Leopard's Hunt

In this pulse-pounding novel in the #1 New York Times bestselling Leopard series, animal instinct unites two elite shifters whose heads are at war with their hearts.

Gorya Amurov might be known as his family's peacekeeper, but the leopard inside him wants nothing more than to claw to the surface and unleash hell. A harsh life has shaped him into a vicious fighter with a calm exterior, but Gorya knows it's only a matter of time until he loses all control. Deep down, he truly believes he'd be better off dead, and that no woman will ever accept him as a mate....

Maya Averina has spent years hunting the criminals who destroyed her life, and she always takes down her prey. She keeps to herself, stays under the radar, and never loses focus. But with her body burning up and her mind distracted by her first heat, an ambush takes her by surprise. Now she's trapped, an unmated female shifter about to be sold off to the highest bidder. Maya is ready to fight her way out—until the most dangerous, powerful man she's ever encountered arrives to set her free....

Christine's Notes

Christine Feehan
Leopard's Hunt is one of those stories that has a variety of things going on that I loved writing and that I think readers will be excited about.

This story goes all the way back to Conner Vega's story, Wild Fire. I had several loose ends that I wanted to address, and I was able to do that with this book. Readers will recognize some of those and I hope they're as satisfied to get questions answered as I was.

The leopards themselves were a surprise to me. Some are "elite" leopards with very special gifts and that is certainly highlighted in Leopard's Hunt with both Gorya and Maya. The leopards were very involved in this story and were instrumental in helping two damaged people realize their worth and that they deserved love. The way that plays out was such a wonderful writing experience for me as a storyteller.

Readers were surprised with Leopard's Scar when I introduced a new couple they'd never heard of. I had realized early on that I would need them in order to tell Gorya's story.

Gorya has been in several books and in this one we learn there have been a lot of misconceptions about him. This character had held back for a while, not coming forward to have his story told and when I realized why he held back things just fell into place.

Maya was the perfect fit for Gorya and another reason I was glad I'd waited to tell this story. She has some surprising gifts and history. She's a strong woman and just as damaged as Gorya.
Putting them together was a fun blend of action, adventure and romance.

— Christine Feehan

Christine regularly writes about her books (and all kinds of subjects) in the following places:


Leopard's Hunt

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Leopard Series ,
Book 15

Release Date: February 20, 2024
Number of Pages: 448 pages
Publisher: Berkley
Language: English
ISBN: 059363876X

Leopard's Hunt (Leopard Series, #15)

Excerpt: Chapter 1

Gedeon Volkov had been a fixer for years—and he was considered the best in his field.  There was a reason for that few understood, and it was better if they didn’t.  He was a shifter—an Amur leopard.  Not only was he a shifter, but he was elite.  As far as he knew there were only two of them in the world—his wife, Meiling Chang—and himself.  There was always the chance that a rare few might exist, but if so, he’d never caught so much as a hint of a rumor of one.
Intellectually, he knew there had to be more.  Others had to have come before them.  They didn’t just appear out of nowhere.  An anomaly. Three families in three countries, South Korea,  southeastern Russia and China near the Russian border.  There had to be others.

Meiling and he had discussed it and even quietly tried to find others like themselves, but if they were out there, they were hiding just as Gedeon and Meiling were.  They were faster and stronger than other shifters.  Their brains worked at greater speeds.  They’d been born that way and because of it their families had been targeted and destroyed.  They had watched everyone they loved betrayed, tortured, and murdered. Both lived under a death sentence should anyone discover they still lived.

Gedeon had been a loner for years, feared by those hiring him, which kept him alive.  He worked mainly for the bratya, the Russian mob, and they could be quite brutal if one didn’t get the job done.  He had the reputation of always getting it done.  When he met Meiling, they had joined forces, another added layer of protection.  Eventually, they had become more than business partners and were now married.
“Why do I have the feeling this might be more dangerous than what we’ve been doing?” Meiling asked, a hint of laughter in her voice.
She’d taught him fun.  He’d never had that before Meiling.  She’d brought so much to him, had become his world in a short time.  He knew he couldn’t live without her.  He wouldn’t want to.  More importantly, his leopard, Slayer, always a killer and difficult to control, would go insane.  Some leopards could drive their human male counterpart to become killers.  Slayer was one of those alpha leopards.  Gedeon had always known there would come a day he would be forced to suicide to protect those around him.  Then came Meiling.  His Lotus Blossom. Just when he was certain he couldn’t love her more, there was always more.
Still, Meiling might have laughter in her voice, but there was also a bit of sobriety there.  A warning.  Her radar had gone off, the same as his, which didn’t make sense.  Drake Donovan would never have asked them to consider this job if he didn’t think it was legitimate.  His company was solid.  Renowned.  Known and respected the world over.  That was the only reason Gedeon had even considered working for him.
Gedeon and Meiling had talked for a long while about getting out of the business he’d been in now that they were married.  She was pregnant.  He was a man of action, and he’d gone his own way for far too long.  It wasn’t as if he were ever going to take orders from anyone else.  He needed not only the mental activity but also the physical that he’d had for years of being a fixer. 

