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A steamy shifter romance with a guaranteed HEA from USA Today Bestselling author J.h. Croix! If you like smoking hot paranormal romance with a twist of suspense and adventure, you’ll love this series! Heath Ashworth is a mountain lion shifter from a family whose roots go back to the birth of shifters. A strong alpha male and former Marine Special Forces operative, he stumbled and lost his way after a car accident where he barely escaped with his life. His grueling recovery led him down a path he never imagined. After he tangled with the shifter smuggling network, all he wants is to make it right again. Now he’s trying to live up to the man and shifter he once was.Vivi Sheldon once harbored a secret crush on Heath. He’s her best friend’s older brother and all kinds of tall, dark, strong and sexy. She shelved her youthful fantasies when Heath moved away for his military career. In the meantime, her heart took a few bumps and bruises. She’s a busy single mother and has convinced herself life without love is better than putting her heart on the line again.Vivi is bold, brash and beautiful. As Heath pulls his life back together, he finds he can’t stop thinking about her. The spark between them burns so hot and bright, he doesn’t want to ignore it anymore. One kiss sets the tinder between them alight in flames. Heath isn’t sure he’s shifter enough to live up to Vivi, while Vivi struggles to let down her guard.In a love story filled with passion, steamy romance, suspense and adventure, Heath and Vivi are bound tighter and tighter together as they face down the secrets threatening shifters everywhere. Can Heath be the shifter he believes Vivi needs? Can Vivi have faith in the love between them?*This is a spin-off series from the Catamount Lion Shifters Series. All books in this series end in HEA.
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Liczba stron: 253
Once upon a time…
Excerpt: A Catamount Christmas 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: 9781533290205
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 in the East while they flourished out West. Everywhere they were known as ghost cats because they were rarely encountered in the wild and moved with prowess and stealth. The wild cats expanded their range as their shifter ancestors intermingled with them, deepening the circle of protection for the species with layer upon layer of secrecy. The infamous ghost cats had powers of stealth beyond what most people imagined. Yet, their safety relied on a contract that couldn’t be broken among shifters—they must protect the secret of their existence. In recent years, this contract had weakened due to the greed and misplaced pride of a few shifters. The unprecedented success of shifters at hiding in plain sight over centuries had emboldened some who thought secrecy was no longer necessary.
Vivian Sheldon turned in the direction of the voice calling her name and spotted a table full of tipsy college students. She quickly grabbed a tray from the counter and set to pouring several house draft beers. She knew if she showed up to the table with only one, she’d be turning right back around for more.
Within moments, she slipped from behind the bar at Quinn’s Restaurant and Bar and carried her tray to the table in question. Her foresight in bringing extra beers was rewarded with a hefty tip.
“Thanks Vivi! You’re a mind reader,” one of the guys declared as she turned away.
She offered a quick grin and headed back behind the bar. She worked pick-up shifts at Quinn’s usually a few nights a week. She’d have preferred not to because the hectic pace could be tiring, but she always needed the money. As a single mother to her seven-year old daughter, Julianna, she tended to barely scrape by month-to-month. She loved her small landscaping business, but working at Quinn’s filled the gaps during slow months. If it weren’t for her mother babysitting for free whenever she needed it, she didn’t know what she’d do.
Quinn’s was packed tonight, which was its usual state. Quinn’s had been a fixture in Painter, Colorado for many years. It served classic pub fare with some modern updates to the menu in terms of more creative burgers and other items. It catered to pretty much everyone from the college students to locals and tourists who passed through town for skiing in the winter and hiking in the summer.
Vivi slipped behind the bar again, which ran the full length of the back wall. She quickly wiped down a spill on the polished wooden counter, its surface worn and grooved from years of use. She moved on to serving customers who lined the bar, occasionally glancing around the room to see if any tables needed drinks. Round tables were scattered throughout the center of the large room with booths lining the walls. Pool tables and card tables were through an archway to another room.
