The soft whirr of the centrifuge hypnotized Cristían Duarte.
He stared, unblinking, while the red digital numbers ticked down. There was
nothing else to do at this point but wait and hope.
It had to work. Please let it work.
He was running out of DNA. Replicating what he had had failed
so far. Each time he needed an original source, and with Rose dead, there was
little of the original DNA remaining. He'd extracted it from her toothbrush,
hairbrush, the sheets where she'd last slept, and the ground soaked with the
blood from her murder.
The memory stabbed through his gut. Her big brown eyes had
stared lifelessly at the stars, her mouth frozen in a scream she didn't have
time to utter. The coppery stench of blood had tainted the air, mingling with
the stench of the wildfires that had plagued the surrounding area, creating a
horror to add to those already crowded in his head. Her throat had been ripped
open with one massive bite. She'd never seen it coming, never had the chance to
Cristían closed his eyes. Only minutes prior to her death,
his clan had been enjoying a well-deserved run in Balboa Park, never realizing
death would visit them. Rose's death blow had been delivered from a threat they
never knew existed—mountain lions, another clan of shape-shifters. Until a year
ago, the mountain lions hadn't known about the jaguar clan either, and they
weren't happy about the discovery.
The mountain lions were volatile and quick to defend their
people from outside threats. Cristían couldn't really blame them. They'd lost
everything to humans. And discovering other shape-shifters had brought to life
stories they'd thought were myths. Tales from their ancestors of other
shifters, of wars fought and civilizations destroyed. They were prepared to do
whatever it took to protect themselves and their lands, even if it meant
killing what they didn't understand.
Finally an uneasy peace was forged between their two clans. A
treaty set in place. However, suspicions still lingered on both sides, and
grief still clenched Cristían's heart.
He lined up the fifteen petri dishes into three rows of five,
then laid out two glass pipettes, in the hope keeping busy would banish the
memory. It didn't work.
The jaguar clan had lost a woman that dark night six months
ago…and the children she carried. All their hopes and dreams for a future were
now dust on the wind, Rose and her babies' ashes mingled with Mother Earth, as
was custom. Cristían wished he could join them and was ashamed to admit he'd
thought about it more times than was healthy. He'd kept those feelings to
himself and poured out his grief and rage in body-racking sobs each night.
Soaking one of Rose's pillowcases with his tears while he cried, then
masturbating in a desperate attempt to reconnect with her. He knew he wasn't
the only one who cried. Her death cut the clan to the core of their being. She
was their heart, their hope for the future.
It was one of those things they didn't discuss; doing so
would release the floodgates holding back all the grief and anger pent up from
centuries of loss. Their homes and cities destroyed; family, friends, and
lovers gone forever. When one was generally long-lived, forever was a very long
time. Joining them in death…
Cristían swallowed against the pain. A coward's way out or a
merciful end? He shook the darkness away. Death would mean a complete loss of
hope. He refused to accept it. Two friends helped keep him whole. He wouldn't
lay grief over his death upon their shoulders. Jeremy and Lupe deserved better
He couldn't say when he took that step away from the dark
abyss or what prompted his new plan. At some point, he realized Lupe had given
him a reason to live, and Jeremy, the faith to try. Once he set foot on that
path—remaining alive—nothing deterred him. What was the sense of having a
state-of-the-art laboratory if not to use it to its fullest potential? New hope
bolstered his morale, followed quickly by one failure after the other. He
carried on, though, determined to find the solution, to continue setting measures
in place for success.
He'd resurrect Rose or die trying.
Smiling, he glanced down at the calico cat threading herself
between his legs. Lupe truly had been his lifeline to sanity these last months.
They'd met one day when he was helping Wyatt and Trina Caldwell move. Lupe had
let Cristían know in no uncertain terms that she deemed him worthy enough of
her attention. Cristían had bought Trina's old house, and Lupe moved in with
him. However, neither of them had seen the place in months. The lab he
currently did his research in had become their sanctuary; the sprawling mansion
above it, their home.
He hated the cavernous house but loved the superior,
high-tech lab. And it didn't take Cristían long to realize why Jeremy Gibson
had moved into the house—why go home when everything you needed was right here?
It probably wasn't the wisest decision to have a cat in a
lab, but Lupe was her own feline and would have her way. It helped that she was
respectful of the experiments he and Jeremy worked on. Lupe's presence helped
him and Jeremy deal with any residual loneliness and isolation as well, though
that was nonexistent with his best friend by his side 24-7.
