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THE JAGUAR PRINCE
By Karen Kelley
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Karen Kelley
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThat creepy crawly feeling was back, and goose bumps were popping up all over Callie Jordon's arms.
Damn it, Callie was certain, well, almost certain, someone lurked in the shadows. The feeling was the same as when she watched a scary movie late at night and hadn't pulled the curtains. She rubbed her arms to take away the sudden chill as her gaze scanned the park.
The last visitors in the zoo had left a couple of hours ago. There was no one in this area except herself. She was all alone.
It could be security, although Ben usually worked this side, and she knew he was still at the employee office. He wouldn't leave until he'd had at least two cups of the too strong black coffee and a couple of the jelly-filled doughnuts.
The feeling persisted, though. Not in a stalker kind of way. More as though whoever watched her was waiting to see what she would do next. The spooky sensation had been with her for a few days now so it was nothing new.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Get over it, she told herself.
"Hey, Callie, you still here?"
Her eyes flew open and she jumped, slapping a hand to her chest. "You scared the hell out of me, Pete!" Pete worked at the park, cleaning pens and any other odd job that came along. The moneyhe earned helped pay his way through college. He was cute, in a nerdy kind of way.
He blushed. "Sorry."
She took a deep calming breath. "It's okay. I just thought . . ."
"That I was the bogeyman?" He grinned.
Now it was her turn to blush. "Yeah, something like that."
"You on your way to see Sheba?"
He shook his head. "I'll never understand your fascination with that jaguar."
She couldn't explain it, either.
"Don't stay too long," he told her. "There is life beyond the zoo."
"So they tell me. Have a good night."
They parted ways, but she still felt a little uneasy for some strange reason.
Shake it off. It had been a long day, and an even longer week. She worked around kids most of the time. No wonder she was edgy.
The petting zoo was not what she would call a fun place to work, let alone being the person in charge. She'd been pinched, prodded, and bitten-and that was just this afternoon.
Still, pride washed over her. Not once had she threatened to feed the little monsters to the lion. Well, at least she hadn't today. Monday could very well be another story. Thank God she used birth control, and thank God she was off for the weekend.
So why was she still here? Yeah, yeah, Pete was right. She'd finished all her paperwork ten minutes ago. The answer was easy. She couldn't resist checking on the jaguar one last time. Crazy? Probably, since she didn't work with the big cats.
She released a deep sigh of longing. One day she would. As soon as the next animal keeper job came open, it was hers. It had been a long time coming. And she damn well deserved the job, too. She'd more than paid her dues.
A soft breeze carrying a hint of jasmine and ginger caressed her face, immediately calming her. She stopped, closed her eyes, and drew in a deep breath. The scents created the illusion of the rain forest. Tropical palms and a mist so light that she barely noticed added to the atmosphere. This was her Zen, her Chi.
The very first time she'd visited this part of the zoo, Callie had known she was meant to be here. Then, when Sheba arrived, she knew it for a fact. There was something special about the jaguar.
She opened her eyes and crossed the rustic bridge, then went around to the backside that was off limits to visitors.
The cats were in cages at night for safety reasons. A long row of them with a concrete roof and solid walls held the animals. The pens were small, but they connected to separate pits, as everyone at the zoo called them. The pits gave the animals a little more room to roam, and were more like their natural habitat. There were only two other cats at the small zoo. A mother lion and her cub were caged at the end of the row.
The zoo was family owned, and would never be able to compete with the bigger Fort Worth zoo, but this one was nice. At least it was until Mr. Campbell had retired and his son took over. Now, she wasn't so sure. His son seemed more concerned with publicity and making money than the animals or people who worked at the zoo.
She slowed her approach, not wanting to startle the jaguar. Sheba was in the far corner of her cage, lying on a bed of fresh hay. "Hi, girl," Callie kept her voice soft.
The big cat looked up, purring from deep in her throat, as if to welcome Callie. Callie knew not to get too close, even though Sheba was double caged at night. As much as she loved the cat, it was still a wild animal, and she respected that. But Sheba was so beautiful, her coat a rich reddish-brown with black spots.
There was something in the cat's eyes that Callie could relate to, as though they were kindred spirits. Not that she would do more than think that thought. But Sheba didn't have anyone, and neither did Callie. Two lonely souls. They had that in common.
"I brought you something." A little extra meat. No biggie. She knew she wasn't supposed to feed Sheba. It would be grounds for dismissal, but she hadn't been able to resist. And Sheba loved the extra treats.
Sheba suddenly came to her feet, but rather than walk closer to Callie, as was her norm, she backed away. Her head swung to the left, then right, as though she sensed something wasn't right.
Callie tensed. "What's the matter, sweetie? Still upset about all the kids today?" But Callie didn't think it was that. Visitors had never bothered Sheba in the past. No, the cat was acting really strange.
