He was a shadow, ever shifting and insinuating, able to blend in everywhere and anywhere. The elusive ideal conceived and created by the Genetics Council, he went by just as many names as he had identities—the last one being Gideon.
Now calling himself Graeme, he hides in plain sight, terrifyingly close to his goal. A rogue Bengal Breed, he is loyal to no one but himself. And he has a need for vengeance that surges hot and swift through his veins.
Graeme plans to wage an extreme and ruthless vendetta against those who wronged him—Breed and human alike. All will suffer his wrath: those who created him, those who pretended to love him, and those who betrayed him.This includes the one at the center of it all: a seductive, enigmatic woman helpless against the man whose desire is just as desperate as his need to destroy. And he’s tracking her scent...
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• CONTENTS •
• THE WORLD OF THE BREEDS •
They’re not shifters or werewolves.
They are experiments in genetic engineering. Created to be super soldiers and the advanced lab rats needed to research new drug therapies for the human population.
They weren’t created to be free.
They weren’t even created to live.
They existed to serve the men and women who created them, tortured them, filled them with rage and a hunger for freedom.
Now they’re free, they’re living and they’re setting the world, and their mates, on fire.
• • •
For a glossary of Breed terms, please flip to the back of the book.
• PROLOGUE •
GENETICS RESEARCH UNDERGROUND FACILITY
Cat stared at the white wall of the cell she’d grown up in and she cried. She hadn’t cried in a long time.
It hurt G when she cried, so she’d stopped crying when she was scared, when she was five. She was twelve now, and unless the therapies just hurt so bad she couldn’t stand it anymore, she didn’t cry.
This hurt worse than the therapies, though. This hurt worse than even when she’d begged G to let her die.
Because G was gone now.
At least all the alarms were quiet. It was the alarms that woke her and the only other occupant of the cell.
First Honor’s momma and daddy had taken Honor home. Now they said G was gone, that he had run away. But G wasn’t a kid and he wouldn’t have run away without taking her and Judd with him. He wouldn’t have. She knew he wouldn’t.
And her teddy bear was gone too. G only let her have the teddy bear when she came back from their experiments and her whole body felt like it was being torn apart. Then he would let her cuddle it as he cuddled her.
“He took my teddy bear,” she whispered. “He must have been very scared, Judd. He must have known the men in the black clothes were going to take him.”
Judd was a Bengal Breed, like G was, but G said Judd’s Bengal was asleep. Dr. Foster had said it was recessed. Sometimes G tried to explain things to her like she wasn’t grown up. She was grown up. She knew lots of stuff. And she knew Judd was making his Bengal sleep. It wasn’t awake because he wouldn’t allow it to awaken.
Judd was cool, though. With soft black hair and really deep green eyes. He looked like he had a wonderful tan, but that was just his skin color. A soft dark earthy color that most Breeds shared.
He was as tall as G, though not as hard in his muscles. He watched everything all the time and sometimes G explained things to him, but Cat knew they were things Judd had already figured out.
“The men in the black clothes didn’t take him, Cat.” He lay on his own cot just staring at the ceiling like he always did.
He’d told her once that if he stared hard enough then his mind took him away to places where he ran free.
She had never been able to do that, mostly because G was always talking to her, telling her things he said she had to remember.
But she remembered everything she heard and everything she saw. G only had to tell her things once.
Things like, if the men in the black suits came for her, not to be scared. Don’t fight them, just be calm, because he would save her before they put her to sleep. The men in the black clothes had taken all the other older people who had been taking the therapies over the years. Dr. Foster became very sad when they left and she’d heard him tell G that at least they wouldn’t hurt anymore.
“The men in the black clothes took him, Judd.” She tightened her arms around her knees to keep herself from rocking back and forth. “My teddy is gone.” And she needed her teddy bear when G wasn’t there. She was so very scared. “G wouldn’t do that unless he was scared.”
“Gideon doesn’t get scared, Cat,” he reminded her.
He’d told her that many times over the years.
“He wouldn’t leave us.” She knew he wouldn’t. G loved her, and he knew she loved Judd too. He would save Judd too because she would never be able to leave him behind to suffer.
“I want G,” she whispered, her breath hitching, the fear that always threatened to overwhelm her dragging her under now. “They took him away from me, Judd. Why did they take him away from me? I need G.”
Silent sobs shook her shoulders, she didn’t dare let the scientists hear her crying. They would punish her for being loud. They would give her that horrible drug that trapped her inside her own mind and made her crazy with the pain they inflicted.
“Gideon ran away, Cat.” Judd’s voice was hollow, resigned. “You have to accept that. I don’t know why he took the teddy bear but I know the soldiers didn’t take him.”
She needed G. He protected her. He made hell bearable and he gave her hope. And Judd was wrong. G wouldn’t leave her. He just wouldn’t do that. G knew she didn’t have anyone else. She had no one but G . . .
FOUR MONTHS LATER
They had taken G, now they were taking her and Judd.
Cat watched the men in the black clothes as they moved up the hall to the cell. There was no one left in the research center now but her and Judd. They would take her for sure, she knew. She was the one they called a disappointment during the last therapy.
“Remember, Cat, don’t fight. Stay calm,” Judd murmured when he moved to stand beside her. “Don’t say anything. Don’t tell them anything.”
