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The Panther and The Mob Girl: BBW Shifter Paranormal Romance (Animus Security Book 1) by Cass Holiday (1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

Teaching a salsa lesson for seniors with a couple of mafia wiseguys lurking in the corner turned out to be easier than Molly expected.

Mickey, one of the students who was a dear friend, frowned at the men. "What're those monkeys doing over there?"

His voice was loud enough to draw the attention of the other students and more than a few gray heads turned curiously. Molly glared at the men in expensive looking suits, fire lighting up in her chest. If her damned brother and his no-good friend disrupted her class there'd be hell to pay.

"No one," she snapped, steering Mickey toward the dance floor. "They're, uh, health inspectors."

"What's a health inspector need to check in a dance studio?" warbled one of the women.

Molly clapped her hands together hard, making them all jump. "We're starting class early! Everyone find a partner and we'll pick up from last week."

Despite growing up the daughter of an esteemed mafia hitman, she wasn't that great at lying.

The class went smoothly, despite her rattled nerves. It was hard enough getting through the first week of properly owning the dance studio without her mobster brother showing up and refusing to say why. For the last five years she'd been teaching at the studio and knew the classes and students as well as she knew the steps to the cha-cha-cha.

By the time she was old enough to know that the family business was less than legitimate, her father had retired as much as any Family man could. But he did the best he could to make sure she grew up as far away from that life as possible.

Her brother hadn't been so lucky. They'd been close as kids, but once he hit seventeen he changed. Molly understood what happened, but he'd never once tried to talk about it to her, so she let it go and dealt with the sting of it on her own.

"Amazing class today, you beautiful people!" Molly called, brushing her sweat dampened hair from her forehead. "I'll see you all back here next Tuesday. Practice your steps but watch out for the heat. It's supposed to be a scorcher. Everyone drink lots of water."

It was when she'd been a bit lost and alone that she discovered the dance studio. Donnell, the previous owner, had taken her in and lead her to her life's purpose. It didn't matter how old you were or what you looked like—she was a bit curvy, herself—anyone could dance as long as they had a passion for it.

Donnell had left her the studio when he passed, which she still couldn't quite believe. The studio had been part of the neighborhood for decades. It was part of the fabric of the town and to be trusted with the care of the studio was a greater honor than she deserved.

At least, that was what she first thought. After the lawyer had gone over the operating costs and moderate debt accrued from some much needed repairs it wasn't quite the honor she'd thought it was before. Still, Donnell and his studio had been a family to her when she'd most desperately needed one and eased some of the aches left by her own family.

She didn't balk at the challenges and she wouldn't let Donnell down.

The senior center shuttle pulled up as she turned off the music. Her students filed out, a few of them shooting glances at the six and half foot tall wall of muscles leaning near the door.

A newer student—and one of the more grumpier bastards she'd ever dealt with—paused at the door to glare at her. His bushy eyebrows pressed nearly to his nose. This was the second time she'd seen him in class. She hadn't caught his name, though he looked vaguely familiar. Molly smiled brightly, doing her best to counter his bad attitude. What was he even doing here if he didn't like dancing? The man grunted at her and shuffled onto the street.

Mickey was the last one out, lingering at the door and frowning at her brother. "You in some kind of trouble, lass?"

The man might be up in years, but his eyes were sharp and his mind clear. Mickey and Donnell had been thick as thieves for as long as she'd been around and a lifetime before that. It was only in the last year or so that Mickey had started taking her dance classes, saying he'd finally retired. Both he and Donnell had been vague on what he'd retired from. It wouldn't surprise her if he'd retired from the Irish side of the Family business, as her father would have put it.

Molly suspected he'd taken the class as an excuse to hang around the studio with Donnell, especially since he hadn't memorized a single dance step the entire time he'd taken classes. Not that Molly minded. The company had been good for both men, and now that Donnell was gone, keeping his best friend close to the studio he'd loved so much was their way of keeping his memory alive.

Molly shot a glance at her brother. Both her father and Mickey had been able to walk away from the Family. She's devoted most her life to having nothing to do with it but somehow her brother had gotten drawn in. When they were kids he'd had so many plans.

He'd been going to get out and make a place for them to escape to. Stupid kid kind of dreams, but still. It broke her heart to know he'd been roped into the life.

"I wouldn't worry too much about it," Molly said, patting Mickey's arm. "One of them is Marc. That no good brother I told you about."

Mickey grunted. "And the other mook?"

