Legend of the Pantera

To most people the Pantera, a mystical race of puma shifters who live in the depths of the Louisiana swamps, have become little more than a legend.

It was rumored that in the ancient past twin sisters, born of magic, had created a sacred land and claimed it as their own. From that land came creatures who were neither human or animal, but a mixture of the two.

They became faster and stronger than normal humans. Their senses were hyper-acute. And when surrounded by the magic of the Wildlands they were capable of shifting into pumas.

It was also whispered that they possessed other gifts. Telepathy, witchcraft, immortality and the ability to produce a musk that could enthrall mere mortals.

Mothers warned young girls never to roam alone near the swamps, convinced that they would be snatched by the Pantera, while young men were trained to avoid hunting anywhere near the protected Wildlands.

Not that the warnings were always successful.

What girl didn't dream of being seduced by a gorgeous, mysterious stranger? And what young man didn't want to try his skill against the most lethal predators?

As the years passed, however, the sightings of the Pantera became so rare that the rumors faded to myths.

Most believed the species had become extinct.

Sadly, they weren't entirely mistaken...


SLUT. Whore.

Worthless piece of white trash.

The words were still ringing in Ashe Pascal's ears as the door to the trailer slammed behind her.

She grimaced as she gathered her clothes that littered the front porch and headed for her piece-of-shit clunker that was parked near the curb.

For once the drunken insults flung by her mother managed to hit a nerve.

Not that she was a whore. It wasn't like she'd gotten paid for spreading her legs, was it?

Hell no, she'd spread them for free.

Or at least she assumed she had.

How else could she be pregnant? Immaculate conceptions might happen in the good book, but in the bayous of southern Louisiana women got knocked-up the good old-fashioned way.

A damned shame she couldn't remember what happened.

If she had to pay the piper she should at least have enjoyed the dance.

With a shake of her head, she yanked open the door of her car and tossed her clothes on the cracked leather seat before climbing behind the driver's wheel.

Shoving her key into the ignition, she breathed out a sigh of relief as the engine rattled to weary life. The way her pissy luck was running she'd expected the battery to be dead. Again.

She supposed there was an irony in the fact that she'd promised herself that she would start looking for a new car just as soon as she'd paid off her mother's latest bar tab. She'd even driven to the bar to tell the owner that she was done being her mother's personal banker.

And that's when the trouble had started.

Barely aware that she'd shoved her car in gear, Ashe absently drove through the small town that hovered on the edge of the bayou, pulling to a halt across the street from the only bar in town.

The two story wooden building with a tin roof had at one time been painted a cheery yellow, but over the years it'd faded to a miserable mustard, with heavy green shutters that could offer protection during hurricane season. The entire structure was built on heavy stilts to keep the main floor off the ground. A necessary precaution in this area. The danger of flooding was a hundred percent, which no doubt explained why less than a few hundred people lived in the town.

She gave a humorless laugh at the neon sign that blinked in the thickening gloom.

'The Cougar's Den'

It sounded like a hang-out for the local football team, or maybe a taxidermist's shop.

Instead it was filled with a motley crew who she assumed came in from the oil fields, the shrimp boats and the dark shadows of the swamps. And of course, locals like her mother who were so desperate for a drink they were willing to ignore the thick air of aggression that filled the entire building.

The rest of the town avoided the place like the plague.

Including the pack of stray dogs that terrorized the rest of the town.

The Cougar's Den was a cesspit of danger.

Her grim thoughts were abruptly interrupted as the humid spring breeze swept through her open window, tugging at her long, black curls and caressing her skin that remained a pale ivory no matter how much sun she got. Her eyes, as dark as a midnight sky, narrowed.

There was something in the breeze.

Something beyond the hint of azaleas, and newly bloomed roses from Old Lady La Vaux's garden, and even the more distant smell of rotting vegetation that wafted from the swamps.

What the hell was that scent?

Not cologne, but...musk.

Yes. That's what it was. A rich, intoxicating male musk.

Without warning, a flash of memory seared through her brain.

She was in the cramped barroom, trying to ignore the flat, unfriendly glares from the large group of men who were gathered around the pool tables at the back of the darkly paneled room.

One in particular had separated himself from the pack, staring at her as if she were a creature from another planet.

He was big. Six foot two at least. And powerful, with sleek, chiseled muscles beneath his tight white tee and black jeans.

In the dim light he looked like some exotic god.

His shoulder-length hair was thick and shimmered like molten gold in the dim light. His features were lean, stunningly beautiful. And his eyes...

Words couldn't capture their beauty.

They were the same gold as his hair, but flecked with hints of jade and in the darkness they glowed with an inner light.

Abruptly her memory took a leap forward.

She was no longer in the public room, but lying on a bed in a room upstairs.

It was dark and that aromatic male musk saturated the air.

A low, male voice whispered in her ear.

"You're so wet, ma chere. Do you want me to lick your cream?"

She groaned, her legs parting as she felt soft kisses blaze a trail down her quivering belly.

"Raphael, please."

"Tell me what you want." A command. "Say the words."

