By Laura Wright


Sweet freedom.

Pool cue in one hand, margarita in the other, Amalie strode across the dusty floor of The Cougar's Den.

Hot damn, she was emancipated.

Granted, it was only for three days and nights, but she planned to make the most out of every second. Clad in her tightest jeans, black high-heeled boots, and a white tank that showed off her young, Hunter's body and plenty of cleavage up top, she felt every male eye move over her as she passed.

Well, every male but one.

Stopping in front of the pool table, she dropped her cue on the playing surface and lifted her glass to her lips. Salty sweet goodness rolled over her tongue and down her throat. She wasn't a big drinker. Shoot, she wasn't a big anything. In fact, this was her first time in The Cougar's Den. For years, she'd heard all about it from the other Hunters. Listened as they regaled her with stories about drunken nights, hard-won pool games, hook-ups with hot males or females. While she went home.

Not tonight, she mused, draining her glass, then eyeing the bartender. Tonight she was cutting loose. Tonight she was going to know what it felt like to play hard, drink hard and just be a ready and willing single female.

"What do you say, darlin'?"

Mal glanced over her shoulder, spied the male who'd just spoken to her. He was tall, blond and human, and his mouth curved into a wicked smile. "Dance?"

She turned around and faced him. "I didn't know this place had a dance floor."

"They don't," he said. "Not yet anyway."

The male whistled to one of his buddies and the pair grabbed a few tables and pushed them aside.

He turned back to Mal and shrugged. "Nothing fancy, but it'll do. What do you say? I like this song and you're smoking hot."

Mal's heart fluttered in her chest. Sure, she was a kickass Hunter who was capable of bringing down several full-grown males with one hand tied behind her back-part of her training-but in the Wildlands no one ever talked to her like this. Looked at her like this. Like she was desirable and available. It felt so good.

Alcohol snaking through her blood, making her warm and bold, she followed him out onto the makeshift dance floor. The bartender had cranked up the music and a few other couples had already taken advantage of the space.

"Name's Beau," the male said over the music as he started to move.

Mal grinned as she sidled up close to him and started to sway her hips. "Nice to meet you, Beau."

"You too, darlin'." His eyes traveled down her body. "Never seen anything as sexy as you come in here."

"I'm sure that's not true," she said on a husky laugh, her head feeling deliciously fuzzy. "But I appreciate it anyway."

He laughed with her, his dark eyes glittering with interest. They were a handsome set of eyes, deep and soulful, and she could probably get lost in them if it wasn't for the breath-stealing, knee-weakening crystal blue orbs of a certain Pantera male in the room. Eyes she'd been lusting after forever.

Seeing those piercing, highly sexual eyes in her mind, and fueled by inhibition-killing margaritas, she turned her head.

Such a big mistake.

He'd only been in The Cougar's Den for maybe a half hour, but it was enough for him to cause a stir. Not like he could help it. Females just couldn't seem to catch their breath around him, and males were understandably intimated by his size.

Still swaying, Mal ran her hands up the sides of her body as she watched him at the bar. Eating up the metal bar stool he inhabited, Xavier was by far the hottest male specimen that had ever walked the earth. Over six foot four, and all powerful shoulders and broad chest, the gorgeous male looked more like a professional athlete than the head of the Geeks. His skin was the color of wet bark, and his features were sharp and fierce. His dark hair had just been recently cut, buzzed close to his scalp, making his amazing, crystal blue eyes pop. And every time Mal saw him, she had an irrepressible urge to rush at him, leap into his massive arms and attack his perfect mouth.

It'd been like that for the past seven years.

Oh, who was she kidding? More like ten.

As the male she danced with moved around her, Mal's gaze slid to the female who sat beside Xavier at the bar. Blond, petite and quietly appealing. Why does Xavier have to go for the exact opposite of me? she screamed silently, wondering if it was psycho to actually plot the woman's death while dancing with some random guy.

Then Xavier reached across the top of the bar and covered the woman's hand.

A shock of pain brought Mal's head around. Her gaze connected with Beau and his dark eyes and dreamy smile. "I need another drink."

He grinned. "I'll get it for you, darlin'. Just stay here and keep those hips swayin' and those hands runnin' up and down yourself. I'll be right back."

