Timur Amurov cursed under his breath, using his native language, something his brother—and boss—strictly forbade. Striding from the town car with its tinted windows and black paint, he moved easily through those walking on the sidewalk. His trench coat swirled around his ankles, the inner lining filled with many loops to hide the weapons he carried.
People moved out of his way. It was the set of his wide shoulders, the scars on his face, his expressionless mask, the threat in his cold, dead eyes. He saw their reactions and he knew exactly what they would do—step aside for him—so he never broke or deviated from his pace. He looked dangerous because he was dangerous. He looked like a man who would kill—and he was.
He didn’t pretend to be anything other than who he was. A shifter. A bodyguard. A weapon sent out when it was deemed necessary. If he showed up at someone’s door, they weren’t going to see another sunrise. Yeah. He looked the part because that was exactly who he was. A stone-cold killer, a legacy given to him by his father. And Grandfather. And uncles. There was no hiding the truth, not even from himself, and he didn’t care to. Life had handed him a shit deck of cards, but he was playing his hand until he couldn’t take it anymore and then he would go out his way.
He didn’t let many people under his guard. First and foremost was Fyodor, his older brother. Fyodor had risked everything to save him and his cousin Gorya, a man brought up with them in their sick, twisted environment. Timur and Gorya had taken the position of bodyguards to Fyodor, but his brother just refused to stay out of harm’s way. Fyodor was the head of a large territory and may as well have gone around with a large target painted on his back. No matter what security measures Timur and his security team took, Fyodor seemed to just ignore them.
In his defense, Fyodor had been a bodyguard, a soldier, long before he had ascended to the throne, but Timur considered that he should know how difficult it was to guard and keep safe a man who ignored every security protocol.
He loved his brother. Not that they talked of such things. That had been forbidden growing up. They been taught never to feel affection for anyone—especially a woman. Fyodor’s wife, Evangeline, owned and operated a bakery in San Antonio and that meant Fyodor worked out of it sometimes. Most times. He had an office in the back. And despite their upbringing, Fyodor made no bones about loving his wife. No bones about showing it, either. The thing was, Timur loved her too. He loved her as a sister, but couldn’t express it. A childhood of savage beatings had seen to that.
Timur yanked open the glass door to the bakery. He’d had the door replaced with bullet proof glass, along with the banks of windows that made up the shop’s storefront. Evangeline looked up quickly and sent him a smile. His heart contracted. She was sweet. Beautiful. Perfect for his brother. More, she kept his brother’s leopard from trying to break loose to hunt and kill. His own leopard raked and clawed, angry, violent, moody as hell.
“Everythin’ all right, Timur?” Evangeline’s little Louisiana accent always made him feel warm, like he’d come home. Her smile began to fade when he didn’t return the smile.
Hell no, nothing was all right. His fucked-up brother was so smitten with this woman that he risked his life—and hers—every damn day. He kept that to himself. Fyodor wouldn’t want him upsetting Evangeline, nor did he want to.
He gave her a curt nod as he moved across the floor, checking every table as he made his way to the restrooms. He scanned them quickly, around the legs, under the tabletop to ensure no incendiary device or explosives had been placed there.
Evangeline was being insistent. What was he going to say? Fyodor had received more death threats? That was a common enough occurrence. However, this particular threat he was taking seriously, but his brother wasn’t—as usual. Timur knew they’d taken too many chances and sooner or later their luck was going to run out. His gut—never to be ignored—told him their luck was long gone and this time the threat was very real.
“Make me a double latte.”
“A double latte?” She was clearly shocked.
He needed the caffeine. He needed her busy. He gave her another curt nod and shoved open the men’s restroom door. He checked it carefully, every stall, making certain his brother was safe from any assassin and then he checked the women’s room. The moment he put his hand on the door to push it open, he knew, by the way his leopard went crazy, that it was occupied. He didn’t care. He wasn’t there to cater to anyone’s sensibilities. He was there to make certain Fyodor wasn’t murdered.
She stood in front of the mirror, lipstick in her hand and her eyes went wide when he strode in. Her eyes caught him first thing. They were almost too big for her face. A very light brown, amber really, like a fine whiskey one sipped at night when you just wanted to lay it all down. The amber was ringed with very thick, dark lashes, making her eyes stand out. Those lashes feathered down in long sweeps, curling at the ends.
