The crowd around her either roared and howled in approval or hissed and barked in disapproval, depending on which team they supported. But Blayne Thorpe could do neither. Instead, she only gaped at the behemoth hybrid continuing to force that poor, battered feline face into the glass by using nothing more than his hockey stick and overwhelming size.
She had heard he'd gotten bigger since she'd last seen him nearly ten years ago, but she thought they were talking about the man's career. Not his size.
Career wise, the minor shifter league's onetime left defenseman from nowhere Maine had gone on to become one of the greatest hockey players the pro shifter league had ever known. Bo "The Marauder" Novikov was one of the first-and at one time, one of the only-hybrids to ever play on a professional team in any league. Of course, his saving grace had been that he wasn't one of the more feared-and, to be quite honest, more unstable-canine hybrids like Blayne, but a rare by-product of species crossbreeding. Specifically a polar bear-lion. Or, as Blayne always secretly thought of him, a mighty bear-cat. A much cuter name in Blayne's estimation than polar bear-lion. But bears breeding with felines was such a rare thing-and damn near nonexistent more than twenty-five years ago-that they didn't have any cute nicknames like coydogs for coyote-dogs or ligers and tigons for lion and tiger mixes.
Yet that didn't mean Blayne saw Novikov as one of the top representatives of the hybrid nation. How could she? He represented everything she loathed in sports. Where was the sportsmanship? Where was the team spirit? Where was the loyalty?
In ten years the Marauder had become one of the most hated and feared players in any shifter league in the States, Asia, and most of Europe. Although in Russia and Sweden, he was merely considered "tough-for an American." Adored and loathed by fans in equal amounts, Novikov was equally detested by both his opponents and his own teammates. Bo Novikov had made a name for himself by being what Blayne could only describe as pure asshole on skates. If you were in his way, Novikov would either make you move or plow right through you. If you had his puck-and it was always his puck-he'd find a way to get it away from you, even if it meant permanent damage and learning to walk again for the opposition. From what Blayne had heard, he never had a friendly word for anyone, even the cubs and pups who worshipped at his feet.
None of this surprised Blayne. How could it? She'd met the man when he was a much shorter, nineteen-year-old minor league player. Tracey, a tigress that Blayne liked about as much as her best friend Gwen detested her, had seen Novikov playing and had begged Blayne to somehow get Gwen to invite her to one of her uncle's practices. At the time, the O'Neill males ran the Philly Furors minor hockey team. Two of Gwen's uncles were the managers and six of her cousins were either coaches or players. Although Blayne was invited anywhere that the O'Neills were, Tracey couldn't risk just showing up whenever she felt like it. Not unless she wanted to get her ass kicked by Gwen and her female cousins. It took some pleading, begging, and whining on Blayne's part, but eventually Gwen agreed that Tracey could come to one of the practices.
The idea had been that Tracey, wearing their Catholic school uniform-appropriately adjusted for after-school boy hunts-would show up and transfix the hybrid with her tigress beauty. It seemed like a solid plan as far as Blayne was concerned. And Tracey, not being real shy about that sort of thing, had made her move during one of the team's breaks. Blayne had barely noticed, too busy sitting in the stands and wolfing down a cheesesteak from the bear-owned restaurant across the street. She was halfway done with her sandwich when she felt like she was being watched. She had been, too. She'd looked up to find piercing blue eyes staring at her through the protective glass between the stands and the rink.
He didn't say anything, either. He just ... stared. And he kept staring while glaring. He glared at her like she'd stolen his wallet or cut him with a razor. The bite of cheesesteak in her mouth went down her throat hard, and she tried to figure out if she could make it to the exit before he reached her. He looked like he wanted to eat her alive, and coming from a predator that was not a good thing. Especially a predator who, it was rumored, had descended from Genghis Khan on his mother's side and the Cossacks on his father's.
Putting down the remainder of her sandwich, Blayne had slowly stood. As she did, those blue eyes studied her every move. He watched her pick up her backpack and, in her saddle shoes, slowly make her way down the aisle. He'd skated along with her, oblivious to the fact that the O'Neills had noticed his interest. Blayne had reached the end of the bleachers and took the steps down to the massive hallway that the players entered through. Slowly, not wanting to startle him, she'd eased the straps of her bag over her shoulders. With the bag on, she'd looked over her shoulder one more time, expecting to see Bo Novikov still on the ice. He wasn't. He was right behind her. Blue eyes fierce as they glowered down at her.
