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About the author:
A professional technical writer, Anne discovered that getting laid off was actually A Very Good Thing. While looking for her next writing gig, she picked up her pen (well, okay, she used her writing as an excuse to buy a new Apple laptop) and started writing. She soon discovered that writing was uncomfortably similar to sit-ups: add a few more crunches each day, wake up sore, but, by God, you will fit into that bikini. Or finish the book (she’s still working on the bikini). Now she cranks out software manuals during the daylight hours– and writes about alpha shapeshifters the rest of the time.
What inspired you to write your book?
I’d just been laid off from my dream job at Pixar–so I decided to write a fun, sexy book that would make me feel better… and that included all of my favorite elements: a shifter hero, a fantasy world, a sexy chase, and a little kink.
Here is a short sample from the book:
Great gold statues of fearsome cats guard the Temple of Amun Ra, carvings said to take on lives of their own whenever a thief enters the treasure-laden tombs below. Whatever the truth of the tale, it is certain that Guardian warriors roam the catacombs beneath the temple, mysterious males that the simple farmers of the nearby Valley both fear and envy. The warriors are summoned to protect, to pursue—and to hunt. For once a year, the Guardians claim their price for the protection that they afford to the Valley and its inhabitants—the right to hunt the Valley’s virgins for mates.
My knees are shaking so badly that I consider dropping on all fours and crawling up the broad limestone ramp that disappears into the dark, cool depths of the temple. Heqet help me, I must be sun-crazed to have thought I could pull off this job. The red rays of the late-afternoon sun blaze a heavy path across my shoulders, the heat weighty rather than reassuring.
I straighten and walk faster. I will do this. I must.
Two massive pylons mark the temple entrance. A stonecutter has carved an elaborate depiction of two black panthers shifting from Cat form to warrior form, their massive claws morphing into steel daggers that bite mercilessly into the thief the two beings have just run to ground. The thief looks backward in horror, his mouth frozen open in a soundless shriek. I can do this. I won’t end up like him. Ninety-nine successes and this can’t be my first failure. No, Heqet willing, I’ll be in and out of the temple long before those lethal claws score my shoulders. Before its feline guardians realize they’ve let a thief wander loose in their midst.
The row of white-clad virgins in front of me steps over the threshold and disappears into the dark shadows of the interior. The woman next to me sobs audibly, the small mounds of her breast heaving wildly beneath her silk robe—she’s barely more than a girl and that disgusts me. It figures that the temple’s warriors prefer children for mates. Of course, the woman on my other side is of a more calculating bent—she rubs the silk of her robe between a thumb and forefinger, assessing the quality of the weave while she ogles the statues of Cats that fill the room we have just entered.
The Cats are well over seven feet tall and carved from what looks like pure gold. Dark obsidian glitters from the slashes of their eyes. One of those, melted down and refashioned into a series of less memorable ornaments, would keep me and my sister sheltered for months. A pity it isn’t possible. I take a second look—professional curiosity only, I assure myself—and then force myself to move away.
I’m not here to steal seven-foot statuary.
In fact, I’m here to steal something much smaller. A necklace. Made from silver and moonstones, and placed in a coffer some fifty years ago. It has other—special— properties, I’ve been told, but those don’t matter. Just as it doesn’t matter that I am not the one who wants the necklace. I’ll do as I’ve been ordered to do. Find the necklace, pocket it, and escape from the temple without being caught by one of the legendary Cat warriors. Then I’m home free. Literally.
Everything depends on finding the necklace.
And avoiding the temple’s Guardians. I eye the frieze again.
Frankly, I’m not convinced that there is any such being as a Guardian. Warriors, yes. Undoubtedly, the temple’s defenders keep watch over its fabled riches. But a special breed of Guardians who can change into deadly felines? No. The stories of the Cats and their annual Hunt for virgin mates are too outlandish to be true. What man would really send the unwed females of his family into a great stone monstrosity of a tomb, to be chased down by shape-shifting warriors on the prowl for mates?
I wonder if anyone is checking to see whether or not all the women being herded into the sanctuary are, in fact, virgins. I suspect there is more than one poseur in the lot, starting with the avaricious woman to my right.
Patting the trembling girl to my left, I do my best to blend in. “It will all be over soon,” I promise, not knowing if I speak the truth. The words sound good though, and how can anybody with a conscience keep this child here?
The girl shoots me a teary-eyed look and then frowns. “Do I know you?” she asks. Not so simple as she looks then.
Because of course the girl doesn’t know me. Having prepared for this eventuality, I lie smoothly and wait to see if she will accept my fabrication. “I’m Miu. I’m from one of the outermost farms.”
