Authors: Georgette St. Clair
Shifters, Inc.: Spotting His Leopard
Copyright 2015 by Georgette St. Clair
This book is intended for readers 18 and older only. It is a work of fiction. All characters and locations in this book are products of the feverish imagination of the author, a tarnished Southern belle with a very dirty mind.
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Wolf shifter Tyler Witlocke, who’s taking a most unusual vacation, just slapped a copper collar and a pair of handcuffs on his fated mate – right after meeting her.
Unfortunately, it’s not for fun and games – Gwenneth is a ruthless criminal who’s left a trail of bodies behind her, and he’s got no choice but to take her in. However, everything is not as it appears on the Fertility Island. Is Tyler’s fated mate a vicious killer, or is she a pawn in a dark, far reaching conspiracy? Their answers lie in the temple of a fertility goddess, deep in a lush, tropical jungle. But after a lifetime on the run, can Gwenneth trust Tyler enough to let him past her defences before it’s too late?
Tyler Witlocke sat slumped in his seat, cursing his parents, cursing his luck, and planning the theft of the priceless Eye of the Jaguar.
He’d started scanning the room and ruthlessly picking apart the lax security the moment he’d walked through the museum’s front door.
He’d taken note of how many exits there were. He’d counted how many uniformed guards stood in front of the plexiglass box encasing the kingdom of Khaliji’s most precious jewel. He’d gone on to note the undercovers in the crowd, dressed like tourists and casually drifting through the room – a little too casually. They barely glanced at the exhibits, or the placards next to the exhibits. They were watching the museum guests more closely than the displays.
Tyler sat in a wooden chair at the back of the room, scanning the crowd. He pretended to read the three-fold printed out museum guide, playing the part of a typical tourist. He even wore a Hawaiian print shirt and khaki shorts. It wasn’t as if he, a wolf shifter from California, stood a chance of blending in with the local population of copper-skinned, raven-haired jaguar shifters anyway.
He already stood out by being single. All the other people drifting through the room were couples, come to Khaliji because it was home to the Cult of the Fertility Goddess. Khaliji was known worldwide among shifters who had difficulty conceiving; the island was imbued with fertility magic, and supposedly the Eye of the Jaguar possessed particularly potent powers. Legend had it that if a shifter stared at it without blinking for sixty seconds, they were assured of a healthy child.
A milky green, massive jade oval, it was set in a spiky, jewel-encrusted crown that rested on a black velvet pillow.
There was a semi-circle of eager shifter couples standing directly in front of the crown’s display case and staring straight into the eye. Many of the other couples were passionately entwined on the chairs and benches scattered throughout the museum, hands sliding under clothing, caressing, groping. In America, their behavior would have drawn snickers, some scandalized glances, maybe even a strongly worded request to get a room, but here, public displays of passion were encouraged. Every conception on Khaliji was considered a tribute to GuRa, the fertility goddess.
The sight of the passionate couples did little to improve his sour mood. He’d been dating one of his co-workers at the security firm Shifters, Inc., for the last few months, until she’d finally confronted him and demanded to know if she was his fated mate. She was human, so she wouldn’t have had that instant, zinging sensation, that overpowering attraction. He was a wolf shifter, and an honest one. He had to tell her that although he really cared about her and there was incredible chemistry between them, she wasn’t his fated mate. So she’d understandably dumped his shapeshifting ass.
He resumed his survey.
Twelve heavily armed jaguar shifters guards, two to the left of the display case, two to the right, and the rest standing by the three exits. There were no windows. No security cameras, which was typical of Khaliji.
It wouldn’t be an impossible heist, but if Tyler were going to go for the Eye of the Jaguar, he’d wait until tomorrow night, the first time in five years that the jewels would be removed from its case.
This was the twenty-fifth year of the reign of King Maharim, the Most Blessed and Exalted. Every five years there was a day of celebration dedicated to his glorious reign, capped off with a huge parade.
There was a massive celebration, with the island’s population turning out to line the streets, There were hundreds of parade floats, and bags of money thrown into the crowd. King Maharim donned the crown, and he and his two wives and many children rode on a float leading the procession. The island’s Witch Doctor also rode by his side, which supposedly protected him from harm.
But there was a window of opportunity for a skilful thief. When the palace guards came to fetch the Eye and bring it to the king, that was when it would be easiest to steal.
