“She’s back,”Jericho said from his position by the window. Behind him Hunter got up and came to look out at the snow-covered ground.
A storm had blown all day, dumping a foot of snow on the high country cabin Jericho and Hunter shared between assignments. Now, just as dusk was falling, the wind had died down, leaving a pristine layer of heavy, wet snow. Thankfully they’d stocked up on supplies because they weren’t getting down the mountain unless they were up for a long walk in snowshoes.
“She’s hurt,”Hunter murmured over his cup of coffee.
Jericho nodded as he watched the mountain lion limp through the snow. Every once in a while, she fell heavily, encumbered by the high drifts. Then she’d struggle up and continue her slow trek toward the cabin.
It had been several months since they’d seen the mountain lion Hunter viewed as a pet. Not since the end of summer when they’d stumbled wearily into their cabin, washed out from another assignment.
The cat had been there, watching from a distance, as though she’d waited on them. But as always, after a day she’d disappeared back into the mountains.
Hunter set his cup down on the small end table by the couch and walked to the door.
“She won’t come in,”Jericho said. “She never does.”
She’d stand outside watching them, her nose quivering delicately as she inhaled their scent as though trying to decipher whether or not they could be trusted. They often left food for her just outside the front door. Though they never saw her eat it, it was always gone. Whether she ate it or another scavenger did, he couldn’t say, but he liked to think the cougar received their gift.
Hunter opened the door, and Jericho frowned as a blast of cold air shoved its way inside the warm interior. But Jericho kept his gaze trained out the window to where the cat pulled up as she scented Hunter.
Her ears flattened against her head, and she raised her nose, her nostrils flaring. Then, to Jericho’s surprise, she started forward again. Her limp became more pronounced as she waded from the heavier snow banks onto the freshly shoveled stone walkway leading up to the cabin.
Patiently, Hunter waited inside the open door as the cougar drew closer.
“Hunter, I’m not sure this is such a good idea,”Jericho began.
“She’s hurting,”Hunter said quietly, pain evident in his own voice.
Jericho shrugged. That the cougar was in pain wasn’t in doubt. Hunter had a soft spot for animals that didn’t extend to most people. Instead of ribbing his friend over his weakness, he gave thanks that Hunter could still feel anything.
Hunter backed away a few steps when the cougar stopped a few feet from the open doorway. Jericho moved so he could see better and also where his rifle was in grabbing distance. Hunter may trust the damn thing, but it was still a wild creature, and he had no desire to be lunch for a feline.
She sniffed delicately at the air, leaning forward and rearing her head up and down as her amber gaze swept between Hunter and Jericho. Then tentatively, she crept forward, her body low to the ground.
Jericho reached for the rifle hanging on the wall, lifted it and brought it down to his side. The cougar froze and began backing away.
“Put the goddamn gun away,”Hunter said harshly.
Jericho frowned and started to argue, but Hunter strode across the room and snatched the rifle from Jericho’s grasp. With a snarl, Hunter tossed the gun onto the couch then turned back to where the cougar was hunkered down in the walkway.
“Close the door,”Jericho grumbled. “It’s f**king cold in here.”
“I’ll close it when she comes in and not before,”Hunter said in a voice as cold as the air surrounding them.
Before Jericho could ask him if he’d lost the few remaining marbles he had, Hunter turned back to the doorway and began crooning to the cat in a soft tone Jericho hadn’t heard him use since Rebeccah.
He murmured soft words, nonsensical, but the soothing tone couldn’t be mistaken. There was a call to trust the man behind it, and Jericho, despite his initial misgivings, found himself keenly interested in whether Hunter would lull the wild beast.
Keeping a mistrustful eye on Jericho, the cat inched forward again, her ears twitching. When she got to the doorway, unease skittered along her spine, raising the fur as she jerked her head back and forth between Jericho and Hunter.
Hunter reached down, his movements slow and measured, and touched the top of her head. The cat’s eyes closed in pleasure, and she rubbed her head roughly against Hunter’s palm.
“I’ll be damned,”Jericho murmured.