The sudden roar of a cat echoed through the zoo.
Callie's blood ran icy cold as dread washed over her.
The noise hadn't come from Sheba or the lion. The sound had come from the opposite direction.
And she knew something else. This cat was close. Close as in she-didn't-stand-a-snowball's-chance-in-hell-of-not-gettingeatenalive close.
Yeah right, easier said than done.
Think, she had to think.
Her gaze searched the area. Nothing moved in the shadows. She could hear the guttural purr of the unknown cat, though. The sound coming from low in its throat.
Then padded steps.
Callie's stomach churned as her gaze slowly moved up, inch by inch.
She spotted the cat lying on the concrete roof of the cage, staring right at her.
Fear clogged her throat, making it impossible to swallow.
She couldn't move, she couldn't breathe.
The cat probably weighed nearly two hundred pounds. A rare, solid black jaguar, his black on black spots barely discernible in the fading light. It wasn't one of their cats.
Sheba snarled, pacing her cage as if she knew the danger Callie was in.
Callie closed her eyes and took a deep breath. God, just let me get through this without being ripped to shreds.
Cautiously, she took a step back, then another. The jaguar didn't move. This was a good sign, right? Five more steps and she felt a little better. A few more and she would be around the corner and she could take off running. She would survive this encounter. She would ...
The cat came to its feet.
How far would she get if she turned and ran right now? Two feet? Maybe farther if the cat was in the mood to do a little hunting. Jaguars liked to stalk, then ambush their prey, clamping down on the heads of their poor victims, their sharp teeth sinking into the skull.
So much for the new haircut she'd gotten yesterday. She stifled hysterical laughter. Nice, she was already losing what little mental function she had left.
The jaguar jumped to the ground in one fluid movement, barely making a sound when it landed. Any other time, she would have admired its grace and agility, but right now, she just wanted it to go away.
Was it a good sign her life wasn't flashing before her eyes? Probably not, since she really didn't have a life.
The meat! God, she'd forgotten about the meat. If she could tempt the big cat with it, she might be able to escape.
She eased her hand inside her pocket and brought out the baggie with the chunks of meat, then scooped out as much as she could hold.
"I have food," she squeaked, then tossed it toward the cat. It landed with barely a thud. Why hadn't she grabbed a big juicy hunk of meat just this once, rather than the measly one-inch chunks?
The animal ignored it. Ambled past without so much as a glance, its golden eyes never leaving her face.
Of course, why would it go for a handful of food when it could dine on her? One hundred and twenty pounds of juicy-she swallowed hard-steak.
The cat moved closer, circling her. She froze to the spot. She tried lifting one foot, but nothing moved. She figured this was what was meant by being scared stiff. Oh, hell, she was going to die.
As the cat sauntered in front of her again, a fog began to roll in. The guttural purr of the cat became louder.
"Please forgive me of my sins," she whispered. Oh, God, there weren't that many. Not nearly enough in her twenty-six years. She didn't go to bars and get totally zonkered, or have one-night stands.
She read lots of books. She lived vicariously through the heroines on the pages of a romance novel. Her life was boring. Well, except the books were really good. Still, the closest she'd ever gotten to a hot guy was drooling over the cover models, and praying that one would come into her life.
A drop of sweat slid down the side of her face. She squeezed her eyes closed. If she was going to die, then she didn't want to watch it happen.
The cat's hot breath was on her hand, moving up her bare arm. Trembles of fear swept over her. So, this was the end of her life. Would anyone even miss her? It was sad, but she couldn't think of a soul besides her friend, DeeDee. She didn't have any relatives-not one. Her landlady would miss her, but only because the rent was due tomorrow.
The jaguar's purr grew louder. She flinched. Her eyes opened. The cat walked behind her again. She trembled so hard her whole body shook like a California skyscraper during an earthquake. Not that she'd ever felt one since she'd never been out of Texas-at least, that she could remember.
She couldn't take any more suspense. "Oh, hell, just end it now," she finally whimpered.
Silence. The fog rolled in thicker, more dense.
She heard someone groan. Her? Oh, no, her mind was going fast. Her brain had already stopped functioning.
"End it now? You're ready to die?" A deep, husky male voice asked close to her ear.
She whirled around.
The jaguar was gone.
A man stood behind her.
"Did you see the jaguar?" she frantically whispered, squinting her eyes as her gaze searched the shadows. Nothing moved.
He smiled. "He left us."
"Not possible. The cat would have attacked. Why would it just leave?"
"It was time."
"I don't know what you did to make it go away, but I'll be eternally grateful." She looked at him then. Really looked. There were flecks of gold in his dark eyes. They were just as mesmerizing as the jaguar's. The man's black hair brushed his shoulders, and he wore a medallion that had a diamond in the center, encircled by jewels in different colors. The stones shimmered in the dim light.
