Lion Eyes – Jennifer Ashley

Pain. Too much pain and too much blood. Seamus heard snarling, vicious and deadly, felt his own throat sore. Had the sound come from him? Or whatever was attacking him in the dark? Seamus fought like mad, the strength of his lion against whoever the hell it was. He thought he smelled Shifter, but in the dark and the madness of frenzy, scents were confused, whirling. Seamus couldn’t see, couldn’t think. He clawed, bit, until his mouth was full of blood, his fur drenched with it. He couldn’t remember exactly where he’d been before this, only ducking and dodging through the fields, drawing whoever followed after him. He dimly remembered tucking those in his care safely into a house where no one would think to look, and then returning here to fool their enemies and lead them astray. His life didn’t matter. Those he protected did. Seamus was a tracker, a soldier with a job to do. Except that his brain kept blanking out, fighting instincts taking over and making everything a blur. Feral. The word whispered through his brain—the fear every Shifter had, especially those who’d never taken the Collar.

Seamus had been feeling it for a few weeks now, ever since the bunker had been taken over and the Shifters within forced to scatter. His assignment, protecting those put in his charge from the wide, bad world and everyone in it. The task had heightened his wariness, shooting high the nagging feeling that something was just on the edge of his vision, waiting. Edgy, paranoid, easily provoked into fighting, Seamus had moved his charges from one safe house to another. Now his raw animal instincts had taken over. Maybe this was what going feral was like. No thinking, just reacting, wanting to fight, hurt, kill. Seamus struck and struck again. He smelled blood, heard desperate male screams. And then, whatever battled him … vanished.

Seamus forced his way back, second by second, to sanity. Cool November wind rippled his lion’s mane, bringing the scent of dust and weeds, and the faint smell of exhaust from the trucks and motorcycles around the roadhouse in the distance. Music drifted from the building, and the sound of Shifters, the kind with Collars. He changed. Seamus’s bones ached as they shrank and moved, sinews twisting and readjusting around the new form. His sight went from a concave, wide view that picked up all shadows, to a narrow focus that didn’t see as well in the dark. He straightened his back, hearing vertebrae pop, and turned around. Two men lay dead at his feet. Human, not Shifter. A Shifter had ripped them apart—the brute strength that had pulled them inside out could only have come from someone like Seamus.

Pieces of the hunters’ broken shotguns were scattered about the dried Texas grass. Seamus’s breath clogged his throat. The scent of death and blood was horrific, blotting out all thought. He’d believed he’d smelled Shifter as he’d fought, but the only Shifter within sight, hearing, and scent, was himself. Seamus, un-Collared, on the run, fearing that the craziness he’d been feeling in these last weeks was the beginning of the feral state, was standing over a couple of dead bodies. His clothes—T-shirt, jeans, boots—lay in a simple pile a few yards away. Barely able to breathe, Seamus quickly pulled them on as he pondered what he should do. “There!” someone shouted in the darkness of the fields. “Get him!” Shite. Seamus figured he knew exactly who the human voices were yelling about.

He turned and ran. A shotgun boomed at the same time he heard the retort of a rifle firing then firing again. Pain blossomed in his side, but Seamus kept running. He headed to the edge of the roadhouse parking lot, knowing he’d have to steal a vehicle to get away. Kendrick, his leader, would shit a brick, but then, life sucked for an un-Collared Shifter on the run. *** Bree Fayette vowed to give up the life of a Shifter groupie. That was it—over—she was done. She decided this as she looked into the eyes of three fanatical women outside the back door of the roadhouse, where they’d dragged her. Two had their faces painted with the usual Feline makeup; one wore Lupine ears and a T-shirt with a wolf on it. “This is our place,” the wolf woman said.

“Time to go, honey.” Bree had come here tonight to meet people who shared her interest in Shifters, but she’d decided, as soon as she’d walked into the roadhouse between Austin and San Antonio, that she’d made a mistake. She’d had time to order one drink, which she hadn’t even finished, for crying out loud, before the other women converged on her. The Shifters, who seemed a bit wilder than the ones she’d encountered in New Orleans, hadn’t come to her aid. They didn’t know her, and Shifters avoided humans they hadn’t vetted. Before Bree could decide that retreat was the better part of valor, the groupie women had taken her by the arms and forcibly dragged her out the back door. She fought, but lost. “Is this how you greet new people around here?” Bree asked the women as she tried to catch her breath. “Real hospitable of you. I’m so glad I ventured out tonight.

