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He left behind a child. The woman hunted him down. Together they must deal with the intervening ten years. Steve left home to avoid doing something he would regret. Now, after ten years, the reason he left has come looking for him. Jade spent the last six years haunted by memories and nightmares. She's tired of waiting for something to change, so she's going to take her life into her own hands. She tracks down the only person she's ever been drawn to, a man she hasn't seen in more than ten years. Can she convince him that their differences don't matter, that together they can both find peace?
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Also by Melissa Stevens
Dictionary of Terms
Also by Melissa Stevens
About the Author
This book is a work of fiction. Names, character, places and incidents ether are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 Melissa Stevens
All rights reserved.
Created with Vellum
Books and series from Melissa Stevens
The Kitsune Collection
(with Change, Fight, Hunt and Live in one volume)
City of Sin:
Released by Desire
Redeemed by Desire
Revealed by Desire
The Dragon Chronicles
(with Released by Desire, Redeemed by Desire and Revealed by Desire)
Diamond Bridal Agency:
This one is for all those people who helped raise me, you know, the ones who weren’t actually my parents.
John and Terri
John and Jackie
Not to forget all the extended family, who are too numerous to name here.
I wouldn't be how I am if not for all of you.
To Kari Trumbo and Editor's Note for the outstanding help with my editing for all the books, I couldn’t do it without you.
To my dad, for answering all my bizarre questions without any questions of your own, I'm not sure my explanations would make sense anyway.
JV slowed her pickup as she passed the city limits sign entering the small mountain town of Springerville, Arizona. She took care to stay under the speed limit. She wasn't sure how long she might be in the area and didn't want to get on anyone's bad side, at least not so soon. Over the last two days, she'd come to realize this trip had been a long time in coming and she wasn't going to give anyone a reason to run her off before she was ready.
Her stomach growled.
The sudden sound made her jump. JV glanced at the clock on the dash, 2:17pm. "No wonder, I should have gotten something to eat on the road." JV muttered.
The petite brunette looked around for somewhere to eat. It had been a long drive, several hours and more than three hundred miles since breakfast. She hoped she could find someone from the local Chanat, the cougar shifter clan, and try to get them to direct her to Steve’s place.
She scanned the worn buildings on either side of the highway, looking for a restaurant. Most were older than she was, and reminded her of the buildings in a western movie, though there were some newer ones scattered around. The town was obviously aging, but not run down. It was apparent it was well cared for and most of the newer buildings looked like they had been designed to match, or at least not clash, with the older ones. It looked like the town embraced its history.
The aging town took JV's mind back to the last time she'd seen Steve, more than ten years earlier. At the time, he'd been about the same age she is now, but to the teenager she'd been, he'd seemed mature and worldly. He was only home for a couple weeks after he getting out of the Marines, then he'd left town again. She hadn't seen him since.
She remembered watching him with hungry eyes, praying he would notice her, but all too soon, he was gone. She'd never forgotten him, or the odd feeling of being pulled toward him she'd felt. She hadn’t experienced it since, sometimes she wondered if maybe it was all her imagination.
At first, she'd waited for him to come back, to act on their mutual attraction, or so she thought. But days stretched into years, and eventually JV had given up. She'd tried dating, had gone on with her life, but in all the time since, there hadn't been anyone she'd considered spending her life with. More recently, as the memory of that odd sensation haunted her, she’d come to a conclusion. It was necessary to find out the truth. She had to know if her memory was correct or not, and if the only potential mate she'd ever met wouldn't come to her, she would go to him. She needed to confront him.
It was hard to believe after so long, she was this close, but now that she was in town, more information was key.
Walking into the small diner, she let the door swing shut behind her and looked around. The place was decorated like an old log cabin with rounded logs covering the walls and exposed beams. There were maybe twenty tables scattered through the dining room, about half of them were taken. To be so busy, this late in the afternoon meant something, either people around here eat late, or the food was good.
"Have a seat, hon, wherever you like. I'll be right with you." A waitress wearing an old-fashioned pink uniform with a white apron, called as she carried a coffee pot from table to table, filling cups.
JV found an empty table, sat and waited. A moment later, the same woman brought her a menu and a glass of ice water.
"I'm Liz, what can I get you to drink, hon?"
JV looked up; the waitress’s auburn hair had been teased into a tall bouffant. The fine lines on either side of her eyes told JV she smiled a lot. JV's enhanced sense of smell told her the woman in front of her was a shifter, a cougar too. "Water's good." She smiled at the older woman.
"All right, I'll give you a few minutes." The waitress smiled back. The expression made her look younger and JV guessed she was somewhere in her forties, though it could be hard to tell with shifters. Sometimes they didn't age the same as humans.
JV placed her order, then watched patrons come and go while finishing her meal. There were only about a half dozen people left in the restaurant when the waitress came back to check on her.
