Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Next Steps (#14)

There are times when the rest of the world doesn't matter, times when you focus on a specific moment. Mazuri and I decided we'd reached one of those moments when we both agreed to join the colonization of Mars project. What? The mission is already full? *sighs* Guess Brian and I will have to give you our version of special moments. Hope you enjoy this installment by Maz and me!

Brian entered the house with arms full of grocery bags. Nulli shouldn’t let him anywhere near the grocery store as he always came home with far more than what was on his list. Usually, none of it was good for him, which earned him a scolding from his health-conscious mate. He hummed as he sorted the items for the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry, grinning at the box of cheese flavored Goldfish snacks. She was going to kill him when she saw that box. He placed it right beside her energy bars.

Once the groceries were sorted, he started up the stairs. He wanted a run, a shower, then a nice, quiet dinner with his mate. Things had been too tense for too long. They deserved some down time.

He caught her scent midway up the stairs. He stopped, checked his watch, then listened for signs of distress. Nulli had another class in less than an hour. It wasn’t like her to come home between classes unless she forgot to grab her bag, or needed food. He slipped his shirt off but stopped. There could be another reason. She could be sick.

He slipped into the room to find her curled up in the bed, sound asleep. For a moment, he just stood in the doorway and watched. Her cheek rested on one hand while the other cradled his pillow. Her hair flowed around her like a halo. She was beautiful, this mate of his, but she was also not normally asleep at this time of the day. As he stalked across the room, he was torn between waking her and leaving her alone. He settled for kicking off his shoes and curling up behind her.

He brushed her hair from her face, nuzzling into her warm neck. Her very warm neck. Frowning, he laid the back of his fingers against her forehead. She didn’t feel too hot, but her temperature was definitely up. He caught the glimpse of one eye as he wrapped his arms around her and grinned. She was playing ‘possum.

“I know you’re awake, my mate. Why didn’t you call and tell me you weren’t feeling well?”

“I’m just tired. I figured I’d take a nap and then head back to work.” She arched into him and smiled. “Stop making that face, kitty. I’m fine.”

“You’re hot, and in more ways than one. You don’t run a temperature just because you’re tired.”

“I have a fever?” She lifted a hand to her forehead and then clutched her neck. “Wait, didn’t you say this could happen with the turning? This is normal, right?”

“I suppose.” He grumbled into her neck, kissing the smooth skin. “I didn’t think it’d actually make you sick, though. Just a bit achy or something that you could work off at the gym. Still, I am super excited, too. Only one more to go, sweetheart. This is it, after tonight you’ll be a bobcat. Are you ready for this? Are you sure?”

Her voice was light and her chuckles almost immediate. “I’m sure. I wouldn’t keep doing it if I wasn’t. Are you sure? Last chance for freedom.” Her fingers brushed through the hair at the nape of his neck while she inhaled deep. “Are you going to survive this, Brian?”

“I have no regrets whatsoever.” He brushed her cheek with his lips, enjoying her earthy scent sprinkled with a hint of flowers and her vanilla body wash. “You must admit, I’ve gotten better with the worrying. Somewhat. Okay, a bit, but I’m trying. I just want this to go well for you. This is--” He licked his lips and threaded their fingers together. “This is the equivalent of a shifter’s wedding, Nulli. This is forever. I want it to be perfect for you.”

“A wedding?” Her expression turned serious and she stiffened. “You never said it was like that!”

His heart almost stopped beating as her eyes widened, but when she burst into laughter he was ready to smother her with kisses. “So evil.”

“Sorry. I couldn’t help that one. Everything’s fine, Brian. I’m not spending all day thinking, ‘God, this sucks.’ I’m getting closer to what we both want. And since we’ll be sort of married, what do we do for a honeymoon? The cabin again?”

“Whatever you want, you evil creature. The cabin would actually be a good idea, especially for your first week or so. Give you room to stretch your legs and connect with your cat. Allow you to shift without being seen. Work on your famous control a bit.” He winked and stole another kiss.

“You like my control.” She narrowed her eyes and smirked. “I like being out there in the woods. Guess it’s good my request for time off was approved. My subs are all lined up.”

“I adore your control. You make my cat want to roll over and give up his belly with a purr.” He kissed down her neck. “I am very honored when you give that control to me. You don’t know how much.” He rolled over and pulled her to lay on his chest. “By the way, I got a call from Terry today.”

“What did he say? I haven’t seen that woman for awhile. Do you think she’s the one he’s been working with?”

