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Easy, Big Fella…
Zoo worker Callie Jordan knows something primal when she sees it: take, for instance, the naked man sitting at the foot of her bed. He’s the same (naked) guy she saw after hours at the zoo. But now he’s in her apartment, and just happens to have turned into a black-as-night jaguar. The average person would be in a blind panic; Callie certainly intends to be—once she finishes processing what this incredibly hot lunatic is telling her…
It seems Callie’s visitor, the one who prefers skins to shirts, is Prince Rogar—from a place far, far away. Oh, and Callie is from the same place, has the same nifty shapeshifting powers, and is destined to be Rogar’s lifemate! It figures the first hot guy ever to show a bit of interest turns out to be certifiable. Then again, Callie’s seen Rogar’s powers (plus some other choice things) firsthand—and testing her new roomie’s powers of persuasion would be the ultimate walk on the wild side…
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That creepy crawly feeling was back, and goose bumps were popping up all over Callie Jordon’s arms.
Damnit, Callie was certain, well, almost certain, someone lurked in the shadows. The feeling was the same as when she watched a scary movie late at night and hadn’t pulled the curtains. She rubbed her arms to take away the sudden chill as her gaze scanned the park.
The last visitors in the zoo had left a couple of hours ago. There was no one in this area except herself. She was all alone.
It could be security, although Ben usually worked this side, and she knew he was still at the employee office. He wouldn’t leave until he’d had at least two cups of the too strong black coffee and a couple of the jelly-filled doughnuts.
The feeling persisted, though. Not in a stalker kind of way. More as though whoever watched her was waiting to see what she would do next. The spooky sensation had been with her for a few days now so it was nothing new.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Get over it, she told herself.
“Hey, Callie, you still here?”
Her eyes flew open and she jumped, slapping a hand to her chest. “You scared the hell out of me, Pete!” Pete worked at the park, cleaning pens and any other odd job that came along. The money he earned helped pay his way through college. He was cute, in a nerdy kind of way.
He blushed. “Sorry.”
She took a deep calming breath. “It’s okay. I just thought…”
“That I was the bogeyman?” He grinned.
Now it was her turn to blush. “Yeah, something like that.”
“You on your way to see Sheba?”
He shook his head. “I’ll never understand your fascination with that jaguar.”
She couldn’t explain it, either.
“Don’t stay too long,” he told her. “There is life beyond the zoo.”
“So they tell me. Have a good night.”
They parted ways, but she still felt a little uneasy for some strange reason.
Shake it off. It had been a long day, and an even longer week. She worked around kids most of the time. No wonder she was edgy.
The petting zoo was not what she would call a fun place to work, let alone being the person in charge. She’d been pinched, prodded, and bitten—and that was just this afternoon.
Still, pride washed over her. Not once had she threatened to feed the little monsters to the lion. Well, at least she hadn’t today. Monday could very well be another story. Thank God she used birth control, and thank God she was off for the weekend.
So why was she still here? Yeah, yeah, Pete was right. She’d finished all her paperwork ten minutes ago. The answer was easy. She couldn’t resist checking on the jaguar one last time. Crazy? Probably, since she didn’t work with the big cats.
She released a deep sigh of longing. One day she would. As soon as the next animal keeper job came open, it was hers. It had been a long time coming. And she damn well deserved the job, too. She’d more than paid her dues.
A soft breeze carrying a hint of jasmine and ginger caressed her face, immediately calming her. She stopped, closed her eyes, and drew in a deep breath. The scents created the illusion of the rain forest. Tropical palms and a mist so light that she barely noticed added to the atmosphere. This was her Zen, her Chi.
The very first time she’d visited this part of the zoo, Callie had known she was meant to be here. Then, when Sheba arrived, she knew it for a fact. There was something special about the jaguar.
She opened her eyes and crossed the rustic bridge, then went around to the backside that was off limits to visitors.
The cats were in cages at night for safety reasons. A long row of them with a concrete roof and solid walls held the animals. The pens were small, but they connected to separate pits, as everyone at the zoo called them. The pits gave the animals a little more room to roam, and were more like their natural habitat. There were only two other cats at the small zoo. A mother lion and her cub were caged at the end of the row.
The zoo was family owned, and would never be able to compete with the bigger Fort Worth zoo, but this one was nice. At least it was until Mr. Campbell had retired and his son took over. Now, she wasn’t so sure. His son seemed more concerned with publicity and making money than the animals or people who worked at the zoo.
She slowed her approach, not wanting to startle the jaguar. Sheba was in the far corner of her cage, lying on a bed of fresh hay. “Hi, girl,” Callie kept her voice soft.
The big cat looked up, purring from deep in her throat, as if to welcome Callie. Callie knew not to get too close, even though Sheba was double caged at night. As much as she loved the cat, it was still a wild animal, and she respected that. But Sheba was so beautiful, her coat a rich reddish-brown with black spots.
