As the first lioness-shifter to become a Hound for Shifter Town Enforcement, Sawyer Reyes often finds herself undercover in various prides. But when she stumbles across a 13-year-old girl with a death sentence she does the only thing she can think of: she takes the girl and runs, straight to the girl’s father.
Rift Callahan is a rogue lion in hiding; he’s spent the last thirteen years evading the pride males Sawyer has brought in on her tail. Not about to turn his back on his daughter, Rift isn’t about to let the sexy lioness go either, even if he feels she’s keeping secrets.
Now, with four pride males hunting them, it’s up to Sawyer to find a way to keep them all safe–even if it means walking away from the one man she’s come to love and the girl she’s come to think of as her own.
Genre: Paranormal Romantic Suspense || Length: Novel
The lion cub snoozing in the back seat of Sawyer Reyes’s Honda didn’t look like she was going to wake up any time soon. Sawyer watched the girl in the rearview mirror, her hands tapping the steering wheel as she made up her mind.
Part of her longed to flip open her phone and call her boss, but Roy Beckett wasn’t the kind of man to give a damn, and no matter how much she wished the opposite, witness protection wouldn’t take a lion-shifter out of her pride.
Even if Sawyer told him the pride males were abusive bastards. Ones who’d been five minutes away from slaughtering an innocent, thirteen-year-old girl.
But her boss was a ridgeback through and through, with all the predictable biases.
And, like the vast majority of Hounds she’d met since she began working for Shifter Town Enforcement two years ago, he didn’t really care if a few lions ended up dead. The Hounds working under him and the non-shifter human population were the only things Beckett cared about. The only reason he’d allowed her in his pack in the first place was to stop a lion serial killer, and while Sawyer had been on the verge of requesting a transfer back home a thousand times, she hadn’t been able to bring herself to leave.
Especially not once she’d seen the battered local pride females. She’d already been pretty sure there was something bad going on in Cane Creek, and after four months of wheedling, she’d gotten Beckett to agree to put her under cover. Not because he cared, but because he’d wanted to shut her up.
And she’d been right.
She scanned the cub’s face again. It was apparently more comfortable to sleep in the cramped car in cub-form rather than human. Kinsey’s tawny muzzle was pressed against the window, one large paw braced against the glass, body relaxed in deep sleep. Sawyer had been there when Kinsey’s mother, Jenna Slade, learned that the pride males had found out about her daughter. Jenna’s raw terror had flashed over her battered face, followed by the helpless knowledge that there was nothing she could do to protect her daughter from four vicious pride males.
Sawyer hadn’t believed that for a minute and when it became clear that the other lioness wasn’t going to do anything to save her own daughter, she’d taken Kinsey herself and ran. It wasn’t until after she’d started running that the fear had caught up to her. Fear and panic. She’d kidnapped from a pride and the girl’s mother. Shifter Town Enforcement could lock her up and throw away the key for quite a long time. That was, of course, if they caught her before the Cane Creek males did.
If Dougal and his gang caught her first, it wouldn’t be a silver barred prison cell she got, but a hole in the ground.
She’d been thinking on her feet for over forty-eight hours now and she still hadn’t figured out what to do. She could call her old boss, but from several states away, there wasn’t anything Lennox Donnelly could do to help her. “Damn it,” Sawyer whispered and leaned her head against the steering wheel.
She had one option. The same option she’d had every other time she’d hemmed and hawed about what to do. Five minutes alone in the car wouldn’t kill Kinsey—hopefully.
But it might just save them both.
With a shaky breath, Sawyer turned the engine off and slid out into the steamy southern Texas night. She hit the lock button on the little Honda’s keypad and headed towards the front door. Looking back one last time to make sure Kinsey was still snoozing, she walked into the bar.
Smoke swirled in a haze and a few heads popped up, glancing towards the door as she slid inside. Her inner lioness tensed, sifting through the scents automatically, searching. Jenna Slade’s private detective hadn’t been able to find much on Rift Callahan, except that the lion had visited this bar twice in the past few months. Other than that, the rogue was a ghost.
Understandable, since any lion-shifter not registered with a pride had to undergo random house-checks. Most eventually chose to simply slip off the radar, going into hiding to avoid the Hounds.
Sawyer breathed past the smoke and alcohol, her eyes scanning the dimly lit bar. She didn’t have to look long. Rift Callahan was not the kind of man one missed, even on a cursory glance. He was sprawled out over a booth in the back of the bar, a beer in one hand, the other idly tapping the table as he watched her. Dark, whiskey-brown eyes as rich with heat as the Texas night she’d left outside. She swallowed. Shit. The PI’s pictures had made him seem smaller.
