For several minutes, he held her, rocking slightly, his lips pressed to her hair as she regained control. He glanced up to see Nick staring at both of them in astonishment.
Nick’s mouth rounded to an O as understanding dawned. Duncan hesitated only a moment and gave a short nod. His acknowledgement that Nick’s observation was correct. Duncan was staking his claim.
“I’m sorry,” Nick croaked. “God, I’m sorry. I could have killed you.”
Aliyah stirred in his arms and fixed her gaze on Nick. “You didn’t know,” she said simply. “I got scared and freaked. I usually have better control. The last six months have been difficult for me.”
Duncan’s arms tightened around her. She riled every one of his protective instincts. He wanted to tuck her away where she was safe, where he could protect and cherish her.
His chest tightened uncomfortably, and a seed of panic grew when he thought of her leaving as soon as she was able.
Where would she go? Would she be safe? Who would protect her? Look after her? Keep her warm and clothed after her shifts?
He frowned again as he remembered once more that she’d made no attempt to call her family. It was a matter he intended to take up with her as soon as they were alone again.
“Why did you come out so early?” he asked Nick.
Nick looked momentarily surprised by the question, as though he’d forgotten entirely his reason for coming. Then his lips turned down into a frown, and a fierce light entered his eyes.
“I got a hit on the men you put out an APB on. They were spotted at a pharmacy in Hollis last night. One of them sported a rather interesting injury to his hand. The clerk said it looked like he got it caught in a meat grinder.”
“That’s him,” Duncan said. “He’s the one who pulled a rifle on me.”
Nick jerked his head up in surprise. “You didn’t say anything about that, Duncan.”
Duncan sighed. “I didn’t because at the time I had a cheetah in my truck with an arrow in her haunch. The hunter tried to collect the cheetah hide while I was trying to haul her out of the woods, and she attacked him.”
“I’m guessing you didn’t know she was human at this point,” Nick said dryly.
Duncan cleared his throat in discomfort. “No, that didn’t come until later.”
Aliyah still lay quietly in his arms. Too quietly. He glanced down to see a troubled look set deeply into her features.
“What’s wrong, honey?”
“It’s not safe for me here,” she said in a quiet voice.
No, it wasn’t, but the alternative was her leaving, and he didn’t want to think about that. He hated the fact that he couldn’t guarantee her safety.
“Hell, it’s not safe for you anywhere,” Nick muttered. “How could it be?”
Duncan quickly relayed how Aliyah had come to be in the Colorado mountains, but even he knew the details were sparse, lacking a whole lot of history, like how Aliyah came to be in the first place, and if there were others like her.
Nick shook his head in amazement. “What do we do, Duncan? We can’t let those bastards keep getting away with what they’re doing. And fuck, if Aliyah is a cheetah, then what about all those other animals they’re hunting? Are they humans too?”
Aliyah shook her head somewhat sadly. “There are very few of us left.”
Duncan suddenly wished they were alone, because he wanted to know all there was to know about her, and he felt for the first time that she trusted him enough to confide in him.
He turned his attention reluctantly back to Nick. “I went up with Cal in the chopper yesterday. Didn’t see anything. We’re going to have to go in on foot.” He hesitated for a moment. “I need to keep this as quiet as possible because of Aliyah. If we can gather the men needed to take down the ring ourselves then that’s my preference. However, if we can’t find it ourselves or it becomes too risky, I won’t have a choice but to call in federal law enforcement.”
He glanced at Aliyah as he spoke. “I won’t let this compromise you. You have my word.”
“I could help,” she said in a quiet voice.
“No,” Duncan said firmly. “Absolutely not.”
She gathered the blanket tighter around her and leaned away from him so she could look into his eyes. “The cheetah could help, Duncan. I couldn’t lead you back to where I was held, but she could. She knows their scent. I’m fast and I’m careful. I would only remain in cheetah form long enough to guide you to the hunters, and I could stay back, wherever you put me. I don’t have any more desire to put myself in danger than you have to put me there, but this is something I could do with minimal risk.”
“She’s right, Duncan,” Nick said thoughtfully. “If I headed up the team of our men with Cal’s, you and Aliyah could go ahead, lock onto the location and radio back. That way she stays out of sight.”
Aliyah touched her hand to Duncan’s face and stared up at him, her golden eyes seething with emotion. “I want to do this, Duncan. They stole from me. They stole my freedom. They stole those other animals from their rightful homes. Some of them are dead. If it can be done safely, I’d like to help you put them away.”
He captured her hand in his and turned his head so that his lips came into contact with her fingers.
“I want you here,” he said hoarsely. “Where I know you’ll be safe.”
