This is a free sample of the first chapter of Shifter Mate Magic (Ice Age Shifters Book 1), a paranormal romance by Carol Van Natta.
Southern Wyoming, Summer 1993
Jackie Breton needed to pee in the worst way.
Being five months pregnant meant stopping at every back-road truck stop and gas station, and sometimes behind bushes because her bladder was now the size of a damn walnut. Constant vibration from the motorcycle didn’t help.
The faded billboard for Otto’s Truck Stop, Take Next Right, enticed her, even though she really wanted to get through Cheyenne before it got too dark to find the highway that would take her east. Rural roads didn’t have streetlights. She’d had her fill of dusty back roads and oblivious drivers in smelly diesel pickup trucks. A sharp kick from the baby inside her belly confirmed her decision. She slowed the bike and turned and was gratified to see her destination right away.
Otto’s was bigger than she’d imagined, with dozens of long-haul semis, recreational vehicles, and pickup trucks in the sprawling parking lot. The crowd gave her pause, but not enough to turn away. She found a place to park near the front of the main building. The window decorations carried the western wildlife theme into the realm of kitschy, but she liked it.
As she deployed the kickstand and turned off the engine, her bladder spasmed, meaning she had to wait agonizing seconds for the urge to subside, or she’d leak, which would be too utterly embarrassing. She tightened her gloved fists on her thighs and willed the spasm to go away.
When she was sure she had control again, she took off her gloves and shoved them into her jacket pocket, then pulled the key and pocketed it, too. She stomped to get the circulation going in her unexpectedly rubbery legs as she took her backpack off the rail and shouldered it.
After a moment’s hesitation, she slid her homemade weapon from the closest saddlebag into the pocket of her loose cargo pants. Just because the brightly lit convenience store section seemed inviting and friendly didn’t make it safe. She’d learned that lesson and so many others the hard way.
She pulled off the helmet, then slipped the re-snapped strap over her arm like a purse, albeit one with a hand-painted flaming skull. She’d been lucky to find a helmet close to her size in the thrift store. Its dusty face shield sported tiny scars from pebbles and splats from insects that would have been in her face if she hadn’t been wearing it. The motorcycle’s front fairing and windshield didn’t block everything.
The ill-fitting leather jacket and thick jeans felt like a furnace now that she was standing in the dry summer heat of twilight, but she wouldn’t be there long enough to make it worth her time to do more than unzip the jacket. She guessed she had forty-five minutes until sunset.
Outdoor speakers blared the upbeat country song about an achy-breaky heart. An errant breeze felt good on her sweat-plastered short hair, but the mixed smells of oil and gas threatened a return of the awful morning sickness she’d endured for the first sixteen weeks of her pregnancy. She hurried inside.
At the counter, she caught the attention of the clerk. “Restrooms?”
The bony blonde woman with too much makeup over her acne pointed toward the back. “Look for the orange signs. You gotta buy something if you use ’em.”
Jackie nodded and walked quickly, following the arrows. Luckily, she didn’t have to wait in line or share the facilities. After the blessed relief of peeing, she used soap and water from the sink to make herself look as presentable as possible under the circumstances. Her light brown skin already made her stand out, because the farther north she’d traveled, the fewer people she’d seen who looked like her. She threw the soiled paper towels in the trash and eyed herself critically in the mirror. At least now she didn’t look like a dangerous fugitive who’d escaped a violent pack of leopard shifters who wanted her back alive or, dead. Despite the warmth of the restroom, she shivered.
“Get back to the plan, Jackie,” she told her mirrored self. She couldn’t afford to fall apart, or everything she was afraid of would come to pass. She bent over to drink straight from the sink’s faucet, then wiped the water off her face. She re-centered her her backpack and went out into the convenience store.
The smells of warm bread and sizzling hamburgers drew her like a lodestone toward the restaurant section, but she couldn’t afford to waste the time or the money. She sternly made herself march into the back aisle and open the refrigerator door for the lunch meats and cheeses.
