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by Mary Calmes
Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
Description: Sequel to Trusted Bond Jin Rayne is still growing into his frightening new powers as a nekhene cat and his place as reah of Logan Church's tribe when he learns that a sepat, an honor challenge, has been called. Logan, who has never wanted to do anything but lead his small-town tribe, must travel around the world to Mongolia and fight to become the most powerful leader in the werepanther world. Logan won't be the only one making the journey. As his mate, Jin must fight with him to honor his commitment to Logan, his culture, and his tribe. But the trial is long, involving a prolonged separation between the two men, and Logan's humanity is at stake. In order to make it through the nightmarish sepat, Jin and Logan must accept their fates, trust each other, and honor the vows between them no matter the cost.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: January 2012
34 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [410 KB]
Reading time: 277-387 min.
As I walked down the long, cold gray corridor behind the medical examiner, I realized that my heart had stopped beating. I had no idea when the organ that pumped blood through my body had given up, but I suspected it had been the day before, when I had received the phone call that my best friend, Crane Adams, was dead. Everything inside me had ceased working. I had stopped breathing at that moment... I just hadn't noticed.
I could not drag air into my lungs, form words, or, for one terrifying moment, see. Not that the terror had been able to be conveyed, as I was mute. Funny how quickly your life gains perspective when something real happens, something that changes everything.
Never could I be expected to be the same from that moment on.
I turned my head to look up into the honey-colored eyes of my mate, the semel, leader, of our werepanther tribe, the tribe of Mafdet, Logan Church.
"I can go in alone."
It was what he wanted, but there was no way. I had to know; I had to see for myself. I shook my head--it was not even a possibility.
I looked back at the man we had followed from the front desk. We had all stopped at a door. It was steel, and there was a small window cut at eye level for someone at least my size of five eleven.
He cleared his throat. "Just you, Mr. Rayne, and Mr. Church," the man told us, glancing at Domin and Yuri. "You both will need to stay out here."
"Sure," Yuri agreed fast, his eyes flicking to mine.
He was worried, had been since the day before, when I had stopped talking.
"We'll be right here," Domin assured me gently.
And when my eyes met his, I found that between his steady gaze, the cadence of his voice, and his musky, sweet scent, I could momentarily stave off a breakdown. His presence was soothing, girding.
That revelation was disconcerting, because we weren't friends and I knew he was only there out of duty but... after we picked him up, just the calm that washed over me when he sat down in the back of the limo, the way his hand slid over my knee as he moved by, had helped. And we weren't friends, we weren't close--the maahes, or prince, of my tribe and I were more like roommates than anything else, or had been before he moved out. Now, when he came to see Logan on tribe business, we barely had two words for each other, so it was weird that his being there meant anything at all. Yuri made more sense; he was my sheseru, there, as always, to protect me, keep me safe, and so his solid presence comforted me. But Domin, that he mattered at all, especially since his duty was to Logan and not to me, was confusing. Why being swallowed in the deep dark-brown gaze shored me up I had no clue.
Logan put his hand gently but firmly on the back of my neck before he told the man that we were ready. As I walked into the antiseptic-smelling room, I realized that his touch was the only thing keeping me vertical. If Logan were not standing beside me, I would have been on the floor. I had no strength of my own, only his. As werepanthers, touch was always comforting--animals craved contact--but at that moment it was all there was.
Inside the room we were introduced to Althea Nelson. She was the assistant medical examiner for Clark County, and she began with an explanation.
"There was a fire, his townhouse burned, so I want you both to be prepared for what you're going to see." She was a small woman, thin, compact, with clear, piercing brown eyes. Her look managed to be sympathetic and matter-of-fact all at the same time. "Are you ready?"
The body of my best friend was lying under a black plastic sheet on a cold metal table in a brightly lit room. I had never been less ready for anything in my entire life. My heart hurt.
Two hands came down on my shoulders as I felt my mate's chest press against my back. There was more of his strength coming my way, transferred by heat and touch through my clothes, through my skin, deep into me. It was all I had.
The sheet was folded back.
It took a second because my brain questioned, but my stomach rolled, and so I was briefly overwhelmed, drowned under a landslide of emotion before the scream tore through my brain. Because I was the reah of my tribe, one of my gifts was that during the change from human to animal, I normally retained my logic. Being a reah was the only reason that I was able to take a breath and finally speak. In that moment the cat in me, and not the man, was more useful.
"That's not Crane Adams."
Seconds of time clicked by before the assistant medical examiner figured out what she wanted to say to me. I watched her, saw the concern flit across her sharply cut features. She probably heard disbelief a lot. "Mr. Rayne, you--"
"This man looks like him." I coughed because my throat was dry from not being used. "But that is not his face."
She cleared her throat. "Mr. Rayne, how can you tell what--"
"No," I cut her off. "I know what you're thinking, but I'm positive. I've been looking at him since I was six years old. It's not him."
"And if you check for an appendix and find one, then you'll know you're looking at the wrong man too."
There was thundering silence.
I heard the clock on the wall. It was one of those white faces with black numbers, nothing artsy about it, function being its only offering.
"Mr. Adams had his appendix out?" She looked startled. "That wasn't in his health records that we received from Chicago."
