Home > Tiger Magic (Shifters Unbound #5)

Tiger Magic (Shifters Unbound #5)
Jennifer Ashley

CHAPTER ONE

“No, no, no, no, not today. You can’t do this to me today!”

But the car died anyway. It throbbed onto the shoulder of the empty highway, bucked twice, and gurgled to silence.

“Aw, damn it.” Carly’s four-inch heels landed on the pavement, followed by tanned legs and a tight, white sheath dress. She glared down at the car, the Texas wind tugging her light brown hair out of its careful French braid.

She would have to be wearing white. Carly jammed her hands on her h*ps and skewered the Corvette with her enraged stare.

Take the ’Vette, her fiancé, Ethan, had said. It’s a big day. You want to make an entrance. She’d been in a hurry to get on her way out of the city to the gallery where she worked, so Ethan had pressed the keys into her hand and pushed her out the door.

Carly had agreed with him—the artist they were showcasing liked classic cars, and he was doing an exclusive with her boss’s gallery in the little town northeast of Austin. Buyers were already lined up. Carly’s commission could be enormous.

If she could get there. Carly kicked one of the tires in rage, then danced back. Her shoes were substantial but that still hurt.

Perfect. Ethan could be generous—and he had the filthy richness to do it—but he also forgot little details like making sure cars got tuned up.

“His lazy highness can just come and get me, then.” Carly went around to the passenger side of the car and leaned in through the open window to grab her cell phone from her purse.

Today. This had to happen today. Still bent into the car, she punched numbers with her thumb, but the phone made the beeping noise that indicated it was out of range.

“No effing way.” Carly backed out of the car and raised the phone high. “Come on. Find me a signal.”

And then she saw him.

The man stood about ten feet from the car, not on the road but in the tall Texas grass beside it. That grass was dotted with blue, yellow, and white flowers, and this being summer, the grass was also a nice vivid green.

It wasn’t every day a girl saw a tall hunk of a man, shoulders broad under a black and red SoCo Novelties T-shirt standing by the side of the road. Watching her.

Really watching her. His eyes were fixed on Carly, not in the dazed way of a transient wandering around in an alcoholic haze, but looking at her as no human being had looked at her before.

He wasn’t scruffy like a transient either. His face was shaved, his body and clothes clean, jeans mud free despite his having walked through the field. And he must have walked through the field, because she sure hadn’t seen him on the road.

His hair . . . Carly blinked as the strong sunshine caressed sleek hair that was orange and black. Not dyed orange and black—dye tended to make hair matte and stark. This looked entirely natural, sunlight picking up highlights of red orange and blue black.

She knew she should be afraid. A strange guy with tiger-striped hair popping out of nowhere, staring at her like he did should terrify her. But he didn’t.

He hadn’t been there when Carly had first stopped the car and climbed out. He must have arrived when she’d bent over to get the phone, which meant he’d seen every bit of her round backside hugged by her skintight white dress.

This stretch of road was deserted. Eerily so. The streets in Austin were always packed, but once outside the city, it was possible to find long stretches of highway empty of traffic, such as the one Carly drove down to get to the art gallery every day.

There was no one out here, no one speeding along the straight road to rescue her. No one but herself in now-rumpled white and the tall man staring at her from the grass.

“Hey!” Carly shouted at him. “You know how to fix a car?”

* * *

He didn’t have a name. He didn’t have a clan. He’d had a mate, and a cub, but they’d died, and the humans who’d held him captive for forty years had taken them away. They hadn’t let him say good-bye, hadn’t let him grieve.

Now he lived among other Shifters, brought to this place of humidity, heat, and colorful hills. He only felt completely well when he was running in his tiger form, way out in the backcountry where no one would see him. He usually ran at night, but today, he hadn’t been able to stay in the confines of the house, or Shiftertown. So he’d gone.

He’d left his clothes hidden behind a little rise at the side of this road. Connor was supposed to pick him up, but not for a couple more hours, and Connor was often late. Tiger didn’t mind. He liked being out here.

He’d dressed, walked around the rise to the road . . . and saw a fine backside sticking out of a bright red car. The backside was covered in thin white fabric, showing him faintly pink panties beneath.

Below the nice buttocks were shapely legs, not too long, tanned by Texas sun. Shoes that rose about half a mile made those legs even shapelier.

