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Golden Eyes (Wild 1) Maya Banks 2022/8/5 16:58:49

got down on his knees, rotated around and dropped his feet down.

The pressure in his chest was unbearable. He felt a sense of dread he hadn’t felt since the day he’d been told his parents were gone. Aliyah had to be alive. He couldn’t lose her this way.

When he reached the bottom, he scanned the bank, looking for any indication she had merely run along the side. No blood. No fur.

He closed his eyes and swallowed the panic back. Aliyah was counting on him. He’d already failed her, broken his promise to keep her safe.

He unclipped his flashlight from his pants and started down the rocky bank, a fervent prayer spilling from his lips. He followed the winding path as it curved through the small valley. At one point it narrowed as it cut through a gorge and then plunged outward again as the terrain flattened. In another quarter-mile the river shallowed to a point where the current couldn’t possibly carry a body, cheetah or human.

His breathing ratcheted up until his vision blurred. Would he find her lying in the calmer pools? He charged ahead, nearly running now. His chest burned as he pushed himself harder.

As he rounded the bend of the last series of rapids, his gaze locked onto the smoother waters only ankle deep. He didn’t know whether to be relieved or scared to death when he saw no sign of her anywhere. The water rippled along as though no disturbance had ever occurred.

And then he saw it. Blood. Just a small splatter on the rocks in front of his feet. He shined the flashlight on the ground. Adrenaline rocketed through his veins when he saw another small splotch on the rocks heading into the woods.

She’d survived the river.

Resisting the urge to charge into the trees after her, he forced himself to follow the blood trail. He hands shook as he saw the blood increase the further from the river he went. She was still bleeding heavily.

He stopped when he came to a large blood smear, heavier than the prior trail. His heart began pounding furiously. She’d stopped here.

He swung the flashlight in a tight radius, and then he saw it. A human footprint in the bloody soil. She’d shifted.

“Aliyah,” he called. “Aliyah!”

He narrowed all his focus to following her footprints, relying on blood when the terrain was too rocky to register the indention of her feet.

“Aliyah!” he called again as he navigated the next rise. He swung his light downward and across the area in front of him. He froze, his hand stopping the sweep when the pale light of human flesh reflected in the glow of the flashlight.

He scrambled down the hill and dropped to his knees in front of Aliyah’s still form. He reached for her neck, feeling for a pulse. Her skin was still warm to his touch even amidst the chill of the air. He nearly wilted in relief when he felt the faint tremor against his fingers.

He turned her body over, looking for a wound. As he gently rolled her and shined the light across her torso, he saw the jagged wound in her shoulder. Blood still oozed from the wound, but at a much slower rate than the earlier trail had suggested.

“Aliyah,” he whispered as he trailed a hand across her cheek. “Aliyah, honey, wake up.”

Knowing he had to move fast if he had any prayer of getting her back to the cabin, he tucked the flashlight into the waistband of his pants and hoisted her gently into his arms. When she was high against his chest, he moved her up and over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry.

He reached first for his radio with his free hand.

“Nick, do you read me?”

There was a long silence, and then the radio crackled.

“Duncan, yeah, I’m here. What’s going on?”

“Target acquired. I’m proceeding with the plan as I outlined.”

Again there was a pause.

“Roger that. We’ve apprehended two suspects. I’ll be down at the station processing them. I’ll see you when I see you. And Duncan? Good luck,” he finished softly.

Duncan shoved his radio back onto his clip then snagged the flashlight from his pants. He shifted Aliyah’s weight and started back to the river. If he followed the bank another mile, it would lead him to an old national forest road that would take him just a quarter-mile from his cabin.

He curled his arm over her legs and focused on each step. One foot in front of the other. Aliyah depended on him. He wouldn’t let her down again.

An hour later, he staggered from the national forest road onto the county road that would lead him to his cabin. His shoulder ached. Pain splintered down his spine, but still he continued on.

Aliyah’s head bumped against his back, and he slowed his walk so he didn’t jostle her more than he had to. Sweat rolled down the back of his neck even as the cold evening air made him shiver.

He caught the lights of his cabin ahead, and he redoubled his efforts, lengthening his stride. When he turned into the gravel drive and saw the silver Ford Expedition parked close to the door, he stopped cold.

A multitude of expletives bubbled in his throat. He tossed the flashlight and reached for his gun. Ducking as low as he could while still carrying Aliyah, he crept closer to the house. He had no choice but to stash her outside and go in to secure the cabin.

