Book three in the Pantherian Tales series.
Are they strong enough to be her men?
Cunning. Everyone uses the word to describe Katy. In Quarterz, the virtual reality world where men and women compete as hunter or prey, Katy has never been captured. At least, not until the bear clan arrived in the game. Powerful, smart, and straight out of her fantasies, Katy can't always outmaneuver the tests they create.
When the clan challenges her to take their team on in a real game of hunters and prey, she can’t resist the lure.
Is she strong enough to be their woman?
Grizz, Oso, and Kodie are Pantherian bear shifters, born into a culture where men have learned to share and protect their species’ most limited resource—females. They’ve accepted they will never have a Pantherian female as their shared mate. But can a human female handle a Pantherian, mating trio. If so, will she still want them when she knows what they are?
Are any of them strong enough to outsmart fate?
When the game puts hearts and lives on the line, taking a loss is the only way to win.
Everything’s a lie. And nothing is…
The shadow cast by a branch above was a lie. An unnatural bulge shackled my attention, drew my gaze up into the golden stare of a coal-black panther.
My heart made a leap for my throat. As if it could escape its tether of veins and cartilage. Escape fate waiting behind gleaming teeth. Escape that impossibly long tongue already sweeping across the cat’s lips in anticipation. I imagined that tongue scooping out my heart the way a toad scoops a fly from the air.
By the time you see a big cat, it’s already too late. You’re dinner.
At five feet two, I wasn’t much of a dinner, so I pointed that out. “I’m skinny prey. More bones than meat. Not worth your trouble.”
The tongue swiped back in the other direction. Staring death in the eyes, my primitive brain and instinct fought to take over.
To the primitive brain, every lie is truth.
Thousands of years of evolution had taught human bodies wisdom that didn’t require thought. The urge to run sent adrenaline surging, burning in my veins. I gripped a length of vine that brushed my elbow, clinging with both hands, as if that might somehow anchor me to life when the cat leapt.
Losing is only guaranteed if you give up.
My weight on the vine shifted the bough. The cat’s tail rose, going from a gently curved “J” to exclamation point. The tip twitched. When the twitching stopped, he would be on me before my brain registered the change.
My heart kicked up to triple time. Sweat seeped from my pores. Even my knees were sweating. KatyDid was about to die.
Dying was such a time suck, and I had so little time left. This wasn’t fair. Nothing about the rules governing life in Quarterz Swamp was fair. That’s what I loved about it.
Somewhere above us, a raven called out a warning, drawing the cat’s attention for the split second it took me to launch from the rock where I was perched. I sucked down enough air to fill my lungs halfway before I let go and disappeared beneath the thick, bubbly water of the bayou.
The splash and turbulence near the opposite bank could only mean one thing. Gator.
Knotweed carpeted that side of the channel. I could barely see through the fog of rising bubbles, but that huge log drifting toward me against the current had to be a lie. The stretch limo of alligators was heading my way.
Now I had three predators after me—panther, gator, and hunter. Two of them wanted to eat me. The other wanted to own me.
I should have let the panther have me.
I’d known the hunter was there even before the raven called. A sixth sense that always sent an electric tingle down my spine when Grizz was near.
The gator’s tail swished back and forth as it moved in.
That cat wouldn’t follow me under the water, but my lungs already burned with oxygen denial. If I crawled out on either bank, the panther’s teeth and claws would peel the wrapping off its supper before I’d drawn a full breath. I couldn’t go down stream either, not with the gator blocking my way. Upstream, I’d cross the sim border, a looming blackness I’d been warned to steer clear of. Possible death seemed a way better option than certain death.
I surfaced to guzzle enough air to fuel a swim for the border. Before I could dive again, a bigger splash knocked me back. A bear-sized man landed between me and the gator. Grizz in all his glory—muscles gleaming, long dreads, and loincloth swaying sexily as he clambered onto a submerged boulder, knife in hand. His attention was on the cat.
Did he see the gator?
I watched, my attention leap-frogging between the contenders. The panther’s muscles bunched as it prepared to leap. The gator’s tail whipped around as it turned and landed a solid thwack behind Grizz’s ankles.
