Protected Mate (Catamount Lion Shifters, Book 1) - J.h. Croix - darmowy ebook
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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!Dane Ashworth, a sexy, solitary mountain lion shifter, comes from one of the founding shifter families of Catamount, a town deep in the woods of Maine where mountain lion shifters have existed in secret for centuries. The community is in turmoil after the startling death of a shifter. In the midst of upheaval in Catamount, Dane encounters the unassuming, curvy and deliciously sexy Chloe Silver.Chloe set out to hike the famed Appalachian Trail in the aftermath of heartbreak. She’s lived a well-planned life, only to learn that the best laid plans could blow up in her face. She’s looking for a fresh start, but trust doesn’t come easily for her. The mere idea of shifters has never crossed her mind, but Dane calls to her in a way that no man ever has. She finds herself tossed and turned by the depth of her attraction to him. The mountain lion in Dane knows Chloe is meant for him, but he has to find a way to earn her trust and make her believe in him and in what lies between them. Passion burns like wildfire between them while events in Catamount put them both in danger. In a love story filled with passion, steamy romance, adventure, betrayal and secrets, Chloe will have to decide if she can accept Dane for who he is, and if she’s willing to believe in the power of love.*All books in this series end with HEA!

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Protected Mate

Catamount Lion Shifters, Book 1

J.H. Croix

Contents

Once upon a time…

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Epilogue

Excerpt: Chosen Mate by J.H. Croix, all rights reserved

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Acknowledgments

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: 1530006341

ISBN 13: 9781530006342

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.

ISBN: 978-1-5300-0634-2

Created with Vellum

Dedication

To the man of my dreams…who steals my heart every day.

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Once upon a time…

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.

1

Dane Ashworth pushed through the swinging door of Roxanne’s Country Store and found himself in a small crowd. Roxanne’s was practically the center of the universe as far as Catamount, Maine was concerned. This morning, Roxanne, the owner, had the news on rather than her usual fare of talk shows. Dane looked up at the screen and saw the body of a dead mountain lion lying on the side of a highway—a majestic animal killed by a careless driver. His heart stuttered, and fear washed through him, confusion swirling in his thoughts. The reporter announced this was the first confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in New England since nineteen thirty-eight when a mountain lion was trapped in Maine. Eastern mountain lions had been declared extinct.

In Catamount, the hidden truth walked among everyone else—mountain lions had evolved to shift into human form centuries ago. The news switched to the autopsy scene with a veterinarian medical examiner. The examiner reported the cat in question had been tagged with a tracking device. Scientists were puzzled and stunned by its results. The cat had traversed from the mid-west to the east in North America, traveling roughly fifteen hundred miles to Connecticut—twice as far as any previous known distance for a mountain lion.

It was only then Dane recognized the mountain lion was Callen, his sister’s mate. Callen bore a distinctive scar on his neck. It was visible when the camera scanned over his body, lifeless on the stainless steel table. Dane closed his eyes, grief flashing through him. His sister would be devastated. Callen came from a long line of shifters and was considered one of the dominant male shifters in this area. In his human form, he traveled frequently and had recently traveled to South Dakota and Montana on multiple excursions to try to confirm if the rumors of shifters in that area were true.

How and why he was traveling in his mountain lion form through Connecticut was as much of a mystery as his death by car on a highway. Dane glanced around, finally catching the eye of Jake, a good friend. With a nod of his head, Dane walked back outside and Jake followed.

“What the hell is going on?” Dane asked flatly.

“I just walked in myself. Have you seen Shana? You’d better find her before she walks in here and sees his body on television like that,” Jake replied.

Dane nodded sharply. “I’ll go find her in a minute. What is everyone saying?”

“Everyone’s freaking out. Why was he on foot, why was he in cat form, how come he didn’t shift, what does Shana know? On and on. Everyone wants to know when and why Callen was tagged and tracked.”

