softly say goodbye book cover
Part of the Redemption's Price series:

The dream of a pride and a mate isn't supposed to cost him everything.

Snow leopard shifter Blair Kincade has spent a lifetime using football to fill the gaping hole in his soul. Being an alpha without a pride sucks. As does being lied to about it his entire life by none other than the one he should've been able to trust: his adopted father. Meeting a visiting Russian snow leopard turns into finding the last survivors of his destroyed pride. And the possibility of a mate bond with a woman strong enough to stand by him.

Ballerina Oksana Bukovskaya has come to Colorado with one goal in mind: to save her adopted father, who's slowly losing his memory. There have been one too many attempts on his life, and she's not leaving until he's safe in the Boulder pride lands. Falling for an alpha she thought dead is an unexpected complication.

Uncovering the pieces of what happened to their pride reveals Ares's fingerprints all over a slaughter no one remembers. Plus he's sent one of his assassins after the only man who could've stopped it. Finding the answers--and the killer--is the only way Blair can protect his pride

There's just one problem. It might cost him his mate.

Published:
Genres:
Excerpt:

Chapter 1

Blair Kincade pasted on his five-millionth smile of the last six weeks and lied to the camera. Thank the gods, the photographer didn’t linger. The Fund banquet always drew them by the dozens and he was in no mood to pretend a second longer than necessary. Dad didn’t deserve it.

He pulled away from his father and tossed back the rest of his champagne. Not that it’d do anything to him, but half his life was about appearances. Tonight, it was the appearance of a happy family, by putting on an act for the cameras and grant recipients. Right now, he wanted every person in this place to leave him the hell alone. Including his father.

“Thank you for doing this, son.”

READ MORE

A soft growl escaped. “I’m here for Owen. Not you.”
John Kincade sighed, just as softly as Blair had growled. Which meant every set of shifter ears in the room heard it. “I messed up, Blair. I admit it. You’re still my son, and I couldn’t love you any more if you were my flesh and blood.”

Blair counted to three so he wouldn’t start a fight. The last thing he needed was to loose claws and fangs on the man who’d raised him, while half of Denver watched. They didn’t need to see their beloved Super Bowl-bound quarterback turn into a snow leopard and get his ass kicked by an almost two-hundred-year-old cougar-turned-lion. “I’m grateful you protected me. But you also denied me everything I was born for.” His throat tightened almost to the point of pain. “After losing your own pride, how could you do that to me?”

“They’re dead, son. All of them. Had you stayed out there as a helpless cub, you’d be dead too.”

“It wasn’t your call to make.” He faced the man who’d raised him, loved him, protected him. “You lied to me for almost thirty years, and I’m supposed to be okay with it? Newsflash, Dad. I’m not.” His human side still thought of the man as his father, but his leopard rebelled at any thought of him as Dad. The fight almost caused physical pain sometimes. Like now. Along with a burning need to get out of the same space.

“Another reporter’s coming.”

“Nice sidestep. This conversation is over anyway.” He brushed past Dad and started looking for Owen.

The annual awards gala of The Samuel Kincade Fund wasn’t a place for the faint of heart. Denver’s elite came in droves, along with politicians, a few celebrities, athletes, and many of the grant recipients. This year the latter group included his older brother Gabe’s mate, Dr. Autumn Dailey. She was doing a DNA study on wild cougar populations, had accidentally tangled with the now-dead Teton pride, and mated with Gabe in the process.

Which made Blair jealous. He longed for a mate of his own, someone to share life with. To share his pain with. When carried by two, it ceased to be as heavy.
Blair followed Owen’s scent to a corner where he hid behind some plants. An undertone of bitterness laced his scent, and Blair put his body between Owen and the crowds. “You don’t look so good.”

A pale and shaking Owen met his gaze. “There are…so many. People.”

Blair moved in closer. Put his hands on Owen’s shoulders. “I know. If you need to leave, I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.”

“I’m alpha, Blair. This shouldn’t…I can’t—”

“You can leave, Owen, if you really need to. This is a huge thing, and you’ve already been braver than expected.”

Owen leaned forward, and Blair enclosed him in a tight hug. The future alpha of the Boulder pride was a certified agoraphobic. Blair held him as tight as he dared, since Owen outranked him on the alpha scale. “Are you still taking your medication for this?”

