Alligences will be tested. Love will be pushed to the edge. And the line that seperates human from animal will be blurred.
Mattie Wells stared up at the magnificent structure in breathless silence. It was all worth it. A huge smile grew on her lips. After years of intense research and weeks of searching, they’d found it, the illusive temple hugged protectively by the lush, untamed mountain behind it.
The enormous pale stone pyramid rose up out of the moist emerald earth. Eight layers of gigantic, hand-chiseled stone, each a bit smaller than the one before, stacked on top of the next to create the giant structure. A steep staircase climbed up the front. Four ferocious stone jaguars guarded the temple crouched and snarling and looking as though they might come to life at any minute and attack any intruders. Two guarded the staircase at the bottom of the pyramid while the other two flanked the top on either side of the pavilion’s entrance.
A tingle ran down Mattie’s spine as she thought of the infamous king the fierce jaguar statues protected inside. Were the legends really true? Would their presence and intrusion upon the temple trigger the reign of death and destruction upon them? Did fierce, inhuman creatures loyally guard The Jade Jaguar?
Brightly feathered parrots cawed high up in the thick canopy breaking through her thoughts. Monkeys shrieked and howled as they scampered up slender vines and twisting branches. The massive pyramid looked as though it would be swallowed up by the mountain it sat at the base of, hiding it forever. Surveying its weathered, yet untouched condition, Mattie guessed that the forest’s inhabitants were the only ones to precede them in discovering the beautiful temple.
Tucking a sweaty, graying strand of hair behind one ear she grinned over at her fellow archeologist, Walter Hunt. Her excitement peaked at the realization of finding the temple that so many had searched for since the Olmecs had built it thousands of years before. Yet a flicker of fear flamed inside her. She couldn’t help but wonder on the frightening tales that surrounded this temple.
But her sense of adventure soon squelched her fear. They’d found it! They would be the ones who would unveil the secrets it cached possessively inside its hidden rock caverns. At last they could uncover the secrets of The Jade Jaguar, famed leader of the mysterious hybrid jaguar-people.
The sputtering sound of her car as it attempted to suck up the last few drops of gas made Kara Nichol's heart mimic the rhythm. Why had she put off filling her gas tank until it was too late? The neighborhood where she'd become stranded was dark and void of life. She gathered up her purse and heaved a sigh as she stepped out of her Nissan Murano into the darkness.
Fear was a crippling emotion, and one that Kara didn’t like to share company with, but being stranded in the heart of Denver on an unfamiliar street with meager lighting and endless hiding places for criminals was a recipe that would make any lone woman scared out of her mind.
An only child, she craved the warmth and life-giving association of people. Sure she needed time alone like everyone else, but never did those times include a dark street, suspicious shadows and startling sounds. In fact, if she were to make a list of the top ten places she wouldn’t want to be alone in, an abandoned neighborhood after dark would be in the top five. Maybe the top two.
And yet here she was, clenching the shoulder strap of her leather handbag with two white-knuckled fists as she speed-walked in four-inch designer heels through the dark side-streets that would, at some point, intersect with her apartment. A dog yelped nearby and she jumped, teetering on her unsteady stilettos and whipping her head around to try and find the perpetrator of the unnerving sound. But the long shadows of the houses blocked her view of anything beyond the grass around the sidewalk where an occasional lamp post flickered weakly nearby.
Swallowing hard and gathering her nerves, she plunged on down the uneven slabs of sidewalk forcing herself not to break into an all-out sprint, though it wasn’t an option in these heels even if she’d been inclined to do so. Had she known she would have ended up being over-generous in her estimation of her gas tank and its contents she would have worn more comfortable shoes and carried a flashlight.
Headlights from a car behind her brightened the street in front of her. Ignoring its presence, she continued on without turning her head. Only when the unsteady rumble of an older engine grumbled close behind her did she cast an anxious glance over her shoulder at the oncoming vehicle. The rust-eaten pick-up truck, in an unidentifiable fading color, swerved over to the side of the road towards where she stood coming dangerously close. As its front wheels plowed over the strip of yellowing grass separating the sidewalk from the street Kara gasped and stumbled back onto the lawn behind her, eyes wide.
The truck stopped just a few feet in front of her in a haphazard parking job covering the sidewalk, grass, and road. Her heart wrenched out painful frantic beats inside her chest. She frowned and eyed the corroding paint job. The truck looked vaguely familiar. Not caring enough to find out why, Kara clutched her purse, turned and began an ungraceful sprint away from the truck.