Dane tugged his phone out of his pocket. “I want some answers and soon. But first I have to find Shana.”

Dane spent the next few hours frantically looking for Shana. She was nowhere to be found. She should have been on duty at the hospital today. She was a nurse there while Dane was an emergency room doctor. They had been raised together by their mother who came from a long line of healers within the shifter lineage. He and Shana had inherited their desire and ability to heal from her. They were among a number of shifters who worked at the hospital.

After checking the hospital, Shana’s house and driving around town to see if he could find her, Dane stopped by her friend Phoebe’s house.

Phoebe opened the door, her dark brown eyes wide with fear and worry. Phoebe was full human, a distant cousin to a shifter family. She was like a sister to him and fiercely protective of her shifter family and friends. Her dark hair was piled in a messy bun.

Before he could get a word out, Phoebe grabbed his arm and tugged him inside.

“I’ve been looking all over for Shana. I finally came home thinking maybe she stopped by. Have you seen her?” she asked.

The knot in Dane’s stomach tightened. “You and me both. I was hoping you might know where she is. Have you heard the news?”

Phoebe nodded, tears filling her eyes. “Callen died on that highway in Connecticut. I think Shana must have heard the news on the way in to work. You have to find her, Dane!”

He nodded. “I know. Has she mentioned anything to you about Callen the last few weeks?”

“Just that she was worried about him because he was trying to confirm if there were shifters out West. She was afraid he might reveal himself somewhere unsafe and get killed. That’s all she’s mentioned out of the ordinary.”

Dane sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Dammit, what the hell was going on with Callen? It makes no sense that he didn’t shift back. I have a bad feeling about this. How the hell did he end up tagged?”

Phoebe stared back at him, fear flickering in her eyes. She gestured weakly, palms up in question, as she shook her head. Dane glanced at his watch. “I’m headed into the mountains. I’m guessing Shana took off to one of her hiding spots. Do you have to work tonight?”

Phoebe shook her head, and he continued. “Do you mind sitting tight? If I miss her out there, she’ll probably come here when she gets back to town.”

“No problem. I’ll be here all night. Can you call me if you find her?”

“You got it.”

Dane took off, calling Jake on the way to update him. He parked at one of the trailheads that intersected with the Appalachian Trail and started off on a solitary hike. It was late afternoon, and he needed to find a place to shift soon. He’d cover ground much faster in mountain lion form. He scrambled up a steep portion of the trail and cut off into the deep brush. In a flash, he shifted, his clothes falling, fur unfurling in a wave with a final twist when his body shifted fluidly into cat form. He moved swiftly and quietly, avoiding areas close to the heavily traveled Appalachian Trail. Unbeknownst to humans, the Appalachian Trail formed centuries ago as mountain lions stayed deep in the mountainous terrain and pushed north while humans sprawled forth into their territory. The trail ended in Maine beyond Catamount on Mount Katahdin—the area where the first litter of shifters was born. The litter’s mother had moved slightly south when winter fell, just outside of Catamount, which at the time had been a nameless settlement in the late seventeenth century. The town was now mid-sized and bustling. Yet it lay close to the wilderness where mountain lions could shift and experience the freedom and solitude they craved.

Dane was running quietly along a ridge when he heard voices. He froze in place and backed up. Mountain lions were believed extinct in the East. Rumors abounded on alleged sightings, most true. Yet shifters tried to limit their exposure, preferring to keep the idea of mountain lions as ancient myth and long-gone from the forests of the east. It was safer that way. Callen’s tragic death illuminated the dangers they faced. Though Dane wouldn’t face that particular danger deep in the Maine woods, hunters were always a threat even though the species was protected.