He’d had to realistically face who he was many times in his life, and he’d learned not to shy away from the truth of who and what he was.  Fixing problems within the bratya wasn’t always about negotiating or trading favors.  Often, it was about having to kill and Gedeon was excellent at that particular skill.

He had Meiling now and his number one priority was keeping her and his children safe.  He wanted her to have friends.  He wanted his children to have them.  Being a fixer wasn’t exactly conducive to those goals.

Drake Donovan, the man owning the Donovan International Security Company had approached him with the offer of a job.  One of his clients had specifically asked Donovan to try to recruit Gedeon for the head of his security.  The client was not only bratya, but a leopard shifter also, as were many of his men.  He’d recently taken over a territory about which little known.  He was attempting to free it of all human trafficking.  In doing so he had incurred the wrath of locals who had been profiting from the business for years. 

The locals weren’t his only problem.  Many of the men under him weren’t happy he wasn’t continuing that part of the business.  Those his predecessor had been doing business with really weren’t happy.  Basically, it was a nightmare they would be helping the man out with.  Ordinarily, it was exactly the thing Gedeon would have jumped on.

“I’ve got the same feeling,” Gedeon told Meiling.  “What’s more, Slayer’s warning me to be very careful.”  Again, that made little sense.

He knew Gorya Amurov—at least he knew of him.  He’d met him a couple of times, which wasn’t the same as knowing him.  He’d been around the Amurov family, all members of the bratya and lethal as hell.  Gorya seemed the easiest going of all the cousins.  He seemed relaxed in the tensest of situations and played the role of the peacemaker, although now that Gedeon thought about it, Gorya faded into the background quite easily—much in the way Meiling did.  He was quiet-spoken, but his cousins always seemed to listen to him. 

“You know, Lotus, now that I really think about it, the information we have on the Amurov family here in the States was pieced together and difficult to get.  Not so much the ones in Russia, that was easy enough.  But there isn’t much on Gorya at all.  He isn’t in the news.  There’s no speculation on him.  No one talks about him.  It’s almost as if he doesn’t exist.”

Meiling nodded her agreement.  “That bothered me.  His cousins run territories and are considered very brutal if crossed.  There have been assassination attempts on Fyodor and his wife, Evangeline.  Mitya was horribly wounded throwing himself in front of his cousin and Evangeline. There are hits taken out on all of them, but there never seems to be anything written up on Gorya.  Not here, and not even in Russia.”

Gedeon took his time processing that information.  Meiling was good at research.  His man, Rene Guidry was equally as good.  Between the two of them, they should have found all kinds of data on Gorya, yet nothing of significance had turned up.  Drake’s people had done research as well, and he was renowned for his ability to ferret out secrets on shifters.  He was close to the Amurovs, knew them quite well, but when it came to Gorya, he had very little to contribute other than that he was a good man.

“We know the Amurov family comes from the absolute worst lairs in the Primorye region of Russia,” Meiling said. “Four brothers, Patva, Lazar, Rolan and Filipp Amurov, were pakhans in the bratya and ruled those lairs.  Each held their own territory and ruled it with an iron fist.  They demanded loyalty to the bratya and by that, I mean not to their own families.  They demanded that once the men serving under them were given sons, they were to show their loyalty to the bratya by murdering their wives.  Their leopards were never allowed a true mate.  They deliberately turned not only their leopards into killers but also the other males in their lair.”

Gedeon knew all about the cruelty those kinds of pakhans were capable of.  His family had been murdered by one.  He didn’t want to think of the suffering his mother had undergone at the hands of the leader of the lair he’d belonged to.  He shut down that memory and turned his attention to the problem at hand.  Those four men, the pakhans of those territories in Russia, were the fathers of the Amurov cousins residing in the United States. 

Gedeon liked and respected Fyodor, Mitya, Sevastyan, and Timur Amurov.  They were tough, lethal men, but he’d found them fair, and they’d always kept their word. They’d been raised in brutal conditions.  That had been easy enough to discover.  He also knew that Fyodor had saved his brother and cousins by destroying the entire lair.  The cousins were tight and loyal to one another.

What of Gorya Amurov?  He was always with them. 