She turned toward him, lipstick held slightly in front of her as if that could stop him if he came at her. He knew he was intimidating. He was tall, wide shoulders and a thick chest. Ropes of muscle rippled along his arms, back, chest and down his abdomen. His heart thudded unexpectedly. Hard. An ache he’d never experienced.
She was beautiful. He could see her front, those breasts pushing at her thin tank. The small, tucked in waist that wasn’t in the least hidden by her shirt. She had hips and a very nice ass, which he’d noticed the moment he walked in. She filled those soft blue jeans to perfection. He kept walking right past her and yanked open each of the stall doors. It wouldn’t have mattered to him had they been locked. He still would have made the inspection. Fortunately, they were all empty, she was the only occupant in the room.
When he stepped past her to get to the stalls, he inhaled instinctively. She smelled faintly of grapefruit and fresh cut cypress. Who smelled like that? Evidently, he liked it, or more importantly, his leopard did. Usually, if he got too close to a human being, male or female, his leopard raged, wanting to kill. Needing to draw blood. For the first time, the cat went entirely quiet. That never happened. As in—never. Even when he was close to Evangeline and his leopard settled, the cat was never like this. Quiet. Almost purring.
“You are?” He demanded. Shit. There was no denying his Russian accent or his growl. Both came out overly strong.
He doubted if the top of her head came up to the middle of his chest, but she narrowed her eyes at him in what, he suspected, was supposed to be a scary look.
“I’m in the women’s bathroom which is supposed to be private to women.”
Sass. The woman had sass in abundance. Stupidity as well. He stepped closer to her, close enough that the tips of her breasts brushed his abs. She had to tilt her head all the way back to look up at him.
“You don’t fuck with a man like me,” he advised.
She nodded. “No, I won’t. Not ever. Thanks for the advice.”
Her voice was even enough, but she was totally fucking with him now, using his own words against him. He had to hand it to her, she kept a straight face and even managed wide-eyed innocence.
God help him, his body chose that moment to betray him. His physical reaction to her was intense. His cock lengthened and grew into a monster, roaring at him just the way his leopard always did, painful now. He didn’t dare step forward or back. She had to feel it. There was no hiding it and he kept his expression blank, but he did a hell of a lot of inward cursing and he used his own language too. Never once in his life had he had such a problem. Now, of all times, his body decided to react on its own.
He took a breath and resisted the idea of patting her down. By now, Fyodor was going to be restless. He wanted to see his woman and he would just...
“Is there a problem, Timur?” His brother’s voice came smooth over the tiny radio.
Looking straight into her eyes, Timur answered. “No problem. Give me a minute.” His men were up on rooftops, watching over the car and keeping Fyodor safe while he checked out the interior of the bakery.
He was met with silence. That could mean anything. Fyodor might decide to, for once, not give Timur any shit and stay in the car, or he would just come striding in. In any case, he had to get away from the close proximity of the woman. She was wreaking havoc with him and his leopard. For once, instead of demanding blood, his cat was acting weird, rolling around and practically purring. It was not only annoying, but throwing him off his game.
“Tell me your name.”
“You made that up.”
“You’re just the nicest man I’ve ever met.” Sarcasm dripped from her voice. “If you don’t like it, you’ll have to take it up with my parents. Unfortunately, they’re both deceased, so you might have a little trouble finding them.”
She pushed past him and he let her go. She had hair. Lots of it. It was thick and wild, a light blonde that also emphasized her unusual eyes. It was only after the door closed behind her and he was left to stand alone in the cool of the ladies’ room, that he realized his leopard had been calm the entire time. Silent. There was no vicious raking. No demand for blood. Not even when his body had touched her body. For the first time in years he knew of respite from his cat’s constant fury. But, the minute the woman was out of his sight, his leopard reacted, going insane, fighting for control.
This was what Fyodor had found with Evangeline. She tamed the beast in him just by her close proximity. Timur refused to allow his heart to accelerate, or the adrenaline to be released into his blood stream. Just because, for a few short minutes, his leopard hadn’t clawed for freedom and blood, didn’t mean this woman would do for him what Evangeline did for Fyodor.
Abruptly he turned and followed her out. She was walking across the shop floor, straight to the counter. The way she moved in her jeans was a work of art. His heart did a funny stutter as he watched her talk to Evangeline for a moment and then she stepped behind the counter.