Of course, it couldn't be real. The diamond was as big as her thumbnail. Her gaze moved lower, then jerked back to his eyes. "You're naked."
His smile was slow and lazy. "It would seem that way."
This wasn't happening. It couldn't be. Maybe she was already dead and this was heaven. Wow, it looked pretty good to her!
No, no, no. She would know if she was dead. Then again.
"Is your name Adam by any chance?"
He shook his head.
She hadn't thought so. "I'm going to close my eyes and when I open them, you won't be here." She closed her eyes. There wasn't really a hot, sexy, naked man standing in front of her.
It was a shame really. Her imagination had outdone itself this time. First a jaguar roaming loose in the zoo, then poof, it's gone, and in its place is a tanned, very sexy man with longish hair, a slight accent that she couldn't place, dark eyes with flecks of gold that made her want to melt into a puddle when he looked at her, and he was hung like ... yeah, it had to be her imagination.
She opened her eyes.
He was still there.
What was happening? Had one of the little monsters at the petting zoo drugged her water? No, not possible.
"You're not real," she said.
"I'm real." His deep sultry words boldly rolled over her.
"I'll prove you're not real." She reached out, her hand coming in contact with his hard male chest. She could feel the strong beat of his heart, the smoothness of his skin, the sinewy muscle. She swallowed past the lump in her throat. If she moved her hand a little to the right she would just graze his nipple ...
She jerked her hand away, but tingles of anticipation still lingered. "You are real," she choked. Unable to stop herself, her gaze moved downward ... again. He was still naked.
"I'm as real as you. I'm Prince Rogar Valkyir from New Symtaria."
She cleared her throat and kept her gaze on his face. "Thank you very much for ... for whatever you did to get rid of the jaguar, but you can't run around in the zoo without clothes. Public nudity is against the law, no matter where you're from. I won't say anything, but you really need to leave."
What the hell was she thinking talking to a naked man? He could be a serial killer for all she knew, and the cat his pet. She might be in more danger now than she had been with the jaguar.
"I have to go." She turned on her heel.
Walk slowly and calmly. Don't spook the naked serial killer.
She didn't hear him following, but then, he was barefoot and she probably wouldn't hear him until he clubbed her over the head. She picked up the pace until she was running.
She was almost out of breath when the door to the employee building loomed in front of her. Every horror flick she'd ever seen flashed across her mind where the victim reaches the door only to have a knife plunged in her back. But nothing happened when she got to the door, not that she wasted any time flinging it open, and falling inside.
"You okay, Callie?"
"Hey, it's just me, Ben." He ran to her, putting his arm around her, and leading her to the nearest chair. If she could have picked a father, Ben would have been her first choice. Her heart slowed to a normal thud-thud.
"What got you all fired up?"
"There was a jaguar loose."
"Sheba?" He straightened, his hand moving toward the tranquilizer gun that was holstered at his side just like a real gun. "Are you hurt?"
"No, I'm fine, and it wasn't Sheba. This one was black. But then the jaguar somehow disappeared, and now there's a naked man running around inside the zoo." Her words tumbled out.
Ben laughed. "That was a good one. For a second there, I almost believed you."
She opened her mouth, then snapped it closed when she realized how ridiculous she sounded. A jaguar? Then a naked man? Maybe she was losing her mind. If word got around, she would also lose any opportunity to move up the ladder at this zoo, and probably any other zoo for that matter.
Her smile was weak at best. "Yeah, I almost got you."
Ben patted her on the shoulder. "You'll have to get up earlier in the morning to pull the wool over my eyes."
She sobered. Her story did sound as though she was pulling his leg, but she knew there had been something out there. She couldn't leave Ben with a naked man and a jaguar running loose in the zoo, except now she wondered if she had actually seen them. She wanted to warn Ben in a way that he wouldn't think she'd been doing drugs or anything.
"Seriously, I thought I did hear something, and it spooked me. You might want to be a little more cautious tonight, and tell the others, too."
"When it comes to wild animals, I don't take any chances. You don't have to worry about me or the others on duty tonight, but I'll tell them to keep an eye out for anything strange."
She knew Ben would be careful. But what had she really seen? The man had felt real. She rubbed her hand over her eyes, knowing she needed more sleep. That had to be it. At least eight hours tonight, and no more staying up late to read another romantic suspense.
After she gathered her things, Ben walked Callie to her car. She looked around, but the night was still, not even a breeze now, not even a hint of fog. "Thanks, Ben," she said as she unlocked her door and got in.
Excerpted from THE JAGUAR PRINCE by Karen Kelley Copyright © 2010 by Karen Kelley. Excerpted by permission.
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