Excerpt: Pride Mates
Book 1: Shifters Unbound
A girl walks into a bar…
No. A human girl walks into a Shifter bar…
The bar was empty, not yet open to customers. It looked normal—windowless walls painted black, rows of glass bottles, the smell of beer and stale air. But it wasn’t normal, standing on the edge of Shiftertown as it did.
Kim told herself she had nothing to be afraid of. They’re tamed. Collared. They can’t hurt you.
“You the lawyer?” asked a man washing glasses. He was human, not Shifter. No strange, slitted pupils, no Collar to control his aggression. When Kim nodded, he gestured with his cloth to a door at the end of the bar. “Knock him dead, sweetheart.”
“I’ll try to keep him alive.” Kim pivoted and stalked away on her four-inch heels, feeling his gaze on her back all the way.
She knocked on the door marked “Private,” and a man on the other side growled, “Come.”
I just need to talk to him. Then I’m done, on my way home. A trickle of moisture rolled between Kim’s shoulder blades as she made herself open the door and walk inside.
A man leaned back in a chair behind a messy desk, a sheaf of papers in his hands. His booted feet were propped on the desk, his long legs a feast of blue jeans over muscle. He was a Shifter all right—thin black and silver Collar against his throat; hard, honed body; midnight-black hair; definite air of menace. When Kim entered, he stood, setting the papers aside.
Damn. He rose to a height of well over six feet and gazed at Kim with eyes blue like the morning sky. His body wasn’t only honed; it was hot—big chest, wide shoulders, tight abs, firm biceps against a form-fitting black T-shirt.
With old-fashioned courtesy, he placed a chair in front of the desk and motioned her to it. Kim felt the heat of his hand near the small of her back as she seated herself, smelled the scent of soap and male musk.
“You’re Mr. Morrissey?”
The Shifter sat back down, returned his motorcycle boots to the top of the desk, and laced his hands behind his head. “Call me Liam.”
The lilt in his voice was unmistakable. Kim put that with his black hair, impossibly blue eyes, and exotic name. “You’re Irish.”
He smiled a smile that could melt a woman at ten paces. “And who else would be running a pub?”
“But you don’t own it.”
Kim could have bitten out her tongue as soon as she said it. Of course he didn’t own it. He was a Shifter.
His voice went frosty, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes smoothing out. “You’re Brian Smith’s lawyer, are you? I’m afraid I can’t help you much. I don’t know Brian well, and I don’t know anything about what happened the night his girlfriend was murdered. It’s a long time ago, now.”
Disappointment bit her, but Kim had learned not to let discouragement stop her when she needed to get a job done. “Brian called you the ‘go-to’ guy. As in, when Shifters are in trouble, Liam Morrissey helps them out.”
Liam shrugged, muscles moving the bar’s logo on his T-shirt. “True. But Brian never came to me. He got into his troubles all by himself.”
“I know that. I’m trying to get him out of trouble.”
Liam’s eyes narrowed, pupils flicking to slits as he retreated to the predator within him. Shifters liked to do that when assessing a situation, Brian had told her. Guess who was the prey?
Brian had done the predator-prey thing with Kim at first. He’d stopped when he began to trust her, but Kim didn’t think she’d ever get used to it. Brian was her first Shifter client, the first Shifter, in fact, she’d ever seen outside a television news story. Twenty years Shifters had been acknowledged to exist, but Kim had never met one.
It was well known that they lived in their enclave on the east side of Austin, near the old airport, but she’d never gone over to check them out. Some human women did, strolling the streets just outside Shiftertown, hoping for glimpses—and more—of the Shifter men who were reputed to be strong, gorgeous, and well endowed. Kim had once heard two women in a restaurant murmuring about their encounter with a Shifter male the night before. The phrase “Oh, my God,” had been used repeatedly. Kim was as curious about them as anyone else, but she’d never summoned the courage to go near Shiftertown herself.
Then suddenly she had been assigned the case of the Shifter accused of murdering his human girlfriend ten months ago. This was the first time in twenty years Shifters had caused trouble, the first time one had been put on trial. The public, outraged by the killing, wanted Shifters punished, pointed fingers at those who’d claimed the Shifters were tamed.
