Into The Wild by Caitlyn Willows

IntoTheWild

INTO THE WILD
Book 3 – Into The Heart Series
by Caitlyn Willows
Finalist-2011 EPIC eBook Award
Erotic Romance – Paranormal – Shape-shifter – Menage
November 2009
Cover Artist – Marci Gass
Loose Id www.loose-id.com
ISBN 978-1-60737-472-5

They’ve bonded as friends, working side by side over the last six months – jaguar shifter, human, and calico cat. Now a freak lab accident bonds Cristían, Jeremy, and Lupe as lovers.

Lupe delights in her new human form. Wishes can come true. They made her human and gave her the men she loves. She will defeat anyone who dares threaten her new status and her men.

Jeremy thrills yet fears his new role as shape-shifting jaguar, but his relationship with Lupe and Cristían are more than he ever dreamed. The mysteries left to be resolved and the people trying to kill them taint it all. One thing he knows…no one will separate them.

As for Cristían… He’s been blessed with love where he never expected to find it. Now a force from beyond tells him he created a monster only he can destroy. How can he do so knowing it could cost him the two people he loves the most? Or is he the monster he fears?

Related stories are:
Into The Lair
Into The Night
Into The Wild

BUY LINKS:

Loose Id

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Kobo Booksepic2011finalist-sm

REVIEW:

4.5 STARS! Into the Wild is a fun, sexy, quick paced read. I really enjoyed how very well developed all Ms. Willow’s characters are. I felt intimately connected to them, as if I were reading about old friends. Readers will have no choice but to adore Lupe, who, no matter what form, is all haughty cat which leads to some pretty hilarious moments. She commands respect and defends her loved ones relentlessly. Her men pamper her outrageously along with nearly everyone else in the story, with the exception of those too stupid to realize how dangerous she is. I was shocked at just how attracted I was to Jeremy and Cristían. I normally go for the Alpha or beta males. Both of them are quiet academics. They are both very sweet and intelligent heroes. All I wanted to do was curl up between them and let them spoil me rotten. I think that readers will fall in love with both as well. The sex between the three main characters is intense, passionate and emotional. I found myself steaming up the windows as I read. Ms. Willow leads the reader on an emotional journey that is well worth the money. I encourage you to go out read and enjoy Into the Wild.~T.S. Peters, Just Erotic Romance Reviews

EXCERPT:

The soft whirr of the centrifuge hypnotized Cristían Duarte. He stared, unblinking, while the red digital numbers ticked down. There was nothing else to do at this point but wait and hope.

It had to work. Please let it work.

He was running out of DNA. Replicating what he had had failed so far. Each time he needed an original source, and with Rose dead, there was little of the original DNA remaining. He’d extracted it from her toothbrush, hairbrush, the sheets where she’d last slept, and the ground soaked with the blood from her murder.

The memory stabbed through his gut. Her big brown eyes had stared lifelessly at the stars, her mouth frozen in a scream she didn’t have time to utter. The coppery stench of blood had tainted the air, mingling with the stench of the wildfires that had plagued the surrounding area, creating a horror to add to those already crowded in his head. Her throat had been ripped open with one massive bite. She’d never seen it coming, never had the chance to defend herself.

Cristían closed his eyes. Only minutes prior to her death, his clan had been enjoying a well-deserved run in Balboa Park, never realizing death would visit them. Rose’s death blow had been delivered from a threat they never knew existed—mountain lions, another clan of shape-shifters. Until a year ago, the mountain lions hadn’t known about the jaguar clan either, and they weren’t happy about the discovery.

The mountain lions were volatile and quick to defend their people from outside threats. Cristían couldn’t really blame them. They’d lost everything to humans. And discovering other shape-shifters had brought to life stories they’d thought were myths. Tales from their ancestors of other shifters, of wars fought and civilizations destroyed. They were prepared to do whatever it took to protect themselves and their lands, even if it meant killing what they didn’t understand.

Finally an uneasy peace was forged between their two clans. A treaty set in place. However, suspicions still lingered on both sides, and grief still clenched Cristían’s heart.

He lined up the fifteen petri dishes into three rows of five, then laid out two glass pipettes, in the hope keeping busy would banish the memory. It didn’t work.

The jaguar clan had lost a woman that dark night six months ago…and the children she carried. All their hopes and dreams for a future were now dust on the wind, Rose and her babies’ ashes mingled with Mother Earth, as was custom. Cristían wished he could join them and was ashamed to admit he’d thought about it more times than was healthy. He’d kept those feelings to himself and poured out his grief and rage in body-racking sobs each night. Soaking one of Rose’s pillowcases with his tears while he cried, then masturbating in a desperate attempt to reconnect with her. He knew he wasn’t the only one who cried. Her death cut the clan to the core of their being. She was their heart, their hope for the future.

It was one of those things they didn’t discuss; doing so would release the floodgates holding back all the grief and anger pent up from centuries of loss. Their homes and cities destroyed; family, friends, and lovers gone forever. When one was generally long-lived, forever was a very long time. Joining them in death…

Cristían swallowed against the pain. A coward’s way out or a merciful end? He shook the darkness away. Death would mean a complete loss of hope. He refused to accept it. Two friends helped keep him whole. He wouldn’t lay grief over his death upon their shoulders. Jeremy and Lupe deserved better than that.

He couldn’t say when he took that step away from the dark abyss or what prompted his new plan. At some point, he realized Lupe had given him a reason to live, and Jeremy, the faith to try. Once he set foot on that path—remaining alive—nothing deterred him. What was the sense of having a state-of-the-art laboratory if not to use it to its fullest potential? New hope bolstered his morale, followed quickly by one failure after the other. He carried on, though, determined to find the solution, to continue setting measures in place for success.

He’d resurrect Rose or die trying.

“Brrrow?”

Smiling, he glanced down at the calico cat threading herself between his legs. Lupe truly had been his lifeline to sanity these last months. They’d met one day when he was helping Wyatt and Trina Caldwell move. Lupe had let Cristían know in no uncertain terms that she deemed him worthy enough of her attention. Cristían had bought Trina’s old house, and Lupe moved in with him. However, neither of them had seen the place in months. The lab he currently did his research in had become their sanctuary; the sprawling mansion above it, their home.

He hated the cavernous house but loved the superior, high-tech lab. And it didn’t take Cristían long to realize why Jeremy Gibson had moved into the house—why go home when everything you needed was right here?

It probably wasn’t the wisest decision to have a cat in a lab, but Lupe was her own feline and would have her way. It helped that she was respectful of the experiments he and Jeremy worked on. Lupe’s presence helped him and Jeremy deal with any residual loneliness and isolation as well, though that was nonexistent with his best friend by his side 24-7.

Lupe made sure they ate, comforted them when disappointment dragged them both down, and best of all, gave them unconditional love. All she demanded in return was affection, food, and to sleep in one of their beds. She never failed to make him smile or lift his spirits, and she was better than any girlfriend he’d ever had.

Cristían squatted down to her level. She batted the buttons on his lab coat, then tapped her paw against his chin. “No worries, little warrior.” He smiled when he said her nickname. The little cat had earned the title honorably when she’d fought a member of the mountain lion clan and won, paws down. Of course, that made her not very popular with that faction of shape-shifters, but to Cristían’s jaguar clan, Lupe could do no wrong.

“What the hell is that cat doing in here?”