“Evangeline?” It was a demand. Nothing less. She couldn’t hire someone, as she clearly had done, without following protocol.
Evangeline tried to win in a stare down and it wasn’t happening. She sighed and came out from behind the counter to catch his arm and guide him across the room, presumably out of earshot, although the bakery wasn’t that large and he figured whatever she said was going to be overheard.
“I know. I’m sorry, Timur, but she needed a job and she has experience. I can’t keep having your men, who break my things, try to pretend they’re baristas. They aren’t. I know why you want them in the shop, but they’re losing me customers. She’s fast, knows her drinks, remembers customers’ names and she doesn’t glare at them, or intimidate them in any way.”
“Damn it, Evangeline. She could be anyone. What did she do? Just wander in off the street?”
“That’s how most people come in. And she is someone,” Evangeline sounded more defiant than sorry. “I need the help.”
“You could have told us and we’d have found you someone. Fuck. Her name is a joke. Ashe Bronte? That’s ridiculous. No one is named that. Maybe a fucking porn star.”
“Keep making fun of my name and every time you order a drink, I’m going to put something in it you aren’t going to like,” Ashe muttered under her breath.
She said it soft enough he knew she didn’t think he could hear. He hadn’t bothered to speak that low, but still, she had good hearing. Her jeans were tight enough that he could see she wasn’t hiding a weapon, but her breasts were generous enough that she might conceal a knife. A garrote could be sewn into clothing and she wore boots that had room for a gun.
“That isn’t very nice, Timur,” Evangeline pointed out. She lowered her voice even more. “Is she a porn star? Have you seen her in movies? She gorgeous enough.”
“How the fuck would I know? You think I spend my time looking at porn movies and jacking off? Why is it that I always get into very inappropriate conversations with you? Sweet God in heaven, woman, you’re the bane of my life.”
Abruptly he spun around and hurried out of the shop, swearing again under his breath when Evangeline’s soft laughter followed him. He looked right and left, and then studied the roof tops before he opened the door to allow his brother out onto the sidewalk. The moment he did, Gorya slid out and flanked Fyodor, covering his back. They walked in step and Timur noted that Fyodor was getting used to having bodyguards. He was much more in sync with them then he had been.
They’d already gone through an attack on their family. Evangeline had been targeted. Mitya, a cousin, had been badly wounded when those targeting her, tried to kill Fyodor. Timur knew Fyodor felt responsible for that. He had been a little more cooperative ever since. All of them knew it was a matter of time before the real enemy discovered where they were—hiding out in the open.
Fyodor had been living as Alonzo Massi, but after the attack that had nearly killed Mitya, he took his real name back. Timur was grateful for that. He was Russian and proud of who he was, but he was also a bodyguard and chances were, by taking his real identity back, Fyodor was going to have some serious enemies coming after him, they would be coming for all of them.
Timur opened the door for his brother, but stepped inside while doing so. He wanted to keep an eye on the newcomer. If she went for a weapon, she was dead. The idea of killing her didn’t sit well with him and he kept his body between the new barista and Fyodor at all times. It was easy enough when Fyodor had eyes only for Evangeline.
She came to him immediately, no hesitation. Timur knew better than to look at them. He kept his gaze sweeping the sidewalks through the glass and then back to the new woman. She was looking at Evangeline and Fyodor and color had swept into her face.
Gorya wandered over to the counter, pretending he wanted a coffee, but clearly what he really wanted to do was flirt. Timur stepped closer to her. At once his leopard settled, curling up contentedly and leaving him the hell alone. Even so, he could feel the leopard snarling, head up alertly. He might be content to be close to the woman he dubbed the leopard whisperer, but his cat didn’t like her near his cousin.
“Baby, who is this woman you’ve hired? You know this is dangerous, not only to us, but to what we do,” Fyodor whispered to Evangeline. “You said nothing about this woman to me, or to Timur. He’s responsible for our lives. Can you imagine how he would feel if he failed in his job and you were killed? Or I was? Evangeline, you know better than this.”
Timur nearly fell down he was so shocked. It was all he could do to keep from letting his mouth drop open. Fyodor had never once indicated to him that he knew his personal security was a nightmare for Timur, especially since the attempt on his life as well as Evangeline’s. His brother never reprimanded Evangeline, let alone in public.