“You’ve been around the Amurovs far more than I have,” Meiling said.  “Are you certain Gorya is really related to them?”

Gedeon brought up every encounter he’d had with the man.  Gorya didn’t have the obvious bulk his cousins had.  He was leaner, but there was no mistaking the muscles rippling beneath his skin.  He moved with the fluid stealth of a leopard.  Gedeon just hadn’t paid enough attention to him, not with his cousins around.  They were lethal, dangerous men, every single one.  Gorya, in comparison, had seemed gentle and considerate.  He thought before he spoke.  He soothed explosive situations and then seemed to fade into the background.

Could Meiling have the answer?  Was Gorya not really an Amurov?  Gedeon frowned as he stood in the shadows outside the building where they would be meeting with Gorya Amurov. They had come very early as they always did.  It was how they stayed alive. They trusted no one.

Drake Donovan had chosen the location.  It wasn’t in territory where Gorya was pakhan.  That was a little-known town on the edge of the swamp between New Orleans and San Antonio, hidden from the eyes of law enforcement.  There was a straight shot to the Gulf of Mexico by boat. 

At Gorya’s request, Drake had chosen a neutral location to meet.  Gorya hadn’t wanted any of his men to know he was meeting with Gedeon and Meiling.  When Drake had first come to Gedeon with the proposal of working for Gorya, the job of head of his security had been for Gedeon alone.  Gorya hadn’t wanted Meiling.  Gedeon made it clear he didn’t work without his partner.  Gorya took his time thinking it over before he offered a meeting.

“He has the scent of an Amurov.  The eyes of one.  We’re missing something, Lotus, there’s no doubt about it.”

“Maybe the danger’s to Gorya and not to us,” Meiling ventured.  “Just taking over this territory was a huge risk.  He’s made a lot of enemies.”

Gedeon studied the buildings surrounding the rectangular building they were to meet with Gorya in.  Mostly garages and mechanic buildings with one warehouse close.  “He doesn’t seem to have any bodyguards or snipers lying in wait for us.”

“I’m going up on the roof,” Meiling said. “If there’s a way in, I’ll take it.”

He didn’t tell her to be careful.  She would be insulted if he did.  He didn’t remind her that she pregnant either.  Obviously, she was aware that she was.  His eyes met hers just to let her know she was his world.  That was the reminder.

She nodded, and then she was going up the side of the building, a small shadow blending in with the darker side of the concrete wall. 

Gedeon was grateful they were able to speak mind to mind.  The leopards helped with that.  He could always stay in touch with her, know exactly where she was and if she was in trouble and needed him—or the other way around.

Gedeon moved around the building slowly, checking the streets, the cars, the pattern of traffic, rooftops, every doorway and window facing the warehouse.  He could find no threat to them or to the man they had come to interview. 

Donovan had chosen a good location.  It was off the beaten path, yet not so far out that it appeared abandoned.  On either side of the small warehouse were two shops still open.  One was a garage custom painting cars and the other repaired tires.  Across the street was a welding shop.  It was closed.

I can only detect one man inside, Gedeon.  If that’s Gorya Amurov, he’s alone.  He came without bodyguards.  Does that seem right?

Nothing about this meeting was right.  Gedeon was half inclined to call it off, but he knew part of that decision would be because he was becoming overprotective of Meiling.  He would have gone in immediately had he been alone. 

I’m going in, Meiling.  Drake was adamant that Amurov needs help.  He specifically asked for me.  He had no idea we were considering getting out of our business, yet he reached out to Drake and asked for a meeting to be set up.

Wanting to exclude me, Meiling reminded.

He noted this time she didn’t sound hurt.  She sounded thoughtful. 

Gorya’s cousins weren’t like their fathers.  They didn’t think of women as lesser beings.  If anything, they treated their wives the way he did Meiling—as if they wouldn’t be able to survive without them.  Gedeon was sure their leopards were mated as well.  That made the women doubly important to their men. 

Gorya was the only cousin without a woman of his own.  How difficult would that be for him?  For his leopard? Now, he’d been thrown into a situation demanding him to make snap decisions and contend with violence at every turn.  The pakhan of the bratya, when challenged, had to respond with speed and ferocity.  His men had to respect him.  Their leopards had to fear his leopard.  Was Gorya Amurov capable of commanding the same kind of deference and fear as his cousins? 

I don’t think it’s about you being a woman, Meiling, he mused.  Icy fingers of dread crept down his spine at his next thought, the one he couldn’t push away. 

What is it?

He sighed.  There was no getting around Meiling.  He’s leopard, Lotus.  Leopards are capable of slipping into a building unseen and unheard.  We do it all the time.  Suppose just for a moment, that Gorya researched us the way we researched him.  Only he was even more thorough.

