EVERYBODY has a favorite season. Mine is summer. Certainly our love affair first began when I was a child and three months of vacation with nothing to do but get into trouble was irresistible. But as I grew, I realized that during those long hot days of June, July, and August, there were no expectations of me. There was always time, when summer was over, to get my life in order, prepare for school, the new year, whatever was to come. In summer anything was possible.
Lifting my head, I stopped a minute from crossing the parking lot to savor the warm night breeze as it danced over my skin. The town where I lived, Incline Village, north of Lake Tahoe, was never too hot and just one of the many reasons I loved my home.
Six months ago, I would have never thought that I would be calling any place home ever again, but that was before I met Logan Church. In such a short time I had gone from being an outcast to being the mate of a semel, or tribe leader, and being part of a tribe again.
I was born both a werepanther and a reah. Had I also been born a woman, then my life would have made sense, but as it was, my road had been a rocky one. Reahs only mated with semels, and as semels were only ever male, the only mate I could conceivably have would be a man. While what I was had always made sense to me, as men, not women, had always been what mesmerized me, the tribe I grew up with, as well as my family, had quickly decided that I was an abomination. Having been cast out at sixteen, it had been me and my best friend Crane alone without a place to call home until I had met Logan Church, my mate.
Now, as a recognized reah, my life was no longer simply me and my best friend Crane, but instead about my mate and his family and my new tribe. I was still reeling, still overwhelmed, buried under a landslide of obligations and protocol and demands on my time. It was daunting and had become even more so in the past week. I had no idea how I was even going to begin to explain events to my mate.
I let the scent of wildflowers, the faint trace of the lake, and the charcoal burning close by distract me from my thoughts. The smells drifted around me as I resumed my walk. Lazy days of summer were aptly named; I wanted to lounge in a hammock somewhere and forget all about the events of the past week. I waved when my name was called by different members of my team yelling goodnight. It was nice that they had all missed just seeing my face. Managing a restaurant was hard work, but what made it worth it was the people, and mine were some of the best. When my phone rang, I debated whether or not to answer it, seeing that the call was from home, but went ahead anyway.
My heart skipped a beat, and I stopped walking, frozen there beside my Jeep, just the sound of the man’s voice sending a wall of heat through me.
“Logan… you’re home.” I exhaled, my voice quavering. “When did you get home?”
“You don’t sound pleased.”
I was and wasn’t all at the same time. “No, I’m glad. I’m just surprised; I thought you said it would be ten days, but it’s only been seven.”
“I can’t come home early?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“So you’re glad I’m home.” He sounded uncertain.
“Of course I am,” I said quickly, “but when did you––”
“Just a few minutes ago. Mikhail and I, we….” He was distracted; something he was looking at was drawing his attention. “Where are you?”
What to say?
“And where is everyone? The house is empty. Mikhail and I get home and there’s nobody around? How is that even possible?”
With twelve people living in one place, eleven now that Simone had officially moved out to get married—mated—the expectation was that at least one person would have been there when the man got home from his weeklong trip to New York. That there had been no one there to greet him had to have been weird.
“I want to see you.”
There was the underlying command in his voice, but he had not phrased it as an order, which, thankfully, allowed me to ignore it. I was relieved, because there was no way I could see him in the state I was in. “Okay.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that I can be home in a couple of days, but––”
“A couple of days?”
“Yeah. You said you were gonna be gone, so I wanted to make sure I was too, and now I’m locked into plans I can’t get out of.”
“Why would you want to leave home? You love being at home.”
And he was right—I did. Having been homeless for so long, outside of work, it was where I could normally be found.
“Jin, what’s going on?”
“With what?” I asked lightly.
“What plans do you have that you can’t change?”
“Who are you with?”
I cleared my throat. “No one.”
His silence was long, like he was thinking. “Jin.”
I had planned to think up my story that evening; I wasn’t prepared yet. I was toying with telling him that I had to go to Vegas for my boss or something along those lines. The idea of lying to my mate hurt to consider, but the alternative, the truth, was no better.
“What the hell is going on? Where is everybody, and why the hell don’t you want to see me? I’ve been gone for an entire week; didn’t you miss me at all?”
I had missed him way too much, which had basically been the cause of the entire problem, from what Abbot had said.
“Jin… love.” His voice softened, husky with feeling. “Why don’t you want to see me?”
“I do… I so do,” I hedged. What was I supposed to say? “I just don’t want you to see me until I look good.” Which was basically the truth, just not the whole truth.
“You always look good.”
