Authors: Elle Thorne
hank you for reading
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shifter Bain Kozlov became a family member of the Romanoff clan. But he feels honor bound to fulfill the blood debt his dead brother Vey left behind. And that same honor is keeping him from pursuing the curvy woman he hasn’t been able to get out of his mind.
anther shifter Carina Araya
has held a secret since she was sixteen. Cleaning out her grandparents’ home has brought that secret to light—except the facts that Carina held to be true seem to be all lies. She can’t go forward with her life until she knows the truth. And part of that going forward is Bain. Bain, the mountain of a man with ice chip eyes.
and Carina as they travel to the West Coast to uncover secrets. See a few old friends along the way—Griz and the del Cruz brothers, plus Ciara, the mysterious Intuitive.
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ain strained against the restraints
. Iron shackles bit into his skin. His polar bear shifter senses picked up the smell of his fresh blood as it seeped from the wounds created by the shackles, oozing over the stale and crusty blood that marked his body with rust-colored random patterns.
No one knew he was here. No one would help him.
His father had disowned him; his Uncle Braden was out of town. And the newly found family that called him an honorary member, the Romanoffs, weren’t privy to the personal details of Bain’s life. They’d not miss him until Sunday dinner he always attended.
Even then, they’ll probably think I skipped without canceling.
It wasn’t likely they’d wonder what happened to him. He was a grown man, kept to himself. Why would they worry or wonder if he’d disappeared?
How long had he been here? He knew he was underground, somewhere in a basement, but it felt more like a dungeon. This prison, it had no windows, so he had no clue about the passage of time.
Eyes closed, he pulled the shackles again, though he knew it was fruitless for they were attached to a wall behind him constructed of stone. That much he knew for his shifter sight worked well in the dark, even without his bear. He’d seen the gray and black walls across from him and on each side. Rock walls with chains and old stains that had dripped from the bonds, pooled and dried on the concrete floor.
Clearly he was not the first to be kept prisoner here. What happened to the others?
I sure as hell don’t think I want whatever happened to them to happen to me.
Bain spoke to his bear, begging it to return. He knew this was in vain. His bear had been pushed out of him by the witch they’d brought in when he’d first been hit with the Tranq that knocked him out. He’d opened his eyes to find the witch over him, and then he’d felt a hollowness as his bear was taken.
He’d been here days; that much he knew.
The soft sound of footsteps interrupted his thoughts.
Creep as they might, he still heard the approaching feet. He remained still and kept his eyes closed.
“You think because your brother is dead that your family does not have a debt?”
That was a new voice. Curious about this one, he opened his eyes slowly and focused through the pain of being suspended.
A dark-haired man with eyes so black, his irises were indiscernible stood across from him in a suit clearly tailor-made, clearly Italian, and clearly worth more money than some people’s cars.
Instantly, Bain knew who he was. No shifter within five states wouldn’t know this man.
The questions that surfaced in Bain’s mind were, why was the Jersey black bear shifter in New York, and did he know what he would be risking if Mikhail Romanoff, the territory alpha knew that another alpha was in his area?
Maybe Mikhail did know. Maybe Gianfranco was here with permission, though Mikhail didn’t know Gianfranco’s purposes.
Bain moved to open his mouth, but found he couldn’t talk. His lips were chapped from dehydration and his throat felt like sand was poured down it.
“Maybe the debt doesn’t have to be yours. Your brother had other family members, after all. A son in Bear Canyon Valley and a father who doesn’t talk to you.” The Italian paused, then paced in front of Bain. “Little Dominic. A nephew that you carry a picture of. Yes, there are others who can pay your brother’s debt.” An imminent and sinister threat weighed heavily on the Italian’s words.
Bain’s throat muscles contorted as he tried to get the words out. To berate the man for threatening a little boy.
“What’s that? Is there something you have to say?”
“Pietro.” The Italian snapped his fingers with an aristocratic flair, as if beckoning a servant in ancient Rome. “Our guest needs water.”
A roaring sound assaulted Bain’s ears. He snapped his head to the left to see the source, to be rewarded by the bite of the shackle that encircled his neck. He bit back a cry that wouldn’t have come out anyway as the iron shackle sliced through his flesh.
He learned in fewer than a couple short seconds that the bite of the bonds was nothing compared to the high-powered hose that battered his skin with the force of a flesh-stripping fillet knife.
He shut his eyes as water pummeled his exposed face, tormenting skin and raw nerve endings. The shifter manning the hose lowered its aim, traveling it down his neck, over his chest, creating a torture that outrivaled any pain Bain had ever felt before.
Suddenly the water was turned off and the room was silent.
Bain opened his eyes, but couldn’t shake his head to clear the cascading water that half blinded him.
He wanted to rail at them for threatening a young boy and old man, but there really was only one alternative.
“I’ll pay the blood debt.”
and put her brushes up. She was at her studio, trying to get some work done, but there was no way she could concentrate because she wasn't looking forward to the task at hand.
The task of going to her grandparents' home, the lakeside cabin. It wasn't the drive that was daunting. It was what she had to do when she was there.
She had to settle their paperwork at the attorney's office, and begin the painful task of going through everything to sort out the things to keep and the things to let go in an estate sale.
Carina had been raised by her grandparents. And though the relationship was not always the best, they had been the closest thing to parents she'd had.
She studied the painting and shook her head.
Another painting of Bain.
It seemed she could no sooner get him out of her heart as she could her mind, or her muse. Every time she took out a fresh canvas, thinking she would paint something different, Bain's sky blue eyes and chiseled jaw came to mind. And then it traveled from her mind, to her fingertips, to her brush, to the canvas.
