Lost City Shifters Book Two
“With a nod and a wink to Indiana Jones, this story touches all the right pleasure spots; highly recommended for those who like their romance served hot.” — Library Journal
“…this story is like a double-scoop of paranormal romance yumminess, served in a chocolate-dipped waffle-cone. It’s a deliciously tempting treat, guaranteed to distract you from reality and – unlike ice-cream – contains zero calories…” — Dark Side of the Covers
“Redemption is a fast-paced, hot-and-heavy thrill ride through the jungle! This novel is short, sweet, and stocked with everything I love: sexy hunk? Check! Steamy romance? Check! Adventure straight out of a Lara Croft-style quest? Check! Add in the tidbit that said sexy hunk is a shifter? Double check!” — Nocturne Romance Reads
Blamed for a heinous crime and banished from his tribe of Jaguar shifters, Adriano will do anything to buy back his rightful place–even steal a priceless artifact. First, he’ll have to seduce Sophie Martin, an archaeologist researching the temple ruins and the one person who stands in his way.
Sophie wants to uncover the artifact as well–not to sell it, but to study it. It could unlock all the secrets of an ancient and mysterious civilization. But it’s hard to focus on her work when the distractingly sexy Adriano is nearby.
What begins as a seduction quickly turns into mutual passion as Adriano’s touch awakens a side of Sophie she’d kept hidden–and arouses his Jaguar instincts. To preserve his people’s secret and earn his redemption, Adriano needs the artifact. But when a rival thief kidnaps Sophie, Adriano will be forced to choose–between the people who rejected him in the past, or the woman who could be his future…
Five years of exile, only days from going home. A few feet of stone to clear and he’d be inside the temple. A couple of nights to learn the layout of the tunnel system and he’d have his hands on a treasure valuable enough to trade for a pardon. Three weeks, maybe less. Adriano couldn’t afford to get careless now so he watched Sophie Martin, trying to decide if she was a threat to his plan or only a distraction. From where he stood, she didn’t look like much of a threat but she sure as hell was a distraction.
She perched on the top rung of a shaky ladder, talking to herself or the tenon head—he couldn’t tell which. Long brown hair pulled back from her face, she was dressed in old cargo shorts and a loose fitting olive T-shirt, the screen print on the back so faded he couldn’t make out the words. The other men in camp—human men—barely gave her a second glance and he didn’t understand it. Her face was pretty enough, and she had a strong healthy body with small high breasts and a good ass. A great ass, really. Pert, round and nicely formed. Even with the long shirt she wore, he could see the curve of it when she moved. Beautiful.
He’d never been in this position before, lusting after a woman who liked to push people away. He’d never lusted after a human, period. Never fucked one. Not even during those long stretches of chastity when he’d go months without meeting a willing shape-shifter. To him, lying with a human had always seemed too much like acceptance of his sentence, too much like defeat.
He’d attempted to ignore his attraction to Sophie but was done trying to convince himself he didn’t want her. He wanted her. He also needed to get close enough to keep her out of the tunnels until he had the stone.
How did one seduce a human? He had no idea. With his kind, there was no subtlety involved. Attuned as they were to changes in scent, heart rate and body temperature, there was no way to mask sexual interest and with no artifice possible, it was a simple matter of acceptance or rejection.
He’d presented himself to Sophie and could tell that she was aroused, no matter how she tried to conceal herself, dressing like a color-blind teenage boy and dodging his gaze whenever he tried to catch her attention. He could smell her reaction. Faint but alluring, her scent stirred his cock to life every time he came near her. It should have been a simple indulgence to mutual attraction, but Sophie…
Well, Sophie was being difficult.
He crossed his arms over his chest, settled his back against the stone pillar and waited.
He didn’t want to disturb her until she was done. Too serious about her work, she put in longer hours than anyone else on her team but was also given to sudden flights of fancy. His lips tugged into a smile. She looked like she was flying now, screwing up her face to mimic the leer of the jaguar figure she brushed clean.
He was honest enough to admit that part of her allure was the challenge she represented, enough of a predator to appreciate the thrill of the hunt. Sophie hadn’t taken a lover since she’d arrived, accepted friendship from the others grudgingly and kept herself so tightly controlled at first he’d thought her hopelessly, fascinatingly frigid.