Why couldn't Xavier say things like that? Well, maybe not exactly like that. Maybe not so creepy and proprietary, but something that indicated that he saw her as a female and not his best friend's little sister?

She closed her eyes and moved seductively to the music. She felt someone come up behind her, definitely male, maybe Beau, maybe not, but she didn't stop to look. Tonight and for the next three nights, she just wanted to let go, give in, feel, be felt...

* * *

She needed a spanking.

Maybe more than one.

Xavier narrowed his eyes on the Hunter female who was gyrating on the makeshift dance floor, sandwiched between two greasy human males, while another ordered drinks a few feet down the bar. Did he blame them for going after her? Leering at her? Drooling like dogs? No, he did not. With her perfect body clad in way-too-tight clothes, hungry green eyes, and thick ebony hair flowing down her back, she looked like a goddamn sex kitten tonight, and he was going to pummel the bastard who'd let her out of her cage.

Where the fuck was Aristide?

Her brother-and Xavier's closest friend-never let his sister out of his sight, except when she worked as a Hunter. And even then, Xavier could count on the rest of the Pantera to watch her. They all knew how special she was. Important. The kind of female you put up on a pedestal and stared at.

Not fucking leered at.

His eyes narrowed into pinprick slits as he watched her rock the dance floor. How the hell had she learned to move like that? Her hips. Her ass. Her hands threading in her hair and running down her body.

Another jolt moved through him, but he forced it away. He always forced away those kinds of flashes when it came to her. Amalie was not just the last Pantera born, which made her untouchable in and of itself, but she was also his best friend's little sister. And the code of honor between males killed even the most desperate of attractions.

He stood, slipped the flash drive the woman beside him had brought with her into his jeans pocket. "You didn't have to disable the camera to get these shots, did you?"

The blond PI he'd hired to help in his search for Ashe and Isi's father, Chayton, shook her head. "No. But it was a bitch and a half to get up there, and stay up there while I located the serial number. Thank god some asshole got a tattoo last night. Gave me a solid hour."

The human female had found a hidden camera in Isi's voodoo shop, and had spent the past three days trying to get a few minutes alone with it. "Did you run the number?"

"It's some exclusive, expensive shit. There's a list of the high-end stores that sell cameras like that on your drive, but I couldn't get sales records. You're going to need a top notch hacker."

Good thing he was one, Xavier thought, his gaze sliding over to the dance floor again. A growl sounded in his throat. Amalie was grinding her hips against some human male like she wanted sex.

"My payment?" the PI said.

"Already in your account."

She laughed softly, almost seductively. "Gotta love a man who anticipates a woman's needs. Can I buy you a drink?"

"Not tonight," he said, his eyes still pinned to the Hunter female and the human drooling machines bracketing her. "But I'll be in touch."

He pushed away from the bar and headed through the small crowd to the dance floor. He should be gone by now, heading back to Geek headquarters, checking out the drive the PI had just handed him. After all, it was vital the Pantera find Chayton before their enemies did.

A good fifteen patrons were working it to the killer baseline of some rapper, and a few females tried to catch Xavier's eye and draw him into their circle. But he only had eyes for one female, and she was going back to the Wildlands immediately. To her home, and to her brother's care.

Eyes closed, full pink lips parted, long hair mussed, the female before him looked like she'd just come from her bed. Xavier drew close and wrapped his large hand around her slim wrist. Instantly, her eyes opened. At first, she seemed confused as she stared up at him. Then, as she registered not only his presence but his hold on her, she smiled.

"Hi, Xavier," she said. "Want to join the party?"

Shit. How many drinks had she had? Her speech wasn't slurred, but it was pretty damn close. "You're making a scene, Amalie."

"My name is Mal," she corrected him, her luscious jade-green eyes flashing momentary fire. "And I'm not making a scene, I'm having fun."

Three or four drinks of fun. He didn't say a word, just lowered his hand to close around hers and led her off the dance floor. Xavier knew she could fight him if she wanted to. The female was tough as hell. Smart, too. But she didn't. In fact, she squeezed his hand and moved with him through the crowd and toward the door. Maybe it was the alcohol in her blood? Could do funny things to the Pantera system.

