Andromeda’s Fall (Shadowcat Nation #1) | Chapter 1
Thirty years ago the population of mountain lion shifters was on the brink of extinction. Today, much like their wild counterparts, shifters are running out of land and resources. The encroachment of man has resulted in the loss and destruction of shifters’ natural habitats world-wide. This external threat has led to a new reality where only the strongest survive. Pack shifters, such as wolves, coyotes, and African lions, use their coordinated family groups to pick off the loners, like cougars, in order to obtain their territory.
Going against their mysterious and cagy natures, mountain lion shifters banded together to form the Shadowcat Nation in order to pool their resources and protect themselves from the packs. Reaching from Northern Canada, across the United States, all the way down to the southern tip of South America, the Nation is divided into ten dares, each led by an Alpha who has clawed his way to the top. However, cougars don’t naturally work or live well in group societies, and the shifters are constantly battling their innate desire for domination and sole control, their animalistic instincts often triggering infighting and inter-dare rivalries.
The success of the Shadowcat Nation, though critical to the survival of all cougar shifters, still hangs in a delicate balance.
Andie crouched low in the underbrush, obscured from view, and watched the compound with a quiet patience born of experience. If her calculations were correct, the next patrol of guards would pass by within the minute. Her posture and expression didn’t shift an inch when, seconds later, she was proven correct.
As soon as the sentry passed from sight, Andie moved like a shadow through the stillness of the night. Ignoring the pain in her body, she sprinted across the lawn and was up and over the wall. She dropped to the ground on the other side with a barely audible thud.
Andie found herself on the backside of a manicured garden. She stayed completely still, hunkered down, and took her time observing her location. About a hundred yards ahead, she saw light from the main building in the complex. The glow spilled out from a pair of glass doors and across the trees and plants, creating patches of darkness and light.
Andie moved again, using the pools of shadow and groupings of plants for cover. She didn’t go for the doors. They were too obvious. Besides, they were likely wired to the alarm system and required some kind of code to get through. But on the second floor, one of the windows was wide open, allowing in the cool night breeze. With agile grace, Andie swung herself up into the branches of a large tree just outside that window.
She took care to use only her right arm, which slowed her down a bit. But the injuries she’d sustained a few days earlier made her left arm almost unusable. As quickly and as soundlessly as she could, she made her way up to the branch closest to her chosen point of access. She stopped again and observed.
Andie didn’t move for close to thirty minutes. She just watched. When she was satisfied, she leapt with all the power of her feline form. She didn’t shift exactly—she was trying to avoid that right now since it would be seen as a direct threat if anyone caught her—but she used the might of the beast inside her to clear the distance to the window. She sailed through the opening and immediately tucked and rolled as she hit the ground.
She found her feet and returned to her crouch. Using her cat’s hearing, she waited yet again. Someone might’ve heard the sound of her landing. Her injured left arm was detracting from her usual finesse. As she listened, she turned in a slow circle, making sure the room, which appeared to be a hotel-like bedroom, was as empty as she’d expected it to be. Many minutes later, satisfied that she was alone and that no one was coming for her… yet… Andie moved toward the door.
Cracking it open a hair, she looked down and saw a long stretch of closed doorways in both directions. Based on the layout of the building and the location of the window, she determined she needed to go to her right.
Andie tensed to open the door all the way and then froze in place when a deep male voice sounded from directly behind her. “Stop where you are.”
Andie tensed, adrenaline pumping through her body as swear words went off like fireworks inside her head. Only her years of training kept her from panicking outright. She didn’t move by so much as a twitch as she waited to see if he would attack or talk it out.
“Close the door,” the deep voice continued. “And then turn slowly and face me.”
Andie rose, taking care to keep her wounded arm from view. If she could keep the evidence of her fall from grace hidden, she’d have a better shot at surviving the encounter and making it to the Alpha. If she could get to him and explain, then maybe she had a chance.
Once she was facing her new opponent, she tried to take measure of him. The room was dim, and she dared not shift, not even just her eyes, in case he took it the wrong way and attacked. She couldn’t tell much about him other than that he was very tall. At five-foot-nothing she always had to look up, but with this guy she had to look way, way up to try to see his face. He would be a big mountain lion in his cat form, even for a male.
