Adara raced over the dense forest floor, trying to escape the shadow closing on her heels. Fear pumped adrenaline through her body as she ran toward her village through the darkness. Panic tangled with the sheer need to survive. If only she’d listened. What was I thinking coming out alone?
She shot a glance over her shoulder. Her foot smacked against a tree root in the moment of distraction, pitching her body forward. The fall came in slow motion.
Cursing under her breath, she rolled onto her back. Dry leaves clung to her blonde hair. The subtle, musty scent of slow rot rose from the rich soil, mixed with something primal and wild behind her. The dark shadow loomed. Her gaze rose to take in her pursuer, wondering if the beast would be her doom.
The tall, broad-shouldered creature towered over her. Watching. It wasn’t human or animal. The village wise woman had warned her of beings like this, but they’d seemed like fables. How could something so fantastical be real?
Even as she trembled with fear, this creature captivated her. The black and orange stripes covering his shoulders and arms evoked a distant memory, yet the design was uncommon in the Amazon.
His hair hung in straight, black strands like a human’s, but his face had the nose, mouth, and eyes of a feline. His muscular, naked body reflected a splendid combination of both species. Sweat-shiny skin glistened through the inch-long fur that covered him.
His white chest intrigued her, all the way to the patch of fur barely covering his groin.
Leaves and branches framed his face with a lush green background. He crouched over her. His piercing golden eyes focused solely on her. His stare reminded her of a cat from her village staring at a small rodent before pouncing.
As he leaned down, she grabbed her kris from the garter on her thigh and pushed it against his stomach. She didn’t want today being the day she died. Her people needed her. She wouldn’t let this beast deny them their princess.
The animal cocked his head at her. He brushed his lips over her throat, whiskers tickling her chin.
Her body stiffened. What is he doing? Bewilderment spread through her as his feline lips touched her neck. Instead of biting her, his canines grazed lightly, gently, from just below her ear down to her shoulder, almost as if exploring her flesh, instead of seeking to rip open her throat.
She tensed. Even with her weapon pressed against the beast’s stomach, she still feared for her life. As an Amazon princess, she wasn’t easily scared. But this feline made her heart pound. If only she’d brought Rubia with her, she might not be in this situation, and they would’ve stood a better chance against this feline.
Why does he persist in toying with me? Adara swallowed as a low burn warmed the pit of her stomach. These feelings confused her.
A soft sniffing sounded in her ear right before his tongue scraped rough caresses on her skin. Other jungle cats marked their territory. Did this animal believe she was his? She didn’t want to find out.
Without waiting for the feline’s next move, Adara drove the kris deep into his stomach, meeting resistance as the blade plunged through flesh and muscle. She forced it further as his blood flowed onto her hands, making the hilt of the kris slick and her grip weaker.
He roared and leapt back with her blade still embedded in his abdomen.
She scrambled to her feet. Her ears rang from him screaming so close to the side of her face. Bringing up a hand to her ear, Adara felt a trail of his wet blood drip along her cheek.
He straightened his spine and strode back to her, her kris still buried in him. It seemed as if the dagger was nothing more than a minor annoyance to him. She clenched her hands into fists and dropped them to her sides.
The reality of what she saw struck her, and she froze. How could he act so unaffected? He shouldn’t be able to move around so casually. It wasn’t possible. How can I outrun something like that? This can’t be happening.
Her mother had always warned her to be careful when traveling through the forest. Why hadn’t she listened? And how could she feel so drawn to this animal when he intimidated her?
“Who are you?” Gritting her teeth, she forced her voice to resonate with the commanding tones of an Amazon huntress, and fervently hoped it didn’t betray the panic racing through her veins. Her people’s beliefs restricted them from showing fear in front of strangers. Not that they saw many. But her tribeswomen were survivors in dangerous times. Their history brimmed with reminders.
The feline bared pointed white teeth. “Call me Rei.” His husky voice reverberated like a deep growl.
He launched into the air and, before she could react, flattened her to the ground. Air whooshed from her lungs. Was he getting his revenge? Would she die now? Her eyes widened and locked onto his.
He pinned her arms next to her head and pressed his feline lips to hers. His tongue scraped across her lower lip, causing nips of pain to cut through the alluring sensation.
She shook her head hard, breaking the kiss. Her breath rushed out short and quick. Never before had she kissed anyone. His mouth on hers created fiery stirrings within her body that felt almost too good. Her racing pulse only spread the warmth through her body that much faster.
Twice a year, her tribeswomen associated with Indian men. The younger girls were forced to stay in a hut during those visits, although Adara had snuck out once with Rubia in a fit of rebellion. She’d spotted one of her kin pressing her mouth against an Indian male’s. Could this be what happens?
But men weren’t to be trusted. Her kin had learned that the hard way many, many years ago.
Her mind flashed to the tales she’d heard from the Wise Woman. Horrible reminders assaulted her, memories of the men from long ago, enslaving her kind, killing them ruthlessly with diseases and swords.
She could imagine the cruelty of the conquering, pillaging men as vividly as if she’d been there herself, so strongly had the Wise Woman spoken. It had taken weeks for her to sleep soundly after listening to those tales.
As the princess of her people, it was important for her to not let history repeat. Men couldn’t be allowed to slaughter them again.
