Sevastyan Amurov paced back and forth, long, angry strides, trying to rid his body of the dark, ugly animalistic moody edge his leopard brought along with his own bad temper. Over the years, he’d worked at staying in complete control. He’d succeeded in pushing down that hot-red volcano welling up inside him from showing to the outside world, but he’d never managed to eliminate the vile emotion. He knew he never would.
He stood at the window, his wide shoulders framed between the glass. “We’re about to have company, Plamya.” He glanced over his shoulder at her and then crooked his finger at her. “Come here. Tell me if this is your gentleman friend. He hasn’t come alone.”
He was leopard. Not just any leopard. He was Amurov, born and bred in a brutal lair known for cruelty, for such savage practices, other lairs wanted nothing to do with them. He couldn’t blame them. The men in his lair took women to be their mates — not the women who held the mate for the leopards— but women who would give them sons. If they produced females or after they gave them sons, to show their loyalty to their lair, the men murdered their wives, usually in front of their sons. Often, they insisted their sons participate. Female children were either killed or given away or sold as brides to others who would later kill them after they produced sons for their husbands.
Sevastyan had been beaten most of his childhood as had his leopard in an attempt to make him stronger — a fighter for his lair. He was raised to be an ‘enforcer’. One who would be a bodyguard to the vor, or the one who would interrogate a prisoner for information. As he had grown up that horrendous anger inside of him had grown, fed by his leopard’s rage.
His leopard was very strong and controlling him wasn’t easy. As the years had passed, unlike his cousins, his need for sex and domination had grown, not diminished. His leopard prowled closer and closer to the surface, demanding more and more and those needs had turned sexual for him. It was a vicious cycle and one Sevastyan feared he was going to lose eventually. He often visited the underground clubs to ease the needs he had, but that was always dangerous when his leopard was so brutal. He had to be very careful that he didn’t allow any of the cruelty of his cat to spill over to his games with the women he played with.
Glancing at his watch for the tenth time, he hissed his displeasure. The woman from the landscaping company had blown him off. Again. That was three times. The first two times, at least she’d had the courtesy to let him know she couldn’t make it. It was an inconvenience, but she’d given him enough time that he hadn’t left Mitya, his cousin, and boss, without protection.
He was Mitya’s bodyguard. Mitya had enough enemies that Sevastyan wasn’t about to take chances with his life. Already, he’d been shot more than once and leaving his protection to others didn’t sit well with Sevastyan.
Like always, when he was very upset, the anger in him translated to a deep sexual need that he despised. It rose up like a tidal wave, a hunger that took hold of him and wouldn’t let go until he rode a woman hard— and what was the difference between him and the other men in the lair he’d left so long ago? He despised himself for using women, no matter that they were fully consenting. He might visit the clubs and spend hours there doing the things he needed to do, but he was never sated. Never. His leopard roared his rage and deep inside, he did as well.
The truth was, Sevastyan wanted a woman of his own. A partner. A woman to love. A woman who held the mate for his leopard. That same gift his cousins had. He doubted if that was going to ever happen for him. His father and Mitya’s father both had seen to that with their torture and deviant training. His needs weren’t going to go away because he willed them to. Long weeks of trying. Months. Nothing had stopped that terrible craving. Nor would his rage. He had watched his cousins to see if they were like him. None of them were. Mitya was dominant, but he wasn’t in the least like Sevastyan. Still, his leopard deserved a mate.
He had one thing going for them. His leopard— and he— were in their first life cycle. That meant, they could claim an unmated female shifter if they could find one. They just had to find one.
Deep inside his leopard snarled and raked at him with sharp claws, leaping suddenly in an attempt to take him by surprise and get out. It wasn’t the first time and wouldn’t be the last. Sometimes, Sevastyan thought his leopard, he affectionally called Shturm, meaning assault, would end his life by literally ripping him open and climbing out of him rather than shifting the normal way they exchanged forms.
“I’m having enough trouble staying in control without you adding to my problems,” He hissed in displeasure at the cat, raking his fingers through his hair, uncaring that it went wild on him. He was normally groomed to perfection, part of his intimidating look.