“I stopped because it hasn’t happened in ages.” Owen shuddered. “I’d hoped Sekhmet fixed this too.”
The Egyptian goddess of healing and one of the eyes of Ra. She’d healed Owen physically last summer, when he’d been returned to them after being missing for twenty-two years. “I think she heals physical things. This is mental.”

Another shudder, and Owen pressed in tighter. “Can we go outside for a little while?”

Outside. Into gardens covered with snow. His snow leopard forgot all about being mad at Dad and pressed so hard against him, fur rubbed the inside of his skin.

“Of course.”

He steered his trembling baby brother outside, nodding to Gabe and the other security guys as they went past. All acknowledged the movement, but none followed.

An expanse of fresh snow met them, and Blair drew the scent into his lungs. Nothing in the world smelled better than fresh fallen snow. It sparkled in the soft light of a garden lit with strands of white twinkle lights woven into now-bare trees and hidden in hedges. It was also deserted—exactly what Owen needed right then.

Owen peeled away from him and wandered into the shadows. Blair knelt on the pea gravel path and dug his hand into the snow mounded on the side. He let a partial shift go through his hand so his leopard could feel the snow on a paw and quiet down. The leopard didn’t approve of sacrificing their last free night to be here at the gala instead of roaming the snow-covered mountains in the pride lands.

“How come there aren’t any snow leopards in the pride?”

Blair lifted his gaze toward where Owen’s voice came from. Switched to his leopard vision so he could see his brother. “We don’t play well with other cats. Then there’s also the whole communist countries part, and the Himalayas.”

“I can see why they’d want to stay in mountains like that. Where did your pride live?”

Blair raked his paw through the snow once more, shifted it back to his hand, and remained crouched by the soothing chill of the snow. “Siberia.”

“That’s a lot of territory.”

“Maahes says we were close to Lake Baikal and the Mongolian border, in a place called the Tunkinsky National Park.”
Owen appeared out of the shadows, color once more

in his face and the trembling eased. “You don’t look like a Mongol horde.”

Blair threw a handful snow at Owen, who dodged it, a hint of a smile playing with his mouth. Owen stepped back onto the path, snow sticking to his shoes. “You believe Maahes about where you were born?”

“No reason not to.” Blair stood.

“Then why are you so angry about all of this?”

A growl slipped out. “Because they lied to me for almost thirty years. They should’ve told me the truth when I was old enough to understand what pride destruction means.”

Owen eased closer to him. Touched his shoulder for a moment—the touch of an alpha to an upset pride mate. One Blair no longer accepted from Dad, but could from Owen. And his baby brother appeared to know it. “You were, what, nine when I was taken?”
Blair nodded.

“Has it occurred to you fear of losing you might’ve kept them silent about it?”

“I know it did. They almost smothered me, Owen. I took the Arkansas scholarship to get away from it. If they’d told me the truth, I wouldn’t have gone so far away from snow my leopard almost died. And I wouldn’t be so angry right now.” He spun away from Owen’s too-perceptive scrutiny. “All my life I’ve known something important had been taken from me before I could remember it. I asked Dad a hundred times why I was the only natural snow leopard in the family, and I never got a straight answer.”

Owen’s touch returned to his shoulder, anchoring him in reality. In pride. “It could’ve been because Dad has no idea. How else do you explain Adam being a tiger?”
Blair shook his head. “But he doesn’t act like a tiger any more than Gabe acts like a jaguar, or Ben like a leopard. I act like a snow leopard, Owen. I think like one. I need snow and mountains the same way I need oxygen, and I’m happy to go days at a time without seeing or speaking to another living soul. And I’m insanely patient in predator mode. I tracked an elk for twenty hours last year before taking it down. None of that is normal Boulder behavior.”

“It’s normal snow leopard?”

“Yes.”

The touch became Owen resting his arm on Blair’s shoulders and holding him close. “Did you ask Maahes to look for anyone who asked for vengeance?”

“Of course. He didn’t find anything, and told me it probably means they’re all dead.”

Owen squeezed. “Don’t be too sure. Remember, for the last two thousand years we thought he was dead. With everything that’s happened in Russia in the last century, I have zero issues with assuming the Russian cats gave up on any and all hope of our gods caring. Which means if someone besides you is still alive, they’re not going to ask vengeance of a god they no longer trust.”

“I thought of that already. But it doesn’t help me find them. The only thing I can think of is going there and roaming the mountains to see if my presence calls anyone.” He leaned his head over to make contact with Owen’s, needing the touch as much as he needed the cold and snow. “Which assumes any survivors stayed in the area. Which is dumb, if I’m honest. The safe thing to do would be to make contact with other prides and hope for a place.”

