Excerpt: Leopard's Kiss

Excerpt: Leopard's Kiss

Book 1: Shadow Guardians

Anya Diaz felt as if invisible fingers were sliding down her spine in a sensual caress of lethal danger. Fear rippled through her, and for a brief second, she wondered if meeting this unknown contact was worth the risk. She couldn’t afford a single mistake, and she really couldn’t afford to die.

She swallowed, her mouth dry, wishing she’d ordered water instead of tequila that she’d never drink.

She feigned a look across the room, slanting a sideways glance behind her, trying to ascertain the cause of the sensation along her spine. Her breath caught when she saw a man, well over six feet, wearing a black leather trench coat, standing several yards behind her, his gaze boring into her. His dark hair was short, his blue eyes so intense it was as if they were made of pure fire. Even through his coat, she could tell he was heavily muscled, a predator more than a man. He was unshaven, his dark whiskers making shadows fall across his angular cheeks. He looked like he lived in untamed wilds beyond the reaches of civilization, a man who lived by his own rules, not the ones society tried to impress upon him. He was pure sex, deadly sin, and unmitigated danger…and he was staring at her.

Her heartrate began to escalate as his gaze dropped to her mouth, his eyes darkening as if he were imagining what she tasted like, what she would feel like against him. Desire pooled in her belly, desire that was completely out of character for her. She’d learned her lesson long ago about letting her need for a man rule her, and she never bothered to notice men anymore…but it was impossible for her to drag her gaze off him.

She felt as though his hands were gliding over her skin, touching every inch of her body as he assessed her. She shivered, trying to shake off the desire pulsing low in her belly, the need he was awakening in her, even though she’d never seen him before in her life.

He was clearly there for one reason, and that reason was her.

Except he wasn’t the person she’d come there to meet. He was all wrong…but she couldn’t stop her response to him. He walked toward her, moving with the lithe grace of a predator. As he got closer, a cold chill seemed to wrap around her, the chill of death, and danger. She stiffened, sliding her hand along her lower back for the dagger she’d hidden beneath her shirt. It was small, but she was very good with it. She’d known how to defend herself since she was three, but as he neared, doubt flickered through her. He radiated raw power, the kind that could devastate his prey without him so much as blinking.

He was a man who delivered death, she was sure of it. Her heartrate sped up as he neared, and a cold sweat broke out between her shoulder blades. She didn’t know if she could defeat him, and she didn’t have time to try. Keep walking, she urged him silently. Just keep walking.

One dark eyebrow quirked at her, and for a split second, she thought he’d heard her silent command. Then his gaze dropped to her mouth again, sending searing heat cascading through her. She caught her breath, as he raised his gaze to hers again. His expression didn’t change, and his stride didn’t falter as he walked right past her toward the bar.

She let her breath out, her hands shaking with relief as she wiped her wrist across her damp brow. The intensity of her response to him was shocking. What was going on?

He took over a seat at the bar, still staring at her. Her moment of relief fled, replaced by rising tension. He wasn’t even trying to hide the way he was watching her. His gaze was locked on her, watching and assessing her every move. The way he’d eased onto the edge of the bar stool, relaxed yet primed to react in a split second, made him look like a wild panther, a predator so agile and lethal that he could take her out in a single leap. He was too dangerous to be handsome, and too elusive to be appealing, and yet, there was something about him that was drawing her in. Something compelling. Something…

Yes. You want me.

A deep, darkly seductive male voice rolled through her mind, making her belly clench with desire. Had he just spoken in her mind? The voice was sensual, rough, erotic, with a hint of accented culture that made her think of black tie dinners and foreign royalty instead of the dangerous predator sitting so still on his perch.

Don’t hold back. His voice slid through her mind again, a sensual caress that made her belly tighten with desire. Think about kissing me. Think about my hands sliding over your naked skin—

“Stop it.” She glared fiercely at him. The satisfied gleam in his eyes told her that it was him in her head. “I didn’t invite you in there. Get out.”

He didn’t smile, and he didn’t back off. What’s your darkest fantasy? Handcuffs? A threesome? A little pain… As he spoke, images of each scenario flashed through her mind. Her naked, silken ties around her wrists—

“No.” She jerked her gaze away from him, breaking the connection. She fisted her hands, quickly weaving safeguards in her mind, invisible walls that encased every last thought, every feeling, every bit of herself that wasn’t physical. Within a millisecond, he was out of her mind. Her lungs expanded in a sudden relief as the sensual sensation of being caressed along her spine vanished. Had it been his touch she’d been feeling on her back? Some metaphysical extension of his mind that felt like a real caress and seduction? What kind of power did he carry? And why was he directing it at her?

His expression didn’t change, but he seemed to become even more still.

