Authors: Jo Andrews
Sierra Wallace hates Ian Raeder for making her teenage years a misery with his mockery and constant teasing. But he’s so damn hot! Just the sight of him turns her insides to molten lava. Ian’s hunger for Sierra is driving him insane. But he’s a Shifter, a leopard in his other form, and she’s human. He has to stay away from her.
When enemy Shifters invade Wade County, Colorado, Sierra and Ian are caught in the crossfire. As they fight to keep each other alive in a war that threatens to destroy every Shifter in the county, barriers tumble. The driving force of their long-suppressed passion explodes into sheet-scorching animal lust. In the torrid nights that follow, they discover that their firestorm of love and desire is far more devastating to them than any war.
If only he could stop wanting her! Ian Raeder watched Sierra Wallace walk down the street toward him. One very small package of pure nitroglycerin. Five-foot-two, delicate bones, weighing maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet, fragile as all get out. But push her and she blew up like a firecracker. It was as if a mouse had suddenly grown fangs and leaped at one’s throat.
Ian gazed wistfully at the long raven hair falling like black water down her back. He wanted to slide his fingers through her hair, twine it around his wrists, feel it slip like silk against his flesh. Her skin would feel like silk too. A lot of gold-tanned skin was showing in the cutoffs she was wearing. A black leather sleeveless vest, worn defiantly over nothing but a bra in that “who gives a damn about your opinion” way she had nowadays. Toned abs showing every now and then as the vest shifted with her movements. Amazingly long legs for someone that tiny. And as for that gorgeous ass and those high, firm, apple-round breasts…
He moved uncomfortably, feeling himself hardening within the denim of his jeans. He spent most of his time around her in a state of painful arousal.
Out of bounds. Forbidden.
Wade County girls were not to be touched. That command had been drummed into his head and those of his two brothers since the day each of them had been born. Stick to your own kind. Plenty of willing partners there, as all three Raeders had found.
No partner, though, with precisely that delicate, heart-shaped face with its stubborn jaw, or that wide mouth that turned up at the corners even in repose, so that she always looked as if she were smiling. Or those sapphire blue eyes with their thick, black lashes.
God, he was so screwed. Only not literally, the way he wanted to be.
He realized that she had seen him. Her eyes were blazing at him now and her lovely mouth had turned down at the corners. He looked back innocently, brows lifting, and almost laughed aloud when her eyes flashed fire. She jerked her head around and, ostentatiously ignoring him, turned on her heel and stalked into the art supply store. He knew she had gone in to avoid him.
She had cause. He had never been able to resist teasing her. Not since she and her mother had moved into town ten years ago. He had been eighteen then, but he had already had a rep—he and his brothers. The Raeder boys, hellraisers, lock up your daughters. No one noticed that the girls they did go after were all equally wild, or that the Raeder boys never messed with any of the others.
Sierra had been fourteen, nothing but little stick bones and big eyes, knee high to a grasshopper, but already glaring at him as if he were something icky she had found on the bottom of her shoe. He had found that hilarious, hadn’t been able to help making cracks or pulling her chain every time he saw her, which in a small town like Castleton, Colorado, was pretty often. Even though the younger brats were beneath an eighteen-year-old’s lordly notice, Ian hadn’t been able to resist prodding the quiet little mouse trying so hard to disappear into the woodwork. She wasn’t really quiet at all—she exploded so satisfactorily when provoked.
Big mistake, he’d realized four years later when he’d seen her all dressed up and on her way to her high school graduation dance. She had taken his breath away with how much of a woman she looked and how lovely. But it was too late by then—too late to take back all the teasing and the snarky remarks designed to get her goat. By that time, she had hated him with a passion.
Talk about shooting himself in the foot! But he couldn’t have got mixed up with her anyway. Not given what he was.
* * * * *
Through the plate glass window of the art supply store, Sierra watched Ian Raeder cross the street. As if he felt her gaze, he turned his head and looked right at her. She jerked back hurriedly, way too late. Of course he would catch her staring. She never could keep her eyes off him. Whenever he was around, her gaze went straight to him as if pulled by a magnet. She had tried and tried to break herself of that stupid habit, but nothing worked. And he always caught her at it.
