Cat's Lair (Leopard People)

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9780349405612: Cat's Lair (Leopard People)

#1 New York Times bestselling author Christine Feehan returns to the feral underworld of her astonishing Leopard novels in an arousing romance of forbidden animal instincts... 

Cat Benoit has finally escaped the past—and the man who was the source of her nightmares. She’s off the grid, underground but watchful, and creating a new life for herself in Texas, far from the torrid dangers of her native New Orleans. She’s safe. He’ll never find her this time. Cat has to believe that. It’s the only thing keeping her sane.

Yet she can’t escape the attention of Ridley Cromer, the instructor at the martial arts dojo where Cat takes lessons. She arouses the animal in Ridley—and something feral comes to life when their body heat rises. Cat is in no position to let her guard down with anyone, especially someone who could be endangered by her past. But Ridley has secrets of his own—secrets only Cat would understand. If she dares to trust him.

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About the Author:

Christine Feehan is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Carpathian series, the GhostWalker series, the Leopard series, the Shadow Riders series, and the Sea Haven novels, including the Drake Sisters series and the Sisters of the Heart series.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

For My Readers

Acknowledgments

1

CATARINA Benoit woke to screams. Terrible, frightening screams that echoed through her bedroom. Her heart pounded and sweat beaded on her body. Her long hair hung around her face in damp strands. She clapped a hand over her mouth to still the cries, her throat raw even as her eyes darted around the room. Searching. Always searching.

She searched the high places first—anywhere he could be crouched. Watching. Waiting to strike. She searched the windows. The glass was covered with bars, but she knew that wouldn’t stop him if he found her. Nothing ever stopped him. He could get inside any house, any building. Anywhere. Rafe Cordeau, the thing of nightmares.

She was safe. She had to be. She lived completely off the grid. Underground. She only came out at night. Her one exception to her night rule was her hour of running just before sunset. She worked in a quiet part of town, in a store no one would ever consider she would work in. Rafe would never figure it out, not in a million years. He couldn’t find her this time. She’d planned too carefully. She’d even stolen enough money to get herself a start. Right out of his safe. The one no one could crack. She’d done that. He wasn’t going to get his hands on her again. Never again.

She fell back against the pillows, drawing her knees into her chest, making herself into a small, protected ball, rocking gently to try to calm herself, to push the terror of the nightmare away. She could taste bile in her mouth.

Drawing in great, deep breaths to try to control her wild heart, she felt something else, something inside unfurl and stretch. It terrified her too. There was something in her, biding its time, waiting for a chance to get out, and she feared it was a monster. She feared he’d put it there, he’d somehow made her like him.

She knew she wouldn’t go back to sleep. Every window was covered with heavy drapes to block out the sun, but still, she would never be able to go back to sleep. She forced her legs to straighten. That hurt. Every muscle was sore from the terrible coiling in her body. She knew from experience it would be like that all day, her body feeling as if someone had beat her up with a baseball bat.

She sat up and scooted to the side of the bed, first, as she always did, feeling for the gun hidden beneath her pillow. The solid weight of it always made her feel better. She worked out, trained hard, even when she knew she still wouldn’t have a chance against him if he found her. Even so, she lived her life. Held herself still. Kept to herself. Reduced his odds.

She took a shower in the small cubicle. It was a rigged hose with a spray nozzle over the top of a tiny booth with a drain. It didn’t matter. She was safe. She lived in a warehouse, not her car. Mostly the warehouse was empty, but her martial arts instructor owned the property and he’d allowed her to rent the space when he realized she was living out of her car. He had barred the windows for her. She had put in the double locks herself.

She had done everything necessary to make herself safe, but then she’d made a vow. She would be happy every single second she was living free and alive. She wouldn’t hide in the warehouse, shut away from the world, she would live. She’d be smart and careful about it, but this time, she wouldn’t be a mouse hiding. It hadn’t done her much good the last time, and she wasted that little bit of freedom she’d had. The price definitely hadn’t been worth it then. She was going to make certain it was this time.

Catarina pressed her fingers hard against her temples, unwilling to revisit the moment when he’d last found her and his terrible punishment. Her entire body shuddered. She’d paid dearly, but that had only made her all the more determined to escape permanently. She’d been terrified and he thought that terror would work to his advantage. She let him think that, and then she’d escaped again.

Her life had really started with her martial arts instructor. Malcom Hardy was in his late sixties and from the moment she’d entered his class, he’d seemed to know something was wrong. He didn’t exactly ask questions, but somehow he found out she was living out of her car and he casually mentioned his empty warehouse. That had been the start of their strange friendship.

