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Exclusive, Early Excerpt from Christine Feehan’s Leopard’s Fury

Leopard's Fury

Be the first to read Chapter 1 of Christine Feehan’s Leopard’s Fury

Christine is one of the leading lights of paranormal romance, hitting it out the park with each of her series from the Carpathians to her latest Shadow series, and for #WelcomeToMyWorld she’s shared the first chapter of Leopard’s Fury with us.

Happy reading!

 

Damn it, Evangeline, you need to come back home.”

Evangeline Tregre shook her head and took a slow look around the bakery. It wasn’t exactly thriving, but it was still afloat and becoming more popular every day. The walls were painted a soft blue. She’d done that herself. Every cupboard, every placement of the display cases, every single thing from the lettering to the floor— she’d done it. The dusty old, torn-up space had been renovated by her. It was now cozy and inviting with the tables and chairs. She loved the way the bakery smelled. Every single morning when she got up to bake, she looked forward to the day. Back “home” she detested her very existence.

This is home, Robert. I love it here and I’m stayin’. It’s more home to me than that place ever was.” She kept her voice quiet. Low. She was used to being silent. She didn’t argue, nor did she like arguments. She especially didn’t like Robert Lenoux coming to her hard-won business and insisting she return. “In any case, I thought you were travelin’, going to the Borneo rain forest.”

She knew all about Robert, although she’d never actually met him until he’d walked into her bake shop. He had been sent away in disgrace, had served a brief jail stint, but got out of a real sentence from the law by turning evidence against his friends. Murderers. He’d participated in beating and robbing the elderly in their homes, in raping exotic dancers. He had committed countless crimes against his lair, and looking at him, she knew he didn’t care about anyone but himself. Especially women.

“Fuck that,” Robert spat. “I’m not goin’ to be sent away from my home by some outsider who thinks he can order me around. The entire point of goin’ to Borneo is to bring home a woman. You’ll do just fine. I don’ care that you aren’ a shifter.”

Her stomach lurched and then tied into knots. She took a deep calming breath. She’d left that world behind. She wasn’t about to allow a bad- tempered, evil male leopard, one who no doubt didn’t mind hitting a woman, into her life.

“The answer is no. I am never goin’ back there.”

“You have a duty to the rest of us.” Robert reached out, settled hard fingers around her upper arm and yanked her close to him.

Alarm skittered down her spine. She took a step back but his fingers only tightened into an iron band. “Let go of me, Robert. Now.” She hissed the word, letting him see she wouldn’t stand for being pushed around by him. By anyone. Not ever again. “I want you to leave. This is my shop and I’m askin’ you politely to leave.”

The bell over the bakery door tinkled merrily, at odds with the tension in the room. Both turned their heads toward the sound. Evangeline’s breath caught in her throat. She’d grown up around dangerous men. Criminals. Horrible, cunning, viciously cruel men. She knew criminals. She had a radar for them. No one needed radar to know without a single doubt that the man walking through the door of her bakery was dangerous. Terrifyingly so.

He glanced around her beautiful little shop and saw every single detail, yet he didn’t see it because there could be no appreciation. None. There was no emotion on his face or in his flat, cold, dead eyes. Beautiful eyes. Gorgeous eyes. A shocking blue. Like the blue ice of a glacier. His lashes were long and as black as night, framing those icy blue eyes. But there was not a single hint of emotion, not even when his gaze settled on Robert’s hand on her arm. Absolutely nothing. He walked. He breathed. He probably killed people. But if he did, he did it with absolutely no emotion. And he’d heard them arguing. She could tell by the way he looked at Robert’s fingers wrapped around her.

He was very tall, ruggedly built, all roped muscle, and he looked absolutely invincible. She was used to men with muscle, but he was a fighter, through and through. The way he moved—the control, the containment, smooth, fluid, easy, as if he glided or flowed across the floor rather than walked. He did that in absolute silence too, as if his very expensive Italian leather shoes didn’t actually touch the floor.

His suit looked as if it had cost as much as the renovations on the bakery space and been custom made for him—which it probably had been. His icy gaze remained on Robert’s fingers digging into her bicep. She’d all but forgotten he was gripping her so hard until fear sent a chill arrowing through her.

Robert must have felt it too. He was leopard. A shifter. She knew from gossip he had a nasty temper and was as strong as an ox. Like most shifters, he didn’t fear much. His leopard would shred an enemy in seconds if he were threatened. Still, he let her go and stepped back away from her. Away from the newcomer. Subtly putting her between them.

“Can I help you?” Evangeline asked. Her voice sounded different, even to her. Her accent was deeper, a soft sultry lure she hadn’t meant to throw, but really? Every single cell in her body was aware of him. The bayou came out in her voice more than it ever had before, and it sounded like an invitation to spend the night floating down a lazy canal together under a starlit night.

She wasn’t the type of woman to flirt with a man, let alone speak to him in a voice like that. She knew better. She knew danger when she saw it, but she came alive the moment he entered her bakery. Her body had been asleep but now it was wide awake and very aware of every inch of the Iceman. She’d already nicknamed him and thought of him as her Iceman, even if it was just in her fantasies.

His eyes focused on her. He looked at her through a blue glacier without once blinking. “Coffee. Black. A piece of your cinnamon cake.” His voice was deep. Dark. As cold as his eyes. As cold as Siberia—the dead of winter in Siberia. At the same time, it was low and sensual. She couldn’t stop the little shiver that ran through her body at the sound of it. Heat pooled low and wicked, and something wild and feral deep inside her stirred. She had an unexpected urge to take all of that molten heat spreading through her and see if she could unthaw the Iceman’s cold.