"Is there anything else I can get for you?" Liz asked.
"Actually, there is." JV smiled at Liz, trying to look hopeful. "I'm looking for an old friend; maybe you can help me find him?"
"I'll do what I can, dear. Who are you looking for?"
"His name is Steve Romero. I know he lives around here, but I don't know exactly where. Now that I'm here, I need some help."
A surprised look flashed across Liz's face before she could stop it. "Sure, I know Steve."
"Could you tell me how to get to his place?"
"I can," Liz frowned, "but I can't imagine him not giving you directions himself."
JV's face heated and she looked down at the table, unable to meet Liz's gaze. "He doesn't know I'm here. I'm trying to surprise him." She looked back at the older woman, hoping she would still help.
Liz lowered her voice, "I'll tell you where to find him, but he's our Shaku. He lives too close to our Khan and Karhyn to send you out there without letting them know you're on the way." She smiled for a brief second, "But since I don't know who you are, all I can tell them is there was a young woman looking for him and I gave her directions."
JV understood, Steve was the clan’s head of security and lived very close to the clan leader and his wife. While she had to give them a heads up, Liz would do what she could not to ruin JV's surprise. "Thanks," she smiled up at the other woman.
She wrote down the directions and paid her tab, thanking Liz again for the help. She climbed into her truck and headed back in the direction she'd come. It wasn't far, half an hour was nothing compared to the two days she'd spent on the road already.
Following the directions Liz had given her, JV turned off the highway and drove along a narrow but well maintained dirt road for about two and a half miles before it opened into a clearing. The road continued along one side of the open space and disappeared into the trees on the other side. In front of the cabin sat a pair of pickups, one several years old and a little beat up, the other newer and still nice looking.
Pulling into the yard, she saw someone sitting on the porch. A tall man stood and headed in her direction as she parked beside the other trucks. She watched him as she killed the engine and slid out. The man coming toward her wasn't Steve. That meant it was probably the clan leader.
"Hello, I'm Nick, Khan of the White Mountain Chanat. What can I do for you?" he asked.
"Hi, I'm JV. I'm looking for Steve Romero?"
"You've found the right place." He looked her up and down before offering her his hand. "He has a cabin around back; he'll be here in just a minute."
Bracing herself against the pain, she shook his hand, and let go as soon as was polite. "All right." She resisted the urge to rub her hand against her jeans to try and ease the sting from her skin, but she was unsure what to do while she waited.
A crease formed on his brow, "I take it Steve didn't know you were coming?"
"No, sir. I thought I'd surprise him."
"What makes me think he may not be so happy about your surprise?" He gave her a lop-sided smile, one side of his mouth lifting while the other stayed put.
JV could only give him a wry smile back. She suspected he was right.
"You wanted to see me, boss?" Steve came around the corner, his voice dying off when he spotted her.
"There's someone here to see you," Nick motioned to JV.
Steve looked stunned. "Jade? What are you doing here?"
"I came to see you."
"I'll leave the two of you to your business." The clan leader turned and went in the house.
Steve waited while his leader went inside. "Why are you here?" he asked, his tone matching the frown on his face.
"I needed to see you." She couldn't put it any plainer.
"Is everything all right?" His displeasure turned to concern when he thought someone might be sick or hurt. "Your parents? Mine? Matt?" He said her brother's name last, dread filling his eyes at the thought of something happening to his friend. "Why didn't someone just call?"
She shook her head, "No, everyone's fine. That's not why I'm here."
"If that's not it then why are you here?" His frown returned. He wasn't happy to see her.
JV looked at the ground and slowly started toward him, "When you left, I knew it was because of me. It hurt. It hurt, a lot.” She paused, trying to keep her voice even, “At first, I waited for you, and the longer I waited, the more I tried to hate you, because it hurt so bad. Even then, I hoped and prayed that you'd come back. I tried to move on." She looked up at him and paused again, because Steve was shaking his head, then she went on, ignoring him. "It took me a long time to realize that you had no intention of returning, even longer to understand why."
"That doesn't tell me why you're here now, Jade." He put his hands on his hips, still frowning.
"I had to see you again," She knew this wasn't going to be easy. However, it was important to her to find out if what she remembered was real, or if it had merely been the wishful thinking of a starry-eyed teenage girl.
"Now that you're here---?"
The breeze kicked up and blew bits of leaves and needles across the hard-packed ground. The scents of pine, juniper and a subtle musk she instantly recognized as Steve's scent were pushed into her face. His unique fragrance pulled at something low in her body, something she barely remembered and had feared might be a fantasy.
"Now, I see you." She tilted her head to one side. "Without even touching you, I know it wasn’t my imagination, it was real."
"What was real?" His scowl deepened.
