As the military liaison between the human Shifter Bureau and Shiftertown, Walker is often stuck trying to appease both sides—and angering both. So when bear-Shifter Rebecca is captured taking a run in a restricted area, Walker has to talk fast to get her released. The compromise: if Rebecca helps him find a missing woman—thought to have been abducted by a Shifter—she won’t be charged and executed.
Mate-less Rebecca is not happy to be under Walker’s supervision. As a bear used to roaming for miles, she hates being confined and restricted, she distrusts anything involving humans, and—worst of all—the strong and handsome Walker starts triggering her mating need.
They have no choice but to work together, and as they continue their search for the missing girl, uncovering secrets neither Shifters nor humans want them to know, both Walker and Rebecca find it hard not to mix business with pleasure…
Includes a preview of Jennifer Ashley’s upcoming novel Mate Bond.
Praise for the Shifters Unbound series:
“Ashley’s Shifter world is exciting, sexy, and magical.”—Yasmine Galenorn, New York Times bestselling author
“A must-buy series for paranormal romance lovers.”—Fiction Vixen
“Scorchingly sensual...High-adrenaline suspense.”—Booklist
“A superb, well-written paranormal series.”—Fresh Fiction
Jennifer Ashley, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Mate Bond and winner of a Romance Writers of America RITA Award, also writes as national bestselling and award-winning author Allyson James. She lives in the Southwest with her husband and cats, and spends most of her time in the wonderful worlds of her stories.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Rebecca could still hear the hunters with guns behind her. Assholes. They’d come out here to take potshots at rabbits, but decided that the Kodiak bear they’d spotted would make a much better trophy.
Rebecca—the Kodiak in question—sprinted across a stretch of broken pavement that had once been a runway and back into the tall grasses and weeds. In the summer, this field would be lush with sunflowers. Now, in October, dry grasses crackled under her paws in the darkness.
More changes had occurred since this summer—Austin’s old airport was plowed up more every day to build condos and office complexes, which sprang up like fungi. Rebecca skirted a huge pile of upturned earth and chunks of asphalt, and kept running.
Even with the encroachment, these wide-open, flat fields were the best place in town for a Shifter bear to run, especially at night. Rebecca came out here several times a week to run off her frustrations, her hormones, or whatever, and just to be alone under the sky. On clear nights, the stars stretched to infinity, a blush of white against deep black.
She could pretend she was in Alaska again, where she might go for days without seeing a human, or even another bear, wild or otherwise. It had taken her forever to get used to living not only in a city but crammed into Shiftertown with other Shifters. Where she’d once existed in complete solitude, she now shared a house with another Kodiak of her clan, his human mate, and four assorted cubs, three of them fosters.
Rebecca had come to love them all, but sometimes, she needed to escape out here to run in the silence and the stillness.
“Got ’im!” one of the men behind her yelled.
So much for stillness. The men chasing her weren’t real hunters—just a bunch of stupid guys with too much firepower and too few brains.
They had no idea Rebecca was a she, not a he, and a Shifter, not a wild bear. They didn’t care. They were going to shoot her and drag her home, no matter what.
Rebecca’s advantage was that she knew this place like the back of her paw. She ran and dodged, finding the sudden valleys in what seemed a level, smooth plain. She felt grim satisfaction when one of the hunters yelled, “Damn, where’d he go?”
The thought What is a Kodiak bear doing running around the old airport? apparently never crossed their minds. These were the kind of guys who saw something moving and tried to shoot it. Their mothers must be so proud.
Rebecca ran through a drainage ditch, dry from lack of rain, and angled back toward Shiftertown, which lay a little north of the airport, in an older area bounded by Airport Boulevard. The bungalows there were similar to others in hidden neighborhoods around it, historic places developers hadn’t gone after yet.
Once Rebecca made it closer to Shiftertown, the hunters would have to give up. She’d hit busier roads, plus the Shifter trackers who patrolled the perimeter would make sure Rebecca got safely home.