She scowled at him. He gave her a twisted smile, then strode off with that patented swagger of his. Her gaze pinned itself helplessly to his biteable ass in those tight black denim jeans.
No, no, no, Sierra! Not biteable! Not! You didn’t just think that! You don’t think that way about Ian Raeder! The man is trouble, remember? Big time.
She snarled and glared at the jars of glazes she was pretending to look over. Ian Raeder always did that to her. Sent her blood pressure soaring up into the stratosphere. Damn the man! Biteable ass? Hell, the guy was biteable all over. Totally ripped, and not in that pumped-up, steroids-and-gym kind of way. Just utterly perfect definition with nothing out of proportion. Grecian statue time, oh yeah.
Then there was that tough, handsome face with its sharp, curving cheekbones, strong planes, beautiful mouth and uncommon green-gold eyes. Strange eyes. Most green eyes had some brown mixed in. But in Ian’s eyes there was no brown, only shifts between green and gold, depending on his mood or on the weather.
And his peculiar hair, mostly a very pale gold but with threads of brown, red and even black scattered through it. His parents and one of his brothers had the same weird coloring, though his other brother’s was just plain black. But all of them had those unusual eyes, with black lashes and brows. When she had first come to Castleton, she had meanly suspected Ian of using mascara on his striking lashes and coloring his brows, but then she had seen the other Raeders. It was a family trait.
Gee, Sierra, obsess much?
All of which was the reason he’d cut such a swathe through the female population of the town. He’d had a rep even at eighteen. Which she had learned about long before she met him. Girls were warned about all the Raeder boys. And he was the worst, they said, those classmates swooning and poking at her with their elbows whenever he came into view. He was the hottest. But even with all those warnings, she still hadn’t been able to take her eyes off him. At fourteen she had been susceptible—who isn’t?
She had resented that and her antagonism had shown. Of course he found it excruciatingly funny. Mouse, he’d called her, because of the way she’d hidden from everyone. That had hurt. She had been sensitive about being so plain and shy, so flat-chested and skinny, such a slow developer.
Mousy? Yeah, she was. But she wasn’t meek. She retaliated in her own way, which was by verbally snarking at him nastily and constantly. He’d snarked right back, laughing at her while hitting her every vulnerability with infuriating accuracy. She had hated him for that.
And she had wanted him. All through her teens, she had never been able to stop wanting him. Truth was, she still lusted after him, even at twenty-four. Hating him didn’t change that the least little bit, which made her hate him even more.
She snarled again, then pretended to study the pamphlet on the new glazes because the store clerk was giving her a funny look. A couple of glazes promised some interesting textural effects, so she bought them. She’d loitered in the store for so long that she felt she had to buy
. If they didn’t work out as she hoped, it would all be Ian Raeder’s fault. Right? Right.
She stepped out of the store and ran right into Annie Weekes, who kept house for the Raeders. Dammit. Everything was conspiring to keep the man front and center in her thoughts today.
“Why, Sierra!” exclaimed Annie, smiling. “I haven’t seen you for a while.”
Sierra smiled back. Annie had been a friend of her mother’s and Sierra liked her. “I’ve been busy working at home.”
“That pottery of yours is doing quite well, I hear.” Annie’s glance moved with interest over her vest and cutoffs. “I like the new look.”
Sierra flushed. “Uh…”
“Kind of in-your-face, isn’t it?” remarked Annie with a twinkle in her eye. “You really have changed from the shy little girl hiding in corners that I used to know.”
Sierra’s father had died in a construction accident when she was four and her mother had found it hard enough to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, never mind finding any extra money for the kind of clothes the other school kids expected one to wear. It had been easier to keep her head down and take cover rather than face the taunts and the ridicule. But now she was twenty-four and not about to take shit from anyone. The way she dressed these days was her message to the town.
“I got tired of being a geek,” she said wryly.