Sevastyan was built the way many shifters were, with roped muscles and no fat. He was taller than most with wide shoulders and a thick, defined chest, narrow hips and muscular legs. He kept his cat in fighting form which meant he was as well. He ran every day and let his cat out to run as well. He practiced with weapons daily, as well as trained in hand to hand combat. He left nothing to chance when it came to Mitya’s safety.
The cat leapt again, clawing for freedom and Sevastyan turned toward the door. Shturm was being a little too persistent which could only mean they weren’t alone. Maybe the landscaper hadn’t blown him off entirely, maybe she was just late. Not a good start, but at least she’d managed to get her ass there. He’d make it very clear he didn’t tolerate that kind of crap from those he employed unless there was a very good excuse, in which case she should have let him know immediately.
Sevastyan took his time getting to the door, deliberately slowing his steps, breathing deep to find that calm place he maintained in front of all others. His weapons were close as they always were, so many tucked into boots, into the holster under his arm, the slim sheath between his shoulder blades, the many loops inside the jacket he shrugged into as he paused just at the door.
A woman hurried up the walkway, looking surprisingly young for being the owner of a renowned landscaping business. Sevastyan knew Leland Carver had passed away several years earlier leaving the business to his daughter. Flambe Carver had grown up working alongside her father, and some said she had surpassed him in brilliance for her designs in incorporating the natural topography, flora and fauna into beautiful and unique works of arts.
Leland Carver was a shifter and he had designed the woods with their arboreal highways for the leopards to travel quickly throughout Mitya’s property. It was the same on their cousin, Fyodor’s property. Carver had also landscaped and planted that property with fast growing trees. Sevastyan wanted the same on his property. Part of the land had already been planted, but he wanted his property connected to his cousins so he could travel fast without a car to get to Mitya should there be need.
The woman hurrying up the walkway had the smaller, curvy body of a shifter, although much smaller than many of the woman and she had shocking red hair. Sheets of bright red hair which he’d never seen on a shifter before. It wasn’t dyed red, it looked too natural for that. The sun shone on it, turning it into a fiery blaze that spilled in all directions. She had it pulled up into a simple ponytail, but in her haste, in spite of the thickness of shifter hair, it had come loose and was pulling free, giving her the appearance of looking wild.
Sevastyan found the dominant rising like a tidal wave, strong, taking over, needing to tame that out-of-control woman rushing up his walkway, late by nearly half an hour to a very important appointment she’d already cancelled twice. He let her get right to the door and push the doorbell, not once, but twice with several long moments between before he took his time, leisurely opening the heavy oak door to stand framed there just looking at her.
There was a long silence. She was breathing hard as if she’d been running a long distance. Just because she came from a line of shifters didn’t mean she had a leopard, or that she knew she was a shifter. Men had their leopards nearly from the time they were born where women often weren’t aware of their leopards until the leopard and the woman both had the same hormone cycle. Sometimes that never happened and the leopard never emerged. Still, most shifters were in good shape and she shouldn’t be so out of breath.
He studied her deliberately, drawing out the silence. She had unusual eyes, green with golden flecks and he recognized the eyes of a female leopard immediately. He also became aware of Shturm’s reaction to the woman. It was the easing of tension out of the big cat. The claws seemed to retract slowly and he simply went quiet, almost as if, like Sevastyan, he was observing the woman instead of reacting negatively toward her.
Shturm hated all humans and let his human counterpart know at every opportunity. It was rare for him to go quiet and that alone kept Sevastyan from saying anything to dispel the rising tension between the woman and himself— not that he wanted to. She needed to take responsibility for his time away from Mitya. His job as his cousin’s bodyguard was important.
Looking down at her red-gold tipped lashes that had swept down to veil the expression in her green eyes, a curious emotion gripped him, one he couldn’t recognize. She had a generous mouth, beautiful lips, very red, although there was a smudge of dirt near the corner on the left side he could barely keep from leaning down to wipe away with the pad of his thumb.
“I’m so sorry I’m late,” she started. Her tone was soft. Pleasing. There was no remorse, but her voice did tremble the least little bit.
He frowned, his eyes on that little smudge. He took a step toward her, caught her chin in a firm grip and angled her face toward the sun. “What the hell happened? Did someone hit you?”
