August 2021 Newsletter
Available August 31, 2021!
Mads went back to her honey-covered fries and her deep thoughts.
The honey was infused with hot Mexican spices and the deep thoughts were infused with misery. She’d been thinking about all the things she hadn’t done with her life since she’d left Wisconsin. Other than a few duffel bags filled with tank tops, shorts, basketball shoes, and underwear, Mads didn’t have a thing to her name.
Except, of course, the three storage spaces in Minnesota, Washington state, and upstate New York filled with cash, passports, weapons, and other necessary supplies for quick getaways. The storage spaces were in border towns so she could easily slip into Canada if she had to.
Other than that, though . . . she had nothing!
Was this to be her life, then? A life with nothing?
Most honey badgers had a hard time settling down full time, happily moving from cabinet to cabinet so that homeowners never knew a honey badger had been there until they noticed that their supply of honey had been replaced with corn syrup. Yet even those honey badgers still had a place they called “home.” A place with a TV set and a closet full of clothes . . . and maybe a kid or two who occasionally called them “mom.”
Even Max MacKilligan had begun to settle down. She had a boyfriend now! A male who actually wasn’t afraid of her and, Mads was willing to bet, wouldn’t leave her in the middle of the night because he was terrified she’d kill him one day for the insurance money. An insurance plan he’d had no idea she’d taken out on his life and that he had not signed.
In fairness, Max only used that move when the guy ignored earlier signals that he should get out. Even her “It’s over. Leave me alone!” She was just so cute and small that full-human males didn’t take her seriously the way shifter males did. Full-human males thought they could ignore her or push her around and, short of killing them and burying them on hyena land so that Max’s adopted grandfather didn’t have to deal with the fallout should the law come looking, Max had found that making them watch a few Dateline episodes before they “accidentally” found the insurance policy was the only way to get them to go for good.
Mads never had clingy boyfriends like that. She always found that a good, solid basketball right to the face got a guy to leave. “It was an accident!” she always told the cops, and making the move during a friendly game, with all her teammates as “witnesses,” had kept her out of jail so far. While any pushy dudes got the message . . . and a broken nose.
But Mads’s current dilemma wasn’t about past boyfriends. Or past mistakes. Or a combination of both. Her great-grandmother was dead and Mads realized she had nothing to show for her life except a few championship wins and a couple of MVP awards, but would Solveig Galendotter take any of that seriously? No! The first thing she would ask Mads would be, “Do you have a house? A car? A life?”
Mads knew what her great-grandmother had always wanted most for her. A life.
A life she could be proud of and a life she could live without fear.
Not easy when one side of her entire family wanted her—
A tray slammed down on the table and Mads realized the cat had returned.
“You have the only table with space,” he complained, sitting his surprisingly narrow ass down. “So you’re just going to have to suck up my presence.”
“Then why did you ask me in the first place?”
He picked a boar rib off his plate. “I was being polite.”
“A polite tiger? Is that like an honest politician or a charming goat? Maybe a selfless actor.”
“I tried. I failed. Can we get past it?”
Mads went back to her fries, deciding just to ignore the tiger sitting catty-corner from her.
But he was kind of making that impossible.
“You’re getting honey on your knee,” he felt he had to point out to her.
“I’ll just lick it off later.”
Mads briefly closed her eyes before asking, “What?”
“Can’t you just wipe it off?”
“Why would I waste good honey?”
“Why would you lick it off your knees in public?”
“Because tigers are so known for their manners.”
“I know not to lick my knees in public!”
“Stop talking to me!”
They fell into what Mads could only call a moody silence, and she was grateful. She didn’t want to chat with this dude anymore.
“You don’t know who I am, do you?”
Mads looked back at the cat. “Am I supposed to?”
With half a boar rib hanging from his mouth, he barked, “You just talked to me this morning.”
“Yes! And were in my cabinets!”
“Yes! How do you not remember?”
Mads shrugged. “My great-grandmother just died. I’m a little out of it right now. She was one of the few of my mother’s family that didn’t actively try to kill me at birth. She basically raised me until I was nine. And my family didn’t even tell me she was dead. Some Viking shamaness did. The family didn’t even give her a proper Viking funeral. They just burned her, put her in a box, and stuck her somewhere in their hoarder house. I don’t even know if she’ll get to Valhalla now. So I’m just . . . sad.”