Tyler wasn’t really planning on stealing the crown jewel, of course. The son of a cop and a schoolteacher, he was straight-up law and order to the bone. He worked in computer forensics, identifying threats to the safety and wellbeing of shifter clients across the globe.
The only reason he was running a security assessment on the room was because he was bored stiff. His well-meaning parents had tricked him into the vacation from hell.
Yes, he spent all his time in front of a computer or attached to technology. That was his job. But to his worried family, it somehow meant that he was wasting his life away. Also, his mother’s hints that she’d like some grandcubs sooner rather than later, at least before she died of old age, were becoming increasingly strident. Of course she was a middle-aged shifter in perfect health, but that didn’t stop her from pouring on the guilt.
He and his mother shared a birthday. A month before his fiftieth and his thirtieth birthday, his mother had called him over for dinner and insisted that all she wanted for her birthday was for him to agree to go on a vacation, and let her arrange it.
Otherwise, she’d said ominously, if he wouldn’t let her do that, then she wouldn’t want a birthday celebration at all. She’d just stay in her room for the day, no need for presents, no need for a birthday dinner. Yes, she’d just sit there in the dark all by herself and wonder where she’d gone wrong.
At that, Tyler’s father had shot him a look.
Take the damn vacation or else.
Like he’d had a choice.
It wasn’t until she’d handed him the plane and hotel tickets that he’d realized what his parents had done to him. Khaliji was famous for a couple of things. One of them, of course, was for being THE destination for shifters who wanted to pop out some progeny.
And the other was for permitting
no modern technology.
It was like the entire island was trapped in the early 1900s. There were no cell phone towers. They used landlines only. No television sets. No computers. No internet. Cars were decades old, and bicycle taxis or horse-drawn cabs were widely used. News was delivered in the form of a newspaper published by the kingdom’s news agency, every morning.
He was trapped in hell.
his parents had insisted.
It’s not natural for a shifter to be so attached to technology. Leave your machines behind. Run through the jungle. Get in touch with your animal nature.
Well, he wasn’t relaxed. He didn’t like relaxing. He liked working. Also sex. He’d grown quite fond of sex over the years, and he was missing it fiercely since Pixie had dumped him. There were plenty of women at Shifters, Inc. who’d indicated their willingness to help him out in that area, no strings attached. Unfortunately, he wasn’t big on casual sex, so that meant he was going through a major sex drought with no end in sight.
And this was just his first day here on the island. He was stuck here for two more damn weeks.
Just thinking about sex was making him tingle in odd places. As he sat there, he felt a strange, throbbing sensation sweep through him, an odd craving, a hunger. It felt the way he’d heard countless shifters, including his mother, describe their first meeting with a fated mate.
He glanced around the room. Was it possible his fated mate had just wandered in here? No, that was ridiculous. He saw nobody but couples and male security guards, and he wasn’t into men, or poaching anybody else’s mate.
As his gaze swept the room, he spotted a slender young woman striding through the main entry, holding a guidebook, and suddenly he could hear his heartbeat pounding in his ears.
Casually, he checked her out. Slender, mid-twenties, cat shifter of some sort. He sniffed at the air; leopard. She moved with a sinuous grace as she strolled over to look at a painting. She made a big show of looking at the guidebook and ignoring the Eye of the Jaguar.
Her face was turned away from him and partially obscured by big round-lensed glasses, but two things hit him at the same time.
One: She was casing the joint, just as he had been, although a little less skilfully. So she was either some kind of private security or a thief.
And two: Based on his racing heart and sweaty palms and the sudden bonfire of arousal that blazed within him, she was almost certainly his fated mate.
He took a deep breath, tried to ignore the sudden swelling in his pants, and forced himself to focus.
She had done her best to disguise her appearance, and to dress in as neutral and forgettable a fashion as possible. She wore khaki clam-diggers, a white T-shirt and a khaki safari-style hat. Her glossy brown hair was straight and shoulder length, and he was pretty sure it was a wig. A very good one, but a wig. She wore big glasses, but he suspected they were just clear glass. They did an excellent job of changing the shape and look of her face, however.
She strolled over to the Eye of the Jaguar, looked it over with interest just like any tourist would, then returned to her study of the other artifacts in the room.
As Tyler watched her, he became more and more convinced that she wasn’t working for any kind of private security firm. She was good, but not good enough.
