On the Prowlby Christine Warren
On the Prowl
Most girls would throw a fit if their parents tried to set up an arranged marriage for them. It's so outrageously old-fashioned--even for a Tiguri family, members of a fierce race of shapeshifting weretigers. But Saskia isn't getting her claws out just yet. She'll go through with this marriage/i>/p>/b>/p>/b>… See more details below
On the Prowl
Most girls would throw a fit if their parents tried to set up an arranged marriage for them. It's so outrageously old-fashioned--even for a Tiguri family, members of a fierce race of shapeshifting weretigers. But Saskia isn't getting her claws out just yet. She'll go through with this marriage to help unite two powerful families--and because her husband-to-be Nicolas Preda is the sexiest, hunkiest, and only man she's ever wanted…
Of course, marrying an alpha male like Nic comes with its share of danger. As leader of his Streak and head of a global corporation, Nic and his new fiancée must take their places in the jungles of Manhattan--and the local Others seem to have a strict "no pets" policy. In fact, the Council seems to think the Tiguri are at the root of all their problems, including an attempt on the life of its leader. If Nic hopes to protect his name and his mate, it's hunt or be hunted--and he can't do it alone. But if anyone can bring out the beast in him, it's the sexy, savage tigress he's sworn to love…
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On the Prowl
By Christine Warren
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2012 Christine Warren
All rights reserved.
Her feet hurt, but not half as much as her face.
Saskia Arcos stood in front of the elegant marble fireplace, flanked by three imposing male figures, and wished desperately that this quote-unquote happiest moment of her life had included a couple of aspirin. Or maybe a morphine drip.
"We would like to thank all of you for joining us tonight for this wonderful occasion," her father boomed over the low buzz of conversation and curiosity, holding his champagne glass up in front of him like he'd just seized the banner in a well-fought round of Capture the Flag. Though not a large man, her father knew how to command a room. Imposing, after all, had relatively little to do with size, as two out of the three demonstrated clearly. "Joy like this is meant to be shared with friends and community. We are grateful to have each and every one of you with us tonight to bear witness as we join our families and our futures. To the happy couple!"
"The happy couple!"
The toast echoed through the high-ceilinged ballroom, the rumble of hundreds of voices nearly knocking Saskia back into the fire. Her own champagne sloshed in her glass as she swayed precariously. A hard-muscled arm slipped around her waist to steady her.
The quiet murmur drifted down to her, and Saskia looked up reflexively, straight into the gaze she'd been avoiding all evening. Green eyes stared down at her, their expression unreadable in spite of the flecks of molten gold sparkling in their depths. Even in the well-lit ballroom, Nicolas Preda's face gave away none of his feelings. Assuming, of course, that he had any.
"I can only echo Gregor's words and hope that this union proves to be a long and fruitful one." Stefan Preda's deep voice had hoarsened slightly with age, but the steel in it matched the resolve Saskia could see behind his son's calm mask. Neither man was one to trifle with. The son stood a head taller than the father, his shoulders wider and chest broader, but the pattern card shone through in the set of the jaw, the tilt of the head, and the glitter in the deep green eyes.
She suppressed a shiver.
"To Nicolas and Saskia!" Stefan proclaimed.
Once again, the room repeated the words and raised their glasses to the couple in front of them.
"I think that's our cue."
Confused as she was, Saskia knew better than to frown in front of her father's five hundred guests, but she felt her smile freeze when the towering figure beside her shifted. His words penetrated her social fog a split second before warm male lips settled firmly over hers.
Nicolas was kissing her.
The stunning thought took longer than the kiss itself. Before she had time to register the shock, the pressure eased and Nicolas lifted his head, leaving only a shadow of warmth behind. He turned back to face the assembled company with a grin of cocky male satisfaction. The arm he'd used to steady Saskia remained curved possessively around her back. To the guests, she supposed they looked exactly like a young, happy, newly engaged couple ought to look — him, tall and handsome in his custom tailored tuxedo, with his shiny Italian shoes and his playboy good looks; her, petite and delicate, in her apricot and gold gown with topazes dangling from her ears and an enormous diamond glinting on her finger. Tomorrow morning, she had no doubt she would see their photo on page one of the society section. She could picture the caption now: Nicolas Preda (center), CEO of Preda Industries, Inc., and Saskia Arcos, daughter of wealthy European financier Gregor Arcos (l), pose with their fathers, Arcos and Stefan Preda (r), at their engagement party at the Royal Hotel, Preda's newly acquired Manhattan property.
Readers across the city would ooh and ah over the details of the extravagant party and the famous and infamous guests. Everyone who was anyone in Manhattan had been invited to the festivities, from the mayor, to the heads of numerous Fortune 500 companies, to the leaders of Other society. The head of the Council of Others had dined at the head table along with the guests of honor and their families. Saskia had barely managed a bite of tender lobster, too distracted by the tension flowing just beneath the veneer of good-natured civility. She knew exactly what her father and Mr. Preda had hoped to achieve tonight, but that hadn't done much to calm her nervous stomach. All it had really done was make her hyper-aware of her own part in the performance, one in which she smiled constantly, nodded gracefully, laughed becomingly, and tried desperately to look comfortable beside the fiancé she hadn't seen in approximately eighteen years. After all, her job tonight was to convince everyone who saw her that two of the oldest and most powerful of the aristocratic Tiguri families had been firmly and permanently united as they moved into the future from their new foothold in North America. And she had to do it without uttering a word about the families' relocation from Europe, without looking anything other than bowled over by love and good fortune, and without so much as breaking a sweat.
