Wake a sleeping tiger, p.19
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       Wake A Sleeping Tiger, p.19
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         Part #22 of Breeds series by Lora Leigh

  She was in serious trouble.

  The next morning Chelsea fully admitted she was involved in emotional quicksand that she was totally unprepared to navigate. She still had no idea what had enraged Cullen as she talked to Ranger the day before.

  She could see being angry over Ranger’s words; she was angry herself. But Cullen had been furious.

  Stepping into the kitchen after her shower, wearing cutoff denim shorts, a tank and bare feet, she finished cleaning up the dishes from breakfast and acknowledged that the emotional situation was becoming chaos.

  She’d been certain that what she felt for him was love during the years she worked for him, but in the time she’d spent with him in the past weeks, she realized she’d really had no true concept of love.

  The depth of what she felt for him now was terrifying. It wasn’t just the explosive, hotter-than-hell sex or the fact that she knew the man he was, admired him, despite his arrogance, and knew to the soles of her feet that she’d never have to worry about him straying to other women.

  It was that undefined, ever-deepening certainty that they’d clash often, challenge each other daily, but she knew she’d never regret living her life with him.

  But if she ever learned for certain that he regretted not mating Lauren, and resented mating with her instead, then it would devastate her.

  He’d loved his first wife. She remembered seeing that in his expression as Lauren walked down the aisle at their wedding. If it weren’t for the mating and the fact that if he’d mated Lauren he could have saved her, then the thought wouldn’t torment her. And she wondered, if he had the choice to make, would he go back and give Lauren the mating Chelsea claimed now?

  When he’d told Graeme that she was the one who would want a cure for the mating that first morning, she’d heard the dark undertone in his voice and she’d had a terrible fear it was Cullen who wanted the cure instead. Maybe it wasn’t the cure but the regret that the mating had come with someone other than his dead wife.

  What if Ranger was right? What if she was just a stand-in for Lauren?

  Drawing in a deep breath, she pushed those thoughts away, determined to not let herself go there. She’d be damned if she’d be jealous of a memory. She didn’t have time for it.

  Putting away the last of the dishes, she turned in surprise when the kitchen door opened and Draeger stepped just inside the entrance.

  “Cullen around?” he asked, his gaze sweeping the kitchen and living room.

  She shook her head, watching him curiously as she dried her hands on a dish towel. “I think he’s in the garage or basement. Should I go find him?”

  “Company,” the Breed answered. “His second, Ranger. He said it was important.”

  Great. Just what she needed this morning.

  “That’s not a good idea,” she hissed, staring back into the kitchen, just knowing Cullen was going to walk in at any minute.

  Behind him, the door was suddenly pushed open and Ranger barged in, his expression furious. Flushed, fists clenched, his gaze glittering with suppressed violence as Draeger moved quickly between him and Chelsea with a growl of warning.

  “Call off these fucking guard dogs of yours,” he ordered, the violence in his gaze shocking. “Or are you such a coward that you can’t talk to me now?”

  She had a feeling he really didn’t want to talk. He was staring at her like he wanted to kill her.

  “Let him talk, Draeger,” she ordered the Wolf Breed quietly.

  Cullen must have talked to him, she guessed. He deserved to be angry if he believed Chelsea had betrayed his attempt to protect her. God, she wished she could have warned him the day before—

  “I was wrong about you,” he bit out, and she was shocked by the pure hatred in his voice now. “You’re nothing but a little whore determined to make certain no one stands in your way with Cullen, aren’t you? Not a wife’s memory. Or a friend.”

  She flinched at the insult, her eyes widening as she glimpsed Draeger gripping the weapon strapped to his thigh.

  “Ranger, you need to leave,” she said painfully. “Before Cullen comes in here and hears this . . .”

  “Why did you do it, Chelsea?” he whispered, lifting a hand out beseechingly. “What did you say to him? For God’s sake, I thought we were friends.”

  “Now isn’t a good time for this, Ranger.” She shook her head, trying to find something to say that would calm him down, that would get him out of the house before Cullen heard him.

