Tiger Striped:Shifters Unbound

By: Jennifer Ashley

Chapter One

Tiger woke in the night, knowing something was wrong in the world.

Carly, his mate, lay curled into his side, her wispy nightdress tickling his skin. Her golden-brown hair had escaped the ponytail she’d tucked it into, and silken strands brushed her face.

In his cubbyhole off their room, their son, Seth, slept in his crib, Tiger aware of his every breath. Seth had been born a human baby, as all half Shifter, half humans were, but his hair was tiger striped.

Carly was safe. Seth was safe. So why had Tiger come abruptly awake in the silence of the night?

He’d learned not to question what went on in his brain. Tiger wasn’t like the other Shifters of this Shiftertown—he’d been born in a lab, the experiment of genetic engineers who’d really needed something better to do with their time.

Twenty-two of their experiments had failed. Failed meant the Shifters had died.

Number Twenty-Three was Tiger. The researchers had abandoned him when the lab shut down, and Tiger had existed in isolation for many years.

Now he lived here, he reminded himself, as he brushed his fingertips over Carly’s soft skin. In a huge room at the top of a cozy bungalow that had been partitioned into two once Seth arrived. Tiger had a mate who loved him, and a cub of his own, two things he’d never truly believed would happen to him. The rest of this house was taken up with Liam Morrissey’s family—Liam’s mate and cub and his nephew, who’d welcomed Tiger into their home and made him one of their clan.

The window was open, but the night was quiet—as quiet as it ever got in Austin, near Mueller, the old airport. Tiger heard cars on the distant freeway, the drone of a low-flying helicopter, someone laughing far away.

He heard Shifters as well, the nocturnal Felines who liked to prowl Shiftertown in the warmth of the September night. They hung out, went for runs under the stars, had sex in the shadows.

None of that had woken him. Tiger can sleep through a tornado if he wants to, Carly always said, flashing her big smile. She knew that for a fact.

Rapid thoughts ran through Tiger’s head along with the brief, weird stream of numbers he sometimes saw in the back of his brain. Tiger didn’t know what the numbers meant or where they came from. He only knew they oriented him to things he needed to understand or situations no one but him could handle.

The uneasy silence was broken by sudden, intense screams. All-out, boiling-in-hell, please-help-me screaming. It filled Tiger’s brain and blotted out everything—the house, his cub, Carly and her soothing touch.

Wordless. Terrified. In so much torment.

Tiger slammed his hands to his head, squeezing to make the pain and fear cease, but they wouldn’t be silenced.

Carly and Seth slept on, oblivious, because the sound wasn’t here, in the air around them. It was inside Tiger’s mind.

From far, far away, a being cried out, and Tiger heard.

Search and rescue.

Tiger had been made for it—his original purpose. Subsequent researchers had changed their tactics and tried to transform him into a super fighter, a living machine, but his idealistic, first creators had wanted to use Tiger to find people lost and on their last hope.

During the past year, Shifter Bureau had called on Tiger to locate stranded hikers, lost cubs, and the occasional criminal eluding the human police. Tiger had tapped into his abilities and found them, but it had never been like this.

Not this invading mind-pounding agony, a desperation that tore into Tiger’s psyche.

He had to find the being in trouble. Now.

Tiger rose in silence, pulled on his clothes, and left the house.

Carly woke as soon as their bedroom door shut. She sat up, pushing her hair from her eyes, and looked around the moonlit room. Tiger was gone.

Seth snoozed happily in his crib beyond the open door to his tiny bedroom. Mothers envied Carly, because Seth had been a good sleeper from day one, and a happy baby. He seemed to know that his father, the indestructible Tiger, would let nothing bad happen to him. Which was true.

But sometimes Tiger would go remote, listening to voices Carly couldn’t hear. Or he’d simply walk out without a word, like tonight. She always sensed when he disappeared from the bed, her connection to him knowing his agitation.

Carly rose, pulled on a robe, and checked Seth in his crib. He lay on his stomach, his orange and black hair sticking up every which way, his back rising and falling in contented sleep.

Carly adjusted his blanket and tiptoed out.

She reached the stairs to see Tiger come off the last step and make for the front door. He was fully dressed, his muscles hard under the black T-shirt he’d snatched up to go with his jeans.

Carly ran after him. She didn’t want to wake the rest of the house by calling his name, but she knew that if she didn’t stop him, he’d vanish. The last time this had happened, he’d walked into Faerie via a house in New Orleans into terrible danger. When Carly had finally pried the details of that story from him, he’d looked at her as though he didn’t understand why she’d been worried.

Wherever he was heading this time, she was going with him. Mates protected each other, and she wasn’t about to lose Tiger to a bunch of mean-ass Fae, or Shifters, or humans, or whatever enemy he’d find this time.