Lost City Shifters Book Three
“The action is fast paced, betrayal is a constant companion, and the sexy times are verrrrry nice. Those shifters know how to grab life with both hands and go to town with it, don't they? Good times, all around!” —Reading the Paranormal
“Eleri Stone gives us a wonderfully lush setting with an exciting and unique shifter clan and a hero and heroine in whose story the reader will feel invested right from the start.” — Book Lovers, Inc.
“Rebellion has a great plot with flawless writing. There are memorable characters that I won't soon forget. I definitely recommend it!”—Night Owl Reviews
Cole Brandt is a wolf shifter, sent by his pack to the Amazon jungle to negotiate a treaty. He’s unaware that the kingdom of jaguar shifters he’s meant to meet with has split—and Cole’s suspicion that jaguars are selfish and deceitful is confirmed when he’s seized by the rebel faction.
Taya Silveira, a jaguar shifter and fierce warrior loyal to the king, resents being assigned Cole’s rescue. She doesn’t approve of his pack’s involvement in her jungle—to her, wolves are greedy, weak creatures who will exploit the resources the Yaguara protect.
Struggling against centuries of ill will and prejudice, Cole and Taya must work together to prevent a devastating civil war. They can’t deny their physical attraction—with the heightened senses of shifters, their desires are plain. But if they give in to passion, they may be forced to choose between staying with their tribes, or staying together.
A mild fear of heights and the nagging certainty that he was making the biggest mistake of his life had Cole’s stomach tied in knots. He hated flying. His wolf registered every sudden drop, slip and rattle of the plane as a threat, so whenever he was stuck on a rocky flight—like this one had been—it left him simmering in a stew of adrenaline and testosterone. Not the state he wanted to be in while on his way to negotiate a peace treaty with a hostile tribe of jaguar shifters. Rotating his wrist, he checked the time again. Forty minutes and they’d be on the ground.
It didn’t help that the last person to hold this job had died because of it. Ben Fisher had made the mistake of agreeing to meet with a delegation from the rebel camp to hear their side of the story and never left Santarém. Ben’s death had divided the pack, with the Fishers on one side clamoring for Yaguara blood and Michael, the pack’s alpha, on the other urging caution until all the evidence was in. Not willing to wait, Ben’s brother, Jack, had taken a shot at revenge by hiring a group of mercenaries to steal an ancient artifact that mapped the secret location of the Yaguara city in the Amazon rain forest.
The Yaguara were one of the last shifter groups to integrate with human society. If Jack had released that stone, the Yaguara would have been forced to abandon their ancient home and disperse into the human world just like everyone else. It never came to that. Jack was stopped. Gabriel proved to Michael’s satisfaction that his Yaguara had had nothing to do with Ben’s disappearance. As a gesture of goodwill Gabriel pardoned Jack for the failed attempt at outing the Yaguara to the human world.
A year and a half later, here they were.
Here he was…
Cole peered out the small window hoping to see some sign of civilization, but there was nothing out there. Just a vast ocean of trees stretching on to forever with only a narrow brown river threading through all that green to break up the monotony. The sun was rising, causing clouds of mist to lift from the low jungle like steam.
It was beautiful, he’d give it that.
But it was also such an alien and isolated place, so incredibly different from his home in Austin it might as well have been another planet.
Finding no comfort in the view, he rested his head against the leather seatback and briefly closed his eyes.
“Having second thoughts?”
Cole looked at his pilot. He’d flown with Pete often enough that they’d become casual friends. Apparently often enough that Pete thought he could pry.
“I made the right choice.”
“Your mother didn’t seem to think so.”
Cole shrugged, wincing inwardly at the memory of the tears in his mother’s eyes when she’d turned away on the tarmac. He’d never seen her cry and, by the determined way she strode back toward the car, she didn’t intend for that to ever change.
“She worries,” he said, raising his voice above the drone of the engine. “My father understands.”
He hadn’t at first. “Politics will change you. You’re not hard enough or hungry enough to thrive in that world.”
But Cole had survived thus far. For him, it had never really been about ambition anyway. He’d done his best to explain to his father why he was taking on such a high-risk job—the boredom that had crept up on him over the last year or two, the feeling that day by day he was walking deeper into a trap, the despair that came with the realization that it might already be too late to change course. He could see his life stretching out before him—days spent locked inside drab gray buildings, playing golf on manicured courses on the weekends and only running as a wolf on the occasional pack camping trip. His kind weren’t meant to live like that, and he couldn’t understand why it didn’t seem to bother anyone else.
So when Michael came to him with this “promotion” in hand, it all narrowed to a simple choice—accept that life or take a risk and hope for something more.
Really, no decision at all.
Pete’s brows raised. “You plan to stay then? If the negotiations are successful, they’ll need someone down here to supervise construction and oversee research.”
