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A steamy shifter romance with a guaranteed HEA from Bestselling author J.h. Croix! If you like smoking hot paranormal romance with a twist of suspense and adventure, you’ll love this series!Shana Ashworth is trying to pick up the pieces of her life after her husband’s tragic death and the discovery of his betrayal of Catamount shifters. What no one knows is that long before she became a widow, Shana’s marriage was cold and distant. Her heart still feels encased in ice. The only man who seems capable of cracking through the ice is Hayden Thorne—a sexy, smoldering, and powerful shifter from Montana.When Hayden shows up for a visit in Catamount, the first woman he encounters is Shana. Shana is breathtaking—a deliciously curvy, intelligent, sexy and strong shifter. When Hayden met her before in Montana, the spark between them burned bright and hot. But he kept his distance. Now, he finds that impossible. Shana is his flame as much as he is hers.Shana wants nothing more than a fling—someone to make her feel again. Hayden is perfect—an out-of-town shifter who will be gone before her heart has a chance to get involved. Yet, she underestimates what lies between them.On a journey that spans from Montana to Maine, Hayden and Shana must hold tight to each other as they unravel the threads of shifter secrets. Both put their lives on the line to protect each other and all that shifters hold dear. In a love story filled with passion, steamy romance, suspense and adventure, the tinder of desire flares into white-hot passion, tossing and twisting them in its fire. Shana and Hayden must discover if the power of their love can hold them together.*All books in this series end with HEA!
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Once upon a time…
Excerpt: The Lion Within 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 © 2016 J.H. Croix
All rights reserved.
ISBN 13: 9781530006588
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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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.
Shana Ashworth gritted her teeth as her feet slipped out from under her and she skidded onto the icy road. When her hip crashed against the pavement, she couldn’t hold back her grunt. The pain seared through her. She unceremoniously came to a stop in the bramble of a bush beside the road. A bush that just happened to be wild rose with plenty of thorns on its bare branches. The early spring morning had tempted her for a run, and now she was paying a small price.
Her breath misted in the cool air. She remained where she was for the moment. The bare ground peeked out from the lingering snow cover. She leaned back on her hands, the icy pavement cold through her gloves. With a sigh, she glanced around. She was blessedly alone at the moment, although she was almost in the center of town. She tilted her face skyward and savored the warm sun. Buds were showing on the trees and birds were chattering like mad. Spring was technically here, but it would be another few weeks before the last of the snow as gone. Winter held onto Maine usually. Once it released its grip, the transition into spring was glorious in its contrast.
She gingerly shifted her weight and straightened her legs. Thorny branches clung to the fabric of her running tights. She tore them free and gathered her energy to stand. She was within a block of Roxanne’s Country Store. Once she managed to get to her feet, she considered perhaps she should take a break at Roxanne’s before trying to run home.
A short walk later, her hip protesting most of the way, Shana walked down the aisle toward the coffee shop in the back of the store. It was early yet, but the place was already busy. She ignored the pain in her hip. She’d become the master at ignoring pain over the past winter after her life blew up in her face last year.
Roxanne threw a grin her way when Shana reached the counter. “Coffee?”
At Shana’s nod, Roxanne turned away to get the coffee ready. Roxanne was a close friend and the owner of the store. She quickly filled a takeout cup and handed it to Shana. “Morning run?” she asked.
“Yup. Not my best plan. It’s slick in the shady areas, and I slipped. I figured I’d rest for a few here before I head back home,” Shana replied.
“I’d offer you a ride, but I’m the only one here so far.” Roxanne’s eyes broke away from Shana and beyond Shana’s shoulder. “Hot damn! Any idea who that is?”
Shana turned and almost choked on the sip of coffee she’d just taken. Her pulse rocketed. Hayden Thorne was walking into the coffee shop, a man she certainly didn’t expect to see. Her belly clenched, and heat raced through her body.