There was barely controlled fury in him, although his voice sounded the way it always did— calm. He knew someone had struck her. Recently. Within the last half hour. That was the reason she was late. While he’d been pacing up and down in his front room, furious at her, some asshole had hit her. Struck a woman. When he turned her face toward the sun, he caught sight of a large lump on the side of her head, up high in the hairline. Hidden, but it was there. He forced himself to let go of her.
She glanced over her shoulder as if it was possible, she was being pursued. She hesitated, as if she might not answer, or she might try to lie, but then she simply told him the truth. “Unfortunately, yes, I’m so sorry. I know we’re getting off to such a bad start and it’s so unprofessional. Our company is really the best. We’ve just had bad timing with our scheduled meetings. I really tried to get here but…”. She was babbling. The words stumbling over one another.
“Ms. Carter,” Sevastyan interrupted, his voice a whip. He was used to giving commands and having them obeyed. He’d been trained from the time he was a young boy and as he had taken over the duties of head of security for his cousin, his natural dominant character had come out more and more. “Tell me what happened.”
She stood blinking up at him. She was already more than a foot shorter than he was and with him standing a step above her, that only added to her diminutive stature. Once he realized what that smudge was and that swelling on the side of her head, Sevastyan hadn’t brought her fully into the house where she might feel vulnerable alone with him. Still, he intended to take advantage to get the necessary information he needed to hunt down whoever had struck her.
Flambe shrugged in an attempt to be casual, but the movement hurt and she winced visibly. “There’s a man who is very angry with me for a lot of different reasons. I refused to take his calls and he’s been watching me. I called the police and reported him numerous times, but because he hasn’t actually done anything, well, until now, they said there wasn’t anything they could do.”
“He’s stalking you.”
She made a face. “I hate using that word because it sounds like something everyone uses now, but yes. He turns up everywhere I go. He stands across the street from places I go to eat with my friends. I made him angry. I should have just kept quiet, but I got so sick of him always pushing at me. I confronted him and told him to keep the hell away from me.”
Sevastyan detested that she thought she had to be the one to give into her stalker’s demands in order for peace. That was what the women in their lair felt and, in the end, all of them knew they would be murdered and yet they quietly accepted their fate. There was no rising up. No fighting back. Again, that place inside of him that roared with rage turned red with anger, threatening to erupt like an angry volcano, but on the outside, he appeared completely calm. He had to. The last thing this woman needed was to fear him.
“Why do you think you should have to keep quiet? He’s the one doing something wrong, not you. You had every right to tell him to stay away from you, although you shouldn’t have been alone when you confronted him.”
“I wasn’t when I confronted him. But he waited until I was coming out here and he forced me off the road.” Her entire body was shaking whether she was aware of it or not.
Sevastyan was unprepared for Shturm’s furious reaction. The leopard leapt at him, raking and clawing for freedom as if he would go hunting right then and find Flambe’s stalker. Sevastyan remained absolutely expressionless but he couldn’t stop himself from stepping into her and circling her the way his leopard would, inhaling as he did so. The moment he did, his leopard went crazy. He felt a little insane himself. Her stalker was leopard. He wasn’t Amurov. He wasn’t from Russia, or from one of the lairs Sevastyan was familiar with, but none of that mattered, he was leopard and he was stalking Flambe for a reason.
“He struck you. Hit you. Did he do anything else to you?” Sevastyan forced himself to take a step back when he wanted — no —needed—to yank her closer, spin her around and see for himself.
Flambe frowned, she touched the swelling on the side of her head, her hand trembling. She looked confused. “The moment he tried to throw me against the car, I fought him. He punched me and I went down to the pavement and hit my head very hard.”
Sevastyan wanted to pull her close to him, even on the pretense of just steadying her, but the attack had shaken her. Shturm was acting crazy, one minute rolling over and the next struggling to get out. He had to be careful with her.
“He straddled me, grabbing me by my hair and I kneed him hard, managed to get to my feet and ran for your property. I’d been here a few times with my father so I knew approximately where the trees were the thickest. He’d planted them when I was really young.”
Sevastyan swore to himself. “Is this man someone you know? Someone you were promised to by your father?”
