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Now this was living. A warm breakfast that eventually stopped moving, a lovely swim in a big, empty lake, and now a chance to relax in the tall grass under the last of the summer sun.
Yeah. Gwen O'Neill could so easily get used to this.
Like most Philly and Jersey shifters, this wasn't Gwen's first time at Macon River Falls Park, where the deer were plentiful and the land full-human free, but it was definitely her first time in the "rich part." The section of Macon River Falls owned by some of the richest Prides, Packs, and Clans in the Tri-State area. When she and her best friend, Blayne, had pulled up in Gwen's work truck two days before, the guards at the gate leading to the private properties wouldn't let them pass until they'd spoken to Brendon Shaw himself and he'd vouched for them. Then the guards had acted like Gwen and Blayne were hookers hired for the weekend. Whatever. Gwen didn't let a stranger's bullshit get in her way of a good time. Family, however, was a different story.
Some days she was convinced that her family made sure their bullshit got in the way of Gwen's good time. She believed that so much, she had almost turned down Brendon's offer. He was the half-brother of her big brother Mitch, but with Mitch in Japan until the Christmas holidays and her mother off to some expensive spa with Gwen's aunts and cousins for this Labor Day weekend, Gwen knew she'd be without any go-between to help her deal with Bren's constant need to prove they were all "family." Then last week sometime, it hit her—if she came to Macon River this weekend that would mean no Mitch, no Ma, and according to Brendon, no Brendon twin, Marissa "I'm a pissy slash" Shaw. And that meant, for Gwen at least, no bullshit to deal With—for once.
Gwen would actually be able to go somewhere and relax. Simply relax. She mentioned it to Blayne and got an extremely enthused, "Oh, my God! We absolutely have to go! Free-range hunting! Yay!" Of course, Blayne had that type of response when Gwen mentioned stopping by a diner for breakfast before work. "Oh, my God! We absolutely have to go! Pancakes! Yay!"
Grinning, her long feline tongue hanging out of her mouth, Gwen rolled onto her back and stared up at the blue sky.
Nope. This was "bullshit-free" living all right, and Brendon was at least tolerable. Of course, he was also wonderfully busy. He hadn't just invited Gwen and "a friend." He'd invited the New York Smith Pack wolves and the Kuznetsov wild dog Pack. Normally, that much canine in one place would turn Gwen into a hissing, slashing house cat. But she had a secret weapon. She had Blayne and everybody loved Blayne. She was cheery, sweet, funny and, more importantly, she managed to turn herself into a human shield for Gwen. She blocked anyone Gwen didn't want to be around, somehow knowing who that was without Gwen saying a word. Blayne had a gift and Gwen used it for all it was worth.
Uh ... what was that?
Rolling onto her stomach, Gwen listened carefully, positive she'd heard something.
Her ears twitched and turned, trying to locate the source—and they did. It was Blayne, who'd wandered off her own way nearly two hours before. Gwen recognized her friend's yelps of pain, the sounds intermingling with that of unknown canine growls and snarls.
Gwen took off running, using Blayne's scent to guide her. When she saw bushy tails above the tall grass, she lowered herself to the ground and low-crawled closer.
They had Blayne surrounded. At first growl she thought it was some of the Smiths who'd maybe decided they didn't like Blayne and her confusing wolfdog ways after all. But no, it wasn't the Smiths. Their scent didn't match and their coats were much lighter than those of any of the Smiths, and a hell of a lot more raggedy, too. Remember, people, conditioner—it's your friend.
Gwen's teeth snapped together as she watched them slapping Blayne around. Tragically, it wasn't the first time Blayne or Gwen had been on the receiving end of group attacks by Packs, Prides, and Clans. As hybrids, they were often alone, making them easy targets for those who didn't like the idea of mixed breeds dirtying up their precious gene pools.
Blayne was going head-to-head with a She-wolf, a really big one, with twelve other wolves attacking her from behind. With so many on her, she wasn't getting a chance to defend herself properly. Even worse, Blayne was neither Alpha nor Omega. She was Blayne. And she had a high tolerance for crap until she didn't anymore—and that's when sweet, pretty Blayne would snap and what started out as general bullying turned into something that would either get Blayne killed or mean that the rest of the weekend was spent trying to figure out where to hide the body parts. Neither of which Gwen was in the mood for.
Standing up on all fours, she sprinted forward, shooting through the tall grass and right into the middle of the Pack before any of them even realized she was there. She tackled the female who'd been fighting with Blayne, the two of them rolling away in a snarling, snapping mess of fur and claws. While Gwen dealt with the female, Blayne was able to turn on the other wolves.
