Authors: Kate Rudolph
Or, if not his enemy, she had at least been his opponent.
So he didn't quite answer her. "Even if they did, why would I believe them?" He turned to Cassie. "Are you sure that you trust Krista to do this?"
Cassie nodded gravely. "I do."
Then he would respect his sister's decision. To a point. He looked at Krista, letting just a little bit of the inner lion bleed into his eyes. To her credit, she didn't flinch. "If she dies..." He didn't finish his threat before the witch nodded.
Mel left the room before Krista started to work on Cassie. Both Maya and Luke stayed behind, which made her feel a little guilty for abandoning her partner to the potentially unfriendly lions. But the cloying sense of magic was too much for her and she could feel a weight being lifted from her shoulders with every step. Not every shapeshifter could sense magic. As a matter of fact, most couldn't. But Mel had been around witches since she was eight years old, and while she would never be able to perform magic herself, sensing it was a learned skill.
She made it to her room and pulled the diamond out from under her shirt. The silver chain pooled in her hand, warm from her skin. She rolled the diamond between two fingers. Nothing about it felt magical, there were no special markings. But in the hands of a powerful enough witch, this stone could be used to track down Ava. It would home in on her until Mel could track her down and defeat her once and for all.
And it was the only reason that she'd been sticking around Luke's compound since they got back from Mexico.
She grabbed her bag and stuffed the necklace in a hidden compartment. As far as security went, it lacked anything she would accept under normal circumstances. But she had nowhere else to hide it outside of wearing it all the time, and if Krista saw it she would wonder why Mel hadn't just packed up and left the place the moment Luke dangled the diamond in front of her.
Mel shoved her bag under the bed and hopped onto the mattress just in time to see Krista limp in. The witch was covered in a fine sheen of sweat, her normally light brown skin almost pale. She looked like she hadn't slept in three weeks.
"Did it work?" asked Mel. She hadn't heard any screams, which seemed like an improvement, but there was no telling.
Krista leaned back against the door and let herself sink to the floor slowly. She landed with a thunk and pulled her legs in close, resting her head against her knee. "I think it did. The kid made it through. Maya's going to have one of the senior pack members come in to monitor her. I think if she doesn't change in the next twelve hours she should have enough control to survive until..." Krista didn't finish the thought. She didn't need to.
"Good, I'm glad she'll be okay." Mel wouldn't concern herself with what could happen after. They'd stopped the immediate threat, which was all they could do at the moment. "Were you able to figure out who laid the hex?" Mel was used to not knowing who she worked for, but she couldn't stand not knowing her enemies.
Krista's voice was muffled against her leg and Mel could barely see her shake her head, "Nope, I had to stop looking after Cassie started to shift."
"Do you have any idea at all?" Hexes were strange things. Almost any witch could lay one, but to do so without leaving a clear connection between the hexer and the hexed suggested someone of immense power and skill. Few witches chose to use them. They created a bond that could be manipulated and turned back on the witch responsible. Most saw it as too big of a risk to take.
"One name comes to mind." Krista rose slowly and made her way over to her own cot. The room hadn't originally been meant for two people and Mel had claimed the twin bed the second she entered. That left Krista with a makeshift cot which she claimed was actually very comfortable. Mel had tried to offer the bed after Krista's injury, but the witch would hear nothing of it. "But if it's her," Krista continued, "It would be too much of a coincidence."
"Ava." The name filled Mel with rage and a sense of purpose. If she had set the hex on Cassie, then Mel would have no reason for the stone on the chain around her neck. There would be an entire pack of lions hunting the witch down, and it was only so long until they found her. But this wasn't just about Cassie. Ava had killed Mel's family, her entire pack, when she was only a child. Mel had made it her life's goal to get her revenge on the witch. And she had never been closer.
"Or someone she trained. I can't imagine any of the other major covens doing it." It all came down to politics. Ava officially controlled no territory, but she was unaffiliated with any coven. Anything she claimed was relinquished as soon as she got what she wanted. "But," Krista continued, "Even if it's her, do we really want to fight her here? Now?" She gestured to her wound, "I'm not exactly in tip top shape, and we don't know these people."
"You're seriously suggesting that we throw away potential allies? They're not exactly thick on the ground to go up against her." No one who knew Ava opposed her for long. The best course of action for fighting her was to avoid her.
"These people were our enemies two weeks ago. You don't think they're going to turn on us the second they get a chance?" Unexpected vehemence laced Krista's words. "There's nothing for us her, Mel. We should probably think about packing up before their territory burns."
Mel didn't respond. She couldn't argue with Krista, especially since Krista was probably right. Instead, she left the witch to her own devices and headed out, determined to run off some of the energy burning up inside of her.
On her way out, she saw Maya walking down the stairs carrying a tray full of steaming soup. The werelioness said nothing and Mel returned the favor. Maya didn't look to be in a great mood and Mel had no desire to cross her. Not yet.
But Krista's words haunted her. She had never been so quick to trust, so quick to give her loyalty. And yet, when it came to Luke Torres, Mel was afraid to find out what exactly she would do. Betrayal was out of the question. The thought made her ill and she could not imagine him turning on her. She simply didn't know if she could stay and hope for the best. He was an alpha, she was a thief with no pack. Their worlds did not mix.