He spoke with a heavy Italian accent. For some reason that shocked her. She didn’t expect Italian. More . . . Russian. Maybe because she associated him with Siberia. She couldn’t get that out of her mind. To her, he would always be her Russian Iceman.

Evangeline nodded and turned away from his male potency. He was definitely out of her league. Out of her world. Her universe. This was not a man any sane person would want in their life. Her hands trembled as she poured the coffee— her special all- natural brew customers raved about. The pieces of the cinnamon cake were generous and she arranged one on one of the oblong-shaped plates with her fancy gold logo on it. The E for Evangeline running through the center of it.

He took it without a word. He simply nodded at her, those icy blue eyes never lighting up, never registering life in them at all. No emotion. No nothing. He certainly wasn’t feeling the electrical attraction she was. He turned away and moved across the room. He pulled a chair around so that his back would be to the wall facing the plate-glass entry. He dragged a small table in front of him, put the coffee and the plate on the table and then went to the small stand where the napkins and silverware were.

Evangeline took a deep breath and let it out. She couldn’t— wouldn’t— stare at him. Robert stepped close again, leaning into her, so that his breath puffed into her ear, an intrusion that annoyed her. She’d been so aware of the Iceman that she’d all but forgotten Robert.

“We aren’ finished, Evangeline. I’m takin’ you back with me.”

“I asked you to leave,” she said equally as quiet. “And please don’ come back.”

Robert hissed at her, his eyes going sheer cat, his temper rising at her defiance. She stood her ground, her heart suddenly pounding. She didn’t want to be afraid of him, but it was impossible with him standing so close, scowling fiercely at her. He was deliberately trying to intimidate her. She barely knew him, only what her friend Saria Boudreux— now Donovan—had told her about him, and none of it was good. Saria knew everyone, and Robert Lenoux was from one of the seven shifter families leasing thousands of acres in the swamp. Robert stepped even closer, deliberately towering over her smaller figure. Once again his fingers bit into her arm, this time hard enough to leave bruises. There was the softest of rustlings and they both turned to see the Iceman standing a few feet from them, one great big fist encased in a very expensive leather glove, shoving a napkin into the trash can. His eyes were on Robert’s face and they were colder than ever. The blue in them appeared to be glowing, a flame beneath all that ice.

Evangeline’s breath caught in her lungs and everything in her stilled. He was leopard. A shifter. It seemed impossible there in San Antonio, a place far from where she grew up. Shifters were rare and to find one in a city . . . Impossible, but there was no mistaking those eyes. Exotic. Terrifying. Totally focused on Robert.

“Let. Her. Go.” Each word was soft. Spoken in a low tone. Ice dripped from the voice. The Iceman didn’t look at Evangeline, his entire focus on the man hurting her.

Robert couldn’t fail to see those eyes, read death in them and know what the Iceman was. He hissed a curse word, let go of Evangeline, turned and stormed out, slamming the door. The Iceman turned back toward his table.

“Thank you,” Evangeline said softly. Meaning it. She’d left all that behind her and she never wanted to go back. It didn’t matter that this man clearly was a criminal. Or far more dangerous than Robert could ever be. Or that Robert ran like a rabbit from him when his leopard had to have been raking and clawing for a fight. He’d stepped in when he didn’t have to, and she was grateful. He deserved to know it.

The Iceman turned slightly, looking at her over one broad shoulder. His glacier-blue eyes swept over her and then he nodded slightly before turning away.

Evangeline let out her breath slowly and turned back to straightening the baked goods in the case. She got up at three A.M. every morning and baked the day’s goods so they were fresh. She couldn’t afford to hire anyone else to work in her shop, so she did it all. The baking, the coffee, the dishes, the cleaning of the shop, all of it, and she took pride in her work. She was getting by, managing to pay the bills each month, and that meant she could keep her independence. She was determined to make it on her own.

She snuck another quick look at her Iceman. He wasn’t paying her the slightest bit of attention. Not. At. All. She knew she was easy on the eyes. Since coming to San Antonio, men had flirted outrageously with her. She had no idea what to do with their attention, nor did she want it, but she’d come to realize all the things Saria had tried to convince her about her looks might actually be true.

She wasn’t quite five foot four, so she didn’t have those long legs that attracted men, but she had generous curves and a small waist to emphasize them. Her hair was long and very dark, her eyes a true green, like emeralds, a startling color surrounded by long, thick, black lashes. She had great skin, a luscious mouth and a small, straight nose. All in all, she wasn’t hard to look at. But he wasn’t looking.

Fortunately, so she didn’t make a complete fool of herself, customers began to trickle in. She knew when he got up and left that he didn’t look back.

Over the next week, her Iceman came in three more times. He tried something different each time by pointing or jerking his chin, not speaking. She noticed he preferred things with cinnamon and he liked apples. He always took his coffee black and all three times he indicated he wanted a refill. Each time he came in he rearranged her tables so he could sit with his back against the wall. After the third time, she moved the table herself and left it there permanently for him. He didn’t acknowledge that she’d done it, and in a way she was glad. She needed the business, but she didn’t want a relationship with him.

She’d thought with time he would become less scary, less intimidating, but she was wrong. He was more so. An aura of danger clung to him like a second skin. He never laughed. He never smiled. He barely acknowledged her, yet he was aware of everything, every movement, in her shop and on the street. She was certain he was armed to the teeth and sometimes she was afraid the few cops who frequented her shop would come in at the same time and there would be a shoot-out or something equally as awful.