Catarina had never had a friendship with anyone before, and at first she was distrustful of his motives. It had taken Malcom months to gain her trust enough that she stayed and had a few words privately with him after each class. She hadn’t told him her past, only that she was looking for a job and needed a safe home. She’d used the word safe in the hopes that he would understand without an explanation—and he had.

When she’d escaped, she hadn’t taken tons of money from the safe because she didn’t want Rafe to have more reason to come after her if by chance he’d given up on her. That meant she didn’t have a lot of money. It also meant, if he had given up on her, he’d send his kill squad after her. Either way she wasn’t safe and she needed to be very careful with her money.

Malcom slowly won her over with his many simple kindnesses. He casually dropped by to put the bars on the windows when she’d mentioned she was a little nervous. He’d also been the one to find her the job after she told him what her dream job would be.

Catarina loved her job. The coffee-house-slash-bookstore was old, the kind where poets and writers came and read their work every Friday. It was a throwback world that suited her. Books were everywhere, and people gathered to talk and read and show off their work. She liked that the place was a tribute to a bygone era and the regulars who occupied it were loyal and definitely different.

She made certain never to stand out. She dressed in loose-fitting jeans. A loose-fitting shirt. Her hair had always grown thick and fast and got worse the more she cut it. She’d given up on short hair so she pulled it back in a ponytail or braid and often wore hats. Since everyone who came to the coffee-house wore berets or felt hats, she wasn’t out of place. Most wore sunglasses, even at night, as well, so she did that too, hiding her unusually colored cobalt eyes.

The coffee-house stayed open nearly twenty-four hours, and she had the shift that ran from seven in the evening until three in the morning, when she closed the shop. They got a large influx of people looking to wind down from drinking, dancing and clubbing at the bars that closed at two. She wasn’t fond of that particular crowd, but she’d grown used to it.

She spent an hour on working the heavy bag Malcom had hung for her and another hour doing sit-ups and crunches and push-ups. She dressed in baggy sweats and went running. That killed another hour and put her to sunset. Another shower and she headed for the coffee-house.

She tried hard not to allow her heart to do a little stutter, wondering if the new instructor Malcom had hired would drop by again. She liked looking at him. He was a bonus at the dojo as well as the coffee-house. She’d never found herself looking at a man before—she’d never dared to. But he was special. Everything about him was special.

He’d been at the dojo a month, and she’d watched him with the same distrust she had for anyone new who came into her world. He was absolutely the most beautiful man she’d ever seen in her life. He was brutal when he fought, and yet, at the same time, graceful and fluid. Sheer poetry. He was light on his feet, very fast, so smooth. He was always, always utterly calm. She couldn’t imagine him ruffled over anything. He embodied the world of martial arts—he lived that way—not just in the dojo but out of it.

Still, she kept her distance, even when he’d noticed her in the dojo and smiled at her a time or two. She didn’t smile back. She didn’t encourage any kind of a relationship, nor did she want one. Not because she didn’t ever talk to people, but because he made her feel something she’d never felt before. But she liked looking at him. Maybe a little too much.

She didn’t have flights of erotic fantasy or dreams. Her body had never awakened, on fire, burning with need and hunger. Her breasts hadn’t felt swollen and achy, desperate for a man’s touch. Not until she laid eyes on Malcom’s new instructor. Something moved in her. Something took over, and unexpectedly, at night, when she wasn’t having nightmares, she had erotic dreams that burned through her body until she couldn’t breathe. Abruptly they’d leave her, and once they were gone her body would settle and she’d be perfectly fine again. He was definitely someone she needed to stay away from, but looking at him was acceptable.

He’d sauntered into the coffee-house two weeks after starting with Malcom. She’d noticed him immediately. How could she not? When he moved, the roped muscles of his body, even beneath his tight black shirt, did a delicious kind of rippling that drew every feminine eye in the place. Ridley Cromer. The name was as strange and unique as the man.

Catarina stood outside the coffee-house just staring into the windows, feeling happy. She always made certain she acknowledged being happy. That was important. She woke up in the morning and always, always told herself she would be happy that day.

“Hey, beautiful.”

She froze, the smile fading. The other thing strange about Ridley Cromer was the fact that she never heard him when he came near her. He didn’t make a sound. She heard everyone. She always knew when someone was close to her. The reason why she excelled in martial arts was because she always anticipated her opponent’s move. It was as if she had a kind of radar telling her where everyone was at all times within her space. Everyone but Ridley Cromer.

