as the two men landed in a heap on the ground.
“What the fuck? Duncan, what the hell are you doing?” Nick shouted.
“Stand down,” Duncan barked even as he bolted up. He ran toward the spot where the cheetah had lain, praying that Nick had missed.
As he drew closer, he saw that Aliyah now lay naked on the ground, shivering, curled into a protective ball. Duncan fell to his knees, shouting her name. He ran his hands over her body searching for a wound, blood, anything.
When she opened her eyes and stared up at him, he sagged in relief. His hands shook so badly he couldn’t even do more than touch her.
Nick could have killed her.
Finally managing to compose himself, he gathered her naked body in his arms and strode back toward the cabin. He spared a glance at Nick who stood staring at the woman in Duncan’s arms in abject horror.
Ignoring him, Duncan went into the cabin and laid Aliyah on the couch. He wrapped a blanket around her then crushed her to his chest.
“I’m okay,” she murmured.
But still, he couldn’t let her go. He was reliving that horrible moment when he knew that Nick was going to shoot, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.
“Why were you out there?” he asked hoarsely. “Damn it, Aliyah, what you did was stupid. Are you just trying to get yourself killed?”
He pressed his lips to her hair and closed his eyes. She stirred against him and pulled away.
“I went out to get a shirt out of the truck. I didn’t intend to shift.”
“What happened?” he asked. God, he couldn’t get his heartbeat under control. He’d never been so scared in his life.
“I heard the truck pull up, and I hid behind the door, but then he got out, and he had a gun, and I got scared. I couldn’t control it,” she said softly. “The cheetah took over.”
“What the hell is going on?” Nick bit out.
Duncan looked up to see Nick standing in the doorway of the cabin, rifle in hand, a fierce expression on his face.
“Put the gun away, Nick. Now.”
“I’m not putting shit away until you explain what the fuck happened out there.” He stared at Aliyah with blatant disbelief and deep suspicion. His gaze shot back and forth between her and Duncan, including Duncan in the flickering distrust in his eyes.
Duncan sighed but turned so that he shielded Aliyah from Nick. She slid her hand up his back, and he could feel her tremble. It angered him that she was afraid in the one place she should feel safe. His house.
“Back off, Nick. You put the goddamn gun away and sit your ass down. Then we’ll talk.”
Nick stood for a long moment before finally relaxing slightly and lowering the rifle. He still kept his hand curled around the stock, but he sat down on the hearth, never taking his eyes off Aliyah.
“I shot at a cheetah. I did not fucking imagine it. There was no woman. I don’t shoot unarmed women.” Nick shook his head adamantly as he spoke, his words terse.
Duncan looked back at Aliyah, his lips drawn in regret. “I have to tell him,” he said in a low voice. “He has to know so that he doesn’t tell anyone else. I trust him, Aliyah. I wouldn’t put you in danger. But if we don’t explain and this gets out, things will get bad for you here.”
She nodded slowly, but he hated the fear in her eyes. He put his hand out to cup her cheek. With his other hand, he smoothed the hair from her face in a tender gesture.
“I’ll protect you, honey. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
“Tell him then,” she said.
Duncan turned and drew in a deep breath. It had been hard enough for him to accept the truth about Aliyah. It wouldn’t be any easier for Nick.
“First of all, Nick, what you saw today, what I’m about to tell you, goes no further than this room.” He pinned Nick with a forceful stare. “I’m asking this as your friend.”
Confusion flickered in Nick’s eyes, and he leaned forward, concern creasing his forehead. “Okay, man. You know…you know you can count on me. Whatever it is, I’m with you.”
Duncan nodded and relaxed. Nick was solid. He was someone Duncan could count on when the stakes were high. They’d been through a lot together, and he was one of the few people Duncan trusted implicitly.
He looked back at Aliyah, moved over to the side so that she could see Nick, but he was careful to arrange the blanket around her to shield her nudity. He curled his hand around hers and squeezed reassuringly.
Taking a breath, he turned his attention back to Nick who had laid the rifle aside. “Nick, this is Aliyah Carver. She has the ability…to change into a cheetah.”
