Her mind filled with images of him blocking her punches, trying not to hurt her. She squelched the tiny tendril of warmth that threatened to rise to the surface. Because if there was one thing she knew about predatory changeling men, it was that they weren't good with boundaries - if she gave an inch, he'd take a whole country mile, start trying to protect her in the field.
Scowling at the thought, she wiped off her face, took a second to cover up a certain mark, then scraped her hair back into a high, tight ponytail before dressing in jeans, a plain white tee, and boots. Her cell phone was on the night table and she grabbed it on the way out, sticking it in her back pocket. The autumn air tasted crisp, sweet, almost too cold. She drew it into her lungs as she ran, ceding control to the leopard though she remained in human form. It knew instinctively where to put its feet, when to duck, when to switch direction because an easier path lay a little bit to the left or right.
It just felt like being.
Despite the bleak nature of what lay ahead, she was smiling when the first hint of scent hit her nose. Her stride faltered as she crossed into the large tract of land known as the Grove. "God would not be that cruel." But he was.
Because there was Riley, running to meet her from the opposite direction. His expression was the by-now-familiar impassive one - the one that made her want to needle him simply to get a reaction. If she hadn't seen that same face violent with passion, she'd have thought him an android. And for a predatory male changeling, especially one as dominant as Riley, that was some act to pull off.
"Coincidence?" she asked with saccharine sweetness.
His eyes - dark, intense, extraordinarily focused - went to her neck. "You can't heal a bite that fast." Cool words, but his jaw was a brutally hard line.
"Maybe I can." And maybe she had really good concealer. "Let's do this." She swept left as he went right. "Anything?" she asked as they met on the other side of the rough circle.
"No. Another sweep."
She growled at him. "I know what I'm doing. Don't give me orders."
Those oh-so-calm eyes didn't so much as narrow. "Fine." And he was gone.
That pissed her off. Which, she realized, was precisely the result he'd intended. Riley knew exactly how to push her buttons. Like he took a damn degree in antagonizing - She froze, sniffed the air, and picked up a scent that tied her stomach in knots. "Damn." Putting two fingers to her mouth, she whistled.
Riley arrived a minute later. "Some kind of cat," he said the instant he got close.
"Changeling lynx." Crouching to confirm the scent, she shook her head . . . and caught a vague whiff of the "dead" smell that had freaked out the juvenile. Her soul chilled, even as the leopard whispered that that scent had never belonged to a person. "She's here because there's a wild lynx population in the area."
Riley's shoulders locked, his hands fisting. "She's gone rogue."
"I hope it's not too late." Mercy swallowed and rose to her feet. Rogues were changelings who'd surrendered absolutely to the beast, submerging their human half. If they'd turned into pure animals, it wouldn't have mattered so much - yes, it would've broken hearts, but the lost ones would've been allowed to live out their lives in peace. But rogues were smarter, faster, quicker. And they liked hunting those they had once called family. But this one . . . "It's a kid, Riley."
The wolf looked at her out of Riley's eyes. "You know her?"
"Willow's family had to get the okay to be in our territory." Predatory changelings had very strict rules. It kept the peace. And the most basic rule was - no going into another predator's territory without permission. "Her parents work for a company that relocated to Tahoe."
"How old is Willow?"
"Eight, I think." She drew in a deep breath, attempting to locate the source of the fading spray of blood and death. "Something has to have happened to her parents." She pulled out her cell and coded in a call to Lucas as they started following Willow's trail.
"Mercy, you found - "
"It's Willow," she told him. "You need to get someone to check out the Baker house."
Lucas swore under his breath. "Nathan drove out that way early this morning. I'll get him to go in."
She hung up as Riley motioned he was going left. Nodding, she went leopard-quiet as she circled right, sensing Willow was close. But it wasn't the girl she found. It was the body of what had been a small wild dog. Small, but muscled. "She's very close to the point of no return if she did this." Thank God it was a true animal, not a changeling. If the girl had killed a person . . . There was no coming back from that.
Riley crouched down beside her. "Girl didn't eat the flesh. This was pure rage."
"Poor baby." Her heart clenched - what could've driven a little girl to this? "She can't be far. The scent's too strong." Making a quick decision, Mercy began to pull off her boots. "I'll have an easier time with her if I shift."
Riley nodded. "I'll stay downwind."
"Good idea." A wolf would either terrify or antagonize the girl in her current state of mind. "Turn around." Changelings weren't prudes about nudity, but now that Riley had seen her na**d in very intimate circumstances . . . well, things were different. And that irritated her. "I said, turn around."
He folded his arms and leaned against a tree, those chocolate-dark eyes watching her with unblinking focus.
Oh yeah, Riley knew just what buttons to push. But she wasn't a cat for nothing. "Fine." Shrugging, she ignored him to strip with changeling efficiency, balling up her clothes and shoes to cache in the tree.