• CONTENTS •
BREED NEXT DOOR
• • •
• PROLOGUE •
“You were created. Created to give your lives to the Genetics Council at any time deemed appropriate. You are animals. Nothing more. You have no sire. You have no bitch mother. You have only us. And we will decide if you are strong enough to live or die.”
The dream was merciless, stark in the memory of who and what he was as he watched the scientist point out the procedure that had created him.
The genetic enhancement of an unknown sperm and ova. The fertilization, the development before it was ever placed within a human womb. And finally, the death of the vessels that had carried each Feline Breed babe to term.
Nothing was hidden from the immature creatures. They sat on the floor of their cells and watched the graphic video daily. They saw it nightly in their dreams.
“You are not human. No matter your appearance. You are an animal. A creation. A tool. A tool for our use. Never imagine you will ever be anything different . . .”
Tarek tossed within the nightmare, years of blood and death passing by him. The lashes of the whip biting into his back, his chest. Hours of torture because he had not killed savagely enough or because he had shown mercy. The pain of knowing that the dream of freedom might be no more than a fantasy, quickly lost to death.
He came awake in a rush, the blood pounding through his veins, sweat dampening his flesh as the horrors he had fought so long to distance himself from returned.
Breathing roughly, he rose from the bed, pulling on a pair of boxer briefs before leaving the bedroom.
He inhaled deeply as he left the room, his brain automatically processing the scents of the house, sifting through them, searching for anomalies. There were none. His territory was uncorrupted, as secure now as it had been when he settled into his bed.
He rubbed his hand over the ache in his chest, the almost ever-present remembrance of that last beating, and the whip running with a current of electricity that sent agony resonating through his body.
He was created, not born.
Those words echoed through his mind as he opened the back door and stepped onto the porch. Created to kill. Not human . . .
He stared into the bleak emptiness of the late-fall Arkansas night as he let the memories wash over him. Fighting them only made it worse, only made the nightmares worse.
You will never know love. Animals do not love, so before you ever imagine this is a benefit due you, forget it!
The Trainers had been quick to destroy any flicker of hope before it drew breath, took form, or hinted at an end to their tortured suffering. The psychological training had been brutal.
You are nothing. You are a four-legged beast walking on two. Never forget that . . .
Your ability to speak does not mean you have permission to do so . . .
He stared into the star-studded night.
God does not exist for you. God creates His children. He does not adopt animals . . .
The final destruction. A silent snarl curved his lips as he glared into the brilliance of a sky he had never been meant to see.
“Who does adopt us then?” he snarled to the God he had been taught had no time for him or for his kind. “Who does?”
• CHAPTER 1 •
Wasn’t there some kind of law that said a man wasn’t allowed to look that damned good? Especially the tight, hard bodies who persisted in mangling a perfectly good lawn at the wrong time of the year.
Lyra Mason was certain there had to be such a law. Especially when said male, Tarek Jordan, committed the unpardonable sin of whacking down her prized Irish roses.
“Are you crazy?” She ran out the front door, yelling at the top of her lungs, waving him away from the beautiful hedge that was finally managing to achieve reasonable height.
That was, before he attacked it with the Weed Eater he was wielding like a sword.
“Stop it. Dammit. Those are my roses,” she wailed as she sprinted across her front lawn, skidded around the front of her car, and nearly slipped and broke her neck on the strip of lush green grass in front of him.
At least he paused.
He lowered the Weed Eater, tipped his dark glasses down that arrogant nose of his, and stared back at her as though she was the one committing some heinous act.
“Turn it off,” she screamed, making a slicing motion across her throat. “Now. Turn it off.”
Irritation and excitement simmered in her blood, heated her face, and left her trembling before him. He might be bigger than she was, but she had been maneuvering big, brawny men all her life. He would be child’s play next to her brothers. Maybe.
He cut the motor, lifted a brow, and flashed all that bare, glorious muscle across his chest and shoulders. As though that was going to save him. She didn’t think so.
The man had lived next door to her for almost six months and never failed to totally infuriate her at least once a week. And she wasn’t even going to admit exactly how much she enjoyed razzing his ass every chance she got.
“Those are my roses!” She felt like crying as she rushed to the broken, ravaged branches of the four-foot-high hedge. “Do you have any idea how long it took me to get them to grow? Have you lost your mind? Why are you attacking my roses?”
He lifted one hand from the steel shaft of the Weed Eater and scratched his chin thoughtfully.
Oh God, his voice had that husky little edge. Dark. Deep. The kind of voice a woman longed to hear in the darkness of the night. The voice that tempted her in dreams so damned sexual she flushed just thinking about them.
He tilted his head to the side, staring at her roses for long moments behind the lenses of his dark glasses.
“I can’t believe you did this.” She flicked him a disgusted glance as she hunched in front of the prize bush and began inspecting the damage. “You’ve lived here six months, Tarek. Surely it occurred to you that if I wanted them cut down I would have done it myself.”
Some men just needed a leash. This was obviously one of them. But he was fun—even if he was unaware of it. It just wouldn’t do for him to know how often she went out of her way to come down on him.
“Sorry, Lyra. I thought perhaps the job was too large for you. It looked like a mess to me.”
She stared up at him in shocked surprise as he said the blasphemous words. Only a man would consider roses a mess. It was a damned good thing she liked that helpless male look he gave her each time he messed up.
She could only shake her head. How long did the man have to live beside her before he learned to leave her side of the yard alone? He needed a keeper. She considered volunteering for the job. “You should have to have a license to use one of those. I bet you would have failed the test if you did.”
