After banishing Kira and Lucas, the councils remained uncertain of how to control the mingling of powers and what the long-term effects are, so they arrange the circumstances for a double-blind experiment.
Snow leopard, Bennett Nelson takes work for his Clan council regularly as payment for occupying a section of their territory. Though he prefers working solo, his next assignment places in him in close quarters with one of the Psi. Isolated with her on a mountainside, his instructions are explicit—keep the woman alive and safe from any possible harm.
A powerful telepath, Darcy Ashwood prefers to work alone in her lab because people are far too much trouble. Her personal passion? Creating perfumes. She knows everything there is to know about the olfactory sense and is particularly proud of the oil pheromone she created which inspires attraction in others. When she’s sent to a remote cabin to refine her creation, she’s also told to test it on the shifter assigned to be her guard.
A soldier and a scientist, both following orders, never expect to discover a very real connection…
Read the first chapter now!
Darcy Ashwood eyed the switchback trail ahead of her with distaste. The path ascended at a sharp angle, which promised her burning thighs would be in hell by the time she reached the ridge above. Adjusting her pack, she groaned. Her shoulders already ached, and her lower back cramped.
Although not a hiker, she exercised regularly and didn’t think she was doing too badly. She’d mapped her route based on the coordinates provided and made good time so far.
I’m a lab rat, not a mountain lion or animal of any kind. Why am I putting myself through this?
Not bothering to answer her own question, she extended her senses. Her telepathic range had always tested very high. If she spoke to another telepath, she could reach halfway across the continent—or at least a thousand miles, based on the various test distances attempted.
The woods ahead of her seemed quiet. The cool mountain air carried traces of sage, wood, grass and, beneath it all, a hint of wild muskiness. She found the minds of many animals, touching each lightly before moving on to the next like skipping a stone across still water.
No other humans were in range, but if the beast the Council told her to expect traveled in animal form, she wouldn’t necessarily be able to distinguish him from the other creatures roaming the mountainside. Or would she?
Despite the relative chill of the air—about fifty-five degrees and promising to grow cooler as she climbed—sweat dampened her shirt. She’d worn jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and a denim jacket as well as sturdy boots. A pair of gloves hung from a clip on her belt along with a canteen of fresh of water. The location for her next experiment hid well off the traveled routes and, based on her research, would be accessible only to the most experienced of hikers.
Something she definitely wasn’t. Still, when the Council said jump, she took to the air. They funded all of her research and kept her lab up to date with the best technology had to offer. Most of the time, they left her utterly alone—her preferred state. At her level of telepathy, she had to actively block other thoughts, even from others within her clan. The bleed over made her crazy, otherwise. Hermetically sealed behind several tons of rock and metal, her lab offered her another buffer against the constant barrage of thoughts.
A bird took flight from above, followed by another and another until a whole flock seemed on the wing. She spun, lifting her hand to shade her eyes so she could track their path across the azure expanse, painted with thick fluffy white clouds.
Black birds, one and all, but she couldn’t identify them by species. The black cloud angled south, a shadow against the sky. After freeing her canteen, she unscrewed the lid and took a long drink of iced tea. The mint and chamomile steeped to perfection before she’d iced it. The combination soothed her nerves and quenched her thirst. Securing it once more, she returned her attention to the upward slope. She’d have to climb. Wary of brambles and other sharp objects, she unclipped her gloves before tugging them on.
The lack of foreign minds nearby let her keep her senses attuned. At some point, she would encounter the beast she’d been sent to work with and observe. The Council had been clear in their instructions. The beast would provide her with protection. She was free to test her latest creation on him via blind experiment—meaning she couldn’t alert him to her test. Before any of that, she must first refine the perfume and verify it didn’t aggravate him. Either way, the ethics of testing her fragrance without informing him bothered her. As a scientist, she accepted the need for blind testing. It was the only way to prove the accuracy of the results, but he was a living being, beast or not.
