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Dark Captive


Stolen from her mother when she was still a tiny cub, the snow leopard Asha has spent her entire life in captivity, being traded from one owner to another through an illegal trafficking ring. But Asha also feels trapped in a much more profound way: as a Chanku with no access to the Tibetan grasses that would allow her to shift, she’s confined to her animal form, yearning for a part of herself she’s forever unable to reach. Until a merciful savior sets her free . . . and Leo Cheval comes into her life.


When word of Asha’s rescue from the animal trafficking ring reaches the Chanku, Leo is sent in to help her recover and bring her into the pack. As a leopard shifter himself, he’s uniquely qualified to connect with her and assess her trauma. What he never anticipated was the overwhelming chemistry their meeting would spark and the deep sensual need she would stir in him.


But even as Leo’s touch guides her body to feelings she never imagined, his deeply ingrained controlling streak threatens to crush the very desire he has awakened. And as their passion grows and a deep bond forms between them, Leo and Asha realize that only by submitting to her can he save them both.

Copyright

Dark Captive

Kate Douglas

Copyright © 2018 by Kate Douglas

Cover design by Dar Albert, Wicked Smart Designs

Published by Beyond the Page at Smashwords


Beyond the Page Books

are published by

Beyond the Page Publishing

www.beyondthepagepub.com


ISBN: 978-1-946069-64-1


All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this book. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented without the express written permission of both the copyright holder and the publisher.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.


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Dedication


This book, coming out over a year after my last Spirit Wild release, is dedicated to my readers—you know who you are, the ones who continue to ask me where the next book is and why it’s taking so long! Thank you for caring enough about my Chanku to keep bugging me to get my butt in gear. Sometimes life gets in the way, and this past year it has set up more roadblocks than usual, but you have no idea how much I appreciate each and every one of you for keeping me on track.

Contents


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Works by Kate Douglas

About the Author

Chapter 1


Tuesday, June 19, 2040

A small Hindu temple in rural New York State


Asha had been pacing the tight space for hours now, and she’d lost track of the days since he’d locked her in this small building, a temple, actually. A temple built to honor the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.

What other goddess would he worship? Asshole. He thought money was everything, but he was a fool. Unfortunately, the fool was gone and probably free as a bird, while she was trapped here with nothing but a selfish brass goddess to keep her company. He’d kept her on the edge of starvation for much too long—so long, in fact, that in many ways her body had adapted to the lack of sustenance. She lived, but she had no reserves. Nothing left at all.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Right. That and a good meal would do the trick.

The only water had been in a small decorative fountain near the altar. She drank the last of that yesterday. Or maybe the day before. It was hard to remember, but what was the point? No food, no water. No way out. She’d tried the door, but her huge paws slipped on the plain round knob. The windows were leaded glass, beautiful designs, actually, but much too thick to break. She’d tried throwing her body against the one she could reach.

Her head and shoulder still hurt.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Asha knew she was meant for better things. Her mother had promised that one day she would be free. Free to grow and learn, to walk among human men and women without fear. That dream had kept her going for as long as it could.

Now? Not so much.

Sorry, Mama. I don’t think that’s going to happen. Memories of her mother’s beautiful face were clearer today. Krasivaya Zhenshchina. That’s what they called her—Beautiful lady. Even the words were beautiful in Russian. Maybe Mama was calling her. She sighed, hanging her head low. So hard to stand, but she couldn’t, wouldn’t give up. I’m not ready yet, Mama. I love you, but please. Just a few more years? A chance?

Raising her head, she glared at the statue. It stared back with dead eyes. She made another pass in front of the altar, but her vision grew fuzzy around the edges. She swayed in one place; then her back legs gave out. If she could have, she would have wept, but what good would tears do? It was too late for tears, too late to beg. Just too fucking late for anything. She tried to stand, failed. And tried again. The last time used what little strength she had left. With a soft cry, she gave in to the thirst, to the hunger. To the weakness. There was nothing left. But damn it all, she wasn’t supposed to die like this. There were too many left to save, and for them alone she had to live. If she died now, that regret would haunt her into the afterlife, and she didn’t want that particular sin staining her soul.

On the other hand, it was almost fitting that she fall before this particular goddess. The goddess of wealth. What a selfish bitch. Asha remembered her mother talking of another goddess, one who watched over them, except that goddess had somehow lost them. All of them.

Would she see her mother when she died? Asha wondered if there was anything at all after that final breath. She lay on the cold stone floor, her eyes on the goddess.

Except she wasn’t really a goddess, merely a statue made of brass. But Lakshmi was the goddess filling Asha’s vision as the world finally went dark.


• • •


Wednesday, June 20

A large manor in rural New York State


“Are you sure we’ve got all of them? Damn it, boss, I don’t want to miss anyone.”

The game warden shook his head. “I don’t know, Juan. I keep thinking I’ve missed something. I’ll take another look around before we go.” A flash of light caught his attention. “Did you see that?” He pointed to a light, or maybe just a reflection, flickering through the lush landscaping on a small hill behind the huge house. The wind gusted again and the dancing foliage teased him with another glimpse of brilliant light. “It’s probably nothing, but I better take a look. Don’t want to leave anyone behind in this hellhole.” Cursing softly, he took off across the beautiful grounds, past the oversized horse trailer that was filled with animal cages holding recently loaded rescues. It was the only vehicle they had that was big enough to carry the poor beasts.

Devil only knew what the bastard they’d arrested last week had planned to do with his personal zoo, but the warden and his crew had already rescued a couple of adult African lions and two cubs, a pair of rare Burmese tigers, three cheetahs and two beautiful endangered jaguars stolen from the Brazilian rain forest, all of them hungry and badly dehydrated.

