Book two in the Pantherian Tales series.
Allie is determined to build an ordinary life. To survive, she needs to be the sort of woman no one notices. She has a generic job, lives in a generic apartment, and thinks maybe one day she’ll find an ordinary Joe who wants an average Jane sort of woman.
Marcus is anything but an ordinary Joe. Even if humans can’t perceive that he’s a shifter and millennial being, he’s the sort of man women notice. A night of passion laced with Marcus’ sex magick is a night any female, human or Pantherian, won’t forget.
But Allie does forget. She repeatedly fails to recognize him even after an intense sexual encounter. Marcus discovers the source of her problem—face blindness, a genetic disorder with no cure. So he decides to use erotic rituals to teach her to see with more than her eyes. What he doesn’t count on is Allie seeing past the man—and recognizing the beast within.
Allie selected and copied faces of three coworkers from a group photo. She pasted each image as a separate document, converted it to grayscale, and hit print. She rubbed her eyes and pushed tangled hair back from her face, trying unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn while the first image took shape on the page. She rechecked her notes and the website to ensure she wrote the correct name on the back of the image and pushed away from the desk while she waited for the next image to print.
Her one-room apartment was lit only by the soft glow of the computer screen. The other side of the window beyond her bed remained stubbornly black. Still too dark to be safe. She glanced once at the rumpled bed, then away. She’d find no rest there in her current mood. She took the first photo, read her boss’s name aloud from the back, and let Elaine’s name repeat in her mind, a silent mantra. Without taking her eyes from the photo, without losing focus on the name belonging to the face, she opened her desk drawer, grabbed a scrunchie, pulled her long hair back in a ponytail, and dropped back into her chair. She selected a layout pencil from her sketch box, opened her sketchbook to a clean page and went to work.
By the time she’d drawn that same set of features three times, the window had gone from black to a square of pale silver. Allie didn’t feel any closer to her goal. When she closed her eyes, tried to bring up a mental image, the center of the face remained a blur. She couldn’t recall details beyond the pointy chin and hairstyle.
She pushed away from her desk, avoided looking at the bed and went to the window. Restless dreams had driven her from bed hours ago and she’d tried to pass the time until dawn working on her project. Snippets of erotic dreams flashed in the back of her mind as she worked and probably had much to do with her lack of progress.
Every inch of her screamed for the touch of a lover’s hands, but there was no lover, only dreams, misty phantoms. Rain, the sound drew Allie to push back the translucent curtain and peer into the gray mists. The ache inside her drove her need to get out, to go out, to run hard enough to leave her demons behind.
She grabbed the cutoffs and t-shirt waiting on the foot of her bed and fished her running shoes from underneath it. A long run in the storm would cool the fever a night of dreaming had fueled.
A twinge of pain pulsed in her head, just above her right ear, and then stopped. It had started a few days ago, becoming more frequent, more intense with each episode. A humming sensation followed, washing over her body the way pins and needles prickled in a limb that had gone to sleep from sitting too long. Now she remembered that prickling had been with her through the night, keeping her half in and out of sleep just before dawn.
She laced her shoes, making no attempt to recall the content of the fantasies that had her breasts feverish for the cool kiss of rain, and a moist heat soaking her shorts. Dreams, hers at least, were best left to float forgotten, back into the fog that spawned them.
Outside, a blast of wind swirled around her. Rain soaked her clothes before she was out the front gate. It didn’t matter. She hadn’t bothered with a jacket, loving the cold rivulets streaming over her bare limbs. She didn’t have to head for the woodland trail at the edge of the park to find solitude, but she chose it anyway, drawn there by the beauty of trees bending and twisting in a dance with the storm. It was as if the woods were a huge magnet pulling her closer, promising she would find escape.
She ran here so often she could probably do it blindfolded without stumbling, run it in her sleep. Considering how little sleep she’d had, this run might prove that claim.
As she crossed the first mile mark and rounded a bend, the throb in her head flared and she stumbled. Bending over, she paused, hands on knees, eyes closed, slowing her breath. The pulsing didn’t vanish but lingered, a steady tapping. Maybe she should see a doctor. She straightened and considered turning back.
A prickling awareness wiped the thought from her mind. A man waited ahead, one leg casually crossed in front of the other, a shoulder leaning against a tree. His black denim jacket hung open, framing a red shirt her hands itched to touch, a bright flash of color in the rain-grayed world.
