He usually made up stories at his lovers’ enquiries about the cause of the scar. Would he tell Nia the truth when her curiosity got the better of her? He shook his head. What was he thinking? Nia would never see his scar since they would never be intimate, not in the light of day, anyway.
“Does he live here with you?” she asked, pulling his thoughts back to the present. “I know some states prohibit keeping exotic animals as pets. Is New Hampshire one of them?”
“No, and yes,” he said answering her questions in chronological order.
“So I guess you’re breaking the law in having him in your home.”
He chuckled at her supercilious crack about his character. “I’m not breaking any laws, Nia. Only USDA licensed exhibitors are allowed to own wildcats in this state. But I have what is called a Category B license.”
“In order to qualify for that special permit, I had to procure two thousand hours of paid experience with a licensed exhibitor. I can house Jabari on the estate, but I cannot allow him to have any direct contact with the public.”
“Is that why no one knows about him?”
“Basically. Only those I trust.”
“I’ve heard about those two Australians who formed a lifetime bond with their lion, Christian,” she said. “They bought him when he was just a cub, raised him, and then released him back into the wild in Kenya. Even after that, when they went back to Kenya to visit him, he remembered them. Until I watched that documentation, I never thought it possible for humans and wildcats to bond on such a mutually deep and trusting level.”
“It is possible, Nia,” he said softly, touched at her knowledge and understanding.
“Where does Jabari live?”
“Jabari spends most of his time on a reservation in Kenya. I travel there often to visit him. He’s here for his biannual check-up.”
“Is he okay?” she asked with surprising concern.
“Well, he’s almost twenty-five years old.”
“That’s old for a cat.”
He nodded on a deep sigh. Jabari had been in his life since he was ten years old, and the thought of him dying brought Massimo much anguish. “Yes, but he’s in perfect health, although not as strong as he used to be. His roar is much more dangerous than his bite these days.”
“Glad to hear that.”
He chuckled. “I usually fly Howard, his vet, to Kenya, but Howard’s suffering from an ear infection and can’t fly, so I brought Jabari to him.” He’d also wanted to spend some time with his old friend before Dafne arrived, and before they settled down into marital nightmare, but he couldn’t share that information with Nia. “He’s heading back to Kenya tomorrow,” Massimo said, just then deciding to cut Jabari’s stay by one day. He did not have the luxury to assimilate Nia into Jabari’s life at the moment. Time was of the essence since he knew she would try to run away in two days. On the other hand, Jabari was a jealous cat that needed constant affection that Mass could not offer with Nia around. A brief introduction would have to work for now. “Come meet him.” He led her over to the cage. He knelt on the floor and slapped his palms against his thighs. “Jabari, come here.”
Jabari stared at him through vigilant bright-yellow eyes before shifting his gaze to Nia.
Nia’s hand gripped his shoulder when Jabari let out a high-pitched snarl followed by a low purring hiss. Massimo recognized the sound as one of abidance and friendship. “It’s okay.” He patted Nia’s death-grip on his shoulder. He smiled when Jabari rose from the floor of the cage and walked towards them in as graceful a stride as his short legs would allow. His strong muscles rippled under his tawny coat, covered with dark circular rosettes.
Nia held her breath as the cat came closer. Even though he was now cased behind a sturdy enclosure, and Massimo had said he was potentially harmless, she was still afraid of him. But she took comfort in the knowledge that Massimo was here to protect her. But then again, if his pet leopard had gobbled her up, he would’ve been denied the pleasure of devouring her himself at the end of the week, wouldn’t he?
She tried not to dwell on how safe she’d felt in his arms moments ago. If he could shield her from a big cat, he sure had the means to shield her from a loan shark like Eddie. The way he’d held her moments ago was different from the way he’d held her in the car. That was passion. This was protection.