Annie laughed. “About time. I knew you had it in you. You always had a nice line in sarcastic retorts when you were prodded into it by someone like Ian Raeder.”
“Oh, him!” said Sierra with distaste.
Annie chuckled. “You still have it in for him, don’t you? He just wanted you to be yourself instead of pretending to be a little mouse.”
Annie had been with the Raeders for over thirty years now, so of course none of the Raeder boys could ever do any wrong in her eyes. Annie might think that Ian Raeder had been trying to bring her out. Sierra knew better. He just enjoyed giving her a hard time.
“You’re not a mouse anymore,” said Annie approvingly. “You’ve blossomed. These last four years away from Castleton have been good for you. You look lovely now.”
Sierra gave her a disbelieving glance. Yes, she did look a lot better than she had when she’d been a scrawny little kid back in Castleton High, but she would never be a raving beauty. Annie was just being kind.
A brilliant flash of light lit up the whole sky to the west. They both jumped. So did everyone else on the street.
“Did you see that?” exclaimed Annie, shoving back the short gray strands of her hair.
“Yes. What was it? Lightning?”
“Couldn’t be. There isn’t a cloud in the sky.”
Sierra looked up. The sun had set and the sky was darkening, but it was perfectly clear.
“Can’t even be heat lightning since it hasn’t been that hot.” Annie’s thin frame was tense. “It was almost like an explosion!”
“I didn’t hear any sound or feel any kind of vibration in the ground. It’s just some weird natural phenomenon,” Sierra said reassuringly. “We’ll probably find out in the paper tomorrow. How much you wanna bet it’ll even make the headlines?”
Annie laughed and relaxed. “Yeah, nothing much happens around Castleton.”
“I’d better be going. I’ve got to pick up some groceries before heading home.”
“It’s a long way to your place,” agreed Annie, frowning. “I don’t like you living out there alone, hon. It’s so isolated.”
“Oh, I don’t mind.”
Her house was several miles out of town. It had been cheap, which was why her mom had bought it even though it had meant a long drive every day to and from her job at the home for seniors. It had used up most of the insurance money from her father’s death, but it had been a guaranteed roof over their heads that nobody could take away.
These days, since her mom had died and the place had become hers, it meant that there would be no interruptions while Sierra was working at the wheel and kiln she had set up. Sierra was determined to make a going business out of her pottery. The art gallery in town had agreed to take her pots and vases on consignment and so far they were selling well. In a few months she might even be able to ease off a bit, but she wanted to become solidly established first.
By the time she’d finished loading her groceries into the back of the old Ford she’d inherited from her mom, it was full night and the streetlights had come on. The highway that led past her place didn’t have any lights, but Sierra knew it well and there was never much traffic. She switched on her high beams and cruised happily along at just a few miles over the speed limit.
Until something darted in front of her car. She only got a glimpse of a bulky form and a green flash of eyes reflecting her headlights.
Sierra stood on her brakes and swerved without thinking, neither of which she should have done, because the worn tires of the ancient Ford lost their uncertain grip on the road. The next minute, she was skidding.
Steer into the skid
, she thought wildly, wrenching at the wheel.
Steer into the skid!
But everything was happening too fast! The two-lane highway gave her little room to maneuver. A tree trunk loomed up in front of her. She didn’t have time to correct. The Ford plowed right into it. The impact flung her forward so that she nearly hit her forehead on the steering wheel, then slammed her back into her seat as the car came to an abrupt halt.
She sat there gasping, trying to recover from the shock. Her brain seemed to have seized up and she wasn’t tracking properly.
Bright light suddenly flooded through her rear window. Another car had pulled up on the road behind her and its headlights were illuminating the interior of the Ford, turning the crazed glass of her broken windshield into a milky opacity. She blinked stupidly at it.
Someone was calling her name. Then the door beside her jerked open.
“Sierra, are you all right?”
It would have to be Ian Raeder. In the glare of light, his face looked oddly white and strained.
“Fine. I’m fine,” she mumbled.
“Can you stand? Can you get out? I don’t smell any gas, but it might be better to get away from the car just in case.”