He watched while a small group of hikers walked by. Quiet fell and then a lone woman emerged on the trail. He was positioned on a steep hill, hidden amongst the trees. He could see her clearly. She was so beautiful it took his breath away. She had honey blonde hair falling in loose waves around her shoulders. Her build was strong and curvaceous. A tank top pulled tightly across her breasts and jean shorts rode up her thighs. He was so drawn to her he had to force himself to be still. The task was made much more difficult in his cat form. As a cat, he was driven by instinct and primal urges. And whoever this woman was, she called to every cell in his body. He made himself wait longer than necessary after she passed by, so he could manage the strength of pull he felt for her.

The light faded and a storm rolled in. Dane had yet to find Shana when he was forced to find shelter from the storm himself. As he approached one of his preferred caves, he saw a human form limping along the faint trail leading to the cave and stumble inside. He thought it was the woman he saw earlier. She looked hurt. He stopped in his tracks. His concern for her ran so deep it was visceral. He slipped under the boughs of a balsam tree and waited.

When it was almost dark, he shifted back into human form. Before heading to the cave, he quickly checked for one of the small packs he kept hidden among rocks nearby. Such packs were well hidden and scattered for miles in these woods for shifters to have quick access to clothing and human supplies if they needed to shift into human form unexpectedly. He dressed, slung the pack over his shoulder and walked to the cave. The woman was asleep on the ground. She was inside a sleeping bag, but shivering visibly. Dane approached her slowly, touching her on the shoulder. Her eyes flew open. In the faded light, her soft green eyes shone through, filled with fear.

Dane held his hands up. “Hey, it’s okay. I got caught in the storm too. Looks like we had the same idea. Are you okay?”

His pulse had skyrocketed the moment she opened her eyes and he got a good look at her face. He could look into her eyes all day—mossy, forest green and lush. Her mouth was full and sensual. Those eyes and her honey brown hair brought to mind a warm summer day.

She pushed herself up to a seated position, a grimace flashing across her face.

“Are you hurt?” His protective instincts ran high. A side effect of developing the capacity to shift was that mountain lions with this ability were intensely protective of those they cared about. The solitary behavior of mountain lions in the wild was curbed out of self-preservation. To save each other and the species, they had to develop the capacity to watch after each other. This woman, whoever she was, was so compelling, Dane only wanted to wrap her in his arms and keep her safe. Along with a few other things, but that wasn’t his focus now since she looked close to hypothermia and injured.

She stared at him and seemed to conclude he meant her no harm. “I slipped on some wet rocks. I sprained my ankle and scraped my leg pretty bad. I can’t believe I fell. I’m almost to the end of the trail. I made it all the way from Georgia without getting hurt.”

Dane forced himself to focus, pulled his backpack off and reached inside for the small medical kit he kept in every pack he stashed. “I’m Dane Ashworth, by the way.”

“I’m Chloe, Chloe Silver,” she replied quietly.

“So how long have you been on the trail?” he asked as he pulled out antiseptic, ointment and bandages.

“Almost six months. I started in mid-May.”

He nodded, realizing he needed some light to help with her injuries. “Hang on.” He stood and strode towards the back of the cave, trying to make it look as if he was peering around when he knew precisely where he kept a pile of dry wood in the back of the cave.

“What are you doing?” Chloe asked.

“Seeing if there’s any wood in here.” He returned with a pile of sticks and quickly laid them over the blackened area where he’d previously had fires. Her shivering hadn’t stopped. Hypothermia was a real danger in this weather. He needed the light and a fire would help keep them warm.

In short order, he had a fire started and heat started to circle in the small cave.

“Can I see your leg?”

She hesitated and then shrugged. She shimmied out of her sleeping bag. Dane’s heart clenched at the sight of her leg. Her ankle was swollen, and the side of the same leg was scraped from thigh to ankle. The skin was red and swollen, particularly on her thigh.

“You weren’t kidding, you have some bad scrapes there. Where do you want me to start? I’d prefer to stabilize your ankle first.”

Chloe’s green eyes widened. “Wouldn’t it be best if a doctor did that? I’m sure we can make it through the night and get help in the morning.”

Dane grinned. “I am a doctor,” he said simply.

