A war is brewing. One that could end everything unless two men can learn to trust their hearts and break the barriers that separate them.
A centuries-old feud has pitted Ba'Kal—shifters—against Vam'kir—vampires. Quinn has suffered the pain of the ongoing contention in ways that no man ever should. Once the respected son of the Vam'kir king, his life was forever altered the day his father realized a truth of which even Quinn was unaware.
As the Ba'Kal ruler, it is up to Manning to seek justice for the vicious attacks the Vam'kir have perpetrated against his kind, but his very beliefs are called into question when he discovers that his mate is also his enemy. To keep Quinn safe, he must learn to trust in the impossible—that love might exist beyond boundaries—for failure means the end of his future and that of the rest of his race.
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Manning stepped into the terminal from the portable walkway and took a moment to acclimatize. New scents of body odor and cologne assaulted him and the clamor of bustling life rang in his ears, but the floor was firm and steady beneath his boots. After the past six hours of confined air travel, that was all that mattered.
"Oh, sweet mother of solid ground, how I've missed you," Tailor blurted beside him.
"Here we go again," Cain grumbled.
Manning looked down at the prostrate form beside him. Tailor was doubled over and rubbing his cheek almost obscenely on the thin, checkered carpet. Passengers still filing from the plane behind them craned their necks to stare at the spectacle, giving the man a wide berth as though his behavior might be contagious.
With a sigh, Manning rolled his eyes as his friend continued to murmur sweet nothings to the floor. "Are you done yet?"
"Just give me one more second." Tailor caressed the carpet a little too fondly for Manning's peace of mind then stood to his full six foot three inches of height, rifling a hand through his long, golden hair. "Okay, I'm good."
Cain shook his head and, with his wide frame, began clearing a path through the throngs of people rushing around them. "Seriously, man, do you have to do that every time? You're a fucking bird. The sky is your natural habitat. What's wrong with you?" The words were muttered under his breath, too low for anyone but them to hear.
"It's unnatural to fly with a man-made set of wings. And you can't tell me you don't feel the same way."
Cain grunted but didn't comment further. Not even Manning could argue with Tailor's statement. Being separated from nature with no option but to endure cramped spaces more than thirty thousand feet above ground level for hours on end was more than a little unsettling. With earth-bound spirits, air travel was especially brutal on Manning and Cain, but they had no other alternative. For two months they'd been traveling with haste to every shifter community in the United States, and Manning was beginning to think going overseas was inevitable.
His feline bristled instantly at the idea, its rumbling contentment at being grounded dissipating in the face of its ire. Manning fought down his own frustration in an effort to calm his spirit. They both understood the time constraint they were under, but that didn't lessen the strain of the objective.
"Tailor, get the car. We'll meet you out front."
Tailor gave a nod then veered off toward the car rental station while Manning and Cain took the stairs down to the baggage claim area. After gathering their luggage, they walked outside to wait, grimacing at the cloying Sacramento heat that settled over them. Manning stifled a silent prayer that he would be able to return to the cool, welcoming shades of the forests surrounding his community after this. He didn't want to build up his hopes only to deal with the pang of disappointment if this trip turned out to be just another failed attempt at his goal.
After several minutes, a fire-engine red BMW convertible pulled up in front of them and Tailor jumped out of the driver's seat. He spread his arms wide and broke into a huge grin. "Beautiful, right?"
Manning and Cain shared a look between them.
"What? It was all they had left, I swear. Damn people preferring their modest, economical cars. I was lucky to get this one. You'll thank me later."
While Tailor jogged around the vehicle to put their bags in the trunk, Manning slid into the passenger seat and watched Cain stroll to the other side and barricade the driver's door with his body.
The big man held out his hand expectantly when Tailor came back. "Hand over the keys."
Tailor gaped then snapped his mouth shut. "I paid for this ride. There's no way I'm letting you drive it."
"You should've thought about that before you insisted on driving the last car. It's my turn now."
He voiced a string of expletives that drew more attention than his earlier ritual of supplication then got into the back seat and didn't quiet until Cain was navigating through lunch-hour traffic on the highway. Manning dialed through the radio stations absently and stared out at the sea of smog and overcrowded buildings through his window. He wondered with no little irritation how the hell the residents of the city didn't suffocate in their own prison of technology and concrete walls. What little nature that did exist had been manufactured as well. Sparsely constructed parks and golf courses were more a tribute to what had once been a fertile land than places meant for relaxation.
A loud harrumph to his left pulled his attention away from the window. Cain's gaze dipped to the radio console then met his again.
"Shit, sorry, man." Manning hit the power button, silencing the rap music that had been blaring from the speakers, and scrubbed a hand over his face. "Where are we going this time?"
Cain assessed him shrewdly before answering. "The community is about an hour east of here. We're meeting the Alpha's daughter at a café then following her to meet the rest of the pack."
