Chapter 4 –
The late morning sun beat on the back of my neck as I walked back to the cave, and I tried not to groan. Carrying several pounds of wild asparagus in my shirt was weird enough, but if I got a sunburn on top of everything else? Things were going to go south real fast.
Sarai had found the patch of asparagus yesterday while she was hunting, and when I woke up that morning, I decided that hiking two or three miles would be worth it for my taste buds. I could only handle so much mink.
But at least all of the meat had done its job. I felt better than I had in days, and the lion finally looked like he wasn’t on death’s front porch. He was still asleep when I left, but there was no denying that his have was fuller and less haggard.
But there was a larger, more paranoid part of me that was demanding to know what I was thinking. Yes, I had helped him so he wouldn’t die. But now, I was alone in the forest with a healthy teenage lion. A lion that outweighed me by 100 pounds in his human form. A lion that would probably have fun using me as his new scratching post if he figured out who I really was. And I was just realizing this now. Why couldn’t I have figured that out two days ago? What was wrong with me?
I think your self-preservation is defective, Sarai said wryly.
You’re so funny, I retorted.
But I couldn’t stop worrying as I hiked through the trees. I didn’t like worrying. It seemed pointless to agonize when you could just do something about it. So the question I had to ask myself was what was I going to do with him now?
I had no idea. Hence the worrying.
As I walked up to the cave, I expected him to be lying in the sun like a giant, human, house cat, but he was nowhere in sight. I couldn’t hear him either. Frowning, I set the wild asparagus next to the fire pit and looked around. Had he decided to leave and make it to the Border on his own? Had something happened to him?
I would be so pissed if he got himself eaten by a grizzly while I was gone.
It wasn’t difficult to find his scent trail – the coyotes clearly hadn’t been concerned with his hygiene – but his trail didn’t make me any less confused. The Border was directly south of us, and he was heading northeast. If he was trying to get there, he had a horrible sense of direction.
I inhaled deeply and frowned again. From what I could tell, he hadn’t been chased. That kind of adrenalin left a sour, metallic aftertaste on the back of the tongue. And I didn’t smell any blood nearby either.
Where did you go, city boy? I wondered, picking my way through the foliage.
After a minute or so, I realized that his scent was heading in the direction of the stream. When I reached the bank, I saw him, and the warning about leaving camp alone died in my throat.
He was shirtless in the middle of the stream, and his pants hung low on his hips. In the sunlight, his dark, dusk-colored skin looked warm and inviting, reminding me of the cool rosewood on my acoustic guitar back home. The gray tints of exhaustion were gone, revealing a healthy bronze glow. He was facing away from me, and I couldn’t tear my eyes off of his broad shoulders and the little dip in the small of his back. I tried to swallow, but my tongue got stuck. Several drips of water slid down the curve of his shoulder onto his bicep, and I forgot how to breathe.
Holy haberdashery, Batman.
My brain was completely stalled, but thankfully my body wasn’t. Maybe my self-preservation was finally working. Without making a sound, I somehow managed to turn around and walk back the way I had come.
My heart was pounding like crazy once I got back to the cave, and it wasn’t from the hike. I sat down next to the wild asparagus with a little thump and tried to think, but all I could see was his muscular back and all of those little drops of water.
So, Sarai said, clearly entertained. See something you like?
My cheeks burned, so I covered my face with my hands. Shut. Up.
I couldn’t just keep ignoring who he was. It didn’t make any sense, but while I was taking care of him, I had been able to forget his true identity. He was just someone that needed my help. An irritating, unfortunately attractive someone that needed my help.
But he didn’t need my help anymore, and he wasn’t just some random, nameless cat. He wasn’t a nobody like I was. And I had no idea why seeing him shirtless suddenly jump-started that connection in my brain, but it did. If a wolf Shifter knew that I had helped Darius Ardeshir, my life was forfeit and being the Prince’s daughter wouldn’t save me.
My luck would run out eventually, and when it did, I didn’t want to be found with the Heir of the Pride.
I snorted. There was no way I was going to be able to forget who he was now, especially with all of those muscles covered in water dancing in my mind. I shook my head angrily, hoping to erase them like some weird etch-a-sketch, but it didn’t work.
He was a lion, maybe even the strongest lion in the Pride, and I was just a wolf. I shouldn’t be thinking about tracing the little trails the water had made on his skin with my fingers.
I stared at the asparagus without really seeing it, frowning thoughtfully. Maybe I had eaten some poisonous plant and was now going crazy. Then I could blame all of these stupid thoughts on the fact that my brain was slowly turning into mush. That would be nice.
