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Excerpt: Hard Mated

Book 3.5: Shifters Unbound

Hard Mated by Jennifer Ashley
Chapter One

His only warning was the bone-rattling roar before several tons of enraged bear Shifter landed on him. Spike in his jaguar form rolled out of the way, twisted in a half-somersault through the dust, and came up under the bear’s throat.

The crowd—under the blaze of bonfires, work lights, and lantern flashlights—roared, Shifter throats open in howls of glee.

Spike slashed upward with his fangs, catching the loose skin under the bear’s chin, right above his Collar. The bear scrambled backward, swinging his head to pry loose the wildcat clinging to his throat. Spike wrapped all four huge jaguar paws around the bear’s neck and hung on, biting down enough to taste blood.

Both the bear’s and Spike’s Collars were sparking wildly, the mechanisms designed to stop Shifters from giving in to violence.

Too late. Way too late. The beast in Spike wanted to tear into the bear’s jugular and gulp down his blood, pull off his head and kick it into the middle of the ring. Spike would prove to all watchers that a wildcat could best a bear five times his size. Speed and cunning were what counted in the ring, not being as big as a two-ton pickup.

But the beast inside Spike would have to deal with it, because this was the fight club, and there were rules.

Didn’t mean Spike didn’t enjoy a little blood squeezing out of the bear. Feel that, shithead.

The crowd roared again, and also howled and snarled, because not everyone was in human form.

Shifters pressed forward around the ring, some still dressed, some naked and ready to shift, some already animals or half beasts. Scents both human and Shifter clogged the air, layers of excitement from the shifted females blending with the sweat of the males.

But most of all Spike smelled the bear who’d come down from Wisconsin, who thought he could best Spike, the champion of the highly illegal Shifter fight club.

Spike bit down, tasting victory, but that was before the bear grabbed Spike in his formidable front paws and jerked him from his neck.

That cost the bear, whose blood poured onto the dirt. But the grizzly lifted the squirming Spike-as-jaguar and threw him across the ring.

Spike spun in midair, corkscrewing his body. He landed on all four paws right inside the upended cinderblocks that marked the perimeter of the ring. If he’d landed outside, he’d have forfeited the match.

Cats land on their feet, dick-brain.

Spike didn’t wait to decide whether the impact had hurt him. Screaming a wildcat scream, his Collar going crazy, he launched himself at the bear.

The grizzly, blood streaming down his pelt, caught Spike between his big paws, but the bear was tiring. Spike whipped his cat body around again, landing full force on the bear’s back. He wrapped paws around the bear’s throat and began tearing open the wound he’d already begun.

The bear bellowed in pain. He shifted to his in-between beast, half human, half bear, a monster of gigantic proportions. Spike kept ripping, blood flowed, and the bear snarled in rage.

The bear-beast collapsed, taking Spike down with him. They landed in a giant cloud of dust, Spike slamming his eyes shut before the gritty dirt blinded him.

The grizzly, back in solid bear form, made one more effort—rolling onto his back. Spike scrambled off and away before the bear could squash him flat, Spike’s lithe cat’s body barely taking him out of the way in time. Spike jumped to his feet, panting, ready to charge the bear again.

Two refs in human form ran between them.

“Fight’s over!” one of the refs shouted. “The bear is down.”

The grizzly’s few supporters moaned in disappointment. The rest of the crowd screamed and hollered, humans punching the air, beasts doing victory leaps. Spike, champion of the Austin Shiftertown, had won again.

Spike stood still and caught his breath, his Collar sending fiery jolts of pain down his neck and spine. He’d pay a long time for what he’d done in the rings tonight. Close fight. The bear was damn good.

The bear got slowly to his feet. He rose on his hind legs, higher and higher, until he flowed down into his human form—a little shorter than his bear form, but not by much. The bear—Cormac—had black hair and blue eyes and stood about seven feet tall. He spat blood from his mouth, hands on hips, catching his breath like Spike did.

