Mason Jane Barnhart had nothing left to live for. She was dying and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Rather than suffer a long agonizing death, she wanted it to be on her terms. She’d let the icy water claim her, and if she was lucky, she wouldn’t suffer.
Oliver Whitfield had been watching the girl. He couldn’t believe that anything could be so bad as to want to take her own life. But when she jumped from the bridge he had to go in after her. His tiger, bigger and stronger, would have to save her. When they got her to shore, Evan said that changing her was the only thing that would save her. Oliver didn’t want to, but he couldn’t let her die. He had a strange feeling that she was supposed to be the mate to one of his sons.
Adrian wasn’t sure he was ready for a mate. The timing wasn’t right. He still had so much left to do while running for public office, and if word got out that she tried to take her own life, he’d have that scandal to deal with too. But when he caught her scent, he knew, she was his and all thoughts of not being ready for a mate fled his mind.
When Mason opened her eyes, she was fit to be tied. She wasn’t supposed to be here, she was supposed to be dead. That’s what she wanted. What had those meddling Whitfields done now?
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Dylan Hutchinson lived and breathed Army, and she’d been under cover so long she’d forgot what it felt like to be a civilian. But the last mission took a turn for the worse and not only was she hurt, but she’s been informed that she could no longer do her job. It’s either a desk job as a recruiter, or she’s out.
Evan Whitfield didn’t have to work, but he loved his job as a surgeon. And when as his tiger he found an old man wandering in the woods with Alzheimer’s and confused, he wanted to help the family. The family had a daughter in the hospital too, and they were struggling. Evan thought the daughter might be not as sick or hurt as she claimed to be, so he took it upon himself to check her out. Evan was surprised to find that she was not only hurt worse than they claimed, she was also his mate.
For a doctor, Dylan thought Evan was dense. What part of go away didn’t he understand? She wasn’t the mate or marrying kind. Her life was over, not beginning. He needed to just go away….
Sunny, or Sunshine Davis, is a well-known investigative reporter. After her recent article shuts down a drug lab, she just disappears. People everywhere are looking for her. Truth is she’s been shot and left for dead. Tanner, a vampire, has other plans for the feisty reporter. He needs her help, so he saves her. His old friend, Ollie Whitfield, owes him a favor, so he sends her there to lay low for a while.
David Whitfield is on a deadline with his publisher. When he’s writing, he’s in a world of his own. When his grandda, Ollie, asks him to hide out a friend, he’s all for it. He’d do anything for his grandda. What David doesn’t expect is for the woman he’s supposed to be hiding out to be his mate. A very hurt mate that has his tiger in a possessive uproar.
Because Sunny technically died before Tanner could revive her, she has a little difficulty remembering the events just prior to her death, but when she does the revelation rocks her to her core. And her baggage can put all the Whitfields in danger.
Josh had taken a month off from his Realtor job to get the construction finished on his house, but he was leaning toward it being a permanent vacation. He still liked selling houses, but something was missing. It didn’t excite him anymore and he was tired of the rat race.
All Carter wanted was to get a job and start her life over again. She had just spent the last ten years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit, and that made finding a job difficult, if not down right impossible. She didn’t want to go back to the halfway house, but things weren’t looking good.
Ollie Whitfield took an instant liking to the young woman and her sister, Rachel. He’d make sure his grandson gave her a job in the new greenhouse he was opening up. There was no since in her beating the pavement for a dead-end job when he had one for her. He just had to convince her of that. She had some dad-blamed notion in her head that she’d bring danger to the family.
Josh’s grandda had already told him of the scary things the woman could do, and he was worried that Carter and her sister might be taking advantage of an old man. But when Josh walked behind her at the dinner table and caught her scent, he was floored. He had found his mate and neither of them were prepared for it.
Carter knew he was a shifter, but the things she could do would get them all killed, and she wouldn’t allow that. She would somehow convince him that this mate thing was a bad idea.
Ivy Walton loved her job as a surgeon but hated her boss. What part of “I’m on vacation” couldn’t the woman understand? She’d just lost her house to a fire, and she needed this time away with her sister. They’d been on their way to the coast when Ivy’s car broke down, and this little town they’d found for repairs was a breath of fresh air. Ivy found the non-hectic life of a small town to be appealing to her raw nerves.
