The minute Rafael De Santos stepped out the front door of Vircolac, he knew he was being followed. He could have credited a sort of preternatural sixth sense for the knowledge, a combination of the heightened hearing and sight of his Feline heritage, but that wouldn’t have been precisely true. Because the fact was, whoever was tailing him was doing a piss-poor job.
Maybe Rafe’s perceptions of this sort of thing had been colored by all the time he’d spent with the Lupines of the Silverback Clan, who were renowned for their abilities at covert actions like tails and stakeouts. It could be that the contrast between their expert maneuvers and the bungling of the figure behind him tonight made an otherwise perfectly adequate tail look inept. Then the tail tripped over a crack in the sidewalk and fell sideways into a garbage can, and Rafe shook his head. No, his stalker really was that bad.
Which begged the question: Why was someone tailing him in the first place? To begin with, Rafe was not in the sort of neighborhood where one was likely to be mugged. Admittedly, crime in Manhattan knew no real borders, but this swanky neighborhood in the Upper East Side was as safe as you were likely to get without abandoning the city entirely. So, he didn’t think the tail was a common street thug.
He supposed it could be another Felix come to challenge him for his territory, but judging by the figure’s general size and shape—not to mention apparent clumsiness—the upstart would be in for a rude surprise if he attempted anything of the sort. Again, not very likely.
He briefly considered the possibility that it might be another rogue Fae. After the incident a few months ago with Seoc and Fergus and Lucifer and the ruckus caused here and in Faerie by that delegation, just the thought made Rafe nervous. But again, this tail was way too clumsy to be one of the Beautiful People.
So what was left? Rogue Lupine sounded about as likely as a Felix challenger, given their proximity to Graham Winters’s home and business. Any werewolf who attempted to act without Graham’s consent in the heart of that Alpha’s own territory would be three steps past stupid and not a little foolhardy. Such an idiot would likely have charged him by now.
This was a puzzle, and Rafe was enough a man of his blood to be very curious about puzzles.
Keeping his gaze straight ahead and his pace steady, he quietly turned the tables on his stalker and let the hunter become the hunted.
It didn’t take much for Rafe to win the upper hand. In his tailored suit and Italian loafers, he had the advantage of surprise. No one ever expected an obviously wealthy man to know the first thing about defending himself or about tracking prey. Luckily, Rafe was more than just another wealthy man.
He was Felix.
He felt his mouth curve at the inherent arrogance in that statement of fact. There didn’t seem to be a way to state it without arrogance. His people had been worshipped as gods centuries before humans ever entertained the thought that a single god might sustain the complexity of life. That sort of thing tended to breed arrogance in a man. Then of course, the very nature of the cat beast within him meant arrogance was indelibly stamped on his nature. The jaguar occupied the top of the food chain in its native jungles of South America. When one had no rivals at all, one stopped seeing rivals even where they existed.
Rafe liked to think of himself as more than just his beast, more than the jaguar spirit that crouched within him. He embraced and appreciated that part of his ancestry, that aspect of his nature, but as a modern civilized man, he liked to think of his nature as more complex than “man by day, jaguar by night.”
He had, after all, grown up in a penthouse apartment in Manhattan, not in the dense, tropical jungles of his father’s childhood. He had attended private schools and a prestigious university, learned how to ace an exam and order fine wine for sophisticated companions. He knew which fork to use at even the most exalted tables and could debate with intelligence and gusto topics ranging from Kierkegaard to Handel to the politics of Eastern European nationalism. And he could do it all with a droll wit and an urbane smile.
None of that negated the feral predator lurking in his soul. The one that knew it could turn on his would-be stalker and rip out the man’s throat before his enemy could even voice a scream in protest. It was the same beast that first realized his stalker smelled like a woman. And not just any woman. She smelled like a witch.
The fragrance roused his curiosity even higher. Witches and werefolk rarely had contact with each other, and it had been that way for as long as Rafe could remember. He had heard a few stories over the years about why that was the case—tales that ranged from ancient race wars inspired by divine edict to a magical version of the Hatfields, the McCoys, and that infamous pig. Rafe doubted either story could claim the crown as the whole truth, but he realized he’d never before bothered to wonder about it. Not until he found himself being stalked by a female witch on a deserted street in Upper Manhattan on a Wednesday night.
