Authors: Marie Harte
For my cousin. And yes,
Stacey is entirely fictional, unless you really can turn into a cat.
Cougar Falls, Montana
A door slammed. Swearing, snarls and spitting hisses pierced the early morning quiet of what promised to be a beautiful summer day. Life in the pride was never dull, but today looked to be especially interesting.
Whistling, Dean Chastell grabbed a cup of coffee and reveled in the comfort of having such a close-knit, loving extended family.
“Son of a bitch! I’m going to kick your ass, Chastell!” Miles Bermin, fellow shapeshifter and current Catamount Ranch guest, had been using the shower upstairs because the water heater in his cabin wasn’t working.
At least, not since Dean had tampered with it.
“Miles?” From upstairs, Burke’s deep voice sounded rusty. “What the hell? It’s not even seven yet.” Great, now Burke would be in a bad mood. Dean’s oldest brother and pride leader wasn’t exactly pleased with him lately. Not after yesterday’s mess with the gray wolves.
The mangy bastards.
Dean decided it might be prudent to leave—and fast—before he was discovered, and bumped into a troublesome gray wolf on his way out the back door.
“Where are you off to so early?” Monty GrayClaw, the only wolf in the pride, yawned and stretched as he entered the house. “I thought today was your day off.”
Dean shrugged and put down his coffee. “Just thought I’d get in a few—”
Burke’s laughter echoed through the house. “Holy shit. Is your hair blue?”
Monty blinked. “Your brother’s up early. This can’t be good. And who’s he talking to?”
“Yeah, it’s blue,” Miles roared. “I have business to attend to today, not to mention a date later this evening. And fucking
Monty’s grin stretched across his lips. “Nice.”
Like Dean, Monty didn’t particularly care for the snotty cats visiting from Miami. They tolerated the females well enough—mostly—but Miles was a huge pain in the ass at the best of times. It didn’t help that the women in town thought he walked on water.
Dean did his best to look innocent, and failed miserably when Monty started laughing.
Footsteps pounded overhead. Miles’s scent drew closer, robust with the heat of rage. Considering the dude had a few inches on Dean, as well as a surprisingly muscular frame under the stupid designer suits he often wore, Dean decided to make haste. He inched past Monty toward the door.
“I’d hurry if I were you.” Monty nodded for him to go.
Deciding avoidance made sense—because who wanted to fight so early on a gorgeous Friday morning—Dean slipped outside and into his truck. He turned the key and shifted into reverse when the passenger door opened.
Christ, wasn’t one of them enough to deal with today? He stared in dismay at the most beautiful—and annoying—woman he’d ever had the misfortune to know. “Not now, Stacey. I’m late for work.”
“You have today off.” Miles’s sister just stood there looking finer than fine.
“Come on. I have things to do. Shut the door and move away.”
He inched the truck back. Any second now Miles would be out the door…
“I need a ride into town.” She glanced behind her at the back door and frowned.
Fuming because he had two choices—give in to the princess’s demands or suffer Miles’s wrath—he leaned across the passenger seat. “What did you say?”
When she leaned closer to respond, he grabbed her by the collar and yanked her inside. She yelped as she tried to right herself, while he gassed the truck and lurched back just as Miles Bermin tore through the back door of the house, dripping wet and wearing nothing more than a towel and blue hair.
“Get back here, you son of a bitch!”
Stacey swore as the car door slammed, barely missing her pricey skirt. She stared out the front window and gasped. “Oh my God. Is Miles’s hair blue?”
Miles had made one too many comments about Dean’s love life at dinner last night. It was one thing for the rest of the pride to joke about him being the last standing Chastell without a mate, but when Miles said it, he sounded insulting. A lot like his sister. Dean regarded Stacey out of the corner of his eye, wishing he could turn off his attraction to her.
Whipping the wheel to turn the truck around, Dean jumped on the gas and tore down the dirt driveway. He kept his gaze half on the drive and half on the rearview, making sure Miles didn’t decide to go for broke and hunt his ass down. But all the while he remained painfully aware of the woman next to him.
He’d dated his share of women. Had never hurt for girlfriends or a companion on a Saturday night. But none of them held a candle to Stacey Bermin. Part of the Miami pride temporarily staying at the Catamount Ranch, Stacey represented every fantasy of feline perfection he’d ever had.
Long golden hair—not blond or brown, but white spun with gold—lay in soft waves over her shoulders. A strand curled above her breast, drawing his attention to the generous swell cupped by what was no doubt an expensive lacy bra under her blouse. The woman designed clothes for a living and looked like a professional model. Today she wore spiked heels with some kind of leopard print—which he hoped to hell was fake—a short khaki skirt and a silky shirt that brought out the blue of her eyes. Like her brother, she had looks that attracted attention no matter where she went. And when she dressed like that, people stopped to stare. She was that hot.
“Problem, Jethro?” she asked in that haughty voice that set him on edge and got him hard in a heartbeat.
He thickened a hick accent to annoy her. “It’s Gomer, darlin’. Just wondering why you’re out of the house without protection.”
“It’s been a month. If Lex was going to pull something, he’d have done so by now.”
“Maybe.” Then again, with what they’d heard about the Ac-taw down South, the shapeshifting scum might be lying in wait, just itching for a chance to kidnap and torture the Bermins one at a time.
“Besides, I’m with you.” Stacey sniffed. “No doubt if there’s a problem, you can call Burke or Grady for help.”