They’d had to wait too damned long before they’d gotten warrants to open the outbuildings. They were looking for drugs—no one had expected to find starving predators stashed away in inhumanely small cages. After a couple days of food and plenty of water, the beasts were finally stabilized, and a wild animal sanctuary in Colorado had agreed to take them. One of the sanctuary’s benefactors was sending a large jet helicopter to get them moved as quickly and comfortably as possible. It was due to land within the hour.

Cursing quietly, the warden stalked across the vast expanse of perfectly manicured lawn. He got a better glimpse—it appeared to be sunlight reflecting off a small building. With luck it would be empty, but he had to check. He hiked the last few steps up the hillside. Definitely a small building of some sort; the stone steps leading up to the door were worn, the entire structure suffused with the patina of age. The door had inlays of brightly polished brass—the source of the reflection that first caught his attention. He turned the handle, surprised when the door swung open on smooth, silent hinges.

“Aw, shit.” He paused in the doorway and his shoulders sagged. How the hell had they missed this? Light poured in through a stained glass ceiling, shimmering brilliantly on the big cat—a huge snow leopard if he guessed correctly—that lay stretched across the floor in front of a small altar. His first thought was that it had been a sacrifice, but there was no blood. He’d never seen a snow leopard this big, though its ribs protruded and the hip bones jutted out at sharp angles.

Obviously the animal had been starved a lot longer than three days. As he got closer, he saw that it was a female. Squatting down beside her, he touched her body with one hand, while with the other he pinched the bridge of his nose, fighting tears that burned the back of his eyes, threatened to fall.

Seeing what had to have once been a beautiful beast in this kind of condition was an abomination.

She’d been a gorgeous animal, but now? Emaciated, she looked sunken and brittle in death. Stroking her, he splayed his fingers through her fur, felt warm skin. Heart racing, he ran his hands over her body, slid his fingers through her ragged coat—unlike the others, she’d obviously been starved long enough for it to affect the quality of her fur. What should have been lush and thick felt thin and unhealthy. Gently, he swept his hand along her side, resting just above the place where her heart should be.

“What the . . . ?” Pressing his hand to her chest, he held perfectly still and waited. Then he felt it—a weak, unsteady beat. Grabbing the radio off his belt, he shouted into it, “Juan! Get up here. Looks like a little temple on the back side of the estate. Bring the ATV with that last large animal cage and the IV kit. We’ve got another live one, a big cat, but she’s in bad shape. Hurry.”


• • •


Thursday, June 21

Colorado High Mountain Predator Sanctuary


Seth Mitchell, large animal veterinarian and director of the Colorado High Mountain Predator Sanctuary, met the chopper early Thursday morning. Considering their treatment during captivity and the length of time it had taken to find them, the animals were in remarkably good shape. He had quarantine pens prepared for them, safe places with plenty of open space where they could stay until they’d had all their vaccinations and were acclimated to their new home.

The snow leopard, though . . . She was unconscious, still on the IV drip to combat dehydration. Her breathing was shallow, heart rate too low, body emaciated. He thought briefly of euthanizing her, but the game warden’s impassioned pleas held him back. The man had called him twice already, begging him to do his best to save her. While his staff members got the others settled, Seth wheeled the cart with the leopard’s cage into the infirmary. She was completely out, so he managed to get a tube inserted through her nostril and into her esophagus without anesthetic. She was barely clinging to life and he couldn’t risk depressing her system any further, but she needed more than the saline solution she’d been getting. He replaced the IV bag with a new one. Then he carefully squeezed a high-calorie, easily digestible mix into the feeding tube.

Once he got enough nutrition into her, Seth placed her on a soft pallet in a comfortably sized indoor kennel. She felt like a bag of brittle bones in his arms, and if she’d been healthy, there’d be no way he could lift an animal of her size. She had no body fat, nothing to cushion her bones from the hard floor, but the large heated pad would keep her warm and comfortable while the fluids and nourishment helped her heal. It was the best he could do, but he had to agree with the warden—there was something about her. Something special, and with any luck and whatever skills he possessed, he’d bring her through this.


• • •


Chanku Headquarters, near Glacier National Park, Montana


Leo Cheval was headed back to his cabin when he felt the pack alpha’s mental greeting. Anton Cheval was more than merely his alpha—they shared the surname Anton had given Leo’s dad when Anton helped Oliver gain his U.S. citizenship so many years ago. To Leo, he was both surrogate father as well as a man Leo loved and respected.

Leo? I need to talk to you. Can you meet me in the Pentagon around four this afternoon?

That was unexpected, being called to the Pentagon. Anton’s five-sided den/bar/office was designed like a pentagram to make it easier for their goddess to appear on the earthly plane. It was also where Anton kept his cognac. The alpha’s brand was a lot higher quality—and price—than Leo allowed himself, but an invite almost always entailed a glass. Sure, Anton. I’ll be there. Any files I need to bring with me?

No. That’s not necessary. I’ll see you at four.

Leo didn’t think he’d ever get used to the way Anton did that—just popped in and out of a man’s head as if he were standing in the next room. He tried to think of why his alpha might want to see him, but it was hard to say. As one of the rights attorneys for Chanku Global Industries, Leo stayed pretty busy keeping track of their patents and various research, but there wasn’t anything on a hot burner at the moment.

Well, other than getting laid. Since Janine had broken up with him, he’d been making do with his own hand, never a satisfactory release for creatures ruled by their libidos. He’d shifted and gone for a run with the pack last night, figured he’d pair up with one of his friends, but when they’d all split up after the hunt, he’d ended up alone. First time that had ever happened. It had been pretty awkward, that they’d obviously decided as a group to openly shun one of their own.

