Jace Warden is sent to the Shiftertown in Austin to find a way to free all Shifters from their Collars. But pulling off the Collars can cause Shifters to go mad or kill them outright.
In Austin, Jace meets Deni Rowe, a wolf Shifter with troubles of her own—she was deliberately run down in the road, and while her body has healed, she still has episodes of total memory loss during which she retreats into her pure animal self.
Jace has never met anyone like Deni. Courageous and beautiful, she volunteers to help him test the Collar removal. And as Deni and Jace work together, they feel the mate bond begin. But can Jace help Deni believe she can heal enough to be anyone’s true mate?
This sixteen chapter novella includes a preview of the upcoming Shifters Unbound novel Wild Wolf.
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The fight club had moved since Jace Warden had last visited the Austin Shiftertown. The Shifters used to meet for their forbidden bouts in an abandoned hay barn nestled into folds of a hill, but the land had been purchased, and a developer had built over it.
On his borrowed Harley, Jace turned from the discreet plane that had flown him this far and headed down a highway that led to drier country away from the river. The world had darkened while he’d flown east from Nevada to land at an airfield that had supposedly been closed.
Dylan Morrissey, the Austin Shiftertown liaison, had left a message for Jace to meet him at the fights, and he’d also left the bike for Jace’s transportation. Tired and hot, and having hauled himself halfway across the country at Dylan’s request, the last thing Jace wanted to do was to ride out to the fight club. But Dylan had summoned him to work on the problem of getting the Collars off Shifters once and for all, and had extended his hospitality, so Jace hid his irritation, thanked the humans who had helped him get this far, and mounted the motorcycle.
Jace turned off where the directions had instructed, the paved road quickly turning to dirt, the bike bouncing and skidding over gravel and through ruts. The road grew narrower and narrower, until it petered to nothing. Jace continued down a short hill and around a bend, and found the Shifter fight club behind a slight rise that hid it from the road.
He smelled it long before he saw the electric lanterns, fire dancing in garbage cans, and flashlights. Anything that could be quickly doused was being used to illuminate the scene.
Jace would have known it was a place of Shifters, even in the pitch-dark. Shifters working off adrenaline rushes and fighting instincts had a certain interesting—and pungent—odor.
Jace killed the engine of the bike, parking it among the pack of motorcycles, pickups, and smaller cars. He hung the helmet from the seat and made sure his backpack was well stashed in the saddlebag before he approached the fight area. He wasn’t worried about Shifters stealing his change of clothes and toothbrush—Shifters didn’t steal from one another, because a simple snatch could end up in a fight to the death. Possessions were territory, and territory was respected. But humans also came to the fight clubs, and some liked to abscond with things.
The new fighting arena was a broad slab of concrete about a hundred feet long and just as wide. Probably an old building or an event area of some kind, abandoned by its owners when money ran out. Everything had been pulled away except the slab.
Rings were outlined by concrete blocks, and firelight flickered wildly, making it a scene from hell, complete with demons. But the demons were only Shifters having fun and working off steam; those not fighting were cheering, drinking beer, or finding hook-ups—human or Shifter—and sneaking into the darkness to work off steam a different way.
Jace made his way around cars—a few of them being used for liaisons—and toward the firelight. He didn’t worry about locating Dylan in the chaos, because Dylan, a Feline Shifter who was mostly lion, always made himself known.
What Jace didn’t expect was the wolf who sprang out of the shadows in a deserted stretch of the parking area and landed on Jace full force.
Jace swung around with the impact, hands coming up to dig into the wolf’s fur and throw him down. The Lupine landed in the dust, his Collar sparking and sizzling. The Collar’s shocks didn’t slow the wolf much, because he rolled to his feet and charged Jace again.
Jace didn’t know who the hell the wolf was. Not that he had much of a chance of identification as the Lupine landed on Jace again, his Collar’s sparks burning Jace’s skin. The wolf went for Jace’s throat, and Jace’s hands turned to leopard’s paws to rake across the wolf’s face. The wolf took the blow, landed on his feet, shook himself, and sprang again.
Jace’s Collar hadn’t shocked him yet, but he felt the build-up. Collars were made to spike pain into Shifters as soon as they became seriously violent, but Jace had learned techniques to fool the Collar and keep it dormant. It was tough to do, however, especially when he was taken by surprise. Jace had to focus in order to keep the Collar quiet, and right now he was busy trying to keep this bloody Lupine from killing him.
