Ulrich Van Holtz turned over and snuggled closer to the denim-clad thigh resting by his head. Then he remembered that he'd gone to bed alone last night.
Forcing one eye open, he gazed at the face grinning down at him.
He hated when she called him that. The dismissive tone of it grated on his nerves. Especially his sensitive morning nerves. She might as well say, "Mornin', you who serve no purpose."
"Dee-Ann." He glanced around, trying to figure out what was going on. "What time is it?"
"Not quite dawn, no longer night."
"And is there a reason you're in my bed at dawn-ish ... fully clothed? Because I'm pretty sure you'd be much more comfortable naked."
Her lips curved slightly. "Look at you, Van Holtz. Trying to sweet talk me."
"If it'll get you naked ..."
"You're my boss."
"I'm your supervisor."
"If you can fire me, you're my boss. Didn't they teach you that in your fancy college?"
"My fancy college was a culinary school and I spent most of my classes trying to understand my French instructors. So if they mentioned that boss-supervisor distinction, I probably missed it."
"You're still holding my thigh, boss."
"You're still in my bed. And you're still not naked."
"Me naked is like me dressed. Still covered in scars and willing to kill."
"Now you're just trying to turn me on." Ric yawned, reluctantly unwrapping his arms from Dee's scrumptious thigh and using the move to get a good look at her.
She'd let her dark brown hair grow out a bit in recent months so that the heavy, wavy strands rested below her ears, framing a square jaw that sported a five-inch scar from her military days and a more recent bruise he was guessing had happened last night. She had a typical Smith nose—a bit long and rather wide at the tip—and the proud, high forehead. But it was those eyes that disturbed most of the populace because they were the one part of her that never shifted. They stayed the same color and shape no matter what form she was in. Many people called the color "dog yellow," but Ric thought of it as a canine gold. And Ric didn't find those eyes off-putting. No, he found them entrancing. Just like the woman.
Ric had only known the She-wolf about seven months, but since the first time he'd laid eyes on her, he'd been madly, deeply in lust. Then, over time, he'd gotten to know her, and he'd come to fall madly, deeply in love. There was just one problem with their becoming mates and living happily ever after—and that problem's name was Dee-Ann Smith.
"So is there a reason you're here, in my bed, not naked, around dawn-ish that doesn't involve us forgetting the idiotic limits of business protocol so that you can ravish my more-than-willing body?"
When she said nothing else, Ric sat up and offered, "Let me guess. The tellin' will be easier if it's around some waffles and bacon."
"Those words are true, but faking that accent ain't endearing you to my Confederate heart."
"I bet adding blueberries to those waffles will."
"Canned or fresh?"
Mouth open, Ric glared at her over his shoulder.
"It's a fair question."
"Out." He pointed at his bedroom door. "If you're going to question whether I'd use canned anything in my food while sitting on my bed not naked, then you can just get the hell out of my bedroom ... and sit in my kitchen, quietly, until I arrive."
"Will you be in a better mood?"
"Will you be naked?"
"Like a wolf with a bone," she muttered, and then told him, "Not likely."
"Then I guess you have your answer."
"Oh, come on. Can I at least sit here and watch you strut into the bathroom bare-ass naked?"
"No, you may not." He threw his legs over the side of the bed. "However, you may look over your shoulder longingly while I, in a very manly way, walk purposely into the bathroom bare-ass naked. Because I'm not here for your entertainment, Ms. Smith."
"It's Miss. Nice Southern girls use Miss."
"Then I guess that still makes you a Ms."
Dee-Ann Smith sat at Van Holtz's kitchen table, her fingers tracing the lines in the marble. His kitchen table was real marble, too, the legs made of the finest wood. Not like her parents' Formica table that still had the crack in it from when Rory Reed's big head drunkenly slammed into it after they'd had too many beers the night of their junior-year homecoming game.
Then again, everything about Van Holtz's apartment spoke of money and the finest of everything. Yet his place somehow managed to be comfortable, not like some spots in this city where everything was so fancy Dee didn't know who'd want to visit or sit on a damn thing. Of course, Van Holtz didn't come off like some spoiled rich kid that she'd want to slap around when he got mouthy. She'd thought he'd be that way, but since meeting him a few months back, he'd proven that he wasn't like that at all.
Shame she couldn't say that for several of his family members. She'd met his daddy only a few times, and each time was a little worse than the last. And his older brother wasn't much better. To be honest, she didn't know why Van Holtz didn't challenge them both and take the Alpha position from the mean old bastard. That's how they did it among the Smiths, and it was a way of life that had worked for them for at least three centuries.
