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ON THE PROWL
By CRYSTAL JORDAN
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One Antonio watched the men circle his mate from atop a building far above the alley they'd cornered her in. A few nimble leaps brought him to the end of the shadowed corridor. He jerked his clothes off and dropped them as he ran, shifted into his Panther form to let his black fur blend into the night, and stalked the men as they had stalked her.
The predators became the prey.
He ran his tongue down a long fang, anticipation and rage boiling hot in his veins. They would pay for scaring her. God and all the saints couldn't save them if they harmed her.
It had taken two days to track her scent after he'd sensed her in the city. And now he'd found her. Nothing compared to the ice that froze the blood in his veins when he heard her first scream, the terror of seeing men hunt her. Yes, these men would beg for his mercy before the night was through. A growl rumbled from his chest as he moved down the alley, his claws clicking on the pavement.
When one of the men grabbed for her, a roar ripped from his throat. Everyone froze, turning in slow motion to stare at the newcomer. A Panther. He bared his teeth and watched the man closest to him turn ghostly pale. He could smell their fear, taste the tang of it on his tongue, and he took a small amount of satisfaction in that.
This close, even his rage couldn't cloud the fact that the men weren't human. They were Panthers, like him. Worse, they were from his Pride. The Ruiz brothers-Marcos, Juan, and Roberto. His own people, under his rule. Why would they hunt a Panther female? If she belonged to another Pride and was visiting his territory, then her Pride leader would hold him responsible for any harm his people caused her. Not to mention she was his mate and he would shred them alive for hunting her in the first place.
She screamed, and the frozen tableau broke into chaos. Antonio lunged forward, slicing his claws into Roberto's calf. He went down with a spray of blood and saliva, squealing and clutching his leg.
Antonio leaped over the fallen man to sprint forward, intent on reaching his mate. Juan shifted to Panther form, hissing a warning, but it meant nothing to Antonio. They were past the point of warnings. A single leap forward and the two of them clashed in midair, claws and fangs tearing into each other. Antonio slashed across the young Panther's face and he rolled away with a whimper, his black fur matted with dark crimson blood.
Antonio's tail whipped around as he sprang for Marcos. The man tried to climb the wall, but he had no more chance of escape than Antonio's mate had. Antonio dragged him down to the ground, his fangs digging into the man's jeans. Both front paws planted on the younger man's chest, making him wheeze, and Antonio shoved his face into Marcos's. A growl vibrated his vocal cords, and what little blood was left in the man's face fled. His bloodshot eyes went wide with horror.
His mate's soft cry reached Antonio's ears, jerking him back from the edge of feral. He shuddered, fighting the instincts of his Panther nature. He turned toward her, wanting to comfort her and soothe her fear.
But she wasn't looking at him-she snarled at Juan, bracing her back against the wall as she hissed deep in her throat. A purr rumbled his chest at her courage.
Marcos took the opportunity to speak. "Please, sir. Listen to me. She doesn't deserve protection. She's a-"
A roar ripped free from Antonio's throat as he transformed into his human form. He hoisted the shorter man up by his T-shirt until they were nose to nose. "Silence! The three of you will be in my study when I return to the mansion. Is that clear?"
"But how long until-"
"Obey me. You won't enjoy the consequences if you don't. But I will." He dropped Marcos to his feet. The younger man scrambled away and ran. His brothers had already disappeared.
He turned back to his mate. "Are you all right?"
"Yes. You?" She shoved her dark hair out of her face, her fingers sifting through the streaks of blond that shot through the long strands. He soaked in the details of her, taking in every curve of her face and body. Her chocolate-brown eyes searched him and they went wide when she saw the straining erection jutting between his thighs. Shifting back had left him naked. A wry smile pulled at his lips. He was going to have to figure out where he'd dropped his clothes and hope some vagrant didn't steal them before he got there. For the moment, he focused on his mate.
She sucked in a quick breath when he took a step toward her. Swaying on her feet, she stared at him for long moments. The silence stretched to a fine breaking point. She shook her head, pressing the heel of her hand to her forehead. "It can't be."
She'd finally sensed it-that they were mates.
"Oh, but it can be. It is." Stalking forward, he backed her up against the brick wall. His nostrils flared to catch her sweet scent, the one he would become addicted to. He had no doubt she had the same adrenaline humming through her as he did, and it morphed into something hotter, more carnal. Anger and fear still pumped through his system. His shaking fingers fisted at his sides. His eyes narrowed at her and a dart of excitement flashed through her gaze. The delicate smell of her wetness filled his nostrils. It was heady. She swallowed, her lids dropping to half-mast.
She released a breathy laugh, and naked want shone in her gaze. "I don't believe it. We can't be mates."