“Open the door to the back porch,”Hunter said in his quiet, even voice, never raising it above the low pitch he used to calm the cat. “I’ll see if I can get her there.”
Jericho did as Hunter asked even as he wondered what the hell Hunter was going to do when he got her confined to the screened-in patio.
Hunter backed toward the porch, his hand extended, still talking nonsense. If Hunter weren’t so utterly serious, Jericho would give him hell about talking shit to a cat, but Hunter…well, he had his priorities. Animals and children were held high in his regard. Everyone else? Not so much.
“I know it hurts, girl,”Hunter said quietly as he coaxed her through the kitchen. “Just a little further and I’ll look at that paw. Got it caught in a trap, did you?”
Jericho looked at the left front paw she wasn’t putting much weight on and saw dried blood, but couldn’t make much more of the wound. Could be anything from an embedded thorn to her getting caught in some trapper’s steel jaws.
Hunter was a damn fool if thought he was going to doctor a wounded cougar. Cat would take his head off. Jericho shook his head. Well, someone had to look after the moron. Jericho grabbed the rifle from the couch where Hunter had thrown it and followed the limping cat through the kitchen.
Hunter looked up from his crouched position on the floor of the porch, his eyes glittering with anger.
“I told you to get rid of the gun.”
Jericho shrugged. “I never took orders worth a shit. Besides, if she tries to have you for lunch, I’m going to take a chunk out of her hide.”
The mountain lion turned her amber gaze on Jericho. There was sadness to her expression, almost as though she understood the men’s conversation.
Jericho shook his head and muttered under his breath. He was losing his damn mind. He gripped the rifle a bit tighter, refusing to feel guilty for trying to save his friend’s ass. Even if the idiot didn’t want saving.
“Okay, shut the door,”Hunter ordered.
Jericho reached back and gave the door a shove. For a moment the cat went on alert. She looked wildly around, her eyes glittering with a mixture of fear and pain. Hunter held out his hand, words of comfort tripping over his lips in their haste to get out.
The cougar fell heavily to the floor, slumping as though the last of her strength had left her. Hunter touched her head, petting and then rubbing behind her ears. His eyes were bright with sympathy.
“Are you going to let me see your paw, girl?”Hunter said in a quiet voice. “I won’t hurt you. I just want to see what you’ve done to yourself.”
He moved slowly and with great care, inching his hand closer to the injured paw. When he finally touched the blood-matted fur, the cougar merely raised her head and sniffed experimentally in Hunter’s direction. Then she settled down again, laying her head on the floor.
“Get me the first-aid kit,”Hunter said.
“Tell me you aren’t going to play vet with a friggin’ wild animal,”Jericho said, even though he knew arguing with Hunter was like pissing in the wind. Stupid any way you looked at it.
“I can at least put some antibiotic ointment on it and hope it prevents infection,”Hunter said impatiently. “She trusts us. I want to help her.”
Jericho went back into the house grumbling about hardheaded do-gooders, and then he had to laugh at the idea of labeling Hunter a do-gooder. Hard-assed bastard? Yes. Granola do-gooder? Uh, no.
He came back out a few moments later, first-aid kit in hand. Not wanting to get close enough to upset the cat, he tossed it to Hunter from the doorway.
The cougar rolled slightly, a lazy-looking move that implied a level of comfort and trust. She gazed up at Jericho, her amber eyes glittering warmly. There was invitation there. Jericho frowned hard and shook himself. Now he was psychoanalyzing the body language of a damn cougar?
“Pet her,”Hunter said firmly. “She wants you to.”
“And you know this, how?”Jericho asked dryly.
“She’s perfectly relaxed. She enjoys my touch. You could pet her while I clean her wound.”
“Oh sure, let me be the sacrificial kitty meal,”Jericho grumbled even as he started forward.
Gingerly, and with more than a little caution, he knelt close to the cat’s head. She sniffed curiously at him as he lowered his hand. Then to his surprise, she licked his palm and bumped her head against him.
An unexpected smile softened his irritation. She continued to rub against his hand, and he allowed his fingers to dig into her soft fur.