She got a whiff of a tantalizing scent as she pulled her selections off the hooks. Not food, but something intensely interesting. Her sense of hearing and smell had magnified with each passing week of her pregnancy. She wished she knew if that was typical for a human woman carrying a shifter’s child but she had no one to ask. Certainly not the lying son-of-a-bitch leopard who’d gotten her pregnant, despite her precautions. She hoped he was roasting in hell, but he probably wasn’t. Justice for the privileged rich, regardless of skin color or species, had a whole different set of rules.
She let go of the refrigerator door and turned toward the scent, only to run headlong into a man who’d just turned down the aisle.
“Sorry,” she said, even as he said the same word. She regained control of her suddenly clumsy feet. She got the impression of chiseled cheekbones and a square jaw before she dropped her gaze out of habit, one learned from living with volatile shifters. His scent hit her like a freight train a moment later, all woodsy and leathery and mouth-wateringly male.
No one, not even the father of her baby, back when she’d thought she was in love with him and he with her, had ever smelled that good. She took a step back, because if she hadn’t, she’d have been tempted to stick her face in the vee of his short-sleeved T-shirt and lick.
“My fault,” he said. “Are you…” He trailed off and audibly swallowed.
She made the mistake of looking up at him and confirmed that he was the sexiest man she’d ever seen, even counting the handsome actors she’d thrilled over as a teenager. His brown skin and features spoke of an ethnic heritage something like hers, and his warm, coppery-brown eyes threatened to drown her on the spot. His wide shoulders and arms looked strong enough to protect her from anything. The few tight coils of hair on his muscled chest mirrored the close-cropped hair on his head. His low-slung jeans and boots completed the mesmerizing package.
She swallowed and took another step back, away from temptation. “I’m fine.”
Except she wasn’t. She wanted to set fire to all her plans in favor of getting to know the man standing in front of her. For his part, he looked stunned.
She shook herself. Not, not, not happening. She was a pregnant fugitive with enough secrets to write her own soap opera, and an implacable enemy on her tail. A human, no matter how tall, broad-shouldered, and sexy, was no match for a criminal cat-shifter pride with claws and teeth, and vengeance on their minds.
She clutched her meat and cheese packages to her chest and turned away, even though her now throbbing body and aching breasts begged her to get closer. She’d learned to ride out the hormonal roller coaster of being pregnant, so she could damn well ride this out, too.
She made her way to the register, then realized she’d forgotten milk. Before she’d gotten pregnant, she’d been allergic to the stuff, and she still disliked it, but carrying a leopard-shifter’s child made her crave it, so she compromised by drinking chocolate milk whenever she could.
She left her purchases on the counter, ignoring the blonde clerk’s irritated look. Better that than having the woman accuse Jackie of shoplifting. Been there, done that, had the long wait for the cops.
She ignored her impulse to find Mr. Broad Shoulders again and walked to the other side of the store where the drink coolers took up a whole wall.
Two men who looked enough alike to be brothers were arguing in front of the beer case. They wore loose, motorcycle-club leather vests over their dusty jeans and T-shirts and stank of stale sweat and belched beer.
The taller man pulled the six-pack of yellow cans out of the shorter man’s arms and shoved it back in the case. “No way am I drinking that swill.” He grabbed a carton of brown bottles and shoved it into the other man’s arms.
The shorter man shoved the carton back into the other’s hands and grabbed the cans again. “I’m not pissing Dad off. You can fucking buy your own.”
Jackie hesitated, then told herself just to get her milk and get out. She marched to the door, opened it, and grabbed the first chocolate milk carton she saw. Her baby picked that moment to kick hard and sharp. “Shouldn’t have watched that kung fu movie last week,” she muttered toward her belly.
“Hi, there, foxy lady. I’m Wiley.”
She flinched in surprise. Somehow, the shorter man with the dark eyes and thin mouth had snuck up on her and was standing close enough to grab her.
