THE French Quarter, the nerve center of downtown New Orleans, was overflowing with people, and yet the moment Julia hit Gravier Street, she knew she was being followed. Living in Los Angeles, always working late, taking the bus everywhere or walking home, her instincts had been tested, proven and finely honed. Just seconds after leaving the hospital, she'd felt something, sensed someone keeping pace with her, but she hadn't stopped or turned around. That was an amateur's move. One that could easily get the looker hurt or killed.

Don't ever let the bogeyman know you know he's there.

Her mother's words, back when she'd still been able to communicate, had fallen on teenage know-it-all ears. But one night after a late class, Julia had found herself on the terrifying and ill-prepared end of a mugger's switchblade. The lesson had cost her a computer, medical school books, ID, credit cards, cash and a week's worth of sleep. From that day forward, her mother's warning remained steadfast in her head.

Don't ever let the bogeyman know you know he's there until you're ready to either lead him directly into the path of a cop, you have a clear and realistic way to ditch him, or you can bring him with you into a crowd of people and make a huge goddamn stink.

The hair on the back of Julia's neck prickled and she quickened her pace, heading directly into the eye of the NOLA bar crawl.

Just a few blocks to the hotel.

As the sound of cool jazz, and the scents of body odor, grilling crawfish and stale beer came at her on the warm air, her eyes searched the massive crowd for a cop, but came up empty.

What did he want? she wondered, the concentrated sounds of revelry enveloping her, driving up her adrenaline, making her senses incredibly keen. Didn't he know she had nothing?

Shit. Less than nothing?

Didn't he know she'd already been robbed this week? Of a life, a future, a promise?

The noise grew in strength, and the crowd thickened. Instead of fear, anger started to stir within her. Anger that had been festering in her chest, waiting, squeezing, aching to find release. Maybe this was it. The time.

The bogeyman.

It was in that moment she felt a hand brush her waist. Her pulse jerked in her blood and instinct fed her already jacked-up rage. Coming to a sudden halt, she whirled around and faced the bastard who had just dared to touch her.

Eyes the color of melted gold met her.

Julia froze where she stood, her anger leaking from her gut like a punctured balloon. All she could do was stare at the creature before her. He was stunning, incredible, unlike anything she had ever seen before. Around her, the crowd noise dissipated to a dull hum, but she barely noticed. Her gaze was slowly traveling the length of him, taking in his predatory stance and powerful muscle and tanned skin. He wore plain clothes; jeans and a black T-shirt with scuffed combat boots. But he was the furthest thing from plain she'd ever seen. Far over six feet tall with broad shoulders and long, ink-black hair that was tied back at his neck. A few stray pieces had escaped and were licking at the ridges of his sharply drawn features. His face was shockingly handsome, tan and smooth, except for the two healed scars near his right ear and mouth. Her nails scraped against her palms as she thought about running her index finger over the small white lines.

A low growl sounded, but Julia didn't register where the noise was coming from. Her head was far too fuzzy, and her skin felt uncomfortably warm. It was only when a heavily muscled arm snaked around her waist and pulled her close that she snapped out of the haze enveloping her.

"I like the way you look at me," he said, his voice a dark, sensual rumble. "For once, I am the prey."

His words and the feel of his breath against her face turned her legs to rubber. What the hell was going on here? What was wrong with her that she was reacting like this? She brought her hands to his chest and pushed like hell, but he didn't budge.

"You don't have to be afraid of me," he said, his eyes cutting away for a moment to check their surroundings. "I would never hurt you."

The man's dark, erotic scent rushed into Julia's nostrils and she whimpered. Where were her guts? Why wasn't she screaming in terror? That coveted ability she thought she possessed, the one where she kept her shit together in the face of danger, lay completely out of her reach as his golden eyes, now flecked with blue and gray, returned to hers and all but urged her to relinquish her very soul to him.

Her mind raced, her feet were rooted to the ground, the drunk New Orleans crowd just continued to party around them, and instead of wanting to knee him in the balls and run, she actually wanted to move closer, nuzzle her face against the steely wall of his chest.

His lips curved into a sexy smile, those small white scars calling out to her as he spoke. "I understand Raphael's need for his human woman now."


Human woman?

The words snaked through Julia's brain, tugging at her rational thought, waking her fear center. Oh shit. Her pulse jumped in her throat and she swallowed. For the first time since she'd laid eyes on this man, she found her voice.

"Let me go," she whispered.

The gold in his incredible eyes receded for a moment and black irises emerged.

