Iona smelled him long before she saw him--Eric Warden, the alpha Feline who ran the local Shiftertown, who'd decided to make half-Shifter Iona Duncan's life hell.
She loped down the desert canyon, rock grating on her paws. The Nevada night was warm though it was early winter, the sky a riot of stars, the glow of the city far behind. Out here, Iona could be what she was meant to be--a wildcat, a Feline Shifter, running free.
For some reason, Eric wanted to end that.
Catch me if you can, Feline.
Last night, after her half sister's bridal shower, Iona had stayed out until dawn with Nicole and about twenty friends--all human. They'd gone to a human bar, no Shifters allowed, thank God. They'd liberated the bar of plenty of margaritas before limping home in the light of early morning. Iona had snatched a couple hours of sleep before she'd dragged herself to work.
The frenzy of the night out followed by the hangover of the day triggered Iona's need to shift. After work, Iona had driven her red pickup out to her favorite spot in the middle of the desert, off-roading half an hour to get there. She'd barely shed her clothes before her wildcat had taken over.
And now Eric was following her.
He pounded behind her, a powerhouse Shifter, his wildcat more snow leopard than anything else. Sleek, strong, cunning. Feline Shifters were a mixture of all wildcats--lion, leopard, jaguar, cheetah, tiger, and others--but most Shifters tended toward a certain type.
Iona was mostly panther, with black fur to match the hair she had while human. Her panther was long-legged, sure-footed, and a good jumper. This was her territory, and she laughed with glee as she left Eric far behind.
She dodged across a dry wash, kicking up dust, and scrambled into the rocky crevices on the other side. She knew by scent how far she was from Area 51, a place guarded by men with SUVs and rifles. Shifters could escape detection if they wanted to, but heading the other direction, east and a little north of here, was safer. Iona hopped from one sandstone ledge to the next, her paws scrabbling a little in the gravel.
She loved this. The joy of being in wild country nearly impossible for humans to reach was heady. This is what I'm meant to be.
Damned if Eric didn't follow right after her, faster than she'd thought he would. Iona crested the ridge at the top of the canyon and kept going.
She ran along a ledge and dropped down the other side of the ridge. Before she got to the bottom, she slunk into a shallow cave she knew was there from previous exploration. Anyone watching from the top would see only that she'd vanished.
Eric wouldn't need to see her to find her though. He'd scent her, but why make it easy for him?
Ever since Eric had spotted her in Coolers last spring, one of the few clubs that allowed in Shifters, he'd tracked her. Stalked her, Iona corrected.
Damned stubborn, hotter-than-hell Shifter with the green eyes--he followed her when she went out at night, sometimes showing up at her house or coming after her on her runs. She'd spot him here and there throughout the day, when she went to work or ran errands or drove out to a building site. Protecting her, Eric said. Driving her insane, was more like it.
The fact that Iona was half Shifter was a deep, dark secret her mother and half sister had kept for thirty-two years. Eric's interest in her was dangerous, could expose her as Shifter, and once that happened, her happy life would be over.
But Eric's scent had triggered something in Iona from the moment he'd sat down next to her in the club's dark corner and told her he knew what Iona was. He'd smelled of sweat and the night, and a musk that had made everything in her alert and aware.
His scent was stronger now, overlaid with that of his wildcat. He was coming.
Iona flattened herself into the black shadows at the back of the cave, but Eric was at the entrance, his leopard filling the opening. She faced him, ears flat against her head, her fur rising on her neck.
Eric didn't move. Dominants didn't need to show teeth or make any noise to tell another Shifter who was in charge. You knew.
He was far larger and more powerful than a natural snow leopard, his pelt creamy white and branded with a black jagged pattern. His eyes, fixed on her, were jade green.
Iona's wildcat was more slender than Eric's but no smaller, though it would be an interesting contest to see whether she matched him in strength. The biggest difference between them, though, was that Eric wore a silver and black Collar, and Iona did not.