Spike stretched his forepaws into the air and let himself become human, himself tall enough at six foot six. He kept his arms up, acknowledging his victory, and his fans filled the place with noise.

Cormac came across the ring, Collar sparking with residual arcs, and gave Spike a nod. “Good fight,” he said, his voice rasping.

He stuck out his hand. Spike clasped it, promising himself not to grip too hard, and Cormac clapped Spike on the shoulder. The Shifter had no malice in his eyes, only approval for Spike’s technique and stamina.

That was the problem with bears. They were so damn affable—when they weren’t trying to kill you.

“Good fight,” Spike said back. He kept his words light, his handshake strong, pretending he didn’t want to fall onto the soft dirt of the ring and pass out. A few gallons of water poured down his throat wouldn’t hurt either.

Cormac turned away to his friends—Ronan the Kodiak bear and his family—and a woman ran to Spike with a sports bottle.

Spike grabbed the bottle and upended a stream of water into his mouth before he realized two things. First, the woman who’d handed him the bottle was human, and second, he’d never seen her here before.

She had black hair cut short but wildly curly, blue eyes that looked back at him in perfect equanimity, a round face that was cute rather than pretty, and lips that any male, human or Shifter would want to sink a kiss onto. Her plump body had nice curves that she didn’t much hide behind a button-down shirt, sexily-cut lace tank, and jeans that rested low on her hips.

Shifter groupie? Maybe, but she didn’t have the obsessed look, nor did she wear a fake Collar or paint on whiskers or anything like that.

On the other hand, Spike was standing next to her wearing nothing but his tattoos, sweat, and the blood from the fight. The woman kept her gaze on Spike’s face, not even flicking it to his very naked body.

Spike upended the bottle, squirted water onto his face, and rubbed his hand over his cheeks and jaw. A shower was going to feel good.

He was also antsy, adrenaline still up in spite of the Collar’s efforts. A nice roll on the sack would be great too, and here was this sweet little morsel, handing him water and looking fine in a Texas-cowgirl kind of way.

Not that Spike usually went for humans. He had to be too careful in bed with human women, because things could get wild and wicked. Shifters females were more resilient, more used to male Shifters and what they wanted.

But there was something Spike liked about this human.

“Who are you, sweetheart?” he asked.

“My name’s Myka. Myka Thompson. You don’t know me, but you know Jillian.”

Jillian. Jillian. Who the hell was Jillian?

“You knew her, I should say,” Myka said. “For one night at least. Five years ago. Shifter bar. You were a Shifter, she was a Shifter groupie …” She trailed off, one hand moving before she returned it to her shapely hip.

Memory came to him. Five years ago, sure. Spike had been very drunk that night, but Jillian had been the hottest thing he’d seen in a long, long time. She’d been more than willing—in fact, she’d almost dragged him to that hotel room—and Spike had waived his avoidance of humans for her. “Red-headed little thing, fiery. Yeah, I remember her.”

He’d never seen Jillian again. Spike liked to date his ladies for more than a night, much more than a night, but the phone number Jillian had given him had been disconnected, and she’d not come to the bar again.

Some humans were like that. They wanted a taste of the beast, but they didn’t want anything long-term with a Shifter.

“How’s she doing?” Spike asked. He grabbed a towel he’d left on a box outside the ring and rubbed his wet face. The towel came away filthy and bloody. He needed a shower and some bandages. Shifters healed quickly, but Spike was going to be in for a sore night.

“She’s dying,” Myka said.

Spike jerked back to her, towel dangling from his grasp. “What?”

“I said, Jillian’s dying. She wants to see you, but you have to come with me now.”

*** *** ***

Chapter Two

Hospitals sucked. Myka hated them. Their pale rooms were filled with soft electronic sounds that told you that the person in the hospital bed, the person you loved, was dying. Plus, the overriding scent of antiseptic never could quite mask the mixture of bodily odors and illness.

Broke Myka’s heart to see Jillian in that bed, her body that once had enticed every male in Hill Country wasted, her red hair thin and dry against the white sheets. Her blue eyes were washed out under the fluorescent lights, her skin tinged with gray.