But G wouldn’t save them.
Judd thought he would, but how could he, when the men in the black suits had taken him and put him to sleep?
She wouldn’t fight, though. She’d promised G she wouldn’t fight in the center. She’d wait. She’d watch. If he didn’t come for her, then first chance after they cleared the labs, she would run. He’d promised there would be a chance.
She would try to run, just like he’d taught her. She would run and hide and grow up and learn the rest of the fighting lessons. When she knew them all, then she would find out who gave the order to put G to sleep, and she would make them suffer.
Then what would she do? she wondered. Because she couldn’t imagine life without G after that.
“You hear me, Cat?” His voice hardened, sounding almost like G’s.
“I hear you.” There wasn’t enough time to say anything else.
The men in the black clothes were at the cell. Hard faced, their eyes so flat and cold, without mercy or compassion.
The metal door slid open soundlessly.
“Come on, you’re in transfer,” the tallest one announced as he moved to Judd. “Turn around.”
Judd turned, not even flinching as they strapped the hard plastic cuffs around his wrists.
Turning, Cat put her hands behind her back as well.
Both men laughed. “Yeah, you’re a real threat,” the shorter one scoffed before slapping her against the head painfully and pushing her to the door. “I’m not wasting my restraints on you.”
That was a mistake, but she wasn’t going to tell them that.
She was tiny. She looked frail. But an animal lurked inside her. One they wouldn’t expect and wouldn’t be prepared for. One determined to live.
FOUR HOURS LATER
SOMEWHERE IN THE PENNSYLVANIA MOUNTAINS
Judd wondered if he should be in shock.
He stared at the guard who had gotten into the back of the van with them. He was sprawled out on the floor, the side of his neck ripped open as he stared up at the ceiling of the van sightlessly.
Cat hadn’t been messy about it. She’d moved so fast, with such deadly precision and sharp little teeth and claws, that at first Judd was certain he’d imagined what he was seeing. Until she’d reached into the guard’s belt, retrieved the releasing device and loosened the restraints on Judd’s ankles and wrists.
She’d returned to the narrow bench, huddled in the corner and stared at the narrow window where the scenery passed by in a haze of midnight shadows.
“G said I had to be ready,” she whispered. “We’ll only have one chance to run.”
She still believed Gideon had been taken from her. No one had been able to convince her that Gideon had escaped and left her and Judd there alone until he could arrange for Dr. Bennett, the new director of the center, to have them transferred to the euthanasia facility.
What would she do when she realized Gideon was really alive?
“Cat, listen to me.” Kneeling next to her, carefully Judd reached out, touched her dirty face and turned it to him.
Gideon was going to go ape shit. The lab techs hadn’t allowed Cat to properly bathe since Gideon’s escape. Her hair hung in dirty strings and dirt marred her face and hands.
“Gideon will be here . . .”
She shook her head fiercely. “He wouldn’t leave me like that.” Tiny fingers curled into fists. “He wouldn’t leave me, Judd.”
“To save you, he would have left you, Cat.”
A feral snarl and snap of tiny incisors had him jerking his head back instinctively, staring back at her in shock.
“G wouldn’t do that!” The pain in her face, in her eyes, broke his heart for her. “He wouldn’t leave me alone. Never. And he wouldn’t take my teddy from me even if he did.”
But he would have, if he’d hidden dozens of nano flash chips in it that he’d filled with information he’d stolen over the years. Generations of experiments, genetic coding and Breed research had been hidden in that tattered little bear.
There was no time to explain all that, though.
He was out of time.
Gideon’s warning shot sounded and lit the night sky like the fourth of July.
Throwing Cat to the floor, Judd covered her slight body with his own, remembering Gideon’s warning clearly. If Cat received so much as a scratch, then he’d take it out of Judd’s hide.
Judd would have preferred she receive the scratch than the disillusionment this kid had coming when she saw who was rescuing them.
• • •
He’d really escaped. He’d run away from her, and now, he was dying.
“He’s lost too much blood, Judd.” She was frantically trying to stem the flow from his chest and as he stared up at her, even the whites of his eyes turned that eerie jade-flecked amber. “We have to transfuse . . .”
“No . . .” The snarl in G’s voice was a horrible sound.
She stared down at him in shock. He’d never been a reasonable Breed, but this was crazy.
Lifting her gaze to the Breed across from her, she begged him silently to ignore the command of the Breed they’d both freely accepted as their alpha years before.
“If he dies, I’ll never forgive you,” she sobbed as Judd dropped his head, ignoring her imploring gaze. “Do you hear me, Judd? I’ll never forgive you.”
“I’ll kill you.” G wheezed, the warmth of his blood still easing over her hands.
“Don’t do this, Gideon.” Judd stared back at him now, his jade green eyes flashing with an inner flame Cat had never seen there before. “Please don’t make it like this.”
“You know it can’t happen.” G coughed.
“G, please. You can’t leave me alone,” she begged him desperately, her tears mixing with his blood as she tried to make him understand. “You lied to me, G. You left me once. Don’t leave me like this. I can’t live if you leave me like this.”
The sobs were jerking through her body, shuddering through her as she made him look at her. She had to make him understand.
“They’ll come after us. How can we fight without you? Please, G. I don’t want to fight without you.”