“Well, he’s been at the facility for the last week. They gave him a partial tour, showed him the equipment he’d be using, his rather generous on-site apartment, but they didn’t show him anything solid. They also haven’t mentioned nonhumans in general, just scientific anomalies.” He dug around in his pocket and pulled out his cellphone. “Though, he did manage to sneak his phone in and capture this. Is this your inquisitive shifter?” He scrolled through his pictures until he found the one Terry had sent.

“That’s her.” Nulli looked back to him with furrowed brows. “She really is up to something.”

“I’m afraid so.” He tossed his phone onto the nightstand and cradled her to his chest. “She’s also very human. Terry said she was their main spotter, finding people with the specific traits they want to study. They raved about her success in obtaining interesting subjects. Bastards.”

“Is Terry in trouble now? I know they haven’t shared a lot, but I don’t think these people are big on taking no for an answer.”

“He’s being as careful as he can be. He let them know from the beginning that he had a pretty sweet contract with the network which didn’t expire until next spring. Regardless of whether he even wanted to take the job or not, he couldn’t due to prior obligations. We hoped they’d be chatty and they are. What we don’t know is if that’s from accident or by design.”

“Great.” After tensing her jaw, she placed a kiss on his lips, lingering for a few moments before sitting up. “I need to head back to work.” She poked out her bottom lip. “I’m looking forward to this time off even more now.”

“I’d whine, but it would get me nowhere. At least take something to bring your fever down and drink more water, okay?” He rolled off the bed and stretched. “Oh, how long is your class? I have... plans for tonight if you’re up to them.”

“Plans? Do I need to buy another dress?”

“Only if you want to. I wouldn’t mind seeing you in the one you wore the night we got invaded by guests again. That thing is sinful.”

“Okay. I can do that.” She ambled into the bathroom. Not long after, water flowed from the tap with its familiar static rush and the medicine cabinet opened. “You’re not going to shred it, are you?”

“I will do my best not to, but I make no guarantees.” He leaned against the door frame and smiled. “Thank you for taking something, mate. That makes me feel better, even if it doesn’t work for you.”

“You’re welcome. I’d do just about anything for you, kitty.” She looked him up and down. “Even that.”

Chuckling, he shook his head. “Silly woman. Now, class. How long? I want to go for a run but need to know if I have time. Rattle off some numbers for me.”

“I have two tonight, so you’ve got about three hours or so to run your heart out before I get back and put you in time out.”

“Excellent. I will endeavor to avoid stray bunnies or squirrels, but my cat wants a good run. He will thank you later, I’m sure, by curling in your lap and giving you lots of purrs.” Wrapping his arm around her, he escorted her downstairs. “If you get to feeling worse, I can come get you, though. Don’t think you have to tough it out.”

“I actually do have to tough it out. You can’t get a sub during the middle of the class, but it shouldn’t come to that. Once I get going the endorphins kick in.”

“Yes, they do at that don’t they?” He grinned wickedly. “I’ve learned that a time or two. You wield a mean flogger, Mistress.”

“Ha! Don’t try to get me started, Mr. Bad Kitty. I’ve got work.” She pinched his ear and rolled her eyes. “What am I going to do with you?”

“Love me?” He kissed the tip of her nose. “Now go, before I kidnap you.”

“I’m going, I’m going.” He held the door open for her and followed her to her car. “And I already do love you, Brian.”

“Then I could ask for nothing more. Be safe, be careful, and throat-punch any assholes who demean you.” He winked and closed her door.

Jogging back to the house, he ran upstairs and called Killian. The bear and his mate had stayed for the weekend, but had to return home. Melody had a new job she couldn’t risk. Killian’s equipment was at his house, and he had several clients in the queue. They talked every few days, but until now there had been nothing to report. Killian answered on the last ring. From his breathless tone, Brian didn’t even have to guess what he’d interrupted.

“I’ll make this quick so you can get back to your entertainment. Terry called. The woman at the gym does work for PSI Technologies. He’s pretty certain she’s human, but can’t really verify that.” He listened as Killian ranted, interspersed with a stray moan. It seems the bear’s mate was having a bit of fun as well. “Yes, well. I just wanted let you know the latest. Have you gotten anywhere on their system?”

“Brian.” Melody’s voice came over the phone, barely audible above the growl. “Killian is busy. Very busy. He will continue to be busy for quite some time. I’ll make sure he calls you back. We’ll try for tomorrow. It may be next week. Okay? Great! Bye!” The phone fell silent. Brian shook his head and tossed it aside.

“Crazy bears,” he muttered as he stripped.

He set his shoes in the closet and tossed his clothes in the hamper. When he first moved in, Nulli caught him leaving his clothes scattered around the patio before a run. She pinched his ear so hard it throbbed for three days. After that, he learned to strip in the bedroom and put his clothes in their proper place before shifting. Shaking out his fur, he padded down the stairs and roamed the house. He sniffed each room to make sure there were no dangers before slipping out the doggie door and into the back yard. Once he reached the tree line, he stretched his legs and ran.