However, after Kim had met Brian, she’d determined that she wouldn’t do a token defense. She believed in his innocence, and she wanted to win. There wasn’t much case law on Shifters because there’d never been any trials, at least none on record. This was to be a well-publicized trial, Kim’s opportunity to make a mark, to set precedent.
Liam’s eyes stayed on her, pupils still slitted. “You’re a brave one, aren’t you? To defend a Shifter?”
“Brave, that’s me.” Kim crossed her legs, pretending to relax. They picked up on your nervousness, people said. They know when you’re scared, and they use your fear. “I don’t mind telling you, this case has been a pain in the ass from the get-go.”
“Humans think anything involving Shifters is a pain in the ass.”
Kim shook her head. “I mean, it’s been a pain in the ass because of the way it’s been handled. The cops nearly had Brian signing a confession before I could get to the interrogation. At least I put a stop to that, but I couldn’t get bail for him, and I’ve been blocked by the prosecutors right and left every time I want to review the evidence. Talking to you is a long shot, but I’m getting desperate. So if you don’t want to see a Shifter go down for this crime, Mr. Morrissey, a little cooperation would be appreciated.”
The way he pinned her with his eyes, never blinking, made her want to fold in on herself. Or run. That was what prey did—ran. And then predators chased them, cornered them.
What did this man do when he cornered his prey? He wore the Collar; he could do nothing. Right?
Kim imagined herself against a wall, his hands on either side of her, his hard body hemming her in…Heat curled down her spine.
Liam took his feet down and leaned forward, arms on the desk. “I haven’t said I won’t help you, lass.” His gaze flicked to her blouse, whose buttons had slipped out of their top holes during her journey through Austin traffic and July heat. “Is Brian happy with you defending him? You like Shifters that much?”
Kim resisted reaching for the buttons. She could almost feel his fingers on them, undoing each one, and her heart beat faster.
“It’s nothing to do with who I like. I was assigned to him, but I happen to think Brian’s innocent. He shouldn’t go down for something he didn’t do.” Kim liked her anger, because it covered up how edgy this man made her. “Besides, Brian’s the only Shifter I’ve ever met, so I don’t know whether I like them, do I?”
Liam smiled again. His eyes returned to normal, and now he looked like any other gorgeous, hard-bodied, blue-eyed Irishman. “You, love, are—”
“Feisty. Yeah, I’ve heard that one. Also spitfire, little go-getter, and a host of other condescending terms. But let me tell you, Mr. Morrissey, I’m a damn good lawyer. Brian’s not guilty, and I’m going to save his ass.”
“I was going to say unusual. For a human.”
“Because I’m willing to believe he’s innocent?”
“Because you came here, to the outskirts of Shiftertown, to see me. Alone.”
The predator was back.
Why was it that when Brian looked at her like this, it didn’t worry her? Brian was in jail, angry, accused of heinous crimes. A killer, according to the police. But Brian’s stare didn’t send shivers down her spine like Liam Morrissey’s did.
“Any reason I shouldn’t have come alone?” she asked, keeping her voice light. “I’m trying to prove that Shifters in general, and my client in particular, can’t harm humans. I’d do a poor job of it if I was afraid to come and talk to his friends.”
Liam wanted to laugh at the little—spitfire—but he kept his stare cool. She had no idea what she was walking into; Fergus, the clan leader, expected Liam to make sure it stayed that way.
Damn it all, Liam wasn’t supposed to like her. He’d expected the usual human woman, sticks-up-their-asses, all of them, but there was something different about Kim Fraser. It wasn’t just that she was small and compact, while Shifter women were tall and willowy. He liked the way her dark blue eyes regarded him without fear, liked the riot of black of curls that beckoned his fingers. She’d had the sense to leave her hair alone, not force it into some unnatural shape.
On the other hand, she tried to hide her sweetly curvaceous body under a stiff gray business suit, although her body had other ideas. Her breasts wanted to burst out of the button-up blouse, and the stiletto heels only enhanced wickedly sexy legs.