Cristían stiffened. Okay, perhaps one member of the jaguar clan wasn’t a Lupe fan. Barry Page had always had his weasel-faced snout stuck so far in the rules that he shit protocol. Cristían watched as he trotted down the stairs and stormed their way. The loose black trousers Barry wore rippled under his forceful stride, the matching shirt molding to his torso. The color rarely varied. Barry claimed it helped remind him of his true self and their heritage, suggesting he was the only one who did so.

Lupe arched into the hand Cristían ran over her back, then cast her sage green gaze in Barry’s direction and instantly dismissed him with a flick of her tail. Cristían tried not to laugh. He’d flicked his jaguar tail at Barry more times than he could count over their long association. Barry just wasn’t someone he was eager to see.

“Leave her alone, Barry.” Distracted as always, Jeremy still didn’t hesitate to come to Lupe’s defense. He was always so quiet, so focused on his work, that Cristían usually forgot he was in the same room with him.

As Jeremy’s reward, Lupe slinked his way and twined herself around his legs. “You’re my best girl, Lups.” Jeremy gave her head a quick rub.

Barry snorted. “She’s your only girl. You never leave the estate.”

“Everything I want is here, and I’ve got a hand that does just fine for personal tension.” Jeremy held up two beakers, one with clear liquid, the other, blue-green, studying them under ultraviolet light. “I’m on a roll here, and women have a tendency to sidetrack me.”

Cristían had never seen a man more determined to prove or disprove his own theory. Jeremy’s dedication matched Cristían’s. They shared the lab—Jeremy on one end of the long stainless steel counter, Cristían on the other—bounced theories off each other, and never once called the other one to task for seeking answers.

Barry picked a long blond hair from his sleeve, grimaced, then fed it to the flame on Jeremy’s Bunsen burner. “Then maybe you should try a man.”

Jeremy grinned and watched the thickening liquids swirl in their glass containers. “Who says I haven’t? You offering?”

That was a door Jeremy really didn’t want to open. Barry could get…possessive. Cristían knew that from experience. In a clan whose numbers were dwindling, one got relief where one could, or went outside the clan, something Barry would never do. Barry didn’t necessarily take what he wanted, but once he got something, he wasn’t inclined to let go.

Jeremy poured a drop of blue-green liquid into the clear. “I could go for a blowjob. Just make sure you zip me up when you’re done.”

Cristían smothered his laugh. It came out a sputtered snicker instead and earned him Barry’s infamous snake-eyed glare.

“Whoa. Didn’t expect that.” Jeremy drew back from the beaker he held. Lupe craned her neck for a look at what he was talking about. His concoction was now a small vortex of purple and gold. He poured the contents of both beakers into a larger one. He lifted the container to the light, his grin widening. The vortex grew, spinning faster. Pinpoints of glowing white flecked within. “It looks like a tiny nebula or galaxy. A star factory.”

“Just make sure it’s only yourself you blow up when that shit explodes,” Barry said.

“And deprive you of the pleasure that is me?” Jeremy’s grin widened more, his brown eyes glimmering. “Never.”

Lupe meowed and rubbed hard against him.

“Jealous, puss?” Barry laughed when she growled at him.

“Don’t call her that.” Cristían watched the centrifuge’s timer count down the final ten. “She doesn’t like it.”

“What’s wrong, puss? Don’t like a little competition?” Barry swiped for her, grabbing her tail when Lupe tried to dodge him.

“Let her go!” Her yowl barely covered his and Jeremy’s protests.

She hissed and rolled onto her back, claws and teeth bared. Jeremy kicked Barry’s shoulder, sloshing his experiment on the floor. It splashed onto Lupe. She whirled around, eyes wide with fear. Barry grabbed the scruff of her neck and hoisted her into the air, holding the spitting little cat at arm’s length.

Cristían and Jeremy took a step in his direction. However, as Cristían was more than aware, Lupe was completely capable of defending herself. She swung her lower legs up and speared her back claws into Barry’s forearm. He screeched and let her go. Lupe landed on all fours. She gave him a dismissive chuff and a flick of her tail, then tucked behind Cristían’s legs to clean her fur.

“If you had more experience with women, that might not have happened.” Cristían couldn’t resist the jab. Barry deserved the rebuke and the bloody claw marks going down his arm. Cristían scooped Lupe into his arms. “It’s probably not a good idea to lick that, little one. Let’s get you cleaned up. No water. I promise.”

She purred and kneaded her paws into his chest. The centrifuge beeped out the end of its cycle. Great. His own experiment was ready for the next step. Lupe curled herself around his neck, leaving his hands free. He popped the top on the device and lifted out the tray of vials.

“I see there’s no offer to help me.” Barry snagged a wad of paper towels from the stack on the opposite counter and dabbed at his wounds.

“You had it coming.” Cristían watched Jeremy study the glowing mass. Judging from his frown, it looked like another failure. The solution appeared to be losing momentum. Cristían felt his pain. He’d thought for sure Jeremy had had the breakthrough he’d been looking for.

“I’d say ‘fuck you,’ but I wouldn’t want either of you to get your hopes up.” Barry pressed the towels against his arm.

“Our loss. More’s the pity.” Cristían set the vials beside the petri dishes he’d prepared earlier, then carried Lupe over to the sink counter against the wall to wipe her fur. “Did you come down here for a reason or just to harass us about our work again?”

Barry smacked the paper towels into the biohazard trash can and stomped his way. “Your cougar’s waiting for you upstairs.”

Frieda was there? This early in the morning? Was the sun even up yet? What the hell could she possibly want this time of day? She was a beautiful woman, but gods, was she a pain in the ass. If he didn’t need her for the next phase of his experiment, he would have ended it long ago. Hell, he never would have become involved with her in the first place. Beauty only went so far; the woman had no substance.

“Mountain lion, Barry. Have a little respect. You know they’re very picky about their name.”

“Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. Mountain lion, cougar, puma. Lupe or puss.”

Lupe growled at him. Barry wasn’t making any friends here today.

“Who gives a fuck? She’s not happy you’ve kept her waiting, and she sure as hell can’t keep her hands to herself. She was all over me.”

Typical Frieda. That’s why it was so easy to lure her into his bed. She had the morals of an alley cat, not the bearing of a potential queen.

“I’m not very thrilled that one of them is at this estate.”

Cristían blotted a heavy paper towel over Lupe’s thick fur. Deep purrs rumbled up. “It’s part of the treaty the clans agreed to. The treaty you helped broker, remember?” Unrestricted access to everything the other possessed—and that included communal homes like the former Prentice estate—and all technology.

They were supposed to be open books to each other, in the hope their clans could benefit from one another’s knowledge and grow and survive. It was only a matter of time before they all started working in each other’s labs. Cristían hated the idea. They could use the lab at the Braden Science Institute all they wanted, but he sure as hell didn’t want to be rubbing elbows with them at this lab. Here there was the luxury of privacy. Neither he nor Jeremy wanted to give that up. Not even to the jaguar clan. Considering Barry’s near-constant presence, Cristían suspected tensions and suspicions were mounting at Braden over their exclusive use of the Prentice lab. It could be worse. Fortunately, Wyatt and Joaquin were too busy with business and babies. However, that left the worrying and grunt work to Barry.

“Yeah, I know all too well. Trust me, I’m monitoring the situation.” Barry leaned against the counter and crossed his arms. Lupe turned her back to him. “I don’t like Frieda up there unsupervised. What if she comes down here?”

“They’ve all been down here before, and experiments are frequent on both sides of the fence. They won’t know what we’re doing.” Cristían parted Lupe’s fur, chasing a drop that wiggled down to her skin. She sat down with a resigned sigh and started to clean Barry’s blood off her paws.