Mel found herself outside in Luke's backyard. A short patch of manicured lawn ended abruptly at the dense Colorado forest. She walked out into the trees, and once in their cover stripped her clothes and bent over to shift forms. It took her some time. Her full shifts were nothing special, no longer painful after years of practice, but it did take more than a minute to go from human woman to leopard.
Once complete, she stretched, letting her long claws dig into the soft earth. The tiny destruction, the reordering, felt good. She could feel every sinew of her feline body, the strength coiled into lithe, lethal lines. There was nothing better than this. Not even theft.
She took off at a run, letting the wind lead her through the forest, dodging and climbing trees as she went. It went on and on for so long that she lost all track of time, not that it mattered to her in this form. A leopard had no need for clocks.
An eternity or a second later she caught a delicious scent, feline like her but different, masculine and reeking of the savanna rather than the jungle. A lion. Her lion. He'd come out to play, and for now she wanted to see her mate.
Luke almost threw up watching Krista work on Cassie. He'd never seen the witch work, never seen any witch work. And now he would be happy if he never saw a witch cast a spell on another person again. Cassie had writhed and writhed, screaming and begging them to stop. But Krista warned them that the girl would do that, and that if they stopped it would only hurt her more in the long run.
Luke had wanted to put a stop to it, but Cassie wanted Krista to perform the spell.. So no matter the pain, he didn't stop Krista and he held Maya back from doing the same.
Maybe Mel had the right idea. She'd escaped before the undefinable stench of magic suffused the room and he didn't know where she'd gone. Maybe back to her room, or maybe she was robbing him blind. Now that she had the stone that she'd come for, she could just take off, her one goal in working with him achieved. It had been stupid. He knew it had been stupid, but that didn't stop him.
Once the alpha made a decision, he followed through. Decisiveness was how he remained the alpha.
Fifteen minutes after the magic started, it cut off. Cassie's screams were silenced, and the only sound in the room was the panting of Krista's breath.
Luke studied his sister. Sweat plastered her blonde hair to her face and she sucked in deep breaths, her chest rising tensely with ever inhalation. She was alive, unconscious but alive. He turned his gaze to Krista. Her honey skin was pale, and like his sister she was covered in sweat. If it was possible, he thought she had lost five pounds in as many minutes. She looked drained, exhausted, horrible.
"It's done, Alpha," she said, her brown gaze hard as steel. "She lives."
Luke had no more energy for threats. Cassie was alive, that was all that mattered. They would solve the rest in the morning. "Thank you," he said and left the room. Krista followed him and stumbled down the hall to the quarters she shared with Mel.
Maya exited last. "I'll have Ginny come sit with her." She watched Krista, "She risked her life to save Cassie."
There was something that Maya wasn't telling him, but he trusted her to keep her own secrets. "I thanked her. She and Mel are my guests." He made a decision right then that could be even worse than giving Mel back her stone if he was wrong. "I absolve Mel of her crimes, and those of her associates."
He left before Maya could question it. He needed to run.
Leaving his own house without interruption should not have been such a chore, but between the vampires, witches, and thieves running rampant, he and his lions were on high alert. Still, Luke timed it right and made it to his forest without incident. Was this how Mel felt, he wondered, when she stole into strangers' houses in the dead of night to take their belongings?
He hoped she felt more than annoyance at the task. Some mix of fear and exhilaration, the same that had taken a hold of him during their excursion in Mexico. If not for Inicio Nunca, his memories might be fonder. The man had killed Luke’s father more than twenty years before. For the sake of completing the mission, Luke and Mel had let him live. Someday, Luke would hunt Nunca down and have his vengeance. But that day wasn’t today. It wouldn’t even be soon.
He stripped off his clothes and crouched to change. But before even the first ripple could course through him, he froze. He wasn't alone in these woods. His thief was watching. Waiting.
It was an intimate act, to change shape in front of another person. But knowing that Mel was watching didn't stop him. His shift was quick, as always. One moment he was a man crouched on the forest floor, and not ten seconds later in his place was a gigantic lion, meant more for the vast expanse of sub-Saharan Africa than the forests and mountains in the middle of the United States.
But there was nowhere else he would rather be at the moment. Especially not after a gorgeous black leopard slinked out of the trees and crossed his path. She brushed close, stroking her tail against his mane and taking off in a sprint before he could stop her.
Luke didn't roar. This wasn't a game for his pack, this was personal. And he wasn't willing to share his mate with anyone. Not now, not ever. The sooner she realized that, the better.
He chased her, startling a hare out of the bush. But he had no interest in it, not yet. His prey was not nearly so skittish. And after several minutes of running without seeing her, he realized that perhaps he, and not she, was the prey. If she thought he would stand for that, Mel had another thing coming.
Luke stopped, listening to the quiet forest. He had chased her before, but it felt like a lifetime ago. There was no rage in him now, not for her. A branch snapped ahead of him and he almost took off, but at the last moment stopped himself. His thief was clever. She wouldn’t let herself be caught by such a simple giveaway.