Then he began to notice little things—the flush that came to her face at an unexpected find, the strange sense of humor that had her pulling faces at the carvings when she thought no one was looking, the furtive hungry looks she cast his way. She’d surprised him and that alone was rare enough to stir his interest. The others were irritating and frivolous but blessedly easy to distract. They’d been content to sift through the debris uncovered by the landslide until the engineers arrived. They cataloged their shards of pottery and attempted to preserve the exposed funeral bundles. No one was stupid enough to risk their lives in an area of the site already studied by generations of archaeologists, stripped, cataloged and sold off to museums around the world.
Of all of them, Sophie’s heart was invested in this place which is why he’d found her teetering on a piece of shit ladder doing the groundkeeper’s job. People would take advantage of enthusiasm like hers.
She was intelligent, curious and inconveniently industrious. He’d caught her again last night nosing around in the rubble, camera in hand, and escorted her away with a stern warning that the area was unstable. It was the truth. The earthquake and subsequent landslide had tumbled huge stones, collapsing the tunnels beneath the ruins and leaving sinkholes all over the place. It was, after all, the reason he was here. That instability created a unique opportunity for someone in his line of work.
Sophie wouldn’t stay put and he didn’t want to have to kill her for stumbling down the wrong tunnel at the wrong time. He wanted her. Needed to keep a better eye on her.
What was it the Americans said? Two birds, one stone. Sophie liked stones.
Sophie used a small brush to clear the last of the debris from the flared nostril and leaned back to examine her handiwork. The carved granite head thrust toward her, the last figure to remain in its original position on the wall. He was a beauty. Frozen somewhere between beast and man, the jaguar’s hollow eyes stared at her, long fangs curving back from a grinning mouth, a remnant of a fierce people who had believed their priests could transform into jaguars. She smiled wryly. Immense quantities of hallucinogens could make a person believe a lot of things.
She lifted her hand to trace the curling scrollwork that grooved the sides and top. Amazing that it had been created by an artist over a thousand years ago and was still here for her to marvel at. The whole site was a testimony to the Chavín, a largely forgotten civilization which predated the Inca. She’d fallen in love with the place when she’d first come to Peru years ago as an undergrad and it broke her heart to see it now. The initial earthquake had caused collapses at several points in the underground tunnel system but the landslide had done the most damage, covering a part of the old temple, buckling two walls, filling several of the tunnels with debris and exposing hundreds of fragile artifacts to the elements.
When Professor Addington called to ask if she’d be interested in coming down with a team from the university to help with the cleanup, she’d jumped at the opportunity. How could she refuse? A chance to help. A chance to work on her thesis. A chance to escape.
She loved the mystery of this place, that even after decades of study they still didn’t entirely understand how the Chavín had managed to consolidate their power without any signs of military conquest. Their intricate carvings confounded interpretation. She loved the rugged landscape, the mountains which shadowed the ruins before rolling toward the lush jungles of the Amazon below. She loved the hidden tunnels and passageways, all of those ancient secrets guarded in stone. She wanted to know what it was the people here had valued so highly that they devoted their lives and the lives of their children to creating these structures. She wanted to see it restored and preserved.
Sophie ruthlessly pushed aside the dull ache in her chest. Some things deserved to be remembered.
“You understand though, don’t you?” she said and then shook her head, laughing at herself. Great. Now she was talking to rocks. Thank God there was no one here to see her doing it.
She ran her hands over the tenon head making sure it was clean. She’d spent the last hour clearing it of bird crap and dirt. Just general housekeeping but she’d volunteered for it to get a chance to see this fellow up close and personal. Finally satisfied, she gave him one last swipe and started down the ladder.
Movement caught her eye and she paused midstep when she realized it was Adriano. His wide mouth slanted into a half smile when he caught her looking, and she ducked her head, fumbled the brush and winced as it clattered down the ladder to land at his feet. She watched him through the slats when he bent to retrieve it, following the long lean arch of his spine with her eyes. From this position, she could literally drool all over him.
He drove her nuts—every time she turned around, there he was, dark eyes resting on her, glittering with a spark of challenge, a slight curl at the edge of his mouth like he was only waiting for an invitation to smile. If she didn’t know better, she’d think he was interested, which was ridiculous. Adriano could have anyone and she’d been going out of her way to avoid that kind of complication.
He straightened and she shook herself, moving down the ladder. He probably just tracked her down because she’d wandered off again. He was the government contact ultimately in charge of the site—responsible for the general labor force, site security and coordinating the efforts of the archaeological teams and engineers. He’d been an excellent manager in part because he kept them all together where he could keep an eye on them. That was why he was out here now. She’d broken off again like a poor dumb sheep and he’d been forced to fetch her back to the herd. Because fact was, she did know better. Sinfully exotic men like Adriano with their ripped bodies, dark knowing eyes and lazy smiles didn’t go for short, nerdy grad students like herself.
