Kiran is a tiger shifter without a past. Plucked from a hospital by Rohan and Ambar Patel, he has no recollection of arriving in Auckland. Nothing is familiar, but he's sure of one thing. Rohan Patel is an attractive man. He fires Kiran with longing. A stolen kiss and Kiran knows exactly what he wants.
Rohan's desire for the stranger steals his breath and pushes forward his plans to tell his sister he prefers males. Hurried embraces lead to an understanding, their growing relationship exhilarating. The urgent hunger between them is palpable, guaranteed to make any tiger purr with pleasure.
But weird flashes of memory hint at Kiran's terrible past. The truth might blow apart his blossoming romance with Rohan and hurt his new Middlemarch friends. A dilemma--push Rohan away or hold him close and place his lover in danger. It's a difficult choice, then it's too late. Danger stalks through Middlemarch, and they must fight for their love and their lives.
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November 13, 2009
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Excerpt from CatNap by Shelley Munro
"Rohan, you have to come right now!" Ambar skated to a halt in the doorway of their West Auckland grocery store and stared at his customer in consternation. "Um hello, Mrs. McPherson," his sister said. "How are you?"
"Was there anything else you needed today, Mrs. McPherson?" Rohan Patel asked, ignoring Ambar's dramatic arrival. Their parents had believed in efficient customer service and enforced the principle with their children until it became second nature.
"No, thank you, dear," the elderly lady said. "How much do I owe you?"
"Ten dollars and twenty cents," Rohan answered, and waited for her to dig misshapen hands deep into her cloth bag to find her purse. Ever since he could remember, the elderly lady had shopped at his parents' store. Both he and Ambar had practiced waiting on her until they'd perfected the standard of service his parents expected. In his peripheral vision, he noticed Ambar's frantic gesturing and frowned, the training of years hard to shake.
"I'll miss you when you leave. Where did you say you were going?" Mrs. McPherson asked.
"Ambar and I have purchased a business in the South Island, a place in Middlemarch." Rohan couldn't wait to move to the country with all the open land, the mountains and the freedom to run during their leisure time. It would be great to have the sign above their new store bearing their names instead of their parents, to know they worked for themselves.
"It won't be the same without you. Your parents were lovely. I suppose it must be difficult without them?"
"Yes, it is hard, which is why we decided to start again in fresh surroundings. Ambar will help you carry your shopping out to your car," Rohan said, frowning at Ambar in clear displeasure, his older-brother-knows-best face in place. This was still their parents' store even if they owned it on paper now.
Ambar's eyes narrowed. "But--"
"Ambar." Rohan's voice held a warning, and the faint tensing of her shoulders told him she'd received it. Customers came first. Always. Their parents' philosophy drummed into them over the years was the reason the store remained popular with the locals.
Rohan watched Ambar tamp down her frustration. She nodded and picked up Mrs. McPherson's two bags of purchases. Silently she held the door open and waited for the woman to lumber through, the tap of her walking stick on the floor and pavement outside marking her unsteady progress. The second the car door closed after the elderly woman, Ambar darted back into the store. She flipped the lock and put the Back in ten minutes sign in the window.
"Rohan we have to hurry. I saw another shifter. He was hurt, and they put him into an ambulance."
Alarm shot through Rohan. "Hell, why didn't you say so?" A shifter helpless in human hands, even if they meant well, could spell disaster. The last thing any feline wanted was a life of imprisonment and intrusive study.
Ambar sniffed and rolled her golden-brown eyes. "You didn't give me a chance."
"Do you know where they're taking him?"
"Auckland Hospital. What are we going to do?"
Rohan grabbed his wallet. "I don't know, but we can't let them do tests on him. What sort of shifter?"
"Tiger, I think, although I'm not one hundred percent sure. He was big enough. It all happened so quickly I didn't have a chance to scent him properly. He looked out of it. Before they shut the ambulance doors, he opened his eyes. I don't think anyone else saw his eyes shift except me."
Rohan hurried through the store, past the jams and breakfast cereals aisle, to the rear door. "We're the only tigers around here. Most of them live over on the north shore. Are you sure?"
"I'm not sure of anything. As I said, it was over in minutes. Maybe I'm mistaken because his skin was lighter than ours." Ambar snatched her car keys from the top of the desk in their small office as she passed. "We can discuss this once we have him safe. You know what will happen when his test results come back from the lab." She thrust the keys at her brother. "You drive. You're faster than me."
They hurried out the rear exit, locking the door after them. Rohan yanked open the car door and jumped behind the wheel.