Funny how that sort of thing could spring itself on a man.
More determined than ever to satisfy his curiosity and find out what the stalking witch wanted with him, Rafe continued to lead his unsuspecting hunter straight into a trap. He imagined things could get interesting tonight, and after a run of boring business meetings, the diversion might prove to be just what he needed.
* * *
Heeere, kitty-kitty-kitty …
The singsong call echoed through her head, making Tess Menzies bite down on her lip to stifle a snicker. You wouldn’t think her current position—crouched in the shadows of an old brownstone, her eyes glued to the elegant facade of the building across the street—would be one conducive to humor, but then again Tess had always been one to laugh at inappropriate moments. Like when her grandfather was berating her for wearing the wrong outfit to his sixtieth birthday party. He didn’t seem to find the humor in telling a fourteen-year-old that her heels were too low and her hemline too long. He hadn’t appreciated the joke.
He probably wouldn’t appreciate her fanciful idea about cajoling the most powerful werecat in Manhattan to her side with a ditty and a saucer of milk, either. The man seriously lacked a sense of humor.
Her own sense of humor was what had kept Tess sane for the duration of the most boring night of her life. She’d been lurking at the mouth of this alley for close to three hours, and her muscles had long ago given up their protests over her cramped position. She hoped that wouldn’t pose a problem when she tried to force them to move again. According to the intelligence provided by her grandfather’s sources, her mark should be making his move any second now.
The thought inspired yet more snickering. This whole episode just screamed for the use of language like mark and intelligence, even though the closest Tess herself had ever come to espionage or intrigue was watching old Humphrey Bogart movies on satellite. The idea that she’d gone straight from curling up on her sofa in Tribeca on dateless Saturday nights with a bowl of popcorn and the opening credits of The Maltese Falcon to staking out a private club on the Upper East Side …
Well, the comic implications of that just went on forever.
She supposed her grandfather could have picked someone less suitable for carrying out this particular favor, but she figured it would have taken a lot of time and some serious effort. After all, she knew of one former marine, three former police officers, a retired private investigator, and a (mostly) reformed thief just in her grandfather’s immediate circle of friends. Any of them could probably have located this particular shapeshifter and delivered the council’s message with a tenth of the fuss and muss Tess instinctively knew she would cause given half the chance. Not to brag, but she had a knack for that kind of thing—namely, for turning a simple task into something out of an Abbott and Costello movie.
What could she say? It was a gift.
You’d think her grandfather would take that into consideration before giving her this assignment. But no. When Grandfather got a notion into his head, nothing short of a seismic catastrophe could shake him from his course, and the jury still deliberated over whether even that could do the job.
Sighing, Tess wrapped her arms around herself and chafed her hands up and down to try to generate some heat. The crisp October night that had felt so pleasant just an hour ago had taken a decidedly chilly turn. She indulged in a moment of regret that she hadn’t stopped to fill a thermos with coffee before she set herself up here to wait, but shrugged it off. If she had coffee, she’d be drinking it, and if she drank coffee, she’d have to pee, so it really was just as well. She couldn’t exactly knock on the door of the building she was using for concealment and ask to use their bathroom. She’d probably give the poor owners a heart attack, and wouldn’t that justify her grandfather’s opinion of her?
Since she recalled once having read somewhere that the best cure for boredom on a stakeout was fantasizing, Tess let her mind wander down that path for a minute. She could just picture herself clad head-to-toe in black, from her black jeans and supple black boots to her thin black turtleneck sweater. She looked more like a cat burglar than anything else. Not exactly a reassuring sight to find on one’s doorstep at two thirty-seven AM.
She swallowed another chuckle and shifted her weight subtly, her gaze still on the doors across the street. Her little fantasy was probably way off base, though. Judging by the ornately carved doors of the buildings around her, the beautiful historical architecture, and the pricey addresses, no one on this block or the next answered his own door, even at two thirty-seven AM. That, she assumed with a smirk, was what butlers were for.
