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Therian Prize
 

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Therian Prize


  Therian Prize

  Cyndi Friberg

  Therian Heat, Book Five

  When Heather’s father offers the right to mate with her as the prize in a vicious tournament, she refuses to submit and runs for her life. Knowing the last place wolf hunters will search for her is in the heart of cat territory, she seeks the help of Jake, an irresistible and powerful tiger-shifter.

  Jake and Heather have lusted for each other for years but loyalty to their respective clans has kept them apart. Thrown together by danger, they slowly succumb to the temptation of forbidden passion.

  As the lovers lose themselves in each other, the hunt for Heather intensifies. Not only is her father still hot on her heels, a group of human scientists have targeted Heather, convinced they can use her unique shifter status for their own twisted ends.

  Inside Scoop: Zophiel is one lusty villain, not afraid to mentally coerce a less-than-willing sex slave.

  A Romantica® paranormal erotic romance from Ellora’s Cave

  Therian Prize

  Cyndi Friberg

  Chapter One

  Trepidation prickled the hairs on the back of Heather’s neck as Lexxie turned off the two-lane highway and onto a dirt road. The jeep dipped and swayed, jostling Heather nearly out of her seat.

  “Where are we going?” She braced one hand against the dashboard and looked at her best friend. “I thought the party was at the Murphy place.”

  Both of Lexxie’s hands grasped the steering wheel and she stared straight ahead. “With everything that’s gone on the past couple of weeks, your father thought it was time for a good old-fashioned Howl.”

  Sleek blonde hair framed Lexxie’s oval face, and her makeup bordered on garish. With bright-red lips and retro eyeliner, she looked as if she were headed to a go-go bar, not an outdoor fur-fest.

  Heather took a deep breath and looked around, trying to identify their location. A solid bank of trees lined the right side of the road, and a relatively flat field spread out into the distance on the other. They’d left Silverthorne forty-five minutes ago, which was really her only clue. This part of Colorado was covered with pine trees and rock-strewn mountains. There was nothing unique or distinctive about this road.

  “I wasn’t in the mood for a dinner party,” she grumbled. “I sure as hell don’t want to participate in a Howl.”

  Howls had been going on longer than Heather had been alive. Therian wolf-shifters might have chosen to blend with civilization but their animal natures still required an occasional romp. So packs gathered in forests or secluded fields, lit bonfires and went a little wild. They’d dance and drink and chase each other through the trees until the fire burned low and everyone was exhausted.

  Ordinarily the opportunity to let off some steam would have appealed to Heather, but not tonight. Not with so much in her life still in turmoil. She was struggling to process the unexpected and senseless death of her oldest brother. Her middle brother had turned his back on the pack and joined the growing rebellion. And her youngest brother was critically ill.

  “Bruce has only been dead for three weeks and Dad wants to celebrate? It’s disrespectful.” She closed her hands into fists until her nails bit into her palms. There had been no funeral for Bruce, no memorial service or wake, not even a moment of silence. The council had passed judgment, declaring him a traitor unworthy of life. And then her father stood by silently as the pack hunters carried out the sentence. “Turn around. I want to go home.”

  “I can’t.” Lexxie finally looked at her and dread dropped into Heather’s stomach. “Your father said he’d send James Risdon after you if I didn’t deliver you on time. We both know James would enjoy that assignment a little too much.”

  “I’m not afraid of James Risdon.” Despite her claim, a shiver slid down her spine. If anyone found out how much of her spirit was actually bravado, she’d be in serious trouble.

  “You should be. He’s mean, influential and he wants you bad.”

  “Bad-ly.” Lexxie shot her an annoyed look and Heather smiled. “Fine. I’ll drink a beer and roast a marshmallow but I’m not staying long. Everything is not okay and all of Dad’s denials will not make the problems go away.”

  “He just wants you to put in an appearance for the sake of the pack.”

  Heather shifted her gaze back out the window. “He wants a lot more than that and you know it.”

