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"David, if you're going to be my partner in this, pay attention." Wade Patterson glared at his twin brother as they sipped beers in the noisy Houston club-a shifters' club where humans, who didn't know any better, mingled with jaguar shifters.
South American jungle music rocked the building, and colorful lights roamed over the silk ferns and plastic banana plants. Vines cascaded from the ceiling and along walls painted with jungle scenes. Leopard-print vinyl covered all the seats. Tiny lights simulating stars dotted the black ceiling. On stages above the dance floor, a couple of scantily clad women in leopard-print thongs and feathers dangling over their nipples danced around vine-painted poles. A man wearing a leopard-print loincloth was dancing nearby on another pole.
"I am looking for the guys who could be involved in this, okay? Just because a stray cat catches my attention..." David shrugged. "Don't tell me your eye doesn't wander to take in every cute brunette in this place."
Wade hated that David could see right through him. "For your information, I'm not just looking at the brunettes."
Every blonde who looked even remotely similar to Maya Anderson made Wade take an extra look. He told himself that it was because the Andersons were the only shifters in the vicinity that he knew and they might end up there tonight. The rest of the sea of people dancing or drinking were unfamiliar to him. David gave him a skeptical look.
Wade took another swig of beer. "Drop it."
David nodded, then smiled at a pretty redheaded human. She smiled back but joined a dark-haired guy at another table. The man glowered at David as if he were ready to expose claws and teeth.
"Humans," David said, slightly amused.
"The last human male you dealt with over a woman shot you." Wade reminded David often because he'd come so close to losing his brother that day. He didn't ever want to deal with those kinds of emotions again. Shifters had fast-healing properties, but they could bleed out too fast, and then they were as dead as any human might be, suffering from the same trauma.
"Don't remind me," David said, finishing his beer.
Rebels in their youth, the two of them had done everything and anything they wanted to do after their mother died. Their dad had been so broken up that he'd forgotten he had two sons to raise.
Martin Sullivan, the director of a special elite force for jaguar shifters-the Golden Claw JAG, or Golden Claws for short-had been their salvation.
"I still don't know why Martin called us in. We just finished that Peruvian extraction and we're long overdue for a break." David folded his arms across his chest, his gaze straying to a brunette this time.
"Sorry, David," Wade said, and he meant it. Wade suspected it was his own fault that Martin was sending them on another mission so soon after their last one. Wade's previous vacation had turned into a fight with a drug dealer, and as if that wasn't bad enough, he'd lost the woman he had wanted to get to know better to Connor Anderson. Connor had turned her into a jaguar shifter, too, which still galled Wade. Especially since Connor had been traveling with a beautiful shifter named Maya Anderson. Wade assumed they were mates. But if Connor already had a mate, why did he have to get between Wade and Kathleen McKnight? Wade could do nothing about it, but losing Kathleen had definitely put his tail in a twist.
"Martin needs agents who are familiar with the territory. Since you and I have both been to Belize several times to run wild in the jungle as jaguars and were there just six months ago, he figures we're right for the job." Wade shrugged. "Besides, we've dealt with the trafficking of exotic animals before."
David studied him. Wade hardly ever apologized to his younger twin brother.
"You want to let me in on the secret?" David asked.
Wade shook his head. He wasn't about to mention that Martin was worried about him after his vacation in the Amazon had turned into a battle to keep the Andersons safe. "Watch for anything suspicious. Listen to the conversations around us. Martin said that this is usually the night they come to make arrangements to hunt the jaguars, but..." He frowned as his brother's gaze drifted to a newcomer, knowing David was only halfheartedly listening to him. Not that he wouldn't do his job, but he acted as though he really needed a break.
"Holy hell, now she's a cat," David purred.
Wade turned to see who he was drooling over this time.
Holy hell was right. She was a wild cat: Maya Anderson in the flesh. Wade looked beyond her, expecting Kathleen and Connor Anderson to be with her, but she was by herself. What was she doing here alone?