He glanced up and met Ashe’s eyes. The impact was just like a bullet through his heart. That intense. That visceral. She’d heard, and Fyodor and Evangeline were clear across the room, huddled together in a little corner while Ashe was behind the counter. Her hearing was more than excellent. She looked away first, ducking her head and concentrating on making Gorya’s drink.
“I’m sorry, Fyodor,” Evangeline whispered. “I really, really need the help and none of the men you had working for me worked out. They drop things. They ruin the machines. Do you have any idea how much they cost?”
“Baby.” There was a sigh in Fyodor’s voice. “We can afford a new coffee machine. We can’t afford a new you.”
“She isn’t a threat to me. Or to you. Please, honey, just let this one go.”
Something in Evangeline’s voice alerted him. Timur moved closer to the counter. Evangeline knew Ashe. There was some connection between them. He watched as Ashe handed Gorya his coffee and took his money. Her hands appeared steady enough, but they were trembling. Just slightly, but they were trembling all the same.
Timur didn’t like puzzles, especially when it came to Fyodor’s safety. Gorya signaled to him. His cousin had been raised as a sibling with him, and they had continued to be close as adults, although if he kept flirting with Ashe, that closeness might end. Timur was a little shocked that the thought went through his head.
He joined Gorya at the table his cousin chose. It was always the same one. It was small, a table for two and it was positioned so that Gorya had his back protected, and yet could see the front door, the sidewalks through the window, and still keep the counter in sight. Rather than take the chair opposite him that would put his back to the wall, Timur toed one around so he was straddling it, facing the door as well.
“She’s scared,” Gorya mouthed the words around his coffee cup. “My leopard went quiet, just the way it does when Evangeline is close.”
“Maybe it’s Evangeline,” Timur pointed out, but he knew it wasn’t. He knew it was Ashe. His leopard was practically purring.
“She has to be leopard.”
Timur had to agree with that and if they were both suspicious, that meant she was close to the emerging—a time when the female leopard’s cycle and the woman’s cycle synchronized together. “Where’s she from?”
Gorya shrugged. “I asked, but she didn’t answer. She didn’t answer any of my questions.”
The bakery was beginning to fill up. Fyodor slipped behind the counter to the back room he used as his office. Gorya went with him. They took turns, one up front, one in the back. Two more patrolled the alley behind the bakery and two were on the front walkway. One other was on the roof above the shop and another was across the street on the roof.
Timur watched Evangeline and Ashe work together. They were fast and efficient. They moved in sync as if they’d been doing so for years. They laughed occasionally, and when they did, Ashe’s laughter seemed to move through his body, teasing every one of his senses. Again, that was so unusual, that he didn’t trust it.
His cat hated everyone. The leopard had been raised in violence, just as he had been. His father lived to control the world around him. He did so through fear. He liked everyone to be afraid of him. He needed that. Timur and Gorya, a few years younger than Fyodor, had been afraid. They didn’t dare befriend anyone because their father was very likely to force them to kill that person. It didn’t matter if it was a child, a woman, or a man responsible for providing for his family, Timur’s father would laugh when he forced them to kill.
It was impossible to be with a woman. Well, not impossible, but the risk made it very difficult. When his need became too great, he’d find a willing woman in a bar, have sex with her and then leave before his raging leopard could get loose and kill her. He had talked to Fyodor and his brother had the same problem with his leopard. Gorya did as well. Timur suspected his other cousins, Mitya and Sevastyan had the same difficulties when it came to women.
The leopards had been subjected to too much violence, too many killings at a young age. Timur’s leopard had been forced to come out, to shift against Timur’s will in order to stop the brutal beatings Timur suffered at the hands of his father. The moment the leopard was out, he was forced to participate in his father’s cruel, sick games, training the cat to kill for pleasure. For blood. Human blood.
He tapped the table, watching the sidewalk. He wanted a home, just like any other man might want, but he knew that was impossible for him. Fyodor had found Evangeline, but they were still in a kind of prison and always would be. There was really no place anyone could hide anymore without being found. They had all known it was a matter of time before their crimes caught up with them. Timur wasn’t going to have a wife and children. He would never have a home or feel a woman’s touch on his skin. Not again. Not when they were hunted like animals.
“Can I get you anything?” Evangeline offered during the next lull.