Two months passed and he came in three times a week, sometimes four, but he never spoke beyond placing his order. She found herself watching for him. Smiling at him when he came in. He never smiled back, but he did stay longer. At least a half an hour longer than he had before.

A few others dressed in Italian suits came in over the third month, never at the same time as her Iceman, but she knew he’d sent them her way. Business seemed to pick up even more after that, as if seeing people in her shop brought in even more customers. That meant she had to work harder, baking more goods, but she didn’t mind; she was finally making it.

She’d all but forgotten Robert. He was waiting for her to open on a Thursday morning, a day her Iceman rarely came in. That told her Robert had been watching the store, probably looking for a pattern. Her heart stuttered when she saw him come through the door. He casually reached over and turned her sign from open to closed.

She reached for her cell phone. He leapt across the room the way leopards could do, jerking it from her hand and flinging it onto the floor a distance away. It shattered, pieces scattering. Evangeline took a deep breath and moved out from behind the counter, not wanting anything to get broken.

“You bitch,” Robert bit out. “You aren’ gettin’ away with this.”

“What are you talkin’ about? I’m not tryin’ to get away with anythin’.”

“You told Saria I wasn’t in the rain forest. You couldn’t just let it go.”

She frowned, shaking her head. “I haven’t spoken to Saria in months. I’ve been too busy.” She should have. Her friend would be worried about her.

Robert stalked her across the room, and she couldn’t help herself. In spite of her determination not to give ground, she did, backing up almost to the door.

“Fuckin’ liar. Tryin’ to get me in trouble. I was goin’ to let it go. The last thing I want is a woman who can’t shift, but now you’re goin’ to pay for tryin’ to get Drake and the others to come lookin’ for me. This is the way it’s goin’ to be. I’ve been stayin’ in a room in town but now I’m goin’ to be stayin’ with you. Hand over the keys to your house. And I need money. I know you got it, and you can give it to me.”

“You’re out of your mind if you think I’m goin’ to let you move in with me. I earned any money I have and it goes to payin’ bills.”

He backhanded her. Hard. Her cheek felt as if it had exploded. Her eyes teared up and she found herself on the floor. He was strong, incredibly strong, and his leopard was close. She could see it in his eyes, those yellowish- green eyes glowing with menace at her.

Deep inside her, wildness woke a feral, dark creature; furious, raging even. The skin raised along her arms and legs, an itch heralding the arrival of her other.

No, Bebe, she said sharply. He can’t know about you. She’d take a beating before she’d ever expose her best friend to such an abomination of a shifter.

Robert came at her again, deliberately using the stalking motion of the leopard. When she tried to get up off the floor, he hit her again, striking the same side of her face. The pain made her feel sick to her stomach.

She heard the bell over the door as if in the distance, and then, blinking to clear the tears from her eyes, she saw Robert doubling over, grunting, his breath a sob. Her Iceman was standing over him, his big, gloved fist hitting hard, over and over. She heard ribs crack. Heard them. A short uppercut to the chin staggered Robert and he went to his knees. The Iceman caught him around the waist and half walked, half dragged him out the door.

Evangeline tried to pull herself up by using the wall, all the while staring out the window. There was a black town car with darkened windows parked in front of her bakery. A man in a suit held the door open while the Iceman thrust Robert inside and then climbed in after him. It wasn’t more than thirty seconds at most before he emerged, looking exactly the same.

Through the open door of the car she caught a glimpse of Robert slumped on the seat, his neck at an odd angle. She shivered as her Iceman spoke briefly to the driver and then slammed the door. He waited until the car drove off, spoke briefly into his phone and then returned to the shop.

He hadn’t changed expression. Not once. Not when he’d been beating the crap out of Robert and not when he’d gotten out of the car. She was almost certain Robert was dead. Her Iceman hadn’t bothered to call his leopard to fight Robert’s. She knew that would have been a sign of respect and clearly the Iceman didn’t feel any at all for Robert.

“Are you all right?” He crouched beside her.

Up close he smelled as good as he looked. A little wild. But like a cool forest, one covered in snow in the winter. His eyes were even more beautiful than she’d first thought. So cold they made her shiver. So blue she thought she could drown.

“Evangeline.” She needed him to know her name. “I’m Evangeline.”

“I know.” He touched her cheek with gentle fingers. He wore gloves, so it wasn’t skin-to-skin contact, but it didn’t matter, her body still reacted with heat.

How could he know her name? It wasn’t like it was on the bakery anywhere. Just an E. She’d used calligraphy and the letter came out elegant, just what she was going for in her shop. Small Sweet Shoppe. She’d loved that for some odd reason and she still did.

“This is where you tell me your name.”

He wrapped his arm around her waist and lifted her to her feet, retaining his hold so that she didn’t fall. That something wild in her unfurled. Stretched. Reached toward her Iceman until her skin felt tight, itched like crazy and then receded.

Don’t you dare, she cautioned.

She had the impression of amusement and then she was alone again.

“You don’ want me to keep callin’ you my Iceman. That’s what I do in my head. Better to have a name, don’ you think?”

Her cheek throbbed and burned like hell and she knew it was swelling. So was her eye. Great. She’d have to go all day answering questions when customers started coming in. If they came in. She’d forgotten the sign was turned to closed.