By the time I heard him making his way back to the cave, I had finally managed to get myself under control. In order to look cool and nonchalant, I grabbed an asparagus and started eating. Nothing to see here, move along please. No, I did not see you bathing.
I kept my eyes down as he walked over. If I looked at him, I would remember what I had seen, and I really, really, needed to forget that.
Darius sat down with a sigh. He smelled like the stream and cat. “I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but I’m happy to be eating plants again,” he said with a chuckle. “I will be perfectly content if I never have to eat another weasel for the rest of my life.”
Crap, he expected me to respond. “Yeah,” I said, trying to keep the nerves from my voice. “They suck.” Then, I tossed him half of the asparagus before focusing on my own pile.
Smooth, Sarai said dryly. There’s no way he’ll think something is up now.
I ignored her and kept eating.
After Darius finished all of his asparagus, he said conversationally, “I think I’m going to head for the Border today.”
Oh, thank god.
Trying to keep the obvious relief off of my face, I picked up my last stalk of asparagus and asked, “Do you know which direction the Border is?”
He raised an eyebrow at me patronizingly and pointed to his left. To the west.
“Why do I even bother?” I murmured, then in my normal voice, “I’ll take you. With your sense of direction, you’d somehow end up in Canada.”
He glared at me. “You could just point me in the right direction.”
Hah. “What if a river or a canyon gets in the way? How will you know you’re still going in the right direction then, city boy?”
His upper lip twitched, but he didn’t say anything. For once.
I just shook my head. “Look, I want you out of my territory as fast as possible, and the easiest way to do that is to take you to the Border myself. It still might take a couple of days since you can’t Shift, but it won’t be impossible.”
Darius grinned then, and it wasn’t a grin I liked. “Oh, I can Shift,” he said smugly.
The piece of asparagus I had swallowed got stuck in my throat, and I coughed. He didn’t look all that concerned. In fact, he looked downright excited. Maybe he thought I would have a harder time teasing him if he was 400 pounds bigger.
He was probably right, but he didn’t need to know that.
“Well… I just… ok then.” I was rambling, and Darius’s expression grew even smugger. I took a deep breath and tried to find my balance. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
“Whatever you say,” he replied, before grabbing the hem of his shirt and pulling it over his head.
I saw smooth skin and defined muscles that made my mouth water before I jumped to my feet. “I’ll go… I’m just…” I stammered, feeling my face go red. “I’ll just Shift over here.” And then I turned on my heel and darted through the trees. Darius’s chuckle followed me.
Your subtlety astounds me, Sarai said.
Not helping, I retorted.
Once I was sure I was out of sight, I pulled my t-shirt off quickly and tossed it under a bush, Shifting almost immediately. Sarai shook off the last tingles of the Shift and then trotted back up to the cave. Darius didn’t intimidate her like he did me.
I am not intimidated, I snapped. I’m just… wary.
Sarai snorted, but when she saw the lion for the first time, she froze. Was I scared to death? Yes. Did Sarai let it show? No. Justin would have skinned her alive if she so much as blinked. Just because Darius could crush her in a single pounce did not mean that she was going to act afraid.
But good gods, he was terrifying. Now, a normal male African lion was around 400 pounds, and in the cat world, that was pretty big. What stood in front of us was easily 600 pounds of deadly muscle with teeth and claws that could double as daggers. His paws were as big as dinner plates and his head was easily larger than my torso, which just wasn’t fair. He would totally be able to hold his own against a grizzly, probably without even breaking a sweat.
Darius’s gold eyes twinkled and he cocked his head, probably wondering why Sarai had stopped moving.
Who’s intimidated now? I asked snidely.
Sarai shook a little, before turning her back on the lion and trotting away. Darius followed her. With such large strides, he was able to keep up with Sarai easily, which was nice. At this rate, we would be able to make it to the Border before nightfall.
As strange as it was, Sarai actually got used to Darius moving behind her. She wasn’t completely relaxed, but as the miles went by, she began to feel a little more confident that he wasn’t going to do anything stupid.
Soon, they made their way out of the forest and onto a large, grassy plain. After pausing at the edge of the tree line to make sure that there were no humans or other Shifters nearby, Sarai led him into the sea of grass. She would have loved to just stretch her legs and run, but Darius wouldn’t have appreciated that.
This place was perfect. With the warm sun and the scent of elk tickling the back of her nose, this was where Sarai belonged, not in some smelly city where everything was mechanical and human. She felt alive here. This was home.
