Since he was about to burst out of his skin from the molten buildup of pleasure, he took her down to the grass without argument. Except this time, he made sure he was on the bottom. She braced herself over him, all red hair and sexy, sexy mouth. That mouth curved again as he closed his hands over her hips. "I need a Stetson."
"So I can ride you like a cowgirl."
The visual almost made him come. "I'll buy you one for Christmas." He didn't know where he found the willpower to say that, because she'd raised herself up on her knees and was brushing the damp heat of her core over and across him. "Mercy." He pulled her down to sheathe him. She could've resisted. She didn't.
Instead, she moved above him in a sinuous curve of fire and gold, her beauty bathed in sunshine. The fire fractured minutes later. And Riley's wolf could do nothing but watch her as pleasure gripped him tight, then broke him wide open.
In an ordinary - if coolly upmarket - section of the city, not far from the Palace of Fine Arts, a brown-eyed, brown-haired man walked into a corner store and paid the extravagant markup on a number of cleaning supplies. "Emergency," he told the old lady who whispered to him that he could get a better deal at the supermarket a few blocks away. "New apartment has slime mold." He made a face. "My girlfriend's threatening to go back to her parents if I don't clean it up right now."
The old lady smiled and patted his arm, wishing him the best of luck with his girl. He grinned and tipped his baseball cap at her. There was nothing at all remarkable about him. The corner store manager forgot him as soon as he walked out, and had he, for some reason, needed to check the security footage, he'd have found that the stranger had somehow managed to either have his back to the cameras or his head bent, shadowed by the bill of his cap.
The same scene, or a variation of it, was repeated throughout the city. The customers all bought different things. Innocuous things. So long as you didn't put them together.
Mercy nuzzled her face into Riley's neck and breathed deep. He smelled of earth and forest, heat and man. Beneath her, his body was warm, muscled, the silky-rough hair on his chest teasing the sensitive skin of her br**sts.
He lay there and let her kiss his neck, the line of his shoulder, the dip below his throat, his hand lying loosely on her lower back. She wasn't fooled. It was a possessive touch. But she figured she'd let him get away with it this once - he'd earned it. And he'd earned more than a little petting.
When she raised her head and nipped at his jaw, he lifted his lashes a fraction, but didn't say anything, his hand stroking over her bottom.
"So," she said with a slow smile.
He raised an eyebrow, his gaze now holding a distinctly wary look.
"How do I compare with wolf females?"
"You're hoping I'll tie my tongue into knots trying to answer that, aren't you?"
"Damn." She propped her chin on folded hands. "Busted."
He pinched her butt.
"You deserved that."
Maybe she did. But - "You didn't answer my question."
"I don't kiss and tell."
"Or maybe there's nothing to tell, huh?" She sat up to straddle him, her fingers playing over his chest. "Been a dry spell, Riley?"
His eyes watched her with intense concentration. That was the thing with Riley - he always made her feel as if he was focusing utterly on her. Before, she'd thought it was so he could find ways to tell her she was doing something wrong. But now . . .
"Look who's talking, kitty."
She dug her nails into his chest, but not hard enough to hurt. "Watch it. The endorphins are only going to last so long."
His hands closed over her thighs. "I'll remember that for next time."
"Don't get too cocky, wolfboy. Maybe three times is enough for me."
"Maybe you're a liar."
She narrowed her eyes. "Did you and Indigo ever hit the sheets?" Jealousy was a spike inside her, a dangerous spike born of an even more dangerous emotion.
"Why is that any of your business?"
"No," he said. "We're colleagues."
Surprised he'd answered, she took a few moments to think about it. "You don't like strong women, do you?"
He stared at her, clearly annoyed. "Indigo's one of my top lieutenants."
"I'm not talking work." She waved it away. "Personally - you really do want a domestic-type woman as a mate, don't you? You weren't jerking my chain."
"There's something wrong with that?"
She told herself the twinge in her chest wasn't from the sting of rejection. "No. My mom's a maternal female and I respect her absolutely." For a leopard, the term "maternal" encompassed so much more than motherhood. The soldiers might ensure trouble stayed far from their innocents, but it was the maternal females who were the true glue of the pack, forging the threads that tied them all to each other. "Was your mom like that, too?"
Riley's face closed over. It was like seeing shutters coming down. He'd been tight-lipped with her more than once, but never had he been this remote. "No." The word was flat, eerily toneless. "I'd better be getting back."
Her natural instinct was to probe. It wasn't only the cat's inquisitiveness - the human part of Mercy was also desperate for a glimpse inside this quiet, contained wolf. Because Riley mattered. There, after avoiding it for so long, she'd said it. He mattered. She was incredibly curious about him. But though she'd been intimate with him several times now, had known him for much longer, he'd never really let her in. Not even three nights ago.