He had been aware of her approach and knew she would attempt to fix things between them. He was upset with her for hiring Ashe without consulting with him. He needed a background check. He needed to know everything possible there was to know about the woman before he allowed her close to Evangeline or Fyodor. By hiring the woman herself, and then going to Fyodor, Evangeline had made certain that wasn’t going to happen.
She slipped into the seat opposite him the moment he straightened with a small shake of his head. Ashe was watching them. She held herself a little too stiff, the smile fading.
“You don’t want to do this with me right now,” Timur said, his voice gruff. He couldn’t control the rasp in his voice, the near growl. He wanted to shake some sense into her. “I’m angry with you, Evangeline.”
“I know. I’m sorry. You have every right to be.”
“Sorry doesn’t cut it. You could get my brother killed. Or, you could be killed and then what would he do? I don’t want to hear your excuses right now. We’re not in a place of privacy.”
That should tell her he had a lot to say, things she wasn’t going to like. As it was, she had winced at the lash in his voice, especially when he rightly pointed out that it was Fyodor who could pay the price for her willfullness.
“I really am sorry. It won’t happen again.”
“I’m sure it won’t. You can’t know that many women who worked with you in a coffee shop.” He kept his eyes on her face, although he really wanted to see Ashe’s reaction.
Color swept into Evangeline’s face. She glanced over her shoulder to look at Ashe.
“Don’t bother to deny it, mladshaya sestra, that would just piss me off more. I don’t like lies and you’re not very good at them.”
“I don’t want to lie to you,” Evangeline admitted. “I just can’t say anything. I’m really, really sorry, Timur, but she isn’t a threat to us at all.”
“You don’t get to make that call and you know it. When you married my brother, that right went out the window. I make the call, not you. You want your friend to stay, you come clean with me. Make this right, because if you don’t, she could disappear.”
Evangeline’s face went pale. “Timur...”
“Don’t.” He snapped the order at her, leaning across the table, staring her in the eye so she knew he meant what he said. “I’m responsible for you both. For your lives. I’ve spent a lifetime shaping myself into a weapon to ensure Fyodor’s safety. And now yours and any children you have. That’s my sole purpose in life. You don’t get exceptions. You can talk to Fyodor, insist he fire me, it won’t do you any good. I’ll still watch over you both. Come clean about your friend or send her on her way.”
The thought of Ashe leaving hurt. His cat protested with a mean snarl and a vicious swipe to his gut. That didn’t matter. He meant every word he said, and Evangeline had better take him seriously.
“I’ll talk to her. If she gives me permission, I’ll tell you everything. If she doesn’t, I’ll tell her she has to leave. I promise, Timur, you’ll either have that information by the end of the day or she’ll leave.”
Timur sat back in his chair and gave her a slight nod. She knew him well enough to know he meant what he said. His gaze was on the sidewalk outside. He noticed the two men approaching and a small sigh escaped. Cops. He knew them, they knew him. One, Jeff Myers, had been undercover as Brice Addler, and had tried to steal Evangeline out from under Fyodor’s nose. his partner who had gone by Reeve Hawkins. His real name was Ray Harding.
“I never noticed before, but you’re actually further gone than Fyodor was, aren’t you, Timur?” Evangeline said softly, compassion in her voice.
He didn’t want her sympathy. He didn’t want anything from her that might somehow change who he was because then he might not be as sharp, and his brother—or Evangeline—would pay the price for his weakness. He waved her back to work, jerking his chin toward the door. He didn’t want Ashe serving either of the cops. They’d hit on her. Both were like that and he didn’t want the woman telling them a single thing about his family.
Jeff strolled in like he owned the shop, his partner, Ray, beside him, both in plain clothes. Timur kept his mask in place as they stared at him. It was impossible for either cop to win in a stare-down and they knew it from experience, so they didn’t try. They barely acknowledged his existence before they were at the counter, flirting outrageously with Evangeline.
Evangeline had wisely told Ashe to take a break in the back room. That allowed Timur to breathe easier. The last thing he wanted was for his leopard to make him any edgier or moodier than he felt the moment he saw the cops. They didn’t like him and he sure as hell didn’t like them.
He kept his gaze on the street, but always had the cops in his vision. Hopefully, Gorya was standing in front of the door to Fyodor’s office just in case Ashe took it in her head to be friendly and go talk to his brother, or worse, decide this was a great time to kill him, if she was an assassin. He nearly groaned aloud. Now, he was worried.
