Consumed, p.1
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       Consumed, p.1

           Rebecca Zanetti
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Consumed


  CONSUMED

  REBECCA ZANETTI

  KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.

  www.kensingtonbooks.com

  All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Dedication

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  Prologue

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Epilogue

  Fated

  Claimed

  Hunted

  Copyright Page

  To celebrate Brandie Chapman’s 40th birthday, a group of twenty gals headed to Vegas in February of 2012. This book is dedicated to this incredibly energetic group—may all stories stay in Vegas, and thank God we made it home.

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  So many people work in so many different ways to make a book come together. I have several people to thank for help with this book and sincerely apologize for anyone I’ve forgotten.

  Thank you to Tony, Gabe, and Karly Zanetti, my very patient family, for giving me time and space to write, as well as support and love ... and chocolate;

  Thank you to my amazing editor, Megan Records, whose hard work, dedication, and sheer enjoyment in the romance genre make this journey all the more rewarding;

  Thank you to my incredibly talented agent, Caitlin Blasdell, whose ability to see the deeper layer for characters and arcs never fails to amaze me, and who works so very hard within this challenging industry;

  Thank you to all the folks at both Kensington Publishing and Liza Dawson Associates who work many long hours for their authors;

  Thank you to my critique partners, Sayde Grace and Jennifer Dorough—you two rock;

  Thanks also to my constant support system: Gail and Jim English, Debbie and Travis Smith, Stephanie and Don West, Brandie and Mike Chapman, Jessica and Jonah Namson, and Kathy and Herb Zanetti.

  Prologue

  Thirty years ago

  Katie tried to sink into the dented kitchen cupboard, her bare feet digging into cracks in the faded linoleum floor. Fear hurt her tummy. Jim Bob was mad again, yelling at foster mom Wanda about the soup being cold.

  Wasn’t soup always cold?

  She’d only been at this foster home for a week. Yesterday she’d turned four years old and nobody remembered. That was okay. Her mama and daddy lived in heaven, and they probably remembered. She wished she remembered what they looked like.

  Jim Bob yelled louder, grabbing a wooden spoon to throw against the peeling wallpaper of old roses. His face got really red, and the fat under his chin jiggled. Stains covered his big belly and ripped pants, but he didn’t care about clothes.

  He cared about soup.

  Wanda grabbed the spoon off the floor and threw it back at him. Dirt flew through the air along with chunks of noodles. She was skinny in her ugly blue dress, but she could throw. A cigarette hung out of her cracked lips, dropping ashes on her scuffed shoes. She pointed her finger at Katie, yelling that having a foster kid meant too much work no matter how much money she brought in, especially since the stupid kid didn’t even do the dishes earlier.

  Jim Bob whirled on Katie, his eyes a mean brown.

  She bit her lip to keep from crying, her legs shaking. The dishes were too high on the counter for her to reach. Fear made her lungs ache. Panic had her eying the door for an escape. The wild forest outside wasn’t as scary as Jim Bob.

  Then a tingling started in her cold feet. Shudders swept through her arms. She hurt. A lot.

  Crying out, she dropped to her knees. Jagged edges of the linoleum cut into her skin. Black covered her vision. What was happening? She hadn’t been bad. All her bones popped and something ripped. Her dress?

  Shaking her head, she tried to look past the black. Colors. So many colors danced on the dust mites. A million different pinks swirled around. A zillion different blues. And smells—she could even smell the pine trees outside along with stinky Jim Bob. He stunk like wet dirt. She opened her mouth and a meow came out.

  Paws. She had paws.

  What had happened? Did she do something wrong? Girls didn’t have paws. Fear had her shaking so hard her teeth rattled.

  Terror had her lifting her head to see Jim Bob and Wanda staring at her with their mouths wide open.

  Wanda started screaming. “It’s the work of the devil. Kill her!”

  Jim Bob shouted and jumped toward his shotgun in the corner. His beefy hand wrapped around the thick part.

  Katie didn’t want to die. Where was the devil?

  Jim Bob swung the big pointy end toward her.

  Run!

  She leaped for the doggie door in the screen and rushed into the early night. Seconds later a shotgun blast echoed behind her.

  She ran through the forest, her paws slapping the rough trail. How did she have paws? Fear crawled inside her tummy like a mean spider. Nobody told her she was gonna turn into an animal when she got scared now.

  Darkness pressed in from the trees on either side of her, but her eyes worked really good. Bugs crawling in the grass. Very cool—so many of them. Different greens shining in the moss. Much prettier than she’d ever seen before. How could she see all the new stuff? Something was wrong with her.

  Her panting filled her ears along with the sound of something loud coming. Jim Bob, yelling that she was a monster. He was gonna shoot her.

  One smell cut through the rest. Something good. Something safe. She turned and ran harder, toward the smell of cinnamon.

  The smell got stronger and stronger until she turned a corner and skidded to a stop. Three super big men stared back at her. They had bows and arrows—were they gonna shoot her, too?

