Well-meaning friends drag archaic jaguar shifter Matteo D’Cruz back into the human world. Almost trapped in cat form, the recalcitrant male narrowly dodges execution as a feral. Even so, his final end doesn’t concern him overmuch—until he meets the thrill-seeking Dakota Gorman, a latent shifter female.
Matteo helps trigger her first transformation into a magnificent jaguar, and in turn, she schools him on the twenty-first-century woman. Hopeful for the first time in decades, Matteo embraces a possible future with the formidable jaguar queen. Tragically, their intimacy nearly forces him back into cat form, which would put him on death row.
Unwilling to selfishly ask Dakota to wait for him, a desolate Matteo resigns himself to torture and watching her mate another. Instead, in a vicious plot to weaponize shifter DNA, a rogue military faction snatches her, carving Matteo’s heart from his chest. He will bring her home—but at what cost?
With dreads swinging, Matteo jogged to the patch of moss-covered ground where Dakota had shifted. He strode back and returned the clasp to her. “Your hair thing.”
She wrenched her gaze from his eight-pack abs. “Thanks.”
His fingertips lingered for a delicious instant over the tender inside of her wrist, chasing shivers up her arm. Coffee scent surrounded her, and sent a thrill through her core. In mutiny, her body announced her reaction, tightening her nipples to pebbles in the open air. Mortified over her lack of control, she avoided his gaze in hopes he hadn’t noticed.
Swirling her sweat-dampened hair onto her head, she clamped it in place and followed him, enjoying the athletic grace of his movements. Even at a walk, she perceived his harnessed power. “Are you really over a hundred years old?”
“One hundred thirty-three.” At his clipped response, she held her zillion follow-up questions.
True to his word, after a short distance, Matteo picked up her folded clothes and handed them to her with a smirk. Snatching the spandex pile, she stepped behind a tree and dressed. As though modesty mattered now.
Returning to their hike, she found Matteo fixated on a branch several feet above with a confused expression. Tracking his gaze, she couldn’t see anything unusual. “What is it?”
“A new species of dragonfly. New to me, anyway.” He pointed at an atmosphere saturated with bugs. “It makes a high-pitched sound.”
Dakota singled out the prehistoric-sized insect amid the swarm of flying creepies. Aside from size, nothing made the creature stand out. It swooped out of sight. “How can you isolate one chirp in the zillions creating this racket?”
“My jaguar senses followed me into human form.” He studied the dragonfly’s last location, a spindly low-hanging branch.
Sniffing, she checked for an enhanced sense of smell. During her few minutes as a cat, the nearly bare jungle floor told a multitude of stories. Now, all she detected was Matteo. “Why do you keep your abilities, and I lost mine?”
“With more shifts, your cat senses will linger.” He grimaced. “But too many decades as a jaguar…”
Curling his lip back in a silent snarl, he tapped a canine. When fully exposed, the long, curved tooth screamed great cat. Teeth might not be the only jaguar feature he’d kept. His markings had a realistic quality that begged for her touch. Unable to resist, she ran her hand over his rosette-covered shoulder. In contrast to his smooth golden skin, the raised pattern had a rough texture, like stubble. No ink slinger did that.
Coffee scent curled around her, teasing her body with invisible caresses. She fought a wave of dizziness and struggled to keep her expression casual. A low-metered growl came from his chest and his lids lowered over copper heat. Years’ worth of sexual tension smoldered there. She wondered when he’d last indulged.
Everything about him spoke directly to her core, making the flesh between her legs clench. After nearly pinning him down in a mating frenzy, Dakota slammed the brakes on her body’s heated response. Trying for cool composure, she lowered her hand and quirked an eyebrow. “Really?”
One corner of his mouth kicked up. “It’s been even longer since a queen has touched me.”
Dakota snorted. “Keep waiting. That didn’t count.”
He laughed, and the passion left his gaze, giving no hint her rebuff had offended. He turned to hike a pathless route between the trees, and she fell in behind him. With new interest, she studied the animal print covering his torso. He belonged here, stalking amid the shrub-sized plants and vine covered trees.
“So, those rockin’ auburn rosettes are part of your jaguar pattern?”
“Yes. Rockin’ is good?”
“Sim, boa—good. Damn, I wanted to get the artist’s name. I need someone to finish a tat.”
“The half-drawn flower?” Even as Matteo tossed the words over his shoulder, he regretted his admission to looking. A knowing smile told him she’d caught his confession. He’d broken every shifter protocol by lusting after her flexing ass while she chased the agouti. Remorse eluded him.
“How perceptive of you.” Her smug tone was irritating.
She enjoyed his misery. The teasing view and her burgeoning lavender scent had thickened his cock. Jaime’s new sister involved with a potential feral. Playing out the consequences in his head cooled some of his arousal.
“You led the hunt. It was hard not to notice.” His feigned nonchalance miscarried, sounding forced. “Why didn’t the artist finish?”
“He, um, couldn’t.” Though relieved that Dakota didn’t sound frightened, from her hesitancy, Matteo suspected something about the event hadstressed her. He doubted the bastard tattooist had run out of ink.
Lack of detail fueled his imagination, and the mental image of another male’s hands on her curves made his chest rumble. He glanced over his shoulder. “Do I need to find this man and kill him?”
Half-jesting, he could hardly blame another. Nipping along the trumpet vine’s curving trail down the small of her back had an irresistible appeal. When she had dropped to her hands and knees, another battle to stay human had nearly bested him.
“Don’t bother. A broken arm is punishment enough.” She laughed as if releasing buried tension.
In stunned surprise, he halted, turning to her, and she nearly ran into him. “You broke his arm?”
She planted her hands on her hips. “I didn’t mean to.” Defiance withering, her shoulders sagged. “It was an accident. Too much juice in my submission hold.”
“I’m impressed. The pond scum deserved it. You have no reason for remorse.” Matteo wanted to cause the cretin pain.
“What?” Her confused expression broke into a self-possessed smile. “Oh yeah, he had it coming. I only regret my timing. He’s the best in the Bahamas. I wanted him to finish the tat.”
“And just how did you come by this bone-breaking skill?”
She shrugged. “I dated a jujitsu instructor for a while.”
This female’s bold confidence astounded him. In addition, she backed it up with real ability. “You have hidden depths, senhorita.”
Feathery, dark lashes fanned her cheeks, making her appear almost sweet. Matteo smiled. She would most certainly find the thought insulting.
“Few men appreciate a woman who can kick their ass.” She batted her lashes one more time.
Fighting an urge to plunder her lush lips with his mouth, he smiled. “A strong woman can be very attractive. But then again, I have no worries you’re able to kick my ass.”
Desire flared in her eyes, and Matteo leaned in, his lips hovering over hers.