Adrenaline pumping, she eased back from him. "Let me go," she said again, far more firmly this time. Her heartbeat was so loud now she heard it in her ears. "I'll scream. I'll scream so goddamn loud the cops will be on you in a second."

The man's face fell. He looked completely taken aback by her words, maybe even offended. But he didn't let her go. "There's no reason to be afraid, Doctor Cabot."

Julia's insides went cold with terror. He knows who I am. How does he know who I am?

She started to struggle, panic causing her skin to prickle. "Why are you following me? What do you want?"

"I was sent to find you."

Sent? "By who?" she demanded, trying to get her arm free, her knee, anything she could use.

"You need to calm down," he urged softly, his arm tightening around her waist as, once again, he looked around, up at a few buildings, then into the crowd. "Your heart beats too fast."

Who would send someone after her? She didn't know anyone outside the hospital. She didn't have family. She didn't-

She stopped struggling and stared up at him, her mouth dry. "Is this Gary's doing?" she said hoarsely as a group of drunk college girls stumbled past them. Oh god. That bastard. He'd told her he would hire a lawyer if she didn't go away quietly-if she tried to stake a claim to the house or any of its contents. "Are you a private detective or something? Is he actually having me followed? Because that would be both incredibly shitty of him and unnecessary since I want nothing from him."

"Gary?" The man's nostrils flared. "Is this your male?"

"My male?" she repeated with an almost hysterical laugh. "Gary was my boyfriend until I found him in our bed, balls-deep in one of my nurses. Or didn't he tell you that part?"

Dark brows lifted over those extraordinary eyes.

"You can tell that jackass that there's no reason to follow me. I don't want anything from him." Her voice broke. Goddamit. She hated tears. They were worthless and made a person look weak. "Except my cat. I want my cat."

That damn cat. She missed him like crazy.

A large hand moved slowly up her back and held her possessively between the shoulder blades. "You don't wish to return to this Gary?" the man said with a slight snarl. "This male who betrayed you?"

"I'd rather eat my own hand." She gritted her teeth. "And you can tell him as soon as I'm out of the hotel and living somewhere permanent, I'll send someone to get Fangs."

"Who is Fangs?" he asked.

"My cat."

She saw a flicker of a grin on his dark, rugged face. "The female likes cats."

Before Julia could say another word, the man pressed her closer to his chest and took off into the crowd. He moved so quickly that all she saw before she passed out was a blur of city lights, and all she felt were his arms around her and air rushing over her skin.

* * *

"What the hell where you thinking?" Raphael admonished.

Pacing near the bed in the medical ward, Parish glanced up and flashed his canines at yet another Diplomat. "I did what I was sent to do."

"You were supposed to talk to her-"

"I did talk to her," Parish cut in. He continued to pace. It bothered him to look at the woman, unconscious and pale behind the white sheet. He hadn't meant for this to happen. He hadn't known she would pass out from the burst of speed he'd used to get them out of the crowd and on their way to the Wildlands. "She has quit her job and has no family. She's broken things off with a bastard male who fucked another female right in front of her." He growled softly, his cat itching to spring free and hunt down this human called Gary. "Just like a human to go sniffing around when he has something beautiful and perfect in his bed."

"Dammit, Parish." Raphael's green eyes flashed with irritation. "Gathering personal information was not the assignment. You were supposed to talk with her about Ashe and the child. You were supposed to explain our situation and our offer. Invite her to come here. Instead you snatched her off the street, rendering her unconscious in the process."

"I am a Hunter. I do not ask. When you ask, you give your prey the opportunity to say no."

Even as he said the words, Parish's gaze cut to the woman on the bed. As much as he wanted to think of her as prey, as human-as nothing at all to him-there was something inside of him that had already connected to her. She was the most beautiful female he'd ever seen. Her smooth, pale skin called to him, as did her full pink mouth. She had to wake. She must. He needed to hear her voice again, see her eyes flash in anger and heat as he held her against him.

He turned from the bed with a frustrated snarl.

"This is your fault," Raphael called to Bayon. The massive blond Hunter leaned against the doorframe, refusing to commit to entering either the medical room or the conversation. "Running off while one of our wildest takes on a human alone."

Parish quick-flashed the Suit his puma, then drew it back inside before continuing to pace. He needed air, needed his clothes off and his fur on just for a few hours. But he couldn't leave the woman.


Just her name made his body stir.

"Parish was with Michel," Bayon said. "The meet, greet and offer with the doctor was all set up. It should've gone smoothly."

Raphael hissed. "Where the hell were you?"

"I had something to take care of."

