ASHE was still reeling as Raphael left through a narrow door on the far side of the room.

Of course, she'd been reeling since the doctor had called with the shocking news of her pregnancy.

That was one of the reason's she'd gone to the hotel instead of trying to convince her mother to let her return home.

She'd needed a few hours to consider her options in private.

But instead of a few hours of peace, she'd been accosted by the man who'd impregnated her, discovered he was a creature she'd long believed to be a myth, seduced all over again and kidnapped.

She grimaced as she lifted her fingers to lips that still tingled from his touch.

Okay. Maybe it wasn't entirely fair to claim he'd seduced her.

She'd all but begged him to ease the desire that had been on a slow simmer for the past six weeks.

And if she were honest, she'd admit that her treacherous body was ready and eager to repeat the performance.

Which was precisely why she needed to get the hell away from the disturbing man.

No...not man.



Absently she reached over her shoulder to touch the scratches that had seemed to shock Bayon. They didn't hurt. In fact, they tingled with a pleasure that was as disturbing as the implication that Raphael had deliberately marked her.

Yeah. She was in dire need of some space to clear her head.

Crossing to where they'd first entered the room, she placed a cautious hand on the silver doorknob.

She didn't know what she'd expected.

Ringing alarms. A trap door opening to drop her into a pit of alligators. An electric shock.

Something to prevent her from leaving the private rooms.

But stepping into the back storage area, there was nothing to break the silence beyond the thundering beat of her heart.

Still, she remained on edge as she tiptoed to the outer door. It was quite possible a silent alarm had been activated. Or that there would be guards outside that she hadn't noticed when she'd first arrived with Raphael.

And, of course, there was the mysterious danger that Raphael insisted was stalking him.

Until she was far enough away from the bizarre creatures she would have to take extra care.

Surprised yet again when the door opened easily, Ashe crouched low as she darted down the steep staircase, and headed directly toward the cars that lined the narrow street.

She shivered, feeling a strange chill of premonition. As if unseen eyes were following her every movement.

Damn. She needed to get back to the hotel.

She was going to get dressed, get her car keys and head out of this town as fast as possible.

After that...

Well, she'd worry about that once she was far, far away.

Pausing to tuck the sheet tighter around her body, Ashe sucked in a deep breath and gathered her shaken courage.

She'd endured a childhood of neglect interspersed with episodes of terrifying violence from a mother who'd never loved her. She'd been humiliated and bullied throughout school. She'd been forced to work as a secretary for a bastard who couldn't keep his hands to himself, just to keep a roof over her head.

She had truly discovered the meaning behind 'what didn't kill you only makes you stronger'."

Now she stiffened her spine and gave one last glare toward the shabby bar that glowed in the neon lights.

"Behave myself?" she muttered. "Not in this lifetime."

Kicking the folds of the sheet away from her bare feet, she turned to gaze at the untamed edge of the swamp across the street. She had no genuine desire to wade through the muck, not to mention risking the endless dangers that haunted the bayous. But she couldn't walk down the streets in a sheet without attracting unwanted attention, not even in this podunk town.

She would have to skirt the swamps until she was closer to the hotel.

The decision made, she dashed across the road, grimacing as the gravel dug into the soles of her feet. God almighty. Would this night ever end?

The thought had barely formed when a strange buzzing flew past her ear. She waved an impatient hand, assuming it was one of the humongous bugs that filled the night air.

Some grew to the size of small birds.

It wasn't until there was an audible thwack in a cypress tree just behind her that she turned her head to stare at the arrow stuck in the trunk.

She stumbled to a baffled halt.

It wasn't that unusual for the locals to hunt with bow and arrow.

Some preferred following in the traditions of their forefathers. Some preferred the challenge of hunting old-school. And some just didn't have the money to buy a gun.

But who would be out hunting this time of night?

And why would they be so close to town?

Stupidly, it wasn't until the second arrow clipped the top of her shoulder as it whizzed past that she accepted that she was the prey, not some hapless rabbit.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

She hadn't thought Raphael's buddies would actually try to kill her.

Unless it wasn't his friends, but his supposed enemies?

But why would they shoot at her?