"What I feel." She knew she was being evasive, but she didn't want to tip her hand just yet. He might stop her if he knew what she was up to.
Steve frowned, "What are you talking about?"
"I'm pretty sure you know. I appreciate that you've tried to forget, I did too. But I can't. So now I’m here."
"I'm not following,” his scowl deepened.
She took a deep breath and braced herself, she had to do it. He wasn't going to like it, but she didn't see any other way. She stopped thinking and moved.
She reached out and laid her hand on his arm, waiting for the sharp, burning pain she always felt when touching anyone of the opposite sex. For so long, the touch of any male not related to her had burned her skin. She'd hoped with a potential mate it would be different. When no pain shot through her, she took the next step. She wrapped her arms around his neck. Using his momentary surprise to her advantage, she pulled him down so she could kiss him before he had a chance to stop her.
Placing her mouth against his, she ran her tongue along the seam of his lips until he opened to her, then she pushed inside. She licked and tasted him, drawing him in. She pressed her body against his, letting the instinctive attraction between them speak for her.
His body responded before his brain. His arms wound around her waist and pulled her closer as he lost himself for just a moment.
The second his brain started functioning again, he stiffened and pulled away. She let him withdraw, then stepped back until she stood about a foot in front of him.
"Why did you do that?" His voice had gone thick and husky.
"Now you're following me." JV smirked, spun around and went back to her pickup. "I'm going to go get a room. I'll see you later."
"You're wasting your time, Jade. Go home."
"There's nothing for me there. That's why I'm here." She didn't bother to turn back. Given the chance, he'd talk her into going home, or at least try. She wasn't going to give him that chance.
"There's nothing for you here, either." His voice got louder with every exchange.
"I'm not convinced." Her tone was strong and confident, even though she didn't feel it. "If you can kiss me like that, neither are you." She climbed back into her truck and left, enjoying for once having the last word as she left him standing there, watching her drive away.
She drove the same short stretch of highway for the third time that day, this time with a sense of excitement, missing during the first two trips. Stopping at the first motel she came across, JV rented a room. She carried her bags inside without taking time to unpack, she pulled the holstered pistol from her waistband and set it aside, then she lay back on the bed to decide what to do next.
She'd made the first move. Hopefully he would make the next one but she didn't expect it to be that easy. She'd suspected he was her potential mate, and she was one for him, for a number of years. However, he believed he was too old for her. Why else would he have left and never come back? Admittedly, ten years had been a big age difference.
Seeing him again confirmed it, at least from her point of view. By the way he responded to her kiss, she was almost certain he felt it too. When she considered that she could touch him, actually skin to skin, without pain, it only made her more determined to take the chance. Even so, she had to convince him that a relationship between them wasn't wrong - she wasn't a child anymore. She lay there for a long time, trying to figure out how to convince him to give her, and them, a chance.
The sound of knocking on her door, made JV jump. Her thoughts had been so tangled, she hadn't noticed footsteps approaching or stopping outside her door. Her body flashed hot, then instantly cold as panic flooded her. She fought the urge to hide. Instead, she took a deep breath and pushed it back. She'd been careless. She had to pay more attention. Grabbing her Smith and Wesson .38 Special from the table beside the bed, she pulled it from the holster and went to the door.
Looking through the peep hole, a woman who looked a little younger than herself looked back she had dark hair pulled away from her gentle face. JV took a careful breath, trying to pick up the woman's scent through the door, but got nothing. She opened the door slightly and found the younger woman wasn't alone. There was a man with her. He wasn't much taller than the woman, but he was several years older and stocky. It looked like it might take a truck to knock him over, not someone JV wanted to have to fight.
"Yes?" JV kept her body behind the door, the arm with her pistol held close to her body, out of sight but ready, just in case.
"Hi, I'm Rebecca Hastings. I'd like to talk to you, if I could?" The younger woman was bouncy and perky, something JV hadn't been in a long time.
With the door open she could pick up their scents, both of her visitors were Kitsune, shifters like herself, but the woman carried the scent of the Kahn, not the man with her. She suspected she was meeting the local Karhyn, the head female in the clan and the Khan’s mate. She tucked the small revolver into the back of her jeans then stepped back. She kicked the holster she’d dropped in her haste to get to the door, under the bed and out of sight, then opened the door to make room for them. She wasn't particularly comfortable letting a man she didn't know into her room, if it had been him alone she wouldn't even have answered the door, but if this was the Karhyn then he was likely her enforcer, her bodyguard. She knew better than to try to bar him.
Rebecca seemed to sense JV's anxiety, "Bobby, this is the only door, why don't you stay out here and let us have a little girl talk?" She looked at the man for a second, seeming to communicate without words.