The woman had hair the color of winter-gold grass. She had a cell phone in one hand, but she waited, the other hand on her shapely hip, for him to answer her question.

Tiger climbed the slope from the grass to the road. She watched him come, unafraid, her sunglasses trained on him.

Tiger wanted to see her eyes. If she was going to be his mate, he wanted to see everything about her.

And this woman would be his mate. No doubt about that. The scent that kicked into his nostrils, the way his heartbeat slowed to powerful strokes, the way his body filled with heat told him that.

Connor had tried to explain that mating didn’t happen like that for Shifters. A Shifter male got to know a female a little bit before he chose, and then he mate-claimed her. The mate bond could rear its head anytime before or after that, but it didn’t always on first glance.

Tiger had listened to this wisdom without arguing, but he knew better. He wasn’t an ordinary Shifter. And this female, hand on one curved hip, wasn’t an ordinary woman.

“Can you put the hood up?” Tiger asked her.

“I don’t know,” she said, frustrated. “This car is different from anything I usually drive. Hang on, let me check.”

Her voice was a sweet little Texas drawl, not too heavy. A light touch, enough to make warmth crawl through Tiger’s veins and go straight to his cock.

The woman found a catch and worked the hood open, then dusted off her hands and peered at the inner workings without comprehension. “Classic car, my ass.” She scowled at it. “Classic just means old.”

Tiger looked inside. The layout was much different from the pickup he and Connor had been tinkering with all spring, but Connor had been teaching Tiger a lot about vehicles. “Got a socket wrench?”

When he looked up at the woman, he saw her staring at him from behind the sunglasses. “Your eyes,” she said. “They’re . . .”

“Yellow.”

Tiger turned away before her scent convinced him to press her back against the side of the car and hold her to him. She wasn’t a female someone had tossed into his cage to trigger his mating frenzy. This was his mate, and he didn’t want to hurt her.

He wanted to take this slow, woo her a little. Maybe with something involving food. Shifter males around here liked to cook for their mates, and Tiger liked the rituals.

She opened the back of the car and found a toolbox, which did have a set of socket wrenches. Tiger took one and reached inside the car, looking for the silence within himself that would lead him to the problem. He seemed to be able to sense what was wrong with engines, and how to coax them back to life. He couldn’t explain how he did it—he only knew that cars and trucks didn’t watch him, or fear him, and he could see what was wrong when others couldn’t.

As he worked, the neckline of his T-shirt slid down, baring the silver and black Collar that ran around his throat. The woman bent over to him, the top of her dress dangerously open, the warmth of her touching his cheek.

“Holy shit,” she said. “You’re a Shifter.”

“Yes.”

She lifted her sunglasses and stared at him. Her eyes were clear green, flecked with a little gray. She stared at him frankly, in open curiosity, and without fear.

Of course she wasn’t afraid of him. She was going to be his mate.

Tiger met her gaze, unblinking. Her eyes widened the slightest bit, as though she realized something had happened between them, but she didn’t know what.

She restored her sunglasses and straightened up. “I’ve never seen a Shifter before. I didn’t know any of y’all were allowed out of Shiftertown.”

Tiger picked up the wrench with one hand and moved the other to the timing belt chain, which had come loose from the gear. “We’re allowed.”

The repair needed both delicacy and strength but Tiger finished quickly, leaning all the way inside and letting his fingers know what to do. He backed out and closed the toolbox. “Start it now.”

The woman eagerly rushed to the car, slid inside, and cranked it to life. She emerged again, leaving the car running, while Tiger scanned a few more things. “The timing belt will hold for now, but the whole shaft is worn and could break. Take the car home and don’t use it again until it’s fixed.”

“Terrific. Armand is going to kill me.”

Tiger didn’t know who Armand was and didn’t much care. He carried the toolbox to the back for her and closed the small trunk, then returned to close the hood.

He found her smiling at him on the other side of the hood as it came down. “You’re kind of amazing, you know that?” she asked. “So what were you doing out in that field? Were you running around as a . . . Let me guess. Tiger?”

He let his lips twitch. “What gave it away?”

“Very funny. I’ve never met a man with striped hair and yellow eyes. Call it a clue. Anyway, you’re a lifesaver. I’m Carly, by the way.” She stuck out her hand, then pulled it back from his now-greasy one. “Hang on. I think there’re some wipes in here.”

