Book 4 in the Heart of the Jaguar Series
An impossible mission...A lifetime of possibilities
JAG Special Forces agents Huntley Anderson and Melissa Overton are hot on the trail of poachers when they're suddenly saddled with two jaguar shifter cubs. They have to locate the parents, pronto-but who's going to babysit in the meantime?
Huntley is a rough, tough jaguar shifter and an all-business agent, but he's not going to let two abandoned youngsters come to any harm on his watch. Seeing her super-manly partner try to get the playful cubs under control stirs up some unexpected desires in Melissa, and she begins to feel like Huntley's not the only one who's in over his head.
Heart of the Jaguar Series:
Savage Hunger (Book 1)
Jaguar Fever (Book 2)
Jaguar Hunt (Book 3)
Jaguar Pride (Book 4)
Praise for Jaguar Fever:
"Exciting, funny and sexy. Jaguar Fever has a multilayered, sizzling plot that will have readers unable to put it down." -Fresh Fiction
"Jaguar Fever lures a reader in with humor, snares their attention with drama, captures their imagination with exotic locations and satisfies the romance reader with sexy seduction, culminating in an explosive, action-packed climax. This author delivers the goods every time. A reader can't go wrong with stories by Terry Spear." -Long and Short Reviews
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
At dusk in the Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica, Melissa Overton barely heard the constant sound of crickets chirping all around them. Prowling through the dense, tropical rainforest as a jaguar, she listened for the human voices that would clue her in that her prey was nearby.
Waves crashed onto the sandy beaches in the distance as she made her way quietly, like a phantom predator, through the tangle of vines and broad, leafy foliage, searching for any sign of the poachers. Humans wouldn't have a clue as to what she and her kind were when they saw her-apparently nothing other than an ordinary jaguar. And she and her fellow jaguar shifters planned to keep it that way.
Her partner on this mission, JAG agent Huntley Anderson, was nearby, just as wary and observant. The JAG Special Forces Branch, also known as the Golden Claws, was only open to jaguar shifters and served to protect both their shifter kind and their jaguar cousins. For this mission, JAG Director Martin Sullivan had ordered Melissa and Huntley to capture a group of poachers. The JAG agents were to let the Costa Rican authorities take it from there, which didn't sit well with Melissa. She understood Martin's reasoning, but she'd rather end the poaching in a more...permanent way.
Otherwise, the bad guys would be back to poaching once they'd served their time. And she and others like her would be trying to apprehend the poachers again, before they killed or injured the exotic cats-or took them out of their native habitat and sold them to the highest bidder.
An ocelot caught her eye, but as soon as he saw her, he quickly vanished. It was May and the rainy season had just begun-a time when many tourists avoided the area because flooding made hiking more dangerous. She and Huntley made their way through a tiny section of the park's more than 103,000 acres of tropical rainforest, searching for Timothy Jackson, the leader of the poachers, and his men. Intelligence at JAG headquarters indicated that this was the group's favorite area to poach from.
Jackson was an enigma. He'd fought bravely in the desert on two combat tours and left the service with an honorable discharge. But when his wife took their baby daughter and ran off with another man, the shame and anger seemed to have consumed Jackson. He'd finally quit his job as a Veterans Administration clerk and had turned into something dark and twisted.
Melissa's paws didn't make a sound as she moved through snarled roots and wet and muddy leaf litter at the base of the towering tropical trees, her ears perked, listening for human voices.
Wearing his black jaguar coat, Huntley was sniffing the air nearby and pausing to listen. Darkness had claimed the area, the trees and rapidly approaching rain clouds blocking any hint of light at dusk. Though Melissa's golden coat, covered in black rosettes, was difficult to see at night if anyone should shine a flashlight on her, Huntley was even harder to see, making him hauntingly ghostlike. In broad daylight, his rosettes could be seen, but in a darkly elegant way. She'd never tell him. As hot as he looked, he probably knew it well, and she didn't want him to think she was interested or anything. Not when they were each currently seeing someone else.