His glacier-blue eyes moved over her face. No change in expression. So much for being alluring with her sense of humor and her really nicely swollen face. She had to look awful. This was what came from being vain about her skin.

“Alonzo.”

A word. His name. Elation swept through her even as she knew, deep down, he was lying to her. His name was not Alonzo. She heard the lie. Still, she let him get away with it because he’d just saved her from a savage beating. Robert would have robbed her as well.

“Is he alive?” She knew he wasn’t. She knew it with the same certainty that she knew Alonzo wasn’t her Iceman’s real name.

“Does it matter?” He began walking her toward the back room, going around the counter space over her beautiful display cases.

Did it? It was wrong to kill someone by civilized law. The law of the shifters was different, and rogues received a death sentence if they endangered others of the lair. She’d left the lair and that life behind.

She glanced up at him to see him looking down at her with a leopard’s focus. No change in expression. He was as cold as ice.

“He mean something to you?”

She shook her head and immediately wished she hadn’t. A small sound escaped before she could stop it. He instantly lifted her into his arms, clearly done with their slow progress. In his arms, held tightly against his chest, she could feel those heavy muscles rippling as he glided across the floor. There was no jarring of her body, not the way he moved, so fluid, and not the way he held her, nearly crushing her against his chest.

He swept into her kitchen, placed her into a chair and went to the refrigerator. She wished she’d worn something nice. She didn’t have a lot in the way of nice. She’d used her money for a down payment on a small house, and the rest of it went to the bakery. Every cent she had was tied up in her business, so no nice clothes. She didn’t date so she didn’t need them—until now.

He pressed a bag of ice into her hand. “Hold that against your cheek and answer me. When I ask a question I expect an answer.”

“Does that go both ways?”

Her eyes met his and she shivered again. The glacier had just gotten colder if that was possible. “I barely knew him. He was a troublemaker back home. I’d never met him until he came to the bakery. He wanted money.”

“And you. He wanted you.”

She didn’t think so, but she wasn’t going to argue with him.

“Does it matter if he’s dead?”

She took a deep breath. Really, she didn’t want to answer because it wasn’t going to show her in a good light, but Robert wouldn’t have stopped at a beating. She knew his reputation.

Evangeline lifted her chin, looked him straight in the eye and shook her head. “Only if it meant you would get into trouble for savin’ me.”

“He won’t bother you again.” He didn’t take his gaze from hers, watching carefully for her reaction.

She felt relief more than anything else. And guilt that she felt relief. The ice burned on her cheek but felt good. “Thank you. It seems I owe you again. I guess I’ll have to give you free cinnamon cake for the rest of your life.”

He didn’t respond. Nor did he smile. She sighed and looked down at her lap. She shouldn’t want his attention. He’d just killed a man. She couldn’t be certain, but if he had, he’d done so casually and without emotion. She would be insane to be attracted to him and yet . . . she was. Attracted wasn’t even a word she would use for what she was around him.

“Why are you here? You never come on Thursday, that’s why he chose today.”

“His bad luck. I wanted to get a few dozen of your cinnamon-apple cookies for my boss. I came in early so you would have plenty.”

She started to put the ice pack down but he pushed her hand back, covering it with his own. He always wore those butter-soft gloves. Under them she could see the bulges of several rings. Big square, thick ones. She noticed them every single time he reached for his coffee mug. They intrigued her, just as the tattoos she could see drifting up his neck from under that perfect suit. For some reason those tattoos made him all the hotter to her. She’d awakened twice now from a dream of peeling that suit from him to uncover all the treasures underneath.

She felt the color rising, and there was no way to stop it. “I have to open the store.”

“You have to sit for a full fifteen minutes with that ice pack on. Then you open the store. Your customers will wait.”

Even his voice affected her body, bringing all her nerve endings alive as if he had created an electrical charge between them. Again, the female inside her moved toward the surface, toward him. Lazily, really. As if she couldn’t quite be bothered. She subsided quickly as she’d done before, leaving behind an unsettling itch that settled between her legs. Deep. She was going to kill her leopard.

Stop, you little hussy. You don’ want him takin’ an interest in us.

Again there was that impression of amusement before Bebe settled completely.

Evangeline had been born into a family of shifters. Her  brothers had leopards. Her father and uncle did. It stood to reason she might as well. Saria had talked to her about the feeling when a leopard began to surface. She knew she was one. She’d always known. Her female, Bebe, was as much a part of her as her own skin. As breathing. She had hidden the fact that she had a leopard from her friends, from her family. They would insist she return to the lair and she was never going back there.

“Evangeline?”

Her name rolled off Alonzo’s tongue with that accent that sent another shiver of awareness down her spine. Heat curled but Bebe stayed still. Hidden. She breathed a sigh of relief and looked up at him.

“Did he get you anywhere else?”

She shook her head and again wished she hadn’t moved so fast. Her cheek pounded and her eye hurt. Oh no. That was swelling too. Of course—she just had to look the absolute worst when he came in.

He glanced at his watch, took the ice pack from her, threw it into the sink and tipped her head back, using one finger under her chin. “You’re going to bruise, bad enough that makeup won’t hide it, but you can make up some story for your customers. I noticed there are a lot of men. They’ll believe anything you have to say.”

Her gaze jumped to his face. His voice was exactly the same. His face could have been carved from the glacier in his eyes. Remote. Uncaring. Dead. With all that, she felt like there was just a little bite in his remark, as if maybe the thought of those male customers didn’t sit well with him.