We should come back here one day, Sarai said. Explore and hunt, maybe even find a local pack and blend in for a while.
I smiled at the wistfulness in her voice. Sounds like a plan to me.
Sarai made sure to stay away from any signs of civilization. Her presence in the park would go unnoticed, but a lion’s wouldn’t. It would be best for everyone if Darius just wasn’t seen.
Of course, going the scenic route meant encountering more of the park’s wildlife. Mainly, they left us alone – Darius being a massive apex predator and all – and we just continued on our way. At least until we ran across a herd of buffalo.
When I lived in Montana with my father’s pack, I had seen buffalo a couple of times, but I never got used to them. Sarai just watched them, awed by their size.
When Darius saw the buffalo, he just froze. I could only imagine the expletives that were running through his head. Yeah, Darius was big. But the buffalo were bigger.
The wind changed slightly, blowing our scents directly at the herd. Several of the buffalo stopped grazing immediately and looked up, their wide nostrils flaring in alarm. A male bellowed a warning to the rest of the herd, and Darius started, rumbling in surprise.
Sarai stared at him. Seriously? They’re like 100 feet away.
Without hesitating, the buffalo took off, like Sarai knew they would. Darius smelled like a really big, really dangerous cougar, and as a giant prey animal, buffalos had a tendency to dislike anything that smelled like it would eat them.
What neither of us anticipated was Darius taking off in the opposite direction at the exact same time.
I couldn’t stop laughing. Sarai wasn’t much better, but somehow she managed to stay on her feet and run after him.
It was late afternoon by the time we got to the Border, and Sarai was panting in the heat. While pleasant this morning, the sun had turned harsh, and all she wanted to do was find some shade to curl up in and take a nap.
There wasn’t a physical sign proclaiming that we had made it to the Border. Putting up a sign post would have been kind of suspicious if any human accidentally found it. No, the way Sarai could tell we had made it was the smell.
The Border smelled like cat Shifters.
Sarai watched the trees nervously. She couldn’t sense any Shifters nearby, but she still felt antsy. Aleksi would flip if he knew where I was right now, and so would Justin. Being this close to Pride territory was dangerous.
Sarai looked back at Darius. The lion had stopped walking when she had, and now his gold eyes watched her carefully. Seriously, did this guy ever blink?
Since I didn’t feel like Shifting to tell him where we were, Sarai was stuck miming it out. She glanced ahead of her and then back at Darius.
He just stood there.
You’ve got to be kidding me, she grumbled. When we were running away from the coyotes, he had understood Sarai’s body language perfectly and that was when he was half-dead.
When Darius still didn’t move, I rolled my eyes and Sarai huffed. She wasn’t going to spell it out for him for his own amusement. With an irritated flick of her tail, Sarai turned around and walked away.
Simba followed her.
I groaned. Really?
Sarai looked back and bared her teeth at him. But instead of growling back at her or turning around and walking in to Pride territory, Darius just laid down, resting his massive head on his massive paws. He stared at her beseechingly.
What is even going on? I asked.
She watched him warily. I have no idea.
When Sarai didn’t move, Darius chuffed at her, a soft grunting sound that was more of an invitation then a threat. She read his body language easily: he wanted her to move closer.
Do we trust him? Sarai asked.
Still suspicious, Sarai took a tentative step forward. Darius’s gold eyes brightened enthusiastically and he chuffed again. Ok, Sarai murmured. Maybe he wants to say good bye?
The lion stayed still as Sarai slowly moved toward him. When she was close enough that she could touch him with her nose if she really stretched, she stopped.
That was when Darius pounced.
Sarai lurched back with a startled yip as he jumped forward, but he never followed through. Instead, he rolled onto his side with a laud groan, gold eyes twinkling mischievously as Sarai’s heart pounded. And that’s when it hit me.
He was playing with us.
That bastard, I muttered. He was probably laughing his head off right now.
Sarai swished her tail angrily before turning and trotting off again. I can’t believe him, she fumed. This time, Darius didn’t follow her.
I couldn’t believe it either. Today had been trying enough, with remembering that the guy I had fed dandelions to was going to rule thousands of Shifters in a few short months when he turned 18. He would become the king of my enemy and give orders that could result in the deaths of people I cared about. Also, he was a huge ass lion. What made him think that I would be ok playing with him?
We were both exhausted. In fact, we were so exhausted, Darius was actually pretending that we were friends, and I was more amused by that than irritated.
I was in so much trouble.