To Nick’s credit, he didn’t say a word, but then his expression said it all. He looked as though Duncan had just announced he was having a sex change.
“You saw it, Nick. You saw the cheetah. You shot at her. You saw the woman lying where the cheetah had been just moments before.”
Nick grayed as the realization struck him that he’d shot at a living, breathing woman.
“Jesus,” he breathed. He scrubbed his hand over his face. “Holy fuck. Duncan, you’re telling me… What the hell are you saying?”
Duncan didn’t answer. He just allowed it to sink in and watched as Nick battled against logic and what Duncan was telling him.
Nick shook his head. “No way. No fucking way. It’s crazy. People don’t just become animals.”
Aliyah let out a sound of impatience and moved against Duncan. He put out a hand to soothe her, but she shoved it away and struggled out of the blanket to stand in front of the couch. As the rest of the blanket fell away and she stood naked in front of both men, Duncan growled his protest and reached for the blanket.
Nick’s gaze was riveted to Aliyah, and while Duncan couldn’t blame him, he was ready to knock Nick on his ass. Shock and confusion blazed across Nick’s face as he stared in astonishment at Aliyah’s naked body.
As a shudder worked up her spine, Duncan realized what she was doing.
She turned, her eyes already glittering with the change. Vertical slits of the cat’s eyes stared back at him. “It’s the only way,” she whispered. “We don’t have time to convince him.”
With that, she fell to the floor, and Nick started forward as if to help her. Duncan stopped him with the force of his glare.
“Stay the fuck away from her,” he said menacingly.
Duncan watched helplessly as Aliyah writhed and contorted. Nick’s eyes widened in horror, and his mouth fell open in a wordless exclamation as he watched the golden cat rise where a woman had lain.
The cheetah rose unsteadily at first, and then she gained her footing and padded slowly toward Nick.
“Do not make any threatening moves,” Duncan warned. “She won’t hurt you. She’s cognizant of her actions.”
“Fuck,” Nick whispered. “Fuck!”
The cheetah stopped in front of Nick and stared up at him. When she moved her head to rub against his leg, he flinched away and raised his hands in a protective gesture.
The cat continued to rub her head against his leg, and slowly, Nick lowered his hand, lightly touching the tuft of hair on her head. She bobbed her head upward and licked his hand then turned and walked back to where Duncan sat on the edge of the couch.
She leaped onto the sofa next to him and rubbed against him affectionately. A purr rippled from her throat and vibrated against Duncan’s shoulder as she continued to nudge at him.
He stroked her fur, and she ducked under his hand and licked his cheek, and then she simply lay across his lap, her contented purrs filling the room.
“Un-fucking-believable.” Nick stared at Duncan in stupefaction. He edged forward, cautiously, his movements slow and calculated. “Can I…can I touch her?”
Duncan looked down as he continued to stroke behind the ears of the cheetah. When she continued to regard him with lazy, contented eyes and purrs rumbled from her throat, he nodded at Nick.
p; Nick put his hand on the cat’s shoulder and snatched his hand back when the cheetah turned her head to stare at him. She sniffed the air in Nick’s direction but made no effort to move.
Nick emitted a nervous laugh and put his hand back to touch her fur. He stroked hesitantly, but when she made no aggressive moves, he grew bolder, petting her neck and down her body.
Duncan’s lips grew tight. How fucked in the head was he that he didn’t want Nick touching the damn cat? Aliyah was his, whether in cheetah form or human, he didn’t give a damn. He didn’t want another man’s hands on her.
When he felt the shudder roll over her body, he glared up at Nick. “Back off.”
Nick scrambled back, and Duncan slid out from underneath the cat and turned protectively to shield her from Nick’s view as she began the transformation back to human.
Soon she lay on the couch, her eyes closed, her breaths coming in weary spurts. Duncan quickly covered her with a blanket and gathered her in his arms. Uncaring of Nick’s presence, he picked her up and turned so he could sit on the couch and hold her in his lap.