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Matching Foxes - Book#2 (Paperback)

Matching Foxes - Book#2 (Paperback)

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Read the Synopsis

HIS FOX WILL MEND THEIR FOX BLOOD. ONE SHIFTER WOULD RATHER SEE HIM DEAD.

Baseball player, Jack Tager thinks he's going to die when he goes to a meeting with a bunch of shifters. They hate humans. In order to keep his life, he must convince them he’s not a threat. When a cute fox shifter named Tinsley Dawns greets him at the meeting, sparks fly. Literally. She awakens the dormant fox blood in him. Now he doesn't need the shifters’ approval because he's one of them!

Tinsley didn’t mean to turn Jack into a fox. Her vixen acted against her will to make him one. Determined to make amends, she convinces him to let her train him on how to be a fox shifter. She soon finds out her vixen has an agenda on her own. She wants Jack’s fox as her mate and she plans on using every trick she knows to enamor him into choosing her. To complicate matters, if Jack’s fox rejects Tinsley’s, she loses her vixen and becomes human.

As Tinsley teaches Jack, they learn that his fox is the long-awaited Soul Mender. Their fox blood is weakening and they need his fox to mend them or they will die. Except someone else isn't happy to have a new fox join them. A bounty is put on Jack's head. To save the foxes and himself, it's time for Jack to play hardball.

Read Chapter One

JACK

“I’m not ready to die,” I whisper to myself as I get out of the vehicle parked in the middle of the forest. I’m on my way to the summer shifter summit with my best friends Bree, Ben, and Azure. It’s an organization made up of shifters—people who can turn into animals. Azure is a bird shifter called Wingai. The other shifters included are cats, bears, wolves, and foxes.

Shifters are extremely secretive. Humans like me aren’t supposed to know of their existence. But during our senior year of high school Bree, Ben, and I discovered Azure with her wings out. It’s because of our friendship that we are going to this shifter meeting. We have to be approved as human friends to shifters. If we’re not decided worthy, they will kill us on the spot.

I mentally shake my head. The things I do for friends.

Bree, Ben, and I slip through the guards surrounding Azure and her mate, Cerulean. Everyone calls him Ceril. The protection around them is no laughing matter after Azure was attacked earlier this week. Her injuries prevent her from walking, but she doesn’t show any signs of discomfort while Ceril holds her in his arms. I’m envious of the power Wingai mates have to soothe each other’s pain. No painkillers needed with their magical wings.

“You ready for this?” she smiles at us.

“A meeting I might not come out of alive? Oh yeah, totally.” Bree laughs nervously.

Ben and I laugh uncomfortably too.

“You guys will be fine, promise,” Azure says with conviction. “What I said still stands.”

Cerulean says, “It had better not come to that.”

“Come to what?” Russet asks, his eyes sharp on Azure. He is her new mentor on all things shifter related.

Azure jerks her thumb in the direction of me, Ben, and Bree. “They die, I die.”

Russet’s eyes widen. His skin flushes an angry red. “Don’t you even dare suggest it.”

His mate, Marigold, shakes her head too.

“I don’t plan to, unless it becomes necessary,” she answers, giving him a look of pure stubbornness.

This is why I’m willing to go to a meeting that might end in my death. I trust Azure unequivocally. Since finding out she’s a shifter, our friendship has deepened to a family bond. She’ll always have my back, the same as I would hers.

“Here we are.” Cerulean turns the corner, stepping onto a smaller dirt path that slopes downward.

The trees open up into a grove. Rays of morning sunlight shine down. An outdoor auditorium made of rough-hewn logs stands among the trees. Numerous benches face a small stage, with a large stone fire pit as the focal point. Embers crackle and pop. Smoke curls upward, scenting the air.

Soft chatter from those who have arrived fills the grove. Multiple curious gazes turn on us. We’re one of the last groups to show up.

We stop as Axel, the alpha of the wolves, stops to greet Azure and Cerulean. I don’t pay attention to their words as a hole of worry forms in my gut. I don’t want to die before I’ve had a chance to explore what it means to live.

Markers designating sections for each shifter group have been placed in the aisles. As we move to the sign marked Wingai, Cerulean halts, causing his brother, Jade, to bump into him. “We are not sitting by Magenta.”