After shifting the weight of her pack, she began her climb. Grasping exposed roots, jagged rocks, or extended branches for balance, she scrabbled her way along the sharp angle. Her eyes watered and her heart pounded from the exertion, but a strange exhilaration raced through her blood. The ascent left her breathless. Yet once she achieved the ridge, she paused to look across the valley. The view was stunning. Puffing a breath to blow the tendrils of hair from her eyes, she looped her fingers through the backpack’s straps and began walking again, following the faint steps created by the landscape.
She was really doing it—climbing a mountain to a remote cabin where she’d spend the next several weeks refining her creation with only a strange beast for company.
Whistling, she relaxed. If someone had told her a month before that she’d take such drastic steps, she’d have accused them of being drunk. Yet, there she was, indulging a wild journey as though she did it every day and she couldn’t help but feel damn happy about it. A sense of freedom threaded through her soul. She carried a dozen samples–pheromone-based scents designed to attract and repel, which represented her earlier achievements—in her pack, each sealed in steel containers to keep them protected. The third set of containers, however, carried the one the Council wanted desperately.
She planned to create a chemical pheromone designed to erase scent entirely, giving them the ability to infiltrate anywhere. The tactical advantage wasn’t lost on her, but to erase a person’s scent so completely that not even an animal shifter could trace them? It promised liberty to those who desired a way out, not to mention the possible combination of attraction and repulsion. They would finally have a true advantage over the creatures that possessed greater speed, agility and strength.
If she failed?
I’ll start over. First, she had to know if she could affect her target, then vanish from him…excitement weaved into her step and she bounced once.
A scattering of rocks and a crumbling sound were her only warning as the land vanished beneath her feet and she fell.
Bennett Nelson studied the brunette, with her wild streaks of red and gold hair, as she tore a path along the side of the ridge face rather than continuing to follow the loop, which would have given her an easier ascent. The assignment from the Clan Council hadn’t included more than a photograph of the target and a destination. He was to provide her with escort and protection for the duration of her stay along the edge of their territory. The openness of the Dragon surrounding them often took the unwary. The mountain range offered openness and solitude for those who craved it as her people did. Between the heart-shaped curve of her ass and the dainty way she’d taken a sip of her water—though based on the hint of flowers and herbs he scented, he suspected it was tea—Darcy Ashwood definitely qualified as unwary.
Not even the birds alighting at his arrival in their tree had given her more than a moment’s pause. Instead of checking her surroundings, she’d turned to watch the damn birds. His lips peeled away from his teeth. A snow leopard amongst the green should have stood out like a sore thumb, yet she utterly failed to notice him.
For the better part of the day, he’d tracked her. She was supposed to wait for him at the campground below, but instead, he’d only found her locked car in the ranger’s lot. The ranger, also Clan, would look after the vehicle. Since Ashwood would be spending the next three months on the mountain, they couldn’t afford someone noticing the abandoned car or filing a missing person’s report.
Finding a trace of her scent at the trailhead, he’d stalked her. When her destination became as obvious as her impatience, he stripped, stuffed his clothes into the single pack of supplies he’d planned to bring, and shifted. Fortunately, he could ease into the pack and make it work. He traveled a hell of a lot faster on four legs than on two.
It took him less than an hour to catch up to her. She made good time, her steady progress eating away the miles. Instead of exhaustion slowing her, she seemed more energized with every step she took away from civilization. Though irritated she hadn’t waited for him, Bennett continued to stalk her path, ranging ahead of her before looping around again—better to scout any issues before she encountered them. After a couple of hours, he settled into a comfortable pace. At least he didn’t have to deal with talking or entertaining her.
Preferring a solitary existence, he accepted the tasks the Clan Council asked of him in exchange for sanctuary and freedom from obligations of the outside world. He’d spent a fair share of his time trying to make a go of it amongst humans. Cities proved too constrictive while farmland was too open. In his homeland, he enjoyed a wide open range, thousands of meters above sea level. Most leopards were extremely territorial, and he was no exception. Avoiding most of the Clan allowed him to mitigate his beast’s need to fight for a space of his own.