Adam Whitfield was a farmer and, like his brothers, a Bengal tiger. He had just purchased his grandparents’ home and was putting on the finishing touches. The home was large, too large for a single man, but he liked it. Furniture was still sparse, but he figured he could add to it in time.
When Adam met Ivy at a family dinner, he knew instantly who she was to him. But could a renowned surgeon be happy with a simple farmer? He hoped so. He hadn’t been looking for his mate when he found her, but now that he had, he wasn’t letting her go. If she went back to the city, he’d go too whether she liked it or not.
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Angus came to her with every little thing, Mason thought. So much so that she wanted to brain him. But she supposed that was a good idea until he was more comfortable with his new position as the front man for a place they were going to work with. Mason loved him, and that was all she needed to let things roll off her with this transfer of power. At least for the time being, it would be good for him to get answers before making a commitment. He’d make a good replacement for her at Mason Tile and Paper. Her brother was doing much better than she’d thought he would in so little time.
Mason was getting closer and closer to her time to run away. Not that it was really what she was doing, but her dad and brother thought that she was. And while they weren’t wrong about her leaving the firm, they weren’t right either. Mason Jane Barnhart had had enough of things in general. She also knew what no one else did—that she didn’t have long to live. For two days now, she’d been out walking about the tiny town. It was small compared to where she’d lived most of her life. Chicago was a nice town, one that she loved, but that too had been too much for her in dealing with everything. Everyone, even in a town as big as hers, had heard something about what had happened to her. Not all of it, but enough to ask her if she was doing all right. And at least daily, someone asked her about her health and wellbeing. No, she thought to herself. She was not doing all right. But she would only smile at them and nod.
Yes, Mason would say, I’m doing just fine. I’m over it. And that had to be the biggest lie she’d ever told anyone, especially her family. Not that either of them knew much of what had happened to her. Nor did they know the extent of her injuries that she carried to this day. Not just the emotional ones, but the ones that were on her flesh, so that each day she was sure it was going to be her last. And hiding it from her family and friends was taking its toll on her. She was going to die. A long and painful death that would not only drain her father’s business but also his health by staying at her side. Mason stopped by the little bridge she’d walked by a dozen times over the last few weeks. The first day she’d been by it had been a dry and sunny day. The water, not all that deep, was babbling around the low hanging trees, as well as the large stones in the waterway. The fallen trees that no doubt came from upstream formed cascading water sounds that had made her smile despite the circumstances surrounding her interest in the water. Then it started to rain, a deluge of water that seemed to have been an open spigot on the town and all the now swollen creeks. This was just what she was looking for in a way to end her life by falling to her death. Mason knew that drowning wasn’t a sure thing when it came to jumping into the fast running creek. But she’d been coming by here at its lower point, and saw that there was a great big stone in the middle of the waterway. And if her estimations were
correct, the fast-moving water was just about freezing.
There were icy formations along both sides where the water didn’t move as fast. Sitting on the railing, her feet dangling over the water, she wondered what the impact would be for her to fall directly on the large stone that had made its way above the moving water. It was a creek, she’d been told, that fed into the Muskingum River downstream from where they were. A long way to go, she thought, before anyone would realize that she’d jumped. “Hello.” She didn’t bother to look at the man. She’d seen him around town too. Actually, it was difficult to go into any place on the main drag without seeing Mr. Whitfield—Oliver, he’d asked Angus to call him. “Are you going to jump?” “I’ve not decided just yet. I was calculating in my head how hard the water would be, and the stone beneath it.” She looked at him then. “I have a lot on my mind, Mr. Whitfield. I thank you for your concern. However, this is nothing that I’d like to share with a stranger.