I spy the pink-winged girl sitting with her family and Wingai from Soaring Heights. Magenta has been a thorn in Cerulean and Azure’s side since they married. She wishes Cerulean was hers and has been causing drama left and right. She’s too prissy to me. I’m a low-drama kind of guy and more than happy to avoid her too.

We sit on the other side of the auditorium, by the fox shifters.

Rose, Cerulean’s mom, walks over. “Why aren’t you sitting with us?” she asks.

“They’re avoiding Magenta,” Jade answers.

Rose sighs, her eyes crinkling with disapproval. “Cut her some slack, Ceril. She really had her heart set on you two being matched. She’s going through a hard time. Violet says she’s been crying off and on for a week.”

Cerulean doesn’t show a bit of remorse. “Matches can’t be chosen. She shouldn’t have put so much thought into me.”

“True,” Rose concedes. “But Magenta—”

Cerulean interrupts. “Called Azure trash yesterday and purposely knocked over her IV pole, ripping out the IV.” He gestures to Azure’s bandaged hand. “For our health and sanity, I think it’s best if we don’t have contact with each other, at least until she claims her own match and gets over me.”

Good choice, I think. I don’t want to see Magenta try to pull something else on Azure.

Rose lets out a breath, her teeth sinking into her bottom lip. “All right. I’ll relay this to your father.” After Cerulean thanks her, she returns to her bench, her red wings bouncing with each step.

Bree leans over Azure and muses at Cerulean. “If Magenta’s so into you, could she be behind Azure’s attack?”

Jade and Cerulean laugh like the idea is ludicrous. I don’t think it’s so far-fetched, considering her animosity. She’s been nothing short of a demon since Azure and Cerulean got married.

“Magenta’s too prim to get her wings dirty.” Jade shakes his feathers.

“No, her bite isn’t big enough to be a killer,” Cerulean says knowingly to Bree. “Plus, she’s not stealthy enough to get past the wolves. She’s a flying neon sign.” Jade and Azure laugh at Cerulean’s description of Magenta’s wings and clothing choices.

“So, she’s one of those annoying yapping dogs that nip at your ankles,” Ben says, causing Jade and Cerulean to chuckle more.

“Exactly. She’ll be tamed once she gets her match,” Cerulean says with confidence.

I hope he’s right.

Axel stands in front of the fire and holds his hands out for silence. “Thank you all for coming to our summer summit. It’s a pleasure for us of the Cascade Mountain Pack to host. I want to open this meeting with a wish of goodwill among all our peoples. May any issues brought before us be resolved, and let peace reign among us.” The auditorium echoes with murmurs of agreement. Axel smiles. “As dictated from our last meeting, I believe the bears are up first.”

I stiffen as the meeting begins. Nerves swirl in my stomach. A giant of a man named Orson stands up and starts speaking about bear business, but it goes right over my head. White noise rushes in my ears. Facing death is seriously the worst.

My brain snaps into focus as I hear the words, “Decide on a human.”

A red-faced, middle-aged man with graying hair and an obvious beer gut walks to the center of the stage, flanked by two bears.

Orson holds his hands out. “Would the council please step forward to confer?”

The leaders of each shifter group stand and make their way down.

Russet stops in front of Azure. “When it gets to our turn, you will be recognized, and our power will shift. For now, I will retain the council position.”

Russet has been the Wingai leader for the Silver and Bronze Wingai living in Mountain Hollow for the past two decades. Azure now has his job, called Lead. He’s transitioning to the role of second or vice president and Azure’s trainer. He’s crazy protective of her, since her wings are their race’s literal saving grace. Her Silver-Tipped feathers give her the power to recognize Wingai. It means she gives them the ability to find their mates, or matches, as the Wingai prefer to call them. If they’re not recognized, they don’t get mates and can’t have children, thus dooming their race to extinction.

Azure smiles sweetly. “I’m in no hurry.”

“Of course not,” Russet drawls, his eyes rolling.

The council forms a circle around the human. They speak in low tones, allowing admissions and choices to be expressed privately. Marigold passes out chocolate bars while we wait. I set mine in my lap. I can’t eat. Soft chatter from the benches floats on the breeze.

The council steps away from the human and confers privately. I can’t see much of their faces, from the way they’re huddled together. The few glimpses I get are of a serious nature. It’s not enough of an indication to figure out which way they’re going to go with the human. They break rank.

