The Mane Squeeze – Shelly Laurenston

As soon as the earrings and shoes came off, he knew it was a brawl. A brawl he wanted no part of. Especially when he’d been trying to sneak out. And one of the hardest things for someone like him to do was sneak anywhere. Yet he couldn’t walk away, he couldn’t turn his back. This was his friend’s wedding, and he wouldn’t let a couple of cats ruin it because they couldn’t hold their liquor or their predatory instinct to maul. But maybe, just maybe, if he defused this fast enough, he could still make it out without being caught. The key was to prevent an audience. No audience, no witnesses, and sneaking away could continue. There. A goal. He liked goals. And with that goal solidly in mind, Lachlan “Lock” MacRyrie walked through the trees surrounding the Long Island, New York, property that held his friend’s wedding. He’d never been to a wedding at a castle before but it fit the style of the bride, who brought geekiness to a whole new level. In fact, she was the one who’d told him to go.

Wait. That wasn’t right. She didn’t tell him to go. She’d told him to, “Make a break for it! Before the hounds of darkness come for you and destroy our plans to release our people from their enslavement! Go, Lachlan MacRyrie of the Clan MacRyrie. Go! And don’t look back, my friend!” It would seem strange to those who didn’t know her, but Lock knew it was simply Jessica Ward’s way of saying, “Could you look more miserable? Just go already!” He’d never been so grateful, although it wasn’t Jess’s fault he was having a miserable time. He did a little better at full-human events since he mostly received the “shock and awe” reaction. But among his own kind, the reaction was much less…welcoming. Not exactly surprising, though, when the predators knew what he was. Knew that he could shift to a ten-foot, fifteen-hundred-pound, silver-tipped grizzly bear whenever the mood struck him. How did they know? Because from early childhood, shifter parents taught their cubs and pups to recognize a few things: the cackle of a hyena, the roar of a male lion, the howls of nearby wolves, and the scent of a grizzly.

For the first three on that list, the directions were simple: “If you hear one of those and we’re separated, call for me. Right away.” But when it came to the grizzly, the directions were much more…specific: “When you catch that scent, go in the opposite direction. If you stumble across one, do not wake it up. If you do wake one up, pretend you’re dead or climb into a tree. High into a tree. And if you get between a sow and her cubs—pray.” Tragically, Lock couldn’t even argue that any of what the other breeds said was false, although it was perhaps blown a bit out of proportion. In the end, though, none of that mattered, because he didn’t like parties, detested weddings, and being trapped in this tux was annoying him beyond reason. Normally, to save his sanity, he wouldn’t even attend something like this, but he couldn’t miss Jess Ward’s wedding.

A more amazing woman, shifter, and friend a man could never hope to have, and that’s why Lock was going to undertake the painful task of getting between two snarling females before they started tearing into each other. He was almost on them, was only a few feet from getting past the trees and between them, with luck before blood was spilled, because nothing attracted shifter attention quicker than the scent of fresh blood—and, of course, two drunk chicks fighting. Yet before he could take those last steps, she was there, shoving the two females apart before they’d made contact. With her fangs out, a low and deadly growl rolling past her lips, she held her arms out from her body to keep them separated. “A mixed breed,” some lioness had sneered about her earlier in the evening when this feline had passed. The more politically correct term was, of course, hybrid. A ridiculously gorgeous hybrid, too, whom Lock had first caught sight of at the ceremony. At the time, he’d felt someone staring at him, but that wasn’t unusual. People stared at him all the time. Yet when he’d finally glanced over his shoulder, out of mere bear-curiosity, to see who it was…well, he’d looked right at her.

And, for the rest of the evening—through the synchronized wild dog dancing, the county-wolf line dancing, and the incessant conga lines led by some annoying male lion—Lock had watched her any time she’d come into his line of sight. It was hard not to watch her when she was wearing that deliciously thin sleeveless black gown, equipped with only two little strings tied around her neck to hold the delicate material up, displaying the shoulders of an Olympic swimmer, while the thigh-high slit slightly off to the side revealed the legs of an Olympic gymnast. Or maybe he was fascinated by that striking face with those almondshaped, bright gold eyes; the small nose that made him think of a house cat’s muzzle; those full lips that made him think of nothing but hot, sweaty sex; and those almost razor-sharp cheekbones that made him think she might be nothing but trouble. Was it really any surprise he’d been unable to look away—or that he’d spent most of the evening thinking about asking her if she wanted a drink? Yeah, he’d thought about it. He was a bear and bears were notorious thinkers. They’d study, they’d think, then they’d move. Unfortunately he’d never found the chance to move. Not with her flitting all over that reception. Not that she was being social, though. She wasn’t.