He moved forward slowly, his body low to the ground. Her scent was everywhere, permeating his woods all around him. He could identify a trail, but it circled back on itself and went off in every direction. This was not Mel's first run in these woods. But he found the freshest trail and chased after it, his senses open.
Somehow, Mel had hidden herself away. He covered what seemed like miles without seeing her.
She was in the trees. He realized it a moment too late as she crashed down over him, swiping playfully at his side before taking off again. This time Luke had the advantage. He was bigger, faster, and absolutely familiar with this forest.
He covered the distance between them in huge strides, his paws eating up the ground under him like it was nothing. And then he pounced, landing on top of Mel and pinning her to the ground. She struggled for a moment and then lay still. He nipped at the pack of her neck, not to hurt her, but only to show her that she was caught.
After that, they ran together, chasing animals and racing each other. It went on for a long time and Luke felt happier than he had since before he had met her. The thoughts of his responsibilities had receded to the back of his mind and he focused solely on taking this time with Mel.
They lay down together in a grassy little nook he showed her, their bodies needing to rest. He rested a paw over her feline form and felt her breathing relax and even out. For once, everything felt exactly right, and he let himself sleep.
Mel was human when she woke up, which was a bit disconcerting with the giant lion's paw resting on her naked abdomen. She could feel the weight of Luke's enormous limb on her ribs but was wary of extricating herself. He wouldn’t hurt her on purpose, but he was asleep and his instincts could kick into gear, eviscerating her before he knew what he was doing.
She moved slowly, lifting his paw by inches until she had just enough room to roll out and away from the range of his claws. Or she would have had enough room if he hadn't shifted positions in the second before she moved, crushing her once more. Mel let out a little laugh.
On the plus side, his paw was no longer on her stomach and she could try and wake him without fear of serious injury. She nuzzled her head into his mane, the heat of his fur sinking into her. Even in the chill night she felt good; he was better than a giant blanket.
Luke shuddered around her and the fur receded, his form shrinking down to that of a normal sized man. A normal, naked man. He pulled her close to him with now human arms and Mel was in a completely different kind of trouble.
Luke trailed kisses up her neck and traced her jaw, "Hello," he said. "Did you have a nice nap?"
"Mmmm," She didn't feel like talking, not when his lips could be put to much better use. She tilted her head down, capturing his lips with her own, her tongue darting in to his mouth. Yes, that was much, much better. Why had she kept herself from touching him? This felt too right.
They lay entwined, kissing for some time before Mel let her hands explore the taut planes of Luke's chest. The man was built of hard, defined muscles that could lift a car over his head. Well, they could do that after you took into account the shapeshifter strength.
Her hands drifted lower and lower, brushing against the evidence of his arousal.
Luke rolled over, pinning her to the ground under him. At another time she might have objected, but right now it felt just right. This wasn't about dominance. This was about connection, pleasure. He broke away from her lips, smiling down at her.
"You're beautiful," he said, his eyes bright and a grin on his lips. "I've never wanted anyone more than I want you."
A part of Mel wanted to defend herself from that look. She could feel it invading her, changing something deep inside. That was crazy. This was supposed to be fun, nothing more. Two adults letting off steam. So she smiled back at him and told herself it was nothing serious. "Then show me," she said.
He loomed over her and then bent down, taking one nipple into his mouth and swirling his tongue around. He traced over it, imprinting himself onto her. Mel moaned and dug her fingers into his hair. That felt good.
good. Luke sure as hell knew what to do with his tongue. She hitched a leg around his hip, leaving herself open to him.
She wanted him inside of her, deep and hard.
He didn't take the hint, instead content to play with her breasts. Not that she was complaining. She could feel herself purring in pleasure. It had been too long since she let herself have this.
If she was being honest, it had never felt like this.
But Mel was rarely honest.
Luke moved away from her breasts, kissing down her stomach and down one leg, coming around to the apex of her thighs. Mel shifted just a bit and felt the grass under her. One tiny movement and she felt something poke against her.
She bolted up, knocking Luke away as she went.
He sprawled back and watched her as she swatted at her butt, tossing a huge piece of bark into the trees. "What is it?" He asked, his face alight with concern.
Mel looked down at the specks of dirt on her fingers and back to Luke. Arousal still ran hot within her, but it was tamped down by the setting. "When we fuck," she said, "It's going to be in a bed. Or the floor, or a table, I don't really care as long as I don't have bark up my fucking ass." The outdoors held sway over some, and Mel loved to run as a leopard. But when she wore her human skin, she was a woman who preferred the finer things. Like blankets, and flooring. And no bark.
Luke looked around them and seemed to only realize their setting. He laughed, the sound booming out of his chest. "I've got a bed," he said. It sounded like a promise.
He stood and offered her a hand up. Mel took it and swiped a quick kiss across his lips. She felt no shame in her nakedness. It was a fact of life, and she liked her body. As she took off back towards where she had left her clothes with Luke following behind, she could almost feel his eyes on her swaying ass.
She was glad that he liked her body, too.