Cali purred and stretched, the sun warming his fur, the rock beneath him toasty as well. There was nothing quite like being able to lie outside and relax. Ever since he’d built the privacy fence around his land—and that had cost a pretty penny-- he’d been learning to let himself enjoy being in his lion form again.
It’d taken years to get to the point where he could afford to retire and have Southern Sun, his den and what he considered his own personal fortress, built. At forty-two, Cali knew he was lucky to be able to have accomplished as much as he had. Even so, he wasn’t done. His eleven hundred acres would serve another purpose besides giving him a place to shift. It was his personal Garden of Eden, but he intended to share it with other feline shifters-- lions and jaguars, ocelots and leopards—they were all shrinking in numbers and needed a safe place.
Guilt pricked at him. Okay. All shifters. I’ll share it with all shifters, and I won’t even eat any of the prey-type ones.
With hunting, pesticides, global warming, and all the other man-made and natural catastrophes that had been occurring in the last century, shifter species were going extinct far too often. The fact that they couldn’t reproduce with humans didn’t help. If shifters and humans could have children together, children that could in turn shift, who knew what the world would be like?
Then again, if humans knew about shifters, they’d kill all of them, or shifters would have to take over.
Cali grumbled. Humans would nuke the entire planet before they let that happen. There was, to Cali’s way of thinking, a reason shifters and humans couldn’t reproduce together. Exposure to humans would result in the annihilation of one or both species.
Hell, look at what they’ve done to us without knowing we exist!
He stretched again, then yawned. As good as it felt to laze about, he did need to eat, and while he loved being in his lion form, hunting down prey was something he wasn’t going to get started on.
Despite the acreage he owned, if he shipped in deer and other such meals to be hunted, people would begin to talk. It was better to shift and eat as a man rather than risk anymore suspicion than he’d already garnered when he’d put the fence all the way around his property.
Besides, there was that whole not hunting other shifters. Cali had a pretty good handle on his lion, but he wasn’t going to test his cat by tempting it with any kind of prey.
Eventually, he might apply to have the land designated a wildlife reserve. Cali hadn’t decided whether that would be wise or not. It would depend on how many shifters found Southern Sun.
To that end, he could only hope the scent markers he’d left behind would be effective. A shifter would be able to tell what species he was, what gender, age— all the most pertinent information-- and could track Cali to Southern Sun. Then, he’d begin building his pride, and offering refuge to those who needed it.
It was a good plan, a workable plan. The other shifters would come. He purred as he imagined other species of felines sunning with him. It’d be shifter nirvana.
Okay, maybe I’m going too far there. It’ll be damned nice, though.
He couldn’t wait.
He had to wait.
Cali licked at his paw as he told himself to be patient.
He hated being patient.
He’d waited a long time to have his sanctuary, though. And he’d been waiting for his mate since he’d learned that there was, hopefully, one out there in the world, waiting for him.
Sometimes, the statistics depressed him. How were he and his mate to ever find each other? Maybe if he’d been born in a shifter-populated area, he and his mate would have encountered each other long ago.
He knew very few mated pairs. His parents had been mates, and they’d died together under circumstances Cali couldn’t bear to think about. Still, they were the extent of his experience with mated pairs.
Now he was depressing himself. The warm sunlight wasn’t doing its job of making him into a contented puddle of fur. He was supposed to be relaxing, not stressing out over…life. Things. The looming and statistically likely chance of spending his life without his mate.
Well, at least he wasn’t hungry anymore.
His stomach growled, startling him into opening his eyes. Okay, he was still hungry.
Cali sat up and shifted. He stood and stretched all over again, working out the kinks that came with transforming from one thing into another. He idly scratched at his chest. It always itched after he shifted, and he didn’t know why. He had chest hair, but that didn’t explain it since he had hair other places, too.