He watched her talk to a few people, but mostly she seemed to be on the hunt for something or someone, her gold eyes ever watchful, ever scoping out a target. He was surprised the Marines hadn’t recruited her. They’d snagged Lock right out of college and placed him with the Shifter-only Unit. He could easily see her as one of his teammates. Then again, probably not a good idea. He wouldn’t have gotten much done if he was busy staring at her all day. “Cut this shit out right now,” she snarled at the two females. Her voice was low, a little rough. He liked it. “Back off!” one lioness said.

“This whore’s mine.” “Whore?” “That’s it!” The hybrid let out a breath, lowered her arms to her sides. “That is it. Whatever Roxy O’Neill told you, it’s a load of crap.” “How do you know?” “Because I do. And if you weren’t on your fifth martini and you on your seventh Long Island iced tea, you dumb bitches would know that, too.” “Watch how you talk to me.” “I would, if I thought you had a brain in that fat lion head of yours.” Does she really think this is helping? “But you don’t. So cut this shit out right now or—” “Or what?” the other lioness demanded.

“What are you going to do about it, rescue kitty?” The first lioness laughed and suddenly the two enemies had bonded over a new target. The hybrid knew it, too. He could tell by the way her body stayed relaxed, but her gold eyes sharpened. This wasn’t her first time in a fight and she wouldn’t feel bound by shifter-etiquette to fight with only her claws and fangs. He’d bet cold cash that she was armed. Not with a gun—too noisy—but with something sharp that could be quickly used and tossed away before the cops came. The two She-lions were up against something they simply couldn’t handle. Something deadlier than a mere feline or hybrid. They were dealing with a Philly girl. Or, as Lock also liked to call them, a Pennsylvania Pain in the Ass.

As a Jersey boy who’d spent many a childhood summer at the Jersey Shore with his vacationing parents, and then as a bouncer during the summer months when he was big enough to pass as “legal,” Lock had dealt with more than enough visiting Philly girls to last him a lifetime. He’d never known anyone—regardless of breed—who liked to argue as much as the Philly females. They could—and would—argue over anything. And God help you if you took it past arguing, if you took it into something physical. How did he know this particular hybrid was a Philly girl? Because she had it spelled out in easy-to-read script on the gold necklace hanging around her throat. Knowing he had seconds to end this before he was forced to call the cops or dispose of bodies —both of which he’d really like to avoid, if possible—Lock moved around the three females until he was upwind of them. A small, summer-night breeze passed and both She-lions raised their heads, their noses sniffing the air as their bodies tensed, and they seemed to sober up immediately. He watched as they slowly faced him, their dark gold eyes wide as they gazed at him in mute horror. He could have done a lot of things at that moment, but Lock didn’t need to. He kept the hardcore bluffing for his own kind.

Instead, all he did was curl his lip the tiniest bit and give off the softest, faintest grunt. Almost a hiccup. It worked like a charm, too, the two cats tripping backward, slamming into each other before they skidded on the damp grass and took off running into the wedding. That left him and the hybrid. She hadn’t moved at all while the cats were scrambling around her, trying to get away. But now that they were gone, she faced him. Her bright gold gaze traveled from his head to his feet and back again. He knew she might run, knew she might take a wild leap for the trees. Not hard when she had those legs. She did neither.

Instead a slow smile spread over those lips and she said, “Jersey bear to the rescue.” Her head dipped a bit and she looked up at him through pitch-black lashes. “Because we both know what I would have done if they’d made a move on me, don’t we, Jersey bear?” Uh…yeah, yeah. Sure. Whatever. The bear in him could care less about all that…he only knew he wanted the pretty kitty. He wanted to pick her up and carry her back to the closest river he could find and offer her fresh salmon, honeycombs with desperate bees still clinging to them, and neverending sex. Yeah. Sex. Lots and lots of sex.