"I can't believe you're letting me drive," Rohan said, lips quirking in silent laughter while he pulled out onto the main road.
"Just hurry. You didn't see him. I did. I wouldn't wish admittance to a public hospital on any shifter." She shuddered, and Rohan could see her mind leaping to all sorts of scenarios. "We need to come up with a plan."
"You realize I'll give you a hard time if this turns out to be a waste of time."
"I don't care," Ambar retorted. "At least this way I can live with my conscience. I'd never forgive myself if I let a fellow shifter suffer." She slapped her hand against the dashboard to catch herself when Rohan skidded around a corner. "Go easy. The last thing we need is a cop stopping us for speeding."
Rohan heeded the warning, slowing a fraction but still driving over the speed limit. They reached the hospital and spent fifteen frustrating minutes looking for parking. Finally they found a spot and hurried into the emergency department.
"How are we going to handle this?" Ambar whispered before they neared the desk.
"Let me do the talking," Rohan said. "And start thinking about JoJo."
Ambar drew a sharp breath, tears filling her eyes when he mentioned her beloved cat. Jojo had died of old age at the end of last year, only weeks after their parents lost their lives in a fatal car crash. "Jojo?"
"Perfect," Rohan said. "Excuse me. We've just heard our brother Jojo was hurt in some sort of an accident. Can we see him?"
A sob escaped Ambar, and Rohan felt a flicker of guilt for using her in this way. She'd loved that cat. It had taken a long time for her to gain Jojo's trust because he'd sensed their shifter genes. Rohan would have given up but Ambar hadn't.
"What is his surname?"
"Jojo Patel," Rohan said smoothly. "Although he might not know his name. He has blackouts sometimes. He's tall like us. He takes after our mother and his skin is fairer." Rohan crossed his fingers and hoped the stranger really was tall.
"Let me check," she said, picking up a phone.
Ambar sniffed and shot him a quick look of approval for his fast thinking. Rohan hid a grin because, initially after their parents' death, they'd argued about moving from the city to the country. She'd told him he was dim-witted with no original thoughts to rub together inside his head. Leave the thinking to her because she did a better job. Luckily, after more discussion she'd come to accept their move to Middlemarch wasn't such a bad one. Personally, he thought it was the large male-female ratio in Middlemarch that had swung Ambar's decision from negative to positive. Rohan had argued they needed to start over and living amongst other shifters would be a great start. There were too many of their parents' friends in Auckland who would judge them and try to offer unwanted advice.
Besides, Rohan had heard people in Middlemarch were more liberal when it came to same-sex relationships. He might even find the guts to admit his liking for males to his sister. A true fresh start. It would be good running through the countryside on a regular basis instead of slinking around in the dark of Western Springs reserve when the need to shift became too much for them. Good thing they were both on the same page now.
"You can go through now," the woman said. "The nurse will show you the way." She picked up a chart, and called, "Mr. James, you can go with the nurse now."
They waited for the patient to follow the nurse before trailing after them. Rohan sensed the uneasiness in his sister, the same tension lurking inside him. The smells and the sounds of the hospital were full of despair, the atmosphere sorrowful and downright depressing. This was dangerous. They both knew it, yet neither of them considered turning away from a fellow shifter in need.
"Can you smell anything?" Ambar whispered.
"Hospitals," Rohan replied, his eyes watchful as they passed patients on stretchers and caught glimpses of others inside curtained cubicles.
Ambar wrinkled her nose while Rohan tried to ignore the pungent scent of cleaning materials and sickness. Despondency. He could think of at least ten other places he'd rather be right now.
"In here," the nurse said with a smile and a quick gesture. "We're waiting for a doctor to see him again. It shouldn't be much longer."
Again. That didn't sound good. Rohan pulled the curtain aside, allowing a first glimpse of the man lying on the narrow stretcher bed. "Is that him?"
The man was attached to a monitor, and Rohan presumed it was to observe his heart rate and blood pressure. Maybe his oxygen. They'd also set up a drip, which might make things tricky when they tried to get him out of the hospital. On the plus side, the medical staff didn't seem to be all over him, which meant they hadn't found anything too suspicious.
Ambar stepped closer to the bed. "Yeah. Wow, he's prettier than I remembered."
Despite the gravity of the situation, brother and sister grinned at each other.
"He sure is," Rohan whispered, moving up beside her and letting the curtain fall back into place, mesmerized by the straight nose and faint beard. His hair was black and a bit unkempt. It didn't detract from his attractiveness, his dark eyelashes a silky fan below his eyes. Rohan wished he could see what color his eyes were. Ambar hadn't said, and he didn't like to ask.