The stranger said nothing for several long moments, holding eerily still, his eyes taking in every detail. Andie didn’t move or speak. She knew he was sizing her up just as she was assessing him. She also knew what he’d see—a slip of a girl who’d inherited her mother’s bronzed Brazilian beauty. Male cougar shifters rarely saw what she really was and frequently underestimated her.
“I’m not going to ask how you got in here. Clearly, our security needs reviewing.”
Andie didn’t betray her satisfaction at his comment. “I’m sure it’s fine. Very few measures would work to keep me out. Or in.”
“I found you.”
Andie merely shrugged. “Off night.” In more ways than one.
“What do you want here?” he asked.
“I want to speak with Jaxon Keller.”
His eyebrows shot up, and he crossed his arms over an impressive chest. “About what?”
“None of your damn business.” Andie’s chin tipped up slightly in defiance, but inwardly she cringed. Stop talking, dummy.
A warning growl rose in his throat, and Andie cringed. Getting on the wrong side of this guy was a bad idea given that he stood between her and possible protection. She was taking a huge risk just being here. And after her last few horrific days, to be stopped at the last minute by some overzealous guard made her want to scream.
“You really don’t want to rile me,” he said, mirroring her thoughts.
Andie paused. Should she tell him? She took in his solid form. She’d never outrun him, not on his home turf, and she couldn’t fight him. Not in her condition.
“I’m here to ask your Alpha for asylum,” she said.
She bore his narrow-eyed scrutiny calmly.
“You want Jaxon Keller to give you asylum?”
Andie’s lips thinned in annoyance. Hadn’t she just said that? There was only one Alpha of the Keller Dare, and his name was Jaxon Keller.
“Yes. Unless you have a new Alpha that I don’t know about,” she said sarcastically.
He didn’t move as he took in her request. But even in the low light, she could see the air of command in his stance, as well as just how well-muscled his torso was leading down to lean hips. His face was in shadow, but she could see he had a strong jaw and short, dark hair.
Not the time to notice his physique, Andie, she silently berated herself. She added a mental head smack for good measure. She was around strong, muscled, hot men all the time. Why the hell should she notice this one?
“And why would we consider giving asylum to a little nobody like you?” he asked. “One who—judging by those cuts, bruises, and I suspect a broken left arm—has been shunned by her own dare?”
Andie growled her own warning, just barely holding back the cougar clawing inside her. “I hear he takes in strays,” she sneered.
She warily watched for a reaction. Her tongue had a habit of getting her in trouble. But he didn’t react.
She sighed when he remained silent. “I got past your defenses without any trouble.”
“Till now,” he reminded her.
“And I know everything about the offensive and defensive systems and strategies for the Carstairs Dare.”
The man looked down and pursed his lips. “You one of Walter Carstairs’s Strategists?”
“Something like that.”
“How’d you get here? I assume you came from the Carstairs compound up in Canada?”
Andie nodded. “Mostly by foot. I was able to thumb a lift a little. But I couldn’t risk taking one of the compound cars, and I don’t have my own.”
“So you’re telling me that you made it through wolf-shifter infested areas alone as you traveled on foot from Canada to Idaho?” He looked out the window she’d just come through, his eyes scanning the area. After a long moment, he turned back to her with a doubtful expression.
Andie gave a mental eye-roll. Neanderthal. “May I see Keller?”
The man snorted. “I’m surprised you know a polite word like ‘may’, little girl.”
Andie kept her poker face in place, not giving him the satisfaction of showing her irritation. “Yes or no would suffice, big boy.”
He said nothing for a moment and rubbed his jaw.
“Let’s see how you fare with the tests and with other members of the dare first before we put you in front of the Alpha.”
Andie clenched her teeth, but nodded. Like it or not, this was a male-dominated society and one not inclined to trust new cats. Trial by dare members first would be harder than just speaking directly with Keller—especially given her penchant for sarcasm.
“All right,” she said.
“Okay.” The man nodded and moved toward her. “Follow me.”