I don’t like where you’re going with this.

It’s possible he knows you’re pregnant.

No one knows I’m pregnant.  We haven’t even told Rene.

The more he considered the idea, the more Gedeon feared he could be on the right track.  That doesn’t mean he didn’t figure it out.  You were in heat. Leopard sex is wild.  The odds of you getting pregnant were very high.  Even if he’s just guessing he’s got a fifty-fifty shot at being correct. He didn’t think Gorya was making a guess.  He thought the man had found a way to confirm his suspicion, and he didn’t want Meiling in the line of fire.

Gedeon was more intrigued than ever.  He often got strong hunches and so far, those premonitions had always been right.

He knows we’re here, Gedeon.  I don’t know what we did to tip him off, but he’s aware we’re here. 

Meiling was extremely sensitive to changes in energy.  He had no idea how she would know that Gorya had alerted to their presence, but he believed her.

We have to make up our minds if we’re going to talk with him.  The element of surprise is gone.  I don’t believe he has an ambush set up.  On the other hand, we’re walking into something Slayer doesn’t like. Gedeon was honest with Meiling.  His leopard was still warning him they could be in trouble.  What is Whisper telling you?

Gedeon and his male were fierce, brutal fighters and generally riled other males the moment he came into close proximity with them.  Meiling and her female calmed other leopards.  Ordinarily, Whisper had no problem around any leopard.

She’s uneasy for Slayer.

The hair on the back of his neck stood up.  It was unprecedented for Whisper to be in the least concerned for Slayer.  He was an elite leopard, one of the few in the world.  Slayer was faster than any other leopard they had ever encountered.  He was a brutal, experienced fighter.  He killed in seconds, all business.  Whisper was well aware of Slayer’s fighting abilities.

That puts an entirely different prospective on things, doesn’t it?  Stay or go?

Meiling emerged out of the shadows to stand next to him.  She looked up at him and then at the building.
She was quiet a moment, thinking the problem over as was her way.  Meiling didn’t make snap decisions.  “I think we have no choice now, Gedeon. We need to find out who Gorya Amurov is and what his interest in us is.  There is no doubt he arranged for us to be here, and he wants to speak to us alone.”
Gedeon agreed with her.  “Then we do this the way we always have, Lotus.  We treat him as a hostile enemy.  His leopard will dismiss yours and rage over mine.  Slip inside and set up to take him out.  I’ll keep his attention focused on me.  Hopefully this interview will be legitimate, and we won’t have to go after every one of his cousins.  He has the kind of family that if you kill one of them, they don’t stop coming after you until you’re dead.”
“If we kill him, Gedeon, we’ll have to go after the others immediately and then disappear.”
That was Meiling.  Practical.  With him.  She didn’t like their lifestyle, especially if it involved killing, but she would stand with him.
“Self-preservation, baby.  Let’s hope Drake Donovan is a good judge of character.”
There was no sense in putting the meeting off once they decided to go.  Gedeon entered the room first, careful, when he pushed the door open, that the heavy frame partially blocked the opening.  As he did, his large body filling the entrance, Meiling slipped inside behind him, moving along the wall.  The moment Gedeon opened the door, Slayer reacted, snarling and clawing, despite Meiling and Whisper, his mate, being close. 

Across the room, Gorya sat behind a desk, rolling a bullet between his fingers, a gun in front of him.  He glanced at Meiling and then his gaze fixed on Gedeon.  Gorya’s leopard had to have reacted to the aggression in Gedeon’s leopard, yet the man didn’t so much as blink.  That was a huge red flag to Gedeon.

Gedeon stopped close to the door, keeping Slayer under control when the leopard fought him for supremacy, clearly feeling a threat to Gedeon and Meiling.

“Gorya,” Gedeon opened the conversation.  “You came without any backup.  Do you think that wise?”

“The things I have to say to you require complete privacy.  I did my research.  You will keep what is said confidential whether you take the job or not.”

Gorya was soft-spoken.  His voice mesmerizing.  Gedeon had to resist glancing at Meiling to see her reaction.  The quality in that voice edged on compelling.  A gift.

Gorya turned his attention once again to Meiling.  “We haven’t met officially, Meiling.  I’m Gorya Amurov.  I hope I didn’t offend you when I first asked Drake to speak with your husband about working for me.  I knew the two of you were partners.  It wasn’t that I didn’t know how competent you are, I do my research very thoroughly.”

Gedeon found that low voice so compelling it was impossible not to focus on it.  Instinctively, he knew that leopards could inch closer without listeners being aware.  That voice, although low, was powerful, embedding the need to hear every word.  It was an amazing weapon.

