Excerpt: House of the Cat
House of the Cat is a sci/fi with a feline shifter hero. It comes out at Ellora's Cave on 14 October, which is next week. Here's an excerpt for you:
Two brothers slugging it out, an alien world and a hell-horse…
Jockey Camryn O’Sullivan is an alcoholic on a downward spiral after the death of her husband. When aliens kidnap her, she’s both terrified and reluctantly fascinated by Ryman Coppersmith. She’s positive the weird attraction is an anomaly. Something to ignore. She’ll train the alien’s horse and they’ll return her home. Simple. There’s no need for sex or a stubborn male kitty-cat to replace the precious memories of her husband.
Murder. Betrayal. Banishment. Feline shifter Ry has experienced them all. When his foster brother—the man who betrayed him—proposes a wager, the lure to clear his name is irresistible.
Camryn’s arrival triggers a jump in his already overactive sex drive. It’s a struggle to keep his hands off. Something in his mysterious feline background compels him to chase her and the passion firing between them soars out of control. Ry doesn’t understand the mechanics of their attraction but knows he can’t afford to lose Camryn…despite his promise to return her home.
“I don’t care if Camryn’s your sister. She’s an alcoholic, and I swear she’s overdoing the prescription drugs as well. I don’t trust her near our son.”
“She loves Luke,” Max said.
“Last time Camryn baby-sat, she let Luke wander onto the racetrack. She was blind drunk.”
Her sister-in-law’s angry words brought Camryn O’Sullivan to an abrupt stop. She wavered on unsteady legs, not wasted but experiencing a buzz and blissful ignorance of the true state of her life. She smothered a giggle, slapping her hand over her quivering lips. Okay, she’d had drinks. Lots of drinks in pretty colors. Teeny umbrellas to match.
“What do you want me to do? I can’t throw her out. She’s my twin sister. She doesn’t have anyone else.”
A hit! Camryn screwed her eyes shut, protecting herself against the onslaught of pain. No, she didn’t want to think about Gabriel, about being alone. How much it hurt. Max couldn’t make her leave. He wouldn’t.
She had nowhere else to go.
“Max, it’s almost two years since Gabriel’s death. Camryn’s not improving. She needs help. More than we can give her.”
Silence fell, but Ellen’s words throbbed like the harping notes of a badly played violin. They hurt her head and brought forth a wave of indignation. She didn’t need help. She needed Gabriel, dammit. Only her husband’s presence would belay the paralyzing guilt she carried with her every day.
A rough masculine sigh sounded. “Love, you’re right.
Camryn needs help, but she doesn’t see it. Until she realizes, all we can do is be here for her. She has to want change.”
“Fine, and meantime Camryn drags us down with her. I found her smoking inside the stables this afternoon. She reeked of alcohol. Other people have noticed. She won jockey of the year two years running, but have you noticed she’s not getting the rides she was a year ago? Camryn has real aptitude with horses, the gift you both have, and she’s throwing it away.”
A direct hit. Ellen’s words sliced with precision, ripping open wounds barely scabbed. The agony hit instantaneously, ferocious and heart-stopping. Silent tears ran down Camryn’s face, and she staggered against the door. Invisible bands clamped around her ribs. Camryn gasped hoarsely, the last of the drunken buzz bleeding away as she attempted to breathe. She wanted to rock away the pain, the guilt that came from knowing Gabriel would never return.
The wind caught the door, slamming it shut and the murmur of voices from the kitchen stopped abruptly.
No, not here. She couldn’t fall apart here. Camryn fumbled with the handle, increasingly desperate when footsteps neared.
“Camryn? Is that you?” Her twin brother’s baritone sounded in the passage not far from where she teetered.
Camryn finally managed to coordinate brain and hands. The door opened. She stumbled into the winter air. The bite of the wind brought a shiver, an increase to her misery.
Whiskey. She needed a drink. And maybe one of those little yellow pills the nice doctor had prescribed to help her sleep. Anything to escape the horrid truth. She hadn’t meant to leave Luke alone. She loved her nephew. He raced about, so fast on his feet, and the sleepless nights had taken their toll. She’d fallen asleep in Gabriel’s favorite chair.
Luke loved horses. No surprise since his father bred and trained racehorses. She and Max had lived and breathed horses since they were Luke’s age. Camryn lurched along the muddy track leading to the cottage at the back of the main house.