"You." She clutched the soft quilt beneath her, her body on fire with need. It'd never been this way. Not this raw, frantic hunger that clawed through her with an addictive force. "I want you."

There was a low chuckle and she gasped at the feel of his hot breath against the sensitive skin of her inner thigh.

"Where do you want me?" he teased. "Here?" The stroke of a rough tongue through her wet slit.

Sucking a sharp breath, Ashe shattered the strange vision.

Was the memory real? Or just her mind trying to sugarcoat the hideous truth?

With a low cry, she shoved the car back into gear and stomped her foot down on the accelerator.

There were no answers here.

What she needed was a hot meal and somewhere to sleep for the night.

Tomorrow she would worry about how she was going to take care of a baby when she could barely take care of herself.

* * *

Standing in the shadows beneath the bar, Raphael strained against the large man who kept him from charging after the sorry excuse for a car currently speeding away.

"Release me," he growled, his eyes glowing with a luminous gold in the darkness.

"Goddammit, Raphael." Bayon shared Rafael's golden good looks although his hair was a shade paler and his eyes held more green. He was also built on bulkier lines. "Leash your damned animal and listen to me."

Raphael battled through the primal instincts that had nothing to do with humanity and everything to do with raw, animal desire.

Holy hell.

Of all the Pantera, he was the one who'd had the best control over his primitive nature.

It was the reason he'd been chosen by the elders to become one of the most trusted diplomats for his people, traveling away from the Wildlands to meet in secret with various world leaders. At least that was his public persona. In truth, his primary duty was heading up his peoples' vast network of spies who infiltrated the various governments and scientific communities.

He could travel for weeks away from the reservation without being debilitated by his need to shift. And more importantly, he'd developed the ability to mimic the humans so he could function in their world.

He was still a feral feline at heart, but a feline with manners.

Now, however, he was at the mercy of savage need that thundered through his body with the force of a tsunami.

"I'm not going to tell you again," he growled. "Let me go."

Bayon leaned in until they were nose to nose. The bastard was one of the few who had the cojones to get in Raphael's grill.

"This has to be a trick," the younger warrior snapped. "We've tried for the past fifty years to discover human women who can carry our seed-"

"You don't have to remind me of our history."

And he didn't. Raphael knew better than anyone the struggles of the Pantera.

It'd started slow.

Fewer and fewer females going into heat. And those who did were unable to carry their babes to full-term.

At first the elders believed that it was the fault of the human contact with the Pantera. They shut off their borders and became increasingly isolated from the world.

When that didn't work, they began to fear it was a genetic anomaly. The Pantera had, after all, interbred for centuries.

So discreetly selecting the finest specimens of human females who agreed to become surrogates at an enormous price for their secrecy, they'd brought the women to their high-tech medical facilities. They were the rare few who realized the Pantera were more than mere myths.

The human females, however, had been unable to breed with the Pantera. Not even with the most potent fertility drugs.

So his people had no choice but to seek answers outside the Wildlands.

Keeping a low profile, a handful of Pantera scientists had covertly gained employment at various research facilities, seeking information from the humans' work on DNA.

At the same time, the 'Suits,' or Political Faction of the Pantera, had sent spies to infiltrate the various governments.

They needed to know if there was some physical change that was affecting the magic of their land.

Toxic waste. Global warming. Bio-chemical warfare.

It could be accidental or deliberate sabotage, but if the humans were involved then Raphael intended to uncover the truth.

He had just been returning from his latest trip abroad when he'd stopped at The Cougar's Den, needing to blow off some steam before traveling to the Wildlands and making his latest report.

The elders weren't going to be pleased with his lack of progress.

Hell, he wasn't pleased.

The last thing he expected was to be blindsided by a human female. Or to find himself returning to the decrepit bar week after week in the hopes of spotting her again.

And now...shit.

Giving Raphael a shake, Bayon glared at him, his anger causing the temperature to spike.

"Then you realize it's impossible for that female to be pregnant with your child."

Raphael met his friend glare for glare. "Impossible or not, I know what I smelled."

"Think about it." Bayon's eyes glowed with golden power. "A strange woman just happens to stroll into a bar where the Pantera gather. She magically stirs your mating urges despite being human, and now she deliberately parks her car close enough that you were bound to pick up her scent before driving away like a madwoman." He gave Raphael another shake. "Does she have to have T R A P tattooed on her ass for you to get it?"

Raphael made a sound of frustration. His friend wasn't saying anything that Raphael hadn't already told himself.

Hell, he'd be shocked if it wasn't some sort of trick.

But until he discovered exactly what was happening, he wasn't going to let the female out of his sight.

Or out of his bed, a treacherous voice whispered in the back of his mind.

"There's one way to find out."

With a strength that caught Bayon off-guard, Raphael shoved them away and headed toward the road.

"Wait," Bayon called. "What are you going to do?"

"To find my woman and discover exactly what she has tattooed on her ass," he snarled.

"Christ, Raphael."

Focused on the rapidly fading scent, Raphael jogged away from the bar, his dark jeans and black tee allowing him to disappear among the shadows.

