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Authors: Shari Elder

Shifter Trials

BOOK: Shifter Trials
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E
VERNIGHT PUBLISHING ®

 

www.evernightpublishing.com

 

 

 

Copyright© 2016 Shari Elder

 

 

ISBN: 978-1-77233-918-5

 

Cover Artist: Jay Aheer

 

Editor: Karyn White

 

 

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

 

WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal.  No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.

 

This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

SHIFTER TRIALS

 

 

Shari Elder

 

Copyright © 2016

 

 

 

Full Moon

 

With her heart slamming against her ribcage, Talia Orion vaulted across the finish line still in wolf form, the cougar shifter only minutes behind her. Flashing to her human body, she grabbed the ritual torch and lit the clan fire pit. Orange fingers licked at the full moon in the starless sky, signaling this month’s trials were officially over.

“You’re slowing down,” Nicca Baron, her senior advisor from the wolf clan and the closest thing a clan alpha had to a friend, told her as she placed her stocky, muscled body between her and the crowds that always came out to watch the trials.

“Oh, really?” Talia wheezed, her frustration muted by her need for oxygen. That finale was too close. Rick Shephard was the last shifter under the moon and sun she wanted as a consort. Two hundred and forty more seconds and they’d be sharing a bed.

“Temper, temper. You’ll lose and have to marry eventually.”

“When my fur turns gray and my feathers wither.” She refused to settle for her parents’ fate. “In the meantime…” Her breath back and anger in full bloom, she swung around and stomped over to two lean, crimson-lipped, straight haired vampires with cheekbones that slashed across their faces. They looked like the two trainers she had previously, and the two before that. “My lead time decreased by almost ten minutes. You’re fired. Pick up two months’ pay from Councilor Baron, grab any personal belongings you left at the training facility, and leave clan territory.”

“You’re getting harder,” Nicca commented after the vampires left.

Talia rolled her eyes. “And I used to be able to have a mani-pedi while waiting for the aspirant to finish the circuit.” Leading a single clan was more than most alphas could handle. She governed two and on the night of the full moon had to respond to any male who put himself in the running for consort. Only a shifter who beat her in a grueling twenty-mile marathon through the forest, that included hill and rock climbs and water navigation, could claim that place.
Thank you, Mom and Dad.

“You’ll be needing a new trainer.” A smooth, deep voice, like aged, honeyed whisky pulled her out of her thoughts. “I’d like to apply.”

Her eyes scanned curly black hair that teased a well-formed cheek, emerald eyes that glimmered with humor, washboard abs straining against a tight black t-shirt, and shoulders that could stop a truck.

“I only use vampires.” As the only shifter known who could transform to wolf and eagle forms, she needed powerful trainers who could work with her on land and in the air. The rules of the trials forbid vampires from entering, but they were as physically strong as any shifter and could fly in bat form. And they turned her off sexually—that too-pale skin and those lean, angular frames. Since freedom to choose a love match was denied her, she eschewed all liaisons. Keeping the wolves and eagles from ripping each other part kept her busy enough, especially with the fae on the rise. Soul-deep loneliness only visited from time to time.

“I
am
a vampire, Talia.” He said her name in a rich, mellow cadence that skated along her skin. That voice would be so sexy in bed. So would the rest of him.

She inspected more closely.
Nah.
He couldn’t be bat. His skin had an almost gold cast as if it had seen the sun a time or two. “You don’t look like any vampire I’ve ever met.” She sniffed, full wolf senses on. The aroma of deep forest and musk had her flesh tingling. “Your odor’s different, too.”

When he smiled, sexy and sinful, showing off those razor-sharp canines against full, kissable lips, heat exploded down her spine.

“Vamps are fae-human hybrids, created with reproductive technologies. One never knows how genes mix.”

“That makes you pretty. It doesn’t make you a trainer.”

He chuckled. “I also coached the last three aspirants.”

Feathered hell.
“I should lock you up and throw away the key.” She used to win the trials without breaking a sweat. The last three had given her real competition.

“Better to have me on your side. I just need to slice a little more time off the next one.” His face reminded her of carved marble. Cool, perfectly sculpted, and revealing nothing.

“I usually work with two trainers. One is always fresh, pushing me to the limit.”

“I’m more than enough.”

She rolled her eyes. “Arrogance is not in the job description.”

“No, discipline is.” He leaned towards her so his breath, smelling of mint not blood, warmed her cheek. “You’ll be satisfied with the results.” His eyes darkened to a hunter green.

His desire wrapped around her, igniting the sexual hungers of the wolf and the eagle, now clawing through her control. Her beasts, which chafed at the celibate life she imposed on them, awoke to his dominance, so bright she could almost see its aura pulsing from his skin. The firm lid she kept on her animal forms failing, she gripped her fists so tight fat drops of blood plopped on the ground, intensifying the vampire’s carnal hunger. Her breath and heart rate accelerated in time to his, which she easily monitored with her shifter senses.

“Let me do a background check on him,” Nicca offered, giving her a chance to gulp in some air, unlock her fingers from her skin, and retighten the leashes.

“I don’t know.” Learning to control two predatory beasts from youth had made Talia powerful but also vulnerable. Being physically attracted to one’s trainer when she denied herself lovers seemed liked a really bad idea.

“Give me one moon cycle. Until the next trials. Just try me.”

“No.” She needed to get away from him and turned to head home.

“You’ll sleep,” he yelled out.

That stopped her short. “What?” she said without turning.

“I’ll work you so hard, you’ll sleep like a pup.” He promised it as if he knew she struggled with insomnia. Her lack of rest was slowing her on the circuit and making it harder to manage her beasts and her clans.

“If he could do that…” she whispered to herself.

“If he did train the last three…” Nicca added, cementing the decision.