“Knowing that we work together and that you were risking offending me, why would you have Drake only approach my husband?” Meiling asked.

Gedeon wanted to smile.  Those long lashes of hers fanned her cheeks, making her look so innocent and demure, not at all calculating and brilliant as he knew her to be.  She wasn’t getting trapped in Gorya’s voice.

“You are very, very good at what you do, Meiling.  You won’t hesitate to kill if necessary, but unlike Gedeon, it weighs on you.  I didn’t want to put you in that position.”

He spun the bullet over and over between his fingers when he turned his gaze back to Gedeon.  “I saw you in San Antonio at Evangeline’s bakery the night Elijah Lospostos came with his men to speak with you.  One of his trainees put a gun to Meiling’s head as she was going out the door.  I happened to be watching you.  Everyone else was talking together, but I had my eyes on you.  I saw you signal her to leave.”

He glanced again at Meiling, the faintest of smiles on his face.  The charm showed through, but Gedeon noted there was no smile in his eyes.

“She disappears easily into the shadows.  No one saw her until she had to go through the doorway.  I kept watching you and I saw you move.  The speed and your ability to leap over the men in that room was incredible.  Later, my cousins discussed it, but because it didn’t seem possible, they eventually dismissed the idea that you really were able to leap that far and fast.  They convinced themselves that you were closer than you had been.”

Gedeon remained silent.  Waiting.  Giving nothing away.  Gorya hadn’t dismissed what he saw, that much was clear.  The bullet between the fingers continued to spin. Gedeon was certain the man hadn’t blinked once.

“I need someone fast.  I need someone that won’t hesitate to kill. And I need his leopard to be experienced and ferocious in a fight.  He must be able to shift fast and kill faster.”
Gedeon kept his gaze steady on Gorya’s.  “Drake told me many of the problems with this particular territory.”

Gorya shook his head slowly.  “I haven’t explained myself.  I do need you for help there as well, but your main purpose will be to kill me when the time comes—and it will come.”
That was the last thing Gedeon expected him to say.  Those eyes didn’t move from his, assessing how he took the request.

“Perhaps you could sit down, and we can discuss this,” Gorya invited.

He is very sincere, Meiling said.  He means exactly what he says.  Whisper also cannot detect deceit.  He is being very honest.  He wants a commitment from you.
Slayer agrees with you and Whisper.

“Gorya, why would you ask this of me?”

“Because I believe you are the only man who has a chance of killing me.”

Again, Gedeon heard only the truth. 

“When the time comes, I hope I won’t be so far gone that I couldn’t spare you.”  Gorya held up the bullet.  “I’ve found the idea of killing my leopard nearly impossible.  Every time I’ve tried, I’ve been unable to go through with it.  I thought by taking on this territory it would help relieve some of the pressure on us, but it made it so much worse.”

He shook his head and once again raised his eyes to meet Gedeon’s.  “To clean up a territory like the one I have taken over requires brutality.  Ruthlessness.  Becoming the kind of psychopath, I was raised with.  You know what that kind of violence breeds.”

He’s one of us, Meiling, Gedeon told her, certain it was true. I don’t know how he can be when his cousins aren’t, but he is.  He knows what we are because he is, and he recognized us.

If that’s true, he’s stayed hidden in plain sight, even from his cousins.  I don’t think they have a clue what he is.  Why would he hide his true self?

Stay where you are. 

Gedeon wasn’t risking Meiling.  He took the lead as he normally did when they were on a dangerous job.  Crossing the room, he pulled out a chair and sat opposite Gorya, leaving Meiling a clear shot to the man if there was need.  Gorya did nothing to protect himself from Meiling, although he had to know she was in a perfect position to kill him.

“You do realize if I killed you, your cousins would hunt me to the ends of the earth,” Gedeon said.

Gorya shook his head.  “I would make certain they were aware I hired you specifically for that purpose.”

“Gorya, seriously, think about what kind of men your cousins are.  Do you think that would deter them?  You’re family.  You don’t talk about emotions in your family, but they have them for you.  Their women have them for you.”

“It is necessary, and you know why. They will know why as well.  They made a choice years ago, long before I did, to live by a code. I wasn’t certain I wanted to live without the violence of the bratya. I fit. Once I was old enough to hold my own against the pakhan’s men, I could slide into the shadows and do what I wanted. I was in my teens when I became faster and stronger than all of them.  I could outthink them.  Outsmart them.  My leopard hated them as much or more than I did.”

Gedeon understood that and the need for revenge.  It burned bright and fierce.  Deep and cold.  Smoldered and never went away. 

“Patience.” Gedeon said.

