Protect and Serve (multi-author series)
by Lena Austin
eBook ISBN: 04138-01325
[ Shifter Romance ]
When fireman Dustin Hardesty saves a scruffy tomcat from a fire, and then a neutering at the shelter, he has no idea he’s just moved a cat shifter named Tigs into his life.
Changeling Press ‖ ARe ‖ CTR ‖ Kindle ‖ Nook
My name is Tigs, and I’m a cat shifter. Don’t get smart, it’s not short for Tigger or anything stupid like that. I don’t fucking bounce or lisp my words, and I’m a gray tabby. I usually work construction and home renovation, me and my crew. We’re all shifters of one type or another, but we get along most of the time.
I’d let the rest of my crew go home early while I coiled up extension cords, locked up the tools, and cleaned up our work site. The old deli used to be the coolest little place when I’d been a kitten, but that’d been years ago. The guys would be waiting for me back at the warehouse we rented for the equipment, six blocks away — it also served as our home. The place was “guarded” by two dogs — a rat terrier and a Rottweiler mix along with three scruffy cats and that didn’t mean anything to the absentee landlord. Long as he got his cash, he didn’t give a shit.
Speaking of shit, we may look scruffy, but we’re good neighbors. We used the litter box or took a walk outside. The dogs “walk” each other, so that’s cool, and they curb themselves like responsible citizens.
Anyway, I smelled the stink of burning wood and rubber first. Figured some homeless guy had lit up the contents of a trashcan to keep warm nearby and didn’t give it another thought. This wasn’t the best neighborhood, but most poor don’t foul their own nest, ya know?
So, I finished coiling up the last extension cord and tossed it into the storage locker. Two seconds to snap the padlock, and I was ready for some of Pete’s Tuna Steaks on the grill back at our place.
No such luck. The smoke from the fire was coming up the stairs when I opened the door, and I bent over coughing my lungs out before I could shut the damn thing. “Who the fuck set a real fire in this stinkin’ joint? It can’t be for the insurance.” Didn’t matter. The entire downstairs — such as it was — was engulfed, and the floor was heating up. Damn near burned me through my boots, which meant I had seconds to get my ass out.
I took the easy road and threw a piece of scrap two-by-four through one of the windows we hadn’t removed yet. Single pane, painted shut, so it shattered easy as pie. Then I shifted, abandoned my clothes to their fate, and leaped for the limb of a scrub pine just in time. I hit the branches, yowling in pissed off feline at the loss of a perfectly good pair of steel toes.
Naturally, that was the moment the fire truck showed up. How convenient. I’d bet the arsonist called in the fire as soon as he got a safe distance away, after ensuring the place would be a pile of ash. So, a professional job. Not my problem, except some asshole owed me some new boots.
What surprised the fuck out of me was the ladder that slammed up against the tree. Tree wasn’t that big, being an inner city volunteer from some bird’s ass that happened on an empty lot. The whole thing shook.
I might have backed up a bit, but it wasn’t fear. I just didn’t want to get grabbed like some wuss who didn’t have sense enough to know how to get down.
The human wearing the standard issue fireman’s hard hat and a million pounds of gear climbed the ladder with casual ease until we were damn near face to whiskers.
“Well, hello bay-bee!” Okay, so it came out as a yowl loud enough to burst eardrums. Any other tom would have recognized my interest in the biggest pair of grass-green eyes in a tanned face I’d seen in a long time. Okay, so they were red-rimmed and tired. If I’d been human, my dick would have lifted my ass so far I’d have fallen out of the tree. I wanted me a piece of that man!
Once handsome Grass Eyes stopped wincing from my loud mouth, he hitched himself up one more rung. “Hey there, you could replace our siren with that set of lungs, dude.” He checked the fire, now close enough to us that I was getting more than a tad warm, ya know? “I really hate to interrupt your serenade, but unless you want to burn down with this tree, we need to go.” He reached for me.
On reflection, I realized Grass Eyes didn’t have a clue that I was a shifter, nor did he mean to insult Da Tigs. At the time, all I cared about was swatting his hand. Encased in the gloves and shit, he wasn’t even hurt, but I’d made my point. I could jump down anytime, if he’d move that fucking ladder.
Grass Eyes shook his head. “Man, I don’t want to leave you, loudmouth. Come on! This tree’s gonna go, shit head.”