Night was just settling in, but the warm bayou air of the day still remained, rushing over Xavier's skin as he stepped outside. As he turned Amalie to face him, his hands on her shoulders, he tried not to stare at how that same breeze affected her hair, sending it swirling about her face.

Her fucking perfect face.

Releasing her and sliding his gaze away, Xavier growled low in his throat. Thoughts like these were becoming too commonplace lately. He needed to find a way to get rid of them. Permanently. Or he'd have to get rid of himself being around this female, permanently.

Amalie cocked her head. "Are you growling at me, Xavier?" Her tone was all flirtation, warmth, intimacy. "Not that I'm complaining."

"How much have you had to drink?" he said tightly.

"Not nearly enough."

"Your Pantera scent is being strangled by tequila."

She shrugged. "Shit happens."

"Yes, it does," he said, moving closer to her. "Like you being here of all places. Does Aristide know you're here?"

Her eyes clouded over, and for a moment she just stared at him. Then she laughed and shook her head. "No, my jailer of a brother doesn't know I'm here. He's stuck in quarantine with that human woman, Ashe's sister."

Isi? The one whose blood had both damaged the Wildlands and had caused it to bring forth life?

And Aristide didn't tell me?

What the hell? Xavier mused darkly. Someone needed to be watching out for Amalie.

The door to The Cougar's Den burst open and one of Amalie's dance partners nearly stumbled out. When the greasy male spotted her, he grinned like a fucking wolf with prey in sight.

"You coming back in, darlin'?" he drawled.

"No," Xavier answered.

Amalie turned to give him a dirty look, then glanced back up at the human male. "In a minute, Beau."

Xavier growled at her. "I'm taking you home, Amalie."

Her gaze slid his way once again, and no longer was there even a hint of flirtation glittering there. "No, you're not. I'm here to have some fun. Just because you don't know the meaning of that word."

"I'll show you some fun," Beau said, loping down the steps toward them.

"I suggest you go back inside, Male," Xavier said darkly, though his gaze remained pinned to Mal. "We're leaving, Amalie. Say goodbye to your little friend here. Perhaps you can schedule a playdate for another day."

"Do you hear yourself?" she growled back at him.

"I do."

She stuck a finger in his face. "I'm not the young cub you and Aristide get to tell what to do anymore. I'm a grown female."

Xavier sighed, his nostrils flaring with irritation. Yes, unfortunately, she was. A female with curves designed to make a male anxious to breed. A face angels would be envious of. A husky voice that belonged near a hungry male's ear.

All attributes that shouldn't be allowed near this oily, drunken human.

"Say goodbye, Amalie," he said evenly.

"She doesn't want to say goodbye," Beau said with a grunt. "Do you, Amalie?"

"My name's Mal," she corrected.

Beau chuckled, his eyes pinned to her chest. "Hey, I'll call you whatever you want, Sexy."

"Oh, I like that." Amalie's gaze flickered Xavier's way, and she said something under her breath that sounded an awful lot like, "Why can't you ever call me that?"

Xavier pretended not to hear her. Just as he pretended to not be affected by the way she chewed her lower lip. He shook his head slowly. "You know I can't let this happen, Amalie."

Her hands went to her hips. "The funny part is that you actually believe that. Or is the funny part that you're still doing Aristide's job? I'm not sure. Wait. Maybe they're both funny."

The human moved closer to her, his eyes now trained on her ass. "I know some funny stories, Mal. I'll buy you a drink and share a few."

Xavier felt his insides flood with aggression. This male was about two seconds away from unconsciousness. Which would be a bad idea, as they were on human land. The last thing Pantera wanted to do was draw attention to themselves. But this idiot was really begging for it.

"I'm going to say this once more, mon ami." Xavier's eyes narrowed on the human male. He wasn't particularly tall, but what he lacked in height, he made up for with muscle. Not Pantera kind of muscle, but impressive for a human. Something to consider if things went bruised and bloody. "Go inside and find yourself another female. This one is not available."

"I'll decide if I'm available or not," Amalie said tightly. "You got some nerve, Xavier. Go home."

