Five minutes later, the driver stopped trying to restart the car. Dust settled, revealing the vehicle's rental plates. The birds started singing again. Still he waited...until, at last, the door slid open and back. A slender leg covered in dark blue denim and a black ankle-length boot touched the ground.
His beast went preternaturally quiet as a hand emerged to close over the door and slide it even farther back. Freckled skin, the barest hint of a tan. A small female form unfolding itself out of the Jeep. Even fully out, she stood with her back to him for several long minutes. He didn't do anything to force her to turn, didn't make any aggressive sounds. Instead, he took the chance to drink in the sight of her.
She was unquestionably small, but not fragile, not easily breakable. There was strength in the straight line of her spine, but also a softness that promised a cushion for a hard male body. The woman had curves. Lush, sweet, curves. Her butt filled out the seat of her jeans perfectly, arousing the deeply sexual instincts of both man and cat. He wanted to bite, to shape, to pet.
Clenching his fists, he stayed in place and forced his gaze upward. It would, he thought, be easy to lift her up by the waist so he could kiss her without getting a crick in his neck. And he planned to kiss this woman who smelled like Talin. His beast kept growling that she was his and, right this second, he wasn't feeling civilized enough to argue. That would come later, after he had discovered the truth about this ghost. Until then, he would drown in the rush of wild sexuality, in the familiar-yet-not scent of her.
Even her hair was that same unusual shade as Talin's - a deep, tawny gold streaked with chocolate brown. A mane, he'd always called it. Akin to the incredible variations of color in a leopard's fur, something that outsiders often missed. To a fellow leopard, however, those variations were as obvious as spotlights. As was this woman's hair. Beautiful. Thick. Unique.
"Talin," he said softly, surrendering completely to the madness.
Her spine stiffened, but at last, she turned.
And the entire world stopped breathing.
Air rushed back into his body with the force of a body blow. A roar built in his throat, but he didn't release it, violently aware of the acrid fear scent coming off her in waves.
Son of a bitch! Tally was scared of him. She might as well have taken a knife to his heart. "Come here, Tally."
She rubbed her hands on her thighs, shook her head. "I came to talk to you, that's all."
"This is your way of talking to me? By taking off?" He told himself to shut it, to not snarl at her. This was the first conversation they had had in two decades. But it felt as if they had spoken yesterday, it was so natural, so effortless. Except for her fear. "Were you going to stop the car anytime soon?"
She swallowed. "I was planning to talk to you at the bar."
The leopard had had enough. Moving with the preternatural speed of his kind, he was an inch from her before she could draw in the breath to scream. "You're supposed to be dead." He let her see the rage inside of him, rage that had had twenty long years to ferment. Ferment and spread until it infused every vein in his body. "They lied to me."
"Yes, I know...I knew."
He froze in sheer disbelief. "You what?" All this time while he'd been tracking a ghost, he'd been absolutely certain that he had been lied to, and without Talin's knowledge. It had destroyed him that she was out there thinking he'd broken his promise to return to her. Never once had he considered that she might have been a willing participant.
Eyes the color of storm clouds met his. "I asked them to tell you I was killed in a car crash."
The knife twisted so deep, it carved a hole in his soul. "Why?"
"You wouldn't let me be, Clay," she whispered, torment a vicious beast in those big gray eyes ringed by a thin band of amber. "I was with a good family, trying to live a normal life" - her lips twisted - "or as normal as I knew how to live. But I couldn't relax. I could feel you hunting me the second you left juvie. Twelve years old and I didn't dare close my eyes in case you found me in my dreams!"
The leopard who lived inside of him bared its teeth in a growl. "You were mine to protect!"
"No!" She fisted her hands, rejection writ in every tense line of her body. "I was never yours!"
Beast and man both staggered under the vicious blow of her repudiation. Most people thought he was too much like the ice-cold Psy, that he didn't feel. At that moment, he wished that were the truth. The last time he'd hurt this badly - as if his soul was being lacerated by a thousand stinging whips - had been the day he'd gotten out of juvenile hall. His first act had been to call Social Services.
"I'm sorry, Clay. Talin died three months ago."
"What?" His mind a blank, his future dreams wiped out by a wall of black. "No."
"It was a car crash."
It had driven him to his knees, torn him to pieces from the inside out. But the depth of that hurt, the cutting, tearing pain, was nothing to this rejection. Yet in spite of the blood she'd drawn, he still wanted to - no, needed to - touch her. However, when he raised a hand, she flinched.
She couldn't have done anything designed to cause more harm to his protective animal heart. He fought the pain as he always did - by shutting away the softness and letting the rage out to roam. These days, he rarely stopped being angry. But today, the hurt refused to die. It clawed through him, threatening to make him bleed.
"I never hurt you," he grit out between clenched teeth.
"I can't forget the blood, Clay." Her voice shook. "I can't forget."