Southern Shifters: Finding Luke (Kindle Worlds Novella)

Text copyright ©2016 by the Author.

This work was made possible by a special license through the Kindle Worlds publishing program and has not necessarily been reviewed by Eliza Gayle. All characters, scenes, events, plots and related elements appearing in the original Southern Shifters remain the exclusive copyrighted and/or trademarked property of Eliza Gayle, or their affiliates or licensors.

For more information on Kindle Worlds: http://www.amazon.com/kindleworlds

Finding Luke
Kindle Worlds Southern Shifters
V. Vaughn
Sugarloaf Press
Foreword

H
air stylist Xena Lewis
has waited her whole life for the perfect mate. As she gets older she’s begun to run out of eligible men in Deal’s Gap, so she moves closer to the tourists in Nantahala State park in hopes of finding the man of her dreams. When her busybody mother books her to cut Luke Robichaux’s hair, Xena and her cat purr with pleasure. She’s so taken with him she doesn’t notice he’s not a werecougar, and when she does, more than fur flies.

L
uke Robichaux moved
to North Carolina to find himself, and what he discovers is so much better - his mate in cougar form. Rawrr. The moment he scented Xena Lewis he knew the cat was his, and when she presented him with her finest assets he thought she was on board with the plan. While Xena struggles to get over Luke being a werebear, other members of her clan make their union impossible if they plan to stick around. Xena and Luke have to decide if their mate attraction is strong enough for them to leave the prejudice behind.

C
over by Croco Designs

Editing by Jodi Henley and Red Adept Publishing

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Chapter 1

M
y makeup brush
taps in quick succession as I shake off the excess powder. I swipe the brush over the dark spot on my cheek, the kind of mark that is sun damage that shows up with age. I sigh. It might be the fact that I just turned thirty-five and am still single, but everything feels wrong and has for some time.

Moisture dampens my skin, and I check the thermostat on the wall. The air conditioning is on, so I shouldn’t be overheated, but with my luck, I’m probably having hot flashes before my time. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but lately I don’t feel as if I belong in this town. I step back and smooth out my tight skirt before twisting around to check out my ass in the mirror. Fortunately that’s still as plump and high as someone who’s twenty-five.

My best friend Gigi’s scissors snip, and I glance over at her station next to mine. She’s cutting the hair of an older man, and he winks at me as he scans my body with his eyes.
Too old, Grandpa.
Although I appreciate the gesture. I smile at him before I turn on my heel and head to the front desk.

My mother is the receptionist at Turning Heads Salon, which Gigi and I own. Opal clucks her tongue as I approach. “I tell you I’ve booked you with the new guy in town, and you’re wasting time checking on me instead of your cleavage? Hoist those girls up, Xena.” She grabs her own breasts and lifts them. “They’re not perky.”

My mother thinks I’m a failure because I’m without a mate. But I have no intention of settling for anyone less than perfect.

I roll my eyes at her. “Maybe you should go out with him. Do the cougar thing?” I chuckle at my bad joke. Although I probably shouldn’t laugh, because I might have to start checking out a younger dating pool if I ever hope to find a mate.

Opal, Gigi, and I are werecougars, and we can and do shift into wild cats. But here, near the Nantahala outdoor center in North Carolina, most people don’t know about our kind.

“This guy’s new in town, and when he walked in, I knew he’d be just the one to butter your biscuit,” says Opal. “Besides, he doesn’t know about your track record.”

My gums ache as my fangs push at them, and I resist the urge to snarl at her. My mother thinks I’m too picky. Unfortunately, once I’d made my way through the werecougars in my clan, I resigned myself to the fact that I’m going to end up alone, because I have no intention of mating with anyone other than a mate my cat wants too.

I walk over to the coffee station and discreetly hoist up my breasts as I go. Gigi bought one of those fancy one-cup deals a while back, but Opal prefers the more traditional drip coffee maker. It’s easier to pour from the pot, so the new machine sits next to it for customers who want something else. The aroma of hazelnut wafts up toward me as I fill my mug. I take a sip, and the tiny bell over the salon door jingles.

I turn to see who entered. My interest is immediately piqued, because the guy takes up the doorway. His shoulders are broad, and his long hair is dark blond. My cat begins to purr. The new guy in town
is
hot and most definitely a shifter.