“My little cat.” His voice was so weak it terrified her as his hand trembled, reaching up to touch the tears falling down her face. “You live, Cat. For me. You promised me.”
She’d sworn to him she’d live. Sworn she would never give up on living.
“It doesn’t count if you leave me,” she screamed down at him. “It doesn’t count, G.”
“It counts . . .” An enraged snarl tore from his throat as he felt the pressure syringe Judd stuck to his neck. “No . . . you bastard!” G cursed him. His gaze turned to her, pure green fury lighting the depths. “I’ll kill him, Cat. Do this and I’ll kill him. I’ll kill both of you.”
She eased back, watching as his arm fell helplessly to the ground beside him.
Moving quickly to her feet, she rushed to the other side where Judd was laying out a small pallet of blankets from the supplies G had brought. A medical pack sat beside G’s prone body, the transfusion supplies ready.
“No,” G demanded again. “There’s no serum, Judd. You know what that means.”
She had no idea what the serum was and she didn’t care. She knew her blood would help him heal, that was all that mattered.
“I told you, Foster was wrong,” Judd was arguing as Cat lay down next to G and turned her arm up for the other Breed to apply the transfusion syringe into her vein. “Dammit Gideon.”
“Cat.” The growl had her turning her gaze to him, staring back at him and realizing far more than he knew. “Do this, Cat, and you’ll die . . .” he snarled.
“I love you, G,” she whispered. More than anything she loved G, she couldn’t let him leave her forever, no matter how much he might hate her for it.
Staring back at him she felt the first-ever flash of fear for the Bengal she claimed as her G. Green fire filled his eyes, covering the amber, obliterating the black pupils and the whites of his eyes. It was terrifying.
“I never loved you,” he sneered back at her as she felt the most agonizing pain of her life strike at her heart. “Why do you think I rescued you? You were an experiment. My experiment. That was all . . .”
“God, Gideon, shut the fuck up,” Judd snarled.
Before Cat realized what he intended to do he’d given G more of the paralytic, effectively ensuring his alpha couldn’t curse the smallest of their pack any further.
But it was too late, the words were already said, the damage was already done.
“I still love you anyway,” she whispered, hurting so bad that the pain blocked her tears.
Turning from him, Cat stared up at the starry sky and forced herself away from there. Judd had told her how he forced himself from the horror of the labs, freeing his mind while his body was still trapped. Cat forced her mind back to better memories. Back to the sound of G’s voice, gentle and tender when she hurt, easing her from that horrible pit she always felt awaiting her.
She forced herself back to the security and protection she’d felt when he was there. When she’d believed she belonged to someone.
Believed, she had. It had been a lie, just as everything else had been a lie.
Dr. Foster had said once that she was Gideon’s experiment, and she hadn’t known what he meant at the time. She knew now. She’d known since G left the labs that she had been an experiment all along, just to see if her body could be cured of the disease she was born with.
But she’d been another experiment as well.
She hadn’t been born a Breed, she’d been made into a Breed through the experiments. The horrifying wracking pain, the agonies that lasted for days and days. She’d been turned from a regular girl into one with an animal hiding inside her.
Gideon’s experiment, Dr. Foster had called her when she was younger. G worked with him all the time. He was smarter than anyone at those labs. Dr. Foster had said he was smarter than even himself. And Dr. Foster was a Breed maker.
G had put the animal inside her. He’d hurt her just as all the scientists had, just as Mr. Brandenmore had. She had just been his experiment . . .
• • •
She wasn’t surprised the next morning when she awoke and found him gone. Where he’d lain, a piece of paper was folded with her name.
Run, Judd, get her the hell away from here. Hide her. When I heal, and I will, I’ll find you. And you’ll die. Both of you will. I’ll peel the flesh from your bones and make you wish you’d never infected me as you have.
The rest of the letter she left unread. Folding it, she handed it silently to Judd, rose to her feet and began gathering the supplies and blankets together and placing them back into the packs.
At least G had left them that much.
“You read this?” Judd asked behind her.
“You understand it, Cat?” The gentleness in his voice should have surprised her, but she didn’t think she could be surprised right now.
She shrugged. “I’m not stupid. I’m smart, remember? G made sure of it.”
He’d always told her that, how he was making sure she was smart, smarter than she would have ever been if she hadn’t been sick when she was born.
“Yeah.” He sighed. “G made sure of it.”
He sounded so sad, almost as sad as she felt. Almost. Inside her heart she was so sad that all she wanted to do was just close her eyes and dream it hadn’t ever happened. But she couldn’t do that. They couldn’t stay here. If G came back he would kill Judd, and he would kill her. G always kept his promises.
“Were you his experiment too, Judd?” She turned to him slowly, never really understanding the part he’d played in the research center.
A self-mocking smile curled the Breed’s lips.
“I’m his brother, Cat,” he finally said, sighing heavily. “But I’m damned if I know what I am to him anymore.”
Even Judd had someone, even if it was G.
She had no one . . .
• CHAPTER 1 •
THIRTEEN YEARS LATER
WINDOW ROCK, ARIZONA
The world called her Claire.
Once, her legal name had been Fawn.
Neither was actually her true name.
Where it counted, to whom it counted, she was Cat, a carefully hidden, maturing, restless feline Breed ready to pounce. A tigress growing slowly impatient with those around her and the machinations being played against her.