It’s a place I come to think, and I’d like to do that alone if you’d not mind.” “Yes, I can understand that. I’m Oliver Whitfield. If I’m not mistaken, you’re one of the workers that is with Angus. Good fella, by the way. I think he has a brother hereabouts, but I’ve not had the pleasure of meeting him just yet. Honey, is there anything I can do to help you?” It was on the tip of her tongue to ask him if he would push her into certain death, but she didn’t. Instead, she just looked out over the muddy, icy water. “I have a couple of doctors in my family. They’d be more than happy to talk to you, child.” “Do you have a gun, Mr. Whitfield?” He said that he didn’t. Realizing her mistake, she had to think fast about telling him why she’d needed a gun. “Then no, I don’t think there is a thing you can do for me. I was…there are a few snakes here and about in the water. I was going to practice on them. I have a permit to carry, but I don’t. Not anymore.” “I don’t mean to be rude, and my lovely wife would box my ears for this, but I don’t believe that you want a gun for that at all. Can you tell me about it?
I promise you on my wife’s heart that I’d never tell anyone else.” Mason shook her head. “I need for you to tell me what’s bothering you, child. I’m not leaving here until you do.” “At the moment, you’re the only thing bothering me, Mr. Whitfield. As I said, I have a few things I need to work out on my own.” He sat on the side of the bridge with her, his jean covered legs and high boots looking ridiculous next to her fancy worthless boots and lightweight pants. “Mr. Whitfield, I’d very much like for you to go away and leave me alone. I’m not going to share anything with you. There isn’t anything you can do, and even if there was, I don’t want anyone to be a part of this.” “This here creek, did you know that it’s called Narrows Creek? Been here since the man over there decided to widen his fields so that he didn’t have to cross a little bitty bridge in the spring when the creek flooded. And boy oh boy, it sure could flood.” She looked at the house that was on the other side of the field but said nothing. “That’s his home if you’re thinking that. He’s not lost anything since he had some people come in and widen and deepen this place for him. Don’t jump.”
Tears filled her eyes. The man was too smart for her own good. He was much too observant as well. Instead of answering him, even though she wouldn’t, she thought of what he’d said about Angus having a brother. “Angus doesn’t have a brother, Mr. Whitfield. I’m his sister, Mason.” She looked at him. “Mas Barnhart is our father. Not really Angus’s, but he is mine. Dad bought me off my mother so that she’d not abort me when she found out that she was knocked up. Not a good term, I guess, but those were her words, not his. Then a few months after I was born, no more than an infant, she was killed in an automobile accident.” She hadn’t expected him to say anything, so when he didn’t, she continued. “Angus’s mother thought that she’d get a great deal of money from my dad by claiming that my dad was the father of him. He wasn’t, of course, but that didn’t stop him from paying her off, and he still does when she shows up making a stink about shit that isn’t true, nor any of her business. Mostly, lately anyway, the shit has been about me.”
“You seem like a good girl. What on earth could she have on a child like you?” She just stared at the creek, watching it roar along the sides of the banks, pulling limbs and leaves along with it to make pretty colored swirls in the waterway as it flowed downstream. Trees, too, had been moved, probably a great distance, and were starting to pile up at the posts that held the bridge she and Mr. Whitfield were sitting on. “Mason, what happened to you?” “A man did. Not that you’d have to believe me or not. Frankly, I don’t have any proof at all that he even touched me that week. But he kidnapped me from campus where I was teaching, drugged me, and raped me, repeatedly, over an entire week and then some. There were others too. All men, who I found out later had paid a great deal of money to have their way with me.” She laughed bitterly, not even sure why she was sharing this with him. A last confession, she thought, because she was going to jump today. “I was the great Mas Barnhart’s daughter, his princess that was so untouchable. I haven’t any idea where that had come from, but there it was. And lucky for me, or not so lucky for me, I was able to escape with my life. Or so I thought.” She looked at Mr. Whitfield.
He had a kind face, one that she thought reminded her a great deal of her own father. She knew this man had sons, six of them. And he had grandchildren and a nice wife. Carefully she reached out her hand, meaning only to touch his cheek to see if it felt as soft and warm as she thought it might. But curling her fingers into her palm at the last minute, she thanked him for being there. The jump was easy. Mason just stood and leaped. But she wasn’t getting to the water as she had hoped—something was keeping her there. Turning her head to look at Mr. Whitfield, she saw that he was holding her back by her coat, and his grip was too powerful for her to shake loose. Mason did try to make him release her so that she’d not have to come back another day to try again. This was her last chance, she thought, and she needed it to work. “Don’t do it, child. We can work something out.” She reached for the zipper on her coat, pulling it down slowly as Mr. Whitfield strained to hold her back. She wanted to just rip it off, let him have the coat that he was holding so that she could die. But the strain on it and her body were making it go slowly.
