Mitya Amurov stared out at the drops of rain running down the window. The town car had tinted glass, adding to the darkness, but it was more his sullen mood that kept him from seeing anything but the endless rain. His body hurt all the time. The bullets had torn into him; not only him, but his leopard as well, nearly killing both of them. He wished they had succeeded.
It wasn't the first time he'd been shot, but the experience had left him doing physical therapy and working out harder than ever to recover-for what, he didn't know. His leopard, always cruel, always clawing for freedom, had become nearly impossible to control. Or it was possible Mitya was just plain tired out from fighting every day of his life to keep his leopard under control. He honestly didn't know or care which it was. He'd gone past the time of hope for any kind of life.
He knew what he was. He'd known from the time he was born, and his leopard had made him aware of what was in store for him. He'd grown up a criminal. A man who hurt others. A man who destroyed the lives of others. A man who killed. That was who and what he was, and no matter how hard he tried to climb out of that world of blood and treachery, there was no getting out. Never. He didn't have much to live for.
His leopard leapt for the surface, clawing and raking, trying to take him over. As Mitya fought back to stay in control, he thought the cat had responded to his morose thoughts. But then the leopard swung around so abruptly, Mitya's body did as well. He saw headlights beaming from the side of the road.
"Stop. Miron, stop."
His driver instantly hit the brakes. Ahead of them, the car in front did the same. The one behind them did as well.
"Turn around and go back to that car, the one on the side of the road."
They were on a fairly deserted road, one that led to the country home where he resided. It was in the hills above San Antonio, a beautiful estate where he could run his leopard without too much fear of accidentally running into a human being.
"Mitya," Sevastyan cautioned. "What are you doing?" He turned his head to stare out into the darkness at the car. Headlights prevented any of them from actually seeing and identifying the vehicle. His hand slid to his gun, and he sent a quick hand signal to the others in the car to do the same and then spoke into his radio to ensure the other two cars filled with security were ready for anything.
Mitya didn't answer, but the moment the car was parallel with the parked one, he opened his door before Sevastyan, his cousin and bodyguard, could stop him. A woman stood beside the rear of the car, one hand on a tire. The rain poured down on her, but she stood unbending in it, watching him come to her.
The closer he got to the woman, the crazier his leopard acted. Mitya was no longer a young man. Midthirties had caught up with him and he had lived a thousand lifetimes in each of those years, all of them with his leopard, and he didn't recognize this behavior. The cat was still clawing at him, still trying for supremacy, but not in his usual aggressive, "out for blood and mayhem and the taste of human flesh" manner. No, this time he felt almost playful.
Playful? His leopard? There was no time; even in childhood, his leopard had never felt playful. They had a relationship, a tight one, and his leopard guarded him as carefully as Mitya watched over his leopard, but that hadn't ever included play.
He was vaguely aware of his bodyguards rushing to surround him, of the furious set to Sevastyan's shoulders that indicated Mitya was in for another one of his cousin's lectures, but he didn't care. He was too busy drinking in the sight of the woman standing there in the rain.
She was on the small side, not at all one of the many tall, svelte models he often fantasized about. He wouldn't be doing that ever again. She wore a suit, a flared skirt that showed off her shapely legs and a short jacket that seemed to shape her waist, ribs and the curve of her breasts to perfection. All white. Not off-color or ivory, but actual white. The buttons were startling in that they were dark and shaped into cars. They made one want to look closer-which he found he didn't mind doing in the least.
She looked vaguely familiar to him, but he knew if he'd ever met her, he would have remembered her. As he got closer to her, he realized the skirt and jacket had images of cars pressed into the material, so the fabric looked embossed. Her boots were the same dark color as the unusual buttons.
Her hair was thick and dark, a glossy pelt shining in the flashlights playing over her. Her eyes were large and for a moment shone back at them almost red, but she blinked several times. Enough that he barked an order to his men.
"Stop shining the light in her face." He was already taking the heavy tire out from under her hand where she steadied it. "You will get dirty. Already you are soaked from the rain."
"Thank you for stopping, but really, it isn't necessary. I have changed tires before."
Her voice made his gut clench hotly. Hell, even his cock reacted. It was the way she sounded. Husky. Like sin in the night. Whispers between two lovers. He wasn't a good talker under the best of circumstances. If she needed someone killed, he was her man, but trying to sound suave and sophisticated was far beyond any ability he had.
Balancing the tire upright, he removed his suit jacket with one hand and tossed it to one of his bodyguards. He didn't even glance up to see who it was. He indicated her car or his. "You should get out of the rain." He tried not to sound like it was an order, but he'd been giving orders for a very long time, so he was pretty certain by the expression on her face that it had come out that way. She looked more amused than angry. Maybe a little confused. "To stay warm," he added gruffly, and turned abruptly away from her.
"Boss," Sevastyan hissed. "Miron can't drive worth shit, but he can change a fuckin' tire. Miron, get over here."
"I can change her tire for her," Mitya snapped, embarrassed that she might think he couldn't. He wanted to stare at her for the rest of the night. He wanted his leopard to keep up the strange behavior. He sensed that this woman, in some way, calmed the dangerous predator in him, and having that respite, if only for a few moments, after a lifetime of sheer hell, was a miracle.
The woman's gaze jumped to Miron and a small smile briefly curved her mouth, drawing his attention to it. She had the kind of mouth he'd fantasized over. Leopards were oral creatures, and he instantly became fixated on that perfect bow. He wanted her lips stretched around his cock, those enormous eyes looking right into his. The predator in his leopard might have turned playful, but that trait in him leapt to the forefront. He wanted to taste her. Bury himself in her. Claim her. Every possessive, jealous trait he hadn't known he had leapt to the forefront.
