Prey & Prejudice: Cougar Falls, Book 7

Dedication

Lisa, I already miss you. But thanks for all the help when you were here.

Chapter One

The Pride Estate, Miami, FL

“I should have killed you when I had the chance.” Miles’s urge to shift into his panther form and clamp his teeth around the thick neck of the idiot sitting on the other side of the desk nearly overwhelmed him.

Quince Castille, his lead lieutenant, gave him a toothy smile. “Yeah, you should have.”

“Requests for more meetings? Females wanting rights even the males don’t have? We’re not a separate country, for God’s sake, just a group of Shifters living in fucking Miami.” Miles ran a hand through his hair, idly noting he needed another cut. Something
else
he didn’t have time for. “The elders are on my ass to find a mate. I just got a new group of investors interested in Stacey’s new mountain sportswear line, but they want me to oversee it. That means
more
reports, meetings, committees, travel, and—”

“He still whining?” Joy, his younger sister, sauntered through the doorway to Quince and sat on his lap. That she looked so happy to be with her new mate was one of the few things staying Miles from killing the bastard. That and the guilt he continued to feel for having ever thought Quince a bad guy.

Lex, their last pride leader, had killed his own father to take over and nearly destroyed the pride in the process. Quince had begged, borrowed and stolen, but he’d fixed what was broken. Then the sly cat had dumped the mantle of leadership in Miles’s lap without a backwards glance.

“You tricked me.” Miles still couldn’t believe he’d been bamboozled into assuming control.

Quince linked his fingers around Joy’s waist, nuzzled her cheek and grinned at him. “No, I have witnesses. You beat me fair and square in a Pride Fight. You’re the official leader of the Miami Pride. I worship the ground you walk on, oh great one.”

“Fuck you.”

“Inspiring words, big brother.” Joy snorted. “Sometimes it’s hard to believe you run a multimillion-dollar business.”

“I won’t have anything left to run if I don’t get time to deal with Bermin Beauty.” Just one of the many business concerns he had brewing, but the foundation for many of his more successful ventures. Bermin Beauty was his baby, and he refused to let it go under because the Ac-taw down here couldn’t function like normal Shifters.

“Delegate,” Jace, one of Miles’s new lieutenants, said from the doorway.

“Does no one knock?” Miles muttered.

“Yeah, Jace and I can handle more,” Ellis added, trailing after Jace. Dark where Jace was light, Ellis had a good head on his shoulders and a take-charge attitude—the antithesis to Jace’s laid-back nature. The pair seemed competent and confident in their abilities to help lead the pride. And Quince liked them. Another plus.

Miles needed to put his trust in someone, and he knew better than to doubt his best friend again. Joy would never tolerate a scheming traitor. She loved Quince like crazy—and that made Quince his go-to man. Like he had been in the old days, when Quince and Miles had been inseparable. They’d been tight for years, until lies and deceit had ripped them apart.

But Miles was through listening to bullshit. Alissa Roberto and her scheming…

He cleared his throat. “So. Alissa. Where are we with her?”

Joy’s smile turned into a frown. “We have nothing on the bitch.”

Jace chuckled. “No, Joy. How do you
really
feel about her?”

Ellis and Quince grinned, but Miles saw nothing humorous in the situation. He now knew better than to trust Alissa and her friends.

Joy growled. “She’s rich and apparently untouchable. Even Danville won’t sanction a move on her.”

Alan Danville—their most respected elder, a pride judge—ultimately decided the fates of Ac-taw who’d done wrong. If he wouldn’t move to banish Alissa from the pride, Miles could do nothing but keep an eye on her. “Shit. Okay. Have Willow watch her.”

Ellis’s smile faded. “Why her?”

Miles contained a groan, able to smell the man’s jealousy across the room. Keeping up with who desired whom, which pair wanted to mate, have babies and inherit new responsibilities in the pride wore on his last goddamn nerve. Then too, it didn’t help that the others seemed to know that he and Willow had once been intimate. A casual dalliance, but he didn’t think Ellis wanted the details.

“Willow’s smart and someone I can trust. I’d have Dana do it, but she’s working with Rain on our financials. I need her here.”

Now Jace was frowning. Perfect. Miles glared at Quince. “You see what you started? You take a mate, now you have Jace and Ellis itching to do the same.”

“Wait. What?” Jace asked, his eyes wide.

“Not me, no way,” Ellis disagreed.

Miles snorted. “Right. So neither of you mind Dana, Willow and I spending time together?” Reading their displeasure, Miles allowed himself a groan out loud. “God, save me now. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I almost want to go back to Cougar Falls, and they’re overrun with gray wolves.” He scowled at Quince. “There’s got to be someone qualified to run the pride besides me.”

Quince shook his head. “I tried. The only cats who want the job aren’t right for the position. They’re like Lex—wanting to use pride resources to pad their own pockets. The pair of cats I’d trust and who could do a decent job running things don’t want the position.” The look he shot Jace and Ellis confirmed it, since the pair vehemently shook their heads
no
.

“Hell.
I
don’t want it,” Miles bit out.

“Which is why you’re perfect for the job,” Joy said in a happy voice.

“Why are you so perky?”

“She’s in love.” Quince kissed her with a solid smack on the lips.

“Here we go again,” Jace complained. “It’s bad enough I can hear you guys at night.”

Miles’s inner council, all his important people, lived in the pride’s main house together. Quince had been living in the main house for years, serving as a lieutenant before his brief stint as leader. Since they’d rid themselves of Lex, Ellis, Jace and a few others now congregated in the main house. Though Miles had a feeling Joy and Quince might make a move for privacy. He might insist on it if the pair really were that loud. He hadn’t heard them yet, but his sister and Quince, together? He mentally scrubbed his brain, not needing the image.