Okay, his balls itched, too. He gave them a rub. Better. Cali took his time walking inside. He hated leaving the sunlight, but his stomach rumbled again and there were a couple of slabs of raw beef waiting for him inside. He’d left them to warm on the butcher block he’d had installed just for raw meats. Cali liked his warm, though he could eat it cold. Or cooked. His preference was for raw meat, however. Now he could indulge himself.
At least he’d cut it up and not just tear into it. He was in his human form, after all, and he tried to act the part at all times lest he screw up out in public and give himself away.
Cali glanced at his reflection in the mirrored hallway. He looked good for his age—shifter genetics, yaaassss!— with thick, golden blond hair that reached his shoulders, and rather leonine features. Thank the gods his eyes were just dark enough to pass for a shade of brown rather than gold like his Dad’s had been. Gold irises were difficult to conceal.
No. Not going there. Cali winked at himself then wrinkled his nose. He hated to admit it, but he was a little lonely.
“Well, I must be if I’m flirting with myself.” He shook his head. He just had to be patient. Damn it.
Cali prowled the eastern fence line, growling as rain pelted him. Yes, a lion should be tough enough not to be bothered by rain…but it was wet, and he didn’t like getting wet unless he chose to do so. He hadn’t been expecting the gods-awful storm that had blown in seemingly out of nowhere.
Today had been a bad day to decide he should check the fence line, but Cali had felt cooped-up and restless, and more than a little disappointed that not one single shifter had showed up yet.
Months. He’d been there months now, all alone, his hopes dying a little more each day until there wasn’t much of them left.
Maybe the rain was perfect for his mood.
Cali snorted at his own self-pitying thoughts. He’d waited over forty-two years to find someone to call his mate. He could wait a little longer.
He wasn’t going to entertain the possibility that he might never find his mate.
Although, if that happened, he’d be happy finding a man to love on his own, without that bond his parents had shared.
Thunder boomed and lightning filled the air with an almost tangible electric current. Cali eyed the fence and decided he might do well to keep his distance from it. He didn’t think there was anything wrong with the fence, he’d just sought to establish a pattern of inspecting it and being responsible, a good, dependable leader, one who thought ahead and always did everything he could to keep his pride safe and help it to flourish.
The wind whipped at him and he saw how far some of the trees were bending. If a few didn’t snap, he’d be surprised.
And if he wanted to live to lead his pride, he should probably get out of the storm.
Cali tipped his head down and powered his way toward his home. He didn’t like the looks of the sky off to the west. He’d seen skies like that before, in Dallas and Kansas, had taken shelter when tornado sirens had wailed out their warnings.
Shit. He should get some kind of weather warning system in place. That was one thing he hadn’t thought about, and he should have.
Cali kept a wary eye on the sky as he ran full-throttle, and it was with a wash of relief that he skidded up onto the large patio behind his residence. At least he knew it was built above the required weather-resistance standards in Florida.
Dripping wet, he stopped under the patio covering and shook himself. The rain was blowing in sideways, so he didn’t get rid of as much water as he’d have liked. Rather than going inside, as he’d intended, Cali plopped his butt down and watched the storm rage around him.
He was fairly certain a tornado formed and touched down in the distance. Watching the storm did what checking the fence line hadn’t—it calmed Cali’s mind and renewed his hope for the future. If Mother Nature could pummel the land and trees like she did, and they remained (mostly) unharmed, strong enough to bend, then he, too, could hold on for a while longer.
The acrid odor of urine burned Jacob’s nose. He grimaced and tried not to whimper, but damn! It would figure the first sign of another shifter he’d encounter would turn out to be from a freakin’ lion!
“Watch it, asshole,” snapped a man as he elbowed Jacob. “What kind of stupid fucker are you? Standing in the middle of the fucking sidewalk!”
Jacob stumbled, ignoring the pain in his side. He was exhausted, hungry, thirsty, dirty—all the bad y’s he could think of. His pack was gone, slaughtered by a government sanctioned hunt despite the fact that none of Jacob’s pack had ever attacked livestock. Someone had cried wolf, and it had cost him everything.