She’d been growing tired of it for quite a while. The farce of living as a woman who had actually died as a young girl years before, of pretending to be quiet, studious, and without backbone, had worn her patience away.
She had backbone.
Once, a geneticist and a Bengal Breed named Gideon, one she had called G, had ensured it.
She had a backbone of steel and it was getting ready to lock into place.
“Claire should return to protective custody. With the proof that’s come to light of her father’s crimes against his family as well as the Breed community, she’ll become a target.” Jonas Wyatt, the director of the Bureau of Breed Affairs, addressed the group gathered in the conference room of the Navajo Suites Hotel just outside Window Rock.
He wasn’t wrong, exactly. What he neglected to mention was the fact that she had been a target since the tender age of twelve. It was nothing new to her.
For some reason, this Lion Breed had decided she was his favorite project, though. Since learning that her father, Raymond Martinez, had been behind his own sister’s abduction by the Genetics Council and later her death, the Breed was like a shadow she couldn’t shake.
Not to mention the fact that she was the only bait he had to draw out a creature he still had yet to learn was far too dangerous to play with in such a way.
Jonas didn’t address his concerns to her, though. They were addressed to Claire’s family members.
His freaky silver eyes swirled with concern amid the expression of sincerity that creased his sun-bronzed face.
He was about as sincere as the German shepherd that pretended to smile at her each morning. That bastard would take a bite out of her hide at first opportunity if she dared allow it.
Not that Jonas wanted to see her harmed, unless it was for the greater good. He was just more concerned with that greater good.
“It would seem to me that decision should be Claire’s.” The new director of the Western Division of the Bureau of Breed Affairs—a hell of a mouthful there—Rule Breaker, the real Claire Martinez’s uncle, spoke up at that point.
Claire had a Lion Breed for an uncle. Whoopee, wasn’t she lucky?
Lifting her gaze from her hands where she’d folded them atop the table, she directed it to the black-haired, blue-eyed Rule and wondered how much he suspected, how much he knew.
Quite a bit, she was certain, though she doubted he’d been told everything.
“I agree.” Her grandfather, Orrin, spoke up. “She’s the one who would be confined for the period of time required. She should decide if this is what she wishes.”
Oh, this was about to get really good.
Orrin never agreed with a woman making her own decisions about her protection. Not since his teenage daughter had disappeared over three decades before.
If she had needed confirmation that she was silently being pushed out of the Martinez family, then Grandfather Orrin had just given it.
The ache in her chest grew sharper, the heavy weight of grief sinking deeper inside her.
“I think Claire knows the risks,” Jonas suggested as though he could read her mind.
Perhaps he could.
It was said he had some mad Breed powers going on. Who knew what he could actually do.
“And those risks would be?” The newcomer to the group, a Wolf Breed, Lobo Reever, asked the question with such arrogance she had to bite back a sneer. “Why don’t you explain them before we’re asked to lock a young woman away, a young woman who, it appears, has known nothing but restraint all her life, Director?”
This was so good, such a classic G—oh, excuse her, Graeme—maneuver, that she’d seen through it the moment Reever stepped into the meeting. As though she hadn’t known where the Bengal was for months now. That he was working right beneath Jonas Wyatt’s nose, posing as some Lion Breed security manager for Reever’s estates.
Graeme Parker, her ass.
A Lion Breed? Really?
How the hell had he managed to pull that scent off? To mask his Bengal scent with that of a Lion’s was such a stroke of biological and genetic genius that she could barely comprehend it. She’d always known he was too damned smart for his own good, but that one surpassed even her expectations of him.
Jonas wasn’t happy with the objections. His expression went from concerned to blank so fast Cat wondered if she’d blinked.
“Claire? It would seem your opinion is required here.” The subtle mockery in Jonas’s drawl made the decision for her.
He expected her to just agree. To do as Claire had always done and agree with the decisions made for her protection.
He was certain Claire still lived . . . No, he knew she wasn’t Claire. He’d known from the beginning and he’d simply been patronizing her, using her to draw out a Bengal he was determined to find.
She turned her gaze to the two men who had tried to protect her for the past thirteen years, Orrin and Terran. The men Claire had called Grandfather and Uncle. How she wished they were truly hers to claim.
How she wished someone, somewhere, was hers to claim.
The sensible thing to do, the smart thing to do, would be to agree with him. Breed protective custody wasn’t so bad. It was simply incredibly boring and impossible to slip away from. It was confining to the point of being smothering.
“She’s not a child, Jonas.” Lobo spoke up, his wild green eyes narrowed on the director. “I’m certain she doesn’t appreciate being spoken to as one either.”
Jonas slid his gaze to Lobo, a slight smirk to his lips before turning back to Claire. The arrogant confidence on his face had her teeth clenching. He actually thought she would be so easy to control, that he could force the truth from her. She’d already decided her course here, he could force nothing.
“Not a child, Lobo, but I’d say definitely tired of being under her father’s thumb.” Confidence gleamed in his odd gaze, so certain she’d fall into line, his line, and do as he wanted her to do. He knew who she was, what she was, and he believed she was weak. She’d allowed him to believe she was weak, just as she had allowed others to believe it.
The time for that was past.