Jace whacked the wolf aside again, spinning around as he shed his denim jacket and half shifted to his wildcat. His shirt split, jeans falling as his back legs elongated into powerful feline haunches. He emerged from his shredding clothes as a fully formed snow leopard—creamy fur, black spots, ice blue eyes—and thoroughly pissed off.
Jace went for the wolf. The wolf was bigger, almost twice Jace’s bulk, but leopards hadn’t made it to the top of the wildcat pyramid because of size. Leopards might be among the smaller big cats, but they were swift, agile, and smart, and they didn’t take shit from anyone.
This wolf wanted to give him shit, though. He came at Jace again, fur up, his canine jowls frothing, his golden eyes filled with rage. The scent that hit Jace reeked of challenge. This was a wolf who wanted to move up in rank, never mind that Jace was a different species and not even from this Shiftertown. Dominance challenges weren’t allowed inside the ring at the fight club; one of the biggest rules was that fights were for recreation and showing off—that, and no killing. Outside the ring was a different story.
Jace got ready to teach him a lesson.
As he drew back to renew his attack, another wolf sprang from the parking lot and hurled itself at the first wolf. A female, Jace scented, one he hadn’t met before.
She wasn’t rushing to defend the wolf, however. She attacked the Lupine in fury, teeth bared, near madness in her eyes.
The first Lupine swung to meet her, and the two went down in an explosion of fur and snarls. Jace sat back to catch his breath, surprised. The two wolves were evenly matched, the male a bit larger than the female, but the female was plenty strong and agile. Probably dominant to the male too.
Jace let the female get her first anger out of her system, then he waded back in to rescue his rescuer.
The male Lupine had the she-wolf on the ground by now. He pinned the female with one big paw, snarling as he turned to Jace.
Jace gave him a warning growl. The growl said that, up until now, Jace had been holding back; that Jace was dominant in his pride, his clan, and his Shiftertown; and the wolf might want to think about it before continuing the fight.
The Lupine ignored the warning and went for the kill. Jace met him head-on, his lithe body and fast paws taking the wolf down to the ground before the Lupine could use his superior weight to his advantage.
The she-wolf rose behind the male, landed on the wolf’s back, and sank her teeth into his neck. Her Collar was sparking frantically, and she got hit by the arcs from the other wolf’s Collar, but she kept biting.
Jace drew back his paw and whacked the male wolf across the throat. The wolf spun with the blow, knocking the female loose. The male Lupine rolled across the dust and dying grass a long way before he was able to stop. He righted himself but stayed down on his belly, panting hard, conceding the fight.
Jace walked to him with a stiff-legged Feline stalk. When he reached the Lupine, he lowered his head to the wolf’s eye level and growled again. Stay the fuck down.
Whether or not the Lupine understood Feline rumbles and body language, Jace’s glare must have gotten the message across. The wolf snarled, teeth bared, but he plastered his ears flat on his head and didn’t move.
Jace turned back to the she-wolf. She lay limply on the grass, and Jace went to her, giving her a cat’s lick across her face. She growled softly, and Jace licked her again, feeling a need to thank and reassure her.
The need didn’t leave him when he shifted back to human. He stroked her head, liking the wiry fur of her wolf.
The female wolf looked up at him in a wash of confusion. She was a gray wolf, with gray eyes. She breathed in Jace’s scent, wrinkling her nose, clearly wondering who he was.
Jace gave her head another stroke, wishing she’d turn back to human so he could talk to her. She’d run to his rescue, a Lupine taking the side of a Feline, and Jace wanted to know why.
The she-wolf remained wolf, still growling softly. Jace touched her head one last time and walked back to the male wolf. “New way of greeting guests in Shiftertown?” he asked. “Let me introduce myself. I’m Jace Warden. A guest of Dylan’s.”
Jace knew he didn’t need to explain that his own father was leader of another Shiftertown. The fact that Dylan sanctioned Jace’s visit should be enough for this wolf.
The wolf morphed into his human form, a man with short black hair and light gray eyes. “Hey, I saw a strange Feline trying to sneak into the fight club when he wasn’t invited, and when no one but regulars are supposed to know about the new place. What did you expect?”
“So you were defending all the Shifters here?” Jace asked with evident skepticism. “Commendable.”
“Ask that crazy bitch what she was doing,” the Lupine said, scowling at the she-wolf. “Nurturing females, my ass. She’s all spit and vinegar.”
“Let me guess.” Jace felt mirth. “She turned down your mate-claim.”
The Lupine gave Jace an incredulous look. “I wouldn’t mate-claim her. Not if she were the last female in Shiftertown. She’s out of her mind. You can never tell what she’s going to do.” The man made a broad gesture in her direction. “You saw her.”
