Dragged back into the human world by well-meaning friends, jaguar shifter Matteo D’Cruz realizes he’s been in cat form for over seventy years. With another transformation, he could lose his tenuous hold on his humanity. There’s no salvation for a feral shifter, only execution. Damaged by grief and guilt, he doesn’t care overmuch. However, when he discovers an unmated female shifter, he can’t resist her scintillating allure or his instinct to protect her at all costs.
Carefree Dakota Gorman travels to Brazil to rescue her sister. Determined to expose the drug lords who have manipulated her sibling into a hurried wedding, she’s certain the baffling hottie Matteo is one of them. After Dakota’s sister turns into a giant jaguar before her eyes, she must confront a new reality, one including hidden family traits.
Matteo helps her trigger her first exhilarating metamorphosis into a jaguar, leaving no doubt about her genetics, but her joy is cut short. A blackmailer sends Matteo a video of her transformation, demanding DNA samples. The extortionist threatens to post the recording to the internet and expose the shifters to the world. Dredging up courage she didn’t know she had, Dakota joins Matteo and the other jag shifters to save her family—and her new species—from scientific experimentation.
Matteo D’Cruz recognized the scent of his old friend Cristiano Salazar in the humid Brazilian Amazon. Even so, territorial invasion raised hackles across his shoulders, and he drove his claws into the bark beneath him. The sensitive lining of his nose told him Cristiano escorted two other jaguar shifters—one an impossibility--a female.
A harsh male scent polluted her essence. Mated. Adrenaline surged his heart into a gallop. The possessive warning didn’t temper her allure, as a mate’s mark should. His lack of control triggered alarms in his head, but he ignored them. Base cat instinct overruled his long-lost sense of propriety.
Matteo strained to hear her above the never-ending insect symphony. She was close. A hundred meters, or so. Mated or not, she traveled his territory, and he would have her.
God forgive me.
Driven by ages-old instinct, Matteo barked a series of courting roars into the canopy’s understory. He waited a breathless beat. No response. Rocketing from tree to tree, ignoring the branches slapping his muzzle, he raced toward the queen. Flat-out shifter speed wasn’t fast enough. Monkeys screeched a warning to the entire jungle and scampered from his path. After an agonizing half-minute, human conversation reached his keen ears, slowing his pace.
“Jaime, keep Kelsi close. Matteo’s near.”
Odd. Cristiano spoke English rather than Portuguese.
A metered growl came from the unknown male. “Papai, your friend flirts with disaster.”
“You two act like he’s dangerous. Maybe we shouldn’t invite him to the wedding.” Odder still, the queen’s Yankee English was likely her native tongue.
The sound of her voice assured Matteo he hadn’t entirely lost his mind. For an instant, he’d suspected his overlong solitude had sparked a hallucination. The soft compost layer of the jungle floor muffled her nearing footsteps.
Compelled to lay eyes on the female, he used a lifetime of hunting experience to glide through the leaf-covered branches. He aimed for a lone rubber tree where his auburn rosettes and tawny hide would fade into the two-tone ochre bark. Careful not to disturb the foliage, he peered down between green leaves.
“He’s Papai’s oldest friend and—I suspect—very lethal.” Jaime added the last with a warning tone, scanning overhead with a predator’s eyes.
The younger shifter had Cristiano’s features and jet hair. If not for the scar from his ear to his jawline, and Cristiano’s gray streaks, Matteo might have mistaken the two. The graying version of his friend restrained the young doppelganger by the arm.
In a protective motion, Jaime pulled an attractive, fair-skinned girl to him and stepped in front of her. Matteo indulged in a draught of the queen’s floral scent and then snorted to clear the male’s distasteful mark.
Jaime’s her mate! Somehow, an unknown line had produced a female. A tsunami of aggression, a primal drive Matteo had never experienced, overtook the last of his will.
The glands at the base of his whiskers throbbed, demanding release. He had no doubt he could best the younger shifter. After he won the challenge, he’d smother the queen with his scent, eradicating all trace of the cub from her body.
Meu Dios! Furious with his friend for testing him so, Matteo snarled at his murderous jaguar thoughts. He didn’t even know this Kelsi, yet he couldn’t dredge up the will to turn away from the queen.
