Pick of the Litter
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by Wendy Stone
Category: Erotica/Erotic Romance/Romance CAPA Award Nominee
Description: A night out has an unexpected ending for Marissa Spencer. Ending up on the wrong side of town, she stumbles into a bar and is attacked by ten men. When all hope seems lost, a dark stranger saves her and sweeps her away to his huge estate and into the midst of a world she'd never thought could be real. How could she have known that her savior was, in truth, a shape-shifter? Who would have thought that the gorgeous black panther with the golden torq was really the man of her dreams? She could only hope that she'd found the Pick of the Litter. Contains scenes of intense violence and sexual assault
eBook Publisher: Phaze, 2008
eBookwise Release Date: October 2008
375 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [248 KB]
Reading time: 156-218 min.
Marissa screamed, falling backwards as the big cat barreled toward her, its long claws outstretched and almost gleaming in the light. Her hands were held in front of her, little protection against the fangs and claws of the creature.
Time moved in slow motion as she tried to back away from the muscular beast. Her feet slipped on the hard wooden floor, unable to get purchase. Finally, she turned her head, not wanting to watch as her life was ripped violently from her.
Another growl sounded, this one from off to her right. Marissa opened her eyes, gasping. This cat was even bigger than the first, solid with muscle and its pelt gleaming almost blue in the light. A strange golden collar ringed its throat, flashing as it roared again, showing huge fangs. Then it, too, pounced, but instead of coming after her, it hit the other cat, knocking it off its feet and down to the ground.
The second cat stood over the first, its teeth poised at the vanquished throat for what seemed like hours but could have in reality lasted only seconds. Deliberately, he backed away, letting the other cat up. The cat snarled once, looking at Marissa with glowing, evil eyes. The bigger animal growled low in its throat, teeth bared and fangs shining. The smaller cat seemed to bow to the bigger one and then trotted from the room, its tail whipping angrily.
Marissa stared at the big black cat left in the room, watching as it looked at her a moment. Then it moved toward her, a husky rumble coming from its chest.
"No," she moaned, putting her hand up, only to feel the huge head bump against her palm, rubbing against her like a good natured tabby. It moved even closer, rolling on its back against her sock covered feet, rubbing against her legs.
She was so surprised, she couldn't move for a moment. "Good girl," she said hesitatingly, reaching out to rub at the rounded ears.
The cat grunted, giving her a look from its amber eyes that seemed disgusted. It rolled again, this time showing off definite male characteristics before coming back to its feet and standing next to her.
"Sorry," she said, slipping to her knees. "Good boy."
It seemed to be waiting for something and she finally realized that it wanted her to get up. She did, watching as the cat took a few steps and then turned to glance at her, impatience in his eyes.
"Okay, okay, I'm coming."
She followed it back up the long stairs, walking beside the huge beast. He prowled with a feline grace that was poetry to watch. He made sounds in his throat as he walked, a strange noise somewhere between a grunt and a hum. Turning into a door that was partially ajar, he pushed it open with his head, slinking through and then calling to her with that same humming grunt.
Marissa walked into an elegantly feminine bedroom. Rose colored walls contrasted against white molding and wainscoting. Soft watercolors of flowers hung upon every wall. Stylish cherry furniture, including a high four poster bed, had her eyes lighting up in delight. She turned a small circle in the room, amazed to be in it.
Her companion leapt easily to the bed, padding a circle upon the soft floral spread before lying down and eyeing her in what looked like amusement. She moved closer to the bed, hearing the rumble of his purr as she cautiously sat on the edge. "Is this my room or yours?" she asked, feeling foolish. "I wouldn't think something as magnificent as you would like a room this feminine, so I think I'll believe it's mine."
The cat rose, moving closer to her, rubbing his huge head against her shoulder carefully.
"You're a friendly one," she breathed. "Thank God." She lifted her hand, almost shrieking when the panther opened its mouth, closing it around her hand. He backed up on the bed, pulling her forward and then letting go. Marissa lifted her palm, amazed to see not even a sign of a tooth mark on her bruised skin. If it weren't for the slight drool upon the back of her hand, she wouldn't have known he'd touched her. "Next time, just tell me to lie down," she groused, wiping the drool off on the oversized sweats she wore.
She curled up on the big bed, reaching down and pulling a soft throw out from under her graceful companion. Feeling incredibly safe in the big cat's presence, she let her eyes close and exhaustion drag her deep into blackness.
