READ AN EXCERPT from Beneath the Skin

Gibson de La Vega didn’t think much of the Bringer he sat across the table from. And he didn’t like having his time wasted with petty dominance games either.

Beneath the Skin

Cats lived by a set of clear-cut rules. You didn’t enter anyone else’s territory without permission and you sure as hell didn’t go bringing in what was to some, nearly an entire jamboree’s worth of cats.
And yet, this was exactly the scenario he was faced with.

Ten cats showed up in de La Vega territory without prior notice from a jamboree they had very little knowledge of, much less a relationship with.

It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy the occasional spanking of an out-of-line feline. He nearly smiled at that. But these were clearly inferior cats who knew they had no leg to stand on with this bullshit. It would be easy enough to make them submit, but it was the principle of the thing.

Their actions made no sense. Which either rendered them witless or they had an ulterior motive. He didn’t like either scenario. Sometimes dumb was more dangerous than calculated.

“You come into our territory bringing ten cats without obtaining permission. This makes me wonder why. And I try to contact your alpha and he’s suddenly not available? Not very professional of him, I must say.” He sipped the thick, dark Cuban coffee but didn’t miss the scent of fear sweating through the pores of the human lawyer the cat had brought with him.

Another slap. To have brought a human to a meeting of shifters was the worst sort of insult. Worse than bringing that many jaguars without even a head’s up.

“Gibson, we don’t recognize the authority of your family. We can travel anywhere we like without your permission.” The human sat back, hands folded like Gibson gave a fuck what he thought. As if Gibson hadn’t just sent his people to gather these stupid fucks up like wayward children and brought them before him. They already were recognizing his authority.

He let his gaze slide over the human, ignoring him for the moment. Gibson came from a family of lawyers, so it wasn’t like he was impressed by a few letters behind a guy’s name or anything.

He showed his teeth and let his cat rise enough to fill his eyes. The Bringer started and quickly averted his gaze.

“Did you think we wouldn’t notice? You come into our territory with ten cats. What kind of team do you run that you wouldn’t take offense to such a thing? And that you seemingly wouldn’t notice. Sloppy. You will be gone in an hour.” He drained his cup and stood. “When you’ve cleared the city limits you may call my office and start the process again. Correctly this time.”

“Gibson, we’ve already made clear—”

He narrowed his gaze and focused on the human again. “Let me be clear with you so there are no further little misunderstandings. My friends and family call me Gibson. You are neither. Second, I couldn’t care less what humans think about our laws. They’re not for you. This is de La Vega territory. I am the Bringer, the only authority that counts here is mine. Now take your pet with you and get the hell out of here before I show you what a real jaguar acts like.”

With that, he turned and walked out, giving them an example of a real slap in the face, shifter style, by giving them his back. They were nothing to him. Even a room of them held no threat.

Waiting just around the corner was Dario, his second in command. Gibson filled him in on the meeting. “I want them to be escorted. And I want them to know it. If they don’t get the fuck out right quick then I want them tossed out.”

Dario would do it the way Gibson wanted. Which was why he was the second. It was good to give orders people understood. That way there was no room for misinterpretation. He wasn’t pleased by misinterpretation.

Beneath the Skin

“On it. I’ll update you on progress.” Dario waited for Gibson’s nod to free him and then headed out.

Less than an hour later, Gibson stalked down the long corridor toward his oldest brother’s office. Max de La Vega wasn’t only the oldest, he was now the Alpha of the jamboree, having taken over from their father just months before.

“You aren’t bloody.” Max raised a brow as Gibson entered. “I take it they showed you their belly?”

Gibson snorted and tossed himself into a chair. “They brought a human lawyer with them. Told me they don’t recognize our authority and would travel when and where they liked.”

The hair on Gibson’s arms rose as Max’s cat sounded in his rather feral growl. “They did not.”

Gibson laughed then. Leave it to his brother to be as upset by the lawyer part as the slap in the face by the other cats. “They did. Called me Gibson. Twice.”

“And you resisted ripping his head off and beating the other with his spine? Clearly you’re mellowing in your old age.”

“None of them is worth the effort. I told them to get the fuck off our land. Gave them an hour. Put three men on it.” He glanced at his watch. “Time’s nearly up. My men called already, they’re complying apparently. If they don’t, we’ll toss them out physically.”

“I’ll await the call from their alpha.”

“If he can be found. I’ve had some difficulty with that.”

“If he knows what’s good for him he’ll materialize and do it soon. Can’t imagine what he’s thinking. Ten? That’s a hell of a lot of cats to bring into another territory. Especially without permission. Is he trying to provoke an incident? Or just stupid?”

