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Once upon a time…
Excerpt: Fated Mate by J.H. Croix, all rights reserved
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About the Author
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 J.H. Croix
All rights reserved.
ISBN 13: 9781530006427
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
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To my favorite girls.
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Centuries ago in the northern Appalachian Mountains, mountain lions fled deeper and deeper into the mountains, seeking safety from the rapid encroachment of humanity into their vast territory. Mountain lions developed the power to shift from human to mountain lion and back again, saving their species as they hid in plain sight. The majestic wild cats became creatures of myth. Reported sightings were treated as wildly speculative rumors. Impossible. Until one evening on a busy highway, a car struck an animal in the dark. The first confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in the East in close to seventy-five years. The wild cat was dead, its unbelievable existence snuffed out by a car. This mountain lion wasn’t just any mountain lion. Though its autopsy would only reveal it was, in fact, a mountain lion and that the lion had improbably traveled over 1,500 miles from South Dakota, the longest known journey for such a creature. In Catamount, Maine, shifters lived amongst the world, having successfully protected their very existence for centuries. Until one of their own died an improbable death, and they learned of a threat facing their kind.
Jake North woke with a jump when the door to his office opened. “Huh?” he said groggily.
“Seriously, Jake? Did you sleep here last night?”
Jake rubbed his eyes and ran a hand through his hair, looking up to find Phoebe Devine standing beside his desk.
“I guess so,” he said. He sat up straighter and rolled his neck from one side to the other, a weak effort at easing the tension from sleeping in his desk chair. Glancing at his computer, he saw it was still on. Multiple screens were loaded with the searches he’d been working on last night.
Phoebe smiled softly and handed him a cup of coffee in the distinctive bright blue takeout cups from Roxanne’s Country Store. He gratefully took it, immediately taking a swallow, the rich flavor welcome.
“Thank you,” he said. “To what do I owe this morning gift?”
Phoebe plopped down in the chair on the opposite side of his desk. “I thought I’d check in since your car is covered in about a foot of snow. I figured you’d stayed late and fallen asleep.” She paused, her dark brown eyes concerned. “You’ve been working so hard on this investigation since Callen died. I know how important it is, but I’m worried about you. It wouldn’t hurt to take a break every so often,” she said softly.
Jake took another sip of coffee and looked across his desk at Phoebe. She was a good friend. One of the few friends he could trust in the aftermath of the bombshell that had dropped in Catamount, Maine, a community along the vein of Maine forest through which the Appalachian Trail traversed. Just over a month ago, a mountain lion had been killed on a highway in Connecticut. Turned out, the mountain lion in question was a shifter from Catamount – Callen, a shifter from an old family of shifters. Jake’s family was as old and storied as Callen’s. Both were founding families of Catamount, one of the oldest and most well-protected shifter strongholds in the East.
As if Callen’s death weren’t devastating enough, Jake had started sleuthing in Callen’s email accounts at the request of Callen’s brother-in-law, Dane, who also happened to be Jake’s closest friend. Jake’s expertise was computers, specifically writing code and hacking. Most of his hacking was above-board, but when needed, he could chase down almost anything. In this case, he wasn’t so sure if that was a good thing or not. Though he still didn’t know why Callen died on that highway, he knew Callen had been coordinating for Catamount shifters to be used for drug smuggling activities by someone out West. That nugget of knowledge had exploded into public view after Dane’s new fiancée, Chloe, had been kidnapped to use as leverage last week. Chloe was safe and sound now, but no one knew who to trust because it was clear Callen hadn’t been working alone.
While the shifter community had been reeling from Callen’s death, they now had to grapple with an overwhelming sense of betrayal and fear. In the secretive world of shifters, trust was hard enough to come by. With shifter safety and existence at stake, Jake had been working relentlessly the last few weeks. Centuries of protection were at risk due to Callen’s betrayal. Jake looked at Phoebe, taking in her dark eyes and long dark curls. Concern shone in her expression. He sighed. “I know, I know. I should take a break, but we have to get to the bottom of this. After what happened to Chloe…”
“Stop it,” Phoebe ordered, cutting him off. “We all know Catamount shifters are in danger right now, but a few hours of sleep isn’t going to change that. Plus, you’re not much good to anyone if you can hardly keep your eyes open.”
