She was a beautiful child, her wide almond-shaped green eyes slightly tilted at the edges giving her an exotic look beyond the vertical slits so like a cat’s and marking her as a Cantari. The black curls that framed the delicate features she shared with her mother giving the false impression of fragility. The first girl child to be born in memory, she was a treasure to her people and of course her parents.
Hale and Reyna watched their beautiful daughter grow in strength and agility with a mixture of pride and anxiety. She was different than any other Cantari child, scaling the Nivera tree with ease and agilely flipping and contorting her way around the vines and coming back down with one of the beautiful flowers in her hand and giving it to her mother.
Reyna looked at Hale with a raised brow. “Do you still think she will be happy being cosseted and protected, hunter?”
Their daughter was only six and Ryia was already difficult to contain and keep track of, she was so nimble and quick on her feet. The child’s reflexes were unlike anything Hale or his father had ever seen.
Ryia had also proudly declared she was going to be a hunter when she grew up and when her cousins laughed, she scratched them with surprisingly sharp nails, leaving gouges like claw marks.
Reyna was horrified but later when she looked at her daughter’s hands she found no sharp tips on the ends of her fingers that would leave such marks behind. She hid her disquiet from Hale and took their daughter back to their rooms to talk to her about playing nicely with the other children.
“But I will be a hunter, Mama! A huntress!” Ryia declared passionately with her green eyes flashing.
Reyna smiled at the earnest little face looking up at her, “I know, my darling, but you must allow your father and the rest of the male Cantaris to catch up with your forward thinking.”
Ryia’s eyes narrowed. “I should be training with the boys.”
“You’re only six, love, give your father a little time to prepare himself for what’s coming,” she told the little girl firmly.
Ryia grudgingly agreed before running outside to climb a tree and settling between two forked branches for a nap. Reyna looked up to see her daughter sleeping peacefully up in the tree and shook her head at how very much she resembled a sleeping kitten.
Later that night she and Hale discussed their precocious child at length. “You’re going to have to train her, hunter. She will not accept anything less and I fear it is the only way to protect her from the trouble she will find if you leave her to train herself.”
Hale admitted to Reyna that the plan of keeping his daughter safe from every danger was not going to work. Their daughter was a born hunter just like her father and his father before him and if Hale tried to stand in her way, they would indeed lose her.
Tomorrow Hale would take their daughter to the training fields with the other Cantari Hunters and their sons. A new day was dawning and it was one all the Cantari would have to accept.
Her daughter stared at her with obvious hope. “Please, Mother. We’ve already caught the Alburion scum that was plaguing the area. There is no reason to keep me on the ship. I need to run.”
Reyna knew it was true. Ryia had been with her father the entire hunt and prevented from changing since they’d arrived on Earth. She knew the Earth pulled at the beasts of both her husband and daughter more deeply than their home world of Cantari.
Hale wasn’t able to change but their daughter and both their sons shifted at will. It was a sore enough point with Ryia that her younger brothers each had command of their own ship while she was still traveling with her parents at the age of twenty-six. Hale allowed her to hunt with him or other family members as long as a male was there to protect her, ensuring her safety.
While Reyna liked having her daughter close, she understood her frustration completely. Ryia was every bit as skilled a hunter and warrior as her brothers were. Her daughter actually handled throwing knives with greater dexterity than her brothers or even her father. Shifter strength and agility added to her hand to hand combat to make her a deadly foe.
Unfortunately, she was also the first female child ever born to the Cantari and because of this, Ryia was treasured by all Cantari people. Her mate was extremely protective of their eldest child and despite her skill he was unable to give her the freedom she craved.
Studying her daughter’s expression melted her heart. “Go. Be back before morning.”
Ryia gave a joyous laugh then hugged Reyna hard before touching the transfer device on her belt and leaving the ship in a shimmer of light.
Hale arrived in the living quarters a few minutes later with a frown. “Where is Ryia? There was a transfer a few minutes ago and…”
“She needs to run, Hale, her cat is impatient to be free,” Reyna told her mate.
“It is not safe! How could you let her…” he spluttered in outrage.