“Do either of you know what you’re doing?” Barry snapped his finger toward Jeremy. “Our Mensa genius is over there trying to disprove his own theory that celestial impacts helped create us shape-shifters in the first place. There are some who would view that as blasphemy. It’s a slap in the face to all that our people revere.”

True, though Cristían had been too wrapped up in his own quest to think about the religious significance to both their peoples—jaguar and mountain lion. Considering everything the jaguar had been through, it was hard for Cristían to believe in unseen gods anymore.

One thing both clans had in common was the belief they were born of star dust. Jeremy’s linking their ancestral origins with impact craters on Earth seemed to support that. Now he was trying to prove otherwise.

“And you—” Barry thrust that scolding finger at him. Cristían fought the urge to snap it in two. “If they knew what you were doing. Good gods, Cristían, you’re trying to clone Rose!”

He bowed his head. Lupe braced her paws against Cristían’s chest and butted her nose against his. He scooped her into his arms and let her cuddle him. He loved the feel of her soft fur between his fingers. It reminded him of Rose’s when she shifted—soft, thick. Of the old days when their biggest worry was planning the next celebration of life.

Barry dropped his hand on Cristían’s shoulder. “I miss her too. You know that. But this is wrong, especially now that the rest of our people have moved on to new relationships.” He might as well have said leprosy; his tone implied it.

Cristían shrugged off his touch and set Lupe on her feet. She sauntered over to see Jeremy. “I haven’t moved on.”

“Then what do you call Frieda?” He jerked his thumb toward the stairs that led up into the main house. “Much as I dislike our association with these shifters, I certainly don’t want us all to come to blows over a love affair gone wrong. If she’s only a diversion for you, end it now, before things get out of control.”

Cristían squared his shoulders and faced the shorter man. “I can’t. I need Frieda. If I’m successful, Rose will need a compatible host body. With her feline-shifter traits, Frieda fits that role to perfection.”

Barry’s eyes bugged out. “Gods of hell, Cristían! You’re no better than a skinwalker!”

Rage boiled up inside him. They’d fought that entity for years—an evil directly responsible for the genocide of Cristían’s clan. There was no greater insult. Cristían’s claws extended as his hands morphed into his black jaguar form. The clink of glass as Jeremy set his work aside cut through his anger. A moment later, he felt Jeremy’s heat next to him. The intent was clear—Jeremy was making a stand with him, taking sides. Cristían refused to let his friend’s blood spill over words, and fighting among themselves wasn’t going to help matters. But Cristían wouldn’t stand there and be insulted either.

He willed himself to shift back to human and seated the form in place with a deep breath.

“Get out,” he told Barry, jerking his chin toward the stairs. “While I’m still able to remember you loved Rose as much as the rest of us.”

Barry’s lip curled. “If you’re planning to do this, you’ve already forgotten.” A crisp pivot carried him away. His soft soles tapped on the linoleum, then scuffed up the stairs. Barry’s gaze was locked on his cell phone as he punched in numbers, most likely to tattle to Wyatt and Joaquin. The door at the top opened and banged shut.

Blessed silence filled the lab. Cristían pulled in the strands of peace Jeremy and Lupe offered, shoved aside a sudden headache at the base of his skull, and returned to his experiment. Static arced from his fingers to the stainless steel table. Cristían muttered a curse and jerked his hand back. Slender bolts of electricity spread across the table and everything on it before it finally dissipated.

“What the hell…” One stride brought Jeremy to his side. “That shouldn’t have happened.”

A loud pop cut in before Cristían could reply.

He and Jeremy swung their gazes to the reenergized liquid at Jeremy’s workstation. It swirled, sizzled, and grew with every millisecond. Pop turned to bang, and it doubled in size. Sparks shot upward, showering miniature fireworks everywhere. Some kissed the floor spill. The droplets came to life. Spiral bands spread out and began to rotate counterclockwise. Lupe growled and backed away, one foot at a time. Her fur shimmered where the solution had splashed her earlier. And the mass in the beaker continued to grow, to pulse in time with the bands on the floor and the remnants dampening Lupe’s fur.

Gods, what had they created? It looked like the thing was communicating with all its parts!

“Uh-oh,” Jeremy muttered.

Not something one wanted to hear in a lab.

“I think we need to get the hell out of here.” Jeremy scooped Lupe up in one arm. He grabbed his laptop in the other hand, leaving the cords behind while he kept one eye on the out-of-control experiment.

Cristían did the same, shoving as many of the petri dishes as possible into the pockets of his lab coat and praying he could get them to safety without breaking them. Then he stacked the vials on the laptop. They were the last part of Rose he possessed. He clutched the vials and the computer to his chest and spun around for the stairs.

Time slowed. Each step felt weighted. The roar built. Then the flash—gold, purple, beautiful. Breathtaking beauty, earsplitting noise, and then…nothing.

 

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Into The Night by Caitlyn Willows

 

IntoTheNight

INTO THE NIGHT
Book 2 – Into The Heart Series
by Caitlyn Willows
Erotic Romance – Paranormal – Shape-shifter
September 2008
Cover Artist – Marci Gass
Loose Id www.loose-id.com
ISBN 978-1-59632-770-2

It’s an experience too farfetched to be real, but Trina Tate knows she holds the memories of another woman’s soul. Memories that cry out to be with the man, the king she once loved. Drawn to the park each night Trina watches shape-shifting black jaguars running…and mating…and craves to be a part of that. Is she shifting herself or is that too only memory?

Wyatt Caldwell has resolved himself to a life without his soulmate. He’s lost the love of his life twice. Duty now occupies him — duty as head of Braden Institute, duty as leader of the shape-shifters. But once he sees Trina roaming, searching the park fully nude, body and soul calling for his touch. How could he possibly resist?

Related stories are:
Into The Lair
Into The Night
Into The Wild

Buy links:

Loose Id

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Kobo Books

REVIEWS:

BLUE RIBBON RATING 4! I enjoyed unveiling the mystery of INTO THE HEART 2: INTO THE NIGHT. The struggles within Wyatt’s pack and the dynamics of Wyatt’s relationship with Trina are just two of the areas I liked. On one hand, she is his least favorite person, but at the same time he is drawn to her in ways he doesn’t understand. Much like opposites attracting and love being the flipside of hate. Wyatt is so alpha that you don’t know if you want to slap him or snuggle with him. This is a heartwarming story of love, betrayal and new found peace. ~LadyBirdRobi, Romance Junkies

FOUR ANGELS! Into the Night is the second book of the Into the Heart series about shape-shifters by Caitlyn Willows. Both Trina and Wyatt are major secondary characters in the first book and it is the events of the first story that have lead to the strange events of this story. In this story, the physical relationships between the jaguar clan and Trina and Wyatt are much more graphic and explicit. Wyatt seduces Trina while he is still in his jaguar shape and the clan doesn’t limit sexual relations to just one-on-one male and female intercourse. If this bothers you then you probably won’t enjoy this story. Both the characters of Trina and Wyatt exhibit changes in their personalities and I think the changes in Trina are definitely for the better. She is becoming less self absorbed and more likable. The sexual relationship developing between Wyatt and Trina isn’t the only thing this story is about. The jaguar clan appears to be being stalked and hunted down one by one to be killed and the clan needs to pull together and figure out why and how to stop their enemy. Trina just may be able to offer them some insight that they need to solve the problem but can the clan learn to trust her in time? If you enjoy a good sexual shape-shifting story filled with drama and intrigue, then you will like Into the Night, but I recommend you read the first book, Into the Lair, first for some crucial stage setting! ~Stephanie B, Fallen Angel Reviews