Not looking convinced, the girl nods and then returns to her weeping.
I slip away in mid-sob. There is no point in being careless; if the girl decides that she really doesn’t know a Miu, she might complain—and there is always some male, somewhere, who is willing to entertain complaints. Plus, the Valley is inhabited by farmers with carefully tended fields, an isolated group who does not welcome strangers.
The yearly visit of the traders, who enter the Valley leading pack animals loaded with whatever the townspeople cannot grow or make for themselves, has provided the perfect cover for my arrival. In the flurry of excitement generated by the traders, no one notices me slip away from the group. The following evening, no one objects when I join the procession of virgins trooping toward the temple for the Hunt.
Up until now, it’s all been so very easy.
The men herding the women into the temple stop and retreat. I try to look virginally distressed rather than desperate, as the temple priest appears and launches into a long-winded address about the honor that will be paid to a select few of the assembled women.
A pontificating fool, I decide long, bored minutes later, who enjoys the sound of his voice and the delicious echoes of the high-ceilinged chamber in which we wait. The rows of Cat statues stretch away on both sides of us, but I see no guards, no weapons here inside the temple.
Still, I have the strangest sense of being watched. Then I happen to glance up at the galleries above. Heqet help me, the galleries are crowded with dark figures who almost tempt me to believe in the preposterous legends of the temple Guardians: impossibly tall, broad-shouldered males shrouded in long black robes, their hair bound back into disciplined queues that flow halfway down their backs. I’d like to undo them, muss them up and shake their stern demeanor.
My head shoots around as I catch the priest’s last words. “. . . virgins, of course,” he declares. The man’s words feel like a slap across the face. I am not a virgin, but unless I miss my guess, neither are many of the other women. Now the priest moves on from his self-congratulatory words on our well-preserved virginity (hah) and explains how the Hunt will be conducted.
No woman has ever outrun the Cat lords, he assures us. I want to scoff, but instead I keep my expression blank and my eyes demurely cast down. “When the signal is given,” the priest says, “the hangings will be drawn back from these walls. You will each choose a tunnel and enter it. Run. You have a night’s span to reach the standing stones on the other side of the Valley. Any woman who makes it there is free to choose whether she wishes to remain with the Cat lords or to return to her own kind in the Valley.” The priest smiles with a false benevolence. “No woman who makes it to the standing stones will ever run again, and the dowry provided to each of you by the Guardians will be yours to keep.”
Ah, yes. Money. A perfectly understandable explanation for why there are so many women in the room and why their families have offered them up for the Hunt. Without money in hand, scruples are a luxury most cannot afford. Myself included.
The priest eyes us sternly. “Of course, there is another possible end to the Hunt, when a hunter catches you as his mate.” The details of what happens then—the ritual taking of the girl’s virginity—has been a popular topic in the Valley’s taverns. The legend has a savagery about it that impresses even the visiting merchants, who have seen a great deal of the outside world. Once again, I have my doubts about the truth of the tales. The Cat warrior will bell his mate—and mark her as his so that he will always be able to find her? Not likely. I don’t know what belling is, but it is undoubtedly some romantic euphemism for a sex act.
The priest is concluding his speech now, and his final words bring my head up in disbelief, because here is a wrinkle I have failed to anticipate.
“You’ll go, one by one, into the audience chamber and be examined by the Amun Ra,” he says. Interview with the lord high ruler of these Cat people? Not if I can help it. This Amun Ra will spot me for a phony and I’ll end up like the thief on their ghoulish door frieze before I’ve even had a chance to do any plundering of my own.
This calls for decisive action.
My voice brings the proceedings to a standstill. “No.”
The old priest chokes. Red suffuses his face and one of his acolytes has to rush over and pound him unceremoniously on the back. He stares balefully at me, while I enjoy his consternation. “It’s not a choice for you to make, girl. The Amun Ra has spoken. He has made his wishes quite clear.” Apparently the wishes of his supreme high holiness trump those of a mere female. Really, stealing from these warriors will be enjoyable.
The priest tries to continue, but I cut him off. “Yes, yes”—I gesture toward the rows of feline statuary—“I realize that I’m merely prey for this charming Hunt of yours, but I never agreed to any examination. That kind of humiliation?” I shake my head dramatically. “Not what I signed up for.”
He stares at me, nonplussed. I stare back. One or two of the women nearest me begin to draw slowly away. Obviously no one challenges the priest.
“I don’t see why you—or anyone else—needs to inspect me. Clearly”—I let one hand slide down the front of my robe, deliberately pressing the thin silk against the round, firm curves of my thighs which are, if I do say so myself, quite lovely—“I’ve got two legs that work perfectly well. I’ve sufficient wind to run. And I don’t”—I cock an eyebrow at him just to see if that will set him off again—“plan on getting caught.”
