Blurb:Isser and Sol's pack is in trouble. Jewel's newborn cubs are ill and the pack needs money to treat them. Leaving the more experienced wolves to protect the women and children, the two bounty hunters agree to undertake a questionable assignment from known criminal Linus Lilymann. He wants them to find his stolen ruby and he insists he can't possibly go to the police. Normally, Sol and Isser wouldn't even consider it, but right now, it looks like the cubs only chance.
The mission turns out to be not what the expected at all. For one thing, Ruby's a person, not a jewel. And for another, she's a dangerous tiger shifter who escaped her kidnappers only to spend her life in a convent worshipping a cat goddess. She's never been out in the world, she's utterly unprepared to deal with men like Sol and Isser, and what's worse, her first shift and her first sexual heat will happen on her twenty-fifth birthday. Soon. And only sex will help her hold onto her humanity.
A tiger in heat will make a mate--or a meal--out of her first lover. Sol and Isser might be able to help her, but if they fail, their entire pack will suffer. It's a difficult decision: protect the pack or protect their new treasure.
Sol gripped the shuttle’s comm and turned it off. They didn’t want any ships to hail them. He set the coordinates in the computer to take them to the planet Atala. “I wish we were closer. Every second counts, and I want to earn this bounty and get back home. Linus Lilymann—huh, he’s such a crook. You know we’re probably looking for stolen, stolen property,” Sol complained.
“I know, but Lilymann has plenty of money. This is important to him if he’s willing to contract professional bounty hunters. He doesn’t get the goods until we get paid.”
“Fair enough. You were the one to get the details. What exactly are we hunting?” Sol asked. His eyebrow rose.
“His ruby? As in singular? One gem?”
“That’s what he said. He said it’s the ruby he’s always wanted, and he needs it back before the full moon. A woman took it. We’re not supposed to take the gem from her. He wants us to bring the woman instead. He said she has it, without a doubt, and just to bring her back to him, alive, and that’s it. He gave me this bit of fabric. It bears her scent. She smells a bit strange, but I can’t put my finger on it.”
Sol took the scrap of pale material and pressed it to his nose. He inhaled sharply.
“You’re right. This scent isn’t quite human. Even the most mutated human wouldn’t smell like this. It’s not like anything I’ve encountered before. It’s almost wolf, but different. Strange.” He sighed and shrugged as he handed the clue back to Isser. “I hate hunting women, even thieves. Makis would never have accepted this job...” Sol paused and rubbed his tired eyes. “If Jewel and her pups die, the pack will never be home again. I doubt Rion and Makis would even survive. Rion might because he has Boon to think about, but Makis wouldn’t have anything if they all three die. If we weren’t on the run, we could take out credit. They’d already have had the benefit of a doctor. Even free from the clan, we are still suffering. I pray to the gods someday we’ll have true safety to live in the old way. Jewel is the glue holding us together. Everything turns to shit when she dies.”
“Don’t...fucking...talk...like...that... Just don’t! Makis is our leader. He’d never leave us by choice.” Isser sounded younger than his years and even a little frightened. The way he said leader could’ve easily been substituted for father.
“You feel it, the way it is for the three of them. Don’t tell me you haven’t woken to a wave of passion in the middle of the night. Occasionally, I’d experience the strong impression of the possessiveness and awe those two have for her. That’s the dream, to love like nothing else matters. It’s why we risked everything to leave the clan. I doubt I’ll ever have what they have, but it’s beautiful. I wouldn’t want to live if I lost a mate and that kind of perfect, forever love.”
Sol heard the clatter of Isser’s seat belt releasing. He turned and noticed his brother’s enraged scowl as the man crouched down in the single pilot compartment next to him. “We can’t think like she’s going to die. We do the job, and we get them what they need. We make it better, got it?”
Sol nodded, but the horror echoing from Isser’s subconscious hit him in waves of agony. They’d all lost family and community once. The idea of losing what they had slammed into his heart with agonizing force.
“At least we won’t have to go through any wormholes. Sit back and relax, Bro. We’re on our way,” Isser muttered. He gave his brother a quick look before he punched the accelerator on the old ship. The stars stretched out into long lines around them as they sped through space in the direction of planet Atala. The money they needed to take care of their pack waited for them.
* * * *
Ruby ached all over. Sleeping on the cold ground wasn’t what she was accustomed to doing. Her life of learning and prayer hadn’t prepared her for being on the run. Since her escape, she’d managed to avoid the men searching for her by staying in the dark woodland. New men, more skilled trackers, had joined her kidnappers. The idea of so many males hunting her was terrifying. She suffered, so ill, her whole body burning, as if it were on fire. The primal wilderness wasn’t helping her hold on to her civilized humanity. The tiger wanted freedom. Ruby missed her warm, safe bed back at the house of worship. Her pussy throbbed, and she glanced up at the sky superstitiously. She’d been warned about the urges. She wanted meat, rare—raw, delicious meat. The desire struck her as odd since she’d grown up on a vegetarian diet.
Her mind wandered to the many ceremonies where the male devotees worshipped in the temple. Ruby remembered singing the hymns with passion as she observed the women riding the hard cocks of their silent lovers. Little arrows of excitement darted through her core as she imagined hairless, purified male bodies naked and chained. They lay in a state of helpless arousal during the full moon.
Her fingers brushed her mound through her tattered robes. She moaned. Pleasuring herself before her consecration was a terrible sin against the goddess, so she stopped and ignored the ache for release. If she didn’t get back to her planet, and the house of worship, she’d die. She’d escaped before they could deliver her, but somewhere on this world lurked the man who’d paid for her kidnapping. She’d heard the monsters talking. They knew her time was running out. Luckily, her change had given her the strength to escape, but now that power had left her. This world didn’t have the red burning moon of her home, but the lack of astronomical markers wasn’t stopping her body from the tormenting effects of her first heat.