Meeting someone, obviously, Wade chastised himself.
David left his seat before Wade had a chance to tell him who the curvaceous blonde was. Trouble. That's all she could be. She didn't have a clue who Wade and his brother worked for, and she'd never seen Wade in human form. But she'd recognize his scent if she got close enough. They hadn't met in the Amazon, but he'd been close enough to be of help to her in a bad moment there.
His brother smiled broadly at Maya and motioned to the table where Wade sat, leaning back with his arms folded across his chest. Wade was wondering why in the hell he'd agreed to be his brother's partner on this operation. Besides wanting to keep David safe-which meant Wade needed to stop this now. Connor Anderson would kill David if he knew he was encroaching.
Wade recalled when he'd seen her swimming with Kathleen and Connor in the Amazon River. Diving with the pink dolphins, Maya had worn only a sexy black lace bra and panties. He wished he'd been swimming with her in human form and not having to watch their backs, hidden as a jaguar in a tree, unbeknownst to them.
Connor had been kissing Kat in the river nearby, holding her tight, possessively. Wade had had mixed emotions about that. He wasn't sure why Kat had given Connor the time of day when he already had a wife. He couldn't understand why Maya would go along with it, either. He'd felt bad for her when she stood wistfully watching Kat and Connor.
When Maya waded out of the river and onto the bank, Wade's jaguar jaws had hung open. Hot damn, she'd been hot then-just like she was now.
He just couldn't understand why Maya would share her man with another woman. Unless that's how they liked it. He realized that he'd never seen Maya and Connor hugging each other, no molten looks of desire cast between them, or anything else that would lead him to believe they were mated. Almost like family... like brother and sister. Hell, maybe their relationship wasn't what he'd thought it was after all. That had him thinking of different possibilities.
Maya's blond hair was pulled up into a twist, showing off her naked neck and making her look sexy as hell as straggles of curls framed her face. She wore sparkly high heels and a blue T-shirt minidress that accentuated her long legs. The dress had a casual sexiness, unlike the revealing short-hemmed dresses and plunging necklines many of the other women at the club wore. Maya was just as arousing. Maybe more so because he damned well would like to see more of what he could only glimpse, given the way the dress clung to her curves. Her body was toned and tanned, and she moved like a cat-sleek, sure-footed, and dangerous.
Wade was suddenly very hot and very thirsty.
If any male shifter approached her and gave her a hard time, the shifter would be flat on his back, facing one angry jaguar-him.
As always, David was the charmer, his hair flopping over his forehead, his skin bronzed, his blue eyes smiling as he led the female shifter to their table.
They couldn't involve a shifter civilian while they were undercover, so why was David breaking the rule?
"This is..." David didn't manage to say anything further as Wade stood up to his full six-foot height, towering over Maya by half a foot, and looked down into her golden eyes, which were wide with surprise.
Once she breathed in his scent, she'd know he'd been the cat helping them out five months ago, and most likely she realized he was the same one who'd been seeking to meet up with Kathleen.
"Wade Patterson," he said, hand outstretched.
She stood there staring at him, her pink lips parted in silent astonishment.
"We've met," he said, not liking how concerned she looked to see him there.
David cleared his throat and crossed his arms. "Figures the two of you already knew each other. I'd kind of gotten that impression when she thought I was someone else-you-but she waited for me to identify who I was first. I'm always late to the party. Where'd the two of you meet?"
"The Amazon," Maya said, finally breaking her gaze with Wade.
David's jaw grew slack. "Anderson," he said too loudly. His worried gaze shifted from Maya to Wade. He almost looked apologetic that he'd brought her over to the table.
Wade could tell his brother had finally made the connection. Kathleen, Connor, and Maya.
She still hadn't taken Wade's hand, and he finally dropped the offer. Turning to David, she asked, "Would you like to dance?"
Wade understood the slight. He had gone after Kathleen, and Maya hadn't liked it.
