Leopard's Fury(7)

By: Christine Feehan


“The boss won’t like this,” one said, but he took a step back.

“You let me worry about that. This shop is mine to take care of. He has a problem with that, I’ll settle it myself.”

She was fairly certain he was talking about the mafia. Was he involved? The men shaking her down knew him by name, but they appeared to be afraid of him. She didn’t want him in trouble with a mafia boss.

“I’ve got the money,” she reiterated, trying to reach around him to hand the envelope to the two men.

Both men nearly fell backward, stumbling away from her hand. Her Iceman caught her wrist with a gentleness that shocked her and brought her hand down to his thigh. Alonzo didn’t look at her, but continued staring at the two men who turned and walked very briskly away.

“If I don’ pay, they’ll ruin my business,” she said, taking a step around him toward the door.

“They won’t.” He tugged on her hand and led her back to the counter. “In the six months I’ve been coming here, your male customers have quadrupled and they hit on you continually. You never date. Why?”

It was the last thing Evangeline expected him to ask. She still clutched the envelope in her hand, holding it tight against his rock-hard thigh. “Why do you ask?”

“A woman like you has no business being alone.”

“Like me?” She echoed it, trying to figure out where he was going with his questions and that statement that she found alternatingly annoying and alarming. Did he know she was leopard? Just what did “like you” mean?

Subtly she twisted her hand, expecting him to release her. She couldn’t keep her palm pressed against the heat of his thigh with his muscles moving deliciously beneath it and not react. Heat spread through her like molten lava, a slow fire building in her veins and pooling low.

He didn’t release her hand. He didn’t even seem to notice her small movement of retreat, but she knew he had. He noticed everything. His gaze remained on her face. All ice. So cold she thought she might freeze. There was no hint of his leopard. There never was. She could almost forget he was a shifter, but she could never forget the danger that clung to him like a second skin.

“Yes, Evangeline, like you. I’ve never seen a more beautiful woman in my life. This isn’t a bad part of town, but it’s near enough. You come here at three in the morning and work alone until you close. You need a man.”

He wasn’t volunteering, that was for certain. But he’d said she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. That was something. Of course he’d said it in his cold, devoid-of-all-feeling voice, but he had at least thought it to say it. Again, even though there was no emotion in his voice, she still felt that little bite, as if he were annoyed beyond all endurance that she was single.

She lifted her chin at him. “Some women prefer to be single.”

He was silent, studying her face. Slowly he shook his head. “Some women shouldn’t ever be single.” He let go of her hand. “They won’t come back. They know they will answer to me if they do.”

She dared to lay her hand on his arm as he turned away from her. “Alonzo, I don’ mind payin’ the money. I don’ want you to get in trouble with anyone. Those men made it sound like someone was goin’ to be upset with you for interferin’. I’d rather pay the money than have you get into trouble.”

He halted and looked down at her hand. Her fingers didn’t even curl halfway around his forearm. As a deterrent her hand seemed rather absurd to try to stop him. Still, he remained there, towering over her. “Don’t worry about me, Evangeline.”

“I think when you said if there was a problem, you’d take care of it yourself, you meant you’d pay the money. I’m not going to let you do that.”

He removed her hand very gently and stepped away, toward the door. “You don’t really have a choice one way or the other.” He walked out like he always did—without looking back.

Evangeline waited for him for the next two weeks. She had the envelope filled with cash waiting for him or for the two men who came to collect each week. Neither showed up and that worried her. Had something happened to him because he’d stood up for her? There was no way to get in touch with him. She didn’t know his last name or where he worked.

The other customers, the ones in their suits that she was certain Alonzo had sent, suddenly stopped coming in as well. She’d heard on the news that Antonio Arnotto, famous for his wines, had been murdered. It was rumored he was actually a crime boss, and his territory was wide open for takeover. Speculation of a war began with various faces being flashed on the television screen. She watched carefully, but none of those faces belonged to Alonzo.