A Cougar’s Kiss
by AC Arthur
Book 2 in the Shadow Shifters Rebellion Series
Shya Delgado has been sheltered from the world above and left with a residual ailment for which there is no cure. She has spent her life reading and dreaming of what could be and when the sexy renegade cougar shifter is sentenced to guarding a comatose Faction Leader, she begins to dream even more, only these dreams are in real time and what Keller makes her feel is so much more than Shya could have ever imagined.
Keller Cross had a plan for revenge that was sidetracked by the Shifter Assembly Leader. Now, Keller’s stuck babysitting when an alluringly curious jaguar shifter, determined to break free of the shell that was forcibly put around her, dares him to take a chance on desire.
But this unlikely shifter duo will never find happiness as long as the Faction Leader is on his deathbed with the secret to who betrayed the Shadow Shifters locked in his mind. In the midst of their tumultuous passion, Shya and Keller will take the shifters into the next and most deadly stage of their rebellion.
A Cougar’s Kiss
Book 2 in the Shadow Shifters Rebellion Series
A Cougar’s Kiss
He was an animal. There was no doubt about that. His chest heaving with each new breath the cat took as it crossed the mossy surface. How long had he been running? How far had he gone? It didn’t matter. He wasn’t there yet. The cat wouldn’t stop until it was there.
Death followed him like a heavy dark cloud with its booming voice of doom echoing in his ear day after day. He’d done its bidding, fed the darkness that had been growing in him for years. But he wasn’t done.
There was more. He could feel it in the strength pouring through his veins, the burn that raced through his flanks, and he smelled it in the tangy scent of the wind. His lips pulled back from his sharp teeth and those teeth dripped with anticipation of feeding the hunger once more.
Destruction was the animal. Fear was the people. Death was the only answer.
His paws sank deep into the damp forest floor and he pushed further, ignoring signs in his peripheral, warning lights flashing, tires screeching. Adrenaline pulsed through his two-hundred-pound body as it burst from the trees onto the asphalt. He didn’t stop. He couldn’t stop.
The blare of car horns ripped through the air, the scent of rubber tires burning against the rain-slicked roads as they skidded, tickled his nose. He kept going, opening his mouth to let loose a ferocious growl for those who didn’t know he was coming. Then he leapt into the air, landing on top of a wet car hood. Human eyes stared wide with fear at the cat through the windshield. He roared again, this time pressing his face closer to the window. The car door opened and the human bolted out, running, stumbling to his knees, then jumping up to continue his trek as far away from the cat as possible.
Good. They should all fear him. Not just tonight, but forever, because that’s how long he was going to keep running.
That’s how long he was going to keep killing.
“He’s still not up yet. It’s been three months.” Bas sat down heavily in one of the mesh-back chairs in Rome’s private office and ran a hand over his full beard.
Nick was already sitting in the matching chair closest to Rome’s desk. “Ary says there’s nothing medically wrong with him.”
“Then why isn’t he up?” Bas’s tone was clearly agitated and matched that of each of the shifters sitting in this room.
They all wanted something to happen. For Cole to wake up and tell them where he’d been for the last twenty years. For Ewen Mackey to end his vow of silence. For the humans in the world above to stop freaking the hell out and accept that the shifters belonged on this earth just as much as them. For this nightmare that they’d been living since that fateful night in D.C. to finally be over.
But they were out of luck, it didn’t seem like any of that was going to happen.
“He’s breathing and he’s here safe with us. Maybe we just need to be thankful for that.” Jace tried to keep things positive.
Nick, Bas and X each gave him sour looks. Rome’s face remained impassive. Correction, it remained in that pissed-off frown it had been in since they’d discovered Cole was missing. The Assembly Leader carried that look like a badge and the only thing Jace had seen to change it in all these years was the First Female Kalina or Nisa.
“We need him to wake up,” Bas countered.
“Why? He’s not going to get up from that bed and be ready to face the Ruling Cabinet and whatever they have waiting for us above ground,” Jace fired back.
Of all the shifters in this room, he had been closest to Cole. While Bas had been close in proximity and the three of them did have a bond separate from Rome and his crew, there were things that he and Cole had been through that none of them knew about. Did that mean he should miss the guy the most? Maybe. Did it also mean that he was more than ready to find whatever it was that reportedly dropped Cole in the street like an orphan? Hell yeah.
But it also meant he knew how important it was to not rush this and to make sure that every step they took next was the right step. There was no more margin for error. In the time that Ewen had been with them, the Ruling Cabinet had increased its bounty for Shadows, dead or alive. Mercenaries, hitmen, international assassins and even local law enforcement were hunting shifters above ground. And the rogues were on a feeding spree. The Shadows who were still living in secret, stayed hidden. Just like they did down here. It was the worst-case scenario personified.
“We need him to wake up because it’s time to go back.” Rome’s words were spoken in his deep, level tone. He was sitting back in his chair, one elbow propped on the leather-covered arm, a finger moving over his recently clean-shaved chin.
