Talents: Book One
By Angela Knight
Alone, veteran Kurt Briggs is no match for the Arcane terrorists who threaten the nation's leadership. He needs Arcanist Genevieve Reyes by his side. But when shared danger leads to shared desires, the consequences could be deadly for them both.
Kurt Briggs has a spirit link to a tiger Familiar that gives him superhuman abilities, but when his father is murdered, the military veteran becomes a target for terrorist sorcerers. Alone, Kurt finds he's no match for the witch and her shape-shifting polar bear. He turns to Arcanist Genevieve Reyes for help in fighting the killers' spells.
As Genevieve and Kurt hunt the terrorists, shared danger leads to shared desire. But they soon realize Kurt's passion for Gen weakens his control over his cat. The consequences could be deadly for them both. Genevieve is attracted to Kurt's animal sensuality, but she knows she may be in as much danger from his tiger as she is from the terrorists.
Then they learn the terrorists plan to sacrifice Kurt to power a horrific spell designed to decimate the U.S. government. Even if Kurt and Gen manage to stop the terrorists, their evil sorcery may trigger a witch hunt that could mean the destruction of everyone with magical Talent -- including Kurt and Genevieve.
The tiger bounded toward him in a blur of striped fur and powerful muscle. Kurt Briggs braced himself as the animal reared to thump huge paws down on his shoulders. Somehow he managed not to fall on his ass, though eight feet of cat made an awkward dance partner.
Rumbling, the beast touched a cool, damp nose to Kurt’s, drinking in his scent. “Hi to you, too, Stoli.” Kurt dug his fingers in thick reddish gold fur to give his Familiar a scratch. Golden eyes narrowed in feline ecstasy and Stoli chuffed a greeting.
Kurt chuffed back, a sound like a muffled raspberry -- friendly rather than rude.
The cat’s gaze met his, rich autumn gold striated with umber and sunlit yellow. Stoli’s eyes began to glow as he touched Kurt’s consciousness, sending a surge of affection and pleasure through their spirit link.
Kurt smiled at his partner’s delight, tasting the beef and chicken Stoli had just eaten, feeling the precise location of the itch that made one round ear flick. He reached up to give the spot a good scratch. Stoli produced a rumbling moan of gratitude.
The tiger dropped to all fours again, looking up at him. He didn’t have to look far; the top of Stoli’s head came to Kurt’s hip.
In the tiger’s mind, water rushed through fur, cooling hot flesh as reflected sunlight danced. Kurt recognized the lake that lay on the other side of the enclosure. His Familiar wanted to go swimming. Unlike most cats, tigers loved water.
“Sounds good to me. It’s hotter than hell, and I’m not even furry.”
Stoli chuffed and turned toward the lake with a flick of his striped tail. Kurt strolled after him across the thick grass.
Clusters of oaks, birches and maples shaded the enclosure against the South Carolina sun, and every breath carried the rich, humid smell of loam and growing things. The plant life was so thick, he could barely see the surrounding fifteen-foot-high enclosure fence.
Through the trees, he spotted the flickering glint of afternoon sunlight on water. The spring-fed lake lay at the heart of Briggs Feral Sanctuary, shared by several big cat enclosures separated by fences embedded in the lake floor.
Another tiger lounged in the shallows, six hundred pounds of stripes, attitude and luminous golden eyes. Dave gave them a lazy blink, indolent as a pasha.
And like a pasha, he apparently had a harem -- or at least a gang of devoted fans. Ten female volunteers clustered just outside the enclosure fence as close as they dared get. Dressed in shorts, hats and T-shirts with the BFS lion logo, they all wore grins of anticipation as they waited for him to do something amazing.
Or, knowing Dave, inappropriate.
Stoli catapulted off the bank, sailed through the air, and landed on the other cat with a huge splash. The volunteers fled the arcing water, yelping and laughing.
Dave roared, batting at Stoli’s nose with sheathed claws. “Back off, Tigger! Do I look like fuckin’ Pooh Bear to you?”
Stoli bounded from the water and raced off, chuffing like a giggling ten-year-old who’d pranked his brother.