"I've got it, boss," Miron said and removed the tire from under his hand.
Mitya gestured toward his town car. She hesitated, looking at the force of men surrounding them. Sevastyan, thankfully, had put his gun away. Vikenti and his brother Zinoviy hovered close, but both had also concealed their weapons. The brothers were large and looked exactly like what they were, as did Miron. Sevastyan appeared more civilized than all of them. None seemed as intimidating as Mitya. He looked to be a dangerous man. He carried himself that way without thinking about it. When one had been shaped into a weapon from birth, it didn't go away until one died.
"I'm Mitya Amurov," he said.
Again she hesitated, as if perhaps she'd heard of him. If that were so, he wouldn't have been surprised. It was no secret he'd been shot. The news articles had a field day speculating whether or not he was part of a much larger crime family-and they would have been correct. Or at least, correct as they knew it.
Mitya held the door while Vikenti stupidly held the umbrella over him instead of the woman. He snapped at the man in Russian. "Her, Vikenti, be a gentleman."
Vikenti immediately shoved the umbrella over her head, and she sent Mitya a smile that tightened his belly and put steel in his cock. She was beautiful. Truly beautiful. Up close he could see her skin. It looked so soft he longed to touch it. Her lashes were long and thick, and in the lights spilling from both cars' headlights, even in the rain, her eyes looked more violet than blue. She stepped past Mitya and slid gracefully onto the heated leather seats.
Mitya was certain he detected a little sigh of pleasure when the warmth in the car enveloped her. Before he slipped in with her, he glared at his bodyguards, warning them off. Again, Sevastyan didn't like it, but he nodded curtly. There was going to be another lecture, and Mitya knew he deserved it, but it didn't matter. He needed this. His leopard needed it. It wasn't like this was going to happen ever again, so he was taking it while he could, and consequences be damned. He took his jacket back, slid in beside her and slammed the door closed.
"Your bodyguards aren't going to be very happy with you," she said softly.
She smelled of rain. Of some exotic, spicy flower he couldn't name. She'd been to a restaurant, and she'd been there with a man. He could smell the various scents on her. His leopard didn't like that any more than he did, but he consoled himself with the fact that she had driven home alone. Due to his counterpart, he had an acute sense of smell, and he couldn't detect the faintest scent of sex on her.
"They are bossy," he agreed, deciding it best to just admit he had bodyguards. He was surrounded by them. There was no denying it. "I'm sorry I don't have a towel, but you can use my jacket. That might help."
"I don't want to get it wet." A little shiver went through her in spite of the warmth of the car.
He slipped his jacket around her. "No worries." That was it. The extent of what he had to say. He just fell silent and tried not to stare, feeling as silly as his killer leopard had become.
"I'm Ania," she said. "It's nice to meet you. May I call you Mitya?"
"Yes, yes, of course." He was grateful Sevastyan wasn't in the vehicle with them. She had a Russian name and pronounced it with the faintest of Russian accents. His cousin would be immediately suspicious she was an assassin come to kill him. He wouldn't have minded so much. His cat was content, and at that moment, so was he. It would have been a good moment to go out.
"I really do know how to change a tire," she said, "but it was miserable out there and I do love this outfit. It would have gotten ruined." Her fingers made a neat crease in the material and then folded it through her fingers as if she might be nervous.
It was a small gesture, but Mitya was trained in noticing the smallest reaction in those he interrogated, so reading her was easy. She was nervous being alone in the car with him.
"Why did you trust me enough to get into this vehicle with me?" he asked, his hand settling gently over hers to still her restless fingers. The silk of her skin was there. In spite of the cold, her touch made him warm all over. She didn't pull her hand out from under his.
"You were nice enough to stop for me," she replied. "No one else did, not that there were many people driving by tonight."
"Where are you heading?"
She turned her head to stare directly into his eyes. He had the feeling he was being studied. He didn't look harmless. If anything, he looked like the very devil. He didn't have a reassuring smile he could send her. If he tried to smile, she'd probably leap from the car in fear. The best he had was the truth.
"Please don't think you have to answer that. It was thoughtless of me to even ask. I'm not used to talking to women."
Her eyebrow went up, lending her the most adorable expression he'd ever seen on a woman. She turned in the seat toward him, continuing to study him feature by feature. Her gaze drifted over the angles and planes of his face, noting every scar. His eyes were darker than most of the Amur leopards. Many had lighter blue-green eyes. His were a darker blue-green, almost a dark cyan. When he shifted, his eyes blended with the darker rosettes in his long, thick fur.
"I would expect that women fawn over you."
He didn't deny what was true. He'd always had his choice of women. "Only because they believe I am someone exciting or that I have money."
"Exciting? You mean as in dangerous?" She gestured toward the bodyguards. "Or famous. Should I know you? Your name sounds familiar."
He sighed. He was tired. Too tired. His body hurt so fucking badly he wanted to stab himself through the heart and get it over with. He was a shifter, and he didn't take pain pills. If he was out of it, his leopard could escape and kill someone. He leaned back on the seat, enjoying the fact that she sat close and his leopard was satisfied just with her near. He was as well.
"I'm no one special, Ania. These women, once they learn this, no longer fawn." He kept his smile to himself. One small trace of his leopard and those women were running for their lives. None wanted him. They wanted what he had. Or what they perceived he had-which was nothing of real value. His cousin Fyodor had something valuable with his wife, Evangeline. Timur, another cousin, had it with his woman, Ashe. He could offer a woman danger. Bullets. Death. He could offer her . . . him. He was no prize. He never would be.