Jake grinned. “True. Well since I missed a good night’s sleep last night, will you take my word for it that I promise I’ll leave the office tonight by seven and go home?”
Phoebe shook her head. “Nope. I’ll meet you here and make sure you leave. You’re having dinner at my place tonight. After you have a decent meal, then I’ll make sure you go home.”
He chuckled. “You don’t even trust me to go home afterwards?”
Phoebe smiled broadly. “Definitely not. I know you. You’ll talk yourself into driving back to the office because you’ll feel better after a decent meal. You need sleep, and I’ve decided to make sure you’re going to get it. That’s what friends are for,” she said firmly.
Relief and appreciation washed through him. He’d been pushing himself so hard, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a decent meal. He’d even skipped Thanksgiving dinner yesterday because he’d been deep in the files of one of Callen’s contacts out in Montana.
“Is Shana still staying with you?” he asked.
Shana was Dane’s younger sister, Callen’s widow, and Phoebe’s best friend. She was completely devastated to learn about what Callen had been planning. Shana was a shifter as well, also from a founding family in Catamount. She was struggling to adjust to the knowledge that the man she loved had put the entire shifter community in Catamount at risk by revealing who, what, and where they were. Even worse, he’d planned to make money off of them. Shana had been staying with Phoebe since they discovered what happened to Callen.
Phoebe shook her head. “She said she felt like she had to face what happened. She moved into the old guesthouse on Dane’s property. She’s been over almost every day, but she’s not staying with me anymore.”
Jake nodded. After another swallow of coffee, he stood and stretched. “How about I take you to breakfast?”
“Only if you promise to meet me for dinner tonight and go home afterwards.”
Jake couldn’t help but smile. Phoebe was nothing if not protective of her friends. “I promise,” he said firmly.
Phoebe absently ran her finger around the rim of her wineglass. “Well do you think the Fish & Wildlife guy in Montana is bad news or not?”
Jake arched a brow. “The problem is my gut tells me he’s a good guy, but the computer trail isn’t pretty. He was a main point of contact for Callen out there.”
“So why do you think he’s a good guy?”
Jake shrugged. “No good reason.” He couldn’t put his finger on it, but the man in question seemed to have discouraged Callen from something he was planning. The details were vague, but Jake just didn’t get the sense the guy was in cahoots with Callen.
Phoebe pursed her lips. “Well, you can’t trust him then.”
Jake chuckled. “The list of people I trust is very short right now. I won’t be adding anyone without extensive checking first. Aside from you, my parents, my sister, Dane, Shana, and Roxanne are about the only people on it.”
Phoebe sighed and brushed her hair out of her face. True to his word, Jake had met her at his office and come to her place for dinner. He hadn’t put up an argument when she insisted he ride with her. She looked across the table at him, and her heart clenched with worry. Jake was one of her best friends. She’d had a terrible crush on him in high school, what with his golden brown hair, bright blue eyes, sculpted face, and a hard body to die for. Phoebe hadn’t dared let herself think he could ever be anything other than a friend. She wasn’t a shifter, and Jake came from one of the oldest shifter families in town. Phoebe had cousins who were shifters, which is how her parents ended up Catamount, but she wasn’t. So she’d taken her high school crush and tucked it away in a corner while Jake had become one of her closest friends.
In the shadowed light from the candles and the light over the stove, the feline cast to his features was more pronounced. His deep blue eyes tilted at the corners, his sensual mouth quirked when she stood to pick up their plates.
“I can get those,” he said, starting to get up.
She put a hand on his shoulder. “Sit.”
