"Mike? Mike, it's time to get up!"
Groaning, Houston turned on his side, jamming his face
into the feather pillow. Damn, he thought groggily, he'd
had that nightmare again. A flashback really, the same
he'd had a hundred times before...
"Uh, yeah...I'm awake...." he muttered.
Where was he? Rolling over, he forced his eyes open. The
plain timbers of the Santa Fe architecture of the room
his eyes, reminding him he was no longer in the jungle.
The sounds were different here. He heard the crow of a
nearby rooster and the soft snort of some horses in a
corral. As he blinked the sleep out of his eyes, he heard
the lowing of cattle, too. Oh yeah, he remembered
suddenly. He was staying at the Donovan Ranch near
Arizona. Helluva long way from his normal digs.
He shoved himself upright in the old brass bed, the
falling away to expose his naked chest and upper body.
When he got the chance, he never slept with clothes on â€”
even pajamas â€” preferring nakedness instead. All too
in his work he had to sleep in his fatigues, ready to
up and start moving at a moment's notice. In fact,
sleeping in a bed was a luxury for him.
Savagely rubbing his face to wake up, Mike felt the stiff
prickle of beard beneath his fingers. He'd had that post-
traumatic-stress-disorder dream again, reminding him of
who he really was, of what made him different from other
men, other human beings. Scowling, he shook his head and
sent the fragments of memory back into the depths of that
cauldron, his subconscious. More like Pandora's box with
an ugly twist, he thought with a sleepy grin.
What time is it? he wondered, shoving his feet from
beneath the covers and placing them on the cool cedar
floor. The clock on his bed stand said 0800.
Dr. Ann Parsons had called him from the next room, he
realized belatedly. The alarm clock must have gone off
he hadn't heard it. Damn. He'd promised Morgan Trayhern
that he'd meet him at 0800 to get the details of his next
mission. Grunting, Mike launched himself out of bed and
stretched. He liked the feeling of each group of muscles
in his body bunching, stretching and relaxing. Arcing his
arms over his head, he closed his eyes and appreciated
physical strength. It was one helluva body, one that had
more scars on it, had taken more blows and survived more
Exhaling loudly, he ran his fingers through his military
short, dark hair and headed to the bathroom that adjoined
his room. As he padded across the pale gold floor, he
remembered his nightmare. A smile cut across his thinned
lips as he opened the door to the shower and turned it
Nine years had passed since that incident in the jungle,
and at thirty-five years of age, he still dreamed about
that miraculous, life-changing event.
As he stepped into the pummeling stream of hot water for
his morning shower â€” another luxury â€” the steam roiled in
clouds around him reminding him of the endless twisting
clouds that haunted the jungles of South America. He
grabbed the soap and began to briskly wash himself. There
was nothing like a hot shower to get the blood flowing
wake him up. For the first hour of the morning Houston
a bear of sorts, until he was fully awake and had poured
cup of good, black espresso down his gullet. Then and
then was he human and not growling or snarling at
everyone. Mike had a reputation of being a grizzly in the
Soaping his left arm, he blinked away the water running
rivulets across his face. Grinning, he studied the burn
scars on his darkly haired arm, reminding him of his
escape from the flaming copter that had been shot down.
Various white scars from shrapnel that had exploded from
the craft after it had crashed were also visible
of that day he'd faced death and won.
But he no longer saw a tuft of gold fur with black
crescents across it. Scrubbing his arm, Mike turned his
face into the stream of hot water. That old shaman from
the village, Grandfather Adaire, had informed him that
Mike's guardian had guided him to rescue Mike and care
him. It took nearly a week of rest in that remote jungle
village known as the Village of the Clouds before Houston
had been in any shape to decide whether he wanted to live
Mike recalled how his men at the military barracks just
outside of Lima called him El Jaguar, or the jaguar god â€”
the man who had returned from the dead. Jaguars were
believed to be the only animal able to do that, according
to legends about them that abounded throughout South
America. Everyone had thought Mike died with the other
of his squad in that crash. But he hadn't. And he never
told anyone of his strange adventure through life, death
and life again. They'd have called him loco â€” crazy. No
one would ever know the truth of what had really happened
Only that old shaman, his white hair sticking out around
his head like a hen's nest, seemed to know exactly what
had happened. Mike had been too weak to question him.
