Kara Vinsenz' heart threatened to beat right out of her chest and put her out of her misery. For the first time in her life she stood outside of her Pride's land without her honor guard. Instead of her freedom being as wonderful as she had always imagined it would be, she had to fight off her terror at feeling so alone and exposed. The only thing preventing her from leaping back into her sister's black Porsche was the fact that if she didn't go through with this, she would end up married to an abusive, psychotic, womanizing asshole who'd managed to fool her ailing father and make her look like the crazy one.
She crouched next to the side mirror of the Porsche and stared at her reflection with a mixture of wonder and sadness. The long, beautiful black braids that had been her pride and joy since she was a little girl were gone. Now her hair hung short and straight, just reaching her shoulders. Her turquoise blue eyes gleamed out of the deep caramel brown skin of her face and her cheekbones seemed sharper.
She appeared older than her true age of twenty-two, and she definitely looked more like her less sophisticated twin sister, Tanisha. The white halter top and frayed jean shorts helped with the illusion. She'd never been allowed to dress casually, always needing to project a regal appearance as the heir to Turquoise Fang, the largest Pride in Kentucky.
Hopefully, she would be able to pass for Tanisha and fool her blind dates.
The fading sunlight shone through the pine trees surrounding the small dirt lot deep in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The late summer heat still clung to the air and even though she wasn't too far from her Pride's territory at the Daniel Boone National Park in Kentucky, it felt like the other side of the planet.
A month earlier, she'd come close to ending her life. Anything, even death, seemed better than marriage to the abusive man who she'd been slated to marry since birth. As the chosen heir of her father's Pride, she'd been promised to her father's best friend's son, Stephen, and was expected to honor that agreement. Her mother had been promised to her father in a similar fashion, and they had loved each other deeply before her death, so her father didn't understand why it would upset Kara to be Stephen's fiancée.
For reasons she couldn't fathom, no one seemed to notice what a monster he was except for her and her sister. Stephen had tormented her as a child, always in ways that could never be proven or seen by anyone else. His cruel punches and kicks turned into something darker, uglier as they went through puberty. His whispered threats about what he would to do to her when they were finally mated became the foundation of her nightmares.
At the age of twelve he'd cornered her and tried to cop a feel beneath her skirt. Her revulsion at his groping turned to rage and her inner puma slipped her control. Before she knew it, her nails shifted into claws and tore open the side of his face. His squeal of fear further enraged her beast, and she'd been a breath away from tearing out his throat when her guards found them.
They brought her to her father, hysterical and covered in Stephen's blood. She'd never lost control of her cat like that and didn't know how to cope with the killing rage still filling her. When Stephen began to spew lies about her going crazy and attacking him, she inadvertently backed up his story by shifting to puma form and trying to kill him again.
After that, no one wanted to mate with her and her father had been pitifully grateful Stephen 'loved' her enough to still want her, despite the fact she'd permanently scarred his face.
She tried to tell people about his abuse, but her statements were always met with disbelief. Stephen was a master of manipulation and could lie better than anyone she had ever known. It didn't help that her temper lead to her striking out at him more than once, and when she hit him, she left a mark. When she broke one of his fingers for trying to take her shirt off, her father spoke of making Tanisha his heir and Stephen's betrothed, despite Kara being the first born.
The thought of her bright, vivacious, and innocent sister being forced to marry Stephen churned Kara's stomach until bile filled her throat. So she did everything she could to convince her father she wasn't angry and gritted her teeth and smiled when Stephen touched her. She thought she could endure it, could endure anything until he'd shown her pictures of the special 'play room' he planned to use on their honeymoon.
It was a torture chamber, pure and simple. Goosebumps still broke out over her skin as she remembered what she first thought was rust on a pair of shackles, and only on closer inspection realized it was blood. If she'd known the location of the room, she would have taken her guards there in a second and exposed him. But she had no proof, and if she accused him of having a medieval torture chamber, she would be seen as the crazy one for sure, and Tanisha would be forced to marry him.
With a deep sigh she leaned against the side of the Porsche and fingered the small scar on her inner wrist. That little line, less than an inch long, was a reminder of how close she'd come to ending it all. Kara had slipped further into depression until suicide seemed the only way out. It was only dumb luck, or fate as Tanisha liked to argue, that her sister had chosen just that moment to arrive home from Brazil for a surprise visit. The memory of her twin's horror at finding Kara with a silver knife cutting into her wrist still filled her with shame.
Tanisha inherited four hundred acres of deep tropical forest down in Brazil from their late mother. In a daring break with tradition, Tanisha started her own Pride with a beta female she met while there. Then she had done the unthinkable for a pure blood werepuma. She lost her virginity to a human to ensure that she wouldn't be forced into a political marriage of their father's choosing. The dalliance with the human male had been a one-night stand arranged by a matchmaker named Madame Eve.
Tanisha urged Kara to run away with her to Brazil, but she'd refused. If she left, someone else would be forced to marry Stephen and that thought would haunt her for the rest of her life, trapping her as surely as marriage to the monster would. Not to mention she loved her Pride, and shuddered to think what would happen to them if Stephen became their Alpha. More than once she'd woken up in a cold sweat, nightmares of him torturing her Pride so vivid she smelled the blood.