Brian returned a very drippy, slightly cranky bobcat. The summer shower popped up out of nowhere, and drenched him as he explored the woods. Mud squished between his toes and cooled his pads as he picked his way back home. Even the squirrels and rabbits refused to play in such weather. As he stepped onto the patio, he eyed the pet door. If he stepped into house as wet as he was, Nulli would skin him alive and make a bobcat rug out of him. If he changed on the patio, he risked exposing the neighbors to more than just the knowledge of shifters. He shook the water from his fur, prayed he could clean the house in time, and slipped through the door.

Fifteen minutes after the quickest shower in history, he removed all evidence of his muddy paws. Both lasagnas were in the oven - one traditional, and one vegetarian - and the salad was prepped. He set the table, laid the matches beside the candles, then headed upstairs. Pulling out his best suit, he dressed with care. Black slacks, crisp white shirt, red tie with black pinstripes that took him three times to tie properly. He buffed his shoes to a shine, then added the goldfish cufflinks Nulli found online. He’d leave the jacket for last. No sense in getting it wrinkled before dinner.

Searching through her closet, he pulled out her dress and the matching shoes. He was never quite certain what all she wore under those close-fitting outfits, so he decided to leave that decision to his mate. With a glance at the clock, he grabbed his coat and headed to the kitchen. The lasagna would be ready soon and his mate was due any minute.

He slipped into the kitchen just as her car pulled into the drive. Perfect timing!

“Hello, Kitten.” Brian peered around the kitchen door. “Dinner is almost ready. If you would do me the honor of joining me, your outfit is on the bed. And no, you can’t peek yet.”

“You look nice.” Her eyes widened in what looked like surprise while her lips spread into a smile. “One little peek?”

“No! Get upstairs, woman, before I spank you with a spatula.” Brian chuckled and shooed her away from the kitchen.

“Don’t make me tie you up, kitty.” Her tone was teasing, but she headed up the stairs as requested.

“I’ll hold you to that one later,” he murmured. He served the salad, placing the dressing on the table, and lit the candles. Since his mate didn’t drink alcohol, their champagne flutes bubbled with mineral water. If his timing was right, the lasagna would be ready when they finished their salads. He hoped. When he heard her descend the stairs, he shrugged into his jacket and dried his palms.

Picking up the glasses, he met her in the doorway. “Damn, mate.” He handed her a glass and circled her slowly. “No matter how many times you wear that dress, it still takes my breath away. And with your hair up like that, your neck just tempts me to nibble. Can I have a taste, kitten?”

She lifted a shoulder to her jaw, smiling with a devilish grin. Her body language responded to his words, but her gaze was on the table. “This is nice.” She looked up at him with a questioning glance. “Did I forget something? It’s not your birthday. Is your mother coming over?”

He set his glass on the table and held her chair. “If my mother was coming, I’d take her to Outback. That woman can put away some groceries. I think she’d give Killian a run for his money. Besides, do I need a reason to pamper my mate?” He nuzzled her neck before sliding her chair under the table. Dimming the lights, he sat and lifted his glass to her. “To you, kitten. May tonight be the beginning of a wonderful new adventure.”

She clinked her glass to his and took a sip. “It’s always an adventure with you, Brian.” Resting her glass on the table, she leaned forward and inhaled. “Something smells really good, and the mineral water was a nice touch.”

“I was hoping you’d like it.” He smoothed a nonexistent crease from the tablecloth. “What you smell is the main course. I hope. I followed the recipe exactly, so here’s hoping we’re not calling China Garden for delivery. I hope you like the salad. I pretty much grabbed one of everything in the produce aisle that I’ve seen you eat. I wasn’t sure if it all went together, but the lady at the register--” She leaned over and silenced him with a kiss. Growling softly, he cupped her head and deepened it before brushing his lips over her cheek. “Thank you. I tend to babble.”

“I know. I’m not new here, remember?” She kissed him again, and looked down at her salad. “Very sweet, kitty. Thank you.”

“Anything for you.” He felt the heat creep into his face and stabbed a tomato. “Eat up, mate. You don’t want to miss the main course. How was class? Did your fever break? I need info!”

“What is this? All I’m missing is the heat lamp for this interrogation.” She scooted closer and looked him in the eye. “What’s up, kitty? Are we about to have more guests?”

“God, I hope not.” He ran his fingers through his hair, no doubt sending the carefully combed locks into disarray. “I just wanted to know how your day has been, sweetheart. You weren’t feeling so hot when I got home.”