It was the shout of her name that brought her to a halt. It was more of a slurred holler, but he had known her name and that surprised her enough to stop her retreat. Watching as he stumbled over the curb, advancing toward her with less grace than she had displayed running in high heels, the man called her name again.
Racking her brain trying to attach a name to the voice, Kara came to a heart-stopping conclusion.
“Sam?” She spoke his name with trepidation and the urgent hope that she was mistaken.
His shaky laugh crushed that hope. Nope, she wasn’t mistaken.
Swallowing hard, she asked, “What are you doing here?”
Time to run again. She took several slow, measured steps backwards keeping her eyes glued on the advancing figure. “Why?” Already knowing what his answer would be, she wasn’t sure why she asked the question.
His laugh was humorless, colored with bitter rejection. “Why?” he repeated. “Why? Because you won’t answer any of my phone calls. You won’t return my messages, you won’t even answer the door when I come over.”
Kara swallowed the fear clawing up her throat. This was why she never wanted to be caught alone in a dark alley. “I’ve been busy.” It wasn’t the whole truth. Sure her job kept her busy, but she’d been avoiding Sam – and for good reasons.
He let out a snort. “No you haven’t. You’ve been avoiding me.”
Knowing this confrontation was inevitable, she gathered her nerves and took a deep breath. “Look, we’ve been through this. We’re done Sam. It's time to move on.”
He was only a handful of steps away now. The high beams of his truck’s headlights illuminated his back and cast long, intimidating shadows across his face. “Do you think I’d let you get away that easy?” he growled in a low, threatening voice. She took a step back, her eyes never leaving him. He took a larger step forward. “I won’t let you get away again.”
Her eyes flickered to the other side of the street searching for someone who might be able to assist her. There was no one.
They were alone.
“Look. Why don’t we just talk about this later?” she said trying to sound civil instead of panicked. “I’ve had a long day at work and I’d really like to just get home and rest.”
In two quick strides he grabbed her arm in a vice grip, his face contorted with fury. “Talk about this later?” he shouted. “I’ve been trying to talk to you for the last three weeks!”
Kara winced as his painful grip on her arm increased. His breath was hot and the stench made her stomach roll. Making a face she asked, “Have you been drinking?”
“What of it?” He snapped.
“Since when do you drink?”
“Since you dumped me!” Sam spat the words just inches from her face spit flickering onto her cheeks.
Kara turned her face away and grimaced at the smell and moisture of his words. “I’m sorry Sam, but we weren’t good for each other.”
“Liar!” His handsome face was twisted with anger. “We were perfect for each other!”
Refusing to be threatened into returning to a bad relationship, Kara shook her head. “No, we weren’t.”
Wrenching her arm, he pulled her into his iron embrace. “You were perfect for me,” he hissed. The intonation of his voice dangerous and threatening.
Her face twisted as spikes of pain shot up her arm from where he still held her in his unrelenting grip. “Please let go. You’re hurting me!”
“Good! Consider it payback!”
“I didn’t mean to hurt you Sam,” she pleaded, trying to pull her arms free. “But I needed a break.”
His eyes reflected the anger and betrayal bottled up inside him. “Fine. You’ve had your break, now why don’t you get in my truck and we’ll talk this over at my place and pick up where we left off.”
“No.” She didn’t even need a second to think it over. “We’re through. You need to move on.”
Seething, he released his vice-like hold on her and shoved her back. Twisting her ankle as it teetered off the sidewalk and hit the soft grass, she fell backwards in an ungraceful heap. Sam took a menacing step towards her, his eyes flashing with anger. Propping herself up with her hands, Kara scooted away from him and farther onto the yellowing grass of someone’s unkempt lawn.
He closed the distance between them. Her heart ached from its near fatal pounding in her chest. She had no idea what he would do. He was furious with her and the alcohol hadn’t done anything but fuel and twist that rage to a frightening level.
Just then a shadow crossed in front of the headlights causing Sam to turn away, distracted. Taking advantage of that distraction, Kara scrambled to her feet, kicked off her heels and began running down the sidewalk away from Sam. She heard him shout her name, but kept racing down the cement. Pain shot through her twisted ankle as she attempted a limping sprint. Wincing, she tried to ignore the pain as a sharp pebble pressed against the soft pad of her foot.
Shouts came from behind her and she glanced over her shoulder, wondering if Sam was closing in, but his anger had turned on the shadow that had distracted him. She could see both shadows in the headlights now. The second one was a few inches taller than Sam and broader in the shoulders and chest. It was difficult to tell what was being said but it was clear they were arguing.
