Leopard's FuryBy: Christine Feehan
“Why are you here? You never come on Thursday, that’s why he chose today.”
“His bad luck. I wanted to get a few dozen of your cinnamon-apple cookies for my boss. I came in early so you would have plenty.”
She started to put the ice pack down but he pushed her hand back, covering it with his own. He always wore those butter-soft gloves. Under them she could see the bulges of several rings. Big square, thick ones. She noticed them every single time he reached for his coffee mug. They intrigued her, just as the tattoos she could see drifting up his neck from under that perfect suit. For some reason those tattoos made him all the hotter to her. She’d awakened twice now from a dream of peeling that suit from him to uncover all the treasures underneath.
She felt the color rising, and there was no way to stop it. “I have to open the store.”
“You have to sit for a full fifteen minutes with that ice pack on. Then you open the store. Your customers will wait.”
Even his voice affected her body, bringing all her nerve endings alive as if he had created an electrical charge between them. Again, the female inside her moved toward the surface, toward him. Lazily, really. As if she couldn’t quite be bothered. She subsided quickly as she’d done before, leaving behind an unsettling itch that settled between her legs. Deep. She was going to kill her leopard.
Stop, you little hussy. You don’ want him takin’ an interest in us.
Again there was that impression of amusement before Bebe settled completely.
Evangeline had been born into a family of shifters. Her brothers had leopards. Her father and uncle did. It stood to reason she might as well. Saria had talked to her about the feeling when a leopard began to surface. She knew she was one. She’d always known. Her female, Bebe, was as much a part of her as her own skin. As breathing. She had hidden the fact that she had a leopard from her friends, from her family. They would insist she return to the lair and she was never going back there.
Her name rolled off Alonzo’s tongue with that accent that sent another shiver of awareness down her spine. Heat curled but Bebe stayed still. Hidden. She breathed a sigh of relief and looked up at him.
“Did he get you anywhere else?”
She shook her head and again wished she hadn’t moved so fast. Her cheek pounded and her eye hurt. Oh no. That was swelling too. Of course—she just had to look the absolute worst when he came in.
He glanced at his watch, took the ice pack from her, threw it into the sink and tipped her head back, using one finger under her chin. “You’re going to bruise, bad enough that makeup won’t hide it, but you can make up some story for your customers. I noticed there are a lot of men. They’ll believe anything you have to say.”
Her gaze jumped to his face. His voice was exactly the same. His face could have been carved from the glacier in his eyes. Remote. Uncaring. Dead. With all that, she felt like there was just a little bite in his remark, as if maybe the thought of those male customers didn’t sit well with him.
He looked at her for a long time, wholly focused on her, his gaze drifting over her body and then moving back up to her face. He nodded and turned away from her. Instinctively she knew that was the most she was going to get out of him. He bought three dozen of her cinnamon-apple cookies and didn’t stay to drink coffee. Another car, this one also a town car, but with red trim through the black, was waiting at the curb for him.
He came back on his usual days, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, sat in his seat with his back to the wall and drank his coffee and ate his baked goods. They had progressed to smiles and greeting him by name on her part and a nod with one single word, “Evangeline,” on his. She looked forward to him coming in. She tried to give him his cinnamon-apple cake free, but he merely looked at her and pushed money across the counter at her. At least he said her name. That was progress, even if it took six months for him to do it.
Several customers, male, noticed him, but left him strictly alone. When he wasn’t there, they came back and warned her that he was dangerous. She shrugged and said he was a good customer and never caused any problems.
One of the many times her Iceman sat at the table drinking his coffee, he suddenly looked up, his gaze going straight to the walkway outside her shop. Evangeline followed his gaze and immediately stiffened. This could be bad. Quickly, she reached inside her cash register and grabbed the envelope stuffed there and hurried toward the front door. Alonzo was there before her. One arm circled her waist and he gently but very firmly put her behind him as he opened the door for the two men coming in. Only he blocked the entrance, preventing them from coming inside.
“Alonzo.” One of the men smiled hesitantly at him. “We’re here on business.”
Alonzo shook his head. Evangeline curled her fingers into the back of his suit jacket and held on, her heart pounding. If she didn’t pay these men off, like everyone on the street did, she would find herself without a shop. They’d come in when she was renovating and explained they would never take more than necessary to keep her shop safe. She knew that meant pay up or they’d burn her out or something equally as horrible. She’d talked with other shop owners and all of them paid protection money. She figured the price into her monthly budget.
“They have guns,” she whispered against his back. “I’ve got their money.”
“The boss won’t like this,” one said, but he took a step back.
“You let me worry about that. This shop is mine to take care of. He has a problem with that, I’ll settle it myself.”
She was fairly certain he was talking about the mafia. Was he involved? The men shaking her down knew him by name, but they appeared to be afraid of him. She didn’t want him in trouble with a mafia boss.
“I’ve got the money,” she reiterated, trying to reach around him to hand the envelope to the two men.
Both men nearly fell backward, stumbling away from her hand. Her Iceman caught her wrist with a gentleness that shocked her and brought her hand down to his thigh. Alonzo didn’t look at her, but continued staring at the two men who turned and walked very briskly away.
“If I don’ pay, they’ll ruin my business,” she said, taking a step around him toward the door.
“They won’t.” He tugged on her hand and led her back to the counter. “In the six months I’ve been coming here, your male customers have quadrupled and they hit on you continually. You never date. Why?”
It was the last thing Evangeline expected him to ask. She still clutched the envelope in her hand, holding it tight against his rock-hard thigh. “Why do you ask?”
“A woman like you has no business being alone.”
“Like me?” She echoed it, trying to figure out where he was going with his questions and that statement that she found alternatingly annoying and alarming. Did he know she was leopard? Just what did “like you” mean?
Subtly she twisted her hand, expecting him to release her. She couldn’t keep her palm pressed against the heat of his thigh with his muscles moving deliciously beneath it and not react. Heat spread through her like molten lava, a slow fire building in her veins and pooling low.
He didn’t release her hand. He didn’t even seem to notice her small movement of retreat, but she knew he had. He noticed everything. His gaze remained on her face. All ice. So cold she thought she might freeze. There was no hint of his leopard. There never was. She could almost forget he was a shifter, but she could never forget the danger that clung to him like a second skin.