CHAPTER ONE

 

KEITH SKYLER sat in the hard, high-back wooden chair across from his father, Adam, fighting the desire to scowl at the ignorant male. It was bad enough to be called into his office like a recalcitrant child, but to have to sit in the uncomfortable chair while Adam sat in the plush office chair irked him even further. The positioning was deliberate, to remind Keith that his father had the power, as if he didn’t know that already.

“What part of ‘Taylor and I are moving to one of the outer areas of town’ don’t you understand? You insist that since Taylor is without a mate, she needs me to live with her. You also demand it so Zeke can have a male figure in his life, at least until Taylor or I mate. She wishes to move closer to her work, as do I.”

Adam Skyler’s expression was stoic, as always, but the energy pouring off him was bordering on violent. Keith waited for his father to respond, knowing Keith would get what he wanted, though not certain what the cost would be yet. One did not simply do things without the great and mighty Adam Skyler, Alpha of the Glacier Rim Tribe, giving his approval… except when he and Taylor did.

“Why are you only bringing this to me now, Keith? You know how I feel about your sister’s wild ideas of living with the humans. It’s dangerous!”

“Other tribes live—”

“Chain.” Adam closed his eyes as he pinched the bridge of his nose. “A ‘tribe’ of lynx is called a chain, and you know it.”

“That’s a human term, one that isn’t even agreed upon by the inter-tribal council. Other lynx call their groupings tribes, not chains.” He hated the term chain. It made them sound like a stupid fence instead of the extended family and friends that make up a tribe. Well, that’s what tribes ought to be. Theirs failed on many points to be that, mostly thanks to his father’s extreme patriarchal methods. When he took over, if he ever did, he swore to make their tribe more egalitarian—though Adam did not know that yet.

“I will not debate this with you, nor do I approve of Taylor and you moving away from our area.”

“Father, the house is already bought. We signed the papers yesterday and picked up the keys.” Yeah, he knew their method of gaining a little independence was inappropriate, willful, and could easily backfire, but he was determined to give his sister all the freedom he could and hopefully teach Zeke to be a good man, as well as a good lynx.

“You already did what?” Adam bellowed, his stoic demeanor finally cracking.

“We bought the house.”

“On whose authority?”

“Mine. I am the prince and heir, and well over the age of adulthood. I need room to live and breathe. Taylor needs room to raise Zeke without the other females in her space. I know they mean well, but Zeke is her son, not theirs.”

“They are only trying to help your sister. She’s all alone and trying to raise her child.”

“No, she’s not. She has me. I know her mate died, leaving her single and with kit, but I am there for both of them. Besides, with both of us working in town, this arrangement makes the most sense. And don’t worry, the house abuts the woods, giving us plenty of room to hunt, roam, and live in both our skins.”

“And if I forbid this move?” Adam asked, his tone dropping to one of resigned irritation—a sound Keith was well used to.

“We are locked into the mortgage, Father.” Adam Skyler was never one to waste money, a fact Keith was exceptionally glad of right then. “We will have to pay for it either way, and it would be foolish to own a home and not use it.”

The growl from his father was not unexpected. Still, were he in his feline skin rather than his human skin now, his fur would want to stand on end.

“Since you have made it difficult to argue against this nonsense, you and Taylor may move, but I will visit shortly after you are settled. If the residence does not meet with my wishes and standards, you will come home and find a way to sell the house.”

Thank you! “Give it a chance, Father. You know Taylor’s tastes. She wouldn’t live anywhere unsuitable.”

“Anywhere among humans is already unacceptable, but we shall see.”

“Thank you, Father. I need to make sure things are ready for our move.” Keith waited, hoping Adam would allow him his leave and not push further.

“You are excused, Keith. However, I do not appreciate being managed this way. Until you come of age, I am still the alpha of this chain.”

Tribe, dammit! “Understood, Father.”

Keith quickly stood and exited the room, then maneuvered through the house to find Taylor. He was itching to shift and go for a run. His lynx always wanted to be outside, in his fur, after he was called before his father—or the council for that matter. By the time he found Taylor, outside playing with Zeke, he was bordering on screaming. Seeing them playing in their lynx forms helped calm him, allowing him to breathe easier.

