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Matteo D’Cruz recognized the scent of his old friend Cristiano Salazar in the humid Brazilian Amazon. Even so, territorial invasion raised hackles across his shoulders, and he drove his claws into the bark beneath him. The sensitive lining of his nose told him Cristiano escorted two other jaguar shifters — one an impossibility — a female.
A harsh male scent polluted her essence. Mated. Adrenalin surged Matteo's heart into a gallop. The possessive warning didn’t temper her allure as a mate’s mark should. His lack of control triggered alarms in his head, but he ignored them. Base cat instinct overruled his long-lost sense of propriety.
Matteo strained to hear her above the never-ending insect symphony. She was close. A hundred meters, or so. Mated or not, she traveled his territory, and he would have her.
God forgive me.
Driven by ages-old instinct, Matteo barked a series of courting roars into the canopy’s understory. He waited a breathless beat. No response. Rocketing from tree to tree, ignoring the branches slapping his muzzle, he raced toward the queen. Flat-out shifter speed wasn’t fast enough. Monkeys screeched a warning to the entire jungle and scampered from his path. After an agonizing half-minute, human conversation reached his keen ears, slowing his pace.
“Jaime, keep Kelsi close. Matteo’s near."
Odd. Cristiano spoke English rather than Portuguese.
A metered growl came from the unknown male. “Papai, your friend flirts with disaster.”
“You two act like he’s dangerous. Maybe we shouldn’t invite him to the wedding.”
Odder still, the queen’s Yankee English was likely her native tongue.
The sound of her voice assured Matteo he hadn’t entirely lost his mind. For an instant, he’d suspected his overlong solitude had sparked a hallucination. The soft compost layer of the jungle floor muffled her nearing footsteps.
Compelled to lay eyes on the female, he used a lifetime of hunting experience to glide through the leaf-covered branches. He aimed for a lone rubber tree where his auburn rosettes and tawny hide would fade into the two-tone ochre bark. Careful not to disturb the foliage, he peered down between green leaves.
“He’s Papai’s oldest friend and I suspect—very lethal.” Jaime added the last with a warning tone, scanning overhead with a predator’s eyes.
The younger shifter had Cristiano’s features and jet hair. If not for the scar from his ear to his jawline, and Cristiano’s gray streaks, Matteo might have mistaken the two. The graying version of his friend restrained the young doppelganger by the arm.
In a protective motion, Jaime pulled an attractive, fair-skinned girl to him and stepped in front of her. Matteo indulged in a draught of the queen’s floral scent and then snorted against the male’s distasteful mark.
Jaime’s her mate! Somehow, an unknown line had produced a female. A tsunami of aggression, a primal drive Matteo had never experienced, overtook the last of his will.
The glands at the base of his whiskers throbbed, demanding release. He had no doubt he could best the younger shifter. After he won the challenge, he’d smother the queen with his scent, eradicating all trace of the cub from her body.
Meu Dios! Furious with his friend for testing him so, Matteo snarled at his murderous jaguar thoughts. He didn’t even know this Kelsi, yet he couldn’t dredge up the will to turn away from the queen.
Cristiano’s attempts to entice Matteo back into society had dwindled over the years. This time, however, he had gambled poorly. Too many seasons in cat form.
Helpless against nature’s gale force, Matteo prayed Cristiano could save his son. He stepped from cover, and fixing a predatory glare on Jaime, he roared a challenge. Even the insects fell silent.
The big male strode forward with a dark glower.
Cristiano looked up at Matteo, his mouth a firm line. “Come to us. Now.”
Matteo dropped from the three-story-high branch and sailed effortlessly to the jungle floor, landing in a crouch. With eyes locked on his adversary, he stalked low to the ground, set on attack.
Dark light shimmered across Jaime’s exposed skin, signaling his impending shift. Scowling at Matteo, he tossed his shirt and pants next to a clump of ferns. “You’ll never have her.”
Cristiano, face drawn tight with rage, hurtled to block Matteo from his prey. “You’d challenge your own godson for his mate? Kill my son? Shift now, or die as feral.”
Matteo snarled in anguish, praying Cristiano could make good on his threat.
Kelsi’s green gaze darted from him to Jaime. She lunged at Cristiano to tug at his arm. “Just leave him.”
He pushed her back, keeping his focus on Matteo. “Not possible. If his humanity’s lost, he could mate with a natural jaguar.”
"As in sire a litter?" The female grimaced in plain disgust, turning an appalled expression on him. “This is who you thought my sister should meet?”
“A selfish misjudgment. I wanted my best friend at my son’s wedding.” Cristiano’s amber eyes shone with tears. “Instead, I’m his executioner.”
Sister! Where had the females come from? The last known living queen was Cristiano’s mate, Maria. The thought of females in the world overpowered any concern Matteo had for his own life.
“Kelsi, you know genetic diversity is crucial.” Though Jaime spoke quietly in her ear, Matteo’s sensitive hearing picked up his words as though he’d spoken aloud.
“No.” She turned tear-filled eyes to her mate. “Invite someone else, please.”
Pinning his ears back, Matteo snarled in misery and lowered to his belly. He wanted to shift, to stifle his cat, and turn from killing the men before him—his only family. Matteo’s life meant nothing. If he killed Cristiano and Jaime to steal a mated female, his life would mean even less.