He looked at her for a long time, wholly focused on her, his gaze drifting over her body and then moving back up to her face. He nodded and turned away from her. Instinctively she knew that was the most she was going to get out of him. He bought three dozen of her cinnamon-apple cookies and didn’t stay to drink coffee. Another car, this one also a town car, but with red trim through the black, was waiting at the curb for him.

He came back on his usual days, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, sat in his seat with his back to the wall and drank his coffee and ate his baked goods. They had progressed to smiles and greeting him by name on her part and a nod with one single word, “Evangeline,” on his. She looked forward to him coming in. She tried to give him his cinnamon-apple cake free, but he merely looked at her and pushed money across the counter at her. At least he said her name. That was progress, even if it took six months for him to do it.

Several customers, male, noticed him, but left him strictly alone. When he wasn’t there, they came back and warned her that he was dangerous. She shrugged and said he was a good customer and never caused any problems.

One of the many times her Iceman sat at the table drinking his coffee, he suddenly looked up, his gaze going straight to the walkway outside her shop. Evangeline followed his gaze and immediately stiffened. This could be bad. Quickly, she reached inside her cash register and grabbed the envelope stuffed there and hurried toward the front door. Alonzo was there before her. One arm circled her waist and he gently but very firmly put her behind him as he opened the door for the two men coming in. Only he blocked the entrance, preventing them from coming inside.

“Alonzo.” One of the men smiled hesitantly at him. “We’re here on business.”

Alonzo shook his head. Evangeline curled her fingers into the back of his suit jacket and held on, her heart pounding. If she didn’t pay these men off, like everyone on the street did, she would find herself without a shop. They’d come in when she was renovating and explained they would never take more than necessary to keep her shop safe. She knew that meant pay up or they’d burn her out or something equally as horrible. She’d talked with other shop owners and all of them paid protection money. She figured the price into her monthly budget.

“They have guns,” she whispered against his back. “I’ve got their money.”

“The boss won’t like this,” one said, but he took a step back.

“You let me worry about that. This shop is mine to take care of. He has a problem with that, I’ll settle it myself.”

She was fairly certain he was talking about the mafia. Was he involved? The men shaking her down knew him by name, but they appeared to be afraid of him. She didn’t want him in trouble with a mafia boss.

“I’ve got the money,” she reiterated, trying to reach around him to hand the envelope to the two men.

Both men nearly fell backward, stumbling away from her hand. Her Iceman caught her wrist with a gentleness that shocked her and brought her hand down to his thigh. Alonzo didn’t look at her, but continued staring at the two men who turned and walked very briskly away.

“If I don’ pay, they’ll ruin my business,” she said, taking a step around him toward the door.

“They won’t.” He tugged on her hand and led her back to the counter. “In the six months I’ve been coming here, your male customers have quadrupled and they hit on you continually. You never date. Why?”

It was the last thing Evangeline expected him to ask. She still clutched the envelope in her hand, holding it tight against his rock-hard thigh. “Why do you ask?”

“A woman like you has no business being alone.”

“Like me?” She echoed it, trying to figure out where he was going with his questions and that statement that she found alternatingly annoying and alarming. Did he know she was leopard? Just what did “like you” mean?

Subtly she twisted her hand, expecting him to release her. She couldn’t keep her palm pressed against the heat of his thigh with his muscles moving deliciously beneath it and not react. Heat spread through her like molten lava, a slow fire building in her veins and pooling low.

He didn’t release her hand. He didn’t even seem to notice her small movement of retreat, but she knew he had. He noticed everything. His gaze remained on her face. All ice. So cold she thought she might freeze. There was no hint of his leopard. There never was. She could almost forget he was a shifter, but she could never forget the danger that clung to him like a second skin.

“Yes, Evangeline, like you. I’ve never seen a more beautiful woman in my life. This isn’t a bad part of town, but it’s near enough. You come here at three in the morning and work alone until you close. You need a man.”

He wasn’t volunteering, that was for certain. But he’d said she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. That was something. Of course he’d said it in his cold, devoid-of-all- feeling voice, but he had at least thought it to say it. Again, even though there was no emotion in his voice, she still felt that little bite, as if he were annoyed beyond all endurance that she was single.

She lifted her chin at him. “Some women prefer to be single.”

He was silent, studying her face. Slowly he shook his head. “Some women shouldn’t ever be single.” He let go of her hand. “They won’t come back. They know they will answer to me if they do.”

She dared to lay her hand on his arm as he turned away from her. “Alonzo, I don’ mind payin’ the money. I don’ want you to get in trouble with anyone. Those men made it sound like someone was goin’ to be upset with you for interferin’. I’d rather pay the money than have you get into trouble.”

He halted and looked down at her hand. Her fingers didn’t even curl halfway around his forearm. As a deterrent her hand seemed rather absurd to try to stop him. Still, he remained there, towering over her. “Don’t worry about me, Evangeline.”

“I think when you said if there was a problem, you’d take care of it yourself, you meant you’d pay the money. I’m not going to let you do that.”

He removed her hand very gently and stepped away, toward the door. “You don’t really have a choice one way or the other.” He walked out like he always did—without looking back.

Evangeline waited for him for the next two weeks. She had the envelope filled with cash waiting for him or for the two men who came to collect each week. Neither showed up and that worried her. Had something happened to him because he’d stood up for her? There was no way to get in touch with him. She didn’t know his last name or where he worked.