Which was exactly what he was. The two cats had been litter-mates before they’d melded with their human partners. Otherwise they couldn’t have shared an enclosure; their fights would have been real.
“You’d better run, asshole! I’ll turn you into a rug!” Dave flopped back down in the water with a huff of feline disdain. “The crap I put up with.”
Kurt’s grin faded. Dave did indeed put up with a hell of a lot.
Like not being human anymore.
A year ago he’d been Dave Frost, a member of Kurt’s Arcane Corps unit -- a tall, lanky blond with a wicked sense of humor and cool courage. But that was before Dave had died, leaving his soul trapped in the body of Smilodon, his Familiar.
Another man might have surrendered to bitterness and grief for his lost humanity. Dave taught himself to talk by making the air vibrate with magic instead of human vocal cords. Now he was building a thriving career as a YouTube smartass.
“You got me all wet,” a blonde volunteer complained, pretending to pout as she pulled at her soaked shirt.
The tiger gave her a toothy grin. “My pleasure.”
“Ladies, quit flirting with the wildlife and finish cleaning the enclosures,” Kurt told them, putting a little subsonic rumble in his voice. Dave wasn’t the only one who could manipulate sound with his magic. “We don’t want BFS to smell like the world’s biggest litter box.”
“Killjoy,” Dave complained.
“You heard the man.” Karla Morgen, the volunteer coordinator, made a shooing gesture at the women. “The poop won’t scoop itself.”
“You know,” Kurt told Dave as the volunteers scattered, “you couldn’t be any more a ham if you were Porky Pig.”
“How else would I bring home the bacon?” He flicked a paw, and an invisible snare drum banged out a rimshot.
Kurt laughed. “You’re getting scary with the magical sound effects.”
“I live to terrify. Speaking of performances, how many tickets did we sell last night? Looked like every inch of the arena bleachers had somebody’s butt on it.”
“Pretty much.” BFS’s “Feral 101” show was designed to educate sanctuary visitors about big cats. They’d livened it up with a demonstration of Feral abilities, but the material had still been as dry as sawdust -- until Dave had taken the emcee job in his capable paws. “We brought in five thousand in ticket sales and donations, plus another thousand for selfies and souvenirs.”
And they needed every dime. Keeping fifty-nine exotic cats fed and healthy wasn’t something you did on a shoestring.
Dave gave him a smug smile. “I has skillz. I also has half a million followers.”
“You’re just lucky they don’t know what an asshole you are.”
“I’m a tiger. We’re supposed to be assholes.”
Movement across the lake drew Kurt’s attention. In the next enclosure, a lion came to the water’s edge, accompanied by his two lionesses. Staring at the tigers, the Familiar roared.
“What are you bitching about, Clarence?”
“He’s probably missing Jake.” Jake Nolan, like Dave, had served on Kurt’s Arcane Corps team before becoming a Laurel County deputy sheriff. Kurt cupped his hands around his mouth and called, “He’s at work, Clarence.” Familiars had a grasp of English roughly equivalent to a four-year-old’s.
The lion roared again, the low, moaning rumble rolling across the water.
“I don’t want to hear it from you,” Dave yelled back. “You’ve got a fucking harem to keep you company, you bastard.” He eyed Kurt. “When are you going to find $me a girl?”
“You’d eat her.”
“Every single chance I got.”
“I think that’s illegal in this state.”
“$Everything’s illegal in this state. Especially shit that’s no business of the Bible-thumping populace. Why in the hell did you have to drag me to South Carolina? It’s ninety degrees here in June. I have a fucking fur coat.”
“You also weigh six hundred pounds. There aren’t that many places that would take your fuzzy ass.” The Corps had a retirement sanctuaries for Feral vets, but they were so badly underfunded, Dave refused to go there. There were other sanctuaries for exotic cats around the country, but BFS was the only one owned and operated by Ferals, for Ferals.
Besides, Kurt owed him.
“I don’t know why the hell I’m asking you,” Dave grumbled. “You can’t even find a woman for yourself.”