Gibson had been thinking this over since he’d met them face to face. “I’m trying to work that out myself. Their Bringer averted his eyes and showed proper respect. But he didn’t say more than five words. He wasn’t in charge of the situation.

“So it could be they’ve got a Bringer who is weak, plain and simple. They’re a small enough jamboree that their population just doesn’t have a stronger cat. I’ve never met Bertram, the Alpha, so I don’t know what he’s like.”

It was good to remember that most other jamborees weren’t as large and well regulated as de La Vega was. A lot of cats lived in jamborees that were more just all the cats who live in the area but without an real structure.

“I think the initiative Kendra is heading up is something of great use to us as well.”

Beneath the Skin

Kendra, Max’s wife and the other Alpha of the jamboree, was also a witch and was bringing a whole lot of change into their culture, trying to unite in the face of a rising threat.

Unity was a good thing. It made you powerful. And the more powerful you were, the less people considered fucking with you. It wasn’t always a clean job and there were things Gibson had had to do that he’d regretted, even as he knew he’d had no other choice.

“Can’t hurt to reach out to the other jamborees more often. Cross train other Alphas, other Bringers and seconds. Avoid this stupid shit.” Max sat back in his chair.

“We’ll find out one way or the other soon enough. Regardless of their reasoning, we’ll have underlined a painful lesson. Ten is unreasonable. For any jamboree.”

“Keep an eye on them. I’ll let you know what happens when I finally connect with their alpha.” Things were tense enough as it was without any inter-jamboree crap. He knew Max had a lot to manage and yet, his brother had risen to every single challenge.

Gibson nodded. “You should let Kendra do it. I love to watch your woman get tough.” He said it, knowing his brother would be annoyed, knowing it would ratchet the tension back as well.

“She told me today that she’d rather deal with third graders than jaguars. Said third graders were more mature.” A smile lurked at his lips as he said it.

“She’s got a point. Anyway, I’ve got stuff to do. I’ll check in once we know they’re gone for sure. You know where I am if you need me.” He stood and then bowed to show his fealty.

“Appreciate the service.”

Mia Porter finished her last pull-up and dropped to the ground. The muscles in her upper body burned with exertion. The sweat cooled her skin, helped her get past the ache.

“Excellent work today.”

Mopping her face, she could curl her lip without being seen. She was so over this freaking injury and all the physical therapy that came afterward. She wanted to be what she was before.

“Thanks,” she said instead of punching her therapist. He also happened to be ridiculously hot, so it didn’t seem fair to snap at him when he looked that good and was only trying to help.

“You’re really doing well. I’m impressed with your progress. Give yourself a few more months and you’ll be back to a hundred percent.”

“No. I’ll never be back to the place I was before.”

Beneath the Skin

He sighed. “You’re correct. But you’ll have the full use of your right arm back and you’ll be able to rock climb again.” He leaned against the wall. “I know it’s not what you imagined for yourself. But you could have died. You didn’t. You’re here, a month after you were attacked, a few weeks after you were released from a hospital where you were in a coma and you’re doing pull-ups that a majority of my fittest clients couldn’t do. I know it’s not on your schedule, but you’re pretty exceptional. Just give it time.”

Attacked seemed a very mild word for the hate crime she’d endured, but she let it go because it didn’t matter anyway.

“I’m going to hit the showers and go home. Thanks, Rich, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

She’d been decorated three times while serving in Iraq. Two purple hearts for being wounded and a combat medal her entire unit was awarded. She’d served her country and done her part. Mia was proud of her time in the military, damn it.

She survived a place where people tried to kill her pretty much every day only to have come home and settled in Los Angeles post-military. And then a month ago she was hauled off the street into an abandoned building, beaten severely and left for dead.

Had it not been for the women who’d seen her and called for help, she might have indeed died. Shifter blood or no, her attackers had used silver on her so the wounds were slow to heal and the damage to her muscles would be lasting.

That they used silver was a clear indication she was attacked simply for being a shifter. Which still chilled her to the bone.

Knowing she was attacked for what she was burned in her guts every time she thought about it.

She had been living in Los Angeles, but her family was in Boston. How would she get to her physical therapy and other doctors’ appointments without them? Her mother had been sure to drive home that particular point. And as usual, her mother had been correct.

And to be honest, she missed home. Missed her old friends and family. So, she’d come back to Boston and had started looking for a new place. Her older brother was away for several weeks so she was crashing in his apartment while she hunted for a place to live and while she figured out what the hell to do with her life. She would not let these new limitations stop her. She would climb again. She would get her strength back. She’d be able to fly again. Though not the heavy stuff most likely.