The other customers, the ones in their suits that she was certain Alonzo had sent, suddenly stopped coming in as well. She’d heard on the news that Antonio Arnotto, famous for his wines, had been murdered. It was rumored he was actually a crime boss, and his territory was wide open for takeover. Speculation of a war began with various faces being flashed on the television screen. She watched carefully, but none of those faces belonged to Alonzo.

Another week went by and still he didn’t come. She was fairly certain he wouldn’t now, and she went over every single thing she’d said and done. She’d touched him. She knew better. He was a man alone. He was frozen. Dead inside. Without emotion—and she’d crossed a line.

She wasn’t able to sleep very well, dreaming he’d been shot and killed. Beaten and stabbed. Buried alive in cement. She was afraid to close her eyes. The shop was thriving, but it didn’t seem the same, not without him in it. She kept the news playing at home and work. On week five, she saw a picture of him on the television. He was standing beside another known crime boss, Elijah Lospostos, and his wife, Siena. Siena was the granddaughter of Antonio Arnotto. Alonzo Massi had been a soldier for her grandfather and was now her soldier. The news anchor asked if Alonzo Massi was the new crime boss rising out of the ranks to become the newest don, taking over Arnotto territory.

At least she knew he was alive. Still, she knew he wouldn’t be coming back. And Siena Arnotto Lospostos was gorgeous. She couldn’t hope to hold a candle to her, whether or not her Iceman had declared Evangeline the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Siena might be married, but how could Alonzo possibly think Evangeline was beautiful next to Siena? Was he taking care of Siena? Her soldier. What did that mean? That he wasn’t coming back. That was what it meant.

Leopard’s Fury will be out November 8th and is up for pre-order now:

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In the meantime, if you haven’t read Christine’s Dark Ghost or Viper Game both are £2.99 at the moment.

Exclusive Early Excerpt from J. R. Ward’s BLOOD VOW

Blood Vow

We’re kicking off #WelcomeToMyWorld with an exclusive, early excerpt from J. R. Ward’s Blood Vow. Rhage and Mary and Bitty are all back!

BLOOD VOW

Trainees  at the Black Dagger Brotherhood’ training centre continue to prepare  for the fight against the Lessening Society, but fighting is the last  thing on Axe’s mind. Still plagued with the guilt of his father’s death,  the brooding loner finds himself battling an unlikely attraction to  Peyton’s bright, aristocratic cousin, Elise.

Elise feels it too – and when the two are thrown together in unusual circumstances Elise must decide whether she can trust Axe to help her uncover the mystery  surrounding her sister’s death.

Meanwhile, Mary and Rhage are in the process of adopting Bitty, a young pretrans orphan, until the  appearance of a young male claiming to be Bitty’s blooded uncle threatens to tear the new family apart.

 

CHAPTER TWO

The Black Dagger Brotherhood Mansion

“So what is that?”

As Rhage’s daughter piped up, he froze with his gun halfway into his under-arm holster. For a split second, he decided to pretend that he hadn’t heard her—but that was going to get him nowhere. In the two months or so that he and Mary had had Bitty, they’d both learned that she was smart as a whip and tenacious as flypaper.

Ordinarily, he got a kick out of those two defining characteristics. When it came to describing the technical specs of a forty-caliber killing weapon to his thirteen-year-old? Pass. He wished she had an empty skull and ADD.

“Ah . . .”

He glanced into the mirror over the bureau, hoping against hope that she had moved on to something, anything else. Nope. Bitty was sitting on his and Mary’s new bed, the one in the third-floor suite that Trez had graciously moved out of so the three of them could have adjoining rooms. The girl was way on the small side, her skinny arms and legs the kind of thing that made him want to move to the tropics instead of live in Upstate New Freezing-Fucking-Cold. Hell, even under a body weight’s worth of fleece, she seemed fragile.

But the oh, dainties ended right there. Her brown eyes were direct as an adult’s, old as a mountain range, keen as an eagle’s. Her dark hair was thick and shiny, falling past her shoulders, nearly the exact color of Mary’s. And her aura, her . . . whatever, life force, spirit, soul . . . was as tangible as her physical form seemed almost transient.

He took pride in the fact that the longer she stayed with them, the more she was emerging. Not like a flower.

Like a fucking oak.

Buuuuuuuuuuuuuut that didn’t mean he wanted to get into the nitty gritty of his job killing lessers with her.

And nope. Really not interested in the whole birds-and-bees talk, either. At least they had another twelve years or so to prepare for that.

“Father?” she prompted.

Rhage closed his eyes. Okay, so every time she called him that, his heart got too big for his chest and this unreal, won-the-lottery feeling sunrised all over him. It took him back to right after he and Mary had been mated and he’d gotten to call her shellan for the first time.

Pure, full-bore awesomeness.

“What is it?” Bitty prompted.

That happy pink bubblegum glow faded as he seated the gun and clipped its strap over the butt. “It’s a weapon.”

“I know—it’s a gun. But what kind?”

“A Smith and Wesson forty.”

“How many bullets are in it?”

“Enough.” He picked up his leather jacket and smiled. “Hey, you ready for movie night when I get home?”

“Why don’t you want to tell me about your gun?”

Because if you’re the audience, I can’t separate what I do with it from a discussion of its specs. “It’s just not all that interesting.”

“It’s what keeps you alive, though, right?” The little girl’s eyes locked on the black daggers that were holstered on his chest, handles down. “Like your knives.”

“Among other things.”

“So that’s interesting. To me, at least.”

“Look, how ’bout we talk about this when your mom and I are both here? You know, like, later tonight.”

“But how do I know you’ll come home safe?”

