INTO THE WILD
Book 3 – Into The Heart Series
by Caitlyn Willows
Erotic Romance – Paranormal – Shape-shifter – Menage
Cover Artist – Marci Gass
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?
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
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.
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.