Book 1: Takhini Shifters Series
In the thirty minutes since she’d slipped into the casino, Lillie had been rubbernecking like crazy, unable to decide where to look first. She’d seen pictures of Vegas online, even checked the live-camera panoramas, but the reality was far more exciting than a flat-screen image, even a multi-screen HD setup like she’d done her research on.
It had taken some wrangling to get to this point, but now that she was finally here, she was going to enjoy herself to the fullest.
Hopefully without freaking out in the process.
She pulled her phone from her pocket, peeking at the incoming text message. Addie. Bloodhound in training—she should have known her best friend wasn’t about to let her off the hook that easy.
You still alive? Been captured by pirates?
Lillie laughed softly as she entered her response. This isn’t Disney, it’s Vegas
Disney has giant mice. You hate mice
Which is why Vegas now has another bear. For a few days, at least. I’m fine—nothing has changed since I texted you from the airport
Lillie tucked herself against the side of a slot machine, glancing up at the growing crowds. She was getting hungry, and perhaps it was time to take a break from the floor before her inner bear woke and got scared.
Text me if you need anything, hon. Anything. You’re crazy, but you’re my crazy
And that? Was what made Addie so special. Loyal and trustworthy to the end. Awww, thanks. I promise to keep in touch
With her stomach’s growing need in mind, Lillie shoved her phone back in her pocket and lifted her chin, scenting the air for the best direction to head. She’d grab some supper…maybe even take in a show.
Finding someone to have a final fling with was also on her bucket list, but low. Really low. The concept sounded like fun, but she wasn’t very good at flings, at least not in real life.
In her imagination? That was a different story. In her fantasy life, she was the queen of dirty interludes.
She glanced around the casino floor, taking in the flashing lights and loud noises as she mentally scrolled through some of the amazing romps she’d conjured up without a lick of trouble. Her perfect man flashed to mind. Dark and mysterious, sexy enough to set her heart pounding, but kind and understanding…
Actually in the fling-planning department, she’d focus on the sexy and he knows what to do with it instead of the bit about remembering birthdays and bringing her flowers. She wanted someone to sweep her off her feet and rock her world all night long.
Like that was ever going to happen.
Her gaze stuttered to a stop at the approach of one of the finest masculine specimens she’d seen in her life, as if her fantasy man had come to life. Maybe this was like Disneyland, where all her dreams could come true.
When you wish upon a star…
Dream or not, watching the dark-haired man stalk down the casino aisle was an exercise in sheer pleasure.
He didn’t simply walk, or stroll from side to side like any of the other people in the area. It was as if each stride he took was deliberate. Not an inch to the left or right he didn’t intend. And at every step, his tailored suit shifted casually on his broad shoulders, the crisp white shirt underneath open at the collar.
Hmm, that was extra nice. If he’d worn a tie, he would have looked more businesslike. Solemn and stately. Hunky as ever, in the sharply cut suit, but…
Something about the missing tie turned the yummy eye candy up to eleven. As if he’d unknotted the black silk, pulling it off slowly. Drawing it through his hand in a sensual tease before wrapping the still warm from his body fabric around his willing partner’s wrists, then calmly tying her to the headboard of his bed.
Or maybe he’d begun undressing in anticipation of ravishing someone, which turned the rest of his outfit into a dress code be damned attitude.
The predator visible in every inch of his body was attempting to camouflage itself, hiding until the moment when the polished veneer would slide away, and he’d explode into a furious, hungry animal, possessiveness in his grasp…
Lillie blinked hard, hand pressed to her chest as she fought to slow her breathing. It had gotten a touch out of control as she’d slipped into her fantasy world. Damn, she needed to take up writing fanfic or something, she was making herself sweat with her daydreams.
Still, with the scruff on his chin, his aristocratic nose, his firm lips pressed together determinedly—she wasn’t imagining the kind of deliciousness he would be in starring in one of her daydreams. Not to mention the intense gaze in his dark eyes as he stared at her as if she were his prey and—
That’s when she finally clued in that all those deliberate steps were bringing Mr. Dark and Dangerous straight toward her.
The thump of her guilty heart was hard enough to rock her entire body. Phooey, had she been discovered already?
There was no reason to assume the little slip-away she’d pulled from her scheduled agenda would continue to be successful, but this was far too soon to give up the adventure. It had taken an incredible amount of luck to get to Vegas in the first place.