Hair dripping wet from the shower, Van Holtz walked into his kitchen. He wore black sweatpants and was pulling a black T-shirt over his head, giving Dee an oh-too-brief glimpse at an absolutely superb set of abs and narrow hips. No, he wasn't as big a wolf as Dee was used to—in fact, they were the same six-two height and nearly the same width—but good Lord, the man had an amazing body. It must be all the things he did during the day. Executive chef at the Fifth Avenue Van Holtz restaurant; a goalie for the shifter-only pro team he owned, The Carnivores; and one of the supervisors for the Group. A position that, although he didn't spend as much time in the field as Dee-Ann and her team, did force him to keep in excellent shape.
Giving another yawn, Van Holtz pushed his wet, dark blond hair off his face, brown eyes trying to focus while he scanned his kitchen.
"Coffee's in the pot," she said.
Some men, they simply couldn't function without their morning coffee, and that was Van Holtz.
"Thank you," he sighed, grabbing the mug she'd taken out for him and filling it up. If he minded that she'd become quite familiar with his kitchen and his apartment in general, after months of coming and going as she pleased, he never showed it.
Dee waited until he'd had a few sips and finally turned to her with a smile.
She returned that smile, something she normally didn't bother with with most, and replied, "Morning."
"I promised you waffles with fresh blueberries." He sniffed in disgust. "Canned. As if I'd ever."
"I know. I know. Sacrilege."
Dee-Ann sat patiently at the kitchen table while Van Holtz whipped up a full breakfast for her the way most people whipped up a couple of pieces of toast.
"So, Dee"—Van Holtz placed perfectly made waffles and bacon in front of her with warmed syrup in a bowl and a small dish of butter right behind it—"what brings you here?"
He sat down on the chair across from her with his own plate of food.
"Cats irritate me."
Van Holtz nodded, chewing on a bite of food. "And yet you work so well with them on a day-to-day basis."
"Not when they get in my way."
"Is there a possibility you can be more specific on what your complaint is?"
"But it's fun to watch you look so confused."
"Only one cup of coffee, Dee-Ann. Only one cup."
She laughed a little, always amused when Van Holtz got a bit cranky.
"We went to raid a hybrid fight last night—not only was there no fight, but there were felines already there."
"Oh." He took another bite of bacon. "Those felines. Well, maybe they're trying to—"
"Those felines ain't gonna help mutts, Van Holtz, you know that."
"Can't you just call me Ric? You know, like everyone else." And since the man had more cousins than should legally be allowed, all with the last name Van Holtz, perhaps that would be a bit easier for all concerned.
"Fine. They're not going to help, Ric."
"And yet it seems as if they are—or at least trying."
"They're doing something—and I don't like it. I don't like when anyone gets in my way." Especially particular felines who had wicked right crosses that Dee's jaw was still feeling several hours later.
"All right," he said. "I'll deal with it."
"Just like that?"
"Yep. Just like that. Orange juice?" She nodded and he poured freshly squeezed orange juice into her glass.
"You don't want to talk to the team first?"
"I talked to you. What's the team going to tell me that you haven't? Except they'll probably use more syllables and keep the anti-feline sentiment out of it."
She nodded and watched him eat. Pretty. The man was just ... pretty. Not girly—although she was sure her daddy and uncles would think so—but pretty. Handsome and gorgeous might be the more acceptable terms when talking about men, but those words did not fit him.
"Is something wrong with your food?" he asked, noticing that she hadn't started eating.
She glanced down at the expertly prepared waffle, big fresh blueberries throughout, powdered sugar sprinkled over it. In bowls he'd also put out more fresh blueberries, along with strawberries and peaches. He'd given her a linen napkin to use and heavy, expensive-looking flatware to eat with. And he'd set all this up in about thirty minutes.
The whole meal was, in a word, perfection, which was why Dee replied, "It's all right ... I guess."
A dark eyebrow peaked. "You guess?"
"Haven't tried it yet, now have I? Can't tell you if I like it if I haven't tried it."
"Only one cup of coffee, Dee. Only one."
"Maybe it's time you had another."
"Eat and tell me my food is amazing or I'm going to get cranky again."
"If you're going to be pushy ..." She took a bite, letting the flavors burst against her taste buds. Damn, but the man could cook. Didn't seem right, did it? Pretty and a good cook.
"Do I really need to tell you how good it is?"
"Yes. Although I'm enjoying your orgasm face."
She smirked. "Darlin', you don't know my orgasm face."
"Yet. I'm ever hopeful."
"Keepin' that dream alive."
"Someone has to." He winked at her and went back to his food. "I'll see what I can find out about what's going on with KZS and get back to you." He looked up at her and smiled. "Don't worry, Dee-Ann. I've got your back."