“Please, I’m begging of you, child, don’t do this. There has to be another way.” “There isn’t.” The coat was undone and she let it slip from her arms. The water came up fast, and Mason closed her eyes for the impact. Hoping that it would kill her right away, she let out a breath that she’d been holding, and hit the water hard. She had missed the stone except for her arm. The water was so cold that it made her inhale sharply. The pain of it, like icy needles, felt as if it were tearing her flesh from her body. Mason didn’t care. She was going to be free soon, and that was all that mattered. Not fighting the current or the trees that banged into her, she let it take her under several times as she tried to get her bearings on where she was in the water. The water was rough, tumbling and turning her all around so that she didn’t know which way was up. Bashing her body off one thing to the next, she knew that her arm and leg were broken, useless to her in trying to hold herself under. And when she knocked her shoulder, the pain of it making her cry out, she swallowed more water, then nothing. The pain in her head took it all away.
~*~ Oliver had put out an emergency call for help when Mason stood up. He’d been talking to Evan since seeing her there, but he never dreamed in a million years that she’d do it right in front of him. Shifting to his tiger, he dove into the water after her, knowing that his cat would stand the cold a bit better than he would as a man. He had a difficult time finding her in the murky water. He’d see her for a second, but then she was gone. Oliver knew that they were farther down the creek than he’d told his family, but there wasn’t any time for him to get his bearings and find the girl. As soon as he had a good hold on her leg, he bit down hard, knowing that if he lost her this time, he’d never have a second chance of finding her again. The bones, already broken, shattered more under his powerful bite. “Dad, can you see me? Dad, I’m here.” He popped his head above the water in time to hear Evan yelling for him.
“Christ, bring her to me and I’ll see what I can do. They’re all coming, Dad. We’ll save her if we can.” Oliver swam as hard as he could to get to the other side, but he was an old man, worn out by hard work and age. Oliver wasn’t giving up, but he knew that he wasn’t going to make it to his son. Then he felt his burden become lighter and looked to his other son. Josh had come into the water as his cat to help him. It was a struggle, even for the two of them, to get her to Evan. As soon as his son was able to reach into the water and pull her out, Josh got out as well and helped him out of the freezing cold water. Oliver didn’t have the strength to shift—he wasn’t even sure that he had the energy to breathe. But his lovely wife, the woman of his heart, Eve, yelled at him through their link. While he’d never tell her this, she sounded like a choir of angels talking to him. You die there on the side of that nasty creek, Oliver Whitfield, and I will never forgive you. I won’t visit your grave, nor will I put any pretties there for you. Get up, you old coot, and move around before you freeze to death. He told her that he loved her.
I love you too. And you were so brave to save her. Now, you’d better be up and around before I get there. Or so help me I’ll— I’m up. Now hush, woman, I can’t hear what Evan is saying about her. It might have been for nothing. Evan was looking grave as he worked. Then he looked at him. She’s got some kind of sickness, Evan. I tasted it in her blood when I bit her. “You’re going to have to finish the job, Dad, or she will be dead before I can do a thing.” He asked him what he was talking about. “Change her. You’ve bitten her several times, it looks like. And she’s dying. Change her and she’ll live. And it’ll take care of whatever illness brought her to this point. As it is right now, she’s got so many broken bones, and with the loss of blood, I don’t know if she’d make it even if this were to have happened with a team of doctors around her. Change her, please.” He didn’t want to. Oliver wasn’t sure why, but he had a feeling that this little girl was going to be one of his sons’ mate.