"Hot damn, yeah." But then David looked at Wade as if he remembered how upset his brother had been over the issue of the Andersons and sought his approval in his usual affable way.
Annoyed that his brother wanted to dance with Maya, but also concerned for him, Wade went for nonchalant. "She's got a husband."
David's face fell as if the she-cat had dazzled him to such an extent that he'd forgotten about that part of the equation.
Maya smiled so brilliantly that her expression was as stunning as the colored lights flitting across the room. "Come on. I'm safe," she said and tugged at David's hand, with a flitting cat-who-ate-the-cream smile cast in Wade's direction.
Wade didn't think she was safe in the least-not if Connor got involved.
Exhaling heavily, Wade sat back down. He watched as Maya led David to the dance floor, trying not to wish he was the one with her instead.
Unable to look away, Wade knew he should be searching for the men involved with the exotic-animal smuggling ring. Two women approached Wade, and he spared them a glance.
"Can we sit here with you? The tables are all taken."
He grunted a yes. The table was big enough for six, and since the women were both humans, they could help with his cover.
The redhead and the brunette thanked him and took seats next to him. They attempted to engage him in conversation, but Wade was too busy worrying that Connor might show up at the club any minute and try to kill David.
"So... you're Connor's...?" David let the question fall away.
Maya smiled at him as they moved together across the dance floor. "Sister."
A hint of a smile crossed his lips.
David was so sweet. His hair was a darker brown than his twin brother's, but since it was damp, it might just look darker. He smelled of chlorine, so she assumed he'd been swimming in a pool recently. He'd been so eager to meet her, and she'd been startled to think he was Wade Patterson, but he didn't smell like the same jaguar shifter who had helped them in the Amazon. She'd said she was Maya, not bothering with her last name, and he'd given her just his first name also.
David expelled his breath in a combination of relief and laughter. "He thought... Wade, that is... believed you were Connor's wife and that Connor took Kathleen for a wife also-jaguar style."
Maya shook her head. "That's what we assumed."
"You did?" David asked.
She smiled. "Yeah. I wanted to meet him when we were in the jungle, but my brother wasn't keen on it."
When David had taken her to the table where Wade was sitting, she had recognized him immediately, courtesy of his photos on the social networking sites that Kat had shown her. Taking in a deep breath of his masculine scent, she had been assured he was the same jaguar that had risked his neck aiding them.
Still, Maya couldn't believe her good fortune that he was here. She was dying to talk with him and thank him. But she hadn't wanted to appear too eager to meet him-especially after his rather chilly reception-so she'd asked his brother to dance with her instead. Not to mention that David had greeted her first when she arrived at the club, and she felt she owed him a dance at least.
David glanced in his brother's direction. "You... wanted to meet my brother."
"So... why did you ask me to dance? Seemed to me you would have danced with him instead." David didn't sound upset about it, more resigned than anything.
"I wanted to talk to you. I do want to thank him for all that he did for us in the Amazon. My brother didn't want Wade to get close to Kat. So... what are you both doing here? I thought Wade was supposed to be from Pensacola." She frowned a little, beginning to get suspicious.
"We have a job to do in Houston."
Maya raised her brows, waiting for an explanation, but he didn't give one. She asked point-blank, "Does Wade still want to get together with Kat?"
He'd better not even think of it. Not only would Connor turn into one feral cat, but so would Maya. Kat had dropped all correspondence with Wade-mostly because Connor didn't want Wade thinking he had a chance at getting to know Kat better. Some men didn't know when to leave well enough alone.
She glanced back at Wade. He was sexy, in great shape, and had dark brown hair and the most beautiful blue-green eyes she'd ever seen. In his photos, he had smiled in a way that said he liked to smile, liked to have fun when he wasn't fighting bad guys. Putting his best face forward for Kat might have been nothing but a ploy, but Maya thought he was being honest. Maybe because she wanted him to be.
"You think Wade is still interested in Kathleen McKnight? He isn't. Wade knew he lost that battle," David said. "Besides, I got the impression he was kind of intrigued with another cat."
