"Not the toes." Rose√Ętre refused to squeal. As lead dancer
for the Arcana Royale's Midnight Mystery Lounge, she would
never squeal or scream, but her voice pitched high enough
that the syllable at the end of toes cracked.
The great white tiger snuffling her feet through the
five–inch strappy black–and–sapphire
Louboutins rolled his head away. Instead of obeying, he
stroked a whiskered cheek down her bare leg.
"Cut!" Voice booming, the show's stage manager hustled out
from the wings. Heidi was a brisk woman with a quick temper
and a stout body, dedicated to creating the best shows.
After Pandora's escape from her contract, she relied on all
of her girls to have the same dedication to the performance,
Rose√Ętre more than most.
Pandora. She'd always made the lead look easy. She'd walked
out on the stage and owned the audience. Rose√Ętre believed
Pandora could have shared the stage with twelve chimpanzees
and it wouldn't have mattered. Gazes would have been riveted
to the tawny nymph.
The white tiger stretched out his neck and yawned, showing
off a mouthful of glistening teeth. He flexed his paws,
claws scoring the stage. She wasn't fooled by the
sleepy–eyed expression or house–cat
similarities. Big cats weren't pets.
The rest of the dancers relaxed from their poses, some even
dropping down to coo and stroke the cats whose arrival had
elicited a long round of awws and aren't they sweets.
Rose√Ętre, however, shifted away from the cat with his
tickling whiskers and raspy tongue.
"Rose?" Heidi beckoned, a pen behind one ear and a notebook
tucked under her arm. She pursed her lips in a
you're–not–in–trouble–yet moue, but
the wrinkles knitting her brow told an entirely different
"Yes, ma'am?" Rose√Ętre didn't drag her feet. One certainly
never dragged Louboutins, but she couldn't quite resist
displaying her mutiny with an uplifted chin and wrinkled
Her nose twitched. Her sinuses burned. Her eyes threatened
tears. But she maintained her composure.
"Look, I know you're not thrilled with this idea." The
opening gambit was classic Heidi, softening her up for the
too–damn–bad often attached to those statements.
Closeted together at the far end of the stage, Rose√Ętre was
glad to be out of earshot of her shield–sister
Cerveau, the other dancers and thankfully, the damn tigers.
The Midnight Mystery Lounge was closed for an entire week so
the dancers could learn this new act. She'd woken to the bad
news that the diNapoli Tigers—tigers—were
joining the show for a three–month trial to drum up
business in the magical casino and resort.
"But you're just going to have to get over it. The
apothecary will provide you with a tea for your allergies.
We need this show and you're the headliner. That means you
and the tiger will be all over each other on that stage and
you're going to love it."
And there it was, the verbal slap demanding submission. The
command chafed. But a promise was a promise and she was as
bound by her oath as her shield–sister Cerveau was by
"Is there any way we can do this without cats?"
"Not really, no." The sympathy was real, but from Heidi's
compressed expression, the stage manager was plainly not on
Rose√Ętre's side. "I'm sorry, Rose. But the diNapoli Tigers
were an enormous success in Monaco and Paris. We need them
for resurgence of interest or the Overseers may very well
break up the show."
"Really?" Panic drifted under the surface of her skin,
sending her heart puttering. The Overseers controlled the
Arcana Royale, the sprawling complex where meta–humans
of all types were welcome and could be themselves. They
controlled the shows, the people and in the case of the
dancers, their souls. Breaking up the show meant the dancers
with varying leases on their souls could be placed elsewhere
at the Overseers' discretion.
Worse, Rose√Ętre and Cerveau could be separated. Rose√Ętre
couldn't allow that to happen. She'd sworn an oath. Pride
could be sacrificed. Honor could not.
A shield–borne oath was an oath.
"I'll try. It's not just the allergy, though."
"What is it?"
No simple answer existed. Rose√Ętre glanced over her shoulder
to where the great cats lounged. Some groomed themselves
while yet another rolled over on its back, presenting its
belly to Peppermint for attention. Of all the dancers,
Peppermint was the most gracious, the most loving and the
most likely to enjoy gamboling with the tigers on the stage.
"I assure you, nothing is wrong with my cats." The dark,
deep masculine tones teased up her spine. She jerked her
attention back to discover a bare–chested,
bare–footed blond god had joined them.
Oh my. Who did he kill to get those abs?
She snapped her jaw shut with a flicker of irritation, and
forced her gaze up from the hard six–pack of
clear–cut muscle to roam over the ripped planes of his
chest and shoulders.
