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Golden Eyes (Wild 1) Maya Banks 2022/8/5 16:58:42

She stilled and arched into his hand. He relaxed just a bit as her purrs filled the air. She twisted her head and licked his palm then scrubbed her face against his hand once more.

Was she tame? Had she been someone’s pet? It seemed the only reasonable explanation.

Her back leg buckled, and she sank with a thump onto the ground. His chest tightened with compassion. Such a beautiful, regal animal.

“I need to get you back to my truck,” he murmured. “Any bright ideas on how to do that?”

She continued to stare at him, her throat rumbling with her soft purrs. It was an intoxicating sound. But deceptive. It made her seem less wild, and Duncan couldn’t afford to underestimate the cat.

He shrugged out of his coat, careful to keep his movements measured and non-threatening. Maybe if he spread the jacket on the ground beside her, she’d crawl onto it and maybe he could drag it back to the truck. Or maybe he was losing his mind.

He crept forward and gingerly arranged the coat on the ground next to the cat, who regarded him with half-closed eyes.

“Go on then,” he muttered. “Get on the coat.” He could grab the sleeve and still position his body as far away from any teeth or claws as possible.

To his surprise, the cat heaved herself up and padded onto the jacket. She made a tight circle before settling down.

Well, that had been easy.

The cat watched him with uncanny intelligence as he gathered one sleeve in his free hand. The other grasped his rifle, but he knew dragging the heavy cat off the mountain was going to take more effort. He was going to need both hands.

He stood there for a long moment, judging the cat’s mood. She seemed complacent enough, but what would she do when he started pulling on the jacket?

The cheetah extended her front paws then laid her head down on the tops and closed her eyes. There was trust in that gesture. Even as the absurd thought crossed his mind, he couldn’t discount it.

He took the strap of his rifle and pulled it over his shoulder. He reached behind him to touch the stock, positioning it so he could reach it quickly if needed. His pack would have to stay.

Keeping a wary eye on the cheetah, he bent down and picked up the sleeves of the coat. He gave them an experimental pull, but the cat never stirred.

This was going to be one long-ass walk.

Duncan stopped to rest and catch his breath. It wasn’t that dragging the cat was too arduous, but having to bend over while pulling and navigate all the rocks and rises was hell on his back.

Just as he bent to pick up the sleeves and resume the hike to his truck, he heard the snapping sound of someone stepping on a twig.

He automatically reached for his rifle.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

Duncan turned warily to see one of the poachers ten yards away, looking at Duncan down the barrel of a rifle. Fuck. He glanced down at the cheetah to see she was still undisturbed, either sleeping or unconscious.

“I just want the cat. Cooperate and you won’t get hurt.”

Duncan scowled. At least his badge was shoved into his pocket and not visible. That little piece of information would probably get him shot on the spot.

“This your kill?” he asked casually. “I found her about a half a mile back. Wondered how a cheetah got in these mountains.”

The man chuckled lightly. “That doesn’t concern you. And yes, she’s my kill. I’d appreciate it if you backed off.”

Duncan kept his hands up and nonthreatening as he took several steps back. An injured cheetah wasn’t worth his life, but the fact that this asshole was holding him at gunpoint in order to claim a hide pissed him off to no end.

The hunter moved forward, motioning for Duncan to stay back. “Toss your rifle into those bushes over there,” he directed. “And

Duncan eased the strap off his shoulder, wrapped his hand around the butt of the stock and tossed the gun as gently as he could into the bush.

“Now, down on your knees. Hands behind your back.”

Duncan gritted his teeth but complied.

A few moments later, Duncan felt a coil of rope burn around his wrists as the hunter tied his hands together.

“Just in case you get any ideas about going for your gun,” the man murmured.

Son of a bitch. What a mess this had turned out to be. And all because he felt sorry for a fucking cheetah. A cat that shouldn’t even be in his mountains.

Duncan tugged at the ropes around his wrists and watched as the hunter walked back to the cheetah. He paused and cautiously nosed the barrel of his rifle down to nudge the cat.

When he got no response, the hunter relaxed. After a quick look in Duncan’s direction and apparently deciding he was no threat, the hunter shouldered his rifle, bent to the cheetah and reached for her nape.

The cheetah exploded up, knocking the man back and on his ass. She gave him no time to react. She was on him before he could get his gun up. She latched onto his hand, and his screams filled the air.

Duncan watched in fascinated horror as she treated the man like her own personal chew toy. At one point, the man rolled away, curling himself into a protective ball. The cheetah hissed and stalked a circle around him, prepared to pounce again.

The man scrambled to his feet, evidently deciding he was going to die running. To Duncan’s surprise, the cheetah made no effort to pursue him. Instead, she turned her golden stare on Duncan.

Unease prickled up his spine. He was as vulnerable as a trussed up Thanksgiving turkey.

The cheetah circled behind him, and Duncan knew there was little point in trying to stagger up and run. In a foot race with the fastest land animal in the world? Yeah, he had a real shot at winning that one.

He tensed when he felt her teeth graze his hands. He waited, prepared for the pain, prepared to do anything to defend himself.

She began tugging and chewing. At the ropes. Not his hands. Un-fucking-believable. She was freeing him!

A few more tugs and the rope went slack. He pulled his hands to the front and rubbed at his wrists, unable to fathom that she hadn’t bitten him.

Carefully, he got to his feet and slowly turned to face her. She regarded him with complacency, as if she hadn’t just gone batshit on the hunter. As bizarre as it seemed, his ass had just been saved by a cheetah.

She slumped wearily to the ground, and he knew that the attack had cost her dearly. He felt a pang of guilt and sympathy for the creature.

He walked over to retrieve the jacket, and once again, he spread it beside her. She tried to lift her head, but her strength had fled.

The fear that had earlier taken hold of him vanished. For some strange reason, he knew this cat meant him no harm. She could have easily eaten him a dozen times over, and yet the only aggression she’d shown was toward the hunter.

He reached for her, pulling and turning her until he’d positioned her on the coat. Fatigue was taking its own hold over him, and if he didn’t get them both back to his truck, they were going to be spending the night out here.

He trudged over to get his rifle, and this time, he would keep it up and ready.

Dusk was fast approaching by the time Duncan hauled the cheetah to his truck. The air had cooled around him as shadows fell, and the sweat that soaked his clothes covered him in a frigid cloak.

He dropped the jacket sleeves and dug for his cell phone. There was a weak signal but hopefully he could call Doc Robbins, the local vet, and have him come out with a cage and his truck.

He made the call and waited impatiently for an answer. He’d blown the entire day traipsing around the mountain, and now had a cheetah he had no idea what to do with.

When the answering machine picked up, Duncan hung up in irritation. He wasn’t going to leave a message for Doc saying he had a damn cheetah he needed taking care of, nor was he going to hang around here until Doc called him back. Which only left taking the cheetah home with him.

He sighed and looked down at the cat, whose eyes were even droopier. Pain glittered in the golden orbs, and that worried him. An injured animal tended to be unreasonable.

Usually he’d unload his rifle, case it, and put it in the back of his truck. But if he was going to ride home with the cheetah in the cab, he was damn well going to keep the gun handy.