The night passed by quickly. By the time Vivi walked out at midnight, she had earned enough in tips to pay her electric bill. She stepped out into the cool autumn air and took a slow breath. The streetlights lining Painter’s streets were on, lighting her way home. Painter, Colorado was a small town nestled in the Rocky Mountains. Vivi didn’t live far from downtown, so she usually walked to and from work. She stood on the sidewalk for a moment before she began walking, the noise from Quinn’s gradually fading as she made her way toward home.
She passed by mostly darkened storefronts with a few restaurants and bars still open. Painter was home to a state university and a ski resort, without which the small town would be a sleepy mountain hideaway. She’d forgotten to bring a jacket and shivered in the cooling air. Autumn in the Colorado Rocky Mountains could mean somewhat warm days and rather chilly nights with the temperature varying from day to day until winter took hold. She heard footsteps in the distance approaching her. Her senses sharpened, and she scented the man following her. He wasn’t a shifter, which was a relief because it meant if she needed to she could easily fend him off. The downside was she might potentially terrify him.
Vivi had been born a mountain lion shifter into a family of shifters. Shifters blended easily into the world, shifting only when necessary or when desired. Painter happened to be a stronghold for shifters out West, but shifters were scattered throughout the country with clusters in some areas. They had many advantages in the West since wild mountain lions existed in healthy populations here. If a shifter in lion form was sighted in the forest, they were assumed to be a wild mountain lion. Back East, where mountain lion shifters were born out of desperation to save their kind, there was a different set of challenges since mountain lions were believed extinct in the East. Since secrecy was important for shifters, Vivi never took her safety for granted. Revealing herself was something she only did when she chose. She hoped it wouldn’t be necessary now as she listened to the footsteps getting closer and closer.
Just when she considered it might be best if she ducked into one of the open bars up ahead, a man walked out of the very door she’d been eyeing. Heath Ashworth’s profile was instantly recognizable to her. A breath of relief washed through her. She’d known Heath for just about forever. He stood in the shadowed light and glanced around, his eyes narrowing when he saw her. He immediately turned toward her and began walking in her direction, his stride long and loose. As he approached, he caught her eyes. “Wait here,” he said as he walked past her.
She stopped on the sidewalk and turned to look behind her. The man who’d been following her slowed as Heath approached him. Heath leaned over and spoke in the man’s ear. Now that she was close enough, she could see the man was young and clearly intoxicated. He swayed back and forth on his feet as he stood in front of Heath. Heath stood tall again. When the man remained where he was, wobbling slightly, Heath gently placed his hands on the man’s shoulders and turned him around. With a little push, the man began walking back down the sidewalk. As he passed by a lighted bar, he turned and stumbled through the door.
Heath turned around and walked back, coming to a stop in front of her. Her pulse started to race, and she tried to tamp it down. Heath was her best friend’s older brother, and she’d fought a crush on him since they were teenagers. At thirty-two years old, Heath was three years older than she and her best friend Sophia. Vivi had hidden her crush from Sophia all those years ago and somehow managed to convince herself it was over when Heath enlisted in the Marines and left Painter. She rarely saw him, except for his brief visits home, for many years. About a year and a half ago, he came home for good.
In the years Heath was gone, she’d tried to bury her youthful crush and fancied herself in love with Julianna’s father. That had turned out to be nothing more than a case of some serious wishful thinking. After Julianna was born, her father quickly faded out of sight. For the first few years of Julianna’s life, he popped up here and there, but Vivi hadn’t heard from him in over three years. She’d learned her lesson well and hadn’t dated in years.
Right here, right now, in downtown Painter, Heath stood before her and every fevered fantasy she’d had about him when she was a teenager came roaring to the fore. Heath was all kinds of tall, dark and mysterious, even though she’d known him as long as she could remember. He had a body of pure muscle with the simmering power of a mountain lion shifter. His dark hair teased the edges of the denim jacket he wore. His green eyes flicked down to hers.