Hayden slipped a pair of sunglasses off, his caramel eyes meeting hers. A hint of surprise was reflected in his, the only thing giving her a tiny glimmer of relief. He walked toward her, his stride long and powerful. He was tall and lanky with hair that almost exactly matched his eyes.
“Hey Shana, nice to find a familiar face right away,” Hayden said.
Her face was hot, but she managed a nod. In the brief silence, Roxanne cut in. “And who would you be?”
Hayden’s eyes shifted to Roxanne. He took a step closer to the counter. “Hayden Thorne. I’m here for a visit from Montana. I met Shana last year when she came out there.”
Understanding dawned in Roxanne’s gaze as she nodded. “Right. Welcome to Catamount. I’m Roxanne. You found the perfect place to stop, seeing as you just got to town. Can I get you some coffee?”
“Coffee would be perfect,” Hayden replied with a smile. “Nice to meet you, by the way.”
“Ditto,” Roxanne said with a grin as she turned away. She quickly served Hayden a cup of coffee and started to speak when another few customers stepped up to the counter. Roxanne glanced to Hayden. “I’m a bit too busy to chat now, but stop by anytime.” Her eyes bounced between Shana and Hayden. “Maybe you could give Shana a ride home. She took a tumble on her morning run.”
Shana flushed and silently swore. Roxanne could sometimes be a tad too perceptive and was never one to hesitate to interfere. Before Shana had a chance to respond, Roxanne swung away, immediately jumping in to take the next customer’s order. Shana pasted a polite smile on her face when she turned to Hayden.
“No need to give me a ride. I was stopping to take a little break before I finished my run.” She tried to quell the zing of electricity in her body when Hayden’s eyes landed on her.
“I don’t mind. I have no idea where I’m going anyway. You can help me with directions.” Before she could reply, Hayden continued. “Did Dane mention I was coming out here for a visit?”
No, her older brother most certainly had not told her. But then, Dane and most of her friends continued to try to keep her in a bubble when it came to anything that had to do with the mess her late-husband, Callen Peyton, had left behind. Hayden Thorne was a mountain lion shifter from Montana who worked for the Feds. He’d been a big help when she’d bolted out there last year to unravel the secrets Callen had left hidden until his death on a highway on Connecticut. A mountain lion getting hit by a car on the highway in Connecticut was news no matter how you sliced it. Eastern mountain lions had been considered extinct for half a century though rumors swirled that they still lived.
Callen’s death had burst onto the news because it was the first confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in the East in over seventy-five years. Only Catamount shifters knew the truth. Mountain lions had evolved to become shifters—shifting back and forth from lion to human at will. Catamount, Maine was one of their strongholds in the East. Shana came from a long line of shifters and had married Callen Peyton because it seemed like everyone thought she should. If only she’d listened to her heart, she wouldn’t have felt like such a fool when she found out Callen had gotten in deep with a drug smuggling network and started trying to find ways to sell the services of Catamount shifters to the highest bidder. His efforts led to his death after a ridiculous attempt to demonstrate shifters could safely navigate in lion form through the busier parts of the Northeast.
She swung her gaze up to Hayden, swearing to herself. She’d completely zoned out in front of the one man who seemed capable of thawing the ice around her heart.
“Uh, no. Dane didn’t mention you were coming for a visit.” She scrambled to say something else though her capacity for casual conversation appeared to have temporarily left her. She pushed away from the counter and went to move toward a table. Her step lurched when she tried to put weight on her injured hip.
Hayden took a step toward her. “Looks like you could use that ride. How about…”
She cut him off. “I’m fine, just a little slip on the ice.” Her hip throbbed its disagreement, but she ignored it.
Hayden’s eyes coasted over her, assessing. He looked as if he was about to say something else until he met her eyes. Whatever he saw there changed his mind. “Even if you’re fine, falling on cold pavement sucks.”
Shana’s heart thumped—hard. A ride home would be lovely and far more comfortable than trying to run three miles mostly uphill to get back home.