“Let’s just say I’m glad it’s over. They weren’t bad classes, but I could feel the difference. I haven’t taken my temperature, but I did take that medicine. Why don’t you tell me. Am I hot, kitty?” She batted her eyelashes and tilted her head to the side. “Why don’t you check.”

“You’re killing me, mate.” Brian nuzzled her neck with a soft purr, dragging his lips along the vein. Tonight was the night. The last bite. Would she follow through? Nipping at her soft skin, he soothed the light bite with his tongue. “You are always scorching hot, kitten, especially in that dress, but I don’t think you’re running a fever right now.”

“Good, then you can heat me up again later.”

“I will try my best.” He planted a final kiss to her neck and pulled back with a sigh. “If we don’t eat at least some of this, the next meal I fix for you will be those little cheesy goldfish crackers and some milk.”

His mate rolled her eyes so hard he thought she might black out. “You and the damned goldfish.” She took a bite of her salad and watched him out of the corners of her eyes. Her expression softened, but her eyes were serious. “What will you miss about me after the change?”

“Miss?” His fork stopped midway to his mouth. A cherry tomato jumped to its death. “Sweetheart, you will still be you. You’re not leaving anything behind, just gaining a bit more. There’s nothing to miss unless you leave me.”

“But I’ll be different. I’ll smell different, right? I’ll get angry and it won’t be the same. It’s me, but not quite.”

“Yes, you’ll smell a little different. Your scent will blend with your cat’s, but you know what? You’re my mate. You’ll smell even better to me than you do now. That’s a scary thought, isn’t it? I’ll want to nuzzle and sniff and taste you even more than I already do. It could get embarrassing.” He pushed aside his plate and took her hands. “There will be changes. I may even get frustrated at times. I’ve never been around a newly turned shifter before. We’ll both growl and roar and hiss and then have awesome makeup sex that’ll shatter the windows. We will figure this out. I promise.”

“We’re usually pretty close to shattering the windows as it is.” After a quick shake of her head, she chuckled and took another bite. “I’m not afraid. I want you to know that. It’s just, for me, I’m saying goodbye to the only way of life I’ve known. It’s like I’ll have a new birthday. I don’t know if I’m explaining this well at all.”

“You’re doing great.” He held her free hand as they ate. “I try to see it the way you do, but it would be like you trying to reassure me that turning human will be a cakewalk. Being a shifter is all I know and I’d hate to lose my cat. Being a human is all you know and you’re about to share your body with a temperamental feline. It’s scary and exciting all at once.” He eyed the oven’s timer as he sipped his water. “But just think... two birthdays means you get even more presents.”

“You don’t have to remember two birthdays, Brian. No woman wants to get older twice in one year.”

“You don’t age, kitten. You bloom.” He winked and rose just as the timer buzzed. The aromas of lasagna filled the kitchen as he pulled out the two pans. “I made two, because I am a meat-eating kitty who adores his pasta. I hope yours turned out okay.” Plating the food, he returned to the table with their dishes. “Enjoy.”

“I’m sure I will.” Her chocolate-eyed gaze rested on the plate. “After it cools a bit.” She took another bite of her salad and put her fork down. “Brian, I know I don’t have to say this, but I sort of feel the need to.” She swallowed hard and turned in her chair to face him. “I love you, and I’m as ready as I can be for this, for us, but if you change me and then leave, I will hunt you down. I swear to God.”

“You don’t have to worry about that, kitten.” He took her hand, kissed the back, then turned it to kiss her palm. “I would fight the devil himself to stay with you. I love you so much that the guys at the conference center say I’m whipped because I’m constantly buying you flowers or rushing home to meet you after your classes. They just don’t understand how my day brightens when you walk through that door. I want to always see you walk in to meet me, kitten. I want you as my partner, my mate, and if you’ll have me, as my wife.” He slipped a ring on her finger with shaking hands.

The stone was a canary diamond surrounded by emeralds. The yellow shade was the same as his cat’s light amber eyes. The band was platinum with engraving on the inside that read “to my kitten from your kitty”.

Brian held her hand, unsure of who was shaking the worst. He cupped her cheek, hope swirling through him like a cyclone. “Your heart is beating like a hummingbird’s wings, kitten. Is that a good thing? Just nod or shake your head or give me something or I’ll start babbling again.”

She didn’t speak right away. A lone tear slipped down her cheek as she stared at him in, was it disbelief? Happiness? Shock? Please let it be happiness.

