Two fights down, one to go.
But the guy who faced him now—Alaska—this was not an average, bloodthirsty human hyped up on drugs.
This was a fucking shapeshifter, just like Rex.
The man got closer, and Rex could smell fur. A bear? Some kind of bear. Maybe a grizzly, but with all the scents of old blood, sweat, and rage wafting up from around them, it was hard to tell.
The man looked at him, hard. So he could tell Rex was a shifter, too.
They both wanted that huge, winning payout. The bear’s payout would be cash, likely, but Rex’s payout—his payout would be Gemma. Soon after Rex had left the gym, his phone had rung. “One night in the cage,” Masters had said. “Three fights, and you’re done. You can take your precious woman and go.”
They didn’t know that he was going to rip this whole place apart. One night for him meant nobody would be fighting here ever again.
Because nobody messed with his mate and escaped unscathed.
The grizzly in front of him had white-blond hair and pale gray eyes. The ring name “Alaska” was fitting, because the guy looked colder and bigger than a glacier. Rex needed his help. With their combined strength, Rex could maybe even get out of the cage.
His plan up until now was to win, get Gemma, make sure she was safe, send her to his parents’ house.
Then he’d come back here and tear this place apart.
But maybe there was another way. Rex sized up Alaska. Alaska sized up Rex. How could Rex show him that he wasn’t the enemy?
A scent carried over and through the smells of alcohol and unwashed tired bodies. Something clean and fresh—strawberries. Gemma’s scent.
Rex looked around, squinting though the harsh lights illuminating the cage.
She was here—up there, on the stairs—
WHAP. A huge fist came to Rex’s face and smacked him sideways.
The fight had started. He hadn’t been paying attention.
He turned to the grizzly, dodged quickly. Alaska was already coming with a second hit. Trying to get him down fast? Wanting to end it early? Alaska didn’t look like he was enjoying himself; maybe he just needed the money.
Rex stood, spit out his mouth guard, and the other guy looked at him in puzzlement. His expression said it all: What the hell are you doing?
Rex gestured him closer, but kept his eyes low. Not wanting to challenge. Trying to show he was being submissive, asking for help. Hoping to inspire the protecting nature of a large predator, instead of the raging alpha.
Alaska came forward, but gave Rex a halfhearted swat. A little punch, but one that still rocked Rex sideways.
Rex got in close, wrapped his arms around the bear’s torso. Breathed, “I need your help. They have my mate.”
Alaska pushed back, hit Rex again. Alaska’s eyes were dancing between amusement in confusion. Probably thinking Rex was trying to do some kind of trick.
Rex gestured the bear over again, hit him lightly. The crowd made a booing sound. Disappointed by the lack of action. Rex hit him again. Got a punch to the kidney for his efforts, and he fell for a second before pushing himself back up.
The bear spit out his mouth guard, too. Got close in, hit Rex, said, “Did you say they got your mate?”
“Yeah,” Rex said. He grinned as if he were taunting the bear, even though his heart felt ripped to shreds inside of his chest. “Help me get out. I want to fucking take this place down.”
The bear nodded. “Sounds good to me. I hate those assholes. Bein’ here is a mistake.”
The two of them turned in one swift movement and reached for the bars of the cage. Alone, Rex couldn’t bend them, but with the help of another shifter, he knew they’d get it done. Especially with the help of a giant grizzly bear.
The crowd started yelling, throwing things at the cage. Rex ignored them. Nothing big or hard would hurt him, and he needed out.
The announcer was telling everyone to step back unless they wanted to be part of a big brawl. Some guys in the audience even came forward, to help open the cage. Their lust for violence was so strong that they were practically begging for it.
Rex would give it to all of them. One by one.
But then Gemma’s scent caught in his nostrils again. She was out here, somewhere. “Gems?” he shouted.
“Your mate?” Alaska asked, breathing heavily with the strain of the bars.
“Yeah,” Rex said. “Gotta find her.”
“Hang on,” Alaska said.