Sudden panic swept away the lust that burned inside her. This creature could do the same. He’s chased me, after all.
“What do you want from me?” Adara asked, trying to sound forceful, but instead her voice came out husky. She cleared her throat and returned his gaze.
Talking with an animal! Rubia would be jealous. Her tribeswomen would never believe this story…if she survived the encounter.
Rei smiled, warmth emanating from him. “You.” His chest rumbled, and the word rolled off his tongue like an exotic purr.
Soft moans filtered into her sleep. Blinking her eyes open, Sol Rios pushed herself into a sitting position and drowsily rubbed her hands over her face. Sleep wasn’t her friend anymore. Not since her neighbor, Rubia, had mated with the werepumas’ leader.
The quiet sighs of pleasure steadily gained intensity and became more insistent, more demanding. Louder. She balled her hands into fists, even as dampness and warmth gathered between her legs. She squeezed her thighs together against the cruel sensation.
This was craziness! She had to get away from here. Would it look too suspicious if Sol asked Adara, the Amazon Queen, if she could move her hut? Then again, Rubia and Adara were friends. Her complaint might cause friction between her and Rubia if Adara said something. She’d have to come up with a good reason, instead of just complaining about the…noise.
Once dressed, Sol stepped out of her hut. She drew in a breath of fresh air to soothe her nerves.
Darkness blanketed the village. Only a few torches here and there provided enough light for her to see. She headed toward the village’s center where the Amazons and werepumas held their feasts. Embers glowed hot in the fire pit. She sat beside it, enjoying the heat and the night sounds of the rainforest.
A few guards—both Amazon and werepuma—were prowling the catwalks, and one of the Amazons noticed her with a wave. She returned the kind gesture then lowered her gaze to the coals. Toasty warmth caressed her skin. She wrapped her arms around her legs, hugging them to her chest, then rested her chin on her knees.
Movement drew her attention away from the fire pit, and she caught sight of a tall, lithe figure striding from the village’s entrance toward her. Torchlight revealed his face, and she sucked in a breath. It was Eduardo, the werepumas’ second-in-command.
She was thankful for the darkness. Otherwise, she’d have run.
Her gaze followed him as he passed by without sparing her a glance. How embarrassing. She buried her face in her legs, wishing she had the spark the other Amazons possessed. Many of her people were finding their mates, yet no one paid her any attention. Especially not the man she found most attractive. He didn’t even acknowledge her existence.
At this rate, her womb would become barren before he even bothered making eye contact. Did what he thought really matter? She’d become like her neighbor and up at all hours doing primal…acts with her mate. When did the women ever sleep?
She shook her head, shrugging off any pity for herself. Peeking over her shoulder, she saw Eduardo standing before Rubia’s hut. Even from this distance, tension was evident in his posture. Maybe Rubia and the werepuma leader were still rutting like wild animals.
Sol turned away before he could feel her gaze. Not like that would matter much. She hadn’t seen him look or talk to any of the women aside from Adara, Rubia, and a few Amazon guards. All occasions were strictly for business.
He didn’t possess much charm or charisma—in her opinion—just a stern, no-nonsense attitude. Yet Sol couldn’t help the foolhardy attraction she felt for him. What was wrong with her? It had to be why none of the men were interested in her.
Faint footsteps approached her from behind. Maybe he was just leaving the village again. It didn’t mean he’d have any reason to talk with her. Right? But the footsteps paused, and sudden encompassing silence unsettled her.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a pair of denim-clad legs. Her gaze slid up those strong legs and over his solid chest until she stared into his dark blue eyes.
A frown curved his lips, and he folded his arms over his chest. “You live in the hut next to Rubia, don’t you?”
Sol froze and looked around as if he could’ve been talking to an invisible person next to her. His irritated sigh drew her gaze back to him. “Ye-yes, I do.”
He looked from her to Rubia’s hut again. “Give them a message for me when they manage to tear themselves away from one another.” Displeasure oozed from his tone. His gaze pinned her in place, and she felt as small as an ant.
At least she’d been wrong about something—her hair wasn’t gray nor her womb barren—but this wasn’t quite how she’d imagined him looking at her. In her daydreams, he’d been kind and caring, loving and warm. Not at all like this.
Any bit of self-confidence she’d possessed leaked away. Her nerves shook with the intensity of his intimidating stare. “Message?” Her voice squeaked. Heat rose to her cheeks, but she fought back the blush warming her neck.
The sexy werepuma frowned. “Yes, tell them that I—” Shaking his head, he balled one hand into a fist. “Forget it. I’ll come back in the morning and speak with them myself.” He walked off. Lowering his voice, he murmured to himself, “The message probably wouldn’t reach them if I left it with her. She hardly has any backbone.”
Her heart plummeted into her stomach, and she clenched her hands into fists. She barely held back her tears. “You don’t know me,” she said, her words a whisper.
Eduardo stopped. He turned enough to look over his shoulder, giving her a great view of his profile. His lips curled back from his teeth. “I have no reason to either.” He strode away, leaving her sitting by the fire pit, alone and shaken.
Her emotions shuffled between hurt, humiliation, and then finally settled on anger. Pulling herself to her feet, she stared after the man she’d liked. Now she had her reason for wanting to move her home, and she’d be petitioning Queen Adara first thing tomorrow morning.