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About Leap of the Lion

The Wild Hunt Legacy: Book 4

Erotic paranormal ménage romance

There’s a reason why Cherise Sinclair is on my auto-buy list: she writes fantastic erotic romances with great stories and wonderful characters.

~ The Romance Reviews

She shifts for the first time on the day of her escape.

After a decade of captivity, Darcy MacCormac escapes the corrupt, clandestine organization called the Scythe, leaving family and friends behind. She must find a way to rescue them. Discovered by other shifters, the brand-new cougar gets two mentors. Blademage Gawain is an easy-going blacksmith with a steel-hard core. His brother Owen is a deadly warrior. Grumpy. Rude. And he doesn’t like her.

They aren’t the mates she’d dreamed of—they’re more.

Powerful, dominating Owen protects the clan—especially the weak—and the only remnant of an abused childhood is his avoidance of females. Now he has to mentor one? Although Gawain soon falls for the dauntless little cat, Owen knows better than to lose his head. But Darcy has a gift for repairing everything…including damaged hearts.

Love isn’t in her destiny.

In the brothers’ arms, Darcy finds safety. Comfort. And love. But however much she longs for a future with Owen and Gawain, her people need her. Somehow, she must find the courage and skills to save them, even if the attempt demands her life.

If you haven’t read a Cherise Sinclair book, you should certainly pick one up. Apparently, no matter the genre, you just can’t go wrong.

~ Dark Diva Reviews

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Leap of the Lion

The Wild Hunt Legacy 4

Cherise Sinclair

 

VanScoy Publishing Group

Leap of the Lion

Copyright © 2017 by Cherise Sinclair

Smashwords Edition

ISBN: 978-1-947219-02-1

Published by VanScoy Publishing Group

Cover Artist: Hot Damn Designs

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, locales, business establishments, or organizations is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. This copy is intended for the original purchaser of this eBook only. No part of this eBook may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any manner whatsoever without prior written permission from the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

Warning: This book contains sexually explicit scenes and adult language and may be considered offensive to some readers. This book is for sale to adults only, as defined by the laws of the country in which you made your purchase.

Disclaimer: Please do not try any new sexual practice, without the guidance of an experienced practitioner. Neither the publisher nor the author will be responsible for any loss, harm, injury, or death resulting from use of the information contained in this book.

Table of Contents

About the Book

Title Page

Copyright Page

Acknowledgments

Prologue

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

Chapter Thirty

Daonain Glossary

About Club Shadowlands

Excerpt from Club Shadowlands

Also from Cherise Sinclair

About Cherise Sinclair

Acknowledgments

Huge thanks go to my critique partners, Monette Michaels and Bianca Sommerland. Where would I be without you to keep my plots on the right trail?

A big squishy hug to Fiona Archer for enduring the worst year ever and still managing to perform a BFF’s handholding duties. Love you, girl.

To my beta readers, Lisa White, Marian Shulman, and Barb Jack, lots and lots of kittens. (The li’l pouncers are an expression of gratitude. Really.) Seriously, though, y’all are amazing. Thank you so, so much!

Prologue

Eight-year-old Owen Treharn closed the back door silently, heard his mother yelling, and froze. The kitchen was dark and empty. For once, he wasn’t the one in trouble. Although the sound of her anger hunched his shoulders, he crept toward the living room to see what was going on.

No one would hear him. Sneaking was a survival skill he’d mastered already.

He peeked around the corner.

Two of his littermates were in the room—Edwyn on the couch, Bonnie standing motionless in the corner.

Face dark red with rage, Mother shook a broken bowl at Bonnie. “I liked this bowl. That’s why it was on top of the refrigerator.”

“Bonnie wanted the candy out of it.” Edwyn gave her a taunting look.

Bonnie gasped. “I did not. You did. You climbed on a chair an’ knocked it off when you were grabbing the candy.”

Owen’s fingers dug into the doorframe. Bonnie wouldn’t steal candy. She never broke the rules. Even so, Mother would never believe Edwyn had busted the bowl. She thought Edwyn was perfect.

“How dare you blame Edwyn for something you did.” Mother slapped Bonnie across the face.

“No, Mother!” Bonnie screamed and cringed away.

No. No! Owen cringed, too. He glanced behind him at the back door and safety.

Bonnie was crying. Bonnie needed him.

Forcing his unwilling feet to move, he darted into the living room. Mother hit Bonnie again, and then he was there, between them. He shoved Bonnie toward the front door. “Run, Nee.”

“Demon-spawn.” His mother’s cruel name for him hurt almost as much as her hand hitting his face. Pain seared his face, and he turned, covering his head with his arms.

She didn’t stop.

Blow after blow struck his shoulders and back, burning through his skin, setting his world on fire. It hurt. Tears ran down his cheeks. Jaw clamped shut against the sobs, Owen bent his head and…endured.

A door slammed shut. Bonnie had escaped. She was safe.

Dodging the next blow, he tore for the kitchen, his mother on his heels. As he ran through the back doorway, she flung the broken bowl at him. It slammed into his hand, and blinded by tears, he fell down the back steps. His face ground into the dirt, scraping his chin and cheek. Ow, ow, ow. A sob broke out.

Mother stood on the steps. “You disgusting brat. Your sire was no good, and you’re no better, Demon-spawn.”

Gawain, his other littermate, was suddenly there. He yanked Owen to his feet. “C’mon, brawd.”

They ran for the forest.

Every footfall sent pain through Owen’s hand, and his eyes were so filled with tears, he kept tripping over branches.

Finally, Gawain slowed. “She gave up and went back to the house. Is here okay?”

“Yeah. It’s good.”

A sprite, wakened by their noise, chittered at them before popping back in her hole.

Gulping back sobs, Owen crumpled down into the soft debris on the forest floor. With his good hand, he wiped the tears away, wincing at the sore spots on his face. He was too old to be crying. But his hand, shoulders, and face hurt. The names she called him hurt, too. Why did she hate him so much? She loved Edwyn. Most of the time, she liked Gawain and Bonnie. But she’d always hated Owen.

With a tired grunt, Gawain dropped onto the ground, his face was streaked with sweat and dirt, his blue eyes worried. “What made her so mad this time?”

“Edwyn told her Bonnie broke the candy bowl.”

“Bonnie? She wouldn’t take Mother’s candy. He lied.” Gawain was smart that way. He understood people better than Owen did.