Orson calls out as he walks to the human. “The decision has been made.” He rips the human’s throat out with one slash of a shifted bear paw.

I jump, gasping with horror. My chocolate bar slides off my lap and onto the ground. Eyes popping, the man crumples to the ground, blood pooling out of his neck cavity. Two bears drag the body into the woods.

“I think I’m going to be sick.” Bree covers her mouth.

“A warning would have been nice,” Azure growls.

Oh crap, that could happen to me. Flight-or-fight instincts kick in, and I have the strongest urge to sprint away. I’m a good runner. I have to be to play baseball. Looking around, I remind myself that I’m sitting next to a bunch of shifters that can run with the power of a predatory animal. I wouldn’t make it more than two steps. I’m going to freaking die.

Azure nudges me. “Switch places with me please, Jack.”

I stand. My sweat feels cold. Azure slides into my spot while I take hers. Her hands reach out to grab mine and Bree’s. Ben places his hand on top of Bree’s and Azure’s.

“I’ve got you,” Azure says.

We bend our heads to rest on each other. I take a deep breath and exhale, trying to focus on trust and the love I have for my friends. It’s going to be okay. Azure won’t let anything happen.

The wolves report next. Again, I’m too stressed to make sense of anything. I don’t think Bree, Ben, or Azure are really paying attention either. I glance at Cerulean once to find him glaring at me like I’ve taken his girl. Overprotective, much? Azure asked to switch places, not me. Besides, he’s got nothing to be jealous about. Azure is like a sister to me.

When Axel finishes his address, Azure switches places with me again. Her wings mesh with Cerulean. I watch his expression change from angry to relaxed as he soothes the pain from her injuries. Comforting us cost her. Gratitude wells within me that she’d put us above her own hurts.

Long tables are set up near the firepit. A line of mostly women carries a variety of dishes to the table. The air smells of sweet and smoky barbecue.

“Come eat!” Axel gestures to the tables buckling with food.

Russet passes out sub sandwiches and bottles of pink lemonade. He doesn’t trust community food since the cat shifter that attacked Azure this past week was poisoned.

I pick at my roast beef sandwich. Some last meal. Then again, if I had been given a juicy steak or even that barbecue fare, I doubt I’d make it past one bite. My stomach sloshes sickeningly. I give up trying to eat fairly quickly.

A girl introduces herself to Azure with a bright, welcoming smile. “Hi. I’m Tinsley, from the fox pack.” Her vibrant red highlights stand out against her medium-brown hair. Her purple tank top that matches her eyes has a fox with the words “I’m Foxy” written across her chest.

I sit up straight. All thoughts of my impending doom flee. Wow, she’s hot! Too bad we’re not compatible. Human and shifter relationships don’t work.

Tinsley looks down the line at me, Bree, and Ben. “Who are your friends?” Suddenly, her eyes dart back to me. Our gazes lock. Her pupils dilate, and her vivid purple eyes shine. My chest twinges. Is she putting a spell on me?

“These are Jack, Bree, and Ben. They are the most amazing friends you could ever want.”

I briefly grin at Azure’s joyful tone.

“That’s awesome,” Tinsley says with enthusiasm. She extends her hand to me. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Same.” I enclose my fingers in hers. Tinsley’s eyes glow. A sudden spark of electricity or something leaps from her hand into mine. “Whoa.” I pull my hand back quickly, caught off guard. My skin tingles something crazy. What the heck was that?

“Tinsley, come eat!” A guy I assume is her brother—based on similar features, red spikes in his medium-brown hair, and the fact that he’s wearing the men’s version of her foxy shirt—shouts at her.

“I’ll be right there,” she calls over her shoulder. Her gaze sweeps across us again. “I hope we can chat again soon. Bye, Jack.” She wiggles her fingers at me, her gaze flirty as she trots off.

A smile comes to my lips. She totally looked at me with interest. I think she might like me back. But I can’t get ahead of myself. Tinsley’s a fox shifter, and I’m human. There is no sort of future for us, even if there’s mutual attraction. It’s disappointing, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. Besides, I’m a little weirded out by that jolt she gave me. Who knows if I’d be able to handle her shifter side?

“What was that?” Bree and Azure ask me at the same time.

