Sunday, March 09, 2014

Feral Heat--Excerpt 4

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Feral Heat by Jennifer Ashley

Chapter Two (continued)

“Shit.” 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 alive.

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 caresses.

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. Now!

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. “Stop!”

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 we can 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.”

“Only if you 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 . . .

Deni moved her body so both she and Sean shielded Jace from the cops who stopped closest to them.

The police had halted in uncertainty, but they kept their weapons trained on the Shifters, tranq guns at the ready. The two cops in charge, a man and a woman, pushed their way through the circles of Shifters until they reached Dylan in the center.

“Tell me what the hell is going on here,” the man said, his pistol trained on Dylan.

Dylan gave him a cold look. “A Shifter religious ceremony.” His words came clearly, and the Shifters stopping chanting and fell silent. “What does it look like?”

“What kind of religious ceremony?” the male cop asked, not impressed. “Explain it to me.”

“It’s private.” Dylan’s voice held an edge.

“Keep it together, Dad,” Sean whispered next to Deni. His gaze was on Dylan, as though he could will his father to stay calm.

“I can arrest everyone,” the cop said to Dylan. “And question each and every one of you. I have the manpower and the time. Or I can arrest you by yourself, Morrissey. Your choice.”

Connor spoke up, his voice shrill and sounding a few years younger than he was. “It’s a memorial ceremony. For my dad.”

A few of the cops moved uneasily, but most of them went more rigid.

“Who’s your dad?” the male cop asked.

Dylan answered, “Kenny Morrissey. My son. He died twelve years ago. We’re remembering him tonight.”

“Remembering him how?”

Dylan shrugged, keeping his voice steady. “Prayers, the circle dance. We usually burn photos or other mementoes.” He gestured at the flames in the trashcan next to them. “Kenny was well liked, and his brother is now the Shiftertown leader. Everyone wanted to come.”

“What about fights?” the cop asked. “Bouts between humans and Shifters?”

Dylan scowled. “I don’t know what shit people have been telling you, but Shifter religious ceremonies are peaceful.” That was absolute truth. “No violence in any of them.”

“Not what I heard,” the cop said. “Cuff him,” he told the female cop beside him.

Connor started forward in anguish but both Dylan and Glory stepped in his way. “It’s all right, lad,” Dylan said. He gave the two cops a nod. “You don’t have to cuff me. I’m happy to come with you and explain everything. I bet someone told you a bunch of Shifters had gathered here, and it made your higher-ups nervous.”

“Something like that,” the cop said, his tone still sharp.

The woman moved forward with the cuffs. Dylan gave her a resigned look and held out his hands. “If I come with you, the others go home.”

“You don’t have a choice,” the male cop said. “But, sure, the others can go home. In fact, they need to go, now. My officers will escort them out. If I like what you say downtown, then they can stay home.”

Sean released Deni’s hand. “I’d better go with them,” he said in a low voice. “Dad can scare the shite out of people just by looking at them. I’m more diplomatic.” He said it without boasting. “Ronan,” he called. “Make sure Connor and Glory get home all right.”

“You got it, Sean,” Ronan said.

“Ride with me,” Jace whispered to Deni as Sean walked away and the Shifters and humans began to disperse. The cops started herding everyone out to the parking lot, Shifters growling and rumbling in annoyance, but not arguing, their human friends walking along quietly.

“I came with Ronan and Elizabeth,” Deni said nervously. She knew Jace had ridden in on a motorcycle—she’d heard it when he’d pulled up.

“I need to pretend I didn’t come alone. Ronan and Elizabeth will understand.”

Deni knew Jace was trying to make himself look as though he belonged in this Shiftertown. If he went off with Deni, as though part of the community, he might escape scrutiny. But that meant Deni would have to climb onto the back of a motorcycle.

“What happened to you?” another cop asked before Deni could answer Jace.

Deni stopped short, but the man wasn’t talking to her. He was looking behind them, at Ronan, his tranq rifle pointed at the big man.

Ronan did look bad, his arms cut and bruised, one eye swollen. He’d skimmed on clothes while the cops were closing in, and Elizabeth now had her arm firmly around him. “I’m a bouncer,” Ronan said. “At a bar. Humans like to throw punches at me.” He shrugged. “I let them.”

The cop gave him a look of suspicion, but he didn’t pursue it. Instead he stepped in front of Jace and gave him a belligerent scowl. “What about you? You let humans take punches at you too?”

Jace’s face, neck, and torso, bared by his open jacket, bore bruises from his fight with Broderick. Deni realized something she hadn’t earlier—a few of the marks on Jace’s neck were from her fingers, some from her teeth. She flushed.

Jace gave the cop a lazy smile without lifting his head all the way. He draped his arm around Deni and pressed a kiss to her hair. “Religious ceremonies can be boring,” he said, his voice slightly slurred. “Found something better to do for a while.”

The cop got a knowing look, and Deni blushed harder. Well, Jace wasn’t lying. What they’d done in the darkness had been swift, hot, and glorious, not boring at all.

“Yeah, well, keep it at home,” the cop said.

“Love to.” Jace kept up his careless slouch, leaning on Deni, his arm around her.

The cop, fortunately, left them alone, looking around for others to harass.

“You’ll have to drive,” Jace said when they reached the bike. Deni thought she recognized it as belonging to Liam, who must have lent it to Jace. “I acted a little drunk so he’d leave us alone, but if he’s watching, I don’t want to give him an excuse to stop me for DUI.” He gave her a grin and dangled the keys in front of her. “So tonight you’re my designated driver.”

*** *** ***

Stay tuned for more . . .

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(Copyright 2014 by Jennifer Ashley)

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