In that respect, Tess was certainly out of her element here in the land of milk and money. Her own perfectly adequate loft a block shy of SoHo would probably fit inside the foyers of most of the houses on this street, especially the house she currently had her eye on. The four-story limestone building sat in the middle of the block like a grande dame holding court. No signage marred the exquisite facade—unless you counted the classic brass address numbers as a sign—nor did any other marks indicate that Tess had staked out one of the most exclusive and prestigious private clubs in all of Manhattan.
But then, when your club catered to vampires, werewolves, and other creatures of the night, neon was probably not a particularly discreet choice.
For at least the last two centuries, Vircolac had easily retained its title as the best-kept secret in Manhattan. The only reason Tess had learned of it was because the Witches’ Council had a vested interest in some of the people who passed through its thick, oak doors.
Well, people might not exactly be the correct term, since the membership of Vircolac consisted entirely of the less human members of New York society. Vampires, werewolves, and shapeshifters of all kinds filled the club’s membership list, and the only humans who ever made it past the doorman were rumored to be closely connected with the club’s owner, Graham Winters. A werewolf himself, Winters ran the club like a medieval kingdom, and unless the general consensus had things entirely wrong, Vircolac generated about as much income as the average kingdom. Most people referred to it as a business empire, and for a single club to gain that distinction meant that Graham Winters probably had more money pass through his fingers on a daily basis than Tess’s little herb shop in the East Village could expect to generate between now and the end of time.
It must be good to be the king.
In addition to his duties to his business, Winters supposedly kept an equally tight rein on the Silverback Clan, the werewolf pack he led and the single largest collection of shapeshifters in Greater Manhattan. As Alpha, he was directly responsible for every single member of that pack, and he was said to take the job very seriously.
In his spare time, Tess supposed wryly.
Winters, though, was not why she was crouching in the shadows of some garbage bins on a Wednesday night in October. She didn’t have to deal with the werewolf, thank the gods. Instead, her grandfather had sent her here to bell the cat.
Rolling her eyes, Tess shifted her weight and sighed.
Right. Like she was so qualified to chase down a werecat with nothing more going for her than a diplomatic message and a sunny disposition. Blond hair, blue eyes, and a curvy figure against 350 pounds of muscle, razor-sharp teeth, and claws like tiny, lethal daggers? Sure, those were great odds.
Looking back at her conversation with her grandfather, Tess could recall bringing up those very salient points to him just yesterday. She had mentioned that she was absolutely the worst person for the job of delivering an official message from the council. Heck, she wasn’t even a member of the Witches’ Council, let alone a representative. She had precisely no knowledge of nor experience with werefolk of any kind (not that many witches did, since the two groups tended to avoid each other like a particularly nasty strain of the Ebola virus), and generally Tess tended to end up with her foot in her mouth at any and all available opportunities. So what made her the choice for this assignment again?
Oh, right. Grandfather’s standard answer. “Because I said so.”
Tess grumbled to herself and pressed the button on the side of her watch to illuminate the dial. According to the information the council had provided, the werecat she’d come to see was already ten minutes later than his regular timetable indicated. Apparently he didn’t realize he had a stalker with better things to do with her time. Sighing, she trained her gaze back on the door to Vircolac and settled in for an extended wait.
She didn’t get one.
Almost as soon as she had the carved oak doors back in her sight, the right side opened and a figure stepped out. It paused for a moment to speak to someone on the threshold.
“Finally,” she breathed, freezing in place, gaze fastened on the man across the street.
She got a brief look at his face while he stood in the pool of light cast by the fixture over the club’s doors, so she knew this was her guy. His features had the angular, slightly exotic cast of his Latin ancestors, and even in the artificial light she saw the bronze hue of his skin and the way his black hair gave off almost blue highlights. Add to that the tailored fit of his suit, the arrogant, graceful way he held himself, and the liquid quality to the way he moved, and Tess had no doubts. She had a bead on Rafael De Santos.
The problem was that she hadn’t expected him to be quite so mouthwateringly gorgeous.
Tess sat mesmerized for several minutes before a moth flying perilously close to her cheek reminded her that not only was her mouth gaping open like the legs of a cheerleader on prom night, her tongue was probably hanging out, too. She clamped her jaw shut with a click, but her reaction seemed almost beyond her control.
The man took her breath away.