It was nice that he thought so, but I didn’t always look good, and now, even worse, I was battered and bruised and still healing. As I was a werepanther, I strengthened after being hurt much faster than an average person, but there had been a lot of blood and cuts, and I still looked pretty bad. I had told everyone at work that I was in a car accident, and when I had showed up at the restaurant just to post the schedule and pass out paychecks, they were not sure I should have been out of bed. Had I told them the truth, that I was breaking up a fight between two werepanthers, they would have looked at me like I was crazy.
“Are you at work?”
“I’m actually just leaving,” I said, because I was, in fact, going to be driving away from the restaurant where I worked in the next few seconds. “I’m going to my friend Eddie’s to––”
“Jin.” He cut me off. “I––what is going on?”
I was silent, because the conversation was headed in a bad direction. I could not be ordered home.
Crap. “I thought I had more time.”
“More time for what?”
I couldn’t say that I was trying to save a man’s life.
I let out a deep breath. “You’re gonna be really pissed.”
“I’m already pissed,” he snapped at me, “because you’re not talking to me and you’re trying to hide things from me. I’ll ask again––what the hell is going on?”
“See… it’s not Abbot’s fault.”
“I mean it is but––”
“I don’t––Abbot George? The sheseru Yuri’s training from Kellen’s tribe?”
On the request of Kellen Grant, another semel, the leader of a werepanther tribe, Logan had agreed to have his sheseru, his enforcer, Yuri Kosa, mold another. Kellen’s sheseru had been killed during a menthuel, or honor challenge, and so his brother, the next in line, became the new tribe enforcer. Abbot George had been with us a month when Logan left to attend Simone’s mating ceremony in New York.
I was trying to, but it was just hard. I was too worried about what was about to happen, and the man’s voice was doing things to my stomach. Fluttery, rolling, twisting things that were not altogether bad. I had missed him like crazy.
I moaned because he’d yelled and reminded me that he was the dominant in our relationship. He was the semel, leader, and I was his mate. The ache of need pooled in my groin.
“What’s wrong? Tell me.”
His voice was deep and growly, and my thoughts roamed to the last time I had been in bed with him. He had wanted to tie me down, and I had let him. The bindings had been his silk dress ties, but they had held me because we both allowed them to, both of us wanting the fantasy.
“Missed you,” I whispered.
“Me too.” He told me gruffly, his voice deep and low. “Honey, what’s going on?”
Lost in the sound of his voice, my body’s yearning for him, the craving I felt down deep, I almost tipped my hand. I cleared my throat, pulled myself together. “Logan, I––”
“You’re talking about Abbot George, right? The guy Yuri is training?”
“Yeah,” I said solemnly.
There was a pause as understanding hit him. “What did he do?”
“It was a mistake.”
“Just keep in mind that it was a mistake.”
“Jin, so help me if you––”
“Why wouldn’t you be fine?” His voice hardened. “What are you try––”
“It was a mistake.”
“You said that already. What the hell happened? Just tell me.”
I winced because I heard how icy his tone was. “Okay, so I guess because I was missing you and because I’m your reah and––”
“Christ, this is like pulling teeth! Just tell me what the fuck happened!”
He wasn’t mad at me, and I knew that, but still, he was irritated. “The pheromones,” I sighed. “I didn’t even realize I was… but Abbot said it was like I was in heat.”
“Abbot said.” His voice dropped low, going deadly still.
I made a noise in the back of my throat.
There was a shuffling noise, muffled, and then, “Jin.”
Mikhail’s calm voice washed relief all over me. Him, I could talk to. The sylvan of our tribe, the teacher, the counselor, he was a constant source of sound reason and strength. Confessing to Mikhail was something everyone did, and I was no exception. “Hi.” I smiled widely, the deep sigh coming up out of me. “How was your trip?”
There was a deep male grunt. “I will tell you all about New York when I see you, but first I need to know what went on here. My semel demands it, and so do I. Why are you not in your home, my reah, and where is your sheseru?”
I thought a minute about what to say.
“Just tell me.”
But it had all happened so fast. One minute I was in the kitchen making spaghetti, and the next I had turned to find Abbot George, the sheseru in training, the panther from Kellen Grant’s tribe of Selket, standing in front of me. As the reah of my tribe, the mate of the leader, he should not have been allowed to be alone with me, but in my own home, my rules were lax. If you were in my house, I trusted you.
“Hey.” I smiled at him. “How’s the training going with Yuri? You think you still wanna be a sheseru, or you gonna give up?”
His eyes narrowed as he closed in on me. “My semel, Kellen Grant, he took for his mate a yareah, a woman he picked himself, not a reah that was destined for him from birth. He does not have a true-mate. He doesn’t have a reah.”