Kurt flipped him off.
“You really need to tell your dad to butt out.”
“And you really need to mind your own business.”
“But minding yours is so much more fun.” He grinned, all teeth. There’d been a reason they’d called Dave’s tiger “Smilodon.” His canines weren’t as long as his saber-toothed namesake’s, but they came damn close.
Stoli spotted a fat catfish swimming through the shallows and pounced with a happy rumble and a huge splash. The spirit link carried the sensations of water flowing through the Familiar’s fur as the tiger plunged his head deep. When he emerged, the fish flipped in his jaws. He waded out and settled down on the grass to eat his snack.
Kurt smiled at the sensations rolling through the link. Raw fish might not appeal to his human taste buds, but Stoli loved him some sushi.
“Speaking of females, what’s going on with Parvati?” Dave asked.
His appetite promptly fled. “Nothing good.” When he’d gone to work for his father, Kurt had taken over supervising the cats’ medical care. Sometimes it was a depressing job. “The vet says the cancer has spread to her bones. Add that to that the fact she’s fifteen…”
“Hey, watch it with the ageist shit,” objected Dave, who was ten. Thirty, if he’d still been human. More seriously he asked, “Can the vet do surgery?”
“Not given the way it’s spread. We may have to put Parvi down if this healer Dad found can’t help.”
“Let’s hear it for Glenda the Good Witch.” Dave emerged from the lake and shook himself, sending a thunderstorm’s worth of water flying from his fur.
Kurt jumped back, but got sprayed with cold droplets anyway. “Dammit, Dave!”
“You looked so hot, I thought I’d help you cool off.” The tiger smirked. “You’re welcome.”
“You’d better hope not.”
Before Kurt could retort, his father called, “Play nice, boys. We’ve got company.”
Fred Briggs stood on the path just beyond Dave’s enclosure. At his side a tall, pretty redhead gazed through the galvanized wire panels at them.
The newcomer’s face had a fine angularity, with high cheekbones, a slim nose and a round, determined chin. In contrast to the elegant strength of her bone structure, her mouth looked lush and kissable. Her hair fell around her shoulders in auburn curls that gleamed in the afternoon sunlight, vivid against her Celtic pale skin.
But it was her eyes that really captured Kurt’s attention, a cool and watchful blue under straight auburn brows. She wore khaki shorts that displayed long, long legs, and her turquoise cotton top stretched across sweetly shaped breasts.
Intrigued, Kurt headed over to the fence for a closer look, both tigers padding at his heels.
Fred turned to the woman with one of those old-fashioned Southern flourishes he did so well. “Genevieve, this is my son, Kurt, his friend Dave Frost, and Kurt’s Familiar, Stoli.” He looked at them. “Boys, this is Genevieve Reyes. She’s the Arcanist healer who’s volunteered to help Parvati.”
“Or at least I’m going to try.” A dimple flashed beside her smile. “Hi.”
“Nice to meet you, Ms. Reyes.”
“Call me Gen.”
Kurt smiled back, more than a little dazzled. $Damn, she’s gorgeous.
Unfortunately, she was also a witch. In the Arcane Corps, he’d worked with a lot of magic users who’d been good people.
But then there’s Mom.
Angela Knight is the New York Times bestselling author of books for Berkley, Red Sage, Changeling Press, and Loose Id. Her first book was written in pencil and illustrated in crayon; she was nine years old at the time. A few years later, she read The Wolf and the Dove and fell in love with romance. Besides her fiction work, Angela's publishing career includes a stint as a comic book writer and ten years as a newspaper reporter. Several of her stories won South Carolina Press Association awards under her real name.
In 1996, she discovered the small press publisher Red Sage, and realized her dream of romance publication in the company's Secrets 2 anthology. She went on to publish several more novellas in Secrets before editor Cindy Hwang discovered her work there and asked her if she'd be interested in writing for Berkley. Not being an idiot, Angela said yes.
Angela has written 20 novels and over 30 novellas and e-books. The latest is Arcane Kiss, the story of a beautiful witch and a military veteran with a spirit link to a mystical tiger.