Focusing on an unsavory secondary character from the previous story, Into the Lair, Caitlyn Willows’ Into the Night has a striking redemptive note to it. Trina is truly a reformed woman. The sex between Wyatt and Trina is scalding, but there are also male-male and ménage interactions. The plot is fairly easy to decipher, however, there is a little twist that may catch the reader by surprise. This story stands alone, but without reading Into The Lair first, Trina’s actions and transformations aren’t nearly as startling. A pleasing tale, Into the Night is a satisfying addition to Ms. Willow’s shape-shifter series. ~Chris, Joyfully Reviewed

EXCERPT:

Trina pulled in a hard breath. A thousand different scents assaulted her. She shook her head to clear it and tumbled to one side. Vertigo. Damn, it was happening again. Trina caught herself before she fell and eased down onto the cool grass. Nausea roiled in her stomach. She wrapped her arms around her midriff in a desperate attempt to keep from throwing up. The buzz in her head grew to a roar. She squeezed her eyes shut against the pain she knew was coming. It slammed into the back of her skull with the force of a sledgehammer.

She tucked into a fetal position, shaking arms clutching her knees. Blackness clouded her mind, and she felt herself drop into a void. Her body convulsed, as if it were trying to leave the confines of her skin. Trina couldn’t say if the seizure was real or just the workings of her troubled mind. Finally, the sensation passed, and she peeled her eyelids open.

She was sprawled on the ground, her fingers digging into the soft grass like a lifeline. Deep gouges bloodied her forearms. She panted, as if she’d run a marathon, each hard breath amplified as the pain in her head drifted away.

Trina pushed herself upright. She felt weak now, every movement an effort. Braced against the tree once more, she hugged her knees. This was why she’d sought the jaguar shape-shifters out. She wanted answers. Needed them. Except the pull of sex, the smell of sweat and hormones, the magic of whatever they were, had taken over instead. She’d been compelled to strip off her clothes, to watch, to join them.

Then Wyatt had been upon her, tracking her, reeking of sex and maleness, asserting his dominance. And she caved, letting him do whatever he wished, take whatever he wanted. The loss of control, the total submission, affected her in ways she’d never imagined. The old Trina would have nipped that in the bud without blinking. But this person she’d become, this person she didn’t recognize…

She buried her face in her hands to squelch the rush of tears. Trina didn’t know what she’d become. She needed help — their help. Somehow she had to convince them to do so, convince them she wasn’t crazy or nosy or whatever she’d been before. She needed to convince herself, too. She didn’t know which task was harder, getting someone to believe she’d changed, or trying to believe it herself.

No, she knew what was hardest — asking for help in the first place. It’d taken her a great deal of soul-searching to get to this point — finding the clan and following them. She couldn’t let the opportunity pass now. The chances of finding them again would be few after tonight; they’d be more watchful now that she’d gotten too close. Of course, Trina could always corner Wyatt at the institute.

Just like he could corner me.

Trina’s pulse leaped at the thought. She hugged herself at the memory — the promise — of his hard, hot body looming over hers. Here was a man who took control without asking, who took it because it was his right. If he could do all this to her in the space of an hour and with an audience, what would he do if he had privacy and all the time in the world? The things he could do to her body! The things he could do to her heart.

She shook her head. No, being alone with Wyatt Caldwell was a big mistake. It was better to get this over with tonight. To make the shape-shifters listen and give her the answers she needed.

If they could.

Trina pushed to her feet and brushed her hands down her T-shirt. Her ragged nails snagged on the cotton. Her forearms stung. She didn’t want to see how much damage she’d done to herself while she was out of it. The truly bizarre thing was that, by morning, any sign of injury would be gone anyway.

It was one of those new mysteries happening to her, like how she could now see in the dark, how her body healed overnight, how her sense of smell rivaled that of a bloodhound. She’d learned to accept the enhanced abilities; after all, what other choice did she have? But the isolation, turmoil, and confusion they caused were driving her slowly insane. Or maybe she’d always been close to the edge, and these events were accelerating her decline. The last few nights she’d spent watching the jaguars was the first time she’d felt connected to anything in six months. No wonder she’d hesitated to shatter that by approaching them.

God, you’re pathetic.

Trina winced at the words her conscience threw at her. The last time she’d heard those exact words had set her on a course from which she’d sworn she’d never deviate. Never again was she going to be the victim in any way, shape, or form.

Trina sighed. That decision had isolated her as well. How ironic she’d be suffering this — she looked at her hands — whatever this was, now.

She lifted her chin and tried to catch the clan’s scent. A cacophony of smells slammed into her — the zoo, the residue from the autumn fires, the ocean, vehicle exhaust. Blood.

Fresh nausea clenched her stomach before she considered it was probably her own blood filtering into the mix. She’d only had six months to learn how to deal with a super-sensitized sniffer. Sorting smells in the rain forest was vastly different than doing so in the city.

Trina shook her head. No, this was a lot of blood. Something big had been killed and recently, too, since the stench of decomposition hadn’t set in. Now that was a smell she’d never had a problem identifying. Living in the rain forest, life and death were never more than a hundred yards away, and nature quickly reabsorbed the loss. But this…

She debated on whether to call the police. The conversation played in her mind. I think something’s dead. No, I don’t know what. I don’t know if it’s a person. No, I don’t know where. Somewhere in Balboa Park. No, I’m not a fucking psychic. This isn’t a crank call.

Trina sighed and let it go. Without specifics, there wasn’t anything she could do to help. She clenched her fist against her thigh and forced her attention on finding the clan. Except too many scents vied for her attention, making it difficult to sort them out.

Now what? Did she wander the park, hoping to run into them? Disillusioned, she wrapped her arms around her midriff as she determined her next move. Wyatt’s scent drifted upward. Trina smiled. Of course, he’d been all over her. His scent would naturally be on her.

She inhaled and felt a rush of goose bumps over her skin. Her breath hitched as her body remembered the hard thrust of his body. She scuffed her hands over her arms in a futile attempt to banish the desire burning inside and then lifted her nose to the air to catch Wyatt’s scent.

There. Trina expanded her senses and caught a whiff of the rest of the clan. They’d congregated not too far away. Pulling in a breath and warning her libido against getting sidetracked, she headed in that direction.

 

Into The Lair by Caitlyn Willows

IntoTheLair

INTO THE LAIR
2007 Dream Realm Award
Book 1 – Into The Heart Series
by Caitlyn Willows
Erotic Romance – Paranormal
October 2007
Cover Artist – Marci Gass
Loose Id www.loose-id.com
ISBN 978-1-59632-578-4

Sebastian and Lauren Garner think it’s the chance of a lifetime when they are invited on a unique expedition to search for the secret of long life. But it’s an experience that holds more adventure than they anticipated. It’s a chance of a lifetime, all they have to give up is their souls. Deep in the Yucatan jungle, the Garners are running out of time to save themselves. Does the key to salvation lie in an ancient one who has cast his spell over them, or does he too have an agenda of his own? Who do they trust when all seems lost? What do they chose when the promise of the world and forever is within their grasp?