A grin quirked his lips. She loved that little crooked grin, almost shy, with just a hint of wickedness. It made her wet. And she didn’t like that, either.
Her eyes narrowed as she ignored the chill in the early winter air, her lips thinning in true irritation this time.
He was obviously ignoring the chill. He didn’t even have on a shirt. It was barely forty degrees, and he was using a Weed Eater like it was June and the weeds were striking a campaign to take over. That or he just didn’t like her roses.
“Look, just take your little power tool to the other side of your property. There are no neighbors there. No roses to mangle.” She gave him a shooing motion with her hand. “Go on. You’re grounded from this side of the yard. I don’t want you here.”
A frown edged between his golden-brown brows as they lowered ominously and his eyelids narrowed. What made men think that look actually worked on her? She almost laughed at the thought.
Fine, he was dangerous. He was getting ticked. He was bigger and stronger than she was. Who gave a damn?
“Don’t you give me that look,” she snorted in disgust. “You should know by now it doesn’t work on me. It will only piss me off worse. Now go away.”
He glanced around, appearing to measure some invisible line between where he was to his own house several yards away.
“I believe I’m on my own property,” he informed her coolly.
“Oh, are you?” She stood carefully to her feet, staring over the edge of her pitifully cropped rosebush to where his feet were planted. Boy, he really should have known better than that. “Go read your deed, Einstein. I read mine. My roses are planted exactly six feet from the property line. From oak to oak.” She point out the oak tree at the front of the street, then the one at the edge of the forest beyond. “Oak to oak. My brothers ran a line and marked it real carefully just for dumb little ol’ me,” she mocked him sweetly. “That puts you on my property. Get back on your own side.”
She would have chuckled if it weren’t so important to maintain the appearance of ire. If she was going to survive living next to a walking, talking advertisement for sex, then some boundaries would have to be established.
He cocked his hip, crossing his arms over his chest as the heavy Weed Eater dangled from the harness that crossed over his back.
He was wearing boots. Scarred, well-worn leather boots. She noticed that instantly, just as she noticed the long, powerful legs above them. And a bulge . . . Nope, not going there.
“Your side of the property is as much a mess as your bush is,” he grunted. “When do you cut your grass?”
“When it’s time,” she snapped, pulling herself to her full height of five feet, three and three-quarters inches. “And it’s not time in the middle of winter when it’s not even growing.”
Okay, so she barely topped his chest. So what?
“I would get in the mood if I were you.” He used that superior male tone that never failed to grate on her nerves. “I have a nice ride-on lawnmower. I could cut it for you.”
Her eyes widened in horror. He was staring back at her now with a crooked grin, a hopeful look on his face. She sneaked a look around his shoulder, stared at his grass, then shuddered in dismay.
“No.” She shook her head fervently. This could be getting out of hand. “No, thank you. You hacked at yours just fine. Leave mine alone.”
“I beg your pardon.” He threw his shoulders back and drew up in offended male pride as he propped his hands on his hips.
He did it so well, too. Every time he messed up something he pulled that arrogance crap on her. He should have known it wasn’t going to work.
“And so you should,” she retorted, propping her hands on her hips as she glared back at him. “You hacked your grass. Worse, you hacked it in the winter. There’s no symmetry in the cut, and you set your blade too low. You’ll be lucky to have grass come summer. You just killed it all.”
He turned and stared back at his lawn. When he turned back to her, cool arrogance marked his features.
“The lawn is perfect.”
He had to be kidding.
“Look,” she breathed out roughly. “Just stick to mangling your own property, okay? Leave mine alone. Remember the line—oak to oak—and stay on your side of it.”
He propped his hands on his hips again. The move drew her eyes back to the sweat-dampened perfection of that golden male chest.
It should be illegal.
“You are not being neighborly,” he announced coolly, almost ruining her self-control and bringing a smile of pure fun to her lips. “I was told when I bought the house that everyone on this block was friendly, but you have been consistently rude. I believe I was lied to.”
He sounded shocked. Actually, he was mocking her, and she really didn’t like it. Well, maybe she did a little bit, but she wasn’t going to let him know it.
She refused to allow her lips to twitch at the sight of the laughter in his gaze. He very rarely smiled, but sometimes, every now and then, she could make his eyes smile.
“That Realtor would have told you the sun rose in the west and the moon was made of cheese if it would assure him a sale.” She smiled mockingly. “He sold to me first, so he knew I wasn’t nice. I guess he neglected to inform you of that fact.”
Actually, she had gotten along quite well with the real estate agent. He was a very nice gentleman who had assured her that the homes on this block would only be sold to a specific type of person. So, evidently, he had lied to her, too, because the man standing across from her was not respectable, nor was he family-oriented. He was a sex god, and she was within a second of worshipping at his strong, male feet. She was so weak.
He was a rose assassin, she reminded herself firmly, and she was going to kick his ass if he attacked any more of her precious plants. Better yet, she would call her brothers and cry. Then they would kick his ass.
No, that wouldn’t do, she hastily amended. They would run him off. That wasn’t what she wanted at all.
“Perhaps I should discuss this with him.” He tipped his glasses down his nose once again, staring at her over the rim. “At least he was right about the view.”
His gaze roved over her from her heels to the tip of her head as his golden-brown eyes twinkled with laughter—at her expense, of course. As though she didn’t know she was too homey. A little too normal-looking. She wasn’t the sexy, siren type, and she had no desire to be. That didn’t mean he had to make fun of her.