Unfortunately, Leo had been the one. As a pack animal, he’d quickly learned that shunning was physically painful.

He still had about an hour before he needed to meet up with Anton, so he left his clothes at his cabin and shifted. He really didn’t have anywhere he wanted to go, and eventually ended up down by the pond, not too far from Anton and Keisha’s house. He thought about Janine, about his convoluted feelings after she’d told him to get lost. He’d been pissed, but not brokenhearted. She’d gotten pretty bossy over the past few weeks, and it wasn’t working for him anymore anyway, but after they split, she’d tied up with Ari, one of the twin Berserkers that had recently joined the pack.

Ari didn’t seem to mind having Janine tell him what to do, but then he and his twin brother had only shifted for the first time a couple weeks ago. They’d been born as wolves and lived their lives as wolves until their first shift. Maybe that’s what made their relationship work. Maybe Ari needed a female to boss him around because he was so new at working with the human side of himself.

Leo’s mom and dad were happily married. His father ran things and his mom pretty much did whatever Oliver wanted. She didn’t seem to mind a bit when he took charge. Leo knew a lot of the females in the pack took their alpha roles a lot more seriously, but his mom was pretty cool. That whole alpha female thing just seemed wrong. Men were stronger, more assertive. It was only natural they be the ones to make important decisions. His dad had taught him that since he was just a kid.

Maybe that was Janine’s problem, the reason she got so pissed when he took the lead. Was that being controlling, or was he just doing what he was supposed to as the male in the relationship? He didn’t know why it was such a big mystery to him. Maybe Anton could give him some pointers, because he sure as hell wasn’t getting it right on his own.

And that whole being shunned by the pack thing had hurt. A lot.


• • •


Anton poured himself a glass of cognac, but instead of staying behind the bar, he took a seat by the big picture window with a view of the sharp peaks of the Rocky Mountains. It was unusual to have the house so empty, but Keisha had gone to town with Xandi, Stefan was outside working on one of his old trucks, and Leo wasn’t due for another twenty minutes or so.

Anton wasn’t sure how receptive Leo was going to be to what he had to say, but the kid wasn’t getting the message from his parents, and the complaints from the young women in the pack were pretty consistent. He sipped his cognac and grinned. Unfortunately, Leo was so much like his father that the poor kid hadn’t stood a chance. And as much as Anton loved Oliver, there were times he wanted to take him and shake some sense into the man. Hopefully, Leo was a little more open-minded than his father.

Anton? Are you busy?

He stood and gazed toward the empty doorway. Keisha! I didn’t expect you home so soon.

I ran into a friend and he followed me home.

Another of your strays? He loved the way her laughter wrapped around him when they spoke this way.

Of course. A very special stray. Are you in the Pentagon?

I am.

We’ll be there in a minute.

Barely a minute later he sensed his mate’s presence and knew the moment Keisha pulled the car into the parking area behind the house. He also recognized the man in the vehicle behind her. Smiling, he lined up a couple of glasses on the bar and pulled out the ever-present bottle of Hennessy. Then he planted his hands on the slick granite surface, doing his best not to look impatient as he waited.

Keisha’s laughter always made his heart beat faster. She’d only been gone a few hours, but he’d missed her something fierce. Unable to wait, he quickly walked around the end of the bar and met his mate as she stepped into his domain. Gently tugging her close, he kissed her, amazed as always how their passion never seemed to fade, how their love grew by the day, even now, after so many years.

Soft laughter brought him back, and smiling, he held out his hand to greet FBI agent Remington Caruthers. “I didn’t expect you back so soon. It’s good to see you, Rem. Business or pleasure?”

“Both, I hope. It’s good to see you, too, Anton.” He turned, gave Keisha a loopy grin and shrugged. “Besides, I needed my Keisha fix.” He took both of Keisha’s hands, but he was looking over his shoulder at Anton. “I think Mary Ryder got it right—she told me that hugging your mate had the same calming effect as holding a warm puppy.”

Keisha laughed. “I adore Mary. Sometimes the girl hasn’t got any filters at all, and she’s so wonderfully unaffected. And Remington, I love that you think I give off a warm puppy vibe, but right now, boys, I have to help Xandi put the groceries away.” She hugged Rem quickly and kissed his cheek. “That’ll have to hold you until dinner.”

“That’s all he gets,” Anton said, but he winked at Remington and walked over to his spot behind the bar. Grabbing the bottle of cognac, he poured half a glass for each of them. “So, what brings you back to our humble home?”

As he took a tall stool opposite Anton, Remington said, “I have a proposition for you.”

“I’m listening.” Anton took a sip of his cognac. He liked the way Remington always met him straight on. If he were Chanku, he’d be a powerful alpha in his own right.

Remington took a swallow and set the glass back on the bar. “The head of the agency approached me when I flew back to DC after we dealt with the demon. He was impressed with the way your people handled things, and obviously with the success of the mission. He sent me back here to subtly ‘feel the man out’ to see if you would consider having an FBI agent permanently assigned here.” He chuckled and took a sip of his drink. “I didn’t tell him that you don’t do subtle, and I’m not about to let him know that you can pull shit out of my brain, but I did tell him I would check with you.”

“Okay. But I have two conditions.”

“That quick?” Remington laughed. “And only two?”