Rhage blinked. “I am never not coming back to you and Mary.”

“What if you die, though?”

His first thought was:

MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARY!

His Mary, as a trained therapist—who had treated Z with all his demons, for godsakes—could deal with this so much better than some meathead fighter like him could. But his shellan was at Safe Place, working, and he didn’t feel right about calling and possibly interrupting her with anything other than an arterial bleed or a house fire. Zombie apocalypse. H-bomb behind the compound.

And fine, maybe if they were out of cheesecake.

Except he needed to man up. What was going down right now? This was Father Shit, and not only had he signed up for exactly these kinds of hard conversations when he and Mary had started the adoption process, he really didn’t want to admit this early that he couldn’t handle the job.

Okay, note to self: Find an online course on being a father. Surely there had to be a curriculum for this kind of thing.

“I’m just worried,” she said. “It’s scary for me, okay?”

Jesus, it was scary for him, too. He had so much more to lose with her in his life.

Rhage went over and knelt down. Bitty had tucked her arms around herself and her eyes were steady as if she were not going to accept a load of bullcrap.

Opening his mouth, he . . .

Closed it. And wondered what he needed to do to jump-start his brain. Maybe bang it into a wall?

“You know my car?” he heard himself say.

As Bitty nodded, he had an image of Puskar Nepal–ing himself until he passed the fuck out from foot-to-forehead contact: Of all the things for his subconscious, or whatever was running his program, to spit out, he led with his GTO?

“Well, you know when I was teaching you to drive?”

Yeah, Bits, right before those kids attacked Mary and you found out that I have a dragon for an alter ego? Har-har, good times, good times.

God, he wanted to throw up.

As she nodded again, he said, “You remember when you were figuring out the gears and the steering wheel and the brakes? Going back and forth, again and again, until you could get it right?”

“Yes.”

“You know how I drive that car?”

“Oh, yes.” Now, she smiled. “Fast. Very fast and fun. It’s like a rocket.”

“So, someday, you’re going to drive her just as well as I do. You’re going to know where the gears are by feel, and you’re going to work the clutch and the gas without thought. And if someone swerves in front of you, you’re going to react so quick and so sure, you’re not going to be aware of even thinking about it. If somebody slams on the brakes, you’re going to shift lanes instinctually. You’re going to feel the tires hydroplaning on the highway in the rain and you’re going to know to slow up on the gas, but not hit the brakes. And all of that is going to happen because you’re going to practice, practice, practice on a car that is kept in tip-top shape.”

“I’m going to practice. So I drive better.”

“Right. Even if the people around you drive dangerously, you’re going to be aware and focused and trained to deal with whatever comes at you.” He put his palm over his daggers, over his heart. “I have been out there fighting for a century, Bitty. And everything I take with me into the field—the weapons, the gear, the support in the form of my brothers—all of it is engineered to keep me safe. Is it a perfect system? No. But it’s the best it gets, I promise you that.”

Bitty’s arms uncoiled and she looked down. The pink and green bracelet on her wrist was made out of faceted beads that sparkled like real gems. Moving the thing around and around, she took a deep breath.

“Are you . . . good at it? I mean, the fighting?”

God, he wished he was an accountant. He really did. Because if he were some pocket-protector’d numbers cruncher, he wouldn’t be having to tell an innocent that he excelled at killing things.

“Are you?” she prompted.

“I’m very good at keeping myself and my brothers safe. I’m so good at it, they’re having me teach younger people how to do it.”

She nodded once again. “That’s what they were saying. At Last Meal the other night. I heard people talking about you and the other Brothers teaching people.”

“That’s where I’m heading right now. While you hang here with Bella and Nalla, I’m meeting the trainee class out in Caldwell to show them how to stay safe.”

Bitty tilted her head, her brown hair cascading over her shoulder. And he let her stare at him for as long as she wanted. If that made him a little late to work, who cared.

“You must be really good at it to be a teacher.”

“I am. I swear to you, Bitty. I am effective and I take no more chances than I absolutely have to in order to get my job done.”

“And the beast will keep you safe, won’t he.”

Rhage nodded. “You better believe it. You saw him. You know what he’s like.”

She smiled, sunshine replacing the worry. “He likes me.”

“He loves you. But he doesn’t love people who get aggressive with me.”

“That makes me feel better.”

“Good.” He put his palms up, and as she high-fived him, he said, “You’re never going to be alone, Bitty. I promise you.”

In that moment, as he sought to relieve any and all of her anxiety— and his own, for that matter—he nearly came out with the one thing Bitty didn’t know about her adoptive parents. Yes, her new old man had a dragon living under his skin, but her new mom had an even fancier secret.

Mary was a unique flavor of immortal. Thanks to the Scribe Virgin— and this remained true even though V’s mahmen was no longer in charge—Mary did not age, and could choose when she went unto the Fade. It was a gift beyond measure, insulating this family in ways that other people’s weren’t.

Except Rhage stayed quiet on that front. Even though the knowledge might have helped Bitty in the moment, he really felt like it was Mary’s information to share, not his.

“You’re never going to be alone, Bitty,” he repeated. “I swear to you.”

***

As Mary sat behind her desk at Safe Place, she put her bag down and shrugged out of her parka. Extending her arm, she pulled the sleeve of her turtleneck up and smiled at the pink and green bracelet that twinkled at her wrist.