Really, she didn’t need help. If Gabriel returned things would improve. She could kick the alcohol any time she wanted. A few pills to lift her mood. Camryn didn’t need them either. She needed Gabriel.
Camryn burst into her cottage, tracking mud across the tile floor. She staggered through the cluttered kitchen and into the dining room where she’d instructed her brother and his workers to place Gabriel’s chair. Camryn slumped into the big, masculine chair and pressed her nose against the cool leather. The faint scent of lavender soap and whiskey filled her senses, and a surge of tears blurred her vision. The chair didn’t smell of Gabriel anymore.
It smelled of her.
Camryn crawled onto the chair properly, ignoring the muddy boots on her feet. She curled into a tight ball, her thin shoulders shaking with the force of her sobs. The cruel truth hit then. Gabriel wouldn’t be coming home. He would never come home. Gabriel was dead, and it was all her fault.
* * * * *
“This plan will work.” Yep pulled on his jacket and fastened it securely against the cold. “I feel it in ma bones.”
Kaya smirked at her crewmate, her chin-length blue hair swinging against high cheekbones. She tugged Yep’s ponytail. “Your bones are sometimes wrong. My research is, however, correct.”
Ryman Coppersmith, captain of the Indefatigable, ignored them both. He’d already made his decision. He intended to win the hell-horse race on Ornum or at least beat his brother Talor and win their private bet. By the time the race ended, Ry hoped he’d be on the way to clearing his name of murder charges. Talor knew the identity of the murderer, but for some reason had never spoken out, preferring to see Ry exiled instead. Ry scowled. He wanted to go home and openly walk through the streets without fear of capture. He wanted to embrace his sisters, visit his mother’s grave. It was time.
After research on Kaya’s part, they’d found the stud farm easily enough. They landed the tender in an empty paddock and emerged to the bite of an icy-cool wind and full darkness.
Ry sniffed the air before striding in the direction of the stud farm. Trees. Grass. Mud. Animals. Every breath he took contained a new scent. The needs of the cat jumped to the fore and a low rumble eased from him. “Go ahead,” he muttered to his crew. “I will shift.” He knew he sounded curt, but the urgent need to run thrummed through him, even greater than his desire for a woman, and that was bad enough. Blood surged to his cock, the sharp sensation both painful and frustrating. No available woman and he refused to fukk any of his crew.
Kaya and Yep melted into the darkness while Mogens, who attracted attention because of his changeable skin color, stayed with the tender. Nanu and Jannike presently orbited Earth in the Indefatigable, hopefully remaining undetected.
Inhaling deep, Ry ripped off his jacket and shirt and let the feline claim him. Trews and boots melted into his body, replaced by black fur. His bones lengthened and shifted, tendons and muscles reforming to the cat. His color vision faded, his surroundings turning to shades of black and white. Ry dropped to all fours and padded across the moist grass, long tail swishing.
As always, a sense of aggravation followed him. Ry knew nothing of his feline background, had never met another of his species. In one pain-filled evening, when he’d thought he might die, he’d turned into a black feline without warning. He’d yowled his panic so loud his shipmates had come running. Ry grinned at the memory. He’d scared them half to death. Although funny now, his unexpected shift into a powerful black cat had been bloody terrifying.
For all of them.
With help from Mogens, the man who’d become their seer and part of the crew, Ry had finally transformed back, bearing a new cat tattoo on his biceps as a souvenir and his shirt in tatters. Weirdly, his trews had survived the transformation. Talk about a learning experience. And he was still learning the foibles of his species. The not knowing scared him. It made him wonder if there had been something else inside the bag they’d found with him as a baby. As a child he’d asked, but his foster father had told him the bag contained clothes.
The low voices and footsteps of his crew were clearly audible. Ry twitched his nose and prowled after them, annoyed with their casual approach. A sharp feline bark reminded them to reduce the noise. Ry broke into a lope, savoring the play of muscles long confined in humanoid form. The wind ruffled his fur while mud splashed his legs and belly.
When he neared the center of the farm where the owners lived, white post and rail fences carved the land into paddocks. Ry leaped over the nearest, his heart pumping with the physical exertion. An animal snorted, springing into action and galloping from the spot where Ry had frozen in place.
