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Zach grinned. 'So, why the camouflage?'
'I had a meeting with a Psy group today.'
DarkRiver had recently completed its second major construction project for Psy Councilor Nikita Duncan. The success of the venture had been so dramatic, they'd attracted considerable interest from other Psy businesses.
'Signed and sealed.' Lucas's grin was very feline in its satisfaction. 'I wanted to talk to you about some of the land you cover during your duties as ranger.'
Zach nodded. 'Is there a problem?'
'Shouldn't be, but I want you to keep an extra-sharp eye out. Psy don't usually venture anywhere near our territory, but they've been changing the rules recently.'
'You think they might be trying to use the land to familiarize themselves with the forest,' Zach guessed. Psy weren't, as a rule, comfortable in wide-open spaces. They preferred the cities, with their towers of glass and steel. But as Lucas's mate, Sascha, showed, the psychic race was supremely adaptable.
'I don't think it's happened yet, but there's a possibility it might - we'd be fools if we didn't prepare for the unexpected.'
'I'll keep you updated.' He put down his empty bottle beside the one Lucas had just finished. 'You didn't really come here for that.' Lucas's caution was something Zach was a senior-enough soldier to figure out for himself.
Lucas shrugged, the clawlike markings on the right side of his face standing out in vivid relief. 'I was passing through to talk to Tammy about the Christmas celebrations, decided to drop in, touch base.'
Since Tammy and Nate were Zach's closest neighbors, that made sense. 'Tell Nate I saw his cubs chasing a dog yesterday.'
Lucas grinned. 'Sounds about right.'
'Can I ask you a question?'
Lucas raised an eyebrow and waited.
'How fragile are humans?' He'd had human lovers before, but he'd never wanted any woman, human or changeling, with the raw fury that colored his hunger for Annie. It worried him that he might hurt her in passion.
'How much do I have to hold back?'
'They're not as breakable as we tend to think,' Lucas said, and Zach knew he was speaking from experience.
Physically, Psy were even weaker than humans, yet Lucas was very happily mated to Sascha. 'Just don't use the same force on her that you'd use on me or one of the other males, and you'll be fine.'
'Who said there's a 'her'?'
'There's always a her.'
'Her name is Annie, and I'm bringing her to the picnic tomorrow.' Lucas's eyes gleamed cat green.
'You're introducing her to the pack?
When did you meet her?'
'Well, hell.' Lucas rocked back on his heels. 'She have any idea what that means?'
'She's a little wary, but she likes me,' he said, thinking of how her eyes had drunk him up. A man could get used to being looked at that way. Especially when the woman doing the looking was someone he'd like to eat up in small, delicious bites. 'I'm going to court her first.' But he already considered her his - because not only did Annie Kildaire arouse his most primal instincts, she was his mate...and he was a possessive kind of cat.
Stroke of Enticement Chapter 4
ANNIE WAS READY by eight the next morning. Feeling jumpy and overexcited, she checked her clothing in the mirror one more time. She'd taken Zach's advice and layered it up, beginning with a plain white tee and a thin V-necked cashmere-blend sweater that felt divine on her skin. On the bottom, she'd worn her favorite jeans, along with a pair of hiking boots, in case the drive turned into a walk. Completing her outfit was an insulated puffy jacket.
'I look like an egg.' Caroline had made her buy the cheerful yellow garment, insisting it brightened her face.
Annie had agreed because it looked sunny. But it wasn't exactly flattering.
Oh well, she thought, peeling it off and putting it on the little backpack that held her camera and water, it wasn't as if this was a date.
The memory of Zach's voice sent desire skittering through her veins. All she could think about was what it would be like to have that voice whisper in her ear while those strong hands touched her with bold confidence. 'Oh, man.' She pressed a hand flat to her stomach.
'Calm, Annie. Calm.' It was difficult to listen to her own advice when she'd spent the whole night dreaming about him. The tattoo she'd glimpsed on his biceps fascinated her - in her dreams, she'd stroked her fingers over the exotic lines of it, pressed her lips to that muscled flesh...and then touched another, harder part of his body.
'A whole day,' she almost moaned, and went to shove a hand through her hair before realizing she'd pulled it back into a ponytail. Now she glanced into the mirror and made a face.