“Wow,” whispers Gigi, and I glance over at her to see she’s noticed my next client too.

Opal’s giggle makes me cringe. She’s pushing sixty but still acts as if she’s the cat’s meow. I’ve been annoyed with my mother lately, and I thought I’d gotten past that a decade ago. My heels click as I saunter over to meet him.

Opal says, “Luke Robichaux, meet Xena.”

He extends his hand, and when I take it, my fingers get lost in his large grip. My cat purrs,
You know what they say about big hands.
My insides tingle as I tell my cat to shut up. I inhale a scent that I can’t place, but it’s not wolf, and that makes me smile. I take in his sizable chest, and before I realize it, I’ve glanced down to notice his large bulge too.
Me-ow.
I resist the urge to sigh.

“Right this way, Luke.” I turn and put a little sway in my hips as I lead him to my station. My mood just did a one-eighty.

When we get there, I turn the chair for him, and after he sits, I bend over and present my cleavage to him as I retrieve an apron. Hey, my cat usually gets the sexual compatibility right, and I’m not exactly a prude.

The snaps are cool in my fingers as I connect the vinyl covering around his thick neck. I inhale his musky odor. His scent is like nothing I’ve ever smelled before, and I find it strangely attractive. It’s as if I’m supposed to be repelled, but I’m not.

Dangerous.
My cat senses something too, but she’s not afraid. She wants him, and it makes me suspect he’s some kind of cat.

Luke tugs on the front section of his hair to lift it up. “I need a lot cut off. This just gets in the way at work.”

I comb through his hair with my fingers to get a feel for the texture. It’s smooth and thick. I have a sudden urge to wrap it around my hand and pull.

“Make it short,” he says.

Damn, there’s goes the fantasy of yanking on those blond locks. I gaze in the mirror at eyes that are deeper than the bluest summer sky. “Sure. What do you do for work?”

“I’m a rafting guide.”

He’s larger than most werecougar men, so I suspect a lion, but it seems odd he’d want to be in the water all day.

“So it gets in your eyes.” I twist a strand around my finger, and it’s smooth on my skin as I let it slip off. “And I’ll bet it’s hot too.”

“It is.” I notice his grin in the mirror and snap out of my trance.

“Okay, then. Let’s get you over to the sink.”

One of the great things about cutting hair on a sexy man is that I get to touch him. I take my time massaging his scalp as I shampoo, because now that I’ve got him in my hands, I don’t want to let go.

He says, “You’ve got an incredible touch, Xena.”
Why yes, I do.
“This feels wonderful.”

“So I’m told.” I lean over to reach the faucet to flip it off. We’re close enough that I could easily graze my breasts across his face, but I refrain. The footrest clunks as I lower it, and I lift the seat up for Luke to stand. I say, “Back to the chair, please.”

This time I walk behind him to watch his gait. It’s not as graceful as a cougar’s, and I decide he’s probably not a panther either. Maybe he’s a tiger, although I’m not sure what he’d be doing in the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains.

My comb is slick in my hand as I untangle his mane. “Opal tells me you’re new in town. Where did you come from?”

“Up north.”

Mysterious. I wonder if he’s got a past he doesn’t want to share, because most people don’t seek out a remote area like this to relocate. I change the subject because I’ve got more important things I want to know. “How long have you been here?”

“A week.”

Good. I squeeze hair between my fingers, and my scissors are firm in my grip as I snip. He’s probably still single. “You’re brand new here.” His scent is caressing me, and my cat begins to purr. “How are you settling in?”

Luke’s mouth turns up in a cocky grin as if he heard my animal. Most likely he can smell my arousal instead. “So far so good.”

I twist his chair so that he’s facing me, and I lean in close to cut his bangs. I ask, “Finding everything okay?”

He leans in even closer, and his breath is hot on my chest as he says, “I’m good with the basics.”

I’ll bet.
“There’s the Eddy, a bar outside of town, if you’re looking for something to do.”

I step back, and his gaze lifts to my face as he asks, “I’m trying to stay away from bars, so what else is there around here?”

I’ve got a few ideas.
I wonder if he has a problem with the bottle. While I like a drink or two, getting drunk has never been my thing. I fluff his hair to remove any stray bits left from my scissors. “There’s a small movie theater and a few restaurants. But that’s about it.”