He met her look, then nodded silently. He watched her enter the room, and once she was inside, he leaned against the wall between this door and the one next to it. He seemed content to wait there as JV closed the door.
Inside, Rebecca made herself at home. She glanced around the tiny room, then sat on the foot of the bed. "My husband said you were pretty, but he didn't tell me you were beautiful."
JV didn't know what to say. The last thing she wanted to do was to piss of the clan leaders while trying to convince their head enforcer that she wasn't the child he still thought her to be.
Rebecca took a deep breath, "Let me back up. I'm Rebecca."
"You said that already." JV was uncertain as she sat in the only chair at the small table. Her pistol dug into her back as she trapped it between her body and the hard cushion. The slight pain reminded her she wasn't helpless and helped keep her panic at bay.
"You met my husband, Nick, a little while ago." Rebecca watched her as she spoke.
JV nodded, she’d figured that much out for herself.
"He said you came to see Steve?" Rebecca made it a question, as if hoping JV would elaborate. When she didn't, Rebecca continued, "Steve's been a part of this clan longer than I have, he was the Shaku when I got here. He does his best to protect Nick and me, and I'd do a lot to protect him in return."
"You're here to ask my intentions?" JV realized. For some reason the idea amused her.
Rebecca gave a wry smile, "In a way, yes."
JV sighed. She looked away for a moment, staring sightlessly at the mirror across the room as she tried to decide how much to share. She needed someone she could talk to, someone on her side. She needed a friend. But first, she had to come clean, "I'm gonna be honest with you. I've got a weapon. I'm not threatening you, but I need to move it and I need you not to call your enforcer because of it." She watched the other woman, looking for signs she was going to call out to the man outside.
Rebecca's eyes widened, "Okay."
JV reached behind her and pulled the gun from her waistband. Laying the weapon on the table beside her, she leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees as she dropped her head in her hands.
"How did Bobby not smell that?" Rebecca looked at the weapon, then back to JV.
JV glanced at the gun, then back at the floor, dismissing the weapon she kept nearby, always. "I've masked the scent." It was something she was normally proud of, it had taken a lot of trial and error to get it right, but that wasn't what was important right now.
Still looking at the floor, JV tried to decide how to start, before meeting the other woman's gaze. "My name is JV. I've known Steve since I was a child. He was my brother's best friend the whole time we were growing up. He was always around when I was little. I wasn't a teenager yet when he joined the military, but I was older when he got out and came home. There was something new between us then, a draw that I don't know if I could have fought at seventeen.
“Then, suddenly I didn't have to. He was gone. It took me a long time to realize he was right to leave. I waited for him to come back for ten years, now I'm through waiting." She was leaving a lot out, but Rebecca wasn't the one she needed to share it with.
"So you decided to come after him?"
"What, exactly, do you have planned?" Rebecca looked intrigued, "If you don't mind my asking, that is."
"I don't really have a plan. I only had one thing in mind when I left Austin yesterday. Now that I've seen him, I've got to figure out what my next step is."
"Is that what you had in mind, to see him?"
"Not entirely, but that was part of it." JV hesitated, "It had been so long since I'd seen him, since I'd felt it, I had to see him again, see if it was really there."
"And---?" Rebecca’s interest seemed genuine.
JV looked at the ceiling a moment, then back at Rebecca, "I was right. It's there."
"You feel the instinct don't you?"
She knew what the clan leader meant. She'd heard about it growing up, but it hadn't been all that important. Her family hadn't pushed her to find a mate, they were more concerned that she make a good match. A mate was someone a shifter could form a bond with that is as magical as their ability to change shapes, JV looked away again, then swallowed and met her gaze. "Yes, ma'am."
"What about Steve, does he feel it too?"
"From the way he reacted today, I think so."
"So, what are you going to do about it?"
"I don't know. I didn't think that far ahead."
"Do you want him to go back with you?" Rebecca tilted her head to one side and watched JV.
JV, still lost in thought, gave her head an absent shake, "No, I don't expect that. He has a life here. I have no intention of making him leave it."
"What about your life, in Austin, didn't you say?"
"What life? I grew up in our tiny hometown and left to go to school. I've only been back for visits, to both my family and his, since I was nineteen. I've lived in Austin since I got out of school, a little more than five years ago. I've had a couple of jobs and there are a few old coworkers I talk to now and then, but I don't have any real friends, nothing to keep me there."
Rebecca nodded slowly, thinking, "What if he says no?"
"He already said no. He told me," she glanced at the clock beside the bed, "not two hours ago that I'm wasting my time. I should go home."
"Of course he did," Rebecca wasn't surprised. "He's too used to everyone, including me, doing whatever he says. What I meant was, in time, if he doesn't see things differently, then what?"
