by AC Arthur
Book 5 in the Shadow Shifters Series
Half man, half animal, a Shadow Shifter must walk the line between predator and prey, hunger and obsession—to capture the woman he loves…
A natural born hunter proud of his birthright, Ezra Preston agrees to hide his identity and pretend to be human—to learn what his enemies know of his kind. But even undercover, it’s not in his nature to play games with a woman. Especially when he discovers the beautiful creature has been keeping secrets of her own…
This is no ordinary woman he’s stalking but an alluring and mysterious cat thief—with dangerous secrets of her own…
Jewel Jenner has plotted and schemed for months, hiding her knowledge of a top-secret operation to save her ailing father. Captivated by her passion, skill, and courage, Ezra wants to help Jewel on her mission. But when he discovers how far she’s gone—sleeping with the enemy to steal a fortune in diamonds—he must decide if he can trust this enthralling woman with his secret…or trust his fiercest instincts when he’s near her.
Book 5 in the Shadow Shifters Series
If she’d ever considered a career as a bank robber, she would have to think again.
Her hands shook uncontrollably as she closed the bedroom door behind her, flipping the little latch that locked it. She took two additional seconds to breathe in and out, to refocus on the goal, the mission that had been dropped in her lap out of pure desperation. Rolling her head and relaxing her shoulders she looked forward, resigned herself to what was and moved across the carpeted floor.
The room was dark, as always, with its chocolate brown painted walls and tinted windows that always had drawn blinds to keep out the sunlight. If she were inclined to believe in such things, perhaps she’d think he was a vampire—he was certainly evil enough to pull that off. But no, Larry was just a man, a manipulative, controlling and generally evil man that she had to get away from.
You can’t leave me. Ever!
The words sounded in her head as if he were standing right behind her, breathing his hot breath onto her neck, the repulsive partial erection rubbing disgustingly against her ass. She shook her head to lose the memory, to focus on the here and now. She was almost there.
Larry loved to collect artwork, of the perverted sort, that is. The walls to his bedroom were adorned with expensive frames and paintings of women in sordid positions, in chains and masks, being stripped and whipped, or fucked and sucked. He got off on them. She knew because she’d watched him, the sick bastard. He also got off on inflicting pain, all types of pain. In her case, mental being his vice of choice.
This was his favorite portrait. He called her Aphrodite, said she would forever be his goddess of love. There was no real evidence of who she was since her face was covered by an ornate mask with colorful feathers and paints. Her lips, a glossy cherry hue were parted over bright white teeth. The rest of her body pale, naked, exposed as she lay across a red velvet Victorian chaise lounge. She’d been shaved clean so that she was smooth, appealing and appetizing, he would say. Vulnerable would be the better assessment.
Legs gaped open wide while one hand cupped a heavy breast was her pose. How many times had Larry tried to re-create that exact pose with her in the lounge chair situated across the room? Her teeth gnashed at the thought and she lifted her hand to touch the portrait, activating the secret door that would lead to the safe. Wearing the black leather gloves had felt clichéd but right at this moment—as the picture slid soundlessly to the side revealing a slate gray colored door with its biometric lock—she knew it had been smart.
With another deep inhale and slow exhale, she reached into the pocket of the short leather jacket she wore, pulling out a tiny white envelope. Her future was in that envelope, she thought as she looked down. It was no more than two inches wide all around and it held everything she needed to continue living with some semblance of sanity. The entire situation seemed pitiful at this very moment, but she’d run out of time to feel sorry for herself or the predicament she’d found herself in. There was only a few seconds left and those seconds had to be dedicated to action only. Retrospect, recriminations, regrets and whatever else, would have to come later. The simple fact was, she had no other choice.
Leaning her head from side to side she listened for the tell-tale crack of her neck, then opened the envelope. Inside was a square sheet of plastic. She pulled it out and held it directly over the reader that was about five inches above the safe’s handle. Instead of smoothing the plastic into place she moved in closer, aligning her pointer finger with the etchings outlined on the plastic using the pen light attached to the brim of her hat as her only light and guidance. With gentle pressure at first, then a little more persistent, she pressed her gloved finger over the plastic praying with everything she had that this would work.
A bead of moisture rolled down her spine in slow succession, reminiscent of a spider’s predatory trek. Her entire body was tense in the seconds she waited, breath held, eyes glued to the safe. In the next second, there were three short consecutive beeps, then a longer one as the pad beneath her finger turned green, followed by a significant click. She immediately grabbed the handle, turning it to the right, another louder clicking sound as the lock was shifted and the safe opened slowly, but surely to her.
That’s the moment when her life became her own.
Three years later
His skin was like almond bark glossed with a light sheen of sweat, graced by one tattoo over his right bicep. Pure strength rippled along the thick pronounced veins in his arms as he lifted the bar holding two hundred and fifty pound weights on either side. His position on the bench gave Jewel a great view of thighs cut to perfection with muscle, narrow hips and a bulge in his shorts that made her mouth water and her temples throb slightly at the thought that this was his relaxed—and not aroused—state.