I wait to see if the males watching in the gallery will take the bait. They are hunters. They should revel in the challenge I have so blatantly issued. And, being men, I doubt they will stop to wonder why I have issued such a crude challenge.
The priest makes the mistake of arguing with me. Yes! I win! “You agreed.” He points an accusing finger at me, stalking forward in a self-righteous swirl of expensive robes. “Your family took the dower. You came here.”
I smile soothingly. There is no need to tell the man that I simply ordered the appropriate clothing from a seamstress back in Shympolsk and then slipped into the ranks of the women marching toward the temple. No dower has been paid for me and no family has agreed to send me. I am an imposter.
“And if some shifter decides that he can drag me off as his mate, he’ll need to catch me first.” The intense interest from the galleries above grows stronger. I can smell the heady scent of well-cured leather, masculine bodies, and no small amount of sexual interest pouring from the watchers above. It is a very good thing I have no intention of getting caught; I suspect that, legends or no legends, what those men take, they hold. Under other circumstances, I would applaud that sentiment. I hold onto what is mine too.
The man who strides out of the darkest shadows of the chamber is as impossibly tall as the hunters who crowd the gallery above, but he wears the black robes of a temple dweller. His bare feet move silently over the mosaic tiles with all the grace of a fighter. A match for my skills indeed. This one will be harder to fool. The deep cowl hides his face, but I can just make out firm lips set in a stern line. He thoroughly disapproves of me.
He takes my arm and I allow him to steer me deeper into the cool, scented depths of the temple. “Come,” he orders in a voice of liquid darkness. Behind me I hear a muted roar. For a moment, it seems as if the stone statues of the panthers stir, shimmering into eerie life.
Which is impossible.
We step into yet another high-ceilinged, cool room wreathed in smoky shadows. A lintel carved with unintelligible glyphs decorates the entrance and the walls have been carefully pieced together from vast limestone blocks brought at some point in time from foreign quarries—no one in the Valley can remember how or when the temple was constructed.
The man shoves the cowl back from his head with an impatient hand and I realize that he has more than just the build of a Guardian. He has the face of one as well. Three dark gold bars stripe the left side of his face and black eyes regard me unblinkingly. If what I’ve been told is correct, those three bars mean my escort is none other than the Amun Ra, the temple’s leader and the first of several obstacles on my path toward the necklace.
He sprawls on the low divan occupying the center of the room and I discover we are not alone. A stunningly lovely woman, wrapped only in a fragile, transparent silk chiton, reclines on the couch. She wears elaborate gold armbands on her upper arms, which chime with a small shimmer of bells whenever she moves. Her eyes narrow as she stares at me.
“Why have you brought this one here, my lord?” She runs a small, caressing hand up the powerful bulge of muscle in his forearm. A red flush colors her cheeks and her eyes glitter feverishly. She looks as if she wants to consume the Amun Ra whole, which is fine by me. I certainly don’t want him.
“She threatened chaos, love,” the Amun Ra replies absentmindedly. He splays one dark gold hand possessively against the woman’s bare thigh, opening her to his gaze. And mine.
To my own disgust, I make a choked sound of amazement. The Valley dwellers may be simple farmers, but these people inside the temple are more sophisticated than I have ever dared dream of being.
“You wish to join our Hunt.” Without dropping his hard gaze from mine, he speaks softly to the belled woman. “Spread your legs, my love, and show our guest what she may expect when she fails to escape from my hunters. This is Halilah,” he says, his eyes never moving from mine. “My lover for today.”
The dark finger pressing into the bare flesh of the woman’s sex arouses a throaty moan from his companion—and my unexpected fascination. I should be angry or shocked or taking advantage of the couple’s display to search the room for escape routes. Instead, I stare as mesmerized as a chicken before a snake, feeling an unfamiliar slick of wetness between my own thighs. The thin gold chain that circles the woman’s waist dips between her thighs and disappears. I refuse to pursue the thought. The woman does not merely wear the bells—she contains them. With every step she takes, the small brass balls must remind her of the Cat that has captured and belled her. Small sparks of electric pleasure will chime in the moist delta between her thighs, building into a helpless ache that only the Cat can—and will—assuage.
“Belled,” the Amun Ra says darkly. “Hunted. Taken. My hunters will track you through the passageways and they will show no mercy when they run you to ground.” He smiles coldly, but his fingers stroke his own mate’s liquid flesh with a tender discipline. “You posed them a challenge and you did so purposely. I would not have thought you the sort of woman to take part willingly in the Hunt.”