Slowing to a halt, Kara frowned. Did they know each other? She jumped as Sam swung a fist at the stranger. Confusion and curiosity pulled her toward the conflict several steps. She strained to hear what they were arguing about. The words ‘punk’, ‘hurt a woman’ and ‘not your business’ floated on the warm night air. She frowned and stepped closer trying to hear them better.
Sam’s head swung around and he pinned his fiery gaze on her. He turned but didn’t make it a full step towards her before the stranger’s hand grabbed his arm.
“Leave her alone.” The broad shouldered man had a deep, authoritative timbre to his voice that made even Kara pause.
But Sam wasn’t about to leave her alone. Turning, he swung a punch at the stranger’s face meeting air when the shadow dodged it. Kara flinched as the two engaged each other, dodging and throwing punches. It was easy to make out which shadow belonged to whom – Sam was the one swinging wild fists and taking several hits. The stranger seemed to know what he was doing though Sam managed to land a couple hard blows.
Seeming to have had enough, the stranger grabbed Sam and put him in a head lock. He muttered several things which Kara couldn’t understand. Sam must have because he choked out ‘okay!’ Released, Sam staggered to his feet and with a final hateful stare in her direction, stumbled over to his still-running sorry excuse for a truck and lumbered inside the cab.
Kara swallowed hard, her heart beat slowing a bit as she watched Sam peel out and race around the corner, disappearing from sight. With that threat gone, she turned towards the broad shouldered figure facing her.
“You okay?” The man called to her. They stood several yards apart on someone's dark lawn.
She nodded and then realized he hadn’t seen her nod, given the horrible lack of lighting on the dark street. “Um, yeah.”
The man reached down and picked something up off the ground. Straightening, he began sauntering towards her.
“These yours?” He held the objects in his hands up.
He continued walking towards her and though deep inside her she knew she should probably turn and run, she didn’t feel the same fear crippling her as she had when Sam had descended upon her. Perhaps, she reasoned, it was because this man had just defended her.
As he grew nearer, she began to make out his features beyond just a shadow. His hair was dark. His face boasted high cheek bones, a square jaw and a hint of a cleft in his chin. His shoulders were indeed broad and his physique impressive.
Holding up her stilettos, a smile pulling at the corner of his enticing mouth, he said, “I’m guessing these are yours?” He glanced down at her bare feet. “Or do you usually go running at night in bare feet?”
Annoyed at his teasing tone, Kara closed the few feet between them and snatched the shoes from his outstretched hand. “Yes, they’re mine. Thank you,” she said. “And no, I don’t usually go running around in bare feet. In fact I never do and especially not alone at night.”
“Smart girl.” He raised a dark eyebrow. “So how did you get out here then?”
Putting the uncomfortable but beautiful designer heels on the ground and slipping her sore feet into them, Kara winced and replied, “My car ran out of gas and I had no one to call. So I decided I’d walk the last blocks to my apartment.”
The attractive stranger nodded. “How much farther is your apartment?”
Instead of answering, Kara’s attention was drawn to a dark liquid staining one side of his mouth and chin. “Are you bleeding?” She exclaimed.
Reaching up, he swiped at the blood and inspected it. “Looks like it.”
Without thinking, she stepped closer and reached towards his cut lip. “He hit you?”
“Well I didn’t run into his fist, if that’s what you’re implying.”
She glared at his sarcasm and dropped her hand.
“So are you gonna answer my question?” he asked.
She blinked. “What question?”
“How much farther is your apartment?”
“Oh.” Looking over her shoulder, she shrugged. “I don’t know. A couple more blocks and then across the highway.”
“Come on,” he took her elbow and turned her around. “I’ll walk you home.”
She planted her designer-clad feet. “How do I know you’re not some psycho that wants to…” she couldn’t finish it. Her mind tended to shoot straight to worst-case scenarios, the curse of an over-active imagination.
“I guess you don’t.” He stopped beside her.
“Do you just want to find out where I live?” She pressed.
He let out a tired sigh. “Look, if you want to walk home alone then fine. But know that I offered to escort you.” He turned and took a step away from the direction she was pointed.
“What were you doing out here, anyway?” Kara asked, spinning around to face him.
“I run out this way a couple of times a week. It’s secluded and there’s little traffic.”
Her eyes fell to his clothes – running shoes, basketball shorts, and a sweaty t-shirt. She couldn’t imagine anyone enjoying running around by themselves after dark. “At night?”