“Oh, right. Um, sure. A ride might be good. It’s slicker out this morning than I thought.”
She figured if she refused the ride, it would make more waves than if she went along with it. Hayden glanced around, his eyes assessing the room. He took a swallow of coffee. He exuded a quiet, watchful power and strength. Damn if he wasn’t knee-weakening sexy. His eyes, like hot caramel, landed on her again.
“Shall we?” he asked, gesturing toward the door.
Shana nodded and began to walk toward the front of the store. Hobble was the more accurate term. Despite her best efforts, her hip was stiff and tight, throbbing with pain from its collision with the pavement. When she reached the door, Hayden stepped to her side. His hand slipped around her back, his touch burning hot.
“Take it easy,” he said, his voice low and warm. “You insist you’re fine, but I’m not so sure. Should I take you…?”
She cut him off, waving her hand dismissively. “No, no. I don’t need to go anywhere but home. It was a hard fall, but a hot shower is all I need.”
Her voice sounded shrill to her. Great, just great. You sound like a cranky bitch. Well, lately I have been a cranky bitch. How about you cut me some slack? Her inner critic slouched to the corner. She couldn’t quite think about the fact that she hated how she felt lately. Two of her closest friends had found love recently. Happy as she was for them, and she truly was, a tiny corner of her tattered heart wanted to scream and stomp its feet. Maybe she hadn’t loved Callen—though no one, not even her closest friends knew that—but she’d tried to make their marriage work for the sake of… Who was she kidding? For the sake of her pride and Callen. She’d been too embarrassed to admit the marriage had turned into an utter sham. When he died, she’d been stunned. She had genuinely been sad at first because, even if she didn’t love him the way she thought she should have, she had cared for him and never wanted to see any shifter die after getting hit by a car. Such an undignified death, a travesty for a majestic creature. But then, Callen’s secrets spilled out for the world to see. Now, she had to face the shame of not knowing what he’d been doing and somehow move on with her life.
She’d thrown herself into helping with the investigation into Callen’s drug smuggling and gone to Montana in search of Callen’s connections. Months ago, Callen’s father had been arrested, along with his brothers and a few other accomplices. For all intents and purposes, Catamount had moved on.
Meanwhile, her heart had felt encased in ice for years. The moment she laid eyes on Hayden in Montana, the ice cracked. He was like no one she’d ever encountered. He was tall and lanky with a deceptive strength. He carried himself almost lazily, but she’d seen him in action. As a mountain lion, he took her breath away. As a human, he sent her heart racing and heat unfurling through her veins. She’d come within a breath of kissing him in Montana. She had told no one about her unannounced visit to his office one afternoon in Montana. Thinking about it now suffused her with liquid heat. She remembered his eyes, burning into her, his lips, inches away. Before he swore and stepped back, his eyes shuttering. He was a man of honor. That she knew. He respected her brother and wouldn’t dare take advantage of her. Bitterly, she considered he probably thought her weak and needy because of what happened.
Her mind returned to the present, Hayden’s palm warm on her back, his other hand cupping her elbow. She’d convinced herself her recollection of the heat she felt with Hayden in Montana was an overblown figment of her imagination. But now, with him near, she wondered if she’d underestimated it. Somehow, she kept it together while he walked her to a black sports utility vehicle and helped her inside. The vehicle was blessedly warm.
Hayden turned to her. “Where to? The only directions I have are to Dane’s place.”
“Lucky for you, I live in the guesthouse on Dane’s property.”
He arched a brow. “Oh? Okay then. We’ll just let my GPS tell us where to go then. You can let me know if there’s a quicker way.”
“What brings you out here? Last I heard, things were mostly resolved with the smuggling network in Catamount.”