She stroked her fingers lightly over his lips then cupped his cheek in her hand. She nestled her body closer to his, cuddling into his chest. “But I’ll be with you, Duncan. And that’s the place I feel the safest. With you. You know what I am. You won’t allow anyone to hurt me. I have faith in that.”
The stalwart belief in her voice shook him, humbled him.
“I won’t let the others get close to you, Duncan,” Nick said. “You’ll radio your location to me. I’ll radio that we’re coming in. That should give you plenty of time to make sure Aliyah is in a safe place.”
The plan made sense, and it could work. The thought of Aliyah in danger made him ill. As long as the hunters were out there, she wasn’t safe.
“All right. We’ll do it. I don’t like it, but we’ll do it.”
He glanced down at Aliyah and kissed her tenderly, not caring that Nick was sitting a few feet away. “You’ll do as I say. You won’t place yourself in danger nor will you take any unnecessary risks. If anything, and I mean anything, happens to me or things go wrong, you’re to get your ass out of there.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him fiercely. “Nothing will happen to you. I’ll make sure of it.”
“Tell me about your people,” Duncan said as he returned to the couch after seeing Nick off.
He sat down next to her, and she automatically curled into his body, not caring that she was still naked beneath the blanket. His arms came around her, and she laid her cheek against his chest, feeling the strong beat of his h
“Why haven’t you contacted your parents? They must be so worried.”
She inhaled a deep breath and pulled slightly away so she could look at him, though his arms remained wrapped around her.
“I did try to call them while you were at work. I wasn’t sure I could trust you at first,” she said simply.
His brown eyes bore into her, a flicker of hope warming the dark orbs.
Satisfaction glinted, though he showed no other outward reaction to her statement.
“Then tell me,” he said.
She did trust him. Unwavering determination reflected in his every action, his every word. She knew he’d protect her and wouldn’t betray her. And that had an unnerving effect on her. She wanted this man. She wanted him with a painful longing. One that had built and swelled within her since the moment he’d gathered her in his arms.
She licked her lips, knowing she would tell him all. Tell him things she’d never told another soul.
“My father is the great Kodiak bear. My mother, a majestic eagle. It’s why we lived in Alaska at first. They could move in relative obscurity because the island we inhabited had a healthy population of both.
“Then my sister was born, and the spirit guide gifted her with the cougar. And then I was born and was given the cheetah. As a child, I spent more time in animal form than other children of my race. I was playful and mischievous, and my parents feared that I would be discovered, even as remotely as we lived.
“And then…” A surge of pain threaded through her chest. It had been so many years, but the loss still felt fresh and vibrant in her mind.
“Then what?” Duncan asked gently.
“My sister was taken. We believe she was taken. She simply disappeared, and we never found her. My parents were distraught. It nearly destroyed them. And then there was me, spending more time in cheetah form than human. The cheetah has always been strong within me, and I was too young to learn dominance.
“We spent a year searching, hoping, but then my parents had to face the fact that she was gone, and they were so afraid the same would happen to me. So we moved to Africa.
“One of our kind manages a game preserve. He’s a lion shifter. We went there so I would be safer, so I could be with more of my own kind. It was hard on my parents because now they were the ones forced to be so careful. They spent much time in human form, but our animal self has to be nurtured or the relationship suffers. There is trust between human and animal. A bond that cannot be broken.
“Ironic, isn’t it?” She laughed but it cracked and came out feebly. “The one place I felt truly safe…free…was the place I was captured. I was stupid and careless.”
Duncan smoothed her hair from her face and pulled her back against his chest. “You have such an amazing life. Such an incredible story. I can’t even fathom that there are people out there just like me only they’re animals.”
He stopped for a moment, and she could feel another question brewing.
“How is it you’re all so different? I would have thought it was genetic, and yet your parents, you, your sister, you’re all completely different. Entirely different species.”
She smiled. He was logical, and she’d just shattered his understanding of the world he lived in.
“We aren’t born a certain animal. It is a gift bestowed to us. What the parents are has no bearing on what a child becomes. When a woman becomes pregnant, she is visited by the spirit guide. I suppose you could call him God. Is he your God? That I can’t answer. Maybe they’re one and the same.
“There is a scripture in the Bible, though, that I’ve always carried with me. Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. Because when a woman is pregnant, she is given a vision of what gift will be bestowed on her child. That scripture has always resonated with me. The spirit guide knew me before I was placed in my mother’s womb. He knew what gift I would carry with me. I find that comforting.”
“And when you have children? Will they carry those gifts as well? Are you required to marry within your race for it to be passed down to your children?”
“There are no rules, Duncan. We are few. Fewer now than ever. I don’t know why. Not every child is gifted with the ability to shift. Some parents who are both shifters give birth to fully human children while some of the very few who have partnered outside our people have borne children who were given the ability.”