"Oh." Well, of course she should have figured Wade was interested in another jaguar shifter. Why wouldn't he be? She could just imagine she-cats wanting to rub against him up close and personal.
"Yeah," David said, sounding like it was just his luck. "He didn't like that Connor was paying so much attention to Kat and leaving you to your own devices."
"Me?" She frowned at David, wondering just how much Wade had seen.
"In fact, he was pretty incensed."
"Because my brother was paying so much attention to Kat when Wade wanted to."
David shook his head. "No, but I'd better not say anything else."
She could have kicked him. Now he sounded like her brother. "What?"
"Well... I shouldn't really say, but... when you were swimming in the Amazon River, he wanted to swim with you."
She knew Wade had been watching them. "You mean with Kat."
"Nope. With you. That's what he said. So what are you doing here?" David asked. "Wade said you and Connor had a garden nursery a couple hours out of Houston."
For a moment, she was so flabbergasted to learn that Wade had wanted to swim with her and not Kat that she forgot what she was doing there. Refocusing, she cleared her throat. "I'm meeting a couple of cousins I just learned of."
She was so excited about getting to see them that when David had approached her at first, she'd thought maybe he was one of her cousins.
"Female cousins?" David asked, sounding hopeful.
"Male. Two of them at least. They have a sister, but she's not coming this time."
"I see." David's voice reflected disappointment. "Do you come here often?"
She shook her head. "My cousins told me about this place. I've never been here before." She didn't want to let on how naive she was. She and her brother hadn't ever found other shifters in their travels. Jaguars were elusive by nature, and the shifter variety even more so by necessity. Maya was certain Connor would have had a fit if he knew she had come here by herself.
Maya had expected a dark, smoky room full of loud music, drugs, and drinking in the Jungle Cat Fever Club, and had been thinking that when her cousins arrived, she'd convince them to go someplace else. Instead, the air was clear. Alcoholic beverages were readily being consumed, and the music had a beat to match the jungle theme, but it wasn't overpowering. The place looked normal to her. If her cousins hadn't told her it was a shifter club, she would never have known.
The club was decorated like a theme park version of the rainforest. Audio clips of macaws screeching or squawking, gibbons singing, howler monkeys calling out, and elephants trumpeting-elephants?-were played over the piped-in jungle music. Fake giant ferns, hanging vines, palms, and fig trees added to the jungle ambience.
When she first arrived at the club, Maya had observed three men watching her from a wrought-iron balcony above. As soon as she had parked the car, Maya felt all eyes on her as she left the vehicle, the newcomer to the scene, and entered the club. She'd hoped her cousins were already there. She didn't do club scenes, and she hadn't felt all that comfortable being here by herself.
She glanced again at Wade. He was watching her, a scowl on his face, his gaze latching onto hers. She didn't think right at this moment that he would have been interested in swimming with her anywhere.
He was wearing jeans and a sky-colored, soft chambray shirt-the long sleeves haphazardly rolled up his muscular arms, the buttons only closed to halfway up his chest, as if he hadn't bothered to finish dressing or he wanted to give viewers a peek at his bronzed skin.
In comparison, David had shaggy, darker brown hair, and his eyes were greener than Wade's. He wore a white polo shirt that stretched over his muscles, black dress pants, and loafers-a mix of casual and dressy as if he couldn't decide which way to go. He had just as beautiful a smile as Wade did.
Not that Wade was smiling right now. He looked like he was about to use his clenched fists to pummel someone, his gaze hard on Maya. Maybe because he thought she was married to Connor, and he worried she was going to get his brother into trouble.
Maya also noted the buxom women who had joined Wade at the table, their provocative dresses cut so low that she could almost see their navels. The women practically slobbered all over Wade, though his attention was clearly focused on Maya and David.
"Come on," she said to David. "Let's put your brother out of his misery."