The ladder shook and Adriano braced a hand to the rickety thing as he watched her come down. She could feel his eyes on her, raising tiny pinpricks of awareness along her exposed flesh. The sun gleamed off his sleek black hair, straight, cut short and brushed back from a high forehead. Light reflected off his sunglasses when he turned his head to look at her and she flinched.
“Thanks,” she said, reaching bottom and turning to face him.
High cheekbones, firm mouth, smooth golden skin. The wind kicked up and caught in the crisp white shirt he wore, making it cling across his broad chest and shoulders, outlining all those smooth hard muscles for brief tantalizing moments.
He smiled slowly. “So, is it love?”
She looked at him blankly and he nodded up toward the tenon head.
Her face heated. “Oh…Oh!” She smiled back, relief that she’d misunderstood making her a little giddy. “I dunno…could be. He is a handsome beast.”
His smile widened. “You like the jaguar men, Sophie?”
She couldn’t see his eyes behind the glasses but knew he was laughing at her. She was used to that. Very few people could relate to her obsession. Her parents never had, always prodding her to find a job in the real world and stop playing Indiana Jones. But just because she was used to it, didn’t mean she had to take it. Not even from someone who looked like Adriano.
She crossed her arms and glanced up at the tenon head before fixing him with a cool look. “They’re incredibly detailed. The craftsmanship is amazing especially when you consider the tools they had to use. Look at him. You can almost see a personality there.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Perhaps the two of you would like more time alone?”
Impossible to miss the lilt of amusement in his voice. Now. Now he was laughing at her. Crap. “I’m sorry.” She shook her head. “I thought you were making fun of me and…well, clearly I’m an idiot.”
“Not an idiot.” He put a hand to his very fine chest. “It warms my heart to hear such an impassioned defense of the skill of my ancestors.”
She’d turned to fumble for the latch to release the ladder. He reached over her head and she could feel the warmth of him at her back. She could smell him, the trace of some subtle cologne underlain by clean male sweat. She stepped back and he took over the task, turning the catch and letting the rails clatter down. “Where does this go?”
“You don’t have to do that. I dragged it out here. I can manage to drag it back.”
Another flash of the smile that made her forget her own name. “I insist.”
He couldn’t miss the way that he flustered her but he pretended not to notice. One more thing she liked about him, that almost old-fashioned reserve. She shrugged. “Fine with me if you’re willing. I’ll help though.” She took the lighter end because she wasn’t stupid and clearly he was stronger. “This way.”
“The others are already eating,” he told her, confirming her suspicion that his little visit had been prompted by a headcount.
“You didn’t have to come after me.”
“Yes,” he said. “I did. It’s not safe for you to wander around by yourself. Especially after hours when security’s gone. The earthquake left behind a lot of desperate people who see a rich foreigner as easy prey.”
She laughed and shook her head. “I’m a grad student. I’m not rich.”
“Some of the people here lost everything—their families and homes, their respect for the law. To them, you’re rich and you’re fair game. I don’t want to see anything happen to you, Sophie.”
A part of her ate up his concern. The reasonable, sane and sober part of her knew he’d give the same lecture to anyone he caught working alone after-hours. She let the subject drop and shifted the weight of the ladder higher on her shoulder. She knew he was right, and he wouldn’t be interested in hearing about her money problems anyway. They were both private people and respected each other’s privacy. It was one of the reasons they got along so well together and why she wasn’t going to try to jump him, tempting as it was. She’d seen him turn away far prettier women and had no desire to join his crowd of rejected admirers. She did have some pride. Much better to keep things simple and friendly for these last weeks until she headed home.
The main tent looked like military surplus from half a century ago—dusty canvas and steel tent poles—nothing like the nylon and fiberglass pop-up Sophie shared with Mia. But it shaded the two long plastic tables and gave them a place to gather for meals and meetings.
“Adriano,” one of the workers called out as they walked up.
Adriano smiled in acknowledgment but stayed with her until they reached the tent. “No wandering off tonight, alright, Sophie?”
“Don’t worry about it.” She smiled and started to move past him but he touched her arm. A light touch and brief but it stopped her in her tracks.
“That is not an answer,” he pointed out.
She smiled again. “No. It’s not, is it?”
He sighed and planted his hands on his trim hips. The damned wind started up again and she forced herself to drag her eyes back up to his face. “It’s not safe for you out here alone. There are no alarms or video cameras, no panic buttons to call campus security. There’s only old Xavier and the only thing he scares is the bats with his snoring.”