“But I am.” There is too much at stake not to convince him that this much is truth. “I merely prefer to play your games in my own way.”
“It is not a game we play.”
I know that now, but the realization cannot be allowed to alter my decision. I will not allow him to frighten me off with this dark passion.
The Amun Ra regards me levelly and then makes an imperious gesture with his fingers. The silk hangings covering the far wall fall in a soft whisper of impossibly expensive fabric. I count at least a dozen dark passageways leading away from the audience chamber; the entire temple must be riddled with them.
“Choose,” he says simply. “Choose. And run.”
The female saunters toward one of the passageways and disappears into the blackness. Strong, sensual, and cunning—all traits my Cat admires. And yet she is too confident to be one of the Hunt’s usual runners. Too different from the other females I’ve watched run over the years. “Who are you?” I ask under my breath, but the empty passageway has no answers for me.
For the first time in decades, an intense interest in the outcome of the Hunt surges through me. If I possessed even the slightest desire to take a mate, the tempting feminine morsel that the temple has just swallowed up would rank high on my list of candidates. My Cat wants to chase the honey-and-apples scent of her up the line of those surprisingly long legs. Bury myself in the creamy, gold-colored skin that has my Cat demanding to lick her from head to toe. Concentrating, of course, on all the creamy pink bits.
She’d have a good many of those.
She will also protest vociferously if I so much as lay a paw on her. I know that.
But persuading her to explore a little passion—with me—would be intensely pleasurable. Unfortunately, she’s picked a passageway that will drop her square in the middle of the Guardians’ personal chambers. Of course, most of the passageways lead through that particular area; it makes the Hunt simpler if we Guardians don’t have to spend hours combing the miles of dark, dusty passageways for lost females. One of my brothers will choose her and chase her; the next time I see her, she’ll be wearing another male’s bells.
I know, too, bone deep, that she is no match for either Guardian or Ifrit and yet she’s throwing herself into the path of both in my temple. I don’t like the idea of her getting hurt. But that is wrong. I test the thought warily. If she breaks the rules of the temple, she won’t get any more than what she has coming to her. That shouldn’t bother me. But it does.
I bite back the feral growl that threatens to erupt from my throat. I don’t want a mate. I shouldn’t care who has her. Or who hurts her.
But I do, on a completely primal level. My little interloper smells like no female that has ever come from the Valley. She possesses an exotic, wild scent—and a purpose clearly at odds with that of the other, mate-hungry women around her. Discovering what that purpose is… intrigues me. Because I want her.
“She’s no bride,” I say to the man lounging on the divan. “She’s up to something.” I keep my gaze trained on the shadowy passageway where the female disappeared. For some reason, I swear I can still smell her scent.
“Perhaps.” Amun Ra’s air of sensual insouciance falls away as he rises smoothly from the divan. “Quite probably. And that, Jafar, is why I summoned you here.”
Summoned me and pulled me away from watching for signs of Ifrits. Fortunately for Amun Ra, I am very good at what I do. My werecat senses let me see in the dark depths of the temple. They make me strong. Fast. And a lethal welcoming committee of one for any Ifrit foolish enough to cross over from its realm to mine.
So I swallow my displeasure at being called away from my post. Amun Ra will have had a good reason.
“You follow her.” Amun Ra gestures after the fleeing female. “Track her. If any of my Guardians can find out what she’s up to without his cock doing his thinking for him, it will be you.”
True enough. It is an accepted fact that I want no female. “The lower levels are unguarded,” I growl. I’m not leaving those tunnels unattended, not with the recent uptick in Ifrit activity. Those bastards will seize the opportunity to cross over if they know no Guardian waits for them.
“For a short while only, Jafar.” Amun Ra examines me, although I have no idea what he sees. I don’t care, either. “One of the other Guardians can take your place for today. Once you’ve learned what she’s up to, report back to me. And then you can return to your post.”
Handing off my responsibilities doesn’t sit well at all. “I’m the best.” I am.
Amun Ra smiles, but the smile doesn’t reach his cold eyes. “Precisely. And I want my best following that female. She’s your priority now, not the Ifrits. Keep her from getting loose in my temple. Find out what she’s after. That’s what I want you to do.”
That’s what he is ordering me to do. “You want me to babysit this female?”
“Make sure she doesn’t get lost; that’s all I’m asking.” Amun Ra’s voice grows colder still. “Call it babysitting if you want, but you stick to her like a leech. I want to know where she goes, what she does.”
“She’s that important.” I don’t protest again, but it burns me to know I’m going to have to follow this female around like a dog on a leash.
“Maybe. Maybe not. Find out for me.”