He shrugged. “That’s the only time I can.”
“Do you have a record?”
He grinned and it made her insides flutter. “You mean a criminal record?”
Kara narrowed her eyes, annoyed at his attitude and her reaction to him. “Yes.”
She shifted as he moved closer, his dark green eyes locked on her. Pausing just a foot away from her, he said, “No. I don’t have a criminal record. But if you want, I could find out if your boyfriend does.”
Kara refused to believe, the reason her heartbeat had increased was because of this handsome stranger’s proximity. Instead, she cleared her throat. “Ex-boyfriend,” she clarified. “And how exactly could you find that out?”
“I’m a private investigator. I can find all sorts of things out about anyone, anywhere – names, phone numbers, criminal history. You name it, I can probably find it.”
Her eyebrow arched with skepticism.
“Who do you work for?” she challenged still wanting to verify his character.
“My dad and I run our own firm, Hunt Investigating.”
Ignoring the annoying thumping of her heart she couldn’t help but let her eyes wander to his bloody lips. “So your last name is Hunt?” She pulled her chocolate brown eyes up from his disconcerting yet attractive mouth.
He grinned, causing warmth to fill her body. “Yeah.”
“Do you have a first name?”
“Do you?” He countered, his smile growing.
“I asked you first.”
He tipped his head in acknowledgment. “Christian Hunt.” He stuck out his hand and waited while she glanced at it.
She placed her hand in his, finding his grasp warm and strong. “Kara Nichols.”
The amused look in his eyes told her he found her lack of trust in him entertaining and it irritated her. Pulling her hand from his grasp, she glared at him, her eyes falling again to his bloody lip.
“You keep staring at my mouth,” he noted aloud his amusement increasing. “Is it because blood makes you squeamish, or because you’re hoping I’ll kiss you.”
Kara’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “I can’t believe you just said that!” Her current discomfort increased ten fold at his mention of kissing her. “I have no problems with blood,” she informed him and turned on her heel so fast she almost toppled over.
“So you want me to kiss you, huh?” He laughed when she almost met the pavement.
Glaring at him over her shoulder as she began to stalk away, she said, “I wouldn’t dream of kissing you, you’re bleeding all over the place!”
His deep laugh echoed through the dark street. “For the record, I got this bloody lip defending you from your psycho ex-boyfriend.”
That stopped her in her tracks. It was true, if he hadn’t intervened he wouldn’t have that cut lip. Sighing, she turned around. She was quiet a moment trying to organize her thoughts. Then she spoke.
“You’re right. Thank you for that. I’m sorry Sam hit you.” She paused. “If you want I can help you clean that up back at my apartment.”
Christian Hunt took several slow deliberate steps towards her. “So you want an escort home?”
“I guess so.”
The corners of his eyes crinkled as he said, “So that’s a no on the kiss?”
At each mention of kissing that escaped from his sweet-looking lips her blood began to race at an uncomfortable speed. Turning around to hide her blush, Kara said, “Yeah, that’s a no.” She began walking, aware of his low chuckle and footsteps coming up beside her.
They walked in a comfortable silence for another block.
“So he’s your ex-boyfriend, huh?” Christian asked.
“Yep. Not one of my better choices,” Kara said frowning at the memory.
“Does your current boyfriend know about him?”
Kara stopped and gave him a puzzled look. “What makes you think I have a current boyfriend?”
Christian slowed to a stop and shrugged. “You seem the type of girl that guys are drawn to.”
Not sure whether to be flattered by his comment or not, she turned and continued walking. “Well, there’s not one.”
“Why? You wanting to apply for the job?” she teased.
Christian chuckled. “Nope. I’m too busy for a relationship.”
“Really?” Kara goaded, feeling the imp inside her growing. “Because you seem like the type of guy that would have a string of women following behind him like a bunch of puppies.”
His chuckle was contagious and soon she was grinning too. “Sorry to disappoint. But there’s no string of women behind this guy.”
“Liar,” she muttered, still smiling.
She shook her head and they kept walking. The highway was busy, despite the late hour, and after crossing it they took the intersecting road that led to her apartment complex – a newer cluster of creamy stucco buildings.
“You live here?” he asked, curious.
“Yep. Where do you live?”
He chuckled and wiped at the blood on his chin, inspecting it. “Why? You wanna stalk me?”
Blushing, she shook her head and glared at him. “Hardly.”