She raised her hands, covering his mouth so she could continue. “The criminals we came to hunt have been dispatched. The Louisiana bayou is a natural habitat for panthers. This is the perfect place for Ryia to let her cat free and roam.”
Hale sighed deeply.
“She needs some freedom, Hale; if you aren’t careful we will lose our daughter to rebellion. Would you rather wake one day to find she’s run rather than spend the rest of her life under your overprotective thumb?” Reyna asked him.
“I’m not that bad. I allow her to accompany me on hunts,” Hale muttered.
“As long as she follows your every command. Keir and Rand each have their own ships to command and our daughter is every bit as skilled as her younger brothers,” she reminded her mate, emphasizing the word younger with a little heat.
“I know they are younger but they are hunters. Cantari men cannot be held back,” he defended his choices.
“You think a Cantari Huntress can be held back indefinitely?” Reyna asked with a snort of disbelief.
“I thought she would find a mate by now and settle down to raise children,” Hale admitted.
She crossed her arms over her chest and glared up at her mate. “None of the Cantari Hunters are Ryia’s mate. Your daughter is more than a female. She is a skilled hunter and warrior,” Reyna said, getting madder by the minute as she fought what she’d always seen as an injustice to their daughter. “Ryia is better with knives that you are, hunter. She is also a shifter; stronger, faster, and more agile that the majority of Cantari Hunters with the exception of her brothers. You do our Ryia a great disservice.”
Hale ran a weary hand over his face, and she knew he was aware of the rightness of her words. “When did she say she would return?”
“At first light,” Reyna said, giving her mate a wide smile since he’d seen reason.
Ryia turned her face up to the shadowy moon as she walked toward the swampy waters of the Louisiana bayou. The twisted roots and branches of the cypress trees reminded her of the Nivera trees at home, without the poisonous flowers to worry about.
The branches twined together overhead to form a thick canopy over the dark waters, filled with sticks and dangerous creatures. Long strands of moss hanging from the trees like green lace added to the mysterious environment.
As she walked, Ryia thought about her father. She knew he loved her and wanted only to protect her. She wished he could see that he was smothering her with his protection. She wanted to be recognized as the warrior she was and Ryia wasn’t sure her father would ever be able to accept the woman… the warrior she’d become.
Ryia longed for a mate that would accept her for who she was and stand at her side in battle. A mate that would not seek only to shield her but would see her as his equal on the battlefield.
She frowned as she stared out over the swamp. Was it possible for a man to be dominant without being domineering? While she wanted to be her mate’s equal on the battlefield, she also longed for the loving and deeply sexual relationship she saw between her parents.
Ryia was not completely naïve; she knew what happened between a man and woman in the bedroom. She was a warrior and fierce in battle but she also longed for a man that could master her in the bedroom. She thought of the sexual heat she’d observed between Cantari Hunters and their mates; the males of her people were completely dominant in the bedroom. It was clear her parents shared such a bond and yet her mother was not submissive to her mate when it came to her children or everyday life.
Could she have both a master in the bedroom and a mate that saw her as his equal on the battlefield?
Ryia threw a prayer to the stars then shook off the melancholy that had overtaken her on her walk. Now was a time to embrace her cat and enjoy the freedom of the night in the bayou. She could worry about the rest of her life when she met her mate.
With a smile Ryia stripped free of her uniform until she stood naked in the scant light from the moon. She bent and wrapped her clothing around her knives until she had a tight pack to stuff in a low fork of one of the trees. Strapping one small knife to her waist, she shifted into her cat.
The big black panther stretched luxuriously, lifting her head to scent the air around her and leaping to a low hanging branch with a yowl to announce her superiority to any creatures in her vicinity, her bright green eyes seeing everything that moved around her in the canopy. The swamp was alive as with a burst of joy she moved lithely across the branches that thickly traversed the bayou. Thrilled to be free, she ran through the trees giving happy chuffs as she leapt from tree to tree. She reveled in showing off the lithe grace in her form. Ryia traveled deep into the swamp, following the network of branches as she explored her surroundings.
She ran for hours before she stopped to rest, enjoying the cacophony of sounds filling the air as the creatures that lived there sang their songs of life. She found a large fork in an ancient cypress and let the sounds surrounding her lull her to sleep.
