"Such a big heart she had," Ashaya had murmured. "Such a beautiful heart."
That was when he'd heard Kylie's laughter in his mind, seen her chiding face.
Of course I would've accepted her, big bro. Stop being silly and let her make you happy. Or I'll haunt you.
He'd finally understood that his sister, with her huge heart, would never have wanted him to feel guilty about this beautiful, perfect thing called the mating bond. That simple knowledge had given him a powerful kind of peace.
But Ashaya was right; as far as his latency went, he'd never even tried for peace. "If I mourn for it," he said to her now, releasing the vicious control that had allowed him to survive as a child without half his soul, "then I admit it's gone forever. I don't want to do that, Shaya. I don't want to tell my leopard that it's going to be trapped inside me until death. I don't want to think of it as a separate being. I want to be complete."
Ashaya nodded, eyes shiny. "I've got it almost ready to go. I thought I should be prepared in case you - "
"Let's do it. Soon as you've finalized everything." The decision was made. "That way, we'll know quicker if it doesn't work."
A burst of panic in Ashaya's eyes. "Dorian, I'm so sure but what if - "
"Then I go on," he said. "At least we'd know that we tried. No regrets."
A jerky nod. "No regrets."
And he knew that the words were true. No matter what happened with the trapped animal inside his body, both cat and man were one in this moment, in this truth. Ashaya Aleine was his. And he was hers. Leopard and man. Man and leopard. All of him.
It's been three months. Dorian has forgiven me, and I'm trying to believe that it doesn't matter - he managed to make me say those very words last night. I'm blushing as I write this. The things he comes up with... it's enough to shock a scientist.
I think I hear him. Better turn this off - he keeps trying to steal it so he can read my secrets. Silly cat. He is my biggest secret.
- From the encrypted personal files of Ashaya Aleine
Dorian was not in a good mood. The cat still trapped in his body was clawing at him, his mind was full of growls and other leopard crap he didn't want to deal with, and his favorite rifle had just broken. "Shaya!"
His mate poked her head out from the tent where she'd been sitting. Taking her and Keenan camping had been his idea. Noor had tagged along. Oddly, of the two adults, it was Ashaya who was enjoying herself the most. Even the organizer only came out when she wanted to write about her experiences - in a journal she refused to let him read.
"Shh," she said, "our son is having a nap with his girlfriend." She took in his mud-splattered clothing. "Oh, dear."
He muttered a few choice words. "Towel." He'd dunked his entire body, clothes and all, in a nearby stream, washing off most of the mud, but he was soaking wet.
Making an expressive face at his tone, she grabbed a towel from one of the packs and came out. "Stop giving in to your mean side." She began to dry his hair while he used the other end of the towel to wipe his face.
Dropping the towel the second it was done, he snaked out an arm and slammed her to his chest. "Put me in a better mood then."
She rolled her eyes. "Fine. I'll strip na**d and lie in the sun once we get home and our son is out visiting his friends. Happy?"
He grinned, his bad mood disappearing at the speed of light. "Hell, yeah."
Her lips twitched. Ashaya was still learning to laugh but he knew when his mate was happy. Leaning in, he stole a kiss. "What if I get na**d and lie with you?"
Her lips parted. "Oh, then I'd definitely be ready to do you all sorts of favors."
God, he loved the way she reacted to him. Bending his head, he stole another kiss before she pulled back and glanced down. "You made me wet." Her ni**les stood out hard and tight against the fabric of her T-shirt.
He felt like purring, he was so damn pleased with himself for having this sexy woman for his mate. "Maybe you'd better hang it up to dry."
"Thank you very much."
Smile widening, she wiggled out of his arms. "Children, remember?"
"They sleep soundly." He thought back to the previous night, to how she'd snuck out with him. The interlude had been a whole lot of fun.
It had also been a chance to talk. Ashaya's guilt had been eating him alive. He'd finally loved her into exhaustion and told her to stop it. "We tried, Shaya. It didn't work. I'm disappointed but I didn't lose anything."
"Your hopes," she'd begun.
"I have you. I have Keenan. I'm happy." It was the truth. Damn but she made him happy.
"You hurt," she'd insisted.
"I did," he'd acknowledged, because he couldn't lie to her. "It hurt like a bitch when I realized the therapy wasn't working, but then I got over it. I'm not the moping kind."
Her face had softened. "No, you're not. You just get out and find a way to deal."
Looking at her now, he could tell that she still wasn't feeling completely okay with the way things had turned out, but time would fix that. "Is there any coffee?" he asked as she grabbed clothes for him from inside the tent.
"I'll make you some while you change." She threw him a sweater and a fresh pair of jeans.
He was reaching out to grab the clothing when a spasm hit his body. It was so unexpected and violent that it doubled him over. His vision shifted, the world swimming before him. He was vaguely aware of Ashaya crying out and running to kneel beside him. Her frantic hands felt odd on him, not quite as they should. His senses were so acute, everything too sharp, too bright.