“Your face’d be prettier if you’d smile.” He was only a couple of inches taller than her five-foot-eight height. He scented the air like a dog. “Damn, woman. You smell fucking great.” His eyes narrowed, and his focus intensified.
She backed away, fear rising. Only shifters noticed her scent like that. She couldn’t help it that she smelled like a sexy baby factory to shifter males, even when she was pregnant. It was just her luck to run into shifters in an all-night truck stop. She’d had enough of the lazy, greedy breed to last a lifetime.
“Back off,” she said firmly, dropping her arm so her helmet’s strap slid down her forearm into her waiting hand.
The taller man came up behind Wiley. “How much for a BJ?”
It took her a moment to realize he thought she was a truck-stop prostitute. “Not for sale,” she snapped. She’d take time to be outraged later.
She backed up another step, but Wiley grabbed her arm. The movement knocked the milk carton out of her hand. The carton bounced once and began leaking.
The taller man eyed her stomach and sneered. “Everything’s for sale if the price is right. Fat girls like you oughta be grateful for what you can get.”
Her jaw dropped. Fat girl?
The taller man weaved a little and reeked of alcohol. It took pounding down a lot of hard liquor for a shifter to get drunk. He scented the air, and his smile turned feral. “We’ll show you a real good time.”
Her fear and anger spiked. “I said no!” She stomped hard on Wiley’s instep, then kneed him.
He buckled in pain. Not even shifters were immune to nut shots.
She pivoted and ran toward the bathrooms where she’d noticed a back door. Adrenaline gave her feet wings.
She heard curses behind her as she rounded the corner into the hallway. She hit the door’s exit bar at top speed and burst through it into the wide alley. The buildings cast darker shadows at dusk. She stumbled as she lost traction on the dirt and gravel, but recovered and took off to the left, away from the multiple trash bins and toward the well-lit asphalt parking lot. Maybe she could get help from some of the truckers.
She’d almost made it to the pavement when she heard pounding footsteps and growling behind her. Acting on instinct, she veered right, then used her momentum to spin around. She bashed the tall, drunk man on the head with her helmet.
He staggered and fell to one knee. “Fuck!”
She launched into a run, only to get jerked back when he grabbed the back hem of her jacket. She spun sideways, out of his grasp, and swung at him again with the helmet.
He blocked it with his forearm, then ripped the helmet from her grasp and threw it away.
She backed up.
He clambered to his feet and smiled. “Feisty! I like that.” He reached out long arms to corral her, but she dodged away.
She fumbled in the pocket of her cargo pants and pulled out the slender, rusty pipe, then powered it.
From the back doorway, a big dog—no, a coyote burst out and landed. It trotted straight for her. The coyote was larger than its animal-world counterpart, as some shifters were.
The tall man grabbed for her again.
“No!” She thwacked his exposed wrist with her pipe. A blue spark flashed. He jerked back and howled in pain. She jabbed the pipe into his stomach.
He fell sideways and spasmed like he’d been hit with a cattle prod. Which he had, after a fashion, because that’s what the magic she’d stored in the tube did.
The coyote slowed and stalked toward her, growling with yellow-eyed menace.
She took a swipe at his muzzle with her tube. “Back off, fur butt!”
She felt something on her leg and looked down just as the tall man’s hand clamped around her ankle. He growled through temporarily distorted teeth. Shit, he was changing right there, in almost-public, without bothering to take off his clothes. The first coyote lunged forward to grab her forearm. She shrieked, but her husky voice had never been very loud. She pushed her forearm into his mouth to make him gag and back off, grimly hanging onto her pipe.
A huge, rounded shadow emerged from the other end of the alley, near the trash bins. It barreled toward them with a roar loud enough to reverberate off the brick walls.
The coyote spun to face the new menace with a snarl.
The taller man finished shifting and shook off the shreds of his pants and ripped vest. The remnants of his T-shirt looked like a cheap collar.
She backed away, intending to run, but found herself unable to take her eyes off the largest, shaggiest bear she’d ever seen. Not that she’d seen one up close before. It was as big as a diesel pickup truck and had distinctive pale markings across its furry nose and chest.