The force sent Grizz sailing into me. We hurtled backward across the sim barrier into blackness. Even through the chaos, his arm hooked around my waist, securing his prize.
I managed to draw a breath as we sailed through darkness, and had it knocked out of me when we landed. This time, the water was waist-deep and the bottom solid rock rather than slime and silt.
Grizz had twisted so he took the force of the landing. “F-u-u-uhhh-kkk.” The strangled expletive exploded from him when I landed on top, punching the air from his lungs.
My elbow slammed against a stone, and stars swarmed behind my eyelids.
I groaned and shifted; that swirl and spin through the cage left me slightly nauseous. “If you let me go, I’ll throw up somewhere other than on your chest.”
“Light,” he gasped.
Uh-huh, sure, because it’s always wise to look at what you’re hurling on before you hurl.
I pulled a moonstone from a pouch on my belt. Milky blue light cast a circle around us. The spinning sensation eased.
“Be still,” he said, and amazingly, it sounded more like a suggestion than an order. More amazing, he dropped his arm from my waist.
The shock of our landing had cut my health reading in half. Holding as still as possible might conserve the remaining fuel in my metabolic tank, but as you might have noticed, water was not a good place to linger.
I scrambled onto a ledge.
Grizz followed. Crawled actually. Then collapsed in a heap, but retaining enough command to hook an arm around me and snatch me against him.
I tried wriggling away, angling the light to determine how much damage he’d sustained.
He rolled over, trapping me under him. Lips pressed to mine, his groan vibrating through my body in waves.
I dropped the moonstone.
Blue light rippled in waves over the opalescent cave walls. Desire rippled through me when his tongue found mine. His hands skimmed up my sides, under my top, thumbs homing in on my nipples. Circling. Circling.
“Prey arousal increased ten percent,” the prey meter on his belt announced in a robotic female voice.
“She lies,” I mumbled when he broke the kiss.
Grizz pushed up on one elbow, his expression half grin, half grimace. He turned off the meter. “I don’t need that to tell me what’s happening inside you, KatyDid. Your voice gets all warm and whispery when you want me.” His fingers tangled in my hair, smoothing it, curling a long lock around his finger, a band of gold against his dark skin.
I swallowed. I had no words to fight with. My body answered by intensifying the ache between my legs, arousal making me slick and ready. Thank the coders that prey meter was off. But he did know what was happening inside me. Grizz always knew.
He lowered his head and kissed me again, slower, as if I were something worth savoring.
With his big hands cupping my face, I felt as substantial as a whisper. When he drew back again, I savored him in the soft light. His mocha skin, slick and gleaming from the water, his thick dreads caressing my breasts when he angled his head. I captured one, curled it around my wrist. I didn’t require a meter to gauge his response, to tell me he wanted more, that he was ready to take it.
His hands moved from cradling my face to fisted in my hair.
“You can’t,” I whispered. “You took the full force of the gator’s strike and the landing here in the cave. I can’t believe you’re still alive. Sex now will kill you.”
He grinned. “Can’t think of a better way to go.”
“I have three days until I have to leave. You can’t die yet.”
He pressed his face to my neck, his teeth scraping skin. An animalistic whimper vibrated in my throat. I fought to hold it back. His teeth nipped my shoulder, setting the sound free.
“Careful, Katy.” His voice was a husky, bone-melting murmur. “I’ll start believing you’re getting fond of me.”
“I’m fond of beating you at your games.” Everything’s a lie. And nothing is.
He settled over on his side, his back to the water, his hand trailing down my stomach, parting my clenched thighs. I wasn’t leashed. I could have fought him and won. He wouldn’t have enough power to take me by force, which was every hunter’s right in the Quarters. My presence here was my consent to those terms. He was a hunter, and I was prey. Once caught, prey submitted to whatever the hunter desired. Safing-out was an option if anything he wanted was intolerable to me. The penalty for safing-out would be shared by both of us and, like dying, would put him out of reach for the remainder of the time I had left.
Officially, I wasn’t caught until he’d collared and leashed me. Why was he waiting? Why wasn’t I taking advantage of the opening he left me?