“Taylor?” He couldn’t help the smile that tugged at his lips when she turned, her tufted ears swiveling before her gaze met his. “When you’re ready, I need to pick up the U-Haul and get things loaded.”

They had been packing, but as their father never came to their part of the house, even though it was just one floor up from his own suite, he hadn’t noticed all the boxes or layout plans. Their father’s home was more akin to two houses stacked one atop another. He and Taylor had their own kitchen, living room, dining space, and bedrooms, but they didn’t have any freedom or real space to be themselves. Not with their father and his advisers always underfoot and snooping into their lives.

Taylor hurried to where Keith stood, shifting as soon as she stopped in front of him—luckily her nudity no longer fazed him. When he was younger, her doing that had bothered him a great deal, but only because she was his sister. “He said yes?” she asked, her voice cracking on the last word.

Damn, she must have been more worried than she’d let on. “Of course. He insists upon checking on us once we’ve moved in, but that is to be expected,” he explained, shrugging one shoulder. He didn’t want to make a big thing about their move while they were outside. He never knew who might be within hearing range, after all.

Taylor grinned as she launched herself at Keith. “Thank you!” Without letting him go, she turned her head and called to Zeke, “Go make sure all your things are packed for Uncle Keith to take with him. I don’t want you upset that something special left with him instead of being in your travel bag.”

Laughing, Keith unwound his sister from around his body. “Go put something on, would ya? Like I want your girly bits on me.”

Taylor swatted Keith’s chest as she took off after Zeke—who had opted to stay in lynx form as he hurried inside and up the stairs.

By the time he’d caught up to them, Zeke was in his room, going through the special travel bag Keith had bought him the week prior. He’d been so proud of Zeke for not saying anything about their packing, not even to the other kittens in their tribe. Keith had been so careful when bringing boxes in and out of the house, making certain that neither his father nor his advisers were around to see what they were doing.

“Can’t believe you managed to get his approval so quickly,” Taylor said from behind him as he stood staring at the stacks of boxes ready to move.

“Hey, playing the money card usually works with him. Why do you think I wanted us to have signed the mortgage papers and all before I said anything to him? I’m not stupid, and moving away is the only way either of us will have any freedom to be who we are, instead of who he thinks we should be.”

She sighed contentedly. “I know, and I can’t wait to get going. Are you sure you want to do the move yourself? Zeke and I could help, instead of us only getting there after you have the house all set up?”

“Taylor, I know how you want everything set up. We’ve gone over the pictures and floor plan dozens of times already. This is safer for Zeke and will give me a chance to scope out the woods a little more before he gets there and wants to go run or climb.”

“Yeah, I just hate for you to do all the work like this.”

Her pout was adorable, but he had reasons, personal ones that he didn’t want to tell her yet, for wanting to go ahead of them. When they’d gone over to view the house the second time—which was when they’d put in the bid—he’d caught a scent he never thought to find. The pull had been almost painful, and now he just needed to find out who it belonged to. Even though he needed more information, his mind kept yelling mate. Being gay, he hadn’t believed he would have a mate, but he couldn’t think of any other reason for the insta-hard-on, the driving need to mate, or the way his cat paced just under the skin after he refused to go back to the house early and find who the luscious scent belonged. Hell, he wasn’t really certain he wanted to find the person. He didn’t want a female! And though only Taylor knew that his heart and body only craved others of the same sex, he feared finding who Baast had chosen for him.

“I’ve got some friends that are going to help me unload in exchange for pizza and beer.” He chuckled. “Seems that works for humans as well as cats.”

“All right, Keith. But if you need help, you’ll call me, right?” Her little upturned face always reminded him of her cat with its wide hazel eyes and tiny button nose, which she tended to wrinkle when annoyed. “Please.”

“Of course, but it’ll be fine. I promise. This time next week, you’ll be in our new home and won’t have anyone but me nosing into your business.”

“Won’t that be wonderful?” she chirped, bouncing on her toes. “Okay, go make sure you have your immediate-needs bag ready. When do you leave?”

“A little after lunch tomorrow. The cats helping on this end of the move will be here in the morning. The humans are, of course, meeting me at the house. It’s all going to work out, sissy, I promise.”