The Callahan sitting in Dave’s Cavern was anything but small. Then again, most lions weren’t. Forcing herself to breathe, Sawyer headed straight for him. He stiffened, dark honey skin going taut as he waited. An unregistered rogue in hiding wouldn’t want to be caught, but no one ever thought she, of all people, was a Hound in hiding.
He’d wait, because there was no way a lioness would out one of her own kind to the dogs. At least, that’s what everyone thought. Sawyer had done more than her share of outing crooks over the past two years.
Callahan lifted his beer to his mouth, jet-black bangs falling away from his forehead as he took a drink. That dark hair hung low and loose, framing a sun-bronzed jaw and a crooked nose that had been broken more than once. His face was all harsh angles, with a jagged scar above his right eyebrow. A man used to fighting. Sawyer had had her share of brawls, but she was sure she didn’t have quite the rough edge appeal to her that Callahan had.
“Rift Callahan?” She pitched her voice low, not wanting to draw attention, but she saw the instant flash in his eyes. Like lightning, violence crackled just under his skin, and his gaze darted out around the bar. “I just want to talk. Five minutes, please.”
That intense gaze rounded on her once more. “And who are you?”
His voice was rough and husky on the edges. The kind of voice that could draw shivers down Sawyer’s spine. The kind of voice she’d fallen head over tail for every time since she’d been sixteen. She slid into the booth across from him, ignoring the way his eyebrows arched, still waiting for an answer.
“Never heard of you. How’d you hear about me?” The words had a soft drawl to them that made Sawyer think of a lot less vital things than getting Kinsey away from this bar alive. Something she really needed to focus on. She’d been in here almost three minutes. Three minutes with Kinsey sitting alone in her car. She needed to get the hell out of here.
She opened her mouth to try and explain, wishing she’d thought to grab the PI files out of the car, when the bar door swung open. Sawyer glanced at the entrance and froze, recognizing the pair of men who stepped inside.
“I need you to come with me,” she whispered, fighting the flare of panic in her breast as she watched two of the four Cane Creek males start to search the bar. She’d parked her Honda out back, which hopefully meant Kinsey was still safe, but she couldn’t afford to stay here. If they spotted her or found Kinsey… She twisted her head back to look at Rift. “Please.”
That one word held a world of emotion: panic, terror, desperation. Then his gaze traveled towards the front of the bar and Rift knew why. Well fuck. All the years and trouble had caught up with him again.
There stood two out of the four Cane Creek pride males who would probably do anything to see him dead.
After all, you didn’t screw with pride females and not expect to get swatted. Especially not when one of his one-nighters had been Dougal Slade’s wife. And the second had been the bastard’s sister, who had died in a car crash when Rift was driving her home, a crash he’d walked away from unscathed.
Rift winced. What the hell had this woman brought with her?
Trouble, obviously. But how much of it, exactly, Rift needed to know. Right now.
Damn woman. He should have sent her packing the moment she’d muttered his name.
Rift slid his gaze to the lioness now sliding to a stand beside him. “You with them?”
“But they’re after you.” That one wasn’t a question, but she nodded.
Rift let out a soft growl as he glanced back at the two men now making their way through the bar. Sooner or later, one of them was bound to spot him. And while they might be pissed at this slip of a woman—fuck, but she was tiny for a lioness—Rift was pretty certain he ranked a lot higher on their ‘would love to get their hands on’ list.
His eyes met hers. “I better not regret this.”
She didn’t say anything to that, just ducked towards the back door as Rift followed. He heard one of the men shout, but he swung the door shut behind him, hoping like hell he wasn’t in for a fight. He was good, but he’d rather not take on two pride males without backup. And the tiny little thing scurrying in front of him wouldn’t be much help, even if she had the spine to try.
Judging by the way she was quaking, he doubted she did.
The little tan Honda was already running, and he found the passenger door unlocked, sliding in just as Sawyer fish tailed it out of the lot. The car jerked and jumped over the dirt road, and Rift watched as the trio of lions burst from the bar’s back door and tried to chase them down, fur rippling out like water over their skin and clothes. But even a lion couldn’t keep pace with a car. Not even pride males.
Rift settled back in his seat, not for a second believing they’d given up just like that. He nodded at the road. “A quarter mile up is a dirt two-track through the woods. It’s not meant for anything other than four-wheelers, but this car is small enough to take it.”
“What they’re driving won’t fit.”
He watched the muscles in Sawyer’s jaw work. Then finally, “How do you know what they drive?”
“They like their cars big. Big enough to take them off-roading if they have to hunt someone down. That, and three lion males won’t fit in something this small. I’m impressed I do.” Not that it was a comfortable fit. His knees knocked the dash, and he had to scoot the seat back to breathe. He’d have preferred his bike. At least that way the cramped riding would have meant he could enjoy having her plastered up against him while they made a run for it.