Not that the who, what or where mattered at the moment.

With a muffled cry she darted toward the nearest clump of bushes, kneeling down to peer through the thick branches.

It was too dark to see more than vague outlines of shapes. She thought she could see something running along the roof of the closed lumberyard, and...was that someone creeping between those trucks?

Oh god.

For a crazed second, panic threatened to overwhelm her.

She had no phone, no clothes, no weapons that could help protect her.

Worse, she didn't know if a scream would bring help or more danger.

Then her hand unconsciously slid to her stomach, a protective burst of determination stiffening her spine.

Dammit, she wasn't going to wait here like a sitting duck.

She had a child to protect, which meant she had to get away.

Wrapping the bottom of the sheet around her arm so it was above her knees, she scooted backward. If she could reach the actual bayou she had a chance of shaking the bastards.

She ignored the sound of approaching footsteps, and the strange smell that made her nose curl in disgust. Her only hope of survival was slipping away before her stalker could pinpoint her precise location.

Concentrating on backing away as silently as possible, Ashe froze when a low, enraged snarl reverberated through the air.

It was the sort of full-throated roar that caused a terrified hush to spread through the area.

A feral predator on the hunt.

Barely daring to breathe, Ashe listened as she heard a muttered curse from just beyond the bush and the sound of rustling, followed by the unmistakable click of a gun. Either the person wasn't the same psycho Robin Hood who'd been flinging arrows in her direction, or he'd decided that approaching danger was worth pulling out the big guns.


But, even as she prepared herself for the deafening blast of the gunshot, there was another snarl and a blood-chilling scream that she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt would haunt her dreams for nights to come.

Barely realizing she was moving, Ashe straightened to peer over the top of the bush. It wasn't so much a desire to see what was happening. Hell, no. She had a hideous suspicion it was going to be awful. But she needed to make sure the stalker was too busy fighting off the rabid animal to notice her escape.

She needn't have worried.

The man who'd been standing by the bush wasn't going to be firing arrows at her or anyone else.

Paralyzed, Ashe's gaze roamed over the man who was now sprawled on the ground, his throat ripped out and his face mangled. His dead eyes stared sightlessly at the star-studded sky, his arms flung wide with a gun in one hand and his empty bow in the other.

She gagged, a hand pressed to her mouth as her stomach threatened to revolt against the grisly sight.

She'd never seen a dead man before.

Especially not one who had been mauled by a wild animal.

Then her shattered disbelief was distracted as a sleek form detached from the shadows, gliding toward her with an uncanny silence.

"No," she breathed, taking in the sight of the large cat in stunned amazement.

The color of rich caramel, the fur was thick and glossy in the moonlight. The broad head had small rounded ears and large golden eyes that studied her with an unnerving intensity. His body was chiseled muscle with long legs and a tail that was tipped with black.

Any other time she would have found the animal a beautiful sight.

Lethal certainly, and due proper respect, but...beautiful.

This wasn't any other time, however, and facing the deadly predator with his most recent kill mangled on the ground between them only ratcheted up her fear.

She held out her hand. Like that was going to help.

"Stay back."

"Ashe?" She jerked at the sound of her name being called, turning to watch Bayon appear from behind the large cat. The male came to a sharp halt as the animal whirled to hiss at him in warning. "Holy shit." His gaze focused on Ashe as she took a step toward him, giving a fierce shake of his head. "No, don't move. He won't hurt you."

"How do you know?" she demanded, her voice as shaky as her nerves. "Is this your pet?"

"Pet?" A humorless smile twisted his lips. "No."

"Then how do you know he's not going to hurt me?"

"He's trying to protect you."

Her heart slammed against her chest as a disturbing suspicion began to form in the back of her mind.

"A wild animal is trying to protect me?" she tried to scoff. "Yeah right."

Bayon held her wary gaze. "He may be wild, but he's not entirely an animal."

"Don't." She turned her attention toward the cat who had moved to stand directly between her and Bayon. It was one thing to be told of humans who could transform into pumas and another to see it in the flesh. Literally. "You can't seriously expect me to believe that...that creature is Raphael?"

The green eyes blazed with sheer male aggravation. "It doesn't matter what you believe."


