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Penny is hunting the firestarter who lit the fire that killed her parents. She’s caught others, but ten months after her parents’ deaths, this one firestarter remains elusive. With a single-mindedness she’ll live to regret, she tracks him to a fireground-where she goes from being the hunter to the hunted.
Marshall, a jaguar shape shifter, has known for years that Penny was destined to be his mate. But he’s always held back from her out of fear his past as an abuse victim would be too much to fight. But then Penny goes missing, and all those fears suddenly seem so stupid. He should have been with her, keeping her protected.
When Marshall turns to Clayton, his adoptive shifter-brother, for help in finding Penny, Clayton reveals secrets Marshall could never have seen coming, and everything changes-for all three of them.
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With my heart beating fast, I sprinted between charred trees that appeared out of the smoke filled air as I ran. How on earth had I thought this was a good idea? I could hear the heavy thuds of a man's boots behind me, and I forced my legs to pump faster.
Ten months ago I'd lost everything. While I'd been driving down to Ceduna for a job interview, some moron had set a fire in my hometown. It had been over forty degrees Celsius that summer day, and there'd been no controlling the flames once they got going. My small hometown of Red Gum Springs had been obliterated.
Not one house was left standing.
Including the place I’d shared with my parents.
They'd made a run for it, of course, but they'd left it too late and had gotten caught in the thick smoke. Firefighters found their burned out car smashed around a tree.
With both my mum and dad inside.
Blinking back tears from both the smoke and my emotions, I focused back on my current situation. I'd been tracking a firestarter on my own. The police weren't doing enough. Every fire this guy was responsible for, the authorities could never work out how it had been started. They often found where, but never how. That meant someone was either collecting the remaining evidence soon after the fire passed through or they were using something that burned away without leaving a trace. I'd been close enough to this one that when I heard the call over my police scanner I came up behind the fire to see if I could find the ignition point and, I hoped, some evidence to nail this bastard.
But I hadn't been fast enough. Or perhaps, I’d been too fast. Because all I’d managed to do was to disturb the damn firestarter. I licked my dry lips and dodged around another tree. When I first spotted him, crouched over what must be the ignition site, I'd recognized his face immediately. When a flash of awareness ran through me, I stupidly gasped. Of course he’d heard the sound and come after me. Now I was trying to outrun one of the area's best football players, and one of my two high school crushes. Clayton Hunter.
I cursed under my breath when the smoke around me got heavier. I’d unintentionally run toward the flames. Not the smartest move. I turned a sharp right and headed that way. I hoped it meant I was now running parallel to the fire front. I'd studied up on fire behavior since that horrific day. I knew if I stuck to what had already burned I was as safe as I could be. At least from the fire anyway.
Between the crackling of the nearby fire and the wind in my ears I couldn't hear anything else. I risked a glance over my shoulder to see if Clayton was closing in and screamed. I barely managed to stay upright as I stumbled over something on the ground, but I didn’t care. All my attention was focused on the fact a huge black jaguar was right behind me and there was no sign of Clayton.
Sucking down a lungful of smoky air, I put on a burst of speed, using all my remaining energy to get away from the wild cat. I didn’t get far before the animal’s solid body slammed against mine, his large paws on my upper back pushing me against a thick blackened tree trunk. I cried out when the heat of the recently burned wood seared my palms.
A low growl filled the air, and the heavy weight pinning me lifted. I moved away from the tree and shook out my stinging hands. Gulping a breath, I turned to face the animal. Fear had my skin prickling as I ran my gaze over the sleek creature that paced around me.
The air began to shimmer around the thing, and suddenly the cat was gone and Clayton stood in its place, fully clothed.
“What the fuck?”
Shocked into complete stillness, I didn’t move as Clayton stepped up to me. Had I been knocked out and this was a dream? Maybe I was hallucinating after inhaling so much smoke. My inner monolog was cut off when I found myself slung over his shoulder. Winded, I lay there for a moment trying to catch my breath and get my brain to function after determining I was definitely awake, and this was really happening. A man I’d crushed on for years was trying to kidnap me.
Ignoring the pain in my palms I thumped his back with clenched fists while I tried to kick at him with my feet. I didn’t care who, or what, he was. I wasn’t going to let him take me without a fight.
"Let me go!"
I made as much noise as I could, hoping a firefighter was close enough to hear me. Although it was doubtful with the roar of the fire that anyone would. He stopped short, and I glared up at him when I landed on my ass after he tossed me down roughly.
"Shut the hell up before you force me to do something I don't want to."
Ignoring his words, and the fact that he could apparently turn into a jaguar, I twisted over to run again, but when I pressed my palms on the ground pain shot up my arms. My elbows gave out and my eyes blurred. Panting, I sat back and shook out my hands again. Damn burns. The pain cleared my mind of everything but that. I wiped my eyes against my shoulders to dry them, so I could inspect my burned flesh. They didn't look too bad. I wouldn't need hospitalization, but they could certainly use some cool water and burn cream.
Clayton’s low growl had me refocusing on the larger threat to my safety. Him. "What are you going to do with me?"
His shirt pulled tight across his wide shoulders as he rested his clenched fists against his hips. The sight distracted my hormones for a moment, but I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I needed to focus. I'd never considered this man to be physically dangerous, but then again, I'd also never considered he'd light bloody fires for the heck of it. And I definitely never thought he’d be able to turn into an animal.