She was tiny, but a pretty little thing.
“Which also means,” he continued, “that the path will be too tight a squeeze for them.”
He pointed when the track came into view, glancing in the rear view to see if the Cane Creek males were in sight yet. Nothing. “Slow down and take it without making a trail if you can.”
Sawyer muttered a curse but did it, jerking the car only slightly when she bounced it into the ditch and up onto the trail. Something thumped the back of his chair and Rift jerked at the startled snarl, only to see a pale lioness in the back seat morph into a blue haired, furious teenager back seat.
“Jesus, Sawyer can’t you…” She froze when her gaze landed on Rift.
Her eyes cut to the driver’s seat just to make sure Sawyer was still there, and Rift watched the girl tuck herself back into the seat, dragging the seat belt across her small frame.
“You found him,” she said, without a hint of startled teenage fury. Now it was something he couldn’t quite identify, but it definitely was not happy.
Hell. A kid? “You have a kid?”
“No.” Sawyer said, her hands clenching the steering wheel. “You do.”
His gaze raked down Sawyer. Yeah, definitely would have remembered tapping that.
“She’s not mine. Just yours.”
He couldn’t stop the growl that ripped through him, but before he could put a fist through the dash, Sawyer skidded around a tree and bounced down the two-track hill. The poor car rattled and jerked over the poorly kept road. It made his ass sore every time he rode it on his Harley, but this car handled it about as well as an elephant running steeplechase.
Rift forced out a slow breath. “Wanna run that by me again? Last I checked it took two to tango, sweetheart.”
“My mom’s Jenna Slade. You fucked her, she had me.”
Rift cut the kid a glare but the girl didn’t flinch an inch. Shit. If she was Jenna’s kid, she had the same infuriating spunk. And he was in a whole new world of hurt.
“Kinsey.” Sawyer’s soft rebuke was enough. Kinsey flopped back in her seat, her arms locked across her chest.
Damn. Damn. Damn. She looked, what, thirteen? It’d been roughly that and some change since he’d been hanging around Texas. Fear hung in his throat like a rock. He swallowed.
Sawyer never took her eyes off the road. “There’s a file in the glove box. It’s the PI’s file.”
“You hired a—”
“Jenna hired a private investigator.”
“And you would know this how?”
“Because,” Sawyer started, then paused, seeming briefly unsure of herself, “I’m a friend of Jenna’s.”
He’d bet there was more to it than that, but Rift wasn’t really sure he cared. He glanced back at the girl huddled in the back seat. She had her iPod in her hands, earphones tucked in her ears, as she glared out the window. Fuck.
“Look,” Sawyer started, wincing as the car bounced out of the two-track and onto another country road. She swerved in front of the semi barreling down at them, muttering a string of curses, but the tires caught on the pavement and jerked safely into the other lane. She swallowed. “Right way?”
“Yup. You’ll wanna take the next drive up on the right,” Rift said as he dug out the file.
“As I was saying, take a good look at that girl in the back seat and you’d have to be blind not to see she’s yours.”
He watched Sawyer’s gaze slide towards the rearview mirror, no doubt checking to see if Kinsey was listening, and had to bite back a smile.
“I used a condom,” he told Sawyer as he shook the pictures of him at Dave’s Cavern out into his lap.
“Yeah, well. It didn’t work.” Sawyer tilted her head towards the file. “If you look at the initial documentation there, you’ll see that Jenna started that search four years ago. Yep, on the bottom.”
“Watch the road,” Rift muttered, but he tugged the paper out and gave it a quick glance. Four years to find him. Damn. He shouldn’t have gotten lazy.
“So why’d you steal the kid?” He doubted they were friends. Sawyer didn’t really seem like Jenna’s type. Her jeans were worn, her t-shirt baggy. Hell, her nails weren’t even done. He glanced toward the back seat, but didn’t really need to, since he could hear the blare of music coming from her ear phones. God-awful sounding shit, too. Good music had died a decade ago.
“I didn’t steal her. I told you—”
“Bullshit. Try again.”
“Fine. I took her. But I did it because Jolyn and Talia came running in, screaming that the pride males were on their way to kill Kinsey. That Dougal had found out that Jenna’d had a kid by someone outside of the pride.”
“Did you know?”
“That she wasn’t his? Not for sure, but I suspected. Kinsey lived in a house outside of the pride with a nanny, went to a public school. Nothing like any of Dougal’s other kids. But I didn’t have proof, and I knew better than to say anything. I figured it was one of the other males. They’d had a night with Dougal’s wife and had a little oops.”
Rift couldn’t help but smile. A little oops, his ass.