I don’t run errands. I’m a Guardian, a warrior. I fight battles. I do not slink around the passageways like some spy. Amun Ra must sense my resentment, because he continues, “You do this because I’m telling you to. Because I say it’s important. You don’t call me on it. Understand?”
I do. I don’t have to like it, but Amun Ra has given me his orders. Follow the female. Find out what she wants. So now I have just one question. “You want me to kill her?” Because I will if I have to.
“No,” Amun Ra says thoughtfully. “Not yet. Maybe she’s not up to anything.”
“And maybe she is.” Her scent still teases me. “You giving her the rope to hang herself?” I don’t wait for an answer though, already angling my larger frame into the passageway that swallowed up the female runner. The sooner I complete my task, the sooner I can return to the Doorways. The sooner I can go back to taking care of the business that really matters.
“Why not? Discover what she wants here. Be careful, my brother,” the Amun Ra calls after me, knowing laughter coloring his voice. “That one will run, Jafar—and run hard.”
Don’t I know it? Too bad the Cat in me is intrigued.
If she is up to no good, I’ll bring her down. If she’s in the market for a mate, she’ll find one. That possibility still teases me. She is pretty, for a human, impossibly alive, with a warmth that make me want to wrap myself around her. Her long, chestnut-colored hair spills about her shoulders in deceptively soft curls and waves. Her face is heart-shaped, the eyes demurely cast down so that the long lashes rest like the shadow of Thoth, the moon god, against her skin. She looks sweet. Innocent. The smile I feel creasing my face in unexpected. Because she also looked as if that pose of innocence killed her.
Perhaps the little femi is looking for a mate. Perhaps she will be delightfully eager to be hunted.
Erotic images flood my mind. I would enjoy the pleasures of mastering her. My cock thickens, hardening insistently and demanding to be planted deep in her wet sex. It could be just the summer heat and the mindless mating frenzy that seizes all of the Guardians when the sun blazes relentlessly in the abovelands, beating down on our stony world, heating it—and our blood—until we find temporary release with our sex partners.
Unfortunately, there are few sex partners belowground, mostly women cast out by the abovelanders or otherwise marked by them for punishment. Otherwise, the only available women are those sent to us for our Hunts once a year. We Guardians have no females of our own, no hope for release from the burning heat that builds remorselessly in us until we find mates.
And now—completely unexpectedly—here is a female who calls to me. One intended for the Hunt. A feral possession wells up in me. Mine. My mate. She could be.
Dropped in my lap as if by the gods themselves.
It is impossible. I know as well as the Amun Ra that there is no female in my future. Not given my past.
“Good hunting,” calls one of the other warriors as I pass. My brothers glide smoothly out of the shadows, as drawn by the female’s presence as I am. So, in the end, the answer is simple. I must find her first.
Loosing my senses, I let myself shimmer from man form into the sleek, muscled body of my hunting Cat. I will follow her. See what she is really up to in the temple.
I don’t have to make her my mate.
I set off down the tunnel. Lickety-split. This Amun Ra has apparently bought into my eligibility and my participation in their Hunt is a go. I have the access I need to the catacombs beneath the temple and only a complete fool would wait around for him to change his mind.
Once around the bend and out of sight, I stop and assess my position. Will I be able to sense the necklace in the tomb far below me?
The item I’ve been sent to steal is an ancient necklace of unknown mazhykal provenance and powers. It’s made of silver and set with at least one large moonstone. Last known owner: an alleged princess who met an untimely end at the hands of the Guardians here in this temple, where she’d been laid to a hasty rest. Since the princess died wearing the necklace, presumably she was buried with it. Which means that all I have to do is find the casket, pop open the lid, slip off the necklace, and then make a fast run topside.
Fortunately, one of my ancestors was a randy moon daemon who hooked up with a human great-grandmother. Though my mixed blood puts me near the bottom of the daemon pantheon and I generally don’t have enough mazhyk in me to boil water or cook an egg, I did inherit an affinity for the moon.
And all things moon-related.
That means I have two things going for me on this mission. First of all, two of Egip’s three moons have just entered their full phase. Even inside the temple and moving rapidly underground as I jogged along the downward slope of the passageway, I could feel the warmth of the moonlight tugging at me. This means I’ll be able to find my way back to the surface—and the moonlight. It’s a nice little insurance policy against being immured alive in the catacombs and I’ll take it.
Secondly, the damned necklace just happens to be sporting a particularly large moonstone in the center. If I center myself, I should hear the stone’s call.
I also have one other advantage: a map. I have no idea how the thief master procured it, but I’ll gladly use it. Mentally, I follow its shadowy curves out of the temple, fixing the twists and turns of my escape route in my memory.
