Chloe can “talk” to animals…so why can she hear the thoughts of this hot, green-eyed man?
Abandoned by her mother and raised by a father who’d given up on life, Chloe doesn’t let anyone get close. Lucky for her, she can communicate with animals—telepathically. Her long hours at the animal shelter help her cope with the stress, and the animals are the only people she needs. But when a suspected dog-fighting ring comes to her attention, Chloe decides to do a little spying. And in her rush to win the dogs’ trust, she almost gets herself caught.
Until a sexy stranger intervenes, and she finds she can overhear his thoughts. She’s never been able to hear people, and this man’s about as sexy as she’s ever seen. It’s more than intellectual curiosity that drives her to discover his secret: he’s a jaguar shape-shifter, and the presence of this cat among the dogs might be a bit too much to handle. But the animal attraction is just too hot to resist, and the passion between them makes both the sparks—and the fur—fly…
Chapter One“I can’t believe the lazy asses who drop their animals here. At least these had enough balls to actually come in.”My head snaps up to scan the crowded lobby at the humane society from my vantage point behind the intake desk. I expect to see people in an uproar after that comment, delivered as it was by a derisive male voice with a faint Caribbean accent. But everything looks normal for a group of people who are surrendering their animals to a shelter. A frazzled woman with a crying kid sits in a chair along the wall, trying to fill out paperwork and hold a puppy on a leash. Next to her, a tense, guilty-looking middle-aged man has a cat carrier by his feet. Two people stand in line, one talking to the intake staff member.By the entrance a tall—and hotter than hell—man in jeans and a simple green button-down shirt has a disgusted look on his face as he surveys the room. I can’t look away from his brilliant green eyes.OK, I’m just crazy. Obviously that comment wasn’t out loud or someone would be reacting. It’s normal for me to hear animals talk. In fact, I was conversing mind to mind with the tuxedo kitten in my hands just before that comment broke in. And it certainly wasn’t the kitten who just said something so blatantly human. So either I just heard a human in my head for the first time or I’m hearing imaginary voices in my head now. My gut tells me it’s tall, dark, and brooding. And I’m staring. Memorizing every inch of him from his haunting eyes to his beautifully sculpted hands, which I can’t help but imagine caressing my skin.I look down. Whatever is going on, it’s freaking me out, as is the need coiling down there. I throw up my mental barriers in a flash. When I look up again, the man in question is staring at me and appears almost as confused and freaked out as I imagine I do. Just as I’m thinking, Look away, look away now, and act cool, he shakes his head as if to clear it and steps into line.This is so weird. But what does any sane person who just heard the wrong species of voice in her head and is insanely attracted to said person do in the face of weirdness? Carry on right where I left off taking the cute kitten to the medical staff to test for FIV and feline leukemia and to vaccinate. This little one should be up for adoption in a few hours if all goes well.I walk slowly to the door leading to the hallway that will take me back to the medical department. I’m trying to look nonchalant, but what I really want to do is run—fast—and hide. What if my mental barriers aren’t working? I don’t normally have to worry about blocking humans. What if that guy with silky black hair is listening to me think that right now? Oh, God.“Jesus, Chloe, are you OK? You look like you’ve seen a ghost. And give me that kitten before you drop it.” Barb, the shelter’s forty-five-year-old head veterinary technician, grabs the kitten as I walk into her work area in medical. She stares shrewdly at me. “Good thing kittens are resilient.”I redouble my efforts to look normal, but I can’t control the need to run my hands through my naturally blonde hair like I always do when I’m upset.“So, you’re not OK.” Barb’s teasing smile fades as she puts the kitten in a holding cage, the kitten making a disgruntled mewl at her abrupt landing. Barb puts one arm around my shoulders and the other on my forehead as she pushes me until I’m leaning against the counter by the computer. “No fever, not too clammy. Still, seems you need to call it a day. I can get one of the other volunteers to drop you home. I’m not sure you should drive.”“No, no. I’m fine.” I start to stand. “Just had a moment out there.”Barb shoots me a skeptical, assessing look with her piercing brown eyes but backs up a bit to let me stand. She’s one of the few people at the shelter who know about my ability. I’m hoping she will just think it’s an animal in trouble, but I’ve never tried to run from an animal before. “But you’re right. I should go home.” Yes, yes, get away from the mind reader in the next room. God, he looked good in those jeans. Fuck.“OK.” Barb looks like she might protest if I take any steps on my own, so I scramble past her and scurry out the door before she can think twice.“Yes, definitely I should go. See ya, Barb.”“Chloe, wait, are you sure you’re OK to drive?”I pretend not to hear and keep walking down the hall. I escape around a corner to head to the exit, making a beeline to the volunteer room to grab my purse. I keep my eyes averted so no other volunteers or staff try to stop me to chat, all the while chanting “leave, leave, exit, leave” in my head. Anything to keep me from picturing gorgeous eyes and broad shoulders.I’m practically running out the exit and across the parking lot. I just know people are staring, but I can’t stop until I’m in my car—a ten-year-old green Honda Civic—my breathing fast and wheezy. Damn panic. Damn sexy man getting into my head—literally and figuratively. I lightly bang my head against the steering wheel, groaning and trying to get my body and thoughts under control. Get it together, Chlo. Get it fucking together.After a few seconds, minutes, I don’t know, I do just that. And then I drive home—really fast. Luckily, I don’t get a speeding ticket.