Buy links:

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Amazon

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REVIEWS:

FIVE STARS! [A]n incredible book, with all of my favorite elements; love, sex, mystery, sex, adventure and, oh, did I mention sex? Lauren is a beautiful, intelligent young woman who is desperately in love with both her husband and her career. Sebastian is equally in love with Lauren, equally intelligent and a HUNK! They are having a wonderful time being back in civilization, so that they can have all the sex that they want. My, do they want a lot of sex! They have graphic, kinky, erotic and elaborate sex that they couldn–t have on the dig because there were too many people around them. I felt orgasmic just reading about their sex. Even better, they loved only each other. The many secondary characters help the plot move seamlessly along. The mystery began early in the story and continued on throughout the plot as the adventure continued. I kept thinking that I knew what was going to happen, but Ms. Willows was too good for me and did not allow me to figure out the mystery until the book’s end. Brava, Ms. Willows, you have given us another wonderful read!~Marcy Arbitman, Just Erotic Romance Reviews

FIVE ANGELS! Don’t be fooled into thinking a book about an archeology adventure or mystery will be boring or tame; this is an erotic story! Lauren and Sebastian have sex in every location, position, and opportunity they find. The couple is very creative and this is a sensual tale that will leave you needing a way to cool off as you read! But the book has more than hot sex to appeal to the reader. This is a very imaginative story that includes shape shifters, possession, and an evil plot to steal souls from someone on the expedition. Lauren and Sebastian sense that something is wrong from the beginning but they are not sure who can be trusted and who are the bad guys however, people other than them depend on the funding for their main project so they feel compelled to go and insure the continuation of their life’s work. I loved the characters of Lauren and Sebastian and hope they will appear in the sequel that is the story of two of the secondary characters from this tale. I can’t wait to read book two, titled Into the Night! Ms. Willow’s imagination is so creative and fun that I will watch for other works by her and read them. I hope she plans to write more books for this series! ~Stephanie B, Fallen Angel Reviews

This novel has it all…a loving relationship between the married characters, deceit, betrayal, long held ancient secrets, poisoned darts and deadly villains. The multiple secondary characters give great depth to the piece, helping to keep the plot interesting and suspenseful. As the story progressed, I kept wondering what the Prentices were up to and why, but Ms. Willows well written story kept me guessing until the very end. Good work! ~Pam, My Book Cravings

Oh my! Grab a fan and your man before commencing to read Into The Lair. This is one hot story. I really loved reading about a long-time married couple who were still lusting for each other as much as when they were first wed. The devotion between the two made the novel special. Solid pacing, interesting characters, and an original plot topped it off. If you enjoy erotic romance with a splash of m/f/m interaction, you’ll take pleasure in Into the Lair. ~Chris, Joyfully Reviewed

FOUR STARS! A young couple is swept into a world of danger and betrayal in this creative and entertaining story. Their chemistry is explosive, and the steamy erotic encounters are hotter than the jungle setting. The secondary characters are all well developed and add to the mystery to a plot that will keep you hooked. ~Gail Pruszkowski, Romantic Times

EXCERPT:

Prologue

He watched from the shadows that dusk cast over the land. The cool San Diego night beckoned people to the Prentice Museum in droves. What better way to camouflage one’s actions than in a crowd? The innocent and unwary wound their cars up the hill as the sun set; last rays glinting off the windshields made them look like diamonds.

Clouds in the distance hovered over the Pacific Ocean, teasing with the hint of thunderstorms that had yet to materialize. All they’d gotten during the day was sweltering August heat and humidity. Mother Nature had made up for it with a colorful display of purples, golds, and pinks against the clouds and the kiss of a cool breeze. It didn’t matter. The atmosphere was heavy with desperation and foreboding. He would have felt it in any weather.

His nostrils flared as they arrived. The perfect couple — young, intelligent, beautiful…irresistible. Tonight would be the night they’d be marked. He could smell the hunt hovering in the air. It was woven with the scent of the woman’s pussy, punctuated by the testosterone cloud hovering around the man.

He stroked the erection thrusting up insistently before him….and wanted them…wanted his life back. And they were going to help him achieve all of that.

This time, no mistakes.

Chapter One

Chillbumps dotted Lauren Garner’s skin. Her stomach tightened with the creepy-crawly feeling someone was watching her. She’d felt that way since she and Sebastian had arrived at the Prentice Museum. Which was ridiculous, because they were the guests of honor. Naturally, all attention was on them.

But this…this was different. More like something was watching, not someone.

She clutched her husband’s strong forearm and stretched to her tiptoes. He smiled when her breath caressed his ear.

“I need to go to the ladies room,” she whispered. “Come with me…please.”

He gave her a single nod and lifted his champagne flute to the ladies surrounding them. “If you’d all excuse us for just a minute…” He set the glass on the tray of a passing waiter, cupped Lauren’s elbow, and steered her toward the restrooms down the far corridor beyond their exhibit.

“What’s wrong?” he asked when they’d gotten out of earshot.

“I feel ‘off.’ Nervous. On edge. Like I’m being watched.”

“Of course you’re being watched.” His voice deepened, falling over her like a sensuous caress. “You’re the most beautiful woman in the room. Every man wants you. Every woman wants to be you.”

She turned into him and ran her fingers beneath his tuxedo jacket, felt the hard chest beneath. “Only because those women want you.”

“Mmmm…” He twisted open the door to the handicapped restroom and gently pushed her forward, locking it behind them. “Do you know how much I want to fuck you right now? I’ve had a killer of a hard-on since we walked into the place.”

“Are you sure that’s not just nervous energy?”

He grabbed her hand and placed it on his cock. “Does that feel like nervous energy to you?”

Her pussy clenched with want. Moisture soaked the cotton liner in her pantyhose. That’s what she needed — him. Now!

“I can’t let you go back out there like that, now can I?” Hiking up her silky black dress, she grabbed the waistband and peeled her pantyhose down and off one leg.

Sebastian didn’t hesitate. One hand freed his erection while the other hoisted her bare leg up and around his waist. Lauren braced herself against the sink, gasping when he impaled her. His fucking was raw, hard, fast…and just what she needed. All she could do was hold onto his massive shoulders for dear life.

He reached between them and pushed her clit against his cock. Each stroke raked over it, pulling her tighter and tighter. Orgasm rolled over her sweetly, relaxing those tense muscles, scattering her unease. He seated himself on a hard thrust and grunted with his release. They stood there for long minutes, draped around each other in the wonder of the moment.

“We really need to get back out there.” He squeezed her ass and carefully slid free.

Lauren laughed to herself. The last thing they needed was a semen stain on his dark tux or her dress.

Using wet paper towels, they cleaned up quickly.

“You okay now?” he asked as he tucked in and zipped up.

Lauren smiled and kissed his chin. “More than okay. It was just what I needed. You go on. I need to pee.”

He captured her lips in a kiss, then winked, wiped her lipstick off his mouth, and left.

Lauren locked the door behind him, laughing at that earlier creepy feeling. She was on edge, that was all. Nothing like an orgasm to settle a girl’s nerves.

She took care of her personal needs and fixed her makeup. The biggest night of their lives and she was in the bathroom having sex.

“Mom would be so proud.”

She might look killer-hot, but she felt like a freaking Barbie doll. And these pantyhose were smothering her.

“Screw it.” She peeled them off and tossed them into the trash. Of course, that also meant she was now bare-bottomed.

Wearing panties might have helped. It was one of her greatest conundrums. Panties with pantyhose? She’d always considered it redundant. If they were pantyhose, why wear panties? Out of all the things she’d ever discussed with girlfriends, the topic had never come up. Sebastian was worthless on the subject. The fewer clothes she had on, the better he liked it.

“Like anyone will notice.” The focus was supposed to be on the artifacts on display.

