Leopard shifter Sevastyan Amurov has an anger inside of him that burns so hot it’s almost impossible to control. His barely leashed rage threatens to break free, until he meets a woman who soothes his restless soul.
Sevastyan wants Flambe Carver with every breath. He’s determined that the fiery-haired woman will want to be his completely. But his would-be mate comes with strings attached—a relentless stalker who intends to claim her for his own.
They barely know each other, but with a very real threat looming just out of reach, Sevastyan takes Flambe under his protection. And as their connection grows, the embers of desire sparking between them soon burst into an inferno that will consume them both.
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Sevastyan Amurov paced back and forth, long, angry strides, trying to rid his body of the dark, ugly, animalistic, moody edge his leopard brought along with his own bad temper. Over the years, he'd worked at staying in complete control. He'd succeeded in preventing that hot red volcano welling up inside him from showing itself to the outside world, but he'd never managed to eliminate the vile emotion. He knew he never would.
He was leopard. Not just any leopard. He was Amurov, born and bred in a brutal lair known for cruelty, for such savage practices that other lairs wanted nothing to do with them. He couldn't blame them. The men in his lair took women to be their mates-not the women who held the mate for the leopards-but women who would give them sons. If they produced females or after they gave them sons, to show their loyalty to their lair, the men murdered their wives, usually in front of their sons. Often, they insisted their sons participate. Female children were either killed or given away or sold as brides to others who would later kill them after they produced sons for their husbands.
Sevastyan had been beaten most of his childhood, as had his leopard, in an attempt to make him stronger-a fighter for his lair. He was raised to be an "enforcer." One who would be a bodyguard to the vor, or the one who would interrogate a prisoner for information. As he had grown up, that horrendous anger inside of him had grown, fed by his leopard's rage.
His leopard was very strong and controlling him wasn't easy. As the years had passed, unlike his cousins, his need for sex and domination had grown, not diminished. His leopard prowled closer and closer to the surface, demanding more and more, and those needs had turned sexual for him. It was a vicious cycle and one Sevastyan feared he was going to lose eventually. He often visited the underground clubs to ease the needs he had, but that was always dangerous when his leopard was so brutal. He had to be very careful that he didn't allow any of the cruelty of his cat to spill over to his games with the women he played with.
Glancing at his watch for the tenth time, he hissed his displeasure. The woman from the landscaping company had blown him off. Again. That was three times. The first two times, at least she'd had the courtesy to let him know she couldn't make it. It was an inconvenience, but she'd given him enough time that he hadn't left Mitya, his cousin and boss, without protection.
He was Mitya's bodyguard. Mitya had enough enemies that Sevastyan wasn't about to take chances with his life. Already he'd been shot more than once, and leaving his protection to others didn't sit well with Sevastyan.
Like always, when he was very upset, the anger in him translated to a deep sexual need that he despised. It rose up like a tidal wave, a hunger that took hold of him and wouldn't let go until he rode a woman hard-and what was the difference between him and the other men in the lair he'd left so long ago? He despised himself for using women, no matter that they were fully consenting. He might visit the clubs and spend hours there doing the things he needed to do, but he was never sated. Never. His leopard roared his rage and deep inside, he did as well.
The truth was, Sevastyan wanted a woman of his own. A partner. A woman to love. A woman who held the mate for his leopard. That same gift his cousins had. He doubted if that was going to ever happen for him. His father and Mitya's father both had seen to that with their torture and deviant training. His needs weren't going to go away because he willed them to. Long weeks of trying. Months. Nothing had stopped that terrible craving. Nor would his rage. He had watched his cousins to see if they were like him. None of them were. Mitya was dominant, but he wasn't in the least like Sevastyan. Still, his leopard deserved a mate.
He had one thing going for them. His leopard-and he-were in their first life cycle. That meant they could claim an unmated female shifter. They just had to find one.
