Home > Tiger Magic (Shifters Unbound #5)(6)

Tiger Magic (Shifters Unbound #5)(6)
Jennifer Ashley

“What about Tiger? I guess I don’t have to worry about this mating frenzy with him—he’s just been shot.”

“I don’t know.” Connor shook his head. “I can’t tell you lies, Carly. Tiger’s my friend, and I want to help him, but he’s dangerous. And tough. And not quite right in the head.” He touched his temple.

“He didn’t seem that scary to me. Although . . . see what a great judge of character I was about Ethan.” Carly heaved a sigh and walked on into her bedroom. “Be right back.”

She closed the door so she could shimmy out of the dress and into some comfortable shorts and a top. In her bathroom, she washed her face and hands, remembering that she’d expected to come home and cry and cry. Worry about poor Tiger had erased that need, but now that her immediate adrenaline rush had gone, she felt shaky and weak. And hungry.

“Want me to order some pizza?” she asked Connor as she walked out. “I’m starving. You can take one home with you. Least I can do.”

Connor had lounged back in her living room armchair and was flipping channels with the remote. “Oh, I’m not going home. When Tiger said, keep her safe, he meant twenty-four seven. Or at least until I take you back to Shiftertown.”


As Carly stared at him, Connor looked away and skimmed through more channels. “Hey, you’ve got the sports package. Sweet.”

Carly grabbed the remote from him and clicked off the TV. “Twenty-four seven?”

“Come on, lass. I don’t get these channels at home. Shifters aren’t allowed. Been forever since I saw a decent football match.”

“You’re to stay with me until I go back and visit Tiger? I said I would. Doesn’t he believe me?”

Connor let out a slow sigh. “He believes you. If you’d lied, he’d know—if you lie about anything, he’ll know. He wants you protected. He’s old-fashioned, is Tiger, but he’s not wrong. I got the job because, like I said, I’m a cub and right now the only Shifter he trusts with you.”

“He wants me protected from what? My mama raised me to take care of myself, and I made it to twenty-six without a bodyguard. Why do I suddenly need to be protected?”

“Because he’s Tiger. He gets a little . . . focused. Besides, he scent-marked you. While that technically means other males have to back off, there are enough as**ole Shifters out there who still might try to steal you, now that they know you’re friendly to Shifters.”

“Friendly to Shifters? I didn’t know any Shifters until today.”

Connor gave her a tight grin. “And you didn’t run away screaming. That puts you ahead of most human women, except the groupies. And they don’t necessarily want a Shifter for a mate—they’re just in it for the titillation.”

“There are Shifter groupies?”

“Sure. They come to the bar Liam manages, or to the dance clubs, wanting to be with Shifters. Men and women alike. Shifters are usually game for a little grope in the corner, so the groupies go away happy. But they don’t want to move in with us.”

“Does Tiger think I’m one of those?”

“Don’t think so. Tiger doesn’t understand the groupies. He’s not interested. Besides, most of them take one look at him and flee the other way.”

“Why?” Carly sank to the sofa, still holding the remote. “Tiger’s big, so I suppose that could scare people, but he was nice to me. I know he went crazy in that hospital room, but he had three guys pointing guns at him after they’d chained him to the bed. I’d go crazy too.”

“He’s . . .” Connor moved his hands as though trying to find the right words. “He’s different from other Shifters. More . . . intense.”

“Since I don’t know much about Shifters at all, how am I supposed to tell?”

“People did bad things to him before he came to live with us. I can’t tell you about them until Liam says it’s okay, but trust me—bad things.”

Carly thought about the pain she’d seen in his eyes, wells of it that went deep. More pain than what he’d suffered today, much more. “Poor guy.”

“Huh. That poor guy is strong as a truck, lass. Tell you what, let me hang out and watch a match or three, and when you’re ready to go to Shiftertown, I’ll take you. I’m not in a hurry, give it a day, a week. As long as Tiger thinks I’m looking after you, he’ll be cool.”

“You’d stay with me for a week, would you?” Carly asked, standing up again. “Watching my television and eating my pizza? Don’t you have school or something? Or a job?”