Clutching her tiny purse, she swung open the door and left. At the end of the corridor, she felt the first trickle make its way down her thigh. She did an abrupt about-face back to the ladies room to sop up the remnants.

Sebastian’s knowing smirk greeted her when she finally returned to the exhibit wing. He lifted his glass in a private toast. Lauren snagged a crystal champagne flute from the tray of a passing waiter and followed suit, giving him a knowing smile of her own.

Content once more, Lauren sipped her golden champagne. It was light with a hint of sweet, not too dry; the perfect complement to what she hoped would be a perfect event.

She twirled the glass between thumb and forefinger and wandered toward her favorite of all the Maya artifacts she and Sebastian had unearthed in the last two years. Restored and on display in all its glory, the blue-green jade idol gleamed as it had when first carved. The phallus was an eye-popping ten inches long and three inches in circumference, jutting out from the proud figurine that bore it — the envy of every woman at the exhibit.

The artist had shown intricate attention to detail, using the stone to its full potential. Veins of gold naturally running through it became veins of the idol’s penis. There was a slit in the glans with precum at the tip and no hint of foreskin, which made it extra unique considering its age. The scrotum was wrinkled and full, close to the body. Fingernails and toenails were present, musculature well defined, as were eyes, ears, nose, and the sloped Maya forehead prevalent for the culture at that time. The artist had even managed to capture the male’s grimace of pre-orgasmic pleasure.

The idol was made for grasping. Inspection had revealed ancient fingerprints over it, which they’d meticulously documented before cleaning. Lauren could appreciate its being well used. Once in the place it was intended, the idol looked guaranteed to provide extreme pleasure. The hilt would nudge a woman in just the right spot. A skilled lover could manipulate it to perfection, or the lady could ride the sucker like a horny cowgirl and get herself off easily.

Lauren would be lying if she’d said she wasn’t tempted to try it out — no matter how many thousands of years old it was. At those times when she thought no other members of her archaeological team were looking, she’d unwrap the statue from its protective nesting of straw and caress the bulbous head, stroke the massive erection…and wonder.

She drew in another sip and studied the gathering. Clumps of people crowded around the Maya artifacts, oohing and ahhing over it all. There was still a wealth of material trapped beneath the Yucatán soil. The problem was finding enough capital to continue the dig, and then getting back to the site before poachers took it all. Hence the exhibit of what they’d found to date.

It’d come as a surprise to them that funding was an issue. Until now the Braden Institute had been known and revered for its deep, never-ending pockets. To discover otherwise was a bit…unsettling. When the digging season ended in the Yucatán, she and Sebastian were informed there would be a showing of their discoveries to date. That was six months ago, and they’d been working nonstop in preparation for it since then. At some point money was mentioned, and the exhibit became a fund-raiser while the rest of their team waited, bags packed and ready, to return to the site and continue. And the clock was ticking. She and Sebastian felt more pressure than ever. Their dig crew was depending on them.

Considering the crowd milling about, Lauren had to admit the exhibit seemed a rousing success. Barry Page darted through the guests like a cartoon ferret OD’d on espresso.

She bit back a laugh. Barry did look like a cartoon ferret — dark hair slicked back, pointed nose leading the way, bug eyes never still as they searched out the next target. No one pursued funding for the Braden Institute more aggressively than Barry. But with each day that passed, he became a bigger pain in the ass. If she heard him say, “It takes money to make money,” one more time, she’d pop his head off.

From the beginning, she’d been more than reluctant to do this fund-raiser. Barry’s aggressive pursuit of contributions made her more so. She didn’t like crowds, and she didn’t like being the center of attention. Plus, the mere thought of leaving the quiet haven of field work made her nervous. She hadn’t worn a dress, much less high heels, since she married Sebastian five years before. And dressing up for Sebastian meant Dockers and a pullover shirt.

But, man oh man, look at him tonight.

In his black tux he looked good enough to eat. Lauren wasn’t sure who got more attention — Sebastian or her well-endowed jade friend. Considering some of the obvious touching going on, Lauren wondered if Sebastian shouldn’t have been sealed in security glass like the artifacts. Other than their dash to the restrooms, neither of them had spent a second alone since they walked into the exhibit wing. Everyone wanted to press hands with the couple who’d made the discovery — archaeology’s new rising stars.

Lauren wasn’t sure how true that was, but it was definitely a huge career boost for them. And any notoriety that helped them continue their work was fine with her. Obviously, the institute felt that way as well. Once word got out about the artifacts, the Prentice Museum offered to display them and provide the level of security necessary to protect them during their stay. Liam Prentice had spared no expense. Why he didn’t just donate the money to the dig and leave it at that…

She assumed the man had an agenda of his own. Didn’t everyone? Considering tonight’s success, the Prentices would be the talk of the town for months to come, if not years. That talk would generate more visitors to the museum. More visitors meant more money, more investors for him. She couldn’t fault a person for that; after all, wasn’t that exactly what she and Sebastian were doing tonight?

Lauren took another sip of champagne, smiling as Sebastian laughed at something a matronly redhead half his height and twice his width said. Damn, he was handsome. His skin was golden from years in the Yucatán sun. All except his cute, milk white ass. His dark brown hair was trimmed neatly for a change, rather than straggly from one of her field haircuts. Those deep brown eyes sparkled, like he was having the time of his life. No one would guess he was as nervous as she was about all this.

His long fingers cradled the crystal flute. Every so often he’d absentmindedly brush his thumb along the side, reminding her of how often they played against her breast. Need curled into her belly at the thought. After ten years they were still going strong. She prayed they never grew tired of each other.

Sebastian’s gaze shifted her way. His smile deepened into that I’m-going-to-fuck-you-until-we-both-collapse look. She swore he could will her clothes to drop with that hot glance. And they’d just had a quickie!

Wait ’til he finds out I’m bare-bottomed.

Would he scold her for being a “naughty girl” and promise a spanking later? Haul her off to the first available storage closet and give her some more quick and thorough loving? Either and both sounded good to her.

“I can remember when my wife used to watch me with hungry eyes.”

Lauren glanced up at the man beside her. She’d been so absorbed in thought she hadn’t noticed his approach, but she had no trouble recognizing Liam Prentice. Those sky blue eyes alone made him memorable. Silver blended nicely with the blond, making his hair look like precious metals had been spun there. From what she’d heard, he had the personality to back up those distinguished looks, too. He and his wife, Viola, were charming, wealthy, connected, and damned good-looking. Lauren hoped she and Sebastian were as lucky when they hit their fifties.

“Mr. Prentice, a pleasure to meet you. I’m Lauren Garner.” She offered her hand to him.

He didn’t hesitate. A handshake said a lot about a person. His wasn’t a condescending girly squeeze, or a bone crusher. He shook her hand like a colleague, someone he respected.

“Your reputation and that of your husband’s precedes you, Mrs. Garner. Everyone is talking about you.” His gaze never left hers. She wasn’t sure if she appreciated his directness, or found his steady perusal unnerving.

“Lauren…please…and thank you. It’s wonderful to know our work means so much to others.”

“Probably more than you realize. Viola and I had the chance to tour the exhibit privately this afternoon. What amazing discoveries. We’re in awe of your accomplishment.”

Coming from a man of his caliber and deeds, it was quite a compliment. “Thank you, Mr. Prentice. I’m honored you feel that way. I don’t know what to say.”

“First names with us as well, Lauren. Viola and I aren’t much on pretense. We leave the snobbish displays to some of our so-called friends.”