“Yeah. He lied.”

“Is Bonnie okay?” Gawain’s eyes narrowed. “You let Mother beat on you instead, didn’t you?”

Owen’s shrug made his shoulders hurt worse. “Why does she hate me so much?”

“Dunno.” Gawain sighed. “Maybe she’d love us if we looked like her. She loves Edwyn.”

Edwyn and Mother had skin the color of milk, and their hair was as light as the pearl necklace Mother always wore.

Owen’s thick, straight hair was as dark as the tree trunks around them. Where his arms weren’t bruised purple, his skin was reddish-brown. And his eyes were the color of the evergreens.

Gawain had blue eyes, hair a lighter brown than Owen’s, and his skin was golden with freckles.

Bonnie’s eyes were brown, but her hair was as yellow as the sun.

Owen scowled. “Other littermates don’t look much alike, and their mothers love them.” He wasn’t saying it right—he wasn’t good with words—but Gawain would understand. Gawain always understood him.

“I know. Mother’s different. Maybe she only wanted one cub.”

Owen closed his eyes. “Maybe.” If she had to love only one, she should have picked Gawain or Bonnie. Edwyn was a liar and a cheat—and even if Owen loved him, he didn’t really like Edwyn much. The sneaky weasel didn’t deserve their mother’s love.

And Owen didn’t deserve her hate…did he? What had he done to make her scream at him and hurt him all the time? “She sure didn’t want me.”

“I think it’s ’cause of your sire,” Gawain said.

“Did he make her mad, so she hates me instead?”

“That’s what Great-Aunt Sandy says.” Face streaked with tears, Bonnie stepped into the clearing and sat down next to Owen. “I’m sorry Mother hit you.”

“Better me than you.” Owen tried to smile even though his swollen cheek pulled painfully. “What did Great-Aunt say?”

“She told the grocer lady how your daddy was one of the males Mother mated with during a Gathering, and later, she wanted to be his mate, but he didn’t like her much. Only she kept bothering him until he made fun of her…and then he mated a really pretty female, and Mother got so mad she moved away to here in Pine Knoll.”

Gawain chewed on a finger. “Being made fun of would make her really mad.”

“Yeah.” And Mother could stay mad a really long time. His stomach dropped lower in his belly. If she hated his father, she’d never like him, either. She’d keep hating him and hitting him.

Owen blinked back more tears. He was only a little cub. He couldn’t hit her back. It wasn’t fair.

But life wasn’t fair, was it? He looked at his purpling swollen hand and felt the burning pain in his shoulders. No, life wasn’t fair.

Bonnie leaned her head on his shoulder. “Great-Aunt Sandy says she’s taking me away from here. From Mother. But I don’t want to leave you and Gawain.”

“Leaving?” Gawain gulped, swiped his sleeve over his eyes. “That-that’s good. It’ll be safer.”

Lose Bonnie? Owen felt his own eyes burn. Cubs were often fostered other places, but only when they were older. Not at eight years old. He turned to tell Bonnie to beg them to let her stay—and saw the red welt on her face from Mother’s hand.

Owen couldn’t keep her safe. Not yet.

“Yeah, you should go.”

Determination straightened his spine. He’d get bigger and older, and when he did, he’d take care of all the cubs and people who couldn’t hit back.

Chapter One

Only humans would take two beautiful three-story brick manors and turn them into houses of horror.

Toolbox in hand, Darcy MacCormac stood on the front steps and looked across the grounds of…hell…or whatever this place should be called. Her friend Barbara who liked the old language called it a prìosan. A prison.

If run by the government, the place would be termed a detention camp. But their captors, the Scythe, weren’t with the government. Much to the contrary. Their mission was to manipulate the governments of the world. Holding hostages was one of their favorite techniques.

H Hall on the west held human hostages from all over the world. They’d been kidnapped to ensure their influential family members complied with anything the Scythe demanded.

Z Hall, which the guards called the Zoo, held the female shifters from Darcy’s village. They were also hostages, not to keep CEOs and politicians in line, but for their fellow shifters.

Darcy walked down the front steps.

Encircling the entire property, ten feet tall, thick stone walls muffled the noise of Seattle and blocked any view of outside. Her shoulders rounded against the claustrophobic feeling.

It could be worse, though, couldn’t it? When the shifters first arrived, they’d been confined underground in animal cages. The adults, then babies had sickened and died before the Scythe realized the fatal effect of confinement and proximity to metal. Finally, they’d let the surviving children out of the basement, given them outside tasks, and housed them on the third floor of Z Hall. There they’d been imprisoned for over a decade.

Each year, each day, she felt more trapped.

Each year, each day, she grew weaker.

Stop. This was where she was—and no one escaped the Scythe. She pulled in a slow breath. The scent of cut grass hung heavy in the humid air, mingling with the briny breeze off Puget Sound and the overripe smell of late September apples that had fallen into the brambles. The years of captivity had taught her to ignore the stench of gasoline, metal, and other putrid odors from the surrounding city.

A cry of pain came from the right.

Hand to her cheek, twelve-year-old Alice, the youngest shifter, cringed from a uniform-clad guard. Long blonde hair pulled back, the youngster wore the Scythe-assigned garb of white T-shirt and cheap cotton pants.

Palms sweaty, Darcy headed that way, moving quickly without looking as if she hurried. “Can I be of assistance, sir?”

After so many years, maintaining a polite tone was habitual, despite feeling as if she was strangling down her shouts. Interrupting an abusive guard was never safe, but sometimes…sometimes she could redirect their anger from a cubling and toward her instead.

With a relieved look, the girl spoke to Darcy. “Manager said I can’t have supper unless all the grass is cut. The mower was working, but I had to stop it to clear the blades, and now it won’t start. Can you fix it?”

The guard grabbed Alice’s shoulder and gave her a brutal shake. “You don’t talk with other dirty beasts. Shut your mouth.”

The girl’s eyes went glassy with tears.

Darcy clasped her hands in front of her waist in an appearance of servitude…and to keep from belting the guard. Once, only once, had she hit a guard, trying to save a friend from a caning. Both she and Margery had been beaten into the ground with fists and boots and canes, thrown in separate cells, and left for days. Darcy’s intervention had turned a common caning into an unspeakable nightmare.

No hitting. No shouting. Humbly, she looked at the guard and bowed her head to keep him from seeing the hatred in her eyes. “I could look at the motor if you wish. Sir.”