“We’ll see.” Cole fisted his hand and bounced it on the leather armrest. He hoped it would work out. He wanted the challenge, needed the change. And this would be one hell of a challenge, helping to quell a burgeoning civil war in return for the Yaguara’s permission to set up a research facility in the Amazon. The Yaguara offered land, protection and centuries’ worth of information. In exchange they wanted a treaty that would ensure they had the wolves’ support, a military commitment if extra men were needed and the Federation’s acknowledgement of the current regime as legitimate.
“Michael didn’t come out and offer me the job. He wants to see how things turn out.”
“Maybe. I’m not sure if it’s for me or the cats though.”
“Not you,” Pete said. “I flew Michael to Aspen last week and had to listen to him talk about you there and back. You’re his golden boy now that Fisher is…”
“…gone,” Pete finished with a wince.
Until his death, Ben had been Michael’s heir apparent. Cole smoothed the frown from his face when Pete gave him a curious look. “Ben’s death left a void in the pack, but I don’t intend to take his place. I want this job. I don’t see it as a stepping-stone. I see it as an opportunity to get back to doing what I went to school for in the first place.”
Pete’s habitual grin was absent, which was jarring enough to make Cole ignore the way the plane began to shimmy. “The cats…they promised a lot but they’re asking a lot. For us to put our men at risk—damn.”
A jolt accompanied his words. Pete craned his neck to look out the side window and Cole followed his gaze, catching an alarming glimpse of smoke before Pete shoved him back. “Head down!”
Cole’s blood iced in his veins. He hesitated, torn between reaching for the seat buckle and not wanting to die trapped in a metal cage. His wolf side demanded he get out—not a practical instinct at several hundred feet.
“Something hit the engine but don’t worry, there’s no way—” The plane dipped hard to the right. “Fuck.”
Don’t worry? Cole’s briefcase tumbled across the cabin and he shoved it aside, reaching for his belt and buckling in. “They shoot at suspected traffickers. Remember that missionary family? Maybe we should radio—”
Pete shook his head. “This came from the ground.”
“They’re not supposed to have antiaircraft weaponry.”
Pete didn’t comment. What was the point? The answer was obvious. Ben had underestimated the rebellion’s commitment to a pure and separate Yaguara kingdom and Cole had done the same damn thing. The nose of the plane dropped and Cole grabbed on to the dash to brace himself, fingers tearing into the leather.
As much as the sound of the engines had bothered him, it was far, far worse when one of them abruptly cut off. Everything else seemed louder—Pete’s harsh breath, the wind buffeting the falling plane, his own thundering heart.
Pete’s steady voice pulled him from the edge of panic and even though he knew he was being managed, Cole held on to the hope that maybe this wasn’t as bad as it seemed. “I can glide us in. Our chances of walking away from this are better than most.” Because they were shifters with stronger musculoskeletal systems than normal humans, but still…even shifters had physical limits. “Keep your head down and—”
Cole stared at the solid mass of trees and the complete lack of anything remotely resembling a landing strip. “What about a parachute?”
“We’re too low and out of time. The body of the plane will absorb some of the shock of impact.”
A flock of birds swept past them. The trees came up so fast it was as if the forest reached up to snatch them from the sky. Pete released a shuddering breath and closed his eyes. “Brace yourself.”
The next moments passed in a blur of terror and pain. The plane remained intact only through the initial impact. There was a sickening roll as Cole was somehow flung free of the fuselage while strapped to the fucking seat. And he was still dropping, crashing through the trees at an alarming speed with nothing to shield him except for the sheet of metal and foam attached to his back.
What had looked like a rolling green ocean from the air was anything but soft. The sound of tree limbs cracking combined with the snap of his own breaking bones. Blood poured into his eye socket from a cut to his temple, effectively blinding him. He tried to protect his head with his arms, curled into his belly until he landed on a thick limb, taking the brunt of the impact on his left side. Ribs broke and his lungs refused to draw air. Still, he tried to grab on to something, anything to slow his fall. Leaves sliced through his hands and he tumbled down another dozen feet until the seat wedged between two tree limbs. One broken branch speared though the base, missing Cole’s groin by inches and jerking him to a sudden, heart-stopping halt.
Pain shot up his spine causing his back to arch in an attempt to absorb it. Fight through it. Ignore the thousands of nerve endings screaming at him that his body was seriously fucked. Suspended twenty feet above the ground, he needed to stay conscious if he wanted to unfuck himself. His left leg was useless, broken in at least one spot. Several ribs on the left side of his body were shattered to the point that when he tried to move, he could feel a jagged bone tug at something inside him. He could only draw breath in shallow pants and was losing a great deal of blood from the head wound.
