I got off the SUV and stretched. My body hadn’t healed fully from the fight with the lion pride. The long drive back here hadn’t helped with the soreness either. There was only so much my accelerated shifter healing could do.
But all the pain was worth it. The look of relief and joy on Anna’s face when Dean and I had rescued her? Her smile upon returning home to our pride 10 minutes ago? I would gladly get bitten and scratched by those mane-bearing fuckers all over again to see Anna happy once more. To keep her and the other five females in our pride safe.
That was, once I had gotten some food in my system. Right now I could barely move my battered body towards the diner across the parking lot. So going on another rescue mission immediately was out of the question.
“Neck hurts like a bitch, doesn’t it?” Dean gave me a sympathetic look when I rubbed my neck with a wince.
That didn’t stop the prankster from patting me on the back of the neck as we walked side by side.
“Watch it!” I gave my best friend a shoulder punch. In the same shoulder I had put back in place after one of Anna’s kidnappers had dislocated it during the fight.
“Ouch! Not cool, Bas!” It was Dean’s turn to wince and rub the painful spot. The always cheerful jaguar still smiled afterwards.
As we walked slowly towards the Shifter Bar and Grill, I took a more careful look at Dean. He was limping a bit, his face was sporting a fading black eye, and his buzz cut couldn’t hide the half-healed claw mark on his forehead. Nothing that his shifter genes couldn’t heal in another hour or so. Yet, this was a reminder that Dean was better at joking than fighting.
We had to train more often, regardless of how busy with our jobs we were. Otherwise, the pride enforcers tasked with keeping their fellow cat shifters safe, would soon be in need of a rescue themselves.
“What you looking at, pal?” Dean reacted to the perusal. “I’m still prettier than you.”
I snorted. “Like I care, out of a sudden. I want you having my back, not looking pretty.”
“I can do both, because I am that great.” Dean passed a hand through his brown hair and winked. “And since I can smile while doing both tasks, while a certain someone can’t keep the frown off his face even under normal circumstances, you should call me... Dean the Greatest!”
I snorted again. To an outsider, it would sound as if my friend had a huge ego when in fact Dean suffered from low self-esteem. He was plagued by insecurities, the majority of which revolved around his non-existent love life. I had not had a serious relationship since forever either, but that didn’t affect how I saw myself. Dean, however, believed it was his own fault that females came along only for one-night stands and booty calls.
To me, today's reality was to blame. With male shifters outnumbering females three to one, women these days preferred variety, rarely settling down with a guy. Not unless they found their fated mate, the perfect match for both the human and the animal half of a shifter’s soul. But with female numbers dropping, nowadays such cases of true mating were becoming a rarity.
The fact that only one of the females in our pride of cat shifters was mated, was indicative of the negative trend. And so were kidnappings of single females, like Anna, by desperate shifter groups.
So, Dean being single at 32 was not his fault. His handsome face and toned body caught the female eye, and his easy-going and cheerful personality charmed the ladies right off. If the shifter sex ratio hadn’t gone to shit, Dean would already have a female in his den and several litters of cubs.
I, on the other hand, with my 35 years of age, intimidating big frame and possessive streak was hardly a keeper. Did I care? No. I didn’t lack female attention when it came to scratching an itch, and I didn’t need a female in my den to be happy. Protecting our pride members gave me the fulfillment I needed.
“I still think we should have stayed home after the mission and ordered takeout,” Dean said as we neared the diner’s entrance. The large windows revealed the place was packed. “I look horrible… I mean, I’m always good-looking but I am not presentable yet.”
I sighed. “We already discussed this after dropping Anna off. At this time of day any home delivery would take more than an hour.”
“Well, I could have waited for a steak for another hour or two, Bas.”
“I couldn’t,” I grumbled. “We’ve changed our clothes and are not covered in blood. We’re presentable.”
Recovering fully before walking into a shifter-frequented diner was a good idea, I had to admit. But me and Dean should be safe in Shifter Bar and Grill, a neutral territory where shifters from all local groups were welcome. No one from the shifter community wanted to stir trouble with the authorities by starting fights in the presence of humans.
Although the relations between the two kinds were stable today, everyone remembered the chaos five years ago when shifters had revealed themselves to humans. It had taken over a year for scientists to officially confirm that shifter genes were inherited, not transmitted like rabies or some shit. One either had an inner animal upon birth or they didn’t; you could not be born human and suddenly grow a beak and wings one day. And going feathery or furry did not mean you lost your rational mind.
Then it had taken human authorities another year to put an end to discrimination against shifters on paper. The same laws applied to all citizens, regardless of whether they howled at the moon or not. Sure, one could not let their inner animal out just anywhere in public, and shifters policed their own community, but these were just minor exceptions. Human or shifter, everyone was officially equal before the law.
For now, at least. Until shifters fucked up majorly, which was in our nature.
I myself was easily pissed off when humans were concerned. Not because I found them weak of both mind and body, as many shifters believed. But because they were fucking annoying. They either reeked of fear in my presence, overwhelming my sharp sense of smell, or they squealed in delight upon realizing I was “one of them furries”. Who had the patience to have, “Please, please, pleaseee show me how you shift!” screamed in their face and not snap?
Hopefully, there wouldn’t be too many of the shifter fans sort in the diner this evening. But even if they were, I was too hungry to turn back now.
Dean, however, clearly cared about something other than food.
“Me? Presentable?” he rambled on as we reached the diner’s wide-open door. “Presentable, my ass! If this black eye scares off a potential girlfriend, I am giving you a matching eye patch, pal.”
“And if you get involved with a shifter fan, I am going to give you another black eye.” I looked over my shoulder to give Dean a feral grin.
Then the grin was wiped off my face.
Someone collided with me at the entrance. Crashed full-force into my bruised ribs.
I growled both in pain and annoyance.
“I’m so sorry!”
I looked down to glare at the clumsy culprit.
A petite red-haired woman was craning her neck to look up at me, the tall guy that I was. Her deep brown eyes widened as her gaze reached my face.
I knew that look. It was the look of recognition. This woman knew me. But I had no recollection of having ever seen this particular female before. The reddish curls framing a delicate face, the cute freckles sprinkled across rosy cheeks – I could not forget such a striking sight.
Perhaps if I took her scent in, it might ring a bell–
“I’m really sorry,” she said in a hurry and lunged past me.
And collided with Dean.
He had chosen this exact moment to come forth from behind my broad back.
I turned around just in time to see the woman bouncing back from the encounter with Dean’s short but stocky frame. Before she could end up on her ass, I caught her by the elbows to steady her.
All of a sudden, I felt dizzy. From that small point of contact, an electric zing passed through my entire body, sending my senses into overload. My head spun as the heady scent of the female hit me. My skin turned hot where it touched hers. My eyes shifted to amber as my inner animal came up to the surface of my mind, ensnared.
Both my human and my wild half stared into the lovely face of the female.
She was a shifter.
She was a tigress.
She was my fated mate.