“How’d you find out about her if Jenna kept her away from the pride?”
That muscle in her jaw twitched again. Oh, so there was a nerve there. “Jenna and I weren’t buddy-buddies, but I helped her one time after Dougal got a bit rough.” She glanced at him and shrugged. “She trusted me after that.”
He’d known Dougal was a mean son of a bitch, but the look in Sawyer’s eyes told him ‘a bit rough’ didn’t even begin to cover it.
“So why’d you take her?”
A bitter smile curved her lips. “Jenna was just going to bluff it out. She knows what those bastards are capable of, but she was just going to hope for the best. She pulled out her files on you and grabbed a match. But there was just no way Dougal was going to buy it. He’s mean, but he’s not stupid.”
Sawyer was right, and one look at Kinsey was all it took to see she was the spitting image of her mother, and him. There was no denying her parentage. Rift winced. Dougal wouldn’t have believed it at all, especially if he’d found those files. Besides, Rift had been on Dougal’s hit list for a long time. He would leap at the chance to kill him. Slowly. Painfully.
If he’d thought he could hurt Rift by taking his kid…
“They would have killed her,” Sawyer said, her voice nothing more than a whisper in the car, and suddenly Rift found himself fighting not to touch her. He fisted his hands against his thighs and shifted in his seat to see the girl still staring out the window. Her music had softened, no doubt enough to let her eavesdrop, and he smiled. She had her mother’s soft, wavy hair. Of course, she’d dyed it. Lions didn’t have a blue-green-highlight-and-dye combo as their natural colors. The sharp edge of her nose, though, reminded him a lot of himself.
“She’s got your nose,” Sawyer said. “And your eyes. Once I got a good look at your picture, I could see why Jenna was so sure.”
“Condom,” he reminded Sawyer, and right on cue, Kinsey rolled her eyes. Oh, yeah. She was her mother’s daughter.
From the back seat came, “Those things aren’t a hundred percent safe, you know. If you don’t want bastard offspring, you should keep it in your pants.”
“Kinsey,” Sawyer said. Rift grinned.
The kid’s finger circled the dial on her iPod and her music blared back to life. Rift shifted in his seat to turn his attention back to the woman driving. All long legs, and, now that he was looking, thin, wiry muscle. She was also hard as heck to get a read on, and she was definitely holding something back.
He had the sudden urge to run his hand down Sawyer’s thigh just to see how the lioness would react. He wouldn’t, especially not with a kid in the car, but hell. Tempting. His tongue made a fast swipe on his lips, then Sawyer jerked the car to the right and they bounced down another country road.
They had three miles to go before they arrived at his place. Long enough to ask a few more questions. To get things straight before he made up his mind. She’d taken a cub that wasn’t hers and run for it. Not a completely unsurprising action for a lioness, but then again, Sawyer wasn’t related to Jenna. Talia and Jolyn were, as sister and cousin. If anyone besides Jenna should have taken the girl and run, it should have been one of them.
He told her as much.
Sawyer stiffened. “Except they didn’t.”
Exactly. But it wasn’t like a lioness to go against her pride for a kid that wasn’t hers. Sure, human morals might kick in, but she was facing jail time with the Hounds if they found out what she’d done. Those were some pretty high cards stacked against her. Four pride males and STE on her trail, all because she wanted to do the right thing?
Rift leaned back in his seat. He wasn’t sure he trusted that, but it damn well made him curious.
He tilted his head towards the mailbox that appeared at the far end of the street. “Slow down. We’ll make a pit stop here. Might as well get some supplies if we’re gonna be running.” He glanced at her. “You do have a plan, don’t you?”
Rift wasn’t at all surprised when she bared her teeth at him, a flash of annoyance darting through her eyes. He chuckled, a teasing grin on his face. “Or not. Maybe plans are overrated after all.”
That drew a laugh from her. “My plan was to get her to you. She’s yours, you have a claim to her.”
“Rarely.” Chances were, if Dougal got Jenna to say she wanted Kinsey back, there wasn’t a court around that would keep her from them. A mother, a ‘stable’ pride—that definitely looked like a better prospect than an unregistered rogue in hiding.
“Yeah, well, that’s as far as I’ve gotten until now. Give me time.” She jerked the car to a stop and glared at him. “Get a bag. Unless all you wanted was a ride home, but if they follow me this far, chances are they’ll find you here.”
“Oh, honey, I already planned on tagging along.” He winked at her and slid out of the car, stalking towards his the run-down mobile house he’d been calling home lately. He needed to find a new place to lay low. With a daughter. That knowledge hit him in the gut, and he hesitated at the door, looking back towards the car.
A daughter and a lioness he knew nothing about.