She shrugged. “I hate bats.”
“If not for your sake, then do it for mine. As much as I enjoy hunting you down, I do have other responsibilities.”
It was cute in a way, this machismo bullshit. She knew full well that he wouldn’t give a flying leap if it were Sean or Ethan working late. But she wouldn’t press it because while she thought his concern was misguided, it did seem to be genuine. But still… “Look, Adriano. I need access to the Lanzón and the only time I can get that without tour groups and work crews filing through every half hour is if I wait until the site’s closed. It’s my thesis and if I don’t get it done…”
“Then Sean wins?”
She grimaced. How did Adriano find out about that? Quiet, watchful and smart. He knew more about each of them than any of them knew about him. “Sean doesn’t need that fellowship. I do.”
Adriano looked at her for a long moment. “I’ll go with you then. After I tuck the others into their cots, I’ll—”
“No,” she said, maybe a bit too quickly judging by the way his eyes narrowed. She wouldn’t get any work done with him looking over her shoulder. “Thank you, no. I appreciate your concern but I’m not your responsibility.”
Which was a mistake because, in actuality, she was. They all were. His primary responsibility was to keep the site secure from looters and gawkers. He’d wanted to shut down the tours and the museum temporarily but the government insisted on keeping them open. Tourism had peaked now that the airports had reopened and the roads were clear. And the people here needed money to rebuild.
Adriano had been placed in charge of the site sometime after the earthquake to oversee the cleanup but no one knew where he’d come from. He wasn’t connected to the museum or the university so far as she could tell. Sean thought he was a low-level bureaucrat. Mia thought he was military. Times like this, Sophie could believe that. Something in the way his team acted around him, in the way he held himself. Something in the way he was looking at her right now, all stern and confident and sexy. She reminded herself again that Adriano’s team was understaffed and he was only doing his job.
He put his hand on the small of her back, guided her through the door and released her to rejoin the herd. “Don’t leave without me.”
He was gone before she could come up with a good enough argument. She wanted to finish her work in peace without the distraction of his laughing eyes and lean hard body. But she couldn’t tell him that.She grabbed a sandwich and some bottled water and sat down next to Mia, who scooted a little closer to Sean to make room.
Mia nudged her arm. “Nice.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”Adriano was so tall he had to duck his head in order to leave the tent. She had a good foot of clearance herself.
“He looks all dark and dangerous but he’s got the manners of a Catholic priest.” Mia tossed a half-eaten carrot stick back onto her plate. “I gave him a shot myself but he wouldn’t bite. He’s a little stiff for my taste, even with that body and that face. Prudish almost.”
“I don’t think he’s a prude,” Sophie said and could have bit her own tongue for trying to defend him when Mia smirked.
“I’m not after Adriano.” She tried again more firmly.
Mia ignored that and gave her a critical once-over. “I could lend you some clothes. I still can’t tell if you’re wearing the same things over and over again or if you really just like the color of dirt. I lost my sense of smell weeks ago.”
They’d been having this argument off and on for the last two months. Sophie rolled her eyes but fell into it, happy to get off the subject of men she didn’t have a chance with in a million years. “We’re doing fieldwork in the middle of a disaster zone.”
Mia shook her head. “We pulled a corpse out of the ground today with nicer rags clinging to her mummified flesh.”
Sophie knocked into Mia’s shoulder. “Why should I care what I’m wearing? Nobody else does but you. And anyway, who flies thousands of miles from home to a camp with limited bathroom facilities, bird-sized insects and mummified corpses poking out of the ground then starts looking for sex? I’m here to do a job.” She lifted her bottle of water and unscrewed the cap. “You should try it sometime, you know…work.”
“You can’t work all the time, Soph. I’ve seen the two of you eying each other, and you said you weren’t looking for anything permanent. So why not Adriano?”
“What about Adriano?” Ethan asked, sitting down across from them after going back for seconds.
“Sophie wants to fuck him,” Mia put in helpfully, drawing Sean’s head around from where he’d been chatting up one of the undergrads.
Ethan grinned. “I like Adriano.”
While Sophie tried to figure out what Ethan meant by that, Sean leaned over and put his two cents in. “You shouldn’t be messing around with the hired crew.”
They all stopped and stared at him, even Mia who was technically his girlfriend despite their very open relationship. Sean, who chased after anything with breasts, was apparently the only one who didn’t see the hypocrisy. Wondering for the umpteenth time why Mia continued to put up with him, Sophie tried to control her animosity.