Lupe made sure they ate, comforted them when disappointment
dragged them both down, and best of all, gave them unconditional love. All she
demanded in return was affection, food, and to sleep in one of their beds. She
never failed to make him smile or lift his spirits, and she was better than any
girlfriend he'd ever had.
Cristían squatted down to her level. She batted the buttons
on his lab coat, then tapped her paw against his chin. “No worries, little
warrior.” He smiled when he said her nickname. The little cat had earned the
title honorably when she'd fought a member of the mountain lion clan and won,
paws down. Of course, that made her not very popular with that faction of
shape-shifters, but to Cristían's jaguar clan, Lupe could do no wrong.
“What the hell is that cat doing in here?”
Cristían stiffened. Okay, perhaps one member of the jaguar
clan wasn't a Lupe fan. Barry Page had always had his weasel-faced snout stuck
so far in the rules that he shit protocol. Cristían watched as he trotted down
the stairs and stormed their way. The loose black trousers Barry wore rippled
under his forceful stride, the matching shirt molding to his torso. The color
rarely varied. Barry claimed it helped remind him of his true self and their
heritage, suggesting he was the only one who did so.
Lupe arched into the hand Cristían ran over her back, then
cast her sage green gaze in Barry's direction and instantly dismissed him with
a flick of her tail. Cristían tried not to laugh. He'd flicked his jaguar tail
at Barry more times than he could count over their long association. Barry just
wasn't someone he was eager to see.
“Leave her alone, Barry.” Distracted as always, Jeremy still
didn't hesitate to come to Lupe's defense. He was always so quiet, so focused
on his work, that Cristían usually forgot he was in the same room with him.
As Jeremy's reward, Lupe slinked his way and twined herself
around his legs. “You're my best girl, Lups.” Jeremy gave her head a quick rub.
Barry snorted. “She's your only girl. You never leave
“Everything I want is here, and I've got a hand that does
just fine for personal tension.” Jeremy held up two beakers, one with
clear liquid, the other, blue-green, studying them under ultraviolet light.
“I'm on a roll here, and women have a tendency to sidetrack me.”
Cristían had never seen a man more determined to prove or
disprove his own theory. Jeremy's dedication matched Cristían's. They shared
the lab—Jeremy on one end of the long stainless steel counter, Cristían on the
other—bounced theories off each other, and never once called the other one to task
for seeking answers.
Barry picked a long blond hair from his sleeve, grimaced,
then fed it to the flame on Jeremy's Bunsen burner. “Then maybe you should try
Jeremy grinned and watched the thickening liquids swirl in
their glass containers. “Who says I haven't? You offering?”
That was a door Jeremy really didn't want to open. Barry
could get…possessive. Cristían knew that from experience. In a clan whose
numbers were dwindling, one got relief where one could, or went outside the
clan, something Barry would never do. Barry didn't necessarily take what he
wanted, but once he got something, he wasn't inclined to let go.
Jeremy poured a drop of blue-green liquid into the clear. “I
could go for a blowjob. Just make sure you zip me up when you're done.”
Cristían smothered his laugh. It came out a sputtered snicker
instead and earned him Barry's infamous snake-eyed glare.
“Whoa. Didn't expect that.” Jeremy drew back from the beaker
he held. Lupe craned her neck for a look at what he was talking about. His
concoction was now a small vortex of purple and gold. He poured the contents of
both beakers into a larger one. He lifted the container to the light, his grin
widening. The vortex grew, spinning faster. Pinpoints of glowing white flecked
within. “It looks like a tiny nebula or galaxy. A star factory.”
“Just make sure it's only yourself you blow up when that shit
explodes,” Barry said.
“And deprive you of the pleasure that is me?” Jeremy's grin
widened more, his brown eyes glimmering. “Never.”
Lupe meowed and rubbed hard against him.
“Jealous, puss?” Barry laughed when she growled at him.
“Don't call her that.” Cristían watched the centrifuge's
timer count down the final ten. “She doesn't like it.”
“What's wrong, puss? Don't like a little competition?”
Barry swiped for her, grabbing her tail when Lupe tried to dodge him.
“Let her go!” Her yowl barely covered his and Jeremy's
She hissed and rolled onto her back, claws and teeth bared.
Jeremy kicked Barry's shoulder, sloshing his experiment on the floor. It
splashed onto Lupe. She whirled around, eyes wide with fear. Barry grabbed the
scruff of her neck and hoisted her into the air, holding the spitting little
cat at arm's length.