  Jim Bob crashed through the brush behind her.

  Yowling, she leaped for safety, trying to rush past the people.

  Faster than possible, the biggest man snagged her by the fur on her neck. He tucked her into his warm chest.

  She struggled, nipping at his hand with her new sharp teeth.

  “Shhh.” He ran a hand over her head, scratching her ears, leaning in close to sniff her. “We were just looking for you, kitten.”

  She stilled, allowing his heat to warm her. Her chest hurt from running so hard. Snuggling closer, the scent of cinnamon and forest surrounded her. She’d smelled the man. How could a person smell like safety?

  Jim Bob stood up, his gun pointed at her. “Put that thing down.”

  Her new friend swiveled around until they faced the other way and not the gun. “Noah, please get the shotgun,” he said mildly.

  Jim Bob yelled and a small fight sounded.

  “Got it,” a new voice said.

  They turned back around. Jim Bob didn’t have his gun and he looked really, really mad. His eyes had gone all black and his lips smacked into a tight white line. The lady at the day care Katie went to last year said she wasn’t supposed to say “hate,” but he looked like hate.

  Katie shivered, and the man held her tighter. She tried to talk, but only a meow came out.

  Jim Bob sputt
ered, his face turning an ugly red. He hitched his pants up over his big belly, spit flying out of his mouth when he talked. “She’s a freak. Foster kid. Turned into ...” He swept his beefy hand toward her.

  Oh no. Now they’d all know she was a freak, whatever that was. Something told her a freak was something bad. She started to struggle again. If the guy would drop her, she might be able to get away. To safety. Even if she was a freak, she didn’t wanna die.

  He shushed her. “Hold still. Nobody’s gonna hurt you, sweetheart. Just hold still for a minute.” A gentle hand brushed over her ears again, and she fought the really weird urge to purr. Warmth spread along her neck. The guy stared at Jim Bob. “I’m assuming this is Kathryn Johnson, and you’re ... James Robert Neverly?”

  Surprise flashed hard across Jim Bob’s face. “Jim Bob. And yeah, that’s Kathryn. She’s a foster kid. Monster.”

  Yeah, she was a monster. Funny that she didn’t feel scared anymore. Lifting her chin, she looked at her hero. Long hair slid to his shoulders in lots of colors. Black, brown, blond, maybe even a little red. Pretty. His eyes glowed kinda gold, kinda brown. Right now they weren’t nice, but he was looking at Jim Bob, so that was okay. So long as the man didn’t look at her like that.

  “I’m Jordan Pride,” he said. “She’s mine now.”

  Surprise filled Katie. Why would the guy want a cat? She was a cat, right?

  Jim Bob took a step back, his gaze swinging from Katie to Jordan. “You don’t seem surprised a girl turned into a little cougar.”

  Jordan’s heart beat slow and strong beneath her ear. “Maybe you’ve had too much to drink. Either way, you’re going to forget about her and go on your way,” he said.

  Jim Bob’s eyes began to shine, and he smiled a mean smile, his crooked teeth somehow sharp in the night. His beefy hands rubbed together. “I’m sure we can come to an arrangement.”

  The smell of burning bushes tickled her nose and came from Jordan. Something told her it was the smell of being mad. How weird to find out “mad” had a smell. Maybe all cats smelled feelings.

  He tightened his hold. “Don’t you want to know what I’m going to do with her?”

  “Not if you make silence worth my while.” Jim Bob wasn’t even looking at her anymore. “And considering I’ve just stumbled across a huge-assed secret ... you’d better make it worth my while.”

  Jordan’s chest rumbled in a snarl. “Noah, Baye, take this guy back to his home, and I’ll be along shortly. If he gives you any trouble, kill him—which is always a possibility when one discovers a huge-assed secret.”

  Jim Bob’s eyes widened. The other two men nodded and each grabbed one of Jim Bob’s arms. They had cool hair just like Jordan, and their eyes were different colors of green. Both of them gave her a smile before turning to drag Jim Bob away. They had nice smiles.

  Katie began to shiver. Her legs hurt again. Oh no. Was she going to turn back into a girl? Then Jordan would know for sure she was a monster. Girls didn’t turn into cats. Plus, she’d left her dress back in the kitchen. She would be naked. A low whimper fell out of her mouth.

  Jordan looked down at her. “Ah.” Shifting her to one arm, he yanked his shirt over his head. Quick motions had the soft cotton over her fur, her paws trapped inside.

  Warmth and cinnamon surrounded her. With a loud pop, she turned back into a girl.

  Jordan smiled, his eyes crinkling. “There you are.” He helped shove her arms into the sleeves. “Bet that hurt.”

  She nodded solemnly. “I’m a monster.”

  He laughed softly, his eyes turning to magic. “No, you’re a mountain lion shifter. Very tough cougar.”