He chuckled. “It won’t kill me to carry my plate to the dishwasher.”
Phoebe opened the dishwasher and quickly put the dishes inside. When she turned back around, she found Jake right behind her. “Oh! I didn’t hear you.” She tried to check her pulse, but it raced ahead. He was too close for comfort.
His mouth quirked as he held up her wineglass. She took it from him. “I wasn’t done yet.”
He didn’t reply and leaned against the counter. He was physically commanding in the small kitchen. He eyed her. “I kept my promise.”
She wasn’t sure what was happening with her, but Jake like this was crossing her signals and making her body run wild. After years and years of training herself to remember he could never be anything but a friend and keeping her body under strict control around him, it was as if she’d forgotten the hopelessness of letting herself want him. And oh, did she ever want him. Right now, in the dim, shadowy kitchen, heat coiled inside her belly and suffused her body. The claws of desire pricked her skin. Her heart beat wildly, her face flushed.
She looked up at Jake, praying her expression was composed. “You did. But you’re not done yet.”
His blue eyes held hers. If she hadn’t known better, she’d have thought she saw desire darken them. But that was impossible, so she didn’t even entertain the thought.
She shook her head, desperately trying to keep her wits while her pulse pounded and her body felt as if it were being pulled to him by a magnetic force. “You have to go home and sleep. No working tonight. That was the promise.” She was breathless and barely managed to keep her voice level.
You have got to stop this. Jake is off limits. You’ve had it under control. Don’t lose it now.
Phoebe felt frantic inside. She needed to get her wits about her. Jake pushed away from the counter and took one stride, which brought him just in front of her. The heat of his body tugged at hers. She tried to calm her heart rate, but her body ignored her mind. You’re freaking out because of this awful mess. You’re just scared. That’s what it is. After what happened to Chloe, you’re scared for everyone in town, especially shifters. Jake could have been hurt when he helped Dane rescue Chloe. That’s all this is. Your emotions are running wild.
Upon the heels of this reasoning, Phoebe made the stupid assumption that the heat would stop swirling inside of her, her pulse would slow down, and she’d be able to look at Jake without melting. When she looked up into his dark blue eyes, molten heat built inside. The desire she’d somehow kept in check for years ran rampant through her body. Her heart pounded so hard, she feared he’d hear it.
She bit her lip and closed her eyes. They flew open when she heard Jake swear softly. The moment her eyes opened, his lips landed on hers. She was lost. He kissed her fiercely, sweeping his tongue inside her mouth when she gasped. She might as well have gone up in flames right then and there. Years and years of denial lent a depth of power to Jake’s touch. His kiss nearly brought her to her knees. One of his strong arms swept around her, sliding down her back in a heated caress and cupping her bottom to tug her against him. The hard, heated evidence of his arousal pressed into the cradle of her hips.
Wet heat built inside of her, drenching her with desire. Jake simply kept kissing her—hot, deep, open-mouthed kisses. Their tongues tangled. She gasped for air when he tore his mouth from hers, blazing a path down her neck. Her name fell from his lips in a soft chant between nips and kisses. He swiftly unbuttoned her blouse, pausing for a long moment when he came to the black lace of her bra. Her nipples strained against the lace, tight and achy with want.
She could barely breathe, but she had to make this stop. It couldn’t go further, or she wouldn’t be able to face it when Jake realized this was a mistake, an aberration.
“Jake,” she whispered furiously. “We have to stop.”
His eyes were pinned to her breasts. Phoebe tried to step back, but the counter was behind her. She reached between them and tugged her blouse together, ignoring the desperate call of her body.
“Jake.” She repeated his name, flinching at the hint of sadness in her voice.
He lifted his eyes to meet hers.
Jake stared at Phoebe, scrambling to gain purchase in his mind. She felt so good, so damn good. He’d wanted her for so long and was weary of denying himself. Yet, he couldn’t have guessed at how phenomenal it would feel to touch her, to kiss her, to feel her flex under his touch, come alive in his arms. The cat in him stirred, the depth of his primal desire a living, breathing force he could barely keep leashed.