“Sure,” I agreed, tipping my head back at the stove. “The spaghetti’s not as good as Logan’s mom makes, but it’s okay. You want some?”
He didn’t answer, instead moving in closer, pressing me back, crowding up against me.
“A true sheseru is meant to be the enforcer of the semel and the protector of a reah, is he not?”
“A sheseru does as his semel demands,” I clarified for him. “Could you maybe step––”
“I read the law. A sheseru is a reah’s champion.”
“If the tribe has a reah,” I corrected him. “If there is no reah, then––”
“A sheseru is lost without a reah.”
“No, they just guard the yareah instead….” I couldn’t concentrate; I was wary and on edge. “Could you maybe… could you step back just a little,” I suggested, certain that he had no idea how uncomfortable he was making me.
“A sheseru is meant to be the protector of a reah,” he said flatly, encroaching further.
“Stop,” I said gently but firmly.
“I thought it was the same,” he said, his voice dropping low, his fingertips grazing the side of my neck. “Reah or yareah… I had no idea there was any difference until I came here.”
“Abbot.” I said his name as two men I had never seen in my life walked into the kitchen.
“What are you––”
“It’s not the same. A reah is… a miracle, and after being here, with you, a true reah, I see and feel the difference. I must remain here, at your side; Logan must accept me and banish Yuri.”
He was out of his mind, and before his hand could close around my throat, I stepped back the final amount of room I had, bumping into the counter behind me. “Yuri is Logan’s sheseru and will be for as long––”
“Since Logan’s been gone, it’s like you’re in heat,” he whispered, and I saw how huge his pupils were, marked the shudder that ran through him. I wondered vaguely where Yuri was. “I think a sheseru cares for their reah in all ways when the semel is gone.”
There was almost no white at all, just big, dilated eyes swallowing me. It was creepy, almost scary, and what the hell did the all ways comment mean?
“I think you need me…. Your body cries out for mine.”
Who talked like that? “You should go watch some TV in the living room,” I suggested softly, watching him, the hair on the back of my neck standing up as I glanced at the other two men. “And take your friends with you, unless they want something to eat first.” I was working hard to keep my tone neutral, calm, and upbeat.
“I have never wanted a man before,” he confessed, his voice dropping low. “But neither have I ever seen a man who looked like you, Jin Rayne.”
I went cold. And not because I was scared. I was furious. How dare he treat Logan this way? How dare he violate the sanctity of his home? I was the mate of the semel, completely untouchable, and now this man thought to claim me? My mate was the strongest male panther I had ever come across, and this man thought he could usurp him? Take me? He presumed to think I needed anything more than my mate? It was obscene.
“Get out of my house,” I ordered, my voice cold, hard.
“Reah.” He cut me off before he lunged at me, knocking the plate from my hands as he grabbed my face and yanked me forward. His mouth was on mine, his tongue forced between my lips as he bent me backward over the counter.
I pushed and fought, but he was so much bigger and stronger than me, his hands everywhere as I managed to dislodge his mouth from mine. “Stop,” I rasped out, trying so hard not to yell, terrified for him, for the transgression he was committing. I had gone from anger to fear for his life in seconds. I could have shifted and gotten away easily, but if anyone saw me they would wonder why I needed to be in my panther form in my own home. What would prompt me to shift into my animal? Why would I need to fight? And as soon as the question arose, my sheseru, Yuri Kosa, would kill them. So I didn’t want anyone else to see us or hear us. But the second the others put their hands on me, though, I forgot about their safety.
The kitchen table was cleared and I was slammed down onto it face-first, my arms stretched out, held tight. Strangers held my wrists firmly as Abbot shoved his groin against my tailbone, his hands on my belt buckle, fumbling to get it off. I had originally thought there were only three men, but now, clearly, I realized my error. There were four.
I had no choice. Like liquid I shifted through their fingers, my body transforming in the blink of an eye from man to panther. Gasps filled the room as I rolled to the floor, tangled in my jeans and shirt, freeing myself in seconds, happy that I had been barefoot. I had missed when Abbot’s reverence became obsession, but he had apparently missed my speed. I was so much faster than he thought, as evidenced by the fact that I was across the huge kitchen before any of them could track me with their eyes.
“Reah,” Abbot breathed out even as he began tearing at his clothes in a frenzy to get them off, to shift to his panther form.
“Let’s go,” one of the other men yelled at him as another bolted toward the back door.
It was my speed. It was scary to watch anything change that fast.
But he was in the midst of his shift from man to animal.