  For once in her life, Lexxie didn’t argue.

  The Therian nation, a large and well-organized group of shapeshifters, was on the brink of civil war and Blue River Pack, her father’s pack, was smack-dab in the middle of the conflict. There had always been tension between feline and canine networks but it had been centuries since those tensions escalated into all-out war.

  The smoldering unrest flared into flames when Erin Lashton, a cougar-shifter and self-appointed Historian for the Therian nation, discovered there was concrete evidence indicating the legendary Omni Prime was real. Heather shook her head, still unsure if she believed what her father had told her. According to him, Erin identified a bloodline in which more than one animal nature could coexist. Two females, half sisters, had been located and one of the two had already been defined with multiple animal natures. Conveniently—at least for the cats—the sisters belonged to the most powerful feline network.

  Erin’s discovery had intensified the discontent and resentment rippling through the other shifter clans. If the Omni Prime were real, most felt she should hold allegiance to the Therian nation at large rather than belonging to one specific clan. After all, the blood of cougar, tiger, wolf, raptor, bear and snow leopard shifters had been used to trigger her definition.

  And then there were the traditionalists who felt that the Omni Prime should have no say at all. The Charter dictated how the Therian nation was organized and that’s the way the traditionalists wanted it to stay. Of course the Prime Council and Alpha Councils were all dominated by men rich and powerful enough to force their wills on others. As a result, those who had been abused by this imbalance of power had rushed to support the Omni Prime.

  After losing control of the Omni Prime to the cats, Nate, Heather’s father, had returned his focus to more traditional means of manipulation. He was determined to increase the power and influence of the wolf clans and he felt that consolidation was the wolves’ best hope. Feline-shifters outnumbered all other types. Nothing could change that fact. But wolf-shifters could accomplish more if they banded together, pooled their resources and poured their energy into common goals. And he was just the alpha to guide this multi-pack force.

  It wasn’t a new idea. Nate had claimed a female from the most powerful bloodline in another pack and he’d encouraged his hunters to do the same. The other packs resisted the intrusion but the brash strategy had paid off. Most of the children born to inter-pack couples were unusually powerful.

  And Nate’s strategy hadn’t ended with his generation. As the children of the inter-pack couples became mature enough to mate, he’d pressured the parents to continue the process. Nate had always believed in leading by example, so Bruce, his oldest son, had claimed a mate from a rival pack. Bruce’s mate had died before she’d given him children but that was beside the point.

  Landon had refused to bow to his father’s wishes. Heather’s favorite brother had chosen to leave the pack and eventually joined the rebels, leaving her conflicted and vulnerable.

  Heather’s turn came when she was nineteen. Therian females were born without a specific animal nature. It took the blood of a Therian male to trigger her “definition”. His blood became the template her body used to form her animal nature and unleash her ability to shift. This process was generally performed by a male relative or a potential mate. In Heather’s case the male had been her father’
s choice, not hers. His name was Carlos and he was the newly appointed alpha of an alpine wolf pack.

  She shuddered as pangs of fear and desperation echoed through her being. No one knew exactly what had gone wrong that night or what had caused Carlos’ bizarre behavior. All she knew for certain was that what was supposed to have been one of the most exciting nights of her life had ended in tragedy and shameful secrets.

  “You all right?” Lexxie glanced at her, blue eyes warm and compassionate. Then she quickly turned her attention back to the steep, twisting road.

  “I’m fine. This is just not how I’d choose to spend my evening.”

  “Me either, but we’re stuck. So let’s make the most of it.”

  Heather couldn’t manufacture any enthusiasm so she just nodded. Howls were always loud and rowdy. Clothes were disregarded when each shifter released his or her wolf and few bothered to dress again until the festivities ended. Inevitably lust would rise and passions would be indulged. She’d seen it all before, so why was the potential making her so antsy?

  Lexxie suddenly grinned. “I think this is exactly what you need. How long has it been since you gave in and let your inhibitions run wild?”

  “I’m not in the mood.”

