Since stepping into the role of Alpha for the Texas Tigers, Tex’s sole focus has been on his members as he tries to help them heal from years of abuse and torment. Now, with Manetka Resort about to open, he’s taking a last minute trip to the Alaskan Tigers’ compound in search of guards to protect both the Elders and the clan. While there, he finds the unexpected—his mate.
Carleen comes from an enemy clan with a controlling and manipulative Alpha. Months of not belonging to a clan finally ends when she finds Tex, but it causes a divide between her and the only family she has left—her brother. Getting to know her mate forces her to realize there’s a bigger purpose for her, one in which she can make a difference.
With his many responsibilities, Tex isn’t sure he has time for a mate. Carleen is torn in different directions, too, and no matter what she chooses, she can’t please everyone. Happiness is something they both deserve, but can they get out of their own way in order to claim it?
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The Texas Tigers had been growing stronger with each passing day and their scars were fading. It had been an uphill struggle, but little by little, Tex was uniting the clan and slowly abolishing Avery from every corner of Manetka Resort. That’s why he was in Alaska. This trip would assist him when it came to steering the clan in the right direction.
Sitting in the balcony of the new training center, he was amazed by the work that’d been completed in the months since he had left. The new building housed everything the guards needed for their training, with the biggest area being the main gym—an open space with mats allowing for softer takedowns when practicing hand-to-hand combat. The balcony had been added so that the Alpha or trainers could watch without those below realizing they were being observed. His gaze scanned each of the guards as they partook in the practice fight, watching them closely to see how they handled themselves, while his thoughts circled around the clan. The journey before them was long and there would be obstacles they’d have to overcome before they’d remotely resemble a normal clan. They had been stifled for so long that they needed to learn to breathe again. Most of them weren’t psychologically or physically able to protect the resort yet. The damage caused by the former abusive Alpha—Avery—would need to be repaired over time.
If he wanted to keep his clan safe, he had to add strong members. Too many of his people were broken. For years, they’d been controlled until they had no will of their own. They were starting to realize that Tex wouldn’t treat them the way Avery had. For the first time, they were free to live their lives again. They didn’t have to worry about being abused for speaking their minds. However, like any Alpha, he still had the final say, and they needed to understand he had their best interests at heart.
Shifting slightly on the metal folding chair, he leaned forward and forced himself to focus on the action below him. Thinking about the clan and all the work ahead of them wouldn’t help him decide which guards would be the best to take back to Texas. They needed guards—actual guards who could protect them. He had a few, but not enough he trusted completely to protect his Lieutenant, Ben, and the rest of the clan.
“For his size, I’m surprised.”
Tex didn’t have to look at Rhett to know which guard he was talking about. He shifted his gaze away from Milo, who’d been sparring with another potential guard, and focused on what appeared at first glance a mismatched pair. Brody and Taber. At five-foot-six, Brody was the shortest candidate, yet he’d gone up against the Kodiak Bear, Taber.
“When they squared off, I somewhat discounted him,” Rhett said. “He doesn’t appear to be much of a threat.”
“Which is what we need. A surprise.”
That could work both ways. If someone underestimated Brody, it could mean safety issues for whomever he was guarding, but he was a strong possibility. This was why Tex had brought Rhett with him. As an Elder Guard, his priority was protecting Tex and Ben, while unofficially he’d become a trusted advisor to both men. Rhett was assigned as the Captain of Tex’s Guards, but whenever Ben left the resort, Rhett went along, assuming Tex wasn’t headed out on a mission. They needed more guards like him, not only for the Elder Guards but also to protect the members, resort, and the guests. Without more like him, the clan was at risk. With Manetka Resort scheduled to open in a few weeks, he needed to ensure he could protect his clan.
He’d been looking forward to the trip, hoping to catch up with friends he’d made during his time there. In the hours he’d been there, however, he’d only become more agitated. He was worried they wouldn’t find the guards they needed. He kept wondering what was happening back in Texas, and what the future would hold. Being in Alaska reminded him of how quickly things changed. Since he had left, they added the guards’ indoor training arena with viewing balcony, and the second floor Elders quarters would be finished in a few weeks. Time stood still for no one, but part of him missed the life he’d had here.
When Ben nominated him as Alpha of the Texas Tigers, he hadn’t thought twice. They needed him, and there was work to be done. He took the position without realizing it meant giving up what meant so much to him. The morning coffee chats he shared with Robin, and occasionally Harmony, had been times he’d treasured. Both women were happily mated, but he hadn’t been interested in them that way. The friendship they developed was important to him, and now, sitting in the guards’ training arena, he realized just how much he missed that.
Tex took his white cowboy hat off and dropped it on the seat next to him. The guards he’d been considering were all committed to Tabitha and her uniting the tiger shifters, leaving one less thing for him to worry about, but bringing in outsiders would be a challenge. How would his clan members react? Even the vetting he planned to do of those coming to Manetka wouldn’t eliminate every possible issue. All the more reason to have capable guards.