Cristiano’s attempts to entice Matteo back into society had dwindled over the years. This time, however, he had gambled poorly. Too many seasons in cat form.
Helpless against nature’s gale force, Matteo prayed Cristiano could save his son. He stepped from cover, and fixing a predatory glare on Jaime, he roared a challenge. Even the insects fell silent.
The big male charged forward with a dark glower.
Cristiano looked up at Matteo, his mouth a firm line. “Come to us. Now.”
Matteo dropped from the three-story-high branch and sailed effortlessly to the jungle floor, landing in a crouch. With eyes locked on his adversary, he stalked low to the ground, set on attack.
Dark light shimmered across Jaime’s exposed skin, signaling his impending shift. Scowling at Matteo, he tossed his shirt and pants next to a clump of ferns. “You’ll never have her.”
Cristiano, face drawn tight with rage, hurtled to block Matteo from his prey. “You’d challenge your own godson for his mate? Kill my son? Shift now, or die as feral.”
Matteo snarled in anguish, praying Cristiano could make good on his threat.
Kelsi’s green gaze darted from him to Jaime. She lunged at Cristiano to tug at his arm. “Just leave him.”
He pushed her back, keeping his focus on Matteo. “Not possible. If his humanity’s lost, he could mate with a natural jaguar.”
“As in sire a litter?” The female grimaced in plain disgust, turning an appalled expression on him. “This is who you thought my sister should meet?”
“A selfish misjudgment. I wanted my best friend at my son’s wedding.” Cristiano’s amber eyes shone with tears. “Instead, I’m his executioner.”
Sister! Where had the females come from? The last known living queen was Cristiano’s mate, Maria. The thought of females in the world overpowered any concern Matteo had for his own life.
“Kelsi, you know genetic diversity is crucial.” Though Jaime spoke quietly in her ear, Matteo’s sensitive hearing picked up his words, as though he’d spoken aloud.
“No.” She turned tear-filled eyes to her mate. “Invite someone else, please.”
Pinning his ears back, Matteo snarled in misery and lowered to his belly. He wanted to shift, to stifle his cat, and turn from killing the men before him--his only family. Matteo’s life meant nothing. If he killed Cristiano and Jaime to steal a mated female, his life would mean even less.
To throttle back his jaguar instincts, Matteo focused on the existence of another queen. The drive to possess diminished by a fraction, allowing him to breathe and sense his humanity. Matteo grappled for the sliver of control.
With more concentration than he’d ever required before, a shift’s searing heat journeyed snail-like through his muscles until electric current chased the fever away. Every molecule in his body screamed with the metamorphosis. He couldn’t recall another shift so long or painful.
His hoarse bellow of agony rang off the thick foliage above. With his head low, and still on all fours, Matteo took stock of his limbs, ensuring he was indeed human.
Despite the jungle’s damp heat, gooseflesh traveled his torso. His skin objected to the loss of his pelt. Or maybe the magnitude of the averted crisis produced the cool shudder.
“Matteo? Are you with us?” Cristiano kept his distance.
Worried he’d lost his ability to speak, Matteo nodded. Ropes of tawny hair moved against dead leaves below him, and curtained his face from the world. Now in human form, his compulsion to claim the jag queen abated. Matteo sent up a heartfelt prayer of thanks.
Shaken by his uncontrollable reaction to the female and his sluggish change, he rose to a wobbly biped stance. He dared a glimpse of the woman. Silent, with wide green eyes, she stared at him with parted lips.
Matteo couldn’t imagine his abhorrent appearance—his nakedness being the least offensive. He scrubbed at the irritating beard itch that had replaced his feline muzzle’s glandular throb. Years’ worth of beard.
A violent urge to return to jaguar form threatened to overtake him. He forced himself to meet Jaime’s gaze and remembered the blue-eyed toddler who’d begged piggyback rides. With an iron will born of terror, Matteo smothered the urge to return to cat form.
Jaime retrieved his clothing and then stepped in front of his mate, blocking Matteo’s view of the female. Murderous lines carving the younger shifter’s face replaced all hint of the adoring child who’d called him Uncle Baddeo.