“So far. Give me time; I’m sure I’ll think of others. First, the only FBI agent I will allow here in an on-site position is Remington Caruthers, and I will only let him stay if he agrees to take the nutrients.” When Remington opened his mouth to disagree, Anton held up his hand. “I know you said you’ve taken them, but that was years ago, and we have no idea if they were the real thing. I did some research, and the man in charge of that program—which, by the way, did not locate a single Chanku shapeshifter—hated anything and everything to do with Chanku. I have a feeling you took alfalfa pills for a couple of weeks.”

He reached under the counter and grabbed a small container of the capsules, each one filled with the Tibetan grasses that jump-started the genetic anomaly that allowed Chanku to shift. Holding them up in front of Remington, he said, “Take one of these a day and you can have your room back here in the main house. If, by chance, you actually are one of us, we’ll talk permanent housing and your new position as FBI liaison to the Chanku Nation.”

Remington reached out and took the bottle from Anton. He turned it over a couple of times in his hands before raising his head. Usually Anton could clearly read the man’s thoughts, but right now he was blocking. Fascinated, Anton backed away from his probing. Very few humans were able to block him.

“I’ve always suspected that we weren’t getting the right grasses, and that’s part of the reason why I’ve not taken you up on your offer.” He focused on the bottle of capsules in his hand. “If they don’t work, I’ll know there’s not a chance in hell that I’m Chanku, and that’s been a fantasy of mine for a long time.” He shrugged and set the bottle down. “So if nothing happens, I’m going to be very sad, and extremely irritated with you.”

“Have you ever dreamed of running through the forest, or awakened at night with the sounds of wolves howling in your mind? Have you picked up thoughts from other people? Felt as if you were never really a part of the world around you, as if their lives were, in many ways, totally alien to you?”

He watched the way Rem slowly nodded at his words. Chuckling softly, Anton picked the bottle up and once again handed it to Remington. “Take the capsules, Rem. Let me know when your arms start itching.”

“My arms?”

“If you’re Chanku, there will be physical changes from the nutrients as a tiny gland near the hypothalamus, which only we have, develops from a dormant state and enables the brain to direct the shift. Undeveloped, it’s so tiny it doesn’t show up in any type of scans, but it’s there. We don’t know the reason why, but once that gland gets close to ready, your skin starts to itch. Stefan thinks it’s some primal knowledge of what the actual shift feels like. We experience shifting in what is essentially another dimension, so we don’t feel it happen.”

Remington opened the container and dumped one of the big pills out in his hand. “So these are harmless, right?” He popped one into his mouth and took a swallow of cognac. “Seems apropos I should take the first one with your Hennessy.”

Anton held up his glass and clinked the rim against Remington’s. “I agree. And, for what it’s worth, I really want you to be one of us.” He glanced up as Leo paused in the doorway and knocked on the frame. Obviously he’d gotten here on four legs, because he wore a pair of the sweatpants that Keisha kept by the back door for male visitors who’d arrived in their animal form.

“Come in, Leo. You’ve met Agent Caruthers, haven’t you?”

“I have. It’s good to see you, Remington.” The two of them shook hands.

“Likewise.” Rem glanced at Anton. “We’ve actually run into each other a couple of times in San Francisco when I’ve stopped in at CGI. Your cafeteria is the best food in town.”

“Well-fed employees rarely complain about the job. Rem, I’ve got a meeting with Leo if you don’t mind giving us a bit of time.”

“Not a problem. I left my bags in the car, but I’m going to move back into my room while you’re busy. You know . . . before you change the locks.”

“Not gonna happen. Here. Don’t forget these.” Anton held up the jar.

“Once a day?” Rem grabbed it and rolled his eyes.

“At least. Twice won’t hurt.” He shrugged. “It’s only grass. I’ll see you at dinner.”


• • •


Leo watched Caruthers leave then turned back to Anton. “Do you think he’s one of us?”

Anton shook his head. “Wishful thinking as much as anything. I really like the man, and while I’ve only known him a few weeks, there’s a sense of honor in him that’s bone deep. With any luck, I’ll get my way on this one.”

Leo laughed at that. “Don’t you always?”

“Actually, not nearly as much as I’d like, which is why we need to talk.”

What the hell did he mean by that? But Anton was pouring him a shot of cognac and sliding the glass across the granite bar. “You’ll have to explain.”

Anton took a sip of his drink. Leo followed suit. He wasn’t much of a drinker, but Anton’s cognac went down like silk. He rolled the smoky liquor in his mouth for a moment before swallowing.

“There’s something bothering you, Leo. Can you tell me what it is?”

“I . . .” He wasn’t really sure what Anton was going for. “I’m not sure what you mean. Work’s great; I’m enjoying my break and time here in Montana. I miss the mountains and enjoy the opportunity to work online rather than in the city.”

“Life’s not all about work. What about your personal life?”

He almost gave his alpha a flip answer, but that would be rude to Anton and he’d be cheating himself. He’d been wondering if Anton had any suggestions, and here he was, offering just the opening Leo needed.

“I got shunned by the pack last night.”

That certainly got Anton’s attention. “How so? What happened?”

“I ran with my usual group of friends, about a dozen of us who get together when we’re home. We usually find a packmate or two for sex afterward, but last night was weird. They all paired up and made a point of excluding me. That’s never happened before. I think I know why, but I’m not sure how to fix it.”

“What’s your conclusion? Why do you think they’d pull something like that? Have you had words with anyone?”

He shook his head. “Not really. I haven’t been with anyone since Janine and I split. It was her decision, and then she met Ari. He’s terrific, and honestly? He’s a perfect mate for Janine.”

“Why do you think that?”

“You know . . . he’s new at being human. Janine likes to be in charge and she’s obviously great at helping him adjust to all the changes.”

“So how does that apply to what happened after your run last night?”