  “Answer the question. When’s the last time you got laid?”

  Heather sighed and blew a wayward strand of her strawberry-blonde hair out of her eyes. Her hair was naturally curly and rebelliously resisted all her efforts to tame the thick mass. “It’s been a while.”

  “Weeks?”

  Heather smiled.

  “Months?”

  She chuckled and turned her face away.

  “Years?” Lexxie sounded scandalized. “Oh my gawd, have you not had sex in over a year? This is an emergency.”

  If one year constituted an emergency, what did almost four years make? Heather wisely kept the question to herself. “If there were anyone in our pack who interested me, I wouldn’t be so grumpy. I doubt that a sexually charged atmosphere will make me feel anything other than anxious to leave.”

  “You want to go home so you can dream about one hotter-than-hell cat.” Lexxie wiggled her eyebrows and grinned. “Can’t say I blame you, baby. That boy is utterly edible.”

  “You’re the one obsessed with Jake Parlain, not me.” Despite her best effort, the denial rang hollow. Jake was a tiger-shifter who lived in Aspen and Lexxie was right, he was sex personified. Heather had never given an encounter with him any serious thought. He was a cat, end of story. But that hadn’t kept her from appreciating his appeal each time their paths crossed, which seemed to be happening with surprising regularity ever since her brother joined the rebels.

  “We had an interesting conversation on our way back from the rebel hangout.” A secretive smile curved Lexxie’s lips but she kept her gaze on the road.

  Lexxie had rushed to Dhane’s rescue when he’d desperately needed an energy transfusion. She’d spent the night in one of the rebel houses and then Jake had brought her home the following morning. The unplanned incident had given Lexxie several hours alone with Jake.

  “‘We’ meaning you and Jake?” She wasn’t sure why Lexxie kept bringing him up. Even if he had noticed Heather, which she seriously doubted, any romantic interaction with him was strictly forbidden. Not only was he a cat, he was one of the rebel leaders. She wasn’t sure which fact would piss off her father more.

  “I might have mentioned that I was worried about you, that you keep yourself isolated and lonely. That what you really need is a sexual challenge.”

  “The last thing I need is a sexual—” She cut herself off as the greater implication sank in. “Why would you tell him that, even if it were true? Which it’s not.”

  “I didn’t bring it up, at least not at first.” Lexxie grinned, obviously enjoying the way Heather was beginning to squirm. “He asked about you, how you spent your days, if you had a significant other. I just filled him in on all things Heather.”

  “You’re full of shit. There’s no way he asked about my love life out of the blue.” Despite her denial, she found the possibility exciting. Was it possible that the ripple of attraction she felt for Jake flowed in both directions?

  “He did. Honest to God.” She glanced at Heather, mischief twinkling in her eyes. “You’re not the only one who’s been having impure thoughts about a completely inappropriate partner.”

  “I don’t believe you.” More like she couldn’t allow herself to believe this nonsense or she’d start concocting reasons she needed to visit Aspen.

  “Believe what you like. All I know is, if you’re excited by the forbidden, I know one gorgeous cat who’s willing to give you a guided tour.”

  Light flickered through the trees off to their right, saving Heather from the awkward conversation. Lexxie spotted the glow a moment later and activated Heather’s window. Music rumbled in the distance, confirming their destination, so Lexxie sent the window gliding back up.

  “That’s us,” Lexxie said under her breath as she carefully steered the jeep off the road and worked her way toward the fire.

  They emerged in a large clearing, a dilapidated cabin tucked off to one side. It had been many years but Heather had visited the location before, she realized as she looked around. A deep pit had been dug in the middle of the clearing and a large fire burned there now. Vehicles had been parked in rows around the perimeter, creating an uneven border against the trees.

  Heather pushed open her door and climbed down from the jeep. The ground gave beneath her boots and the air was surprisingly cool. She glanced up at the clear blue sky. Not a cloud in sight, but had it been raining? This felt more like early spring than midsummer.