Evan told him it was now or she’d be dead to someone. He bit down in her bruised and battered belly, and felt her scream that came up from her gut. She was poisoned with something nasty, the poor thing, and he had a feeling that she’d been right. Mason had been about as close to death as it came. It was another twenty minutes before he could move away from her tiny body. Ivy was there with them now, and so was his Eve, who had brought him some clothing. When Mason started to shake hard, they covered her with as many blankets and coats as they could find. All it did, he thought, was make her shake harder. It wasn’t until Carter showed up that he could see some improvement in her skin. But she gave her a couple of drops of her powerful blood to be sure. They all knew that Carter was a fae, and that she had shared her magic with Josh. But what it would do to a human, one that was just on this side of dying, no one knew. It might well be a moot point if she died right now. It was decided, however, that they’d take her up to the bridge and lay her down there, so that when the ambulance came, they’d just say that she had slipped on the icy bridge. It was plausible, he supposed. She was soaking wet and badly battered. Carter said she’d make it, so the authorities saw only what they needed to see, and he was grateful for that. “Her brother and dad, they don’t need to know that she was trying to kill herself.”
Eve agreed, but Evan wasn’t so sure. “If he needs to know, then we’ll tell him. But I think, for now, we should just let it go as a fall rather than her jumping. I think this is something that she’ll need to tell them. On her terms, I think, too. I’d want to hear it from one of you if you were thinking there wasn’t any other way.” “What about changing her?” Oliver told Evan he didn’t know about that yet as he pulled off his second coat to lay on Mason, to make it look as if he’d been the only one there. “All right. But think on an answer or something before we get in too deep with this. Her dad, he might even know that she’s been down of late. But I doubt very much that he knew that she was dying with what she had. That is more than likely what drove her here in the first place.”
He had to agree. But he’d not tell any of them what she’d said to him before she’d jumped. It tore at his heart when he thought of the sadness and pain that he’d seen there just before she slipped out of her coat. The ambulance was called, and he waited for them. The rest of them left him there so that the story was plausible. He held her hand while he sat there with her, telling her that it mattered little to him if she was one of his boys’ mate, he already loved her to pieces. When the ambulance pulled up, Ivy was on it with them. With a wink at him, she asked him what was going on. He told her the story that they’d agreed on. He’d found her there, lying on the bridge, and had covered her up with his coat. He didn’t have to explain why she was wet, no one asked, but once she was bundled up and taken away, Oliver sat there for a few more minutes, thinking of his part in this woman’s life now. He’d not changed anyone in his life.
Not even when he’d been younger had he had the occasion to do something so terrifying. His lady wife, Eve, had been a full-blooded tiger when they’d come together. And now, he’d just changed the life of someone, a stranger, so profoundly that he doubted very much she’d ever be able to forgive him. Oliver wasn’t sure that he’d ever forgive himself if it came to that. But she was alive, and she’d be all right. Oliver thought that was the best he could be happy for right now. “Are you finished feeling sorry for yourself?” He turned to look at Tanner when he spoke. “You saved her life, at great risk to yourself. And while she might have wanted to die, by her own hand, you have done something wonderful for her family. As you thought, she might not forgive you right away.
But Oliver, I have known you all my life, and no one can be upset with you for long.” “I’m not like my father.” He looked around and saw that it had turned rainy again, the clouds thick and heavy. “He could charm the pants off a nun, I’ve been told. By him, mostly, but I have heard it. I’m not the type of person that can make anyone do anything.” “Let me see your arm.” Oliver had hurt himself holding the girl so she’d not fall. It had just begun to hurt him when Tanner sat beside him on the cold, wet bridge. “You strained it badly, I’m afraid. You will need to be in more pain before you will be better. I would have thought that shifting to catch her would have helped.” “My cat was hurt. The current that had us, it was much stronger than I’d thought when I went in for her.”
He looked at Tanner. “She was dying. I just couldn’t let her do that to herself. Or her family. She is better now, I’m hoping. Do you think you can do that magical thing you do and tell me if I did a worse thing by doing this to her?” “I shan’t do that, Oliver. You know as well as I that she will live for a good long time now, and have no worries that she had before.” Oliver nodded, but wasn’t convinced that she’d not try again. “She will not. I shall tell you something, my friend. She is the mate to one of your sons, but I know not which one. And that alone will give her immortality, regardless of her being the wonderful tiger that I know she will be.” “Do you know this man? The one that she was talking about before she jumped?” He said that he didn’t. “I wish I did. I’d hunt him down and give him a good showing of my cat. Even as old as I am, I think I could make him wet himself.”