She met his gaze, daring him to try again.

He did.

She felt him testing her protections, feeling his way through her mind, searching for the one gap she’d missed. Anya smiled, allowing the same satisfied gleam into her eyes that he’d had in his. “I’m good,” she said. “Don’t bother.” He didn’t answer, his gaze flicking behind her.

She sensed the approach at the same moment, and she sat up more erectly in sudden anticipation, sensing that the person approaching her from behind was the one she’d come to meet. Her instructions had been not to turn around, and not to look, or the deal would be off. Someone leaned up against her seat, and a warm breath brushed over her neck.

Anya’s heart began to pound. This was it. Her chance. “Is Julia still alive?” she asked, her breath frozen in her chest as she waited for news of her best friend, her only friend, the only person still alive who mattered to her.

Fingers drifted through her hair, and lips brushed over the back of her neck. A seduction, for anyone in the bar who was bothering to watch. A charade to protect them both. “For now.” It was a woman’s voice, breathy and sensual.

Tears of relief burned in Anya’s eyes. Alive. Her best friend was alive. “How do I find her?” She slid her gaze toward the mirror behind the bar, taking a forbidden look at the woman she’d spent the last three weeks hunting down. Raven black, ultra-straight hair reached just past her shoulders, and her eyes were hidden behind dark glasses. Her lips were pale, her skin the color of a latte, and her simple outfit of a tight black tank top and fitted jeans made her look sexy, but unmemorable. Who was she? How did she know what had happened to Julia? How was she involved? She’d found the woman’s email address in Julia’s belongings, the only clue she had as to what had happened to her friend. It had taken weeks to track this woman down, and longer to convince her to meet…assuming the woman standing behind her was the same person who had answered her emails.

The man at the bar leaned forward, drawing Anya’s attention off the mirror and back to him. He was staring at her even more intensely, his gaze boring into hers as if it were a dagger that could cut out her heart. She could feel him testing her psychic defenses, trying to get back in her mind.

She jerked her gaze off him, refusing to let him distract her. She closed her eyes to cut him off, so she could focus on the woman behind her. She couldn’t afford to miss a word. “Where is Julia?”

The woman’s breath tickled her neck. “You must go to the warehouse on the corner of Hartford and—”

Fingers closed around her wrist. Anya’s eyes snapped open as she was jerked off her feet and across the floor. She slammed into the hard body of the man at the bar, and his arms locked around her. He stared down into her eyes. No longer were his eyes blue. They had shifted into dark, bottomless pits of death…and something else. Something more dangerous. Something more personal.

“I love you,” he said, his whisper rolling through her, making sudden tears fill her eyes as longing swept over her. To be loved, to be held like she mattered, to be—

He kissed her.

Not just a kiss.

A kiss so tender, so beautiful, so seductive that it made her heart cry for more. Never had she been kissed like that. Ever. His lips were decadently soft, his tongue a sensual dance of promise and tenderness, his hands on her hips like he was her shield against the world. He was pure male, offering himself to her as her protector, her lover, the man who would never let her be alone again.

Her soul cried out for his kiss and his declarations with an intensity so strong that it made her heart ache with longing. The pain jerked her back into her own mind just enough for her to realize that something was wrong, terribly wrong. He was in her mind again, reeling her in, offering her the words and emotions that she burned for, as if he knew exactly what triggers would ensnare her. He was manipulating her, drawing her into his kiss…with a sinking heart, she realized suddenly that his kiss was his weapon, wielded with the skillful, ruthless finesse of a well-practiced assassin Why had he come for her? Sudden fear pulsed through her, and she knew it had to be because of Julia. Was he trying to keep her from talking to the woman? Or was he there to kill her?

She was in danger. Sudden, dire danger from him. She had to break his hold on her. She had to talk to the woman. She had to find Julia. She shoved at his chest, trying to raise her mental shields and boot him out of her mind—

He deepened the kiss, a searing hot kiss that seemed to ignite her very soul. His lips were hot and sensual, his kiss deep and intoxicating, sending desire sparking through every part of her body. Yearning filled her, a desperate need for him, for his kiss, for his touch, for everything he could offer her.

In the deep recesses of her mind, she knew it was wrong. She knew what she felt was unnatural, but the realization was faint, fading, too weak for her to grasp. He tunneled his hands through her hair, angling her head as he deepened the kiss, drawing her away from her mission and into his spell.

She couldn’t stop herself from responding to his seduction. Her soul was crying out for him. She could sense the danger he presented. She could feel the emptiness of his soul. She knew that his whispers of love were lies he didn’t mean. But it didn’t matter. Something about him called to her, something far deeper than the seduction he was weaving in her mind.

She needed to stab him.

She needed to run.

But she couldn’t.

She simply wanted him.

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