Panther Prized (Shifter Heat Book 3)

CHAPTER ONE

 

“Duke Stevens is going to be our manager? Duke Stevens? No fucking way. This can’t be happening,” Jeff, one of the trainers at ‘7 Days Fitness,’ says, gritting his teeth. “Argh. He’s an arrogant asshole who thinks his shit doesn’t stink. Fuck this!”

Duke Stevens! My mind is racing. What the hell? He is going to be my new boss? I feel like throwing up. There had been rumors that Peter Coombs, the manager of the North Hollywood branch of ‘7 Days’, was going to be moving up to corporate, so that wasn’t a surprise. But to replace him with Duke Stevens? The brash shifter is exactly as Jeff has described—an asshole.  Yes, he is good looking. He has a buff bod inked with sexy tats, green eyes the color of grass, and a toothpaste grin…but that is where my attraction ended.

I’d met Duke when I was working as a receptionist at the ‘7 Days Fitness’ in Las Vegas before transferring to the North Hollywood facility recently. Duke, who normally worked at the Venice Beach branch of ‘7 Days,’ as a personal trainer, had been working as a guest instructor at the Vegas gym. Corporate had sent him to head up an intense boot camp workshop for the other personal trainers.

He came on to me strong, and at first, I had to admit it had made me feel good. I wasn’t used to hot looking guys like him showing an interest in me. We’d gone out—once. Yep: it had only taken me one date to realize that he was an arrogant asshole, just like Jeff was saying now. He had bragged and flexed his muscles the whole night, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, he had insisted I was his ‘mate’—his partner for life. The whole thing had been so weird. I mean, who acts like they know someone is their mate when they just met the person?

Though he’d kept asking me out, I just wasn’t interested. I wanted a serious relationship with a kind, caring man, and an egotistical, brash dude like Duke wasn’t going to cut it. When a customer relations position opened up at the North Hollywood ‘7 Days,’ I didn’t hesitate. I was ready for a change and a new opportunity. I packed up my things and moved within two weeks. I was feeling good and my future looked great.

But Duke is sure spoiling that now. Since he’s going to be the new manager, I will have to find another job. Sure, I could try and transfer to another ‘7 Days’ branch, but the prospect of moving again isn’t appealing.

“This fucking sucks!” Jeff barks.

“Watch your language, Jeff,” Peter cautions, “it is what it is.” He lets out a deep breath as he looks around the room, his gaze settling on Noah, the top personal trainer at our facility. “Sorry, Noah. I pushed for you to get the job. Unfortunately, the honchos at corporate already had their minds made up. There was nothing I could say that would change them.”

“Thanks, Peter, I really appreciate it. It was nice of you to think of me.”

“Sorry. I know you would have been a fantastic manager.”

Noah shrugs. “I’m sure you tried your best.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Clara, the receptionist for ‘7 Days,’ says. “Noah’s the best trainer in the business—everybody knows that.”

“There are a lot of great trainers,” Noah says generously, “I know Duke from when we worked at the Venice Beach branch together a few years ago. He’s hard working and he cares about his clients. I’m sure he’ll do a fine job. It’s all good, Clara.”

I can see the look of disappointment reflected in Noah’s gorgeous blue eyes, even though he’s trying to hide it. It’s just like him to be so kind about everything. He is such a gentleman. I swallow hard. I have to admit, from the moment I met Noah just two weeks ago, when I’d transferred from the Las Vegas ‘7 Days’ and started my new job in customer relations for the North Hollywood branch, I’d had an immediate crush on him. But he is way out of my league. Like Duke, Noah is a shifter, but unlike Duke, Noah seems very kind and gracious. He is warm, sweet, funny and confident. Not to mention, drop dead handsome, with a rock hard, muscular body.

Yeah, he was a hunk alright. I, on the other hand, was a big girl with major curves sporting extra weight, which is crazy since I’ve been working in different gyms as a receptionist or office assistant for several years. You’d think seeing all those fit, healthy people working out would make me want to work out too, but that didn’t happen. I’m clumsy, shy, not very confident, and definitely not into working out.