He was a big man, although he appeared as if he might have been sick and hadn't recovered the weight he'd lost because the T-shirt swamped him. At peak fitness he'd look spectacular. Muscular. The stranger's sensual lips attracted Rohan's attention next, and he had to shake his carnal thoughts free before his body reacted and Ambar noticed.
"What do you think?" Ambar asked, her humor fading while she studied the stranger.
"That I wouldn't stand a chance of finding a partner if I hung out with him." Rohan leaned closer and wrinkled his nose, drawing the man's scent through his mouth and baring his teeth at the same time. The comical action helped him determine if the man was a tiger or something else. They weren't that far removed from their tiger cousins in their behavior, although they were more sociable.
Hospital smells. Laundry powder. Antiseptic wipes. Sweat and the underlying musk of man and wild tiger.
Rohan grunted and took the man's wrist, almost dropping it when he experienced an unexpected frisson of pleasure. "Tiger," he said tersely. "How the hell are we going to get him out of here? And where did he come from? We would have heard if any of the north shore tigers had a visiting relative. We would have received a summons to attend a welcome party."
The rapid slap-slap of rubber-soled shoes on the hard floor stopped directly outside and the curtain whipped open. A young woman wearing jeans and a buttoned white hospital coat stepped inside. A stethoscope hung around her neck.
"Are you family?" she asked.
"Our brother," Rohan said easily. He smoothed the man's dark hair away from his face, strangely reluctant to lose contact with the stranger. "JoJo."
Rohan took a calming breath and smiled. With his tall, muscular build and his golden-brown eyes, women adored him. Men too. Lucky for him. The mixed blood in their background, that of European and Eastern Indian, had favored both with above-average looks. Sometimes their physical appearance came in handy. Ambar winked at him, and he could practically read her thoughts. The woman wouldn't stand a chance if he turned on the charm.
"The ambulance crew said he had a seizure and collapsed." The woman tugged up the dirty T-shirt he wore and lifted her stethoscope to listen to his heart. "He seems stable. All the tests we've done indicate he's okay, but I'm worried because he hasn't regained consciousness. We're going to admit him to ICU for more tests." She frowned, pausing to listen again. "Weird," she muttered.
"Is something wrong, doctor?" Rohan asked.
"His heart...he has a heart murmur." Her face cleared. "Were you aware of that?"
Rohan glanced at Ambar and came to a quick decision. "No, is that a problem?"
The doctor shook her head. "A lot of people have heart murmurs and lead normal lives. I'm sending him to the ICU ward. Ah, here is the porter to take him now. You can go with him if you want."
Ambar leaned closer to Rohan and whispered in his ear. "What are we going to do? I wonder which tests they've done. If they've taken blood we're in trouble."
Rohan waited until the woman moved on to her next patient before answering. "A blood test is pretty standard when they're not sure what's happening. We have to get him out of here. Hopefully, it won't be as difficult if he's in a room."
"If he disappears they won't have any reason to look at the test results," Ambar said. "They're busy and that might work in our favor, but the staff will be everywhere in the ICU. It's not going to be easy."
"That's true." And unhooking him from the machines wouldn't be easy either.
They hurried to catch up, entering the elevator with the porter and the stranger, still on the stretcher bed. Five minutes later they entered a ward, the porter skillfully maneuvering the bed, the portable monitor and the drip.
"In the far room," a harried nurse said after checking the stranger's chart. "A nurse will attend to him in a few minutes."
"You're lucky this room is empty," the porter said, directing them to a room at the end of the corridor. "It will fill up tonight. Friday nights and weekends are busy around here." He left them with a wave.
"I repeat, what are we going to do? He's not even conscious," Ambar said. "We can't exactly steal the bed, and won't those machines beep when we remove everything?"
"We're gonna have to risk it. Maybe we can walk him out between the two of us. He's tall but looks underweight. Pretend he's going for a walk to the restrooms," Rohan said. "Whatever we decide, we've got to do it soon, preferably before they decide to put him in a hospital gown. He'll look more conspicuous with his ass hanging out a gown."
A loud beep sounded, followed by running footsteps. Ambar went to the doorway and glanced up and down the hall. "There seems to be a crisis in one of the other rooms. I think we should try to sneak him out now while they're all busy. There are visitors as well. Did you see a sign for the stairs? We should probably go down that way."
Rohan grimaced. "We're on the tenth floor."
"I'll make sure I tell our mystery man how you flexed your muscles," Ambar said with a grin. She turned back to the bed, her eyes widening. "He's awake."