It was perfectly acceptable for her to toy with him. Having him turn the tables did not amuse her in the least.
“That was not amusing,” she informed him coldly, wishing she could hide behind something now.
The ratty jeans she wore hung low on her hips, not because of fashion, but more because they were a bit too loose. The T-shirt she wore fit a bit better, but it was almost too snug. But she was cleaning house, not auditioning for Fashions R Us.
“I wasn’t trying to be amusing.” His grin was wicked, sensual. “I was being honest.”
He was trying to get out of trouble. She knew that look for what it was. It wasn’t the first time he had pulled it on her.
“I have three older brothers,” she informed him coolly. “I know all the tricks, mister . . .”
“Jordan. Tarek Jordan,” he reminded smoothly.
As though she didn’t already know his name. She had known his name from the first day he had moved in to his house with the honkin’ Harley he had ridden across her front lawn.
Damn, that Harley had really looked good, but he had looked even better sitting on it.
“Mister,” she repeated, “you are not putting anything over on me, so don’t think you are. Now keep your damned machines away from my property and away from me, or I might have to show you how they are used and hurt all that male pride you seem to have so much of.” She shooed him again. “Go on. On your own property now. And leave my roses alone.”
His eyes narrowed on her again. This time, his expression changed as well. It became . . . predatory. Not dangerous. Not threatening. But it wasn’t a comfortable expression, either. It was an expression that assured her that an abundance of male testosterone was getting ready to kick in. And he did male testosterone really well. He got all snarky and snarly and downright ill-tempered as he glared at her, his voice edging into dangerously rough as he growled at her and attempted to berate her.
She refused to back down.
“Don’t look at me like that, either. I told you. I have three brothers. You do not intimidate me.”
His brow arched. Slowly.
“It was very nice to see you today, Lyra.” He finally nodded cordially. “Perhaps next time, you won’t be in such a bad mood.”
“Yeah. Sometime when you’re not mangling the looks of the block would be nice,” she snorted as she turned away from him. “Geez, only I could get stuck with a neighbor with absolutely no landscaping grace. How the hell do I manage it?”
She stomped away, certain now that she should never have let her father talk her into this particular house.
“It’s close to the family,” she mocked, rolling her eyes. “The price is perfect,” she mocked her eldest brother. “Yeah. Right. And the neighbors suck . . .”
• • •
Tarek watched her go, hearing her mocking little voice all the way to the porch as she stomped up the sidewalk. Finally, the front door slammed with an edge of violence that would have caused any other man to flinch. Breeds didn’t flinch.
He glanced down at the Weed Eater hanging from his shoulders and breathed in deeply before turning to glance back at the lawn.
The cut of the grass was fine, he assured himself, barely managing not to wince. Fine, it might not look so great, but he had fun cutting it. Hell, he even had fun using the Weed Eater. At least, until Ms. Don’t-Attack-My-Roses came storming out from her house.
As though he wasn’t well aware that all the female fury was more feigned than true anger. He could smell her heat, her arousal, and her excitement. She wasn’t hiding nearly as much as she thought she was.
He chuckled and glanced back at the two-story brick-and-glass home. It suited her. Nice and regal on the outside, but with depth. Lots and lots of depth. He could see it in her wide blue eyes, in the pouty softness of her lips.
She was a wildcat, though. Well, she was as fiery as a wildcat anyway. He cleared his throat, scratched at his chest thoughtfully, then hefted the Weed Eater off his shoulders and headed back to the little metal shed behind his own house.
He liked his house better, he told himself. The rough wood two-story with the wraparound porch was . . . comfortable. It was roomy and natural, with open rooms and a sense of freedom. There was something about the house that soothed him, that eased the nightmares that often haunted him.
He hadn’t been looking for a home when he gave in to the Realtor’s suggestion to check out the house. He had been looking for a rental, nothing more. But as they pulled into the driveway, the fresh scent of a summer rainfall still lingering in the air, blending with the smell of fresh-baked bread wafting from the neighboring house, he had known, in that moment, this was his.
This house, too large for him alone, the yard begging for sheltering trees and bushes and the laughter of children echoing with it, called to him. Six months later, this home he hadn’t known he wanted still soothed the rough edges of his soul.
He pulled open the door to the shed, pausing before stepping into the close confines of the little building to store the Weed Eater. He was going to have to replace the shed with a larger one. Each time he stepped into the darkness, he felt as though it was closing in on him, trapping him. Caging him in.
There was something different, though. He paused as he stepped from it, staring back into the interior as he considered it thoughtfully.
He hadn’t smelled the usual mustiness of the building. For once, the smell of damp earth hadn’t sent his stomach roiling with memories. It was because his senses were still filled with the soft scent of coffee, fresh-baked bread, and a warm, sweet female.
He turned and stared back at her house, rubbing at his chest, barely feeling the almost imperceptible scars that crisscrossed his flesh there.
Coffee and fresh-baked bread.
He had never eaten fresh-baked bread. He had only smelled it drifting from her house in the past months. It had taken him forever to figure out what that smell was. And coffee was, unfortunately, a weakness of his. And she had both.
He wondered if she could make better coffee than he did.
Hell, of course she could. He grunted as he turned away and stalked to his back door. Jerking it open, he stepped into the house, stopping to pull off his boots before padding across the smooth, cream-colored tiles.
The kitchen was made for someone other than him.
He still hadn’t managed to figure out the stove. Thankfully, there was a microwave or he would have starved to death.
He moved to the coffeepot with every intention of fixing some before he paused and grimaced. He could still smell the scent of Lyra’s coffee.