“I thought it was nice of her to help me out.”
“Nah, she saw a fight, it sparked her loony side, and she dove in. Look at her. She’s not even sure what happened.”
Jace turned his gaze to the she-wolf again and saw that the man was right. She watched Jace and the Lupine, trembling but trying to hide it with a growl and a glare. Jace saw fear in her eyes along with deep anger—a woman hurting from something and not wanting anyone else to know it.
“I keep trying to tell Liam she should be put down,” the Lupine said. “She’s a danger to the rest of us.”
The she-wolf snarled again. Scent and body language told Jace what he needed to know—the female was dominant but of a different clan than the male wolf; the male was aggressive, cocky, and hated to be bested. The male wolf would be dominant in his clan as well. Jace outranked both of them, though.
Jace looked into the other man’s eyes. “Why don’t you shut your hole, get dressed, and go the hell home? You’re too unstable to be here tonight.”
The man tried to meet Jace’s gaze. He did pretty well, but in the end had to slide his eyes sideways. “What, you want some privacy with her? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Just go,” Jace said.
The wolf snorted. “Whatever.” He climbed to his feet and strolled away, not worried that he was naked.
The fight hadn’t attracted any attention. A sudden roar of voices within the arena told Jace why—there must be an intense match going down. The human voices were accompanied by roars and growls, since half the watchers would be in animal form.
Jace retrieved his torn clothing, grunting in irritation. He’d only brought two changes of clothes, thinking he wouldn’t be in Austin that long.
The jeans had escaped the worst of the shredding, and he pulled them on, the ripped seams stretching as he crouched down to look at the she-wolf again.
“You all right?” he asked her. “Who was that asshole?”
The disgust in his question reached past the feral fear in her eyes. He saw clarity return, and then the wolf shifted into a female with a lush, lovely body, close-cut wheat-colored hair, and large gray eyes.
She remained in a crouch, covering herself, but Jace’s gaze traced the curve of her ample breasts, his natural need rising. She’d be worth sneaking off into the darkness with, maybe having a bounce with in the bed of a pickup.
No, she’d be worth more than that. This wasn’t a lady Jace would use to relieve horniness and then forget. Not with that gorgeous gaze pinning him flat.
“His name’s Broderick,” she said in a voice Jace wanted to embrace. “He usually wins Asshole of the Month around here.”
“No doubt. What did you jump in for? He’s right about one thing—it was a crazy thing to do. Two males with their blood up could have hurt you.”
“I saw him besting you. No one deserves to be pounded by Broderick for no reason.”
“He wasn’t besting me,” Jace said, giving her a grin. “I had him. And then he started kicking your ass.”
She frowned. “Oh, please. I was a few bites away from making him crawl away whimpering.”
As Jace hoped, his needling made her irritation erase her fear and pain. “Not to mention, your Collar was going off,” Jace said. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
He placed his hand on the side of her neck, over the Collar in question. Ordinarily, Jace wouldn’t touch uninvited, especially not cross-species, but something in this woman cried out to him. She needed soothing.
Her eyes widened a little, but she didn’t jerk away. “What about you? Your Collar didn’t go off. You can dampen its effect, can’t you? Like Liam does?”
Jace let his fingers caress her neck as he chose his words. “That’s not supposed to be common knowledge. Need-to-know basis.”
“Maybe I need to know. Dylan’s trying to teach me, but I can’t do it yet.”
“In that case, I’ll give you some pointers.” Jace traced her Collar to the front, pausing when his fingers rested on its Celtic cross lying against her throat. “But I’d better find Dylan and tell him I’m here before the payback for controlling my Collar hits me.”
“Dylan’s fighting right now,” the woman said. “His bouts are always popular. But short. He should be done soon.”
Jace placed his hand on hers. He wanted to keep touching this woman for some reason, as though breaking contact with her would lessen him somehow. “Come with me. We’ll watch him win together.”
“No.” The woman started to rise, and Jace unfolded himself and helped her to her feet. She didn’t hide herself anymore, a Shifter woman unembarrassed by her body. “I have to go. Are you Jace? You’ve been to Shiftertown before, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, but why haven’t I met you?” Jace still didn’t want to release her hand. “I’ve made lots of trips out here, but I don’t remember seeing you.”
“I’ve been . . . sick,” she said. “I’m Deni. Deni Rowe.”
Deni watched him anxiously, as though gauging his reaction to the name. “Ellison Rowe’s sister?” Jace asked.