"Who was that man?" he interrupted her protest.

She grimaced, reluctantly turning her gaze to the bloody corpse. "I don't have a clue. I assumed he was a friend of yours."

"No." Without warning, Bayon leaned forward to spit on the dead man. "Tell me what happened."

Yikes. So not a friend.

"I...decided to return to the hotel."

He narrowed his gaze. "And Raphael just let you go?"

She tilted her chin. Arrogant ass.

"I didn't have to ask for his permission." She met him glare for glare. "Or yours."

He went rigid, seemingly startled by her words. "You opened the doors?"

"Of course I did. I'm not helpless."

He studied her with a disturbing intensity. "The locks are specifically designed to respond only to Pantera. They should never have opened for you."

She frowned, recalling her own amazement that her escape had been so easy.

Was it possible...


God. She was so tired she couldn't even think straight.

"Then they must have been left unlocked," she said, her tone warning she was a breath away from snapping.

He hesitated, as if he wanted to press her, but meeting her panicked glare, he at last gave an impatient wave of his hand.

"What happened next?"

"I was trying to get back to the hotel without everyone realizing I was waltzing through town in just a sheet when this..." She waved a hand toward the corpse. "Whack job started shooting arrows at me." She shook her head. "I mean, who uses a bow and arrow when you have a gun?"

"Someone who wants to kill without attracting unwanted attention."

Her breath tangled in her throat. Oh. Yeah. Good point.

She shivered, vividly aware of how close she'd come to death.

"I was trying to sneak away when I heard a roar and-" Her words trailed away as she glanced toward the puma staring at her with glowing golden eyes.

"Raphael?" Bayon helpfully supplied, his own gaze trained on the big cat.

"He attacked."

Bayon shook his head. "Astonishing."

"Astonishing?" She made a choked sound. "A man is dead."

He lifted his head to stab her with a fierce glare. "A man trying to kill you. Would you rather Raphael had allowed him to finish his task?"

No. The answer came without hesitation, her hand once again pressing against her belly. To protect her child she would have done anything.

Including killing the man herself.

She shuddered, unthinkingly stepping toward Bayon. She might not trust him, but she desperately needed a hot bath, a warm bed and a return to sanity.

Instantly the puma turned, opening his mouth to display his impressively sharp teeth.

"No," Bayon snapped. "Stay there."

She scowled in frustration. "If it's Raphael then why is he keeping me trapped here?"

"He's keeping me away from you."

"I thought you were friends?"

"We are, but his beast is convinced you're his mate and he won't willingly allow another male near you."


She pressed her fingers to her throbbing temple. "God...this can't be happening."

"You have no idea," Bayon muttered.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"A Pantera can only shift when we're in the Wildlands."

Ashe stared at him in confusion. She was still trying wrap her brain around the whole 'shifting' thing.

"This town is part of the Wildlands?"


"Then I don't understand."

"Neither do I." There was a dangerous edge in his voice. "But I intend to find out."

Keeping his gaze trained on the cat, Bayon began to whisper in an unfamiliar language, the haunting words resonating deep inside her, like a bell being struck.

Ashe bit her lip, ignoring the terrified voice in the back of her head that urged her to flee while Bayon was distracted.

Where would she go?

Certainly nowhere that she wouldn't be constantly looking over her shoulder for fear there might be an arrow trained at her back.

Besides, she couldn't avoid the truth any longer.

Raphael was a mythical Pantera and no amount of denial was going to change the fact.

Or the chance that the child she carried was going to be one as well.

She had to find out as much as possible about these mysterious people if she was going to keep her child safe.

Inching away from the body lying lifeless on the ground, she watched with a growing fascination as Bayon lowered himself to his knees and continued to whisper as he looked directly into the eyes of the beast.

Ashe felt a breathtaking surge of electricity dance over her skin, then her eyes widened as she watched a silver mist form around the puma, nearly disguising the sight of the limbs twisting and elongating, the fur seeming to melt as if by magic.

Fascinated, she took several steps closer, unable to tear her gaze away.

It was odd. She would have assumed watching an animal shift into a man would be revolting.

Instead it was...poignantly moving.