She couldn’t tell which she liked more, but it was amazing to have a pair of strong male arms about her. She hadn’t had that since her father’s death. Lately when she was having a gloomy day, Aaron tried to cheer her up, but he was just a boy. She needed the kind of security a full-grown man could offer.
Nia glanced down at the cat purring contentedly as Massimo reached a finger between the wires and stroked behind his black-tipped ears. He was almost six feet long from his orange colored nose with a black streak running the length of it, to his exceptionally long spotted tail. She’d guess he weighed close to two hundred pounds. He could have mauled her quite terribly, she thought, taking a brooding glance at Jabari’s broad head, powerful jaws, and strong teeth. Again, she was thankful for Massimo’s quick move to get between her and his cat.
“Squat down beside me and give me your hand,” Massimo said. “Don’t worry. He can’t harm you from inside the cage.”
Nia’s first instinct was to refuse, but remembering why she’d followed Massimo home, she reckoned it would play in her favor to make friends with his cat. It might even cause him to doubt his own suspicions about her. She squatted down beside him and placed her hand in his.
She held her breath as Massimo placed their entwined fingers against the wire and lined them up to Jabari’s nose. His breath was warm and moist on her fingertips and it caused a tingle along her spine. As she stared into his amber eyes, Nia felt as if she was staring at an old friend. “You’re a beautiful cat, Jabari Andretti. And it’s my pleasure to meet you.”
Jabari dropped his head on his paws and made a deep low growl in his throat. The sound was thrilling, almost erotic, and it generated a feeling of danger and uncertainty in Nia—the same danger and uncertainty she’d felt when Massimo had kissed her. It was as if he and his cat’s sexuality were morphed into one.
“He likes you,” Massimo said, smiling at her.
“He’s quite the charmer. Much like his owner,” she replied, withdrawing her hand from his. In an effort to avoid his intensely disturbing eyes, Nia glanced around the room. Skylights ran the length of the cathedral ceiling, allowing in patches of the fading afternoon light. The furnishings were comprised of posh dark brown leather sofas and chairs, marble tables, and Italian and Persian floor rugs. A fully equipped kitchenette and a small dining table on the far side of the room, overlooking the mountains completed the suite—a real bachelor’s pad that represented Massimo’s male dominance and power.
Involuntarily, her eyes were drawn to the mating leopards on the wall. The female was on her stomach with the powerful front paws of the male holding her captive against a bed of long grass. His sharp teeth were sunk into the back of her neck. Nia’s eyes grew wide when she noticed the dark streak that ran the length of the male’s nose.
She took a quick glance back at Jabari. The resemblance was undeniable. She glanced at Massimo and she felt the heat rising under her skin at the apparent amusement on his face.
“Yes, it is Jabari,” he said without hesitation. “I’ve been capturing all aspects of his life since he was a cub. Mating just happens to be one of them. It’s a basic animalistic act that we humans enjoy immensely. You’ll agree soon enough, cara.”
Perhaps, but not with you, she thought, even as she wondered if Massimo was in the habit of capturing himself in the act as well. Did he take pictures and make videos for his private collection? What would it be like to watch the two of them making love—the erotic sight of their bodies thrusting against each other, the sounds of their passionate moans echoing around the room? The thought caused a powerful ache between Nia’s legs, and she swallowed the low moan that threatened to erupt from her throat.
Massimo chuckled as he took in the look of embarrassment and desire on Nia’s face. She was the most sensual woman he’d ever met. Everything she did turned him on. He doubted she knew the effect she had on men. It was hard to believe she was still a virgin.
Massimo knew without a doubt that if he hadn’t promised Dafne not to take another lover before their wedding, at this very moment, Nia Sylk would be lying naked in his bed with her silken brown legs wrapped securely around his waist, their bodies moving in exquisite harmony as he rode her to the pinnacles of pleasure again and again. He knew too, that she was the kind of woman a man would find hard to leave, to purge from his system. He’d better not let her get too deeply embedded under his skin since he had other pressing obligations to fulfill.