A low growl rumbled from her throat when Hunter swabbed at her paw, but she didn’t make any aggressive moves. Her body tensed under Jericho’s fingers, but she remained still.
“Hurts, doesn’t it, girl?”Jericho murmured.
Hunter gave him an amused look, and Jericho returned it with a sour gaze. Yeah, he’d given Hunter hell, but here he sat talking like a damn pu**y to the animal.
While Hunter meticulously cleaned and applied the ointment to the inflamed wound, Jericho continued stroking her head. After a while, her eyes closed, and she went limp. She looked to be exhausted, and who knew how far she’d come through the snow to their cabin.
Hunter rocked back and stood from his crouch in front of the cat. “That’s about all I can do for her.”
“What was it?”Jericho asked.
Hunter shrugged. “Looks like she got it caught in a trap. Or could be she got into a fight with another animal. Hard to tell. Her paw is pretty mangled, though.”
Jericho watched through narrowed eyes as Hunter started for the door. “You’re not going to leave her locked up in here, are you?”Jericho didn’t like the idea of locking her in the porch. She might go nuts trying to get out once she figured out there wasn’t a way to escape.
“If I don’t, she’ll leave,”Hunter said with a shrug. “She doesn’t need to leave yet. She’s hungry and injured. We can help her.”
“Yeah, well, you’re cleaning up the mess when she goes ballistic,”Jericho said as he followed Hunter inside.
The cougar waited patiently until the cabin went dark and all sounds within were silenced. Hunger gnawed at her belly, and pain was her constant companion. She needed food. She needed to shift.
Her eyes glowed in the dark as she stared, alert and listening for movement. It was time.
There on the floor, the golden brown fur rippled and blurred. Pink skin replaced animal hide. Long, honey colored hair, feminine tresses, flowed down her neck as the eyes of the cat became human.
Fingers curled and dug into the hard floor, and a human gasp of pain hovered in the room as her injured hand protested the change.
Never before had she attempted to shift when she was so close to humans. But she needed food, and she needed the rejuvenation her human form would bring. It had been too long since the cat had made a kill. Game had been scarce.
Now that she was human again, the raw meat of her prey was no longer enticing. Her mouth watered and her stomach growled at the thought of cooked food. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d enjoyed such a luxury.
She picked herself up and stood, wavering on unsteady legs. Chills chased up and down her na**d skin, causing an uncontrolled shiver to quake her spine.
“I am Kaya,”she whispered as she stared down at her human form. It was a reminder, one she gave herself on the few occasions she embraced her humanity. Over the years, her memories had become fuzzy, and it was hard to separate what was real from what was fantasy.
She had been forgotten by the humans, but she wouldn’t let herself forget her past or her heritage.
On silent feet, she crept toward the cabin door, testing the lock. To her relief, it opened easily, and she slid inside the much warmer interior. After so long spent seeking what warmth she could in dens and small caves, the heated interior of the cabin was as close to heaven as she would ever come.
For a moment she simply stood there, soaking in the warmth, allowing her insides a slow melt. Then, remembering that she was no longer the cat, she hurried forward. It wouldn’t do for the two men to discover her.
Jericho and Hunter.
She didn’t know why she’d been drawn to them or what possessed her to seek them out each time they returned to their cabin. Maybe it was her own loneliness and a desire to be around other humans even when she herself was not in human form.
A large shirt lay carelessly over a chair as if thrown there without thought. She reached out and caressed the soft material. She inhaled, scenting the male who’d worn it last. The one called Jericho.
She loved his smell. His and Hunter’s. It was what had first drawn the cougar to the isolated cabin high in the Rocky Mountains.
She knew from their conversations that they were as mistrustful of other humans as she was. Had they been cast aside like her? Forgotten?
They liked her and looked forward to her visits. The idea that her company brought them pleasure gave her an inexplicable thrill.
The material of the shirt felt good against her fingertips, and without thought, she picked it up and wrapped it around her body. It enveloped her, brushing across her skin like the warm spring sun after a harsh winter.