"Because it happened in Arizona when he was twenty-one," I informed her, and even though it was horrible and some poor man was dead, my relief was overwhelming. A whimper passed my lips as I recalled Crane insisting that he was not hungover, he was really sick this time, goddamn it! The whining had gone on for hours before I finally broke down and took him to the emergency room. He had been way up on his high horse as they wheeled him into surgery, all that righteous indignation because for once I was wrong. The last thing I'd heard as the doors swung closed was that I was a self-righteous prick.
"Do you remember the hospital, Mr. Rayne?"
"Good Samaritan," I told her.
"Let me see if I can get those records to confirm, but if you're certain...." She trailed off, leaving the question for me to confirm.
"I'm very certain." I sighed, and it was a long drawn-out one, because from the look on her face, I was guessing that the man lying there in front of me still had his appendix. "I was there."
"Does this man have an appendix?"
Her eyes met mine. "Yes, he does."
"Yes, he does," I echoed her before I turned around, lifting up to wrap my arms around Logan's neck, pull him down to me.
My mate buried one hand in my hair; the other was pressed to the middle of my back as he held me tight.
"I'm so sorry for putting you through--"
"No," Logan cut her off as his arms tightened around me. "You were doing your job."
"I'm just so sorry."
So was I, since my brain was starting to wrap around a new truth. Leaning my head back, I looked up into his face.
"I know, love," he said, nodding. "We'll find him."
Slowly, insidiously, I started hyperventilating.
"I swear, Jin. We'll find him. Please breathe."
And I had to believe him, since he'd never let me down before.
* * * *
I had known Logan Church for a year and a half, but in that time my entire life had gone through a drastic metamorphosis. I had changed from being a loner, traveling from place to place, town to town, with my best friend, Crane Adams, to finding my mate and having a home. I was the reah of my tribe of werepanthers, the mate of the leader, the semel, and my voice was second only to his. I went from having nothing to having it all.
Normally reahs were women. Since I wasn't, when my father and my old tribe discovered what I was, I had been beaten and exiled from the home and family I had grown up in. The only person who remained loyal, who loved me and stayed with me, was my best friend, Crane Adams. And first he'd been dead, and now he was missing. I was barely holding it together.
When the door opened, I rose from where I had been sitting on the couch in the luxury suite at the Venetian in Las Vegas, flipping channels on the TV. Domin came in first, holding open the door for those that followed him, a stream of people, some I didn't know, before finally Logan was there. I would have crossed the floor to my mate, but Yuri Kosa, the sheseru, enforcer of my tribe and my guardian, put a hand on my shoulder, holding me where I was.
"They all come to you here, even your semel."
And I knew that. The hotel room was like a home away from home, and as such, Yuri was there with me, as was Artem Varda, his second. Because we were in the territory of a semel who shared a bond with Logan, Yuri did not bring any more men with him to guard me. But still, when strangers were entering the room, Yuri kept himself at my side, and everyone moved forward to me. I wasn't allowed to defer to anyone, being seen instead as the power player. It was stupid werepanther posturing, but there were rules that had to be observed, so I minded my sheseru without question.
When Logan was close enough, I reached for him, and he took my hand in his. He did not look pleased.
"What happened?" I asked quietly.
Quick shake of his head before he turned to look at Domin. I saw the maahes of my tribe holding court, facing the men who had followed him into the room.
"I present my reah," Domin said, acknowledging me with his hand.
I watched as they all knelt in front of him. I recognized Calvin Reynolds, the semel of the tribe of Opet, the tribe that called Las Vegas home; his sheseru, Roger Tsang; and his sylvan, Amanda Dove; but no one else. I assumed the other ten or so men were his khatyu, fighters. As my eyes traveled over those on one knee in front of Domin, I found my gaze drawn to Amanda. She had a good face and gave me a trembling smile when she noticed my regard.
I had been surprised that in the two tribes I had regular contact with--my own, and the tribe of Pakhet, that of Christophe Danvers, who lived in Reno--there were not more women in one of the two roles that served as counsels for the leader. In my travels across the country with Crane, I had seen many tribes that had a woman as either the sheseru, tribe enforcer, or sylvan, tribe teacher. In Logan's tribe, both places were held by men, as they were in Christophe's. It had struck me as odd.
Certainly Logan would have chosen the person most qualified, but I didn't know about Christophe. I wasn't sure how antiquated his ideas were about women. And he had a scary, jealous mate who probably wouldn't have liked another woman living under her roof. Normally the sheseru and sylvan lived with their semel until they found mates of their own.
I looked up at my mate. Usually I could find myself in his amber eyes, find any needed salvation right there in his loving gaze. "Tell me what happened."
"Calvin will tell you," he said, gesturing back to the semel of Opet, who, having shown me the proper respect as befitted my station as the reah of my tribe, was now standing. All the others were still kneeling, as Domin had not given them permission to stand. Only Calvin didn't have to wait.
I lifted my eyes to his.
"My reah," he said, clearing his throat. "I'm so sorry that I let you walk into the morgue thinking that your friend was dead, but the men from the tribe of Anuket had my daughter up until an hour ago, when they released her for my compliance in this charade."