Of course, Rebecca had to make it inside the perimeter first. She had about a half mile to go, and there were five hunters out here with her.
She dashed up out of the ditch, ready to sprint the last stretch back to Shiftertown . . . and almost landed on top of one of the hunters.
He yelled, “Shhhh-iii-t!” and rolled backwards, desperately clutching his gun. Rebecca didn’t give him a chance to shake off his terror. She pounced.
A couple thousand pounds of Kodiak coming down on him had to be a fearsome sight. The man scrambled out of the way and to his feet, screaming for his friends. Rebecca reached him in another stride and knocked his shotgun from his hands with her massive front paw. She scooped up the gun and rose on her hind legs, a Kodiak at its mightiest.
Her bear paws could manipulate things pretty well, and in a few seconds, she had the rifle uncocked and broken in half. The man she’d taken it from gibbered for a second, then turned and ran.
Rebecca dropped to all fours and ran in the opposite direction. But too late, the man’s friends had surrounded her, fear on their faces but rifles and shotguns raised. One trained a powerful lantern flashlight on her.
Rebecca had several choices, including shifting back to human to show him she wasn’t a wild bear. But that was risky—while Rebecca could be stronger than most human men, there were five of them, and they’d probably be delighted to find a naked woman among them. No telling what they’d try to do then.
She could run, dive into darkness and try to lose them with sheer speed and cunning. Or she could fight.
Rebecca rose on her hind feet, her ruff high. She spread her front paws, giant things the size of dinner plates, and roared. The sound shook the ground.
The men shouted, swore—one even laughed with the hysterical laughter of the truly terrified. A couple of them ran. One fired.
Rebecca’s reflexes made her dive aside, but buckshot grazed her side, hurting. Her frenzy grew, her human thoughts scattering as her bear instincts took over. Rebecca roared again, came down on all fours, and charged.
The men streamed outward like a startled flock of birds. Rebecca picked one at random, and gave chase.
The hunter sprinted away, forgetting about the gun in his hands, but he’d never be able to outrun Rebecca. She’d land on him, break his shotgun, flip his body back and forth between her paws—generally scare the crap out of him. Maybe she’d close her big teeth around his neck, tasting his fear. Something inside her told her she couldn’t kill him—she’d be executed for it—but that didn’t mean her bear couldn’t have a little fun.
Rebecca closed on the man as he panted in fear, invoking his deity with every breath. One more stride . . .
The hunter charged past another man, who was standing still, at first just one more patch of darkness. Moonlight glinted on the newcomer’s white-blond hair and the barrel of the rifle he aimed at Rebecca.
Not a shotgun—a tranq rifle. Behind him stood more men dressed in black, holding real guns, ready to shoot.
“Stand down,” the lead man said to Rebecca. He had no fear in his voice; he expected to be obeyed.
Rebecca skidded to a halt, her paws tearing up dirt and grass. She let the other human go—lesser prey. The man with the tranq rifle—now he pissed her off.
She rose up on her hind feet, growling, ready to grab the rifle out of his hands.
“Rebecca,” the man said in a calm voice. “There’s enough tranq in here to put you out for the rest of the night. You can either come with me on your own, or be dragged away by my men.”
Rebecca growled again, the sound rumbling through her body. Only one thing she could do in a situation like this.
She stretched to her full height, then she let herself slowly melt into her human form, fur receding and vanishing as her limbs changed. Her muzzle flattened, her face became human, and her paws became long-fingered human hands.
She would be stark naked when she finished shifting, but that was his problem, not hers.
Rebecca’s bear body finally vanished, and she shook herself out, her skin tingling from the shift. She put her hands on her hips, cocking her head so that her Collar caught the light.
“Walker Danielson,” she drawled. “What brings you out here in the middle of the night?”
If Rebecca had one weapon that could completely disarm Walker, it was this—standing naked in front of him, moonlight kissing her body.
Darkness hid most of her, but silver light touched her breasts, pale skin with dark areolas, her rich brown hair, and a smile he could never forget. The moonlight also glinted on her Collar, marking her as a Shifter and a captive.