"Who are you? Where am I?" His voice was low and husky, his eyes a beautiful shade that wasn't blue or green but a shade in between. He wrinkled his nose and sniffed in the same way Rohan had earlier, an expression of confusion racing across his face.
"Can you stand?" Rohan asked, trying not to react to the trace of panic in the blue-green eyes. He wanted to take the man in his arms and comfort him. "You're in a hospital. We need to get you out of here before we have a situation."
Ambar exchanged a telling glance with Rohan. The male displayed either confusion or plain stupidity. Rohan hoped he had intelligence in there somewhere because they were risking discovery by helping him.
"Who are you?" He scented Rohan and let out a soft purr. Moving closer, he rubbed his head against Rohan's arm, curling into his warmth.
"We're friends," Ambar said. "Please, let us help you."
The male rubbed against Rohan again. "Good friends?"
Rohan knew Ambar was watching and would notice the goofy grin on his face if he didn't pull his act together. From the moment he'd scented the other man, his gut had jingled with nerves. He'd never experienced such a huge wave of lust for another man before. The need to jump the stranger made him restless. He prowled to the door and stared down the corridor. The commotion continued in the other room, and he could hear someone in authority rattling out orders.
"What is wrong with you?" Ambar muttered with a trace of impatience. "We have to get out of here. Now."
Yep, she'd noticed. The urgency in Ambar's voice prompted him to shake off the weird compulsion to touch the stranger's mouth with his and rub all over him, marking the man with his scent.
"Let me help you stand." Rohan slung his arm around the man's shoulders, barely suppressing a shiver of awareness. With Ambar on the man's other side, they managed to get him upright.
Ambar heard footsteps heading in their direction. "Hurry, someone's coming."
A nurse entered the room, coming to an abrupt halt when she saw the mystery male standing between them. "What are you doing? He should be in bed."
"Don't like hospitals," the male said. "Taking me home."
"That's right," Rohan said smoothly, winking at the nurse.
Ambar released the male and took the nurse's arm after gesturing her to come closer. "Sorry," she said.
"Why?" the nurse asked.
Ambar grabbed her and pressed down on her neck. Seconds later the nurse slumped against Ambar's chest, and she hauled her toward the hospital bed.
Rohan scowled at his sister as he removed everything attached to the man and hoped for the best. "What did you do that for? Is she okay?" His breath eased out when no alarms went off. He hesitated when it came to the drip, gave a sharp tug and jerked it out of the back of the man's hand. It didn't bleed much, which was a relief. "Ambar?"
"Just unconscious." Ambar lifted the nurse onto the bed and pulled the covers over her so only the back of her head showed. "I don't like it any more than you do," she retorted when he frowned at the nurse. "But one of us had to do something. I guess you won't make fun of me for reading so much. Funny the stuff you learn in books."
"Let's go," Rohan said, shaking his head. His sister was amazing and going into business with her was one of the best decisions he'd made. He and Ambar were close. They both liked it that way, which made it imperative to talk to her about his sexual orientation soon.
"Never mind the stairs," Ambar said. "We'll take a chance with the elevator. If we act with confidence maybe no one will notice our departure."
Rohan didn't reply. He couldn't. The stranger's scent pervaded every breath he took, filling him with hope and sexual arousal. He concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and prayed Ambar didn't notice his predicament. A hospital gown would have killed him. The tight black jeans were bad enough, leaving nothing to his imagination. The man had an ass he'd kill to have the right to touch.
Ambar darted to the bank of elevators and pressed the call button. They waited in tense silence, watching the indicator lights. A woman and two young children joined them, apprehension ratcheting up inside Rohan. A nurse walked past, her gaze scanning them. Her gaze halted on the stranger. She hesitated then continued past to the reception desk.
The stranger leaned on him, breathing audibly. Rohan sensed the mother and children watching them and prayed the elevator would arrive soon. He didn't like it here, the fear of capture, the danger to all of them rippling through his mind like a bad action movie sequence.
At last the elevator arrived, the doors sliding open in a smooth whir. Ambar stepped inside the car and took possession of a corner. She stepped aside, allowing him and the stranger to maneuver behind her. She took up a position in front of them, reminding Rohan of a guard.
The stranger patted his ass, making Rohan jump. Okay, this weird attraction wasn't only on his side. Just as well Ambar couldn't see. Rohan took a deep breath and removed the male's hand, frowning at him. The low masculine chuckle in reply to his silent censure created a raft of goose bumps on Rohan's arms and legs. Rohan's scowl deepened and worry creased his forehead. They'd never make it out of here if the stranger created a scene.