It was time to stop pretending she was Claire, and be the person, the Breed, she’d grown into.
It sucked. She hated it. And it was going to cause her more trouble than she wanted to deal with at the moment, but this farce had gone on too long as it was.
“I’m neither Raymond’s puppet nor yours, Mr. Wyatt.” Standing to her feet, she faced the men, men, who had come together to decide on her protection, as well as her future, for her. As though she didn’t have the ability to do it for herself. She’d had enough of that before she’d turned eight.
And though the need for caution was uppermost, no doubt, her ability to feign submission no longer existed.
“I never imagined you were a puppet, but I think you and I are both aware of the fact that Raymond’s association with the Genetics Council is more a threat to you than you’re willing to admit.” It was a reminder.
A reminder that her past was known by Raymond as well as Jonas, her real identity a weakness she couldn’t escape. And one Raymond had no doubt already reported to those willing to supply him with the funds he believed would aid in exonerating him on the charges the Breeds had brought against him. The list was extensive.
“Child.” Orrin rose as well, his wrinkled face, gray braids and frail body a reminder that age was taking him from so many who loved him. “You must do as your heart, as your spirit, guides you, not as those who love you would have you do. But the danger is not something you will face alone,” he told her. His voice was gentle, but still, he was encouraging her to face this without the family she’d depended upon as Claire Martinez. “You will never face that life, or any danger that would find you, alone.”
Another reminder, one he’d given her thirteen years before. There were those who watched out for her, who would never see her harmed if they could deflect the danger first. In all the years she’d been protected beneath his granddaughter’s identity, she’d never asked them for help either.
“Orrin, respectfully, that’s bullshit,” Jonas objected sharply, anger snapping in his voice with such strength that he drew the attention of the entire room.
Silver eyes seemed shot with mercury as they obscured the black pupils, swirling with a primal, primitive rage that would have affected her if she hadn’t been used to such a look long before she’d come to this desert land.
“Perhaps, Director, you are the one full of bullshit,” Orrin suggested smoothly, by no means intimidated by the Lion Breed either. “This is her fate, not yours. The questions you claimed to have when you came here have been answered. You have what you assured us you were searching for, the answers to your daughter’s health. You can leave now. The safety and protection of our own, we can handle.”
Orrin’s deliberately arrogant claim filled the air with anger. With Wyatt’s anger.
“But she isn’t yours, is she? No matter how much she claims to be. When do the lies stop?” His hands smacked on the table as he leaned forward, the sight of blood-tipped claws now protruding from the tips of his fingers an assurance that the primal genetics he possessed were rising hard and fast inside him. “Do you take me for a fool? Do you imagine I don’t for a second know who and what you are?”
He stared at her, knowledge and demand burning his gaze. He was her genetic superior, that gaze seemed to remind her. She would submit. She would follow his lead. She would . . . tell him to go to hell if he kept trying to intimidate her in such a way.
“I take you for a bastard!”
Before she could restrain the urge, the tigress that resided inside, normally silent and well hidden, slipped its leash. Her own claws emerged before her hands slapped to the table as well. She could feel the markings at the sides of her face shadowing her flesh, feel the incisors at the sides of her mouth dropping lower, feel the animal infused in her genetics merging with the human.
Shock filled the room. Satisfaction filled Wyatt’s gaze. Did he truly believe he’d maneuvered her so easily? That she hadn’t considered the consequences to what she had just done.
“You are an unregistered Breed female,” Jonas snarled, his voice a lash of icy dominance. “You will do as you’re told by the only alpha claiming you.”
The only alpha claiming her? He was as insane as he believed the Bengal he was chasing to be.
Thankfully, being claimed didn’t count if she didn’t want it to.
Lobo eased to his feet, though not in fear, not even wariness. Sharp interest definitely, and a hint of concern for her, not of her.
“You are no alpha of mine, Director,” she assured him, her tone sharp, melodic, rather than rough as many males’ voices were when their animals slipped free. “That scent of demand, that look of furious command, has no effect on me. My alpha marked me years ago and no other will usurp his place no matter how hard they may try.”
She had accepted her alpha freely when the tigress inside her first showed itself. The mark of that acceptance, not just by her but by the animal inside her couldn’t be wiped away, no matter how she’d already attempted to erase it.
“An alpha who wants you dead.” The reminder was given with a baring of sharp incisors and a flash of fury.
Well, he really didn’t have to throw that one in her face, now did he? Not that she believed Graeme wanted her dead, but it was the impression he’d given others searching for her. She didn’t consider that nice of him either.
“Is that what you believe?” She let a low, amused hint of laughter free. “Trust me, Director, if my alpha wanted me dead, then dead I would have been the night he found me when he first got here. You roused the monster, Director, in your search for me and Honor. Now you’ve found us. But believe me, he found us first, and nothing you do, no plans you make, no matter how deep you bury me, will keep him from me.”
She’d always known that, always accepted it. There was no hiding from the Breed that had, in essence, created her when he’d developed the genetic serum that saved her life.
“Do you think he intends to allow you to remain alive? Have you fooled yourself into believing he actually felt anything for you when you were a child?” He sneered back at her as she straightened, glanced at her claw-tipped fingers and slowly retracted the sharp extensions until her seemingly perfect manicure was in place once again.