“You bring me out here,” Walker said, not lowering the tranq gun. “I heard report of a bear running around the old airport.”
He knew the tranq rifle didn’t intimidate her. She could morph back into a bear the second she wanted to and take him down.
Walker had a vivid memory of lying on her living room carpet, while Rebecca as a giant bear stretched across his chest. She’d held him better than manacles. He hadn’t been able to move, barely able to breathe.
Rebecca hadn’t crushed or smothered him. She’d been gentle, holding him in place, only letting him up without a scratch when her roommate, Ronan, had come to chain him up. That had been Rebecca being nice, following Ronan’s orders. What she’d do now, out here alone in the night, was anyone’s guess.
“And naturally you thought of me,” Rebecca said, one hip canted. “I’m flattered.”
As always, Walker’s throat closed up when she turned on her full power. Words didn’t come easily to him at the best of times, and he had to struggle now to speak evenly. “Developers aren’t happy about people running around their new buildings. They have tight security.”
“When you say people, you mean Shifters.” Rebecca started toward him, her body swaying in the darkness. Walker’s finger sweated on the trigger. “Those human idiots were out here to shoot at rabbits. With big guns, so they could hear them go boom.”
She kept coming. Walker stood his ground. Rebecca didn’t believe he’d tranq her, not when she was in human form, naked and sexy. She was wrong.
The first time they’d met, Walker had been trying to free himself, and he’d worried about hurting the gorgeous woman left to guard him. He’d fought her, throwing her off, and while he’d hesitated, concerned after she’d slammed into the staircase, she’d climbed to her feet and stripped out of her clothes.
Instead of taking the moment to run, Walker had allowed himself to get distracted by her amazing body. He’d given her time to turn into a bear and pin him down.
Not this time. “I won’t shoot you if you walk away with me now,” Walker said, watching her through the gun’s scope.
“To do that, I need my clothes. Which I left over there.” Rebecca pointed one long finger off into the darkness. The gesture made her breasts move, and Walker kept sweating. “You think those hunters will leave me alone now that I’m a naked woman?”
“Don’t make me arrest you, Rebecca.”
“For what?” Her hand returned to her hip. “Having a run? By myself? The rabbits are safe from me.”
“For trespassing. The security companies out here mean serious business.”
“In other words, they don’t like Shifters.”
“They don’t like anyone. Come with me, and they won’t press charges.”
“Are you going to make me?” Rebecca’s voice went sultry. She could turn it on, this woman, and leave Walker aching all night. “You and whose army?”
“The platoon standing behind me. They have lights, tranq guns and other guns, and an armored Humvee.”
“Seriously?” Rebecca peered into the darkness. “All that for little ole me?” She sniffed. “I don’t smell anything.”
“They’re trained to cover scent. They’re experienced at tracking down Shifters.”
“Are you trying to scare me, Captain Danielson?” She resumed her slow stalk and her sexy voice.
“Major.” Walker cleared his throat. “Major Danielson now.”
“Oh, that’s right. How nice.”
She kept coming. Walker had to remind himself about twenty times that though she might be the sexiest woman alive, she was dangerous as hell, never mind the shock Collar around her neck.
Walker’s body wouldn’t manifest the right reaction. He should be wanting to fight the threat or flee from it. Instead, his instincts were telling him to throw down the rifle, grab Rebecca, haul her into his arms, and kiss the hell out of her.
His training kept him in a defensive stance, rifle raised. He hadn’t survived all this time in the most dangerous parts of the world by letting his hormones take over. Walker had learned to focus, to channel his energy into defeating the enemy, whether that might be crazed men trying to kill him in remote mountains or a beautiful Shifter smiling at him in the dark.
“Five seconds,” Walker said. “You stand there and let me escort you out, or I tranq you. Your choice.”
“Yeah? How about we talk about it? Just you and me?” Rebecca smiled—her warm smile that said she was large-hearted, friendly, and great in bed. She took another step toward him.