After a second, the guard snorted. “Fix it, freak, or I’ll take it out on your hide.”

She kept her gaze lowered until he’d stalked away. Her mum would have called him a stupid, sprite-brained boggart. Being imprisoned had taught Darcy other terms—the fucking, dickhead asshole.

A sigh escaped her.

“You can fix anything,” Alice whispered, trust glowing in her big blue eyes.

“Most mechanical things, yes.” Not the important things, like illness, heartbreak, and imprisonment. She couldn’t fix the slow wearing away of her life force. All the older captives from their village were weakening. Barbara had collapsed yesterday and been taken away.

Had she been taken to the ghastly research labs in Z Hall’s basement? Despair filled Darcy. The Mother keep you, my friend. Because there was nothing anyone could do.

Do what you can, tinker, for the little one here, instead. Pulling her gaze away, she reached in her pocket and pulled out a wrapped piece of cake she’d snitched when fixing the dishwasher.

A quick look around showed no one was watching. “Here, munch on this while I work.”

The girl’s eyes grew wide, and she turned so no one would see her stuff the treat in her mouth. Shifters received only enough food to stay healthy—never sweets. The cake had been baked for the staff.

Alice’s eyes filled with tears. A treat. And kindness. Both were unknown in this place.

After patting the cub’s shoulder, Darcy knelt beside the mower. It had gas, and the gas wasn’t old. The air filter was clean enough. The spark plug—ah-hah—was wet. During the summer season, Darcy’d learned to keep extras in her toolbox. After replacing the plug, she gave the pull rope a firm yank.

The mower sputtered, and she adjusted the throttle for a healthy roar.

Alice hooted in glee and threw her arms around Darcy. The hug was bittersweet. The child should have been preparing for her first shift, should have been running in the mountains with her littermates. Should have been home. But their Daonain village was blackened rubble.

Although the Scythe’s human hostages might eventually be freed, the shifter females would never be released. They’d slowly weaken and die in this grim institution, surrounded by stone walls, far from the forest.

Across the grounds on the west, the human hostages worked in their garden. Shifter females were restricted to the east side, human hostages to the west. Darcy, however, was allowed everywhere. She’d worked hard to become an indispensable handyman. She was always polite. Always obedient.

They thought her thoroughly cowed. Of course, it helped that the Scythe avoided bringing in outside repairmen.

There were other visitors though. Even now, a car pulled up to the closed wrought-iron gate. Darcy watched as a uniformed guard walked out of the discreetly placed guardhouse and spoke to the driver.

At Z Hall, Director hurried down the manor steps to greet the arrival.

So the guest was important and obviously approved since the car hadn’t been shot into little pieces.

With a little smile for Alice, Darcy continued on her way. In front of the manor, she neared the first of the three semi-sunken guard posts that created hillocks in the front lawn. Anyone at the entrance would see only a dark slit behind which was a camouflaged machine gun “pillbox”.

During her brothers’ visit last week, Patrin had eyed the gun embrasures and said the interlocking fields of fire created a killing field. Anyone coming in the front gate to free the hostages would be easily slaughtered.

A narrow stairwell led down to the concrete box’s rear door, and Darcy hurried past, then turned left between the two manor houses toward the rear of the property. The equipment building and generator shed stood near the back orchard. The last of the apples lay rotting, since no one could get to them. The orchard trees circled the inside perimeter of the stone wall, and a thirty-foot mass of blackberries and huckleberries had been allowed to grow wild around them. The thorny tangle created an effective barrier to escape or rescue. The only way in and out of the property was through the front gate.

Maybe.

She glanced to the west at a walnut tree near the side wall. The fruit trees were shorter, their top branches skinny, but the full-sized walnut had wide, strong limbs. If a super-coordinated male came in over the wall, he could possibly jump to the walnut. Over the years, she’d visually picked the sturdiest tree branches above the ocean of thorny brambles. So this imaginary male could…maybe…leap from branch to branch, around the perimeter of the wall, and eventually reach the apple tree that grew closest to the lawn. Even she could make the leap from the grass into that tree.

Next time she saw Fell and Patrin, she’d point out the zigzag route.

It was a shame she didn’t have the skills to use the route. Then again, she couldn’t. If the Scythe didn’t have her as hostage to keep her brothers in line, they’d kill Fell and Patrin.

Focus on today, tinker. Don’t think about what can’t be.

After doing routine maintenance and running the emergency generator, she went into the equipment building to work on the chainsaw. Gathering oil, lubricants, and sharpeners, she set the chainsaw on the table and started to work.

She’d barely finished sharpening the chain when a foul scent came through the door. Darcy tensed and glanced over her shoulder.

Huber. The human who’d raped Fenella. Hatred roared up within her.

Sneering, the guard swaggered into the building and pulled his cane. “Slacking off again? Lazy cunt.” The blow sliced across her shoulders, her cheap cotton shirt providing no cushion.

The long line of pain flared. Gritting her teeth, she didn’t move.

Huber’s smile was ugly with pleasure—and frustration. “The Director might let you run around like a real person, but we all know you’re just an animal. A freak. One of these days you’ll fuck up, and then I’ll deal with you.”

She didn’t answer. His open lust nauseated her, but he wasn’t allowed to do more than beat her.

A decade ago, after he’d molested Fenella, the girl’s male littermates visited, went berserk with rage, and killed human after human before being shot down. With the loss of the littermate bonds, Fenella turned feral and attacked the Director himself. Unwilling to risk losing more shifter-soldiers, sex with shifter females was prohibited.

And this human male salved his thwarted lust with violence instead.

When he drew back for another swing, Darcy dodged and ran outside where those in the gardens, including the other guards, could see her. As a handyman, she was useful enough the Director wouldn’t want her incapacitated.

Huber knew it. With an annoyed sound, he followed her. “Fucking unnatural freaks.” Backhanding her to her knees, he attached the cane to his weapons belt and sauntered past her to continue his rounds.

The desire to tear at him with claws was a furious drumming in her blood. Her fingers curled…uselessly. She had no claws.

Had never shifted.

She couldn’t trawsfur to animal form; none of the females could. The sense of loss drained away her anger.

When captured, she’d been twelve years old, wondering what animal she would be when she first shifted. She didn’t know what her father had been, but she’d hoped to be a cougar like her mother.