“It’s . . .” He was embarrassed to admit what he was thinking, but Anton would just pull it out of his head if he didn’t say something, so . . . “I was raised to take the lead. Janine said I was too controlling, but Mom and Dad seem to have a really good relationship. Mom always defers to my dad and he’s always said that the man should be the head of the household. I’m finding the rest of the pack doesn’t work that way. I’m sure it’s my attitude, that because I’m the male I’m supposed to protect my companion and make decisions that are the best for her, but . . .”

“Whoa.” Anton chuckled like Leo had just said the stupidest thing possible. “Yes, you’re supposed to protect your companion, but no, you never, ever make decisions for her. She’s an adult, she knows her own mind, and a healthy relationship is a partnership.”

“But Mom and Dad . . .”

Anton’s upraised hand shut him up. “Your mom and dad have a unique relationship. You know your father’s sexual history, right?”

“I do. They never hid it from us. We knew he was sold to a man who cut his balls off when he was a kid. But then Adam did his mojo and Dad got all his junk back. But how does that . . . ?”

“That’s not the entire story, and it doesn’t explain why your parents have such a different partnership from most Chanku. What Oliver and Mei have allowed you and Emeline to see is only part of their relationship, which is a truly unique partnership. I have your parents’ permission to explain this so you’ll understand why their dynamic isn’t typical of the Chanku.” He laughed softly. “I suspected this might be the root of your issue, but I imagine they would prefer not to discuss it with you themselves. No matter how free and open we are about our sexuality, it appears there are still things that moms and dads don’t want to talk about with the kids.”

Leo tried not to laugh, but he couldn’t help it. “Then, for whatever you have to tell me, thank you for protecting me from hearing it from my parents. But now I really am curious.”

Anton rested his forearms on the dark granite bar for a moment. When he raised his head and gazed at Leo, his eyes were dark, his expression serious. “What was done to your father was the worst possible treatment of an innocent child. He was purchased as a companion for a little girl, and her father castrated him to ensure that his daughter would remain pure. When she grew older and lost interest in the little boy, he was put out on the streets, but your father’s early years were spent as a slave. A slave who would never truly mature, one who only knew how to serve.”

Leo remembered his dad telling him and Emy about what had happened to him, but he’d glossed over it, didn’t really explain why it had been done, and he and Emy had been pretty young—too young to know what questions to ask. “But how . . . ?”

“When your father escaped Barbados and came to Florida, I didn’t realize he’d come looking for me; I thought we met purely by accident. He had heard of me and searched until he found me. All I knew was that he was looking for a job, I was a magician in a carnival, and I hired him. He became everything to me—my friend, my servant, my assistant in my magic show, but never my lover. When I gave up the show and traveled much of the world in search of information about my heritage, he went with me. I was so focused, I’d forget to eat, forget to bathe . . .”

Anton’s laughter lacked humor. Leo tried to picture both Anton and his dad as young men, Anton as arrogant as ever, his father cocky and bossy.

Obviously, Anton was listening in. “Actually, no. Then your father was very quiet, an unassuming young man who had been beaten down by life. I became his project in some ways—keeping me alive seemed to give him focus, even though he hated that he had no control over his own life. He hid so much from me, and I was so caught up in my own drama that I didn’t pay attention to his needs. That is entirely on me. I was wrong, and I will forever feel shame because of that, but I honestly didn’t know what he was feeling, what he needed to make him feel whole. I couldn’t read his mind, not then. When I learned of the grasses and our ability to shift, I sensed, as I am only sometimes able to do, that he was Chanku, like me. I ate the grasses and made my first shift, and started giving them to him, but he couldn’t shift. He was able to speak to me telepathically, but we had no idea that when he’d been so terribly mutilated as a child, it had taken away any hope of him being able to shift. Of course, years later, when Adam helped your father regain what was lost, it changed his life. It changed all of our lives.”

He took another sip of his cognac, set the glass down, and stared into Leo’s eyes. It was disconcerting, it was amazing. Leo felt the love Anton had for Oliver, the difficulty he’d had realizing he’d not known the pain Leo’s dad had lived with—not for many years. “The thing is,” Anton said, “the natural dynamic between Chanku mates is a partnership, but the female is dominant. We are a true matriarchy. We’re wired that way. When you try and take charge, you’re mimicking your father’s behavior, something that your mother only allows because she loves him and knows how important it is for him to have some sense of control. Leo, your father is, by nature, a sexual submissive. Your mother is the dominant partner in their bed. They’ve always been this way and it works for them, but the dominant-submissive private life is the strength of their mating. Your father is well aware that when he takes the lead in their daily lives, he only does it because your mother allows it. Most of us who are mated have an equal partnership, but when it comes down to a final decision, I will always defer to my mate, just as Adam defers to Liana, as Stefan to Xandi, Jack to Mary, and so it goes. When you give your partner orders or forbid her from doing something she wants to do, you’re messing with a dynamic that’s hardwired into each and every one of us. You do this because you’ve grown up with the relationship your parents live publicly, which means you’ve learned behavior that actually goes against our nature. Against your nature.”

Feeling as if he’d had his foundation totally knocked out from under him, Leo sat there, thinking of what Anton had said, thinking of his parents, how they played a role that worked for them yet had probably skewed his entire view of relationships. He didn’t doubt anything Anton had told him—Leo knew he had a problem interacting with women; he’d sensed it but had never been able to nail what was wrong. Unfortunately, he’d been blaming the women. Everything his alpha said made perfect sense.

Too much sense. How humiliating, to think he’d blamed Janine for his own idiotic behavior. He hadn’t been able to see it. Parental failings or not, that was all on him.