She tilted her head and studied his face for long moment before answering him. “No. He didn’t know my father. Clearly, you’re aware of what we are or you wouldn’t have been so set on hiring our company.”
“Before we go any further, if I ask you inside, will you be uncomfortable alone with me? There is no one else here. I didn’t know how much you knew about shifters and I wanted a chance to tell you what I needed from you when it came to landscaping without anyone around, but I don’t want you to be in the least uncomfortable. We can discuss this and then business on the outside patio if that is easier for you, but you need to sit down.”
Flambe hesitated, faint color stealing up her neck into her face, surprising him. Sevastyan studied her averted face as she once again peered over her shoulder before looking back at him. He had the feeling this time her hesitation wasn’t because she feared whoever it was that had struck her. She was avoiding looking at him.
“I’m not afraid of you. Your family has a certain reputation and there is honor and integrity involved.”
There was the smallest hint of untruth in her voice. She wasn’t afraid exactly, more like intimidated and he was okay with that. Sevastyan had been intimidating people nearly his entire life.
“And criminal activity,” He prompted.
For the first time a faint smile lit her face doing extraordinary things to her eyes. “That too.”
He stepped back and held open the door. “Come in then. I’ve had a lot of work done to the interior, but it’s by no means finished.” He stayed where he was, forcing her to move past him. He took up a lot of space and that meant her smaller body would have to slide next to his, touching his briefly. He wanted to see what reaction his leopard would have. He already knew what reaction he had to her.
Again, there was that small hesitation. He caught the briefest hint of sexual interest flaring in her eyes before she managed to veil all expression with her lashes. She didn’t want to be that close to him. She reacted to him just as he was reacting to her. She had courage though, he had to hand that to her. She slid past him, her small body whispering against his.
Shturm nearly rolled over purring. Purring. The cat had never purred in his life. More, he felt her cat rising. The female moved fast, reaching for Shturm, calling to him, the scent of her filling the air so that Sevastyan had to fight his leopard to keep him under control. His own body went hot and hard with urgent need.
“I presume you did your research on me then?” Sevastyan said when he could breathe properly, as he pulled the door closed, matching her steps nearly exactly, his silent.
She glanced over her shoulder and went pale when she saw him so close. “Yes. You’re Amur leopard. Rare. From Russia. There are rumors about your kind. Very unfortunate rumors.” She shivered and rubbed her arms as she made her way into the living room.
Sevastyan really loved the large, spacious room with the high ceilings and great stone fireplace. He waved Flambe toward the coziest chair. Most of his furniture had been purchased for a big man. His cousins were all large like he was and when they came to visit, he wanted them comfortable.
“Flambe,” he said, when she stood by the chair. “Sit down. We have a lot to get through. You may as well be comfortable. If you’re cold, I can get you a blanket or start the fire.” He poured persuasion into his voice. He wasn’t asking. He wanted to know who this man was and why he thought he had any right to her. She looked fragile, as if she might fall down any moment. Her face was pale and the swelling on the side of her head was alarming to him. Her eyes were over-bright, almost as if she was a little dazed.
Flambe sank into the chair. “Mr. Amurov, are the rumors around the Amur shifters true?”
“The lairs where my cousins and I grew up? Yes. Absolutely they are true and worse than anything you’ve heard. The worst criminals want nothing to do with the lairs, for good reasons. My cousins and I broke away and came here and we have death sentences hanging over our heads.” He shrugged his shoulders. “They’ve made their try a couple of times but so far, they haven’t succeeded. Call me Sevastyan. Not Mr. Amurov. I prefer Sevastyan.”
“Our shifters come from South Africa. We’re strawberry leopards. There are so few of us that researchers believe we are mutations with recessive genes producing an over production of red pigments or an underproduction of dark pigments. Poachers go after us, hunting us relentlessly, the moment one of our kind is spotted in leopard form. Researchers don’t have a chance to actually find out we’re our one subspecies, not a mutation.”
Sevastyan sank onto the love seat across from her chair and leaned toward her. He had heard rumors, of course, of strawberry leopards. They all had, but no one had seen one. Most thought them a myth, or like the black leopard, a leopard born with an over production of red pigments like researchers believed.