"And when is our flight out of here scheduled?"
"One week from now."
Manning shook his head. "Make it sooner. I'll meet with the pack after I'm done discussing our plans with the Alpha and his Betas. Our business should be concluded in a few days. No unpacking this time. We're getting in and out. Clean and simple. Contact the communities in England and Africa, and let them know we'll be going there after we hit up Texas. Purchase the tickets before we leave here and see to it that Australia is the last stop on our trip overseas. If I recall correctly, the Alpha of the community there has eight daughters. I want to put off that nightmare for as long as possible."
The corners of Cain's mouth turned down in a disapproving frown. "Your father would be disappointed if he heard you talk like that about finding your mate."
Manning ground his teeth at the soft reprimand. His father was at home, in pain and awaiting a death he wouldn't take because his only son hadn't found a mate yet. Manning wanted nothing more than to focus on taking revenge for his mother's murder first then start a family later, but he couldn't, not before ensuring the continuance of his line. "There isn't time to make with the pleasantries and deal with the bullshit of convincing every unmated female I meet that she's not the lucky winner."
"And when you find her, how do you think she'll feel about being impregnated then left at home while her mate is gone for months at a time?"
"Are you saying I shouldn't seek justice on my mother's behalf?"
Cain's barrel chest heaved with a long sigh. "No. I'm saying your mother wouldn't have wanted you to sacrifice the joy of finding your mate for the sake of producing heirs and taking revenge. With the way you're going now, you might not even be able to convince your mate to bond with you. It can't be forced, you know."
Manning snorted. "I don't think I'll have a problem in that area. All the females I've met so far are practically fighting over the privilege to become the mate of the new Jaes'din." In truth, Cain was right, but Manning just couldn't see any other options than the one he was taking.
His mother's killers were still on the loose and the only information they'd been able to gather was that they were trancers and well trained. Her death reeked of a professional hit carried out on the order of their enemy's king, but Manning had to be sure. Shifters and trancers had held a relatively peaceful animosity toward each other for much of the past century. If the recent kidnappings and murder had been perpetrated by a group of rebels among the trancers and he took retaliation upon the entire race, he could start a war that could be just as devastating for his people as for their enemy.
In all honesty, he had to admit he probably would have struck at the heart of the trancers by now if his father hadn't effectively delayed that option by staying alive. His father should have already joined his mate in death, as all shifters chose to do when their mates passed away. However, he was still hanging on to see his only son mated and their house's line continued. Since Manning was the last living, direct descendent of the original shifter, his responsibility to grant his father's wish was imperative.
As much as he would rather give his full attention to finding the murderers, he needed an heir first in the event that he died during the war, and so his father could find peace.
"I don't mean to be such an asshole about all of this. If my mate is resistant at first, I'll give her time to adjust."
Cain lifted a single brow, causing Manning to bite back the rest of his cynical thoughts. "She's out there. The Mother wouldn't have allowed your mom to die without providing you with a mate to carry on your line. Your father has held out for two months now. He can hold on for a few more."
Manning knew his old man was just stubborn enough to do that, but each month was one more his father would have to deal with the pain of missing his mate. Manning raked a hand through his hair then went back to staring out of the window.
"I've got a good feeling about this place," Tailor spoke up from the back seat. "I saw a picture of the Alpha's daughter we're about to meet. California just doesn't get any better than that. Blonde, blue eyes, with legs longer than a country mile and tan skin kissed by the sun. Her spirit has got to be a minx, or some kind of sexy kitten. She's perfect for you."
Manning and Cain both looked back at the man as though he'd lost his mind.
"I can pull over and throw him in the trunk," Cain offered. "Save ourselves the embarrassment."
"Make sure you drill holes in the lid. We might need him later."
"Fine," Tailor grumbled. "But if she doesn't turn out to be your mate, I get first dibs."
Manning shrugged. "Have at. Just make sure Cain changes our flight reservations to include space for a coffin. We'll need it after her father, the Alpha, gets done with you."
Tailor paled and sat back in his seat while Cain smirked at him in the rear-view mirror. Twenty minutes later, they parked at a strip of coffee houses and tourist shops, and got out. The Black Bean, where Tamara was supposed to meet them, was located at the end of the block. Of course, Tailor spotted her first. She was standing outside and looking around with an air of subtle authority. He slapped Manning on the back in enthusiasm as they took a moment to appraise her. Manning had to grudgingly agree that she was everything his friend had reported her to be.
Tamara's blonde hair was trimmed short, a sign of confidence among the females of his race, and her white suit was modest yet defining. The curve of her trim waist and the slim length of her legs were plain to see under the material that only left more to the imagination. When she turned and her blue eyes lit on them, she smiled seductively and tilted her head to the side, as though she was sizing them up.