She'd eschewed makeup - who went to a forest with makeup on? - but had given in to the urge to slick on some gloss. It plumped up her lips...except that her lips were already plump. 'Argh.' Too late, she remembered why she never used gloss. She was searching for a tissue to wipe it off when the doorbell rang. 'Who on earth?' Running to the door, she pulled it open.
A leopard in human skin stood on the other side. 'I was hoping to wake you,' he drawled, leaning against the doorjamb. 'But you're all dressed.' He tried to look sad, but the wicked lights dancing in his eyes made that impossible.
'You're early,' she said, unable to stop staring at him. He was wearing a pair of faded blue jeans, hiking boots, and a soft gray sweatshirt stamped with the San Francisco Giants emblem.
Casual clothes, but his hair was still damp from the shower and his jaw freshly shaven.
It was all she could do not to run her fingertips over that smooth skin and nuzzle the masculine scent of him into her lungs.
'I woke up early - had somewhere I wanted to be.' He smiled at her, slow and persuasive. 'Are you going to invite me in?' Raising a hand, he showed her a brown paper bag bearing the logo of a nearby bakery. 'I brought breakfast.' She knew she shouldn't let him get his own way so very easily, but stepped aside in welcome. 'What did you bring?'
'Come and see.' He waited for her to close the door, then followed as she led the way into the kitchen through the living room of her apartment. 'You like to read.'
She saw him glance at the paperbacks on the shelves, stacked on the coffee table, placed facedown on the arm of her sofa. 'Yes.'
'Me, too.' He put the bag on the counter and slid onto a stool. 'Why are you standing over there?'
She looked at him from the other side of the counter. 'I thought I'd make coffee.'
'Okay.' He kept the bag closed.
'But you're not seeing what's in here until you come around to this side.' He was definitely flirting. And she was definitely playing with fire by allowing it to go on. Because if there was one thing she knew about predatory changeling men, it was that they were quite ferally possessive - and belonging to anyone was simply not on her agenda.
Of course, she was also getting way ahead of herself. He was only flirting. It wasn't as if he planned to drag her off to the chapel. 'What do you read?' she asked, telling herself it was okay to try to flirt back, that this pull she felt toward him was nothing more than sexual attraction.
'Thrillers, some nonfiction.' He looked around her open-plan kitchen and living room. 'It's a small place.'
'For you, maybe.' He was so big, so unashamedly male, he took over the space...threatened to take her over, too.
He glanced at her, expression shifting to something darker and infinitely more dangerous. 'Hmm, you're right. You're a bit smaller than me.' She tried to control her erratic breathing as she finished putting on the coffee. He just sat there and watched her with a feline patience that had her nerves sparking in reaction.
'How long have you lived here?'
'Last five years. I moved in after I got the teaching job.'
'Did you live at home before that?' She laughed through the thudding beat of her pulse. 'Lord, no. I was outta there at eighteen.'
'You ever get lonely, Annie?' he asked, his tone liquid heat over her skin.
'I like living alone. I intend to keep it that way.' She thought she'd surprised him with that, but instead of replying, he lifted up the bag and raised an eyebrow.
It was a dare. Annie had never considered herself particularly courageous, but she walked around the counter. He nodded at her to take the stool beside his.
Knowing it would be silly to refuse, she sat, rubbing her thigh with one hand. He noticed. 'It hurt today?'
'What?' She looked down. 'Oh, no, not really. It's habit.' It was always a little achy in the mornings. 'So, breakfast?'
His eyes went cat on her between one instant and the next. She sucked in a breath at the intensity of that green-gold gaze. 'Wow.'
He smiled. 'Let's play a game.' She had a feeling that playing with this big kitty cat was a very bad idea, but since she'd already given in to her insanity, she said, 'What're the rules?'
'Close your eyes. Eat what I give you, and tell me what it is.'
The notion of having him feed her had her heart racing at the speed of light.
'What do I get if I guess correctly?'
His lashes lowered, and she thought she caught a glimpse of something edgy, something that blazed with raw male heat, but when he looked back up, there was nothing but amusement in those leopard eyes.
'Yes.' She watched mesmerized as he opened the paper bag with those hands she wanted to have all over her.
'Close your eyes, sweetheart.'
She swallowed hunger of a far different sort and let her lashes flutter down. It made her even more aware of the scent of him, the warmth of him, the sheer presence of him. When he shifted position to put one of his feet on the outside of her stool, effectively trapping her, she opened her mouth to tell him...something.
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