But instead of the maze of passages I should be focusing on, the starkly sensual scene I just witnessed replays itself again and again in my mind. The Amun Ra’s stroking was intensely sensual. Even though the last thing I need right now is a possessive alpha male, I can’t forget the look of pleasure on his face as he touched his partner. What would it be like to have a male look at me that way?
Focus on the map. I’m not here for sex.
A soft, unfamiliar sound comes from behind me and I feel the hair rise on the back of my neck. I may be a minor daemon—and only a half daemon at that—but I can still recognize mazhyk forces when they are unleashed. Somebody much stronger than me has entered the passageway behind me. I don’t even need my special senses to know that bodes ill for me.
For a brief moment, I consider abandoning the necklace. The Master can find himself another treasure for me to purloin; my moon daemon senses tug me violently to the left, where a small, narrow passageway creeps almost vertically upward. Take that passage and I’ll be on the surface within minutes. Without the necklace, of course, and still in hock to the Master for one final theft, but I’ll be alive. Whatever is hunting me—and somehow I’m certain that I am being hunted—would have to settle for going to bed hungry.
The thief’s mark burning on my forearm jerks me out of my fantasies. The Master is growing impatient. He’s sent me to steal the necklace. And he’s also made it very, very clear what price he will extract for failure. I blink away the unwelcome image of Lore’s sugar-sweet face and the betrayed look in my sister’s eyes when Lierr—the Master, I remind myself deliberately—took her away. If I complete this last theft, Lierr can never again hold Lore’s safety over my head.
Which means that I cannot screw this up.
So I quicken my pace, stretching my senses. Ahead, I sense a vast cavern. If my map is correct, a large room lies in front of me. Undoubtedly, it will be filled with Guardians or their servants. The faintest clink of metal weaponry reaches me. Not the way I want to go.
Spying a small, narrow opening almost overhead, I hoist myself up and peer inside. The tunnel plunges steeply downward to my right.
I need to go down. The catacombs lie below these main floors.
Far, far below.
I move swiftly through the temple passageways in my Cat form, padding down the ever-darkening corridors without hesitation as I follow the path that puts me on a directly intersecting course with the running female.
Her scent calls to me still, but there is some other attraction at work as well. Although there is no denying the woman is pretty, I have seen human women possessing greater beauty. I have never, however, seen one who seems more alive. Perhaps that is the crucial difference. She vibrates with a delicious energy. Beneath the concealing folds of the silk cowl, thick curls tumbled down her bare back. Her skin is a creamy gold, the color of the exquisitely expensive honey pots that the southern traders brought through the well-guarded passes and down into the Valley below. However dear those sweet, viscous strands of liquid gold, I would offer far more for this woman.
It seems unlikely, however, that she will welcome my advances. Despite her obvious curiosity at the Amun Ra’s display, her expression was reserved.
If she came here to participate in the mating Hunt—and I doubt it with every fiber of my being— she does not want to do so. No, my senses scream that she is here for some far more nefarious purpose. What does she really want inside my temple? I’ll find out—and then I’ll stop her. My Cat comes to a sudden halt, raising its velvety muzzle from the stone floor of the passageway.
The trail ends.
I sniff again. Her scent remains strong, so she has been here. The question is: where has she gone?
My pupils widen to accommodate the lack of light in the tunnel, flicking over the empty passageway.
The narrow tunnel overhead is almost invisible, the opening half tucked behind a stone beam.
My little femi has chosen a most unlikely direction. Straight down into the catacombs where the Valley’s dead are buried and where the Doorways lie. When I received the summons from the Amun Ra, I’d been following the almost invisible trail of an Ifrit recently escaped from Qaf, the daemonic lower realms that lie on the other side of those Doorways.
Although almost none of the mortals can see them, the Ifrits are well over seven feet tall, massively built and strong, with powerful wings. Worse, they are brutal, indulging in a casual violence that decimated the local population before the Valley’s inhabitants made their deal with the Guardians: virgins in exchange for protection.
Leaping lightly from the ground up to the round opening, I crouch inside the lip of the passageway. Empty. So far, she is fulfilling my expectation that she would be quite different from the usual run of females. She’s disappeared down the passageway as if she knows where she is headed. As if she has a particular destination in mind.
But not escape. If my femi wanted simply to evade the Guardians and claim the dowry-prize for herself, she would have chosen either of the two passageways on the left that lead up to the surface. She would have recognized the scent of fresh air for what it is.
What does she want then, if she wants neither freedom nor mate? Padding forward on silent feet, I run swiftly after her.