“You said he wanted it! You never said he would fight you!” the stranger in my kitchen shouted as he abandoned his friend, fleeing fast, disappearing out the back door into the night.
“Jin, where are… you….”
Yuri’s appearance in the kitchen stole my choice to flee and left me no option but to run to him, to shield him from the attack he would never have seen coming.
Even though I was twice the distance from Yuri that the other cat was, I made it before Abbot could and slammed him down under me to the floor, preventing Abbot from burying teeth and claws in the chest of my sheseru. But in my hubris at my own speed, I missed his. When he twisted back and buried his fangs in my side, it felt as though I had been punched and stabbed at the exact same time.
Heat spread through my side, and because I was momentarily dazed, the headbutt that followed knocked me back to the floor. Razor-sharp claws tore at my side, and I realized that the spray of blood was mine. I heard Yuri’s roar of fury, saw his clothes rain down on me, torn from his body so he could shift.
I was in the middle of their fight, and having lost blood, I was not as strong or fast as I was normally. My body was torn and ripped, tossed between two powerful panthers like a toy, trampled again and again, crushed and mauled before I was finally able to get my bearings enough to bolt free of the lethal tangle.
Looking at the two of them, watching how savage their attacks on each other were, I realized that they would fight to the death unless I parted them. I meant to bolt forward, but strong hands on the nape of my neck kept me from moving.
“Wait,” Crane said from above me, my best friend’s voice hard as he knelt down beside me. “You’re bleeding,” he cautioned me. “I think you’re really hurt. Shift back so I can see.”
But there was no time.
“Let him go, you idiot, before Yuri kills Abbot.”
Crane rose beside me in one fluid motion as Markel, another panther, and his rival for the affection of Logan’s sister Delphine, appeared on my right.
“Jin’s the only one fast enough to get between them without getting hurt.”
“He’s already hurt!” Crane roared back at him. “And I don’t give a shit if Abbot dies. He’s dead anyway.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Markel yelled, shoving Crane hard so his hands were torn from me. “We’re responsible for his safety while he’s here. You think his semel’s just going to accept that he was hurt in Logan’s house? Use your head!”
Crane flew at Markel without answering, and both men went down in a tangle of arms and legs. When they both sprang to their feet seconds later, tearing at their clothes, I shifted back and screamed for them to stop and help me. Or I tried to—what came out was a strangled version of my voice. I had to grab for the counter to keep from dropping to my knees. Turning my head, I saw Crane and Markel fly at each other in their panther forms, meeting in a frenzy of bloodlust, claws, and teeth, both in a murderous rage. It had started out as being about me for Crane, but now he had the chance to slaughter his rival. He would make the best of his opportunity; the animal that lived inside of him demanded it. When my eyes flicked from them back to Yuri, who was being attacked by Abbot and another panther, I saw what my sheseru did not.
Shifting to panther form, I darted around the room and dived onto Yuri’s back, pounding him down hard, flat on the floor under me, shielding him from the attack of the third panther. Teeth were buried in the back of my neck as claws were driven into my side. Sharp, searing heat washed through me as the panther and I rolled off Yuri and I was thrown into the stove. Abbot’s teeth missed my jugular by a fraction, but he was wrenched away before he could complete the second strike. Yuri was there, keeping him off me, even as the other panther hooked his claws deep into my back. The pain was like a pulse of electricity running through me, constant, swelling. The bite into my shoulder, hard and piercing, made me howl in pain.
The shudder tore through me as my head smacked the floor hard, everything swimming around me for a second before the weight lifted and was then gone. Turning my head, I saw a man lying beside me on the floor, his throat torn out. That fast, the moment he died, he had shifted back. In death, the form of the man was revealed.
Yuri was suddenly above me, his gold fur washed with blood. I understood I was looking at my savior even as I panicked. Where was Abbot? Where was the other panther? One had bolted before the fight, one was dead, and that left Abbot and another alive. When Yuri leaped away, I had my answer. I watched two panthers bolt through the swinging kitchen door ahead of him at the same time Crane tossed Markel through the bay window Logan had put in just a month before. They had fought on, oblivious to my life-and-death struggle, able to help at any time but neither having noticed. Further, they had managed to destroy something Logan Church loved. He had created a place in the kitchen just for him and me, a quiet nook, a refuge for us to have breakfast together, complete with a window to look out onto the woods. I cherished it for the thought that had been put into it, and now it was gone.
Shifting back now that the threat was gone, I found myself alone, naked, and trembling with pain as I struggled to rise. At that moment, I had been terrified. I was bleeding, and my body temperature was dropping fast. In those fleeting seconds, I was afraid I was going to die.