“Oh God, don’t cry, kitten.” He brushed away the tear, feeling very close to crying himself. He bit the inside of his mouth to hold in the sobs that wanted to break free. “Please don’t. I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

She pulled her hands from his and lifted them to his ears as tears continued to overflow. Her soft lips pressed into his as she breathed in shaky breaths. “You-- I can’t believe--” Another kiss, another breath, and a firm squeeze on both ears. “You are the air that I breathe, Brian. Of course I’ll marry you!”

“Thank God!” He inhaled, capturing her mouth for a gentle, searching kiss. “I thought I messed up again.” His fingers tangled in her intricate updo as he breathed in her scent and nipped at her lips. “I’ve been dreaming of this, hoping you’d say yes. I wanted to tie us together in every way imaginable so you couldn’t leave me. I wanted you to have something real and solid you could tell your family. They can’t be at our mating, but they can join us for a wedding.”

Brian pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped her cheeks. “I even came prepared.” He laughed shakily, pressing the cloth into her hands. “Wasn’t sure who’d need it, but I wanted to have it just in case.” He kissed her finger below the ring and held her hand up so she could see. “You told me once that my eyes were this color. Either that, or we can say it’s the same shade as our dearly departed goldfish.”

“Damn it, Brian!” Her shoulders shook as she laughed and cried all at once. “It’s beautiful and I’ve never seen anything like it, but we will not refer to this as goldfish yellow.” She sniffed and wiped her eyes. “Freaking, cat.”

“There’s my smiling girl.” He caressed her cheek, leaning in for another kiss. “Very well. Finny the Goldfish will remain dear to us in memory only. Never, ever in a ring.”

“I am going to smother you in your sleep.” She leaned her head back and laughed loudly. “I don’t know what to do with you and the goldfish. Finny is but a memory. If he becomes a reality, you’ll be sleeping with him.”

“Oh, the dame’s got bite, eh? Says I’ll be sleepin’ wit’ th’ fishes? We’ll have ta see about that!” Brian hammed it up, his heart singing with her laughter. He couldn’t believe she said yes. He wanted to climb onto the roof and shout the news. Somehow, he didn’t think she, or the neighbors would agree to that plan. “I gots my eye on you.” He waggled his brows and swooped in for another kiss.

“Oh, the lady has bite all right.” She caught his bottom lip between her teeth and held on. “If you don’t stop murdering the English language, I’ll have to keep this until you earn it back.”

“Yes, Mistress.” Brian purred, tracing her upper lip with his tongue. “Anything you say.” He tugged his lip free and kissed her, sucking her tongue into his mouth and purring around it. “Now eat up, soon to be Mrs. Nulli Arcady. Tonight we finish our mating.”

She sliced off a chunk of her lasagna and lifted the fork to her mouth, though, she didn’t take a bite. “Mrs. Arcady? Holy shit, this is real!”

“Well, you could keep your maiden name, I suppose.”

“No, it’s not about the name, it’s--This is really going to happen. You really plan to marry me.”

“Absolutely. That was never in doubt, Nulli. The moment I finally got it through my thick skull that we were mates, I knew I wanted to make this so legal even some fancy hotshot lawyer couldn’t untangle us.” He cut a bite of his lasagna and stared at it. “Take your time picking a date though. I don’t want you to feel rushed into this on top our mating. I’m not going anywhere.”

“A date?” She peered up at him as if he’s lost it. “I don’t think I’ll be able to breathe normally for the next three weeks, and you’re talking about dates? Holy shit, I’m going to be someone’s wife!”

“Is that normal? You’re going to be okay, right? Should I call a doctor?” He stood up and grabbed his phone.

“Normal? Hmm, let’s see. Let me ask a few other shifters to propose to me and see how I react.” Her laugh and her coughs injected a fresh dose of levity a moment before his possessiveness kicked in.

“While I was joking about the doctor, there better not be another shifter sniffing around my mate. If there is, then he may very well need one.” He touched her mating mark gently, then growled, “Mine.”

“Do you really think I’d let someone sniff around me? I’ll be able to smell shifters soon. Maybe I’ll be even faster than I am now. They’d need to watch out for me, kitty.” She winked and took her first bite of the entree. “This is really good!”

“It is? I followed your recipe but I wasn’t sure I got everything right. I wanted tonight to be perfect.” He smiled with relief and dug into his own meal. He could have made his out of cardboard, for all that he tasted it. As long as his mate was happy with hers, he was content. So far, the night had gone well.

“It’s excellent. We should pack this to take with us.”

“I think that can be arranged.” He drained his glass and rose for a refill. “Did you want to complete the mating here or at the cabin?”

“I hadn’t thought about it. Is one place better than the other?”

“The cabin might be better. You should sleep for a bit as your body adjusts, but when you wake up, you’re going to want to shift and run. The cabin’s the best place for that, I think.” He grinned, kissed the top of her head, then sat. “Don’t want to give that fat old hound next door a heart attack when he sees two big cats running past his doghouse.”