I run lightly down the passageway for about a quarter mile before pausing. With sure hands, I untie the satchel of supplies I’d fastened around my waist beneath the silk tunic. These comprise reason number two for not wanting to submit to a virginity test at the hands of his arrogant highness, Amun Ra. Understandably, he’d have questioned the presence of several shortknives, a flarestick, and a small scrying bowl lodged between my thighs. Not your typical wedding fare.
In fact, it kind of highlights my lack of sincerity in the offering-myself-up-for-marriage department.
Striking the flarestick against the wall, I wait for my eyes to adjust. The light glows to orange life, the brightness shocking in the Stygian darkness of the passageway. Fortunately, my moon daemon genes also mean outstanding eyesight even in the absence of light, but my other senses are not as well honed. I don’t want any sand snakes or—Heqet forbid—a tomb spider dropping unseen out of the darkness. The sand snakes are particularly vicious, burrowing into any warm, wet spots they can find. I shudder, but that’s okay. There’s no one here to witness my moment of weakness.
All I can see are two walls. A ceiling. A floor. Darkness surrounds me, broken only by a perfect pool of light from the flarestick. Beyond the reach of my arm, the corridor dissolves into inky blackness. It can’t be any darker if I’d been shut into my own tomb. And, if I’m not careful, this will become my tomb.
With my daemon eyesight, I can see farther into the darkness than most. The shapes of individual limestone blocks, capstones, and lintel markings loom out of the darkness as I slip past the darker rectangles of branching passageways.
Even without consulting my memories—or the map tucked into my bag—I know I’m going in the right direction. When I stop briefly to focus, opening my senses to the still, hot air around me, I can feel the call of the moonstone. It sings to me. Teases me. Waits for me. I’d thought the temple was dead. It houses dead people, after all. Dead people and the Guardians who guard its treasure. But instead, the very structure seethes with quiet life.
I can hear the soft slither of snakes moving within their burrows in the porous limestone, while the hot breath of unfamiliar breezes trickle through the still corridors from unseen air shafts cut deep into the core of the temple by its builders. Scorpions and spiders move in a clicking scuttle, sure-footed and graceful as they climb over the smooth walls. And, of course, there are other, more supernatural inhabitants of the temple.
The temple has stood for more than a thousand years, or so I’ve been told. During those years, it has seen its share of deaths—accidental, gruesome, and otherwise—and sometimes spirits linger, taking up residence as and where they please. In these subterranean stretches, I may encounter death spirits; farther down still, there are ghouls and ghosts. Rumor has it that there are Ifrits loose in the catacombs; I can only hope those particular rumors are untrue. Not even I stand a chance against an Ifrit.
Listening for pursuit, I hear nothing. I hope my little volte-face has thrown off my earlier pursuer. I don’t think I had been hearing things; you don’t survive as a thief without learning to trust your instincts. Although I have a couple of portable spells in my bag, I prefer to save those for later. Once the spells are gone, the spells are gone. And I don’t know what sort of creatures I’m going to find down here, I tell myself. Sand snakes could end up being the least of my worries.
Just ahead, I spot a hole in the floor of the passage. Could it be a shortcut to the level below? There is only one way to find out.
Impatiently tying back my hair, I fashion a smooth tail from the bushy mass of curls. I no longer need the charming maidenly appearance I’d affected in the temple overhead, so the innocent, cherubic curls can go.
Shoving the remaining items back into my bag, I sling the satchel over my shoulder. With the flarestick clenched in one hand, I check the shadows below me one last time for lurking tomb spiders and prepare to lower myself through the hole in the floor to the next level of the catacombs.
“Sometimes,” I mutter because now is definitely a moment for inspirational speech or just plain reassurance, “you just have to jump.” If I don’t jump down, I can’t find the necklace. If I don’t find the necklace, it doesn’t matter what else finds me. See? I have no other options.
Sitting on the edge of the hole, I swing my legs into the black pool of darkness, raising the flarestick over my head. A large dark shadow lunges out of the darkness. Behind me.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. Without turning, I lob the flarestick over my head—the satisfying smell of singed fur fills the air—and slide into the open hole.
A feral roar shakes the tunnel. And, Oh shit, I think. Perhaps there is more to the Cat legend than I thought. The next moment, a shimmer of gold light spikes through the sudden darkness and hard male hands seize me about the waist.
I’m pulled ruthlessly back through the hole, onto my feet, and up against a hard chest. A hard, naked chest. Stomping down with my foot, I seek for my attacker’s vulnerable arch. There is a satisfying grunt of pain. Take that. Snapping my head backward, I aim for his nose. This time, the results are less satisfying. The man pinioning me shifts smoothly, making my head ring when I strike muscled shoulder he twists into my attack. Stars explode behind my eyelids. A hand twists mine up behind my back until moving means a painful gasp for breath. His other hand winds around my long ponytail, rendering me immobile.