There was something in the cat’s eyes that Callie could relate to, as though they were kindred spirits. Not that she would do more than think that thought. But Sheba didn’t have anyone, and neither did Callie. Two lonely souls. They had that in common.
“I brought you something.” A little extra meat. No biggie. She knew she wasn’t supposed to feed Sheba. It would be grounds for dismissal, but she hadn’t been able to resist. And Sheba loved the extra treats.
Sheba suddenly came to her feet, but rather than walk closer to Callie, as was her norm, she backed away. Her head swung to the left, then right, as though she sensed something wasn’t right.
Callie tensed. “What’s the matter, sweetie? Still upset about all the kids today?” But Callie didn’t think it was that. Visitors had never bothered Sheba in the past. No, the cat was acting really strange.
The sudden roar of a cat echoed through the zoo.
Callie’s blood ran icy cold as dread washed over her.
The noise hadn’t come from Sheba, or the lion. The sound had come from the opposite direction.
And she knew something else. This cat was close. Close as in she-didn’t-stand-a-snowballs-chance-in-hell-of-not-getting-eaten-alive close.
Yeah right, easier said than done.
Think, she had to think.
Her gaze searched the area. Nothing moved in the shadows. She could hear the guttural purr of the unknown cat, though. The sound coming from low in its throat.
Then padded steps.
Callie’s stomach churned as her gaze slowly moved up, inch by inch.
She spotted the cat lying on the concrete roof of the cage, staring right at her.
Fear clogged her throat, making it impossible to swallow.
She couldn’t move, she couldn’t breathe.
The cat probably weighed nearly two-hundred pounds. A rare, solid black jaguar, his black on black spots barely discernible in the fading light. It wasn’t one of their cats.
Sheba snarled, pacing her cage as if she knew the danger Callie was in.
Callie closed her eyes and took a deep breath. God, just let me get through this without being ripped to shreds.
Cautiously, she took a step back, then another. The jaguar didn’t move. This was a good sign, right? Five more steps and she felt a little better. A few more and she would be around the corner and she could take off running. She would survive this encounter. She would…
The cat came to its feet.
How far would she get if she turned and ran right now? Two feet? Maybe farther if the cat was in the mood to do a little hunting. Jaguars liked to stalk, then ambush their prey, clamping down on the heads of their poor victims, their sharp teeth sinking into the skull.
So much for the new haircut she’d gotten yesterday. She stifled hysterical laughter. Nice, she was already losing what little mental function she had left.
The jaguar jumped to the ground in one fluid movement, barely making a sound when it landed. Any other time, she would have admired its grace and agility, but right now, she just wanted it to go away.
Was it a good sign her life wasn’t flashing before her eyes? Probably not, since she really didn’t have a life.
The meat! God, she’d forgotten about the meat. If she could tempt the big cat with it, she might be able to escape.
She eased her hand inside her pocket and brought out the baggie with the chunks of meat, then scooped out as much as she could hold.
“I have food,” she squeaked, then tossed it toward the cat. It landed with barely a thud. Why hadn’t she grabbed a big juicy hunk of meat just this once, rather than the measly one- inch chunks?
The animal ignored it. Ambled past without so much as a glance, its golden eyes never leaving her face.
Of course, why would it go for a handful of food when it could dine on her? One hundred and twenty pounds of juicy–she swallowed hard–steak.
The cat moved closer, circling her. She froze to the spot. She tried lifting one foot, but nothing moved. She figured this was what was meant by being scared stiff. Oh, hell, she was going to die.
As the cat sauntered in front of her again, a fog began to roll in. The guttural purr of the cat became louder.
“Please forgive me of my sins,” she whispered. Oh, God, there weren’t that many. Not nearly enough in her twenty-six years. She didn’t go to bars and get totally zonkered, or have one-night stands.
She read lots of books. She lived vicariously through the heroines on the pages of a romance novel. Her life was boring. Well, except the books were really good. Still, the closest she’d ever gotten to a hot guy was drooling over the cover models, and praying that one would come into her life.
A drop of sweat slid down the side of her face. She squeezed her eyes closed. If she was going to die, then she didn’t want to watch it happen.
The cat’s hot breath was on her hand, moving up her bare arm. Trembles of fear swept over her. So, this was the end of her life. Would anyone even miss her? It was sad, but she couldn’t think of a soul besides her friend, DeeDee. She didn’t have any relatives—not one. Her landlady would miss her, but only because the rent was due tomorrow.
The jaguar’s purr grew louder. She flinched. Her eyes opened. The cat walked behind her again. She trembled so hard her whole body shook like a California skyscraper during an earthquake. Not that she’d ever felt one since she’d never been out of Texas—at least, that she could remember.
She couldn’t take any more suspense. “Oh, hell, just end it now,” she finally whimpered.
Silence. The fog rolled in thicker, more dense.
She heard someone groan. Her? Oh, no, her mind was going fast. Her brain had already stopped functioning.
“End it now? You’re ready to die?” A deep, husky male voice asked close to her ear.
She whirled around.
The jaguar was gone.
A man stood behind her.