His wolf was close to the surface now, demanding that he shift. A last ditch defense mechanism. The change would sap him of what little energy he had left, but it would also repair a good deal of the physical damage to his body. He trembled from shock and the effort it took to keep himself from shifting. He couldn’t shift until he freed himself from the seat.
And he had to do that before he passed out and whoever had been shooting at them came to check for survivors. Pete… Left arm pinned to his side, he grit his teeth and managed to work the release with his right hand. He thought he’d be able to grab on to the tree limb when he climbed from the seat, but it was slippery, covered with some kind of slick moss. Immediately, he lost his hold, dropping into a web of vines that did surprisingly little to slow him before falling the rest of the way to the spongy earth. He landed on his left side and felt something pop inside his chest cavity. A lung. His first hysterical response was that this was a good thing. He’d last longer with a punctured lung than a punctured heart, even if it meant counting his life in minutes rather than seconds. He only needed moments to shift.
Feeling as if he were drowning on dry land, he sought that peaceful center where the sides of his halved nature were whole. Wolf and man, one being. He reached for the wolf and nearly wept with relief when it claimed him. At some point during the change, his hoarse and pathetic human cry transformed into the throaty growl of a wolf. His bones reknit. His broken lung sealed and again drew air. The wound on his head was too deep to heal completely, but the blood flow slowed to a trickle.
It took everything he had. Every reserve of strength and energy. When he was done, he lay there for a long time in a puddle of his own blood and sweat, panting, sick and unable to move. Darkness closed at the edges of his vision when he staggered to his feet, but that was okay. He didn’t need his eyes right now, he needed his nose.
Lifting his face and letting his mouth gape open, he drew moist air into his body, sorting through the strange scents of this place. Once he got his bearings, he started walking toward the smell of burning metal. The ground was wet, marshy. He could smell water all around him but concentrated to his right. The river he’d seen from the air would lie in that direction. He refused to think about the enormity of the challenge of finding his way out of the rain forest alone and wounded, without so much as a compass.
Mud sucked at his paws and clung to his fur, weighting his legs. Small animals scurried above him, the sounds of their calls unfamiliar and grating. His vision narrowed to the ground directly in front of him, which was surprisingly clear of brush. He’d expected a tangle, but it looked as if it had flooded here recently and the vegetation hadn’t had a chance to recover. Nothing to drink, though, and the heat was quickly sapping what little strength he had left.
He found the rest of the plane more than a mile away. Large chunks of it were on fire, but most of the fuselage was intact. There was a great gaping hole in the right side where the wing had been, exactly where he’d been sitting. He skirted an unscathed suitcase, laying in the dirt like a weird-ass commercial for Samsonite.
He hopped up, digging his claws into the shredded blue carpet and pulling himself into the cockpit. That was where he found Pete, still strapped into his seat, his skull cracked. One arm was flung across his chest and his eyes were open, staring sightlessly at the hovering trees. Dead. Dead on the way down.
Grief, rage and confusion crashed inside him as he stared at Pete’s broken body. They could have come in force, but Michael had wanted this expedition to be a show of faith and Pete had paid for that concession with his life. Cole very likely would do the same. No one outside of the king’s inner circle had known they were coming, which meant someone had leaked the flight plan. Hard on that realization came a surge of rage so intense his body shook with it.
Part of that rage was directed at himself. He should have known better. Michael should have known better. They’d negotiated with the cats as if they were human allies.
But they weren’t.
Of all the shifter communities, the Yaguara were the last to embrace their humanity and adapt to the human world. Despite the fact that the jaguar shifters seemed civilized, they were still the same devious, unscrupulous and barbaric animals they’d always been. Cole tipped his head back and let the growl rising in his chest swell to a full-throated howl of grief and anger.
Someone would pay for this. For Pete. For the betrayal.
But first he had to make it out alive. He pressed his nose to the back of Pete’s hand and then turned his attention to what was left of the plane.
His briefcase was gone and with it the sat phone. The radio was smashed beyond his limited ability to repair it. He’d need to shift back into his human form in order to pry open the storage compartment that held emergency equipment, and it was far too soon for him to attempt another change. He was trying to rip it open with his teeth when a sound from behind brought him up short.
With a snarl on his lips, Cole turned around just as a man stepped from the jungle less than twenty feet away. Short and trim, dressed in camouflage and carrying an assault rifle, he kept walking until he reached the middle of the small clearing and then stopped, tipping his head to one side as he studied Cole. “Well, look what we have here. Long way from home, aren’t you, boy?”
His manner was intended to be nonthreatening, but he wasn’t alone. Cole could smell the others closing in, surrounding him. Yaguara, the jaguar men and women of the rebellion. They wore human skin and carried weapons he couldn’t hope to outrun.