She loved working with him, though.
Some would incorrectly call Huntley a panther, but he was a black jaguar. Black jaguars, a melanistic form, accounted for about six percent of the regular jaguar population. The jaguar shifters weren't sure about the ratio within their own kind. Huntley's mother was a beautiful black jaguar, and his dad, golden. Both his brother, Everett, and sister, Tammy, were also golden. For whatever reason, Huntley's coat appealed to Melissa, especially on missions like this. He seemed like a ninja warrior in jaguar form-sleek, agile, and deadly. And she liked that he was wild like she was, making them both able to live in their native environments without a hitch. Unless they had trouble with poachers.
She realized more and more that she should have hooked up with a cat like Huntley-and not a city cat like Oliver Strickland, who didn't ever shift or want to experience his wild side. How boring was that? She had believed that if she showed Oliver how much fun it could be, he might change his mind. She should have known that altering someone's personality wasn't going to happen unless the person wanted it to. Oliver was strictly a human who kept his jaguar persona hidden from everyone. Including her. Not that he wasn't a gorgeous specimen of a man to savor. He was. She sighed, wishing he was more...wild, in a jaguar way.
Switching her attention from thinking about her tame boyfriend and her hot JAG partner, she listened again for any human sounds. Nocturnal animals were out hunting, which included all the wild cats that lived there-the pumas (also known as cougars, mountain lions, and a variety of other names), margays, ocelots, oncillas (a small wild cat, also known as the little spotted cat), and the jaguar. All wild cats were territorial, but the jaguar was king.
She'd spotted what looked like domestic cat prints in the mud underneath some of the ferns. In reality, they were an oncilla's paw prints. She and Huntley were leaving their own jaguar pug marks in the mud, though they were not using any of the human-made trails so no human was likely to encounter them.
They used the coastal track to search for the poachers, which meant having to ford several rivers, the Rio Sirena being the most dangerous at high tide. All of the rivers could be treacherous if the currents were strong enough, especially for inexperienced hikers. The Rio Sirena also had its fair share of American crocodiles, bull sharks, and spectacled caiman.
Melissa and Huntley had traveled nearly two miles, staying hidden in the rainforest near the track, which hikers could use to make a two- or three-day trek through the park and camp at five different ranger stations. She and Huntley would consider anyone they came across as suspect. Hikers carrying backpacks and camera equipment were probably there for just a visit. Anyone toting a rifle or gun would be their number one suspect.
Before dusk, she and Huntley had stashed their own camping equipment-single tent and two sleeping bags, clothes, hiking shoes, and insect repellent-high in a tree. They didn't want to tempt anyone who might think to steal their "abandoned" equipment by leaving it lying about.
They searched for the poachers at night because that's when the men were most likely to be hunting. This was the second day of trying to locate the poachers, and she wanted to find them now.
Mosquitoes buzzed around her, making her glad to have her jaguar fur coat. She suddenly spied several tapirs as they poked around, looking for vegetation worth eating. She and Huntley made a wide sweep around them, not wanting the animals to believe two jaguars were hunting them. The sound of insects roared in the thick, humid air. An owl hooted. A vampire bat flew overhead. That surprised her because the bats often stayed near herds of cattle. She glanced up at the cloudy sky. Vampire bats didn't like hunting during the full moon when they were visible.
Only the stout of heart would come to the rainforest during the rainy season. That meant more of a chance for her and Huntley to catch those who weren't there just to sightsee. Anyone visiting the area would have to watch the tides. The virgin rainforest, deserted beaches, and jungle-edged rivers were a visitor's paradise. But the park also had vast swamps that were inaccessible to humans. As cats, they could go there, but if the poachers couldn't navigate the swamps, it wouldn't do Melissa and Huntley any good to search for them there.