His lip lifted in a snarl as a growl rumbled from his throat. He wanted some of her coffee. It smelled much better than his. And he wanted some of that fresh-baked bread.
Not that she was likely to give him any. He had cut her precious bush, so she would, of course, have to punish him. This was the way the world worked. He had learned that at the labs from an early age.
Well, he had known it. The scars that marred his chest and back were proof that it was a lesson he had never really fully learned.
He propped his hands on his hips and glared at Lyra’s house. He was a Lion Breed. A fully grown male trained to kill in a hundred different ways. His specialty was with the rifle. He could pick off a man a half-mile away with some of the weapons he had hidden in his bedroom.
He had excelled in his training, learned all the labs had to teach him, then fought daily to escape. His chance had finally come with the attacks mounted on the Breed labs seven years before.
Since then, he had been attempting to learn how to live in a world that still didn’t fully trust the animal DNA that was a part of him.
Not that anyone in the little city of Fayetteville, Arkansas, knew who or what he was. Only those at Sanctuary, the main Breed compound, knew the truth about him. They were his family and his employers.
He dropped his arms from his chest and propped his hands on his hips.
He couldn’t get the smell of that coffee or that bread out of his mind. That woman would drive him crazy—she was too sensual, too completely earthy. But the smell of that coffee . . . He sighed at the thought.
He shook his head, ignoring the feel of his overly long hair against his shoulders. It was time to cut it, but damned if he could find the time. The job he had been sent here to do was taking almost every waking moment. Except for the time he had taken to cut the grass.
And the time he was going to take now to see if he could repair the crime of cutting that dumb bush and getting a cup of Lyra’s coffee.
A taste of the woman would come soon enough.
• CHAPTER 2 •
Bread lined the counter of Lyra’s perfect, beautiful kitchen. Fresh white bread, banana nut bread, and her father’s favorite cinnamon rolls. A fresh cup of coffee sat at her elbow, and a recipe book spread out on the table in front of her as she attempted to find the directions for the étouffée she wanted to try.
The cookbook was no more than several hundred pages, some handwritten, some typewritten, and others printed from the computer and bound haphazardly over the years. Her mother had started it, and now Lyra added her own recipes to it as well as using those already present.
The soft tunes of a new country band were playing on the stereo in the living room, and her foot was swaying in a cheerful rhythm along with the music.
“Do you actually like that music?”
A shocked squeak of fear erupted from her throat as she jumped from her chair, sending it flying against the wall as she nearly threw the coffee cup across the room.
And there he stood.
The man had to have been placed here just to torment and torture her. There was no other answer for it.
“What did you do?” She turned and jerked the chair from where it had fallen against the wall, snapping it back in place before turning and propping her hands on her hips.
He was here. And acting just a little bit too awkward to suit her. He had to have messed up something again.
He stood just inside the doorway, freshly showered and looking too damned roughly male for any woman’s peace of mind. If he were conventionally good-looking, she could have ignored him. But he wasn’t. His face was roughly hewn, with sharp angles, high cheekbones, and sensual, eatable lips.
A man shouldn’t have eatable lips. It was too distracting to those women who didn’t have a hope in hell of getting a taste.
“I didn’t do anything.” He ran his hand along the back of his neck, turning to look outside the door as though in confusion before returning his gaze to her. “I came to apologize.”
He didn’t look apologetic.
He looked like he wanted something.
He rubbed at his neck again, his hand moving beneath the fall of overly long, light-brown hair, the cut defining and emphasizing the harsh planes and angles of his face.
Of course he wanted something. All men did. And she doubted very seriously it had anything to do with her body. Which was really just too bad. She could think of a lot of things that tough male body of his would be good for.
Unfortunately, men like him—tough, buff, and bad—generally never looked her way.
“To apologize?” She caught the half-hidden, longing look he cast to the counter and the cooling bread there.
“Yes. To apologize.” He nodded ever so slightly, his expression just a shade more calculating than she would have liked.
She firmed her lips, very damned well aware that he was not there to apologize. He was wasting her time, as well as his, by lying to her.
He wanted her bread. She could see it in his eyes.
“Fine.” She shrugged dismissively. What else could she do? “Stay the hell away from my plants, and I’ll forgive you. You can go now.”
He shifted, drawing attention to his wide chest and the crisp white shirt he wore. He had changed clothes in addition to showering. He wore form-hugging jeans with the white shirt tucked in neatly. A leather belt circled his lean hips, and the ever-present boots were on his feet, though these looked a little better than the previous pair.
His gaze drifted to the bread once again.
It figured. And the hungry, desperate gleam in his eyes was just about her undoing. Just about. She was not going to let him sweet-talk her out of it, she assured herself.
She stared back at him coolly as her hand clenched on the back of the chair. He was not going to eat her bread. That bread was gold where her father and brothers were concerned, and she desperately needed the points it would earn her. It was the only way she was going to get her pretty wooden shed built, and she knew it.
He glanced back at her, this time not even bothering to hide the cool calculation in his gaze.
“We could make a deal, you and I,” he finally suggested, his voice firm, almost bargaining.
Uh-huh. She just bet they could.
“Really?” She let go of the chair and leaned against the counter as she watched him with a skeptical look. “How so?”
Oh boy, she just couldn’t wait to hear this one. It was going to have to be good. She knew men, and she knew he had obviously been preparing the coming speech carefully.
But she was intrigued. Few men bothered to be straightforward or even partially honest when they wanted something. At least he wasn’t pulling out the charm and pretending to be overcome with attraction for her to get what he wanted.
