Like a stuck pig.
She reached for his shirt, but it was already wet with blood and plastered to his skin. Or what was left of his skin.
His fingers tightened around the old man’s throat. A wheeze slipped from the guy’s mouth.
“I’ve got to shift,” he muttered. No choice. The tiger was stronger than the man. He’d heal faster with the beast’s power.
Erin gave a grim nod.
And the gnome suddenly started fighting in his hold. Clawing at him with stubby nails and kicking out. “No, no, no! ”
This was the last thing he needed. Jude could hardly hear, and he still couldn’t smell a damn thing.
Some hunter he was right then.
With a growl, he slammed the gnome’s head into the back of the building. A nice thud sounded and the guy’s eyes fell closed. Jude dropped him to the ground.
Then fell down beside him.
Erin dropped to her knees. “Jude, what can I—”
Fire heated his veins. The tiger roared, and Jude arched his back, more than ready for the burn of the shift. The tiger fought his way to the surface as the man sank back into the pain and let the beast have his way.
Bones popped. He saw the fur spring up on his hands and arms. This was it, this was what he needed—
“Behind you!” Erin’s scream.
He realized that her arms were pulling at him, trying to yank him closer to her. He hadn’t even felt her touch because the shift was too intense.
Jude forced himself to glance back. Caught between man and beast, he struggled to hold on, just for a moment more.
Glowing yellow eyes stared at him. Shining from the darkness of the woods.
Oh, shit. The old man hadn’t been afraid of him in those last few moments. No, not of him.
The wolf raced out of the trees, body thick with muscles and black fur. Its mouth was open, the razor sharp teeth glinting with saliva.
The bastard was heading straight for them.
Jude opened his mouth to cry, but he couldn’t speak anymore. The hellfire of the shift blasted through him. Sweet, sweet pain.
No, the man couldn’t speak, but the tiger roared his challenge into the darkness—and to the wolf.
A shifter’s weakest moments came during the time of change from man to beast. The shift wasn’t instant. It was fast, yes, but the bones had to snap and reshape and the flesh had to change and the—
It was brutal. Hard.
Erin had seen her share of shifts before. She knew the game. And she knew that Jude couldn’t take the wolf right then.
So she did the only thing she could.
Erin ran in front of him. The tiger snarled in fury behind her, but he couldn’t attack yet. He was trapped between man and beast.
She stared at the wolf. She hadn’t smelled him. Because of the kymine or because he’d cloaked his scent? The bastard had been able to sneak right up on them.
All the better to kill.
“You stay the hell back!” She lifted her claws, ready to do as much damage as she could.
The wolf was big, with a long, muscled body. A thick muzzle, pointed ears, and those glowing eyes—
Her heart slammed into her chest.
The wolf froze, staring up at her. A rumble rose in the beast’s throat.
Oh, God, no.
She’d seen those eyes before.
Something bumped against her thigh, a hard jolt that had her stumbling. Erin looked down, eyes wide, scared, stunned.
Jude had finished his shift. The tiger stood near her, using his weight to force her to the side.
So he could stand before her.
Red stained his fur, darkening that thick, white and black pelt. But the tiger easily outweighed the wolf. Hell, he had to be twice the other animal’s size. His teeth were bigger, sharper. His claws far longer and stronger.
“No!” The cry was ripped from her. She couldn’t let this happen.
The wolf’s head swung toward her and the beast howled. A long, mournful sound.
A sound she knew too well.
“No,” a whisper this time.
The tiger’s muscles bunched as he prepared to attack.
She couldn’t let him do it. Erin threw herself against him, holding on tight as she sank her fingers into that fur and clung with all her strength. “Jude, let the wolf go!”
He trembled against her, and his head turned toward her as he opened his mouth with a cry loud enough to rattle her bones.
The wolf lunged forward, ready to attack.
“Leave him alone!” Erin screamed and held on even tighter. This couldn’t be happening.
But the wolf was there. Watching with eyes that never blinked.
“Get out of here.” Erin stared into those eyes. The tiger’s body was too tense against her, and she knew Jude was using all of his control in an effort to hold back his attack.
The wolf’s black muzzle lowered toward the ground.
Jude’s left claw lifted as he got ready for a deadly swipe.
“Run, now!” Erin pressed all of her weight against the tiger. Dammit, go!
The wolf turned and fled into the darkness.
Her breath choked out. She turned her head and buried it in the tiger’s soft fur. Oh, hell.
Jude leapt away from her. Erin slipped and almost fell flat on her face. For the second time that night.
Jude shot toward the twisting trees.
“No! Jude, stop!” She knew the man inside the tiger understood her perfectly.
She just wasn’t sure if he’d listen to her.
When he didn’t slow down, she shouted, “That’s not the asshole after me!”
Still didn’t slow.
Another few seconds and he’d be gone.
“Jude, that—that’s my mother!”
The big cat’s claws dug into the ground as he came to a shuddering halt. He glanced back at her, blue eyes too bright in the darkness.
Now he knew. The last secret.
She pushed to her feet. Wished that her knees didn’t feel so weak. “Remember those crazy, psychotic wolves you told me about? Guess it’s time I told you, I’m one of them.”
In the distance, a wolf howled and the sound ripped right into her heart.
“Jude! Jude, dammit, wait! You’re still bleeding!”
He shoved open the motel room door, heard the crash as it banged back and hit the wall. Keeping his head low, he stormed across the threshold, fighting to keep his rage in check while—
Erin grabbed his arm. “Stop! Listen to me!”
Teeth clenched, he spun to face her. He’d managed to jerk on the spare jeans he kept in the truck, for shifting emergencies, but with his side still burning like hell, a shirt hadn’t been an option.
Erin stared up at him, face stark, lips quivering. So beautiful.