Her panther growled and hissed at her.
I know, I know.
But Carina didn't know. She knew he was her fated mate. Carina was no fool. She knew fated mates did not always work out. She'd seen it herself amongst her shifter friends. It seemed one thing or another kept fated mates apart sometimes.
She wondered if Bain sensed they were fated mates. Every now and then, she'd see a gleam in his eye, but who knew what that could be.
When he passed her the gravy boat two weeks ago, a sizzle that electrified her senses had traveled between their fingertips. She glanced up to see if he was looking at her, if he'd noticed, but he was turning his gaze toward Alannah, who was recounting a story to Fiona.
A sadness coursed through her at the thought he was attracted to the witch Alannah.
at his opponent in the cage, looking every bit the warrior that Bain was not. Fighting in a cage was not who Bain was. Not at all. Never had been. He'd seen his brother Vey fight too many people, too many times, for no good reason most of the time.
Bain tensed. He focused his gaze on that warrior as he walked down the aisle, approaching.
Bain’s bear snarled.
Thankfully, whatever the witch had done to his bear had not been permanent, as he’d come back shortly after Bain was released from his captivity.
Not that he could use the bear.
The rules for this fight were clear.
No shifting into your animal, though using your animal’s strength was allowed, only in human form, however.
The audience was composed of shifters and humans.
The shifters knew the fighters were human and had to battle within themselves to keep their animals from coming out to fight.
The humans had no idea. All they knew was that the fights were known for being particularly brutal.
Bain’s eyes traveled over the sea of onlookers. Their lust for the blood being shed tonight shined in their eyes.
He turned his attention to his opponent.
The warrior Bain was to fight was flanked by his coaches, handlers, and whoever else did this sort of thing. Bain wouldn't know, nor would he care. This cage fighting shit was not for him. He was here to meet an obligation.
Bain mounted the stairs and stepped into the cage. He tuned out the MC squawking above them over the speaker, ignored the referee who checked them over, and stepped to the center when he was cleared.
Before him, his opponent was larger. No easy feat since Bain was typically the tallest and most muscular man in a room.
No sooner had the bell rang, then Bain found himself on the receiving end of a flurry of punches, each delivered with the force of a sledgehammer. His ribs were being pummeled.
Bain returned the favor, trying to match his opponent, strike for strike. For every two hits his opponent made, Bain landed one. He stared at his opponent's eyes filled with a dispassionate coolness that spelled death if given the chance.
Punch after punch, blow after blow, second after second, Bain tried to give as good as he got.
“Go Bain!” A voice he recognized.
Bain's head snapped to see if what he'd heard was real, and he paid a steep price. He didn't see the fist until it hit his cheek and pulled back and then he felt it two more times.
Glancing outside the ring had cost him dearly. Luckily, the bell rang and ended the first round.
He spit his mouthpiece out. “Braden.” Bain wiped his face with a towel. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“I can ask you the same, nephew.”
The bell rang.
“Got to go.”
“I’ll talk to you after the match,” Braden said.
* * *
.” Braden smacked Bain on the back.
Probably the one place he wasn’t bruised and battered, thankfully.
“Not exactly,” Bain grimaced. “This is not exactly my thing.”
“So why do it?”
The Italian walked by, gave Bain a look.
Bain nodded, keeping the look of distaste from his face. Then he turned back to his uncle. “I have a debt to repay.”
“You know him?”
Bain shrugged. “Sort of.”
“Steer clear. He’s trouble.”
Braden opened his mouth, but Bain did not feel like answering any questions. He held up his hand to stop his uncle.
“How about a beer?”
“Now you're talking.”
* * *
n the semi
-dark room of MacArthur's Bar and Grill, Bain pulled out a weathered and scratched honey-colored oak stool next to Braden. He flinched as he took the seat. Every single part of his body ached from tonight’s pummeling.
“Where's your girl tonight?”
Braden made a face. “Don't have one anymore. Where's yours?”
“Never said I had one.” Bain held up two fingers to the bartender. “Stouts.”
“I thought you had something for that Romanoff girl.”
“I never said that. And she's not a Romanoff girl. She's the sister of one of the Romanoff girls.”
“Oh, yeah.” Sarcasm rang. “That's a big difference. So what came of that?”
“I almost asked her out.” Bain picked up the beer. “But I have other things to take care of first.” Bain chugged his beer, Carina Araya on his brain. This damned cage fighting was going to be the death of any romance in his life. He would have pursued her, before he met the Italian. Now, there were other things to concentrate on. Like staying alive. Like not getting her mixed up in that mess.
“So what about this debt? Gambling?”
“I told you I don’t want to talk about it.”
“So how about having someone in your corner,” Braden said with a smile, then took a drink.
“It'd be nice to have someone in my corner.”
“I got nothing better do now that Karen's out of my life.”
“You know I'm kidding, I'd be there no matter what. So when you gonna quit doing the fighting shit? Because I know it's not testosterone you're trying to get out of your system, and I'm pretty sure it's not money lost gambling.”
Fuck, Braden’s persistent.
“Nope. Not gambling. Don’t worry about it. I have a debt to settle. K?”
Braden shrugged. “When do you head out of town?”
“Bet you’re all kinds of excited.”
Bain nodded. He was excited to see Dominic. He’d been nervous about asking Mae and Mikhail to set up his visit to Bear Canyon Valley to see his nephew, especially after his father had been so eager to see Marti’s mate in a legal bind over Vey’s death.
“I’m flying out. Mikhail is letting me borrow his pilot and plane.”
“Nice to have connections.”
Bain couldn’t argue that point.