JV took a deep breath, "I honestly don't know," she paused, "I didn't come all this way to give up. He left to get away from me. I knew it then and I actually understand it now. I was a kid, and it was more than just being underage. I was sheltered and naive. He was ten years older and far more mature. To me, he was larger than life and I was awed by him. If he'd stayed, I would have pursued him. I was as tenacious then as I am now, but I was still a child, with simple ideals. I think he saw that and left. I respect that, but I'm not a child anymore."
"You don't mean to take no for an answer?"
JV was silent a moment, "I won't force him, but I'm not going to give up easily, either."
"Are you sure he feels the instinct too?"
JV understood why she asked. It wasn't unheard of to feel the mating instinct for someone who didn't feel the same for you. It wasn't really a big deal, most just stayed away from each other and kept looking for another potential mate. It wasn't like the instinct was flawless; it just helped shifters find the ones they could form a deeper bond with.
She looked at the other woman for a long minute, then decided to hell with it, she might as well tell her everything. "When I pulled into town this afternoon, I wasn't even sure I'd felt it. For all I knew, I had imagined it or thought it could have been the wishful thinking of an infatuated teenager.
"Then I saw him. The moment I caught his scent it came back, stronger than I remembered. I tried to get him to admit why he left, but he acted like he didn't know what I was talking about." She looked down, refusing to look at Rebecca as she made her confession. "So I threw myself at him. I kissed him with everything in me. I could have believed he doesn't feel it if he hadn't, just for a moment, returned my kiss with the same hunger."
Rebecca was silent a moment, "All right." She stood, taking charge, "first things first. You can't stay here. Gather you're things." She issued orders like she was used to having them followed without questions.
"Of course I am. Where else would I stay?"
Rebecca gave her a questioning look. "JV, how can you seduce a man from more than thirty minutes away? Steve comes into town once, maybe twice a week, less once snow falls and that's not far off. If you stay here, it'll be too easy for him to avoid you." Her voice softened, "Come back out to our place. We have a spare bedroom. You can stay there until you can convince that stubborn man to open up."
"How will the Kahn feel about me staying there?" JV asked.
Rebecca gave a secretive smile, "You leave him to me. Honestly, he won't have a problem with it. He's got more insight than people realize."
"I don't know," JV hesitated.
"If you don't do it, you'll never know if you lost him because you didn't do everything you could."
JV had to admit, at least to herself, Rebecca was right. If she had any hope of wearing him down, she couldn't give him the option of retreating or hiding. She had to be close enough to be in his face all the time. She had to be where she could catch him with his guard down.
JV nodded, picked up her pistol, retrieved the holster from where she’d kicked it under the bed and stuck them both back in waistband of her jeans. She grabbed her jacket and slipped it on, making the gun invisible. "You convinced me." She looked around the room once more, checking for anything she might have missed before picking up her suitcase. "Give me a couple of minutes to load up and check out. I'll be right behind you."
Rebecca opened the door and held it so JV could get by with the bag then closed it behind them. Her enforcer fell into step beside her as she walked away.
JV carried her bag to the truck and headed for the office. After checking out, she met the Karhyn and her bodyguard beside the newer truck she'd seen in front of the cabin earlier.
"Thanks again for this." JV said.
"It's no problem," Rebecca said, "I'm happy to help."
"Is there anything I can do? Anything I can bring?"
"You're our guest, just bring yourself."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure. It’ll be nice to have another woman around for a change"
"All right." JV agreed. She climbed back into her pickup and waited while they pulled out of the lot, then followed them back to the cabin.
"What are you doing here?" Steve's angry voice startled JV.
"Unpacking,” she continued what she was doing without looking up.
"I can see that. Why?"
"Rebecca invited me to stay," she was determined not to let him see how shaken she was by his sudden appearance behind her.
"Why? What did you say to her?"
"You mean your version of it," he snarled.
"I mean the truth." She flinched, but kept her voice even and her back to the man she'd come so far to see.
"What kind of sob story did you tell my Karhyn to get her to invite you to stay here?"
The accusation flipped a switch inside her. It turned her fear and nerves to fury. She fought to keep her anger off her face and out of her voice. "I didn't tell her a sob story. I was content to stay at the motel in town. Rebecca showed up at my door and asked a bunch of questions. All I did was answer her. Then she insisted I check out of my room and stay here."
"If you manipulated her so you could sponge off of my Chanat leaders-" he didn't get a chance to finish the threat.
JV spun around, fire flashing in her eyes as she advanced on him. "Is that what you think of me? You think I came here looking for someone to take me in?" It was all she could do not to poke him in the chest as she spoke.
"Well, …" he verbally backpedaled, realizing he'd let his anger carry his mouth too far.
She interrupted him again, "I don't need someone to take me in. I'm quite capable of looking after and supporting myself, thank-you-very-much. I've been taking care of myself for the last eight years. You know why I am here." She went back to pulling things from her suitcase and hanging them up as if he hadn't interrupted her, though her movements had grown sharp and angry.