She had daydreamed of running the forest trails with a beloved lifemate on each side, dancing in the moonlit meadows, and playing tag the tail. She’d live in a big house with her mates, all sleeping in a pile in a huge bed. And she’d someday swell with their cublings. She’d known she would be cherished and protected and in turn, would give her mates all the love in her heart and soul.

But her dreams of a sunlit forest trail had turned to an ugly concrete road. One she would travel alone.

Even if she were free, even if she could shift, she would never lifemate. Love required trust. The starry-eyed cub had matured into a scarred, realistic survivor.

The only person she could count on in life was herself.

Lights were out, and each female’s cell door was locked. In her tiny space, Darcy sweated as she completed another set of squats. From watching the guards’ daily sparring sessions, she’d learned how to exercise, how to fight, and the very best curse words. From working on equipment around the human hostages, she’d learned current slang.

Her legs trembled as her muscles failed on the last squat—one less than she’d completed last week. Each week she lost more strength.

Why did she keep trying? The other females had given up hope.

But, as her mum had often said, Darcy was a tomfool tinker—and she never gave up.

Using the jackknife she kept hidden in her sock, she manipulated the old-fashioned window lock until it clicked open. Thanks to frequent waxing, her third-floor window slid up silently.

The security lights had come on at dusk, flooding the wide front lawn. Thank the Mother, she had a room in the rear where the spot lighting illuminated only the sidewalks and patches of the perimeter fence. The ivy-covered manor walls lay in darkness.

After shoving the jackknife back in her sock, she looked up. Black clouds covered the almost full moon.

What nice sneaking weather you have, tinker.

Carefully, she climbed onto the narrow ledge and gripped one of the vines covering the aged brick walls. After a forceful tug to check if the ivy would hold her weight, she swung out and curled her legs around the sturdy trunk. Vine by vine, she worked her way along the wall before moving downward to the second floor. The staff apartments.

She passed the library window and hesitated. Book lust caught her every time. But no, she’d already “borrowed” every book in there at least once. And it was too dark to read now anyway. Summer was the best season when the days were long enough to read far into the evening.

But it was fall, and she had snooping to do. She climbed to the window outside Director’s lounge.

Soundlessly, she balanced on the ledge and peered in.

In the sitting area, Director sat across from the visitor. An older, rotund, balding human, Director was in charge of the entire prìosan.

Darcy didn’t know Director’s real name. High status Scythe used simply their titles or ranks.

Reminding her of an ugly vulture, the visitor had a shaved head, sharp nose, and dead eyes. From the flurry of activity after he arrived, he was what the human girls called a big shot.

Perhaps the big shot had interesting news. Taking her…liberated…stetho­scope from around her neck, Darcy pressed the bell to the glass and heard light conversation about politics and the weather. No problem. She’d wait…as patient as any cat at a mouse hole. A very cold, shivering cat.

Years ago, she’d risked much to steal black leggings and a black, long-sleeved T-shirt from the staff laundry room. Unfortunately, frequent contact with the rough brick walls had mangled the fabric, leaving holes for the frigid night air that blew off Puget Sound.

This high up, Darcy could see the faint glimmer of the Olympic Mountains, and her body hungered to be free of the enclosing walls. If she could only trawsfur and run the forests on four legs.

But, even if she could escape, she was stuck in human form. She’d hoped to be a cat shifter like Mum, but whatever the Scythe had done to her and the other captured females, none of them could trawsfur to animal form.

The bitter loss of that ability was…what it was. Perhaps having a cat shifter mother was the reason she enjoyed sneaking around. Of course, mountain lions ruled the forest and wouldn’t be caught dead in a city. She was more like a cowardly rat. That hurt.

Louder voices brought her attention back. The humans had finally reached the reason for the visit. Keeping her grip on one vine, she listened to Director.

“That’s right, Colonel. We don’t know why Barbara died.”

Died? Darcy froze, her chest tight with grief. A few months older than Darcy, Barbara had just turned twenty-four and was—had been—the oldest of the survivors. Tears prickled in Darcy’s eyes. Barbara had been her one real friend in here.

Eleven years before, Darcy had been carrying moving boxes into their new Dogwood home and hating Mum for making them move. She’d felt so lost.

Hi. I’m Barbara.” The slender blonde had walked right up to Darcy. “I’m so glad you’re my age. There aren’t enough female cubs here. We’re going to be friends, you know.” And they had been.

As a drizzling rain began, Darcy bowed her head. Even the heavens should mourn when someone so special passed on.

Tapping the table with a finger, Director continued to talk. “For some reason, the creature wasted away, year by year. Nothing halted the progression, even though the doctor could find nothing wrong.”

The colonel frowned. “Was this wasting similar to how the Dogwood adults died?”

“Exactly. However, Barbara’s death took years. The adults were gone within a few months.”

Darcy’s jaw tightened. Mum had died in a cage. All the grownups had, one by one. Only the children between one and twelve had survived.

“How about the other females?”

“The older ones are weakening and growing thinner.”

And they were giving up. I won’t. I can’t. As the rain soaked her clothes and ran down her face, Darcy shivered in the growing chill.

Director scratched his round chin. “You knew Barbara had died almost before I did. How?”

“Her cougar siblings tried to escape.” The colonel’s smile was grim. “None of them ever tried before—not since we made that demonstration video years ago. It proved most effective.”

“That video.” Director’s mouth twisted. “Although they’re beasts, the girls still look human, and effective or not, the way that child was tortured…”

Darcy snarled silently. These humans were the true beasts.

“They’re abominations. We can’t show weakness. Now each shifter-soldier knows that if he doesn’t obey, we’ll skin his sister. The threat is what keeps them in line.”

A grumbling sound came from Director. “It’s a useless threat without a hostage.”

“True enough—and the cougar brothers somehow knew their sister had died. Next time a hostage is near death, tell us so we can dispose of her siblings first.”

Dispose. If—when—Darcy died, these humans would dispose of her brothers. Would kill Fell and Patrin. Her hand on the stethoscope shook as she remembered her littermates as children. Blue-eyed, brown-haired, light-skinned Fell, all lanky and tall. Patrin with black hair and dark eyes like hers and a wicked sense of humor.

Now, her beloved brothers were hard-eyed, bitter soldiers. Shifter-soldiers. Yet, the over-protective Daonain males were vulnerable when it came to their loved ones. That was why Mum had told her to watch out for Fell and Patrin.