Martin said that the poachers had been seen hunting their prey in this area. They were suspected to be hunting here at night, sometimes when the jaguars went to the beach to eat sea turtles. It was indeed the perfect hunting ground for the poachers, who could use the beach to escape with their bounty. She loved it there in the South Pacific region. This was a favorite vacation spot for her, so she hated to think that poachers would be there hunting any of the beautiful cats. Or any of the animals, for that matter.
Melissa was startled to see two spotted cubs sniffing around the ground, and she immediately stood still. A mother would be nearby. And dangerous. Melissa couldn't tell from this distance and without being able to smell the cubs' scents whether they were jaguar cubs or pumas. The two species were so similar before they were six months old that they were hard to tell apart. In the tropics, jaguars and pumas were known to overlap territories to some degree, unlike in other locations. Though if the puma came across a jaguar, he'd give way to the bigger cat.
Her heart pounding, Melissa caught sight of the mother-a tan-colored puma. She nudged one of the cubs, who looked to be about four months old. And then the mother and her cubs disappeared into the rainforest. Melissa glanced back at Huntley. He looked wary, ears pricked, his blue-green eyes focused on where the puma had disappeared. Normally, the puma wouldn't have chanced a confrontation with a male and female jaguar, but any mother with a cub could be unpredictable.
Her heart settling a bit, Melissa continued to explore, finally coming across a human trail. With only a hundred feet of visibility because of the thick vegetation, getting lost in the rainforest was a real concern for a visitor who didn't stick to a trail. But she and Huntley could smell and hear things that humans couldn't-like how far they were from a swamp or a river or the ocean. All rivers lead to the ocean, right?
There the rivers could end up in crocodile-infested swamps before they continued on their way to the sea, so hiker beware.
Men's voices deeper in the rainforest caught Melissa's attention. She couldn't make out what they were actually saying. Huntley was beside her in an instant. Were the men camping in the rainforest? She'd heard at least three different voices. She could smell whiffs of smoke from their campfire. She and Huntley headed in that direction, drawing closer until they could hear the three men talking-about rugby, girlfriends, and sex. Australians. Most likely they were not who she and Huntley were looking for.
"Hey, mate, look at this. Hold the light closer."
One of the men was holding a flashlight as they looked at a tiny, neon-orange poison dart frog sitting on a broad green leaf.
They thought that was exciting?
To give the men an experience of a lifetime, and before Huntley could dissuade her-if he thought to, or before he did it first-she ran near the camp and past it. She caught one of the men's attention before she disappeared into the rainforest.
"Holy shit!" the man said, scrambling to his feet.
"Was that a-" another man said.
She heard Huntley chasing after her.
"Two of them?"
"A black jaguar?"
"Did anyone get a shot of them?"
The men were so excited that they continued to talk about their experience, wishing someone had gotten a picture of the two jaguars.
Both Melissa and Huntley were well out of sight, having disappeared into the foliage seconds after their appearance in camp.
Huntley was close enough that he brushed his shoulder against her hip in a playful way-amused at what she'd pulled and playing along. She grinned back at him, showing a mouthful of wicked teeth.
He grinned in response.
He could have gone on a path parallel to hers, staying hidden, but no, he had to follow her, probably giving the tourists a near heart attack when they saw not one but two jaguars. Or...it might have given them more of a thrill.
She smiled, never knowing what to expect from her partner, whom she'd been with on two missions before. He could say the same for her-never knowing what she might pull. Sure, he would have an inkling of what she was about to do from the way she would shift her footing and tense her body, preparing to lunge or run. But he wouldn't have enough time to react.
Wouldn't the tourists just love to tell the park rangers that they had spied two jaguars running together? Jaguars rarely made an appearance for them. A black jaguar was even rarer. But a female and male running together? In the jaguar world-as opposed to the jaguar shifter world-the big cats only did that when they were courting.