"What are you talking about?" he said, but his voice held no confusion.
JV turned and eyed him for a moment, "Do I need to kiss you again to remind you?"
Steve turned on his heel and left without another word.
JV couldn't help a small smile. She could tell he knew exactly what she'd meant. His leaving proved it. Now she had no doubts, he felt the draw between them, the same yearning to touch her that she felt for him. She suspected he'd do everything he could to resist the attraction. Odds were in her favor though, from what she'd been told, the more time they spent near each other, the stronger the desire would become. Her smile grew.
Glancing at the clock, she hurried to finish unpacking in time to join the others for dinner.
Seated around the small table situated on one end of a combination kitchen and dining room, JV was unsure what was proper. Her family had never been invited to eat with the Khan back home. They hadn't been close friends or high enough ranking for that. She was uncomfortable letting Rebecca wait on her while she sat at the table. However, she didn't know these people very well and she didn't want to offend anyone by insisting she help.
"Here we are," Rebecca placed a large pot of spaghetti in the middle of the table then turned away long enough to grab a platter stacked with slices of garlic bread before placing that, too, on the table and taking a seat.
JV waited while Nick served himself a plate of the pasta, then Steve. She planned to wait until after Rebecca had helped herself, too, but Steve handed her the pot, frowning at her as he did. She served herself and passed it on, then waited, watching to see what everyone else did before doing anything else.
"So, where are you from, JV?" Nick asked, grabbing a slice of bread and digging into the plate in front of him.
"Tenaha, Texas," she kept her voice low, knowing everyone at the table had enhanced hearing and she didn't need to speak up to be heard.
Creases appeared on his forehead, "Where is that? I don't think I've ever heard of it."
JV looked at Steve for a second; curious why he'd never told his Khan where he was from. "I'm not surprised. It's a tiny town on the eastern edge of Texas, not even as big as Springerville."
"Wow, that is tiny," the pack leader spoke between bites. "What brings you here?"
"I came to see Steve."
"You said that, but I missed why."
She'd assumed that Rebecca would have told him, or possibly Steve, in an effort to get the leader on his side. She didn't see any reason not to tell him. Hell he might even be willing to help her, but then again, he also might side with Steve. "I had to see him again."
"Yes, sir. Until this afternoon, the last time I saw Steve was ten years ago when he left the last time."
The Khan's confusion grew, "You've been in this Tenaha?" he asked turning to Steve.
"Yes sir. I grew up just outside of town. I went to school there."
"How did I not know this?" The clan leader's brow creased as he frowned at Steve.
"You knew. I told you I grew up outside a small town in east Texas. I may not have mentioned the name of the town, I don't remember, but it hasn't been a secret."
Nick turned back to me. "You said you needed to see him, have you tried between now and then?"
She looked back down at her plate, then out at the darkness in the window beyond the clan leader. "I haven't spoken to him since he left, but I've tried to see him several times. I know his parents have begged him to visit, holidays, school reunions, that kind of thing. The mayor once tried to get him to come for the Fourth of July. They were going to make him the Grand Marshal in the parade, to honor him as the local hero he is.
“From what I've been told, no matter what's used to lure him home, his answer is always that he can't. Not that he doesn't want to, or he can't get the time off, just he can't come back." She looked down at her plate before looking back to the Khan. "I know he left because of me. I suspect I was the reason he wouldn't come back, as well. I'm sorry about that, because his parents miss him. I finally decided he was never gonna, so I took matters into my own hands and came after him."
"Why would he leave town because of you?" Nick didn't seem to understand.
"While I can't prove that he did, somehow I knew." She looked at Steve, meeting his gaze as she spoke, "He wasn't home for long before he left again. I have a lot of memories of him before he joined the Marines. He and my brother were inseparable. But you know how the memories of a child are; they're tinted with what you thought you knew and childish impressions of people and events.
“He visited several times during his military time, brief visits while he was on leave. As I got older, he became less of the larger-than-life figure he'd been when I was a kid, more of a person.
"I still remember the first time I saw him after he got out of the military and came home. I didn't recognize him at first, but the new man in town intrigued me. There was something about him that made me want to get close and rub up against him." She looked at Nick as she answered the question, but she watched Steve's reaction out of the corner of her eye. "I didn't, of course. I didn't have the self-confidence to be that bold. Before I could gather enough nerve to do much more than say hello, he left again."
Nick scowled, "How old were you the last time you saw him?"
“Good God,” he muttered, his brows shooting up, "that explains a lot."
"It does. But I'm not seventeen anymore, nor the naive child I once was. I'm through waiting." She let a slow smile spread across her face.
"What makes you think I'm attracted to you?" Steve finally spoke.