Walker knew what he had to do next. The decision was tough, but it was out of his hands.
He relaxed and lowered the tranq gun. “All right.”
Just like that, Rebecca was bear. The Kodiak snarled, ruff high, and came at him with giant paws, ready to battle.
Except Walker’s tranq dart was in her side. He’d lifted the rifle and fired as soon as she’d started to shift.
The bear’s eyes widened as the fast-acting tranq coursed through her body. She growled, her eyes going flat, and Walker knew exactly what she was saying.
Rebecca fell to the ground with a resounding thud. Ten men came out of the darkness to surround the bear whose sides now rose and fell in peaceful sleep.
Rebecca groaned as consciousness returned. She hurt—a sharp pain stabbed her in the side and a dull one danced around her abdomen. Her back hurt too, her usually comfortable bed for some reason too hard. Or maybe she’d fallen asleep on the floor.
Didn’t matter, she had to get up and fix breakfast for the cubs. She and Elizabeth traded off the cooking, and today was her day.
Or maybe they’d already had breakfast. She couldn’t remember.
Rebecca peeled open her eyes . . . and sat up fast.
She was in a cramped, dingy room with a large steel door and no windows. A small square opening in the door was covered with bars. Rebecca sat on a slab built into the wall, dressed in what looked like a hospital gown.
When she tried to scramble to her feet, she found she was also shackled by one wrist to the wall.
“Seriously?” she yelled.
She heard the beeping of a keypad, then the door clicked open. The door was clean, solid, and new, unlike the rest of the cell, which was shabby and worn, walls and floor pitted.
Major Walker Danielson strode in. He was minus the tranq rifle—he wasn’t armed at all that Rebecca could see. He wore black fatigues, the gold leaf that was his major’s insignia adorning one shoulder, another insignia she didn’t recognize on the other. The tag above his right pocket, in olive green so it could be seen among the black, read “Danielson.”
Walker let the door close behind him, shutting himself in with her. The snick of it told her the electronic lock had clicked into place.
Rebecca remained on the bunk, hands bracing herself at her sides. Did he expect her to jump to attention? Salute? What?
Walker said nothing. He was a man of few words; she already knew that. He was also tight-bodied and exuded incredible strength, a fact Rebecca had been aware of the first time she’d seen him.
His eyes were light blue in a face tanned from years of working in the sun. His hair, which he kept in a buzz, was a sun-streaked blond. The backs of his hands were scarred, as were his arms, a man who’d fought and fought often.
Right now, his arms were covered by the sleeves of his fatigues, and he’d folded them across his chest. Not a welcoming stance. A delicious-looking man, but one who took no shit.
Rebecca was an unmated Shifter female in her prime years, and her frenzy was never far from the surface. Walker was a fine and virile man, and though she was his captive, his physical presence did things to her.
But if she went into mating frenzy here and now, she’d be tranqued again, and the Goddess only knew where she’d wake up next time. She’d have to suppress her biological urges, at least long enough to figure out what was going on and get back home.
She wet her dry mouth before she could speak. “What the hell am I doing here?” she croaked. “I feel like shit. What was in that tranq?”
“You’d been shot by the hunters,” Walker said, his voice irritatingly calm. “We took some shot out of you while you were out. The tranq will wear off. It’s harmless to you.”
“Harmless? Right. Because you’re so up on how Shifter metabolisms work.”
Walker didn’t change expression. “I work for Shifter Bureau. They know all kinds of things about Shifters and their metabolisms.”
“Yeah, from all those experiments.” Twenty years ago, when Shifters had first come out, Shifter Bureau had rounded up many Shifters and stuck them into labs to see how they worked.
“We still have the information.” Walker let out a short breath, the military man at last cracking to reveal the human beneath. “Rebecca, they ordered me to bring you in. The developers were making a stink about a Shifter running around on their land—one developer in particular, who has a lot of weight.”
“Maybe he should go on a diet.” Rebecca wet her mouth again, a sour scratch in her throat. She wanted water. Or beer. Beer would be better.