The first coyote darted sideways to slash sharp teeth at the bear’s throat. The bear ignored him as it swung a mighty paw at the T-shirt coyote, knocking him back a good ten feet. T-shirt coyote slowly scrabbled to his feet, shaking his head as if dazed.
The other coyote danced back, and then in again, biting the bear’s shoulder. The bear turned and snapped wickedly long teeth at the coyote. He nimbly dodged away.
The T-shirt coyote lunged forward and bit at the bear’s other shoulder, but only came away with a mouthful of shaggy fur. The bear growled and swatted the T-shirt coyote again. This time, he flew through the air and hit the brick wall of the store hard with a pained yip, then fell to the ground.
The bear turned to snap at the other coyote again. The coyote scrambled backward, then lunged in and bit the bear’s flank.
The bear sat on him.
The squashed coyote whined, then was silent.
She glanced at the T-shirt coyote, but he lay unmoving in the dirt.
A powerful wave of something indescribable buffeted her senses, sort of like magic, but not. It seemed to come from the bear, and felt like an imperative to do something, but she didn’t know what.
Her brain managed to get a coherent thought past her shock. If the huge bear shifter with equally huge claws thought she smelled really good, she’d have no chance at all of getting away. Fear galvanized her into backing up with tiny, shuffling steps. Maybe he wouldn’t notice…
The bear whined, and she froze.
The massive animal heaved itself up and forward. Even as she watched, the flattened coyote was shifting back into a naked man. He was out cold. A quick glance toward the wall told her the other shifter was now human, too, wearing nothing but the ragged T-shirt collar.
The bear took a step toward her.
She trembled with the need to run but running prey excited predator shifters. She couldn’t help the whimper of fear that escaped her.
More not-magic brushed her senses, this time like a velvety soft blanket against her skin.
In an instant, the bear became a fully clothed man wearing jeans and a V-necked T-shirt over a hundred yards of muscles. Mr. Broad Shoulders himself.
Of course, the hottest man on Earth would turn out to be a shifter.
“Are you hurt?” His tone matched his worried expression. Even his voice made her want to step closer so he could whisper in her ear.
“No, I’m fine.” Her baby took that moment to kick, and she winced.
He took one small step forward. “You’re in pain.”
“It’ll go away.” She darted her gaze away for a moment to look for her helmet. “Thank you for helping me.” She kept her eyes on him as she took a trial step away, to see how he reacted. When he did nothing but stand there, with worry tightening his wide, kissable mouth, she moved slowly toward her helmet, watching him the whole time. Her makeshift magic-powered pipe needed recharging, so she slid it into the pocket of her cargo pants before bending over to pick up the helmet.
He cleared his throat. “Could I, er, buy you a cup of coffee?” His tone almost sounded shy.
Yes, yes, yes, sang her body, suddenly flush with raging hormones. She almost swayed toward him.
No, no, no, shouted her rational brain, the one that had plans. The first and only time she’d listened to her body, she’d ended up pregnant and an unwilling captive of a feline-shifter pride.
“Thanks, but I’m already running late.” She sidled toward the asphalt edge of the parking lot. It felt wrong to move away from him, but her situation made anything between them impossible. “I’m truly grateful for what you did.” She tilted her head toward the men lying in the alley. “Shifting in public like that means they’re fur-brained fatheads. Neither of us should be here when they wake up.”
“Let me at least walk you to wherever your bike is parked.” He pointed a thumb toward the convenience store’s back door. “They may have buddies.”
She hesitated, then sighed. “Okay. Thanks.” She should have thought of that. Asshole shifters always had buddies.
She stepped up onto the asphalt. He put his hands in his pockets and rounded his shoulders, as if trying to make himself look harmless. He failed miserably, because it drew attention to his low-slung jeans and made her wonder what he’d look like without them. She’d bet her motorcycle he’d look a damn sight better than two scrawny coyotes.