Her breath stilled and she seemed to think on something. “Two big cats. We’d run together. We’ve never done that before.” Her small smile eased away any fears he had about her possible trepidation. It was as if every aspect of her life as a shifter was being revealed to her one sentence at a time.

“I can’t wait to show you the woods as I see it, as a cat sees it. The trees look bigger, the view is clearer, the smells pull you all over the place.” He pushed away his plate and watched her. “The grass tickles your belly and the mud squishes between your paws. You will chase your tail, and yes, it will embarrass you. The first time a rabbit or a squirrel darts across your path, that rush of adrenaline is also fueled by a sense of fun. Cats are playful hunters. I can stop you from catching the critter if you want. You’ll be able to climb a tree and lounge on a limb. It’ll be amazing, and I’ll be right there with you.”

“You’d better be there. If I fall on my face, someone’s got to help me up.” Her laughter sounded more nervous than excited, but she didn’t appear averse to the ideas he presented.

“Absolutely. It won’t take too long to get used to being on four legs instead of two. You have great coordination. That will help a lot.” His eyes grew misty as they roamed over her face. “It’s really happening, isn’t it? You’re really going to mate with me? There is not a time that I think of this and it doesn’t just totally blow my mind.”

“Welcome to my world, kitty.”

Brian touched her often during the remainder of the meal, small brushes against her hand or her cheek. He wanted to run around like a madman, shouting his happiness to the skies, but he restrained himself. He was a happily collared kitty. He was above such foolishness. He gave his mate the choice of packing up leftovers or bringing down the luggage. She pointed him towards the stairs while she rummaged for containers. He whistled and purred as he carried the bags to the car.

The trip to the cabin was quiet. She asked a few final questions; he gave her as much assurance as he could. This was a huge step for them both, but it was ultimately her choice. As he glanced over at her face, her smile as she traced her new ring, he felt his doubts settle and disappear. He pulled up to the cabin and raced around the car to hold open her door. “I love you, Nulli. Welcome to your new life.”

When she stepped from the car, he scooped her into his arms and carried her, bridal style, into the cabin. “If you’ll get comfortable, I’ll grab the stuff from the car.” He stole a kiss or three before setting her on the sofa. “Back in a sec!”

He rushed from the cabin, gathered their suitcases and food, and headed back to his mate. It took very little time to put things where they belonged. When he returned to the living room, Nulli stood at the window watching the sunset. As the fading light silhouetted her body his fangs dropped. Draping his jacket over a chair, he kicked off his shoes and stalked towards her. He tossed his shirt and tie onto a table. His belt landed on the sofa. As he slid off his socks, he caught her sidelong glance and teasing smile. He growled. He wanted her to run.

“I won’t make it easy.” She undid the straps on her shoes and flexed her feet before standing.

“I’ll give you two seconds. I hope you don’t like that dress.”

“Damn it, you said--” She didn’t finish, and instead, took off toward the back porch.

Brian grinned, his fangs pressing against his lip as the scent of his mate’s arousal lingered in the air. He removed his slacks, tossing them into an unknown corner, and walked to the back door wearing nothing but his collar. He sniffed the air and caught the dissipating fragrance of Nulli’s heady scent. Releasing a roar that shook the birds from the trees, he hunted his mate.

His eyes shifted in the fading light, enabling him to catch the erratic sway of a tree limb. He jogged over, sniffed the branch and purred. Footsteps in the distance drew his attention. Growling, he took off at a run. He would chase his female, herd her back to the house, then claim her as his mate. At least, that was the plan.

Nulli darted into his path, crouched, and swept his legs from beneath him. Dazed, he watched her take off a new direction. Her breathy laughter trailing in her wake. She crossed and recrossed her path, removing his nose as an advantage. His grin grew. She never ceased to amaze him.

He broke from the tree line into the field where they first made love. He stood in the clearing, his nose lifted to catch her scent. His ears straining for the slightest sound. She was nearby. Her scent lay heavy in the night air. A tree branch swished. An owl hooted. He released another roar.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are!”

Darting back into the woods, he jumped up and caught a high branch. From this height, he spotted his mate creeping parallel to the path. Soon, she would be right beneath him. He crouched and waited.

Her steps were light and careful. No matter how he strained, his sensitive ears picked up no sound from the human below. His chest puffed with pride. His mate would be an amazing cat. He watched her cautious approach, waited for the right moment, then pounced. Brian dropped from the tree behind his mate and wrapped her in his arms. He held her tight against his chest as he purred in her ear. “Caught you, and what an excellent catch you are.”