Panting, she lay in the cool grass, trying to focus on the sensation of the cold dew instead of how much she craved the end of her virginity. If she were home, she’d be lying naked, awaiting the male worshippers who would unleash the cat inside her. Until today, she’d dreaded the experience, but now she needed sex.
A wave of dizziness hit her. Light-headed, Ruby sat up. The early-dawn light burned strangely bright. She lifted her hand to shield her eyes, and the action caused her to notice her nails. Gasping, she pulled her hand closer to her face. Her eyes widened, and her lip trembled. She squeezed her mouth tightly shut to stop the tremble. Terror gripped her. The bitter taste of bile rose up in her throat. The nasty flavor caused her to suck in a deep breath as she fought to maintain her composure. Her nails had grown into sharp claws, and each of her knuckles had a frightening patch of hair jutting out from her skin.
She wanted to kill prey and eat it. A consecrated youth learned the virtue of a sweet and serene attitude. Now she desired violence as her inner agitation escalated. Her stomach rolled. Hunger had always been a usual part of her daily routine. Showing restraint at all times, included meals, was part of her ritualistic worship practices, but she’d never experienced such a gripping demand for sustenance. Agony curled her into a ball. She took deep breaths through her nose and exhaled deeply out of her mouth. When the torment subsided, Ruby stretched. Sitting in the dirt wasn’t going to fill her belly. A strange urge to hunt made her restless.
She didn’t have the slightest idea about how to stalk prey, and yet her tiger wanted to do it. The beast had always been deep inside her, but this was the first time her inner animal was strong enough to control her. She didn’t like it. The sensation of losing control shook her with terrifying ferocity. Every moment she became more feline than human. Nothing made sense this morning. Her mind filled with images of animals running, but instead of thinking of them as creatures, she thought of them as delicious food. Her breath caught. She battled the impulse to run off into the wilderness and hunt. This foreign woodland taunted her with its majesty. Lost and alone, she wasn’t sure where to go. What remained of her rational thought reminded her she needed to find a way back to her sanctuary. The old mother would know what to do. The other tiger priestesses would help her through this transition.
A noise caused her to sit up. At least two light-footed creatures were running. Instinct changed the way her senses brought information to her brain. Everything hit her mind so much more richly and yet in a truly primal way that left her feeling off-kilter. She tried to stand, but the world spun, and she landed hard on her ass. Ruby moaned, closing her eyes. Cramps filled her stomach. This pain clawed her much worse than her monthly cycle, this fire burned through her—killing her. She closed her eyes and sucked in a deep breath.
“Who are you?” The gruff male voice terrified her. Ruby’s eyes opened quickly. She lay too weak to flee. She must have fallen unconscious for a few moments. Her body wouldn’t respond, as it stayed worthless for moving or fighting. This affliction had taken a great toll. Terror grew exponentially as her blurry vision sharpened, and she realized just how large and imposing the male’s body truly appeared. She could smell him. He wasn’t human.
“I am Ruby, devotee of the cat goddess,” she managed to respond. This man wasn’t one of her attackers. They’d been human. This male was like her. Shifter. His warm amber eyes weren’t cruel. His hair was long, black. He wore it tied back in a ponytail. He was handsome. She didn’t have much experience with men, but this one was so unmistakably perfect she was able to register his masculine beauty even in her condition.
“Shit! Damn it, Lilymann is fucking with us. This is the girl,” said the male who’d questioned her. “Do you smell her? I think we’ve been played.” Weakness lingered, and she couldn’t open her eyes, but he wasn’t talking to her.
“You’re right. The scent is different now, but it’s definitely her. She’s—oh gods, no, that spiciness—she’s a tigress,” replied another man. “That’s what smelled off about her scent. She’s never shifted. That’s why we couldn’t tell. Tigers don’t shift until they go into heat. Damn it!”
She managed to open her heavy eyelids. The second man was almost as beautiful as the first man was. His hair was much lighter, and she marveled at the various shades of blond, light brown, and red that glinted in the sunlight. This stranger had hair any woman would envy, but there was nothing feminine about the sculpted masculinity of his face. He was incredible. He was also...different. She’d seen men who wanted to serve, but these men looked ready to dominate. They frightened her, but she also found them fascinating. He glanced at her, and they made eye contact. His eyes were such a deep green they reminded her of the forest. The image of a wolf leaping over a fallen log filled her brain, and she drew in a deep breath. She sighed before the exhaustion became too much, and her eyes closed again of their own accord. Ruby laid her head down in the dirt as she gave up the struggle. The weakness was intolerable, but she knew no remedy except returning home to the goddess.
“We aren’t looking for a gem. She’s the ruby. Oh gods, how were we so stupid as to believe this hunt would be as simple of a matter as stolen property?”
She had no idea what property he referred to, and she didn’t care. She hadn’t taken anything from anyone. Ruby drew in another deep breath, and her brain registered what was bothering her. These men were shifters—wolves. Why wolves would agree to hunt another shifter was a mystery to her. Her curiosity didn’t last long. Pain raced through her abdomen, tearing a cry from her lips. She hurt so badly she curled into a fetal position. She didn’t care what happened to her anymore, because she was dying. No one could hurt this bad and survive. She agonized over the emptiness of life cut too short and unfinished days. She wished for another day—an hour even—just to enjoy existence. As she lost consciousness, the darkness swept away her pain, and she sighed with relief.
Copyright © Ashlynn Monroe
Smexy Fab Four