She smelled the salty ocean and headed that way, intending to see if maybe someone had ditched a boat in one of the isolated coves. She and Huntley finally reached one of the beaches, where the warm ocean waters lapping at the sandy shore teemed with marine life, brightly colored coral, and rock formations. She sniffed the ground and the air, trying to smell any sign of insect repellent or suntan lotion. Neither. She glanced at Huntley. He shook his head, indicating he hadn't smelled anything either.
Then they spied a jaguar at one end of the beach searching for sea turtles. She'd read that the park used to have more than a hundred jaguars, and now it was down to between thirty and forty. This jaguar was one of the lucky ones.
She and Huntley avoided it and took off in the opposite direction. She ran along the sandy beach, her paws leaving imprints in the sand, and then she and Huntley reached the mouth of the river-and saw fins. Bull sharks, one of only a few kinds of sharks that could survive in both fresh and salt water. She was surprised to see so many because illegal poaching of shark fins was decimating the numbers.
Melissa and Huntley needed to cross the river to get to the other beach and continue their search for a boat tied off on the shore. She was certain this wasn't an ideal spot to traverse. Not that the jaguars couldn't defend themselves against something that had the notion of biting into them while they were swimming. But they didn't want to be injured. Sure, jaguar shifters healed fast, depending on the injury. But then their boss would want to know what had happened, they might miss taking down the bad guys, and Martin would use them as an example of what not to do on a mission when lecturing his other agents. No one wanted to have their aborted missions showcased as an illustration of what happened when an agent made a mistake on an assignment.
On the other hand, Melissa found crossing the river there awfully tempting. She attributed having such a reckless nature to her father, who had always encouraged her and her twin sister, Bonnie, to take risks, while their mother would have had a stroke if she'd known.
Melissa studied the water again, wanting to take the quickest path to the beach on the other side. The bull sharks were definitely feeding, their fins showing, then disappearing and reappearing. She thought she counted about eight. The problem was that the farther away from the mouth of the river she and Huntley got, the more trouble they could have with crocodiles and caiman added to the mix.
Huntley nudged her, urging her to move farther through the rainforest. She grunted at him. What did he think? She was a daredevil? Well, she was, to an extent.
Lightning briefly lit up the gray clouds and then thunder clapped overhead, making her jump a little. Then the rain started pouring down. As deep as the river was, they would have to swim, not walk across it like they could in the dry season. Jaguars were powerful swimmers, so at one point where the river narrowed a little, they finally made the decision to go for it, side by side, protecting each other's flanks.
Her heart thundering, she crossed the warm river. A small croc was resting on the shore, eyeing them. Another slipped into the water, and a bull shark passed them by. When she and Huntley finally reached the other side, they bolted out of the water and away from the riverbank. They headed through the rainforest again until they reached the beach along the coast.
For a moment, they just stood there, the rain pelting them as they listened for the sound of a boat engine or men talking. She smelled gasoline down the beach. Her heart began to beat faster. The gasoline smell had to have come from a boat. There was no sign of one beached anywhere, and she hoped that if the smell was from the poachers' boat, they hadn't already grabbed what they had come for and gone. She and Huntley loped toward the cove hidden by trees.
When they reached the edge of the beach and looked right, they saw a boat sitting in the protected cove. She felt a hint of relief and the thrill of the chase. If the boat was the poachers' transportation, they could escape with their "catch" without having to leave via any of the park entrances. She had to remind herself that others used boats to reach the shores for tours, so this might not be a poacher's boat.
No one was around. What if the boat was operated by a legitimate company taking a bunch of tourists on a guided tour? But she didn't see any markings on the boat indicating it belonged to a tour group or resort in the area.
She and Huntley drew closer under the cover of the rainforest, though it was pouring and dark. Still, if someone had a high-powered-enough flashlight, they could see Huntley and her. Well, Huntley's eyes mostly-they gave off a fluorescent color if a light was shined on them.
Then they heard something moving through the brush. She and Huntley stopped.