My looming departure from this world held me in place. That’s what I told myself. It wasn’t those obsidian eyes. Or the crooked smile he got when his gaze roamed my body. Or fondness.
While I might love this sexy web of lies we wove, erotic deceptions that could reach beyond time and space to make us believe, I was enough of a realist to know that when I was gone, Grizz would find new prey to take my place on his most-wanted list.
He yanked off my skirt, a makeshift garment fashioned of animal skins laced together and strung on a cord. It barely covered enough to qualify as a micromini. More skins, laced into a cropped vest, completed my outfit. His fingers hooked the lacing between my breasts, and he snapped those cords too. Skins fell away to expose quivering breasts and erect nipples.
“Mmm, the prey’s arousal level is climbing,” he said.
His voice goes to bass when he’s aroused, a vibrato that played over my skin and shattered my focus. I should safe-out. I’d never safed-out to save myself from the consequences of losing a hunt. It was a point of honor for me that I fulfilled my end of the bargain and served their fantasies on the extremely rare occasion a hunter bested me. Yet, here I was considering doing it to save him.
He was a big boy. A very big boy.
I hooked my fingers under his loincloth and smiled at the twitch of his cock against my palm.
He thought he’d won. He should have known better. He taught me better than that the first time his leash wrapped around my neck. He’d only been in the Quarterz a month. Hunters who had been there years hadn’t been able to catch me. When I’d pointed that out—I was miffed at losing my uncaptured status—he’d simply shrugged and said, “Everything here’s a lie, baby. And nothing is. Don’t forget that, and you’ll never get caught.”
He was right.
His hand drifted back between my legs, his fingers sliding inside me delivered an electric jolt. I couldn’t push him away. Couldn’t get a breath. I might as well have been leashed. It felt as if my legs were locked in place. Held in place by the force of his will. The sex was hot those times we played rough. I’d resist so he’d immobilize me. Then, I could only watch helpless as he used my body, fucking me so long and hard I’d go to mist in his arms.
No way he’d survive what he intended to do to me. We played chicken. Both waiting for the other to blink.
Playing this way, where I could escape if I wanted, where it was just the force of his desire and mine pinning me in place, was even hotter.
I blinked first, pushed his hand away, pressed my legs together.
“Be still!” This time, it wasn’t a suggestion. His dominant tone sent tingly shivers all through my pussy.
“If I take the top, you’ll last longer,” I said. “I can watch you go to mist while I fuck you into oblivion.”
He smoothed some wet locks back from my face. “I’m not sure I should be flattered by the way that makes your eyes light up.”
He wanted to go out fucking me. What else should I say? I’d ride him to the finish. He thought he could last, consummate a third catch that would allow him to mark me as owned by him. I had other plans.
I’d have sworn he was about to say yes, but a movement caught my eye. A long tentacle rose from the water, suction cups aligned along the length of its underside flexed with anticipation as it arched over Grizz.
“Trouble,” I whispered.
His gaze followed mine. “Fuck, this is Waster’s region. I wonder how pissed he’ll be if I strangle one of his cave monsters.”
As if it understood, the creature made a sharp keening sound. Another tentacle and then another and another shot up from the water. As the creature rose and more arms emerged, Grizz scooted backward across the rock ledge, dragging me along with him.
“I’ve got you, KatyDid. No worries.”
A rubbery purple arm reached toward us, tapping the ground with its sensor cups, slinking along like a hound with its nose to a rabbit trail.
The piercing beep of my play timer called me back to reality. “I’m out, Grizz. Gotta go. You should quit too. I don’t want you dying.”
“Really?” He grinned. “I knew you cared.”
“Well, I don’t want you dying at the hands or arms or whatevers of that beast. When you get zapped into oblivion, I want to be the one doing it.”
“Whoa, it’s starting to sound like love.”
I punched my teleport button and went to mist. He was on his feet facing off with the cave creeper, knife in hand, when I dematerialized.
When it came to dying or defending me, I knew there was no way he’d leave and let me fight the beast alone. Maybe with me out of the way, Grizz wouldn’t fight to the death.
Die with honor or run like prey and live to fight another day?Even as I thought it, I knew which choice he’d make.