With the ancient curse broken, the warriors serving the Lady of Beasts are free. Stavros, the only unmated warrior, retreats to the solitude of the Louisiana bayou, but he’s not alone there. The minute he sees the woman stalking wildlife with her camera, he realizes her for who she is—his mate.
When wildlife photographer Toni Richards is almost kidnapped her, she’s shocked when the rare jaguar who saves her then morphs into a man—a sexy man with a tattoo of a snarling jaguar on his back.
Good judgment flies out the window, and Stavros lets his animal instincts reign. Now that he’s found Toni, he can never let her go. He just hopes she’ll forgive him for what he must do to protect her soul.
Each book in the Hades’ Carnival series is a standalone story that can be enjoyed out of order.
Book #1 Night of the Tiger
Book #2 Mark of the Bear
Book #3 Pride of the Lion
Book #4 Howl of the Wolf
Book #5 Heart of the Serpent
Book #6 Flame of the Phoenix
Book #7 Lure of the Jaguar
About the Author
Once upon a time N.J. had the idea that she would like to quit her job at the bookstore, sell everything she owned, leave her hometown, and write romance novels in a place where no one knew her. And she did. Two years later, she went back to the bookstore and her hometown and settled in for another seven years. One day she gave notice at her job on a Friday morning. On Sunday afternoon, she received a tentative acceptance for her first romance novel and life would never be the same.
N.J. Walters is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author who has always been a voracious reader, and now she spends her days writing novels of her own. Vampires, werewolves, dragons, time-travelers, seductive handymen, and next-door neighbors with smoldering good looks—all vie for her attention. It’s a tough life, but someone’s got to live it.
Read an Excerpt
Stavros studied the woman as she crept through high grass. She was quieter than most of the people who crossed his path, more in tune with her surroundings. He was perched high in a cypress tree, his dense body hidden by the Spanish moss that covered the limbs. He flicked his tail lazily as the woman raised her camera, peered through the lens and took a series of pictures.
He had no idea who she was, but she'd been creeping around the bayou for several days now, and he'd taken to watching her. She was entertaining, something to break up the monotony of his days. It was easy to follow her in his animal form. As a black jaguar, he could easily climb trees and blend with the shadows.
He was careful not to get too close to her. He didn't want her to see him, not that it really mattered, he supposed. All she'd see was an elusive cat, one that wasn't supposed to exist in this part of the world. No, it was more that he couldn't allow himself to become attached to anyone. Ever.
Not with the threat from Hades looming over him. The god had shown himself a poor loser in the more than five-thousand-year-old war with the Lady of the Beasts and her seven immortal, shapeshifting warriors, of which Stavros was one. He and the others had survived a curse and a battle for their souls. Now they were safe. He was safe. But Hades was not done trying to get his revenge. The devious god had already attacked two human women that were close to the warriors.
Stavros wasn't going to give Hades the opportunity to hurt anyone else.
Thankfully, both women had been saved by his fellow warriors. Jessica Miller and Tilly Ledet had found themselves mated to Mordecai and Phoenix, respectively. That was fine for them. Stavros knew his friends had deep feelings for their mates.
But he was alone.
There was no woman waiting for him. No one he wished to share his immortality with. And that had been the price of saving the women's souls from Hades.
The woman below him straightened from her crouch, arched her back and stretched her arms over her head. She wasn't very big, maybe five-three or so, but she was all woman. The jeans she wore emphasized her generously curved hips, and the khaki-colored T-shirt she wore clung to her full breasts. The man stirred inside the jaguar, but he fought for control and held his animal form.
Her hair was black as midnight and she kept it confined in a thick braid, which hung halfway down her back. Her skin was tanned from being outside, and that made her blue eyes appear even more vivid.
In truth, he was fascinated with her. But he would never approach her. To do so would bring Hades' attention her way. Stavros had already spent way too much time observing her from afar. He made sure never to remain around her for long, spending much of his days and nights simply wandering the bayou.
As though sensing his scrutiny, she glanced up at the tree where he was perched. He froze, not moving an inch or twitching a whisker, confident that he was concealed from her view. Still, it was a reminder for him to be more cautious. She was alert in a way most hunters were, attuned to her environment. But then again, she was hunting. She simply used her camera instead of a gun to shoot her prey.
She looked away when an alligator bellowed in the distance. She nibbled on her bottom lip and, for a moment, he thought she might try to find the gator. Instead, she turned in the opposite direction. He gave a sigh of relief when he realized she was heading toward the cabin she was renting. He had no idea how much longer she would be staying in the area but hoped she would be leaving soon. It would be safer. For both of them.
He twitched his ears, listening to every sound around him, quickly sorting through and cataloging them. When he was certain he was alone, he made his way down the trunk of the tree. He landed on four paws, a silent wraith. He slipped through the tall grass, keeping low as he followed her to make sure she got home safely.
He didn't question why he did such a thing. It was as instinctual as breathing.