“They’re building a research facility,” Walker said. “Big pharma. Lots of money, very powerful. Theft is a huge deal for them, and they’re not happy that so many Shifters live nearby.”
“Then why the hell did they buy land next to Shiftertown?” Rebecca snapped. “What did they expect?”
“They’re good with it if Shifters stay away from their property and buildings. Their area is clearly marked, and they have plenty of security to keep an eye on things.” Walker pinned her with his gaze. “You ran right through the site.”
“I was being chased by stupid human drunks with guns. Why wasn’t security all over their asses?”
“They were. The police responded to that call. I got the one about you.”
“Lucky you.” Rebecca lifted her hand to move her hair from her face, but she was brought up short by the chain. “What’s up with this? I could turn bear and yank it out with one pull.”
“You might not want to do that,” Walker said. “It’s shock triggered, like your Collar. It will hurt, maybe knock you out again.”
Rebecca lowered her hand in disgust. “Gee, you thought of everything.”
“Procedure. By the book.”
“There’s a book on how to confine Shifters?” Rebecca raked her hair back from her face, being careful to use her free hand. “No. Wait. Of course there is.” Her rage was a low simmer, her body too tired to let it boil over.
Walker had originally been assigned to the military attachment to Shifter Bureau, but in the last couple months, he’d pretty much taken over as a liaison between the bureau and Shiftertown. He now worked with a Shifter called Tiger training humans and other Shifters in search-and-rescue operations.
Walker had become a strong voice advocating for the equal treatment of Shifters. And yet, here Rebecca was, tranqued, chained, locked in . . .
“I thought you were supposed to be on our side,” she said.
“I am.” Walker leaned against the wall, completing the illusion of him being relaxed and friendly. Rebecca knew better—his scent broadcast that he was plenty tense.
“Sure, I can tell. What did Liam say when you told him you’d imprisoned me? Or have you called him yet?”
Liam Morrissey was Shiftertown leader. Walker was supposed run everything Shifter related past him.
“Liam understands,” Walker said. “He knew I had to do what I had to do. If I hadn’t, you might now be in a termination cell. These guys aren’t messing around, Becks.”
Rebecca winced as he used her pet name. Only Ronan and the cubs called her that, but Walker had heard it from them.
“Fine, you made your point.” Rebecca tried to look contrite. “I’d like to go home now. Olaf gets upset if I’m not in by a certain time every night. You wouldn’t want to frighten a cute widdle polar bear cub, now, would you?” She blinked soft eyes at him.
Walker didn’t look impressed. “Olaf is fine. I talked to Ronan. And it’s nine o’clock in the morning.”
Which meant she’d been here all night. “Shit.”
“I can’t let you go yet,” Walker said. “Shifter Bureau is not happy with you. They had to talk fast to the pharma company to have you released to me.”
Rebecca groaned, sore all over. “All I did was go for a run, for the Goddess’s sake. What’s next? We’re not allowed to breathe or take a crap?”
Walker shrugged, moving his shirt across tight shoulders. “What I’m thinking is there’s something the company plans to do in that building that’s valuable. Maybe billions valuable. Corporations are paranoid. They complained to Shifter Bureau, and Shifter Bureau’s taking it out on you.”
Rebecca drew a breath, trying to still her shakes. She didn’t want Walker to see she was scared. She didn’t fear much, but no one ever knew what crazy stupid thing Shifter Bureau might take into their heads to do to Shifters.
“So, what now?” she asked. “They’re going to put me in a special cage and throw away the key? Or do I get to stay in this luxurious accommodation?”
She spoke lightly, but dread bit her. Being confined was one of Rebecca’s greatest fears, the one she’d had to fight hardest when she’d been moved to Shiftertown. She’d learned how to survive and even like living with others, but part of the reason she’d been able to was that she’d go out running whenever she got too squirrelly. The thought of being kept in a jail like this made her panic rise.