* * * *
Hands grasped at her, pulling at her limbs, tearing the clothes from her body. Rank smelling men pawed at her, their faces distorted with lust, ugly and twisted with their perverted desires. Marissa screamed, fighting them off, her body struggling painfully in their grasp. A mouth closed over her nipple, teeth biting down sharply, drawing blood, bringing a shriek of pain from a throat grown closed from panic. "Please, don't! Stop!" she cried as she was passed from one set of arms to another.
Lukah rose from beside her, shaking off the sleep that had taken him while he watched over her. Her writhing and mumbles had startled him at first and he hadn't known exactly where he was. But now, he saw her in the grip of a nightmare, and knew what stalked her in her dreams. "Marissa," he called softly, not wanting to scare her worse. "Come on, sweet one." He reached out and gently touched her shoulder. "Wake up!"
She did, fighting his hand, striking out against him. He pulled her to him, holding her gently, but not letting her go. "It's me, Marissa. It's Lukah," he said over and over. "You're safe with me."
"Lukah?" She pushed back from him, looking into his face. Then she crumbled as sobs shook her shoulders, her hands coming up to cover her eyes. "Oh God," she wept. "They raped me."
He drew her gently into his lap, holding her close, his hands rubbing soothingly across her back. "It's over, sweet one," he crooned, rocking her slowly. "You're safe, you're safe."
Her sobs lessened and she lay compliantly against his chest. "Oh," she said, her head coming up to look around the room. "Did you know that..."
"I have panthers in the house?" he finished for her, smiling down at her with a gleam in his gaze. "Yeah. They won't hurt you." He slid her off his lap before she realized he was naked. "Go back to sleep, Marissa, it's still early."
She curled up against the pillows, looking for the entire world like a teenager in the over-sized clothing. Yawning, she reached out and took his hand. "How many of them are there?" she asked.
"A few, but they won't bother you. I promise."
"The big one that saved me had a collar like your necklace," she muttered sleepily, her hand reaching out to barely graze the heavy gold. "He had eyes like yours too."
Lukah held his breath as she reached out and touched his face with gentle fingers. His heart tripped in his chest as he waited for her to say more. Instead, she smiled sleepily and curled her hand under her cheek, her eyes closing.
He moved on the bed, scooting toward the edge with a grace that was fluid and lithe. Her soft sigh stopped him and he turned, stroking his hand over her cheek. "Sleep little one. When you wake, we shall talk."
She rubbed her cheek into his palm, trusting him and making his heart leap. His gaze moved over the perfection of her slim features, marred by the bruise that was forming on her cheek. She was beautiful, there was no denying that. But there was something else that stirred these deeper emotions in him, something under the damsel in distress he'd rescued. She held a core of strength that was not often found in the female of her kind.
Beauty, he thought, staring down into her face, relaxed by sleep. Creamy skin, with a slim nose and large expressive heather-colored eyes that could look into his soul. A high forehead crested with long, curly auburn hair that shone red/gold in the light. Full, soft lips that curled sweetly in her dreams. He longed to know how she would taste, how she would respond to his touch.
With a shake of his head, he stood, an impressive naked specimen. He stretched, reaching up, his hands grazing the ceiling of the room. Tearing his eyes from her, he left the room with a measured tread, closing the door quietly behind him.
"Well, cousin," he heard the feminine purr, turning his head to glare at the woman standing behind him.
"What do you want, Lucinda?" he asked softly, though his impatience was clearly evident in his voice.
"I can't just want to talk to my favorite cousin?" she asked silkily, stalking towards him with the inherent grace of their kind. Her black hair was a loose cloud around her oval shaped face. The amber of her eyes glowed as she looked over him, purring to let him know she was enjoying what she saw.
"You've never wanted to just 'talk' before, Cin," he sighed. "I can't believe you'd want to start now."
Her hand came up, resting against his bare chest. She moved close enough that he could feel the heat of her body through the leather pants and silk shirt she was wearing, her unfettered breasts brushing against his arm. "Well," she sighed, stroking his hard chest, "perhaps I wish more than just to talk." She chuckled huskily, sounding almost like the humming grunt of the big black cat. "Just talking was never enough for you before."
"Cin," Lukah began, moving her hand off of him. "Not now."
Lukah cringed at the sound of her voice, knowing by the anger he could hear that she would be hell to be around unless he could satisfy her in some way. "I'm tired and hungry, Cin. I need a run and something to eat. Until then, go find one of the others to sate your lusts with."
