“You have to know how much I want you around,” I said. I snagged Ritch’s arm and turned him to face me. “Ritch….”
He looked at me with so much trust in his eyes. Maybe I had done something right. He didn’t look away, and there was no need to fight for dominance because he wasn’t a bonded werekin. My tiger had nothing but a need to curl around him and purr.
“I want to be clear.” I ran my hand up his shoulder and then cupped the back of his neck. Ritch’s eyes flared wide and his mouth dropped open. “I want nothing more than to take you home, and I mean our home. We’re taking this at your pace, but I don’t want you worrying about what’s going to happen after we take out these plotting human werekin and their scientists. I want you to stay with me.”
Ritch swallowed hard. “I don’t know how to do this.”
“It doesn’t have to be hard. Just go with your instincts.”
He made a face. “I don’t have instincts.”
I rubbed the side of his neck with my thumb, and he leaned into my touch. “Yes, you do.”
Snapping branches under someone’s heavy tread reminded me we weren’t alone, and camp, with a variety of bonded werekin with enhanced senses, was no place to take Ritch if I let myself get out of hand. The way he smelled was amazing, heat and want mixed with the tinge of uncertainty that helped keep me from pulling him close and devouring him.
“I think I hear a stream,” I said instead. “Let’s go check it out.”
The trees opened up just enough for a small stream to cut through the forest. The water was clear, but it was moving slow.
“Oh my God, that’s cold,” Ritch said.
“I think it feels good.” I loved being surrounded by nature. I could still hear the others, but the birds, bugs, and wind helped mute the sounds of their voices. If it was just me and Ritch, I might convince him to strip down and go wading. When I ran the borders of our territory, I spent a lot of time in the wilds, and a cold stream was the only option to clean up after a long, sweaty day of hiking. “Let’s dip our legs in.”
There was a wide rock on the edge of the water. It was a tight fit, but we sat down side by side and dangled our feet into the water. Well, Ritch dangled his and I rested mine against a few of the rounded rocks.
Ritch brushed against my side as he leaned back on his fists. I shivered. “Too cold?” he asked.
“Nah, I like cold water.” My toes were already numb to the chill.
“That seems strange, you being a tiger.” Ritch closed his eyes and tilted his face up to watch the thin, early spring sunlight.
“Tigers love the water. I am not a big fan of pools, since the chemicals mess with my sense of smell, but a river or a pond? I can spend all day in the water.”
I tilted my head. “Weren’t you ever curious about the kinds of animals the werekin around you shared souls with?”
Ritch sighed. “Sometimes. But I didn’t have a lot of access to learning. I was homeschooled, up to a point, so I could interact with humans and not appear like an idiot, but it was all basic stuff. And my room didn’t have a TV. Sometimes I could get books besides my lesson books, but that wasn’t very often, and I was never allowed on the computer unsupervised.”
It made me sick, to hear about how he grew up. By comparison, Kraig’s life was positively privileged. And I knew worse things had happened to Ritch after his herd traded him off, and sometimes human werekin were treated worse than animals. Kept in cages, or even killed at birth. Not all clans would accept one, in any role. My claws scraped on the stone, and I winced and sheathed them.
Ritch sat up, his shoulders hunched. “Don’t worry, I can learn,” he said. “If I’m giving access to a way to do it.”
He needed some reassurance, and I needed to touch him, to take away that slump to his spine. I put an arm around his shoulders and squeezed him. “You already have the phone. I have a spare laptop you can use, and we’ll get you hooked up with an email account so you can get online as soon as we get home. And, unless I’m watching a game, the TV is all yours.”
I patted his arm. “Anything you need,” I promised him.
Letting Ritch go with Christian was harder than I thought it would be. A low growl built up in my chest when I warned Christian that Ritch wouldn’t leave his site or I’d rip his guts open, but I suppressed it when Ritch came out of his tent. He looked tired.
“Make sure you guys pick up some coffee when you hit down. Might be a good place to get some gossip, and you’ll need the caffeine boost so you’re on your toes.”
I closed the door behind Ritch, then hit the top of the car. Cameron left the SUV in case the rest of us had to move for some reason. The rising panic inside me pissed me off, which fueled my aggression.
But I had a plan to handle it.
“Let’s see how you guys do with a sneak attack.” I was in motion even as I yelled my warning. I kicked the wood log out from under the gator, and he fell to the ground, hissing. The horse was up after I chucked my water bottle at his head. I ducked behind the bear when the horse tried to throw it back, and he roared.
Oh yeah, time for some fun.
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