"I have no fucking clue, Penny. Heaven knows Marshall will have my balls if I hurt you, not that I ever would, but I can't leave you wandering around here for someone else to get their hands on you either. So, it looks like you're coming with me for the time being."
Fear had the hairs on my arms tingling. I swallowed past the lump in my throat while I carefully curled the fingers on both hands into loose fists that didn’t put pressure directly on my burns. I had to get away. I couldn’t let him take me captive.
As fast as I could, I twisted and pushed myself up using my knuckles against the ground. Gritting my teeth against the flare of pain, I took off again. I made it a whole five steps before a strong arm wrapped around my waist and hauled me back against a hard male body. The wave of arousal was sudden and intense, and left me breathless and struggling.
"Dammit, Penny. You've forced me to do this."
"Do what? I'm not making you to do anything! Let me go!"
He gripped my chin and turned my face so I looked into his blue irises. I frowned as his pupils dilated and opened my mouth to scream when a sensation like I was falling swept over me. Before any sound made it from my lips my eyelids slid closed and my brain shut down.
I hissed out a breath as another wave of arousal slammed through my body when I caught Penny’s dead weight in my arms. The moment I’d pulled her against me earlier, my dick went rock hard and hadn’t gone down since. Now with her pressed against my chest, my erection pulsed with need.
I hated that I was forced to knock her out, but as my destined mate, she was immune to my memory alteration so I really didn’t have a choice. Time was ticking by, and I had to get her far away from here as soon as possible. Last thing I needed was for the one I was hunting to find her, especially in my arms.
I glanced around quickly, scanning for the one I’d come here for. With so much smoke in the air, I hadn’t caught any unfamiliar scents yet. Then, as if he’d been waiting for me, a man covered from head to foot in black stepped free from a burned-out tree. My skin prickled when he focused on me before he tilted his face down a fraction. The balaclava he wore had cut outs for his eyes and mouth, and with my enhanced shifter vision I clearly saw his lips twist in a cruel smile as he ran his gaze over Penny.
“So pretty, and in so much trouble. Just the way you like them, huh? Lucky hunter.”
I took a deep breath, drawing his scent in deep and let it out with a growl. I stepped forward, wanting to kill the bastard for his taunting words. Then reality pushed in on my instincts, and I forced myself to stay still. Keeping Penny safe in this moment was more important than chasing down the firestarter. I was the one who’d knocked her out and made her vulnerable, so it was my responsibility to keep her safe until she could care for herself. And I knew deep down that the firestarter was testing me to see if I’d abandon her to give chase. He no doubt planned to double back and take Penny himself if I did.
My jaw ached from my clenching it by the time the firestarter had gone from my sight. But I waited until I was sure he’d left the area before I turned and began walking toward my car. Penny’s scent teased my senses, and my jag was on edge with wanting her. How the hell was I going to tell Marshall? I’d vowed to our Alpha that I would not share certain secrets, but now the firestarter had seen me with Penny, he’d come after her even more than he already was. Why did she have to start chasing firestarters? She’d unwittingly put a massive target on herself. Which I’d just made so much worse. Being seen with a hunter was not going to help her situation.
Opening the rear door, I laid her gently on the back seat before I went around and got in myself. It didn’t take long to get back to my house and being careful that no one saw me, or followed us, I carried Penny to the guest room upstairs. Unable to resist, I caressed the softness of her cheek after I laid her down on the bed. So soft. And so much more than I deserve.
Clenching my teeth I forced my body to move away from her and headed down to the garage where I had various bits and pieces. I needed to find a way to lock the door before she came around. For her own safety, she needed to stay hidden until I could deal with this firestarter.
As I drilled in the last screw of the new lock I heard her beginning to stir. Laying my tools side, I entered the room.
“Hey, Penny. How are you feeling?”
She was sitting up in the bed and rubbing her eyes, like she wasn’t quite awake yet. Slowly she lowered her hands and glared at me. Oh, she was wide awake now.
“You! How dare you take me against my will!”
I snagged her as she attempted to brush past me and leave the room.
“You need to stay here, Penny. For your own protection. You’ve got no fucking idea what you’ve start-”
She actually had the gall to cut me off. A man she knew could shift form to a jaguar. Was she insane? Born without self preservation skills?
“I didn’t start anything! I was attempting to finish it. Of course, I didn’t realize I was chasing a mythical creature with pyromaniac tendencies.”
I stilled. “Wait. You think I’m the firestarter?”
She rolled those pretty hazel eyes of hers and broke away from my hold on her.
“Don’t you dare try to deny it. I know what I saw.”
I rolled my shoulder and huffed out a breath. Should I try to convince her? How could I without divulging secrets I wasn’t allowed to share? With a sigh, I headed back to the door.
“I’ll bring you some dinner in a bit.”
“You’d better be buying something in for me. And I want it in the sealed packet it comes in.”
What? Like I’d drug her? Unable to think of a response that didn’t include either cursing at her or physically shaking her, I mutely left her in the room. Locking the door before I headed back to my car. I needed to hook up the trailer and go get Penny’s car. Apparently, I also had some shopping to do.