How many people could say they witnessed magic with their own eyes?

The mist dissipated, leaving behind an unconscious, and extremely naked, Raphael.

"Oh." She furtively licked her lips. "Where are his clothes?"

"This wasn't a natural shift. When I force a Pantera to change from human to cat, or cat to human, my magic strips him down to his most basic form. Clothing, jewelry, sometimes even tattoos are lost in the transition."

Still caught in a sense of wonder, Ashe watched in silence as Bayon grabbed his friend around the waist and with an unbelievable display of strength heaved his limp body over his shoulder.

Rising to his feet, he spared Ashe an impatient glance. "Let's go."

She flipped him off behind his back, but she obediently followed him back to The Cougar's Den.

Her decision had been made.

She would stay with Raphael until she could be absolutely certain her child was safe.

After that...

She shook her head, hitching up the sheet as she climbed the stairs leading to the back of the bar.

Right now it was enough to take it day by day.

Hell, it was enough to take it minute by minute.

Bayon led them back through the storage area and into the hidden room she'd been in before, but he never paused as he continued through a door at the back that led to a narrow staircase.

She grimaced, feeling an odd sense of deja vu as they headed to the top floor. A feeling that only intensified as he entered one of the rooms that lined the long hall.

Absently walking toward the double bed in the center of the wood-planked floor, she barely paid attention to Bayon as he slid the still unconscious Raphael off his shoulder and onto the mattress.

This was the room she'd been in over a month ago.

She was certain of it.

There was a foggy memory of the hand-carved headboard that matched the wooden rocking chair in the corner. And the paintings of graceful plantation homes that were framed and hung on the walls. And of course, the patchwork quilt that covered the bed...

Sorting through her vague recollections, Ashe sensed Bayon step toward her, but it wasn't until she felt something cold snap around her wrist that she realized her danger.

With a gasp, she glanced down to discover that she'd been handcuffed to the sturdy headboard

The jackass.

"What the hell?" she growled, glaring into his impassive face. "I'm not going run again."

"No, you're not."

With those words he headed toward the door.

"Wait." She tugged at the metal bracelet holding her captive, achieving nothing more than a painful welt on her wrist. "Let me out of this thing."

He didn't even bother to acknowledge her plea as he stepped out of the room and closed the door.


Cursing the day from hell that refused to end, Ashe awkwardly climbed onto the bed. She was too weary to work up a proper fury.

Not that she was the forgive-and-forget type.

Next time she crossed paths with Bayon she was going to kick him in the nuts.

Managing to keep the sheet wrapped around her, she moved until the handcuff wasn't biting into her skin and turned her attention to the man sprawled in the middle of the mattress.

Did they always pass out after shifting back to human?

It didn't seem very efficient.

Or had he been hurt?

Leaning to the side, she inspected the bronzed perfection spread over the quilt.

Her mouth went dry as she tried to concentrate on searching him for injuries. She'd never seen a man so magnificently...proportioned.

A broad, chiseled chest. Powerful shoulders. Washboard abs. Long, muscular legs. And a huge...

Yeah. Magnificently proportioned.

Her gaze moved back to his chest, lingering on the stylized tattoo that resembled a puma crouched to pounce.

She had a hazy memory of exploring that tattoo with her tongue the first night they'd shared this bed.

Did it have a special meaning?

Raphael made a low sound, his head turning in her direction. Without thought, she reached out to brush the silken golden hair from his face, her fingers tracing the prominent line of his cheekbones before moving to the lush curve of his lips.

She'd tried to fight against the sense of connection that she'd felt from the moment she'd opened her eyes to find him in her hotel room.

Now she simply savored the comfort of having him near.

No one had ever tried to protect her.

Certainly not her mother or deadbeat father.

It made her feel...cherished.

Shuffling through her unfamiliar emotions, Ashe wasn't prepared when Raphael's eyes snapped open, something that might have been panic flaring in the golden depths before he was surging up to grab her face between his hands.


She barely had a chance to brace herself before he was covering her lips in a kiss of stark need.

"Raphael," she muttered, when he at last lifted his head so she could breathe.

"I thought I'd lost you." He spread desperate kisses over her face before he bent down to place his mouth against her lower stomach. "I thought I'd lost you both."