“Oh…oh. Well, in that case, I guess do whatever you think we need to do. The sooner the better, right?”

He nodded firmly. “Definitely. He dug through his kit to see if he had anything firm to help hold her ankle in place. “Give me a sec.”

A short while later, Chloe’s ankle was stabilized. Dane had used cotton bandaging to hold it in place. He was relieved it appeared to be a bad sprain, but she hadn’t broken it. She’d been a trooper through the whole thing. She now sat quietly while he swabbed the scrapes on her leg with alcohol, dabbing them with an ointment quickly. The only sign of her pain was when her breath hissed through her teeth.

Satisfied he’d done all he could, Dane carefully placed gauze over the scrapes. He tugged his water bottle out and handed it to her with some ibuprofen. “This will take the edge off the pain.”

Chloe’s smile was tired, but she took the water and ibuprofen. Dane tugged his own sleeping bag out and laid it beside hers. “I know we just met and we’re in a cave in the middle of the woods, but it’s cold and wet. I’m thinking it’s best if we stay close to keep warm.” Though his body wanted to be close to her for other reasons, he was speaking the truth.

Chloe’s exhaustion was showing. Dane helped her carefully slide back into her sleeping bag. After she finally fell asleep, he lay down beside her, watching her sleep in the glow from the fire and wondering how he could show her who and what he was. The lion in him was drawn to her so strongly, he had to force himself to think rationally. If his cat had full say in the matter, he’d skip the preliminaries and make sure she understood she was the mate for him. But…his human side knew that was half-crazy no matter how much she called to him. Her flashing green eyes, her sensual curves and her steely strength were everything he wanted. He just had to find a way to show himself without scaring her. His worries about Shana flickered in the back of his mind. He knew she could take care of herself, but it didn’t change the fear and worry clenching his gut. The loss of Callen could crush her. Behind that lay Dane’s fear around what led Callen to his death.

2

Chloe came awake slowly, savoring the warmth curled around her. She shifted her hips back, her bottom rubbing against what was most definitely an aroused man. The haze of sleep cleared. Opening her eyes, she saw the rock walls of the cave she’d found late yesterday evening after the storm rolled in. She remembered Dane and realized he was the warm, strong, intensely arousing man curled up behind her. When he’d woken her in the almost-dark, she’d been startled and a little fearful, but after only a few minutes, her gut told her he was completely trustworthy.

Though she’d been in pain last night, her body had reacted strongly to his presence. Not to mention that he was more than a tad easy on the eyes. He was tall, lean and strong. His golden brown hair had shone in the soft firelight, his blue-gray eyes were focused and intent. Every time he met her eyes, her belly fluttered. His steady presence while he efficiently bandaged her ankle and leg had made her feel safe and protected.

After stumbling into the cave, tired, afraid and in pain, falling asleep with Dane at her side had been a haven. She couldn’t help the fingers of desire that crept along her skin, but she barely knew him. Wondering if he was awake, she started to roll over only to gasp in pain. She’d forgotten to keep her ankle still.

Dane’s hand came across her hips carefully and held her steady. “Easy. Don’t move too fast.” His voice was low and warm, caressing her nerves.

Heat slid through her, moisture building in her core. She wanted this man, who she barely knew, with a ferocity she’d never experienced. The depth of her longing was so intense it sent her pulse racing and a curl of fear through her veins. She forced herself to breath slowly. “I forgot about my ankle,” Chloe said.

“Not a surprise,” Dane replied, his voice husky from sleep. “Glad you slept deep enough to forget. I was worried you might have trouble sleeping between your fall and the bad weather.”

Chloe smiled softly. She loved hearing he’d been worried about her. “I’m amazed I slept as well as I did. I think it’s probably thanks to you.” She carefully shifted to lie on her back, so she could see his face. She hadn’t slept beside a man in over a year, so she felt a little awkward, the feeling magnified by the fact that she’d only met Dane last night under less than usual circumstances. When she turned over, he adjusted slightly, but didn’t move his hand away from her hip.