His hands roamed her body, inching the short dress up her thighs and over her hips. His teeth gripped her neck, not breaking the skin but holding her still as he caressed his mate. On her hips were two thin straps, little more than string, that held the tiniest slice of material he’d ever felt that could be considered underwear. His purrs were mixed with growls of approval as he discovered the lack of material covering her ass. Two claws sliced through the thin cloth, and he tossed it aside.

His hands moved the dress higher until he encountered something smooth, cool, and molded to his mate’s body. He released her neck and tugged the dress over her head. “You are very naughty, mate.” Spinning her around, he feasted on the side of the sleek patent leather corset that cinched her in while pushing her breasts into prominence. Around her waist was a very familiar belt. His leash. Oh, damn. “I heartily approve.”

Yanking her into his arms, he ravaged her mouth. His tongue explored, tasted, and teased as he scooped her into his arms. Brian carried her to a familiar field of wildflowers, never breaking their kiss. He covered her with his body, reaching for her hands and pinning them above her head. As he transferred her wrists to one hand, he bent down to suck on her nipple. They’d shared a moment like this before in this place. He’d never forget the day he told her she was his mate, nor the intensity of their lovemaking after. This time, he was here to take her through the final step of that revelation. He wanted to bask in it, embed every detail into his memory, but instinct had other ideas.

His fangs scraped her tender skin as he licked, sucked, and purred around the hard point until she writhed beneath him. He pinned her legs with his and transferred his attention to her other breast. He teased her nipple with his teeth as he gazed up at her. Her head was thrown back, baring her graceful neck. Her moans and the scent of her arousal stoked his desire. With a growl, he released her hands to spread her legs wide.

“Mine.” His cock nudged at her entrance. Insistent. Demanding. Oh she was his all right, and after tonight every shifter alive would know it.

His clawed hands gripped her thighs. Purrs blended into growls. Instinct stamped out any hope of a slow, tender joining.

With a triumphant roar, he plunged balls deep and was nearly blinded by sensation.

Her heat engulfed him. Her scent intoxicated him, sank into him, pulling something primal up to the surface. His body took over, setting a new rhythm. Powerful. Deep. Relentless.

Never had he felt such urgency, such need. He moved like a man possessed. Something primitive had taken over, pushing him through the steps of this age old mating dance.

When she reached for him; he captured her hands, securing them above her head while he loomed over her with a feral snarl. “No.” As his savage thrusts shook her body, he scraped his fangs up her neck. “Mine.”

As the bright light from the full moon bathed the clearing, Brian growled in anticipation. It was time. The moment had come to take that final step and claim this exquisite woman as his own. Transferring her wrists to one hand, he scraped a claw across his chest. His thrusts grew erratic. He roared his release to the heavens, then sank his fangs into his mate.

She gasped at the sudden pain, then shattered. Her cries caressed his ears. He pulled her to his chest and roared again when her tongue lapped at the cut. He shuddered once more, cradling her against his chest. The urgency fell away and left only peace. Joy. A happiness so deep and rich that it humbled him. It was done. Their mating was complete.

“Rest now, kitten. I’ll be right beside you when you wake.”

With the bright moonlight guiding his way, Brian carried her back to the house. She was quiet, but not asleep. What was she thinking? Was she tired? Sore? Scared? Had he treated her too roughly? When she smiled up at him his thoughts settled. They would talk until sleep claimed her. For now, he’d stop creating trouble they didn’t have.

“Do you want a bath, kitten?” He closed the door with his foot. She already smelled different. He ran his nose up the side of her neck and inhaled. Fuck! She’d just become even more intoxicating.

“Okay. That sounds nice.” Her voice was quiet and soft, like falling leaves on a gentle wind.

He laid her on the bed and kissed her forehead. “Stay here while I run it. Don’t worry about falling asleep, kitten. I’ll make sure you’re squeaky clean before bed.”

“I don’t want to go to sleep yet.” She breathed deep and squinted. “Brian? Come back for a second.”

“Of course.” He sat beside her on the bed. Her hand was warm but her cheek was still cool from the night air. “How do you feel?”

Nulli leaned into him and inhaled. “You smell really good. It’s soothing, like, I don’t know. Like goodness.”

“Now you know why I’m constantly sniffing you.” Chuckling, he picked her back up. “I think I can balance you on my lap while I do this. Just hang on, kitten.”

It was awkward, but Brian managed to hold her on his lap as he adjusted the taps. She clung to him like a baby monkey, sniffing his neck and making soft sighing sounds. He dropped his unscented soap into the water. Her nose would grow sensitive to smells. Best to keep things light until she gets used to it. Stepping into the steamy water, he laid her against his chest with a happy purr.

