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Zane (War Cats Book 1) by Grace Brennan (1)

Chapter One

Some women seamlessly glide through life. Their every movement is effortless, graceful, like a beautifully choreographed dance. When they walk by, everyone stops and stares, arrested at the sight of them, unable to look away. They always say the right thing, always do the right thing.

And then there are the women who teeter through life. They’re clumsy and awkward, more likely to trip over nothing in their bare feet than make it from point A to point B in one piece. When they walk by, everyone stops and stares, because they’re most likely tripping over a gum wrapper and falling flat on their face. They don’t say anything right, and their actions are so far off from normal, no one knows what to make of them.

Kelly Masters was firmly in the second category. And that had never been clearer as she stood by her shopping cart in the grocery store, watching the mountain of oranges tumble to the floor at her feet. She just wanted one. One little orange, and out of all of them, she, of course, chose the weak link. When she plucked it from its resting spot, it started an avalanche she couldn’t begin to control.

She wished this was abnormal, wished this was the only moment in her lifetime something went wrong. But no. This was beyond normal for her. This was her life.

“Clumsy Kelly strikes again,” came a snickering voice behind her.

Briefly squeezing her eyes shut, Kelly forced a smile before kneeling to pick up the oranges. She acted like it wasn’t a big deal, same as she did every time she did something like this. But inside, she was hot with embarrassment.

“Don’t worry about this, Kelly. I’ve got it.”

Glancing up, she smiled at Lionel, one of the stockers at the grocery store. “Are you sure? I hate to leave you with a mess.”

Lionel smiled at her warmly. “I’m sure. Go on now.”

Exhaling with relief, Kelly carefully maneuvered her shopping cart away from the oranges. She was just about to turn down a different aisle when she felt the spot between her shoulders burning.

She knew what that was. She’d felt the weight of people’s stares more often than not, so she almost didn’t turn to look back. Almost kept walking.

But this felt different. Heavy. Important. Snorting at herself, she ignored the look she got from the customer next to her and paused, pretending to study something on the shelf. As casually as she was able, she glanced back at the produce aisle.

There was Mrs. Gregory, her fourth grade English teacher. Sandy Harding, a girl she went to school with, who was no doubt the one who made the clumsy Kelly comment. And Lionel, the older employee who was picking up the last few oranges. None of them could have been the owner of that powerful stare.

Turning away, she paused when she saw the giant of a man standing by the fruit. His head was down, long dark blond hair obscuring his face. She ran her eyes up and down his frame. Thickly muscled arms were straining his shirt, and she watched as he picked up an apple. It looked miniscule in his large hands, and she squirmed a little as she watched. She had a thing for hands. Big, rough, manly hands. It was a major turn on, and even from this distance, she knew his hands checked all the boxes.

He certainly looked like the kind of man whose stare would make her pause, but she was sure it hadn’t been him. Nothing about him suggested he was even aware of her presence, let alone that he was staring at her. What a shame, though. She wouldn’t mind being in the sights of a man like that.

“Get a grip, Kel,” she muttered, forcing herself to turn back around and continue shopping.

A couple of younger girls looked at her in surprise as she talked to herself, then giggled to each other. Kelly ignored them and moved on to the next aisle. She grew up in Eagle Creek, where everyone knew everyone else, and most of them were used to her by now.

Clumsy Kelly. Weird Kelly. Crazy Kelly. She’d heard it all at this point, and for the most part, it didn’t bother her anymore. When she was younger, she tried to be normal. To be just like every other girl around. But it seemed like the harder she tried, the more she goofed. The more she did or said something awkward. And the more people whispered and laughed at her behind their hands.

The only true friend she ever had was Piper McCoy. Piper St. James now. She’d married that gorgeous fighter of hers last winter. Lips curling up, Kelly grabbed a box of spaghetti noodles and put it in her cart. She really shouldn’t, but she felt a bit of pride over Piper being with her Jax now. She’d helped them find their way back to each other.

True, the way she went about it probably cemented her status as crazy. Pretending to break into Piper’s house to get her friend to turn to Jax had most likely been going a tad bit overboard. But it worked, and that was what mattered. It also highlighted how different she was from normal people. Her mind didn’t work the same way. So there was no point in trying to be anyone other than who she was.

It had been years since she tried to fit in. It was like trying to force a square peg in a round hole. It was never going to work. So now she just owned it. She was who she was, and there was no changing it.

Didn’t mean she still didn’t feel embarrassment, though. Just the thought of the man in the produce aisle witnessing her mishap with the oranges made her die a little inside. But she’d felt that way so much in her life that the feeling was as normal to her as breathing.

Pushing her cart toward the frozen foods section, Kelly’s mind wandered back to the big stranger. She didn’t know who he was, which was unusual, since she knew virtually everyone in Eagle Creek. And she’d definitely remember someone like him. He was probably a friend of one of the Rocky River guys. Yeah, that made sense. She could easily imagine him at the fights on Saturday nights.