Inca, the young Indian girl from Brazil with the willow
green eyes and long black hair, had fed him nourishing
soup, kept him warm and tended him hourly in a hut near
the shaman's dwelling in the village. For that entire
week, Inca had cared for him like he was a newborn baby.
She was only eighteen years old, an orphan who had been
adopted by Adaire and his wife, Alaria. Every time Adaire
dropped by to see how well Mike was recovering, the old
shaman would laugh the laugh of a man who knew an inside
joke. Only Mike didn't know the joke and the shaman
seem particularly desirous of letting him in on it.
After washing his hair, Mike quickly rinsed, shut off the
shower and climbed out. Rubbing himself briskly with a
thick, white, terry-cloth towel, he reveled in the
sensations it created across his goose-bump-covered
Funny, but since that incident nine years earlier, he'd
become far more aware of his body than ever before. He
walked away from his experience in the jungle with a
of pleasure about his tall, strong physical form that
not had previous to his brush with death. Sometimes he
felt like a great, giant cat stretching. And if he ran,
could feel the joy of blood pumping through him, the
incredible power in his muscles. It was a euphoric
sensation, one that he'd come to enjoy.
Hurrying through the rest of his morning duties, Mike
quickly dressed in his camouflage fatigues, put his
spotless, shining boots on and placed his beret in the
left epaulet of his blouse. Taking one more look in the
steamy mirror, he saw staring back at him a man who
like one tough hombre, in his opinion. His blue eyes were
large, though more often they were narrowed, focusing on
something that would catch his wary attention. Tiny white
scars stood out against his recently shaved jaw. The many
lines at the corners of his eyes and the slash brackets
either side of his pursed mouth shouted of his military
hardness. He was a major in Special Forces and damn proud
of it. He'd survived thirteen long years in the Peruvian
jungle, where life was often snuffed out in a heartbeat
vengeful drug lords.
Glancing at the watch on his hairy wrist, he realized
better get a move on. He'd just hurry out to the kitchen,
grab his very necessary cup of espresso and gulp it down
before meeting Morgan. And he was anxious to get to that
meeting for another reason beside the fact that he was
late. Though Mike had enjoyed the peace and quiet of this
ranch, he had discovered other, greater benefits to
staying there â€” such as spending time with the good
doctor. Dr. Ann Parsons had been assigned to tend to
Morgan and his wife's recovery, while Mike had been
assigned to keep guard. And he certainly hadn't minded
working with the pretty M.D.
Even better than seeing his boss today, Mike decided as
opened the door to his bedroom, he'd get to sit and look
at Ann once more. Smiling to himself, he realized he was
looking forward to that pleasure most of all. Even though
she also worked for Morgan at Perseus, a high-level,
supersecret government entity, he wouldn't see her after
today. Houston wanted to take every opportunity to absorb
her beauty before they parted ways. Sighing as he walked
down the gleaming hallway, he knew he could easily fall
love with Ann. If he allowed himself to. The price that
they'd pay, however, would be too high. Besides, his keen
interest in her was only one-sided. Yes, they'd shared a
number of heated, promising kisses over the last two
months, but she wasn't really interested in him as much
he wished she were. Ann was afraid of commitment, Mike
realized. Why, he didn't know.
The memory of her sweet, soft mouth beneath his made him
go hot with yearning all over again. Ann enjoyed their
stolen moments together, there was no doubt. So why did
she keep pushing him away? He'd seen the desire in her
thoughtful blue-gray eyes after one of their torrid,
hungry kisses. Had felt her tremble deliciously in his
arms. The hunger in her eyes went all the way through
So what had stopped her every damn time? Mike was
confused. He'd tried to get Ann to open up, to talk about
it, but she wouldn't. It was like hitting a damn brick
wall. But he didn't press Ann any longer. Because
this was the first time in a long time he found himself
wanting a woman, being with Ann wasn't a game with him,
either. Mike didn't see her as a one-night stand or
someone to amuse himself with while he was here in
Arizona. He, too, was wary of having a relationship and
knew he couldn't have things both ways. But what really
did he want with her?