Phoebe said his name again, her voice tinged with the barest hint of sadness. He wanted to pull her close and tell her not to worry, there was nothing to be sad about. This force between them was about the only right and true thing in his life. But he’d denied his desire for her for so many years for good reason. When they were younger, he hadn’t wanted to take advantage. That was only one reason for steering clear of her. He’d been raised a shifter among humans. Shifters had survived as they had by blending in. His family told tales of generations of shifters scrambling to survive until their numbers were enough that they could breathe easier. Though it had never been explicitly stated, Jake had grown up assuming he’d fall in love with another shifter. Then he’d stupidly fallen in lust with Naomi in college and realized what an utter disaster it could be for shifters to fall in love with humans. One stupid college relationship had led to far too many disastrous rumors. He’d sworn off even considering a relationship with any woman who wasn’t a shifter. But Phoebe’s different. You know she’s different.
He could hardly bring himself to stop staring at her. He’d fantasized about her for years. Her generous breasts strained against the black lace of her bra, her nipples taut. Hints of pink peeked at him through the lace. He flicked his eyes to hers and saw the answering desire in hers. He knew, he’d known for years, that she wanted him as much as he wanted her. They’d done this dance of friends for so long, they were experts at it. But now, now that he’d had a taste of her, he couldn’t stop. Not just yet.
Holding her gaze, he slipped his thumb under the clasp between her breasts. With a snap, the lace fell open, her breasts exposed to him. She gasped, her dark eyes wide. His eyes fell, his pulse pounding in his ears. Her breasts were round and full, the nipples dusky pink. Instinct drove him. He brought his hands up to curl around them, rubbing his thumbs over her peaked nipples. Her breath came in ragged gasps. He finally gave in and leaned forward to tug a nipple into his mouth, her sharp cry bringing his cat to quietly growl under the surface of his skin.
By the time he pulled away, both nipples were damp, glistening in the soft light in the kitchen. He was pulled tight with the depth of his want for her. He brought his eyes to hers again.
“Jake,” she whispered. “We have to stop.”
For once, he didn’t want to listen to the bitter side of himself, the side that had told him for years he could never consider loving a woman who wasn’t a shifter. Because they couldn’t understand, they might betray him and his kind. With Phoebe, he knew that wasn’t true. He trusted her completely.
He shook his head slowly. “But we don’t. I know you want this as much as I do,” he said softly.
Phoebe stood in front of him, her breasts rising and falling with her ragged breath. Her dark hair tumbled in loose curls around her shoulders. Confusion and sadness flashed through her eyes. “I don’t understand what’s happening,” she said.
“We’re finally doing what we’ve both wanted to do for years.” He stroked his hands down her shoulders and along her arms, his hands coming to rest at the juncture of her elbows. He wanted her with a depth beyond reason, but he knew if he didn’t allow it to happen when she felt ready, it could devastate their friendship and ruin any chance for him to have what he’d denied himself for so long. A tiny, bitter corner of his mind pointed out that he was breaking his own rules here and he’d likely live to regret it.
“You’ve wanted to do this for years?” Phoebe asked.
Jake’s heart clenched. He hid his feelings so well she didn’t even know. He nodded slowly. “Yes.”
She stared at him, her eyes skating over his face. She lifted her hand and carefully smoothed his brow, her finger trailing slowly down his cheek before it fell away. Her touch was a path of fire.
“Oh,” she said.
She shimmied out from between his body and the counter behind her. She pulled her blouse up around her shoulders, gripping the edges in front of her breasts. He had to bite his lip to keep from begging her not to hide herself from him. He watched her carefully, lust surging through him in waves. But with Phoebe, it wasn’t merely lust. He loved her, had loved her for years, and he’d forced himself to ignore it, to keep her firmly in the category of friend. The list of reasons—she’d been too young at first, then she wasn’t a shifter and all of his baggage about that—felt inconsequential now. The only thing that mattered was the humming pulse of electricity arcing between them.