“Pax,” a rough voice growls in my ear.
I’m not that crazy. Or that trusting.
Instead of surrendering, I kick harder, trying to buck my attacker off. My breath sounds harsh even to my own ears, but he hasn’t made a sound after his initial protest at having his foot crushed. So not good. If only I could get my head around to see my attacker, I’d have a better idea of what I’m up against.
Damn. Damn. Damn.
The warrior restraining me is hard-bodied and harder eyed. Tilting my head back against his chest, I look up into a face that is almost alien in its handsomeness. Gold eyes glow at me in the darkness. He has dark hair woven into hundreds of braids, each fastened with a small topaz and tawny-colored skin that seems eminently lickable and matches his firm mouth because there is absolutely, positively nothing soft about this male at all.
He pins me effortlessly against his hard, hot flesh.
“Be still,” he grates, an unmistakable note of impatience creeping into his voice. Like I’m not going to make killing me as difficult and annoying as possible?
“I don’t think so,” I gasp. “I haven’t done anything. Haven’t taken anything.” When he eases his grasp of my arms, I gulp air frantically. The smell of him is wild, intoxicating. What is he?
“I’m not here to hurt you,” he rumbles against my ear. With his mouth pressed almost against my skin, the words seem like a lover’s caress in the darkness. To my surprise, my body is more than eager to consider the erotic possibilities of my current position. That this man’s hands have full access to my body and can explore where and how they please. As wetness slicks my sex, I kick my legs against his shins. Hard. How dare he be so damn attractive?
“Not nice,” he grunts. His leg hooks around mine, immobilizing me. I’m pinned against his body. Helpless. “I’m here to help. Consider me a rescuer.”
“That would be more believable,” I grunt, once again short of breath, “if you let me go.” Gods, could one of the Guardians have caught up with me so fast? “You’re a Guardian, aren’t you?”
I’m not surprised when he doesn’t answer me, but merely tightens his grip.
“I’m not interested in being a mate.” I try again to throw his body off, but it’s like trying to shift a damn mountain. I have the effect of a gnat pushing against a boulder.
To my surprise, however, he agrees with me. “Very well.”
I feel my eyes narrow. “No mating,” I repeat. It can’t hurt to be clear. Crystal, crystal clear.
“No mating,” he agrees. “All I want is to talk.”
I doubt that. If he isn’t one of the Guardians, he may be another thief after the same prize as me. It would be just like Lierr to send two of his minions after the same treasure.
“Let me go,” I repeat. This time, he does, although he keeps me trapped between his body and the wall. No diving down into the hole or sprinting up passageways for me. Even if I try, I suspect that he will catch me with humiliating ease.
He bends down and retrieves my flarestick. For a brief moment, as he strikes the thin tube against the flinty wall, he is vulnerable. One quick chop at his neck and I could be free. So why do I hesitate? It’s him or me.
“You resisted temptation,” he says, straightening up, and I know he isn’t referring to the wrestling match in which we’ve just engaged. Now I’m just glad that I didn’t give in to the urge to land a blow on his exposed nape. He expected it.
And he was ready to stop me.
In the orange light of the flarestick, I examine my opponent more closely. He’s tall. Broad-shouldered and overwhelmingly masculine in the small confines of the tunnel. The strong line of his jaw and cheekbones give him a face as harshly beautiful as Amun Ra’s, but the sable-colored eyes and the dark hair spilling loosely over his bare shoulders make him seem less civilized and more feral. I don’t doubt that the Amun Ra can kill if he wants to, but this man will do so without hesitating.
I purse my lips, considering.
And the man can’t possibly be much more naked. A pleated, loose linen cloth is wrapped around his lean hips, and he wears a leather weapons belt stuffed with an impressive array of knives and throwing stars. So, in addition to being practically buck-ass naked, the man is a walking arsenal. He looks tough. More like a mercenary than some sort of honor guard for temple valuables, and Exhibit A is the long pale scar cutting from one cheekbone down to his jaw. The only other items that he wears are simple gold cuffs fastened around his wrists.
No, he doesn’t look like the Guardians I saw earlier, despite the similarity in size and high-handed arrogance. And the only tattoos he bears are dark marks inked onto the golden skin of both forearms. Unlike the Amun Ra, however, his face is bare and has none of the telltale markings that Guardians reputedly sport. No bars cut across the golden splendor of his face.
Maybe he isn’t a Guardian. Maybe he is another thief.
But he still stands between me and my necklace. Taking advantage of his relaxed stance, I dive for the hole.
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