Fortunately, the Dragon provided him with enough remoteness, so he could almost pretend to be alone. His cabin occupied a similarly hard to achieve location on a mountain one hundred kilometers north of the Spine Peak where he would be spending the rest of the season. Late autumn, the air carried enough cold dryness to it; he could almost taste the onset of winter.
The higher elevation would hold snow, and he purred in anticipation. Too warm on the valley floor for his taste, and far too moist with rain trailing their path. Hopefully by the time it reached his mountain, it would turn to snow. His target did a little bounce on the uneven slope, jerking his attention to her precarious footing. A growl rumbled in his throat, but too late he noticed the dry ledge giving beneath her slender weight. The lack of rain over the last several days had left several areas pitted after heavy snows the previous winter.
Pebbles and crumbling earth showered down as the ledge face gave way and she fell. Trusting his instincts, he leapt from the tree he’d positioned himself in and bounded to a rock, then another and down to an outcropping, arriving just barely ahead of the woman sliding on her front as she tried to grab at the dirt to save herself.
Seizing her pack, he sank his teeth in and jerked her to a halt. The recoil pulled at him, but he dug his claws into the stone and dragged her to him. Her scream echoed in his ears and his mind, the sound aggravating as hell so he gave her a little shake before dumping her onto the sturdy outcropping.
A shudder passed over her as the sound cut off abruptly. Tail lashing, he paced around her to check for injuries. The coppery hint of blood touched his nose, but so did the luscious bite of winter’s kiss—snow, pine, and wintergreen. When she didn’t move, or push herself upward, he crouched to try and inspect her face. She had her gloved hands crossed over her head as though she’d tried to protect herself. All he could make out was the shell of her ear through the wild tangle of her hair.
One shaky gulp of air told him she still lived, while fear added a bitter aftertaste to the crushed winter mint of her scent. He wanted to bat the flavor around and rub against her, but he settled his beast with a stern flex of control. They had a job to do, beginning with inspecting her for harm.
When she still didn’t lift her head, he grew impatient and nudged her.
Stop. The low, feminine contralto resonated clearly through him. Purring approval at the strength of purpose in her tone, he nudged her again. I said stop.
I heard. He concentrated on the voice. Are you injured?
She groaned, then her gloved hands came away from her face and she pressed her palms flat against the rock. With obvious effort, she pushed herself upward. Bennett retreated a single step to give her room, but kept his gaze firm on her. His whiskers twitched. As much as he’d enjoyed the view of her curvy ass earlier, the front matched the back in sensuous shape and form. Heavy breasts filled her cotton shirt, and the fullness of her mouth looked perfect for kissing.
Irritated by the direction of his thoughts, he released a low growl, and she jerked her gaze toward him. Scrapes scored from her forehead to her cheeks to her trembling chin. One welled with a hint of blood, but they were all on the surface and none were likely to scar. Deep, soulful brown eyes holding a wealth of secrets beckoned to him. They were the perfect complement to her honey skin, and not even the reddish marks could detract from the sweetness of her face.
“Ow.” Her lips framed the word with a perfect ‘o’ and a hunger rumbled deep in his soul. Shuttling aside the primitive need, he prowled closer. The blood he’d scented came from her face, but she’d tumbled about five meters before he’d managed to snatch her to safety.
If he had to carry her down to a healer, their journey would be over before it began, and he’d have failed in his task. The last nagging thought worried him less than if she were in actual pain. It would be a hard trek with a broken bone, especially if it were in her chest where it might puncture a fragile organ.
“I don’t think so…and stop that.” The impatience in the last three words amused him and settled his cat at the same time.
She managed to sit, though each movement earned another low groan from her. Dirt and debris covered the front of her shirt. She’d torn her jacket in two places, but the denim definitely protected her from shredding more skin. She touched a glove to her face with a wince. “Stop sending to—”
The abrupt end of her order involved her gaze colliding with his again.
“Oh.” Realization crystalized and she blinked. “You’re a cat.”
