He yanked his hand away and rocked back on his heels. There would be time to have his meltdown later. Maybe after he’d gotten the arrow out of her leg. Jesus. How was he going to get it out without filleting her leg? He needed a doctor, but how on earth was he going to explain how she had gotten an arrow in her leg? Not to mention if he took her to the hospital and they did blood work, wouldn’t it come back all funky because she wasn’t human?
He could just see the tabloid headlines.
“What are you?” he asked softly. “Where did you come from?”
The bronze-colored flecks in her eyes sharpened and glowed as she gazed at him. He could see the cheetah in her, knew it was there no matter how crazy it sounded.
She searched his face as if trying to decide whether she could trust him. Evidently she decided she couldn’t because uncertainty flooded her eyes, and she looked down. Interesting. The cheetah trusted him. The woman did not.
“My name is Aliyah Carver,” she said.
Well, that was something he supposed.
He glanced down at the wound in her leg. The broadhead was completely embedded in her thigh, probably resting against bone. No way for him to push it through, not that he would. Retracting it would be damn near impossible.
“Pull it out,” she said calmly. “I will heal.”
“Goddamn, do you have any idea how much that’ll hurt?”
She nodded solemnly. “There is no other way. I can’t go to a hospital. It isn’t necessary. Once the arrow is removed, my wound will heal rapidly.”
She relayed it so matter-of-factly. Clearly she had no idea how much a broadhead would make her bleed. And the pain. Jesus. He wasn’t the only one having a serious issue with reality.
“I know you don’t understand, but you have to trust me. The wound will heal. The arrow must be removed quickly.”
“Like you trust me?” he asked pointedly.
She flushed. “I can’t afford to trust anyone.”
That was fair. If he were a cheetah, he guessed there wouldn’t be a whole lot of people he could trust with that little tidbit.
He rubbed a hand through his hair. “Do you want a drink at least?” Hell, he could use one.
“Alcohol will impede the healing. I need my senses about me. It will require my full concentration.”
He shook his head, a little sick at what he must do.
“Just do it,” she begged. “Don’t make me wait. The anticipation is the worst part.”
He nodded grimly. If she could be so stoic, then he damn sure wasn’t going to be a pussy. He got to his feet and stared down at the arrow. When he glanced back to her, he saw she’d closed her eyes, strain etched into her forehead.
He would do this quickly. There was no need for her to suffer the agony of waiting. He reached down and grasped the arrow just below the fletching. He sucked in a deep breath. His nerves screamed like a girl.
Not wanting to delay any longer, he yanked with all his strength. Her cry ripped right through his gut as he stumbled backward, the arrow in his hand. Blood poured from the wound, spilling onto his hardwood floor.
He dropped the arrow and fell to his knees in front of her. He yanked the afghan down to press on the wound in an effort to staunch the flow of blood. Goddamn it, he’d known this was a bad idea. How the hell was he going to explain a woman bleeding to death in his living room?
A low sob reached his ears. He reached for her, dragging her into his arms. “God, I’m sorry.”
She buried her face in his neck and held on tightly as pain quivered through her body. Then, as if remembering the blood, she rocketed from his arms and scrambled to a sitting position.
“I’m sorry. I’m getting blood everywhere. All over your floor.”
He saw the paleness of her face, the evidence of shock in her eyes. Very gently, he put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her back down.
He gingerly pulled the blanket back so he could assess the damage. Amazingly, the blood had slowed to a small trickle. The flesh was open, raw and red. Angry. But the arrow should have caused a hell of a lot more injury. It was designed to inflict as much damage coming out as it did going in.
“Stay right here. I’ll get some towels and something for you to wear,” he said.
She looked down, as if just remembering her nudity. A bright blush worked across her smooth skin, and she reached self-consciously for the afghan that had fallen away and pulled it higher around her body.
It was a sight he wasn’t likely to forget. A beautiful, vulnerable woman with tawny hair and golden eyes curled on his couch with a blood-soaked blanket wrapped around her like a shield. Hell of an image.
Duncan left the living room in need of a stiff drink. Maybe two. He prided himself on being a highly logical, no-bullshit law enforcement professional. He didn’t believe in hocus-pocus woo-woo crap. But he knew two things. One, he’d locked a cheetah with an arrow in her haunch in his mudroom. Two, when he’d walked back in, a naked woman, also with an arrow in her thigh, had replaced the cheetah.