The human grinned, then slid his arm around Amalie's waist, yanked her close and licked the curve of her ear. "You tell him, Sexy."

The haze that had only a second ago glimmered in Amalie's smoky green eyes receded, and a flare of golden heat took its place. It was the sign her cat hovered at the surface of her skin. Her control was lost, courtesy of too much tequila. In under five seconds, she removed the male's arm from her waist, took his hand in hers and slammed it back into his face. Making a sound like air escaping a balloon, Beau slithered to the ground and remained.

Xavier's eyes flipped up to meet hers. "Was that necessary?"

She stumbled backwards a step. "He licked me."

"Grow up, Amalie."

"You won't let me." Her eyes locked to him. "You and Aristide."

Xavier's gut clenched. She had no idea how he saw her, how his skin ached every time she touched him - how he stood taller, prouder, every time her eyes were on him. And hell, she never would, if he could manage it.

"Then perhaps we should concentrate on sobering up." He reached for her hand. "We're leaving. Now."

She didn't try to pull away. "Careful, Puma. Or I'll drop you like I dropped Tongue-Boy there."

Xavier refused to reply to such absurdity. As he moved past her, he scooped her up in his arms and continued down the path toward the parking lot.

"Neanderthal," she spat out.

"Pantera," he corrected, trying not to think about how good she felt in his arms. How right. How natural.

"You don't have to carry me," she grumbled. "I know how to use my legs."

His jaw went tight at her words. So did everything below his waist. Fucking female. Fucking male brain for taking those innocent words and twisting them into a goddamn fantasy. "It'll take us all night to walk home," he said. "And something tells me you can't run in those come-fuck-me-boots."

She glanced up at him. "Is that what they're called?"

He didn't answer, didn't look at her either. She'd been too goddamn beautiful in the harsh fluorescent lights of the club. Under the glow of twilight, he was pretty sure she'd send certain parts of his anatomy skyward.

He didn't need that. Not tonight. Not ever.

Clearing the parking lot, he took off toward the dark protection of the woods. He was fast in his human state, but he ached to shift to his puma and really taste the wind.

"So, I guess you're my way home tonight," she said with a soft yawn.

His arms tightened around her. "Who brought you? How did you get to The Den?"

"I caught a ride."

"If you tell me with a stranger-" he began through gritted teeth.

He felt her shrug. "He was only a stranger for the first five minutes."

A low growl escaped his throat. Shit, he needed to break out the fur and the canines. "I'm going to take you home and tie you up until Aristide gets out of quarantine."

She snorted, then yawned again. "I'd like to see you try."

"Would you?"

He made the mistake of looking down at her. Trying to put the sweet weight of her body out of his mind as he moved was problem enough. Now he saw full lips, drowsy eyes, a strip of tanned stomach where her tank was riding up.

Fuck. Me.

"What about your date?" she said. "Isn't she waiting back at The Den for you?"

"That was business."

She snorted softly. "She didn't look like business. She looked like she wanted to do some licking of her own."

Xavier growled-not at the idea of the human PI, but with the recent memory of that greasy human male's hands on Amalie. His tongue on Amalie.

"What?" she asked, concern lacing her tone.

"If I didn't have to babysit you tonight, I'd go back to The Cougar's Den, scrape the human male up off the ground and remove his eager tongue from his mouth."

"I took care of it, Xavier."

"Yes. And you provoked it. Humans should not be played with. It's not good for us."

"Us or me?" she said softly.

Xavier didn't answer. Doing so would mean he'd have to examine his feelings for his best friend's sister. And he made it a practice never to do that. Instead, he picked up speed, racing through the bayou lands toward the border. Quiet, except for the sound of the breeze and the buzzing of the insects, reigned. Xavier had actually thought Amalie asleep when she moved in his arms and spoke.


Goddamn, her soft, yet husky voice wrapped around him. Squeezed the shit out of him. "Yeah?"

"When we get to the edge of the Wildlands...I don't think I can shift."

"The tequila?"

She nodded against his chest. "Sorry."

With a soft, protective growl, he pulled her closer to his chest. "Not to worry, Amalie. I'll carry you to the border, and my puma will carry you home."

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