He felt his heart accelerate and did his best to get it under control. For his sake. For Shturm’s. There were less than a dozen strawberry leopards to his knowledge. At most, perhaps under twenty. Chances were good she was unmated. Her female had risen, responding to Shturm’s, presence. Sevastyan was attracted to her physically. In fact, the chemistry between them was extremely strong. He could make it work. He just had to proceed with care.
“Your father brought the shifters into the country and taught them his business and then when they could work on their own, he allowed them to move on and he brought in more.” It was a guess— an educated one.
She nodded. “Yes. He sponsored them. When the first had their businesses set up, they brought in others and sponsored them. Most, of course, weren’t strawberry leopards. It wasn’t like we had very many. Our species is nearly extinct. Poachers love a strawberry coat. We were hunted nearly to death. Unfortunately, recently, as many as twelve leopards were spotted in various places at one time in South Africa and it was on the world news. We’re trying to get the females with babies out of there to safety, but it isn’t easy. There are less than thirty of us that I am aware of, left alive in the world. If we can’t save the ones exposed in South Africa, we’ll lose a third of that number.”
“I presume that your father sponsored both male and female leopards here in the United States of all different species of leopards.”
“Yes, of course he did. He tried to get as many as he could regardless of age or sex. They become citizens and owners of their own businesses. That way they can continue to help other shifters find safety. It wasn’t only strawberry leopards he brought in, most weren’t.”
“Are there any other strawberry females here?”
She hesitated just for a moment, but he caught it. “Yes.”
“Have the females gone into the Han Vol Dan?”
She frowned. “I don’t know exactly what that is?”
“The emerging of their leopard?”
“I believe my father said one or two have married. I don’t know if they have a leopard or not. I would hope so.” She rubbed her hand up and down her left thigh restlessly.
“When did you become aware of your leopard?”
Her gaze jumped to his face. She moistened her lips. “About two weeks ago. She told me her was Flamme. I can feel how restless she is.” Again, she hesitated. “I’ve been restless as well. I wake up in the middle of the night and have to go running. I’ve been afraid ever since…”. She trailed off.
“Who is he?” Sevastyan demanded.
“Sevastyan. It isn’t a good idea to get mixed up in my problems. He comes with some big resources which is why I think the cops don’t want to do anything about him. They won’t even talk to him.”
“That is not what I asked you.”
Silence stretched between them. She lifted her chin stubbornly. That little gesture got him right in the gut. To a man like Sevastyan, that was the same as issuing a challenge. She wasn’t going to tell him for whatever reasons— or at least she didn’t think she was. He wasn’t going to allow her to get away with it.
“I actually came out here to discuss landscaping and what you wanted or needed on your property,” Flambe said, looking very determined.
“You said the project would be quite extensive.” She rubbed her temple and winced. Swayed. She wasn’t in any condition to work.
Lulling her into a false sense of security was always a good thing. He could mesmerize with just his voice. Control with it. Sound very gentle or equally as harsh. Any dominant worth his while could do so, and Sevastyan was particularly good with his voice. “That is very true. This property belonged to my sister-in-law’s family, the Dover family. I own it now and need the trees planted all the way from the woods in back to Mitya’s woods with the arboreal highway extended from my home to his. I want a clear path both on the ground and in the trees for me to get to him if he’s in trouble. A good portion of the acreage was planted in grapes. I had a third of that pulled up. More will eventually be taken out as well.”
She nodded and looked around her looking a little helpless. Again, she lifted her hand to the lump on her head as if it hurt. “I usually have my notebook but I left my car out on the road some distance from here.”
He rose at once and retrieved a pen and paper from a rolltop desk in the wide hallway. “We’ll have to make do the old-fashioned way.” He gave it to her and paced across the gleaming hardwood floor to the wide expanse of window. “I like to see what’s coming at me at all times. The house is sitting lower than I’d like. The road is just a little above it so any plants added for looks could take away from security. I had the gardener pull out the ornamental bushes that were planted up close to the house. He wasn’t happy, but he did it.”
“I noticed that there weren’t any plants at all around the front of the house and it seemed very stark to me. I can come up with something pleasing that wouldn’t take away from your need for security.”