“I-I should have told you before.”
Uh, yeah. She should have.
Her fingers curled around his arm. “You made it clear how you felt about wolves—”
“Sweetheart, that’s the way everyone feels.” All the Other anyway. They all knew the rule: If you were smart, you stayed away from the wolves.
Smart. He grimaced. Not him because he sure hadn’t stayed away. He’d run straight to her and gotten his ass addicted to her sweet flesh.
Sweet wolf flesh.
A tiger tangled up with a wolf. His grandfather had to be someplace, laughing his striped ass off.
Her hand fell away. “How many wolves have you actually met, other than me?”
His brows flew up, and he ignored what was turning into a dull throb in his side. At least he was healing. “Um, you mean other than the asshole stalking you?”
She kicked the door shut with her heel even as her eyes slit. “No one’s perfect, Jude. Not wolves. Not tigers. You should know that.”
Oh, hell, no, she hadn’t just thrown his past into his face. He grabbed her shoulders and pushed her back against the mud-brown wall. “Don’t go there, sweetheart.” He’d trusted her. Bared his soul. While—what? All the time she’d been keeping her secrets from him? He’d been trying to help her.
But the woman was working her own agenda.
“I-I didn’t mean—” She broke off, shaking her head and sending those silky locks flying. His nose was working again—he’d felt lost for a time without the onslaught of scents teasing him—and the heady fragrance that was Erin filled his nostrils.
“What did you mean then?” Her mouth was close. Tempting and close and he would not kiss her. Not now. Because, dammit, he couldn’t help but wonder…what other secrets was she keeping?
She wet her lips.
Damn her. That swiping pink tongue had his cock jerking.
“Do you—do you remember what you told me about Lones?”
No, he had no idea.
His expression must have said as much because she glared at him. “How screwed up do you have to be,” she quoted, “to get kicked out by the pack?”
Okay, he remembered. Jude tried real hard not to wince. So he’d been a hardass on the Lones, but after that Feral butcher who’d killed his family—
“I got kicked out.” Said with dignity. Said with a stare that was straight and unflinching. “They thought I was weak.
Unworthy.” A pause. “Not fit for the pack. When I couldn’t shift, they threw me away.”
His hands clenched into fists. It was either ball ’em up or grab her again and hold tight. And he couldn’t hold her, not yet.
She’d kept this secret from him after he’d bared his soul to her.
He should have seen this coming.
He says I’m his mate.
Because the bastard after her was a wolf. Just like she was. Like to like.
So why the hell was the beast inside him screaming that she was his mate?
No way could a woman be a mate to two shifters.
“My mother took me to my father’s house. Dropped me on the doorstep without a word, and left.” Memories trembled in her voice. “She’d kept me from him for fifteen years, because while they were mates”—Erin said the word like it was a curse.
Maybe to her, it was—“she didn’t love him, because he wasn’t pack.”
He tried to think. Hard to do, when she was so close and his fury still rode him. “You could have just been delayed.
Shifters don’t change until puberty. If you were just fifteen—”
A slow motion of her head, back and forth. “I don’t change, Jude. The claws and the teeth are all I have. All I’ll ever have.
There’s no running in the woods for me. No beast who can break through the surface. There’s just”—her hands lifted, fell—“what you see. And that wasn’t enough for the pack or for my mother.”
The mother who’d appeared tonight, more than ready to attack him. “Why is she here?” He didn’t believe in coincidences.
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t.” Erin exhaled on a hard breath. “I haven’t seen her since then—until tonight, anyway. I-I remembered those eyes.” She straightened her shoulders. Stiffened her spine. “My father was scared of me because he was scared of her. He loved me, I know he did, but I think he was always worried the wolf would come out.”
“Your dad—you said he was human?”
“He was a shaman for his tribe. He was used to helping people. When he first met my mother, she was hurt. He told me she’d been attacked by vampires. He wanted to help her, but in the end, she didn’t want to be helped. She wanted the blood and the violence and pack. ”
And she’d taken Erin into that world.
Then tossed her out.
“My father was psychic. He could see things, change lives.” She blinked quickly. “He was a good man.”
Erin had loved him. No denying the emotion in her voice. “What happened to him?” he asked, because there was so much pain there.
“He was killed. One of those horrible wrong place, wrong time things. He was mugged. Caught one night coming home.
The guy stabbed him and my father bled out on the street. On the filthy street, with his eyes wide open.” Her lips twisted. No smile this time. “I saw it happen. My damn dreams. But by the time I got there, it was too late. He’d left me, too.”
He jerked her into his arms. “I’m pissed as hell at you,” he growled, but held her all the tighter. What was she doing to him? What?
“I couldn’t let you kill her,” she said, words muffled against him.
His side stung, but no way was he gonna let her go. “Yeah, well, sweetheart, looked to me like she was the one wanting to do the killing.”
“And if that gnome with the gun was anything to go by, she’s made a habit of hunting folks at that bar.” A wolf who hunted humans was a wolf that had crossed the line.
Her pack wouldn’t take her ass back if she’d gone Rogue.
Erin’s head lifted. Her long lashes were spiky, wet. “I don’t know what’s going on anymore. I just want things to go back to normal.”
Ah, normal. That word again. The one she liked so much. “Not gonna happen.” His nose twitched. So many scents assaulting him now that his enhanced smell was back. But, what was—
He pushed Erin behind him and glared at the door.
“Jude!” Erin’s nails scraped down his arm. “It’s her!” Looked like Erin’s sense of smell was working, too.
This time, he could catch the lighter, feminine scent of the wolf shifter. Yet knowing that it was Erin’s mother on the other side of that door didn’t make him relax his guard for a second. No, it only made him tense more. “Stay back.”