As if Dean couldn’t handle a few scraggly Florida cats by himself. He forced himself to ignore yet another insult. “So here’s another question for ya. Why are you dressing like a hooker on a Friday morning? Got a hot date over eggs and bacon at the Fox’s Henhouse? ’Cause that’s where we’re headed.”
“Not that I agree with you, but really, hooker? If anything, I’d go with high-class call girl.” She frowned. And even that turned him on, the way her light-colored brows furrowed, wrinkling the baby-fine skin of her siren face. “I thought you were going into Whitefish.”
“Nah. Grady’s got that covered.” His older brother had this morning’s tour group because he’d switched with Dean for the weekend. Now that Grady had mated his own spirited cat, he’d turned into a real homebody. Of course, if Dean found someone as nice and pretty as Gabby Easton, he’d have done the same.
He gave Stacey another discreet once-over, wondering what she might be like if she could keep her mouth closed, or at the least go for ten seconds at a time without saying something mean. He counted silently to eight before she parted her lips. He sighed.
“Any reason you can think of that my brother—who has a meeting in another three hours with an investment firm interested in expanding our designs out West—would have dyed his hair blue today?”
Inwardly, Dean cringed. Okay, so it hadn’t been the best time for a little revenge on the snot staying with them.
, he kept reminding himself. Although Stacey’s sisters seemed to have settled in right nice, Stacey and Miles acted like they’d rather be anywhere but Cougar Falls.
“No idea. Maybe he wants to impress Juneau Jacobs? Heard he has a date tonight.” Juneau was a sweet bear who could do so much better than Miles.
Stacey’s lips thinned.
“What? Hell, if something as stupid as blue hair will kill the deal, then do you really want these investors in the first place?” Great. Now he was feeling guilty about giving Miles what he deserved. Trust Stacey to ruin a great prank.
“I thought you and Juneau were an item. Or is it Reggie you’re catting around with lately?”
At least she wasn’t worried about Miles, which meant he hadn’t screwed up their chance to nab investors. He frowned. “Juneau and I dated over a year ago. Reggie’s a nice girl. A friend. You have a problem with her?” He left the dirt road leading to the ranch and headed into town.
“Not at all. It’s not the poor girl’s fault she’s been tempted by the town man-whore. The women around here have pitifully little to work with.”
He gritted his teeth and clenched the wheel. He reminded himself she was under the pride’s protection, that the skirmish in Miami wasn’t quite over, and that danger could be stalking her just around the corner. But damn, it was hard to remember all that with her smug expression daring him to give her a taste of her own medicine.
At the word
, he immediately wondered what her lips would feel like under his.
Oh hell. Not going there. Not with this one.
He just wished he didn’t always have to remind his dick of that fact.
He pulled into the parking lot of the crowding diner, turned off the engine and faced her with a forced smile. “Sweetheart, if I’d known how interested you were in my love life, I’d have made sure to save you a night.” He leaned closer, entranced by the lingering smell of her perfume and by the heady scent of anger roiling from her pores. “I can pencil you in on Sunday afternoon if you’d like.” He trailed a finger down her forearm to her hand and did his best to ignore the heat licking through his body.
He thought for a moment her pupils dilated, that he caught the spike of arousal in the air. Until she gave him one of her trademark sneers, which annoyed him to no end, because even her disgust turned him on.
“You could only be so lucky.” Stacey left the truck with the grace of a feline in her prime. After shutting the door, she leaned in through the window and gave him a tantalizing glimpse of cleavage framed by a blue lace bra. “Sorry,
, but my tastes run higher than the five ’n’ dime.”
She flicked a last contemptuous look at him, then turned and sauntered toward the diner. Three raptors fell all over themselves to get the door for her and followed her inside.
Dean had to wait a few minutes to will away his erection. By the time he’d calmed himself enough to be presentable, a few more vehicles had pulled into the parking lot. He hurried inside, needing a good breakfast and a plan of action to avoid Miles for the rest of the day. Maybe he should go to Whitefish after all. And if he were really lucky, he’d manage to find someone else to deal with Stacey while he found a woman to wash away this irritating lust.
He looked for a table far away from Princess Peeve and her horde of admirers and found a seat with a group of silver foxes and his friend, Gerald. But through it all, he heard every laugh, tease and remark the high-stepping Bermin made.
After calling her brother to assure him she was safe in town, Stacey spent the remainder of her morning in the small storefront she’d decided to lease until she could find a new place to work. Nestled among the other storefronts filled with bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Ac-taw, her shop on Main Street was safe enough. Though Cougar Falls was a small town, they had a surprising array of commerce along the main drag. She’d passed several craft stores, shoe shops, jewelry stores and a few clothing retailers that suited the older generation of Ac-taw. Unfortunately, the younger women in town had no alternative for good fashion unless they went online to do their shopping. And really, shopping
How could a woman know how clothing truly fit without trying it on? Without feeling the fabric against her skin, or seeing the patterns and colors under artificial light as well as sunlight?
If she weren’t in such an all-out fire to leave, she might think about opening up her own store. As it was, this little space would make do, offering a place to sew and create while she waited for the mess at home to clear up.
Her sisters, Joy, Melissa and Amy, could do wonders with a needle and thread. Surprisingly, Joy, the hotheaded one of the bunch, had shown some real promise with a few sporty designs for the younger crowd. Stacey never would have imagined Joy might be interested in the business if she hadn’t seen the pleasure light up her older sister’s green eyes while she sketched and penciled clever outfits for the teen set.