By the time Keith made it to bed that night, he was so anxious he barely managed to get any sleep. He wondered about the scent he’d caught, and the future, and hoped for freedom from his father’s keen gaze and bigoted mouth.

 

 

THE DRIVE to their new home wasn’t long, but loading everything into the U-Haul while his father looked on, scowling and making unhelpful comments, had Keith’s nerves frayed and his temper short. The hope-slash-fear of finding his mate added extra layers to his stress. By the time he arrived at the Wendy’s where he would meet the guys, he was in serious need of a drink—or three. Since that wasn’t an option yet, he pigged out on Spicy Asiago Ranch Chicken Club sandwiches and Frosty treats. Carbs instead of booze….

“Dude,” Dale groused. “How can you eat all that and still be as thin as you are?”

His eating habits drove his human friends crazy. If they ate like he did, they’d all be too big to get through the door. “Good genes,” he quipped, same as always.

“So not fair,” Ryan pouted. He struggled with his weight, wanting to be thin to attract guys at the club, but his body wanted to be slightly chubby no matter what he did.

Personally, Keith thought his friend needed to stop worrying about what shallow club-boys thought and focus instead on being happy and healthy for himself. “Sorry, didn’t mean to make you feel bad, Ryan.”

“You don’t. Just wish I had your metabolism. Seriously, I can’t figure out where you put it all.”

If he just told them he was a lynx shifter and they even knew what that meant, they would know why—all shifters had overdeveloped metabolisms, a side effect of all the shifting they did. However, he was forbidden to reveal his species, and as often as he hated not being able to share that part of himself with his friends, he knew it was too dangerous for humans to know of their kind… or of any kind of shifter, for that matter.

Well, a few humans knew, but it was exceedingly rare and considered dangerous to their kind as a whole. What if the government or scientists wanted to collect them and experiment? A shiver tore through him at the thought. He pushed the morbid thought away and focused on his friends again.

“Ready to head out?” he asked. He didn’t like depressing Ryan, so he usually didn’t eat around him.

“Yeah, let’s get this party started!” Dale crowed.

An hour later they were at his new home, with the U-Haul, and various cars filled with human and a few of his cat friends—the ones who didn’t look down on humans—parked along the driveway and curb. As soon as he opened the truck door, the scent of his mate slammed into him, stealing his breath for a moment. Conscious of the other cats close by, he schooled his face and took a few slow breaths, trying to force down his desire and need. No way did he want others to know what was going on before he found the woman. Woman, he groaned internally. Why did he have to have a mate? Being gay was hard enough and not something he could let others know about, as it just wasn’t done—not with how his father would react—and being mated on top of that would just be cruel.

By the time they were done with all the unloading, Keith decided that the Gods hated him. The scent of his mate constantly called to him—burning wood mixed with sandalwood and grass—teasing him mercilessly, and worse, he’d caught one of his neighbors watching him and his friends moving their things inside. The man pushed all his buttons—well, what of him he could see, thanks to the man being on the other side of a window from him—making him both thrilled that he’d moved and regretting it. His neighbor hadn’t come out to meet him yet, but if the man didn’t stop by soon, Keith decided he would just have to go over and say hello—if this whole mate thing didn’t interfere. If he mated, he’d be screwed… or rather, he’d never be screwed again. That depressing thought wound through him, helping him keep his hormones in check and his focus off sex.

Once all the unloading was done, they broke out the beers and called for pizza. That done, Keith cranked up his stereo so it could be heard outside, though not too loudly, not wanting the cops called, then joined his friends for food, booze, and relaxing. Though it would have been more relaxing if the two couples—both gay couples, no less—hadn’t been determined to dirty-dance and make out so much. Jealousy was ugly, he knew that, but right then it was a hard fact to remember.

Going to sleep the first night in his home, one that his father had nothing to do with, should have been an exciting and freeing event. Instead he tossed and turned, dreading the next day more than he had anything since his mother’s passing when he was a boy. He had nowhere to be, and the house was mostly put together. He’d been up half the night after his friends finally left, putting books on shelves, dishes in cupboards, and trying to convince himself that his mystery mate would be a male. The last item was his only failure of the night.