"You guys aren't taking that bet seriously."
"As a heart attack." Monty nodded to the full house on the green, felt-covered table. "Read 'em and weep."
Grady Chastell stared at his pridemate with alarm. Monty wasn't budging. "Dean?" Surely his brother would have his back. Dean knew how badly he needed to not screw up his chances--any more than he already had--with the delectable Gabby Easton.
"Sorry, bro. All that smack talk last week and the best you can come up with is a pair of eights? You lost the bet--time to pay up."
The other Ac-taw around the table watched with expectant curiosity, more than willing to see Grady make a fool of himself in front of the only woman who mattered.
Annoying shapeshifters. Not a one of them had a decent sense of humor except Dean. But after this, even he was starting to look suspect. "Come on. Guys, don't do this to me. Please?"
Dean's golden eyes glinted, his inner cat more than amused at playing with his older brother's feelings. "It pains me, it really does. But a bet's a bet. Can't have it said the Chastells welsh, now can we?"
Grady cursed the lot of them under his breath and ignored the new bets being placed. Somehow, Thursday night poker had been replaced with let's see how miserable we can make Grady night. 'Course, winning a friggin' game might have alleviated his run of bad luck when it came to Gabby Easton.
He stripped down to nothing and shifted into his animal spirit, his bones and sinew reshaping into the form of a large, tawny catamount. King of the mountain, he was a savvy hunter with extraordinary senses...and an asshole of a younger brother.
He grunted his displeasure at Dean, who grinned at him. Then he hissed at the rest of the table.
The birds and wolf flipped him off. The bear grunted back. The lone fox tipped back his hat and waited for the fallout. Too bad the fox happened to be the sheriff, or Grady might have chewed on the others before spitting them out.
"Oh Gab-by," Dean called out in a singsong voice. "Honey, could you come here for a minute?"
The predators around the table waited with bated breath. Monty slipped an elastic bow tie around Grady's thick neck and shoved a top hat on his head, then poised a finger over his MP3 player, all-too-coincidentally plugged into portable speakers.
Grady caught the scent of her before she walked in. A new addition to the Catamount Pride, Gabrielle Easton was the hottest thing on two feet or four. He'd seen her around town for years, of course, but he'd never gotten close to the fox Shifter. The pride tended to keep to themselves. But then came the news Gabby could shift into not one, but two animal spirits--fox and puma--and his cat had fallen in complete and utter lust.
The man had too, but it was more than that--Gabby captivated him. The grace of her movements, the sheer excitement that glowed on her face during a hunt, the pleasure she had just being near her family... The woman had somehow found a place in his heart, and he worked like a demon to conceal that fact from his family. Bad enough they knew he wanted the woman. If they found out he was falling for her, they'd try to help, end up interfering and screw up his chances for good.
Not to mention he'd find himself the butt of too many jokes. In a family of pranksters, he knew better than to let his guard down. Unfortunately, the worst joke happened to be on him, because for some reason, Gabby didn't take him seriously. Him, Grady Chastell, the Great Spirit's gift to women. He wanted her, and she laughed at him. He didn't understand it.
Gabby walked in without making a sound. Thick strands of her wine-red hair curled around her breasts, which emphasized the flat plane of her stomach. The faded jeans she wore clung to her luscious ass and those long, toned thighs. A low growl eased from his mouth.
"Down, boy." Monty snickered and turned on the music.
Jimi Hendrix's 'Foxy Lady' played through Bose speakers, and Gabby stopped in the middle of the room, looking less than pleased. She groaned. "Not again. It's been three months, guys. Honestly, could you get a little more creative?"
"We could and did." Dean beamed and pointed to Grady.
He glared at his brother and slowly walked over to meet Gabby, so she could see him make a fool of himself without the table in the way. Trust Dean to include full view of the dance in the bet.
"Go on, boy," Monty encouraged. "Gabby, to go with your personal theme song, a magnificent serenade."
The wolf had to have set him up. After his loss, Monty had produced those speakers awfully quick. And really, when had the wolf swallowed a dictionary? Magnificent serenade? He glared at the canine, who lifted a brow and motioned for him to begin.