"Hurry up," a man said, heading in the direction of the beach.
His words sounded promising as she and Huntley hid in the ferns, watching and waiting.
A light wavered through the dense foliage. The men had to be human, not shifters, or they wouldn't have needed the man-made light.
Suddenly, someone came out of the rainforest from a different direction. A man yanked up his trousers' zipper while he watched for his comrades. Dressed in a white shirt and pants, he stood out in the black rain that soaked him and everything around him.
"Any trouble?" he asked the four men as they broke through the vegetation and reached the beach.
"Carlton got careless, and the cat scratched him bad," one of the men said. Two of them were carrying a burlap sack between them with what was likely their live bounty inside.
Cat. Which kind?
A second man was carrying another burlap sack, while the last man was holding on to his shoulder as if his injuries were severe, his shirt and fingers bloodied. He groaned in pain.
All of them had rifles slung over their shoulders and sheathed machetes hanging from their belts.
"Whaddya get?" the lookout asked.
"Puma and two cubs."
Melissa ground her teeth, thinking at once of the puma and her cubs that she and Huntley had spied earlier.
"Help Carlton into the boat, will ya? Where's Jackson?"
Jackson. The man-and his cohorts-that they'd come for. And he wasn't here? Great.
"Taking a dump. Something didn't agree with him, and he's about an eighth of a mile back there."
"And you left him alone?"
"Hell, he told us to get going. If you want to watch him doing his thing, you go back and do so."
Melissa had no intention of letting these men remove the pumas from the park. But both she and Huntley hesitated to make a move. If they attacked now, Jackson could all of a sudden show up and shoot them both.
Then, figuring they had to chance it before the men got the cats in the boat, Huntley growled low, Melissa's cue to attack.
They had one attempt to get this right-while the men still had their hands full with carrying the sacks and the lookout was trying to help the injured man into the boat. The men had so many rifles and machetes between them that it was a dangerous move on the jaguars' part.
Huntley went after the two men holding the bigger cat. Melissa lunged after the lone man holding on to the sack with the cubs. The JAG agents wouldn't kill the poachers if they didn't have to. But the agents had to use an economy of movements and quick action to do this right.
Swiping his paw with his claws extended, Huntley struck the first man that he could reach in the head, knocking him out cold. Melissa used a similar tactic with the other man. Thankfully, by sweeping its paw, a jaguar could stun its prey, knock it out, or kill it. She and Huntley were trying hard not to kill the men, as much as she regretted her orders.
She immediately went after the lookout, who was panicking and struggling to get his rifle off his shoulder. The injured man looked dazed and didn't react. She coldcocked the lookout, then went after the injured man. Even if he couldn't fight well, she didn't want to chance it. Once she'd slugged him hard, and he'd joined the lookout lying unconscious on the beach, she turned to take care of anyone else.
Huntley was checking on all of the men to ensure they were really out and not playing dead.
She tore open the first of the burlap sacks with her teeth. Two sleeping spotted cubs. One of them she recognized as the same cub she had seen earlier. Melissa tore the other sack open and found the mother, tranquilized like her babies. She felt bad for them for having experienced this, but glad they would have a good outcome this time.
Huntley had shifted into his attractive human form-that she was trying hard not to look at too much-and was examining each of the men's IDs, verifying the poachers' names before he called the park ranger. The agents had to move quickly before Jackson arrived on the scene.
"Wish we'd gotten Jackson, but we might still be able to. At least we got the rest of his men, for now," Huntley said, pulling a cell phone out of one of the men's pockets. Huntley's dark blond hair was dripping wet, and his blue-green eyes were studying her as he called the authorities. He was as tall as her father, six feet in height, muscled, and well...just plain good-looking.
She grunted her approval, then dragged the momma cat in her burlap sack into the rainforest to hide her. By the time she had returned to seize the sack containing the cubs, Huntley was speaking on a cell phone in Spanish, relaying to the ranger station that some very bad hombres had been caught attempting to poach a puma and her two cubs. He read the men's names off their IDs, then tucked the IDs back into their pockets.