He nodded as he slowly pulled off the side of the road. “That’s what I’ve heard from Jake and Dane. Problem is, things are still running hot out in Montana. Dane suggested maybe I could get some info from the guys here sitting in jail while they wait for their cases to go to court. The federal prosecutor in Montana is working with the office in Portland to see if they can work out a deal if these guys will help us out on the other side.”
“Oh. Well, that makes sense. I hope you can get somewhere with it.” Hayden almost passed the entrance to Dane’s house. “Hey, turn…”
His GPS intoned its instructions just when she started to speak. He caught her eyes and chuckled before slowing and turning abruptly.
Shana took in the familiar landscape as they drove down the winding lane leading to the estate. Dane lived in their childhood home, which was an old colonial farmhouse, stately and lovely. After Callen died, it was all she could do to even walk in the home they had shared. Dane and his new fiancée, Chloe, had offered to let her stay with them in the main house, but Shana needed privacy. She’d moved into an old renovated barn, which had been converted into a modern guesthouse.
She directed Hayden to the guesthouse, a good mile away from the main home. He parked the car and leapt out. Before she had a chance to move, he was opening the passenger door. She started to move, too fast for her stiff hip, and gracelessly fell against him. Hayden’s arms caught her easily. Her eyes slammed into his. Time stopped. Her pulse quickened, her breath became shallow. The pull she felt toward him was so strong, she was powerless to resist.
He froze in place, though she could feel his heart pounding where her breast mashed again his rock-hard chest. His eyes darkened and flicked to her mouth. With thought impossible, she acted on instinct, lifting her free hand and stroking it through his golden brown hair and down along his cheek, savoring the rough stubble. His breath hissed before his lips crashed against hers. The ice inside her melted into liquid heat pulsing through her veins, twisting in her core. His lips feasted on hers, his tongue diving in, sweeping through her mouth. Her tongue tangled with his as she pressed closer, desperate for the heat he offered, the intense feeling he stoked inside of her.
Sensation prickled along her skin, slivers of fire. Wet heat built between her legs, and she shifted restlessly. Finally feeling something after so long was so unbelievably good, she could hardly stand it. It didn’t help matters that Hayden kissed like no other. Soft and slow, rough and fast—the combination drugging her senses, taking her breath away, making her want more and more. He abruptly tore his lips away.
She wasn’t ready for him to move yet, and he didn’t. He hooked an arm on the doorframe, his breath coming in gusts against her cheek. She closed her eyes, savoring his warmth, his strength. Sensation pinged low in her belly, warm and sweet. She almost sobbed in relief. After the emotional chilly years of her marriage and trying to adjust to Callen’s death, her emotions had dulled. She’d so desperately wanted to know she could feel again and now she did.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” he said, his voice tight.
She opened her eyes to find his trained on her. His pulse beat visibly in his neck. “I started it,” she whispered. “It’s okay.”
For a second, she thought he might kiss her again, but he slowly straightened. Her eyes flicked down and saw the bulge in his jeans. She resisted the urge to stroke him through the denim. She couldn’t help the tiny thrill of knowing she had an effect on him.
“Maybe so, but I know you’ve been through a lot this year. You don’t need me acting like an idiot.” He took a step back. His mouth curled up in a wry smile. “You’re so damn beautiful, it makes it hard.”
She tried to recall the last time any man had called her beautiful. Callen had largely ignored her the last few years, her self-esteem draining slowly away. He’d never been the most attentive man, but once the newness of their marriage wore off, Callen had carried on his life as if she was a mere afterthought. If he had a priority for their relationship, it was that they kept up the social image of a happy couple. Bitterly, she considered how his actions had torn his social image to shreds after his death. She batted the memories away and met Hayden’s eyes. She couldn’t help her return smile.