Yeah, he had a point. I ignored his hand and jumped on his shoulders. I’d be damned if I’d be carried down like some frou-frou case from Cat Fanciers magazine.
“Okay, if that’s the way you want it.” Grass Eyes had the sense to know when he’d been elected as the vehicle of my ride down and made his way back to the base of the tree. I kept on riding, even while he helped his buds put the ladder away. Clearly, the old deli was a total loss, so they concentrated on keeping the rest of the local trash-pit buildings from coming down. Not all that difficult, and I couldn’t blame them for not working too hard at saving what wasn’t worth the effort.
Grass Eyes stood over to the side, talking on his radio and leaning against the big-ass red fire truck. He’d scrub his face with his hand now and then.
One of his buddies came by, lugging shit back to the truck. “It was arson, Dustin. Betcha the dogs sniff out accelerant.”
Dustin, which was Grass Eyes’ real name I guessed, sighed. “Yeah. This place was being renovated too. I drive by here daily and see the workers. They’ve been putting their backs into cleaning this place out, and they’re clean as a whistle about putting away equipment. I’ll tell the inspector the same when I see him. I doubt it was them being careless.”
Hey, a compliment. Very cool. I purred and rubbed up against Dustin’s ear for that.
“Yeah, I like you too, loudmouth.” He reached up and I let him give the backs of my ears a rub. I closed my eyes and purred louder, just to let him know he was doing a good job.
I never saw it coming. Before I knew what was happening, the other guy had me by the scruff of my neck and stuffed me in a cat carrier! Son of a…!! I would have turned around and swiped at him, but the old instincts are strong. I tucked my tail and my brain went into kitten trance, tractable as a lamb. By the time I came out of it, the door on the carrier slammed into my face. All I could do was vent my displeasure loudly. I damn sure couldn’t shift, though the idea of standing naked and tall in front of Dustin had a certain appeal.
“Goddamn it, Nesmith! I’d just gotten him to trust me.” At least Dustin was in my court. Props to him, then.
Nesmith used a zip tie to ensure I couldn’t paw open the cage. Shit, this guy knew how to cage a cat. “Don’t be stupid, Dustin. The cat’s a stray whose building just got burned down. He’d get his furry ass hurt in those ashes, no matter how we clear the hot spots. Let him go to a shelter. Worst that’ll happen to him is having his nuts cut.”
Oh, hell no! I may not ever want to be a breeder, but I ain’t planning on singing soprano for the rest of my tom cat days, either! I yowled and clawed at the zip tie through the bars.
Dustin grabbed the handle of the carrier to keep it from falling over onto the pavement. “Naw, not necessary, Nesmith. I’ll keep him at my place for a few days instead. This is one smart fellow. I’ll bet he’d like a nice warm bed, a litter box, and a regular supply of cans.”
“Yer breakin’ the rules, Dustin, but I won’t tell on you. Maybe this mangy asshole can replace Casey.” Nesmith walked away without another word.
Both Dustin and I stared after him. Who the fuck was Casey, and how the hell was I supposed to replace him?
Dustin closed his jaw with an audible snap, ground his teeth for a minute, and turned around so sharply I felt G-forces. He muttered all the way back to a big-ass SUV with the fire department logos all over it, and threw his air tanks in the back. I shut my face and caught most of it. “You don’t replace a human being. You just try to fill the hole left in your heart.”
I couldn’t have agreed more, but that didn’t stop me from being curious. Who the fuck was Casey and why would Dustin get so pissed at the idea of “replacing” him? Could be anyone, like a brother. Let’s face it, firefighting was a dangerous profession. Coulda been a partner, for all I knew. I didn’t dare hope handsome ol’ Grass Eyes was gay, or even — gawd help me — bi.
On the short ride to Dustin’s place, I contemplated my situation. Likelihood of our company getting another job until after the media officially announced we were innocent of carelessness was slim and none. Good thing we were pretty much set for a couple of months of expenses, thanks to our resident numbers man, Beans. Beans may be a Rottweiler who looked dumber than a box of rocks, but when it came to math, he was a genius — just a big strong genius. Ace, my brother from another litter, was cool enough to manage what little had to be done like claiming our equipment losses. If I could just bum Dustin’s phone long enough to let the guys know I was okay, I could settle in to playing Dustin’s kitty for awhile.
They say curiosity killed the cat. Good thing I had nine lives, right? Right.
Changeling Press ‖ ARe ‖ CTR ‖ Kindle ‖ Nook