Eric rose on his hind legs until his head nearly touched the roof of the cave. At the same time, his fur and cat limbs flowed into human bones and flesh. In a few seconds, a man stood in the leopard's place, a tall, muscular, naked male who made Iona's heart pound.
His face was hard and square, his chocolate brown hair cut short. A black tattoo swirled around his large shoulder and trailed down his arm in a jagged line. The tattoo wasn't magical--Shifters didn't need tatts. Eric just liked it.
His green eyes saw everything. There was no escaping that gaze once it fixed on you, even across a packed dance floor in a Las Vegas club. Iona still remembered the burn of his stare across the room; Eric, the first person in Iona's life outside of her family who'd looked at her and recognized her as Shifter.
Even through her worry and anger, Iona had to concede that Eric was delectable. He put to shame all the guys who'd tried last night to get her to dance with them.
What was between Eric's legs put them to shame too. The man was hung.
"You can't keep this up," Eric said. His voice, deep and fine, with the barest touch of Scots, had lately started invading her dreams.
Iona gave him a snarl to let him know he didn't worry her. Which was bullshit. He could take her in a heartbeat and both of them knew it.
Eric took one step forward. She crouched, waiting, letting him take another step, and another.
Once he'd cleared the entrance to the cave, Iona leapt up and sprang past him. His leopard she couldn't outrun, but she could outrun him in her animal form while he remained human. She barreled out of the cave and onto the rocks . . .
And found two hundred pounds of leopard on top of her, pinning her to the ledge.
How the hell did he shift that fast? Shifting took a while for Iona, and it could be painful. Eric flowed into his wildcat so smoothly it made her sick.
His growl became bad tempered as Iona struggled. His ears went flat, and he locked his teeth around her throat.
Fur protected Iona from the prick of his fangs, but she panicked. He could kill her right now, rip out her throat or slice open her belly. The panther sensed his strength--a fight with him would be tough. She couldn't get away--he was too fast.
Iona shifted. She didn't want to, but some instinct told her he wouldn't hurt her if she became a human. She felt her claws change to fingers and toes, her pelt fade and withdraw to become human flesh.
Eric lifted his long teeth from her throat, but he didn't do anything to stop her shifting. He waited and watched until Iona became a human woman, one with a large, soft-furred snow leopard draped over her bare body.
That large, soft-furred, snow leopard suddenly became a man. One minute Iona had a big kitty lying on her, the next, a strong, naked human male pinned her to the ground.
She struggled, but Eric trapped her wrists and held them against the cold gravel. He wanted her to look away as he stared her down, but she refused to. Somehow Iona knew that if she ever did look away, she'd lose--not only now, but always.
"I told you to call me when you needed to go running," he growled.
"You follow me anyway. Why should I bother?"
"I scented you fighting the shift even as you drove away. It's getting harder, isn't it?"
Iona tried to ignore the stab of fear his words gave her. "Why can't you leave me alone? If anyone finds out I'm Shifter . . ."
She knew exactly what they'd do. The human Shifter bureau would slap a Collar on her without listening to her protests, strip Iona of all her rights, and keep her in quarantine before releasing her to whatever Shifter they assigned to keep her under control. Three guesses as to who that Shifter would be.
And who the hell knew what they'd do to Iona's mother, who'd kept the fact that Iona was half Shifter quiet all this time.
"I can't leave you alone. You're in my jurisdiction, my responsibility. And you're losing control, aren't you?"
Iona shivered with more than anger. His long body was hard on hers, muscles gleaming with sweat in the moonlight. Eric's living strength made the wild thing in her want to respond.
"I was hung over," she said. "I'm not like this every day."
Eric lowered his head and inhaled, his nose touching her throat. "You will be soon. Your mating need is high and getting stronger."
That need pounded through her, tried to make Iona's body rise to his. A male, ready for you--take him!
"What I do is none of your business," Iona managed to say. "Leave me the hell alone. My life has been fine so far without you in it."