The realistic side of him told him that even though he
could fall hopelessly in love with her if he threw
to the wind, their relationship could go nowhere anyway.
Not with his jaded past. Not with his dangerous present
and future. His heart ached. He reluctantly admitted that
he'd felt a lot of things for Ann over the past two
and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.
Houston ruminated sadly, it was just as well she kept her
distance from him â€” for whatever secret reasons she held.
Anyone he had ever loved had died. It was that
heartbreakingly simple. A fact. And he had no desire to
see Ann die. Hell...
More than anything, Mike respected Ann. She had started
out as an Air Force flight surgeon and her training also
included work as a psychiatrist. Now a medical doctor for
Perseus, she was very good at what she did. Her work with
Morgan had often placed her in danger; she was frequently
assigned to fly in and pick up wounded mercenaries when
they got into more trouble than they'd bargained for.
decided that maybe Ann had made a pact with herself a
time ago not to get involved with military types. Oh, he
didn't blame her there. Hell, a military man could be
alive one moment, dead the next. And where did that leave
the woman who loved him? Alone, without the man she'd
hoped to have around for a long, long time. Her lover
gone â€” forever.
Too bad. She's a looker. Tall, leggy, self-confident, she
had a gutsiness he admired. There was nothing about the
thirty-two-year-old doctor that didn't appeal to him.
she didn't see him in the same light. Maybe her womanly
instincts warned her how different he really was. Maybe
she was picking up on his secret life and it was scaring
her away from him....
Mike turned the corner and headed to the kitchen. Hell,
any woman who took one look at his hard-bitten, scarred
countenance and heard of his fearsome reputation would
the other way. He was one mean son of a bitch and he had
his actions in Peru to prove it.
Down there they called him the jaguar god because he
seemed to have nine lives like the most powerful hunter
the South American jungle â€” the dreaded, mystical jaguar.
The drug lords feared Mike and they damn well should.
Those bastards had destroyed his mother's helpless
and as long as Houston could take a breath into his body,
his whole life would be geared to eradicating them from
Maybe that's why no women wanted to become involved in a
long-term relationship with him. They wouldn't be the
focus of his life or his attentions. Houston couldn't
blame them. Still, he'd miss Ann Parsons like hell. Her
soft, exploratory kisses, the hunger she sparked in him
would be no more. It was a damn shame. For she was a
who could not only turn his head, but even make him
consider devoting a little time to her instead of the
man war he waged continuously against the cocaine
When Houston reached the kitchen, he heard voices.
Groaning inwardly, he realized it was Ann's honeyed,
cultured tone and Morgan Trayhern's deep, probing voice.
Mike was so late the meeting was already underway. As he
headed for the espresso machine, he heard them in the
living room talking animatedly, like the good friends
were. Ann had worked for Morgan almost from the time he'd
created Perseus many years ago. It was then he saw the
note beside the tiled sink, next to the espresso
machine. "In case you oversleep," it said in Ann's
scrawl." No one could read her writing but him, and he'd
teased her about it mercilessly during the eight weeks
they had been at the Donovan Ranch babysitting Morgan and
Mike hurriedly snapped on the machine. Ann had ground the
coffee, put it in the small basket and filled the steel
container with fresh water that would soon be boiling,
ready to percolate his desperately needed espresso. A
mirthless, one-cornered smile cut into the hard planes of
Mike's face. Though Ann didn't like him to the degree he
fancied her, she had a good heart. She'd even taken pity
on the likes of him.
Houston poked his head around the entrance to the living
room of the cabin he was staying in on the ranch. They'd
agreed to meet at his cabin and he saw Morgan, dressed in
a pair of jeans and a red plaid, flannel shirt, sitting
the end of a leather couch, near the open fireplace. Ann
stood in front of the blazing flames, which brought out
the red and gold highlights in her shoulder-length, sable
hair. She was rubbing her long, thin surgeon's hands
together vigorously, warming herself.