Gwen knocked the She-wolf away from her and into a tree, momentarily stunning her, which gave Gwen time to check up on Blayne. As always, she was holding her own, even with her smaller wolf body and tiny dog feet, but Gwen could see the whites of her friend's eyes. A sure sign Blayne was about to lose it. Gwen had to break Blayne's concentration now or clean up the destruction later. She sprinted at Blayne and caught hold of the back of her neck as she kept going right by her. Blayne yelped, more from surprise than pain, but it got the reaction Gwen needed, forcing Blayne to focus on something else. She dropped her and the two friends kept running, the Pack right on their asses.
Gwen couldn't run for long, though. She was a natural sprinter, but she didn't do marathons. So she needed to get the wolves off their ass because the fact that they were following meant this was no longer a simple—but painful—"teasing" of the mixed breed.
Turning her head, looking for a way out of this, Gwen caught a scent she'd been taught to recognize before she could even shift. She'd also been taught to run away from that scent. Far away, as fast as she could go. But that wouldn't happen now. Now she was going to use it to her advantage.
Gwen turned, steering Blayne with her body, the Pack staying right on them. As they neared where she wanted to be, Gwen pulled out ahead. Blayne sped up to stay by her side, but when Gwen was about ten feet from her destination, Blayne hit the brakes, so to speak. Her too-small wolfdog paws digging into the soft dirt, trying to stop and ending up flipping backward, the Pack trampling right over her.
Perfect. Just what Gwen wanted.
Homing in on her target, Gwen leaped up as a wolf paw hit her on the hind leg at the same moment. Pain tore through her limb, but she ignored it, instead focusing on where she was landing.
And where she landed was right on his back, biting down on the thick lump of muscle between his shoulder blades while her body slid across and off him. Considering his size, he moved faster than anything she'd ever seen. In one fluid movement of violent, cranky, startled muscle, the grizzly boar rose, unleashing his full rage on all who were near. What was probably seven feet as human was now an easy ten feet on his hind legs. What was about 350 or so pounds of human muscle was now fifteen hundred of grizzly muscle. And what had once been asleep was now awake.
And pissed off.
The wolves tried to stop in time but they couldn't, and they slammed right into those enormous claws that were slashing and ripping wildly. The bear-roar sent calm birds screeching from the trees and Gwen got to her feet behind the grizzly, watching as he tossed two-hundred-plus-pound wolves into trees or lobbed them thirty feet out into the grass with no effort at all. She was enjoying every second of it, too, until that damn She-wolf came at her from the side, her fangs tearing into Gwen's already wounded hind leg. Gwen roared and hissed at the same time, going at the female again. Before she could get to her, though, before she could slap the crap out of her, there was suddenly a big bear ass coming right for her.
The Pack of thirteen turned out to be a Pack of twenty-three. They came out of the trees, charging the bear, startling him again and forcing him back. And back he moved.
Normally not an issue, until Gwen realized she was at the top of what the brochures called one of Macon River's "scenic" cliffs. Across the chasm was one of the falls, beneath that was part of the raging river.
Gwen tried to dodge out of the bear's way, but he must have felt her behind him and turned, his paw already swinging out. Yet when he saw her his small brown eyes grew wide and although he managed to not use those four-inch claws to rip her face open, his forearm still caught her and the strength of it sent her flipping back. She landed flat on her stomach, her legs dangling over the cliff 's edge, while she caught hold of the ledge with her front claws. But the ground was softer in this spot and her three-hundred-pound tigon form was simply too much. She slid over the side, her claws leaving gouges in the dirt, so she quickly shifted to human, hoping her lighter weight would help. She was able to grab hold of a branch with her hand, but it started to break away almost instantly.
"Shit," she blurted out. "Shitshitshitshit!"
Then the biggest human arm she'd ever seen was reaching down, big long fingers catching hold of her hand.
"Hold on! I've got you!" he called out. She looked up into that face and immediately recognized him. The bear from the Smith-Ward wedding who'd chucked Brendon Shaw into the woods like a five-pound sack of potatoes. She recognized those dark brown eyes, that handsome if almost painfully sweet face, and that great brown hair with silver tips she'd stared at all through the wedding ceremony. And he recognized her, too. The pair locking gazes in a shocked moment of clarity.
Feeling the strength of the hand that gripped her so tightly and relieved that she knew the bear, Gwen began to smile ...
Until that first bit of wet dirt hit her face and after a heart-stopping moment of feeling the ground beneath them begin to buckle from his weight, the bear rapidly hauled her up. But it wasn't fast enough. The earth gave way beneath him, raining down on Gwen, forcing her to look away. Yet she still managed to see that big, human male body tumbling forward—right into her.
She screamed as they went freefalling, tumbling through the air. Instinctively she shifted back to her cat form, knowing it could handle more damage than her weaker human one. But still—for this level of fall, she didn't have much hope. And all she could think was I can't believe I'm going to die in fucking New Jersey!