Cristían and Jeremy took a step in his direction. However, as
Cristían was more than aware, Lupe was completely capable of defending herself.
She swung her lower legs up and speared her back claws into Barry's forearm. He
screeched and let her go. Lupe landed on all fours. She gave him a dismissive chuff
and a flick of her tail, then tucked behind Cristían's legs to clean her fur.
“If you had more experience with women, that might not have
happened.” Cristían couldn't resist the jab. Barry deserved the rebuke and the
bloody claw marks going down his arm. Cristían scooped Lupe into his arms.
“It's probably not a good idea to lick that, little one. Let's get you cleaned
up. No water. I promise.”
She purred and kneaded her paws into his chest. The
centrifuge beeped out the end of its cycle. Great. His own experiment was ready
for the next step. Lupe curled herself around his neck, leaving his hands free.
He popped the top on the device and lifted out the tray of vials.
“I see there's no offer to help me.” Barry snagged a
wad of paper towels from the stack on the opposite counter and dabbed at his
“You had it coming.” Cristían watched Jeremy study the
glowing mass. Judging from his frown, it looked like another failure. The
solution appeared to be losing momentum. Cristían felt his pain. He'd thought
for sure Jeremy had had the breakthrough he'd been looking for.
“I'd say 'fuck you,' but I wouldn't want either of you to get
your hopes up.” Barry pressed the towels against his arm.
“Our loss. More's the pity.” Cristían set the vials beside
the petri dishes he'd prepared earlier, then carried Lupe over to the sink
counter against the wall to wipe her fur. “Did you come down here for a reason
or just to harass us about our work again?”
Barry smacked the paper towels into the biohazard trash can
and stomped his way. “Your cougar's waiting for you upstairs.”
Frieda was there? This early in the morning? Was the sun even
up yet? What the hell could she possibly want this time of day? She was a
beautiful woman, but gods, was she a pain in the ass. If he didn't need her for
the next phase of his experiment, he would have ended it long ago. Hell, he
never would have become involved with her in the first place. Beauty only went
so far; the woman had no substance.
“Mountain lion, Barry. Have a little respect. You know
they're very picky about their name.”
“Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. Mountain lion, cougar,
puma. Lupe or puss.”
Lupe growled at him. Barry wasn't making any friends here
“Who gives a fuck? She's not happy you've kept her waiting,
and she sure as hell can't keep her hands to herself. She was all over me.”
Typical Frieda. That's why it was so easy to lure her into
his bed. She had the morals of an alley cat, not the bearing of a potential
“I'm not very thrilled that one of them is at this estate.”
Cristían blotted a heavy paper towel over Lupe's thick fur.
Deep purrs rumbled up. “It's part of the treaty the clans agreed to. The treaty
you helped broker, remember?” Unrestricted access to everything the other
possessed—and that included communal homes like the former Prentice estate—and
They were supposed to be open books to each other, in the
hope their clans could benefit from one another's knowledge and grow and
survive. It was only a matter of time before they all started working in each
other's labs. Cristían hated the idea. They could use the lab at the Braden
Science Institute all they wanted, but he sure as hell didn't want to be
rubbing elbows with them at this lab. Here there was the luxury of privacy.
Neither he nor Jeremy wanted to give that up. Not even to the jaguar clan.
Considering Barry's near-constant presence, Cristían suspected tensions and
suspicions were mounting at Braden over their exclusive use of the Prentice
lab. It could be worse. Fortunately, Wyatt and Joaquin were too busy with
business and babies. However, that left the worrying and grunt work to Barry.
“Yeah, I know all too well. Trust me, I'm monitoring the
situation.” Barry leaned against the counter and crossed his arms. Lupe turned
her back to him. “I don't like Frieda up there unsupervised. What if she comes
“They've all been down here before, and experiments are
frequent on both sides of the fence. They won't know what we're doing.”
Cristían parted Lupe's fur, chasing a drop that wiggled down to her skin. She
sat down with a resigned sigh and started to clean Barry's blood off her paws.
“Do either of you know what you're doing?” Barry snapped his
finger toward Jeremy. “Our Mensa genius is over there trying to disprove his
own theory that celestial impacts helped create us shape-shifters in the first
place. There are some who would view that as blasphemy. It's a slap in the face
to all that our people revere.”
True, though Cristían had been too wrapped up in his own
quest to think about the religious significance to both their peoples—jaguar
and mountain lion. Considering everything the jaguar had been through, it was
hard for Cristían to believe in unseen gods anymore.