For some reason she’d had this picture in her head of the shapeshifter as unappealing, sort of bestial and feral, his humanity a thin veil over his more savage nature. She knew that image didn’t exactly mesh with his reputation as a charming if feckless rogue, more Casanova than killer, but her mind had discounted the stories as rumor. No one could be as handsome and charming as the stories made out, not unless he worked in Hollywood and regularly appeared on the covers of national magazines.
But now here Tess was, finding them to be absolute fact. If not shameful understatements.
The only evidence she saw of this man’s bestial side was the animal magnetism she could feel rolling off him, even from fifty feet away. It made her fingers itch, her mouth dry out, and her—
Well, she really didn’t want to think about what her other parts were doing.
Focus, Tess. Focus.
Dragging her eyes off the werecat’s butt—conveniently positioned toward her as he spoke with the figure in the doorway—Tess ordered her heart to slow down and her thighs to unclench so she could get back to the task at hand. She’d need all her faculties operational for this one. She could just feel it.
Why does he have to be so gorgeous?
She eased herself to her feet and hugged the side of the stairway, completely engulfed in the shadows. She would be a lot more relaxed about taking a message to the leader of the Council of Others if he were a short, ugly were-gopher instead of a take-me-now jungle beast of a heartthrob.
Where’s the justice in the universe? she silently cried.
No one answered.
Great. Now even my own subconscious is ignoring me.
She waited for him to wave farewell to the doorman and start off down the deserted street before easing from her hiding place and trailing after him in the shadows. She made it approximately three steps before she tripped over her own feet and went stumbling sideways into a trash can. Thankfully, it was plastic and not the old-fashioned metal kind. With that much noise, she might as well just have shouted his name.
She felt kind of stupid following him like this—instead of walking right up to him, introducing herself, and taking care of business like a reasonable adult—but not stupid enough to change her approach. She told herself she was taking a few minutes to build up her courage before taking the plunge. She just wished she were naive enough to believe it.
She would have to speak to him eventually, of course. It would be difficult to deliver the message otherwise. What she needed was an appropriate ice breaker.
Okay, so how about, Excuse me, Mr. De Santos? I have some information you might be interested in.
No. Too Jehovah’s Witness.
Um … Hey, are you Rafael De Santos, the famous werejaguar and leader of the Council of Others?
Nope. Too Bellevue escapee.
Mr. De Santos, I come bearing an urgent message from the High Authority of the Witches’ Council.
Ugh! Too sci-fi B movie.
Hm, maybe, Mr. De Santos, my name is Tess Menzies, and I’m—oof!
The “oof!” was never intended to be part of the speech, but it’s what burst out of her mouth when two hundred and some-odd pounds of male muscle barreled into her from the side and drove her deep into a service alley halfway down the street.
Before she had time to yell Fire!—and she called herself a native New Yorker—she was pressed flat against the brick wall of one of the adjacent buildings with her hands yanked over her head and six feet of man pinning her in place.
“Who are you, and why the hell have you been following me?”
His growl rumbled through her with a menace she could feel down in her bones, and she knew instinctively that if he’d given her a full-fledged roar, she’d be fighting for control of her bladder right about now. Even so, his efforts would probably have made a normal person cry. The man had intimidation down to an art. He projected pure rage and menace, and the snarl he rumbled out right up against her face did manage to make her take a hearty gulp, but she rallied quickly and dealt with the situation the way she always did: She brazened through it.
“Sheesh.” She managed to get it out without squeaking and congratulated herself. “If you usually come on to women this strongly, I have to wonder that you ever get a date.”
What the hell are you doing? a voice inside her demanded.
I have absolutely no idea, she answered.
He snarled again. Lower this time. More menacing. “I said, who the hell are you?”
“I heard you.” She swallowed a knot of fear and lifted her chin. “I just didn’t think it was any of your business.”
His expression, which she could see clearly, given its current location about a nanometer away from hers—he had really great skin, she noticed, all smooth and even and bronze—turned incredulous.
“Pardon me? Unless I’m very much mistaken—and I know I’m not—you’ve been tailing me for three blocks. That makes your name, rank, serial number, and intentions very much my business.”
She forced a carefree grin and watched his golden eyes blaze. She hoped he wouldn’t notice the panic lurking in hers.
“Well, my name is Tess, my rank is absolutely nothing, I’m horrible with numbers, and my intentions are a little too complicated to explain to you in a dark alley. Plus, I generally talk with my hands, and you’re currently making that a wee bit difficult.”