But how? How, Mum? As she turned her attention back to the conversation, a rumble of thunder drowned the two humans out.

Director refilled the glasses. “Did Barbara’s brothers get away?”

“No. Although their disposal was a bit tricky.” The colonel made an annoyed sound. “The GPS devices pinpointed them, but they’d entered the forest. Even with tracking devices, it’s almost impossible to catch the mutant beasts there.”

Director gave a short laugh. “Well, that is one reason the shifters are useful. How did you catch them?”

“We didn’t try.” The colonel sipped his drink. “They’d entered a box canyon. We set the trees on fire and shot the cougars when the heat forced them into the open.”

Tears burned Darcy’s eyes. She’d played with Barbara and her littermates in Dogwood. The boys had been sweet and funny and always telling jokes.

“Hell of a waste,” Director said. “Don’t the idiots know you can track them? The female freaks here are fairly clever.”

“Oh, they know. They sliced their biceps open to remove the trackers.”

Feeling sick, Darcy ran her hand over her rain-wet upper arm and felt the round nodule. The foreign thing in her own body. How often had she wanted to cut it out?

“Then how did you locate them?”

“They’ve never learned that each shifter has two location devices.” The colonel’s smile was cruel. “The smaller is implanted deep in a thigh muscle. The animal would have to know it was there to palpate it and remove it.”

What? Two? Dear Mother of All, she needed to tell the others.

Barbara had only been the first. All the females were failing in health…were dying. With a female’s death, the bond between littermates would break as it had between Barbara and her brothers.

Darcy bit her lip. When she died, Fell and Patrin would know she was gone. They must be able to flee and not be tracked.

“Two devices. Nice.” Director smiled slowly. “Such a shame you had to waste the cougar pair.”

“Annoying, too.” No grief showed in the colonel’s dead eyes. “I had to give their mission to the MacCormac brothers and their team.”

“Where’s the mission?”

“Russia.”

Darcy felt like wailing. Her brothers…so far away.

“Really. What’s going on?” Director asked. Over the years, she’d learned he loved being in the know about the Scythe undertakings.

“Since our new US president is starting negotiations on commerce, the MacCormac team will create “incidents” to show how unpopular the US is with the populace. When the Secretary of State visits, it’ll appear Russia has turned hostile. Then our nervous president and Congress will agree when we push for increased military spending.”

Both men chuckled.

As the buzz of their conversation and clinking of glasses was drowned out by thunder, Darcy growled. Over the years at this window, she’d heard the Scythe big shots boast of manipulating everyone from presidents to helpless shifters. The organization steadily grew more powerful, the members richer.

The urge to break the window and tear them to pieces made her hands shake.

“I hope the MacCormac wolves make it back. In the past few years, we’ve lost too many of the creatures.” The colonel poured the last of the alcohol into his glass. “I’d hoped we could manage to breed them or locate more.”

Director frowned. “Are we searching for more?”

The rain increased to a downpour, making it difficult to hear. Darcy pressed closer to the glass, keeping the stethoscope on it.

“We haven’t spotted others, and searching takes manpower since they blend into their surroundings so well. However, if we lose this batch, we need to find replacements. If there are any. For all we know, that village had all the mutants.” The colonel pulled something out of his jacket pocket. “By the way, I brought you back something from Cuba. You mentioned you have a fondness for a good cigar.”

“Fantastic.” Smiling, Director shoved to his feet. “Smoking is discouraged in the building. Just let me open the window.”

He headed straight for the window where Darcy was perched.

Oh no. She shoved the stethoscope behind the vines and dove off the window ledge into the ivy. And her grip slipped from a rain-slick vine.

Falling.

Desperately, she raked through the foliage for another hold. Caught one. The smaller vine tore loose from the wall. The next one did, too.

She dropped several feet—and a thicker trunk scraped her fingers. She caught it and jolted to a stop, gasping for air. Rain pattered around her on the leaves.

Shouting came from above her. Director had poked his head out the window and spotted her. “Guards!” he bellowed. “Guards. A freak is loose! On the house wall!”

Heart hammering, she half-swung, half-fell to the ground. A strident alarm blared over and over.

Guards charged out of their quarters in Z Hall and into the rainy dark.

Panting, Darcy dove into the narrow gap between the building’s wall and the four-foot privet hedge. She crouched there, trying to think. Her skin was clammy with fear, her mouth dry.

Have to move. The lava rock mulch around the bushes crunched as she crawled along the side toward the back. She reached the rear and turned the corner. The jagged lava rocks ripped her leggings—then her knees.

Thunder echoed off the stone fence and brick walls as she wiggled into a hollow under a big bush.

What now?

Turn herself in? They’d suspect she’d heard about the GPS devices. But if they killed her while Fell and Patrin were in Russia on that mission, her brothers would break free. The Scythe couldn’t risk that. No, the bastards would take her alive and cage her in the basement where she couldn’t tell anyone about the second tracker.

She stared up at the third floor windows where the other shifters were. They needed to know what she’d discovered. Over her head, window after window came alight. The staff must be checking and securing the rooms.

A guard rounded the corner, and Darcy tried to press herself lower.

She couldn’t get back to her floor.

More guards moved around the lawn.

If she stayed, she’d be caught.

She had to try to break free. No choice. Even if Fell and Patrin were overseas, maybe she could find their forest compound and warn the other shifter-soldiers about the trackers.

How could she escape?

She could climb over the front gate easily enough, but the entire front was flooded with light. When the guards spotted her, the machine guns would spray the entire area with bullets.

Forget the front. How about the back?

Darcy studied the grounds. In the heavy downpour, the floodlights on the rear lawn were reduced to smaller circles of light, leaving pools of darkness between. It was the only way.

After smearing mud on her face and hands, she crawled out. Every time a guard looked her way, she froze. When she, Fell, and Patrin had played wolves-and-rabbit as cubs, they’d learned black-on-black disappeared and movement would be spotted.

She gained another few feet.

Terror shook her arms, and surely even human ears could hear her heart slamming against her ribcage.

Her hand came down on a thorny blackberry vine, and she barely suppressed a cry of pain—and victory. She’d reached the thorny hedge that circled the inside of the stone wall. Crouching, she crept along the edge of the bramble-filled orchard and stopped.

There was the apple tree that stood closest to the lawn.