“However you wish,” he finally stated firmly. “Tell me what I would have to do to get a loaf of that bread and a cup of coffee.”
She stared back at him in shock.
She wasn’t used to such straightforward, fully mercenary tactics from anyone. Let alone a man.
She watched him thoughtfully.
He wanted the bread; she wanted a shed. Okay, maybe they could trade. Not what she had expected, but she was willing to roll with the opportunity being presented.
“Can you use a hammer any better than you can a Weed Eater?”
She needed that shed.
His lips thinned. He glanced at the bread again with a faint expression of regret.
“I could lie to you and say yes.” He tilted his head and offered her a tentative smile. “I’m very tempted to do so.”
Great. He couldn’t use a hammer, either.
She stared back at the muscular condition of his finely honed body. A man didn’t look like that as a result of the gym. It was natural muscle and grace, not the heavy, packed-on appearance guys got from the gym. But if he couldn’t cut his own lawn or swing a hammer, how the hell did he manage it?
She shook her head. Obviously nature really, really liked him, because Tarek Jordan was so not an outdoor sort of person.
“Let me guess. You’re really good on the computer?” She sighed at the thought. Why did she attract the techies instead of the real men?
“Well, I am actually.” He offered her a hopeful smile. “Does yours need work?”
At least he was honest—in some things. She guessed that deserved some compensation, though she fully admitted she was just too nice sometimes.
“Look, promise to keep your machines away from my property line, and I’ll give you some coffee and a slice of bread,” she offered.
“Just a slice?” His expression fell, rather like a child whose favorite treat had been jerked from his hands.
She looked over at the counter. Hell, she had baked too much anyway.
“Fine. A loaf.”
“Of each kind?” Hope sprang in those golden eyes, and for a moment it made her wonder . . . No, of course he had eaten fresh-baked bread. Hadn’t everyone? But there was a curious glimmer of vulnerability there. One she hadn’t expected.
She glanced at the counter again. She had four loaves of each kind and plenty of the cinnamon rolls. It wasn’t like she didn’t have enough.
“Come on in.” She turned to get an extra coffee cup when she stopped and stared at him in surprise.
He was taking his boots off? He did it naturally, toeing at the heels until the leather slid from his feet, and then pulling them off to sit them neatly at the door.
His socks were white. A pure, pretty white against the dark maroon of her ceramic tiles as he walked to the table.
He waited expectantly.
What the hell was he? An alien? No man she knew had white socks. And they sure as hell didn’t care if they took their shoes off at the door, no matter how grimy or muddy they often were. Her brothers were the worst.
She poured the coffee and set it in front of him before turning to get the sugar and creamer from the counter. As she turned back, she frowned as she watched him take a long sip of the dark liquid.
Ecstasy transformed his face.
The expression on his face made her thighs clench as her sex spasmed in interest. Which only pissed her off. She was not going to get any more turned on by this man than she already was. She was doing perfectly fine without a man in her life right now. She did not, repeat, did not need the complication.
But if that was how the man looked when he had sex, then her virginity could be in serious danger. Strangely predatory, savage, filled with pleasure, his face carried a primal, intense look of satisfaction and growing hunger.
For a moment, her chest tightened in surprising disappointment. She wanted him to look at her like that, not at her bread.
Just her luck. Someone else to harass her for her bread instead of for her body. Not that she wanted him to harass her for her body, but it would be nice if someone would.
Taking out a bread knife, she sliced into a loaf of the banana nut bread and then into the white bread. The white bread was still warm enough to melt the fresh, creamy butter she spread atop it.
Fine. Maybe she could bribe him into hiring someone to cut and trim his lawn so he would leave hers alone. Stranger things had happened.
• • •
The coffee was rich, dark, and exquisite. The bread fairly melted in his mouth. But that wasn’t what was keeping his dick painfully engorged as he savored the treats. It was the smell of this woman, hot and sweet and aroused.
That arousal was killing him. It wasn’t intense and overwhelming, but curious and warm. Almost tentative. He savored the smell of it more than he savored the bread and coffee he was trying to stay focused on.
“So what do you do on the computer?” She was cleaning the loaf pans she had used to bake the bread, carefully washing and drying them at the sink.
He glanced at the slender line of her back, the taut curves of her rear, and shifted restlessly in his chair. His hard-on was killing him.
He hadn’t meant to give her the impression he worked mainly on the computer, but he guessed it was better than telling the truth.
“Mostly investigations and research.” He shrugged, telling as much of the truth as possible. He hated the thought of lying to her. Which was strange. He was living a lie, and he knew it. He had been since his creation. So why should it bother him now?
“Criminal or financial?” She picked up the coffeepot and walked to the table, filling his cup with the last of the heated liquid.
He frowned at the question as he watched the way the soft, midnight silk of her hair fell forward, tempting his fingers. It looked soft, warm. Like everything he had believed a woman should be.
She wasn’t hard, trained to kill, or living her own nightmares, as many of the Feline Breed women were. She was feisty and independent but also soft, exquisite.
“More along the lines of missing persons,” he finally answered. “A little bit of everything, though.”
He nearly choked on that one. He was, quite simply, a bounty hunter and an assassin. His present assignment was the search for one of the escaped Trainers who had murdered countless Feline Breeds while they were held in captivity.
The assignment was starting to take second place to the woman in front of him, though.
Damn that coffee was good, but if she didn’t get the scent of that soft, heated warmth simmering in her pussy across the room and away from him, then they were going to have problems.