” “Just take a hike,” one of the women with cat’s ears said. “These are our Shifters. We take care of them.” Meaning they were very protective. Of course—Bree might be a spy for the police, reporting on which Shifters were breaking the many rules they had to follow. “I’m not a threat,” Bree said in a hard voice. “I’d never do anything to hurt them.” The three women weren’t convinced. “You come here with a Shifter of your own, and maybe we’ll believe you,” the wolf woman said. “For now, get out while you can.

” Bree heaved a sigh. She’d never win a full-blown fight against these three and knew it. She decided to leave while she still had some dignity. “Fine. I’m going.” She had to push past them. The women folded their arms, expressions unyielding as Bree bumped by them and headed to the end of the lot where she’d parked her truck. She felt their gazes on her all the way, then she heard the thump of the back door slamming. She looked back to find the women gone, the door closed, shutting her out. So … that had gone well.

These Texas women were crazy bitches. Not like the fun-loving Shifter-stalkers that were her New Orleans friends. Bree and her girlfriends weren’t Shifter whores or anything—they just liked to look at the tall, gorgeous alpha guys who could turn into animals. They wanted to talk to them, hang out with them, be around them. One of Bree’s friends even kept a website about Shifters and a much-read blog. Bree and her mom had moved out here from Louisiana this winter, but between Bree making sure her mother was settling in, not to mention both of them coping with Remy’s death, she hadn’t had a chance to get to know many people. She’d thought she could come here tonight and meet ladies, and guys, who shared her interest in Shifters, but apparently, she’d been wrong. Her loneliness rose up on her wave of anger, and she blinked back tears. Damn, I miss you, Remy. Bree’s cell phone rang as she climbed into the black F250 pickup that had belonged to her brother—God rest his soul and keep him safe.

She knew that ringtone. Figures. Bree answered as she settled into the driver’s seat. “Hello, Mom.” She sagged back and studied herself in the rearview, dusty light reflecting from the parking lot. “Yes, I’m fine.” A slight exaggeration. Her makeup was smeared, one of her fake cat’s ears torn, and her tail had been pulled off, lost somewhere in the darkness of the bar. “Yes, I’ll remember to stop and pick up your smokes. No, I didn’t make any new friends, not yet.

” Another pause while her mother really got going. Bree started the pickup. “No, Mom, I’m fine. I swear to you, it’s a perfectly normal Shifter bar.” For one with a bunch of maniacal groupies and crazy Shifters in it. “No meth heads, no drugs at all. It’s a nice, quiet little place … Really quiet and nice—” Something hit Bree’s pickup full force. Bree whipped her head around as a man landed in the pickup’s bed and swarmed up to the cab. She watched in numb astonishment as he swung his long body feet-first into the cab through the open passenger window. “Bree? Are you still there?” came the strident tones of her mother.

“If you’ve hung up on me …” The man landed on the seat, closed a huge hand around Bree’s cell phone, and threw the phone out the open window. Bree’s frozen moment of amazement broke. She clung to the steering wheel, opened her mouth, and screamed as loudly as she could. The man was across the seat in a heartbeat, clapping a strong and dirt-streaked hand over her mouth. “Drive,” he said, his voice so guttural she could barely understand the word. “Now!” No way in hell was Bree going anywhere with this guy. She’d fight him off, run back inside the bar, yell for help. Who cared that the groupies were unfriendly? She’d hide out in the bathroom and let the bouncers deal with him. Two more men materialized out of the dark. They had shotguns, and they pointed them at the man and at Bree.

“Go!” the man roared. The shotguns boomed. Bree’s truck wasn’t there to receive the blast, though, because she’d stomped on the gas. The pickup jumped forward and hit the ground, wheels spinning. A thick cloud of dust boiled up behind them as Bree shot out of the parking lot to the road. The road itself was dirt, washboard rough, slippery with dust that weeks without rain had made bone dry. Another shot rang out behind them, and Bree’s right mirror shattered. She screamed again and pushed harder on the gas. The truck shimmied and danced, but Bree had helped Remy rebuild this baby, and she knew it inside and out. She expertly maneuvered up and down the washes and out to a paved road.