His mind spun with the convoluted shifts it took to accept what Anton had said. How does a man unlearn a lifetime of conditioning? He was thirty-one years old, a successful attorney, and yet he had no idea how to undo such powerful learned behavior.

He focused on the amber liquid in his glass, unable to meet Anton’s eyes. “Where do I start?”

“By being aware of what you’ve been doing that isn’t working. You’re smart, Leo, and you’re a good man with a good heart. Pay attention to the way the guys talk to their women, how they interact with their female friends. Talk to Keisha. My mate never hesitates to say what’s on her mind. In fact, why don’t you stay for dinner?” He laughed. “I imagine Keisha will have a few things to say.”

Leo raised his head and met Anton’s smile. “Thank you, but I’d rather skip tonight. I’ll talk to Keisha another time.” He finished off the last swallow of his cognac and slipped off his bar stool. “Thank you, Anton. You’ve given me a lot to think about.” He shrugged and hoped his embarrassment wasn’t too obvious. When he reached the door, he paused and looked back at his alpha. Even managed a smile. “Probably some apologies to make as well.”

Chapter 2


Friday, June 22

Along one of the many trails on Chanku property


Trotting down the leaf-strewn path that led away from the valley where most of the pack lived, Leo kept his head down and his ears back. He’d never felt this unsettled before, this confused, so he’d chosen to spend time as a wolf to see if that might help clear his thinking.

He had no idea how to approach his problem. He’d thought of running last night, meeting up with some of his friends, but after the way the last run had ended, he wasn’t sure that was such a good idea. Instead, he’d gone back to his cabin and proceeded to get himself half plastered on his own bottle of cognac, though it wasn’t near the quality of Anton’s.

Which probably explained the headache. Today he’d gotten an early start with the intention of running until he didn’t have the energy to worry about how he was going to learn to behave around women without pissing them off. The pack was the most important thing in his life, and while the rest of them were able to retain their own individuality, they all managed to get along well with the opposite sex. Whether it was his parents’ fault or his own, there was no doubt he didn’t have a clue what any woman wanted from a man. Why was it so easy for everyone else, and such a puzzle for him?

Janine had been really special. He’d thought they might have something that worked for them, until it hadn’t. But at least now he recognized that it hadn’t worked when he’d tried to make decisions for her. When he’d ignored her needs, her interests. He thought of a question Keisha had asked him one time—how would he like it if Janine told him what to do?

He’d laughed and said that was never going to happen, but from what Anton said, it happened with the other couples all the time—not that the females gave orders, but that they talked about decisions affecting one another. When he thought of it that way, it made sense.

When he thought about applying it to his own life, it made his teeth itch.

. . . And therein lies the rub.

Lost in thoughts and recriminations, he rounded a sharp bend in the trail and just about collided with Ari, Janine’s new guy. The big Berserker’s even bigger wolf stopped so quickly he tumbled ass over ears off the trail, while Leo dug in his hind legs with his front legs pedaling backward and skidded to an inglorious stop on his ass.

The two of them lay there in the brush laughing in each other’s heads. Leo finally got his bearings and turned in time to see Ari spitting leaves out of his mouth.

I think you nailed your landing better than I did, Ari said. He used his paw to scrape a sticky leaf off his snout.

Leo stood and shook all over. I dunno . . . is it better to get a mouthful of leaves or have them shoved up your ass? He glanced over his shoulder, sending Ari over on his back with all four feet in the air, mouth open, tongue lolling. The wolf equivalent of hysterical laughter.

Glancing around, Leo realized Ari was alone. Isn’t Janine with you?

The big wolf sat up. She went into town with her friend Shannon Stone. Janine calls her Shay, and she’s a teacher. Janine wants to talk about getting her teaching credential, find out what classes she’ll need to take. Once she does, I’m going to look into going to school wherever she goes. I’ve never been to school, and there is so much I want to learn.

Janine had mentioned her desire to teach. Leo hung his head. He’d told her she was being foolish, that there were already enough teachers. He, of course, had gotten an excellent education, which was why he was now an attorney with a terrific job. All he’d been able to think about when she talked of her dreams was that if she went away to college, he’d lose her.

But, he’d lost her anyway. A perfect example, it appeared, of what Anton had been telling him.

Ari hadn’t ridiculed her. He’d said he wanted to go with her, go to school wherever she did. Ari had instinctively known to support her, not make fun of her. Crap. Leo shifted and walked over to Ari. “Do you have time to talk, Ari? You might be able to help me out.”

Ari shifted. “Of course. Let’s go down by the creek. It’s beautiful and warm there, and I was headed that way to soak up the sunlight.” He glanced over his shoulder, laughing. “Before I was so rudely interrupted.”

Leo walked behind Ari, following him along the narrow trail. He was a big man, at least six and a half feet tall if not more, with long, rangy muscles and not an ounce of fat on his lanky frame. He also had the sexiest ass Leo had seen in a long time. Firm, muscular thighs with taut muscles that dipped in along either butt cheek and flexed beautifully when he walked.

Leo’s dick rose with each step—not at all unusual after a run—but he’d only run about a mile or so.

He wondered how Ari felt about sex with a guy. Sometimes a new Chanku was still caught up in humanity’s silly rules of what sexual partners were acceptable, but Ari had been a wolf until just a couple of weeks ago, so Leo wasn’t sure what he thought.

They’d only met a couple of times and, while it was hard to see Janine with another man when he hadn’t been the one to break it off, he really liked Ari, and his feelings for Janine were mostly good. If he was honest with himself, he’d have to admit his feelings for Janine were tied up in his realization that he’d been a real jerk.