Carly leaned in through the passenger window again. Tiger stood still and enjoyed watching her, and when she straightened, she knew he’d been looking. “Like what you see?” she asked, her voice holding challenge.

Tiger saw no reason to lie. “Yes,” he said.

“You sweet-talker.” Carly pulled out two damp wipes for him.

Tiger took them and wiped off his hands. Wet wipes were familiar, at least. Whenever he’d been working on the truck, Connor’s aunt always made him clean up with them before she’d let him back into the house.

“You need a ride into Austin?” Carly asked. “It’s still thirty miles from here to the gallery, so I’d better take this car back to Ethan’s and not risk it. Ethan loves this car. Like I said, Armand’s going to kill me, but I’m so late now, it’s not going to matter.”

“Yes.”

Carly sent him a wide smile. “Yes, you want a ride? Or are you just being polite while I ramble?”

“The ride.” He could call Connor with the cell phone they made him carry when he got back to town. He couldn’t miss this opportunity to get to know his mate.

“Man of few words. I like it. Ethan, my fiancé, can talk on and on and on about his family, his business, his day, his life—Ethan. His favorite topic.”

Tiger stopped. “Fiancé.”

“Do Shifters have fiancés? It’s what humans call the man they’re going to marry.”

Tiger wadded up the now-dirty wipes in his big hands. “I didn’t know you’d have a fiancé.”

Carly opened the door of the running car as though she hadn’t heard him. “Get in. Ethan’s house is on the river—it’s a ways from Shiftertown, but I can always get you a taxi, or one of Ethan’s many lackeys can run you home.”

“Why are you marrying him?”

Carly shrugged. “Girl’s got to marry someone, mostly so her older sister stops mentioning it every five minutes. Ethan’s a good catch. Besides, I’m in love with him.”

No, she wasn’t. The slight motion in her throat, the scent of nervousness as she replied gave away the lie. She didn’t love him. Tiger felt something like triumph.

He got into the car as Carly slid into the driver’s seat inches away from him. Her fingers ran over the steering wheel as she made a competent U-turn on the still-empty road, and she drove, somewhat slowly, back toward Austin.

Carly tried to talk to him. She liked to chatter, this female. Tiger was fine with sitting back and listening to her, scenting her, watching her.

As they neared the city and the road started getting busier, Carly lifted her cell phone and called the man named Armand. She explained she’d be late, then held the phone from her ear while a male voice on the other end spoke loudly in an unfamiliar accent. Carly rolled her eyes at Tiger and smiled, unworried.

“Bark’s worse than his bite,” she said, clicking off the phone.

“I know some wolves like that.”

Carly laughed, her red mouth opening. Tiger leaned in closer to her, not hard to do in this coffin of a car, and brushed his scent onto her.

She glanced at him, again with the puzzlement of knowing something had happened but not sure what. “It’s dangerous for a woman to give strange men rides. I wonder why I’m not worried with you.”

Because you’re my mate. “Because I’d never hurt you.”

“Well, you can’t, can you? That’s why you wear the Collar. Keeps you tame. Shifters can’t be violent with it on.”

Tiger could. This Collar was fake. It didn’t have the technology or Fae magic that would send shocks through his system if he started to attack.

They’d tried to put a real Collar on him, and Tiger had nearly gone insane. They concluded that Tiger should wear a fake Collar—not that the humans realized it was fake—and proceed from there.

This Collar would not stop Tiger from scooping up Carly and running off with her if he wanted to. He could sequester her, mate with her, soothe his need for her until they both collapsed in exhaustion.

Or he could be kind and wait for her to get used to him.

Carly kept up the conversation all the way through midtown traffic and up the hill north of the river. She pulled into a drive that arced in front of an enormous house, the mansion white with black shutters and black trim. Carly parked the car and emerged, and Tiger got out with her.

Gates on either side of the house led to the backyard, and Carly opened one, beckoning Tiger to follow. Tiger got in front of her and went through the gate first, his Shifter instinct urging him to make sure the way was safe for her.

The backyard overlooked the river and the hills opposite it, where similar houses had a view of this one. A stair ran down the side of the hill to a private dock, where two boats bobbed.

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