He snarled. “I have no time for smart-aleck retorts. Why are you following me?”
She blinked up at him with wide blue eyes that generally made men smile at her indulgently while telling her to let them handle things and not worry her pretty little head. “Well, I thought that would be obvious. I wanted to know where you were going.”
He was ignoring the eyes.
How could he ignore the eyes?
“Not good enough. Explain. Now.”
Tess blinked, her mouth curving into the standard plan B pout. “That’s the truth. I wanted to know where you were going. You know, for someone with such a reputation for being a ladies’ man, you could use a little work on your manners.”
“My manners are fine when I’m with a lady. I’m not entirely sure you qualify.”
“Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that in my experience, ladies don’t follow men through deserted streets at two thirty in the morning. That’s what criminals and cowards do.”
The pout had clearly failed as miserably as the big blue eyes, and suddenly Tess felt a lot less confident about her plan C. It didn’t seem to be working. At all. Instead of simultaneously being smitten with her 1940s pin-up girl looks and completely underestimating both her intelligence and her character, the werecat appeared to be pissed off at her. His exotic amber eyes looked hard and impatient, and his sensual mouth looked tight and unamused. This was not the sort of reaction she was used to getting from men.
Shifting nervously, she tried tugging her hands free, but his grip only tightened. She gave a hard yank, and he responded with a low warning growl. Before she could seriously give in to panic and start struggling, he leaned into her and used his body to keep her immobile against the cold brick wall.
“Your explanation. Now.”
Tess swallowed hard. It was about the only movement she could make. He kept her hands pinned above her head, and now his chest crushed her flat while his hips pressed tightly against hers, rendering her completely immobile. She could feel the way he bent his legs to even out their heights, because those legs crowded against hers to keep her still. She couldn’t move a damned muscle, which meant she also couldn’t cast any damned spells. She was helpless. Time for plan D: the truth.
Just not too much of it.
“I already explained, sort of. I was supposed to wait for you outside Vircolac until you came out. Then I was supposed to deliver a message and leave. But I got curious to see where you were going in the wee hours of the morning.”
She made her tone and expression sullen, as if she had given in reluctantly. Which she had, so that could go in the truth column.
“If you hadn’t jumped me, you’d never have known I was following you. I was just going to see if you were going to a nightclub or something. I’ve never been to one and thought it would be fun to see where the cool ones are. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
That last part was, perhaps, fodder for the second column.
“Don’t ask me. It’s written down in a sealed envelope. It’s not like I read it or anything.”
That one, too.
She saw his nostrils flare as he inhaled deeply. His eyes narrowed. “You’re lying. I can smell it on you.” He paused, then inhaled again, leaning in a little until Tess’s breath caught in her throat. “I can smell something else, too. There’s something…” Another sniff. “… different about you.”
Tess felt her eyes widen before she caught herself. “Well, I showered right before I left home,” she joked weakly, trying to shift even an inch away from him. “If you can smell me, I think I need to switch soaps.”
He didn’t appear to be listening. Instead he leaned forward and pressed his face into the curve of her neck. She froze as her stomach clenched. She felt the stir of his breath against her skin and choked on a swift shock of arousal. Apparently, her body hadn’t forgotten its first impression of him. It remembered quite clearly how attracted she’d been. And it chose now to remind her.
“That’s not it,” he muttered, and she could feel the movement of his lips as he spoke. “You smell … different…” Sniff. “Exotic…” Sniff … “Powerful…” Sniff, sniff. Then the dart of a tongue that rasped against her throat. Her knees quivered. “Other.”
His head turned, and Tess found herself staring into golden eyes that blazed with impossible heat above a mouth drawn thin in accusation.
“You smell like a witch.”
Tess stared up into those amber eyes and felt her first wave of fear. Suddenly she remembered that this man wasn’t just a man. He was a Felix—an Alpha werecat—and the most powerful Feline in the history of the city. If he wanted, he could tear out her throat with a swipe of his finger. With the tension radiating off him, she was no longer sure he didn’t intend to do just that.
“Well? Are you a witch?” He asked it in that rasping growl and shook her by the hands he held pinned. “You aren’t human. I can smell it.”