Bree raced down this empty stretch of back highway for a minute or so, until multiple glances behind them told her no one was following. Not yet, anyway. She swung to the grass at the side and slammed the truck to a halt. “Get out,” she said firmly. The man who looked back at her in the dark didn’t move. He was a Shifter—she’d guessed that the moment he’d leapt with the grace of an acrobat into the cab. His large body took up most of the passenger seat, dark T-shirt stretching over a tight chest and arms that could lift this pickup if he wanted to. His hair was cut short but a mess, black, she thought, though it was hard to tell in this light. His eyes … They were golden, intense, pinning her as Bree stared at him in shock. Lion eyes, whispered through her head.

The Shifter wildcats—Fae cats, they called themselves—had been bred to mix the best qualities of big cats, but individual Feline clans tended to favor one species or other. Leopards, jaguars, cheetahs, and mountain lions were most common. Tigers were very, very rare—so rare Bree knew about only one of them. And then there were the lions. The Morrissey family, who ran the Austin Shiftertown, were black-maned lions. She’d seen photos of the men of that pride on the Internet, but she’d never seen this Shifter. He cranked around in his seat to look behind them. “It’s not safe to stop here,” he said in an accent that sounded faintly … Scottish? Irish? Bree was no expert on accents other than those around her hometown. “Keep going.” Bree didn’t answer.

She was staring at his neck, more of it revealed when he’d turned his head. He wasn’t wearing a Collar. All Shifters wore Collars. It was the law. Collars had some kind of chip in them that triggered a series of nasty shocks when the Shifter who wore it became violent. There were those who claimed that the Collars also contained Fae magic, meant to control the Shifters, though Bree was a little skeptical about the magic part. But then, shape-shifters had turned out to be real, so who knew? This Shifter had no chain of silver-and-black links around his neck, no Celtic knot at his throat. No red line around his neck to show that he’d pulled his off either—the Collars were embedded into the skin for life. Bree was terrified at the same time her insatiable curiosity rose and demanded to be satisfied. It would get her killed one day, that curiosity, her mother always said.

Well, maybe today was the day. “Are you feral?” she asked cautiously. Feral Shifters were those who had left any civilized behavior behind and were becoming wild animals, nothing more, no matter what their shape. Bree had heard they usually stopped bathing and wearing clothes, and this guy was definitely dressed—jeans, T-shirt, and motorcycle boots. Though she saw black smears on his skin, he didn’t look like he’d missed many showers. He stared at her with those golden, lion eyes, and said, “Maybe. Not yet. Now, go.” “Or, I can go, and you can get the hell out of my truck.” “Damn you,” he said, his voice quietly desperate.

“I’m dead the minute I hit the ground.” Bree’s heart pounded sickeningly, but she remained in place. “You weren’t at the bar. Are you from one of the Shiftertowns around here?” He was over the seat and right next to Bree before she could blink. His foot slid alongside hers and pushed the gas. The truck leapt. Bree grabbed the steering wheel, cranking it around before they slid into the ditch. The pickup hit the pavement, shimmying until Bree righted it and sent them down the road in the correct lane. At least the Shifter had moved his foot once she’d got the truck going. “I don’t care where you take me,” he said.

“Just get me away from the hunters.” Bree peered down the dark road, a straight stretch, empty this late. They were a long way from Austin, a long way from anywhere, really. Lights appeared behind her. The hunters? Hard to tell, but the lights were coming up too fast. The Shifter next to her twisted in the seat to look back at them. “Hell—go!” The headlights got larger, far quicker than they should have. Bree’s breath came too fast, her blood pumping. She’d been chased before. She hadn’t liked it then, and she didn’t like it now.