“Exactly,” Gorya said.  “It became a game of wits.  I am a deceiver.  My leopard is called Moshennik which is why I call him Rogue.  We learned to bide our time.  One by one we took out the worst of them.  Unfortunately, the two of us thrived on violence.  We reveled in it. My first memories were of blood and death, and I don’t recall much else.  The only good thing I can say for myself is, I could never stand seeing what was done to women and children.  That was a trigger for me.  Again, unfortunately, I become a monster, and I can’t seem to hold that side of me back when that happens.” 

Gedeon noted Gorya didn’t sound remorseful, only matter of fact.  He’d accepted himself for who and what he was just as Gedeon did.

“This territory I’ve taken over was run like the ones in Russia that I came from.  The women and children are sometimes abused, but often the women are complicit in the crimes.  I’ve retaliated in kind when there is abuse.  It hasn’t been pretty but I’m cleaning things up fast.  On the other hand, it’s brought out every negative trait Rogue and I have.  The rush for us has fed the continual need for more.  We’re deteriorating very fast.”

There was stark honesty in that mesmerizing voice.  Gedeon understood exactly what Gorya was telling him.  He’d been there.  Before Meiling, he’d grown more violent, baring his doors and windows with steel to keep Slayer from escaping. He’d taken refuge in rough, emotionless sex to try to relieve the ever-building need for violence. Like Gorya, he knew the only answer for him was to end his life before he killed an innocent.  He’d been lucky to find a miracle—Meiling.

“Your cousins were each able to find their leopard’s true mate.  Why do you believe you won’t find Rogue’s?” Meiling asked.

Gorya twisted the bullet back and forth until it spun between his fingers, not touching his skin, but remaining in the air, a hairsbreadth away from his thumb and finger.  He didn’t appear to notice while he contemplated his answer.

“My cousins are brutal, violent men out of necessity,” he finally said.  “They were raised in an environment that didn’t allow for anything else, so to survive they were forced to learn those ways.  They didn’t like what they had to become, but they became good at being those men.  That wasn’t the case with me.”

Abruptly, Gorya pinched the bullet between his fingers and carefully set it on the desk beside the gun.  “The story of how my parents died isn’t true.  My father didn’t murder my mother.  She was acquired in the way most of the women were in that lair. She was bought with the idea that once she provided sons, she would be murdered by her husband to show loyalty to the bratya.  As my father had no problems killing his first wife with the help of his two sons, he expected to do just that with his second.  Not only did he expect that he would kill her, his sons expected it as did his brothers.”

Gedeon couldn’t detect any emotion at all on Gorya’s handsome features or in his unusual eyes.  Amur leopards typically had amber or even blue eyes, but Gorya’s eyes, although shaped like a cat’s and just as focused and piercing, maybe even more so, were slate gray.  The strange and rare color made reading him more difficult than ever.  His eyes could appear as pure frost or reflect back as a mirror.  Gedeon would bet his last dollar that the undercoat on Gorya’s leopard was gray to match those eyes, making him nearly impossible to spot when he wanted to disappear.

“No one expected that she was his leopard’s true mate, or that he would fall in love with her.”

“Do you have any idea where she came from?” Meiling asked.

Gorya shook his head.  “No one cared.  She was considered expendable.  My brothers, Dima and Grisha, hated her and hated me when I was born.  I knew they wanted me dead.  They would sneak into the room where I was sleeping and pick up a pillow to smother me.  Rogue always tore his way through the pillow, even when he was a cub.  They couldn’t let their leopards loose on him because it would have woken my father or mother.  She always seemed alert.  She watched them closely once she found the pillows ripped.”

  How terrible to know from the time you’re born that your own brothers want to murder you, Meiling whispered into Gedeon’s mind. He was just an infant.  So was his leopard.

Gorya had had the awareness of a much older child from the time he was an infant and he hadn’t forgotten.  Gedeon knew what that was like, although his earliest memories were happy ones.  He’d been given that same gift.

“My father, Filipp, fell in love with my mother. That was enough to brand him a traitor with his brothers.  She was his leopard’s true mate.  Patva conspired with Dima and Grisha to murder them both.  Dima and Grisha broke Filipp’s spine so he was helpless, and then, while Patva watched, they beat my mother to death in front of Filipp.  I have no idea why Patva decided to keep me alive.  Dima and Grisha were very angry, but Patva took me home and gave me to his wife to raise along with Fyodor and Timur.”

“This might answer the question of how you are so different from your cousins in that you have tremendous gifts,” Gedeon pointed out, “but it doesn’t answer why you think you won’t be able to find your leopard’s true mate or yours.”