He could feel the growing sexual need tightening his abdomen and pounding in his brain. He wanted to shake his head, push the scent away from him in an attempt to make sense of it. He had never known a reaction so intense, so immediate to any woman.
From his first glimpse of her outraged expression when he committed the supreme sin of riding his Harley over her lawn, she had captivated him.
She wasn’t frightened of him or intimidated by him. She didn’t watch him like a piece of meat or an animal that could attack at any moment. She watched him with equal parts frustration, innocence, and hunger.
And if he didn’t get the hell away from her, he was going to commit another sin. He was going to show her just how damned bad he did want that curvy little body of hers.
“I guess I should be going.” He rose to his feet quickly, finishing off his coffee before taking the cup and his empty saucer to the sink where she was working.
She stared up at him in astonishment as he rinsed them quickly before sitting them in the warm, sudsy water in front of her.
He stared down at her, caught for a moment in the depths of her incredible sapphire eyes. They gleamed. Little pinpoints of brilliant light seemed to fill the dark color, like stars on a blue velvet background. Incredible.
“Thank you.” He finally forced the words past his lips. “For the coffee and the bread.”
She swallowed tightly. The scent of her wrapped around him—a nervous, uncertain smell of arousal that had his chest filling with a sudden, animalistic growl.
He throttled the sound firmly, clenching his teeth as he backed away from her.
“You’re welcome.” She cleared her throat after the words came out with a husky, sexy tone of nervousness.
Dammit, he didn’t have time for such complications. He had a job to do. One that didn’t include a woman he knew would run screaming from him if she had any idea of who and what he was.
She had wrapped the loaves and set them out on the counter by the door for him. He jerked his boots on quickly and picked up the bread, opening the door before turning back to her.
“If you need any help.” He shrugged fatalistically. “If there’s anything I can do for you . . .” He let the words trail off.
What could he do for her besides complicate her life and make her regret ever meeting him? There was little.
“Just stay away from my yard with your gadgets.” Her eyes glowed with humor. “At least until you learn how to use them.”
The woman evidently had no respect for a man’s pride. A grin tilted his lips.
He turned and left the house, regretfully, hating it. There was a warmth within the walls of her home that didn’t exist within his own, and it left him feeling unaccountably saddened to leave. What was it about her, about her house, that his suddenly seemed so lacking?
He shook his head, pushed his free hand into his jeans pocket, and made his way across her neatly trimmed backyard to his own less-than-pristine lawn. And his less-than-content life.
• CHAPTER 3 •
A cold winter rain fell, not quite ice, but close enough to chill Tarek’s flesh as he stood in the shadows of his porch late that night.
He wasn’t certain what had awakened him. But something had. He had come instantly alert, his senses rioting, the tiny, almost imperceptible hairs raising along his body as he slid from the bed and dressed quietly.
Now he stood within the concealing darkness, staring around the backyard, his eyes probing the night as his unique vision aided him in seeing through the moonless night.
In his hand he carried a powerful ultralight submachine pistol. It rested at the side of his leg as his opposite thigh held the weight of the lethal knife tucked securely in the scabbard he had strapped there.
The hairs along the back of his neck prickled, warning him that he wasn’t alone in the darkness. His eyes scanned his yard and then turned to Lyra’s.
Her upstairs lights were on; every few minutes he could see her pace past her bedroom window. She needed heavier curtains. Something hardened in his chest, became heavy at the thought that whatever stalked the darkness could be a threat to her.
His jaw tightened as he lifted his head, drawing in the scents surrounding him, and quickly, automatically separating them.
Something was out there; he knew it, and he should be able to smell it. It made no sense that the answers he sought weren’t on the air around him.
He could smell the scent of Lyra’s brothers. They had shown up that evening, carrying bread when they left. Damn their hides. He had considered mugging them for one insane minute.
He could smell the lumber they brought, sitting in her backyard, and the smell of charcoal on the air from the steaks they had grilled for dinner. But there was no scent of an intruder.
He flexed his shoulders, knowing the rain could be distilling the smell, knowing he was going to have to venture into it and hating the thought.
He moved silently from the porch, careful to stay in the shadow of the small trees he had taken the time to have planted before he moved in. Most were firs of some type, evergreens that never lost their concealing foliage. They were spaced at just the right distance to provide the concealment he needed as he made his way along the perimeters of his property.
He stopped at the far corner, lifting his head to breathe in roughly, feeling the rain against his face, the ice forming in the sodden length of his hair. But there was the scent he was searching for, and it was on Lyra’s property.
He turned his head, and his eyes narrowed, searching for movement that wasn’t there, yet the scent of it was nearly overpowering.
Where are you, bastard? he growled silently as he made his way to the stack of lumber, using it to conceal himself from the back of the house, allowing him a clear view of her back porch as he thumbed the safety off on the powerful weapon he carried.
Icy rain ran in rivulets down his hair, his arms, soaking the flannel shirt and jeans he wore. He pushed the chill and the feel of wet fabric out of his mind. He had trained in worse conditions than this for years.
He breathed in again, sifting through the scents until he could determine where this one was coming from. The wind was blowing in from the west, moving across the house and through the small valley the housing development was situated in.
The scent was definitely at the back of the house. It was too clear, too thick with menace to have been diluted by the shrubbery in the front yard.
The moonless night left the yard nearly pitch-black, but the DNA that made him an abomination also made him capable of seeing much more clearly than the enemy stalking the night with him.
It wasn’t a Breed. He could smell a Breed a mile away. But neither was it a harmless threat. He could feel the menace in the air, growing thicker by the moment.