A flutter of nerves ran through her. The man with Marc was an unknown. Taller than her brother, he had the sort of features that would look menacing even if he smiled. Which, she was guessing, he didn't do much of.

There was something almost animal-like about the man and his very presence made her nervous. Whatever was going on that brought her brother to see her after so many years wasn't good. The fact that he'd brought this frightening man with him made the whole thing worse somehow.

A shiver ran through Molly and to her annoyance, her voice shook when she spoke. "I'm sure everything is fine, Mickey. Probably just...family business."

And wouldn't that just be the icing on the cake. Nothing about having a retired mafia hitman for a father made life easy. Not when she wanted nothing to do with the Family business. As far as she could tell, neither did her father. And if Marc was still working for the Family, showing up unannounced in the dance studio that had likely been a legitimate business interest for the Irish mob wasn't a good sign.

Mickey grunted, one bushy eyebrow raising high on his forehead as he glared at them. "I'll send someone by to check on you."

"You don't need to—"

He pinched her cheek and grinned at her, though there was steel in his eye. "I swore to Donnell on his deathbed I'd keep an eye on you and an Irishman never breaks a vow."

He kissed her forehead and hurried off toward the shuttle where the grumpy bastard shouted at him for making them all late as he disappeared behind the bus. Molly sighed as she watched Mickey go. The man put on a brave face, but she knew losing Donnell wore heavily on him. If sending someone to check on her made him feel closer to his departed friend, well, she couldn't fault him for that.

It wasn't like she could stop him, anyway. The old codger was feistier than a two year old running for the cookie jar. Yet another stranger showing up at her Studio wasn't going to make her feel that much more secure, though.

She didn't think she was in any danger—not from her brother. There was no denying the tension in the room, though. The way Marc leaned against the desk, hand resting a little too casually near his belt and his attention focused on the view of the street through the large front window was anything but comforting.

Molly didn't want to give him the satisfaction of asking what the hell he was doing at her studio, even though curiosity burned inside her. She stalked with her head high to the supply closet to grab the dry mop. When she turned back, her brother was at the front door, sliding the lock bar into place and sealing the door. She grit her teeth and slammed the dry mop onto the glossy wood dance floor.

The senior's class was her only one for the day, which she was now grateful for. Though, her plan to spend the rest of the morning updating the Studio's website flew out the window. How was she supposed to pick templates and layouts with these two mooks hanging around?

More than a year had passed since she'd last seen her brother. Christmases were still spent at their father's house, the last bit of family she couldn't seem to give up, but last year Marc hadn't shown up for Christmas, either. Dad hadn't said a thing about his absence and Molly had been afraid to ask.

They had a strained relationship as adults, but it had been a different story when they were younger. Marc's mother had passed away when he was still toddling around in diapers and Dad didn't talk much about his first wife. Molly always had the sense that she'd been his true love and the loss of her affected him deeply. He'd gotten together her mom a few years later, and Molly never could figure out why. All her memories, few as they were, had been of her parents fighting.

When her parents finally split, Marc had been thirteen to her six and the siblings were the closest of friends. He let her tag around with him everywhere, taught her how to pick a lock and was the one bright spot in her lonely childhood.

Now when she looked at him, her heart clenched with longing for those days. Even though Dad had been retired for a while, he never could fully leave the business. And Marc liked fighting a little too much to stay out of trouble, so the Family took him in and Marc left like it was nothing. Like she was nothing.

Baby fat faded into her overly curvy figure and along with high school came teasing and a string of boyfriends more interested in copping a feel than getting to know her. With her brother gone, home didn't feel like home anymore. There were enough closed-door meetings and wiseguys hanging around that she spent a lot of afternoons wandering around the city. That was how she found the dance studio and her purpose.

She should be happy that Marc was back, but the scowl on his face might as well have been an actual wall between them. All it did was drive home how alone she'd been, how the people she loved most hurt her.

Tears pricked her eyes and Molly took a deep breath. She'd run the dry mop over the same spot for the last few minutes. She shook her head and continued her circuit of the floor. Donnell had shown her a great honor by leaving the studio to her care, even if it had come with a migraine's worth of debt. She was going to make sure his legacy continued no matter what.

"Molly," Marc said, walking a few steps toward her before he stopped, frowned and ran a hand through his hair.

"Oh, are you still here?" Molly smiled, pleased that she'd won the who'll talk first contest. As she got closer to him, she could see the dark circles under his eyes and his fatalistic expression looked like it'd been there for days. Something was very wrong. "What's going on, Marcie?"