Tailor had been right. She was perfect. But there was no ... Wait. A hot breeze wafted over him, carrying a scent that slammed into his gut and made his heart race. It was sultry and sweet, like dark chocolate mixed with a hint of rain. Arousal and possession heated his blood as his spirit roared within. His feline vied for control as it rejoiced in the finding of his mate and all but demanded he stake his claim right then.
"Oh, fuck," Manning whispered.
"Fuck?" Tailor said beside him. "Fuck as in, 'Oh, sweet Mother, I've found my mate'? I knew it! Damn, I hate you. Lucky bastard."
"Manning?" Cain asked from his other side, but Manning couldn't answer. His breath was trapped in his throat and his lungs had forgotten their function.
It wasn't the woman, however, who was giving off the scent that had his body and spirit responding like a lit fuse, but rather the man standing behind her.
He was smaller than the average shifter, including many of the females. Blue jeans hung low on his narrow hips and his slight chest was covered by a baggy, long-sleeved shirt that was at odds with the sweltering heat of the day. Hair fell in long, black waves over his eyes, brushing his shoulders, and when he stopped and turned to look straight at Manning, it seemed as though time ceased to exist.
With his advanced senses, Manning could hear the soft gasp that slipped past his mate's full lips and see the whites around his widened, gray eyes. They were almost silver in the bright daylight, and there was a depth to them that mesmerized him. Desire swept through him and his cock filled to the point of pain as a small, pink tongue flitted out to moisten the man's parted lips. Manning's canines exploded from his gums and it was all he could do to clench his jaw and fist his hands to keep his claws from emerging.
Then everything changed in the next heartbeat.
The sharp odor of fear stung his nose and, before he could react, the man dropped his cup of coffee and bolted in the other direction, disappearing around the corner of the building. Manning's heart went into overdrive as he took off after his mate. Swarms of people he hadn't noticed before milled about and created obstacles he didn't have time for in his haste. The shouts of his Ketai rang out in the distance, but he didn't have time for them either.
When he pushed past Tamara, she snatched at his sleeve, trying to jerk him to a halt, but he shrugged her off. As he turned right down the next street, he saw his mate scramble into a metallic blue car that began to pull out into traffic. His feline screamed at him to run faster. To catch his mate at all costs, and he tried, but it wasn't enough. He chased after the car carrying his mate until it was no longer visible amid the profusion of others.
With lungs burning and sweat pouring down his skin, Manning sank to his knees on the sidewalk. He knelt there on the side of a crowded street in the middle of an overflowing city and knew what it was, for the first time in his life, to be utterly alone.
Desperately, he closed his eyes and recalled the vision of the man before his memory could lose it. The man had been unlike anything he'd ever envisioned in a mate. Each shifter was born with an animal spirit unique to them, but their general, physical characteristics were almost always the same — thick, strong bones, well-developed muscles, with golden skin and above-average height. His mate had lacked all of that, and yet, he'd been absolutely stunning.
His pale, chiseled features had been tinted with a faint flush in his cheeks and the hint of a shadow along his jaw. From the way his clothes had billowed behind his body while he fled, Manning could tell the man was slim, almost petite in comparison to nearly all but the adolescents of their race.
Was he still a child?
Manning hadn't garnered the impression of innocence in the man's expressive eyes, but it was a possibility he would have to take into consideration. A rough tug on his arm brought him back to his surroundings.
Cain stared down at him, a mixture of apprehension and confusion on his broad face. "Are you all right, Jaes'din?"
The use of his title brought him back to full awareness and he climbed slowly to his feet. Tailor now blocked the path his mate had taken but it didn't matter. The enormity of what he'd found and lost in the matter of a few moments sank in and he fought to keep his head above the tide of despair that threatened to drown him.
His feline hissed and spat its fury, but it was no longer at the loss of their mate. His spirit now seethed at the futility that was bleeding into his soul. Determinedly, he shoved the emotion from his heart, firmed his shoulders and turned to look at Tamara, who was standing behind him.
"That man, is he a member of your community?"
Her arched brows drew down in a frown. "The one you were chasing after? No. I've never seen him before. Do you know him?"
Manning stared again in the direction his mate had taken, setting his shoulders in firm resolve. "Not yet, but I will. Tailor, get the car and bring it around. We're going hunting."
* * *
Quinn veered into the parking lot, narrowly missing one of the neighbor's vehicles, and brought his car to a screeching stop. After grabbing his backpack from the passenger seat, he ran in through the backdoor of the townhouse and locked it, then did the same with every window and the front door. Only when he was upstairs in his room, back to the wall, did he allow himself a moment to breathe, to think.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Crimson Mate"
Copyright © 2014 Nikki McCoy.
Excerpted by permission of Totally Entwined Group Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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