"But I'm in it now." His voice was deep and rumbling, almost a purr. The tattoo that wound down his arm kept drawing her gaze, and she so much wanted to touch it . . .
For Eric's part, he was barely holding on to his self-control. Iona's scent was that of a female Feline who'd reached her fertile years, a little over thirty by human standards, a few years past cub by Shifter.
This female Feline didn't know how to control her pheromones, didn't realize she was broadcasting her availability to every Shifter male far and wide. She might as well hold up a flashing sign.
Good thing Eric was so disciplined, still mourning his mate lost long ago, so uninterested in mating. Right?
Or he'd be hard as a rock, wanting to say to hell with it and take her. They were alone in the middle of nowhere, and Eric was within his rights to take whatever stray adult female wandered into his territory.
He didn't necessarily have to mate-claim her. As clan leader as well as pride leader, he could father cubs on a lone female belonging to no pride or clan if he wanted to. For the good of the clan, for the strength of his pride. So he could say.
But those had been the rules in the wild. Shifters were tamer, now, civilized. Living together in a community, in harmony. And all that crap.
Eric's instincts said, Screw the rules. She's unmated and unclaimed. By rights, she's fair game, and I found her. That makes her mine.
Wouldn't that be sweet? Iona Duncan had a face that was pure Celtic, her hair black as the night sky, her eyes the light ice blue of her ancestors. Shifters had been created about the time the Nordic invaders would have been subduing Celts in northern Scotland, and some of that mixture had gotten into Iona.
Now her soft but strong body was under his, and her blue eyes held longing, oceans of it.
"Does it hurt?" Eric asked in a gentler tone.
"Having a big Shifter male resting his weight on my wrists? I'd say yes."
Eric wanted to laugh. He liked the challenge in her, liked that she wasn't cringing, timid, and submissive. Untrained, yes; terrified, no.
"I mean the mating need," Eric said. "It's rising in you, and you can't stop it. That's why you're out here, why you've been running around like a crazy thing. You want to be wild, to taste the wind. To hunt. To feel the fear in you flow to the innocent creatures out there, to make them fear you."
Iona stopped squirming, her eyes going still. Eric read the hunger in her, the need to find a male, to mate in wild frenzy for days. Iona wasn't stopped by a Collar. Her instincts would flow like fire. Untamed.
Eric's own need rose in response. He wanted to kiss that fire, to taste the freedom in her that was now only a memory to him.
He nuzzled the line of her hair, already knowing her scent, already familiar with it.
"I'll take care of you," he said. "You'll become part of my pride, and I'll look after you. Me and my sister and my son. We'll take care of you from now on."
Iona's glare returned. "I don't want to be part of your pride. They'd put that Collar on me." Her frenzied gaze went to the chain fused to Eric's neck, the Celtic knot resting on his throat. "It's painful, isn't it? When the Collar goes on?"
"Yes." Eric couldn't lie. He remembered the agony when the Collar had locked around his throat, every second of it, though it had been twenty years ago now. The Collars hurt anew whenever a Shifter's violent nature rose within him--the Collar shocked so hard it knocked said Shifter flat on his ass for a while.
"Why would you want me to experience that?" Iona asked. "You say you want to take care of me, but you want me to go through taking the Collar?"
"No, I don't." And if Eric did things right, she wouldn't have to wear a Collar, ever.
The urge to take Iona far away, to hide her somewhere from prying eyes, to protect her from the world was making him crazy. Protect the mate was the instinct that drove all males.
Eric caressed her wrists where he held them down. "If you don't acknowledge the Shifter, if you don't learn how to control what's going on inside you, you're going to go feral."
"Feral?" Her sable brows drew down. "What the hell does that mean?"
"It means what it sounds like. The beast in you takes over, and you forget what it is to be human, even in your human form. You'll live only to kill and to mate. You'll start resenting your family for trying to keep you home. You'll try to get away from them. You might even hurt them."
Iona looked stunned. "I'd never do that."