She didn't answer. Instead she turned to meet his eyes, then lifted one brow, still smiling, challenging him without a word.
"Even if I was then, you and I both know a prolonged separation breaks the bond between potential mates."
"The bond yes,” she admitted, “but until one or both of them seals a relationship, the attraction remains, as does the potential for a mating bond. Since I've never even met another potential mate, and from what I hear, you've never mated, so the potential is still there." She sat back in her seat, her look daring him to argue.
"Are you trying to steal my Shaku away from me?" Nick asked, drawing JV's attention back to him and changing the subject.
"Not at all," she assured him.
"You're not planning to convince him to go home with you?"
"No," she said.
"So, should things work out between you, are you willing to stay here? To leave your life in Texas behind and build a new one here?"
"Should something more develop, I have no problem staying here." She didn't tell him she had no life to leave behind. She'd sold most of her furniture and what little she had left was in storage. She didn't even have an apartment to go back to, she'd let her lease lapse before leaving.
"Even leaving your career behind? You've seen our little town, there's not all that much to offer here." He seemed to believe she wouldn’t want to stay.
She shrugged, "Your little town is bigger than where we grew up. Besides, I don't need to leave my career. I can work from anywhere, as long as I have electricity and an internet connection."
The Khan looked confused, "You work online?"
"You could say that. I run my own web design business."
"Hmm. That's different." Nick seemed to be at a loss for words.
Steve scowled at her.
JV refused to let his stubbornness get to her. She'd known when she made the choice to come after him that it wouldn't be easy. He was proving her right, so what?
"So what do you do around here?" JV asked Nick, wondering how they lived. How they kept the secret of what they are from the humans in the area.
"Welcome to the X open A." He said, a grin spreading across his face as he made a flourished flip of his hands, leaving them open and welcoming.
"The X open A?" She frowned, confused, "What is the X open A?"
Nick dropped his hands and casually reached to lay one on top of hers. She suspected it was because he would be better able to sense how honest she was being with a little contact, "It's a ranch," he said.
She evaded his touch, making the move look like habit, "No way. This isn't a ranch."
Nick frowned for just a moment, "Why do you say that?"
"Where is everything, the buildings, the horses, the equipment?" All that sat in the small clearing was the cabin. JV had seen nothing to let her believe this was a ranch.
Nick smiled and gave a short laugh, "About a quarter mile past Steve's place, through the woods. The bunkhouse is there, too. I built the houses away from the rest of the ranch buildings on purpose. I wanted more privacy, especially since some of the hands are human."
JV turned to Steve, "How do you rate a place of your own?"
"Foreman." Steve gave the one word answer with a scowl, almost like he was sulking.
JV frowned, not understanding.
Nick took mercy on her, "He's my foreman, so he gets a place of his own."
"Are all the hands human?" JV wanted to know.
"No, just a couple." Nick said.
"Bobby, who was with me earlier," Rebecca spoke up, "is one of the hands, he's also another of our enforcers."
JV ate in silence. She thought for a moment before something occurred to her, "I thought ranchers shot cougars?"
Nick chuckled, "Some do, but most let them be unless they become a problem. They take an attitude of live and let live, at least until the cats start hunting livestock. That’s not really a problem here since natural cats avoid us and our territory."
"I make sure I keep the area we roam marked, so naturals stay away and there's a standing order not to kill anyone else's cattle. It works for us and other ranchers."
"A few of us are ranchers. I don't care if someone wants to hunt their own animals. Occasionally, I cull out one or two that won't survive the winter and let the Chanat have them. It's not really hunting, but it's something that brings the clan together, though we're careful to do it where the human hands won't find us.”
"We used to hunt deer back home, not often, maybe once a year, but it was a big deal. Everyone loved it." JV was starting to like these people. She hadn't been sure when she’d started out how things would work out. The more she got to know the people Steve had built his life with, the more she could see herself here in the future. Now she just had to convince him. "I bet having the house set away from the main workings of the ranch makes shifting easier, too."
"That's part of why I did it," Nick grinned. "Plus, sometimes the business that comes to my door doesn't think about Kitsune secrecy or the possibility of humans being around."
After dinner, JV insisted on helping Rebecca clean up, then she went out on the back porch to enjoy the cool evening air. Austin is warmer, and she thought it was early yet for it to be this cool, but temperatures in the mountains are always cooler than at the lower elevations. She stood, watching the last glimmer of the sunset thought the trees, hugging herself against the chill in the air.
"Why are you really here?" Steve's voice behind her startled her.
She tried to hide how badly he'd scared her as she turned to look at him. "I told you why I'm here."
"I'm supposed to believe that you've been waiting for me to return to podunk Texas for the last ten years. Now, suddenly, you're tired of waiting and came looking for me." He scoffed, "I don't think so, there has to be more to it."