"You wish for me to go to someone else?" she asked, her voice full of disbelief.
"Yes, go find Ajax or Dimitri. Either would be more than happy to scratch your itch for you, Cin."
Lucinda stared at him for a moment in disbelief. Then anger flared, flaming in the molten gold of her eyes. She stamped her heeled clad foot heavily into the carpet, a screech of rage coming from between her lips. "You turn me away? How dare you? Do you know who you are insulting with your words?"
Lukah felt his own anger stir, the rage that had taken him last night still needing a worthy outlet. He felt his jaw shift, his teeth lengthen as that rage triggered the change inside of him and fought it. He couldn't change now. Shaking his head, his long black hair sliding silkily over his shoulders, he pushed back the desperate urge. "Cin, if you know what is good for you, you will leave now. Go find the others, tell them I have a guest here, a human guest."
"Now you make me into a messenger?" she growled, her own teeth lengthening. "I do not do your bidding unless it is my wish to. Do you forget who my father is?"
"Do you forget who made it possible for you to come here? Do as I say, Lucinda. Else you will force me into actions I do not wish to take." He narrowed his eyes, a headache pounding behind them from dealing with the spoiled and selfish cat.
She narrowed her own. "You'll be sorry," she said softly, before spinning, her hair slapping him in the face as she swung around.
Lukah watched as she strode away, anger in every twitch of her hips. Sighing heavily he turned toward his bedroom once more.
* * * *
When she woke, Marissa was alone. She stretched, wincing as the pain in her legs and her sex made her remember what had happened the night before. She sighed, a frown causing her brow to furl.
Her eyes closed and she could see his face again, ugly, snarling, contorted by lust as he moved above her, fucking her with angry hurtful thrusts.
"No!" she whispered forcefully, opening her eyes and concentrating on one of the beautiful pieces of art on the rose-colored walls. "I won't let them do this to me. I won't!" she ground out between clenched teeth. "I'm stronger than that."
She forced herself up, walking stiffly toward the window and pulling back the heavy floral draperies. "Oh!"
Her room faced the back of the lush estate, rolling hills and wooded lands spreading as far as she could see. A small lake lay close to the edge of the woods, geese floating upon its glass-like surface. It was an idyllic scene. She could even see a small field full of daisies, butterflies and bees flitting over the blooms.
From the edge of the woods a single large black cat came loping out, his ground-eating pace bringing him ever closer to the house. A shaft of sunlight fell upon his satiny black hide, causing the gold around his throat to gleam. It was the same cat that had brought her to this room, the one that had saved her from the smaller panther.
He moved with the grace of his species, his huge paws easily covering the ground until he disappeared below her, coming into the house. Marissa turned, moving away from the window, going to the hallway door and slowly opening it.
The hall was empty. She couldn't hear a sound, nothing that would tell her if anyone was near. She stepped into the hall, her feet sinking into the thick carpet. Trailing her fingers over the chair rail, she moved toward the stairs, her stomach growling. She was almost to the bottom when Lukah stepped out from the kitchen, a towel wrapped around his waist, his chest glistening with drops of water. His hair lay down his back in thick wet waves of inky black, slicked back from his strong face.
"Oh!" she squeaked, her hand going to her chest. "You scared me." She tried to smile up at him, but her eyes kept drifting down.
"It wasn't my intention to scare you, Marissa. I'm sorry," he said. He dipped his head, but she still saw the smile he tried to hide.
"Yeah, that's why you're smiling," she kidded, smiling herself. "I saw one of your pets coming out of the woods."
"Really?" he said, dropping his eyes.
"Yes, I think it was the big male that saved me. It's so strange, though. I thought he'd have come inside, instead I find you. And your necklace..." she let her voice die off, hand rising to touch the golden torc that surrounded his throat. Her eyes narrowed and she ran her hand over the designs intricately woven in the golden threads. "It's identical."
"I liked his so much, I had one made for myself," Lukah said quickly, looking down at her hand where it rested against his skin.
"It's beautiful, so wild and magical looking," she murmured before turning her eyes up to him and dropping her hand. His skin had been hot, damp from his shower, so masculine and alive against her palm. "Uh, I was thinking that I-I should call a cab and get home."
"You wish to leave?" he asked, surprise coloring his voice.