  Laughter and muffled shouts drew her attention to the crowd on the far side of the fire. They weren’t dancing but she couldn’t see what had them so enthralled. And why were there so many? This looked like a multi-pack rally, not an impromptu Howl.

  A tall figure broke away from the crowd and hurried toward them. Heather immediately recognized the proud bearing and purposeful strides of her father.

  “You’re late.” Nate’s eyes gleamed in the gathering twilight and impatience made his voice snap. Heather had gotten her strawberry-blonde hair from her mother, but her vivid blue eyes and stubbornness came from Nate Fitzroy.

  “Did the best I could, sir,” Lexxie replied. “She’s here now. Did we miss anything?”

  “Just the first seven rounds.”

  Rounds? Tension knotted Heather’s belly and dread washed over her again. She took a step back and her father grabbed her arm, his grip firm, not yet hurtful.

  “Don’t even think about it. You’re the guest of honor. Everyone is waiting for you.”

  “Is this… You said you’d let me choose.”

  “Did you choose?” He drew her closer and his expression became openly hostile. “Tell me your decision now and I’ll stop the competition.”

  She had no intention of choosing a mate and they both knew it. “I did as you wished the first time around. This time the choice should be mine.”

  “I might agree if Carlos had actually defined you. But he didn’t. Did he?”

  Heather froze. The Earth’s rotation seemed to hesitate as the implication sank in. He knew! She couldn’t imagine how he’d figured it out but he obviously knew her secret. “What are you talking about? Of course Carlos defined me. You and Bruce saw my wolf. You know I’m defined.”

  “I saw a wolf that night, but I haven’t seen one since. Transform for me now and I’ll end the challenge.”

  “This is ridiculous.” She jerked her arm out of his hand and spun around.

  He caught her other arm and jerked her back. “I think it was spontaneous. You honestly thought Carlos would kill you, so your Therian nature surged and you shifted into a form more able to defend herself.”

  “That’s insane. He defined me, just like you wanted him to.” She let bitterness drip off each word, hoping to distract him.

  “Then shift. Prove
me wrong.”

  She glared at him as she scrambled for a new defense. Continued denials were having no effect. “I can’t.”

  He grinned but his fingers remained firm around her arm. “I knew it.”

  “I watched my brother rip out the throat of the man you’d chosen for my mate moments after that same man tried to rip out my throat. That sort of stays with you. Every time I try to shift, all I see is Carlos’ mutilated body.”

  Nate’s eyes narrowed and his fingers tightened, biting into her arm. He leaned closer, inhaling deeply as he asked, “Did Carlos feed you his blood?”

  He had in countless nightmares, macabre distortions of already twisted events. She focused on that truth as she said, “Yes. All I have to do is close my eyes and the taste comes back to me. Now end this foolishness.”

  For a long, tense moment he stared down at her, analyzing her scent and expression. “If you’re defined then your mate will help you overcome your squeamishness.”

  “Not like this.” She tugged against his hand and tears burned in her throat. “Please, Dad, not like this.”

  He ignored her objections and dragged her toward the crowd of onlookers. “The challenge is an old and honored tradition. There is no shame in this.”

  No, the shame would come when her mate, whoever was brutal and ruthless enough to best the other hunters, claimed her body. He’d force her to the ground and demonstrate his strength and virility while the other competitors cheered him on. She’d seen several such encounters since she was old enough to participate in Howls and each had left her disgusted and nauseated.

  “I can’t do this.” She used both hands in an effort to break his hold but he easily restrained her.

  “Stop fighting me! You only humiliate yourself. There is no reason for your stubbornness. This is natural, an event to be celebrated.”

  “This is barbaric and cruel,” she cried. “I will not be the prize for some twisted blood sport.”

  He paused and stared deep into her eyes, a hint of tenderness softening his expression. “You are a treasure I will award to the strongest and most cunning among numerous packs. You should be proud. The turnout for your challenge is unprecedented.” Without another word, he continued his trek toward the crowd, dragging her behind him.

 
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