"You won't mean to, but you will. You can keep them safe if you learn how to be Shifter and live with Shifters. I won't let humans know anything about you until the Collar is on you, and you're ready."
"My point is that humans should never have to know I'm Shifter. No one's ever suspected, but they will if an asshole Shifter keeps following me around."
Eric clamped down on her wrists, at the end of his patience. "If you go feral, they might not bother Collaring you. They'll just shoot you like an animal, and your mother will go to prison for not reporting your existence. Is that really what you want?"
He felt her fear reaction, but Iona kept up her glare. "I'm half human. Won't that keep me from going feral?"
"Not necessarily. Sometimes the human side helps. Sometimes it doesn't."
"I'm not giving up my entire life to live with you in a ghetto because you say I might go crazy," Iona said. "I'll risk it."
Eric growled. "I can't let you go on living without protection."
Her eyes widened. "How do you plan to protect me? Abduct me and lock me in your house? What would the human police say to that?"
Taking her home and keeping her there was exactly what Eric wanted to do. At any other time, he'd simply do it. Iona was getting out of control, and she needed help.
But Shiftertown might not be the safest place for her at the moment, now that the idiot human government had decided--to save money--to shut down a northern Nevada Shiftertown and relocate all those Shifters to Eric's Shiftertown. The humans, in their ignorance, had decided that the new Shifters would simply be absorbed under Eric's leadership.
What the humans didn't understand--in spite of Eric talking himself blue to explain--was that Shifters of both Shiftertowns were used to a certain hierarchy and couldn't change it overnight. The other Shiftertown leader was being forced to step down a few rungs under Eric, which wasn't going over well, especially since that leader was a Feline-hating Lupine.
Eric at least had persuaded the humans to let him meet the other leader, Graham McNeil, face-to-face before the new Shifters moved down here. Eric had found McNeil to be a disgruntled, old-fashioned Shifter, furious that the humans were forcing him to submit to Eric's rule.
McNeil was going to be trouble. He already had been, demanding more meetings with humans without Eric, insisting that Eric's Shifters got turned out of their houses and crammed in with others so McNeil's Shifters wouldn't have to wait for the new housing to be built.
McNeil was going to challenge for leadership--Eric had known that before the man opened his mouth. McNeil's Shiftertown had been all Lupine, and his Lupines were less than thrilled to learn that they had to adapt to living with bears and Felines.
And in the middle of all this, a young, fertile female with the rising need to mate was running around loose and unprotected.
Iona struggled to sit up again. It went against Eric's every instinct to lift himself from the cushion of her body, but he did it.
She leaned against the rock wall and scraped her hair back from her face. Goddess, she was sexy, bare breasted in the moonlight, lifting midnight hair from her sharp-boned face.
Naked and beautiful, filling Eric's brain with wanting. And if he did this right, she might provide the answer to some of his Shiftertown problems.
"I was coming to see you tonight for a reason," Eric said. "Not just to track you down. I came to ask you to have Duncan Construction bid on the housing project to expand Shiftertown."
Iona stared at him in surprise, letting go of the hair she'd been smoothing. "Why would I want to do that?"
"Because I need someone I can trust to build these houses. Shifter houses aren't just places for Shifters to live. I need them constructed in a way that's best for Shifters. It's important."
She looked curious in spite of her caution. "What do you mean, in a way that's best for Shifters?"
Eric couldn't explain--yet. He'd have to wait before he revealed to her that Shifter houses didn't simply hold Shifter families. They held secrets of Shifter clans that humans could never know about.
Even McNeil would need to protect the secrets of his pack, probably why the man wanted to move into the existing Shifter houses--they already had the necessary spaces. Eric had planned to modify the new houses the same way he and his Shifters had modified the old houses, a little bit, over time, so the humans never realized they were doing it. But Graham's Shifters didn't have the patience, and it would be smarter to do it right away. Using Iona's company and guiding her through the process could get it done quicker, and help both her and Shiftertown.
"I can't tell you until you win the contract." Eric said. He met her gaze, not disguising anything in his. "Please."