The ride to the ground floor took ages, the elevator stopping on every level. The tension inside Rohan increased with every hospital staff member who joined them inside the elevator.
Finally the elevator stopped on their floor. Ambar took the stranger's other arm and they exited with confidence despite his wobbly gait.
"Wait!" a masculine voice shouted behind them.
Fear jumped inside Rohan, and he caught the flicker of panic on his sister's face. The stranger merely looked confused.
"Yes?" Rohan said, his tone not far from a snarl as he studied the hospital employee. He watched the man's face, ready to run if necessary.
"You dropped your wallet," the man said, extending his hand.
"Huh! My brother would lose his head if it wasn't attached to his shoulders," Ambar said with a laugh. She stepped forward to accept the wallet.
"Thanks," Rohan said with a jerk of his head. Damn, he wanted to get out of here. Now.
"You smell good," the stranger said, his warm breath tickling across Rohan's ear.
A spear of pleasure shot through Rohan, sinking to his groin. A teenager's giggle brought him back and reminded him of the danger. Aware his sister had heard as well, Rohan started for the exit, shouldering most of the stranger's weight.
When they'd almost reached the car, Ambar ran ahead to unlock it. She opened the rear door and stood aside to let him help the stranger inside.
Rohan breathed deep, ultra aware of the attraction simmering between him and the stranger. With his arm around the man's shoulders, he could feel the heat coming off the shifter's body. Rohan's cock filled enough to worry him. He held his breath, trying to think of cold things, mindful of Ambar standing behind them.
This wasn't the way he wanted her to find out about his preference for males. He scowled again. A tiger shifter and one he didn't know. What were the chances?
Grunting, he manhandled the stranger into the rear of Ambar's car, wishing they'd kept his SUV instead of selling it. That would have been much easier than squeezing the man into Ambar's small car. They'd sold Ambar's car as well, and the new owner would take possession on the day they left for Middlemarch. Rohan couldn't wait to take delivery of the new SUV they'd ordered in Dunedin.
"I like you," the stranger whispered. "Wanna fuck?"
Hell! Rohan went stock-still, his heart pounding so loud he was sure Ambar would hear the thumpity-thump as it beat against his ribs. And that wasn't all that was hard. His dick pressed against the fly of his jeans with an insistent pressure that made him want to rearrange himself for comfort. He cursed softly and attempted to move. The stranger gripped his shoulders and yanked him forward. Off balance, Rohan landed on top, both of them lying on the backseat. Seconds later the stranger kissed him on the mouth.
Rohan froze. Pull away. Laugh it off. Blame the kiss on the stranger not being in his right mind. All these thoughts flashed through Rohan's mind, yet he followed none of them. The warm touch of the male's lips moving beneath his held temptation, pushed against his restraint. His cock bucked, and when the stranger moved against him, Rohan gave up his losing fight. Rohan kissed him back despite the fact Ambar was watching. Despite the fact they were still parked in the hospital car park and in danger.
When Rohan finally lifted his head, they were both breathing hard. They stared at each other, the stranger lifting his hand to caress Rohan's cheek.
"Is there something you want to tell me?" Ambar asked in a choked voice. "Huh, maybe when we get home," she added in a hurry. "Get into the car properly. Now. And keep down. Grab the blanket and pull it over him. I'll drive."
Heart pumping with the urgency he heard in Ambar's voice, Rohan crawled inside, lifted the stranger's legs clear of the door, grabbed the tartan blanket from the back and spread it over them both. The car door slammed behind them.
"Kiss me again," the stranger said in a loud voice.
"We are really going to talk when we get home," Ambar said tartly.
The car started, turning sharply and throwing them both off balance.
"Drive slow and smoothly," Rohan said. "We don't want to attract attention."
"Shush. I need to concentrate."
Rohan shut up. A mistake because then he had time to appreciate his proximity to the stranger, take in his scent and feel the hardness of the man's erection pressing into his hip.
Rohan kissed him, telling himself it was a good way of shutting the stranger up. The first kiss had started off as a mashing of lips with no finesse. This one was different, as if the other man felt more alert. His tongue licked across the seam of Rohan's lips and he pressed the tip against the corner of Rohan's mouth. Immediately, Rohan envisaged penetration. A shot of pure lust converged in his gut, the reverberation ending in his balls. He gasped, feeling more turned-on than he could ever remember. And he didn't even know the man's name. The thought drifted away when pitched against the touch of the man's lips, sucking and nibbling on the tendons of his neck.
"I like kissing you," the stranger said. "You make me hot. I can't wait to fuck you."