Grizzly-Lock was so focused on the feline standing in front of him, looking sexier than anything he’d ever seen—or even dreamed of—before, that he wasn’t at all aware of anything else. At least not until that hand roughly landed on Lock’s shoulder and a male lion snarled behind him, “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing with my sister?” Startled, Lock reacted the only way the bear in him knew how. With complete and utter violence. Spinning around, Lock grabbed the cat by the neck, lifting him up. The male’s eyes grew wide, his hands turning into claws, but Lock chucked the imbecile fifty feet into the surrounding woods before he could do anything. Jaw popping, the rage and fear ripping through him, Lock started to go after the big-haired bastard to neutralize the threat until there was no more threat, but the feline female jumped in front of him. “No, no, no, no, no, no!” She placed her hands on his chest and he felt that touch go straight through his clothes and skin and right into him. Lock immediately stopped, his fangs and claws retracting. He’d never met anyone, who wasn’t family or a very close friend, brave enough to risk touching him when he was like this. Brave enough not to run off, leaving friends, lovers, and blood relatives to fend for themselves.

And that alone startled him back to rational thinking. “Please don’t,” she begged. “They’ll blame me and then the O’Neills will be responsible for another wedding brawl.” Lock watched her closely, barely aware that another She-lion—How many did Jess know and invite to her damn wedding anyway?—had come out of the reception in time to see the male go flying. “Brendon!” he heard the She-lion gasp as she ran after the cat. “Oh, my God! Are you okay?” Her voice was high and weak-sounding because of her fear for the male, making the predator in Lock want to follow and finish the job. To finish both cats and carry this feline off for that fresh salmon meal. But when his gaze followed the sound coming from the woods, the feline pressed harder against his chest to get his focus back. “As it is,” she went on, her cool but tough Philly exterior disappearing in a flurry of panic and fear, “because of other people’s stupidity, we’ve been banned from three Catholic churches, two Protestant, and one of the Lutherans’. And there are several reception halls where we’ve been added to the ‘Do not allow’ list.

” Lock closed his eyes, more angry at himself than anyone else. “He startled me.” And he winced at the growl of his voice, sounding more pissed-off grizzly than rational human. “Everybody knows you don’t grab a bear from behind. Not if you like having your face attached to your head.” She rubbed her hands against his chest and Lock’s eyes nearly crossed. She had painted nails that, although not ridiculously long, were longer than any he’d seen on predator females, with each nail painted dark red and elaborately decorated with flowers and other designs in black. It must have taken her hours to get those done, and the feel of them through his clothes was making him crazy. He should hate those nails. He normally considered that sort of thing tacky or gaudy, but damn if that look didn’t work on her.

And because it worked on her—it was really working on him. “This is all my fault,” she went on, oblivious to the effect she was having on him. “It’s a domino effect that only my mother can cause, and I’m sorry. I was trying to keep an eye on her, but she got away from me.” Mother? What did her mother have to do with this? Neither She-lion who’d been about to fight looked old enough to be her mother. Swallowing, trying to keep his desire to maul in control, Lock motioned toward the woods. “That’s your brother.” “Him?” She laughed. “No. He just wants to be.

He’s the half-brother of my half-brother. And the female who went in after him is his twin, who I really hate, but that’s another story. Which makes her the half-sister of my half-brother, but neither of them have a blood connection to me.” Lock was busy trying to place all that in some semblance of a family tree in his head when she tossed in, “Life in the Pride. It’s not for everybody.” “I have one set of parents and one sister,” he admitted, “and I’ve never been more grateful.” “I’m sorry about all this.” She pulled her hands away and he almost made a grab for them so he could put them back where she’d had them. “Why don’t you go before someone comes out here wondering what the latest drama is? I’ll take care of this.” One side of him yelled at him to stay, to spend more time with the Philly feline, but his more rational side told him to get the hell out while he still could.

Because really, what was he going to do with a woman like her? Like most bears, he liked things calm and quiet, and something told him that even a moment with this woman would never be that. “Thanks,” he said, taking that first step back from her. “No problem.” He told himself he didn’t see regret in her eyes as he turned to walk away. He told himself, as he waited for his SUV at the valet station, a hot but clearly high-maintenance feline like her would never be interested in an average grizzly like him. He told himself, as he got into his SUV and drove away, that she would have only tolerated his quirky nature for as long as he could give her things or buy her things or pay off her debt for her. And by the time he’d made it to Long Island’s Southern State Parkway, he’d nearly convinced himself that all that was the truth.


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