She knew that. She knew he would come through as promised. As hard as it was to believe, she was learning to trust the one breed of wolf her daddy told her never to trust.
Then again ... her daddy had never tasted the man's blueberry waffles.
"But do me a favor, Dee," he said. "Until I get this straightened out, don't get into it with the cats."
Dee stared at him and asked with all honesty, "What makes you think I would?"
It had been a lot of years since they'd seen each other, since they'd started together in the Marines Corps' shifter-only Unit until their commanding officer had placed them on separate teams because, as the polar bear had explained, "Some dogs and cats will just never get along."
"I'm sorry, Dee-Ann," the feline told her without any remorse whatsoever. "My fist slipped."
"It happens," Dee replied seconds before she swung her own fist, connecting with Malone's face.
The She-tiger snarled, her head coming up, blood streaming from the cut on her cheek, eyes turning bright gold and angry. Seemed fair, though, since Dee had the same amount of blood coming from her nose.
The pair sized each other up. Dee quickly remembered all the strengths and weaknesses the She-tiger had. About Dee's age, thirty-five or so, Malone had come into her full adult power with strong arms and thighs. She'd be fast, but her stamina would be nothing like Dee's. At six feet, Malone weighed a bit more and had more curves in her human form. She still kept her black hair with white and red streaks long, and Dee had no qualms about using all that hair to her advantage if she had to.
Their teams spread out around them in a circle and Dee knew on some deeper, more humane level that this was wrong. They were here on a hot, late-June night in this Brooklyn warehouse for bigger issues than a bitch-fight between former Marines. But Malone had always brought out the worst in Dee. The absolute worst.
So ignoring the bigger issues—like what had happened to the fight ring that was supposed to be having an event tonight at this location—the two She-predators removed their jackets and brought up their fists.
Malone was and always would be a brawler. It ran in her tiger bloodline. She was the daughter of one of the greatest early shifter hockey players, "Nice Guy" Malone. And, like her father, she'd gone from the Marines to playing right defenseman for the Nevada Slammers. She was pretty good, too, but spent a lot of her time in the penalty box because she simply couldn't stop from beating the hell out of people when they irritated her.
But hockey wasn't all that Malone was part of. She also worked for Katzenhaft Security or KZS for short. The feline nation's security team. Dating back several hundred years, KZS had bases all over the world, their job simply to protect all felines. It was rare for Dee or the Group in general to come face to face with a KZS team. Especially when dealing with hybrids. The cats were notorious for having no interest or patience with mixed breeds of any kind. As it was, they barely tolerated the feline crossbreeds—tigons, ligers, cheetah-leopard crosses, etc.—but when fellow felines bred outside their species or KZS teammates were dealing with canine mixes in general, they often showed more disdain than usual. Which meant they normally didn't involve themselves with hybrid issues.
Until recently. Something that made Dee-Ann all sorts of distrustful.
That two-ton truck Malone called a fist rammed into Dee's cheek, followed by a right cross to her already battered nose. Dee ignored the little yellow birds twirling around her head and blocked the next punch with her right forearm, smashing Malone's nose with the palm of her hand. Malone's head snapped back and Dee followed up with a punch to the stomach. Malone caught Dee around the neck with both arms and came in close, bringing her knee up into Dee's gut, twice. Dee slammed her head forward into Malone's.
"That's it!" a female voice yelled.
Strong hands yanked Dee and Malone apart and the fact that their feet weren't touching the ground told Dee they were being held by something really big.
"Dee-Ann?" That female voice again. It didn't belong to whatever was holding them.
Dee wiped blood out of her eyes and looked down into a familiar face. "Evening, Desiree."
Wearing a bulletproof vest over a light T-shirt, her gun drawn—she always had more than one on her at any given time—her bright grey-green gaze quickly taking in the room, Desiree MacDermot-Llewellyn seemed much more at home with shifters than with her own. It wasn't just her choice of mate either, the lion male Mace Llewellyn whom Dee had known for years through her cousin Bobby Ray. No, it was too easy to dismiss Desiree as a full-human who didn't find her own way until she'd met her mate. Because the truth was, Desiree MacDermot-Llewellyn was as much a predator as anyone Dee had known.
Desiree shook her head, blew out a breath, and put her weapon back in the holster at her side. "What the hell are you doing, Dee?"
"Don't know what you mean."
Rolling her eyes, Desiree looked over at Malone. "And you?"
Malone snarled, baring her fangs. A move that didn't bother Desiree one bit based on that snort she gave in return.
Excerpted from Big Bad Beast by Shelly Laurenston Copyright © 2011 by Shelly Laurenston. Excerpted by permission of BRAVA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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