He was resting on one elbow. His eyes skated over her body, a look of concern in them.

“I’m okay, better than I expected really,” she said. Looking at him in the daylight sent her pulse skittering beyond control. Sun filtered through the opening of the cave, sparking gold in his hair. His blue-gray eyes were soft and intense. His features were sculpted, almost cat-like with his eyes tipped up at the corners. His lips were full and lush. His body had a coiled energy though he rested at her side, appearing completely at ease. She took advantage of the few seconds when he glanced away and allowed her eyes to dip below his face. He wore a faded blue t-shirt that clung to his muscles. Her hands itched to touch him. She wondered if she’d completely lost her mind. She was in a cave in the middle of the woods in Maine thinking about running her hands all over Dane’s body, wet at the mere thought of his hard cock against her hip moments ago, and imagining what it would be like to act on her body’s desire.

Dane turned back, his eyes colliding with hers. Chloe couldn’t look away. He shifted his weight, never breaking eye contact. Desire shimmered in the air around them.

He finally spoke. “I hope this doesn’t sound crazy, but I want to kiss you.” He paused, his eyes searching her face. “Just tell me no, and this conversation never happened,” he said gruffly, his eyes never breaking from hers.

Chloe wanted to kiss him more than she’d ever wanted anything. The fact that he asked, his polite words belying the fierce attraction she felt between them and the look in his eyes, made her want to kiss him even more. The pull was so strong it almost overpowered her. The sensible part of her, the part that had kept charge of her life and her heart for the last year after the bitter end of a relationship, had no say in this moment. Chloe lifted a hand and stroked it down his cheek. “I don’t want to say no,” she said softly.

Dane kept his eyes trained on hers as he leaned toward her. His lips landed against hers soft and sure. Time suspended. Dane kissed her as she’d never been kissed before. He began a slow, searing exploration of her lips with soft kisses and nips. He traced her mouth with his tongue. She opened, desperate for deeper contact with him. His tongue stroked inside—slow, patient and oh-so-thorough. Chloe tumbled into sensation, straining toward him. Wildness built within as their tongues tangled.

Dane’s hand slid slowly up her hips, coasting across her abdomen, caressing its soft curve, before curling around one breast and then the other, his touch soft and tantalizing. She became frantic to be closer, to ease the ache building inside of her. He cupped her cheek, his thumb caressing where her pulse beat, and slowly pulled back.

She could have happily lost herself in his blue-gray gaze. He looked at her for a long moment, his eyes intense. “I want you more than I’ve ever wanted anyone,” he said baldly, his voice low and clear. “And that’s why we have to stop. Any more and I won’t be able to stop.”

Her breath hitched. Her pulse pounded under the soft caress of his thumb. Yearning coursed through her. She wanted to beg him to do anything other than stop. Seriously, you’re out of your mind. You barely know this guy. In fact, you met him in a cave in the dark. He’s being sensible, points for him. You need to be sensible too.

She nodded, biting her lip.

She saw his eyes darken, but he didn’t move. “What would you say if I asked you to stay in Catamount for a few weeks?” he asked.

Chloe didn’t hesitate. “Yes,” she said simply. Reason began to filter in. “Are you hiking the trail too?”

Dane shook his head. “I live nearby in Catamount. I hike around here all the time. You’re not going to be able to hike out with your ankle. You can come to my office, so I can do a better job of stabilizing your ankle. I made do last night, but I can do better with more than my emergency medical kit. You’re welcome to stay at my place, but if you’re not sure about that, I can make other arrangements for you.”

Chloe knew he was right. There was absolutely no way she would be able to finish the trail now. It was almost November. She was later than she’d wanted to be getting to the end of the trail. By the time her ankle could handle hiking again, winter would be here. “How am I even going to get to the closest trailhead like this?” she asked, gesturing to her ankle.