Deep inside, his leopard snarled and raked at him with sharp claws, leaping suddenly in an attempt to take him by surprise and get out. It wasn't the first time and wouldn't be the last. Sometimes, Sevastyan thought his leopard, whom he affectionally called Shturm, meaning assault, would end his life by literally ripping him open and climbing out of him rather than shifting the normal way they exchanged forms.
"I'm having enough trouble staying in control without you adding to my problems," he hissed in displeasure at the cat, raking his fingers through his hair, uncaring that it went wild on him. He was normally groomed to perfection, as part of his intimidating look.
Sevastyan was built the way many shifters were, with roped muscles and no fat. He was taller than most with wide shoulders and a thick, defined chest, narrow hips and muscular legs. He kept his cat in fighting form, which meant he was as well. He ran every day and let his cat out to run. He practiced with weapons daily and trained in hand-to-hand combat. He left nothing to chance when it came to Mitya's safety.
The cat leapt again, clawing for freedom, and Sevastyan turned toward the door. Shturm was being a little too persistent, which could only mean they weren't alone. Maybe the landscaper hadn't blown him off entirely, maybe she was just late. Not a good start, but at least she'd managed to get her ass here. He'd make it very clear he didn't tolerate that kind of crap from those he employed unless there was a very good excuse, in which case she should have let him know immediately.
Sevastyan took his time getting to the door, deliberately slowing his steps, breathing deep to find that calm place he maintained in front of all others. His weapons were close, as they always were, so many tucked into his boots, the holster under his arm, the slim sheath between his shoulder blades, the many loops inside the jacket he shrugged into as he paused just at the door.
A woman hurried up the walkway, looking surprisingly young for being the owner of a renowned landscaping business. Sevastyan knew Leland Carver had passed away several years earlier, leaving the business to his daughter. FlambŽ Carver had grown up working alongside her father, and some said she had surpassed him in brilliance for her designs in incorporating the natural topography, flora and fauna into beautiful and unique works of art.
Leland Carver was a shifter, and he had designed the woods with their arboreal highways for the leopards to travel quickly throughout Mitya's property. It was the same on their cousin Fyodor's property. Carver had also landscaped and planted that property with fast-growing trees. Sevastyan wanted the same on his property. Part of the land had already been planted, but he wanted his property connected to his cousins' so he could travel fast without a car to get to Mitya, should there be need.
The woman hurrying up the walkway had the smaller, curvy body of a shifter, although she was much smaller than many of the women, and she had shocking red hair. Sheets of bright red hair, which he'd never seen on a shifter before. It wasn't dyed red; it looked too natural for that. The sun shone on it, turning it into a fiery blaze that spilled in all directions. She had it pulled up into a simple ponytail, but in her haste, in spite of the thickness of shifter hair, it had come loose and was pulling free, giving her the appearance of looking wild.
Sevastyan found the dominant rising like a tidal wave, strong, taking over, needing to tame that out-of-control woman rushing up his walkway, late by nearly half an hour to a very important appointment she'd already cancelled twice. He let her get right to the door and push the doorbell not once, but twice, with several long moments between before he took his time leisurely opening the heavy oak door to stand framed there just looking at her.
There was a long silence. She was breathing hard as if she'd been running a long distance. Just because she came from a line of shifters didn't mean she had a leopard, or that she knew she was a shifter. Men had their leopards nearly from the time they were born, where women often weren't aware of their leopards until the leopard and the woman both had the same hormone cycle. Sometimes that never happened and the leopard never emerged. Still, most shifters were in good shape, and she shouldn't be so out of breath.
He studied her deliberately, drawing out the silence. She had unusual eyes, green with golden flecks, and he recognized the eyes of a female leopard immediately. He also became aware of Shturm's reaction to the woman. It was the easing of tension out of the big cat. The claws seemed to retract slowly and he simply went quiet, almost as if, like Sevastyan, he was observing the woman instead of reacting negatively toward her.
Shturm hated all humans and let his human counterpart know at every opportunity. It was rare for him to go quiet, and that alone kept Sevastyan from saying anything to dispel the rising tension between the woman and himself-not that he wanted to. She needed to take responsibility for his time away from Mitya. His job as his cousin's bodyguard was important.