The heat of his lips seared through the thin sheet, and without thought she combed her fingers through the satin gold of his hair.

There was no mistaking the stark fear that continued to haunt him.

"We're fine," she soothed, stroking him in a comforting motion.

"Ashe." His hands brushed down her shoulders, his lips nibbling a tender path upward. "I couldn't bear to lose you."

"Raphael, I-" Whatever she was about to say was lost in a haze of pleasure as his lips reached the edge of the sheet.

"What?" he whispered.

"I don't remember."

He chuckled as his hands drifted down her arms, pausing when he reached the handcuff.

With a sound of surprise he lifted his head to meet her darkening gaze.

"What's this?"

She made a sound of disgust. "Your pain-in-the-ass friend was afraid I might try to escape again."

"But the locks..." His gaze narrowed as he belatedly remembered she'd escaped before. "How the hell did you get out of here?"

She rolled her eyes. Like she knew?

"I just walked out." She shook her arm, making the handcuff rattle. "Get this off me."

A slow, wicked smile curved his lips. "I think we should leave it in place for now."

A treacherous heat flared through her body. "Don't tell me you're kinky?"

"Desperate," he corrected, his smile fading as his eyes smoldered with a naked hunger. "I need to be inside you, ma chere," he said with blunt honesty. "My cat needs to know I haven't lost you. Say yes."

Ashe shuddered at the simple plea. She found it oddly erotic to know just how much he wanted her. It gave her a sense of power that she rarely experienced.


He hissed, as if he was caught off guard by her ready capitulation, and then with a slow motion he was pulling open the ends of the sheet.

She forgot how to breathe as the night air hit her skin, her heart pounding as his fingers gently cupped the small firmness of her breasts.

"Beautiful," he muttered, stroking his thumbs over the hard points of her nipples.

Ashe knew she wasn't beautiful.

Her own mother had lamented the thick dark hair and prominent nose that Ashe had inherited from her father. And then there was her body that was too skinny, and her skin too pale.

But beneath his predatory gaze she felt beautiful.

Snarling deep in his throat, Raphael turned her until his lips could stroke down the sensitive scratch marks that were nearly healed on her back. His touch sent jolts of shocking arousal through her, but she made no effort to pull away.

In this moment she needed him as much as he needed her.

Turning back to face him, she boldly ran her free hand over his chest, astonished by the satin smoothness of his skin. He was completely furless. A perfect bronze velvet draped over steel.

Enjoying her exploration, Ashe barely noticed when Raphael gently arranged her against the pile of pillows, careful to keep her shackled arm above her head. Not until he bent over her to capture a nipple between his teeth.

She moaned as his tongue teased the sensitized tip, tormenting her until she was moving restlessly beneath him. Good lord. She'd never gotten so hot so quickly.

It was as if his touch had a direct connection to her libido.

"Oh, yes," she moaned, arching upward as his lips traced the curve between the mounds of her breasts before moving to the other aching nipple.

Her fingers impatiently threaded through his hair. The satin strands brushed her skin, only heightening her pleasure.

"Do you like that, ma chere?" he breathed, his hands skimming over her hips and down her thighs. His touch was searing hot, matching the molten heat flowing through her veins.

Tugging at her nipple with the edge of his teeth, Raphael eased his hand between her legs and sought the moist heat.

She grasped the strong column of his neck, hanging on for dear life as he stroked his fingers over her clit, finding the sweet spot of her pleasure.

She was falling into a whirlpool of sensation that bordered on pain, it was so intense.


Easily sensing the raw edge of need in her voice, Raphael lifted his head to nuzzle his lips just below her jaw.

"I have you...ma chere," he softly soothed. "I will always have you."

She shivered as her hips instinctively lifted to press more firmly to his caressing finger.

"I know."

He lifted onto his elbow and peered deep into her wide eyes. "Are you ready for me?"

For a long moment she merely gazed into his beautiful face. With his golden hair tumbled over his shoulders and the muted light playing over his stark features he looked barely civilized.


Her lips parted, her breath coming in short pants.