She led the way up to the first building stopping in front of a ground floor apartment with an exterior entrance. Unlocking the door, she led him inside her apartment. Dropping her purse on the bombe chest sitting against a creamy wall, Kara waited until he’d entered before shutting the front door.
“Mel?” She called glancing around the open dining and living room area.
The apartment was decorated in the white and dark tones of British Colonial style accented with the occasional accents of green. There were framed vintage maps and a collection of carved stone panthers. In one corner of the room was a dark wood framed chair upholstered in a faux leopard print fabric. A brown suede sofa sat with its back to the entry way, facing a dark entertainment center and flat screen television.
Footsteps sounded on the dark wooden floors from somewhere towards the back of the apartment. Then Melanie Phillips, Kara's long-time best friend appeared in the hall. “Hey, girl. When you say you’re staying late after work you really mean it, huh?”
Kara sighed. “My car ran out of gas so I cut through Lowell Boulevard. I had a little run-in with Sam.”
“You’re joking!” Melanie's eyes widened in surprise. “What happened?” Her dark brown eyes darted to Christian.
“Christian Hunt, here, was out jogging and stopped to intervene.” With a wave of her hand she introduced them. “Christian, this is my roommate, Melanie Phillips.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, too,” Melanie said with a wide smile and a raised eyebrow of interest. Her attention turned back to Kara. “Why didn’t you call me? I would have come and picked you up. You know that.”
Kara shook her head and tucked a wayward strand of long, brown hair behind one ear. “I know, but I didn’t want to interrupt your date with that cute doctor.”
Melanie rolled her eyes and brushed it off with a wave of her hand. “It wouldn’t have mattered. He got called in to work anyway. We had to cut dinner short.”
“That’s a bummer. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah. But it sounds like your night was worse.”
Kara nodded. “True. Oh hey, Sam-the-psycho cut Christian’s lip,” she said glancing up at Christian’s mouth. “Can you find the first aid kit? I’ll grab a wet cloth.”
“Sure.” Melanie turned and disappeared back down the hallway.
Kara led Christian over to a square, ebony dining table and invited him to sit down. Then she moved into the adjoining kitchen in search of a washcloth. After finding and wetting the cloth, she squeezed the extra water out and moved around the kitchen bar to the where the handsome stranger sat inspecting his bruised and bloodied knuckles at the dining table.
“Your knuckles are bleeding too?” She frowned.
“Yeah.” He glanced up, the corner of his mouth twitching. “That happens sometimes when you get in a fist fight.”
Kara raised an eyebrow at his dry tone. She watched as he made a fist and grimaced. The backs of his knuckles were chewed up and bloody. “Does it hurt?”
“Liar.” She couldn’t help but smile as he glanced up at her, one dark eyebrow raised. A half smile pulled at his mouth. “But if you want to be all manly and pretend like it doesn’t hurt, then whatever.”
He chuckled but didn’t comment. Instead, his gaze fell to the wet cloth in her hands. She followed his gaze.
“Oh,” she lifted the washcloth and moved toward him. “Here, you can wash the blood off your mouth and knuckles while Melanie gets the first aid kit.” Taking the cloth he pressed it to his bloody, swollen lower lip.
“I found some ointment but we’re out of bandages,” Melanie announced as she entered the dining room. “I did find this though.” She grinned and held up a woman’s sanitary pad complete with a flowery pink package.
The man’s jade green eyes widened and he frowned. “You’re joking.”
Kara bit the inside of her cheeks and tried, without success, to hold back a smile. Leave it to Melanie to come up with that as a substitute for a bandage.
“They soak up blood really well.” Melanie tried to portray a serious face as she said it.
Christian Hunt’s chair nearly toppled over as he sprang to his feet and lowered the damp, blood stained cloth from his lip. “It’s done bleeding. And there’s no way you’re putting that thing on me, anywhere, for any reason!”
He put his hand up, cutting her off. “No way. I’d rather bleed to death.” Kara couldn’t hold back the giggles bubbling up inside her.
Melanie shrugged in defeat, still smiling. “Alright. Then I guess I’ll go upstairs to see if Sara and Emily have any bandages. I’ll be right back.”
“Okay. Thanks, Mel.”
Melanie left the apartment and Kara shook her head, always amused by her friend’s antics. He sat back down and proceeded to wash the blood from his knuckles.
“Your eye is beginning to bruise around it. Looks like you’ll end up with a black eye.” She frowned as she studied it, enjoying an excuse to peruse his intense, almost fiery eyes and intriguing, handsome face.