A horse. The Earth counterpart of a hell-horse.
Ry crept along the fence line not wanting to alarm more animals or attract attention. Once clear, he sped up, muscles moving powerfully, every sense alert. Ry caught the rustle of a small creature in a hedgerow, the tentative neighs of two horses at the far end of a paddock. The chill wind continued to ruffle his fur, the heavy moisture in the air indicating impending rain. Great. Ry hated to get wet. His pace increased to a gallop as he followed the track running between the paddocks.
Ahead, light bled from behind screened windows. According to the information Yep and Kaya had uncovered, the trainer lived with his wife and child. Ry regretted any anguish the trainer’s departure would cause and had penned a note, explaining the situation to his family. Hopefully the Earthlings could decipher the universal language. Ry slipped into the shadows and stalked closer, every sense alert for danger.
A cough over to his left grabbed his attention. Ry stilled, whiskers twitching. The sharp scent of sweat and unwashed body caught the back of his throat. The cough sounded again. A figure staggered from a dim-lit porch and wove toward the rails of the nearest paddock. Ry’s tension eased. The trainer. He recognized the coat the man wore since it appeared in the photo Yep and Kaya had found during their research on the flight to Earth. A lucky break.
Ry padded closer, placing himself near enough to watch without giving away his presence. He needed to wait for the crew to move into position for the snatch to go smoothly. The man appeared short, about Kaya’s height, but solid. His reek said he didn’t care much for personal hygiene. His stench didn’t bother the horses. Two plodded over to him and one nuzzled his shoulder. The man smoothed his hand over the horse’s neck. The other horse nickered. The man stroked it and the creatures moved away. Soft footsteps dragged his attention from the man.
Yep indicated the man with a jerk of his head. “He waits for us to extract him and take him on the adventure of his life.”
Ry stared, unable to see much despite his superior eyesight. The man wore a cover over his head, obscuring his features from sight. Ry’s nose twitched at the objectionable odor coming from the man, the air thick with liquor fumes.
Yep seemed to sense Ry’s doubts and sought to reassure. “The man’s a champion trainer,” he whispered. “Nanu and I attended the races two cycles ago. This man trained five of the twelve winners. Several place getters. Man’s natural with the four-legged creatures. Hell-horses should respond to him in the way same.”
And if they didn’t? Fukk, he hated this planet. The cold seeped right to his bones and the promised rain arrived in a slow drizzle. Ry quaked, attempting to shake off the water without audible noise. Didn’t work. Miserable, he shivered, ears flicking while irritation built.
“Aw, frag it,” Yep swore. “He’s moving.”
The man intended to seek shelter. Maybe he wasn’t as far-gone as Ry suspected.
Yep slipped after him. Ry followed with a grumbling sigh, watching the staggering figure with disfavor while he twitched his whiskers. The ground sucked at his paws, the slippery footing making their mission difficult.
The crew moved in, silent signals passing between them until they stood in position. Yep and Kaya converged from opposite sides, springing and disabling the man in well-practiced synchronicity. Kaya pulled the special cloth impregnated with a potion the seer had made from her pocket and pressed it to his nose. The man went limp immediately, and Yep slung the bulky figure over his shoulder before striding in the direction of the tender. Kaya darted up to the shelter and shoved Ry’s note under the door before joining Yep.
Ry followed, loping along the muddy track. In a burst of speed, he passed his crew, trying to outrun the returning desire for a woman. It came out of nowhere, unbidden.
Unwanted, the need gripped him with such powerful intensity he stopped in his tracks. Damn, he’d thought he’d manage for a few more weeks.
Ry tried to ignore the urgent need crawling through his veins. The out-of-control sensation had intensified during the past few months, affecting his sleep. The constant need for a woman made his temper uncertain, although so far he’d managed to hold things together. Ry knew his desire was escalating to dangerous levels. His attempts to manage what he presumed were feline traits and part of his heritage brought a bark of ironic laughter. Ry suspected the seer saw his turmoil. The others would realize the tenuous hold he had over his feline too if he didn’t do something fast. Of course he’d continue with the search for his people, but meantime he’d have to break down and find a woman to travel with them during their voyage to take the edge off his sexual needs. Hopefully the woman’s presence would slow the downward spiral into the mysterious world of the feline.
The world he didn’t understand because he didn’t know where he came from or who he was.