Tanisha and Kara stayed up until dawn turned the horizon pink through the decorative wrought iron bars on the windows that essentially kept Kara prisoner. Outside and two floors down, a pair of guards patrolled the perimeter of the compound in puma form. They would protect her from anything and anyone...except the one man she needed the most protection from.
In their hushed whispers during the subdued light of daybreak, a way out occurred to them. Tanisha sent a quick message to Madame Eve and twenty minutes later Kara feverishly filled out a blind date request, posing as Tanisha. She asked for two strong, powerful werepumas already mated as Alpha and beta. Once she bonded with them, they would know without a doubt that she told the truth about Stephen and would make the rest of the Pride listen to her.
Stephen might be able to overtake one man, but not two. With the added incentive of Tanisha's land in Brazil, Kara hoped they would lure men strong enough to help her regain control of the Turquoise Fang Pride.
Overhead she tracked a bat as it performed an intricate air ballet in the deepening twilight, searching for its next meal. She followed the flit of its movements until the creature flew out of sight, deeper into the forest surrounding the parking lot. A mild breeze blew over her body, bringing with it the scent of rich earth. The part of her soul enhanced by the magic of being a shifter embraced the wildness of this place, and it brought her a peace she hadn't felt in a long time.
She thanked the Goddess that she'd been a late bloomer. Stephen had to wait until she went through three heat cycles before she was ready for marriage and breeding. With this being her third cycle, he would doubtlessly be waiting for her to finish so he could marry her and take control of her Pride. Her father had long ago agreed to step down in favor of Stephen running things once he mated with Kara. Something in her father broke when Kara's mother died fifteen years earlier, and he'd slipped further and further out of touch with the world as time went on.
The switching of identities seemed like the perfect plan. It proved a little tricky as they'd needed to wait for the right moment, but Kara's body went into heat like it did every year since she turned nineteen. And like every year, her father locked her away like a horny stray cat in her suite, with food and water sent through a dumbwaiter until her heat passed.
Except this time it was Tanisha locked away in Kara's room, wearing a wig made out of Kara's hair and a small, magical bag that a shaman in Brazil had made for her. It mimicked Kara's scent and that of a female werepuma in heat so no one would notice a difference. She worried about her sister if they were found out, but Tanisha could take care of herself.
Kara wore a similar pouch around her neck, but this pouch masked her scent and helped keep her urges to mate under control...at least for a little while. Experimenting, Kara took off the pouch and set it on the hood of the car. She walked away a pace and didn't feel much, then took another step. Her feet barely made a sound on the deep bed of pine needles, but as soon as she stood three paces away, the magic of the bag left her and a burning heat filled its place. Her nipples immediately drew to throbbing points and even the pressure of her inner thighs against her pussy became too much. The world took on a hyper-clarity and she instinctively took a deep breath of air, trying to scent a potential mate. Struggling against her inner cat, she managed to make it back to the hood and clenched the bag in her fist, shaking with need as the hormones crested and receded within her body.
An uncomfortable knot of guilt crowded her stomach at the thought of what she was about to do, but it was too late to back out. In the distance an engine revved as it climbed the mountainside leading to the parking spot.
If everything went right, she'd end up mated to two powerful males, and the three of them would expose Stephen as a homicidal maniac. She had to bond with them, to form the psychic link shared between mates. Once she'd established that link, it would be impossible for Stephen to turn them against her.
Her conscience spoke up and reminded her that they might be a little displeased to find out she'd lied to them about nearly everything, but she tuned it out. There were more important things to worry about, like the fact she could already smell the men's musk flowing from the open windows of the gray SUV pulling into the lot. Their scent seduced her, urged her to strip off her suddenly uncomfortable clothes and entice them with her body. Calling on all of her willpower, she gripped the pouch around her neck and prayed she could hold out just a little bit longer.
With her ample curves poured into a pair of jean shorts and her tight shirt giving her plenty of cleavage, she knew she appeared ready for a night of sexual excess. The men were expecting a one-night stand, but she intended to keep them for life.
Standing as tall as possible, she stepped away from the Porsche and crossed her arms over her chest to try to hide her trembling. She edged closer to the woods and fought the urge to flee. She could do this. She could talk to them without reverting to her primal nature and jumping them the second they got near. Though the parking lot was isolated and it would soon be nightfall, she didn't want the police called because of a late night camper stumbling upon their orgy. One of the SUV doors opened, revealing the big, solid figure of a man. His scent blasted over her and her nerves snapped.
She'd never actually been around a male while in heat before and was totally unprepared for her body's reaction. Her nipples instantly hardened into painful buds until even the scrape of her shirt hurt. Her pussy became ultra-sensitive as blood rushed toward her womb, and she shivered with want as the seam of the jean shorts pressed against her clit.
The wind shifted direction and freed her from the delicious scent that drove her mad with need. She sprinted into the woods as fast as she could. If she'd stayed a moment longer and breathed in their scent, she'd have been on her knees with her pants around her ankles, her ass thrust up in the air.
She managed to make it far enough that someone in the parking lot couldn't hear or see them if she continued to lose control. A small leap carried her to one of the lower branches of the tree, and she crouched there, praying the men would find her before her human mind completely disappeared beneath her animalistic needs.