A gusty breath deflated Cristiano’s aggressive posture and a limp smile creased his face. He scrutinized Matteo from head to toe, his uncertain expression dropping to a grimace. “My God, when did you last shift? Are those rosettes?”
Matteo tracked his friend’s line of sight to his left shoulder. Rust-colored spots embedded his skin. Worse, sharp, oversized canines filled his mouth. Dios! His cat had truly overbalanced his humanity. Part of him was terrified. Another part didn’t care.
“He looks like a savage. The hair and beard might even house critters.” Kelsi whispered the insults to her mate in her Yankee tongue.
Matteo seethed. The woman must think him uneducated as well as unkempt. Unburying Brit English from his Oxford days, he sneered at her. “Don’t worry, Kelsi. I want nothing to do with you—or your sister.”
He was grateful he’d formed words; however, his voice sounded gravelly from lack of use—or a partial shift. Along with spots, he may have retained other feline traits. He swallowed, staving off a fearful shudder.
“Sorry.” Color crept into her face. At least she had the decency to look embarrassed.
Now dressed, Jaime fired a wad of clothing that slapped against Matteo’s chest. He slid on a pair of cutoffs and threw the t-shirt back at Jaime. “And you, cub, never take me on without your father’s help. You’ll die.”
To his credit, the whelp didn’t back down. “I’ll give you a pass today, old man. Instinct is brutal. But make another move on my mate, I’ll kill you.”
“Jeesh. Take the testosterone down a notch. No wonder we’re nearly extinct.” Huffing, Kelsi grabbed Jaime’s hand and pulled him toward a path leading to a narrow waterway. The trio could only have come by boat. The male glared over his shoulder at Matteo, until the couple disappeared from sight.
He turned to study his old friend. Cristiano had changed in a way Matteo couldn’t identify—subtler than a few added gray hairs. Something was missing.
Cristiano’s amber gaze warmed. “I’m glad to see you, amigo.”
Matteo wanted to enjoy their reunion, but his anger wouldn’t allow it. “I won’t forgive you.”
“I don’t care.”
“What if I’d killed you? Or worse, Jaime?”
Cristiano snorted. “You think me so weak?”
Matteo followed the young couple’s trail, and Cristiano fell in behind him. In tacit agreement, the two males kept an old woman’s pace, creating a semblance of privacy.
Cristiano cleared his throat. “How long since your last shift?”
“Not sure—sometime after I left the war. What happened with Hitler?”
Cristiano puffed air through pursed lips. “That was over seventy years ago.”
Stunned by the revelation, Matteo was grateful his friend walked behind him. He couldn’t have schooled his features. After seventy years, he’d been lucky to shift at all. “Hitler?”
“A few months after you disappeared, he killed himself in his bunker.”
“Despicable coward.” Matteo spat his disgust.
Cristiano grunted. “Probably sits at Satan’s right hand.”
When Brazil entered the Mediterranean Theatre with the Allies late in ’44, he and Matteo had volunteered together but with different goals. Cristiano, a pilot, fought from the air to rid the world of a tyrant. Matteo battled on the ground in hopes of permanent serenity. When final peace eluded him, he’d returned to the jungle.
Matteo didn’t want to talk about the war. “You still like to fly?”
“Yes. I go up almost every day. Manaus is a huge metropolis now, but still no roads to get there. Those with enough money use aircraft. Jaime flies, too.” Pride filled Cristiano’s voice.
“Bold one. He was ready to take me.” Matteo forced a smile. Jaime had been lucky to walk away. “Where did his queen come from? I thought Maria was the last.”
Halting, Cristiano sighed before resuming his leisurely pace. “Kelsi’s a gift from God. She was a latent when Jaime stumbled upon her in the jungle.”
Bewildered, Matteo slowed to pace next to his friend. “You mean latents really exist?”
Cristiano nodded with a chuckle. “Poor boy had thought females were a myth, too.”
“Hardly a boy. Must be near eighty by now.” Matteo snorted a laugh. Likely, Jaime had had his own instinct crisis and now understood how a queen devastated a male’s senses. “That explains the pass.”
Cristiano’s chuckle confirmed his suspicions.
A couple hours later, Cristiano led Matteo to a sleek motorboat. Vessels traveled the river every day, but Matteo hadn’t been near one in decades. He rapped his knuckles on the white hull. “What’s this stuff?”