Suddenly, the cage bars popped open. Instead of stretching and bending them, Alaska had pulled one right off. Rex jumped through. Men threw punches toward him, but he blocked them, and when he couldn’t block all of them, he took them. And some he gave back, just to create a path, because he needed to find Gemma.
Now out of the cage, the lights weren’t blinding him so badly. He used his nose, hunting for the scent of strawberries.
Masters came forward. A gun in his hand. Nobody else in the crowd noticed the gun, but it stuck out to Rex. He could fight. He could throw punches. He could kick ass. But he couldn’t survive a bullet. If it hit him in the brain or the heart, shifter healing wouldn’t help him. There was no surviving it.
Masters swung the gun away from Rex, and pointed it up toward a long set of metal stairs. Gemma.
Rex’s breath caught in his chest. No.
Rex rushed forward and tackled Masters.
The gun went off. The man beneath him went still.
Several people screamed and scrambled to get away. They’d all been searched for weapons, for phones. They had no defense.
Rex stood up quickly. Masters lay dead on the floor. When Rex had tackled him, the gun had spun around and the bullet had gone through his neck. The bullet had grazed Rex’s arm on the way out.
Alaska stood next to him. “You get hit?” He looked over Rex’s arm. “You’ll be fine.”
Rex craned his neck, trying to see past Alaska. There she was—Gemma was running down the stairs toward him.
“The other guy who took me, he’s up there,” she said, pointing. “I knocked him out.”
Rex started forward, thinking he’d go after Corbett, but Gemma put a hand on his arm.
“Don’t,” she said. “Let’s just go.”
Rex looked down at his mate. Her brown eyes, so trusting. Wide with fear.
Besides, Corbett wasn’t a threat anymore. Rex was free.
Nobody stopped him or Gemma or Alaska as they walked out of the club. Into the dark night. Past the parking area and into the forest.
Eventually, Rex knew, someone would call the law enforcement out here. Nothing would be found to tie Rex or Gemma here, or their new friend. Their friend who, Rex realized, wasn’t a grizzly, but some other kind of bear. He didn’t recognize the scent.
“Thank you…” Rex said.
“Nolan. Nolan Marks,” the bear said.
Rex shook his hand. Shaking, Gemma shook his hand, too.
Nolan continued, “I needed out of there, too. I thought it was helping me, but it hasn’t been. I’ve just been putting off problems.”
“That’s what I was doing,” Rex answered. “But not anymore. That’s all behind me now.”
Gemma couldn’t catch her breath. Rex helped her by rubbing her back, helping her lean over. “Breathe with me,” he said.
“You’re in shock, it’s okay.”
“It’s not okay. You’re shot, Rex. You need to get medical attention.”
“Look,” he said, pointing to his shoulder.
She looked, feeling squeamish at the sight of blood. The wound wasn’t really as bad as she’d thought it would be. In fact, as she watched, it seemed to be scabbing over. The blood had already stopped.
“What—what’s happening?” she asked.
“I told you I was a shapeshifter,” Rex said. “It comes with a certain benefit. Speedy healing. It probably developed because we fight all the time.”
Nolan, the giant next to them, laughed.
Gemma shook her head. This was so much, so fast. “And you couldn’t tell me any of this when we were growing up, but you can tell Nolan, who we just met?”
“I’m a shifter, too,” Nolan said.
Gemma looked up and up. He seemed lethal enough already, with his giant muscles and his bare torso covered in tattoos. If he could change into some kind of predator, that made him even scarier. She scooted closer to Rex.
Nolan flashed her a disarming smile. “You take care of your mate,” he said. “It’ll kill him to be without you.”
“Kill him?” Gemma asked.
“Why do you think he was in the fights in the first place? Grief makes us do crazy things.”
“Enough, Nolan,” Rex said.
Nolan shrugged. “I best be going.”
Gemma watched, open-mouthed, as Nolan stripped out of his loose sweatpants. For a moment, his body shimmered in the darkness, taking on a soft glow. His arms and legs changed, his face changed. Within seconds, white fur sprouted from his skin.
Gemma grabbed Rex’s hand. They were looking at a polar bear.