X nodded at the Assembly Leader and stepped forward from where he stood beside Rome’s desk. Twenty years had passed and none of them looked old, but they were stronger, wiser and with physical changes they’d made themselves perhaps, but because of their shifter blood their aging process kicked into gear at different times—when they had their Awakening as a teenager, and not again until they reached eighty or ninety years old. So, X still looked like a pro-wrestler in his prime with his bulky frame and meaty fists.
“We’ve completed new safety protocols, synced mobile transmitters and comlinks with the Holodeck and assembled the top members of the Shifter Tactical Team across all tribes and zones. The plan we’ve been tweaking since first building Oasis is now ready for implementation.” X spoke like one of the computer systems he worked with so frequently. “In short, we’re ready to reclaim our time and space above ground and kick the asses of anyone who gets in our way.”
The corner of Jace’s mouth began lifting in a smile because the latter was said in that don’t-fuck-with-me tone that was all X, the Topétenia shifter that would rip the throat out of anyone or anything daring to get in his way.
“Tactical teams are assembled and ready to ascend above ground on command. Briefings have been sent to each of your boards on a secure link that only those in this room can access. We’re not sitting still any longer,” Nick spoke in his much smoother, former attorney, tone.
Bas stood, the worried look still in his gray eyes, but his shoulders were squared, fists clenched at his sides. “Who’s staying with Cole while we take back what belongs to us?”
“I’ve got that under control,” Rome answered with a pointed glare at Bas. “He’ll be watched and protected at all costs. And when he wakes up, we’ll have what we lost. We’ll have it all back or we’ll burn it all down.”
Later that night
Keller Cross hated hospitals.
The nauseating scent of illness combined with incessant beeping, buzzing, blaring that signaled death was imminent, all made him cringe inwardly each time he stepped foot into a facility. It was his weakness, something he tried like hell to never let anyone see. Weakness meant he could be destroyed and if he could be destroyed, his enemy could win. That wasn’t an option for him, not now, not ever.
So, when Rome dished out this punishment for Keller’s participation in the unapproved mission with Decan three months ago—and most likely for another infraction of the esteemed Assembly Leader’s rules that he hadn’t committed—Keller had taken it in stride. For twelve weeks he’d spent at least fourteen hours each day sitting six feet from a hospital bed where Faction Leader Cole Linden slept like a fifty-year-old baby.
Day-in and day-out the FL who had been missing for the last twenty years lay in that bed with the cream-colored blanket pulled midway up his chest, arms flattened at his sides, chin tilted up, eyes closed. The rise and fall of his chest said he was breathing as did the machines on the other side of the bed that Keller tried valiantly to ignore. There were needles in his arms with tubes running to more machines and paraphernalia that monitored everything from his temperature to his heart rate. There was no question the guy was being taken care of, with or without Keller sitting there keeping watch. Not to mention the fact that he had no idea who he was watching him for. They were in what was reportedly the safest place for Shadow Shifters—Oasis—the underground sanctuary built on the orders of the Assembly Leader, which meant there was no one here that wanted to harm the comatose Topétenia shifter.
At least there shouldn’t be.
Keller knew from experience that things weren’t always what they seemed. Case in point, Rome thought Keller was a traitor against the Shadow Shifters and thus felt the need to keep him trapped in this underground fortress until he could figure out what else to do with him. When, in fact, Keller knew the best solution for getting the Shadows the respect they deserved above ground, with the other shifters and humans. He knew how to bring the Ruling Cabinet down and to rebuild a life for them all. And he still planned to do just that, regardless of what Rome thought.
He leaned back in the chair arms crossed over his chest and stretched his legs out dropping one ankle over the other. It was nearing midnight when his shift for the day would be over. His cougar’s green eyes narrowed as he took another glance at the FL. Still asleep.
With a slow movement he lowered an arm and stuffed his hand into his pocket. His fingers wrapped around the comlink until he could press two buttons. The minute it beeped he talked.
“How long will it take you to get to my room? I’ve got some news to share.”
The reply was quick, “Twenty minutes.”
“Good,” he snapped. “Be there.”
He pushed the buttons again and pulled his arm back up to rest on his chest.
A machine beeped, one long, slow blaring sound that pierced his eardrum and had him cursing fluently. Two red lights on the device flashed for about ten seconds before going dark once more. And silent, thank the gods.
He pulled his legs in and leaned over his knees. Seconds later he stood and bent back into a stretch. It was when he came forward again that he saw it.
The FL’s eyes were open.
You’re being ridiculous. Just walk up to him and say something. What do you think he’s gonna do, bite your head off?
Her pulsed quickened and knees almost buckled as she stood in the hallway thinking of just how much she would love for Keller Cross to bite her. His sharp teeth would rake over her smooth skin with just the right amount of pleasure and pain. And if she were very lucky, he would break the skin, just a tiny bit, enough so that his saliva would mix with her blood and they would be forever and inextricably connected.