If Logan hadn't grabbed me and tucked me under his arm, against his side, I would have dropped to the ground.
"Anuket, that's your old tribe, right?" Calvin asked.
"You know it is," Logan told him. "Finish so we can go."
He let out a deep breath, took a step closer to me. "Jin, they kidnapped my baby and held her and threatened to rape and kill her if I didn't let the whole thing play out. I'm so sorry, but we're talking about my child."
I nodded fast, hating him and being completely sympathetic at the same time. I thought about his daughter Jacqueline: Jackie, Jack, J.... She was cute and adorable. She got straight As and was captain of her swim team. Since I had been the captain of mine back in the day, back in high school, we always had lots to talk about. I loved her sweet face, her huge chocolate-brown eyes, and her bubbly personality. With Crane living and working in her father's territory, I had been seeing a lot of him, and her. She had confessed to me that she had it bad for a guy at school.
"He's a white boy, Jin; can you see me with a white boy?"
I told her I could. White, black, any color, any flavor she wanted. "Your dad won't care," I told her, certain I was right. Calvin had every color of the rainbow in his tribe, just like Logan did, just like most did. What you were on the outside didn't mean anything to him, to Logan, just as long as you were--
"But he's not a panther."
--a panther on the inside. "Oh crap," I had breathed out.
"Oh God," she'd moaned, hurling herself back on her bed. At sixteen, it was the end of her world.
I shook my head, clearing it. "I get it, Cal," I assured him. "I do. Just tell me what they said."
He coughed softly. "You need to call, or I should say that Logan was directed to call Archer Pike as soon as you realized you weren't looking at Crane Adams."
"Who--" I coughed. "Who was that at the morgue?"
"I have no idea."
"Not one of your cats?"
"No, I was told he was not a panther."
"He was a panther," Logan told him. "I suspect you're missing someone."
The look on his face was like Logan had hit him. I didn't understand that. Whether the man was a panther or not, I didn't care. Human life or panther life, both were precious and sacred to me. In my mind, and I knew in Logan's, as well, there was no difference.
"Jin." Logan said my name, drawing my attention. "We have to call Archer Pike."
Logan had to get on the Internet, which he did from his phone, access the secure database, and look for the number he needed. It took only moments.
"Are you ready?" he asked me softly.
My nod let him know that I was.
Minutes later, we all sat around the phone in the living room listening to it ring. Logan had put it on speaker.
"May I speak with Archer Pike?"
"This is he."
"This is Logan Church," my mate growled, his voice low, hard. "You have the beset of my reah; I want him returned now."
Heavy sigh. "I apologize for the ruse, semel-netjer, and I apologize to the semel of the tribe of Opet for borrowing his daughter, but I needed to get your attention."
It felt like ice water had been injected into my veins.
"You have it."
"I tried to speak to you in Sobek, but you wouldn't listen, and then you announced to the priest that we were khet, dead to each other, and so I had no recourse but this. The tribe of Mnevis is trying to take over my territory. I need you and your sheseru and your khatyu to come and align with us and help us drive them out."
"Why would I do that?"
"Your reah is the son of my sylvan, this was his first tribe, and we have a covenant bond."
"You're insane," Logan said flatly. "We have nothing, and your sylvan is dead to me, as are you and the rest of your tribe."
"If this is your final word, then I will have no choice but to put to death the beset of your reah, who I have in my possession."
I didn't make a sound, and when Logan's gaze caught mine, I saw his eyes glow with pride. That I trusted him, that I had remained silent, I could tell, touched him deeply.
"If you do not return the beset of my reah, Crane Adams," he began, turning back to look at the phone, "I will come and take him, along with your head. I have, as you know, a member of the Shu living in my home, and once he speaks to the priest on my behalf, I will have a mandate for your life, semel of the tribe of Anuket."
There was a long silence.
"You thought I would just say yes because you know that Jin loves Crane. Your sylvan, Jin's father, and your sheseru, Crane's father, were probably in agreement with this plan, but I will not grant you aid for one man, especially as I have a true covenant bond with the man seeking to take your territory from you, Derek Jackson."
"He's filth! He's--"
"He's passionate," Logan said, cutting him off, "and younger than you and stronger than you. He wants a tribe that is racially mixed, not racially pure. He wants diversity because he wants the strongest tribe, the best, and accepts all based on nothing but their desire to stand with him. It makes sense to me."
"I have, I did. It cannot be undone; it's sealed in blood, mine and his. So you will return Crane Adams and all will be well, or I will come with my sheseru and my khatyu and however many members of the Shu the priest decides to send with me and I will kill you, your sheseru, and your sylvan, destroy the tribe of Anuket, end its lineage, and leave it to Derek Jackson. Choose your course."
Archer was breathing hard over the line.
Every eye in the room was on Logan. He was absolutely still, absolutely certain of his decision. And I held my breath because I wanted Crane more than anything, but I knew, in my heart I knew, that if they didn't choose to give him back to Logan, I wasn't getting him back at all.
"You must come for him and speak your words to my tribe, in front of my tribe, and tell them all that you refuse to aid us," Archer told him.