The tiger didn’t say anything, but after a minute of silence he got up from the table and walked away. But he left his food, which most cats wouldn’t do. Then again, no one wanted to hear the sad story of Mads Galendotter. So maybe he’d just made a run for it.
She didn’t really think about it, just went back to eating her honey-covered fries and staring across the food court.
Mads had no idea how much time had passed when she reached out for a fry and hit hot flesh instead. She looked down at the table and saw that her fries had been moved away and replaced with a huge pile of boar ribs.
“You need roasted meat to feed your soul. Not fried foods to destroy it,” the tiger said, back in his seat, eating his own ribs. “I got you the lion portion. The tiger and bear portions will make your stomach burst.”
As Mads picked up a rib, she also noticed a large bottle of cold water and a carafe of hot tea.
“And don’t worry about your great-grandmother’s soul,” he said between tearing off chunks of meat with his fangs. “When her body was burned, her soul was released to her gods. The ashes are for you. You should get them back. But you don’t have to worry about her. The gods always take care of those most loyal to them.”
Mads swallowed, although she hadn’t taken a bite of food yet. She swallowed to get that lump of tears back down her throat. As she’d heard Max MacKilligan scream at Stevie MacKilligan more than once over the years, “Honey badgers do not cry!”
But she wasn’t about to cry simply because of what the tiger had said. It was because he’d taken her words and worries seriously. When a girl mentioned Valhalla and “the gods,” most people either snickered or headed to the door. But he hadn’t. Instead, he’d given her words to soothe her own troubled soul. As if he understood.
His last name might be Malone but she’d heard from Max that his mother was from an ancient and feared Mongolian tribe made up of tiger shifters. They’d existed before even Genghis Khan terrorized Asia. It just hadn’t occurred to her that Mongolian-Americans would hold true to their ancestors’ beliefs just as Solveig had raised Mads to hold true to hers.
“We are Viking,” she would say as Mads watched her replenish stock in her tiny Detroit corner store. “Your mother and that idiot daughter of mine will tell you that we are hyena first, but we were Viking long before we could unleash fang and claw. Remember, it is Odin and Freyja that protect us. They gave us the sword and the axe and the—”
“Basketball!” three-year-old Mads would add, lifting up her mini-ball for her great-grandmother to see.
Solveig would sigh then and complain, “I have got to stop taking you to that basketball park for lunch breaks.”
They ate in silence but he knew the boar ribs would be good for her. Meat might give humans heart attacks but it was what shifters needed to survive. They were all carnivores except for bears, who were omnivores, which just made something weird even weirder.
The loss of a parent or parent figure was never easy, no matter the age. But when Finn’s father was murdered, he’d still had his mother. She’d helped her sons get through the worst time of their lives with the kind of strength that could only come from a woman whose ancestors were born of the hard earth of the Mongolian steppes. When she’d gotten pregnant a year later after a one-night stand with that MacKilligan idiot and her sisters had shaken their heads and clucked their tongues, it was her older sons who’d surrounded her and growled in warning, much to the amusement of their aunts. But if there was one woman who’d needed to find her own way to mourn—a way none of them would hold against her—it was Zaya-Sarnai Selenge.
Or, as she was known in the States, Lisa Malone.
After quite a few generations in the West, Finn’s family had grown tired of explaining Mongolian naming to . . . well . . . everyone. By the time his great-grandmother came along, she was named Mavis. Her daughter, Deloris. And his mother . . . Lisa. Much easier than explaining that Zaya-Sarnai was not his mother’s first name, but her tribal name or surname. Actually, the names of the two sisters who’d discovered the ability to shift into Siberian tigers and taught it to other women in their clan. Eventually, they’d become too strong and hated to stay any longer, so they’d gone off and started their own tribe. Found some men who could hunt and didn’t irritate them too much. The strongest of the females had babies who could shift without spells or sacrifices as soon as they hit puberty. They soon discovered they could live among the tigers with ease, fighting for food or territory, and surviving the winters more successfully than their all-human clan.
When the summers came and the clan wars began, the shifters were stronger than the full-humans, combining their ability to shift and their skills with bow and arrow and sword. Eventually they went from defense to offense, able to take what they wanted. But Zaya—her name meant “destiny”—and Sarnai—her name meant “rose”—didn’t believe in taking just to take. If there was a need, if their tribe might starve or suffer, then they took. If not, they let other clans live in peace. If nothing else, their code yielded “a fat pig for us to devour when we’re hungry and desperate, rather than a skinny, weak one we can barely use,” as Zaya used to say.
