Crouching on an elongated branch, she used the leaves and branches as camouflage and crept closer to the edge until she had a perfect shot of a naked man—she guessed the jaguar in human form—talking to what appeared to be two male vampires. Or she guessed they were vamps. Their skin was pale and there was something about their scent that always gave vampires away. It was like an inborn thing. Vampires and shifters were natural-born enemies so they just sensed predators.
Unfortunately it meant they might be able to sense her but with the other jaguar’s scent covering the area and because she was downwind, she figured she’d be able to blend in for the moment.
“I’m tired of waiting for them to kill each other off,” one of the vampires said. He wore a long, black trench coat that felt so clichéd for his kind, she would have rolled her eyes had she been in human form.
“We need to be patient,” the other vamp said. This one wore a bomber jacket.
The naked man with bronze skin and dark hair shrugged, completely unconcerned about his nudity or the cold in the air. Yeah, definitely a jaguar. No human could stand this weather naked. “As long as you keep paying me, I don’t care what you want me to do. I spotted a wolf cub earlier, but the little thing disappeared before I could kill it.”
Kill a cub? Gabriela’s claws automatically unsheathed, slicing into the branch. Thankfully they didn’t hear her.
“What took you so long getting here?” bomber jacket asked.
The naked man shrugged. “I took a long detour, wanted to make sure I hadn’t been seen or followed. I’ll go back to that location tomorrow, see if I spot another cub.”
Trench coat nodded. “It will incite the wolves into killing the jaguars. And while their attention is on them, we will start picking off the wolves.”
Pausing, the naked man glanced around, his gaze skirting right over her hiding place in the trees before he focused on the vamps. For a moment she worried he’d seen or scented her, but he continued speaking. “If that abandoned mine is as rich as you say, I still get my cut.”
The vampires exchanged an annoyed look, then bomber jacket nodded. “Five percent of all our findings.”
This was about money? Gabriela wasn’t even that surprised. Some people were just greedy and vampires who had been that way as humans were often worse when they became members of the undead. Clearly the jaguar shifter was just as greedy. He definitely wasn’t from this area and she guessed he was likely a loner the vamps had recruited from God only knew where considering the shifter was actually working with them. As a cub Gabriela had played in the old mine and she and Owen had found plenty of gold nuggets and layers of gold dust, but no one messed with that thing anymore. It was too dangerous.
Slowly, she crept backward, careful of her steps, but when the wind suddenly shifted, the jaguar sniffed and looked in her general direction. Well, crap.
He broke away from the two vampires who were still standing there. She guessed they couldn’t pick out her scent from the male’s because they looked confused. When bomber jacket asked the jaguar what he was doing, the male just growled a nonresponse and continued walking in her direction.
She might not have been able to take him in her human form but as a jaguar, she could fight. And she planned to do just that. Knowing she wouldn’t be able to hide much longer, she stopped backtracking and raced along the branch. When she reached the end, she pushed down and jumped off, flying right for the jaguar.
His dark eyes widened for a fraction of a second before he underwent the change. As she torpedoed straight toward him, his animal took over. Thanks to her momentum she slammed into him, taking him to the ground.
In his shifted form, he was bigger than she’d expected, outweighing her by about fifty pounds. His weight slowed him down, but it wouldn’t diminish his strength. Slashing out, she dragged her claws against his face. This piece of crap had talked about killing an innocent cub like it was no big deal. Gabriela felt no guilt for attacking him.
The male snarled and slashed right back. She dodged, rolling off him and onto the dried grass and snow, but his claws raked across her shoulder. She let out a hiss, but jumped to her feet and attacked again. They rolled on the ground, slashing and clawing, each trying to get a grip with their mouth. Jaguars had one of the most powerful jaws in the world and as shifters, they were even that much stronger.
Out of her peripheral vision she could see the vampires trying to intercept, but it was impossible given the way she and the male were rolling around.
When she heard an eerie howl fill the air, she knew Owen had arrived. She also knew he was going to be pissed at her so she really hoped he took it out on the vampires. She’d seen Owen hunting before and had seen his power and strength when he was only seventeen. She could only imagine how strong he was now.
The wind rustled her fur as a blur of white tore past her. As she dodged another slash from the jaguar, she was vaguely aware of one of the vampires crying out in pain. In her peripheral vision she saw the vamp fall and then watched a gush of crimson pour out as Owen took its head off. The other vampire started to run, but Gabriela felt a sharp stab of pain in her gut and turned all her focus on the jaguar.