Jillian smiled at Myka over the foot of the bed as Myka led in Spike, which couldn’t be his real name. Spike, tall and Shifter, in jeans and T-shirt, his black hair buzzed into almost nonexistence, tatts of wildcats marking him up and down his arms, gazed down at Jillian in shock and grief.

Grief? Jillian was nothing to Spike, was she? He’d had to dredge her out of his memory when Myka had said her name. Jillian hadn’t mentioned Spike at all until their shocker of a conversation this morning. She’d sent Myka to Shiftertown to find him, and hadn’t that been fun?

Shifters. There was a reason they were Collared and made to live in Shiftertowns. Myka couldn’t understand the women who longed to sleep with them. Too much excitement for this girl, thank you. Training horses gave her all the time she needed with animals, had taught her enough about animals that she didn’t much want to be around ones that could turn human.

Shiftertown had been almost deserted, Spike not at home in the modest bungalow to which Jillian had sent her. Casual conversation with some humans in a little bar outside the perimeter of Shiftertown led Myka to the abandoned hay barn out east of town, and there she’d found the Shifters in all their wild glory at their so-called fight club.

The way Spike had beat the shit out of that bear Shifter was evidence enough of why humans wanted to contain them. They weren’t even supposed to be able to fight like that—the Collars were designed to stop them. If Myka had been a good citizen, she’d report the illicit three-ringed fight club and all the Shifters there betting on their favorites.

But she hadn’t been a good citizen since the day the system had given ten-year-old Myka into the custody of Randall, the stepfather from hell. Randall had been very good at charming judges, social workers, and anyone else who came along. Couldn’t bear to be separated from Myka, he’d said, after Myka’s mother had died, in a hospital room just like Jillian’s. Randall had gotten himself appointed Myka’s legal guardian, and nine long years of hell had ensued, until the day of Randall’s death.

Jillian produced a thin smile as she looked over the foot of the bed at Spike. “You came. Thank you.”

“Yeah.”

That was the first word he’d spoke since he’d followed Myka out of the barn into the cool of the night so she could drive him here. Not What happened? Why is she asking for me? Just stone silence in the cab of her pickup.

Silent, sure, but his presence was weighty. This was a Shifter, for crying out loud, big, tough, able to break tiny young women like Jillian in half with one hand. Yet he stood there looking down at Jillian in the bed as though someone had sledgehammered him between the eyes and he hadn’t remembered to fall down yet.

“I don’t have a lot of time,” Jillian said, her voice a faint whisper. A far cry from the girl who’d balanced on top of a rail fence at the rodeo a year ago, screaming for her favorite bull rider. She’d slept with him too. Men usually took one look at Jillian and became her devoted slaves.

“I have a gift for you,” Jillian said.

She held out her hand, and Spike reached down and took it. He didn’t hold her hand awkwardly—he closed it between his two big ones, as though trying to comfort her.

“What?” he asked, his voice a quiet rumble. Even a Shifter could feel the dampening presence of the hospital room.

“Myka will show you. Myka and my mom. I don’t know what else to do, all right?”

Jillian pressed down on his hand, the movement so weak that Myka saw it only because a tendon moved on Jillian’s wrist.

Spike nodded. What was in his eyes, Myka couldn’t see, because his gaze was fixed on Jillian.

“Myka, go get my mom, okay? I asked her to wait down the hall.”

Myka didn’t want to leave Jillian alone with the Shifter. Jillian let her stare go steely, which she was good at, even while dying. “Myka? Okay?”

Spike turned his head and looked at Myka, and for the first time, Myka got the whole connection of his Shifter gaze. Spike’s eyes were dark brown, his pupils black, windows into nothing.

No, not nothing. An intense something. Myka saw wildness inside him, the beast that had charged a bear four times his size and sunk his teeth into the big animal’s neck. Spike’s throat was singed where his Collar had shocked him, but the shocks hadn’t slowed him down a millisecond. This was an animal who looked for his prey’s weakness and went for it.