A memory floated through, one of those nagging things he’d rather consign to the trash heap of stupid shit, but he recalled his sister Emeline getting mad at him years ago when she was still little. She’d put her fists on her hips and glared at him and then she’d said, “You know, Leo, not everything is about you. The world doesn’t orbit you, and you can’t tell me what to do. You’re not the boss of me.”

He was grinning by the time they reached the creek. He owed Emy an apology. Along with the admission that he should have listened to her.

Ari slipped into the warm pool. Years ago, when Leo and the others were still small, their parents had dammed up this part of the creek with enough rocks to create a large wading pool. It was perfect for soaking in the afternoon when the water was warmed by the sun, but the trees overhead filtered the brightest rays.

Leo found a smooth rock and settled his butt into a perfect depression that held him in water up to his shoulders. As tall as Ari was, he’d settled on the bottom of the pond with his back against a large slab of granite. Now the big guy studied Leo with a slight frown.

Finally, he smiled, almost as if he were embarrassed. “Your wolf pleases me, Leo. Your markings are those of a snow leopard, but yours is the body of a wolf. I’ve seen you in leopard form, but the wolf with those perfect rosettes is beautiful.”

“Thank you.” He shook his head and then glanced at Ari. “I hated those spots when I was a kid. I got teased a lot. The other kids didn’t realize that I had leopard spots. They thought I looked like a Dalmatian. That’s a spotted dog that rode on fire trucks many years ago. I have no idea why they were mascots for firemen, but any wolf being called a dog is an insult.”

Ari nodded silently. After a moment, he merely shrugged. “The young of any species can be cruel. My siblings and I were often teased for our ‘book learning,’ as the others called it, even though we never had actual books. But tell me, Leo. How is it you think I can help you? I’m awfully new to this human experience.”

Leo shot him a quick grin. “Maybe that’s your secret. You never learned how to screw things up. Did Janine ever tell you why we stopped seeing each other? It happened shortly before the two of you got together.”

Cocking his head to one side, he slanted a questioning glance at Leo. “She did. But I don’t want to say anything that will make you feel bad.”

“You won’t, Ari.” At least he could laugh about it, now. “It’s too late for that. Anton and I had a long talk. He said I need to change my attitude around women.” Ari’s grin said more than any words. “I take it Janine said the same thing.”

“Well . . . since you asked.” He frowned, as if searching for the right words. “You didn’t listen to what she said, seemed to think that only your opinion mattered, you told her not to do things and made it sound like it was for her own good, but really you just didn’t want her doing anything without your permission, and you didn’t think she was very smart.” At this point, Ari was no longer smiling. “When she said she wanted to go to school and learn to be a teacher, you made fun of her. You made it sound as if she wasn’t good enough. That wasn’t a very kind or supportive thing to do. I may not know much about humans, but I do know that we should always support the ones we care for, we should never make them feel badly about themselves, and sometimes we just need to listen and not weigh in with unwanted suggestions.”

“Well, don’t hold anything back, Ari.” Leo laughed, but it wasn’t funny. What Ari had just said? Every damned word was true. “I really am a jerk, aren’t I? I’ve never once thought about how my comments would come across to someone else, but that’s all stuff I’ve said to females over the years because I thought I knew better.” He gazed intently at Ari. “Obviously, that was wrong. Is wrong. I need to change, but I’m afraid being a jerk is my default behavior.” He stared at the warm water rippling around his chest. “How do I change, Ari? How do I unlearn a lifetime’s worth of screwups?”

“Well, that’s easy.” Ari stood and held out his hand. “Come home with me. When Janine gets back, how about we just turn her loose on you. She knows your behavior really well. Who better to teach you not to do those things?”

Laughing harder, Leo took Ari’s hand, and Ari easily pulled him to his feet. “I was afraid that’s what you were going to say.”


• • •


Anton shut down his computer. Restless, even a bit unsettled, he wandered out through the kitchen and into Keisha’s newest garden. She’d just finished planting this one off the back of the house, which meant, of course, there was a lot of tweaking going on, rocks that needed to be reset, potted plants moved—just the sort of job to keep an active FBI agent busy while they waited to see if the Tibetan grasses might have any effect on his very human-looking body.

Anton hated to admit how disappointed he was going to be if Remington didn’t change. He truly loved the man, and he knew Stefan felt the same. Rem had broken the rules more than once to accommodate their Chanku abilities: allowing Igmutaka to shift into his spirit form and follow the criminals who had been behind a kidnapping probably wasn’t covered anywhere in the FBI manuals. Rem hadn’t hesitated, even though it was something totally beyond his understanding, and most likely well beyond his pay grade.

Anton stood in the shadows and watched while Keisha pointed and Rem dug. The man was truly beautiful, stripped down to a pair of worn jeans and heavy work boots beneath the late afternoon sun. His upper body was bare, his chest streaked with sweat and dust and a sprinkling of dark hair. Anton couldn’t recall ever seeing him in anything but a suit. This was a look that was much more appealing. He’d really like to be the one to peel those sweaty jeans off the man.

For years, when he’d been with men it had only been other Chanku men, but he almost thought he could make an exception for this one. For Remington. If he was human. Damn, how he hoped Rem wasn’t human.

Keisha glanced his way with a big grin on her face. I heard that. I’m with you. I want Rem to be ours. Can I keep him? Pretty please?

Laughing, Anton stepped out of the shadows. “I see my lovely mate has put you to work. Better you than me.”

Rem straightened and wiped the sweat off his forehead, smearing dirt with the back of his hand and leaving a dark streak behind. “I think that whole ‘Tibetan grasses’ thing’s a hoax. Keeps a man around waiting to see if he can shift, but you keep him working while you’ve got him.”