* * *Talking with animals has never scared me. It is as normal to me as breathing. Plus, animals aren’t as judgmental and preachy as humans tend to be. For instance, they don’t care about my ridiculously pale skin and blonde hair, which are courtesy of my half-Scandinavian roots; nor do they care that I’m only five foot four—not sure where that came from, since both my parents are/were tall—or that I could stand to lose twenty pounds, which probably won’t happen anytime soon since that would mean giving up ice cream and actually exercising on a regular basis. I know people say it’s once you’re married that you let yourself go, but the extra weight has never stopped me from finding a guy to scratch the itch when I can’t do it myself.And that thought is exactly why no humans should ever be rolling around in my head.I’m lying in bed now, having texted Barb to let her know I got home OK—sometimes the impersonal nature of texting is a godsend!—before turning off my phone.Maybe it was a weird anomaly. And maybe I will get those green eyes and their look of shocked confusion out of my head. I’ve never flipped out for a guy before. I can count the number of men I’ve actually dated on one hand. And being in love? A big fat zero, which is just the way I like it. Romantic love is greatly exaggerated. I’ve met only a handful of people who seem to have anything closely resembling it. I stand by my one-night-stand policy.The more important question is why am I more freaked out that I’m attracted to a guy than the fact I heard him in my head?The doorbell rings and I groan. I know it’s only seven thirty in the evening and I shouldn’t be in bed yet, but I am and I don’t want to answer. I want to hide. Plus, my cats—Sashi, all black, and Enoki, orange and white—are happily sleeping on me. I don’t normally keep an ongoing connection to an animal, but with my own pets, I keep my barrier down. So I picked up on the undercurrent of concern in their slowly blinking stares when I first got into bed. Once settled, Sashi wasn’t shy about informing me that mostly they’re just happy I’m in bed so early so they can sleep on me. Cats.There’s another ring of the doorbell and I freeze, holding my breath like I’m pretending to be asleep, like I used to when my dad would come and check on me when I was a child. It seemed to work then, so maybe it will make whoever is at my door go away too. It might just be a random solicitor or someone trying to tell me how to vote on whatever issue. And I’m all the way upstairs in my rented townhome, so there are no signs of life downstairs.But, no, the doorbell chimes a third time. There’s a pause, and then I’m barraged with the doorbell dinging over and over again. Only one person would do that, and she isn’t going away—especially since she’s probably here at Barb’s behest. My best friend, Naomi. She has a key, and it doesn’t take long before I hear the door opening.“I know you’re here. Barb called me. She’s worried!” Naomi doesn’t have to try hard to ensure I hear her. Unlike me, she can project like the best stage actors. I think she missed her calling when she went into IT, but then again, she’s gainfully employed and makes a shitload more money than I do. I don’t really understand exactly what she does—she gave up talking tech to me while we were still roommates in college.Naomi’s already heading toward the stairs and my bedroom, she knows me so well. I’ve always been a hider. “Seriously, Chlo, respond.”I hear her jogging up the stairs, and then her shoes on the hardwood in the hall. She’s almost to my bedroom door, which is mostly shut. I groan again, which she evidently interprets as a good sign. “Good to know you’re alive.” I can hear the smile in her voice. “I’m coming in.”Today I’m feeling childish enough that I pull my navy blue comforter over my head. It upsets the cats, and Enoki jumps off and scampers away. Sashi gives an annoyed mewl and resettles farther over on the bed.I hear the door open, but no footsteps, so Naomi must be taking in the scene. I feel slightly embarrassed by my childish behavior, but not enough to actually do anything about it. Naomi, however, has other plans.“Seriously?” She tramps over and yanks the comforter off me.I meet her annoyed, yet concerned, blue eyes with a good amount of guilt and shame in my own. She has one hand on her hip, and despite the fact that she’s a good three inches shorter and about half as wide as me, she looks really intimidating at this moment.Petite yet mighty, that’s Naomi. There’s no stopping her when she sets her mind to something. That’s probably the only reason we’re friends. I have a penchant for avoiding people. Generally I’m pretty thankful that she persisted in breaking my walls down back in college, but today I could really use some alone time.Sashi walks over to sit by me now that the comforter is gone and is giving Naomi the stare of death that only cats can pull off. It doesn’t really mean they want to kill you—at least, not usually—it’s just that cats are very expressive when they are annoyed or want something or, really, pretty much all the time.“I know, I know.” I pet Sashi absently as I meet Naomi’s stare. “Childish much?”Naomi grins, her whole face lighting up in relief. “Well, at least I know you’re still you.”