Her eyes held confusion and concern. “Jake, this is…a lot. You’re one of my best friends, and you’ve said for years that you’d never be with a woman who wasn’t a shifter. I’m not a shifter. I can’t risk our friendship over a night when you’re tired and not thinking straight. Because the thing is, if we go further, I don’t know if we can go back.”
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, reining his body in. He didn’t want to stop, but he knew she had a point. He was beyond tired and felt rattled inside from recent events. He opened his eyes and met hers. He took another step, pausing in front of her again. He brushed a loose curl out of her eyes, tucking it behind her ear.
“Okay. We’ll do this your way for tonight. I might be tired, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’ve wanted you for too long.”
Phoebe held his gaze, uncertainty flashing in hers. She nodded slowly. “You’ll probably come to your senses after you get some sleep,” she said wryly.
Jake traced her lips with his finger, savoring the hitch in her breath. “I finally came to my senses now. Take my word for it. This is only the beginning.”
Phoebe walked to her car, snow crunching under her feet with each step. Snow had fallen again last night. The Maine woods were lovely, almost otherworldly, in the winter. The boughs of balsam and cedar trees were heavy with snow. The bare branches of oaks, elms and other hardwoods stood stark against the sky. A few stubborn leaves clung to the trees, their color faded, though bright against the white backdrop. She paused by her car and looked around. Snow created a soft, muted sense to the forest. A crow called, another answering quickly, their voices clear in the quiet. The sun was cresting in the sky, the snow sparkling where its light touched.
Driving in to work, her mind traveled back to last night with Jake. She’d driven him home, the car charged with electricity arcing between them. She was still stunned at what happened. After years of shoving her feelings for him into a tiny corner of her heart, never to be examined, never to be acted upon, he’d shattered the door to that hidden corner. His kiss, the feel of his hands on her body, and his words had been thrilling and terrifying at once. She couldn’t quite believe he’d wanted her for years though he insisted he had. Part of her was frantic to take what he offered. Another part of her was frightened she’d lose one of her best friends if she acted on her desires. Years of hearing Jake’s confident proclamations that he couldn’t consider being with a woman who wasn’t a shifter rang in her mind.
But, oh, how she wanted him. To hear him say he was tired of denying himself was music to her heart. She pulled up at the hospital and hurried inside. She’d overslept after tossing and turning for most of the night. The interlude with Jake had electrified her, her mind and heart spinning in wild circles until she finally fell into an exhausted sleep.
“Hey Rosie,” Phoebe called out as she walked past the nursing station and pushed through the swinging door into the break room.
“Hey girl!” Rosie’s voice swung behind her into the room.
Phoebe quickly tugged her jacket off and stashed it in her locker. She switched out her winter boots for practical clogs. She was braiding her hair when Rosie entered the room a few minutes later. Rosie walked to the small round table in the center of the room and sat down with a sigh.
“It’s not even nine yet, and I’m exhausted. Brought you a coffee,” Rosie said.
Phoebe snapped an elastic band around the end of her braid and joined Rosie at the table.
“Ooh, you didn’t just get me coffee, you stopped by Roxanne’s and got my favorite. Thank you!” Phoebe took a swallow of the rich coffee from Roxanne’s, closing her eyes and savoring the flavor. When she opened them, she looked across at Rosie. Rosie was a good friend. They’d met in nursing school. Rosie had grown up in a nearby town and moved to Catamount when she got a job at the local hospital. She was like Phoebe, in that she was distantly related to some shifters, but wasn’t one herself. Rosie had short, curly golden hair with bright blue eyes. She looked sweet and innocent, but her mischievous smile gave away her sly sense of humor.
Rosie ran a hand through her curls and eyed Phoebe. “Any word from Shana?”