“I don’t think I want to go to sleep. But I’m tired. Why am I so tired?” Her words were a tangled mesh of slurred speech against his skin.

“Your body is adjusting.” He kissed her brow. Lathering the cloth, he bathed her with slow, gentle strokes. “It’s similar to recovering from an illness. You need to rest and regain your strength. Why don’t you want to sleep, my stubborn mate?”

“I’m not--” She adjusted her position, sliding her cheek farther down his chest. “I feel it, Brian. I’m changing. I’m--” Her words stopped but her fingers traced a path up his sternum. “Is it bad that I’m nervous?”

“No. I remember the first time I changed. Did I ever tell you about that?” She shook her head. He grinned and tugged her higher. Scooping water into his hand, he rinsed the soap from her arms and shoulders. “I was fifteen the first time I changed into my cat. Scared the crap out of me. Not quite literally but damn close. I grew up knowing about shifters, watching my mother shift, then my sisters. But when that first tingle washed over me, I wanted to hide. My mother heard the growling in my room and found me in the closet. She talked me through the change, stayed beside me as it all happened, and stroked my fur once it was done. So yes, I understand why you’re nervous.”

“It tingles? Is that like a warning?”

“Please don’t think of it as a warning. Warnings are for bad things. This won’t be a bad thing, I promise.” He drew light circles on her back to soothe her. “It does tingle, but doesn’t hurt. You know how your hands can fall asleep? That prickly sensation you get before the numbness and heaviness sets in. That's what it feels like, only all over. The first few times can go a bit slow, but it gets faster the more comfortable you get with changing.” He pulled the plug and stood with her in his arms. “Let’s get you dried off and in bed before the water turns us into prunes. I don’t know about you, but it’s not a good look for me.”

He wrapped her in a towel and grabbed an extra for himself. Once they were dry and snuggled under the blankets, he pulled her into his arms. Her eyes drooped, but she fought sleep. Stubborn mate. Brian nuzzled her mating mark with a purr.

With wide eyes, she looked toward the window and then back to him. “What’s that scratching noise?” A sudden look of confusion scrunched her face. “Whoa! Is that your heart? I can hear it.” Her gaze snapped back to the window with renewed interest. “What the hell is that?”

“Nature,” he whispered. He continued his slow, soothing caresses. “There’s a squirrel in the trees outside chattering to his mate. A snake slithered across the patio. Something is hunting its dinner in the woods. Welcome to my world, sweetheart.”

“Your world is loud, Brian. Good Lord. How do you function with all these sounds?”

“You’ll learn to tune most of it out. Here, it’s the local wildlife. When we return to the city, it’ll be cars and radios.” He leaned down and nipped at her mouth. “Concentrate on what’s in this room. Listen to my heartbeat. Focus on the ticking of the clock. As you turn your attention to one thing, the others fade away. Try it.”

Her yawn was almost immediate. He watched her eyes close, only to see them pop open once more. “One of these has to synch. I can’t concentrate. The clock ticks one way, your heart beats another. Feels like my mind’s eye is crossing.”

He hugged her tight and chuckled. “Then wait here, sweetheart. I’ll move the clock into another room for now.” He untangled from her arms and slid from the bed. The offending clock went into the living room, smothered by a cushion. He locked the back door, turned off the lights and returned to the bedroom only to find her still fighting sleep. He shook his head and climbed back into her arms. “Does that help?”

“Thanks, kitty.” She all but burrowed into his side and her breaths slowed.

“Anything for you, mate. Sleep well.” He purred softly, stroking lightly over her back. He hoped it would soothe her and help her rest. He kissed her brow, inhaling her new scent. The hint of spice excited him. He couldn’t wait to see her cat.

The slow close of her eyelids pleased him, and he continued his small touches, easing her into slumber. A gentle vibration resonated through her chest, spreading slowly outward. She held her breath and looked up at him with bulging eyes. “That’s... That’s me!” The vibrations increased, but only slightly as she held herself still.

“That has to be the sexiest thing I’ve ever heard.” Brian nuzzled her neck. “God, kitten, don’t stop.” His purrs rose to match hers. He pressed her body flush against his. It was really happening. His mate was really becoming a shifter, a bobcat. Joyful tears dampened her skin but never his purrs. His heart was simply too full to contain his joy.

“How am I doing this?” Her words broke free on a slow exhalation. She lifted her eyebrows in what appeared to be an attempt at keeping her eyes open, but she was fading fast.

He watched her, felt her purrs, heard them, rejoiced for their existence. When she looked up at him again, his heart skipped a beat. Her lids finally came together, but before they closed, he saw something new. For the briefest of moments his mate’s eyes matched her ring, flashing amber.

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