To his mortification, Grady was forced to shake his feline moneymaker. Talk about a show--a cougar dancing to Hendrix in front of the woman he wanted to make his mate. She started laughing hysterically, which brought the rest of the pride's sharp-eared women, his older brother and pride leader, Burke, and a few more visiting birds into the room.
Why the hell had they merged movie night with poker night, anyway? So more witnesses could watch him make a giant ass of himself as he grooved to 'Foxy Lady'? Sure as the good Lord had gifted him with a tail, whiskers and fangs, Grady couldn't dance a lick.
Everyone was talking and laughing, so Grady shook off the top hat and smoothly separated Gabby from the pack. He nudged her into the kitchen, away from the dining room, before he shifted back.
"Please, Gabby. Marry me and take me away from all this." He meant every word, but as usual, the stubborn woman refused to take him seriously.
"Thanks, I needed the laugh." She chuckled and tried to escape, but he pressed forward until he'd backed her against the counter and put his arms on either side of her. "Julia keeps renting these god-awful dramadies. This one is about some woman looking for love with a mannequin who comes to life and leaves her. Ech."
"Hmm." He loved the way she smelled. Wild, a mixture of fox and feline his cat found fascinating.
She flushed, and he knew she wasn't as unaware of him as she seemed. He stepped closer, wanting nothing more than to show her how he really felt.
His brother Burke entered and covered his eyes with his hand. "Jesus, Grady. Stop molesting Gabby in the kitchen. What is it with you? I'm really tired of staring at your lily white ass."
"So I should molest her in another room?"
Gabby looked anywhere but down. Most Shifters were casual about clothing, so her discomfort gave him hope. He thought he scented the faint perfume of desire and would have pushed her for more, regardless of the others just a room away, when Burke grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and pulled him back.
"Shift back, now," Burke growled.
Grady swore but changed back into his cat, frustrated, horny and heartsick that he couldn't seem to control himself when it came to Gabby.
She glanced at his neck and bit her lip. If her face turned any redder, she might explode.
He meowed his apology, but she shook her head.
Burke touched her shoulder, and Grady wanted to claw the offending hand away. "Gabby, honey, I'm sorry if--"
She burst into laughter, so loud that a few of the poker players drifted into the kitchen to see what was going on, again. "I can't help it," she gasped. "That bow tie is killing me! I can't believe he was dancing to 'Foxy Lady'. A great big cat with no rhythm." Tears streamed down her cheeks.
Fucking Monty and his stupid bets. And fuck Dean too. Grady snorted and snapped his tail before slinking away. He walked into the adjoining mudroom and clamped his teeth around the modified door handle specially crafted for them when in shifted form. Exiting into a brisk June night, he morosely wondered where to go from here.
Stretching out his limbs, he decided to run, in the mood to kill something.
Gabby didn't seem to realize he was courting her. Ever since Burke had mated and married Rachel, Grady had been feeling the urge to settle down. But his animal spirit called out for a kindred soul, a cat. The only pride in Cougar Falls was theirs, made up of the Chastell cats, a bear and his wife, a few foxes, and a wolf. The Catamount Pride were few but tolerant of others. If you were a respectable Shifter, Burke had a home for you.
Grady couldn't complain. He liked those in the pride. Well, except for Dean and Monty. And lately Burke had become a huge pain in the ass, watching over Gabby like he was her fucking father.
With a snarl, Grady scared a trio of foxes deeper into the woods and clawed a nearby tree to mark his passage. My territory. My pride. My female, he wanted to yell.
But no one was out here to listen, and the only woman who needed to hear it didn't take him seriously. Burke had warned him that heavy-handed wouldn't work with Gabby. Then he'd overheard Gabby tell her sister how tired she was of all the grabby males in town wanting her now that it was known she could shift into two animals--a trait that gave her celebrity status among their kind. Not wanting to be like all the others, he'd tried the light approach.
Hell, he'd even gone so far as to politely ask her out on an honest-to-God date, but she'd patted him on the head like a dog and told him it wasn't necessary. A thanks but no thanks he didn't understand.
He needed to change his strategy with the female before some other hungry Shifter snapped her up. But except for tying her down and forcing her to accept his sincerity, he didn't know what the hell to do. How could he find a future with her when she sure as hell wasn't seeing him as anything but a comedian, an embarrassing feline no better than a dancing bear?