Connor shrugged. “It’s summer break. My final year starts in mid-August, then I grad-ee-ate. I help out in the bar between semesters if Liam needs me, and when I want some cash, but he’s good for now.” Connor leaned back, crossed his booted feet, and held out his hand to her for the remote. “Plenty of time for me to be catching up on sports action.”

Carly sighed and slapped the remote into his open palm. “Well, you might be able to turn into a snarling beast, but in my world, you’re still a guy.”

“Thank you.” Connor clicked the TV on. “Oh, righteous.” He punched the air as the soccer players on the screen did something Carly couldn’t follow.

“Want a beer?” Carly asked him, an ironic note in her voice.

“Sure, if you’ve got one. I like a good Guinness, but I’m not picky. Nothing too watery, love. Go, go, go! Aw, you bastard.”

He yelled at the television, and Carly ducked back into the kitchen to see what beer she had in the fridge, if any. She needed to go grocery shopping—she hadn’t stocked up, because she’d thought she’d be moving out.

Everything was reminding Carly of Ethan and his infidelity. What a frigging mess. She’d have to give him back the giant diamond ring she didn’t wear because she was terrified of losing it. She’d have to tell her family and all her friends that the wedding was off before it was even planned. She’d sent out invitations to a big party at Ethan’s for next Saturday, to celebrate the engagement. Well, Ethan could call off that party himself. His own stupid fault.

The why of it kept screaming through her head. If Ethan had asked Carly to move in with him, if he’d given her a rock worth who knew how much, if they’d arranged a party to show off what a brilliant couple they were, why had he been screwing another woman on his kitchen counter?

Why were men so fu**ing stupid?

Carly popped the top off the bottle of beer she’d brought out for Connor and threw the cap into the sink with extra force. She took a gulp of beer before she realized it. Never mind. The cold, fizzing fullness of it tasted good.

She needed to call Armand and explain what had happened, but she put it off some more. Armand could bluster, even though he might be sympathetic. He had a temper and could go on and on, even when he wasn’t mad at Carly.

Carly heaved another long sigh and upended the beer bottle again. Then she looked at it. “Damn it, this was supposed to be for Connor.”

She turned back to the refrigerator to fetch another when the opaque square window of her kitchen door darkened, and someone knocked politely.

As Carly went to answer the door, she saw out the window that a black SUV had pulled up in front of her house, its windows so tinted she couldn’t see inside.

She opened the door, beer in hand. Two men stood there, a smaller man in a suit nearly hidden behind a tall guy in black fatigues, the head soldier who’d been in Tiger’s room. She remembered his light blue eyes, his shaved head with pale-colored stubble, his hard face.

“Carly Randal?” the soldier asked.

“He’s not here,” she said, still holding the door. “He went home.”

The soldier gave her a careful look. “Who?”

“Tiger. The injured man you tried to shoot. He went home like a good boy. What do you want?”

The suited man looked around the soldier. “To speak with you, Ms. Randal.” He sounded nervous, not smooth as someone who’d arrived in a sleek SUV should sound. “About Shifters.”

“Why? There are plenty in Shiftertown.” For some reason, Carly did not want these men in here, did not want them to find Connor in her living room. In spite of Connor being taller than she was, and strong—she’d felt his strength when she’d held on to him during the ride home—Carly sensed that here in her house, Connor was vulnerable.

Would she have thought that if he hadn’t explained that he was a cub? She didn’t know. All Carly did know was that she did not want this trigger-happy soldier to start pointing guns at Connor.

“Please, Ms. Randal,” the suit said. “It’s important.”

“Let us in, Ms. Randal,” the soldier said, his blue eyes hard. “We have a warrant.”

Carly’s knowledge of police procedure came mostly from television, but she thought that a warrant meant they could come in and search her place legally, whether she liked it or not. But search for what?

Worth it to battle it out in court? Or let these guys in, try to keep them in the kitchen, and see what they wanted?

If Ethan had anything to do with this, she’d . . .

Damn him, she should have told Sean to shove the Corvette off a cliff.

Carly let out an annoyed sigh, opened the door, and gestured with the beer bottle. “Can I get you anything? Probably not alcohol, huh? Coffee? If I can find my coffeemaker. I packed it already.”