She hadn’t spent enough time looking at the Eye, which was the main attraction. She’d also been foolish to come alone. Natives came here by themselves. Tourists tended to come with a partner. Yes, there were occasional single tourists like him, but they drew a little more attention. There was no point in standing out if you were planning a crime. And those glasses. Yes, they hid her face, but they were kind of an attention-grabber too. They were too large. She could have disguised her face just as well with smaller spectacles.
After a few minutes she got up and left.
He waited until she’d walked out of the door and then followed her. He paused outside on the front steps, stepping to the side of the door so he wouldn’t block it, and pretending to study a map of Rhahijala, the island’s capital city.
At the same time he was looking for her and watching his surroundings. There were throngs of tourists there, and beggars. More beggars than there had been in the past, apparently. He’d studied the island kingdom once he’d found out that it would be his forced vacation destination, and had learned that Khaliji had suffered a severe economic downtown in the past few years. Their coffee crops had failed, and demand for their unique style of hand-carved teak furniture was waning. Those were their two principal exports.
The museum was a large and glorious building made of gold-veined marble. It stood out on the island, where most of the buildings were made of wood or concrete. And since it was one of the main tourist attractions on the island, this was where the poor were driven these days, panhandling, hustling, begging for work.
Looking down from the top of the museum steps, he searched for his mysterious leopard, and quickly found her. She was standing to the right of the foot of the steps, arguing with a fat, angry tourist.
A young native boy stood there, next to a bicycle taxi. He was flinching away from the tourist, an anxious, frightened expression on his face. He looked about fourteen, skinny, knobby-kneed. His T-shirt was dirty and the hems of his shorts were frayed. The tourist, a ruddy-faced wolf shifter in his fifties, was shouting at him in German. The tourist had a gut hanging over his shorts, and a contemptuous sneer on his face. An attractive younger woman was with him, looking uneasy and embarrassed. She sported a huge sparkler on her ring finger and was decked out head to toe in designer gear. Trophy wife.
A soldier was striding towards them, scowling at the boy.
“He never gave me a ride here! He’s trying to steal from me!” the man yelled at the soldier.
Tyler’s fated mate marched right up to them, eyes blazing with anger. The wind moved Tyler’s way, and her scent swirled in his nostrils, sweet and powerful, like an exotic flower. A sudden image of running his fingers through velvety golden fur flashed through his mind. He imagined himself tracing her rosettes with his fingers, feeling the rumble of her purr vibrating on his hand…
“He’s doing no such thing,” she said loudly. American accent, Tyler noted. “He gave the man and his wife a ride here and dropped him off. This man’s trying to cheat him out of his fare.” The wife bit her lip and shifted uncomfortably where she stood. The locals and tourists were watching with interest.
The soldier was hesitating now, glancing back and forth between the raggedy bicycle boy and the two indignant tourists. Normally he’d be going with the tourist – the moneymaker – but now he had two foreigners to contend with.
Tyler stalked up to them. “She’s telling the truth,” he said. “The boy pulled up right in front of here and dropped them off.”
“He’s lying!” the man growled in his heavy accent. “He didn’t even see anything! This man came out of the museum
he dropped me off. I mean…” His face turned red. He pointed at Tyler. “He’s lying. Can’t you arrest him for lying?”
The soldier scowled and his hand dropped to his holstered gun. “Pay the boy,” he said irritably.
“Gerda, call my lawyer,” the man commanded his young wife. “I’ll make this into an international incident, that’s what I’ll do!”
She shook her head, lips wrinkling in disgust. “I will call my lawyer, and file for the divorce,” she said, also in heavily accented German. She held up her designer purse. “This? Not worth it!” And she threw it on the ground, turned on her high heel, and stalked off through the crowd.
“Fine! I’ll just replace you with another one!” the man yelled after her. Then he pulled his wallet out, fished out a couple of bills, and threw them into a puddle on the ground with a sneer. He turned to go. Tyler felt his temper rising; he grabbed the man by the arm, hard.
“He’s assaulting me!” the man screamed in a shrill, high-pitched voice. “Arrest him! He’s assaulting me!”
Nobody moved to help him.
“Reach back into your wallet and hand him the money you owe him. Now.” Tyler’s voice was a low, rumbling growl.
The man looked at the soldier for help, but he had already walked off.
“I won’t!” the man whimpered. “You can’t make me!”
“Actually, I can. I can also break your arm.”
“You’ll go to jail!”
Tyler shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. Worth it, either way. And you’ll never be able to use your arm again.”