Moving from the concealment of the stack of lumber, he edged his way closer to the house. Even more important than locating the threat was keeping Lyra in the house and safe. She was so damned feisty, if she even thought anyone was in her backyard she would be out there demanding answers and ignoring the danger.
He moved around the little wooden arch that held the bench swing, carefully sidestepped the beginnings of a flowerbed he had seen her working in days before, and slid along the fence that separated her property from her neighbor on the other side.
He could feel the intruder. The itch along the back of his neck was growing more insistent by the moment. He paused, bending low beside an evergreen bush as he scanned the area again.
And there he was. Crouched at the side of the house and working his way to the porch. Dressed entirely in black, the bastard might have escaped notice if Tarek hadn’t caught the movement of the whites of his eyes.
He was good.
Tarek watched as he made his way to the electrical box at the side of the house. Too damned good. Tarek watched as a penlight focused a minute sliver of light as the intruder worked.
When he was finished, Tarek bet his incisors the security system had somehow been canceled. The lights were still on, and not even a flicker of power had been interrupted. But there was an edge of satisfaction in the way the black-clad figure now made his way to the back door.
It wasn’t happening.
Tarek moved quickly, raising his gun, aiming, only to curse virulently as the figure turned, jerked, and raised his own weapon.
Tarek rolled as he heard the whistle of the silenced weapon. Expecting, foolishly perhaps, for the assailant to turn and run, he came to his knees, aiming again, only to be slammed back to the wet grass as the gun was kicked from his hand.
He rolled to the side and jumped to his feet. His leg flew out to connect with a jaw, and he heard the grunt of pain as the other man went backward, flailing for balance.
Tarek whipped his knife from its sheath, prepared now as the other man came at him. He kicked the gun from his hand, turned, and delivered a power kick to his solar plexus, snarling as he flipped around to see the bastard coming for him again, armed with a knife as well.
At the same time, the back porch light flared, blinding him for one precious second as the assailant made his move. Pain seared his shoulder as the knife found its mark before he could jump back.
A gunshot blasted through the night. The sound of the powerful shotgun made both men pause, breathing roughly before the assailant turned and ran.
“Like hell,” Tarek snarled as he rushed after him, his feet sliding in the muck beneath his feet before he found traction and sprinted behind him.
He almost had him, dammit. He was within inches of throwing himself against the other man and bringing him down when another silent shot whistled past his head, causing him to duck and throw himself to the side instead.
The sound of a vehicle roaring down the street shattered the night. Tires screamed as the car slammed to a stop, voices raised demandingly, then it peeled from the front of the house as Tarek raced to get a glimpse of it.
“Fuck! Fuck!” His curse filled the night as the black sedan, no plates of course, roared away.
The assailant was well trained and obviously came with backup. The suspicion that it was the Trainer he was searching for filled his mind. But why go after Lyra? The man was smart enough, well trained enough that he could never have mistaken which house to attack.
On the heels of that suspicion came the knowledge that he, the hunter, could very well become the hunted. And it looked as though Lyra had been drawn into the middle of the war playing out between the Council and their now-free creations.
“The police are on their way,” Lyra screamed from the back door. “Tarek, are you okay?”
At least she was still in the house.
A growl vibrated through his chest as he turned and ran back to the yard, locating the knife and illegal machine gun from the now-muddy yard.
The back door was open, and there she stood, dressed in a long gown and matching robe, holding that fucking shotgun like it could protect her.
He snapped his teeth together as he heard the sirens roaring in the distance and stomped to the house.
“Do not mention me, do you understand?” he ordered as he stopped in front of her, staring into her wide, shocked eyes as she blinked up at him.
“Do you understand me, Lyra?” he hissed impatiently. “Do not mention me. After they leave, I’ll come back. Do you understand?”
He reached out to grip her arm, pulling back at the sight of the blood trickling to his hand. Fuck, his shoulder burned.
“You’re hurt.” She swallowed tightly.
The sirens were getting closer.
“Lyra.” He bent close, breathing in her scent, her fear. “Did you hear me?”
“Yes. Why?” Her breasts were rising and falling roughly, her pale features emphasizing her large, dark eyes.
“I’ll explain later. I promise.” He grimaced painfully. “As soon as they leave, I’ll be back. I swear, Lyra. But don’t tell them what happened.”
His cover was shot to hell if she even hinted at him. The police would converge on his house, and he would be forced to tell them exactly who he was. Good-bye assignment, good-bye Trainer.
She nodded slowly, glancing back into the house as the sound of the sirens echoed around them.
He nodded fiercely before turning and disappearing into the night. The cut to his shoulder wasn’t life-threatening, but it was deep. He was going to have to take care of that first.
He disappeared into his house as the police units whipped onto the street and skidded to a stop outside Lyra’s house. He locked the door quickly, taking precious seconds to pull off his boots before moving through the dark house.
What the hell was going on?
He stripped off his clothes in the laundry room, dropping the cold, soggy clothing into the washer before taking a clean towel from the cabinet and wrapping it around his arm. Damned blood was going to stain everything.
He strode quickly upstairs, moving through his bedroom to the bathroom where he could take care of the wound to his shoulder.
As he cleaned and carefully stitched the wound, he sifted through the earlier events, trying to make sense of them.
Why had someone attempted to break in to Lyra’s house when it was clear she was home? Burglars waited until their victims were in bed, most likely asleep, or gone. They didn’t break in while lights blazed through the house, and they sure as hell didn’t hang around after they were clearly caught.