“All right, one month,” Talia said as she turned to face him. “Meet me in the training room, tomorrow night. We train five nights a week. Nicca will give you directions once you’ve she’s approved you, Mr. …”

“Mitchell. Hayden Mitchell. Tomorrow night, then.” He winked, then strode away with the lazy, confident lope of a predator at rest, not the restless energy that marked most vampires.

“Nice ass. He may be exactly what you need,” Nicca commented, although she was staring off, her eyes unfixed.

“Do you know him?”

“Not sure.” Nicca’s eyes lowered more quickly than usual. Very few could hold Talia’s stare. Even fewer tried to look her in the eye, finding the two different colors hard to take.

“You’re a lousy liar. Spill it.”

“He seems familiar, but I can’t place him. He has to have been coming to the past few trials. That’s probably it.”

Still not the full truth, but she’d let it pass. She trusted Nicca, and knew her well. Most likely, Nicca suspected something and wanted to check it out first. Her councilor’s obsession with getting to the truth meant she tended to shy away from spouting rumors and innuendo until she actually knew what was what. 

“Let me know what you find out.”

She nodded, her eyes narrow slits. Nicca was definitely chewing on something.

****

As he walked out of the clan complex, Hayden sported a shit-eating grin. He’d been coming to watch the trials over the past year, since he first glimpsed Talia bounding through overgrown brush to snatch a pup being tortured by a swarm of demi-fae. A rare white wolf with a smattering of copper at the ears, one eye the pale blue of the summer sky, the other polished amber that shone as if it were tinted with gold. She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Until she shifted to her human form. White blonde hair curled wildly, kissing sun-bronzed skin. Those unique eyes glittered in pure joy as the pup wriggled in her arms. Smitten, he’d put the idea of an alliance with the predatory shifters in the vampire clan leader’s head, and Maya had readily agreed. Over the past year, he made it his business to learn all he could about Talia. Picking and training aspirants was an ideal way to stay in her orbit and remain unseen. His plan, painstakingly built over the past year, was ready. Hell, he even knew the promise of a good night’s sleep would win her over. 

He pulled the phone from his back pocket and hit the first number on his speed dial. “We’re in play. Expect contact from Nicca Baron.”  

He chuckled to himself as he put the phone away. Talia Orion and her clans would join with him and his. No rules, regulations, or the stubborn strength of the woman herself would stand in his way.

 

Waning Gibbous

 

The three quarter moon, tinted yellow, shone bright in the autumn sky when Talia arrived early at the outdoor training territory to find Hayden Mitchell had arrived even earlier. He looked good enough to eat in form-fitting black workout clothes.
Vamps should not be so damn buff.
Thank goodness, shifting, which was essentially atoms reforming themselves from one shape to another, included clothes in the change. She’d pounce on him if she had to train naked with him, as youths did before they mastered the subtleties of rearranging atoms.

“Show me what you got,” she barked, sounding more irritated than she felt. Both the wolf and the eagle woke up in his presence, and she needed to move to keep them under control.

“Warm up. Three miles as a human, three in wolf, three in eagle, last mile return to human.”

“I start my warm-ups in wolf form.”

“And you always begin the trials as a wolf and that makes you predictable. Human form. Clock starts now. If I win, you owe me a kiss.” He bolted ahead, the muscles of that fine ass flexing as he moved.

Insolent bat
. She dragged her muscles, still tight from yesterday’s marathon, along the trail. Leaves and sticks crunched under her heavy pace. Her wolf, disappointed at not being released, made her clumsy. When she finally shifted, the damn vamp had a half mile on her. He ran faster than a shifter in human shape, a rare occurrence. Pushing herself, she halved the distance, figuring she’d make it up in the air, which was always her ace in the hole. But Hayden’s bat proved quicker and faster on a straight flight and surprising maneuverable.
He could win.

When it was time to land, she nosed down and made up the time. A frickin’ bat could not come close to an eagle’s speed in attack formation. They were neck and neck by the time they hit the ground and switched to human. Then Hayden accelerated. She pushed to catch him. Her legs burned, her chest threatened to explode and her eyes teared, but she kept going.
He can’t beat me.

But that perfect body crossed the finish line seconds before she did.

“Jog another quarter mile to get your rate down.”

She let out a string of curses that would make a rat shifter proud, even though he was right. She just hated to lose. More accurately, she hated the idea she could lose. Given how badly her parents’ political joining had turned out, she’d sworn she would train herself into the grave rather than accept the political marriage the trials would deliver. No one ever defeated her. Until now. Thank the gods, vampires and other fae were forbidden to compete in the trials. 

With the cool down completed, she leaned back against an ancient oak, its rough bark poked into her back. “You barely broke a sweat. How did you get so fast?”

“I work out, not a common vampire hobby. My physical differences were even more pronounced when I was young, making me, easy pickings. I got tired of it.”

“Your bat, it looked different than the standard vampire. White tips on your wings. More of a tail.”

“Eyes glued to my butt, eh?”

She wanted to slap him, but the grin he flashed had her melting into a pile of goo.

“Well, you won,” she whispered, suddenly shy, a unique sensation for an alpha of two predatory clans.

“Yeah, I did.” He padded over to her, breathing more rapidly than normal, the only evidence of his physical exertion. With a single calloused finger, he gently traced the angle of her cheekbone, the jut of her jaw, and swirled circles around the pulse pounding in her throat. Sparks exploded everyplace he touched.

“I’ll claim the prize in my own way, in my own time.” Those emerald eyes, locked onto hers, twinkled in impish delight. She could do nothing but smile back. In her recent memory, no one dared to play with her. Hell, no one held her gaze like that.

“Time to climb.” He turned and headed toward the rocks.

Damn if she wasn’t disappointed.

 

BOOK: Shifter Trials
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