No, it had cost everyone else in his pack everything. They’d been killed, and he’d been spared that. Now Jacob’s only companions were incredible loneliness and his failure to thrive.
His eyes burned with tears he could not shed. Jacob needed his pack. He wasn’t meant to be a lone wolf. Maybe if he’d been an alpha, but he wasn’t, hadn’t been, never would be.
His stomach growled and cramped. Jacob inhaled and decided the lion’s odor wasn’t too bad after all. At least he was another shifter. And, the lion had very obviously left his scent behind for other shifters to find. Jacob didn’t know how the lion had done it, but he had.
Jacob had never met a lion shifter. He’d run across the occasional bobcat shifter in the past, but even those had seemingly disappeared, likely hunted down like his own pack had been.
Or they’d fled the area. Jacob’s Georgia pack should have done the same, but they’d thought they were protected…
“Move it,” another man said, adding a few curse words along with a bump to Jacob’s back.
Jacob shook himself all over. He couldn’t stand there, staring at a damn pole that was marked by a lion.
He had to move, to do something, or he was going to die. Water was his first priority, then food, followed by shelter. Jacob would keep searching for more wolf shifters, but if he couldn’t find any, there was now an option he’d never have thought of before. He could head for the lion’s territory, though now that he thought about it, the scent could have been left there as bait.
Jacob sniffed again. There was no anger in the odor, it didn’t reek of fury and hate. Even so, it could still be a trap to get other shifters to follow the scent, leading them straight to the lion’s den.
It’d be a quick death if that were the case. He was fine with that. The hardships and losses in life had worn him down. Loneliness was worse than death.
Guilt could drive a man to do many things. Jacob took a step, then another, and began to make his way toward the scent-trail the lion had left behind.
With every step he took, his heart pounded harder. What choice did he have, though? None. None. He couldn’t live amongst humans. He’d rather die.
And if he bumped into one more human, that just might be his fate. Why were people so angry and mean? Not one of them looked at him with any sympathy. He knew he looked bad, smelled bad, all of that crap. He had to appear like someone who needed help.
He got curses and shoves, loud honks of horns when he didn’t scurry across the streets fast enough, and some kids calling him bad names and kicking at him when he didn’t skirt away from the fast enough.
His pulse was pounding in his ears as he raced for the outskirts of town. He needed to get away from the city, the noise, all the stench of man’s attempts to conquer the land.
Jacob would have laughed at his own dramatic thoughts except…he wasn’t amused by them. He’d seen what humans could and would do simply because they thought they had the right to do it.
Civilization began to thin out, houses appearing further apart until finally Jacob couldn’t see a dwelling anywhere. The sidewalk and roads were gone and he trudged through mud and flattened yellow grass. A storm had come through—he’d been caught in it the day before and had thought he’d be killed when he saw a tornado touch down. It’d swerved away from him, never been that close to him, but it had terrified Jacob none the less.
Funny, that, since he didn’t particularly fear death itself. He’d just rather not have a tornado do him in.
That’s when it hit Jacob--
He’d lost the scent. He stopped in the middle of a swampy field and sniffed. Nothing but mud and weeds greeted his nose.
No, there was something else. Something old, ancient, musty and…dangerous.
Jacob stiffened as movement about thirty feet away caught his eye.
“Oh fuck,” he rasped, goose bumps breaking out all over his body. He went numb, cold, then hot as he took a step back. He couldn’t look away from the monster coming toward him.
Run run run fucking run! his brain screamed at him. He’d never seen a crocodile before that moment, and utter terror held him prisoner for a second before the survival instinct he’d almost given up on kicked in.
Jacob shrieked and turned, leaping, running, flailing, his body uncoordinated for the first few strides until finally, finally, his limbs got their shit together.
And Jacob ran, and ran, and ran until his lungs screamed with pain, his vision blurred, and he couldn’t run anymore.
Then he crawled, and he knew if any other predator was out there with him, he’d never survive the coming night.