“No thank you,” the suited man said. “Is anyone here but you?”

“Not really your business,” Carly said.

Soldier was around her and through the kitchen door before she could stop him. Carly put the beer on the counter and hurried after him, but when she reached the living room, it was empty. The television still blared but was tuned to a cooking show, the running soccer players replaced by cooks madly chopping and sautéing to beat a deadline. Connor was nowhere in sight.

Soldier walked from the living room down the hall to the bedrooms. Carly called after him, “Hey, do you mind?” She’d left her dress and underwear on her bedroom floor. How embarrassing.

The soldier returned after a cursory glance at the rooms in the back. Suit had followed Carly into the living room, and now he sat down on the sofa and unsnapped a briefcase. Soldier took up a stance at the end of the couch. Carly picked up the remote and clicked off the television, but remained standing, one hand on her hip, the other holding the remote.

“So, what do y’all want?”

“Your help, Ms. Randal,” the suit said. “I want you to tell me what you know about Shifters.”

Carly blinked, transferring her gaze to the soldier, who remained on his feet. A black-butted pistol peeked from a holster at his hip.

“I don’t know anything about Shifters,” Carly answered the suit. She pointed at the soldier. “This guy was aiming at him. I bet he knows more than I do.”

The suit smiled. He wasn’t cold and slick, like so many businessmen in suits—Ethan’s friends, for example. He had soft eyes, hands that had never seen a manicure, hair growing out of a once-good cut.

“Would you like to know more about them?” Suit asked. “Perhaps for pay? What I’m trying to do, Ms. Randal—awkwardly—is offer you a job.”

“I already have a job.” Well, maybe. “What did you have in mind?”

“I want you to find out about Shifters. Talk to them, interact with them, see what makes them tick. And then you and I sit down and talk about it.”

“You mean spy on them?” Carly thought about Tiger, all shot up because of Ethan, Connor so young but promising to protect her, Liam and Sean—the hottie Irish brothers—trying to keep Tiger under control, Sean and Connor convincing her to come to the hospital with them, to see if she could help. “Seems kind of underhanded. What are you? CIA? FBI?”

The man in the suit chuckled. “No, I’m an anthropology professor. My name is Brennan, Lee Brennan. Here’s my card.” He plucked a pale rectangle from his briefcase and held it out to her. Sure enough, the card said he was Lee Brennan, PhD, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin.

“Why does an anthropology professor need a bodyguard?” she asked him.

Carly tried to hand the card back to Brennan, but he shook his head. “Keep it. My number and e-mail are there, along with the website for my project. Walker isn’t my bodyguard. He’s my friend, or at least, a former student. He keeps an eye out for good case studies for me and called me today after you left the hospital.”

Carly sank to the edge of a chair, still holding the card and the remote. “And you thought I’d be a good case study?”

“Not you. The man they had to chain to the hospital bed. What was his name?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been calling him Tiger, because I guess he’s a tiger.”

“And that is very unusual. The Feline types of Shifter tend more to lion, leopard, even jaguar. Tiger is rare. I don’t think we’ve even seen a tiger in the Texas Shiftertowns.”

“So you want me to make friends with him and then tell you all about him?” Carly asked. “That still seems pretty underhanded.”

“Be as honest with him as you want. The Shifters have heard of me and know about my project. I am interested in this tiger, and would love to view him and Shiftertown through a fresh pair of eyes. You’d be helping me out and earning a little money at the same time.”

“How much money, exactly?”

Brennan chuckled again. “That depends on my funding, and I’m always underfunded. But I do have money budgeted for a research assistant. If I use you as an outside consultant, you won’t have to enroll in the university, though there will be paperwork to sign before I can get you paid. There’s always paperwork. Everyone talks about the paperless society, but there’s no way a giant bureaucracy will ever achieve it. There’s always some form that has to be hand-signed, electronic signatures not accepted.”

Carly turned his card around in her fingers. “Can I think about it?”

Brennan creeped her out a little bit, no matter that he seemed friendly and legit. Maybe because he’d showed up out of the blue, at her house, knowing exactly where she lived, when she’d never met him before. Why hadn’t he called her, e-mailed her, approached her at the hospital? And who was this Walker guy, really?

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