Only, as the drool-worthy dark-eyed man narrowed the distance between them, it grew clearer he wasn’t some security guard who’d figured out she wasn’t where she was supposed to be.
And the closer he got, the more she realized whether or not he was a security guard, coming face-to-face with that intense of a man was not on her current wish list.
Lillie twirled on the spot and made a rapid retreat, damn near jogging down the open center of the aisle before darting sideways between rows of penny slots. She took five paces forward and cut to the left, five more then to the right, moving as rapidly as possible, zigzagging her way through the casino.
Thank goodness she had on runners instead of high heels. It didn’t matter that she must look totally undignified, as long as she didn’t get caught.
Slipping between crowds of people, ducking around machines. Whatever it took to get her away from the man who had eyed her as if she were the only thing on his agenda for the next twenty-four hours.
The only thing on the menu.
She slammed to a stop, digging into her pocket for some change as she turned her back to the room. Maybe she could hide in plain sight.
Lillie slipped a coin into the machine and pushed the big square button on the right, not even caring what she was playing. Not worrying about anything but keeping under the radar.
The electronic tickers on the screen rolled past in imitation of the old-fashioned one-armed bandits. Odds of making any money on the machine were low—she’d have gone with blackjack if she’d wanted to win. Black-box technology definitely put the odds in the house’s favour.
All most people would notice were the spinning colours, which she ignored, slipping another coin into the slot as she cautiously examined the machines on either side of her. Her nearest neighbours didn’t even glance her way, they were so obsessed with their games.
Lillie caught a flash of her reflection, biting back a snarky comment at her stupidity. She jerked up the hoodie on her top. If anything was going to give her away, it would be her distinctive hair colour.
She continued to feed coins into the machine, the bells and whistles seeming to grow louder every time she pressed the button, but she was too busy trying to peer around without looking as if she was frantically peering around to see if anyone was about to pounce.
Her bear grumbled uneasily. According to that side of Lillie’s psyche, this entire trip was just plain nasty.
Nap soon? her bear suggested. Somewhere quiet?
Why the human side had insisted on making a trip in February in the first place was beyond the animal’s comprehension. As a shifter, Lillie didn’t have to do something silly like hibernate, but it took a whole lot more to convince her bear to come out during the winter.
Add in voluntarily tossing herself into a crowded room with all sorts of humans and shifters milling around? Her bear did the equivalent of wrapping its furry arms around itself, and hunkered down to pout.
Lillie didn’t have time at the moment to deal with herself. Her heart still pounded, the grumbly action in her belly now caused more from nerves than from hunger.
But it appeared she might be out of the woods, stalker-wise.
Another push on the button.
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, glancing over her shoulder for a last check. Could it be she was safe? She was ready to head to the safety and quiet of somewhere far, far away.
Without another peek at the game, she turned, gaze darting side to side to ensure it was safe.
And then it happened. At her back, a siren began to wail.
She whirled in time to see flashing lights erupt from the top of her machine. She reached out, frantic to turn off whatever she had triggered. Desperate to stop the loud and obtrusive noises that were drawing attention from all over the casino, but there were no control keys to use—no computer override to access.
Simply the word JACKPOT flashing off and on in glowing neon colours.
Oh dear. This was terrible, this was horrible. Lillie backed away from the machine as if it were made of scorpions.
“Woohoo, good for you,” the woman on her left said, rising from her stool and patting Lillie on the shoulder.
“Holy cow. One hundred thousand dollars?” The man on her right moved in as well, clapping his hands and cheering loudly.
They weren’t the only two. It seemed everyone in the area was abandoning their machines and coming forward, closing in around her. Blocking off all of her escape routes and sucking the oxygen from the air.
She couldn’t breathe. Her bear rumbled upward, clawing at her to demand they run. Every move Lillie made bumped her into someone, helpful hands pushing her back toward the impossibly loud and frightening machine.
Maybe if she closed her eyes that would make things better. Stars hovered against the blackness of the insides of her eyelids as she tried desperately to keep a full-blown panic attack from overwhelming her.
She was no longer worried about being discovered in the wrong place. Now all she wanted was to put space between her and the people crowding far too close.
Her bear pushed to the surface as she cried in fear, and Lillie covered her face with her hands, fighting hard against the urge to shift right then and there. That was the last thing she needed, but it was close to becoming her only choice.