And Blayne, as always, handled it with her usual skill and subtlety. She screamed like someone was stabbing her to death and took off running. Gwen called her name and ran after her, but Blayne didn't stop until she'd run out of the building, across the street, and all the way home. She burst into her father's house, slamming the door behind her, locking it, pushing her father's favorite chair in front of it and then the side table. She was working on getting the piano over there, when her father had walked in from the backyard. "What are you doing?" he'd asked, and Blayne had been forced to calm down because there was little her father "tolerated" from his daughter. And her "irrational bullshit" was at the top of his "No Tolerance" list.
After taking a breath Blayne had replied, "Nothin'. Why?"
Her father didn't seem to believe her much, but he let it go. Tracey, however, did not let it go. She blamed Blayne for blowing the tigress's chance at being the future-and very wealthy-mate of a hockey star. Tracey never spoke to her again, which Gwen was very happy about, while Novikov lasted another month with the minor league team before landing his first major league deal. She hadn't seen him since that day and didn't bother to go to many hockey games, so she hadn't seen him play. But she'd heard about him. It was impossible to be around sports lovers and not hear about Novikov.
To quote her father, who loved sports so much he even watched the full-humans on TV, "That boy would take down his grandmother if she had his puck." And as usual, her father was right. If she had any doubts about the accuracy of his statement, all she had to do was continue to sit in this stadium with five thousand other shifters and watch that vicious barbarian batter the much smaller leopard into the ice. And why was he doing that? Because the smaller leopard had taken his puck.
The opposing team, the Charleston Butchers, tried to stop Novikov, but he tossed them off his back like they were puppies. The buzzer sounded and Novikov immediately stopped what he was doing, which somehow made Novikov seem even more cold-blooded.
The New York Carnivores newest center and enforcer stood. He was no longer the six-one, two-hundred-fifty-pound serial killer looking sub-adult she'd met all those years ago. Nope. He was now a seven-one, three-hundred-seventy-eight-pound serial killer looking adult.
Thankfully, though, she couldn't see his face or those frightening eyes because of all the blood he'd splattered over the protective glass between Blayne's and Gwen's primo seats and the rink. But Novikov didn't move away. She could see he was just standing there, facing in her direction.
"He can't remember me," she thought desperately. "There's no way he can remember me." She kept chanting that in her head while a gloved hand reached up and wiped at the glass. The blood smeared, but it was clear enough for Novikov to look through it and directly at her.
He was chewing gum. So was she. Cold blue eyes that had not changed to gold like most lion and lion hybrids gazed coldly at her. Blayne gazed back. She wouldn't run this time. She'd done her research and had a better grasp of serial killers. Not that she had proof Novikov was one, but a girl could never be too careful. And what she'd learned was to not show fear. Serial killers preyed on those they considered weak. She may not be all wolf but she had enough of her father in her to give her a backbone. So ... so there!
If someone asked Blayne later if she had any idea how long they were staring at each other, she knew she'd have to honestly say she had no clue. It felt like hours, but basic logic told her it was more like thirty seconds or so. Long enough for one of Novikov's teammates to push his shoulder to get him to move off the ice. Probably not a good idea. Novikov caught the pushy wolf's right arm and launched him the entire length of the rink and right into the other team's unprotected goal. He didn't score anything by doing that, but the crowd loved it.
Her mouth open, Blayne gaped at him. That was his own teammate. Not the opposition. Where's the loyalty? she wanted to know.
She wouldn't know there was any fan love, though, from the way Novikov looked back at her, ignoring all his cheering, screaming fans. That impossibly angry-okay, fine! And gorgeous!-face glaring at her through all that blood.
The man may have been a sub-adult bear-cat when she'd first met him all those years ago, but he was a full adult predator now. Not only had he hit his bear shifter growth spurt, but his gold-brown lion's mane had grown in under the white hair that poured from the crown of his head, the two hair colors mixing into a silky mass that tumbled to just above his wide shoulders, giving him a kind of "rock-and-roll meets punk" look that worked for him. And although his eyes may be blue, the shape of his eyelids combined with sharp cheekbones, full bottom lip, and blunt-ended nose that faintly resembled a cat muzzle revealed his Mongolian descent.
Blayne would never say it out loud, but there had to be a cool factor to saying that his birth-Pride had descended directly from a lion shifter bloodline dating from the time of Genghis Khan. Novikov's ancestors ran before Khan's armies, destroying-and eating-whatever was in their way, helping the barbarian leader expand his territories until the cats grew bored and wandered off. Of course, Novikov's family on his father's side wasn't exactly filled with peace lovers, either. Nope. The Novikovs were descended from mighty Siberian Cossack polars dating back to the early 1600s, and they still ran some tough towns near the Arctic Circle.
Finally, after their endless staring, Novikov glided back from her, gave her one last hard look, and skated back to his team.
Once gone, Blayne crumpled into her seat.
"You're panting, hon."