Okay, Vivi. Now would be the time to get a hold of yourself. You cannot start wishing for the impossible. Heath is not interested in you, so don’t give yourself any crazy ideas. As soon as she finished that thought, she glanced up into his eyes again and what she saw there made her wonder. If it were anyone other than Heath, she’d have sworn she saw desire darkening his gaze. But this was Heath, and she was nothing more than an overworked single mother barely getting by and his sister’s best friend who he treated with the same brotherly affection.
“Don’t think that guy meant any harm. He’s young and drunk and saw a pretty girl walking down the street,” Heath said.
His husky voice was like a rough caress. It sent hot shivers through her. She tried to focus on what he said. “Oh, right. Yeah, I wasn’t too worried, but I’m glad you happened to be around.”
Heath nodded. “Wouldn’t have thought you’d be worried,” he said with a half-smile. “It’s not your style.”
She bit her lip and tried, oh she tried, to get her body to behave. But it was as if flames had encircled them. The air was so cool, and she was so hot inside. Heat suffused her and her pulse kept racing unchecked, no matter how hard she tried to slow it. She shivered at the contrast. Heath’s eyes narrowed before he shrugged out of his jacket.
“You’re cold. Here, this’ll help.”
He stepped closer to her and swung the jacket over her shoulders, his arms caging her as it settled around her. The denim was warm and held his scent. She had to close her eyes to try to gain control of the desire surging through her. When she opened them again, he was still there, inches away from her. His hands had come to rest on her upper arms. He slid them down, his touch sending an electric current swirling through her. Her pulse rocketed and her breath became shallow when she met his eyes.
His palms reached her hands, which were cold. His hands, warm and strong, curled around hers, imparting his heat to her. Just when she wondered what she should say to snap this moment, he freed one of her hands and took a step closer. He was so close now that when she took a breath, her breasts rose and brushed against his chest. She flushed straight through when she realized he could feel her peaked nipples through her t-shirt. Something flickered in the back of his eyes. Before she could ponder it, he slid his hand into her hair and dipped his head.
When his lips were but a fraction away from hers, he whispered, “I’ve been wanting to do this for too damn long.”
She was so stunned by his words, her jaw went slack and her knees wobbled. His lips met hers, and any pretense of thought dissolved into the desire pounding through her. He didn’t hesitate. He fit his mouth over hers, and she lost her mind. At her gasp, his tongue swept inside and need thundered through her. She arched into him and moved entirely on instinct, so overtaken by sensation that she couldn’t think. Her tongue slid against his as she kissed him with everything she had. His arm slipped around her back and pulled her against him. She felt the heat of his erection pressing into her belly. Hot, liquid need pooled between her legs. She slid her hands up his chest, savoring the feel of his hard muscles under her touch.
The sound of a car coming down the street filtered into her consciousness. The bright headlights arced across them. Heath tore his lips free. Awareness slid through her. She scrambled to gather herself. When she looked up, Heath’s eyes were right there waiting. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God! What the hell were you thinking? You kissed Heath! You have to play it cool somehow. Probably means nothing to him. Take a nice deep breath and…
Heath’s hand loosened in her hair, and he slowly freed it before brushing a lock away from her forehead and tucking it behind her ear. Every touch struck sparks under the surface of her skin.
His eyes were somber as he looked down at her. He appeared to be considering his words. Frantic, she filled the silence. “Look, that was just a kiss. We weren’t thinking. You don’t need to worry I’ll…”
He shook his head sharply. “I wanted to kiss you,” he said bluntly. “You don’t have to brush it off.”
She hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath until it came out in a whoosh. Her hands were still on his chest, and she could feel the fast beat of his heart under one of her palms. “Oh, um… Oh.”
Wow, brilliant, Vivi. Think you could say ‘oh’ one more time?