“You smell wrong.” She could feel how wide her eyes had grown, but this time it wasn’t a ploy. It was fear. “I am human. My name is Tess Menzies.”
He pressed his nose against the hollow below her ear and inhaled. She had to bite back a moan as her womb clenched. Never in her life had she reacted to a man like this.
Shit, her timing sucked.
“You’re not. Humans smell … muddy. Thick. You smell clear. Sweet. Spicy.” Again that tongue, rasping like damp sandpaper across her skin. “Taste that way, too. Not human at all.”
Fear prodded her into temper. “Eaten many humans, have you?”
She felt his mouth shift into a grin.
“A few here and there.” He paused. Nuzzled. Purred softly, “Want me to eat you?”
That sensual, amused question had nothing to do with consumption, but a hell of a lot to do with sex. Sheesh. Did the man usually come on to women when he had them pinned against the wall during an interrogation?
The image brought a flood of moisture between her legs, and she cursed.
“Hmm, smells like you like the idea.” A lazy stroke of the tongue. The soft, delicate scrape of teeth. “I’d love to taste that cream I can smell. I bet it’s thick and rich and hot.”
His legs shifted, forced hers apart. He settled between them until she could feel the ridge of an impressive erection nestling against her mound.
“I’d like to lap it all up. And I will. Just as soon as you answer my question.”
Her stammer made him chuckle, and she gritted her teeth.
“Yes, question.” He nuzzled the sweet spot below her ear and pressed his hips against hers when she tried to squirm away. “The one where I asked if you’re a witch.”
If he really wanted to know what she was, horny was the most honest answer she could come up with, but she didn’t feel inclined to share that little tidbit.
If she were smart, she wouldn’t be sharing any of her tidbits with this man. He was trouble.
“I told you,” she gritted out, “my name is Tess, and I’m as human as the next person.”
“Considering the next person at the moment is not human at all, that fails to convince me of anything.”
This time when she experienced the scrape of his teeth, she could feel the elongated canines, and she squeaked. He didn’t sink them into her flesh, and she didn’t expect him to, but the message was clear. He was far from human and far from civilized, no matter what he looked like on the surface.
“It’s the truth.”
He pulled back then and stared down at her with eyes that had gone molten. Even in the darkness, she could see the way his pupils had elongated to feline slits.
“You are very stubborn, and very wrong. Also very unsurprised to find a man with fangs and cat’s eyes pinning you up against an alley wall. Would you care to explain why?”
She raised an eyebrow. “Not really.”
“Do it anyway.”
Stalling for time seemed like her best bet. Well, honestly, it seemed about as hopeless as anything else, but it made her feel better. “How about you let go of my hands first and give me some breathing room? This Spanish Inquisition thing is getting kind of uncomfortable.”
“I find it very comfortable indeed,” he purred, shifting his hips to press his erection harder against her. “The way you breathe now is positively entrancing, room or no room. But if you truly wish to be free, I suggest you begin to cooperate.”
Tess had never taken suggestions very well. “Or what? You’ll beat the answers out of me?”
He shifted his grip, transferring both her wrists to one of his large hands, and though she redoubled her efforts, she still couldn’t break that grip.
“Hm, would you like that, sweet Tess? Would you like it if I turned you over my knee, bared that lovely bottom to the moonlight, and turned it pink and glowing with the weight of my hand?” His free hand slid around her back and cupped her bottom, kneading the muscle and making her quiver. “Would you like that, gatita?”
Christ. Although she’d never been into bondage, the mental image caused an unexpected jolt in her pussy. She ignored it and concentrated on not wrapping her legs around his waist. “Trust a man to resort to violence.”
“Only if it pleases you, sweetheart.”
“What would please me is you letting me go!”
That damned chuckle again. “Ah, but that would not please me, sweet Tess, and since I am currently the one in control here, it is my wish that counts.”
Tess harrumphed. “And isn’t that just like a man?”
“Or like a beast.” His eyes flashed, and his gaze slid to her lips. “And you know the truth about beasts and beauties, don’t you? The beasts always take what they want and damn the consequences.”
Her only warning was a flash of gold before his head dipped, and his mouth settled hot and hungry over hers.
Copyright © 2012 by Christine Warren