“Fiberglass. Use it for automobiles, now, too.” Cristiano waved him into the padded seats.
Holding hands, and appearing to snuggle while walking, Jaime and Kelsi emerged from a patch of shade on the bank. He lifted her fingers to his lips for a brief touch. Sunlight glinted from his hand. The gold engagement band, circling Jaime’s right ring finger, taunted Matteo with what he’d nearly destroyed—and what he’d lost.
The couple’s obvious joy in one another poked at a damaged piece of his heart. Kelsi’s bruised lips and mussed hair conjured memories that Matteo didn’t dare indulge. Seven decades wasn’t long enough for some wounds to heal. In self-preservation, he climbed into the boat, focusing on the floor mat.
The ride was quiet aside from the motor and rush of parting water. Conversation became scarce after one tried to steal a man’s mate. Jaime and Kelsi spoke in low tones in the rear seat, engine noise keeping their conversation private. Most likely, they discussed Matteo.
Instead of socializing, he passed time reading an unfamiliar current events magazine--Manaus Now!. The headlines meant nothing, although he marveled at the photographs—all in color and so crisply focused. And the people in them wore so little, especially the women. At least changes in their culture would hold his interest for a time.
“We taking the river all the way to … where’re we going?” asked Matteo.
“The boat’s a rental. My chopper’s at a dock about fifteen miles downstream. We’ll take it to our home.”
“Helicopter. You’ll see. It flies.”
Of course. Matteo recalled the experimental aircraft from years ago. The noisy machines occasionally hovered above the canopy and more appeared each season. Chopper seemed an apt term.
Cristiano ferried them north, eyeing an ancient kapok tree with raised, wall-like roots dominating the shore ahead. No doubt, he recognized the ancient marker flagging the edge of Matteo’s range. Passing the boundary, he realized he hadn’t ventured beyond the tree since 1945.
Dread of the unknown settled in Matteo’s chest. He loosened his hold on the boat’s trimmed edge lest it crack under his grip. As an added embarrassment, his scent had probably announced his anxiety to the others.
In a barely-veiled attempt to distract him from the milestone, Cristiano pointed to the opposite shore. A cinnamon and black jaguar used the shadows to stalk a caiman. The gator-like reptile glided beneath the surface, its scent reaching Matteo’s astute nose.
The male jag was hunting too near Matteo’s territory. Mine.
Without thought, he lifted to balance himself on one knee. A metered rumble vibrated in his chest, and heat traveled his spine.
With knitted brows, Cristiano cut the engine and gripped Matteo’s forearm. “My friend, stay with us. Years from now, caiman will still be in the river.”
During the few beats of tense silence, the boat slowed to bob with the current. Cristiano’s subtle message came through loud and clear, though Matteo didn’t need the warning.
Decades prior, as the shifters’ Enforcer, Matteo had tracked and executed feral males—always males. Two. Killing friends lost in their cats had withered his soul. Anna, his mate, had been his only solace—anchoring him in humanity. He’d nearly condemned Cristiano to the same haunting remorse.
What have I done? Still, part of him didn’t care. For now, he would stay human for Cristiano.
Matteo’s shift to biped had been a near thing. Going cat within the next three years would almost certainly trap him in jaguar form. Followed by a swift execution as feral. Or maybe not.
He studied his aging friend. Cristiano’s physical supremacy over the jag males might have slipped over the years. Matteo doubted Cristiano could have executed him alone. Maybe with Jaime’s help.
A warm hand on his back startled Matteo. The female’s scent announced her mated status, so her touch had nothing to do with attraction. Mated pairs didn’t stray—ever.
“Hard to see through the hair, but I think he has a few more rosettes on his back.” Kelsi’s low voice held concern, not the derision he’d expected. Close behind him, she pushed his waist-length knotted hair to the side. She gave his flesh a soft pat before dropping her hand. “I get it. Caiman rile me to shift, too.”
Her olive branch gave him hope. Even more impressive, Jaime had held his possessive instincts in check while his mate touched Matteo. With their support, maybe he could face his biped sentence. Emotion tightened his throat. Avoiding eye contact, he gave a curt nod and reclaimed his seat.
Cristiano started the engine.
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