"I will aid them, semel," Logan assured him. "They are all welcome to come and take refuge on my land and with my tribe if they do not want to become part of the tribe of Mnevis. I would welcome them all."
"You said my tribe was dead to--"
" Your tribe, semel," he clarified. "If any panthers come to me seeking sanctuary, seeking shelter, I will take them in, and so they are then members of my tribe. Do you understand?"
Archer Pike had no idea the kind of man that Logan Church was, and that had been his biggest mistake. Logan would never, ever turn his back on fathers and mothers and children. He'd pay to relocate them all, speak to Derek Jackson on their behalf, and do whatever was necessary to create a smooth transition if and when he had to.
"Your answer, semel," Logan demanded.
There was a deep exhale of breath. "Come, then, and claim the beset of your reah."
"I will leave tonight," Logan told him. "I will call you after I meet with the semel of the tribe of Mnevis, and you will grant he and I, our sylvans, and our retinue safe passage."
"You will not bring your sheseru?"
"I will not."
"Then who will--"
"As I stated before, I have a member of the Shu here on my land, Taj Chalthoum; he will act as my sheseru and come in Yuri Kosa's place."
"I do not understand you leaving your sheseru behind if your reah is--"
"Never, ever concern yourself with my reah," he said, his voice going from cold to warning in seconds.
"But we request the presence of your reah."
"Your request is denied."
I would have said something, because I wanted, needed, to go, but if Logan forbade it, I could never protest... at least in public. He was going to get an earful when we were alone.
"My sylvan wants to see his son, as does his mate, your reah's mother."
My mother no more wanted to see me than my father did. It was crap.
"My reah will not step foot into your territory, and that is my final word. Now I will speak to Crane Adams, or you will prepare yourself for a challenge in the pit."
I heard him suck in his breath. Everyone had seen Logan fight in the pit the previous summer. All the leaders of the werepanther tribes traveled to Sobek, between Giza and Cairo, in Egypt, once a year for the feast of the valley. At the last feast, Logan had killed the semel of the tribe of Dendera because he had kidnapped and tortured me. In the pit, everyone had seen his size and seen how very lethal he was. The idea of a one-on-one challenge could not have been appealing to Archer Pike in any way.
"I cannot grant your request, Logan Church, for Crane Adams is not conscious at this moment. Before I was present at his inquisition, he was scourged by my sheseru."
I had to grab for the back of the couch as the room tilted sharply to the left. A wave of nausea hit me, and I started to shake.
They had tortured my best friend, and I hadn't been there to stop it.
"He was scourged," Logan said like he was confused.
There was no air in the room; my chest was in a vise as my eyes filled with tears. I bit the inside of my left cheek so I would not make a sound.
He had been tortured and then disfigured. To be scourged meant you were cut into with a blade, your blood was spilled, and in some way, your body was mutilated. It was different from being marked as apophi, disgrace to your tribe. When a semel marked one of his cats, scarring them or taking an eye, it was done fast, never meant as a killing stroke but as a testament, carved in flesh, of a failing. It was done at a tribe gathering or during a challenge in the pit with everyone there as witness.
Scourging a cat was what a group of panthers of one tribe did to another that trespassed on their land without permission. Scourging was normally done at the end of a hunt and was led by the sheseru. The first night I had met Delphine, the sister of my mate, she had been alone on another panther's land. She could have been scourged had Crane and I not interfered and if Markel, Domin's sheseru at the time, had wanted to do anything more than scare her. A cat who was scourged could, or could not, be expected to live based on the level of punishment that the enforcer of the tribe chose to inflict. Pain was a precursor to being maimed and, in some tribes, defiled as well. There was no way to know what my best friend had been forced to endure without asking. The fact that his own father had disfigured him, allowed others to hold him down and torture him, hurt him, make him bleed, was beyond my understanding. There was no way I could not go now. None.
I turned and walked to the window, looking out at the Las Vegas strip.
"Semel," Logan said, his voice low and edged in ice, "I have changed my mind."
"About bringing your reah?"
"About bringing my sheseru," he told him. "I will bring Yuri Kosa with me, and when I arrive, your sheseru will meet mine in the pit, and it will be a fight to the death."
"You cannot demand--"
"I do demand!" Logan roared at him. "And I will contact the priest tonight and have Shu warriors there to witness it!"
"He's dead! By my sheseru's hand or by that of the priest, he is dead!"
"Yes," he said breathlessly.
"What made you think that you could touch the beset of my reah? Mine! I am not a friend, semel; we have no covenant bond between us!"
"I am semel-netjer!"
Even over the phone, not even standing face to face, Logan's fury terrified Archer Pike. His whimper came over the line.
"You will give me the names of any man who helped the sheseru maim the beset of my reah."
The word conjured too many horrors to think about.
"Did you hear me?"
"If Crane is not in a bed, bandaged and cared for by a physician when I reach you...." He took a breath. "I will end your house, Archer Pike. Do... you... hear... me?"
"We will be there tomorrow with Derek Jackson and his men. Do not make the mistake of having me look for Crane or you. Understood?"
"Yes?" he hissed, his fury and hatred boiling over.