What was it about him that had captivated her so? It wasn’t like she’d been anywhere close to him. They’d been at opposite ends of the aisle. She didn’t even know what he looked like, not really. But he had this energy she felt even from so far away, this animal magnetism that drew her. She wanted to know more about him. Everything about him.

What he looked like, what his story was, what he wanted out of life. She wanted to know it all.

Just barely managing to keep from snorting again, she headed straight to the ice cream section. Her thoughts were insane, and it looked like it was going to be a rocky road kind of night. Because as crazy as her thoughts were over a stranger she’d only seen in passing, she knew she’d be thinking about him for the rest of night.

Zane Stryker was stalking a woman through the grocery store. As he watched her grab a carton of ice cream, he thought it should really surprise him more than it did. But then, he wasn’t sure anything could surprise him any longer.

It certainly didn’t surprise him that his tiger was equal parts encouraging and discouraging him to follow the curvy blonde. The cat never seemed to know what he wanted, constantly at war with himself and with Zane. It was a wonder Zane was even still sane after years of this.

Actually, it was debatable whether he really still was, but that was something to think about some other time.

Follow her, his tiger insisted.

Absolutely, he would. He studied the blonde as she put the carton of ice cream back in the freezer, closed the door, and then took it back out again. Tall with an abundance of curves, her blonde hair was long and wavy, its silvery shade so different from his own dark blond. Her curves were enough to stop traffic, and he ran his eyes up and down her frame again, appreciating them anew. He hadn’t been able to get too close to her, because he didn’t want to draw attention to himself, but he didn’t need to. With his shifter sight, she was clear. And gorgeous. So different than those of his tribe, who for the most part, had a lot of Indian heritage. Himself included, although his line had enough mixed heritage for him to not look the part. But this woman was a blonde goddess.

Not one of us. Not good enough for the second of the War Cats. Leave her alone, his cat hissed.

Ignoring his animal, Zane continued watching her as she finished shopping. He almost followed her out to her car so he could see where she lived and find her again, but he managed to stop himself. Even he, with his slightly twisted view of right and wrong, knew that would be crossing a huge line. Following her through the grocery store was one thing, fairly harmless. Following her home was probably creepy.

See, he could differentiate between right and wrong when it counted, no matter how much some people thought he couldn’t.

Scowling at that thought, Zane headed back to the produce aisle so he could get back to his shopping. He wasn’t going to think about Kian, the prince of the War Cats and his cousin. Couldn’t think about how much Kian had gotten it wrong when someone was trying to kill him. Zane still couldn’t believe he’d thought it was him.

That was why he’d taken a break and left the War Cats. Maybe he’d go back one day. Maybe he never would. Either way, he didn’t want to be there right now. He needed the space and distance.

Neither of which explained why he was still in Eagle Creek, lurking in the shadows. Some of it was because Kian hadn’t gone home yet, and despite being pissed the fuck off for the way his prince had doubted him, he still couldn’t bring himself to leave. He’d been watching his cousin’s back since they were old enough to know it needed watching. He couldn’t just drop over twenty years of ingrained behavior, no matter how much he wanted to.

And the other part of the reason was—hell, he didn’t even know what other reason he’d have to stay here. He’d hated it from the moment Kian brought them here last year. At first, it was temporary. At least, Zane thought it was. They’d come to visit Shelby, an eight-year-old former member of the tribe. Her mother used to be a member of the tribe, but her father had never been one of them. He lived here in Eagle Creek, and was the leader of the Rocky River fighters.

Zane hated the fighters from day one. It was irrational, he knew that, but no amount of telling himself it was would change it. It had also been the catalyst for him realizing he needed a mate. Someone to help steady him. Someone to calm his tiger, ease the cat’s heart, make him a little less crazy. That was the hope, anyway.

He thought he found one in Amelia Anderson. His tiger hadn’t come out and said the words, but he’d deemed her appropriate, which was more than Zane thought he’d get from the querulous animal. And then Seth, one of the fighters, swooped in and snatched her away. Another reason for Zane to hate the fighters.

Find him. Destroy him.

Giving his head a hard shake, he ignored his tiger, blanked his thoughts of the fighters, and quickly finished up his shopping. He needed to get back to the home he was renting and away from the public. His animal felt strangely at ease there, and it would make controlling him easier.

If he even could. It felt like it was becoming harder and harder to keep his animal in check. Which was why he needed a mate, and soon. Because if he didn’t find one, he thought he’d probably have to ask Kian to put him down. Despite what some thought, Zane didn’t want to hurt people. And if he couldn’t get control of his tiger, that’s what was going to happen.

Little miss blonde goddess didn’t realize it, but she was about to become his salvation. Whether his tiger agreed or not.

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