He stood just a few feet away, sheltered by a gnarled oak, right where the bridge crossed the creek and led to a picnic area. He appeared to be waiting just for her. But it had to be a mistake. There was no one, had never been anyone, who was just for her. This silver-eyed, dark-haired stranger held himself like an exotic prince, waiting for a princess maybe—definitely not for Allie the ad writer.
He smiled and it was like a sunrise breaking through her gloom. His gaze traveled her body, reigniting the fire she’d been trying to drown. The journey stopped right at her bellybutton where it peeked between the edge of her shorts and the top of the tee that didn’t quite cover her there.
Her eyes fixed on his shirt again. She could feel its heat beckoning like hot coals in a fire, inviting her to warm her hands. She could taste that color, a burn like Red Hots melting on her tongue. She swallowed. The sensation in her head rose to a humming, nudging her to go to him, to lose herself in that bold stare. She put her fingertips to the spot again, wondering if she might be having some sort of breakdown. His eyes sparked with pleasure at the reaction, but his tone was serious when he spoke.
“You have two choices, sweetheart, you can turn around and run back the way you came and I won’t try to stop you. Or you can come to me, reach for the mystery, have what you are aching for.”
If he had struck a match to her, he couldn’t have lit her any faster.
“But if you come to me, I’m not going to stop at a kiss. I’m not going to stop at all until it pleases me.”
This was not a morning to face down temptation. If only he felt like a stranger, then she might have a chance, but he felt so familiar, like coming home. Common sense told her to run. Security lay in the other direction, returning to flatline dull days lining up one after the other. What price would she pay to feel alive, live dangerously for a few minutes? There was no one here to take him from her. No one to stop her from exploring the forbidden, not this time. One taste and she’d drop back into her role as a polite, conservative wallflower. It was a dangerous choice. All the more reason.
The greatest threats from a man were injury or death. She’d known how to read those kinds of threats in a man before she was old enough to read a book. She could see no intent to harm. No evil. He looked at her as if he’d discovered something precious. A warmth seemed to reach from his eyes into her soul, drawing her closer. She made her choice.
The red cloth shimmered with an aura of passion, dared her to press her body to it. The thought sent her blood zinging through her veins. There was something there, something irresistible. His eyes spoke promises she could feel. Her feet wouldn’t let her turn away, but took the risk. Took one step. Then the next. Her lips burned with a need to glide over his jawline, explore planes and angles with kisses and nips. Her heart hammered so loud he had to hear it even over the rain.
True to his word, he didn’t move an inch until she was right there in front of him, reaching to press her hands to the shirt, feel its heat, prove he was real. Her palms sighed with pleasure, like the fabric was a meal to be savored. His strong fingers closed around her wrist then, not painfully but with the finality of a manacle, reminding her that he’d said he wouldn’t let her go until he had what he wanted.
“Good girl,” he whispered, soothing away the little trill of fear that rose with his touch, stroking her face with the backs of his fingers. Her body sang like chimes in the wind, notes shivering down her spine.
“I won’t stop at a kiss,” he said. “But you can start with one. Make it sweet.”
She rose obediently to her toes, finding his lips, feeling them firm, parting under hers. He ordered and demanded with such a low, seductive tone. If he’d told her to go rob the jewelry store, in just the same way, it would have seemed a good idea.
He shifted, turning quickly so she was between him and the tree, cutting off any chance to change her mind and run. He held her face between his hands, and her own hands felt small and fragile against the breadth of his. He kissed his desire into her. Her mind grappled to reassert caution, but her thoughts slipped away, formless as water spilling through fingers. He didn’t stop kissing until she stopped thinking, until the rigidity in her muscles softened, until she kissed him back.
He tasted like spring rain.
His hands were warm through her soggy shirt, his fingers curved under her chilled breasts, his thumbs stroking over the tops. Thumbs and fingers came together, squeezing until she squirmed. His lips and tongue moved over her neck, tracing the line of her collarbone, a warm, sensual touch that made her whimper. He split the worn cotton with a sharp twist. The ripping sound jolted her. Her shirt split down the center, parting to offer her breasts. A wave of fear welled in her belly. A wash of desire trickled between her thighs. She glanced down the puddled path. He pressed her tighter against the tree.
“You had your chance,” he whispered. “It’s the last I’m willing to give you for a while.”