He stared at her for a long moment. “If I’m honest, no. I’m not ready. I don’t want you involved. I want you here where I know you’re safe.”
She reached up on tiptoe and kissed him. Then she crawled into the truck on his side and scooted over to let him in.
They drove back out to where Duncan had first found her. They parked as close as he could, and they hiked the rest of the way. When he thought they were far enough to avoid being seen, he turned to Aliyah. And he nearly called the whole thing off.
He didn’t want this. Didn’t want her to do this. The whole thing had a very bad feel to it.
She put small hand on his arm. “Duncan, it’ll be all right. You’ll be with me.”
Him and his damn arsenal. He’d brought his rifle, two pistols, and a compound bow, just in case. He wasn’t taking any chances with her safety.
Without any hesitation, she peeled off the layers of her clothing and handed them to him so he could stuff them into his bag.
Her golden eyes, so beautiful, stared unblinking at him, and then they flickered as the change came over her. She seemed to embrace it with more ease this time, as if she had more control. She fell gracefully to the ground as her skin rippled and was replaced by tawny fur.
When she was fully cheetah, she rose and padded over to him to rub against his leg. Her throat rumbled with purrs as she nuzzled closer.
He knelt and dug his fingers into her fur, and she licked his face before rubbing her jowls against his cheek.
“Let’s go find our hunters, girl,” he murmured as he rose once more.
She picked up the trail quickly, but she seemed to be locked on the memory of where she had been rather than relying solely on scent. She was tense, wary and on alert as she guided him further into the mountains.
Three hours later, she stopped and growled, her face lifting into the wind as she sniffed. Duncan put his hand on her, a command for her to get down. She readily complied, lowering her body until she was lying on her stomach.
He got out his binoculars and focused on the cabin in the distance. It was in a good location, sheltered on three sides by natural cover. He frowned when he got a glimpse of several empty cages on the porch. A moving truck with the back opened was parked close to the front door. A moment later, three men carrying a cage with what looked to be a tiger inside, came out and hoisted the cat into the back of the truck.
He took out his radio and GPS and quietly relayed the coordinates to Nick. Nick radioed back that they were at most an hour away and would close in rapidly. They set up a rendezvous point and signed off.
Duncan put his hand on the cheetah, and she looked lazily up at him before shifting her head so she could lick his hand. He reached for his pack and pulled out her clothing, hoping she’d get the hint that it was time to shift back.
A few seconds later, she lay on the ground, naked and shivering. Duncan quickly helped her get dressed then urged her away. He had to find a place to shelter her. A place he could stash her so she’d be safe until he could return.
They hiked back about half a mile in silence until he found an area surrounded by thick brush with several boulders she could huddle behind. He pulled a blanket out of his pack and wrapped it around her as he settled her as comfortably as he could.
He squatted beside her and left the pack beside her then handed her his radio. “If you have any trouble, you call for me or Nick. Hopefully this will all be over soon, and I’ll be back for you.”
He leaned in and kissed her forcefully. She reached up to cup his face and kissed him back just as hard. His hands trailed down her body, touching her, reasserting his claim. Her lips trembled under his, and she pulled away.
“Be careful, Duncan. Please.”
He stood and gave her another long look before finally turning away. With each step, he felt more dread creep over him. But he had a job to do. He had to keep Aliyah safe and make sure this sort of thing didn’t happen to her again. Those bastards would pay.
Aliyah tried to relax. She knew she was in for a long wait, and she was determined that she wouldn’t give Duncan any cause for concern. He had enough to do with taking down the poaching ring.
She dozed for a while, though it was an uneasy sleep. As the sun rose higher overheard, warmth filtered through the trees and provided more heat. She checked the time on the GPS unit and saw that a few hours had elapsed.
She stretched, shifting her position then froze when a light sound carried to her on the wind. The cheetah within her stirred, her instincts riled. Aliyah sat unmoving, listening to the disturbance she felt more than heard.
There, again. A sound, a human sound moving through the brush. It wasn’t Duncan; he would have called to her.
Fear took hold, and the cheetah protested, immediately rising, wanting to protect. Aliyah forced her back and tried to control her panic. It could be nothing.[email protected]@@@[email protected]@@@@=======
She edged around one of the boulders so she could get a view downhill.
She recognized him as the one she’d attacked. He was moving stealthily, looking back as if someone were pursuing him. Then she heard a voice, heard someone call out to him.
There were two of them, and they were headed directly for her. No way they wouldn’t see her.
She reached for the radio and eased it up. She raised it to her mouth and whispered into the receiver.
“Duncan, Nick, it’s Aliyah. Don’t answer. There are two hunters. They’re close. I don’t want them to hear.”