"Let me prove it to you," he growled. His hands wrapped around her waist, lifting her against the rough brick. Her legs curved around his flanks, she arched against him, and made him snarl with his need. She drove him wild. Jerking her dress up, he found her naked underneath. Perfect. He pushed forward, his hips fitting into the cradle of hers. The blunt tip of his cock rubbed over her slick folds. Her gaze flashed with the same desire that burned in his veins. "Your name. Tell me your name."
Her little pink tongue darted out to slide along her lips. "Solana."
She whimpered, tightening her legs about him. He groaned, but held back from plunging his dick into the snug fit of her damp pussy. Barely. "Yes or no, Solana?"
Her hands reached for him, fingers burying into his hair. Choking on a breath, she arched her hips toward the press of his cock. "Yes."
He thrust hard and deep. She screamed, the slick muscles of her pussy clenching around his dick. He groaned, hammering his hips forward. Her back arched, and she shuddered around him. He held on to his control by the tips of his fingers as her orgasm fisted her sex around his cock again and again. She was so responsive, so amazing. He kept pushing into her until her moans caressed his ears and she moved with him toward another orgasm. A tear leaked down her cheek and she hissed softly. Her head rolled against the brick wall, and her eyes slid closed. He wanted her gaze on him, wanted to see her come apart in his arms. "Look at me, Solana."
She moaned, but didn't obey him, so he seated himself as deep as he possibly could, and stopped moving. Her brown eyes flared open. "Don't stop."
"I won't." He withdrew halfway and plunged back in, starting a slow, hard rhythm. She whimpered, clamping her knees on his hips, but she kept her gaze locked with his. Passion flushed her face, made her dark chocolate eyes shine. She was so beautiful-the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. His mate. A grin curved his lips. "Tell me you want me."
A deep blush raced up her cheeks, her fingers tightening in his hair. She glanced away. "I'm doing it with you in an alley. Do you really have any doubts?"
He smiled down at her. "Ah, but I want to hear you say it."
Clamping her pussy around his cock, she pulled a groan from him. A hot, purely female smile flashed across her face as she locked her gaze with his. "I want you. I want you to fuck me hard and fast."
He choked on a breath and gave her what she asked for. The scent of her, the damp feel of her around his thrusting cock drove him right to the edge of his control. His fangs extended and he knew his eyes had turned the deep gold of a Panther's as he held himself back from shifting. The sound of her demanding he fuck her harder made his head feel as though it were going to explode. And if he was lucky, he might get fifty more years of this with her. A purr tangled with a groan in his throat. "You make me crazy."
"I make you crazy? Do I need to mention we're in an alley again?" She laughed, and it made the soft skin of her belly quiver against his. His breath hissed out.
He rotated his hips against her, and she shivered. The urge to finish the mating swamped him. To bite her. To make her his forever. Mate.
"No mating. No biting." She pressed her lips to his before he could take what he wanted. Her tongue twined with his, and their kiss was as harsh and demanding as their coupling had been.
He drove into her soft, willing body until she strained against him, until all he could think about was the orgasm just beyond his grasp. Fire crawled over his skin, settling deep inside him. The muscles in his belly tightened as the need to come overtook him. When she pulled her mouth free, her cries of passion rang in his ears, spurring him on. She twisted in his arms, sobbing as her pussy milked the length of his cock. A harsh groan burst from his throat as he froze, every muscle in his body locking as he jetted deep inside her.
They clung to each other in the aftermath of orgasm, their breathing nothing more than rasps of air. The instinct to finish the mating still clawed at him, but he forced himself to ignore it, to savor the feel of her in his arms. His mate. Unclaimed, but his.
She stirred against him, pushing at his shoulders. They both groaned when he pulled out of her. Her muscles clenched around his dick in one last spasm, and he fought the urge to shove back into her, to thrust his cock deep and sink his fangs in her flesh until she knew she could never be parted from him.
Dropping her feet to the ground, she slid out of his embrace and stepped away from him. She smoothed her dress down around her thighs, not looking at him. "I don't even know your name."
"Antonio." He stepped in front of her, silently demanding she acknowledge him, what they had experienced together this wild night. "I am Antonio Cruz."
"Cruz?" The color leeched from her lovely face. "Esteban Cruz's heir?"
Arching a brow at her reaction to his name, he shook his head. "Not heir. My father died last month."
"Ah." Her shoulders drew into a tense line. Obviously, his father had made no friend with this woman. "I'm afraid I don't keep up with Pride politics."
"You weren't at the loyalty ceremony. I would have remembered you." He might not have been able to resist taking her then and there. His cock swelled again.
Her arms folded protectively around her waist. "I'm not a member of your Pride."