“Then contact the other prides, see if anything shakes loose.”

“There’s only one actual snow leopard pride left in Russia, and they’re over a thousand miles west of where I was born. I plan to make contact after the game next week, but I don’t expect them to tell me anything I don’t already know.”

“Could you go over there and see if your presence calls anyone?”

Blair nodded. “It’s risky, though.” He pulled away from Owen. “And most likely pointless.”

Owen scratched at his chin. “Maybe. Maybe not. Me and Dad know when something happens. You’re alpha too. Surely you’d know.”

“I was three. Most alpha connections don’t start forming until after puberty.”

“Whatever you decide to do, I’ll back you.”

Blair smiled at his brother. “Thank you.”

Owen lifted his head in a sudden jerk, and sniffed. “You smell that?”

Blair sniffed too. “Yes.” Another one, slower this time, to draw more in. “Not Boulder.”

“Why do you think I asked?”

Blair’s leopard huffed through his human throat.

“Any idea what kind of cat it is?”

“Leopard. Not African, though.”

“Persian?”

Something in Blair flickered. Stretched for the scent. “Snow.” He glanced at Owen. “I can’t explain it, but I have to find out who it is. Alone.”

Owen nodded. “I’ll go tell Gabe. Shout if you need us.” He hurried off.

Blair put his back to the hall, and his brothers, and followed the scent deeper into the garden. At the fountain, he stopped dead in his tracks and stared at the beauty in front of him.

She stood on the edge of the fountain, her arms spread out to her sides as though they were wings, with her fingers just so, back arched, and her head tilted so she looked up at the night sky. Her heels were on the ground, and her left leg extended with the most extreme pointing of toes he’d ever seen. The extended leg stuck out of the deep slit in her floor-length dress, revealing a muscular calf his running back would envy.

She looked over her shoulder, and he forgot to breathe. The most exquisite face with high cheekbones and huge eyes, all framed with honeyed curls, gave her an air of both serious and saucy. Even with his leopard’s superior night vision, the color of her eyes was a mystery. “It’s impolite to stare.”
Her voice did him in. Never in his life had anything sounded so perfect. And her accent. Magical. “It’s risky to stand barefoot on the edge of a fountain when it’s twenty degrees and dark.”

She moved her extended leg and executed a perfect spin on the ball of her foot to face him. Then she lowered her leg and balanced on the edge of the ledge. “You always walk around frozen gardens without a coat?”

“When the snow is fresh, absolutely.”

The soft, seductive tilt of her lips drew him in even more. “You are the only other snow leopard I’ve scented this evening.”

“Because you and I are the only ones here.”

She stepped off the ledge and into her shoes. “How does a snow leopard function amongst so many Persian leopards and cougars?”

“Not very well, to be honest.” He took a step toward her. “Blair Kincade. This whole shindig is hosted by my father.”

She didn’t flinch at his approach. “Oksana Bukovskaya. Why is your face everywhere I go?”

“Denver’s a little obsessed with football.”

One perfect eyebrow arched. “A little?”

He laughed. “Okay, a lot. We’re playing for the championship for the second time since I joined the team. I’m a Colorado native, so it’s ramping up the excitement.”

“Ah.” She nodded once as the sound came out. “You are dedicated, then?”

“Of course. You don’t get to this level without it.” He cocked his head. “You’re an athlete of some type, too. What do you do?”

“Ballet. I’m a visiting artist to the Denver Ballet Company.”

That explained the odd pose on the fountain, and the liquid way she’d hopped off. “My knowledge of your art begins and ends with The Nutcracker.”

Her lips curved in a half-motion, and her eyes sparkled. “You have the good sense to call it my art. For that, I shall forgive your lack of knowledge.”

“Appreciate it. What brings you to this gala?”

She stepped into the space beside him, all controlled power and intoxicating snow leopard scent. “I’m a replacement date via the symphony.”

He went stone-still. He hadn’t scented any sirens, but it didn’t hurt to double-check. “Orchestra?”

Da. I avoid sirens whenever possible.”

“Wise choice. However, the symphony here is officially allied with my pride.”

“I heard rumors of it.” She met and held his gaze without flinching. A strong dominant, which made perfect sense considering she was here alone. Snow leopard submissives were rare, according to his research over the last few months. “I should go back inside before my date comes looking. He doesn’t know what I really am.”

Blair held out his elbow. “Allow me?”