And they weren’t as well trained as Lyra’s burglar had obviously been. That wasn’t an attempted robbery. It was a hit. Why would anyone want to kill Lyra, unless it was to get to him? A warning? And if it was that damned Trainer, how the hell had he learned Tarek was tracking him?
He smeared gauze with a powerful antiseptic before laying it over the stitched wound and taping it securely in place.
Then he dressed and waited. He stood at his bedroom window, watching, waiting, as the police talked to Lyra, wondering how well she would heed his earlier warning. Praying she would. Knowing it might be better for both of them if she didn’t.
• CHAPTER 4 •
He was a Breed.
Lyra answered the questions the police asked, filled out and signed a report, and waited impatiently for them to leave.
Thank God she hadn’t called her brothers before jerking that shotgun up and racing to the back door. She hadn’t even thought of it. She had watched through her bedroom window as the moon broke past a cloud, shining clearly on the figures struggling in her backyard. She had recognized Tarek immediately.
Tarek Jordan was a Breed.
She had seen it in the fierce glow of his amber eyes as the light had shined into them, in the overly long incisors when he had snarled his furious orders on the back porch.
It made sense.
She should have suspected it from the beginning.
He had lived in the house beside her for months. His obvious discomfort in doing things most people did every day of their lives should have clued her in. The haunted shadows in his eyes.
His inability to cut grass should have told her something immediately. All men knew at least the rudiments of cutting grass.
The joy he found in a freshly made cup of coffee and homemade bread. As though he had never known it.
She had thought him a computer geek. That wasn’t a computer geek fighting in her backyard. That had reminded her of her brothers, practicing the tae kwon do they had learned in the military. He had reminded her of an animal, snarling, his growl echoing through the yard as he fought with the attempted burglar.
She should have known.
She had followed every news story, every report of the Breeds, just as her brothers had joined in several of the missions years before to rescue them. They had told her the tales of the ragged, savage men and women they had transferred from the labs to the Feline Breed home base, Sanctuary.
Men near death, tortured, scarred, but with the eyes of killers. Men who were slowly being fashioned into animals—killing machines and nothing more.
“There’s nothing else we can do, Ms. Mason,” the officer taking her statement announced as she signed the appropriate line. “We’ve called your security company, and they’ll be out here tomorrow to repair the system.”
“Thank you, Officer Roberts.” She smiled politely as she handed the papers back to him, wishing they would just leave.
“We’ll be going now.” He nodded respectfully.
It was about time.
She escorted them to the door, closing and locking it before pushing her feet into a pair of sneakers and waiting impatiently for them to pull from the drive.
The minute their taillights headed down the street, she grabbed her keys, threw open the door, and slipped onto the porch. Closing it quickly, she sprinted through the rain toward Tarek’s.
She wanted answers now. Not whenever he decided to show.
A frightened scream tore from her lips as she passed one of the thick evergreen trees in his yard and was caught from behind as another hand clamped over her mouth.
A hard arm wrapped around her waist, heated, muscular, nearly picking her from her feet as he began to move quickly to the house.
“How did I know you would do something so stupid?” His voice was a hard, dangerous growl in her ear as he pushed her through the living room door and slammed it shut. “I told you to stay put, Lyra.”
He released her quickly, throwing the bolts closed on the door before punching in the code to the security pad beside it.
“You were too slow,” she snapped. “What the hell was going on tonight?”
She turned on him fiercely, with every intention of blasting him over the previous hours’ events. Her eyes widened, though, as she caught sight of his pale face and the bloodstained bandage.
“Are you okay?” She reached out, her fingers touching the hard, sun-bronzed flesh just beneath the bandage.
“I’ll live,” he grunted. “And stop trying to distract me. I told you to stay put.”
His eyes glittered a menacing gold in the dim light of the heavily curtained living room.
“I don’t obey orders so well.” She licked her dry lips nervously. “And I was tired of waiting.”
“The police had barely left, Lyra.” He pushed his fingers through his damp hair with rough impatience. “I was on my way.”
His voice gentled, though not by much as he stared down at her. For a moment, his expression softened and then turned fierce once again.
“You would drive a grown man to drink,” he finally growled before turning to stalk through the house. “Come on, I need coffee.”
“Do you know how to fix it?” She followed him quickly, the question falling from her lips before she could stop it.
“Hell no. But I’m fucking desperate,” he snarled impatiently, his voice rough.
“Then don’t touch that coffeepot, because I want some, too.”
She moved quickly in front of him before coming to a dead stop in the middle of the immaculate kitchen.
“Fine, go for it.” He moved past her to the door where the tiles shone damply, the smell of disinfectant heavy in the air.
“What are you doing?” She was almost afraid to touch anything. It was almost sterile-clean.
“Blood.” He grunted. “I don’t want it staining the tiles.”
He knelt on the floor, a heavy towel in his hands as he mopped at the puddle of cleaner he had poured on the floor.
Her brothers, bless their hearts, would have waited for her to try to clean it. She doubted they cleaned anything besides their weapons, at any time. The slobs.
“Do you ever cook in this kitchen?” she questioned him nervously as she moved to the cabinet and the coffeemaker sitting there.
“I’d need to know how to first,” he grunted, working at the floor with single-minded intensity. “I’ll figure it out eventually.”
She searched the cabinets until she found the bag of pre-ground coffee and two mugs.
The term bare cupboards definitely applied to this man.
“What do you eat?” The silence was stifling as he rose to his feet to watch her measure the coffee into a filter with narrowed eyes.
“I eat,” he finally growled as he moved through the kitchen into a short hall.