And just maybe she’d find a way to track down the assholes who’d done this to her and make sure they didn’t do it to anyone else. The police were on it, but there’d been no breaks in the month since it had happened and she was beginning to think she’d have to do it on her own.

Not the first time really. She wound her hair into a bun before she gathered her things and headed out. Maybe she’d stop at the Italian deli near her brother’s apartment. The impracticality of having to hide her identity as a shifter sucked, but the metabolism part did not.

So she was a little caught up in the decision between meatball and salami for her sandwich when she scented not just other shifters, but gun oil. Instantly alert, she scanned the area so when the shots went off and a car sped off, her training kicked in and she sprinted to where a man lay on the pavement, keeping low, her phone in her hand.

The scent of his blood hit her hard. A shifter. She put the phone away. No calling the cops for that unless there was no other choice. She crouched, taking him in.

“They fucking shot me,” the large male on the ground in a pool of his blood managed to say as he tried to sit up.

Beneath the Skin

“Stay still,” she barked as she ripped the front of his shirt open. He’d been shot at least twice that she could tell. First the bleeding needed to be stanched and then she needed to get him off the street. She pulled her extra shirt from around her waist to press against the wound and the blood stung her hands when it soaked through the material. Silver. “Shit.”

“Ouch! Why are you shoving me down? I’ll be fine in a…” His words trailed off and his eyes rolled back a moment. A flash of memory hit her, disorienting her a moment until she ruthlessly shoved it aside.

“They used silver. Obviously I can’t call the cops, but we need to get you off the street so I can dig the slugs out before they finish the job and kill you.” She knew all too well just how badly that hurt. “My apartment is just a block up the street. Let’s get you inside and then we can call your alpha.” Though since she was also a jaguar in Boston, his alpha would be hers as well.

He started to argue but she ignored him, hoisting him up on her left side, letting her cat surface enough to power her to that door. Damn he was solid and heavy, like a freaking truck.

She took a chance that the elevator would work as she punched the button for the fourth floor. It shuddered a moment and squealed, but they did arrive safely and she hustled him to her apartment.

“Don’t get blood on anything. My brother is pissy about that stuff.” She managed to get the door unlocked and him inside.

He focused narrowed eyes on her. “You’re a cat. Did you come in with the others?”

“I know it hurts but don’t snarl at me.” She laid a blanket over her bed with her free arm before she put him on it. She rustled through her things in the closet until she found her kit. She didn’t bother with gloves, they were both jaguars and he was going downhill very fast.

“Did you come with Bertram’s cats?”

“Who the fuck is Bertram?” She pulled her belt off and put it between his teeth before she got to work digging out the first bullet. “This is going to hurt.”

He growled, his cat glowing in his eyes, watching her warily.

“What’s your name?” Keep him conscious.

She ignored the complaining muscles in her right hand as she had to work to keep the wound open to dig out the second bullet. His body continued to try to heal around the wound, fighting her.
“Gibson de La Vega.”

Oh wonderful.

She dug out the second bullet and realized there was one more just below the waistline of his pants. “Three times? You must have really made someone mad. I need to turn you over. This last one is too deep.” She did it as she said it, not wanting to waste time.

Beneath the Skin

She cut his jeans off quickly when she couldn’t pull them off fast enough. The last bullet came out, the wound already ugly.

The poison would already be rampant in his system. The bullets she’d removed would have also exploded silver through him on impact. At this stage, what he really needed was to let his cat take over. The shift would cleanse his system.

It’d be far easier if he did it nude. His boxers were easy to pull off and set aside before she leaned down close to his ear. One of the ropes of his dreadlocks brushed against her cheek. Her cat responded immediately, rising at the scent of another cat. A male cat. A hot male cat. Enough of that. Still, he came out of his stupor a little as she’d hoped. “You need to shift. It’ll help with the healing.”

Shirtless, his tats showed against the dark chocolate of his skin. She’d seen the pierced nipples when he’d been on his back. Dreads. She’d been halfway across the world and this was the most badass thing she’d ever had in her bed. She tried to pretend not to look at his ass, which was quite honestly a thing of beauty. Hard and muscled like the rest of him. He was nearly unconscious after all, it wasn’t like he was going to know she was objectifying him or anything.

She only knew of one other way to bring his cat besides having his alpha right there to do it. And since she didn’t have Max de La Vega’s phone number on speed dial, there was one option left open to her.

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