"Well, I can't stay forever," she said, cursing her fair skin that blushed so easily. "You've been a wonderful host, Lukah, not to mention the fact that you saved me from a fate worse than death last night. But it's time I went home."
"Yes, I understand," he said, bowing his head and taking a step back from her. "You have your own life to get back to. I never asked if there was anyone--boyfriend or ... or even a girlfriend that you might wish to get home to."
"No, no Lukah," she said quickly, holding out her hand to him. "There is no one, it's just ... well you've done so much and I can never repay you..."
"Yes, you can."
Surprise showed on her face. "I can?"
"Yes," he said, taking her hand and holding it in his own. "Go to dinner with me."
"Dinner? That doesn't seem like a way to repay someone for saving their life."
"It is what I want." He stubbornly kept her hand in his, lifting her chin with his other hand. "One dinner date and the slate is wiped clean."
Her hand felt so tiny against his, his skin so warm around her. Warm and safe, she thought, knowing that she was when she was with him. She wanted to spend more time with him, she wanted to learn more about her mysterious savior. So why was she arguing with him? "Okay."
"Yes?" he asked, a smile hovering about his lips.
"Yes," she agreed, blushing more when he raised her hand to his lips, brushing a soft kiss against her knuckles before turning her hand over to rest his cheek in her palm.
"You have made me very happy, Marissa."
The couple jerked apart, Marissa pulling her hand away from Lukah's face as the stranger moved into the room. He was an older man, strongly built,who looked a bit like Lukah, though his hair was cut short and he was nowhere close to being as tall. What he didn't have in height, though, he more than made up for in presence. He seemed larger than life, standing and staring at them, disapproval written upon his swarthy features.
"Excuse me for a moment, Marissa."
She nodded, watching as he moved away from her with the same feline grace she'd noted in the huge panther. His bare feet made little sound as he walked toward the older man. His legs were long, parting the sides of the towel he wore around his lean hips. She could barely take her eyes from the picture of masculine perfection he created.
The two men began to speak and, again, Marissa was left surprised. Their words sounded Greek, but she couldn't be sure. She was no expert on languages. It was a heated exchange, ending with Lukah growling low in his throat and speaking softly to the man. The man bowed his head, though his anger was still apparent and the look he gave Marissa was one that was full of contempt.
"Is something wrong?" she asked Lukah when he came back to her side.
"No. My Uncle just isn't happy that I brought you here. This is my home, Marissa. I wish you to be here and that should be good enough for him. But he was brought up with the old ways and can't adjust to life here in America. I should send him home, he'd be happier there, but he is the only one who can control Lucinda without wanting to kill her." He trailed off, shaking himself. "I'm sorry. I was spouting my problems aloud. Now, allow me time to dress and I shall drive you home."
"I need to get my purse," she said.
"I'll bring it down," he offered, brushing a kiss against the softness of her cheek and starting up the stairs. "Make yourself at home, Marissa. I'll be right back."
He was as good as his word, dressing and hurrying back down the stairs in ten minutes, her purse in his big hands. "Here," he said, holding it out to her.
"Thank you," she said, feeling suddenly shy. Then she yelped as he scooped her in his arms, hurriedly wrapping hers around his neck as he strode into the kitchen. "What are you doing?"
"You have no shoes."
"Oh." She laughed, she couldn't help it. "Next time, warn me before you do the scoop and go."
He hugged her close, chuckling himself. "I didn't mean to scare you, Marissa. I just thought to keep your feet clean in the garage."
Marissa stared down at the spotless floor covered in tile that could grace any kitchen or bathroom. It sparkled in the dim light coming through the windows. "Uh, sure, I can see how you could think that," she said sarcastically, making him laugh.
He took her in the same car he brought her to his house in the night before, carefully setting her down on the soft seat before sliding in the other side and hitting the button for the garage. "Where are we heading?" he asked.
Marissa looked over at him, so at ease behind the wheel of the beautiful black car. He was dressed again in black, jeans, short sleeved tee-shirt, and the same boots as the previous night. He'd pulled his hair back so that the sides were held with a gold clip. He was gorgeous, brain-numbingly gorgeous.
"Oh, uh sorry." She gave him her address, watching the ease with which he handled the sports car and the manual transmission. They backed out of the garage and into the driveway, turning so that they were heading down the drive.
Lukah suddenly stepped on the brake, throwing her against her seatbelt. "What?"