I heard Logan hang up, and then I heard something shatter. I didn't turn around. My guess was that he had wrenched the phone out of the wall and hurled it across the room. I saw his reflection behind me in the glass seconds later, saw him heaving for breath, saw the pain in his eyes, and felt the heat rolling off of him.
I shook my head. If I spoke I would break down, and I was not ready to do that.
"Go," I heard Domin say behind us to the men still kneeling on the floor.
"Semel-netjer," Calvin Reynolds began. "I am so--"
"Leave us," Yuri said, cutting him off. "We thank you for our accommodations here, and we will leave shortly."
There were no more words. I heard them go, and when the door was closed, a silence fell that sucked all the air out of the room.
"I'll call Taj from the car," Domin said, his voice dark and low. "Let's get home and get you all packed."
I turned, walked around Logan, and headed for the door. Yuri was right behind me.
"I'll kill them all, Jin."
And even though as a reah my first instinct was usually forgiveness, in this instance his words wrapped around my heart and gave me comfort.
It was all I could ask.
* * * *
I was sitting on the chaise in my bedroom. Logan had knocked out a wall and put in heavy sliding-glass doors that slid open sideways onto the covered patio. There was a fireplace outside as well as in, and the floor that had once been tile was now black-veined marble. It was beautiful. He had completed it over the summer so it would be ready for winter.
"You're going to freeze," Logan said, walking around me, wrapping me in a heavy down comforter, rubbing my arms to warm me faster. He bent and inhaled my scent, pressing his nose to the side of my neck, and I turned and kissed him.
I made slow love to his mouth, licking, sucking, biting, my tongue sliding over his, rubbing hard. I loved the taste and feel of my mate, but this, of course, had a purpose.
He leaned back, gasping for breath, sounding drugged when he spoke. "I forbid it."
I shoved him away from me.
"And that's my final word."
I couldn't breathe. Didn't he understand? How could he not understand?
"I will never allow you back in that city. I will never let you step foot back in the territory where they hurt you. Once upon a time, I thought it would be fine. I thought your father would come around, I thought your old tribe would see the error of their ways. But your father and Crane's father, they spoke to the priest of Chae Rophon and told him that you were an aberration. They said that my mate should have been killed. Does it make sense to you why, knowing all the facts that I know now, I will never let you go back there?"
I looked out at the snow.
"You need to trust me to bring Crane home. You need to let me punish them."
Tears welled up in my eyes.
"Crane's father will fall to Yuri and yours to me, and that's the only way it can be. There can be no mercy, the wound is too deep. I thought once that there would be nothing between our two tribes, but now I know I was wrong. There will be blood, Jin, there has to be. I see no other recourse."
I shivered hard as tears rolled down my cheeks.
"I will call you when I get there and tell you what was done," he said, moving forward again, trailing his fingers through my long hair, which ran through his hand like water. "You will wait for me and not leave. Do you hear me?"
"I know you're furious, I can feel it rolling off of you, but I can't do what I need to do, be what I need to be, if you're with me and I have to protect you."
Anger wrapped around me and squeezed my heart in a vise.
He was silent, his fingertips tracing over the line of my jaw, brushing away hot tears.
I shivered hard as I tried to get my body under control.
"Listen," he said, steadying his voice, "I know you're scary and strong, but faced with Crane being hurt, you won't be yourself, and I can't be the catalyst for your transformation if I'm in my shifted form as well. We don't know yet the true power of a nekhene cat, Jin, we don't know what you can do, but this... with Crane... this is not the time to find out."
I couldn't see anything through my tears.
"Please have faith in me."
But I had faith; I just needed to see my best friend. I needed to be the first face he saw.
"You think he won't understand if it's me and not you, but, Jin, love, he will. And he needs his semel to claim him, not his reah. Crane must be shown his value, and his value must be understood by others. The mate does not claim cats from the territories of others, only the semel does. That is maat. This is not a negotiation, this is war. Do you realize what could happen because of this? What I will be forced to do? Jin? Do you?"
I needed to go to Crane; that was all I knew.
"You will not be allowed from the grounds for any reason."
But I had to work. He knew I had to work.
"I called Ray, told him we had a family emergency and that you would be out for a week. Don't test me. Stay here."
I would get off the grounds somehow.
"If you show up in Chicago, it will show everyone that you violated my order, that I'm weak. Is that what you want?"
I wiped at my eyes.
"We are one, you and I; you can't go against my mandate. I need to know that you're here and safe so I can concentrate on only one thing. Do you understand?"
Again, not a question of understanding, instead a question of desire--mine for Crane.
"I'll be right back," he told me, hand under my chin as he tipped my head so he could see my eyes. "You do realize that every drop of pain that I'm looking at now I will visit on Archer Pike. He brought my mate to tears; this cannot end well."
I took a breath as he bent and kissed me.
When he was gone, I went back to staring at the gray sky of winter. January in Incline Village, Nevada, a quick trip up Mount Rose overlooking Lake Tahoe, lay under a blanket of white. It was icy cold, the grounds were covered under several feet of snow, and flakes fell from the sky morning, noon, and night. I had so been looking forward to spring.
Logan returned a while later, took my hand, lifted me up off the chaise, and led me downstairs. He deposited me in the living room beside the huge fireplace there. I stared into it but didn't move. I felt like the eye of a tornado as the house spun around me, everyone in motion, moving.
