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Excerpt from HARD MATED by Jennifer Ashley

His only warning was the bone-rattling roar before several tons of enraged bear Shifter landed on him. Spike in his jaguar form rolled out of the way, twisted in a half-somersault through the dust, and came up under the bear’s throat.

The crowd—under the blaze of bonfires, work lights, and lantern flashlights—roared, Shifter throats open in howls of glee.

Spike slashed upward with his fangs, catching the loose skin under the bear’s chin, right above his Collar. The bear scrambled backward, swinging his head to pry loose the wildcat clinging to his throat. Spike wrapped all four huge jaguar paws around the bear’s neck and hung on, biting down enough to taste blood.

Both the bear’s and Spike’s Collars were sparking wildly, the mechanisms designed to stop Shifters from giving in to violence.

Too late. Way too late. The beast in Spike wanted to tear into the bear’s jugular and gulp down his blood, pull off his head and kick it into the middle of the ring. Spike would prove to all watchers that a wildcat could best a bear five times his size. Speed and cunning were what counted in the ring, not being as big as a two-ton pickup.

But the beast inside Spike would have to deal with it, because this was the fight club, and there were rules.

Didn’t mean Spike didn’t enjoy a little blood squeezing out of the bear. Feel that, shithead.

The crowd roared again, and also howled and snarled, because not everyone was in human form.

Shifters pressed forward around the ring, some still dressed, some naked and ready to shift, some already animals or half beasts. Scents both human and Shifter clogged the air, layers of excitement from the shifted females blending with the sweat of the males.

But most of all Spike smelled the bear who’d come down from Wisconsin, who thought he could best Spike, the champion of the highly illegal Shifter fight club.

Spike bit down, tasting victory, but that was before the bear grabbed Spike in his formidable front paws and jerked him from his neck.

That cost the bear, whose blood poured onto the dirt. But the grizzly lifted the squirming Spike-as-jaguar and threw him across the ring.

Spike spun in midair, corkscrewing his body. He landed on all four paws right inside the upended cinderblocks that marked the perimeter of the ring. If he’d landed outside, he’d have forfeited the match.

Cats land on their feet, dick-brain.

Spike didn’t wait to decide whether the impact had hurt him. Screaming a wildcat scream, his Collar going crazy, he launched himself at the bear.

The grizzly, blood streaming down his pelt, caught Spike between his big paws, but the bear was tiring. Spike whipped his cat body around again, landing full force on the bear’s back. He wrapped paws around the bear’s throat and began tearing open the wound he’d already begun.

The bear bellowed in pain. He shifted to his in-between beast, half human, half bear, a monster of gigantic proportions. Spike kept ripping, blood flowed, and the bear snarled in rage.

The bear-beast collapsed, taking Spike down with him. They landed in a giant cloud of dust, Spike slamming his eyes shut before the gritty dirt blinded him.

The grizzly, back in solid bear form, made one more effort—rolling onto his back. Spike scrambled off and away before the bear could squash him flat, Spike’s lithe cat’s body barely taking him out of the way in time. Spike jumped to his feet, panting, ready to charge the bear again.

Two refs in human form ran between them.

“Fight’s over!” one of the refs shouted. “The bear is down.”

The grizzly’s few supporters moaned in disappointment. The rest of the crowd screamed and hollered, humans punching the air, beasts doing victory leaps. Spike, champion of the Austin Shiftertown, had won again.

Spike stood still and caught his breath, his Collar sending fiery jolts of pain down his neck and spine. He’d pay a long time for what he’d done in the rings tonight. Close fight. The bear was damn good.

The bear got slowly to his feet. He rose on his hind legs, higher and higher, until he flowed down into his human form—a little shorter than his bear form, but not by much. The bear—Cormac—had black hair and blue eyes and stood about seven feet tall. He spat blood from his mouth, hands on hips, catching his breath like Spike did.

Spike stretched his forepaws into the air and let himself become human, himself tall enough at six foot six. He kept his arms up, acknowledging his victory, and his fans filled the place with noise.

Cormac came across the ring, Collar sparking with residual arcs, and gave Spike a nod. “Good fight,” he said, his voice rasping.

He stuck out his hand. Spike clasped it, promising himself not to grip too hard, and Cormac clapped Spike on the shoulder. The Shifter had no malice in his eyes, only approval for Spike’s technique and stamina.

That was the problem with bears. They were so damn affable—when they weren’t trying to kill you.

“Good fight,” Spike said back. He kept his words light, his handshake strong, pretending he didn’t want to fall onto the soft dirt of the ring and pass out. A few gallons of water poured down his throat wouldn’t hurt either.

Cormac turned away to his friends—Ronan the Kodiak bear and his family—and a woman ran to Spike with a sports bottle.

Spike grabbed the bottle and upended a stream of water into his mouth before he realized two things. First, the woman who’d handed him the bottle was human, and second, he’d never seen her here before.

She had black hair cut short but wildly curly, blue eyes that looked back at him in perfect equanimity, a round face that was cute rather than pretty, and lips that any male, human or Shifter would want to sink a kiss onto. Her plump body had nice curves that she didn’t much hide behind a button-down shirt, sexily-cut lace tank, and jeans that rested low on her hips.

Shifter groupie? Maybe, but she didn’t have the obsessed look, nor did she wear a fake Collar or paint on whiskers or anything like that.

On the other hand, Spike was standing next to her wearing nothing but his tattoos, sweat, and the blood from the fight. The woman kept her gaze on Spike’s face, not even flicking it to his very naked body.

Spike upended the bottle, squirted water onto his face, and rubbed his hand over his cheeks and jaw. A shower was going to feel good.

He was also antsy, adrenaline still up in spite of the Collar’s efforts. A nice roll on the sack would be great too, and here was this sweet little morsel, handing him water and looking fine in a Texas-cowgirl kind of way.

Not that Spike usually went for humans. He had to be too careful in bed with human women, because things could get wild and wicked. Shifters females were more resilient, more used to male Shifters and what they wanted.

But there was something Spike liked about this human.

“Who are you, sweetheart?” he asked.

“My name’s Myka. Myka Thompson. You don’t know me, but you know Jillian.”

Jillian. Jillian. Who the hell was Jillian?

“You knew her, I should say,” Myka said. “For one night at least. Five years ago. Shifter bar. You were a Shifter, she was a Shifter groupie …” She trailed off, one hand moving before she returned it to her shapely hip.

Memory came to him. Five years ago, sure. Spike had been very drunk that night, but Jillian had been the hottest thing he’d seen in a long, long time. She’d been more than willing—in fact, she’d almost dragged him to that hotel room—and Spike had waived his avoidance of humans for her. “Red-headed little thing, fiery. Yeah, I remember her.”

He’d never seen Jillian again. Spike liked to date his ladies for more than a night, much more than a night, but the phone number Jillian had given him had been disconnected, and she’d not come to the bar again.

Some humans were like that. They wanted a taste of the beast, but they didn’t want anything long-term with a Shifter.

“How’s she doing?” Spike asked. He grabbed a towel he’d left on a box outside the ring and rubbed his wet face. The towel came away filthy and bloody. He needed a shower and some bandages. Shifters healed quickly, but Spike was going to be in for a sore night.

“She’s dying,” Myka said.

Spike jerked back to her, towel dangling from his grasp. “What?”

“I said, Jillian’s dying. She wants to see you, but you have to come with me now.”

~ End of Excerpt ~

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