Centuries later, that philosophy had led to a still-strong, family-connected tribe. Most continued to live on the steppes in Mongolia, but some had moved off to cities in France, Thailand, China, Germany, Russia, Great Britain, and the States to bring in new blood to the family.
New blood like the Malones.
The fact that Finn’s mother had birthed three strong sons had brought her quite a bit of respect among the family. It wasn’t about race with the Zaya-Sarnai tribe. It was about fangs and claws . . .
It was about power.
The power of the cat within the blood of every Zaya-Sarnai roaming the world.
“Do you live with your entire family in that house?”
Surprised by that non sequitur, Finn looked at the badger and replied, “Not my entire family. Just my mother, brothers, and sister.”
“You don’t feel trapped?”
With a boar’s rib in his mouth, Finn asked, “Huh?”
“You don’t feel trapped?” she repeated, then continued, “Tigers usually roam hundreds of miles of territory. But you’re locked in this tiny house with all these other giant tigers. On this tiny property. In that tiny town on Long Island. Don’t you feel like a caged tiger in one of those sideshow zoos?” She raised her hands, fingers curled into mock claws, and began to mime tearing at walls. “Desperately trying to get out. Never to be free again!”
She abruptly stopped and faced him. “Ever feel like that?” she calmly asked.
The boar rib hung from his mouth and his gold eyes were wide, but she still didn’t expect him to explode.
“What is wrong with you?” the cat demanded, startling a table of bears sitting next to them.
“What?” Mads asked, watching the bears move their table and chairs over so they didn’t have to deal with a testy tiger at close quarters.
“Why would you ask me questions like that? And make me think about being trapped? In a zoo? After I just gave you freshly killed and roasted boar!”
“I was just thinking about buying a house.”
He gawked at her a long moment before pulling the rib out of his mouth. “What?”
“I don’t have my own place. I always hated the idea of it. But I figured if a tiger could live in a house with other tigers, I could live in a house by myself. Or with my teammates. If they come visit.”
“I found you asleep in my cabinets this morning. Shoved in with the condiments.”
“I’m not sure what your point is.”
“I don’t see why you’re worried about living in a house if you can survive in a cabinet.”
“It’s one thing to sleep in a different cabinet of my choosing every night. It’s another thing completely to have only one set of cabinets to live in for the rest of your life. That’s just sad.”
“Where do you live now?”
“What does that shrug mean?”
“Well . . . right now I’m crashing at Max’s place until we get through the playoffs and hopefully the championships. I just found out that’ll be in New York this year. And I think we have a great chance of getting in. Our team has been on fire this season—”
“You don’t have your own apartment?” he rudely cut in.
“I don’t like a lot of paperwork. Or anyone but my teammates to know where I live. So I don’t really live anywhere.”
“That’s so weird.”
“Why’s that weird?”
“How is that not weird? Just the basics . . . like, how do you pay taxes?”
Mads couldn’t help but smile a little. “Taxes?”
“Oh, gods,” he muttered. “You don’t pay taxes.”
“Of course I pay taxes. It’s just funny that your first thought was of accounting.”
“If there’s one thing in this world that can fuck up a shifter or a full-human, it’s the goddamn IRS.”
“Which is why I pay my taxes. I just have a post office box in Wisconsin. It gets checked regularly and that way I don’t miss anything important from the government or anyone else. I don’t need a house to get mail.”
“Don’t you need a base of operation, though?”
“A starting point. My brothers and I meet in the same place, punch each other a little, decide what we need to do, and go from there. When we’re done, we come back to the same place—”
“Punch each other?”
“A little. Discuss things. Decompress from the day—”
“By punching each other?”
“A little. And then start again in the morning. It gives us a nice sense of grounding.”
Mads rubbed her left eye. “You don’t find that boring?”
“I’m afraid I’d find that boring.”
“So you’d rather wake up in a stranger’s cabinet if they come home earlier than you expected?”
“It does add excitement.”
“And possibly two to four at Rikers for breaking and entering.”
“I don’t steal anything.”
“It doesn’t matter!” He let out a breath. “All I’m saying is, it’s a good idea to have a place you call home. Your own home. That you legally own. Legally being the big word. Legally.”
“I know what it means.”
His head tilted to the side, shifting all that gorgeous black hair with white stripes, almost giving her a clear view of his face, as he asked, “Do you?”