Marcus Galin gripped the black onyx amulet so tightly in his fist, the pointed edges threatened to pierce the calloused skin of his palm. Alone at the table facing the front door of the rustic but elegant restaurant of the Castillo resort, he forced his grasp to relax and contemplated ordering a shot of tequila. A thread of dark humor twisted through his thoughts and he decided to make it a shot of Jamaican rum instead, in honor of his blind date.
A surprisingly cool breeze blew through the open windows that looked down the mountain side onto the port city of Kingston, Jamaica far below. The setting sun added a golden hue to the light bathing the ridges and curves of the Blue Mountains and he couldn’t help but find joy in the sight. As a shifter, his soul bonded with the earth and even though the Blue Mountains were nothing like his home in the Appalachian Mountains, they still called to him. He’d like nothing more than to stash his clothes and go for a run through the tropical forest, but he wasn’t there for his pleasure.
Well, he was, but not like that. His pleasure came second to the needs of his people and finding a beta worthy of them.
Four months earlier the Turquoise Fang Pride, where they hosted him to help him learn the ropes of being an Alpha, had nearly been torn apart. Stephen, an Alpha who’d been engaged to Kara, the eldest daughter of the leader of the Turquoise Moon Pride since birth, turned out to be a murdering psychopath. Thankfully Kara and her mates stopped his secret reign of terror, but not before Stephen killed Goddess knows how many innocent people. There were always rogue shifters who gave into to their primal natures to hunt and kill, but were usually careless and blood thirsty, easy to spot and put down. Stephen had been cold, calculating, and utterly ruthless.
Guilt, anger and more guilt filled his mouth with bitter bile he tried to wash away with a long gulp of robust coffee. He couldn’t fight against Stephen’s irresistible enchantment that so easily ensnared his mind and told him Stephen was a wonderful man in love with a crazy woman. Marcus, like everyone else, felt pity for Stephen that he’d still loved Kara enough to be with her despite the fact she’d clearly been insane. Worse yet, they all believed Stephen when he claimed he and Kara were already bonded and would soon soul mate. Kara tried desperately to tell anyone who would listen what a monster Stephen was, but they all ignored it as the ramblings of a mad woman.
He barely managed to smile at the waitress as she refilled his cup of coffee. Something of his true thoughts must have shown through because the pretty woman turned pale beneath her dusky coloring and she splashed a bit of coffee over the rim of the cup. He kept his hands on his lap as she quickly cleaned the spill and murmured her apologies. As he watched her hustle back to the kitchen, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath of the rich brew, trying to get his fear-tinged anger under control.
Stephen’s deception never would have been possible without the use of magic to fool and brainwash everyone into believing he was a wonderful Alpha. He’d even deceived Marcus, to the point Marcus accompanied him on that fateful night when Stephen had finally been killed by Kara and her mates. Worse yet, he’d been so enchanted by the psychopath, if he’d found Kara first, he would have taken her to Stephen, believing her to be the insane one. A light sweat broke out over his skin as he remembered the torture room they discovered at Stephen’s home, and the thought of what might have happened to Kara if he’d given her to him. Marcus had been part of the group that searched Stephen’s compound and found coded maps and pictures indicating Stephen possessed another torture chamber somewhere in the area, but so far they hadn’t been able to find it.
The front door opened, disrupting his thoughts, and an older couple with sunburned noses and smiling faces sauntered through with their arms wrapped around each other. He had to look away from their obvious joy. His heart yearned for someone to love with his whole heart, someone to help shoulder the burden of protecting his Pride and to be there for him as only a beta could for the Alpha. His hope was as fragile as the orchids filling the small glass vase on his table, but he clung to it with everything he had.
Never in a million years would Stephen have been able to deceive everyone for so long if he hadn’t had the help of a very powerful shaman. Despite searching everywhere and asking for the help of other Pride shamans, they’d been unable to find the magic user who’d aided Stephen. Stephen’s Pride didn’t even have a shaman, their old one had died and never been replaced. Whoever that rogue magic user was, he’d used the pain and agony from Stephen’s torture of his victims to fuel his own magic. The other shaman wouldn’t talk about it with anyone but the leaders of the various Prides, but what he’d overheard made him fearful for his people. When his father passed, it would be Marcus’ duty to lead the Onyx Moon and protect them against harm. He loved his Pride with every ounce of his heart and would gladly give his life to save any one of them, but he couldn’t fight magic.