“Patva was the cruelest of all the brothers.  He reveled in brutality.  He allowed the leopards in his lair to be whipped into killing frenzies.  They hunted humans and fed on them.  Each atrocity he committed was worse than the one before.  His power grew and so did his reputation.”

Gedeon heard loathing in Gorya’s voice for the first time, but he suspected the loathing wasn’t for Patva, it was for himself.

“When I was a child Patva beat me, had his men beat me.  They subjected me to as much cruelty as possible without killing me.  I learned to stay quiet and bide my time.  Rogue obeyed me.  We needed to learn from them.  From all the leopards.  We were sponges, soaking up the knowledge they had, the experience.  After a while I barely felt the beatings, although I made certain to put on the appropriate show and then fade into the background as quickly as possible.”

Once again, Gorya’s eyes met Gedeon’s without flinching from the truth.  “I reveled in learning.  I wanted to be more of a monster than my uncle.  I began to pit myself against him.  In small ways at first.  I would steal away his small treasures and plant them among his trusted captain’s things. I took great delight in the torture of his captain and his family.  The woman was already dead and only his sons remained, men who enjoyed the hunt of humans and rape and murder of others. I always watched as Patva took his wrath out on his own loyal men, believing what his eyes saw when I had orchestrated the crime instead of listening to men who had served him for years.  You have no idea the joy that brought me at such a young age, and it only increased as my revenges became more complex.”

Again, Gedeon understood.  How could he not?  There was joy in defeating an enemy, especially when that enemy thought you had no power.

“I didn’t want Patva to die.  I wanted him to live forever.  It seemed too merciful for him to just die.  I could torment him, strip him of everything that mattered to him little by little, and he would never know it was me.  I knew I could best him.  It was like a game of chess, and I found it exhilarating.  I outthought him at every turn.”

“Weren’t there people in the lair suffering?” Meiling asked.

Gorya turned his frosty gray eyes on her.  Gedeon knew what she was seeing.  Empty.  No soul.  If his leopard looked back at her, that leopard had no real life in it either.

“I considered the entire lair corrupt, so therefore, I was at war with everyone.  If they suffered, that was good.  It gave me opportunities to hone my skills.  Patva took me with him on raids and I practiced deceiving him into thinking I was squeamish and reluctant.  His punishments were severe, but it was worth it to me.  I learned to be an even better actor.  He’d force his other men to take me with them and that would allow me to wreak havoc without his knowledge.”

Gorya turned back to Gedeon.  “Rogue and I hunted his best fighters, first stalking them for weeks just to hone our skills, entering their homes over and over, standing over them at night, but their leopards never alerted unless we wanted them to know we were there.”

The hair on the back of his neck stood up.  Slayer raked at him in alarm.

That’s what he did to us, Meiling, stalked us.  He came into our home and Slayer didn’t alert.  Neither did Whisper.  He knew you were pregnant because he heard us talking. 

Gedeon found it very disturbing that Gorya and his leopard had the skills to enter their home when Meiling and he were both elite.  Was he fast enough to kill Gorya?  Was Slayer?  He’d never questioned himself or his leopard, but he’d be an arrogant ass if he didn’t consider the possibility that Gorya might be faster, stronger, and even more ruthless. 

All his life Gedeon had known he was superior to other shifters.  He’d been careful not to take it for granted, but he’d known.  He hid his gifts from others.  Now, he sat across from a man who was relaxed while knowing Meiling was in position to shoot him.  Gedeon sat across from him within striking distance.  Gorya hadn’t so much as flinched. 

  “To answer your question, Meiling, over the years, I developed the need to feed the brutality inside of me.  Whether it comes from the skills I got from my mother or the DNA I got from my father or the combination of both, it’s very strong in me. Far more so than my brothers.  The beatings Rogue and I were subjected to so early and the way we had to survive by secretly plotting to kill only fed that side of me—of us.  I can be very sadistic, and I don’t feel remorse.  I know my cousins often thought of themselves as psychopaths, but they are not.  They are good men.  I am not.”

“If that’s the truth, how did you end up here in the States with your cousins?” Meiling asked. 

There was a quality to Meiling’s voice that had always brought Gedeon peace.  For the first time he hoped it brought Gorya and his leopard peace as well.  He remembered the days of believing he was a psychopath and there was no hope for survival.  It was possible it was too late for Gorya, but clearly the man was determined to find a way to keep those around him safe by hiring Gedeon to kill him after he’d cleaned up the territory he’d been given.  That didn’t strike Gedeon as a man completely unredeemable.

For the first time, Gorya hesitated.  He wore his black hair slicked back so it was impossible for Gedeon to tell how long it was on top, but it was thick as all shifter’s hair was.  The sides of his hair were kept shaved.  He wore a short, trimmed beard and moustache.  He looked young, with few lines in his face until one looked very close, then you could see the faint signs of burden and exhaustion from the life he’d led taking its toll.