“This one’s too smart for his own good. Or not.” Anton laughed. “You do realize you don’t have to do this just because my spouse suggested it, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. Thing is, I’m soaking up Keisha’s warm puppy vibes.” He leaned over and grabbed the small shrub he’d removed from a black plastic pot. “And honestly? I love to garden, but haven’t stayed put in one place long enough to keep a house plant alive, so your lady’s doing me a huge favor. Gardening therapy and warm puppy feels? Does it get any better?”

Anton just shook his head. “Well, I don’t think so, but I’m a bit attached to the woman in question. She creates magic wherever she goes.” He glanced about him, at this perfect little garden tucked away behind the house, just off the kitchen. If you stood at the sink doing dishes, you looked into a fairyland setting, a tiny glen with small Japanese maples, a couple of oaks Keisha had planted after the big fire almost three decades earlier that now framed her overall design, and a graceful mountain ash. The Rocky Mountain maple that Rem was settling into its new home would be a perfect counterpoint to the large block of granite behind it.

Anton watched them work for a moment longer before going back inside. With luck, they’d know about Rem’s genetics by the end of the week. He’d almost asked the goddess if she had any idea if he was or wasn’t, but Eve would have already said if she knew.

That she hadn’t, worried him. He didn’t like surprises, especially the ones that didn’t go his way.


• • •


Friday afternoon

Colorado Predator Sanctuary


“Seth? Can you come to the infirmary? Looks like the leopard’s coming around. Her paws are twitching.”

“Damn. I hope so. There are so few of these creatures left. I’ll be right there.” The director flipped off the intercom and walked swiftly to the infirmary at the back of the building. The fact she was still alive amazed him. He’d never seen any big predator in such horrible condition that had survived, and it was obvious the maltreatment of this poor beast had been going on for some time.

She was still hooked up with an IV for fluids, along with the feeding tube. Daniel, his assistant, had maintained a regular feeding schedule, upping the calories from the original mix as well as adding antibiotics to combat a few skin issues related to her malnutrition. Only two and a half days post-rescue she already looked better.

Still much too thin without an ounce of body fat, but there was a look he’d learned to associate with impending death. She’d had it when she arrived, but not any longer.

“You’re right, Dan. She looks a lot better already.” He checked her vitals on the monitor and nodded. “Let’s continue with this program for another couple of days, unless she awakens, but I believe we’ve passed a crisis point. Good call on the nourishment mix.” He knelt beside her, ran his fingers through her thin coat. There was no reaction to his touch. “I can’t wait to see her looking healthy. She’s beautiful, even in this horrible state. I just don’t get how anyone could mistreat any living creature, but a snow leopard? There are so few left.”

“What’s going to happen to her? If she survives, that is.”

“Oh, she’s going to make it. She’s not going anywhere. We’ve got more than enough land here for her. Once she’s adjusted to her circumstances, we might even look into finding her a mate. Anything to keep this species alive. Let’s wait and see how she does, first. I need to call Mr. Cheval. As head of the board he’ll want to know how she’s doing. Whatever happens, it will be the best we can do for her. Anton Cheval always puts our rescues first.”

He stood and just watched the snow leopard. There was definitely some muscular movement, but it was hard to tell if they were just twitches from stressed muscle nerves or something more. She was healing remarkably fast, though it almost looked as if she were dreaming. In her case he imagined nightmares were a strong possibility.

It had been pretty chaotic after the helicopter loaded with the rescued predators arrived. They’d all settled into their large pens, and once they were properly acclimated to the higher elevation, they’d be turned out into larger areas where the heavy fencing kept out human predators, but the wild ones would be able to hunt the natural wildlife that filled the vast acres. They had accrued tens of thousands of acres beyond the original wolf sanctuary, thanks to Anton Cheval and the Chanku Nation’s investment.

“I guess the Chanku like helping wild animals—probably feel like they’re somehow connected.”

Dan gazed at Seth, obviously expecting a response. It wasn’t a secret, what he knew about the history of the sanctuary, but he’d never talked about it all that much. He’d been an absolute jerk back then, making some stupid decisions that had put people and animals in danger. He hoped he had atoned for at least some of his mistakes. “I’ve worked here since I was a kid,” he said. “It was a wolf sanctuary in the beginning. The place seemed to draw Chanku, which is why the Chanku Nation has taken it on as a project. My boss, Millie West, discovered she was Chanku not long after I came to work here. She’s the one who put me through college, paid for me to get my vet’s license. They’re good people. Caring, you know? They come out to check on things on occasion. I’ll introduce you next time they make a visit.”

He knelt once again beside the leopard. If this beauty survived, he was certain Mr. Cheval would want to see her. Good man, Cheval, but it was so weird. Seth had met the pack alpha when he was a teenager and Anton Cheval was probably in his forties or fifties. Now, forty years later, the alpha looked even younger than Seth did, like a guy in his early thirties. Seth had heard they weren’t entirely immortal, but damn close to it. If Cheval was an example, it looked like they just grew younger the older they got.

He didn’t think he’d want to live that long. There was something to be said for knowing you had a set time on this planet Earth. He loved his wife, adored his three kids, and couldn’t imagine a better job. Life was good. And it was special, too, knowing he couldn’t waste a day.

If Anton showed up out here, Seth wondered how young he’d look this time.


• • •


Friday afternoon

Montana


Leo trotted up the steps to Janine’s cabin, following close behind Ari. The two of them shifted and went inside. A blinking light on a cell phone sitting on a charger caught Ari’s attention and he grabbed the sleek instrument with a huge grin.


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