She mentally sighed and glanced up again. His eyes held a glint of amusement, but he was quiet. She took a deep breath, the cool air soothing her nerves just enough so she could think. “Okay. This is, uh, unexpected, and I’m not sure what you’re thinking.”
“I’m thinking what I said. I’ve wanted to kiss you for too damn long, so I finally did.”
Heath looked down at Vivi, his heart pounding so hard, it reverberated through his body. She took another breath, which nearly broke his control again. He could only take so much of the feel of her tight nipples against his chest. They were on Main Street in downtown Painter in full view of anyone who drove by. He wasn’t sure if he’d lost his mind by kissing her, but he wasn’t going to lie. If there was one thing he’d learned in the last year and half, honesty was the only thing that would keep his head above water.
Vivi’s dark hair fell around her shoulders. It gleamed where the streetlights caught it. Her blue eyes were bright against her fair skin. His eyes roamed over her face—the arch of her brows, her high cheekbones slanting down to her bow-shaped mouth, and the subtle vulnerability hiding deep in her eyes. It was that which made his heart clench. He remembered Vivi when she was younger, almost always with Sophia, and so bold, brash and bright. When he returned to Painter after over a decade in the military, it was as if her light had dimmed. He hadn’t known how much he counted on seeing her spark until it wasn’t so bright.
What he’d said was true. Many years ago, he’d had a few youthful fantasies about her, but he’d swatted them away. It wasn’t exactly kosher to lust after his little sister’s best friend. A decade in the military had pushed any fantasies far out of his mind. The last year had nearly broken him. A life-changing car accident sent him to the hospital. He’d left the hospital and cycled through several surgeries to repair his shattered femur. In a fog on painkillers, he’d stumbled around. Occasionally when the fog lifted, he’d see Vivi and wish he could have a chance to explore the fierce pulse of desire he felt for her. Until the last few months when he’d been forced to face his accidental painkiller addiction and how low it brought him, he hadn’t felt worthy of anyone. Most certainly not worthy of Vivi—she was strong, loyal, caring, and simply spectacular. Doubt flickered in his mind. Being a shifter, doubt wasn’t something he was accustomed to. Yet, this last year had weakened him in ways he’d never imagined. He felt strong again, but he wasn’t sure he was worthy of Vivi.
“Maybe I wanted to, but maybe I shouldn’t have done that,” he said abruptly, the words coming out before he considered them.
Vivi’s eyes slammed into his. “Why do you say that?”
He cleared his throat, trying to stay focused. “Because I messed up this year. Big time. You don’t need…”
Vivi’s eyes flashed in the glimmer from the streetlights. “Don’t you dare go there! So you messed up? Once, only once, after a hellish year and all kinds of pain. You’ve already made it out the other side. You’re a shifter, you’re too strong to do anything other than rise above. You already have and you’re a better man for it.” She paused and took a shaky breath. “Maybe I have all kinds of questions about this, but nothing to do with what you went through this year.”
Her words were so clear and confident, the doubt that had started to worm its way into his brain dissipated immediately. He took a breath and tried to get his body back under his control. He eased his hold on her, though it took an enormous amount of discipline, and took a half step back. He needed the distance, but he couldn’t bring himself to stop touching her, so he left his hand resting on her low back. He underestimated just how much he’d want to slide his hand over the curve of her luscious bottom and had to take several slow breaths to maintain control.
Vivi’s eyes had fallen, but she lifted them again. Her gaze was clear and direct. “How long is too damn long?” she asked.
He thought for a moment. “Well, there are two answers to that. There’s the one where I tell you maybe I thought about kissing you back when you were still in high school.” When her eyes widened, he couldn’t help the smile that curled the corner of his mouth. “There’s the other one where I tell you I thought about more than that this last year or so. I haven’t really been in a place to do anything about it until now.”
His chest tightened at what his own words meant. When he heard them aloud, they held a potency he hadn’t contemplated.