Commander Barrick Andel watched as the small interplanetary hopper pulled out of his ship’s dock. He was Andurian, a people renowned for their diplomatic skill and strategic thinking. The Andurians were often the peacekeepers of the galactic fleet.
Barrick himself had met with the high king of the Excellia planet system and then brokered the agreement that brought the four planets ruled by the king into the Intergalactic Federation. He had not realized the federation would expect him to personally see to the high prince’s tour of the worlds that were part of the federation.
It seemed a task better suited to someone else. Barrick’s talents were needed elsewhere in the galaxy but the admiral ordered him to see to it so here he was, watching one of his sergeants take the lofty, self-important prince to visit the bayous of Earth.
Barrick turned away from the bridge window with a sigh; this was not exactly the path he’d expected when he joined the fleet. In fact he’d expected to be on the high council by this point in his career, settled with a mate and children.
His father had always told Barrick he would know his mate when he looked into her eyes and saw his tomorrows.
Sadly this had never happened in all his thirty-five years. He supposed it was possible he did not have a mate. It wasn’t unheard of for an Andurian to never find the mate of their tomorrows but it certainly wasn’t ideal.
An Andurian male did not come fully into their dominant potential until they were mated. While they were fighters and always alpha males, there was a level missing until they were able to claim their mates and mark them as owned.
Andurian women were special in that they too were warriors; their women fought at the sides of their men but yielded sweetly in the bedroom. In the deepest of mating bonds for his people there was rare evidence of a mind bond that could occur during lovemaking or other intense moments. That ultimate bond was something that every Andurian couple hoped to achieve but very few were actually able to attain.
“Commander?” At the call of one of his lieutenants, Barrick chased away dreams of the mate of his tomorrows to pay attention to the business at hand.
“Your Highness, I am not sure this is a wise course of action,” the prince’s advisor told him in a high reedy voice.
“This is my coming of age tour!” the prince said petulantly. “So far all I’ve seen were the different colors of planets as we sped past them. I want adventure! I want to hunt the wild creatures that still inhabit this primitive planet.”
Junior Sergeant Gideon tried not to roll his eyes at the spoiled privilege inherent in the younger man’s carriage. Today it was his task to escort the young entitled prince to explore the planet Earth. Earth still had some more wild untamed areas that the commander of their vessel felt would give the spoiled young man a sense of the adventure he’d been demanding for the last week.
They were currently touring the untamed bayous of Louisiana, hoping to catch sight of one of the many predators that lived in the waters there.
“We do not have clearance to hunt Earth’s animal population,” the sergeant told the prince firmly.
Prince Eagert waved a dismissive hand at him. “You do not dictate to me, Sergeant. I am the high prince of Excellia Four. I will hunt and capture an Earth creature for the royal menagerie.”
“But Your Highness,” Advisor Ganult whined sharply.
“Enough! It will be as I have commanded!” the prince declared as he pulled the thin blow gun from the carrier on his back and loaded it with a tranquilizer dart before walking away from his escort.
Gideon exchanged a worried glance with the harried advisor; both knew an unsanctioned hunt of a planet’s indigenous creatures could easily lead to an intergalactic incident. This overindulged royal had not caring of the diplomacy necessary when traveling to other planets in the galaxy.
The sergeant decided stopping the prince from this particular endeavor was above his pay grade. The prince’s advisor, obviously used to being ignored, also gave up explaining the need to respect the people and the laws of the planet they happened to be on at any given moment. He was talking to deaf ears.
“Look,” the prince said in a reverent voice. “She’s exquisite.”
Both men followed the prince’s extended arm to see a huge black cat sleeping in the fork of a tree. The cat was indeed magnificent, which in Gideon’s opinion meant she should be left where she was to thrive. But before he could even articulate the thought, the prince raised the blow gun to his lips and sent a dart flying.
An extraordinary pair of emerald eyes flew open for a split second as the dart sank into the cat’s neck. She rose to her feet with a yowl of protest as she wobbled on unsteady legs then her eyes closed as she lost consciousness and pitched over the side of the branch and into the swamp below.