The only thing I’m good at is baking. I love the feel of dough in my hands as I make plump loaves of bread and yeasty rolls. I relish the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven and the taste of a freshly baked, rich, gooey brownie as it slides down my throat.

I glance over at the tray of gluten free fudge on the counter I’d brought in for the meeting this morning. Earlier the tray had been covered with big squares of chocolate fudge, now there were only a few pieces left. Though I tried to avoid eating my own goodies, I was glad to see everyone else had enjoyed them.

“This sucks,” Kelly groans.

Her voice is tight with disappointment. I know she’s worked with ‘7 Days’ as a trainer longer than anyone else. Like Noah, she’s probably not happy to be passed over for the promotion either.

“What about you, Peter?” Clara asks. “What’s going to happen to you?”

“I’m being transferred to corporate. Though I’ve really enjoyed working with all of you, I’m tired of dealing with the day to day drama in the gym. It will be a nice change—a good change.”

“Well, I’m glad that you’re happy,” Jeff nods his head, scowling, “but I sure wish Mr. Dumbass wasn’t taking your place.”

“We will miss you,” Clara says, puckering her lower lip.

“We sure will. But you’ll be back to visit, right?” Noah asks.

“Of course I’ll be back…but only on Friday meeting days, if Allie will bring in more of her delicious treats,” he winks at me.

I smile. It’s so nice of him to say that. Though I’d only been working here for two weeks, I’d bought in my homemade goodies for the Friday meetings both times.

“Gosh, Peter,” I shake my head. “I’m so sad. I’ve only been working with you a short time, but I’ve loved every minute of it!” This news is disheartening. Peter is a demanding boss, but he is also fair and organized. I have really liked working for him, but now it is unlikely I will see him again. And he won’t be eating my treats when he visits, because I have no plans to stay at ‘7 Days Fitness’ and work for Duke Stevens. No way. I am out of here as soon as I find another job!

“So it sounds like some of you have already met Duke, or have heard of him?” Peter arches his brows. “For those of you who don’t know him, he’s a trainer at our Venice branch. He’s known for his no bullshit, tough boot camp workouts.”

Jeff shakes his head. He looks angry and I can see a purple vein pulsing in the middle of his forehead.

“I saw him at the ‘7 Days Fitness’ convention,” he scowls. “He was rude—a big show off. He was doing a ton of push-ups right there in the middle of the convention center.”

“Well, maybe he was trying to show technique,” Peter says, pursing his lips.

“Ha!” Jeff groans. “He was showing off. Just because he’s a fucking shifter and can do a few more pushups than most of us can, doesn’t mean he has to throw it in our faces.”

“Peter, are you sure about this?” Melissa, another one of the trainers asks, frowning. “I’ve heard Duke has put many of his clients in tears. Apparently he drives them pretty hard. Why would they put him in charge here?”

“Yeah, I’m sure about it.” Peter’s tone is wary—defeated. “Brian Sterling at corporate said it’s a done deal. This gym hasn’t been turning a profit for a while. They hope Duke will be able to turn things around.”

“But aren’t most fitness centers having a tough time right now?” Noah asks. “With the economy the way it is…it’s hard for people to afford a gym membership.”

“This is true,” Peter nods, “but apparently we’ve been too soft on our clients. They haven’t been seeing results—and some have complained to corporate that we’re slacking off.”

“Who complained?” Clara asks.

Peter shrugs his shoulders. “I’m not at liberty to say, but it was a few of our long-time customers.”

“Well, I’m excited. It could be really great having Duke here!” Veronica shrills. Veronica was an over the top, peppy trainer. She was thrilled about everything.

I exhale deeply. Ugh. The thought of seeing Duke again, let alone having to work for him, was making me ill.

“Fuckity fuck, fuck, fuck!” Jeff whines. “Of all the people they could hire to manage the gym—they had to pick Duke Stevens!”