“What do you think?” he asked.
Minutes ticked by as he waited for Rhett to answer, allowing him time to continue reminding himself why he was there and why this was so important. He watched the guards closely as Styx, Milo, and Taber put them through their paces.
“Ty picked some good possibilities for you.” Rhett glanced down at the e-tablet he had in his hand, assessing each of the candidates participating in the training session.
Knowing there was more to that statement, he turned to Rhett and assessed his most trusted guard. Even though he had been through Hell with the rest of the Texas Tigers, Rhett came out better than most. His scars were minimal but the changes in him were astronomical as he embraced his freedom and his new role.
“But?” Tex asked when the guard remained silent.
“Dawson and Brody are my top choices.” He gave Tex a moment to find them in the group. “Dawson has a way of anticipating his opponent’s next move and being ready for it. If he can’t move out of the way, he blocks it. Brody’s like a boxer. He stays on the balls of his feet. This is allowing him to compensate for his size, giving him the ability to spring in any direction. An unknown opponent would discount him as a threat and believe he’d be easy to take down. His flexibility gives him an advantage. He’s a street fighter and he does it dirty. While others with martial arts training might take him down quicker, Brody’s going to do the most damage.”
“Going against Taber could have worked against him, but somehow he made taking on the bear look as if they were on a level playing field. Taber’s not only taller and outweighs him, but his arms are longer, so Brody has to get into his striking zone in order to hit him.” Tex turned from Brody and Taber, focusing on Milo and the candidate he was working with. “What about Thorn?”
“He’s got skills but needs polish.” Rhett tapped Thorn’s picture, bringing up his profile. “He’s formerly of the Mississippi Tigers. He left after his Alpha refused to commit to Tabitha.”
“The Mississippi Tigers are going to be a problem. I’m not sure Ty knows how to deal with them, but he’s going to have to deal with Lee sooner rather than later.” His gaze remained on Thorn as the man’s fist slammed into Milo’s shoulder.
In a fight, it was smart to go after the opponent’s weakness, but Thorn didn’t seem to realize it would only enrage Milo further. His injured shoulder kept him out of the field for too long. Even now he had to deal with the pain that came with it. When a shifter was injured, they could normally shift and heal, but Milo didn’t have the opportunity when the rouge sliced through his shoulder, severing some of the nerve endings and muscles. As an Elder Guard, he couldn’t allow a weakness to permit his enemy to overcome him during a fight, so he fought through it and the pain turned into fury. Which landed Thorn flat on back on the practice mat.
“We could have an issue with Thorn.” Rhett held the tablet out to him. “His sister is here, as well, and he’s seeking a clan for both of them.”
“It’s doable.” He scanned the file but it didn’t say anything more about the sister. “We’re meeting with each of the guards individually after they’ve showered and changed. If he’s still on the short list after we’ve spoken with him, we’ll meet with her, too. If we choose him, they’ll both have to make the commitment to me as their Alpha.”
“I’d like to work with whoever makes the short list separately before you offer them the opportunity to serve you. I want to test their skills myself.”
That was another reason Rhett was their top man. Not only was he willing to speak his mind, but he thought things through. The clan meant as much to him as it meant to Tex and Ben. “We’ll arrange it for tomorrow. Today’s going to be long enough without adding to your schedule. You decide the order, but let’s not alert them. I don’t want to give them the opportunity to prepare for it. I want to know what they’ll be like if they’re caught off guard.”
“I know you’re hoping to add at least one Elder Guard out of this group. I suggest anyone you’re considering gets an extra dose of surprise.”
“What are you thinking?” He raised an eyebrow at Rhett, wondering if he had a devious plan in mind.
“We’ll call on the one you’re interested in during the night. Wake them up and see how they manage. Lack of sleep is something Elder Guards have to deal with at times and this will give us a chance to see if he can handle it. If there’s more than one, we’ll do them back to back so they can’t alert the others.”
“Better yet, if they speak about what happened they’ll be eliminated from the running.” A whistle blew, letting the potential guards know the session was over. “Only those who get through the session, as well as the Alaskan Tigers Elders, will know what we’re up to.”
“Considering our short time frame, it will be the best way to give us insight into how they function under pressure. Bringing a new team in is going to be hard enough, but if they don’t work out, it’s going to be for nothing.” Rhett hit the power button on the tablet, darkening the screen, and stood. “My Queen.”
“I’ll never get used to being addressed like that.” Tabitha smiled as she came to stand in front of them, with Felix beside her. “Ty’s attending to something, but I wanted to find out how things went. Did any of the possibilities match what you were looking for?”