His mouth covered hers as he rolled to settle between her parted legs and impale her with one smooth thrust. He swallowed her cry of pleasure as her hips left the mattress and her nails scored down his back.

Yes. God, yes.

She grasped the headboard as he plunged in and out of her, always careful to keep his weight off her stomach.

It was swift and raw and exactly what she needed.

She was being consumed by Raphael and she couldn't make herself care. For this one priceless moment she wanted to be overwhelmed. She wanted to belong to this man on the most basic level.

Thrusting his tongue between her willing lips, Raphael fucked her with an increasing intensity. Ashe clutched at him as the pressure built to a looming crescendo.

She was perilously close.


"I know, ma chere," he muttered against her mouth, his body pressing deeper.

Her breath came in jagged gasps as the pleasure tightened and spiraled toward a shimmering point. His strokes quickened, sinking him deep in her. At the same time, he angled his head to bite the vulnerable curve of her neck.

The pleasure/pain hit a critical point and her entire body tightened. For a breathless moment she hovered on the edge, then with explosive force the bliss shattered through her and she was soaring through paradise.

They lay in dazed astonishment for a long moment, Raphael groaning as he emptied his seed. Ashe held him tight, savoring the rare moment of absolute peace.

At last Raphael gently pulled out, cradling her face as he spread delicate kisses over her flushed cheeks.

Boneless, Ashe watched in silence as he reached into a side table to grab the key to the handcuffs. Removing the steel bracelet, he gently kissed the red mark that circled her wrist before covering both of them with the quilt.

"That was..." She released a shaky breath. "Amazing."

He pressed a lingering kiss to her lips before pulling back to regard her with a searching gaze.

"Why did you leave the bar after I told you to stay?"

"Why?" She met his accusing gaze with a frown, her sense of contentment swiftly fading. She might be slowly accepting that her life was now tied with this male, but that didn't mean she was ever going to follow orders. "Because I don't appreciate being held captive."

"I was trying to protect you," he growled.

The rasp of male possession made her frown deepen. Okay, this was something that needed to be nipped in the bud.

Raphael had the sort of alpha personality that would ride roughshod over her if she didn't take a stand.

"A protection that wouldn't have been necessary if you hadn't gotten me caught in the middle of your gang war."

He stiffened, his brow furrowing in confusion. "Gang war?"

"That man obviously thought I was with you and wanted to make a point."

"We are Pantera, not a gang," he said. "And we certainly aren't at war."

"Then why was that lunatic shooting arrows at me?"

He held her gaze. "I don't know, but it's you they're after."

A chill inched down her spine. "That's ridiculous. I've lived here all my life without having people trying to kill me."

His hand moved to lie gently against her lower stomach. "You weren't carrying this."

She studied his grim expression, the chill spreading through her body.

"My baby?"

"Our baby."

"But..." She licked her dry lips. "No one knows I'm pregnant."

He arched a brow. "No one?"

She shrugged. "My mother, but she wouldn't tell anyone."

"Not even if she was drinking?"

She flinched as his words hit a nerve. Her mother was notoriously chatty when she was sitting on a barstool. There wasn't a person in town who hadn't heard when Ashe had her first period or when she'd been stood up on prom night.

Thankfully, people had long ago started ignoring the increasingly incoherent woman.

"Who listens to a drunk?" she muttered.

"You might be surprised." The edge in his voice suggested he'd spent more than a few nights cross-examining an unsuspecting, inebriated fool. "Anyone else?"

She chewed her bottom lip, knowing the question was important. "My doctor."



"When did you see him?"

"Two days ago." Her lips twisted in a rueful smile. It seemed a lifetime since she'd walked into the small clinic believing she was suffering from a bout of the stomach flu. "He called earlier today with the results."

"Time enough to share the information."

She frowned. "With who?"

He caught her chin in his fingers, forcing her to meet his determined gaze.

"Until we can find out, I need to get you to the Wildlands."

"The Wildlands?" She shook her head in disbelief. Until a few hours ago the name had been nothing more than a place in legend and myth. Now he wanted her to leave her home and travel there? "I can't."

"Ashe, it's the only place you and our baby will be safe."


Her protest was drowned out by a sudden thump on the door.

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