She turned her head, holding her breath, her smile fading. Her eyes met Ridley’s and the impact was so strong the air rushed from her lungs as if she’d been punched. He had beautiful eyes. Intense. The way he looked at her was intense. Everything about him was intense. And Zen. Very Zen.

She forced herself to nod out of politeness. She knew if she tried to speak she would squeak like a mouse and nothing else would emerge. Ridley Cromer was fine to look at. Daydream about. Even have night fantasies over, but there was no talking. No interaction. Not ever. If all the rest of the world of women were smart, they’d adopt her steadfast rules with him.

“You working tonight or just looking for company?”

His voice was low and sexy. Her pulse beat hard in her throat. She swallowed hard. She’d never had a crush on anyone in her life, but he was standing right in front of her. Towering over her. His eyes smiled and his white teeth flashed. He should be locked up to preserve all women’s virtues.

She shook her head and reached for the door handle. He reached at the same time, his hand settling around hers as she grasped the knob. A shiver of absolute awareness slid down her spine. Curled in her belly. There was a sudden tingle in her breasts and she felt heat gathering in her very core. Not like her night fantasies, where her body burned up, but still . . .

He didn’t let go of her hand, and she couldn’t remove hers from the doorknob. His touch was light. Gentle. She should have pulled her hand away but she was frozen to the spot. He stepped closer, so close she could feel the heat of his body seeping into hers. He was hot. He radiated heat. His breath was warm on the nape of her neck, and for the first time she wished she’d left her hair down to protect herself.

“It’s Cat, right? Malcom calls you Cat. You’re his favorite student. I’ve never known him to have a favorite. I’m Ridley Cromer.”

She closed her eyes briefly. Thunder roared in her ears. Her brain short-circuited. His voice was pitched so low that it seemed to slide beneath her skin and find its way directly into her bloodstream like some strange new drug. No one touched her. No one dared. He had broken that taboo. She didn’t know how to feel about it.

“You’re quick. Very fast,” he went on, as if she wasn’t the rudest person in the world for not answering him. “I couldn’t help but watch you sparring the other day. You were wiping up the floor with men ranked much higher than you. Men with a lot more experience. It was a thing of beauty.”

A thing of beauty. She would hold that close to her and think about it when she was alone. A compliment. Coming from someone who clearly could best anyone in the dojo, probably including Malcom, it was very high praise. Still, she couldn’t stand there being an absolute idiot.

She finally found her wits and gave the door a desperate twist, flashing what she hoped was a careless smile of thanks over her shoulder at him. She yanked open the door, but found when she stepped back she stepped right into him. Right into him.

His body was as hard as a rock. It was rather like smashing herself against an oak tree. His arms came around her automatically to steady her. The heat radiating from him nearly burned right through her clothes.

To her absolute horror, she banged the door closed again as she threw herself forward and away from him. She nearly ran into the heavy glass, but his hands were suddenly at her waist, gently moving her away from the door.

One moment she was heading for danger; the next he had literally lifted her and put her a foot away from the door.

“Kitten, you’d better let me get that.”

Color rushed up her neck into her face. To her everlasting mortification, she could hear male amusement in his voice. She was an idiot—a tongue-tied idiot—and he’d think she was crazy. Still—she gulped air—that was for the best. He’d just dismiss her, hopefully never look at her again. Not with those eyes. Those beautiful, antique gold eyes. Who had eyes that color?

He pulled the door open and held it, waiting for her to go through. Thankfully she found her legs and moved past him, once again throwing a small, hopefully thankful smile at him over her shoulder. She walked stiffly to the counter and shoved her things beneath it on the other side.

She was absolutely certain someone needed to file away books in the back where no one could see her. Someone else could make the coffee tonight and she’d just go hide.

“Cat, great, you’re here.” David Belmont, the owner of Poetry Slam, threw her an apron. “Get to it, hon. Everyone’s been complaining because apparently my coffee doesn’t taste like yours. I’ve watched you a million times and I do exactly the same thing, but it never comes out like yours.”

“You don’t like making coffee, David,” Catarina replied, and put on her apron. Which she found hilarious because he owned the coffee-house.

The moment she was behind the coffee machine, David moved into position to take orders and money. Clearly there he was in his element, chatting up the customers, remembering their names, talking them into some of the bakery goods sold with the coffee. He even remembered the poetry or short stories they wrote. He was awesome with the customers, and she was awesome with the coffee. They made a great team.

She didn’t look up when anyone ordered. It was part of her strategy to keep in the backgroun...

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