Delphine, Logan's sister, packed for her brother; Domin was on the phone, making arrangements; and Taj Chalthoum, the member of the Shu who had come home with us from Egypt six months ago, spoke to his phocal, Jamal Hassan. He asked permission to speak to the priest of Chae Rophon, the man who made the laws for every werepanther in the world. He was asked to send an emissary on Logan's behalf to inform Archer Pike that the semel-netjer of the tribe of Mafdet had the priest's blessing and support. Once Taj was off the phone, he reported to Logan that the priest had members of the Shu dispatched to Chicago. It would take them an entire day to make the long trip from Cairo, but they would be there to be witnesses for Logan.
Six months ago, at the feast of the valley, it was discovered that I was not only a reah, which was an extremely rare kind of werepanther, but also a nekhene cat. Being the mate of a nekhene cat changed Logan from being a semel-re, a semel that had found his reah, to semel-netjer, a semel mated with a nekhene. As Logan was the only one in the world with that honor, as far as we knew, when one of the Shu called on his behalf, it was more than likely that the priest would send whatever aid was needed.
"Jin." I heard Taj say my name from a distance. "The priest is sending Shahid and four other of my brothers to Chicago as we speak."
"Jamal says that he will come himself if you wish."
The leader of the Shu, the phocal, would come to help me retrieve Crane and watch over him. It was very kind.
"Do you wish it?"
I shook my head.
"All right, then." He reached a hand toward me but thought better of it. "I'll call him and give him your thanks."
Final nod, and he walked away a moment later.
"Jin," I heard Delphine say beside me. "Crane still has some things here for when he visits, so I'll pack that up for him too, alright?"
"Okay," she said softly before she walked away.
My chest hurt because my heart ached, and holding in the sobs when I wanted to break down and bawl was making breathing difficult.
Yuri was the only one besides Logan brave enough to get close to me and stay, and though the man could never be called perceptive, because he was a sheseru and I was a reah, our bond, hardwired into both of us, sometimes inexplicably verged on psychic.
"So you don't have to leave the house, Koren, as Logan's heir, will attend any events in your stead, standing at Domin's side as he heads the tribe in our semel's absence."
I knew who did what; I didn't have to be told.
"Although with Domin and Koren not speaking, it will be uncomfortable, I'm sure."
I was quiet even though I knew, like we all did, where precisely the blame fell for the fallout.
We had all anticipated a mating ceremony. I thought that when we returned from the feast of the valley in Sobek in late June that sometime in July, August at the latest, Domin and Koren would exchange vows. But something had changed when we got back, and Peter, Logan's father, who had arrived a week before us, could shed no light on the mystery. All I could see, all that either man would say, was that due to the fact that Koren was heir to the tribe of Mafdet, they needed time to reevaluate the true nature of their relationship.
"What?" Delphine, Logan's sister, had been as confused as I was.
When Koren brought the first of many women home, bringing them for the evening to meet his parents and his brother, the semel-netjer, I started to understand.
In October, right before Halloween, Delphine mated with Markel Kovac, who had at one time been the sheseru of the now-defunct tribe of Menhit. He had once been to Domin what Yuri was to Logan. The ceremony was beautiful, the feast lasted three days, and as a gift, Logan knocked out two walls on the second floor toward the back to give the newlyweds what amounted to an enormous studio apartment within the house. They loved it, the privacy of being alone with the closeness of family. Panthers needed the community of others like them. Solitary was not the way for us to live.
When Crane and I had been traveling for years, just the two of us, from place to place, the reason had been me. As a reah, I had been much sought after, but once I turned a semel down, when they realized they were not my mate, things normally turned ugly. They wanted to keep me. I wanted to leave. More than once I had been in a fight for my life with someone who felt, in the frenzy of the moment, that they loved me. The process was too hard to keep repeating, so Crane and I had steered clear of all werepanthers, and normally, as soon as we became aware of any, we were gone. Everything had changed, though, the night I met Logan Church. His need had never been his alone. As soon as I saw him, it had been mine as well.
After we rang in the New Year earlier in the month, I had finally cornered Koren about what had happened. He didn't look happy to me, and Domin didn't appear any better. Why the forced separation?
I was stunned as I stood there and finally heard Koren's confession. He loved Domin; he just wasn't sure that he was ready to give up the idea of a female mate and children born without a surrogate in the mix somewhere, and while the idea of having a mate at all was appealing, so was not having one and being free, especially as the growth of his real estate business took him to different cities and time zones.
He wasn't ready to settle down. Or more importantly, he was too scared to make a commitment and have it be the wrong one. He was not prepared to say, in front of everyone, that this one person was his life and that it was forever. Logan had been ready from the moment he laid eyes on me; Delphine had decided that Markel was the one; but not Koren. There could be someone better out there, and the promise called to him, the lure of what could be just around the corner. And, as I suspected, the turning point had been when Peter Church returned from Sobek. He had come into the house and admitted to Koren that when he found out that his second-born son was gay, he had been devastated. It had been hard for him to have his first-born take a male mate and when he found out that Koren would as well, or was thinking about it, he was overwhelmed. He wanted grandchildren, wanted to ensure his lineage, and even though he had claimed to be keeping an open mind, the reality had been painful for him.