Vivi was quiet for several beats, a flush staining her cheeks. One of her hands fell from his chest. She started fiddling with the silver charm bracelet on her wrist. She took a gulp of air before she spoke. “Okay then. That clears it up.”
“How about you?”
Another few beats passed, and she took another deep breath. “Okay, you were honest, so I’ll be honest. I suppose I have two answers as well. The first is I might have had more than a few times when I thought about kissing you back in high school. The second is life happened and then…” She paused, the soft clink of the charms on her bracelet audible as she looked up at him. “You came home again…and I’ve thought about it a lot more since then.”
What he wanted to do was lift her in his arms and find the first place he could to bury himself inside of her, but he wasn’t after quick satisfaction. Not with Vivi. He wanted the time to see what lay between them and if it meant as much as he suspected. If his cat had anything to say about it, he wouldn’t be waiting at all. Alas, human reason managed to filter through. So, he shackled his impulses and slowly eased his hand off her waist.
“Are you walking home?” he asked.
At her nod, he continued. “I’ll walk with you.”
They walked through the quiet night. At some point along the way, he reached for her hand. When they walked up the steps to her house, he looked down and allowed himself one small moment. He dipped his head and caught her lips in a quick kiss. Just that, and it took all of his willpower to pull back.
After she closed the door and locked it behind him, he walked down the stairs and returned to where he’d left his car. His lion simmered, the shackling of his desire went against every grain of the lion side of his shifter self. The chilly, quiet night settled him and by the time he made it to his car, the heat inside had begun to abate.
Vivi held a toothbrush in one hand, vigorously scrubbing her teeth while she clipped her hair back in a barrette with the other hand. She ran the faucet and rinsed her mouth. Just as she turned the water off, a loud thump came from the kitchen.
“Julianna!” she called out, snatching a towel and drying her hands as she raced down the hallway.
Julianna looked up, her dark brown eyes wide. A milk carton lay on its side with milk spreading in a pool by Julianna’s feet. Julianna glanced up with a grimace. “Sorry, Mom.”
A blur of black and white caught Vivi’s eyes. Jax, Julianna’s beloved young cat, dashed across the kitchen and skidded into the puddle of milk. Impatience rose inside Vivi. Every morning felt like a race. Small accidents like this only added to the hurry. Vivi strode quickly to Jax’s side and promptly dropped the towel in her hands on the milk. “Sorry Jax. No time to let you try to clean this up.” Jax sat on his haunches and set to cleaning his wet paws, unperturbed.
“Mom! That’s a bathroom towel!”
Vivi shrugged. “So what?” She brushed Julianna’s brown hair out of her eyes and dropped a kiss on her forehead. When she looked back at the floor, the towel had already absorbed the milk. “See, it’s all gone,” she said as she picked up the towel and carried it to the sink to wring it out. “Pick up the milk carton please.”
Julianna immediately picked it up and started to carry it to the trash. “Hey, give me that,” Vivi said, turning and holding her hand out.
Julianna looked up, her eyes confused.
“Hey, if there’s any milk left in there, we can still drink it,” Vivi said with a grin.
Julianna smiled doubtfully, but she carried the carton over and handed it to her mother. Vivi shook it, feeling almost nothing swishing back and forth in the bottom. “Oh well, it was worth checking.” She handed it back to Julianna who quickly dropped it in the trash before she slid into a chair at the kitchen table.
Vivi opened the fridge, hoping she’d find an extra carton of milk, so Julianna could have her cereal, and she could have a dash of milk in her coffee. No such luck. She tended to live day to day when it came to shopping and anything that cost money. She wouldn’t trade her life for anything, but being a single mother meant money was tight all the time. When she got pregnant with Julianna, her landscaping business had been in full swing. It was a small business, but it paid the bills and she loved it. Once she had Julianna, she quickly realized her money didn’t stretch as far. Her business kept her afloat and a few shifts a week at Quinn’s filled the gaps.