Yes, I am. The statement of the obvious amused him for some inexplicable reason. Now, answer my question. Is anything broken?
Shaking her head once, she winced then tugged off a glove to put to the side of her neck. “Bruised and shaken, I think. I’ll try to stand in a minute.” Though she didn’t move quickly, she stretched each of her arms then wiggled each finger before turning her attention to her legs. Settling on his haunches, he studied her as she took a full inventory of her condition, the calm deliberateness of the actions suggested her earlier assertion was correct.
“Definitely bruised.” She glanced at the rock then up to the ledge that had given away. “How am I supposed to get back up there?”
You don’t. He waited for her to stand before rising himself. He kept her caged close to the rock face, rather than near the edge. Turn to your right and follow the lip for about three meters then we’ll be back on the trail again.
“Really?” Surprise populated the word. “I thought everything went directly up.”
Of course you did. Bennett didn’t bother to disguise his smugness. Since she hadn’t seriously injured herself, she deserved to be tweaked. You should have waited at the trailhead for me.
“You were late.” Despite the argument, she followed his instructions and hugged the wall as she made her way around the lip. Claws extended for balance, he stayed right on her heels. If she slipped again, he could catch her.
I arrived at dawn. You’d already left.
When no response came from her immediately, he glanced up to find her frowning at him. “I was told to meet you at four a.m.”
Then you were given bad information. This is not a safe place to stop. Keep moving.
Her teeth clacked together.
It’s also not a good time to be stubborn. Move it, sweetheart.
“I am moving.” The whine in her tone filled him with fresh amusement, but at least she continued to slide sideways past the narrowest part, not slowing until she stood on the trail again. Staring first up the hill, then down, she sighed. “I didn’t even realize the trail continued.”
I noticed. Padding away from her, he shrugged out of his bag. The sling on carried a couple of changes of clothes and the very basics he would need. Everything else would already be provided in the cabin or he would hunt for them. Relaxing, he shed his fur and returned to his human form win a rush of bones, muscle and cartilage reforming. The cold air stung his freshly shifted skin, but he stretched.
Her low gasp added a fresh layer to his amusement. Taking his time about retrieving his bag and his clothes, he gave her a long slow look. Darcy made no pretense of not scrutinizing his form with the same intensity she’d given to her earlier cataloguing of her own injuries. The moment her gaze reached his cock, he stiffened under the heat of her attention.
At least she wasn’t shy about noticing. “I’ll be dressed in a minute.”
“Nudity doesn’t bother me.”
So he’d noticed, however mingling races was strictly forbidden, no matter how much his dick seemed to be interested in her. So, he lied. “It bothers me, so if you don’t mind…”
A guilty flush stained her cheeks, and the edge of arousal roughening her scent evaporated. She spun to give him her back, and his gaze dipped to the way the denim stretched across her ass. “Sorry.”
“No problem.” He pushed the words past clenched teeth as he forced his cat to obey him. The animal had zero problem with nudity and was more interested in stripping off her clothes so they could explore. Stuffing his legs into his jeans, he dragged them on and ignored the rasp of the fabric over his cock. A little pain might get it to behave.
“I’m Darcy Ashwood, by the way.”
“I know.” He tugged on his shirt then gave himself a yank beneath his jeans. The twist sent stars to his eyes, but helped neuter the blatant show of sexual interest. Ashwood was his to babysit, nothing more.
“And you are?”
Wondering what she would look like nude might not be the best idea. He didn’t know as much about her abilities, but some of her clan were pretty sharp and had no compunction about reading his kind. So he rubbed his bare foot against some brambles. The pierce against his skin added to his discomfort while he organized his thoughts and relied on his cat to give him some kind of protection. “Bennett Nelson.”
“Nice to meet you, Bennett.” She folded her arms and rocked on from her heels to her toes and back again. “If it helps any, you’re a perfectly built specimen.”
The pain couldn’t compete with her compliment, even a scientifically worded one. His dick continued to offer her a salute. How many months did he have to spend with her, again?