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Authors: Tatiana Caldwell

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But he couldn’t let her go. Even though he knew he should,
he just couldn’t let her go without trying to leave the door open for more.

Nathan rushed up to grab her by the hand and she turned to
him with wide eyes. He responded to her startled expression with an urgent relay
of directions. “Mount Diablo. Wednesday morning, between nine and ten a.m. at
the camp of the Phantom Panther Hiking Trail to the North Peak.”

She blinked at him. “I’m sorry, what?”

“I’ll be camping at Mount Diablo. Just thought I’d let you
know in case you changed your mind about not meeting up with strangers. It was
an absolute pleasure to meet you, Sofia.” He flashed a smile and kissed the
back of her hand. Then he turned around and hurried off in the opposite
direction before he allowed himself to change his mind and rescind the
invitation for her own good.

For his own good.

Chapter Three

 

Sofia laughed at herself as she hiked up the trail. Here she
was at eight in the morning on a Wednesday during her relaxation getaway,
traversing up a mountain. A mountain! To meet up with a man she didn’t know
much more about other than his name and that he was highly skilled with his
fingers. Well, perhaps she also knew that he really liked being jerked off
under a jacket on a plane, but judging by the way he’d bolted just before he
was near climax, she assumed he didn’t like making a mess on himself. Her
cheeks grew warm and a naughty smile played on her mouth at the memory of the
event. She guessed she should have figured that it wouldn’t be convenient for a
man going commando to come all over his pants and jacket in public. Sofia had
been too caught up in the heat of the moment to make logical deductions like
that at the time. All she knew was that she had to have more of that man, right
then and there.

And she
still
wanted more.

She spent the past two days casually touring downtown San
Francisco, visiting shops, tasting the food and checking out the views. The
stress and worries of the job she’d temporarily escaped evaporated easily in
the mild weather and change of scenery the West Coast provided.

But Sofia’s nights in bed had been plagued by erotic dreams
of Nathan and the restless torment of unsatisfied desire that even her purple
vibrating and rotating double-pronged toy couldn’t relieve. So she’d disregarded
her own good sense and headed out to Mount Diablo on a whim that she wouldn’t
regret doing so, and that her airplane lover would actually meet her there.

At first she wasn’t even sure she was going to find this
Phantom Panther trail Nathan described. There were many trails listed in the
guides she’d found, but none of them identified anything with the words
“phantom” or “panther” in them. Fortunately she ran into people at the base of
the mountain who looked as if they knew where they were going. They’d stared at
her strangely when she asked about Phantom Panther, but did point her in the
right direction.

She passed several signs marking the path as “private
property”, but figured that was due to it being reserved for the party Nathan
mentioned. It was lonely on the trail, but somehow…tranquilizing. The
temperature was in the low seventies, a good thirty degrees warmer than the
late fall weather she’d left behind in New York. It was interesting to note
that where she was coming from, the grass and trees were going brown and dying
with autumn whereas here it was the rainy season, and the vegetation was
starting to turn green with life. Even she felt as if she were coming back to
life here. With each chirp of a bird, each whiff of damp grass, each step deeper
into wilderness, and each second closer to the time she was to meet Nathan,
Sofia felt more and more…alive.

Perhaps she should spend time out with nature more often.

The trail was on mostly a moderate grade, so it wasn’t too
steep to frighten her, but she knew it would be easier going up than it would
coming back down. She was grateful the trail was easy to hike because she
couldn’t imagine navigating a vehicle—especially one she had just rented and so
was unfamiliar with—toward the mountain summit.

The climb was easy with the new hiking shoes Sofia purchased
just the night before. Soon she reached a flat terrain and a the small camp
station with a few benches and picnic tables where he’d told her he’d meet her.
She looked around but didn’t see him and glanced at her watch. It was only a
quarter to nine—a little early. The wilderness called to her, encouraged her to
go further, to explore just a little more of it, so she decided to continue
toward the summit for about ten minutes before turning around to jog back.

On her way back to the camp, there was a rustling amongst
the wilderness that made her jump. What was it—snake? Fox? Bobcat? She hoped
not something bigger and more ferocious. Nor dangerous and human. She fingered
the switchblade she’d stashed in the pocket of her pullover just in case, and
tried to recall whether or not she’d read that there was any cell phone
reception on this mountain.