Dear gods, does it end?
The cool dislike in his blue eyes slapped her back to the
present. Everything about the man seemed larger than life,
from his thick thighs, easily three times the size of hers,
to his wide hands and square, chiseled jaw.
"Rose√Ętre, Anthony diNapoli." Heidi's snapped introduction
rebuked her. "Anthony, this is our headliner, Rose√Ętre."
Be professional. She extended her hand and kept her gaze
focused above his chin. Despite the five additional inches
her designer shoes added to her considerable height, topping
at around six foot, the man towered over her.
And he inspected her with an air of detached amusement, his
gaze clearly dipping below her chin to where her breasts
strained against the confinement of the black leotard.
"Your pleasure, I'm sure." The bastard smiled and ignored
"Anthony's cats are in high demand, and he's graciously
consented to this trial contract so we're going to do the
best we can to make the most of this situation." Heidi
turned to Anthony as though unaware of the icy drop in
Rose√Ętre's regard. "We'll add extra rehearsal time so
Rose√Ętre and her cat can get used to each other."
We will? Incredulous, Rose√Ętre could barely pull her eyes
away from Anthony to look at the stage manager. "More
rehearsals?" Tired of holding her hand out to the air, she
let it drop.
"Absolutely." Heidi nodded briskly, clapping her hands and
striding away to gather the dancers, completely ignoring the
cats with the poise of one who was likely more dangerous
than the wild animals. "Ladies!"
Cerveau stood next to Kiki, Peppermint and Amber, the
question in her expression obvious, but Rose√Ętre shook her
head, waving her off with one short hand gesture. She didn't
"So what's your problem with cats, princess?" The words
shivered up her spine. Anthony's voice prowled behind her,
his body heat brushing against her in challenge and
"Does it matter?"
She didn't have to play nice. The bastard couldn't be
bothered to shake her hand.
"It might. You're going to be riding my tiger every night
for the next three months." The words dripped with mockery
and some other indefinable emotion.
Rose√Ętre shifted away, sparing him a dismissive look. She'd
practiced the art of cool disdain for years under her
mother's tutelage. He might call her princess in his low,
rolling sexy voice as a jest, but it didn't make it any less
"What's the problem now, princess?"
"You're getting sarcasm on my shoes." She lifted one, taking
great care to inspect it.
Anthony threw his head back and laughed, a deep
belly–trembling shout of amusement.
The noise drew the dancers' attention like children to free
chocolate. Cerveau's face twisted comically, a mixture of
censure and curiosity reddening her cheeks. She wouldn't
approve the tone, but she would appreciate the cause.
"You still haven't told me why you don't like my cats."
Head canted to the right, he studied her. The deep blue of
his eyes was enhanced by a circle of darker blue along the
iris. His pupils seemed to blink on their own, but that
wasn't possible. Rose√Ętre forced her gaze back to his
dimples, just barely disguised by the thick rush of blond
beard coating his cheeks.
"Cats are magnificent, bold and affectionate creatures. They
are slow to trust, but have unshakable loyalty."
"Until you're dead and then they just eat your corpse." She
He laughed again. "You don't need your body when you're
She was missing everything Heidi was saying to the other
dancers. Clearly, the stage manager didn't care because she
wasn't even looking in Rose√Ętre's direction, much less
shooting her with her optic laser beams of impatience.
"I'd rather my body was undisturbed, thank you very much.
The idea of anything feasting after I'm dead is
unappealing." Not to mention sacrilegious. A warrior's death
should be honored with blades and flame, never teeth.
Or, the gods forbid, a hairball. Rose√Ętre grimaced.
"Would you prefer they do it while you're alive?" The silken
whisper brushed against her ear. Tingles raced over her skin
from the sweep of his beard on her cheek.
Heart leaping, Rose√Ętre barely managed to suppress her
startled scream and settled for smacking his chest. The hard
muscles didn't even budge as her hand made contact, leaving
a vivid, white mark against the golden tan.
"You really need to stop doing that." Enough is enough. The
man might be here at Heidi's request or the Overseers', but
his job was to deal with the damn cats.
"Stop what?" The mock innocence coating his teasing grin
reminded her more of the tiger yawning than it did a
"Invading my bubble." She rolled her hand in the air between
them. "You haven't been invited into my bubble."
The coolness in his gaze warmed considerably, his grin
widened. He was obviously enjoying the hell out of her
"How does one get invited into your bubble?" He batted the
air in front of her, a downright playful gesture that sank
its claws into her belly.
Nope. Not going to be turned on.