They walked quietly together as the parking lot’s lights blinked on. His mother must have brought him up right, because he matched his stride to hers and kept a respectful distance. She allowed herself the secret, impossible fantasy that he was her man and she was his woman.
“Do you have someone you can call?” He glanced at her stomach, then away. “A mate, maybe?”
“No, thank God. I’ve had quite enough of shifters for a while.” Realizing what she’d said, she added hastily, “Present company excepted.”
He shrugged one shoulder, but his mouth twitched with humor. It gave her the wild impulse to do whatever it took to see him really smile, because she just knew he’d be stunning. And she shouldn’t be having those thoughts. She was a total basket case.
The sun dipped to touch the highest mountains to the west just as they arrived at her motorcycle. It looked lonely, standing by itself.
She shook off the fantasy, then looked up into his beautiful coppery eyes. “Thank you again.”
“I was thinking.” He tightened his hands into fists in his pockets, making his arm muscles bulge. “My semi only has half a load in the trailer. I could put your bike in there and take you someplace safe for the night.”
She shook her head. “That’s a gracious offer, but I need to keep moving.” She zipped up the jacket to prevent it from flapping in the wind and turned the kerchief at her neck around, so she could pull it up over her mouth to protect against road dust.
His eyes darkened. “If you’re in trouble, maybe I can help.”
He was making this so hard. “If I were in trouble, it would be horribly unfair of me to drag you into it, after you kicked coyote-shifter ass for me.” She fished the key out of her pocket and put it in the ignition.
“I wouldn’t mind.” His resolute expression hinted at stubborn determination. He glanced to her stomach again. “You shouldn’t be unprotected.”
She appreciated his tact. He’d obviously figured out she was pregnant. Shifters could scent that kind of thing immediately. The coyotes should have noticed, but they’d been too drunk on high-test booze and shifter-mate lust.
“I shouldn’t be a lot of things, but here I am.” An absurd thought crossed her mind, and her eyes went wide. “Oh my God! The name of the shifter you sat on was Wiley. You sat on Wiley Coyote!” She almost doubled over with laughter. It felt like forever since she’d found anything to laugh about.
His wide grin was every bit as sexy as the rest of him. “He must hate those cartoons.”
Still chuckling, she undid the helmet’s strap. “I’ll remember seeing that for the rest of my life.” She hoped he’d think she meant his bear form sitting on the coyote, and not his amazing smile that would be etched in her memory forever.
She dusted off the faceplate on her pants, relieved to find it not even scratched. She pulled the helmet on and secured the strap under her chin.
He pulled his wallet out and handed her a card. “This is me. That number is for a cellular phone that’s in my rig. If you ever need me to sit on someone, or you just want to talk, I hope you’ll call me.”
She took the card and read the top line out loud. “Trevor Hammond Independent Trucking.” She put the card safely in the zippered pocket over her chest. “I’m Jackie Breton, by the way. Well, Jacqueline, but only my mother and my former boss called me that.” That was another life, one she could never go back to. She pulled out her gloves and put them on.
“Nice to meet you, Jackie.” He stepped back. He looked as deeply unhappy as she felt, but that didn’t make much sense. He was a big, strong, healthy bear shifter, with wicked-long claws and magic, not an almost powerless, pregnant, terrified human on the run.
She straddled her bike and rocked it forward, letting the motion close the kickstand. She started the engine, gunned the hand throttle enough to make a slow circle, then straightened out and headed for the parking lot’s exit. She briefly lifted one hand and waved in case Trevor was still watching.
She liked the sound of his name. Hell, she liked the sound of everything about him, not to mention wanting to rub herself over every inch of him, even though she hadn’t been force-changed into a feline. If her life ever got normal again, maybe she would call him.
She shook her head. Her life was not Last of the Mohicans, with her handsome savior telling her to stay alive and promising that no matter where she went, he would find her. It was more like Marked for Death, where she’d be lucky to survive the vindictive people after her.
She squared her shoulders and got back to her plan. It was her best shot at staying alive. Probably her only shot.
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