“Hurry, we cannot let my prize drown!” the prince yelled as he ran to the spot they’d seen her fall.
They pulled the huge cat from the waters of the Louisiana bayou, the cat so large it took all three of the men to retrieve her before she drowned. The prince grabbed a long branch, tied the animal’s legs around the branch then ordered Gideon to lift one end. Gideon thought it was a sad, disrespectful way to carry such a beautiful creature. When he said as much, the prince scoffed at him.
“It is a wonderful way to display my prize when we carry her onto the ship. A cage will have to be prepared for her so she can travel comfortably for the remainder of the journey.”
Once they were out of the canopy of trees and in a clearing, Gideon pressed the button on his belt and requested transport. In the blink of an eye they were standing on the captain’s deck of the Grimaldi, one of the premier ships in the galactic fleet.
Commander Barrick Andel stared at the group before him in horror. “What in the three hells is this?” he asked Sergeant Gideon sharply.
“The prince…” Sergeant Gideon began.
“You were the officer in charge of the excursion, Junior Sergeant. I know for a fact there was no license for a hunt of the planet’s indigenous species,” the commander barked.
“I wanted the cat for the royal menagerie so I took it,” the prince said proudly. “Help me get my prize to my quarters and find a cage for her.”
“Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” Commander Barrick asked the prince.
“My father will gladly pay whatever fine the people of Earth believe necessary for my taking of the cat. She will be a beautiful addition to our menagerie,” the prince said.
Barrick prayed for patience as the group carried the unconscious animal from the room. The prince yelled orders at his men the entire way to his quarters. He would contact the fleet admiral and apprise him of the situation. In the meantime it was imperative to make sure the animal was comfortable and safe from harm.
He ordered a large cage to be brought to the prince’s apartments on the ship and then went to assure himself she was treated well.
As the cat was laid on a blanket in the cage, Barrick noticed a long knife strapped to the animal’s back and frowned. What kind of wild animal carried a knife? Right then a raspy yowl sounded and bright emerald eyes slowly opened. “Close the door!” He barked the command.
The young junior sergeant quickly closed the door then turned to look at Barrick in concern.
The cat struggled to its feet and her green eyes met his with an uncanny intelligence filling them. It chuffed at him and then butted its head against the bars of the cage as if demanding his attention… demanding him to pet her. He suddenly had an image of the cat with three cubs of varying size; one had the dazzling green eyes of their mother and two had eyes of a brilliant aquamarine like his own. The strangeness of the moment punched him in gut. How could a cat be the mate of his tomorrows?
Barrick felt pulled to the large cat despite his misgivings.
His fingers sank into the thick fur of her neck and she purred loudly.
“Hey! Don’t touch my pet!” The prince pushed the commander away from the bars in a fit of petulance. He might as well have yelled mine.
Oddly enough, Barrick wanted to pound the little whelp into the ground and continue to stroke the big cat even though it made no sense at all.
The cat in question yowled and then hissed at the prince, who made the mistake of standing close to the bars and she caught him with the edge of one of her claws on the side of his right leg.
It was the prince’s turn to yowl and he jumped back from the cage to glare at the big cat. “Bad cat!”
Barrick eyed the pleasure in the cat’s emerald gaze as he fought the sense of possession in his gut. “I don’t believe this cat is just a panther.”
She sniffed the air and let the big man’s scent wrap around her like a balm to her spirit, soothing her. A deep rumbling purr rose from her chest to fill the air despite the bars caging her. The sound of her purr brought his blue eyes back to hers and she chuffed softly. As their eyes held once more across the room, only one thought filled her mind: Mine.
Ryia did not know how she came to be on this strange ship, caged like an animal but she did know the scent of her mate. The smell was so intoxicating she was dizzy with it, overwhelmed by the rightness of his smell as it filled every sense she possessed. Or perhaps that was the drug the little sniveling idiot whining that she’d scratched him had shot into her while she slept in the trees of the bayou. Two things Ryia knew beyond a shadow of a doubt: one, the man with the blue eyes was her bonded mate and two, she would kill the man who dared to think he could own her.