Cole took a menacing step forward. Pure bluff. He couldn’t dodge bullets. He knew it and the man standing in the center of the clearing knew it too. He didn’t even bother to raise his weapon.
Before Cole took another step, a tranquilizer dart hit him in the shoulder. Between the blood loss and the adrenaline speeding his heart rate, the powerful drugs took effect almost immediately. His legs gave out and he dropped to the ground, still several feet from the Yaguara warrior.
The man tucked his weapon to his waist and squatted down. Through blurring vision, Cole saw him smile. “Wolves don’t belong in the jungle.”
Even dazed by the drugs coursing through his system, Cole managed to grab the man’s wrist in his teeth. He grinned inwardly at the yelp of pain as he clamped his jaws shut, feeling his fangs sink to the bone, reveling in the gush of hot blood. It wasn’t enough, not to avenge Pete or Ben, but it was something. He was still grinning when the butt of a rifle slammed into his skull, sending him spinning into oblivion.
A strand of hair caught on a needle thorn and Taya tried to work it free without using her hands. She already had a hundred tiny cuts and burns on her fingers because of her misguided choice of a hiding place. The rebels patrolling the border of the camp avoided this tangle of brush, considering it its own defense. After all, no one in their right mind would choose to touch the deadly tree with its three-inch-long thorns and caustic leaves. She wondered what that made her. Reckless. Crazy.
Stubborn little fool.
She could almost hear Enrique say it, with a wry twist at the corner of his mouth and a sparkle in his eyes. Of course, it was also Enrique who’d been the one to tell her that the tree wasn’t truly deadly, not to their kind. Superstition, he said. It wasn’t even a tree, just a woody shrub whose bark could be boiled to treat asthma. He sent her off to harvest a few branches a year. When she’d come back with a rash and accused him of trying to kill her, he’d laughed and said it would take a great deal of the poison to even numb her muscles.
She hoped he was right. After having spent most of the night worming her way through the brush, the only effect she felt now was a mild tingling in her extremities. She hoped it subsided by nightfall. She’d need to be able to move then and move fast.
The camp had been larger than anticipated. Better manned. Better armed. Better fortified. They’d planned on a direct targeted assault. Grab the wolf and get out. Within moments of spotting this supposedly satellite compound, it had been clear that a direct assault would be a suicide mission. Whether their information was bad by accident or design she didn’t know, but as soon as she got back to the city she meant to find out.
Gabriel would have wanted her to withdraw, but the wolf wasn’t going to last long enough for help to arrive. She’d caught a glimpse of him when they dragged him from one of the huts to the pit. His big body limp and senseless, pale skin torn and bloodied—he wouldn’t last another day here.
So she had called for reinforcements, but then she’d gone in anyway, creeping her way to the edge of the camp while most of the rebel guards were off hunting for dinner. She recognized some of them, like Manuel who she thought had been lost to the human world. That had been an unwelcome shock. He’d been her first lover and they’d stayed friends through all their long years of training at the Academy. After Gabriel came to power, Manuel disappeared with his wife and infant son. Many families with young children had fled in the first months after the coup. And then in the following years of escalating violence…well, the city was no place to raise a child.
She understood that and had never faulted him for leaving. But the sight of Manuel laughing with Samuel, who she’d long considered a traitor, had shaken her badly. She curled tighter into a ball and rested her chin on her knees. She’d counted both of those men as her friends at one time—but here she was, staging an attack on their home in order to rescue a wolf. She shook her head. The strange things she did in the name of loyalty.
Perhaps it wasn’t loyalty precisely. Bullheadedness, maybe. Or the simple desire to protect her home, her family and their way of life. She would do whatever was necessary to keep her people safe. If that meant sparing the life of some cocky young wolf with a savior complex who would look down on them as savages and expect them to kiss his ass in exchange for a few votes in the assembly, then so be it.
Gabriel had outraged a good many people by contacting the North American pack. Despite the fact that Taya had been one of the people who’d argued strenuously against him extending this offer in the first place, Gabriel had sent her in to save the wolf. And save the wolf she would.
She’d done a great many things she wasn’t particularly proud of to ensure the survival of her people. What she wanted didn’t matter. It hadn’t for a long time. Survival mattered. Keeping the people she loved alive mattered. Her job mattered. And she wouldn’t fail, not her mission or her king.
She stared at her feet. They were filthy with streaks of black mud, the nail polish she’d put on weeks ago chipped all to hell. She still couldn’t feel her toes though she could see them move when she tried to wiggle them. Screams floated to her on the breeze and she closed her eyes, wishing she could close her ears too. Soon. If he survived the day, they would get him out tonight. No one deserved this, not even a wolf. Until then, she tried to imagine herself somewhere else. Somewhere quiet, safe and very far away.