From where she stood across the floor of Perryville Resort’s fitness center, peeking around the wall that she used for cover, Jewel had a magnificent view. A delicious view that had awakened feelings inside her she’d thought long dead. She swallowed deeply, figured her lips were just as dry as her throat and then licked them before releasing a deep breath. How many times had she come down here to work out? How many hours had she spent in this very room, absorbed in her own routine, focused only on the burn of tired and thoroughly worked muscles? Yet, for the last ten minutes she’d been glued to this spot, watching this man lift those weights, wanting him like she’d never wanted anything else in her life.
“Why don’t you join me?”
She startled and stepped back at the sound of the male voice. After a second or two she leaned forward once more, easing her head around the wall and feeling absolutely foolish at doing so, until she saw that he’d sat up on the bench and was staring directly at her.
“I said, why don’t you join me?” he asked again, the cleft in his chin holding her attention as he talked.
It was easier to find a focal point than to look directly into his eyes. They were smoldering, she knew because she’d just peeked and felt waves of heat pouring over her. This was ridiculous. He was just a man and she was just a woman and even considering the distance between them, there should not have been any type of connection.
But there was.
Jewel cleared her throat. “I’m leaving,” she announced but failed to move.
“No, you’re not,” he said in a slow, casual tone that made her feel just as uncomfortable as if he’d demanded she stay instead. “You’re still standing there watching me. You’d get a better view if you came closer.”
“The arrogant jerk,” she thought, but didn’t fire those words at him.
“I think I’ve seen enough,” she replied instead.
He gave her a curt nod and a shrug of those perfectly cut shoulders. “Suit yourself.”
Before she could reply he lay back on the bench. His feet planted firmly against the floor, his thighs flexing, preparing to hold him steady as he lifted hundreds of pounds. The rippled plains of his abs uncurled, like a feast being uncovered for consumption. His arms rose, his fingers wrapping around the metal pole, closing, opening, closing again before he boosted it off the rack. Glossy dark biceps flexed, muscles bulged. Jewel’s nipples hardened, intense spikes of pleasure traveling from the heavy mounds to rest with a persistent throb between her legs.
He’d just completed his fifth repetition when the heat clawing at her had Jewel’s knees about to buckle. Instead of falling to the floor panting after a man she didn’t know and in desperate need of sexual release she hadn’t required in years, Jewel decided retreat was best. The first step was the hardest—as was probably the norm—but she did finally manage to move one foot and then another, all the while still trying to watch every pull and release of muscle on his body, including, but definitely not limited to, the bulge between his legs that she was almost certain had increased in size as she stared. Her mouth watered as her back slammed into another wall, jarring just a semblance of sense into her. Shaking her head she finally pulled her gaze away from him, turned and ran like she was being chased by police all the way back to her room.
Truth be told, Jewel always felt like she was being chased, like at any moment her secret would be revealed and everything she’d risked her life and her father’s life for, had been for nothing. There was no way Ezra Preston, the stranger that had come to Perryville weeks ago behind a lot of hushed conversations and worried looks on behalf of Jacques and Mr. Perry, could know anything about what she’d done before she came here. Absolutely no possibility he could be here to unveil the secrets she guarded so closely. Still, as she closed the door to her room and leaned back against it, common sense said it was best she steer clear of him totally.
Five hundred pounds of steel was nothing in comparison to the heaviness Ezra felt throbbing between his legs. He’d scented her the moment she stepped into the gym, the fresh, intense scent of arousal that had permeated his senses, filtering through his body like a fast acting drug. The high was instant and powerful almost causing him to lose his grip on the bar holding the weights. That’s what made him stop and sit up. He wanted, no, more like needed, to see her up close.
His senses were stronger than other shifters, more acute, giving him an edge on the others around him. This was both a blessing and a curse, just as his time in the jungle had been, just as the night spent with the shaman who in his attempt to heal had given him and his twin brother this extra sensory perception had been.
Up until this point those senses had only served Ezra in times of battle. That had been the entire purpose of their visit to the shaman, to gain some relief from the almost debilitating sexual need they’d developed in Sierra Leone, at the hands of a sexual goddess that intended to destroy them.
For years he’d been protected, shielded from the burning need. Until now. Until her. That’s why he’d called to her, he’d had no other choice. After a slight pause, she’d stepped out from behind the wall to address him. But she hadn’t come further as he’d requested. She hadn’t come to him the way he’d craved. Instead she’d continued to watch.
And he’d been content to let her. For now.
Lying back he’d given her an unfettered view of his growing erection and whatever else she’d been entranced by until she’d forced herself to leave.
During the time she’d stood behind that wall, he’d heard the beat of her heart, sensed the thrumming of hot blood in her veins, the dampening of the tender folds between her legs. Everything about her had been embedded in his mind since the first day he’d seen her having lunch with Bas’s mate, Priya. Only twice since that day more than a month ago had he seen Jewel Jenner at the resort. She worked closely with Bas’s Lead Enforcer, Jacques, performing administrative tasks. Originally Bas had thought there might be a romantic link between the two but Jacques didn’t have the companheiro calor, the mating scent of the Shadow Shifters.