Blood still dripped from the director’s claws to the table. Two perfect scarlet teardrops.
Lifting her gaze to him, she clenched her teeth, forced her incisors back and with a low, deep breath, restrained the genetics that surged free at his demand.
It was an ability she was rather proud of. In past years she’d learned how to push that part of her so deep that even Breeds couldn’t smell the mutation of her DNA or she could call it forward until the scent of the Bengal Tigress all but overwhelmed the scent of her humanity.
There wasn’t a Breed in the room that could sense the Bengal female that had faced them moments before, it was so completely recessed now. Though, it was becoming harder and harder to achieve that little trick with each passing month.
Muttered curses met the phenomenon, though Jonas remained silent, glaring at her, the scent of strength and demand still trying to exert itself over her. Alphas were marked by their ability to lead and their strength. Those two qualities had a way of merging into a particular scent that could encourage other strong-willed Breeds to follow, or force those of lesser will to do so. Cat wasn’t a Breed he could force until she wanted to allow him to believe such a thing.
She really wasn’t in the mood to play that game though.
“I think it really doesn’t matter,” she assured him. “I’m not hiding any longer. I’ve suffered for the cure those bastards injected in my veins only days after my birth. I suffered, as did Honor, Judd and Gideon. I won’t suffer further by trying to hide from my fate. One doesn’t hide from Gideon, Director. That only pisses him off, didn’t you know that? You face him, spit in his face and pray you’ve amused him enough that he has mercy when he finally gets around to killing you.”
“Can you get any more overdramatic?” he sneered, glaring at her. “You have no alpha. That places you under my protection as well as my command. You are unregistered, without the protection and registration an alpha or pride affords you. You do not have the choice of denying any alpha’s claim.”
She shook her head slowly. “I’m a Bengal tigress, Director. Even in the wild no lion would dare try to intimidate such a creature. I’m no submissive to your demands. I suggest we call this one a draw.”
“A good idea,” Lobo injected, obviously not in the least pleased with the director’s attempts to force his will. “If the alpha mark even I sense within her isn’t enough to encourage you to heed her wishes, Jonas, then I’ll back it with my own standing as an alpha and that of my pack. She doesn’t stand alone against her enemies, or your deliberate attempts to force her into accepting your arbitrary decisions.”
Jonas’s sneer only deepened as he shot the Wolf Breed a glare. “Your agreement with the Breed Tribunal and the Bureau of Breed Affairs doesn’t extend to countermanding any decisions I make, Wolf,” he informed Lobo with cold distain. “This isn’t your fight.”
“There’s no fight involved,” Cat injected, finished with the damned male posturing and the pissing contest in which the two Breeds were becoming involved. “I make my own decisions. I neither want nor need a man to back them, whether he be Breed, human or something in between.” She shot both men an imperious look, determined to make her point clear. “I am fully capable of making decisions on my own, without all your manly, Breed arrogance if you don’t mind.”
Jonas turned back to her slowly, the look he turned on her one known to shrivel confidence in Breeds far stronger than she was. Thankfully, the genetics that would have forced her compliance with such a look were so deeply buried that only a hint of trepidation spoiled the mocking arch of her brow in return.
“Think yourself my equal, do you, little cat?” he scoffed, the scent of his contempt, of his prejudice, so clear it nearly choked her. Prejudice. No different from that which the humans felt against the Breeds. She wasn’t a Breed created before birth as other Breeds had been created. Yet he forgot, it seemed, she wasn’t the only one.
She shook her head again. “You’ve always known who I was and what I was, Director. I knew that. Be careful how you handle this from here on out, though, because the day will come when your daughter may well draw conclusions you don’t want in how you handle a female who was born human then made into a Breed, rather than simply created. I can smell your hatred of what I am. I hope she never has to feel it as well.”
Turning, she stalked from the room before his shock could turn to rage and the animal genetics surging beneath his human skin slipped free.
He could decimate her and she knew it.
His training, his strength, was far superior to hers. She’d always known that and she’d remained in the shadows because of it. Remained there, hoping to protect one who didn’t need her protection, and trying to deny the truth to herself.
G—Graeme now, rather—had deserted her years before. He’d left her and Judd to be run down like diseased dogs by the Genetics Council and their soldiers. Forced her to hide in a way that had only hurt her and in a way that left Judd completely alone.
Graeme was her alpha; he owed her his backing, his strength. Instead he’d abandoned her and was determined to destroy her. He’d left her to face maturing alone, without his guidance, to becoming a woman alone with no one to lean on, and he’d left her to face a life pretending she was someone she’d never been intended to be. She had fought alone for thirteen years, refusing to ask for help, and only one person realizing she sometimes needed help. The quiet shadow that slipped in and out of her room occasionally to deliver a healing salve, a splint for a broken bone, or a sweet treat when she’d felt lost amid the hatred she faced each day. He rarely spoke to her, she’d rarely known he was there until she awoke and found the gifts.
Dane Vanderale, Breed ally and supporter, the heir to a fortune that defied belief, an enigma, even to those he helped. Especially to Cat, because she’d never understood why he’d helped.
He’d done what her alpha should have done, what the Breed known as Graeme should have done. He’d been there when she needed help the most, and he’d helped rather than attempting to destroy her.