  Lifting her gaze back to him, she watched his face slowly leach of color, his eyes going to her neck for a moment, right there where Cullen had left the mating mark. When his eyes jerked back to her, his face flushed, rage glittering in his eyes.

  “‘Now isn’t a good time for this,’” he sneered, that hatred deepening in his eyes. “When’s a good time, bitch? After you’ve completely brainwashed him?”

  This was so beyond not good that it wasn’t even funny. The words hurt, but Chelsea knew that if Cullen caught him here and heard the insults he’d go ballistic on the other man.

  “Get him out of here, Draeger,” she ordered the Wolf Breed, suddenly frantic. “Before Cullen comes in here.”

  Ranger’s gaze went to her neck again, such incredible pain flashing in his eyes that for a moment, compassion nearly overwhelmed her.

  “Too late.” Cullen stepped into the room from the hall, his voice so devoid of emotion that Chelsea felt a flash of fear surge through her.

  Evidently, Draeger felt the innate threat as well. Tension pervaded the room, the suffocating feeling causing her heart to rush with panic as she watched rage flash in his flat green eyes.

  A promise of retribution filled Ranger’s face as Cullen stepped to her silently, obviously determined to deflect any threat toward her.

  “Chelsea.” He gripped her arm, his voice low as both Ranger and Draeger watched him carefully now. “Would you go to the other room for a few moments?”

  She wasn’t about to—

  “Like hell,” Ranger burst out, taking a step toward her.

  Cullen’s reaction was immediate. A feline snarl of enraged warning burst from his chest, stopping Ranger in his tracks.

  Chelsea didn’t blame him; she was just as shocked. The canines Cullen flashed at the side of his mouth were definitely longer, looked sharper. He appeared broader, the muscles rippling beneath his T-shirt, his biceps bulging. She’d never seen anything or anyone with the potential to jump into a killing fury that Cullen had now.

  “What did she do to you, Cullen?” Ranger asked, his voice horrified. “Look at you.” A shudder swept through him.

  Chelsea could feel her heart racing, fear sweeping through her as a growl rumbled in Cullen’s chest.

  “Listen to you, Cullen.” Confusion swept over the other man’s face. “You’re like a monster, unable to control yourself. You’ve never been like this. What did she do to you?”

  “What have you done?” Cullen snarled. “Chelsea didn’t say anything to me about you. And I don’t recall mentioning her name when I talked to the commissioner.”

  The commissioner? He was the only person who wielded more power than Cullen in the Agency.

  “Don’t lie to me, Cullen.” Misery filled Ranger’s voice as he lifted his hand again, only to let it fall to his side immediately as he turned to Chelsea, contempt flashing in his eyes then. “I see her at the police department and a few hours later, not only is my position as co-command rescinded but I’ve been fired without just cause simply because you decided you can’t work with me? By God, I’ll sue . . .”

  “Read the agreement you signed when you came to the Agency,” Cullen reminded him, the ice in his voice deepening. “The loss of trust in you is just cause. And I don’t have to justify the loss of it.”

  Ranger gave a furious, bitter laugh, his nostrils flaring, disgust echoing in the sound.

  “That’s bullshit.” His fists were clenching and unclenching at his sides, rage and pain contorting his fea
tures. “At least tell me what she said. I’m sure the other agents would love to know how she finally managed to get rid of me. We all know she’s been after my job for years.”

  Chelsea shook her head, blinking back at him in shock.

  “That’s not true,” she protested.

  “Oh, so fucking innocent,” Ranger sneered. “You.” He stabbed his finger at her accusingly. “You’ve been after my job ever since you walked into that damned office. You’ve done nothing but connive . . .”

  “Enough.” Silence filled the kitchen at the guttural sound of Cullen’s voice, the echo of animalistic fury shocking in its depth.

  Ranger stared at him in shock as Chelsea glanced up at him, then to Draeger as he watched with wary tension. She could feel the tension boiling now, threatening to explode with repercussions she didn’t want Cullen or Ranger to face.

  “Cullen . . .” Ranger tried again, his voice, his expression turning, pleading.