In Sobek he had gone to the priest to make sure that Logan was forced to take a yareah and procreate. But before Logan could even inform me of his father's ultimatum and adamantly assure me that he would never, ever have children with anyone but a surrogate, I had given him the news that I had asked his sister for the gift of life. Together, Delphine and I would make the next semel of the tribe of Mafdet. As patriarch of the Church clan, Peter was guardian of the line until he died and so had been well within his rights to talk to the priest. But the news that I had asked Delphine to be my yareah, to help me, as a barren reah, to reproduce, had basically just made the man's year. The second he got home, he shared his overwhelming happiness with his second-born.
What Koren heard was: you can be whatever you want to be now.... I don't care. Logan will carry on the Church bloodline with his reah; I don't care what you do or with whom. At which point Koren realized that what he wanted was his father's blessing and understanding, wanted his life to be as he had thought it would be growing up. He wanted exactly what his parents had, and that picture did not include another man. It especially did not include Domin Thorne.
Or maybe it did.
Koren was, again, for the millionth time, on the fence.
He couldn't say he wanted Domin, but he didn't want anyone else to have him, either. He loved him, and dear God in heaven, he wanted to sleep with him, but the rest... the rest was tricky.
I had not even been able to look at him. After our talk, I put distance and, normally, Yuri between us. No one talked to me without Yuri allowing them to, so since I didn't want to see Koren, I simply didn't.
"He's an idiot," Logan had told me as we stood together on the balcony watching Domin move out. Even though Koren was not around much, it was still his home first, and so our maahes had chosen to buy a loft in King's Beach, just down the hill from us. He was only a twenty-minute drive away, but still, it was distance that Logan didn't care for.
"Who's an idiot? Domin for leaving, or Koren for not asking him to stay?"
"Domin for leaving," my mate had rumbled. "If you want something, you fight for it."
"Yeah, but Domin waited for Koren to grow some balls the first time, and now he's right back to where he was. How many times does your brother get to use Domin's heart for a doormat?"
"Koren will figure out what he wants."
"And by then it will be too late," I had said, my eyes never leaving the scene below me, watching Domin direct the movers.
"That's awfully pessimistic of you," he had teased me, leaning sideways to kiss my temple.
"Someone else will discover Domin Thorne," I had told my mate very seriously. "He's a pain in the ass, but the man is beautiful to look at and very passionate, and now, since he's been your maahes, loyal and fair. You've changed him, your faith in him, your kindness, your acceptance, all of it--he's different."
"He's always been that way," Logan had told me. "He just forgot for a while."
Domin had been a good guy? "Are we talking about the same man?"
I hadn't wanted to argue; I knew that Logan had made all the difference to the growth of his maahes, even if he didn't. "Koren's a fool."
"Why don't you tell him that?"
I had sighed deeply before I had turned and looked at my mate. "Because no one listens to me. They're supposed to, but they don't. Crane left, too, and Russ.... Everybody's leaving our home, and I hate it."
"I'll never leave you."
Which was more comforting than he could have known.
"Your teeth are chattering," Yuri told me, bringing me back to the present.
The reason being that I was cold inside and out.
"I know you. I know you're terrified about Crane and scared that I'll get hurt exacting the revenge you yourself want, but, Jin"--his voice cracked, lowered--"I am the sheseru of my tribe. It is no one's place but mine."
I leaned forward, elbows on my knees, face in my hands.
I nodded and stayed like that with him sitting silently beside me.
It was dark by the time they were ready to leave, and I was still, wondering about Crane. Was he scared? Conscious? Had he called for me when they brutalized him? Did he, at that very second, want me with him? Had he felt powerless or abandoned? Had he been raped? Everything was swirling through my head.
I was going right out of my mind, which was no good for anyone, not just me. My power, it seemed, was no longer contained in my skin or with the shift. Some of it, as I'd learned in Sobek before I was reunited with Logan, was the power of a reah, the ability to broadcast what we were feeling. Before I knew why or what, I had been able to suddenly flood a room with my pheromones and emotions. The jump in power had been a surprise, and the priest of Chae Rophon had provided the answer in a name: nekhene.
I was a nekhene cat, hawk-cat, the only one of my kind, and powerful in ways that were unknown because, as far as the priest knew, the last one before me had lived and died a thousand years ago. The power of the nekhene to transform at will, to shift from man to beast in the blink of an eye, was one thing, but the rest of it was a learning process.
The problem was that because we didn't know, we didn't know what to expect. So far, the only thing that Logan and I and everyone else knew for certain was that the reah in me trumped the nekhene, so my love for my mate grounded me, gave him dominion over me. But how long that would last--if it would--that, too, was unknown. As it was, unfortunately, because I was a reah but also a nekhene, when I was in pain, if you were a panther, you knew it because you felt it as sharply as if it were your own. The normal control that my family and friends and other panthers had over their own emotions and desires was stripped away, and there was only the continual assault, the constant barrage and battering, until the only refuge for the mind was the shift to animal.
