Leopard's Fury

By: Christine Feehan

She had to bake far more than when she’d first started because the demand was so high. Her little shop had caught on and soon she would have to hire someone to help her. If business continued to increase, she’d be able to hire help in the next couple of months. She was fairly certain her business had picked up because of Alonzo. She had a couple of celebrities come in a few times. Jake Bannaconni, a local billionaire, had come in saying Alonzo raved about her baked goods and he was taking some home to his wife and children. That was huge. After that, some of his employees began to come.

Timur came into the shop as she opened it. Clearly he’d been waiting for the door to be unlocked. He strode in as she flipped her sign to open and then made her way back to the counter. He had never come in so early before and he seemed much more tense than usual—which meant he was definitely scaring her.

Inwardly she sighed. She had no idea how her little shop had become the hangout for the local mafia, but she couldn’t very well ask them to stop coming. Maybe Alonzo would listen to her but she didn’t want to go through another couple of months wondering where he was, if he was all right and whom he was with.

“What’s wrong?” Timur demanded, leaning on the counter. “You’re frowning. I’ve never seen you frown before. Not even when you’re dealing with a crazy customer. Sometimes I want to take my gun out and shoot them for you.”

Evangeline supposed she should be grateful he wanted to shoot someone for her, but it only confirmed she’d managed to get in over her head with the criminal element in her beloved new home.

“I appreciate that you don’t,” she said softly and then found herself laughing. What else could she do? She was never going to ask Alonzo to stay away. “What brings you in so early? Can’t live without your macaroons?”

“Alonzo wanted me to come in and talk to you.” His eyes were hard. Flat and cold, very similar to Alonzo’s. Too similar. Even the color was the same, that piercing, beautiful glacier blue. As if deep inside both men were mountains of ice that could never be thawed. That was how she thought of Alonzo. Timur was . . . difficult. He didn’t like her. He especially didn’t like Alonzo anywhere near her.

“Talk to me about what?” She fixed a latte for him without him asking for it, glancing over her shoulder as she asked the question.

“He wants me to explain things to you before he comes in.”

There was a definite warning in his voice. She turned back to him and set the latte on the counter, reaching for a pair of gloves in order to pick up the cookies he preferred. “Why would he have to explain anything to me?”

“Exactly.” His voice was clipped. His eyes bored into her. Not like Alonzo, not with interest, more with annoyance and speculation. “Why the hell can’t I find out any information about you? You don’t exist. You have this bakery and a driver’s license, but that’s it. I can’t even find a birth certificate for you.”

Her stomach muscles knotted hard, so much so that she pressed her hand tightly against her belly in an effort to ease the ache. She’d known Timur would investigate her. He didn’t want anyone near his boss, not unless he knew everything about them.

The bell over the door rang and that started the steady stream of her usual early morning customers. Businessmen and women, rushing to work, grabbing pastries, tea and coffee, smiling without really noticing anything but the time. Timur seemed to fade into the background, drinking his coffee and eating his cookies while reading. Not one person so much as glanced at him, as he sat so quietly, seemingly absorbed in his book. Evangeline knew better. He saw every single person and probably could tell her all sorts of things about them.

It took a good hour and forty-five minutes of hard work to get through the first wave of customers before the shop was empty and she could begin to restock the cases with her baked pastries. Her ham-and-cheese pastries were very popular, along with her mushroom-spinach quiche. She’d learned that most of the early risers didn’t eat breakfast at home so when she’d introduced those fluffy pastries, they’d been a big early morning hit.

The moment the door had closed on the last customer, Timur materialized in front of her. “You didn’t answer me.”

“Why would Alonzo have you investigate me?” She couldn’t keep the hurt out of her voice, and that bothered her. It was giving too much away to this man. She shouldn’t care about Alonzo. They didn’t have any kind of a relationship, nor could they. She had left that world behind and she didn’t want to go back to it. Still, Alonzo was the only man she ever thought about. Ever dreamed about. Fantasized over.

“He gave me strict instructions not to investigate you.”

Her gaze jumped to his face at the same time her heart clenched tightly in her chest. “Then why are you askin’ me?”

“Because I don’t like anything out of the ordinary, and you’re out of the ordinary.”

There was no apology in his voice. None whatsoever. His gaze was so hard and cold she shivered as she filled the last spot in the case and glanced at the time. Another five minutes and the second wave would start. That was far too long to be alone with Timur. She didn’t trust him or herself. She didn’t want to blurt out her own questions in retaliation. Questions such as why Alonzo was pretending to be Italian when it was so clear he was Russian and Timur’s brother. That kind of question was the kind that might get her killed.

“I’m no threat to your boss,” she said.

“Don’t kid yourself, honey,” he snapped, all but slamming his empty mug on the counter and leaning close to glare at her. “You’re the biggest threat to him there is.”

She didn’t know what to say to that. To do with it. “Just tell me whatever it is he sent you to say.” And get out. She was beginning to shake. She wasn’t going to let Timur intimidate her.

“There’s a big meeting today and it is to take place here. We didn’t call it. Alonzo couldn’t protest, not without putting you in jeopardy. When we come in, he won’t talk to you. He wants you to know it isn’t personal.”

She fought the inclination to roll her eyes and shrugged instead. “He never talks to me. How is this any different? I don’t take it personal.”

He sighed. “It’s more about the way you look at him.”

Her breath caught in her lungs. “Oh. My. God. I’m not supposed to even look at him? Why are you holdin’ your meetin’ in my bakery? Pick somewhere else.” Was it so obvious to everyone that she was attracted to Alonzo? She didn’t even know his real name.

“The meeting’s set. Just don’t look at him the way you do.”

She could feel her color rising. How totally embarrassing. “You know what, just tell him not to come back here. Seriously. I don’ want him in here if it’s such a big deal.” Her accent was thicker than ever and she didn’t care. Didn’t care if he knew she was from the swamp and her grandfather was a horrible man, feared by everyone around him, so much so that her own family had hidden her away. “I want you all gone. I mean it. Just tell him to stay away, and then no one will have to worry about how I look at him or don’ look at him.” Tears burned behind her eyes, and that was even more humiliating.

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