Shana’s slow smile nearly undid him. He had to yank the reins of his control to keep from kissing her again. Fuck. He was in serious trouble. He’d conveniently forgotten how insanely tempting Shana Ashworth was with her glossy honeyed locks that fell in waves halfway down her back, her smoky silver eyes, and her sensual, full mouth. Adding to the temptation, her body was all lush curves and strength. Hayden had spent his life around mountain lion shifters. Female shifters were renowned for their beauty. Shana took it to another level, primarily due to her natural sultry manner and complete obliviousness to how delectable she was. He recalled meeting her in Montana and being relieved he’d been seated at a table. He respected her brother and knew she’d been through a lot, so it absolutely wasn’t okay for him to be battling a hard on every time he got near her.
When she mentioned where she lived, the wheels in his brain started spinning. Dane had said Hayden was welcome to stay in the guesthouse. Dane couldn’t have meant for him to stay with Shana. Hayden was ashamed to admit the idea took his mind down the paths of some wild fantasies. The kiss just now had set him on fire inside. But he couldn’t go there.
Hayden came to Catamount to see if he could find a chink in the armor around the shifter smuggling network in Montana, not to get caught up in fantasies about Shana Ashworth. He glanced back at her, and her smoky eyes nearly shredded his control. He took a breath and another step back.
Shana’s eyes broke from his and she started to climb out of the car. Her breath hissed, her face barely tightening, when he recalled there was a reason he’d ended up with her in his arms. She was hurt.
He moved swiftly, carefully sliding his arm around her. She went stiff, but she didn’t shove him away.
“Let’s take it slow,” he said.
He felt the deep breath she took. Glancing down, her expression was controlled. She nodded quickly.
“Right. Slow seems to be the way to go. I didn’t realize how hard I landed.” Her voice was husky and sounded surprised.
Though Hayden couldn’t say he knew her well, he sensed her to be a woman who rarely showed weakness. Her brother had intimated as much when he talked about his worries about the effect of her husband’s death and the trail of misdeeds he left behind for her to clean up. Hayden wanted to know her, wanted to peel back the brittle layers around her, and find the woman he sensed underneath. Which was insane.
They made it inside the guesthouse. Shana limped inside. He had to force himself to ease his grip on her. His body didn’t want to move away. He wanted to pull her close again for another kiss. When she turned to face him, lust jolted through him. He held still, trying to force his body under control.
Her silver eyes met his, the corner of her mouth kicked up. “I didn’t think I needed a ride, but obviously I did. Thank you.”
“How long will you be visiting?”
He shrugged. “Not too sure. At least a week or more.”
She nodded, her eyes thoughtful. “Well, I’m sure I’ll see you again. I’m supposed to have dinner with Dane and Chloe tonight. Where are you staying?”
A flicker of heat flashed through him. The mere thought he might end up staying anywhere near her set his pulse racing. “Not so sure. Dane actually mentioned staying at the guesthouse, but I’m assuming he means another one.”
She flushed and bit her lip. Holy hell. She needed to not do that. It brought his focus right to her lips and nothing else. Now he knew what they felt like under his, well that wasn’t particularly helpful for getting his body to cool down.
She shrugged and rolled her eyes. “He probably meant here. Dane, uh, well he conveniently forgets to mention some things to me, especially if they have anything to do with my late husband. We never would have met you if it hadn’t been for everything Callen set in motion, so Dane was probably worried about telling me you’d be here.”
Hayden’s heart tightened. He didn’t know what to say, but he knew it must be painful for Shana to come to terms with the man her husband had been.
She saved him from having to formulate a reply. “It’s fine for you to stay here. There’s plenty of space. There’s a separate apartment on the other side. Why don’t you go on over to Dane’s and check in with him? I’ll probably see you tonight at dinner.”
Moments later, Hayden pulled to a stop in front of a lovely old farmhouse another few minutes down the road. His brain was fuzzed from his encounter with Shana. He grabbed a water bottle and splashed the cold water on his face, the activity jolting his brain off of Shana. He wiped his face with a towel and climbed out of the car. Somehow, he had to get his focus on why he was here. Though if Dane truly intended for him to stay in the guesthouse, even in a separate apartment, his will was about to be tested to the max.
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