Next to all that, the challenge of keeping a roomful of humans mixing in blissful ignorance with a company teeming with supernatural Others felt like a piece of cake. That part Saskia could have handled in her sleep. It was Nicolas she couldn't handle. She couldn't even think of where she could start that little project, and she refused to think about the fact that it was one she'd be stuck working on for the next seventy or eighty years. Thoughts like that were not going to help settle her stomach.
Neither was the feel of Nicolas's hand sliding from her waist to the small of her back as he turned her toward the enormous double doors at the end of the ballroom floor.
"Come on," he murmured, leaning close to her ear, his breath stirring the strands of strawberry blonde hair that had managed to escape their elegant French twist. "We've got to make nice with everyone leaving. Almost done."
Saskia let him steer her through the crowd to take up their positions close to the exit. He deposited their drinks with a waiter along the way, and she found herself simply drifting along in Nicolas's wake as he stationed himself alongside the flow of traffic and began to share chuckles and hearty handshakes with their departing guests. The man looked like a politician, all charm and smooth words and wide smiles. With his expertly cut clothes and stylishly cut hair — a mix of browns and golds that defied a color label — Saskia couldn't decide if that image frightened or reassured her.
Most of the guests seemed content to let Saskia get away with an exhausted smile and a murmured "thank you for coming," and she felt grateful for that. She probably looked about as tired as she felt. They left her with a press of the hand and another round of congratulations, telling her what a lucky man Nicolas was to have her, or how she must be delighted to have landed such a catch as him. Of course, she always nodded and agreed, no matter how ridiculous they sounded. What was she supposed to do? Tell them that it was actually her father who had landed her fiancé, not her? That would go over nicely. So she continued to smile and nod and murmur and promised herself that when she finally crawled into bed tonight she would do it accompanied by a dose of painkillers so large, her liver would be begging for mercy all night long.
"Thank you very much for inviting me to join the festivities," a voice rumbled, jerking Saskia's mind back into focus. "The Council, of course, was pleased to be included, but I myself would have regretted had I missed being here."
Saskia blinked and lifted her chin until she could look up into a pair of startlingly golden eyes fixed in a dark, handsome face. The eyes surprised her. She'd never expected to see them so close to her own, let alone feel them burning into her with such focused intensity. After all, she might recognize the face of Rafael De Santos on sight, but considering how warily the Council of Others viewed those of her kind, she hadn't exactly pictured having a one-on-one conversation with him.
"Ah, y-y-es," she stammered, searching blindly for the poise she'd had hammered into her by tutors and nannies practically since birth. "Of course we're delighted you could come, Mr. De Santos. I hope this is only the first of many occasions when we will have the chance to get to know each other."
She offered the tall, sinfully handsome man a warm smile, the kind she'd been instructed to practice in her mirror until it looked completely natural and unstudied, and blinked when he returned it with one that glinted with feral power. Instinctively she shifted backward, and her shoulders brushed against her fiancé's jacket.
Nicolas looked down at her, his hand shifting to her hip to steady her. His glance flicked from her face to the man standing in front of her and Saskia could see his gaze harden.
The Felix head of the Council nodded briefly. "Preda. I was just telling your lovely fiancée how delighted I am to have gotten the chance to meet her like this." His golden eyes sparked as he ran them over her creamy bare shoulders and the swell of her breasts at her neckline. "However sadly late it might be."
Saskia gave a start. Was Rafael De Santos flirting with her?
The hand on her hip tightened.
"We're glad you came to wish us well," Nicolas growled. There was no other word for the low warning that rumbled through the words. "My mate and I appreciate the support of the Council, especially considering we're both new to the city."
That last part wasn't precisely true. Both the Arcos and Preda families had kept houses in Manhattan for years and had visited the city frequently; they just hadn't made their primary homes in New York. Now, however, things were changing. Saskia and Nicolas's engagement was just one more symbol of that shifting dynamic. His terse tone symbolized that other things, however, never changed.
De Santos shifted his gaze to Nicolas, and the liquid gold cooled and hardened. "The Council has never made a habit of coming between couples intent on marriage. Of course we support any decision that brings you both personal happiness."
And there it was. Saskia sighed inwardly. Without saying anything but the most polite of truths, her fiancé and the head of the Council had managed to each draw a line in the sand. The heaviness of the subtext weighed down on her like Atlas's globe. Maybe she should check exactly how much aspirin constituted an overdose.
"You're very kind," she jumped in, feeling the hand at her hip tighten and Nicolas's body draw up with tension. This was not the place for a scene, and since she'd been well trained to prevent such awkwardness, Saskia stepped in to soothe and deflect. It was reflex. Or maybe instinct. "Nicolas and I are delighted to have been able to share our big night with such gracious company."