He released his arm and tourist angrily reached into his pocket, pulled out the bills, and shoved them into the boy’s hand. He stalked off, and once he was a few hundred feet away he screamed “Thieves! Criminals!” Then he quickly ducked back into the crowd and scurried off. The other bills still floated in the filthy puddle, and a scrawny woman in a ragged dress dashed forward and snatched them up, glancing around fearfully, and ran off.
Tyler looked around for the leopard shifter, but she’d also disappeared.
* * *
Gwenneth moved swiftly, dodging through the throngs of tourists and natives, glancing behind her to make sure she wasn’t being followed. Her heart pounded in her chest and her throat felt dry. The encounter with the soldier shouldn’t have gotten her that riled up. He was hardly the first authority figure she’d faced down.
It was the wolf shifter, she realized. He was the one who’d sent her heart racing. Why? He was handsome, sure, but there was something more than that. He’d aroused strange yearnings in her that she’d never before experienced.
She forced herself to put it out of her mind and kept moving as fast as she dared. She couldn’t break into a run, because it would attract attention. Every step she took felt as if she were moving in the wrong direction. She wanted to go back to the museum…or rather to the wolf shifter.
Damn it, now was not the time for distractions. There was too much riding on this.
“Miss, miss, can you spare a miluka?” A scruffy girl, a jaguar cub who looked to be about nine, tugged on her arm. She sighed, slowed down, and reached into her purse. Then she realized the girl was making a hand signal at her, indicating that she was a member of the Thieves’ Guild. The signal changed every few months, worldwide, and was relayed to the leader of the Thieves’ Guild in each area, and then spread to all the local members, who paid tribute to their guild leader. Using an old signal meant that you weren’t a current member in good standing, and was likely to earn you a shiv between the ribs.
Well, this could be helpful; it was always good to touch base with the locals. Gwenneth quickly returned the gesture and followed the girl through the crowd. The girl led her away from the main tourist area, through the business district, the residential district, and finally towards the island’s slums. She moved quickly, and Gwenneth hurried to keep up. Finally, the girl ducked in to a small alleyway stacked with bags of stinking refuse and broken furniture.
“It is you! I knew it! You are returned!” the girl said happily. “Are you coming to stay with us again? Hiro’s arm has healed up! Last week we got a purse with a thousand milukas in it! We gave some of it to that girl Fanji because she had her baby, remember her?”
Returned? So her twin sister had been on the island before?
“I, ah…I can’t stay long. I wish I could. I’m just here working a job right now,” she said gently, and the girl’s face fell.
“Of course,” she said, nodding, with a touch of sadness on her face. “We are grateful for your gifts. We have been receiving them every month. We used last month’s gift to buy medicine for Hiro ."
“That’s wonderful. I’m so happy that it helped,” she said, her mind racing as she tried to figure out what exactly was going on here. Her sister was sending money to this girl and her friends? What was her angle? Rhonwen wasn’t the maternal type. It was Gwenneth who had always been the soft touch, which never failed to send Rhonwen into fits of impatience.
“Nobody helped us growing up, when we were fending off mom’s boyfriend of the week or dumpster-diving for food, did they?” she’d say bitterly. “We had to fight for every scrap. So why should we help anybody but ourselves?”
Gwenneth gazed down into the little girl’s dirty, hopeful face. She should at least go see where this girl was staying and figure out if there was a way she could help her. And if she went, she might get a better idea of what was going on with her sister. She had obligations that evening, but she should be able to spare some time early tomorrow.
“I would like to come visit you,” she said. “Maybe early tomorrow morning you can send someone to come get me? I am staying at the Banyan Tree Hotel of Blissful Conception.”
“I will be there at dawn,” the girl said, nodding, and then she turned and ran down the alley, casting one longing glance back behind her before vanishing around the corner. Gwenneth found herself cursing her sister’s selfishness. She’d gotten close to that little girl, made the girl think she cared about her, and then left her in the lurch. And how long would she even keep sending money? As long as the girl and her gang or family or whatever were useful, Gwenneth imagined.
Thoroughly rattled, Gwenneth turned and walked out of the alley. She paused to draw in a deep breath of fresh air, then started heading back towards the tourist section of the city – and almost ran straight into the handsome wolf shifter from the museum.
He raked her with a knowing look and stuck out his hand in introduction. “Hello,” he said. “I’m Tyler Witlocke. And you are?”