“I’ll get a cold pack for it. Just a second.” She slipped around the kitchen bar again and searched the freezer for a package of frozen peas. After finding one, she hurried back to the dining table.
“Here, let’s put this on your eye to reduce the swelling.” She exchanged the bag of frozen peas for his blood-stained washcloth. Their eyes met for a brief moment. Breaking eye contact, he raised the frozen bag to cover his swelling eye.
The front door opened a few inches. “Can I come in or are you two making out?” Melanie hollered.
Kara rolled her eyes and blushed. “We’re just sitting here waiting for those bandages, Mel.” This caused Christian’s mouth to curved up at the corners.
“Cause I can come back later and let you two finish up.” Melanie added as she opened the front door wider and winked at Kara.
“Did you get the bandages?” Her friend’s inference to her making-out with the brooding stranger sitting at their dining table made her something beyond uncomfortable.
Melanie held up a handful. “Yep. They even had some butterfly bandages.”
“Good,” Kara said, relieved to change the subject. She frowned and glanced from the cut on the side of his lip down at his bloodied knuckles. “I hope you won’t need stitches.”
Melanie grinned, mischief in her eyes. “I’m sure you got a pretty good look.” Christian gave a low chuckle as he studied his knuckles and listened to the girls bantering.
Kara rolled her eyes again, and glared playfully at her friend. “Give me those.”
Melanie laughed and handed the bandages to her. Kara opened a few of the knuckle bandage strips and placed them over the worst of his chewed up knuckles. Her fingers tingled as they brushed his warm, tanned skin. It was disconcerting and made her want to step back.
Melanie’s smile disappeared. “I don’t think he’ll need stitches. I’ve never seen stitches for a cut lip or bloody knuckles.”
Kara bit her lip. She looked at Christian, a wave of the night’s nerve-racking events washing back over her. “I’m sorry about all this,” she said, her voice low and filled with guilt.
Christian just shrugged and stood up. “Don’t worry about it. I’m fine.” Kara wasn’t convinced. He forced a grin and handed her the frozen peas. “And if you feel that bad, I’m sure I can figure out a way for you to make it up to me.” He winked. The roguish tone of his voice and the mischievous grin on his face made her blush a deep crimson and her guilt eased.
Kara raised her eyebrows. “Maybe I don’t feel so bad after all.” She pushed the half-thawed bag of vegetables towards him. “And keep the peas. You need them more than we do.”
“Guess I have my vegetables for dinner.” He pressed the bag to his eye again. “Thank you for the first aid ladies, and for the peas. I’m sure you would have made Florence Nightingale proud.” He sauntered over to the front door and put his hand on the doorknob. Turning the knob and pulling the door open, he glanced over his shoulder. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”
Then he turned and disappeared out the front door.
Christian shook his head as he stepped outside into the dark Denver summer night. His thoughts began to wander back to Kara Nichols and her silky brown hair, inquisitive chestnut eyes, and enticing curves. If he wasn't already swamped with work he would find a way to see her again. But with things the way they were right now, that wasn't a possibility.
He frowned, a little disappointed, and winced at the pain the motion caused. It was a good thing he didn’t need stitches. He wasn’t setting foot in a hospital unless his life absolutely depended on it. And a split lip and bloody knuckles didn’t warrant a trip to the hospital.
He shuddered as horrible memories of hospitals and their haunting smells threatened to emerge from his safely guarded mental files. No, he wasn’t going to think on those. Not right now. He had other things to think about, though they were things that were no less disturbing.
Christian lowered the thawing bag of peas and trudged over the curb in front of his apartment in the same complex. Running a hand through his dark hair he let out a frustrated sigh. It was going to take a while before he got Kara Nichols out of his head and was able to focus on work.
He unlocked his apartment, stepped inside, and flipped on the light switch. Her apartment put his to shame. Instead of a fashionable decorated living room, his barren bachelor pad awaited him. His leather sofa was the one thing in the room he’d splurged on. But unlike her living room, his wasn’t scattered with lamps and tables and decorations. He had a TV on a black stand in the corner, but other than that the only other piece of furniture was a coffee table that housed his lap top and notes.
Worn down, Christian knew tonight he’d stay up late again searching his leads. Just like every night for the last three weeks he’d forgo cleaning and sit alone in his apartment trying to solve the mystery of his grandfather's murder.
His stomach rumbled. Oh yeah, food. He hadn’t eaten dinner yet and his stomach wasn’t too happy about the wait. Opening the fridge door, Christian scoured the contents: cold fried chicken, corn, coleslaw, mashed potatoes and gravy. Thank goodness for KFC.