Back before Julianna came along, she’d fancied herself in love with Chris Barnett, a shifter who she’d met when he spent a summer in Painter. Chris had been fun and showered her with attention, up until the day she told him about her unexpected pregnancy. Before she’d even had a chance to consider what she wanted to do, he made it clear he expected her to not have the baby. He’d also turned cold and distant.
To this day, she didn’t know if her choice to have Julianna had been spurred by his arrogant assumption she wouldn’t have her. It didn’t matter because Vivi loved Julianna to pieces and wouldn’t have changed the course of events even if she could’ve. It would have been nice for Julianna to have a father who was a part of her life, but if Vivi had learned one thing, it was that learning to be at peace with circumstances beyond her control made life a lot easier.
For now, she grabbed a yogurt and a banana. Moments later, she set the bowl down in front of Julianna. “Maple yogurt with bananas!” she announced with a mock bow. “Breakfast of the champions.”
Julianna giggled and immediately lifted her spoon to start eating. A while later, Vivi watched the bus drive away, bright yellow in the misty gray rain of the morning. She sat down at the kitchen table with a sigh. By some small miracle, there were only a few dishes piled up by the sink. Her eyes traveled around the kitchen. Her house was a small bungalow, like many of the homes in her neighborhood. The kitchen had counters with cabinets above lining two walls with the refrigerator tucked into a corner. The sink was situated in the center of one wall and a stove on the other. There was just enough room for a small round table by the archway that led into the living room. On a clear day, the windows let sun in that streamed all the way into the kitchen. With today being rainy, the light was dim inside.
She pushed her chair back and strode into the living room. The mountains loomed in the distance, partially obscured by the clouds. Painter was nestled high in the mountains of Colorado. Vivi loved it here. The shifter side of her only felt at home in the mountains and skirting the edge of wilderness. She loved where her house was because she could see the mountains everyday, her best friend lived a few houses down the street, and downtown Painter was within walking distance.
Her eyes landed on one of the ferns hanging in the window. She quickly snagged the watering can off the table by the wall and filled it. After she watered her plants, she tossed her raincoat on and grabbed her purse before heading out the door. She jogged down the porch stairs and stopped by her car, considering for a second whether to drive. She quickly decided against it and headed for a walk through the drizzle.
As she turned onto Main Street and saw the bright red lettering for Mile High Grounds, her favorite coffee shop, which happened to be owned by her best friend, Heath strolled through her thoughts for the hundredth time since last night’s unexpected kiss. She found herself constantly batting the thoughts away—it was almost too much to think about what happened. There was a good chance she might run into him at Mile High. He was there as often as she was, seeing as Sophia was his sister. Just thinking about him sent flutters twirling through her belly. She could hardly believe their kiss had even happened. Normally she’d have called Sophia to babble about something like that, but she couldn’t. Not now. She’d successfully hidden her crush on Heath from Sophia way back when they were in high school together. While he’d been away in the military, she’d simply let it go. Chris had come along and sort of swept her off her feet. After that blew up, she was too busy being a mother to think of anything remotely resembling romance.
Then, Heath came home. His first year home had been a doozy. Between his car accident, grueling recovery, falling into the trap of painkiller addiction and then brushing up against the shifter smuggling network, he’d had more than his share of troubles. Through it all, Vivi had fought against the tide of feeling welling up for him. She reached Mile High Grounds and pushed through the swinging door. The scent of coffee filled the small space. It was mid-morning and the coffee shop was in full swing. The tables were full and a line of customers waited by the counter. She glanced around and breathed a silent sigh of relief to find Heath wasn’t there. Her relief was immediately followed by a twinge of disappointment. She wanted to see him again, but she didn’t want to see him again. The silly, hopeful side of herself wanted to see if sparks flew again when she saw him. While her rational brain reminded her she couldn’t get all romantic and hopeful. Too many complications. With a shake of her head to knock Heath out of her thoughts, she went to stand in line by the counter.
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