As she straightened, a pair of guards trotted along the back sidewalk, flashing their lights.

No! She flattened herself on the ground in the shadows, presenting no silhouette, nothing to catch their attention. Fear clogged her throat as she waited for their shout of discovery.

They walked on.

Now. Do it now. Oh, Mother of All, she didn’t know how to leap into trees; she only knew how to do slow, careful creeping.

Now, tinker.

She ran along the edge of the blackberry thicket, building up speed, and leaped. Her hands slapped against the low branch of the apple tree—and slipped. Terrified, she convulsively swung one leg up and over—and caught herself.

Gods, Gods, Gods. Heart hammering, she clambered onto the branch. The foliage was shaking, so she waited, trembling all over.

No one had noticed.

Next. She had the route mapped out in her head. But jumping in the dark?

No choice.

Suppressing her whimpers, she jumped to the next tree. In the dark and wet and cold. Oh Gods. To the next. And the next. Branch by branch, she worked her way to the walnut tree.

Her panicked breathing hurt her chest as she slowly climbed the walnut. There was the branch that extended toward the top of the wall. But…from this angle, she could see the distance was too great. Tears filled her eyes. She couldn’t jump that far. She couldn’t.

No choice.

Balancing carefully, she walked out on the branch. It sagged ominously, and a wave of fear shook her. She was tired. Weak.

And out of options. The Mother and the God held no sway in human cities, but she sent them a prayer anyway. And leaped.

Failed.

She landed belly down on the edge of the wall, knocked her breath out, and she slid downward. Frantically, she stretched her arms across the wall, trying to claw a hold into the rough stone and concrete.

Her fingernails caught. Her motion stopped.

Gasping for air, she clung with all her might. Ever so carefully, she swung her leg up over the edge and, inch-by-inch, wiggled onto the wall.

The streetlights revealed a grassy patch down below. She jumped—and landed on her feet. Maybe she would have been a cat shifter like Mum.

But…ow. Her ankles felt as if she’d crunched all the bones together.

Ignoring the pain, she broke into a run, darted across the wide avenue, and sprinted down the Seattle streets, turning left and right at random. Blindly running…always heading roughly east toward the Cascade Mountain Range where her village had been.

The guards wouldn’t dream she’d escaped the grounds. Not for a while. They’d search the compound for at least an hour or two, and surely delay admitting to the higher-ups she’d gotten out. But the higher-ups would call in the people who did the tracking.

If she had the GPS devices in her body, they’d find her. So that was her next step. Go somewhere quiet and use the knife in her sock.

Being caught was more terrifying than cutting herself open.

Mostly.

They didn’t find her for a whole twenty-four hours.

Chapter Two

At midnight the next night, Darcy limped down an empty street. A sock was knotted around the wound in her upper arm. She’d torn off her long shirtsleeves and wrapped them around the multiple slashes in her right thigh. The tracker in her leg had been horribly deep, and she’d had to cut and cut through far too much muscle to extract it.

For a second, she stopped to lean against a building, catch her breath—and try to find some hope.

Stupid human city.

She was so lost. Her goal of head east toward the mountains had sounded easy enough. From eavesdropping on the guards, she possessed a hazy idea of Seattle’s layout. Her knowledge hadn’t been nearly detailed enough. Last night, she’d had to detour around a huge construction area with chain-link fencing. Then a big river had blocked her way with one—only one—bridge in sight. She’d wasted time trying to find a less obvious one and had finally given up and crossed. To her relief, the Scythe hadn’t been at the other end. So far, so good.

For hours, she’d been walking, angling south and east, through an industrial district, over an enormous huge highway, and finally back into residential neighborhoods. Horrible city. Why would anyone choose to live in an area bounded by concrete boxes and streets and stinking of gasoline?

Block after block after block. Eventually, she’d have to detour around some giant lake in the middle of the city…if she ever reached that point.

At the next intersection, the hair on her nape rose. She was being watched. A casual glance to the left showed nothing. To the right…

Parked at the curb, a black van with tinted windows waited. The disturbed air at the exhaust pipe showed the engine was running.

She turned to head the other direction and glanced behind her.

Another dark van rolled slowly down the street.

No, no, no. Her mouth went dry; her pulse roared in her head. How had they found her so quickly?

The bridge. The Scythe must have had spotters, cameras, or something.

Despair was a metallic taste in her mouth. She broke into a run, knowing her flight spotlighted her as surely as if she’d screamed look at me.

She sprinted down the sidewalk, turned into a one-way street, and lost the car behind her. Speeding through a barren stretch of smaller apartment dwellings, she spotted another Scythe vehicle.

Run faster.

The car’s engine revved as she darted around another corner. Reaching the next intersection, she started to veer right…and scented green. Trees. Forest. Water. Within one breath, her body took over, yanking her left and straight for the wilderness. A wilderness in the center of a city. How could this be?

She ran past the signs at the entrance—Seward Park—and angled into the shadows beside the road.

The vans followed her in. Their tires screeched as they stopped. Men erupted from the vehicles, shouting orders.

Sharp popping sounds came from behind her. The road ahead sparked and spat concrete at her. Bullets—they were shooting at her. Trying to bring her down.

A slicing pain burned into her already damaged right leg, and her knee buckled. She fell, rolled, and tried to scramble to her feet. Her leg failed.

Terror consumed her, complete and utter panic, and she keened with protest. Using one leg and her hands, she lunged forward, unable to stop, unable to surrender.

As she blundered out of the shadows, the light of the waxing moon poured down over her, spotlighting her to her enemies. The need for shelter, for escape, filled her until nothing was left.

Oh, please.

Then she was running. Running. She bolted into the underbrush, through the huckleberries, and far into the fir forest where the darkness was impenetrable. She tripped on something, realized it was her shirt, and bit at the offending fabric until it shredded under her teeth. Her shoes were gone. Her leggings had split and hung off one paw.

Paw? She had paws. And a tail. And—

The yelling behind her grew closer.

On three legs, she fled, fear digging its claws into her fur as she ran and ran and ran.

Chapter Three

The sun was well up when Owen Treharn left the diner on Cold Creek’s Main Street. He stopped for a moment to stretch and try to shake off the ugly emotions rasping over his skin. Last night had been the full moon when shifters gathered to ensure the Daonain race would continue. From moonrise to moonset, he’d mated female after female. He didn’t even know how many.