"Which one, then?" Once they were mated, she would have to leave her current Pride to join his. Unless she was a Pride leader herself. Then, well, things would get complicated. But the only Pride in the world with a female leader right now was in Australia ... and she was well into her fifties. Definitely not his mate.
"None of them." She lifted one shoulder and let it drop.
"No Panther is without a Pride." It just wasn't done. They found strength in numbers. Without the Prides, they had to hide who they were from everyone, and in cat form were the prey to any human with a gun.
"This one is." She turned away, ghosting down the alley.
"Wait." He took a step after her, confusion flooding him at this new turn of events. "Why?"
She didn't turn around, just paused for the briefest of moments. "Why no Pride? I was part of your father's Pride, but I left when I came of age." Bitterness edged her soft voice. "Or I was invited to leave."
He had no doubts about his father's ruthlessness and need to control everything and everyone around him-including his heir-but the more members a Pride had, the more prestige for the Pride. Bigger was better. "My father wouldn't do that."
"Even to a non-shifter?"
His mouth opened and then snapped closed as shock rocked through him. He watched her slip away, disappearing into the cool mist of the San Francisco night.
"Dios mio." Nausea fisted his gut. A non-shifter. A Panther shifter unable to change forms. They were second-class citizens in the Prides, treated as nothing. Less that nothing, depending on the Pride leader's attitude toward them. So much of what made a Panther a Panther remained a mystery, including what made a non-shifter unable to change forms. Some of the older, more superstitious Panthers thought non-shifters were a curse upon a Pride.
Scientists believed that panthers were any large cat that was black, usually a genetic mutation of a leopard or jaguar. The average human thought panthers were a separate species all to themselves. The average human was much closer to the truth than they knew. While leopards and jaguars could be all black, a true Panther was a shape-shifter able to transform between animal and human forms. Some thought it was a demonic curse, others thought it was a blessing from a benevolent god. The truth of their magic had been lost long ago. Now it didn't matter why-they just needed to survive.
Contrary to popular legend, a were animal's bite wouldn't turn someone in to a shape-shifter. If only it were so simple to keep the population alive. Panthers had to breed in their animal form, and humans couldn't be turned into Panthers. Survival was a constant struggle. It might be easier if they could breed without being mated, but they couldn't. Panther children were rare and highly prized. That the Cruz family had four children was almost unheard-of among the Prides. If anything, one or two was much more normal.
The Ruiz family was another with exceptionally high breeding rates-and the Ruiz boys' actions toward his mate made sudden, sickening sense. She must have come and gone in his Pride while he'd been fostering in South America. With his very conservative father as a Pride leader, he didn't even want to imagine what she must have been through. And what more would she have to go through now that he had discovered what she was to him?
He swallowed. His mate couldn't shift, couldn't have children. And he was the Pride leader. God help him.
What the hell was he going to do?
Chapter Two What the hell was she going to do?
Solana raced through the streets of the city, letting the fog disguise the fact that her movements were far too fast for a human. The bitter irony of it clawed through her. If humans knew what she was, they'd recoil from her as though she were a monster-because she was a shape-shifter. Her own kind recoiled from her as though her inability to shift was contagious. Not shifter enough to be Panther, too shifter to be human.
Either way she had to hide. As a teenager, she and her father had concealed her non-shifter status for as long as possible. And after she left, she'd always had to hide that she saw too much, smelled too much, heard too much. Sensed too much because she had the extra abilities of a Panther. Except one. The only one that really mattered.
And her mate was the new Pride leader. No. Please, no. Why couldn't he have been a human? Someone who wouldn't care that she wasn't whole. Deformed. Broken.
Slamming inside her condo, she whipped the door closed behind her and locked it. Her breath heaved out in painful pants, a stitch lancing into her side. She clamped each hand over the opposite elbow and hunched forward at the waist for long moments. The couch was a few steps away, but it felt like miles. Exhaustion swamped her, pulling at her very bones. It was all too much-the attack, Antonio. Adrenaline had pumped through her veins and now that the rush had passed, she crashed hard. Collapsing onto the sofa, she shivered, her teeth chattering together.
Sheer, unadulterated terror had ripped through her when she'd smelled the three Panther males and known they'd followed her after she got off work at the bar that night. No good had ever come of her interactions with other Panthers, not since it became apparent that she was ... different.
Panther children didn't gain the ability to shift until they reached puberty. The rush of hormones that caused maturity in human children also unleashed the feral animal inside Panthers. Thankfully, it also meant Panthers were old enough to understand what could happen to them if they shifted at the wrong time, in front of the wrong people. In front of humans. Small children couldn't be trusted with their secrets.
Excerpted from ON THE PROWL by CRYSTAL JORDAN Copyright © 2009 by Crystal Jordan. Excerpted by permission.
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