“Yes.” Deni still peered at him, waiting.
Jace tightened his hand on hers. “Why do you have to go? Stay with me and watch Dylan kick ass. You can keep other Lupines from jumping me.”
Deni didn’t smile. She glanced at the arena and the mass of figures there, and Jace scented her nervousness. “I can’t. Sometimes the fighting . . .”
“Calls to the feral in you? Makes you lose control?”
She gave him a startled look. “How did you know that?”
“Because I saw your eyes when you attacked Broderick. You didn’t dive into the fight only to rescue me. You did it because watching made you want to fight too. I was like that during my Transition.” Jace caressed the hand he hadn’t released. “All you have to do is hold on to someone. The touch will calm you and keep you tethered.”
Another startled look. “That doesn’t work. Even my cubs . . .”
“Bet me,” Jace said. “You hang on to a dominant, and he takes the heat and cools you down. Works. That’s what dominants are for.”
A spark of pride returned to Deni’s eyes. “And you’re saying you’re dominant to me?”
“Yep. It’s obvious. You outrank Broderick—I bet you outrank a lot of wolves—but you’re not dominant to this Feline.” He touched his chest.
She gave him a half smile. “And you’re not full of yourself about that.”
“Just stating facts.” Jace did not want to let go of her hand. “Let’s find your clothes and go. Unless you want to watch as wolf.”
Deni sent him another haughty look that made her eyes beautiful, but she didn’t pull away. “I’ll find my clothes.”
Jace left his shredded shirt behind—why bother with it?—but caught up his jacket and followed her into the darkness, her hand on his like a lifeline. A warm, sweet lifeline. He definitely wanted to know this Lupine woman better.
* * *
Deni’s heart beat swiftly as she pulled on the sarong she’d thrown off to rush into the fight with Broderick. Broderick’s scent of arrogance had enraged her, and she’d wanted to pummel him for jumping the other Shifter without challenge.
Then she’d felt her memory slide away, the feral thing inside her taking over. She shivered. Her wildness hadn’t receded until Jace had smacked the wolf down himself, and Deni had fallen away from the fight.
Jace hadn’t then turned around and kicked her butt, as he’d had a right to for interfering. Instead he’d touched her, licked her with his strange Feline sandpapery tongue, then held her hand after she’d changed back to human.
Deni was still shaky as they entered the fight club’s main area. Jace kept hold of her hand. It was a big hand, warm but callused, his grip strong. He was a fighter, a warrior.
If Deni remembered right, Jace Warden was the son of Eric Warden, leader of the Las Vegas Shiftertown. Jace was third in command there, the second in command being Eric’s sister. Jace would be in the most dominant Feline clan of his Shiftertown, and in the most dominant Feline pride of that clan. The top of the top.
Alphas usually bugged Deni, because they could be arrogant shits, but only concern and protection flowed from Jace. An alpha interested in taking care of others. What a concept.
The biggest crowd gathered around the central ring—the other two rings were empty. From throats, beast and human, came wild cries, delight in whoever was winning, groaning from those foolish enough not to back Dylan.
Jace moved through the throng to the ring. Shifters moved aside for him, most without noticing they did so. Instinct, Deni guessed—sensing that they should get out of Jace’s way before he made it an order.
A large man stood at the perimeter of the ring, arms folded, the Sword of the Guardian on his back. Deni always felt a frisson of dread when she saw the sword, whose purpose was to be driven through the hearts of dead or dying Shifters. The sword pierced the heart, and the Shifter turned to dust, his or her soul following the pathway to the Summerland.
The sword shimmered a little in the flickering light. Other Shifters gave the Guardian a wide berth, also uncomfortable with him. Kind of hard on Sean, Deni always thought, but Sean had been much less haunted since he’d taken a mate.
A human woman stood next to Sean—not his mate. She was the scrappy woman who’d tied herself to Ronan, a Kodiak bear, who was even now in the ring, fighting Dylan. The woman—Elizabeth—danced on top of the cement blocks, cheering for Ronan at the top of her lungs.
Sean would be standing as second for Dylan, his father. A second’s job was to make sure that no one interfered with the fight and that the other side didn’t cheat. Dylan and Ronan would go for a fair, straight fight, but other Shifters could be cunning. The seconds were there for a reason.
Dylan was the black-maned lion snarling in the middle of the ring, his paws moving lightning fast as he battled the bigger bulk of the Kodiak. Ronan was fully shifted to bear, his ruff standing up, his eyes alight with fighting fury. Ronan’s Collar sparked deep into his fur, but Dylan’s was quiet.