She looked at his arm, then back at him. “I am not arm candy, Blair Kincade.”

“I know. Coming back in with me will signal my overprotective brothers that you’re not to be interrogated. And it’ll give all the reporters something interesting to talk about, since I’m a confirmed bachelor with zero public interest in the finer points of life.”

Her eyes danced, and she pressed her lips together. “I like the way your mind works.” She curved her hand in the crook of his elbow. “Being seen with you can’t hurt one bit in the free PR department for my performances here.”

He did nothing to hide his own urge to smile, and escorted the gorgeous snow leopard back into the borderline stifling warmth of a hall packed with hundreds of people. Gabe flashed him a thumb’s up as he went by. Blair rolled his eyes.

“One of your brothers?”

“Yeah. All but one are older, and they’re insufferably nosy.”

“Aren’t we all?” Laughter danced in her tone.

“Sure. But my family has the market cornered on not knowing when to stop.”

“It’s something to treasure. Not all of us are so lucky.” No trace of the laughter remained.

Instead, intense, shared sorrow pulled at his leopard. He put his free hand over hers. Shared pain, yes. And maybe a clue. But without revealing he was born in Russia. “You lost your pride?”
Da. I was a five-year-old cub when it happened.”

“I’m so sorry, Oksana.” He tugged her into a shadowed area out of the main walkway. “Boulder is a place where all without a pride are welcome. At the end of World War Two, Bastet charged my father with making a place where the European prides could come to heal and rebuild their numbers. Many stayed.”

“Are there other snow leopards besides you?”

“Not born ones. My dad and our next alpha can be one, but it’s the hardest one for them to hold.”

Her eyes were the most beautiful hazel green he’d ever seen. The browns and greens of a forest. “An adult survived the slaughter too, and he’s taken care of me ever since. Something in him is broken. He needs to be under an alpha and strong wardens.” She sucked in a breath. Met his gaze again. “I accepted this invitation in the hopes of meeting the pride and seeing if you can help him.”

“Then Bastet guided us together outside. Of course we can do that. You’re welcome too, for as long as you want to stay.”

She drew in a shaky breath. “It’s not as hard for me, since I don’t remember being in a pride. He does remember, and I know he’s lonely.”

“Come meet my dad. Two of his wardens are also here.”

The last of the sorrow around her fell away. “Spasiba, Blair.”

The Russian word slid over him, melting into his soul like butter on Mom’s fresh bread. Many thought it an ugly language, but not Blair. He’d always been drawn to it, always found something soothing in the unique sounds and cadence. This particular word meant “thank you”. “You’re most welcome, Oksana. Word of warning, though. He’s intimidating.”

“I am a Russian principal ballerina. An intimidating alpha is less threatening than an angry Russian ballet mistress.”

Blair laughed. “Ditto for one of my coaches. Dad could take scary lessons from him.”

“Lead on.”

Blair did just that, winding through the crowds, nodding at people he knew, all while keeping Oksana close—all the better to give the gossip mill fodder for tomorrow. Something more interesting than lists of attendees, or if any couples had fights.

Then again, it’d also make his teammates razz him without mercy when they got wind of it. Blair Kincade, married to his sport, seen with a beautiful dancer. Someone was bound to find a bad joke in it somewhere.

Dad stood with Mom near the stage, Mom radiant in a dark red evening gown, her hair piled on top of her head in one of her elaborate up-dos with curls and lots of pins and a bit of a 1940s look to it. Some of the pictures of when she and Dad first mated after the war put her in the bombshell pinup category.

Mom leaned into Dad, listening to him with every part of her body. There were worse families to end up part of, if he was honest with himself. At least he’d grown up with parents who loved each other. Watching them fall in love all over again, now that Owen was home safe, qualified as magical.

And made him long all the more for a mate of his own.

The crowd parted, and Dad caught sight of them. Blair’s leopard recoiled, wanting to both run away and rake his face. Curious how it had no bad feelings toward Mom. Then again, maybe not. She hadn’t been the one to lie to his face about who he was. Only Dad had made that mistake.

“We have a visiting snow leopard who needs to speak with you.” He stopped outside of touching distance. “Oksana Bukovskaya, John Kincade. Boulder alpha.”
Dad’s eyes hued gold, and his intimidating factor went through the roof.

Blair’s leopard reacted with a vicious shove. Every alpha instinct in him went on high alert, and he shifted his body to protect a snow leopard he didn’t know.

COLLAPSE