The old nickname earned her an annoyed look and for a second she could see the brother she used to know, not the hardened man the Family had turned him into. Molly grinned but it was gone in a flash and he was back to being Marc the Mobster.

He took a deep breath, crossed his arms over his chest and fixed her with a stern look. "You're getting out of town for a while. Pack a bag."

Now it was Molly's turn to frown. "Really? That's what you lead with? I haven't seen you for over a year and you open with thinking you can show up and boss me around?"

His frown deepened. "A year?"

"More than that. No phone call, no postcard, not even a text message. You could've been dead and I wouldn't have known about it."

He glanced away, scratching at the stubble on his jaw. "I didn't realize—wait, that's not—"

Molly tapped the mop handle against his chest, anger getting her riled up. "And just what do you think you're doing, coming here and making my students nervous? This is my livelihood, Marcie. And they were senior citizens! You and that mountain over there lurking like a couple of creeps. Honestly."

His cheeks went a little pink. "We weren't—"

"I know you wouldn't recognize an actual legitimate business if it popped you one in the face." She slapped the mop to the floor and stalked away from him, enjoying the sharp tap of her dance heels as she went. "But some of us are trying to be productive members of society."

"Stay away from the window!"

Molly blinked at him. "What?"

So quietly she didn't notice him move, the mountain man placed himself between her and the window. He stepped forward so that she had to move or he'd run into her. A flutter of nerves ran through her as she let herself be herded toward the back of the studio.

"Marcie?" Genuine fear tightened her voice. It wasn't just the man's size that frightened her, there was a dangerous desperation behind his eyes.

Marc caught up with them, bracing a hand against the guy's shoulder to halt him. "Relax, okay? I got this."

The man turned his dark glare on Marc and...growled? "Get it faster. You shouldn't even be here."

Molly glanced between them as the big guy took a step back, not quite far enough to make him seem any less menacing. Marc went back to rubbing his neck and looking uncomfortable.

"Marc," she said, dropping any pretense of anger. "What's going on?"

He sighed. "You've got a hit out on you."

Molly laughed, even though it was clear he wasn't joking. "Oh, that's just silly. Who'd want to take me out?"

"Anyone that's talked to you for more than ten minutes," the big guy muttered.

A smirk twitched at the corner of Marc's mouth and she glared at him.

"What did you do?" she demanded to Marc.

"Me? How is this my fault?"

"You're the one still working for the Family. I'm just a dance instructor. Who'd want a dance instructor dead?"

Marc sighed. "Is the why really important right now?"

"Does Dad know?"

"How do you think I know?"

Wasn't that just typical? They get her wrapped up in Family business and don't tell her about it until it's all gone to shit. This was prom all over again.

Molly's cheeks flushed with anger. "And both of you didn't think this was something you should of told me about?"

"I'm telling you now," he said, just shy of shouting.

"No. You show up and tell me to pack. Which means you're planning on taking me somewhere. Which means there's a plan that neither of you thought I needed to be a part of." Molly blinked away angry tears and took a deep breath. "What about my classes?"

Marc shrugged. "Have your assistant teach them."

"I don't have an assistant! I have me and that's it."

The studio barely broke even as it was. If she canceled the week's classes without notice, she'd have to refund the cost of the lessons. Not to mention the teen class she taught for kids whose parents worked late. What was she supposed to do about them? She worked so hard to make sure they had a safe place to go. She couldn't afford another employee. If she missed one week of classes she'd have to give up food for a while. More than that and she'd lose the studio. And what sort of way would that be to repay Donnell?

"Look," Marc said, shifting uncomfortably as she wiped at her eyes. "You're right. And I'm sorry. But I'd rather fight about this somewhere safe."

The worst part about it was that he was right. She may not like her father, but she trusted him enough to know that if he and Marc thought she was in danger, they'd be right.

She sniffed. "This is shitty."

"I know, kiddo." He awkwardly pat her shoulder and Molly once again longed for the easy friendship of their youth. "You live nearby?"

Molly laughed once without humor. He didn't even know where she was living these days. Then again, it wasn't like she knew much more about him, either.

"Upstairs." She pointed at the ceiling.

He raised an eyebrow at her. "You live above the studio?"

Before she could answer, a black SUV pulled to a stop outside the glass front of the studio. Both her brother and the big guy turning, hands slipping inside their jackets. As the tinted windows rolled down, Marc sucked in a hiss through his teeth.

"Down!"

His shout was lost in the sound of shattering glass and Molly crashed to the floor as her brother slammed into her.