Duncan awoke before dawn as was his usual habit, only this morning he wasn’t in any hurry to get out of bed. Aliyah lay in the crook of his arm, her arm thrown across his chest. Strands of her hair tickled his nose, and he reached up to brush them away.
She was the calmest he’d seen her since discovering her in the mudroom. Her breaths came deep and even, and there was no muscle twitching to signal an impending shift. Apparently sex and good sleep cured all things.
He lay there enjoying the feel of a woman in his arms. The darkness in the room began to fade as dawn crept through the window. He had to get up soon. There were reports to file, poachers to catch, and there was the matter of Aliyah.
There was still little he knew about her other than the fact she was only half human. She’d mentioned family and that she’d lived in Alaska. And that she’d been in Africa when she’d been taken by the hunters.
He frowned when the thought occurred to him that she hadn’t asked to contact her family. If she had been a captive for six months, wouldn’t she want to be reunited with her family? Wouldn’t she want them not to worry any longer?
The idea that she’d been so reticent bothered him. Not that she owed him anything, but he wanted her to trust him.
His mood turned thoughtful, and he inched his way out of bed and headed for the shower. As the warm water sluiced over his body, he wracked his brain for a solution to the predicament he and Aliyah faced.
Aliyah would have to stay here, and that made him nervous. His work would take a few hours at the least, and leaving her alone that long didn’t sit well. But he couldn’t take her with him. He could just see it. Something would set her off, she’d freak out and poof. Cheetah unleashed in the sheriff’s department.
He finished scrubbing and stepped out, grabbed a towel and walked naked into the bedroom, wiping at his hair. When he pulled the towel away from his head, he glanced over to see Aliyah staring at him with sleepy eyes.
Neither spoke. He quickly wrapped the towel around his waist then crossed the room and sat down on the edge of the bed.
“I have to go into work,” he said, breaking the silence. “Will you be okay here…alone?”
She studied him for a moment, her head cocked, her golden eyes lighting over his skin. “You’re really asking if I’ll still be here when you get back.”
He stared at her for a moment then slowly nodded.
She stared back, nodding as well.
He reached for the sheet and pulled it down to bare her leg. The wound didn’t look as angry, but it was far from healed.
“There’s food in the fridge. Help yourself to whatever you need. The number to the station is by the phone. If anything happens or you need me, just call. I’ll try not to be too long.”
“Are you going after the poachers?”
He nodded grimly. “I’m going to try.”
“I could probably help.”
“No,” he said, then realized he’d barked at her. “No,” he said in a lower voice. “I won’t put you at risk. I need you to stay here and inside the house. Don’t go out for any reason.”
He leaned down and ran his finger down her cheek. “Take care of yourself while I’m gone.”
He stood and went to dress. He could feel her gaze as he pulled on his clothing, and the warm hum of arousal heated his veins.
He turned to her one more time as he prepared to leave the bedroom. “I’ll start a fire and stack some wood on the hearth so all you’ll have to do is add logs throughout the day.”
She smiled, and he gave her one last stare before he walked out.
Aliyah watched him go then laid her head back on the pillow with a confused sigh. She was free after six months in captivity. She should be going home as fast as she could, and yet here she was, making promises to stay that she couldn’t keep.
For the first time in several long months, she felt at peace. Calm. Her reprieve from the stress and edginess was hard fought but welcome.
During the night she’d twitched and spasmed as she’d fought the urge to shift. Several times he’d come awake, his hands gliding over her body as he murmured comforting words. She’d loved the way his voice glided over her skin, a much-needed balm. She wanted more. She needed this man, and it frightened her.
She threw back the covers and slid her legs over the side of the bed. She stood, testing the strength of her injured leg. Shaky and a little wobbly, but otherwise she could walk on it. It gave her a twinge as she made her way toward the door, but in another day or two, she should be well enough to travel.
And that was the excuse she fed herself for staying. She needed to regain her strength before she attempted to return to her family.
They probably thought she was dead, and that saddened her. In the six long months of her captivity, what had tortured her most wasn’t her fear or the terrible conditions she’d been forced to endure. It was the thought of her mother’s tears and her father’s grief.
She wasn’t sure they could endure it again after losing one child so long ago.