  “Chelsea didn’t have to tell me anything.” Cullen silenced him instantly. “She was wired with strict orders not to reveal the wire. I heard every word, every lie for myself. And I do recall her trying to silence you more than once. You deliberately tried to hurt her, and you lied to do it.” He inhaled deeply, obviously trying to pull in a measure of calm. “My decision’s been made. I’m on leave for the moment, but the commissioner has my duties until my return. That should give you time to clear your stuff from the office.”

  Ranger’s gaze flickered to her neck again before he turned back to Cullen.

  “Lauren was right all along,” he sneered spitefully. “You didn’t really love her. You let her die. How does it make you feel to know you traded your wife’s life to have her?”

  Pain shattered her heart at the accusation as she felt Cullen’s arm tense further beneath her hand, the fury building in him. The cruel words were designed to hurt and they had.

  “Draeger, get him out of here,” Cullen ordered, his voice softening. “If I have to do it, I may end up killing him.”

  Ranger sneered back at her then, cruel amusement curving his lips. “How does it feel?” He was shaking with fury now. “How does it feel, fucking your cousin’s little pet, you stupid cunt? That’s what she called him, you know?”

  Draeger grabbed Ranger, jerking him back as Chelsea jumped in front of Cullen as he made to move to rush the other man. Deep, primal growls were erupting from Cullen’s throat as Draeger hauled Ranger out the door, the sounds grating and filled with fury.

  The accusation had sliced her painfully, Chelsea admitted, because she knew it had hurt Cullen. She’d seen his face, seen the misery that flashed across it just before he started to jump for the man he’d called friend since those first weeks when he arrived in the Nation.

  She inhaled slowly, trying to stop the shaking she could feel in her hands, her body. Turning away from Cullen slowly, she fought to accept the fact that because of her, Cullen had just made an enemy of one of the few friends he’d allowed himself to have.

  “Why did you have him fired?” she asked, confused as she turned back to him. He stood in the same place, his gaze locked on the door Draeger had forced Ranger through. “If it was because of me, then you made a mistake, Cullen. That wasn’t what I wanted.”

  Cullen’s gaze sliced to her, the icy expression on his face causing her to swallow nervously.

  “He lied to you,” he finally stated harshly. “He was trying to hurt you.”

  She shook her head in denial, pain-filled regret exploding her mind. “He was just being a stupid man.” Tears filled her voice and dampened her eyes. “He was trying to tell me not to get my heart broken. That’s all.”

  This was all her fault. Because she couldn’t hide the glasses, because she hated male superiority, because she’d never imagined Ranger would speak against Cullen. It was her fault, and she hated it.

  “So he lied to you?” His brows arched as his gaze filled with disgust. “That’s why he told you I blamed you? That you were no more than a stand-in for Lauren? That we laughed at you while we were married?” A cold smile shaped his lips. “Oh no, baby, I watched that video more than once. I saw what you didn’t want to see. He wanted to hurt you and drive you away from me, knowing there’s every chance you’ll be dead within days if you do so. That was pure maliciousness in his eyes as he told you about Lauren, and I’ll be damned if I’ll even try to work with him knowing how easily he betrayed our friendship and tried to endanger you.”

  Had it been? She shook her head, wondering if Cullen had seen something in Ranger that she hadn’t the day before. And it was possible she’d missed it. The hatred in Ranger’s eyes moments ago and the sneering disgust in his words had been so virulent, filled with such depth, that surely it hadn’t come into being overnight.

  “Cullen . . .” She licked her lips nervously, wondering exactly what had gone on in his marriage, needing to know now when she’d tried to avoid it because of her fear of the potential truth.

  “We’re heading to Graeme’s,” he told her before she could say anything more. “Get ready and get what you need for a few days’ stay. Cerves is back in the States and I think I’m ready for a few answers now.”

  Without waiting for an answer he strode to the door, flung it open and stalked outside. Before the door closed behind him she saw him jerk free one of the slim cigars he kept tucked in his shirt pocket.

  Two cigars in as many days; he was on a roll now, she thought painfully. If only she had a vice of her own to find comfort in.

  He could feel her confusion and her pain.

