Her tongue flicked out to wet her lips. "I don't know if I can handle skin to skin."
It was his nature to push. "Then we finish it this way." But it wasn't his nature to force. He could show her pleasure without feeling the silky softness of the tight, wet heat between her legs. Pressing hard against her, he started grinding in slow circles.
She screamed out scant moments after he'd begun, her neck muscles standing out in sharp relief. He felt the pleasure ripple through her and it was enough to have him fighting his own release. Barely capable of rational thought, he slipped one hand under her nape to hold her in place for his kiss... and froze.
Her eyes were no longer night-sky. Sparks of color fountained where the white stars usually resided, spectacular fireworks on the most miniature of scales. Neither man nor panther had ever seen anything more beautiful.
Lucas woke up feeling supremely sated. He wondered what his efficient Psy would say if he told her she'd brought him to orgasm twice now. He grinned. She'd probably ask him the technical details and note them down on that slim computer she carried everywhere. Why did he find that image cute as hell?
Whistling as he exited the shower, he headed into the bedroom and glanced up at the wall calendar. Suddenly there was no more music in his soul.
How could he have forgotten?
Never before in two decades had he failed to remember - never before had anything or anyone distracted him badly enough to wipe this day from his mind.
After pulling on a pair of jeans and a white T-shirt, he drove to the office, glad to find that Sascha hadn't yet arrived. He couldn't deal with his puzzling reaction to her today. On this day he needed every one of his faculties to patch up a scar that refused to stop bleeding.
"I'll be back after nightfall," he told Clay. "If Sascha turns up, take care of her."
Clay nodded and didn't ask any other questions, well aware why he was taking off during such a critical time. Some loyalties had prior rights over Lucas.
Leaving the sentinel in charge, Lucas got in his car to make the same trip he made once every year. His first stop was a florist.
"Hello, Lucas." A small, bespectacled brunette smiled at him from the other side of the shop as he entered.
"Hi, Callie. Is it ready?"
"Of course. Stay here. I put it out back."
He watched Callie go to fetch his standing yearly order and wondered at the difference between them. The florist was near his age but she was so innocent that he felt a thousand years older. He knew it wasn't because she was human and he was changeling. No, it had been blood and death that had aged him.
A minute later, she emerged, a huge wildflower bouquet in her arms. "Special order for someone special."
He'd never shared who the flowers were for, the wounds too deep to subject to casual scrutiny. "Thanks."
"I charged it to your account."
"See you next year."
"Take care, Lucas."
The second he got in his car he felt cold, chilled, alone. It was always this way on this one shadowed day, as if his childhood desolation resonated through time to torment him.
It took him over three hours to head out of the city and deep into the forests. Leaving the car on a hidden track, he traversed the remaining distance on foot. Nothing marked the spot where his mother and father had been buried, but he found their graves as if they'd been flashing welcoming beacons. He'd chosen a hidden grove surrounded by trees for their last resting place.
"Hey, Mom." He laid the flowers on the thick grass. He never tidied here, never stopped the forest's advance. His parents had both been leopards at home in the wild. "I bought you the flowers that always got Dad out of trouble." In this place he was a child again, watching the two people who mattered more to him than any others, laugh and live. He should've never had to watch them die. A fist clenched around his heart as memories cascaded through his mind.
His mother's scream.
His own helpless, tortured shouts.
His father's cry of black despair as his mate's life was stolen right in front of him.
Something in Carlo had broken at that instant, but he'd stubbornly held on to life until his son was safe. Only then had he taken the step that would reunite him with his slaughtered mate. A black panther like her son, Shayla had been the reason for Carlo's heartbeat.
"I miss you, Dad." He put his palm on the earth on the other side of the flowers. His mother had been found and buried first but when the time had come to bury Carlo, Lucas had insisted on a reburial. They'd been put to rest in each other's arms. In his heart, he hoped that that meant they'd found each other again.
"I need you to guide me." He should've never become alpha at barely twenty-three years of age but it had been inevitable. When the previous alpha, Lachlan, had died unexpectedly two years after stepping down, Lucas had lost even that source of support. "I need to know if what I'm doing is right. What if this leads to more death? The Psy aren't going to stand back and let us tell the world they've been running interference for the worst kind of killer."
The tree branches whispered in the wind as he spoke and he liked to think it a sign that his parents were listening. They were the only ones. None of his sentinels ever followed him here. No one asked him where he was going. No one asked him where he'd been.
He stayed for hours, speaking to two extraordinary people who'd been deprived of their love and their lives in the most brutal fashion but hadn't broken. Carlo and Shayla had fought to the end like the courageous changelings they'd been. They'd fought not for themselves but for the life of their son. For him.
"I won't let you down." He wiped away tears that came from the heart of the boy who'd almost died with his parents. Only his hunger for vengeance had kept him going when no one thought he'd survive.