“Unfair advantage,” Jace said into Deni’s ear. “Dylan knows how to keep his Collar from going off.”
Deni had to turn her head and stand on tiptoe to answer into Jace’s ear. His hand in hers was warm, and she leaned close. “That’s why he only fights the strongest: Ronan, or Spike, who’s the champion. Sometimes Dylan lets his Collar go off on purpose, to keep things interesting.”
“But he usually wins anyway,” Jace finished.
He had a rumbling baritone that tickled inside her ear, his hot breath making Deni tingle even more. She squeezed his fingers a little, and was rewarded with an answering squeeze.
Ronan roared. His Collar was sparking, his mate yelling her encouragement, but Deni saw her worry. These matches weren’t to the death, but Shifters could be badly hurt in them.
Deni could scent and sense Elizabeth’s excitement tinged with fear. She also caught Sean’s tenseness as he watched his father battle. If something went wrong, if one of the Shifters was hurt so much the Guardian was needed, Sean would have to plunge his sword into the heart of either his father or his close friend.
Deni caught his sorrow—Sean had had to send one of his brothers to dust a dozen years ago—which laced through the sorrow in her own heart. Deni wished her cubs were here, her boys, but they were working at their jobs in the city, earning what little money Shifters were allowed to earn.
Dylan backed away from Ronan’s onslaught, ears flat on his head. He didn’t roar—Dylan’s roar could shake apart the town—but his growls filled the space.
The sound caught in Deni’s nerves, calling to the feral inside her. All Shifters had the instinct to throw off any polish of civilization, to revert to their wild forms, to return to the time when they’d been bred to fight and hunt. Even after a thousand and more years, Shifters retained the same basic instincts—fight or be killed, hunt or be hunted.
Shifters had come up with strict rules made to tame their inner beasts. To keep themselves from tearing each other apart after they’d fought free of their Fae masters, Shifters had agreed to certain rituals that must be performed in regard to mating, fighting, and even death. Take those away, and they were simply animals who could make themselves look human.
Deni’s motorcycle accident last year had robbed her of the veneer of calm Shifters strived to learn. The wreck must have jarred something loose in Deni’s brain, because she’d been fighting her instincts ever since, often losing. Knowing the bastard who’d run her down was dead had helped her begin to heal, but she wasn’t there yet.
In the midst of the growls, snarls, roars, and cheers, with the scent of blood and sweat pouring from the ring, Deni’s thoughts began to tangle. Her scent sense heightened, bringing in the excitement of the Shifters, the bloodlust in Dylan, the singed-fur smell from the sparking Collars, the strong male scent of Jace Warden next to her.
She probably would have been all right with Jace’s calming hand in hers, if the fighting Shifters had been anyone else, but Dylan had a powerful Shifter presence. Being alpha didn’t simply mean winning fights and scaring Shifters into submission. It was an indefinable something about the Shifter—scent, timbre of voice, subtle compulsion to follow this male. In animal form, it was more apparent, and Dylan was broadcasting his force loud and clear.
Since the accident, Deni had been able to use her animal senses fully in her human form. All Shifters retained some of their superior senses of hearing, scenting, and tracking ability when human, but they were muted, distant, able to be pushed aside so the Shifter could live as human without going crazy.
Not so for Deni. She had to constantly fight herself not to shift, attack, or even kill when she was confused, afraid, or angry. Going feral was the term. Her Collar tried to shock sense into her, but that only resulted in more pain, more confusion, more anger.
Deni smelled Dylan’s fighting blood, which announced to everyone there he was far stronger and meaner than the giant bear he battled. Ronan continued swinging his enormous paws, landing blows on the smaller lion. Dylan’s lithe body moved and flowed with the hits that would have crushed any Shifter who’d stood still and taken them. Dylan’s lion’s paws moved in a flurry, batting back the bear with the swift, manic strength of a cat.
Deni’s wolf howled to life. She wanted to leap into the ring, rush to Dylan’s side, and help him fight. He was her alpha—he’d been leader of all Shifters for a long time before conceding his position to his son. Ronan was lesser than Deni, and he dared to confront Dylan. Now Ronan must pay.
Deni clenched her free hand into a fist, jaw so tight it ached. She shouldn’t be here—she should have gone home and not let the compelling Jace talk her into watching the battle. She now wanted more than anything to break all the rules of the fight club and run into the ring. Ronan would knock her senseless before he could stop himself, but her wolf didn’t care. The bear needed to go down.