He kept a smile from showing on his face, his back to her as he continued to stare out the window. Your need for security. She had deliberately worded it that way to get to him. Needling him. She was restless because her leopard was. Both hands were rubbing her thighs now. She shifted in her seat more than once, her legs moving. She didn’t understand that her female was driving her, making her edgy, moody.
Her leopard was pushing her hard, throwing off her scent to call the male to her, insistent, urgent, demanding, flirtatious. The closer she pressed to the surface, the more Sevastyan and Shturm were affected, unable to resist the lure of the females. Every movement Flambe made was blatantly sexual, although she didn’t seem to be aware of it. She touched herself, her hands moving over her body, and her fragrance, filling the air, so that he breathed it in with every lungful he took in, was enough to put him over the edge.
Shturm came to attention, pressing forward, urging him to stake their claim. Flambe was in far more danger than she realized, not in a way that would ever harm her. She was the safest woman in the world from him, but not only had Sevastyan taken a real interest in her when he didn’t in any woman, but so had his leopard.
“Are you paying attention to anything I’m saying to you?” Now there was a distinct bite to her voice.
“I would never be so rude as to not pay attention to you, Flambe.” Sevastyan turned slowly toward her, deliberately allowing his gaze to run over her.
Flambe had drawn her legs up. Her body was flushed, aroused, the heat of her female leopard fully on her. She’d removed her jacket and her breath was coming in ragged pants. Beneath the blouse she wore, obviously her ‘power’ suit when she met with her customers, her full breasts rose and fell as she tried to control her breathing. Her nipples were hard, pushing against her bra, which inflamed them more. She was suffering, just the way her leopard was, nearing the excruciating demands of the Han Vol Dan of their people and not realizing what was happening to her.
Sevastyan wanted her to belong to him with every breath he drew. His leopard leapt and raked, clawing for supremacy, demanding they claim her, but that wasn’t Sevastyan’s way. His woman was going to be his fully because she wanted him. Exclusively. Him. With every one of his flaws— and he had them in abundance.
He measured his steps, pacing in slow deliberate strides around her chair, very close so her leopard would feel his male close. Feel the dominant fighter. Her little female was looking for her mate— desperate to find him after the assault on them. If it was her first cycle, she would want a strong mate who could care for his shifter family, protect them when they might not be able to protect themselves.
The strawberry leopard rose fast, seeking Shturm. She was so close Sevastyan could almost see her moving beneath Flambe’s skin. That flawless skin glowed hot, as if her temperature had risen by several degrees. Without conscious thought Flambe reached up and undid the first two buttons of her blouse. Her red hair was damp around her face, beginning to curl in wisps and tendrils around her face.
He inhaled her scent. Drew her into his lungs. This was an intelligent woman. He had done his own research on her when he had decided to hire her landscaping company to do the work on his property. Her father had a reputation among the shifters— he had for years. He had started the business as a very young man and didn’t have children until he was in his late forties. His wife had died in childbirth and he had raised his daughter alone. She’d worked at his side almost since birth.
Sevastyan brushed up against Flambe’s arm as he passed her chair, his skin sliding against hers. There were instant sparks, a chemistry arcing between them. He was far too experienced not to know she felt it, although she tried to hide it. She kept her face averted and took a deep breath, biting hard on her lower lip. He smiled and continued walking to the small refrigerator behind the bar to get himself a water.
“What type of plants were you thinking would look good around the front of the house? I like the way Mitya’s home always looks, beautifully kept, but easily defendable.”
She turned her head toward him. She was so beautiful to him for a moment he couldn’t control the way his blood pounded so hotly through his veins. He needed to stay in control. Shturm was useless, going from purring to roaring his demands. Flambe and her little hussy of a female were in such dire straits, they were throwing off enough hormones to call in every male leopard for a hundred miles.
Flambe was squirming in the chair and he was fairly certain if it kept up she would ask where his bathroom was just so she could try to find a little relief. That would only make it worse, but she didn’t know that. She also seemed a little out of it as if she couldn’t quite follow along in their conversation. He didn’t know if that was the potent effects of the female heat or the blow to the head. He wanted to examine that knot in her hair a little closer.