  The way he said it made it seem okay.

  “Are you gonna kill me?” She could still run.

  “Nope.” He began walking. “I’m going to find you a good home where you don’t have to run.”

  A real home sounded nice. “Are you gonna kill Jim Bob?”

  Jordan’s chest stiffened. “No. I’m not going to kill him, little one. But he’ll never bother you again. I promise.”

  She believed him. If anybody could make Jim Bob go away, Jordan could. Just like Superman. “Okay.”

  He sighed. “I knew your parents and just found out they’d died—which took much longer than it should have. We learned of your location and were on the way to find you. I’m sorry about your parents.”

  Careful hope warmed her chest. “You knew my mama and daddy?”

  “Yes.”

  She took a deep breath. “Um, did they like me?” Please, let them have liked her.

  “I’m sure they loved you.” He peered down at her. “In fact, you’re the perfect image of your mama. She was pretty, too.”

  He called her pretty. Katie giggled. “Did they like you?”

  “Yes. We were friends. They left the pride to travel and live in different cities for a while. They would’ve come back home eventually.”

  The idea of a real home made Katie’s heart kinda hurt. “What’s a pride?”

  “Mountain lion shifters live in a pride. You’re a member of my pride.”

  That was too good to be true. “Where are we goin’?”

  “To a lady named Millie Smith. She loves little girls and little cougars ... and makes the best apple pie in the world.” Jordan kissed Katie softly on the head. “You’ll want protein first and then we’ll have some apple pie.”

  “What’s protein?” Her eyelids drooped and she snuggled into safety.

  “Meat. You need to eat meat after you shift so your muscles stay strong.”

  “What’s ‘muscles’?” she mumbled, trying to stay awake. Her eyelids got so heavy they closed.

  “I’ll explain later—sleep now.” Jordan tucked her closer. “Welcome home, kitten.”

  Chapter 1

  Last week

  As nights went, it wasn’t a bad one to die.

  Jordan Pride ducked behind a tree in the West Virginia forest, his footsteps silent and deadly, not sure how he’d suddenly become prey. As a lion shifter, as the leader of the feline nation, he was usually more of a predator than he liked to admit.

  The force surrounding him edged closer, altering the atmospheric pressure enough to flood adrenaline through his veins. Clouds blanketed the sky, keeping the meager moon hidden. Good thing he could see in the dark. He considered shifting into a lion, but for now, he wanted the clear thinking he had only in human form. Once he let the animal free, instinct overcame intellect. For now, he needed to think this through.

  He gave a barely perceptible nod to his enforcer, Mac. Mac’s eyes burned a harsh emerald through the dusk, the soldier seriously pissed someone had breached the security on shifter headquarters. Not someone—the Kurjans. The enemy smelled of sulfur, a smell Jordan had always associated with evil.

  The air stank with sulfur.

  The Kurjans were an evil vampire race unable to venture into the sun without getting fried. Unlike the true vampires who were Jordan’s allies—who enjoyed a day at the beach. Nighttime created excellent opportunities to attack, and the Kurjans had waited for a good one. Dark and deadly.

  Mac’s brother, Noah, flanked his other side, looking even angrier than Mac, if that were possible. In fact, Noah had been pissed for the last ten years—since they’d moved to the mountains of West Virginia—since they’d forced their people into caverns and caves. Anything to avoid the Kurjan-created virus that destroyed their DNA and turned them into monsters.

  Apparently the Kurjans had found them. Well. It had taken the bastards a decade.

  Though ten years of war had depleted Jordan’s forces and been incredibly difficult for his people. His soldiers were battered and bruised ... if not dead.

  Jordan’s canines elongated ... the beast within wanting to spring free. Not quite yet. He shot a triumphant grin at Noah. They’d hidden long enough to protect the children, the future. And yeah, for the most part, female shifters were hidden as well.

  Well, everyone but the one femal
e he’d give his left arm to protect. No. Katie had to be on the front lines, searching out the few remaining infected shifters. Unfortunately, once infected with the virus, male shifters became werewolves—true beasts that had to be put down for good.

  A snarl lifted his lips.

  The battle plan had just changed—thanks to the force around him returning to war against shifters. For the last decade, the Kurjans had directed their energy to taking out the vampires. Apparently they’d now switched tactics.

  If he survived the night, he’d call Katie home tomorrow. The thought of her, the image of those stunning bourbon-colored eyes filtered through his memory and shot him into true lion form.

  His bones cracked, his muscles shifted, and he landed on all fours. Graceful and deadly.

  He ran toward the stench, knowing the enemy waited. Yet they probably hadn’t expected him to jump high, sailing right for the throat of the closest scout. While most mountain lions weighed about a hundred and fifty pounds, shifters weighed twice that. His canines aimed true, slicing through cartilage and bone like warm toffee. Blood sprayed as he flung the Kurjan’s pasty white head into the dark recesses of the forest with a low snarl.

 

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