He didn’t like or understand magic. Yeah, spiritual guides were supposed to be chosen by the Goddess to do her work on earth, but he’d always found them to be creepy. Which made the reason he sat in the cheery restaurant with its mellow blue walls and dark wood floors all the more ironic. He was there to meet a shaman and hopefully convince him to leave his island paradise and come join the Onyx Moon Pride.
Their own ancient spiritual guide couldn’t keep up with the demands of the growing Pride anymore and had retired three years ago then died soon after. They had yet to find a replacement and relied on the Amber Moon Pride’s shaman for help. Onyx Moon needed a strong, young shaman to serve as their spiritual advisor and magical defense. Since Marcus was destined to be the next Alpha, it was his job to find a magic user he could work with.
The thought of letting a strange shaman into his Pride made his inner puma growl with rage, but he had no choice. In order to make sure the shaman wouldn’t hurt his people, and would love them as he did, he had to ask the near impossible and find a shaman who was also a beta and would bond with him. Once bonded, he would know the other man’s heart inside and out and the shaman would love the Onyx Moon Pride as much as he did. Though how he was supposed to bond with someone he disliked because of their very nature, he had no idea. Hopefully his puma would be able to do what his irrational human mind could not and find a way to make it work.
He ran a hand through his hair and sighed into his empty cup. As far as the shaman, Vashan, knew, they were just meeting up for a night of fun. Marcus repeatedly struck out on his own, finding a likely beta shaman to mate with, so he turned to the aid of an expert match maker. Madame Evangeline of the 1Night Stand dating service agreed to take him on as a client after Kara and her mates recommended him. The questionnaire had been extensive, as had the personal emails that he’d exchanged with Madame Evangeline. He’d told the mysterious woman things about his life and what he wanted that he’d never shared with anyone before. After three months of waiting the email he’d been praying for arrived, and he’d been stunned when the date included an airline ticket to Jamaica.
The front door opened with a tinkle of brass bells and he sucked in a deep breath as a powerful shifter entered the room. Though he didn’t have the courage to look up , his gut, his soul, told him it was Vashan at the door. His date’s scent tasted like an unfamiliar species of big cat and the exotic musk flowed like cologne to the back of his sensitive palate. Madame Eve mentioned Vashan wasn’t pure werepuma, but she hadn’t said what kind of shifter he was. A low voice with the melodic accent of the Jamaican people greeted one of the waitresses and he heard his name mentioned.
Since Vashan finally arrived, Marcus struggled to lift his gaze from his coffee cup and look at the other man. So much depended on the arrangement working out and the shaman was his only hope. Trying to twist his lips into a smile, he finally glanced up as the man reached his table, but the greeting died on his lips as his inner cat purred with great interest.
The magic user had to be the most handsome man he’d had ever seen. Skin so dark it had hints of blue, complimented the loose white shirt he wore over his broad shoulders. Full lips graced a square jaw and his eyes had a tilted, catlike slant even in his human form. His shaved head accented the square bone structure of his face and the arms exposed by his short sleeved shirt were roped muscle. A faded scar ran down one cheekbone, but that flaw only accented his overall perfection. Arousal slammed into Marcus, and his cat fought the confines of his soul to reach out for the other man.
On Vashan’s wrist, an adjustable platinum cuff bracelet embossed with the phases of the moon identified him as a spiritual guide. In the center of the bracelet sat a faceted garnet in the shape of a half moon, glittering in the warm light of the restaurant. When the shaman mated, the other half of the moon would be replaced with a symbol for whatever Pride he became a part of. Marcus imagined a half onyx, half garnet moon gracing Vashan’s wrist and a fierce desire to make it so had him ready to grab the man in his arms in the middle of the restaurant and claim him as his mate.
The strength of his reaction shocked him and his stomach twisted in anger and fear. He’d never felt that way before. Had Vashan ensnared his mind in a spell as easily as Stephen had? He took a deep breath and tried to focus his will. Another wave of the other man’s scent hit him like a blow and his cock stiffened in his pants.
He considered using the amulet, but the spell could only be used once, like a gun with only one bullet, so he had to make sure he didn’t pull the trigger unless he needed to. He shoved the amulet in his pocket and took a deep breath of the sweet mountain air, helping purge the fear from his mind. Rising from his chair, he stood and held out his hand with a forced smile. “Greetings, Vashan of the Deadly Shadow Pride.”