Romantic fantasies, that’s what Nisa would call what was going through Shya’s mind at this very moment. Remnants of all the books she’d read and all the stories she’d conjured in her mind, all things that were a substitute for living. Well, she was going to put an end to that vicarious lifestyle right now. She’d waited long enough.
Taking the final steps, she stopped at the door and punched in the security code. The locks disengaged and she took another deep breath, holding it for a few seconds, only to let it stream out in a slow whoosh of air before telling herself for the billionth time tonight, “Now or never.”
Seconds after uttering the last syllable her fingers wrapped around the doorknob and she turned it until it clicked. Pushing the door, she stepped inside the room and felt the chill instantly wrap around her body. The lights were out but there was an unmistakable orange-gold glow coming from the bed.
He was awake.
“Shit!” the word tumbled free seconds before the quick snap of Keller’s neck as he turned to see her.
His eyes were a brilliant green, not bright, but muted until they almost looked foggy. Brilliant because it was the most unique color she’d ever seen on a Bosinian and because he was the only Shadow to wear his cat’s eyes all the time. From the first moment she’d seen him stepping out of the Tracer, Shya had been intrigued by those eyes—and this man.
“The Desert Cat is feral. Killing with no malice.”
The words came from the FL through the room loud and clear as if the FL was sitting up in that bed as healthy as the day he’d disappeared all those years ago. But that was not the case. Cole Linden was lying perfectly still in the bed, just as he had been earlier today when she’d come by to see if Keller had arrived at his post. He hadn’t but she’d stayed a few moments staring at the man who had meant so much to her father and the other FLs in the Assembly. They had looked for him every moment since his disappearance and now he was here, and he was talking.
Keller stepped closer to the bed, but he didn’t touch the FL. Shya did the same, going to the other side of the bed because standing right next to Keller might be too much considering she now had to deal with the fact that Cole was awake, or at the very least talking.
His face remained impassive while his lips moved, the words coming slower, even the machines surrounding him seemed to stop working while he spoke. She stood still, almost holding her breath as she waited for the next words to come. But they didn’t and moments later, the machines began their normal rhythmic drone. The chill that had greeted her when she came in dissipated and a warm breeze wafted her way carrying the scent of cinnamon.
“What are you doing here?”
She had a feeling he would speak first. It was his nature, the dominant that had been stilted for these last three months. The cougar that was caged and hated every second of its captivity. Shya took a slow, steadying breath before meeting his gaze across the bed.
“I came to see you.”
There, she’d said it out loud. She came to see the cougar that had crept into her every waking thought, the one who eased its way into her dreams and thus her entire being, the one everyone around here feared, except her.
A man of few words. Somehow, she doubted that was the real Keller, even though he hadn’t done anything to prove that point since he’d been here. He didn’t socialize with any of the other Shadows, not even the small group of cougars that were part of the STT who trained every morning at 4 a.m. Keller went to the gym during the same time, but he never trained with them, didn’t even use the equipment that was near them, just went to his own corner and did his thing. The same corner, on the same equipment, at the same time, every morning, like clockwork.
“I wanted to tell you something.” Again, total honesty. She’d thought about what she wanted to say and how to say it in earnest for the last two weeks.
“Tell me what?”
The words were there, right on the tip of her tongue, but when she’d practiced them over a hundred times now, he hadn’t been two feet away from her, staring at her with those intense eyes or smelling like…cinnamon. That wasn’t the most enticing scent, and yet, it was drawing her in as if she were a fish caught on a line.
“That I want you.”
And that did not sound as sexy and romantic as it had in her mind. Nope, going by the way he was staring at her with complete confusion etched across his very handsome face, it sounded just as odd and slightly off-her-rocker, as she’d thought. Damn.
The comlink he wore on his left wrist lit up and buzzed, the action pulling his attention away from her as he looked down and pressed one of the many buttons on the side of the device. Every member of the STT and the Assembly leadership wore comlinks. Shya wore a leather bracelet her mother had given her for her sixteenth birthday with the Topétenia insignia on it because they were too afraid giving her the tribal tattoo might cause some sort of reaction in her already compromised body. The sickness she’d been cursed…or rather, born with, was like the unwanted gift that just kept on giving.
“My shift is over and you should leave.” His tone was curt and cool and he didn’t look at her this time.
She took a step away from the bed. “I’ll walk with you back to your room.”
One word. One brutally different tone. One sharp prick to her chest.
Breathe in slowly. Breathe out slowly. Count to five.
Shya walked around the bed and headed to the door when her fingers touched the knob again, she turned to look at him over her shoulder. “We can walk and talk about what I want and what the FL just said. Or, I can go straight to the Assembly Leader and tell him that Cole’s been awake for some time and you haven’t told anybody.”
end of excerpt
A Cougar’s Kiss
by AC Arthur
is available in the following formats:
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