  Holding the cigar between his teeth, Cullen lit it with a heavy drag of the fragrant tobacco and fought to push the scent of her distress from his mind. It had exploded through his senses at Ranger’s final words, stabbing into him and sending the need for violence rushing through him. He would have killed Ranger if he could have gotten his hands on him. Because what he’d had to say to Chelsea was nothing compared to the insults against her Cullen had learned the other man was spreading at the Agency.

  For some unknown reason Ranger had been infuriated with Cullen’s leave of absence, blaming Chelsea and her supposed possessiveness for it rather than the fact that she was in danger. The other man had even gone so far as to state it wouldn’t surprise him that she’d arranged the danger herself to ensure Cullen’s attention.

  As he drew on the tobacco again, the sharp bite had him grimacing as he relished the sensation. It was a terrible habit, he knew. One he’d picked up several years before, courtesy of Dane Vanderale.

  Dane swore by the cigars and every month like clockwork, Cullen received a box of thirty from Africa, courtesy of the Vanderale heir.

  Now, leaning against the shaded column of the portico, he stared at the cylindrically rolled tobacco and fought to get his fury under control. There was still a part of him that wanted to wait until darkness fell and stalk the man he had once called friend. And when he found him, he wanted blood.

  Perhaps that was the part that had him feeling so off balance. Ranger hadn’t done anything to deserve death, but telling his instincts that was impossible.

  Sliding his gaze to the side of the house, he watched as Draeger stepped beneath the shaded patio, his expression faintly curious as he stared back at Cullen.

  “That didn’t take long,” Cullen said between gritted teeth, still forced to restrain animal instincts that felt far too unfamiliar.

  Draeger gave a short nod of his dark head.

  “I’d watch my back if I were you,” the Wolf suggested. “He’s out for your blood.”

  Maybe, Cullen thought wearily, though he’d never considered Ranger a stupid man until the other day.

  “Don’t let him back in,” he warned the Breed. “I didn’t think he’d show up here or I’d have already given you a heads-up.”

  “I figured,” Draeger acknowledged, producing his own cigar from the pocket at the side of his black mission pants and lighting up.

  “Vanderale gets aro
und,” Cullen grunted, glancing at his own cigar and using it as an excuse to check the burning tips of his fingers.

  “Yeah. True.” Draeger gave a short, amused chuckle. “Thing about Vanderale, though? He gets around more than anyone realizes. That laid-back-playboy persona of his actually fools most people and Breeds alike. Before you realize it, he knows everything there is to know about you. Even things you don’t know yourself. Then there are those little spies of his that no one can ever identify but who just love filling his ears with valuable little tidbits of gossip.”

  Cullen turned and stared at the Wolf, waiting.

  Leaning back against the other column, Draeger drew on the cigar and stared out at the desert for several moments.

  “Some of us have actually learned from him,” the other Breed informed him.

  “And what have you learned, Draeger?” Cullen asked, not really too worried about whatever information he had.

  Draeger inhaled the tobacco deeply before releasing the smoke in a slow, heavy breath.

  “You know Ranger was your wife’s lover,” Draeger said then. “Yet you’ve allowed him to ride your coattails all the way to your second in command.” Curiosity filled the other Breed’s voice. “Why did you trust him, knowing he couldn’t be trusted?”

  Fuck. Now how the hell had anyone figured that one out? To his knowledge only he, Ranger and Lauren had known.

  “I knew, even then,” he admitted; remembering those days wasn’t always comfortable. “They’d been in love before I arrived in Window Rock. They resumed about a year after we married, but not without my knowledge of it.”

  “You’re a better Breed than I am.” Draeger slid him an assessing look. “Or are you just dumber?”

  Cullen actually grinned at the insult. It was damned hard to take offense at the wry curiosity in the Wolf’s voice.

  “Ask me how I’d handle it if one of Chelsea’s ex-lovers came around,” he grunted, then blew out a hard breath. “I realized why she married me not long into the marriage. She knew I was a Breed before I told her. Either she guessed that the tabloid stories about Mating Heat were true, or Ray Martinez told her. Hell if I know.” And it hadn’t mattered for a very long time. “I could smell death on her. I wasn’t going to deny her what she’d given up in her desperation to live. Ranger tried to stay away, but the sicker she got, the more they needed each other. And any love I’d felt for her was nothing more than compassion at that point.”