One of them had to have a clear head. He breathed through the blood thundering in his ears and pounding hard in his cock. He wanted this woman to trust him. To give herself to him. To let him into her life. He needed that from her and taking her wasn’t the way to get that even if in this moment she threw herself at him. If he really was going to have such an unexpected gift handed to him, he wasn’t going to throw it away because he didn’t have enough control to handle her with care.
She cleared her throat twice, frowning, obviously trying to follow the conversation. “There are so many beautiful plants native to this area that would look lovely in groupings around the front of the house. They’re low enough that they wouldn’t cover windows or in any way impede your ability to see anything coming at you.”
Her voice was very low. Husky. It played along his nerve endings, slid down his spine and teased his cock as if she brushed her fingers and tongue over his sensitive shaft. There was no question this woman was the one for him. No one had ever affected him the way she did. Not with just the sound of her voice. He opened the water bottle, pausing there at the bar, taking the time to savor the genuine feeling she was gifting him with. For once his leopard wasn’t demanding blood or violent sex and he could just enjoy the beauty of wanting his woman because she was extraordinary.
Flambe had her Bachelor of Science, Graduate, Masters and PHD degrees in Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning from the University of Berkeley. She had so much experience working with her father that she had excelled in the program. Her father only took jobs that allowed him to use local plants and designs that worked to sustain the environment and were pleasing to the eye as well. He was a genius with plants and it appeared his daughter followed in his footsteps.
“There are flowers that bloom at different times of the years and succulents that don’t need as much water. I know of this lovely little star-like ground cover that once it takes root, takes very little water, can be walked on just like grass and yet doesn’t need the care grass does.” As she talked, enthusiasm crept into her voice. She definitely liked her job.
“Do you do the planting yourself, or do you work getting new clients and let your crew do the actual work on the properties while you supervise?” He moved away from the bar, again very casually, coming to stand beside her chair, letting the heat of his body blend with hers.
Her cat went wild. Sevastyan knew because he was completely tuned to her now and he felt the animal in her respond to the animal in him. His male was big and mean. A fighter. A male in his prime. A perfect mate. Just what the female wanted and needed. Exactly what she was looking for in a mate. His leopard pushed hard toward the surface and Sevastyan let him come close, but held him at bay. The last thing he needed was for the big male to get loose. The female leopard reacted, becoming more amorous, pushing toward the surface as well, demanding to be close to the male.
Flambe gasped and wrapped her arms around her middle, ducking her head, averting her flushed face away from him. Her breasts were immediately pushed up beneath the thin silk of her blouse, nearly tumbling from her lacy bra. He could see she was fighting the feverish need crawling through her, the desperate cravings and urgent demands of her heat.
“Is it too warm in here?” Sevastyan asked in his most solicitous voice. He bent down and very gently pushed back the damp hair on her forehead and laid his palm there, as if checking her temperature.
The moment he touched Flambe, the two leopards went into a frenzy of need. His blood ran so hot he expected any moment he might burst into flame. He was used to controlling his brutal sexual hunger and nothing had ever been as bad as this. He couldn’t imagine what it was like for her. She clearly didn’t have the experience he had.
At his touch, her red-golden-tipped lashes fluttered and then lifted. Her gaze met his. The natural sensuality in her shook him. He recognized several traits in her immediately— traits that guaranteed they would be compatible if he could win her trust. She was a natural submissive. He had been in that world too long not to recognize the trait when he saw it.
Submissive, to Sevastyan, didn’t mean she was less than him, or giving in to him, it meant that she knew who she was and what she wanted. She would be able to give her trust and loyalty to those she believed in. She didn’t fight unnecessarily just for the sake of fighting. Having complete control wasn’t important to her.
Clearly, Flambe was able to be at the helm of a company. Her landscaping business was thriving. She was bringing in members of other leopard subspecies from other countries in a desperate attempt to save them from extinction. She helped them to become citizens, provided an education in whatever business they wanted to learn and then set them up for success. She had to be somewhat adventurous to do any of that as well as highly intelligent.
“It is a little warm in here,” she admitted sounding distracted.