I run a hand through my hair. “I don’t know. She touched my hand, and it was like sparks went off.” I look to Cerulean for answers. “Is that normal?” It didn’t feel like a simple case of static electricity.

Cerulean shares a look with Jade. “Uh, yeah, it can be.” He laughs almost apprehensively.

“Cerulean.” Azure gives him her I’m-not-playing-around stare.

He scratches his chin. “Tinsley was probably just messing with you,” he tells me. “Foxes are super playful and like to tease.”

“Oh.” I frown. Kind of rude to shock a stranger on purpose, but whatever. I know nothing about fox shifters. Maybe that’s their custom or something. “All right.”

Once lunch is cleared away, Axel stands. “The Wingai are up next. Emerald and Russet will be presenting together due to the match of Ceril and Azure.”

Emerald is Cerulean’s father and Lead of Soaring Heights, the other Wingai community.

My heart pounds harder as the two of them make their way to the stage, each carrying a black spiral notebook. It won’t be long now before my fate is decided. Emerald nods at Russet for him to speak first.

“Shall we start with the good news?” Russet smiles at the crowd. “After nineteen years of hell, Mountain Hollow has gained a Silver-Tipped Lead. Azure, Ceril, would you come down here?”

Cerulean carries Azure down. Russet makes some form of introductions, but my attention is diverted to my forearm. It itches something crazy. I look for a mosquito or ant or something, but I see nothing. Suddenly the auditorium erupts into claps, cheers, and whistles. Some of the Wingai next to me are crying. I assume they’re excited about all the good work Azure is doing for them.

The cheers die down, and Russet says, “I shall be spending—” His words are cut off by a loud screech from the audience.

I whip my gaze to the other side of the benches, where Wingai from Soaring Heights sit. Axel and his comrade have taken Magenta into custody. I absentmindedly scratch at my arm as I wonder what they’re busting her for.

“What is the meaning of this?” Magenta’s father, Diamond, demands. “Unhand my daughter!”

“We have reason to believe Magenta is behind the attempted murders of Azure and Jex,” Axel says, his voice hard.

I raise my eyebrows. Everyone said she wasn’t a threat. I’m glad Axel didn’t take that to heart and investigated her.

“What?” multiple Wingai ask, eyes wide.

“On what grounds?” Diamond asks.

“Jex woke up. He names Magenta as his counterpart,” Axel says.

“I knew it,” Bree whispers to me and Ben. “Never trust a woman scorned.”

“I’ll remember to stay on your good side,” Ben says.

I chuckle softly. “Me too.”

The color drains out of Magenta’s face. She flaps her wings at Axel and Brexton. Talons out, she attempts to rotate her wrists out of their grasp. “Let me go!”

“Let me take her,” Diamond pleads. Axel and Brexton hesitate. “She won’t go anywhere, I promise.”

They release her into her father’s arms. He twists her hands to make her nails retract, then holds her tight. “Magenta, what have you done?”

“Nothing!” she cries.

Yeah, right. She sounds like a toddler denying she stuck her fingers in the candy jar.

Axel’s attention shifts, his eyes flicking up the sloping hill. “Here is Jex now.”

I look to see Jex walking slowly with a middle-aged lady with flaming red hair. Two guards go before them, and two more make up the rear. Jex’s golden eyes, tired and red-rimmed, look ahead. I shift my gaze back to Azure. Her face transforms into a mask of terror. She shoves against Cerulean as if trying to run.

Concern fills my insides.

Cerulean struggles to keep hold of Azure. I jump out of my seat, wanting to offer her my support. I hurry down the stairs to the stage. Bree, Ben, and Jade follow.

Russet helps Cerulean sit on the edge of the stage. Ben, Bree, Jade, and I sit close beside them.

“We’ve got you.” Bree takes Azure’s hand.

The Silver Guard forms a circle around us. Azure settles against Cerulean. He presses a kiss to her temple. “You’re safe. I promise.”

My chest eases with relief to see her calm down.

The Council gathers together to face Jex, who lowers himself to a seat on a front bench. He is flanked by guards. Diamond holds Magenta off to the side.

“What have you to say for yourself, Jex?” Danyon, alpha of the cats, asks.

“Magenta abused our friendship,” he says, his voice scratchy. “She led me to believe the Silver-Tipped Wingai was a threat to shifters. Our world would end with her in it.”