“All right, all right.” Bree shoved her foot down on the gas, the truck rushing forward. The speedometer crept past sixty, seventy, eighty. “Who are you?” she repeated over the engine’s noise. “What Shifter clan are you with, and why aren’t you wearing a Collar?” The man said nothing. Bree risked turning her head to find herself pinned by his golden stare. “Why do you know so much about Shifters?” he demanded. Bree waved her hand at her made-up face as she focused on the road again. Her eyeliner had started to run, forming black tears. “Hello? I’m a Shifter groupie.

We know everything about Shifters. The clans, the prides and packs, the family trees. What you can do and can’t do, where you live, who your mates are, what the Collars do. I’m not as into it as some of my friends back home—they would know exactly who you were and where you came from. Kind of creepy, right?” He kept scrutinizing her, like a big cat trying to decide whether or not to pounce on a gazelle. “My name’s Seamus.” “Nice Irish name. You Irish?” “No.” He snarled it. Bree let out her breath.

“All right. No need to bite my head off.” More scrutinizing. Maybe she shouldn’t have mentioned biting—he was the most predatory Shifter she’d ever met. Probably because he didn’t have a Collar. Why didn’t he? What … The black truck in her rearview put on a sudden burst of speed. The crazy driver shoved the truck between Bree and the right-hand side of the road, on the very narrow shoulder. One wrong bump, and they’d both flip. Apparently, the driver didn’t care. Three guys in the bed of the other truck had shotguns, and they lifted them and pointed them at Bree and Seamus.

“Shit!” Bree yelled. Her instinct was to slam on the brakes and let the other truck shoot forward, but the truck might hit her, and they’d all be whirling across the road to likely death. “Pull over and give us the Shifter!” the driver called through his open window. “No way in hell!” Bree shouted back. Only one thing to do. “Hold on,” she told Seamus. Seamus must have seen something in her expression, because he stopped snarling and closed his hands around the seat. What the hunters didn’t know was that this truck had belonged to Remy Fayette, Bree’s brother, before his military stint in the Middle East had ended his life. A missile had taken out the helicopter he and his team had been in, while carrying out a rescue mission. The army had given Remy a hero’s burial, and their mom a flag and a little money in the bank every month.

Bree kept the truck in his memory. Before Remy had given up his wild life for the discipline of the army, he’d spent his time modifying cars and trucks and racing them—legally and not so legally. Bree sent him a silent blessing as she flipped a switch to deploy the nitrous oxide boost. The pickup shot forward, jerking Bree and the Shifter. The truck following them dropped instantly behind. Ninety miles an hour, a hundred. Bree hung on to the steering wheel for dear life. The headlights behind them swiftly grew smaller. Seamus was clutching the seat so hard his fingers tore the upholstery. “Whoo—hoo!!” Bree yelled.

“Eat that, dirtbags! Thank you, Remy Fayette. I love you!” As usual, when Bree thought of her brother, her eyes filled with instant tears. Not now. She had to drive, to see the road. She also had to get them to ground somewhere. Bree couldn’t keep this speed without attracting every highway patrol in the county, but if she slowed down, the guys chasing Seamus might find them. Nothing for it. “I’ll take you to a Shiftertown,” she said. “Which one are you from?” Seamus’s gaze was on her again, unrelenting. “No.

No Shiftertowns. Just put enough distance between us and them.” He had a hand on the door handle, as though contemplating when it would be safe to jump out. What the hell? Something bad was going on here. At the same time, Seamus was a Shifter, and those guys chasing him were ready to shoot him. He’d be safe in a Shiftertown, where hunters didn’t dare go— they weren’t allowed to bother Collared Shifters. But if Seamus refused to go to a Shiftertown, then where? “I have an idea,” Bree said. “I know a place you can lie low. Not the best choice, but no one will think of looking for you there.” Seamus didn’t answer.

He glanced behind them again, and his body finally relaxed. The headlights were gone. Bree turned off the extra juice. The truck slowed abruptly, rattling and bumping. Remy had taught her how to drive a rod though, and Bree maneuvered the truck to handle the sudden change in speed. She took the next corner, heading off into the darkness of the back roads. “Where?” Seamus asked, his voice harsh. “You’ll see,” Bree answered. “I’m just telling you now, though—you get to explain why you threw away my cell phone while I was talking to my mom.”

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