Lauren fanned her fingers at the base of her throat and laughed.

Liam leaned closer, humor dancing in his eyes. “If they only knew what we really thought of them.”

“Somehow I suspect you don’t waste a lot of time with them, though.” And he most probably let others do his dirty work if he was displeased. He struck her as the type of man who would smile in your face, then order your head on a platter behind your back.

“Very perceptive, Lauren.” He tapped her shoulder. “I knew I’d like you the instant I saw you across the crowded room.”

Lauren sipped her champagne as she fought the urge to give him a playful push. “Now, Liam, that almost sounds like the beginning of a very bad pick-up line.”

He tossed back a contagious laugh. “It really does. I’m so sorry. I’ve been watching your and Sebastian’s work for so long, I feel like I know you.”

Lauren was at a loss for words. She and Sebastian knew who the Prentices were — only a hermit living in a time warp wouldn’t — but they hadn’t thought much about the couple until this exhibit.

“Now you’re going to think Viola and I are stalkers.” His eyebrows scrunched together with what looked like regret. “Please don’t. We’ve continued to follow archaeological discoveries after we left the field, even built this museum to help display them. We certainly can’t begin to rival what the Braden Institute offers, but we do like to help fund those few scientists we find to be extraordinary — like you and Sebastian.”

Was he saying what she thought? That he was ready to fund their dig? She forced herself to retain some level of professional demeanor and not squeal…or get too far ahead of herself.

“Again you have me at a loss for words.”

“Then I’d say it’s the perfect time for you to tell me firsthand about your discoveries, starting with this intriguing little statue behind you. Although calling it little is definitely a misnomer.”

Lauren felt her cheeks heat. Her comfort level nosedived.

“I’m sorry. I did it again.” He cupped her elbow, gave it a quick squeeze, then swept his arm out. “Come meet Viola. Looks like she’s already waylaid your husband. It’s the perfect time.”

Lauren glanced in Sebastian’s direction. Viola Prentice had his attention, every word and action monitored by the throng growing around them. She matched Liam in looks, though hair dye most probably hid her gray. Both were fit and trim. Her calves looked like she was used to walking, well-defined with no hint of fat. Lauren couldn’t tell if her legs were really suntanned, or if that was merely the color of her pantyhose. In either event, it was too dark a color and the one thing about her that was unbecoming.

She wore a black dress like every other female there — understated elegance in the silk fabric that hugged her slender curves. An omega necklace gleamed around her throat, matching bracelets flashed around her wrists from under her long sleeves. More gold shone from her earlobes. She wore the jewelry like it was an extension of herself, like a queen. It was hard not to compare herself to the older woman. Sebastian’s smile her way told her she measured up just fine.

“Ah, yes, more hungry eyes,” Liam said with a laugh. “If only to be twenty years younger…”

She smiled up at him. “And know what you know now?”

“Exactly.” He added a nod and lifted his hand to his wife. “Viola, dear, quit hogging our good-looking friend and let the Garners give us a detailed tour of everything.”

Viola turned a sultry smile Liam’s way.

“Talk about hungry eyes,” Lauren muttered to him.

“Indeed.” Liam beamed. “Maybe your and Sebastian’s influence is rubbing off on us. One can only hope.”

* * * * *

Damn, Lauren was killer hot tonight in her little black dress and come-fuck-me black heels. Their quickie in the restroom hadn’t kept his erection away long. All he had to do was glance her way, think of those high-heeled legs tossed over his shoulders, and he was hard again. He couldn’t wait to leave this agonizing event and go home.

Though he tried to hide it, Sebastian had never felt more out of his element. He smiled, shook hands, engaged in mindless chit-chat…which he discovered was fairly easy if you could get the other person to talk about themselves. All he had to do then was smile or laugh or nod at intervals, answer a few questions.

While guests crowded him with mindless chatter, Sebastian focused on Lauren’s collarbones. On how her skin would taste when he’d trace his tongue over them. On how she’d sigh with pleasure and stretch her tight body against him. On the brush of her floaty hem against shapely legs. He couldn’t wait to peel her naked and feel her quiver beneath his touch. Couldn’t wait to see her surprise, hear her laughter, when she saw the present he’d had made especially for her.

There wasn’t a woman in the room who compared to Lauren, and Sebastian had seen every one of them close up…with the exception of Viola Prentice.

The Prentices were their benefactors for this event, though they’d never met. The institute arranged everything, with specific instructions that the Garners were to extensively woo them in the hope they’d help fund the dig. Sebastian and Lauren weren’t stupid. They knew a good thing when they saw it, but neither of them appreciated the added pressure. Pressure made more intense when the Prentices weren’t here when the Garners arrived.

Barry Page had nearly had a coronary over their absence. His heaved sigh of relief was a little too obvious when the Prentices made a quiet entrance thirty minutes later. They’d paused for a second, scanning the gathering. Body language said a lot about them, how close the two were — his arm around her back, her standing in the cove of his body. Sebastian liked to see that in a couple who’d been married a long time. It was like a glimpse of what he hoped he and Lauren would have in twenty-five years — still crazy in love, still so hot for one another the kindling could be used to start a fire.

A smile had sent the Prentices on separate paths, weaving into the crowd after they’d snagged champagne flutes from a passing waiter. Barry had wasted no time nailing Sebastian with a look that clearly told him to corner Liam Prentice. Sebastian promptly ignored it.

Barry was great at his job, but there was a time and place, and attacking Prentice the second he walked in the door wasn’t it. Sebastian had too much professional respect for Prentice to do that. After all, Prentice had paid for this event, donated a portion of his museum with extra security, even added the draw of champagne, open bar, and heavy hors d’oeuvres buffet on the patio. He deserved Sebastian’s and Lauren’s thanks, not to be hit up for more money. Sebastian planned to do just that once Lauren finished her quiet perusal of her Mr. Happy idol…and Sebastian could politely slip away from the redhead’s lengthy story of a bout with Montezuma’s Revenge on her one trip to Cabo San Lucas twenty years ago. His brain shut down amid her graphic descriptions of all the barfing and pooping she’d done. His smile frozen in place, all Sebastian could do was nod while he prayed for an opening to excuse himself.

Then he saw Liam Prentice approach Lauren. The gaggle of people perpetually gathered around Sebastian parted at the same time. The redhead’s rambling dissertation screeched to a halt the second Viola Prentice stepped forward, her smile open and welcoming. She was a striking woman, gracious in the face of the power she possessed yet didn’t flaunt here.

Sebastian thrust his hand her way. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Prentice.”

She slipped warm fingers into his, grasping them firmly as she edged closer. “The pleasure is mine. Please…first names. It makes life so much more pleasant. I read a story once about an elderly woman named Mary Grant. She was asked if there was anything she missed most, having reached ninety-five years. She responded that no one ever called her by her first name anymore…always ‘Mrs. Grant.’ I never want to be in that position or put others in it.”

Sebastian could appreciate that, though he’d never considered it before. “Then first names it is, Viola.” They dropped hands on a simultaneous nod. “My wife and I would like to express our sincere thanks for all you and your husband have done.”

“We should be thanking you.” She motioned to the displays like Vanna White turning letters. “This is a breathtaking find. Makes me crave to go out in the field for one last hurrah.”

“From what I’ve heard, you and your husband were quite a force thirty years ago, amassing a nice resume of spectacular finds.” Then they’d retired to the estate those discoveries, and an immense inheritance, had built.