And that was exactly what Graeme was doing, destroying her. From the moment he’d found her, each move, each carefully calculated maneuver was to reveal who and what she was, to take every last vestige of protection she’d found over the years. To ensure she was as lost and as alone as she felt.
Once he’d learned through Jonas’s search for her that she was still alive, the maddened creature he’d turned into had been on the hunt. As long as she’d been left alone, as long as she’d remained hidden, he’d been content.
But she hadn’t remained hidden to everyone. The Genetics Council had begun the search for her, and they’d known the general area where she’d disappeared, but they’d never identified her, despite Raymond’s threats. Those heading the Brandenmore research center, even after the owner’s death, was hungry for her return, she knew that. Jonas Wyatt had done more than just focus on her last-known location though. He’d parked himself in Window Rock and began a concentrated search for a rabid Breed that he’d known wasn’t there, one he knew would draw the Bengal Breed there though.
Jonas had known that directing any search related to the Bengal once known as Gideon, would draw the Breed there and no doubt he’d known both Cat’s and Honor’s identities would be revealed as well, forcing Gideon to reveal himself.
He hadn’t revealed himself though. He’d found a way to hide in plain sight and then he’d begun stripping Cat of every defense she possessed.
He’d taken not just her protection though—he’d stolen her illusions, her belief in belonging, and in herself.
Her alpha may well want her dead. But at this point, she owed him the same coin. It was now just a matter of time before they likely destroyed each other.
• • •
“You don’t have to go.” Terran Martinez stood at the open door of the bedroom that evening, watching her with somber, dark eyes, his expression heavy as she packed.
He’d played the part of her uncle, even protecting her from the man who had sworn to treat her as a daughter. For thirteen years she’d let herself pretend she had a family, a place to belong, only to realize she had no such thing.
Terran didn’t ask her not to go. He didn’t tell her it didn’t matter that she wasn’t Claire, he only said she didn’t have to leave.
Once, she’d been a part of the extensive Martinez family. Her cousins, Isabelle and Chelsea, had visited often after she’d moved in with Terran several months before, after Raymond, Claire’s father, was indicted on crimes against Breed Law.
Claire’s mother, Maria; her father, Raymond; and her brother, Linc, whom Cat had been genuinely fond of, had turned their backs on her within days of the charges being officially brought by the Breeds and a date set for a hearing in front of the Breed Tribunal.
Maria and Raymond both had known she wasn’t really Claire. They had been there the night she had taken their daughter’s identity, had participated in the cover-up. Linc, though, she was never certain what he knew and what he didn’t.
“I know, Terran,” she answered quietly as she placed her clothes in the suitcases she’d bought after leaving the meeting with Jonas Wyatt. “It’s better this way.”
Not that Terran and Orrin both weren’t aware of who she had been all along as well. Everyone knew. But no one had wanted to admit that the real Claire was gone, despite their knowledge.
Terran had lost his treasured younger sister to the Genetics Council when she was only sixteen. He and his father—and, he’d believed, his older brother, Raymond—had searched for thirty years for her, only to learn of the horrific death she’d suffered while still a young woman and, with her death, the disappearance of several of her Breed children. One of which had been a girl. And he’d lost his niece, Claire, at fifteen to drugs and a tragic car accident.
This family had already suffered so much.
“Better for who? For you?”
His question surprised her. She paused in placing her jeans in the suitcase and considered it before turning back to him.
“The cat’s out of the bag, literally,” she reminded him, the overwhelming sadness that she could no longer pretend to be the person they loved weighing at her heart. “I can’t pretend anymore. I can’t put my head down and be nice and quiet and sweet while raging inside. My maturing genetics just won’t allow it.”
The frown at his brow grew heavier. “We didn’t demand that you take Claire’s personality as well as her identity when the ritual failed.”
The ritual. That otherworldly episode that had given her so much of who and what Claire Martinez was. Lying amid the steam and the scents of earth, dampened herbs and life itself, she’d felt the spirit of the dying girl whisper through her, determined to protect her with her own identity, with everything she was. Cat had felt herself drift then, into a sleep so deep, so dark, she’d immediately railed against it.
When she’d awakened from that sleep it was to find that spirit still there, watching over her, protecting her when other Breeds were there by effectively hiding any scent or realization to Breed senses of her true identity. For years Claire Martinez had protected her. Until Gideon’s return. Now the awareness of the spirit that had watched over her was gone.
“Claire’s gone. The change was too sudden.” Frustration ate at her now, rising from a well of painful realizations that refused to be hidden. “I lost too much too fast and now I have to figure out where to go from here. I won’t endanger the rest of you while I do that.”
She wasn’t Claire.
Her genetics would begin adapting now that the maturation of her Bengal genetics was beginning. The tigress that had merely lurked within her, only coming out when she called it, was now beginning to merge with her human genetics in a way she may not be able to hide for much longer.
“So you’ll face it alone?” The scent of his anger began to fill the air. “And you expect us to simply accept that?”
She swallowed tightly, her fists clenching in the clothes she’d retrieved from the bed as she turned to him.
“I’m not Claire,” she reminded him, desperate to hear him say it didn’t matter. “I don’t have the right to ask any more than that of you.”
His lips thinned. Something bleak and filled with rage flashed in his gaze before it was gone as though it had never existed.