One thing both clans had in common was the belief they were
born of star dust. Jeremy's linking their ancestral origins with impact craters
on Earth seemed to support that. Now he was trying to prove otherwise.
“And you—” Barry thrust that scolding finger at him. Cristían
fought the urge to snap it in two. “If they knew what you were doing.
Good gods, Cristían, you're trying to clone Rose!”
He bowed his head. Lupe braced her paws against Cristían's
chest and butted her nose against his. He scooped her into his arms and let her
cuddle him. He loved the feel of her soft fur between his fingers. It reminded
him of Rose's when she shifted—soft, thick. Of the old days when their biggest
worry was planning the next celebration of life.
Barry dropped his hand on Cristían's shoulder. “I miss her
too. You know that. But this is wrong, especially now that the rest of
our people have moved on to new relationships.” He might as well have said leprosy;
his tone implied it.
Cristían shrugged off his touch and set Lupe on her feet. She
sauntered over to see Jeremy. “I haven't moved on.”
“Then what do you call Frieda?” He jerked his thumb toward
the stairs that led up into the main house. “Much as I dislike our association
with these shifters, I certainly don't want us all to come to blows over a love
affair gone wrong. If she's only a diversion for you, end it now, before things
get out of control.”
Cristían squared his shoulders and faced the shorter man. “I
can't. I need Frieda. If I'm successful, Rose will need a compatible host body.
With her feline-shifter traits, Frieda fits that role to perfection.”
Barry's eyes bugged out. “Gods of hell, Cristían! You're no
better than a skinwalker!”
Rage boiled up inside him. They'd fought that entity for
years—an evil directly responsible for the genocide of Cristían's clan. There
was no greater insult. Cristían's claws extended as his hands morphed into his
black jaguar form. The clink of glass as Jeremy set his work aside cut
through his anger. A moment later, he felt Jeremy's heat next to him. The
intent was clear—Jeremy was making a stand with him, taking sides. Cristían
refused to let his friend's blood spill over words, and fighting among
themselves wasn't going to help matters. But Cristían wouldn't stand there and
be insulted either.
He willed himself to shift back to human and seated the form
in place with a deep breath.
“Get out,” he told Barry, jerking his chin toward the stairs.
“While I'm still able to remember you loved Rose as much as the rest of us.”
Barry's lip curled. “If you're planning to do this, you've
already forgotten.” A crisp pivot carried him away. His soft soles tapped on
the linoleum, then scuffed up the stairs. Barry's gaze was locked on his cell
phone as he punched in numbers, most likely to tattle to Wyatt and Joaquin. The
door at the top opened and banged shut.
Blessed silence filled the lab. Cristían pulled in the
strands of peace Jeremy and Lupe offered, shoved aside a sudden headache at the
base of his skull, and returned to his experiment. Static arced from his
fingers to the stainless steel table. Cristían muttered a curse and jerked his
hand back. Slender bolts of electricity spread across the table and everything
on it before it finally dissipated.
“What the hell…” One stride brought Jeremy to his side. “That
shouldn't have happened.”
A loud pop cut in before Cristían could reply.
He and Jeremy swung their gazes to the reenergized liquid at
Jeremy's workstation. It swirled, sizzled, and grew with every millisecond. Pop
turned to bang, and it doubled in size. Sparks shot upward, showering
miniature fireworks everywhere. Some kissed the floor spill. The droplets came
to life. Spiral bands spread out and began to rotate counterclockwise. Lupe
growled and backed away, one foot at a time. Her fur shimmered where the
solution had splashed her earlier. And the mass in the beaker continued to
grow, to pulse in time with the bands on the floor and the remnants dampening
Gods, what had they created? It looked like the thing was
communicating with all its parts!
“Uh-oh,” Jeremy muttered.
Not something one wanted to hear in a lab.
“I think we need to get the hell out of here.” Jeremy scooped
Lupe up in one arm. He grabbed his laptop in the other hand, leaving the cords
behind while he kept one eye on the out-of-control experiment.
Cristían did the same, shoving as many of the petri dishes as
possible into the pockets of his lab coat and praying he could get them to
safety without breaking them. Then he stacked the vials on the laptop. They
were the last part of Rose he possessed. He clutched the vials and the computer
to his chest and spun around for the stairs.
Time slowed. Each step felt weighted. The roar built. Then
the flash—gold, purple, beautiful. Breathtaking beauty, earsplitting noise, and