“Keep your eyes on the new girl, Gorya,” he ordered, talking softly into his radio.
“Eyes are on her,” Gorya confirmed with a little too much enthusiasm for Timur’s liking.
“I said eyes, not hands or mouth or any other part of your anatomy that I might have to cut off if you disobey that very direct order.”
Gorya’s laughter was offensive. Not because Timur didn’t understand it, but because his attraction to Evangeline’s friend burned through his body, making him so uncomfortable, he felt surly and edgy even without the help of his leopard. He didn’t trust himself to address Jeff and Ray and the way they flirted with Evangeline. Another time, he might have gotten up and broken the flirt-fest up, but right then, it was far more important to sit in his chair, legs sprawled in front of him and contemplate ways to kill them. He had already thought of at least fifteen and that was without really trying.
He breathed a sigh of relief when they left and told his leopard to calm down and stop making an ass out of himself. His leopard answered with a snarl, a show of teeth and a pithy attitude, stating that was all Timur and not him. For once, Timur knew the leopard was right. Still, that didn’t stop him from stalking to the counter and glaring at Evangeline.
“Have they seen or talked to her?” He demanded.
Evangeline didn’t pretend not to know who he was talking about. She shook her head. “Not yet. If they caught a glimpse of her when they were walking through the door before I sent her into the back, they didn’t say and I think they would have.”
“Try to keep it that way.”
She nodded abruptly and then the door between the kitchen and the main shop opened and Ashe stepped through. It was easy enough to see why her parents had given her that name. Her hair was a thick mass, colored ash and platinum with a little gold thrown in. He turned his back on her, but watched her in the mirrors he’d installed up in strategic places throughout the large room. She didn’t take her eyes off him until he was once again settled in his seat. There was some satisfaction in that.
The next hour saw a steady stream of customers. He took the opportunity to walk around, stretching his legs, keeping his muscles loose. He knew they needed a larger security force around Fyodor, but he wanted leopards and there were only so many. Shifters were faster and if push came to shove, they could call on their animal counterpart to aid them. Every sense was far more acute and a leopard sensed danger and knew when other leopards were close—with one exception—female leopards.
He sank back into his chair, his gaze fixed on Ashe. She was making drinks and handing out pastries. There was always a smile on her face, but he didn’t quite believe it. Each time the little bell tinkled over the entrance, signaling another customer, her eyes jumped to the door. She was worried. Scared. That presented an entirely new set of dangers.
If she was leopard, and he was certain she was, and her leopard hadn’t emerged, it would be like his uncles to send her in to assassinate Fyodor. His uncles were reputed to be even crueler and much more vicious than Timur’s father had been and they had sworn to see Fyodor dead for killing their brother. It didn’t matter to them that the kill was justified.
Fyodor had walked in on a bloodbath. Their father had already brutally murdered their mother and was beating Timur and Gorya to death because the two boys had tried to stop him. Fyodor had killed him and then gone after the senior members of his father’s lair in order to stop them from killing the women. Now, their uncles were out for their blood. They’d put bounties on their nephews’ heads and now that Fyodor and his brother were no longer hiding behind false identities, the assassins would come to collect. It would make sense to send a female.
Timur studied Ashe as she worked. She was fast. Really fast. Sometimes he thought she would make a mistake, but she never did. Her handoff was smooth, and she moved with a fluid grace that seemed too honed to be entirely natural. As if she were in complete control of every muscle, every movement.
He really wanted to yell at Evangeline. Ashe made no sense at all, but she was strikingly beautiful. The more he looked at her, the more he thought so. She was model material, but then she didn’t have the build, not being tall. Her skin looked so soft he found himself wanting an excuse to touch her, just to see if it was as soft as it appeared.
She had tied her hair in some messy knot that kept falling out and she’d have to redo it. That told him she hadn’t been working in the food service industry in a while, otherwise she wouldn’t have forgotten to wear her hair back or covered. Instead, she kept pulling her hair up into that silly mess that had him thinking about bedrooms. Or sex. Or both. The bedroom didn’t matter nearly as much as the sex.
The fact that her hair was so thick even though it was blonde, told him the odds that she was leopard were even higher. Leopards tended to have a lot of hair no matter what the color. The way she moved was an indicator as well. She suddenly looked up and stared right into his eyes. She caught up the coffee pot and came out from behind the safety of the counter, stomping right toward him. Not a good move.