Her head began to clear quickly as her system rid itself of the toxin used to incapacitate her. A growl rose menacingly from her throat as the little prince once more approached her cage.
“Bad cat!” he yelled once more as if outraged she would dare to growl at him. “You purr for me! You belong to me!”
Enough was enough, Ryia needed to disabuse this fool of his imaginings. She shifted almost faster than the eye could see, standing to reach her arm between the bars and catch the odious little puppy by the back of his neck.
“No man owns me!” she said scathingly as she slammed his head against the bars then released him to drop unconscious to the floor. Pulling her knife from its sheath along her back, she ran a finger along the ridiculously sharp edge before staring straight at the young man partially responsible for her capture. “Open this door and I will let you live.”
“Commander?” the young man asked her mate nervously.
“I suggest you do as the lady asks. Unless I’ve missed my guess on who our guest is, the little unsanctioned hunt you let the prince convince you to participate in is about to cause an intergalactic shit storm,” the commander said quietly.
Ryia smiled brilliantly and nodded. “You are correct, mate. I need to taste your name on my lips,” she said matter-of-factly as if she wasn’t still standing naked in a cage while holding a knife she seemed prepared to sink in the first available target.
The young man nearly fell over himself opening the door to the cage. Ryia stepped out and then threw her knife at the man about to dare to shoot another dart into her flesh. She was careful as she wasn’t sure where she was and to whom this ship belonged, allowing her knife to graze the skin of his shoulder as it caught in the fabric of the man’s regal robes to pin his arm against the wall.
“Why the hell did you do that, Advisor Ganult?” Barrick asked impatiently. “I ordered Gideon to open the door to the cage.”
“The prince’s prize was escaping,” the man said, his high reedy voice even higher in his fear as Ryia stalked toward him.
She removed her knife from his clothing, releasing him from the wall. “I was being set free after being wrongly imprisoned; be thankful I did not kill you. I sensed it would displease my mate so I allowed you to live.”
“I am not your mate,” the commander said softly.
Ryia frowned; she had always assumed her mate would be another hunter. She had no idea how to woo this man to her. She walked up to him and looked up at him, purring softly as she ran a proprietary hand up his chest. “You are my mate… you belong to me as I belong to you.”
It went against everything in Barrick to deny her. The instant she’d stood before him as a woman, pictures flashed before his eyes—a beautiful woman with dark hair and catlike emerald eyes, three children of varying ages blinking at him from their mother’s side with the same uncanny eyes. The girl had a wild mane of curls like her mother’s but the color was a dark auburn like his and she had her mother’s eyes. The boys had their mother’s coloring and those startling catlike eyes but their color was his.
He knew she was his mate but he could not claim her until the mess of this situation was resolved. It was his job to prevent intergalactic incidents, not to help cause them.
He fought the urge to lean into her caress. His body responded to this woman on a visceral level but she was far too forward and once he was able to claim her, he would teach her the error of behaving so forwardly.
“I am Commander Barrick Andel of the Starship Grimaldi in the fifteenth fleet of the intergalactic liaison team. And you are?” As he waited, his eyes strayed down her body, taking in the high full breasts with tip-tilted red nipples that seemed tighten and swell beneath his gaze down to the flat belly and the dark nest of curls between her lithe thighs. Her beautifully delicate features were dominated by her huge emerald green cat’s eyes, the wild black curls swirling around her face and down her back only adding to her untamed beauty.
As Barrick studied her, he realized his eyes were not the only ones taking in her glorious nudity.
With a glare at the other men in the room, he quickly removed his shirt and then pulled it down over her head in one swift move. The shirt fell almost to the deceptively delicate creature’s knees, she was so small, covering surprisingly full hips given the graceful slenderness of her body.
“I will have your name,” he said again firmly.
He realized when he saw the sparkles in her eyes that the little minx was laughing at him when she straightened proudly. “I am Ryia, Cantari Huntress, daughter of the great hunter Hale and his mate Reyna.”
It was exactly as he’d feared. This was the darling of the Cantari people; they didn’t have an intergalactic incident on their hands… if they weren’t very careful they had an intergalactic war.