Picking up the containers and balancing them with one hand while he shut the door with the other, he placed them on the counter top. Opening the cupboard he frowned. All his plates were dirty. Work hadn’t left much time to do anything anymore. Retrieving a bowl, Christian dumped the contents of all the containers of cold food into the bowl and grabbed a fork. He picked up the bowl and headed to the couch.
Placing the bowl on the coffee table, he picked up his phone to check his messages. There were three – two from his dad and one from Treena. He deleted Treena’s without even listening to it. He could guess what it said; it was probably the same as all the others she left day after day. He knew he should be flattered by all her attention. But instead he was annoyed and wished she’d just leave him alone. They'd only gone on one date. Skipping ahead to his dad’s messages, he jotted down the phone numbers and addresses his dad relayed to him.
Sighing, he flipped open his laptop and scooped up a bite of the food medley. He turned the computer on and picked up the scratch paper he’d written the numbers and addresses on hoping these would be the leads they were looking for. There was a murderer out there and they needed to find him before he struck again.
“That is so creepy.” Melanie gave an exaggerated shudder as she sat on Kara’s walnut four poster bed later that evening. “I can’t believe Sam tried to attack you! That’s unbelievable.” She twirled a shiny black curl around a caramel colored finger and paused. “Do you think he’ll try it again?”
Kara pulled her pajama top over her head and then shook her hair free. “I don’t know. I hope not. But you can be sure I’m going to make certain my gas tank is never low again.”
“No kidding,” Melanie said with a laugh. “Still, what if that guy hadn’t come and stepped in….”
Kara didn’t want to think about it. “Let’s just hope Sam’s too chicken to try anything ever again.” She plopped down on the white linen bedspread next to Melanie. “Can’t we talk about something else? Something less depressing?”
“Like shoe shopping?” Melanie’s dark eyebrows danced like nervous dragonflies, a huge grin on her face. “I’ve been eying this pair of gold heels at the mall and I hear they’re having a shoe sale.”
Kara grinned. “Really? I’ve been needing a new pair of red heels to go with that black and red skirt I’ve been trying to convince myself I don’t need but am going to buy anyway.” Melanie laughed, always knowing the right distraction to get her friend’s mind off of a sour topic. And shoes, one of Kara’s guilty pleasures, along with chocolate, were just the thing.
“It sounds like we need to take a trip to the mall tomorrow after work,” Melanie said with a contagious grin, her dark brown eyes sparkling.
His blood pumped through his veins as he pounded his way through the shallow stream and into the dense tropical forest. The danger behind him was so real he could almost feel it on his neck. Sweat poured down his back and his legs burned from the fatigue. Birds screamed in the canopy above him. Monkeys screeched at him in angry protest as he pushed passed their trees. The drive inside him was unbearable. He was running from something, but what he didn’t know. But one thing he did know…he couldn’t stop running, his life depended on it.
Slashing pain ripped through his back and he cried out in pain. The burn was intense. He continued to run, stumbling twice as he pushed his way through the dense foliage and trees. Not seeing a wayward root, his foot caught and he felt himself go down. This was it. He was dead.
Christian gasped and shot up in bed. Sweat streamed down his face and glistened on his bare chest. His heart was pounding hard, his breathing labored and heavy. He was wide awake now, all his nerves on edge.
Whipping his head around, he stared into the darkness of his bedroom. The only light came from the moon outside his window. He stared down at his trembling hands. He knew it was just a dream, but it had been so incredibly vivid that he had a hard time believing he wasn’t lying on the jungle floor instead of his bed.
It’s just a dream, he tried to tell himself.
But it was no use. Lying back on his bed, his heart beginning to lessen its frantic racing, Christian stared at the ceiling. There was no way he would be able to go back to sleep now.
The next day at Rasmussen Design, Kara scanned the images on the computer screen in front of her. She’d spent days searching for a dining table that would work in one of their most prestigious client’s Aspen chateau. So far she’d been able to find furnishings and accents to work with most of Ryan Call’s large home, but the dining room was giving her trouble.
Her thoughts strayed to the green-eyed stranger she’d met the previous night. Since she’d seen him, she hadn’t been able to get Christian Hunt out of her mind and it agitated her. She’d burnt herself with her curling iron that morning when she’d daydreamed about him. To top that off she’d made very little progress at work today thanks to his square jaw, broad shoulders, and unforgettable face. Sure he was funny and witty and even a gentleman, but he was just another guy. Right?