"The puma and her cubs are sleeping in burlap sacks in the vegetation nearby to keep them safe, but you can find the men and their boat at the following coordinates." He proceeded to tell the ranger the location of the cove. "One other man, the leader in charge of the poachers, is named Timothy Jackson. According to his men, he's still in the rainforest."
Huntley ended the call and disabled the boat by pulling the control box apart, removing a few things, and tossed them into the ocean, just in case.
Melissa was supposed to watch his back, and that meant any other delectable part he showed off. All his parts were remarkable, as toned as his muscles were, and though she didn't want to admit looking, he was very well endowed. She felt a little bit guilty, especially since he had a girlfriend and she had a boyfriend. Still, she was only human-well, and jaguar-so she blamed the interest on both. Besides, looking but not touching was acceptable, right?
She swore he was fighting a smile, probably flattered just a little that she was interested.
"I'd prefer to sink the boat with them on it," Huntley said gruffly as he joined her.
She roared in agreement. A sunken boat would make a great coral-reef structure for fish in the future.
"It will take hours before anyone can arrive, unless they send a boat, and even that will take some time," he said. "Maybe we can still get Jackson."
Huntley shifted back into his jaguar form and quickly joined her. She led him to the mother and cubs and stayed there, watching over them and protecting them. The mother and the cubs would probably sleep through the night, long enough for the park rangers and police to reach this location. Melissa and Huntley climbed high into a tree, not wanting to face a very hostile mother puma that would be protecting her young and dangerous once she woke.
They listened for any sign of Jackson approaching. They couldn't see the boat or his men from there, which was why it was a safe place to leave the drugged cats. Either Huntley or Melissa could have gone searching in the rainforest for the bastard, but their training had taught them to stick together as much as possible while they conducted a mission in the wild.
They would stay hidden unless they heard Jackson reach his men. Then they'd pay him a visit and knock him out too. Otherwise, they'd wait until the rangers and police arrived to ensure the mother and her cubs remained safe, just in case any other poachers happened onto them. Not likely, but she and Huntley couldn't leave the cats' safety to chance.
A short while later, they heard movement near the cove. Melissa hated leaving the mother and the cubs alone. Huntley indicated with his head that she should stay with the pumas, but she couldn't let him risk his life in case Jackson saw him and fired a shot to kill.
She and Huntley leaped down from the tree, then stealthily made their way to the cove. A couple of tapirs were rooting around. No sign of Jackson. Disappointed, she and Huntley returned to the pumas and jumped back into the tree to wait.
The problem with the rainforest and all the creatures that lived within was that everything made a noise, and because of their enhanced cat's hearing, the JAG agents heard everything. So they investigated the cove five more times before they figured that Jackson had to have discovered what happened to his men, found he couldn't start the boat, and taken off on foot. According to the mission briefing, he had lived in jungles for much of his life, so she could see him being nearly as stealthy as them.
Three hours later, they heard men speaking in Spanish-police and two rangers-and surveying the area for any sign of the cats. When they searched the rainforest and found the sleeping cats, they took pictures and checked them over, never looking up to see the jaguars in the tree above them. In the dark, they wouldn't see the cats anyway unless they flashed their lights in that direction, but who would ever believe a couple of jaguars were watching them?
Ensuring that the three pumas were well, the men returned to the beach.
In the boat, they found cages, weapons, and tranquilizers-enough evidence to put the five men in jail. "The caller said there were six men," one of the police officers said. He read the names of the poachers that she and Huntley had taken down. "But the ringleader? Jackson? He's not here."
Letting her breath out in annoyance, Melissa hated that they hadn't caught Jackson too-and in the middle of a poaching job, the perfect scenario. She glanced at Huntley, who had narrowed his eyes and looked just as pissed as she felt.