Lillie trembled on the edge of disaster when a commanding voice broke through the chaos, ordering the crowds away. She found herself wrapped in strong arms, a hand holding her face to a solid wall of muscle.
“Everyone back to what you were doing. She’s fine.”
“She’s better than fine,” someone called. “She won the jackpot.”
“So she did.” Her mysterious savior’s voice rumbled up from his chest, soothing over her like a warm blanket. Lillie snuck her arms around her rescuer and clung tightly. The heat from his chest—that solid wall she’d hidden against—soothed her human panic.
Her bear, however, was agitated beyond belief. Lillie struggled to keep her other side from taking over, but the beast wasn’t ready to give up the fight.
Another low rumble hit her like a command, and her bear froze. Strong fingers continued to cradle the back of her head, holding her motionless. “Relax, sweetheart. I’ll take care of things.”
She took a deep breath, and exactly what he was hit her. The scent that filled her head was oh-so-masculine, while the strength of his shifter side registered loud and clear. Her bear wiggled its ears for a moment, considering this new thing.
Well, not its literal ears, because that would have been very uncomfortable.
She had to answer him. Warn him she wasn’t safe yet. Even curled against him, her fingers tangled in his shirt, she was on the verge of breaking apart. If he’d wanted to abandon her at that point, he would’ve had to peel her from his body.
It took all her strength to form the word. “Scared.”
She could have sworn he pressed his lips to the top of her head, but she had her eyes squeezed shut, so she couldn’t be certain.
He gave a few more orders, snapping out the words, clear and precise. Lillie felt the fool for not standing up for herself, but there was a line, and she’d gone too close to it. Letting him deal with the others meant she’d be less likely to cause a terrible incident.
When he lifted her in the air like some old-timey maiden being rescued from a swoon, she didn’t protest. With how lightheaded she felt, it wasn’t far from the truth.
All she knew for certain was that as the voices faded, the bells and whistles slowly disappearing into the background, the urge to throw up also faded, and that was a good thing.
He had one strong arm curved around her, another under her legs. Lillie stretched up to clasp his neck, her other hand still buried under his jacket as she fisted the material at his back.
He smelt good. Like the tang of wood smoke mixed with the sharp cut of wintry air. Familiar and invigorating. Sensual and intoxicating. They were still moving forward rapidly. Her bear was no longer about to burst through her skin, but neither human nor beast were ready to relax.
Lillie cautiously opened her eyes, staring first at her rescuer’s chest. At the white shirt that was now crumpled from her clutching fingers. His dark jacket hung open, one of her arms tucked under it, her other hand touching the crisp hairs at the back of his neck.
Her heart skipped a beat as her gaze took in the face of the same man she’d dashed away from earlier. She summoned her meager reserves of courage. “Where are you taking me?”
“Somewhere you can unwind.”
Hmm. If he kept talking, that would help a whole lot. His voice rumbled over her, vibrating deep in her ears and sending ricocheting pulses back and forth over sensitive nerve endings.
He pushed through a door, continuing to move forward at a good clip. Lillie squirmed upright to risk a peek at where they were. One deep breath was all it took to let her know they were now surrounded by shifters.
Which made this room a better place to be, but not much.
Her gaze paused for a moment on a cougar who lay sprawled over a couch, bacon-wrapped scallops being dropped into his mouth one after another by his patient partner in human form.
To their right, outside a long glass wall, was a fenced-in swimming pool, a section of parachute-cloth roof strategically arranged to allow the sunshine in while providing privacy from curious watchers above. Instead of beach chairs, soft cushions littered the edge, and assorted minks, ferrets and bobcats were curled up in the sun. A couple, one in human form, the other paddling big panther paws into the stream, floated on inner tubes around the lazy river.
Paradise arranged for the shifter set.
She took it all in at a moment’s glance, but there were still too many people, and Lillie shuddered, pressing her face against her dark stranger once again.
Jim lowered himself into a chair as he cradled her close. He hadn’t expected this when he’d gone to say hello to his beautiful distraction.
In fact, tracking her down had been fun. His bear didn’t mind a little hide and go seek. But he’d spotted her a moment before she triggered the jackpot. Anxiously looking around as if someone were about to toss a net over her head. And the sheer desperation that had followed—
No, he’d been in exactly the right place at the right time. She’d been on the verge of shifting in public, and that was trouble in itself. He would have helped any fellow shifter in dire straits, but saving his mysterious beauty…
So much for not getting involved.