"That's not an answer, Bayon."

"It is the only answer I'm willing to give."

"Something to take care of - more like someone, right?"

Bayon's eyes narrowed. "Cage your cat before I have to."

"You were off hunting tail instead of backing up your leader!" Raphael roared.

"Enough!" Parish growled, coming to stand between the warring shifters. He would not have Julia upset, awakening to a verbal brawl in a strange room. He turned on Raphael, prowling closer to the dark blond male. "You sent the leader of the Hunters to bring back the best female baby doctor in New Orleans." He cocked his head. "And I did."

Nostrils flared, Raphael seemed to be searching for patience. "She's unconscious, Parish."

The words twisted in Parish's gut. He'd never thought about his reckless, instinctive ways before. Never felt so unsure of himself until now. "It's only for a short time. She is well. Pulse, breathing, vital signs. Our doctors have said so."

"If this gets out, if any of the Diplomats learn of this-"

"Handle it. Suit business is for you to figure out."

"You're right about that," Raphael ground out. "Go. You're done here." He knocked his chin toward Bayon and the door. "I'll make sure this doesn't become a problem."

Panic flared within Parish and his gaze cut to the bed. "But the female..."

Cold authority bled from the Suit's tone. "I'll assign someone to take care of the doctor."

"No!" The sudden rush of anger and possessiveness toward the woman surprised Parish. And Raphael too by the look on his face.

"She's going to need a guard," he said. "Like you, there are many Pantera who do not welcome humans. They're tolerant of Ashe because she carries my child, and the hope for our species. But they may not feel we need a human doctor. They might see it as an insult. When she wakes up, after I have spoken to her, explained things, and if she agrees to remain, one of the Nurturer guards will take her-"

A snarl ripped from Parish's throat.

"-Will take her to and from her quarters and make sure no harm comes to her."

Parish moved closer to the bed, blocking Julia from Raphael's view, his stance aggressive, protective.

"Ease up, Parish." Bayon stepped inside the room, moved toward his leader. "What is it? Are you losing control of your hatred for humans? We can't risk her..."

Parish ground his molars. They didn't get it. Shit, he barely understood his irrational anger and desperate need himself. But the one thing he did know was that he couldn't leave Julia.

He glanced down at the woman. Her color was coming back and beneath her pale lids, he saw movement. His chest expanded with hope. She would awaken soon, and the first face he wanted her to see was his own.

"I found her," he said softly. "I took her. She is mine."

Bayon cursed behind him.

"Yours?" Raphael said.

Parish's hand inched forward, toward her until his fingers met her elbow. As irrational and impossible as it was, he wanted to claim her, announce to both Raphael and Bayon that something had happened on the street in New Orleans when he'd pulled this woman into his arms and gazed down into her lovely face. A connection, a need, a pull he'd never imagined he'd ever feel for a female, much less a human woman. And the idea of being separated from her made not only him but his cat ache.

But he pushed back the urge. He knew such a declaration would sound insane. He would do better to claim her as a Hunter, a protector.

"To guard," he amended, his gaze moving over her face. "The doctor is mine to guard. She will live with me, have my full protection as she cares for Ashe."

Bayon started to laugh, then abruptly stopped when Parish turned and glared at him.

"You're serious? Live with you in the caves? A human female?" The blond male tossed a look at Raphael. "Presuming she actually agrees, she won't last a minute in that dank, uncivilized rock. She'll be running from us."

She won't get far.

"I will agree to you guarding her, Parish," Raphael said slowly. "But it will be somewhere with hot water and clean sheets."

There was nothing Parish wanted more in that moment then to scoop her up in his arms and take her home to his caves, but he knew Raphael's mind, knew how far to push the male when it came to protocol. And perhaps the beautiful doctor deserved a little pampering after what he'd put her through. He nodded at Raphael. "Fine. I'll bring her to Natty's."

"She may very well be afraid of you. She's not going to soften around the feline who shut down her mind and abducted her."

Parish's lip curled, but the ire was more for himself than for the Suit. "I won't be harsh with her. I won't scare her."

The male looked unconvinced. "Can you truly promise that? Your dislike of humans is legendary. And understandably so."

"She is different."

She is mine.

"She is special." Raphael came to stand beside him at the bed, his puma's face flashing momentarily from its normally controlled cage. "I cannot have this go wrong."

Parish knew exactly how important this was, for the both of them. "I give you my word. I will keep her safe and well."

Golden green eyes searched his. "All right. If the woman agrees, she is yours to protect."

The cat inside of Parish purred.

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