As she looked down at her naked body, it occurred to her that she had absolutely nothing to wear. With a frown, she went to Duncan’s closet and thumbed through the hangers until she found a flannel shirt. It would be warm and soft and hopefully wouldn’t irritate her skin. The more time she spent in human form, the more she’d adapt.
She pulled it on and gathered it close, inhaling Duncan’s scent as it surrounded her. Spicy, a little like wood. Warm and masculine. Strong. Like him. It made her feel safe.
She buttoned the shirt but left her legs bare, not wanting to aggravate her wound. It felt a little odd to be walking bare-assed through Duncan’s house, not because the immodesty bothered her, but because she was in a strange man’s house, bare-assed
Then she laughed, because it wasn’t as though she hadn’t stuck that bare ass in the air in a clear invitation for him to ride her hard. Her cheeks warmed, and she closed her eyes against the embarrassment tightening her skin.
He’d felt so good, though. So incredibly right. She’d never felt that way with a man. They could make her feel good. Any man with a modicum of know-how could make a woman get off, but Duncan…he knew how to love a woman. Knew just how to touch her, to kiss her. Sex with him had been… She shook her head. She couldn’t even come up with a descriptor that did it justice.
She padded into the living room and stopped at the small French doors leading to the wooden deck at the back of the cabin. A light frost had kissed the earth, and when she touched the glass, it felt cold.
Winter was coming. Her parents would be safely ensconced in their Alaskan cabin on one of the small islands off the coast of Kodiak. She closed her eyes and imagined herself there, gazing out over the emerald green waters of the inlet where the cabin was nestled.
Eagles flew regularly overheard, and often her mother would join them. Kodiak bears roamed freely over the island. She’d watched her father amble through the forest then stand to his magnificent twelve-foot height, his brown fur glistening in the sun.
They had made a great sacrifice in leaving their haven to take Aliyah to Africa. But after Kaya’s discovery and disappearance, they hadn’t wanted to risk the same happening to Aliyah.
Kaya. Even now, so many years later, sadness gripped Aliyah when she thought of her sister.
Kaya had also been a great cat. A North American mountain lion. The majestic cougar. Aliyah, though young when Kaya disappeared, could vividly remember staring into the beautiful amber eyes of her sister.
Chilled from standing so close to the door, she stepped away and moved toward the fireplace. She allowed the heat to warm her front before turning her back to the flames.
Her gaze flickered as it fell on the telephone sitting on the coffee table. She ached to call her mother, to let her know she was alive. She waged an inner war with herself over the need to talk to her parents and the desire to keep them and herself safe.
She continued to stare at the phone, her gut churning, her eyes burning. She closed them as her mother’s face shimmered in her mind. Soft, gentle, so warm. There was nothing like a mother’s hugs, and Aliyah had gone so long without them.
She walked to the couch and sat down, staring at the phone. Should she do it? Call her parents and at least let them know she was alive and that she’d tell them more when she could? She didn’t even know where she was. Colorado. She knew that much. But it was a big state, and she had no idea how to tell her parents her location.
Duncan could tell them. Her breath caught in her chest as indecision held her in its grip.
Could she trust Duncan? Was he even now contacting the state or even the federal authorities? Who would you even call if you found a cheetah that happened to turn into a woman? If her secret was discovered, her people would be at a big risk. The government wouldn’t believe she was a freak occurrence. Surely where there was one there were others.
She covered her eyes with one hand and massaged her temples. She should go. Leave now before he returned. She glanced down at her leg and knew she’d never make it in either human or cheetah form, not that she’d put the cheetah at risk. She had no money, no clothes, no identification. She was at the mercy of Duncan’s hospitality until her parents could come for her.
When she took that into consideration, she didn’t have much choice but to wait for Duncan, bide her time and heal. A good meal would be a great starting point. She was ravenous and looked forward to human food again instead of the raw scraps thrown to her by her captors.
Even as she rummaged around the small kitchen, she found herself watching the clock and hoping Duncan would return soon.
Duncan sat in his office ready to bellow in frustration. It would figure that on a day where he needed to finish and get the hell out of the office, everyone and their mama decided they needed something.
He hung up the phone and shoved back from his desk, prepared to bolt when Mrs. Humphreys stuck her head in the door.
He managed to keep from sighing. Barely.
“Mrs. Humphreys, come in. What can I do for you?”
She offered a smile and gripped her purse in front of her as she walked in