He expected the female to head to her house. The more respectable citizens of the small town tended to be tucked safely behind closed doors as soon as the sun went down. They might not logically believe in voodoo or ghosts or even the Pantera, but they were smart enough to know that strange creatures crawled out of the swamps at night.

No reason to become easy prey.

But instead of heading toward the wooden houses that ran in tidy rows facing the red brick schoolhouse and attached community center that doubled as a church, she turned in the opposite direction toward the town square that was framed by a handful of small shops.

At last she parked her car next to the three-story hotel that was squashed between the beauty shop and post office. Raphael stood beneath the draping branches of the weeping willow in the center of the square, watching the slender female enter through the glass door.

Did she work at the hotel?

Or was she there to meet someone?

Some man?

A low snarl rumbled through his chest, his cat twisting beneath his skin with a primeval fury.

The woman was his.

Branded by his passion and bound to him by the babe she carried in her womb.

Mine. Mine. Mine.

The words whispered through his soul as he strolled across the street to enter the cramped lobby of the hotel.

His nose wrinkled at the stench that clung to the ugly green and yellow diamond-patterned carpet and the mold that had multiplied into a thriving community behind the warped wood paneling. There was a wilted fake plant shoved in a corner and a reception desk at the back of the room. Currently a bleached-blonde woman was leaning on the desk as she flipped through a glossy magazine.

Lifting her head at his entrance, she gave a low whistle, her chubby face flushing with pleasure as her blue gaze made a slow, thorough survey of his body.

"Can I help you?" she murmured, tugging at her loose top to better display her massive rack.

Clearly the middle-aged woman thought her breasts worthy of putting on public display.

A delusional belief, but Raphael wasn't a trained diplomat just because he could travel away from the Wildlands.

With his most charming smile he strolled forward, halting near the desk so he could covertly take note of an office to the left where two small dogs were yapping at his arrival and, to the right, a back door that led to the alleyway.

"I was passing and I thought I saw a friend come in here."

The female gave her blouse another tug. "Lucky friend."

"Maybe you would recognize her. She's tall, dark-haired...beautiful."

"Oh, you mean Ashe Pascal."

Ashe. He silently tested the name. A Native American name.

Did she carry their blood?


The woman eyed him with a growing curiosity. "She just went to her room. Do you want me to give her a call?"

"That's not necessary." He shared another dazzling smile. "Is she a guest here?"

"For tonight." The bleach-blonde curls bounced as the female shook her head in a gesture of disgust. "That mother of hers kicked her out. The damned bitch should be flogged for the way she treats her daughter."

Raphael's brows lowered. "Ashe never speaks of her family."

The woman shrugged. "What's to say? Her worthless father walked out when she was just a babe and her mother's a drunk. Ashe spends every penny trying to keep a roof over her head and the bills paid. Not that Dixie Pascal appreciates what Ashe does for her. Most nights she's down at that nasty Cougar's Den swilling cheap vodka." She grimaced. "Just as a warning, if you're new in town, you'll wanna give that bar a miss. It's not a place for decent folk."

A pure shaft of fury pierced his heart.

The Pantera were a close-knit society who protected their young with a ferocious intensity.

But Ashe had been treated like trash. Tossed onto the streets by her mother.

She'd been left vulnerable, her child...his child...put at risk in this shabby hotel that was barely a step above sleeping in the gutter.

The knowledge was unacceptable.

Sensing the hotel manager's growing curiosity, Raphael leashed his anger.

He would deal with Ashe's worthless parents after he had her safely hidden in his lair.

For now he had to make certain that his savage obsession with the beautiful female wasn't blinding him to an obvious trap.

"I'll keep that in mind," he murmured.

The older woman tilted her head. "Are you wanting to see Ashe?"

With every fiber of his being.

He forced himself to shake his head.

"Perhaps later. Unfortunately, I have a meeting, but I can't remember the exact address." He held the manager's pale gaze allowing a tendril of his musk to fill the air. It wasn't enough to captivate the woman, but it would loosen her tongue. "I don't suppose you've seen any strangers hanging around here?"

"Here?" She frowned, considering the question. "I've had the usual crew from the oil rigs and the Jenkins family came in from Baton Rouge for a reunion."

"There hasn't been anyone around town asking questions?" he pressed.

"The only strangers in town are down at The Cougar's Den." The woman heaved an exasperated frown as the dogs caught the whiff of his musk and went into a whining frenzy. "What the hell is wrong with them dogs? Excusez-moi."

Raphael waited until the woman had stomped into the office to pacify her terrified animals before silently sliding out the back door.

He stepped into the shadows, disappearing from prying eyes as he allowed his senses to absorb his surroundings.

He caught the sound of mice tunneling through the trash cans. The buzz of the street lights at the end of the alley. The breeze that carried a threat of rain.

And, overwhelming everything, the sweet perfume that had haunted his dreams for the past six weeks.

Sucking in a deep breath, Raphael focused on the window where he could sense Ashe.

He would wait to slip into her room once she was asleep.

And then...

Then he would have the truth.

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