Looking down at her red-gold-tipped lashes that had swept down to veil the expression in her green eyes, a curious emotion gripped him, one he couldn't recognize. She had a generous mouth, beautiful lips, very red, although there was a smudge of dirt near the corner on the left side he could barely keep from leaning down to wipe away with the pad of his thumb.
"I'm so sorry I'm late," she started. Her tone was soft. Pleasing. There was no remorse, but her voice did tremble the least little bit.
He frowned, his eyes on that little smudge. He took a step toward her, caught her chin in a firm grip and angled her face toward the sun. "What the hell happened? Did someone hit you?"
There was barely controlled fury in him, although his voice sounded the way it always did-calm. He knew someone had struck her. Recently. Within the last half hour. That was the reason she was late. While he'd been pacing up and down in his front room, furious at her, some asshole had hit her. Struck a woman. When he turned her face toward the sun, he caught sight of a large lump on the side of her head, up high in the hairline. Hidden, but it was there. He forced himself to let go of her.
She glanced over her shoulder as if it was possible she was being pursued. She hesitated, as if she might not answer, or she might try to lie, but then she simply told him the truth. "Unfortunately, yes, I'm so sorry. I know we're getting off to such a bad start, and it's so unprofessional. Our company is really the best. We've just had bad timing with our scheduled meetings. I really tried to get here but . . ." She was babbling. The words stumbling over one another.
"Ms. Carver," Sevastyan interrupted, his voice a whip. He was used to giving commands and having them obeyed. He'd been trained from the time he was a young boy and as he had taken over the duties of head of security for his cousin, his natural dominant character had come out more and more. "Tell me what happened."
She stood blinking up at him. She was already more than a foot shorter than he was and with him standing a step above her, it only added to her diminutive stature. Once he realized what that smudge was and had seen that swelling on the side of her head, Sevastyan hadn't brought her fully into the house, where she might feel vulnerable alone with him. Still, he intended to take advantage to get the information he needed to hunt down whoever had struck her.
FlambŽ shrugged in an attempt to be casual, but the movement hurt and she winced visibly. "There's a man who is very angry with me for a lot of different reasons. I refused to take his calls and he's been watching me. I called the police and reported him numerous times, but because he hasn't actually done anything, well, until now, they said there wasn't anything they could do."
"He's stalking you."
She made a face. "I hate using that word because it sounds like something everyone uses now, but yes. He turns up everywhere I go. He stands across the street from places I go to eat with my friends. I made him angry. I should have just kept quiet, but I got so sick of him always pushing at me. I confronted him and told him to keep the hell away from me."
Sevastyan detested that she thought she had to be the one to give in to her stalker's demands in order for her to have peace. That was what the women in their lair felt; in the end, all of them knew they would be murdered and yet they quietly accepted their fate. There was no rising up. No fighting back. Again, that place inside of him that roared with rage turned red with anger, threatening to erupt like an angry volcano, but on the outside, he appeared completely calm. He had to. The last thing this woman needed was to fear him.
"Why do you think you should have to keep quiet? He's the one doing something wrong, not you. You had every right to tell him to stay away from you, although you shouldn't have been alone when you confronted him."
"I wasn't when I confronted him. But he waited until I was coming out here and he forced me off the road." Her entire body was shaking, whether she was aware of it or not.
Sevastyan was unprepared for Shturm's furious reaction. The leopard leapt at him, raking and clawing for freedom as if he would go hunting right then and find FlambŽ's stalker. Sevastyan remained absolutely expressionless but he couldn't stop himself from stepping in to her and circling her the way his leopard would, inhaling as he did so. The moment he did, his leopard went crazy. He felt a little insane himself. Her stalker was leopard. He wasn't Amurov. He wasn't from Russia, or from one of the lairs Sevastyan was familiar with, but none of that mattered, he was leopard and he was stalking FlambŽ for a reason.