One morning Ezra had timed his appearance in the administrative offices of Perryville Resorts to coincide with the arrival of most of the staff. Jewel always arrived first. She unlocked the front glass doors and switched on the lights, her computer and the Kuerig machine that sat on a stand leading down a small hallway. That hallway lead to Jacques’s office and the sales director’s office. Jewel sat up front in a partially enclosed space, while just on the other side of her the receptionist sat to greet anyone coming in with questions.
Instead of startling her by going in right behind her, he had waited a few minutes.
“Is Mr. Germain in?” Ezra had inquired once he’d finally decided to go into the offices himself.
“No. He isn’t,” the receptionist, who looked more like a college student than a professional office worker, informed him. “May I leave him a message that you were here?”
The request was stilted, as if she’d rehearsed it enough to memorize it but not enough to say it with any type of sincerity.
He’d smiled at her efforts, remembering a time when he was young and carefree, or at least young.
“Just tell him Ezra stopped by,” he’d replied.
And just like a few minutes ago in the gym, Jewel had peeked around the wall to look at him. When he caught her gaze that time she’d cleared her throat and stepped completely into the outer area, coming to stand right beside the receptionist. She didn’t reek of fear, but there was definitely a stand-offish quality to her, as if she’d rather remain out of sight and possibly out of mind.
“He’s meeting with Mr. Perry this morning. When he returns I will tell him that you were here,” she told him, looking just over his shoulder as she spoke.
“Thanks,” he’d said, keeping his gaze steady on hers. After all, she was the one he’d come to see. “I’ll stop by later to see if he’s in.”
“That’s fine,” Jewel stated in a clipped tone.
Ezra nodded. “Will you tell him that I will be back?” He was speaking slowly, watching, waiting for her to look at him.
He wanted the seal to their connection with the lock of gazes, the first step in the dance Ezra knew they would partake in. When it finally came it took his breath away. Her eyes were green, a softer shade than his that for some reason didn’t strike him as natural. They were secretive and Ezra was instantly intrigued. Later that day when he’d returned, Jacques was indeed in the office and so was Jewel. She’d been at the receptionist desk and instead of having to go back to Jacques’s office, the shifter had come out to meet him. As if he’d known what Ezra’s plan was all along.
As Jacques stood near Jewel, Ezra noted nothing between them. No simmering arousal, no calor signifying that they’d been intimate. That had solicited an immediate smile.
The next time he’d seen her had been at night when she was coming back into the resort. He had no idea where she’d been all day as he’d been around looking for her. She appeared rested and peaceful upon her return, so much so he’d considered that her day had been spent in her lover’s bed, legs spread, body open in surrender to another man. A deep rumble in his chest, the barely restrained growl of his cat, signaled just how much Ezra disliked that thought. She hadn’t noticed him at all that night as she moved through the entrance, down past the restaurants to the elevators. He thought of following her to her room but didn’t think he’d be able to control his arousal or the rage over someone else touching her. The smart option—which Ezra liked to think he took at all times—was to keep his distance. And he had, until now.
He wanted her, there was no doubt. If she’d come to him as he’d requested his plan had been to fuck her right there in the middle of the gym, with the mirrors surrounding them so he could see her as he pleasured her. It had still been early enough in the day that there was no one else around. Something inside told him she knew that would be the outcome, hence the reason she’d gotten the hell out of there.
Unfortunately, the physical sparring between the two of them would have to be put on hold. There were more important matters at hand. Xavier Santos Markland, the east coast hacker and former FBI agent for the Stateside Assembly, had yet to identify the origin of the email that had put them on notice of the government possibly knowing of their existence.
For the Shadows and the laws of the Ètica which they were all bound to live by, exposure could be considered their Kryptonite. The mass hysteria predicted when humans around the globe learned there were half humans, half big cats living in their midst, would be nothing less than suicidal for the Shadows. It was the job of the Assembly Leader, Roman Reynolds, to make sure that never happened.
So far, however, Rome was batting a perfect zero. Especially since the Pacific Faction Leader, Sebastian Perry, had just returned to Perryville Resorts with his mate, Priya Drake, happily in tow. Priya was a human and she not only knew about the Shadows, she was now officially working with them under the official title of, public relations manager, even though her job was really to provide damage control any time the humans reported strange occurrences. That was a situation Ezra still wasn’t sure he understood, but at the same time wasn’t about to address with the Faction Leader himself, or the Stateside Leader that had offered Priya the job.
His purpose, for the foreseeable future was to infiltrate the Comastaz Lab, find out what the government knew about them, and what they planned to do with that information. That’s where his focus needed to remain. As one of Rome’s Lead Guards, it was his job to protect the First Family from all harm. There was no doubt in Ezra’s mind that if the US government had knowledge of their existence, the first ones on American soil that would be in danger would be Rome and Kalina.
That made the text he received as he stood up, grabbing the duffel bag with his phone and change of clothes in it from off the floor, the best news he’d heard all day. It read simply: YOU’RE IN.