She and Bitty had made matching ones the other night, the pair of them sitting at Fritz’s kitchen table in the mansion, a jewelry-making kit spread out everywhere, a huge array of clear plastic boxes holding a rainbow’s worth of iridescent beads. They had talked about nothing and everything, and greeted each person who came in, and split a bag of Combos and a Mountain Dew. They had also made a necklace for Rhage, a different-colored bracelet for Lassiter, and braid for Nalla to play with. And even Boo had come over and curled up to watch, the black cat’s green eyes inspecting everything.

In a mansion full of priceless stuff? That time together had been the most precious, irreplaceable thing.

Looking across her desk, Mary reached out and picked up a photograph of Bitty from two weeks before, when the little girl had been taking selfies with Rhage’s phone. Bit was making a crazy face, her dark hair back-brushed until she looked like something out of an eighties glam metal band.

And in fact, Lassiter was over on the left, doing his best Nikki Sixx impression.

Unexpected tears pricked Mary’s eyes. In all her life, she had never expected to be a woman who had pictures of a daughter at her work desk. Nah, that hypothetical, blessed, stranger of a person, that lucky female who had a husband and a family, and holidays to look forward to, and homemade things on her wrist? That had always been someone else, a stranger whose reality was something you watched on TV or saw in Maytag ads or overheard at the table next door in a restaurant.

While you were eating alone.

Mary Luce was the nurse to an ailing mother who had died horribly and too young. Mary Luce was the cancer survivor left infertile after chemo. Mary Luce was the ghost on the fringes, the shadow that passed unnoticed through a room, an allegory of where you didn’t want to end up.

Except life had corkscrewed on her in the best of all possible ways. Now? She was exactly where she had never even dared to dream of being.

And yup, this unexpected destiny came with a not-too-small dose of PTSD. Hell, sometimes, when she woke up next to her gorgeous vampire of a husband? And especially now, when she tiptoed into another bedroom to check on Bitty at nightfall? She expected to wake up, back in her nightmare of a real life.

But no, she thought as she put the picture down. This was the real stuff. Here and now was the story she was living.

And it was . . . amazing. So full of love, family, and happiness that it felt as though the sun lived in the center of her chest.

They were all survivors, her, Rhage, and Bitty. She of her illness. Rhage of the curse he had to live with. Bitty of the unimaginable domestic abuse she and her mahmen had suffered at the hands of her birth father. The three of their lives had started to intersect here, at Safe Place, when Bitty and her mahmen had come in seeking shelter. And then Bitty’s mother had died, leaving her an orphan.

The opportunity to take the girl in had seemed too good to be true. It still did, sometimes.

If they could just get through this six-month waiting period, the adoption would be final and Mary could take a deep breath. At least there were no relatives coming forward. Even though Bitty had talked initially about some uncle, her mother had never mentioned having a brother or disclosed anything about any blood relations, either during intake or in subsequent therapy sessions. Notices posted on closed Facebook and Yahoo groups had yielded nothing so far.

God willing, it would stay that way.

On that note, Mary signed in to the computer network, her heart starting to bang in her ribs, a sick flush blooming in her body. As social media aficionados went, she was below amateur status, the anti-Kardashian—and yet every night, but only once a night, she hopped onto Facebook.

And prayed she found nothing.

The FB group she checked was one specifically devoted to vampires, its closed roster restricted to members of the species. Created by V after the raids, moderated by Fritz’s staff, the clearinghouse was an opportunity for folks to connect about anything from safe-house locations—always in code—to garage sales.

Scanning the posts in the last twenty-four hours, she exhaled in a rush. Not at thing.

The relief made her office spin around—at least until she went to check the Yahoo group. Recipe for Crock-Pot. Knitting group having a meeting . . . snowblower for sale . . . question about where to get a computer fixed . . .

Also nothing.

“Thank you, God,” she whispered as she put another small check on her wall calendar.

Almost to the end of December, which meant they were nearly two whole months down. By May? They could move forward.

As her heart shifted out of tachycardia, she wondered how in the hell she was going to face this IT gauntlet another hundred and thirty times or so. But she had no other choice. The good news was that she was able to stick to this once-and-only-once-a-night check. Otherwise she’d be on her damn phone every fifteen minutes.

She had to be fair, though, to whoever else might be out there. Extinguishing parental rights in blood relations was serious business, and with no modern precedents in the vampire race to follow, she, Marissa, as head of Safe Place, Wrath, the Blind King, and Saxton, the King’s head counsel, had had to devise a procedure that provided an adequate notice period.

Emotions did not have waiting periods, however, and moms and dads who loved their kids couldn’t toggle back the speed of their hearts.

As if Marissa could read minds, the female put her head in the open doorway. “Anything?”

Mary smiled at her boss and her dear friend. “Nothing. I swear, I have never been more excited for May to get here.”

“I’ve always had a good feeling about this, you know.”

“I don’t want to jinx anything, so I’m staying quiet.” Mary focused on the calendar again. “Hey, I’m not going to be in tomorrow night. Bitty’s got her physical exam scheduled.”

“Oh, that’s right. Good luck—and it’s too bad you have to go all the way in to Havers’s.”

“Doc Jane says she just doesn’t have the appropriate knowledge base. Pediatrics for vampires is a thing, apparently.”

Marissa smiled gently. “Well, my brother may be complicated for me personally, but I have never questioned his ability to provide good care to his patients. Bitty couldn’t be in better hands.”

“I’d really rather just keep her with us at the training center’s clinic. But at the end of the day, what’s right for her is all we care about.”

“That’s called being a good parent.”

Mary looked at her bracelet. “Amen to that.”

 

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