Realizing the male had slashed right through her stomach in an effort to distract her with pain, she did what he wouldn’t expect. Instead of pulling back from him and putting herself at an even bigger disadvantage, she lunged closer, letting his claws dig deeper into her belly as she snapped his neck with her powerful jaws.
Her teeth sliced through bone and tendons until his bloody head rolled from his body. Her jaguar silently shouted in victory even as her body screamed in agony. While she didn’t enjoy taking a life, she’d done it before in the line of duty and this guy deserved it after the innocent humans he’d killed and for the innocent lives he’d still planned to take. And all for money. Disgusting.
Rolling off him, unbearable pain lanced through her. She stumbled and fell face-first onto the icy ground. She tried to get up, but could only emit a soft whimper as her limbs gave out. It felt as if giant daggers sliced through her middle, but she was lucid enough to realize Owen was shouting something at her.
He was in human form, naked as he knelt next to her. His words were jumbled as he continued shouting, his voice frantic. She tried to make out what he was saying, but it was too much. The darkness beckoned. More exhausted than she’d ever been, she let the black wave overtake her.
With his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes closed, Owen stood by the door of Dr. Shahi’s operating room where Gabriela was inside. The scent of her blood tickled his nostrils, making him nauseous. He still couldn’t get the sight of her ripped-open stomach out of his head. Didn’t think he ever would as long as he lived.
There was a slight sound of movement to his right in the waiting room but he kept his eyes shut, not wanting to see anyone. Gabriela’s parents, brothers and Skyler were on the right side and six members of his pack were on the left. Right now all he cared about was Gabriela.
If she didn’t make it…he swallowed hard, shutting down that thought before it could take root. She would make it. Thankfully one of those vamps had had a cell phone and he’d been able to call his brother for help. Owen had shifted to his human form and carried Gabriela nearly a mile. There had been so much blood he could still feel it on his hands even after he’d rinsed it off.
His brother and two pack mates had met them along a dirt road near where they’d killed the vamps and that jaguar and rushed Gabriela to Dr. Shahi’s. The vamps had turned to ash once he’d decapitated them, but the jaguar could rot for all he cared.
At the sound of the door opening, he turned and found himself inches from Dr. Shahi. Her dark eyes were filled with warmth and reassurance. She gave him a brief, small smile. The surge of relief made him lightheaded. If the doctor could smile at him like that, then Gabriela must be okay. “There was extensive internal damage, but Gabriela is healing nicely and quickly. As long as she stays in her jaguar form for the next day, she will be fine. Technically she should be fine within twelve hours, but I’ve sedated her and would like her to get as much rest as possible.”
Owen could hear Gabriela’s parents talking and asking questions behind him, but he nodded once at the doctor and murmured a “thank you” before hurrying into the room. The civilized part of his brain told him to let her parents in first, but he couldn’t stay away from her.
Stretched out on the long, rectangular metal table, he could see the stitches along her shaved belly. It was a much better sight than when he’d found her. Her dark coat of fur was shiny and he could see the slight rise and fall of her ribs each time she breathed. Bloody towels and bandages had been stuffed into a bin, but her body had been cleaned of it. He shook his head, trying to banish the images of Gabriela’s sliced-up body but couldn’t. His throat tightened as he grabbed a metal swivel stool and pulled it up to the table. Even though she was unconscious and in her jaguar form he didn’t like her resting on the uncomfortable table. He wanted to place her on cushions.
Afraid to touch her, he reached out, his hand hovering over her forepaw.
“It’s okay. She needs your touch.” He turned at the sound of Dr. Shahi’s voice.
Gabriela’s parents stood in the doorway behind the doctor, Gabriela’s petite mother glaring at him. Knowing what an ass he was being by barging in before them, he stood and motioned for them to enter. His throat was too tight to speak so he just stepped back and watched as her parents rushed to her side. Patricia, her mother, wept silent tears as she stroked a hand down Gabriela’s forepaw. Her father stood next to Patricia and stroked a hand down his wife’s back.
Owen felt as if he was intruding on a private moment, but he couldn’t force himself to leave. Gabriela’s brothers and Skyler quietly entered the room. His sister strode toward him and wrapped an arm around his waist, laying her head on his shoulder. “She’s going to be okay,” Skyler said softly, a soothing note in her voice.
“I know,” he rasped out. It didn’t take away from the horror at the thought of losing her. His claws and canines ached to be unsheathed. He wanted to kill those bastards all over again with a violent intensity that rocked him to his core.