As much as he’d love to tell himself he was way overworked, in need of a break and that he was highly delusional, he knew it wasn’t the case. He was as sane as the next person.
And if he wasn’t insane, then he had to face the fact that the world as he knew it didn’t exist.
He hurriedly collected a first-aid kit, towels and one of his T-shirts. When he returned, she was lying on the couch, eyes closed, her breaths coming in shallow bursts.
“Aliyah,” he said softly.
Her eyes opened and once again, he was struck by the beauty of her gaze, how mesmerizing those golden eyes were.
He knelt in front of the couch and gently pulled the blanket away from her wound. Already it was smaller, but it still looked angry. Blood oozed at a much slower rate, but she was still losing too much.
He set to work bandaging the wound and did his best to ignore the curves of her body, tempting though they were. When he’d finished, he handed her the T-shirt. “Do you need help getting i
She shook her head and pushed herself to a sitting position. He stood and discreetly turned his back, though he’d already gotten a view of her breasts.
Was he honest-to-God lusting over a cat? No, she wasn’t just a cat. She was a woman. A breathtakingly gorgeous woman.
Who also happened to be a cat.
Her husky voice tingled over his ears, and he slowly turned back around. She sat on the couch, leaning away from her injured leg. Her hair was tousled, just the right amount of “messed up” to look incredibly sexy. Her eyes held an almost drugged look, a mixture of incredible fatigue and shock, he was sure. Wearing his T-shirt as she was, she looked just like a woman might after an afternoon of making love.
“Aliyah…we need to talk.”
Worry flashed in her eyes. He didn’t want her to be afraid of him, but he wasn’t sure how to offer her reassurance that he had no intention of hurting her, or betraying her secret. It wasn’t like he could go announcing to the world that he harbored a cheetah-woman. No one would believe him, and he could kiss his job as sheriff good-bye.
Her lips parted then closed again in agitation. “You deserve answers. I know.”
She closed her eyes and pushed her hand through her long hair. “Ask then. I’ll try to answer what I can.”
He stuffed his hands in his jeans pocket and squared his shoulders. “Let’s start with you telling me who you are—what you are.”
Aliyah felt at a distinct disadvantage, and she didn’t like it. The man standing in front of her was intimidating. His gentleness didn’t fool her a bit. He was what her people would call a warrior. A protector. If he were one of her people, only the fiercest of animals could be chosen by the spirit guide to accompany him on his life journey.
“You haven’t told me your name,” she said in an attempt to buy some time. She didn’t feel comfortable revealing too much of herself to this man. Hers was a life of secrecy. She was very careful of whom she trusted. He hadn’t tried to harm her, but she couldn’t be sure of his intentions.
He eased down on one knee in front of her. “My name is Duncan Kennedy. I’m the sheriff here. I only want to help you, Aliyah. But in order to do that, you have to tell me what the hell is going on.”
Law enforcement. She felt a shaft of fear invade her chest, and the cheetah inside her stirred. Her skin came alive, itchy, uncomfortable, and she fought the urge to change. She swallowed and tried to calm her nerves.
“What the hell just happened?” he demanded.
She looked at him in confusion.
“Your eyes. They changed. Just for a moment, but I’m not crazy.”
Automatically, she closed them and turned her head away. He reached out, curled his fingers around her chin and tugged until she faced him again.
“Open your eyes,” he said.
Reluctantly, she obeyed. His thumb stroked over her jaw as he stared intently at her. The chill she’d long fought waned, and she was unsure of whether it was because of his touch or his gaze. She felt warmed by both. The rough pad of his thumb scraped across her skin, sending a shiver racing down her neck that contrasted with the heat that bloomed under her flesh.
“It was the cheetah, wasn’t it? You were about to change.”
There was a bit of wonder in his voice, as if he were still coming to terms with what she was. Slowly, she nodded.
“When I feel frightened or threatened, the cheetah stirs within me. It’s a protective instinct.”
His brow furrowed. “What frightened you?”
“You’re a cop,” she said in a low voice. “You’ll want to take me in. Turn me