With steady and sturdy steps she kept walking and watching,
waiting. A moment later a large deer bolted out of the foliage and onto the
trail, and darted right past her.

She exhaled with relief.

But within seconds the hairs on the back of her neck stood
to attention as she simultaneously wondered what had frightened the deer and
sensed something watching her.

She paused in her tracks and gripped her blade as she turned
and looked toward the trees.

Right near the edge of the wilderness, just a few feet from
the road, stood a large and menacing-looking feline creature. Dangerous eyes
with yellowish-green irises locked on to her, its head lowered and sharp teeth
bared. It was an aggressive, powerful male—though Sofia wasn’t quite sure
how
she knew it was male, she was certain only that it was one—with orange-ish fur
covered in large, black spots. She’d been aware that there were large animals
like mountain lions and wolves in these mountains, but this thing looked more
like a leopard. Nah—there weren’t any leopards in California, were there? No,
it had to be some kind of mountain lion with a weird fur pigmentation. But
she’d also learned that mountain lions were nocturnal hunters. The sun had been
up for hours now, so what was this one doing on the prowl?

Sofia quickly recalled the safety tips she’d reviewed.
Should
you encounter a mountain lion, do not run nor stand still—confront it.
She
bent down and snatched up some twigs and pebbles on the ground near her foot
and tossed them at the big cat, yelling, “I’m not afraid of you, so shoo! Go
on, be a good boy now,” and waving her arms in an attempt to intimidate him.

But the creature only licked his lips and practically
smiled
at her as he moved into an attack position. Sofia’s heart thudded so hard,
she felt the pounding against her eardrums as well. She flipped out her blade
and prepared to thrust it just as the creature lunged toward her. He leapt into
the air with so much speed and force that he literally was several feet above
her one second, and then was on top of her the very next.

She had
not
beenexpecting a leap like that.

Sofia crashed under his weight and her head hit the earth
with a deafening
thud
.The knuckles of her right hand also
slammed into the ground and forced her fist to open and the blade to tumble out
of it. The mountain lion pinned her down with his two large paws on her chest
and snarled at her, his face so close to hers she could feel the rumble from
his threatening growl and smell his breath. But the vision of the cat started
to blur as she began losing consciousness.

The world faded in and out as the creature swiped at her
clothes, ripping her shirt to shreds. Sofia lay there, whimpering, unable to
move, unable to defend herself from becoming this animal’s meal. Darkness.
Angry animal on top of her. Darkness. Animal licking his lips. Darkness. She
sensed another presence and when she opened her eyes again, her attacker was
being shoved off her by another ferocious big cat that had charged into it, one
that actually looked like a normal mountain lion. Sofia turned her head to the
side and watched the fight between the leopard and the mountain lion as she
drifted in and out of consciousness.

The blow to her head must have been a doozy, because her
arms and legs were shaking and her torso convulsed uncontrollably. If that
wasn’t messed up enough, she saw the newer cat rise victoriously and walk
toward her, its paws and limbs morphing into male human feet, arms and legs as
it approached.

It was still half cat and half man when it picked her up in
its arms and began carrying her off. Its stark, emerald-green eyes, wide with
worry, were the last thing she saw before her mind completely went dark.

* * * * *

Nathan leaned against the wall just outside the caged room
in the dim cavern and stared at Sofia as she lay unconscious on the mattress. A
fleece blanket had been placed over her naked body and he watched it rise and
fall with her long, slow breaths. Her shredded clothes were in a pile on the
floor in a corner of the room, and Nathan felt his rage flare as he recalled
exactly how they got that way.

When he’d seen Justin Finland in Cat on top of her out
there, with her lying underneath him, stunned and injured, Nathan lost it.
Completely.

After subduing Justin, Nathan picked her up and carried her
all the way to the cavern where he and the others were staying. Sofia’s scent
was strong now and at last it was clear. She was one of them. With her Cat
awakening so late, the transition was not going to be easy for her, so he put
her in this caged room just as much to shield her from the intrusive attention
of others as to protect her from herself. He fingered the switchblade of hers,
which he kept securely in his pocket instead of leaving it within her reach,
just in case she woke up in a violent panic. Which had been known to happen
before.