Antoinette Richards glanced over her shoulder but saw nothing on the path behind her. That didn't mean there wasn't something there. She'd been a wildlife photographer her entire life, starting when she got her first camera at the age of six and took a picture of the robins that ate from the family backyard birdfeeder. Since those early times, she'd progressed in her chosen career and traveled all around the world for her art.
If there was one thing she'd learned over the years, it was to trust her instincts. And right now, they were telling here there was something out there watching her.
She wondered if it was the huge panther she'd caught sight of several times over the past few days. She'd seen the tip of a tail, a flash of a body concealed in the foliage and one partial track in the dirt. Technically, the term panther wasn't even correct, even though it was used by many local people to describe cougars.
Whatever it was, it wasn't a cougar, it was big and it wasn't native to the area. She kept hoping she'd be able to catch whatever it was on film so she could finally figure out exactly what kind of cat it was.
She turned her attention back to the path before her and carefully placed her feet to do as minimal damage to the ecosystem as possible. She was respectful of the environments she worked in, knowing many of them were sensitive to any intrusion by mankind. But she did pick up her pace.
She hitched her camera bag higher on her shoulder and tried to contain her burgeoning excitement. The trip this morning had yielded her some spectacular shots. There was one of a bullfrog sitting on a log next to a colorful wildflower that was a sure winner, and another of a delicate butterfly perched on a blackened tree limb sticking out of the swamp. She'd also captured shots of several species of birds, a couple of small snakes and even a turtle. She'd have to research to find out the exact types of snake and bird, but she didn't feel they were anything rare. More indigenous to the area.
Toni swallowed her disappointment at not crossing paths with the more elusive black bear or cougar, but there was still time for her to capture their images. She had three more days here in Louisiana before she headed back to Maine, where she made her home and based her business.
The small house came into view. It wasn't much, but it was cheap and it gave her a roof over her head and a place to sleep. It also had a full bath. All in all, it was a heck of a lot better than some of the places she'd stayed in over the years. It sure beat camping out.
Toni quickened her steps, eager to see the images she'd captured on her computer screen. She made a good living selling her work to wildlife magazines, and some of her less-than-perfect shots were sold online as stock photos. But it was her art photography that was the heart and soul of her business. Those rare, elusive images that struck a chord in the hearts of people who saw them.
She hurried up the rickety steps and dug the key out of her pocket. When the door opened, she stepped inside and peered back out into the overgrown yard. The sun was almost at its peak and she squinted against the glare.
Was there something moving out there?
She raised her camera, the gesture automatic. Peering through the lens, she panned the area and studied it carefully. Nothing. Toni slowly lowered the camera and sighed. "You're imagining things." But she knew she wasn't. Whatever animal was out there didn't want to be seen. She shivered at the thought of a cougar stalking her. She wasn't sure if it was from fear or excitement or a combination of both.
There were photos waiting to be viewed and she was starving. Her stomach chose that moment to growl and remind her she'd skipped breakfast to get outside just in time to shoot dawn rising over the bayou. She'd gotten some spectacular shots of birds taking off from the water. She really should get something to eat. Even more than that, she needed to drink. She'd taken one bottle of water with her this morning, but it was long gone. It was easy to become dehydrated in the Louisiana summer heat.
"Crap." She dumped her bag, hurried to the kitchen, yanked open the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of water. She tucked it under her arm and grabbed a granola bar from the box she'd left on the kitchen counter. Booty in hand, she hurried back out the open door and sat on the porch step.
If there was something out there, she wanted a shot of it. Black leopards were occasionally reported in the area, even though they weren't supposed to exist here. Toni had visited South America a few years ago and captured a stunning black jaguar on film. She'd blown up the image and it hung in her bedroom at home in Maine. The creature had been huge and majestic and had captured her heart with its primitive, deadly beauty.
With her camera slung around her neck, she twisted open the water and had a swallow. The cold was soothing and refreshing. She set the bottle next to her, tore open the granola bar and had a bite. It wasn't exactly tasty, but it did fill a hole.
She promised herself she'd cook something better later. Her stomach protested, having heard that promise too many times before to actually believe it. She wolfed down the bar and stuffed the wrapper in her back pocket to dispose of later.
Toni picked up her camera again and peered through the lens. Whatever was out there, she'd see it as long as she was patient. Plus, she was close enough to the house that if it were a bear or a cougar, she could get inside to safety if it became necessary. She didn't think it would. She'd learned over the years of trekking around the world that most animals would leave you alone if you stayed out of their way.
The only exception to that rule was humans. And she'd had more than her fair share of run-ins with nasty two-legged creatures, which is why she always carried a weapon. Of course, her gun was in her tote bag in her bedroom. She hadn't anticipated needing it. And she should have.
She, better than most, knew just because an area seemed isolated, didn't mean it was. Plus, the sparsely populated bayou was the perfect place to run drugs and moonshine.
Her instincts were telling her it was a four-legged creature out there. Still, it wouldn't hurt to be prepared. She slowly climbed to her feet and hurried inside to grab her weapon. And while her back was turned, she missed seeing the black jaguar melt into the surrounding woods.