No Shifter woman would dress as she did. Shifter women wore loose clothes they could quickly shed if they needed to change forms. Shorts and T-shirts were popular. So were gypsy skirts and sarongs in the summer.
Liam imagined this lady in a sarong. Her melon-firm breasts would fill out the top, and the skirt would bare her smooth thighs.
She’d be even prettier in a bikini, lolling around some rich man’s pool, sipping a complicated drink. She was a lawyer—there was probably a boss in her firm who had already made her his. Or perhaps she was using said boss to climb the success ladder. Humans did that all the time. Either the bastard would break her heart, or she’d walk away happy with what she’d got out of it.
That’s why we stay the hell away from humans. Brian Smith had taken up with a human woman, and look where he was now.
So why did this female raise Liam’s protective instincts? Why did she make him want to move closer, inside the radius of her body heat? She wouldn’t like that; humans tried to stay a few feet apart from each other unless they couldn’t help it. Even lovers might do nothing more than hold hands in public.
Liam had no business thinking about passion and this woman in the same heartbeat. Fergus’s instructions had been to listen to Kim, sway her, then send her home. Not that Liam was in the habit of blindly obeying Fergus.
“So why do you want to help him, love?” he asked. “You’re only defending him because you drew the short straw, am I right?”
“I’m the junior in the firm, so it was handed to me, yes. But the prosecutor’s office and the police have done a shitty job with this case. Rights violations all over the place, but the courts won’t dismiss it, no matter how much I argue. Everyone wants a Shifter to go down, innocent or guilty.”
“And why do you believe Brian didn’t do it?”
“Why do you think?” Kim tapped her throat. “Because of these.”
Liam resisted touching the strand of black and silver metal fused to his own neck, a small Celtic knot at the base of his throat. The Collars contained tiny programmed chips enhanced by powerful Fae magic to keep Shifters in check, though the humans didn’t want to acknowledge the magic part. The Collar shot an electric charge into a Shifter when his violent tendencies rose to the surface. If the Shifter persisted, the next dose was one of debilitating pain. A Shifter couldn’t attack anyone if he was rolling around on the ground, writhing in agony.
Liam wasn’t sure entirely how the Collars worked; he only knew that each became bonded to its wearer’s skin and adapted to their animal form when they shifted. All Shifters living in human communities were required to wear the Collars, which were unremovable once put on. Refusing the Collar meant execution. If the Shifter tried to escape, he or she was hunted down and killed.
“You know Brian couldn’t have committed a violent crime,” Kim was saying. “His Collar would have stopped him.”
“Let me guess. Your police claim the Collar malfunctioned?”
“Yep. When I suggest having it tested, I’m greeted with all kinds of reasons it can’t be. The Collar can’t be removed, and anyway it would be too dangerous to have Brian Collarless if he could be. Also too dangerous to provoke him to violence and see if the Collar stops him. Brian’s been calm since he was brought in. Like he’s given up.” She looked glum. “I hate to see someone give up like that.”
“You like the underdog?”
She grinned at him with red lips. “You could say that, Mr. Morrissey. Me and the underdog go back a long way.”
Liam liked her mouth. He liked imagining it on his body, on certain parts of his anatomy in particular. He had no business thinking that, but the thoughts triggered a physical reaction below the belt.
Weird. He’d never even considered having sex with a human before. He didn’t find human women attractive; Liam preferred to be in his big cat form for sex. He found sex that way much more satisfying. With Kim, he’d have to remain human.
His gaze strayed to her unbuttoned collar. Of course, it might not be so bad to be human with her…
What the hell am I thinking? Liam’s instructions had been clear, and Liam agreeing to them had been the only way Fergus had allowed Kim to come to Shiftertown at all. Fergus wasn’t keen on a human woman being in charge of Brian’s case, not that they had any choice. Fergus had been pissed about Brian’s arrest from the beginning and thought the Shifters should back off and stay out of it. Almost as though he believed Brian was guilty.