He laid her gently on the ground behind a clump of bushes, shrugged out of his jacket and laid it over her. He reached for his radio again.

“Nick, I may need backup. I have an unknown vehicle parked in front of my cabin. I had to leave Aliyah on the ground out front. I’m going in.”

“I’m on my way,” Nick said shortly.

Duncan pocketed his radio again and crept toward the cabin. He stopped near the front window, pressed himself against the wall and peered around the edge. Through the sliver the curtain bared, he saw a middle-aged couple standing in the living room.

He relaxed a fraction. Aliyah’s parents? Whatever the case, they didn’t appear to be armed. He pulled his radio out.

“Nick, stand down. I’ve got it from here.”

“Yeah. I’ll check in later.”

Duncan raised his gun and hurried for the door. He put his free hand on the knob, twisted and burst in, weapon pointed at the couple.

The man shoved the woman behind him and immediately raised his hands.

“Who are you?” Duncan demanded.

“Lawrence Carver,” he replied. “We’re here for Aliyah.”

Duncan lowered his weapon. “Stay here. I’ll get her.”

The woman darted from behind Lawrence. “Where is she? Is she all right?”

Duncan held up his hand. “Stay here, Mrs. Carver. I have to go back for Aliyah.”

He turned and hurried back to where Aliyah lay. He holstered his gun and quickly picked her up. As he strode back to the cabin, he heard Mrs. Carver’s anguished cry.

They stood back so Duncan could pass through the door. He walked over to the couch and laid Aliyah down. Her mother flew to her side and knelt on the floor beside her. Her hands fluttered over Aliyah’s face.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Merry, she’s alive,” Lawrence said as he sank to his knees beside his wife. He touched Aliyah’s wound with trembling hands then turned his gaze to Duncan.

“Hunters,” Duncan said grimly.

“But why was she out there?” Merry asked desperately.

Duncan scrubbed a hand over his face as he faced her parents. “She helped us locate them,” he said quietly.

“You were supposed to protect her. You were supposed to keep her safe until we got here.”

The accusation in her voice made Duncan flinch.

“You have to take her away,” Duncan said. “She’s not safe here.” His gaze swept over her wound, and he took in the worried stares of her pare

nts. “Will she heal?” His voice cracked, and he swallowed the knot building in his throat at the idea that this would be the last time he saw her.

“It will take time,” Lawrence said in a quiet voice. “She will need to once again find the balance between herself and the cheetah. It will aid her in her recovery. We’ll take her home at once. You have our undying gratitude not only for saving our daughter but for keeping her…our secret.”

“I have to go,” Duncan said. “We made several arrests. I brought her back here to shield her from scrutiny, to keep her out of the case. It would be better if she weren’t here. I don’t know what all the hunters saw.”

Lawrence nodded, and the ache in Duncan’s chest grew. He moved hesitantly toward Aliyah. Her mother stood and moved back a step as if sensing his need.

He knelt by the couch and put his hand gently over her forehead. He smoothed his fingers through her hair and pressed his lips to her brow.

“Good-bye,” he whispered. “Be safe. I—” He broke off and turned away, rising to his feet. He cast a quick glance at Aliyah’s parents. “Tell her…tell her I’m sorry.”

He turned and walked out of the house to get into his truck. For a long moment he sat behind the steering wheel, watching as Lawrence Carver carried his daughter from the cabin and put her inside his vehicle.

Duncan's fingers curled around the steering wheel, and he felt the quiet rise of despair. He keyed the ignition, put it in reverse and backed out of the drive.

He missed her. No two ways about it.

Duncan shed his coat and tossed it on the couch then followed it down with a weary sigh. The last few weeks had been a pisser. Elk Ridge had made national news, and as a result, the media had been swarming over the small town, interviewing the locals and everyone who’d ever claimed to visit the region.

Arrangements had been made for the animals recovered in the sting operation. Arrests had been made, and the poachers awaited trial on a host of federal charges. It had been a circus, but now things were finally quiet again.

And here he was, home, alone, thinking about a golden-eyed temptress and missing her with his every breath. It was pretty pathetic, and he was fairly certain it made him a pussy.

He hadn’t heard from Aliyah or her parents, a fact that made him crazy. He didn’t know how she was doing, if she was hurting, healing, but then he hadn’t tried to call them either. He didn’t want any link discovered between him and Aliyah and the possible questions that could arise were it found out that she had been here when the raid went down.