  And why couldn’t he tell Chelsea that? Talking to her about those days was just about impossible for him. Pride? he wondered. To admit his desperation for some connection, for some kind of roots in those days was humiliating in a way.

  Draeger nodded at the explanation. “Just because you’re trained by death doesn’t mean that dying makes it any easier.”

  Cullen flicked him a glance and realized the lessons they’d learned, in different places, from different monsters, weren’t so dissimilar.

  “Pretty much,” Cullen agreed. “The friendship was something I’d believed had endured.” He shrugged, feeling the loss of something that hadn’t even existed except in his own mind. “I was wrong.”

  “Might have been, until he realized you were actually beginning a relationship with someone else. You moved on, he’s still living in the past. And seeing that mating mark on Chelsea’s neck didn’t help matters much. He’s going to become a problem.”

  Cullen gave a short bark of laughter. “Don’t start trying to make me feel better, Wolf. I thought you might know me better than that.”

  Draeger pursed his lips before giving Cullen a knowing look. “Lauren married you hoping the kitty’s love meant a feline mating, huh? An instant cure for the disease killing her.” There was compassion in the Breed’s voice but not an overabundance of it.

  “That about sums it up,” Cullen agreed, hating the fact that he hadn’t realized that truth at the time.

  “And now Ranger can’t accept that you’d actually give that mating to someone else. Let alone Lauren’s little cousin.” Draeger pointed this out as though in concession of what he’d already known. “What are you going to do when he strikes out again? And you know he will.”

  “Hell if I know,” he bit out roughly. “Let’s pray Ranger lets it go at this point. He can hate me till hell freezes over and I won’t regret it. What I sensed from him today didn’t just start. I was just too damned stupid to realize it all these years.”

  And the animal instincts had been sleeping, refusing to come out and play and allow Cullen to sense the truth.

  “Well, take this for what it’s worth.” Draeger snapped the fire from his half-smoked cigar before tucking it back into the pocket on his mission pants. “That buddy of yours hasn’t considered you a friend for a long time, if he ever did. The sense I got was a hatred well aged. He’s gunning for you, but even more to the point, he’s gunning for your mate.”

  Cullen watched the other Breed, feeling the truth of the statement.

  “He better not even consider placing his finger on the trigger, then,” he stated softly. “He makes that mistake, then he’ll die. And that’s a fact.”

  And it was probably a good idea to put one of his own spies on Ranger’s ass, just to be sure. Because like Draeger, Cullen had sensed not just the fury but also the hatred. The kind of hatred known to make even smart men have their moments of stupid.

  Cullen would hate to have to kill a man he’d once known as a friend, but if that former friend thought to strike against his mate, Cullen would kill him before he gave it a moment’s thought.

  And without a moment’s regret.

  CHAPTER 19

  From Graeme’s Journal

  Recessed Primal Genetics and Mating Heat

  Whether recessed or active, the vast intelligence, incredible cunning and iron resolve of a Primal is an ever-deepening, ever-reaching invitation into madness and the thirst for blood.

  She could have sworn Cullen said they were meeting at Graeme’s to discuss a little trip to visit the Cerves family. Instead, after arriving at Graeme and Cat’s seemingly deserted house, Cullen led her into a basement entrance and then through a concealed doorway into an underground tunnel.

  He motioned her into a golf cart of all things and, to her amazement, drove her through the network of steel-reinforced, well-lit passages.

  “It’s just about a mile to the main cavern,” he told her as he drove with a casual confidence that betrayed the fact that he did it often.

  “How did the tunnels get here?” She stared around them as he traveled between thick stone walls.

  The tunnel was easily twice the width of the cart, with other passageways branching off occasionally in other directions.

  “Mining, several centuries ago, I believe.” A smile quirked at his lips. “Graeme swears he found a vein of gold in one of the offshoot tunnels, but I haven’t convinced him to show it to me yet.”

  Before long, Cullen turned the cart into a slightly narrower tunnel before pulling to a stop behind a matching cart.

 
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