“I’ve talked them into letting you go home,” Walker said. “As long as you stay the hell away from the old airport . . . and help me out with an assignment.”
Rebecca didn’t hear anything past letting you go home. Her heart lifted. She wouldn’t have to stay confined. She was going home. She’d hug everyone when she got there, from the giant Ronan to small Olaf to the tiny Coby, Ronan’s cub.
“You all right with that?” Walker asked. “I have a bunch of forms for you to sign, and then we’re good to go, with you under my custody.”
Rebecca snapped out of her daydream of a joyous group hug. “Wait . . . What? Your custody?”
Walker was back to being the tight-ass officer. “Shifter Bureau is letting you go but only under my supervision. I’ll be responsible for your good behavior.”
Rebecca stared at him in shock. “Holy shit. For how long?”
“Until they decide. Probably until I clear up the mess there and prove that you helped me.”
“Mess?” Rebecca’s brain was trying to catch up.
“The woman, Joanne Greene, accused Shifters of abducting her sister this past summer—the sister still hasn’t been found.”
“Yeah, I know Joanne. She’s gotten close to Broderick, of all people.” Broderick was a shithead of a Lupine, thought he was the big, bad wolf. “Joanne has changed her mind that our Shifters took her sister,” Rebecca went on.
“Yes, but the sister is still missing. I’ve been assigned to clear up the case, and I need Shifter help to do it. You just volunteered.”
Rebecca suppressed a growl. She wanted to shift, but if she did, fifty men might burst in and pop tranqs into her, not to mention the shock cuff locked around her wrist would go off. “All right, fine. Here’s my help—I can guarantee you that Shifters had nothing to do with her disappearance. There. Can I go home now?”
Walker gave her a hint of a smile, which made his blue eyes sparkle. “Nope. You need to be processed, then I drive you back.”
“Processed. Why don’t I like the sound of that?”
“It just means going through a bunch of paperwork. And a physical, to make sure they don’t have to quarantine you.”
Quarantine. Another word to make her shudder. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Shifters are never sick. And I don’t have fleas.” Rebecca lifted her arms from her sides to show him she was flea free.
Steel returned to Walker’s voice. “Just do it, Rebecca. They’re looking to take out their embarrassment on someone, and you’re right in front of them. Do what I tell you, keep your mouth shut, and you’ll be out of here today. Give them shit, and they might just put you in a cage for a year.”
Fear of that, far more than Walker’s tone, made Rebecca back down. “Fine. Whatever. Give me the paperwork. And some clothes, please?” She clenched her left fist. “You’ll have to release me from this to sign anything. I’m left-handed.”
Walker shot her a look. “No, you’re not. Your file says you’re right-handed. Which is why I told them to chain up your left.”
“You told them? Thanks a lot.”
“They were going to chain both,” Walker said quietly. “I convinced them that one was enough.” He pushed himself off the wall. “First paperwork, then you get clothes.”
He started for the door. In a moment, he’d be on the other side of it, leaving Rebecca in solitude, but locked in, trapped. Sweat trickled down her spine.
“Walker,” she said quickly.
He turned back, the dim light from the hall burnishing his hair and the diamond blue gray of his eyes.
Rebecca swallowed. “Thank you. For helping me.”
“Don’t thank me yet, sweetheart,” Walker said. “Let’s get you out of here first.”
He opened the door and slipped out, fast enough that even if she were able to yank free of the shackle, she’d never reach the door before it closed.
The steel door banged, the echo of the lock clicking. Rebecca pulled her feet up under her and scrunched into a ball, the bear in her howling like a pitiful cub.
By the time Walker was able to get all the paperwork done and Rebecca out of there, it was already late afternoon, the sky darkening.
Walker drove to Shiftertown in his black 250, Rebecca next to him in a set of clean sweats borrowed from one of his sergeants. Rebecca had her arms folded, sitting as far from Walker as she could get.
This incident was regrettable, because Walker had thought, since he’d begun working with Tiger, that Rebecca had softened to him. That they’d started to be friends.