Gorya pushed his fingers through his hair and shook his head.  He gave Gedeon that faint smile that was as cold as ice and as fake as a three-dollar bill.  “I told myself I would answer your questions honestly.  There’s always that one moment in life when you must make a choice.  My choice, until then had been to keep Patva alive and torment him by stripping him of everything he had slowly.  He was bringing in women and young girls and selling them or giving them to his trusted men before selling them. He had one of his enforcers take me along with him to inspect a house where they were keeping some of the women.”

There was no expression on Gorya’s face, but he picked up the bullet again and looked at it for a long moment.  “I sometimes wonder if I had just killed him, would I have spared that child the things done to her? But then I would never have been sent to that house of horrors.”  He looked up again and met Gedeon’s gaze.

Gedeon could barely look at him.  For some unknown reason, he had the feeling Gorya knew about his past, about his mother in just such a house.  About Gedeon in just such a house.  No one other than Meiling knew about Gedeon’s past so that would be impossible, but those frosty gray eyes seemed to see inside of him, into the secrets of his dark past.

“The men openly raped and beat the women and children right there in front of one another as if they weren’t human beings.  They laughed and egged each other on.  One little girl wasn’t more than five or six.  She had all this white-blonde hair and blue-gray eyes.  I could see she had a leopard, although I knew the men were too smug to see.  She’d already been raped numerous times.  There was no doubt she was gearing up to force them to beat her into submission again.  I think she was going to make them kill her.”

Gorya shook his head as if back in that house of horrors.  “I don’t think I’ll ever get the sight of those women and children or the sounds or smells out of my mind for as long as I live.  I think I went a little berserk.  I know Rogue did.  One minute we were looking at that little child and the next I was shifting and tearing them all apart.”

He sank back into his seat and regarded Gedeon, once again relaxed, accepting who he was.  The change was slight, but Gedeon read it easily.

“Patva had sent a five-man team.  There were two guards in the house.  I had to kill all seven of them.  Then I had to destroy the cameras.  There couldn’t be any evidence that I had been the one to kill them and in such a violent way.  I made it appear as if we’d been raided by outsiders so they could get the women and sell them themselves.  I had less than an hour to get the women and children onto a freighter I knew was leaving the harbor.  I had to make out the proper paperwork and sign Patva’s name to it, which I was very good at doing.  It was the best I could do for them.  I knew where there was money, and I gave what I could to them.  Then I had to find a way to make it look like I’d been ripped apart and left for dead so Patva would believe I’d been attacked as well.”

“How was it that you didn’t kill Patva yourself when he attacked you and Timur?  Even though you were so young, you must have been capable of killing him,” Gedeon said.

“When he first came in, he acted very nice to Ogfia, Timur’s mother.  She always tried to go into another room to get away from him even if he beat one of us.  Timur never seemed to mind.  He made excuses for her.  When she started leave, Patva leapt on her and began to beat her savagely.  Timur immediately went to her assistance and instead of aiding him, Ogfia again tried to lock herself in another room.”

There wasn’t the slightest hint of disgust or loathing on Gorya’s face or in his voice, but Gedeon felt disgust heavy in the air.  Gorya might not be able to tolerate seeing women or children raped, tortured, or misused, but he didn’t have a high opinion of them.

 “Patva turned on me with a knife hidden in his hand.  Using a weapon was unusual and I didn’t see or expect it.  He stabbed me three times as he rushed past me to get to Ogfia.  Rogue spun us away from him fast, so the blade missed my heart, but I went down.  He shouted at Timur and me that we were cowards and traitors.  Those loyal to the bratya didn’t give their loyalty to women.”

Gorya touched his chest near his heart.  “That taught me the lesson to always expect the unexpected.  I was young and arrogant in those days.  After Patva beat Ogfia to death, he turned his attention to Timur and me.  I might have been able to take him, I don’t honestly know, I’d lost a lot of blood and was weak, but fortunately, Fyodor came in.  He saved us and I just fell back on what I did best.  I became the deceiver even with those I loved most.”

What do you think, Meiling?

I’ve never met a man so lost, Gedeon.

Or so dangerous.  The point is, what do we do?

I don’t think we have a choice.  We take the job.

Gedeon studied the man across from him.  Gorya was brilliant.  He’d known the moment he’d laid the facts out they would take the job.  He sighed.  “You have yourself a couple heading your security.  Your men aren’t going to like us very much.”

Gorya sent him that flat, cold smile.  “They don’t like me much either.”

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