Cal clapped a hand over his shoulder. “I’ve got to go. Pilot’s waiting on me. Call me if you need me.”
“Thanks, Cal. Will do.”
Duncan watched as the older man returned to the helicopter. As it lifted off, Duncan climbed into his truck to begin the drive back into town.
His mind was abuzz with what his next plan of action would be. It was getting dark, which prevented any further search today, but tomorrow he would resume. He could gather Nick, his deputies, call up Cal and some of his men and launch a ground search in the denser areas not able to be viewed from the air.
For now…he was going back to his cabin…and Aliyah.
First he stopped off at the small supply store on Main Street and chose sweats, a few shirts, and a pair of boots for her. The shopkeeper raised a brow but didn’t question Duncan’s purchases, a fact he was grateful for.
When the clothes were bagged and paid for, Duncan headed back out to his truck, ready to be home after another long day.
The eagerness with which he drove to his cabin was alien. It had been a while since he’d felt such intensity toward a woman, and never quite this way.
Tonight, there was no hesitation when he walked into the door. He looked for her and found her pacing the kitchen, naked, agitation radiating from her.
“Aliyah,” he said softly.
She whirled around, her eyes flickering, the pupils fluttering and changing shape. She rubbed her hands up and down her bare arms in a clear sign of distress, and then with a small cry, she launched herself at him, wrapping her arms around his waist and burying her face in his chest.
He caught her against him and hugged her as he stroked his hand through her hair.
“Aliyah, honey, what’s wrong? Are you in pain?”
Unease prickled his neck. He pulled her away from him so he could look at her more closely.
She rubbed her hands up her arms again and shivered lightly. Tiny little goose bumps dotted her skin. “I need…I need to shift for a while. I can’t control it for much longer.”
He was shaking his head before she ever finished. “No way. Aliyah, that’s crazy and you know it. There is no way we can risk it. There are poachers after you, not to mention you could be seen by a number of other people. Everyone around here is already uneasy because of the strange animals being spotted.”
She closed her eyes then reopened them and locked her gaze to his. “I know it’s insane but if I don’t get out soon, I won’t be able to control when and how I shift. I was hoping you’d know somewhere we could go where the chance of me being spotted was small if we went late, after dark, and I’d be careful. It’s just that I’ve spent so long in shifted form that the cheetah is dominant. I’m growing weaker, and I need the rejuvenation that being in my cheetah form will bring.”
“Aliyah—” He was still shaking his head. He couldn’t even get his protest out fast enough.
“I don’t need your permission, Duncan,” she said softly. “But I would like your support. And your protection. But if you refuse me both, I have no choice but to seek out a place on my own. It’s not smart. I know that. I could place myself in a lot of danger. I know that too. But I cannot prevent a shift for much longer.”
“Can’t you do it here?” he asked, sweeping his hand across the interior of the cabin.
“I need to run. I need to be free in a manner I haven’t been free in six months. I need to regain my strength. I grow more unstable by the minute.”
Fuck. He didn’t like this. Even while she made sense, he didn’t like it one bit.
He blew out his breath in a long whoosh. “You’ll stay in the truck out of sight until we get out of town. I don’t want you anywhere near here when you do your cheetah thing. We’ll go south an hour or so.”
She wrapped her arms around him again as she nestled back into his embrace.
“Thank you,” she said as she squeezed.
He let his hands fall down her back, and he rubbed up and down before he placed one hand behind her neck, the other arm around her waist and held her close.
“First you’re going to get dressed. I picked up some clothes for you from town. Then we’re going to make this quick,” he grumbled. “This whole thing seriously freaks me out.”
Duncan drove slowly down the bumpy, winding ATV trail off one of the closed national forest roads. He’d picked the most obscure spot he could think of, but that didn’t guarantee they wouldn’t come across campers seeking a remote place to pitch their tents.
Every one of his instincts told him this was a bad idea. Not just a bad one, a stupid risk that Aliyah had no business taking. But he couldn’t let her go off alone without any form of protection.
He glanced over at her, and even in the darkness, he could see her tense with anticipation. She was edgy, almost wild, and he knew that she was hanging on by a thread.
“It’s not far now,” he said as they forded a small creek and rounded a sharp bend.
The road had narrowed considerably, and they wouldn’t get much further with his truck, four-wheel drive or not.
She didn’t reply but kept her gaze fixed ahead, as if waiting the opportunity to bolt from the truck. When he finally pulled to a halt, she gripped the door handle then finally looked over at him.
“Aliyah, how much of yourself do you retain when you…uhm…shift?”
She cocked her head in confusion. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“A wild animal has instincts. You’re free now.”
“Ohhh. You want to know if I’ll run and keep on running.”
He nodded slowly. “I guess I’m asking if you’ll be back.”
She stared at him, her gaze steady. “I’ll return, Duncan.”
“Okay.” He shrugged away his relief and opened his door. “Then let’s get this over with.”
They both got out and walked around to the front of the truck. To his surprise, she kicked off her boots then began to pull off her socks and then her pants, both of which he’d just purchased. She held them out to him even has her other hand began fumbling with the buttons on her shirt.
He took them from her, and in another minute she was standing naked in front of him, moonlight bathing her pale skin.
“I don’t want to ruin them,” she said with a grin. “Plus, I’ll need something to wear when I shift back.”
“You’re going to freeze your ass off,” he grumbled.
He watched in a mixture of horror and fascination as a shudder rippled over her body. She fell to her knees then braced her hands on the ground as her back arched.
Tawny fur prickled across her skin. Black spots shimmered into view. Her fingers that dug into the dirt and rock became paws, and her legs buckled then bolted upward as she rose on all fours.
Her long, golden hair raced upward to her scalp, disappearing and then falling lightly over her nape in a scruffy mane. When she turned her head to him, he found himself staring into the golden eyes of the cheetah.
She continued to regard him for a long moment, and then she simply loped away, disappearing into the surrounding forest.
Her paws pounded the earth, and her heart rejoiced in her freedom. She kept to the shadows, leaping behind rocks and keeping under the cover of the trees. She was whole.
Power pulsed through her veins. She was the guardian, charged with keeping her human safe. With each leap, each push forward, she could feel her strength returning. Just as transforming to human had rejuvenated the cheetah, shifting to cheetah was healing the human. Two halves that made up the whole. Each dependent on the other for survival.
The human part of her mind cautioned against going too far, warning her to return soon and shift back as soon as possible. The cheetah only wanted to run free, to exhaust herself and later succumb to a healing sleep.
Her lithe body stretched and coiled as she pushed herself harder. Her soul sang and rejoiced as she embraced the wind.
> ? As she began to tire, her human mind regained more control, and she remembered that Duncan waited for her.
Reluctantly, she turned back, returning slower than she’d come. Fatigue rippled through her muscles, and she slowed to a walk. Her breath escaped in a light fog as she panted. Her energy was spent, but she felt lighter than she had in many months. Since she’d run along the African savannah with her cheetah kin.
By the time she neared the truck, the change was already working its way over her body. She fell to the ground, shivering with cold and exhaustion as the human regained control.
Mustering her strength, she pushed herself to her feet and made her way unsteadily back to where Duncan waited. When she stumbled onto the road, Duncan looked up and started for her. She collapsed into his arms as he gathered her shivering body close.
“Dear God, Aliyah, you’re like a freaking icicle.”
She burrowed into his warmth, absorbing his heat and his scent. He scooped her up and carried her back to the truck where the clothes still lay on the hood.