She forced herself out of her daydreaming and reminded herself that she was through with men, gorgeous or not. After all, she knew nothing about this guy. Her history with men wasn’t that impressive. Either they were nice but she wasn’t attracted to them, or they were attractive but turned out to be total creeps, just like Sam.
That evening after she and Melanie had spent way more time and money than intended during their shopping trip, Kara strolled over to the apartment’s post office boxes to get their mail. She glanced up and felt her jaw drop open when she saw Christian checking his own mailbox a ways down from her.
He lived in this apartment complex too? She wondered why he hadn’t mentioned the fact he lived here too. Maybe it was because he didn’t want her to know.
Her heartbeat quickened as she took in his dark suit and white dress shirt with the top buttons undone. Very nice.
Kara looked over to see a beautiful blonde, which could have, without a doubt, passed for a Victoria’s Secret model approaching Christian. She wore a lusty smile and designer clothes that clung to her artificial, overly curvaceous figure.
“Hey, Treena,” Christian said.
Kara watched as Treena laughed and tossed a lock of glossy blonde hair over one shoulder. She ran her eyes over Christian’s muscular body. “I’ve been lonely. You haven’t called me since our last date.” She trailed her long fingers over his muscular arm. “Why haven’t you returned any of my calls?”
Then she noticed his injuries. “Do you have a black eye?” Before he could answer she asked, “What happened to your lip? Did you get in a fight or something?”
“It’s nothing,” Christian said.
Treena frowned and touched his chin. “You shouldn’t get in fights you know.”
Kara felt her stomach twist as she watched the scene before her.
“Look, I’m sorry I haven’t called you. I’ve been pretty busy with work.” He made no move to touch her and his voice remained even.
“Christian,” Treena said and stuck out her full lower lip in a pout. “How can you work rather than spend time with me?” She reached up and stroked the five o’clock shadow on his cleft chin. Her finger moved to tracing his lower lip.
“You look tired. Have you been losing sleep over me?” She flashed him a seductive smile.
“I’m fine,” Christian began. He took a hold of her hand and moved it away from his lips. “I’ve just had a lot on my mind. I’ve got a lot going on and…”
Treena wasn’t listening. She stopped him mid-sentence by reaching up, taking his face in her hands and laying a lingering kiss on his lips, still avoiding his injury.
Kara looked away, embarrassed and annoyed with herself for having daydreamed about him in the first place. It was apparent he was involved with someone else. Grabbing her mail from the post office box, she slammed the small door shut and stormed away in the opposite direction.
Back at her apartment, Kara dropped the mail on the chest by their front door and strolled into the kitchen where Melanie was making gyozas. “So guess who I just saw locking lips with a Victoria’s Secret model?”
Melanie’s eyes bulged. “Who? Tell me it wasn’t BJ because we have a date tomorrow and I don’t need that image in my mind.”
Kara chuckled. “No. It was Christian!”
“Really?” Melanie’s grin widened. “A Victoria’s Secret model, huh?”
“Okay, well I made that part up, but she looked like she could be.” Kara scowled and picked up a piece of chopped carrot from the bowl. She popped it into her mouth. “Blondes,” she muttered.
Melanie laughed. “Wanna help me fry these gyozas up? I’ll tell you all about the delicious chocolate cake I picked up from that specialty bakery on the way home.”
Kara’s eyes widened. “Ooo, chocolate cake! You’re my hero.”
“I know.” Melanie said with a knowing laugh.
Another nightmare awoke Christian from his fitful sleep. This time he was being chased by an animal – a mysterious, unseen carnivore. With each snap of a twig, or rustle in the trees his skin crawled, his blood raced. No matter how far he ran through the jungle the dark threat followed him, watched him.
He came to a cliff with no where else to go but down – four hundred feet down. Spinning around at the sound of a leaf crunching behind him, Christian was knocked back by an immense force with long claws and huge canines. The two bodies crashed together, plunging over the cliff with a roar and a scream.
He bolted upright in his bed, his heart racing. It took several minutes of reassuring himself that it had just been a bad dream before his pulse returned to normal.
I hope you enjoyed reading the first chapter of Curse of the Jaguar. If you did and would like to read more, you can buy ebook or paperback version on Amazon.
(As always, this and any other excerpt or chapter from Curse of the Jaguar is copyrighted by the author. Any copying, reprinting or otherwise is prohibited without written permission from the author.)