“Don’t do it, my friend. While I have no doubt that you could make him wet his pants, I think you should leave that for your son, her mate. But as I have said, you will need to see Ivy or Evan about your arm. I believe that you have dislocated your shoulder. Quite painful, I have heard, so you will, as I said, be in a great deal more pain.” Tanner stood up. “I wish to ask you something, Oliver, and you do not need to form an answer. And though I am quite aware of what you are going to say, I wish for you to think on it. Her father, I have heard, is a good man. What would you feel should this have been your despondent child, and a man—you, in this case—had the chance to save her from certain death, so changed her into something more? How would you feel?” Tanner disappeared, not waiting to see if Oliver had an answer or not. The sun was coming out and the rain was gone. The roads, he knew, would be slicker before dinner tonight.
Walking home, enjoying the chill of the day, he thought about the question that had been put before him. “I’d want her to be alive more than anything.” He knew that to be true, but he also didn’t know the other man, her father. His dad did, of course. Dad knew everyone. But Oliver didn’t. Making his way to the diner, Oliver decided to have a talk with his dad about it. “So you saved her life.” Dad was talking to him between customers. Oliver had an idea that he needed something to do like his dad had, if only to make him feel better about life. Dad sure did look better than he had a few months ago. “I know Mas. He’s a good man, and a better businessman than I’ve come across. If he has his little girl, then you can bet that he wouldn’t care if she was a donkey braying out her love for him.” “Dad, where do you come up with this stuff? There has to be a place that has a list of them. Every day you come up with something new, and just as goofy.” Dad laughed when he did. “I heard that the boys are going to be helping him out so that no one takes his company. It’s good to see someone still doing business within the family.”
“It is, I agree. And if’n you want me to, I’ll be there when you tell him what you did to his little girl. I didn’t know that— Say, you thinking what I’m thinking?” Oliver told him that he was still thinking about that girl braying like a jackass. “I never said jackass, you dummy. I said a donkey. But what if she’s one of the boys’ mates? Wouldn’t that be a hoot?” “It might be if I wasn’t so afraid that she isn’t,” Dad asked him why. “Because she’s a tiger, Dad. She’s no longer a human.” He didn’t tell him what Tanner had said. For some reason, he wanted to keep that to himself for now. “Oh, don’t go on about that. Whoever she’s mated to, you can bet your bottom pocket lint that this other person is going to be a darn sight happier with her being alive, don’t you think?” Amazed at his father’s sayings, Oliver just nodded. “There you go. And if she happens to be one of them boys’ mates, well, you had it right on to make her something that could be running with him. Don’t go looking for trouble, Oliver. You don’t need to. Trust me when I tell you, when it comes around, this here trouble that’s in your head, it’ll find you without you worrying yourself sick over it. Now, have some pie, then go on over and get that bum arm looked at. I can see that it hurts you.”
He walked over to the clinic after having a slice of pie with his dad. Oliver was glad to see that one of the other doctors was there today. Oliver knew that Evan was on call and Ivy had taken Mason in, so he’d not be embarrassed when someone set his arm for him. The man told him the same thing that Tanner had—it was going to be more painful before it started to get better. Once they strapped him to the table, really making him more nervous than before, he laid there just thinking about the woman, trying his best not to think of her as a girl. Calling her one when he could see that she wasn’t, Oliver hoped that she’d be all right. “I came by when I heard from Tanner. Oh, Oliver, I wish you could have said something. I would have picked you up.” Oliver was happy to see Eve—so happy, in fact, that he held her hand when the doctor came into the room. “You just lay there and let him fix you up. Then I’ll take you home and pamper you for a bit. I think there is even a little pie left over from dinner last night.” There wasn’t any pie—he’d had it before leaving the house this morning. But he’d not tell her. She’s been fussy with him again. And right now, he wanted her to be loving and comforting. The doctor grabbed his arm at the elbow, and all Oliver remembered after that was screaming his fool head off.