The itch on my forearm gets worse, breaking my concentration on Jex’s confession. I’m starting to wonder if I’m allergic to something in the forest. I look down, but all I see are red lines from my fingernails. There are no hives or anything. What the heck is going on?

I look up as I see Magenta wrestling with Diamond. The wolves step in to restrain her. Diamond faces her, pain clear on his face. “Why, Magenta? How could you?”

Tears and mascara make tracks down her cheeks. “I needed her gone to make Ceril mine. He’s supposed to be mine!”

Appalled gasps sound from the benches. Possessive toddler.

“You were willing to condemn our entire race to extinction over this crazy infatuation?” Diamond shrieks.

Passion coats Magenta’s voice. “We have the power to adapt. Bronze Wingai did it when they were at risk of dying out. We can do it again—gain the power to recognize ourselves and choose our own matches.”

“Bronze adapting is a myth! Even if it were true, we have no way of knowing whether we could adapt again. If you succeeded and we couldn’t evolve, you would have killed us all!” Diamond digs his claws into his hair.

Magenta shrugs.

I shake my head. I’m sickened. I’ve never known someone so coldhearted before. Life is precious. It’s unfathomable to me that someone would maliciously violate its sanctity. It’s disheartening to see people like Magenta disregard good morals for their selfish desires.

The Shifter Council members quietly confer with each other.

“Are you okay?” Bree asks Azure.

She nods. “I’m better. You guys can return to your seats.”

“You sure?” Bree persists.

“Yeah,” Azure says, managing a small smile.

Bree, Ben, and I return to our seats. I clamp a hand over my forearm to stop myself from scratching my skin raw. I’m definitely allergic to something. I hope it isn’t some deadly bug that bit me when I wasn’t looking. Brown recluse spiders and black widows have a nasty bite. Maybe I’ve brushed against poison oak. That noxious plant is riddled through Oregon forests.

I refocus on the proceedings and see that Azure, Cerulean, and Jade have moved to a bench. Jex has been placed in front of them now.

Jex clears his throat. “I do not ask for your forgiveness, but I do wish to offer an apology. My parents were shot and killed in their cat forms by a human hunter two winters back. My dislike of humans runs deep, and I try to keep myself apart.” He coughs into his elbow. “Magenta preyed on this. When she contacted me in a panic about humans becoming involved with shifters, I believed her lies. I considered her a good friend and did not suspect she would toss me over the cliff to fulfill her own desires. I believed I was working for the good of shifters. I was willing to be hated if it meant I’d secured our safety for the whole.”

Sympathy wells within me for Jex’s hardships. Losing his parents that way must have been awful. No wonder Magenta thought to use him. While I’ll never condone Jex’s actions against Azure, I can’t fault his desire to keep shifters safe.

My concentration breaks again. This blasted itch! It’s driving me plumb crazy.

“Are you planning on getting more humans involved with us?” Jex asks.

“No!” Azure yells. “The humans I brought with me are my closest, dearest friends. They gave me protection when I needed it. I trust them with my life, and they trust me with theirs; hence they came to be approved, as law requires.”

“Besties for life,” Bree says beside me.

A smile comes to my lips. “For sure.”

Ben says, “Yup.”

Other shifters murmur around us, their interest seemingly piqued at Azure’s intensity.

I hear someone behind me say, “This love-bird has some fire in her.”

Jex shrugs. “I am truly sorry. That is all I can say.”

The wolves take Jex away and put Magenta in his place. She wears a sullen expression, her eyes angry and rimmed red.

I lift my hand up to check my forearm. A black line grows on my skin like someone’s drawing on me with sharpie or tattoo ink. I freeze. My worry skyrockets. This doesn’t look like any poison oak or bug bite I’ve ever seen. A parallel black line forms next to it. This isn’t good. It’ll just be my luck that I’ll die from this before the shifters ever get a chance to consider me as a friend to them.

I don’t want to interrupt Azure and Cerulean’s interrogation with Magenta. Then again, medical emergencies are usually time sensitive. If I wait too long to seek help, it might be too late. What if this ends up being really bad and they have to cut my arm off? I need two arms to play baseball. Additional black lines appear. None travel past my elbow or reach up past my hand. I think I see a tree forming. I cock my head, my brows furrowing. What woodland disease makes a picture? Maybe I’m hallucinating from whatever poisonous thing bit me?

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