“Your mate once again amazed me. He picked some worthy candidates.” He rose from where he had been sitting and smiled at Tabitha. It had only been a few weeks since he had seen her last, but it seemed like so much longer. He owed a lot to her and Robin. They’d brought him out of his depression, given him the strength to continue, and encouraged him when they learned he wanted to be part of the group that took Avery down. More than that, they became his first true friends and showed him it was possible to trust someone. They would be there when he needed them, just as he’d be there for them.
“Wonderful. Styx and the others have been working them hard since they arrived, trying to get them in shape to do the job you need them to do. He has preferences as to who would be able to handle protecting you and Ben, but all of them are capable of being ground guards.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything less. I know you understand the challenges for our species, as well as what I’m facing with the Texas Tigers and Manetka Resort.”
“Opening the resort with some of the members living on the top floors is going to create an additional challenge for you and your team, but I know you can handle it. You have to trust yourself and those you’ve surrounded yourself with. If you ever run into any issues, you know we’re all behind you.” Tabitha placed her hand on his arm, giving it a light squeeze. “Have Jinx’s men finished the security measures?”
“Keycard doors are being installed now for all of the suites. Larry installed the passcode doors to the floors the clan will use and the elevators will be coded to access those floors, as well. There are security cameras covering every aspect of the public areas of the resort. The clan areas have cameras in the hall to ensure there are no unauthorized persons on the floor, but that’s it,” Rhett explained. “I’ve sat down with Ben, Barry, and Larry numerous times to go over the security measures. I’m confident that we’re doing everything we can in that area to ensure the safety of the Elders and the clan. What we’re lacking are additional guards. Hopefully, this trip will help us secure that, as well.”
“I hope so.” Tabitha nodded.
“Why don’t we go to the conference room?” Felix suggested.
“There’s someone waiting to see you, Tex.” Tabitha smiled, her eyes glistening with amusement. “Ty will join us shortly. The potential guards will be brought in one by one, as they’re ready, unless you have an order you’d like to see them in.”
“No. Whoever is showered and ready first is fine. The conference room would be great. We have something to discuss in private with you and Ty, anyway.” Tex waited for her to lead the way as eagerness rose within him. He wasn’t sure who was waiting for him, but he had no enemies at the clan. It must be someone he knew—a reunion with an old friend, perhaps?
* * *
Lingering in the back, hidden in the shadows, Carleen watched as Thorn fought against Milo. He was working so hard, doing his best to make the guard team for the Alpha who was visiting. The Alpha of the Texas Tigers wasn’t the only one who would come to inspect the potential guards, but for some reason her brother wanted to impress him more than the others. He wanted to be chosen for Texas but she couldn’t understand why. They were from Mississippi, so coming to Alaska had been a huge shock to her system. Now that she was there, she loved it. She loved the snow. The fluffy white stuff cooled under the pads of her paws and when she rolled in it, white dust floated around her. It was even more beautiful to watch as it fell.
She knew they couldn’t stay there, but she’d hoped they could live in a climate that had snow. The Ohio Tigers’ Alpha had been looking for additional guards, and so were the Connecticut Tigers. This wasn’t the only opportunity but she hadn’t been able to convince Thorn of that.
It was wrong of her to sit there and watch, hoping he’d mess up. Some little thing that wouldn’t put him out of the running completely, but might cause this Alpha to turn him down. Hoping for him to screw up made her feel horrible. He was her brother and they’d been through everything together. The thought of her wanting him to fail was wrong, yet she hadn’t been able to stop herself from wishing until she saw him.
There was no doubt in her mind the man holding her attention was the visiting Alpha from the Texas Tigers. He watched the men in the fight session with such intensity, but he didn’t seem to notice her. Staying hidden in the shadows, she observed him. The authority pouring off him made him stand out against the other man sitting beside him. He wasn’t big and muscular like she expected from an Alpha. His body was lean and toned. The contours of the muscles in his arms were well-defined, making her want to run her tongue along them.
What the hell? She shook her head at the very thought, but the image of him lying naked on a bed, only a sheet draped over his waist, lingered in her thoughts. She could see herself crouched over him, kissing his body, feeling his hard muscles under her fingers as she leaned forward to drag her tongue along the contours of his arms. As if he could feel her fantasy, he turned to look at her and their gazes locked. Shit.
This wasn’t normal for her. She never had thoughts like this about someone and it unnerved her. She barely noticed the whistle when it blew, ending the session and allowing Thorn and the others to head to the showers. She needed to get away and clear her mind. Forcing herself to tear her gaze away from the visiting Alpha, she scurried off in the direction from which she’d come. Desperate to escape, she ran down the steps. The safety of the two-bedroom cabin she shared with her brother was her only security. She couldn’t allow herself to feel this way toward anyone when her life was so uncertain. Fantasies might be a way to escape the pressures of the indefinite future, but she couldn’t afford to focus on one man, especially not an Alpha. There was too much at stake.
Racing back to the cabin, her brother’s words echoed through her mind: Alphas are off limits, Carleen. Don’t ever forget what happened to Lucy.