Hades leaned back in his chair and studied the scene in the mirror. He absently tapped his index finger against his jaw as he contemplated what he'd just seen. This was his last chance at revenge against the Lady of the Beasts and her warriors. And damn, the jaguar was being stubborn. He'd removed himself from the city and was now living isolated in the bayou. The rest of the warriors had found and mated with human women of their choice. Hades still couldn't understand why they would share their immortality with a mere human female. His goal in life was to gain power, not give it up.
Still, there was something there. Otherwise, why would the jaguar spend so much time watching the woman? He cocked his head to one side and let the information flow into him — Antoinette Richards. That was her name.
The mirror went black and Hades bit back a curse. He hated the fact that the enchanted mirror only allowed him a single hour in a twenty-four-hour span to view any world beyond his own realm. And he was trapped in Hell at the moment, compliments of his brothers, and all because he'd sought to take over the world.
Really, Zeus and Poseidon should be impressed with his efforts. It's not as though they concerned themselves with the humans. But they didn't like the idea of him having more power than them. Damn them.
Still, Hades had options. He might not be able to leave his domain, but he had plenty of demons who could. And they were expendable. He'd killed hundreds of them since his release from his prison. Their life force gave him a minor boost of power, but it was fleeting and nothing compared to what he'd had before the Lady of the Beasts had drained him.
"Damn female," he muttered, wishing he could wrap his fingers around the slender neck of the goddess who'd bested him. It was inexcusable, especially since he'd kept her imprisoned for five-thousand years. She should have been weak, unable to escape his realm. That she'd not only beaten him but also tricked him into freeing her warriors was a sore spot that demanded restitution.
"Who are you talking about? Or should I ask?" The feminine voice sank into his pores like a caress.
He should have known she'd be around. She'd been keeping a close eye on him since she'd convinced Zeus to free him from prison. He turned his gaze toward the door and studied his ex-wife, the beautiful Persephone. Even now, his fingers itched to touch her alabaster skin. She was wearing jeans and an emerald-green blouse. He narrowed his eyes and his cock swelled when he realized she wasn't wearing a bra beneath the silky material. Beneath his gaze, her nipples pebbled.
Sexual attraction had never been their problem. Ethics, or rather his lack of them, had been.
"What are you doing here, Persephone?" He stood and adjusted the cuffs of his hand-tailored linen shirt, tugging them to just below the sleeves of his Armani suit.
She shrugged and wandered around the room. She ran her finger over the edge of a gilt frame that hung on the wall. Hades barely noticed the masterpiece by Da Vinci set in the frame. All he could see was the tip of her finger rubbing against the wood. He wanted that finger and the rest of them running over his body.
His cock jerked, reminding him of how much he still wanted her, and his temper flared. "I didn't invite you here." His voice was deep, his tone cutting.
"I didn't think I needed an invitation." She walked toward him, swaying her hips seductively.
"You're not mistress here anymore," he reminded her. It cut him to his core that she'd walked away from him, left him. His home, once his pride and joy, hadn't felt the same since.
Sadness flickered in her eyes for a moment before it disappeared, and Persephone turned away. "I'll leave you alone then."
His eyes were glued to the sway of her behind and the proud bearing of her shoulders. He almost called her back. Instead, he fisted his hands by his sides and reminded himself that she'd left him. It had been her choice.
Damn the woman. Why did she always leave him feeling inadequate? He hated that particular emotion more than any other.
She disappeared, leaving him feeling bereft. He growled, hating any sign of weakness.
Hades glanced toward the darkened mirror. He would have his revenge, and then he would grow strong again. He didn't need the warriors or the power of the Lady of the Beasts to gain control of the Earth. There was more than one way to accomplish his goal of world domination.
But first, he had to deal with the last warrior. If he could take some minor revenge against Stavros, he'd finally be able to put this episode behind him and forget the warriors and their goddess ever existed.
It couldn't happen fast enough to suit him, which is why he needed help. There were plenty of greedy, devious humans who were only too willing to do his bidding in exchange for a favor.
He put Persephone out of his mind, which was much harder to do than it should have been. He was done with her. He didn't need her. He didn't need anyone.
Hades yelled for one of his demons. The scaly creature immediately raced into the room and cowered before him. The male demon was smaller than most, but his mind was cunning. Although he would never admit it, Hades missed Mordecai, the sneaky serpent who'd infiltrated his domain in order to help his fellow warriors escape Hades' wrath. The immortal warrior had been intelligent and brutal, a combination he admired. He also hadn't had to have everything spelled out to him. Mordecai had always seemed to understand what Hades had wanted before he'd even wanted it.
Persephone had been like that too. But she'd concerned herself with seeing to his home and his happiness.
Hades began to pace, momentarily forgetting the demon standing before him. He didn't need happiness. He needed power. But more than that, he needed revenge.
He stopped and faced his demon. "This is what I want you to do."
Excerpted from "Lure of the Jaguar"
Copyright © 2015 N.J. Walters.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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