Once people were panthers, there was only that consciousness. They could shift back and forth if commanded or reminded because it was simply an innate ability. A semel could order his khatyu to shift, and they would change only because they were told to. Only reahs retained the knowledge that they were humans even when they were in cat form. Semels, the strongest of all, only preserved the knowledge of their mate and nothing more once they shifted. It was frightening to think that with my pain alone, I could transform an entire room of people into panthers.
But pain was not the only reason people shifted. There was passion as well, lust, and desire. Apparently my scent, when I was throbbing with my nekhene power, was intoxicating, and there was no way to tell what the trigger would be or to gauge my response. It terrified Logan. The priest, who was continuing to dig but finding scarce little in the way of information on nekhene cats, said that the most important thing we could do now, from what he had read, was to show the nekhene the bond between myself and my semel.
The only reason I had been able to contain myself at the morgue and not let my power run out of me was Logan. If he was there, right there with me, hands on my skin, the nekhene was contained. The reah that I was first was Logan's mate, so the nekhene responded to the familiarity of the bond. But if he was not close enough to touch me, kiss me, maul me, the wild creature that my body housed got restless when it was hurt or frightened or threatened.
The priest had told me before I left Sobek that some of the ancient texts spoke of the nekhene as not a kind of cat at all but instead as an inherited power. But I knew the truth; it was simply a mutation of speed and size. And yet, in all shifts I had ever seen before mine, basic composition did not change, only musculature shifted. But now, for me, I morphed into something else altogether. It made sense, then, that the nekhene was power and not simply biology. And yet how could that be? Shifting wasn't magic, so nekhene power had to be the same, something that could be explained logically.
I told myself about logic and reason and science every single day, and every single day it made less sense. My skin, sometimes, was all that kept me from flying into a million pieces.
And when I didn't feel like me, I lost myself just a little.
"Please, Jin," I heard Yuri whisper from where he sat beside me. "Please try and breathe. Please calm down."
I had trouble focusing past whatever it was that had coaxed the nekhene power from me.
My name, yelled, finally brought me from my thoughts at the same time I realized that my heart was pounding in my ears and I was breathless.
"You're making me sick," Mikhail growled from across the room. "Please, Jin, please breathe."
I got up and walked to the picture window and stood there, my forehead pressed to the cold glass.
"What's going--oh," Delphine gasped behind me. "I think I'm gonna shift."
There was shuffling in the room. I heard the front door lock open, the door hitting the wall with a bang, and then Yuri's roar for his semel.
There were others close by; I was aware of them, but my eyes were closed as the ache swelled inside, got bigger and suffocating, and the pain overtook me.
"What's--Jin," I heard Logan say my name, felt him closing on me.
"Logan," Taj said from somewhere close. "Do something. I feel like I'm going to claw my way out of my own skin."
"I--" Mikhail gagged. "I'm going to shift right here. I can feel it."
"Logan," Yuri panted, and I could hear his fist slowly pounding on the wall. "Please, I can't... I'm gonna shift too."
When I felt Logan's hand in my hair, I tried to lean away, but he was stronger and so grabbed me and held tight, not allowing any movement.
"Stop," he ordered sharply. "You think if I touch you, you're gonna break. You won't."
I didn't turn to look at him.
He yanked hard, cocking my head back at the same time his other hand wrapped around my throat. His mouth was at my ear. "You will submit to me because I'm stronger than you."
I took a deep, shuddering breath and felt something deep inside deciding. I could even imagine the gentle swish of a cat's tail like a pendulum, thinking... thinking....
"You're mine, and all your pain is mine too. Trust me with it, my reah."
But how could I? He was leaving me, and I needed to reach Crane.
"Stop," he ordered me.
I tried to pull free of his hold.
There was a growl from his throat before he bent my head forward, moving my hair, baring my shoulder, and he buried his fangs in the curve of my neck.
I jolted under him, and a sob rose from my chest.
He was stronger, I was weaker, and I calmed because he had reaffirmed my place at his side, in my tribe, so that my world settled and I could breathe.
We stayed frozen there together, and after long minutes, he gently withdrew his teeth. He licked at the spilled blood, at the wound he had made, and kissed and suckled at my skin.
"Mine," he told me as he rubbed his chin over me, his cheek, marking me with his scent, putting it all over me. "You're mine."
I twisted around and buried my face in his chest. His arms wrapped me up, and he tucked my head under his chin. I was shaking hard, clutching at him, holding on for dear life.
"Baby, you haven't slept in days. Let me put you in bed, you need to sleep. You need to close your eyes. I have you, I'll always have you. You'll always belong to me."
"Oh my God, thank you," Delphine gasped, and I heard her drop to the floor.
"Christ," Mikhail moaned, and I opened my eyes in time to see him slide down the wall so he was sitting with his knees up, looking completely wrung out.
"Thank you, Logan," Markel muttered.
Yuri took a deep breath.
"Rest, Jin," I heard Mikhail murmur, his voice edged with pain. "Please."
"Yes," Taj muttered. "Please."
I inhaled Logan's scent and concentrated on the sound of his heartbeat. I wished I could lie down with him, curl around him.
"When I get back with your beset, my reah, I'm all yours."
I had only his promise to comfort me.