"I don't know what to tell you." She looked away, turning back to the trees, not willing to tell him more, not yet.
He looked at her for a long minute, "How about the truth?"
"I've yet to say anything that's not true, to you, or your Khan or Karhyn."
"I don't believe you."
"Fine, don't believe me. I can't make you see the truth,” she turned away, back to the trees.
"You really expect me to believe that you've been sitting, waiting for me to come back, for ten years?"
"No, not sitting and waiting. I tried to get on with my life, I went to college, graduated, got a job, more than one actually, and I built my business. I tried to forget. I almost succeeded. I'd half convinced myself I'd imagined the feeling." With the last sentence, her voice turned soft, distant.
"Are you blaming me?" He sounded angry and JV wondered if maybe he blamed himself.
She was quiet for a moment, when she spoke again her voice was still soft, but no longer distant. "I did blame you, for a long time. I was angry and I wanted to hate you for leaving me like that. As time went by and I got older, I realized that at seventeen a ten-year age difference is a big deal. I was twenty-one when I realized I wasn't the same person I’d been at seventeen. I was still angry then." She looked at him again. "Over time, I came to realize that not only was it illegal, which I knew at the time, but didn't care about, but it was wrong as well. It took me even longer to realize you left as much for me as for you."
She took a deep breath and let it out in a rush before continuing, "I'm embarrassed to admit it took me longer than it should have to understand that. I tried to build a life there, to find someone to settle down and build a life with. There was something missing, though. I couldn't get past that, no matter how hard I tried."
Steve stood there watching her. He looked at her face in the fading light as he tried to figure out what she wasn't telling him. He could tell there was something she was holding back, something big, but at the same time, he couldn't sense any lies. "What did your parents have to say about you coming out here after me?"
She looked at him a moment before looking away again, back toward the setting sun. "Nothing, they don't know I'm here."
"Oh?" he seized the opening. "Afraid they wouldn't approve?"
She spun around. "Not at all. I have no doubt they would encourage me to do what makes me happy, but they would worry, and call, and drive me nuts."
"So where do they think you are?" his voice changed, softened some until he was talking to her as a friend, not some kind of suspect.
She shrugged. "On vacation, then headed to L.A. for an on-site job."
"Do you do that often?"
"Do what?" she glanced at him, confused.
"Not often but, once in a while a big job comes up and they want me to go see things in person so I can set up the kind of site they need, with the feel they want."
"How about lying to your parents? Do you do that often?" He challenged her but his voice was still friendly.
"Not often, and I probably didn't have to this time. I haven't lived in Tenaha for the last nine years, not since I left to go to school. I just didn't want the added distraction of them calling and worrying about me while I tried to focus on something."
"You." She looked at him again, wondering what he would say next.
"Ah," he was silent for a moment as he moved toward her from the other end of the porch that ran the length of the cabin and around the side. "You know you're wasting your time, don't you?"
"I know you're stubborn and you're trying to convince me you don't feel it." She countered, not backing down.
"What makes you think I feel anything?"
"One," she flipped a finger into the air as she counted, "if you felt nothing, you wouldn't have left all those years ago."
"I've already admitted that's why I left, but that was then. I 'm talking about now."
"Two," she continued as if he hadn't spoken. "If you really felt nothing, you wouldn't be trying so hard to get rid of me. You'd let me stay and find out on my own. Three, that wasn't the kiss of a man who feels nothing. That was the kiss of a man so hungry he couldn't stop himself without at least a taste." She turned on her heel and went back into the house, without giving him a chance to respond.
It was late when JV stepped onto the back porch for a second time that night. She'd tried to sleep but instead had lain restless. Nick had given her permission to roam the property and run whenever she wanted, so she didn't hesitate before starting to strip.
She shivered when the cold night air hit her skin. Once the last of her clothes were off, she ran to the edge of the porch and dove. Shifting in midair, she landed on all fours. She shook her entire body, trying to rid her skin of the tingle caused by shifting, then took off into the woods at a run.
Her cat eyes picked up far more light than her human ones would have and she saw everything around her clearly. She ran through the thick woods with ease, dodging low hanging branches, ducking under a bent trunk, leaping over a downed tree. She ran hard, leaving what haunted her somewhere in the night.
Two days in the truck had left her tense. She'd been sure that Steve wouldn't be happy to see her and more than once she'd considered turning around and going back. Now, she was glad she'd had nothing to return to, it had made her stick it out. Seeing him again had been worth it.
JV continued to run, letting the uncertainty and nerves fall away. She loved spending time in this form, but living in Austin, she hadn't had the freedom to it as much as she'd craved. When she was a cougar, she felt free, fearless. In the city, there was always too much risk of someone seeing and shooting at her.
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