He’d almost forgotten that fellow shifter Cassandra Kennedy
was still standing there with him until she placed a hand on his shoulder. “Are
you all right, Nate? You seem agitated.”

Nathan looked down at his feet and gave his head a quick
shake. “It’s my fault she’s here. I invited her to the mountain, probably
triggered her.”

“But that’s a good thing,” the hazel-eyed brunette said. “It
was going to happen to her at some point. It’s actually better for her to go
through the transition now, with us here to help her.”

Sofia was a Late Bloomer, Cassandra had explained to him.
They were rare but apparently they existed. Nathan had thought Sofia smelled
faintly like one of them while on the plane, but he’d told himself he was just
deliriously horny. The chances of there being an attractive female shifter his
age in NYC who he hadn’t noticed had seemed unlikely at the time, but now made
sense with her being identified as a Late Bloomer.

“Would have been better though if her first introduction to
the life didn’t involve an attack and a blow to the head.”

Cassandra snorted. “Now that, I can agree with. But we’ll be
here to explain it all to her when she wakes up. She’ll be fine. But now, you
on the other hand.” She moved behind him and placed both hands on his
shoulders, massaged them. “You’re so tense. When are you going to let me help
loosen you up again, Nathie?”

Nathan rolled his eyes. “I hate when you call me that.”

She laughed. “I know. But I always get a special reaction
from you when I call you that while you’re inside me.” She slid her hands up
and down his back, caressing him. “I’ve missed you. It’s been two days already
and you’ve been avoiding me. How about you and I get undressed and
reacquainted?”

Cassandra Kennedy’s Cat was a tiger and it showed. The
rough, angry sex Cassandra and he enjoyed together three months ago at the last
retreat was good—
really
good—and she was originally at the top of his
to-do list for this go around, too. But seeing her again this time reminded him
of why they weren’t a couple—there was no emotional connection between
Cassandra and him. They didn’t even communicate with each other in-between
retreats. And right now, the only thing he was interested in was Sofia waking
up so he could ensure she was okay.

Nathan exhaled deeply and turned to look at Cassandra. He flashed
a polite smile at her. “Maybe we can try to catch up later? Right now I just
really want to keep an eye on my friend, here.”

Cassandra opened her mouth to protest but several men came
around the corner just at that moment, and Justin Finland was at the head of
the pack. Nathan straightened up and moved to block the door to the room Sofia
slept in. “What do you guys want?” He reflexively balled his hands into fists
as soon as his scruffy blond rival began to speak.

“We came to meet the newcomer,” Justin said. “We all have
the right to be introduced. That’s how it goes.”

“She’s still asleep,” Cassandra said. “And will likely be
until tomorrow. Everyone should leave her alone and just let her rest.”

Justin turned to look at Nathan. “So then what the hell are
you still standing here for, Dawson?”

“Keeping watch over her.”

“You don’t need to,” Cassandra said. She was frowning and
one hand was on her hip. “She’s safe here amongst us. You know that.”

“I can’t tell.” Nathan glared at Justin as he said this.

Justin scowled. “Look, dude, I already said I wasn’t going
to hurt her.”

“You knocked her down, busted her head up and ripped off her
clothes,” Nathan hissed. “How the fuck do you define hurt?”

“I didn’t know she was so damn delicate, I thought she was
fully one of us, not some Late Bloomer ‘Molly’ who don’t know what’s up. Seemed
like she was playing with me, taunting me. I thought she wanted it rough—you
know how some of these pussies are!”

Nathan ran up to Justin and grabbed a tight fistful of his
shirt. “You weren’t even gonna ask first to make sure she wanted it?”

“Get your hands off me, Dawson,” Justin growled, his eyes
aglow with anger. Two of the other males who’d come with Justin pulled Nathan
back and he reluctantly let go. But Justin started to pace back and forth in
place, shaking his finger at Nathan.

“You see,” Justin said to the others. “You see how he is?
This is how he was when he jumped me out there. He broke the Pride’s rules—we
don’t attack each other unwarranted. I want him punished!”

“So should we punish you, too?” Cassandra folded her arms
across her chest. “Apparently you attacked one of our kind, first. One who
doesn’t even know what she is yet.”

“Argh, I told you I wasn’t attacking her. I thought we were
getting frisky.”

BOOK: CatOutoftheBag
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