I wasn’t sure when I had started talking, when me remembering events in my head had translated into a monologue, but from the flat sound of Mikhail’s voice, I understood that I had said far too much.
“Let me understand,” he said, and in his tone was a stillness I had not encountered before. “You were attacked in your home by panthers from the tribe of Selket.”
“Four at first, three in the end, but… yeah,” I sighed.
“Does Kellen know?”
“I don’t know.”
“How can you not know?”
“I left it to Logan’s father.”
“Why? You’re the reah.”
What could I say? “I had to… rest.”
“Rest,” he repeated. “You?”
“You heal faster than any panther I know.”
“Sure.” I cleared my throat, not wanting to trade specifics with him.
“Is he dead?”
“Abbot, of course.”
“Where is he?”
“Probably with Avery.”
“Avery? Avery Cadim? Christophe’s sheseru?”
“Why? What does the tribe of Pakhet have to do with this?”
“Crane said that Abbot and the other guy––I don’t know his name––took refuge with Avery in Reno and asked for sanctuary until their semel arrived. I have no idea where the third one is. He ran away before anything happened.”
“Wait. Kellen Grant is coming here?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t––” He stopped himself abruptly, and I knew the reason was because he didn’t want to yell at me. “Where is Yuri?”
“I sent him up to the mountains with Ivan and the other khatyu to hunt.”
“Because I didn’t want him leading a hunting party onto Christophe’s land.”
“It would be his right as sheseru of this tribe to hunt down and kill the man who dared to put his hands on––”
“I don’t want that.”
“I don’t care. Abbot’s life is forfeit to Logan. Jin, you––”
We both heard the roar at the same time. Without even the benefit of an explanation, I knew that Logan had gone into the kitchen and seen the destruction.
“Mikhail.” I sighed as I got into the Jeep and started it up. “Just tell Logan that I’ll call him in the morning and––”
I knew better than to wait. I hung up instead. If Logan ordered me home, commanded me as the semel of my tribe to appear before him, then I had no choice but to go. I was his reah, his mate, and his word was law. His dominion over me, over all of us, was absolute. But if I didn’t actually talk to him, then I didn’t have to do what he said. It was cowardly, but it would work.
Six months ago, my world had been turned upside down when I met the leader of the tribe of Mafdet, Logan Church. Panthers, cats, did not mate for life with the exception of the leader of the tribe, and then only if, or when, they found their mate. Their true-mate. Their reah.
The chance of a semel finding his reah was very slight, so slight in fact that perhaps one in a million ever even saw one. I certainly had never thought, when I made the first trip up the mountain from where I worked in Kings Beach to Logan’s home in Incline Village, that the second I saw the man my heart would be his. It turned out that everything I had thought about love and commitment and belonging was wrong. Being in love made you strong, not weak, and belonging to one man made me feel like I could fly. But there were problems, differences that needed to be ironed out as well as other situations that came from those around me.
I needed time to figure out what I was going to do about the love triangle in the house. Delphine, Logan’s sister, could not seem to decide between my best friend, Crane Adams, and the former sheseru of the tribe of Menhit, Markel Kovac. Delphine needed to choose which man she would accept courtship from, handfast with, and eventually, if they fell in love, mate with. It could not go on as it was, clearly. My home would not survive. Already my bay window was destroyed; I could only imagine what would be next.
Personally, I didn’t understand her hesitance to tell Markel that Crane was her choice. There was no comparison between the two men. Markel was brooding and dark, cold and abrupt, Crane the exact opposite, warm, loving, and kind. The man lit up a room just by walking into it. It didn’t hurt that Crane was beautiful to look at as well. Markel was smaller with less muscle, leaner. I found nothing appealing about the man at all, but apparently Delphine did. Not that I had bothered to look; I barely even saw him.
When my phone rang as I drove toward my friend Eddie’s apartment, I realized that I was looking at Crane’s number on my display. I really needed to give everyone a ringtone so I wouldn’t need to check anymore, but it was so far down on my to-do list that it was doubtful that I would ever have the time.
“Hey,” I greeted him, uneasy, irritable, wanting more than anything to see Logan, be wrapped in his arms. “I’m so glad you’re finally calling––where are you?”
He ignored my question. “You sound upset.”
“Where are you?” I repeated.
“I’m at home,” he groused at me, “and you’re not.”
I let out a huff of laughter. I couldn’t help it. “You picked today to show up?”
“That’s kinda funny,” I grunted. “The timing, I mean.”
“I know what you mean.”
“You leave and blow me off for a week and don’t––”
“I didn’t blow you off! I felt––feel like a f