“Seriously,” Ellis seconded. “I love all this pride togetherness, but it’s easier without a mated pair.”

Instead of looking abashed, Quince beamed.

Miles couldn’t help a snort of laughter. “You and Joy deserve each other.”

“I know.” Joy winked at him before leaving Quince’s lap and walking away. She turned back to Quince before she left and said, “Oh, I actually stopped in to tell you that your mom and sister are coming back this weekend.”

All the men froze. Christ, just what Miles didn’t need right now. The chaos only a female Castille could bring. “Esmeralda and Candy?”

Quince flinched. “Don’t call her that if you want to live. Zoe
hates
the name Candy only slightly less than Candace.”

“But that’s her name.”

“Uh-huh. Yet saying it will still get you smacked upside the head.
Candace
Castille prefers Zoe. Remember that.”

If Miles recalled correctly, the minx had always put him in mind of sugar and sweetness. She’d been all of fourteen the last time he’d seen her, and even then he’d known she’d turn out to be a troublesome beauty. She had Quince’s coloring—golden eyes, blue-black hair and soft caramel skin over a strong frame. As a teenager she’d been nearly as tall as Miles. All that in addition to her mother’s hell-on-wheels attitude, and she’d had half the males in the pride scared of her. Zoe had been a true chip off her mother’s block, according to their last real pride leader—a man with the patience of Job.

Hell.
What would she be like now?

Miles lowered his head to his hands and massaged his tension headache.

“Gotta go.” Joy waved on her way out the door. “I have to plan a welcome dinner for them tomorrow night. You’re all invited.”

“Oh, ah, I’ll be busy,” Jace said suddenly.

“Yeah, me too,” Ellis agreed and started toward the door. “We’re patrolling the coast tonight.”

“Yeah, tomorrow and Sunday too,” Jace hurried to add.

“Keeping an eye out for raptors intent on invading our territory.” Ellis nodded. “More rumors most likely, like the wolves and foxes and other cats always trying to push us around, but it never hurts to be careful.”

Before Miles could blink, Jace and Ellis vanished from the office. He swallowed a curse, needing a drink…and not of coffee. “Quince, swear to God, if your family adds to my misery, I’m going to take this all out on you.”

Quince nodded. “I feel you, man. Tell you what. It’s been a rough two weeks. Why don’t you go for a run at the House?” The pride’s private retreat in the Everglades less than an hour away, the large wooden house could accommodate the pride in luxury. It was also solar-powered and completely off the grid. “Just make sure you don’t miss that welcome dinner, or my mother will chalk your absence up to fear. You need to be strong to handle her and Zoe. You think Lex was bad, my sister and mother running amuck is a nightmare you don’t want to deal with.”

Miles snorted. “Terrific. As if Alissa’s machinations, pride troubles and reports of a raptor takeover aren’t bad enough, now I have to deal with your family. How is it you get Joy, and I get Esmie and
Candy
Castille?”

Quince grimaced. “Karma’s a bitch, bro. But you keep saying ‘Candy’, and she for sure is going to bite you in the ass.”

 

 

An hour later, in the meeting house two doors down from the pride’s main home, Zoe Castille smiled at Joy Bermin, now all grown up. Her favorite Bermin for sure, Joy had always been sarcastic, fun and mischievous, while never acting like she was better than everyone else. Not like her annoying siblings, Stacey and Miles.

“Man. Who would have thought
you’d
bag my brother?” Zoe asked her with a snicker.

Joy grinned. “And welcome back.”

Zoe laughed. “Feels like forever since I’ve been here. This place is a lot nicer than the small house we used to use as our home base.”

The pride estate sat on over six acres of prime Miami land. Gated and enclosed behind a stone wall and filled with trees, grasses and a kick-ass irrigation system, the estate allowed the cats to roam free in the more wooded areas. Located near the national park, Zoe could reach their private retreat in the Everglades in under an hour. The perfect city spread, for sure.

A huge main house along with smaller cottages strewn about the property, plenty of overhead cover and woods for cats to roam and a rockin’ pool with pool house and patio, where many a “shindig” had been held—according to Joy.

Yep, the pride had done well in the past two decades. As had the Bermins. From what Zoe gathered, Stacey and the twins had moved to Montana, and Stacey had mated a gorgeous cat with a temperament to match her own. Astonishing. Then to find Joy had mated as well.

“I still can’t believe you snagged Quince,” Zoe admitted. “He’s a pain in the ass most of the time. Who would have thought you had it in you?” She loved Quince and always had. But no two ways about it, her brother was a handful. Arrogant, domineering and good-looking. A lot like Zoe herself.

“Not me, that’s for sure. I could do so much better.” Joy winked. “He’s lucky to have me.”

“I know.” Zoe studied her new sister. Joy Bermin. What a change a few years could make. No longer a spunky twelve-year-old, Joy had matured into a beautiful woman. And she had a head on her shoulders and the wherewithal not to tolerate nonsense if she could handle Quince.

So much for worrying about her too-responsible big brother.

“Quince is in with Miles, but I told him you guys were coming to town. I have his phone while mine is getting an upgrade, so I intercepted your text.”

Zoe waved her excuses away. “Don’t worry about it. Even if he knew I was here right now, he’d avoid me. Me and Mama tend to scare men. Even the ones related to us.”

“So I’ve heard.” Joy cleared her throat. “So where have you been all these years?”

“Everywhere.” Zoe suddenly felt the exhaustion in her bones. “Mexico, South America, Africa, Europe. We even hung out in Asia for a while, until Mama pissed off a couple of tigers. Apparently they don’t think much of us smaller cats. So Mama schooled them, of course.”

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