Ry galloped to the tender and shifted smoothly. His naked chest gleamed with moisture and rivulets of mud, his heart thudded hard and erratic. Inside, Ry ignored his shirt and jacket, preferring to sanitize back on the Indy before he redressed.
“Everything okay?” Mogens asked.
“Yeah.” Ry wanted to lash out at the seer’s scrutiny, tired of it. He let out a vicious growl. Ry wanted to laugh at Mogens’ undignified scramble to put distance between them but didn’t have it in him. “The crew won’t be long. Mission accomplished.” The tension inside ratcheted sharply upward. Ry gritted his teeth, wanting to hit someone.
Silently, he calculated how long the flight back to the planet Ornum would take, how quickly he could find a woman. The idea of sinking into the warmth of a female, of licking her fragrant skin and losing himself in the plain rawness of sex brought an uncontrollable surge of arousal.
His cock drew painfully tight, and Ry wheezed through the throbbing ache. He wished he knew what ailed him, why the feline refused to settle even with the suppressant Mogens had made for him.
Footsteps thudded on the tender ramp. Kaya and Yep clattered inside with Yep still carrying the man over his shoulder. He dumped him on the nearest chair and strapped him in for safety. The unconscious human slumped forward, face hidden by the head covering. A noxious smell still emanated from him, the stench compounded in the confined quarters of the tender.
“All aboard.” Mogens sealed the entrance. A throaty roar indicated Yep had started up the thrusters, and secs later, they lifted off.
Ry slumped onto his chair and closed his eyes, battling with the compulsion to grab Kaya, who sat next to him. He took a deep breath. A mistake since he almost drowned in her feminine pheromones. He tipped back his head and growled, the catlike yowl full of fury. Kaya’s eyes widened and she jumped to her feet, staring at Ry with something akin to horror.
“Good girl, watch the man for me,” Mogens said, pretending nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. “I’ll sit there. I want to have a word with Ry.”
Ry stirred uneasily. He’d never done that before. Gripping the edges of his chair, he fought for control, Kaya’s scent heavy in the air. If anything, her surge of terror and adrenaline intensified the desire filling his body with savage need. Kaya shifted her weight, drawing his attention. Rich female musk filled every inhalation, along with the stink of the horse trainer. His gaze slid from the slumped figure back to Kaya. An intense shiver racked his body, and Ry closed his eyes, struggling to remain seated. The loss of one sense served to intensify the others, and he hurriedly opened his eyes again.
“Seer, do you have more of the slumber drug?” Ry had to force the words out, past jutting canines. They emerged in a growled hiss, almost unintelligible. He tried again. “Slumber drug.” The words were little more than a feral snarl.
Luckily the seer seemed to understand. “I have more.” He frowned, a ribbon of black swirling across his bare arms and face. It combined with the white of his skin to darken his complexion.
Good, Ry thought, panting heavily. His chest rose and fell rapidly, the shallow breaths still dragging in too much in the way of sensory input. Mogens knew, as he’d feared, sensed his desperation.
Heat. Intense, it seared his body, bringing a torturous shudder. He had to rid himself of the inferno inside, needed sex so bad.
Ry blinked, sweat pouring down his face. It plastered his dark hair to his head until it hung in wet tendrils.
“Dose me. Now. Don’t want to hurt.” A high-pitched growl erupted, echoing in the tender. He gripped the edges of the seat he sat on even though his fingers had bled to claws. “Kaya.” Fukk, never forgive himself if he hurt one of his crew. They were his friends. Family. They knew his secrets, were loyal to him, to each other. Ry snarled, trembling on the cusp of a shift to feline. “Mogens,” he gritted out.
“I’m not sure how it will react—”
“Do it.” An order.
Mogens stood and strode to his satchel. He rummaged through and drew out another of the impregnated cloths they’d used to subdue the human. The seer returned, his face dark black with worry as he glanced at Ry with compassion. “Are you sure?”
The pity made Ry spit with fury. The solid walls of the tender rattled with his bark of anger. In lieu of a reply, Ry reached up and grabbed the cloth. He pressed it to his nose, gagging at the herbal reek. His instinctive reaction was to remove the pad, but Mogens grasped his hand and held it in place. Gradually the world blurred. His arms and legs refused to support his body. Ry slumped over, his world turning black.