Grant felt better the moment he stepped through the front door and into the warm embrace of central heating. By the time the elevator spat them out on the fifth floor, he was almost purring.
He took a moment to make sure that he wasn’t. Satisfied, he glanced around the room.
The gallery was full of people. Grant took a slow breath as he looked around. He couldn’t help it; even in his human form, he instinctively tried to identify the guests by scent as much as by sight.
Most of them were strangers, but one familiar scent made him turn his head to the end of the room.
Francine Delacourt was a statuesque platinum blonde, with skin as white as snow and iceberg-blue eyes. She looked a little like Marilyn Monroe, if Marilyn had been six feet tall and possessed all the warmth and kindness of a glacier.
Lions. Even when they were in human shape, lion shifters—well, all predator shifters, Grant supposed—had this aura of sheer power around them. Mathis used his in the ring, keeping his opponents on edge. Frankie used hers—or at least, so Grant had heard—to keep her company’s board of directors in line. Right now, she seemed to be happily terrifying a circle of onlookers in front of some paintings of mountains.
“There’s Frankie,” he said, relieved his hunch had been correct. Then his shoulders slumped. He knew it was too much to hope for that Mathis would be here with his sister—the two might be twins, but they were far from inseparable—but some small part of him still grated at not finding his friend here. Frankie was holding court alone.
“You need me to come glare at her with you?”
Grant shook himself out of his restless thoughts and glanced at Lance. “This isn’t a shakedown, Lance. I just want to talk to her. Go guard the canapes or something.”
Lance snorted and moved away. Grant rubbed his forehead. This wasn’t a shakedown—so why did he feel so strange? His skin was still prickling with the same sense of wrongness he’d felt earlier.
Or—was it wrongness? Or was it just different? A new, unsettling sensation. Something he couldn’t identify. Something from his shifter side.
If he’d been in the jungle still, he’d have slunk into the shadows, every sense alert as he waited for his instincts to zero in on what was wrong, on the watch for poachers or another predator.
In the city, though…
I’m in a crowded room, with my bodyguard behind me and a lioness shifter in front of me. What’s the worst thing that could happen?
Frankie’s white-gold hair shone like a flame at the far end of the room as Grant made his way toward her. He slipped easily through the crowd, people moving out of his way without even noticing they were doing it. Lions might ooze raw, visceral power, but panthers had their own effect on bystanders. Grant might not like it, but he had to admit it was useful.
He was only halfway there when Frankie turned around. The painting on the wall behind her was all burnished gold and umber, and her light face and hair stood out against it like a beacon. Her eyebrows drew together as she locked eyes with him, and a strange expression stole briefly over her face. She quickly smoothed the unreadable expression off her face, but the smile that replaced it looked strained.
She mouthed something, too quietly and too far away for Grant to hear it.
Frankie? he called out silently and saw her frown. She turned away and thrust her wine glass into the hand of the woman she’d been standing in front of. Grant could have sworn he saw her spine stiffen before she turned back.
It was so like Frankie to just hand her glass off to some poor human bystander. The woman wasn’t one of waiters, with their expressions of mingled boredom and superiority. She was wearing a soft-looking black dress that hugged her generous curves, and was almost as tall as Frankie. Unusual, for a human.
Grant raised his eyes to the woman’s face, intending to give her an apologetic smile. Instead, he felt as though he’d been struck by lightning.
Next to Frankie’s gleaming blonde hair and silver dress, this other woman should have faded into the background. Her dark curls haloed her face, and the dress that clung jealously to her curves was a matte black that seemed designed for blending in with shadows.
Instead, she was suddenly the only person in the room he could focus on.
Grant’s eyes swept back up to her face, searching for—what? She wasn’t even looking at him. Her eyes were cast down, looking at the half-empty wineglass Frankie had pushed on her. Her lips quirked, and she glanced up at Frankie’s back—and past her, to Grant.
The strange feeling that had dogged Grant since they pulled up outside the gallery was swept away, replaced by a hot, thrumming need. It was a sexual need—Oh, hell, is it sexual, he thought, swallowing—but it was more than that, too. And it terrified him.
The woman’s eyes were dark, a brown so deep they seemed almost black. When Grant looked into them, he was gripped by a need to protect so overwhelming that it was all he could do not to leap across the room and take her into his arms.
Go to her! his panther demanded. It wanted to break free, to make him shift and stalk through the room on four legs, tail lashing, a barely veiled threat aimed at anyone who would harm her. The scents of the room grew stronger as he came closer to shifting, his animal senses becoming sharper.
No, he told himself, and his panther, with all the self-control he could muster. That is a bad idea. That is the WORST idea. What are you thinking?
And this is the worst possible timing for—for this.
He knew what was happening. The thing he was most afraid of.
This woman, this human woman, was his mate. His soulmate.
And there was nothing he could do about it. No choice. No control. He had spent the last six months letting his panther off the leash, in the hopes that that time in the wild would exhaust it. And now he felt as though he’d fallen into a trap from which there was no escape.
No. The situation wasn’t the trap. His shifter nature was.
Grant started to move towards her, unable to keep a feline stalk from his movements. He barely noticed Frankie as he passed her, though her indignant hiss was unmistakable.
He still needed to talk to her. Later. Later, for sure. Right now, though, he had to…
Grant stopped an arm’s length away from the dark-haired woman. She was staring at him, eyes wide. This close, he could smell her scent, a sweet, tantalizing perfume that went straight to his head.
“Hello,” he said, his voice almost a purr.