The pump on the hair gel container clicks as I place a dollop on my palm. I rub my hands together as Luke’s voice lowers to a sexy tone. “So people make their own fun.”

He might as well have dragged his finger along the junction between my legs, because the effect is almost the same. I inhale in a controlled manner to catch my breath as I rub product through his hair. Once I’ve regained my composure, I answer, “Yes. Yes, they do.”

I grab a mirror for Luke and notice I’m trembling when I hand it to him. He grasps it over my fingers and says, “I’m going to need your card.”

I reach over, and the thick paper is slick in my hand when I grab my business card. I manage to drop it, and it flutters to the floor. When I retrieve it, I bend over with straight legs to present my finest asset to him. I blame that move on my cat. There’s no mistaking the low growl that comes from him when I do.

When I hand Luke the card, his touch makes me want to drop to my knees. I can’t remember the last time I was this attracted to a man, and I breathe through my nose to calm myself. I detect that his scent is laced with the desire I feel. Opal is going to be thrilled that I plan to give this guy a chance. I gaze at his plump lower lip and bite mine as I imagine what he’d taste like. And I’m not thinking about just his mouth.

“I’ll need to see you again, Xena.”

We need him too, says my cat.
“Sure.”
Sure? That’s all you’ve got?

Luke releases my fingers and glances in the mirror to inspect my handiwork. I remove the cape, and it snaps as I shake it.

“Nice,” he says. He scans me with his gaze. “Very nice.”

He stands, and I stare into eyes that appear even deeper in color than when I first noticed them.
His cat wants me.
I think his human does too.

He asks, “What time are you done tonight? Maybe we could get dinner.”

Rawrr!
“Seven thirty.”

“Then I’ll be back at seven thirty.”

I clench my fists to hold back my cougar before I start to rub up against Luke. “I look forward to it.”

I watch him walk toward the reception desk to pay and will my legs to keep me standing. I turn to go to the back room and discover Gigi’s jaw hanging. She grabs my arm so hard that I think I might be bruised. My heels scrape along the floor as I scurry to keep up with her as she drags me to the back room.

When we get there, she hisses, “Holy crap! Does he have a brother? Because I want one too.”

I shrug. “I have no idea.” What I do know is that our attraction is off-the-charts hot, and I think I’ve found my mate. I waggle my eyebrows at her. “But if things go well, I’ll ask.”

Chapter 2

T
urning
Heads closes at seven on Mondays. Opal was full of unwanted advice on how not to blow my date as I cleaned my station, but I manage to shoo her out before Luke arrives. Gigi might have wanted to stay too, but she has her book club and left five minutes ago. I’m glad, because my cat is the jealous type, and we have no intention of sharing Luke Robichaux’s attention.

At seven thirty on the nose, Luke is at the door, and the lock clicks open as I let him in.

He says, “Hey.”

I manage to get a “Hi” out before his masculine scent accosts me. I don’t know what it is about Luke, but his sex appeal seems to be ten times that of the men I’m used to. Now that his hair is short, the strong cheekbones on his face are more prominent. “I’ll just be a minute to get my purse.”

He follows me, and I feel like I’m playing a game of cat and mouse, with me as the willing rodent. I glance over my shoulder to discover he’s still following with his gaze on my bottom. My insides quiver.

I turn my head forward again as my body hums for this man. When I get to the back room, I stop to grab my pocketbook from the counter.

Luke steps close behind me, and a tiny shiver runs through my body when he lifts the hair off my neck and leans down to whisper in my ear, “Your scent is driving me wild.”

I’m mesmerized by the sound of his voice, and my bottom brushes against his crotch as he wraps an arm around my waist to pull me closer.

I lean against him willingly as he says, “Just a taste before we go.” Luke nibbles on my neck, and I let out a small noise as my cat purrs. His erection is hard between my butt cheeks as his kisses continue.

I reach back to place my hand on the back of his neck, and I let out a small moan. His newly shaven nape is rough on my fingers as I slide them up to caress his scalp. I drag my nails along it as I scratch lightly. He moves his mouth toward my shoulder. For such a simple gesture, it’s incredibly hot, and moisture is warm between my legs as I lose myself in his touch.

He breaks away to say, “We’re going to be good, Xena.”

