew. Tiger knew everything Liam was thinking, because Liam’s body language, no matter how subtle, revealed every thought.
Carly’s body language showed only distress that Tiger was hurt. She didn’t give a rat’s ass about hierarchy, or who was alpha, or that she should bow her head and keep her gaze averted from Liam as a submissive must do.
Her entire focus was on Tiger, and Tiger alone. Everyone else was nonessential.
Carly’s warmth entered his body wherever hers touched his, and her breath on his face was like sweet summer air. Tiger’s pain lessened, and his breathing became easier.
The touch of a mate.
Carly moved in his embrace, trying to take a step back. Tiger wasn’t ready to let her go. He held tighter, but Carly wriggled, twisting her arm around to touch the slat that still dangled from his wrist.
“Can someone take this off him?”
Connor sprang forward, lifting the bar that hung like a lead weight. He chortled. “They made the cuff and chain to withstand Shifter strength, but not the bed. Good job.”
“Can you take it off?” Carly asked.
She was anxious, not afraid. The others wanted to bind him—Carly wanted to set him free.
“Get me a picklock, and I can open anything,” Connor said.
Spike, in silence, handed Connor a stiff piece of wire. Where he’d obtained it, or what it was for, Tiger didn’t know, but Connor grinned gleefully and started scraping at the handcuff. In a matter of seconds, the cuff loosened and fell from Tiger’s wrist.
“That’s got to feel better,” Carly said. “Now, let’s get you back into bed so the doctors can patch you up.”
More people filled the corridor outside. Tiger tasted their fear. They shouldn’t broadcast like that. A predator sensed a prey’s fear, the predator homing in on and taking out the weakest. Dangerous.
“If he can’t calm down, we need to chain him up again, ma’am,” one of the black-clad men said. He was the commander, the leader of his tiny band. He had a weather-beaten face, though he was still young, for a human, and scarred. He’d been in battles. The man had shorn off all but a blond stubble of hair, his eyes were a light blue, and he had an air of authority. Not as much as Liam or any Shifter, but for a human, he was strong.
“He’s calm,” Liam said. “See? Lass, if you can get him back to bed, and to stay still, we can fix him up in a trice.”
Tiger kept his arms around Carly. “I am healed.”
Carly ran her hand down the front of his torso. Tiger couldn’t stop his flinch of pain as she touched the raw wounds.
“Bullshit,” she said clearly. “You’re bleeding all over the place. Back to bed with you, mister.”
“Better step back from him,” the human leader said, his voice as hard as Liam’s. “He’s a danger to everyone in the facility and needs to be contained.”
Carly turned around, still within Tiger’s arms, to glare at the human. “What is with you? You need to leave him alone for two minutes. No wonder he’s so upset.”
She turned, sliding her arm around Tiger’s waist, and started guiding him to the bed. Tiger went without resisting. Now, if she’d get into the bed with him and snuggle up against his side, Tiger would be healed in no time. And he wouldn’t be afraid.
The other Shifters watched in awe as Tiger, calm and quiet, walked with Carly back to the bed. He’d stopped bleeding for now, but his gown was covered with blood, and blood stained the sheets.
He didn’t care. Tiger lowered himself onto the uncomfortable bed, then put his hand on Carly’s wrist and tugged her toward him.
Carly gave him a puzzled look, her gray green eyes red-rimmed with crying. Tiger tugged harder. Carly lost her balance and landed, sitting, on the bed next to him, her warm hip against his side.
She gave a little laugh. “They can’t work on you if I’m in the bed with you, silly. I’m flattered, but I’ll be in the way.”
“Need you,” Tiger said. He kept his voice soft, so only she would hear, but then, Shifters had good hearing.
“Let her go,” Liam said. “She’s done enough. Thank you, lass. I don’t know who you are, but you’re a bloody miracle worker.”
End of Excerpt 2
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