Her heart pounded viciously against her breastbone, and her breathing ratcheted up. The cheetah within howled, wanting to break free, to flee. Aliyah tried to push down the urge to shift, but she knew she fought a losing battle. The cheetah rose up, forcing its will on the human, the need to protect all consuming.
The change crawled over her body with amazing speed. Adrenaline surged through her veins as her limbs reshaped and her back arched.
She shot from her hiding spot, knowing she’d have the element of surprise. Hopefully she would be away before the hunters could react.
A shout of surprise sounded behind her, and she knew she’d been spotted.
One rifle shot cracked the air, and then another. She leaped forward, pushing her body to its limits. Another shot echoed and pain exploded in her shoulder. She fell hard.
She struggled to get up, but she was losing blood fast. Still, she crawled forward, trying to reach the ravine she and Duncan had passed. She could slide down and into the river and let the current sweep her away.
As she reached the edge, she looked back to see the two hunters staring at her down the sights of their rifles. Despair washed through her. She didn’t want to die.
“That’s the cat that mangled my hand,” one of them bit out. “I want her hide. No, I want her stuffed and mounted.”
She only had one chance. The river. With the last bit of her strength, she vaulted to her feet. Pain lanced through her body, nearly causing her to collapse. She held on by sheer force of will. The will to live.
Another rifle shot exploded as she hurled herself over the edge of the ravine.
Duncan handcuffed another suspect and unceremoniously stuffed him into the back of one of the SUVs. He was seething with impatience to get back to Aliyah.
He looked up to see Nick hurrying toward him, a grim expression on his face. Duncan held up a hand. “I don’t have time for whatever it is, Nick. I’ve got to get back to Aliyah.”
“Aliyah radioed, Duncan. She’s in trouble.”
Duncan slammed the doo
r and rounded on Nick. “What happened?”
“She radioed and said there were two men, two of the hunters closing in on her location. She didn’t want me to answer so they must have been close.”
A distant rifle shot sounded. Then another. Then silence and a third shot. From the sound, it had to be at least a mile away. Maybe two. But it was undeniably the sound of a high-powered rifle.
Fear nearly paralyzed him. He grabbed Nick’s shirt. “You’re with me.”
He shouted a quick explanation to one of the other deputies, and he and Nick jumped on two of the ATVs confiscated in the raid. Duncan tore off in the direction he’d left Aliyah with Nick following close behind.
It took an eternity to backtrack to the area he’d left her. When they finally reached the spot, Duncan leaped from the four-wheeler and scrambled over the rocks to where he’d left Aliyah.
His blood became ice when he saw the tattered remnants of her clothing lying on the ground. The radio and GPS unit were on the ground next to the blanket and his bag, but there was no sign of Aliyah.
“Duncan,” Nick called. “You need to see this.”
Duncan looked up to see Nick fifty yards up the incline staring down at the ground. He didn’t like the sound of Nick’s voice at all.
When he saw the blood on the ground, his heart nearly stopped. “No. Oh God, no.”
“There’s fur, Duncan.” Nick’s voice was grim. “She was in cheetah form when they shot her. I have fur and blood. A lot of it, and it heads toward the ravine.”
Nausea welled in Duncan’s stomach as he stumbled after Nick. There was a distinct blood trail, and he could see the paw prints, and then an indention where she obviously fell.
She’d been trying to make it over the edge.
“The blood stops here, and there’s a lot. It pooled here,” Nick said. “She stopped here, probably fell.”
Duncan stared at the ground, searching for more evidence, something to tell them what else had happened. Boot prints. Humans. Blood mixed in. They’d followed her up here. Then what?
He spotted another splotch of blood closer to the edge of the ravine, and panic squeezed his chest. He bolted the remaining steps to the edge, looking down at the distinct blood spatters.
The trail led right to the edge. There were scuff marks in the dirt, paw prints right to the very last. As he glanced down the incline, he could see more blood smeared on the rocks. She’d gone into the river.
“They headed south, Duncan,” Nick called.
Duncan tore his gaze from the river and hurried over to where Nick stood.
“She went into the river,” he said hoarsely.
“You go after her,” Nick said. “I can call for backup, and we’ll head after the hunters.”
Duncan hesitated. “Don’t go after them alone,” he ordered. “Call Cal. Have him meet you here with at least two deputies. I’ll have the radio. If I find her…if I find her alive, I’ll take her back to the cabin, and then I’ll double back to help finish up.”
Nick eyed him levelly. “Go, Duncan. We can handle this without you. She’s hurt, and she needs you. You can’t leave her.” He thrust his pack at Duncan that held medical supplies and survival gear.
Duncan grabbed it and ran back to the ravine. When he reached the edge, he