Sean was her main rival for the Swanson Fellowship and she could never be sure if that was the reason he rubbed her the wrong way. That fellowship meant a lot to her. If she won then she wouldn’t be stuck in a classroom teaching undergrads until she lost the will to live. She’d be able to do what she loved—stay out in the field and continue her research for at least the next two years, maybe longer. Sean was smart and in charge of their team. He was handsome and well-liked but he’d always reminded Sophie of a politician. Even out here in the middle of nowhere, his shirt was tucked neatly into his trousers. His hair was gelled and carefully tousled. His blue eyes were earnest as they met hers. She had to give it to him, he actually did look concerned. “I mean it, Sophie. If you’re not going to consider your health, then at least consider your career.”
Her health? She pulled back and opened her mouth, closed it and then tried again. “First, it’s none of your business and second, it’s not something you have to worry about. I don’t want to fuck Adriano.”
Okaaay. She’d said that a little too loudly. Heads swiveled around and there was an awkward moment of silence before the conversation around them gradually picked up again. Sean frowned at her and it took all of Sophie’s willpower not to snap at him that he’d started it. Something about him brought out the worst in her. Ethan winked and grabbed the apple off her tray while Mia laughed her low, throaty laugh. Sophie tried to ignore them all. There was a reason she sometimes skipped meals.
“Methinks she doth…”
“Can it, Mia,” she muttered under her breath and took a bite of her sandwich, chewing quickly and chasing it down with water because it tasted like crap.
Ethan cleared his throat and, when Sophie raised her brows questioningly, said, “I was wondering if you’d had a chance to think about my theory. It might be just another cactus but I was thinking about what you said, you know, about thinking beyond glyphs. If you could just take another look…” She didn’t realize she’d been shaking her head until his lips twisted. “C’mon, Sophie. Just give it a chance.”
She liked Ethan, liked his kooky theories about Mayan prophecies and ancient alien visitation. He focused specifically on the religious aspects of the Chavín culture, and he thought he’d found a recipe of sorts for the ritual mix of hallucinogenic drugs the priests had used in their ceremonies. He hoped she’d be able to identify a plant from a cracked carving. She hated to be the one to have to tell him he was nuts. “The stone was damaged in the landslide. But even the part that’s still intact…”
“Sophie. I just need you to try and read it.”
“There’s nothing to read, Ethan,” Sean said, exasperated. “Sometimes a picture of a bird is just a picture of a bird. It’s art. If she could actually read it and prove that there’s a code there she wouldn’t be here now.”
Ethan gave her a sympathetic look and Sophie shook her head. No point in getting into it here and now. Not again. She knew it was a fringe theory but it wasn’t crazy. Some people like her thought the carvings the Chavín had left behind were ritualistic and symbolic, purposefully difficult to interpret so that they could be read only by the priests. Some people like Sean thought there was nothing more to them than decoration. Her theory and the subject of her thesis was that the carvings represented a highly visual, representational and interconnected form of written record. She believed the entire history of the Chavín was encoded in their art and that she was getting very close to breaking that code, or at least a portion of it.
She didn’t plan to reveal that to Sean though. He was the one waiting for a break that would get his name recognized in the right circles and get him the publishing credit that would buy him tenure at a big school. Sophie liked fieldwork. She felt alive for the first time in years and she didn’t want to go home. She hadn’t realized until she left how pale and suffocating her life had become. There was nothing there for her anymore.
She spared Sean a brief quelling glare and reached across the table to squeeze Ethan’s hand. “There’s too much missing. I’m not a botanist but I don’t think it’s what you’re looking for anyway. Even if it was, it’s not something to mess around with. You get it wrong, it could kill you.”
“You get it right, it could kill you,” Mia said in a rare sympathetic tone. “It’s not like there’s an ER we could run you to if you OD.”
Ethan pulled his hand away, blue eyes widening. “Wait a minute. You think I would try it on myself?”
Sophie glanced at Mia for help but Mia only sighed and started poking at the food left on her plate. Someone had seen Ethan grinding herbs in an old-fashioned pestle. Everyone knew what he was up to. In a small camp that kind of info spread easily.
She met his incredulous gaze. “Just be careful,” she told him and turned back to her meal.
Ethan and Sean started bickering again but Sophie let her attention wander. Winning the fellowship would allow her to continue her field research. She knew she was getting close. All she needed was a little more time. She could see the pattern, but proving the connection was just beyond her reach. A few more pieces, maybe those new carvings exposed in the tunnel collapse, maybe something churned up by the landslide. Just one little chunk of rock could be the key to unlocking it all.