Myka did not want to leave him alone in here with Jillian.

But Jillian had hours to live, not days, the cancer taking away the last of what she had been.

Myka made herself turn around and leave, walking rapidly down the corridor to the little room where Jillian’s mom Sharon waited, surrounded by vending machines, a television that blared a news channel, and other tense people who’d come to see their families.

Sharon got rapidly to her feet and followed Myka out. “Damn, I need a cigarette. Jillian kicked me out when you called from the parking lot, but I couldn’t go outside with …” She wriggled her arm, jostling what she was pulling.

“I don’t like this,” Myka said.

“I know. But it’s what Jillian wants, and I think she’s right.”

Myka had to shut up, because they’d entered Jillian’s room again. Spike swung around, inhaling sharply.

His eyes changed to Shifter—brown tinged with gold, the pupils slits—as his gaze riveted on the small boy Sharon gripped by the hand.

At four years old, Jordan had lost his baby chubbiness and was turning into a sturdy, strong-boned lad. He had dark hair brushed with blond and brown, and dark brown eyes framed with black lashes. Until Myka had seen Spike looking at her with the same eyes, she’d doubted Jillian’s claim.

Jillian drew a breath to speak, but Sharon shook her head, seeing it was too much for her. She walked Jordan forward.

“This is your son,” Sharon said, her voice heavy from too many years of smoking. “So says Jillian.”

“He is, Mom,” Jillian’s whisper came.

Jordan stared up at Spike, who filled the room not only with his presence, but with the bulk of him. Though smaller than the bear-man he’d fought, Spike was still big—six and a half feet tall, arms as big as a wrestler’s and covered in tatts that disappeared inside his T-shirt, shaved head on a muscular neck encased by an inch-thick Collar. Jordan’s soft mouth hung open, his small teeth white in the moisture behind his lip.

Spike stared back at Jordan just as hard, the shock mutual.

“Jordan,” Jillian said from the bed. “Do your trick for Mommy.”

Jordan, caught in the spell of Spike’s gaze, remained frozen for another moment. Then he looked away and stripped off his shirt. Almost proudly, he shoved down his pants and underwear and stood without clothes, as unashamed as the Shifters had done at the hay barn.

The little boy lifted his arms over his head, closed his eyes, then gave a little squeak as his body changed shape.

His legs bent and became haunches, his little feet morphed into awkwardly big paws. Jordan’s hands became paws before his arms did, the smooth spotted pelt sliding down to join the one that rose up his chest. His face elongated into a cat’s nose, ears popped up on his head, and his eyes became rounder, fuller, eyelashes and whiskers growing swiftly. The fur that covered him was dark yellow with the broken black bands of a jaguar.

In only a few seconds, Jordan dropped to all fours and let out a tiny wildcat yowl.

The suspicion on Spike’s face turned to amazement then a hungry longing. Before Myka could stop him, he bent down and scooped up the cub between his big hands.

He lifted Jordan to his eye level, staring at the cub, who wriggled and squirmed but not in alarm.

They studied each other, Shifter and cub, the big man’s eyes wide, the cub’s unworried. Jordan opened his mouth and emitted another little growl.

“I named him Jordan,” Jillian said. “He’s yours. Take care of him for me, all right?”

Spike didn’t take his eyes from Jordan. Myka saw the pulse in Spike’s neck, the hard beats pressing under the Collar.

Sharon waited, her fingers playing with the clasp on her cigarette case. Myka waited too, for Spike to deny it, to tell Jillian to prove it, to bail the hell out of there. Men didn’t like suddenly to be told that they were fathers, didn’t want to be held accountable for whatever grew from their sperm.

Spike lifted Jordan higher. Jordan’s paws hung down from Spike’s giant hands, his tail snaking around Spike’s wrist.

“My cub,” Spike said. “My cub.” His voice rose to a deep roar that shook the window across the room. “My cub.”

“Yes,” Jillian whispered, then her eyes drifted closed, and she slid back into her morphine sleep.