“Stop staring at me,” she hissed as she poured coffee into his cup. “I mean it. You’re making me uncomfortable. I get that you’re royally pissed that I’m working here. I get why now that I’ve seen Evangeline’s husband, but I need the work, so please just back off.”
He caught her wrist as she turned away. Very gently he removed he coffee pot from her hand and set it on the table, just out of her reach. The last thing he wanted was for her to dump scalding hot coffee in his lap and he had the feeling that not only was she capable of it, she’d been considering it. He kept possession of her wrist. “You’re better suited to a bodyguard than a barista.”
“Why do you say that?”
Her voice was strained. She sounded smooth, but he had a good ear and caught the stressed notes she tried to hide.
“The way you move. You’re trained to protect yourself, and I suspect, others.”
“Maybe so, but I’m not in that line of work. I’m good at this and I need the job.”
“How do you know Evangeline?”
“I’m asking you.”
She sighed and glanced toward the counter. “I have to work. We’re getting busy again. I know you need answers. Maybe after work I could meet you somewhere.”
“I work until late. Where do you live?”
Timur sighed. “I’m going to find out anyway. Just fucking tell me.”
“I’m living in Evangeline’s house. The one she used to live in.”
He was glad she didn’t argue about telling him where she lived. Tonight, he’d be with her. Alone. He even liked the idea, which was dangerous to both of them. He let go of her. She immediately rubbed her wrist as if he’d hurt her—or she was trying to get the feel of him off her skin.
The entire time she’d been close, his leopard had been acting like a complete fool, rolling around and making absurd rumbling noises which, fortunately, no one could hear but him. He ran his finger down her arm to her hand and then indicated the coffee pot. “You forgot something.”
Soft color raced up her neck to her face. She caught up the glass pot without another word and hurried back to the safety of the counter.
His heart settled to normal again and he pressed his hand over his chest while he breathed away the hard-on he hadn’t been able to control and, thankfully, she hadn’t seen. Or at least he thought she hadn’t. She’d kept her gaze studiously away from that portion of his anatomy. It had been far too many years since he had problems controlling his body. He had to put it down to his leopard and the fact that a potential mate was in close proximity.
Did she know? Most women didn’t have a clue about their leopards, not until the emergence. Evangeline had known. She had a relationship with her leopard almost since infancy. If Ashe didn’t know, then her leopard would, as it rose, make her inclined to flirt with every man coming near her, including Gorya and the two clowns that passed for cops. That didn’t sit well with him.
A man came down the sidewalk, passed the shop, barely glancing in. There was nothing about him to catch Timur’s interest, but everything in him went still. His leopard snarled and came to attention. He lifted his coffee cup to his lips and kept his eyes on the man dressed in a dark suit. The man paused just at the edge of the window, glanced at his watch and turned around to go back the way he’d come. As he did so, he took a long look through the glass.
Timur cursed inwardly. He should have had that glass tinted more. The shop was busy, and there were a lot of customers, with two deep by the counter. He watched as the man hesitated by the door and then went on past it.
Man in dark suit. You on him? Tall, dark glasses, mirrored.
Got him, Boss, Trey Sinclair said. He was on the roof across the street. Timur had two more of his security patrolling the streets and another, on the roof of the bakery. Right in the crosshairs.
What about you, Jeremiah, can you follow him without getting tagged? This is important. You’re not out in the jungle. He added the last because the kid needed to be a little humbler and a lot more vigilant. He was young and eager and he wanted Timur to take notice of him. Timur didn’t like sending the kid into dangerous situations and he had a gut feeling, this man was very dangerous.
No problem, Boss.
Cocky little son of a bitch, you listen to me. That man will kill you if he spots you. Don’t fuck up. You do, there aren’t any second chances.
There was a small silence. Jeremiah might be cocky and full of attitude, but he’d learned that when one of them said something, it was worth listening. They’d grown up surrounded by danger, by vicious monsters, he hadn’t. They had a built-in radar for danger, Jeremiah was just beginning to hone his skills.
I hear you, Timur. I’ll be doubly careful.
I’d rather you lose him than get too close.
Timur could only hope the kid did, because, even with the target out of sight, every warning bell he had was shrieking at him.