But Fergus lived down on the other side of San Antonio, and what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. Liam would handle this his own way.
“So what do you expect from me, love?” he asked Kim. “Want to test my Collar?”
“No, I want to know more about Brian, about Shifters and the Shifter community. Who Brian’s people are, how he grew up, what it’s like to live in a Shifter enclave.” She smiled again. “Finding six independent witnesses who swear he was nowhere near the victim at the time in question wouldn’t hurt either.”
“Oh, is that all? Bloody miracles is what you want, darling.”
She wrapped a dark curl around her finger. “Brian said that you’re the Shifter people talk to most. Shifters and humans alike.”
It was true that Shifters came to Liam with their troubles. His father, Dylan Morrissey, was master of this Shiftertown, second in power in the whole clan.
Humans knew little about the careful hierarchy of the Shifter clans and prides—packs for Lupines—and still less about how informally but efficiently everything got done. Dylan was the Morrissey pride leader and the leader of this Shiftertown, and Fergus was the clan leader for the Felines of South Texas, but Shifters with a problem sought out Liam or his brother Sean for a chat. They’d meet in the bar or at the coffee shop around the corner. So, Liam, can you ask your father to look into it for me?
No one would petition Dylan or Fergus directly. That wasn’t done. But chatting about things to Liam over coffee, that was fine and didn’t draw attention to the fact that the person in question had troubles.
Everyone would know anyway, of course. Life in a Shiftertown reminded Liam very much of life in the Irish village he’d lived near until they’d come to Texas twenty years ago. Everyone knew everything about everyone, and news traveled, lightning-swift, from one side of the village to the other.
“Brian never came to me,” he said. “I never knew anything about this human girl until suddenly the police swoop in here and arrest him. His mother struggled out of bed to watch her son be dragged away. She didn’t even know why for days.”
Kim watched Liam’s blue eyes harden. The Shifters were angry about Brian’s arrest, that was certain. Citizens of Austin had tensely waited for the Shifters to make trouble after the arrest, to break free and try to retaliate with violence, but Shiftertown remained quiet. Kim wondered why, but she wasn’t about to ask right now and risk angering the one person who might help her.
“Exactly my point,” she said. “This case has been handled badly from start to finish. If you help me, I can spring Brian and make a point at the same time. You don’t mess with people’s rights, not even Shifters’.”
Liam’s eyes grew harder, if that were possible. It was like looking at living sapphire. “I don’t give a damn about making a point. I give a damn about Brian’s family.”
All right, so she’d miscalculated about what would motivate him. “In that case, Brian’s family will be happier with him outside prison, not inside.”
“He won’t go to prison, love. He’ll be executed, and you know it. No waiting twenty years on death row, either. They’ll kill him, and they’ll kill him fast.”
That was true. The prosecutor, the county sheriff, the attorney general, and even the governor wanted an example made of Brian. There hadn’t been a Shifter attack in twenty years, and the Texas government wanted to assure the world that they weren’t going to allow one now.
“So are you going to help me save him?” Kim asked. If he wanted to be direct and to the point, fine. So could she. “Or let him die?”
Anger flickered through Liam’s eyes again, then sorrow and frustration. Shifters were emotional people from what she’d seen in Brian, not bothering to hide what they felt. Brian had lashed out at Kim many times before he’d grudgingly acknowledged that she was on his side.
If Liam decided to stonewall her, Brian had said, Kim had no hope of getting cooperation from the other Shifters. Even Brian’s own mother would take her cue from Liam.
Liam had the look of a man who didn’t take shit from anyone. A man used to giving the orders himself, but so far he hadn’t seemed brutal. He could make his voice soft and lilting, reassuring, friendly. He was a defender, she guessed. A protector of his people.
Was he deciding whether to protect Brian or turn his back?
Liam’s gaze flicked past her to the door, every line of his body coming alert. Kim’s nerves made her jump. “What is it?”
Liam got out of his chair and started around the desk at the same time the door scraped open and another man—another Shifter—walked in.
Liam’s expression changed. “Sean.” He clasped the other Shifter’s arms and pulled him into a hug.