Again, her voice was husky, playing along his nerve endings. He found he wanted to spend time with her. Hours. All night. Watching her just like this. Hungry. Needy. Bordering on desperate. Looking at him with those eyes of hers. Sensual beyond belief. Filled with desire. Turning a dark green with lust as her gaze moved over his body and settled on his cock. He felt the heat of her gaze right through the material of his jeans. He didn’t attempt to hide his thick bulge from her. It was blatant. Nearly at mouth level. If she leaned forward and unzipped his trousers, she could wrap her lips around him. It would be a stretch, but just the idea of her trying sent more hot blood pounding through his veins and had his cock jerking and pulsing in anticipation. She looked as if she might just do it too, lean forward, and unzip his jeans right there. She looked mesmerized, completely focused, her leopard so close she could barely function.
He pressed the bottle of cold water with the drops of condensation on it against her neck. “Try this while I get you a cold cloth. I’ll turn on the air conditioner. I really hadn’t noticed the heat, but I tend to not really pay attention to the outside temperature much.”
He was used to keeping his expression absolutely calm at all times. He stayed in the background. He could disappear there easily with his stillness. He often appeared to be more civilized than his other cousins, even sometimes seemed to have a bit of a sense of humor. He had learned, over the years, to hide the terrible pent up rage inside of him, the rage in his leopard that refused to leave either of them and manifested itself in brutal ways — fighting or in sex clubs.
“Thank you. I’m afraid I’m not making a very good impression on you. I think my encounter this morning really shook me up more than I thought it did.”
He was very aware that his touch shook her up. His closeness. She couldn’t stop staring hungrily at the bulge in the front of his jeans. Her gaze narrowed, centered there and she even leaned forward just a small scant inch or so without being aware of it. Her tongue touched her lip, moistened it. He couldn’t move if he wanted to. His cock burned, was stretched so tight he thought he might burst.
She squirmed, trying to ease the terrible burning between her legs. He had the control of years of being a dominant. She had none. Her cat was giving her fits, raging at her in desperate hunger at the close proximity of her chosen mate. Her skin was beginning to glow. Sevastyan began to fear that her female was closer to the emergence than he first thought.
Normally, a female would come close to the surface and then retreat only to reappear a few days to a week later. Often an appearance would be so brief and elusive that a male leopard would barely catch the scent of a female. This was a very advanced appearance. Flambe’s leopard was close to emerging— too close to give him time for a real courtship.
Sevastyan regretted that. He would have to change his plans. She needed care, especially with the kind of lifestyle she would be entering with him. He was Mitya’s bodyguard and he always would be. They lived a dangerous life. There was no question about that. He would expect his wife, his mate, to live that life with him. He had no idea how being his wife would affect her business and she obviously loved her business.
Then there was the fact that he needed his woman to give him sex anyway he liked it. Anywhere he wanted it. He knew that was the results of his screwed-up upbringing in the lair from hell. Having a woman for his own didn’t make that need go away as he hoped it might. He found the hunger grew deeper in him just being close to her. That was something else she would have to live with as well.
“You’ve made an impression on me, Flambe. More than any other woman, I’ve ever met. I knew when I did the research on your company with you at the helm, that I wanted you to continue where your father had left off here on the property. After having met you, I’m very interested in the woman.”
He wanted to make that plain. No beating around the bush. His body was saying it for him, but he was determined that she understand he wanted her for herself. “There is quite a lot about you on the internet and I read it all.” He made his confession hoping he didn’t sound worse than the man who had been stalking her.
Her gaze jumped back up to his. She licked her lips again and then her gaze drifted down to his groin as if she couldn’t help herself. One hand moved up to her hairline where the bump was hidden as if it was hurting her.
“I tried to do research on you,” She made it a confession, but her voice sounded a little vague, as if her mind was drifting along with her gaze.
“There wasn’t much to find. There was hardly anything in fact. A little more on your cousins than you. I think your name was mentioned once.”
Sevastyan forced himself to walk away from her, over to the switch that controlled the air conditioner. It was on the wall beside the bank of windows. As he crossed to the wall, just above their heads, strobes went off along the upper corners of the room letting him know that several people had tripped alarms set in the ground leading up to the house.