The three men who had spied her from the balcony outside had entered the building and taken the stairs to the dance floor, all of them watching her dance with David. A tall and muscular redhead wore blue jeans and a T-shirt, his amber eyes raking her up and down. She immediately didn't care for him. He smiled at her like they were already best friends.
He spoke to a man with long blond hair that reminded her of a lion's mane. Lion Mane held her gaze. She wished she had such gorgeous hair, but she had to admit his body was nice, too, under a muscle shirt and tight-fitting jeans.
The last of the men was dark skinned with black curly hair, wearing nice black slacks and a white shirt, the collar open, making her think he had just gotten off work at some professional job. When he caught her eye, he gave her a nice show of white teeth.
Lion Mane and the redhead drew close to the dance floor, watching her as if getting ready to pounce on her.
When the song ended, Lion Mane motioned to a small table. "We have a table here for the pretty lady."
His two friends stood on either side of him, all motioning to the four chairs. The men all smelled like cat shifters. The inference was that David could get lost.
She opened her mouth to say "No thanks," but David beat her to it. "We've got a table over here." He pulled her along quickly. "The problem with someone like you coming to a club like this is that other shifters want a bite."
She frowned up at him, not getting his meaning.
"They instinctively know you're different."
"Different, how?" She was a cat. They were cats. She couldn't detect any difference in them.
"You're a jungle cat."
"Jungle cat?" Weren't they all?
They reached the table before she could ask anything further. Wade was already standing, pulling the chair out next to him, his feral gaze fixed on her. Maya hesitated to sit beside him. He seemed so primal. So dangerous.
"She's Connor's sister," David quickly said.
"Sister." Wade studied her. His mouth quirked up fractionally as if he was seeing her as someone different and intriguing now.
"I'm not Kat." She hated sounding annoyed. She loved Kat as a sister and was thrilled she had fallen in love with Connor. But she didn't want some guy who had been interested in Kat thinking that Maya was just like her.
"No," he said, drawing out the word, "you're not Kat."
She frowned. Then she was irritated at herself for caring when it shouldn't have mattered.
The three male cats watched Maya as if they were calculating how much of a risk it would be to approach her when she had two male bodyguards. She didn't think she would have all that much trouble around other shifters. Until she saw Wade in the Amazon, she had never witnessed another jaguar shifter, except for her mother and brother. She'd been more than interested in Wade. Who wouldn't have been when the jaguar had risked his life for them, and he hadn't even known them?
Wade and David were still waiting for her to take the seat between them. She hadn't expected other cats to be so territorial with her. She shook her head and took the seat Wade offered her.
The brothers traded relieved looks. The other cats looked like their pumped-up egos had instantly been deflated.
As if the brunette sitting on the other side of Wade was afraid she might lose out, she stretched out her hand to him. "I'm Candy, and you are?"
Too hot for you to handle, Maya wanted to say. David grinned at his brother.
"Wade." He gave her a brief handshake and glanced at Maya, as if he were worried about what she'd think.
Candy frowned at him. "We all just give club names in here. Like the guy over there, the redhead who's watching her"-she poked a finger in Maya's direction-"that's Red, though he's asked me out before and told me his real name is Bill Bettinger. The blond dude, the one that's also salivating over your friend here, is Blondie."
"Lion Mane." Maya hadn't meant to say anything, but that's the nickname she thought suited him.
"Lion Mane?" Candy stuck her tiny nose up in the air. "He goes by Blondie."
Maya wanted to call Lion Mane over to the table and prove to Candy that he would come no matter what she called him-or didn't call him. The way he was eyeing her, she was certain a crook of her finger would bring him to her.
Wade shook his head at Maya, just slightly, telling her not to do it. He seemed to know what she had in mind.
David was studying her just as closely, waiting for whatever would happen next. Wade appeared settled and complacent, but a jaguar would change his posture into combat mode in the blink of an eye if necessary.
Maya had no plans to stir up a lot of trouble, though it was tempting.
Candy eyed Maya. "So what's your club name?"
"Wildcat," David answered for her, smirking.