I can’t speak, so I turn to him and clear my throat. “There’s a great diner down the street.” I brush past Luke and hurry for the door before my cat makes me lay on my desk to beg for a different kind of meal.

The walk to the restaurant is short, but the cool spring air is enough to tamp down my desire. I notice that the discomfort I’ve been feeling with my surroundings lately isn’t present, and I bet it’s hidden because of the lust coursing through my veins. Luke impresses me when he opens the diner door for me and then places his hand at the small of my back as I walk in. It’s a seat-yourself establishment, so I take us to a booth in the back.

The vinyl cushion is cool on my bottom as I slide into my seat. “I know this place doesn’t look like much, but the food is really good.”

“It’s fine.” Luke glances at me over his menu. “Simple and direct is what I want.”

A man who doesn’t play games. Nice. Because I have plans for this guy, and I’m going to flirt with the intention of taking him home. I glance at Jenny, the waitress, as she sets down two glasses of water.

She gasps when Luke gazes at her too, and she hits the cup with her hand, making it splash water on the table. Jenny lets out a nervous giggle before she says, “I’m so sorry. Be right back.”

Luke winks at me. He clearly knows his effect on women, and I’m not sure what to do with it.
Hissss. Let me at her.
Does he like his females to be jealous? I shrug and go with honest. “I make no promises about the service.”

I’m startled when Luke places his hand on my bare knee. He says, “I’m not concerned about that either.” He lowers his palm to lift my leg, and his caress as he slides his fingers down to my ankle ramps up my temperature all over again. Now my foot is in his lap, and he removes my shoe. “I imagine you’ve had a long day standing.”

Strong fingers massage my toes, and I let out a small sigh as Jenny returns. This time Luke doesn’t break my gaze as she speaks. We place our order, and I think Jenny might actually huff before she leaves. I can’t be sure, because I’m melting from the power of Luke’s massage as I’m trapped in his stare.

He says, “Lean back and
feel
it, Xena.”

I feel it just fine, but the seat is hard against my shoulder blades when I sit back with a sigh. I repeat what he said to me earlier today. “You’ve got an incredible touch. This feels wonderful.”

“So I’m told.” He leans forward as his hand slides up my leg well past my knee, and whispers, “I can’t wait to touch more.”

Oh goodness. A thump on our table makes me jump, and I turn to Jenny.

She squints at me. “Sodas.”

Luke chuckles as she walks away, and my shoe is cool on my sole when he replaces it. “Give me the other foot, and maybe she’ll catch us again.”

I shake my head at him as I do as he asks.
Purrr, he’s a bad boy.
“You’re going to get people talking about us.”

“That implies there is an us.” Luke tilts his head at me as he presses hard along my arch. “I’m going to take that as a good sign.”

I smile. “Me too.”

When Jenny returns with our dinner, Luke charms her with a smile and says, “Thank you.”

I watch as he digs into his meatloaf, and my knife clashes on my plate as I cut my chicken. I ask, “What made you decide to work on the river? Is that what you did before you moved here?”

Luke takes a moment to finish chewing, and when he swallows, he answers, “No. I was in law actually. But I needed a change of pace.”

Now I’m sure he’s got a past. “That’s quite a change.”

He nods and fills his mouth with another bite of food.

I say, “I’ve never lived anywhere but around here. Do you miss your family?” Luke’s eyes cloud over with an emotion I can’t detect. Sorrow? Pain? “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to bring up bad memories.”

“No. It’s fine.” He sets his fork down, and it clinks on his plate. “I left behind a wonderful family, but somehow I got off track with my life and was chasing after something that wasn’t mine.” Luke holds out his hand, and I put my silverware down to take it. His warm fingers wrap around mine. “I think you might be what I’m supposed to find.”

Whoa. My cat is stunned into silence. I notice how Luke’s grasp is more than warm. We have a connection, and I wonder if he’s my mate. I should be excited about that prospect, but my stomach roils with my food instead.
Scaredy cat.
Am I? I spent the last two decades searching for the one. I’m not sure what I expected all this time, because Luke makes my heart and body sing. Perhaps I’m so used to disappointment I don’t know a good thing when it’s staring me in my face. Can it really be this easy?

I smile at Luke. “Maybe I am.”

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