"Lucinda," he said angrily, staring out of the windshield at the woman who stood in front of the car.
Tall, with cascading black hair and eyes that was nearly gold, she had an exotic beauty that was captivating, though the scowl on her face ruined it somewhat. A stunning figure was encased in leather that hugged every amazing curve, from her firm, high breasts to the luscious sway of her hips, down to the slender thighs and slim calves. She exuded sensuality in steamy waves of heat that even Marissa could feel.
"This is Lucinda?"
"Yes," he said, narrowing his eyes at the irate vixen. "She is up to something."
Marissa glanced down at the wrinkled sweats she wore, then self-consciously ran her hands over her tangled red curls. She could feel the angry bruise on her cheek and wished for her makeup bag and toothpaste. But even if she was at her best, there was no way she could compete with the pure sexual heat that Lucinda gave off. It was depressing.
Lukah hit the horn, hearing Lucinda's laughter at his impatience. She blew him a kiss, slinking from out in front of his car in her own sweet time until he could finally pull around her. "She needs to be taken in hand. She grows more wild than even her father can handle."
"Taken in hand?" Marissa asked, not sure she liked how that sounded.
"Lucinda has been promised already, but she has made it clear she is not happy with the match. Her father would lose face in our clan if he doesn't force her to submit to the coupling. I don't agree with the old ways, Marissa. But it is what we have known and one reason that I left my homeland and came here. I wanted the freedom to find my own life and my own mate. Not one someone else picked out for me."
"Arranged marriages? Didn't those go out of style about the same time as crinolines?"
"Maybe here, in this land where you have so many freedoms. But where I grew up, we live by the old ways. Parents find and make the match. You are happy with what they find for you because it is in your best interest. I have seen three of my lit ... brothers and sisters sent off with mates that they barely knew. I would rather remain single than live a life arranged for me." He spoke with passion, even as he drove with care through the busy Sunday afternoon traffic.
"I hope you don't mind me asking, but where did you grow up?"
He smiled, taking his hand off the gear shift and picking up the hand that lay in her lap. Bringing it to his lips, he nuzzled her palm for a moment. "Of course I don't mind you asking. I want you to know me, Marissa. I feel ... something here for you." He placed her hand against his heart.
Marissa thought her heart would beat out of her chest, it knocked so loudly. Her eyes traveled over his face as he spoke. "But..."
"We've known each other less than twenty-four hours, and most of that has been spent ... well we both know how it has been spent."
"Yes," she said. "But..."
"But I couldn't possibly feel anything for you. I know. I've been trying to tell myself that all morning." He gave her a wry smile. "I don't listen to myself very well."
"You don't listen to me very well either," she said, giving him a narrow-eyed glare.
Lukah chuckled. "I'm sorry, Marissa, it's just that I don't think I want to hear what you might want to say."
"If you'd shut up for a moment, maybe I could get it out." She laughed as he closed his mouth, miming locking it and throwing the key to her. "Okay, that's better. Now where to start..."
"Hush," she interrupted, grinning as he tried to look ashamed and failed miserably.
"I-I don't know for sure how I feel, Lukah. You saved me from those men, whisked me away to a fairytale kind of house, cared for me, protected me and now you're charming me. I like being with you. I could never be like Lucinda. She's ... gorgeous," Marissa sighed.
"You're gorgeous," he said quickly, before once more closing his mouth.
"I'm not looking for compliments," she said, squeezing his hand. "But thank you." She looked out the window as he pulled up in front of her apartment building, a huge tower that rose some fifty floors above street level, wide terraced balconies giving the building a zippered look. "Maybe we could discuss this more over dinner?"
"Tonight?" he asked eagerly, turning to face her as he turned off the engine.
Marissa grimaced at the thought of dressing up and wearing heels with the pain she was already in. "It's Sunday, I have to work tomorrow."
"You want to wait until Friday?" he asked, his face falling in disappointment.
Marissa couldn't prevent the smile that touched her lips. "Would you mind?"
"Very much so," he said vehemently, "but I will do so for you." He opened his door, hurrying around the car to open hers and help her out. When he stooped to lift her in his arms, she stopped him, looking around the parking lot to see if anyone had noticed. "Its okay, Lukah. I can walk." She pulled her keys out of her purse, thankful that she hadn't lost either during the attack. "I'll see you Friday?"
"Yes," he said softly, bending to plant a soft kiss to her cheek. "I'll see you Friday, Marissa."