He shook his head. Who would have thought he’d ever tire of full moon Gatherings?

Admittedly, sex was enjoyable, sure, but wasn’t there supposed to be more? And dealing with females? Fuck, he’d rather fight a hellhound.

The hours of mating hadn’t helped his wrist either. Grimacing, he rotated his left wrist. Felt as if a beaver was gnawing on it with dull teeth.

He snorted. He’d always been willing to die for his people, and when the God had called him to serve as a cahir—a warrior of the Daonain—he’d been overjoyed. Funny how in the stirring bard tales of glorious sacrifice, the aftermath of battle and the irritating injuries went unmentioned.

At least the pain had eased up. And the busted bones had been for a good cause, since his attack had kept a hellhound from ripping Ben’s arm off. His big grizzly partner had managed to break free, but the hellhound fractured Owen’s wrist in the process.

The North Cascades healer, Donal, had closed the gory bites, but busted bones didn’t fuse together quickly. It’d taken him two days at a slow human’s walk to get to his remote cabin. Yesterday, he’d returned to Cold Creek in cat form, but the bones weren’t quite healed, and mating all night hadn’t helped.

Fuck, he was tired. Despite two cups of coffee, he felt as if his tail was dragging in the dust.

With a grunt, he scratched his stubbled jaw. He needed to shave. Feeling hair on his face reminded him too much of adolescence when he’d claw himself by accident, belatedly realizing he’d unexpectedly trawsfurred into a cougar. Damn embarrassing. His brother, Gawain, who’d rarely trawsfurred by accident, would merely grin in sympathy. His other littermate, Edwyn, had gloated, even though his control had been even worse.

Edwyn. Owen’s mood ran downhill like an avalanche of mud. Spoiled rotten, Edwyn had been an entitled, unlikable brat. If denied something, he’d go after it anyway, no matter how much damage he caused.

But, by the God, he shouldn’t have died. First, one female had ruined him from birth, and another had sent him to his death.

Owen shook his head and turned his thoughts from his past. Gathering night’s enforced intimacies always left him feeling as if someone had skinned him and hung his carcass from a tree. This morning, his mood was as mean as a half-starved badger’s.

He needed to go home to his isolated cabin. But…Gawain had been at the Gathering last night, and it’d be good to spend some time with him. Maybe. If he could figure out what to talk about, since it seemed as if Gawain had inherited all the conversational skills.

But damn, it was nice to see his brother again. Maybe he could just sit and let Gawain talk?

They’d both changed in the last…what…twenty-five years since they’d separated? When Owen had walked away from Pine Knoll at sixteen, Gawain had been apprenticed to a metalsmith. Pride swelled in Owen’s chest because, somewhere along the line, his littermate had been called by the Goddess to be a blademage—a magical blacksmith.

Every cahir who had access to a blademage wore a magicked blade, because there were no finer knives in the world.

“Look, look!”

“Unca Wen!”

At the sound of his nephews’ high voices, Owen stopped, and love swept through him. Smiling, he went down on one knee and braced. One tiny body hit him, then another, like the patter of acorns in a high wind. “What are you two doing in town?”

Luke bounced on his tiptoes. “We get b’ekfast at the diner. Da said Mommy is sweepy.”

“Sleepy,” their father Brady corrected with a grin. The male’s eyes were half-lidded with both exhaustion and satisfaction. Owen figured the three lifemates had spent all night mating.

“An’ Da Van is sweepy, too,” Tyler said.

Owen smothered a laugh. As he rubbed his cheek over Tyler’s soft hair, he noticed a human leaving Angie’s diner with a donut box.

Bonnie had always loved chocolate donuts. His sister was an amazing female, not manipulative or self-centered—nothing like their mother. He’d never regretted moving here to be closer to her, and she’d given the Daonain two fantastic cubs. She deserved all the treats in the world. “Luke, Tyler, I saw chocolate-covered donuts in the diner. Why don’t you buy some for you…and your mama?”

The screams of glee made him wince. Angie might nip his ears off if the tiny terrors disturbed her customers. “Cubs,” he said sternly. “You have to be quiet as little mice to earn donuts. Can you do that?”

Vigorous nods.

Brady clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Thanks, cahir. You heading back to your cabin today?”

“Probably. Tell my sister I’ll stop by when I return for dark of the moon.”

Brady nodded, although his mouth flattened at the reminder of the dangers during moonless nights. Because of the human encroachment, more hellhounds hunted the North Cascades Territory. As a cahir, Owen stood between danger and his people.

Cahirs often died young. And yet—Owen ruffled Tyler’s hair—was there anything more important than protecting the cubs?

With a nod to Brady, Owen rose and headed toward the wilderness lodge where he’d stayed yesterday. By now, the innkeeper Breanne would be serving breakfast.

A few minutes later, as he approached the lodge, he spotted a tiny pixie perched in a huge fuchsia bush, nibbling on a bloom. Not a sprite’s favorite food, but summer’s bounty was decreasing. Even the miniature roses in the porch planters were done flowering. But… He plucked a rose hip and tossed it over.

The pixie caught the marble-sized hip, examined it, and chittered happily.

This kind of female he could tolerate. Open and honest. No manipulation. When given a treat, a sprite openly exhibited her delight. A shame Daonain females weren’t the same.

Inside, the tantalizing scent of bacon drew him through the main lodge to a glass-walled dining room in the rear. Three shifter females at a window table were already chowing down.

Ignoring them, Owen walked into the kitchen.

“Hey, Owen.” At the sink, Zeb, a fellow cahir, acknowledged his presence in a gravelly voice. Somewhere over the past centuries, a Native American human had joined the bloodline of the mostly Celtic shifters. Zeb had black hair, dark brown eyes, and his bronzed skin showed a wealth of scars, many from hellhounds’ teeth and claws.

Shay, another cahir and Zeb’s blood brother, nodded a greeting. Called by the God to serve, cahirs were gifted with additional strength and size, usually ending up around six and a half feet tall. The three of them made even the huge kitchen feel crowded.

And they dwarfed Zeb and Shay’s pretty lifemate who stood at the stove.

Breanne smiled over. “I was beginning to think I’d have to send Shay to find you.”

“It’d take a hellhound to make me miss one of your breakfasts.” Owen returned her smile. Bree was a likable female. The rough time she’d had when first coming to Cold Creek had revealed unexpected courage and generosity of spirit. Although being lifemated to one female seemed a form of insanity, he had to admit his friends had been lucky to win Bree for their mate. “Gotta say, having one of your breakfasts after a Gathering makes coming into Cold Creek truly worthwhile.”