"I am not panting," she told Gwen. "I'm trying to not breathe in fear. I thought he was going to rip my face off."
Gwen held out a bag of popcorn. "I don't know why you find him so scary."
Now Blayne gawked at her best friend. "Gee, I don't know. Maybe it's because it looks like he wants to cut my throat and watch the life slowly drain from my body so he can fuck my corpse without all that screaming-and-putting-up-a-fight distraction!"
Blayne cringed and, ignoring Gwen's shoulders shaking as she silently but hysterically laughed, turned and smiled at the family of six behind her. The youngest about five. "Sorry," she croaked out. "Sorry about that."
The father, a jackal, gave her a disapproving bark.
Blayne turned back around. Once again, she'd have to keep reminding herself that only the derby league had a twenty-one and older rule for their bouts. All the other sports, no matter the level of bloodletting, were family friendly. Because your five-year-old pup should always know how to eviscerate a cheetah that had the misfortune of holding your ball or taking your puck.
"Popcorn?" Gwen asked.
Not looking at her friend, Blayne dug into the bag and took a handful. "I hate you," she reminded Gwen.
"I know, sweetie. I know."
Bo sat down on the bench, the second string hitting the ice. He tugged off a glove and reached under his helmet to scratch his sweat-soaked hair. After he finished, he pulled his glove back on and studied the ongoing game.
She was here. In this stadium. Sitting in ridiculously expensive seats with that same girl she'd been friends with in high school. She hadn't changed much since the first time he'd seen her-running away from him. Screaming. Her reaction had been a bit of a blow to his extremely sensitive ego, but he didn't let it get to him because he'd been too busy studying those powerful legs under that Catholic school girl uniform as they'd bolted off. Purr.
Yet even now she looked at him the same way, didn't she? Like she'd stumbled between a grizzly sow and her cubs. Funny, most females didn't look at him like that. Then again most predator females were direct and rarely scared off from what they wanted. He always knew that some of them had more interest in his money or the hope they could breed the next big hockey star. Some hoped he was as charming and witty as the rumor mill-shifter sports didn't have any media covering their every move-had made him out to be over the years. Uh ... he wasn't. Charming and witty that is. He was definitely direct, curt, and as one ex-girlfriend told him, "I used to think you were shy, which is cute. But you're not shy. You're just an introvert who doesn't really like other human beings!" And his answer hadn't made her any less unhappy. "Yeah, but I told you that up front." He had, too. Bo was all about being direct. He liked direct. Direct cut to the heart of the matter in seconds rather than hours of asking, "Are you all right?" Only to get back the answer, "I'm fine." More than one female had left his ass because he'd taken their "I'm fine" exactly for what it was, only to find out later that it was code for, "I'm unhappy and it's all your fault but you should know that without me telling you!"
So, after several years of that constant bullshit, he'd been on his own. He liked it that way and had had every intention of keeping that his status quo until the day he died. Then he'd done that thing he did every couple of years when he got an itch that could only be scratched in one way. He'd called his agent, Bernie Lawman, of the Lawman Clan-say what you will about hyenas eating their young, they made phenomenal agents-and said what he always said to the man during these calls over the years, "I'm bored." In less than three days, Bernie came back to Bo with offers from nearly every major hockey team in the American league, Russian league, and Asian league. The only team that pointedly refused to make an offer was the Alaskan Bears and that was because they didn't have to offer anyone anything. The entire team was made up of bears with two foxes as their centers. Just surviving a game against them was considered a win. But for Bo that was a little too easy. An entire team of bears was not exactly a challenge unless he was playing against them. And Bo needed challenges because when he got bored, he moved on.
Every offer involved a several-million-dollar signing bonus and perks that full-human sports stars could only dream of. His own seal farm was still his favorite, and he'd debated long and hard on that one. The deals were all fabulous, and he'd narrowed it down to the Hawaiian team-complete with his own untouched territory in the Antarctic during his off season, so he wouldn't have to sit around melting in the Hawaiian weather-and the Utah team-seal farm! While he debated, his agent had called.
"Didn't you say you wanted to go to New York to stop at that used bookstore?"
"Yeah. Figured I'd go next week sometime. Why?"
"Wanna go for free?"
Sure. Why not? Plus Bernie got to go and see his New York family on someone else's dime. That someone else turning out to be Ulrich Van Holtz. Round-trip flights on a private jet-although nothing beat the entertainment value of watching the horror of a full-human flight staff when they saw Bo heading their way with a suitcase-and one dinner meeting with Van Holtz at one of his family-owned and -managed restaurants.
Excerpted from Beast Behaving Badly by Shelly Laurenston Copyright © 2010 by Shelly Laurenston. Excerpted by permission.
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