I have until Friday.
Don’t forget that, his ambition urged.
As if he could forget. He knew what his trouble was. He had a hero complex, that’s what. And since he did, he might as well go on and enjoy it.
He looked down at her, quite happy she’d continued to cling to him. “You feeling better?”
She nodded once before shaking her head vigorously. “Too many people. Too much power.”
Huh. He adjusted her to sit more comfortably, keeping hold of her head so she could only look at him and not into the room. “They’re just shifters. I’m the scariest thing in here.”
She had both hands on his shirtfront, palms pressed to his chest. He liked her caressing him, even if it was through a layer of fabric.
She nodded slowly. “I know, but my bear doesn’t enjoy crowds.”
He couldn’t stop from laughing, softly so as not to spook her further. “Vegas might not be the best holiday destination for you, sweetheart.”
Her shoulders lifted slightly. “It was my only chance, and I thought I could handle it.”
The urge to touch was too tempting to resist any longer. Jim caressed his hand over her cheek, continuing back until his fingers made contact with her hair, fondling the shiny mass again and again as he smoothed out the rough spots. Petting her with long, slow strokes until she let out a low breath, body relaxing.
“There we go. You’re safe.”
A contented sigh escaped her. The sound was a bugle call, waking up his cock all over. Jim liked the feel of this sweet honey in his arms, all soft and warm. He was ready to take her somewhere, strip her and return to this position. Maybe with her knees on either side of his hips, so he’d be able to cup her ass and help her ride.
His bear rumbled in interest. His human agreed—his cock was harder now than before, but he had to do the right thing and make sure she wasn’t with a partner already.
“Is there someone I should call?”
Instant response. She jolted upright as if she’d been plugged into an electric source. “Oh no. That’s fine. I’m good now. Thank you for all your help.”
When she would have crawled off him, Jim resisted, holding her with firm care. “Let me take you to your room, then. You need to give your bear a time-out to make sure you don’t do something foolish.”
Her eyes widened before she pulled herself under control. Her gaze twisted toward the ceiling as she closed her mouth and chewed her lower lip frantically.
Obviously his package of trouble was trying to come up with a convincing lie. This was getting more entertaining by the minute.
“I’ll be fine,” she repeated. “Thank you for rescuing me though.” She glanced down, her hands slowly retreating from his chest as she attempted to wiggle away.
“At least let me come with you to get your winnings. You need a guard if you’re going to collect that amount of money.”
He watched her mouth move, positive a silent oh shit escaped her pouting lips. “That’s right. The money.”
“Yes, the money.” More entertaining by the minute, indeed. “Did you not intend on winning money in Vegas?”
“Not that much.” She slapped a hand over her mouth.
Now Jim was completely intrigued. No way would he allow this woman out of his sight, not only because everything about her called to him, but she was so damn amusing. “Well, it looks as if it’s your lucky day. What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“And mine is Jim. You okay to go for a walk?”
This time when she tried to rise, he let her go, waiting patiently and admiring every move she made as she straightened her clothing and patted her hair behind her ears. Standing between his legs, her hazel-green eyes were nearly in line with his as she wiggled and tugged, adjusting the soft fabric of her hoodie back over that ample chest.
For the first time he noticed what the polka dots actually were. Her top had teeny teddy bears all over it, and he smiled.
Smiled even harder when she finished tidying herself and turned her attention on him. Smoothing the wrinkles from his shirt with her hands, shaking her head in dismay as she adjusted his collar and tugged his suit jacket back into position. “I’m sorry. I seem to have gotten you ruffled up.”
“You go right ahead and ruffle me anytime you want.”
Her gaze shot to meet his, eyes widening and cheeks brightening with a rosy flush. “Oh…”
Damn if she wasn’t the most charming thing he’d seen in a long time. “In fact, if you’re interested in a little more ruffling, I have no problem with helping.”
A hesitant swallow. Eyes turned downward. “I think I’d like that.”
Soft, but clear.
Jim took her by the hand and led her from the room, intrigued to discover where this lovely diversion would take him. It wasn’t what he had expected to be doing right now, but hell if he wanted to stop.