“Viola, dear, quit hogging our good-looking friend and let the Garners give us a detailed tour of everything,” Liam called out, interrupting her from any reply she might have made.

“An excellent idea.” She gave her husband a sultry smile, then turned to Sebastian. “Shall we?”

“It would be my honor.” Sebastian offered his arm to escort her. Viola wasted no time looping her hand through it.

“You and your wife make a striking couple,” she said as they strolled in that direction.

He gave a soft laugh. “Thank you. I was thinking the same thing of you and Liam when you walked in.”

Laughter bubbled out of her. “Oh, goodness…it’s nice to know we’ve still got it after all these years. I imagine Lauren was excited for the chance to dress up for a change.”

Her comment nearly brought him to a halt. Viola must have noticed he faltered because she put her other hand over his arm and squeezed.

“Look how breathtaking she is.” Her gaze slowly swept over Lauren, appraising, comparing, judging. If Viola had been a man, Sebastian would have called it lecherous. “She’s probably thinking the same about you, judging from the lust in her eyes. Most men bitch about the monkey suit, but there isn’t a man alive who doesn’t look devastating in a tux. Fires up those juices. Don’t get me wrong…being able to work together day in and day out is wonderful. But being away from the grind, the grit of field work… Well, that sort of thing grows old after awhile, and we women do like a bit…more.”

Sebastian’s feel-good disappeared. Is that what Lauren wanted…more? For the first time in their ten-year history, he wondered if he’d somehow let her down. She never said. In fact, she’d seemed happy to be digging for past civilizations…didn’t she?

He took a mental step back. What had he given her? Other than their professional accolades, they had nothing to speak of. Most of the money they earned was tucked away in savings and investments, hoarded for a rainy day. They had a small apartment that was more for storage than for living. They lived out of suitcases. Correction…backpacks, duffel bags, and crates. He’d had to rent the tux, which was the norm for most men. But Lauren didn’t own pantyhose, much less a nice dress and heels, and she hadn’t been too thrilled with the idea of having to shop for those items.

Sebastian smiled her way. Seeing her killer hot took his breath away. Her long brown hair drifted down her back, gold highlights catching the light. He wanted to comb his fingers through it over and over again, mine it for gold while his cock bored a tunnel into her cunt. Sparkly rhinestones dangled from her ears, begging him to nibble. He found himself wishing he had given her diamonds, instead of a canvas tent in a sweaty jungle.

Odd how Viola’s innocent comment could knock him off-kilter and spark doubt. Now that the seed was planted…

He extended his hand to Liam Prentice as they approached. “Sebastian Garner, it’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.” He kept his smile bright, hoping it would dissipate his unease.

“Trust me,” Liam said. “It’s my pleasure. Everything you’ve uncovered…amazing. A lot of hours. A lot of hard work.”

“Definitely.” Viola extended her hand to Lauren. “I feel I know you so well through your work that I should hug you.”

“One can never have enough hugs,” Lauren said with a smile.

“My feeling exactly!” Viola tossed her arms around Lauren’s neck with no further warning.

Sebastian saw Lauren’s eyes widen with surprise. Clearly she wasn’t expecting Viola to carry through with such an exuberant embrace. All she could do was laugh with her and return the affection. As they parted, Lauren gasped and pressed her fingers against the curve of her neck.

“Oh, dear,” Viola tsked, “it looks like the catch on my bracelet scratched you. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay…really.” Lauren glanced at her fingers. It was all Sebastian could do to not pull her hair aside to see the scratch for himself, especially when the smile she gave the other woman didn’t quite reach her eyes.

“See? No blood.” Lauren lifted her fingers to show them as if to back up her words. “If it’s visible, my hair should hide it. No harm, no worries.”

The glance she gave Sebastian begged him to not make a big deal out of it. Though he agreed, giving her a slight nod, he still didn’t like it.

“Still…” Viola unlatched the heavy gold bracelet and shoved it deep into Liam’s trouser pocket. “There…that’s that. Now,” she looped her arm through Lauren’s. “Tell us everything. I want to hear about every speck of dirt you brushed away to find these treasures.”

Liam touched his wife’s shoulder. “Not every speck, dear. I believe they’re ready to open the buffet.”

Viola cast a worried frown toward the double doors leading to the large glass-enclosed patio. “A quick tour then.” She flashed him a smile and turned Lauren toward the exhibits.

Liam gave him a palms-up shrug that said, “What can a guy do?”

Sebastian smiled with his nod, and they fell in step behind the women. Barry tracked every movement. Sebastian hoped to hell he kept his distance. He and Lauren needed this moment, and not for the potential money it would bring. They needed the break from the crowd, to be able to talk quietly about their discoveries and not the mindless garble they’d had to spew since they’d arrived.

Hands clasped behind him, he was content to let Lauren take over the tour. She had a sweet tone to her voice that could mesmerize howler monkeys, squalling children, hysterical females, and rampaging men…all at the same time. One-on-one, Lauren was excellent. She froze up when she had to give group presentations, though. Just the thought of standing behind a podium made her sweat. Teach, yes. Lecture, no.

They’d finished the circuit as the caterers were opening the doors to the patio. Sebastian hated the idea of going back into schmooze mode. Judging from Liam’s resigned sigh, he did, too.

“What’s the term? ‘Into the breach’?”

Viola giggled. “Is it such a burden to be polite?”

“Sometimes,” he said with an overdramatic sigh. “Especially when we’re having such a great talk.”

“Come on.” Viola looped her arm through Liam’s and tugged him toward the patio. “I’m sure we can worm a private table for the four of us from the Mother Hen.”

Sebastian tried his best to cover his laughter with a cough into his fist. It was impossible. The description of Barry was too accurate.

Liam smirked. “Has he made your life a living hell?”

Lauren squeezed her arm around Sebastian’s waist, silently reminding him of his manners. “He’s just doing his job,” she said.

He conceded the point with a nod. “And he does do it very well, no arguing there. But Viola and I know how annoying it can be to be yanked from your element and displayed like show dogs.”

“Well, we won’t lie about that,” Lauren said. “It’s been awkward and tense.”

“And only the beginning, from what we’ve been told,” Sebastian added. “If we want to continue doing what we love.”

Liam pulled in a deep breath through his nose. “What if I were to offer you a solution?”

Sebastian wasn’t sure how to respond to that. It sounded like Liam was saying he was going to fund for the dig. But it couldn’t be as easy as all that?

“What type of solution?”

Liam paused for a sip of champagne, then smacked his lips. “Viola and I are putting together a unique expedition. We’d like you two to join us. We feel you’d mesh well with us and the rest of the potential team.”

“And how would that be a solution?”

He was glad Lauren had asked that question. Sebastian had a dozen more running through his head.

Liam smiled. “Join us for the weekend, and you’ll see. Others will be there, too. Acquaintances of yours, I believe. No strings. I’ll lay out the plan then. You have nothing to lose, and at the very least, you would have had a couple of days to relax away from our friend before returning to your dig.”

Fortunately, Liam didn’t use the spiel “you have everything to gain.” If he had, Sebastian might have walked away.

“I’m…intrigued,” he finally said.

“Hopefully we can keep you that way.” Liam grinned and hoisted his glass. “Come on. Let’s eat before the herd decides to stampede.”

Sebastian tucked his arm around Lauren’s waist as they followed the older couple out. That’s when he realized…

“You’re not wearing your pantyhose,” he whispered against her ear.

A pink flush colored her cheeks. “I’m not wearing any panties either,” she whispered back.

Now he had two intriguing possibilities to think about.