The way she brightened made her almost radiant, and Shay grinned. “Pretty compliments get your plate loaded to the edges.”

“Challenge accepted.” Owen took the cup of coffee Zeb poured and leaned against a counter.

“Calum wanted a word before you left,” Shay said. “He should be here soon.”

“Food, first?” Owen gave the bacon-filled skillet an assessing look.

Breanne laughed. “Yes. Go have a seat, and Shay will bring it out in about five minutes.”

Owen’s stomach rumbled a complaint at the delay.

With a snort, Zeb tossed him a muffin from a pile on the counter. “Start on that.”

Owen went out to the sunny dining room and paused.

The three other lodgers were still there, doing that giggling thing females did. High and shrill, the sounds reminded him of his mother whenever a lover had visited. His jaw locked. On one occasion, he had accidentally spilled his drink on a male’s shoes and discovered how quickly giggles could turn to shrieks of rage. And pain…

Bah. What the crap was wrong with him? For years, he’d managed to keep Pine Knoll out of his mind. Was Gawain’s presence dredging up these ugly memories?

Selecting a corner table far from the females, Owen turned his back and put his feet up on the windowsill. Nibbling on the muffin, he gazed out the window at the huge flagstone patio. The small playground Zeb had built was empty of cubs. On the far right, Zeb’s latest project, a built-in seat wall, curved around what would eventually be a circular fire pit. Down the grassy slope was a gurgling creek where silvery undines swam in a flashing game of tag beneath the footbridge. Past the creek, the dense forest sloped upward into the mountains.

The sound of footsteps caught his attention, and he glanced over his shoulder.

Carrying a cup of coffee, Gawain strolled into the room. It was still a surprise to see him as an adult, but grown up he was. Only a couple of inches short of Owen’s six-five, he had a full, neatly trimmed beard and wavy, light brown hair that reached surprisingly broad, muscular shoulders. Spotting Owen, he lifted his eyebrows in a silent question. Up for company?

Owen suppressed a grin as he shoved a chair out with his foot. Whereas Owen had the manners of a tactless dwarf, Gawain could be as courteous as their high Fae ancestors were reputed to have been.

Yeah, he’d missed his littermate over the years.

As Gawain crossed the room, the giggling from the corner began again. If Owen’d been in animal form, his ears would have gone back. He shouldn’t be surprised the females had set their sights on Gawain since blademages were called by the Mother in the same way cahirs were called by the God. Females always pursued the God-chosen…whether they liked the male or not.

Owen studied his littermate. He and his siblings had been conceived during a full moon Gathering, which meant they had different fathers, appearances, and personalities. With light brown hair and fair skin, Gawain looked and acted like a sociable, easygoing Scottish laird. Owen’s father probably had Latino blood—and perhaps the sociability of a wolverine, although Owen might have developed that trait all on his own.

As Gawain took a seat, Owen eyed him. “Maybe you should sit somewhere else.”

“What?”

“With a cahir and a blademage at one table, how long before a female approaches to see if we want to fuck, even though the Gathering is over?”

Gawain shook his head. “You’ve grown rather cynical, brawd.”

“Maybe.” Owen’s mouth tightened. Maybe he’d been more optimistic at birth—before their mother showed her hatred. Or before Edwyn’s death when Owen had left with Bonnie and not returned. “Cynicism grows with experience.”

Gawain took a sip of his coffee and glanced at the covey of females. “I don’t mind being pursued. And Cold Creek’s females are impressive.”

“Nah, the females resemble those in other territories.” Unmated males were urged to sow their seed in more than one territory, and Owen had done his share of traveling.

“In appearance, yes. But your Cosantir draws a high percentage of shifters with intelligence, flexibility, and acceptance into his territory.”

Huh. “I try not to talk with the females I mate,” Owen muttered. “But Calum is an unusual Cosantir.”

“You try not to…” Gawain stared at him and shook his head. “Brawd, you worry me.”

A scream of laughter sliced through their conversation as the females’ voices rose.

“The healer adores big breasts.” The buxom brunette cupped her breasts and bounced them. “Just think. He’s got a nice house and money. I’d be set for life.”

“Poor Donal,” Owen muttered. “The predators are circling him like hawks after a chicken.”

“I’d rather have one of the cahirs.” The blonde fluffed her hair.

“Fat chance,” the brunette told her. “The only unmated cahir left is that brown-haired one who never talks. He might be all right if he had a lot of money, but…”

“Owen’s nice.” The youngest bounced in her seat. “He liked me. I know it.”

The brunette sniffed. “I doubt it. That cahir doesn’t…” Her voice trailed off as she obviously remembered he was in the room.

When the females turned to look, Owen curled his lip in a snarl. “I’ll let the males in town know you three are out for money and a house—and that, in my opinion, they might as well fuck a human.”

They were shocked silent at the coarse insult.

He scowled at the youngest female, a slender redhead he’d mated with last night. “And I don’t like you; I don’t like any female. Unfortunately, I have no choice but to fuck you vultures one night of every month.”

The younger one burst into tears and fled…followed by the other two.

“By the Goddess, Owen.” Gawain shoved to his feet. “What is wrong with you?”

Guilt made Owen growl as he stood. “Did you hear them? Donal deserves better. Fuck, even I deserve better.”

“You made that little female cry.” Gawain grabbed his arm and yanked him forward. “You can’t—”

“Back off, brawd.” Owen slammed his palm against his brother’s chest.

Gawain staggered back, knocked over a chair, and regained his balance. “You mindless moose.” Head down, he charged Owen, his head impacting Owen’s sternum. Painfully. A table and chairs crashed under their weight.

As Owen broke free and nailed Gawain in the jaw, Shay shouted from across the room. “By the God, stop!”

Not a chance. Adrenaline crooned a battle song in Owen’s ears. He hadn’t had a good fight—a fun fight—with anyone in years. A grin pulled at his mouth—until Gawain’s fist wiped it away.

Scat on the trail. When had his brother learned to punch?

Blinking away the swirling stars, Owen spat, “Flabby feline, that the best you can do?” Readying an attack, he spotted a tall, dark-haired, olive-skinned, leanly muscular man at the kitchen door.


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