But before her life could flash before her eyes or she saw any white tunnels with her dead relatives waiting at the other end, Gwen felt long, unbelievably strong, fur-covered arms wrap around her, pulling her in close to all that hard muscle.
She buried her head against the bear's furred body, held her breath, and together they slammed into the rushing river beneath them.CHAPTER 2
The salmon were everywhere, leaping from the water and right into the open maws of bears. But he ruled this piece of territory and those salmon were for him and him alone. He opened his mouth and a ten-pound one leaped right into it. Closing his jaws, he sighed in pleasure. Honey covered. He loved honey-covered salmon!
This was his perfect world. A cold river, happy-to-die-for-his-survival salmon, and honey. Lots and lots of honey ...
What could ever be better? What could ever live up to this? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
A salmon swam up to him. He had no interest, he was still working on the honey-covered one. Yet the salmon insisted on staring at him intently ... almost glaring.
"Hey!" it called out. "Hey! Can you hear me?"
Why was this salmon ruining his meal? He should kill it and save it for later. Or toss it to one of the females with cubs. Anything to get this obviously Philadelphia salmon to shut the hell up!
"Answer me!" the salmon ordered loudly. "Open your eyes and answer me! Now!"
His eyes were open, weren't they?
Apparently not, because someone pried his lids apart and stared into his face. And wow, wasn't she gorgeous?
"Can you hear me?" He didn't answer, he was too busy staring at her. So pretty!
"Come on, Paddington. Answer me."
He instinctively snarled at the nickname and she smiled in relief. "What's the matter?" she teased. "You don't like Paddington? Such a cute, cuddly, widdle bear."
"Nothing's wrong with cute pet names ... Mr. Mittens."
She straightened, her hands on her hips and those long, expertly manicured nails drumming restlessly against those narrow hips.
"Mister?" she snapped.
"Paddington?" he shot back.
She gave a little snort. "Okay. Fair enough. But call me Gwen. I never did get a chance to tell you my name at the wedding."
Oh! He remembered her now. The feline he'd found himself daydreaming about on more than one occasion in the two months since Jess's wedding. And ... wow. She was naked. She looked really good naked ...
He blinked, knowing he was staring at that beautiful, strong body. Focus on something else! Anything else! You're going to creep her out!
"You have tattoos," he blurted. Bracelet tats surrounded both her biceps. A combination of black shamrocks and a dark-green Chinese symbol he didn't know the meaning of. And on her right hip she had a black Chinese dragon holding a Celtic cross in its mouth. It was beautiful work. Intricate. "Are they new?"
"Nah. I just covered up the ones on my arms with makeup, for the wedding. With my mother, I'd be noticed enough. Didn't want to add to that." She gestured at him with her hand. "Now you know I'm Gwen and I have tattoos ... so do you have a name?"
"Yeah, sure. I'm ..." He glanced off, racking his brain.
"You don't remember your name?" she asked, her eyes wide.
"I know it has something to do with security." He stared at her thoughtfully, then snapped his fingers. "Lock."
"Lock? Your name is Lock?"
"I think. Lock. Lock ... Lachlan! MacRyrie!" He glanced off again. "I think."
"No need to get snippy. It's my name I can't remember." He nodded. "I'm pretty positive it's Lock ... something."
She gave a small, frustrated growl and placed the palms of her hands against her eyes. He stared at her painted nails. "Are those the team colors of the Philadelphia Flyers?"
"Don't start," she snapped.
"Again with the snippy? I was only asking."
Lock slowly pushed himself up a bit, noticing for the first time that they'd traveled to a much more shallow part of the river. The water barely came to his waist. She started to say something, but shook her head and looked away. He didn't mind. He didn't need conversation at the moment, he needed to figure out where he was.
A river, that's where he was. Unfortunately, not his dream river. The one with the honey-covered salmon that willingly leaped into his mouth. A disappointing realization—it always felt so real until he woke up—but he was still happy that he'd survived the fall.
Lock used his arms to push himself up all the way so he could sit.
"Be careful," she finally said. "We fell from up there."
He looked at where she pointed, ignoring how much pain the slight movement caused, and flinched when he saw how far down they were.
"Although we were farther upriver, I think."
"Damn," he muttered, rubbing the back of his neck.
"How bad is it?"
"It'll be fine." Closing his eyes, Lock bent his head to one side, then the other. The sound of cracking bones echoed and when he opened his eyes, he saw that pretty face cringing.
"See?" he said. "Better already."
"If you say so."
She took several awkward steps back so she could sit down on a large boulder.
"You're hurt," he informed her.
"Yeah. I am." She extended her leg, resting it on a smaller boulder in front of her and letting out a breath, her eyes shutting. "I know it's healing, but, fuck, it hurts."
Excerpted from The Mane Squeeze by Shelly Laurenston. Copyright © 2009 Shelly Laurenston. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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