She could see the awareness of her tactic in De Santos's eyes, could feel the way her fiancé's stiff carriage indicated a struggle over whether or not to call her on her interference, but damn it, she would not be intimidated. Not tonight. This was a party. It was not the time to rehash old enmity or to lay the foundation for future generations of mistrust and hostility. They could get back to all that in the morning.
Offering a determinedly steady hand, Saskia smiled up at the head of the Council and wordlessly dared him to contradict her implied dismissal. She saw a flash of amusement behind his bland expression and held her breath for a moment.
De Santos enveloped her hand in his much larger one and raised it to his lips. "I find myself unexpectedly delighted as well, my dear. I would not have missed this evening for the world."
His lips brushed the backs of her fingers, and Saskia blinked. In spite of years of instruction in etiquette and social rituals, in spite of finishing school in Switzerland and one memorable tea at Windsor Castle, she'd never had any man kiss her hand before. It should have looked and felt ridiculous, but Rafael De Santos carried it off as if the custom hadn't died a century before. On him, the courtly act seemed completely natural, even expected.
Before Saskia could decide how to respond, the Felix had released her hand with a gentle squeeze, nodded briefly to Nicolas, and blended back into the crowd moving through the exit. Blowing out a discreet breath, she struggled to regain her equilibrium. Rafael De Santos was a force of nature. She'd heard stories about his potent charm and seductive wiles, but she'd never expected to experience them for herself. No wonder women supposedly dropped at his feet like autumn leaves. Saskia had zero interest in the man yet even she had felt a brief tug of fascinated attraction. The man should come with a warning label.
Nicolas shifted behind her, dragging her attention back to the matter at hand. They still had a couple hundred guests to farewell, and if she wanted to make it home to her bed and her painkillers before lunchtime tomorrow she needed to keep herself focused. Automatically she tilted her head back to offer her fiancé a reassuring smile, but his expression made her falter. His green eyes looked cool and distant and flicked immediately away from her. His hand at her hip withdrew, and his body canted subtly away as he murmured something polite and benign to the senior partner of a well-respected and ancient law firm. She couldn't quite shake the feeling that she'd been simultaneously rebuked and dismissed.
But for what?
"Great party. Thanks for the invite. Good luck, and all that."
This time, the voice that snapped her back to awareness was female, unaccented, and slightly ill at ease. Instinct and training pressed Saskia to fix that at once.
"We're so happy you were able to join us," she said, infusing her smile with extra warmth. She didn't immediately recognize the woman before her, but something about the olive-skinned brunette tickled at the edge of Saskia's subconscious. She usually excelled at remembering names and faces. "Please tell me you enjoyed yourself at least a little."
The woman grinned in spite of her discomfort. "Well, the champagne was first rate, and those stuffed mushroom thingies they passed around before dinner tasted like an orgasm on a plate, so that's something. More than I can usually expect from a work gig."
Work. Ah, yes. This was the reporter from the Chronicle. Father had insisted she be invited, even though she didn't normally write a social column. Something about a connection with both the Council and the Faerie Summer Court. Saskia eyed her with renewed interest.
"I find that adding in a bit of pleasure tends to make work both more enjoyable and more successful, Ms. D'Alessandro," she said, pulling the name out of her mental database and smiling. "With luck, you'll find that to be equally true."
"'Corinne,' please," the woman said, rolling her eyes. "Don't make me look around this crowd for my mother. I can only take so much trauma."
Saskia laughed, genuinely. She liked people with a sense of humor. "Corinne, then. Can I tell myself you had a good time? Please? It will help me sleep, you know. I'd hate to think anyone found my engagement dinner a chore."
Something flashed behind Corinne's eyes, but it happened so fast, Saskia barely had time to recognize it, let alone decide what it meant.
"It was a great dinner," Corinne said. "Totally yummy. And I should say congratulations. I hope everything works out for you guys."
It wasn't difficult to read the genuine sentiment behind the woman's words, nor the doubt that laced them. It wasn't anything Saskia hadn't encountered before. Very few people anymore understood the reasoning behind arranged marriages, and almost no one in America did. It might be the way the Tiguri had always done things, but Americans had deserted the practice along with horse-drawn plows and whale oil lanterns.
She smiled. "Thank you. I assure you, everything will be perfect." Impulsively she reached out and squeezed the reporter's hand. "Believe me."
Brown eyes locked with her own and studied her for a long minute. When she spoke again, Corinne was frowning and smiling at the same time. Her brows still drew together, but her mouth had curved into a wry expression. "You know, I think you really mean that." She paused, appeared to debate something with herself, then reached into her small evening clutch and pulled out a cream-colored business card. "I have to admit, I'm fascinated by your whole story. If you wouldn't mind, I'd love to pick your brain about it at some point. My office number is on there. Maybe we could have a drink sometime and talk?"
Excerpted from On the Prowl by Christine Warren. Copyright © 2012 Christine Warren. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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