“Ha-ha.” I’m seriously thinking of grabbing the comforter to hide again. Or maybe I should go lock myself in the bathroom. Tempting.Naomi sits beside me on the bed. “So spill. What’s got you so spooked?” Since Naomi already knows pretty much all my secrets and is stubborn as hell, I plunge in. Naomi is the only person I would trust with my life.“I heard a person.” I try to sound nonchalant, like it’s no big deal and I don’t think I’m crazy and/or delusional.“Like, in your head?”“Yes, in my head. In my ears wouldn’t freak me out.” I roll my eyes, then realize I’m being my usual sarcastic and slightly belligerent self when pressed into a corner. I shouldn’t assume Naomi can read my mind when I’m being vague—a rather ironic way of thinking, given the topic of this conversation.“Ah, the spunk returns with a vengeance.” Naomi pushes me softly in teasing affection. Then what I said really sinks in, and she’s all concern. “For real? You sure?” This is why I love her. I can be a complete bitch, and she’s still concerned about me. So I try to tone down the sarcasm a bit. But just a bit.I assume my sarcastic humor with a side of bitchiness is why she loves me. She can’t be that stubborn that she’d just willfully be my friend no matter what, and she certainly brooks no abuse…well, there was that one guy, but that’s another story. “Well, it’s either that or I just discovered a dog or cat who made an evolutionary leap forward in the development of its frontal lobe.”“Huh. I love it when you get all science-y on me.”I meet Naomi’s grin with a wry one of my own. Thank God for best friends, even annoying, meddling ones. Or maybe especially annoying, meddling ones.Naomi continues, “Maybe it was just a fluke. What am I thinking now?”“That you’re concerned your best friend has finally completely lost it?” I deadpan.“No!” Naomi snaps her fingers at me triumphantly. “I was thinking the number three over and over again. So, see, it was a fluke.” She pauses and then adds, “You’re also right about the concern, but that doesn’t take a psychic—you just know me that well.”“True.” A slight head nod shows my concession. I’m pretty sure I’m one of the few people Naomi would trust with her life, even though, unlike me, she has a great family support system. Her parents are still married—they’re two of the people I’ve met who seem to have an actual storybook happy ending of love—living in a suburb of Cleveland where she grew up. Her older brother is married with a recently born baby girl and lives down the street from her parents. He and his wife are also on the happily-ever-after list. And even though Naomi chose a college in Columbus for some space—and to follow a guy who eventually dumped her before moving to San Jose for a big-time tech job, but we don’t mention that—she still talks with her family regularly and frequently visits them in Cleveland, and they come down to Columbus. My dad lives in Toledo, and I don’t remember the last time I talked with him or saw him. It was sometime around the holidays, probably. I try not to begrudge Naomi a great family, but sometimes it’s hard. I wouldn’t even know where to begin to patch things up with my dad. Which is why I avoid it just as much as he does.“So who did you hear? Do you know?” Naomi pulls me back to the present again, and I start to blush as the answer to her question arises in my mind’s eye in the form of a hunky man. Blushing is a given for me—I’ve got pale skin and overactive capillaries.“Ooh. Someone cute. Do tell.”“It was a guy who walked into intake and got in line. But he wasn’t dropping off an animal,” I throw in, not sure why I feel the need to defend this stranger. “After I heard him, we had a staring contest. Then I came to my senses and bolted before the situation could get any weirder.”“Afraid he’d see your hot, lusty thought, eh?”I blush again at her teasing, and her blue eyes narrow at me.“Oh, you really were having hot, lusty thoughts. Ooh, this is getting good. You’ve got the hots for a guy you can mindspeak with. It’s like soul mate/twin flames kinda stuff. This is so cool.”Leave it to Naomi to find the silver lining—and already be planning my wedding in her head. Not that she dates much either, but, unlike me, she has managed to remain a romantic at heart and believes we each actually have a soul mate. I don’t think I’ve ever been romantic. Maybe when I was, like, eight or something. I’ve never really been a Disney Princess kind of girl.“Maybe it’s cool for you,” I snark. “A guy I’ve never met may have heard me think he’s hot and a little bit about what I’d like to do about that.”“Worse yet, you may never see him again.”For some reason that depresses me more than anything so far, and I frown.“But of course, if you’re soul mates, I’m sure you will.” She lays a consoling hand on my arm.I’m still frowning, trying to understand why the thought of never seeing him again brings me such a feeling of emptiness when it should bring me relief. I have never wanted nor sought to have a man in my life. And certainly not a soul mate, if that concept even truly exists.Has Naomi had one of her hunches about this situation? It’s probably too new for her to process. She’s always had a knack for just knowing how situations will turn out. In this case, I’m too freaked out even to ask her if she has had a hunch, and I’m sure she knows it’s too soon to bring it up and for me to be able to handle that info. Truth be told, I am not sure if I’d want her to be right or not.“That’s it,” Naomi breaks into my thoughts yet again. She stands and pulls me out of bed, a look of grim determination on her face, even as her eyes sparkle. “This requires ice cream.”That makes me smile at her. “Yes. Yes it does.” Nothing makes me feel better than ice cream. Except maybe sex with a really hot guy with emerald green eyes.