Rather than speaking the words she needed to hear, he shook his head, pushed his fingers through his graying black hair then turned and headed back to the front of the house.
Cat clapped her hand over her lips to hold back a cry, a shattered sound of disillusionment. She’d been so certain he’d tell her it didn’t matter that she wasn’t really Claire. That she was family anyway. She’d been his acknowledged niece for thirteen years, he’d been part of her protection for just as long. But he couldn’t tell her it didn’t matter.
Because it did matter.
She’d always known when push came to shove, that it did matter.
Shoving the pain to that place where she’d shoved the other broken promises and disillusioned realizations, she fought back her tears and finished packing. Three suitcases contained her life. Twenty-five years and so very little to show for it.
A small collection of knives she’d found each year on her birthday for the past years. Just as many small crystal dragons. They were her only keepsakes. Presents over the years had included gift cards and clothes. Terran had given her his older-model pickup when the one she’d bought last year had been repossessed within weeks of her losing her job as a receptionist at the tribal headquarters.
Raymond had ensured it was repossessed, she’d known that.
Lifting the largest suitcase in one hand, she slung the strap of the overnight bag on her opposite shoulder and picked up the smaller case.
Over the years she’d acquired a few things herself. Weapons she’d hidden, cash she could access. It wasn’t much, but it was enough that she didn’t have to worry about the fact that no one would hire her since she’d moved from Raymond’s house.
Either employers were put off because of the charges brought against her supposed father or, if that wasn’t it, they weren’t hiring her because Raymond had specifically asked them not to. For whatever reason, the position she was left in was precarious at best.
She did seem to have a place to live, though.
Surprisingly, the voice text that had come through from Lobo Reever just after she left the meeting was an offer of a rental house he owned just outside his huge estate in the desert. A nice little place with a pool, adobe walls surrounding nearly an acre of property. It was private, easy to secure and, she hoped, safe.
She was certain Lobo hadn’t been behind the offer alone, though. Graeme was quite good at getting the very influential Wolf Breed to do his bidding. She just hadn’t figured out how he’d managed it yet.
She wasn’t going to look a gift wolf in the mouth, though. It was a place to live. She didn’t have to force herself on the Martinez family any longer, nor feel as though she were some orphan relation to the Breeds.
Jonas may pretend to want to be her new best friend but in the few seconds that her sense of smell had been at its peak, she’d scented the truth.
Contempt, distaste, arrogant superiority. They’d all filled him. He didn’t see her as human nor as Breed but as some inferior in-between without worth.
Which didn’t bode well for the daughter she knew he adored.
How a man, or a Breed, could hate one and love another of the same genetic mutation, she didn’t understand.
She didn’t intend to spend much time trying to make sense of it either. She had other problems, much larger problems. One in particular, a big, muscled Bengal Breed posing as a Lion and determined to destroy her.
If only she could make herself just as determined to destroy him.
• • •
“I don’t like allowing her to leave like this.” Terran watched the pickup until it was out of sight.
The anger in his voice matched that of his scent, the tinge of regret and sorrow filling the early evening air.
“I know,” Cullen assured him. “These are decisions she has to make alone, Terran, we’ve always known that.”
“Not like this,” the Navajo argued. “It doesn’t matter if Claire still protects her or not. I accepted her as my niece the night she took Claire’s identity. Whether or not Claire’s spirit survives to shield her has nothing to do with it.”
“Graeme and Orrin are the ones you should be arguing with,” Cullen sighed, pushing his fingers through his hair as he blew out a hard breath. “They decided this was how it had to be, not me.”
The old Navajo had guided Cat this far, Cullen could do nothing but trust in Orrin’s visions now and pray Cat survived the coming realizations she had to face. As for Graeme, there were complications there that Cullen had no desire to consider at the moment.
“That brother of yours is a menace to Breeds and humans alike,” Terran muttered. “And I don’t trust him. He should have come to her, faced her . . .”
“There is nothing on the face of this earth that will stand between him and Cat.” Cullen turned to face the other man fully now, staring at him intently, willing him to understand, to know, that Graeme would never tolerate it for an instant. “Do as Orrin instructed. Let Cat face what’s to come. Encouraging her to hide from who and what she is now, could get her killed.”
It could get all of them killed. And life might not be exactly what he’d envisioned sometimes, but he still had things to do, dying before he completed those tasks wasn’t something he wanted to face.
“She’s been deserted all her life, Cullen,” Terran snapped, the scent of his anger growing. “Even by him. And by God following suit with everyone else in her damned life doesn’t sit well with me.”
Turning Terran stomped back into the house, leaving Cullen to turn and stare into the desert, the weight of Terran’s words weighing on his shoulders. Because he was right. They’d all deserted her in one form or the other, to save her. But in ensuring her physical survival, what had they done to her heart?
• CHAPTER 2 •
What People are Saying About This
PRAISE FOR LORA LEIGH’S BREED NOVELS
“I’m a huge fan of Lora Leigh's Breed books.”—Nalini Singh, New York Times Bestselling Author of the Psy/Changeling Novels
“When it comes to this genre, Lora Leigh is The Queen.”—Romance Junkies
“[A] highly erotic saga.”—Fresh Fiction
“Lora Leigh delivers on all counts.”—Romance Reviews Today