“He—” Gemma said. “He—” She couldn’t finish the thought, not aloud.
The polar bear lowered his head once, then ambled off into the forest.
Gemma still didn’t know what to say. If she hadn’t been prepared by Rex telling her all of this, she’d never have believed it. But now that she did…well. Now she believed it.
“Wow,” she breathed.
“I’ve never seen a polar bear shifter before, either,” Rex said. “That was crazy.”
“Crazy?” Gemma laughed. “This whole thing was crazy.”
Rex wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “I know we have a lot to talk about. So much to discuss. But Nolan’s already taken off, and we probably should take off, too.”
He held out his hand, and gave her a look like he didn’t know if she’d take it or not.
But of course she took his hand. It was Rex. Rex who she’d loved for years and years, ever since she was a girl.
They walked to Rex’s truck, which he’d parked near the rear entrance of the warehouse.
“Do you smell smoke?” Gemma asked.
“Yeah. I think someone set the place on fire.”
“Good,” she said.
Sure enough, a couple minutes later, Rex pointed to a figure. It looked suspiciously like Corbett, short and squat, hurrying outside with a gas can in his hand.
“You’re right, let’s get out of here,” Gemma said. “I don’t want to be a part of the drama.”
“What about your article?” Rex asked.
“I’ll still write it. If I play my cards right, I bet I can get an exclusive, anonymous interview with one of the fighters.”
Rex laughed. “I bet you could.”
“I’m just…I’m not going back, though.”
“No. Remember how I always wanted to travel around in an old camper, and just explore the land?”
“Yeah.” He smiled that boyish grin that she’d always loved.
“Well, I want to do that. I can write from anywhere, you know.”
He leaned down and kissed her. “Sounds good to me.”
Rex still couldn’t believe his luck. He and Gemma had bought a camper, driven down to Nevada, and gotten married that very week. Three weeks later, they were back in Idaho. Rex had wanted to pay his respects at Jim’s grave, and Gemma was interested in exploring more of the wooded areas. She seemed to love hiking around while Rex walked at her side as a wolf. She’d once even started making jokes of getting him a leash and collar, until he’d shifted back to human and tackled her and tickled her senseless.
One day after a hike, they came back into town to visit a diner. Rex had used to come here with Jim for the occasional lunch. He missed the old man—it wasn’t fair that he was gone.
At the doorway into the diner, Rex paused. Sniffed. There was a shifter here, but it didn’t smell like Nolan.
“What?” Gemma asked, immediately on guard. She’d learned to read his expressions even better now that she knew the cause.
“Another shifter,” Rex said. “Inside the diner. He’s looking at us.”
“Guess we better go in then,” Gemma said.
There was a single guy sitting in a booth, close to the door. Muscular, almost as huge as Nolan was. Brown hair, blue eyes. He wore a button-up shirt and slacks. The briefcase at his side made him look like some kind of professor or something.
He nodded to Rex and Gemma. “Join me.”
Rex bristled at the order, but he slid into the seat across from him, Gemma at his side.
“What are you?” Gemma asked.
The man laughed. “Grizzly. Name’s Jameson.”
“Nice to meet you,” Gemma said, holding out her hand.
“Me and my mate Willow, we want to start a new clan,” Jameson said, looking between Rex and Gemma. “It’s small so far, but we’d like to have a community of other rogues who can all hang in the same place. Find themselves and stay, or leave whenever it feels right.”
“We’re traveling right now,” Rex said.
“But we might be interested later,” Gemma added.
“We’ll be here when you’re ready,” Jameson said.
“And we know someone else who might be interested,” Rex said. “Polar bear by the name of Nolan.”
Jameson smiled. “He’s already in the Rock Creek Clan. He’s the one who told me about you.”
And that’s it, everyone! Thank you so much for reading The Rose King. I hope you loved it! An edited version is available for sale, but honestly, there’s not much different–just some fixed typos and adjusted wording where my proofreaders thought it sounded awkward. Still, feel free to add it to your e-reader, and as always, I’d love your reviews!